Author's Choice
Heritage of Honor
Book One, Part 1
A Dream Deferred

Sharon Kay Bottoms


Ben Cartwright stood beside his small canvas-covered wagon gazing out over the surrounding fields.  In much the same way he had once watched the waves from the bow of the New England square-rigger where he’d served as first mate to Captain Abel Stoddard.  And though it had been six years since he walked a deck, there were times, like this, when the same emotions billowed through his soul, when the emptiness of the land echoed the solitude of the sea.

    The Sangamon Valley of Illinois was a fertile land, a good place to build a home.  But twenty-seven-year-old Ben's sights were set on a more distant horizon, his vision fixed on a less settled land.  He dreamed of being part of this growing nation, of helping expand its frontiers.  He was only one man, of course, perhaps an insignificant one, but the nation would be built of individual dreams, and he was determined to see his fulfilled.

    Ben felt a slight tug on his sleeve and heard a soft whisper.  “Pa?”

    As Ben looked down at the small boy seeking his attention, he wondered if he would ever get used to that term of address.  Young Adam had picked it up from the simple people among whom they'd traveled, and it fell naturally from his lips.  But it still sounded strange to Ben.   He had always called his own father “sir,” and when he'd gone to sea, he'd simply transferred that title and the respect it implied to Captain Stoddard.  Somehow, though, Adam's single soft syllable lay sweeter on Ben's ear than that crisp, respectful "sir" could ever have sounded.

    “Pa?” Adam whispered again.  “Pa, I don't feel good.”

    Alarm instantly registered in Ben's velvet brown eyes, and he stooped at once to feel the child's forehead.  “Why, son, you've got fever,” Ben said.  “Do you hurt anywhere?”

    “Just my head, Pa,” Adam murmured, laying his aching temple against his father's broad shoulder.

    “Well, I think we'd best bed you down right now, son.”   Ben lifted the boy in his arms and carried him to the mattress covering the center of the wagon bed.  Pulling a faded quilt over the child, Ben sat beside him and smoothed a lock of hair, dark like his own, back from the small forehead.  Then his hand rested lightly, lovingly, against Adam's cheek.

    Anyone watching that tableau would have realized that this cherished boy was his father's whole world, all Ben had left of the love he once shared with Elizabeth Stoddard.  Elizabeth, dear Elizabeth, who had died giving this precious gift to Ben.  His heart convulsed at the thought of her.  The wound, though five years old, had never really healed, and Ben doubted it ever would.  Still, he had Adam and his love for the boy eased the pain.  At times like this, though, when the fear of again losing someone he loved hovered near, the pain of Elizabeth's passing seemed as fresh as yesterday.

    It was at times like this, too, that Ben most regretted the lack of female influence in their lives.  It had been hard rearing Adam alone.  He'd had help in the beginning, of course.  He couldn't possibly have cared for an infant alone.  Dear Mrs. Callahan——dear, gray-haired, grandmotherly Mrs. Callahan——how tenderly she had nurtured baby Adam.  She would have known how to nurse a sick child had she still been with them, but Ben and Adam had been alone two years now.

    Thoughts of Mrs. Callahan brought back to Ben's memory that day long ago when they had said good-bye to Captain Stoddard, Elizabeth's father.  How hopefully Ben and Mrs. Callahan, with tiny Adam cradled in her arms, had started out on their great adventure, traveling west in a hired carriage.  But Ben soon learned how impractical such conveyance was.  His share in the New Bedford chandler's shop he had partnered with Captain Stoddard had seemed vast when they started, but his resources melted like snow in the sun with the expense of travel.

    Mrs. Callahan had stayed with him, even though their journey slowed to a walk, even though the West was his dream, not hers.  Her delight lay in caring for the little life entrusted to her.  Where didn't matter.  She had even stayed loyally when Ben missed her first stipend.  He had found employment and quickly paid her, but from that point on Ben found himself stopping more and more frequently to earn money and making less and less progress west.

    Eventually, a higher loyalty called Mrs. Callahan back to New England.  Word came of a sick sister, and Mrs. Callahan returned to nurse her just before Adam's third birthday.  Since then, Ben and his son had traveled alone in a painfully slow advance toward his dream.  Sometimes Ben felt they would never reach their destination.  At other times, like tonight, the wind from the horizon whispered his name and he knew destiny awaited him in the West.

    That destiny would have to be delayed again, though.  With his funds almost depleted and Adam ill, Ben desperately needed to find work.  Harvest had already ended that fall of 1848, so his best hope for employment would be found in a town.  By his calculations they should reach Petersburg tomorrow afternoon.  As Ben lay down beside Adam, he closed his eyes and breathed a silent prayer for God's provision there.

    The day's journey began later than usual the next morning.  Adam had been restless most of the night; and when he finally did fall into a heavy sleep, his father had no heart for waking him with the jolting of the wagon.  But now Ben found himself questioning the wisdom of that decision.  The boy seated beside him seemed unnaturally listless, and his father began to fear he might need medical attention.  How Ben would pay for it was an unanswerable question, though.  He had only a few coins left in his pocket and, what was a more urgent concern, nothing whatever edible in the wagon.  The two-hour delay in starting that morning began to take on increasing significance as the sun reached its zenith without disclosing Petersburg on the horizon.

    When Adam made no complaint about his father’s failure to make a noonday stop, Ben didn't know whether to feel relieved or more concerned than before.  Adam was by nature a good-humored, uncomplaining child, but by no means a reticent one.  Had he felt any desire for food, he would not have hesitated to ask for it.  The fact that the request had not come disturbed Ben and tied his own stomach in such a knot that he, too, had no appetite.

    By mid-afternoon, though, Ben Cartwright was pulling his team to a stop next to Petersburg's local tavern.  Ben tugged the patchwork quilt closer about Adam's shoulders and stepped down from the wagon.  “Stay right here, son,” he instructed.  “I'll be back in a few minutes.”

    Ben hesitated just a moment before entering the Illinois House.  Then, squaring his shoulders, he grasped the door handle with resolve.  The tavern seemed unusually busy for so early in the day.  Men Ben's age and younger, who should have been occupied with their daily labor, were instead gathered around a table, lifting tankards of ale as they took turns singing rousing verses of a song they seemed to be composing as they went.

    Ben ignored them and headed straight for the bar, hat in hand.

    The mustachioed bartender looked up and asked perfunctorily, “What'll it be, stranger?  Whiskey or ale?”

    “Nothing,” Ben replied, though a drink would have moistened his suddenly dry mouth.  “Like some information.”

    “Information?” the bartender asked, looking perturbed at dispensing a free product.  “What kind of information?”

    Though he felt like letting his face drag the floor to hide his desperation, Ben forced himself to look the man in the eyes.  “I was wondering where I could find some work.”

    Instead of the bartender, a man seated at the table next to the bar answered.  “I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place, friend.”  His hand swept toward the singers at the table behind Ben.  “Lots of these local boys looking for work.”

    In a glance Ben took in the quality of clothes the man was wearing:  royal blue jacket with black velvet collar and cuffs and a maroon vest over a frilled shirt with a light blue cravat tied in a stylish bow at the neck.  Obviously, a man of means, probably the proprietor of the tavern.

    Next to such a man, Ben knew he must present a bedraggled appearance in his worn brown pants and tan corduroy vest, its ribs rubbed smooth in several places.  The fact that, in his concern for Adam, he had neglected to shave that morning probably made him look even more like a vagrant.  But once again his need made him swallow his pride.  “Do any kind of job,” Ben said, and though he hated to sound like a beggar, added, “I've got a sick boy out there.”

    Though displaying no overt solicitude, the tavern owner seemed helpful.  “You might try that sawmill at the edge of town.  I'm afraid you won't have much luck.”

    It was only a thread of hope, but Ben grabbed it.  “Well, I'll—I'll try there.  Thanks.”

    From the table of rowdy carousers came a loud voice.  “Hey, you!”

    Ben turned to see a big blonde Swede toss a coin at him.  “Maybe that'll help you get out of town, huh?” the man laughed.

    The pride Ben had been willing to swallow before surged up in his throat.  But he didn't want trouble.  Ignoring the scoffer, he moved toward the door.

    “Hey!” the Swede called again.  “Isn't that enough or would ten cents make you move faster, unh?”

    One of the Swede's older drinking companions hooted.  ‘Gunnar, you're a bad judge of men.  You're too extravagant.  You can tell by just looking at him that he's only worth a nickel!”

    Gunnar laughed.  “No, no, no, no.  Today I feel generous.  Here's a dime, mister.  Come and get it.”

    Slowly, Ben approached the man, but he paid no attention to the outstretched dime.  Instead, he grabbed the Swede, pulled him from his chair and threw him against the bar.  As Gunnar's friend rose to join the fray, Ben decked him with a solid left to the jaw, the fighting skills he had perfected in rowdy seaports around the world making him more than equal to the contest.

    The tavern owner rose from his chair.  “All right, hold it, all of you.”  No one struck another blow, but Ben maintained his fighting stance and kept his eyes sweeping the room in case anyone else decided to mix in.

    The proprietor's voice rose authoritatively.  “Gunnar, you and the rest quiet down or I'll throw you out myself.”

    The Swede picked himself off the floor and walked away, disgruntled, but reluctant to antagonize the owner of his favorite place of diversion.

    Turning to Ben, the tavern owner ordered, “You——come here.”  Still keeping a careful eye on the table occupied by the Swede and his friends, Ben scooped his hat off the floor, where it had fallen during the scuffle, and moved toward the man.

    “Well, you handled yourself pretty well.  I'd've cracked their heads together myself,” the well-dressed man said, obviously impressed by Ben's prowess.  “I could use a man like you around here.  Do odd jobs, clean up, occasionally throw somebody out.  I'll pay you a dollar a day and food.  How about it?”

    Ben's response was immediate.  “When do you want me to start?”

    The man's tone softened as he replied kindly, “That's up to you.”

    Realizing he would have to make some disposition of Adam first, Ben said simply, “I'll be back.”

    His employer's voice stopped him as he started to leave.  “Oh, just a minute.  You can probably use this.”

    Ben looked at the dollar bill being held out to him, his jaw and his fists tightening.  “I'll be back,” he said once more, turned and walked away.

    Outside, Ben stepped briskly to the wagon.  “How are you feeling now, Adam?”

    “My head still hurts, Pa,” forthright Adam replied, “but I'm getting hungry.”

    For the first time that day Ben's expression brightened.  “Well, that's a good sign,” he said cheerily.  “That shows you're getting better.”

    “Pa, are we gonna eat soon?” Adam asked, his voice as close to complaining as Ben had ever heard from his stoical five-year-old.

    “Yeah, son, yeah,” Ben answered, his eyes scanning the street for the prospect of a meal.  His searching brown eyes lighted on a sign across the way, BORGSTROM'S EMPORIUM.  “Yeah, I'll go get something to eat,” he promised.  “I'll be right back.”

    Ben put his hat on and walked purposefully toward the  general store.  Entering, he saw a neatly-coifed blonde woman in her early twenties handing a brown paper-wrapped package to a stout lady. Ben waited by the door until the transaction was finished.

    As the other customer left, the storekeeper's slender hands rested on her narrow waist.  Her pale blue eyes turned to Ben.  “Good afternoon.  Can I help you?” she said with a melodious Swedish accent.

    “Yes, I—uh.”  Ben hesitated, unsure what he could afford.  “Some milk and bread,” he suggested tentatively.

    Above a ruffled white blouse with a narrow red ribbon about the neck, the woman's head tilted to look around the counter.  “You have a container for the milk?”

    “No,” Ben said.

    Though he had tried to disguise it, his concern must have shown, for the storekeeper's voice became soothing, reassuring.  “Oh, it's all right.  I'll loan you one.”  She took a small round covered pail from the counter and turned toward the large metal can behind her.  She plunged a dipper into it and began to ladle creamy milk into the pail.  “I have not seen you before,” she said over her shoulder.  “You must be a stranger in town.”

    “Yes,” Ben responded brusquely, instantly regretting the stiffness of his reply.  He hadn't meant to give her a short answer, but he felt ashamed of his meager circumstances and, therefore, divulged as little as possible of his personal business to strangers.  He needed information, however, and this friendly woman seemed as likely a person as any to ask.  “Would you happen to know of a room that I could rent——cheap?  Where they don't object to children?”

    The woman's face brightened as she continued to fill the milk pail.  “So, you have children?”

    “A five-year-old boy,” Ben replied, that customary brusqueness edging his voice again before he could stop it.

    But nothing seemed to dampen this woman's congenial manner.  “And your wife, she is vith you?” she asked conversationally.

    “No,” Ben said, his tone sharper than before at the reminder of Elizabeth.  “My boy and I are alone.”

    The woman glanced over her shoulder, her face registering compassionate comprehension.  She had heard the tension in Ben's voice and guessed correctly that this rather shabby-looking man and his son were truly alone, that the wife and mother of this family had not just been left at home, but laid to rest in some distant churchyard.

    That understanding moved her habitually helpful heart, but she kept her demeanor business-like to spare her customer further embarrassment.  “Vell, there is a Mrs. Miller who runs a boardinghouse across the street.”  The storekeeper pressed the lid on the milk container and reached for a strip of brown paper in which to wrap the bread.  “It's not very elegant,” she continued, “but it's clean.  And I'm sure she won't obyect to a boy of five.”

    Worried about the cost of his purchase, Ben didn't think to thank her for the information.  “Uh—how much——how much will that be?”

    “Ten cents should do it,” the woman replied.  Her face softened again as she took the two five-cent pieces Ben handed her.  The careful way the stranger had picked through the coins he drew from his pocket told her his life's savings were held in the palm of his hand.  Now she understood his touchiness.  In her business she had seen pride make men act unlike themselves before.

    Ben took the pail and the package of bread.  He intended to leave, but the woman had been so gracious already he found the boldness to speak again.  “Would you—uh——would you have anything for a fever?”

    The blue eyes registered immediate concern.  “Oh?  You are not feeling vell?”

    “Oh, it's not for me,” Ben said immediately, shaking his head to emphasize the words.

    He had no opportunity to say more, for at that moment Adam came through the door.  “Pa?”

    Ben instantly took on the visage of a strict parent.  “Adam, I told you to stay in the wagon,” he said, stepping toward him.  He took the boy's arm and started to turn him around.  “Now, come along.”

    “Pa, I'm not feeling so well,” Adam said, that uncharacteristic fretful whimper tugging at his voice again.

    The stern expression dropped from Ben's face, and a troubled hand reached for Adam's burning cheek.

    The storekeeper's slender fingers rested on Adam's forehead moments after Ben touched him.  “My goodness, child, your head feels varm,” she said as she knelt before him.  “Open your mouth; let me see your throat.”

    Adam responded readily to the gentle touch and the soft command that accompanied it.  The woman peered into his mouth.  Looking up at Ben, she smiled, relieved.  “Oh, it is not bad——just a little on the pink side.  It is a thing of the throat children get.  Oh, vait a minute.  I have something for that.”  She stood, her slate blue skirt rustling as she stepped quickly into an alcove behind Ben.  She took a small gray crock off a low shelf and handed it to him.

    “What is it?” Ben asked warily.

    “Salt pork and onions.”  She smiled at the look on his weathered face.  “Don't laugh; it's an old Svedish remedy.  I'm sure it will help.  When you get to the boardinghouse, ask Mrs. Miller to heat it.”

    She still hadn't addressed Ben's greatest concern.  “Well, how—how much will this be?” he asked, that telltale irritation edging his voice again.

    The woman smiled.  “Nothing; it's for the boy,” she said with a cheerful nod toward Adam.

    Ben bristled.  “I don't need charity.”

    “I'm not offering you charity,” the storekeeper said, the buoyancy of her tone indicating no offense with Ben's continued brusqueness.  “I'm offering you medicine for your boy because I happen to like children.”  She leaned around Ben to look at the boy.  “Good-bye, Adam.  I hope you feel better.”

    Adam responded with the politeness he had been taught, rather than the poor demonstration his father was currently displaying.  “Thank you, ma'am.”  The woman laughed lightly, seeing in the son what the father must be like when worry was not gnawing holes in his heart.

    Ben still felt awkward about taking the medicine without paying.  But the storekeeper's attitude had been too matter-of-fact for him to argue against.  “Come on, Adam,” he said and steered the boy out the door.  Just before exiting himself, Ben turned.  Feeling he should express gratitude for the woman's kindness, he held up the crock of salt pork and onions, but the words just wouldn't come.  He turned away, his emotions swirling in confusion.

    The storekeeper followed him out and stood on the porch watching him cross the street, his right arm gently pressing Adam's shoulder against his hip.  She smiled as she lifted her hand to shade her eyes from the bright sun.  For all his bluntness, there was much love in that man's heart, she decided.  How else could he care so deeply for a child?

    As the winsome Swede watched the Cartwrights, the tavern owner walked up the steps and tipped his hat to her.  “Good afternoon, Inger.  How's business?”

    “Business is fine, thank you, Mr. McWhorter,” Inger Borgstrom replied absently, her hand still shading her eyes as she watched the stranger tenderly lift little Adam into their wagon.

    “Oh, is it?” McWhorter asked.  “I thought it was a little slow.  The town's not doing so well these days.”  Realizing he did not have Inger's attention, he followed her line of vision.  “Oh, he's just some drifter.  I gave him a job cleaning out the stable.”

    Inger looked pleased as she folded her hands demurely in front of her.  “Oh.  Vell, let's hope he does a good yob of it, then.”

    Feeling they had spent enough time discussing trivialities, McWhorter turned to face Inger.  “Now, when am I going to get my answer?”

    A perturbed pucker replaced Inger's smile.  “I gave you your answer, Mr. McWhorter:  I'm not ready to get married yet.”

    “Oh, come now, Inger,” McWhorter urged.  “You're not going to keep me waiting forever, are you?”

    A bemused twinkle flickered in the blue eyes.  “Vell, I'm sorry if you obyect to vaiting.”

    McWhorter caught her amusement and responded lightly, “I don't mind waiting for something I want.”

    Inger's voice still sounded cheerful, but there was a hint of displeasure in her words.  “You do believe in getting what you're after, don't you?”

    “I always have,” McWhorter admitted with a self-assured cock of his head.  “At least, I have up to now.”

    As her prospective suitor walked away, Inger shaded her eyes and looked again at the father and son entering Mrs. Miller's boardinghouse.  Compared to the suave and prosperous Mr. McWhorter, the stranger with the dark stubble on his face looked ill-kempt and indigent.  Even so, Inger felt her heart stir toward him in a way it never had toward McWhorter, despite his persistent declarations of ardor.  She was glad the stranger had found work here and glad she owned a business he was likely to visit again.

    Inside the boardinghouse across the street Ben slipped a nightshirt, once white with purple stripes, but now dingy and pale from many washings, over Adam's head.  Then, sweeping the youngster up in his strong arms, Ben popped the boy into the small bed that had been placed near the foot of the larger one his father would occupy.  Ben broke chunks of bread into the bowl he had borrowed from Mrs. Miller and poured milk over it.  Adam eagerly accepted the spoon his father handed him and began to feed his famished belly.

    Answering the knock on his door, Ben greeted Mrs. Miller.  She handed him a set of towels and asked if there were anything else he or the boy might need.

    “As a matter of fact, yes,” Ben admitted, holding out the gray crock Miss Borgstrom had given him.  “I'd also be very grateful if you heated this up for him.”

    Mrs. Miller’s figure may have suffered from too much enjoyment of her own cooking, but the sympathy she felt for the sick child beautified her plump face.  “The poor little boy.  Of course.  You can come down for it in just a few moments.”

    Ben put on a cheerful face as he closed the door and turned to look at Adam.  “Well!  My goodness,” Ben said, giving his voice a sprightly lilt.  “You certainly didn't waste any time finishing that up.”  He took the empty bowl from Adam and set it on the small table to the right of the boy's bed.

    Adam licked the last few crumbs of bread from his lips.  “I sure wish there'd been some jam with the bread.”

    Ben looked sympathetic.  “Yeah.  Well, it filled the cavity,” he said with a comforting pat on Adam's tummy, “and tomorrow we'll have some real food, huh?”

    Adam nodded trustingly.  “Sure, Pa.”

    Ben stood and headed for the door.


    Ben turned.  “Yes, son.”

    Little Adam looked worried.  “Pa, did you have anything to eat?”

    Ben hadn't, of course, but he didn't want Adam to be concerned.  So he added a dash more cheer to his voice as he responded, “Oh.  I'll—I'll have something to eat later.  I'll go downstairs and wait for that medicine.”

    Adam shook his head and frowned.  “I sure wouldn't like that medicine much.  But that lady who gave it to us, she was nice, wasn't she?”

    Ben nodded agreeably.  “Yeah.  Yeah, she was real nice.”  As he walked downstairs, he found himself smiling.  Miss Borgstrom truly was nice, as Adam had said, as nice a person as Ben had met in any of the myriad small towns he'd passed through on his way west.

    After dosing Adam with the warm medicine and getting him settled Ben crossed the street and entered the Illinois House once more.  The tavern was nearly empty now, most of the revelers having left to partake of the evening meal.  Mr. McWhorter, however, was behind the bar.  Ben walked purposefully toward him.

    McWhorter looked surprised.  “I didn't expect you back tonight.”

    Ben shrugged.  “I thought you might have something I could do to earn my supper.  Wouldn't expect any cash for so short a day.”

    McWhorter nodded.  “Fair enough. You can wash up those tankards, clear the tables and sweep up.  That ought to earn your supper for you.”

    Ben nodded his appreciation, turned and began to clear the nearest table.  There was an energy in his movement that belied the stress and strain of the long day he'd had.  Ben felt as refreshed as though he'd spent the entire time lounging on a riverbank.  He had food and shelter for himself and Adam and a job to help him rebuild the nest egg for his dream.  It was all he'd hoped for when he'd prayed for provision the night before.  As he tackled the task of making the tavern shipshape, Ben breathed another prayer, this time one of thanksgiving.


The following afternoon Inger Borgstrom came into the store from the stockroom, stopping in the doorway as she saw the tall blonde man rifling through the cash register.  “Again, Gunnar?” she asked in shocked anger.  “You are always emptying it, little brother, but you never help to fill it.”

    Gunnar didn't even look at her as he continued to pocket the contents of the cash drawer.  “I have the right.  Our father left the store to both of us.”

    “And he expected both of us to run it,” Inger protested, “not one of us to vaste his time and money in McWhorter's tavern.”

    “Don't tell me what to do,” Gunnar demanded.  “I'm not made out for a storekeeper.”

    “What are you made for, Gunnar?” Inger asked, her voice troubled.  “To drink?  To play cards?  To spend your time with your friends talking of going off to the gold mines?”

    Gunnar walked toward Inger.  “I'm old enough not to take orders from my sister.  I vill do as I vant.”

    “Please, Gunnar.  You are vasting your life doing as you vant.”  The warmth in Inger's voice this time came more from concern than anger.  “We could make a success of the store if you vould vork in it.”

    “I vill not vork in it!  I told you I vas cut out for other things,” Gunnar snapped.  He saw his sister's shoulders slump with discouragement, but his temper was out of control and sentiment could not stop his angry accusation.  “If you vould only marry McWhorter, I could sell the stupid store!”  Without a backward glance he stormed out.

    Just as Inger had feared, Gunnar went directly to the Illinois House and joined the usual group of guzzling gripers.  While the idle young men dallied over a game of cards, the complaints were the same as the day before and the day before that and days and days and days before that.  The chief subject of the murmuring was the lack of opportunity for a young man in Petersburg, Illinois.  And the proffered solution was the same one suggested every day.

    “The ground is rich with gold in California,” Gunnar's most vocal companion said for perhaps the hundredth time, “and I've been hearing such tales it makes my very skin crawl and my hands itch for the feel of it.”

    Gunnar grabbed a handful of coins off the table and held them under his friend's nose.  “But you need money,” he pointed out impatiently.  “For gear, for grub.”

    The other man waved Gunnar's objections aside.  “The boys and I sold everything we have—to McWhorter.  We got all the money we need.”

    “I don't have any money,” Gunnar said bitterly.

    “But you have a store!  Sell it, man; sell it.  McWhorter'll buy it.”

    From behind the bar McWhorter listened with interest, his eyes fixed on Gunnar's face, for the Borgstrom Emporium was a business he had long coveted.  In fact, if the truth were told, his long courtship of Inger was as much a courtship of the business as of its proprietress.

    Gunnar shrugged in disgust.  “It belongs half to my sister.”

    “But it's in your name, isn't it?” his friend asked.

    “Yah, yah, it's all in my name,” Gunnar admitted.

    “Then, that makes it yours,” the prospective gold miner declared vehemently.  “California's no place for the soft-hearted, Gunnar.”

    McWhorter decided the moment was ripe to add his influence.  “You boys talking about California again, as usual?”

    “Not just talking about it, McWhorter,” Gunnar's friend announced pridefully.  “We'll all soon be on our way.”

    “All but you, eh, Gunnar?” McWhorter egged.  “What about my offer?  That'll get you there and beyond.”

    “You know why I can't sell you the store,” Gunnar said glumly just as Ben Cartwright entered from the back.  Carrying a crate of tankards, Ben went behind the bar to set them in order.

    “Why not?” Gunnar's friend demanded.  “Aren't you man enough to handle your sister?”

    Ben's ears pricked up.  For the first time he made the connection between the soft-spoken lady he had met yesterday and the lumbering Swede who had taunted his poverty earlier.  Miss Borgstrom was unmarried, then.  For some reason Ben couldn't quite fathom, that revelation pleased him.

    Gunnar, though, was decidedly displeased by his friend's accusation.  “I'm man enough, Brewster, and you know it.  It's Inger; she's as stubborn as my father vas.”

