A Gift for Marie
Vickie Batzka
    Adam had come home in early summer after an absence of four years.  He had missed his home and family and always intended to return after completing college, but the reality of fitting back into the Ponderosa lifestyle after four years of academic challenges and cultural opportunities had proven to be more difficult than expected.  Intellectually, Adam had known that four years was a long time in the growth of brothers 12 and 5 when he had left.  He had written and received letters, followed their adventures and misadventures faithfully, but still the actual changes had hit him hard.

     Hoss, his little brother, now outweighed him by 50 or more pounds and was both taller and broader.  Little Joe was not so little now, being 9 going on 29, at least in his own opinion.  Adam and Hoss had slipped back into their warm, joshing relationship with a minimum of trouble, but Joe was another matter entirely.  The youngest Cartwright boy had been sure that he was as mature as his brothers, both of them, plus he had been used to being the center of attention in the house.  Joe did not take kindly to Pa’s often expressed gratitude for Adam’s return. He took it even less kindly that Adam not only  immediately started giving Pa assistance in running the ranch but  in running Joe’s life.  In other words, there were fireworks.

    After a few months, as Adam became more accustomed to being his father's right hand man on the ranch,  things began to run more smoothly.   Joe began to see advantages to having a big brother who, though he could be tougher than Pa on certain things, still would indulge a younger brother in small amounts of cash, homework help, and sometimes in deflecting Pa’s wrath a bit when he stepped out of line.  And Joe often stepped over the line; actually he seemed compelled to test every limit his father set.   It was late October and the harsh Sierra winter was just around the corner.  All the ranches in the area had completed bringing summer herds closer to supplies of feed and shelter and each ranch had laid in as many staples and necessities as money and space would allow.  In the chilling winter, there would be no time or means to get essentials before homes were snowed in, perhaps for days or weeks.  But for the moment, the weather was glorious, with colorful leaves still clinging to the deciduous trees, leaves of aspen gold and deep reds, framed by rugged mountain peaks tipped with snow of previous years and embraced by a sky so blue that it made eyes water.  There was still a touch of warmth in the midday sun, and people felt a need for one final celebration, a thanks for the summer past and memories of good friends stored up for the winter to come.  It was approaching Halloween, the time for laughter, for tricks and treats, and for spooky stories to be dusted off and told abroad.

    For the past week, the nightly request at the main house had been the same;  “Adam, tell me a creepy story before I hafta go to bed, pleassse,” was Joe’s refrain.

     Ben would respond,  “Adam, don’t you scare your little brother!” and they would all then listen of Joe’s squeals of “I ain’t scared and I ain’t little.”

     Adam would escort Joe upstairs, where he would supervise a quick wash up and brief prayers learned from Marie;  then the two brothers would snuggle up in Joe’s bed for story time.  Before Adam got past “Once upon a time….” Hoss would slip in, ready for bed, and plop down  with the other two.  Occasionally, Ben would quietly climb the stairs to feast his eyes on the picture of his three sons, the two younger leaning against the oldest as Adam wove the magic of another tale.  Adam could tell some wonderful tales, but he was always mindful of Joe’s tendency for nightmares, so he dampened the scary parts of his stories as much as his younger brothers would allow.

    For a week or so before Halloween this first year of his return, Adam had found his thoughts turning often to Marie, his step-mother and Joe’s mother.  Marie had been killed five years ago last spring, riding her spirited horse entirely too fast into the ranch yard.  The death had been a tragedy for the entire family, with Ben sinking into a depression that  lasted more than six months.  Adam, as oldest, had been left  to care for the ranch business and for two grieving brothers.  The hard times had delayed his departure to college for more than a year, but finally the family seemed to move beyond current grief and look to the future.  This was the first Halloween since his return, and Adam found Marie talking to him in both day and night dreams, not haunting him, but trying to remind him of something left undone.

    Adam remembered vividly a conversation he had held with Marie about church and faith.  Adam had asked “Marie, why don’t you go to church with us?  Pa wants us to go as often as the minister comes ‘round and most everybody else goes.  Don’t you like church or don’t you believe in God?”

    Marie’s answer had given him food for thought.  “Mon amie”, certainly I believe in a loving Pere, a loving God, but I was brought up in the Catholic faith, and I pray differently than at the services you attend.  I use my rosary to say my prayers and make confession of my sins to a priest.  There is no priest here, so I make my devotions while you attend your services.   There is not a right faith or a wrong faith; there are just different faiths.  We belong to different faiths and worship the same God in separate ways.”  Adam had listened carefully and questioned and while in school in Boston, he had taken time and effort to learn more about the faith Marie had espoused.     Somehow, Halloween and its festivities prodded his memory that there was more to the season than spooky stories, tricks played in town and scary costumes.  He remembered another conversation with Marie, this one about her life in New Orleans, her birthplace and the place she had lived until Ben had whisked her west to Nevada territory and the Ponderosa.  He remembered her saying “On All Hallows Eve, we prepare for the holiest of days, All Saints Day, on November 1st.  On All Saints Day, we go to the graveyards to visit our dead; we decorate the graves, take a picnic and talk and remember who we have loved and lost.  It is a time to laugh and cry.  The dead are sacred and the ground in which they lie has been blessed and sanctified.  I must confess, I miss here in this new land the customs and traditions that have bound me to my church and my God.”

    Adam remembered, too, the gravesite where they had laid Marie to rest.  He had chosen her favorite picnic spot, high above the lake, where they had often gone as a family to eat, fish, sleep, swim and just plain have fun.  Pa had been no help in the choosing of Marie’s final resting place, any more than he had helped plan her service.  Ben had been in a total daze, unaware of what was happening or who was there. Adam had made the difficult choice of asking Jean Baptiste, one of the long time ranch hands and a Catholic, to say the right words over Marie’s grave.  Some of the attendees had been scandalized that a preacher hadn ‘t been asked, but Adam remembered Marie wanting only a priest and there was none available at that time in that area. So, he had done his best to follow her wishes.  Now he remembered, finally, that she lay in unblessed and unsanctified ground.

