HERITAGE OF HONOR

A DREAM DIVIDED
Book FIVE

by
Sharon Kay Bottoms

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Beginning Again

 

Standing rooted in front of the Pioneer Hotel in Carson City, Ben Cartwright stared at the dust of the departing stagecoach, which was carrying fully one-third of his heart away from him.  The sound of a low chuckle at his right elbow broke his trance, and he turned toward his long-time friend, Clyde Thomas.

            “Reckon if you stare long enough, that stage’ll just turn right around and bring him back?” Clyde teased.

            Slight smile curving his lips, Ben shook his head.  “Wouldn’t want that if it could.  Boy has a right to his dream.”  And what a dream that boy had!  Ben was still reeling from the recent revelation that his eldest son dreamed of educating himself at one of the most prestigious colleges in America, but if any boy from the far West could accomplish that auspicious goal, it would be bright, studious Adam.

            “Maybe,” Clyde conceded, clapping a hand to Ben’s broad shoulder.  “On t’other hand, maybe boys ain’t got sense enough to do the pickin’ and choosin’, even for their own dreams.”

            “Oh, hush your fussin’ ‘bout your own boy and leave Ben in peace ‘bout his,” his wife Nelly scolded.  “Ben, you and the boys come on down to my place and, at least, have a cup of coffee before you head back to the Ponderosa.  Be better if you stayed to lunch.”

            “That I can’t do,” Ben said, “but coffee sounds good.”

            Satisfied, Nelly lifted Little Joe from the arms of his older brother and, making cooing sounds as she wiped away the trickle of tears on his cheeks, led the way to the yellow frame house on a side street off the plaza.  Eleven-year-old Hoss Cartwright trotted at her side.  “You got any cookies, Aunt Nelly?” he asked.  “I don’t want no coffee, but I’d favor a cookie or two.”

            “Or twenty,” giggled Inger, Clyde and Nelly’s daughter, who was two years younger than Hoss and thought of him as a big brother—in other words, a God-given object for teasing.

            Nelly reached out to yank one of Inger’s strawberry-blonde braids.  “He can have all he wants.  Mind your manners, girl.”

            “With Hoss?  He ain’t company.”  With a mischievous grin that proved her to be a true member of the Thomas clan, the little girl scampered ahead.  “Come on, Hoss.  Race you home!”  With a grin, Hoss gave chase, even though he suspected that she had too much head start to make the race a fair one.

            Little Joe squirmed for release from Nelly’s arms, but she held tight.  “Oh, no, Sugarfoot, you stay with me.”  She lengthened her stride, however, to keep pace with the other youngsters and soon left the ambling men behind.

            “Was that comment about boys not having sense to pick their own dreams meant for Billy?” Ben asked.

            “Yeah, Nelly pegged that one right, I reckon,” Clyde admitted, spitting a stream of tobacco juice off to the right.  “That scamp is soon gonna be out of a job with the Pony Express, but he won’t hear of coming to work with his pa in the blacksmith shop.  Says he never took to that work, rather work out in the open.”

            “How soon?” Ben asked.

            Clyde shrugged.  “Month, month and a half at the outside, I reckon.  Soon as the telegraph meets up.”

            “And he doesn’t have any plans after that?”

            “Nary a one . . . but that’s Billy for you, takes one day at a time.”

            “Well, he’s always got a place with me, if he wants it,” Ben offered as they turned onto the Thomas’s street.  He grinned.  “So happens I’m short a hand.”

            Clyde laughed at the reference to Adam’s departure.  “I’ll mention it to Billy, next time he rides in.  Flighty as that boy is, though, he might not have sense enough to settle in with a steady job.”

            “Back to that, are we?” Ben scolded.  “Billy may be a mite flighty, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders and generally lands on his feet.  Quit worrying, Clyde.”  He mounted the porch steps and entered the Thomas home, the door of which had been left ajar for their arrival.

            “I will if you’ll quit frettin’ over yours,” Clyde jibed back.

            Nelly came from the kitchen with Little Joe still in her arms.  “I put the coffee on,” she said.  “Be ready soon.  Ben, I’m gonna put this boy down for a nap.  He’s plumb wore out from gettin’ up so early to see his big brother off, and you can stay a mite longer than just time to down a cup of coffee.”

            Seeing Joe’s tiny hand scrubbing at his red eyes, Ben nodded.  He could ill spare the time, but it had been a difficult day for his youngest and Ben didn’t want to make it any harder.  That child—all his sons, for that matter—had endured enough hard days lately without adding needlessly to the load.  Maybe if he dozed off soundly now, Little Joe would stay asleep when he was moved to the buckboard and little time would be lost.  Following Clyde’s lead, Ben entered the kitchen and sat companionably at the table.

Inside, Inger was heaping a platter with cookies.  “We’re takin’ ‘em up to my room to eat,” she told her father.  “Ma said we could.”

            “Long as you clean up,” Clyde said.  “Don’t want you makin’ more work for your ma.”

            “I always do—clean up, I mean,” Inger announced with a proud flounce of her head.  “Come on, Hoss.  We’ll play house.”

            House was far from Hoss Cartwright’s favorite game, though he often good-naturedly consented to play it with the little girl.  Having real cookies for their meal this time was a powerful incentive, of course.

            Clyde checked the coffee pot, but it hadn’t even started to boil yet.  Since he was up, he took three cups and saucers from the cupboard and brought them to the table before sitting back down.  “Bill Stewart’s already knocking on doors,” he commented.

            Ben laughed.  “Doesn’t surprise me.  He was angling for my vote when I asked him to write that letter of recommendation for Adam.  I had to remind him that I reside in District Seven, not Carson City!”

            Clyde slapped his knee.  “That’s a politician for you, fishin’ for votes in any crick he can.  I didn’t promise, but I figure he’ll get mine.”

            Ben nodded.  “No argument here.  He’s ambitious, but on the whole a good man, in my opinion.”

            “So, who you votin’ for, come the end of the month?”

            “James Sturtevant for the House,” Ben answered.  “Not sure about the Senate yet.”

            “You’d be a better man than him—or Stewart, either,” Clyde suggested.

            Ben shook his head.  “No.  There was a time I had ambitions, too, but . . . well . . . things change.”

            Clyde nodded, knowing that Ben was referring to the untimely death of his wife Marie.  “Something to consider, though . . . for the future.”

            “My boys need me, will for a long time,” Ben said softly.  He’d made the mistake of neglecting those precious boys in his grief over Marie’s death and had vowed that nothing would ever come between him and them again, certainly not something as unimportant as political ambition.  What would a seat in the Governor’s office mean, anyway, without her at his side as first lady of the territory?  He’d envisioned that so clearly the day he and Marie had dined with Territorial Governor James Nye, seen it almost as their destiny together, never dreaming that they had no destiny together.

            Nelly came back in, gave Clyde a pat of appreciation when she saw the cups and saucers already on the table and started setting out the sugar bowl, cream pitcher and spoons.  “Ben, I was noticin’ that Hoss’s britches seem a sight short.”

            Ben smiled in warm affection for his middle son.  “Yeah, he’s growing.”

            “Don’t think they can be let down enough,” Nelly observed as she brought the coffee pot to the table and poured a cup for each of them.  “Probably need new ones before school starts.”

            Ben sighed.  Marie had always kept so abreast of the boys’ need for new clothes that he’d paid no attention.  Another responsibility he would obviously have to take on, and despite his brave show for Adam’s sake, to keep the boy from giving up his dream, he still felt hard-pressed just to make it through a day, much less do all he ought for his sons.  “Appreciate your bringing it to my attention,” he said.  “Can’t really rig the boy up the way he deserves by the time school starts, though.  Been a lot of extra expenses lately, and things are gonna be tight ‘til I drive some cattle to California.”  Another brave show he’d put on for Adam, the fantasy that paying for the boy’s college and travel expenses was no hardship.  Adam merited every penny spent on him and would prove it by his performance at Yale, Ben had no doubt, but added to the expense of Marie’s funeral, those pennies meant there weren’t many freely available at home.

            Nelly understood exactly what expenses Ben meant and discerned that he was now feeling guilty about shorting one son to support another.  “Ben, you shouldn’t be too proud to accept help when you need it,” she began tentatively, for Ben had once been highly touchy on that subject.  “You’ve helped us often enough, and I’d be more than happy to make some new clothes for Hoss.”  Seeing him start to protest, she hastened to add, “You can pay me for the cost of the fabric later, but don’t insult me by offering to pay for my labor.  That boy’s practically like one of my own.”

            “I know that,” Ben said with genuine warmth, “and I’ll take you up on that offer.”

            “I’ll just go up and take some measurements then,” Nelly said.

            “Best take them cookies away,” Clyde cackled, “or them measurements’ll change before you get his new britches sewed.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben took a final draw on his pipe and set it aside.  The hour was late, the house dark, except for the lamp burning beside him, and still, but for the rhythmic ticking of the tall clock on the opposite wall.  The boys had long since been tucked into bed, and it was time he joined them, but Ben couldn’t quite bring himself to face the loneliness of that empty bed.  It had been a long day and a difficult one.  He’d managed to get away from the Thomases in time to get some work in, but he’d found it hard to focus on chores, however needed, when his mind kept wandering . . . to exactly where it was wandering now . . . to a stagecoach rolling east.

            Wonder where. . . .  He smiled, recalling the boys’ conversation at dinner.  “Adam in Haven now?” Little Joe had asked earnestly.

            “New Haven,” Hoss had been quick to correct, “and ‘course he ain’t.  It’s a far piece, punkin.”  His nose had crinkled in thought.  “Just how far along is Adam by now, Pa?”

            Ben had taken a rough guess, as much as he could do now.  Adam was still in Nevada Territory, of course, somewhere out in that rough desert country to the east, but having never traveled that direction by stage, Ben didn’t know the schedule well enough to calculate just where.  Did it matter?  The boy isn’t here; that’s what matters.   Gone less than a day, and already the house feels empty without him . . . without her . . . emptiness upon emptiness.  Ben shook himself, made himself get up and bank the fire and head up the stairs.  He stopped to look in on Hoss and Little Joe, who had chosen to sleep together in Hoss’s room, no doubt to assuage each other’s loneliness for their big brother.  Ben drew up the rumpled sheet, all the cover needed on a warm August night, and placed a kiss on each sweaty temple.  Neither boy stirred, although Hoss’s soft snores were momentarily disrupted.

Across the hall, he quietly opened the door to Adam’s room.  Pushed for time as the boy had been, he’d left the room orderly.  The only clutter was the items laid out for later shipping: clothes neatly folded, books tidily stacked and, of course, that bulky guitar, lying on the bed.  That would take some careful packing, Ben mused with a smile.  Well, he had time to figure that one out; he wouldn’t ship anything until he heard from Adam and had an address for him.

            For just the briefest moment he allowed a fleeting thought that perhaps he wouldn’t have to ship those things at all.  Then, chiding himself for the selfishness of wanting his son home, he breathed a prayer that Adam would successfully pass his entrance exams and start down the path toward his individual dream.  I want him to have his dream, Ben reminded himself as he walked down the hall.  Just never expected it to be divided from my own.  Entering his own room, he sighed as he contemplated another night alone in a bed too large for one.  He’d never expected that, either.  Despite his previous losses, he’d never expected to sleep alone again.  Should he have foreseen tragedy piled upon tragedy?  Ben shook his head.  No, a man couldn’t live that way; if he did, he missed all the blessings, too.

            Blessings he’d had, more than many men twice his age.  In remembrance of them, he went to the massive rosewood armoire that Marie had selected in New Orleans and from the bottom drawer drew out two framed portraits, one of Hoss’s mother Inger and the other of Adam’s mother Elizabeth.  They were in the drawer because Marie had been uncomfortable with having them displayed.  Oh, she’d never said anything; he’d just sensed her insecurity, so when they’d moved here, he’d put them away, to be gazed at only in private moments.  Now—now that she was with the originals of the portraits—he thought Marie would understand, and he wanted to hold all his blessings close.  He set the frames side by side on his bedside table, gazing a long time at the likeness of Elizabeth.  “Keep him safe, my love,” he whispered.  He kissed his fingers and touched them to her face first and then to Inger’s.  Finally, he got into bed, gave Marie’s empty pillow the same sort of kiss and with a strangled cry buried his face in the downy depths that had once cushioned her golden head.


CHAPTER TWO

Trail Lessons

 

 

            Chattering with enthusiasm, Little Joe swung his feet frenetically beneath the dining room table.   His curly head bobbed with energy to emphasize each point he was making.

            “Yes, that’s all very interesting, Joseph,” Ben said, picking up the child’s fork and placing it once again into his left hand, “but you need to finish your breakfast.”

            “Not hungry, Pa,” Little Joe insisted, letting the fork drop, “and it’s ‘bout time for us to hit the trail, huh?”

            Ben’s lips twitched with amusement as he picked up the utensil yet again.  “Soon, but a real wrangler would never ‘hit the trail’ on an empty stomach, son.”

            “He ain’t much of a wrangler,” a glum-faced Hoss mumbled into a plate as neglected as that of his younger brother.

            The amusement faded from Ben’s face.  “What was that, Hoss?”

            Hoss shrugged.  “Nothin’.”

            “A lie is a poor way to start the day, young man,” Ben said sternly.

            Hoss squirmed and, seeing no alternative, answered honestly this time.  “I said he ain’t much of a wrangler.”  Ignoring the scowl on his brother’s face, he added, “I’d make a better one, Pa; you know I would.”

            Ben sighed.  “Hoss, we’ve been all through this, more than once.”

            “Yes, sir,” the boy agreed perfunctorily.  Pa had, after all, spoken the plain truth, no arguing that.  They had been through all the reasons he couldn’t go on the trail drive, over and over again.  Well, there was only one reason, a bad one in Hoss’s book, but there’d been no talkin’ Pa out of it.  School had started just one week ago, and Pa insisted that he couldn’t afford to miss a string of days so soon after starting.  Missing the trip to California just to bury his nose in a book, on the other hand, seemed a pure waste of time to Hoss.

He hadn’t gotten truly disgruntled, though, until he’d learned that Little Joe was going on the drive when he couldn’t.  He’d come close to earning a trip over Pa’s knee for the fit he’d pitched when that was announced.  He understood about Joe, honest he did.  The poor little kid had screamed in terror when Pa told him that he was going away for a spell.  For Pa to leave, on top of Mama and Adam both disappearing, was just plain more than the little fellow could take, and fearing that Little Joe would have nightmares every night he was gone, Pa’d decided to just take the baby with him.  Joe’d been yappin’ a mile a minute ever since.  “I’m a big boy now, Hoss,” he’d chirped gaily.  “I’m goin’ on roundup.”  All that eagerness had been hard for Hoss to swallow when he couldn’t share it himself.

            “Cheer up, Hoss,” Ben said now with forced brightness.  “You’re going to enjoy staying with your friend.”

            Hoss nodded.  Staying over with Pete Hanson was the one sunny spot on his horizon.  It had come about when Diego, who usually handled the chuck wagon on trail drives, had taken a bad fall and broken his arm.  Hop Sing had offered to take his place, and for a moment Hoss had thought that meant that he, too, would be going, since he couldn’t very well stay home alone.  Then Pa’d come up with the idea of asking the Hansons if he could stay with them and they’d said yes.  Pete was excited about it, and Hoss guessed he should be, too, but he sort of felt like he was gettin’ stuck with second best, especially when Pa talked nonsense, like callin’ Little Joe a wrangler.  Some wrangler!

            Hop Sing bustled in from the kitchen and stood glowering at the food still on the plates.  “Why boys all-a-time play with food?” he demanded.

            Ben arched a regal eyebrow.  “I don’t believe they are.”

            “Not eat, same as play,” the cook scolded.  “Hop Sing want leave kitchen clean.  No can ‘til have plates for wash.”

            Ben gestured toward the one in front of him.  “Take mine, then; I’m finished.”

            “Me, too,” Hoss insisted, pushing his forward.

            “Me, too,” Little Joe added in chorus.

            “No, Joseph, you’re not,” Ben said firmly.  “Please take a few more bites.”  He glanced at Hoss’s plate.  Not as clean as the boy normally left it, but at least his middle son had eaten enough to tide him over until noon.  “If you’ve finished eating, Hoss, get your things together.”

            “I got my bag packed already,” Hoss said, wiping his mouth with a red-checked napkin.  “Just got to get it.”

            “You pack plenty clean clothes?” Hop Sing asked.  “Plenty soap?”

            Halfway to the stairs, Hoss turned.  “Not soap.  Miz Hanson’ll have soap.”

            “You take,” Hop Sing insisted.  “Wash hands, behind ears ev’ly day.”

            “No, that’s not necessary,” Ben began, but the cook interrupted him.

            “Velly nes’saly.  Hop Sing not want Missy Hanson think he raise dirty boy.”

            Ben exhaled loudly.  “I didn’t mean washing wasn’t necessary.  Of course, Hoss will wash.”

            “Behind ears.”  The cook punctuated his dictate with a crisp bob of his chin.

            “Yes, behind his ears,” Ben agreed with strained patience, “but he doesn’t need to take soap.  Mrs. Hanson might think we were insinuating that she couldn’t provide for a guest.”

            Hop Sing pondered a moment.  “She lose face?”

            Ben grasped the analogy like a drowning man.  “Yes.  She would lose face.”

            The cook nodded soberly.  It was a concept he understood.  “All light.  Not send soap.”  He frowned.  “Hop Sing bake cookies for Hoss take with him.  That make lose face?”

            “No, that’s all right, a gift for all to share,” Ben assured him.

            “All light.  Hop Sing wrap for take.”  Gathering up the soiled plates, he exited to the kitchen, shaking his head.  Soap bad, cookies good.  American ways most puzzling.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben rested a broad palm on his middle son’s shoulder.  “All set?”

            Hoss finished attaching his book strap to his saddle.  “Yeah, Pa.”

            Hearing the disconsolate tone in the boy’s voice, Ben smiled gently.  “I know you’re disappointed, son, but this really will be for the best.”

            Not trusting himself to speak, Hoss merely nodded, but the gesture conveyed no confidence.

            “I know I don’t have to tell you to be a good boy, ‘cause you always are.”  Ben gave Hoss a hearty hug.  “Now, go say goodbye to your little brother and be off.  Don’t want you late to school.”

            “Yes, sir.”  Still dragging his feet, Hoss walked toward Little Joe, who was supervising Hop Sing as he loaded the last of the supplies in the cook wagon.  “Hey, punkin, time to say goodbye.”

            Little Joe looked confused for a moment, and then his face contorted.  “No!” he screamed and grabbed Hoss about the knees.

            Hoss patted his brother’s curly head.  “Hey, I’ll miss you, too, but I got to go, else I’ll be late to school.”

            “No!” Little Joe shrieked.  “You come with me!”

            Hoss gulped.  There was nothing he’d like better, but Pa had made it clear that he had to stay behind and go to school.  Still, staying wasn’t his idea, so he didn’t think he should have to be the one to explain it to Little Joe.  He glanced over at his father and shrugged.

            Ben strode swiftly up behind his youngest and took hold of his arms.  “Joseph, turn loose of your brother,” he ordered.

            “No,” Little Joe declared defiantly, clinging all the tighter.

            “Now, Joseph, we’ve been all through this.”  He stopped short in sudden realization.  True, he’d repeatedly been through the subject with Hoss, but he hadn’t discussed it at all with Little Joe.  He’d assumed the child had overheard and understood his conversations with Hoss.  Evidently, a critical mistake.

            “Son, brother has to go to school,” he explained patiently now, as he gently pulled the recalcitrant arms.

            “No!  I hate school!”  Joe raised pleading eyes to his father.  “I want my brother.  Him and you and me and Hop Sing, all together.”

            Ben forcefully detached the clinging vine and gathered the now sobbing child into his arms.  “Why, Little Joe,” he cajoled, “I thought you were a big boy now, big enough to go on roundup.”

            “With Hoss.”  The little boy’s expressive emerald eyes, so reminiscent of his mother’s, shimmered and threatened to spill over.  His lower lip quivered as he added, “I’m big enough to go with Hoss . . . and you.”

            “And Hop Sing,” the cook added.

            Ben glared at the Oriental.  “That was not a helpful addition!”

            With an eloquent shrug Hop Sing turned back to his work, resolving to let Number Three Son work his magic alone.  Such speaking eyes the child had!  His honorable father would read their message, whether he listened to words or not.

            Little Joe patted his father’s cheek urgently.  “Please, Pa . . . Hoss, too.  He be lonely without me and I be lonely without him.  We needs us, Pa.”

            Hope sparkled in Hoss’s alpine blue eyes.  Could Little Joe do what he’d found impossible, sway Pa into letting him go to California, too?  “We needs us, Pa,” he whispered tentatively.

            Ben looked from one son to the other, and in that moment he understood that all of them were coping with loss, not just him and not just Little Joe.  They’d all lost Marie, and in a way that must seem almost as permanent to his younger sons, they’d all lost Adam.  Hoss had said little about his feelings over either loss, but he, too, was aching, Ben realized.  He might not have nightmares like Little Joe, but for him, as well, it was too soon to be separated from the only family he had left.  Slowly, Ben nodded.  “Yeah . . . we needs us,” he sighed.  He straightened and squared his shoulders.  “Hoss, I want you to mount up and—”

            “No!” Little Joe wailed.

            “Hush now,” Ben soothed, patting the small back.  “You’re going to get your way, little tyrant.”  He gazed at his middle son.  “Hoss, first put your carpetbag in the wagon; then mount up and ride over to the Hansons.  Tell them I greatly appreciate their willingness to board you, but I’ve decided to take you with me.”

            “Hooray!” Hoss whooped, tossing his hat into the air.  “Thanks, punkin!”

            Thanks, punkin?  For a moment Ben looked irked; then his countenance softened.  Why should he expect thanks himself?  After all, it was Little Joe who had insured that his brother was coming, and everyone in the yard clearly knew it.  “Get on with you,” he scolded playfully.  “Meet us down at the meadow where the herd is gathered.  Oh, and give Mrs. Hanson those cookies to make amends for any trouble she’s gone to.”

            “Yes, sir!”  Hoss snatched his carpetbag from his horse and tossed it into the back of the wagon.

            “Get the books, too.  You will be doing some lessons on this trip, boy.”  Ben shook his head.  Had he taken leave of his senses?  Trailing a herd over the mountains was tough enough, without caring for a four-year-old and now tutoring a schoolboy added into the mix.  He turned to see Hop Sing gazing at him with a knowing smile.  “What are you staring at?  If you’re loaded, head on out to the herd.”

            Hop Sing continued to smile as he slowly shook his head.  “Not quite loaded, Mistah Cahtlight.  Have extra man feed now; need little mo’ food.”  He paused, considering Hoss’s appetite.  “Maybe lot more.  Not Hop Sing fault: you tell him this many men, he take this much food; you not tell him you change mind.”  With an inimical smile he turned toward the kitchen, ostensibly to gather extra supplies for that extra hand.

            “I’m gonna gain a reputation as the softest touch on the Comstock,” Ben muttered to himself.  He held Little Joe high over his head and grinned broadly.  “And do you know whose fault that is?  Do you, hmm?  That’s right, little boy—yours!”  He pulled the giggling child close to his chest and joined in the infectious laughter.

 

* * * * *

 

            In the flickering firelight Ben saw his two younger sons frolicking in a self-styled version of tag.  “Hoss, Little Joe—come here,” he called.

            Tired of the chase, Hoss reached for Little Joe’s hand.  “Come on, punkin.  Pa’s callin’.”

            Little Joe scampered just out of reach.  “I wanna play some more.”

            “Thought you wanted to be a wrangler,” Hoss said with just a hint of reproof.

            Little Joe thrust out his lower lip.  “I am a wrangler.”

            Hoss shook his head.  “Wrangler has to do what the trail boss says and you ain’t, so you must not be a wrangler.”

            “Am, too,” Little Joe insisted, hurrying back to his brother’s side.  “We go see what the trail boss wants now?”

            Hoss grinned then.  “Yeah, let’s do that.”  Taking Little Joe’s hand, he led him back to their father.  “You wanted us, Pa?”

            Sitting near the campfire, Ben patted the ground next to him.  “Time for lessons, son.”

            Hoss scowled.  “Aw, Pa, it’s too dark to read.”

            Ben chuckled.  “Adam wouldn’t have thought so, but I agree.  No books tonight, just a geography lesson, of sorts.  Sit down, boys.”  He reached for Little Joe and placed the child between his legs.

            “I don’t go to school, Pa,” the four-year-old protested.  “I’m too little.”

            “Only for formal schooling.  You’re not too little to learn, sweetheart,” Ben said, kissing the rampant curls.  “Did you notice all the bright stars tonight?”

            Little Joe looked up at the pinpoints of light in the sky.  “Lots,” he agreed.

            “Did you know that the stars have names?”

            Little Joe’s eyes widened at the innumerable lights.  “All of ‘em?”

            Ben rumpled his son’s hair.  “Well, maybe not all, but many do.”  He pointed to a group.  “Like those.  I’ll bet Hoss can tell you their name.”  He arched an inquiring eyebrow toward his other son.

            Hoss grinned.  He didn’t mind lessons one bit when he knew the answers, and Pa had taught him this long ago.  “That’s the Big Dipper.”  He traced his finger from star to star, outlining the shape.  “See, Little Joe?  Don’t it look just like the dipper that hangs by our well back home?”

            Little Joe nodded vigorously.  “Who drinks out of that dipper, huh, Hoss?  God, maybe?”  His eyes brightened suddenly.  “Mama?”

            “Maybe,” Ben agreed quickly, seeing Hoss’s perplexed expression.  “It isn’t a real dipper, though, Little Joe, just a picture of one.”

            “A star picture,” Little Joe said, sounding awed.

            “A star picture . . . and an important one,” his father continued.  “Every night while we’re on the trail I want you to show me where that star picture is, Little Joe.  Do you remember why it’s important, Hoss?”

            “Sure, Pa,” the other boy replied readily.  He ran his finger on a line from the two stars at one end of the dipper until it pointed to another.  “It shows the way to the North Star, and if we know where north is, we can always find our way.”

            Ben smiled.  “So, which way is home?”

            Hoss lowered his finger to the horizon.  “That way—north.”

            “And which way is California?”

            Hoss pointed to the left, where a range of mountains lay.  “West.”

            “Now point toward Adam.”

            With a grin Hoss swung his arm to the opposite side.  “That way—back East.”

            “Adam in Haven now?” Little Joe asked, staring east.

            “He’d better be,” Ben chuckled.  “He’s supposed to sit for that entrance exam tomorrow.”

            “You reckon he’ll pass, Pa?” Hoss asked.  “Adam said it was a real hard test.”

            “Yeah, probably the hardest he’s ever taken.”  A wistful look crossed Ben’s face as he thought of his oldest son, so far away, poised on the brink of a great adventure.  “Boys, I think we should pray for your brother tonight, that God will help him on that test tomorrow.”

            Little Joe crawled over his father’s leg.  “Nuh-uh.  I’m gonna pray he don’t do good; so’s he’ll come home.”

            Ben pulled his youngest back into his lap.  “Joseph, that’s a very selfish prayer.”

            “Don’t care.”  A petulant pout emphasized his point.

            Ben tilted the tiny chin upward.  “God doesn’t like us to be selfish, Little Joe.”

            “Don’t like God much, either.  He takes people ‘way.”

            “Joe!”  Hoss sounded as if he expected a bolt of lightning to strike his baby brother any second.

            Remembering his own brief rejection of God after Marie’s death, Ben smiled softly.  “It’s all right, Hoss.  God’s big enough to deal with a little boy’s anger.”  He cuddled Joe close.  “It isn’t fair to wish your big brother bad luck, Little Joe.  He’s always been good to you, hasn’t he?”

            Reluctantly, Little Joe nodded.  “He can’t be good to me in Haven,” he argued.

            Ben brushed a drooping tendril from the child’s forehead.  “Well, I don’t know about that.  Maybe he can, somehow, but one thing I know for sure: he wouldn’t pray for bad things to happen to you.  I bet he’s praying that God will take good care of you and keep you safe.”

            “I—I want him safe,” Little Joe whispered.

            “And happy?”

            “Happy, too,” Little Joe agreed after a brief hesitation.

            “Then you need to pray that he’ll pass that test,” Ben said, “because Adam won’t be happy if he doesn’t.”

            Little Joe sighed deeply and slowly.  “Okay.”  He folded his hands, as his mother had taught him, and his high-pitched voice piped a simple—and remarkably reluctant—prayer: “Dear God, keep Adam safe and make him happy in Haven and—and do it fast, so’s he can come home soon, okay?”

            Ben chuckled as he tousled the child’s chestnut locks.  “That’s a good prayer, though I don’t think that last part’s going to get answered very soon.  Now, it’s time for all little wranglers to wrap up in their bedrolls.  We have to be up early tomorrow.”

            “To make up for today, huh, Pa?” Hoss asked as he spread his bedroll below his upturned saddle.

            “We need to,” Ben agreed.  Waiting for Hoss to return from the Hansons meant the drive had gotten a late start that morning.  As a consequence, the herd was bedded down just north of Genoa, miles shy of where Ben had planned to be tonight.  He spread his bedroll not far from Hoss and fixed a pallet of blankets between them for Little Joe.  Pulling up his own blanket against the chill of the September evening, he gazed at the stars and let his mind drift eastward to his oldest son.  Heavenly Father, be with him.  Like Little Joe, I want him home, but not at the cost of his dream.  Make it possible for him, as you’ve made my dreams possible for me.  You know how tired he’ll be after his long journey, with no time to rest up before that important test.  Give him the strength he needs and

            “Pa?”

A little body snuggled up against him.  Ben turned toward his son and saw Joe’s tiny arm stretched over his head.  “That’s north—Ponderosa,” a sleepy voice mumbled.

            “That’s right.”  Ben stroked the boy’s forehead.

            Joe pointed toward the mountains.  “West—California.”

            “Shh—go to sleep.”

            The little arm flung itself across Hoss’s slowly rising chest.  “East—Adam.”

            Ben drew Joe’s arm back before his brother awoke and tucked the covers snugly around him again.  “Very good, son.  Now, go to sleep!”

            With a gaping yawn Joe cuddled closer and drifted into his dreams.

            “You are a precious nuisance,” Ben whispered just before he dropped a kiss on the smooth forehead.

 

* * * * *

 

            The hand holding the reins also encircled the waist of his youngest son as Ben leaned forward in the saddle and pointed ahead with the other hand.  “You know what that is, Little Joe?”

            Little Joe frowned in thought.  “West—California?”

            Ben chuckled.  “Yes, yes, it’s west—well, more like southwest, but close enough—and we’re already in California.”  He shook his head, ruing the day he’d shown Little Joe the north star and the points of the compass.  Every night since then he’d been awakened by a groggy recitation of the information.  “I wasn’t asking the direction, son.  Do you recognize that town up ahead?”

            Joe shook his head.  “Not Haven; it’s east.”

            Ben rolled his eyes.  Would this child never stop with the geographical liturgy?  “No, not New Haven.  That’s Placerville, son, and do you remember who lives in Placerville?”

            “Mama Zue-Zue—”  Little Joe frowned in frustration as the word refused to come out.

            “Zuebner,” Hoss, who was riding at his father’s side, finished for him.

            “Yeah!” Little Joe said, face beaming.  “Good food!”

            “That’s for sure!” Hoss agreed.

            “And good friends, too, you little greedy bellies,” Ben chided playfully.

            “Yeah, Pa, I wasn’t forgettin’ that,” Hoss cackled, “but I’m lookin’ forward to somethin’ besides trail grub.”

            Ben guffawed and then collected himself.  “Don’t let Hop Sing hear you say that, boy, or you’ll be eatin’ my cooking on the trail home.”

            Hoss grinned.  “No, sir, Pa; I got sense.”

            Sense.  Ben had to smile.  Nothing about this trip made sense.  He’d seen the men’s faces when they realized he was bringing along a four-year-old.  Complete disdain, and Ben couldn’t blame them.  Little Joe had been every bit as much—no, more—trouble as he’d expected.  He’d entertained foolish notions of the child riding with Hop Sing in the cook wagon, but soon learned that Little Joe would have none of that.  Oh, no, he was a wrangler; and wranglers, however small, spent all day in the saddle.  Ben had lost that battle the first morning and had shared his saddle with his son ever since.  Needing to protect, he’d held out against letting Little Joe ride with his brother until late the second afternoon, when there’d been a problem with the herd.  Keeping Joe in his own saddle then would have been more dangerous than trusting Hoss, so Ben had made a quick transfer and ordered both his sons to safety.  Thereafter, the two older Cartwrights had alternated as saddle companions for the youngest, and while the sight of Little Joe on a horse still reminded Ben vividly of the way the child’s mother had died, he had to admit that Little Joe was just as safe with his brother as with his father.

            The men’s opinion of him as a doting father had only been augmented as they waited for Hoss to join them that first day, for they all knew he hadn’t originally been part of the crew.  Accustomed to working with him during the summer, however, they’d quickly accepted him, and Hoss had easily proven his value as a trail hand.  For that matter, the men had seemed to delight in having both youngsters along, especially lively Little Joe.  No matter how tired they were when camp was made, the men not standing night guard managed to find energy to romp with the little fellow and his bigger brother, who readily switched from willing worker to child-at-play when the opportunity arose.  And Ben found that he relished having his children with him, even looked forward to that little body crowding up against his and that groggy recitation of north, east and west, as it related to the Ponderosa, New Haven and California.

 

* * * * *

 

            “Uncle Ben!”  The girlish squeal of delight belied the womanly dignity signified by the upturned flaxen hair.

            Ben still preferred the braids the girl had worn along the trail.  “Hello, Marta,” he said with a fond smile.  “Can you seat three hungry wranglers?”

            “Oh, of course.”  She started to lead them toward a table by the front window.  “Only three?”  She wagged an admonishing finger.  “Don’t tell me you made Adam stay with the herd.  You know how I relish seeing him.”

            “As would I, my dear, as would I.”  Seeing her look of perplexity, he explained quickly.  “Adam’s gone back East to continue his education.”

            Marta touched a slender hand to her rosy cheek.  “Oh, my, that’s a surprise.  I thought . . .”

            “As did I,” Ben murmured, a trace of sadness tingeing his tone, “but Adam had other ideas, and young people are entitled to their dreams.”

            “Yes,” Marta said softly, making Ben wonder what dreams of her own this young woman might be keeping from her mother, as Adam had kept his from his father.  “Well, do sit down,” the young woman urged.  “We have oxtail stew today.”

            “And strudel?” Hoss asked eagerly.

            She shook her head.  “No, but Mama did bake a delicious cake with thick, creamy icing, Hoss.”

            “I want some,” he said with a decisive nod.

            “Stew and cake all around,” Ben ordered, “and I’d like to see your mother if she has time to come out.”

            “She’ll make time,” Marta assured him.  She started toward the kitchen and then turned back.  “Mr. Thomas wrote us of your loss,” she said awkwardly.  “I’m so sorry, Uncle Ben.”

            Ben nodded acceptance of her condolences, but said nothing.

            When she saw clouds form in Hoss’s sky-blue eyes, the girl bit her lip, fearing she had spoken amiss, and hurried to the kitchen.

            Within minutes Ludmilla Zuebner scurried out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.  As she squatted down between the chairs occupied by Hoss and Little Joe, she put an arm around each.  “Ach, meine lieblinge,” she cried.  “Meine armen lieblinge.”

            Neither of the Cartwright boys had the slightest idea what she had said, but they each understood the sympathy behind the sobbed words, and each fell into her arms.  Ben blinked back a tear at this fresh evidence of how much his sons still yearned for a woman’s—a mother’s—affection.  “It’s . . . good to see you, Ludmilla,” he said.

            Ludmilla stood and wrapped Ben in her warm and ample embrace, just as she had the boys.  For a moment he felt embarrassed, fearful of displaying his emotions in public, but then he yielded to the comfort he needed as much as Hoss and Little Joe.  “I thought this was all behind me,” he choked.

            Realizing he was referring to the loss of two wives before Marie, Ludmilla held him tighter.  “Is behind,” she promised.  “Is life ahead for you, Ben.”

            Ben broke and began to sob unashamedly.  Life ahead.  Exactly what he had promised Marie after the duel at the Plantation Allard, when she had said that death followed her.  Life ahead—a promise fulfilled, though cut short of what it should have been—but their brief time together, what vibrant life it had been!  He lifted his head from Ludmilla’s shoulder and his loving gaze fell on Little Joe’s sprite-like face, upturned in concern.  And what life it had produced!  “Forgive me,” he whispered, with a swipe at his damp cheeks.

            “Is good you cry,” the German woman insisted.  “To hold in is—is”—she floundered for the right words in English—“greater pain.”  She patted his shoulder consolingly.  “You sit, eat.  Tonight, you come to my house.  We talk . . . of my Fredrich and your Marie, yah?”

            “Yah,” Ben said with gratitude.  Sometimes, in his grief, he forgot that others had faced loss, too, and he was grateful for the reminder and for the chance to talk openly with someone who would understand exactly what he felt.  “Yes, tonight we will talk . . . of your Fredrich and my Marie.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben tenderly tucked the covers around his youngest son and bent to kiss him good night.

            “Pa,” Little Joe whimpered plaintively.  “I miss Mama.”

            Ben sat down beside the child.  “I know, son.”  He smoothed the unruly curls and smiled gently.  “I miss her, too.”  Words he’d hesitated to speak aloud before, but somehow they came more easily after the evening of sharing with Ludmilla and her family.  Probably the reason his baby could say them now, too, for both Joe and Hoss had listened, enrapt, to the conversation.

            Little Joe smiled back, yawned and snuggled down in the covers.  “Night, Pa.”

            “Good night, Little Joe.”  Ben stood and made his way back into the outer room of their suite at the El Dorado Hotel.

            Hoss looked up from the table, where he was struggling with an arithmetic problem.  “Pa, I could use some help with this one.”

            Ben at once came to stand over his second son’s chair.  “You forgot to carry the two,” he said, pointing at the column of figures.

            “Oh, yeah.”  Hoss quickly rubbed out the wrong number and added two to it.  “That works.  Thanks, Pa.”

            “You’re welcome.”  Ben gave the boy’s sandy head a soft pat and started toward the settee across the room.

            “Pa.”  Hoss’s voice sounded as plaintive as had his little brother’s earlier.  “I—I sure liked hearing you talk about Ma with Mama Zuebner.  Her and my other ma, too.”

            Momentarily, a lump caught in Ben’s throat.  “Leave the books for now, Hoss,” he urged.  “Come sit with me.”

            Hoss came gladly and nestled up against his father on the settee.

            “It felt good to talk about them,” Ben said.  “We haven’t done enough of that.”

            Hoss swallowed hard.  “I thought, maybe, you didn’t want to . . . that it . . . hurt.”

            “It does . . . some,” Ben answered honestly, “but I think Ludmilla was right when she said holding it in made a greater hurt.  Anytime you want to talk about your ma, Hoss—either one of them—you let me know, and we’ll talk.”

            Hoss’s eyes sparkled, and an almost shy smile touched his lips.  “It’s kinda hard to remember what she looked like—my first ma, I mean.  There used to be a picture . . .”

            Ben wrapped an arm about the boy’s shoulders and squeezed.  “There still is; it’s in my room.”

            “Could I see it sometime?”

            “Sure, you can.  In fact, I’ve been thinking that I might bring it downstairs and set it on the desk by Mama’s—and Adam’s mother, too.  You think that would be all right?”

            Hoss beamed.  “Yeah, Pa.  I’d like that a lot.  I could see her anytime I wanted then.”

            “You don’t think Little Joe will mind?”

            Hoss shook his head.  “He’ll like seein’ ‘em, knowin’ what they looked like.  They’re—they’re part of him, too, ain’t they, even if he never knew ‘em?  Like Adam’s ma is part mine, ‘cause she gave me him?”

            Ben planted a warm kiss on his middle son’s broad brow.  “Hoss, my boy, you are wise beyond your years.  Yes, they’re all part of all of us, and it’s time we let that be shown plainly.  First thing I do when we get home is set all three of those pictures on my desk.”

            “I’ll help you bring ‘em down,” Hoss offered.

            Ben chuckled.  He was quite capable of carrying two pictures by himself, but he sensed Hoss’s need to participate.  “All right, son.  You can carry your ma’s picture.  Now, I think you have a few more arithmetic problems to work out . . .”

            Not even the thought of lessons could dim the brightness of Hoss’s smile.


CHAPTER THREE

Fire and Fools

 

 

            Ben leaned back in his green leather desk chair and with his right hand massaged the aching muscles at the back of his neck.  Paperwork—there was nothing he hated more, especially at the end of a long day.  They’d only arrived back on the Ponderosa late that afternoon, and there’d been myriad details to tend to since then.  He hadn’t found an opportunity to open the books and record the results of the successful cattle drive until after the boys were in bed.  He smiled.  Nothing unusual about that.  The boys always commanded his attention whenever they were up and about, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

            As his eyes fell on the three framed portraits gracing the corner of his desk, he chuckled.  Nothing would satisfy Hoss except bringing those pictures of his mother and Adam’s downstairs the minute they walked through the front door.  Pa had said “first thing,” and the boy had taken the promise quite literally.  Then, since the pictures were completely new to Little Joe, he’d had to take the little lad on his lap and help him understand the family history.  He wasn’t sure it had all sunk in, but there’d be other nights, and there were definitely more stories to tell.

            “He’ll know you all, my loves,” Ben promised.  “Both of them will.”  He spared a wistful wish that Adam could be there, too, to listen to those stories and share his own memories, but Adam was back East, making fresh ones.  It would be a long time before that son could join them around the fireplace and share his memories, old or new.  When they’d come home this afternoon, a telegram had been waiting, slipped under the door.  Just a few brief words, giving the basic facts and his boy’s new address, but Ben could read between the lines well enough to visualize how excited Adam had been to pass his exams at Yale.  He was excited for the boy, too, though the thought of four years without his eldest son sometimes seemed as crushing as the lifetime ahead without Marie . . . or Inger . . . or Elizabeth.

            Shaking himself free of the sorrow that came rushing toward him, Ben stood and rounded the desk, just as the clock struck ten.  That late?  He had a full day’s work ahead tomorrow, and it was time he was in bed, but he turned, instead, toward the front door.  If he tried to sleep now, he was certain, all the figures he’d been dealing with for the last couple of hours would just keep marching through his brain.  A few minutes out in the cool, pine-scented air would relax him and help him sleep.

            He walked slowly, aimlessly, into the yard, no destination in mind, but found himself strolling toward the open area beyond the corral.  Can’t go far, he advised himself, just need to stretch my legs a bit and work out the kinks in my muscles.  Nothing puts kinks in a man’s back like leaning over a set of figures, however favorable they might be.  These had been mighty favorable, too, he realized with a satisfied smile.  The drive had been a success.  Its proceeds would see them through the winter, even leave enough left over to send some extra funds to Adam, in case college expenses turned out to be more than they’d estimated.

            He halted and took a deep breath of the fragrant air.  Then his nose wrinkled.  Something sharper than pine was wafting toward his nostrils, an acrid odor of wood smoke and . . . burning pitch!  Following his nose, he looked toward the northwest, and the auburn reflection of the sky over the far ridge shot alarm through every nerve of his body.  He turned and ran back toward the house.  “Fire!” he shouted.  Reaching the house, he grabbed the rope of the bell hung in the front yard to signal an emergency and pulled it again and again, all the time yelling, “Fire!  Every man out!”

            Men in varying degrees of dishabille stumbled groggily out of the bunkhouse.  Most looked first to the house or the barn before noticing the orange-red glow on the horizon.  “That ain’t on the Ponderosa,” mumbled one, a man who had hired on just for the drive.

            “And we aim to see it stays that way!” snapped Hank Carlton, one of the Ponderosa’s regular hands.

            “Fire like that can go ‘most anywheres,” another agreed, “and there’s other settlers in them hills.”

            Ignoring the discussion, Ben fired orders to gather shovels, hitch the wagon, saddle horses and “stop that fire before it spreads!”  A couple of men, who hadn’t been asked to stay on past the night, sneered their disdain of the orders, but most, regardless of whether they still had a job or not, had enough civic responsibility or zest for adventure to join the battle against the encroaching flames.

            As supplies were being gathered and transportation readied, the front door burst open, and the two youngest Cartwrights barreled into the yard, though it was more of a tumble in Little Joe’s case.  “What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss cried.  “I heard the bell and come runnin’.”

            “It’s a fire up in the hills, son,” Ben explained quickly.  “Go back inside and take Little Joe with you.”

            “Fire?”  Hoss looked toward the hills northwest of the house, and his eyes widened in alarm.  “I wanna help,” he insisted.

            “Me . . . too,” Little Joe chimed in, yawning between the two words.

            “I don’t have time for this,” Ben muttered, but though he knew that was true, he nonetheless took time to squat down in front of the two boys.  “Son,” he said, directing his words toward Hoss, “the best help you can give is to take your little brother back to bed and make sure he stays there.”

            “Aw, Pa,” Hoss whined.  “Can’t Hop Sing see to him for once?”

            “No,” Ben said firmly as he stood to his feet.  “He’s your brother, Hoss, and I expect you to ‘see to him.’  No argument.”

            “Pa,” Little Joe whimpered.  He stopped rubbing his eyes long enough to reach his arms up toward his father.

            Though he had no time to spare, Ben couldn’t resist the plea.  As men rushed around him, carrying out his orders, he lifted the boy up and instinctively tucked the little cold, bare feet inside his jacket.  “Pa has to go, son,” he whispered.  “There’s a job to be done.  You stay here with brother and be a good boy for Pa.”

            Little Joe laid his head on his father’s shoulder.  “You stay, Pa.  Don’t want you burned up.”

            “Oh, precious,” Ben soothed as he gave the child a comforting squeeze.  “Pa isn’t going to get burned up, I promise, but I have to go, so that fire doesn’t burn up part of the Ponderosa or one of our neighbors’ homes.  Now, you go with brother.”  He set the child down and gave him a light shove toward the older boy.

            Hoss’s mouth puckered with dissatisfaction, but he instinctively gathered Little Joe in and put his arm protectively around him.

            “Got your horse saddled, Mr. Cartwright,” Carlton called, leading Ben’s bay gelding toward him.

            “Thanks, Hank,” Ben said, taking the reins.  He mounted and turned back toward the house, where his sons still stood, wide-eyed with apprehension.  “Back inside, boys,” he urged.  “It’s too chilly to be out in your nightshirts.”

            Hoss watched his father ride away and then hoisted Little Joe up on one hip.  “Come on, punkin.  Time you was in bed.”

            “You, too,” Little Joe dictated.  “Pa said.”

            “Aw, shut up,” Hoss growled, perturbed at the reminder that Pa had lumped him in with the baby.  It made no sense to Hoss.  Hadn’t he done a man’s work all summer in those same woods that were ablaze now?  Didn’t he have as much—or more—at stake as any of those trail hands?  The Ponderosa was part and parcel of him, and by all rights he should be out there, protecting their land and their home alongside Pa, not snuggling under the covers like there was nothing going on.  He’d earned the right to be treated like a man, hadn’t he?  Not according to Pa!  No, Pa was treating him like he was no older than Little Joe—well, not much older, anyway.  Pa might try to make it go down easier by pretending it was important for him to stay here and look after his baby brother, but what he was really doing was making sure both his little boys stayed safe.  “Only I ain’t a little boy,” Hoss muttered under his breath.

            “Hoss,” Little Joe whimpered imploringly as his brother carried him up the stairs.  “You sleep with me?”

            “Aw, doggone you,” Hoss started to grumble, but then he saw the terror shimmering in the depths of his little brother’s emerald eyes.  “Yeah, I reckon so,” he said.  “Guess you best come into my bed, though.  Don’t much think I’ll fit in yours.”

            Little Joe giggled at the picture of Hoss all scrunched up in his short bed and for a moment forgot his fear that the fire would take Pa away, the way a horse falling had taken his mother and a team of six of them had ripped Adam away.

            Hoss carried him up and put him in the mahogany four-poster and then crawled in after him.

            Little Joe snuggled close.  “Pa be okay, Hoss?” he whispered.

            “Yeah, Pa’ll be fine,” Hoss assured him.  “Now, get them cold feet off o’ me and get to sleep!”

            Thirty minutes later the first nightmare struck.

 

* * * * *

 

            Trickles of perspiration carved rivulets down the sooty landscape of Ben Cartwright’s rugged face as he leaned heavily on the handle of the shovel whose blade was sunk into blackened earth.

            Smudging the soot on his own forehead with a swipe of his sleeve, Hank Carlton ambled toward him.  “I think that’s got it, Mr. Cartwright.”

            “Yeah, I think so,” Ben agreed.  “Take a couple of men and ride the perimeter of the burned area, just to make sure.  I’m gonna head up that way, see if I can’t discover what started this blaze.”  As he pointed north, he could almost hear his little son lisping, “North—home,” and the memory of those nights on the trail brought a gentle smile to his lips.  North wasn’t home now—thank God.  If it had been, home could have been a huge ash heap tonight.

            “Sure you’ll be all right alone, Mr. Ben?  I could ride along with you.”

            Ben shook his head.  “Appreciate the offer, Hank, but I know this land like the back of my hand.  I’ll be fine.  Just check the perimeter and then get yourself some shut-eye.”

            The two Ponderosa men walked back to the horses.  Then Hank took the shovel from Ben.  “You sure, boss?” he asked again.  “If this was a set fire . . .”

            Ben’s eyes went from grim to glinting.  “If it was, someone will answer to me!”  The thought of an arsonist loose near the Ponderosa, endangering his home and his sons, appalled him, but he had to admit the possibility.  There’d been no hint of lightning on this cool September evening, so the fire had to have been the work of man, but whether by accident or intent, the signs, thus far, gave no clue.

            He followed the track of scorched earth to the shore of Lake Tahoe and then rode along its edge, looking for any indication of what could have started the fire.  Finally, he came upon a manmade clearing and dismounted for a closer look.  There were signs here of habitation: rough-hewn trunks, blackened tin cans, ash-covered plates.  Someone had been living here, and by the awkward look of the blade strokes on nearby trees, someone who didn’t possess many pioneering skills.

            Laughter filtered to him through the trees just to his north, but there was no trace of humor on Ben Cartwright’s face as he followed the sound to the shore.  Two men were pulling a boat out of the water, one of them shaking soot from his great bush of auburn hair.  “Superb!” he was crying to his companion.  “We’ll never see the like of that again, Johnny!”

            “I would hope not!” Ben roared.  “Are you two the fools behind this infernal blaze?”

            The men looked startled, but then the auburn-haired one came forward, waving a languid greeting.  “Howdy, neighbor,” he drawled.  “Did you see the conflagration?  Magnificent, wasn’t it?”  He swept his hand toward the treetops.  “Like blazing banners, a hundred feet in the air.  Grand as any Fourth of July fireworks I ever saw.”

            “‘Cept it’s a good bit past the Fourth, Sam,” his companion snickered.

            Sam scratched beneath his rusty slouch hat.  “Well, never too late to celebrate the nation’s birth, eh, friend?  We had a splendid view of it from out on the lake.  That’s the place for a sight like this, I can tell you!”

            For a moment, in the face of such idiocy, Ben could only stare in consternation.  Then his face hardened as he planted clenched fists on his hips, mostly to keep from plowing them into the idiot’s nose.  “Listen here, Sam, or whatever your name is—”

            The man thrust out his hand.  “Sam Clemens,” he said congenially.

            The scathing words he’d been about to spew withered on Ben’s tongue.  “Clemens?” he croaked.  “Any relation to Orion Clemens?”  Though he had yet to meet the man, he knew the name of the new secretary of the territory.  Who in Nevada did not?

            Sam beamed.  “Yes, sir!  Orion’s my brother, I’m proud to say.  You’ve heard of him, I take it?”  He laughed.  “Well, of course, you have!  Very important man, my brother.  I’m secretary to the Secretary, you might say, though the job pays nothin’.  That’s why me and Johnny here set out to build ourselves a little timber ranch.”  He gazed around at the blackened tree trunks.  “Guess that’s come to naught.”  He shrugged nonchalantly and tried to grin at Ben, but the grin faded at the sight of Ben’s darkening countenance.

            Ben kept a tight grip on his temper.  The secretary of Nevada Territory was, indeed, an important man, and from all reports, a decent one.  Out of respect for the man and his office, Ben restrained himself from the tongue-lashing Secretary Clemens’ idiot of a brother so patently merited, but even as careless an eye as that of Sam Clemens could tell the broad-shouldered rancher was seething.  He had a feeling the scent of smoke came from more than just the charred trees.

            “See here, now.”  Sam shot off a fusillade of fast-fired arguments in his defense.  “It’s not like we did it on purpose.  A pure accident, I assure you.  Campfire just got away from us, and we didn’t do any real harm, did we?  Just burned off the undergrowth, mostly, right?  Maybe a few trees burned.  Plenty to spare here.”  He forced a grin again.

            That did it.  Important brother or no, Ben could contain himself no longer.  “No harm?” he bellowed.  “Acres burned, homes endangered.  Only by the grace of God none lost!  My eleven-year-old boy understands more about the woods than you do.  For that matter, my four-year-old has better sense!”

            Sam Clemens flinched back with a nervous titter.  “Well, as you say, we—uh—we are the proverbial babes in the wood.  Maybe Johnny and I had best take up another line of work, eh?”  He laughed again, through an obviously tighter throat.  “I—uh—guess the fire pretty much put us out of operation here, and, anyway, chopping wood is too tough a job.”  Step by step, he edged away from Ben.  “Got to be an easier way to make a living, don’t you think?  Yes, yes, I agree.  Maybe we’d best pack up our gear and head back to Carson City, do a little more work for the Secretary.”  He clapped his companion on the shoulder, and Johnny’s head bobbed in ready agreement.

            As the two scrambled away in haste, Ben stared at them in dismay.  It was hard to know what to do with culprits as ignorant as Clemens and his cohort.  Evidently, they had intended no harm . . . nor done much, the rancher was forced to admit.  Since the fire had never crowned, it was mostly underbrush and dead sentinels of the forest that had burned.  He tried to temper his wrath by reminding himself that his own pioneering skills had once been as primitive as—he shook his head.  No, not even at his most naïve had he ever been as careless as those two.  It hadn’t been much of an exaggeration when he’d said that even Little Joe would have fared better on his own in the woods, though Ben shuddered at the image that brought to mind.  “One thing for sure,” he grunted as he mounted his horse, eager to get back to his sons.  “Orion Clemens may be a fine man, but that brother of his will never amount to much.”

 

* * * * *

 

            The sky was dark, even the stars dimmed by the haze drifting in the air, when Ben returned to a quiet house.  Inside, a lamp had been left, burning low, on the round table beside his favorite chair.  Ben was tempted to fall into it, but mindful of his soot-stained garments, he delayed that collapse long enough to take a dark wool blanket from the credenza by the door and drape it over the chair.  Then he sank into the inviting cushion with a long, slow sigh of gratitude.  He reeked of smoke, and his weary muscles yearned for a relaxing soak in a steaming tub.  He didn’t have the energy to draw himself a bath, though, and he wouldn’t dream of rousing Hop Sing this early to do it for him.  It wasn’t long until dawn, anyway; the chair would just have to do for the few hours remaining before time to rise and begin the new day.  He’d begin it with that hot tub and a good hard scrub, but for now he’d just rest his eyes.  A millimeter at a time, they closed, and his head unwittingly fell against the wing of the chair.

            He woke with a start and threw aside the blanket draped over him.  His brow furrowed for a minute, his hand fingering the blanket that still rested beneath him, to protect the upholstery.  He didn’t remember taking a second one from the credenza, though.    Had he taken to walking in his sleep?  Then he smiled as the obvious answer came to him.  Hop Sing, of course, the same person responsible for the tempting aroma of fresh coffee that had no doubt drawn him from his slumber.  He stood, yawning and stretching, and moved toward the kitchen, but came to an abrupt halt and stared in disbelief at the window in the dining room.  A glance back at the grandfather clock confirmed what the level of light pouring through that window had hinted at: it was late . . . very late.

            Ben hurried on into the kitchen.  “Why didn’t you wake me, Hop Sing?” he chided.

            The little cook looked up from the batch of biscuits he was stirring.  “You much tired, Mr. Ben.  Need sleep.”  His nose wrinkled disdainfully.  “Need bath, too.”

            “I know that,” Ben grumbled.  “I’d already planned to bathe this morning.”

            The Chinaman beamed.  “Hop Sing have plenty hot water ready, fixee bath chop-chop.”

            “Thank you,” Ben murmured, whatever disgruntlement he’d felt evaporating like dew on a scorching hot morning.  “If that coffee is ready, I’ll have a cup first.”

            Hop Sing’s nose again crinkled, but he said nothing.  Mr. Ben have hard night; another time mo’ better for remind him wash before eat.  He poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Ben.

            Ben took a soul-restoring sip.  “Little Joe still asleep?”

            “He sleep, Mr. Ben,” Hop Sing replied.  “They both sleep.”

            Ben looked up.  “Both?  Hoss, too?  You didn’t get him up for school?”  He dashed the tin cup to the table, sloshing coffee over the side.  “Oh, for goodness’ sake!  This whole house is gone to rack and ruin this morning!”

