Heritage of Honor
Book Four
A Dream's Darkest Hour

Sharon Kay Bottoms


Time of Renewal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Time of Celebration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joseph, answer my question,” Ben demanded.

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

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

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

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

    “Joseph!  Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Me, too, I guess,” Clyde admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Rubbing his fists in his eyes, Little Joe nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Huh! Like always,” Hoss snuffled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Again?” Marie asked with a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Oh, we will farm,” Fege declared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “I will help you,” Marie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Adam.”  He thrust out his right hand.

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

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

    “Kid?”  Ross Marquette frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Adam,” he insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Hurray!” Hoss hollered.

    “H’ray!” shouted his younger echo.

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

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

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

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

    “You’re kidding!” Adam exclaimed.

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

    “See?  Hoss best!”  Little Joe insisted.

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

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

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

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

    “What are your plans?” Ben asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Then what?” Marie pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Historical Notes

    The following people are historical settlers of western Utah, as Nevada was known in 1860:  Theodore Winters and his new wife Margaret, Matthias Fege, Jacob Shroeder, the O’Neill family, James Sturtevant, W. T. C. (Rough) Elliott and Richard and William Sides, as well as Abraham Curry, the founder of Carson City.
    Laura and Jimmy Ellis are also historical figures, as is George Dettenrieder, her beau in this chapter.  While I had indicated in a previous volume of Heritage of Honor that Laura was near Marie’s age, subsequent research in the 1880 census has revealed that she would actually have been more than twenty years older.  The real Laura Ellis was forty-five in 1860.
    Ross Marquette is a character from the Bonanza episode, “The Dark Gate” by Al C. Ward.  All other members of his family are inventions of the author.


An Opportunity to Stretch Out Stakes

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

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

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

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

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

    “You been before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Huh?” Adam asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Mais oui,” Marie agreed quietly.

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

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

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

    “Oh, but I should help,” Marie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call me Ben,” Ben requested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Name it,” Ben said readily.

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

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

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

    “Numaga?” Ben asked.

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Historical Notes

    In 1860 the Reverend Jesse L. Bennett preached the first sermon heard in Virginia City.  He had, however, come to western Utah as early as 1859, probably returning to California during the interim.
    Captain Joseph (Jasper) Stewart is a historical figure, the first officer in charge of Ft. Churchill.

Branching Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Adam?” Captain Stewart asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Sounds good,” Ben said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “But with all the extra work—”

    “We’ll manage,” Ben assured him.

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

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

“But, Pa—”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Oh, I’ll risk it,” Ben chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Adam, that’s enough,” Ben snapped.

    “But, Pa—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “You will be joining them?”

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Don’t need charity,” Marquette grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Historical Note

    Washington O’Neill is a historic settler of Washoe Valley.

Construction and Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Pa’s doin’ that?” Hoss queried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Like Mark?” Hoss asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “I’ll do all I can,” Ben vowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What?” Adam asked.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Your pa’s a preacher?” Adam asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Marie smiled and carried her puckered-faced toddler upstairs.

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

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

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

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

    “Yeah!” Hoss gurgled happily.

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Like a hawk,” Adam promised.

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

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

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

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

    Adam grinned.  “Point taken.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yes, Father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Blinking back tears, Marie shook her head and stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “But—” Ben probed.

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Historical Notes

    Joseph Frey, who donated land for Franktown School, and Reuben Perkins, superintendent of Franktown’s saw mill, are historic settlers of Washoe Valley.
    Though he was only supposed to be away from Ft. Churchill for sixty days, Captain Joseph Stewart never returned.
    Father Hugh Gallagher is the first priest to appear in this series, but his brother Father Joseph Gallagher was actually the first Catholic priest in western Utah, offering Mass in private homes in the summer of 1858.  As this is one year prior to the discovery of the Comstock Lode, it can be presumed that he found few adherents of his faith to whom he might minister and, in all probability, returned to California.
    Mart Taylor and family performed in Washoe Valley in August of 1860.

In Search of Peace

    A cloak of ebony, unrelieved by a single thread of gold, still shrouded the Ponderosa when the Cartwrights gathered at the breakfast table the following Sunday.  At its head, elbow propped at an oblique angle, Ben leaned a weary head into his palm.  The intervening week had been a long and exhausting one as he had again pushed himself to complete the dual commitments made to the Army and to the educational future of his younger sons.

    To his right, his wife smiled tenderly as she noted his drooping eyelids.  What a good man he was, this husband of hers, to extract himself from the sensuous embrace of a soft mattress for her sake alone.  Although there had been no further discussion of their religious differences, the atmosphere had been charged with an almost electrical tension sparking between two such magnetically opposite poles.  Still, when Marie had hesitatingly asked the evening before if he would accompany her to Mass this morning, her enervated husband had agreed without question or complaint.  Marie’s heart filled with love, and her eyes shone with admiration for that bent form at the head of the table.

    Of the three Cartwright sons, only Adam seemed alert and eager to greet the dawn as it tiptoed timidly over the windowsill opposite him at his father’s back, and only he seemed interested in an early-morning ride into Virginia City.  A linked chain of yawns kept Hoss’s mouth gaping, and as he awaited the arrival of breakfast, his tousled head fell against the back of the chair around the table corner from Adam.  Little Joe, cherubic curls cradled on slender arms folded on the table, was all but asleep in the tall chair between his parents.

    Face beaming as it usually did when everyone was present at mealtime, Hop Sing carried in platters of eggs, bacon, sausage and biscuits, gliding them deftly to the table.  Hoss’s eyes finally sparkled with interest, and his tongue slipped over his lips as he watched his father fill his own plate and hand the first platter to Marie, who was gently rousing Little Joe.  After filling the toddler’s plate with small portions, she placed an egg and two strips of bacon in her own before passing the platter down to Adam.

    Fork halfway to his mouth, Ben stared at the food on his wife’s plate.  “You’re eating?” he inquired, brow wrinkling.

    “Oui , Ben,” Marie replied quietly as she directed a spoonful of egg to her baby’s mouth.

    The furrows in Ben’s brow deepened.  “But I thought you had to fast before church.”

    “Only if I receive Communion,” Marie said, taking a bite of her own food while her son chewed drowsily.

    “Oh, they don’t serve it every week,” Ben concluded, slathering his biscuit with butter.  “What is it, once a month?”

    “At every Mass,” Marie said softly, giving her baby another bite.  “I just won’t be receiving the host, Ben.”

    Again Ben’s fork paused in mid-air.  “But I thought it meant so much to you—enough to have a big argument with Nelly over it!  I meant to ask you why you changed your mind last week, but it slipped my mind, and now—what’s going on, Marie?”

    Marie turned her face aside.  “Nothing, Ben.”

    Ben set the fork down, and his face was grim as he said, “A lie is a poor way to prepare yourself for church-going.”

    Marie’s head whipped back.  “I cannot receive Communion, Ben,” she snapped.  “That is what is going on!”

    Ben touched her hand with solicitous fingers.  “Why can’t you?” he asked gently.

    Marie’s gaze dropped to her lap.  “Because I am living in sin,” she whispered.

    “Living in sin?” Ben queried, fingers tightening on her slim hand.  “What on earth are you talking about?”

    He felt the fingers he held tremble as his wife said almost inaudibly, “Our marriage, Ben.  In the eyes of the Church, it is sin.”

    Ben jerked his hand away as if her touch burned like the crackling flames of a fire.  “Sin!” he thundered.  “We are united in the bonds of holy matrimony, Marie.  How dare any man call that sin?”

    Little Joe raised a wail of protest at his father’s angry shout.

    “Marriage outside the Church is a sin, mon mari,” Marie explained quietly as she lifted the toddler into her lap and began to soothe his distress with gentle strokes.

    “And you want me to convert to a faith like that!” Ben bellowed.

    “Ben, please,” Marie pleaded, covering Little Joe’s ears.  “Now is not the time.”

    “There never will be a time I give in to that kind of tyranny!” Ben snorted.  Abruptly pushing his chair back, he stormed from the house.

    Hoss had been cowering in his chair during the exchange, so heated on one side, so grieved on the other.  As the front door slammed with a force he himself was often criticized for using, he looked hesitantly across the table.  “Uh, we goin’ to that church this mornin’ or not?” he asked, silently hoping he could just go back to bed, instead.

    Eyes shimmering with unshed tears, Marie looked at him and with effort kept her voice soft as she answered.  “I don’t know, mon chéri.”

    “We’ll go,” Adam said quickly.  “I’ll drive you in if Pa won’t.”

    Touched by his thoughtfulness, Marie smiled warmly, though her face was still flushed with anger and her lips still quivered with anguish.  “Thank you, mon ami.  Would you ask your father what he intends?  I—I do not trust myself to speak to him just now.”

    “Sure, Marie,” Adam said.  “No problem.” He quickly finished his breakfast and went outside.

    Seeing Ben hitching the team to the buckboard, Adam hurried around to fasten the harness on the opposite side.  “So you’re still going?” he asked as nonchalantly as he could.  “Marie was wondering.”

    “I promised to take her and I will,” Ben grunted, but as he lifted his head to look at his son, his eyes were still glowering.  “I don’t think I’ll be going inside, however, or a certain priest might find himself serving Mass with a bloody nose!”

    Adam arched a dark eyebrow.  “You don’t intend to tell her that, do you?  ‘Cause I want to be in the next county when you do.”

    His son’s quizzical expression, so like one often seen on his own face, finally brought a chuckle gurgling up Ben’s larynx.  “No, I’ve still got a little sense left,” he muttered wryly.  “Tell them to get a move on or they’ll be late.”

    Popping a sassy salute, Adam ran for the house, barely evading the playful swat aimed at his backside.

* * * * *

    Despite the sweltering heat of late August, the atmosphere inside the Ponderosa during the next week remained decidedly chilly.  Though man and wife traded polite apologies for their unpleasant verbal sparring on Sunday, there was no further discussion of the slowly widening chasm between them.  By the time the weekend finally arrived, there was no question of whether Ben would accompany his family to church on Sunday, for reasons that had nothing to do with religious differences, however.  The expected call from the Army had arrived, and on Saturday morning Ben made preparations to join Colonel Lander on a mission of peace to the Paiutes.

    After kissing his wife and admonishing Hoss to be a good boy while he was gone, Ben picked up his toddler and held him close.  “You be a good boy, too, Little Joe,” he urged.

    Little Joe gave his father a plaintive look.  “Me go, too, Pa,” he pleaded.

    “No, no,” Ben laughed.  “You can’t go with Pa.”

    The toddler pouted eloquently.  “Me never go,” he whined.

    Ben snuggled the boy against his shoulder.  “Oh, my poor deprived baby.  Well, maybe Pa will just have to take his little son fishing when he gets home,” he soothed.  “How would that be?”

    Little Joe rose up and favored his father with a sunny smile.

    “Me, too, Pa?” Hoss asked eagerly.

    Ben nodded.  “You, too.”

    “Hey, how about me?” Adam protested with a chuckle.  “Don’t I ever get a day off?”

    Ben shook his head.  “Probably not.  Walk out with me, son?”

    Sensing that his father had things to say to him that the others weren’t to hear, Adam’s expression sobered.  “Sure, Pa.”

    Ben wrapped an arm around his eldest son’s shoulders and they exited together.  Throwing his saddlebags over the bay gelding, Ben turned to face Adam.  “I’m sorry about the fishing trip, Adam, but chances are I won’t even be home in time to see you off to school.”

    “Pa, I don’t have to go,” Adam offered quickly.

    Ben feigned a glower.  “Yes, you do, and that’s an order, young man.”  Smiling warmly, he laid a hand on Adam’s left shoulder.  “I’m only sorry that I won’t have these last few days with you.  So, this may be farewell for us, son, and I wanted a chance to tell you how much I appreciate your coming home early when you heard about the Indian trouble and how proud I am of the way you conducted yourself during the difficulties.  You’ve really pitched in with the extra work around here this summer, too, and I’m going to miss you.”

    Blushing, Adam kicked at the dust of the yard.  “You can always hire an extra hand.”

    Ben cupped a palm behind his son’s neck and pulled him into an embrace.  “That’s not what I meant and you know it.  As hard as it’ll be to find a worker as willing as you, it’s my son I’ll miss, not just his help around the place.”

    “I’ll miss you, too, Pa,” Adam murmured into his father’s broad shoulder.

    Ben released him and turned to tighten the cinch on his horse.  “I’d appreciate it if you’d escort your mother into Virginia City tomorrow morning.  It means a lot to her.”

    Adam nodded.  “You two are gonna work this thing out, aren’t you?  I hate leaving with it up in the air.”

    Spinning around, Ben clapped his son on the shoulder.  “We’ll work it out.  You just keep your mind on your books, young man, and don’t fret about the old folks at home.”  He swung into the saddle and, unable to resist, leaned over to muss his boy’s straight black hair before galloping quickly away.

* * * * *

    As his bay gelding drank deeply of the cold waters of the Truckee River, Ben rinsed out his blue paisley bandana and wiped the sweat from his face, wondering if the blistering rays of summer would ever give way to the shivering gusts of autumn.

    “Hot one,” commented the man at his side, Frederick Dodge, Indian agent for the territory.

    “They’re all hot lately,” Ben complained good-naturedly.

    “For the sake of our Indian brothers, I hope they stay that way awhile, Ben,” Dodge observed.  “The Paiutes are ill prepared for winter.”

    Ben nodded grimly, remembering what his friend had been sharing along the trail north from Fort Churchill.  Ben had been at the post when the telegraph wire, which had just the month before been stretched east to the as yet unnamed fort, brought the news that Captain Joseph Stewart’s recommendation that the fort be named for Inspector General Sylvester Churchill had been accepted.  He had been pleased for his friend’s sake, though the name had little meaning for him personally, but the news Frederick Dodge had shared as they rode out under the command of Colonel Lander was infinitely less pleasant.  Tragic was a better word.

    While many of the Paiutes, hunters and scavengers by tradition, remained near the battleground where they had fought the whites, eking out a bare subsistence in the barren hills, others, less proud, had found new grounds to hunt, new fields to scavenge, in Virginia City itself.  “If you could see them, Ben,” Dodge had sputtered bitterly while they rode toward the appointed meeting with Numaga.  “If you could follow the Paiute women as they slink along the dark streets before the sun comes up, scavenging refuse dumps for bits of wilted carrot, half-rotten fruit and the heads and tails of fish too repulsive for white consumption.  If you could go behind the Overland Stables and watch them sift through the manure piles, washing grains of undigested barley from the horses’ droppings like a miner panning out flakes of gold!  When I think of what they were . . .”

    Ben shook his head as he recalled the images the Indian agent had pictured with such vivid horror.  He turned to the man standing beside him at the stream’s edge.  “Has no one in Virginia City offered them help?” he asked.

    “A few,” Dodge admitted.  “Occasionally someone will give them a bag of flour, and the slaughterhouses sometimes throw out a bowl of remains not fit even for sausage.  Some of the women have learned to wait at the mine entrances for shift change, so they can beg leftovers from the miners’ lunch pails.”

    From the slope above them the two civilians heard the order to mount shouted to their Army escort and responded as if they, too, were under orders.  “Hopefully, we can provide enough help that some of those poor wretches will return to a more dignified style of life,” Dodge opined as he and Ben swung into their saddles.

    Ben nodded silently, but he entertained little faith in the Indian agent’s expressed desire.  However undignified their means of livelihood might seem by white standards, the Paiutes of Virginia City were probably eating more and better than they had when they scavenged for piñon nuts and berries, tule shoots and crickets.  No matter what the United States Government provided, there would always be men, white as well as red, willing to take the easy route of begging their daily bread.

* * * * *

    As the pipe of peace made its way around the circle of men gathered to discuss a workable solution to the Indian’s problems, Ben could not help noticing the change in his old friend Numaga.  Though still stately in appearance and manner, the tall Paiute had grown visibly lean on the scant mountain fare, and there was a hardness in the set of his jaw.  As he catalogued his people’s grievances with the white man, the glint in his eyes was resolute and unwavering.