    He probably would not have minded so much, but recently, the news in Virginia City had been about the arrival of a priest, bent on establishing a new church for those who followed the Catholic faith.  Adam also remembered Marie telling him once that her marriage to Ben had been allowed only because Ben had promised to raise any children in the Catholic faith, a promise Ben had been unable to keep up until now.  Somehow, Adam doubted that promise would be kept, even though he was sure that Pa would at some point tell Joe about his mother’s faith.  Still, the thought of Marie not being in sanctified ground began to weigh on his mind more and more as Halloween and All Saints Day approached.  Finally, he decided what he needed to do for his own peace of mind.  He could only hope Pa would approve.

    Adam slipped quietly into the little shack where the priest was holding services.  He thought he might be undetected, but sharp eyes of both parishioners and priest had noted his arrival. Part of it might be attributed to his height and quiet good looks, and part  was recognition by many of the miners who comprised most of the congregation as the son of a large ranch and part owner of one of the mines in the area.  Father Patrick McKenna recognized the young man, having had the  Cartwright family pointed out to him one day as pillars of the local Presbyterian Church.  ‘What was a  Presbyterian doing here?’ he wondered.  As the service  progressed, the good father noted that young Cartwright managed to follow the service with an ease that spoke of attendance at other Catholic ceremonies.  And he puzzled some more.
     Following the Mass, Father Patrick waited at the back of the shack to greet his people.  Adam lingered until everyone else was gone, then approached the priest somewhat hesitantly.  “Good day, Father, I'm Adam Cartwright,” he began as he held out his hand.

    Father Pat took his hand strongly, and replied in his lovely Irish brogue, “I had yer pointed out to me the other day on the street.  I must say that I did no expect to see a staunch Presbyterian at one of me services. And so easy too, what with the Latin and with the kneeling.  Yer looked almost at home there on yer knees.”

    Adam’s face broke into the bright smile that few other than his family had ever seen.  He felt the warmth of the man flood over him and heard the lilt of the voice tickle his ears.  “I’ve been to a few services during college in Boston and I am delighted to find that the Catholic Church is finally going to be permanent in Virginia City.  There have been Mexicans and Irish here in the area for quite some time, along with a few French.  They'll  all be glad for a church of their faith.”

    The fatherly priest smiled in return and, leading the way, he spoke as he escorted the young man toward the one-room cabin that served as his rectory.

     “Join me for a cup a’ tea, if yer will and we’ll natter about what brings you to see me.  Somehow, I misdoubt yer need religious instruction, what with yer fine education and travelin’ ways.  How may I help?”

     Moving rapidly, he seated Adam on a crude chair, and put a kettle on to boil water for tea.  Once the tea was served, in mismatched chipped cups and strong enough to wake the dead, the two men faced each other across the table.  Father Pat had put honey, the poor man’s sweetening, and a couple of slices of cake donated by one of his flock on the table along with the tea cups and spoons.  Both men stirred their tea and waited for it to cool a bit.

    “Father, my step-mother was Catholic.  She died 5 years ago and we buried her on the top of a knoll looking out over the lake on our ranch.  It was the best we could do at the time, but I remember her tellin’ me about the sacred cemeteries and burial rituals in her home town of New Orleans.  We had no priest to speak the words over her grave when she died, but I think she would like to have the ground blessed and maybe have the family visit her on All Saints Day.  At least, lots of her stories about growing up included such things.  My father doesn’t know that I am here and he may not approve, but I chose her gravesite and I guess I'm not sure I did all I could for her, “  Adam’s voice faltered a bit .  “Does that make any sense to you?”

    The father looked at the strained eyes of the young man and wondered what other responsibilities lay hidden in their depths.  Judging by his age now, he had been quite young to have chosen the site and he puzzled where the father had been.  He asked,  “Who spoke at your mother’s services, Adam?  Might I call yer Adam?”

    “Sure,” replied Adam with a slight smile.  “My father and brothers were very upset at the time, so I asked one of our long-time ranch hands, who was Catholic, to say the words he remembered as right over her grave.”

    He closed his eyes as his mind drifted back to that dreadful day, standing on the hill with that hole filled with Marie’s rough-hewn coffin.  He felt again the chill of the late spring breeze as it danced through the trees,  and felt too, Joe’s small body held tightly in his arms. Hoss leaned against his side; both the younger boys sobbing  as if their hearts were broken.  He saw his father, standing numbly and blankly on the opposite side of the grave, shaven and dressed in black by Hop Sing, their faithful friend, but totally removed from his surroundings.  Bleakly, he remembered the feeling of being totally alone, totally responsible for everything, from the grave to the ritual dinner and after-service visitation.  All he wanted to do was ride like the wind until he escaped the image of a dead Marie, but he could only stand like a rock and be strong for the rest of his family.  Shaking his head briskly to remove the bitter recollection, he continued “It was really hard for all of us for awhile.  Pa spent lots of time alone at Marie’s grave, and I took Hoss back a couple of times. Pa took Joe with him one time, but he got so lost in his thoughts that my little brother wandered away.”
    Glancing diffidently at the priest, Adam continued,  “I went there several times  during the next months, trying to get some answers about what to do for Pa and for Joe’s nightmares and for Hoss’s wandering off to be alone.  She always had answers for my problems, so it kinda felt, you know, right to keep askin’ her.  Things finally got back to what passes for normal for us,” Adam’s face lightened with a quick grin,  “ At last I was able to go east to college.   I don’t think the whole family ever went to the hill together, and I don’t really want to ask Pa that.  But, I ‘m sure nothing was ever done by a priest to make the service right, cause Pa would’ve mentioned it.  Now, with All Saints Day comin’, it seems a good time for the family to honor and remember Marie on one of her favorite days. So, here I am, asking a favor.”