            The little cook drew himself up, his rigid posture the picture of affronted pride.  “Is-a not Hop Sing fault, Mr. Ben.”

            “No, no, of course not,” Ben agreed quickly.  The last thing he needed to deal with right now was a threat to go back to China.  “It isn’t your fault.”

            “Whose fault it is?” Hop Sing demanded, for he, too, was displeased with the way this day had begun: meals off schedule, housework not yet started, dirty boss yelling at him and spilling coffee everywhere.

            “Sam Clemens!” Ben bellowed as he charged out of the kitchen.

            The cook shuffled to the doorway and peered inquisitively around it.  “Who dat Sam man?” he called.  “He come breakfast?”

            “Not if I have anything to say about it!” Ben yelled as he bolted up the stairs.

            He rounded the corner at the upper landing and dashed down the hall and through the open door into Hoss’s room.  Mouth open, ready to shout out a wake-up call, Ben skidded to an abrupt halt, transfixed by the tender tableau before him.  Little Joe, looking absolutely cherubic, without a trace of underlying mischief, lay curled trustingly in the crook of his brother’s arm, while Hoss’s other arm rested on his little brother’s back.  With a soft smile Ben gently disentangled his sons’ limbs and lifted his youngest to his shoulder.  Then, leaning over the bed, he lightly shook Hoss’s shoulder.  “Wake up, son,” he urged.  When Hoss didn’t respond, he shook a little harder and spoke a little louder, although still softly enough not to wake his other boy.

            Hoss cracked an eyelid and stared groggily at his father.  “Huh?  Oh, hey, Pa.”  He yawned widely.  “Is it mornin’?”

            Ben rolled his eyes.  “It’s halfway to being afternoon, son.  Now, get up and get dressed.  You’re already late to school.”

            Hoss groaned.  “Aw, Pa, do I got to?”

            “Yes, of course, you ‘got to,’” Ben said, his voice growing a little gruff.  “You’ve already missed quite enough class time, young man, by going on the trail drive.  Now here you are late for your first day back and whimpering to be let off the hook, but you will make an appearance and that’s final.  Now, get up!”

            “Yes, sir.”  Hoss dragged first one foot and then the other out of the bed and stumbled over to his washstand.

            Ben placed Little Joe back in the bed and tenderly covered him.  He brushed aside an errant curl, his hand lingering against the boy’s brow.  So like his mother, Ben thought wistfully.

            “How come he gets to sleep?” Hoss grumbled from behind the towel with which he was drying his freshly washed face.

            Ben frowned at his middle son.  “Because he’s only four years old, and unlike you and me, he has no responsibilities to fulfill.  I’ve had a hard night, son, and I don’t feel any more inclined to go to work than you do to go to school, but when a man has a job to do, he does it.”

            Hoss yawned.  “Okay, Pa.”

            Ben relaxed, and a loving smile replaced his frown.  “That’s my boy.  You get dressed and get down to breakfast.  I’m going to have a bath before I join you.”

            Hoss snickered softly, so as not to wake Little Joe.  “Yeah, Pa, I reckon you better.  Fightin’ fires sure is dirty work, ain’t it?”

            Ben clapped his son’s sturdy shoulder.  “It sure is, son.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben could have happily spent the other half of the morning, easing his muscles in the luxurious tub that Hop Sing had prepared for him, but he made himself climb out and dress for work.  He’d lost enough time as it was, and he did want to see Hoss again before the boy left for school.  As he walked briskly down the stairs, however, he was surprised to see his middle son, elbow on the table, cheek propped on his palm, his half-finished breakfast being pointedly ignored.  Even before he reached the dining room Ben’s ears told him why, as Hoss’s sonorous snores broke the otherwise silent air.  “Hoss!” he said sharply, sliding into his place at the head of the table.

            Hoss’s hand fell, striking the edge of his plate.  He barely managed to keep his head from doing the same.   “Huh?”

            “What on earth is wrong with you this morning, boy?” Ben chided.  He opened his napkin and laid it in his lap as Hop Sing placed a plate of bacon and eggs before him.

            Hoss stifled a gaping yawn.  “Just plumb tuckered, I reckon, Pa.”

            Despite his irritation, Ben chuckled lightly.  “Now, why are you so tuckered?”  A possible explanation suddenly struck him, and he felt ashamed that he hadn’t earlier explored the reasons behind Hoss’s uncustomary lassitude.  “I know the fire bell woke you last night.  Did you have trouble getting back to sleep, son?”

            “A mite,” Hoss admitted.  “Little Joe kept puttin’ his cold feet on my bare leg.”

            Ben smiled gently.  “You didn’t have to take him into your bed, you know.”

            Hoss shrugged.  “Felt like I did.  He was workin’ up a fret ‘bout you and the fire.  He’d’ve ended up there anyway, once them nightmares started.”

            “Oh, dear,” Ben sighed.  He looked more carefully at his middle son’s drooping eyes.  “Nightmares, you said.  More than one?”

            “Yeah,” Hoss said.  “I’d no sooner get the little feller quieted down and get back to sleep myself than he’d start in screamin’ again.  I sure hate it when he does that, Pa.  I wanna help him, but don’t seem like I do much of a job of it.”

            Ben reached over to rest a consoling hand on his son’s sturdy arm.  “Hoss, I’m sure you did as good a job as anyone could.  I’m real proud of you, boy.”

            Hoss sported a lopsided grin as he picked up his neglected fork.  “Thanks, Pa.”

            “All things considered,” Ben said, “I think, maybe, you should go on back to bed, instead of to school.”

            A sparkle flickered in Hoss’s blue eyes for a moment; then he shook his head.  “You said when a man has a job to do, he does it, Pa.”

            “True enough, and I’m glad you gave heed to what I said, Hoss,” his father replied with a tender smile, “but I think you’ve been manly enough for today.  Missing school one more day won’t make that much difference.  Besides”—his smile widened into a grin—“I don’t think you’ll learn much with your eyes closed, and the noise just might keep the other scholars from learning, too.”  He mimicked a resonant snore.

            Hoss cackled.  “Reckon you might be right about that!”

            Ben laughed, too.  “Let’s finish up breakfast, son, and then I’ll roust your little brother out of your bed.”

            “Aw, you don’t have to,” Hoss said with a good-natured shrug.  “His feet oughta be toasty warm by now!”

            “All right, then.”  Ben readily accepted the generous offer, for moving Joe always ran the risk of waking him, with the predictable consequence of dealing with a cranky child.  He’d gotten off lucky once this morning, and didn’t feel inclined to press his chances.  “Later you can help me crate up Adam’s belongings,” he told Hoss, “so we can send them to him the next time we’re in town.”

            “Maybe we could do that this afternoon,” Hoss suggested eagerly.  “Adam needs them things bad, I’ll bet.”

            Ben arched an eyebrow.  “And I’ll bet he can just get by without them ‘til a month from Saturday.  I do need to get some work done today, young man.”

            Hoss yawned.  Pa was probably right.  Besides, he’d done enough traveling lately and would probably enjoy a trip to town on Saturday more than he would today.


CHAPTER FOUR

Building Bonds in a Broken World

 

            Frustrated frown on his face, Little Joe sat on the top porch step and with the heel of his shoe, he rhythmically kicked the riser of the step below him.  Yipping for attention, a small brown dog bounded up the steps, leaped on the little boy and began licking his face.  Joe’s nose scrunched up as he turned away from the slobbering tongue, but the next moment his arms closed around the pup in a heartfelt embrace.  “You miss him, too, doncha, Klam?” he asked with a sniff of sympathy, mixed with a heavy dose of self-pity.

            Little Joe had spent a good part of the morning feeling sorry for himself.  During the trail drive he’d come to expect the constant companionship of his father and his big brother, and it had even extended through yesterday, when Pa had let Hoss stay home from school because he was too tired to go.  All that had ended this morning, though.  Pa’d gone off to work, and Hoss had headed to school right after breakfast.  Though Hop Sing was here, he was busy working in the kitchen.  He’d told Little Joe to play outside, but Little Joe didn’t feel like playing.  He just felt lonely.  Mama gone.  Adam gone.  And now Pa and Hoss gone, too.

            He gave the dog’s short-haired coat a rub.  “You hungry, Klam?  Bet you are.  I’m gettin’ that way, too.  Wanna bone, fella?  I’ll ask Hop Sing for you.  Come on.”  He stood up, and Klamath trotted at his heels as he headed toward the side door to the kitchen.

            Hop Sing, who was chopping vegetables, spun around at the sound of the opening door and scowled at the brown dog following the boy in.  “No let dog in house, Little Joe,” he ordered.

            Little Joe looked up at the cook with the “speaking eyes” the Chinaman had seen so effectively used to turn Ben Cartwright into moldable mush.  “He’s hungry.  Doncha got a bone for him?”

            “Little dog is-a not hungry,” Hop Sing declared.  “Hoss feed him all-a time.”

            “Hoss ain’t here.”  The diminutive lips puckered into a pout.  “And it’s ‘most lunch time.  Klam needs lunch, same as me, and Hoss ain’t here to get it for him.”

            “Is-a not lunch time yet, Little Joe.”  Then the cook’s eyes filled with concern.  “You hungry?  You not eat big breakfast.”

            Joe nodded.  “Little bit.  Klam, too.”

            “All light, all light,” Hop Sing muttered with a shake of his head.  “I give little dog little bit food after we eat.  Not much or he be fat like pig and Hop Sing use for bacon.  He go out now.  Little dog is-a not belong in kitchen.”

            Satisfied, Little Joe climbed into a chair at the table while Hop Sing shooed Hoss’s pup outside, slipping him a bite of carrot to keep him quiet.  “What you fixin’ for lunch?” the boy asked, eyeing the array of chopped vegetables on the cutting board.

            “This not fo’ you; this Hop Sing lunch,” the cook said.  “I fixee nice food fo’ you first.  Just chopee this fo’ cook after.”  Since the little boy had said he was hungry, Hop Sing hurried to finish preparing the vegetables for his own meal, intending then to set them aside and tend to the child’s need.

            On his knees in the chair, Little Joe propped his elbows on the table and leaned closer to scrutinize the food Hop Sing was preparing.  “Ain’t that nice food?”

            “Velly nice,” Hop Sing affirmed with a vigorous nod.  “It Hop Sing food—velly nice, velly tasty.”

            Little Joe sat back on his haunches and frowned at the cook.  “Joe’s food, too,” he proclaimed, a stubborn pucker at his lips.

            “No, no,” the cook remonstrated.  “This Chinese food.  You little ‘Melican boy.  You not like.”

            The frown deepened, and the lower lip thrust further out.  “Would, too.”

            “Not think so,” Hop Sing said.  “You want nice slice beef sandwich, maybe?”

            Little Joe shook his head wildly from side to side.  “Want that,” he declared, pointing at Hop Sing’s pile of vegetables.

            “You not want that,” the cook insisted.

            “Do, too!”

            “All light, all light,” Hop Sing told the red-faced child.  “I give you bite or two, all light?  You see.  Is-a velly different from ‘Melican food.”  He quickly finished dicing the vegetables and bits of beef, added sauce and seasonings to his liking and sizzled it over the fire.  The meal was soon prepared, and he served Little Joe a miniscule portion atop a spoonful of fluffy white rice.

            “That all I get?” Joe protested.

            “You like, I give more,” Hop Sing promised.  “You taste now, please.”

            Little Joe maneuvered a small bit of the mixture, along with some rice, onto his fork and raised it tentatively.  Slowly he slid the food into his mouth, chewed cautiously and swallowed.

            Hop Sing watched warily and awaited the verdict.

            Little Joe pushed his plate toward the cook.  “More, please,” he chirped.  “It’s good!”

            A broad beaming smile split the Oriental face.  “Little ‘Melican boy got little bit sense, after all,” he declared.

 

* * * * *

 

            Hoss’s face twisted in tortured concentration.  Greeting his friends out in the schoolyard on his first day back had been fun, but then the bell had rung and all the fun had ended.  While he’d hate to admit it to Pa, for fear of future consequences, his trip to California had put him behind everyone else in his class, and if this morning was anything to go by, he was going to find it hard to catch up.  The arithmetic problems Miss Appleton had set for him just plain made no sense.  Oh, they weren’t hard in themselves, except the teacher had said he wasn’t to use his slate, but add the sums in his head.  She’d called it mental arithmetic, and Hoss had already decided he didn’t like it one bit.  Arithmetic was hard enough for him, even when he could line the numbers up and see them together, but seeing them sitting sideways from each other, with a bunch of words in between, was pure foolishness in his book—and dad-blamed hard foolishness at that!

            Recitation had been even worse than studying the problems at his seat, for then he couldn’t even use his book.  Instead, Miss Appleton read one after another out loud, asked him to repeat it and give the solutions.  The first few went well enough, even without being able to see the numbers.  After all, the book started with a solution as simple as two plus one and only gradually got harder.  Then on one problem the teacher had warned him would take extra concentration, he’d stumbled over repeating it back just right, and there’d been hoots from the back of the room that distracted him into adding the numbers wrong, too.  The hoots turned into guffaws before the teacher threatened extra work if it continued.

            His face relaxed when Miss Appleton announced recess.  He enjoyed getting away from the schoolroom, at least until his old nemesis, Cal Hulbert, sauntered up to taunt his poor performance.  “Still can’t add worth a lick, can you, horse brains?” Cal snorted almost as soon as they were dismissed.

            “Don’t insult horses,” snickered Walter Grogan, close behind Cal.  “I’ve seen trick ponies that can add better than fat boy here!”

            “You’re right, Walt!” Cal, eager to have the older boy back in his camp, was quick to agree.

            Face grim and eyes narrowed, Hoss came nose-to-nose with Walt.  “Thought we had a bargain, Grogan.  Thought you said you kept your bargains.”  Last year he’d fought single-handed against three boys, to make them stop bullying him.  Cal’s word had meant nothing, but Walt Grogan had so far kept his promise.

            “We did—and I do,” Grogan barked, “but seems to me you’ve forgotten what the bargain was, Cartwright.  It was to leave you be ‘til the end of the school year.”  He grinned snidely.  “In case you ain’t noticed, flea brain, it’s a new year.  Bargain’s over.  If you can’t take some ribbin’, study hard, so’s maybe you can figure out two plus one equals three.”

            “That ain’t the one he missed,” snapped Pete Hanson, who had originally been one of the three boys making sport of Hoss every day.  After losing the fight to Hoss and being abandoned by his cohorts, however, Pete had become a steadfast and loyal friend.  “That Mustard problem was a hard one!”

            “Ten plus eleven—twenty-one.”  Grogan flapped a disparaging hand as he and Cal strode off, laughing.

            Pete shook his head.  “That ain’t right, either.  That’s the answer I gave last week, and Miss Appleton said it was wrong.  Wouldn’t tell me the right one, though.  Just smiled and said to think it through.”

            George Winters, another friend of Hoss’s, chuckled.  “We all missed that one.  It’s a trick question, to my mind.”

            “What you mean, George?” red-haired Joe O’Neill asked, pushing into the circle of friends.

            George leaned back against a tree trunk and folded his arms.  “Okay, so here’s the problem: ‘Mustard has 10 sisters and 11 brothers; how many are there in the family?’”

            “What kind of name is Mustard?” Joe’s younger brother Robert demanded.

            “No worse than Hoss, I reckon.”  Hoss grinned as he shrugged a shoulder.

            “Lots worse,” Pete insisted, “but what matters is his brothers and sisters.  I still count twenty-one.”

            “Which means his ma was one busy lady,” Joe cackled.

            George grinned.  “You gotta remember to count Mustard hisself in the family.  That’s the trick.  So, the answer’s twenty-two.”

            “Oh!”  The other four looked satisfied for a minute; then Joe asked, “What about his ma?  She’s in the family, too, ain’t she?”

            Obviously having not thought of that, George scratched his head.  “Uh, yeah, guess so, so I guess there’s twenty-three in the family.”

            “Or twenty-four, if you count Mustard’s pa,” Hoss put in.

            “If he’s got one,” Robbie said.  “Not everyone does.”  He spoke from experience, since his own father had died before they came west.

            “Not everyone’s got a ma, either,” George, whose mother had died in a steamboat accident, said soberly.

            “Yeah.”  Hoss could only get that single syllable past the lump in his throat.

            The awkward silence said that each of Hoss’s friends understood he was thinking about his recent loss, but none of them knew what to say to comfort him.  Finally, Joe O’Neill said, “Well, I think we oughta tell Miss Appleton that we can’t work this problem ‘til we know a heap more about Mustard’s kin.”

            “Yeah!” the others agreed noisily, and since their teacher had just come outside to ring the bell to end recess, they all rushed upon her and demanded to know the exact makeup of Mustard’s family.

 

* * * * *

 

            Hop Sing stood, arms akimbo, and glared at the child standing in the doorway from the dining room into the kitchen.  “What for little boy out of bed again?” the cook demanded.  He had already tucked the four-year-old into his bed three times and didn’t appreciate the necessity of climbing the stairs again.

            Little Joe flashed a puckish grin.  “Nap all done.  Time to play.”

            Hop Sing scowled.  “Is-a not time fo’ play.  You not take nap yet.”

            The child skittered past the cook.  “Don’t need nap.”

            “Honorable father say you do.”  Hop Sing strode after the boy, who pranced down to the opposite end of the cook’s worktable.  “You stay one place,” Hop Sing scolded.

            “No!” Little Joe slapped the tabletop with both palms. The anger disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced and with a giggle, the child cried, “Catch me!”

            As the sputtering Chinaman came toward him, Joe scooted around the table away from him.  Around and around they went, Little Joe’s hilarity increasing and Hop Sing’s face flushing more with each circuit.  Finally having enough, the cook pulled out a chair behind him, setting it directly in Joe’s path.  Then he pretended to carry on the chase, but the minute the child slowed down to get around the roadblock, Hop Sing reversed directions and caught the boy up into his arms.  “Bad boy,” he stated emphatically.  “Now you go bed—and you stay there this time if Hop Sing have tie down!”

            Tears instantly sprang into the boy’s green eyes.  “No, no, please no,” he whimpered.  “I-I don’t like it up there all alone.  Don’t make me—please!”

            Feeling the little body tremble against his chest, Hop Sing sat down in the chair he had used as a roadblock and began to pat the boy’s back as he rocked back and forth.  As many times as he’d waged this naptime war with Little Joe, he’d never before realized that fear lay behind the child’s recalcitrance about going to bed upstairs.  “Nothing hurt Little Joe,” he soothed.  “Hop Sing not let anything hurt Little Joe.”

            Little Joe buried his head on the cook’s shoulder.  “You’re too far,” he sobbed.  “I don’t like it alone . . . so—so far away.”

            “All light, all light,” Hop Sing said, his calloused hand caressing the child’s soft curls, “but father say you take nap, so you take nap.”  As Little Joe shook his head violently from side to side, the cook arrested the motion with a steadying hand and laid the curly head back against his shoulder.  “Little boy must obey father,” he said gently, “but Hop Sing keep close, all light?”

            Little Joe pulled back so he could look into the Oriental’s face.  “Real close?” he asked hesitantly.

            “Velly close,” Hop Sing promised.  He moved down a short hallway just off the kitchen and turned into a small room.  He laid the child on a narrow bed.   “You sleep here in Hop Sing bed, all light?”

            Little Joe clambered up on his knees to scan the unfamiliar room with interest.  Though sparsely furnished, it looked like no room he’d ever been in before, from the lacquered boxes on the bureau to the picture hanging over it of a fascinating creature with fire coming out of its mouth.  “What’s that?” he asked in awe, pointing.

            Hop Sing laid the child down and drew a light coverlet over him.  “That dragon.  Him have much power for protect little boy.”

            The child’s eyes widened.  “Won’t that fire burn things?”

            “No, no,” the cook assured him.  “Only bad things that try hurt little boy.  You not be afraid . . . but maybe best you not tell father about dragon.  It be our secret, all light?”

            “O-okay.  I-I like it here.”

            Hop Sing smiled.  “See?  Like Hop Sing say before, little ‘Melican boy got little bit sense.  You sleep now.”  Sitting on the edge of the bed, he began to croon a soft Cantonese lullaby he remembered hearing his mother sing, long ago in Kwangtung Province.  The words were meaningless, the tune alien to Little Joe’s American ears, but he felt the undertone of love, and that soothed him into dreamless sleep.

            Hop Sing gently stroked the soft chestnut curls.  Little ‘Melican boy like Chinese things . . .  like Hop Sing, too, he thought, surprised at how full his heart suddenly felt.

 

* * * * *

 

            Hoss slowed his gray mare to a walk as he entered the yard at the Ponderosa.  He never knew when Little Joe might be playing outside; and if he were, the little fellow was bound to come running to greet his big brother.  No amount of scolding or “necessary talks” seemed to have any effect on those flying feet.  Put something he wanted in front of Little Joe’s eyes, and he just plain forgot everything he’d been taught.  It was easier—and smarter, Hoss thought—just to slow down.  Charcoal wasn’t skittish like some horses; she wouldn’t kick out at the little boy, but if she galloped in fast, it might happen accidental-like.  Hoss chose to be safe, especially where his baby brother was concerned.

            He grinned as he dismounted.  Sure enough, there was Little Joe at the kitchen door, pulling against the restraint of Hop Sing’s hand.  Once the cook saw that Hoss was on the ground, he let go, and Little Joe came rushing over to throw his arms around his big brother’s legs.

            “Hoss!  I thought you’d never get here!”

            “Thought that myself!”  With a laugh Hoss scooped the little boy up and swung him around in a circle until both were breathless.  Then he set Little Joe in Charcoal’s saddle for his usual ride into the barn.

            Little Joe leaned over to pat Hoss’s head sympathetically.  “School rotten, like always?”

            It had been, and Hoss was tempted to give an earful to the only audience on the ranch that would commiserate with his complaints.  He remembered, though, that Mama hadn’t liked him to say such things to Little Joe, hadn’t wanted him to teach his little brother to hate school before he ever went, so out of respect for her memory, he shook his head.  “Naw.  Just sort of middlin’ bad today.”  He figured that if he told Joe out of the blue that school had been great, the poor kid might think he’d lost his mind, so it seemed better to just step down to “middlin’ bad” and ease his way into something better—if he could do it without lying.  Mama wouldn’t want him to lie, either, he reasoned.

            Little Joe nodded soberly at his brother’s assessment of his day and then smiled brightly.  “Hop Sing’s got cookies waitin’,” he announced, “and milk.”

            “That’s great!”  Hoss returned with enthusiasm.  Good ole Hop Sing; just like Mama, he never forgot.  “Let’s get Charcoal taken care of, so’s we can get right to ‘em.”  He reached up and pulled Little Joe from the saddle.  He set the boy on top of the slats dividing Charcoal’s stall from the empty one next to it and went to work unbuckling the cinch.

            “Can we go fishin’ after the cookies, huh, Hoss?” Little Joe asked, leaning over to stroke Charcoal’s mane.

            “Naw, there ain’t time before supper, punkin,” Hoss said, reaching for the curry brush.  “Fishin’ is for Saturdays or maybe, once in a while, on a Sunday.”

            “You take me fishin’ Saturday?” Little Joe pressed.

            Hoss shook his head.  “Can’t this Saturday, punkin.  We got to go to town, to mail that box of things to Adam.”

            Little Joe sat up straight, eyes shining with excitement.  “Me, too?  I wanna go to town, too!”

            Hoss looked up, his open face communicating both his doubt and his concern for what voicing it might mean.  “I don’t know, Little Joe,” he said, deciding plain honesty was his safest option.  “Pa ain’t said.”

            “Ask him,” Little Joe begged.  Then he smiled craftily.  “Tell him we needs us.”

            Hoss chuckled.  “I ain’t so sure that’s gonna work every time, punkin.”

            “But it might work this time,” Joe insisted.  “Ask . . . okay, Hoss?  Please!”

            “Yeah, I’ll ask,” Hoss said, “but you keep quiet and let me be the one to do it.”  He rolled his eyes.  Might as well tell his little brother to stop running at horses; it would do just about as much good.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben barely had time to take off his hat before Little Joe, with poignant pout and pleading puppy eyes, trotted out his “we needs us” argument.  “You scamp,” Ben chuckled as he scooped the youngster into his arms and carried him to the fireside chair.  “You are just like your mother.”

            “He ain’t nothin’ like Mama,” Hoss scoffed, scowling at his little brother.  “She could keep her mouth shut.”

            Ben settled into the chair.  “When it suited her need,” he said.  “She was a master manipulator, just like this one.”  He snuggled Little Joe and rumpled his curly head.  Seeing Hoss’s mystified look, he explained, “She knew how to get her own way.”

            “Oh!” Hoss said with a grin.  “Yeah, she did—and he’s right good at it, too.”

            Little Joe peeked up at his pa.  “I get my own way?” he queried with his sweetest smile.

            Ben laughed.  “Yes, little scamp, you do.”  He tilted Little Joe’s chin up and looked into his eyes.  “Joseph, I always intended to take you with us on Saturday.  An occasion such as this should definitely be a family affair.”

            “Huh?”

            Ben kissed the boy’s forehead and simplified.  “We needs us.  And what we needs now—the lot of us—is to get washed up for supper.”  He set Little Joe down and patted his backside.  “Off you go.”

            After supper Ben suggested that Hoss write a letter to Adam, to be included with their package.  “Me, too,” Little Joe insisted.  “I write Adam, too.”

            “You can’t write,” Hoss scoffed.

            “Can, too!”

            “You can print your ABCs,” Hoss said with a consoling pat to his little brother’s head, “but you don’t know how to make words with ‘em yet, punkin.”

            “That’s all right,” Ben soothed as he handed his youngest a blank piece of paper.  “Adam will enjoy seeing how you’re getting on with your letters.  And you could draw him a picture, Little Joe.”

            “I know just what to draw!” Little Joe announced.

            “You do that, then.”  Waving the boys over to the fireside table, he took out stationery of his own and wrote a long, gossipy letter, full of news about everyone Adam held dear.

            “See, Pa, see!” cried Little Joe, running over to show his completed letter to his father.

            Ben halted his pen and took the paper in hand to peruse the letters of the alphabet at the top of the page and the rather remarkable creature sketched below it.  “Well, that’s fine, Little Joe, just fine.  Your writing is . . . well . . .”

            “Tipsy,” Hoss, who had come around the desk to look over his father’s shoulder, said.

            “Now, Hoss,” Ben chided, “he’s just a beginner, and, well, he hasn’t had much help with his letters lately.”  Something else I need to take in hand, he told himself.

            Remembering that it was Mama who used to work with Little Joe on his writing, Hoss swallowed hard.  “Yes, sir.  I reckon they ain’t so tipsy as all that.”  He laughed to get past the knot in his throat.  “You sure gave Klamath a long tongue, though, punkin.”

            “That’s not Klam,” Little Joe scoffed. “That’s”—he clapped his hand over his mouth, remembering Hop Sing’s admonition to keep the dragon a secret.

            “What is it, son?” Ben asked.

            “What?”  Little Joe looked startled.  “Oh!  I mean it’s not Klam’s tongue; it’s a big stick he’s fetchin’.”

            “Oh, I see.”  He didn’t, of course.  The picture looked nothing like Hoss’s little dog, nor did the thing in the dog’s mouth look much like a stick.  He’d never imagined that art would be one of Little Joe’s talents, though, so this drawing was simply confirmation.  Nonetheless, it would do its job of bringing a touch of home to Adam, far away in New Haven, and Ben assured the youngster that his big brother would be delighted with it.

 

* * * * *

 

            “For the sixth time, Joseph, sit down!”  Exasperation was evident in Ben Cartwright’s voice, and tension tightened his grip on the reins.

            Either unconscious of or unperturbed by his father’s rising irritation, Little Joe sat down, but chattered on about anything and everything that caught his attention.  “Pa, you got my letter to Adam?” he asked in an abrupt change of subject.

            “Yes, Joseph.”  Ben refrained from mentioning that Little Joe had already asked that question a mile back  . . . and a mile or so before that, too.

            “You sure?”

            “Yes, Joseph, I’m sure.”  He fought to hang on to his patience.

            “Real sure?” 

            Ben exhaled gusty frustration.  “Joseph, I am completely confident that I have your letter to Adam and Hoss’s letter to Adam and my letter to Adam all tucked safely inside my vest pocket.”

            “Maybe you oughta check, huh?”

            “Joseph, that is enough!”

            “Okay, Pa.”  Little Joe’s tone held a hint of offended innocence, but it disappeared as he asked brightly, “Can I drive the team, Pa?”

            Ben laughed.  “No, of course not.”

            Seated to Little Joe’s right, Hoss burst out with a loud guffaw.

            A pout puckered Little Joe’s mouth.  “Adam let me.”

            “Oh, he did not,” Hoss cackled.

            “Did, too!”

            “He just let you think so, punkin,” Hoss said.  “You ain’t big enough to handle a team.”

            Disregarding all previous warnings, Little Joe jumped up from the seat of the buckboard.  “Am, too!”

            “Joseph, do you want me to turn this rig around?” Ben asked brusquely.

            Hoss gazed wide-eyed at his father.  Pa looked serious, but he couldn’t mean it, could he?  Why, they were almost to Carson City!  And Adam needed all those things they had packed up in the back of the wagon.

            For the first time Little Joe seemed to comprehend that he was dangerously close to overstepping some line with his father.  “No, Pa,” he said quietly.

            “Then, sit down,” Ben ordered, “and no more talk about driving the team.  Your brother is right: you’re much too small.”

            “I’m too small for everything,” Little Joe sulked.

            “That’s just about right,” Ben said dryly, and over the head of his youngest he gave his middle son a wink.

            He pulled up in front of the Wells, Fargo office and with Hoss’s help unloaded the crates holding Adam’s books and his carefully packed guitar.  As he waited in line inside, a bittersweet smile touched his lips.  The last time he’d been in this building, Adam had been at his side.  What a flurry they’d been in, those last few days, getting the boy ready for his long journey, and now, standing inside these same four walls again, Ben couldn’t help realizing how much longer the journey seemed now—four years long.  Oh, he’d never really doubted that his son would pass the entrance exam for Yale—being Adam, how could he do otherwise?—but until the telegram confirming that arrived, he hadn’t let himself dwell on just how long it would be until he saw his beloved boy again.  Four years.  How would they ever get by without him for that long?  The same way Adam would get by without them, he supposed—one day at a time.

            A short drive from Wells, Fargo brought the trio of Cartwrights to the Thomas’s yellow frame house.  “Billy!” squealed Little Joe.

            The lanky redhead stood up, laid down his hammer and sauntered over with an inviting grin.  “Hey there, Shortshanks.  Been awhile since I seen you.  Hey to you, too, Hoss.”  He rumpled the sandy hair of the boy closest to him.

            “And me?” Ben asked with a chuckle.

            Billy thrust out his hand.  “Always good to see you, Uncle Ben.  Ma said you was comin’ to dinner tomorrow, but I wasn’t expectin’ you today.”

            Ben laughed as he stepped down from the buckboard and reached back to lift Little Joe down.  “Neither is she.  I hope I’m not banking on a welcome I have no deposits to cover.”

            “You’re always welcome, you know that,” Billy chuckled, “but we’d better let Ma know, so she can throw an extra potato in the soup.”

            “What kind of soup?” Hoss asked.

            Billy gave the boy’s sturdy back a sound clap.  “Don’t know as we’re havin’ soup at all, buddy.  I just meant we need to tell Ma to cook a mite more.”  Patting Hoss’s tummy, he sported an impish grin.  “Or maybe a lot more?”  All humor left his face as he hollered, “Little Joe, you put that hammer down!”

            As if it were a hot poker, Little Joe dropped the hammer he’d just picked up from the porch step and spun to face Billy with a cherub’s smile.  “Just helpin’, Billy.”

            Billy’s characteristic grin came back as he bent over to pick up the hammer and keep those little fingers safe from it.  “I can do without your help, Shortshanks.  Besides, I gotta earn my keep, now that I’m back home.”

            “Oh?” Ben looked quizzical for a moment; then his countenance lifted as the implication struck him.  “Has the telegraph met up, then?”

            “Not yet,” Billy said, “but it’s covered the ground of my run.”

            “So the Pony’s over.”  Ben said it with a hint of regret, and Hoss looked positively glum at the thought of never again seeing a red-shirted Pony rider gallop in and take off in the space of minutes.

            Billy nodded.  “For me, it is.”

            “Lands sakes, what are you yellin’ about, boy?”  Seeing the others in the yard, Nelly Thomas pushed open the front door and aimed straight for the two youngsters.  “Sunshine!  Sugarfoot!” she cried, opening wide her arms.

            “Next time I’m just sending the boys,” Ben said wryly as his two sons rushed into Nelly’s warm embrace.  “Appears I can’t get a welcome around here myself.”

            Nelly flapped a dismissing hand in his direction.  “You know better.  Thought you wasn’t comin’ ‘til tomorrow, though.”

            “We had some packages to mail to Adam,” Ben explained, “and thought we’d stay over.  With Billy home, though, maybe you don’t have room for us.”

            “Oh, sure we do,” Billy said.

            “Lands, yes,” Nelly agreed.  “I got plenty of blankets to spread a thick pallet for the boys . . . or I reckon one could bunk with you and the other with Billy.”

            Ben and Billy exchanged a glance of mutual commiseration; then with a smile lifting one side of his mouth, Ben said, “I’m sure the boys would relish the chance to sleep on a nice thick pallet.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben tamped tobacco into his pipe from the stock he kept stored at the Thomas house for his frequent visits.  Once he’d lit the pipe, he set it in his mouth and opened the latest copy of the Territorial Enterprise, which Clyde had just handed him.

            “Best news is right at the top,” Clyde offered from across the room.

            Ben smiled.  “You mean that the Enterprise is going to publish daily, starting next week?  It is good news, especially for those of you in town, who can benefit from it.  Still, there are occasions when I get in more than once a week, and I must admit I relish news from back East more these days, with all that’s going on . . . and with someone back there it might impact.”

            “War news ain’t none too good,” Clyde said slowly.

            “Just getting to that,” Ben said, eyes riveted to the column.  Clyde was given to understatement, he decided.  The war news was bad and, worse, it did impact someone he knew back East.  St. Joseph, Missouri, had been captured by the Confederates, and no one was being permitted in or out of there.  Not even the mail was being allowed through.  That didn’t bode well for the packages he’d just deposited with Wells, Fargo.  They’d get through sometime, he was sure, but God alone knew when Adam would get his things.

            He chided himself for not having included a larger draft of credit for his son.  The trail drive had been successful, so he’d felt comfortable forwarding fifty dollars against unexpected expenses.  Now, however, the territory and the turmoil between them might make it difficult to send more, and he chided himself for being overly cautious with his funds.  Who else were they for, if not his sons?  But he had two here, as well, and—

            Nelly came into the room.  “The boys are settled on their pallet, Ben, and I think they’ll drop off soon.

            “What?”  Ben shook himself from his absorption with the news story and its implications for those he loved.  “Oh, yes.  Thank you, Nelly.  I should go up and kiss them goodnight.”

            “Something wrong, Ben?” she asked, sitting down in her chair by the fire.

            Ben nodded, frowning, and briefly mentioned his concern.

            “Why, Ben, you’re not worried about Adam, are you?” she asked as she picked up her latest knitting project from a basket beside the chair.

            “No, no,” Ben said.  “I had a wire from Adam after he reached New Haven, so I know he’s safe.”

            “You knew that, woman,” Clyde chided.  “He told you at supper about Adam wirin’ that he passed that test.”  He looked over at Ben.  “It’s that friend of yours you’re worried about, ain’t it?  Didn’t he live in St. Joe?”

            “Yeah,” Ben said, “and I am concerned about him.  He’s a Union man, and that could put him at risk . . . unless he left with the others.”

            “Into Kansas, ain’t that where the paper said the Union men went?” Billy, who was lounging on the floor in front of the fire, asked.  “Took the ferry with ‘em, too, so the Rebs couldn’t cross after ‘em.”

            “That’s what it said,” Ben agreed, “but it can’t tell me where the one man I’m concerned about is.”

            “Trust the Lord and hope for the best, Ben,” Nelly advised as her knitting needles clacked.

            Ben smiled.  “I’ll try, Nelly.”  He set his pipe down on the occasional table by his chair and stood up.  “I’d better get up to the boys.”

            He lay, wide-eyed, in bed later, his spirit unable to find rest from his concern for Josiah.  If only there were some way to know that his friend was safe.  There had to be a way!  He considered telegraphing Adam, to see if Jamie had heard anything from his father, but two things held him back.  Knowing Adam, the boy would perceive the query as urgent and would feel obliged to telegraph back.  With his freshly awakened concern that his son might have run into unexpected expenses back East, Ben didn’t want the boy to squander precious resources on a telegram when a little patience would give him the information he wanted in due course.  Secondly, any display of apprehension on his part would communicate itself to Adam and automatically on to Jamie, as well, and if the boy hadn’t heard from his father, he certainly didn’t need an old fussbudget friend heightening his own anxiety.

            In the end, the only place of rest Ben found was the one Nelly had suggested.  As he sat in church with fellow worshippers the following morning, he finally released Josiah Edwards into the hand of God.  His reward came only days later when Billy Thomas rode over to the Ponderosa to deliver the latest news from the now-daily Territorial Enterprise.  Union forces had retaken St. Joseph, and though some sort of bridge disaster was still hindering passengers and mail, both were slowly getting through.  It wasn’t a guarantee that his friend was safe, but it raised his hopes.  He composed a short letter of inquiry and sent it back with Billy to be posted, knowing he’d have to wait weeks for a response, but trusting that the news, when it came, would be good.

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

George Winters and Joe and Robert O’Neill are historic characters; Cal Hulbert, Pete Hanson and Walter Grogan are fictional.

 

Hoss’s puzzling problem in mental arithmetic is found in The Normal Mental Arithmetic: a thorough and complete course by analysis and deduction by Edward Brooks, published in 1858.

 

News items from the East in this chapter, as well as throughout the book, are usually taken from the historic New York Times online.  Dates any particular news arrived in Virginia City are generally conjectures, based on the date it appeared in New York and communication capabilities available at the time.

 

For a full description of how the bridge disaster mentioned in the final paragraph impacted Adam, please see the Heritage Companion, A Separate Dream, Book 1, A Fresh Beginning.


CHAPTER FIVE

News From Near and Far

 

 

            Ben dropped the final copy of the Territorial Enterprise to the floor beside his chair and reached for his pipe, which was sitting on the table at his elbow.  It had taken quite some time to read all the back issues Clyde had saved and let him bring home for private perusal.  Now that the newspaper was a daily, catching up was a bigger challenge than it used to be, but he couldn’t think of a better way to spend a quiet Sunday evening at home.  The boys had romped themselves into exhaustion upon coming home from the Thomases after church and a fine, big meal; and now, with them in bed, Ben had time to sit and read, smoke his pipe and think over the news of the week.

            With a long poker he reached over to stir the embers of the fire.  October had brought with it chilly nights, though the days were still pleasant enough.  He glanced down at the papers in the floor, wondering how much of the news he should share with Adam.  He certainly needed to tell the boy about the opening of a post office in Washoe City.  That meant they wouldn’t have to ride all the way in to Carson to fetch the mail.  Hoss could stop by there every day after school and bring the latest letters—hopefully, many from Adam—and they could post more regular letters to Adam, too.  It made him seem closer.  Yes, he’d definitely need to include their new address in his next letter to Adam.

            He questioned whether he should waste precious letter space on local politics, although had Adam still been home, father and son would, no doubt, have discussed the subject thoroughly.  The newspaper had devoted much of its space to the opening of the Territorial Legislature on the first of the month, and Ben had followed each line of its proceedings with a reawakening awareness of the outside world.  His interest was tainted with a tinge of regret, however.  Once he had envisioned a large role for himself in the shaping of the territory—and then state, should Nevada continue to prosper—but those dreams were dead now, dead and buried with the woman he had expected to share them.

            He smiled softly into the fire.  He had a different dream now, one that all along had meant more to him than any political ambition.  All he wanted from life these days was to raise three healthy, happy and honorable sons, and, maybe, one day, to see them take places of importance in the development of this wild land into civilized society.  Dream enough for a man’s lifetime, he mused as he gazed into the flickering flames, so he said farewell to dreams of political office.  His sons—the younger ones, at least—needed him here at home, not always away in some committee meeting or another, and they’d need him for a very long time, long enough for the political power brokers to have long forgotten the name of Ben Cartwright.

            Bill Stewart hadn’t forgotten him yet.  The new council member evidently still thought Ben had enough influence with the Governor that he’d invited him to the ball at John Winters’ house that would end the legislative session.  Ben was grateful for the honor, but he couldn’t bring himself to attend.  It would be too sharp a reminder of similar dances with golden-haired Marie on his arm, especially that last wonderful evening, when they’d driven home beneath the stars and stopped by the lake to . . .

            Ben pushed aside the exquisite pain of recalling that final ecstatic coupling in the grass and stood to his feet.  No, he definitely wouldn’t be attending any formal political balls for some time to come.  Far better to focus on the fruit of the love that he and Marie had shared.  He moved toward the stairs, eager to gaze into the slumbering faces of his beloved boys and to fall asleep thinking of the one far away, whom the new post office would keep in closer touch.

 

* * * * *

 

            Hearing a horse ride into the yard, Ben rose from his chair behind the desk and looked out the window behind it.  Glad of the excuse to get away from the hated bookwork, he threw down his pen and walked to the front door, arriving just in time to answer the rhythmic tap of the brass doorknocker.  “Enos,” he greeted his foreman.  “Now, what are you doing here on your afternoon off?”

            Enos Montgomery extended a sheaf of envelopes.  “Well, first, I picked up the ranch mail while Kat finished her shopping.  There’s a couple of pieces I didn’t think could wait,” he said with a grin.  “I told ‘em to forward everything to Washoe City from here on, too.”

            Ben glanced down at the top two letters on the pile and smiled broadly as he recognized the handwriting of his oldest son.  “I’m obliged,” he said.  “I think you know how eagerly I’ve been waiting for this!”

            “Yes, sir, sure do.”  Enos twisted his hat in his hand.

            Noting the nervous gesture, Ben asked, “Anything wrong, Enos?”

            Enos laughed and shook his head.  “No, sir.  Everything’s right as rain.  Just figure I’m likely to get shot for telling you another piece of news, but I’m about to burst with it.”

            With instant intuition, Ben murmured, “Katerina’s with child.”

            Enos’s mouth dropped.  “Now, how could you know that?  I know she ain’t said nothin’.  Blushed red as a beet, just tellin’ me last night.”

            Ben chuckled.  “Let’s just say you’ve got that future-father look in your eye.”

            Enos’s brows drew together as he puzzled Ben’s remark.  “I thought it was the woman who got a certain glow about her,” he mumbled.

            Ben rested a hand on his foreman’s shoulder.  “Oh, it’s hard for man or woman to keep the glow from their eyes when a child’s on the way.”  He gave the shoulder a hearty clap.  “Congratulations, my man!”

            “Just had to tell you,” Enos said with a shrug.  “I guess you know how it is.”

            “I do, indeed,” Ben assured him with a comradely smile.  “When is the child due?”

            “Kat figures sometime in April.”  Enos lowered his eyes and then looked up into the face of his employer.  “I just hope I can be half the father you are, sir.”

            “I hope you’ll make only half the mistakes I have,” Ben said modestly, though he flushed with pleasure at the praise, for being a good father had become his highest goal in life.  He’d been thinking about that a lot this week, so the praise was especially sweet.

            “Don’t let Kat know I told you,” Enos warned.  “She thinks it ain’t proper to speak of such things.”

            Ben gripped the other man’s hand in solemn covenant.  “It’ll be our secret, Enos.  Believe me, I have had enough experience to know how women feel about ‘such things.’”

 

* * * * *

 

            “Pa!  I caught a big fish!” Little Joe shouted as he blasted through the front door later that afternoon.

            Ben caught the little boy up in his arms and hugged him tight.  “That’s wonderful, Little Joe!  Is he big enough to make supper for all of us?”

            Little Joe excitedly bobbed his head up and down.  “Hoss is takin’ him to Hop Sing right now, Pa!”

            “Yum, yum,” Ben said with an exaggerated smack of his lips.  “Crispy fried brook trout—just what I was hoping for.”

            “We caught a bunch,” Hoss reported, coming in from the kitchen.  “Hop Sing said he’s real happy to have so many.”

            Ben reached over to ruffle the boy’s straight, wheaten hair.  “Did you have a good time together?”

            Hoss grinned.  “Yeah.  Little Joe’s gettin’ better at fishin’, Pa.”

            Ben laughed.  “Keeping quieter, you mean?”

            Hoss returned the laughter.  “Yeah, that’s what I mean.”

            Little Joe patted his father’s cheek to get his attention.  “I didn’t scare fish away today, Pa.  I do good, huh?”

            “You did well, son, very well.”  Ben kissed his youngest and set him down.  He walked toward his office alcove.  “As if the day weren’t special enough, with this wonderful supper to look forward to, I have another treat for you boys.”  He took two envelopes, one already opened, from his desk.

            “Letters from Adam!” Hoss shouted.  “Hurray!”

            “Hurray!” echoed Little Joe.  When Ben handed the unopened envelope to Hoss, Little Joe eagerly reached for the other.

            Ben held it out of reach.  “No, no, baby; that’s Pa’s letter.”

            “Where’s mine?” Little Joe cried.

            Ben squatted down to take the toddler in his arms.  “There isn’t one to you this time, Little Joe, but I’m sure there will be soon.  I’m going to read my letter to you, though, and perhaps Hoss will share his.”  Seeing the hesitant look on his other son’s face, he added quickly, “If it isn’t private, that is.”

            “Sure, Pa,” Hoss quickly agreed, “if’n it ain’t private.”

            “What’s ‘private’ mean?” Little Joe demanded.

            “Sort of secret,” Hoss said.

            Little Joe folded his arms and glared at his brother.  “I don’t like secrets.”

            Hoss gave him a quick squeeze.  “Ah, don’t fret, punkin; I bet there ain’t much private to it.  Let’s open ‘er and see.”

            Ben smiled his approval, and they all went over to the seating area near the fire.  He sank into his padded armchair, while the two boys perched, side by side, on the settee.

            Hoss quickly scanned his letter and grinned.  “Ain’t nothin’ private,” he assured his little brother, “so I’ll just read the whole thing out loud.  Okay, Pa?”

            “Hoss, that sounds wonderful,” Ben replied.

            Hoss held the letter with both hands and began to read:

 

Dear Hoss:

            I thought I’d write the first letter to you, but please tell Pa and Little Joe I will write to them also, as soon as I can.

 

            “He didn’t write me,” Little Joe said, pouting.  “Adam lied.”

            “Hush now, Little Joe,” his father urged.  “You know that isn’t so.  You can see from Hoss’s letter that Adam is thinking about you.  And your brother is a man of his word:  if he said he’ll write, you can depend on it that he will.  Your letter will probably be at the post office the next time we pick up the mail.”  He nodded to his other son.  “Please go on, Hoss.”

 

            Be glad, little brother, that you have never had to ride a stagecoach all the way to the Missouri River.  Bump, bump, bump!  It’s a wonder I don’t have bruises head to toe.  It was interesting to see so much of our great country so quickly, though, and I know you would enjoy that.  At a couple of stage stations, I picked up some interesting rocks that I will be sending to you and Little Joe.

 

            “Me?  He’s sendin’ ‘em to me?”  Little Joe bounced on the settee.

            “There now, you see,” Ben soothed.  “Your brother hasn’t forgotten you.”

            “When’ll they get here?” Little Joe asked urgently.

            “When they get here,” Ben said firmly.  “Now let your brother finish the letter, please, or it’ll be your bedtime before he gets to the end.”

            Little Joe giggled.  “Silly Pa.  We gotta eat trout first.”

            Ben chuckled.  “So we do; so we do.  Now, let your brother read, Joseph.”

            Hoss began again where he’d left off:

 

The rocks are obsidian, granite, flint and quartz in different colors.  I tried to make your set and Little Joe’s as nearly alike as I could, but all rocks are a little different, you know.  If either of you thinks you’ve gotten the short end of the stick with the way I divided them up, let Pa settle any fusses between you.

 

            Hoss frowned at his little brother.  “There ain’t gonna be no fussin’, is there?”

            Little Joe shook his head.  “No fussin’ . . . long as Adam plays fair.”

            “I’m sure he will,” Ben interjected.  “Hoss . . . the letter?”

            “Yes, sir,” Hoss said and continued to read:

 

            We ran into some bad weather just east of Courthouse Rock.  (Ask Pa to tell you where that is.)  I had never seen a tornado before, and it’s something to see, but dangerous, too.  It’s a big windstorm that circles around on itself, and when it touches down to the ground, it looks a little like the funnel Hop Sing sometimes uses in the kitchen. The tail came twisting toward us, whipping up a cloud of dust, but we were safe inside the sod station.

 

            “That’s good Adam didn’t get blowed away,” Little Joe offered.

            “Yes, I’m sure we’re all glad that your brother came through the storm safely,” his father agreed.  “Anything more, Hoss?”

            “Just a mite,” Hoss said.  “Adam says to tell you he’ll write you next, Pa, and then Little Joe.”

            “Why I gotta be last?” Little Joe demanded.

            “‘Cause you can’t read yet,” Hoss said.

            “Oh.”

            Whatever Adam’s reason had been, Ben was quite sure that wasn’t it, but as long as Little Joe was satisfied, he was content to accept Hoss’s explanation.

            “Anyway, the last thing Adam says is about you, punkin,” Hoss said.

            “Really?”  Little Joe’s eyes grew wide.

            Hoss bobbed his head.  “Yup, sure ‘nough.  He says, ‘Give Little Joe a hug from me—not a bear hug, though; you’ll squish him.’  Then he says ‘Love, Adam,’ and that’s all.”  Taking Adam’s directive literally, Hoss put his arms around his little brother and squeezed gently.  “There!  That’s from Adam.”  He looked over at his father.  “Now, what’d Adam write to you, Pa?”

            “You come suppah now,” Hop Sing ordered as he set the platter of crispy fried trout and fried potatoes on the table.  “Eat fish while hot.”

            “That’s when it’s best,” Ben agreed, standing up.  “We’ll save the letter for dessert.”

            “Ain’t there no real dessert?” Hoss asked, his face drooping dolefully.

            Ben laughed.  “Yes, I’m sure there is, Hoss, but I think I’ll write to your brother and tell him just how well he stacks up against apple pie!”

            “Aw, Pa, you know I’d a lot druther have a letter from Adam than even a whole pie,” Hoss protested

            “I want pie and a letter,” Little Joe declared adamantly.

            “Oh, you always want it all, you scamp,” Ben scolded jovially as he swung Little Joe to his back and trotted him to the table.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben slid the single sheet from the envelope and spread it open on the desk.  The boys were in bed, and he wanted to get his letter to Adam written before time for
him to retire, as well.  Still, he couldn’t resist reading Adam’s letter just one more time before he framed his reply.  Some of it had been disturbing and would require a well-worded response.

 

Dear Pa,

 

I am so full of news I scarcely know where to start.  In fact, there wouldn’t be room in this letter to tell you everything I’d want to say if we could just sit down together and talk.  The most important thing, I suppose, is that I started classes today, and they are all I’d hoped for and more.  Thank you again for allowing me this opportunity; I promise to make the most of it.  I had to put down two hundred dollars as bond, and Jamie and I are intending to join a freshman society together, so finances may be tight, but I’ll manage.  My Greek professor, a wonderful man and outstanding teacher, has loaned me the use of an old text of his until I can afford my own.  (Jamie and I had hoped to share, to curtail expenses, but because we are separated during class that won’t work.)  We joined an eating club, the Vultures, which is helping with that expense.  (Tell Hoss I’ll write him more about the club in my next letter.)

            The trip here was amazing.  I couldn’t help contrasting it with the journey you and I and Inger—and then Hoss—made together.  The stagecoach went whizzing past landmarks that we’d strain our eyes for weeks, hoping to see.  (Remember Chimney Rock and how much it meant to me to finally reach it?)

            You know about the tornado from my letter to Hoss, but the trip was mostly uneventful, until just before I reached the Missouri River.  That’s where I learned about the Confederates burning the bridge over the Little Platte River.  I was frantic to get to St. Joseph then, to make certain that Josiah—Mr. Edwards says I should call him that, now that I’m a man—was all right and whether I’d be able to continue on or not.  Fortunately, he had thought ahead and had everything worked out.  It took some doing, but I made connections with the railroad past the bridge and was on my way again.

There was one incident on the train.  We were about halfway down the line when I saw riders coming toward us.  At first, I thought they were another Union patrol, as I’d seen soldiers riding along the railroad earlier, but they were Rebel raiders.  Thanks to Josiah’s warning, I had my gun with me and was able to help defend the train until Union soldiers arrived to drive off the attackers.  Frightening, but only for a few minutes.  I was beginning to think I’d never make it to New Haven, but I finally did—with not a single day to spare.  I was exhausted, but somehow I made it through two days of entrance exams, and it has all been worth it.

 

            There’d been no problem with that part of the letter.  Oh, it had been a little too stimulating to the boys when they heard about that attack on the train.  Little Joe had immediately said that he wanted to ride that train in Missouri and fight off bad men, but Ben had put a short end to that nonsense.  He’d been concerned, too, about Adam’s mention of tight finances.  Thankfully, the cattle he’d sold on the last drive had enabled him to send the boy a draft of credit to help with that, and since St. Joseph was now in Union hands again, he could send another with his next letter.

            What followed, however, what Adam had written for his father’s gaze alone, had unsettled him.

 

FOR YOU ONLY:

As happy as I am to be here, sometimes I still fear I’m doing the wrong thing.  I still feel I’m abandoning you, Pa, but I won’t say more about that, as we’ve been through it all before.  The only way I can validate your sacrifice is to get the most benefit possible from my time here, and I will.

Maybe it’s because of all I saw in Missouri, but it’s hard sometimes to think that it’s right to sit in a classroom, enjoying myself, when men my age—and some younger—are giving their lives for a cause in which I also believe.  Don’t worry, Pa; I remember my promise to you to stay out of the “eastern conflict,” and I’ll keep it.  That will be easy, as it lines up with my own desire.  It just seems selfish, somehow, but maybe my weariness is keeping me from thinking clearly.  Maybe I’ll feel better in the morning.  I guess I shouldn’t have poured out my heart like this and caused you unnecessary concern, but I can’t take the words off the paper, and I don’t have either the supplies or the time to start a new letter. 

Please don’t worry about me.  I am happy and healthy.  I miss you and the boys so much.  Give them both my love, and tell Little Joe I will write him soon.  I was going to put a short note in with this, but I knew the little fellow would feel left out if he didn’t get a letter all his own.  All my love to you, too, Pa.  I owe you everything.

Your grateful son,

Adam

 

Laying Adam’s words where he could see and refer to them, Ben began his own letter.  He wrote the easy part first, telling Adam how much they missed him, how much Hoss had enjoyed his letter and how eagerly Little Joe was looking forward to his and to the promised collection of rocks.  He thanked his son for being so thoughtful in selecting that remembrance of his trip for his brothers.  Then he wrote homey news of family and friends, including Hoss’s response to his remark about serving up Adam’s letter as dessert and Little Joe’s insistence on having it all.  Knowing that Adam was far enough away to keep the secret, he shared the good news of an upcoming birth on the Ponderosa.  Then he turned to more serious matters:

 

            My dearest boy, never fear that you should withhold from me any thought of your heart.  Though parted by thousands of miles, I am still your father and, as such, am intended to help carry such loads.  My shoulders are broad, Adam, and strong enough to share your concerns.

            I’m sure that you were much affected by what you experienced on the trip, and I can understand that you might feel drawn to the service of your country when you see others answering that call.  However, I believe you are wrong in referring to what you are doing as sitting in a classroom, enjoying yourself.  That is not what you are doing, my boy, just seeking your own pleasure; you are preparing yourself for the future beyond this terrible conflict that separates our country.  Remember, Adam, that your goal is to become a builder, and how greatly our country will need builders when this cruel war is over!  You are doing the right thing, and I hope you will no longer waste precious time second-guessing your decision.  Though it is hard to be parted from you, I know—I absolutely know—that you have made the right decision.

            Let us hear from you often.  As Hoss said, a letter from you rates higher than even an entire apple pie—with all of us.

            With a heart filled with love and longing,

            Pa

 

* * * * *

 

            Hoss began to dread coming home from school each day.  His little brother had always looked so happy to see him before, but now all Little Joe wanted to see was his letter from Adam and his special package of pretty rocks.  Though it was a little out of his way, Hoss checked the post office every day; but every day he had to disappoint his little brother.  Today would be no different.  There’d been a letter for Pa from Uncle John, back in Denver, but nothing from Adam.

            Little Joe scampered out to greet Hoss as soon as Hop Sing released him from the kitchen.  Seeing the envelope in his brother’s hand, he whooped, “It came!  It came!”

            Hoss bent down and hugged his little brother to his heart.  “No, punkin,” he said sadly, “it ain’t from Adam; it’s from Uncle John.”

            Little Joe broke away, and Hoss cringed as he saw a single tear trickle from the corner of one eye.  “Ah, don’t do that, punkin,” he begged.  “That letter’s comin’ soon, I promise you it is.”

            Little Joe shook his head wildly from side to side and turned and ran around the corner of the house.