    “It was not we who first broke the peace,” Numaga asserted.  “We welcomed your people to this land, guided them through the mountains to the golden streams of California, but always the white man wants more.  At the cry of silver, he poured back across the mountains in legions without number.  Still we did not raise our hands against those who stole our land, killed our antelope, stripped the piñons from the hills.  Not until children of our tribe were taken did any of us strike back, and then only a few.  Yet the men of Virginia City marched on us, as we knew they would.”

    Colonel Lander nodded gravely.  “I will admit that some of the settlers have behaved despicably, and others have acted out of fear.  That is in the past, Numaga.  I cannot change it, but I have come today to make a new beginning, so that from this day forward no white man and no Paiute need die.”

    “Peace is good,” Numaga stated solemnly, “but it is not the work of a single sun or even a moon.”

    Ben gestured to the Colonel for permission to speak and it was granted.  “Numaga speaks wisely,” he began slowly.  “Time will, indeed, be needed to forge a treaty that will achieve lasting peace, but, for the sake of both our peoples, peace cannot wait.  It is almost three months since the last blood was shed at Pinnacle Mount.  Let us pledge here today to lay down our guns for, at least, that long again, so that no blood is shed while we talk of peace.”

    “A good suggestion,” Colonel Lander stated forcefully.  He faced the Paiute leader.  “Will you agree to keep the peace three more months, Numaga?”

    Numaga met the white man’s gaze steadily and answered with fierce pride.  “I will do more than you ask.  I do not speak for all Paiutes, but none of those who follow me will shed the blood of white men for one year from this day.”

    Taken aback by the unexpected offer, Colonel Lander recovered quickly and accepted; then he turned the discussion of longer-range solutions to Frederick Dodge.  While the actual treaty would not be signed until later, most of what was discussed during the meetings that began that day would eventually find its way into the finished accord.  Reservations would be set up, but the confinement of a freedom-loving people would be rendered more bearable by assigning them locations that surrounded the Paiutes’ traditional fishing places of Pyramid, Walker and Mud lakes.  The white man would provide assistance, not only by giving food and supplies to meet the Indians’ immediate needs, but, more importantly, by sending teachers to instruct them in farming skills, as they made their transition to a new way of life.

    Ben rode back to the Ponderosa with a deep sense of satisfaction—and of expectation.  He knew without doubt that a hefty portion of Numaga’s willingness to treat with the white men came from his long-term trust of the White Winnemucca, a title Ben continued to wear with pride.  The seeds of peace planted in those meetings made hope sprout within Ben, as well.  After seeing differences as vast as those of red men and white find common ground, Ben was encouraged to believe that he and Marie could also chart the path back to their accustomed accord.  Eager to begin peace talks of his own, Ben found the miles between him and the ranch interminable, but his heart soared as each strong stride of his horse brought him nearer home.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Historical Notes

    Numaga’s offer to keep the peace for one year is factual.  Ben’s prior suggestion of three months is an invention of the author.
    There was a white man, of long acquaintance with the Paiutes, known as the White Winnemucca.  I have taken the liberty of assigning that title to Ben Cartwright.

Off to School

     Adam handed the last of his bags to the man loading the stage in Carson City. “Well, that’s everything,” he said to Marie.

    She touched slender fingertips to his elbows.  “I know your father is disappointed that he could not be back in time to bid you farewell, Adam.”

    Adam hunched one shoulder in an attitude of dismissal.  “We said our good-byes before he left.”

    Marie nodded, a forced smile quivering on her lips.  “And now we must say ours.  I wish it did not have to be so, Adam.  I will miss mon ami.”

    Adam slid his arms back to clasp her hands warmly.  “And I will miss mine.”  Breaking into a lighter smile, he reached out to tousle Hoss’s sandy hair.  “Miss you, too, buddy.”

    “Sure wish you wouldn’t go, Adam,” Hoss muttered disconsolately.  “We have good times when you’re here.”

    “Yeah, we do, buddy,” Adam agreed, “and I’ll miss them, too.  In the meantime”—he reached down to lift Little Joe into his arms for a farewell hug—”you can have fun with this one.”  Adam pulled the toddler close to his chest and nuzzled his neck, wondering why this good-bye seemed hardest of all.  In his heart he knew the answer: he had just begun to know this little brother, to grow strongly attached, and he knew losing some of the closeness they now shared was inevitable with the miles and months he was about to put between them.  “Brother has to go now, little one,” he whispered.  “Try to remember me, okay?”

    Little Joe pulled back to gaze quizzically into his oldest brother’s face.  Finally understanding that they weren’t all getting on the stage for a nice trip, the child began to shake his head vigorously.  “No,” he objected adamantly.  “No, no, no!  Me go, too, Adam!”

    Adam laughed softly, blinking back the mist forming in his eyes.  “No, baby, you’re too young to go to school.  You’ll get your chance.”  Seeing Marie shiver, he added quickly, “Not soon, though.  You have to stay home and take care of Mama for awhile yet.”

    Little Joe made a fist and pounded Adam’s shoulder.  “No go!” he dictated, lips puckered and cheeks puffed out in indignation.

    “Better watch that hitting,” Adam whispered into his brother’s miniature ear as he stroked the child’s ruffled plumage.  “You know how Pa feels about that, baby boy.”

    “All aboard,” the stage driver called impatiently from atop the loaded stagecoach.

    Adam tried to hand Little Joe back to his mother, but the little lad clung tenaciously to his brother’s neck.  “Joe, let go,” Adam croaked through a strangled airway.  “I have to leave now.”

    Marie firmly detached Little Joe’s clutching fingers from his brother’s throat and hugged him tight.  “Don’t worry about him, Adam; he’ll be fine,” she said, seeing the older boy’s look of concern.  She stood on tiptoe to plant a kiss on each of his cheeks.  “Have a safe journey.”

    Adam gently kissed her cheek in return and then brushed his lips against his little brother’s soft curls.  “I’ll be back, baby; I promise,” he whispered and exchanged a quick hug with Hoss before dashing for the stage.  Hanging out the window, he returned the waves of Marie and Hoss, and just before they faded out of sight of the departing stagecoach, he saw a third little hand flutter toward him and felt reassured that his youngest brother was beginning to accept his leaving.  “You don’t know how lucky you are, little fellow,” he thought as he pulled his head back into the coach.  “You’ve got all of them to help you through this, while I’ve got no one to take the sting out of leaving you.”  Then, disdaining the blatant self-pity echoing in his head, Adam set his thoughts toward Sacramento, toward the old friends with whom he’d soon be reuniting and the new knowledge that would blunt, though it could never entirely remove, the homesickness he now felt so sharply.

* * * * *

    Marie smiled tenderly at the man sitting, with eyes closed and head tilted back, against the massive trunk of a sugar pine.  Kneeling beside her husband, she dropped a kiss on his temple.

    Ben stirred slowly, eyes flickering groggily open.

    Marie tittered.  “Oh, Ben, I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize you were actually asleep.”

    Ben stifled a yawn.  “Neither did I, my love.  I must have just drifted off for a few minutes.”  He sat up quickly, remembering his promise to keep an eye on his two younger sons while Marie cleared away the remains of their picnic.  “The boys?”

    “Are fine,” Marie assured him, her chin tipping toward the creek bank below them.

    Catching sight of the two youngsters perched beside the gurgling stream, Ben chuckled as he heard Little Joe’s excited exclamation about some new sight or sound that had caught his attention and Hoss’s scolding admonition to “keep that pole still!”

    Leaning back, he took his wife’s hand and pulled her toward him.  “Thank you for giving up your day at church for this.”

    “Oh, Ben, I don’t expect to be taken to Virginia City every Sunday,” Marie murmured softly.  “I know it is a long ride, and you were tired from your journey.”  Ben had returned from his peacekeeping mission only the afternoon before, one day after Adam’s departure.

    “Too tired for this, too,” Ben admitted, “but I promised the boys.  I wanted Hoss, especially, to have one more day to enjoy before he starts school tomorrow.”

    Mischief twinkled in Marie’s eyes as she asked, “Do you imply, monsieur, that school is not to be enjoyed?”

    Ben arched an eyebrow.  “By Hoss?  I doubt it.  They’re very different, those two older boys of ours, in their attitude toward school.”

    “Mmm,” Marie murmured in agreement as she snuggled against his shoulder.  “And what of our youngest?”

    Ben laughed.  “That’s a long way off yet, thank goodness.”

    “Thank goodness?” Marie queried with a pixyish slant of her head.  “You, too, would miss him then?”

    “Actually, I was thinking of his teacher-to-be,” Ben snickered wryly.  “I pity the person who tries to harness that bundle of energy to a school desk!”

    “Ooh, you are infuriating,” Marie cried, slapping his chest.

    “And you, woman, are enticing,” Ben whispered, taking her golden head in both hands and pulling it down until their lips met and locked in lengthy caress.  Then he moaned in anticipation as Marie unfastened two buttons of his shirt and twined her slender fingers in the hair on his chest.  While it was a promise that, of necessity, could not be fulfilled with two little boys fishing within a hundred feet of them, Ben knew with certainty he would find all a man could yearn for in the arms of his wife that night.

* * * * *

    Little Joe locked his arms around Hoss’s knees and held on for dear life.  “No!” he shrieked.  “No go!”

    “Well, okay,” Hoss said, looking up hopefully at his father.  “I sure hate to break the poor little punkin’s heart, Pa.”

    Ben might have found Hoss’s comment amusing had his youngest not been creating such a grating racket.  “Joseph, stop that wailing,” he ordered sharply.  “Your brother is going to school, whether you like it or not.”

    “No!” Joe hollered, continuing to cling to his brother’s lower limbs and, for emphasis, adding a stomp of his foot, which barely missed Hoss’s big toe.

    Ben’s nostrils flared as he grabbed the child around the waist and yanked him loose.  “That does it, baby boy; you are going to get a very necessary little talking to this very minute!”

    “No, Ben,” Marie objected forcefully, pulling the child from her husband’s arms and placing him against her shoulder.  “That is not necessary.”

    “Marie—” Ben interjected.

    “No,” Marie said sharply.  “Let me talk to him, Ben.  He is not being naughty; he is confused and hurt.”

    The child definitely looked more angry than injured to Ben, but not wanting to strain the bond he was reforging with his wife, he capitulated.  “Do as you think best, then,” he said.  “You’re the one who’ll have to live with him today.”

    “That will be my pleasure,” Marie said with a smile.  Bending over, she kissed the top of Hoss’s head.  “Be a good boy, mon chéri, and listen well to your teacher.”

    “Yes’m,” Hoss muttered gloomily and, giving his little brother a final pat on the back, left quickly, along with his father, who would also ride to Franktown school to enroll him.

    Marie carried the still howling youngest Cartwright upstairs and sat in the rocking chair beside his crib, gently rubbing his back.  The rhythmic movement of the chair and the tender touch began to soothe the distressed child, and soon he was sitting in his mother’s lap, rubbing his eyes.  “Tell Mamá what you are feeling, mon petit,” Marie requested softly.

    “Always people leave me,” Little Joe whimpered.  “I hate school!”

    “No one is leaving you, mon petit,” his mother soothed.  “I know Hoss is your favorite playmate, and you will miss him, but he will only be gone a few hours.”

    Having little concept of time measurements, Little Joe remained unconvinced.  Shaking his head, he again complained, “Always people leave me.”

    Marie gently brushed an errant curl from his brow.  “What people, mon petit ?”

    “Pa,” a red-faced Joe accused.  “Adam.”

    “Ah, I thought that was it,” his mother said, giving him a kiss on the forehead.  “I, too, am lonely when Papá goes away, but he always comes back, does he not—and Adam, too?”

    “Not for a long, long time,” Joe accused petulantly.  “Too long, Mama!”

    “Oui , it seems very long to me, too,” Marie admitted, cuddling him closer, “but it will not be so with Hoss.  He will be home for supper, as will your father.”

    A hopeful glimmer lighted Little Joe’s eyes.  “Like when Pa works?”

    “Exactly like when Pa works,” his mother said, smiling.  “School is Hoss’s work, and he will come home when it is done.”

    Little Joe’s face began to glow.  “Adam, too?” he asked eagerly.

    “No, Adam’s school is too far for him to come home each night.  You know this, mon petit,” Marie chided gently, “but I promise that Hoss will be home this afternoon, and you will have time to play with him before supper.  Now, since we are in such a good place for it, would you like Mamá to read you a story?”

    Characteristic smile transfixing his face, Little Joe nodded eagerly.

    Marie took a book from the bureau and began to read.  She knew the story so well she could almost quote it, and the words came readily off her tongue, even though her mind drifted elsewhere.  As she cuddled her healthy little boy in her lap, she couldn’t help thinking of the tragedy that had befallen her neighbor just days before.  As Laura Ellis had foreseen, the Bowers’ child was simply not destined to thrive, and Sandy and Eilley had buried their son just one day shy of two months after his birth. I am so blessed, Marie thought, and held Little Joe all the closer.

* * * * *

    Hoss, who had never shared his younger brother’s propensity for lightning mood changes, found himself growing more doleful with each stride his horse took toward Franktown.  Almost all Hoss’s memories of school were bad ones.  Deep inside he could still feel the embarrassment of being mocked by kids half his size and the pain of being called a “fat, stupid gentile.”  As he rode, he tried to convince himself that since the Mormons had mostly left and the kids who remained were gentiles like him, the name-calling would end.  He was finding himself a hard sell, however.

    Ben and Hoss stopped before a small shed to one side of the main school building, but only Hoss led his horse inside and removed the saddle.  Ben, who planned but a brief stay, merely tied his mount at the front of the shed.  Then, together, father and son climbed the steps of the small white wooden building with a narrow bell tower at the front.

    Pausing on the porch, Hoss looked eastward with infinite longing.  That’s where I’d like to be, he mused as he gazed at the inviting waters of placid Washoe Lake.  Still warm enough to swim, too.

    “Hoss,” his father called.  “This way, son.”

    Reluctantly, Hoss turned and followed his father through the door on the left, entering a narrow hall.  “Hang your coat and hat here,” Ben instructed.

    “Yeah, I know,” Hoss muttered as he placed his lunch pail on the long shelf running the length of the wall that divided the entranceway from the schoolroom proper.  Next he shrugged out of his coat and draped it over one of the hooks beneath the shelf.  He plopped his hat on top of the coat and emitted a loud sigh.  “I’m ready, I guess.”

    Ben placed a palm on the boy’s broad shoulder.  “Hoss, it’s a new teacher and new friends you’re about to face, not a firing squad; try to make your countenance reflect that.”

    Hoss’s nose crinkled, as if even thinking about facing all that newness was an effort, but he nodded in acquiescence and allowed himself to be led into the next room.  One large, high-ceilinged room with four windows down each side would serve as classroom for all eight grades.  A number of students and some parents were already seated, two to a bench, in the neat rows of flat-topped desks that lined the room on each side of a pot-bellied stove in the center.  Ben directed Hoss onto a bench behind one of the desks and, seeing that there wasn’t room for him to sit, as well, stood in the aisle beside his son.  Hoss heard someone to his right snicker and turned to glare in that direction, instinctively knowing that his bulk had prompted the ugly sound.  His father’s hand came to rest behind his neck and firmly turned the boy’s face toward the front of the room again.

    At the far end, on a raised platform, sat a larger desk, evidently the teacher’s, and behind it a slate blackboard bore a single message, “Welcome to Franktown School.”  Since the teacher’s desk was empty, Hoss surveyed the room, trying to figure out which of the ladies was his new teacher.  Before he could make that determination, however, a slender young woman who didn’t look much older than Adam mounted the platform and turned to face the assembled parents and students.  “Good morning and welcome to Franktown School,” said the young woman in a clear voice that carried to the back of the room.  “My name,” she continued, as she turned to write on the board, “is Miss Lucinda Appleton.”

    Hoss grinned.  That would be an easy name to remember because the teacher’s cheeks were as round and rosy as apples.

    “This is a special day because so many parents have graciously chosen to visit us,” Miss Appleton said with a smile, “but beginning tomorrow, all students will wait outside until the bell is rung.  Then the boys will line up and enter by the south door and girls by the north.  The rules of our school will be few and simple, but I will not allow any disruption in the classroom.”  Several parents nodded approval at the firm resolve evident on the young teacher’s face.

    “As none of you has ever attended this school before, every student will need to be enrolled,” Miss Appleton explained, “and this will be conducted in an orderly manner, using the alphabet as our guide.  Would each student whose name, like mine, begins with “A” please come to the platform.”