    “Me boyo, I would be honored to come and hold a service at Marie’s grave.  Is one of your fine brothers the result of your Pa’s marriage to Marie?  I ask because I would think there would have been no way yer Pa could have kept his promise to bring his babies up in the true faith.  Be I right?”

    Adam nodded slowly and admitted that Joe was Marie’s son.  “Father, I don’t think it would be any use to remind Pa right now about Joe being Catholic.  As you know, we attend church as a family, and I reckon Pa would hate to confuse Joe right now about faith and such.  I will promise that if my father does not give Joe knowledge of his mother’s faith, I will make sure he knows when he gets older.”  He looked anxiously at the priest, sure that he could not plan Marie’s grave blessing if the priest wanted to challenge his father on Joe’s church attendance.

    Looking at the anxious young man in front of him, Father Patrick knew that to push his point about young Joe’s religious education  would only lead to losing the opportunity to help Adam and the family through this memorial to Marie Cartwright.  Besides, given time, he was sure he and Ben could come to some agreement about young Joseph’s faith.  It was a father’s responsibility, not an older brother’s.  Then too, he had Adam’s pledge, which he was willing to bet was as good as money in the bank.

    “I have Mass for my parish on All Saints Day at 7 AM, before they go to work.  After that, I can be with you for any part of the day.  Will that do?”
    Relieved, Adam smiled again.  “Yes, why don’t you let me send Jean for you?  He spoke the words at Marie’s burying and he might like to attend Mass first.  He'll get you to the hill sometime around noon and I’ll have us all there.  After you finish, we'll have one of Hop Sing’s picnic lunches and share some of our stories about Marie with Joe and with you.  It’ ll just be family there; Jean is like family and so are a couple of the other men.  Then I'll bring you back to town.”

    “Done,” voiced the priest in his Irish accent.  “Will yer have a problem getting’ thy father and bros’ there?”

    “Maybe” mused Adam, “but we’ll be there.  They’ re plannin’ on goin’ to  the harvest dance on Halloween, at least for the beginning.  I expect both my brothers will be pullin’ their share of tricks that night.  I don’t plan to go, so Pa gets to ride herd on them..” He grinned impishly at the thought of his father trying to hold down the two high-spirited pranksters.  “At least we’ll be there if the boys don’t wind up in the jail or under it.”

    Adam  took his leave of the priest and rode on into town to complete the chores assigned for the day.  The visit had taken more time than he planned, but the result had been most satisfactory.  He knew he would rest better when he thought Marie’s wishes had been fulfilled.  He  needed to get some candy to share with the bunkhouse on Halloween as well as some for his brothers.  Joe had asked for help with a costume and Adam wanted to get some white material to make a ghost outfit. No need to waste  a full sheet on a little boy like Joe, when he could just purchase a yard or so of white muslin.  Besides he needed to pick up a few notions for his plans. He had considered painting Joe’s face, but had decided Indian problems were still too close not to be nightmare materials.

    On Halloween, Ben and his younger sons decked themselves out in their finery for the dance.  Joe carried his ghost costume, complete with a skeleton’s frame drawn on the material, carefully crafted by his oldest brother.  Joe had squealed with delight on seeing his costume and had boasted, “Ain’t nobody goin’ to have a better costume than me.  I’m gonna’ scare the pants off the other guys.  Thanks, big brother! I shore do ‘preciate it.

    Ben tried again to persuade Adam to come with them  because he wanted his oldest to enjoy a good social life and not miss Boston.  Besides, selfishly, he did not look forward to shepherding his youngest son on his “trick or treat” activities.  Hoss would just collect the candy and goodies, unless led astray;  but Joe would be constantly into mischief.  Ben observed  Adam’s shuttered expression as he declined the invitation, and Ben would have sworn he saw mischief hidden in the depths of his son’s eyes,  so like Elizabeth’s that they could still take his breath away.

    “All right, boys, let's leave your brother to his books and be on our way.  WE know how to have a good time, don’t we?”  Ben taunted slightly as he walked out the door.  In the distance he heard the wish “Good luck, Pa” and would have vowed he heard the echo of laughter as they rode away.
    With his family out of the house for a few hours, Adam set about enlisting Hop Sing in his plans.  Once they had talked in a mix of English and Cantonese and argued a bit about the final plans, the men bowed slightly to each other and went off to complete their assignments. Hop Sing would  prepare a delicious lunch for the picnic at the lake and Adam  gathered the kinds of decorations for Marie’s tombstone that he had read about in his book on New Orleans. By bedtime, both men were  pleased and felt things would go well on the following day.

    Adam heard his family stumble to bed a little after midnight, but dropped back to sleep immediately afterwards.  Long before time to get up, he heard screams coming from Joe’s room and struggled to wake up.  He lurched from his bed, still half asleep and raced into Joe’s room to find the little boy upright in bed and crying out “No, no!   Please don’t throw dirt on her.  Please, please!!”

    Sitting down on the bed, Adam gathered his brother in his arms carefully and stroked his forehead, all the time muttering, “Joe, Joe, wake up, little buddy.  It’s just a dream, just a bad dream.” Rocking him back and forth, he tried again to wake him gently.  “Come on, Joe.  It’s all right, it’s all right.”  As he saw his father enter the room, followed by Hoss, he reassured,  “ Joe, Pa’s here.  Pa’s here” and tried to move Joe to his father’s arms.

    Joe clung desperately to Adam’s neck and begged again “Adam, stop them. Don’t let them bury Mama!”

      Adam knew this was a recurrence of Joe’s old nightmares, which had emerged nightly for months after Marie’s death.  He knew too, that Joe clung to him because then, Pa had not come to help.  Pa had been so grief-stricken himself that he had  left Adam  to comfort his brothers.  Apparently, Joe still turned to Adam for reassurance after his nightmares.  Looking at his father’s anguish-stricken face, Adam decided right then to find out what had happened and share his plans for the next day.  Perhaps it would help all of them.
    “Joe,” again Adam shook his brother, a little harder this time, and was relieved to see Joe’s eyes open and awareness creep in.   “Easy, buddy, easy.  Can you tell me what happened tonight?"  Patiently, Adam waited for Joe to begin, gesturing to his father and Hoss to take seats.

