Heritage of Honor
Book One, part Two
Dream Deferred
Part 4

Sharon Kay Bottoms

After the rigors of the Sublette Cutoff, the next two days’ travel seemed easy by comparison.  No great challenges faced the emigrants, just the renewed monotony of the trail:  take a step, take another——walk, walk, walk.  Not even the scenery sparked their interest; it, too, was only more of what they’d already seen.  No one complained about the sameness, however; for as Larrimore’s people made camp that second night, they knew they had challenge enough facing them on the morrow and were grateful for two ordinary days to recover from the last difficulty.

    As soon as the wagons circled near the Thomas fork of the Snake River, Adam came bounding up to his father.  “Can I go, fishing, Pa?  Can I, huh?”

    “Not sure yet, son,” Ben said.  “Let me check out the river first.”  Ben unhitched the oxen and led them down to the riverside to water them.  Adam, bucket banging against his calf, came along not long after.  “Wait up, Adam,” Ben said as the youngster headed for the river.

    “I wanna get the water for Mama right away, so I can go fishing,” Adam announced.

    Ben’s hand tightened around the boy’s biceps.  “I know what you want.  You do as you’re told.”  Seeing Adam’s lower lip push out, Ben scowled.  “Don’t start that, Adam, or there’ll be no fishing for you.”

    “Yes, sir,” Adam muttered sullenly.

    Ben knelt down beside him.  “I’m not trying to be mean, Adam,” he said, putting an arm around the youngster’s waist.  “You don’t realize how slippery those rocks are, and the banks are steep and muddy.  I don’t want you falling in.”

    “You mean I can’t go fishing?” Adam mourned.

    “Maybe,” Ben said, “but not without me.  If I can finish my chores in time, I’ll try to take you.”

    Adam brightened.  “Okay, Pa.  But what about the water for Mama?”

    Ben tousled Adam’s black hair.  “That’s my good boy to think of his chores first.  I’ll dip you up a bucket and you can take it back.  Just stay away from the bank.”  Ben took the bucket, filled it and managed to clamber back up the muddy bank without spilling too much.  “There you go,” he said.  “Ask Mama if that’s enough.”

    “I will,” Adam said.  “Pa, can Billy go fishing with us?”

    Ben smiled.  “I’m not sure we’re going yet, son; but if we do, then, yes.  Billy may join us.”

    Adam grinned.  “And Marta?”

    Ben laughed loud.  “Don’t tell me you’re getting interested in girls?”

    It was Adam’s turn to scowl.  “No.  ‘Course not, but Marta’s not like other girls; she likes to fish.”

    “Marta can come, too,” Ben said, “if her mother agrees.”

    Ben returned from watering the stock and gathering fuel to see if Inger needed help with anything.  “Just the provision box,” she said with a smile.

    “Well, I know that,” Ben laughed.  “Anything else?”

    “No, Ben.”  Inger paused, looking worried.  “Adam says you do not vant him fishing alone.  Does the river seem that dangerous to you?”

    Ben nodded gravely.  “The current’s swift.  He’ll be safe with me, though.”

    “Then we are going fishing!” Adam shouted.

    “We are,” his father said.  “Run invite your friends.”

    As Adam took off, Inger examined Ben’s face carefully.  “You think the crossing tomorrow vill be hard?” she asked.

    Again, Ben nodded.  “I think we can ford, although we may have to raise the wagons.  The thing is we have to do it three times, and as I said, the current’s swift.”

    “There is danger of overturning?” Inger asked anxiously.

    Ben took her hands and squeezed them encouragingly.  “I’ll be careful, sweetheart.”

    Inger smiled.  “I know you vill.”  She looked sympathetically toward the next encampment.  “Poor Camilla,” she whispered.

    Ben decided to keep his response to himself.  The sympathy he felt was not for Camilla Larrimore, but for a certain neighbor of hers who feared he might be losing another night’s sleep listening to her mournful moans.  No, Ben thought as he smiled at his wife, better not share that with Inger.  He might find himself going hungry, as well as sleepless.

    When Adam came back with two eager-faced friends, they all headed down to the riverside.  Ben found a place beneath some willows where they could get close without descending the muddy bank, and the four fishers sat down to angle for their suppers.  Marta started to plop down between Adam and Billy, but Billy gave her a hard shove and threatened to throw her in the river if she didn’t get away from him.

    “That’s enough of that, Billy,” Ben said sharply.  “If you can’t get along with the others, you’ll have to leave.  You’ll have some tall explaining to do to your pa, though, if you come back without something for the frying pan.”

    Billy waited until Mr. Cartwright’s back was turned, then stuck his tongue in Marta’s face.  She responded in kind, then picked up her fishing pole and sat down next to Ben.  Surprised, Ben looked down into her wistful face and reached out to stroke her cheek tenderly.  He suspected a little fatherly attention was what the orphaned girl needed; and while he felt inadequate to take Fredrich’s place, he wanted to show her he cared.  Marta snuggled closer and Ben dropped a kiss on her blonde head.  “Let’s have a contest, boys,” he called.  “I say Marta and I can catch more fish that both of you put together!”

    “No, sir!” Billy yelled.  “No girl can fish better than me.”

    “Prove it, then!” Ben laughed.

    “I like to fish, but I’m not as good as they are, Mr. Cartwright,” Marta said quietly.

    “Me, either,” Ben whispered back.  “We’ll probably lose, but I still think I have the best partner.  And, for sure, the prettiest.”  Marta giggled.  Tomboy as she was, she liked being called pretty.  It was just what her papa used to say.

* * * * *

    “Pa, can we fish some more this morning?” Adam asked as he dipped up a spoonful of the applesauce Inger had made from dried apples.

    “No, son,” Ben said, cutting off another bite of pancake.  “We have to be moving out this morning.”

    “But we’re last in line today,” Adam argued, “so it’ll be just forever ‘til it’s our turn.”

    Ben laughed.  “Just forever, is it?  Well, I guess it seems that way to you, my boy, but we’ll be across before noon, if all goes well.”

    “That’s still plenty of time to fish,” Adam insisted, “and I bet Mama’d like some for lunch.”

    “Don’t pull me into this,” Inger laughed.  “The trout last night vas good, but what your father says is law.”

    “So, what do you say, Pa?” Adam persisted.

    “I already gave you my answer, Adam,” Ben said firmly.  “I’d like to say yes, for my own sake as well as yours; but I can’t run off to fish when some of our folks may need help getting their wagons across safely.  I have to be there in case of trouble, son.”

    “Yes, sir,” Adam mumbled.  “Fish’d sure be good, though.”

    “Ben,” Inger said thoughtfully, “there is not much I could do to help vith the vagons.”

    “No,” Ben admitted with a smile, “but you are not going fishing either, young lady.  Not with two little ones to watch.  Adam would probably pick the very moment you decided to nurse Eric to fall in the drink.”

    “It is Eric who picks when he vill nurse,” Inger laughed, “but I did not mean to fish.  Perhaps Adam vould like to go up into the hills vith me to see if ve can find some berries.  Jam vould be as good as fish, yah, Adam?”

    “Yes, ma’am!” Adam cried.  “We can do that, can’t we, Pa?”

    “Oh, I suppose,” Ben said, “provided you don’t go far.  We all hope to make this triple crossing by noon, so you’ll have to meet us by then.”

    After repacking the provision box and cooking utensils, Inger strapped Eric into his cradleboard and lifted him onto her back.  Then she picked up a tin pail and handed Adam another.  Together, they walked into the surrounding foothills in search of ripe fruit, songbirds twittering in the pine branches above them.  They found a few small bushes and picked them clean of black currants while Inger told Adam about picking berries in Sweden with her brother Gunnar.

    “Does Sweden look like this?” Adam asked.

    “In some vays,” Inger said.  “Sveden is greener than this, though.”

    “Like California will be?”

    “I hope so,” Inger said, “but I have never seen California, Adam.  I am not sure how it looks.”

    “Pa saw it once,” Adam informed her.  “He sailed there and picked up a cargo of hides.”

    “Did he?” Inger asked, surprised.  “I thought it vas as new to him as to us.”

    “No, ma’am,” Adam grinned, pleased to share a secret about his father.  “I wasn’t born then, of course, but Pa told me about sailing to Hawaii, then on to Monterey for the hides.”

    “Is this Monterey close to Sacramento?” Inger asked.

    Adam shrugged.  “I don’t know.”

    “Vell, I shall ask your father,” Inger said, “after I give him a spanking for hiding this from me all these months.”

    Adam giggled.  It would be funny to see Pa get a spanking, but Adam had a feeling his mother was only teasing.  “That’s all the berries,” he reported.

    “Yah, but there is still room in our pails,” Inger said.  “Let’s go up a little further and see if ve find more.”  Adam jumped up readily and ran ahead.

    “No, Adam,” Inger called.  “Ve must stay together, and I cannot go fast vith your brother to carry.”

    “Okay,” Adam yelled back from the top of the rise where her voice had stopped him.  While he waited for her to catch up, he looked down the other side of the small knoll and caught sight of something red peeking through green leaves.  “Mama!”  he cried.  “I think I see some more.”  Forgetting her admonishment, he ran down the hill and pulled the fan-shaped leaves aside.

    Frowning at his disobedience, Inger quickened her pace.  Reaching the top of the rise, she again saw her son.  “Adam!” she said sternly.  “I told you to vait!”

    Adam sprang to his feet.  “I’m sorry; I forgot.  But look, Mama!  Look what I’ve found!”

    Inger stumbled down the hill as quickly as she could with the load on her back and reached for the bright berry Adam held out to her.  “Strawberries!” she cried with delight.  “Oh, Adam, how vonderbar!”

    “And there’s lots,” Adam said.

    “Mmn, and they are sveet, too,” Inger tittered, licking the juice running out the corners of her mouth.

    Adam popped a strawberry between his lips and grinned.  “Let’s eat ‘em all,” he suggested conspiratorially.

    “What a selfish little boy,” Inger laughed.  “No, let us put all the currants in one pail and fill the other vith the strawberries.  There vill still be plenty to eat.”

    That plan suited Adam, too, so he quickly dumped the contents of his pail into Inger’s and started to pick every plump berry he could spy.  Soon the pail was full, as well as Adam’s hat and Inger’s bonnet, for they couldn’t resist taking all they could possibly get back to camp.  Adam even started to put some in his pants pockets, but Inger told him not to.  “They vill be all smashed, and make nothing but extra laundry,” she scolded.

    Mother and son made their way down the hillside to the river, where they found Ben waiting.  “I thought you could use some help,” he said.  “The water’s running even faster than I thought.”

    “Oh, did everyone get over safely?” Inger asked urgently.

    “Yeah,” Ben said.  “We put two men on each side of each team to keep the oxen headed straight.  Seemed to help and sure quieted our friend Camilla’s nerves.  Now, what riches have you harvesters brought back from the field?”

    “Strawberries, Pa!” Adam shouted, holding out his pail.

    “Imagine that!” Ben said.  “I’d read that you could sometimes find strawberries in these mountains, but I thought they’d be gone by now.”

    “Ve are good hunters, Adam and I,” Inger teased.

    “I’d doff my hat to your prowess,” Ben said, “but we’d better get on to camp if we’re to have time to eat anything.  Let me take Adam across first, then I’ll come back for you.”

    “Oh, I can take care of myself,” Inger said.

    “No,” Ben said firmly.  “Not with the baby and all those berries, too.  You wait, young lady.”  Feeling Adam needed a good example in the waiting-when-told department, Inger just nodded.

    Ben lifted Adam with one arm.  “I can hold the berries,” Adam declared.

    “All right,” Ben said, “you do that, then.”  Adam wrapped his arms around the pail of strawberries with his hat and Inger’s sunbonnet resting atop that.  With berries to his chin, he rode in his father’s arms over the Thomas fork of the river.  Then Ben waded back to Inger and with one arm around her waist and the other carrying the pail of black currants helped her cross the river, too.

    Reaching camp, Inger threw together a hasty meal of bacon and hoecakes with strawberries smothered in rich cream for dessert.  Billy Thomas, drawn to anything sweet like a bee to honey, showed up just as she was dishing berries into Adam’s plate.  “I sure favor strawberries,” Billy hinted.

    “Or anything else edible,” Ben chuckled, winking at the irrepressible redhead.

    Inger shushed him.  “Vould you like some strawberries, Billy?” she offered.

    “Yes, ma’am!” Billy said.  He lowered his voice quickly.  “Just don’t tell my ma I asked, okay?”

    Inger giggled.  “Okay.  I vill not be a tell tale, but you must do me a favor, too.”

    “What kind of favor?” Billy asked, suspicious of any bargain made with an adult.

    “Just to ask your mother’s help making jam when ve camp this evening,” Inger said.  “If she vill take care of the currants, I vill do the strawberries.  Then, ve vill share some of each.”

    “Yes, ma’am!” Billy agreed, excited.  Jam wasn’t quite as good as fresh strawberries and cream, of course, but it sure ran a close second.  In fact, a little jam with his breakfast bread was just what he’d been craving, Billy suddenly realized.

    The wagons had progressed only five more miles that day when they came to the edge of a steep downhill grade.  After the exhausting, morning-long struggle at the river, everyone felt they should let the oxen rest before tackling the precipitous descent; so they made camp.  The early stop meant Inger and Nelly had ample time to make their jams, and the Cartwrights and Thomases went to bed that night in anticipation of a tasty treat for the next morning’s breakfast.

    Knowing the men faced a more taxing day than usual, most of their wives cooked them an extra large breakfast Saturday morning.  Inger traded Camilla for a couple of eggs to scramble for Ben along with bacon, biscuits and gravy, applesauce and bread spread thickly with butter and strawberry jam.  Adam fussed a little because he hadn’t tasted an egg since leaving Missouri, but Inger told him his father needed extra strength for a hard day.  Ben hadn’t the heart, however, to savor the eggs with those dark eyes staring hungrily at his plate; so he gave a spoonful to Adam and felt more energized by the boy’s elation than he would have been by the supplemental protein.

    The men had determined the night before to set up a windlass and ease the wagons down the hill.  None of them, except Larrimore, had ever used that method before; and they couldn’t help feeling nervous about it as they attached fifteen yoke of oxen at the bottom of the hill to a chain wound around the axle of Clyde’s cart at its top.  The oxen were slowly walked up the hill while a wagon attached to the opposite end of the chain was eased down foot by foot.  No one truly wanted to use a windlass:  not only was the maneuver time-consuming; it was also considered more risky than simply locking the wagon wheels and skidding the wagon downhill.  If the chain broke, the wagon could break loose and splinter when it hit bottom.  On a descent this steep, however, there was no other choice; the wagon would roll too fast if they did nothing but lock the wheels.

    The men’s combined efforts brought the eight wagons safely to the bottom of the hill, and it was a simple matter to lock the wheels of the little cart and skid it down to join the other vehicles.  Ordinarily, of course, they would have hitched the oxen at that point and continued on their way.  Since the sun stood high overhead by the time the job was done, however, they took their customary noon break at the foot of the hill.  The oxen were tired, and the men more so; therefore, they took their full two hours’ rest, then hitched and headed out on the trail, reaching Smith’s Trading Post later that afternoon.

    The ladies, of course, had to see what was available but soon learned the answer was not much.  The fiftyish man who ran the post greeted the new customers eagerly, though, and didn’t seem overly perturbed when they purchased little.

    “Howdy, folks,” he called warmly when the Cartwrights entered the little cabin where he kept his goods.  “Look around all you want.  We got some supplies you might be aneedin’ out there on the trail.”

    Ben had to smile.  The shelves were practically bare.  Of course, that might be due to the lateness of the season.  “Would you be Mr. Smith?” he asked as the proprietor offered him a drink of whiskey on the house.

    The whiskered trader bobbed his head jovially, his graying hair brushing against his shoulders.  “Yup, that’s me.  Born Thomas Smith, but after living so long in these hills, folks started to call me Rocky Mountain Smith.  Nowadays, most folks call me Pegleg, on account on this.”  He reached down to tap his wooden leg.

    “Tell them how you got that leg,” Larrimore called from another part of the store.  “It’s quite a story, Ben.”

    Pegleg lifted Adam and set him on the counter.  “Yes, sir, it is quite a story, one to make the eyes of a little youngun like this bug right out.  You ain’t got a weak stomach, have you, boy?”

    “No, sir,” Adam assured him, his eyes lighting in anticipation of an exciting tale.

    “That’s good,” Pegleg said, giving the boy a solid slap on the back, “‘cause this yarn gets a mite gruesome.  I thought I knew these here mountains inside out, and there weren’t nothing could make me afeared.  Then came that black day when I learned I wasn’t sich a knowin’ man nor sich a brave one as I thought.”

    “What happened?” Adam urged, leaning closer.  “Indians?”

    Pegleg laughed heartily.  “Injuns, you say?  You hear that, Shining Moon?”  A dark-skinned girl of seventeen looked up at him and smiled, then went back to cuddling the Cartwright’s fair-haired baby boy.  “Not hardly,” Pegleg said, turning back to Adam.  “Me and the Shoshoni get along fine, son.  My wife there is Shoshoni.  ‘Course, we wasn’t married then.  If we had been, I might still have my leg.  It was bein’ alone that made the accident so bad.”

    “What kind of accident?” Adam asked.

    “Well, sir, a fool kind.  I was running my trap line and lost track of where I was.  Stuck my foot in my own beaver trap, I did,” Pegleg said.

    “That was a fool kind of accident,” Adam agreed.

    “Adam!” his father remonstrated.

    “No offense meant, sir, and none taken,” Pegleg chuckled.  “The boy’s absolutely right.  I knew better, too, but I was trappin’ in a part of the mountains that was new to me.  I just let myself get caught up in lookin’ at the countryside and didn’t bother to watch where I put my own foot.  Like I said, a fool way to act, but you can believe I never made that mistake again!”

    “Did the trap pinch your leg plumb off?” Adam asked, his face screwing up at the grisly picture in his head.

    “No, son,” Pegleg explained, “but them teeth went in deep.  I pried ‘em apart and got my leg out; then, I tied my belt around it for a tourniquet and hobbled home best I could on the bloody stump.”

    “But you still had your leg,” Adam said.  “How’d you lose it?”

    “Let the man tell his own story, Adam,” Ben suggested.

    “That’s all right,” Pegleg said.  “I kinda like younguns.  Got one of my own now, you see.”

    Ben smiled at the dark-eyed toddler hanging to his mother’s beaded buckskin dress.  “He’s a fine lad, sir.”

    “My pride and joy,” Pegleg said.  “Let me get you another shot of whiskey, sir, in honor of our two fine boys.”  The trader refilled Ben’s glass and turned his attention back to Adam.  “Well, there ain’t much more to my story, son.  I tried to doctor myself best I could, but that leg just kept swellin’ up and festerin’ ‘til I knew there weren’t no savin’ it.  There was just one thing to be done if I was to save my life, so I done it.”

    “What?” Adam asked breathlessly.

    “Why, cut ‘er off, of course,” Pegleg said matter-of-factly.

    “Yourself?” Ben asked, his eyes as big as Adam’s by this time.

    Pegleg shrugged.  “Weren’t no one else here.”

    Ben shook his head in amazement.  “Well, that took grit, sir,” he said with evident admiration.  “I doubt I could perform an amputation on myself.”

    “Sure you could!” Pegleg said.  “A man does what he has to when it comes to a matter of life and death.”

    “Well, I still say not many men could have done what you did,” Ben insisted.

    “You never know,” Pegleg countered.  “No man knows what he can handle ‘til it’s pushed on him.”

    Ben cocked his head thoughtfully.  He supposed that was true, but he hoped he’d never have to face a test as hard as the one Thomas Smith had passed.

    Although Inger enjoyed visiting with Smith’s Shoshoni wife and playing with her copper-skinned baby, she didn’t find anything she needed at the trading post.  Ben purchased a pound of tobacco.  The price was high and the quality poor; but Ben figured he owed the hospitable trader something for sharing his story and his liquor, an expensive commodity to freight into the mountains.

    There was some discussion that night about resting on the Sabbath, but the majority voted to continue their journey.  After all, it was less than a week since their last rest; and though they would have welcomed a day off after the arduous river crossings and mountainous terrain, the season was growing late.  If anyone had told Ben when he left St. Joseph that he’d still be east of Fort Hall a week into September, he’d never have believed it.  Here they were, though, at least a week short of that goal.  So Ben, like most of the other men, voted to push on; and they pushed hard, driving a better-than-average seventeen miles that Sunday.

    Another full day’s travel brought the Larrimore train to Soda Springs, a sight many of them had been eagerly anticipating.  Payne, in the lead that day, gave a shout when the twenty-foot tall conical mounds of white lime came into sight a little over half a mile north of the trail.  He pulled off the road and headed for one of the more popular campsites along the Oregon Trail.  The clear brook babbling nearby offered good water for the oxen, but the phenomenal springs themselves were, of course, the main attraction.  No one could pass by without tasting a drink of the effervescent water bubbling with carbonic acid gas.

    When the wagons circled for their evening camp, the first thing Inger did was demand the provision box.  “Don’t you think I should unhitch the oxen first?” Ben teased.

    “That can vait, for once,” Inger said.  “I need to get my lemon essence out.”

    “By all means,” Ben laughed, lifting the provision box down from the back of the wagon.  “As we all know, lemon essence is one of the staples of our way, so we must get it down without further delay.”  Adam giggled at the singsong tone in his father’s voice.

    “I don’t hear you complaining about its use in dried apple pies,” Inger said saucily.  “I vant to see if this soda vater really makes fizzy lemonade like the books say.”

    “I know what you want,” Ben chuckled.  “Be sure to save me a glass.  I, for one, still have chores.”

    “Not me,” Adam piped.  “I have to help Mama make lemonade.”

    “Yah,” Inger tittered.  “I cannot make it properly vithout Adam to taste it for me.”

    Ben gave the two of them a mock scowl.  “Go on and play then, children,” he growled.  He winked at Adam to make sure the boy understood he was joking, then left to care for his team.

    When Inger had the proper ingredients assembled, Adam took her hand and pulled her over to the springs.  Letting go, he immediately dipped his tin cup full of the bubbly water and held it out for the lemon essence and sugar his mother stirred in.  Adam took a tentative sip and grinned.  “It’s good, Mama!” he announced.

    “Not too sweet?” Inger said.

    “Nope!  Just right.”

    “Then, I must try some.”  Inger dipped her cup into the water and prepared her own drink.  Looking up, she saw Marta Zuebner eyeing the bottle of lemon essence with longing eyes.

    “That sure looks good,” Marta hinted.  “We run out of lemon essence awhile back.”

    “Marta, for shame!” her older sister Katerina rebuked.  “Please forgive my sister, Mrs. Cartwright,” Katerina asked.  “She has been taught better than to beg.”

    “Oh, it is not begging to ask a friend to share,” Inger said congenially as she measured a little lemon and sugar into Marta’s cup, “and I have plenty.  Vould you like some, too, Katerina?”

    Katerina was torn between her concept of what was mannerly and her desire for lemonade.  Since she was only eleven, the latter won.  “Yes, ma’am,” she said politely, “and thank you most kindly for sharing.”

    “You are most velcome,” Inger replied, placing the ingredients into the German girl’s cup.

    “How is it?” Rachel Payne, baby in her arms, asked as she sat down next to Inger.

    “Very good,” Inger said as she took Susan’s dainty finger and wiggled it back and forth.  “Shall I fix you a drink?”

    “I brought my own fixings,” Rachel laughed, nodding toward the basket she had just set down.  “I’ve got something for you, though.”

    “For me?” Inger asked, surprised.

    “Well, more for Hoss, I suppose,” Rachel replied as she rummaged through the basket.

    “You mean Eric,” Inger said with a smile.

    Rachel decided on an artful answer since she was caught between Inger and Adam at the moment.  “For your son,” she said and pulled out a glass bottle with a nipple.

    “You brought baby bottles on the trail?” Inger asked.  “I am surprised, Rachel.”

    “Well, it was just a precaution,” Rachel admitted,  “and I only have the two.  I wasn’t sure how my milk would hold up with the roughness of the journey.  That’s why we brought the cow, too.  So far I haven’t needed the bottles, but I thought these babies might like a taste of lemonade.”

    “Oh, yah, that vill be a treat for them,” Inger agreed as she took the bottle and filled it with carbonated water.  She added the lemon essence and sugar and shook the bottle to mix it.  “Can you help me get Eric out of this thing?” she asked, gesturing with her head at the cradleboard.

    “I’ll help you, Mrs. Cartwright,” Katerina said, reaching to loosen the straps holding the baby to Inger’s back.  “Can I feed the baby?”

    “Yah, sure,” Inger said.

    Katerina slipped the nipple between the baby’s lips.  His little brow wrinkled at first, but once the sweet refreshment touched his tongue, he began to suck greedily.  “Oh, look!” Katerina cried.  “He likes it.”

    “Yeah, we know what’s good, don’t we, Hoss?” Adam said, tickling his baby brother’s chubby chin.  The baby gurgled and kicked his feet at his big brother.

    “Oh, you do like lemonade, don’t you, my little Hoss?” Inger cooed as she patted his undulating belly.

    “You called him Hoss, Mama!” Adam cried exultantly.

    “Oh, dear, I guess I did,” Inger said, touching her fingers to her lips.

    “That’s his name for sure now!”  Adam jumped up and down in a victory dance.  Inger laughed, knowing in that instant that she’d lost all hope of calling her child by his grandfather’s name.  Legally, her son’s name might remain Eric Cartwright, but in common usage he would be Hoss from that time on.

    When Ben returned from watering the stock, he set a bucket full of water at Inger’s feet.  “Here, I trade you,” Inger said, handing him a cup of cool lemonade.”

    “More than adequate repayment, ma’am,” Ben said after taking a long swallow.  “Sure tickles the nose, doesn’t it?”

    “Yeah, Pa,” Adam agreed, “and Hoss likes it, too, doesn’t he, Mama?”

    “Yah,” Inger laughed.  “I am afraid Hoss likes it better than Mama’s milk.”

    Ben arched an eyebrow at his wife.  “Hoss?”

    Inger giggled.  “I have become a convert, it appears.”

    Ben laughed and reached for his younger son, who lay on a blanket in the shade of the wagon.  “Well, Hoss, my boy, you like lemonade, do you?  Well, your pa agrees; yes, he does.”  Ben brought the boy to his shoulder and patted the sturdy little back.  “I shouldn’t have started this,” he told Inger as he cuddled the baby.  “I still need to get you some firewood.”

    Inger stepped across and put her arms around both her husband and their baby.  “It vill vait,” she said.  “For this, ve must alvays make time.”

    “Yah, and for this, too,” Ben said and kissed her forehead.  Feeling left out, Adam squirmed between them, and Inger stooped to give him a hug.

    Ben laid the baby back on his blanket.  “I’d better get that wood,” he said, “if I expect dinner.”

    “Yah, you must earn it,” Inger laughed.

    Ben let his hand rest atop his older son’s head.  “You want to come help, Adam?”

    “Sure, Pa,” Adam agreed readily.  Adam couldn’t carry much, of course, but he did his share.  As the two Cartwrights headed back to camp, each with an armload of dry wood, Adam looked up at his father.  “Are you dead set on going to California, Pa?” he asked.

    “Why do you ask, son?”

    “‘Cause I like it right here, Pa,” Adam announced.

    Ben chuckled.  “Oh, you do, do you?  Enough to settle here?”

    “Yeah,” Adam said enthusiastically.  “We could call it Lemonade Land.”

    Ben roared with laughter.  “That, my boy, is the most unique name for a homestead I’ve ever heard.”

    “Well, I like it here,” Adam insisted stubbornly, “and so does Hoss.”

    “What you mean is that you boys like lemonade,” Ben said.

    Adam shrugged.  “Well, yeah, I guess so.”

    “You know, they grow lemons in California, son,” Ben pointed out.  “You can pick them right off the trees.”

    “Yeah?” Adam said.  “That’d be good, all right.  Maybe we ought to keep going.”

    “Maybe we should,” his father agreed with a smile.

* * * * *

    “Well, Inger Cartwright, are you ready for day one hundred of our journey west?” Ben asked as they took their place behind Larrimore’s two wagons.

    Inger smiled up at her husband.  “Has it been so long?”

    “To the day,” Ben replied.

    “I am ready,” Inger said, slipping her arm through the crook of her husband’s.

    Larrimore gave the shout to start, and Ebenezer Wentworth led the way through a fragrant grove of cedar trees.  Inger breathed deeply.  “Ah, that smells good,” she said.  “I do love the smell of evergreen.”

    “See, Pa?” Adam said, scampering at his mother’s side.  “Mama likes it here, too.  Maybe we should stay.  We could call it Christmas Tree Country, instead of Lemonade Land.”

    “Inventive boy!” Ben exclaimed, chucking Adam under his chin.  “I bet Mama’d rather go on to California.”

    “Yah,” Inger agreed quickly.  “It is lovely here, but I think land vill be better in California, mine son.”

    “Oh, okay,” Adam said, taking a last yearning look back toward Soda Springs.

    It wasn’t long, though, before Adam’s sights were set ahead once again.  The wagons rolled easily through a branch of the river they’d camped near the night before, and not long afterward Adam heard a deep, rumbling sound.  “What’s that, Pa?” he asked.

    Ben listened and a grin split his face.  “I’ll bet it’s Steamboat Springs, Adam.  Doesn’t that sound remind you of the wharves at St. Joseph?”

    “It sure does, Pa!” Adam yelled.  “It sounds just like a steamboat boiler, hissing and spewing.”

    They rounded a bend and to the right of the trail saw hot water spouting from a limestone cone every fifteen seconds, regular as clockwork.  “Look, Pa,” Adam laughed.  “It even looks like steam off a riverboat.”

    “Yeah,” Ben said, “that looks so much like home, I’m just about ready to turn around and head for dear old St. Joe.”

    Adam’s face wrinkled.  “You’re joshing, aren’t you, Pa?”

    “I’m joshing,” Ben assured him.  “Ho for California!”

    “Ho for California!” Adam yelled in response, and his decision was confirmed by the terrain they passed through that morning.  Leaving the phenomenal springs and aromatic evergreens behind, the train moved through barren mountains that tempted no one to settle nearby.

    Five miles into their drive the wagons rumbled past Sheep Rock, where the trail divided once more, with the Hudspeth Cutoff splitting off to the left.  Having discussed this option the night before, the men turned the wagons north to follow the main trail.  Since the cutoff would save them only thirteen miles, no one wanted to bypass Fort Hall, their last chance to overhaul their wagons and stock up on supplies for the remainder of the journey.

    As they moved away from Sheep Rock, Adam shook his head in perplexity.  In spite of all Pa’s explanations, there surely must be a better way to get west than going north again.  Sublette’s Cutoff, though, had left a bad taste in the boy’s mouth for shortcuts of any name.  He trusted his father, and besides that, forts were fun to visit.  Adam could hardly wait to reach Fort Hall.

    He had to wait, of course, but five days of good mileage brought the emigrants within sight of the final fort on the trail.  It seemed fitting that McTavish’s wagon was in the lead that day, for of them all he most needed supplies.  He responded by setting a pace that brought them to their destination well before nightfall.  That last day was, of course, Sunday, but everyone preferred to defer their day of rest until they reached the fort.  The travelers gathered for a brief message from their minister that evening and went to their tents to make lists for their visit to the sutler’s store.

    As Ben and his family approached the entrance to Fort Hall the next morning, he stopped to admire the setting.  The fort stood on the left bank of the American fork of the Columbia River, five hundred feet wide at this point.  To the west nothing but a barren plain met the eye, but gazing northward, Ben saw buttes and mountains so high they brushed the clouds.

    “Is something wrong?” Inger asked.

    “Oh, no,” Ben assured her.  “I was just noticing what a good spot this is for a trading post.”

    “Surely, it is more than that,” Inger said.

    “Not much more,” Ben chuckled.  “The stockade seems smaller than the one at Fort Laramie.  It’s situated well, though.”

    “The river, you mean?”

    “That, and the fact that the trails to Oregon and California divide a few days past here,” Ben explained.  “Hudson’s Bay Company chose well when they built here.  Of course, they did take unfair advantage of the location.”

    “How is that?”

    “Well, you know they’re a British company,” Ben said, “and, of course, they wanted Oregon to stay in British hands to ensure a monopoly on the beaver trade.  To discourage Americans from going there, the agents here used to magnify the dangers of the Oregon Trail——the hostile Indians, rapid rivers, winter storms——and try to talk people into going to California, instead.”

    “They don’t have to talk us into going to California, though, do they, Pa?” Adam asked.

    Ben laughed.  “Since the discovery at Sutter’s Mill, Adam, no one has to talk anyone into going to California.”

    “I think I may have to talk you into going into the fort, though,” Inger teased.  “Really, Ben, I have a long list of supplies I hope they have.”

    Ben took her arm.  “Let us enter forthwith, my lady.”

    “Pa,” Adam said, pointing to an Indian encampment just outside the fort’s walls, “can I go see them Indians?  I don’t want to shop.”

    “No, you can’t go see those Indians by yourself, Adam,” Inger said hurriedly.

    “It’s probably safe enough this close to the fort,” Ben said, “but I agree you shouldn’t go alone, son.”  Adam kicked at a pebble in the path.  The Indians looked friendly to him, and he didn’t see why his parents had to be so doggone careful.

    When they left the sutler’s store an hour later, Inger looked embarrassed.  “I didn’t realize I’d run up such a bill, Ben; I am sorry.”

    “I don’t mind the price,” Ben said.  “We have the money, after all.  But do you really think we needed that much?  We should reach Sacramento in another six weeks or so.”

    “Oh, dear, I probably did buy too much,” Inger sighed, “but something in my heart said ve might need it.  Forgive me, Ben.”

    Ben wanted to put an arm around her, but he didn’t have one free.  “There’s nothing to forgive, Inger,” he said tenderly, putting into his voice the consolation he couldn’t express physically.  “You didn’t buy anything we won’t use.  My only concern is the oxen, but since we have enough to let some of them rest each day, anyway, I think they’ll do well enough.”

    Inger’s face flamed.  “After all your talk of not overloading the vagon,” she chided herself.

    Ben chuckled.  “We’re not carrying a stick of furniture,” he pointed out.  “You wouldn’t even let me buy camp stools, remember?”

    “Ve did not need them,” Inger said firmly.

    “I agree,” Ben said. “My point is we’re not carrying much besides tools and food; and frankly, I’d rather have too much than too little to eat.  You know how people suffered along this part of the trail last year.”

    Inger nodded.  “I think that fear vas in the back of my mind there at the store, but ve can take some things back if you think—”

    “I think I’ll just follow your woman’s intuition, instead,” Ben murmured.

    “Pa,” Adam interrupted impatiently, “can we go see those Indians now?”

    Ben looked at his armload of supplies and thought of the ones he had to return for later.  “Not now, Adam,” he said with a tired shake of his head.  “Not now.”


Refitted, restocked and ready for the most arduous part of their journey, the wagons rolled out of Fort Hall Tuesday morning, September 17th.  At first, the road seemed easy enough.  Six miles below the fort, though, the emigrants arrived at the bank of the Panack River, a tributary of the Columbia that was one hundred and fifty feet wide here just above its junction with the American River and so deep they were forced to raise the wagon beds to ford it.  Everyone chafed at the delay, but only the Larrimore wagons found the crossing difficult once the time-consuming job was done.

    “It is a shame to make the poor beasts vork so hard,” Inger sighed, coming as close to criticism of her neighbors as Ben had ever heard.  “See how they must turn their heads to keep their nostrils above the deep vater.”

    “You’re right,” Ben said.  “That must make it much harder to pull that heavy load.”

    No one could have convinced Camilla Larrimore, however, to leave her keepsakes behind just to spare the draught animals.  Somehow, the oxen managed to trudge through to the other side and ascend the steep incline that followed to a sandy plain where nothing but sage and greasewood grew.  Seeing the lifeless landscape, Inger again sighed, already missing the aromatic pine forests behind them.

    “Don’t worry,” Ben comforted her.  “Plenty more pines ahead, my love.”

    Inger smiled and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm.  “And ve vill build our house in the midst of a grove of them, yah?”

    “Yah, I promise,” Ben said.  “In the midst of a whole forest of pines if you like.”

    “I like,” Inger laughed.

    “Me, too,” Adam cried, “and we’ll string popcorn from every one of them for Christmas, huh, Pa?”

    “We will not!” Ben said, swinging his older son into his arms and giving his ribs a thorough tickling.  “One popcorn-bedecked tree is quite sufficient for me, my boy!  And don’t even mention carving birds and bells for an entire forest of Christmas trees!”  Adam giggled, begging for respite from the tickling; and with a swat that barely raised the dust on the boy’s britches, Ben swung him to earth again.

    Though the terrain through which the train traveled that day was bleak and barren, the next morning brought them once again to a breath-taking scene.  Since they arrived at American Falls around the time for their noon break, everyone took a long look at the horseshoe-shaped ledge of black rock that crossed the river and made its water plummet almost straight down.  After the dryness of the previous day, just the sight of so much water was refreshing; and the rumbling sound it made as it cascaded to crash in the stream below was music to weary souls.  How soundly they would have slept with such a lullaby to soothe their ears——if only they could have afforded the time to stay the night.

    Along the beach, tall currant bushes grew, some as much as ten feet tall.  Disappointingly, the crimson berries were almost all gone.  Ben picked some of the round fruits, but though they were large as cherries, the few he found didn’t even fill his hat.  Adam munched them happily, while Inger lamented that there weren’t more.  “They vould have made such sveet pie,” she said, sucking the flavorful juice.  “I suppose ve vill see no more fresh fruit until ve reach California.”

    “I doubt it,” Ben said.  “We’ve been lucky to find all the fresh things we have along the trail; but the country between here and the mountains is pretty arid, according to all I’ve read.  We may have trouble finding enough grass for the oxen, much less berries.”

    “I know,” Inger said and put another succulent fruit into her mouth.  If this was to be her last treat for weeks to come, she intended to savor it without wasting further time bemoaning the days of salt pork and cornpone that assuredly lay before them.

    On they traveled, pushing hard to cover as many miles as possible each day.  In each emigrant’s thoughts loomed the specter of snow in the Sierras.  Ben felt almost certain they would make it through a pass before November, when the first snowfall ordinarily dusted the mountains with a thick blanket of white powder.  In the back of his mind, though——and those of his fellow travelers——was the haunting memory of the winter of 1846, when the snows came early and the ill-fated Donner party delayed one day too long before crossing.  Just one day, but what a tragic difference it made!  Not wanting to repeat that mistake, the Larrimore train pressed their teams; but it was hard to cover many miles each day when most of them were up and down.

    River crossings, too, continued to slow their daily progress.  After two hours travel on Friday, the train reached the high, rocky banks of the Raft River.  Fortunately, it was only two feet deep, so the wagons forded it easily and made their noon camp on the far side.  They had gone only one mile further that afternoon when Ben called Adam, who came running to his father’s side.  “Know where we’re at, boy?” Ben asked.

    “No, sir,” Adam said.  “Just on the trail somewhere.”

    “Ah, but there’s a fork in the road just ahead,” Ben said.  He pointed to the right.  “There’s the main trail, and to the left is the cutoff.”

    “We’re staying on the main trail, aren’t we?” Adam asked anxiously.  “I don’t like cutoffs, Pa.”

    Ben laughed.  “I think we’d better take this one, son; it’s the California Cutoff.”

    “Oh!” Adam exclaimed and gave his father a big grin.  “Yeah, I guess we better take that one, all right.”  The wagons soon turned southwest away from the route that led to Oregon; but as far as Adam was concerned, there wasn’t much difference except for the direction.  Both trails looked pretty much alike.

    Nothing out of the ordinary caught the youngster’s eye through the remainder of Friday’s drive, nor as he walked along the trail Saturday or Sunday.  Monday morning, however, presented an attraction Adam felt warranted exploration.  They had been traveling west through a narrow valley along willow-fringed Cassia Creek when Adam first noticed the huge masses of marble and begged his father to let him visit them.

    “You know you can’t take off by yourself, Adam,” his father said sternly.

    “I’d take Billy with me, Pa,” Adam pledged, “and we’d be real careful——honest.”

    “Adam!” Ben said sharply.

    “Oh, Ben, why don’t you take the boys over to see the sight?” Inger suggested.  “I can handle the team.”  Adam’s darkening countenance brightened hopefully.

    Ben frowned thoughtfully.  “The trail’s rough here, Inger.  I don’t like to leave you alone.”

    “You didn’t mind leaving me alone to go hunting,” Inger said with a smile.  “How is this different?”

    Ben pinched her nose.  “The countryside is different, my love.  What if you have problems?”

    Inger shrugged.  “Then I vill call on Clyde to help me.  He vill be glad to, I am sure, for the pleasure of sending Billy off for a few hours.”

    Ben guffawed.  “And saddling me with him, is that it?”  Seeing Adam’s pleading face, Ben gave him a sympathetic smile.  The trail must get mighty boring for a lad Adam’s age, and the boy had been plucky enough for months now to earn a reward.  He took Adam’s hand and headed back to Clyde’s wagon.

    When Ben explained Inger’s proposition to Clyde, it was Nelly who answered.  “Lands, yes; if you’re willin’ to put up with my ornery youngun, take him and welcome.  We’ll look after Inger.”

    As Ben and the two boys headed toward the cluster of fantastically-shaped rocks, they found themselves the vanguard of a column of other youngsters.  Ben rolled his eyes heavenward, wondering what he’d gotten himself into.  He hadn’t officially agreed to take charge of all these children; but as the only adult present, he felt responsible.  Matthew, Mark and Sterling kept to themselves, still too proud of their advanced years to associate with Adam and Billy; while Roberta McTavish led a trio of girls for a closer inspection of the rock pillars.  Evidently, only little Mary Wentworth and Jewel Larrimore had been left out of the expedition.  Stefán, of course, no longer had time for youthful exploration; he had a team to manage.

    “Hey, Mr. Cartwright!  Lookee here!” Billy, running ahead as usual, called.

    Adam trotted after his friend, and Ben lumbered behind to read the makeshift sign Billy was pointing to.  “City of Rocks——July, 1850” the words scrawled on a scrap wagon board proclaimed.  Ben laughed.  “Looks like someone before us has already given this place a name, boys.”

    “It does look like a city, doesn’t it, Pa?” Adam said enthusiastically.  “See, there’s a street over there with buildings on each side.”  He pointed toward a narrow aisle of parallel rocks on the left.

    Billy ran to a small post jutting upward at the edge of Adam’s “street.”  “Yeah, and here’s the town pump,” he announced.

    He and Adam, with Ben following, walked down the street of their rock city, pointing out and naming each building as they went.  “Here’s the jail,” Billy announced as he shoved Adam into a narrow opening between two rocks and planted himself as guard at the door.

    “What’s the charge, Billy?” Ben laughed.

    “Too much reading!” Billy chortled.

    Ben’s voice rang with authority as he reached past Billy to pull Adam out of his cell.  “Case dismissed!  Reading’s no crime, you ignorant scamp.”

    Law officer Billy took off at a run with his recent prisoner close behind.  Ben followed, chuckling at the capers the boys were cutting.  Ah, to be that young and full of wonder again!  Or that full of energy this late in their cross-country journey.