    McWhorter laughed.  “All she needs is a husband!”

    Brewster smirked.  “Wouldn't you like to tame her, McWhorter?”

    Ben glanced sharply over his shoulder and saw McWhorter acknowledge the remark with a half-smile.  It was none of Ben's business, of course, but he felt troubled by McWhorter's interest in Inger Borgstrom.  She deserved better.  McWhorter had treated Ben well enough, but there was a business hardness about him that Ben had seen in earlier employers.  He felt certain as giving a woman as Miss Borgstrom would not be happy married to such a man.

    But Ben kept his opinions to himself as he finished his day's work and headed back to the boardinghouse.  After all, he had more pressing concerns than Inger Borgstrom's future.  He had a sick boy to see to.  Adam had seemed better when Ben checked on him at noon, but it had hurt to leave the ailing youngster alone.  Of course, Mrs. Miller had promised to look in on Adam, but she had work of her own to tend to.  Ben knew he couldn't expect her to give his son the attention the boy really needed.

    As Ben walked down the hall toward his room, he heard the strains of a familiar tune.  He stopped outside his door and tried to let the pain wash through him.  But anger followed in its wake, Ben's concern for his son's health drowned in the surge of emotion.  Adam knew better; he'd been told again and again to respect his father's property.      Ben opened the door and stormed in.  He was somewhat taken aback by the presence of Adam's visitor.  But even that did not dissipate Ben's paternal ire.  Tossing his hat on the table by the door, Ben grabbed the music box from Adam's hands and closed it quickly to shut out the painful music.

    Inger Borgstrom looked up at Ben, her blue eyes registering surprise and concern.  “He asked me if he could play it.  I said it vas all right,” she explained in Adam's defense.

    “What are you doing here?” Ben asked abruptly.

    Inger smiled.  “I'm giving your son his medicine.  I knew you'd be busy.”

    Ben took the bowl from her.  “I can take care of my son,” he asserted stiffly.

    Inger rose from her chair and began to tie the strings of her cloak.  “I'm sure you can, but not while you're vorking all day.”

    “Miss Borgstrom, I had to take your medicine” Ben snapped, still disgruntled by his need for that charity.  “That doesn't mean I can't handle my own affairs.”

    Inger's open face looked incredulous.  “But, Mr. Cartwright, why are you so against anyone helping you?”

    Ben didn't answer her.  Instead, he delivered the lecture he had intended when he first entered.  “Adam, I don't ever want you to play this again.  Do you understand?”

    Adam's dark eyes showed his disappointment, but he answered his father with a wordless nod.

    “He told me about the music box,” Inger said.  “Did it belong to his mother?”

    “Yes, it did,” Ben said tersely as he sat in the chair by Adam's bed that Inger had vacated.

    “He's better,” Inger said encouragingly.  “His throat is better; his fever seems less.  But I think he should continue vith the medicine.”

    Ben stood, suddenly awkward.  “I—I was gonna come by the store soon as I'd cleaned up a bit.  I don't mean to be ungrateful.  It's just—”

    Inger tilted her blonde head to peer intently at Ben.  “You know, vithout that dirty beard, your face looks quite nice.  In fact, if you wore a smile on it sometimes, it might be quite an attractive face.”  She turned to go, then glanced back, her face merry.  “You know, I think you could used a good meal yourself, Mr. Cartwright.  As soon as Adam is asleep, come to my house for dinner.  It's right next to the store.”

    As the Swedish lady breezed out the door, Ben felt the corner of his mouth twitch in consternation at her persistent sunniness in the face of his surly rebuffs.

    From the bed behind his father, Adam piped up.  “You know, Pa, she's a real nice—”

    “I know, son,” Ben interrupted with a smile as he spun around to face the boy.  “She's a real nice lady.”  Ben laughed.  “Well, young fella, let's finish up this medicine.”  He spooned some into Adam's reluctantly obedient mouth and crooned, “There we are.”

    A strange nervousness danced through Ben's stomach as he carefully brushed his Sunday suit.  Like his everyday clothes, it had seen better days.  But it was the only good garment he had left from the wardrobe with which he'd left New Bedford.  Of course, Miss Borgstrom had only been extending the milk of human kindness when she invited him to dinner.  Nothing more.  But Ben wanted to look his best, for some reason wanted——no, needed——her to see him as something other than a ungrateful beggar.

    Looping his necktie, Ben examined his reflection in the small mirror above the washstand and smiled in satisfaction.  Miss Borgstrom had said he'd have an attractive face if he wore a smile on it.  Though Ben was not a vain man, at this moment he had to agree.  Being dressed up made him feel attractive and renewed the self-confidence he'd always felt when commanding men aboard ship.  It had been a long time since he'd felt that way, though, a long time since he'd been anything but a menial worker. Tonight, though, he felt more like his true self than he had in years.  And it seemed important that Inger Borgstrom meet the real Ben Cartwright, not the shabby shadow of the man who had walked into her store yesterday.  Stopping only long enough to drop a farewell kiss on slumbering Adam's forehead, Ben headed toward the Borgstrom home next to the store.

    The house was small, but Ben couldn't remember ever being in one as homey.  Though the furnishings were simple, there were traces everywhere of its mistress's creative touch.  Hand-stitched curtains, pillows and table coverings in soothing shades of blue calmed Ben's heart the way watching the blue of a clear sky reach down to stroke the sapphire sea had once done.  It had been years since Ben had spent an evening in a real home, and it made him feel——well, homesick——downright homesick for a home, Ben decided.

    He smiled at Inger Borgstrom as she brought a fresh-baked pie to the table for dessert.  “The food is not much,” Inger apologized.

    “Oh, it's been very good,” Ben replied earnestly.  The meal may have seemed inadequate to his hostess, but it was a feast in Ben's eyes.  Not to mention in his contented stomach.  He just hoped he'd have room for that delicious-looking pie.

    “It's been a hard year all through Illinois,” Inger said, still trying to explain the meager meal she had offered her guest.

    “Not as hard as those farmers when it comes to paying their bills,” her brother Gunnar grumbled.  His scowling presence at the table had been the only detraction from what Ben considered a perfect evening.

    “They vill pay their bills, Gunnar,” Inger asserted as she sliced the apple pie.  “They are honest people.”

    “Honest people who vant everything on credit,” Gunnar growled.

    “Please, Gunnar; ve have a guest.”  Inger handed Ben his slice of pie with a smile.

    Ben returned the smile warmly.  “This looks wonderful,” he said enthusiastically, “and I do thank you for your hospitality.”

    “Have you been a long time on the road?” Inger asked.

    “Yes,” Ben admitted, “yes, we haven't come too far in the amount of time it's taken.  Four years to get from New England to Illinois.”

    “Four years!” Inger looked shocked.  “But surely it should not take so long.”

    Ben rested his fork on the edge of his dessert plate.  “Well, we weren't on the move all the time.  We made quite a few stops.”  He cut off another bite of pie.  “You have to have funds to keep going,” he added with a short laugh.

    “Yah,” Gunnar agreed bitterly.  “A man can go nowhere vithout money.”

    Inger felt a quick change of subject was in order.  “You say you came from New England.  What did you do there?”

    Ben settled back in his chair.  “I was a seaman most of my life.  I wound up a first mate.”  For the first time Gunnar showed an interest in their guest.  “When I married,” Ben continued, “I opened up a ship's chandler's shop.  Then when my wife died, my boy and I set out to build a new life.”

    “Why didn't you go back to sea?” Gunnar spat out in disgust.  “There's a life for a man!”

    With the confidence of a man who knows he's made the right choice, Ben smiled in the face of his critic.  “It's pretty hard to raise a boy when you're off at sea most of the time.”  He turned to Inger's more welcoming countenance.  “I'd always had a dream about the West.  It's a new country; it's big and I want to be part of it——to build, to grow things—”

    Inger smiled.  It was the kind of dream she understood, the kind she had once shared with her father.

    The same memory came to Gunnar's mind, though he saw it from a different perspective.  “Yah, yah,” he muttered disdainfully.  “That vas just like my father.  He had a dream of a new land, too.  Where did it get him?  A dirty store on a prairie crossroads.  He vorked ‘til the sweat poured off him and all he had when he died vas that store.”

    “But his dream of a new land; at least, he never gave that up,” Inger protested proudly.

    “What do I care about a storekeeper's dream?” Gunnar snarled.

    Inger's face burned with solemn anger.  “That is your sin, Gunnar,” she said gravely.  “It is a sin to not care.”

    “Don't tell me what's a sin!  Don't preach to me all the time!”  Gunnar stood, wiped his mouth and tossed his napkin onto the table.  “I'm sick of listening to you,” he snapped as he left the room abruptly.

    Inger lowered her head, embarrassed.  “I'm sorry, Mr. Cartwright.  This vas no vay to treat a guest.”

    “It's been a wonderful evening,” Ben said with such sincerity Inger knew he meant it.  “I haven't enjoyed one like this for such a long time.  But I really should be going. I left Adam alone with Mrs. Miller.”  He patted his lips with his napkin and rose slowly, as if reluctant even now to end the “wonderful evening.”

    Inger stood, too, smoothing her snowy apron over her soft blue shirtwaist.  “I—I hope——I hope ve vill be friends,” she said, struggling to find the words she wanted.

    “Thank you,” Ben responded cordially.  “Good night, Miss Borgstrom.”

    “Good night, Mr. Cartwright.”  Inger extended her hand.

    Ben took it without a word.  But no words were needed.  The touch itself communicated mutual respect and honest affinity.  As Ben left, he found his thoughts remaining with the congenial Miss Borgstrom.  And the way her eyes followed his retreating figure suggested hers went with him.


Sunday morning Ben dressed again in the brown suit he'd worn to dinner at the Borgstrom's three days before.  As he settled his broad shoulders into the jacket, he whistled a lively tune until he saw Adam grinning at him.

    “You sure sound happy, Pa,” Adam tittered.

    “Well, I feel happy,” Ben replied with a lilt in his voice.  “Our board is paid for another week, and I still have thirty cents left to splurge on my boy.”

    Adam's dark eyes went wide.  “Thirty cents for me?”

    “In one way or another,” Ben laughed.  “I'll have to set some of it back for new shoes since you've nearly outgrown your old ones.  But I figure I could let you have a nickel to fritter any way you please.”

    “Oh, boy!”  Adam stood on his bed and threw his arms around his father's neck.  “Thanks, Pa.”

    “Well, you've earned it,” Ben said with a proud pat on Adam's head.  “You've stayed abed just as Pa asked, and I know it was hard for you.”

    Adam bounced on his bed.  “Can I spend it today, Pa?  Can I, huh?”

    Ben wrestled Adam back onto his pillow.  “No stores open on Sunday, silly.  But if your fever stays down, I might take you shopping tomorrow.”

    “At Miss Inger's store?”

    Ben laughed.  “Miss Inger, is it?  You've become quite friendly with that lady, haven't you, son?”

    Adam nodded soberly.  “She's a real nice—”

    “A real nice lady.”  Ben shook his head, amused at Adam's persistent praise of his new friend.  “You don't have to keep telling me.  I think so, too.”  Ben reached down to muss Adam's hair.  “You be a good boy while Pa's at church, and I'll spend the whole afternoon with you.  How's that sound?”

    “It'd sound better if you said I could go with you,” Adam said, his small lips forming a pout.

    Ben sat down and took Adam's hand.  “I know you're tired of being cooped up, son, but I'd rather not chance taking you out today.  There's such a brisk wind.  But I do have a special treat for you this afternoon.”

    Adam sat up eagerly.  “Tell me, Pa.”

    Ben's brown eyes twinkled.  “Wouldn't you rather be surprised?”

    Adam shook his head in vehement denial.  “Tell me, Pa," he insisted.

    “Oh, all right,” Ben said indulgently.  “Mrs. Miller found some old storybooks that used to belong to her little boy.  How'd you like Pa to read you some new stories?”

    “Oh, yeah!”  Adam glowed with anticipation, for there was nothing he liked as much as hearing his father's deep cello-toned voice reading a story.  And a brand new one?  Yes, that was well worth spending one more day indoors.

    Ben's conversation with Adam made him a little late in arriving at the white frame church near the edge of town.  He slipped quietly into the back pew and turned to the hymn number being announced from the pulpit.  But if he had hoped to remain inconspicuous, that hope lost all chance of fulfillment the moment he opened his mouth.  His rich baritone harmony turned many heads in his direction as interested eyes peered from beneath stylish bonnets to locate its source.  Only one set interested Ben, a pair of lake blue eyes that demurely sought their owner's hymnal after she gave him a welcoming smile.

    Ben, too, turned his attention to the service.  But he had far more difficulty than usual in keeping his mind on the parson's words.  It was a good thing Adam was not there to sense his father's wandering mind, Ben admitted with chagrin.  One morning's bad example might have undermined half a decade's careful training.

    After the final amen Ben waited outside until Inger Borgstrom came out.  Seeing Ben, she walked quickly toward him, extending her hand.  Ben closed his broad palm around her slender fingers.  “Might I walk you home, Miss Borgstrom?"“ he asked.  “Unless, of course, you're with someone else.”

    “I am alone,” Inger answered with a hint of sadness.  “Gunnar used to bring me, but it seems the more he thinks of gold fields, the less he thinks of God and other good things.”

    Ben slipped his arm through Inger's.  “I've heard Gunnar and his friends at the tavern talk about going west to find gold, and I must confess I'm confused.  I realize I've been traveling a lot and may have missed the news, but I don't recall hearing of any gold found in California.’

    Inger fell into step beside Ben as he led her down the street.  “Yah, there have been some reports, but I do not know how accurate they are.  One of Gunnar's friends has relatives in Philadelphia.  Last month they sent him a clipping from a paper there that printed a report from a minister in Monterey.”

    “A minister?”  Ben asked, incredulous.  “It's hard to believe a true man of God would desert his high calling to grub in the earth for mere mammon.”

    Inger waved a hand in protest.  “No, no, I do not say he did.  The article spoke of his seeing other men——farmers, lawyers, doctors, and, yes, even priests——leaving their true vork to serve this, this golden goddess.  And now it seems Gunnar means to vorship her, too.  It vould grieve Mama so.”

    Ben gave his companion's forearm a gentle squeeze.  “I think it grieves you, too, Miss Borgstrom.”

    “Yah, it grieves me.  I fear for him, Mr. Cartwright.  The path he is choosing, it——it is so far from what our father dreamed of when ve came to America.”

    “Every man has a right to his own dreams, Miss Borgstrom,” Ben said quietly.

    Inger looked up sharply.  “Yah, that is true.  But I do not think Gunnar dreams at all.  Or if he does, they are but shallow, stagnant dreams——not like your dream of building, growing things.  But enough of such thoughts.  How is Adam?  I thought he might be vell enough to be out today.”

    “You should know,” Ben said with a meaningful smile.  “You've seen almost as much of him as I have these last few days.”

    Inger laughed.  “You did not mind my visiting him?”

    “No, certainly not,” Ben said, “though I don't wonder you questioned it, considering my rudeness on your first visit.  To answer your other question, Adam probably is well enough to be up and around.  But with the weather turning so cold, I thought one more day inside would be safer.”

    Inger nodded as she drew her crocheted shawl tighter.  “Yah, that vas wise.  You are a good father, Mr. Cartwright.”

    “Please call me Ben.”

    “If you vill call me Inger,” the lady laughed.

    “It would be a pleasure.”

    As they reached the front porch of the Borgstrom residence, Inger turned to face Ben.  “Vould you like to come inside, Ben?  Dinner vill be ready soon.”

    “Thank you, but I promised Adam I'd spend the afternoon with him.  We have so little time together.”

    “Yah, it must be hard to go avay to vork and leave him alone,” Inger said, giving Ben's shoulder a sympathetic touch.  “Perhaps you vould both enjoy an outing next Sunday, though.  Adam should be quite vell by then.  Vould you like to share a picnic lunch?”

    “A picnic sounds delightful, and I'm sure Adam will find the prospect most exciting.”  Ben reached around Inger to open the door for her.  “We may see you tomorrow noon, as well.  Adam has a few pennies to spend.”

    “Vell, ve vill try to make them stretch a long vay,” Inger laughed.

    Ben stiffened.  “We don't ask more than fair value for our money.  I told you before I don't need charity.”

    Inger's blue eyes snapped.  “And I do not need you to tell me how to price my goods, Mr. Cartwright!”

    Ben tipped his hat.  “Good day, Miss Borgstrom.”  Then he caught himself, realizing he didn't want to part in anger.  “Good day, Inger,” he said more quietly.

    Inger's face relaxed.  “Good day, Ben.  If you tell me your favorite pie, I vill fix it for the picnic.”  Mischief sparkled in the clear blue eyes.  “Unless, of course, you think that is charity.”

    Ben laughed.  “Perhaps I do need charity, Inger, if it comes in the shape of pie.  And I'm sure any variety you prepare will become my favorite.”

    Young Adam considered that week one of the best of his life.  As promised, Pa spent Sunday afternoon reading a treasure trove of new stories.  Then Monday, they visited the store, where Adam's nickel purchased a surprisingly full sack of gumdrops.  Pa had frowned a little at that, but Miss Inger had given him back a look that definitely said she was in charge of gumdrops and Adam's father had better not argue about it.  Adam couldn't help grinning when he remembered how quick Pa had backed down and let Miss Inger have her way.

    The rest of the week passed quickly in anticipation of the promised picnic, and its fulfillment after church Sunday was marvelous beyond Adam's dreams.  The food basket was stuffed with savory meat pies, potato salad and a wonderful deep-dish apple pie for dessert.  Afterwards, Pa pointed out a good spot and Adam settled down on a large rock to angle for catfish.  Pa usually fished with him when they had time for an afternoon together, but today he didn't seem in the mood.  Glancing over his shoulder, Adam saw his father, head propped on one elbow, lounging on the tablecloth that had held their dinner.  Adam shook his head.  Pa must be real tired from his week's work to just lie around like that staring at Miss Inger.  Well, then, it would be up to Adam to provide the fish for their supper.  Relishing the feeling of responsibility, the boy squared his shoulders and turned his attention back to his line.

    Inger Borgstrom sat with her back against a tall oak on the banks of the Sangamon River, her eyes brimming with content.  “The fox grapes are sweet,” she told Ben, lifting another one to her mouth.

    Ben gazed dreamily at Inger in her blue, lace-bodiced Sunday best, her hair hanging down with a blue ribbon tied in back.  “Umm,” he crooned.  “Everything around here is sweet——the air——the water.”  He gave her a meaningful smile and added, “The company.”

    Inger ducked her head modestly.  “You——you have a big spot of purple on your chin.”

    Ben wiped his chin with one broad finger.  “All right?”

    Inger nodded, then looked demurely away as she felt Ben's eyes rest on her face.  “What are you looking at?”

    Ben didn't answer directly.  “There's so many places I might have passed through on my way west.  I might have missed you.”

    “Vell, I am a very large peasant voman, Ben,” Inger said, blushing.  “It vould be hard to miss me.”

    “You're a very beautiful peasant woman,” Ben said warmly.

    “Ach, no,” Inger said, “My nose is too long and my hands are rough.”

    “You're fishing for compliments!” Ben accused, amusement twinkling in his eyes.

    Inger laughed.  “I hope I do better vith those than vith the catfish.”  Ben had tried to show her how to bait a hook earlier, but Inger felt too much sympathy for the poor worms to skewer them successfully.

    “Oh, you leave those to Adam,” Ben advised.  “He's a pretty good fisherman.”

    They both looked a short way down the riverbank to where Adam sat, pole in hand.  “He's a fine boy, Ben,” Inger said.

    “Yes.”  Ben's eyes sparkled with pride as he watched his son.  “It was nice of you to ask us to share a picnic with you.”

    “Vell, it's Sunday, isn't it?” Inger asserted.  “A man deserves a rest after a long veek's vork.”  Her work week had been just as long, Ben knew, but that didn't seem important to this generous-spirited woman.

    She looked at the river flowing to her left.  “Ve have a river in Sveden like the Sangamon——cold from the snows on the mountains.  When ve were children, my brother Gunnar and I used to run along the bank picking strawberries, eating them until ve were sick.”  Inger laughed nostalgically.

    “You have a head full of happy memories, haven't you?”

    Inger nodded quietly, a soft smile on her lips.  “And you?”

    Ben shrugged.  “Some good, some bad.”  He rubbed his hand across the tablecloth beneath him.

    “You——you loved your wife very much, didn't you?” Inger asked, broaching the subject tentatively.

    Ben's demeanor was instantly more sober.  “Yes, I loved her very much.”

    In the quiet that followed Ben's hushed response another voice was heard.  “Inger!  Inger!”  Ben stood to his feet as he saw Inger's brother Gunnar stalking toward them.

    “Ah, here you are,” Gunnar sputtered accusingly.  “I've been looking all around for you.”

    “Why?  Is there anything wrong?” Inger asked.

    Gunnar didn't answer; instead, he gave an order.  “Get back to town right away!”

    “But it is Sunday,” Inger protested.  “The store is closed.”

    “Mr. McWhorter came around in his new carriage asking for you,” Gunnar announced.

    Inger stiffened.  “I did not tell Mr. McWhorter I vould go riding vith him,” she said brusquely.

    “Nah,” Gunnar snapped.  “But you go off on a picnic vith a penniless drifter.”

    “Gunnar!” Inger exclaimed, shocked by his rudeness.

    “Gunnar, wait a minute,” Ben said.

    “You stay out of this!” Gunnar snarled.

    “I'm trying to tell you there's nothing to be angry about,” Ben explained.

    “I tell you something!  You stay avay from my sister!”

    “Gunnar, you are my brother, not my father,” Inger declared, a hint of banked fire in her words.

    “You be quiet!” Gunnar demanded.  “I do what is best for you.”

    “You do not run my life,” Inger reminded him.

    “Get back to town!”  Turning abruptly, Gunnar stormed away with long steps.

    Inger turned to Ben, sorrow and shame in her eyes.  “Oh, Ben, I am sorry.  He is young and unhappy.”

    “And very angry——with me,” Ben said soberly as he sat once more on the ground at the feet of the gentle Swedish woman.

    They said very little to each other after that.  Adam came running up shortly with a string of catfish, and for his sake they tried to keep up the illusion of light-hearted fun.  But the charm of their happy afternoon had been spoiled by the intrusion of conflict.  They fried and ate the catfish with only perfunctory words passing between them.

    Even Adam seemed unusually silent, as if he sensed the troubled thoughts of his father and his friend.  But for him, at least, the magic of their adventure had not been tarnished.  He fell asleep that night dreaming of picnics to come.

* * * * *

    Ben was at work behind the bar of the Illinois House when Gunnar Borgstrom, disgruntled eyes raking the floor, shuffled in.  Ben started to pour Gunnar's customary shot glass of whiskey, but Mr. McWhorter came behind the bar and took the glass from Ben's hand.  “I'll serve Mr. Borgstrom,” McWhorter said.  “We're running low on ale.  Bring another keg in from the back, Cartwright.”

    “Right away, sir,” Ben replied, leaving immediately and, if the truth were told, eagerly.  After Gunnar's sharp words yesterday Ben did not want to risk another angry confrontation.

    McWhorter drew himself a tankard of ale and carried it and Gunnar's drink to the Swede's table.  “Hello, Gunnar,” he said pleasantly, drawing up a chair.  “Did you tell your sister I was looking for her yesterday?”

    “Yah, I tell her,” Gunnar mumbled.

    McWhorter leaned forward eagerly.  “Well, come on, man; tell me.  What did she say?”

    Gunnar shook his head.  “My sister is a stubborn voman, Mr. McWhorter.”

    “You're the man in the house, aren't you?” McWhorter goaded.  “Since your father's gone, it's your job to see that things go right for your sister.”

    Gunnar nodded.  “Yah, I vant them to go right for her.  It vas our father's vish that I vatch out for her.”

    “Watch out for her?” McWhorter scoffed.  “How?  By seeing her waste away in that store across the street?”

    Gunnar's eyes narrowed.  “Mr. McWhorter, if I sell you the store and Inger still doesn't marry you, what happens to her then?”

    “Not marry me?”  McWhorter almost laughed.  “Why, I've got everything in the world to give her——richest man in the county.  Help you, too.”

    “Me?” Gunnar snorted.  “I don't need help.”

    “It takes money to go to the gold fields, Gunnar——lots of it,” McWhorter said pointedly.  “Now, I could help a brother-in-law, give him all the money he needs.  Tell her, Gunnar.  Tell her how good I'd be for the both of you.”

    Ben entered from the back carrying the requested keg of ale under his left arm.  As he went around the bar and began to dry the tankards he had been washing earlier, Gunnar leaned close to McWhorter.  “You'd be better off vithout that stranger around,” he whispered.

    “Stranger?” McWhorter asked.

    “That man you have vorking for you,” Gunnar responded with a significant glance toward the bar.  “My sister vent on a picnic vith him yesterday.”

    “With Cartwright?”

    Gunnar nodded.  “She's seeing him.  And I think she likes him.”

    McWhorter rose at once and approached the bar.  “Cartwright, I want to talk to you.”

    Ben turned.  “Yes, Mr. McWhorter?”

    “It's about Inger Borgstrom.”

    Ben’s gaze grew wary.  “Yes?”

    “I'm going to marry her,” McWhorter announced with as much conviction as if the invitations had already been engraved and sent.

    “I didn't know,” Ben said sharply.  “She didn't tell me anything about that.”

    “I don't want some shiftless drifter hanging around her,” McWhorter demanded.

    Ben bristled.  “When Miss Borgstrom tells me that—”

    “Well, I'm telling you,” McWhorter stated flatly.  “And here's something else I'm telling you:  there's no place in this town for you!”