            Hoss gave chase and quickly caught up with the shorter-legged child.  “Don’t you go runnin’ off,” he scolded as he pulled Little Joe into his arms again.

            “I ain’t; I’m just runnin’,” Little Joe said, “‘cause I just plain need to, Hoss.”

            Hoss stood up and held his brother by one hand.  “Yeah, I can understand how you might, but let’s run together, okay?”

            Joe used his free hand to wipe his sniffling nose and bobbed his head up and down.  “Yeah, let’s run together.”

            The two boys ran around the house and then the yard until they were breathless.  Hoss thought the exercise had pushed all thoughts of the missing letter from Little Joe’s mind until their father came home and the first thing from his brother’s mouth was the report that “that letter still ain’t come, Pa.”

            Ben lifted his youngest son and carried him to the chair beside the fireplace.  Sitting down, he held Little Joe in his lap and said, “I’m sorry, son.  It should have been here by now, except there has been some problem with mail getting through from the East.”

            “Yours did and Hoss’s did.  Even that’n from Uncle John,” Little Joe said through pouting lips.

            “Well, Uncle John’s didn’t have to come as far,” Ben explained.  “There’s been no disruption from Denver.”

            “Huh?” Joe asked, and Hoss looked confused, too.

            “No mail problems from Denver,” Ben said more simply, “but there were some further east.  Remember Adam’s letter to me, when he told about the problems he had getting to New Haven because a bridge had been destroyed?”

            “Yeah,” Hoss said.  “Mail might have trouble the same way, huh?”

            “I think so,” Ben said, stroking his youngest son’s unruly curls.  “The Enterprise said that mail was getting through now, but I’m sure it got backed up some.  I think that’s the explanation, boys.  The letter’s on its way . . . just delayed by war problems.  Try to keep trusting just a little longer, all right, Little Joe?”

            After frowning thoughtfully for a moment, Little Joe looked into his father’s face and said, “I’ll try, Pa . . . just a little longer.”

            Ben gave his son’s smooth cheek a kiss.  “That’s my boy.  Now, let’s see what news Uncle John has to share.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Still clad in his nightshirt, Little Joe lay sprawled across the foot of his father’s bed as Ben stowed a change of clothing and grooming necessities into a saddlebag.  “Why you gotta go, Pa?” the boy demanded.

            Ben fastened the saddlebag’s buckle.  “I can’t say no to the Governor, son.”

            “I can,” Little Joe declared stoutly as he scrabbled up to his knees.

            Laying a caressing hand on the child’s curls, Ben chuckled.  “You say no entirely too easily, little boy.”  He bent down to Little Joe’s level and looked into his eyes.  “It’s important that we keep up good relations with the Paiutes, son, and Governor Nye feels he needs the help of someone who knows them well.  I’m honored that he asked me to go along on this mission.  Do you understand?”

            Stubborn frown on his face, Little Joe shook his head from side to side.

            “I understand, Pa,” Ben’s other boy said quietly, “but I sure wish you didn’t have to go.”

            Ben crossed the room to place a hand on Hoss’s shoulder.  “I don’t enjoy leaving my boys, either, but this is important.  You’ll look after Little Joe for me?”

            “Sure, Pa.  Always do.”

            Ben gave the boy a hearty hug.  “That’s right; you always do.  I can always count on my good boy.”

            “Me, too, Pa,” Little Joe said, bouncing up.  “I can count—one . . . two . . . three.”

            Ben grinned.  “Not that kind of counting, sweetheart.”  He caught Little Joe in mid-bounce and held him close for a moment.  “Be a good boy for brother . . . and for Hop Sing.  Pa’ll be back in just a couple of days.”

            “Take me with you,” Little Joe pleaded.

            Ben smiled, remembering his first trip to the Paiute encampment.  He’d taken a very young Hoss, diapers and all, with him and Adam, but those days of innocence were gone.  Though the Pyramid Lake War was over and the Indians established on reservations, relations were still strained.  He expected no trouble on this trip, but he wouldn’t risk his child’s life on that assumption, not in these times.  “I can’t, Little Joe,” he said as he set the boy’s bare feet back on the bed.  “Be a brave boy for Pa now . . . please?”

            Reluctantly, Little Joe nodded.  As his father left the bedroom, he slid to the floor and followed in his wake, right behind Hoss.

            “Now, I’m a big enough boy to see myself off,” Ben chuckled when he noticed the parade behind him.  “Hoss, you help your brother get dressed and down to breakfast, please, and then get off to school on time.  Start the week right.”

            “Yes, sir, I will,” Hoss promised.  Taking Little Joe’s hand, he went as far as the head of the stairs, and they both waved until Ben disappeared through the front door.  “Come on, punkin,” he said then.  “Let’s get dressed and see what Hop Sing’s got that’s good to eat.”

 

* * * * *

 

            There was a pleasant crispness in the air that morning as Ben rode toward Washoe Lake, where he would meet the Governor’s party.  His spirits were soaring high enough to reach the fluffy white clouds drifting above.  Was it only two weeks ago that he’d decided his usefulness to the territory was finished, that he had no role to play in its development?  Now, in about an hour, he’d be riding at the Governor’s side on a special mission.  He still didn’t believe he should hold any regular office, for that would take too much time from his growing sons.  It felt wonderful, however, to discover that he could, in unofficial ways like this, influence the growth of Nevada, as well.

            As planned, he reached the lake early; and while his horse grazed, he walked the shore, reliving memories of gatherings here with family and friends.  We’ll have to make a point of having Hoss’s birthday party here, he mused.  The boy got short-changed last year, and I’ll not allow that again.

            Looking up, he saw enough dust on the horizon to herald the Governor’s arrival, evidently with a considerable entourage.  Maybe I shouldn’t flatter myself with his invitation, Ben chuckled.  Looks like half of Carson City came along for the parley.  When the caravan came closer, however, he saw that most of the dust was being raised by two wagons full of supplies.  It was the first thing he commented on after greeting the Governor.  “I’m glad to see that the government is sending food to our Paiute friends.  They need that sort of help with winter coming.”

            Governor Nye’s rueful smile looked more like a scowl.  “It isn’t food, Ben, and I doubt what’s in most of those crates will be much help in preparing for winter.  Apparently, the Federal Government has a very poor understanding of needs out here.”

            Ben was almost afraid to ask, but he did.  “What is it?”

            Nye shook his head apologetically.  “Hoops,” he grunted.

            Ben’s jaw dropped.  “Hoops?  Barrel hoops?”

            Nye pursed his lips.  “Barrel hoops would be an improvement, Ben.  No, what Washington, in its infinite wisdom, has sent me to deliver to our Paiute friends is the kind of hoops ladies wear beneath their dresses.”

            “You’re joking,” Ben gasped.

            The flabbergasted look on Ben’s face made Nye laugh.  “I wish I were . . . and I’m appointing you to come up with some way to explain this to the Paiutes.”

            “Oh, thanks!” Ben sputtered.  “I believe, Governor Nye, that you have confused me with Solomon.”

            The Governor gave Ben his most charming smile.  “I have the utmost confidence in you.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben had never felt more grateful for Paiute ritual than he did that afternoon as the pipe made its way around the circle of men.  He took a puff and again passed it to the man on his right.  How many circuits had it made now?  Four—or just three out of the traditional five?  He hoped it was only the third, so he’d have a little more time to think.  Not that he was sure it would help.  He’d wracked his brain every mile of the trail here to Pyramid Lake, but still didn’t know how he could explain those blasted hoops.  The Paiutes valued honesty, so maybe he should just put it to them straight: It’s like this, Winnemucca, the white leaders in Washington are a bunch of blathering idiots.  No, he could scarcely say that.  Gracious a man as he normally was, Governor Nye might yield to the temptation to string him up to the nearest tree on their way home!  But he couldn’t come up with some cock-and-bull lie, either.  Winnemucca’s daughters had lived among white people long enough to know exactly what those hoops were really used for.  Ben rubbed his crossed legs to keep from clinching his fists and wondered where the wisdom of Solomon was when a man needed it.  If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God . . . didn’t the Scripture say something like that?  I’m asking, God!

            He saw Winnemucca pass the pipe to the Governor, seated on his right.  Once more around, then; at least that much respite.  As his troubled gaze fell on the circular and open-topped structure behind the chief, an idea slowly started to take shape.  The ritual ended, and the Governor began to speak, telling the assembled chiefs that the white father in Washington had sent gifts to his friends, the Paiutes.  “The White Winnemucca will present them,” Nye said with a significant look at Ben.

            Ben stood slowly and motioned the soldiers forward with the first crate.  He ordered it opened for the chiefs’ inspection and was surprised to see that this crate, at least, contained something more useful than dress hoops.  “Wool blankets to keep your people warm through the cold winter nights, Winnemucca,” he said with relief.

            One by one the crates were opened and their contents described for the assembled Paiutes.  Some were useful, some not readily so, but Ben managed to find some explanation that satisfied the Indians.  The sixth crate contained the dreaded hoops.  Sending one last prayer winging heavenward, Ben took a deep breath.  “Winnemucca, you know I always speak the truth to my friend.”  He swallowed hard and continued.  “I am not sure what the white father intended you to do with these.  They are used by the women of our villages, and perhaps your women will find things to do with them that a man such as myself cannot think of.”  He lifted one hoop from the crate.  “I have thought of one thing, though.”  He pointed to the dwelling behind the chief, tracing its domed shape in the air and then ran his hand over the smooth curve of the hoop.  “Perhaps the curve of these hoops will be useful as a foundation for your karnees.  It is all I know to suggest, but I am sure that the wisdom of the Paiute will show you even better uses for these—these wonderful mechanisms.”

            Winnemucca took one of the “wonderful mechanisms” and began to stroke the wood as Ben had.  He still looked puzzled, but grunted acceptance of the gift.

            From across the circle the voice of Winnemucca’s nephew Numaga rang out.  “The trinkets of the white man are of little importance,” he said.  “What we must learn is why you build such a high fence through our land.”

            Ben now looked as confused as the chief examining the hoop.  “Fence?” he asked, looking to the Governor for enlightenment.  Clearly bewildered, the Governor shook his head.  “I know of no high fence on your land, Numaga,” Ben replied slowly.

            Numaga’s keen black eyes did not flinch.  “The White Winnemucca says he always speaks truth, but only the blind cannot see this fence.  Poles that stretch to the sky, tied with long ropes.  Which side must the Paiute stay on?   We do not wish war again, but we must know which side is ours or war may come.”

            Ben’s mind raced.  Poles that stretch to the sky . . . tied with long ropes . . . what on earth had the man seen?  Then it hit him, and he smiled in relief.  “It is not a fence, Numaga,” he said.  “It is a telegraph line.  It sends the words of the white men from one side of our country to the other.”

            The Paiutes all exchanged skeptical glances.

            Sensing their befuddlement, Ben tried again.  “It is like the Paiute signal fires that sent word of Captain Truckee’s death from hill to hill.  The ropes—they are called wires—carry news in a similar way.”

            Some nodded in polite recollection of the memorable event at which Ben had been present; others still shook their heads.  A signal fire could be seen, and all knew its meaning, but ropes to carry words?  It made no sense . . . but, then, many things about the white man made no sense. To the Paiutes’ minds, however, only one question mattered.  “Which side ours?” Winnemucca demanded.

            Governor Nye took over.  “The Government is grateful that you allow our telegraph poles to be planted on your land,” he said, “but they are not intended to restrict your movement in any way.  You may ride, hunt, do what you will on both sides, Chief Winnemucca.  Treat them as if they were not there.”

            Ben could tell that the Indians still didn’t understand the purpose of the “high fence,” but relief also was evident on their faces.  The Paiutes wanted peace as much as the white man, Ben realized, and though his contribution had been small, he felt warm satisfaction in the part he’d played this afternoon in keeping it.

 

* * * * *

 

            The hem of his nightshirt brushed his kneecap as Hoss Cartwright propped his elbows on the windowsill and gazed out at the dark sky.  Ma would have noticed that he needed new nightclothes, that the old ones were getting too short, but Pa didn’t take note of such things as quick.  Hoss hated to ask, ‘cause he knew Pa’d spent a heap of money on sendin’ Adam back East to school and had even had to borrow the goods to make his new school clothes from Aunt Nellie.  Nobody saw him under the sheets, so the nightshirt could wait . . . not much longer, if he kept growing, but a little while.  That wasn’t what was keeping him awake in the middle of the night.

            It was a pretty night, the kind he liked best, with the stars all twinkly and the air still enough to hear a bird twitter, except most of them had already taken off south for the winter.  The setting didn’t give him the usual sense of serenity tonight, though, and he knew why.  The house just didn’t feel right with Pa gone.  Hop Sing was right downstairs, if they needed anything, but at night, up here, it was just him and Little Joe, and the house felt mighty lonesome without Pa . . . and Adam . . . and Ma.

            A piercing cry knifed through the stillness.  Hoss jumped back and padded across the room and down the hall on bare feet, as if he’d been waiting for that cry to come.  Maybe he had.  There at the window he’d felt like he was waiting for something, but he hadn’t put words to what it was.  Now he knew.  Little Joe’d started having nightmares right after Ma died and then again when Adam left.  It had happened the night Pa went off to fight the fire, too; so, deep down, Hoss had known it could happen tonight—or anytime Pa was gone, ‘cause Little Joe was plumb scared of losing folks.  He felt the same himself, but he was bigger and handled it better.  At least, he tried.

            He raced into the next room and saw Little Joe sitting in the middle of his bed, wide-eyed and wailing.  Hoss climbed up behind him, and on bended knee he pulled his little brother back against his chest.  “Hush now,” he soothed.  “Ever’thing’s all right, little punkin.  You’re just havin’ a bad dream.”  He brushed the boy’s damp curls as he’d seen Pa do.  “Wanna tell brother ‘bout it?”

            “Paiutes!” the little boy cried, near hysteria.  “Scalpin’ Pa!”

            Hoss held the quivering little body even tighter.  “No such thing,” he said firmly.  “I ain’t never heard of a Paiute scalpin’ nobody, even when they was at war.”  He knew what had planted that fear in his little brother’s head.  It was all that fool talk after church yesterday about what was goin’ on in Arizona with the Apaches.  “I know there’s some injuns that do,” Hoss explained as calmly as he could over the anger he felt at people who’d let a little boy hear such talk, “but not the ones Pa went to see—not ever.”

            “Not ever?” Little Joe asked, leaning his head back to look up at his brother.

            “Not ever.”  Hoss’s voice was solid and sure.  “You just put that right out of your head.”

            “I don’t like Pa goin’ off,” Little Joe whimpered, tears trickling down his face.

            “Me, neither,” Hoss admitted, “but it’s gonna happen from time to time, so there ain’t no use cryin’ about it.”

            Little Joe responded with a fresh stream.

            “Aw, now,” Hoss said, hugging his brother close.  “Didn’t mean to make you feel worse.  What can brother do to make it better, huh?”

            Little Joe shook his head, as if to say that nothing could make him feel better.

            “How ‘bout I sing you a little ditty?” Hoss offered, casting desperately for an idea.

            “You can’t sing,” Little Joe sniffed as he shifted around to look directly at his brother.

            “Can, too.  Maybe not good as Adam, but good enough when it’s just you and me, I reckon.”  Unable to think of a song that fit the occasion, Hoss started to hum whatever notes came into his head and then he slowly put words to them.  “Whatcha gonna do when your tears run dry?” he crooned, slightly off key.  “Whatcha gonna do then, punkin pie?”  He held an imaginary pitcher over his eyes and mimicked a pouring motion.  “Gonna pour a little more water in?”  He shook his head in wild negation.  “Or gonna give in—and grin?”

            Little Joe laughed at the big, silly grin that spread across his brother’s face and clapped his hands.  “Sing it ‘gain, Hoss; sing it ‘gain.”

            Hoss obliged, complete with motions:

 

Whatcha gonna do when your tears run dry?

Whatcha gonna do then, punkin pie?

Gonna pour a little more water in?

Or gonna give in—and grin?

 

            When Little Joe demanded yet another repetition, Hoss shook his head.  “Nope.  That’s lullaby enough.  Bedtime now.”  Seeing his little brother start to pucker up again, he slid off the bed and, wrapping the younger boy in a light coverlet, lifted him into his arms.  “You can sleep with me,” he said. 

            Little Joe immediately settled.  “Bun-bun,” he said, hand stretching toward his stuffed rabbit.

            “And Barker,” Hoss agreed, with his free hand gathering up both the rabbit and the seal that Aunt Nelly had made for the little boy.  He carried his brother into his own room, put him into bed and handed him his cuddle critters.  Then he crawled in beside his brother, who immediately snuggled up against him and started to doze.  As Hoss drifted off himself, his last coherent thought was Shoulda done this to start with.  House don’t feel half so lonesome when we’re together.

 

* * * * *

 

            As he neared home after school the next day, Hoss had a big grin on his face.  Not only was Pa due home today, but he had something in his saddlebag guaranteed to add to the joy of that.  Rounding the final curve, he saw Little Joe jump up from the porch step, where he was seated.  Hoss immediately dismounted, so that he could better control both his horse and his little brother.

            However, Little Joe didn’t come running toward him, as usual.  Instead, the light in his eyes faded and his chin drooped.  “I thought you was Pa,” he said.

            Leading Charcoal, Hoss walked over to his brother.  “Ain’t Pa back yet?” he asked, fret lines furrowing his forehead.  “I thought for sure he would be.”

            Little Joe shook his head.  “You real sure Paiutes don’t take scalps?”  He looked up, and Hoss could see again the fear that had been in his brother’s eyes the previous night.

            “I’m real sure, punkin.”  Hoss wrapped Charcoal’s reins around the hitching rail.  Ordinarily, the first thing he did when he came home each afternoon was to tend to his horse’s needs, but he thought Pa would understand why he let the animal wait today, ‘cause another little critter needed tending even more.  He opened his saddlebag and took out an envelope.  He put his arm around his brother and led him back to the porch.  “Pa’s just runnin’ late—maybe had some extra parleyin’ to do with the Paiutes, but he’ll be home soon.  And look here what I got for you.”  He waved the envelope.

            Little Joe’s eyes widened.  “Is it . . . mine?” he asked hesitantly.

            “Sure is.  Want me to open it and read it for you?”

            “Yeah!”

            With his pocketknife Hoss carefully slit the envelope and drew out the single sheet.  “Dear Little Joe,” he began:

 

            I told a lot about my trip in the letters to Pa and Hoss, but there was one place we passed that made me think of you.  Just past Courthouse Rock we crossed a small creek called the Little Punkin.  Now, how do you suppose they named a creek after you when you’d never been there?  Isn’t that funny?

 

 

            Little Joe giggled.  “My creek,” he chirped.  “All mine.”

            Hoss grinned.  “Sure sounds like it.  Now, why you reckon there ain’t a creek called the Little Hoss?”

            “Big Hoss,” Little Joe tittered.

            Hoss laughed.  “Yeah, I reckon it ought to be, at that.”  He again read from the letter:

 

You’ll probably think it’s funny, too, that I took a nap this afternoon, just like a certain baby brother of mine.  I know you don’t like them, but I really needed one, because it was hard to sleep in a stagecoach, and I couldn’t rest when I got here, either, because I had tests to take.

 

            “Bad ole tests,” Little Joe said with a scowl, “to wear Adam out.”

            “Tests wear me out, too,” Hoss agreed.  He scanned ahead in the letter and chuckled.  “This is more like it.”

 

            We met a black man named Candy Sam, who sells candy to students here.  He’s blind—that means his eyes don’t work—but he can make change just as if he could see.  His fingers see for him.  Jamie and I bought some divinity, and it was really good.  I think Candy Sam will get plenty of our business!

 

            “He’d get plenty of mine, too,” Hoss said with a lick of his lips.

            “Yeah.  Maybe Pa’ll bring us some candy,” Little Joe suggested.

            “From the Paiute camp?”  Hoss made a face.  “Naw, they just suck on tule shoots for sweetening.  It ain’t too good, punkin.”

            “Oh.  That all Adam says?”

            “Just a little bit more.”  Hoss finished the letter:

 

            It will soon be time for supper, so I will say good-bye until next time, and I’ll mail this on our way to the meal.  I will be sending a gift from the trail at the same time.  I hope you enjoy it.

 

            Your big brother,

            Adam

           

            “Our rocks!” Little Joe cried.  “Did they come, too?”

            “In the saddlebags,” Hoss said as he folded the letter and put it back in the envelope.  “We’ll get ‘em out later, but first I gotta stable Charcoal.  Poor pony’s waited long enough.”

            Little Joe looked disappointed, but he solemnly nodded his head.  Young as he was, he already understood Pa’s feelings about keeping a horse waiting for proper care.

 

* * * * *

 

            Little Joe scampered at his brother’s side as Hoss carried the pail of milk, fresh from the cow, out of the barn.  Hearing hooves coming up the road that led around the barn, Joe sprang forward happily.

            Hoss dropped the pail of milk and chased down his brother, just as their father rode into the yard.  “Doggone you,” he scolded as he grabbed Little Joe’s hand, pulling him back from the horse’s path just in time.  “Look what you gone and made me do.”  He pointed at the pail, lying on its side, milk draining into the dirt.

            “Sorry,” Little Joe muttered, but he pulled against Hoss’s restraint, crying, “Pa!”             Ben, who had reined in and dismounted as soon as he saw his little son rushing toward him, opened his arms wide.  “Let him come, Hoss.”

            Hoss released his brother and then stalked over to the tipped pail and set it upright.  “It’s ‘most all spilt,” he grumbled.  Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up to see his father, holding Little Joe in one arm while reaching out to him with the other.  He moved into the warm embrace.

            “It’s all right, son,” his father said.  “Your little brother’s more important than any amount of spilled milk.  Thank you for watching out for him.”

            Hoss nodded.  “Proud to, Pa, but he oughta know better by now.”

            “Yes, he should,” Ben said, turning grave eyes on his youngest.  “What should you know by now, Little Joe?” he asked, keeping his voice gentle.

            Little Joe hung his head.  “Don’t run at horses.”  He glanced up with brimming eyes.  “But I missed you, Pa.”

            Ben’s parental resolve melted.  “Pa missed you, too, baby—and you, Hoss.”

            “You was kind of later than I ‘pected, Pa,” Hoss said.

            Ben nodded.  “We didn’t get off as early as I expected this morning.  The Governor had some extra talking to do with Winnemucca.”  He felt his hat falling back from his head and made an unsuccessful grab for it.

            “Oops,” murmured Little Joe.

            “What are you doing, son?” Ben asked.

            “Just checkin’,” the boy said.  “You got hair.”  He looked relieved.

            “Well, of course, I have hair,” Ben chuckled.  “A little grayer, thanks to you, but it hasn’t fallen out yet.”

            “I think he was more afeared it might’ve got lifted, Pa,” Hoss explained.  “Remember all that talk about the Apaches after church?”

            “Oh.”  Ben held his little son closer.  “I wasn’t with the Apaches, Little Joe,” he said.  “The Paiutes are our friends and would never hurt me, son.  There’s no need for you to fear when I’m with them.”

            “That’s what I told him.”

            Ben gave Hoss a nod of approval.  “That’s right.  And you can always trust your big brother, Little Joe.”

            “Guess what, Pa!” Little Joe exclaimed.  “I got a letter!”

            Ben’s eyes sparkled.  “From Adam?  That’s wonderful, Little Joe!”

            “And pretty rocks, too!  Wanna see?”

            “I surely do.”  Ben set the boy down.  “Run get them for me.”  As Little Joe ran toward the house, Ben smiled at Hoss.  “That’s a relief.  I was afraid that letter had gotten lost in the mail.  I didn’t want to say that to Little Joe, but it’s a risk with war-torn country between us and Adam.”

            “I sure was glad to see it at the post office this afternoon,” Hoss agreed.  “I didn’t know how I was gonna keep ‘splainin’ it to the little feller.”

            Ben ran a tender hand through his son’s wheaten hair.  “Oh, Hoss, that’s not your job; that’s mine.”

            “Mine, too,” Hoss insisted.  “I got to be a good big brother to Little Joe, like Adam always was to me.”

            Ben patted his head.  “That’s right—and you are.  Any problems I should know about, while I was gone?”

            Hoss had already decided not to mention Little Joe’s nightmares.  If Pa knew that, he’d most likely feel he shouldn’t have gone with the Governor, and Hoss figured it was important for Pa to do that kind of thing.  “Nary a one,” he started to say; then he faltered.  “Well, just one little un.  Joe liked my yellow quartz better than his, ‘cause it was smoother, so I just traded with him, and then he was happy.”

            Ben pulled the boy into a one-armed embrace.  “Hoss, I think you’ve got this big brothering down just about pat.”

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

            The Government really did send the Paiutes a collection of women’s dress hoops with James Nye, and according to the San Francisco Bulletin, one of their chiefs came into Carson to inquire about the high fence and which side belonged to the Indians.

 

CHAPTER SIX

Unwanted Offer

 

            The last half of October flew by, like Hermes on his winged feet.  Ben smiled to himself as that comparison came to his thoughts, for it seemed like something his bookish son back East might have said.  He found his mind working more like Adam’s these days, a way to keep the boy closer, he supposed.  The completion of the transcontinental telegraph near the close of the month made the distance between them seem shorter, although he doubted that there would be need for either of them to send an expensive telegram to the other.  Expense hadn’t bothered the territorial legislature, however, when it was accorded the privilege of sending the first telegram east over the completed wire.  Like true politicians, the legislators had waxed verbose:

 

Resolved by the council, the house concurring, that:

Whereas, the privilege of forwarding the first telegraphic message across the continent, has been given to the legislature of Nevada Territory, therefore be it,

Resolved, that the said communication shall consist of the following language, viz:

Nevada Territory, through her first legislative assembly, to the president and people of the United States—

Greeting:

Nevada for the Union, ever true and loyal!  The last born of the nation will be the last to desert the flag!  Our aid, to the extent of our ability, can be relied upon to crush the rebellion.

 

While Ben approved the patriotism of that pledge of loyalty, he didn’t see his territory offering much real aid to the war effort.  In money, maybe; in men, unlikely.  The telegraph, on the other hand, would prove an invaluable aid in providing up-to-date news of the war, but the first news transmitted west—in answer to the question, “How goes the war?”—was not encouraging.  The Union had sustained yet another defeat at Ball’s Bluff, this time with 1,900 Northern casualties and, Ben assumed, about that many, more or less, from the South.  As he bowed his head in church the following Sunday, he thanked God that both his family here in Nevada and his son in Connecticut were secure from such devastation.

            With the final amen of the benediction, Ben rose from his seat and began to herd his sons down the aisle behind the Thomases, who were with them today at the Washoe City church and would take dinner at the Ponderosa.  His intentions of getting out quickly were blocked, quite literally, when Nelly stopped at the exit to tell the Reverend Bennett how much she had enjoyed the sermon.

            “Ben, oh, Ben,” called a sharp voice behind him.  “Ben Cartwright!”

            Ben sighed, but quickly disguised his frustration at being trapped by the widow Hunter.  “Good morning, Elvira,” he said, “or I suppose ‘good afternoon’ would be more appropriate, given the hour.”

            Elvira Hunter chuckled.  “My, yes, the good reverend did run a mite overlong, didn’t he?” she observed in a conspiratorial whisper.

            “I found his message most edifying,” Ben said.

            “Oh, to be sure,” she said quickly, “and goodness knows, there’s heathen enough in this territory to call for even longer sermons.  I just wanted to see how you and yours were gettin’ along these days.”  She patted Little Joe’s curly head.  “Can’t be easy, runnin’ a ranch and raisin’ two boys.”

            Ben felt somewhat perturbed that she’d omitted his oldest son, but magnanimously concluded that she might have assumed that one was already raised.  “Oh, we manage,” he said, for he was catching the drift of this conversation and didn’t care to encourage it.

            “I’m sure,” Elvira said, not sounding the least bit certain.  “I just wanted to remind you that we’re close enough neighbors for you to call on me, any time you need”—she veiled her eyes demurely—“a woman’s touch with these younguns.”

            Ben felt outraged at the thought of any woman taking the place of his beloved Marie, but tried to give Elvira Hunter the benefit of the doubt as simply a concerned neighbor.

            Nelly Thomas was far from that generous.  “She’s on the prowl for a man,” the woman who was like a sister to Ben snorted as they drove away.  “You be on your guard, Ben Cartwright.”

            “I assure you I have no interest in Elvira Hunter,” Ben said, glancing over his shoulder to the back seat of the surrey, where Clyde, Nelly and young Inger were sitting.

            “She ‘pears to have plenty in you,” Clyde snickered.

            “Ma’s right, Uncle Ben,” Billy, who was riding his horse beside the surrey, chimed in.  “Best keep your guard up or you’ll find yourself hitched before you know it.”

            “Hitched?  To her?  Pa, you wouldn’t!” Hoss protested.

            “No, I wouldn’t—and that’s the end of this subject!” Ben growled.

            “Wouldn’t what?” Little Joe asked.

            “Never you mind, boy.”  Seeing the child shrink back from his irritated tone, Ben leaned over to drop a kiss on the curly head and softened his voice.  “Nothing for you to worry about, Little Joe.  Just grownup nonsense.”

            “I like nonsense,” Little Joe said, bright smile returning.

            “Don’t we just know it!” Clyde cackled.

 

* * * * *

 

            Toward the middle of that Sunday afternoon everyone decided to indulge in a second piece of pie before the Thomases headed back to Carson City.  Billy was helping Hop Sing corral the three youngsters in the kitchen, an appropriate place for him, his parents had teased, saying he was little more than an overgrown youngster himself.  Ben had chuckled, but assured Billy that he knew a man when he saw one.

            “Know which side your bread’s buttered on, you mean,” Clyde had cackled, referring to the fact that Billy would be staying over at the Ponderosa for a few days to help with the haying.

            The pie was about half consumed when someone knocked on the door.  Hop Sing answered and ushered a man and woman into the room.  With a wide smile on his face, Ben rose to meet them.  “Eilley, Sandy,” he called.  “It’s good to see you.”

            “That it is,” Nelly added.  “We don’t see near enough of you folks, now that you’re livin’ in Gold Hill.”  Her arms automatically reached for the baby girl in Eilley’s arms.

            Eilley didn’t look nearly as glad to see Nelly as Nelly to see her, but she quickly schooled her face to cordial courtesy.  “Yes, indeed!” she said as she reluctantly surrendered her child to the other woman.  “How’ve you been, Mrs. Thomas?”

            Nelly clucked her tongue.  “Now, it’s Nelly to old friends.”

            “Of course,” Eilley said, but the condescending way she said it made Nelly frown.

            The frown fled, however, as Nelly gazed down at the baby, who was just waking.  “My, isn’t she a beauty?” she cooed.  “Eyes like wild violets.”

            Eilley warmed at the compliment.  “Oh, yes, and such a joy!  Perfectly formed and putting on weight just as she ought.”

            Nelly nodded compassionately, remembering that Eilley’s first child, a sickly boy, had passed away last summer, a day shy of being two months old.  Having experienced both the loss of a son and the joy of a daughter born thereafter herself, she could readily relate to the other woman’s present contentment.

            “Hop Sing, is there any of that wonderful blackberry pie left?” Ben asked as he directed Sandy to the blue chair that sat at right angle to the settee where he led Eilley.

            “Little bit left, Mr. Ben,” the cook said with a smile.  “Just enough.”

            “Oh, my, I shouldn’t,” the plumpish Eilley demurred.

            “Why, of course, you should,” Ben insisted.

            “I’ll polish off whatever you don’t eat,” her husband offered.

            “Oh, Sandy,” she chided.  “These folks’ll think I never feed you.”

            “Not at all,” Ben assured her congenially.  “A long drive like the one you’ve just made works up a man’s appetite, that’s all.”

            “Yah, sure does,” Sandy agreed spiritedly.  He greeted the arrival of blackberry pie and coffee with even greater enthusiasm.  “Long time since I eat anything this good,” he said, wiping a dribble of blackberry juice from his chin with the back of his hand.

            “Delicious,” his wife concurred, daintily dabbing her mouth after each bite.  “I wish I could send our cook to your Chinaman for lessons.”

            Tickling the baby under the chin, Nelly chuckled.  “Hop Sing puts together a right fine feed, I must admit, but I brought the pie.”

            “Oh.”  Eilley looked nonplussed.  “Well, then, that explains it.”

            “We’re always appreciative of Nelly’s contributions to any meal,” Ben said with a wink at Sandy, who was clearly enjoying his wife’s discomfiture.

            “Any news over to Gold Hill?” Clyde asked, hoping to steer the conversation to a more interesting topic than compliments to his wife’s cooking, much as he enjoyed the fruits of her labors.

            “Biggest news is the Chollar Mine falling in,” Sandy said, “but maybe you heard that already.”

            Clyde nodded.  “Read about it in the Enterprise.  Sounded like a pretty severe cave-in.”

            “Dreadful,” Eilley said.  “Just up and swallowed a two-story building above it—and the racket!  In the middle of the night, too.”

            “Yah, it was loud,” Sandy said.

            “Anyone hurt?” Ben asked.

            “By a miracle, no,” Eilley replied.  “Bein’ eleven at night, the grocery was closed, of course, and the bookkeeper who lived on the second floor said his dog woke him up, scratchin’ and whinin’ to be took for a walk.  Reckon he’s countin’ his blessings that he obliged the critter.”

            “Cave-in happened while they was out,” Sandy added.

            “That young man does have reason to count his blessings,” Nelly said, “and I hope he has the sense to do it.”

            “Yes . . . well . . .”  Eilley glanced back at the grandfather’s clock near the door.

            “Now, you’re not going to eat and run, are you?” Ben scolded, a twinkle in his eye.  “It’s too long a trip for so short a visit.”

            “Well”—she looked awkwardly at the Thomases—“we were hoping to talk with you, Ben.”

            “I hope you’re not wanting your land back,” Ben said.  “I’ve got a good long lease on it, if you recall.”

            “Oh, no, no,” she said, biting her lower lip as she again glanced at the other guests.

            Clyde caught the hint and stood up.  “Reckon it’s time we started back, else we’ll be drivin’ after dark.”

            “Well, now, Clyde,” Nelly said with a suspicious cast of her eye at the other woman in the room, “if you’re frettin’ over that, I reckon we could stay over, just this once.”

            Clyde’s look of astonishment was exceeded only by Eilley’s expression of horror.  She relaxed, however, when Clyde exploded, “Have you lost your senses, woman?  If you don’t have work to do tomorrow, I do!  Now, get your gear together, so we can head out.”

            “Gear,” Nelly sputtered as she reluctantly stood and handed the baby back to its mother.  “A fine way to talk about your own daughter!”

            Ben laughed.  “That’s right, Clyde.  I’m sure Sandy would never speak of little Teresa here that way.”

            “Not in front of her mother, for sure,” Sandy guffawed.

            Amidst the men’s merriment Nelly marched huffily to the kitchen to collect Inger, who was trailed back into the great room by the Cartwright boys and Billy.  Minor pandemonium ensued for a few minutes as farewell hugs and kisses and promises to see each other again soon were exchanged all around.  As her family moved across the yard to the buggy, Nelly pulled Billy aside.  “Stick close in there,” she ordered.  “Something’s up and I want to know what it is.”

            Billy sported an impish grin.  “Why, Ma, I never figured you’d want me to be a spy when I growed up.”

            She swatted his arm.  “None of your smart talk!  That woman’s up to something; you keep an eye on her.”

            “Oh, yes, ma’am,” Billy snickered.  “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s keepin’ an eye on women.”

            “Ooh!”  With a gusty exhale of exasperation, Nelly stalked to the buggy and got in, but as they drove away, she kept a concerned watch over her shoulder until the Ponderosa ranch house was out of sight.

            Inside, Little Joe had wandered over to the visitors, drawn especially to the infant gurgling in Eilley’s lap.  “She’s a baby,” he informed the doting mother.  “I’m not; I’m a big boy.”

            Eilley beamed at the child as she stroked his smooth cheek.  “That you are, and such a handsome, bright little fellow, too.”

            Little Joe patted Teresa’s back.  “Does she cry much?  I like babies, but not when they cry.”

            “Oh, no, she’s a happy girl,” Eilley said with a smile.  “I’m sure you and Teresa will get along together just fine.”

            When Ben, Billy and Hoss came back in from saying their farewells to the Thomases, Hoss perched on the settee at Eilley’s side.  “Howdy,” he offered.

            “Oh . . . hello, child,” Eilley said absently as she continued to drink in the interaction between the two younger children with satisfied eyes.

            The men discussed territorial affairs for a while, but soon all that could be said on that subject had been said, and a blanket of silence seemed to fall over the room.  “You said there was something you wanted to talk to me about?” Ben invited.

            Eilley glanced uneasily at Billy.  “Well, yes, but . . . well, perhaps, this young man would like to take the children out for a romp while we talk?”

            When Billy didn’t appear disposed to volunteer, Ben cleared his throat.  “Would you mind, son?” he asked.  “I’m sure the boys—and possibly you, as well—would find a business discussion uninteresting.”

            Billy gave his adopted uncle a cunning grin.  “Oh, I’d be interested—and Ma even more.  I can take a hint, though.  Don’t mind wrastlin’ the boys, but I’m no hand with babies.”

            “Oh, no,” Eilley said quickly.  “She’ll be just fine here with me.”  As if she’d ever trust her precious Teresa Fortunatus to that red-headed lout—the very idea!

            Billy gathered up both Hoss and Little Joe, who were eager to play outdoors awhile before the autumn air grew too cold.  An awkward silence again descended over those remaining in the room.  Ben shifted uncomfortably in his armchair and finally turned to Sandy with a shrug.

            “It’s woman’s business,” Sandy muttered, and with a roll of his eyes, Ben looked back toward Eilley.

            “Now, that’s not so, Sandy!” his wife protested.  “We both agreed”—she bit her lip and composed herself.  “Ben,” she began again, “I want you to know how much I sympathize with you in the loss of your wife.  I—I’ve had a loss of my own this last year, and I know how hard it is.”

            Ben swallowed the rising lump in his throat.  “Yes,” he finally said.  “Marie and I both were saddened to hear of the death of your little boy.  She lost a son once herself—from her first marriage—so she understood better than most what that pain was like.”

            With a pudgy pinky Eilley dabbed at the corner of her left eye.  “She . . . never mentioned that, but she spoke so kindly when John Jasper passed away that—well, never mind.  I didn’t come here for sympathy.”

            Ben dearly wanted to ask what she had come for, but good manners prevented him.

            After another moment of silence, Eilley took a deep breath and said, “I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you, being both father and mother to your little lad.”

            “We manage,” Ben said quietly, realizing with some chagrin that he’d already said those same words once this afternoon.  There were times, he knew, when he had managed very ill, but he was trying his best now to be a true father—and mother, when needed—to all his sons.  That everyone in his acquaintance seemed to question his fitness to do so was decidedly disconcerting.

            “Oh, I’m sure,” Eilley said, “but I do think that it’s best for a child to be raised by both a father and a mother, don’t you?”

            “Perhaps,” Ben said cautiously.  He had a sudden horror that Eilley was about to propose some friend or relative as a prospective bride.  Then, with rising apprehension, it occurred to him that she might even be applying for the position herself.  In her faith polygyny was more common than polyandry, but it was not unheard of for a Mormon woman to have more than one husband, and that notion would certainly explain Sandy’s evident discomfort.  “Marrying again is not something I’m ready to consider yet,” he said bluntly, deciding that it was best to nip any such suggestion in the bud, “so I guess I’ll just have to muddle along alone.”

            Eilley’s face flushed crimson.  “Oh, no, Ben!  I wasn’t suggesting . . . I mean . . . oh, dear!”

            “Spit it out, woman!” Sandy snapped, striking his knee with his fist.  “You’re driving Ben and me both daft with this blathering.”

            “Oh, honestly, Sandy,” she sputtered.  “It’s a delicate matter, and I—well, I suppose it might be best to say it straight out.  It’s about the child, Ben.”

            “The child?”  Ben shook his head in continuing confusion.  Slowly, comprehension dawned.  “My child?” he asked hesitantly; then his spine stiffened and he demanded, “Which one?”

            Eilley uttered a nervous laugh.  “Why, the youngest, of course.  The other boy is half-grown, but think what a blessing it would be to your little one—to everyone, in fact—if we were to adopt him.”

            Ben erupted out of his chair.  “Adopt him?  You think I’d turn over my own flesh and blood to someone else to raise?”

            “Why not,” Eilley pressed, leaning forward, “if it’s for the child’s own good?”  Ignoring Ben’s wildly shaking head, she plunged ahead.  “With our mine turning out silver faster than we can spend it, we can offer him so much, Ben: food, clothing, playthings, the best education, everything money can buy, and, of course, a loving home with two doting parents.”  Tears misted her eyes as she continued, “It would be like having my own sweet son back again, and while your boy is a little older than Johnny would have been, he’ll still make a wonderful older brother for Teresa, and it would be so much easier on you, too, if—”

            “Please stop,” Ben interrupted, his face anguished.  “I appreciate your kindly intended suggestion, but I cannot consider it.  I am not a rich man; no doubt I will never be able to give Joseph all the advantages a silver baron can afford, but I am convinced that no one can offer him greater love.  I’ve made many mistakes as a father, but this is one I refuse to make: I will not give my child away, not for what others may see as his benefit and certainly not to make my life easier.”  Seeing Eilley’s crestfallen face, he softened his voice.  “Surely, you, who have lost a son yourself, can understand how I would feel if I were to lose mine.”

            “Well, yes,” Eilley murmured, wringing her hands, “but—”

            “Yah, sure we can,” Sandy said, rising abruptly.  “I told you this was foolishness, Eilley.”  He moved toward the credenza and picked up his hat.  Fumbling it in his hands, he looked sheepishly at his host.  “Forgive her, Ben.  She meant well, but this was poorly done.”

            “Of course,” Ben said perfunctorily.  Normally, he would, at least, have said that there was no need to rush off, but today he couldn’t wait to see the back of these visitors.

            Eilley rose slowly.  “I’m afraid we’ve offended you, Ben.”

            “No, not at all,” Ben assured her, hoping that he wasn’t stretching the truth too far.  “As I said, I know it was kindly intended.”  That much he was determined to believe; nonetheless, he was finding it enormously difficult to keep his emotions in check long enough for the Bowers to leave.

            Once their buggy had disappeared, Billy Thomas skittered over with the two youngsters at his heels.  “What’d she want?” he asked with eager curiosity.

            Ben spun on his heels and threw the full brunt of his anger on the young man’s hapless red head.  “What she’ll never get!” he shouted.  “How could she . . . how could anyone?” he sputtered.  “I may not be all I should be as a father, but—”

            “Who says so?” Billy demanded.  “Her?  Is that what she wanted, to take you to task for a poor father?”

            “That ain’t so!” Hoss hollered, his reddening cheeks puffing with outrage.  “You’re the best, Pa!”

            “The best!” Little Joe chimed in.

            Ben caught the child up in his arms and hugged him close.

            “Pa, you’s squeezin’ too tight,” the four-year-old protested.

            With an effort Ben relaxed his arms.  “I’m sorry, precious,” he whispered.  “Pa doesn’t mean to squeeze too tight.”

            “Okay,” Little Joe said, content now to rest his head on his father’s broad shoulder.

            Billy caught sight of a tear trickling down Ben’s cheek, and putting that together with his tenacious grip on his little boy, intuitively knew what the Bowers woman had been after.  “Oh, lands,” he gasped.  Wait’ll Ma hears this!  Then he placed a supportive hand against the older man’s back.  “Don’t never let her sway you to that, Uncle Ben.  You’re the best father I know, second only to my own—and sometimes I wonder about him.”

            He said the final phrase with a wink and a wicked grin that made Ben smile despite the emotions gripping him so intensely.  “I’ll do you a favor and not repeat that to your father, young man,” Ben chuckled.

            “Obliged,” Billy said, grin widening.  “Want me to romp with the boys some more?”

            Ben shook his head.  “No, I’m going to reserve that privilege for myself this afternoon.”  He set Little Joe down and pointed to a tall pine across the yard.  “Run to that tree, Little Joe, and you, too, Hoss.  Let’s see if you can beat Pa in a race.”

            “I can!” Little Joe declared and took off.  Ben let both boys get a sizable lead and then slow-trotted after them, his eyes shining with renewed love and determination.

 

* * * * *

 

            Late that night, however, the troubling questions that Ben had evaded all evening kept him restless in his solitary bed.  Was he really doing right by his son—by either of them, for that matter—in letting him grow up without a mother’s love?  His mind drifted back to the day a lonely Adam’s life had been transformed by gentle Inger’s loving touch and remembered as if it were yesterday how Hoss had soaked in Marie’s love like a thirsty sponge.  Did his youngest not need and deserve a mother’s love as much as either of his brothers?  How could he, rough man of the frontier that he was, hope to provide that sort of nurture for the boy?

            He raked his fingers through his disheveled hair.  He’d been incensed by Eilley’s suggestion, however well meant, but scarcely less odious had been Elvira Hunter’s hints at sharing his bed.  His parenting called into question twice in one day!  And on Sunday, to boot, when a man was most drawn to considering his ways.  Was God trying to tell him something?  Was he so unfit to be a single father that everyone but him saw it?  Or were these women simply opportunists, eager to satisfy their own needs, without real regard for his or those of his sons?  He chose to believe the latter, but agonized, hour upon sleepless hour, over the former.

            Give Little Joe up?  Separate the child not only from his only living parent, but from the brothers who adored him?  Unthinkable!  Ben smiled for a moment as he recalled Little Joe’s frequent assertion, “We needs us.”  We do, indeed, he decided.  No, separation would do them all irreparable harm, so adoption was clearly out of the question.

            Remarriage, then?  Not to the widow Hunter, of course.  Oh, he’d heard of instances where marriages of convenience had blossomed into true love, but having known genuine passion and deep commitment with three wonderful women, he could not imagine a union in which those qualities were missing.  Would he find another woman to compare with Elizabeth, Inger and Marie?  Impossible! his heart cried, but he’d thought that before and been proven wrong twice.

            Smiling sadly, he touched the vacant pillow beside him.  Months now since golden-haired Marie had lain there with him, yet his heart still wrenched with every fleeting memory of what they had shared.  Marry again?  Maybe someday, he conceded without genuine belief, but not now—not while all I yearn for is to twine your silken tresses around my fingers and to taste the sweet honey of your lips.  Burying his face in her pillow as he once had pressed it into her rose-scented bosom, he wept—for what had been and seemed likely never to be again.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben waited with growing expectation for the theater curtain to rise.  After a long, hard week of haying, second only to bookwork on his list of hated chores, he felt he had earned this reward, and he had insisted that the Thomases be his guests for the Saturday matinee appearance of renowned Shakespearean actor James Stark.  Originally, he had hoped to leave Little Joe with Sally Martin, but with Mark Wentworth’s regiment due to leave the territory any day, she had been reluctant to share a last chance to be with her betrothed.  Then Billy had offered to look after both Little Joe and his sister Inger, saying, “Don’t worry, Uncle Ben.  I’ll guard him with my life.”

            “See that you do!” Nelly had snapped, and the significant glances exchanged between mother and son told Ben that the latest gossip had been transmitted and that Nelly was as furious as only an adopted aunt could be at the notion of Sandy and Eilley Bowers taking off with her little Sugarfoot.

            In the darkness of the theater, Clyde leaned over to whisper in Ben’s ear, “Ain’t so sure me and this Shakespeare feller will get along too well.  Kinda for educated folks, ain’t he?”

            Ben shrugged.  “He’ll use some words we’re not familiar with, because English has changed since his day, but I’ve always found that the action on the stage helps me make sense of the dialogue.  Just concentrate on that, Clyde, and don’t worry about what you’re supposed to be getting out of it.  Just enjoy yourself.”  He smiled down at his young son.  “Same advice for you, Hoss.”  He’d been somewhat concerned about bringing the boy to this particular production.  Hoss had always loved going to the theater, since seeing that first production of Pocahontas, but tonight’s offering was King Lear, deep waters indeed for an eleven-year-old.  Still, Hoss had worked as hard as anyone at the hated haying, and he couldn’t deny the boy the same reward.

            “Sure, Pa,” Hoss said, eyes alight with anticipation.  “I’ll just mind what they do and not what they say.”

            Giving the boy’s light hair an affectionate rumple, Ben chuckled.  “That’s not quite what I said.  Let one help you with the other, son; that’s what I meant.”  He had little hope that Hoss would do more than endure Shakespeare’s play, but since the scheduled afterpiece was a comedy, he should enjoy that, at least, and his enjoying dinner afterwards at the finest restaurant Virginia City could boast was a given.

            A finely proportioned man in a frock coat and cravat stepped through the curtain and addressed the audience.  “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said and as he spotted the few women scattered across the hall, added, “and especially you ladies who have graced us with your presence tonight.”

            Nelly blushed as if the compliment had been addressed specifically to her.  Given the small number of ladies in the audience, it wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion, Ben thought with a smile.

            “I must apologize to you all for the quality of our production tonight,” the man continued after introducing himself as James Stark.  “Snow in the mountains has prevented our costumes from arriving, but we have done our best to provide the actors with suitable apparel locally.”  He smiled puckishly, inviting his hearers to share the humor with him as he added, “Surprisingly few of your shops carry robes designed for ancient British kings and maidens.”  When the laughter died down, he concluded, “We will, however, do our best to provide you with an evening of entertainment that will meet your expectations in every other way.  To that end, I now offer you an additional recitation before the drama begins.”

            He raised his head and stood taller, emphasizing his imposing carriage, and began to recite “The Battle of Bunker Hill.”  When he finished, no one applauded with greater enthusiasm than Hoss, for he’d been studying the American Revolution in school and Stark’s powerful delivery had brought the battle to life for him.  No longer would Bunker Hill be only a list of names and dates to memorize.  The people involved had become real, and he knew he’d remember them the same way he remembered anyone he met in the territory.  For once, Hoss felt confident of doing well on his next history test.

            After a brief intermission, the main production began.  Ben had seen James Stark perform in California, so he couldn’t help contrasting the amateurish costumes on stage today with those he’d seen before.  Once the actor began to speak, however, nothing mattered but his deep, resonant voice with its subtle interpretation of emotion.

            Hoss didn’t even recognize the white-bearded King Lear as the same man who had earlier recited the poem.  At first, he didn’t understand what the men on stage were talking about, but he leaned forward when the girls started to tell how much they loved their father.  The first two could sling words together fancier than Adam, but Hoss’s sensitive spirit went out to the youngest when she said, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.”  He had the same problem!  He wanted to tell Pa and Adam and Little Joe how much he loved them, but the right words just wouldn’t come.  He thought back to what had happened Sunday, when that Bowers lady had made Pa feel like he wasn’t a good father.  He’d wanted then and there to tell Pa everything that was in his heart, but all he’d been able to come up with was “You’re the best!”  It was true, but it wasn’t enough.  Maybe that wasn’t his fault, though.  Maybe there just plain weren’t words enough in the whole blame dictionary to tell what a great father Pa was.  Hoss sensed that that was what Cordelia felt, too, and his heart was won from that moment.

 

* * * * *

 

            Hoss had been so groggy by the time they finally arrived in Carson City that night that Ben had found it necessary to help the youngster change into his nightshirt.  Nelly had laid a thick pallet on the floor of the guest room for the Cartwright boys, but it remained unoccupied.  Though he wasn’t sure what had possessed Billy Thomas to invite squirmy Little Joe into his bed, Ben guessed that his youngest had probably pitched a fit over going to sleep alone on that pallet.  With Billy’s sterling example of hospitality set before him, Ben didn’t feel right about asking Hoss to sleep on the floor, so he’d told the boy they could sleep together “just this once.”

            Hoss had accepted with delight and now lay beneath the covers, watching his father get ready for bed.  “I want to tell ya somethin’, Pa,” he said slowly, rising up to lean back on his elbows.

            Ben draped his ruffled shirt over the back of a chair and started to unbuckle his belt.  “What’s that, son?”

            “I just want you to know that you got nothin’ to worry about,” Hoss declared earnestly, “when you get real old and white-headed, I mean, ‘cause me nor Adam, neither one, wouldn’t act like them gals in that play done, and turn you out and take the Ponderosa away from you.  We know how lucky we are to have a pa like you, and—and I’m gonna see to it that Little Joe understands and does right by you, too.”  He emphasized his purpose with a vigorous nod of his head.

             “You’re going to explain King Lear to your little brother?” Ben choked out with as serious a mask as he could don.  Wouldn’t he just love to be a fly on the wall when that discussion took place!

            “Yes, sir,” Hoss replied, his solemn intent completely artless and genuine.  He blushed slightly.  “The best I can, anyway.  I didn’t understand ever’thing that went on in that play, Pa.”

            Ben sat on the bed beside his son and tousled the boy’s corn tassel hair.  “Hoss, don’t worry about that.  I think you caught the main meaning just fine—probably better than most of the men in that theater.”

            Hoss grinned, the expression ending in a prodigious yawn as he nuzzled into his pillow.  Ben soon joined him in the bed, but he lay awake for a while, wondering if Hoss’s comments had been sparked more by what had happened the previous Sunday than by the drama on stage this afternoon.  The boy was too young to be weighed down with such heavy matters, but when Ben had imprudently let his anger and frustration flare out in Hoss’s hearing, he’d felt obliged to explain everything, emphasizing that the Bowers had meant well, so his son would bear them no ill will.  Hoss had been upset, but had accepted his father’s assurances that the family would stay together, no matter who thought they’d do better apart.

            Little Joe, of course, remained in innocent ignorance of the whole affair, knowledge of which could do nothing but undermine his fragile sense of security in the wake of his mother’s death and his oldest brother’s departure.  Ben had debated whether to keep it from Adam, too, not wanting to distract him from his studies, but wondered whether he had the right to withhold news of such importance.  He’d finally decided that no one had a greater right to know what concerned Joseph than the young man who had born the burden of his father’s failures during those grief-fogged days of collapse, so he’d written a full account and posted the letter upon arriving in town today.

            Now, as he listened to his middle son’s soft snores, he smiled with pure pride and joy.  If this good-hearted boy, like Adam before him, was the product of his parenting, maybe he didn’t need to entertain those haunting self-doubts one minute longer.  He’d done all right by them, even if it had been largely without a mother’s aid, and with their help he’d raise Little Joe to be just as fine a man as his older brothers were turning out to be.

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

            The ends of the transcontinental telegraph met on October 26, 1861, and the new territory of Nevada was granted the privilege of inaugurating it by sending the first telegram east.

 

            Having lost her first child, John Jasper at just short of two months of age, Eilley Orrum Bowers must have been thrilled by the birth of a daughter, Theresa Fortunatus, in June, 1861, although that child, too, was not destined to survive.

 

            Near the end of October, Shakespearean actor James Stark arrived by stage in Virginia City, although his costumes, shipped separately, were delayed for weeks by the swirling snow.


CHAPTER SEVEN

Chasing a Kitty and a Kid

 

 

            Ben pulled the buckboard to the edge of C Street in Virginia City and peered at the stock board outside his broker’s office.  He shook his head in disbelief.  Stock prices had been rising sharply of late, higher every time he came to town, and the soaring numbers had led to a frenzy of stock manipulation.  “Stay right here, Little Joe,” he said as he climbed down from the wagon.

            “This ain’t the store, Pa,” Little Joe argued.  “You said we was goin’ to the store.”

            “Yes, yes, we are,” Ben said, patting the boy’s head, “but Pa has a couple of errands to run first, son.  Now, be a good boy and wait here.  I won’t be long.”

            He went inside the office and made a few prudent sales of stocks he considered risky, investing some of his profit in shares of more solid mines.  The rest he’d bank with Wells, Fargo, for he felt certain that the stock prices were being artificially elevated and was unwilling to gamble that they’d stay high, especially when he could put the money to better use.  Just yesterday he’d received a letter from Adam, informing him, to his relief, that Josiah Edwards had reached New Haven safely, but, to his distress, that his old friend was virtually penniless, the war having disrupted the school system in St. Joseph and left him without an income.  Josiah would find a new position eventually, Ben was certain, but until he did, he’d likely be doing without himself to insure that his son had sufficient funds for college.  Ben well knew how expensive that was and was only grateful that his profits made it possible for him to help the man whose friendship had meant the world to him back in St. Joe.

            Occupied with folding his papers and tucking them into his vest pocket, Ben didn’t look at his wagon until he was standing next to it.  When he saw the empty seat, he exhaled with exasperation.  That boy!  Was he incapable of following one simple instruction?  Wisdom usually dictated having Hoss along to help corral his youngest, but Hoss was in school today.  Ben had been so concerned about getting much needed funds to Josiah that he hadn’t wanted to wait for the weekend.  He hadn’t been able to resist Little Joe’s pleas to come along, especially since he saw the boy so rarely during the day, but he was definitely reconsidering that decision now.  Where was that boy?  Ben looked down the rough-planked walkway, but heard a chuckling voice call from the opposite direction.  “Lose something?”

            He spun around and smiled in relief, for there was his youngest son, standing next to a man who looked familiar, although Ben couldn’t put a name to the face at first.  Then with a shudder he remembered that cold rainy night when the whole countryside, including this man, Roy Coffee, had turned out to search for his runaway child.  “It appears I did,” he said, striding over to the lawman.  “Joseph,” he rebuked sternly, “I told you to stay with the wagon.”