    “I, well, I was out with a couple of friends and we went by the graveyard.  The guys was teasing me that ghosts came out to walk on Halloween and that they might think I was one of them, what with my outfit and such.  Then we saw an open grave, waitin’ for the body to be put in it.  I ‘membered you showing me Mama on the bed, but one of the other ladies showed me her in the wood box too.  Then I ‘member them putting the box in the ground and throwing dirt on it.  I don’t want dirt thrown on my Mama, and I was dreaming that she was in the box and waitin’ for me to get her out or get in with her.  Oh, Adam, it was so real and scary, not funny scary like your stories, but creepy scary and it made my heart hurt.”  Again, Joe buried his face in Adam’s neck, accepting the slow rubbing of his back and relaxing a bit as he told his nightmare.

    Ben reached over then and pulled Joe into his lap.  “Joe, it’s all right, son.  I didn’t know you all slipped out to the graveyard or I would have kept you back.  Not a good place any night, but especially not on Halloween,” Ben soothed as he groped again for the memory of Marie’s burial and found nothing there.  He looked at his oldest son, and knew Adam would never forget what he could not remember.  Another debt owed to his oldest son.

    Adam watched to make sure that Joe was all right, then hesitated briefly.  “Pa, I want all of us to go to Marie’s grave tomorrow for All Saints Day.”  Then to Joe, “Little buddy, your Mama used to tell me about when she was a girl and on the day after Halloween, a day called All Saints Day, families would go to visit their loved ones’ graves, and talk about them and remember all the good times.  They would decorate the tombstones and maybe even have a picnic lunch there, to make it a good place to come.  I have flowers and ribbons to put on your mother’s grave tomorrow and Hop Sing is goin’ put up a special lunch and go with us.  Then we can talk about your Mama and help you remember her better.  How does that sound?”

    Joe’s eyes lit up, “A picnic on the lake and you’ll tell me about my Mama.  Promise, Adam!” he demanded, knowing Adam’s word was always good, whether it was about a promised treat or a spanking for something wrong.  Adam never broke his word.  “Pa and Hoss and Hop Sing too.”
     “Right, buddy, plus maybe a couple of the old time hands who remember and can tell you about her too.  Think you can get back to sleep, knowing the plans for tomorrow?”  Adam asked.

    “Sure, Adam.  Sooner I sleep, sooner we can leave, right?  Joe giggled and snuggled back in his bed.  Then his eyes popped open and he asked, “Sleep with me, Adam, like you used to.  Pleassse.

     Even though he knew he was being conned, Adam agreed, saying,  “I need to speak to Pa for just a minute. I’ll be right back.  You stay under the covers and don’t plan on hogging all of them.  It’s cold tonight!”

    Walking his father and Hoss out the door, Adam spoke softly.  “Pa, I asked the new priest to come tomorrow and bless Marie’s grave.  I think she would want that, and would like to have the right words said over her grave.  Jean did his best, but still…   “ he broke off and looked at his father anxiously.  “Pa, do you mind?”  Hoss stood in the hall, listening as his brother continued, “ I remember Marie talking about sacred graves and All Saints Day from when she was a girl.  I thought it might be a way to teach Joe about his mother’s faith, as well as time for all of us to visit her together.  Is it okay,  Pa? I should’ve asked first, but I just remembered the new priest today on my way to town. I mean.. I ...,“ Adam stopped and looked into his father’s distant eyes.

    Ignoring Hoss, Ben shook his head slowly and almost whispered,  “ I never even thought about having it blessed by a priest.  Marie would have my head if she could.”  Ben raised his dazed eyes and noted his oldest son’s unease.  “Adam, I don’t remember much… . actually I don’t remember anything about that day.  A lot of that time is a total blank for me.   I never gave what happened any thought .  I just wanted it to all go away, to be a nightmare, but I never woke up from it.  I am only sorry that the priest is one more thing…  I should have remembered.  Bless you for  being my memory and conscience  again.”  He touched his son’s arm briefly and turned away.

    Glancing at Hoss, Ben warned “ I have a feeling Joe will be out of bed bright and early tomorrow, what with your promise about the day, son.  We best all get some shuteye while we can.   Tomorrow may prove to be a hard day for all of us.”  Without another word or look, Ben retreated to his lonely bedroom to spend what was left of the night.
    True to predictions, the little boy who hated to get up was dressed and downstairs early, at least for him.  Ben and the boys were at the table eating as Joe scampered down the stairs, almost tripping in his haste to join the family at the table.  Hop Sing brought another platter of bacon and eggs, placing them close to Joe’s plate so he could serve himself before Hoss started on that helping too.  Joe shoveled a few bites onto his plate and Ben routinely added more and pushed Joe’s milk in front of him.  “You gotta eat a good breakfast, son. It might be awhile before lunch, kind of a long  ride up to the lake and you need the fillin’. Want honey and biscuits?,” Ben suggested as he passed the stack of hot biscuits to his youngest son.  The other two boys were almost finished and ready to head out to do morning chores.  Chores never paid attention to special plans; chores just needed to be done.

    “Pa, once we finish the chores, may Hoss and I go on ahead?  I want to put flowers and stuff on Marie’s grave, ready for the priest. Last night … I asked Charlie and Hank to go too.  They’ve both been part of the ranch almost since the start as well as Jean.  Jean is in town at Mass; he ‘ll drive the father over to the lake after it finishes.” Adam waited for his father’s consent  and at Ben’s nod, he and Hoss strapped on their guns and headed for the chores.

    It took awhile to complete the necessary work and for Adam to gather what he planned for Marie’s gravesite.