    Since “C” was so close to the front of the alphabet, Ben was soon escorting Hoss to the teacher’s desk.  Miss Appleton peered at her new pupil through bespectacled mud-puddle brown eyes that reflected warmth like sunbeams falling on a quiet pond.  “My, but you’re a fine, strapping boy,” she said.  “Your name, please?”

    “Hoss, ma’am,” the boy muttered.  “Hoss Cartwright.”

    “Hoss?” Miss Appleton rolled her tongue around the unfamiliar sound.  “That’s a most unusual name.  I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it.”

    Ben cleared his throat.  “We do call the boy Hoss at home, but his given name is Eric.”

    “That’s a good strong name for a strong boy,” Miss Appleton replied pleasantly as she wrote it in her roll book.  “May I call you that in the classroom, Hoss?”

    Hoss, who had taken an instant shine to her, even though she wasn’t pretty like Ma, nodded quietly, wanting to please.

    “And have you had any schooling before, Eric?” the teacher inquired.

    “Yes’m,” Hoss said quietly.  “Not in school like here, but my Ma teached me real good.  I’m in the Second Reader, ma’am.”  His round face glowed with pride as he announced his accomplishment.

    “I see,” Miss Appleton said, frowning in thought.  “Well, you have a great deal of ground to make up, Eric, to reach a level appropriate for your age, but—”

    “He’s only ten,” Ben inserted.  “Forgive me for interrupting, Miss Appleton, but I fear you’re laboring under a misconception.”

    Surprise sprang into the teacher’s eyes.  “Indeed, I am, Mr. Cartwright.  I had assumed—well, he’s such a tall boy”—she gathered herself quickly and gave her new student an encouraging smile.  “That being the case, reaching the Second Reader indicates acceptable progress, Eric.  Your mother has done a good job of instructing you.”

    Hoss beamed.  “Yes, ma’am!  She’s the best.”

    Miss Appleton’s smile broadened.  A boy who displayed such open admiration for his mother obviously came from a happy home, and by the look of the father, one in which a teacher’s authority might find substantial support.  “Welcome to Franktown School, Eric,” she said.  “Please take a seat in the third row.”

    After paying the established fee for Hoss’s first term, Ben walked his son back to his new desk and saw him safely settled before whispering a quick good-bye.  He went outside and, untying the reins of his bay, mounted the animal, confident that his son had made a satisfactory start.  The teacher was barely more than a girl, of course, but that was typical, since it was rare for a married woman to keep school.  Miss Appleton appeared to have both commitment and concern for her students, though, and Ben was pleased to see how well she had related to Hoss.  He knew a good teacher could make a world of difference to a student as reluctant as his middle son.

* * * * *

    That morning in the classroom went well for Hoss.  Of course, being the first day, little real study was required.  Miss Appleton spent the morning getting to know her students and exactly where they stood in each subject.  Hoss spent the time he wasn’t reciting himself in watching her interact with his new schoolmates, and he began to think that maybe school wouldn’t be as bad as he’d feared, with someone as nice as Miss Appleton for a teacher.  He was so entranced, in fact, that had it not been for the rumbling of his stomach, he wouldn’t even have noticed that it was time for lunch.

    Once Miss Appleton dismissed the class, however, Hoss made a quick grab for his lunch pail and hurried outside, aiming for the nearest shade tree.  “Hey, wait up,” a dark-haired boy called.

    Hoss looked back over his shoulder.  “You talkin’ to me?”

    “Yeah,” the other boy said, joining Hoss in the circle of shade.  “You’re Ben Cartwright’s kid, right?  We ain’t met proper, but our pas know each other.”

    “Yeah, I seen you around,” Hoss replied.  “You’re Thee Winters boy, ain’t you?”

    The shorter boy grinned as he thrust out his hand.  “Yeah, name’s George, and I know Eric ain’t the name you go by.”

    “Naw, just for the teacher,” Hoss agreed quickly.  “I go by Hoss.”

    Another boy, passing by, snorted.  “Horse, yeah, that’s what you look like, all right!”  He walked on, snickering in self-appreciation of his wit.

    Hoss’s lip curled as he took a step toward his taunter.  A hand came to rest on his elbow.

    “Aw, don’t mind him,” George said.  “Cal Hulbert’s got the biggest mouth in the territory, but he’s all talk and nothing to back it up with.”

    “Yeah, well, he’d better not do much more of that kind of talkin’ around me,” Hoss boasted with a fast flex of his bicep, “‘cause I got what I need to back up anything I say.”

    “You’s awful big,” piped a high-pitched voice, clearly awed.  “You’s ‘most a man.”

    Hoss dropped his arm and gave the diminutive girl with bright red braids a grin.  “Well, hi there, little mite.”

    A boy with hair as coppery as the girl’s yanked her back by one braid.  “Don’t be botherin’ folks, Mary Emma,” he scolded.

    “Ah, she ain’t no bother,” Hoss laughed.  “She ain’t big enough to be no bother.”

    “She ain’t big enough to be nothin’ else,” the boy cackled, “but I reckon you’d know about that.  I seen you chasin’ one even smaller at the Fourth of July picnic.”

    “Oh, yeah, that one ain’t nothin’ but bother,” Hoss agreed.  “Listen, I’m gettin’ too hungry to just stand around jawin’.  You wanna set and eat?”

    “Sure,” the redheaded boy replied, plunking himself down and motioning his sister and slightly younger brother to take a seat on the ground beside him.  “We’re the O’Neills,” he announced once Hoss and George Winters were seated, too.

    Hoss opened his dinner pail and pulled out his first sandwich.  “Yeah, I know.  Seen you at the doin’s on the Fourth, too.  You live pretty near me, I think, north of the Bowers’ place a ways.  Don’t know your front names, though—well, exceptin’ for Mary Emma, that is.”  He flashed the little girl a sociable smile.  She reminded him of his friend, Inger Thomas, although she looked a smidge younger.

    The other boy shook his wide-eyed stare away from the Hoss’s heavily loaded dinner pail.  “I’m Joseph, and my little brother here is Robert,” he stated.

    “Hey!  My little brother’s name is Joseph,” Hoss said between bites.

    Robert, redheaded and freckled like his siblings, snickered.  “Unh-uh, it’s Little Joe; heard you hollerin’ it plenty at that picnic.”

    “He’s cute,” dimple-cheeked Mary Emma offered.

    “Yeah,” Hoss groused good-naturedly.  “He’s cute as a skeeter nippin’ on your arm.”

    Robert whacked Mary Emma on the knee.  “That’s a good one—and you’re cute the same way, little skeeter!”

    “Ooh, boys are awful!” Mary Emma sputtered and, grabbing up her lunch pail, set off to find more congenial companionship among the girls.

    “Aw, doggone, you went and hurt her feelin’s,” Hoss commiserated.  He hated to see anyone hurt.

    “She’ll get over it,” Robert said with a nonchalant shrug.  “I heard your pa say you was only ten, Hoss, but I can’t hardly believe it.  That’s the same age as Joe here, but you’re sure bigger.”

    “Aw, shut up, Robby,” Joe ordered, seeing Hoss’s countenance darken.  “Ain’t good manners to talk ‘bout how folks look.  Remember how you feel when someone calls you ‘Red’?”

    “Sorry, didn’t mean nothin’,” Robby said quickly.

    “I know I’m big,” Hoss said, his innate defensiveness on the subject quieted by the quick apology, “but I figure it to be a good thing.  I get paid a man’s wage on the ranch ‘cause I do the work of a man.”

    “Wow, that’s great!” Joe cried.  “What kind of work you do?”

    Before answering, Hoss dug into the dinner pail for another sandwich.  He lifted the top slice of bread, and his face scrunched in distaste.  “Doggone!” he grunted.  “Cheese!  Hop Sing oughta know by now that I don’t like cheese.  Anybody want this thing?”

    Robby all but grabbed the sandwich out of Hoss’s hand.  “I’ll take it.”

    Joe glowered at his one-year-younger brother.  “O’Neills don’t take charity.  Ma’ll have your hide if she finds out.”

    “Hey, it ain’t charity,” Hoss objected, “just friends sharin’ what they got.”

    Joe cocked his head in consideration.  “Okay, so how’d you like one of my ma’s ginger cookies in trade?  She makes gooduns.”

    A gap-toothed grin split Hoss’s face.  School was turning out just fine without those name-calling Mormons around.

    That impression lasted until the afternoon arithmetic recitation.  Arithmetic had always been difficult for Hoss, and he just couldn’t make the figures work out right when he took his turn at the blackboard.  He heard some snickering from the back of the room, where the older boys sat, and although it was quickly stopped by Miss Appleton, Hoss felt his cheeks grow hot and he wanted to melt through the cracks in the floor.

    The day went downhill from that point.  Hoss knew he’d made the same kind of mistakes that had the kids in the old Mormon school laughing at him, and the titters from the back of the Franktown classroom confirmed that it wouldn’t be different here.  Kids were the same, it seemed, no matter whether they were Mormon or gentile, and Hoss felt crushed with the disappointment of that discovery.  His despondency grew with each lesson he attempted that afternoon.  With the remembered taunts of his earlier schooling echoing in his ears, he couldn’t concentrate on the lessons of the present, and with each failure he knew he’d given his new schoolmates more reason to laugh.

    Miss Appleton kept the boy in from the afternoon recess, not as punishment, but to give him extra help, which he obviously needed.  “It ain’t no use, Miss Appleton, ma’am,” Hoss sighed.  “I’m just dumb.”

    The teacher pressed his plump cheeks between her slender fingers and forced him to look directly into her eyes.  “No, Eric, you are not, and I do not wish to hear that again.  You are quite capable of learning; you’re simply not concentrating.”

    “Figures has always been hard for me, ma’am,” Hoss moaned.

    “Then that’s an area we need to work on,” the teacher said with a smile, silently adding, Grammar, too.  “Let’s look again at those problems you missed, shall we?”

    Hoss nodded glumly, foreseeing little hope of understanding where he’d gone wrong.  Half an hour of Miss Appleton’s patient tutoring, however, brought a smile back to his face.  He might be a little slower than the other scholars, but Miss Appleton was right.  With someone like her taking the time to help him over the rough spots, he could learn, just like any of them.

    The remainder of the day went better, although the lost recess left Hoss tired and made concentration even more difficult.  A few more mistakes started the titters again, but once again Miss Appleton silenced them, this time with even firmer rebuke.  The day had been a long one, however, and no one welcomed the announcement of dismissal more than Hoss Cartwright.  He was tired and getting hungry again, too, especially since he’d given away part of his lunch.  The ginger cookie had been tasty, but it hadn’t filled his belly the way another sandwich would have.  Hoss was eager to get home and wheedle a snack out of Hop Sing.

    He waved good-bye to George Winters and the O’Neill kids and then saddled his horse in the shed.  As he was leading the animal out, he found his path blocked by the boy who had done most of the snickering at the back of the classroom, the one George had called Cal.

    “Well, if it ain’t Horse!” the older boy snorted.

    Hoss looked down at the boy whose head didn’t reach the younger one’s shoulder.  “Not Horse,” he snarled.  “My name’s Hoss.”

    “Either way, it suits,” Calvin Hulbert sneered, “‘cause you got all the smarts of somethin’ to ride.”

    Hoss was tired and hungry, and he had taken all he intended to.  He’d learned back at the Mormon school how to shut smart mouths like this kid’s.  This time he didn’t even need to form a fist.  Planting his broad palm on the smaller boy’s chest, he gave a rough shove that sent Hulbert sprawling in the dust; then without a backward glance, he turned to mount Charcoal.

    As Hoss started toward home, Calvin Hulbert scrambled to his feet and hollered, “This don’t end it, Horse, and you’re still dumb as a critter!”

* * * * *
    Hoss barely had time to dismount before the door to the Ponderosa ranch house blared open and a pint-sized explosion, strong as any produced by black powder in the mines of Virginia City and twice as noisy, blasted into the yard.  “Hoss!” Little Joe shrieked as he barreled into his long-lost brother’s thigh.

    Hoss chortled with delight at the hearty welcome, and conveniently forgetting that this was the child he’d described to his friends as a bothersome skeeter, he scooped the boy up and hugged him tight.  “Miss me, punkin?”

    Little Joe’s head bobbed up and down wildly.  “Don’t go ‘gain,” he ordered adamantly.

    Hoss favored the youngster with a sour smile as he set him down and tousled his curls.  “Sure like to oblige you there, punkin, but I don’t fancy a trip ‘cross Pa’s lap.”

    “Nes’ry talk?” Joe asked plaintively.

    “Yeah, and you know what they’re like, don’t ya?” Hoss said, gathering the reins of his horse to lead her into the barn.

    “Yeah,” Joe moaned in sympathy.  “Talk bad, school bad.  You gone, ev’thing bad.”

    “You got that right,” Hoss grunted.  “Wanna help me put up Charcoal?

    “Uh-huh,” Little Joe agreed, face clearing at once.  “Me ride?”

    “Okay,” Hoss chuckled, swinging his little brother into the saddle for the brief trip to the barn.

    As soon as the gray mare was cared for, Hoss headed for the house with Little Joe riding piggyback.  His dog Klamath came racing around the corner to welcome him home, standing on his hind legs, pressing his front paws against Hoss’s thighs.  When Hoss leaned over to scratch behind his pet’s ears, Little Joe stretched across his big brother’s shoulder to copy the action and immediately toppled forward, headfirst.  Hoss grabbed him just before he landed on the dog and shook his head in wonder as he swung Little Joe to safe ground.  Doggone, but that kid could tumble into trouble quicker than anyone he’d ever seen!  “Come on, let’s see if Hop Sing’s got any cookies, huh?” he suggested, taking the small hand in his ample one and leading the way.

    Marie, blissfully unaware of her baby’s latest close call, met both boys with a hug and a kiss.  She had foreseen Hoss’s hunger, and two glasses of milk sat waiting on the dining table with a platter of sugar cookies between them.  “Aw, my favorites,” Hoss murmured.  “Thanks, Ma.”

    “Hop Sing baked them, of course,” Marie said as she helped Little Joe into his chair, “but I did suggest which kind he make.”  She sat at the head of the table in Ben’s normal position and rested her chin on laced fingers.  “Did you have a good day at school, mon chéri?

    Hoss scowled.  “Can’t I just take my lessons here with you, like before, Ma?”

    Instantly, Marie’s hand rested comfortingly on his.  “Was it so very bad, Hoss?”

    Seeing her concern, Hoss hesitated to tell the full truth, and with a moment to think, he realized the end of the day didn’t accurately reflect how everything had gone, anyway.  “Well, it wadn’t all bad,” he admitted. “Miss Appleton’s real nice, but I liked it better when I was here with you and Little Joe all day, Ma.”

    “Me, too,” Little Joe mumbled, cookie crumbs spewing from his lips.

    “Do not talk with your mouth full, Joseph,” his mother admonished, wiping his lips with a napkin.  She smiled at her other son.  “I am much flattered that you enjoyed our lessons together, Hoss,” she said, “but it is better that you go to school with other children.  They will push you to do your best, and you need the companionship of children your own age.  Did you not make any friends today, my son?”

    Harking back to the more pleasant memories of the noon meal, Hoss finally smiled.  “Yeah, I ate lunch with George Winters and the O’Neill kids, and we all got on real good.  The O’Neill boys are right around my age, and George is twelve, but he didn’t talk down to me.”  Not like some I could mention, he thought as Cal Hulbert’s revolting face flashed across his mind.

     “Ah, you see, you have made some friends in just one day,” Marie said happily, “and I am sure that in time the other children will also discover what a fine friend you are.”

    Hoss wiped away a mustache of milk.  “Sure hope so, Ma.”  He felt certain that there were some kids he’d never call friends, though he spared his mother that opinion.  Finishing his cookies, he carried the empty dishes into the kitchen and had a few words with Hop Sing on the subject of cheese in dinner pails.

* * * * *

    Each day two of the older boys were selected to bring drinking water to Franktown School from the Frey ranch, the closest source.  On Wednesday of the first week of school, George Winters raised his hand to ask if he could go for the water that day.  “And can Hoss go with me?” he added quickly when the teacher agreed.