    Looking up at one of the higher rocks, Ben’s chuckle turned into a full-throated laugh.  “Come see this, boys,” he called.  Adam and Billy trotted back obligingly.  Seeing the rock Ben pointed out, they laughed, too; for someone, possibly the same wag who had named the entire town, had painted “Castle City Hotel” over an arched cleft in the rock that resembled a door.  Adam held out his hand, palm up.  “That’ll be a dollar a night, mister,” he informed his father.

    “I’ll bunk in the barn,” Ben responded wryly.

    At the end of the main street of the stone city stood a rock whose top narrowed to a point that reminded all three explorers of a church spire.  “And here’s the graveyard,” Billy added in sepulchral tones as he walked through a group of small, upright rocks nearby that were, indeed, shaped like headstones.  Billy promptly lay down in front of one and, folding his hands over his chest, tried to lie as still as a corpse.

    “Rest in peace, Billy,” Ben intoned solemnly.  Then he stooped down to grab a handful of dirt.  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he added mournfully as he let the grains of sandy soil drift down onto Billy’s belly.

    Billy tried to lie still, but his lips began to twitch.  He sat up, leaning back on his elbows.  “How’s a body ‘sposed to rest with you throwin’ dirt in his face?” he demanded with a grin.

    “Most dead bodies don’t have a problem with it,” Ben commented dryly, and Billy grinned even broader.  “Well, this has been fun, boys,” Ben went on, “but it’s time we were heading back to the train.”

    “Aw, Pa,” Adam whined.  “Can’t we stay awhile longer?”

    “I’m afraid not, son,” Ben said sympathetically, but firmly.  “We need to catch up with the others at the nooning place.  You don’t want to miss lunch, do you?”

    “I sure don’t!” Billy declared.

    With an arm around each boy, Ben headed back down the stone city’s avenue.  Passing the other children, he called to them that it was time to rejoin the train.  Roberta immediately gathered her little flock and fell into line behind Mr. Cartwright.  The older boys, of course, had to assert their independence by dallying a little longer.  When Ben looked back, though, he saw that they, too, were making their way back to the train.  He let them keep their manly pride intact, but checked over his shoulder from time to time to make sure everyone was still with the group.

    The line of children marched up the valley of the City of Rocks, passing between two tall, sharp-pointed columns two to three hundred feet high.  “Steeple Rocks,” Ben told the youngsters close enough to hear.  “The train shouldn’t be much further now.”  As Ben predicted, the circle of wagons soon came into sight; and the children scattered, running eagerly to tell their parents about their morning’s adventures and refuel their bodies for the monotonous afternoon of travel ahead.

    Inger was glad to see Ben return, for the terrain had grown steadily rockier throughout the morning.  She was glad to return to domestic duties and let him manage the livestock.  The trail continued rough throughout the afternoon, so the overlanders only managed to cover thirteen miles before stopping at Rock Spring.  Actually, they had time to go a bit further; but Granite Mountain, one of the most difficult climbs they’d yet encountered, lay just ahead.  It seemed wiser to face it at the beginning of the day, rather than its end.

    Tuesday began a series of difficult days when the trail led over hill after hill, some of them higher than the continental divide at South Pass, and crossed creek after creek.  One challenge was scarcely conquered before the next presented itself.  The first, Granite Mountain, necessitated painful decisions; for when Jonathan Payne, in the lead wagon, couldn’t reach the summit without double-teaming his oxen, his problems spelled trouble for more heavily loaded wagons behind him.

    Sadly the others began to evaluate what supplies were essential and what should be left behind.  Rockers and bedsteads, even bacon and flour, joined the pile of goods left by earlier emigrants.  Her face tracked with tears, Maggie McTavish laid aside the small hope chest that had belonged to Joanie and packed the contents of Robbie’s into used flour sacks.

    Inger looked apologetically into her husband’s face.  “Oh, Ben, I shouldn’t have bought all those supplies at Fort Hall.  It is hard to leave food behind, but what else have ve?”

    “We’re not throwing out food unless we have to!” Ben said sharply, then put his arms around his wife.  “I think you’re crossing bridges before you get to them, Inger,” he said more softly.  He intended to say more, but stopped when he felt a small tug on his shirt.

    “Pa,” Adam whispered, his voice shaking.  “We—we could take out my schoolbooks.”

    Ben immediately knelt down to take the boy in his arms.  To most boys, textbooks would have been an easy item to toss aside; but Ben knew the offer represented true sacrifice to Adam.  “I’ll get those books up the hill if I have to carry them myself,” Ben promised.  “That was a good boy to offer, though, Adam.  Pa’s real proud of you.”  Adam flushed with pleasure.  In the end, though, the books rode up in the wagon with all the other supplies.  Double-teaming the oxen provided the necessary power to get the Cartwright wagon up Granite Mountain.

    Extra draught animals, however, hadn’t helped the Larrimores, who immediately preceded Ben’s family.  After two futile attempts Lawrence faced facts.  “We’ll have to lighten the wagons,” he told Camilla.

    “Oh, no, you don’t, Lawrence Larrimore!” his wife announced.  “I told you I wouldn’t come west with you unless I could bring my things.”

    “Camilla, I’ve tried to keep that promise,” Lawrence pleaded, “but you can see we’re in trouble here.”

    On and on the argument raged, while four families clustered discreetly back from them, waiting impatiently for their chance at the mountain.  Finally, Lawrence began angrily pulling from his second wagon some of the heavier goods he’d intended for sale in California and transferring part of his wife’s treasures into it.

    “Oh, how can he?” Inger commiserated.  “It is his livelihood he leaves behind.”

    “Be better off leaving the woman behind,” McTavish grumbled.

    “She’s his wife,” Ben said.  “Would you leave yours?”

    “No,” McTavish snapped, “but I’d make her do what I said.  No woman will wear the pants in my family.”

    “Or mine,” young Stefán Zuebner said quietly.  “Mrs. Larrimore does not do well.”

    “Generous way of puttin’ it,” Clyde Thomas muttered as Ludmilla Zuebner dragged her son back to their wagon for further instruction in respect for his elders.  While she agreed with the boy’s assessment of Mrs. Larrimore, she still felt Stefán should not have voiced criticism of an adult, even one he obviously exceeded in maturity.

    “Oh, please, do not be unkind,” Inger begged the men who remained near her wagon.

    Ben put an arm around his wife.  “Face facts, Inger.  The woman isn’t cut out for a pioneer’s life.”

    “Nor did she ask to become one,” Inger pointed out softly.

    “That’s right,” Nelly added.  “You men make the decisions, and we’re expected to live up to them.”

    “As you should,” McTavish retorted sharply.  “A woman’s place—”

    “Is at her husband’s side, as Rachel said once,” Maggie said, smoothing her hand down Robert’s muscular arm, “and it’s glad I am to stay there.  Camilla is of a different view, I fear.”

    “She’d change her views if I had her in hand,” McTavish grumbled once again, but his wife’s gentle touch had soothed him and he said no more.

    After the lengthy reapportionment of his goods, Lawrence again urged his oxen up the mountain.  This time they reached the summit, though they began to show signs of strain as they pulled the second wagon to the top.  The remaining four families found the steep uphill pull hard, but achieved it without half the problems Larrimore had encountered.  They’d made their sacrifices earlier.

    The wagons rumbled for six miles across relatively flat tableland, then prepared for a descent from the mountain that was as precipitous as its earlier ascent.  The Paynes and the lightly loaded Wentworth wagon had no great difficulty getting down, but everyone held their breath when Larrimore’s first wagon, wheels locked in place, started downhill.

    As the still heavy wagon picked up speed, Inger buried her head against Ben’s breast.  Feeling her trembling, Ben enclosed her in his arms and stroked her neck soothingly as he watched the wagon hurtling faster and faster until he was sure it would tip over as Clyde’s had earlier in their journey.  The wagon stayed upright, though, and rattled onto level ground.  “It’s all right,” Ben whispered in Inger’s ear.  “They’re down.”

    Inger exhaled slowly and turned around.  “Only half down,” she said, nodding toward the second wagon.

    “That one’s lighter,” Ben said.  “I think they’ll make it; and if they do, the rest of us should, too.”

    “Good point, Ben,” Clyde muttered, spitting a stream of tobacco juice.  “We oughta make them go first every time, just to test the waters, so to speak.”

    “Oh, Clyde,” Inger chided.  “You are impossible.”

    “Never claimed otherwise, ma’am,” Clyde responded, giving her a good-natured grin.  Ben smiled at the banter between his wife and his friend, but his thoughts were sober.  Granite Mountain was high, but not as high as the peaks they’d have to scale in the Sierras.  Larrimore’d been lucky so far, but would his luck hold out?  Ben had a feeling Lawrence was probably asking himself the same question.

    Those behind Larrimore in line today had little to do but grumble as he unhitched his animals and brought them back to use with the second wagon.  “Again they cost us time,” McTavish complained loudly, and no one contradicted him.  Considering the number of hills to be climbed and the creeks to be forded along this stretch of trail, everyone found the needless delays galling.

    Not long after the wagons reached the bottom of the hill, they had to ford a branch of Goose Creek, a stream they’d follow and ford numerous times before they finally left it.  On the branch they found scant grass for the oxen; but once they’d passed between some sharp-angled bluffs, the land greened up a little and there was more forage for the oxen.  They scaled another steep bluff and finally camped near another part of Goose Creek after a long, laborious day.

    Ben unhitched his team and led them to the water.  While the animals quenched their thirst, he walked up and down the creek bank in anticipation of Adam’s usual pleas to go fishing.  The water seemed shallow enough and the current not overly swift, so Ben felt he could trust the boy here alone.  Suddenly, though, he caught sight of something that changed his plans for supper.

    “Adam!” Ben called, his voice echoing back to the camp.  “Adam!”

    Water bucket banging against his leg, Adam came running at the sound of his father’s voice.  “I was gonna get the water right away,” he defended himself breathlessly.  “Honest, I was.”

    “That’s all right,” Ben said.  “I wasn’t upset with you, boy; I just wanted you to see what I’ve found.”

    “What?” Adam asked eagerly.  “Is it a good place to fish?”

    “Oh, probably,” Ben said, “but there’s something even more rare here, my boy.  Fresh water clams and crabs!”

    “Clams and crabs!” Adam squealed.  “Oh, Pa, I love clam chowder!”

    Ben chuckled.  “You and me both, but I’m not sure Mama knows how to make it.  She’ll need milk, too.”

    “I can milk the cow,” Adam said proudly.

    “Yeah, I know, but I think you’d better ask Mama to do that tonight,” Ben said.  “You run back and get a couple of pails and let’s see what we can harvest here.”

    “Okay!” Adam said.  “Is there enough to share?  I mean, can Billy go clamming with me?”

    “Sure, more the merrier,” Ben laughed.

    Soon a coterie of clam diggers arrived at the creek.  Ben showed the newcomers how to find the crustaceans and mollusks.  “Just put the crabs in your pails alive,” he instructed.

    “Alive!” Katerina screamed.  “But we cannot eat them alive, Mr. Cartwright.”

    Ben laughed.  “No, Katerina, but they must be killed at the last minute or they could be poisonous.  Tell your mother to boil a big pot of water, then drop the crabs in.  The hot water will kill them and cook them, too.”

    “Oh,” Katerina sighed.  “Maybe I better leave this clamming to Marta.”

    “Go ahead, ‘fraidy cat,” Marta scoffed.  “I can do without you.  Do we cook the clams like the crabs, Mr. Cartwright?”

    “There’s more than one way to fix them,” Ben replied.  “You can steam them or fry them or boil them in chowder.”

    “That’s what we’re doing,” Adam announced.  “Mama said her chowder might not taste like what you remember from New England, Pa, but it’ll be good.”

    “I’m sure it will,” Ben agreed.  “Mama’s quite a cook, isn’t she, son?”

    “Best in the world,” Adam declared.

    “Yeah, well, there won’t be any chowder if you don’t get to clamming, boy,” his father teased.  Adam grinned and went to work.

    That night the Cartwrights and Thomases sat down to a feast of boiled crab, Inger’s clam chowder and Nelly’s fried clams.  The men and boys praised the meal lavishly, but the ladies knew the truth.  While the food was good, its chief value lay in its variety.  Along the trail fresh food was always welcome as a change from the ever-present salt pork and beans or bacon and cornbread.

    Wednesday’s drive duplicated Tuesday’s frustrations.  The wagons moved up Goose Creek, crossing and recrossing it, climbing hills only to descend again.  Despite the natural barriers to their path and the irritation of repeated delays, the emigrants covered a more than respectable seventeen miles before they came to rest that night near the creek again.  During the day, however, ominous murmurs of discontent had rippled up and down the line of wagons.  Only Ebenezer Wentworth was ahead of the Larrimores in line today, and that meant everyone else had ample opportunity to sit and stew and try to come up with solutions to the constant delays.

    Adam and his friends eagerly spent the first half of Thursday morning harvesting more crabs and clams from Goose Creek, for the train didn’t break camp until 10:30.  Because the ground ahead was virtually void of grass, the men worked to lay in a supply of hay for the animals and returned for an early lunch.

    “I tried to make the chowder more like you described this time,” Inger said as Ben slurped the hearty soup.  “Is it better?”

    “It was good the other night,” Ben said, “just different.”

    “Yah, vell, is it more like New England now?” Inger persisted.

    “As much as it could be out here in the wilderness,” Ben chuckled.  “I especially like the special ingredient you added.”

    Inger cocked her head.  “What special ingredient?”

    Ben blew her a kiss.  “The love, sweetheart; I can taste the love, and that makes it better than New England’s best.”  Inger laughed.

    The train moved out as soon as possible after the men had eaten.  Due to the late start, they would make no stops today.  Even so, they covered only ten miles, and the rumblings of dissatisfaction grew louder.

    Since a daily diet of clam chowder could become monotonous, Adam had gone angling for trout as soon as the wagons had circled and he’d finished his evening chores.  Inger wouldn’t start supper until he returned, so she and Ben were sitting together, enjoying a quiet cup of coffee, when Jonathan Payne approached their campsite.  “Could I have a word with you, Ben?” Jonathan asked.

    “Sure,” Ben replied readily.

    “You vould like some coffee, Jonathan?” Inger asked.  “There is plenty.”

    “No, thanks, Inger,” Jonathan said, his face strained.  “Uh, Ben,” he stammered.  “I really need to talk to you alone.  Could you walk out with me a ways?”

    Ben’s brow furrowed, but he immediately stood and handed Inger his cup.  Putting an arm around Jonathan’s shoulder, Ben walked beside him past the ring of wagons to a secluded spot where two boulders sat side by side.  Ben sat down on one and motioned Jonathan toward the other.  “This far enough?” he asked.

    “Yeah,” Payne said tautly.  “I’m sorry, but this needs to be private.”

    “Sure,” Ben said, intent brown eyes trying to read his friend’s problem in his face.  “Sometimes, men need to talk alone.”

    Jonathan smiled weakly.  “It’s not Inger I was trying to get away from.”

    “Who, then?” Ben asked, his expression clearly puzzled.

    “Larrimore,” Payne said bluntly.  “Some of us have been talking, Ben, about these constant delays Larrimore and his wife have been causing.”

    “Oh, yeah,” Ben sighed.  “I know it’s a problem, but what can we do?”

    “What we need is a new captain,” Jonathan said bluntly, “one who has the courage of his convictions and the willingness to act on them.”

    Ben chuckled.  “And have you decided what paragon of virtue fits that description?”

    “We have,” Jonathan announced.  “We’d be more than satisfied to make Lieutenant Benjamin Cartwright captain of this train.”

    Ben stood up quickly.  “You’re not serious,” he said, shocked.

    “Who else, Ben?” Payne asked.  “You’ve demonstrated good sense time and again on this trek.  We believe you’re the man for the job.”

    Ben started to pace nervously.  “You keep saying ‘we.’  We, who?”

    “McTavish, Thomas and me,” Jonathan said, “and the Zuebner boy feels the same, even if his mother won’t let him speak out.”


    “He doesn’t want to get involved,” Jonathan admitted.  “Says he’s minister to you both and can’t afford to take sides.”

    Ben’s big head swung from one side to the other.  “I—I can’t, Jonathan.”

    “But, Ben—”

    “No,” Ben said firmly.  “I can’t do it.  I agree we have a problem, but I can’t give the back of my hand to a man who’s shown me nothing but kindness and generosity.  Don’t ask it of me, my friend.”

    “Ben, don’t you understand?” Payne persisted.  “It’s our lives we’re staking.  It’s September twenty-sixth, for the love of mercy.  We should have reached Sacramento by this time, and if the snows come early—”

    “I know, I know,” Ben interrupted.  “We have a problem, but this isn’t the way to solve it.  Think, Jonathan, of how many hardships we’ve been spared because of Lawrence’s experience.”

    Jonathan spread his hands in a gesture that was at once conciliatory and pleading.  “I agree his leadership hasn’t been all bad, but he has this one fatal flaw:  he can’t control his own wife!”

    Ben closed his eyes.  It was true; he knew it was true, but he couldn’t accept the solution Payne suggested.  “I won’t be a party to stripping Lawrence of his captaincy,” he said firmly.  “I’d be obliged if you communicated that to the others.”

    Jonathan noted the unyielding set of Ben’s jaw, the inflexible straightness of his spine.  “Are you sure, Ben?” he asked quietly, knowing the answer before he spoke.

    “I’m sure,” Ben said.  “Even if I were to take over, I couldn’t interfere between a man and his wife.  You know that, Jonathan.”

    “You could speak to him,” Payne said, “make him see sense.”

    Ben smiled.  “It’s not sense he lacks.”

    “You’re right; it’s backbone,” Jonathan muttered.

    “Jon,” Ben chided softly.

    Payne held up a restraining hand.  “All right, Ben, but something’s got to be said.  Will you talk to the man?”

    Ben grimaced.  “Oh, I don’t know.  That’s touchy territory you’re asking me to enter.”

    Jonathan looked his friend directly in the eye.  “You’re not lacking in backbone yourself, are you, Ben?”

    Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Are you?” he asked stiffly.  “Why can’t you do your own talking, Payne?”

    “You’re second in command,” Jonathan said, ignoring Ben’s sudden switch to his more formal patronymic.  “Besides, Larrimore’s more likely to listen to you.”

    “I’m not sure I agree with that,” Ben scoffed.

    “Will you talk to him?” Jonathan pressed.

    Ben stared heavenward, as if requesting guidance.  “I’ll think about it,” he said.  Seeing he’d get no more definitive response, Jonathan thanked Ben for his time and made his way back to camp.  Ben pulled up some extra greasewood to give him time to compose his face and returned to his own campfire.

    Inger looked up from dredging Adam’s newly caught trout in cornmeal.  “Is something wrong?” she asked anxiously.

    “Later,” Ben muttered, jerking his head toward Adam, who was reading his primer next to wagon.  Understanding, Inger nodded and continued to prepare supper.

    Late that night, after Adam and Hoss were asleep, Ben told Inger what Jonathan had proposed.  “I’m proud of the men’s confidence in me,” he said, “but I just couldn’t accept, Inger.”

    “Of course, you could not,” Inger said, stroking his cheek.  “It vould have been wrong.”

    “Are you sure?” Ben asked quietly.  “Payne has a point.  We are racing a deadline, and if we miss it because I didn’t have the backbone to take over—”

    Inger sat up abruptly.  “It is not a question of courage, but of right and wrong.  What our friends ask is wrong, Ben.”

    “You’re sure?” Ben questioned again, his voice barely a whisper.

    “I am sure,” Inger said firmly.

    “What about talking to Lawrence?” Ben continued.

    “About Camilla?”

    Ben nodded.

    “Oh, I don’t know, Ben,” Inger sighed.  “I think Lawrence already knows anything you could tell him.”

    “Except how disgruntled the others are,” Ben pointed out.

    “You can hardly tell him that!” Inger exclaimed.  Seeing Adam stir restlessly in his sleep, she lowered her voice.  “If you tell him that, the damage is done, Ben,” she said.  “You might as vell take his position then, for he could not do the job once he knew.”

    “You’re right,” Ben whispered wearily.  “Maybe the land levels out further on.  I could ask about that, I guess.”

    “Yah,” Inger said softly and lay down again in Ben’s arms.  Like Ben, she knew the answer to that question was meaningless.  No matter how level the land became, sooner or later they’d have to face the Sierra Nevadas, and from the moment they began that ascent every ounce of excess weight could jeopardize their chances of survival.  Still, they had wrestled long enough with the problem for one night.  Tomorrow would be another strenuous day; they needed rest if they were to face the new challenges it would bring.

    The sweltering heat seemed the greatest obstacle to be overcome as the train moved forward on Friday.  The land did level out a little and the wagons made better time.  That morning they moved through the northern edge of an area known as Thousand Springs, the three-acre expanse taking its name from the numerous springs——some hot, some cold——that dotted the terrain.

    The guidebooks said you could boil an egg in the hotter pools of alkaline water.  Only the Larrimores and Paynes, however, had started out with chickens and the Paynes’ were all dead now.  The Larrimores still had three scrawny hens left, but after the long months on the trail they produced so few eggs, they scarcely seemed worth their feed.  Camilla had saved back two eggs, though, for the children to boil.  The other youngsters crowded around, eyeing the eggs hungrily, but none ill-mannered enough to ask for a taste.  They contented themselves with watching the process and felt rewarded just seeing an egg boil without benefit of fire.

    As reported, the waters were hot enough to cook the eggs solid.  When he was sure they were done, Sterling took both and plunged them into one of the cooler springs so he and his sister could peel and eat them.  Jewel shared her egg with her friend Mary, but Sterling ate his with a smirk on his face that even his closest companions found hard to take.

    Boiling the eggs didn’t delay the train, for the wagons continued to move, and the youngsters caught up as they had when they visited the City of Rocks.  At the western end of the trail that passed through the cluster of springs the travelers saw for the first time a small stream edged with blue grass and willows.  It was a climactic moment in their journey west; for these were the headwaters of the Humboldt River, the waterway that would be their lifeline and their guide through the arid country of the Great Basin.  They would follow it for the next three hundred miles until it simply died in the sand and they faced the greatest challenge of all.

    Step by step, the emigrants plodded through deep sand, pushing themselves and their animals.  By the time they made camp Friday they had covered eighteen miles, and Saturday’s progress was even better.  The dissatisfied grumbling faded away, and Ben took heart.  Perhaps, if they continued to put this kind of mileage behind them each day, they could make up for the delays they had experienced and those that might lie ahead.  He stopped debating whether he should speak to Lawrence and began to hope there would be no need.

    Rest, however, the travelers did need.  Having driven twelve days now without a break, the last two long and hard, rest was essential; and since they were camped near a cold spring, the vote to lay over for the Sabbath was unanimous.


“Ooh, you’re getting to be a big boy,” Ben cooed to his younger son as he gave him a parting squeeze after breakfast Monday morning and handed him back to his mother.  “I don’t think you’ll be able to carry him on your back much longer, Inger.”

    Inger kissed the baby and smiled up at Ben.  “What else can I do?  At two months, he can scarcely valk by himself.”  Hoss squirmed in her arms, and Inger laughed.  “But if you keep that up, Mama vill drop you, you heavy thing.”

    “He’s just eager to hit the trail, aren’t you, Hoss?” Adam grinned, reaching up to wiggle his brother’s fat little foot.  The baby rewarded him with a gurgle that sounded almost like a laugh to Adam.

    “I’m glad one of us is,” Ben commented wryly.  “I, for one, have seen all of the Humboldt Valley I care to.”

    “Best get hitched up, then, so ve can leave it,” Inger giggled.

    “Yeah!” Ben chortled.  “If I hurry, it shouldn’t take more than three or four weeks.”

    Inger rolled her eyes.  “Then, by all means, Ben, do not dawdle.”

    Ben didn’t really need the admonishment.  The Humboldt, with its strong alkaline waters, encouraged no one to tarry; and considering the date on the calendar, perhaps that was well.  Feeling the constraint of time, the Larrimore train moved steadily along the river’s serpentine path.  Around 9 a.m. the trail divided.  On Larrimore’s advice, his party took the left fork.  “The other way’s seven miles longer and a lot rockier,” Lawrence told them.

    At noon they stopped near Humboldt Springs, grateful that the water they found to the left of the road was somewhat better than what they could draw from the river itself.  After lunch the wagons continued over rolling ground——sometimes near the river, sometimes not——until they came to a valley with a good supply of coarse grass and decent water.  Regardless of their desire to press on, the emigrants had to stop for the night.  It would take them three hours to reach the next reliable supply of acceptable water, and the sun was already dropping on the western horizon.

    Tuesday’s journey looked much like that of the day before:  at times the trail ran close to the river; at others it headed directly over intervening bluffs, only to return to the river once again.  Where they walked, however, made little difference to the emigrants.  Wherever they were, the same sand sifted into their shoes, the same dust blanketed their faces until they all looked like highwaymen wearing masks of dirt.

    The waters of the Humboldt worked well enough for washing.  In fact, Clyde Thomas joked that you didn’t even need to apply soap.  “The lye in the water’s strong enough to scour you clean all by itself,” he cackled, but Nelly slapped a bar of soap in his hand anyway.

    Unfortunately, the water was more fit for washing gritty bodies than for quenching thirsty tongues.  Coffee helped disguise the bitter taste, so even the children started to drink that instead of water.  Adam had been excited about his first taste of the grownup beverage, but soon decided the grownups were welcome to it.

    Ben laughed when his son expressed that opinion.  “You’re not getting a fair introduction, Adam,” he said.  “The Humboldt makes mighty poor coffee.”

    Half past nine Wednesday morning the train prepared to ford the Humboldt for the first of four times, according to the guidebooks.  Larrimore had told his party that the river rarely ran deep, but as the others looked at the crossing, they began to question his memory.  “It’s deeper than last year,” Lawrence admitted.  “There must have been more rain here than usual this season.”

    “Oh, dear,” Camilla moaned.  “You promised me the Humboldt would have nothing but shallow fords, Lawrence.”

    Lawrence put his arm around her, speaking more for her benefit than that of the emigrants to whom he directed his words.  “I still believe we can ford across without problem; and if there really has been more rain than usual, there’ll probably be more grass.”

    “That will be good for our teams,” Stefán asserted.

    “Right you are, son,” Larrimore agreed enthusiastically.  “The water may be less alkaline, too, from the rains.  The other men nodded.  Better water and better forage would definitely be advantages; they’d gladly put up with slightly deeper river crossings in exchange for those benefits.  Most couldn’t help thinking, however, that if what they’d tasted so far represented less alkaline water, they wouldn’t want to drink from the Humboldt in a dry year.

    The river was running about three and a half feet deep, so the wagon boxes did get damp.  No one, though, felt the situation warranted taking time to raise them as they had earlier.  Let their goods get a little wet; it was better than losing time this late in the year.  Anyway, the river wasn’t wide here, so the wagons shouldn’t take in too much water.

    The travelers had learned their lesson well at earlier crossings:  they took none for granted, however effortless they appeared.  This one, though, proved to be just as it seemed; and the wagons rumbled through the stream with time enough to put a few more miles behind them before they stopped for lunch.  By the time the wagons stopped again that evening, they had covered fifteen miles, which, taking a river crossing into consideration, seemed satisfactory.

    The emigrants reached the next ford the following day about eleven and decided to take their noon break before crossing.  “Two down and two to go,” Adam chirped as he munched his second piece of cornbread.

    “Well, not exactly,” his father said.

    “Four minus two is two, Pa,” the mathematically inclined boy insisted.

    “I know, Adam,” Ben said, “but I’m not sure the folks who wrote this guidebook are as good with figures as you.”

    “What do you mean, Ben?” Inger asked, lifting Hoss to her shoulder and rocking him back and forth to soothe him to sleep.

    “Well, it’s confusing,” Ben admitted.  “We crossed the first ford yesterday, and the one after this is called the third in the book, so this has to be the second, but it’s not exactly the Humboldt we’re crossing here.”  Ben pointed north.  “You see, this stream comes down the valley and flows into the Humboldt down that way.”  He pointed the opposite direction.

    “So, what does the book call this?”

    Ben opened the book and flipped through its pages.  “North fork of the Humboldt,” he read.

    “So, it’s still part of the Humboldt, right, Pa?” Adam asked.

    Ben shook his head.  “I guess so, but here,” he added, pointing to a line on the printed page, “it describes the fourth ford and then on the next page it has one called Gravely Ford.  That’s on the Humboldt, too.”

    “So, there’s five?” Adam asked, his face wrinkling with bewilderment.

    “Looks like it to me,” Ben said, “though I couldn’t say whether this one is the extra or that gravely one.”

    “Does it matter?” Inger asked.

    “Probably does to Camilla,” Ben said waggishly.

    Inger gave his hand a light slap.  “Behave yourself,” she whispered.

    By whatever name, this ford of the river posed no problems.  The waters weren’t quite as deep, and Lawrence promised they would continue to diminish.  “All the rivers in the Great Basin dwindle down the further they get from their source,” he explained.

    That seemed evident.  The depth here was no more than three feet, and the waters rippled only slightly in the gentle breeze.  The wagons easily maneuvered the thirty-six-foot width, and their boxes weren’t even dampened.  Almost immediately after leaving the river, the road climbed over a high bluff to avoid the narrow river canyon, but it soon returned to bottomland again.  The pattern repeated itself three times within the next five miles.

    Rolling near the river after the third ascent to the bluffs, the Larrimore train pulled to a stop behind another party of emigrants.  Lawrence and Ben went forward to see if there were trouble, for a wagon train stopped at mid-afternoon always raised questions.  They found the other emigrants busily butchering some of their oxen.

    Seeing the broken arrows lying near one of the carcasses, Ben paled.  “Indians?” he asked anxiously, in his concern forgetting to let Lawrence, as captain, take the lead.

    “Consarned Diggers!” the other traveler snarled.  “Been sniping at us since noon.  Finally hit a couple of oxen.  I’ll be blamed if I’ll see them get the use of the beef, though.”

    “Any people hurt?” Lawrence queried.

    “Naw, it’s food they’re after,” the man said, wiping his butcher knife on his pants leg.  “If you folks got any loose stock, better pull ‘em up close.”

    “We will,” Lawrence said.  “Any objection to our train passing you?”

    “None at all, mister.”  The man gave a rough laugh.  “Matter of fact, I’d just as soon them Diggers had some fresh targets out front.”

    Ben and Lawrence each made an obligatory smile at the man’s joke, nodded in farewell and headed back to their own wagons.  “I didn’t like the sound of that,” Ben said.  “Did you have any trouble with Indians last year, Lawrence?”

    “No, but I heard some of the stragglers on the trail did,” Larrimore admitted.  “I’m afraid this year we fall in that category.”

    “Yeah,” Ben muttered.  One more reason to rue their late departure and the irritating delays, as if they’d needed another.

    The other men gathered around when their two leaders returned and listened to the grim report.  “I’ll have Enos close up with the loose stock,” Larrimore said.

    “You think they’ll attack?” Wentworth asked.  “Should we circle the wagons?”

    Lawrence shook his head.  “These Indians don’t work that way, from what I’ve been told.  They won’t make a full scale attack; but if they get a chance to shoot an animal, they will, hoping we’ll leave the crippled beast behind to provide their supper.  We’ll do it, too; those folks ahead are fools to waste time salvaging the meat.”

    “You tell them that?” McTavish snorted.

    Lawrence shook his head.  “No point.  They’re too far into the job, but we won’t make the same mistake.”

    “You think we’ll be attacked, then?” Stefán asked, his fair face paling a shade lighter.

    Ben put his arm around the boy’s slender shoulders.  “We’ll hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, son.  I’m sure that’s what our captain means.”

    “That’s right,” Lawrence said.  “Now, let’s get these wagons rolling, men.  The Indians may have scattered, but I think it best we leave this vicinity.”

    “And hope they ain’t waitin’ ahead,” Clyde muttered.

    In grim silence the men returned to their wagons and reported the incident to their wives.  “You stay close to the wagon, Adam,” Ben ordered.  “No more ranging out to explore the countryside.”

    Adam’s black eyes grew big with awe, for he’d never heard his father speak so seriously before about the danger of Indian attack.  “Yes, sir,” he promised.  “I’ll stay close.”  Ben smiled and smoothed the boy’s straight, dark hair.  He knew he could trust Adam to keep his word; he was that kind of boy.

    Though the men kept watchful eyes on the land around them, they saw no Indians that afternoon; nor, as they approached the third ford of the Humboldt, had they seen any sign of trouble on Friday.  The water level had dropped another half-foot; so, like the other crossings, this one was easy.  Even Camilla Larrimore seemed to be taking them in stride now.

    When the travelers made camp on the far shore, Ben watered the stock and let them forage for grass before penning them in the corral of wagons for the night.  Not wanting Adam to leave that protective circle, Ben then drew water for cooking and cleaning.  He had just returned from the river when Billy Thomas came screaming toward the wagons, his hands clutching the drawers he’d evidently just dropped to relieve himself.  “Injuns!” the boy hollered as he stumbled toward camp.

    Ben dropped the bucket and ran to the wagon for his rifle.  Similar clatters echoed around the camp as other men dropped whatever was in their hands and grabbed their weapons.  “Get down by the wheel, Inger!” Ben shouted.  Inger snatched Hoss from his blanket and cowered behind the scant cover of the wagon wheel.

    As the men raked their eyes across the sage-dappled sand in search of assaulting savages, the sudden silence was broken by loud, continued laughter.  Turning, Ben saw the red-headed Thomas boy rolling in the dust near the center of the encampment.  Ben lowered his rifle.  “That scamp!” he sputtered.

    Inger gasped.  “Oh, Ben!  There are no Indians?”

    “Don’t think so,” Ben said tersely.  “There’s one fire-colored scalp I wouldn’t mind handing them right now, though.”

    Inger stood up, still trembling.  “He’s yoost a boy, Ben; he meant no harm.”

    Ben couldn’t see Billy’s antic quite that generously; nor, clearly, could Clyde.  As soon as he realized the hoax his boy had pulled, he stomped over and jerked Billy up by one arm.  “It’s all right, folks,” Clyde called.  “False alarm, but I’m about to turn this young imp into a redskin—leastwise, his bottom parts!”

    Removing his belt, Clyde dragged a suddenly contrite Billy behind their wagon.  The intermittent yelps that drifted back to the camp were sweet music to adult ears, for none of the grownups found Billy’s joke a laughing matter.  It could too easily have been the truth.  Clyde finally emerged and headed for Ben’s wagon.  “Sorry about the scare, folks,” he said.  “I don’t know what gets into that boy.”

    Ben nodded his acceptance of the apology.  “We should have known better,” he said.  “From all we’ve been told, we should have known not to expect an all-out attack.  The Diggers are more given to arrows out of nowhere.”

    “Yeah, but I ain’t trustin’ my life to what we been told,” Clyde said.  “We just might run into some injuns what ain’t heard the same tales.”

    Ben gave a short laugh.  “True enough.  Better safe than sorry.”

    “Amen to that!” Clyde said.  “Well, I’d best get on around the camp and make amends.”

    As Clyde left, Inger giggled and Ben raised a questioning eyebrow in her direction.  “That Billy!” she tittered.  “Who else vould have thought to keep his pants down like that to make the story look more real?”

    Ben laughed.  “He’s inventive, all right.”  He wagged a finger under Adam’s nose.  “Don’t you go taking after any of his ornery ways, boy.”

    “I won’t, Pa,” Adam grumbled, offended that his father even thought him capable of such devilment.  The mood lifted a moment later, though, replaced by curiosity.  “Pa, why do they call these Indians Diggers?” Adam asked.  “I never heard of that tribe before.”

    “That’s not their tribal name, Adam,” Ben explained, “although I don’t what is.  That’s just what the white men call them because they get most of their food by digging in the ground——roots, grubs, whatever they can find.”

    “Ugh!” Adam declared.  “I sure wouldn’t want to be a Digger.”

    “How sad!” Inger sighed.  “They surely can’t feed very vell on such things.  No vonder they shoot the oxen.”

    Ben gave her a quick embrace.  “Inger, my love, only you would worry about the Indians’ food supply while they’re trying to steal your only means out of this infernal basin.”

    “But they must be starving, Ben,” Inger said.  “Perhaps, if ve offered them some food—”

    “No!” Ben said sharply.  “Get it out of your head, Inger.  There’s no safe way to make the offer.”

    Inger nodded, her eyes pained.  “I suppose not, but I hate to think of anyone going hungry.”

    Ben kissed her cheek.  “My tender-hearted little wife,” he whispered.  “You always did want to mother the whole world.”

    By 9 a.m. Saturday the wagons had to ford the Humboldt once again.  The water here was two feet deep and readily forded, so the train rolled on with little loss of time.  Along this stretch of trail the mountains sometimes crowded so close to the river that there was barely room for the wagons to pass between them and the Humboldt.  The wagons rumbled over ridges and through small creeks, finally stopping near an especially cold one for their noon break.

    Having driven later than usual, the emigrants had few hours of daylight left, but they had managed to cover six more miles when those in the lead began to hear cries for help from the rear of the train.  Grabbing rifles, the men ran back, firing in vain at the dark-skinned natives disappearing over the last ridge the wagons had crossed.  Leaving Jonathan and Clyde to keep watch, the others went back to assess the damage.

    McTavish and Wentworth were already at work taking their wounded oxen from the yoke.  Each had lost one.  “Must we leave it behind?” Wentworth asked.  “I don’t have extras.  If there’s a chance this one could recover—”

    “Tie it to the back of your wagon,” Lawrence said, “but you’ll have to cut it loose if it can’t keep up.”  Wentworth nodded.

    Enos Montgomery came running up.  “They got your milk cow, Mr. Larrimore,” he reported, “and a couple of the loose oxen, one of Mr. Payne’s and one of yours.”

    Lawrence rested his hands on the young man’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry about it.  Are you all right, son?”

    “Yes, sir,” the hired man stammered.  “I—I got down off my horse fast when I saw the first arrow.  I guess it was cowardly to hide behind the cow, but I didn’t have no rifle.”

    “You did the right thing,” Larrimore assured him.  “I’d rather lose the cow than you, my boy.  I haven’t forgotten how good you were to us when we had the cholera.”  Enos relaxed and gave his employer a grateful grin before returning to the stock.

    Lawrence looked at the other men and shrugged.  “Those who have milk cows had better tie them to the backs of their wagons,” he said.

    “Well, we can’t tie everything to the back of the wagon,” Payne muttered.  He opted to let his milk cow range loose and tie his horses and colt to the wagon, instead.

    Larrimore looked over at the rear wagons.  “You ready to go, McTavish?” he called.

    “Yeah!” McTavish yelled back.  “Let’s get out of here.”

    Lawrence frowned and walked over to Wentworth.  “I have extra stock, Ebenezer; I’ll have Enos hitch one up for you.”

    “I can’t pay you,” Wentworth said.

    Larrimore slapped the minister’s arm.  “You could if you ever took up a collection after your sermon, Reverend.  Use the ox and welcome; you can return it when we reach California.”

    Ebenezer smiled.  “Thank you.  I’ll be less likely to hold you up that way, I’m sure.”  Lawrence nodded and with the other men moved back to start the wagons rolling again.

    Ebenezer’s ox managed to limp along behind the wagon until the train made camp.  It was obvious by that time, though, that the animal was weakening.  Within the safety of the circle of wagons, McTavish helped the minister butcher the ox, and Wentworth shared the beef among his neighbors.

    It was Saturday; and the men, as usual, gathered to determine whether to travel or rest the next day.  Considering the dangers of the area they were in and the necessity of reaching the mountains before snow blocked the passes, all agreed to keep moving, not just this Sunday, but every day they could until the mountains had been surmounted.

    As the emigrants left camp Sunday morning, a phantom of fear followed their footsteps.  Few could resist the temptation to glance nervously over their shoulders.  Mothers clutched children to their sides and fathers swept with wary eyes every rock that seemed large enough to conceal a bowman.

    They soon learned, however, that riveting their eyes on the distant horizon instead of the ground at their feet could be equally hazardous.  Shortly after leaving their noon encampment, the wagoneers heard a piercing cry, coming again from the rear wagons, and ran to provide rifle cover.

    Ben, last in line today, didn’t bother getting his rifle, for he had seen the Wentworth boy collapse and knew it wasn’t an Indian arrow that had struck him.  Just as Ben arrived, Ebenezer’s older son raised a large stone over his head and dropped it forcefully on the five-foot rattlesnake that had sunk its fangs in his brother’s leg.

    Adam, running up behind his father, looked up at Matthew Wentworth with admiring eyes.  “Wow!  What a whopper!” he cried.

    Ben turned and clutched Adam close.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded.  “Get back to your mother.”

    “But, Pa—” Adam protested.

    Ben gave the boy’s backside a firm swat.  “Get!” he shouted and Adam took off.  Ben dropped to his knees beside the stricken boy, but Matthew was already cutting Mark’s trouser leg to reveal the ugly marks.  “You know what to do, son?” Ben asked.

    “Just from books, sir,” Matthew admitted.  “Have you ever—”

    “No,” Ben said quickly.  “Just in books, like you.  Go ahead, son; you’re doing fine.”

    Ebenezer held his younger son in his arms while the elder cut an X into the boy’s leg to make it bleed.  To keep from crying out, Mark bit down, his teeth making deep indentations in his lower lip.  Then Matthew took a deep breath, cupped his mouth over the wound and began to suck the poison out.  After while he paused.  “Is that enough?  Does anyone know?” he demanded of the circle of people watching him.

    Heads began to shake.  Finally, Ben spoke up.  “Better safe than sorry, as we said so many times.  If you’re tired, I could—”

    “No, he’s my brother,” Matthew insisted proudly.  He scowled involuntarily, though, as he bent over Mark once more.  After spitting out five more mouthfuls of blood, Matthew stood up.  “I can’t get any more,” he said.  “It’s enough, don’t you think?”

    “Bound to be,” Clyde assured him as he gave the boy a hearty slap on the back.  “Good job, son.”

    Inger knelt beside Mark and began to bandage his leg.  “You vill feel better soon,” she murmured.

    Mark blinked back the tears in his eyes and nodded.  When Inger finished, several of the men helped carry the Wentworth boy to his wagon and settled him inside.  Inger offered to ride with him and Ebenezer gladly accepted.

    The train rolled on, having more reason now than ever to put the Humboldt Valley behind them.  By mid-afternoon the emigrants reached Gravely Ford and crossed the Humboldt River for the last time.  They would remain on its western shore until the river quit flowing at Humboldt Sink.

    The wind that afternoon was cool, but too brisk to be pleasant.  Particles of sand peppered already dirty faces, swirling around the overlanders in an almost blinding storm of dust.  At least, though, they saw no Indians.  Whether that was because they couldn’t see through the whirlwind of sand or because the Indians, too, had taken shelter from the storm, no one knew; but they breathed a little easier when the day ended without hearing an arrow whiz through the air.

    The travelers moved on the next day, their attention divided between scanning the skyline for attacking arrows and inspecting the earth for flying fangs.  In the Wentworth wagon Mark lay feverish and fretful.  Inger sat beside him throughout the day, bathing his hot forehead and singing softly to distract him from his pain.  At noon, of course, she left to prepare a meal for her family, but returned as soon as she could with broth made from the beef of his father’s slain ox.  Mark drank it down in huge gulps, for he had started to feel a little better and his appetite was returning.