    Ben took a final swipe at the tankard he was holding.  “Does that mean I'm fired?”

    “That's exactly what it means,” McWhorter declared, spun on his heels and left abruptly.

    Ben stood dazed for a moment.  Gunnar got up and sauntered over to him.  Tossing a dime on top of the bar, Gunnar grinned smugly.  “Here, drifter.  Maybe you're not too proud to take that now!”  With a roaring laugh, he left for home.

    In a somber mood Ben untied the black apron around his waist, dropped it on the bar and headed for the boardinghouse.  He had no idea where he'd go beyond that, though.  Much as he hated the term “drifter,” Ben found himself wondering if that didn't describe his destiny far better than his cherished dream of settling in the West.

    Adam was disappointed when Ben told him it was time to load the wagon and leave Petersburg.  He liked this town.  He hadn't had time to make friends his own age, but then he rarely did.  He had, however, made a new friend in Miss Inger, and the thought that they'd never share another picnic saddened him.  He didn't share his feelings with his father, however.  It was obvious Pa had feelings of his own——dark ones that Adam was wiser not prying into.  Adam didn't have to ask if Pa had lost his job; his father was acting just the way he had the other times that had happened.  Adam knew without asking, so he quietly packed away his own feelings along with his shirts and pants and helped Pa carry their belongings to the wagon.

    Adam climbed in to arrange the bundles Pa handed him.  They had almost stowed away all their meager possessions when Adam saw Miss Inger running across the street and heard her calling his father's name.

    “Ben!  Ben, I vant to talk vith you,” Inger called urgently.  But Ben didn't respond; he turned silently and headed back inside to finish packing.  “Ben Cartwright!” Inger called more loudly.  “The least you can do is listen to me.”

    Ben turned at the door of the boardinghouse.  “Why?” he demanded.  “So you can tell me you're going to marry McWhorter?”  Abruptly, he turned his back and went inside.

    Inger followed him.  “Marry McWhorter?  Who told you that ridiculous story?”

    Ben faced Inger again, sparks flashing in his brown eyes.  “McWhorter did,” he said bluntly.  “Just before he fired me.”

    “And you believed him?”  Inger's voice was sharp with anger.

    “Why shouldn't I?” Ben snapped and walked swiftly to his room.

    But Inger was close on his heels, entering the small room without invitation.  “Is—is that why you're moving again?”  When Ben made no response, Inger's tone grew hotter.  “Did you hear me, Ben?”

    Ben hastily folded his remaining clothes.  “There's nothing for me in this town.  There's no future here.”  One by one he thrust the clothes into his carpetbag, so carelessly it made his previous folding pointless.

    Inger clasped her arms tight against her body.  “So, what vill you do——go glowering through the vorld the rest of your life?” she asked with a hint of sarcasm in her tone.  “What becomes of Adam?”

    That remark burned Ben's pride.  “He'll be all right; I'll take care of him.”

    “Can you?” Inger asked more gently.  “Ben, listen to me.  How much longer can you go on drifting this way, running avay from your memory of Elizabeth?”

    Ben's face tightened.  Was there no subject so private this exasperating woman would not intrude upon it?  “She has nothing to do with it,” Ben said tautly.

    “She dwells over your head like a cloud,” Inger accused with barely concealed bitterness.  “She's in your voice, in your heart.  Vell, she's dead, Ben,” Inger added with grim force.  “You can't carry her vith you for the rest of your life!”

    “It's my life,” Ben snapped.  “It's my business!”

    Inger's hands came together in a gesture of entreaty.  “I—I have a better answer than that——a simple solution.  You could come to vork for me in the store.”  The heat returned to her voice. “If your stubborn pride vould let you!”

    “I don't need your help,” Ben declared.  “I don't need any woman's help.  I'm man enough to stand on my own two feet.”

    “I—I'll tell you what I think, Ben Cartwright,” Inger stuttered, finally losing her precarious hold on her emotions.  “I think you left your manhood behind vith your dead wife!”  Breaking into sobs, she ran from the room, almost stumbling into Adam as he came in to see what was keeping Pa so long.

    Adam stopped in the doorway.  “Pa, why did she run away?”

    “I don't know, son,” Ben said absently.  Then, his head lifted in sudden comprehension.  He laid one hand on Adam's shoulder.  “No, I—I do know,” he said as he moved past Adam.

    “Inger——Inger, wait,” Ben called from the porch of the boardinghouse.

    Arms held stiffly to her side, Inger stopped by the oak tree that grew in the middle of Petersburg's dusty main street, but she wouldn't face Ben.

    “Inger, I'd like to talk with you,” Ben said as he caught up with her.

    “Talk?” Inger muttered, pain in her voice.  “What good vill talking do?”  She took a step away.

    Ben grasped her elbow.  “Inger, I—I want to do as you suggest.  I'll work in the store.”

    Inger's blue eyes lighted like sunshine on an alpine lake as she turned to look at Ben.  “Oh, Ben, that's vonderful!”

    “Inger, I—I'm not a rich man,” Ben began tentatively.  “I have a young son.”  As Inger nodded, Ben continued, encouraged by her attention.  “But I do have a dream, a big dream——if only I could ask you to share it with me—”

    Inger's face grew brighter.  “Ask me, Ben; ask me!”

    “Inger, I, Inger—” Ben broke off, unable to put his desire into words.

    But Inger had read his heart and responded eagerly.  “Yes, Ben, I vill marry you!”

    Ben gathered his future bride in his arms and kissed her lips firmly.

    “Oh, Ben,” Inger protested demurely.  “What vill people say?  What vill they think?”

    Ben almost shouted his joyous response.  “Well, people will say that Miss Inger Borgstrom is going to marry Mr. Benjamin Cartwright!”  He pulled Inger close and kissed her again.

    Across the street McWhorter watched through eyes as hard as cast iron while Ben lifted Inger from her feet, swung her around with frolicsome energy, then walked with her to Borgstrom's Emporium.

    Inside the store Ben assumed a business-like attitude.  “Well, Miss Borgstrom, where do I start?”

    Inger laughed.  “Not here, not today.  Or have you forgotten you have a vagon to unpack?”

    Ben chuckled.  “You know, I had.  I'm afraid I also forgot my young son, who must be thoroughly confused by now.”

    Inger looked shyly into Ben's face.  “You vill tell him about us?”

    Ben took both of Inger's hands and pressed them warmly.  “I'm sure he'll be as happy as I am.  I think he fell in love with you even before his father did.”  Ben shook his head in amusement.  “Though how that could be, I can't imagine, since I've surely been falling in love with you since that first day we met across this counter.”

    “And I vith you,” Inger said with a smile.  “You should spend this afternoon vith Adam.  Then, if he is happy about our news, perhaps ve can all celebrate vith dinner at my place, yah?”

    “Yes, Inger, my love,” Ben said, savoring the endearment he had not used with anyone for better than five years.

    Inger stifled a giggle behind her fingers as she glanced out the front window.  “I think maybe you'd better go now, Ben.”

    Ben leaned around her to peer out the window and laughed out loud at the sight of young Adam tugging his father's carpetbag down the steps of the boardinghouse.  “Yes, it looks like I'd better.  Can you handle catfish two days running?”

    Inger nodded.  “So long as I share them vith you.  If I could have the fish by 5:30, it vould be good.”

    Ben bent to kiss her hand gallantly.  “Your wish is my command, my lady.”

    Inger pushed him toward the door.  “Hurry, Ben, or Adam vill drive avay vithout you.”

    As instructed, Ben hurried across the street and scooped Adam, carpetbag and all, into his arms.

    “I finished packing, Pa,” Adam said proudly.

    “So I see,” Ben chuckled, “but I'm afraid Pa's put you to a lot of trouble for nothing, son.”     Adam cocked his head quizzically at Ben, who laughed and explained, “We're just going to have to unload this wagon again.”

    “Aren’t we leavin', Pa?” Adam asked.

    Ben shook his head with vigor.  “No, sir.  We're going to stay right here in Petersburg.  How does that sound?”

    Adam beamed.  “It sounds great, Pa!”  Then his small face grew sober.  “Did Mr. McWhorter give you back your job, Pa?”

    Ben gave his son a sudden, appraising look, amazed the boy had realized why they were leaving town.  What a discerning child his little Adam was!  “No, son,” he answered quietly.  “Pa isn't going to work for Mr. McWhorter anymore.  I've found a better job——with a real nice lady.”

    “Miss Inger?” Adam asked excitedly.

    “That's right, and I don't start ‘til tomorrow, so just as soon as we've unloaded our wagon, you and I are going to spend another day down by the river fishing.”

    “Oh, boy!” Adam yelped.  “Let me down, Pa, and I'll get our stuff back inside quick as a wink.”  Ben complied, and let Adam drag the large carpetbag up the steps while he gathered another load of their belongings.

    In an unbelievably short time Ben and Adam sat perched on the bank of the Sangamon River.  Only Adam was actually fishing.  Ben took greater pleasure in simply holding Adam between his legs and stroking the straight black hair so like his own.  He spent the first hour just enjoying his son's company and searching his heart for the right words.  Finally, he gave Adam's cheek a pat.  “Son, Pa has something important to talk to you about.”

    Adam lifted his eyes to his father's face.  “Yeah, Pa?”

    “Well, Adam,” Ben began, “you and I have been making our way west a long time now, just the two of us.  And that's been real good.  Pa couldn't ask for a better partner than his little son.  But I wondered how you'd feel about someone else sharing that dream with us.”

    “What you mean, Pa?”

    Ben struggled for just the right answer.  “Well, son, you know how dear your mother was to me.  I never figured I could love another woman as much as that.  Now, I don't mean I love your mother any less, but I know now there is room in my heart for someone else, too——someone to be a wife to me and a mother to you.  But I'd like to know how you feel.”

    Adam was clearly caught off guard, but he had no fear of answering his father candidly.  “I don't know, Pa.  I guess it'd depend on if I liked the lady, too.”

    Ben smiled.  “You like the lady very much, unless I read you wrong.  Adam, I—I've asked Miss Inger to be my wife.  How does that set with you?”

    Adam smiled broadly.  “Miss Inger?  That sets just fine, Pa!  She's 'bout the nicest lady I ever knew.”

    Ben gave Adam a tight squeeze.  “I told her I thought you'd be pleased.”

    Adam's face scrunched thoughtfully.  “And she'll be my mother now?”

    Ben nodded.  “Technically, Adam, she'll be your stepmother, but I think she'd be real pleased if you'd call her Mama.”

    Adam tested the sound of the new term.  “Mama.  I'd like that, too, Pa.  You don't think my own mother'd mind, do you?”

    Ben kissed the boy's cheek tenderly.  “Not for a minute.  You never knew your mother, son, but I know she'd be glad you had someone to love you the way she would have if she'd lived.  Never doubt that, son.”

    Adam snuggled close to Ben's chest.  “I won't, Pa; I promise.”

    Ben tousled the boy's hair.  “Good.  Now, you'd better get to work on those catfish if we're going to have enough for supper with your new mama-to-be.”

    Adam nodded seriously.  “Maybe you better cut a pole and help, Pa.”

    Ben laughed.  “Maybe you're right!” he said as he stood to follow Adam's suggestion.

    After supper that evening Ben helped Inger with the dishes, then drew her into his arms for a long kiss.  “Come rest yourself,” Inger suggested, taking Ben's hand and leading him to a large armchair by the fire.  “You've had a hard day.”

    Ben laid his palm against Inger's smooth cheek.  “I've forgotten the hard parts.  I only remember the love I found today.”

    As Inger blushed and glanced away, her eyes fell on Adam, curled up on the sofa.  Smiling, she pulled away from Ben and laid a crocheted afghan over the slumbering boy.  She turned to find Ben watching her with eyes full of affection.  “Come here, little mother,” he ordered, patting his knee.  “Rest yourself.  You've done more work than I have today.”

    Inger laughed.  “It won't be so tomorrow, Mr. Cartwright.  I have much vork planned for you.”

    Ben drew her into his lap and pecked behind her ear with his lips.  “I'll try to keep my mind on business then, ma'am, but let's not talk of work now.”

    Inger laid her blonde head on Ben's broad shoulder and sighed contentedly.  “No, let's talk of other things.”

    “Such as?” Ben asked with a quizzical lift of his eyebrow.

    Inger's blue eyes twinkled impishly.  “The date of our vedding, perhaps.  I vould like it to be very soon, my love.”

    Ben's face sobered.  “Not too soon, I'm afraid, Inger.  I have small resources for supporting a wife.”

    Inger sat up.  “But the store vill provide us a living.  I am a frugal voman, Ben; I can get by vith very little.”

    Ben shook his head.  “It's not right, Inger, for you to support me.  That's the husband's responsibility.”

    “But ve vould be vorking together,” Inger protested, “not one for the other.  What is wrong vith that?”

    “Nothing, my love,” Ben replied.  “Working together is part of marriage, but not when your contribution would so far outweighs mine.  Besides, the store is half Gunnar's, and I don't stand high in his eyes.  We don't know yet that he'll accept me as a hired hand, but I'm certain he couldn't accept me as a partner.”

    Inger rubbed the worn ribs of Ben's corduroy vest.  “Gunnar does not care what I do vith the store.  And if he vill not help me himself, how can he question whom I hire?”

    Ben took her hand.  “Let's leave it at that for now, shall we?  I really want to build us enough of a nest egg before we marry that we can head west for our honeymoon.  Indulge my man's pride that much, please, Inger.”

    Inger snuggled against his neck.  “All right, Benyamin, ve vill vait.  But please, not past spring.  I vould like to marry by spring.”

    “By spring,” Ben promised, “pride or no pride.”  He pulled Inger close and sealed the promise with another kiss.


Ben stood on the front porch of Borgstrom's Emporium and took a deep breath.  The November wind was cold, but Ben found the fresh air refreshing.  He was tired, for it had been a hectic day.  Saturdays always were, of course.  Farm families for miles around made their weekly trip to town, so the store was always extra busy that day.  But if Ben found few minutes to relax during business hours, there was at least one redeeming factor.  With a long trip home ahead of them, most of the farmers finished their business by mid-afternoon, so the store could be closed earlier than usual, too.  And in the three weeks Ben had worked here, Saturday had always meant an invitation to dinner with his betrothed.  Ben chuckled.  The last two weeks he hadn't even had to wait for Saturday for that delight:  he and Adam had shared so many meals with the Borgstroms that Mrs. Miller had refused to accept full payment for their room and board.

    Ben lifted the bushel basket of apples he had set on the porch that morning to whet the appetites of passersby.  Carrying it inside, he set it down and turned toward the counter.

    Tying on her blue-gray cape, Inger came from the back room.  “There are no more customers, so I'm going home to fix dinner,” she said.  “Vould you pick Adam up at Mrs. Miller's?”

    Ben took Inger by the elbows, pulling her toward him,  and acquiesced readily.  “Yes, I will, and I'll bring him along with me.”

    “Hurry, I'm an impatient voman.”  Inger gave Ben a light kiss and started to leave.  Then she turned, remembering something she had meant to say earlier.  “Oh, Ben, vould you mind very much seeing if Gunnar vould come to supper?  He has not eaten vith us for days.”

    Ben's brown eyes clouded.  “Inger do you think Gunnar resents Adam and me eating with you all the time?  I think he resents me working here.  And I know he resents my loving you.”

    Inger's face was troubled, as it always seemed to be lately when anyone mentioned headstrong Gunnar.  “Don't be angry vith him, Ben.  He is my brother, and I do love him, even though he is young and sulks.”

    Ben smiled, more to lessen Inger's concern than from any decrease of his own.  “Well, all right, I'll try to bring him along.”

    Inger touched his shoulder imploringly.  “Oh, but do not have an argument vith him if he does not vant to come.”

    Ben made his tone light and cheerful.  “Why, I'll be as gentle as a lamb,” he quipped.

    Inger laughed, kissed him again and stroked his smooth face in farewell.  Stepping outside, she pulled the ruffled hood of her cape over her head and started toward home.

    Ben spread a dish towel over the eggs and cheese on the counter, then untied his apron and locked up.  Not wanting to expose Adam to a potential argument with Gunnar, Ben strolled down the street to the Illinois House first.  He knew he would find Gunnar there, for the young man spent most of his time in the drinking establishment these days.  More than once Ben had seen the big Swede taking money from the store's till to squander at McWhorter's tavern, but as a mere employee, he felt he had no right to object.  He was tired of seeing Inger hurt, though, as she inevitably was every time Gunnar staggered home drunk.

    When Ben walked in, he saw Gunnar seated at a table with Mr. McWhorter.  Ben still felt awkward around his former employer, even though he knew the fault for his dismissal had not been his own.  But his promise to Inger demanded he put personal feelings aside and concentrate on conciliating her brother.  “Gunnar,” Ben began, ignoring McWhorter.  “Say, you look like you could use a good meal.  Why don't you come along home with me?”

    “I'm not going home,” Gunnar groused.  “Stay avay from me, drifter.”

    Ben quickly realized his light-hearted approach was futile.  “Well, your sister's kind of worried about you,” he said more quietly, his own face reflecting Inger's concern.  “She'd like you especially to come home tonight.”

    “I told you I'm not going home,” Gunnar slurred.  “I'm going to the gold fields.”

    “Well, of course, you're going to the gold fields, Gunnar,” Ben agreed, reasoning with the big Swede the way he might have with little Adam, “but you're not going tonight.”

    McWhorter looked up at Ben.  “He's telling the truth, Cartwright.”

    “And I have the money, too,” Gunnar boasted.

    “We just made a business deal,” McWhorter explained, rising and moving toward the bar.

    “That's right——a business deal!” Gunnar smirked at Ben.  “I sold him the store.”

    Righteous indignation flamed within Ben.  “You what?” he demanded.  “You had no right!”

    “He had every right,” McWhorter declared.  “His father left the deed in his name.  I kept it in my safe.  Now I own the shop.”

    Ben ignored McWhorter.  “You did this to your sister?” Ben demanded of Gunnar.  “How could you?”

    “She'll get half the money, too,” Gunnar rationalized.

    Ben leaned on the table to stare directly into Gunnar's shifting blue eyes.  “For years your sister supports you and you do this!”

    Ben's tone reminded Gunnar of the one his sister used when admonishing him.  And Gunnar reacted to Ben with the same vehemence he ordinarily used toward Inger.  “Don't preach to me!  Leave me alone!”

    “You give him back that money and get back the deed,” Ben ordered through gritted teeth.

    McWhorter's lip curled on one side.  “Maybe without the store he won't be so anxious to marry your sister, eh, Gunnar?”

    “McWhorter, you're right!” Gunnar shouted, the liquor he had consumed talking louder than the man.  “You don't want my sister; you just want the store,” he accused, taking a swing at Ben.

    Ben tried to hold Gunnar at arms' length.  “Gunnar——Gunnar!” he protested.  When Gunnar continued to lunge wildly at him, Ben struck one blow to the younger man's jaw.

    Gunnar collapsed, unconscious.  Ben knelt swiftly beside him, slapping Gunnar's cheeks in an attempt to rouse him.

    “The boy's had too much to drink,” McWhorter said analytically.

    Ben looked worried.  “I'd better take him home,” he said reluctantly, dreading the look on Inger's face when she saw her brother.

    McWhorter shook his head.  “Not in that condition.  You go ahead.  I'll take care of him.”

    Still thinking of Inger, Ben nodded.  “Yeah, maybe you're right.”  With one last look of concern at the sprawled figure of his future brother-in-law, Ben left to pick up Adam.

    Ben had dreaded Inger's reaction to the news of Gunnar's treachery, but her actual response was unfathomable to him.  While he walked beside her, matching her step for step as she carried dishes from the cupboard by the fireplace to the dining table across the room, he gave an agitated description of the altercation in the tavern.  Instead of becoming upset, Inger nodded at him, smiling happily.

    Smiling?  No, a perplexed Ben realized, the woman was doing more than that; she was giggling with outright girlish delight.  “You don't seem to understand,” Ben said firmly.  “I said Gunnar sold the store.”

    Inger laughed and nodded once again.

    “Well, how can you find that funny?” Ben demanded.

    Inger arranged the utensils by each plate.  “Oh, Ben, don't you see?  In a vay, it is.”  She stopped and looked directly into his eyes.  “Ever since ve decided to get married, I have been trying to get up the courage to do as Gunnar vanted and sell the store.”  She laid an earnest hand on Ben's arm.  “Ben, now ve can go west; ve can find that dream of yours; ve can build what you alvays vanted.”

    The enormity of what she was proposing shocked Ben.  “But—but you mustn't do this for me!” he protested.  “How could I build anything on your sacrifice?”

    “Sacrifice?” Inger's clear eyes were wide with astonishment.  “To have found a purpose, a place in life vith you?”

    Having no answer, Ben took her hand tenderly.  “You're—you're so—”  Words failed him.  “Inger, I—I know how you feel about Gunnar,” he began again.

    The soft touch of Inger's hand on his lips stopped his words again.  “Ben, I love you,” Inger said plainly.  “You are my life now.  It is time for Gunnar to make his own vay.”  Her fingers stroked his smooth cheek.  “Oh, don't you see, my love?  This is the vay it should be.”

    Eyes swimming with emotion, Ben took Inger in his arms and started to kiss her.  Before their lips met, however, a knock on the door interrupted them.  Inger smiled softly, smoothed her blue dress and went to answer the door.  She was surprised by the identity of her caller.  “Oh, doctor, come in,” she said politely.  “What is it?”

    The doctor's expression was grave.  “I have your brother here, Miss Borgstrom.  I'm afraid he's badly hurt.”  He stepped aside so two men could carry in her unconscious brother.

    “Bring him in the bedroom——quickly,” Inger said, her voice trembling.  As she led them, she passed the sofa where Adam sat drawing on a tablet.  The youngster looked up, disturbed by the sight of Gunnar's puffy face.

    The two men quickly exited, leaving Inger and the doctor alone with Gunnar.  “How badly is he hurt?” Ben asked one of them as they passed him.

    The man glared at Ben with accusative eyes.  “You should know, Cartwright.”  Ben was too stunned to ask anything more before the men left.

    With troubled black eyes, Adam looked up at his father, who walked over to the fireplace and leaned against the mantel.  The boy felt all kinds of questions tugging at his brain, but with his usual perception he realized this was no time to bother Pa with a little boy's questions.  Pa was upset.  Miss Inger, too.  The man he'd just started to call Uncle Gunnar was hurt, and the men who had just left acted like Pa was the one who had hurt him.  That just couldn't be.  Or could it?  Looking at his father, Adam wondered 'cause Pa looked like he was wondering, too.

    Adam glanced down at the picture he'd been drawing, a picture of a big house with three smiling people inside.  But the smile had vanished from the original of the child in the drawing.  He closed the tablet and set aside the fairy tale ending he'd been imagining.  It didn't look like there'd be a “happily ever after” for him and Pa and Miss Inger.  But he was too young to just wait and worry, so he picked up Miss Inger's sewing box and began fingering through the contents of its small compartments.

    Before long Inger followed the doctor out of the bedroom.  She closed the door carefully to avoid disturbing Gunnar with so much as the click of a knob, then turned to the doctor.  “When vill you be back, doctor?” she asked anxiously.

    “When I've finished my rounds,” the doctor replied.

    “And what can I do for him meanwhile?”

    The doctor shook his head.  “Well, not very much, I'm afraid.  Just keep him quiet.  You know, with a fractured skull we can't tell when he'll regain consciousness, but I'll be back.”

    Inger thanked the doctor as she showed him out, then turned angry eyes on the man she had intended to marry.  “Ben, how could you?” she demanded.

    “I don't understand,” Ben said, his face blank with bewilderment.

    “You fought vith him, didn't you?” Inger sputtered.  “The doctor says you almost killed him!”

    Ben wagged his head from side to side, as if seeking an explanation.  “I hit him, yes.”

    “You hit him?” Inger asked through tight lips.  “Ben, I thought the anger vas gone,” she said, almost in tears.  “I thought when you said you loved me, the anger vould go.”

    “I didn't hit him in anger,” Ben insisted.  “I didn't hit him that hard!”

    “And now he is lying in that room, and he may be dying,” Inger cried.

    Ben reached for her.  “Inger, please—”

    Inger pulled away.  “Ben, don't!  Please go.”

    “There's something terribly wrong here.  You must believe me!” Ben said frantically.

    But Inger could bear no more.  She went quickly into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.  Ben reached for the doorknob, then stopped.  Inger wouldn't listen, not until he could explain the injury to her beloved brother.  So, instead of following her, Ben stepped quickly toward his son.

    “Adam, you lie down for a little while,” he said as he settled the boy on the sofa.  “Stay here with Miss Inger.”

    “Pa, what happened to Uncle Gunnar?” Adam asked, unable to remain silent if he were going to be left alone.

    “I don't know, son,” Ben said as he covered the boy with Inger's crocheted afghan.  “I'm gonna find out.”

    Sadly, Adam watched his father leave.  Something was very wrong, something Adam had no hope of understanding.  He knew Pa meant for him to go to sleep, but there was no way he could with so much churning inside him.  He saw Inger come out of Gunnar's room and wanted to ask her to explain it all to him.  But before he could say anything, there was yet another knock on the door.  And the words choked in Adam's throat when he saw the latest visitor to the Borgstrom home.

    Inger, too, seemed surprised to see the man in the dark blue uniform with a double row of silver buttons down his jacket and a six-pointed star pinned to his chest.  “Oh!  Yes, constable?”

    The policeman nodded respectfully.  “Mr. McWhorter told me what happened to your brother.  It's a terrible thing.  How is Gunnar?”

    Inger gave a concerned glance toward Gunnar's room.  “Ve don't know yet.”

    “I'm sorry to be bothering you,” the officer apologized, “but I thought the sooner you preferred charges, the sooner I could arrest that man——Cartwright, that's his name, isn't it?”