     Joe was still dawdling over his own chores and noticed his brothers who were getting ready to leave.  He rapidly half stacked the woodbox and rushed over to badger his brothers, just as Pa walked out the door.  “Adam, Hoss, let me ride  to the lake with you, huh!  I 'll saddle my pony and be ready in just a second.  Hoss, we ‘ll take the fishin’ poles and catch some fish for dinner.  Sounds good, right? “Joe continued to talk almost exclusively to Hoss, knowing full well Adam was not likely to let him come if asked.  “Please, Hoss,” he wheedled in his most winning tone.  “ I wanta’ go with you.”

    Ben put a firm hand on Joe’s shoulder and answered “Son, your chores aren’t done yet and I need a hand with loading the picnic stuff into the buckboard.  Besides, Adam has some things to get ready.  They need to go ahead.”
    Joe stood, torn between pleasure at his father’s request for help and his desire to be with his big brothers and ride his pony.  Ben pushed him back to the wood box and shook his head slightly.  “Go finish or we’ll never get to the lake in time.  Hop Sing has the chicken ready for packing and Charlie and Hank are riding out with us.”  He swatted Joe lightly on the rump and ordered “Now git.”

    Ben looked again at Adam and recognized the signs of strain on his face, knowing full well Adam was still not sure if he was opening up old wounds again, not only for his father, but for himself as well.  “You boys git along and get things ready for us.  We'’ll be along in awhile, and Jean'll have the priest there before you know it. Joe’ ll be fine, Hoss, and I’ll bring the poles, in case you want to go fishin’ later.”

    Adam and Hoss trotted out of the yard and onto the lake trail before Joe could muster  any further protest.  It was a perfect autumn day, with a clear blue sky and the sun still strong enough to spread its warmth over the open parts of the trail.  The ride through the meadow showed the fall blooms still hanging on, glorious in their colors of yellow, orange, and red.  It was cooler among the trees, and mostly green, with glimpses of color on some of the trees, leaves clinging until the first hard storm of winter.  The ride was quiet, as Adam generally was not a talker and Hoss enjoyed the  silence to ride leisurely and keep his eyes peeled for the small creatures of the area.  Joe was fun, but he was such a chatterbox.  Everything live would have fled the area if Joe’s constant patter had been with them.

     As they rode, Hoss mulled over how best to ask his question.  He shifted a couple of times in his saddle, and the squeak caused Adam to turn and look back at him with a questioning glance.
     “You all right, Hoss?   You sure are squirming  back there.  If I didn’t know better, I'd  think you had a burr under your butt.”  Spying his brother’s troubled face, Adam realized that Hoss was trying to figure out how to ask something uncomfortable.  Too often in the past, Adam had seen that look as Hoss brooded over a problem.  Adam had a fair idea what Hoss was wondering; he was trying to get up the nerve to ask about HIS mother too.  Adam thought he could not stand to have Hoss talk to him about Inger right now, not until he got his conscience settled about Marie.  So, he did what he had done before.

    “Hoss, most of the winter plans are made, right?  We got the cattle settled, the feed ready to be used.  How' re you doin' with the blacksmithing and wagon repair?  “Bout done?”

    Hoss started a bit at the rapid change of subject, but observing his brother’s face, he noted Adam’s unrealized nervous habit of chewing lightly on his bottom lower lip, just in the corner.  Over the years, Hoss had learned to note the small signs that his brother was distressed and the lip chewing made him acutely aware of Adam’s discomfort.  So, he smirked  and replied “Sure, boss.  Mostly finished, just a couple more axles to repair and couple more horses to shoe.  Why, you got more chores waitin’ for me?”

    “Actually,” Adam began hesitantly.  “ I thought we might ask Pa for a couple of days to go to the mountains and see if we can shoot us a big buck to dress out and cure.  We could bring back enough meat for Hop Sing to plan venison as well as turkey for Thanksgiving.  It's the first of November today, so Thanksgiving's not far off.  Would you like to join me?  We haven’t been hunting, just us, since I got back from school.  Bet the weather'll hold for a couple more weeks, so we don’t get snowed in up there.”  Adam looked hopefully at Hoss, waiting to see if he understood that the trip would give them a chance to talk later, when Adam was more ready.
    Hoss’s broad face split into a big grin and he beamed.  “Shore, that sounds grand, Adam.  Ain’t been on a huntin’ trip in several years ‘ cause Pa don’t like to leave Joe and Joe shore don’t like gettin’ left.  So, you and me can find us a big buck and bring back plenty of meat for Hop Sing to fix.  Real fine idee’, Adam, real fine.”  Hoss was not a fool, though some might take him to be slow because of his size and deliberate manner.  He recognized Adam’s implied promise of time alone to talk on the trip and he agreed wholeheartedly.

    The brothers grew silent, content in each other’s company and apprehensive about the events ahead.  Adam remembered vividly the last time a group like this had assembled at Marie’s side.  Part of him dreaded the rush of emotion bound to follow this day.  But he was determined that the grave be blessed and the proper respect paid.  Besides it was time for the family to talk about Marie, to share the laughter and good times of living with the Creole firebrand, as well as the rough times.

     Hoss broke into Adam’s reverie with an abrupt question.  “Adam, what you reckon Hop Sing put into that there basket?  You figure he put any of them fancy éclair things Marie taught him to make?”  Adam’s eyes met Hoss’s and both broke into laughter.  “’Member the hassle in the house that week?”

    Adam’s laughing voice replied,  “I never saw a woman as mad as Marie got when she tried to show Hop Sing how to stuff those pastries, and I never saw Hop Sing as agitated as he got when she fussed.   They were yelling, and calling each other awful names, Marie in French and Hop Sing in Chinese.  Neither understood half what the other said, but the tones were unmistakable.  I wasn' t sure the house would survive or us either.  Lucky for Pa he was away for the week.”  Adam glanced at Hoss and continued,  “That might be something to tell Joe today, about his Mama teaching Hop Sing French cooking. Bet even Pa never heard that story, ‘least from us.”  Hoss’s grin and nod decided Adam about one tale for the day.   He wanted lots of stories and fun today, to chase away some of the grief.
     "I'm goin' to make a quick stop in this meadow, Hoss, to gather a few flowers," Adam said as they approached the final meadow before the climb to the lake.