            “It’s right over there,” Little Joe insisted.  “I was just talkin’ to the sheriff.”  He looked offended that his father would scold him when he hadn’t done anything wrong at all.  Nothing ever dampened the child’s spirits for long, though.  “See that, Pa?” he asked, pointing to the shiny silver star pinned to Coffee’s shirt.  “That means he’s a sheriff.”  Just in case his father didn’t know, he added, “Sheriffs keep bad men from making trouble in town.”

            “They do a fair job of tracking down naughty little boys, too,” Ben chuckled, reaching out to clasp Coffee’s hand.  “I can never thank you enough for your help that night.”

            “Didn’t do anything,” Coffee said, returning the handshake warmly.  “Was you that found the boy.”

            “By the grace of God,” Ben murmured.  He could never think of that night without large doses of both guilt and gratitude.  He cocked his head to look closer at the badge on Coffee’s chest.  “Say, the boy’s right: that is a sheriff’s badge.  You were a deputy last time I saw you.”  His eyebrows knitted in thought.  “And you worked out of Carson City then, didn’t you?”

            Coffee almost beamed with pride.  “Right on both counts.  Been a couple of changes in my life.  I’m sheriff over this area now, office right down the street in the new jail.”

            “I’m glad to hear that’s been built,” Ben observed.  “I’m afraid there’s been a growing need for that sort of accommodation.”

            Coffee nodded gravely.  “That’s why I was hired.  And I insisted on a decent jail before I’d take the job.  You seen that disgraceful excuse for one they had down in Carson?”

            Ben flashed a mischievous grin.  “Not from the inside, thankfully, but I know what you mean.”  The log shanty that had housed lawbreakers in Carson City had been a farce: prisoners found escape easy and recapture rarely attempted.  “Losing a qualified lawman such as yourself must have inspired them to rectify that.”

            Coffee laughed.  “Yeah, I no sooner left than they started building a better jailhouse.”  He touched the brim of his hat in a farewell tip as he prepared to return to his rounds.  “Good seein’ you, Mr. Cartwright,” he said.   “Hope you’ll come by and share a cup of coffee sometime when you’re in town.  Promise not to make it from roasted barley, neither.”

            Ben joined the lawman in laughing at the jest, for he, too, had read that suggested substitute in Placerville’s Mountain Democrat in the wake of the heavy duties recently imposed by Congress on the genuine article.  “I’ll do it,” he said, “and I want you to come out to the Ponderosa for dinner, where I also vow to serve nothing but real coffee.  Least I can do to say thanks for your help with this one.”  He affectionately tousled Little Joe’s rampant curls.

            “I’ll do it,” Roy responded.  “Widower like me don’t get many chances for a home-cooked meal.”

            For a moment pain clouded Ben’s eyes, but when he realized that here, too, was a man who had known the loss of a wife, he felt a kinship with Roy Coffee and with it a desire to strengthen that bond.  “Come on Sunday,” he suggested.  Then his brow wrinkled in thought.  “Sunday week, that is.  I’ll be in Carson this Sunday, so make it the next, and come hungry.  Hop Sing, our cook, sets a fine table, especially on Sunday.”

            Coffee nodded enthusiastically.  “I’ll be there.  You keep track of that youngun, now.”  He gave Ben a sassy wink.

            Ben rolled his eyes.  “I’m trying.  It’s a chore, I can tell you.”

            Coffee laughed and chucked Little Joe under the chin before continuing down the street.

            Ben plunked his son onto the wagon seat and climbed up after him.  Taking the reins, he guided the horses back into the busy street.

            Little Joe tapped his father’s arm.  “Store now, Pa?”

            “No, not yet, Little Joe.  Pa has a couple more errands first.”

            Little Joe frowned.  This trip to town wasn’t turning into quite the adventure he’d hoped.  “Where we goin’ now?” he asked, lips forming a pout.

            “Wells, Fargo,” his father replied.  “I need to bank some money and get a draft to send to an old friend.”

            “What’s a draft?” the boy asked.

            Ben did his best to explain how a simple slip of paper could be transformed into money at a distant destination, but as he pulled up to the bank on the corner of A Street and Sutton Avenue, he felt pretty certain that he’d failed to get the concept across.  Not trusting his son to stay with the wagon, he lifted the boy down and took tight hold of his hand as he led him into the Wells, Fargo office.

            Ben’s banking business was quickly transacted, and the next stop was the post office, where a letter containing the draft was dispatched to Adam, for transmission to Josiah Edwards.  Then, at last, it was time for the promised visit to the general store.

            Little Joe ran in ahead of his father and made a beeline for the row of glass jars filled with colorful confections.  Certain that contemplation would keep his young son occupied throughout the visit, Ben handed his list of supplies to Will Cass and moved toward a display of detachable collars and cuffs.  “New line of merchandise?” he asked lightly.

            Cass chuckled.  “Thought I’d give it a try, but they’re not selling too well.  I reckon folks that want that kind of finery are more apt to look for it at a regular haberdashery.  Do me a favor and take a set off my hands.”

            “Make me a good price and I might,” Ben returned with a smile.

            Cass bent down to Little Joe’s level.  “And how about you, young fellow?  What you plan to take off my hands?”

            “Candy,” Little Joe said, “but I don’t know what kind.”

            Cass straightened up and lifted the lid from a jar of peppermint sticks.  Taking one out, he handed it to the child.  “Well, give that a lick while you’re thinkin’ on it.”

            Little Joe grinned and took the candy.

            “Say ‘thank you,’ Little Joe,” his father directed.

            “Thank you, Mr. Cass,” the boy said.

            “You’ll spoil that child’s dinner,” declared a woman looking down her narrow nose at Ben.

            “Oh, I don’t know,” Ben said.

            “Well, I do,” the woman insisted.  “If you’d raised six children the way I have, you’d have more sense.  Just look how scrawny that child is!”

            As directed, Ben looked at Little Joe, but saw nothing to raise his concern.  Certainly, the boy was slim, but Dr. Martin had long ago assured him that his youngest was perfectly healthy and that his size was as natural for him as Hoss’s larger frame was for the older boy.  He turned back to the woman.  “Ma’am, I appreciate your concern, but I doubt one stick of candy will irreparably damage his health.”

            “That’s where you’re wrong.”  The woman launched into a lecture on the upbringing of children, emphasizing the importance of proper diet on everything from bone strength to moral rectitude.

            Ears wincing at the woman’s strident voice, Little Joe backed toward the door and slipped through it.  He didn’t want to be anywhere near that woman who wanted to take away his candy, so he decided he’d just wait for Pa out by the wagon.  He was moving toward the buckboard when a ginger-coated cat came streaking out the door of the shop next to Cass’s mercantile.  With a grin of delight, Joe tucked his peppermint stick into his pocket and gave chase.

            Ben was doing his best to extract himself from the clutches of the self-proclaimed expert on child-rearing when he suddenly realized that Little Joe wasn’t any longer standing next to the candy jars.  Frantically, he called the boy’s name, and when there was no answer, he asked Will Cass, “Did you see where he went?”

            “Sorry, Ben,” Cass said.  “Guess I was distracted.”

            Ben well knew by what.  He groaned and rushed out the door, with a piercing accusation following him:  “See?  This is just what I was warning you about.  Sweets before dinner naturally leads to a child thinkin’ he can have every little thing his own way.”

            Ben scarcely heard her.  He was too busy frenetically looking up and down the street.  Little Joe was nowhere in sight.  Ben hurried back inside, hoping the child was simply playing a game of hide-and-seek, but he soon exhausted all possible hiding places and was forced to admit that his four-year-old son was somewhere in Virginia City, all on his own.  Having no idea which way the child had gone, Ben turned south and began walking down C Street, gazing into each store or saloon along the way, asking every man or woman he passed if they’d seen a curly-headed tyke of four.

            No one had.  The longer Ben looked, the more apprehensive he became.  Virginia City wasn’t a spot on the hillside anymore, no longer the tent camp of a few miners.  Now it was a town of over four thousand, well on its way to earning its moniker of city.  Businesses lined both sides of C Street, and the town didn’t stop there.  A and B streets ranged up the mountain from the main business area, while D Street ran below and down beyond it were the mines and their hoisting works.  A thousand places for a little boy to hide.

            Why on earth had the child taken off like this?  He’d been perfectly content, picking out the candy promised to him.  Then that interfering busybody had stuck her oar in,  Ben had gotten occupied with defending himself, and the next thing he knew, his son was gone.  Had that shrill biddy frightened him?  Perhaps . . . perhaps enough to make him run outside, and once there, it wouldn’t take much to lead inquisitive Little Joe astray.  Even at home the child was into everything, and the temptations here far exceeded any on the Ponderosa.

            He reached the southern end of C Street and stood outside one of the seedier saloons, trying to decide which way to go next.  Back up C Street?  But what about the side streets and alleys?  Weren’t they just as likely to entice a small boy’s capricious interest?  Ben closed his eyes in anguish.  Too many choices.  Too many places for one man alone to search.  He had to have help, just as he had that dreadful night when his son had run away from home, hoping to find his mother.  Here, however, his resources for mounting a search were far fewer than they’d been on the Ponderosa.  No older sons, no ranch hands, no neighbors.  Ben had business acquaintances among the mine owners in Virginia City, but which among them could he really call upon for anything other than business?  He was just about desperate enough to try them, though, when he suddenly remembered the one man here in town who had responded to a plea for help before.  He turned and began to run up C Street.

 

* * * * *

 

            Little Joe plopped down on the dusty stoop of a small shack framed haphazardly with pieces of scrap lumber.  He’d chased the ginger cat up one street and down another until it dashed out of sight.  Then he’d tried to retrace his steps back to the store, but since he hadn’t been paying attention to anything but the cat, he never even made it back to C Street.  He’d heard some interesting banging down below him and hurried that way, where he stood, fascinated by the hoist mechanism lowering men into a mine, until a burly man roughly told him to be off.  He’d started to make his way back up the hill when he’d realized that he didn’t know if that was the right direction, either.

            Now he sat in a forlorn heap, wondering how he’d ever get back to Pa . . . and what Pa might do to him when he did.  Pa’d been upset with him, just for going the teensiest bit away from the wagon to talk to the sheriff, and he was much more than a teensy away this time.  He had a feeling a “very necessary little talk” would be waiting for him if he ever found his way back to Mr. Cass’s store, but while he dreaded that, even worse was the thought of losing Pa.

            As he sat staring at the dirt between his boots, a swish of satin caught his eye just as a soft voice said, “Mon petit amiPourquoi êtes-vous ici ?

            Little Joe’s head bounced up in anticipation.  “Mama?”  His face fell for a moment; then his eyes lighted again, for while the woman stooping down to him was not his mother, as the French phrases had made him hope, she was someone he recognized.  “I couldn’t catch the kitty,” he told her mournfully, adding with a catch in his voice, “and now I can’t find Pa.”

            She stood and reached her hand toward him.  “Come, mon petit,” she said.  “We will find your papá.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben paused outside the door to the sheriff’s office to gather his frayed nerves.  It went against a man’s pride to admit he couldn’t keep track of his own child, but pride was a commodity he couldn’t afford at present.  He needed help, and the only way to get it was to admit he needed it.  Taking a deep breath, Ben turned the knob and opened the door.

            Roy Coffee looked up from his desk and smiled warmly.  “Well!  Did you decide to take me up on that cup of coffee?”  He looked beyond Ben.  “Say, where’s the young fellow?  You didn’t leave him out by the wagon again, did you?”

            Ben shook his head.  “No.  I—I lost him.”

            One side of the sheriff’s mouth quirked up.  “This is getting to be a habit, Cartwright.”

            Ben closed his eyes and murmured painfully, “I know.”  The sheriff’s rebuke was a mild one, compared to the castigations he’d already poured on his own soul, but it was an extra tablespoon of salt rubbed into his wounded heart.  He felt a hand pressed to his shoulder and looked up to see warm compassion in the other man’s eyes.

            “Sorry, Ben,” the sheriff apologized.  “It’s no laughing matter, and I shouldn’t make light of it.  When did you see the boy last?”

            Ben spread his hands in self-disgust at his inability to answer the simplest of questions.  “I—I didn’t check the time.  He was right there and then—not.”  He collected himself.  “I searched from Will Cass’s store to the south end of C Street and then came directly here.”

            Coffee scratched the back of his neck.  “Long enough for him to be anywhere,” he muttered.  “Well, we best get some help and find that boy before harm comes to him.”

            “Harm?”  Ben couldn’t keep the panic from his face.  “But, surely, no one would harm a child.”  On the Comstock, a child had always been considered a cherished rarity, although more of them were around, now that the town was growing.

            “No, no, I’m sure no one would,” Coffee explained, “but this town’s littered with abandoned shafts and prospect holes from the old days, every one of ‘em big enough for a little boy to fall through.  Why, just last week an eight-yoke team of oxen disappeared into one!”

            “Dear God,” Ben whispered in stricken prayer.  “We’ve got to find him!”

            “And we will,” Coffee said firmly.  “First, let’s get some help.”  Taking the ring of keys from its peg on the wall, he moved toward the cell block.  “Don’t worry,” he said in answer to Ben’s fretful frown.  “I ain’t settin’ hardened criminals after your boy, just a couple of fellers locked up ‘til they settle down after gettin’ into a ruckus.  Except for that, they’re a decent sort of gents.”  He walked in and stood before the cells.  “How about it?” he asked.  “You two willing to help find a little lost boy and earn yourselves some time off for good behavior?”

            Both men quickly assented, and Sheriff Coffee unlocked their cell doors.  The four men moved out onto C Street and were in the midst of discussing who would search what part of town when they heard a happy cry of “Pa!”  Little Joe broke away from the hand of the woman who had been leading him and raced into his father’s open arms.

            Ben pressed his cheek against the boy’s windblown hair.  “Oh, baby,” he murmured.  Then he looked at the woman, who was dressed with surprising modesty, given her profession.  “Miss Bulette,” he acknowledged her awkwardly and immediately felt ridiculous.  Why try to deny familiarity with the woman, especially when she’d obviously done him such a great service?  “Julia,” he said more warmly and extended one hand as the other continued to hold Little Joe close.

            “Monsieur Cartwright . . . Ben,” she said.  “I think I have found something you lost, oui?”

            “Oui,” Ben replied, as he had so often to Marie.  “I am eternally grateful.”

            “He was on D Street, near my home,” she said, “and I must return there now.”  She looked hesitantly at the other men, who were gawking at their interchange.  “Ben,” she said softly, “I was much saddened to hear of the death of your wife.  She was a true and faithful friend.”

            “Thank you,” Ben said.  “She . . . felt the same.”

            Julia Bulette ran tender fingers through Little Joe’s curls.  “Good-bye, mon ami,” she said.  “You will not chase any more kitties, non?”

            “No,” Little Joe promised.  “They run too fast.”

            Laughing, she kissed his cheek, nodded to the assembled men and turned away.

            “Hey, sheriff,” one of the recent residents of his new jail snickered, “what’s our chances now of gettin’ any time off, huh?”

            Coffee chuckled.  “I reckon you still earned it, just by showin’ yourselves willin’ to be good citizens.  Now, if you’ll shake hands and swear not to tear into each other once my back’s turned, you can go along home.”  The two men, their quarrel forgotten as soon as the whiskey had worn off, shook hands willingly and departed, each heading a different direction.  Looking at the little boy as Ben set him down, the sheriff shook his head.  “D Street, huh?  A mite young for that sort of thing, ain’t you, boy?”  He winked at the boy’s father.

            The reference to what generally went on in the small houses of the red-light district sailed meaninglessly over Little Joe’s head, of course.  Ben favored the sheriff with a reproachful smile.  “The two of them . . . with my wife and middle boy . . . were holed up together in a miserable excuse of a sanctuary during the Paiute War,” he explained.  “I understand Miss Bulette was a major asset in keeping this one entertained.”  He affectionately tousled Little Joe’s hair.

            “Still a major asset in keeping men entertained, from what I hear,” Coffee said with a grin.

            “Oh, will you stop?” Ben chided.  He stooped down, eye-to-eye with his son.  “Little Joe, that was very naughty of you to run off.  I’m afraid you and I will need to have a very necessary little talk about that.”

            “Got me a couple of empty cells now, if you decide the boy needs more than a talk,” the sheriff teased.

            Ben gave the other man a significant look.  “The sort of conversation I have in mind should do the trick.”

            Comprehending, Roy Coffee laughed.   “Good luck, young fellow,” he said to Little Joe as he headed back toward his office.

            “Thank you again, sheriff . . . Roy,” Ben said.

            Roy gave him a nonchalant wave.  “Just part of the job,” he said.

            Ben took tight grip on his son’s small hand, determined not to release it again until they reached the Ponderosa or, at least, the wagon headed there.

            “I’m sorry, Pa,” Little Joe whimpered as he was dragged along.

            “You will be,” Ben said sternly.  He tried to ignore the child’s sniffling all the way back to Will Cass’s place, but like the dripping from the lip of a pump, it demanded attention.  Be firm, he told himself.

            “Well, well,” said the storekeeper, bending over with his hands on his knees to look at Little Joe.  “I see the lost has been found.”

            “Yes, thankfully,” Ben replied.

            “Already loaded your wagon, from the list you left,” Cass said.  “Didn’t you see it, comin’ in?”

            Ben smiled ruefully.  He hadn’t seen much but red on the way here.  “Didn’t look . . . but thanks.  Give me the tally, and I’ll settle up.”

            Cass turned back to the counter and handed Ben the bill.  “That’s what’s in the wagon.  If you want anything different, either more or less, let me know.”

            Ben scanned the list.  “That’s everything—no more, no less,” he said and started to dig into his pocket.

            Little Joe tugged at his father’s britches.  “Pa?” he asked tentatively.  “Candy, Pa?”

            “Candy!” Ben Cartwright exploded.  “You think you’ve got candy coming after today’s shenanigans!”

            Little Joe shrank away, lips tight, head waving sadly from side to side.

            Ben’s resolve melted.  The boy wasn’t the real culprit here; the blame rightfully belonged to that interfering woman.  In the name of good health, she’d tried to deprive his child of a simple, and rarely indulged in, treat.  To punish him now was not only unjust, but it would reward the very one who most deserved censure for this misspent afternoon.  “Well, I did promise, didn’t I?” he said and then, lest he lose all credibility as a man to be obeyed, added, “But only two pennies’ worth.  It would have been more, if you’d done as you were told.”

            Little Joe’s mouth flew open in delight.  To him, two pennies’ worth of candy was a fortune.  Running back to the row of glass jars, his eyes sparkled as they moved from one to the next.  Ben groaned, feeling that his trip back to the Ponderosa would probably be delayed another hour, while the boy decided.  He was wrong, though.  Not wanting that mean lady or another like her to come back and rob him, Little Joe made his choices quickly.

            “Thanks, Pa,” the boy said, as he sat on the wagon seat, holding a paper bag surprisingly full for two pennies’ worth, in his father’s opinion.

            “You’re welcome, son,” Ben said, his sanity and good humor restored, now that they were safely headed home.  “Now, tell me, what was it Miss Julia was saying about chasing kitties?”

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

            The high stock prices mentioned at the beginning of this chapter were being artificially manipulated.  Many sank every dollar into these wildcat claims, but the bottom fell out of the market by winter, when San Franciscans realized the fraud.  The savings of Virginia City were wiped out, and even worthy stocks sold at cents on the dollar.  Many of those bankrupted returned to California, and the area suffered a serious depopulation.

 

            Shopkeeper Will Cass was a character in “Broken Ballad,” an episode of Bonanza written by John T. Kelly.

 

            Roasted barley was suggested as a substitute for coffee in the October 5, 1861, issue of the Mountain Democrat, available online.

 

            Virginia City’s first jail was constructed in November, 1861.  The Carson City jail had been as big a farce as described here.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Nothing Short of Murder

 

 

            With a bounce of enthusiasm, Hoss pointed at the line of blue-coated soldiers entering the Carson City plaza on the chilly Sunday morning of November 10th.  “There he is!”

            Ben caught his son’s arm as he lunged forward.  “Sally first,” he chided.  “The troops won’t stop here long, and Mark will prefer to spend most of that time with his fiancé.”

            “Reckon so,” Hoss said with a sigh.  He liked Mark Wentworth, almost as much as his sister Mary, and didn’t get near enough chances to see him, even with him being posted at nearby Fort Churchill.   Now the Sixth Infantry was being marched off to fight in that war back East, so he likely wouldn’t see his friend again for a long time, same as Adam.  That “back East” had a way of swallowing up people he loved that Hoss didn’t care for one bit.  Sally planned to marry Mark, though, so she looked even sadder about his going away.  There were tears in her eyes as she threw her arms around Mark after he came running across the plaza, and that made Hoss feel like crying, too.

            “Oh, I wish you didn’t have to go,” Sally moaned, as the others, including her father and the Thomases, as well as the Cartwrights, looked on in sympathy.

            “So do I, sweetheart,” Mark said, “but that’s part of the bargain I made.”  Everyone knew he was referring to his original reason for joining the army, so that he could march with the rescue forces sent to Nevada at the height of the war with the Paiutes.  He’d done it for love and in Paul Martin’s mind had well earned the reward of his daughter’s hand.  There was a price to be paid for enlistment in the army, however, and the army was now set to collect it in wartime service.

            Still holding Little Joe in his arms, Ben stepped forward to lay a supportive hand on the girl’s shoulder.  “At least, Mark will be serving as a surgeon’s assistant,” he reminded her.  “That’ll keep him behind the lines.”  He looked across at Mark, who nodded soberly.  The glance they exchanged communicated their mutual realization that service in the medical corps did not guarantee his safety, but at least he wouldn’t be quite as exposed to enemy fire as the combat troops.  “I’ll be praying for you, my boy,” he promised, “just as if my own Adam were going to war.”

            “We all will,” Nelly Thomas put in.

            “Adam?” Hoss asked, his brow crinkling with anxious thought.  “He gonna soldier, too?”

            “No, no, of course not,” Ben assured him, bouncing Little Joe to soothe his sudden disturbance, for while the child had no understanding of war, he readily picked up on other people’s emotions, especially Hoss’s.  “Adam’s a student, far from where the battles are taking place.  I’ll show you on the map when we get home.”

            “He’s right about me working behind the lines,” Mark was saying to Sally while Ben was settling down his boys, “and just think of the surgical experience I’ll get.”

            “More varied than here, to be sure,” Paul Martin said, putting an arm about both his daughter and his future son-in-law.  “Invaluable experience for someone who hopes to become a skilled surgeon.

            “Oh, I know,” Sally sighed, “but it’s hard to remember that when all I can think of is how much I’ll miss. . . .”  With determination she brushed at a tear moistening the corner of her eye.

            Little Joe reached for the black visor of Mark’s blue forage hat, all he’d had eyes for since the young soldier had come over to them.  “I like that hat,” he hinted.  Laughter at the easy way he tossed worry aside and the frankness with which he expressed his desire chased away everyone’s tears.

            Mark took the hat off and put it on the youngster’s head.  “I’ll need it back when I leave,” he warned.

            “Okay,” Little Joe agreed reluctantly.  When Ben set him down, he strutted off across the green sward to demonstrate how fine he looked in the new headgear.

            “Hey, don’t go far,” Mark called.

            “Hoss, go watch him,” Ben ordered.  “See he doesn’t stray.”

            “Can’t do a worse job than you,” Clyde cackled, for while they’d stood around waiting for the regiment to arrive, Ben had regaled them with his four-year-old’s solo excursion around Virginia City earlier in the week.  Nelly gave her husband a sharp jab in the ribs, while their daughter Inger snickered into her cupped hand.

            Ben shuddered.  “Don’t remind me.”

            “Sounds like a story I need to hear,” Mark observed, “but time’s short.  You’ll write me, sir?”

            “I will,” Ben promised, “and you let us know how things are going with you back there.”

            “If I don’t hear once a week, I’ll be frantic with worry,” Sally warned him.

            “There’s an incentive!” her father chuckled.  “Mark, son, please spare me that.”

            “I’ll write faithfully,” Mark said.

            Hoss, who had stoically gone after Little Joe, dragged him back over to the group.  “I still ain’t had a proper chance to say good-bye,” he complained.

            Mark thrust out his hand.  “Good-bye, then, Hoss.  Take care of my girl for me, okay?”

            “Well . . . sure,” Hoss said slowly, not sure whether Mark was serious or funning with him.  “I wouldn’t let no harm come to Miss Sally.”

            Mark chucked him under the chin.  “I know, but don’t you go stealing her heart away from me, either, you hear?”

            Realizing now that he was being teased, Hoss grinned.  “I wouldn’t do that, neither.”  He motioned for Mark to bend down to his level.  “I wouldn’t trust that Billy too far, though,” he whispered just loud enough for everyone to hear.

            “Oh, I know better than to trust him,” Mark said with a lopsided smirk.  “Billy and me go way back, you know.”

            “Yeah, further back than him and me, even,” Hoss said, “so I reckon you know he’s plumb ornery.”  He tried to keep a straight face, but his shoulders shook with the effort to hold back his amusement at his own joke.

            From behind, Billy hoisted Hoss up by the elbows and plunked him down again with a solid thunk.

            “Hey!” Hoss protested.

            “No more than you deserve, you backstabber,” Billy said with a forced growl.  Then he grinned at Mark.  “Don’t worry about Sally for one minute, pal.  I’ll see to it she don’t get lonely.”

            “That’s what I’m afraid of!” Mark laughed.  “Now, if the rest of you don’t mind, I’ll let her walk me back over to the regiment.”

            “So’s they can smooch some more,” Billy confided to Hoss, bumping the boy’s shoulder with his hip.

            “Exactly!” Mark laughed, as he plucked his hat from Little Joe’s head and placed it on his own.  “Oh, here’s the books you loaned me, Dr. Martin.”  He offered three volumes to the doctor.

            “Keep them, if they’ll be of any help to you,” Paul Martin urged.

            Mark placed one in his other hand and extended the remaining two to the doctor.  “Just this one, if you don’t mind.  I haven’t finished it yet.”

            “Study hard,” the doctor admonished with a smile.

            “But first, go kiss that girl,” Ben ordered.  He pointed off in the direction of the regiment.  “Off with the both of you!”

            Laughing, the young couple made a quick, arm-in-arm exit, Mark calling back good-byes over his shoulder.  Everyone waved wildly and shouted their wishes for him to keep safe and keep in touch.

            “Lands, I’m gonna miss that boy,” Nelly said with a sniff.  “You all are comin’ by the house, ain’t you?  I’ve got a jelly cake set out and coffee ready to brew.”

            Hoss smacked his lips.  “Jelly cake!  That’s one of your best, Aunt Nelly.”

            “I want cake,” Little Joe chimed in.

            Ben laughed.  “Count me in.  I was hoping to come by, anyway, at least long enough to drop a line to Adam.”

            With a wry grin Clyde wagged his head.  “Thought you already wrote that boy once this week, when you sent him money for your schoolteacher friend.  Two letters in one week’s bound to spoil him close to rotten.”

            Ben gave his friend a rough slap on the back. “I’ve had quite enough advice on that score this week,” he declared.  “In my opinion, you can’t spoil a boy by loving him.”

            “Amen to that,” Nelly agreed.  “I’ll head on to the house, get the coffee started.  You younguns want to come with me or stay to see Mark off?”

            “Stay,” said Hoss, who wanted to watch the soldiers march in step.

            “Stay,” Little Joe echoed, well satisfied that his big brother would make the best choice possible.

            “See you soon, then,” Nelly said, drawing her woolen shawl close, for the wind was picking up and turning sharp.  Inger trotted along at her side, eager to help her mother play hostess.

            The others saw Mark march away and waited for Sally to join them before they all walked down to the Thomas house.  Ben slipped an arm around the forlorn girl.  “He’ll be in my prayers nightly,” he assured her, “and I’m sure God will keep him safe; he has such potential.”  He felt a momentary rebellion as his thoughts turned to a young woman with great potential who had nonetheless been taken from him.  He’d already struggled through his crisis of faith, however, and wouldn’t allow the things he could not understand to strip him of it again.  All of them here and all those they loved back East rested in God’s strong and loving hands, and to that conviction he would cling, as trustingly as Little Joe now held to his own hand.

 

* * * * *

 

            The rest had all gathered in the parlor after enjoying jelly cake and coffee together and had left Ben alone at the dining table to compose his letter to Adam on a sheet of borrowed stationery.  As he considered how to begin, he chuckled at Clyde’s notion that two letters in one week would spoil his son.  Ridiculous idea!  regular communication of love was the best antidote to spoiling that he knew.  Besides, the territory was changing, almost daily it seemed.  Adam would not only be interested in that, but would feel less a stranger when he finally returned if he’d been kept abreast of those changes.

            With that in mind, Ben started his letter with general news.  He told Adam about recent acts of the Territorial Legislature.  Just this week they’d passed a bill permitting construction of a railroad across Nevada.  “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, son,” he wrote, “if that were completed by the time you returned to us?  Your journey would be so much faster and more comfortable than your recent trip back East.”

            Next, Ben mentioned talk he’d heard recently about plans for a new private school, to be called Sierra Seminary.  “It will be located in Carson City and will offer elementary courses, with some advanced work.  Don’t you wish you’d had that available when you were so eager to learn?  Hoss, of course, doesn’t have your zeal for learning—well, book learning, that is.  He seems to absorb information about the outdoors and animals and ranch work, but still struggles at times with his three R’s.  His friend Pete Hanson is a good influence, though, and Hoss seems to benefit from their studying together.  Maybe it’s just that having someone to share the lessons makes them more enjoyable and, therefore, more likely to stick in his head, but his marks have shown steady improvement this year.”

            He hadn’t meant to get into family news so soon, but decided he might as well proceed with Little Joe’s latest antics, including that frustrating chase through Virginia City earlier in the week.  “Next time, I take a rope,” he vowed to his eldest, who would know an idle threat when he read one.

            Ben wrote, lastly, about the arrival of volunteer forces from California to take over Fort Churchill.  “That means that Mark is headed back East.  After he leaves San Francisco, he’ll be stationed in Washington, D. C., but who knows what the future holds for a soldier in a nation at war?  Keep him in your prayers and write to him, son—Sixth United States Infantry, Company H.  You well know what it’s like for a young man to be away from home, alone, for the first time, and I hope, at least, that our letters have eased that separation for you.  I know yours to us make all the difference, though we continue to miss you.”

            Nelly Thomas came to the doorway.  “Hate to rush you, Ben, but you might want to finish that up and head for home.”

            Ben’s mouth quirked up at one corner.  “Worn out our welcome, have we?”

            Nelly flapped a reproachful hand at him.  “You know better, but it’s starting to snow, so it might be a case of leave now or stay the night . . . which you’re more than welcome to do, of course.”

            Ben stood and hustled over to the window.  Snow was coming down, though not heavily, as yet.  That could change quickly, though, as he knew from experience.  “You’re right.  We’d better leave right away.  I’ll just add a line or two in closing and address this.  Could you get Little Joe bundled up for me?”

            “That’s right: give me the hard job,” Nelly laughed.  Then she said, “Be glad to, and Clyde can post that letter for you.  You just might have a race on your hands with them snowflakes.”

            Ben hurriedly told Adam that it was starting to snow and closed the letter with more assurances of his love.  Then he sealed and addressed it and left it, with a few coins to cover the postage, on the dining table.

            Good-byes said, Ben bundled his boys into the buggy.  Sliding a package of jelly cake slices beneath the seat, he climbed aboard and directed the horses out of town.  They’d barely passed the edge of Carson City when Hoss spoke up.  “I just don’t understand, Pa.”

            “What don’t you understand, son?” Ben asked.

            “Why the army didn’t just send them Californy soldiers back East and leave Mark here, instead of switchin’ everybody back and forth.”

            Ben chuckled.  “Doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it?”

            “No, sir, it sure don’t,” Hoss declared.

            “It’s because we’re dealing with two different kinds of soldiers, Hoss,” his father tried to explain.  “You see, Mark’s with the regular army, which is supposed to be more trained for battle, while the soldiers from California are volunteers, most of whom haven’t been soldiers for very long.”

            “Mark ain’t, either,” Hoss alleged.

            “Better than a year,” his father corrected.  “With the volunteers, it’s more like a few months or even just weeks.  I guess the army figured they’d do better close to home, fighting Indians, if need be, while freeing up the professional soldiers to fight back East.”

            Hoss shook his head.  “Still seems like a powerful lot of marchin’ around for no good reason.”

            Ben reached behind Little Joe to rub Hoss’s back.  “That’s the army for you, son.  Might as well try to argue with the weather.”

            “It’s snowing, Pa,” Little Joe put in at the mention of the weather.  “Lots of pretty snowflakes.”

            “Yeah,” Ben agreed, “and starting to come down heavier, too.  We’d better make tracks for home, boys, before we get snowbound in Washoe Valley.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Seven days later the snow was still falling.  The flurries hadn’t been heavy enough to keep Hoss from school the previous week or to keep them from attending church in Washoe City that morning, but he hadn’t been surprised when the Thomases didn’t join them, as they generally did on alternate Sundays.  Carson City was a long, cold drive when snow lay on the ground.  Sometimes they braved it anyway, as he and the boys did on their turn to visit Carson City, but little Inger had shown signs of coming down with a cold last Sunday.  He hoped it hadn’t grown worse, but even if not, her mother wouldn’t want to risk the frosty air for a recovering child.  What did surprise him was the knock at the door after he’d sent the boys upstairs to change after church.  He was even more surprised to see who stood at his door when he answered.  “Sheriff Coffee!”

            Coffee awkwardly twisted his hat in his hand.  “Thought I was invited to dinner.  Did I get the wrong Sunday?”

            “No, no, not at all,” Ben said, opening the door wider.  “I’m surprised, though, that the prospect of a long ride in this weather didn’t dampen your enthusiasm for a home-cooked meal.”  To tell the truth, he had forgotten the invitation he’d extended that frenzied day in Virginia City, but he blamed his lapse of memory on the weather, too.  It had kept him so busy, finalizing preparations for winter, that he’d had little time to think of anything else.

            Coffee grinned.  “Nothing dampens that!”

            “Good!” Ben said enthusiastically, as he closed the door after ushering the sheriff in.  “Come over by the fire and warm up.  I’ll get us some coffee.”  And warn Hop Sing that we have a guest!  No doubt the cook would rant in Cantonese, but he wouldn’t really mind.  He would have planned food with the Thomases in mind, anyway, so there’d be plenty.  There always was.

            Little Joe clattered down the stairs, with Hoss right behind him.  “Howdy, Sheriff,” he called as he jumped on the lower landing with both feet.

            “Howdy,” Roy Coffee chuckled.  He cast a mischievous side glance at Ben.  “I see you’ve managed to keep a rein on him for a mite over a week now.  Sure would’ve hated to chase after the youngun in this weather.”

            Ben moaned.  Everyone of his acquaintance seemed determined to remind him of his failure to keep track of Little Joe.  “Keep it up,” he warned, “and I’ll manage to misplace your share of dessert.”

            “Yeah, you’re right good at misplacin’ things,” Roy snickered; then, seeing Ben’s glower, he decided he’d pushed his luck far enough for a new acquaintance.

            Hop Sing soon called them all to dinner, and after eating a good portion Roy raved about the tender roast beef.  “How’d a Chinaman learn to make Yorkshire pudding?” he asked when the cook was out of the room.

            “Goodness only knows,” Ben laughed.  “I think he’s a regular recipe thief.  Just mention a yearning for some dish in his hearing, and it’s likely to turn up on the table within a week.”

            Roy grinned.  “I’ll keep him in mind the next time I need some detective work done.”

            Ben leaned toward his guest with a conspiratorial whisper.  “I think it only works for recipes.  The only crime he’s interested in is failure to appreciate a good meal.”

            “Not appreciating this meal would be a felony,” Roy declared.

            “I fell on my knee once,” Little Joe announced.  “It bled and everything.”

            “Little Joe!” Hoss scolded.  “It ain’t proper to talk about bleedin’ at the table.”

            “He did,” Little Joe accused, pointing a finger at the sheriff.

            “That’s enough, boys.”  Ben shook his head as he worked to keep his mouth from twitching.  “Never underestimate the ability of a four-year-old to misinterpret anything you say,” he muttered to Coffee.

            The sheriff grinned.  “I’ll take your word for it.  He’s a fine little fellow.”  He smiled across the table at Hoss.  “And his big brother’s a good, strapping boy, too.  The oldest one ain’t around today?”

            “That’s right, you wouldn’t have heard,” Ben said.  “Adam’s back East, attending Yale University.”

            “We miss him,” Hoss added.

            “I can see as how you would,” Coffee said kindly.  “All the way to the east coast, huh?  Reckon he’ll be gone a good, long time, then.”

            “Too long,” Ben agreed and quickly changed the subject.  “Did you save room for dessert?  I believe we’re having dried apple pie.”

            The sheriff poked his stomach with two fingers.  “Yep, there’s a spot right there, so bring it on!”

            “I got a spot, too,” Hoss said with a grin, imitating the sheriff’s gesture.

            Roy Coffee chuckled.  “I figured you would!”  He reached over to poke a tickling finger into Little Joe’s tummy.  “And I reckon there’s another pie-sized spot right . . . about . . . there!”

            Little Joe giggled.  “Pie spot, Pa!”

            “Yes, that makes it official,” Ben said and called, “Four pieces of pie, please, Hop Sing.”

            “Hop Sing hear plenty good without yell all-a time,” the little cook muttered from just beyond the doorway, his favorite spot for eavesdropping during meals.  He quickly produced the pie, however, serving the sheriff first with an approving smile, for he had heard the compliments to his cooking.

            After the pie was consumed and more compliments issued, Ben requested coffee by the fire.  “Do you play chess, by chance?” he asked Roy.

            Roy shook his head.  “Never could get the knack of that, but I play a fierce game of checkers, if you got a board.”

            “We got one!” Hoss cried, springing up to fetch it.

            “Do you have time for a game?” Ben asked as Little Joe clambered up into his lap.

            “I reckon it won’t take long to wallop you a time or two,” Roy replied with an almost wicked grin.

            “We’ll see about that!” Ben retorted to the challenge.  What he soon saw was that the new sheriff from Virginia City was more than a match for him, defeating him soundly in two games.

            Hoss, who had settled companionably next to their guest, proclaimed, “You’re ‘bout as good as Uncle Clyde.”

            “Didn’t know there was any more Cartwrights hereabouts,” Roy said as he set the board for a third match.

            Ben laughed.  “No, just a friend who’s close as kin.  Perhaps you met him when you were deputy in Carson City—Clyde Thomas.”

            Roy’s mouth screwed up in concentration.  “Red-haired fellow?  Walks with a limp?”

            “That’s him.”

            Roy nodded.  “Knew him to speak to, but that’s all.  Wish I’d known he was a checkers player.”

            “Checkers master,” Ben declared, “and I’d love to watch a match between the two of you.”

            “Have to be here,” Roy said.  “I ain’t in Carson much these days.”

            “You’re welcome any time,” Ben assured him, “and if you come on a Sunday, you might find Clyde here, as well.”

            “I’ll look forward to it,” Roy said, “and to more of that fine cooking.”

            With a smile of satisfaction, Hop Sing peered around the corner from the kitchen and disappeared back inside to wash the dishes.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben pulled the collar of his sheep-skin coat up around his neck, thankful for the warmth of its wooly lining.  Snowflakes drifted slowly earthward on the mercifully light wind to join the six inches already there.  He viewed it as a harbinger of fiercer cold to come and felt an urgency to get the weaker cattle and particularly the newly weaned calves into feed lots nearer the house.  The handful of men he was keeping on over the winter had fanned out across the Ponderosa, searching out animals in need of critical care for that purpose.

            Something—an unexpected sound or perhaps just instinct—made him look toward the south, and his eyes squinted as he spotted a group of riders moving toward him.  Too many to be his own men, but he couldn’t imagine any reason for anyone else to be on the Ponderosa, especially in this weather.  The haze in the air at first kept him from distinguishing individual riders; when he did, he felt even more concern.  Sheriff Coffee?  Yes, that was him, with Clyde and Billy Thomas among the group of nine behind him.  He had a fleeting thought that his two friends had met up and decided to hold a checkers match at his house.  Then he shook his head at the ridiculous notion.  A group this large, led by a sheriff, could only mean one thing: official business.

            He waited for the men to reach him and then, to forestall what he was sure was more serious, teasingly asked Roy, “Couldn’t go more than two days without Hop Sing’s cooking?”

            “Wish it were that,” Roy said. “We’re here on—”

            “You’re not in charge here,” another man with a badge pinned to his coat snapped.

            “True enough,” Roy conceded, keeping his voice civil, although Ben could detect a note of irritation at the younger man’s interruption.  “Ben, let me introduce you to Deputy Tim Harrison of Carson City.  Deputy Harrison, Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa, the land you’re riding on.”

            “I know that,” Harrison growled and then turned to Ben, “and I’m acting sheriff of Carson City, Mr. Cartwright.”  He emphasized the more prestigious title with a glare of offense at Roy.

            Ben’s forehead wrinkled with misgiving, but he asked, more hopefully than expectantly, “Sheriff Blackburn resigned?”

            “Murdered,” Clyde Thomas spoke up, and Billy chimed in, “We saw it!”

            The furrows in Ben’s brow deepened.  He had a thousand questions, but most of them he preferred to ask his friends in private.  To Harrison, he asked only, “You’re after the man who did it?  And you think he could be on my land?”

            “He headed this way,” Harrison said and then asked sharply, “You friendly with William Mayfield, Cartwright?”

            “I don’t even know the name,” Ben answered honestly.

            “Gambler,” Clyde inserted.

            Ben chuckled.  “That explains why I don’t know him.  I’m not attracted to games of chance.”

            “All well and good,” Harrison said brusquely, “but the last word we had placed him this direction.  Of course, the snow’s covered any tracks now.”

            “Have you seen any sign of strangers on your land, Ben?” Roy Coffee asked.

            “Just this posse,” Ben responded.  “I can ask my men, when I meet up with them this evening.”  He glanced up to note the position of the sun, whose light filtered weakly through the cloud-covered sky.  “About three hours ‘til then.”

            “We’ll be using those hours of daylight to search your land,” Harrison announced.  Then, seeming to remember his manners, he added, “Assuming you have no objection.”

            “I have no objection; in fact, I welcome it,” Ben said, “but I would like to ride with you, if only to ensure than you don’t mistake any of my men for this Mayfield or his accomplices, if there were any.”

            “Looking for three men,” Coffee offered, “and I’m sure we’d welcome another posse member, eh, Harrison?”

            “Right,” Harrison agreed, although clearly perturbed with what he considered the other sheriff’s preemption of decisions rightfully his.

            Realizing what time it was, Ben felt a sudden concern knot his stomach.  “Billy, would you do me a favor?” he asked urgently.

            Billy moved forward.  “Sure . . . I reckon,” the young man said a little hesitantly, for he had a feeling this favor might be of the sort to interfere with his own plans.

            “Would you ride over to the Franktown school and see Hoss home safely?” Ben asked.  “I don’t like the idea of him riding home alone with armed assassins lose on my land.”

            “Aw, Uncle Ben,” Billy protested weakly, for he knew in the long run he’d have to do as he was asked, much as he preferred staying with the posse.  Grown man though he now considered himself, he would be expected to show respect for his elders, especially for one as close in affection as Uncle Ben.  “It’s just that I was hopin’ to earn a share of the reward, me bein’ without a job now.”

            “You’re welcome to my share if we find the fugitive before you get back,” Ben offered.

            “Ain’t necessary,” Clyde said firmly.

            “No, not necessary,” Billy agreed quickly, wanting to forestall any further display of parental authority.   He knew full well that Ben would keep any promise he made, so he squared his shoulders, and mostly so the other posse members wouldn’t think he was just giving in to his pa, like a blame kid, he said, “Yeah, you’re right.  Protecting the innocent is more important than catching up with the guilty.  I’ll see to Hoss and then join back up once he’s safe in the house with Hop Sing.”

            “Good thinking, son,” Ben stated firmly, quite willing to feed the young man’s need for esteem in return for the favor.  “Make sure Hop Sing knows the danger, and tell him to keep both Hoss and Little Joe inside—oh, and tell him there’ll be extra mouths to feed for supper.”

            “Right!  Be back soon,” Billy announced and took off.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben knew his boys were safe because Billy had returned to report a mission successfully accomplished, but he still felt a surge of relief when his two younger sons charged out the front door as he rode into the yard at dusk.

            “Did you catch ‘em?” Hoss asked, clearly excited by the prospect of bad men on the Ponderosa.

            Ben scooped an equally animated Little Joe up in his arms.  “No, not yet.  We’ll be going out again tomorrow, so I’d like you to stay home from school, Hoss, and look after your little brother.”

            Looking after Little Joe did not top Hoss’s list of favorite activities, but skipping school certainly did, so he readily agreed to accept the responsibility.

            Since he knew exactly what inspired the easy compliance, Ben smiled, but then turned his attention to the other men dismounting in the yard.  “Sheriff Harrison,” he said, using the title he knew the man preferred, justified or not, “your men are welcome to the use of my bunkhouse, but I can offer you a bed in the house.”  Frankly, he would have preferred to relegate Harrison to the bunkhouse, too, but the man’s position did dictate a little more consideration, even if his presence would add nothing to the congeniality of the rest of the house party.  “There’ll be hot food for everyone soon,” he added and was rewarded with warm smiles and expressions of thanks from the rest of the posse.

            He moved close to Roy Coffee, so that he could say quietly to him, “You’ll stay inside with us, as well, unless you’d prefer the company in the bunkhouse.”  He winked at the sheriff from Virginia City.

            Roy winked back his understanding of Ben’s poke at the almighty “acting sheriff” of Carson City.  “I reckon the company inside will be mostly to my liking,” he whispered back.

            “And you’ll definitely tip the balance to my liking,” Ben chuckled back.

            To his surprise, however, Harrison proved a perfectly pleasant dinner guest.  After the meal was finished, the youngsters were sent upstairs for baths and bed; and even then, as the men began to discuss the incident that had brought them to the Ponderosa, Harrison did not exhibit the need to take charge, seeming willing to let Clyde and Billy describe what had happened two nights before in a Carson City saloon.

            “Pa and me’d been patchin’ the roof on the barn.  Took most of the day, but we finally finished up a mite before supper time,” Billy related.  “To take the chill off our bones, he suggested we traipse over to the St. Nicolas for a drink.”  He tossed his adopted uncle an impish grin.  “Reckon you know how rare it is for Pa to treat to a drink, so, of course, I said yes right quick.”

            “It’s only rare to you, you young scalawag,” Ben snorted.

            “And you can see why,” Clyde chipped in.  “Ungrateful little wretch.”  He grinned when he said it, though, so even those in the room who didn’t know him well realized that his son was actually the proverbial pride and joy of his life.

            “Is that where the killing took place?” Ben asked, surmising that Sheriff Blackburn must have been dealing with a rowdy drunk.

            “Yeah,” Clyde said.  “Me and Billy was in the back corner, at a table by ourselves, and didn’t realize what was happenin’ at first.  Heard later that Blackburn had tried to arrest this Mayfield earlier in the day.”

            “Not exactly right,” Harrison put in.  “Man he was trying to arrest was a fugitive murderer from California, name of Henry Plummer.  We’d heard that Mayfield might be hiding him out, so we’d gone to search Mayfield’s cabin earlier that day—that’d be Monday, Mr. Cartwright.”

            Ben nodded.  He’d gathered as much from the brief conversations exchanged while they’d been searching for Mayfield that afternoon.

            “Mayfield admitted that Plummer had been there, but left,” Harrison continued.  “Then he commenced to taunt the sheriff about it, saying he’d never find Plummer.”  He shook his head with dismay.  “We should’ve arrested him then and there, while we had him outnumbered.”

            “For aiding and abetting?” Roy asked.  “Might have held up in court; might not.”

            “At least, he’d’ve been behind bars,” Harrison grunted, “not free to—”

            “Might have just come for Blackburn later, all the more set on harming him,” Ben suggested.  “Never possible to predict where a different road will lead. . . at least, so I’ve found.”

            “Reckon you’re right,” Harrison conceded.  “Still, I keep asking myself what would have happened if I’d been with the sheriff that night in the saloon.”

            As the man stared soberly into the fire, Ben wondered if his brusque manner throughout the day had been motivated more by the guilt stirred by that unanswered question than by the prideful assertion of his new mantle of authority, as Ben had presumed.  With Clyde or Billy or even Roy Coffee, he might have felt free to speak the thought directly and hopefully provide a fresh perspective to release that guilt, but since Harrison was still a stranger to him, he hesitated and the opportunity was lost.

            “Wouldn’t have mattered,” Clyde said.  “Blackburn had too many friends in that saloon as it was.  Would you have done any different than them?”

            Harrison looked up sharply.  “Yeah, I think I would!” he snapped.  “I had more reason to suspect Mayfield of foul play than them others did.”

            “Sorry.  Wasn’t meaning to cast blame,” Clyde said quickly.  “Everything happened so fast that everyone was just actin’ on pure instinct . . . and their instincts was bad.  Yours might’ve been better, but it still might not have made any difference.  I was there, and there wasn’t a thing I could’ve done to stop it.”

            “We was trapped back in that corner,” Billy explained.  “Heard some sort of argument goin’ on, and when we looked up, Blackburn was reaching for his gun, hollerin’ that Mayfield was under arrest.”

            “The friends with him grabbed his arm, though,” Clyde said.  “Reckon they meant to prevent a fight, but all it did was give Mayfield a chance to come at the sheriff with a Bowie knife.  Stabbed him four or five times before Blackburn got loose and tried to shoot, but he couldn’t before he fell over.”

            “And all those friends weren’t able to prevent Mayfield’s escape?” Ben asked, incredulous.

            “Mayfield had friends, too,” Clyde said.  “They kept the rest of us hemmed in while he got away.  After that, most of us focused on getting help for Blackburn, though it did no good.  A few tried to follow Mayfield, but dark came on and they had to turn back.”

            “Funeral was yesterday morning, and no one would hear of forming a posse ‘til that was past,” Harrison said sourly.  “No tracks to be found by then, of course, so we just headed this way ‘cause that’s the direction he took when he left Carson.”

            “Fittin’ and proper for folks to show their respect for Sheriff Blackburn,” Roy put in.  “That’s what brought me to Carson.  We’ll get Mayfield, Harrison.  Too many respected Blackburn for them to rest easy ‘til his killer’s brought to justice.”

            Ben nodded his agreement.  While he hadn’t personally known John Blackburn well, he knew that, at least earlier in his career, he’d been a respected lawman.  Lately, he’d lost some of his sharpness, due to excessive alcohol consumption, but he’d died in the line of duty and merited the honor due such a man, especially when he had served faithfully for so many years.  “He had a wife, didn’t he?” he asked.

            “A girl of just twenty,” Roy responded, “and a baby girl, no more than seven or eight months old.”  He shook his head, grieved for the man under whom he had once served and for the family left behind.  “It’s a shame,” he said and could say no more without losing control of his emotions.

            Wanting to lighten the atmosphere, Ben turned to Clyde, “My friend, I’ve discovered that our new sheriff from Virginia City just might be able to take you at checkers.”

            Clyde’s eyes lit up with the spark of challenge.  “That so?  Well, now, if’n he ain’t too tired, I just might let him take his best shot at it.”

            The competitor in Roy couldn’t resist.  “Best two of three?” he suggested.  “Then the winner takes whoever wins between Ben and Harrison here?”

            Ben looked over at the acting sheriff of Carson City and saw an awkward frown form.  Correctly guessing that Harrison wasn’t much of a player, he said, “They won’t drag us into this, will they, Harrison?  We’ll leave this battle to the masters.”

            Looking relieved, Harrison readily agreed and settled back to root for Roy, out of loyalty to a fellow lawman.

 

* * * * *

 

            After showing his guests to their respective rooms, Ben checked on his sons before turning in himself.  Little Joe was sleeping soundly, his blankets in typical disarray.  Ben untangled them, tucked the boy in snugly, dropped a kiss on his forehead and then moved to the room next door.

            Hoss rose up on his elbows as his father entered.  “Hey, Pa.”

            “Hey yourself, young fellow,” Ben said.  “Having trouble sleeping?”

            Hoss shook his head.  “I—uh—wanted to talk to you, Pa.”

            A son who needed to talk always took precedence over his own need for sleep, so Ben sat down on the edge of the bed.  “What about, son?”

            Hoss twisted the sheet between his fingers.  “Well—uh—it’s about Little Joe.  He’s—uh—kind of worried ‘bout you trackin’ down them bad men.”

            Recalling the peacefully sleeping child he’d just left, Ben raised a skeptical eyebrow.  “He is?”

            Hoss bit his lip.  “Um, yes, sir; you know how he gets when you’re away.”

            Ben smiled.  “I’m not away, Hoss; I’m right here on the Ponderosa.”

            “Yeah, but . . .”

            Ben took his son’s hand.  “I’m not going to take any foolish chances, son, but I can’t let a man like that run around loose on my land.  None of us would feel safe.”  He chuckled as he patted his boy’s soft cheek.  “And you don’t really want to be trapped in the house with Little Joe on a permanent basis, do you?”

            Remembering how hard it had been to keep his restless little brother occupied that afternoon, Hoss winced.  “Not forever . . . just ‘til them men leave.”

            Ben stood up.  “They’re going to do that a lot sooner with encouragement, my boy.”  He tucked the covers up to Hoss’s chin and bent over to kiss him good night.  “You tell Little Joe not to worry,” he said with a wink that told Hoss his father had figured out who was really fretting.  “Tell him his pa knows how to take care of himself.”

            “Yes, sir, I will,” Hoss said.  “Just—just do a good job of it.”

            Ben again promised that he would, gave Hoss another kiss and slipped quietly out.  Smiling and shaking his head, he made his way down the hall to his own room.  Hoss’s protectiveness for him seemed so out of the natural order of things that he found it almost comical, and the thought that his tiny youngest son might share the sentiment bordered on ludicrous.  Still, he mused as he changed into his nightshirt, perhaps it was understandable when he was all his boys had.  He slipped into bed and gently touched the empty pillow at his side.  “I’ll take care of myself . . . for them . . . for you,” he promised.

 

* * * * *

 

            Following Ben’s proposed plan, the posse split up the next morning.  He had suggested that the miserable weather might have influenced Mayfield to hole up somewhere, and the snug line shacks of the Ponderosa represented the best shelter near to hand.  “I’ll send one of my men with each pair of posse members,” Ben offered.  “They know where the line shacks are, and that way, there’ll be three men in each group, in case they do run into Mayfield’s bunch.”

            “Even odds,” Roy Coffee said with an approving nod.

            Harrison also agreed.  “A solid plan.  Much obliged for the idea and the help, Cartwright.”

            After assigning each of his hands a line shack to check, Ben teamed up with Sheriff Coffee and a man named John Bartholomew, who had a ranch west of Carson City.

            “Sure hope we find ‘em today,” Bartholomew said.  “Work’s pilin’ up back at my place.”

            “Same here,” Ben commiserated, “but I won’t feel comfortable going back to it until I’m certain the ranch is clear of danger.”

            “I’d feel the same, if it was my place,” Bartholomew assured Ben.

            “Can’t stay away from Virginia City much longer myself,” Roy put in, “so we’re all in agreement: this needs to end today.”

            Ben smiled ruefully.  He’d learned, by oft-experienced frustration, that things didn’t necessarily get done just because they needed to.  He hoped it would prove otherwise today, though, and could only count his blessings that the busier seasons of the ranching year had already passed.

            His group rode north into a biting wind that snaked down their mufflers and up the sleeves of their jackets.  Typical November weather, if weather in Nevada could ever be described as typical, Ben mused.  November temperatures could range from the seventies down to single digits, and skies could vary from clear to the deadly obscurity of a sudden blizzard.  Today was relatively moderate, except for the sharp wind that blew snow from the ground into the air, making it appear to still be falling, when it was actually just being redistributed.

            Knowing that any tracks would long since have been covered by the snow, they didn’t bother looking, but kept their horses to a steady pace as they rode straight for the northernmost line shack.  Ben never wanted it said of him that he had asked another man to do what he would not, so he’d assigned himself the longest ride.  Sheriff Coffee had offered to ride with him, and Bartholomew had just accepted the fact that someone had to make the harder ride and it might as well be him.

            Conversation was held to a minimum because all of them had their mufflers pulled up over their mouths and noses.  During a brief halt, however, Ben pulled his down so that he could take a drink from his canteen.  He started to put the woolen scarf back over his face; then his nose wrinkled as he caught a faint whiff of wood smoke.  He reported it to the sheriff, adding, “It looks like they are holed up in that line shack; it’s about a mile from here, as the crow flies.”

            “How close can we get without being seen?” Roy asked.

            Ben exhaled gustily.  “Well, we try to keep the surrounding trees cut back, to lessen the fire hazard, but we could get fairly close if we came in from the west.  Take longer that way, but probably safer, especially as we’d be coming in at the back side of the shack.”

            “Door on the opposite side?” Roy asked.

            Ben nodded.  “And one window on that side, too.  With a bit of luck, we should be able to get right up to the back wall without being seen.”