    “Yes, that is his name,” Inger said quietly, then looked over her shoulder at Adam.  “But there vill be no charges.”  However she might feel about Ben right now, she could not deprive a child of his only parent.

    “No charges?” the policeman protested.  “If your brother dies, this man Cartwright is a murderer.  And if Gunnar recovers, he should be punished anyway.”

    Adam's eyes widened when he heard the word “murderer” attributed to his father.  Inger could almost feel the boy's pain, even without looking at him.  “I say there vill be no charges,” she repeated.

    “Ma'am, you're making a mistake,” the law officer asserted.  “This Cartwright fellow should be in jail.”

    “Good night, constable,” Inger said firmly.

    The policeman couldn't comprehend her attitude. “Good night, ma'am,” he said briskly and left.

    Inger shut the door and looked at it sadly, as if its closing represented the slamming of a door on her only hope of happiness.

    “Miss Inger?”

    She turned swiftly at the sound of the youngster's soft, plaintive voice.  “Yes, Adam?” she asked, moving toward him.

    “Miss Inger, that man——he said my pa should be in jail.”  As Adam twisted the afghan between restless fingers, Inger stooped beside him, touching his shoulder in sympathy.

    “Is my pa bad?” the boy asked, finally daring to speak the unspeakable dread of his heart.

    Inger stroked his cheek.  “Poor darling,” she soothed.  “No, he's not bad.  He may get angry and do a bad thing.  But, no, Adam, he is not bad.”

    “Miss Inger, is my pa coming to get me?”

    “Yes, Adam, he vill.”  Inger had no proof of that except the love for the boy she had seen so often in his father's eyes.  She could not conceive of his leaving Adam behind, however great the risk to himself.

    “Do you love my pa?” Adam asked with the forthrightness of a child.

    And Inger answered him with childlike honesty of her own.  “Yes, Adam, I do.”

    “Then why did you send him away?” Adam queried.

    “Oh, Adam,” Inger choked.  “It's something I yoost can't explain.”  She patted the boy's shoulder.  “Go to sleep now.”  Adam closed his eyes and tried to obey.  It was hard at first, but weariness won over his worry and he drifted into a troubled sleep.

    Wishing there were someone to comfort her as she had Ben's little boy, Inger sat in the rocker beside Adam's makeshift bed and stared into the fire on her other side.  As hurt as she felt by Ben's treatment of her brother, she couldn't help worrying about him.  Where had he gone?  Had he feared she would deliver him up to the police?  Was he even now gathering his belongings to escape in the dead of night?  And what would become of Adam on such a flight from justice?

    None of Inger's guesses were correct, however.  Ben had made his way to the Illinois House.  Since McWhorter had locked up for the night, he was surprised to see Ben stride in from the back.

    “McWhorter!  What did you do to Gunnar after I left?” Ben demanded.

    “I sent for the doctor and they took him home,” McWhorter said.  One hand rested lightly on the bar, but the caution with which he calculated Ben's distance belied his casual stance.

    “Gunnar wasn't hurt, not as he is now, when I left him here,” Ben declared, pointing to the floor where he had last seen the unconscious Swede’s six-foot form spread-eagled.

    “You listen to me, Cartwright,” McWhorter warned.  “If you had any sense you'd get out of town before they pick you up.”

    Ben's face was flinty with solemn intent.  “I'll get out of town after I find out the truth.”

    McWhorter gave a short laugh.  “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

    Ben reached for McWhorter's left arm.  “I want you to tell Inger what happened.”

    McWhorter knocked Ben's grasp loose.  “Get your hands off me!”

    With a look of determination Ben again reached for the tavern owner.  “Now, McWhorter, I want you to tell Inger what happened!”

    McWhorter struck Ben with his free hand.  Ben, his body twisting from the force of the unexpected blow, reeled into the bar and metal tankards clattered to the floor behind it.

    Ben straightened up, wiping his mouth with the back of his right fist.  “Now, there's no need for any fighting,” he said firmly.  “All I want is the truth.”  Once again he placed his hand on McWhorter's left shoulder.  “And I want you to tell me—”

    Ben's request was interrupted by another smashing blow from McWhorter's right fist, which knocked Ben once more against the bar behind him.  Still without intent of striking, Ben lurched toward his antagonist.  Anticipating an attack, McWhorter grabbed Ben and flipped him onto his back, then circled quickly to be waiting when Ben rose from the floor.  Another solid punch sent Ben sprawling against a round table.

    This time, Ben came up ready to fight.  He ducked McWhorter's swinging fist and struck a right jab to the man's jaw.  It was followed by a quick punch to McWhorter's belly.  As the tavern owner doubled over, Ben struck his other cheek with a forceful left fist.

    McWhorter fell against the bar, and Ben lunged toward him again.  But McWhorter parried that attack with a quick move that tossed Ben over the bar.  McWhorter leaped atop it, but Ben grabbed him and pulled him down behind the bar.  They wrestled against the back cupboard, knocking a keg of ale to the floor.  Locked arm in arm, they struggled their way onto the open floor.

    After exchanging a few unsuccessful punches, Ben landed a right to his opponent's jaw that sent McWhorter stumbling into a chair behind him.  The tavern owner grabbed the chair and tossed it at Ben.  Ben ducked, and the chair sailed over his head.  Then he moved in quickly, landing a right-left combination that sent McWhorter sprawling to the floor beside the bar.  McWhorter started to rise, but he was out of breath.  Panting, he leaned against the bar.

    Ben stood over him.  “All right,” he said, breathing heavily.  “What happened to Gunnar?”

    “I'll tell you nothin’,” McWhorter gasped.

    His hope as exhausted as his body, Ben staggered out the back door and down the alley toward the Borgstrom residence.  He lurched against their door, knocked, then leaned heavily on it while awaiting an answer.

    Weakened as he was, Ben barely managed to avoid falling into Inger's arms when she opened the door.  “Ben!” Inger said, stretching soft fingers toward his bruised face.

    Ben held his own hand between hers and his face.  “How's Gunnar?” he asked as Inger's hand slowly fell.

    “I think he's going to be all right,” Inger said quietly.

    Ben strode past her.  “I have to see him.  I've gotta talk to him.”  He staggered toward the bedroom.

    Inger turned to follow him.  “But the doctor said—”

    Ignoring her, Ben went straight in and leaned against the tall bedpost at the foot of Gunnar's bed.  “Gunnar?”  Receiving no response, Ben moved toward the bandaged blonde head lying on the pillow and leaned over the unconscious Swede.  “Gunnar?”  When Inger's brother still made no response, Ben raised up.  “I thought he could tell me the truth.”  Disappointed, he started to walk out.

    “The truth?” Inger asked bitterly.  “But you said you hit him.”

    Ben looked sadly at her.  “Yes——yes, I hit him.  In a moment of anger I lashed out at him, and I'm sorry for it.”  Bitterness crept into his voice as he continued, “But you believe that I could do something like this to him?”

    “What else can I believe?” Inger declared.

    Ben had a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were literally watching his dreams vanish.  “I thought once you could believe in me,” he murmured, “in my love for you.”

    Inger's face convulsed with unshed tears.  Scarcely glancing at her, Ben shook his head in bewilderment.  “You hit a man, and a love is lost.  And nothing to be done——nothing.”

    Tears trickling down her cheeks, Inger sat at the foot of Gunnar's bed.  “Oh, Ben, I vant to believe you.  Help me, Ben!”

    Unnoticed by either of the suffering lovers, Gunnar's blue eyes began to flicker.

    “Not if you'll always have doubts about me,” Ben muttered.

    Gunnar stirred again, the words gradually penetrating the fog of his dazed senses.

    “Either you love me with all your heart or there's no love at all,” Ben concluded, finally facing the ultimate defeat of his desire.

    Inger grasped the bedpost, wringing it with both hands, her body weaving forward and back in agony.  “Ah, what shall I do?  What shall I do?” she cried, her words a prayer.  But it was a prayer addressed to no one in particular, for in that moment of anguish she could think of no one or nothing that would solve her dilemma.

    His heart as broken as hers, Ben moved toward the door.

    “Ben?” Gunnar called softly.  Both Ben and Inger turned toward his voice.  “Inger,” Gunnar said weakly, “Ben did not do this to me.”  Inger's hand flew to her heart.

    Ben stepped swiftly to Gunnar, leaning on his mattress.  “Gunnar, what happened after I left?” he asked urgently.

    Gunnar looked into Ben's face.  “I remember falling to the floor.  After you left, I started to get up, and something hit me on the head.  That's the last I remember.”

    Ben straightened up.  “McWhorter!” he said with cold fury.

    Gunnar nodded.  “It must have been McWhorter; he was the only one there.”

    “Yeah, but he'll never admit it,” Ben muttered bitterly.

    “Oh, Ben, does he have to admit it?” Inger asked.

    Ben clung stubbornly to his injured pride.  “If he doesn't, how will you ever know the truth?”

    “You yoost told me, Ben,” Inger said, her eyes glowing with trust.  “You said if one loves, one must love vith all one's heart.”  She looked up at him adoringly.  “I do love you——vith all my heart.”  She reached toward him and Ben pulled her into an embrace of mutual forgiveness.

    “Gunnar, Ben and I vould like to be married soon.  Do ve have your blessing?” Inger said, turning toward her brother.  Ben stared at her, dizzied by the sudden change in his prospects.

    Though very tired, Gunnar smiled briefly.  “I give the bride avay, yah?”

    Ben looked from one Borgstrom to the other, barely able to believe the storybook ending to this horrible day.  "Yah," he said finally and pressed his lips against his beloved's.

* * * * *

    Sitting at Inger's table copying the alphabet his father had written at the top of the page, Adam's face was as intent as his grip on his stubby pencil.  Behind him, Ben smiled proudly at the boy's diligent effort.  “You're doing real fine, son.  Those letters are looking neater every day.”

    Adam grinned up at his father.  “And when I know them real good, I can learn to read, right?”

    Ben tousled the boy's hair.  “Right, and reading will open up a whole world of learning.”

    “I want to learn it all, Pa,” Adam said earnestly.

    Ben laughed.  “That's quite an ambition, son.  No one knows everything, of course, but you're making a good start.”  Ben wandered back toward the fireplace and stirred the flickering logs with a poker.

    “Inger?” a voice called from the bedroom.  “Inger?”

    Ben stepped quickly through the open door.  “She isn't here, Gunnar,” he said.  “She's at the store going over the final inventory with McWhorter.”

    Gunnar started to sit up.  “You left her alone vith McWhorter?”

    “Here, here now!” Ben admonished, hurrying in.  “You stay right in that bed, young man.”

    In his weakened condition Gunnar had little choice but to obey.  “But Inger, Ben—”

    “Don't worry about your sister,” Ben soothed.  “McWhorter already has what he wants, and he wouldn't harm her in any case.”

    “Why are you not vith her?” Gunnar insisted.  “It is your right and your duty as her intended husband.”

    “That's pretty much what I told her,” Ben said wryly, “but Inger would have none of it.  She said things were likely to go much smoother with McWhorter if I weren't around.”

    Gunnar gave a short laugh.  “Yah.  She don't trust you or me either not to bash in his skull.”

    Ben nodded grimly as he pulled up a chair.  “I'd like nothing better, but going against the law has never been my way.  I just wish we could prove that he was the one who beat you.  Since you didn't see anything, and with the influence McWhorter has in this town—”

    Gunnar's lips curled. “Don't you vorry, Benyamin.  I vill take care of McWhorter once I am better.”

    Ben pressed the big Swede's arm in a restraining gesture.  “I feel the same way, Gunnar, but you and I both have better things planned for our lives than rotting in jail for giving McWhorter the thrashing he deserves.”

    Gunnar nodded slowly.  “Yah, ve have better things.”

    Ben eased back in his chair.  “I've been wanting to talk to you about our plans, Gunnar, and how you could fit into them.”

    “What you mean, Ben?”

    Ben leaned forward, resting his broad palms on his knees.  “You know Inger and I plan to go west as soon as we're married.  Why not come with us?  We could settle next to each other, work the land together, and both profit by it.”

    Gunnar's big hands moved restlessly across the bedcovers.  “That's good of you, Ben, after what I did to you and Inger.”

    Ben smiled broadly.  “Well, if you're referring to selling the store, Inger says all you've done is speed the happiness of our wedding.  She bears no ill will, Gunnar.”

    “Yah, she's a good voman,” Gunnar said contritely.  “I don't forgive myself so easy as she.  But I cannot go vith you, Ben, not even to repay a debt.  I am no more cut out for a farmer than a storekeeper.”

    It was the response Ben had expected, but he felt deep disappointment.  “Still set on the gold fields, are you?”

    Gunnar brightened.  “Yah, that is what I vant.  And when I strike it rich, then I can make up to you and Inger for all the trouble I caused.”

    “No need of that,” Ben assured him.  “But, Gunnar, you've seen just one article about those gold fields, and there's no way of telling how reliable that minister's report is.  The land offers a better chance of building a solid future.”

    Gunnar turned onto his side to face Ben.  “For you, Ben, that is true.  You are like that oak in the street outside, planted solid vith deep roots.  I am more like the vind that blows through the leaves; I have to be alvays moving wherever the vind may blow.”

    Ben spread his hands in a gesture of reluctant acceptance.  “I understand what you're saying, but we're headed the same direction, man.  We might as well travel together.”

    Gunnar shook his head.  “Nah, my plans are made.  My friends been good to vait for me ‘til I had the money and now ‘til I am vell enough to travel.  It's best I go vith them.”  Gunnar laughed.  “Besides ve get there faster our vay than cross-country.”

    Ben cocked his head and stared at Gunnar.  “What route are you taking?”

    “Riverboat to New Orleans.  Then ve catch a steamer.”

    “To Panama?” Ben protested.  “Oh, Gunnar, I know that's quicker, but it's a rough trip.  We docked at Panama once when I was sailing.  It's almost fifty miles across the isthmus to catch a steamer to California.  A fifty mile walk through torrid jungle, and there's danger of yellow fever, too.  Oh, man, you'd be better off with us.”

    Gunnar's lower lip thrust out stubbornly.  “Your vay has dangers, too, Ben.  Indians, for one thing.”

    Ben shrugged.  “Not too much trouble with them, I hear.  But you're right:  there are dangers either way.  I just wish we could face them together.  Your mind's set, though, isn't it?”

    Gunnar nodded.  “Set firm.”

    Ben gave the Swede's muscular arm a light slap.  “You've got a right to chart your own course, Gunnar, same as me.”  Ben stood.  “But there's one force to which you and I must bow.  If I don't get you some of that soup Inger left, she'll thrash both of us.”

    Gunnar grimaced.  “Soup!  What kind of meal is that for a man?”

    Ben swatted Gunnar's thigh through the covers.  “It's just the kind of meal this man needs, that's what!”  He smiled cajolingly.  “Besides, it's real good.  Adam and I had some a little while ago, so it'll just take a few minutes to heat back up.  Let me get you some.”

    Gunnar settled into his pillow with a look of resignation.  “All right, Ben, bring me this smorgasbord of a soup.”

    Ben chuckled and headed toward the door.

    “Ben?” Gunnar called softly.

    Ben turned.  “Yes, Gunnar?”

    “You and Inger set a date for the vedding yet?”

    Ben smiled.  “First Sunday after you're on your feet.  So, you see, it's in my best interest to get you well fast.”

    A grin lifted one corner of Gunnar's mouth.  “That why you pushing soup?”

    Ben laughed loud.  “You've found me out!  My motives are purely self-centered.”

* * * * *

    With adoring eyes, Ben watched his bride walk down the aisle of the church toward him on the arm of her brother Gunnar.  It was a plain wedding compared to the one in which Ben had married Elizabeth Stoddard.  Between nursing Gunnar, settling the store's accounts, selling the Borgstrom home with most of its furnishings and packing the rest, there had been no time to sew a special wedding dress.  Instead of the white satin gown and lace veil Elizabeth had worn, Inger simply dressed in her Sunday best.  And though blue may not have been the traditional color for a bride, it was perfect for Inger.  The shade exactly matched her eyes as they gleamed with love and joy.

    Gunnar laid his sister's hand in Ben's and stepped back as the minister began the ceremony.  Since the marriage immediately followed the morning service, the parson kept his comments blessedly brief.  Most of them were unnecessary, anyway:  Ben and Inger already felt a stronger bond than their vows to love, honor and cherish could instill.  It was a bond forged in the furnace of adversity and, therefore, one not likely to be broken by whatever differences might arise between them in the normal course of married life.

    At the proper moment Ben's five-year-old best man gave his father the narrow gold band, and Ben slipped it on his bride's finger.  He felt a pang of regret at that moment, only because he yearned to give her a ring whose value reflected her worth to him, one as beautiful as that which he had given Elizabeth.  He still had that ring, of course, but it hadn't seemed right to give it to Inger; that ring should more properly be saved for Adam's future bride.  Ben's current assets were insufficient to purchase anything as costly for Inger; in fact, it had taken all his funds to buy this plain gold band.  Now he was truly living on his wife's charity, but that didn't seem important anymore.  They were one.

    Since they had packed the wagon the night before, it took little time to change to clothes more appropriate for travel and be ready to leave.  Ben helped Inger up to the wagon seat, then turned for a final farewell with Gunnar.  Resting his left hand on the big Swede’s sturdy shoulder, with his right hand Ben clasped Gunnar’s outstretched one.

    “Yoost you take care of my sister,” Gunnar admonished, but his tone was light, not accusative.

     “I’ll take care of my wife,” Ben said with a smile, “and that will take care of your sister.”  He gave Gunnar’s right shoulder a hearty slap.  “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he said with an encouraging nod of his head.

    “Maybe, maybe not,” Gunnar said with a devil-may-care shrug, “but, at least, I vill have tried.”  As Ben circled in front of the horse to mount the wagon’s opposite side, Gunnar stepped close to his sister.  “And you, Inger,” he said.  “Take vith you my love and grateful heart.”

    Inger leaned down to take Gunnar’s face between her slender hands.  “Good-bye, Gunnar.  You vill be alvays in my thoughts and prayers.”

    Gunnar looked beyond Inger.  “I hope you find your land, Ben, and raise fine sons.  My friends once call me ‘hoss,’ which means a good man vith friendly vays.”  Gunnar paused a moment, for he was unaccustomed to speaking his feelings so plainly.  “You are that, too, Ben,” he added sincerely.  “When you and Inger have a son, I hope his friends call him ‘hoss,’ too.”  Gunnar took a step toward the back of the wagon and smiled at the youngster seated behind his parents.  “Good-bye, Adam,” Gunnar said.  “Take good care of them, huh?”

    Adam nodded solemnly, obviously taking the assignment seriously.  “Good-bye, Uncle Gunnar.”

    Gunnar threw his shaggy blonde head back and laughed heartily as he gave the boy’s neck a playful shake.

    Ben gathered up the reins.  “Gunnar, you be sure to leave word at the San Francisco post office, so we’ll know where to find you.”

    “Yah, I do that,” Gunnar promised, “and you do the same.  Ve follow different paths to our promised land, but ve vill see each other there, yah?”

    “Yah,” Ben agreed with a broad smile.

    As the horse began to walk slowly away, Inger and Adam leaned back, waving to Gunnar until he was out of sight.  Ben touched his bride’s shoulder.  “Any regrets?” he asked softly.

    Inger turned shining eyes toward Ben.  “None, my love.  It is a new beginning, a new vorld before us, and it gives me great joy to explore it vith you and vith our son.”  Inger gave Ben’s arm a contented squeeze and settled her eyes on the horizon ahead.


As Ben stepped down from the back of the wagon, he immediately looked for his wife.  Though they had traveled side by side for almost three weeks now, he couldn’t feast his eyes on her often enough, a sure sign their honeymoon was still in progress.  He saw her stirring the embers of the dying campfire and tiptoed stealthily up behind her.

    Without turning around, Inger smiled.  “You won’t catch me that vay, Mr. Cartwright.  I’m wise to your vays.”

    Ben laughed, spun her around and kissed her heartily.  “All right, then, Mrs. Cartwright, I’ll just catch you any way I can.”

    Inger laid her head on his broad shoulder and looked up into his warm brown eyes.  “Adam asleep?”

    “Sound asleep,” Ben said, then whispered conspiratorially in his wife’s ear, “We’re alone.”

    Inger giggled.  “And what do you suggest ve do vith our solitude?”

    Ben nibbled her ear gently.  “Guess,” he ordered softly.

    Inger pushed him away.  “In the snow?” she giggled.

    Ben pulled her close.  “Why not?  I thought you liked cold weather.”

    Inger gave her blonde head an amused shake.  “I do like cold veather; it reminds me of Sveden.  But I did not say I vould like to sleep in the snow.  Were you serious, Ben?”

    Ben smiled.  “No, love, I was only teasing.  I know it’s too cold to bed you under the stars the way we did that first night.  But you can’t blame me for dreaming.”

    Inger smiled.  “No, that is your nature——and mine, I think.  I have a dream of my own, sweetheart.”

    Ben kissed her forehead.  “Tell me,” he whispered.

    But Inger shook her head.  “No, it is just a foolish dream, one I cannot have.”

    Ben held her at arms’ length.  “Inger, darling, I insist you tell me.  You’ve never asked anything for yourself, so I know it must be important.”

    Inger smiled lovingly.  “Important, yah, but impossible.  Ve vill be in St. Joseph soon?”

    Ben nodded slowly, still trying to read her thoughts.  “Soon, yes.  By my reckoning, we should be there tomorrow or the next day at the latest.”

    Inger reached up to stroke Ben’s cheek.  “My foolish dream, Benyamin, is to spend one night in a real bed vith you and lavish you vith my love.”

    “Oh,” Ben said in sudden, sorrowful understanding.  “I wish we could, Inger.  Maybe we can.  But until I know the price of supplies, I can’t promise there’ll be enough for a night’s lodging.”

    “Of course not, Ben.  That vould be a foolish use of our moneys.  That is why I said the dream vas not possible.”

    “It’ll be possible someday, I promise,” Ben said, drawing Inger close.

    “I can vait for someday,” Inger laughed.  “It vill make the dream more special when it does come true.”

    The Cartwrights reached St. Joseph, Missouri, late the following day.  For Ben, to finally arrive at one of the celebrated jumping off points for the trails west was the culmination of years of yearning.  He slept restlessly, eager for the morning to come, the morning that would begin their real journey west.

    Ben’s dusty black boots thudded purposefully as he entered Larrimore’s Mercantile and Outfitters Headquarters the next morning.  He hated quibbling over price, but he was prepared to do whatever dickering was necessary to save a few dollars back to give Inger her one night in a real bed.  After all the sacrifices she had made to make his dream come true, somehow he had to find a way to meet her simple request.  With Adam in hand, Inger followed him in, standing modestly back to let her husband handle the business transactions.

    A tall, spare man with jet black hair leaned over the counter to greet them.  “Howdy, friend.  New in town?”

    “Just passing through,” Ben responded, “on our way west.”

    The proprietor laughed.  “Well, I figured I’d see a lot of extra business after that report came out about the gold in California, but I sure never expected anyone to show up this early.”

    Ben looked up, surprised.  “I’d heard some news of gold in California, but I wasn’t sure the reports were reliable.  You think they are?”

    The tall man with angular facial features rested both palms on the counter.  “When the President of the United States says there’s gold, I figure that’s good enough for me, mister.”

    “President Polk?” Ben queried.  “Pardon me, sir, but we’ve been on the road the last three weeks.  Being newly married, we’ve kind of kept to ourselves, so we’re a little out of touch with the latest news, I’m afraid.”

    The storekeeper’s prominent cheekbones protruded even farther as he grinned.  “Newlyweds, huh?  Well, congratulations to you and your lady, sir.”

    Inger stepped forward.  “Please, sir,” she interrupted eagerly, “you said something about the President.  My brother is headed for the gold fields, and I have been afraid he vas chasing a silly goose.  I vould much like to hear the President’s vords.”

    “Why, certainly, ma’am,” the man responded obligingly.  “I’d be glad to ease your mind.  According to the St. Louis paper, the President spoke to Congress about the gold strike last week.  Said there was so much wealth in California it would pay for the Mexican War a hundred times over.”

    Inger grasped Ben’s arm.  “Oh, Ben, then Gunnar vill be vell, yah?”

    Ben circled her shoulders with a quick, bolstering embrace.  “Sounds like he just might make his fortune, Inger.  I’m glad for him.”  Ben turned back to the storekeeper.  “Well, to answer your earlier question, Mr.—Larrimore, is it?”

    “It is,” Larrimore responded.

    “Pleased to meet you, sir.  I’m Ben Cartwright; this is my bride, Inger, and my son Adam.  To answer your earlier question, we are headed for California, but not after gold.  I plan to homestead there.  So we’re here to get outfitted for the trip and would appreciate any advice you can give us about the supplies we’ll need.”

    Larrimore stared at Ben as if he’d suddenly sprouted two heads.  “You mean now, Mr. Cartwright?”

    Ben laughed.  “Certainly, now.  We want to get on the road as soon as possible.”

    The storekeeper shook his head in incredulity.  “You can’t be serious, Mr. Cartwright.  No one travels west this time of year.”

    “Well, I know it’s not the usual time,” Ben conceded, “but we’ll make out.”

    Larrimore looked from Ben to Inger to little Adam and decided brutal honesty was the kindest service he could offer.  “Mr. Cartwright, there is no way your family would survive the trip if you left now.  A single wagon offers no protection from hostiles, and there’s no grass for your draught animals this time of year.  Worse yet, winter snows are already thick in the Rockies.  You leave now, and the only ground you’re gonna homestead is a plot six-foot deep.”