    Hoss nodded and veered off a bit toward the trees on the outskirts of the meadow.  "Meet you at the head of the trail. I wanna' get a bit of stuff too," he decided.

    As their paths merged later, Hoss observed the bouquet of fall flowers Adam carried.  During Marie's life, the house had been filled with those same kinds of flowers in the fall. Hoss had always assumed Marie picked them on her rides., but he now realized that his big brother had probably been the source of many of those offerings.  Hoss felt a touch of envy that Adam had thought of the flowers, but as he remembered the things in his saddlebag, he knew Marie would like them too.  She had always treasured anything his boyish hands had brought.  Death would not have changed that.

    They trod slowly to the small mound high above the lake, crowned by a simple wooden cross with the word "Marie" burned into it as well as the austere granite stone put there later by her husband.  The words on the stone contained her name, year of birth and death, and the words,  "Beloved wife, loving mother".  Ben had finally mounted the stone almost three years after her death, but he had not had the heart to remove the earlier, simple tribute, so both graced Marie's final resting place.  Removing their hats respectfully, both boys bowed their heads briefly and silently greeted her.  Hoss had ridden there before, not constantly, but frequently. One of the first visits Adam had made upon his return home had been to the gravesite, both to see the headstone and to tell Marie about his college years and how he still thanked her for her support of his dream.  He had come several times since , mostly to complain about her youngest son and about how his Pa still treated him like a child.  Marie would have been both amused and most sympathetic about his problems.   Both then fell to work preparing the area for the service and the picnic to follow.

    Less than an hour later, Adam and Hoss, sitting quietly a'ways from the grave, heard the sound of Joe's chatter and the trample of heavy hooves as the buckboard and out riders approached.  Finally, they could see the family and the two ranch hands clearly.  As they got closer, Joe fell silent and watchful.  He gasped as he saw his mother's grave, with flowers scattered over it, and sea-green ribbons drawn into bows adorning the rough wooden cross.  Hoss's offerings of beautiful pine cones, nuts and fall berries clustered abundantly across the bottom of the site.

    Hop Sing jumped off the wagon first and hesitantly approached the grave with his offering of tiny bells strung on a single chain.  He attached them to the cross and they all heard the lovely tinkling as the breeze stirred them. Hop Sing then turned to the business of preparing the picnic.
    Even though they were not quite sure about what was happening, Charlie and Hank had both understood enough of Adam's explanation to know they were free to bring a gift too.  Hank had been the wrangler who had most often attended the high-spirited mare Marie had favored and had usually mounted the lady and seen to her horse at the end of her frequent, almost reckless rides.  He had spent the evening weaving some beautifully tanned leather strips into a small replica of a bridle.  He laid his offering beside the headstone.

    Charlie, on the other hand, had been the first of the hands to meet the new Mrs. Cartwright when she arrived, as well as the person on the ranch who had noted Adam's hurt and pain at the unexpected appearance of a new mother.   He had spent some of his time the next few years trying to temper Adam's growing pains with his father as well as his adjustments to a new mother.  Charlie had appreciated and admired the beautiful woman, but he had never forgotten his affection for Adam either.  He remembered the Christmas gifts the lady had given the hands the first year, rather fine and not too appropriate. In later years, she had learned what they needed or wanted in their lives and her gifts had become more practical.  But that first year, she had given her husband's foreman a wine-colored, silk scarf to wear around his neck. Charlie had thanked her politely and put it out of sight.  He wouldn't have ever  lived down wearing such a thing, but he did find it special enough to keep. Now he brought it to lay on her final resting place, the return of a gift to its generous donor.

    Even as Charlie moved back, they heard the approach of others.  Adam had expected to see Jean and Father Patrick in a buggy, but both were on horseback.  Apparently the priest owned and appreciated a fine piece of horseflesh -  certainly a mark in his favor in Cartwright eyes.  The priest saw all the men watching as he approached and dismounted.  With a friendly smile and nod for all, he approached Ben Cartwright and greeted him as his host.

     "Top of the mornin' to yer, Mr. Cartwright.  I am Father Patrick McKenna and 'tis proud I am to be here with yer and yer family on this special day.  Adam gives me to understand that there was perhaps  a lack of preparation for the buryin' of Ms. Cartwight and that today, the family and friends would like to have the church say some of the missin' words. "Tis only proper, and pleased I am to be the one chosen for the honor."
     Then he turned and shook Adam's hand and waited for the introductions.  Adam introduced their Chinese cook.  The priest noted the tiny bells, listened to their pinging  and nodded approvingly.  "Lovely music for the rites, Mr. Hop Sing," he smiled.
    Adam introduced Charlie and Hank as long time ranch hands and friends, while Jean walked over to the grave and placed a bouquet of late summer roses with the other flowers.  Adam wondered briefly where he had gotten them and was willing to bet some Virginia City garden was missing a few blooms, as there would have been none for sale.  Adam then pulled his shy, younger brother Hoss forward and introduced him proudly.  As he shook Hoss's big paw, Father Pat wondered which tribute on the grave belonged to the huge man and which to Adam.  It did not really matter; the site was ablaze with color from flowers, filled with natural bounty in the pine combs and nuts, and decked with ribbons and other offerings.  Truly glorious, as were the natural surroundings and the blissful weather.

    He spoke politely with Mr. Cartwright again, asking about Marie's vital statistics and a few dates. etc., to include in his words.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw the small boy who had been introduced as "Little Joe",  corrected to "Joe", slip quietly to his mother's grave and hesitantly place a rosary he had taken from his pocket.  Father Pat recognized that it was the type of rosary used by ladies and knew it was one of Joe's treasures, offered this day to his mother.  He made a mental note to see that the rosary was returned to the boy at the end of the day.  It was something he would treasure forever as belonging to his mother; besides, its offering showed that the boy was at least aware of his mother's faith. As he watched, he saw the boy make an awkward sign of the cross too,  and he knew it was the memory of his mother prompting his actions.