            “Sounds good.  Let’s circle around to that side, then,” Roy said and both ranchers concurred.  Though willing to do their civic duty, neither of them were gunmen, and Ben, in particular, was mindful of his promises to Hoss and to Marie to take no foolish chances.

            They altered their course to detour through the trees.  When they drew close to the shack, they dismounted and tethered their animals, for fear that they might scent the fugitives’ horses and reveal the posse’s presence with an ill-timed neigh.  Moving cautiously forward, they came to the edge of the trees and huddled together beneath that final shelter.

            “Walk easy ‘til we get to the back of the shack,” Roy directed.  “Then we’ll move slowly around to the front, the two of you on one side and me on the other.  Is there a lock on that door, Ben?”

            “Just a latch,” Ben replied, “but it can be drawn in.”

            Roy shook his head.  “Might be hard to bust through, if they did that . . . and they probably did.  Wish there was some way to draw them out in the open.”  Neither of the other men suggested anything, so he shrugged.  “Well, at my signal we rush the door together, then, and just pray it gives way quick enough to catch them off guard.”

            Realizing the risks of such a plan, Ben took a deep breath and exhaled a prayer for their safety.  Then, softly and silently, the three men made their way through the cushioning snow to the back of the shack and, once there, began to move around both sides.  Just as they got into position, Ben heard Bartholomew begin to whistle “Dixie” behind him.  “Shh!” he cautioned, but Bartholomew persisted.

            As the door opened, the posse members pulled back to the side, so they wouldn’t be seen.  A man came out the door and looked around.  “No one in sight,” he called back inside, “but I’m sure I heard whistling.”

            Another man appeared in the doorway.  “Aw, you’re hearin’ things,” he snorted.

            “Ain’t, neither!” the first man snapped.  “I heard ‘Dixie.’”

            Gun drawn, Roy rounded the corner.  “Hands up!” he ordered.  “You’re not in the land of cotton, mister; you’re under arrest.”

            Seeing only one man, both of the fugitives slapped leather, but not fast enough to outshoot the sheriff, who winged one man.  Ben fired a warning shot into the air.  The other man swung around to fire on him, and Ben pulled the trigger, hitting the man in the shoulder.  A third man crouched in the doorway, firing first one direction and then the other.

            “You’re surrounded, Mayfield,” Coffee called.  “Give yourself up and we’ll see to it you get a fair trial.”

            A few more shots were exchanged before Mayfield realized the futility of his ammunition outlasting three opponents and threw his gun out the door.  Snapping on a set of handcuffs as Ben and Bartholomew wrestled the wounded men to their feet, Roy asked, “Which one of you had the bright idea to whistle ‘Dixie’?”

            Bartholomew grinned.  “Me, but I wasn’t sure if it was a bright idea or suicide, to be honest, sheriff.  Kept thinking about what you said about getting them out in the open.  Then I suddenly remembered that Mayfield was secesh—no secret to anyone who ever gambled with him—and figured, maybe, if he heard ‘Dixie,’ he’d think it was friends and come out less suspicious.”

            Roy chuckled as he secured the other prisoners.  “You’re right, Bartholomew.  Could just as easily been suicide.  As it is, though, you read them right and we’re alive to tell the tale.”

            Alive to tell the tale.  Ben shook his head a bit ruefully.  As entertaining as the boys would probably find the story, he doubted that this was a tale he’d be telling his sons—at least, not before they turned twenty or thirty.

 

* * * * *

 

            Predictably, the boys rushed out the door the minute the posse rode into the yard, prisoners in tow.  Hoss’s eyes widened at the sight of real, live bad men right in the front yard.  “That them?”

            “Yes, son, that’s them,” Ben said, dismounting and lifting Little Joe into his arms.  He waved to Clyde and Billy and another man, who had followed the youngsters out the door.

            Hop Sing scurried out the side door.  “Hot coffee all ready,” he said.  “Sorry not see you in time for stop boys run out.”

            “I’m not sure that’s ever possible,” Ben said with a smile.  “Can you put some sandwiches together quickly, Hop Sing?”

            The cook pointed at the handcuffed men.  “Them, too?”

            Ben glanced at the sheriff.  “Any objection?”

            “Harrison probably would have,” Roy replied with a wry smile, “but I believe in feeding prisoners.”

            “Go in and help yourselves to some of that hot coffee,” Clyde said.  “Me and Billy and the minister here can guard these three.”  He was referring to the third member of his segment of the posse, the man who had preached John Blackburn’s funeral and had been largely responsible for inspiring so many men from Carson City to join the search for the lawman’s killer.

            Ben carried Little Joe inside and headed toward the stairs.  “Come up with me, Hoss,” he said.

            “Doncha want a sandwich, Pa?” Little Joe asked.

            Ben squeezed him tight as he reached the landing and made a left turn to ascend the rest of the stairs.  “I sure do, but they’re not ready yet.  Come up and help me pack.”

            “Pack?” Hoss asked, clambering up behind them.  “You goin’ somewheres, Pa?”

            “Yes, son, I am,” Ben said.  “I’m going to help escort those men back to jail in Carson City, and I’ll stay the night with Uncle Clyde.”

            “Can I go, too?” Hoss asked eagerly.

            “Me, too?” Little Joe pleaded.

            Ben laughed as he made his way down the hall and into his room.  Setting Little Joe on the bed, he said, “No, Hoss.  You have school tomorrow.”

            “I skipped today,” Hoss pointed out.

            Ben shook his head, smiling with amusement as he chucked the boy’s chin.  “All the more reason to show up tomorrow, young fellow.”

            As glum-faced Hoss sat down in a chair, Little Joe bounced on the bed.  “I don’t got school; I can go with Pa!”

            “No, not you, either,” Ben said, wrestling the boy to the mattress and tickling his tummy.  “You are much too young to ride with a posse.”

            Little Joe frowned eloquently.  “I’m much too young for everything,” he complained.

            “I agree,” his father chuckled.  “Well, maybe you’re not too young to pick Pa out a shirt and pants to wear tomorrow.  Think you can do that, Little Joe?”

            “‘Course, I can,” the boy declared and hopped off the bed to forage in his father’s dresser drawers.

            “Just the one night, right, Pa?” Hoss asked.

            “That’s all I’m planning,” his father said, “but something could come up in town.  Don’t fret if I’m not back tomorrow night, son.”

            Hoss pointed at Little Joe.  “Tell him.  You know how he gets . . .”

            “When I’m away,” Ben finished, recalling their conversation of the night before.  He sat on the bed.  “Come here, boys.”

            When they had settled, one on either side, he put an arm around each.  “Now, listen to me good: there will be times when I’m away for a day or two.  It’s just the nature of life out here.  It doesn’t mean that anything’s wrong or that anything bad is happening to your pa.  It just means something has delayed me: bad weather or business I need to tend to or a dozen other things that come up unexpectedly.  But I will come back; I’ll always come back to you, because you boys are my life.  You understand?”

            Both boys nodded, Hoss mostly for Little Joe’s sake and Joe because whatever big brother Hoss did must be right.

            “Good,” Ben said.  “Now, give me your best hugs and kisses and let me be on my way.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben had originally agreed to ride into Carson with the prisoners simply out of obligation to finish a job he’d started.  As he rode down the street toward the log building that served as the town’s jail, however, he began to realize that taking Mayfield and his accomplices into custody just might have been the easiest part of the job.  Crowds lined the way, cheering Mayfield’s capture, but some voices sounded a more chilling call.  “Why bother locking him up?” a man shouted above the roar.  “String him up to the nearest tree!”

            “Echo the sentiment,” Harrison mumbled.

            Though Ben knew the words hadn’t been loud enough for the crowd to hear, he felt a shiver run up his spine and a fervent wish fill his heart that Roy Coffee had not felt obliged to return to Virginia City that night.  Harrison was a decent man, but was he strong enough to resist the urge for revenge, especially when he had to do so at the risk of his own life?  Ben just didn’t know the man well enough to answer that, and the uncertainty was worrisome.

            Perhaps it was unnecessary, he decided as the acting sheriff had the posse form a cordon flanking the path to the jail’s door.  Harrison prodded the prisoners between the ranks of armed men, who filed into the jail as soon as the lawman had passed inside.

            “You think this place’ll hold us, once our friends get word we’re here?” Mayfield taunted.

            “I think this’ll hold you,” Harrison growled, bringing over a set of irons.

            “You’ll pay for this, Harrison, sure as your hero Blackburn did,” Mayfield snarled.

            Harrison backhanded the man.  “Shut up!  Keep John Blackburn’s name out of your filthy mouth!”  He hit the man again.

            Ben lurched forward to grab Harrison’s arm.  “Stop it, Harrison!  This isn’t the way to honor Sheriff Blackburn.”

            “Rightly said,” declared the minister on the posse.  “I want justice for Blackburn as much as you do, Sheriff Harrison—we all do—but not at the price of injustice, even to such men as this.  That wasn’t Blackburn’s way.”

            Harrison still seethed with anger, but he let himself be pulled away from the prisoner.  “Get him out of my sight,” he grunted, and a couple of posse members quickly put the irons on Mayfield and the other prisoners and led them back to the cells.

            “Two of them need medical attention,” Ben said softly.

            “They’ll get it,” Harrison snapped.  “Somebody fetch Doc Martin.”

            “I will,” Billy offered and moved toward the door.

            “I’ll go with you,” Clyde said, concerned for his son’s safety in the unruly crowd.  “You need us back here, Harrison?”

            “Could use you later,” the acting sheriff said.  “You and the boy and your friend Cartwright can go have yourselves some supper and be back here by eight, if you don’t mind.”

            “Glad to help out,” Ben said.

            “Any of the rest of you willing to help out, stick around long enough for me to work out a schedule,” Harrison ordered.  “We’ll guard these men by shifts through the night.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben pushed back from the table and patted his stomach.  “Nelly, a superb meal, as always, for which I give heartfelt thanks.”

            Nelly blushed, as pleased with the compliment as if it had been her first.  Much as she liked to hear her cooking commended, however, she found it hard to accept high praise for such a simple meal.  “Sure you wouldn’t rather save your thanks for Sunday?” she asked lightly.

            “You want me to stand up and testify to your excellence in church?” Ben teased.

            She wagged her finger at him.  “I meant no such thing and you know it.  You are still planning to take Thanksgiving dinner with us this Sunday, ain’t you?”

            Ben sobered.  “Still planning to, yes.  As I told the boys this afternoon, though, you never know what can intervene in this territory, whether from wild weather or wild men.”

            “You worried about this Mayfield business?” Clyde asked.

            “I don’t like the looks—or the sound—of that crowd,” Ben admitted.  “I think I’ll head back over to the jail, in case Harrison needs the extra help before time for my turn at guard duty.”

            “Reckon we both should,” Clyde said with a sour scowl.  He didn’t favor leaving his warm hearth tonight, but he felt obligated.  Carson City was his town, so he had more responsibility to see justice done here than Ben did, though he’d be grateful to have his friend’s help.

            “I want a second piece of pie first,” Billy put in, reaching for the pie plate.  “Then I’ll come on down and join you.”

            “Now, don’t all of you need to go crowding in there,” Nelly protested.

            Reading her concern for her son’s safety, especially with a husband already putting himself at risk, Ben agreed, saying, “No need to come before your time, Billy.  A couple of extra men is about all that jail will hold.”  He smiled mischievously.  “Stay here and help your mother with the dishes.”

            Billy shook his head as he eased a slice of dried peach pie onto his plate.  “That’s Inger’s job.”

            “Well, I wouldn’t mind sharing it!” the nine-year-old girl announced with a fling of one strawberry blonde braid over her shoulder.  “Wouldn’t kill you to help out; ain’t like you got any other job.”

            “Hush, now, girl,” Nelly scolded.  “No need to be tauntin’ your brother ‘cause the Pony quit runnin’.  He’ll find work soon enough, and in the mean time he’s a big help to your pa in the smithy.”

            “Right enough,” Clyde said.  “We’ll see you over at the jail around eight, son.  You ready, Ben?”

            “Ready,” Ben replied.

            The two of them bundled into their coats and walked out into the crisp, cold air of the November night.  The wind had died down, but the dropping temperature had formed a crust on top of the snow that crunched beneath their steps.  Carson City was usually quiet during the dinner hour, but tonight the air resounded with angry words, some hissed so low only the speaker’s closest companions could hear them, others shouted loud enough to be heard across the plaza.

            As they neared the jail, Ben and Clyde could hear exuberant strains of “Dixie” from an off-key choir of sorts, assembled in front of the log building.

            “Guess we know which side they’re on,” Clyde grunted.

            “You knew Mayfield had southern sympathies?” Ben asked.

            Clyde spat to one side.  “Couldn’t be around him long without knowing.”

            Ben clucked his tongue.  “Have you been gambling, my friend?  And does sister Nelly know?”

            “I ain’t, so there ain’t nothin’ for her to know,” Clyde snorted.  “Just seen the man around town enough to know who he pals with, and they’re secesh, every one.  Well, either that or fellow gamblers—or both.”

            They pressed through the crowd, ignoring the protests of both factions: Mayfield’s friends calling them blasted Yankees, while the other side hollered for the killer’s hanging.  Ben banged his fist on the jail door and shouted, “Harrison, it’s Cartwright and Thomas.  Let us in.”

            The door opened a crack, and a hand reached out to pull Ben in, with Clyde pushing through in his wake.

            “You’re early,” Harrison said.

            Ben shrugged.  “Thought you could use the help, and I had nothing else to do.”

            “Same here,” Clyde said.  “If you don’t want us, say so.”  Frankly, he wished that Harrison would say exactly that and give him good reason to go home.

            Harrison relaxed.  “No, you’re more than welcome.  Thanks for coming in.”  He glanced out the front window.  “Sorry if I was abrupt.  The noise outside tends to make a man edgy.”

            “Gonna get edgier before morning,” called Mayfield from his cell.

            “Shut up!” Harrison hollered.  To Ben and Clyde, he said, “Noise outside ain’t bad enough, but I got to put up with that.”  He jerked a thumb in the direction of the cell block.

            “You think there’ll be trouble?” Ben asked, just as a knock came at the door.

            “Oh, there’ll be trouble—for you!” came the taunting yell from the cell.  “Blackburn couldn’t hold me, much less this sorry runt.”

            Harrison stormed back to the cell.  “Shut your mouth, Mayfield, before I shut it for you.”

            “Make me,” Mayfield said, spraying spittle into the acting sheriff’s face.

            With his left hand Harrison reached through the bars to grab Mayfield by the shirt and slammed him up against the iron barrier.  Drawing his gun, he held it inches from the prisoner’s face.  “One word, Mayfield; one more word, and it’ll be your last,” he threatened.

            “Harrison, no!” Ben cried, rushing forward.

            “Stay out of this, Cartwright,” Harrison hissed.  “Mayfield’s been asking for this ever since we brought him in.”

            “Stop at once!” rang out an authoritative voice, and Ben spun around to see the governor of the territory, whom Clyde had just admitted.  “I order you to release your hold on that man,” Nye demanded.

            Harrison did, but his chest continued to heave.  “He had it coming, Governor.”

            “A judge and jury will decide what he has coming,” the governor declared, “and if you think otherwise, you are not fit to serve as sheriff.  Give me your gun, Mr. Harrison, and turn in your badge.”

            “You got no right,” Harrison protested.

            “As chief executive of this territory, I have every right.”  James Nye held out his hand.  “Your gun and your badge, sir.”

            Harrison looked around the room for support.  Seeing none, he tossed his gun onto a nearby table and unpinned the star from his chest.  “You’ll be sorry,” he warned.  “Good luck on getting Mayfield to that fair trial you’re so keen on without my help.”  He strode to the door, flung it open and stalked out, slamming the door shut behind him.

            “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” muttered one of the posse members assigned to that guard shift.

            “No, not rubbish,” Ben said quietly.  “He wasn’t all bad, just so loyal to Blackburn that he let it cloud his judgment.”

            “Perhaps,” Nye said severely, “but that makes him unfit for duty.”

            Ben nodded.  “For now.”

            “Yeah, but . . . but who’s g-gonna be in ch-charge now?” asked a young deputy  named Baker, who had served under Harrison.  His anxious face and stammering tongue reflected his obvious concern that the duty would now fall upon his inexperienced shoulders.

            A hush fell over the room, punctuated by the rising roar outside, and all eyes turned to James Nye.  His reflective gaze surveyed the group and finally came to rest on Ben’s face.  “Mr. Cartwright, would you accept the responsibility?”

            Overwhelmed, Ben found his tongue almost as unmanageable as had young Baker.  “I—I’m not a resident of Carson City, you realize?”

            “Only makes you more suitable, in my opinion,” Nye stated.  “No feelings about Mayfield one way or the other—am I right?”

            “You’re right,” Ben agreed.  “He was found on my land, so I helped to bring him in, but that’s all.”

            “Your only interest is in seeing justice done,” Nye reiterated, “and I remember how well you acquitted yourself on our visit to the Paiutes.  I believe you’re the man for this job, Cartwright.”  He stretched out his palm, in which rested Harrison’s badge.  “Will you accept this?”

            Ben’s mind swirled.  To accept that badge seemed tantamount to turning his back on vows made to those most precious to him, but the governor’s deep, dark eyes pleaded so eloquently that he found his fingers, almost of their own volition, closing on the tin star.  “This can’t be permanent,” he said, his voice croaking a bit.  “I have obligations to my own home . . . and family.”

            Nye placed a supportive hand on Ben’s shoulder.  “Just for the night,” he said with a smile.  “I’ve already sent to Ft. Churchill for military support, and I expect them by morning.  I should have told you sooner.”

            “You certainly should have!” Ben laughed in relief.

            “I’ll check back with you during the night,” Nye said as he reached out to shake Ben’s hand.  “You’re not alone.”

            “Be careful out there,” Ben said as the governor prepared to take his leave.

            Shrugging, Nye shook his head.  “No one will bother me.”

            Probably right, Ben thought, as he followed the man out, ready to offer protection, if needed.  Nye was popular, and his previous experience as New York Police Commissioner heightened people’s respect, especially regarding law enforcement.  Suddenly, the weight on Ben’s shoulders didn’t seem as heavy, even though he could hear the crowd buzzing with questions like “Who’s that?” when they saw him sporting the sheriff’s badge.  He didn’t feel obliged to answer; in fact, if pondering that kept them from stewing over the Mayfield mayhem, so much the better.

            A lanky young body pushed through the crowd while it was distracted by Nye’s departure and conjectures about the new lawman.  “What’s going on?” Billy asked, tapping the badge on Ben’s shirt.

            “Get inside,” Ben ordered crisply.

            “Yes, sir!”  Billy popped a sassy salute, but when he saw Ben glower at him, he sobered and moved quickly for the door.

            Ben backed through after him, exhaling with gusty relief as the door closed behind him.

            “What’s going on?” Billy asked again.

            “Your Uncle Ben’s decided to turn lawman,” the boy’s father announced with a lopsided grin.   “He’s the new sheriff of Carson.”

            “Acting sheriff—and only for one night,” Ben reminded him firmly.

            “What happened to Harrison?” Billy asked.

            After a brief explanation Ben addressed the men gathering around him.  “I’m sure any of you could have handled this job as well as I,” he said.

            “Don’t know as I could have,” Baker admitted.  “I only signed on as deputy last week, and I ain’t never seen the likes of that crowd out there.”

            “Out there’s where they’re going to stay, son, so don’t worry about them,” Ben advised.  “Now, does anyone know the schedule of guards that Harrison had worked out?”

            “I do,” Baker said and proceeded to fill the new acting sheriff in on who was expected to return and when.

            “Whatever else may be said about him, Harrison knew how to organize,” Ben observed.

            “Harrison was a fool to think he could fill Blackburn’s shoes,” came a jeering voice from the cell, “and you ain’t even fit to walk in Harrison’s, rancher man.”

            His two cohorts chortled with glee at the jest.  Imagine that fool governor thinking a mere rancher could hold them in line!  “Is he even fit to traipse after cows?” one hooted.

            “I’d advise you to keep your mouths shut,” Ben warned.

            “Or what, mister?  You’ll ram your gun barrel down it, like Harrison did?” Mayfield heckled.  “Don’t do it in front of the governor or you’ll get yourself fired, too, and then who’ll these brave souls get to lead them?”

            Refusing to be baited, Ben smiled judicially as he shook his head.  “No, but I might consider putting a gag down your throat—and I doubt the governor would object.”

            The laughter died down in the cells, and Mayfield threw himself down on his cot, feigning a sudden desire for sleep.

            Sleep was a luxury not afforded Ben or his assistants throughout that long night.  The noise outside ebbed and flowed like waves on the ocean he used to sail, without the rhythmic comfort of their lapping against the sides of the ship.  Ben kept a steady watch through the window, while the others inside dealt with the tension in whatever way they could.  Restless Billy couldn’t sit still, even when his father sharply ordered him to “stop that confounded pacing.”  Baker handled his nerves by constantly talking about them, while others tried to relax by swapping yarns or retelling their favorite Dan Dequille quaint from the Territorial Enterprise.

            “Sure wish there really was an ammonia tank hat like he wrote about,” one man said.  “Would have come in handy to keep my head cool, crossin’ the Forty-Mile Desert.”

            “Yeah, but you gotta remember what happened to the inventor,” Clyde reminded them.

            The other man slapped his leg.  “Couldn’t shut the blasted thing off and froze to death, with an icicle drippin’ off his nose!”

            “Even with it bein’ a hun’erd seventeen in the shade!” another recalled.

            Loud as the hoots of laughter were, they couldn’t drown out the noise from outside, which suddenly rose to a level of frenzy unheard before.

            Rushing over to stand by Ben, Billy tried to see out the window.  “They comin’?” he asked anxiously.

            Ben peered earnestly through the spattered window.  “No,” he said, “they’re fighting among themselves.”  He moved for the door.

            “What you doin’?” Clyde demanded.

            “Let ‘em kill each other off, if’n they’s a mind to,” said another man, who’d been as fidgety as Billy, if not more.

            “I can’t do that,” Ben grunted, and he slipped through the door, shutting it behind him.  For a moment he stood, surveying the situation.  Too busy battling each other, the opposing factions ignored him until he pointed his rifle to the sky and fired.

            As one, the crowd turned toward him.  “Neighbors, this behavior isn’t gaining any of you what you want, and it needs to stop now.”

            “Who do you think you are, mister?” called a spokesman, pushing his way to the front.

            “Just some rancher, mixin’ in where he don’t belong,” another man snorted.  “This is a Carson City matter, Cartwright, so why don’t you hightail it back to the Ponderosa afore you get hurt?

            “Yes, I’m a rancher,” Ben agreed, “but there’s one thing you need to remember about ranchers.”  He paused until he had everyone’s full attention and then raised his rifle, though careful not to point it at anyone in the crowd.  “Ranchers grow proficient in the use of firearms, in providing both meat for our tables and protection for our land.  Mayfield learned that the hard way, and so will any man who tries to take him from custody—for whatever purpose.”

            “Words I’d give heed to, gentlemen,” said Governor Nye as he mounted the steps to stand beside Ben.  “I advise you all to disperse and go to your own homes.”  He turned toward Ben.  “Shall we go inside, Sheriff Cartwright, and give our friends the opportunity to mull over your wise words?”

            “I trust they will,” Ben said loudly enough for the crowd to hear him.  Matching the courage shown by the governor, he turned his back on the murmuring men below him, and they walked into the jail together.

            He exhaled with relief as soon as the door shut behind them.  “Governor,” he said, stretching out his hand, “I was never happier to see you.”

            “I said I’d be back,” Nye reminded him as he returned the handshake, “but it seemed to me you had the situation well in hand.”

            “Maybe, maybe not,” Ben said.  “Nevertheless, thank you for your timely intervention.”

            Nye made his way to each man there, gave them words of commendation and encouragement and then took his leave again.  As promised, he returned every couple of hours to ascertain that all was well and to lend his support.  The crowd seemed to quiet down after Ben’s confrontation with them, and from his frequent observations through the window, he thought the numbers had dwindled, as well, especially as midnight approached.  The men taking turns at the guard post were able to enter and exit without hindrance.  Some elected to stay, once they arrived, catching a few winks by turn; but others, like much of the crowd outside, evidently decided that it was time to be in their beds and seemed content to let others decide the outcome of the night.

            To Ben, the night seemed endless, and despite the people surrounding him, he felt alone—alone in the responsibility and alone with thoughts and feelings that sent him reeling from one extreme to the other, like a drunken sailor.  Fear battled with intrinsic courage, pride in the governor’s confidence in him with undulating feelings of inadequacy, hopes for a larger role in territorial affairs with the guilt of potentially leaving his children orphans.

            Finally, the first faint light of daybreak disclosed a sight Ben’s eyes had searched for throughout the long, lonely night.  He turned from the window and smiled at the men who had stayed with him during those dark, tense hours.  “The soldiers from Ft. Churchill are here,” he said. “Rouse the others, so we can turn this responsibility over to them in an orderly manner.”

            “Turnin’ it over to ‘em will be a pleasure,” Clyde said with a grin as he shook the shoulder of his slumbering son.

            “Heads high, men,” Ben said as fifteen soldiers formed a line in front of the jail and a lieutenant stepped toward the door.  “You’ve done work to be proud of this night.”

            The men, civilians though they were, formed a line almost as regimented as that of the soldiers.  Eyes shining with pride in them, Ben turned and opened the door.  “Lieutenant,” he greeted the man approaching him, “you are a sight for sore—and I do mean sore—eyes.”

            The lieutenant stepped through the door and introduced himself.  “We are proud to assist you, Sheriff Harrison.”  He seemed surprised by the round of laughter that met his greeting.

            “I’m not Harrison,” Ben explained.  “He—uh—had to resign suddenly.  Governor Nye appointed me to take his place, just until you arrived.  My name is Ben Cartwright.”

            Looking dazed, the lieutenant absently accepted the hand Ben extended.  “Resigned?  But I was told to report to Harrison,” the lieutenant almost babbled; then military discipline reasserted his self-control, and he asked with an authoritative voice, “Is there no lawman here at all?”

            “Just me,” young Baker admitted hesitantly.  “I’m the deputy—the new deputy.”  The very way he said the word “new” emphasized his lack of experience and confidence.

            “The rest of us are just volunteers, lieutenant,” Ben explained, “and more than pleased to turn this responsibility over to the professionals.”

            The lieutenant nodded crisply.  “The professionals will be more than pleased to accept the responsibility until such time as sufficient local law enforcement can be established.”

            The turnover was handled efficiently, and soon the men who had guarded the three prisoners throughout the night were on their way home for some much-needed sleep.  At Clyde’s invitation, Ben borrowed a bed for a few hours’ rest, but he refused Nelly’s insistence that he should stay the night before returning home.  “The boys will be worried,” he said, and she let him go without further argument after obtaining his promise to return with his sons for a meal of Thanksgiving on Sunday.

 

* * * * *

 

            “Pass me some more of that goose Billy shot, please,” Hoss requested.

            “You are a goose,” Inger Thomas tittered.

            “Mind your tongue, Inger,” her big brother ordered.

            “You’re not the boss of me,” the girl declared, letting about a quarter inch of her tongue slip out in Billy’s direction.

            “Well, I am,” her father thundered, “and I won’t have you sassin’ a guest.”

            “It’s just Hoss,” Inger mumbled, so low that no one but Hoss heard her.  He just scowled at her and took the plate Billy was passing to him.

            “Now, Clyde,” Ben said.  “She’s only teasing.”

            “Manners is manners,” Clyde insisted and Ben nodded.  He would have demanded no less of his own boys, had this meal been held at the Ponderosa.

            “Just don’t see why anyone would pick Billy’s old goose over that fat turkey,” Inger said.

            “I’ve frequently wanted to cook Billy’s goose,” Ben observed dryly.

            “Ma does a better job,” Billy thrust back with a saucy grin.

            “I want ‘em both!” Hoss exclaimed with enthusiasm.  “Goose and turkey.”

            “Me, too,” Little Joe chimed in.  “Goose and turkey, just like Hoss.”

            “You’d best eat what’s already on your plate before asking for more, Little Joe,” Ben said with an indulgent chuckle.  He was so thankful to be safely back with his boys that either one of them could have gotten away with just about anything short of—murder, he might ordinarily have finished that phrase, but with Blackburn’s death and its dangerous aftermath so recent a memory, murder was nothing to joke about.

            Ben counted himself among the most blessed of men.  It had been a difficult year, no denying that, but there had been bountiful blessings, too.  The nights still seemed lonely without Marie at his side, but he had his boys: here at home, Hoss and Little Joe with all their challenges and charms and Adam off at school, doing him proud.  He had life—vibrant, promising life—and family and friends to help him enjoy it.  If there were times he still yearned for more, he could only trust that God, in ways known only to Him, would satisfy every desire of his heart.

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

            In November, 1861, California volunteers replaced the regular army at Fort Churchill, so the Sixth Infantry could be sent to the eastern battle zone.

 

            John Blackburn was stabbed and killed on November 18, 1861, by William Mayfield under the circumstances described in this chapter.  Although Harrison is a fictional character, Governor Nye did have to disarm a former deputy and send to Ft. Churchill for a military guard, as depicted here.  Mayfield was tried and convicted on February 28, 1862, but escaped on March 15th.  He was eventually killed in a saloon brawl in Montana.

 

            Dan De Quille was the pen name for William Wright, a man more esteemed in his time than his colleague on the Territorial Enterprise, Samuel Clemens.  His “quaints” entertained the newspaper’s readers with a gentler humor.  A contemporary contrasted the two in this way:  “Mark Twain, with his droll humor, would lead his victim up to the shambles he had in waiting for him and the unconscious creature would never suspect what was going to happen until the ax fell.  But Dan had a softer way.  The intended victim would know all the time after the first ten lines that he was going to be sacrificed, but he was under a spell, enjoyed the process, and laughed after he was downed."  Today, De Quille is best known for The Big Bonanza, his history of the Comstock Lode, although collections of his humorous works are also available.

 

CHAPTER NINE

Follow the Star

 

 

            Forehead furrowed in thought, Ben nibbled the end of his pen.  He couldn’t recall when he’d had such trouble writing a letter to Adam.  Ordinarily, there was so much going on that there scarcely seemed room enough on a sheet of stationery to tell all the news, but after the excitement of the previous week, this had been a quiet one.  Even Little Joe hadn’t pulled any shenanigans!  Once Ben had described their Thanksgiving feast with the Thomases the previous Sunday, there just didn’t seem to be much else worth writing, unless he related that miserable business with Mayfield, and he found himself strangely reluctant to remind his oldest son just how violent and dangerous a land Nevada could be.  He finally added a paragraph about how warm the weather had been and then scowled at the words he’d written.  News really was scarce if he’d been reduced to writing about the weather, unusual as it was to have warm days at this time of year.

            When Enos Montgomery had returned from town with a copy of the Territorial Enterprise just before supper, Ben had hoped that he’d find some news to share, but other than the heavy wind blowing down the Catholic Church in Virginia City on Sunday night, there hadn’t been much he’d thought would interest Adam.  The Territorial Legislature had been busy passing laws, all right, but he didn’t think marriage and divorce, much less statutes on miscegenation an appropriate topic to discuss with a young man.  Adam would be as outraged as he to learn that marrying any Chinese, Indian or Negro now carried a penalty of up to two years in jail.  For lack of anything else to share, Ben lifted his pen to write that anyway and then, shaking his head, laid it down.  No need for Adam to worry about such things.  Nothing he could do about it, so he wouldn’t risk distracting the boy from his studies to no good purpose.

            He finally ended the letter with a few questions about how Adam was doing, whether that eating club of his had provided a good Thanksgiving meal, if he thought he’d do well on his upcoming term exams and if he had any plans during the holiday break.  He addressed and sealed it and laid it aside with intentions of sending it back to town with the Thomases tomorrow afternoon or, if the weather turned bad suddenly and hindered their coming to Sunday dinner, with Hoss on Monday, when he rode into Washoe City after school.

 

* * * * *

 

            Billy Thomas sliced into Hop Sing’s tender roast beef.  “Hey, Uncle Ben, you want anything brung back from California?”

            “California?” Ben chuckled as he speared a chunk of roasted potato and one of carrot onto his fork.  “Who’s going to California this time of year?”

            “Me!” Billy announced and popped the beef into his mouth.

            “Me, too,” Little Joe burbled.

            Billy almost choked on his mouthful of meat.  “Not on your life.”

            “Or on yours,” Ben scoffed.  “It’s rather late in the year for that sort of excursion, son.”

            “Yeah, I know,” Billy admitted, “but the weather’s holdin’ fine.”

            “Could change any minute,” his mother scolded.  “I said all along this was a fool notion, and you can see that Ben agrees with me.”

            “Don’t drag Ben into this,” Clyde said.  “We been all over it, and the boy’s old enough to make up his own mind.  I think the weather’ll hold, and if it don’t, I reckon he knows how to handle hisself.”

            Ben nodded.  Billy was young, but he did know the ways of the land, including how to protect himself in inclement weather.  If Clyde had already agreed to the trip, there wasn’t much point in arguing; so, although he secretly agreed with Nelly that Nevada’s winter weather wasn’t to be trusted, he asked conversationally, “Is this a pleasure trip or do you have some serious shopping . . . or sparking . . . to do?”

            “Got hired to haul in a load of supplies,” Billy explained, “but there’d be room if you wanted me to bring back something . . . special.”  He grinned as his gaze flicked significantly between Hoss and Little Joe.

            Ben stifled his own telling smile.  “Well, maybe,” he agreed, thinking that he’d like to show the boys an especially fine Christmas this year.  “How far you going?”

            “Just to Sacramento,” Billy said.  “Not as many fancy goods to choose from, but I wouldn’t want to risk going as far as San Francisco.”

            “Glad to hear you’ve got some sense,” Ben chuckled.

            “Precious little,” Nelly groused.

            “None I ever seen,” Billy’s sister chirped.

            “Me, neither,” Hoss piped in with a conspiratorial wink at the little girl.

            “Reckon I won’t be loading any extra sweetening, then, seein’ as how you likely don’t think I got the sense to pick out any prime candy,” Billy said, wrinkling his nose at Hoss.

            “Come to think of it, I reckon you got lots of sense,” Hoss said hurriedly, “especially when it comes to candy.”

            “Maybe a mite,” Inger added coyly.  “Bringing me something extra nice might raise my opinion.”

            “Who says I give two cents for your high opinion, little sis?” Billy retorted with a yank on her braid that produced the expected squeal.

            “You want mine, don’t you?”  The look on Hoss’s open face was practically pleading.

            Billy laughed.  “I reckon as how I might, on account of us bein’ pals.”

            “Good pals,” Hoss affirmed, and Little Joe echoed the same words.

            “I’ll make you a list of what I’d like,” Ben chuckled, resolving then and there to add some extra “sweetening” to it.

 

* * * * *

 

            An old frontier adage said that only fools and tenderfeet tried to predict the weather, but Billy had proven a pretty good prognosticator.  Or maybe, Ben mused, another old adage, God looks after fools and little children, applied in this case.  At any rate, the happy-go-lucky redhead ran into no foul weather on his trip to Sacramento, and he returned safely with everything Ben had requested and, to forever insure Hoss’s high opinion of his sense, a carefully wrapped package of Ludmilla Zuebner’s best apple strudel.  “Feels like Christmas already!” Hoss had declared when Hop Sing served the pastry for dessert that night.

            It began to feel even more like Christmas the next day, at least to those who favored a white wonderland for the season.  No sooner had Billy made his deliveries to the Ponderosa than the snow started down with a vengeance to make up for all the warm days before.  And it didn’t stop for ten days . . . ten long days.  Ben thought he would go stark, raving mad with two active boys cooped up inside that long.  As he had once before, he conserved their wood supply by building a fire only in the kitchen on the worst days.  The memories aroused were bittersweet, for the last time Marie had shared this confinement with him, and her presence had eased the challenge of keeping the boys occupied.

            Hoss needed to keep up with his schoolwork, so Ben decided to turn the kitchen into a makeshift schoolroom.  For lack of anything else to do with Little Joe, he began giving the little lad reading lessons from Adam’s old primer.  When he caught Hop Sing repeatedly peeking over the boy’s shoulder, he invited the cook to join the class, and somehow Hank Carlton from the bunkhouse heard about the lessons and asked if he could join in, too.  “Why not?” Ben said, and soon the kitchen was so crowded that Hop Sing grumbled that he had no room to cook when mealtimes arrived.  “We’ll work around you,” Ben assured him.  “This is your domain, Hop Sing, and what you say goes.”

            His honor satisfied—even inflated, Ben feared—Hop Sing decreed exactly when lessons could take place and when it was time for men to do chores and bundled-up boys to play games of hide-and-seek in the cold regions of the house.

            Somehow, they survived, and on the morning of December 22nd, Ben welcomed the sun and the cloudless sky.  “Snow or no snow, we’re going to church,” he declared.  Not only did he feel the need for spiritual replenishment, but the outing would hopefully burn a bit of his boys’ boundless energy.  He found himself whistling “Joy to the World” as he hitched the horses to the sleigh; then, piled beneath lap robes, the three Cartwrights sang one exuberant Christmas carol after another all the way to Washoe City.

 

* * * * *

 

            Sitting on the hard wooden pew, Little Joe swung dangling legs back and forth, and then, for variety, began alternately pulling them apart and bringing his heels together with a satisfying smack.

            Ben grunted as one of those little shoes barked his shin, and he made a restraining grab for the errant legs.  Bending down, he whispered, “Be still, Little Joe, and pay attention to the preacher.”

            Little Joe frowned eloquently until a stern glance from his father made him straighten up and rivet his eyes on the man in the pulpit.  Paying attention to the preacher was not his idea of the best way to spend a Sunday morning.  It was a far sight better than having his britches tanned, though, so he kept his feet painfully still and tried to look like he was listening.  Suddenly, his eyes brightened with genuine interest.  The preacher was talking about three men coming from the East.  East!  That’s where Adam was!  Maybe Adam was one of them; maybe he was coming home for Christmas!

            Beside his brother, Hoss tried to concentrate earnestly on what the preacher was saying.  Unlike Joe, he knew that the three men were from much further east than Adam had gone and from a long time past, back when Baby Jesus was born.  Reverend Bennett was saying that they needed to be like those wise men, to go looking for Baby Jesus, to follow the star of Bethlehem until it led them to the Savior.  “Which star is it, Pa?” he asked when they’d loaded into the sleigh and headed for home.

            “What?” asked his father, pulling the reins away from the grasping fingers of his youngest son.

            “The star Reverend Bennett wants us to follow,” Hoss explained.  “Which star is it?  Can we really see it, still today?”

            Ben chuckled.  “No, son, not exactly.  The reverend wasn’t speaking of a literal star.  He meant to follow the light of God’s Word and let it lead you to the Lord.”

            “Oh,” Hoss said, satisfied.

            “Adam’s following that star,” Little Joe piped up cheerily.

            Ben smiled wistfully as he thought of his eldest sitting reverently in chapel at Yale College, worshipping there as they had in church here.  “I certainly hope so.”  He tweaked Joe’s tiny nose.  “And I hope you will, too, wiggle worm.”

            Little Joe cocked a puzzled glance at his father.  Then he pointed a tentative finger.  “East—Haven—Adam.”

            Ben eased the horses around a curve in the road.  “What?  Oh, yes—yes, of course, Adam’s east, in New Haven.”  He exhaled gustily.  He couldn’t count the number of times he’d heard that particular litany in the last three months, and he was half-sorry he’d ever taught that trailside geography lesson to Little Joe.  Certainly, the child needed to learn his directions and how to chart his course by the stars, but perhaps—for his own sanity—he should have held that lesson back a couple of years.  “That’s enough chatter, boys,” he said firmly.  “Time we got home . . . before Hop Sing throws a fit.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Hop Sing did, indeed, pitch a fit, as he tended to do when anyone was a minute late for mealtime.  The Cartwrights, oldest to youngest, appeased him by giving due diligence to the food on their plates, so it was not until the cook had cleared the table that Little Joe asked eagerly, “When’s Adam comin’?”

            Ben gazed blankly at the boy and then said gently, “Son, we’ve told you again and again that Adam will be back East for four years.  I know it’s hard for you to comprehend how long that is, but it’s a very long time, Little Joe.”

            Little Joe stared back at his father.  “It’s not long ‘til Christmas, is it?”

            “No,” Ben chuckled, amused by, although grateful for, the abrupt change of subject.  “That’s only three days.”

            “I thought so,” Little Joe said with a bounce, “and that’s when Adam’ll be here—for Christmas!”

            Ben shook his head in consternation.  Not a fortuitous change of subject after all, then, just a complete muddling of the things his youngest wanted most.  He reached out to stroke the little lad’s curls with a comforting hand.  “No, Joseph.  I’m sorry, but Adam will not be coming home for Christmas.  It’s too far, sweetheart.”

            “Yeah, punkin,” Hoss added.  “Don’t you remember?  Adam never did come home for Christmas, even when he just went to school in Sacramento, and that was a heap closer than where he is now.”

            Little Joe’s head bobbed and he pointed a finger toward the west.  “Mountains that way . . . and snow.  That’s why.”

            Ben pointed the opposite direction.  “Mountains that way, too . . . and snow and plains and rivers and more mountains and more snow.  It’s a very long way, Joseph.  I know how much you want to see your brother—goodness knows, I do, too—but he simply cannot come home for Christmas.  It’s too far.”

            “He is, Pa!” Little Joe insisted.  “The preacher said so, and he don’t lie.”

            Ben stared at the earnest face, trying to fathom how even as overactive an imagination as Little Joe’s could have interpreted the morning’s sermon as having anything to do with his older brother.  Failing completely, he finally asked, “Joseph, what are you talking about?  The reverend didn’t so much as mention your brother Adam.”

            Little Joe folded his arms.  “He did!” he exclaimed.  “You didn’t pay ‘tention!”

            “I didn’t pay attention?” Ben sputtered.  He turned to Hoss.  “Did you hear anything about your older brother in that sermon?”

            “Nope, not a word,” Hoss assured him.  “The youngun’s gone plumb crazy, Pa.  It ain’t like the sermon was about the garden of Eden.  At least, there’s an Adam in that one.”

            “Yes, but how did this child manage to hear ‘Adam’ when the reverend spoke of nothing but the three wise men this morning?”

            “From the East,” Little Joe chimed in excitedly.  He held up one finger.  “Adam”—he lifted another thoughtfully—“and his friend”—he raised a third finger, beaming—“and one more—all coming for Christmas.”  He smiled brightly.  “We got ‘nough beds or we gonna need a pallet?”

            Ben dropped his head into his hands, his fingers kneading his temple, where a dull ache was starting to form.  “You—you think your brother is one of the three wise men?” he croaked, finally making the connection.

            Hoss snickered.  “Well, Adam is mighty smart, Pa.”

            Ben reared up to glare at his middle son.  “That was not helpful, Hoss!”

            Hoss gulped and shrunk back.  “Sorry, Pa.”

            Ben lifted Little Joe and set the child in his lap.  “Baby, I don’t know how you got such an idea in your sweet little head, but Adam is not one of the wise men from the Bible.”

            Little Joe pointed in approximately the correct direction.  “Adam—east—Haven,” he said, his voice almost a whimper.

            “Yes, I know,” Ben soothed patiently, “but the wise men the preacher was talking about are not from New Haven, and Adam is definitely not one of them.”

            Little Joe’s lower lip trembled.  “He—he is,” he insisted with a quavering voice.

            “No, he is not,” Ben said firmly, “and that’s the last I want to hear on the subject.” 

            Little Joe wiped away the single tear trickling down his cheek and pressed his face into his father’s vest.

            Ben was overcome with instant remorse.  “Oh, baby,” he cried, cradling the crop of chestnut curls close to his heart.  “Pa didn’t mean to be harsh with you.  I just don’t want you to build your hopes up to a bigger hurt later on.  Hush now,” he soothed as he felt the little body quivering against his chest.  “You’ll have a merry Christmas, even though Adam can’t be here.”  Later, as he tucked a still inconsolable Little Joe into bed, he wondered if that were true.  With Marie gone and Adam away, there were two holes in the heart of this family that no amount of holiday merriment could fill.  But he’d do his best for the two precious boys who would be here with him this Christmas, and if his own heart could not be whole, somehow he would see to it that theirs were.

 

* * * * *

 

            Knees hugged tight to his chest and tiny toes tucked under the hem of his nightshirt, Little Joe huddled in the cushioned rocker beside his bed and contemplated the dream that had awakened him.  It hadn’t exactly been a nightmare, like the ones he’d had after Mama died and right after Adam left, but it bothered him.  It left him feeling that something was wrong and he needed to fix it, but he didn’t know how.

            The dream had made him happy at first, for he’d seen his oldest brother in it.  Adam was sitting at a desk in a room Little Joe had never seen before, but he knew it had to be where Adam was staying back East, just as Joe knew, though he’d never met him, that the other boy in the room had to be Adam’s old friend Jamie, ‘cause that’s who Adam lived with now.  Jamie was trying to talk to Adam about going home for Christmas, but Adam wasn’t paying any attention.  He just kept his nose stuck in a book, the way he used to when he was here at home.

            That’s when the dream had started to bother Little Joe.  He had never liked Adam doing that—except when he was reading a story to his little brother, of course.  Adam read stories real good, ‘most as good as Pa—and even better than Mama, although the youngster felt a moment’s disloyalty at such a thought.  No, he decided, Mama wouldn’t mind him thinking Adam read better, ‘cause he really did; he just didn’t do it often enough.

            He wasn’t reading a story in the dream, either.  Little Joe could tell, ‘cause the book was one of those big thick ones that Adam liked and no one else did.  Well, except maybe Jamie, since he was back East at that same school and seemed to be a lot like Adam, from what Joe had heard.  Even Jamie, though, was ready to quit the books and take time for Christmas, but not Adam.  “It’s too far,” Little Joe heard his big brother say.

            Just then a man all dressed in red with white fur had come bursting into Adam’s room.  “It’s not too far!” the man, who could only be Santa himself, cried.  “We only have to follow the star!”

            In the dream Adam had shaken his head sadly and said, “It’s not a real star,” and then he’d gone back to that awful book.  That’s when Little Joe had awakened, not with a scream, as if it had been a real nightmare, but with an anguished whisper, “It is a real star, Adam.  It is, and you’re s’posed to follow it home—you and Jamie and Santa, too.”    Frown lines deepened in the child’s forehead as he worried whether Santa could convince Adam the star was real or Adam would convince Santa it was not.  If that happened, there wouldn’t be any Christmas at all at the Ponderosa, and that horrid thought was enough to propel the little boy out of the rocker.

            Bare feet pattered across the icy floor, down the hall and into the empty room across it.  Little Joe rushed to the window of Adam’s room, and climbed into the chair beneath it to peer out through the frosty pane.  He’d always felt like he could see more through Adam’s window than his own, the view from which was largely obscured by tall pines.  He looked up into the heavens and smiled as he spotted the North Star.  “See, Adam?” he whispered as he tapped the glass.  “There it is.  That’s the star that’ll lead you home.  Pa says so.  He taught Hoss and he taught me.  Didn’t he teach you?  Or did all that book learnin’ push the ‘portant stuff out of your head?”

            Little Joe nodded soberly.  That must be it.  There was only so much room inside a person’s head, and Adam had pushed in so much book learning that there wasn’t room for the star lesson anymore.  That must be why Pa had only said that he hoped Adam was following the star.  Pa couldn’t be sure that Adam would still remember, and it looked like he’d been right to worry.

            Then Little Joe remembered what Pa had said right after that, and his countenance lifted.  Pa had said that he hoped Little Joe would follow that star, too, and the little boy suddenly realized that the same star that should have led Adam home could lead him straight to Adam.  Adam had forgotten how to follow the star, and what Pa had meant, though he hadn’t said it straight out, was that he was hoping Little Joe would follow it to Adam and bring him home for Christmas.  Adam and Jamie and Santa, too—they were the three wise men coming from the East, and it was Joe’s job to get them here!

            With a gasp at the awesome responsibility, Little Joe hopped down from the chair and hurried back to his room to ready himself for the journey.  He dressed as quickly as he could, for the room was cold and it would be colder still outside under the stars.  Then he scurried to gather extra clothes.  Pa had said it was real far to Haven, so it would probably take a couple of days to get there—and it was only three days ‘til Christmas.  He really needed to hustle!

            Little Joe’s fingers fumbled as he unbuttoned the case from his pillow.  He wasn’t good with buttons, and this was taking much too long.  He had to have something to carry things in, though, and the pillowcase was the best he had.  He needed saddlebags, of course, like Pa and Hoss had, but theirs would be too big for him.  Little Joe smiled vibrantly.  Maybe he’d have a chance, on the way back, to talk to Santa Claus about his need for saddlebags—and a horse to go with them.  If anyone could talk Pa into that, it would be Santa, but the important thing now was to get to Adam and bring him home for Christmas.  That’s the only present I really need, Joe thought, ‘cept it’d be nice if Mama could come, too, just for Christmas Day.  Adam and Mama, home for Christmas—that’d be the perfect present!  You listenin’, Santa?

            Little Joe put the loaded pillowcase over his shoulder, looking like a miniature Santa himself as he slipped quietly out of his room and tiptoed down the stairs.   He could not have explained why he sensed such a need for stealth since he was supposedly carrying out his father’s wishes.  Perhaps at some deep level he knew that he was twisting Pa’s words to mean exactly what he wanted them to mean, but Little Joe was too young to analyze what made him act as he did.  He just felt strongly that what he was doing was right, but that at the same time it was something he should do very, very secretly.

            Secretly described the way he entered the kitchen, too, peering cautiously around the doorjamb from the dining room.  Though it was the middle of the night, he wouldn’t have been surprised to find Hop Sing in that kitchen at any hour, and he instinctively knew that little boys who snitched food from the pantry were likely to be in big trouble with the cook.  As he stuffed a loaf of bread, some leftover cookies and a hunk of roast beef into his pillowcase, Little Joe was proud of himself for remembering to pack food.  The last time he’d taken off from home without permission he hadn’t taken anything with him—no food or water or even a jacket.  He’d been little then, of course, and now he was a big boy—well, bigger, anyway, and smarter, too.  Satisfied with his preparations, he quietly opened the door to the yard and went outside.

            The sky was as black as Little Joe had ever seen it and the moonlight only half as bright as it might have been, but the stars were twinkling brilliantly, just like the ones in the child’s eyes as he found the North Star.  Purposely positioning it in line with his left shoulder, he started to trot in as straight a line as he could while climbing over fence rails and dodging around thick tree trunks.  The cold night air made his breath puff like the smoke from Pa’s pipe as he whistled a happy tune to start off his urgent quest.

            It wasn’t long before the trot turned into a walk and then into flagging footsteps accompanied by wide-mouthed yawns.  Little Joe hadn’t slept much the early part of the night, and weariness quickly caught up with him.  The snow on the ground was deep in places and hard to push through, and the wind pushed him ways he didn’t want to go.  He didn’t see any good places to take shelter from it, though, and he was afraid he’d catch cold if he fell asleep with that whistling in his ear.  Besides, he had a long way to go, and it was too soon to stop.

            So on he trudged, coming at last out of the trees into sage-covered flatland.  Even less favorable places to rest here, so he kept going, though his feet dragged through the snow and the pillowcase felt heavy enough to hold toys for all the children in the territory.  He set it down for a minute and stretched his aching arms as he gave the biggest yawn yet.  When he picked up the pillowcase again, he checked the position of the North Star, and as his eyes lowered to the horizon, he spotted a house perhaps a quarter mile away.  He didn’t recognize the place, but figured that ‘most any neighbor wouldn’t mind him resting up a bit in the barn that stood nearby.  He’d get out of the wind for a while and snatch a little sleep before heading east again.  With renewed energy, Little Joe ran toward the barn.  The heavy bar across its door was hard to lift, but he managed; then he pushed the door open a crack, and slipped in.  Looking up, he saw piles of hay in the loft, and with a grin he climbed up, burrowed into its sweet-smelling comfort and promptly fell asleep.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben scrubbed the sleep from his eyes and splashed his face with cold water from his washbasin.  As he rubbed himself dry, he pondered why he always found it so hard to get started on Monday mornings.  You’d think taking a day to rest, like the Good Lord intended, would make a man feel rested and ready for a new week, he mused, but all I seem to feel is a lazy urge to stay beneath the covers.  Natural depravity, I suppose.

            “Come in,” he called in answer to the light tap on his door.

            As expected, Hop Sing came in with a hot cup of coffee, a kindly habit he had fallen into since Marie’s passing.

            “Hop Sing, you spoil me,” Ben said, reaching for the coffee with an appreciative smile.  He sighed with contentment as the warmth from the cup comforted his chilly hands.

            “Just do job,” the Chinese cook insisted.

            “More than that—in every way,” Ben returned.  “The boys up yet?”

            “Hop Sing not hear peep.”

            “Hoss isn’t any fonder of Monday mornings than his father,” Ben chuckled, “but I’ll have to get him up soon or he’ll be late to school.  With the break in the weather, I think they’ll hold it today.  No need to fix Little Joe’s breakfast until you see him, though.  I suspect he can use a little extra sleep; he had a rough start to his night.”

            Hop Sing nodded soberly.  “He miss brother.”  He added in a more tentative tone.  “You, too, Mr. Ben.”

            “We all miss Adam,” Ben agreed.  “It’s just harder for Little Joe to understand time and distance.”  He settled on the edge of the bed and sipped his coffee as the cook quietly slipped out to return to the kitchen.  Spoiled or not, he had to admit he relished the pampering Hop Sing gave him every morning.  Even Monday morning seemed easier to face after that first cup of hot coffee had warmed him through and through, especially compared to last Monday, when all he’d had to look forward to was another day snowbound in the house.

            Setting the empty cup on his bedside table, Ben finished dressing and made his way down the hall to Hoss’s room.  The snores he could hear through the door told him that Hoss was still dead to the waking world, and with a shake of his head, Ben went in to rouse the boy.  “Come on, son, wake up,” he said as he patted Hoss’s shoulder.

            “Huh?”  Hoss woke with a start and then a soft groan.  “Oh, hey, Pa.  Mornin’ already?”

            “Already,” Ben chuckled, tousling the sleep-tangled hair.  “Time you were up.  School this morning.”

            “Yeah, I reckon,” Hoss said with a discontented grunt.

            Ben pulled back the covers and tickled Hoss’s bare foot until the boy squealed.  “Up—now,” Ben said, giving the foot a final light slap.

            “I am,” Hoss said.  Yawning widely, he swung one leg and then the other over the side of the bed.

            “See you downstairs,” his father said.  Ben walked down the hall to the next door.  Even pressing an ear against the door, he couldn’t hear a sound from Little Joe’s room, and since he intended to let the child sleep, he started to leave.  Then he remembered Little Joe’s tendency to toss off blankets as he slept and thought he should, at least, check to make sure his little boy was covered.

            The sight of an empty bed brought a troubled frown to his face.  Poor little lad, he must not have slept well at all.  I’ll need to spend some extra time with him this morning, try once more to help him understand.  He didn’t begrudge the time, of course.  Work never ceased on a growing ranch like the Ponderosa, but his sons came first.  He did, however, wonder if he had the wisdom to deal with the parenting challenges that seemed much tougher to face without Marie at his side.

            “Little Joe!” he called as he descended the stairs.  There was no answer, and a quick scan of the great room with its easy flow from one area to another revealed that his youngest wasn’t there, either.  The kitchen, then?  With long strides Ben made his way across the room and through the doorway into Hop Sing’s domain.

            The Chinese cook turned from the stove.  “Bleakfast leady soon.  You want mo’ coffee?”

            Ben shook his head as his eyes searched the room.  “No, I want my little son to come out from wherever he’s hiding.  Have you seen Little Joe, Hop Sing?”

            The diminutive Oriental looked perplexed.  “Not see.  Hop Sing tell you dat befo’, Mr. Ben.”

            “I know, I know,” an appeasing Ben said.  The last thing he needed to deal with right now was an offended cook.  “I thought he might have gotten up while I was dressing.  He’s not in his bed.”

            The cook’s face wrinkled with concern.  “Not see little boy.  You want I look?”

            Ben waved aside the offer of help.  “No, just get Hoss’s breakfast cooked.  Don’t want him late for school.  I’ll see if I can locate the little mischief.”

            “Hope he not go far, like befo’,” Hop Sing mumbled.

            Ben shivered as he grabbed his coat from the pegged rack beside the door.  “Like before,” he muttered.  “Dear God, not that!”  It had been only months since his youngest son had run away from a father so wrapped in his own grief that he’d had no strength left to soothe his sons’.  That harrowing night, searching for Little Joe and finally finding him at the treacherous top of Eagles’ Nest, had snapped Ben from his emotional stupor, and he’d thought he had successfully rebuilt his relationship with his boys.  Maybe not as well as he’d hoped, however, if disappointment over his big brother’s absence for Christmas could once again propel Little Joe into flight.  No, it couldn’t be that, Ben assured himself.  Joe seemed happy enough these days; he was just being his usual mischievous little self.  Dear God, let it be mischief!

            “Little Joe!” he called as he left the house.  “Time to come in.”  He deliberately kept his voice calm and steady as he added, “You better show yourself, little boy.”

            Looking across the yard, he saw the barn door standing partway open.  Ah, that must be it.  Joe loved to visit the barn and the animals there.  He wasn’t supposed to go in alone, of course, but Ben felt lenient this morning.  He’d let the boy off with a soft scolding.  “Little Joe, you in here?” he called as he entered the out building.