    The wagons pulled out again after a brief stop, for everyone wanted to make as much progress as possible today.  They had covered eighteen miles and were just circling the wagons for the night when once again a sharp, pain-induced cry rang up the line of wagons; and Clyde Thomas, walking beside the rear one, grabbed his leg and fell.

    Rifle in hand, Ben ran back to his friend.  As usual, the attacker had disappeared into the fading sunlight.  Ben helped Clyde up and assisted him to the interior of the circle the wagons had started to form.  Nelly ran to her husband’s side, a frantic boy at her heels.

    “Pa!” Billy screamed.

    “Hush, Billy!” his mother ordered as she cradled Clyde’s head in her lap.  “Your Pa’ll be fine.”

    “My team,” Clyde coughed.

    “I’ll get them,” Ben promised.  “Let’s see about you first.”

    “No, no,” Clyde insisted.  “We got to form the circle; them redskins might be back.”

    Larrimore had reached them by that time.  “I’ll see to that,” he said.  “You let Ben take care of that wound.”

    “Burns like fire,” Clyde moaned.  “Get it out, Ben.”

    Ben took firm hold of the arrow’s wand with both hands and tugged.  Clyde screamed, but the arrow came out intact.  Ben gasped with relief.  He was no doctor; but he knew if the shaft had broken, someone was going to have to operate and remove the arrowhead.  He had a sick feeling he would have been the designated surgeon.  He smiled at Clyde.  “Better?”

    Clyde shook his head.  “Something’s wrong, Ben.  It’s more than just pain; it burns.”

    Ben paled.  “The arrowhead might have been poisoned, Clyde.  I’ve read that sometimes the Indians dip them in rattlesnake venom.”

    Nelly shrieked.  Inger, who had clambered down from the Wentworth wagon to run to the site of the latest calamity, took the terrified woman in her arms.

    “Lands, woman, don’t holler right in my ear,” Clyde yelled.

    “Oh, I’m sorry, darlin’,” Nelly whispered, bending over to kiss his sand-coated brow.

    Billy turned a tearful face to Mr. Cartwright.  “You gotta help my Pa,” he demanded.  “He’s hurtin’.”

    Inger reached for the frightened boy and pulled him close.  “Shh, Billy,” she soothed.  “Of course, Ben vill help your pa.”

    Ben’s head jerked toward his wife.  What did she expect him to do?  He had no experience with poisoned arrows or wounds of any kind, for that matter.  A sudden inspiration struck him.  If the arrow had been dipped in rattlesnake venom, maybe the treatment should be the same the Wentworth lad had administered to his brother.  Quickly, he explained his idea to Clyde.

    “Try it,” Clyde ordered.  “There’s poison in there, for sure.  I can feel it in my gut.  Suck ‘er out, Ben.”

    Ben drew his knife and slit an X in Clyde’s left thigh.  He squeezed the opening to start the blood flowing, took a deep breath, then started to suck and spit.  With the first mouthful, he knew they’d guessed correctly.  The fluid didn’t taste like plain blood:  it had a bitter, medicinal flavor; the arrow had been poisoned.  He didn’t have time to tell Clyde, though.  He worked as fast as he could——sucking and spitting, sucking and spitting——until he was sure he’d gotten out all he could.

    As Ben leaned back, panting, Inger and Nelly worked to wrap the leg in clean cloths.  Little Billy was crying hard now.  Adam tried to give him consoling pats on the back, but Billy was oblivious to comfort.  With tears making beige rivulets down his dirty cheeks, he crawled over and put his arms around Ben’s neck.  “Thank you,” he sobbed.

    Ben’s arms closed instinctively around the boy.  “There, there now,” he murmured.  “It’ll be all right.”  Seeing that the women had Clyde’s leg bandaged, Ben helped the older man to his feet and supported him as they walked to the Thomas wagon.  “Take it easy,” Ben ordered, propping Clyde against the inner front wheel.  “I’ll get your tent set up and see to your stock.”

    “Thanks, Ben,” Clyde whispered, “for everything.”

    Ben started to leave, but Nelly took his arm. “You folks will eat at our cook fire tonight,” she said.  “With all the doctorin’ and nursin’ you and your wife have done today, and now our chores on top of your own, I won’t take no for an answer.”

    “Never occurred to me to say no,” Ben replied.

    “Yah, ve vill eat vith you,” Inger agreed, “but let me help vith dinner.  You have Clyde to care for, after all.”

    Nelly gave the Swedish woman a quick hug.  “I guess we all have our hands full today, don’t we?  Sure, honey, I could use the help.”

    The long day finally ended, to everyone’s relief.  In the back of all their thoughts, though, was an unspoken question——worded differently in each mind but, ultimately, the same.  Would they survive to see the shores of the Pacific or would they end their days here beside the lifeless waters of the Humboldt?

    The wagons traveled over level ground for most of the day Tuesday, and the emigrants were grateful.  For one thing, the smoother terrain was easier on the oxen.  Most importantly, of course, the flat land provided less concealment and a wider view of anyone approaching the train.  Late that afternoon, however, the trail grew rocky again, crossing ridges behind which silent stalkers could squat unseen.  It was hard not to visualize them lurking behind each boulder, each uplift of land; but the wagons circled that evening, their owners having seen no sign of trouble the entire day.

    When Ben had both his team and Clyde’s unhitched, he started to drive them to the river, the only water available.  He carried his rifle in one hand and an empty bucket in the other.  “I’ll bring you back some water soon as I can,” he told Inger.

    “There is no hurry, Ben,” she said.  “I vant to check on Clyde and Mark, and I plan to keep supper simple tonight.  I am tired.”

    “Fine with me,” Ben replied.  “This may take awhile.”

    Inger went first to check on Mark.  He had been feeling better when she visited him during the noon break.  Now he was sitting outside the wagon, his leg propped on a sack of cornmeal.  “I see you are better yet,” Inger smiled.

    “Yes, ma’am,” Mark said.  “The leg’s still sore, but it doesn’t throb like it did at first.”

    “That is good,” Inger said.

    “Is Mr. Thomas doing okay now?” Mark asked.

    “I vas yoost going to see,” Inger said.  “You were my first patient, you know.”

    Mark laughed.  “You’re the prettiest nurse I ever had.”

    Inger bent over and tweaked his nose.  “I am probably the only nurse you ever had, you healthy boy!”  Mark gave her a sheepish grin.  He couldn’t deny it.

    Heading the opposite direction, Inger peeked into the Thomas wagon.  “How are you feeling, Clyde?” she called.

    “Grumpy,” Nelly answered for him.

    “Fool woman won’t help me out of the wagon,” Clyde complained.

    “Not ‘til the work’s done,” Nelly said firmly.  “You’d be hobblin’ down to the river and totin’ back water before I could stop you.”

    “What I ought to be doin’,” Clyde grumbled.  “Ben doin’ my chores again, is he?”

    “Of course,” Inger said, giving Clyde her sweetest smile.  “You still have not told me how your leg feels.”

    “Not good,” Clyde admitted.  “Don’t burn like it did, but it hurts somethin’ fierce.”

    “Vell, give it a good rest,” Inger admonished.  “I have to go now.  That is my cow I hear bellowing to be milked.”

    “Thanks for stoppin’ by,” Nelly said.  “It’s nice to see a pleasant face for a change today.”  She scowled at her husband, but the twinkle in her brown eyes counteracted the irked expression of her lips.

    Inger headed back to her wagon to find Adam just getting the tin pail out.  “Let me have that, Adam,” she said.

    “I can milk the cow,” Adam said.

    “Yah, I know,” Inger replied, “but I have time.  Your father vill not be back for awhile.  You might as vell start your lessons.”

    “Okay,” Adam said.  “I’m at a real interesting part.”

    “You vill have to tell me about it at supper,” his mother said, taking the pail from his hand.  “Is Hoss still asleep?”

    “Yes, Mama.”

    “Keep an eye on him ‘til I finish the milking, then,” Inger said.  As Adam disappeared back into the wagon to get his primer, Inger moved toward the milk cow.  “There now, sveet Bossy,” she crooned.  “I know you are full and vant to be relieved.”  She smiled as she stroked the cow’s dusty flank.  “Poor Bossy, this blowing sand is hard on you, too, yah?”

    Inger’s blue eyes shot wide and with a cry more of surprise than pain she fell against the cow and slid to the ground.  She heard footsteps rushing toward her, heard a small voice scream.  Adam.  She must get to Adam.

    “Lie still, Inger,” she heard a woman’s voice tell her and felt a hand press her to the ground.  Nelly.  It was Nelly, but why was she here?  She should be with Clyde; it was Clyde who was hurt.

    “Mama!” Adam cried, clawing at the arrow sticking out of her back.

    “No, Adam, leave it be,” Nelly ordered and pulled him back.  Adam twisted out of her grasp and ran toward the river screaming for his father.  Ben, his face contorted with terror, was already on his way back to the camp.  He snatched Adam up on the run and practically threw him into Nelly’s outstretched arms when he reached his wife’s side.

    “Inger!” Ben groaned.  His hands trembled as he touched the shaft of the arrow buried in her back.

    “You want me to do it, Ben?” Jonathan offered.

    Ben started to refuse, but, looking down, saw his hands shaking.  “Yes, please.  I—I don’t think I’m steady enough.”

    Jonathan nodded, set his lips and took firm hold of the shaft.  It broke in his hand.  “Ben, I’m sorry!” he cried.

    In shock, Ben looked at the faces of his friends, finally fixing his gaze on Nelly.  She shook her head.  “It’s too deep, Ben,” she sobbed.

    “Get me a knife,” Ben shouted.  “Somebody get me a knife!  If I have to do this myself, I —”

    Larrimore grasped his shoulders and twisted Ben to face him.  “Ben, you’ll kill her,” he said sharply.  “Nelly’s right; it’s in too deep.”

    They were right; Ben knew they were right, but he also knew that to do nothing meant death, too.  In that moment, Ben faced the cruel truth: his wife was going to die.  Nothing could stop it; removing the arrowhead would only make her bleed out sooner.  He gathered Inger’s limp form into his arms and wept unashamedly before his friends.

    Not a person watched his grief spill to the ground with dry eyes, for there was not one person in that group of fellow travelers whose life had not been touched by the gentle Swedish woman.  One by one, they drifted away:  some to give the distressed couple privacy, others to see to Ben’s livestock, still others to set up his tent and provide a better resting place for Inger’s final hours of life.

    Nelly pulled Adam aside.  “Come help me take care of Hoss,” she whispered.  Glad to have some way to help, Adam whisked the tears off his face and left with her.

    “Ben,” Inger murmured softly when they were alone.  “Please, Ben, do not be angry.”

    “Shh,” Ben whispered.  “Don’t waste your strength, my love.”

    “It is important,” Inger said slowly.  “You—you must forgive them, Ben.  They were only hungry; it vas the cow they vanted.”

    “I know that.  Hush, now,” Ben crooned.

    Inger’s eyes glistened with the moisture filling them.  “I vanted so much to see Sacramento vith you,” she said, “to help you find your dream.”

    “You will,” Ben told her.  “You will, sweetheart.”

    Inger closed her eyes and rested in his embrace.  She knew the truth; she knew he knew it, too.  But neither could bear to say the words to the other.  So she lay quietly, enjoying the strength of the arms holding her until someone came to tell Ben their tent was ready and he carried her inside.

    Inger could hear the sounds of the camp, but they seemed far away and fading further with each passing moment.  One, though, pierced through the fog beginning to envelop her.  “Ben,” she whispered.  “Ben, is that my baby or Rachel’s crying?”

    Ben was tempted to lie, but he couldn’t.  “It’s Hoss,” he answered, “but don’t worry about him now.”

    Inger tried to sit up, but couldn’t.  “Oh, Ben, he is hungry; I must feed him.”

    “You’re too weak,” Ben insisted.  “Rest, my love.”

    “No, Ben, please,” Inger pleaded.  “My baby, my baby.”  She began to weep.

    “Don’t cry,” Ben said, his voice breaking as he wiped her tears away.  “I’ll get your baby, sweetheart.”

    Outside, he saw Nelly trying to soothe his bawling son.  “I changed his diaper,” Nelly said, “but he’s hungry, Ben.”

    “I know,” Ben said, reaching for the baby.  Discerning his intent, Nelly covered her mouth as she watched Ben take the baby into the tent.  How something could seem so wrong and so right all at once, she couldn’t understand.

    Ben placed Hoss in his mother’s arms, then braced her body against his chest and unbuttoned her bodice.  With a weak hand, Inger pulled her breast out and positioned it before the baby’s mouth.  Hoss started to suck noisily, contentedly.  Inger smiled beatifically up into Ben’s face.

    Ben lost his last ounce of composure.  He wanted to be strong for Inger’s sake, but he could feel the tears streaming from his eyes.  The picture before him was so typical of all the love-filled moments he’d shared with Inger.  Somehow, it seemed fitting that she spend her last moments giving life:  it was all she’d ever done——giving, always giving, never counting the cost.

    The baby fell asleep at her breast, and she clutched him so closely Ben hadn’t the heart to take him from her. She lay so quietly against him that Ben thought she had drifted to sleep.  Then the luminous eyes opened again, serene as the waters of an alpine lake.  “Oh, Ben,” Inger murmured.  “It’s so cool here; I can feel the snow off the mountains.”  Her face shone with joy.  “Mama,” she whispered in childlike wonder and her eyes closed.

    Ben clutched her to his chest, but knew she could no longer feel his embrace.  “Farewell, my love,” he whispered and laid her gently down after pressing a kiss to her still warm cheek.  He took the sleeping baby from her arms and gave him the hug he had wanted to give Inger.  Holding the baby close, he left the tent and walked over to the Thomas wagon, where Nelly was giving Adam his supper.  “She’s gone,” Ben said simply to her inquiring look.

    “Oh, Ben, I’m so sorry,” Nelly murmured, feeling the words inadequate, but having no others.

    “Could—could you or one of the other ladies—”

    “We’ll see to her,” Nelly promised.  “It would be a privilege.  Do you want me to take the baby, Ben?”

    “No,” Ben said abruptly, then realized how sharp his tone had been.  “No,” he repeated more softly.  “I’d like to hold him.”  Nelly understood.  She’d felt much the same when Bobby had died:  she couldn’t hold him, so she’d clung the more tightly to those she did have left.

    Adam’s half-empty plate clunked to the ground.  His lower lip trembling, he moved into the shelter of his father’s outstretched arm.  Together, they wept and, together, found comfort.

* * * * *

    As the Reverend Wentworth intoned the final words of benediction, Ben stood beside the mound of earth beneath which Inger’s body would take its eternal rest.  Someone——Clyde, Ben thought——had carved her name into a board stripped from one of the wagons and nailed it to a stick at the head of her grave.  It was a kind thought.  At least, those who passed this lonely grave would know the name of its sweet occupant.  They could never, though, know Inger herself, never know they’d missed a treasure greater than all the gold in California.  A single tear trickled from the corner of Ben’s eye as he thought of those impoverished strangers.

    The baby in his arms started to whimper again as he had on and off throughout the morning.  “Shh,” Ben whispered.  “Be quiet, Hoss.”  This time the baby didn’t respond to the pats on his back.  The cries became louder, more insistent.  “Hush, son,” Ben soothed.

    Rachel Payne stepped to Ben’s side as soon as the minister said the final amen.  “Let me take the boy, Ben,” she suggested softly.  Ben shook his head vigorously and clutched the child even closer.  “Ben, he’s hungry,” Rachel pleaded.  “Let me nurse him for you.”

    Ben looked at her with pain-filled eyes.  He wanted to be everything to this child, but he had no breast for the baby to suckle.  “Do—do you have enough?” he choked.  “For them both?”

    “For now, I do,” Rachel said.  “Susan’s already eaten.  Give him to me, Ben.”  Reluctantly, Ben released the baby to her outstretched arms.

    The other emigrants, each stopping to offer Ben either a word or a touch of sympathy, made their way back to their wagons to ready them for departure.  Finally, Ben stood alone, except for the seven-year-old at his side.  The minister approached them and laid a consoling hand on the taller man’s shoulder.

    Ben turned anguished eyes to the minister’s face.  “Why, Reverend?” he pleaded.  “In the name of God, why?  She was—she was—”

    “An angel,” Ebenezer finished quietly.  “That’s the word I hear everyone using, Ben, and if ever anyone deserved it—”

    Tears began to splash Ben’s cheeks.  “She was that to me,” he sobbed.  “A touch of heaven in my life.  You can’t imagine how it feels to lose that.”

    “Can’t I?” the minister asked softly.

    Ben’s head snapped up, and he saw his own sorrow mirrored in the minister’s eyes.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Ebenezer,” he murmured.  “I—I wasn’t thinking.”

    “Why should you?” Ebenezer said.  “Grief this fresh shuts out all other feelings, but they do come back, Ben.”

    “Do they?” Ben asked absently.

    The man of God laid his other hand on Ben’s other shoulder.  “They do,” he promised.  His hand dropped to Adam’s head.  “Especially when a man has others who need him.”

    Ben, too, looked down at Adam and thought of his other son down by the wagons.  He squeezed Adam’s small body against his thigh and nodded.  Side by side, he and Ebenezer Wentworth walked back into camp, Ben going on to the Payne wagon.  Hoss was crying.

    “I gave him what I could,” Rachel said, bouncing the boy to try to soothe him, “but it wasn’t enough to satisfy him.  He’s a big eater, Ben.”

    “I know,” Ben sighed.  “I don’t know what to do, Rachel.  I can’t bear to lose him, too, but—”

    “Wait a minute,” Rachel said, handing Hoss to his father.  She stepped into her wagon and emerged with her two nippled bottles.  “Take these,” she offered.  “Maybe, between what your cow can give and what I can spare, we can fill this boy up.”

    Ben’s eyes threatened to spill over again, this time with gratitude.  “Thank you,” he said simply and carried the baby back to his own wagon.  He found a pail of milk sitting beside it and his brow wrinkled.  He hadn’t milked the cow that morning.  He hadn’t done any of his accustomed chores, in fact; yet here stood evidence that someone had done them for him.

    Nelly Thomas saw Ben staring at the milk pail and stepped over from her own wagon.  “Stefán’s work,” she said.  “He’s the one hitched your team, too.”

    “How thoughtful,” Ben stammered.  “Everyone’s been so kind.”

    “Repayment of our debts,” Nelly said softly.  “She was the heart of this train, Ben.”  Seeing the bottles crooked in Ben’s left arm, she reached for them.  “Let me fill one of those and see how this boy takes to cow’s milk.  Run get me a ladle, Adam.”  Adam scrambled at once into the wagon to seek the requested utensil.

    Ben let Nelly take both bottles so his hands would be freer to manage Hoss’s wriggling bulk.  “You think he might not tolerate cow’s milk?” he asked anxiously.

    “Some don’t,” Nelly admitted.  She gave Ben an encouraging smile.  “I imagine Hoss will, though.  He doesn’t strike me as a finicky eater.”

    For the first time since his wife had been shot, Ben gave a short laugh.  “No, Nelly, he strikes me as a boy who might eat anything and everything.”  His face grew sober again.  “How can I possibly provide enough for him?”

    “Let’s try the milk,” Nelly said.  “If that doesn’t satisfy him, I can cook up some cornmeal mush.”

    “Is he old enough for solid food?” Ben asked.

    “He may have to be,” Nelly said practically.  With a triumphant smile Adam handed her the ladle he’d found.  Nelly filled the bottle and pulled the rubber nipple over its top.  “Never liked these new-fangled things myself, but we’re sure lucky Rachel wasn’t so set in her ways.  You want me to feed the baby, Ben?”

    “I want to,” Adam said.  “He’s my brother.”

    Ben smiled and patted Adam’s sturdy shoulder.  He was going to need all the help he could get to ensure Hoss’s survival.  Who better to give it than his big brother?  “Yeah, that’s right,” Ben said.  “Sit down on the ground, son, so he’s easier to balance.”  He showed Adam how to hold the baby and insert the bottle into his mouth.

    The new source of nourishment felt strange to Hoss at first, but as soon as a drop of milk bounced onto his tongue, his cheeks began pumping in and out.   Nelly laughed.  “Nothing finicky about that boy!  He’ll make out, Ben.”  She touched Ben’s arm gently.  “You folks’ll be eating at my wagon from here on out,” she said.

    “Oh, no, we couldn’t,” Ben protested.  “That’s extra work for you.”

    “You’ve helped us when we needed it,” Nelly said.  “Now it’s our turn.  Besides, you’ll eat better if I do the cooking.”

    Ben nodded.  That much, at least, was true.  He could cook, of course; he’d had to before he met Inger.  His best efforts, however, had never provided any competition to woman-cooking.  “We accept,” he said finally, “provided you’ll use our provisions.”

    “Like they were my own,” Nelly promised.

    As soon as Hoss was fed and burped, Ben strapped him into the Cheyenne cradleboard.  He gave the baby a slight smile.  Strange, how a million small choices affected a man’s life.  He’d originally bought the cradleboard to ease Inger’s load.  Now it would let him manage the team while keeping his son close, and the closeness of Inger’s child against his back somehow seemed to say she herself wasn’t far away.  Surely, her presence would hover near the little one she had loved so dearly.

    The train moved out, leaving behind what Ben cherished most in the world.  Had he been alone, he could have cheerfully lain down beside Inger’s grave and waited for the Indians to send him to join her.  His own life meant nothing this bleak morning.  His sons, however, did matter.  Only his sons.  He had no right to sacrifice their lives to his grief; so he walked ahead, step by aimless step, blind to anything but concern for them.  His dreams were meaningless now that the woman who had shared them was gone.  He and Inger had spoken once of dreams deferred, but now those dreams were more than just deferred; they were dead.  All that lived in the heart of Ben Cartwright was love for his sons.


The next several days would always remain a blur to Ben, primarily, of course, because his life had lost its focus, but also because each day was so like the last that they blended indistinguishably into a haze of sameness.  While the prairie at the beginning of the journey had changed little from day to day, at least the surroundings had been pleasant:  green grass waving in the wind, springtime blossoms splashing the scene with rainbow hues.  By contrast, the Humboldt Valley was bare, dry, dusty, and——in October——cold.  Ben felt no desire to stay, but little more to go on; for the next day would look and feel exactly the same——purposeless, lifeless, dull.

    Around mid-afternoon Saturday, October 12th, the Larrimore train pulled up near a trading post at French Ford.  While the travelers had little time to spare, they decided to pay a brief visit, more to hear any news the trader might have to share than to purchase his goods.  As the others headed toward the small cabin, Ben slipped Hoss from his back and loosened the leather binders confining his son.  “Aren’t we going to the post, Pa?” Adam asked, frowning.

    “We have plenty of supplies, Adam,” his father murmured.  A sharp pain stabbed Ben as he remembered how Inger had rebuked herself for buying so much at Fort Hall.  He swallowed the hard lump that rose in his throat.  Considering their present circumstances, Inger had, indeed, purchased far more than they’d need.  With only himself and Adam to feed, excluding a little cornmeal for Hoss’s mush, the supplies would last long into winter; and by that time, hopefully, they’d be in a land where there was no shortage of food.

    “I just thought we’d go look,” Adam moped.

    Ben looked up and gave his son an understanding smile.  After the long, boring days on the trail, a boy Adam’s age naturally welcomed a break in the routine, even if it were only a visit to an unassuming little trading post.  “I’d rather stay here and rest, son,” he said, “but you’re welcome to go if someone will be responsible for you.”

    “I’ll ask Mrs. Thomas,” Adam said and took off.

    Holding his sleeping baby, Ben settled back against the wagon wheel.  He had no doubt that Nelly would agree to take Adam with her.  He closed his eyes, not intending to sleep, just to rest his eyes.


    Ben’s brown eyes opened.  “Yeah, Clyde?”

    Clyde leaned heavily against the wagon.  He’d tried to hobble around both yesterday and today, but his leg was still weak, and he welcomed any chance he found to take his weight off it.  “Come on up to the trading post with me,” he suggested.

    “No, thanks,” Ben said crisply.  “I’m a long way from being in need of supplies.”

    “I don’t figure to buy much, if anything,” Clyde said, “but I’d welcome the company.”

    Ben shook his head.  “I’d rather not, Clyde.  I’m tired.”

    Shaking his head, Clyde limped away to lean on Nelly’s arm as they walked toward the post.  “Couldn’t budge him,” he said.

    “I was afraid of that,” Nelly sighed.  “Ben worries me, Clyde; he’s brooding.”

    “It’s only been three days,” Clyde said.  “Give the man time.”

    “It’s like he’s lost all will to live,” Nelly argued.  “I hope time helps, but—”

    “Not now, Nelly,” Clyde muttered, jerking his head over his right shoulder.

    Nelly glanced back and saw Adam’s troubled face.  She hadn’t realized the boys were following so close.

    Adam knew he wasn’t supposed to have heard the grownups’ comments, but he had and he couldn’t help feeling frightened.  He’d just lost the only mother he’d ever really known, and now the Thomases were talking like he might lose his pa, too.  Could folks really die of a broken heart, like he’d heard some say?  Adam’s heart felt shattered, too, but he had no fear for his own life.  That is, of course, unless Pa up and died, too.  That, Adam was sure, would be more than he could bear.

    When he returned from the trading post, Adam took a long, appraising look at his father.  Pa was real sad; that was easy to see.  Adam was sure the Thomases were wrong, though.  Pa had smiled at him and asked if he’d had a good time.

    “It was okay,” Adam said, “but they didn’t have much.  I wish you had come, Pa.”

    “Maybe next time,” Ben said absently.

    Adam took the words at better than face value.  To him they were a promise and Pa had never broken a promise.  To keep this one, Pa’d surely have to keep living.  Reassured, Adam fell into step beside his father as the train headed out again.  Earlier in their journey, they might have stayed the night in the proximity of the trading post.  Now, they wanted to put in as many miles as possible each day, so they headed out on the trail again and covered three more before they encamped.

    As the train pulled out Sunday morning, Nelly Thomas, for the first time since leaving St. Joe, wished she were at the back of the train instead of at its head.  Ordinarily, she would have welcomed the opportunity to avoid the dust of the other wagons.  Being in the lead, though, meant that the Cartwrights were in the rearmost position, and Nelly couldn’t help worrying about them all morning.  Since Inger’s death, she’d been keeping an eye on the distraught widower; and she knew he wasn’t paying much attention to his surroundings.  So far, every time the Indians had attacked, they’d struck at the rear of the line, where Ben and his boys now walked.  Nelly wasn’t at all sure Ben was keeping a sharp lookout.  He seemed to be stumbling through a fog most of the time.

    Of course, when the wagons circled for their noon rest, the Thomases and Cartwrights were side by side again; and Nelly could breathe easier.  She chattered cheerfully as she went about the meal preparations and felt rewarded by Ben’s occasional glimmer of a smile.  He still wasn’t himself; but, at least, he appeared to be listening and responding.  The first day or two after Inger’s death, he’d scarcely seemed to hear what was said to him.

    Nelly first cooked Hoss’s daily ration of cornmeal mush.  What an eater that boy was!  He happily gummed the cereal Ben spooned into his mouth, seeming to like it even better than milk.  “I declare, Ben,” Nelly joked, “if that youngun had some teeth, you could feed him beefsteak.”

    “Provided we had beefsteak,” Ben said as he smiled at the baby.  Nelly’d quit trying to convince Ben to let her take care of Hoss, for the only time the man seemed truly alive was when he was tending the child.  As tears swam in her eyes, Nelly turned away.  Let Ben change all the diapers he wanted; let him bottle-feed his baby; let him spoon in porridge.  It was as beneficial to him as to Hoss.

    Monday found the Thomas wagon at the rear, so Nelly could keep closer watch on her self-appointed charges.  The emigrants pushed hard, dreading the lateness of the year.  Mid-October meant snow could begin at any time in the Sierras, and they still had something like two hundred and fifty miles to travel before they began that ascent.

    Day’s end found them in Lassen’s Meadow.  Mournfully, Larrimore described how abundant and rich the grass had been here last year.  Now, except for what grew near the river and on small islands within it, the grass was burnt to a crisp.  The overlanders had been somewhat prepared, for the trader back at French Ford had told them the summer had been a scorcher.  They had not, however, expected such scanty forage for their livestock.

    Knowing the road ahead was even less likely to provide good feed, the Larrimore train spent the entire day Tuesday seeking and cutting grass to make hay.  The men ranged out in ever-widening circles, leaving two, chosen by lot, in camp to protect the women and children in case of Indian attack.  Some even swam out to the little islands in midstream to harvest hay there.  It was a day of hard, back-breaking work for the men, but one of rest for their draught animals.  They, at least, left the Meadows refreshed, as was only fitting.  The oxen were the ones who had done the hardest work on this westward migration; and their hardest tasks yet, the Forty-Mile Desert and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, still lay ahead.

    Not until the sixth day after leaving Lassen’s Meadow did the oxen have any opportunity for extra rest.  That Monday, October 21st, the emigrants made their noon camp at another meadow that had been thick with grass in 1849, but in 1850 was dry, brittle and brown.  Some grass was still available, but not enough to warrant taking a full day to make hay.  The men did what they could that afternoon, for the dreaded desert lay only a few days’ march ahead:  the oxen would need all the hay the men could provide for that dry drive.

    Throughout the past week, the Humboldt River had grown steadily shallower, but the “river” the emigrants walked beside on Tuesday dwindled to a mere trickle.  By the time they made camp that night, the Humboldt was no more, having ended in a marsh of mineral mud known as the Humboldt Sink.

    All that day Ben fought the panic rising within him as he watched the demise of the river.  Due to the extra exertion and lack of good water, his milk cow was already showing signs of diminished output.  For Hoss’s sake, she had to continue providing milk, but how could she with even less fresh water ahead?  All Ben knew to do was give a disproportionate share of the available water to the cow and short the oxen if he had to.  Little as he liked to see any animal suffer, he’d willingly sacrifice an ox or two to save the cow if it came to a choice.  Hoss had to survive:  he was all Ben had left of Inger, just as Adam was all he had left of Elizabeth.

* * * * *

    As each wagon owner came within the circle of the Larrimore campfire Wednesday evening, Camilla welcomed him and offered him a cup of coffee.  Those who accepted did so out of politeness rather than desire for the beverage.  The water available for making coffee did nothing to enhance its taste, even in the hands of the most talented preparer; and Camilla Larrimore didn’t fall into that category in the first place.

    “Well, men,” Lawrence began, “as you know from your guidebooks, we’ll reach a dividing point in the trail tomorrow.  There are two possible routes we can follow, so we need to decide tonight which we’ll take.”

    “Which way did you take before, Lawrence?” Wentworth asked.

    “My party took the Truckee route,” Lawrence responded, “but in all fairness, I must tell you that most of those I met later in California had chosen the more southerly Carson route.”

    “Which do you think is best?” Payne asked.

    “Can we avoid the desert with one or the other?” Thomas queried.

    Lawrence shook his head.  “No, there’s no way to the Sierras that doesn’t go through the desert, and there’s not much difference in distance either way.  Of course, I know more about the Truckee road.  I can tell you that it’s a rough trail, one that requires us to ford waterways more than twenty-five times.”

    “Oh, my!” Camilla cried, then put her hand over her mouth.  She wasn’t supposed to participate in these meetings, but unless she went visiting every night, she had little choice but to eavesdrop.  When Lawrence frowned at her involuntary exclamation, she quickly busied herself getting Jewel ready for bed.

    “That’s a lot,” Clyde commented.  “Anybody know how many crossings the other way?”

    “Three is what I was told,” Lawrence said.

    “That could save us time,” McTavish put in.

    “The Truckee route would take us past the Donner’s camp, too,” Lawrence said quietly.  “When we went through last year, there were piles of human bones lying around and stumps ten feet tall, showing how deep the snow got back in ‘46.  We men and the older boys probably wouldn’t be bothered by that, but the women and the younger children might find it unsettling.”

    “I—I would not like my little sisters to see that,” Stefán said quietly, looking furtively around the circle of men to see if they thought he had spoken out of his own cowardice.  Slowly, the others nodded.

    When Lawrence called for a vote, no one raised his hand to take the northern route.  The vote to go by way of the Carson River was almost unanimous.  “Ben,” Lawrence said.

    Ben looked up blankly.

    “You didn’t vote, Ben,” Lawrence said quietly.  “Truckee or Carson?”

    To Ben, it didn’t really matter.  Nothing did these days unless it involved the safety of one of his sons.  He looked at the kind faces gazing back at him and knew they were waiting for his answer, though why it should matter to them, he couldn’t guess.  “Carson, I suppose,” he said absently.

    “Good!” Lawrence said, and the other men smiled.  They knew what their captain meant:  it was good to see Ben participate in their discussion, however reluctantly; it was good to see him take his first faltering step back from the despair that had engulfed him for more than two weeks now.  At least, they hoped it was a step back; they missed the Ben Cartwright they’d come to know during these months on the trail.

    Around middle of the morning Thursday the train arrived at the fork in the road they’d discussed the evening before and took the road branching off to the left.  Almost immediately, they began to second-guess their choice, for the deep sand made for painfully slow progress, and their surroundings grew drier by the hour.  When they stopped at noon, some of the men questioned Larrimore about the poor trail conditions.  “Same sand the other way, I’m afraid,” he chuckled.  “That’s what deserts are made of, my friends.”

    Through the remainder of that day and all of the next the overlanders battled the sand.  When they pulled to a stop at 5 p.m. Friday, most of them assumed they would be making camp for the night.  Larrimore advised against it.  “From what I’ve heard, there’s almost no reliable water for the next twenty-six miles.  I think we should treat this the same way we did the Sublette Cutoff and get through as much of it tonight as we can.”

    “But we’ve driven all day already,” Payne protested.  “We had time to rest before we tackled the Sublette.”

    “I figured to rest here about three hours,” Lawrence explained.  “Even at this time of year, we’ll be better off getting through the worst of the desert after dark.  If the majority of you prefer, of course, we’ll wait ‘til morning.  I’m just giving my opinion.”

    The vote split down the middle:  Larrimore, McTavish and Thomas voting to continue; Zuebner, Payne and Wentworth opting to rest overnight.  Ben hadn’t voted and felt uncomfortable once he realized he had the deciding vote.  “I—I haven’t been thinking so clearly lately,” he admitted quietly.

    “We trust your judgment, Ben,” Jonathan assured him.  “Just say what you think is best, and we’ll go along with it.”

    Ben thought for a moment.  For him personally, the chance of reaching better water sooner was the deciding factor.  His younger son’s life might depend on it.  “I vote to go on tonight,” he said.

    “Fine,” Jonathan announced, as enthusiastically as if Ben had voted along with him.  “Around eight o’clock, then, Larrimore?”

    “Right,” Lawrence said.  “Tell your women to prepare food you can eat along the trail.  We won’t be stopping long enough to cook until we reach the Carson River.”

    “They know what to do,” Clyde said.  “We been down this primrose path before.”  With a sound that blended murmurs of assent with groans of commiseration, the men split up and went to their individual wagons.

    As soon as Nelly heard about the plan, she went to work organizing meals for the next day.  “Ben, would you get me Inger’s Dutch oven?” she asked.  “I’ll bake us up a bunch of extra biscuits and fry a heap of bacon.  My menfolk like bacon in a biscuit, even cold.”

    “Me, too,” Adam said.  “I sure don’t like walking all night, though, Pa.  I didn’t handle it so good last time.”

    “You did fine,” his father said, giving him an encouraging smile, “and you will again.  We must get to water, Adam, so the cow can continue to give your brother milk.”

    As his father left to get the requested cooking pot, Adam squared his shoulders.  “Yes, sir,” he called crisply, feeling suddenly very important.  If Hoss’s life depended on another wearisome night of walking, Adam was determined to do his part——and without bawling to ride in the wagon this time.

    As planned, the train moved out at 8 p.m. and followed the same routine that had successfully brought them across Sublette’s Cutoff:  four hours’ drive, a half hour to rest, then on again.  No one relished a repetition of the rigors of that journey, but neither did anyone fear it.  They knew they had met the challenge once before and were confident they could again.

    There were differences this time, though.  For one thing, both men and beasts were more tired, having endured a series of dry, difficult days prior to this throat-parching march.  Along this stretch of trail, too, were scattered reminders of its dangers:  bleached bones glowing eerily in the moonlight, the noxious stench of rotting flesh.

    Adam pressed close to his father.  Ben, looking down into the boy’s uneasy face, laid a comforting hand on his slender shoulder.  “It’s all right, son,” he said, his voice calm and soothing.  “They’re just dead animals; they can’t hurt you.”

    “Will—will our oxen die, too, Pa?” Adam asked anxiously.  “Or the cow?”

    “Not if we get to water soon enough,” Ben said, “and I think we will.  The weather’s cooler now than when most of these animals died.  Makes it easier on our stock.”

    “Oh,” Adam said, relaxing.  “That’s good, then.”

    “Yeah,” Ben said with greater assurance than he felt.  “That’s good.”  For the moment, in this given situation, cooler weather was a boon; but to Ben it was also cause for concern.  With the temperature in the desert dropping to near freezing at night, how cold would the weather be when they finally reached the mountains?

    As the sun rose higher in the sky Saturday, the temperature rose to the upper forties, and the spirits of the emigrants lifted, too.  By their calculations, they expected to reach their goal that morning.  Tired as they were, they knew their stamina would carry them a few more hours.  Diligence earned the desired reward:  about ten o’clock, Larrimore, in the lead, gave a victorious shout; he’d sighted the Carson River.

    The oxen began to run, and the men worked hard to hold them back.  Too much water too quickly drunk would be as harmful as too little.  The oxen hitched to the wagons were stopped in time; but a few of the loose cattle got away from Enos, who was herding them alone, and gorged themselves on the cool water before anyone could get free to help him.  Ben lost an ox and Larrimore, two.  Each of them assured Enos they held no blame; they knew the young man had done all he could.

    Once the livestock had been cared for, the emigrants hastily set up their tents and got some needed sleep.  To rest the animals and themselves, they’d remain here by the river until the next morning.  From that point on, though, there’d be little opportunity for rest.  They’d conquered the desert, but the mountains rose before them——and it was nearly November.

* * * * *

    “Put your brother down over there,” Ben ordered Adam, nodding toward a tall cottonwood growing near the Carson River.

    “Okay,” Adam agreed readily, only too happy to comply:  Hoss was heavy.  He laid the baby in the shade of the tree and sat down next to him on the blanket.

    “You watch him close now,” Ben said.  “I’ve got to get these filthy clothes clean again.”

    When Adam nodded, Ben turned and carried his bundle of dirty clothes down to the riverside.  Nodding to the ladies gathered there for the same purpose, he dumped the clothes and, digging a bar of soap from his pocket, began to scrub the first fetid diaper.

    Seeing Ben’s nose wrinkle in distaste, Ludmilla Zuebner stood up and walked purposefully toward Ben.  “I do laundry for you,” she offered.

    Ben looked up.  “No, no,” he replied.  “I can do it, Ludmilla; I’ve had to before.”  That was only partly true:  Ben had done roadside laundry for himself and Adam often enough; that laundry had never, however, included dirty diapers.

    Ludmilla calmly began gathering up Ben’s pile of soiled clothing.  “I do,” she insisted.

    “No, Ludmilla,” Ben protested, standing up with the wet diaper in his hand.  “You don’t need to do that.”

    Ludmilla snatched the diaper from his hand.  “You give us game when we hungry,” she said.  “I wash for baby——you and boy, too.”  Before Ben could think of anything else to say, she turned and walked back to the spot she’d chosen to wash her clothes.

    Ben shrugged and walked to the cottonwood beneath which his two sons reclined.  He flopped down beside them and took over Adam’s role of tickling Hoss’s bare toes, smiling when they curled to grasp his outstretched finger.  “You can run along and play now, Adam,” he said.  “Looks like we’ve found ourselves a laundress.”

    “Okay!” Adam exclaimed, jumping up right away.  “Can I go swimming, Pa?”

    “Yeah, but no skinny-dipping,” Ben said.  “Too many womenfolk about.”

    Adam grinned.  Here, at the stopping place folks called Ragtown because that’s what most of them were wearing by this time, there wasn’t much place to hide, true enough.  He’d be sure to keep his britches on.

    Ben picked up his baby and sat up with his back against the overshadowing tree.  He glanced up and down the banks of the Carson and took a deep, contented breath.  This was a pleasant place to rest his worn body, a tranquil scene to refresh his weary soul.  The soft breeze rippling the river and swaying the giant cottonwoods lining its banks whispered peace to Ben’s despondent spirit.  Knowing how much Inger would have enjoyed this pastoral view, he missed her more than ever.  But life did go on.

    Life was vividly portrayed before him, in the delighted squeals of youngsters splashing in the clear water, in the laughter of ladies sloshing clothes and sharing stories.  As Ben’s eye fell on Ludmilla, down there doing his work, he smiled, amused by how much he had changed.  He still found it hard to accept help; his stubborn New England pride still demanded he do everything he could to care for himself and his boys.  Thanks to Inger, though, he had learned the difference between a grudging gift of alms, motivated by pity or obligation, and the loving offer of assistance that constituted true Christian charity.

    Before meeting Inger, Ben had been virtually friendless, alone except for the companionship of his young son.  In those days, fearful of being labeled a poor provider, he had been unable to accept what concerned acquaintances offered in friendship.  Now he knew that receiving was the opposite side of giving’s coin.  A complete man needed to do both, as occasion demanded.

    His eyes misted as he thought of all the gifts his beloved second wife had given him, the greatest of which lay cradled in his arms.  Ben smiled down into the baby’s face.  He had to admit that Hoss looked more like Gunnar Borgstrom than the big man’s gentle sister.  Except for the eyes.  In the infant’s alpine blue eyes Ben could see a reflection of the mother’s——so loving, so kind.  Imagination?  Perhaps, Ben admitted, but if it were, then let him imagine.  He closed his eyes, and though he did not sleep, he dreamed.

* * * * *

    The train left Ragtown the next morning and traveled along the Carson River, which grew wider and deeper as they journeyed toward its source in the mountains.  Ben was pleased to see his cow begin to give a little more milk, for Hoss’s appetite was ferocious.  Butter was a thing of the past for the Cartwrights, for Hoss drank every drop of milk the cow gave each morning and every night, as well as eating a good-sized bowl of mush at noon.

    The temperature continued to drop.  Ben no longer carried Hoss on his back.  Wanting to keep the cold wind off the baby’s tender face, Ben put him in the wagon, proud of Adam’s willingness to ride there, too, relinquishing his freedom to nursemaid his baby brother.  Adam not only fed and burped the baby and rocked him to sleep; he even changed soiled diapers without being asked.  Not, of course, when there was an adult available to take over the smelly task.  Adam wasn’t saintly enough to do it unless he had to, but when he was alone with Hoss in the wagon, he pitched in and did his duty.

    After four days of travel along the Carson River, the wagons began to approach the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.  Before they began the ascent, however, the men and women were surprised, delightedly so, to find another small trading post at the base of the mountains.

    A short-statured, black-bearded man came running out to meet them.  “Howdy, folks!” he called.  “I didn’t think there’d be anybody still out on the trail this time of year.”

    “Shouldn’t be,” McTavish grumbled.

    “Actually,” Lawrence said, as he shook the trader’s outstretched hand, “there’s at least one party still back of us, maybe a couple.”