    Miss Appleton pursed her lips.  Certainly, there was no denying that Eric Cartwright had the muscle for the job, despite being younger than those she normally sent; however, he was also a boy who could ill afford to miss a moment of class time.  Still, seeing the eagerness that sprang into his young face, the teacher hadn’t the heart to refuse permission.  “Very well,” she decided, “as soon as Eric has read a paragraph for me from his reader, you may both be excused.”

    Hoss grinned back at George, pleased both to be chosen and to have the opportunity of escaping the classroom, even to haul water.  After stumbling through his paragraph, Hoss slid his reader onto the shelf beneath his desktop and joined George in the hall, where they scrambled into coats and hats.  Each boy took a bucket and exited through the boy’s door to the schoolhouse.  “Thanks for pickin’ me, George,” Hoss said as soon as they were outside.

    “Aw, why wouldn’t I?” George responded with a shrug.  “I can trust you to carry your weight in a chore like this.”

    “Shucks, I’ll carry both pails if you like,” Hoss offered.  “I’m strong enough.”

    “Naw, I can carry my own weight, too, you know,” George chuckled.  “Don’t want Miss Appleton thinkin’ it’s a one-man job, do we?”

    Hoss grinned broadly.  “Nope, sure don’t!  That’d make it just plain work.  Any job’s easier when you got good company.”  Laughing, the two boys walked to the Frey ranch, filled their pails and headed back to school.

    As the water carriers drew near the schoolhouse, Calvin Hulbert caught sight of them out the window and smirked.  He’d figured a way to show that big dumb Horse how it felt to be spilled into the dirt, and now was the perfect time to set his plan in action.  He raised his hand and was recognized by the teacher.

    “May I be excused to visit the outhouse, Miss Appleton?” Calvin requested politely in his best English.

    “Why, it will soon be time for recess,” the teacher observed.  “Can’t you wait ‘til then?”

    “Oh, no, ma’am,” Calvin replied with a look of strain.  “I got to go bad!  My ma fed me prunes for breakfast.”

    Miss Appleton sighed.  “Very well, then.  Don’t dawdle.”

    “Oh, no, ma’am, straight there and back,” Calvin promised.  He hustled from his desk and into his outerwear, then rushed outside and pressed himself flat against the front of the building.  Peering around the corner, he saw the pair of boys lugging water and noted with conniving glee that Hoss was the one closer to him.  Just as Hoss and George started around the corner, Calvin thrust out a leg and caught Hoss’s ankle.

    As Hoss crashed forward, the full water pail went flying and emptied its contents on his backside and the bare earth beside him.  Britches dripping, Hoss clawed his way up and backed his tormentor against the wall of the building.  “You dirty, rotten skunk,” he hollered as he balled his fist.

    “Miss Appleton!  Miss Appleton, help!” Calvin screamed at the top of his lungs.

    Hoss’s fist immediately fell to his side as the teacher rushed through the girls’ door.

    “Oh, my goodness,” Miss Appleton cried when she caught sight of the boys.  “What is going on here?”

    “I—I’m sorry, teacher,” Calvin whimpered, affecting an intimidated expression.  “I was just hurryin’ to get to the outhouse, and I accidentally bumped into this big galoot, and now he wants to pound me.  Don’t let him, teacher.”

    “No one is going to pound anyone,” the teacher declared emphatically.  “You get on to the outhouse, Calvin.  George, carry your pail of water into the classroom, and, Eric, you come with me.”  Wrapping an arm around Hoss’s shoulder, she herded him toward the small shed where the horses were kept during school hours.

    Since the outhouses were attached to each side of the stable, Calvin’s path lay in the same direction.  Seeing that the teacher’s attention was fixed on Hoss, he boldly thrust his tongue at his drenched opponent and then disappeared into the boy’s outhouse, where he finally exploded in pent-up laughter.

    Hoss felt more like crying.  His soaked britches clung to his legs, and he was shaking from cold, as well as outrage with Calvin Hulbert.  However, he had no intention of letting anyone see tears streak his face, least of all the teacher he admired.  He’d be a man in front of her if both legs froze off.

    Miss Appleton, of course, saw only a shivering child and set about remedying that problem as quickly as possible.  Spotting a wool blanket draped over one of the horses, she snatched it off and tossed it to Hoss.  “Get in one of the stalls and take your britches off, Eric.  You can wrap up in that blanket until they’re dry.”

    Hoss flushed bright red.  “Aw, I can just stand by the fire, ma’am,” he suggested urgently.  “No need to strip off.”

    “Strip off those wet pants this instant!” the teacher ordered.  “I’ll not have a student of mine catching pneumonia over some silly accident.”

    “Ma’am, please,” Hoss begged.  No one had to tell him what would happen the minute he entered the classroom wrapped in a blanket with his bare legs poking out.

    The teacher folded her arms and frowned eloquently.  “Eric Cartwright, you will do as you are told or I will be paying a visit to your parents this very evening.  I saw that fist you were aiming at Calvin’s nose.  Understanding the provocation, I intended to overlook that, but if you continue to disobey my instructions, I will apprise your parents of both infractions.  Do I make myself clear?”

    “Yes’m,” Hoss mumbled, disappearing quickly into the designated horse stall.  He emerged, clad from the waist down in the rust-colored blanket, which reeked of horse musk, and with shuffling steps and eyes hugging the dirt, he followed the teacher back to the schoolhouse.  A wave of titters met his entrance, as it had taken no fortune teller to predict, but Miss Appleton sternly told the other students to keep their eyes on their books.  She pulled a chair next to the wood-burning stove and planted Hoss in it.

    Hoss held his cold feet to the warmth and glanced over his shoulder.  Calvin Hulbert was back in his seat, and since the teacher was busy writing the next assignment on the board, he again favored Hoss with the derision of an extended tongue.

    Hoss scowled back, but turned around before anyone else, particularly Miss Appleton, could notice the exchange of hostility between the two boys.  You’ll get yours, Calvin Hulbert, he told himself.  You ain’t gettin’ away with this.

    Not until Friday afternoon did the proper opportunity present itself for paying back Calvin Hulbert.  The other boy continued his verbal baiting, not missing a chance to mock Hoss’s slightest mistake or clumsy move.  During his tenure in the Mormon school, Hoss had learned that a swift punch in the snoot was the quickest way to silence a loud-mouth like Hulbert, and after a particularly trying afternoon, he concluded that it was time to learn that smart-acre a little respect.  Hauling Hulbert around the back of the stable, Hoss administered two solid punches, figuring that was enough to get his message across.  He hadn’t really tried to hurt the other boy; nonetheless, Calvin Hulbert ran off, wiping a bloody nose.

* * * * *
    Leaving the chapel after making confession, Marie giggled as she saw her husband chasing down the dirt street after their youngest son.  Catching the boy by the waist, Ben tossed him up into his arms and marched back toward his wife, who at once took the child and cuddled him close.  “You should keep better watch,” she chided with a lilting laugh that took all bite from the reprimand.

    “Hoss was supposed to be watching him,” Ben grunted, fixing a reproachful glare on his middle son.

    “I’m always watchin’ him,” Hoss muttered irritably.

    Ben’s granite gaze narrowed to one of concern.  Hoss, the most sweet-tempered of his boys, had been disgruntled all week, an attitude Ben had attributed to dislike for school, but the attitude hadn’t improved, even on Saturday.  Ben had to admit, in all fairness, that the boy probably had needed a day to spend on his own pleasure, without books or extra chores to darken his mood, but that hadn’t been possible.  With a trail drive starting tomorrow, Hoss’s help had been badly needed to get the herd ready to travel, and the boy had spent Saturday working without complaint at his father’s side.  Ben’s adamant refusal to allow him to miss school to go along on the cattle drive hadn’t improved Hoss’s outlook, however.

    Ben laid a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Yes, I rely on you a great deal, Hoss, and you’re always good to watch over your brother.  Forgive me if I took advantage of that.  I know you’ve had a tiring week.”

    Hoss shrugged and watched his boots scuff the dust.  Pa didn’t know the half of it, of course.  The week had been both tiring and trying, in ways Pa knew nothing about, and although Hoss had finally taken action against his tormentor, he wasn’t feeling the satisfaction he’d expected.  He didn’t see any other way to handle Calvin Hulbert and his kind, but knowing that neither Pa nor Ma would approve of his fighting at school, he couldn’t go to them for help.  Keeping secrets from his parents, Hoss was discovering, carried a torment all its own.

    “We need to go in now,” Marie suggested quietly.

    “Yes, I know,” Ben said.  “About an hour?”

    As Marie nodded, Hoss looked from one parent’s face to the other.  “Ain’t you comin’ in, Pa?” he asked, forehead wrinkling.

    “No, son.  I’ll pick you up here when the service is over,” Ben said.

    Hoss planted his feet a shoulder’s breadth apart and balled his fists on his hips.  “I ain’t goin’, either,” he declared.

    “Hoss,” Ben remonstrated, giving him a pat, “be a good boy and go along with your mother.”

    Hoss pushed out his lower lip.  “No!  I don’t like it no better’n you do, and if you don’t gotta go, then I ain’t gotta go!”

    Eyes grieved, Marie shook her head from side to side.  “You see, Ben?  This is what comes of disunity in spiritual matters.”

    Glowering, Ben pointed his index finger at her chin.  “Don’t start, Marie.  I have made my decision, and I will not be swayed by the rebellion of a ten-year-old or the sanctimonious pronouncements of my wife.”

    “Ben, you are making a scene,” Marie hissed.  “A public street is not the place for this discussion.”

    Ben lowered his hand.  “That much, at least, we agree on.  We’ll continue this discussion at home.”

    “Mais oui,” Marie replied curtly and held out her hand toward the boy whose stance and expression hadn’t changed.  “Come, Hoss.”

    “No,” Hoss insisted, thrusting out his lip.  He’d spent an entire week in a place he didn’t want to be and had decided that was enough misery for one seven-day stretch.

    Ben squatted down before his son and took the balled fists in his hands.  “Son, please do as your mother asks, and I promise we’ll get this worked out.”

    Hoss shook his head forcefully.  “Not unless you go, too, Pa.”

    Ben stared in shock at his normally tractable middle son.  Rebellion from Hoss was almost unheard of, and Ben found himself unprepared to deal with it.

    “Ben?” Marie, green eyes glinting, demanded when Ben remained silent.

    Hearing the strident tone in her voice, Ben hardened himself.  “No, Marie.”  He stood and draped his arm across Hoss’s shoulder.  “You go ahead and worship; I’ll keep the boy with me today.”

    Fire flared in Marie’s eyes.  “Is this what you mean by exposing the boys to both faiths and letting them make their own decision, Ben?” she asked crisply.

    “Now who’s making a scene?” Ben snapped.

    With a flounce, Marie wheeled around and headed toward the entrance to the chapel.  A shriek of protest pierced her ear as the child in her arms reached across her shoulder toward those remaining behind.  “Bubba!” Little Joe screamed.

    “Shh, be quiet, mon petit,” Marie soothed, but the child continued to cry.  Suddenly, she wheeled around and thrust the toddler at her husband.  “Here!  Since you are so anxious to have the company of our sons this morning, you may as well have both of them!  I can scarcely be expected to worship with him screeching in my ear.”

    “Marie!” Ben protested as his wife stalked away in a huff.

    “Mama!” Little Joe wailed, slender arms now stretched toward her departing figure.

    “Oh, be quiet,” Ben growled as he struggled to keep the squirming boy from falling.  “You don’t know what you want.”  He looked ruefully at Hoss.  “We’re both in for it when we get home, you know that, don’t you, boy?”

    Hoss pinched his lower lip between his right thumb and index finger.  “I’m sorry, Pa,” he mumbled.  “I didn’t mean to make trouble ‘tween you and Ma.”

    Ben caressed the boy’s bulky neck.  “That’s not your fault, Hoss.  Just something your mother and I have to work out.”  And we’re doing a sorry job of it, he added to himself.  He had a more immediate concern, however.  Something was obviously troubling his second son, and he had to find a way to get the boy to open up, a task now complicated by the presence of his youngest.  First things first, Ben concluded, and began rubbing Little Joe’s back.  “Shh, you’re all right,” he soothed.

    “Pa mad, Mama mad, Hoss mad,” Little Joe wailed.

    “Nobody’s mad at you, precious,” Ben crooned.  “Hush now; everything’s all right—or will be.”

    “You sure, Pa?” Hoss asked, hiccupping with nervousness.

    Ben gave him an encouraging smile.  “I’m sure, son.  Let’s find a place where we can sit and talk.”  One hand holding Little Joe, who had stopped struggling, and the other on the back of his middle son’s neck, Ben guided Hoss down the street.  Turning into Dutch Nick’s saloon, Ben pointed to a table, handed Little Joe to his brother and stepped to the bar to order a beer and a sarsaparilla.

    Back at the table, Ben immediately pushed away the tiny hand reaching for his beer.  “Oh, no, you don’t.  You take one sip of that, and I will never hear the last of it from your mother.  Hoss, let him have a bit of yours, please.”

    “Sure, Pa,” Hoss said agreeably, holding the glass while his brother drank.

    “Excuse me, sir,” a voice crackled at Ben’s left.  Ben glanced up to see a grizzled miner, standing beside him, hat in hand.  “Excuse me, sir,” the miner said again, “but could I touch the child?”

    Ben felt tempted to joke that the man could have “the child” for the price of a beer, but decided against it.  Although there was little likelihood that the remark would reach Marie’s ears, the consequences if it did were too ghastly to contemplate.  Instead, he simply smiled and nodded.

    The man reached out a scrawny hand and ruffled Little Joe’s curly hair, face cracking into a wide grin when the baby favored him with a sunny smile.  “Thank’e, sir,” he said, putting his hat back on his head and taking his leave.

    “What’d he do that for, Pa?” Hoss asked.

    Ben chuckled.  “Some of these miners haven’t seen a woman—much less a child—in so many months that they yearn for one look, one touch.” I’m blessed, Ben thought suddenly.  I see every day what most men in these parts would give their eyeteeth for.  Best I remember that and give some attention to preserving it.

    “Well, shucks, he coulda messed my hair, too, if I’d known,” Hoss said with a shrug of his shoulder.     “Thanks for the sarsaparilla, Pa,” he added after slaking his thirst.  “Sure tastes good.”

    Ben nodded.  “You’re welcome, son.”  He began stroking the boy’s arm.  “Want to tell me about it, Hoss?”

    “About what?” Hoss asked, looking away.

    Ben pulled the boy’s chin back toward him.  “About what’s bothering you, son, and don’t tell me nothing is.  Lying never solved anything.”

    “I don’t like her kind of church, Pa,” Hoss whined.  “I don’t understand none of it.”

    Ben nodded.  “I realize the language is a problem, but you’d come to understand it in time, Hoss.”

    “I don’t think so, Pa,” Hoss said with a discouraged shake of his head.  One of his worst subjects in school was grammar, and the thought of learning still another language, when he couldn’t even speak his native tongue properly, overwhelmed the boy.  He took another sip of sarsaparilla and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  “I liked that revival meetin’ we went to,” he observed as he again held the mug so his brother could take a drink.  “I could join in the singin’, and what the preacher said made sense to me.  Ain’t there never gonna be no more meetin’s like that?”

    “Yes, the way the territory’s growing, I’m sure there will soon be other churches to choose from, Hoss,” Ben said, “but I think you’re still too young to decide which is best for you.  That’s why your mother and I agreed that you boys would attend both Catholic and Protestant services until you were of an age to make up your own minds.”

    “Aw, Pa,” Hoss groaned.

    “Hoss, I won’t force you,” Ben promised.  “I’d feel like a hypocrite if I insisted on your doing something I’m unwilling to do myself, but I am asking you to give your mother’s faith a fair trial.”  He leaned forward, touching his head against Hoss’s in a conspiratorial pose.  “I’ll make you a bargain, son.  You see, the Thomases have been hinting that they’d like to start sharing Sunday dinners with us again, something we’ve neglected since this whole religious issue came up.  I’m going to suggest we do that every other week and come to town for church the other two Sundays.  Now, if you’ll go to chapel with your mother on just one of those Sundays, I’ll let you stay with me for the other one, until there’s a church with my style of worship, and then we’ll go together.  Think you could handle that, son?”