    Ben paled.  “That’s why trains usually form in the spring?”

    “That’s why,” Larrimore said.

    Ben exchanged an alarmed look with Inger.  She said nothing, but the unspoken question was clearly legible in her honest blue eyes.  What would they do?  There was nothing behind them, and they could not go forward, it seemed.

    Larrimore saw the concern in the woman’s eyes and, without knowing the details, guessed that this couple had burned their bridges behind them.  “Sorry to disappoint you folks,” he said sincerely, “but I’m telling you the gospel truth.  If you want to reach California, you really need to wait here ‘til spring.”  He brightened his tone to lift their spirits.  “Lots of folks come early so as to go with one of the first trains out.  Not usually this early, of course, but, being early, you ought to have your pick of places to board.”

    Ben smiled weakly.  Obviously, the man intended to be helpful.  But he couldn’t know the crushing blow he’d just dealt Ben’s dreams.  They had enough funds to last out the winter, of course, but then they’d be short of cash when the time came to buy supplies for the journey.  Ben felt an iron fist tighten around his heart.  But he had something more important than a dream to concern himself with now.  He had a wife, as well as a son, to provide for.  And their first need was shelter.  “Could—could you recommend a place we could stay, Mr. Larrimore——a place that wouldn’t cost too much?”

    Larrimore nodded.  “Most places hereabouts are reasonable.  Not sure they’ll stay that way, though, with the news of this gold strike bringing in the numbers I expect.  Fact is, you could stay right here if it suits you, and I promise to keep the price stable.”

    Ben glanced around the store.  “Here?”

    Larrimore grinned.  “In the back, that is.  It ain’t big, but I always found it comfy.  My family lived there ‘til about a month ago when our new place was finished.  Care to take a look?”  Larrimore left the counter and headed toward a door at the rear of the store.

    Ben hesitated.  “How—how much?”

    Larrimore looked over his shoulder, his black eyes sympathetic.  “I’m sure we can work something out.”  He opened the door and held it as the Cartwrights stepped through.  Pointing, he said, “There’s a good lock here.  You wouldn’t have to worry about any of my customers intruding on your privacy.”

    Inger nodded pleasantly.  Privacy was the least of her concerns right now, but it was kind of their prospective landlord to consider it for her.  She walked over to assess the cook stove standing in one corner of the main room.  Not as spacious an oven as the one she’d had back in Petersburg, but adequate.

    Larrimore opened the doors to the two small, meagerly furnished bedrooms.  “Like I said, not a big place.  But I think you’ll find everything you need here.  You can do your own cooking, which will save you money over eating in a boardinghouse.  And you don’t even have to step outdoors to get your winter foodstuffs.”

    Ben gave a short laugh at the humorous crackle in the man’s voice.  He turned to his wife.  “What do you think, Inger?”

    Inger nodded.  “It is a good place, Ben.  The right place for us, I think.”

    Ben turned back to Mr. Larrimore.  “It’s settled, then.  If we can come to terms on the rent, sir, you’ve got yourself some tenants.”

    They went back through the store to the front porch.  “You can pull your wagon around the side to unload,” Larrimore suggested.  Then, he stopped as he caught sight of the wagon and the single horse pulling it.  “Please tell me this isn’t what you planned to take west,” Larrimore said, a smile twitching at his lips.

    “Now, what’s wrong with my wagon?” Ben demanded, his frustration with the way the day had gone so far beginning to show.

    Larrimore grinned, shaking his head.  “Cartwright, you’re about the greenest emigrant I’ve ever seen.  You won’t make it half way to the Rockies with that rig.”

    “We’ve made it just fine so far,” Ben said hotly.

    “Sorry,” Larrimore said.  “I meant no offense, but the truth is, you folks have a lot to learn about where you’re headed.  Not many places to resupply along the way, and the ones there are charge a pretty penny for their goods.  So it’s best to take all the necessities with you.  Your wagon’s too small to carry all the supplies you’ll need for a six-month trip, Mr. Cartwright.   What  you need is a smaller version of the old Conestoga wagon. And you’ll need oxen or mules to pull it, not a horse.”

    Ben’s shoulders slumped in chagrin.  “Mr. Larrimore, you’re right.  I’m as green as they come, and that’s putting it mildly.”

    Larrimore gave him a hearty slap on the shoulder.  “Well, we’ve got a few months to correct that, Cartwright.  Be glad to tell you all I know.  Step into the store anytime you have a question.”

    For the first time since he’d entered Larrimore’s store, Ben smiled broadly.  “I’ll do that.”  He stretched a hand toward the storekeeper.  “Thank you for all you’ve done so far, sir.  I don’t doubt you’ve saved us a heap of heartache already.”

    Larrimore took the extended hand and shook it warmly.  “Anything for a new customer,” he laughed.

* * * * *

    Ben carried the first load in from the wagon and set it on the white wooden table near the stove Inger had already begun to scour.  He stepped behind her and rubbed her shoulders gently.  “I’m sorry, Inger,” he said softly.

    Inger turned to stroke her husband’s cheek soothingly.  “There is no need, Ben.”

    “There is much need,” Ben muttered in self disgust.  “I took you from a safe, secure home to chase a dream, and look where it’s brought us!”

    Inger kissed his cheek tenderly.  “It has brought us to another home, that is all.  Ve vill make it safe, secure, yah?”

    Ben raised his head to meet her gaze directly.  “Yah,” he said bitterly.  “That much I promise.  I will find work; I won’t let you go hungry.  But it’s a hard thing to watch my dreams die.”

    Inger squeezed both his broad hands with her slender fingers.  “Your dream is not dead, Ben, only de-, de-”  She shook her head, disturbed by her inability to find the word she wanted.

    “Deferred?” Ben suggested.

    “Yah,” Inger sighed.  “I think that is the meaning I vant.  The dream is not dead, only deferred, put aside for awhile.  Ve vill pick it up again, Ben, when the time is right; you vill see.”

    Ben nodded, though his eyes were still sad.  “Maybe so, Inger, but I feel like such a fool.”

    Inger laughed.  “Ve were a bit foolish, the both of us, Benyamin.  Foolish vith love, maybe.  But ve are young:  ve vill make mistakes, and ve vill learn by them and do better next time.  It is the vay of things, my love.”

    A meager smile played at the edge of Ben’s mouth as he began to respond to his wife’s comfort.  “You amaze me over and over, Inger, with your capacity for forgiveness and understanding.  I could never merit it, but I promise you I will learn by this mistake.  I will not take you from this home until I know all I must to bring us safely to California.”

    Inger laid her slender hands on each of his broad shoulders.  “Ve vill learn together, and by spring ve vill be the most-knowing emigrants on the trail, yah?”

    Ben gave his wife a hearty kiss.  “Yah!  Now, I’d best get this wagon unloaded quickly, so I can start looking for work.”

    “No, you go ahead,” Inger urged.  “Adam and I can manage the vagon.”

    Ben shook his head.  “I don’t want you lifting heavy boxes, Inger.  I’ve seen you do it in the store back in Petersburg, but no more.  And that, my wife, is an order.”

    Inger smiled submissively.  “I shall obey, mine husband.  But beyond this,” she said, nodding at the box he had placed on the table, “only the box of dishes is truly heavy.  Just bring me that, then please to get out from underfoot.  I have much vork to do to properly clean our new home.”

    With an amused shake of his head, Ben went to do as he was told.

* * * * *

    Lying in bed that night, Ben felt, rather than heard, the laughter of the body pressed against his ribcage.  “And just what is it that amuses you, young lady?” he demanded playfully.

    “Our son,” Inger giggled.  “He vas so excited to have a room all his own.  I think it made him feel grown up.”

    Ben smiled.  “It’s the first time I’ve slept apart from him.”

    Inger gave his chest a light slap.  “Vell, if you prefer, you can sleep in his room, Mr. Cartwright.”

    Ben kissed her gently.  “I do not prefer, Mrs. Cartwright.  Besides, I wouldn’t dream of depriving him of all those grown-up feelings.”  He rolled out of his wife’s embrace.  “I just wish I could share them.  I feel like a little boy again, not a man——just a little boy playing at man of the house.”

    Inger sat up abruptly.  “You are man of this house, Ben——a strong protector, a good provider.  You only doubt it because you have not yet found vork.  But you vill.  I have faith if you do not.”

    Ben reached up to stroke her soft cheek.  “I’m glad I have yours to lean on, Inger.”

    Inger sighed contentedly and snuggled down again in his arms.  “Oh, Ben, I know it is selfish,” she said, “but, like Adam, I am so happy to be just where I am tonight that the trouble that brought us here seems more a gift than a sorrow.  It is a dream come true——the dream I told you of last night.  I have longed to lie beside you like this, Ben.  Perhaps it is like the Good Book says——all things vorking together for good.”

    Ben pulled her close, smoothing back her ripened-wheat tresses.  “Perhaps,” he agreed.  “Or perhaps it is only that an angel like you finds good in all things.  But how can a mere mortal hope to win the love of an angel?”

    As she rolled back onto her pillow, the look Inger gave him was more impish than angelic. “Come and see,” she whispered, opening her arms, and Ben responded with an engulfing embrace.


Inger balanced a platter of pastries in one hand while with her other she opened the door leading from her small kitchen into the store.  At Ben’s insistence Mr. Larrimore had installed a padlock on the store side, but Larrimore had been just as adamant in his insistence that the door remain unlatched during store hours for Inger’s convenience in shopping.

     It was a convenience Inger appreciated, too, with the wind so chilly in mid-December.  But she suspected that the store owner rarely remembered to lock the door at the close of business hours.  She didn’t tell Ben, of course.  While his concern that he might be blamed for any shortage in the store’s inventory might seem irrational to her and to Mr. Larrimore, to Ben it was very real; and he had worries enough these days.

    “Good afternoon, Mrs. Cartwright,” Larrimore called from behind the counter.  “What can I help you with?”

    “Nothing, thank you, Mr. Larrimore,” Inger said with a bright smile.  “Ve have all ve need.  I have, instead, brought you something to share vith your family.  A gift of thanks for all your kindness to us.”

    Larrimore reached for the platter.  “Well, now, that’s mighty kind of you, ma’am.  My, these look absolutely delicious.”

    “They were alvays a favorite vith my customers back home,” Inger said.

    “Your customers?” Larrimore asked.  “Did you folks keep store where you came from?”

    “Yah.  That is, I did,” Inger explained.  “My husband helped me there only a short time before ve married.  But he had his own ship’s chandlery in New Bedford, so he understood business.  He vas much help to me in the store.”

    “I’m sure he was,” Larrimore agreed readily.  “He strikes me as the kind of man who’d do well at anything he set his mind to.  Has he found work yet?”

    Inger shook her head sadly.  “Nothing steady.  Most days he picks up something, but no promises past the day.”

    “Well, don’t you fret,” the storekeeper soothed.  “Any man who wants to work can generally find work to do.”  He looked longingly at the pastries sitting on the counter.  “Say, you mind if I sample one of these now.  I’ve got a powerful sweet tooth, but I don’t get much chance to indulge it.  My wife hates to bake.”

    Inger’s clear blue eyes looked puzzled.  A woman who hated to bake was beyond her understanding, but she certainly understood a craving for sweets.  Gunnar’s notorious sweet tooth had made it hard to keep the store in Petersburg supplied with pastries for the customers.  “By all means, please try one,” she urged.

    Larrimore grinned as he picked up one of the flaky, sugar-dusted puffs.  He closed his eyes in bliss as the buttery flavor melted in his mouth.  “Sheer heaven!” he exclaimed.  “Mrs. Cartwright, you have created the eighth wonder of the world.”

    Inger laughed lightly.  “I think you praise them over much, but I am glad you enjoy.  You must save some now for Mrs. Larrimore and the little ones.”

    “I will,” Larrimore promised.  “It’ll be hard, but I’ll keep my hands off ‘til after supper.”  He took another bite, rolling his tongue over his lips to catch a stray particle of sugar.  “You say you sold these in your store?”

    “Yah.  Two, three dozen a day.”

    Larrimore looked thoughtful.  “You know, I bet I could sell that many or more——if you’d be interested in making some extra money.”

    Inger’s eyes brightened.  “I vould like that very much.”

    “Tell you what,” Larrimore suggested.  “I’ll provide the ingredients and we’ll split the proceeds.  Sound fair?”

    Inger thrust out her hand.  “Ve vill be partners, yah?”

    “Suits me fine,” Larrimore said.  Taking his new partner’s outstretched hand, he gave it a hefty shake.

* * * * *

    Inger looked up from the pot she was stirring as Ben stomped the dirt off his shoes and came inside.  She stepped across the small room to kiss his smudged cheek.  “You look tired, Ben.”

    Ben nodded.  “It’s a good kind of tired, though, Inger, the kind that comes from a full day’s work.”  He smiled.  “And it doesn’t hurt that I’ll be needed again tomorrow.”

    Inger smiled broadly.  “Oh, Ben, that is vonderful!”

    “Well, no telling if anything will come of it——permanently, I mean——but I guess I’m meant to live one day at a time.”

    “One day is all anyone can live at a time, Ben,” Inger said, smoothing back a lock of brown hair that had fallen across his forehead.

    Ben shrugged and walked toward the basin of warm water Inger always had standing ready for him when he came in from a day’s work.  As he began to lather his hands with a bar of lye soap, Inger circled her arms around his waist and leaned contentedly against his back. “I, too, have had a vonderful day, Ben.”

    Ben turned and smoothed the sleeves of her yellow calico.  “I’m glad, love.  Tell me about it.”

    Inger took his hand, drawing him toward the dining table.  “Sit a moment, Ben.  I have good news.”

    Ben obediently sat, resting his elbows on the table and his chin on his interlaced fingers.  “You have my undivided attention, Mrs. Cartwright.”

    Inger laughed.  “I took Mr. Larrimore some of my Svedish pastries today——you know, the ones Adam likes so much.  Just making conversation, I told Mr. Larrimore how ve  used to sell them in our store, and he suggested I make some to sell here.  They von’t bring in big money, of course, but enough to help a little, I think.”  Seeing Ben’s suddenly darkened expression, Inger reached for his hand.  “You do not mind, mine husband?”

    “I mind,” Ben said quietly.  “I mind a great deal.  I had hoped to be the provider for our family, Inger.  You’ve worked so hard for so long, and I wanted to give you the joy of just taking care of your own home.  At least, I thought that would make you happy.”

    Inger squeezed his fingers.  “It does, Ben.  But this vill not take from that, I promise.  It vill take little time each day to bake a few sweets; and I thought, vith Christmas coming, it vould be good to have some extra pennies.”

    Ben looked out the window at the gray sky that seemed to reflect his mood so precisely.  “Christmas,” he murmured.  “I haven’t even let myself think about Christmas.”

    “Oh, there is no need,” Inger said, “not for you and me.  But for Adam, ve should make a celebration, yah?”

    Ben turned his eyes back to her face, and his countenance began to reflect the sunniness of hers.  “For Adam——yes.  You’re right, Inger.  We should make this a happy holiday for him.  And if baking a few sweets each day can provide that, then how can I object?”  Ben sat up straighter.  “Where is the boy, anyway?”

    “Napping,” Inger said, standing and going back to the stove to give the stew another stir.  “He’s been playing hard all day, so I told him to lie down for a bit.  He fell right to sleep.  But supper is almost ready.  You’d better wake him.”

    “I will,” Ben said, coming up behind her to nibble at her ear.  “But first things first.”

    Inger raised her spoon in mock threat; and feigning a look of abject terror, Ben backed away from her and headed toward Adam’s room.

* * * * *
    Somewhere far away a voice was pulling at the edge of Ben’s dreams.  But he wasn’t ready yet to surrender to the soft sound.  Instead, eyes still closed, he snuggled deeper into his pillow.  The voice, accompanied this time by a jouncing of the mattress on which Ben lay, became more insistent.

    “Pa!” Adam called again, his bare toes clambering over his father’s legs.  “Mama!” he added stretching across to shake Inger’s arm.  ”You gotta see!”  Adam plopped down between his parents, giving a little bounce in hopes of rousing them.

    Ben opened one eye reluctantly.  “Yes, son, what is it?” he asked sleepily.

    “Lookee, Pa!” Adam demanded in what was, for him, an unusual display of self-assertion.  “Santa did come——just like Mama said.”

    A chuckle tickled Ben’s lips.  Christmas morning.  Of course, Adam would waken early on one of the few mornings his father could afford to sleep in.  Well, it was the nature of little boys to be radiantly expectant on that of all mornings.

    “Pa, look!” Adam said again, this time dropping a bulging stocking into his father’s lap.

    Ben’s brown eyes finally opened to rest on Adam’s excited face.  He glanced to his left and saw Inger smiling at him.  “Merry Christmas,” she mouthed, though no sound escaped her lips.  Ben winked back and pulled himself to a sitting position.

    “My, my,” he said.  “Looks like Santa brought you a full load.”

    Adam turned his stocking bottom side up.  “Yeah, Pa, just look,” he said, a touch of wonder still edging his voice.

    Inger giggled as the shower of nuts and hard candies rained onto Ben’s stomach.

    “I see, son, I see,” Ben laughed.  “A treasure trove if ever there was one.”

    “Oh, there’s more, Pa,” Adam crowed.  He dug deep into the toe of the stocking and pulled out a bright whistle and a shiny red apple as big as his hand.

    “Well, look at that!” Ben said, beaming at his son.  “Santa sure did give my good boy a merry Christmas, didn’t he?”  He tousled Adam’s uncombed black hair.  “And you deserve every bit of it, Adam,” he added as he drew the boy close and playfully spatted the pink bottom peeking out from under his scrunched-up nightshirt.

    “Yah, you do,” Inger added.  “Such a good boy you are alvays to help when asked——sometimes even vithout being asked.”

    Adam glowed with pleasure at their words of praise.  “You ain’t seen the best yet, though,” he declared.

    “Haven’t seen,” Ben corrected drowsily.

    “You haven’t seen the best yet,” Adam said, uncharacteristically impatient with his father’s instruction.  Though Adam usually had an insatiable appetite for learning, there was a time for proper grammar and there was a time to just say what you felt.  You’d think a man as smart as Pa would know that.  Adam held up a new pair of red mittens.  “Ain’t—I mean—aren’t these grand, Pa?  I really needed new ones, too.”

    “I guess Santa must have noticed how crowded your fingers were in the old ones,” Ben said.

    “Yeah, but how could he know how much I’d want a book?” Adam asked, holding up the little primer he’d found beneath the mittens.  “It’s the best gift of all!”

    “Oh, Santa knows everything,” Inger whispered mysteriously.  “He even knows that now you must pick up all his fine gifts, so I can get up to fix the special breakfast I promised.”

    With a grin Adam began to search the folds of the coverlet for his scattered riches, stuffing them back into his stocking for the second time that morning.  When they were all safely inside, he slid off the bed and started back to his room.  At the door, he turned in sudden remembrance.  “You want I should bring you your present?” he asked.

    A look of surprise crossed Ben’s face, but not Inger’s.  “Oh, did Santa bring us something?” she asked innocently.  “By all means, bring it, Adam.”

    As the boy scampered eagerly into the other room to comply, Ben turned a searching eye on his wife’s face.  “I thought we agreed not to exchange gifts, Inger.”

    “Yah,” Inger admitted, fiddling with the pale blue ribbon at the neck of her cream-colored linen nightgown, “but it seems Santa did not agree, Benyamin.”

    Ben started to respond, but before he could, Adam ran back in, carrying a small, flat package clearly labeled “To Ben and Inger from Santa.”

    “Oh, my, what can this be?” Inger asked coyly.

    “I’m sure I don’t know,” Ben replied with strong emphasis on the personal pronoun.

    “Then, you must open it,” Inger urged.

    “It seems to be addressed to you, too,” Ben pointed out, but the only response he received was a sharp jab in his ribs from Inger’s elbow.  With a wry smile, Ben pulled the twine from the package and drew a slim volume from the enclosing brown paper.  The smile broadened to engulf his entire face.  “An emigrant’s guide!” he exclaimed and planted an exuberant kiss on his wife’s cheek.  “Do you have any idea how I’ve coveted this?”

    He looked lovingly into his wife’s shining eyes.  Of course, she knew.  She’d seen him reach for the volume numerous times in Larrimore’s store.  But he’d always pulled his yearning fingers back, reluctant to whet his appetite for what he felt he could not afford.  “It’s the perfect gift, Inger,” he added softly.

    “For both of us,” Inger agreed with a gentle squeeze of his hand.  “Santa must have heard us talking of our plans to go west, yah?”

    “Well, you said Santa knows everything, right, Mama?” Adam piped in.

    “And Mama is, as usual, right,” Ben laughed.

    “Santa and Mama,” Adam said with a vigorous nod.  He couldn’t understand why his parents were both suddenly hit with an uncontrollable attack of the giggles.

* * * * *

    Inger perched on the arm of the faded gray, padded chair in which Ben sat avidly perusing his new Christmas gift.  She ran loving fingers through her husband’s smooth dark, almost black, hair.  “Is the book all you hoped it vould be?” she asked.

    Ben smiled up at her and pulled her into his lap.  “Oh, yes, it’s excellent!  Larrimore tells me the emigrants last year swore by Mr. Palmer’s guide, and I can see why.  It’s very informative.”

    “Good,” Inger declared with a firm nod.  “It vas a good investment, then, yah?”

    “Yah,” Ben agreed, pressing a kiss onto her lips.  He turned back to a page he had previously read.  “Here’s something I hadn’t thought of before, Inger.  Palmer advises parents to lay in a good supply of schoolbooks.  Mighty hard to obtain where we’re going.”

    “Oh, yah,” Inger laughed.  “That ve must do.  Did you see how Adam’s eyes sparkled when he showed us his new primer?  He is a boy who must have learning, Ben.”

    Ben looked proudly through the door to Adam’s room, where the boy lay sprawled on his bed, trying to sound out the new words his father had shown him after a marvelous breakfast of apple torte and sausage.  “Yes, we will have to pack all the books we can carry for that bright young mind.  Palmer warns, though, that the biggest mistake most travelers make is carrying too much weight.”

    “Vell, ve have little else to take,” Inger laughed.  “Perhaps that is a blessing, my love.”

    Ben looked tenderly into her face.  “I wish I could give you all your heart’s desire, sweetheart.”

    Inger snuggled her cheek against his neck.  “I have my heart’s desire, Ben.  I have you.”  She sat up and looked steadily into his velvet brown eyes.  “I am glad ve have few vorldy goods, mine husband; it leaves us more room to carry true treasure.”

    “Like schoolbooks for Adam?” Ben asked impishly.

    Inger pulled his ear.  “That is not what I meant.  But, yah——that, too.  To give our son the education he needs for his future is more important than the foolish trinkets ve might othervise take.”

    Ben’s thick fingers stroked Inger’s smooth cheek.  “Not only unselfish, but wise, too.  You are my ‘true treasure,’ Inger.”

    Inger kissed his forehead.  “And you, mine.”  She slipped off his knee with a light-hearted laugh.  “But a truly wise voman vould know she must begin to prepare dinner, so I take my leave now, Mr. Cartwright.”

    Ben squeezed her hand.  “It’s not fair, you know.  Here I sit enjoying my holiday, and you work twice as hard making the day special.”

    Inger shrugged.  “Yah, I do get tired, but I remember how much I looked forward to the holidays as a girl——the special foods, the happy laughter.  I vant that same joy vith my own family now; and, to me, it is vorth the vork.”  Her eyes twinkled saucily.  “Now unhand me, sir, or I vill cook your goose instead of the one on the stove!”

    Ben dropped her hand.  “By all means, woman, cook that goose!” he ordered, pointing toward the stove.

    From his room Adam looked up from his book and grinned.  Pa was trying to sound bossy, but it just didn’t come across that way——not when even Adam could hear the chuckles choked back in Pa’s throat.


With a soapy hand, Inger swiped back the strand of hair straggling across her forehead and put the final pot into the dishpan.  It was the end of a long day and she was tired.  Cleaning their small apartment behind the store never took much time, but Inger had done a week’s worth of bread-baking today in addition to preparing three meals for her family.  Then after supper there’d been pastries to bake for sale in the store tomorrow.  Her baked goods were becoming so popular that Larrimore had asked her to double the batches, and Inger could scarcely afford to say no when her efforts provided the only reliable income the family had.

    That was still a sore point with Ben.  He continued to  pick up an odd job here, another there, but that didn’t provide the kind of security they could plan on.  Inger glanced over her shoulder at her husband, who sat at the dining table, the blue-checked cloth folded back to offer a smooth writing surface.  With a frown puckering his brow, he stared at a sheet of coarse-grained white stationery purchased that afternoon for a penny, as much money as Ben ever allotted for his personal use.  Obviously, the letter must be important.

    Not wanting to disturb him, Inger lifted the pan of dirty dishwater and headed for the door; but Ben heard her steps and exploded out of his chair.  “Here, let me do that,” he ordered brusquely, reaching her in three brisk strides across the room.

    “I can do it, Ben,” Inger insisted.  “I am a strong voman and used to vork.”

    “Entirely too used to it,” Ben scolded.  “Unhand that dishpan, woman!”

    Inger smiled and, releasing the pan to him, followed him onto the stoop.  Ben dumped the contents over the railing and turned to find himself in Inger’s arms.  The narrowness of the space, too narrow to be called a porch, almost guaranteed that any two people standing there at the same time be locked in embrace.  And these two rarely missed an opportunity for intimacy.

    Inger lay her weary head on her husband’s broad shoulder, aware of, but scarcely heeding the light snow dusting down from the sky.  “A beautiful night,” she whispered.

    “Umn,” Ben murmured in soft agreement, then looked directly into his wife’s face.  “Beautiful, indeed!”