    “You don’t say!” the man exclaimed.  “Well, the truth is, I was packing up to head back to Salt Lake City, but I have a few supplies left.  Come on in, folks, warm yourselves by my fire and see if there’s anything you need.”

    Shivering in the evening air, the members of the Larrimore train filed into the rudely constructed cabin.  The women and children eagerly swarmed around the fireplace at one end of the log cabin while the men gathered around the trader, who introduced himself as Hampton Beatie.

    “You were sure a surprise to us, Mr. Beatie,” Lawrence said.  “We didn’t realize there was a trading post here.”

    Beatie grinned.  “Wasn’t until this past June.  I came out from Salt Lake as clerk for the De Mont party.  We were headed for the gold fields.  But when I saw this valley, I knew it was an ideal place for a trading post, so I just stayed and set one up.  You’d be surprised how many folks run clean out of supplies by the time they get this far.”

    “No, we wouldn’t,” McTavish said. “Some of us are in the same fix.”

    “I don’t have a lot left,” Beatie admitted, “but I’d sure rather sell it than haul it back to Salt Lake.  I’ll make you a fair deal if you’ll take it off my hands, folks.”

    “What can you tell us about the trail ahead?” Payne queried.  “I thought I saw some snow flurries up on the mountain as we drove in.”

    Beatie nodded soberly.  “Snow started early this year, I’m afraid.  It’s been snowing off and on the last two weeks.”

    “Are the passes still open?” Wentworth pressed anxiously.

    Beatie shrugged.  “Not sure.  I haven’t been up that way.  I’d say your chances of getting through are kind of iffy, folks.”

    It took a moment for the shock to register, then the silence was shattered by loud, quarrelsome voices.  “This is your doing, Larrimore!” McTavish shouted.  “You and that fool woman of yours!”

    “That’s right,” Jonathan mumbled.  “I knew I should have pushed Ben harder about taking over.”

    Lawrence jerked to face Ben, his countenance grieved.

    “Jon!” Ben chided through gritted teeth.  Payne blanched.  He hadn’t meant to embarrass his friend.  The words had just rushed out unbidden.

    “What can we do?” Stefán Zuebner cried.

    “Easy now, folks; easy now,” Beatie soothed.  “You got at least two options open that I can see.”

    “What options, sir?” Wentworth asked.

    “Well, the most reasonable would be to go back to Salt Lake City with me,” Beatie suggested.  “You could winter there and start west again come spring.”

    “We ain’t got supplies enough for that!” McTavish snapped.

    “Nor do we,” Stefán said quietly.

    “I don’t fancy headin’ back across that desert, mister,” Clyde snorted.

    Beatie spread his hands.  “Then you either stay here or push on as fast as you can and hope God is with you.”

    Eight grim faces stared at one another, seven of them trying to evaluate what would be best for their families.  Only Enos Montgomery had no decision to make.  He had no family, and his only source of provisions came from his employer.  He’d have to do whatever Larrimore decided.

    Ben, holding Hoss, called Adam to his side and walked out into the chilly evening breeze.  In the scant light of the waning moon he couldn’t see any snow falling on the mountains above, but he shivered as if he were walking through a blizzard.

    Handing Hoss to his brother, he unhitched the team and saw to it they had water and feed, then went to work setting up their tent.  Once it was up, he huddled inside its scant cover with his sons, pondering what to do.  Unlike McTavish and the Zuebners, he had no shortage of supplies.  He could winter in Salt Lake.  He could winter right here for that matter.  Could he make it to California?  He didn’t have the answer to that question, which suddenly, to Ben’s mind, made that the riskiest option of all.

    His choices narrowed now, Ben debated back and forth between the valley of the Salt Lake and that of the Carson River.  What was best for his boys?  That was all that mattered.  What was best for them?  Ben made a mental list of advantages and disadvantages of each option.  Salt Lake meant wintering among civilized folk; but it also meant recrossing the desert, not once, but twice.  Staying here avoided that problem, but would leave him and the boys isolated for several months.

    Slowly, a smile touched Ben’s lips.  Since when was the company of his boys not enough?  He probably had time to construct some sort of shelter before snows fell east of the mountains.  If so, wintering here in the Carson Valley was undoubtedly his wisest course of action.  His decision made, Ben laid his sleeping son on the buffalo robe, folding it up to form a warm, woolly bed, and slipped outside the tent.

    Adam peeked out the tent flap.  “Pa, do I have to stay with Hoss?”

    “No,” Ben said, “go where you like as long as you stay close to camp.  I imagine Nelly’ll have supper ready soon.”

    While Adam trotted off in search of Billy, Ben walked over to the campfire where Nelly was already cooking.  “Pull up a barrel and take a load off your feet,” Clyde said.

    Ben grinned and sat down on the designated barrel.

    “Well, we finally done ‘er,” Clyde grumbled.  “We finally dee-dawdled our way into a fix we may not get out of.”

    “Now, Clyde,” Nelly protested.  “What could we have done differently?”

    “Started earlier?” Ben suggested with a wry smile.

    “Well, that, I reckon,” Nelly admitted, “but that didn’t bring us to this point all by itself.  It was a day here, a day there that did it, and a good part of the time we had no choice in the matter.”

    “That’s true,” Ben said.  “We tried to handle each problem as it came up to the best of our understanding.  Maybe we made mistakes, but mostly, I’d say, the problems just piled up on us.  There’s no one thing to blame.”

    “Might be one person,” Clyde said.  “Awful lot of harsh words bein’ said to Larrimore tonight——about his wife, especially.”

    Ben shook his head.  “You heard Beatie.  We’d have had to be here two weeks ago to miss the snow entirely.  Camilla cost us some time, but she’s not responsible for that much delay.”

    “That’s right, Ben,” Nelly agreed.  “She’s not, but we’d probably have felt surer about getting through if we’d been here a week ago”

    Ben threw his hands up.  “What might have been is always an unanswerable question.  You folks decided yet what you’re going to do?”

    “Well, I ain’t headin’ for Salt Lake City!” Clyde declared vehemently.  “Considerin’ what them Mormons charge for a short ferry ride, I ain’t willin’ to winter amongst a whole wasp’s nest of ‘em.”

    Ben laughed.  “They probably would prize their supplies pretty high.  I didn’t think of that while I was making my decision, but it’s another reason to reject that choice.”

    “You made your decision, then, Ben?” Nelly asked.

    “Yeah,” Ben said resolutely.  “I’m staying here.”

    “It’s what I’d do if I was sure I had enough foodstuff,” Clyde said.

    “You do,” Ben said quietly.  “You promised to treat my larder like your own, remember?”

    “Now, that was while we traveled together,” Nelly chided.

    “Yeah, but you haven’t done it,” Ben argued.  “You’ve barely touched my supplies, and you’ve fed me and my boys about three weeks now.  What’s mine is yours, if you want to stay.”

    “You figure, between us, we got enough to winter here?” Clyde asked.

    “My wagon’s pretty full, thanks to my wife’s good instincts,” Ben chuckled.  “I thought I’d see what I could get from Beatie tomorrow.  Then, if we can do a little hunting—”

    “Why, lands, we’ll make do!” Nelly cried.  “I know how to stretch my groceries when I have to.  Let’s stay, Clyde.  I can’t bear the thought of leavin’ these good folks behind.  Besides, that leg of yours could use the rest.”

    “She’s right, Clyde,” Ben said soberly.  “Walking on it the way you insist on doing, you haven’t given it a chance to heal right.”

    “All right, all right,” Clyde cackled.  “You done talked me into it.”

    Nelly smiled at Ben.  “As if he needed much persuading.”  Ben winked back.

    After supper Ben walked over to the Larrimore wagon.  “Good evening, Lawrence,” he said as he approached the campfire.

    “Hello, Ben,” Lawrence responded quietly.  “You come to tell me what a poor job I did of piloting this wagon train, like the others?”

    “Of course not,” Ben said.  “I think you did a good job, Lawrence.”

    Lawrence looked up.  “It’s true, though, that they asked you to take over instead, isn’t it?”

    “Yeah,” Ben admitted after taking a deep breath, “but it wasn’t everyone, Lawrence.”  He cast a sideways glance at Camilla.  “Some of them were worried about the delays we were suffering, that’s all.  Once we were moving again, they’d forget the problem every time.”

    “Why’d you turn them down?” Larrimore pressed.

    Ben laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “We didn’t need a new leader.  You were doing your best; I could have done no better.”

    Lawrence smiled slightly.  “I’m not so sure.  We’re in quite a pickle now.”

    “Yeah,” Ben agreed.  “That’s what I came to talk about.  I wanted you to know that the Thomases and I have decided to leave the train and winter here.”

    Camilla came into the firelight.  “Oh, how can you, Mr. Cartwright?  With a baby?”

    “My cow’s still giving a little,” Ben said, “and that boy shows more inclination for solid food all the time.  Hoss’ll make out.  I’m more worried about what a winter in the mountains would be like for him.  Here, at least, I’ll have time to provide some decent shelter.  Up there, we could get caught unawares.”

    “I see your point,” Larrimore said, “but I was hoping you’d take the leadership of this train.  The men will scarcely want to follow me anymore.”

    “Give them a chance,” Ben suggested.  “Once they’ve cooled down, I wager they’ll remember all the good decisions you made and keep you on.  They won’t find a better man.”

    Lawrence smiled warmly.  “Thanks, Ben, and if there’s anything among my stores that you need, just say the word and it’s yours.”

    Ben gave his friend a brief embrace.  “Thank you.  I’m well stocked, but I’ll ask Nelly if there’s something I’m forgetting.  Spices, maybe.  Were you carrying extra spices for the store?”

    “A few,” Camilla said.  “They’re priced cheap, too; so happens, we’re having a mountain reduction sale.”

    Lawrence laughed.  “Long overdue, I’d say.”  Ben promised again to check with Nelly and took his leave.

    The next morning the Cartwrights and Thomases traded tearful farewells with those who were going on to California.  Most of the emigrants felt they had no choice; their supplies were running too short to consider a lengthy layover east of the mountains.  Whether they had chosen to go or to stay, though, each individual found himself feeling more concerned for those who had made the opposite choice.  The bonds of affection had grown deep during these months on the trail together; and the thought of parting from these dear friends, perhaps forever, was more than anyone could handle with dry eyes.

    Camilla Larrimore had finally realized that her heavy load of material treasures might cost her what she valued far more, so a substantial pile of goods lay heaped near the trading post.  When she gave Nelly a parting hug, she told her to use anything she wanted.  “I don’t suppose you need a grandfather clock out here,” she sighed, “but I’d appreciate your using my china.  It belonged to my mother, and I hate to picture it just lying by the roadside.”

    “Sure,” Nelly said, though she didn’t see what use she could make of fine china here in the middle of nowhere.

    “You sure all you need is sage and cinnamon?” Camilla asked.

    “I think so,” Nelly replied.  “I plan to keep the meals pretty simple.”

    Lawrence strode toward them, carrying a wire cage with two chickens squawking inside it.  At his heels came Sterling, squawking louder than the chickens.  “Don’t give them away, Pa,” he pleaded.  “I like eggs for breakfast.”

    “Shut up, Sterling!” Lawrence shouted as he set the cage at Nelly’s feet.  He looked into the eyes of his wife.  “All right with you, Camilla?”

    Camilla smiled up at him.  “Yes, Lawrence.  I should have thought of that myself.”

    “Oh, now, are you sure?” Nelly protested.  “They’d make a couple of meals for your family, even if you didn’t want to carry them with you.”

    “I’m sure,” Camilla said as she gave Nelly another quick hug.  “You might want to save them back for Thanksgiving.  Beatie has some pumpkins over at the post.  Between roast chicken and pumpkin pie, you could almost have a traditional meal out here.”

    “That’s why I wanted the cinnamon,” Nelly laughed.  “That pumpkin caught my eye yesterday.  The potatoes, too.  We haven’t had fresh ones in more weeks than I can count.”

    “Well, you folks think of us when you sit down to that feast,” Lawrence said.  “We’ll surely be thinking of you.”  He turned to face a still scowling Sterling.  “Pull up your lower lip, boy, before you stomp on it,” he scolded, “and go get the chicken feed.”  He smiled back at Nelly.  “You’ll need it to keep those birds alive ‘til Thanksgiving.  I wouldn’t bother after that.  They’ve gotten plumb stingy with their eggs.”

    Ben, in the meantime, had traded two of his oxen for two of Reverend Wentworth’s exhausted ones.  The minister had protested the inequity of the exchange, but Ben insisted.  “By the time we leave for California, these animals of yours will have recruited themselves on the good grass of this valley.  They’ll serve us as well as mine would, Ebenezer.”

    “All right, then,” Ebenezer agreed and squeezed Ben’s hand in grateful acceptance of the gift.  “You’ll never make a Mormon, my friend.  They only trade two for one, you know.”

    Ben laughed.  “So would I to a stranger.”

    After saying his good-byes to his other departing friends, Ben joined the Thomases just as they were concluding their farewells to the Larrimores.  Ben stepped forward and gave Lawrence a parting embrace.  “You’ll be in our prayers, Captain,” he said.

    Lawrence smiled.  As Ben had predicted, once the anger had died down, the men had asked Larrimore to remain as their captain until they reached California.  “And you in ours,” he promised, returning Ben’s hearty bear hug.  “You be sure to look us up in San Francisco.”

    “I will,” Ben promised.  The mention of the California town sparked his memory.  Digging inside his shirt, he pulled out two letters.  “Could you leave these for me at the San Francisco post office?” he requested.  “Both Inger’s brother and mine had expected us to be in California by now.  If they don’t get word soon, they’ll be sure we’re dead.”

    Larrimore took the letters.  “They’ll get word,” he promised.  “I’ll even drop them a note of my own, so they can find me and I can fill in any gaps you didn’t have room to write.”

    “Thanks,” Ben said and hugged his friend one more time.

    Standing beside Clyde and Nelly, he watched the wagons pull out.  “Please God, keep Your hand on them,” he prayed silently.  “Hold back the snows ‘til they can get through.”

    As he prayed, Ben had no idea how very much his prayers would be needed; nor did he know how faithfully they would be answered.  Time would tell him those things, but now more urgent business pressed his thoughts.  “Come on, Clyde,” he said, giving the other man’s back a sound slap.  “Let’s see what we can talk Beatie out of without giving him the shirts off our backs.”


Billy slapped the top of the fattest pumpkin in Beatie’s store.  “Get this one, Ma,” he demanded.  “I wanna carve a great big jack-o-lantern for tonight.”

    “Lands!” Nelly exclaimed.  “Not even a roof over our heads, and you want to celebrate Halloween!”

    “But, Ma!” Billy protested.

    “Hush, now,” his mother whispered.  “We’ll talk about jack-o-lanterns later.  I got a winter’s worth of meals to think through, son.”

    Beatie’s black eyes brightened in anticipation of the sale.  However, he soon found he’d met his match in trading skill when he bargained with Clyde Thomas.  Ben, from his perspective as a former merchant, found it hard not to blush at the almost devilish glee with which Clyde dickered down the prices.  When the bill was toted up, however, Ben had to admit, it came to less than he’d expected, especially after his experience at trading posts along the trail.

    “Well, you’ve come close to wiping me out, folks,” Beatie said, “and cleaning my pockets while you were at it.”

    Clyde grinned.  For once, he’d had a Mormon over the barrel instead of the other way around, and he was enjoying the feeling.  Beatie hadn’t really wanted to haul unsold goods back to Salt Lake City, and Clyde had been persistent in pointing that out every time the Mormon trader protested his offered price.

    “I do have a little fresh butter left,” Beatie suggested, “though I’d be almost giving it away at the prices you tend to offer.”

    It was Ben’s eyes that lighted with interest this time.  “Butter?” he asked.  “You have a cow, then?”

    “Sure,” Beatie said.  “You didn’t see the stable out back?”

    Ben nodded.  He had seen the building, but assumed it was to protect the man’s ox team during inclement weather.  “I might be interested in trading for her——if she’s a good milker,” Ben said.

    “And if the price is right,” Clyde inserted.

    “Clyde,” Ben muttered out the side of his mouth.  He didn’t like the idea of driving a hard bargain for the life-giving liquid his baby needed.

    “Now, you let me handle this, Ben,” Clyde insisted.  “I may have turned to blacksmithin’ once I was full growed, but I was raised on a farm and I know livestock.”  He turned to Beatie.  “Just when did this cow freshen, mister?”

    “Last May, I believe,” Beatie said.

    Clyde nodded at Ben.  “She should have a good six months or more left to produce then.”

    “Oh, she’s productive,” Beatie assured them.

    “And you’d be better off not takin’ her back across that desert,” Clyde pointed out.

    Beatie sighed.  He had a feeling he was about to be out-traded once again.  When Clyde was through, Beatie wondered why he’d let himself be talked into the deal he’d agreed to.  The small amount of cash Ben gave him, in addition to one of Wentworth’s lean-flanked oxen, scarcely seemed worth the time it had taken to make the trade; and, Beatie reminded himself, he still had the same number of animals to nurse through the desert.

    Remaining congenial despite Clyde’s hard bargaining, Beatie offered to help his customers load the supplies.  “Much obliged,” Ben said.

    “We’ll put them in my wagon,” Clyde said.  “It’s loaded lighter.”

    “Won’t be after this,” Beatie grumbled good-naturedly as he hefted a bag of turnips to his shoulder and headed outside.  Ben and Clyde grabbed a load of potatoes each and followed him.

    “Tell me, Mr. Beatie,” Ben said, “have you had any trouble with Indians?”

    “Haven’t seen a one down here,” Beatie said.  “There’s some Washos up in the hills, though, and Paiutes further north.”

    “Diggers?” Clyde asked, his brow wrinkling.

    Beatie shrugged.  “Well, I reckon they’s all Diggers, but the Paiutes is quite a ways north, like I said.  Up around Pyramid Lake.”

    “These Washos, they be friendly?” Clyde pressed.

    “Can be tough, from what I hear,” Beatie said, “but I mind my business and they mind theirs.  I expect the same’ll be true for you.”

    “That’s reassuring,” Ben said quietly.  “I lost my wife to a Digger arrow back along the Humboldt.  I want a place my boys will be safe.”

    Beatie smiled down at Adam.  “I can understand your concern, sir; they’re fine-looking boys.”  Looking up, he gazed confidently into Ben’s brown eyes.  “I think you’ll be fine here,” he said.

    The three men, working together, soon had the supplies loaded.  “Now, is there anything we can do to help you make ready to leave?” Ben asked.

    “I loaded the last of my traveling supplies last night,” Beatie said, “so all that’s left to load is what you didn’t buy yourselves.”

    “Least we can do is lend a hand,” Clyde offered.  “We got nowhere to go, and I reckon you’re eager to head out.”

    Beatie nodded and headed back inside to carry the few remaining supplies to his wagon.  While he loaded, Ben and Clyde hitched Beatie’s team.  Then, as Beatie prepared to leave, the three men shook hands.  “You folks get under shelter soon as you can,” Beatie suggested.  “I’d offer you the use of this place, but it isn’t really mine to give.  I sold out awhile back to a man named Moore who plans to bring a load of supplies in from California next spring to restock.”

    “That’s all right,” Ben assured him.  “We should have time to build our own.”

    “Well, if worse comes to worst,” Beatie said, “you do what’s needed to keep these boys warm.  If there’s anything we Mormons value, it’s family.”

    “Puttin’ it mildly,” Clyde whispered.

    “Shh!” Ben hissed.  This was no time for Clyde to be taking pot shots at polygamy!  Ben smiled at the Mormon trader.  “Thank you kindly, sir——for everything,” he said.  Beatie nodded and, calling out to his team, headed east, toward Salt Lake City.

    Once they were alone, Ben turned to face Clyde.  “Just out of curiosity, my friend, have you ever built a log cabin?”

    Clyde laughed, bending over to slap his knees.  “Yeah, Ben,” he said when he came up for air.  “I helped my Pa build one when we settled in Indiana.”

    “Good,” Ben chuckled, “‘cause I wouldn’t know where to start.”

    “At the bottom, Ben, where else?” Clyde snickered.  “Don’t worry, we’ll make a first class pioneer out of you yet.”  Ben grinned.  He hoped so.

    Clyde limped alongside Ben as they walked toward the site where they’d camped the night before.  “Leg still bothering you?” Ben asked.

    Clyde nodded.  “Don’t hurt, exactly, just gets tired easy.”

    “You ought to rest it,” Ben said.

    Clyde shook his head.  “We got too much work ahead to think of sittin’ on my backside.  Don’t figure to do much today, though.”  Reaching Nelly, he frowned.  “What’s Billy poutin’ about?”

    “His mean old ma won’t give him that biggest pumpkin to carve up,” Nelly said.  “I aim to save that one for Thanksgiving.”

    “Straighten up, boy,” Clyde ordered, “or it’ll be all tricks and no treats for you.”

    “It’s Halloween, Pa,” Billy whimpered.  “A fella ought to get a little fun after walkin’ clean across the country.”

    Nelly ran affectionate fingers through his red hair.  “Oh, I reckon so,” she said.  “I’ll scoop out a pumpkin for you later, son, but not the big one.”

    “Come on, Billy,” Adam urged, nudging his friend with a sharp elbow.  “Think of the pies we’ll have!”  Billy grinned in spite of himself.  He hadn’t had pumpkin pie for almost a year, and it did sound inviting.  That biggest pumpkin would make plenty of pie filling, too.  “Okay,” he agreed.

    “Now that that’s settled,” Nelly laughed, “maybe we can have a chance to talk about some less important things, like where to put the cabin.”

    Clyde nodded.  “Me and Ben will scout around some this morning and pick out a place.  Then I figure by the time we move everything over there and set up camp, we’ll just take the rest of the day to rest our weary bones.  Plenty of work ahead tomorrow.”

    “Sounds good,” Ben said.

    “Sure does,” Nelly agreed.  “I can’t wait to settle in one spot for awhile.  Even if we are still livin’ in tents, it’ll be restful not to have to pack up every day.”

    “Amen to that!” Clyde said.  “Fix up some hardtack for me and Ben, Nelly; we may not get back for lunch.”

    “Shucks, I don’t aim to cook again ‘til we move, anyway,” Nelly laughed.  “The only work I’m gonna do today is get some pumpkin ready to stew for supper and set these boys to carvin’ it.”

    Ben knelt down beside Adam and handed him his jackknife.  “You be real careful, son; don’t cut yourself.”

    Adam grinned.  “I won’t, Pa.”

    Ben stood.  “I’ll leave Hoss here with you, Nelly, if that’s all right.”

    “More than all right,” Nelly assured him.  “Nothin’ I like more than havin’ a babe to cuddle again.”

    “Don’t go gettin’ no idees,” Clyde cautioned.  “We ain’t addin’ to this family ‘til we get to Californy.”

    Nelly blushed violet-red.  “Clyde!” she screeched.  “Such things ain’t spoke of before company.”

    Ben held up both hands in protest.  “Wait a minute, now,” he said.  “Don’t go calling me company, Miss Nelly.  Why, we’re practically family after all we’ve been through together.”

    “Yeah,” Clyde cackled, “and what we’re about to go through together, winterin’ under one roof!”

    Nelly flapped her apron at them.  “Oh, you men,” she chided.  “Family or no family, some things is private; and there’s young ones standin’ by with their ears flappin’.”

    Ben doffed his hat.  “I stand corrected, ma’am.”

    “Yes, ma’am!” Clyde said, giving her a hearty good-bye smack on the lips.

    “Get on out of here, the both of you,” Nelly said.  “Me and these boys have got work to do.”

    With grins and waves, Ben and Clyde started walking westward toward the pine-scattered foothills of the Sierra.  “Might be a good idea to locate close to the wood supply,” Clyde suggested and Ben agreed.  There were cottonwoods all along the river, of course, but Clyde seemed to favor pine for building and for fuel.

    The pale sun had passed its zenith by the time they made their decision and headed back to move the camp.  They arrived, surprised to see that the boys and Nelly had already struck camp and loaded all but the provision box.  Adam and Billy each had a small jack-o-lantern to exhibit to their fathers, too.

    “It saved less quarreling in the long run,” Nelly said, “for them each to have one.”

    Ben frowned.  “Have you been quarreling, Adam?”

    The youngster hung his head and nodded nervously.

    “Now, Ben, don’t scold the boy,” Nelly said.  “It was Billy done most of the fussin’, as usual.  Besides, those two least pumpkins wouldn’t make a mess by themselves, anyway.  Might as well use them today as any other.”

    “Well, all right,” Ben conceded, “but if either of my boys gives you a moment’s trouble, I want to hear about it.”

    Nelly set both palms on her hips and faced Ben squarely.  “Adam’s a good boy, Ben Cartwright, and what earthly trouble could Hoss be?”

    Ben smiled as he scooped the sunny-dispositioned baby from the blanket on which he lay kicking, but his nose wrinkled at his first whiff of his second son.  “Well, there’s one kind,” he said ruefully.

    Nelly laughed and reached for the baby.  “That’s what I mean.  This baby’s so even-tempered, he scarcely lets you know when he’s soiled himself.  Only time he fusses is when he’s hungry.”

    Ben readily relinquished the baby to her care, without the usual pangs of guilt.  With all the work he and Clyde had ahead, he couldn’t possibly tend the baby, too.  He’d have to depend on Nelly to care for both his boys.  Surprisingly, Ben found that idea comforting:  a sure sign that the Thomases were more than just friends.  As he’d said earlier that day, they were becoming family.

    While Nelly changed Hoss’s diaper, Ben and Clyde hitched oxen to their two wagons and the cart carrying Clyde’s blacksmithing tools.  Then everyone walked to the site the men had selected.

    “This look good to you, Nelly?” Clyde asked as soon as they arrived.

    Nelly smiled broadly.  “This looks like just where I’d settle if I was pickin’ a permanent home, Clyde,” she responded warmly.  “It’s close to water and wood, and it’s a real pleasant lookin’ spot.”

    “Reckon we’ll unload, then,” Clyde said.

    “Everything?” Ben asked.  “Shouldn’t we leave the supplies in the wagons ‘til we have a better place for them?”

    “We’ll need one wagon to haul logs, Ben,” Clyde explained.

    “Oh, sure,” Ben said.  “I’m not thinking like a pioneer yet, I guess.”

    Clyde chuckled.  “You will be, come spring, I’ll bet you a buck.”

    “No bet,” Ben laughed.  “I might turn lazy, just to win that dollar.  Which wagon should we unload?”

    “I don’t reckon it matters much,” Clyde said.

    “It matters to me!” Nelly hollered, plucking at the dingy brown gingham dress that had seen so much wear on the trail.  “I got some decent dresses packed down deep, and I’d sure favor changing into one real soon.”

    “Ladies first, it is,” Ben announced.  He waved to the two boys.  “Adam, Billy,” he called.  “Let’s get to work.”  He laid a hand on Clyde’s shoulder.  “As for you, my friend, sit down and rest that leg.”

    “I ain’t lettin’ you do all the work!” Clyde protested.

    Ben’s fingers dug into the older man’s shoulder.  “Yes, you are,” he insisted, “just this once, Clyde.  The boys and I can handle this, but we’ve got some heavy work ahead.  You rest up, so you’ll be able to do it.  And that’s an order!”

    Clyde grinned and dragged his hand to his forehead in a droopy salute.  “Yes, sir, Lieutenant!” he snickered.

    The first thing Ben unloaded was a barrel for Clyde to sit on.  Then he and the boys worked into the afternoon taking everything out of the Thomas wagon.  After unpacking the top level, they took a rest before tackling the lower.

    Ben flopped onto the ground next to Clyde.  “What’s that?” he said, leaning over to examine the scratches in the dirt.

    “House plan,” Clyde said laconically.

    Ben looked closer.  “Just one big room?” he said.

    “We ain’t got time for nothin’ fancy, Ben,” Clyde said.

    “Yeah, but you and Nelly need some privacy,” Ben protested.

    “We’ll rig up a curtain from the wagon covers,” Clyde said.  “Ain’t ideal, I admit, but about as good as we’ve had on the trail.  Better, in fact.”  Clyde pointed to one of the shorter sides of the cabin.  “See, I figure me and Nelly can sleep down on this end, while you and the boys bed down against this long wall.”

    Ben chuckled.  “You aim to stick me with all the young ones, do you?”

    Clyde looked up, his brow furrowing.  “You mind?  Me and Nelly ain’t had—”

    Ben raised a hand to stop Clyde’s explanation.  “Of course, I don’t mind,” he said.  “I just wish you could have a real room to yourselves, like a man and wife deserve.”

    “You could turn your face to the wall,” Clyde suggested.

    Ben guffawed.  “Yeah, but the boys might not be so accommodating!”

    “Shush!” Clyde demanded.  “You want Nelly skinnin’ me alive for speakin’ of such things before ‘company?’”

    “Heaven forbid!” Ben whispered conspiratorially.  “Where will you put the fireplace?  The other end?”

    “Yeah,” Clyde said, drawing a small box against the other short end of the cabin, “and the door here on the long south wall.”  Then, he drew two lines extending back from the cabin’s north wall, against which Ben and the boys would sleep.  “This’ll be our stable,” Clyde said.  “I wouldn’t normally build it against the house like this—”

    “But we’re short of time,” Ben finished for him, “and three walls take less time to build than four.”

    Clyde grinned.  “We think pretty much alike, Ben boy.”

    Ben nodded.  “I like the plan, Clyde.  Seems to me you did the most important work of all today.”

    “Even if I was sittin’ on my backside!” Clyde snickered.  “We’ll take the wagon up into the hill country tomorrow and start fellin’ trees.”

    “That, at least, I’ve done before,” Ben said, “on my brother’s farm.”

    “Glad to hear it,” Clyde jibed.  “I’d sure hate to nursemaid some babe in the woods.”

    Ben punched Clyde’s good leg and stood up.  “I’d better get the rest of that wagon unloaded.  You gonna have the house furnished by the time I’m through?”

    “Sure, sure,” Clyde sniggered.  “Now, if I could just figure out where to hang the crystal chandelier—”  Ben rolled his eyes and called the boys back to work.

    Twilight came early this close to the mountains, but it was with satisfied hearts that the two families watched the dusk splash the hilltops with shades of amber and pink.  The wagon was unloaded, the supplies covered snugly with Clyde’s wagon cover, and the tents set up in readiness for bedtime.  Nearby, the oxen and milk cows lowed contentedly, as if they, too, knew they’d found a place of peaceful rest.

    When full darkness came, the boys lighted candles inside their jack-o-lanterns.  Seeing the eerie faces glowing at him with their jagged grins, Hoss gave a happy crow.  Everyone smiled, for the baby’s pleasure was a mirror of their own.  Somehow, even the simple observance of a tradition from back home made the camp seem more cozy, more like the home they meant it to be for the next few months.

    The buttery taste of the pumpkin meat added another touch of home, reminding them of all the other delicacies they hadn’t enjoyed for months.  They were good memories, though, memories that held hope of being repeated; and some of them wouldn’t even have to wait until the arrival in California.  For now, the Carson Valley was home, and this first night’s quiet comfort seemed to promise it would be a good one.

* * * * *

    Billy leaned over the breakfast skillet and took a long, loving whiff of its contents.  “Scrambled eggs,” he chirped.  “Nothin’ I like better, Ma.”

    Nelly gave him a twisted smile.  “I know, sugar, but these aren’t for you.”

    “Aw, Ma!” Billy protested.

    “No,” his mother said firmly.  “There ain’t enough for everyone, now.  Your pa and Mr. Cartwright have real heavy work to do today, so they get them.”

    Billy stomped his foot.  “Grownups always get the best.  Always, Ma!”

    Nelly turned to glare at him.  “You know who you remind me of right now, Billy Thomas?”

    “Who?” Billy growled.

    “Sterling Larrimore, that’s who!”

    Billy turned beet red.  “That ain’t fair, Ma!  I ain’t nothin’ like that old whineybag.”

    “Right now, you are,” his mother insisted.  “You’re whineybaggin’ about those eggs just the way he did when his pa gave us them chickens.”

    Billy got quiet right away.  He remembered how the Larrimore boy had acted, and had to admit his behavior looked awful similar.  To be compared to Sterling was the ultimate insult, so Billy decided to change his tune.  “Sorry, Ma,” he said and gave her a hug around the middle.

    Nelly’s stern expression melted like fat back in a skillet.  “Well, sugar, I know it’s hard when you get your mouth all watered up for a special treat, but Pa needs it more.”

    “Yeah, I reckon,” Billy said, his blue eyes still reflecting his disappointment.

    Clyde and Ben, with Adam at their heels, came back from watering the stock.  “Finally up, are you, lazybones?” Clyde called to his son.

    “I was tired, Pa,” Billy said defensively.

    “Yeah, that pumpkin-carvin’ really wears a man down, don’t it, son?” Clyde chuckled.  “What kind of mischief you aim to get into today?”

    “Pa!” Billy protested.  “You act like all I ever did was make trouble.”

    “Well, ain’t it?” Clyde asked, giving Billy a playful cuff on the ear.

    “Now, Clyde, behave yourself,” Nelly scolded.  “You’re the one makin’ trouble right now.”  Clyde took the plate of bacon and eggs she handed him.

    “Easy to see who Billy takes after,” Ben commented wryly, winking at Nelly as he accepted his breakfast plate from her hand.

    “Ain’t it, though!” she exclaimed and winked back.

    “They’re gangin’ up on me, boys,” Clyde appealed to the youngsters, but he got no sympathy from them.  Both Adam and Billy kept eyeing their fathers’ plates greedily until the men could scarcely stand to eat in front of them.

    “You boys run along,” Nelly ordered.  “I’ll fix you up a big batch of pancakes soon as I get these men off to work.”

    “Okay,” Adam said readily.  He would have preferred the eggs, of course, but he liked pancakes, too.  He pulled on Billy’s elbow, and the two youngsters took off.

    “What you got planned this morning, woman?” Clyde asked.

    “I figured to make a batch of pumpkin butter this morning,” Nelly replied.  “That’ll be right tasty on our breakfast biscuits.”

    “Sounds wonderful,” Ben said.  “Adam loves sweets.”

    “Billy, too,” Nelly said.  “I reckon all young ones does.  I suspect even little Hoss’ll like a taste.”

    “Little!” Clyde guffawed.  “How in tarnation can anyone call that youngun ‘little?’”

    Ben nodded solemnly.  “Must be either blind or deranged.  Maybe we’d better stay in camp, Clyde, and look after this poor, deluded woman.”

    “You ain’t welcome here today,” Nelly hooted.  “I plan to get me a bath this afternoon, when it warms up a bit, and scour all these youngsters clean, too.”

    Ben stood immediately.  “And I thought we’d be doing hard work!  Nelly, you should have saved the eggs for yourself.”

    Clyde set his plate down and stood up, also.  “Take care,” he said, giving Nelly a farewell kiss.

    “You, too,” she said as she handed him an old flour sack she’d filled with biscuits and bacon for their lunch.

    Ben and Clyde took the empty wagon and headed into the foothills.  Stopping in a grove of pines, Clyde pointed out a couple of large, straight trees.  “Let’s get these first, Ben,” he said.  “They look stout enough to make the sills.”

    “Sills?”  Ben asked, a twinkle in his eye.

    “You can’t be that green!” Clyde snorted.  “The foundation, Ben, the logs that support the rest of the house.  They have to be strong.”

    “I do know that much,” Ben chuckled.  “Anything else you ought to tell this babe in the woods?”

    Clyde grinned.  “Well, this’ll keep us busy awhile.  Then we need to find a tall tree about the same size around for the short sides.  It’s important that every row of logs be about the same size, so we can notch ‘em together level.”

    Ben nodded.  “Yeah, I can see that would be important.  I tell you, Clyde, you just point out the tree, and I’ll go to chopping.”

    Chop Ben did, all that day and for several to come, his hands sprouting blisters that slowly turned into calluses from the rubbing of the ax against his palms.  Finally Clyde declared they had enough logs to start the house.  “Get your shovel, Ben,” he ordered the following morning.  “First step is to dig a trench to set the two long sills in.”

    Ben dug the trench for the north side of the cabin, while Clyde dug a parallel one to the south.  Then they each rolled one of the stout logs they’d chosen that first day into the trench, so half of it lay below ground level, half above.  Clyde showed Ben how to notch the corners of both the already placed sill and the shorter log that would fit over it at a right angle, the notches interlocking to form the foundation.  “It takes practice to size them up with your eye,” Clyde warned, “so stop short of what you think you need ‘til you get the hang of it.  You can always cut more out, but it’s hard to put wood back once it’s gone.”

    Ben grinned.  That Clyde was sure given to understatement.  Ben did as he was told, however; he didn’t want to waste a log any more than Clyde did.  He soon developed a feel for the size notch to cut, though, and won Clyde’s smile of approval.  “Ben boy, you either got a real good eye or a natural talent for this kind of work,” Clyde commented.

    Log upon log the cabin grew, the men lifting each into place until the walls were four logs high.  “We’d better use skids the rest of the way up,” Clyde suggested.  “Easier to roll than to lift when they get this high.”

    Ben leaned against the waist-high wall and wiped the sweat from his forehead.  “I vote for easier, all right.”

    Clyde grinned.  “Gettin’ lazy on me?”

    Ben grinned back.  “You never saw the day I couldn’t outwork you.”

    Clyde snorted.  “We’ll see about that!”

    “Yeah,” Ben agreed, “but not ‘til after lunch.  Let’s see what Nelly’s got fixed.  I’m starved.”

    Nelly had a big lunch prepared, as she had the day before when they’d started the cabin.  While emigrants on the trail, they’d eaten their big meal of the day at night, since there’d been more time then to cook.  Now, with an afternoon’s work ahead of them, Nelly figured the men needed a heartier meal at noontime.  Even if they hadn’t reached California, it was time to live like settlers, not wayfarers.

    After lunch the builders angled two logs from the ground to the top of the wall where they intended to place the next log.  Then, one on each side, they rolled the new log up the skids.  They had to move the skids every time they raised a log on another wall, but despite that nuisance, the inclined plane made the work go faster.  Once the walls had been raised to the desired height, Clyde cut a door in the center of the south side.  “We won’t bother with windows,” he said, “this bein’ a winter house.”

    “Sure,” Ben agreed.  “We want to stay as warm as we can.”

    Nelly sighed.  “It’ll get awful dark,” she murmured, “and we’ll need to be sparing with our lantern oil.”

    “Yeah, I know,” Clyde sympathized, “but, honey, it’d be just as dark if I did cut windows ‘cause you’d have to keep the shutters closed against the cold most of the time.”

    “You’re right,” Nelly said, “but when we build our place in Californy, I want windows.”

    “You’ll get ‘em,” Clyde promised.  “Fine, big windows with real glass.”  Nelly smiled, appeased by the prospect of better things.  Clyde turned back to Ben.  “We’ll make a door later.  Roof comes next.  We’ll need to cut some saplings for rafters, then split some logs for shingles.”

    “Sounds like skilled work to me,” Ben said, his face reflecting doubt of his ability.

    “It is,” Clyde admitted, “and I ain’t had a lot of practice at it, but I do know how.”

    First Ben and Clyde built gables above the two narrow ends of the cabin, each log shorter than the one below it, like a pyramid.  When the gables neared a point, they laid a sturdy log from gable to gable as the ridgepole of the roof.  Then they nailed pine saplings from the top of each long wall to the ridgepole a short distance apart.

    “Whew, that’s enough for today,” Clyde said when the last sapling was in place.  “I ain’t gonna start splittin’ shingles, even if it ain’t near sundown.”

    Ben grinned his agreement.  “It’s near enough.”

    Adam and Billy came racing up from the riverbank where they’d been playing that afternoon.  “Pa!” both boys yelled, and both fathers turned to see what was exciting their sons.

    “Geese, Pa!” Adam shouted, pointing back toward the river.

    “Geese!” Nelly squealed.  “Oh, Clyde, just think how good roast goose would be!”

    “I can taste it already,” Clyde declared, forgetting how tired he was when he thought of fresh game.

    Ben was already loading his shotgun.  Together, the two men set off with the boys behind them.  “Keep real quiet, Adam,” Ben cautioned.  Adam nodded, pressing his index finger to his lips as he looked at Billy.  Billy nodded back solemnly.  Even as incorrigible a prankster as he knew that this was no time for shenanigans; hunting was serious business.

    Slowly, the quartet slipped to the river’s edge, where a flock of black-necked geese with white chin straps had settled onto the water.  Both men took aim, trying to time their shots close together.  The flock scattered as the shotguns cracked in rapid succession, Ben firing first, but Clyde’s shot ringing a second later.  Adam and Billy let loose triumphant whoops and waded into the stream, heedless of the icy water, to retrieve the two geese their fathers had shot.

    Nelly clapped as she saw the successful hunters return, geese in hand, but as soon as she saw the boys’ wet pant legs, all thoughts of food left her mind.  “You younguns get out of those wet things right away.  You’ll catch your deaths in this cold.”  The boys grabbed a dry pair of pants apiece and went behind Ben’s wagon to strip and reclothe.

    Clyde laid his goose in Nelly’s outstretched arms.  “What a fine, fat one,” Nelly said, patting its belly.  “We’ll eat mighty good tomorrow.”

    “I think it’s cold enough for the extra meat to keep, don’t you?” Ben asked.

    Nelly shivered.  “Sure seems cold enough to me.  I’ll be glad when you get that roof on and we can move indoors.”

    “We still need to build the fireplace,” Clyde said.

    “Oh, I know,” Nelly replied, “but we’d be warmer sleeping inside those walls, even if I do have to cook outdoors.  I’d like to get the supplies out of the open, too, in case bad weather does come.”

    “That’s good thinking, Nelly,” Ben said.  “Don’t you think so, Clyde?”

    “I reckon,” Clyde responded.  “We gotta get something put up for the stock before snow comes, too.”

    “We all got our work cut out for us,” Nelly laughed.  “I been meanin’ to ask, Ben, if you folks brought any ticking.”

    “Ticking?” Ben asked, puzzled.

    “Material to make mattresses,” Nelly explained.

    Ben still looked bewildered.  “Well, I know Inger brought some fabric, but I thought it was for clothes.  She figured ours would be threadbare by the time we reached California.”  He frowned as he looked at his gray trousers, which were frayed and thinning at the knees.  Adam’s britches, of course, looked even worse, due to his exploratory scrambles over rocks along the trail.

    Nelly noted Ben’s concern.  “I’ll be glad to sew up anything you or your boys need, Ben, when you have time to dig the fabric out.”

    “What?  Oh.”  Ben shook himself out of his reverie.  “That’d be a kindness, Nelly, but those things are packed deep.  I know Adam and I look like ragamuffins, but I think we’d better concentrate on shelter first.”

    “Well, I’ve got enough ticking for two mattresses,” Nelly said.  “That’ll probably keep me busy ‘til you’ve got the roof up.  I just thought if Inger brought some ticking, too, I’d make another mattress for you.”

    “And one for me,” Adam suggested as he came around the corner of the wagon, having changed his damp gray pants for his even more ragged brown ones.

    “Why, sugar, I figured you and Billy could bed together,” Nelly explained.

    “Oh!”  Adam grinned.  “That’d be fun.  Where’s Hoss’s gonna sleep?”

    Ben shrugged.  “With me, I guess.”

    “Shucks, Ben, we got the makin’s of a good cradle right here,” Clyde chuckled, kicking the provision box with the toe of his shoe.  “Stick some rockers on this, and that youngun can have his own bed.”