            A ranch hand holding a pitchfork turned as the boss came in.  “Ain’t seen the youngun this mornin’, Mr. Cartwright.”

            “Little Joe,” Ben called loudly, aiming his voice into the loft.  “If you’re hiding up there, you’d better come out.”

            The other man shook his head in the silence that followed.  “Don’t reckon he’s up there, Mr. Cartwright.  I been in here a spell, and I think I’d’ve heard him by now.”

            “Probably,” Ben conceded.  Little Joe wasn’t noted for long spells of quiet.  Ben left the barn and tried to puzzle where else a four-year-old might hide.  He tried the outhouse, the smokehouse and the springhouse without success before finally turning back to the main house.  Maybe the little scamp had been hiding inside all along.  If so, he’d probably tired of the game by now and was ready to sit down to breakfast.

            Hoss was seated at the table when his father walked in, but he immediately sprang to his feet.  “Did you find him?” he asked anxiously.

            “Not yet,” Ben said.  “Sit down and finish your breakfast, son.  I’m gonna check around the house again.”

            “I already did that,” Hoss said.  “I checked all the places he likes to hide, Pa.  He ain’t in here, and if he ain’t outside, neither . . .”  He gave his lower lip a nervous nibble.  “He’s gone missin’ again, ain’t he, Pa?”

            Ben sighed deeply.  “It looks that way, Hoss, but don’t you worry; I’ll find him.”  He noticed the half-full plate in front of Hoss.  “Finish up your breakfast, son, and get on to school.”

            “No, sir!” Hoss declared adamantly.

            Ben arched a surprised eyebrow at this response from his normally tractable middle son.  “Are you defying me, young man?”

            “I guess so.”  Hoss wasn’t entirely sure what “defying” meant, but he figured from the look on Pa’s face that he was probably guilty of whatever it was.  “I’ll finish my breakfast, Pa,” he announced clearly, “but I ain’t goin’ to school today—not ‘til we find Little Joe.”

            Understanding the concern that lay behind Hoss’s unaccustomed willfulness, Ben said gently, but firmly, “I can find your brother without your help, Hoss, and you need to be in school.”

            Hoss’s chin began to quiver.  “Pa, I wouldn’t learn a thing, not with worryin’ over Little Joe; I just know I wouldn’t.  Let me help.  Please!”

            Ben hurried across the room and, kneeling beside Hoss’s chair, took the boy in his arms.  “You’re right, son,” he said, his voice choking.  “Of course, you’re right.  Some things are more important than school work or ranch work, and finding your brother heads the list.  Neither of us will be able to think of anything else until he’s home safe.  You’ll come with me, and once we find Little Joe, you can go on to school.”  It was his way of assuring Hoss—and himself—that they would find the child quickly.  “Now, finish up that breakfast, so we can get started.”

            “You, too, Pa,” Hoss insisted urgently.  “Hop Sing said you ain’t et yet, ‘cause you was out lookin’ for Joe, and you gotta ‘fore we can leave.”

            Ben smoothed his son’s tawny locks with the tender touch this tender-hearted boy, so like his mother, seemed to draw out of him.  “You’re right again, my wise young son.  We both need to fuel up before we head out into the cold.”  He shivered involuntarily at the thought of his youngest son out there in the cold, wondering if the child had given a thought to fuel for himself or even warm clothing.  He hadn’t last time, but that had been summer.  Maybe, since he was never allowed out without a coat these days, the little lad had, at least, had sense enough to dress warmly.  He’d check to see whether Joe’s little coat was missing as soon as he finished the breakfast Hop Sing was now setting at his place at the table.

 

* * * * *

 

            As she left the warmth of her kitchen and headed across the yard, the woman turned up the collar of her coat and pulled it snug about her neck.  It had become habit as she went about her daybreak chores.  Her lean flesh felt the chill of the early morning, and lately each had seemed chillier than the one before it.  Snow drifts piled against the house, but that was as it should be, so close to Christmas.  It takes a blanket of snow, she thought, to make a proper New England Christmas, and from the looks of that sky, the blanket just might get thicker.

            It would be a comfort to have a touch of home, this first Christmas without her man.  She hadn’t wanted to come out here to this God-forsaken barrenness in the first place.  That had been Obadiah’s doing, and then he’d up and died on her and left her the care of a place she didn’t much want and scarcely knew what to do with.  Somehow she’d kept it going and even put a little aside from the sale of her eggs and butter, enough for a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings . . . if only she’d had someone to share her table.

            Brushing self-pity aside, for that went against her New England grain, she headed for the barn, but as she approached the door, she saw that it was slightly ajar.  “I know I closed that door,” she muttered.  She remembered putting the bar across it, too, so no amount of wind could blow it open and risk the health of her precious dairy stock, precious because upon their lives rested her own livelihood.

            Someone had opened that door, she reasoned, and that someone might still be inside, maybe even planning to rustle himself a milk cow from a poor, defenseless widow woman.  It was at times like this that she keenly missed Obadiah, for purely practical reasons.  She didn’t fancy facing down some thievin’ varmint, but she wasn’t about to let anyone waltz off with her best stock.  That varmint was about to find out that this widow woman wasn’t as helpless as he’d hoped!

            First she put a cautious ear to the doorway.  She couldn’t hear anyone moving around inside, so she slipped in quietly, thankful that her spare bones enabled her to squeeze through the scant opening.  She lifted the pitchfork from its place beside the door and advanced, step by guarded step.  She still didn’t see or hear anything except the soft lowing of her cows.  She checked each stall and breathed a sigh of relief as she tallied the presence of each animal.  Not rustlers, then.  Had she simply been so addle-pated last night that she only thought she’d shut and barred that door?

            Then in the faint light that filtered through the partially opened door, she saw straw flutter down through the cracks in the loft floor and heard a slight rustle of movement.  Someone was up there!  Not a rustler, then, but a vagrant.  She wouldn’t have begrudged any man shelter on a cold December night, but one that took without asking might take other things without asking, too—like the virtue of a defenseless widow woman.

            Her grip tightened on the pitchfork as she held it warily before her.  “You up in the loft!” she yelled.  “Show yourself!”

            She heard no response except the same soft rustling as before, but more straw trickled through the cracks.  Finally, a small head peered over the edge of the loft, and wide eyes stared down at her.

            “Land sakes,” she gasped when she saw the tiny boy.  “Who’s up there with you, child?”

            Little Joe shook his head.  “Just me, ma’am.”

            “Just you?”  The woman looked dumbfounded.  “What’s a little thing like you doin’ out on such a night?”

            “Just travelin’, ma’am,” the boy lisped.

            “Travelin’!”  She collected herself.  “Well, you can just travel down from that loft right now, boy!”

            Little Joe stood up slowly and pointed a shaky finger at the pitchfork.  “Put that down,” he quavered.

            “Oh, lands, I’m not gonna hurt you,” the woman said, hastily setting the implement aside.  She cocked her head and studied the child.  “Why, I know you.  You’re that little mite of a Cartwright boy, ain’t you?”

            “Yes’m,” Little Joe said, relieved to be recognized, for surely no one who knew his family would use a pitchfork on him.

            “Well, get on down here, child,” she ordered.  “For the love of mercy, don’t Ben Cartwright never keep a watch on you?”  It hadn’t been that long back, she recalled as the youngster climbed down from the loft, that half the countryside had been turned out to look for this boy, who’d run off looking for his dead mama, or so gossip at the time had said.  She’d thought then, as she had almost from the first moment she’d heard of Marie Cartwright’s passing, that Ben ought to take himself a new wife to look after those three boys of his.  Boys needed a mother, especially boys as young as this one, and if Ben Cartwright needed proof of that, this child’s traipsin’ ways ought to give it to him.

            She met the boy at the foot of the loft ladder and brushed stray straw from his curls.  “You know me, don’t you, boy?”

            “Yes’m, you’re the widow Hunter, from church,” Little Joe said.

            Mrs. Hunter scowled.  She hated being known by that title.  It reminded her of her still-painful loss and of a marital status she utterly loathed.  Still, it wasn’t the child’s fault; he was, no doubt, only repeating what he’d heard.  Touching his red cheeks, she exclaimed, “Lands, you’re cold!  And no wonder, drafty as this barn is, me havin’ no man to mend it.  You come in the house right this minute, child, and we’ll get you warm and fill you up with a nice hot breakfast.”

            A warm kitchen and a hot breakfast sounded just about perfect to Little Joe, so he took her hand amiably, offered her his charming cherub’s smile and skipped at her side as they made their way across the snowy yard to the house.  For a childless widow woman, that was just about as perfect a start to a morning as she’d had in many a day.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben’s steps were brisk with determination as he left the ranch house.  He’d been relieved to discover that Little Joe was evidently wearing his warm coat, and Hop Sing’s tirade about a loaf of bread and some other items missing from the pantry indicated that his little lad had provided himself with breakfast, as well.  Still, Nevada winters could be highly unpredictable.  Ten days of snow and then the break in the weather yesterday, but the cloud-filled sky this morning looked primed to send down another deluge.

            Struggling to keep close to his father’s heels, a bundled-up Hoss asked, “Where we gonna look first, Pa?”

            “Eagle’s Nest,” Ben answered brusquely.

            “Where he run off before?”

            “Yes.”  Ben’s clipped response indicated his inner turmoil, his sense of failure as a parent.  His little boy was unhappy and had once again run from him, rather than to him.  I didn’t take enough note, Ben chastised himself.  I thought we’d worked past the problems we had—that I caused—after Marie’s passing.  I thought my boy knew now that I loved him and that he could trust me.  Now, this.  He’s hurt and it’s her he wants, her he trusts.  Must be.  What else could it be?  We’ll find him soon.  Have to.  Dear God, let it be before he starts up Eagle’s Nest again.  I don’t know how he made that steep climb before, and I don’t relish carrying him down during a snow storm.  He recalled how raindrops had splattered them on that terrifying earlier descent, but snow . . . or even sleet?  A thousand times worse.

            “Thanks,” he said to Hank Carlton, who had saddled his horse and Hoss’s.

            “Glad to help,” Hank said.  “Anything else I can do, Mr. Cartwright.”

            “I think I know where he is,” Ben replied, “but if Little Joe turns up back here or you hear anything new, ride out to Eagle’s Nest and let me know.”

            “Sure will, Mr. Cartwright, and I’ll be prayin’ you find the little feller.”

            “Thank you,” Ben said, giving the man an earnest handshake.  He swung into the saddle and once he saw that Hoss was securely mounted, he headed out toward Eagle’s Nest, where he confidently hoped to find his lost child.

 

* * * * *

 

            Mrs. Hunter slid a plate of sizzling ham with fried egg, fried potatoes and a piping hot biscuit already spread with butter and honey before Little Joe.  “There!” she announced with satisfaction.  “I’ll bet you’re glad to get some woman-cooking for a change.”

            “Hop Sing cooks good,” Little Joe replied just before he took a bite of biscuit.

            “Well enough for his kind, I suppose,” Mrs. Hunter said, “though you don’t have enough meat on your bones to prove it.”

            Little Joe flashed her a mischievous grin.  “Hoss does.”

            Mrs. Hunter laughed.  “True enough.  Do you like the biscuit?  My Obadiah always prized my biscuits.”

            “It’s real good,” Little Joe said with enthusiasm.

            The woman patted his head.  “Eat everything on your plate and you can have another.”  She went back to the stove and after filling her own plate came back to sit across from the little boy.  “Now, what’s this nonsense about you travelin’ somewhere by yourself?  Were you lookin’ for your mama again, little lamb?”

            “Oh, no, ma’am, she’s in heaven,” Little Joe said.

            Mrs. Hunter scowled, but knowing it wouldn’t set well with Ben Cartwright, she kept to herself her opinion of the eternal destination of Catholics.

            “I’m goin’ to fetch my brother home for Christmas,” Little Joe offered between bites of egg.

            “Don’t tell me he’s taken off, too!” Mrs. Hunter cried, dropping her fork.

            “Yes’m, all the way to Haven,” the child told her, “but I know how to find him.”

            “Haven?”  Mrs. Hunter looked confused for a moment.  Then comprehension slowly spread across her countenance.  “Oh, you mean New Haven, where Ben’s oldest boy went off to school?”

            “That’s right!” Little Joe declared.  “Adam’s in Haven—east.”

            Mrs. Hunter tucked a straggling strand of jet black hair behind her ear.  “I thought you meant your other brother, the one with meat on his bones.”

            Little Joe shook his head, clearly confounded by such a colossal error.  “Hoss?  He’s already home, ma’am.  ‘Sides, he could find his way anywhere; he knows about the star.”  Chattering on, he reached for the glass of milk.  “Adam’s comin’ home for Christmas,” he explained, “but I think, maybe, he’s forgot how to get here, so I’m goin’ to fetch him.”

            Mrs. Hunter rested her elbows on the table, her chin in the palms of both hands, and stared at the child.  “Does your pa have the slightest notion of this nonsense?”

            “Oh, yes, ma’am!” Little Joe assured her brightly.  “He wants me to find Adam.  He said he hoped I would.”

            Mrs. Hunter’s dark eyes widened as she chewed on that, along with her breakfast.  Ben Cartwright was twelve kinds of a fool for trying to raise a little handful like this on his own, but she didn’t believe any man could be a big enough fool to send such a tiny tot to the East Coast by himself.  “Child, that just can’t be,” she said when her mouth was empty.

            “Oh, yes,” Joe insisted, head bobbing emphatically.  “He told me to follow the star and bring the wise men home.  Adam’s one of them—and Jamie and Santa’s the others.”

            “What!”  What sort of Popish sacrilege had Ben Cartwright’s late wife drilled into these innocent ears?  The sooner Ben was made to realize this boy’s need of a god-fearing mother, the better!  “We’ll just see what your father has to say about that, child.  Soon as we’ve finished breakfast and I wash up these dishes, I’ll hitch the team and take you home.”

            “I can’t go home,” Little Joe said, a stubborn frown forming on his lips.  “I ain’t found Adam yet.”

            “And you ain’t a-gonna find Adam, not today,” the woman declared, hands on her hips.  “The very idea of a little mite like you traipsin’ off to the East Coast by hisself!”

            “Pa said to!”

            “If he did, his ears’ll be burnin’ by the time I get through tellin’ him my opinion on that subject,” Mrs. Hunter snorted.  “Now, finish up your milk quick-like, child, so we can be on our way.  If things stand the way I think they do, your pa’s likely frettin’ hisself silly ‘bout this time.”

            “O-okay,” Little Joe said, his head dropping, though he managed to keep her face within his line of sight.  “I don’t want Pa to worry.”

            Anyone who knew Little Joe would have been suspicious of such easy acquiescence, but Mrs. Hunter had not been blessed with experience with any child, much less one who might be generously described as crafty.  She simply assumed that her child-rearing theories were being vindicated.  All any parent had to do, she firmly believed, was state plainly the way things were to be, and a child would automatically comply.  “There now, that’s a good boy,” she cooed.  “And look how you’ve cleaned up your plate.  Would you like another biscuit?”

            Little Joe smiled sweetly.  “Yes, please.”  He accepted another light and airy biscuit, every bit as good as Hop Sing’s, and took a nibble before lowering it into his lap.

            Attention fixed on her own plate, Mrs. Hunter didn’t seem to notice.  Little Joe sat quietly watching her, and anytime she looked up, he moved his mouth as if he were chewing the bread he had eventually slipped into his pocket.  Grub this good should not be left behind when hitting the trail.

            When the woman finished her breakfast, she looked across at the child’s empty plate.  “All done?” she asked, and when Little Joe nodded, she stood and carried both her own plate and the boy’s to the basin of soapy water waiting for dirty dishes.

            “Ma’am?” Little Joe asked as he walked up behind her.  “I’d best go to the outhouse now.”

            Her hands in the dishpan, Mrs. Hunter looked at him over her shoulder.  “I’ll take you before we leave.”

            “But I need to go now!” Little Joe wailed piteously.

            “Oh, my goodness!” the woman ejaculated.  “I wish you’d spoke up before I got my hands all soaped up.”

            “I can go by myself; I’m a big boy,” Little Joe assured her.  “It’s out back, I guess?”

            “Of course, it is,” she said.  “Well, I reckon you are big enough to manage, at that.  You go on and do what needs doin’.  That’ll give me a chance to wash up.  Then we’ll head out to the barn.”

            “Yes’m,” Little Joe said, adding as he scooted out the back door, “I’ll meet you there.”

            “Wait, child!” she called, but the door shut with a slam.  “Goodness!” she said, vigorously scrubbing the cast iron skillet in which she’d fried the eggs.  “What a whirlwind!  Ben definitely needs help with that one.  Well, there’s nothing in the barn to hurt him; won’t hurt to leave him there alone a few minutes.”

            The whirlwind slunk around to the side of the house, the opposite direction from the outhouse.  He paused there only long enough to unbutton his fly and give the icy garden plot a sprinkle.  His immediate need met, he hurried over to the barn, scrambled up into the loft to retrieve his pillowcase of supplies and scurried back down again.  Spotting a back door to the barn, he quickly darted to it and through it.  He couldn’t see the star, now that it was morning, but Hoss had told him that the sun always came up in the east, so Little Joe grinned at the golden orb rising in the cloudy sky and was soon running as fast as his legs could carry him—east, toward Adam and the other wise men.

 

* * * * *

 

            Staring up at the top of Eagle’s Nest, Ben breathed a sigh, whether of relief or dismay he couldn’t say.  Both, he decided.  Relief that Little Joe wasn’t perched precariously atop that craggy pinnacle, dismay that he didn’t know where to look now.  After staring thoughtfully at the rock formation for a long time, he asked pensively, “Hoss, does your brother have a strong enough sense of direction to find his mother’s grave?”

            Hoss lowered the muffler wrapped around his nose and mouth.  “Maybe,” he said, but he sounded doubtful.

            “Do you think he might go there?”

            Hoss’s forehead crinkled in thought.  “I ain’t sure he could, Pa.  I don’t recollect you ever talkin’ ‘bout what direction that was from the house.”

            “What he can or can’t do may not be the right question, son,” Ben said.  “It’s what he might try to do that we have to ask ourselves.”

            Hoss nodded soberly.  “He might try.  Him and me’s been there a time or two on our own, and he might recollect which way we went.  He does seem to like it there.”

            Ben sighed heavily.  A shot in the dark, but so would be every other choice he might make.  “Let’s look there, then.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Best bonnet tied on with an attractive bow beneath her left ear and wrapped in her warm woolen cape, Elvira Hunter came into the barn.  “Child, where are you?” she called when she saw no sign of the little boy.  “Are you up in that loft again?”  When only silence met her ears, she raised her voice.  “You’d best answer me, boy!”  There was still no answer, so gritting her teeth with resolve, she marched toward the loft ladder.  Just as she mounted the first rung, however, a gust of wind blew open the back door, which Little Joe had failed to latch.  “Oh, my gracious!” Mrs. Hunter cried as she stepped back down and ran to the door.  Looking through it, she could see no trace of the child, but she knew, sure as the world, that the little hellion had taken off again.

            Hurriedly she harnessed the team to her buckboard, mourning again the lack of a man to switch the wheels for runners.  “East, he said,” she muttered.  “Not sure he knows which way that is, but it’s the best place to start.”  She climbed into the seat, flicked the reins and took off, head swiveling every few seconds, so she could search both sides of the road.  After she’d gone two miles, she pulled the team to a stop.  A child on foot couldn’t have come this far in the time that had passed, so either he’d gone a different direction or he wasn’t traveling along the road.  She couldn’t take the team across uneven, snow-covered terrain in a buckboard.  With snow up to the hubs, she could barely manage on the road.  Regretting the delay for the child’s sake, she turned the team around and headed back the opposite direction, keeping up her constant search of the roadsides.  She still saw no sign of Little Joe, but she kept going this time and even quickened her pace as a flutter of snowflakes sprinkled her maroon felt bonnet.  The road would ultimately lead her to the Ponderosa, where she could give Ben a piece of her mind and tell him that he needed to mount a search on horseback.

 

* * * * *

 

            Little Joe wedged himself inside a nest of boulders.  No one had to tell him that the widow Hunter would come chasing after him as soon as she realized he was gone.  She was a nice lady, and she really thought that taking him home to Pa was the right thing to do, so he couldn’t be mad at her.  But he couldn’t let her stop him, either.  He had a job to do, a job Pa was trusting him to do, so running away and hiding from her was the right thing for him to do.  He’d run as hard as he could, as long as he could; then he’d spotted the boulders and decided they’d be a safe place to rest a spell.  He pulled the biscuit from his pocket and nibbled it.  Still good, even though it was cold now, and he’d been smart to take an extra one and save Hop Sing’s loaf of bread for later.  The lady was a good cook, and it had been good to start the morning with a hot breakfast, especially since it seemed extra cold again this morning, like those mornings they’d all spent huddled up in the kitchen.

            A snowflake plopping on his nose startled Little Joe and made him grin with delight.  More snow for Christmas—perfect!  The pines on the Ponderosa were beautiful when they were dusted with snow, and Adam would think so, for sure.  One of the letters his big brother had written when he was going to that old academy in Sacramento talked about how he missed seeing snow at Christmas.  Little Joe wondered for a minute if there was snow in Haven or if Adam was missing it now.  He shrugged.  He didn’t know, but Adam could tell him when they met up—or, maybe, if he had to go all the way east, he’d just see for himself.

            Little Joe finished the biscuit, stood up and peeked over the boulders to make sure the nice widow lady hadn’t caught up with him.  Then he stepped out and began walking toward the fading light of the cloud-covered sun, catching the falling snowflakes with his outstretched tongue as he crunched through the ice-crusted snow covering the ground.

 

* * * * *

 

            A shot in the dark.  That’s all it had been, and like most of its kind, it had struck nowhere near its target.  Dejected, Ben dismounted and, gathering the reins in one gloved hand, led the buckskin toward the familiar grove of pines.  Sensing his father’s need to be alone, Hoss held back and watched as his father knelt by the engraved headstone.

            “Oh, Marie,” Ben sighed, his face falling into his right hand, “I’ve failed you once again—failed him again—failed to understand how lonely his little heart was—for you, for Adam—especially at this time of year, when family ought to be together.  I’ve lost our little boy, Marie, and I’ve looked everywhere I can think of.  God and good angels brought him back to me once before, and I have no right to ask such grace again.  But I am asking, because I must, and, perhaps, because God is gracious, He will hear . . . again.”

            Lifting his tear-streaked face, Ben addressed his Creator directly.  “Lord, You know the heart of a father, for You are one Yourself.  At this season of the year we’re reminded of how You were parted from Your Son, but You knew that He was on a mission the two of You had planned together before the earth was formed.  I feel that way about Adam.  Much as I miss him, I know he’s working toward Your mission for him, and I’m comforted in the separation, knowing it’s for good purpose and that it won’t be forever.”  His voice broke.  “It—It’s different with Little Joe.  He’s not on a mission; he’s just lost.”  Snowflakes mingled with salt droplets on his upturned face.  “He’s so little, Lord, and it’s turning so cold that if we don’t find him soon, he may never even start whatever mission You have for him in this life.  Oh, please, please show me what to do, which way to turn.  I have no other hope.”

            He ended with a broken sob, but just as he reached the end of himself, an inexplicable peace settled over his troubled heart.  He rose from his knees and walked back toward Hoss with purposeful strides.  “Let’s go, son,” he said.

            “Where now, Pa?” Hoss asked.

            Ben smiled, though his lips quavered.  “Home, son.”

            “You think Little Joe’s found his way back there?”

            Ben swung into the saddle.  “I don’t know.  I just know we need to go home.  I can’t explain, Hoss, but I feel it in my heart.”

            Hoss, who of all Ben’s sons best understood being led by the heart, immediately turned his horse around.  “Let’s go home, then.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Sitting in the ample armchair beside the great stone fireplace, Elvira Hunter sipped a hot cup of tea and surveyed the interior of the Ponderosa.  There was a grand majesty about the way the room flowed from one function to another, but the décor lacked a certain polish, she thought.  Odd, since Ben’s woman had seemed to carry herself with a sort of flair that one might have expected to carry over to the house.  What I could do with this place! Elvira mused as she took another sip of the warm drink.  It’ll never look like a print from Godey’s Lady’s Book, but a few well placed doilies would soften all this rugged masculinity, give the place some genteel grace.  She swirled the beverage around in her mouth.  The child had been right about one thing: the Chinaman could cook—well, at least, he could brew a decent cup of tea, which made a certain amount of sense, she supposed, with tea coming from China.

            She shivered as the front door flew open and two snow-frosted figures came in, along with a strong gust of frosty air.  “Lands!  You’re lettin’ all the warm air out,” she called sharply, setting the china cup and saucer down with a clunk as she came to her feet.

            “El—Elvira?”  Ben blinked in bewilderment.  He’d seen the unfamiliar buckboard outside, of course, but would never have guessed that a solitary woman would be out on a day like this.  “I—uh—it’s good to see you, of course, but I’m afraid I haven’t the time for a social call just now.  I’ve got a bit of a problem on my hands.”

            “Out of your hands, don’t you mean?” Mrs. Hunter snorted.  “I know all about your problem, Ben, and you’ve got my sympathy, tryin’ to keep track of that one.”

            “Hop Sing told you?” Ben surmised.

            “As if I needed to be told!”  Elvira marched across the room and stood before Ben, knuckles planted on her hips.  “I know all about it, Ben Cartwright, all about your oldest boy and Santa Claus bein’ wise men and followin’ a star to fetch ‘em back here for Christmas.  Of all the mixed up batch of ferdoodlement I ever heard!”

            Goggle-eyed, Ben stared at her.  It was the most mixed up batch of whatever ferdoodlement was that he’d ever heard, too, and he found himself wondering if Elvira Hunter had completely lost her mind.

            “Adam is mighty smart,” Hoss suggested hesitantly.

            Ben spun to glare at his middle son.  “Hoss, that is not helpful!”  He stopped short as he recognized that he and Hoss had had this conversation before.  “You don’t mean . . . ?”

            Hoss had winced when his father started yelling, and the worry lines remained etched around his mouth as he slowly nodded.  “I think . . . maybe . . . yeah.”

            “Would one of you start talkin’ sense?” Elvira demanded.  “This is no time to be blatherin’; that child is out alone, Ben, with a storm comin’ on again.”

            Seeing genuine concern reflected in the woman’s eyes, Ben set aside his own fears for a moment and laid a consoling hand on her bony shoulder.  “We’ll find him, Elvira,” he said with more confidence than he felt.  “Come back over by the fire and tell me what you know about this.  Who told you about the wise men and a star?” he asked as he led her back to the warmth of the blazing logs.

            “Why, the child himself,” she said as she took the offered seat.  “Goodness, Ben, what were you thinking to fill an innocent child’s head with that Popish nonsense?”

            Ben shook his head to clear it.  “It isn’t Popish nonsense,” he said.  “It’s just childish nonsense.  Little Joe told you?”  The implication of that suddenly struck him, and his face lit up.  “You’ve seen him?”

            “Seen him?  I fed him breakfast,” Elvira declared.

            Ben’s hands raised in an automatic gesture of praise.  “Oh, thank God!  Where is he, Elvira?  You brought him home?”  He closed his eyes and gave his head another shake.  “No, no, you said he was out alone . . . but . . . you fed him breakfast.”  He stared blankly into her eyes.  “I don’t understand.  They can’t both be true, can they?”

            “They can when you’re dealin’ with that child,” Elvira Hunter grunted.  Her gruff expression crumbled.  “Oh, Ben, I been chidin’ you for a fool, but I’ve been just as big a one.  I let that little conniver trick me into thinkin’ he was just goin’ to the outhouse, but he took off on me, still headed east, I reckon.”

            “East?  He’s headed east?” Ben babbled.

            “To get Adam, Pa,” Hoss, who had trailed them over to the fire, inserted.  “The wise men came from the East, remember?  And he knows that’s where Adam is.”

            Ben reached over to massage his son’s shoulder.  “Yes, yes, of course,” he said, as if everything they were saying made perfect sense.  “He’s trying to get to New Haven, then.”

            “That’s what the child said,” Elvira reported, “and he said you’d sent him there to fetch his brother home for Christmas.”

            “What!”

            At the sound of that wild bellow, Elvira shriveled back in the armchair, as cowed as Hoss had been moments before.  “Well, it’s what he said, and I said to myself, ‘Ben may be twelve kinds of a fool for tryin’ to raise this child without a woman’s help, but he couldn’t be that big a fool.’”

            “Make it thirteen kinds of a fool, and you’ll about hit the mark,” Ben muttered.  “Why didn’t I think about him heading east?”

            “‘Cause it’s plumb loco,” Hoss said, plopping down on the settee and dropping his chin into his hands.

            Elvira nodded her agreement.  “I hitched up the buckboard and tried to follow him,” she went on, “but he wasn’t on the road and I couldn’t leave it with a wagon, deep as the snow was.  I told the first hand I spotted when I got to your ranch, and he sent another one out toward my place, while he took off after you.”

            “He didn’t find me,” Ben said, realizing that he had left Eagle’s Nest by the time his man had searched for him there.  “Elvira, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your driving over here to tell me this.  It means we know which way to search now.  You’re welcome to stay here, but I need to get saddled and head out.”

            “Of course, you do,” Elvira declared.  “Ain’t that what I’ve been sayin’ all along?”  Recollecting her manners, she stood up.  “I thank you for the invite, Ben, but I’d best be headin’ on home.  I’ve got stock to tend.”  She looked over at Hoss.  “You reckon you could help me hitch my team back up, boy?”

            Hoss looked anxiously over at his father.  Ordinarily, he would have agreed at once, knowing that he was expected to do whatever he could to help a neighbor.  But Pa’d said he could help search for Little Joe, and they needed to leave quick as they could.

            “Yes, he can,” Ben answered for his son.  “In fact, he can drive the team for you.”

            “But, Pa . . .” Hoss protested.  “You said . . .”

            Ben took his son’s face between his hands.  “I know, but that’s as far as I can let you go, Hoss.  There’s a storm brewing, and I won’t have two sons out in it.”  He looked over at his neighbor.  “He can stay with you until I return for him?”

            “Of course, he can.”  Her tone was an unmistakable rebuke for thinking her answer might be anything else.  “You get on your way, Ben, and find that little tyke.  I’ll take good care of your other boy for you ‘til you get back with him.”

            “Bless you, Elvira,” Ben said in benediction for her faith that he would find Little Joe.  Impulsively, he planted a kiss on her forehead and hurried out the door.

            Blushing with elation at how this morning’s events were advancing her relationship with the elusive Mr. Cartwright, Mrs. Hunter turned toward Hoss.  “Can you handle a team, boy?  You look big enough, but I know you’re younger than you seem, and there’s snow on the road.”

            “Oh, yes, ma’am.  I’m real good with stock.”  Hoss still looked wistfully after his father, but knowing that Pa trusted him to drive the lady, even with a storm coming on, swelled his pride and eased his disappointment at not helping to find Little Joe.  He squared his shoulders.  “We’d best get on, ma’am, before the roads get worse.”

            “You’re right, boy,” she replied as she took her coat from the peg by the door.  She tied on her bonnet and followed him out into the barn to get her horses.

 

* * * * *

 

            Spinning round and round, Little Joe frantically scanned the sky.  The snow was still pretty, but it was coming down so thick and fast now that he couldn’t see the sun, and dark as it was, the star still wasn’t shining to guide his way, either.  His pant legs were wet, up to the knees, and he was cold and miserable . . . and scared.  The same uneasiness that had made him sneak out of the house earlier was creeping over him.  He wasn’t quite ready to admit that he’d known all along that Pa didn’t really want him to go after Adam—that admission might lead to one of Pa’s “very necessary little talks”—but that conclusion was slowly working its way up to the surface of his mind.

            The little boy stomped the numbness from his feet, while he pulled on his lower lip with his mittened left hand.  Which way was east?  He couldn’t tell.  Should he go home then?  Real panic hit when he realized he didn’t know which way that was, either.  Instinctively, he bolted forward, not sure whether he was trying to get to Adam now or back to Pa.  He just knew that he had to get out of the cold, wet snow, and one direction seemed about as good as another.

 

* * * * *

 

            Slackening his speed only enough to spare his mount needless risk, Ben had ridden hard until he reached the Hunter ranch.  Then, heading east from there, he’d slowed down.  In the fast-falling snow, there were no tracks to follow, so he had to rely on sighting the child, and no one knew better than he what a wild stroke of luck—or more likely, the guidance of Providence—it would take to spot one small boy in this swirling white nightmare.  Eyes stretched to both horizons, he kept going, as near due east as he could, even though he knew Little Joe’s sense of direction couldn’t be strong enough to keep him on that steady a course.  What other alternative did he have, though?  The sage plains were broad expanses of sparsely settled territory, where neither Nature nor man provided much by way of shelter.  They could easily swallow up a child as small as Little Joe.

            How would I bear that? Ben asked himself.  Merciful God, You can’t let it happen—not again!  I’ve lost two good women to this difficult land; I can’t lose my son, too.  Show me where he is!  The wise men followed the star until they came to where the young child lay, he recalled from Scripture, but I’m no wise man and there is no star—no sun, either, now, no way for Little Joe to find his bearings.  Or me, either.  Which way should I go?

            Not east.  He suddenly knew that as certainly as if he’d heard a voice from heaven.  Not due east, at least.  He’d been foolish to try to keep that course, when he knew Little Joe couldn’t.  No, his son was at the mercy of the elements, and his path would be more directed by the force of the wind than by the unseen sun and stars or landmarks the father might recognize, but the son would not.  He slackened the reins and let his horse pick its own path, hoping that somehow it would respond as a child might.

 

* * * * *

 

            Little Joe stumbled and fell forward into a deep drift of snow.  Clawing his way out, he clambered wearily to his feet.   “Papa,” he whimpered.  No answer came, but a trickle of tears did, and he furiously wiped them away with his damp mittens before they could freeze on his face and tattle that he wasn’t a big boy.  He was ready to admit now that he’d done a bad thing in sneaking out of the house.  Pa would be mad, but he didn’t care anymore.  Pa could be as mad as he wanted—even mad enough for that necessary little talk—just so long as he found him.  Little Joe was sure he would, even without a star to follow.  Pa was very smart about finding things.  In the meantime, though, it was cold—real cold.  Little Joe knew he couldn’t just stand still in the freezing wind.  He had to find some rocks or something to hide behind until Pa came for him.  He walked on, though it was harder with each step through the deepening snow.

 

* * * * *

 

            As his buckskin plodded forward according to instinct, Ben raised his eyes to the leaden gray sky.  Was it his imagination or was the snow easing up?  And was it his imagination, too, that the terrain seemed more level?  No, that sensation was definitely real, and Ben smiled with sudden understanding.  The horse, taking the path of least resistance, had made his way back to the road.  Would Little Joe have done the same?  He wouldn’t know where to look for it, but if he stumbled across it?  Yes, he might stay with the road then, choosing it for the same reason the horse had, since the cross-country route he’d charted before must be increasingly hard for those short, tired legs to maneuver.  The road led more north than east, but Ben had long since given up the notion that his son was still headed east.  He’d follow the road for a while and see where it took him . . . hopefully toward Little Joe.

 

* * * * *

 

            Little Joe trudged through the snow, but the going didn’t seem as hard as before.  The ground felt different, somehow, and now the snow didn’t seem like a wild monster, eager to gobble him up.  Just pretty snow again, drifting down real slow . . . but there was so much of it already.  The wind was still cold, too, and he hadn’t found a good place to get away from it.

            Then, up ahead, he saw something.  He wasn’t sure what at first, but it was big.  Boulders, maybe? he thought as he cocked his head for a closer look.  Funny shape for boulders, but they could be ‘most any shape, couldn’t they?  As Little Joe squinted, trying to puzzle out what he was seeing, the wind blew aside some of the snow piled against the object, and he saw—spokes!  A wheel!  A wagon—it was a wagon!  And wagons meant people and maybe a house nearby.  Hope pouring energy into his exhausted legs, Little Joe ran for the wagon.  “Hello!  Hello!” he called, loud as he could, but no one answered.

            He was almost up to the wagon when he skidded to an abrupt halt.  Something was wrong.  The wagon had a cover over its top, like people used when they were traveling far, and harness was trailing on the ground, but there were no horses.  Cautiously, he approached the still-silent wagon and slowly climbed up onto the seat.  He peeked through the front opening in the wagon cover and immediately tumbled inside, eyes wide with excitement.

            Presents!  The wagon had packages, wrapped in paper and tied with ribbon.  Oh, it had the usual stuff people packed for a trip, too—trunks and bags and pots and pans and odds and ends of all kinds—but this wagon had presents, too.  It must be Santa’s wagon!  Then puzzlement furrowed across his brow.  But where was Santa?  And where were the other wise men?  Most importantly, where was Adam?

            Little Joe nodded in sober decision.  Lost, just as he’d feared.  Maybe he hadn’t been wrong, after all, to come out looking for his brother, except now they were both lost in the snow, without a star to guide them.  If he could just find Adam, though, they’d at least be together, and Pa wouldn’t have to look for the both of them.  That would help Pa be less mad . . . but where had Adam and Santa and Jamie gone?

            His tummy was rumbling, so he retrieved his pillowcase from beside the wagon, where he’d dropped it, and took out the cookies.  Cookies always seemed to perk Hoss up when he came home from school.  Maybe they’d help him think better, too.  As he brushed the last crumbs from his lap, however, he still had no idea where the wise men might have gone.

            He crawled over the assorted goods and gifts in the wagon until he could peer out the small oval opening in the back.  He wasn’t sure what he had expected to see, but not such a clearly marked trail.  Of course!  The horses—or were they reindeer?—would leave a broad path like that, even through the snow.  All he had to do was stay in the path and it would lead him straight to Adam—and Santa, too.  Maybe he’d even get an extra present for finding them!

            The back opening was laced too tightly for even so small a child as Joe to fit through, so he scrambled back to the front of the wagon and clambered out the way he’d come in, dragging his pillowcase behind him.  He jumped off the wagon, and once he’d picked himself up out of the cushioning snowdrift, he raced for the back and followed in the path of whatever animal had been pulling the wagon.  It was better than a star, ‘cause it was wider and harder to miss.  His eyes shone with expectation, and his heart sang for joy.

 

* * * * *

 

            We need more men, Ben thought.  Too much territory to cover.  Even in good weather it would take an army, stretched out in a line, to be certain we weren’t riding right past him.  Just two searchers now.  Earlier he’d spotted Hank Carlton, the hand who had tried to find him at Eagle’s Nest, across the road; and after checking the bounds of that man’s search, he’d sent him back to the Hunter place.

            Hank had protested at first.  “I’m mighty fond of that little youngun, Mr. Cartwright, and finding him’s the important thing.  We can all rest up later.”

            “I know, and I appreciate your help, more than I can say,” Ben had told him, “but you’re half frozen, man.  Get Mrs. Hunter to give you a cup of coffee, at least, and warm up awhile.”

            “What about you, Mr. Cartwright?” Hank had challenged.

            “He’s my son,” Ben had stated in a voice that brooked no argument.  Hank had acquiesced and gone on his way, promising to get back to searching soon.

            Good man, Ben mused now.  Not many who would ride out in a snowstorm to find one wayward little boy.  Actually, he knew a good number of neighbors who would have readily joined the search, but they lived far apart and he hadn’t wanted to waste time riding around to inform them.  Once he knew which direction Little Joe had gone, he had hoped to find the boy quickly, without needing to disturb his neighbors so close to the holiday.  Fool, he chided himself.  Will I never stop making foolish mistakes, mistakes that could cost me all I hold dear?

            With a shake of his head, he tossed aside the condemning thoughts.  Waste of time, such thoughts.  If he let such foolishness distract him, so that he missed that one vital sign that would lead him to Little Joe, he’d have a lifetime remaining for self-accusation.  No need to waste time on it now.  With renewed determination he again began to scan every inch of the snowscape around him before moving further down the road.

 

* * * * *

 

            Though the snow had stopped, the sun was still obscured by clouds.  Even had it been out, however, the light from Little Joe’s face would have beamed brighter.  A barn—the wise men had found a barn!  While he’d set out looking for them, they’d been the ones to lead him to shelter.  Shoulda known, the boy acknowledged with a grin, ‘cause Adam is real smart, like Hoss said, and his wise men friends would be smart, too, especially Santa.

            He ran now, knowing he was only a few steps from Adam’s arms.  He pulled eagerly at the bright red door.  It was heavy, so he only cracked it as far as he needed to get in.  “Adam!” he called as he came into the dark interior.

            He froze as he heard a clicking sound, and in the dim light from the doorway, he saw the barrel of a rifle, pointed straight at him.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben dismounted and slowly approached the abandoned wagon.  At least, he assumed it had been abandoned, since the team that had pulled it was obviously gone.  Still, it would have made an ideal shelter for a small boy, if Little Joe had come this way.  “Hello . . . the wagon!” he called with rising hope.

            There was no answer, but he had to check, so he climbed up and looked inside, just as his son had done before him.  No sign of life, but there were indications that life had been here . . . and not too long ago.  The wrapped gifts told him someone had been traveling to some sort of Christmas gathering, but something—probably the snowstorm—had gone wrong and caused them to leave the wagon.

            He circled the wagon and soon spotted the problem, a wheel broken after slipping off the icy road.  But where were the people?  He could see, by the wake of the draft animals they’d taken with them, that they’d gone back the way they’d come.  Did they have a destination in mind or were they strangers to this territory, aimlessly floundering through the snow?  If so, he really would need to take time to notify neighbors, and he could ill afford interrupting his search for Little Joe that long.  It could mean his child’s death.  However, he couldn’t ignore the imminent danger to those others, either.

            Where could they have gone?  Where would someone who knew the land go?  The Hunter place was the closest ranch, but these people hadn’t headed that way.  Suddenly, Ben’s head reared up.  No, there was shelter closer than that, and even a stranger might have seen it, coming down this road.  He mounted quickly and rode as hard as he could.  He’d check on the strangers, make sure they were all right, and then get back to searching for his son.  Maybe, depending on what kind of folks these were, he might even enlist some help.

 

* * * * *

 

            “Marty, don’t!” a high-pitched voice cried.  “It’s a child!”

            The rifle lowered and a loud exhale of relief could be heard.  “Land o’ Goshen, boy, where’d you come from?”

            “The Ponderosa,” Little Joe said, his voice still quavering, though he no longer felt threatened.  “Wh-where’s the wise men?”

            The woman, who had been reclining at the rear of the barn, rose on one elbow.  “Come in, child,” she said gently, waving him forward with a welcoming gesture.

            Little Joe moved slowly toward her, as the man passed him to look out the barn door.

            “No one out there,” Marty reported.  “What’s a youngun like this doin’ out alone in a snowstorm?”

            “Lost, same as us, I reckon,” said the woman.  “That about the size of it, boy?”

            “I guess,” Little Joe admitted.  “I was lookin’ for the wise men.  I found their wagon . . . I thought.”

            The woman smiled softly.  “It was our wagon you found.  You followed us here?”

            Little Joe nodded.

            “Smart youngun,” Marty said, coming back over to the woman.  “What’s your name, son?”

            “Little Joe,” the child lisped.  “Little Joe Cartwright.  You know my pa?”

            Marty shook his head.  “No, we’re new to these parts.”  He extended his hand as if the little fellow before him had been a grown man.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Little Joe Cartwright.  We’re the Maguires.  I’m Martin—you can call me Marty—and this is my wife”—he broke off with a cackle.  “Well, we’ve got a Joseph to go with you now, Mary, and we got the stable.  Now all we need’s the baby.”  He reached down to give his wife’s ample belly a loving pat.

            “Baby Jesus?” Little Joe asked in an awed whisper.

            “I’m mighty tempted to name him that,” Marty chuckled, “all things considered.”

            “It is not funny,” Mary said through gritted teeth.  She held her stomach until the mild contraction ceased.  “At least,” she panted, “that other Mary had a manger . . . and some hay to lay her baby in.”

            “Yeah, gotta admit this is the barest barn I’ve ever seen,” her husband agreed.  “Our horses the only stock and not a stray strand of straw for them.  Lumber even smells fresh-cut.  It’s shelter, though, and we oughta be grateful for it.”

            “You seen the wise men yet?” Little Joe asked, sitting down and companionably cozying up to the woman.  “Guess not, or they’d still be here.  They’ll be comin’ to see Baby Jesus, though, so can I wait with you?  My brother Adam’s one of them, and I need to take him home.”  His face puckered as he wondered just where home might be from here.  “Or, maybe, he needs to take me home.”

            “What on earth?” Marty exclaimed.

            “Tell us, child, what you mean and how you came to be here,” Mary said, stroking the curls lying against her breast.

            Little Joe sat up and dug into his pillowcase.  “Want some bread and beef?” he asked, holding out all he had left.  “You look hungry.”

            Marty took the food gratefully and, using his pocketknife, roughly cut the bread and beef for sandwiches.  Little Joe accepted his share with a smile, but he didn’t eat yet; happily and confidently he began at the beginning, his nonstop chatter accompanied by sounds of munching and accentuated from time to time by Mary’s low moans.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben dismounted and walked cautiously toward the building.  “Hello . . . the barn!” he called, following the frontier tradition of announcing himself.

            The door opened, and a thin young man wearing a bedraggled felt hat came out, rifle in hand.

            “You the people from the wagon back a ways?” Ben asked.

            The man held his rifle warily.  “We don’t mean no harm, just needed shelter.”

            “I assumed as much,” Ben said, “Are there more of you?”

            “My wife,” Marty said, lowering the rifle, “and a stray youngun . . . that’s all.”

            “Stray youngun?” Ben asked, rising hope making his voice squeak.  “Curly hair, green eyes?  About yea tall?”  He held his hand at Little Joe’s height.

            Marty grinned.  “Yeah, and if he’s got an imagination twice as tall as that, I reckon I’ve got what you’re lookin’ for, mister.”

            “Thank God,” Ben murmured.

            Marty opened the door wider and Ben went in.  As soon as his figure filled the doorway, Little Joe scrambled to his feet and ran pell-mell into him.  “Papa!” he cried.  “I knew you’d find me!”

            Ben dropped to his knees and engulfed the little boy with hugs.  “Oh, baby,” he whispered between kisses on the wind-reddened cheeks.  “Pa is so glad he did find you.”

            Little Joe pulled back and gave his father a rebuking pout for calling him a baby, but it faded a moment later and he threw himself back into his father’s arms.  “I couldn’t find the wise men,” he said sadly into his father’s ear.

            “The wise men are exactly where they should be,” Ben said, “but we’ll talk about that later.”  He stood up, still holding his son on his shoulder, and walked further into the barn.  “Good evening, ma’am,” he said, touching his hat brim with his free hand.  “I don’t know how you managed it, but thank you for finding my little boy.”

            Mary smiled.  “He found us.  If this is your barn, sir, we’re mighty obliged for the use of it.”

            “It’s not mine,” Ben replied.  “It’s Thee Winters’ barn, and there’ll be a fine new house to go with it in time.  His family’s staying in Carson City until it’s built, and I know he wouldn’t begrudge shelter to anyone in need.”

            “Carson City!” Mary cried.  “Why, that’s where we were headed.”

            Marty moved alongside his wife.  “Shouldn’t’ve been, I reckon, with my wife ‘great with child,’ like the Good Book says.”

            “Marty,” his wife chided, blushing furiously.  “Such things ain’t spoke of.”

            “The man has eyes, Mary,” Marty said, rolling his own.  “Anyway, the baby wasn’t supposed to come ‘til after the new year.  Her folks are in Carson, so when the weather broke yesterday, we thought we could make it there for Christmas and stay on ‘til the baby was born.  Fool notion, as it turned out, but Mary wanted to be with her ma when the baby came.”

            “Baby Jesus,” Little Joe supplied with a wide yawn.

            The adults all laughed.  “I don’t think so, Joseph,” Ben chuckled, patting his son’s back, “but a child just as precious to these folks.”

            “We weren’t expecting the snow to start up again,” Marty explained.

            “Or the broken wheel?” Ben added with a smile.

            “Or the broken wheel,” Marty agreed with a shake of his head.  “We’d seen this building from the road when we passed, so we made our way back here.  Never thought my boy—”

            “Or girl,” Mary interrupted.

            Marty nodded.  “Or girl would be born in a barn, but it’s sure beginnin’ to look that way . . . unless Carson is closer than I think.

            “Too far for your need,” Ben said soberly, “but if you think you could manage about five miles, ma’am, we can do better than this barn.  Solid walls, a bed and even a woman to help with the birthing.”

            “A woman!” Mary cried.  “Oh, Marty!”

            Her husband looked dubious.  “Mary, I’m not sure even five miles is close enough.”  He looked at Ben.  “She’s havin’ pains.”

            “How far apart, ma’am?” Ben asked.

            Mary glanced away for a moment.  Then, eased of her embarrassment by Ben’s solicitous manner, she answered plainly, “Closer than I’d like, but my water’s not broke yet.”  She turned pleading eyes on her husband.  “Oh, please, Marty, let me try.  A woman, Marty, and a proper bed!”

            “All right, Mary, all right,” Marty said, still sounding concerned.  “We’ll try, but you gotta promise to hold off long as you can.  I don’t relish layin’ you down in the snow for this business.”

            It was a promise no woman could realistically make, of course, but Mary made it anyway, and the two men felt they had no choice but to let her have her way.

 

* * * * *

 

            “Come away from that window, boy,” Elvira Hunter said sharply, looking up from her knitting.  “You’re puttin’ prints all over it.”

            “Sorry, ma’am,” Hoss said, reluctantly pulling back from the window, to which his face had been pressed.  He came back over and perched next to the woman on the hard settee.  “I was just hopin’ to see someone comin’.”

            “I know that, and . . . well, I reckon, it’s understandable,” she said more softly, “but a watched pot never boils, son.”

            “Huh?”

            Elvira chuckled.  “Just an old saying.  In this case, it means you won’t make ‘em come sooner by smearing your nose on my windowpane.”

            Hoss gave her a lopsided grin.  “Guess not.  I didn’t mean to mess your window, ma’am.  If you tell me how, I’ll clean it for you.”

            Elvira waved the offer aside.  “It’s no matter,” she said.  “Just you and me to see it.”  One of Ben’s men had been here earlier, but had left again after having a hot cup of coffee and a good warm by the fire, so it was just her and the boy now, as it had been most of the afternoon.  Seeing him wistfully eyeing the window again, she patted his arm.  “You’re a good boy, and you’ve been plenty of help to me today.  I’ve got a nice hot soup simmering and fresh bread in the oven.  Be ready soon.”  She’d made a big pot, since she’d invited the hand to come back for supper and bring the other man with him, if they crossed paths.  And she was especially looking forward to sitting across the supper table from Ben Cartwright.

            “It smells good, ma’am,” Hoss said, smiling politely at her; then his eyes strayed back to the window.

            “Oh, lands, if that’s the only thing that comforts you, go smear up the window some more,” she ordered, giving his shoulder a push.  “I’ll check on the bread.”

            The bread was almost ready, so Elvira puttered around in the kitchen awhile, setting out bowls and spoons, a glass for Hoss’s milk and a cup for her coffee.  She peered out the kitchen window, not looking for anyone, since it faced a direction no one was likely to come from, but gazing anxiously at the sun dipping toward the horizon.  Surely, Ben Cartwright would be back before nightfall . . . one way or the other.  She shook her head sadly.  She’d known loss in her own life, but to lose a child . . . she couldn’t even imagine the hurt of that, especially so soon after losing the boy’s mother.  Her heart had sent up silent prayers all through the long afternoon of trying to distract Hoss from his fretting, but the more time passed, the less likely it seemed that they would be answered.

            She had just pulled the bread from the oven and set it aside to cool when she heard Hoss call from the other room, “They’re comin’!  They’re comin’!”

            “Stay where you are, boy!” she cried as she hurried from the kitchen.  She’d learned her lesson from Little Joe and knew now how fast boys could disappear.

            “But it’s them, I know it is!” Hoss cried.

            “I hope so, boy, I do, but you ain’t traipsin’ out in your shirtsleeves, even if it is.”

            “I’ll get my coat.”

            Hoss tried to rush past her, but Elvira gripped his shoulder with her strong, lean fingers.  “Stay put, boy.”  She maneuvered him back to the window and looked out herself.  “That’s your pa, right enough, but lands sakes, he’s got a whole caravan with him.”  She turned Hoss loose.  “All right.  Go get your coat . . . and mine.”

            “Yes’m!” Hoss shouted and took off.

            Bundling into their winter wraps, they made their way outside just as the “caravan” was arriving.  “Pa!” Hoss shouted.  “You found him!”

            “Shh,” Ben hissed.  “You’ll wake your brother.”

            “Is the child all right, Ben?” Elvira called from the front step.

            Ben smiled broadly.  “Exhausted, but otherwise fine.”  He motioned Hoss forward and handed Little Joe down to him.  “Get your brother inside, son, and then get the animals into the barn.  We’ll groom them later.”  He dismounted and stepped briskly over to Elvira.  “I came across some stranded travelers,” he explained.  He leaned close to whisper, “The woman’s in labor.”

            “Oh, good lands!” Elvira cried.  “Get her in the house.  Hurry now.”

            Marty helped his wife down from the back of the draft horse he had been leading, and, making a saddle of their interlaced hands, he and Ben carried the expectant mother inside.  Elvira led the way.  “Here . . .  into the bedroom,” she said.

            “Sorry to land on your doorstep like this, ma’am,” Mary said, sinking onto the bed.

            “Don’t think a thing of it,” Elvira said.  Scowling at the men standing around like stiff and stupid fence posts, she shooed them out.  “One of you might set some water on to boil, if you aren’t so useless you never learned how.  And there’s soup and fresh-baked bread waiting in the kitchen for anyone who’s hungry.  Help yourselves.”  She turned her attention back to Mary.  “There now, dear, let’s get you settled.”

            Ben clapped Marty on the back.  “I guess we’ve got our orders.”  He led the stupefied father-to-be from the room and into the kitchen.

            Hoss came in next, leading a very groggy Little Joe.  “Sorry, Pa,” Hoss said meekly.  “Guess I woke him up after all.”

            Ben, who was pulling open cabinet doors, right and left, turned.  “It’s all right, Hoss.  He needs to eat.  Just set him at the table, and I’ll serve you both up some of Mrs. Hunter’s good soup . . . as soon as I can find a pot to boil some water.”

            Hoss grinned and, dropping Little Joe’s hand, hurried over to his father.  “Here, Pa,” he said, swinging open the one door Ben hadn’t tried.  “I saw her get the soup pot from here.”

            “Thank you, son,” Ben said with an absent-minded brush of the boy’s sandy hair.  Only dropping the pot once on the way to the pump, he filled it with water and set it on the stove to boil.  “Now for the soup,” he said.  He looked back at his middle son.  “I don’t suppose you know where she keeps soup bowls.”

            “Dishes is up high,” Hoss said, “but I ain’t sure what kind.”

            Since this had been a two-person household, there weren’t enough soup bowls to go around, but between those and serving dishes Ben managed to find enough for everyone.  Then he sliced the warm, aromatic bread and saw that each person had a piece.  Little Joe was so sleepy that he could barely lift a spoon, so Ben set the child in his lap and encouraged him to eat, bite by bite.

            Little Joe leaned his head back against his father’s chest and raised his eyes.  “You mad, Papa?”

            Ben dropped a kiss on the curly head.  “No, Joseph, Papa isn’t mad.  I’m too tired and too relieved to be angry, but you do know that you were very naughty to run off like that, don’t you?”

            “Very naughty,” Hoss added emphatically as he reached for a second slice of bread.

            Ben chuckled.  “I can handle this, Hoss.  Joseph?”

            A trace of a pout touched the boy’s lips.  “I tried to follow the star, like you told me, Pa.”

            “Like I told you?”  Ben shook his head in bewilderment.  “Joseph, I never said anything of the kind.”

            “Uh-huh,” Little Joe insisted.  “You said you wanted Adam to follow the star and me, too.”

            Ben turned dazed eyes on his other son.  “Do you have any idea what your brother’s talking about, Hoss?”

            Hoss rested his chin in his palm and slowly nodded.  “Yeah, sort of.  Don’t recollect it real clear, but seems like you said something about him and Adam followin’ a star on the way home from church, when I asked you if the preacher was talking about a real star.”

            Memory gradually filtered back.  “But I said it wasn’t a real star,” Ben recalled, dragging a frustrated hand over his face.  “I said that clearly, didn’t I?”  He looked to his middle son for confirmation.

            Hoss just shrugged.  As he’d had many opportunities to observe, clear wasn’t always clear to Little Joe.

            The youngest Cartwright tugged at his father’s sleeve.  “I tried, Pa, but I couldn’t find him; I couldn’t find Adam.”

            He sounded so sorrowful that Ben cuddled him close.  “Baby, didn’t I tell you that Adam couldn’t come home for Christmas, that New Haven was too far?”

            Little Joe rubbed his face up and down against his father’s vest.

            “Has Pa ever lied to you?”

            The little head moved sideways.

            “Then will you trust me in the future?”

            Little Joe yawned in response.  “Sleepy, Papa,” he mumbled.