    Inger laughed softly and drew him back inside.  She went to the rickety rocker by the window and pulled her sewing basket into her lap.

    “You’re tired,” Ben said.  “Can’t that wait ‘til tomorrow?”

    Inger shrugged.  “I suppose, but I can only vork on it at night, remember?  Adam is in and out all day, and he must not see his birthday gift.”

    “It’s better than a month to his birthday,” Ben reminded her.  “Surely, there’ll be enough nights between now and then.”

    Inger nodded wearily.  “You are ready for bed, then?”

    Ben glanced over at the sheet of paper lying on the table and sighed.  “Not quite, I’m afraid.”  He pulled the chair out and plopped down irritably.  “Duty calls,” he muttered, gripping the pen with grim determination.

    Inger looked intently at him.  The duty, evidently, was an unpleasant one.  “What are you writing?” she asked.

    Ben propped his head on his right elbow and smiled ruefully.  “Overdue correspondence——long overdue——to my brother John.  I’ve never let a Christmas pass without writing him, and here it is the middle of January.”

    Inger’s sewing dropped into her lap.  “Your brother?  Why, Ben, I did not know you had a brother.  I suppose I thought because you and Adam came to Petersburg alone, you had no one in the vorld.  That vas foolish, yah?”

    “You weren’t far wrong,” Ben said, willingly laying down his pen.  “John, his wife Martha and his son Will are virtually my only relations.  There are some distant cousins scattered throughout New England, but I never had much contact with them.  John and I were close, though, especially after the death of our parents.  We knew we had no one but each other and we developed strong bonds.  Whenever we were in port at the same time, we made it a point to see as much of each other as possible.  And we wrote frequently between times.”

    Inger picked up her needle and threaded it.  “John is a sailor like you, then?”

    “Was,” Ben corrected.  “When he married, his wife insisted he quit the sea.  He did, for her sake, but sometimes I think he’s never quite lost the wanderlust that made him sign on board his first ship.”  Glad of the excuse to procrastinate, Ben stood and walked toward Inger.  “John’s really the reason I went to sea,” he said, dropping into the padded chair near her.

    “To be vith him?” Inger asked.

    Ben chortled.  “Hardly!  I was only thirteen when our parents died——of influenza——and I guess all John could think to do with me was find me a job as a cabin boy.”

    “So young?” Inger reached over to give Ben’s hand a pat.  “And he could not find a place for you vith him?  That is sad, Ben.”

    “It was then,” Ben agreed.  “I spent the first few nights soaking my berth with tears.  But it turned out to be the blessing of my life.  You see, it was Captain Stoddard John placed me with.  He was a stern man to work for, but kind of heart.  When we were in port, he’d take me into his own home——at least, ‘til I was of age.  And that’s where I met Elizabeth.”

    Inger kept her eyes on her sewing.  “No vonder you loved her so.  You must have been almost like brother and sister growing up.”

    “Not quite,” Ben said, arching an eyebrow, “or I doubt we’d ever have married.  More like close friends who grew closer with each passing year.”

    “Like ve are becoming, I hope,” Inger murmured quietly.

    Ben pressed her fingers to his lips in reassurance.  “Like we already are, my love.  You need never fear that a memory will outshine your presence in my heart.”

    They were the words Inger needed to hear.  She blew a kiss back at Ben and picked up her sewing again.  “But if you and John are so close, Ben, why do you seem so reluctant to write him?”

    “Pride,” Ben admitted, “the same foolish pride that makes me squirm at the idea of my wife’s supporting me.”

    “I scarcely do that, Benyamin,” Inger said with a rebuking shake of her head.  “I earn very little.  Your vork may not be steady, but it pays much more than mine.”

    Ben shrugged.  “That’s true, of course.  In fact,” he admitted with a wry smile, “it’s about all that assuages that male pride of mine.”

    Inger giggled.  “In that case, I shall be sure to keep my earnings small.  But seriously, Ben, why does this pride keep you from writing your brother?”

    Ben stood and walked restlessly back to the table.  Leaning against it, he faced Inger.  “I saw John and his family when we went through Ohio, stayed with them awhile, in fact.  We didn’t part on the best of terms.”

    Inger came to him and held him close.  “Oh, I am sorry, Ben.  You quarreled?”

    “Not exactly,” Ben said, sitting down.  Inger hovered near, her hand resting on his shoulder.  “It’s just that we didn’t see eye to eye about my future.  John can’t seem to understand that I’m a grown man now, and I have to make my own decisions.  He still thinks big brother knows best.”

    Inger smiled.  “Yah, I think I can understand that.  It is how I feel about Gunnar sometimes.  John did not think you should go west?”

    Ben shook his head.  “Definitely not.  He wanted me to stay with him, help work the farm.”

    Inger stroked his cheek.  “Like you vanted Gunnar to do?”

    Ben closed his eyes and chuckled.  “Maybe that’s why I understood Gunnar’s need to strike out on his own.  It wasn’t quite the same, though.  Gunnar could have had his own place right from the start, while I’d have been little more than a hired hand with John.”

    Ben shook his head as he remembered the hurtful words he and John had hurled at each other.  “John’s land is so poor it barely supports him and his wife and boy.  Adam and I were an added strain and I knew it.  But John called me a fool for leaving, told me I’d soon learn how hard making my own way could be.  As if nearly five years on the road hadn’t already taught me!”

    “So you are afraid to write and tell him he vas right, yah?”

    “Yah!” Ben agreed, pushing the distasteful piece of stationery away.  “I’ve put it off in hopes of being able to tell him I have a good job and good prospects for the future.  But I guess it just isn’t going to happen, and I can’t bear losing contact with my only kin.  So, I’ll have to swallow my pride and let him know where I am.  Then I can just sit back and wait for his gloating letter telling how little brother should have listened to big brother.”

    “Oh, Ben, you are being a child——a silly, frightened child,” Inger said, circling his shoulders with a comforting embrace.  “Write to John.  Tell him all your good news——that you have a wife and son who adore you, food on your table and a solid roof over your head.  Tell him what you are learning of this new land to which ve go, your hopes for a better life there.  And if he gloats, then he vill be the one acting like a child.”

    Ben looked up at her sheepishly, amusement crinkling his eyes.  “How does it feel to be the only adult in a family of children, ma’am?”

    Inger kissed his high forehead.  “I have alvays vanted to be a mother,” she laughed, “so it feels vonderbar.  Now, I must leave you to your letter while I check on my other little boy.”  Giving Ben’s hair a light tousle, she went into Adam’s room, pulled the open primer from beneath his hand and tucked him in snugly.  Not wanting to distract Ben’s thoughts, she then went quietly to bed.

    Ben began to write and once the logjam of pride was broken, the words flowed easily.  Inger was right:  he had so much to be thankful for that it immeasurably overshadowed any negative aspects of his life. If John could overlook those, he would certainly be glad to hear that his younger brother was happily remarried.

    Ben chuckled.  At least, he’d have Martha on his side on that count.  She’d preached Ben more than one sermon on his obligation to provide a new mother for Adam; and to escort her brother-in-law to the altar of repentance, she’d even introduced him to half a dozen buxom applicants for the job.  Ben hadn’t been ready then to open his heart to another.  It had taken Inger’s patient persistence to break down the barriers he had raised against further pain.  But oh! how glad he was now that they were down so he could receive the love she gave so freely.  And how foolish he’d been to keep this joyous news secret, just to avoid sharing less propitious tidings.

    Ben mailed the letter the next morning, and walked the streets of St. Joseph with a light step, even though it was one of those days when no work was to be found.  Admitting his troubles to John somehow eased them, as if it had been, not economic concerns, but the need for his brother’s approval that weighed Ben down.  Maybe confession really was good for the soul, he thought, and decided he’d better remember that.  As good a boy as Adam was, the time was bound to come when he perpetrated some childish prank.  Then Ben would be able to tell him from experience that it was better to ‘fess up and face the consequences than to harbor guilt in his heart and let fear destroy his joy in living.

    Ben’s brighter attitude came when it was needed most.  For as the snows of January deepened during February, his days of employment came further apart.  So far, they hadn’t had to dip into their savings for the trip, other than a bit at Christmas; but unless things picked up soon, Ben knew he couldn’t make that claim for long.

* * * * *

    By the third week of February the snows were deep enough to delight the hearts of children, if not those of the mothers who fought an unending battle against slush-covered floors.  After a day of such battles, Inger was setting the table for supper one night when an imperative knocking sounded on the door between the Cartwright’s  apartment and Larrimore’s Mercantile and Outfitting Headquarters.  She looked sharply at Ben, worry clouding her eyes.  It was so unusual to have someone seek entry from that direction that she instinctively feared some serious problem must have prompted the intrusion.

    “I’ll get it,” Ben said quietly from the armchair where he was helping Adam with his reading.  He set the boy down and walked to the door.  Seeing their landlord, he breathed a sigh of relief.  “Why, come in, Mr. Larrimore.  This is an unexpected pleasure.”

    “Sorry to barge in right at suppertime, folks,” Larrimore said, “but I’m at my wits’ end.”

    “How can we help you, Mr. Larrimore?” Inger asked with a welcoming smile.

    Without further invitation Larrimore came in and plunked himself into a chair beside the table.  He ran nervous fingers through his black hair; then looked at Ben, who sat down across the table from his guest.  “Have you seen the folks pouring into this town the last couple weeks, Cartwright?”

    “To be sure!” Ben exclaimed.  “I wonder there’s a boarding place left with a vacancy.  Sure makes me glad we found this place when we did.”

    “There’s still some left, but filling up fast,” Larrimore said, nodding his head emphatically.  “Everyone’s bound and determined to be in one of the first trains out this spring.  That’s what gold fever’ll do to folks, I guess.  And they’re scared supplies will run short, so everyone’s trying to stock up now.  The store’s full from morning to night with folks needing everything under the sun.”

    Ben chuckled.  “But that’s good, isn’t it?  More customers mean more profit, I’ve always found.”

    Larrimore drummed fidgety fingers on the tablecloth.  “Ever hear the phrase ‘too much of a good thing?’  I’m worn to a frazzle, Cartwright; and my missus is fuming ‘cause I’ve been late to dinner four nights running.”  He folded his hands to keep them still and continued.  “I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I just can’t manage by myself.  Inger here once told me you’d had some experience keeping shop, so I was wondering if I could talk you into helping me out.”

    Ben could feel a bubble of excitement working its way up his throat.  He sent a quick, but significant glance toward Inger, then smiled.  “Well, Mr. Larrimore, as it happens, I can probably work you into my busy schedule.”

    “You sure?” Larrimore asked, so caught up in his own frantic distress that he missed the irony in Ben’s voice.  “I know some of the places you’ve worked pay a mite more than I could afford; but, at least, I can promise you a steady job.”

    Ben thrust his hand toward his new employer.  “That’s what I’ve been looking for, sir.  Shall I start tomorrow?”

    “Bright and early,” Larrimore replied, giving Ben’s hand a hearty shake.  He stood, seeming embarrassed by the panicky way he’d presented the job offer.  He gave a short bow to Inger and backed toward the door.  “See you tomorrow, then.  And a good evening to you folks.”  He turned and slid quickly out, shutting the door behind him.

    The giggles Inger had been suppressing behind her slender fingers burst like a waterfall cascading into a valley stream.  “Oh, Ben!” she laughed.  “He looked so fearful you vould say no.  How could he not know how much you have vanted just what he offers?”

    Ben shook his head, a broad smile spreading across his face as he practically swept Inger from her feet and began to dance her around the room.  “I’ll never understands what makes some folks tick, Inger, but just now I don’t really care.  It’s time to celebrate!”

    Adam bounded toward his parents and pulled on his father’s gray pant’s leg.  “Me, too, Pa!” he insisted.  “Let me celebrate, too!”

    Ben laughed, scooping the youngster up in  his right arm while he circled Inger’s waist with his left. “Well, I guess so, little man!”  He began to swing and sway in time to some unheard melody.  “After all, you’re the one with a birthday coming.  And our good news just might mean you’ll have a grander one.”

    Adam crowed happily, but Inger pushed Ben’s arm away.  “You two vill have to celebrate vithout me for a while or the chicken vill burn.”

    “Well, then, we’ll just wait,” Ben declared, carrying Adam back to the armchair.  He rumpled the boy’s straight dark hair as he dandled him on his knee.  “Now, as long as we’re on the subject,” he began, “is there anything my good boy would especially like for his birthday?”

    Adam’s black eyes widened at the unexpected question.  But he didn’t have to think twice.  “What I’d like most in the world is to go to school, Pa.  Do you think I could?”

    “Why, son, I hadn’t thought to start you in school,” Ben answered carefully.  “You’ve been a mite young ‘til now.   And we still plan to go west come spring, so you wouldn’t get much learning in before then.”

    Adam’s face drooped with disappointment.  “I’d sure like to learn all I could, though, Pa,” he said quietly.

    Ben snuggled the small head against his muscular chest.  “Well, we’ll see, Adam.  I’m not sure what the schoolmaster would think of someone jumping in midstream, so to speak.  But if that’s really what you want, I’ll look into it.”

    Adam’s expression brightened immediately.  “Thanks, Pa!” he cried, then leaned over to pull his primer from the small table beside the chair.  “Don’t you think I’d best learn some more words if I’m going to school soon?” he asked earnestly.

    “The more, the better,” Ben agreed, opening the book to the page they’d been studying before Mr. Larrimore came in.  He pointed to a word near the top.  “What’s that say, Adam?”

    Adam pursed his lips, then burst into a smile of recognition.  “‘Man,’ Pa.  It says ‘man.’”

* * * * *

    Three days later the Cartwright household was in an early-morning bustle as Inger tried to get her husband off to work and an exuberant Adam ready for his first day of school.  “Hold still, Adam,” she admonished, pulling a comb through his sleep-rumpled hair.

    “It hurts, Mama!” Adam protested.

    Ben looked up from his final cup of coffee.  “Well, it wouldn’t if you’d stand still as your mother asks.”

    “Yes, sir,” Adam said, shrugging in resignation.  He tried to hold himself rigid, but he couldn’t tell that it made any difference.  He still felt as if he were being yanked hairless.  Why couldn’t his mother leave well enough alone?

    But Inger seemed determined that her son would look his best as he began his education.  Although Adam’s birthday wasn’t until tomorrow, she’d given him his new shirt this morning.  He’d been thrilled to start school with something new, but seemed less appreciative of the scrubbing his mother had given his face and hands.  Inger, however, surveyed his shiny cheeks with satisfied pride, then pressed a kiss on each one of them.  “There now, you look bright as a copper penny!”

    Adam’s nose wrinkled.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to look like a shiny penny.  But taking a peek in the windowpane, he decided he liked what he saw and stood admiring his reflection.  Catching the change in his son’s countenance, Ben laughed.  “Now, there’s a face to turn a few girls’ heads!”

    Adam spun around.  “Girls!”  he scoffed.  “Who wants girls gawking at him?”

    “Oh, not you,” Ben agreed with forced gravity.  “You’re much too serious a scholar to be interested in girls, right, Adam?”

    “Right!” Adam declared with an emphatic nod of his head.

    Ben winked at Inger.  The look they exchanged clearly said that Adam’s attitude was bound to change, and Inger found herself wondering how she’d react to the young lady who wed her precious Adam.  That day was far in the future, though.  For now, he was still hers to hold.

    And yet, even today, he was taking his first step away. Inger feared she’d miss his little feet running in and out, no matter how much cleaner her floor stayed without them.  And so far she’d seen no indication there would ever be the pitter-patter of smaller feet to replace those of the big brother making his way out into the world.  Well, she and Ben had only been married three months.  Too soon to worry yet, but Inger longed for the day she could tell Ben the happy news that he was to be a father once again.

    Inger was jerked out of her reverie by the sound of Ben’s chair scooting back from the table.  As he stood, she moved into his open arms to give him a farewell kiss.

    “Have a good day, my love,” he said, returning the kiss heartily.  He looked through the window and, seeing a light snow beginning to fall, grinned at Adam.  “Sure glad I don’t have to go out in that cold, son,” he teased.

    “I like cold,” Adam said, a stubborn frown pursing his lips.

    Ben arched a thick brown eyebrow.  “First I ever heard of it,” he said wryly.  Adam had always shown much more proclivity for curling up in his father’s lap near a warm fire and listening to a good story than for tromping through snowdrifts.  Ben’s stony expression cracked then, and Adam knew Pa wasn’t really put out with him.  He grinned back as his father tousled the hair Inger had so carefully combed and headed for the connecting door to the store.

    “Oh, Ben!” Inger called, turning from the stove where she was dishing up Adam’s oatmeal.  “You’re forgetting the pastries!”  She snatched the basket from the wooden slab that served as kitchen counter and rushed toward him.

    “Mercy, woman, don’t let me leave without those!” Ben scolded playfully.  “Why, Larrimore would probably fire me on the spot if I forgot to bring his favorite merchandise!”

    Inger handed him the basket and slapped her palm against his backside as he hurried out.

    Adam chortled.  He never thought he’d see Pa take a licking.

    Inger turned around and wagged a cautioning finger at Adam.  But she was smiling as she did.  Oh, how she’d miss both her naughty children today!

* * * * *

    Hearing footsteps tromping on the stairs, Inger looked up from the gray sock she was darning and smiled as the door blared open.  “Shut it tight, Adam,” she called.  “The wind’s blustery today.”

    “It sure is!” Adam agreed.  He pushed the door shut with both hands and turned the latch.

    Inger set her sewing basket at her feet and spread her arms wide.  Needing no further invitation, Adam jumped into her lap, obviously still bouncing with energy despite a day’s schooling.  Inger cuddled him close for a minute, then tilted her head to study his face.  He looked happy, she decided.  “You had a good day, yah?”

    “Oh, the best ever, Mama,” Adam declared.  “I just love school!”

    “That is good!” Inger said, her beaming face reflecting his enthusiasm.  “Tell me all about it, then.”

    Adam’s face puckered in thought.  “Well, it’s more than just reading and printing.  We did sums like 1+1=2, 1+2=3, and we studied ge—geography.  The teacher let me tell about some of the places Pa and me traveled through.”

    “What is your teacher’s name, Adam?”

    “Mr. Edwards, Mama, and he’s real nice.  Most of the other boys and girls started last fall, so I was kind of behind, but Mr. Edwards says he’ll help me catch up quick.  And you know the best thing of all?”

    “No, what is that, Adam?” Inger asked with a gay giggle.

    “Mr. Edwards has a boy just older than me.  He’s real smart and has lots of books.  He said I could borrow one when my reading’s a little better.”

    “So you made a new friend?”

    Adam nodded vigorously.  “I think he’s gonna be a special friend, Mama.  Most of the other kids just sort of looked me over, like they couldn’t decide whether I belonged or not.  But Jamie asked me to sit with him right off and helped me with the words I didn’t know.”

    Inger cupped her son’s face in her hands.  “Jamie sounds very special, indeed.  But don’t vorry, Adam.  The others vill soon see what a fine friend you vill make.”

    “You reckon?” Adam asked seriously.  “I want to have lots of friends, Mama.”

    “And so you vill,” she assured him.  “But never forget who reached toward you first.  Such people make the best friends.”

    Adam grinned as he slid off Inger’s lap.  “I’ll remember,” he said.  He licked his lips as he saw the platter of cookies set on the table.  “It’d sure be easy to make friends with some of those,” he hinted.

    “Vould it?” Inger asked, amusement tickling her lips.  “And could you also find room for a glass of milk?”

    Adam laughed.  “Yeah, that’d be good, too.”

    Inger stood and gave him an impulsive kiss as she went to get the milk.

    Adam was still bubbling over with news of school at the supper table that evening.  “And guess what we’re doing on Thursday, Pa?  You’ll never guess!”

    Ben arched an eyebrow saucily.  “In that case, I won’t try.  What marvelous activity is planned for Thursday, Adam?”

    “A birthday party!” Adam announced.

    “For you?” Inger asked.  “How nice!  But it vill be two days late.”

    Ben grabbed for a napkin and choked in his attempt to keep his laughter from exploding through it.  “Oh, Inger, Inger!” he scolded gently.  “It’s easy to see you didn’t learn much American history in school.”

    “And why should I?” Inger asked, drawing herself proudly erect.  “I vent to school in Sveden, Ben.”

    “I know, I know,” Ben said, cupping his chin in his hand to gaze at her with chuckling chocolate eyes.  “Tell her, Adam.  Surely you studied that particular bit of history today.”

    Adam laid his fork down and folded his hands, looking as much like the schoolmaster he already revered as was possible for a soon-to-be six-year-old.  “February 22nd is George Washington’s birthday, Mama.  He was—”

    “I know who he vas,” Inger interrupted.  “The first president.  I just did not know his birthday.  So, it is Thursday, and you vill all celebrate, yah?”

    Adam nodded and picked up his fork again.  “I never knew my birthday was so close to a president’s”

    Ben cleared his throat.  “Well, since you know now, maybe you’d rather skip your birthday party and just share old George’s.”

    The fork dropped with a clatter.  “You don’t mean it, do you, Pa?” Adam asked urgently.

    Since Ben still looked in a mood to tease, Inger decided it was time to intervene.  After all, some topics were not fit subjects for jokes.  “Of course, he does not mean it, Adam,” she assured the anxious boy.  “Ve vill have your special birthday supper tomorrow night, just as ve planned.”  Inger turned reproachful blue eyes on her husband.  “And I do not think it is respectful to call the father of our country ‘old George,’ Ben.”

    “Even I know better than that,” Adam declared with a smug jut of his chin.

    Ben snapped rebuking fingers at Adam, then shrugged.  “All right, I stand corrected.  But you’d best remember to respect your own father, too, boy.”

    Adam gulped.  “Yes, sir.  I’m sorry, Pa.”

    “All right,” Ben said with a serious nod, then his face relaxed.  “I guess I shouldn’t have teased about your birthday, son.  I know how important a day that is to a youngster.”

    Reassured that he was no longer in his father’s bad graces, Adam’s face brightened.  “I was wondering, Pa—” he began timidly.

    “Yes?” Ben said, drawing the word out to encourage a response.  “Don’t tell me you want to put in a new list of wants at this late date.”

    “Oh, no, Pa!”  Adam stroked the blue flannel shirt Inger had made him.  “This is all the present I want——this and getting to go to school, like I asked.  I just wondered if I could ask someone to my special dinner.”

    “Jamie?” Inger asked with a knowing smile.

    Adam grinned back at her.  “Yeah, how’d you guess?”  Not waiting for an answer, he rushed on.  “Would it be okay to ask him?  He wouldn’t eat much.”

    Inger’s breath caught in her throat.  “Oh, Adam!  Your friends are velcome here anytime.  Ve vill alvays have food enough to share vith a friend.  Alvays——you understand?”

    “That’s right,” Ben added.  “So, if it’s all right with your friend’s parents, we’ll be glad to have him.”

    “He doesn’t have a mama,” Adam reported.  “That’s why I’d ‘specially like him to come.  A fella just doesn’t know what grand meals he’s missing when he doesn’t have a mama.  I gave him some of that pound cake you sent in my lunch pail, and he said it was the best thing he’d had in a long time, Mama.  I don’t think him and his pa eat so good most meals.”

    Inger’s eyes grew misty, touched both by Adam’s compliment and the sadness of a motherless child, such a one as Adam had so recently been.  “I am glad you thought to ask him, Adam.”  Suddenly, she turned to Ben.  “But perhaps ve should not ask just the boy.  It vould be good to meet Adam’s teacher, and he might enjoy a home-cooked meal, too.”

    “I’ve met Edwards, of course,” Ben said, “when I enrolled Adam.  But I’d like to become better acquainted, and tomorrow night would be a fine time to have him and his boy over.”

    “Oh, good!” Adam said, wriggling happily in his chair.  “This is gonna be the grandest birthday ever!  Better even than old George’s!”  Then he slunk sheepishly down to avoid the stern looks from both his parents.  Pa always let him know fast when he’d nudged one toe too far over the line, and the eve of his birthday was no time to get in trouble.

* * * * *

    Ben stroked the soft blonde hair flowing over his bare chest, and Inger rubbed her cheek against his breastbone in response.  “You didn’t say much about your day,” she said.

    Ben chuckled.  “Now, how was I supposed to get a word in?”

    Inger laughed and rolled back onto her pillow.  “Adam vas excited, vasn’t he?”

    Ben turned on his right side so he could still twirl a lock of her long hair around his fingers.  “That he was.  I didn’t have much news anyway——just a real busy day.  But they’re all like that lately.”

    “I know,” Inger said, incredulity tingeing her voice.  “So many people.  Where do they all stay, Ben?”

    Ben shrugged.  “We’ve been selling a lot of tents.”

    Inger sat up abruptly.  “Oh, but no, Ben!  Surely, people are not living in tents vith snow on the ground.”

    Ben nodded soberly.  “I think some are, my love.  Maybe we weren’t such fools after all, coming early as we did.”

    Inger reached out to touch Ben’s stubbled cheek.  “Ve were in God’s hands after all, yah?”

    Ben smiled.  “So it would seem.  There’s more folks than even Larrimore expected, though.  He’s running short of some supplies.”

    Inger gasped.  “Oh, Ben!  I just thought.  Ve have purchased nothing for our journey.”

    Ben reached for her hand.  “And where would we put it if we did?  With a whole warehouse next door, Larrimore didn’t put much storage space in his quarters.”

    Inger giggled.  “You think I have not noticed.  That kitchen cupboard barely holds our few pots and pans.  I don’t vonder Mrs. Larrimore vanted more room.”  Her expression sobered.  “But, Ben, what vill ve do?  If ve vait ‘til nearer time to leave, vill not the things ve need be taken already?”