    Ben laughed.  “And I can have one to myself.”  A shadow crossed his face a moment later.  A bed to himself.  How lonely that sounded!  How much more desperately would he miss Inger’s warm body lying next to his when even the boys bedded apart from him?

    Hoss started to whimper as he woke from his afternoon nap.  Ben immediately went inside his tent and picked the baby up to cuddle him.  “Shh, don’t cry, baby boy,” Ben crooned.  “Pa’s here, son.”

    Nelly had bitten her lip when she saw the sorrow in Ben’s eyes, but she hadn’t said anything until he left to care for the baby.  “I wonder if it hurts him for us to mention Inger,” she whispered to Clyde.

    “Do more harm if you don’t,” Clyde said.  “He needs to talk about her, share the memories——good and bad.”

    “I reckon so,” Nelly mused.  “That’s the way it is with Bobby.”  Clyde, seeing the mist forming in his wife’s eyes, put his arms around her and held her tight.

    Nelly brightened again.  “Lands, Clyde, we got no time to spark now.  It’s time I was startin’ supper.”

    “Keep it light,” Clyde said gently, smoothing her sandy hair with his callused hand.  “We gotta save room for that goose tomorrow.”  Nelly laughed and stroked his whiskered chin.

    His brow furrowing, Adam crawled inside the tent with his father and brother.  “You okay, Pa?” he whispered.

    Ben looked up, seeing the boy’s troubled face.  “Sure, son, Pa’s fine,” he said reassuringly.  “Were you worried about me, boy?”

    “Miss Nelly thought it might hurt you to talk about Mama,” Adam said quietly.  “Does it, Pa?”

    “Sometimes,” his father admitted, “but it’s good to talk about her, Adam, just as we do about your mother.”

    “She was my mother,” Adam murmured, a single tear trickling from the corner of his left eye.  Ben stretched an arm toward him, and Adam crawled into the comfort of his father’s embrace.  For just a moment father and son felt the tug of poignant memories; then Hoss, supported in Ben’s other arm, made a grab for Adam’s nose.

    “Ouch!” Adam hollered.  “Turn loose, Hoss.”

    Ben laughed and pried the baby’s fingers away.  “Be glad he’s got a sturdy grip, Adam,” he said.  “Think of all the chores a strong little brother can take over for you!”  Then Adam laughed, too, and the somber mood was broken.

* * * * *

    Adam, Ben and Billy came toward the campsite the next morning, each carrying a pail of milk from one of the cows, though only Ben’s pail was full.  Billy was frowning disgustedly.  “Ma, our cow’s turned plumb stingy,” he complained.

    Nelly looked in the pail and shook her head with disappointment.  “Well, son, she was close to time for her milk to stop anyway,” she said, putting an arm around Billy’s shoulders, “and that long, hard trip didn’t help her none, I guess.”

    “Cartwrights’ cows is still givin’,” Billy complained.  “I don’t see why ours can’t do better.”

    “Now, Billy, I just explained why,” his mother said, perturbed.  “Besides, with us sharin’ everything like we are, what call you got to be jealous?”

    “Actually, my cow’s not doing well enough to make anyone jealous,” Ben said, tossing Billy a wry grin.  “It’s the one I got from Beatie that’s being generous.”

    “She’s had good grass and water,” Nelly said, “so I guess that stands to reason.”

    “Our cow’ll give more once she’s been here awhile, won’t she, Pa?” Adam asked.

    Clyde cackled.  “Don’t work that way, boy.”

    Adam frowned.  He didn’t see anything funny about his question.

    “We don’t have a bull, sugar,” Nelly explained.

    Adam’s frown deepened.  “What do you need a bull for?  They don’t give milk.”

    Clyde roared with laughter.  “Easy to see you weren’t raised on a farm, Adam!”

    “What’s so funny?” Adam demanded, his lips pursing with anger.  “Why do you need a bull?”

    Clyde took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.  “He’s your boy, Ben; you explain.”

    “Gladly,” Ben muttered.  “I can hardly do worse than you!”  He sat down Indian style and pulled Adam into his lap.  “You see, Adam, cows only produce milk after they’ve had a calf; so when they go dry, they stay dry until they have another.”

    “I still don’t understand about the bull, Pa,” Adam pressed.

    Ben cleared his throat, glaring at his snickering friend.  “Now, Adam, you know it takes a mother and a father to make a baby, don’t you?”

    “Sure; everybody knows that,” Adam said.  His dark eyes lighted with sudden comprehension.  “Oh!  Our cow can’t give more milk ‘til she has another baby, and she can’t have another baby ‘til there’s a bull to be its father.  Is that what you mean?”

    “Yeah,” Ben said, relieved he had a son bright enough to draw conclusions without everything being laid out in black and white.

    Billy squatted down next to Ben.  “Just how does a father and mother go about makin’ them a baby, Mr. Cartwright?”

    “Billy!” his mother shrieked.

    “Well, I always wanted to know,” Billy said, his lips forming a pout.

    Clyde wasn’t cackling any more.  Suddenly, Ben started to laugh.  “He’s your son, Clyde; you explain.”

    Clyde blushed even redder as Ben turned his own words against him.  “I will, I will, but I ain’t puttin’ on a show for the whole camp.”

    “Where are you puttin’ on a show?” Adam asked.  “Can I come?”

    Ben and Nelly exploded with laughter.  “Yeah, Clyde,” Nelly tittered.  “Just where is this here show gonna be?”

    Clyde had had enough.  “I got work to do,” he said, standing and stalking off.

    “Is Mr. Thomas mad?” Adam asked.

    “No, sugar,” Nelly assured him.  “He just got caught in his own foolishness, and it’ll take him awhile to get himself untangled.  Don’t worry; he won’t be gone long.  He ain’t likely to do much work before he gets his breakfast.”

    Ben chucked Adam under the chin.  “No more talk about shows, though, okay?”

    Adam shrugged.  “Okay.”  He didn’t understand what all the fuss was about——just grownups being their usual mystifying selves, he supposed.

    Clyde, evidently having remembered breakfast, came striding back before long, his countenance under control again.  He slapped Billy on the arm.  “We’ll have us a private talk later, son,” he promised, then wrinkled his nose at Adam.  “No friends allowed,” he said firmly.

    “Well, today’s the day I learn to make shingles,” Ben said brightly, to change the topic.

    “Nope,” Clyde said.

    Nelly turned abruptly.  “Now, what’s botherin’ you?  You can’t still be put out with Ben!”

    Clyde grinned.  “Nope,” he said again.

    “Sun-touched,” Ben scoffed.  “Lost all his language except that one word.”

    “Nope!”  Clyde tried to keep a straight face, but couldn’t.  “Naw,” he said, “Truth is, I had time to think things through last night.  I’ve only got one froe and mallet, so only one of us can split shingles at a time.  I thought while I did that, you could go into the hills for another load of logs.  Then when I’ve made enough, we’ll both nail them on.”

    “It’s a good plan,” Ben admitted, as Nelly handed him his breakfast plate.  “I really wanted to learn how to split shingles, though.”

    “You will,” Clyde promised.  “Time won’t be so much a factor once we know we got a roof over our heads, so I’ll show you when we roof the stable.”

    “Good enough,” Ben said, taking a bite of biscuit spread with thick, spicy pumpkin butter.  He looked down at Adam, sitting at his feet.  “You want to come along with me, son?”  When Adam nodded eagerly, Ben smoothed his black hair and smiled.  “Maybe we’ll have a private talk of our own,” he suggested.

    “Okay, Pa,” Adam agreed readily, knowing it wasn’t really necessary.  He could count on Billy to recite whatever he heard from Clyde, anyway.

    “Adam, honey, would you do me a favor while you’re in the woods with your pa?” Nelly asked.

    “Sure, ma’am,” Adam replied.

    “I want you to gather up all the dry pine needles you can find.  They’ll make good stuffing for the mattresses,” she explained.

    “I can do that easy,” Adam said.

    “Aw, I wanna go with Mr. Cartwright and Adam,” Billy whined.

    “You’re stayin’ with me, boy,” Clyde said.  “We’re havin’ us a talk.”

    “And I need you to help me pluck the geese,” his mother said.  “The feathers’ll make—”

    “A pillow for me!” Billy demanded.

    Nelly didn’t say anything.  Later would be soon enough to tell Billy she had other plans for those feathers.

    By the time Ben had the empty wagon hitched and ready to head out, Adam had finished his breakfast.  He trotted to his father’s side, carrying the empty bags Nelly’d given him to hold the pine needles.

    “You be sure to be back for lunch,” Nelly called.

    “Not a chance we’d miss that goose!” Ben shouted, waving back as the oxen headed for the forested foothills.

    Father and son walked along in silence for awhile, each enjoying the other’s company without need for words.  “This reminds me of the old days,” Ben said finally, “when you and I were working our way west.”

    “Yeah,” Adam said.  “I kinda like bein’ alone with you sometimes, Pa.”

    Ben laid his broad palm against Adam’s slender neck.  “I kinda like it, too,” he said softly.  They walked on a bit further, then Ben asked, “Have you been keeping up with your journal, Adam, since we settled down?”

    “Yes, Pa,” Adam said.  “I write every day, ‘cause that’s what I’m hoping Jamie’s doing.”

    Ben laughed.  “Following the Golden Rule, are you?  Well, that’s good, son, and I’m sure Jamie’s doing the same.”

    Adam’s countenance darkened a bit.  “Pa,” he said quietly.  “I haven’t been doing my lessons real regular since we got to Mormon Station.”

    “Yeah, I noticed,” Ben said, smiling down at his son, “but I haven’t said anything because I thought you were due for a break.”

    Adam brightened.  “It’s all right, then?”

    Ben nodded.  “Sure, son.  I think you and Billy should get all the playtime you can before snow falls.  There’ll be time for lessons once we’re trapped indoors.”

    “Can’t we play in the snow sometimes?” Adam asked, his eyes begging.

    “Sometimes,” Ben said, “but we don’t want you taking cold.  No doctors this side of the Sierras.”  The mention of doctors drew Ben’s mind back to the biological matters they’d discussed earlier that morning.  “You ready for that private talk I promised, Adam?” he asked.

    “I guess so,” Adam agreed.  He wasn’t quite as intrigued with the subject as his year-older friend, but as Ben described what took place between a man and a woman, Adam listened attentively.  Ever the student, Adam always welcomed new knowledge, even if he would have to file this particular enlightenment away for future use.  Pa had emphasized that the lovemaking he was describing was only right between man and wife, and Adam didn’t figure to take one for a long, long time.

    When they reached the pine grove where Ben intended to start chopping, Adam craned his neck to gaze at the tree tops one hundred-fifty feet above him.  He took a long, deep breath of the vanilla-scented tree bark and contentment flooded his face.  “Mama would have liked this place,” he said.  “You promised her we’d build our house near pines.”

    “Yeah,” Ben said, smiling dreamily at the memory.

    “We still will, won’t we?” Adam asked.

    Ben knelt and took the boy in his arms.  “We’ll keep our promise to Mama, just like I kept the one I made your mother.”

    “What was that, Pa?” Adam quizzed, cocking his head.

    “To come west,” Ben replied.  “Just before she died, she made me promise I’d do that, the way we’d planned.”

    “And we did,” Adam said, smiling.  “Promises are important, huh, Pa?”

    “Just about the most important things in the world, Adam,” his father said, standing.  “Now, I’d better get to work.  I don’t want to show up for lunch empty-handed.”

    “Me, either,” Adam laughed.  “There sure are plenty of pine needles around here.”

    “Yeah, your work shouldn’t take too long,” Ben chuckled.  “Now look carefully, son.  There’s where I plan to drop this tree,” he said, pointing down the slope they’d just climbed, “so you harvest your pine needles up above me.”

    “Okay,” Adam said and started climbing higher.

    “Don’t go far,” Ben cautioned.

    “I won’t,” Adam called.  Then, he grinned.  “It’s a promise, Pa.”

    Ben nodded, pleased, and as soon as he’d given Adam a wave, struck the first ax blow into the trunk of a tall pine.  Working alone, Ben had only cut and loaded a couple of logs by the time he and Adam needed to leave for the noon meal.  He’d unhitched the team to let them forage while he worked, so when the sun began to rise high in the sky, he left the wagon behind and took only the oxen back to camp.  He hadn’t seen any Indians since they’d been here, but he didn’t intend to chance losing the oxen by leaving them picketed here to graze while he and Adam went to dinner.

    The sun was almost directly overhead when they first smelled the savory aroma of roasting goose.  Adam ran ahead.  “Is it almost ready?” he asked eagerly.  “I’m hungry.”

    “No more than me!” Billy declared.  “I been smellin’ this all morning.”

    Nelly giggled.  “Yes, and askin’ when it’d be ready every five minutes, you scamp.”

    Billy grinned.  He could tell his mother was more tickled than mad.  She liked to cook and was mighty good at it, too, when she had something better than salt pork to work with.

    Nelly was beaming with womanly satisfaction as she set out the food for the hungry workers, and the menfolk responded as she’d hoped they would.  “Look at this, Ben,” Clyde announced proudly as Ben walked up.  “How long since you’ve seen a spread like this?”

    “Well, I guess that would be the fourth of July,” Ben said.  He looked at the wealth of food spread on the blanket around which the others were already seated.  “Nelly, you’ve got your days mixed up,” he chided softly.  “Today isn’t Thanksgiving.”

    Nelly laughed.  “No, but the truth is, we may be eating better today than then.  Those scrawny chickens won’t give this fat goose much competition, I fear.  I’m savin’ our first pumpkin pies for the celebration, though.  We got to have somethin’ to make the day special.”

    “Well, this looks just wonderful,” Ben said, “so I’ll say my thanks early and dig right in.”  Everyone else followed Ben’s example, heaping their plates with slices of goose meat, along with mounds of sage dressing, mashed potatoes and stewed turnips.

    Just before Ben sopped up the last of the gravy on his plate, he waved a slice of fresh baked bread at Nelly.  “Now this is a real treat, ma’am.  You don’t get bread like this on the trail.”

    “No, sirree!” Clyde agreed.  “Light and fluffy as you used to make at home.”

    “Now, you got decent bread once in awhile when we was travelin’,” Nelly protested, “but good bread takes more rising time than we generally had to give it.”

    “You and all the ladies did exceptionally well, working with what you had,” Ben said.  “When we passed all-male parties of gold seekers, I’d hear them complain about having to cook; but you ladies all seemed to take it in stride.”

    “Along with the laundering and the child-tending,” Nelly laughed.  “Might as well admit it, we women are just made of tougher stuff than you men.”

    “Listen to the woman!” Clyde snorted.  “You gonna put up with such talk, Ben?”

    “I sure am,” Ben said warmly, “‘cause I think she’s right.  I know who was the strength of our home.”

    “Yeah, I guess I agree, too,” Clyde admitted.  “Thanks for the good dinner, Nelly, darlin’.”

    “You sure you’ve had enough?” Nelly said.  “There’s plenty.”

    “I’m through,” Ben said, and the others echoed his response.  “I’m gonna let my food settle a bit, then go back after some more logs.”

    “Can I come this afternoon?” Billy asked.

    “Now, Billy, Ben don’t need you underfoot,” his mother scolded.

    “Aw, Ma!” Billy started to whimper, but Ben interrupted.  “It’s all right, Nelly,” he said.  “The boys can come with me if they want.”

    “Hurray!” Billy hollered.

    Ben shook the youngster’s chin.  “If, that is, you can do as you’re told.”

    “Oh, I can,” Billy said confidently.

    “You ain’t got a lot of evidence to back that up, son,” Clyde growled playfully.

    “But I can,” Billy insisted, “when I want to.”

    “Well, you’d better want to,” his father warned, “or I’ll give my razor strap a workout on your backside.”

    “I got a couple more sacks free,” Nelly said.  “You take them along and bring ‘em back full of needles.”

    Filling both sacks with needles didn’t take long, so Adam and Billy had plenty of time to roam the woods.  “Let’s look for bear tracks,” Billy said.  Nodding solemnly, Adam walked slowly, examining the ground carefully.  They didn’t see any tracks large enough to belong to bears; and while they did follow a set of tiny paw prints to a clearing in the woods, they never saw the animal that had made them.  Far overhead, more geese winged their way south.

    Logs, shingles and pine needles slowly accumulated.  Nelly finished the first mattress, stuffed it firm and started the next.  One evening when Ben returned from logging, Clyde announced that he had enough shingles split.  Tomorrow, he and Ben would roof the cabin, and their families could move into their new home.

    The two men made a contest of the roofing, the boys urging them on with regular reports on how the other man was doing and resupplying them with nails as needed.  Ben nailed his last shingle to the ridgepole and grinned down at Clyde who had a whole row left to complete.  “What’s the prize?” Ben shouted.

    Clyde looked up and froze, hammer in mid-air.  “Well, I’ll be,” he said.  “The greenhorn beat me.”

    Ben chuckled.  “You never asked if I had roofing experience.  Log cabins, no; shingled roofs, yes.”

    “You sly dog,” Clyde cackled.  “Well, you win the prize.”

    “Which is?”

    Clyde gave Ben a broad grin.  “You get to set the stable sills by yourself.”

    “In a pig’s eye!” Ben hooted.  “I’m taking a rest ‘til you get done, slowpoke.  Then I think Nelly plans on us moving everything we own indoors.”

    As soon as the roof was up, Nelly grabbed up a makeshift broom she’d made of twigs and started sweeping out the wood chips and loose dirt.  Moving in took the rest of the day; for in addition to carrying indoors what they’d already unpacked, everyone pitched in to unload the Cartwright wagon.  The food supplies, regardless of who originally bought them, were all stored together in a corner at the Thomas’s end of the cabin.  Ben’s belongings were stacked in a corner of the opposite wall, and the remainder of Clyde’s and Nelly’s things wherever they would fit.  Now only the cart with Clyde’s tools remained loaded.

    “I know you’re wantin’ to get right at the stable,” Nelly said, “but I could sure use some shelves and pegs soon as you get a chance.”

    “We’ll do it tomorrow,” Clyde promised.  “It won’t take long, and Ben’s got all the logs cut we could set in place tomorrow, anyway.”

    “We’ll need at least two more trips into the woods, I figure,” Ben said.

    “I’d say so,” Clyde agreed.

    That night the Cartwrights and Thomases bedded under a roof for the first time in nearly six months.  Clyde and Nelly slept on their mattress behind the wagon-cover curtain, the others on pallets against the long wall.  Ben lost one bed-partner that night, for Adam opted to share a pallet with Billy.  To console himself, Ben cuddled Hoss close, telling himself he did it to give the baby extra warmth.

    The next morning, as soon as breakfast was over, Ben hitched a yoke of oxen to his wagon.  “What you doin’, Ben?” Clyde asked.

    “You don’t need me to help with the shelves, do you?” Ben asked.

    “No, but it won’t take long,” Clyde said.  “We can start the stable within an hour, I think.”

    “I should be back by then,” Ben said.  “I have an errand to run.”

    “Can I come, Pa?” Adam asked, bursting with curiosity.

    Ben nodded.  “Yeah, and Billy, too, if his folks are agreeable.”

    “Take him,” Nelly said.  “He’ll be pestering me every minute if Adam ain’t around.”

    “What you up to, Ben?” Clyde demanded as Ben called to his oxen to start.

    “Wait and see,” Ben called back.

    Clyde frowned; but since Ben was determined to be close-mouthed about his destination, Clyde put the mystery out of his mind.  “All right, woman,” he said gruffly.  “Show me where you want them shelves.”

    When Ben didn’t return as quickly as he’d planned, Clyde started digging the first trench in which to set a sill for the stable.  He hadn’t been at work long, however, before Ben arrived with the two youngsters beside him, grinning mischievously.  “Household goods for sale,” he called.  Dropping his shovel, Clyde headed toward Ben.  Nelly carried Hoss over to the wagon, too.

    “What in tarnation did you bring that for?” Nelly asked as Ben unloaded the Larrimore’s grandfather clock.

    “To keep time?” Ben teased.  When Nelly gave him a look of exasperation, he smiled appealingly.  “You don’t mind, do you?  We have room.”

    “Well, of course, Ben,” Nelly said, “if you need a clock to keep you happy.”

    Ben laughed loud.  “I don’t,” he said, “though this is a fine one.  Like Camilla, I just hated the thought of leaving such fine workmanship to the elements.”

    “Well, it will make the place more homey-lookin’,” Nelly admitted, “though I never in my life had such a fancy way to tell the passing hours.”

    “I thought, too,” Ben said, “that I might be able to carry it to San Francisco since I figure we’ll have eaten most of my load by the time we leave.”

    Clyde cackled.  “I’d give a pretty penny to see Camilla’s face when you come totin’ it up her front steps.”

    “Me, too,” Billy laughed, “and old Sterling’s, too.”

    “Well, carry it in, men,” Nelly ordered.  She peered into Ben’s wagon.  “What else you got in there?”

    “Oh, odds and ends,” Ben chuckled.

    Nelly gave a screech of delight.  “A rocker!  Where’d you find a rocker?”

    “Sitting next to the clock,” Ben replied.  “I guess that party behind us must have unloaded some things, too, before hitting the mountains.  Even left behind some dried beans.  The rocker has a broken slat, though.”

    “Oh, Clyde can fix that easy,” Nelly said.

    “I’ll do it tonight,” Clyde promised, “once it gets too dark for building.”

    “You hear that, Hoss?” Nelly clucked.  “You’re gonna like bein’ rocked to sleep, aren’t you, sunshine?”  Hoss gave her the bright smile that had earned him the nickname Nelly’d taken to calling him and reached out to grab a twist of her pale hair.

    “Now, if you’re through playin’ peddler man, Ben,” Clyde snickered, “maybe you’d like to commence shovelin’.”

    “Can’t think of much I’d like less,” Ben drawled dryly, then grinned.  “The stock will appreciate it, though.”

    “That’s all we ask, just a little appreciation,” Clyde cackled, throwing an arm around Ben’s shoulders as they walked toward the work site.

    By the end of the day, they had positioned all the logs Ben had cut.  “Not a bad day’s work,” Clyde commented.

    “Yeah, especially for a peddler and a furniture mender,” Ben jibed.

    Clyde shoved him toward the front of the cabin.  “Get along with you, you dadberned nuisance,” he ordered.  Ben grinned and hustled where he was ordered.  After all, that’s where supper would be served and he’d worked up a hefty appetite.

    It took several more days to cut enough logs to finish the stable and to notch them into place.  Finally they were ready to roof the addition to the cabin.  First they sawed the logs into shingle-length pieces.  Then, Clyde stood one on end and placed the blade of his froe, a heavy knife with a short handle, a little way from the edge.  He swung the oblong wooden mallet down, hitting the froe and at the same moment prying the wood as the blade cut downward.  Time after time he repeated the motions until he’d split off a thin, flat shingle.  This one, of course, still had the rough bark on one side; the next ones would be smooth on both sides.

    Clyde held the tools toward Ben.  “Want to try?”

    “Yeah,” Ben said eagerly.  His first shingle came off crooked, thinner at the bottom than the top.  He gave Clyde a lopsided smile.  “Not so good, huh?”

    “I’ve seen better,” Clyde admitted, “but you’ll get the hang of it.”

    “And what do you aim to do while I wrestle with this chore?” Ben asked.

    “Thought I’d start the fireplace,” Clyde replied.  “Hey, you younguns, time you earned your keep,” he called as he rounded the corner of the cabin.

    “What you think we been doin’?” Billy demanded.

    “We’ve been helping Miss Nelly straighten up the beds,” Adam bragged.

    “Well, leave the woman’s work to the woman, boys,” Clyde said.  “You’d rather do man’s work, I reckon.”

    “Yes, sir!” Billy shouted, giving a firm nod.

    Adam copied the nonverbal half of his friend’s response.  “What kind of man’s work, Mr. Thomas?”

    “I’m fixing to build the fireplace so Miss Nelly can cook indoors, son,” Clyde explained.  “Now, I got to go down to the riverbank and fetch a load of rocks.  While I’m doing that, you boys make sure all the grass is pulled from that side of the cabin.”

    “That’s hard work,” Billy grumbled.

    “That’s what makes it man’s work, son,” Clyde said.  “When I start the chimney, though, I’ll need you to help plaster everything with mud.  That’ll seem almost like play to you, I bet.”

    “Yeah,” Adam chirped.  “I’d like that.”  Billy grinned.  Come to think of it, slopping mud around could be fun, especially if he didn’t waste all of it on the chimney.

    Clyde spent the morning gathering rocks, while Ben worked at splitting shingles.  After lunch they worked together to get the fireplace built as quickly as possible.  With rows of rocks they formed a rectangle, the fourth side of which was the cabin wall.  Then they built the fireplace up, rock upon rock, with Adam and Billy spreading a layer of thick mud between each row and almost as much on each other.

    The trouble started with Adam and Billy exchanging playful swats with mud-covered hands and ended with them wrestling on the ground, knocking over the bucket of mud in the process and rolling each other in the slime that poured out.  “Billy started it,” Adam yelled when the two fathers jerked their boys apart.

    “I don’t doubt it,” Clyde snorted.

    “Yeah, but it’s easy to see Adam did his part!” Ben snapped.

    “Lands, look at you boys,” Nelly chided, “and after me washin’ your duds just yesterday.  The both of you are gonna need a bath and head wash after this.”

    “We gotta help Pa build the chimney,” Billy protested.

    “Help like this, we don’t need!” Clyde hollered.  “Besides, it’s gettin’ too tall for you to reach anymore.”

    “Go get yourself cleaned up,” Ben ordered his son sternly, “and apologize to Miss Nelly for making extra work.”

    “Yes, sir,” Adam muttered.  He was sorry about that part, of course, but he’d only been defending himself and thought his father should have understood.  Out of Ben’s sight, Adam stuck his tongue out at Billy to let him know he didn’t regret one dollop of mud he’d tossed at his freckle-faced friend.  Billy responded in kind, and then their differences were forgotten in the joint misery of the hard scrubbing Nelly gave their ornery hides.

    Reaching the top of the fireplace proper, Clyde laid a horizontal log close to the wall across the last row of rocks and plastered it over with mud.  Then he and Ben continued to pile rock upon rock as before, but now they narrowed the sides as the rows ascended.

    The sun dipped behind the mountains on the western horizon before the chimney was finished.  “It’ll be done tomorrow,” Clyde said as he heaped his plate full of the beans whose aroma had been tantalizing him half the afternoon.  “You can do your cookin’ indoors after that,” he told Nelly.

    “That’ll be a pleasure,” Nelly said.  “You men are  buildin’ us a fine home, one I’d be proud to live in for more than just a winter.”

    “There’s things I’d do different if we was stayin’ permanent,” Clyde admitted, “but I don’t see no sense in puttin’ up some flimsy shack.  We don’t know how harsh winters get around here.”

    “The mountains should get most of the snow,” Ben said, stirring a little molasses into his beans.

    “Probably,” Clyde said, “but you can’t count on that.”

    “No, you can’t,” Ben agreed.  “We’ve done the right thing in building this place sturdy.  And who knows?  Maybe some other stranded traveler will find use for it.”

    “It’s sturdy enough to stand a good many years,” Nelly said.

    Everyone went to bed tired that night.  Except for young Hoss, they’d all put in a harder day than usual, and they slept soundly, not even disturbed by the hourly chimes of the grandfather clock.  The sound had been difficult to get used to after the silence of the Carson Valley, but now its soft ticking seemed soothing, and even the louder chimes went unnoticed.

    Refreshed by a good night’s rest, Clyde and Ben easily finished the chimney before noon the next day.  Then, after lunch, they went inside the cabin and cut away the wall to expose the fireplace.  “I’ll need to get some real green wood to nail against these cut ends,” Clyde said.  “Then you’ll be fixed up for a proper cook fire.”

    “And the cabin’ll be warmer at night,” Nelly said.

    “High time,” Ben commented, wrapping his arms around himself and shuddering to convey his opinion of the temperature.

    “Nights sure have been cold,” Nelly laughed.  “A real door, instead of a hanging blanket, would help, too.”

    “Maybe we ought to tend to that before the stable roof, huh, Ben?” Clyde asked.

    Ben nodded.  “With these children to think of, I’d say yes.  It won’t take long to build a door, will it?”

    “One day,” Clyde replied.  “We need more wood first, though.  Let’s do what we can on the roof today, then bring in another load of logs tomorrow.”

    “Yeah, I guess I’ve made enough shingles to start, anyway,” Ben said.

    “Well, you keep makin’ more, and I’ll nail up what we got already,” Clyde said, then caught himself up short.  “I ain’t tryin’ to make myself your boss, Ben.  It can be the other way round, if you’d druther.”

    Ben laughed.  “It doesn’t matter, though we might get better shingles if you took over.”

    “Yours are lookin’ better,” Clyde grinned, “but I probably am quicker at it.”

    “Then, let’s switch jobs,” Ben suggested.  “Not a lot of daylight left, so let’s make the best use of it.”  With a nod, Clyde walked out the cabin entry and headed for the area where Ben had been splitting shingles.  As Clyde picked up the froe and mallet, Ben gathered an armful of shingles and headed toward the back of the cabin.  “Adam,” he called.  “Come keep me supplied in nails.”

    “Okay, Pa,” Adam called and ran to grab a handful.

    Over the next few days, the men put the finishing touches on the cabin.  The stable was roofed, and wide double doors built to keep the stock inside at night.  A solid door kept the ever colder wind outside the cabin.  The last step was chinking the cracks between the logs.  First, they were filled with whatever scraps of wood were around, Ben’s first dozen shingles having been delegated to that less lofty use.  Then the spaces were filled in with mud.  The boys begged to help, promising to behave themselves this time, and both fathers agreed to give them a second chance.

    That job done, the cabin was warmer than ever.  “Cozier than what we had in St. Joe,” Ben declared with satisfaction, wondering now why anyone chose to build with sawed lumber when they could have a solid cabin like this one between them and the elements.

    “You gents have earned yourselves a long rest,” Nelly said the morning after the cabin was finished, “but there is just one more thing I wish you’d see to today.”

    “Ain’t that just like a woman,” Clyde groaned.  “First she says she knows you need rest; then she ruins it by findin’ more chores.”

    “Lands, it ain’t a big chore,” Nelly protested.  “I just figured tomorrow bein’ Thanksgiving, we’d like a real table to sit at.  You got logs enough left over, don’t you?”

    “Sure we do,” Ben said, “and you’re right.  We should have a table for a proper celebration.”

    “Reckon so,” Clyde chuckled.  He tossed his coffee cup down, stood and stretched.  “Best get at it.”  He and Ben split a log apiece and nailed the slabs together to form the tabletop, then added half-stumps to the four corners for legs.  They split one more log and nailed split stumps to the ends of each half to make benches.

    The table and benches were ready by suppertime, so the settlers christened them with the evening meal.  “Now, ain’t this place lookin’ homier by the minute,” Nelly enthused as they sat down, the Cartwrights and Billy on one side and Clyde and Nelly on the other.

    Ben looked around the snug cabin, with shelves for food supplies and pegs for their clothes and rifles.  He smiled at the grandfather clock by the door and the rocker next to the fireplace.  “A real home,” he agreed, “especially after we get some beds made.”

    “Beds!” Billy whined.  “I’d settle for just a mattress, Ma.”  Everyone laughed.

    “Well, that dirt floor’s hard,” young Thomas protested, “and everybody’s got a decent mattress except me and Adam.”  Nelly had finished a second one and given it to Ben.

    “Don’t fret now, Billy,” his mother soothed.  “I’ve already started a mattress for you and Adam.  Then like Ben says, we’ll get some real beds so you’ll be up off the cold floor.”

    Clyde groaned.  “More work.  Don’t no one around here never think of rest?”

    “You can rest tomorrow,” Nelly laughed.  “We owe the good Lord one day to just say thanks.”

    “Amen to that,” Clyde agreed, though Ben wasn’t sure whether his friend was agreeing to the idea of rest or the debt of gratitude.  In Ben’s own heart, however, there was no dichotomy, only whole-hearted appreciation for what God in His grace had provided:  food, shelter——and above all, the love of family and friends.

    Those were the sentiments echoed around the table the next day as they sat down to the best meal Nelly could prepare from their stock of provisions.  She’d even unpacked Camilla’s china to make the table setting especially elegant and, in respect of her promise to Mrs. Larrimore, had roasted the two chickens, serving them with sage dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy.  There were pickles and fluffy yeast rolls, of course, and a pot of slow-baked Boston beans that Ben raved over.  For dessert Nelly had made pumpkin pies and a pound cake with the last of the eggs.  “A feast fit for kings,” was Ben’s offered praise.

    “And princes!” Adam added.  He remembered that phrase being used for one of their better meals on the trail and thought this dinner surely rivaled the earlier one.  The others laughed, enjoying with Adam one of the pleasant memories of their journey.

    There were sorrowful memories, too, of course, for both families had lost a member along the way.  It wasn’t grief over what they’d lost, however, but appreciation for all they still had that prevailed at their Thanksgiving table.  One by one, they spoke of their blessings, counting themselves rich as royalty in gifts that surpassed all material wealth.

    They remembered other friends, also, as they concluded the meal by offering fervent prayers for the safety of those who had gone on.  They hoped the other members of their wagon train were now settling into their new homes in California, but the snow that continued to dust the mountain tops kept them faithful to their promises to pray.  Both families knew, wherever those dear friends were this day, they were remembering those they’d left behind and praying, too.  Somehow, those shared petitions drew them close, despite the mountains towering between them.

    Shortly after Thanksgiving, the two men made an extended trip in search of game.  Before leaving, however, they had constructed a small lean-to against the opposite end of the cabin from the fireplace as a storage for the meat they hoped to lay in.  Away from the fire, the meat would freeze and keep until warm weather came again.  Outside the cabin door, they’d stacked a pile of firewood, too.

    Then, with Nelly and the boys provided for, Ben and Clyde headed into the mountains.  They didn’t come home from their three-day hunting trip with as much meat as they’d hoped, but what they did shoot would last a long while.  As Ben pointed out, if worse came to worst, they could always slaughter an ox or two.  They wouldn’t go hungry.

    The first snow finally fell in the Carson Valley on the last day of November.  It wasn’t a heavy one, and most of it had melted away by the second day.  Nevertheless, everyone was glad they had solid walls between them and the snow-laden wind.  While this first onslaught of winter hadn’t been particularly savage, the next might be.  By then, though, it wouldn’t matter, for the two families felt prepared for whatever winter blasts might blow their way.


By the second week of December, the Cartwright-Thomas cabin exhibited even more the appearance of a well-established home.  Three beds stood against the walls, each with its own new pine needle- and straw-stuffed mattress resting on a framework of ropes and wood.  The beds were immovable, since pegs in the wall supported one side, with stout legs only on the outer corners.  Near the hearth during the day and next to Ben’s bed at night sat a small cradle, made by attaching rockers to the Cartwright’s provision box, with its own tiny mattress.  The table, in the center of the room, stood bare during the day, when it served as work area or classroom; but at mealtimes Nelly always spread her blue-checked cloth over it before setting out their tin plates and utensils.  The tablecloth and the patchwork quilts spread over each bed made the simple room seem as homey as if the two families had lived there a lifetime instead of a mere two weeks.

    Outside the cabin, the pile of cut logs gave mute testimony to the settlers’ readiness for winter.  With enough firewood to last several weeks stacked against the south wall, the men finally had time to rest.  In fact, they had little to do except care for the livestock and those chores were quickly done each day.

    Ben put his spare time to use by supervising Adam’s schoolwork.  For a couple of hours each morning, as well as on occasional afternoons, the young scholar studied diligently and found that he made quicker progress than before, now that Pa had time to help him over the hard parts.  When weather permitted, father and son held class outdoors, since the light was better there than in the cabin.  On stormy days, though, they sat at the kitchen table and read by the light of the coal-oil lantern.

    At first Billy scoffed at Adam for wanting to do lessons when he could be playing, but the first day the cold kept him indoors, the energetic eight-year-old decided even schoolwork took the edge over sitting on his bed, bored.  Step by step, he moved closer to the table until he was leaning over Adam’s shoulder to look at the book.

    “Now, don’t be pesterin’, Billy,” his mother cautioned from her rocker near the fire, where she was stitching a new pair of pants for Adam from Inger’s stock of fabric.

    Ben looked up and saw the disappointment on Billy’s face.  “It’s all right, Nelly,” he assured her.  “Billy’s more than welcome to join our class.”

    “It’d be a blessing for him to get some learnin’,” Nelly smiled, “if you’re sure you don’t mind the extra trouble.”

    “Why, Billy, you didn’t plan on making any trouble, did you?” Ben teased.

    Billy grinned as he scooted onto the bench next to Adam.  “Me?  Never!”

    “Never more than once a minute,” Clyde snickered.  He had pulled the other bench near the fire and was sitting there trying to construct a chair.  The youngsters might not mind sitting on a slab bench all winter, but his back craved a little support.  He figured Ben’s did, too.

    Ben tapped the tabletop with his fingernails.  “Class will come to attention,” he ordered, then giving Clyde a wink, “and will ignore all distracting influences.”

    He handed Adam’s primer to Billy and suggested he start reading where Adam had left off in his recitation.  Billy made a valiant effort, but it became quickly apparent that his scholarship wasn’t up to Adam’s level, even if he was a year older.  “Let’s go back a few pages, Billy,” Ben said patiently, “and see if we can’t find a lesson you’re comfortable with and go on from there.”

    Billy frowned.  Mr. Cartwright was being polite, but there was no missing the fact that Adam was smarter than he, and Billy didn’t like to admit it.  “Maybe, this weren’t such a good idee,” he suggested.

    “Idea,” Ben corrected gently, “and it was a good one.  Don’t give up before you start, son:  quitters never win.”

    Billy shrugged.  He’d heard that saying before and generally agreed with it.  “Yes, sir,” he said and began thumbing back through the pages until he found one with words he mostly knew.  Starting there, Ben helped him read through two pages.  By the time he was through, Billy was sweating from the unaccustomed mental effort, but he gave his new teacher a triumphant smile.  He felt like an explorer conquering new lands.

    “That’s fine, Billy,” Ben said encouragingly.  “We’ll read some more tomorrow.  Now, let’s study a little geography.”

    Billy groaned.  That was one subject he’d never liked:  hard-to-spell place names and strange-sounding capitals to link up with the right country.  Geography came alive, though, the way Mr. Cartwright taught it.  They were studying the continent of Africa that morning, and Mr. Cartwright had actually been there!  Billy and Adam listened, wide-eyed, as Ben recounted his adventures on the Ivory Coast; and Clyde and Nelly, too, found themselves fascinated by what was supposed to be a schoolboy’s lesson.  One thing was sure:  between his tales of life on the high seas and his nightly reading from Paradise Lost, a winter with Ben Cartwright would be anything but boring.

    Toward the end of that second week, however, Adam’s mind seemed to be drifting from his lessons.  Ben had never thought he’d need to give his best student a lecture on attentiveness, but he almost started one that Thursday.  What stopped him was a closer look at Adam’s drooping face.  “Is something troubling you, Adam?” he asked gently.

    Adam looked up and shrugged.  “Luciadagen,” he said quietly.

    “Oh,” Ben said, suddenly understanding.  “Yeah, it would be tomorrow, wouldn’t it?”  Adam nodded.

    “What’s Lucydoggin’?” Billy asked.

    “It’s a Swedish holiday,” Ben explained.  “On December 13th Swedish people welcome the return of the sun and have a special celebration.  Why don’t you tell Billy about it, Adam?”

    “It was really fun,” Adam began, his countenance growing brighter as he recalled the pleasure of that morning one year before.  “Mama dressed up like a fairy princess with a crown of evergreens and candles in her hair and brought us special yellow breakfast rolls to eat in bed.”

    Ben put an arm around his son’s shoulders and gave him a consoling squeeze.  “It was a happy memory, and I guess the fact that Luciadagen would be tomorrow makes Adam think of his mother today.  Am I right, son?”

    “Yes, sir,” Adam said.  “I was just wishing we could have that kind of fun again.”

    “Well, who says we can’t?” Nelly interrupted.  “I ain’t Swedish, of course, so I can’t do things like Inger would have.  I ain’t got saffron to make yellow buns, either, but I reckon I could bake up some cinnamon rolls for the occasion.”

    Billy and Adam both grinned.  “And put candles in your hair?” Billy prodded.

    “Well, now, I don’t know about that!” Nelly exclaimed.  “That don’t sound real safe.”

    “Tell you what,” Ben suggested.  “Since we don’t have any small candles like Inger used, let’s just make a centerpiece for the table with one big one and some evergreens and eat those special cinnamon rolls.”

    “It won’t be the same,” Adam said, a slight pucker forming on his lips.

    “No,” Ben agreed quickly.  “You can’t expect things to stay the same, Adam, because change is a part of life.  Luciadagen is a beautiful memory of something we’ll never have again, but tomorrow we can make a new memory, a new way to start the holiday season.”

    “An American way!” Billy bubbled.

    “A California way,” Adam corrected, then frowned, “but we’re not in California, are we?”

    “Nope,” Clyde called from his spot by the fire.  He started to cackle.  “This I got to see,” he said.  “A Swedish holiday celebrated Great Basin style.”  Everyone laughed with him.

    Since the boys obviously weren’t going to get their minds back on arithmetic, Ben dismissed class.  It was time for Nelly to start cooking dinner, anyway, and she’d need the table before long.  Ben sent the boys out to bring in extra wood to replenish the fire, promising them they could go into the hills to find some evergreen boughs that afternoon.

    The men and boys woke the next morning to cinnamon-scented air.  “Smells good, Nelly,” Ben announced, raising up on his elbows.

    From the bed that stood at the head of his, Adam and Billy stirred.  Adam, closest to the edge, rolled out and started to pull on his britches.

    Billy grabbed his arm.  “No, don’t get dressed,” he ordered.  “We’re supposed to get breakfast in bed, remember?”

    Adam paused with one foot thrust through a pants’ leg and gave his father a questioning look.  “Get up, Adam,” Ben laughed.  “You, too, Billy.  We’ll be eating at the table.”

    “Aw, shucks,” Billy pouted.  “I liked the notion of eatin’ in bed.”

    “Yes, and droppin’ crumbs to roll in all night,” his mother scolded.  “Come to the table, son.”

    “Clyde not up yet?” Ben asked, sliding down under the covers.

    “Up and dressed, lazybones,” Clyde snorted as he came around the curtain separating his sleeping quarters from the main room.

    “You expect me to put my pants on with Nelly gawking at me?” Ben asked.

    Nelly laughed.  “I’ll turn my back, Ben.  Rolls is almost done, so you’d best get on up.”  She turned away, as she’d promised and Ben hastily pulled on his trousers.

    Soon everyone was seated at the table, praising the cinnamon rolls enthusiastically.  “My Ma’s the sweetest baker in the world,” Billy declared.

    For a moment Adam felt offended, as if his friend’s words had been intended to disparage his own mother.  But Nelly tweaked her son’s nose so quickly, Adam laughed, instead.

    “I see right through you, Billy Thomas,” Nelly giggled.  “All you’re doin’ is butterin’ me up for more goodies.”

    Billy shrugged.  No sense denying the truth.  He munched contentedly on his sweet roll and reached for another with his free hand.  “One thing don’t make sense to me, Mr. Cartwright,” he said.