            Ben smiled, acknowledging the futility of further discussion.  “All right.  Let’s bed you down then.”  He carried his son into the parlor and laid him on the settee, covering him with the crocheted coverlet draped across its back.  With a kiss he tucked the boy in and wished him a good night.

            As Ben again took his seat at the table, Marty said, “I hope you’re not gonna be too hard on the little fellow, Mr. Cartwright.  If it hadn’t been for him findin’ us and then you findin’ him . . . well, things sure would’ve been a lot tougher for my Mary.” 

            “He’ll probably get a lot less than he deserves,” Ben admitted wryly, “especially since, according to both my boys, I’m the one to blame for this massive confusion.”

            “I didn’t say that, Pa,” Hoss protested.

            A sharp cry from the other room forestalled Ben’s response.  Marty flinched and winced in commiseration

            Ben laid a steadying hand on the other man’s arm.  “Bear up, man,” he urged.  “I can tell you from personal experience—thrice over—it’ll get worse before it gets better.”

            Marty shook all over, like a wet-furred dog.  “Don’t know how I can stand it.  Don’t know how she can.”

            “Women are strong creatures,” Ben said.  He leaned close and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Just between you and me, though, I think we’ve got the harder job.  Not to make light of what the women endure, but to sit and wait, listening to the love of your life screaming in pain and feeling nothing but useless, as Mrs. Hunter put it—that’s about the hardest work a man ever does.”

 

* * * * *

 

            The pain and the heart-wrenching cries went on and on.  Ben and Hoss had gotten away from it long enough to tend the stock, but it only seemed more intense when they returned.  Well past dark, Ben’s two men finally showed up at what they viewed as headquarters for the search and were overjoyed to discover that the lost had been found.  Ben dished them up what was left of the soup, after setting aside some for Elvira and Mary, and filled them in on how he’d found Little Joe and what was taking place in the next room.  It wasn’t often that single men had the chance to be in on the birthing of a baby, so after they’d eaten, the two men joined the others lounging around the parlor.  Marty was beside himself by this time, and no amount of reassurance could stop his restless pacing.  The commotion eventually woke Little Joe, who crawled into his father’s lap and refused to be soothed back to sleep with so much to interest him going on.

            Finally, the men all broke into broad smiles as the distinctive cry of an infant interrupted their conversation.  Marty was slapped, punched and pounded in masculine expressions of congratulations, and then Elvira stepped into the room to announce that he could come back to the bedroom.

            “So, what is it?” one of Ben’s hands demanded, but she just shook her head in disgust at the ways of men and followed Marty.

            It was a good ten minutes before he returned, carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle.  Little Joe stood up in his father’s lap for a better look.  “You gonna name him Jesus, like you said?” he asked eagerly.

            Marty walked over to the little boy and uncovered the baby’s face for him to see the delicate features and wisps of dark hair.  “I think Jessica might suit this little mite better,” he chuckled.

            “Ah, it’s a gal,” said Hank, as everyone crowded around for a look at the little girl.

            “Mercy sakes, give that child air to breathe,” Elvira scolded.

            With the grace to look a little shame-faced, Ben stepped back.  “We should be going,” he said.  “We’ve imposed on your hospitality long enough.”

            Elvira planted both fists on her hips.  “Ben Cartwright, you will not take these boys out into the cold night air.  It’s miles to the Ponderosa!”

            “Well, I know, but—”

            “But nothing,” she declared stoutly.  “It’ll be crowded, but we’ll manage.  The Maguires can take my bed, I’ll sleep here on the settee, and we’ll lay a pallet for the young ones.”  She spread her hands, looking at the others with some abashment.  “The best I can offer you men is my barn, but a stable was good enough for our Lord, so it ought to do you for one night.  Might even give you a kinship with Him at Christmas.  I got plenty of quilts to go ‘round, and if you choose to stay—and I think you should—I’ll send you off tomorrow morning with a hot, hearty breakfast.”

            “She makes real good biscuits,” Little Joe offered.

            “Real good everything,” Hoss, who had sampled two meals of Elvira’s cooking, added.

            After seeing the agreeable nods from his men, Ben took the hand of the suddenly flushed widow.  “We’re pleased to accept your fine hospitality.  Thank you, Elvira.”

            The crimson in her countenance deepened while his hand held hers.  “Well, never let it be said there was no room in this here inn,” she said with a coy lowering of her eyes.

 

* * * * *

 

            The clouds had parted, and the stars shone clearly as Ben, quilt over his arm, made his way from the house to the barn, where his men had already turned in for the night.  He paused and searched the sky for the North Star.  “East—Haven—Adam,” he whispered.  “Merry Christmas to you, my son.  I wish you could be here with us, but you still have that dream to find, and once you have, you’ll find your way back to us.  Just follow the star, Adam; follow the star.”

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

            While his family stayed in Carson City, Theodore (Thee) Winters built a tall frame house in Washoe Valley at approximately the time of this chapter.  That he built the barn first is the author’s surmise, but it fits the practice of the times to provide first for the livestock and then for the family.

 

CHAPTER TEN

Tidings of Comfort and Giving

 

 

            The barn door opened and Hoss slipped through.  “Pa,” he called, “Miz Hunter says to come to breakfast before it gets cold.”

            Hank Carlton set aside the pitchfork with which he’d been tossing fresh straw into one of the cows’ stalls.  “Don’t know about you, Mr. Cartwright, but I sure don’t have to be called twice.  That woman’s a right good cook.”

            “I’m with you,” Ben’s other hand agreed quickly.

            “I won’t argue,” Ben chuckled, “but as soon as we’ve eaten, we need to get out of this good woman’s hair.  We’ve imposed on her hospitality long enough.”  He circled an arm around Hoss’s shoulders.  “Where’s your little brother, son?”

            “Aw, he’s in pesterin’ that lady that had the baby,” Hoss reported.

            “Oh, Hoss,” Ben chided as they walked across the snowy yard.  “You shouldn’t have let him bother them.”

            “Miz Hunter said to leave ‘im be, said he had less chance of sneakin’ out from the back bedroom.”  Hoss’s face scrunched with worry as he looked up at his father.  “You don’t reckon he’d take off out a window, do you?”

            Ben squeezed the boy closer.  “I don’t think so.  I think that little boy’s wandering days are over . . . for a week or two, at least.”

            “Maybe,” Hoss said, mouth quirking up.  “I gave him a good talkin’ to.”

            “I’m sure that will have great impact,” Ben said wryly.  Then he shrugged.  For all he knew, Little Joe might pay more attention to his big brother than to anyone else.  Goodness knows, that boy needed to learn to pay attention to someone!

            He opened the door and walked into the kitchen, pleased to see that Little Joe was no longer “pesterin’ that lady that had the baby.”  Giving the boy’s curls an affectionate tousle, he turned to his hostess.  “Elvira, it’s good of you to feed this crowd again, but I know we’re using up a lot of your supplies, and with the Maguires staying on with you for a spell, too . . . I’d be pleased to send over enough to replenish your cupboards.”

            Elvira Hunter battled against opposing instincts.  On the one hand, her sense of hospitality took umbrage at the thought of repayment.  Still, if Ben were to deliver the supplies himself . . . well, such opportunities shouldn’t be rejected out of hand.  “I reckon as how you might bring me over some extra flour and such,” she said.  “It can wait ‘til after the holidays, though.”

            “That’s right; it’s Christmas Eve!” Hoss cried suddenly, sliding into a seat at the table next to his baby brother.  “We gonna get a tree on the way home, Pa?”

            “Yeah!” Little Joe chimed in gleefully.

            Ben laughed aloud.  “You think we should tie it to my saddle, boys?”

            Hoss grinned sheepishly as he reached for a biscuit.  “Maybe we oughta go home and get the sleigh first, huh?”

            “Maybe we oughta go home and stay home,” Ben said dryly.  “One of us in particular needs practice at that.”

            The remark sailed right over Little Joe’s head, and he was so busy with his breakfast that he didn’t notice the glare his brother aimed in his direction, either.

            Everyone dallied over breakfast, seeming reluctant to leave the warm fellowship in the kitchen for a long ride in the bitter cold.  At length, however, the men could hold no more coffee and the boys no more biscuits, so they bundled up and said their farewells.  Ben set Little Joe in the saddle in front of him, while Hank Carlton invited Hoss to a seat behind the cantle of his mount.  It made for slow-going, and by the time they reached the Ponderosa, everyone was eager for warm drinks and some of Hop Sing’s Christmas cookies.

            “Pa, we gonna get that tree now?” Hoss asked between munches of sugary cutouts.

            Ben groaned.  “For the love of mercy, boy, we just got home.”

            “But, Pa,” Hoss protested.  “It’s Christmas Eve.  Ain’t we gonna have a tree?”

            Ben leaned his head back and exhaled his exhaustion.  As far as he was concerned, they could skip the entire celebration this year, but he’d promised himself that he’d make this Christmas special for his boys, who had lost so much in the last few months.  And had almost lost more yesterday, he reminded himself.  If anything merited a celebration, it was Little Joe’s safe return, so regardless of how tired he was and how little he relished a return to the cold air outside, he forced enthusiasm into his voice.  “Of course, we are!” he declared.  “Let’s warm up and have Hop Sing’s good lunch before we set out, but then we’ll find the best tree there is . . . close at hand.”

            Hoss noticed the qualifier and, thoughtful boy that he was, quickly perceived that his father was doing more than he felt up to, just for their sakes.  The least he could do was not demand more, even if it meant that this year’s tree wouldn’t match up to ones they’d had before.  Besides, they were getting a late start, so they wouldn’t have time to go far and still get the tree decorated tonight.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I bet there’s some right pretty trees nearby, Pa.”

 

* * * * *

 

            It’s amazing what a good meal can do for a man’s disposition, Ben mused as he guided the team over the snow.  He really hadn’t wanted to go on this expedition, but now, with two laughing boys beside him and warm food coddling his stomach, he felt like a new man, and he was enjoying the afternoon out in the bracing air.  I don’t tell Hop Sing often enough how much he adds to this family, he thought.  The special gift he’d purchased was a good start, of course, but when he considered how far the little Cantonese cook had gone beyond his kitchen duties, especially in looking after Little Joe, no gift seemed special enough to convey his gratitude.  Appreciation of that magnitude should be expressed verbally, as well as visibly.

            He glanced over at his youngest son.  There, if ever he’d seen one, was a child in desperate need of a nap . . . and a properly tanned bottom.  He’d get neither today, and if that made him a poor father, so be it.  Sooner, rather than later, he’d need to set the boy down and make him understand that there were dangers out beyond the ranch yard which made strict obedience to the rules an absolute necessity.  But not today.  Today was a day for celebration, not discipline.  “How about a carol, boys?” he suggested.  “Which one would you like?”

            “Joy to the World!” Little Joe cried.

            Ben’s laughter echoed through the trees.  “Well, it would scarcely be ‘Silent Night’ with you, would it?”

            Hoss hooted at the joke.  “That’s a good ‘un, Pa.”

            “Yeah!” Little Joe burbled, missing the point.  Reading the exchange as approval of his choice, he burst into the first line of the carol.

            They had barely finished the song when Hoss excitedly pointed ahead.  “And there’s a great tree!”

            Ben reached over to playfully shake his older son’s neck.  “I’d still be chopping on that by this time tomorrow,” he snickered.  “Set your sights a little lower, my boy.”

            “Reckon you’re right, Pa,” Hoss admitted.  Having worked alongside tree fellers in the woods, he knew how long it took to bring down the big pines and felt a bit put out with himself for letting his Christmas spirit make him overlook something so obvious.  Pa didn’t seem irked, though, so he let it go easily and peeled his eyes for a tree they could cut in the time they had.  Soon he spotted one and pointed it out to his father.

            “Hoss, that’s perfect,” Ben declared.  “You’re developing a real good eye, son.”

            Hoss’s heart swelled with pride as they climbed out of the sleigh and his father set to work on a beautifully shaped, if somewhat smaller than usual, Christmas tree.

 

* * * * *

 

            As Ben guided the team into the yard, he spied another sleigh just outside the barn and shook his head in wonderment.  “We certainly seem to be a magnet for company these snowy days, don’t we, boys?” he asked cheerily.

            “Can’t be Miz Hunter this time,” Hoss returned with a grin, “‘cause she ain’t got a sleigh.  ‘Sides, Little Joe’s still with us.”

            “And he’s going to stay with us, aren’t you, Little Joe?”  Ben lifted his youngest from the sleigh and gave him a light toss into the frosty air.

            Little Joe squealed with delight, which was answer enough for Ben.

            The front door opened, and a tall young man exited.

            “Oh, Enos, it’s you,” Ben said.  “Kat’s not with you, is she?”

            “Sure is,” Ben’s foreman announced.

            “Aunt Kat!” Little Joe cried, trying to squirm out of his father’s arms.

            “All right, down you go,” Ben said, setting the boy down and giving his backside a soft pat in the right direction.  Little Joe took off at a run, and it was clear from the look on Hoss’s face that he wanted to follow.  “Go along, Hoss,” Ben urged, correctly discerning that his older son’s dutiful adherence to the oft-repeated adage that the stock came first was all that was holding him back.  “Enos and I can see to the team.”

            Hoss needed no further invitation and took off at a run.

            “Good to see you, son,” Ben said to Enos as they worked together to unhitch the horses.

            Enos chuckled.  “You see me ‘most every day, Mr. Cartwright.”

            Ben laughed back.  “True, but Katerina is an unexpected—and most welcome—addition.  What brings the two of you out on a day like this?  Just making Christmas Eve calls?”  New Year’s Day, of course, was more traditional for that sort of socializing, at least back East, but out here people came when they could, and this had been a day off for his foreman.

            Stripping harness from the team, Enos grinned.  “Something like that.  Kat’s got a special gift for you and the boys, and she brought some lebkuchen, too.”

            “Umm,” Ben murmured appreciatively.  “All such gifts find a welcome home here.”

            “In Hoss’s tummy?” Enos teased.

            “And mine,” Ben said with a wink.

            “But not Joe’s?” Enos quipped back.

            “Not if we beat him to them,” Ben chuckled, “and that’s usually not hard to accomplish.”

            “I’d be ashamed to take advantage of them short legs of his,” Enos observed with a grin.

            They finished the work quickly and went inside, bringing the tree with them.  Ben frowned when he saw Little Joe sitting in Katerina’s lap.  “Joseph . . .” he began in a chiding tone.

            “Now, don’t scold, Uncle Ben,” Katerina inserted quickly.  “He’s just where I want him.”

            “Don’t—uh—push yourself beyond your comfort, my dear.”  Ben didn’t quite know how to tactfully suggest that, given Katerina’s condition, she might prefer to avoid taking a fidgety boy into her lap.

            Katerina guessed his concern and laughed.  “I’m fine.  Men worry too much.”

            “Probably,” Ben conceded, recalling how well Mary Maguire had handled the dire circumstances surrounding her child’s birth yesterday.  As he’d said then to the frantic father, women were strong, stronger than men gave them credit for.  Marie had been and—he could get no further, for the rush of memories overwhelmed him.

            “Uncle Ben?” Katerina asked, her face reflecting concern.

            Ben shook himself from his painful reverie.  “It’s so good to see you, Katerina  . . . so nice to have friends to share the holiday with.”  The pain throbbed through him again as he recalled the joy of earlier Christmases, with friends and family . . . Marie . . . filling this great room with laughter and warmth, children gazing enthralled as he and Dr. Martin read A Christmas Carol, adults toasting one another with wishes for a happy new year.  He’d felt unable to host such a party this year, believing that a quiet celebration with the boys was all he could muster strength for.  The inclement weather, making it impossible for distant friends to come, had seemed to validate that decision; yet here were two who had braved it, solely for the pleasure of sharing the season with him.  On the spur of the moment, he chose to turn this afternoon into a celebration, slapped together as it must, of necessity, be.  “You’ll stay and help us put up the tree, won’t you, and for dinner?”

            Katerina clapped her slender hands.  “Oh, can we, Enos?”

            Enos scratched his head.  “I don’t know, Kat.  Weather might set in again, make it hard to get home.”

            “More than welcome to stay over, if it does,” Ben offered, “although perhaps you’d rather be alone on Christmas morning.”

            “Let’s chance it,” Katerina urged.  “We didn’t have room for a tree at home, and I’d love to help with theirs.”

            “Well, all right,” Enos gave in, “but no complaints if your Christmas present comes late, little lady.”

            Katerina smiled.  “No complaints, I promise.  This will be a—a—”

            “Foretaste of things to come?” Ben supplied.  His gaze rested tenderly on the slight bulge in the young woman’s abdomen.  “Too late to turn back now, little mother.”

            “I wouldn’t want to!” Katerina declared as she snuggled Little Joe closer.

            Ben laughed.  “Evidently, you haven’t heard about that one’s lastest hair-raising escapade.”

            “Yeah, we did,” Enos said soberly.  “Hop Sing told us; then I checked with Carlton, to make sure I’d heard it straight.  Surprised you can sit comfortable, little fellow.”  He gave Joe’s curls a tousle.

            “Hush,” Katerina scolded, drawing the child close again.  “It’s Christmas.”

            “So it is,” Ben announced and with a fond glance at his youngest added, “Peace on earth and goodwill to men . . . even to naughty little boys.”  He ended with a laugh and plucked the youngster from Katerina’s lap for an indulgent bear hug.

            “Ain’t we better get that tree set up?” practical Hoss suggested.

            “Right,” his father said.  “You and Enos work on that, and Katerina and I will see about sweet-talking Hop Sing into popping some corn for a garland.”  He offered the young woman his free arm and led her toward the kitchen.

            “Well, Hoss, seein’ as how you and me got the easy chore, let’s get to it,” Enos suggested.

            “Aw, they got Joe,” Hoss snickered.  “He sweet-talks better’n anybody I know.”

            “Yeah, well, you’re better with trees,” Enos said, clapping the boy’s sturdy shoulder.

            “Right!” Hoss said.

            By the time they had the crosspieces nailed to the base of the tree and had set it in place, the others returned from the kitchen with heaping bowls of popped corn.  “All hands on deck,” Ben called and began distributing needles and string.  “Not you,” he said, avoiding Little Joe’s outstretched hand.  “Naptime for you.”

            “Not sleepy,” Little Joe insisted.

            “Then get sleepy,” his father ordered, plunking the boy onto the settee.  Pulling a coverlet over the child, he added, “You can watch as long as you lie down.”

            Little Joe gave in with only a small pout, but though he fought hard against the drowsiness, even the merry voices in the room couldn’t keep him awake.  He slept through most of the afternoon, while the others, including the two hands from the bunkhouse, threaded kernels of corn and an occasional whole cranberry into long strands.

 

* * * * *

 

            “‘Bout time,” Hoss grunted when Little Joe finally sat up, yawning and stretching.

            “‘Bout time for what?” Little Joe asked.

            “Time to decorate the tree, sweetie,” Katerina said.  “We wouldn’t dream of starting without you.”

            Little Joe looked at the strands of popcorn and cranberry circling the tree.  “Yes, you did,” he pouted.

            The others laughed.  “Just the garland,” Enos chuckled.  “Trust me, boy; ain’t nothin’ but work to that!”

            “Amen!” Ben agreed heartily.  He held out a small carved bird to his youngest.  “Want to make this fly through the branches, Little Joe?”

            “Yes!” Joe chirped happily.

            They took turns, each person placing the ornament of his or her choice until the tree was full.

            “And now for the crowning glory,” Ben announced as he held forth the metal star for the treetop.

            “You might want to use this, instead,” Katerina suggested shyly, handing him a small, soft package, wrapped in tissue paper.

            “Oh, is this the gift for the boys you mentioned?” Ben inquired.

            Katerina nodded.

            Ben extended the package toward his sons.  “Well, then, boys, I guess you’d better open it.”

            Hoss outreached Joe for the gift and eagerly tore off the paper.  “It’s an angel!” he cried.

            “It’s Mama,” Little Joe whispered in awe.

            As Ben examined the handcrafted angel, tears came to his eyes.  No doll could do justice to the original, of course, but this angel was clearly meant to resemble Marie.  The carved features of the wooden head closely captured her countenance, the hair had been painted in her exact shade, and the eyes were emerald green to match the flowing silk gown, a detailed replica of one Marie had often worn to parties and balls.

            “Anybody’d know that was the missus,” Hank Carlton said with an approving smile at Katerina.

            “Is it all right?” the young woman asked anxiously.  “It won’t make you sad to see it, will it?”

            Ben put his arms around her and kissed her cheek tenderly.  “Oh, my dear.  It will be like having her shining down on us this Christmas.”  He smiled at his foreman.  “Enos, I had no idea you were such a craftsman at woodcarving.”

            Enos waved off the praise.  “Oh, no, Mr. Ben.  That ain’t my work.  Mr. Thomas did the carving; I just painted it, and Kat did the rest.”

            “A three-fold blessing, then,” Ben said.  “Thank you so much.”

            “Can I put it on the tree?” Hoss asked, eyes misting.

            “Let Little Joe,” his father suggested softly.  “You opened it, Hoss.”

            “Besides, he’s easier to lift,” Enos chuckled to lighten the mood.

            Everyone laughed at that, even Hoss.  “Reckon so,” he admitted.  “Can I hold him up?”

            “You bet,” Ben agreed quickly.  “I’m always glad to hand off that chore.”

            Another round of laughter circled the room as Hoss lifted his little brother over his head and Ben bent the tree’s top down so the boy could set the angel’s skirt over it.  “Put it on the tree, Little Joe,” Ben urged.  “Brother can’t hold you forever.”

            “Can, too,” Joe insisted.  “Hoss is strong, Pa.”

            “Joseph,” Ben drawled warningly.  His face softened, though, as he saw Little Joe gently kiss the angel’s face before putting it into place and heard him whisper, “Merry Christmas, Mama.”

            From that moment it was as though Marie’s presence hovered over the celebration.  The slapped-together activities flowed as seamlessly as if they’d been planned.  Ben had earlier told Hop Sing to keep supper simple and hadn’t considered asking more, just because the guest list had grown.  The cook, however, had produced what Inger would have called a smorgasbord.  Was she, too, smiling down on them this Christmas?  He knew that if there were any way possible, his second wife would want to be near her son at a time like this.  He closed his eyes and searched to feel Elizabeth’s spirit.  He couldn’t, but perhaps she would be hovering near Adam this Christmas.  Perhaps the whole notion was too fanciful, and he wasn’t sure how it fit in with theology, either, but it didn’t matter.  He opened his eyes and smiled at the happy faces around the table.  They were what mattered, and he suddenly realized that he was no longer making an effort to give the boys a good Christmas.  They, in conjunction with the other loving hearts around the table, were giving him one, too.

            The after-supper reading of A Christmas Carol and the exuberant singing of carols together made the evening’s activities run late, so Enos and Katerina did elect to spend the night, once assured that their presence on Christmas morning would not be an intrusion.  “You’ll have to resign yourselves to an early rising, though,” Ben teased as everyone headed upstairs.  “There’s no keeping these youngsters in bed on Christmas morning.”

            Given that early rising, Ben knew he should turn in at once, but he had a problem to solve first.  His gifts to his sons only needed to be placed beneath the tree as soon as he was sure they were asleep.  He also had small gifts of appreciation for each of his hands, including his foreman Enos—goodness knows when the snow would have permitted delivery of that had the man not turned up on his doorstep—but nothing for Katerina, an unexpected though most welcome Christmas guest.  For her to be the only person with nothing to unwrap in the morning was unthinkable, but what could he possibly give her?  The only things he possessed suitable for a woman had belonged to Marie, and at first to give away anything of hers, even to so cherished a friend as Katerina, seemed unthinkable, as well.

            Ben smiled softly as he let his mind consider what Marie would have said to such reasoning as that.  He could almost see the scorn in her eyes at the very notion of holding on to everything her hands had touched while on earth.  What was he saving them for, anyway?  Little Joe, of course, should have some remembrance of his mother, just as Adam had Elizabeth’s music box and Hoss dear Inger’s Swedish Bible.  In Joe’s case, there was plenty to choose from and still would be, even after selecting a gift for Katerina.

            He opened the armoire, where Marie’s dresses still hung, pulled one out and just as quickly put it back.  No, he couldn’t give away the dress she’d been wearing when they first met; it held memories too poignant.  Besides, it was too grand a frock for Katerina.  Perhaps something more practical.  Even Marie’s everyday dresses had been more elegant than anything Katerina ever wore, but perhaps she could use one for church.  He drew another dress from the armoire, and as he pulled it toward him, a whiff of Marie’s scent wafted into his nostrils.  With a groan he buried his face in the fabric and breathed in deeply.  Her scent had faded from her pillow, and he couldn’t, he just couldn’t part with something that still carried it.  He quickly hung the dress back in the armoire and shut the door.  Perhaps this had been a bad idea in the first place.

            He shook his head.  No, not a bad idea, although the man who’d thought of it seemed too weak to carry it out.  Get a grip on yourself, Ben, he chided himself.  He did need a gift for his young guest, and when he thought of how she’d come to them the morning after Marie passed and ministered such loving comfort to his sons, desire to give her a tangible expressions of his esteem superseded even the obligations of a good host.

            He still had nothing but Marie’s belongings to give; that truth hadn’t changed.  Not something as personal as a dress, though.  Katerina might even have been uncomfortable wearing that, although Nelly hadn’t felt that way about Inger’s blue satin dress the year he gave that to her for Christmas.  Goodness, he’d forgotten that.  Ten—no, eleven—years ago he’d faced this same struggle.  He’d chosen then to give, rather than cling to his beloved’s possessions, and he’d felt the richer for the giving.  Surely, he would again.

            His purpose reinvigorated by the memory, he gazed around the room in search of inspiration, and his eyes strayed to the jewel case sitting atop the chest of drawers.  He walked across the room, picked it up and carried it back to the bed.  Sitting down, he opened the case and began lifting out necklaces and earrings, considering them one by one.  This one seemed too intimately associated with Marie, that one too ornate for Katerina’s simple taste, until finally Ben raised a strand of creamy pearls with a single teardrop pendant of glass so beautifully cut that it sparkled like a diamond—perfect!  Needing some container to hold it, he pawed through Marie’s drawers, located a small sachet bag and dropped the necklace down onto the lavender inside.  Then he tiptoed down the stairs and hung the bag from a high branch.  He quickly took the boys’ gifts and those for his men from their hiding place and arranged them beneath the tree.  Just before going back up to bed, he let his eyes rest on the angel with Marie’s face, and though he knew he was being fanciful, he was almost certain he’d seen her smile of approval.

 

* * * * *

 

            Ben woke early the next morning, but not because of the boys.  He woke to the sound of rain pattering on the roof and groaned.  What sort of winter was this, anyway?  Snow for ten days and now rain?  The heavens were conspiring to keep him cooped up inside with two rambunctious boys.  He chuckled.  Oh, well, he didn’t mind that on Christmas; tomorrow would be soon enough to fret over how to keep his sons occupied.  At least, all those new trinkets waiting beneath the tree should be an asset in that regard.

            He rose and dressed quickly, wanting to get downstairs and build up the fire before the others woke.  As he descended the stairs, however, he saw that Enos was already performing that task, while Katerina huddled in Ben’s armchair, her stocking feet tucked up beneath her rumpled skirts.  The young man looked up when he heard a stair creak beneath Ben’s foot.  “It’s a mess outside, boss,” Enos said.

            “Oh, Uncle Ben,” Katerina moaned.  “We should have gone last night.”

            “Nonsense,” Ben pronounced.

            “Maybe it’ll stop by afternoon,” Enos suggested.  At Ben’s urging, he and Katerina had planned to stay for the Christmas Day feast, currently scheduled for around two o’clock.

            “Hopefully,” Ben agreed, moving across the room to give Katerina a good morning kiss on the cheek.  “However, if it doesn’t, you’re not to think of taking this dear girl out in a storm.  We have plenty of room, and you’re more than welcome to stay as long as necessary.  I only regret that your own private little celebration may be delayed; I know how meaningful that can be to a young couple.”

            Katerina reached up to circle his neck with her slender arms.  “Uncle Ben, you mustn’t think that.  Being here with you is making this such a memorable Christmas.”

            Ben laughed.  “I think you can thank—or blame—the weather for that, more than me.”

            Suddenly, there was a rumble on the stairs and an anxious call, “Did he come?”

            Ben hurried across the room to catch his youngest up in his arms.  “Did who come, Little Joe?”  He hoped the boy wasn’t back to hoping that Adam had come home for Christmas; he wasn’t sure he was up to another round of that discussion.

            “Santa!” Little Joe cried.  Then his gaze fell on the pile of presents beneath the tree.  “He did!  He did come!”

            “Of course, he did,” Ben declared enthusiastically, “but there will be no tearing into gifts until your brother is up.”

            Little Joe immediately squiggled out of his father’s arms and tore up the stairs, yelling, “Hoss!  Get up!  Santa came!”

            “Whether by boat or sleigh, I couldn’t say.”  Ben winked at Katerina, who laughed in delightful anticipation of the day she would share such moments with her own boy or girl.

            Soon Hoss thundered down the steps in his brother’s wake.  “Doggone it, you’re right, Joe,” he said with a meaningful grin at his father.  “Looks like Santa did make it through.”

            “Was there ever any doubt?” Ben chuckled.

            Pandemonium reigned for the next several minutes as the youngsters uncovered their treasures.  “Put them aside for now, boys,” Ben ordered gently, “and get yourselves cleaned up and dressed for breakfast.  There’ll be plenty of time to play later.  No, Hoss, you cannot have any of that candy before breakfast.”

            Hoss sheepishly dropped the lemon drop back into his stocking and hung it back up on the mantle, the better to resist its temptations.  Little Joe just left his lying beneath the tree and headed upstairs.

            “Not exactly what I meant by ‘put them aside,’” Ben chuckled as he placed his sons’ gifts in an orderly pile.  “Why, goodness me, if there isn’t something here for the best foreman in the territory,” he said, handing a small package to Enos.

            Having received yearly gifts from Ben, the foreman wasn’t surprised, at least until he unwrapped an obviously expensive wallet.  “That’s prime leather, Mr. Ben,” he said.

            “For a prime man,” Ben assured him.  He reached up to take the sachet bag from its branch and walked over to place it in Katerina’s hand.  “And this for the fine young lady who graces our home this Christmas.”

            “How sweet of you to think of me,” Katerina murmured.  She held the bag to her nose and sniffed in the scent.  “Ooh, lavender, my favorite.”

            “I’m glad,” Ben said, smiling, “but there’s something inside besides lavender, my dear.”

            “Oh?”  She loosened the drawstring, and her blue eyes widened and her mouth formed an “O” as she gazed inside.  “Oh, my,” she said, drawing out the pearl necklace.  “Uncle Ben, it’s beautiful, but I can’t.”  Eyes shimmering with compassion, she looked up at him.  “It—it was hers, wasn’t it?”

            “Yes,” Ben said softly, “but I want you to have it.  I think she would, too.”

            Enos took the necklace, noting how the teardrop glistened in the firelight.  “No, sir, Mr. Ben, this is too much.  We’re much obliged, but we can’t accept a diamond.”

            Ben chuckled.  “It’s just glass, son.  The pearls are real, of course, but it’s not an expensive piece.  Please let Katerina have it and wear it in honor of Marie.”

            Enos still seemed unsure of the propriety of such a gift.  “Well,” he drawled out to give himself a few seconds more to reflect, “I guess, seeing as how you put it that way, my Kat would be pleased to do Marie that honor.  She sure deserved that much.”

            “And more,” Katerina whispered.  She rose and, coming to Ben’s side, stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.

            Ben pointed to the angel atop their tree.  “You brought her to us this Christmas; it’s only right that you take a piece of her with you.”

            Teary-eyed, Katerina nodded.

            Ben kissed her forehead.  Then, gathering up the gifts for the hands in the bunkhouse and one for Hop Sing, he disappeared into the kitchen.

            The rain continued throughout the day, but so much warmth and happiness surrounded the occupants of the ranch house that no one seemed to mind until mid-afternoon, when Katerina said, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to impose on your hospitality a bit longer, Uncle Ben.”

            “Imposition!” Ben scoffed.  “Why, Katerina, I’d be ready to tear my hair out if you hadn’t been here to help with these rowdy youngsters.”

            Katerina smiled, but shook her head.  “They’ve been very well behaved and you know it.  I only wish I’d foreseen this happening and brought a change of clothes.”

            Ben hesitated only a moment.  “You’re welcome to one of Marie’s dresses.”

            Katerina laughed.  “They wouldn’t fit, Uncle Ben . . . especially now.”  Her eyes dipped toward her rounded belly.

            “I suppose not,” Ben conceded somewhat sheepishly, “but you could have one of her nightgowns to sleep in, if you like.  They might fit loosely enough.”

            “I’d appreciate that,” Katerina said.

            “I think Adam left a nightshirt here that might do for you, Enos,” Ben offered.

            “Thanks,” the foreman said.  “Sure hope this downpour eases up by tomorrow.”

 

* * * * *

 

            The rain continued the next day and the day after that, melting the accumulated snow, but freezing a sheet of ice over it every night.  The constant drizzle began to weigh on everyone’s nerves, especially the young couple who had not expected to be stranded when they made their Christmas Eve call at the Ponderosa.  Hop Sing generously did their laundry overnight, but as their clothes were not yet dry the next morning, both Enos and Katerina appeared at the breakfast table in borrowed nightclothes and robes.

            “Do you suppose it will ever end?” Katerina sighed.

            “Probably in time for the spring showers,” Ben commented dryly.

            Katerina wagged a chiding finger at him.  “In that case, I hope you’re prepared to play midwife.”

            “Don’t you dare,” a flushing Ben growled menacingly.

            “It’s a mess out there,” Enos observed.  “I reckon the Carson River’s flooded.”

            “Bound to be,” Ben agreed.  “In fact, Carson Valley’s probably a lake by now.  All that melting snow has to go somewhere.”

            “We going to the lake?” Little Joe asked.

            “Sure, son,” Ben chuckled.  “Just step outside the front door and wade right in.”  He grabbed hold of the boy when he jumped up, apparently intending to do just as he was told.  “That’s all we need,” he scolded, “you tracking in mud and making Hop Sing stomp off for old China.”

            “Not a chance, Pa,” Hoss said with a grin.  “He’d need a boat, and they don’t sail over the mountains.”

            “Another day or two of this and they will,” Ben groused.

            Fortunately, the rain ended that night, but Ben persuaded Enos and Katerina to stay on one more day, to let the ground dry out a little.  When the trip was finally deemed safe, Ben loaned them his buckboard, for with the snow gone, their sleigh was no longer a practical choice.  Enos could load his wagon wheels into the buckboard when he returned to work and switch them out for the runners then.

            “I’m going to ride along with you,” Ben insisted, leading his horse from the barn.

            “Hate to put you to the trouble,” Enos demurred, although he looked grateful.

            Ben waved the objection aside.  “No trouble.  I need an excuse to get away from those boys for a while.”

            Katerina laughed.  “And you’ll be just as eager to get back to them, you know you will.”

            Ben admitted it with a smile, as he mounted his horse.

            Thankfully, the trip was uneventful, and after sharing a cup of coffee at the Montgomery place, Ben rode on south, wanting to see for himself the extent of the flooding.  The roads were still bad, though, so he didn’t make it all the way in to Carson City.  That was a disappointment, for he’d hoped to catch up with the Thomases and to buy a newspaper to discover what was going on in the outside world.  He was beginning to feel cut off, but he decided, after all, that it didn’t much matter, since the people who meant the most to him were right on the Ponderosa—with the exception of Adam, of course; no way to keep in touch with him but by mail.  He’d try tomorrow to get into Washoe City and see if there was a letter waiting, and with that thought in mind he hurried home to make certain that he had a letter ready to post to his boy.

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

            From mid-December of 1861 on, the weather was every bit as cold, wet and miserable as depicted in this and the previous chapter.  The storm that started then was described by long-time residents as the worst “since Frémont forced the mountains,” and the warm rain that began on Christmas and continued for three days did, indeed, make a massive lake of Carson Valley.


CHAPTER ELEVEN

Keeping in Touch

 

 

            Ben tucked his letter to Adam into his inner coat pocket and buttoned the garment snugly.  As he buckled his gun about his hips, he spotted a small figure out of the corner of his eye, jumping up in an attempt to pull a jacket from the peg by the door.  “Just what do you think you’re up to, little boy?” he asked as he caught his youngest son in mid-leap.

            “Goin’ with you, Pa,” Little Joe declared, “‘cept I need my coat and I can’t reach it.”

            “You don’t need it,” Ben chuckled, “‘cause you’re not going anywhere.”

            “Am, too,” Little Joe insisted.

            Ben set the boy on the credenza and shook his head.  “No, Little Joe, you are not.”

            “But . . . we needs us,” the youngster said with a cunning smile.

            Ben laughed.  “We may needs us,” he said, “but we don’t need you, not on this expedition.”

            “That’s for sure,” Hoss chuckled.  “You’d just be one more thing to tote in at the widow’s.”

            “Mrs. Hunter to you, boy,” Ben said firmly.

            “Yes, sir . . . Miz Hunter,” Hoss at once corrected himself.

            Little Joe’s lips pushed out in a pout.  “She’s my friend, too.”

            That makes one of us, Ben thought, though he knew he was being unfair.  Elvira Hunter had certainly been a friend to them last week, but he felt reluctant to admit even that much when her eyes and her manner so visibly stated that she wanted to be more—much more—than just a friend and a good neighbor.  Still, he’d promised to bring her supplies, in return for the ones she’d expended, and it was time he kept his word.  The way the weather had been lately, he couldn’t count on having another chance soon.

            Lifting Little Joe, he gave him a hug.  “Not today, sweetheart,” he soothed.  “This is not a friendship visit, just a brief, working stop on the way into town.”  The minute he said it, he knew he shouldn’t have.

            “I want to go to town,” Little Joe insisted.

            “No,” Ben said, setting the boy onto the floor.  “Pa doesn’t want you out in the cold that long.”

            Little Joe’s face puckered, and he glared at his brother.  “Hoss gets to be in the cold that long.”

            “Hoss is older.”  Ben automatically offered the time-honored excuse.  “Now, you run along into the kitchen and . . . and . . .”  and let Hop Sing deal with you, he finished silently, sending the boy on with a soft pat to his backside.

            “And what, Pa?” Hoss asked with a grin after his little brother had scooted off in a snit.

            Ben bent down and answered in a conspiratorial whisper, “And get out of our hair.”

            “Yeah!” Hoss whispered back.  He was delighted at the prospect, not only of a trip to town, but time alone with his father.  Much as he enjoyed playing with Little Joe, he’d had his fill of it since Christmas, especially with the weather keeping them indoors, and being with Pa made him feel grown up.  It was a good feeling; he relished it as they walked out together, hitched the team and began loading the supplies into the buckboard.

            Hank Carlton, coming out of the bunkhouse, hefted the final sack of flour into the wagon.  “These the things for Mrs. Hunter?” he asked.

            “That’s right,” Ben replied.  “An obligation it’s high time I fulfilled.”

            “Be glad to take ‘em over for you,” Hank offered.

            “Oh, Hank, you don’t have to do that.  It is your day off.”

            Hank tipped his hat forward, putting his reddening face into shadow.  “Yeah, but I don’t mind.  Well . . . fact is, I’d sort of like to, Mr. Cartwright.  Got some thank yous of my own to say to the lady.”

            Ben inhaled sharply and pursed his lips, to keep his sudden sense of exhilaration contained.  “Well, if you’re sure,” he said slowly.

            “Aw, Pa,” Hoss whined.  “Ain’t we goin’ no place, after all?”

            Ben felt an instant’s shame, as he admitted to himself, for the first time, that the reason he’d wanted Hoss along was to act as a shield against the widow Hunter’s advances.  That wasn’t fair to his son; nor was depriving him of a day out, when he’d undoubtedly been looking forward to it.  Ben rested a consoling hand on Hoss’s shoulder.  “Of course, we are, son.  We’ll still go into Washoe City . . . . unless you’d prefer to visit the wid—Mrs. Hunter with Hank.”  He raised a questioning eyebrow at Hank, who, oddly enough, looked reluctant to have Hoss along.  “He—uh—could be a good help to you with unloading the supplies,” Ben suggested hesitantly.

            “Sure, if’n you was especially wanting to see Mrs. Hunter,” Hank said without enthusiasm, though he smiled at Hoss.

            Ben stepped in before Hoss could answer.  “On the other hand, there aren’t that many supplies, so maybe you’d prefer to come with me, Hoss.  We’ll pick up the mail and post our letters to Adam and then have lunch at the Antelope restaurant and see what’s on offer at the mercantile.”

            Hoss pondered for a moment.  He’d been hoping for an invite to Mrs. Hunter’s table, but the restaurant sounded right good, too—and more definite.  “I’ll go along with you, Pa,” he decided.  “And maybe we could find some candy at that mercantile—for Little Joe.”

            “You think we’re gonna have to buy our way back into his good graces?” Ben asked with a chuckle.

            Hoss’s mouth skewed to one side.  “I reckon as much.”

            Ben’s mouth twitched.  “And you wouldn’t mind having a share of that candy yourself, I suppose.”

            Hoss responded with his characteristic, gap-toothed grin.  “No, sir, not a bit.”

 

* * * * *

 

            Stopping by the post office, the Cartwrights discovered no mail waiting for them, but the postmaster assured them there was a stage due in just past noon.  “Well, that fits our plans fine, doesn’t it, Hoss?” Ben said with forced enthusiasm.  “We were staying over for lunch, anyway.”

            “Right!” Hoss said.

            Taking a page from his young son’s book, Ben decided to simply savor whatever pleasures the day offered, one of which, obviously, was just being with this sunny, easy-to-please son of his.  “Might as well check out the mercantile first, hmm?” he asked as they left the post office.

            “Yeah!” Hoss cried with enthusiasm.  Whistling, he walked along the board slats of the sidewalk at his father’s side, clearly content with the way the day was unfolding.  He didn’t even mind when Pa stopped to talk to friends or acquaintances along the way.  They had the whole day before them, after all, and nothing to do but enjoy it.

            When they turned in to the mercantile, Ben said, “I’m putting you in charge of the candy, Hoss.  You probably know your little brother’s tastes better than I do.”

            Hoss wasn’t sure he did, since he normally paid more attention to his own taste when buying candy.  He knew Little Joe didn’t care for horehound drops, and he didn’t seem to be partial to the lemon drops Hoss favored.  Taffy, maybe?  Hoss didn’t especially like the sticky stuff, but sticky might be right up Little Joe’s alley, seein’ as how he generally was makin’ a mess of one sort or another.  Hoss frowned.  Hop Sing probably wouldn’t appreciate sticky hands all over the house, though.  He stared at the glass jars holding the penny candy and pondered what was becoming an increasingly difficult decision.

            “Having trouble making up your mind, Hoss?” a treble voice inquired.

            Grin spreading across his face, Hoss spun around.  “Howdy, Miss Appleton.  Sure been a spell since I seen you.”

            “Since you saw me, Hoss,” she corrected gently.

            “Yes’m, I meant ‘saw,’” he said quickly, and she smiled her approval.

            Ben came up to stand beside his son.  “Miss Appleton . . . a pleasure to see you.”

            “A pleasure to be out for a change,” Miss Appleton laughed.

            Ben smiled cordially.  “That it is.  Is school still scheduled to start again on the second?

            “Weather permitting,” Miss Appleton said.

            “Hoss will be there, weather permitting,” Ben assured her.

            Hoss shrugged.  School was never his favorite place to be, but he liked his teacher and he missed his friends.  All in all, he found himself looking forward to that Tuesday—weather permitting, he thought with a soft snicker—and if it didn’t, well, he’d just look forward to whatever came.  “I am havin’ trouble pickin’ out some candy for my baby brother, Miss Appleton,” he said.  “What kind do you like?”

            “Mmm,” Miss Appleton murmured as she thought.  “I believe peppermint sticks are my favorite, Hoss.  Do you think your brother would like that?”

            “Yes’m, I’ve seen him eat them—uh, those—uh, that—aw, shucks.”  He gave up in frustration over the intricacies of English grammar.

            “‘Them’ is fine, so long as you end your sentence there, Hoss,” his teacher chuckled.

            “That’s what I’ll get him, then,” Hoss replied, relieved.

            “I’m glad I could help.  I’ll see you next Tuesday.”  She shook his hand and that of his father and went back to looking at the meager supply of dress goods on display.

            Ben and Hoss finished their shopping and took their few purchases to the buckboard.  Due to the inclement weather of late, the mercantile hadn’t had much in stock, but there were plenty of foodstuffs, at least, at home.  Ben had learned years ago never to trust a Sierra winter and always laid in his supplies early and in abundance.  This year, with weather far more severe than usual, was proving the wisdom of that practice.

            They meandered down the street, enjoying the smell of fresh air and the sight of fresh faces.  Finally, they turned in at the Antelope, sat at a small, round table and perused the menu written on a chalkboard nailed to the wall.  “The plate lunch is the best deal, huh, Pa?” Hoss said.

            “If you want a full meal,” his father replied.

            “Oh, I do,” Hoss declared at once.

            Ben’s mouth twitched at the predictability of that answer.  When had Hoss ever opted for less than a full meal.  Only when he was sick, and that was next to never.  “I think I’ll have that, too,” he said.  Fricasseed rabbit was on the plate lunch today, with baked beans, biscuits and gravy on the side.  Ben would have preferred some greens, but it wasn’t the season for such things.  Dried apple cobbler came with the plate lunch, so it seemed well worth the fifty cents charged, especially when he figured in the pleasure of a meal out with his middle son.  He loved being with the whole family, but spending time with just one at a time carried its own special magic.  He should plan some time alone with Little Joe soon, too, he decided.  Then he sighed as he thought of Adam, far away.  It would be a long time before he could spend a day with his eldest.  Suddenly, he missed the boy more than ever and hoped all the harder that there’d be a letter on that afternoon stage.

            As if in answer to his yearning, the stage rumbled past the window by which they were sitting.  “There it is!” Hoss cried.  “And there’s gonna be a letter from Adam: I just know it!”

            “Sure hope you’re right,” Ben said.  He dug into his pocket, pulled out a coin and handed it to Hoss.  “Run down and pick up the mail, all right, son?  That should be more than enough to cover the postage.  And if there is a letter from Adam, we’ll just have ourselves another cup of coffee—milk, in your case—and read it right here.”

            Hoss grinned ear to ear, clinched the coin in his fist and trotted out the door.  Soon he was dancing back, waving a letter in each fist.  “One’s from your friend back East,” he reported, “but this one’s from Adam!”

            “Well, let’s have that one!” Ben declared with enthusiasm to match that of his young son.  Much as he’d enjoy the letter from Josiah Edwards—he assumed that was the “friend back East” to whom Hoss referred—it didn’t hold a candle to one from his oldest son.

            “Can we really read it right here and now?” Hoss asked eagerly as he took his seat back at the table.  “Don’t we gotta wait for Little Joe?”

            Ben leaned across the table and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

            Hoss gave a little bounce in his chair.  “No, sir.  You can count on me.”

            With an affectionate smile at his son, Ben unsealed the envelope and gave the letter’s contents a quick scan, just in case there was something private he should withhold, and then began to read:

 

Dear Pa, Hoss and Little Joe,

 

            Merry Christmas!  Although I’m sure it will be past the holiday when you receive this, I send you greetings and gratitude for the unexpected, but much appreciated Christmas draft you sent to me.  I will spend it carefully and promise not to waste it on frivolous things—well, except for some of Candy Sam’s divinity.  I’m sure Hoss, at least, will agree with me that that is not a frivolous purchase.  How about you, Little Joe?  Mr. Edwards was deeply touched, as well, by what you sent to him, Pa.

            I have wonderful news to share on his behalf.  He has, at last, obtained a teaching position.  Jamie and I, of course, are well pleased for his sake, but less so for our own, as the position is in Springfield, Massachusetts.  That is close enough for visits between terms, depending on the type of housing he’s able to locate, but we will miss having him here close at hand.  He has in a sense filled your shoes for me in his encouragement and concern, so perhaps I’ll be even more lonely for you, once he, too, is far from me.  He doesn’t have lodgings there yet, but I will send you his new address as soon as I learn it.

            Term exams begin soon, but while I feel some natural nervousness, I am certain that my preparation has been diligent and that I’ll do you proud.  Once they are finished, Josiah, Jamie and I will be off to New York City for a few days.  Because he’s found a teaching position, Josiah wasn’t as much in need of the funds you sent as when you posted that draft, so he wants to spend a portion of it on this final fling together.  He insists on paying for everything, but I will, of course, be mindful not to impose on his generosity.  I expect we’ll see some shows and some sights, and I’ll be sure to send you a full description of our activities after we return to New Haven.

            To all of you I wish a happy New Year.  May it be as full of joy as the last one was of sorrow.

 

Your loving son and brother,

Adam

 

            “Pa, what’s ‘frivolous’ mean?” Hoss asked as his father finished reading.

            “Oh, something of little importance,” Ben replied.  “Adam was certain you wouldn’t think candy was an unimportant purchase,” he explained with a chuckle.  “I think he knows you, son.”

            Hoss cackled with delight.  “Sure does!”  Then his face wrinkled in thought.  “Have I ever had divinity, Pa?”

            “Sure,” his father said.  “It’s that light, fluffy candy with nutmeats that Aunt Nelly sometimes makes at Christmas time.”

            “Oh, yeah,” Hoss said dreamily.  “Sure wish we coulda had some this year.”

            Ben nodded.  “I wish we could’ve had the Thomases’ company for Christmas, too.”  Need to get over to Carson and check on them, he thought.  Hope they made out all right in all this weather.

            “Umm . . . Pa?”

            Slowly, Ben came out of his reverie and looked across to see his son nervously licking his lower lip.  “Yes, son, what is it?”  Though he tried to keep his tone even, his voice was laced with concern.

            Hoss kept his eyes glued to his finger as he drew figure eights on the rough-planked table.  “That last part of Adam’s letter . . . about this year bein’ happier than the last un . . . he was talkin’ about Ma, wasn’t he?”

            Ben’s hand closed gently over the boy’s restless fingers.  “Yes, I think so.”

            Hoss looked up hesitantly.  “You don’t think she’d mind, do you, if’n we was happy this year?”

            Ben’s smile was warm with compassion and love.  “Hoss, I know for a fact that your mother hopes that 1862 will be one of your happiest ever, and she’ll wish the same every year of your life.”

            “I—I thought so,” the boy murmured.  “I was just checkin’.”

            With a pat Ben released his son’s hand.  “You can always check anything you need to with me, Hoss.  You know that?”

            “Yes, sir, I know . . . and I’m real grateful for it.”

            Gratitude . . . another notion the boy had picked up from his brother’s letter, and Ben found himself feeling it, too . . . for the blessing of having a son like Hoss . . . and Adam . . . and that little scalawag he’d left at home today.  “Well, we need to get back on the road soon, son,” he said, “but maybe we should warm  up with a cup of cocoa for you and coffee for me before we leave.”  At Hoss’s eager acceptance he signaled the restaurant keeper and then opened his letter from Josiah to read while he waited for their drinks to arrive.

 

* * * * *

 

            Brow furrowing deeper with every step, Ben let his horse pick its way down the muddy main street of Carson City.  The place sure was a mess: mud marks on the sides of the buildings and the plaza strewn with tangled brush, both evidence that the river had overflowed its banks and left behind deposits that only garnered the interest of extra work.  All around the square people were hard at it, scrubbing and sweeping and setting things right again.  Some places, the damage was worse.  Coming in, he’d seen a mill washed away and a couple of adobe buildings that had simply dissolved to join the mass of mud he was now slogging through.

            “They musta got lots more snow than us, Pa,” Little Joe, perched in front of him in the saddle, said.  He was clearly awed by the sight of so much enticing mud.

            In keeping with his new resolve to spend time separately with each of his sons, Ben had brought Little Joe with him today, but he was beginning to think he should have chosen another time and place for that.  Odds were, his friends would need help cleaning up, and bringing this little mud magnet into the house would do nothing but add to the chaos.  Still, he’d enjoyed the child’s chatter all the way to town and couldn’t really regret having him underfoot, even now.  He leaned over to rub his rough cheek against the boy’s smooth one.  “More in the mountains, son, which fed the river, once the rains came.  That’s what made the Carson flood.”

            “Don’t like floods,” Little Joe declared.

            Ben tousled the boy’s curls.  “I suspect that puts you right in line with everyone else in town.”

            Moving down a side street, he found Nelly Thomas on her knees, scouring her front porch.  “Excuse me, ma’am, but could you put up a couple of weary travelers for the night?” he asked saucily.

            Dropping her scrub brush, Nelly got to her feet.  “Why, if it ain’t my little Sugarfoot,” she said, reaching up to pull Little Joe down from the horse.

            “Howdy, Aunt Nelly,” Little Joe chirped.

            “Howdy, Sugarfoot.  Well, light down, Ben,” she ordered, balancing the little boy on one hip.  “You know better than to ask if you can spend the night: you’re always welcome.”

            “I was teasing, Nelly,” Ben chuckled as he dismounted and looped the reins around the porch rail.  “We’re heading back this afternoon.  I just wanted to check on you and Clyde, see how you made out in all this weather.”

            “Took some water in the cellar, like most folks,” Nelly sighed.  “Even Governor Nye, I heard.”

            “Water is no respecter of persons,” Ben observed.  “Now, what can I do to help?”

            “Clyde and Billy are down in the cellar, tryin’ to clear out the muck, so’s it’ll dry faster.”  She jounced Little Joe.  “I’ll get Inger to watch our boy here, while I finish up, and then I’ll get dinner on.”

            “Nelly, don’t you dare go to any trouble on a day like this,” Ben scolded as he followed her inside.

            “Something simple,” she promised, “but the Good Books says the workman is worthy of his pie . . . or something like that.”

            “I’m sure the Reverend Bennett would sanction that interpretation,” Ben said with a wink.

            “I like pie,” Little Joe offered.

            “You and every other man I ever met,” Nelly laughed.

            “I like vinty, too,” the little boy hinted.

            Nelly cocked her head quizzically.  “Vinty?”

            Heading toward the entrance to the cellar, Ben paused and turned around.  “I think he means divinity.  Adam mentioned it in his last letter and whetted his brothers’ appetite for it.”

            Nelly laughed.  “So happens I’ve got a mite left from Christmas, and you’re welcome to take it home with you.  Goodness knows, we’ve eaten enough of it to last us another year.  I’ll be expectin’ to hear all about Adam’s news at dinner.”

            “Fair exchange,” Ben said.  He made his way down the steps into the cellar, where Clyde and Billy were shoveling mud into tin pails.  “Little old for mud pies, aren’t you?” he suggested dryly.

            “Done lost my sense of humor on the subject,” Clyde groused, “so unless you wanna take a bath in this here mud, hobble your lip.”

            Billy flashed Ben a grin.  “Real congenial, ain’t he?”

            “Can’t say as I blame him,” Ben said.  “Hand me that shovel, Clyde, and take a breather.”

            Clyde promptly thrust the shovel at his friend and sat down on the bottom cellar step.  Streaking his forehead with mud as he wiped his brow with the back of his hand, he said, “I ain’t turnin’ down an offer like that.”

            “‘Course, it’ll cost you,” Ben said, scooping up a shovelful of mud.

            Clyde snorted.  “Name your price.”

            “News of the day,” Ben said.  “I haven’t seen a newspaper in so long, for all I know the eastern seaboard’s collapsed into the Atlantic.”

            “Be kind of hard on Adam, wouldn’t it?” Billy cackled.

            Ben conceded the point with a tilt of his head.

            “Afraid you won’t get much salary that way,” Clyde said grumpily.  “Ain’t nothin’ been over the Sierras since that blame Christmas storm started up.  From what I hear, road’s closed up so tight not even a horseman can get through.  They say there won’t be a deluge like this for another generation, and it feels like it’ll take about that long to get any news this side of the mountains.”

            “Well, there’s some,” Billy offered.  When his father looked at him as if he’d lost his mind, he said, “The new warden.”

            Clyde scowled.  “Territory done appointed Abe Curry warden of the prison.”  A bit of his usual mischief sparked in his eye as he added, “Maybe they figured he could talk the prisoners to death.”

            “Could be a powerful incentive to staying on the right side of the law,” Ben agreed with a grin.  If there was one thing Abraham Curry loved, it was the sound of his own voice, and a captive audience would suit him to a T.

            “Or give ‘em all the more reason to stage a jailbreak,” Billy suggested with a grin.

            With a chiding frown at the sass, Ben promptly changed the subject.  “Any war news?”

            “Nah, nothin’s come over the wire.  Reckon they’re in camp for the winter,” Clyde replied.

            “Probably,” Ben agreed.  He started to heft his full bucket when Billy reached for it.

            “I’ll take it up,” the boy offered.

            Ben joined Clyde on the step.  Glancing around the room, he noticed that the shelves that normally bulged with preserved foods were almost bare.  “You lose a lot?” he asked.

            “No, not much,” Clyde said.  “First sign of trouble, Nelly had us tote out everything that was stored low.  I balked at the notion, but was glad I gave in.”

            “Which means, I presume, that there’s plenty of potatoes for dinner.”

            “And biscuits, if you’re lucky.”

            Ben chuckled.  “With lots of ‘gavvy,’ as Hoss used to say.”

            “He with you?”