    “I was concerned about that,” Ben admitted, “and I mentioned it to Larrimore.  He assured me he has other shipments already in route from downriver and that he’ll see to it he doesn’t sell out of the things we want.  Might be a good idea to make a list, though, so we can tell him just what we’ll need.”

    “I’ll do it tomorrow,” Inger promised.

    “Good,” Ben said, then laughed.  “I just hope I can get Larrimore’s mind off gold long enough to show it to him.”

    Inger snickered.  “Oh, no!  Don’t tell me Mr. Larrimore has the gold fever, too!”

    “Definite symptoms,” Ben replied as they snuggled under the covers.  “Wouldn’t surprise me if any day he announced he was ready to throw his business to the wind and head for California.”

    “Vell, at least, ve vould have friends on the journey,” Inger laughed.

    Ben looked like he’d just eaten a sour pickle.  “You haven’t seen much of Mrs. Larrimore, my dear.  She’s not a traveling companion I think you’d relish.”

    Irritated by what she considered backbiting, Inger spatted Ben’s hand and turned a cold shoulder to him.  But she couldn’t long ignore the tender kisses on her neck; and with a smile of forgiveness she cuddled close, feeling cozy and protected as she fell asleep with Ben’s arms cradling her.

* * * * *

    “Can we please be excused, Pa?” Adam asked as soon as he’d swallowed his final bite of birthday cake.  “Jamie wants to see my room.”

    Ben glanced at the pale, honey-haired boy sitting next to Adam.  “Have you had all you want to eat, Jamie?”

    Young Jamie turned sparkling hazel eyes toward Ben.  “Oh, yes, sir——plenty——and more.”

    “Then, it’s all right with me if you boys are excused.  Mr. Edwards?”

    Mr. Edwards stroked his smartly-trimmed auburn goatee in apparent thought, then nodded.  “You’re excused, Jamie.  But we won’t be able to stay much longer.  I still have papers to mark tonight.”

    “Yes, sir,” Jamie said.  He stood and pushed his chair carefully back under the table.  He turned to Inger.  “It was a wonderful meal, ma’am.  I enjoyed it ever so much.”

    “You are most velcome, Jamie,” Inger replied warmly, for she had been gratified to see this overly-thin youngster clean his plate.  “You must come back again——perhaps after school sometime for cookies and milk, yah?”

    Jamie smiled brightly.  “Yes, ma’am!”

    Adam pulled his friend’s arm.  “Come on!” he insisted.  Good manners were important, as he’d been taught himself, but if they really had only a short time left together, it shouldn’t all be squandered on the grownups.

    “I must add my compliments to my young son’s,” Mr. Edwards told Inger as the boys scurried into the next room.  “Truly, a wonderful meal, Mrs. Cartwright.  I can’t remember when I’ve shared a better one.”

    Ben chuckled.  “I can well understand your appreciation, sir.  Until a few months ago, I was at the mercy of boardinghouse meals.  And while they were satisfactory, there’s no comparison to the ones I’ve enjoyed since November, when Inger and I married.”  He lifted the metal coffee pot.  “Would you care for another cup?”

    “I shouldn’t,” Edwards acknowledged, “but this is so much tastier than what I’m accustomed to, I’m afraid I can’t resist.”  His sapphire eyes twinkled as he extended his cup.  “In fact, if you were to offer me another slice of that magnificent cake, I’d probably find that greater temptation than I could resist, too.”

    Pleased by the praise of her cooking, Inger cut another slice of cake while Ben poured a third cup of the rich, dark brew for the schoolmaster.  Edwards added sugar and cream to his taste.  “Married in November, you say?  You’re newlyweds, then,” he concluded.  “I realized, of course, that you were not Adam’s birth mother, Mrs. Cartwright, but I hadn’t guessed your relationship to be so new.  You both seem as melded together as a couple of much longer acquaintance.”

    Inger’s lake blue eyes opened wide.  “Did Adam tell you I vas not his true mother, Mr. Edvards?” she asked curiously.  “I did not think you had had time to learn so much of him yet.”

    “Oh, no,” Edwards said, setting the aromatic coffee aside.  “I’m certain Adam would never say anything of the sort.  It is so obvious that he does think of you as his true mother.  Actually, Mrs. Cartwright, you told me yourself, the first time you opened your mouth.”

    “But I said nothing,” Inger protested.

    Edwards wagged a finger at her.  “Ah, but it was how you said it.”  Seeing her perplexed expression, the schoolmaster smiled as he cut off a bite of cake with his fork.  “I mean no offense, madam, but it is obvious from your speech patterns that you were not born in this country.  One of the Nordic lands, I believe?”

    “Yah,” Inger said, pleased by his accurate analysis of her heritage.  “I am from Sveden, Mr. Edvards, and I know it shows in the vay I speak.  I am not offended——or ashamed,” she added.

    Edwards looked kindly into her clear, direct eyes.  He had seen enough prejudice toward foreigners to understand her addendum.  “Nor should you be,” he assured her.  “Your thoughts are beautifully expressed and your accent is charming.  But in my years as an instructor I’ve noticed that children tend to pick up the speech patterns of those with whom they spend the most time.  In the case of a child Adam’s age, that person is usually the mother.  So the fact that he speaks English without a trace of your Swedish idioms or accent suggests he learned it somewhere other than your knee.”

    “Yah,” Inger agreed readily.  “All Adam knows he has learned from his father.”

    “And you’ve done a fine job, if I may say so, Mr. Cartwright,” Edwards complimented.  “Adam is remarkably well-spoken for a youngster from these parts, as well as more than normally bright and eager to learn.”

    Ben flushed with pride.  “You think Adam will do well, then, despite his late start.”

    “I think it will prove a small handicap, indeed,” Edwards responded earnestly.  “I’m quite impressed, in fact, by your enrolling him at all.  Most of the emigrants camping around town seem to consider education of little value.”

    Ben laughed self-consciously.  “I’m afraid it’s Adam who deserves the credit for that.  Though I do value education highly, I was hesitant for him to begin formal schooling when he’d get so little of it before we left.  But it was all the boy wanted for his birthday, and I could scarcely refuse the pleading look in those black eyes.”

    “Well, I’m even more impressed,” Edwards said, “and delighted you listened to your wise young son.  I’m convinced a good foundation is vital to a child’s education, and I pledge to you that Adam will receive that, however short his time with me may be.”

    Ben and Inger looked warmly at their guest, feeling drawn to this man, as well as his young son.  Both the Edwards obviously needed the kind of friendship that had been extended tonight, but the Cartwrights felt amply repaid for the fellowship of their home by the promise the schoolmaster had just made.  Josiah Edwards radiated sincerity.  He was obviously the kind of man who would take such a pledge seriously and do all in his power to keep it faithfully.


March charged in like the proverbial lion, its icy blasts abated by an occasional day of warmer temperatures.  But inside the Cartwright’s cozy home, life settled into a comfortable routine.  Ben was busy all day in the store; for despite the bleak weather, California-bound emigrants poured into St. Joseph almost daily.  Ben took pride and pleasure in being able to share with them the knowledge he had gleaned from studious perusal of his guidebook, but he had to laugh when the new arrivals expressed gratitude for the benefit of his experience in outfitting travelers.  Still, Ben’s book-learned advice was all they could count on at this store.  Larrimore, who actually had the experience being accorded Ben, had become so wrapped up in discussing the latest reports of gold with each new customer that he virtually left the recommendation of supplies and their sale to his employee.

    Inger, never able to keep her fingers idle for long, worked happily at home.  Every day was baking day now.  With a growing number of new families in town hungry for what they had no place to prepare themselves, she was always baking bread or pastries, and, more importantly, cookies.  Young Jamie Edwards was making so many after-school appearances at her table for milk and cookies that Inger came to feel she already had a second son, although she could not seem to conceive herself.

    As Jamie sat at Inger’s table, milk frosting his upper lip, he shared the sorrow of losing his own mother.  That had been less than a year ago, and Inger’s tender heart ached for the child’s obvious yearning for comfort.  Jamie was a sweet, sensitive boy, so delicate himself that Inger knew he must be the picture of his frail, consumptive mother, rather than his stalwart father.  If ever a child needed extra cookies and cuddles, it was this honey-haired, hazel-eyed, heart-broken child, so Inger never begrudged the dwindling flour and sugar barrels.  The supplies were spent in a good cause.

    Jamie’s father, too, benefited from the Cartwright’s provisions.  He had proven such a congenial guest on his first visit that he had received a weekly invitation since that time.  Ben remembered all too well the monotony of boardinghouse menus; and while their own did not list gourmet fare, Josiah Edwards waxed eloquent in its praise.  It wasn’t the compliments, however, that made Ben and Inger urge his return week after week.  At first, it had been simple compassion for a family as bereft of home and hearth as Ben’s had once been.  But the more time they spent with the urbane schoolmaster, the more they came to appreciate his stimulating conversation and unpretentious desire to share the wealth of his knowledge.  The deepening relationship of the two families blessed both, as true friendship always does; but each felt itself the recipient of the greater good, and the other the true benefactor.

    While Mr. Edwards presented his mealtime lessons with a humble heart, his newest pupil lauded him nightly.  In Adam’s opinion, there was nothing Mr. Edwards did not know, and he eagerly shared each new discovery he made at school with his attentive parents.  They somehow managed to hide their smiles as the youngster gave avid lectures on lessons Ben and Inger had long since learned.  After all, the material was new to Adam, and they didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm.  Sometimes, though, simple as the lessons were, his parents found themselves learning some new fact about history or geography; and those insights provided a starting place for dinner conversations with their friend Josiah each Friday evening.

    Adam was doing well in school and had never seemed happier.  As Inger had predicted, he soon found himself surrounded by friends.  None, however, held a candle to Jamie in Adam’s eyes.  Not only had the schoolmaster’s son been Adam’s first friend, but the love of learning they shared gave them more in common with each other than with any of the other students.  They were in and out of each other’s homes constantly, sometimes visiting both in a single day.  For while Jamie found a feast of cookies and love in Inger’s kitchen, Adam feasted with equal satisfaction on the rich fare of Jamie’s bookshelf.

* * * * *

    Daylight was just beginning to fade as Ben closed the store’s door behind its final customer.  He turned to smile at Larrimore, who was straightening the ten-pound bags of salt on the shelf behind the counter.  “If there’s nothing further, sir,” Ben said, echoing the words he used every night at closing time, “I’ll see you in the morning.”

    But Larrimore’s response this evening was different.  “Actually, there is something I’d like to discuss with you, Cartwright,” he said, turning and placing both hands palm down on the counter.

    Surprised, Ben stopped halfway to the door that connected the store with his quarters.  “Certainly, sir.  At your service.”

    Larrimore licked his lips nervously as he plucked the strings tying his apron around his waist.  “Sure are a ton of folks heading for California, aren’t there, Cartwright?”

    Ben gave a short laugh, puzzled as to why Larrimore wanted to discuss something so obvious.  “That there are, sir.  You should show a record profit this year, Mr. Larrimore.”

    Larrimore nodded absently, pulling the apron over his head and dropping it on the counter.  “Yes, and you’re due substantial credit for that, Cartwright.”

    Ben’s eyes brightened.  “Why, thank you, sir.  I’m glad you’re pleased with my work.”

    Larrimore came out from behind the counter.  “More than pleased, Cartwright.  More than pleased,” he said, rushing his words.  “I don’t doubt you could handle this business completely on your own, and there’s no one I’d trust more.”

    A broad smile split Ben’s face, but something in Larrimore’s expression made him wonder what all this soft soap was intended to prepare him for.

    He didn’t have to wait long to find out.  “Fact is,” Larrimore stammered, “I’ve been wondering if you wouldn’t like to do just that.”

    Ben leaned forward, studying Larrimore intently.  “Do just what, sir?”

    Larrimore grinned, too broadly to be natural.  “Why, manage the store for me while I’m away.”

    Ben cocked his head.  “I hadn’t realized you were planning a trip.  But, of course, I’d be glad to manage the business during your absence.”  The sudden uplifting of Larrimore’s countenance made Ben cautious.  “Just how long did you plan to be gone, Mr. Larrimore?”

    Larrimore ducked his head, a sheepish grin twisting his lips.  “A year?” he said, sounding as if he were asking permission.

    “A year?” Ben sputtered in shock.  “Surely, you’re joking, Mr. Larrimore.”

    Larrimore shook his head violently.  “No, no joke, Cartwright.  It’s a serious offer, and I’d pay you well.”

    Ben’s brief laugh was one of amazement rather than amusement.  “You must remember, sir, that my family and I are going west this spring.”

    Larrimore stepped hastily toward Ben.  “I know.  I know that was your plan, but if you’ll agree to wait a year, I’ll make it well worth your while.”  Larrimore stuffed his hands in his pockets and scuffed the floor with his right foot.  “I might as well admit it, Cartwright.  I’ve got the fever bad.”

    Ben arched an eyebrow.  He scarcely needed to be told that Larrimore indeed suffered from gold fever.  Not when you could almost see the gold glitter in the storekeeper’s eyes every time an argonaut entered the mercantile with more news of the fabulous wealth to be gained in California.  “I see,” Ben said simply.  He paused for a moment.  “Mr. Larrimore, I realize you are my employer, but I’d like to speak with you man to man for a moment, if I may.”

    “To be sure, to be sure,” Larrimore said, his head bobbing.  “In fact, it’s high time we were on a first name basis——Ben, isn’t it?”

    “Yes,” Ben agreed.  “Now, Mr.——I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know your first name.”

    “Lawrence,” Larrimore said quickly, “but please don’t shorten it to Larry.  I can’t abide the way that fits with my surname.”

    Ben could see why.  Whatever had possessed the man’s parents to tag him with a name like Larry Larrimore?  “I count you as a friend, Lawrence,” he said without referring to the offensive diminutive.  “You’ve certainly been one to my family.  And now I’d like to return your many favors with what I trust is good advice, from one friend to another.”

    Larrimore held up a silencing hand.  “I know.  I’ve already given myself a dozen reasons to stay put right here.”  He grinned that sheepish grin once again.  “Trouble is, I’m not listening.”

    Ignoring the intended humor, Ben spread his hands in an almost pleading gesture.  “Don’t you realize you already have a gold mine in this store, Lawrence?”

    Larrimore began to pace.  “I do, of course.  That’s why I don’t want to close the store.  But if all the tales of California are true, I could earn enough there in one year to give my wife the kind of life she’s always yammering for.  And if you’d stay and run things here, I wouldn’t be risking everything to make that happen.”

    Ben grew sober.  “I’m sorry, Larrimore,” he said.  “My plans are made, and we’ve delayed them so many times already that a good job is no lure.”

    Larrimore grabbed Ben’s biceps.  “I’d be more than generous,” he promised.

    Ben smiled kindly.  “I’m sure you would, Lawrence; but it’s not money I’m interested in, beyond enough to meet my family’s needs.”

    Larrimore grabbed Ben’s other arm.  “What about a share in my mine, say one percent?”

    Ben laughed as he shook himself free.  “I’m looking for a home, not a mountain of gold.”  As Larrimore again reached a delaying hand toward him, Ben clapped the man on both shoulders and edged past him.  “The answer is no, sir.  And that is definite.”  He headed toward the door to his home.

    “Five percent?” Larrimore called.

    Ben merely shook his head in disbelief and turned away from the storekeeper’s pleading eyes.

* * * * *

    Ben had thought the discussion closed, but he daily realized how wrong he had been.  Almost nightly Larrimore broached the subject again, offering larger and larger shares of his prospective gold mine.  Over supper each night Ben and Inger laughed at the shopkeeper’s latest proposal.  When Larrimore’s offer reached twenty-five percent, they found themselves amazed by his desperation to secure their help but the offer did not tempt them.  As Ben had told the merchant the first night, he and Inger were not interested in speculation; they were pursuing a more solid dream.

    Ben had altered his customary farewell each evening to “I’ll see you in the morning,” for asking if his employer had anything further had become an open invitation to repeated pleas for a year’s service.  The strategy seemed to be working.  For the last three nights Larrimore had returned Ben’s words with a simple wave of his hand as had been his custom before succumbing to gold fever.

    But Ben had allowed himself to relax too soon.  As he closed up that night, Larrimore stopped him with an all too familiar look in his eye.  Ben sighed.  “Sir, there really is no point to this conversation,” he stated.  “I’ve told you repeatedly I’m not interested in your offer, however generous you may make it.”

    “I know, I know,” Larrimore responded.  “You’re not interested in gold.  You’ve made that clear; and whether you believe me or not, I have been listening.”

    Ben arched an eyebrow and a half-smile lifted the cheek below it as he waited for the inevitable contradiction of Larrimore’s words.

    Larrimore spread his hands in that characteristic pleading gesture of his.  “I have one final offer to make, Ben; and I promise if you’ll hear me out, I won’t bother you again.”

    Ben’s lips puckered thoughtfully.  “All right,” he said slowly, “but I will hold you to that promise, sir.”

    Larrimore’s face beamed.  “Fine, fine, Ben.”  He swept a hand toward a barrel, atop which lay a checkerboard for the amusement of his customers.  “Let’s sit down and have a nice, friendly talk, shall we?”

    Ben chuckled and with a gentle shake of his head followed the merchant to the designated chair across the checkers barrel from Larrimore.  The storekeeper sat down gingerly on the edge of his seat.  “I’ve finally come to realize I’ve been taking the wrong approach with you, Ben.  I’ve been offering you enticements that appealed to me, but what I’m going to suggest this time is something I believe will appeal to you.”

    “I don’t think the approach is the problem,” Ben inserted.

    Larrimore raised a hand to silence Ben.  “Now, you promised to hear me out, Cartwright,” he chided.

    “So I did,” Ben admitted, settling back in his chair and crossing one long leg over the other knee.

    Larrimore leaned closer.  “I don’t know how much money you have stored back for your trip, Ben, but—”

    Ben’s foot dropped from his knee, hitting the floor with a loud thump.  “I’d say that’s my business,” he muttered tautly, his hands gripping the arms of the chair.

    “Oh, of course, of course,” Larrimore said, half rising from his seat to assuage Ben’s irritation.  “I don’t intend to inquire into your assets——not at all.”  Ben eased back in the chair, but not as comfortably as before.  Larrimore continued hurriedly.  “I have, however, made a few observations that have led me to what I think will be an attractive offer.  That’s all I meant to say.”

    “Go on,” Ben said cautiously.

    “Well, first off,” Larrimore said, “I know that you and your missus had some concern about having enough funds to stay over here ‘til spring.  Not that either of you ever complained,” he added hastily, “but I saw how willing you were to take any and every job that came your way.  Then, when you gave me that list of supplies to reserve for you, I couldn’t help but notice that it included no more than the bare necessities for the trip.  So I figured you had some funds, but not enough to live a life of leisure for a few months and still purchase the supplies you’d need.”

    A slight smile touched Ben’s mouth as he toyed with the checkers pieces in front of him.  “A reasonable conclusion,” he said.  “You must realize, though, that your offer of a job here largely removed that concern.”

    “Sure,” Larrimore agreed, “and it’s been an arrangement that’s benefited us both.  But I’m sure you’ve seen how the price of supplies has been rising.”

    “Oh, yes!” Ben chuckled, turning a red checker over and over between his thumb and middle finger.  He smiled at his employer.  “Perhaps this is as good a time as any to tell you how I’ve respected your keeping your prices reasonable.  Other suppliers in town have tried to gouge these emigrants for all they’re worth, but you’ve kept your prices in line with your costs.  I admire that kind of integrity.”

    Larrimore shrugged.  “It’s just good business, really.  And I’m sure a good businessman such as yourself must have realized that prices will be equally high at the other end of the trail, if not more so.”

    Ben pushed the checkers away and leaned back in his chair.  “I’m sure you’re right, Lawrence.”  He gave his friend a wry grin.  “I doubt they’ll be any less a year from now, though.”

    Larrimore laughed.  “No, probably not.  But the offer I’m prepared to make could ensure your getting a solid start in California instead of having to take the cheapest land available.”

    Ben’s brow wrinkled thoughtfully.  “You’ve got my attention,” he admitted.

    Larrimore almost smirked with confidence.  “I thought I might.”  He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the barrel between them.  “Here’s what I propose:  you stay here and manage the store while I make the trip to California and back.  In return, I’ll supply you with a wagon filled with supplies and the draught animals to pull it.  That way you keep all your funds intact; and you can have your pick of land in California, not simply settle for what you might otherwise afford.”

    Ben whistled.  “That’s some offer, all right.  But with a year’s extra living expense, I’m not sure how far ahead we’d actually be.”

    “Oh, hang the expenses!” Larrimore protested, throwing his hands in the air.  “You can stay on in our old living quarters——no charge——and take whatever supplies you need from the storeroom, same as my family.  I know you won’t take more than you actually need; and any extras you want, you can buy at cost.”

    Ben wagged his head in incredulity.  “It’s a generous offer, Lawrence, and one I feel much more responsive to than anything you’ve suggested previously.”

    Larrimore stood, smiling optimistically.  “I was sure you would.  Now, I don’t expect an answer tonight.  Go home; talk it over with Inger; think it through.  I’d like an answer by the end of the week, though.”

    “I think I can promise you that.”  Ben stood and stretched a hand toward Mr. Larrimore.  They exchanged a handshake; and Ben left for home, certain he and Inger would have much to talk about after Adam went to bed.

* * * * *

    Ben picked up a dish towel and started to dry the supper dishes as Inger washed them.  “You do not need to do that, Ben,” Inger protested.  “You have been on your feet all day.”

    “I’m not tired,” Ben replied.  “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about, and I’d rather not wait ‘til you’re finished here.”

    “Vell, if you vill be my hands,” Inger teased, “I guess I can loan you my ears.”

    Ben chuckled.  “I’ve had another offer from Mr. Larrimore today.”

    “Oh, no!” Inger laughed and handed Ben a plate to dry.

    “This is a good one,” Ben said quietly.  Inger, however, failed to catch the difference in his mood tonight from the jovial one with which he’d greeted the merchant’s previous proposals.

    “Let me guess,” Inger tittered.  “Now Mr. Larrimore vants to give us one hundred percent of his gold mine just so he can have the adventure of mining it.”

    Ben gave her a slight smile, but his tone was almost reproachful.  “Now, Inger, I’m serious,” he insisted.  “We need to talk about this one.”

    Inger raised probing blue eyes to look into Ben’s velvet brown ones.  “But, Ben, you have said often that nothing Mr. Larrimore could offer vould make us change our plans.”

    “I didn’t give the man enough credit,” Ben said wryly.  Then he told Inger the details of Larrimore’s latest offer.

    Inger took the dishtowel from Ben’s hand.  “This is not a thing to discuss over dishes,” she chided.  “Come, let us sit and look at it from all sides.”

    “You’re right,” Ben said as he took her hand and walked toward the thinly-padded gray armchair.  As Inger sat next to him in the bare wood rocker, Ben took his pipe from the wobbly pedestal table between their chairs and lit it.  “It’s hard to know which course is best for us, Inger.  I can see advantages and problems either way we go.  If we accept the offer, we profit financially; but we delay our dream another year.”

    “Yah, that is hard,” Inger agreed.  “But if ve are able to buy better land, to take vith us——livestock, maybe——then, ve could be further ahead than othervise.”

    Ben took a slow draw on his pipe.  “That’s just what I’ve been thinking, but there are some difficulties with staying here.  These quarters, for instance.”  He poked his finger through the frayed fabric of his chair arm.  “They’re cramped, the furniture’s rickety and ‘well-worn’ is a generous description.  Not even a curtain at the window to brighten the place.”

    “I could buy a little fabric and change that,” Inger said.  “I did not think it vorth the time or the money when ve planned to leave so soon; but if ve were to stay another year, I vould brighten things, Ben.  I can recover your chair and make cushions for this rocker and curtains, of course.”

    Ben arched an eyebrow.  “And the size of the place?”

    Inger giggled.  “I think a vagon vould be smaller, Ben.”

    Ben guffawed.  “You’re right about that!  Of course, you’d still have that experience ahead of you, my love.”

    “Yah, sure,” Inger laughed.  “Perhaps living so close here vill teach us the patience ve need for elbowing each other in a vagon for six months, Ben.”

    “Patience,” Ben murmured thoughtfully.  “Is that all it comes down to, Inger?  A question of whether I’m patient enough to set aside my lofty vision for a while?  If that’s all it is, I suppose I have my answer.”

    “Vell, patience is a virtue, mine husband,” Inger said, a twinkle in her eye.  More soberly, she reached over to take his hand.  “No, Ben.  I think it is more than just impatience that makes your decision so hard.”

    “Our decision,” Ben corrected.

    “Yah, ours,” Inger agreed, “and Adam’s, too.  He is too young to have a voice in it, but ve must make it vith him in mind.”

    Ben squeezed her hand and released it.  “All right, then, let’s talk about Adam.  How would it affect him to stay here?”

    “In good vays, I think,” Inger said after a few moments’ reflection.  “There vill be no schools where ve go.  Perhaps another year vith Mr. Edvards vould give him a better—a better——Oh, Ben, what is the vord his teacher used?”

    “A better foundation?” Ben suggested.

    “Yah, that is it,” Inger said, nodding in relief that the right word had been found.  “And I know Adam vould enjoy more time vith his new friends.”

    Ben shrugged.  “Might just make them harder to leave when the time came.  But I agree that Adam might also profit by our staying here.”

    “There is another thing, Ben,” Inger said quietly.  “I had not meant to speak of it, but I have felt some concern about those who vould travel vith us.”

    Ben laid his pipe aside.  “What do you mean, my love?”

    “From what I see, there are not many families this year.  Mostly single men.”

    “Single men with a single purpose,” Ben agreed grimly.  “The emigrants this year are different from those who’ve headed west before.  Mostly men greedy for gold.  We might not fit in as well with such a group.”