    “Doesn’t make sense, Billy,” his instructor corrected.

    “Okay, doesn’t,” Billy said, “but them Swedes must be all mixed up ‘cause it don’t, I mean doesn’t, make sense to have a holiday to welcome back the sun in the middle of winter.  It should be in the summer, don’t you think?”

    Ben laughed.  “Billy, you need a lesson in astronomy.”

    “Huh?”  Billy’s face screwed up in puzzlement.

    “The holiday is in honor of the winter solstice,” Ben explained.  “It’s a little early, but a couple of weeks from now will be the shortest day of the year, when the sun is furthest from us.  After that the days will get longer and longer until spring and then summer are really here.”

    “They celebrate the days’ getting longer, stupid,” Adam scoffed, “not more sunshine.”

    “Adam, mind your tongue,” Ben rebuked.  Adam bit his lip and nodded.  “Do you understand now, Billy?” Ben asked.

    “Well, some,” Billy replied.

    “We’ll discuss it some more during class today,” Ben promised.  “I’ll draw pictures that’ll help you see what I mean about the sun.”

    “Okay,” Billy agreed, then his brow wrinkled with thought again.  “A couple of weeks, huh?  That’ll be Christmas, won’t it?”

    Adam’s face wrinkled up, too, not with thought, but with worry.  “Pa?” he asked tentatively.

    “Yes, son.”

    “Pa, how will Santa find us out here?  Won’t he be lookin’ for us in California?” Adam quizzed.

    Billy gave a loud hoot.  “Now who’s bein’ stupid?” he demanded, still smarting from the name Adam had called him.

    “Billy!” Clyde said sharply.

    “But listen to him, Pa,”  Billy insisted.  “Talkin’ about Santa like some baby.  Everybody knows there ain’t no Santa.”

    Adam gave his friend a hard shove that almost knocked Billy off the bench.  “There is, too!”

    Billy pushed back.  “No, there ain’t!”

    “Yes, there is!”  Adam turned to his father.  “Tell him, Pa.”

    “Uh, well, uh,” Ben stammered, not sure what to say.

    Clyde stood and grabbed Billy by the elbow.  “You come with me, you scamp.”

    Ben raised a remonstrating hand.  “No, Clyde,” he protested.  “You can’t punish him for telling the truth.”

    “The truth?” Adam said, his face puckering up.  “You mean, there really isn’t a Santa?  But you always said—”

    Ben stood.  “Come outside with me, Adam,” he said kindly.  “Let’s talk about it.”

    Adam stood and dragged out after his father.  First no Luciadagen and now no Santa.  Life was getting more bleak and colorless by the moment.  “If there isn’t any Santa Claus, why did you say there was?” he demanded hotly the moment the door closed.

    “Well, I didn’t mean to lie to you, son,” Ben explained.  “Santa Claus is make believe.  It’s a game grownups play to make Christmas more fun for their children.”

    “A game?” Adam asked.  “Not a real person?”

    “Not a real person,” Ben admitted, “but a symbol of all the real love that lies behind the gifts we said he brought.”

    “Where did the presents come from?” Adam asked.

    “From me,” Ben said, “and from Inger, too, the last couple of years.”

    “Mama made the mittens?” Adam said, a soft smile touching his lips.  Somehow, having lost her, that made the gift more special than if Santa really had brought it.

    “That’s right,” Ben replied, “and she helped me pick the other gifts.”

    “There were lots of them last year,” Adam commented, “more than before.”

    “Yeah, that’s because Pa had a good job last year,” Ben explained, “and could do better by his boy.”

    Adam nodded.  “I kinda wondered why some years Santa brought a lot more than others when I tried to be good all the time.”

    “You are a good boy——’most all the time,” his father said, giving him a hug.  “It’s just some years Pa was a better provider than others.”

    Adam put his arms around his father.  “You did good, Pa.  But you could’ve told me; I’m not a baby, you know.”

    Ben smoothed the boy’s dark hair.  “No, you’re not, but it’s hard to know when a boy’s ready to quit the game and understand the truth.  And, well, the truth is, the game’s fun for parents.  If I hung on to it too long, I’m sorry, Adam.”

    “It’s that dadberned Billy’s fault,” Adam declared, his jaw hardening.

    “No, no,” Ben said.  “In the first place, I don’t want you picking up that kind of language; and in the second place, I don’t want you blaming your friend.  It’s my fault for not telling you myself.  I should have realized I’d need to because Santa sure won’t be able to bring much this Christmas.”

    Adam’s lips softened.  He could cheerfully fix the blame on Billy, but not on Pa.  “You’re the best Pa there is,” he said, not knowing how else to express what he was feeling.  Then his lower lip trembled a little.  “There—there won’t be any Christmas at all here, will there?”

    Ben lifted the youngster into his arms.  “Of course, there’ll be Christmas here!” he announced, not sure how he’d keep the promise.  “It’ll be kinda sparse because your mother and I figured we’d be in California by this time, so we didn’t think to bring Christmas presents with us.”

    Adam brightened.  “But we will have Christmas, even without presents?”

    “We’ll make the best celebration we can,” Ben said, “and then, when we get to California, there’ll be presents.  Pa promises.”

    Adam smiled broadly, then.  If there was one thing he could count on, it was that Pa always kept his promises.

    The door opened a crack and Billy peeked outside.  “You through talkin’ yet?”

    Ben chuckled.  “Come on out, Billy; all is forgiven.”

    Billy grinned, opened the door wide and came out.  When Ben went back inside, Billy walked over to Adam.  “I’m sorry, Adam,” he said.  “I shouldn’t oughta told you like that.”

    “You called me stupid,” Adam accused.

    “You said it first!” Billy retorted.

    Adam looked chagrined.  “Yeah, I guess I did.  I’m sorry, Billy.”

    “Yeah, well I was just gettin’ back at you for that,” Billy defended himself, “else I’d’ve remembered how I felt when ole Martin Hansen told me about Santa last year.”

    Adam grinned.  “You were old as me, then, when you found out.”

    “Yeah,” Billy grinned, “and I was spittin’ mad ‘cause ole Marty called me a baby.”

    “Then it’s all ole Marty’s fault,” Adam declared, “and none of ours.”

    “Yeah!” Billy agreed.  “Bet I can beat you to the river.”  He took off with Adam close behind.

    Inside the cabin a serious discussion was underway.  “What we gonna do about Christmas, Ben?” Nelly asked as soon as the older Cartwright returned.  “We sure never came prepared to celebrate this side of the mountains.”

    “Nor did we,” Ben replied.  “In a way, it’s a good thing Billy let the cat out of the bag about Santa.  At least, Adam will understand now why there aren’t any presents.”

    “Oh, but Ben, there have to be,” Nelly said.

    “You ain’t talkin’ sense, woman,” Clyde accused.  “In case you ain’t noticed, shoppin’ opportunities is a mite slim in these parts.”

    “I grant you that,” Nelly admitted, “but these young ones need a spark of fun to look forward to.  And Christmas ain’t Christmas to a youngster without presents.”

    “She’s right about that,” Clyde agreed.  “Any idees, Ben?”

    “Ideas,” Nelly corrected.  “Lands, what good will it do for Ben to teach Billy to talk proper if you’re gonna undo it all every time you open your mouth?”

    “Aw, I’m too set in my ways to be a learnin’ proper grammar,” Clyde snorted.  “Get back to the subject, woman.”

    “We could set up a tree,” Ben suggested.  “Inger and I did that last year, and Adam really liked it.”

    “A tree?” Nelly mused.  “I’ve heard of folks doin’ that, but I never had one myself.  How you go about fixin’ it up, Ben?”

    “Well, last year, we strung the boughs with garlands of popcorn,” Ben began.

    “That’s out,” Nelly said.  “There’s no popcorn in our provisions.”

    “The candles on the branches would be out, too,” Ben said.

    “Well, maybe not,” Clyde said.  “We could save back the stumps of the big ones and maybe they’d do to light the tree a mite.”

    “We wouldn’t have many,” Nelly pointed out.

    “True, but even a few would make lighting the tree an event,” Ben said.  “Inger baked cookies, and we nibbled those while we decorated the tree on Christmas Eve.”

    “I can bake cookies, of course,” Nelly said, “but a few candles won’t make much decoration.”

    Ben’s brown eyes sparked.  “Hey, now!  We can make decorations.  I carved some last year, and Clyde has me beat all to pieces as a whittler.”

    Nelly clapped her hands.  “Why, sure!  Clyde can make most anything with his hands.”

    “Here, now,” Clyde protested.  “What you volunteerin’ me for, woman?”

    Nelly put both hands on her hips.  “I’m volunteerin’ you to make your son a merry Christmas, that’s what!”

    “Oh,” Clyde grinned.  “Well, I was just askin’.”  He turned to Ben.  “What are we supposed to whittle, anyway?”

    “Anything pretty,” Ben said.  “I made candles and birds and trees and stars.  We did bring one of each with us, as a pattern, but anything you carve is likely to outshine my work.”

    “Flattery will not get you out of doin’ your share,” Clyde snorted.

    “Now, do we keep this tree a secret, Ben?” Nelly asked.

    Ben shook his head.  “No, there’s no surprise involved.  Too bad we don’t have any paint.  Adam and his friend painted the ornaments last year and enjoyed being part of the preparations.”

    “They can help with the whittlin’,” Clyde said.  “Ain’t either of ‘em too young to work with a knife.”

    “Lands, no,” Nelly said.  “They was both real careful carvin’ them jack-o-lanterns, and makin’ the decorations’ll give ‘em something to do besides think up mischief.”

    Ben smiled.  Keeping Billy out of mischief seemed to be a constant thought at the back of Nelly’s mind.  Of course, if he had a son like Billy, Ben admitted, maybe he’d be looking for ways to keep him busy, too.

    “Ain’t there supposed to be presents under this tree?” Clyde asked bluntly.

    Ben nodded.  “Yeah, there’s supposed to be.”

    Nelly sighed.  “Oh, dear, we’re back to the same problem.”

    “There’s got to be a solution,” Ben said firmly.

    Clyde looked up.  “I reckon we could make the boys some slingshots.  That’d be simple enough.”

    “There, now,” Nelly said, her countenance brightening.  “I knew we’d think of something.”

    “It’s a good idea,” Ben said.  “Now what we need is few more like it.”

    Over the next two weeks the three adults kept their brains busy coming up with ideas for presents.  At first Billy and Adam complained about being sent to bed early so many nights; but when they realized there were presents under construction, they closed their eyes willingly.  Billy, of course, couldn’t resist sneaking a peek when he thought no one was looking; but all he managed to figure out was that his pa was whittling something.  He wasn’t sure whether it was a present or more decorations for the tree, though.

    He whispered to Adam one night that they should keep their eyes shut tight, but their ears open.  The grownups were bound to let something slip once they thought the boys were asleep.  It sounded like a good plan to Adam, but he couldn’t carry it off any better than Billy did.  Try as hard as they would, the boys couldn’t stay awake once they got really quiet and still.

    “That Ben’s up to something,” Clyde whispered to Nelly one night after they’d gone to bed.  “He’s still up workin’.”

    “Probably on Adam’s gift,” Nelly yawned.

    “Don’t think so,” Clyde muttered.  “I think he’s up to something else.”

    “You mean, for you?” Nelly whispered.

    “I got a feelin’, and I got nothin’ for him.”

    “Well, think of something,” Nelly hissed.  She turned her back to Clyde and started to snore softly.  Clyde frowned.  There ought to be something he could come up with as a gift for Ben.  He’d just have to think hard.

    The days passed quickly, busily.  Finally, the twenty-fourth of December arrived; and, for the boys, the real excitement began that morning.  They were to accompany their fathers that day as they went into the hills to select their Christmas tree.  Being out with the men made the youngsters feel grown up and important, that, in itself, being a gift to make this Christmas special above all others in Adam’s eyes.

    Billy pointed to a pine that scraped the clouds.  “Let’s get that one,” he suggested.  “That’ll make a grand tree.”

    “Too big,” his father scoffed.  “That thing’s taller than the cabin, boy.”

    “Set your sights a little lower, Billy,” Ben laughed.  “How about this one?”  Ben brushed the top of a tree that barely reached his knee.

    “No, Pa!” Adam shouted.  “That’s a baby tree.  You’re as bad as Billy.”

    “All right, smarty britches,” Billy hollered.  “You pick one better.”

    Adam walked around, appraising each sapling with a critical eye.  After about ten minutes’ search, he ran to a bushy pine.  “I like this one,” he announced.

    Billy ran to join him.  “Yeah!” he yelled back to the two men.  “This one’ll do.  Start choppin’, Pa.”

    Ax in hand, Clyde climbed up to stand next to Billy, popping him a swat on the seat of the pants.  “You know what I’d like for Christmas, Billy?” he grumbled.  “A week’s worth of no sass out of you!”

    “Aw, Pa, I ain’t sassin’ you,” Billy protested.  “You said me and Adam could pick the tree we wanted.”

    “So I did,” Clyde chuckled, “but I didn’t say you could give orders to your pa.”

    “I wasn’t,” Billy insisted.  “Was I, Adam?”

    “‘Course not,” Adam defended loyally.

    “Well, then, stand back and let me start choppin’, like I ain’t bein’ ordered to do,” Clyde snorted.

    The boys laughed and got out of the way.  “Hey, Pa,” Adam called.  “Couldn’t we hang some of these pine cones on the tree?”

    “Sure,” Ben shouted back.  “Gather up all you want.”  While Clyde chopped down the five-foot pine, the boys ran around snatching up every cone they could find a place to stuff in their pockets or button inside their jackets.

    By the time they arrived home, Nelly had the sugar cookies baked, so they didn’t bother waiting for nightfall to start decorating the tree.  Using short pieces of yarn, they hung the boughs with unpainted ornaments and pine cones.  The result was a very woodsy-looking version of a Christmas tree.  “A real pioneer’s tree,” Adam declared.

    Ben reached down to give the boy’s shoulder an approving pat.  Adam was right:  this was a tree befitting a celebration in the wilderness.  Even the wooden birds looked real enough to fly off the branches and circle the room; and Clyde had carved lifelike deer and squirrels, too, to scamper among the evergreen needles.  Ben bounced Hoss on his arm.  “Well, little one, what do you think of your first Christmas tree?”

    Hoss babbled something and grabbed at one of the birds.  “No, no,” Ben laughed, pulling him away.  “Leave the birdies alone, son.”  Hoss started to whimper as Ben turned away from the tree.

    “He likes it, Pa,” Adam said.

    “Evidently,” Ben said, sitting on the bench and jostling his younger son on his knee.  Happy again, Hoss started to chortle.

    “Are—are we gonna hang up our stockings, Pa?” Adam asked quietly.

    “Sure, you are,” Ben said.  “Where else do you expect Santa to put your gifts?”

    “Pa,” Adam lectured, “there isn’t any Santa Claus.”

    “There is for you, isn’t there, Hoss?” Ben said, tickling the baby’s toes.  Hoss gave a happy crow that seemed to confirm his father’s remark.  “You see, Adam,” Ben continued, “once you get old enough to discover that Santa’s only make believe, then you’re old enough to play Santa for little ones like this.  You’ll find, son, that that can be a thousand times more fun than receiving gifts ever was.”

    Adam looked embarrassed.  “I didn’t think about giving Hoss presents, Pa.  I was only thinking about me.”

    Ben held out his arm.  Adam went to him and accepted the comforting hug his father offered.  “That only goes to show you’re young, Adam,” Ben said.

    “I wish I did have a present for Hoss,” Adam remarked.  His face lit up.  “I could give him some of my marbles!”

    “No!” Ben and Nelly both shouted at once.  “He’d put them straight in his mouth,” Nelly explained.

    “And choke,” Adam said, his face dropping.  “That was a bad idea, huh?”

    “Yeah,” his father admitted, “but it came from a good heart.  I’m proud of you, Adam.”  Adam snuggled up close and Ben hugged him tighter.

    After supper that night Ben lighted the candle ends they’d placed here and there among the branches.  There weren’t enough to make the tree sparkle the way the one in St. Joseph had, but everyone pronounced the effect pleasing, nonetheless.  They sang carols as they watched the light flicker against the branches, then nibbled a few more sugar cookies and went to bed, eager to be up early the next morning to see what “Santa” would bring.

    Ben woke the next morning to the sound of two less-than-quiet boys tiptoeing toward the fireplace.  “Here, now,” he called.  “Sneaking a peek in those stockings, are you?”

    Billy and Adam turned to grin at him.  “It’s time, Pa,” Adam insisted.

    Ben raised up.  “Don’t you think it’d be more fun to wait ‘til everyone was up.”

    “Nope!” Billy cackled.  “When it comes to presents, I can have fun all by myself.”

    “Billy!” Clyde called from behind the curtain.  “You wait on us, youngun.”

    “Aw, shucks, now look what you done,” Billy scolded Ben.

    “Throw me my pants——fast,” Ben ordered.

    Billy grabbed the trousers and held them behind his back.  “Come and get ‘em,” he taunted.

    Adam snatched his father’s trousers from Billy and tossed them to Ben.  “Behave!” he hissed.  “Santa could still take back your presents since he’s right here to see you act up.”

    “A word of wisdom, Billy.”  Ben scowled as he thrust his legs quickly into his brown britches.  “I’d give heed to it if I were you.”

    Clyde came around the curtain to pluck his son up around the waist.  He tried to give the boy a ferocious glare, but Billy saw through it and grinned back.  “Merry Christmas, Pa,” he said, wrapping his arms around Clyde’s neck.

    Clyde chuckled.  “Merry Christmas, nuisance.”

    Nelly, dressed in her nicest gray skirt and a white pleated blouse, appeared suddenly to receive a Christmas kiss from her boy.  “Merry Christmas, everyone,” she said.  “Now, what’s it to be?  Breakfast first or presents?”

    “Presents!” both boys shouted in unison.

    From the cradle came a loud gurgle.  “See, Hoss wants his presents now, too,” Adam declared.

    “Oh, is that what he’s saying?” Ben laughed as he scooped the baby into his arms.  He held Hoss high and cooed at him.  “Pa’s baby boy wants his presents, does he?”  Hoss squealed with delight.

    “See,” Adam said, grinning.

    “Run get Hoss’s stocking down, then,” Ben said.  Adam trotted to the fireplace and took down the stocking he had loaned Hoss, having explained to his father that one of Hoss’s booties wouldn’t hold even one present.

    Billy snatched his stocking from above the fireplace at the same time.

    “You hold on,” his mother said.  “Let Hoss see his goodies first.”

    “Aw, Ma, he don’t care about presents,” Billy scoffed.  “He can wait.”

    “Billy!” his mother snapped.

    Billy looked at Adam and shrugged in resignation, for Adam was already sitting down next to his father to watch Hoss’s reaction when his big brother pulled the little gifts from the stocking.

    First came a new pair of blue booties, knitted by Nelly.  “My, those’ll keep your toesies warm, won’t they Hoss?” Ben said.  Hoss gurgled as Ben slipped off the baby’s other footwear and put the new ones on, instead.

    “I figured he needed bigger ones,” Nelly said, “the way he’s growin’.”  Ben nodded his appreciation.

    “Here, Hoss,” Adam said, taking a small block out of the stocking and placing it in Hoss’s hand.  The baby’s fingers curled around the block.  Adam pulled out five more just like it and held them before his brother’s face.  “See, Hoss, this is an A,” Adam explained.  “That’s the first letter of my name.”  Ben had shaped the blocks, but Clyde’s craftsmanship was responsible for the letters carved into their sides.

    Ben laughed.  “No lessons today, son; it’s a holiday.  See what else Santa brought our baby boy.”

    Adam reached into the toe of the stocking and drew out a wooden squirrel, an exact replica of those that hung on the tree.  “See, Hoss, squirrel,” Adam said.  He grinned at Mr. Thomas.  “Hoss likes the birds better.”

    “Adam,” Ben rebuked softly.

    “That’s all right, Ben,” Clyde chuckled, untying a carved bird from the tree.  “I reckon the youngun can have one of each of these critters.”

    Hoss had been totally absorbed in the little squirrel until Clyde brought the bird within reach.  Then he grinned and swiped at it, missing, but clearly demonstrating a desire to hold it.  Ben helped him close his fat fingers around the bird’s wing.  “I guess he does like birds best,” Ben admitted.

    “Now, it’s our turn, ain’t it?” Billy asked impatiently.

    “I guess so,” his mother agreed.  “You and Adam look in yours together.  The gifts are a lot alike.”

    The boys had already seen the first gift, for the slingshots wouldn’t fit inside the stockings and were peeking out the tops.  Billy grabbed his and tested its elasticity.

    “Mind you don’t point that any place you oughtn’t,” his mother warned.

    “Yeah, like at each other,” Ben added.

    “Oh, we won’t,” Billy agreed, taking careful note that no one had mentioned not aiming his missiles at any adults.  He wasn’t about to risk that kind of trouble on Christmas, of course; it was just an idea to file away for later use, in case life got boring.

    Next each boy drew a new pair of mittens from their stockings.  “Thank you, Miss Nelly,” Adam said, knowing without being told who must have knitted them.

    “You’re welcome, Adam,” Nelly said, “but I only finished what your mama had started.  The left was already done, so I just made the right one to match it.”  Adam smiled more broadly as he smoothed the left mitten against his cheek.

    “That’s Miss Inger’s yarn in your mittens, too, Billy,” his mother said, “but, see, I knitted a little different pattern in, so’s you could tell yours from Adam’s.”

    “Mine’s bigger, anyway,” Billy announced, pulling the mittens onto his hands.  “See, Ma——bigger.”

    Nelly shook her head, amused.  How could Billy think she didn’t know that, when she was the one who made them that size?  “Just so there’s no quarreling about who owns which,” she said.

    “You ain’t through yet, boys,” Clyde said.

    Adam and Billy exchanged surprised looks and reached deep inside the stockings that looked too flat to hold anything else.  Down in the toe, however, each found what felt like a coin and drew out a nickel.  Adam threw his arms around his father.

    “You’re welcome,” Ben said to the boy’s demonstration of gratitude.  “I know it’ll be awhile before you get a chance to spend it, but it’ll give you something to look forward to.”  Adam nodded happily.

    “Hey!” Billy said.  “What’s that covered up under the tree?  Is there more presents?”

    “Ain’t you got enough, greedy britches?” his father snorted.

    Billy shrugged.  “Yeah, but I could always handle more.”  The room exploded with laughter.

    “Typical boy,” Ben chuckled.  “Better let greedy britches go first, Clyde.”

    “I reckon,” Clyde grinned.  He picked up a lumpy used flour sack and handed it to Billy.  “Merry Christmas, son; hope you like it.”

    Billy quickly pulled the gift from its concealing bag, and his mouth gaped wide in admiration.

    “Ooh, look at that!” Adam said, rounding the table to get a better look.  Clyde had carved a miniature covered wagon and two oxen to pull it, Nelly, of course, having stitched the tiny white cover arching over its diminutive bows.

    “It’s great, Pa!” Billy exclaimed.  “You can make just anything!”

    “That he can,” Ben said.  “Now, Adam, your pa’s not nearly so handy, but I think you’ll like your gift.”  He pointed at the large object hidden beneath a wool blanket under the tree.

    Adam pulled the blanket away and stared wide-eyed.  “A sled,” he whispered, awestruck.

    “Not as fancy as the one Jamie got last year,” Ben said, “but I think it’ll serve.”

    Billy came over to examine the sled.  “It’s a beauty, Mr. Cartwright,” he said.  “Me and Adam’ll have us a good time with this!”

    “Listen to you!” his mother scolded.  “Invitin’ yourself to Adam’s present.”

    “I’m invited, ain’t I?” Billy demanded of Adam.

    “Sure,” Adam agreed.  “Can we go try it out, Pa?”

    “Before breakfast?  Don’t be ridiculous, Adam,” Ben scoffed.

    “Any of them other presents for me?” Billy hinted, pointing at the few other bundles still under the tree.

    “Not a one, greedy britches,” Clyde snickered.  “Ain’t you got enough yet?”

    “I got plenty,” Billy grinned, “but it never hurts to ask.”

    “Well, now,” Nelly said, “since the folks these belong to probably won’t be as quick to speak up, I’ll just tell you.”  She picked up two small, soft bundles and handed one each to Clyde and Ben.  “These are for you menfolk, to keep you warm when you’re out chorin’.”

    Both Ben and Clyde immediately set the knit caps on their heads.  “Yes, ma’am,” Clyde agreed.  “This’ll keep my ears from freezin’ off on the way to the barn.”

    “Or the outhouse,” Ben teased, “where he spends more time.”

    “Hey!” Clyde protested.  “Easy to see you ain’t on your holiday manners, Ben boy.”

    Ben stood and made a low bow.  “My apologies, sir,” he said, then reached for another bundle from beneath the tree.  “Perhaps, this will smooth your ruffled feathers.”

    Clyde grinned and unwrapped the square gift.  “A checkerboard!” he shouted.  “I ain’t had me a good game of checkers in a month of Sundays!”

    “It’s a pretty rough one,” Ben deprecated, “but the best I could do.”  He had burned alternate squares of the board with a hot poker to make them dark and had cut off small rounds from a pine limb and darkened half of them, too.

    “Oh, it’s fine,” Clyde said.  “Fine as can be.”

    “The other package is for Nelly,” Ben said quietly.  “I hope you don’t mind hand-me-downs, but I had no idea what I could make for a lady.  Inger only wore it on Sundays, though, so it should have a lot of good use left in it.”

    Nelly unwrapped the satiny blue dress, edged with elegant lace, that Inger had sewn from her Christmas fabric the year before.  “Why, Ben, it’s lovely,” she murmured.  Then she looked directly into his eyes.  “But are you sure?  Won’t it hurt to see someone else wear this?”

    “It’s what she would want,” Ben said.  “You’ll have to cut it down, of course; Inger was larger-framed than you.”

    “Oh, I can do that easy,” Nelly said, “and maybe have enough left to make a bonnet, seein’ as how I’ll have to shorten it, too.”  She pointed to the sole gift remaining under the tree.  “I didn’t even bother wrapping that up, Ben,” she said, “but it’s for Hoss.”

    Ben unfolded the cradle-sized patchwork comforter.  “It’s beautiful, Nelly,” he exclaimed, “and so thick!”

    “I lined it with goose feathers,” Nelly said, “to give it extra warmth.  We don’t want our baby catchin’ cold this winter.”

    “He shouldn’t, with this to keep him warm,” Ben said.  “Thank you so much——for this, and for the other things you and Clyde made for the boys.  We’d have had a bleak Christmas without your help.”

    “You done your part, too,” Clyde said.  “For the boys and for us.  Now, I ain’t got nothin’ under the tree for you, Ben, but I do have the promise of a gift to come.  Before we leave this spring, I aim to see to it your animals is fresh shod all around.”

    “Now, Clyde, that’s a lot costlier gift than I made you,” Ben protested.

    Clyde shrugged.  “It’s mostly labor, same as yours.  I admit the supplies is a mite more costly, but—”

    “A mite!” Ben protested.

    “Now, Ben, it ain’t polite to question how much a gift costs,” Nelly chided.

    Ben gasped and shook his head.  She was right, of course.  He and Clyde weren’t in a competition; they were just each giving what they had.  Ben looked up gratefully.  “All I can say is thanks.”

    “And that’s plenty,” Clyde said.

    “Hey, Pa, how’d you like a present from me?” Billy asked.

    “Don’t know, son,” Clyde chuckled.  “Don’t know whether to trust something you’d come up with.”

    “Pa!” Billy protested.  “It’s something you said you wanted.”

    “Let’s have it, then,” Clyde replied, still not sure whether to accept Billy’s gift with open hands or just duck.

    “It’s for both you and Ma,” Billy announced, folding his arms across his chest and grinning.  “It’s my promise to be on my best behavior for a whole week.  No sassin’, remember, Pa?”

    Clyde laughed.  “I remember, boy.”

    “Lands, if you keep that promise, it’ll make this the merriest Christmas I ever had!” his mother exclaimed and kissed the top of her son’s flame-colored head.

    “I promise, too,” Adam said, looking around at them all.  They all laughed, knowing that Adam was rarely on anything but his best behavior, anyway.

    Clyde pulled on his jacket and gloves.  “Time to tend the stock, boys,” he said.

    As Ben and the two boys hurried into their outer garments, Nelly reached for a cake of yeast.  “Take your time,” she said.  “Breakfast’ll be a little late this morning.”

    Breakfast may have been late, but everyone gathered at the table considered it worth the wait.  Nelly had prepared cinnamon rolls, just as she had a fortnight earlier, and served them alongside a heaping platter of bacon.

    Billy, to his mother’s surprise, volunteered to clear the table and wash the dishes, so she could get dinner started.  Roast goose took time to cook, so she needed to get it stuffed and in the Dutch oven as soon as possible.  Though they didn’t plan to eat until mid-afternoon, Nelly felt she had her hands full getting dinner ready and appreciated the help.  Billy beamed, warming to the role of dutiful son.

    While the meal cooked, Clyde and Ben sat down on a buffalo robe spread before the fire to enjoy a game of checkers.  Billy and Adam took turns driving the covered wagon across the tabletop to California, encountering all the difficulties they’d experienced on their real journey and a few exciting ones they hadn’t.

    When Nelly spread the blue-checked cloth over the table, the wagon treks had to end, but the boys didn’t mind.  They knew the tablecloth signaled that dinner wouldn’t be much longer, and they were getting hungry.  “You want Mrs. Larrimore’s china out again?” Clyde asked.

    “I think we should, don’t you?” Nelly replied.  “I won’t risk using it for everyday, since I’m hopin’ to get it back to her come spring; but I think she’d want us to use it for a special occasion like this.”

    “Reckon so,” Clyde said, standing up and unkinking his back.  “I’ve got to get that chair finished,” he muttered as he went to the corner where the box of china was stored and lifted it to the table for his wife.

    “You want me and Adam to set the table, Ma?” Billy offered, determined to be angelic for at least one day.

    “You’re sweet to offer, sugar,” his mother said, “but I think I’d better do it.  I’d sure hate to hand it back to Mrs. Larrimore with a piece chipped.”  Billy shrugged.  It didn’t matter to him; he was just trying to please his mother, and the smile she gave him said he’d succeeded at that.

    When Nelly announced that dinner was ready, everyone gathered around and, after grace had been said, began to heap their plates.  “Lands, look at you eat,” Nelly laughed.  “You’d think you’d been starved for weeks.”

    “No ma’am,” Adam disagreed.  “We eat real good around here.”

    “Well, Adam; we eat well,” his father corrected, “but grammar aside, I agree.”

    “It’s hard to make a meal seem special when you’ve got the same things to work with every day,” Nelly sighed, “but I tried to save back some things for the occasion.”

    “Like that peach pie,” Billy said.  “We ain’t had peach pie for weeks.”

    “You won’t get it again before we get to California, either,” his mother said.  “That’s the last of my dried peaches; that’s why I saved ‘em back for Christmas.”

    “Are we out of pumpkin, too?” Adam asked, since he couldn’t recall having that kind of pie since Thanksgiving, either.

    “No, we still have that,” Nelly laughed, “and plenty of makin’s for sugar cookies.  They’re trouble to make, though, over an open fire, so you ain’t likely to get cookies often.”

    “They’re special,” Adam said, “better than roast goose, even.”

    “Not in my book,” Ben laughed.  “I wish we could have shot down a few more while they were passing through.  This gravy certainly sets the meat off, too, Nelly.”

    “You’re all a bunch of flatterers,” Nelly said, blushing, but everyone knew she liked it.

    Hoss woke up from his nap in the middle of dinner.  Nelly started to get up, but Ben waved her back onto the bench.  “I’ll get him,” he said.  “If there’s anyone who deserves to sit and enjoy this meal, Nelly, it’s you.”  Nelly smiled and sat down.  She wouldn’t admit it, of course, but she was tired.

    Ben brought Hoss to the table and tried to eat with one hand while balancing the baby on his knee.  Hoss was getting so energetic now, though, that he was hard to control with just one arm.  Suddenly, he leaned forward and stuck his fist into Ben’s plate.  Ben dropped his fork.  “No, no, son,” he said.  “Pa’ll feed you soon.”

    Hoss, however, didn’t want to wait.  He stuck his potato-frosted fingers into his mouth and sucked happily, then reached for more.  “Hoss!” Ben said, pulling the baby’s hand back again.

    “Aw, give him some,” Billy said.  “He don’t want mush——not for Christmas!”

    Ben laughed.  “Maybe you’re right, Billy.  I don’t see any reason he can’t handle mashed potatoes.”  He picked up a spoon and scooped a bite of creamy potatoes into Hoss’s mouth.  Hoss licked his lips and squealed for more.  Ben offered the baby some stewed turnips next and found they met with equal approval.

    “Now, Ben, I don’t want to see any of that goose meat or stuffing headin’ for that babe’s mouth,” Nelly warned.

    Ben’s eyes narrowed.  “I do have some sense, Nelly,” he said, then smiled back at his baby.  “Now, let’s see, what else would Pa’s boy like?  Some pumpkin pie, maybe?  It’s nice and soft, too.”  He gave the baby a bite of pie, minus the crust.  Hoss started to bounce in a way that could only mean “More!”

    “I do believe pie’s his favorite,” Ben announced.

    “All that goes to prove is that he’s a boy,” Nelly sniffed.

    As soon as dinner ended, Adam begged to go sledding.  “Now, Adam, think,” his father said.  “There’s no snow here, and it’s too late today for a trip into the hills.”

    “But, Pa,” Adam pouted.  “What’s the use of having a sled if I can’t play with it?”

    “You can,” Ben said.  “As a matter of fact, I’ll take you and Billy out tomorrow morning, and we’ll stay as long as you like.”

    “Hooray!” Billy shouted.  He bent to whisper in Adam’s ear.  “You promised to be good, remember?”  The idea of Billy’s giving him instruction in good behavior was so laughable that Adam couldn’t keep a straight face.  Not bothering to explain his sudden change of humor to his father, Adam simply smiled and said, “Tomorrow will be fine, Pa.”

    Nelly cleared away the dishes as quickly as she could.  “Now, if anyone gets hungry, he can just help himself,” she said.  “I’m taking a holiday the rest of today.”

    “Never was one more richly deserved,” Ben said.  He paused a moment.  “I wonder if you’d like to join us in a holiday tradition of the Cartwright family,” he suggested.

    “So long as it don’t involve gettin’ out of this rocker,” Nelly teased.

    Ben chuckled.  “No, Nelly, you can just sit and look pretty.  I’ve always wanted Adam to understand the real reason for Christmas, so each year I read him the story of Jesus’ birth from the Holy Book.”

    “Oh, that’d be nice,” Nelly said.  “Please do, Ben.”

    Ben took his worn Bible and, sitting by the firelight, began to read from the second chapter of Luke.  Adam immediately snuggled up next to his father, for he loved to hear Ben read, and this familiar story was one he always looked forward to hearing again.

    Nelly sighed when Ben finished.  “Why, Ben, the story just comes alive the way you read it,” she murmured.  “I’m so glad you thought to do it.”

    “Yeah, that was right fine,” Clyde agreed.  “I wish I was as good with my letters as you.”

    Ben smiled.  “We have a winter to work on it, Clyde, if you’d really like to.”

    Clyde reddened.  “Ben, you got no idee what a chore it’d be.  I don’t read half as good as Billy here, and my teachers always favored stickin’ the dunce cap on me.”

    “Well, now, I find that hard to believe of a clever man like you,” Ben said.  He winked at Clyde.  “And I promise not to bring out the dunce cap if you stumble.”

    Clyde chuckled.  “Well, I reckon we do have a lot of long hours to kill indoors.  Wouldn’t hurt none to try, I guess.”

    “No classes ‘til after New Years,” Ben said.  “Then we’ll all buckle down.”

    “Sounds good,” Clyde said.  “Now, how about leadin’ out in some more of them carols like we was singin’ last night?”

    Ben responded with an exuberant rendition of “Joy to the World” that everyone except the baby joined in singing.  Even Hoss, however, felt the joy reflected by the happy hearts surrounding the holiday hearth that Christmas of 1850.


Bedtime——to Ben, the best and the worst part of the day.  The house grew quiet, except for the boys’ soft snoring and the even softer whispers from beyond the curtain, where Clyde and Nelly lay.  After all the chatter and forced conviviality of the day it felt good to lie still and finally have time and space for his own thoughts.  Often, however, those thoughts were troubled, and it was during those silent hours alone in his bed that the irritations of communal living prickled Ben and kept him awake.

    Though Clyde and Nelly were wonderful friends——almost family, in fact——there was no denying that living together in such close quarters was, at times, a strain.  They all got along well, but were ever conscious of the effort they expended to keep their relations congenial.

    The youngsters, on the other hand, were less inhibited in their reactions to the situation.  They enjoyed each other’s company when they could get outdoors and romp, but when cold weather kept them within the four walls of the small cabin, as it did increasingly throughout January, they got on each other’s nerves and quarrels broke out.  When the fussing got too irritating, Nelly, with Ben’s permission, made Adam and Billy sit in opposite corners of the cabin and stare at the walls until they decided to make peace.  On days like that, everyone prayed for the weather to clear.

    Their trials were no greater than those endured by families in established communities, Ben supposed.  The enforced captivity of cold weather was always hard to handle, especially in a family with more than one child.  Still, he looked forward to the stillness of the night after everyone had gone to bed.

    Or would have, that is, had it not been for the torture of listening to the sounds beyond that canvas curtain, the sounds of a man and woman sharing the intimacy of their love.  Even when Clyde and Nelly were only communing with words, Ben found himself remembering all the conversations he and Inger had whispered in bed.  When the words stopped and the unmistakable sounds of lovemaking began, however, Ben felt like screaming.  Never again would he know the warmth of a woman’s body pressed against his own, never again feel the ecstasy of melding his love with hers.

    Ben pressed his hands to his head, as if he could push the unwanted thoughts out of his brain.  He’d had thoughts like this after Elizabeth’s death, too, of course.  He’d been sure, then, that he’d never find another woman who could reach inside his solitary heart and teach it to love again——sure, that is, until Inger’s gentle hand had reached out to heal his hurt and fill his life with more joy than he’d believed possible.

    Now, she was gone, too, and Ben was headed to a land where gold was common and women rare as rubies.  Had California been crowded with enough women to build a harem, however, he knew he would never find one Inger’s equal.  She was a beautiful blessing God had granted him for a short time; and she, like Elizabeth, had left behind the blessing of a son to comfort his heart.  That was enough; that would have to be enough.  But at night, when the soft sounds of a man and woman in love filtered through the curtain, Ben couldn’t help missing what he’d never know again.

* * * * *

    On February 16th Nelly was trying, as she did every Sunday, to cook an especially good meal:  light bread instead of corn, roast meat instead of stewed, and a big pot of Boston-baked beans, since Ben favored them so.  Dessert was reserved for Sundays, too.  “Gives us all something to look forward to,” Nelly had explained, as if to apologize for not serving up sweets at every meal.  Everyone knew, of course, that the real reason dessert showed up on the table only once a week was the shortage of dried fruit in their dwindling supplies.

    The boys, bundled in warms jackets, mittens and knit caps, were outside playing with Adam’s sled.  Though the winter had been cold, not often did snow fall in the valley, most of the clouds dropping their burden of frost on the mountain peaks to the west.  A howling snowstorm, however, had kept the youngsters cooped up the last two days, so when the skies cleared that morning, Nelly had cheerfully booted them outdoors to give herself and the two men some peace for a change.

    “Sure hope the weather holds,” Nelly said as she set the meat platter on the table for the noon meal.  “This here’s the last of the venison, and we could use some more meat.”

    “We’ll try to get some hunting in tomorrow,” Clyde promised, “though our luck ain’t been so good the last couple of times out.”

    “Now, jackrabbits make good eating, too,” Ben said.

    “I’m beginning to think ox would make mighty good eatin’,” Clyde grinned.

    “I’m willing,” Ben said, “I could spare one and still have enough to haul the wagon.”

    “Same here,” Clyde remarked.  “I figure I can pack all I got left in one wagon and leave the cart.  That’d leave me a yoke of oxen to spare.”

    “Beef would make a nice change,” Nelly admitted, “though it seems a shame to slaughter them if we can find enough wild game.”

    “Yeah,” Ben agreed, “but I would like something a little special for Adam’s birthday.”

    Nelly’s brown eyes flickered with interest.  “When’s that, Ben?”

    “Thursday,” Ben replied, “and I’d been meaning to ask if you could bake a cake that day.”

    “You don’t say!” Nelly exclaimed.  “Why, Billy’s birthday is the eighteenth.  I was aimin’ to fix him a cake Tuesday.”

    “Ain’t that something,” Clyde said, “them boys bein’ birthed so close together.”

    “A year apart,” Ben pointed out.  “Well, I don’t want you to have to bake another cake so soon, Nelly, so I guess that leaves Adam out.”

    “Don’t be ridiculous, Ben Cartwright!” Nelly cried.  “I’ll just bake one on Wednesday, and those boys can both celebrate on the day between their birthdays.  It’ll tickle them pink to share a party.”

    Ben smiled.  “You know, I bet you’re right.  That’ll work out fine.”

    “Sure, it will,” Nelly said sturdily.  “Best call them boys in now, men; dinner’s ready.”

    Clyde reached for his jacket.  “I’ll get ‘em,” he said.  “My turn, I reckon.”

    Ben nodded and leaned back in the chair where he sat rocking Hoss.  “Suits me,” he said.  “I’d just as soon keep my toes warm.”

    “And let mine drop off!” Clyde snorted.  “Some friend you are!”

    “Now, hush that nonsense or I’ll boot the both of you outdoors, like the boys,” Nelly threatened.

    The weather cooperated on Monday, so Ben and Clyde set out for the mountains to hunt, hoping to find a deer browsing in the lower regions.  They were unsuccessful in that quest and gradually made their way higher.  When they did sight game, both men were so shocked they almost didn’t get off a shot in time, for the animal that crossed their path was a bear.  Clyde recovered first and, raising his rifle, fired at the beast that seemed as surprised to see them as they were by his unexpected appearance.  Despite being taken off guard, Clyde hit his target solidly in the center of the head.

    “I thought bears hibernated all winter,” Ben said as they walked toward the downed animal.

    “Well, now, I’ve heard they get out now and then and wander about,” Clyde said, “but I never seen a bear before.  You?”

    “Oh, sure,” Ben snorted.  “They paraded the deck of Captain Stoddard’s ship every evening just past sundown.”

    Clyde grinned as he took out his skinning knife.  “That must have been a sight to see.”  As Ben raised an eyebrow, Clyde let loose a loud cackle.  “Well, I don’t reckon we’ll be slaughterin’ any beef yet,” he said.  “If bar meat ain’t special enough for them boys, I don’t know what would be.”

    “That’s for sure!” Ben laughed.

    Despite the boys’ pleas to have bear steaks for supper that night, Nelly refused to cook any of the fresh meat until Wednesday.   “Shush your beggin’,” she scolded.  “It’s little enough we’ve got to make the day special.  I aim to take advantage of what there is.”