    “Just once a month?” Hoss asked and at Ben’s nod, concluded, “I guess I could, Pa, if you think Ma’ll buy the idea.”  The youngster considered sitting in a saloon with Pa, sipping sarsaparilla, better than any service in any church, but had sense enough to keep that thought to himself.

    Ben gave the boy’s sturdy back a solid slap.  “I’ll sell it to her, son, and I do thank you for your cooperation.”  He lifted his mug of beer and, leaning back, sipped it leisurely, hoping his confidence was justified.  Then he caught a glimpse of his youngest, head lying drowsily on his brother’s broad shoulder, and sighed.  Now, just how was he going to explain to his already overwrought wife that he had taken her baby into a saloon, let him drink sarsaparilla and allowed a dirty miner to run his fingers through those precious curls?  The man wise enough to solve that dilemma should probably be put in charge of settling the differences between the states back east, he decided.  No, he concluded, his mouth twisting awry, that man has the easier task, and I’d gladly trade with him!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Historical Notes

    The description of Franktown School comes from Pioneers of the Ponderosa: How Washoe Valley Rescued the Comstock by Myra Sauer Ratay, the granddaughter of one of Washoe Valley’s original pioneers.  Hoss’s teacher, Lucinda Appleton, is fictional.  His friends, George Winters and Joseph, Robert and Mary Emma O’Neill were actual residents of Washoe Valley.  Their physical descriptions are the invention of the author, although George’s is based on that of his father.  Calvin Hulbert is entirely fictional.

Keeping Secrets

    Ben toweled himself off, relishing the stimulation of the vigorous rubbing that turned his skin a glowing red.  Nothing like a hot bath after a long, dusty trail drive, he mused as he slipped into his robe and headed down the hall to his hotel room.  This year’s roundup had seemed longer and tougher than usual, partly because of the pressure of time.  Always before the fall trail drive had been timed to coincide with Adam’s return to school, but everything was running late this year.  Ben felt like he’d been playing catch-up ever since spring when weather and warfare had conspired to put the Ponderosa behind schedule.

    Unlocking the door, Ben entered his room and all but fell onto the bed.  The hour was late, and he was exhausted—and, to tell the truth, disappointed.  He’d hoped to reach Sacramento in time to take Adam to supper, but he hadn’t met that self-imposed deadline.  He’d counted on the new Kingsbury Grade, which shortened the road to Sacramento by fifteen miles, to bring him in before nightfall, but that was before a few recalcitrant cows decided to explore a trailside canyon for greener grass.  Getting them back had taken the better part of the afternoon, pushing his arrival long past Adam’s accustomed dinner hour.  Oh, well, tomorrow would have to do.  Might even be better, since they’d have time to take in a performance at the theater, in addition to a meal together.

    Still wound too tight to sleep, Ben plumped up the pillow and leaned back against it as he contemplated seeing his oldest son the next day.  Mercy, how he missed the boy!  His thoughts naturally drifted to the two boys he’d left at home, whose company he also missed.  Smiling, Ben shook his head as he remembered how Hoss had pleaded to come on this cattle drive.  Short-handed as usual, he could have used the boy’s help, but both Ben and Marie had agreed that Hoss’s first responsibility was to school, despite his obvious distaste for learning.  Hoss was only a boy of ten, after all, too young to decide that he’d had all the learning he needed to make a top hand, as he’d tried to convince his father.  Ben chuckled as he recalled the even younger trail hand who’d offered his services on this year’s drive.  That Little Joe, always reaching for the next rung of the ladder. No, Ben laughed, not the next one—the rung two or three levels above his head, whichever his big brother happened to be occupying at the time.

    Yawning widely, Ben turned back the covers and after pulling a fresh nightshirt over his head, crawled beneath them.  He’d have to search out some treats for those two younger boys of his, something to sweeten their disappointment in being left behind.  Plenty of time for that tomorrow, since he’d have hours to kill before Adam was free from school.  He wanted something special for Marie, too, but he didn’t expect to find that in Sacramento.  No, there was only one place for what he wanted to give his lady, and that would be the next stop on his journey.

* * * * *

    Lanky Jonathan Payne draped an arm around the shoulders of his slightly shorter friend, Ben Cartwright, as they walked toward the corral of Payne’s Rancho Hermoso near Monterey.  “So you’ve finally decided to present that wild wife of yours with a more spirited mount, have you?  I had a fine working horse picked out for Adam, since that’s what your letter indicated you planned to buy, but after seeing Marie take that fence when she was here before, I imagine you’ll want a animal whose mettle matches her own.”

    “Sorry, last-minute change of plans,” Ben apologized.  “Actually, it was Adam’s idea.  Shortly before he left for school, I told him I’d buy him a new horse, to replace the one he lost during the fighting, even offered to let him pick it out himself when he visits here over the holidays.”

    Jonathan’s laugh reflected incredulity.  “And he turned you down?”

    “Not exactly,” Ben laughed back.  “More like negotiated a trade.  The boy’s been riding Marie’s black this summer, and I guess he developed more of a fondness for the horse than I realized.  Anyway, he said he’d be content with the gelding and suggested getting a new horse for his stepmother, instead.”

    “Turning into a right thoughtful boy, that one,” Jonathan commented as they reached the corral.  “You wait here, and I’ll bring out a horse I think will be challenging enough, even for Marie.”

    Ben nodded.  Folding his arms over the top rail of the sawed-lumber corral, he leaned his head back to let the warm sunshine, so much milder here than at home, play on his face and the gentle breeze ruffle his dark hair, as Jonathan’s parting remark wisped through his mind.  Thoughtful, he mused, yes, that’s a good word for Adam, in more ways than Jon intended.  Always thinking, that boy, often deeper thoughts than his father had any hope of fathoming.

    There was something more behind Adam’s surrender of a new horse than kindness to his stepmother, something Ben couldn’t quite put his finger on.  Though the boy had sounded cheery enough when he made the offer, Ben had sensed that the words weren’t completely heartfelt.  That’s why he’d felt a need to confirm the decision with Adam during their time together in Sacramento.  Adam had hesitated just long enough to let Ben know his son was holding something back, but had still insisted that the black gelding would do just fine for him and then withdrawn behind that impenetrable mask he could don without warning.

    The barn door opened and Jonathan led a tall strawberry roan into the paddock on a long lead rope.  Ben’s eyes followed the gelding as he trotted around the corral, head tossing, steps prancing.  “What do you think?” Jonathan called.

    Envisioning his wife in the saddle, both her emerald eyes and the luminous ones of the horse shining with the joy of unfettered freedom, Ben called out, “Perfect!  I’ll take him.”

* * * * *

    With uncharacteristic petulance Adam flopped, belly first, onto the bed in his room after seeing his father off that morning, the worst part of his mood coming from the knowledge that his disgruntlement was all of his own making. My own cowardice, I ought to say, he chided himself, wondering how he’d ever work up the courage to tell Pa what he obviously didn’t want to hear.

    Those last few weeks at home, after Pa had first commented about his coming back to the Ponderosa to stay at the end of this year’s school term, Adam had tried to think of a way to tell his father of his educational aspirations.  Somehow, the right opportunity had just never seemed to arise—or, to be honest, it had, and Adam had let it slip past.  The perfect opportunity had presented itself when his father offered him the choice of any horse at Rancho Hermoso.  Instead of speaking out, however, he’d bitten back his excitement because it just didn’t make sense to buy a new mount if he were only going to be on the Ponderosa two or three months before heading back east to school. Why couldn’t I just tell Pa the real reason? Adam groaned internally. Why did I have to pretend it was because I liked Marie’s horse so much?  That wasn’t what I meant when I said the black would do for me, but that’s how Pa took it, and I didn’t have the heart—or the grit, I guess—to tell him different.

    Adam sighed and flipped onto his back, folding his arms behind his neck and staring contemplatively at the ceiling.  He’d had another chance to speak up the night he and Pa had shared a meal before attending a performance of Macbeth.  Pa’d carried on so, though, about how much he missed his son, how he could have used his help on the trail and how much he was looking forward to having him home for good that once again Adam simply couldn’t speak what was in his heart.  Still holding out hope that he’d find the right words and that Pa would agree to his attending college, Adam had again declared that he preferred the new horse be given to Marie and the black gelding be assigned to his personal use.

    A simply matter of logic, he’d told himself, but when Pa stopped by on his way home to show off the beautiful strawberry roan, Adam had barely been able to conceal his envy.  Probably not the mount he’d have chosen for himself, but if he really did end up staying on the Ponderosa, he knew he’d regret losing the chance to pick one equally fine.

    With a sigh, he sat up, stretching long arms over his head before moving to his desk.  He sat down and took out a sheet of plain white stationery and scrawled, “Dear Pa” at the top.  That was as far as he got, however, for writing words he couldn’t speak to his father’s face struck him as further evidence of cowardice, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  Slipping the paper back into the desk drawer to use later on some innocuous missive, Adam pulled his Latin text from its place in the neat row of books on his desk and opened it.  No point in dreaming about college unless he was fully prepared to pass the entrance exam, so he bowed his head to the task at hand, knowing as he did that he was only avoiding an unpleasant duty by fulfilling an easier one.

* * * * *

    Along with George Winters and Joe and Robby O’Neill, Hoss sat in the shade of the cottonwood, which the four friends appropriated each noontime.  They had fallen into the habit of spreading the contents of their dinner pails on the grassy circle between them and each one helping himself to whatever appealed to his appetite.  “We got boiled eggs, two apiece; that means we could each take one,” Joe O’Neill offered.

    “Yeah, four folks into four eggs goes one time.  That’s the kind of arithmetic I favor,” George snickered as he reached for an egg.

    Hoss threw back his head and laughed loudly.  “Yeah, me, too.  Figures you can eat is the best kind.”  He, too, picked up an egg and began to peel it.

    As soon as the rest of the food was divvied up, the boys started gobbling it down amidst a discussion of the best fishing spots in the area.

    Robby’s head jerked up suddenly.  “That sounds like Mary Emma,” he cried.  He jumped to his feet and took off running toward the place his little sister normally shared lunch with her female friends.

    Joe stretched an ear toward the sound of a little girl crying.  “Yeah, that’s Mary Emma, all right,” he declared as he tossed the remainder of his beef sandwich to the grass, scrambled to his feet and took off.

    “Sounds like somethin’s wrong,” Hoss said to his sole remaining friend.  “Let’s see what’s up.”

    “I’m with you,” George agreed readily.  Unlike the others, George was an only child, though it hadn’t always been so.  He’d had a little sister once, but two-year-old Helen had died in the steamboat accident that almost took his own life seven years earlier.  Mary Emma’s cries now reminded him of the way Helen had screamed before the water closed over her head, and he responded the way he wished he’d been able to then.  Trotting up on Hoss’s heels, George stared at the sight of two boys tossing a rag doll back and forth over the head of the shrieking child.

    Seeing her older brother, Mary Emma ran over, with tears streaming down her cheeks.  “Make ‘em stop, Joey,” she pleaded, pointing at the two bullies.  “They’re killing Martha May!”

    Joe O’Neill squeezed his little sister’s shoulder.  “I’ll get her, sis,” he promised.  Fists doubled, he stalked forward.  “Cal Hulbert, you turn loose of that doll,” he commanded authoritatively.

    Calvin Hulbert tossed the doll to his tow-headed cohort.  “Make me,” he snorted.

    Joe marched toward the other boy, but before he could reach him, the doll sailed over his head back to Calvin.

    George, face dark with rage, had taken all he could.  With Mary Emma’s heart-rending cries in his ears, he lowered his head and charged ahead, ramming Calvin Hulbert in the stomach.  Raggedy Martha May went flying, landing in the dirt near Hoss’s feet as a free-for-all broke out.  Hoss picked up the doll and handed it to the little girl, who hugged it to her heart.  “Scuse me, skeeter,” Hoss said with a grin, “but there’s a doll-napper needs poundin’.”

    Both O’Neill boys were rolling on the ground with the tow-headed tormentor, and though the other boy was bulkier than they, Joe and Robby appeared in control.  George, on the other hand, was clearly in trouble as he battled the even bigger Calvin Hulbert by himself, so Hoss plunged toward them.  Together, he and George forced Hulbert to the ground, and Hoss had just pulled back his fist to administer the promised punishment when another voice cried out, “Eric, no!  Don’t!”

    Tiny Miss Appleton waded into the fray, firm fingers closing on Hoss’s upraised arm.  Hoss was big enough to resist her, had he wished, but he’d been thoroughly schooled by his parents in respect for his elders, and, besides, he genuinely liked his teacher and wanted her to like him.  With a final glare at Cal Hulbert, Hoss backed off.

    With the teacher forming a protective barrier between them, Cal sneered at Hoss, but the expression was quickly wiped from his face, for George Winters, face still livid, continued to pummel his prone opponent.  “George, stop at once!” the teacher commanded.  When George still failed to respond, Hoss came up behind him and grabbed his arms.  “George, it’s over,” he hissed in his friend’s ear.  “You gotta stop or you’ll be in trouble.”  After a moment’s struggle in Hoss’s brawny grasp, George hung limp and panting.

    Arms akimbo, the teacher surveyed the scene.  The other three boys had stopped fighting and lay sprawled on the ground.  “You are all in trouble,” Miss Appleton announced, having heard Hoss’s quiet caution to George.  She pointed toward the school.  “Get inside this instant, the lot of you!”  She stormed toward the schoolhouse and held the door open as the six culprits trailed through, followed by one tiny, red-haired girl.  Miss Appleton stooped and gently stroked the child’s tear-streaked cheeks.  “No, Mary Emma, you needn’t come in yet,” she explained.  “You weren’t fighting, sweetie.”

    Mary Emma blinked back more tears.  “But—but I’m what they was fightin’ about—me and Martha May.”  She held the doll toward the teacher.

    Miss Appleton stood.  “I see.  If that’s the case, maybe you’d better come in, dear, and tell me all about it.”  With a smile she took the child’s hand and walked in.

    The six boys were standing at the front of the classroom when Miss Appleton walked down the aisle, leading Mary Emma by the hand.  Giving each of them a stern look, the teacher said, “You may all take your seats.  I want to talk to each of you individually, beginning with Mary Emma.”

    “She didn’t do nothin’,” Robby protested.

    “I know that, Robert,” the teacher replied patiently, appreciating a boy’s desire to defend his little sister.  “Mary Emma just has a few things she needs to share with me; then she’ll be free to go back outside.  Now take your seat, please, or I will have to add insubordination to your list of offenses.”  None of the boys had the slightest notion what “insubordination” meant, but it sounded sufficiently awesome to cow each of them into a hasty retreat to his desk.

    After a brief interview with Mary Emma, Miss Appleton felt she had an excellent understanding of the incident in the schoolyard, but, to be completely fair, she questioned each of the boys about his participation in the fracas.  She dispensed with the O’Neill brothers rather quickly, for she discerned that they were only defending their sister, an action she admired and felt justified.  Miss Appleton devoted more time to George Winters, for his reaction, more incensed than that of the child’s actual brothers, mystified her.  Blinking back tears, George stammered out what had happened to his baby sister.  “I’m sorry, Miss Appleton,” he said, “but I just couldn’t stand hearing that little girl cry.  Nobody ever oughta make a little girl cry.”

    “I understand, George,” Miss Appleton said gently, “but fighting is not the solution.  You should have come for me.”  George apologized quickly and was just as quickly excused to the schoolyard.

    Only Hoss and the two bullies remained in the classroom.  Hoss was visibly shaking as he approached the teacher’s desk, and Cal Hulbert leaned over to his friend to whisper a derisive remark.  Although Miss Appleton could not hear the words, she knew the character of the boy saying them and immediately snapped her fingers.  Cal pulled back and slumped in his seat.

    With grave eyes Miss Appleton observed Hoss Cartwright, who was licking his lips nervously and scuffing one foot back and forth.  “Please stand still, Eric,” she stated.

    “Yes’m,” Hoss replied, pulling his wayward foot up against the other.

    A smile flickered at the teacher’s lips, but she bit it back.  “You needn’t stand at attention, Eric, but I must say I am most disappointed in your behavior.  I had not pegged you as a schoolyard brawler.”