            “No . . . school, but Little Joe’s here.”

            “Lord, help us,” Clyde quipped with a roll of his eyes.

 

* * * * *

 

            It snowed off and on for the next week, though not as heavily as before.  Some days Hoss was able to get to school, but other times Ben felt it not worth the risk.  He rode into school with the boy on January 14th and continued on into town for elections in the newly organized Washoe County.  After filling in his ballot for the officials to serve until September, he made a stop by the post office and had his hopes fulfilled when he was handed another letter from Adam.  That and the prevailing cold made a hot cup of coffee suddenly enticing, so he ambled down to the Antelope and placed his order.  Then he opened the envelope and noticed with approval that it also held a separate note addressed jointly to Adam’s brothers.  His own letter was short this time, merely discussing Adam’s final exams for the first term.  He described them as being different from what he was accustomed to, but assured his father that he thought he’d done well.  A good school report was always gratifying, of course, and probably uppermost in Adam’s mind, but Ben hoped there’d be something more remarkable in the note to the boys.  After all, Adam always did well with his studies; that was scarcely news, Ben thought with a smile into his coffee cup.

            The boys’ letter was both longer and more interesting, for it gave a better picture of what college life was like for his son.  When Hoss came in from school that afternoon, they all gathered before the fire, and Hoss read the letter aloud to his father and younger brother.  In it, Adam described what he called a “peanut bum” at his freshman society meeting, and Hoss smacked his lips at the thought of all the peanuts and cocoa a boy could hold.

            “I can supply the cocoa,” Ben chuckled, “but you’ll have to settle for popcorn.  We don’t have any peanuts.”

            “Popcorn bum!” Little Joe demanded.  “Right now!”

            Ben leaned close to the boy’s face and scowled with mock ferocity.  “After supper . . . and only then if you eat well.”

            “He will,” Hoss promised and fixed his younger brother with a commanding stare.

            “Any more news?” Ben asked, gesturing with his chin toward the letter in Hoss’s hand.

            “Just a mite,” Hoss said.  “Adam says again that he’ll write about all the fun he has in New York City, once he gets back, and he wants me to tell all about Christmas on the Ponderosa.”

            “Can you remember back that far?” his father teased.

            “Pa!  ‘Course, I can.”

            “Tell ‘bout the angel,” Little Joe urged.

            “You do that, Little Joe,” his father said.  “I’ll write down whatever you want to say to Adam.”

            “Okay . . . and I can draw a picture,” Little Joe declared happily.

            Remembering the last drawing his youngest son had sent to his eldest, the one that had convinced him for all time that Little Joe had no artistic bent, Ben smiled ruefully, but he said only, “Sure” and went to get a sheet of paper for the project.

 

* * * * *

 

            Floods surely were a nuisance to clean up after, Ben decided.  The house had been in no danger, but fences had been swept away and landslides had dumped debris on good pastureland.  He had only a couple of hands held over from last summer, and he kept them and himself busy, clearing the land and making sure the cattle had feed and water and a clear path to them.  The fences would have to wait until spring, maybe even later if the ground stayed spongy, as it was now.

            Trips to town were few and far between for Ben, but Hoss, on the days he could get in to school, stopped by the post office in Washoe City.  Toward the end of the month, he rode in, excitedly waving another letter from Adam.  “It’s a thick un, too,” he announced to Little Joe as he plopped the youngster onto Charcoal’s back for his regular ride into the barn.

            “Gimme,” Little Joe demanded, stretching out of the saddle for the letter.

            Hoss held it just out of reach.  “You can hold it, but don’t try to open it; it’s addressed to Pa.”

            Little Joe’s mouth formed an expressive pout as he took the envelope and stared at the written inscription on its front.  “My turn,” he insisted.

            “Naw, not really,” Hoss said.  “We had a letter last time, remember?”

            “Pa, too,” Joe argued.

            Hoss pulled his brother out of the saddle and set him on the side of the stall.  “Yeah, he does write to Pa more, but that’s as should be, I reckon.  He is Pa, little brother.”

            “Yeah,” a slumped Little Joe muttered grudgingly.

            “No, I mean it,” Hoss said as he unfastened the cinch of his saddle.  “It’s like when Pa took me to Washoe City and then you to Carson.  Sometimes a feller just needs to have pa to hisself, and them letters is the only way Adam can have that.  Understand?”

            “Maybe,” Little Joe conceded, though reluctantly.

            Hoss hefted the saddle over the side of the stall, next to Little Joe.  “Thick as that letter is, I bet it’s got something for us in it, too.”

            Little Joe sat up straighter, and his eyes brightened.  “Yeah?”

            “I’m guessin’,” Hoss admitted, “but you just wait and see if’n I ain’t right.”

            “Well, hurry up, then,” Little Joe demanded.

            “You know better’n that,” Hoss scolded.  “Charcoal here deserves a proper rubdown, and she’s gettin’ one.”

            “Okay,” the youngster agreed quickly.  He knew there was no arguing against Pa’s adage that caring for the stock came first, especially since, if anything, Hoss had even stronger feelings about it.  Besides, Charcoal was a nice horse and, like Hoss said, deserved the attention she was getting.

            After what seemed like an eternity to Little Joe, the chores were done, and he and Hoss were settled on the floor with a plate of cookies between them on the table before the fireplace.  Ben was seated in his favorite chair and after taking a draw on his pipe, unsealed the envelope and pulled from it several sheets.  As he opened them, a couple of small cards fluttered to the floor, and Little Joe was quick to snatch them up.  “Ooh, pictures,” he said.

            Ben held out his hand.  “Little Joe, give those to me.”

            “Mine,” Little Joe insisted.  “Hoss said.”

            “I said I figured Adam had sent us something,” Hoss scolded, “and I did say ‘us,’ not just ‘you,’ doggone it.”

            Ben wiggled his fingers.  “Little Joe,” he said sternly, and the boy reluctantly handed over the pictures.  Ben set them aside and turned back to the letter.  “My, isn’t this a nice, newsy letter?”

            “Lots longer than usual,” Hoss said.

            Ben, who had scanned a few lines ahead, smiled.  “It’s about his trip to New York City, and it looks like your brother has lots of adventures to tell.”

            “Read ‘em!” Little Joe demanded.

            Ben laughed.  “All right, Little Sir Impatience, I will.”  He began to read Adam’s  account of his Christmas trip to New York City with the Edwards, which was so detailed that they could easily picture every place the travelers had seen, every performance they’d attended and every bit of fun they’d enjoyed.  Adam recounted the items he’d purchased in stores along Broadway and elsewhere and at that point mentioned the cards included with his letter:

 

The cartes de visite are for the boys.  The picture of Whittier’s Barefoot Boy reminded me so much of Hoss that I wanted to buy it for him, and I chose The Little Match Girl for Little Joe.  I understand that collecting cartes de visite is quite the rage here in the East, so perhaps I’ll find others to send them on future trips.

 

            “I want the boy,” Little Joe whined.

            “You will take what your brother sent or go without,” Ben said firmly.

            Little Joe weighed the gravity of going without for a moment, but he couldn’t stop himself from muttering, “But I don’t like girls.”

            “Fine.  Hoss can have both, then,” Ben said, picking up both cards and extending them to his middle son.  “He’ll probably take better care of them, anyway.”

            “No!” Little Joe protested.  “She’s mine.  Adam said.”

            “And you’re content with that?”  Ben eyed his youngest inquiringly as he slowly drew back the cards.

            “I’ll share,” Hoss inserted quickly.  “You can borrow the boy part time.”

            “Okay,” Little Joe agreed readily.

            Ben wasn’t sure whether to hug Hoss for his selfless generosity or scold him for interfering with an obviously needed lesson, but he let it go and simply handed each boy the carte de visite intended for him.  Then he continued reading Adam’s letter:

 

And there will be future trips to New York City.  That is probably the most exciting news I have to share with you.  At Josiah’s suggestion I visited the offices of several architects, seeking their advice on how to better prepare myself for that profession.  Most were polite, but not particularly helpful.  Mr. Addison Bracebridge, however, not only took a genuine interest in me and gave me sound counsel; he also extended an offer of a job with him during my summer break from Yale.  While I’ll gain practical experience, I’ll also earn some money toward my college expenses and be less a burden to you, Pa.  He’s also asked me to submit sketches to him from time to time, and I intend to begin my first, of the State House on the Green, tomorrow after we see Josiah off to Springfield.

 

            “Ain’t Adam comin’ home for the summer?” Little Joe asked, his face troubled.

            Ben sighed.  “Sweetheart, we have been over and over this: Adam is not coming home this summer.  It’s too far.”

            “Ain’t comin’ home next summer, neither,” Hoss put in glumly.

            “No, and let’s leave it at that,” Ben said with a warning glance at Hoss, who nodded understanding of the message.  “Adam will be gone a long time,” he continued.  “That’s why letters—from him to us and us to him—are so important.”

            “And presents,” Little Joe added.

            Ben chuckled.  “Especially when they’re to you, right?”  He reached over to tousle the child’s curls.  “Better drink down that glass of milk and then put your card in a very special place, where it’ll be safe.”

            “I’ll help him find one,” Hoss offered, earning his father’s grateful smile.

 

~ ~ Notes ~ ~

 

            The Antelope was a historic restaurant in Washoe City, and fifty cents was the price of a plate dinner there.  Regular diners could obtain meals for $8 a week.

           

            The winter of 1861-62 was one of the most brutal the Comstock would experience.  The unparalleled snowfall, followed by rain, washed out every dam on the Carson River and flooded towns throughout California and Nevada.  Landslides crashed down the mountains, taking out everything in their path, and Lake Tahoe rose higher than any white man had ever seen it.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Damsel in Distress

 

 

            Snow was falling outside again on the first of February, its powder fine as lace against the evening sky, but a roaring fire on the Ponderosa’s grate kept the Cartwrights snug and warm.  Sitting in his favorite chair, Ben was deep into the Territorial Enterprise, which Hank Carlton had obligingly brought back from town when he’d returned from his day off.   With wrinkled face and puckered lips Hoss was wrestling with some stubborn arithmetic problems.  Disinclined to accept the lack of attention he was getting from the pair of them, Little Joe pushed his head beneath the newspaper his father held in both hands and peered up at him.  “Whatcha readin’, Pa?”

            “Hmm?”  Spotting the curly head between his knees, Ben chuckled.  “What are you doing there, Little Joe?”

            Taking the question as an invitation, Little Joe crawled up into his father’s lap.  “Whatcha readin’, Pa?” he asked again.

            “Oh, just a description of a new ship the government is building.”  Ben set the paper aside and cuddled his boy closer.  “It’s covered in iron.”

            “Can somethin’ that heavy float, Pa?” Hoss asked, propping his elbow on the table and leaning his head on his palm.

            “Seems it can, Hoss,” his father replied.  “Homework done?”

            Hoss frowned.  “I got a couple left.”

            “Well, time enough tomorrow, I suppose.”

            Hoss closed his arithmetic book with a bang that brought a frown to his father’s face.  Hoss crinkled his nose and then relaxed when the frown faded and was followed by a wink.  He got up and came to lean on the arm of his father’s chair.  “What’s it say about the ship, Pa?”

            “Hmm?  Oh, the Monitor?  It’s intended for the war, son,” Ben explained.

            “So bullets can’t get through?”

            “That’s the general idea,” his father chuckled.

            “Did you ever sail a ship like that, Pa?” Hoss asked.

            “No,” his father scoffed.  “My ships were all sailing vessels.”

            “Tell ‘bout it, Pa,” Little Joe demanded.

            Ben ruffled the boy’s curls.  “Oh, it’s stories of the high seas you want, is it?”

            “Yeah, Pa!” Hoss chimed in with enthusiasm.

            “Well,” Ben said slowly, drawing out the word until it was as long as one of three or four syllables, “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly tell any stories tonight without”—he let the pause linger another few beats and finally said, “Popcorn!”

            “Popcorn bum!”  Little Joe bounced so hard on his father’s thigh that Ben momentarily regretted having burst that surprise so abruptly.

            “I’ll tell Hop Sing!” Hoss cried and hurried out to the kitchen.

            Soon all three were ensconced in the roomy armchair, with Joe perched on his father’s right thigh and Hoss on the opposite arm of the chair.  The bowl of buttery popcorn rested on Ben’s left thigh, but since Ben had an arm around each of his sons, he couldn’t reach it.  Little Joe’s sharp eyes noticed that, and he helpfully grabbed a fistful of the warm, fluffy kernels and crammed it into his father’s mouth just as he started to speak.

            “Mmff,” Ben sputtered, shaking his head at the offer of more.  He chewed as quickly as he could and protested, “Thank you, Joseph, but Pa can’t tell stories with his mouth full.”

            “Oh,” Little Joe accepted without chagrin.  “Tell, then.”  He took a handful of popcorn for himself and munched expectantly into his father’s face.

            “Yeah, Pa, tell,” Hoss ordered with a lop-sided grin.

            “You know, Hoss, I was just about a year older than you when I first went to sea,” his father began.  “Uncle John had found me a place as cabin boy under Captain Stoddard.”

            “Adam’s grandpa?” Hoss asked.

            “That’s right.”

            “I got a grandpa?” Little Joe asked.

            “Well, you did,” his father answered awkwardly.  “Two of them, in fact, but they’re both . . . in heaven now.”

            Little Joe’s face lengthened.  “Like Mama?” he whispered.

            “Yes,” Ben answered softly.  He dropped a kiss onto the boy’s curls and hurried on with his story.  “I’d been with Captain Stoddard for several months and fancied myself quite the sailor.  As the captain’s messenger, I’d run up and down that ship a hundred times, and I’d kept my eyes open and learned about all the sails, lines and ropes, but we’d had such beautiful sailing weather that I’d never seen them put to use in a storm.  And that’s just what was blowing our way.”

            Sensing excitement blowing their way, the two boys leaned in closer, and Ben continued, “The clouds grew darker and the wind fiercer, like nothing I’d ever seen on shore.  The ship began to pitch and reel, and waves splashed over the deck.  When I skidded back to the captain’s side after delivering a message aft, he took pity on my youth and told me to get to his cabin and stay there until I was called.  And what do you think I did?”

            “Went to the cabin and stayed put,” Hoss said at once.  He couldn’t fathom the notion of Pa, who set such store by obedience, ever doing other than he was told.  Little Joe, who couldn’t fathom the notion of anyone hiding in a cabin when there was an exciting storm going on, just looked puzzled.

            “That’s what I should have done,” Ben chuckled, “but I’m afraid your pa wasn’t a perfect little boy, son.”

            Feeling a certain sense of relief that Pa hadn’t always been perfect, Hoss grinned.  “What did you do?” he asked.

            Reading his boy’s thoughts on his open face, Ben smiled.  “I didn’t want to stay a cabin boy forever, you see.  I didn’t have dreams of becoming a captain or even a mate back then, but I wanted to be an able-bodied seaman, like my big brother, so I told myself that it was important to learn all I could about handling a ship in all kinds of conditions, good and bad.  So I hid myself behind some tackle and prepared to advance my education in seamanship.”  He framed his features into a serious countenance.  “You boys realize, of course, that I was just making excuses for doing what I wanted and that this was very wrong.”

            “Uh, yeah, Pa,” Hoss muttered, squirming on the chair arm.

            Little Joe frowned.  Was this a story or a lesson in how to behave?  Steering his father toward the former, he asked quickly, “What’d you see from back there, Pa?  More big waves?”

            Drawn in, Ben said, “Well, not as much as I’d hoped . . . and that’s when things started to go wrong.  I wanted to see more, so I gradually inched out of that hiding place and stood gawking as the men struggled with the sails.  I had my eyes so fixed on them that I didn’t notice the huge wave that came surging across the deck until it knocked me off my feet.”

            Both boys gasped, and the kernel of popcorn headed toward Little Joe’s mouth never made it there.  “Did—did it wash you over, Pa?” Hoss asked urgently.

            Ben patted the boy’s back.  “Son, I wouldn’t be here now if it had, but it came mighty close.  I went sliding down the deck as the ship plunged down a tall wave.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid in my life because I knew that I was about to be thrown overboard.  Then I felt a hand close around my arm and haul me back.  I found myself face to face with the captain, and the scowl on his face made me tremble for my life all over again.  ‘Get below,’ he bellowed, ‘or I’ll feed you to the sharks myself!’”

            “Grandpa was mean!” Little Joe declared.

            Ben laughed.  “Now, how can you say that, Little Joe, when he saved my life.  Why, if it weren’t for Grandpa Stoddard, there would never have been an Adam . . . or a Hoss . . . or a Little Joe.”  He tapped the nose of each boy in his reach as he mentioned his name.  “But I must confess: at that moment I thought Captain Stoddard was pretty mean, too,” he added with a chuckle.

            “Bet you got below right quick, huh, Pa?” Hoss snickered.

            “You bet I did!” his father declared.  “Then, when the storm had passed, and the captain had calmed himself, he set me down and explained to me that the first duty of any seaman was to obey his captain’s orders and that I’d never amount to anything if I didn’t learn that.”

            Little Joe pouted.  “Is this a lesson?  It’s ‘sposed to be a story, Pa.”

            Ben tousled the boy’s curly mop.  “There’s a lesson in every story, Little Joe, and wise little boys learn from them, so they don’t have to learn everything from their own mistakes.  What we learn in each adventure prepares us with what we’ll need for the next one.  You understand?”

            “Maybe,” Little Joe conceded.

            “Hoss?”

            Hoss lifted his right hand in a snappy salute.  “Aye, aye, Captain.”

            Ben returned the salute.  “I believe you’ve got it, matey.  Now, did I spin you a good enough yarn to earn some of that popcorn?”

            With an impish grin Little Joe grabbed a handful and pushed it into his father’s mouth.

            “Mmff,” Ben sputtered, catching the hand headed for his mouth with a second load.  “Pa’s a big boy, Little Joe,” he said. “He can feed himself!”

            Hearing the laughter from the front room, Hop Sing peered around the corner and then with a secret smile of satisfaction, slipped back into the kitchen to finish his evening chores.  Too long after Missy Cartwright went away, the walls of this house heard no laughter, he thought as he scoured the final kettle.  As our Chinese proverb says, one joy scatters a thousand griefs.  Mr. Ben is learning that now.  Softly he began to hum a tune he had learned at his mother’s knee.

 

* * * * *

 

            During the early weeks of February, the streets of Virginia City rang with exultant shouts, as the Territorial Enterprise reported Union victories at Fort Henry, Roanoke Island and Fort Donelson.  But the fighting continued, seemingly with no end in sight.  Ben kept abreast of the national concerns, but those faraway battles paled by comparison with the civil war that soon broke on the Ponderosa itself.

            On the twenty-second day of the month, he was headed into Carson City for supplies, and since the skies were clear, he decided to risk taking the boys with him.  Nelly Thomas, especially, always delighted in seeing the youngsters and hadn’t had much chance recently, with the changeableness of the weather.

            Thinking that, perhaps, the weather might have kept the Montgomerys tied to home, too, Ben stopped by his old cabin to see if he could pick up anything for Katerina while he was in town.  She opened the door in response to his knock, but only by the space of about six inches.  “Yes?” she asked hesitantly.

            “Aunt Kat!” Little Joe squealed and held up his arms, expecting to be picked up, as he always was.  Katerina did not respond except with a pursing of her lips.

            Sensing that something was wrong, Ben hesitantly said, “Perhaps we’ve come at a bad time.  I just wondered—”

            Before he could finish, Little Joe squeezed through the narrow opening in the door, and with dismay Katerina spun around with a soft cry of dismay.

            “Hi!  I ‘member you,” Ben heard his youngest son chirp.  With a frown he followed Katerina in, to retrieve the boy, with Hoss at his heels.

            Hoss spotted the other occupant of the small room first.  “Hey, Marta!” he cried.

            “Why, Marta, what a pleasant surprise,” Ben said.  “When did you arrive?”

            Marta looked up from her task of peeling potatoes at the kitchen table.  “Just two days ago, Uncle Ben,” she said quietly.  “It’s—it’s good to see you and—and the boys.”  She quickly lowered her eyes, however.

            “But . . . how did you get here?” Ben asked, perplexed.  Not only had the weather been chancy for travel over the mountains, but he couldn’t imagine her making the trip alone.  It simply wasn’t the sort of thing a single young woman did.

            “Stefán brought her,” Katerina replied crisply.

            “Stefán is here?  Enos never said a word,” Ben chided lightly.

            “No, he returned home the next day,” Katerina said.  “Were you looking for Enos?”

            Ben sensed her urgency to tend to whatever had brought him here and get him out of her house, so he answered hastily, “No, no.  I just stopped by on my way into Carson, to see if I could bring anything back for you.”

            Keeping her eyes averted, Katerina smoothed her muslin apron.  “No, we need nothing.”  Fearing her abruptness might be construed as rudeness, she added, “Thank you for thinking of us, though.”

            “Well, we—uh—should be on our way, then,” Ben said awkwardly.  “Come along, boys.”

            “Aw, Pa, cain’t we visit some with Marta?” Hoss asked.  “We ain’t seen her in ages.”

            Seeing Katerina’s face tighten and Marta’s gaze drop even lower, Ben said, “No, not this time.  Come along now.”  As the boys reluctantly moved toward the door, Ben said softly, “Come over to the Ponderosa whenever you feel able.  We’d like to see more of you.”

            Katerina flushed deeply.  “I—I don’t get out much these days, Uncle Ben.”  She touched her rounded stomach, as if to blame her reluctance on her advanced pregnancy.

            “Of course,” Ben said, though he didn’t understand at all.  He knew from experience that pregnant women could be moody, but this tense lady seemed totally unlike the light-hearted girl who had brought such warmth to their home at Christmas.  He touched the brim of his hat in farewell.  “Good day, Katerina, and to you, too, Marta.”

            Marta glanced up and for a moment a ghost of a smile touched her lips.  She said nothing, but the wells of unaccustomed sadness in her eyes sent shivers of apprehension down Ben’s spine.  He longed to take her in his arms and ask what was wrong, but restrained himself.  Much as he loved these children from the wagon train, they were not his daughters, and they were entitled to—and obviously wanted—their privacy.

            As they drove toward Carson City, it became apparent that Hoss, too, had noticed the uneasy atmosphere in the Montgomery kitchen.  “Is there somethin’ wrong at Aunt Kat’s, Pa?” the boy asked.

            Ben made a shushing gesture with his lips as his chin dipped toward the child seated between them on the buckboard seat.  “Probably just busy,” he said aloud, but the significant glance he exchanged with his middle boy communicated his concern, and Hoss nodded his understanding that he wasn’t to speak of it before Little Joe.

            Ben was less restrained with the Thomases, though.  After dinner, while the two boys and Inger played in her room, the adults gathered in the parlor for a final cup of coffee.  “I’ve never seen those girls act like that,” Ben said, “and I can’t understand Stefán coming all this way and not bothering to pay me a call.”

            “Didn’t call here, either,” Clyde said, nodding his agreement over the peculiarity of it.

            “Downright worrisome,” Nelly said.  “If the weather stays clear, maybe I’ll just pay ‘em a call myself.  They might speak easier to another woman.”

            “Maybe,” Ben agreed.  “Maybe I could have a word with Enos, man to man.”

            Billy stood to his feet.  “I reckon I might just mosey over to their place now.  Marta’ll talk to me.”

            “Billy,” Ben cautioned, “you might want to reconsider rushing in where angels fear to tread.”

            “Ain’t seen any wings sproutin’ off your shoulders yet,” Billy said with an impish grin and headed into the hall for his coat and hat.

 

* * * * *

 

            For the third time Billy Thomas pounded on the Montgomery door.  This time an exasperated Katerina opened it.  “What do you want, Billy?” she demanded, not inviting him in.

            Billy spread his arms disarmingly wide and sported his most enticing smile.  “To see Marta, of course.  Uncle Ben said she was visiting.”

            Katerina stiffened and with an uplifted chin declared, “Marta is not receiving visitors.”

            Billy’s mouth gaped.  “Aw, come on, Kat.  It’s just me, your old pal from the trail; she always sees me when I go through Placerville.”  He again donned his winsome smile.  “I know it’s short notice, but there’s this drama company puttin’ on a show over to Silver City tonight, something called Ingomar and then a piece by our own Dan DeQuille.  Calls it Sage Stuck Yankee,” he added with a laugh.  “Just the way to welcome Marta to the territory, don’t you reckon?”

            “I do not,” Katerina said crisply.  “Marta will not be gallivanting around the territory with you or any other man.”

            “What you got against me, all of a sudden?” Billy demanded.

            “Nothing, Billy,” she said wearily, “but please go.  Your invitation is kind, but Marta cannot accept.”

            Billy stubbornly thrust out his jaw.  “Like to hear that from her.”

            “No,” Katerina said and promptly shut the door in his face.

            Billy stood in shock, staring at the closed door.  Then, clinching his fists, he walked to his horse, mounted and rode back toward home.  Spotting the Cartwright wagon traveling home from Carson City, he halted and waited until they reached him.

            Ben reined in the team.  “Well, how did it go?”

            Billy shook his head.  “Couldn’t get past the door,” he said.  “Doggone sure is somethin’ wrong, Uncle Ben.  I ain’t never seen Kat act like that.”

            “What’s wrong with Aunt Kat?” Little Joe demanded, looking worried.

            “Nothing, sweetheart,” his father assured him with a pat on the leg.  “She’s just got a lot on her mind.”

            “If I could just get to Marta, she’d tell me; I know she would,” Billy grumbled, “but that sister of hers is doing a mighty good job of playing guard dog, and I just can’t figure why.  It ain’t never been this way, Uncle Ben!”

            “I know Billy, I know.”  He didn’t point out that he’d said the same thing himself back in town.  “Now, don’t fret, son; we’ll get to the bottom of it.”  Ben gave his friend’s son a determined nod, gathered up the reins of his team and once again headed for the Ponderosa.

            Getting to the bottom of the girls’ strange behavior proved harder than anyone could have imagined, however.  Ben tried his hand at prying something out of Enos on Monday morning, but got no more than that Marta would be staying several months past the birth of Katerina’s baby, “to help out,” Enos said, but his honest face denied the words forced through his lips.  That child wasn’t due until April, which left plenty of time for a more seasonable trip over the mountains for its young aunt-to-be, and Enos’s excuse that needs at Stefán’s brewery had forced his immediate return made no sense whatsoever, either.  Uncomfortable pressing the issue, Ben shrugged his acceptance of the explanations and turned their conversation to the work of the ranch.

            Nelly Thomas paid her social call, and while she was allowed in the cabin, the visit was awkward and she didn’t learn any more than the men had.  “Bunch of poppycock that Marta’s here to help with the baby,” Nelly ranted to Ben when she stopped by the Ponderosa afterwards.  “Ain’t likely Kat needs her here more than her mama does back across the mountains, with that restaurant to run all by herself now.”

            “I don’t buy it for a minute, either, Nelly,” Ben said as he poured them both a cup of coffee, “but it’s not really our business.”

            Nelly sighed.  “Reckon not, but you can’t turn off carin’ for folks like the spigot on a water barrel, Ben.”

            “No, no, you can’t,” Ben agreed, resting his chin in his hand, but neither of them could figure out how to show their concern without prying where they obviously weren’t wanted.

            Billy, on the other hand, seemed to be working on the theory that if he knocked on that cabin door enough times, he’d eventually wedge a toe, then a boot and then his entire, charming self inside.  However, whether he asked to escort Marta to church on Sunday or to the Grand Social Ball at Genoa later in the week, the answer was always the same—no.  And it was always delivered by Katerina.  For all he saw of Marta, she might still have been across the Sierras in her mama’s restaurant.  “They got her under lock and key, and I just plain don’t understand it,” he fumed as his family gathered around the Ponderosa table after church on the second of March.

            “No one does, son,” Ben said, “but maybe you ought to just leave them be.  If they want to talk, they’ll do it in their own good time, and that might come a lot sooner if we quit pushing.”

            Ben’s words proved more prophetic than he could have dreamed.  The next afternoon, while Hoss was still at school and Little Joe napping in the downstairs bedroom and he himself wrestling with the hated bookwork, a timid knock sounded at the door.  Welcoming the interruption, Ben waved Hop Sing back to the kitchen and answered the door himself.  On his doorstep stood a bedraggled figure, clutching a worn carpetbag.  “Marta!” he exclaimed in surprise and then quickly smiled in welcome.  “Come in, my dear,” he said as he took the carpetbag from her blue-knuckled grip.  Peering beyond her into the yard, he saw neither buggy nor horse nor any other person.

            “Katerina didn’t come with you?” he asked as he took her elbow and steered her inside.  Marta shook her head.  Troubled by her forlorn face and haunting silence, he concentrated on her practical needs.  “Goodness, child, you’re chilled to the bone,” he scolded as he set her carpetbag beside the credenza.  He wondered, of course, why she was carrying baggage for an afternoon’s call, but such questions could wait.  He led her to his roomy fireside chair and urged her to sit.  “Now, you just get yourself warmed up, young lady, and I’ll tend to your horse.  Did you put it in the barn?”

            “N-no,” Marta stammered.  “I—I walked.”

            Ben’s eyebrows rose as what he’d first feared was confirmed.  “You walked?  From the cabin?”

            Marta bit her lips and nodded as she looked away.

            Taking a seat on the low table before her, Ben gently turned the girl’s face toward him and saw tears shimmering in her eyes.  “My dear, what’s wrong?” he asked tenderly.

            “Oh, Uncle Ben!” she cried, and the tears began to stream down her face.  “I—I know this is a terrible imposition, but—but could I stay here . . . with you?”

            “It’s no imposition,” Ben said slowly, “but I don’t understand.  Do—do Enos and Katerina know you’re here?”  He couldn’t imagine that either of them would have knowingly allowed her to walk so far in such weather, and his suspicion was confirmed by the girl’s hesitant shake of her head.

            “Please, Uncle Ben, please let me stay with you,” Marta pleaded, her face anguished, her fingers interlaced almost as in prayer.  “I—I just can’t stay with them any longer.  I can’t bear Katerina’s cold looks or—or the shame of being hidden away, when I’ve done nothing wrong!  And though they’d never say it, I’m in the way in that little cabin, sleeping in their parlor, making every mealtime conversation uncomfortable.”

            Ben took her icy hands between his warm ones and began to chafe them.  “Sweetheart, you and your family are always welcome here,” he told her, “but you must remember that there is no longer a woman in my household.  Happy as I’d be to have you stay here, it could damage your reputation.”  He gave her an encouraging smile.  “I know it’s crowded in that cabin—was when it was just me and the two boys—but I’m sure they don’t really feel you’re in the way, and it would be better—for you, my dear—if you stayed with family, whatever the problems are.”

            Marta laughed bitterly.  “I’ll soon have no reputation to protect, Uncle Ben.”  She touched her rounded belly and glanced shyly up to see if he’d understood.  The shock on his face told her that he had, so she said hastily, “I suppose I wasn’t thinking about what having me under your roof could do to your reputation.  Forgive me, Uncle Ben.”  She rose to go.

            Ben immediately sprang to his feet and took her trembling body into his arms.  “I’m not concerned about my reputation, Marta dear,” he said as he stroked her damp hair.  “You have a home here as long as you need it.”

            “Oh, Uncle Ben!”  She collapsed on his shoulder, heaving sobs of relief and gratitude.

            “Shh, shh,” he soothed, continuing to stroke her gently.  “There now; it’s going to be all right.”

            She pulled back, wiped the tears from her cheeks and smiled weakly.  “You haven’t even asked about . . .”  Her gaze fell to her abdomen.

            “Would it help to talk about it?” he asked softly.  When she nodded, he seated her back in his armchair and sat once again on the table before her, this time holding her hands.

            “You’re so kind; you remind me of Papa,” she said, looking down at the strong hands whose gentle touch conveyed such love and acceptance.  “I like to think he would have believed me, but . . . perhaps . . . no one can.”

            “I’ll believe you,” Ben promised, instinctively knowing that that confidence would inspire her frank openness.

            “I’m with child,” she said plainly, though she was certain he had already surmised that.

            “And the father?” he queried, careful to keep any hint of judgment from his voice.

            She sighed.  “I don’t know.”  Her head came up abruptly.  “But that doesn’t mean what Stefán thinks, that—that I’ve ‘played the harlot,’ as he puts it.  I haven’t, Uncle Ben.”

            “I believe you,” Ben said firmly.  “Tell me what did happen, Marta.”

            She looked into the fire, as if seeing the scenes of that fateful night dancing in the flames.  “I was alone in the restaurant,” she began, her hands slipping from his to rest in her lap.  “Mama wasn’t feeling well, and I had begged her to leave early.  I could finish up the dishes and sweeping alone, I promised her, and I did that with no problem.”

            “You weren’t afraid?”

            Briefly turning back toward him, Marta spread her hands.  “Why would I be?  Placerville’s rough, of course, like any other mining town, but we’ve always been treated with respect, even kindness.  And the restaurant was closed, the front door locked.”

            “Not the back,” he suggested, his apprehension rising.

            She smiled.  “No, but no one came in, if that’s what you were thinking.”  Turning her gaze back to the flames, she continued, her fingers tightening on the arm of the chair.  “I finished my chores, except for taking out the garbage.  We dump it in a ditch in the woods behind the restaurant, to keep from drawing flies.  Stefán always shovels dirt over it the next morning.”

            Fearing the worst, he closed his eyes.  “You went into the woods alone.”

            She looked back at him.  “I’ve done it a thousand times, Uncle Ben, and no one’s ever bothered me.”

            “Until that night,” he said grimly, looking at her suddenly veiled eyes.

            She nodded sadly.  “Until that night.  I—I heard a twig snap behind me, but it was dark, a moonless night.  I couldn’t see anyone, so I called out, asking who was there.  No one answered, but I felt a—a presence, so I dumped the garbage quickly and started back toward town.  That’s when . . . someone grabbed me.”

            “My God,” Ben murmured.

            Tears again leaked from the girl’s eyes.  “I cried out to Him, too, but . . . but it happened anyway.  I couldn’t stop him, Uncle Ben,” she sobbed.  “He—he—”

            “He raped you,” Ben finished, to spare her the necessity of speaking the painful words.

            She nodded; then she looked up sharply.  “You believe me?”

            “Of course,” he said.  He reached toward her, but she drew back.

            Again she uttered a bitter laugh.  “Why is it so easy for you and so hard for Stefán?”

            “He didn’t take your word?” Ben asked.  “Was there no evidence of what had happened?”

            “A tear in my skirt,” Marta replied, “but I told Mama that I’d caught it on some brush in the woods.”

            “You didn’t tell them?”  Ben was incredulous.

            Marta shook her head.  “I should have, of course; I know that now, but I was so ashamed.  I felt so stupid and so—so dishonored and . . . dirty.”  Her voice had dropped to a whisper and rose but little as she continued.  “I was afraid Stefán would shout his outrage to the world, trying to find who’d done it, and then everyone would know.  I thought it was better to keep it to myself, but then I . . . I missed my time,” she finished awkwardly, for a woman’s monthly cycle was not something she’d ever mentioned to a man.  “I had to tell Mama then.  She told Stefán, and he—he called me a liar . . . and worse.  He talked of nothing but the shame I would bring to his house and to our mother, when my belly swelled with the fruit of my—my fornication.”

            “Oh, Marta.”  Ben took her damp face in his hands, and this time she leaned into the cradle of his palms.  “Did your mother not believe you, either?”

            “I—I’m not sure.  I think Mama felt caught between the two of us, and Stefán is head of the house now.  What he says is law, as has always been our way.”  As she pressed her left cheek into his tender touch, tears poured down to dampen his hand.  “Over and over he demanded that I tell him the name of my lover.  I couldn’t, of course, because there was no lover.  He finally said that if I stuck to that story, so that there was no possibility of marrying the father of my child, I would have to leave their house before my disgrace became known.  Mama agreed I should go, because I would soon begin to show, and most people would believe what Stefán did; they’d gossip and ruin any chance I had for a happy marriage, ever.  She—she thinks I should give the baby to Katerina to raise, come home and pretend it never happened, but my sister doesn’t want it, I can tell.  Why should she, with a child of her own on the way?”  Marta stepped back, clinching her small fists.  “It’s my child, however it was conceived, and it would be better off with someone who loves it, don’t you think?”

            “There’s time enough to think through all your options,” Ben said slowly.  His own mind was racing, trying to figure some way to solve the girl’s problem.  Marry her himself?  He couldn’t bear the thought so soon after losing Marie, but it was a solution of sorts.  He shook his head, and his next words were directed as much to himself as to Marta.  “Don’t make a hasty decision either way.”

            The girl gave a weary nod.  “I couldn’t leave until the roads cleared, but Stefán brought me here, to Katerina, with the first break in the weather.”  Her chin dropped.  “He told her what he believed, those terrible lies . . . and she has treated me like—like a scarlet woman from then until now.”  She looked up at him and said through trembling lips, “I can’t bear it, Uncle Ben.  Send me away, if you must for decency’s sake, but I can’t go back there.”

            Ben stood, lifting her and pulling her into his arms.  “Marta, my dear, you—and your child, when the time comes—are welcome here.  We’re delighted to have you, and if tongues must wag, we’ll just let them wag.”

            She slipped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.  “Thank you; thank you so very much.”

            Slowly he moved out of her embrace, which had taught him one thing: his feelings for her were those of a father, not a husband.  From that moment he knew that he couldn’t consider a marriage of convenience; it wasn’t fair to either of them.  Smiling at her with encouragement, he said, “Now, let’s get you settled in your room.  Then while you wash your face and freshen up, I’ll have Hop Sing brew us a cup of—shall it be coffee or tea?”

            “Tea, please,” Marta said, wiping her cheeks.

            Ben moved to the carpetbag.  “Are these all your things or do I need to collect the rest from the cabin?”

            “That’s all,” she said.

            As they walked up the stairs together, he suggested that he should, at least, let Enos and Katerina know where she was.  “I’m sure Kat’s frantic with worry by now.”  Enos, he assumed, was out working and wouldn’t learn of her disappearance until later that evening.

            “Katerina was taking a nap when I left,” Marta said.  “That’s how I was able to slip out, but I suppose she would have wakened by now.  I think they’ll probably be relieved not to have to put up with me, but I hate making trouble for you, Uncle Ben.”

            “No trouble at all,” Ben assured her, knowing he’d probably have to repeat it many times before the humiliated girl could accept it.  He walked her down the hall to the well lighted guest room at the back corner of the house.  “This is where Mary Wentworth stayed when she was with us,” he explained.  “I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as she did.”

            Marta laughed.  “After that settee in the parlor, any room would seem like heaven, and this is lovely.”

            “I’ll send Hop Sing up with some fresh water,” Ben promised and then left her to stow her belongings as she saw fit.  After delivering the request for water to his Chinese factotum, he moved to his desk.  With a shake of his head he closed the books.  No time to finish them today.  As soon as he finished having a cup of tea with Marta, he’d need to ride over to the Montgomery place and, somehow, explain that she would now be staying with him.  Would Katerina be outraged at his interference?  Would he lose a good foreman because of it?  He shrugged.  Sometimes a man had to do what was right, even if his actions brought unwanted consequences, and taking Marta in was, he felt absolutely certain, right.

            He’d barely finished putting his books away when he heard a door creak open and a soft voice call, “Pa?”

            “Here, Little Joe,” he said, coming around the corner of the alcove.

            “All through with books?” the little boy asked hopefully as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

            “Well, I’m through for now,” Ben chuckled, “but I’m going to have to go out for a while, son.”

            Little Joe brightened immediately.  “Can I go, too?  Town, maybe?”

            Ben lifted the boy into his arms and tickled his tummy.  “No, no.  I’m just going over to Katerina’s.”

            “I wanna go!” Little Joe insisted.

            “Not this time, son,” his father said, stroking the child’s smooth cheek.  “I’m going to—to talk business,” he finished lamely.  Then he lifted the diminutive chin.  “Besides, I need you to take care of something for me here.”

            Little Joe looked puzzled.  Other than a few small chores, Pa never gave him much to do, certainly never anything “to take care of.”  He wasn’t sure whether to feel proud or worried.  “I think I’m too little,” he said slowly.

            Ben laughed aloud.  “Not for this.  In fact, I think you’re just the right size for this job.  I want you to entertain our company, Little Joe.”

            Little Joe’s eyes lit up again.  “Company?  What company?”

            Catching sight of Marta coming down the stairs, Ben spun the boy around in his arms and said, “That company!”

            Little Joe squealed with delight, wriggled out of his father’s arms and ran to meet Marta on the landing.  “Hi!”  He cried.  “I’m glad you came!”

            “Oh!” Marta cried as she dropped to the floor and gathered him into her arms.  “I’m glad, too!”  She nuzzled her nose into his curly crop and sighed in deep contentment.

            “I imagine the tea’s ready now,” Ben suggested.  “I have time for one cup with you, and then I’ll have to leave Little Joe here to keep you company.”

            The look on Marta’s face said that she couldn’t possibly have had better company.  Standing, she took the child’s hand and led him to the table.  “Do you drink tea, Little Joe?”

            He wrinkled his nose, making both Ben and Marta laugh.

            “Milk for him, I think,” Ben suggested.

            “And cookies—for company,” Little Joe hinted.

            “You’re the host; you tell Hop Sing,” Ben chuckled, and Little Joe ran into the kitchen to comply.

            “He’s darling,” Marta said, her eyes shining for the first time since arriving.

            Noting that, Ben nodded his agreement.  “I’m not sure how attentive a host he’ll be, but Hoss will soon be home from school.  If you need anything, you ask him.”  He finished his tea as quickly as politeness permitted and with further admonitions to Little Joe to take care of their guest, departed.

            Since he needed time to form his thoughts, to consider the best way to present the rather controversial idea of allowing Marta to stay in the home of an unmarried man, he rode slowly.  He wasn’t sure he’d found the right words by the time he dismounted in the Montgomery’s yard, but there was no point in further procrastination.  He walked to the door and knocked on it.  There was no answer.  He knocked again with the same result.  “Kat, it’s Uncle Ben,” he called.  “I have news about Marta.”

            Still no response.  Ben frowned.  Was it possible that Katerina was sleeping that soundly?  He didn’t think so.  Hesitantly, he opened the door, which was unlocked as usual, and entered.  A few steps through the parlor to the open bedroom door confirmed his suspicion that the house was empty.  Rebuking himself now for that slow trip from home, he pondered his next step.

            Obviously, Katerina had awakened, found Marta gone and set out to look for her, but he hadn’t seen her on the road here.  He instantly chided himself for the self-centered notion that she should have automatically known that her younger sister would seek refuge at the Ponderosa.  There was, of course, no reason for Marta to go there, instead of to other friends.  Here in Nevada, though, there weren’t many: only him and the Thomas family.  Nelly had been here to visit, so maybe Katerina had assumed that Marta would view the older woman was her best source of support.

            Then he groaned.  No, there was a more disheartening possibility, and he knew instinctively that it was the one driving Katerina right now.  There’d been another Thomas who’d come calling, one who had proven more persistent than any of them in trying to contact Marta during her imposed isolation.  Given Katerina’s belief that her sister was a wanton woman, wouldn’t she naturally assume that Marta would head for the man likeliest to take her in?  Ben checked the barn quickly, saw that the buggy was missing and rightly concluded that if he wanted to speak to Katerina, he’d have to ride into Carson City.  And if he didn’t ride quickly, he’d be having that conversation with an ear-pricked audience.

            As the red-orange sun slipped toward the western hills, he rode hard down the road to Carson City, but when he finally acknowledged that he wasn’t going to overtake that buggy, he slowed down.  Procrastination again possessed him, but gained him nothing.  Little as he wanted an audience, he was going to have one, and it didn’t change the facts he needed to relate.  He’d start there and try to build a case convincing enough to earn even Nelly Thomas’s strait-laced approval.

            The raised voices he heard as he climbed the steps to the Thomas’s porch told him he was walking into a raging inferno of charged accusations.  It was young Inger who finally responded to his knocks at the door.  “I’m not supposed to be listening,” she whispered in his ear, “but how can I help it?”

            “No way I can see,” he whispered back.  “Just scoot on back to wherever your mother sent you, and I’ll pretend I let myself in.”

            Inger nodded solemnly.  “Pa’s in the smithy, if you came to see him.  Reckon you can hear where everyone else is,” she said and hurried back to the kitchen and whatever chores her mother had assigned her.

            As Ben made his way to the parlor, he winced as he heard Katerina demand, “Where are you hiding her?”

            Nelly took that about as well as he figured she would.  “I told you before: she ain’t here; if she was, I’d tell you straight out.  I got no reason to be hidin’ anyone; it plain ain’t the sort of foolishness I’d ever take to!”

            “I’m sure Katerina knows that, Nelly,” Ben said from the doorway.  “She knows you for an honest woman, don’t you, Kat?”  He arched an eyebrow toward the younger woman that invited her to pour some oil on the waters she’d troubled.

            Katerina blanched, as if suddenly aware of the ugliness of her accusation.  “I—I accept your word, Nelly, and . . . no . . . it isn’t the sort of foolishness you’d condone.”  Her anger still simmered beneath the surface, however, and bubbled over as she pointed an accusing finger at the Thomas son, who was standing by the fire, his face a study in bewilderment.  “But he’s been at our house every day, trying to see Marta, and I think he got his chance today, while I was napping.  And I want to know where you’ve taken her, Billy?  You tell me now!”

            “I ain’t even seen her!” Billy declared.  “You saw to that!”

            Nelly bristled.  “If you think accusing an innocent boy is—”

            “Stop!” Ben shouted, and in shock at his sharpness, everyone did.  He lowered his voice and said, “Marta is at the Ponderosa, Katerina.  She walked there this afternoon.”  Seeing the young woman begin to sway, he hurried to her side and helped her to a chair.

            “You feelin’ faint, child?” Nelly asked.  “Let me get you a glass of cool water.”  She hurried out to the kitchen to get one.

            “Katerina, dear, are you all right?” Ben asked anxiously.  “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

            “No, I . . . I’m all right,” she said.  “I—the Ponderosa, you said?  Marta is there?”

            “Yes,” Ben replied.

            Nelly hurried back in with the water and held it to the young woman’s lips.  “There now, honey,” she said, “you drink that down and settle yourself.  It ain’t good for a woman in your condition to get herself all wrought up like this.”  Gone from her demeanor was any hint of offense over the unfounded accusations she’d been fielding since the other woman arrived.

            Katerina tenderly touched her ample abdomen.  “I know.”  She looked up at Nelly, tears in her eyes.  “I’m sorry . . . for . . .”

            “Don’t speak of it,” Nelly soothed.  “Bein’ with child can put all sorts of notions in a body’s head.”

            His brow furrowed, Billy asked.  “Marta walked to the Ponderosa from Kat’s place?  Why’d she do a thing like that?”

            “Not happy with the situation as is,” Ben said plainly.

            Katerina gathered herself together and sat up straight.  “I am sorry that Marta has caused you such trouble, Uncle Ben.  I will come at once and bring her back home.”

            “She’s been no trouble,” Ben said.  That wasn’t strictly true, of course; Marta’s situation had already cost him a frantic ride into Carson City and thrust him into an incredibly awkward position, but he didn’t hold any of that against the girl.  He knelt beside the chair and took Katerina’s hand.  “I hope you’ll let her stay on at the Ponderosa, my dear.”

            Nelly Thomas gasped.  “Ben, you can’t be serious.”

            “I’m serious,” Ben said, his eyes fixed on Katerina’s face.  “She’ll be happier there, and there’ll be less stress on you at a time when you should be receiving the tenderest of care.”  He gently stroked her cheek.

            The young woman shook her head.   “No, that can’t be.”

            “Certainly not,” Nelly put in.

            “Please,” Ben urged.  “It’s best for everyone.”

            “You don’t understand,” Katerina murmured, staring into her lap.

            “Yes, I do,” Ben said softly.  “Marta told me the . . . circumstances.”

            Katerina paled again, causing Nelly to reach for the glass of water and offer it again.  “Now, Ben, you’re actin’ just like a man,” Nelly scolded, “not thinkin’ things through.  Kat here was wrong in thinkin’ what she did about my Billy, but not wrong in tryin’ to protect young Marta’s reputation.”  She stopped short at the sound of Katerina’s bitter laugh, and then hurried on to make her point.  “You ain’t married; she ain’t married; so she can’t stay under your roof; it ain’t decent.”  She frowned again as Katerina almost collapsed in hysterical, hiccupping laughter.  “Get hold of yourself, girl,” she ordered.

            Ben exhaled gustily.  “You might as well tell them,” he said to Katerina.  “It’s not the kind of secret that keeps well.”

            Tears began to leak from the corners of Katerina’s closed eyes, and her hands flew to cover her mouth, as if to hold the secret in; yet she nodded her permission.

            Ben put it as simply and as kindly as he could.  “Marta’s with child,” he said.

            “What!” Nelly cried.

            Jaw dropping, Billy jerked erect.  “I’m going to see her,” he said and headed for the door.

            Ben sprang up and caught him by the elbow.  “Oh, no, you’re not.  You leave that girl be for now, Billy Thomas.”  Don’t complicate what I’m trying to do here, he wanted to say, but for Katerina’s sake kept that to himself.  Maybe the message was communicated by his face, for Billy slumped and shuffled back over to the settee, where he flopped down to listen to the discussion between Kat and his Uncle Ben.

            “I’m so ashamed,” Katerina said, the tears now streaming down her face.

            “It ain’t you that needs to feel that,” Nelly said stiffly.

            “Nelly, please,” Ben implored.  He turned back to Katerina.  “My dear, unless you intend to lock your sister inside until she gives birth, this . . . situation . . . is going to be known.  As Marta says, at that point she will have no reputation to protect, and I’m not concerned about mine.  Those who know me will know the truth, and it’s only their respect I cherish, anyway.  Marta will be treated like a daughter in my house . . . and I think she’ll be happier there.  I think it’ll make things easier on you, too.  Nelly rightly points out that you shouldn’t become overwrought so near your time.  It’s not good for your little one, and, of course, the same is true for the child Marta is carrying.”

            “That’s the first thing you’ve said that makes sense,” Nelly grunted.

            “I—I need to talk with Enos,” Katerina whispered.

            “Of course,” Ben agreed at once.  “And you’ll let Marta stay with me tonight, while you talk it over?”

            Katerina slowly nodded.  “I know she’s safe with you, Uncle Ben, and one night shouldn’t cause too much talk . . . I suppose.  As you say, the people who matter most know now, and I hope they won’t think ill of me.”

            “Not of you,” Nelly said bluntly.  “Lands, what were your folks thinkin’, puttin’ you in a fix like this with a child comin’?”

            Katerina uttered a nervous titter.  “Stefán thought I could pass the child as my own.  Just five months between the two!  How did he think I could explain that?”

            “Men,” Nelly snorted.  “Them and thinkin’ just naturally don’t go together.”  She patted Katerina’s hand.  “Now, sweetie, you’ve had yourself a hard day—whole string of ‘em, most likely—and I think the best thing for you to do is stay the night here.”

            “Oh, no, I can’t,” Katerina objected, though weakly.

            “Now, I insist,” Nelly pressed.  “You gotta think about that child you’re carryin’, girl!  I promise you not another word’ll be said about this sad business.”  She fixed an authoritative glare on her son, who shrugged and looked away.  “In fact, if you want your dinner on a tray in your room, that’ll be just fine.  Might be the best thing, so you can have yourself some peace and quiet for a change.  Ben here can let Enos know where you are and what’s goin’ on.  He’s welcome to come stay the night, too, if he pleases, or if’n he needs to stay home to tend to chores or whatever, he can pick you up in the mornin’.”

            “I’ll tell Enos,” Ben promised to forestall any further objections from Katerina, “and keep him from worrying.  But if I’m going to do that, I’d best ride out now.”

            “Well . . . all right,” Katerina agreed.  “I am tired, and I thank you for your hospitality.”

            “Wish you could stay to supper, too, Ben,” Nelly said, “but you’re right: Enos’ll be frettin’ if he comes home and finds Kat gone.”

            “And the boys and Marta would worry, too,” Ben added.  “None of us were expecting me to come quite so far to find this young lady.”  He kissed Katerina on the cheek, shushing her whispered apology, and then impulsively hugged Nelly in appreciation for her help that afternoon.

            “Get on with you now,” Nelly chuckled and hurried him toward the door with a slap to his back.

            Billy followed Ben out to his horse.  “Tell Marta I want to see her,” he said gruffly.  He flushed as he added, “That other stuff you’re sayin’ . . . it don’t matter to me.”

            “All right,” Ben said, “but give it a few days, son.  Let her family sort things out first.”  When Billy agreed, Ben mounted and rode back toward home.  He didn’t procrastinate this time.  It was a long ride back to the Ponderosa, and with a possibly difficult conversation with Enos added on to the day’s duties, home seemed a long way away.

 

* * * * *

 

            Hurrying toward home, Ben saw a figure flying the opposite direction.  When the rider recognized him, however, he pulled up.  “Mr. Cartwright, I gotta find the girls,” Enos Montgomery said.  He’d never been able to call his employer ‘Uncle Ben,’ as his wife did.  In private, he might say ‘Mr. Ben,’ but in front of other hands it was always ‘Mr. Cartwright,’ and by habit the more formal term spurted out now.

            “I know where they are,” Ben said with a smile, “so slow down, son.  There’s nothing to worry about.”

            Enos took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.  “You sure?  When I got home and saw that they was both gone, I just knew that Kat had done somethin’ rash . . . like push Marta on a stage for Placerville, maybe, or even back East.”  The mask of pretense that there was nothing going on at their house but a sisterly visit cracked and fell.

            “Marta’s at my house,” Ben told him, “and Kat’s with the Thomases.”  He quickly explained that he knew about the difficult situation his foreman had been dealing with.

            Enos slumped with relief.  “I’m glad of that, Mr. Ben,” he said, relaxing into their more family-like relationship.  “Pained me to lie to you like I did, but Kat felt shamed and wanted to keep it secret.  Don’t see as how we could have for long, things bein’ the way they are.  Didn’t want to upset her, though, so near her time, you know?”  His eyes pleaded for understanding.

            “I know,” Ben assured him in commiseration over a man’s need to spare the woman who carried his child from all needless stress.  Pregnancy could be mighty hard on a man, he recalled.  “I think we’ve come up with a plan that will ease things at your place.”  He extended his offer for Marta to stay with him, giving the reasons he thought it the best, though scarcely an ideal, solution.  “You and Kat talk it over and let me know what you decide.”  Emphasizing that his wife was fine, though exhausted, he mentioned Nelly’s invitation for her to spend the night, which Kat had accepted.  “And you’re welcome to stay there, too,” he finished, “or to pick up Kat in the morning.”

            Enos grinned.  “I’m halfway to town now.  Think I’ll just go on in and stay there, but it might put me some late for work in the morning.”

            “Take tomorrow off,” Ben urged.  “I can run my own ranch for one day,” he added with a chuckle, “and I think the two of you need some time alone, to relax . . . and talk.  Come to supper tomorrow night, and we’ll talk things over.”

            “Thanks,” Enos said sincerely, thanking his lucky stars, as he had so many times in the past, that he worked for a man like Ben Cartwright.

 

* * * * *

 

            The sky was dark, lighted with twinkling stars, by the time Ben arrived home.  He handed his horse over to Hank Carlton and went directly to the house.  As soon as he came through the door, he was trampled by a stampede.  “Pa!” both his boys cried as they rushed to engulf him in hugs.  Ben knelt and drew them both into his embrace.

            “You’re late, Pa,” Little Joe scolded, the quaver in his voice showing just how much that bothered him.

            “Hop Sing ain’t a bit happy,” Hoss said under his breath.

            “I’m sure he’s not,” Ben said as he rose, “but it couldn’t be helped.”

            He saw Marta watching him anxiously and hurried to set her mind at ease.  “It’s all right . . . for now,” he said.

            She came forward shyly.  “I—we were worried; you were gone so long.  You must have done some fancy talking to make it all right . . . for now.”  Her glance at the children told him she understood that detailed explanations would have to wait.

            “Little bit,” Ben acknowledged, “but that wasn’t what took the extra time.  Finding Katerina did that.  She was . . . out looking for you, my dear.”  The way he said it indicated that there was more he could not say in the presence of two young boys.

            Marta’s hand flew to her lips.  “Oh, dear,” she sighed.  “It never crossed my mind she’d do that.  I have been selfish, haven’t I?”

            “Misery can turn a person’s thoughts inward,” Ben said, his smile softening what might otherwise have come across as censure.

            “Who’s miserable?” Hoss asked, nose crinkling in puzzlement.

            “We all will be if we don’t get to the table right quick!” his father declared.

            “We done ate,” Hoss said.

            “Me, too,” Little Joe put in.

            “Marta?” Ben asked.

            She shook her head.  “I . . . couldn’t.”

            “Well, that means the two of us are in a heap of trouble,” Ben told her.  Seeing the girl’s troubled expression, he gave her a wink to let her know he was teasing.  Time in this household would soon teach her to take Hop Sing’s oft-expressed disgruntlement with a tablespoon of salt.  He took her arm and led her to the table, calling out to the cook.

            “Why you late?” Hop Sing demanded, coming to the doorway.  “All-a time Hop Sing make good food nobody eat.”

            “Now, don’t you call my boys nobody,” Ben chided with a chuckle.

&nbs