    Neither Billy nor Adam thought they could possibly wait for Wednesday’s combined birthday celebration, but somehow, despite their fidgetiness, the day arrived on schedule.  They needed no urging to come to the table the moment Nelly announced dinner.  Nor, for that matter, did Ben or Clyde.  After grace had been said, the platter of roast bear was passed first to the birthday boys and, afterwards, to their elders, a reversal of the order in which food ordinarily was served.

    “This is good!” Adam declared after his first bite.

    “Uh huh!” Billy, his mouth full, mumbled in agreement.

    “Delicious,” Ben pronounced.

    “Well, it’s good you like it,” Nelly commented, “‘cause we’ll be eatin’ on this thing for days.  Lands, the size of that load of meat you men brought in!”

    “I reckon old mama bear was all fattened up for her winter’s nap,” Clyde chuckled.

    “Tell again how you killed ‘er, Pa,” Billy demanded.

    Clyde shrugged.  He didn’t think the hunt made much of a story.  The bear had all but frozen in position, making her an easy target.  In honor of Billy’s birthday, though, he obliged with a retelling of the tale.

    “I wish I could’ve seen that bear,” Adam sighed.  “All the exciting things happen up in the hills, and we’re stuck down here away from the fun.”

    “Now, you’ve been up in the hills,” Ben chided.

    “Not when there were bears,” Adam insisted.

    Ben laughed.  “Shall I arrange for one to saunter by the next time I take you up there to sled?”

    “Yeah!” Adam chortled.  “That’d make a grand birthday present, Pa.”

    Ben stood and walked to the corner of the cabin where his personal belongings were stored.  “Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for this,” he said, placing the intricately ornamented silver box in Adam’s hand.

    Adam gave a surprised gasp.  “Mama’s music box,” he whispered and raised questioning eyes to his father’s face.  “For me?” he asked breathlessly, for he’d never before been allowed to touch the precious remembrance of his mother.

    “Yes, son,” Ben said warmly.  “You’re old enough now to appreciate its value and care for it properly.  I always meant it to be yours someday, and I think now’s the right time.”

    Tears glistened in Adam’s eyes.  Having no words to express his feelings, he put his arms around his father and held him tight.

    “Hey, where’s my present?” Billy demanded.

    “Who says you get one?” his father snickered.

    “Pa!” Billy protested.

    “Now, Clyde, birthdays are nothin’ to fun about,” Nelly scolded.  “Give the youngun his gifts.”

    “Don’t go gettin’ your hopes high,” Clyde warned.  “It ain’t nothin’ fancy like Adam got.”  He went behind the canvas curtain and emerged with a handful of carved figures.

    Billy grinned as he examined the individual pieces.  Clyde had made him a second yoke of oxen to pull his Christmas wagon, as well as two water barrels and the figures of a man, woman and boy to ride in the wagon.  “Thanks, Pa,” he said.  “I’d rather have this than an old music box, anyway.”

    “Billy!” his mother hissed.

    “It was my mother’s,” Adam explained.  “That makes it special.”

    “Of course, it does, darlin’,” Nelly soothed.  “Don’t mind my loud-mouthed youngun.  He don’t never think before openin’ his trap.”

    “I didn’t mean nothin’,” Billy whined.  “I think it’s nice he has somethin’ of Miss Inger’s.”

    “No,” Adam corrected.  “Not her.  Not Inger.  My mother, my—”  Adam frowned.  He had started to say “my real mother,” but Inger seemed more real to him than the woman who had given him birth.  He had no memory of her at all.

    He didn’t need to worry.  Billy caught his meaning and gaped in awe.  “Oh!” he said.  “That is special!”

    Adam beamed.  “Want to hear it play?”

    “Sure, sugar,” Nelly said.  “Let’s have a bit of music.”

    Adam opened the music box and let its tune play through twice before shutting it again.

    “Real pretty, son,” Clyde said.

    “Yeah,” Billy agreed, “but I’m ready for our birthday cake.”

    “Oh, Billy!” his mother rebuked.

    “Well, I am!” Billy insisted, “and Adam is, too, ain’t you, Adam?”

    Adam’s head bobbed up and down.

    “It ain’t much of a cake,” Nelly deprecated as she set the dessert on the table.  “It’s hard to make a decent one without eggs.”

    “It’ll be good, Ma,” Billy defended.  “Your cookin’ always is.”

    Clyde stuck a small piece of kindling in the fire and lit the big candle in the center of the cake.  “Both of you blow at once,” he ordered.  “I don’t want no fussin’ about one beatin’ out the other.”

    “We never fuss,” Billy retorted.  The faces of the three adults looked ready to explode.

    “Not when there’s cake at stake,” Clyde drawled drolly, and the contained laughter burst out.  Billy and Adam shrugged at each other, neither feeling disposed to argue the point when they could eat cake, instead.

* * * * *

    Ben leaned his ax against the tree he’d just felled and walked over to flop on the ground next to Clyde.  “Might’ve known you’d be into the grub sack already,” Ben joshed.

    “Rewards of finishin’ my tree first,” Clyde chuckled.

    “Rewards of pickin’ a smaller tree, you mean,” Ben grinned.  He dug inside the sack and removed a piece of fried squirrel.  “Good of Nelly to get up early and fix us a big lunch,” he said.

    Clyde nodded.  “Yeah, she’s a good woman.”  He finished the thigh he’d been gnawing and tossed the bone aside.  “My Nelly does a fine job with the grub, if I do say so myself, considering what we give her to work with.”

    “That she does,” Ben agreed.  “We’ve got her to thank for how well we’ve come through this winter.”  Technically, of course, winter wasn’t yet over, for it was only the first week of March.  The last few days had seemed almost balmy, however.  Snow still covered the mountains, even the lower range where Ben and Clyde had come to chop more firewood; but in the valley itself the snow was melted and the temperature growing warmer by the day.

    “If we was settled, it’d be time to start the spring plowin’ soon,” Clyde commented.

    Ben nodded.  He remembered that from the time he’d spent on his brother’s farm.  “We won’t be raising crops this year, I guess.  By the time the passes are clear and we can get settled in California, it’ll be too late to plant most things.  I regret that; but on the whole, I think we made the right decision.”

    “I know we did,” Clyde said firmly, “and if Californy weather’s as mild as they say, we might make a crop yet.  I been thinkin’, though.”

    “Ooh!” Ben exclaimed.  “Didn’t anyone ever tell you thinking was a dangerous weapon in the hands of someone not used to it.”

    Clyde swatted Ben’s leg with his second piece of squirrel.  “Keep it up, and I’ll show you how dangerous a weapon a broad ax can be.  I got something serious to talk over with you, Ben.”

    “Talk away,” Ben said, munching the breast piece he’d chosen.

    Once Clyde had permission to speak, though, he seemed strangely reluctant to continue.  Finally, he took a deep breath.  “Me and Nelly’s been talkin’, Ben,” he began, then broke off.  “Ben, are you dead set on gettin’ to Californy this spring?”

    Ben almost dropped his food.  “Well, sure,” he said cautiously, not certain where Clyde was headed.  “Aren’t you?”

    “Well, like I said, me and Nelly’s been talkin’ some about stayin’ on here a spell,” Clyde answered.

    “Whatever for?”

    Clyde turned to face Ben directly.  “Ben, I come west thinkin’ to cash in on this gold rush by settin’ up my blacksmith shop where, maybe, smithies is scarce.”

    “Yeah, I know,” Ben said.

    Clyde waved his hand to silence Ben.  “Sure, sure you do.  But think, Ben, how much a smithy’s needed right here, where folks’ wagons are in the worst shape of the journey and still got the hardest challenge ahead of ‘em.”

    Ben’s lips pursed in thought.  “I see your point:  you think there’s money to be made out of this year’s migration.”

    “I know there is,” Clyde said, “and not just from blacksmithin’.  Before Beatie left, he told me he did real brisk business last year, made a handsome profit.”

    “I would imagine so,” Ben commented, “as many emigrants as passed through.”

    “Exactly,” Clyde said hastily, “and Beatie said there was miners hereabouts last year, too, though they lit out for Californy before we come along.”

    “They find any color?” Ben asked.

    “Not much, according to Beatie,” Clyde said, “but my point is there was about twenty little posts this side of the mountains to serve them miners and the emigrants comin’ through.  Now, why couldn’t we do the same?”


    “I’m askin’ you to come in with us, Ben,” Clyde explained.  “With me fixin’ up emigrants’ wagons and you loadin’ ‘em up with supplies, we could make ours the best tradin’ post around.”

    “What about that fellow Beatie sold out to——Moore, wasn’t it?” Ben asked.

    “What about him?” Clyde snorted.  “If he’s like the rest of these Mormons, we can undersell him easy and still make a profit.  Now, you got more ready cash than we do, so you’d be makin’ the biggest outlay at first, but—”

    “Hold on a minute,” Ben interrupted.  “Why do you want me in on this, Clyde?  My pocketbook’s not all that full, if that’s your main reason.”

    “Fuller than mine,” Clyde said, “but that’s not my main reason.  You got good business sense, Ben, and you’ve worked with merchandise before.  You and me get along right well, too, so I figure we’d make good partners.”

    Ben leaned back against the tall pine behind him.  “I don’t know, Clyde,” he mused, toying with a pinecone on the ground.  “I’ve put off my plans so many times already.  And I’ve got family waiting in California.”

    Clyde nodded.  “Your brother.  But you was just gonna visit with him a spell, weren’t you?  You didn’t plan to settle together, did you?”

    “I’d like to,” Ben replied, “but his wife was strongly opposed to a move.  The point is, he’ll worry if I don’t show up as scheduled.”

    Clyde reached out to clasp Ben’s forearm.  “But you can, don’t you see, Ben?”

    Ben shook his head.  “No, Clyde, I don’t.  I can’t go and stay; it’s one or the other.”

    Clyde laughed.  “You ain’t had time to think this through.  One of us has got to go over the mountains and bring back supplies if we stay on, Ben.  Since you got family waitin’, I figure that should be you.  You could see your brother—”

    “And Inger’s.”

    “And Inger’s,” Clyde agreed.  “Then you could pick up the supplies we need for ourselves and to sell.  Your experience in St. Joe’ll come in real handy for decidin’ what stock to lay in.”

    Ben stared at his friend.  “You really have been thinking, haven’t you?”

    Clyde nodded.  “So, what do you say?  Partners?”

    Ben exhaled slowly.  “I’m not sure, Clyde.  It’s hit me kind of sudden.  I need time to think.”

    Clyde took a big bite of bread spread with creamy butter.  “Sure, sure, think it through.  You’ll see it’s a good idee.”

    Ben tugged Clyde’s hat over his face.  “Idea, Clyde,” he corrected.  “So help me, I’m gonna break you of that poor pronunciation yet.”

    “Yes, sir, teacher,” Clyde snickered.  “I promise I’ll learn it right——if you’ll go partners with me.”

    “I’ll think about it,” Ben promised as he stood up, “but right now we’d better go partners at chopping firewood or the boys will think we just came up here to play.”

    Clyde grinned, stood and picked up his ax.  “Bet I beat you done again,” he challenged.

    “Bet you will, too,” Ben scoffed, “so long as you pick another scrawny tree like that one you chopped before lunch.”

    Ben lay awake a long time that night, wondering what to do.  From a strictly financial standpoint, Clyde’s idea was a good one, but to put off settling in a new home for several more months was not a prospect Ben liked to face.  As he listened to Adam’s soft snoring in the bed near his, Ben sighed.  He hadn’t provided his boy much stability so far.  Uprooting him as an infant hadn’t seemed wrong; the boy’d had no roots at that early age.  Still, there’d been little to Adam’s childhood but constant travel——a few weeks here, a month there——as they’d inched their way westward, following the available work.  Boardinghouses and trailside camps——that’s all he’d ever given Adam until he met Inger.

    The three rooms behind the mercantile in St. Joseph had been the closest thing to a home his son had ever known.  Inger had made it one, but they had all known it was temporary and had looked forward to going west, Adam as excitedly as either of his parents.  Now, here they were wintering in another temporary dwelling.  Ben sighed again.  He longed for permanence, for himself and for Adam.  Adam deserved a home and Ben was determined to provide the boy with one.  Yes, and Hoss, too.  That boy, Ben vowed, was never going to know the kind of perpetual rootlessness Adam had.

    Ben really wanted to turn Clyde down and go on his way.  He was tired of living in such close quarters, though that would be easier to handle with all the outdoor work of spring and summer ahead and the business of the trading post to occupy most of their waking hours.  And however much Ben wanted to make his decision based on nothing but his desire to build a home for the boys, economic matters demanded consideration, too.  Supplying the layover this winter had eaten into the funds he’d planned to spend on land in California; and one good trading season here in the Carson Valley would go a long way toward replenishing, even substantially increasing, them.

    Ben yawned.  Obviously, this decision was not one to be made in a few hours’ tossing on his pillow.  He needed to mull the alternatives over in his mind and, maybe, talk to Adam about it.  The boy was only eight, but he had a stake in this decision, too.  It would be a good idea to see how strongly Adam felt about finding their new home and getting settled.  He’d ask the boy in the morning.  Ben rolled over and soon his snores blended with those of the others in the cabin.

* * * * *

    Typically, Adam’s brow furrowed as Ben explained Clyde’s idea about staying in the Carson Valley awhile as traders, for Adam was the kind of boy who took life seriously and rarely expressed an opinion without thinking through what was put before him.  “Well, what do you think, son?” Ben asked.  “Would you be too disappointed if we didn’t settle in for a few months?”

    “No, I guess not,” Adam said slowly, “but I was looking forward to seeing California, Pa, and my uncles.”

    “Oh, you will,” Ben promised, “either way.  If we decide to set up a trading post here, you and I will go on to California and bring back a load of supplies.”

    Adam’s face lit up.  “Oh!  Then, I don’t mind a bit, Pa.”

    “Are you sure?  We’d have to go on living with the Thomases,” Ben explained.

    Adam shrugged.  “That don’t bother me.  Me and Billy get along good, Pa.”

    Ben raised an eyebrow.  Seeing the familiar gesture of skepticism, Adam laughed.  “Well, most of the time.”

    Ben grinned.

    “So, when do we leave, Pa?” Adam asked.

    “Whoa!” Ben cried.  “I haven’t decided yet what we’re doing.”

    Adam’s jaw set stubbornly.  “We’re going one way or the other, Pa,” he said, perturbed that his father didn’t understand something that basic.  “It’s whether or not we come back you got to decide.”

    Ben threw his head back and roared with laughter.  “You’re right, boy!  You’re right.”  He reached out to tousle Adam’s black locks.  “If we decide to stay, however, there’s a lot of work to be done:  fields to plow and plant, maybe some building to do.  I would guess we’d leave mid to late April, Adam, as soon as the roads are free of snow.”

    “That’s not long,” Adam said.  “We better get those fields plowed soon.”

    Ben chuckled.  He still had doubts about the right course to follow, but Adam seemed to have decided already.  Ben took two more days to weigh his options, however, wanting to be sure he was doing the best thing for both his boys.  By the end of the second day, he’d decided; he was ready to talk partnership terms with Clyde.


Ben and Clyde carried the grandfather clock outside and loaded it in the hitched wagon next to the crate of carefully repacked china.  “Gonna kind of miss this here timepiece,” Clyde said.

    “Yeah, I know what you mean,” Ben laughed.  “That ticking got to be almost like a lullaby at day’s end.”

    “It’ll sure pleasure Camilla to see it again,” Nelly said, “and her mother’s china even more.  Now, Ben, are you sure you’ve got enough supplies for the trip?”

    “We’ll make out,” Ben said.  “You’re the ones likely to be running low before we can get back.”

    “You take your time and get a good visit with your folks,” Nelly said.  “Clyde can always shoot us something to eat.”

    “There’d be one less mouth to feed if I was to go with you and Adam, Mr. Cartwright,” Billy offered.

    Ben hooted at the idea.  “Forget it, Billy!” he snorted.  “I haven’t taken total leave of my senses, and I’d have to before I turned you loose in San Francisco.”

    Billy scuffed the dirt with his bare toe.  He hadn’t expected his suggestion to meet with approval, but it had been worth one more try.  He dug into his pocket and held out his Christmas nickel.  “You get me the biggest bag of candy this’ll buy, okay, Adam?”

    Adam took the nickel and deposited it in his own pocket.  “Sure, Billy.  What kind you favor?”

    “Sour lemon balls, if they got ‘em,” Billy said, “but mix in some jelly beans and licorice, too.”

    “Okay,” Adam promised.

    “That transaction complete, I guess we’re ready to pull out,” Ben laughed.

    “Yes, sir,” Adam said and ran to take his place beside the team pulling the second wagon.  This one was completely empty, but would be needed to bring back a load of supplies for sale in the trading post.  Ben and Clyde had raised a dividing wall in the former stable to cut the large space in half, one side being fitted with Clyde’s blacksmithing tools, the one to be used for sale goods.  The weather was warm enough now for the stock to stay outside at night.

    As Ben pulled away, driving past the one-acre garden plot, he noted with satisfaction the sprouting green tops of the vegetables they had recently planted.  Onions and potatoes had gone into the newly plowed earth the first week of April, followed by beets, turnips, parsnips and carrots toward the end of the third.  Though plenty of room still remained to sow more vegetables, Nelly planned to wait until May to plant cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash, peas and beans.  In the meantime, Clyde would plow up more land and plant a field of corn.  If everything thrived——and the soil was certainly fertile enough for it to produce bountifully——the two families would eat well that summer and still have plenty to sell passing emigrants.

    Ben, with Adam following, traveled southwest toward the Sierras, reaching them after covering six or seven miles.  The trail, marked by the ruts of the thousands of wagons that had gone before them, didn’t immediately enter the mountains; instead, it turned directly south, skirting the foothills for another twenty miles or so.  Therefore, the Cartwrights didn’t begin their assent of the rugged range dividing the Great Basin from California until their second day of travel.

    They stopped for the noon break just before entering the canyon that would lead them into the hills.  Slitting open a biscuit and laying a slice of cold bacon inside, Ben handed it to Adam.  “Nothing to compare with the meals we’ve been getting, is it, Adam?”

    Adam shook his head, unable to answer verbally until he’d swallowed his first mouthful.  “It’s good, though, Pa.  I never did mind trail food.”

    “Yeah, you’ve always been a good traveler,” Ben smiled as he prepared his own sandwich, “and a good partner.”

    “Am I doing good with the oxen, Pa?” Adam asked and took another bite of biscuit.

    “You’re doing well, Adam,” Ben said, emphasizing the correct adverb.  Adam grinned and nodded.  “Very well, indeed,” Ben repeated to be sure Adam understood he’d actually been answering the boy’s question, not just correcting his grammar.  “The going will get a little rougher this afternoon, so don’t hesitate to sing out if you’re the least bit worried about how you’re doing.”

    “I will,” Adam promised.  As manly as the new responsibility made him feel, Adam also felt awed by it.  There weren’t any goods in his wagon to be damaged, of course; but he’d hate to cause the loss of the wagon itself or, worse yet, the draught animals.  He’d be careful.

    Fortunately, the oxen were docile beasts, and this team was trail-wise after their long trek across the plains.  Though the uphill climb was a steep one, Adam had no problems on the ascent.  When they reached the summit on the third day, however, Ben felt concerned.  “Stay here, Adam,” he ordered.  “I’ll take the first team down.  Then you can run down to stay with them while I start this second one down.”

    “Yes, sir, Pa,” Adam replied readily.  He could barely contain the relief he felt.  The descent looked steep, and the boy couldn’t help remembering the crash of the first Thomas wagon.  He didn’t want to cause the loss of their second.  The plan worked well, so father and son followed it whenever the trail looked extra rugged.

    The Cartwrights had been on the trail for almost a week when they pulled into the outskirts of a small mining town in the hills.  “Hangtown!” Adam shouted as he read the sign announcing the hamlet’s name.  “What kind of name is that for a town, Pa?”

    Ben shook his head.  “Not the sort I’d favor,” he said.  “I’m glad to finally see civilization again, though, even this poor a representation of it.”

    “You think they have cafes here, Pa?” Adam asked.

    Ben laughed.  “Don’t tell me you’re tired of Pa’s biscuits and bacon!”

    Adam grimaced.  Though he and Pa had agreed to keep their meals simple on the trail, so they could make better time, bread and bacon was getting mighty monotonous.  “I wouldn’t mind some woman cooking, Pa,” he declared firmly.

    Ben chuckled.  “You’re probably out of luck, son, but we’ll look; and if there’s anything available, we’ll try it out.  How does that sound?”

    “Great, Pa!” Adam exclaimed.  “I’m gonna look hard.”

    They left the team and wagons outside town and walked down its single street.  Since only a few buildings lined each side, sighting the only restaurant didn’t take long.  Ben’s mouth, however, hung agape as he read the name over the door.  “It can’t be!” Ben shouted.

    Adam was still sounding out the name.  “Mama Zueb-ner’s,” he read slowly, then his face lit up.  “I bet it is, Pa!” he screamed excitedly.  “I just bet it is!”

    “Let’s check it out,” Ben said.  “If this is Ludmilla’s place, I guarantee we’ll eat good tonight.”

    “Well, Pa,” Adam corrected, planting his hands on his hips and staring disapprovingly at his father.  “We’ll eat well.”

    “I stand corrected,” Ben said, pulling Adam toward the door by the nape of his neck.  A tiny bell jingled as the door swung open.  Ben’s smile broadened as he saw the blonde-haired, buxom matron serving a plate of food to a customer.  Even from the back, he’d have known that figure anywhere.

    “Please to sit down,” Ludmilla called over her shoulder.  “I help you soon.”

    “Take your time, Ludmilla,” Ben said softly.

    Ludmilla spun around and her hands flew to her cheeks.  “Oh!  Oh!” she cried.  “Mr. Cartwright!  Ach, and Adam, too!”  She scurried across the room to wrap Ben and then Adam in her comfortably plump arms.  “I pray for you every day and here you are.”

    “Here we are, safe and sound,” Ben smiled.  “But why are you here?”

    “I tell later,” Ludmilla promised, “but now you must eat.  You are hungry, yes?”

    “Yes, ma’am!” Adam cried.

    “Sit, sit,” Ludmilla ordered.  “I bring you special of house, all right?”  Ben nodded.

    “Pa,” Adam whispered as Ludmilla bustled back into the kitchen.  “What is the special of the house?”

    Ben chuckled.  “I have no idea, Adam, but it’s bound to beat biscuits and bacon.”  Adam grinned.  He couldn’t argue with that!

    Ludmilla soon returned, bringing two brimful bowls of steaming oxtail stew.  Behind her, wiping wet hands on her apron, came Katerina, flaxen braids hanging over her shoulders.  “Mr. Cartwright, how good to see you,” she said.  “And you, too, Adam.”

    “Hi, Katerina,” Adam said.

    “Do you have time to join us, Ludmilla?” Ben asked.  “Or Katerina, at least.”

    “The dishes can wait, can’t they, Mama?” Katerina asked.

    “Can wait,” Ludmilla said.  “I watch customers.  You talk with friends.”

    Katerina pulled out a chair and sat down.  “You’d better start eating,” she whispered, “or Mama will make me leave.”

    “Oh, we’ll eat,” Ben promised.  “Believe me, this is the best food we’ve tasted in a week.”

    “Longer than that,” Adam said.  “Miss Nelly cooks real good, but we’re getting awful low on supplies.  We haven’t had vegetables for a terrible long time.”  He put a spoonful of stew in his mouth and sucked noisily.  “Oh, that’s good!” he sighed, then grinned at Katerina.  “Why doesn’t Marta come out to see us?” he asked.

    “Oh, she isn’t here,” Katerina explained, retying the blue ribbons at the end of each blonde braid.  “You know Marta.  Woman’s work never appealed to her.  Mama makes her help here in the mornings, but lets her pan for gold with Stefán in the afternoons.”

    “Ooh, can we see the gold mine?” Adam asked.

    “Adam,” Ben muttered in rebuke.

    Katerina laughed.  “There isn’t any mine, Adam, just a strip of land by the stream.”

    “I didn’t realize Stefán was interested in mining,” Ben said, crumbling cornbread into his stew.  “I thought your father intended to farm and assumed Stefán would follow in his footsteps.”

    “There is no good farm land here in the hills,” Katerina explained, “and this is as far as we could get before our supplies ran out.  The miners knew we had no food, so they offered to give us supplies to get to Sacramento if Mama would cook one good meal for them.  They liked it so much, they begged us to stay, and we did.  Mama has always loved to cook, you know.”

    “Yes, I know,” Ben said, “and she has a real talent for it.  You’re doing well here, then?”

    “Very well,” Katerina replied.  “So many hungry miners to feed make Mama feel she is in heaven.  And now to see you!  Is little Hoss still—”  She couldn’t finish.

    “Hoss is fine,” Ben assured her, “but scarcely little.”

    “I’ll say!” Adam snorted.  “He weighs more than a sack of potatoes.”

    Katerina smiled.  “Oh, I am so glad.  I—I was afraid when I did not see him.  Mama, too, but she felt timid to ask.”

    “I left him with the Thomases,” Ben explained.  “Adam and I are on our way to San Francisco to take back supplies.  We’re going to run a trading post through the spring and summer before coming on to California.”

    Ludmilla, finding a free moment, stopped by the Cartwrights’ table.  “Stew is good?” she asked.

    “Stew is wonderful,” Ben said.

    “Mama, the Cartwrights are going on to San Francisco, just for supplies,” Katerina said.  “Perhaps they would like to stay the night with us.”

    “You stay tomorrow, too,” Ludmilla said firmly.  “Is good to rest on Sabbath, and I fix special food for you.”

    “Can we, Pa?” Adam asked eagerly.  “I’d like to see Stefán and Marta and that gold mine——stream, I mean.”

    “Sure, we’ll stay over,” Ben agreed readily.  “The stock could use the rest, and I’d love a chance to hear all the news of our friends.  Did everyone make it safe?”

    Ludmilla looked sober.  “All safe,” she said, “but very hard time.  Katerina, you take friends to our house when they finish food.  We talk tonight about news of everyone, yes?”

    “Yes, that sounds good,” Ben agreed.  He dabbed his lips with the homespun napkin and cocked his head at Adam.  “Through, boy?” he asked.

    Adam nodded and, wiping his lips, stood up from the table.  “Can we go find Stefán, now?” he asked Katerina.

    Katerina laughed.  “There is no need.  The sun is going down, so he will soon be at the house, perhaps by the time we get there.”

    “Does your mother need you to help close up?” Ben asked.  “We don’t want to take you away from your work.”

    “Well,” Katerina said hesitantly.  “She would get home sooner if I helped her with the dishes.”

    “Then please do,” Ben said.  “Is there a livery where we could take our oxen?”

    “You can take them to our place,” Katerina said.  “There is good grass nearby and a corral to hold them.”

    “Good.  We’ll go get our wagons, then, and meet you here,” Ben said.  Katerina nodded and skipped back into the kitchen to splash through the dishes in record time.

    Ludmilla and Katerina were ready to close the restaurant by the time Ben and Adam returned with their wagons, so they all walked together the short distance to the Zuebner’s cabin.  “What a fine, sturdy house you have!” Ben exclaimed.  “Surely, Stefán didn’t build this by himself.”

    Ludmilla shook her head.  “Not by self.  Miners help, so to get us stay.  Is good, big house——two rooms and, and—”

    “Loft, Mama,” Katerina inserted.

    “Yes, loft,” Ludmilla agreed.  She smiled apologetically.  “My English still not so good, but better.”

    “I’ve never had any problem understanding you, Ludmilla,” Ben assured her.  “I’m really happy to see you so well situated.”

    The cabin door blared open and Marta, who had been peeking out the window, blasted through it.  “Adam!” she yelled, practically knocking him over with the exuberance of her welcoming hug.  She stretched her eyes down the street behind the Cartwright wagons.  “Where’s that ornery Billy?” she demanded.

    “Left him home to avoid the bother,” Ben grinned.

    Marta grinned back.  “Bother is just what that boy is!”

    Stefán had walked through the door to shake Ben’s hand.  “How good to see you, Mr. Cartwright,” he said in his most grownup manner.

    “And you, Stefán,” Ben replied.

    “Please not to stand in cold,” Ludmilla said.  “Come in.  I heat stew for Stefán and Marta.  You like more, yes?”

    “No thank you,” Ben said, while Adam simultaneously declared, “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Now, Adam, you can’t possibly be hungry again this soon,” Ben argued.

    “Sure, he can,” Marta laughed.  “He’s a boy, isn’t he?”

    Ludmilla immediately took the container of stew she’d brought home from the restaurant to the fireplace and hung the kettle from a hook over the fire.  “Be warm soon,” she said.  “Please, sit; let us talk.  How is Thomas family?”

    “They’re doing just fine,” Ben said, “and they’ll be so sorry they missed seeing you.  We built a strong cabin not far from Mormon Station and were well prepared by the time the first snow fell.  We’re getting low on supplies now, but we’ve eaten well all winter.”

    Ludmilla sighed happily.  “Is good,” she said.  “I worry you not have enough.”

    Ben smiled back at her.  “And we were concerned for all of you.  What can you tell me of the rest of our party?”

    Ludmilla shook her head.  “Very bad,” she said.

    “Oh, Mama, not that bad,” Marta scolded.

    “We were caught in the snows, Mr. Cartwright,” Stefán explained.  “That is what Mama means.  Food was running short, and then the sickness came.”

    “Sickness?” Ben asked.

    “Colds, mostly, Mr. Cartwright,” Katerina said, “but very bad ones.  The little ones, especially, were weak because we were rationing the food.  The Larrimores had plenty for themselves, of course, but they shared with the rest of us.”

    “Good people,” Ben said, proud of his former employer’s compassionate and unselfish behavior.  It was in marked contrast to that of some others Ben had heard of.  “You—you did say everyone was safe, Ludmilla?”

    “All safe,” Ludmilla said.  “Little Mary sickly, weak, but I think all right.”

    “The Californians heard there were people caught east of the mountains when the snows hit,” Stefán said, “so they sent out rescue parties.  We would never have made it without them.  They gave us enough food to get here and took the others on out of the mountains.  They would have taken us, too, but we like better to make our own way.  And the miners pay well for Mama’s fine cooking.”

    “Fine cooking it is,” Ben agreed, then asked anxiously, “What about the Payne’s baby?”

    “Very sick, but not like Mary,” Ludmilla said.  “She be okay, I think.”  She took the stew from the fire and began to ladle it into bowls.

    “Good,” Ben said.  “I’d hate to think of Jonathan and Rachel losing a second child.  Did they go on to Monterey as they planned?”

    “As far as we know,” Stefán said.  “The Larrimores and Wentworths went to San Francisco, and we’re not sure where the McTavishes are.  Mr. McTavish did some mining here for awhile, but his claim was not good, so he moved on.”

    Ben protested when Ludmilla handed him another bowl of stew, but found the aroma really did stimulate his appetite once again.  “And how is your claim, Stefán?” Ben asked as he lifted a spoonful toward his mouth.  “I hear you’ve become a miner now.”

    “Only until I can raise money to start my business,” Stefán said.  “The claim is not so good, but Mama lets me keep all the money, so I am building a good nest egg, as you say.”

    “What kind of business are you planning, son?” Ben asked, surprised.  “I figured you’d want to farm, like your father.”

    Stefán smiled.  “Farming is good, but Mama and the girls like to stay here, so I think better to build a brewery.”

    “My papa, he make best beer in old country,” Ludmilla boasted.  “Stefán learn much from him, so I think he make best this country.”

    “I just bet he will,” Ben said encouragingly.  “Hang onto that dream, son.  I’ll be looking forward to tasting your brew.”

    Stefán grinned.  “Not for a long time, I fear, but I keep saving.  Someday, I succeed, you will see.”

    “I know you will,” Ben said heartily.

    “Can we see your claim?” Adam asked.

    Stefán laughed.  “Sure, Adam.  I will take you there tomorrow.  You can even pan a little gold.”

    “Can I keep it?” Adam asked eagerly.

    “Adam!” Ben said sharply.

    “Is all right,” Ludmilla laughed.  “Sure, you keep what you find, Adam.  More stew, anyone?”

    Everyone declined, so Katerina gathered up the bowls and carried them to the dishpan to wash.

    Adam yawned.

    “You tired, Adam?” Ludmilla asked.  “Ready for bed?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” the boy said, wide-mouthed.

    “Is it all right to spread our bedrolls in front of the fire, Ludmilla?” Ben asked.

    “For Adam, is all right,” Ludmilla said.  “You sleep Stefán’s bed in loft.”

    “Oh, no,” Ben protested.

    “I insist, Mr. Cartwright,” Stefán said.  “Adam and I will bed down by the fire and share tales until we fall asleep.”

    “All right,” Ben agreed.  “I think I’ll go ahead and turn in, then.  We’ve had a long day.  Don’t share too many tales, Adam.  There’s time for that tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep.”

    “Yes, sir,” Adam drawled drowsily.

    “Good night, Ludmilla,” Ben said.  “Thanks for that wonderful supper.  I still think you should have let me pay you.  You are running a business, after all.”

    “You my guest this time,” Ludmilla say, “so no talk of money.  Tomorrow I fix special Hangtown breakfast.”

    “Hangtown Fry?” Marta asked eagerly and her mother nodded.

    “What’s that?” Adam asked as he spread his blankets before the fire.

    “Wait and see,” Marta grinned.  “It is special, though, I promise you that.”

    “We’ll be looking forward to it, then,” Ben said.  “Good night, everyone.”  The others exchanged good nights, as well; and soon the house grew quiet and everyone slept, Ben more soundly than he had in months.

    Ben was, in fact, embarrassed by how late he slept the following morning.  With no one else sleeping near him, the quietness of the loft lulled him into a lengthy rest.  By the time Ben awoke, dressed and descended to the kitchen, the others were chatting at the table.  He apologized for being late to breakfast, but Ludmilla brushed his words aside with a broad wave.  “Always we sleep late Sunday,” she said.  “No church here, so no reason to get up.”

    Ben smiled as she placed a plate in front of him.  “Now, is this the famous Hangtown Fry?” he asked.

    “Yeah, Pa,” Adam piped, “and is it ever good!”

    “Looks good.”  Ben stirred the eggs, trying to determine the identity of the lightly browned lumps of flesh scrambled in with them.  “Oysters?” he asked.

    “Right!” Marta giggled.  “Bet you didn’t expect that in your eggs.”

    “You’re right,” Ben grinned.  He took a bite and closed his eyes in enjoyment.  “I haven’t tasted oysters in ages, Ludmilla, and never with eggs, but this is wonderful.”

    “Miners like oysters,” Ludmilla explained.  “They teach me this dish.”

    “Miners like to live high when they have money to spend, Mr. Cartwright,” Stefán inserted.  “Oysters and champagne, when they can get it.”

    “Champagne!” Ben exclaimed.  “Surely, you don’t serve that up here.”

    Stefán grinned.  “No, for that, they must go to Sacramento or San Francisco, I think.  Champagne is for big celebrations, Hangtown Fry for smaller ones.”

    “Ah, and what are we celebrating this morning?” Ben teased.

    “All the gold Adam’s gonna find today!” Marta tittered.

    “No, we have a better reason than that,” Ben laughed.  “Seeing good friends again is the best reason.  Now, you must tell me how this town came up with a horrible name like Hangtown.”

    Ludmilla shook her head.  “Is terrible name.  Even first name, Dry Diggings, was better.  We change soon, I think.”

    “Yes, there is talk of calling it Placerville, instead,” Stefán said.  “There were many hangings here in the early days, but we are becoming more civilized now.”

    “The presence of women has a lot to do with that, I imagine,” Ben said, raising his coffee cup as a toast to his hostess.

    Marta plucked at Adam’s shirt.  “You ready to mine for gold, Adam, or maybe you’d rather go skinny-dipping.”

    Adam blushed beet red.

    “Marta,” her mother scolded.  “Such talk is not proper.”

    “Now, Mama,” Marta protested.  “Adam knows all about skinny-dipping.  Snatched any dresses lately, Adam?”

    Ben laughed.  “Hasn’t had much opportunity, Marta.  No dresses around except Miss Nelly’s, and the boys have better sense than to bite the hand that feeds them.”

    “Don’t know why you’re bringing that up, anyway,” Adam grumbled.  “We didn’t snitch your clothes!”

    Marta giggled.  “No, and I never did understand why.”

    Katerina nodded.  “Nor did I.  Why didn’t you boys steal Marta’s, too?  Were you sweet on her?”

    Adam blushed again.  “Not me,” he said firmly, then his lips softened.  “I think Johnny kind of was, though, and he’s the one talked Billy out of taking Marta’s dress.  I sided with him because Marta didn’t throw a hissy-fit like the rest of you girls.”

    Marta’s face saddened.  “Johnny was a sweet boy,” she said.  “We were just friends, though.  After all, he was two years younger than me.”

    A mischievous twinkle sparked in Adam’s eye.  “Yeah, Billy’s closer to your age,” he teased.  “Guess you’ll have to take up with him.”

    “I’d rather wallow in a pig sty,” Marta said, tossing her braids over her shoulder.  For a moment, she looked as feminine as her older sister, but her expression changed almost immediately.  “Come on, Adam.  I’ll show you Stefán’s claim.”

    Adam finished off his glass of milk and stood quickly.  “Can I go, Pa?”

    “Sure,” Ben agreed.  “I may just come down and have a look myself after I finish this marvelous breakfast.”

    “I will wait and go with you, then,” Stefán said.  “We will give the children time to play a bit first.”

    “Children!  Play!” Marta scoffed.  “I do every bit as much work as you, Stefán Zuebner.”

    Stefán smiled.  “I agree, and she gives me almost all her gold, too, Mr. Cartwright, so we can build the brewery sooner.”

    It was Marta’s turn to blush.  “Let’s head out,” she whispered to Adam.  He nodded and followed her out the door.  “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s folks braggin’ me up,” she confided.

    Adam nodded again, but he didn’t really understand what she meant.  If there was one thing he truly liked, it was to hear people praise him.

Billy didn’t seem to care what folks thought of him, though.  Evidently, Marta was fashioned a lot like the red-headed pest she claimed to loathe.  Adam started to comment on that, then decided it might not be a good idea.  After all, Marta was going to show him how to pan for gold, so this might not be the best time to risk riling her.

    When they arrived at the bank of the stream flowing half a mile from the Zuebner’s cabin, Marta immediately sat down and started to unbutton her shoes and pull off her stockings.  “Nowadays Stefán digs up piles of dirt for us to wash,” she explained, “but when we first came we just panned straight out of the creek.  We’ll wade out and do it that way today.”

    “Oh,” Adam said, sitting down to shed his shoes and socks.  “That’s okay; I like to wade.”

    Marta grinned.  “You won’t like it here,” she snickered.

    As soon as Adam’s toes touched the icy stream, he knew what she meant.  “It’s freezing!” he cried.

    “From the snows off the mountains, stupid,” Marta laughed.  “You won’t make a miner, Adam, if you’re scared of cold water.”

    “I ain’t scared,” Adam protested, “but I don’t like it much.”

    “Me, either,” Marta admitted.  The two youngsters waded to the middle of the swiftly running stream, where Marta demonstrated how to scoop up a panful of silt from the creek bed and swish it around in the running water.  “See, the gold is heavier than the dirt, so it stays in the pan,” she explained.

    Adam nodded, excited as he saw a few glittering specks shining in his pan.  “It’s gold, real gold, isn’t it?” he asked.

    Marta giggled.  “Yeah, it’s real gold, but you have to pan all day to make much at it, and it’s hard work.”

    “So how much is this worth?” Adam asked, pointing to the specks that remained in his pan once the dirt had washed out.

    “Two bits, maybe,” Marta answered, then laughed at the boy’s crestfallen face.  “I told you it was hard work.”

    Adam frowned.  He understood what she meant now.  Still, a quarter for a few minutes’ work seemed like good wages to him——not the fortune he’d imagined last night, but worth the work he’d gone to.  “I don’t think it’s so hard,” he said.

    Marta hooted.  “Neither did I the first day.  Wait ‘til you’ve spent a week standing in cold water and only have enough to show for it to buy a batch of beans.  Then tell me how hard you think it is.”

    Adam shook his head.  “We won’t be here that long.”  It didn’t take a week, however, for Adam to decide he wasn’t cut out for a miner’s life.  By the time Ben and Stefán had reached the mining claim, Adam was ready to quit.  He proudly showed his father the gold he’d found.  He’d laid it on his handkerchief on the riverbank.

    “Well, now, what treasures will you buy with such riches?” Ben teased.

    Adam gave his father a sheepish grin.  “According to Marta, it’s not enough to buy beans.”

    Stefán looked at Adam’s earnings.  “No, but you have maybe two dollars worth now.  You can find something to spend it on in San Francisco, I think.”

    “Sure!” Adam said, his grin broadening.  After all, two dollars was more spending money than he’d ever had in his life.  He could think of a dozen ways to use it, assuming, of course, that Pa let him keep the gold.  He looked questioningly into his father’s face.

    Ben smiled, reading the unspoken query.  “It’s all right, son,” he said.  “Thank Stefán for his generosity and promise him you’ll spend his gift wisely.”

    “I promise,” Adam said.  “Thank you, Stefán.”

    “It is my pleasure,” Stefán said.  “I do not forget your family’s kindness to us on the trail, especially after my father’s death.”

    “More than repaid by your mother’s hospitality on this trip,” Ben stated.  “You know, she’s already cooking dinner.”

    “And it will be an especially fine one,” Stefán promised.  “Mama is thrilled to have company to cook for.”

    “What’s she cooking?” Marta asked.

    “Sauerbraten and strudel, and she could use your help.  If Adam is through mining, you should go to the kitchen,” Stefán ordered.  “Mama does not approve of mining on the Sabbath,” he explained to Ben.

    “Oh, I’m sorry,” Ben said.  “We shouldn’t have—”

    “No, no,” Stefán interrupted.  “I did not mean what they have done.  That was just children’s play, but to stay all day at it would be work.”

    “And cooking isn’t?” Marta demanded.  “I’d rather mine,” she whispered to Adam.

    Ben smiled at her.  “You know, you’re right, Marta.  Women get cheated out of their Sabbath rest every week, don’t they?”  Marta gave a decided nod, but seeing Stefán frown, she hurriedly put her stockings and shoes back on and ran toward the house.  Adam twisted his gold into the corner of his handkerchief, stuffed it into his pocket and ran after her.  “What’s sour brotten and strewdle?” he demanded.

    Marta’s braids danced across her shoulders as she turned to answer.  “Something better than Hangtown Fry, that’s what!”

    Adam gave a happy crow and raced to catch up with Marta.

    Sunday’s dinner thoroughly lived up to Marta’s acclamation.  Adam found a new favorite food in the flaky, apple-filled pastry Mrs. Zuebner called strudel, and the spicy roast beef with gingery gravy was also worth recording in his journal, Adam decided.  Stefán helped him spell the foreign words as Adam described his visit for Jamie.  The little journal Mr. Edwards had given Adam was already full, but Pa had let him use a few sheets of the paper reserved for his lessons to keep the diary up to date.  That, along with his sheaf of homework papers would be mailed back to St. Joseph once they reached San Francisco.

    After several rounds of almost crushing hugs from Mama Zuebner, Ben and Adam left early Monday morning, making steady progress all that day toward Sacramento.  The oxen had no trouble moving the lightly loaded wagons, so the travelers covered several more miles each day than they had been accustomed to on their journey over the plains.  Still, the distances were substantial, so they were on the road another two days before they reached Sacramento.