    “N—no, ma’am,” Hoss stammered.  “I—I ain’t.”

    Miss Appleton eyed him sternly.  “Then why were you brawling?  Mary Emma is not your sister, and I don’t believe you made the kind of emotional connection to the situation that George did.”

     Hoss nibbled his lower lip.  “No, ma’am.  I don’t like seein’ little kids hurt, but—”

    “Eric, do you not understand that, compared to you, Calvin Hulbert and Peter Hanson are ‘little kids,’ too?” the teacher demanded.  “And four against two!  Do you consider those fair odds in a fight?”

    Hoss hung his head.  “No, ma’am.”  His head rose.  “But—but they was my friends,” he protested in his own defense.

    “I understand loyalty to friends,” Miss Appleton said, “but it should not include joining them in wrong behavior.  What would your father and mother say about your actions today, Eric?”

    “They wouldn’t like me fightin’,” Hoss admitted reluctantly.

    Miss Appleton’s chin dipped primly.  “No, I am sure they would not.  I have always believed you to be well brought up, Eric, and that is why your behavior today is such a disappointment to me.  I hope I will never see a repetition of it.”

    “Yes’m—I—I mean—no, ma’am.”

    “Very well, you’re excused,” the teacher concluded, “although I would suggest you discuss what happened today with your parents.”

    Hoss stared, horrified at the thought of telling his parents and grateful that Pa, at least, was still in California.

    “Eric, you may go outside now,” Miss Appleton repeated.  Head bobbing, Hoss backed toward the door and escaped, giving a huge sigh of relief once he reached the porch.

    Hoss joined his friends, who had congregated beneath the cottonwood, and they all compared notes on the lectures they had received.  Lunchtime stretched longer than usual, and everyone was curious about what was taking place inside the classroom.  Finally, Mary Emma, the least likely to get in trouble if caught, tiptoed to the window and peered in.  Scampering back, she delivered her report.  “She’s chewin’ ‘em up one side and down the other,” the little girl declared with satisfaction.  “Serves ‘em right!” she added with an emphatic nod.

    “You bet it does, sis,” Robby said.  The others voiced agreement, and when Miss Appleton required the bullies to make a formal apology to Mary Emma before beginning afternoon lessons, nods of approval passed between her four champions.  Cal and Pete both saw them and vowed revenge, but it would have to wait.  While the defenders got off with a stern reprimand, the boys Miss Appleton considered the real troublemakers were detained after school and required to write “I will not disturb other children on the school grounds” five hundred times.

* * * * *

    The small brown dog trotted up to the porch and dropped a piece of kindling at the feet of his tiny playmate.  Little Joe, legs dangling off the edge of the porch, reached over and tossed the kindling as far as he could throw it, and Klamath obligingly padded off to fetch it back once more.  The clip-clop of hooves entering the yard caught the toddler’s attention, and he was up and running, straight toward his brother’s horse.

    Charcoal shied away from the flying figure, and Hoss dismounted quickly to grab his baby brother by the shoulders.  “How many times I got to tell you not to run at a horse like that?” he scolded, giving the boy a shake.

    Unperturbed, Little Joe just put his arms around Hoss’s legs.  Hoss grinned, the child’s loving nature, as usual, dissipating any irritation he might feel.  “You gotta be more careful, punkin,” he said, tousling the soft, golden brown curls.

    “Okay,” Little Joe promised cheerfully, a promise Hoss knew he would forget as readily as he made it.  “School go good?”

    Klamath, who had dropped the wood and trotted happily toward his real master at Little Joe’s heels, yapped for attention, so Hoss leaned over to scratch the dog behind the ears as he answered the question with which his little brother met him each afternoon.  “Naw, rotten, like always.”

    Little Joe shook his small head in sympathy, his conviction that school was a bad thing growing each time Hoss gave this standard answer.  To Joe’s mind, school was a thing that took brothers away and made them unhappy.  Except Adam, maybe.  He acted like he liked school.  Maybe he was just pretending, though; maybe he really felt just as unhappy as Hoss.  Little Joe liked to think so; it bothered him to think that Adam liked school better than home.  With a more vigorous shake of his head, he pushed the unwelcome thoughts from his mind.

    As Hoss stood, Little Joe lifted his arms in another after-school ritual.  With a grin Hoss plunked his little brother into the saddle and picked up the reins to lead the gray mare into the barn.  “Always remember to take care of your horse first thing when you ride in, Little Joe,” Hoss instructed.

    “I ‘member,” Joe agreed, leaning over the horse’s neck to stroke the silvery mane.  “I get horse soon, Hoss?”

    Inside the barn Hoss grasped the reluctant-to-leave-the-saddle rider under the arms and pulled him off.  “Naw, not soon, punkin pie.  You ain’t big enough.”

    Joe’s small lips puckered piteously.  “Am, too!”

    “What kind of horse you want?” Hoss asked to defuse his brother’s smoldering anger.  He’d learned that it was easier to distract Little Joe than to calm him down once he got worked up.

    The little boy smiled brightly.  “Like Charcoal.  Like you, Hoss.”

    “Yeah?”  Hoss chuckled, flattered by his baby brother’s desire to emulate him in every way.  He patted the small mare’s flank.  “She’s a good one, all right.  Maybe I’ll just pass her down to you someday.  I reckon I might be needin’ a bigger horse by the time you’re ready to saddle up one of your own.”

    Little Joe’s smile grew from bright to brilliant.  “Me help?” he offered eagerly as Hoss uncinched the saddle and lifted it from the horse’s back.

    Hoss set the saddle on its saddle stand.  “You can get me the curry brush,” he suggested, and Little Joe ran as eagerly to fetch it as Klamath had after the oft-thrown stick.  Hoss brushed his horse carefully, letting Little Joe take a few strokes, just so he could feel like he was helping.  Once the animal was cared for, the two brothers walked side by side to the house, where Marie, as she did every afternoon, greeted each with a hug and kiss.

    “Hoss need cookies, Mama,” Little Joe informed her solemnly. “School rotten, like always.”

    “Hoss, I wish you would not say such things to your little brother,” Marie scolded.

    “Well, he asked,” Hoss mumbled defensively.

    “But you are giving him a bad impression of school when you speak so negatively,” Marie argued.  “I want him to hear positive words.  Do you understand?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Hoss said, bobbing his head miserably.  “You want me to lie.”

    “No!” Marie said sharply.  “I want”—a sharp tug on her brown twill skirt distracted her.  “What is it, mon petit?” she asked gently, smoothing a wayward curl from her baby’s forehead.

    “Cookies, Mama?” Little Joe pleaded.  “Hoss home, cookies now,” he insisted.

    Marie laughed.  “Oh, how can I expect either of you to listen to a word I say when there is nothing but cookies on your minds?  Oui, mon petit, the cookies and milk are on the table, as always.  Come.”  Taking his hand, she led him to the table.

    Hoss eagerly followed and was soon happily munching lemon-flavored circles.  He didn’t give a thought to following his teacher’s suggestion of discussing the school-ground fight with his mother.  He decided, conveniently, that nothing he could say about the incident would fall under the umbrella of “positive words” and, therefore, the whole thing was best kept secret.

    Toward the end of the week, Hoss had added another item to the list of school day secrets he was hiding.  On Thursday a boy as old as Adam joined the class at Franktown School.  Despite his advanced age, Walter Grogan was behind in his schooling and was, therefore, placed in the same class as Cal Hulbert and Pete Hanson.  The older boy, who was husky to boot, seemed to take up with those two right off, and Hoss feared he might turn out to be a troublemaker, just like them.  It was a fear he kept to himself, however, for to admit it would be tantamount to confessing the earlier problems.  Since such a confession would likely result in one of Pa’s famous “very necessary little talks,” Hoss concluded that silence was the safest policy.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Historical Notes

    Pete Hanson, Calvin Hulbert’s cohort in this chapter, and the new boy Walter Grogan are both fictional characters.
    On January 3, 1853, George Winters, his mother and two-year-old sister Helen were returning from a visit to Illinois when both mother and daughter were killed in a steamboat accident.  George, too, was tossed in the water, but was rescued and went to live with his grandmother until his father settled in western Utah in 1856, sending for George shortly thereafter.

Secrets Revealed

    The Sierra was splashed with the vivid colors of the season as Ben Cartwright rode homeward.  Brilliant red and gold aspens stood highlighted against the dark green of the pines, but even their grandeur was not as beautiful to him as the plain brown logs of the Ponderosa ranch house, smoke curling invitingly from its chimney.  Ben had only to see it wafting above the trees to spur him onward, that and the anticipation of his wife’s surprise when he presented his unexpected gift.  Touching his heels to his horse’s flanks, he quickened his pace, and the strong-limbed roan on the lead rope responded as if grateful for a chance to stretch his limbs.

    As he rode into the yard, Ben smiled at the toddler galloping back and forth in front of the house on a stick horse with a frayed mane of yellow yarn.  The little horseman saw him, too, and immediately dropped the wooden pony to charge toward the real one.  Little Joe ran straight for the strawberry roan.  “Pa, Pa, horse for me!” he squealed with delight.

    “Joseph, no!” Ben shouted, almost flying from his mount.  The strawberry gelding reared, front legs pawing the air as the toddler raced directly beneath them.  Ben grabbed his son and pulled him out of danger, then held him at arms’ length.  “Never, never do that again, Little Joe!” he bellowed.  Seeing tears form in the tiny boy’s expressive eyes, Ben hugged him close.  “Baby, baby, you could have been killed,” he whispered, caressing the golden curls with his cheek.

    Panic on her face, Marie came running from the kitchen door.  “Oh, mon petit,” she cried, reaching for her baby.  Taking him from Ben, she administered a second scolding.  “When will you learn to do as you are told, naughty boy?  Has not Hoss told you day after day not to run at his horse?”

    “Not his horse,” Little Joe argued.  “Mine!  See, Mama; Pa got me horse.”

    Marie laughed away the last of her fear, lovingly stroking the toddler’s soft curls.  “I scarcely think so.  This is Adam’s new horse, non?

    “No,” Ben repeated with a mischievous smile.

    Little Joe bounced in his mother’s arms.  “Mine!  Mine!”

    “No!” both parents shouted, then looked into each other’s eyes and laughed at the synchronization of their responses.

    “It is not your horse, Joseph,” Ben said firmly.  “You are much too small.”

    “Especially for this horse,” Marie said, appraising the gelding with an appreciative eye.  “Oh, what a beauty he is, Ben!  Adam will love him.”

    Ben shook his head in playful rebuke.  “You don’t listen any better than our young son here,” he chuckled.  “I already said this was not Adam’s horse.  Adam says he’d rather have your black.”

    Marie gasped.  “But, then, this . . .”

    “Is your new mount, my lady,” Ben said, presenting her the reins with a flourish.

    “Oh, Ben!” Marie cried, nuzzling her golden head against that of the roan horse.  “I never thought to ride such a fine animal again.”

    Ben clucked his tongue.  “My, my, is that all the faith you have in your husband, woman?”

    She stepped close and stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek.  “I have never lacked faith in you, Ben, but this is a dream come true—though why that should surprise me, I cannot say.  From the day we met, you have been a dream come true.”

    The love shining in her eyes awakened a yearning inside him that suddenly seemed unquenchable.  “Isn’t it about time to put this young scalawag down for a nap?” he suggested with a significant wink.

    “Mais oui,” Marie whispered.  “I, too, feel strangely in need of a nap this afternoon.”

    Ben arched his eyebrow conspiratorially.  “I think I’ll join you.”

    “Soon,” Marie urged.  She carried Little Joe toward the house, turning a deaf ear to his loud protests of “Don’t need nap!”

    Ben led both horses into the barn, forcing himself to give them both a thorough rubdown as he calculated how much time he and his wife could have after getting their youngest son to sleep before Hoss returned from school to interrupt their privacy.

* * * * *

    Hoss pulled his shirt from Franktown Creek and gave it a good squint.  Nope, the red stain still showed.  Back into the cold water he thrust the garment, scrubbing it hard between his hands, then rinsing and checking once again.  The shirt looked clean this time, so he laid it out on the grass to dry while he skimmed pebbles across the water to pass the time.

    Though he would have preferred to forget the events of the previous week, the recollections surged up no matter how he tried to distract himself.  Going to school had been pure hell this week.  Hoss winced as the bad word ran through his mind.  Pa’d probably paddle him hard for using that kind of language, even in his thoughts.  Well, not if I keep my mouth shut, the boy concluded; then he sighed.  Keeping his mouth shut was proving harder and harder, and if things went on the way they had today, it might be downright impossible.  Thank goodness Pa wasn’t back from California yet.  It was the only thing keeping Hoss from outright panic.

    Cal Hulbert and Pete Hanson never missed a chance to pester him and had even set some of the younger kids to laughing at Hoss’s frequent mistakes in the classroom.  Every day, during the lunch break, Hoss gave those two what they had coming, but before today their scuffles had only amounted to shoving matches, over and done with before the teacher noticed.  There’d been no way to hide that afternoon’s all-out brawl, however.

    It had taken Walter Grogan a week to decide where his loyalties lay, but this afternoon he’d taken a stand with Calvin and Pete.  With one of the smaller hooligans flanking him on each side, Walter had strolled over to Hoss.  “Hey, fat boy,” he sneered.  “Must be nothing but fat between your ears, ‘cause you’re dumb as an ox.”

    Hoss’s face had reddened.  “I don’t reckon I’d be talkin’ if I was so dumb I still had to be goin’ to school at your age,” he retorted.

    Walter had answered with a blow to the face, and Hoss had responded in kind.  Cal and Pete plowed in at once, and soon the four boys were rolling in the dust, legs flailing, fists flying.  Walter was the biggest boy in school, and fighting just him would have been a challenge for Hoss, even without those other two pesky gnats stinging him with their fists.  George Winters had been out sick all week, but Joe and Robby O’Neill quickly flew to the defense of their friend.  Everyone not involved in the fight made a circle around the battling boys, yelling out encouragement to whichever side they favored.

    Miss Appleton had waded through the circle and stood with arms folded across her chest.  “Stop it at once!” she ordered, and when no one responded, she grabbed Robby O’Neill, the closest and smallest and hauled him out by the arm.  Dumping him unceremoniously behind her, Miss Appleton pointed her finger and shouted, “Stay there!”

    One by one the teacher had extracted boys from the fight until only Hoss and Walter remained grappling on the ground.  Both of them were too big for the petite lady to handle, but finally even they responded to her repeated screams to stop. While Walter glared defiantly, Hoss wiped the blood from his nose and looked up sheepishly at his teacher.  Miss Appleton’s irate gaze swept the scene.  “I’m ashamed of all of you,” she announced.  “Clean yourselves up and get inside at once.”  She stopped Hoss as he passed her and pulled a clean handkerchief from her pocket.  “Wet that in the water bucket and hold it to your nose ‘til the bleeding stops,” she instructed, not allowing her anger to make her overlook the child’s welfare.

    The six hastily scrubbed culprits filed into the classroom, although for a moment Hoss thought Walter Grogan was going to flout the teacher’s order.  At the last minute he had shrugged and followed the others inside, where the teacher delivered a scathing lecture on their behavior that had everyone but Walter cowering.  “If I see one more example of this disruptive behavior on the school grounds,” she concluded hotly, “I will call a joint conference with all your parents.  Now, who started this fracas today?”

    Hoss had reluctantly raised his hand, and Calvin and Pete were quick to point accusing fingers at Walter.

    “All right, the rest of you are excused,” the teacher announced and Calvin, Pete, Joe and Robby quickly escaped.  Miss Appleton had paced before the remaining two.  “Which of you started it?” she demanded.

    “He did,” both boys at once declared, and each began to argue vociferously in behalf of his own innocence and the other’s guilt.

    “Enough!” Miss Appleton shouted.  “I should have known better than to ask.  I will be writing a note to each of your parents tonight, informing them of your misbehavior, and I want both of you to promise that you will take it home.”

    “Yeah, sure,” Walter had muttered carelessly.

    Hoss had bit his lip, considering the consequences, but deciding that he had no alternative but to obey his teacher, he had nodded glumly.