Hop Sing has gone to the wagon, unloaded the picnic supplies and set them up while the others were in quiet conversation.  Now he approached the group and with his return, the priest decided to get the solemn, difficult time completed, so the rest of the day could be spent in remembering Marie.  Father Pat had debated with himself long into the night as to what to say, both at the burial site, and later in private conversation with the widower.  What he ought to say and what he felt compelled to say might not be the same.
    Father Pat‘s melodic Irish voice began, “Brethern, family an’ friends alike, you knew the lady buried here.  Yer knew her to be the lovin’ wife of Ben Cartwright, the lovin’ mother of  three sons gathered here, even though only the youngest, Joseph, was from the marriage of Ben and Marie Cartwright.  It is obvious to me, though I be a stranger here, that her husband still grieves deeply at her loss, that all three sons treasured the lady as a mother.  I understand how things were when Marie was killed so suddenly, so tragically in a freakish accident.  Twas  no church and no priest to be had in a hundred miles for a proper buryin’ .  So, ‘ twas love and knowin’  that chose such a beautiful place for her final restin‘ , that chose who spoke over her grave. Happenstance  dictated doing the best yer could, and yer did.

    The Creator Himself  could no have chosen a bonnier resting place for the such a beloved lady. I reakon that yer family spent many happy hours here, picnickin’  and fishin’ and nappin’ and laughin’.  It’s fittin’ that Marie should remain here to share still the beauty of yer world.  “Tis appropriate that  yer might wish a blessing on this ground, but yer love has already blessed it far beyond me poor ability.  God hears the prayers of his children, spoken in times of such need.   He would see the goodness of Marie as having blessed this ground and it truly needs no more.  But I offer today these words “In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,  blessed be this resting place of Marie Cartwright and blessed be the family and friends who grieve her loss still and forever.”  Father Pat made the sign of the Cross as he completed his benediction; then he lifted his head, smiled lovingly upon all the men there and concluded with a vigorous “Amen.”

     The bright blue eyes of the cleric looked first at Adam, seeing some of the shadows lifted from those dark eyes, shadows held for five years because the boy had felt such guilt about not doing enough to honor his dead stepmother.  He then gazed at the father of the family, hoping he had said enough to assuage the guilt he sensed in Marie’s husband for his failure to provide support to his family at a time when he himself was most grieved.  Father Pat glanced next at the brother called “Hoss” and at the youngster introduced as Joe.  Both of them looked back at him with clear, youthful eyes, glad the service was over and yet still shaded with grief for their loss.  Lastly, he noted the two cowhands putting their hats back on their heads and Hop Sing moving silently toward the food area.  It was done.
     Later that afternoon, Adam looked at the peaceful party, full of Hop Sing’s delicious food, and mellowed by the warmth of the sun and the surroundings.  He heard Joe’s high giggle as Hoss described in word and gesture about Marie and Hop Sing and éclairs, while Hop Sing just shook his head and muttered Chinese phrases, trying hard not to smile at the tale and the teller.  Pa was talking animatedly with Father Pat, arguing some point of issue between churches, both men thoroughly enjoying the discussion.  Jean was a silent listener.  At no time had the priest even alluded to a need for Joe to be raised in the Catholic faith, so Adam knew it would not be mentioned this day.  Hank and Charlie had their hats pulled over their faces, “resting their eyes”, but making sounds suspiciously like snoring.

     Adam glanced at the gravesite, still resplendent with its finery.  The green ribbons, just the color of Marie and Joe’s eyes, fluttered gaily and the bells pinged.  It felt like Marie’s benediction rested on all of them.   Smiling to himself, Adam remembered, “Marie always did love a good party.”


    Ben was tired.  It was a good tired, but he was more weary  following this day than if he had spent 12 hours chasing ornery steers.  He realized that high emotion would do that to a body.  Now, he, Hop Sing and Joe were on the trail home.  The family and some long-time workers had spent most the day at the grave of his late wife, Marie.  First there had been a blessing of the ground by a newly arrived Catholic priest, followed by a lavish picnic lunch prepared by the Cartwrights’ cook, Hop Sing.  During and following the lunch, the adults had vied with each other to tell his youngest son, Joseph, (Joe for short and Little Joe when they forgot)  all kinds of tales about his mother.  Marie had died when Joe was barely five, and his memory of her tended to be a bit vague at times.  Today had renewed everyone’s memory.  There had been tales of mischief, of hot temper and of loving kindness.  Later, Hoss and Joe had taken their poles to the lake to fish a bit, while most of the adults had taken a nap or engaged in quiet conversation.  Ben treasured every memory, and hoped Joe would too.  He rejoiced in the peace he had glimpsed in his son Adam’s eyes, at the end of the day.  Perhaps both of them felt forgiven for their oversights five years ago at Marie’s death.

    Ben grinned openly as he recalled the conversation as the party broke up.  Charlie, Hank, and Jean had all offered to see that Father Patrick got back to Virginia City safely and had almost argued over which one would escort him. Ben and Father Pat were both too experienced in the ways of the world to believe the sole reason for the argument  was the company of the priest.  In Virginia City, the escort could spend a couple of hours in one of the saloons and still get home in time for bed and work the next day.  Finally, with a laugh, Ben had announced, “Why don’t the three of you ride with him?  Git a drink or two before you start back.  You better stay out of trouble, though, as I don’t plan to bail you out of jail anytime soon.”  The three men had nodded gratefully and rushed the priest to his horse and on his way.  Ben recalled the priest’s mischievous look back as he rode away.

    Adam and Hoss had helped pack the wagon,  then Adam had remarked, “Pa, Hoss and I ‘ll ride on back  and start the chores.  That way, we will have them mostly done by the time you get back, except for unloading the wagon and tending the team.  I’m beat and I’m bettin’ you are too.  Just something simple for dinner tonight will do me,” he continued as he looked at Hop Sing.