    Just before they got to the town itself, Ben pointed out Sutter’s Fort to Adam.  “Doesn’t look like the fort is in much use nowadays,” Ben commented.  “I guess Sacramento is sort of taking it over.”

    Another mile brought them to the town that had grown up on land formerly owned by John Sutter at the junction of the Sacramento and American Rivers.  As they drove along Front Street, which faced the river, both Cartwrights found their eyes growing wider.  “This isn’t a town, Adam,” Ben cried.  “It’s a regular city.  And just think, it didn’t even exist until a couple of years ago.”

    “That’s something, huh, Pa?” Adam shouted.  “We gonna stay here tonight?”

    “Yeah,” Ben said, “provided we can find a place to board the stock.  There ought to be a livery somewhere in a place this large.”  Ben’s assumption was correct, and soon he and Adam could walk down the streets of Sacramento unencumbered by wagons or teams.

    “We’ll find a place to sleep first,” Ben said, “then scout around to see what supplies are available here.”

    “Aren’t we going on to San Francisco?” Adam asked anxiously.  “I wanted to see Uncle John and Uncle Gunnar.”

    “You will,” Ben promised, “but if I can get Clyde’s blacksmithing supplies here, I see no point in hauling them from San Francisco when we can just as easily pick them up on the way back.”

    “Yeah, that’d be good,” Adam said.  Real good, he thought.  He’d be glad to shed the responsibility for the second wagon.

    Reading his son’s thoughts, Ben chuckled, but made no comment.  Adam had done well on this trip, but he was, after all, an eight-year-old boy.  Let him be a boy again for awhile.  “The man at the livery recommended the Empire Hotel,” Ben told his son, “so keep your eyes out for that name.”

    Adam nodded and dutifully scanned the names printed on each storefront they passed.  “There it is, Pa!” he shouted a few minutes later.

    “That’s my sharp-eyed boy!” Ben said, throwing an arm around his son.  “Let’s see if they have a room for us.”  There was a room available, so the Cartwrights checked in, then headed for J Street, which the hotel clerk had told them was the main business street of Sacramento.

    By dinnertime Ben had located a good source for blacksmithing supplies, as well as foodstuffs.  “If we didn’t need to take the Larrimores’ things to them, I’d just leave both wagons here,” Ben said to Adam as they sat in a restaurant waiting for the food to arrive.

    “I thought the prices were kind of high,” Adam commented.  “Lots more than we charged in St. Joe.”

    “That’s to be expected, son, in mining country,” Ben said.  “Remember, Uncle John wrote about the high prices.”

    “Oh, yeah,” Adam said.  “You reckon, maybe, they’re better in San Francisco?”

    Ben chuckled.  “More likely worse, boy.  It’s a bigger town, though, and should have more variety in its merchandise.  I’d wait ‘til then to spend my gold dust, if I were you.”

    Adam grinned.  “I planned to.”

    Just then their food arrived, and for a few moments the hungry travelers concentrated on quieting their rumbling stomachs.  “Not bad,” Ben commented.

    “Yeah, but Mama Zuebner’s was better,” Adam added.  “Miss Nelly’s, too, for that matter.”

    Ben laughed.  “I agree, but don’t be telling Miss Nelly.  We don’t want her running off to Sacramento to make her fortune as a cook.”  Adam giggled, knowing there was no chance of Miss Nelly’s doing any such thing.

    After dinner, Ben and Adam walked back to the Empire.  Once Adam was settled into bed for the night, Ben reached for his hat.  “You going out, Pa?” Adam asked sleepily.

    “Just for awhile,” Ben said.  “We’ll need to make an early start, so I’ll be heading for bed soon, too, boy.”

    “Okay,” Adam yawned and turned onto his side.  Ben smiled and slipped out the door, locking it behind him.

    Ben walked the dark streets, at first intending only to see the sights, but the lantern-lit saloons that lined the streets made him remember how long it had been since he’d had a drink.  Though Ben had never been a heavy drinker——usually stopping after the first, in fact——he enjoyed a good brandy and was curious to see if California had developed enough to serve anything better than rotgut whiskey.

    As he passed a tavern called the Round Tent, he heard violins and peered inside.  Sure enough, a string orchestra was playing at one end of the room.  On the bar were cut-glass bowls filled with cigars, lemons and peppermints.  The Round Tent looked like a quality operation to Ben except for the blatantly erotic pictures painted on the walls.

    Preferring a setting less titillating, Ben moved down the street and entered a saloon called The Plains.  No orchestra played here, no crystal bowls graced the bar, but the murals in The Plains depicted familiar sights along the overland trail, such as Independence Rock and several prominent passes through the Sierras and Rockies.  The one portraying Carson Pass seem quite accurate to Ben, and he found himself wishing he could bring Adam here, just to see the paintings.  Eight was too young to frequent a bar, however, so Adam would have to content himself with his father’s word pictures of the place.  As Ben had expected, there was no brandy available, but on the bartender’s recommendation he tried a stone fence, a combination of whiskey and apple juice, and decided he liked it.  He’d be sure to tell Clyde about it, assuming his partner would make the next trip to replenish their supplies for sale in the trading post.

    The Cartwrights, with their single wagon and team, left Sacramento early the next morning and spent five uneventful days traveling southwest, toward the coast.  Driving up to the ferry that would take them across the bay to San Francisco, Ben halted the team and raced to the water’s edge.  From across the bay a heavy, gray haze hung over the city.  “What’s happened?” Ben demanded of the ferryman, who had just deposited a boatload of passengers heading east.

    “Aw, another fire!” the man spit out angrily.  “This one may have been the worst yet.  I been ferryin’ folks away from the city all morning.  Don’t tell me you’re wantin’ to go the other way.”

    “I planned to,” Ben said.  “I have family and friends there, but I hadn’t heard about the fire.  Is it safe to cross?”

    “I think everything’s out now,” the ferryman said, “but the city’s near wiped out, mister, and with folks runnin’ everywhere, it might be hard to find your kin.”

    “Well, I aim to try, if you can take us across,” Ben said.

    “That’s my job,” the man said, “but I just ferry folks and freight, no teams.”

    “Can we leave them here?” Ben asked.  He figured he’d be better off leaving the team and wagon, anyway, until he’d had a chance to scout out the situation for himself.

    “You can leave them ‘til dark,” the man said, “but if you plan to be gone longer, it’d be better to stable them.  I can recommend a place.”

    “I probably should do that,” Ben said, “not knowing for sure when I’ll return.”  The ferryman nodded and gave directions to the livery.

    Once his business at the livery was finished, Ben and Adam boarded the ferry.  For Adam’s sake, Ben tried not to show his feelings, but he was terrified of what he might find on the opposite shore.  John was very likely in town to meet his brother and could have been caught up in the fire the previous night.  Lawrence and Camilla, as well as the Wentworths, were almost certain to have been touched by the catastrophe.

    And catastrophe was the right word, Ben decided as he and Adam walked the ash-strewn streets.  Scarcely a building had escaped the flames; the only ones standing were the few that had been built of brick.  Having no idea where to look for John, Ben headed for the business district.  At this time of day, Lawrence would surely be at his store, either selling to those in need of fresh supplies or cleaning up his own damage.  Though Ben didn’t know the store’s exact location, he assumed it would be easier to find than a residence or a single individual.

    The search went slowly.  The canvas and lumber stores were barely recognizable as businesses, and even the brick buildings were unmarked; for while they had survived the inferno, their wooden signboards had not.  Ben stopped at every business to ask directions, but two hours passed before he met anyone who knew where the Larrimore store had been located.  “Three streets north,” he was told, “and closer to the bay.”  Ben thanked the man and hurried toward the street.  There weren’t many hours of daylight left, and he was anxious to find his friends.

    Stepping gingerly around the debris in the street, Ben caught sight of a brick building in the approximate location he’d been looking for.  Clasping Adam’s hand tightly, he walked purposefully to the door of the crowded building and pushed his way past the throng of customers.  The worried lines in his forehead suddenly melted.  “Larrimore!”  he yelled.  “Hey, Lawrence!”

    The proprietor of one of the few businesses still standing had not responded to his last name.  Hundreds of people in San Francisco might call him that, but few knew him by his first name.  When he heard that, Lawrence turned immediately, and his face lit with recognition.  “Ben!” he shouted above the crowd.

    Adam following in his wake, Ben pushed through the people between him and his former employer, and the two men exchanged an embrace.  “When did you get to town?” Lawrence asked.

    “Just this afternoon,” Ben replied.  “Sure wasn’t expecting to find the place in ashes.”

    “Everything’s been pandemonium here all day,” Lawrence said, “and I don’t have time to talk with you now.  My quarters are through that door.  You and Adam are welcome to stay there until I close up.”

    “Sounds good,” Ben replied, “but I need to know first if you’ve seen my brother.”

    “Got into town last week,” Lawrence said, “and I know where he was staying, but he isn’t likely to be there now, Ben.  It was a ramshackle place, and bound to have gone up in a flash.”  Seeing Ben pale, Lawrence laid an encouraging hand on his arm.  “Now, don’t assume the worst, Ben,” he urged.  “Go into my quarters and wait for me.  We’ll see if we can’t get a line on John later.”

    Ben smiled his gratitude.  “Yeah, we’ll do that.  In the meantime, is there any help I can give you?”

    Lawrence gave his former employee a huge grin.  “Is there ever!” he shouted.  “Sterling’s handling the cash box.  He can fill you in on the current prices.  You can likely take it from there.”

    “Certainly,” Ben said.  Turning to Adam, he told the boy to go into Larrimore’s quarters and wait.

    “Can’t I help, Pa?” Adam asked.  “I did in St. Joe.”

    “Not today, Adam,” his father said.  “The place is too packed, and there’s too much confusion going on.  Wait for me as I asked.”

    With a frown, Adam turned and headed for the Larrimore quarters.  He could accept what his father had said, of course.  It even made sense, but time was sure going to hang heavy on him with nothing to do but sit alone in Mr. Larrimore’s place.

    Adam wasn’t alone long, however.  The outside door opened, and Mrs. Larrimore stepped through with Jewel right behind her.  “Adam!” Jewel shrieked.  “How did you get here?”

    Adam pointed to the door from the store.  “Through there,” he said.  “My pa’s helping yours in the store.”

    “Heaven be praised!” Camilla cried.  “He’s come when he was needed most.  Where’s the baby, Adam?”

    “Back home with the Thomases,” Adam replied.

    “Home?” Camilla asked, her head tilting quizzically.

    “In the Carson Valley,” Adam explained.  “We’re gonna stay on there awhile and be traders.”

    “Oh, my,” Camilla said.  “Then, why are you here?”

    “To get supplies and see my uncles,” Adam said.

    “Dear me, I hope you can find them in all this confusion,” Camilla sighed.  Then she brightened.  “Now, I imagine you’d like some milk and cookies, wouldn’t you?”

    Adam grinned broadly.  “Yes, ma’am.  I haven’t had a bite since breakfast.  We were gonna eat in a restaurant, but we couldn’t find one open.”

    “There are a few,” Camilla said as she set a plate of raisin cookies on the table, “but not many survived the fire, I’m afraid.”  She turned to take two glasses from the cupboard and fill them with milk.  Jewel sat down across from Adam and began to munch a cookie.  Following her example, Adam nibbled at one, too.  It tasted good, which probably meant it had come from a bakery, not Mrs. Larrimore’s oven.

    “You and your father will eat with us tonight, of course,” Camilla said as she tied an apron around her dress and began pulling ingredients out of the pantry.  Adam didn’t respond.  It’s was Pa’s place to say yes or no to Mrs. Larrimore’s offer, but Adam couldn’t see they had much choice.  Even the results of Mrs. Larrimore’s ill-famed culinary skills would be better than starving.

    Camilla apologized profusely for the meager meal she set before her guests later that evening.  “I really can do better than this,” she murmured, “but it’s been such a topsy-turvy day.”

    “No need to apologize,” Ben assured her, “especially considering the circumstances.”

    “Fortunately, Lawrence insisted we build the store of brick,” Camilla said, “or we’d have been as homeless as the folks I saw this afternoon.”

    “I learned that lesson when I came out here in ‘49,” Lawrence commented.  “This is the fifth fire we’ve had since the discovery of gold, and still folks haven’t learned to construct fireproof buildings.”

    “I’m glad you’re all well,” Ben said.  “Do you know where the Wentworths live?  Is there any way we can check on them?”

    “Oh, we did that first thing,” Lawrence said.  “They did suffer some damage, but fortunately, it wasn’t severe.”

    “For once I was glad they were living in that awful ship,” Camilla commented.

    “Ship?” Ben asked.

    “A lot of sailing vessels were abandoned here when gold was first discovered,” Lawrence explained.  “Housing was short in those days, so the old hulks were beached and converted into stores, saloons, etc.  The Niantic was turned into a hotel and the Euphemia into our first jail, for instance.  Reverend Wentworth holds church services in another, and his family lives there, as well.”

    “It’s a horrible, drafty old hulk——not a fitting place for poor little Mary, but there’s no talking Ebenezer into leaving.  That’s where I’ve been all day,” Camilla explained.  “Ebenezer opened the church for those without a place to stay.  I’ve been helping get people settled, but it’s a madhouse——wall-to-wall people.”  She frowned.  “I don’t suppose wall is the correct word for a ship, though.”

    Ben laughed.  “It’ll do, Camilla.  How good of you to help out.”

    “It’s the Christian duty for those of us who were spared to help those who were stricken,” Camilla said.

    Ben smiled.  Though the words sounded arrogant, he knew they came from a kind heart.

    “You didn’t chance to see Ben’s brother?” Lawrence asked.

    Camilla shook her head.  “No, I’m sorry, but I didn’t.  I passed his boardinghouse on the way to the wharf.  It’s gone, I’m afraid.”

    “Is—is Uncle John gone?” Adam said, his chin quivering.

    “A big, strong man like that?  I’m sure he’s fine, my dear,” Camilla said.  “Finding him will be the problem.  So many people are leaving the city, at least, temporarily.”

    “John wouldn’t do that,” Ben said.  “He’d stay to help, even if he weren’t waiting here for me.”

    “Yes, that’s true,” Camilla agreed.  “He seemed like that kind of man.”  Suddenly, her fingers flew to her lips.  “Oh, Ben!” she cried.  “I just thought.  Your brother left a box for you with us, in case you missed connections.”

    “A box?” Ben asked.

    “From St. Joe,” Lawrence explained.  “He picked it up at the post office for you, along with a couple of letters.  I’ll give it to you after dinner.”

    Ben still looked puzzled.  “I expected a small package for Adam from St. Joe, and the letters are probably from Mr. Edwards, too, or perhaps Inger’s brother.  Did he ever come by here?”

    Lawrence shook his head.  “No, I left your letter to him at the post office, along with a message giving my address, but he never came by.  John did, of course, and we’ve seen him several times since.  He always checks when he comes to town to see if we’ve heard anything from you.”

    Lawrence dabbed at his mouth with his napkin.  “I’m sorry I can’t stay to visit longer tonight, Ben,” he apologized, “but I have a meeting to attend.”

    “Oh, Lawrence, must you?” Camilla whimpered.  “I hate for you to become involved.”

    “We’re already involved,” Lawrence said sharply.  He pursed his lips and looked at Ben.  “I know I can trust you, Ben, so I’m going to be frank.  A number of the leading citizens of San Francisco are planning to form a Committee of Vigilance.  That’s what the meeting is about.”

    “You mean to take the law into your own hands?” Ben demanded.

    “Don’t get self-righteous with me, Ben Cartwright!” Lawrence snapped.  “It’s either that or submit to the tyranny of the lawless.”  He lowered his voice.  “This fire was no accident, Ben,” he said.  “The Sydney Ducks had been boasting about their plans to set fire to the city yesterday, a year to the day since the second city-wide fire.”

    “Who are the Sydney Ducks?” Ben asked, his face growing grave.

    “A gang made up of the dregs of the Australian penal system who’ve been terrorizing the town for some time now,” Lawrence replied.  “While others worked to put out the fires last night, they looted unwatched stores.”

    Ben shook his head.  “Can’t local law enforcement do anything?”

    “What local law enforcement?” Lawrence scoffed.  “I’d hoped things would get better once we achieved statehood, but—”

    “Wait, wait,” Ben said, shaking his head.  “You’re going too fast for me.  California’s a state now?”

    Lawrence grinned.  “As of last September, though the news didn’t get here until October.”  He grew sober again.  “Ben, there’s a lot to catch you up on, but I really must go.  You make yourself at home, and tomorrow we’ll see about finding John.”

    “All right, Lawrence,” Ben said.  “You take care tonight.”  Lawrence nodded soberly and left.

    Camilla sighed.  “I do wish he wouldn’t take part in that meeting.  I’m afraid there’s danger involved.”

    “Now, don’t you worry,” Ben soothed.  “Captain Larrimore can take care of himself.”

    Camilla smiled at Ben’s use of the title she so liked to hear ascribed to her husband.  “You must be tired after your long journey.  Let me show you where you can sleep.”

    Ben thanked her and followed her down a narrow hall.  “This is our room,” Camilla said.  “That box John brought for you is in the corner there.”  Ben lifted the box and continued to follow Camilla to the next room down the hall.

    “This is Sterling’s room.  I though you and Adam could sleep here tonight,” Camilla offered.

    “Then where am I supposed to sleep, mother?” Sterling demanded.

    “I’ll fix you a pallet in Jewel’s room,” Camilla said.

    “No, mother!” Sterling protested.  “Why should I sleep on the floor just so Pa’s hired help can have a bed?”

    Ben’s lips tightened.  He’d been quick to protest Stefán’s offer of his bed, but behavior like the Larrimore boy’s didn’t merit encouragement.

    “Sterling!” Camilla cried, her face flushing.  She reached out to smooth Sterling’s dark curls.  “Now, sweetheart, the Cartwrights are our guests.  I won’t have them sleeping on the floor, but mother will make it up to you, I promise.”

    “Well, all right,” Sterling agreed grudgingly, jerking his nightshirt from the top drawer of his chest.  “It’ll take something pretty nice, though.”

    “Of course, my dear boy,” Camilla purred, then pasted on a bright smile for her guests benefit.  “There!  Now, I hope you’ll be very comfortable here, Ben.”

    “I’m sure we will, Camilla,” Ben said quietly.  “Thank you for your hospitality.”  He pointedly excluded Sterling from his proffered thanks.

    Once he and Adam were alone, Ben set the box on Sterling’s bed.  “Are you gonna open it now, Pa?” Adam asked excitedly.

    Ben chuckled.  “Don’t you think your pa’s as curious as you are, boy?”

    Adam grinned.  “I sure hope so!  That’s an awful big box to be Jamie’s journal, don’t you think?”

    “I do, indeed,” Ben said.  “Your graded homework papers are probably in here, too, but it’s still too big for just that.”

    “Maybe it’s more books,” Adam suggested, his face eager.

    “It’s heavy enough to be books,” Ben said, “and I wouldn’t put it past Josiah.”  He pulled off the box’s wooden lid and began to remove the newspapers Josiah had stuffed in as packing material.  Ben laid them aside, planning to smooth them out later and catch up on the news of the day.

    The first item Ben removed was the expected journal.  “Oh, boy!” Adam cried, grabbing for it.  “Now, I can find out everything Jamie’s been doing.”

    Ben held it out of reach.  “Not now,” he scolded softly.

    “Aw, Pa!” Adam protested.  “I’ve waited forever.”

    Ben chuckled.  “Oh, all right, but just a couple of entries tonight, boy; it’s time for bed.”

    “Okay,” Adam agreed reluctantly.  “I reckon I got lots of time on the trip home to read it all.”

    Ben smiled wryly.  “I reckon,” he said and turned back to draw a sheaf of papers from the package.  “Here’s your homework, graded and returned, just as your teacher promised.”

    “Ooh, how’d I do?” Adam asked.

    “There’s a letter attached.  I’ll read it and let you know later,” Ben said.  “I thought you wanted to know what was in this box.”

    Adam grinned sheepishly.  “I do, Pa.  What else is there?”

    Ben removed two books.  “These appear to be for you.”

    “It’s a geography and a history book,” Adam said.  “You were right, Pa; Mr. Edwards did send more books.”

    “And not just to you,” Ben said, lifting out a large volume.  “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” he read, then opened the cover to find a message incribed:  “Merry Christmas, dear friend.  May the words of the immortal bard add pleasure to long, winter nights.  Your servant, Josiah Edwards.”

    Adam was already looking into the box again.  “There’s another one here, Pa,” he said, “the biggest of all.”

    Ben laid aside his Christmas gift and took the final, large item from the crate.  His eyes filled with tears.  “It’s Inger’s Bible,” he whispered.  “That Josiah; he planned all along to mail this to her, so she wouldn’t lose this remembrance of her grandmother.”

    Adam choked down the sob rising in his throat.  “She won’t ever know now, Pa.”

    Ben reached out to brush Adam’s soft cheek.  “She knows, son; she knows,” he said quietly.  He laid the heavy book back inside the packing crate.  “We’ll save this for Hoss, so he can have something of his mother’s.”

    “Like I have the music box?” Adam said.

    “Yeah, like that,” Ben replied, smiling tenderly.  “Now, you’d best get into bed, son.  Read a little in the journal, then turn down the lantern.”

    “Aren’t you coming to bed, Pa?” Adam queried.

    Ben was busy replacing the books in the box.  “No, I’m going to wait up for Lawrence,” he said.  “I want to be sure that meeting went all right.”

    “You think it’s a bad meeting, don’t you, Pa?” Adam asked.

    Ben shrugged.  “I don’t know, Adam.  I don’t believe in people taking the law into their own hands, but on the other hand, a community can’t allow hooligans to wander the streets, setting fires at will, robbing and killing.  They have to do something.  I know Mr. Larrimore’s intentions are good, but that kind of thing can easily get out of hand.  I want to be sure he’s all right.”

    Giving Adam a good-night kiss, Ben took the crumpled newspaper pages back into the kitchen, smoothed them out and, laying them in chronological order, began to read.  He soon realized that Josiah must have deliberately saved back issues he knew Ben would find of greatest interest, for each reported some event of national significance, as well as the local gossip which filled most of the pages of each edition of the St. Joseph Gazette.

    The first page Ben read related the death on July 9th of President Zachary Taylor, evidently from cholera, and his succession by Millard Fillmore.  While Taylor had vowed to veto Henry Clay’s compromise on the slavery question, Fillmore promised to support it.  Since California was now a state, Ben assumed the compromise had passed and he found confirmation of that in a paper dated September 13, which listed the detail of the five bills passed by Congress over the previous four days.

    California had been admitted as a free state, and the territories of New Mexico and Utah organized without restriction regarding slavery.  The residents in those territories, which at present included Ben and the Thomases, would decide for themselves which way they’d go when they achieved statehood.  The territorial government for Utah Territory, which included the spot where their cabin stood, would be at Fillmore City, one hundred-fifty miles south of Salt Lake City, according to the article.

    The boundaries of Texas had also been set by the Compromise of 1850, again without restriction on slavery, but the slave trade (though not slavery itself) had been abolished in the District of Columbia.  High time, Ben thought.  The idea of the nation’s capitol being sullied by the degrading sale of human beings was reprehensible.  The final provision of the compromise pleased him less:  a new Fugitive Slave Act demanded the return of runaway slaves, even by citizens of free states.  And people think the West is a land of savages, Ben thought with disgust as he tossed the newspaper aside.

      The door opened and Larrimore entered.  “Still up?” the merchant asked.

    “Yeah, I wanted to see how your meeting went,” Ben asked.

    “Well organized and controlled,” Lawrence reported as he removed his hat and coat.  “A hundred and eighty law-abiding citizens banded together tonight to deal with the lawless element.”

    “Couldn’t that many people see to the election of good officials?” Ben asked.

    “In time,” Lawrence said.  “I view the Committee as temporary, but something has to be done about the murder, robbery and arson that is running rampant.  This won’t be a decent place to live until the situation is under control.”

    “I understand the problem,” Ben said, “but vigilantes can be hard to control.  You watch yourself, Lawrence.”

    Lawrence nodded.  “Camilla get you and your boy settled for the night?”

    “Yeah,” Ben said.  “Adam’s asleep and I’d better turn in.  I want to stop by Wentworth’s first thing in the morning, just on the off chance that John stumbled into his place.”

    “Sure; I’ll take you there right after breakfast,” Lawrence promised.  “No more stock than I have left, I might as well stay closed tomorrow anyway.”

    Ben shook his head.  “I meant to give you my business, but I guess I’ll need to get my supplies back in Sacramento.”

    Lawrence coughed apologetically.  “Sorry, Ben.  I expect another shipment in next week, but until then there’s little I can give you.”

    “Think nothing of it, Lawrence.  Good night.”

    “Good night, Ben.”

* * * * *

    The Reverend Wentworth, along with Matthew and Mark, greeted Ben and Adam warmly when Lawrence Larrimore brought them to the ship that served as both church and home to their old companions from the trail.  “My dear friends,” he said, “I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to see you again.  Our prayers have been answered.”

    “And ours,” Ben responded.  “Mrs. Zuebner told us of your problems crossing the Sierras, how you nearly lost dear little Mary.”

    Ebenezer nodded sadly.  “I’m afraid that winter continues to exact its toll from Mary; her health remains delicate.  She’s been forced to her bed again by the smoke she inhaled the other night.”

    “Have you had a doctor?” Ben asked.

    Wentworth shook his head.  “The few available haven’t much training in medicine, I fear, and they charge exorbitant rates.  Mary’s feeling better today, but I insisted she stay in bed.”

    “No sense taking risks,” Ben said.  “Those ashy streets are no place for a delicate child.”

    “True,” Ebenezer smiled.  “You said you’d seen Ludmilla.  Is she well?”

    “Well and prospering,” Ben assured him.  “The miners love her cooking——and with good reason.”

    “Yeah,” Adam chimed in.  “You should taste her strudel, Reverend Wentworth.”

    “I’m sure it’s wonderful, Adam,” Ebenezer said.  “The children, are they all well, too?”

    “Fine and fit,” Ben replied.  “Ebenezer, you didn’t happen to make a list of the people who stayed here last night?”

    Wentworth’s brow furrowed.  “Why, no, Ben.  Why would I?”

    Ben shook his head.  “No reason.  My brother is in town, and I’ve learned that his boardinghouse burned down.  I was just hoping he might have come here for shelter.”

    “Oh, I’m sorry,” Ebenezer said.  “The place was filled last night and will likely be so again tonight.  I’ll be glad to ask if there’s anyone named Cartwright this evening, though there are a few other places he might have gone.”

    “John, John Cartwright,” Ben said.  “I’d appreciate it, Ebenezer.  I’m going to find him today, if possible.  With the shortage of supplies, Adam and I will need to be heading back over the mountains soon.”

    “Ben intends to set up a trading post in Carson Valley,” Larrimore explained.

    “Ah!” Ebenezer said.  “A good place for one, I should think.  And the Thomases, will they be staying with you?”

    Ben nodded.  “I’d love to stay and visit, Ebenezer, but I think I should start scouring the streets for John.”

    “Of course,” Ebenezer replied.

    “May Adam stay here, sir?” Mark asked.  “We would like to show him around our boat and give him a closer view of the ocean.”

    Adam looked up into his father’s face eagerly.  “Can I, Pa?  Please,” he begged.

    Ben ruffled the boy’s dark hair.  “If you will say ‘may I,’ as you ought.”

    “May I?” Adam smiled.

    “I might make better progress alone,” Ben admitted, raising a questioning eyebrow at Ebenezer.

    “Of course, Adam may stay,” the minister replied.  “I’m sure it would raise Mary’s spirits to have a visitor, too.”

    “You may stay, then, Adam,” Ben decided.  “Do whatever Reverend Wentworth tells you and mind your manners.”

    “Yes, sir, and I’ll keep an eye out for Uncle John and Uncle Gunnar, too,” Adam said.

    Ben laughed.  “I’m not sure Gunnar’s in town, but he’d be hard to miss.”  He lifted his eyes to Ebenezer’s face.  “A big Swede; he’d stand head and shoulders above most men.”

    Ebenezer frowned.  “No, Ben, no one like that stayed here last night,” he said slowly.  “Good luck in your search.”  As Ben left, Ebenezer pulled Larrimore aside.  “I don’t know whether to tell Ben,” he said quietly, so Adam wouldn’t overhear, “but a big Swedish man has been running with the Ducks.”

    Larrimore’s face turned grim.  “You don’t know his name, though?”

    “No,” Ebenezer admitted.  “I’ve just seen him from a distance.”

    “Likely not Ben’s brother-in-law, then,” Lawrence said, “if he’s anything like Inger.”

    “No,” Ebenezer agreed, “not if he’s like that dear lady.  I’ll not say anything to Ben, then.  After all, there’s more than more Swede in the state.”

    “Ben isn’t even certain Gunnar made it across Panama safely,” Lawrence said.  “He was supposed to leave word at the post office and didn’t.”

    “All the more reason not to worry our friend,” Wentworth decided.  Larrimore nodded his agreement.

    Lawrence met Ben outside.  “Since I know what John looks like, we’ll split up, Ben.”

    “Good,” Ben said.  “We’ll be able to cover more ground that way.  Oh, and if you should run across a big Swede, you might ask if he’s Gunnar Borgstrom.”

    “I will; you can be sure I will,” Lawrence said soberly.  He’d keep a sharp eye out for a Swede associating with known criminals, too, and pray none of them answered to the name Borgstrom.

    Up and down the streets of San Francisco Ben walked.  Though his labor was no more arduous than walking mile after mile beside a team of oxen, tension made the effort more tiring.  John was here somewhere, and Ben had to find him, had to assure his heart that his big brother was still alive.  Ben smiled ruefully.  That was probably exactly how John felt about his younger brother’s delayed arrival in California.  The sooner their mutual concern was relieved, the better.

    Walking the streets, Ben noted with satisfaction that the city was already in the process of rebuilding.  It spoke well of the prosperity and permanence of the place, but Ben was certain he wouldn’t want to settle anywhere near this large a city.  The lawlessness he’d heard described the night before made him long for a quieter, more peaceful home.  Ben shook his head at his own naiveté.  He had to expect that a frontier settlement, wherever located, would go through the kind of growing pains San Francisco was experiencing.  It might be well, though, to settle in an area that wasn’t growing as quickly, so adequate law and order would have a chance to keep up with the burgeoning population.  He remembered a long-past conversation with Josiah Edwards about that very problem.

    Ben couldn’t afford to spend much time contemplating his future, however; if he did, he might be lost in daydreams the moment he passed John.  He needed to keep his thoughts controlled and his eyes sharp.  Nonetheless, despite controlled thinking and watchful eyes, it was middle of the afternoon before Ben spied the object of his search.  John was busy nailing a board to the side of a small building, and didn’t see Ben, at first.  Ben grinned and planted his hands on his hips.  “Hey, big brother!” he called.  “I thought you came here to mine, not carpenter.”

    Hammer in hand, John swiveled, and a wide grin split his face.  “Ben!” he cried, dropping the hammer to engulf his younger brother in an exuberant bear hug.  “When did you get in?”

    “Yesterday,” Ben said, “and I’ve been searching the place upside down looking for you.”

    John threw an arm around his shorter brother’s shoulders.  “Serves you right after all the days I spent looking for you last October.  Now, where is Adam and my new little nephew?”

    “Adam’s in town; you’ll see him later,” Ben said.  “I left Hoss back in Carson Valley.”

    John frowned.  “Why on earth?”

    “Please don’t be disappointed, John,” Ben said, “but I’m going back there to set up a trading post.  I just came to San Francisco to see you and resupply.”

    John was taken aback, but recovered quickly.  “You won’t be doing that here,” he said, motioning to the crippled businesses surrounding them.

    Ben smiled wryly.  “No, I guess not.”  He jerked his head toward the building John had been hammering on.  “You working for wages here?”

    John shook his head.  “No, just helping out, but they can finish without me.  I’m free to go.  You have a place to stay, Ben?”

    “I’m staying with the Larrimores,” Ben said.

    “Oh, sure, I should have figured,” John replied.  “You think they’d have room for one more.  I slept in the street last night.”

    Ben clapped his brother on the arm.  “If they don’t, we’ll all berth in the wagon.”

    “You headed back to Larrimore’s now?”

    Ben grinned.  “Well, there is one stop I’d like to make, if you’re not averse to a little work.”

    John hooted.  “Seems to me you were the one I always had to chase down at chore time.”

    “Now, John—”

    John chuckled.  “You know I’m teasing.  You may have been a little lazy as a youngster, but you pitched in like a man from the day our parents died.  You’re a good, hard worker, Ben and your brother knows it.  Now, where is this work you mean to set me to?”

    “Across the bay,” Ben said.  “I have a couple of heavy items to take to Larrimore’s.”

    John threw an arm around Ben’s waist.  “Let’s get to it, then.”

    As they walked, Ben talked about his plans to set up a trading post in the Carson Valley in partnership with Clyde Thomas.  “I hope you’re not too disappointed with me,” Ben began tentatively.  “I know you’ve spent time waiting for me here that you might have used mining.”

    “That doesn’t matter,” John said.  “Truthfully, I make as much doing odd jobs here in San Francisco as I do mining.  I admit I was upset last year when you didn’t show up as early as I expected.  Once I knew you were safe, however, I was glad you hadn’t come on.”

    “Well, we would probably have made it,” Ben conceded.  “The others did.”

    “That’s true,” John agreed, “but you’d probably have landed smack in the middle of a cholera epidemic.”

    “There was cholera here?” Ben asked, paling.

    John nodded soberly.  “Arrived from Panama in October and lasted through November.  Once your friend Larrimore assured me you had enough supplies to survive the winter, I was sure you’d made the right choice.”

    “And my choice to stay there now?” Ben asked.

    John smiled.  “I’m learning to trust you, little brother.  I know you’ve thought your options through carefully, and I don’t doubt you’ve chosen wisely.”

    Ben stood tall as he walked beside John down the street that led to the ferry landing.  Despite his twenty-nine years, he still needed his big brother’s approval as much as he had when a boy.  It felt good to have it.

* * * * *

    Camilla opened the door in answer to Ben’s knock and saw him standing there with John.  “Oh, you found him!  How wonderful, Ben.  Please come in.”

    “Have a delivery to make first, ma’am,” Ben smiled.  He and John turned back to the wagon, having found a ferry that would bring it across, and began by unloading the grandfather clock.

    Camilla shrieked as soon as she realized what it was.  “My clock!  Oh, Ben, you’ve brought my clock!”

    “Where would you like it, ma’am?” John asked as he and Ben lifted it up the steps.

    “Oh, right in here,” Camilla said, leading the way to the kitchen and pointing to the opposite wall.  “Oh, my,” she sighed, “I can’t tell you what this means, Ben.  I did so hate leaving it behind.”

    “I know,” Ben said.  “I hated to leave it out in the weather, so it’s been in our cabin all winter, and it’s in good running order, or was when I left.”

    “Oh, I’m sure it is,” Camilla said.  “Thank you so much.”

    “I’ll get the other package,” John said, tipping his hat and heading for the door.

    “Other package?” Camilla asked.

    “Your mother’s china,” Ben said softly.

    Camilla squealed with delight.  “Oh, Ben!”

    Ben grinned, pleased to see her so happy.  “We used it Thanksgiving and Christmas to make our celebrations more special, but Nelly repacked it carefully.  It should be intact.”

    “Even one piece would be a treasure,” Camilla smiled.  “This means the world to me, Ben.”

    John entered, carrying the box of delicate dishes.

    “Oh, I can hardly wait to unpack it,” Camilla said, her hands stroking the wooden container lovingly.  “Oh, I know,” she giggled, clapping her hands in girlish excitement.  “We’ll use it tonight to celebrate its return.  You’ll join us, won’t you, John?”

    John doffed his hat.  “Yes, ma’am, I’d be obliged.”

    “It’s all right if John sleeps beside me tonight, isn’t it, Camilla?” Ben asked.

    “Of course it is!” Camilla said.  “Why, after your going to all this trouble to bring my keepsakes to me, I’ve a good mind to give you our bed.”

    “We wouldn’t hear of that, ma’am,” John demurred.  “Just a spot to spread my bedroll is all I ask.”

    “We’d better get back to the church to pick up Adam,” Ben said.

    “Yes, you do that,” Camilla said, “and I’ll start dinner, a better one than last night, I promise.”

    As the two brothers headed toward Reverend Wentworth’s shipboard church, John chuckled.  “I can’t say I’m looking forward to dinner, but beggars can’t be choosers, they say.”

    “They do, indeed,” Ben laughed.  “Let’s face it; the sooner Lawrence prospers enough to hire a cook, the better that family will eat.”

    “I know what you mean; I shared a meal with your friends last week,” John snickered.  “Edible, but not much more.”

    Ben smiled and nodded.  A perfect description of the meal he’d eaten the night before.  “I wish you could come back with us,” he told John.  “Nelly Thomas hasn’t had much to work with, but the woman works wonders with plain food.”

    “Who says I can’t?” John asked.

    Ben’s face lighted joyously.  “You’d come stay with us?”

    John raised a restraining hand.  “Now, I said nothing about staying, Ben, but I would like to see that new nephew of mine.”  John grew sober.  “I—I was sorry to hear about Inger, Ben.  She was a wonderful woman.”

    “Yes, it’s been hard without her,” Ben replied, “but wait ‘til you see her boy.  You never saw such a armful for just eight months old.”

    “It’s decided, then,” John said.  “I have nothing to keep me here.  In fact, I’d been toying with the idea of testing the color over your way.  Why don’t I help you get your wagon—”

    “Wagons,” Ben said.  “I left one in Sacramento.”

    John stopped and grabbed Ben’s arm.  “How in mercy did you manage two wagons, even empty?”

    Ben laughed.  “That other nephew of yours is getting to be quite a boy.  He guided the second wagon, and did well with it empty.  I was feeling some concern about the trip home, though, and having you along would certainly relieve it.”

    “I’ll be glad to help out, provided you’re telling the truth about Mrs. Thomases’ cooking.”

    Ben guffawed and slapped his brother’s back.  “I’ll go one better, big brother:  we’ll stop off in Hangtown, and I’ll treat you to some of the best grub this side of St. Louis.”

    John grinned.  “It’s a bargain.”

    The three Cartwrights left San Francisco the next morning, ferried across the bay and headed for Sacramento once more.  They made good time, arriving there on the sixth day out.  Another day was spent purchasing and loading provisions in the two wagons, then they started toward Hangtown.  Adam couldn’t tell his uncle enough about the wonderful strudel and sauerbraten he’d soon be tasting.

    “Now, Adam,” Ben scolded.  “Don’t be promising what you can’t deliver.  Mrs. Zuebner may not have sauerbraten and strudel on her regular menu.  That was a special Sunday dinner, and we’ll be arriving middle of the week.”

    “Well, whatever’s on the menu will be good,” Adam insisted.

    Ben grinned.  “That’s a promise you can keep.”

    Now that they were pulling heavy loads, the oxen couldn’t cover as many miles each day, so it took the party three days to reach Hangtown, instead of the two in which Ben had covered the distance on his trip west.  The greeting he received, however, was as exuberant as the earlier one.  Ludmilla folded everyone, in turn, in her ample arms——even John, who struggled to keep from laughing at the hearty welcome accorded a total stranger.

    Ben laughed.  “Ludmilla, it’s good to see you, too.  Let me introduce my brother John.”

    “Oh, your brother!” Ludmilla chortled happily.  “Is good you find your family.  You hungry, maybe?  I fix you up three specials of house?”

    “Ox-tail soup?” Adam asked, licking his lips.

    “No, so sorry, but not today,” Ludmilla apologized.  “Today——corned beef, sauerkraut and rice pudding.”

    “That sounds great!” Adam cried.

    “Good, good,” Ludmilla said, smiling broadly.  “You sit; I bring.”

    “I’ll have the same,” Ben said.

    “And brother John?” Ludmilla asked.

    “Sure, I can’t pass up the special of the house,” John said.  Ludmilla beamed broadly and bustled into the kitchen.  Soon, she returned and, with Katerina’s help, served the meals.

    When they’d eaten, John leaned back in his chair and patted his stomach.  “I haven’t eaten that well since I left your place back in ‘49, Ben.”

    Adam giggled.  “I told you it’d be good.”

    John stretched to tickle Adam’s ribs.  “You were right, boy.”  He looked at Ben.  “Isn’t this the town they used to call Dry Diggings?”

    “I believe so,” Ben said.

    John grinned.  “That’s where I was thinking of prospecting.  With food like this, I know it must be the right spot.”

    Ben laughed.  “I didn’t realize you could tell a good claim by the quality of food in nearby restaurants.”

    John wrinkled his nose at his younger brother’s jibe.  “It does say something for a community that it can support high class dining, you know.”

    “Oh, absolutely,” Ben snickered.  He smiled at his brother.  “Ludmilla’s boy seems to be doing fairly well with his claim here; maybe, you will, too, and I’d love having you this close.”

    “But I thought you were coming home with us,” Adam argued.  “You gotta see Hoss and our cabin; it’s an extra fine one.”

    “I wouldn’t miss it,” John chuckled.  “After all I’ve heard about Carson Valley on the trip here, I couldn’t pass it up anymore than Mama Zuebner’s corned beef and sauerkraut.”

    The Cartwrights spent the night with the Zuebners, giving them all the latest news of their San Francisco friends, then left early the next morning.  “How far to your place?” John asked once they were well on the road.

    “Took us six days coming,” Ben said.

    “With empty wagons,” John smiled.

    Ben grinned.  “Yeah.  Add a couple for the return trip, I guess.  I’m really eager for you to see the place, John.  It’s a lovely valley——not as lush, perhaps, as some in California, but there’s a tranquil beauty about it.”

    “Keep on like that, Ben, and you’ll be talking yourself out of ever coming to California,” John teased.

    Ben laughed, but something stirred inside his heart.  Truthfully, there was nothing he’d seen in California that he liked better than the home they’d built near Mormon Station.  And the closer he came, the more the place pulled at him, the more he felt like he was coming home.  But settle there?  So far from the so-called civilized world?  Surely, that wasn’t worth considering.  Yet Ben found himself considering that very thing, to the point that John began to wonder why his previously talkative little brother had grown so pensive the last few days of the journey.

    On Friday, May 23, 1851, just over a month after leaving, Ben led the wagons into the Carson Valley once again and felt a great sigh of contentment rise in his throat.  It was beautiful:  grass shimmering green in the sunlight, wild peach trees in blossom, and the fluffy tuffs of cottonwood seeds floating in the air.  To the west pine-forested hills framed the valley.  To the east lay the garden he and Clyde had planted, miniature corn stalks standing straight and broad leaves of green beans unfolding in the sun.  Just beyond stood the cabin where he’d shared a hard, but happy, winter with his friends.

    Suddenly, Adam was running ahead.  “We’re home!” he shouted.

    Ben smiled as he heard Billy Thomas give an excited whoop and race toward Adam.  “Yeah, we’re home,” he said.  Adam was too far away to hear that soft whisper, but John caught it and nodded knowingly.  He didn’t need Ben to tell him that he’d finally found the place to plant his dreams.  Ben’s purposeful stride as he approached the cabin declared his decision more plainly than words on a printed page.  Ben was home.

The End
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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