    Now, as he idled at the creek, waiting for his shirt to dry, he began to debate the consequences once again.  Ma might go easy on him.  She wouldn’t like to hear he’d been fighting at school, but she’d understand how he felt and maybe even comfort him with some extra cookies.  Trouble was, sooner or later she’d tell Pa, and Hoss had no faith whatsoever that his father would let him off with cookies.

    He pulled on his still-damp shirt and buttoned it up, as he tried to figure what to do.  He’d told his teacher he’d bring the note home, and he hated to go against his word.  Pa really took a dim view of that.  Add lying to fighting at school and Hoss was pretty sure he wouldn’t sit easy for a month if Pa found out.  Of course, he’d probably get a whipping just for the fight, anyway.  There had to be some way to avoid it altogether, if he just thought hard enough.

    Finally, it came to Hoss that he’d only promised to take the note home; he’d never said he would show it to his parents. Rough as the fight had been, nothing showed that couldn’t be explained away as a fall during one of the games at recess.  And he could claim the reason he was late was that the teacher had kept him after to explain the arithmetic lesson, always a source of pure puzzlement to Hoss, as his parents well knew.  Sure, that was a lie, too, but only dangerous if he got into more trouble at school; then it would all come out and his goose would be cooked.  Deciding he’d have the whole weekend to figure some way to keep that from happening, Hoss swung quickly into the saddle and headed toward the Ponderosa.  Just over the ranch’s boundary line, he concluded he was now “home” and delivered the note under a convenient rock.

* * * * *

    After saying grace Ben spread his napkin in his lap and gazed with sublime satisfaction at the well-loaded table.  “Ah, you’ve outdone yourself, Hop Sing,” he said with a smile at the Oriental cook, standing just to his right.  “Nothing like eating beans on the trail for a few days to give a man an appreciation for truly great cooking.”

    Hop Sing beamed at the compliment.  From the moment he had seen Mr. Ben ride in, he had been at work in the kitchen, preparing all the favorite dishes of the head of the house.  “You eatee big,” Hop Sing dictated, “make up fo’ beans on trail.”

    “That I will, Hop Sing,” Ben chuckled.  “That I will.”

    Just before disappearing into the kitchen, Hop Sing cast an imperial eye at the youngest member of the family.  “You eatee big, too,” he demanded.  Accustomed to the admonition he heard almost daily, Little Joe just grinned back, planning, as always, to eat exactly what he pleased.

    “I came through Carson on the way home,” Ben told his wife, who was filling Little Joe’s plate, “and I banked the proceeds of our cattle sale—what I didn’t spend on that remarkable horse of yours, that is.”

    “My horse,” Little Joe interjected.

    Ben reached over to tousle his toddler’s hair.  “No, not your horse.  Mama’s horse.”

    Little Joe’s mouth puckered and he beat his spoon petulantly against his plate.  Seeing a chastising look come across her husband’s face, Marie quickly silenced the banging and pulled her baby’s face toward her.  “It is Mamá’s horse,” she said firmly, “but perhaps Mamá will take you for a ride on him, if you are a good boy.  Would you like that, mon petit?

    “Mais oui,” Little Joe said at once, eyes sparkling.

    “Mais non,” Ben said with a stern look at his wife.  “I don’t think that would be wise, my love.  That horse is a handful and so, to say the least, is our youngest son.  I don’t think you should try to manage both at the same time.”

    Marie waved his concern aside.  “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Ben.  I am an excellent equestrienne.  Besides, do you think I would take the slightest risk with this one in the saddle with me?”  She brushed Little Joe’s curls with an affectionate hand.

    “I hope you don’t plan to be taking any risks, with or without him in the saddle,” Ben observed with a sober arch of his eyebrow.

    “No, Ben, of course not,” she assured him.  “Now, tell me.  What news did you hear in Carson City?”

    Ben scowled.  “Oh, the talk of the town is how the case against William Sides has been dropped.”

    “Oh?” Marie asked with surprise.  “But I thought the evidence against him was strong.”

    “Back in June of last year, eight members of the jury voted to convict, despite his connection with the vigilance committee,” Ben said, “but now the prosecuting attorney himself has asked for the dismissal.”

    “Then he must feel that Monsieur Sides is innocent,” Marie commented.  She wiped Little Joe’s hand, which had taken a trip through the mashed potatoes, and glanced across the table at Hoss, noticing that he was swirling gravy through his potatoes, but eating nothing.

    Oblivious to anything except his disgust with the state of affairs in the territory, Ben continued his political commentary.  “I’m afraid justice in this part of the country still depends more on whom a man knows than on the right or wrong of his case.”

    “And I am afraid that a murder case is not a proper topic for table discussion when young boys are present,” Marie said, nodding toward Hoss.

    Following her eyes, Ben noticed for the first time that his son was not displaying his customary appetite.  “Was I upsetting you, Hoss?” he asked.

    “Huh?”  Hoss looked up at the mention of his name and gazed blearily at his father.  Lost in his own thoughts, he hadn’t heard the question.

    “Are you ill, boy, or did my mentioning the murder case take away your appetite?” Ben probed.

    “Oh, no, sir, neither one,” Hoss said quickly.  It was the first mention he’d heard of the murder case.  “I guess my mind was just wandering.”  He scooped up a bite of potatoes and planted it abruptly in his mouth, though his stomach churned with inner turmoil.

    “And where was it wandering?” Ben chuckled.  “Not to your chores, I’ll wager.”

    Hoss gave the expected grin.  “Uh, no.  I was just thinkin’ about, uh,” he stammered, searching for an answer that wouldn’t raise more questions, “about whether you’d let me go fishin’ tomorrow.”

    “Well, that depends,” Ben said with a smile, “on how you’ve done in school while I’ve been away.”

    “I—I done the best I could, Pa.”  Hoss squirmed, uncomfortable with the half-truth.  While he had done his best in terms of schoolwork, in other ways he’d been a complete failure at school, but he didn’t dare tell his father.  He’d likely never see a fishing pole again if he did.

    “Son, you know that’s all I ever ask,” Ben said, giving his husky boy a pat on the arm.  “Yes, you may go fishing tomorrow, as soon as your chores are done.”

    “Me, too!” Little Joe cried, the phrase more an announcement than a question.

    “If your brother is willing to put up with you,” Ben laughed.

    “Yeah, I guess so,” Hoss conceded.  He didn’t much feel in a mood for having Little Joe tag after him, but couldn’t think of a single reason to say no without again arousing his parents’ concern.

    The Cartwrights ate in silence for a few moments; then Little Joe stretched across the table to pat his father’s arm.  “Pa, when I get horse?” he asked insistently.

    Ben laughed.  “Well, not until your legs can reach the stirrups, at the very least.”

    Marie kept her eyes carefully on her plate, but Ben could see mischief twinkling in them as she innocuously commented.  “Stirrups can be shortened, mon mari.

    Ben wagged an admonishing finger at his wife.  “That, woman, really is a topic that should not be raised at dinner in front of an impressionable youngster.”  Then he began to laugh, and Marie, and even Hoss, joined in as Little Joe leaned down to make a careful inspection of the length of his legs.

* * * * *

    For once Hoss was glad to be sitting in chapel alongside his mother and younger brother.  Though he’d tried to think through his problem the day before, while he was fishing, keeping an eye on Little Joe had proved to be such an all-consuming responsibility that he’d had no time for his own thoughts.  Here, in the dimly lit building with the priest droning words he couldn’t understand anyway, Hoss finally found the peace and quiet he needed, and by the time the service ended, he was sure he’d come up with the perfect plan to make that trio of bullies leave him alone.  Now, if he could just get them to agree to it, Pa need never know about the fights on the school ground, and he could relax and concentrate on his lessons without fear of mocking laughter.

    Hoss couldn’t wait for recess the next day.  The morning lessons had gone well, so there was nothing new for his persecutors to twit him about, and for the first time Hoss sought out Cal, Pete and Walter.  “I got a piece to say to you fellows,” he began.

    “Think you got the brains to speak a whole piece?” Cal sneered.

    “You better listen to me for a change,” Hoss growled, “‘cause I have purely had enough of listenin’ to you.”

    “Oh, yeah?  Who’d want to listen to a dummy like you?” Pete scoffed.

    Hoss felt his nostrils flare wide, but he bridled his temper.  “You better—unless you’re yellow-belly scared.”

    “Nobody’s scared of you, fat boy,” Walter said, lip curling in derision.

    Hoss folded his arms across his chest and stared the three of them down.  “All right, then, I say we settle this thing, once and for all.  I’ll meet you after school, on the other side of Franktown Creek.  That’s off school property, so we can have it out without nobody botherin’ us.”

    “You and who else?” Cal demanded.

    Hoss punched his own chest with his thumb.  “Just me, that’s all, and if I beat the three of you single-handed, one on one, you gotta leave me be the rest of the school year.  No more makin’ fun, no matter what mistakes I make.”

    “And what if you can’t?” Cal pressed.  “What do we get?”

    “Yeah,” Pete echoed.  “What’s in it for us if we whip you, huh?”

    Having given no consideration to losing, Hoss had no answer ready.  “You won’t beat me,” he declared with determination.

    Walter pushed his two smaller cohorts aside to stand nose to nose with Hoss.  “Yeah, but if we do, we each get to slug you in the belly once every day for the rest of the year, and you got to just stand there and take it.  And no yelpin’ to the teacher, either.”

    Hoss swallowed hard.  It would be a heavy penalty to pay, but he figured he had nothing to lose.  If he didn’t stop these three from taunting him the way they’d been doing, he was going to end up in a fight ‘most every day anyway, and Pa’d be sure to hear about it and then—”No yelpin’,” he promised.  “I’ll just stand and take it—but it ain’t gonna pan out that way.”

    Calvin gave his bigger partner a wink, then snickered back at Hoss, “Yeah, well, we’ll just see about that after school.”

    Throughout the rest of the morning, Hoss was so distracted over the upcoming confrontation that he made more mistakes than usual, and his three tormentors laughed louder, harder and longer than ever, only stopping when the teacher threatened to keep them after school.  Hoss gritted his teeth and put up with the abuse, telling himself that it would be the last time.  It would all be different after this afternoon.  Sure, Walter was bigger than he was, but Hoss figured he had right on his side and that would make the difference.  Once the biggest foe was out of the way, Cal and Pete would be easy to take.

    By lunchtime Hoss’s friends had figured out that something was in the wind, but Hoss wouldn’t say what.  This was his fight, and he didn’t want George, Joe and Robbie caught up in it.  In a way he’d be fighting for all of them because the bullies wouldn’t dare tackle Hoss’s friends once he’d whipped the pants off them.  At least, that’s what Hoss told himself, and the notion made the battle seem all the more noble, since it wasn’t just for himself anymore.

    When school finally ended, Hoss saddled Charcoal and rode the gray mare to the appointed rendezvous on the opposite side of Franktown Creek.  Tethering her to the drooping branch of a willow, he waited just beyond the trees for the other three to show up.  They arrived only minutes after him and tied their mounts to the same tree.

    “You ready to take your lickin’?” Walter taunted.

    Hoss thrust a stubborn jaw toward the bigger boy.  “Ready to give you yours,” he snorted, having decided that he needed to face his hardest opponent while he was fresh.  He doubled his fists, sporting a belligerent stance.  “Come on,” he hollered.

    “Walter’s gonna make short work of you, blubber boy,” Cal sneered.

    “Naw, gonna take my time,” Walter boasted, “give him a good taste of what he’s gonna get every day from now on.”

    “Taste this, big mouth!” Hoss yelled, plowing a fist into Walter’s jaw.

    Caught off guard, Walter staggered back, but recovered quickly and answered with a right fist to Hoss’s jaw and a solid left punch to the stomach.

    Amid shouts of triumph from Calvin and Pete, Hoss doubled over, but instead of trying to stand upright again, he charged forward, ramming Walter in the stomach with his head.  Both boys went down, Hoss on top.  Then their positions quickly reversed and Walter landed several telling blows on Hoss’s face before Hoss kneed him hard and rolled free.

    Separated by a few feet, both boys took advantage of the brief break to get to their feet again and began circling, eyes wary and fists ready.  Hoss had felt his shirt rip when he pulled away from his opponent, and the salty taste of blood dribbling steadily from his nose into his mouth told him that there’d be no disguising the damage as a playground accident this time.  With dismay he realized that Pa was bound to know he’d been fighting, and there’d be a price to pay for that.  All the more reason to make the fight count; only total victory would make it worth what it would cost him.

    Hoss had no time to worry about that now, however, for Walter suddenly lunged at him, raining fast blows that made Hoss fear for the first time that he might lose this battle.  Fear only pumped additional adrenalin into his muscles, however, and Hoss fought back with strikes that came less frequently than Walter’s, but with greater force.  He had to win!  The consequences of failure were too grim to permit him the luxury of giving in, so even though his face and stomach ached from the blows he’d taken, Hoss just kept coming.

    Finally, Walter began backing away, but Hoss forged forward, striking the other boy again and again.  Fear fell across Walter’s features as he stumbled backward, losing his balance and hitting the ground so hard it knocked him breathless.  Hoss flipped the other boy over and twisted his arm behind him.  “Say ‘uncle,’” he demanded.  “Say it or I’ll break it!”

    Walter resisted, but after another wrench of his arm he cried out, “Uncle!”

    Hoss let him go and spun to face the other two boys, who were staring in shock at their fallen hero.  As Hoss advanced toward them, Cal and Pete exchanged a terrified glance and a conspiratorial nod, and both of them rushed Hoss at the same time.  “I said ‘one on one,’” Hoss sputtered when he went down, spitting fresh blood into the grass.

    “Since when do you make all the rules?” Cal retorted, slamming his fist into Hoss’s ribs.

    Fury flared in Hoss’s eyes, and his face grew crimson with outrage.  So they wanted to fight dirty, did they?  Well, he’d show them!  Even at odds of two against one, he counted himself more than a match for the two smaller boys.  Eyes narrowed, he scrambled to his feet and threw blows at first one and then the other.  Cal went down first, and before he could recover, Hoss grabbed Pete by the shirtfront and, drawing back his fist, thrust it forward with all the strength he possessed.

    Pete’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed to the ground and didn’t move.  Hoss turned to see Calvin Hulbert scooting away on his backside.

    Cal pointed a shaking finger toward Hoss.  “Y—you keep away from me, you b—big brute,” he sputtered.

    “Say ‘uncle,’” Hoss dictated, standing over his fallen foe with clenched fists..

    “Okay, ‘uncle,’” Calvin said, still sliding on his backside away from Hoss.  “You win.”

    Hoss spun around to face Pete.  “You, too,” he yelled.  “You all three gotta say I win before I’ll quit.”

    Pete lay sprawled on the ground, silent, unmoving.  Still keeping his distance from Hoss, Calvin crawled across to his cohort and shook his shoulder.  When Pete failed to respond, Cal screamed up at Hoss, “You killed him, you big ox!  You killed him!”

    Nursing his twisted arm, Walter got to his feet.  “Man, we gotta get out of here!” he hollered at Cal.  “There’ll be hell to pay when our folks find out.”

    Cal took only moments to weigh the advice; then he, too, ran for his horse, jerking the reins free and mounting quickly.

    Hoss, face pasty pale, stared at Pete’s still form, then called to the other boys.  “Wait!  We can’t just leave him here.”  But he was shouting to the wind, for the other boys were galloping hard, away from the creek, leaving Hoss alone to deal with the consequences of the fight.

    Kneeling beside the smaller boy, Hoss breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Pete’s chest slowly expand and contract.  No matter how frequently he slapped the boy’s cheeks or how loudly he called his name, however, he couldn’t get a response.  Scared as he’d ever been in his life, Hoss looked around in panic, waging a harder battle than the one he’d fought with his fists.  Realizing that he was in big trouble now, with Pa and maybe even the law, he wanted to ride off, just as those other boys had done, but he couldn’t do it.  A boy was hurt, hurt bad by the looks of him, and Hoss knew he was the only one around to do anything about it.  No matter what happened to him afterwards, he had to get Pete some help.

    But where?  Hoss stared up at the sky, his mind forming no words, but his heart instinctively sending a cry for guidance heavenward.  As he gazed down again at the prostrate boy, his first instinct was to get Doc Martin.  That’s who could help best.  Sure, he’d take Pete to Doc.  Hoss shook his head.  No, that wouldn’t work.  From time to time he’d seen hands on the ranch get hurt, and Pa had always been real careful not to move them much until the doc could get there.