    “That is what has been troubling me some,” Inger admitted.  “I don’t know that it vould be different next year, though.”

    “Hard to say.  It depends on how the strikes hold out, I suppose.”  Ben shook his head.  “You’d think a man would get better at making decisions as he went along, but I feel no more capable of making this one than if I were Adam’s age.”

    Inger kissed him softly.  “Then, ve must think more, mine husband, and pray for visdom.  Ve can sleep on it at least, yah?”

    Ben stood and, taking both Inger’s hands, raised her to her feet.  “Yah.  Let’s do that——now.”

    Inger let him escort her toward the bedroom, but as they passed the dishpan, she reached for the towel he had laid aside earlier.  “Dishes first, my hands,” she teased, handing it to him.

    Ben chuckled.  “Ah, yes, and you were to loan me your ears,” he whispered.  Bending his head, he nibbled Inger’s right ear playfully.

    Ben and Inger debated the pros and cons of Larrimore’s offer the rest of week.  And while they shared nothing with Adam, they had a long talk with his teacher after dinner Friday evening.  Mr. Edwards confessed himself too prejudiced to offer unbiased advice:  he didn’t want to lose these pleasant evenings at his friends’ table.  But he helped by asking salient questions, and by Saturday morning the Cartwrights were ready to make their decision.  Leaving Inger to break the news to Adam, Ben gave Larrimore the response the shopkeeper had hoped for.  To protect both sides, a written contract was drawn up and signed, each trusting he would never be required to demand the provisions added “just in case” the other party did not or could not meet his obligations.


“An excellent dinner, as always, Inger,” Josiah Edwards said as he stood and pushed his chair under the table.

    The light tinkle of Inger’s laughter seemed to fill the small room.  “It is plain peasant food, as alvays, Josiah, but I am glad you like.”

    Josiah patted his waistline.  “I like too much, I’m afraid.  Many more meals like this and I shall be forced to pay Ben a visit for a new pair of trousers.”

    Ben clapped his friend on the back.  “Yes, we’re really in need of new customers just now,” he said with dry humor.

    Josiah wagged a neatly manicured finger at Ben much as he might a naughty schoolboy.  The two men moved toward the chairs by the window, Ben settling comfortably into his armchair and Josiah into the rocker.  Weeks ago Ben had stopped trying to persuade his guest to take the more cushioned seat.  As Josiah had frankly pointed out, his spare body fit the narrow rocker far better than Ben’s stockier frame.  But he always insisted on relinquishing even that scant comfort when Inger was free from kitchen chores and could join them.

    “You must be busier than ever with Mr. Larrimore gone,” Josiah commented.

    Ben offered the schoolmaster his tobacco tin.  “Yes, ever since he set off Monday morning, the store’s been packed from opening to close.  And I thought we were busy before!”

    Josiah filled his pipe and returned the tobacco to Ben, who prepared his own bowl.  They shared a match, then each took a contented draw on his pipe.  It was a weekly routine they had grown comfortable with, just as they had become comfortable with the gaps of silence that new acquaintances feel constrained to fill with idle words.

    “Do you realize, Ben, that we’re witnessing a unique moment in history?” Josiah asked.

    Ben cocked his head and scrutinized his friend thoughtfully.  “The migration, you mean?”

    “Precisely,” Josiah said.  His deep blue eyes sparkled with delight at his friend’s quick grasp of his thought.

    Ben blew out a wisp of smoke.  “I suppose you’re right.  I’ve been so busy dealing with it, I haven’t had much chance to think about it.  But we must be setting some kind of record for travelers going west this year.”

    Josiah leaned forward, his left palm resting on the corresponding knee.  “It’s more than a record, Ben.  This migration will change the face of the country and shape its destiny.  New towns, cities, states will be born in the far west.”

    Ben laid his pipe aside.  “Wouldn’t they have been born anyway?”

    “Eventually,” Josiah agreed.  “But now they’ll come bursting out of the womb full grown, so to speak, without the usual labor pains of new communities.”

    Inger turned from the table she was clearing.  “And what vould either of you know about labor pains?” she asked with a faintly superior tone.

    Josiah laughed and nodded his acceptance of her mild rebuke.  “Perhaps, it isn’t the correct metaphor, Inger.  I only meant to say that communities will spring up quickly without the usual slow process of growth.”

    “Is that good?” Inger asked.  “Babies are meant to grow slowly, yah?  Ve vould not think it a good thing if ve woke up tomorrow to find Adam and Jamie men instead of boys, vould ve?”

    “That’s true,” Josiah admitted.  “And I think you have a point.  The new settlements may find it difficult to keep up with their own growth, to provide the services the citizens of comparable-sized towns and cities back here in the States expect.”

    Ben took up his pipe again and waved it under Josiah’s nose.  “Ah, but they’re going to have expert help!” he declared.  “How could any community fail to thrive with such stalwart citizens as the Cartwrights?”

    Inger rolled her eyes and carried the dishes she had stacked to the dishpan.  If the men were going to talk foolishness, she might as well work.

    “Oh, you two,” Josiah scolded gently as he leaned back in the rocker.  “I can always count on you to draw me into some serious dissertation when all I meant to do was open a discussion of my plans for tomorrow.”

    Ben laughed.  “I’m sorry, but when it comes to serious discussions, my friend, I think you need little coercion.”

    Josiah shrugged and smiled.  It was too true to be contradicted.

    “Tell me about your plans, young man,” Ben ordered, as if he, now, were assuming the authoritative role of schoolmaster.

    “Jamie and I are going upriver to watch the wagons ferry across the Missouri,” Josiah replied.

    “Oh, I envy you,” Ben said.  “I hear they’re lined up for miles waiting their turn to cross.”

    “Yes,” Josiah agreed.  “That’s what I’ve heard.  I want to talk with some of the people, get a feel for their motives and expectations.  I was serious when I said I felt we were living in a historic moment.  And it’s important to me, as a teacher, to understand what lies behind the events of history.”

    “Oh, of course, it is,” Ben laughed.  “That’s just an excuse, Josiah.  You have more heart for learning than any of your pupils.  It’s plain curiosity that motivates you!”

    “And you don’t feel any?” Josiah laughed back.

    Ben smiled.  “You know I do.  If I could spare the time from the store, I’d be right out there with you.”

    Josiah gave Ben’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze.  “I could promise you a full report, but I’ve got a better idea.”  Then he shook his head.  “Oh, well, honesty compels me to admit that I’ve been instructed to wheedle you into letting Adam come along.”

    Crossing his legs as he leaned back in his chair, Ben chuckled.  “Jamie gives the orders at your house now, does he?”

    Josiah slapped Ben’s knee.  “And Adam doesn’t at yours?”

    “Certainly not,” Ben insisted with mock indignation.  “I’m a believer in strict discipline, as you well know.”

    “I know exactly how demanding you are,” Josiah snickered.  “So, may he go?”  He dropped his jocular demeanor.  “I believe it’s something the boys should see, Ben.  A moment of history to tell their grandchildren about.”

    “Adam may go,” Ben said.  “And he’ll no doubt give me a fuller report than I could ever get from a mere grownup like you!”

* * * * *

    Adam, who had learned of the proposed expedition in the privacy of his bedroom, had somehow managed to contain his excitement until his father announced he could go.  He and Jamie had agreed that was best; they had also agreed to get a good night’s sleep, so they wouldn’t miss a single sight, sound or smell the following day.  Each found keeping that pact more difficult, though; for visions of a long line of white-topped wagons rolled through their dreams and the waking moments that interspersed them.

    Despite their abbreviated sleep, however, both Adam and Jamie almost bounced with eagerness as they set out at mid-morning that second Saturday in April, dressed in clean white shirts and brown string ties.  The boys tried to honor Josiah Edwards’ repeated requests to remember they were in a hired buggy and to take care lest they break its springs.  But the admonishment seemed again and again to yield its place in their thoughts to the wonder of what lay before them.

    Yet wonder scarcely described the emotion all three adventurers felt as they saw, stretching to the horizon, an endless line of prairie schooners ready to set sail over waves of blue-green grass.

    “Father!” Jamie cried.  “I can’t even see how far back they go!”

    Josiah shook his head, clearly astonished.  “I’d heard reports, but this is amazing, boys.”

    “How many do you think there are, Mr. Edwards?” Adam, ever fascinated by the mathematics of any situation, asked.

    “Hundreds, Adam,” his teacher replied.  “Hundreds upon hundreds.”

    “You reckon there’ll be any land left for Pa and Inger and me?”  Adam sounded anxious.

    Josiah turned and patted the boy’s head.  “Plenty of room for your family, my boy.  Most of these people aren’t looking for homes.”

    “They’re looking for gold, right, Father?” Jamie asked.

    Josiah nodded.  “I’m afraid so, son.  And I’m afraid most of them will be grievously disappointed.”

    “There is gold in California,” Adam declared.  “Even the President says so.”

    “There is gold, Adam,” Mr. Edwards agreed, “but it’s harder to find than most of these people have any idea.”

    “I still think it’d be fun to try,” Adam said.

    “Me, too,” Jamie declared.  “At least, you’ll get the chance someday,” he pouted to Adam.  “I’ll never get across that ferry over there.”

    Josiah gave his son a comforting squeeze.  “No, I’m afraid we’re not pioneers, Jamie.  St. Joseph is about as wild and woolly a town as I ever intend to see.”

    “Well, when I grow up,” Jamie insisted, “I’m going west to see Adam, and we’re going prospecting, aren’t we, Adam?”

    “It’s a deal!” Adam exclaimed and thrust his hand forward to seal the covenant.

    “All right, all right,” Josiah protested.  “But we’re prospecting for a different kind of gold today, boys.  What do you say we drive along this line of wagons and see if we can’t pick up a few nuggets of knowledge?”

    “Okay!” both boys responded eagerly.

    Josiah headed the buggy away from the ferry and drove past the queued emigrants.  Occasionally, he stopped and chatted for a while with someone, trying to pick people who seemed both representative of and different from the typical argonaut of 1849.  Far down the line he pulled up next to a wagoneer epitomizing the latter.

    “Hello,” he called to the man drinking a dipper of water from the keg lashed to the wagon.  “Would you mind sharing a bit of that with some thirsty travelers?” he asked, pointing to the youngsters beside him.

    “Help yourself,” the man offered.  “Got two younguns of my own, so I know how quarrelsome they can get when they’re hungry or thirsty.”

    “Not these two,” Josiah said, as he stepped down from the buggy and reached back to lift each of the boys to the ground.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard them quarrel.”  He smiled at the man’s disbelieving look.  “Of course, the fact that they’re friends, not brothers, could have something to do with that.”

    The man guffawed loudly.  “That’s a good one on me, mister!  I guess I should have figured.  The light-haired one don’t look much like you.”

    “But I am his son,” Jamie protested.  “It’s Adam who’s our friend.”

    The man scratched his head.  “Okay, so I’ll quit making guesses and just ask straight out.  What you folks doing heading the wrong way?”

    Josiah took a dipperful of water from the barrel and handed it to Adam, who shared it with Jamie.  “It’s only the wrong way if you’re going to California,” he pointed out.

    The man grinned.  “Or Oregon.  That’s where we’re headed.  Fooled you that time, mister.”

    Josiah laughed good-naturedly.  “So you did.  And that should entitle you to a straight answer.  The boys and I are just out here for the day.  I’m the local schoolmaster at St. Joseph, so I wanted to come out today and meet some of the people who are shaping the destiny of our country.”

    “You still joshing me?” the man asked, peering intently at Mr. Edwards.

    “Not at all,” Edwards assured him.  “I expect one day to have to teach youngsters like these——and those two peeking out of your wagon——about the great expedition of 1849.  So I just couldn’t pass up the chance to get a first-hand look at history in the making.”

    The man scratched his head again.  “Well, I never,” he exclaimed.  “Never thought of ourselves as history-makers, did we, Ma?” he asked the woman sitting on the wagon seat.

    “For a fact, we never,” she said.  “We ain’t like these others much, mister.  We’re just simple farmers, looking for better land.”

    The couple’s tow-headed children clambered down from the back of the wagon and stood staring at Adam and Jamie.  “Wanna play?” the little boy asked.

    Adam and Jamie looked up at Mr. Edwards for permission.  “Why don’t you boys stretch your legs a bit while I talk with these fine people?” Josiah suggested.  He turned to the man.  “If that’s acceptable to you, sir.”

    “Fine, just fine,” the man said.

    “Ain’t many younguns in this outfit for our’n to play with,” the woman added.  “It’d be a treat for them.”

    The little boy, who looked to be a year or two younger than Adam, took each of his young guests with one hand.  The little girl shyly put her hand in young Jamie’s and the foursome wandered away from the wagon.

    “Don’t stray far,” the woman called.

    Josiah drank a dipperful of lukewarm water from the keg.  “Now, tell me why you chose Oregon when the whole world seems bound for California.”

    “Simple enough,” the man said.  “Like my woman told you, we’re farmers, not miners.”

    “Good land in California, too, I hear,” Josiah commented.

    “Yeah,” the man agreed, “but I hear they do more ranching there than crop growing.  Oregon’s the territory for that.”

    “I see,” Josiah said.  “That’s a difference I wasn’t aware of.  Did you expect to have so many fellow-travelers when you set out?”

    “Never in all our born days!” the woman exclaimed.  “I ain’t too sure I like it, neither.  Some pretty rough characters amongst these folk.”

    As if to prove her words, a man whose rough edges had obviously never been smoothed sauntered over.  “I hear right?” the black-bearded man demanded.  “You folks headed for Oregon?”

    “We are,” Josiah’s recent acquaintance responded.  “And you, mister?”

    “Californy, of course!  And I’ll thank you land grubbers to get out of this here line and make way for folks who got a real need to cross first.”

    “Why, we got just as much ‘real need’ as you, I reckon,” the woman sputtered.

    “No such a thing,” the intruder asserted.  “I got to get west quick as I can afore all the best claims is took.  It don’t matter when you sodbusters get there.”

    “Actually, sir, it does,” Josiah interrupted.  “These people risk being trapped in the mountains after snowfall if they don’t make an early start.”

    “Who asked you to horn in, buster?” the man snapped, shoving Josiah, who lost his balance and fell in an undignified heap on the ground.  With a snort the California emigrant turned again to the one bound for Oregon.  “Now, you gonna pull your rig out of line, or do I have to make you?”  he said, tapping the holster tied down to his right leg.

    The prospective farmer grabbed for the shotgun under his wagon seat, and the impatient miner fumbled for the gun in his holster.  Clearly, he was no gunslinger or the farmer would have been killed before he could swing the shotgun around to fire at his antagonist.  But in the long run, neither man’s lack of skill gave his opponent the advantage.  The miner managed to fire first, but as the farmer fell, he discharged both barrels of the shotgun and hit the other man point-blank in the gut.

    The woman screamed and threw herself down beside her husband while men from neighboring wagons ran to the site of the confrontation.  As Josiah scrambled to his feet, he saw her trying to stanch with her hands the red geyser spurting from her husband’s chest and knew with sickening certainty that death was imminent.  Immediately, he thought of the children and saw the four running toward the wagon in answer to the report of the firearms.  Adam, being fleeter of foot than Jamie and longer-limbed than the other two youngsters, was in the lead.

    “Stop, Adam!” Mr. Edwards called, running toward the boy.

    Adam did stop, not so much in response to Josiah’s command as to the shock of seeing two bodies lying in separate pools of blood beside his new friends’ wagon.  Catching up only seconds later, Jamie screamed and grabbed Adam’s arm.

    Josiah wanted to snatch both boys up and run away with them to some quiet place where he could administer the comfort they needed.  There was a more pressing need, however; for on the heels of the larger boys ran a small boy and girl, who must, at all cost, be stopped before they came upon the grisly scene.  Pumping his aching legs even harder, Josiah reached them and grabbed one with each arm.  He pulled them to the ground.  “Stop, children, please stop,” he ordered breathlessly.  Perhaps it was the aura of authority he was used to carrying as a teacher, but, surprisingly, the youngsters responded.

    The little boy looked terrified.  “What happened?” he demanded, and the stricken look on the little lad’s face told Josiah he half-suspected bad news already.

    “There’s been a shooting,” Josiah said, holding the boy close to his side while he gathered the little girl into his lap.

    “Not—not Pa?” the boy whispered.

    Josiah nodded gravely.  “I’m so sorry, son, so very sorry; but I’m afraid your father is dead.”

    The little girl struggled to get out of Josiah’s arms.  “No, no!” she screamed.  “Pa!”

    Josiah squeezed her tight.

     “Let me go!” she cried.

    “No, sweetheart,” Josiah said gently.  “It’s not a thing for little girls to see.  I’ll take you to your mother as soon as there’s been time to—to see to things.”  He looked down at the boy, pleading for the youngster to understand what he himself clearly could not.

    “We want our pa,” the boy wept.

    “I know, son, I know,” Josiah murmured, tears flowing openly down his cheeks.  Adam and Jamie had wandered slowly back to where Mr. Edwards sat holding the two sobbing children.  Jamie instinctively reached out to stroke the pale yellow hair of the little girl, while Adam sat on the ground next to the boy and wrapped his slender arms around the distraught youngster.

     As the children grew quieter in the embrace of their friends, Josiah finally felt able to release them.  Words ordinarily came easily to the schoolmaster, but he could find none now with which to comfort the grieving children.  What could words accomplish, anyway, when a scene of carnage now replaced what moments before had been a refuge of safety and of love?

* * * * *

    Ben tallied the cost of the list of items in his hand and handed it to the smooth-cheeked young man standing next to him.  “If you’ll take that to my wife, she’ll receive your payment and you can begin loading your supplies.”

    “Thanks, Mr. Cartwright,” the twenty-year-old said.  “Sure appreciate your advice.  I’ve never been on a trip like this before; I had no idea what to take.”

    “Glad to be of service,” Ben said and turned to the next customer beckoning for his attention.  “How can I help you, sir?” he asked automatically.

    The man scratched at his five o’clock shadow.  “Well, bacon, to start with, I reckon.”

    “And how many are in your party?” Ben asked.

    “Four men altogether.  We were neighbors back in Ohio and figured we’d pan more gold working as partners than any of us could alone.”

    “Sounds like a good plan,” Ben commented amiably.  “Now, we advise taking seventy-five pounds of bacon for each adult.  For your group, that would be—”  But before he could finish his sentence, he felt his legs pinioned by a frantic set of arms.

    Ben looked down.  “Pa’s glad to see you, son,” he laughed, “but I’m a little busy for hugging right now.”  He expected Adam to take the hint, but the boy just squeezed tighter.  Looking closer, Ben saw the red-rimmed eyes and stooped to gather his son in his arms.

    Coming from behind the counter, Inger saw an equally tearful Jamie being led into the store by his somber-faced father.  “Josiah, what has happened?” she asked as they moved toward Ben.

    Josiah spread his free hand in a gesture of helplessness.  “I’m so sorry, Ben.  I’d never have taken the boys on this outing if I’d had any idea how it would end.”

    “Talk plain, man,” Ben demanded as he stood with Adam’s dark head resting on his shoulder.

    “There was a shooting, Ben, between two men in line for the ferry,” Josiah said quietly.  Despite his low tone, the other occupants of the store began to cluster around the two friends.

    “The boys saw this?” Inger asked urgently.

    Josiah shook his head.  “Not the shooting itself, Inger, but I couldn’t stop them before they saw the bodies.  It was a terrible shock, I’m afraid.”

    “Poor darlings,” Inger murmured and bent to comfort Jamie.  The youngster immediately snuggled against her smudged apron.

    “Who was killed, mister?” the emigrant from Ohio demanded, and his question was echoed in murmurs from the rest of those crowding behind Ben.

    “A man named Reaver and another whose name I didn’t get,” Josiah responded briefly.  He turned to the woman soothing his son.  “The man’s wife is distraught, Inger.  I thought, perhaps, you—”

    “Yah, sure,” Inger said at once.  Then, she glanced anxiously at the two shaken little boys.  “But, I cannot, now.”

    “Come on, mister, tell us about the killings,” a man in the crowd called.

    “In a minute,” Josiah said tersely.  He took Jamie from Inger.  “Let me take the boys back to my rooms for the afternoon,” he suggested.  “I felt I had to let you know, but you and Ben are too busy here to deal with this now.”

    “Ben?” Inger asked.

    “I think it would be best,” Ben said.

    The man who had called to Josiah a moment before pushed through the crowd.  “Listen, we’ve all got a stake in what happened out by that ferry.  It ain’t fair to keep back what you know.”

    “They are right,” Inger said.  “They may have friends or family involved.  I can be making ready while you answer their questions, Josiah, and the boys can help me.”

    Ben set Adam on the floor.  “Go with your mother, son.”

    Inger took his hand and Jamie’s.  “Come, children,” she said softly.  “Help me decide how ve can help this family.”

    The crowd parted to let them pass, then closed again around Josiah.   In the quarters behind the store, Inger learned from the boys that there were two fatherless children back at the emigrant’s wagon, as well as an overwhelmed widow.  Sensing that woman would have little heart for cooking tonight, Inger quickly sliced bread and made sandwiches from the leftover beef roast she had served the previous evening.  She had just finished packing them in a wicker basket along with the peach pie she had baked earlier for her family’s supper when Josiah came in.  She wrapped herself in a light shawl, and they all left for the clearing just outside town where Josiah had driven the bereft family’s wagon after taking the body to the undertaker.

* * * * *

    When Ben woke the next morning, he instinctively reached for Inger, but his hand touched, instead, an empty pillow.  Scratching his chest through the buttons of his flannel nightshirt, Ben struggled out of bed and into the kitchen, where Inger was dismembering a chicken.  “A little early to be starting dinner, isn’t it?” Ben yawned.

    “This is not for us,” Inger explained.  “I vanted to take a decent meal to that poor family, not just sandviches.”

    “That’s so like you,” Ben said, kissing her cheek lovingly.

    Inger smiled and returned the kiss.  “Can you get Adam dressed for church?” she asked.

    “I did for years without your help,” Ben reminded her.  “It might be better, though, if we went with you.”

    “I don’t think so, Ben,” Inger said.  “It is another voman Mrs. Reaver needs.”

    “Probably,” Ben agreed.  “Shall I hitch the wagon?”

    “Yah, please,” Inger said.  “It is only a short vay from town, but I plan to take much food vith me.  I vill be back to prepare our dinner by the time you and Adam return from the service.”

    “Make it easy on yourself,” Ben said.  “A light lunch will be enough for us.”

    “Oh, thank you, Ben,” Inger said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, butcher knife in hand.  “Then I can take time to bake a few cookies for the little ones.”

    “Inger, Inger,” Ben scolded softly.  “The idea was to lighten your load.”

    “Oh, but Ben, they are children who have suffered a great loss,” Inger insisted.  “A little sweetness may lighten their load, and that is more important than easing mine, yah?”

    “Yah.”  Ben ran his hand over her cornsilk hair.  “Sometimes, though, Inger, I think you’d like to mother the entire universe.”

    Inger turned away quickly so Ben would not see her pain.  After almost five months of marriage, she still showed no signs of becoming a mother in her own right.  Still, even if she never had a little one of her own, so many children needed love that Inger knew her heart need never feel empty.

    As requested, Ben saw that Adam was properly groomed and dressed in his best suit for church.  Sitting next to his father on a rough pew inside the white clapboard house of worship, the youngster looked as clean and pressed as always, but his demeanor seemed different today——hushed, quiet, none of the usual squirming when the preacher’s sermon ran long.  The boy didn’t seem to be listening to it either, though, and Ben sensed the horror of the previous day was still haunting Adam’s thoughts.

    After the service, Ben took Adam’s hand and led him toward the docks.  The riverfront was quiet today, no steamers waiting to be unloaded.  Though curious by nature, Adam didn’t even ask the reason for the detour.  They walked in silence to the end of the pier, where Ben sat down and pulled his son close.  “You seem troubled, lad,” he began.

    Adam lifted a pair of brooding black eyes to his father’s face.  “I just don’t understand, Pa.”

    “You don’t understand what, son?”

    “If God is as good as the preacher says, why would He want that boy’s pa to die?” Adam asked bitterly.  “He was a nice man, Pa, real kind and friendly.  His boy and girl were even younger than me, and they needed their pa like I need you.”  He snuggled into his father’s chest.  “I never thought something like that could happen to a boy’s pa.”

    “Fathers aren’t invulnerable, Adam,” Ben said, then smiled at the boy’s puzzled look.  “What I mean is that no matter how strong a man may be or how much he is needed, he can still get into situations he doesn’t know how to handle.”

    “Not you,” Adam insisted, his tone almost an order.  “You are in—in—”

    “Invulnerable,” Ben finished for him.  He pulled Adam’s small face toward his own.  “No, son, I’m not; but I’m not planning on leaving you an orphan, either.  Please don’t worry, child.”

    “But if God let that boy’s pa die, He might let you.”  Adam choked on the lump in his throat.  “I just don’t see how He could, if He’s all full of love like you always said.”

    Ben stroked Adam’s cheek.  “God is love, Adam, the purest and best love.  I don’t think He wanted those children’s father to be killed.”

    “Then, why—”

    Ben laid a silencing finger on Adam’s mouth.  “Just because bad things happen doesn’t mean it’s God’s will for them to happen, Adam.  Neither of those men acted with the wisdom God gave them.  It was their own foolishness that caused their deaths, not God.”

    Adam’s lower lip trembled.  “You—you won’t ever be foolish, will you, Pa?”

    Ben realized no mere man could keep a promise that broad, but reading the fear in Adam’s eyes, he wrapped protective arms around the boy.  “I’ll try hard not to, Adam,” he promised softly.

 End Part One

Part 2
Part 3
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