    “Me hav’ soup and cake ready.  Maybe fix hot bisquets rest.  Already had plenti’ food today.  No fix more.” Hop Sing replied as he watched Hoss rub his belly in anticipation of another meal.  “Be enough even for Mr. Hoss.”
    “Sounds good, Son,” Ben had replied and watched as the two brothers mounted and cantered down the trail.  “Come on, Joe, lets’ get started.  I wanta get home before dark.”   Joe had climbed up on the seat next to his father, leaving Hop Sing to climb into the back.   Before they had gone very far, the tired cook had drifted into sleep, propped against the back of the wagon, his head pillowed in the cloth used to cover the ground for the picnic.  Ben had expected Joe to follow in sleep almost immediately, but the boy had fooled him.

    Joe had chattered about this and that, about the fishing with Hoss and about the stories he had been told all afternoon.  Eventually he had run out of steam and just sat, watching the trail in front of them.  Ben had listened with half an ear, caught up in memories and regrets of his own.  The sun was low in the sky to their backs, but it was still warm enough to be comfortable.  The sky along the horizon was cloaked in a shade of pink that could only occur in nature, a pink between the color of a rose and the spanked pink of a baby’s behind.  Ben could remember the shade from Joe’s younger days.  The breeze had disappeared and the stillness was interrupted only by the patient clump of the horses and the rustling of small creatures as they scampered to ground. All in all, it was a peaceful scene.

    Ben felt Joe turn to him and looked inquiringly at his son’s solemn  face.  “Yes?” he queried.

    Joe licked his lips, hesitated briefly, then took the plunge.  “Pa, do you miss Mama?” he asked softly.  He lifted his jade-green eyes to his father’s, waiting for his answer.
    Ben’s thoughts flashed back to Elizabeth, his first love.  He pictured her beautiful face, pure and oval, with dark, intelligent eyes that still looked at him from their son’s own face.  He remembered her light laughter, the way she cocked her head when waiting for an answer to a question.  She had loved to read and loved almost as much to discuss what she had read and her own thoughts about the subject.  In so many ways, Adam was the opposite of his mother, not open and confiding, as she had been, but that was because of the way he and his father had been forced to live for several years.  In other ways, in his love of learning, music and beauty, in his questioning nature, he was just like his mother.  Ben thought “Oh, yes, I miss my Liz.  I miss Adam’s mama badly.  I miss her most when I need advice on how to do right by Adam.  She would know how to break through that wall he has built around his heart, to keep from being hurt again.  She could ease him.”  He had seen her again in his mind  today, as he watched Adam talking with Father Patrick about books they had both read and magnificent music they had heard.

    Then his mind flew to Inger, mother of  his gentle giant  middle son.  Inger had never considered herself beautiful.  She had thought of herself as a big, clumsy woman of no particular worth.  Ben had seen in her the consistent love of all of God’s creatures that shone out of her crystal blue eyes. No one could know Inger and not recognize both her calm, placid beauty on the outside as well as the inner beauty that made her every touch healing.  Ben saw in Hoss those same virtues.  He remembered his patient son sitting quietly near the picnic area today, patiently coaxing the small ground squirrels to come feed from his fingers.  Hoss loved all creatures and they returned his love with absolute trust.  “Oh, yes, many a time he had been ambushed by his sudden need for Inger’s calming presence in his life.”

    Feeling Joe stir beside him, Ben brought his mind back to his youngest son and the question he had asked.  He looked at Joe’s shining face, lighted by the same green eyes that had looked at him so lovingly across the table and in his bed.  Joe had his mother’s mercurial nature, laughing one minute and furious the next, happy and sad almost in the same breath.  His youngest was so like Marie that sometimes Ben’s heart would catch in grief and anguish at how much he missed Marie’s presence in the house.  She alone of his three wives had shared the Ponderosa with him.  He had lost her scent first, after her death.  She had always had a fragrance of roses about her person and her clothing.  Then he had lost the sound of her voice.  He could still remember the words and gestures, but the charming accent and tone of her voice had faded in memory.  Today had helped, as they had all told their stories.  Ben could again capture the memories of what she said and how she said them.  Ben’s heart caught and he thought.

  “Do I miss your mother, Son?  I miss her sometimes when I climb the stairs to go to my lonely bed; I miss her face across the table.  I miss her most of all when I am at my wit’s end about some mischief that you have gotten into or when you are sick and I don’t know what to do.”

    Joe repeated his question, a little louder and more demanding. “Pa, do you miss my mama?”     Ben looked deeply into his son’s eyes and wondered how to explain how he missed all the brothers’ mothers. He was not sure he understood it himself.  Suddenly, super-imposed over Joe’s face, he saw another face, the face of a five year old Adam on the trip west, even before he had met Inger.  Adam’s dark, intelligent eyes had looked intently at his father and asked “Pa, why do you give  a long answer to a short question?”

    Remembering that long-ago lesson, Ben smiled gently at Joe and replied “Yes, Joe, I miss your Mama.”

    Joe grinned back at his father and simply responded “Me, too, Pa.  Me, too!” Then, with the priceless gift of childhood, Joe dropped instantly to sleep, tired and content.  Ben shuffled a bit on the seat, so he could let Joe stretch out and put his head on his lap.  He stroked his son’s curly head and clucked to the horses to step up the pace a bit.

    Ben found himself anxious to get home, anxious to see his sons together at the table, being family.  Yes, he missed his wives, all three of them, but each had given him a gift.  He had a son with each wife, a son who shared the dream he had dreamed in Boston with Liz, of tall sons to tend tall trees in the West.  Inger had traveled with him across country in search of those tall trees and left him another son as part of the dream.  Then Marie had shared in the building of the ranch and left him still another son who would always act tall, even if he never attained the physical stature of his brothers.

    Ben recognized that loving meant being willing to be hurt, but he also knew that he was blessed beyond measure with the love left by the women who had graced his life.  Yes, today had been a good day, and there was tomorrow, many  tomorrows to look forward to.  His sons would insure that he never got bored.



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