    Well, if he couldn’t take Pete to the doctor, then he’d just have to bring the doctor to Pete.  Hoss started toward his horse, then stopped abruptly as he realized that the ride to Carson City and back would take more than two hours.  He couldn’t leave Pete lying here alone that long.   He began to breathe hard and fast.  Fighting off his rising panic, Hoss scrunched his face in thought.  How could he get help for Pete without leaving him?

    I could ride home, Hoss mused.  Pa’ll be out workin’, but Ma’ll know what to do—better than Pa, maybe, and she won’t yell like him.   The smile that touched his lips when he thought of this solution soon faded.  The Ponderosa was closer than Carson City, but Pete would still be lying here alone an awful long time.  Hoss started to tremble as the fear came surging back.  There just had to be someplace closer he could go for help.

    Franktown was closer—real close, in fact, but Hoss didn’t know the grownups there very well.  Suddenly, his face lit up with the conviction of certainty.  Miss Appleton!  The teacher had a habit of staying late at the school, grading papers or getting things ready for the next day.  She’d likely still be there.  Even if she’d already left, Hoss knew where she boarded, and he could get to either place pretty quickly.  “I’ll be back, Pete,” he vowed, though he knew the boy couldn’t hear him.  Running to the tree where Charcoal was tethered, he mounted and raced back across the creek to the nearby schoolhouse.

    Almost falling from the horse in his haste to get inside, Hoss tromped up the steps, stumbling once, and flung the door wide.  Seated at her desk, Miss Appleton looked up, startled.  “Why, Eric, what’s wrong?” she asked as the boy raced toward her.

    “You gotta come, Miss Appleton,” he cried.  “Pete’s hurt bad.  He—he won’t wake up.”

    Miss Appleton leaped to her feet and was around the desk in mere seconds, holding the shoulders of the panting boy.  “Eric, what has happened?” she asked urgently.

    “It’s my fault,” Hoss choked out, and the tears he’d been holding back since he first realized how badly Pete was hurt began trickling down his cheeks.  “We was fightin’ and—and I hit Pete too hard, and he went down and he ain’t moved since.  I—I’m scared, Miss Appleton.  I—I . . .”

    “There now, child,” the teacher soothed, slipping a supporting arm around his brawny frame.  “Perhaps it isn’t as serious as you fear.  Where is Pete?”

    “Just across the creek,” Hoss said.  “You gotta come, teacher!”

    “I will, Eric,” she said, taking his hand.  Though her heart was racing, she kept her tread steady.  For the sake of her two students, the one injured in body and the one torn in spirit, she had to maintain a calm exterior.  She couldn’t let her own youth and inexperience affect her confidence, at least not to the extent that the child might sense it.  Mounting the gray mare behind Hoss, she urged him to hurry “so Pete won’t have to wait so long.”

    Hoss ordinarily rode at a leisurely pace, but Charcoal’s hooves sprayed huge splashes of water behind them as he galloped through Franktown Creek with Miss Appleton hanging tight to his waist.  He rode directly to the spot where Pete lay.  As far as Hoss could tell, the other boy hadn’t moved so much as an inch since he’d left.

    Miss Appleton slid off her horse to kneel at Pete’s side.  Using every device Hoss had already tried, she attempted to rouse the youngster, without response.  “Eric, this is serious,” she said, looking up at the trembling boy.  “This child needs a doctor.”

    “Yes’m, I—I thought so,” Hoss stammered.  “Doc Martin, he’s the best and cl-close as any, but he’s a-all the way to Carson City, and I didn’t like to leave Pete that long.”

    Miss Appleton reached for his hand and gave it a comforting squeeze.  “You did exactly right, Hoss,” she said, using his nickname to put him more at ease.  “Now I need you to do just as I say.  Do you understand?”

    “I will, ma’am,” Hoss cried earnestly.

    “Good boy.  First, I need you to stay calm,” she said with a kind smile.  “Then I want you to ride to the Frey ranch—where we get our water, remember?”

    “Yes’m, sure,” Hoss said, wondering why he hadn’t thought of Mr. Frey himself.  Mr. Frey was French, like Mama, and had always acted friendly when kids came on his property to fetch water, even though he had no children of his own.  “He’ll help; I know he will.”

    “That’s right,” the teacher said in a tone intended to instill confidence in the child, although her own heart was quaking with the awesome responsibility that, as a first-year teacher, she’d never held in her hands before.  “Ask him to bring a wagon and tell him where to find us.  Then I want you to ride for the doctor, straight from the ranch, and ask him to come to the Hanson place.  Do you understand, Hoss?”

    Hoss’s head bobbed up and down rapidly.  Seeing Miss Appleton turn her attention back to Pete, he jumped on his mare and charged back across the creek to carry out the most important assignment the teacher had ever given him.

* * * * *
    Marie gently laid her sleeping baby in his crib, still wary lest the slightest movement might reawaken him and renew his sobs of distress.  But Little Joe had finally cried himself to exhaustion, and, thumb tucked securely in his mouth, he continued to sleep as she drew a light quilt over him and brushed a trailing curl from his cheek.  “Papá is right,” she whispered.  “We shall soon have to cut your hair, but how I shall hate to see these beautiful tresses shorn!”  Before drawing the curtains she stood for a moment at the window, gazing into the deepening shadows, wondering where her other son could be.  Though the night was young, stars had begun to twinkle in the darkening sky, and Hoss had still not returned from school.

    Almost tiptoeing from the room, she closed the door softly and headed down the stairs.  As she reached the lower landing, she heard the front door creak and paused to see which of the missing family members had returned.  “Oh, Hoss!” she cried when the boy slipped through the slimmest opening that would accommodate his hefty frame.  “Where have you been, mon chéri?” she demanded heatedly, running down the stairs.  “Your little brother has cried himself to sleep for fear you are lost, and your father is even now looking for you, and I—oh, Hoss, your face!”

    “It ain’t nothin’, Ma,” Hoss muttered, trying to pull his face away from her searching hands.  “Doc fixed me up and sent me home.”

    “Dr. Martin?” Marie queried, perplexed.  “You have been to see Dr. Martin?”

    “Yeah, but not for me,” Hoss assured her quickly.  “I went ‘cause of Pete, but Doc wouldn’t go help him ‘til he checked me out good.  I’m fine, Ma; don’t fret.”

    Marie put her arm around his shoulder.  “Come sit down,” she urged, “and tell me what has happened.”

    Hoss let her direct him toward the settee.  Then, with her arm around him as they sat side by side, he cried, “Oh, Mama, it was awful!”  And, choking through the tears, he spilled out every frightening detail of his afternoon.  “Oh, Mama, I’m scared I killed him,” he sobbed in conclusion, his face now buried in the folds of her skirt.  “I never meant to hit him that hard, but he—he just didn’t move.”

    Marie pulled his face up between her palms.  “But what does Dr. Martin say, Hoss?” she asked.

    Hoss shook his head.  “I don’t know.  He said for me to come straight home, that you’d be worried.”

    “And so we were,” Marie said.  “We had no idea where you were, Hoss, but I see now that you were doing as you were told by your teacher and the good doctor, and that is as it should be.  You have done no wrong, mon fil.”

    “Except to Pete,” Hoss moaned.  “I done him a heap of wrong, maybe even—”

    “No,” Marie interrupted firmly.  “We will not believe the worst until such news comes, Hoss.  You and I, we will pray, right now, that Dr. Martin will be able to make Pete completely well again, oui?

    “Yeah,” Hoss whispered.  Mother and son slipped to their knees in front of the settee and lifted their hearts in joint petition for the boy that the youngster had counted an enemy and the woman had never even seen.  Hoss couldn’t understand much of what his mother was saying.  Some of it was in Latin or maybe French, some just spoken so softly he couldn’t hear, but he didn’t care.  All that mattered was the strength of her arm around him, and whether he knew what was said or not, he drew comfort just from knowing that his mother was talking to God on his behalf—and Pete’s.

    They were still on their knees when the front door again creaked open.  Marie rose up to peer over the back of the sofa.  She smiled at her husband and told him that Hoss had returned home safely.

    “I know,” Ben said as he removed his hat and coat and unbuckled his gun belt.  “I saw his horse tied to the hitching rail outside.”  Coming around the settee, he saw Hoss, still on his knees, body quaking and eyes wide with apprehension.  Ben opened his arms.  “Come here, son,” he beckoned tenderly.

    Hoss pulled to his feet and stumbled toward his father.  “I’m sorry I’m late, Pa,” he said hesitantly, “but there was a reason.”

    Ben wrapped supportive arms around his son’s shoulders.  “Yes, I know.  I know all about it.  I rode to the schoolhouse first, and when I didn’t find anyone there, I started toward Miss Appleton’s residence.  I ran into Joseph Frey first, though, and he told me the Hanson boy had been hurt and that you had ridden for the doctor.”

    Hoss swallowed hard.  “Is—is that all he told you?”

    Ben nodded solemnly.  “Yes, but that isn’t all there is to tell, is it, boy?”

    Hoss again felt tears welling up in his eyes.  Looking down, shamefaced, he shook his head.  “No, Pa.  I—I’m the one that hurt Pete.  We was fightin’.”

    “Yes, I know,” Ben repeated, giving the trembling shoulder a pat.  “I went on to the Hanson ranch and heard the rest of the story from Miss Appleton while Dr. Martin was examining Pete.”

    “Oh, Ben, how is the boy?” Marie asked.  “Hoss has been so concerned.”

    “He’ll be fine,” Ben assured her, smiling as he saw Hoss draw a long, relieved breath.  “Paul says he has a concussion, and he’ll have one whale of a headache for a few days, but he thinks the boy will recover completely.”

    “That is good news!” Marie said, bending to place a kiss behind Hoss’s ear.

    “I’m sure glad,” Hoss murmured.  Then he looked anxiously up at his father.  “I—I guess I’m gonna get the hardest tannin’ of my life, huh, Pa?  I got it comin’, I know—fightin’ and lyin’ and worryin’ you and—”

    “We’ll discuss all that later, son,” Ben said.  “There’s an important matter to be attended to first.”  He smiled at Hoss’s quizzical expression.  “What have I taught you about the needs of your horse, son?”

    Hoss gulped, remembering that he had been so fearful of his parents’ reaction that he had come inside the minute he reached home, without giving Charcoal the proper care.  “Th-that it comes before my needs, Pa.  I forgot.  I’m sorry.”

    “Well, I have a mount to see to, as well,” Ben said, “so let’s go out to the barn together.”

    Hoss nodded grimly, figuring that seeing to the horses was not the only thing that was going to happen out in that barn.  He thought about asking Pa to give him his whipping first, so he could get it over with, but realized that wasn’t fair to Charcoal.  The little mare had already been left standing out in the cool night air too long, and making her wait while he took his tanning would just be putting his own needs before hers again.  No, if he asked a thing like that, Pa’d probably be even angrier than he already was.  And I’d deserve it, too, Hoss concluded.

    Father and son walked outside, each taking the reins of his horse, and headed silently toward the barn.  Neither spoke as they unsaddled the horses and stored each piece of tackle in its appropriate place.  Only when Ben saw that Hoss had relaxed into the rhythm of currying his animal did he voice a quiet suggestion.  “Why don’t you tell me about this trouble you’ve been having at school, son?”

    Brush frozen against Charcoal’s gray flank, Hoss swallowed hard.  “They—they been pickin’ on me, Pa,” he muttered quietly as he began drawing the curry brush down the mare’s side again.  “Laughin’ and callin’ me names, ‘most every day, makin’ me feel like a big, dumb critter.”

    Ben folded his arms on his bay’s back and looked across at his son.  “And the fighting?”

    “I guess that’s mostly my doin’—today, anyway,” Hoss admitted reluctantly.  “I just wanted to make ‘em leave me alone, Pa; I wanted to shut their mouths.”

    Ben frowned.  “With your fists?”

    Hoss shrugged and kept his eyes studiously on the task before him.  “Seemed like the only way.”

    “No,” Ben said firmly.  “Fists are never the appropriate response to mere words, however hurtful they may be.  I want you to remember that, son.”

    “I ain’t smart enough to fight back with words, Pa,” Hoss protested, his forehead wrinkling as he looked up.  “It ain’t like I was Adam.”

    “Fighting back with words isn’t the solution, either, son,” Ben chuckled.  “In fact, your older brother probably gets into more trouble with his words than you do with your fists—at least with me.”

    A half-grin curled Hoss’s lips as he remembered the times he’d seen Adam talk back to Pa and the inevitable consequences that had followed.  Maybe Adam wasn’t so much smarter than him, after all.

    “Come here, Hoss,” Ben said.

    The slight grin faded as Hoss moved around Charcoal to meet his fate.  To his surprise, his father didn’t take off his belt; instead, he sat down on a feedbox and patted a spot beside him to indicate that Hoss should sit down, too.  Hoss did and drew a sigh of relief as his father’s arm came around his shoulders.

    “Son, you’ve got to learn to live with who you are,” Ben said.  “You’re a big, strong boy with a tender, caring heart, and when you use those gifts as God intended, you can accomplish great good.  But every gift carries with it the possibility of being used the wrong way, for selfish purposes, and that’s what you did today.  You used your strength against a smaller boy to make him behave the way you wanted him to, and you hurt him badly.”

    “I know,” Hoss whispered weakly.  “I never meant to, Pa, honest.  I’d take the punch back if I could.”

    “I know that,” Ben said, pulling the youngster close to his side.  “That’s your tender heart, being used the right way, to care for others.  But a tender heart is also one that can be easily wounded, Hoss, as yours has been by the words of these other boys.  Because you’re so big and strong, son, you don’t have the luxury of striking back when you’re wounded.  You’ve got to let your strong heart control that physical strength, to make yourself think of the other person and how they will be affected by what you do.”

    Hoss gave a firm nod.  “I ain’t never gonna fight nobody ever again.”

    Ben pulled the boy’s face toward him and smiled compassionately.  “I wish I could say that would work, Hoss, but there will be times when you have to fight.  I don’t expect you to just stand still and take a beating if you’re attacked, and I’d be ashamed if you stood by and watched another child abused when you could stop it.  What I do not want to see again is you using your fists to stop someone’s words.  Walk away, go to your teacher for help or just let them laugh if you must, but do not answer mere words with physical violence.  Do I make myself clear, Hoss?”

    “Yes, Pa.  I’ll—I’ll try.”

    “See that you do.”  Ben’s face grew stern.  “There’s one more thing, son.  I understand your teacher gave you a note to bring home last Friday, but I don’t recall your presenting it to either me or your mother.”

    Hoss bit his lower lip nervously.  “I—I hid it, Pa.  I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

    “I know why you did it,” Ben muttered gruffly, “but that is scarcely an excuse, boy.  What happened today might have been avoided had I been aware of the problems you were having.”

    “Yes, sir.”  Hoss sighed, bracing himself for what he was sure was coming next.

    Reading his son’s mind, Ben smiled.  “No, Hoss, I’m not going to punish you this time”—he hardened his countenance—”but if you ever deceive me in this manner again, the punishment will be doubled.  That’s a fair warning, and I would advise you to heed it.”

    “Oh, yeah, Pa,” Hoss murmured.  “I don’t never want to hide nothin’ from you ever again.”  He threw his arms around his father.  Ben’s arms encircled his son, and he held him close until the boy’s heaving back grew still.

End Part 1

Part One
Part Two

Author Feedback -- 
Sharon Kay Bottoms
Site Owner Feedback
Complaints, Opinions, Recommendations?

About this Site
Who do we think we are? 
Why are we doing this?
Our Fan Fiction Criteria
Standards & Practices
  Bonanza Fan Fiction Master Index
Alphabetical by Title
Bonanza Fan Fiction Master Index
Alphabetical by Author
Adam Stories
Joe  Stories
Hoss Stories
Ben Stories
Whole Family Stories
Young Cartwrights
Just for Fun [Comedy Lite]
Post-Timeline Stories
Jamie, Candy, Hop Sing, Griff
Alternate Universe
Death Fics
Fan Fiction Resources
Character Bios & More
Bonanza Fanfic Links
Site Forum
Input & Opinions from Readers, Authors, Site Owners