When Little Boys Grow Up    
Irish, Tahoe Lady  

Bo appears by gracious consent of Helen Adams.


If a person could have hidden in the large green books that were the ledgers for the Ponderosa Ranch, Joe Cartwright would have that early afternoon. He'd spent a good five minutes looking at the same page while he sipped his coffee. The long list of figures there wasn't all that inspiring and a glance at the bottom of the page told him they had been added and subtracted correctly. Jamie always did a neat job, his handwriting precise and his numbers evenly formed. There were rare corrections. Joe scowled, knowing his own work was far less accurate than his adopted brother's. His scrawled words seemed to eat up the lines and flow over them even when he tried to make the letters smaller. The figures he wrote were the same, too big, too crooked or just too many. When it came to adding and subtracting, he did all right but lacked the care that Jamie lavished upon the outcome, double-checking each conclusion and going after small mistakes as though the future of the Ranch depended on each penny represented in those columns.

"Something wrong?" Ben asked, breaking into his son's silent self-castigation. As he stood before the desk he had sat behind for so many years, he wanted to smile, seeing the scowl on his son's face. He shrugged into his fleece-lined coat and pulled on his gloves as he waited for an answer.

Joe sighed before he answered, closing the ledger. "No, Pa, nothing's wrong. Looks like we'll end the year well into the black again." He laced his fingers together across his stomach and leaned back in the chair.

"Then why the long face and sigh?"

His eyes rolling, Joe shook his head. "You worry too much, Pa. If you don't have faith in me to run the ranch. . . ." He knew his father's stand on that subject since he had been running the day to day operations for the past few years.

"Don't start that, again, Joseph! You know that I have every faith in your ability. You are doing what you grew up doing - namely bewildering me no end!" Ben finished his words by bracing both fists knuckle down on the desk and his chin thrust out, defying his son to tell him differently.

With a short chuckle, Joe stood up and grinned mischievously for his father. There may have been a hearty sprinkling of gray through his hair but to Ben, this person was still his baby boy. As such, with the playful glint in his boy's green eyes matching the devilish grin, Ben figured he might not have been getting the full and honest truth.

"Actually the face and the sigh have nothing to do with running the ranch." With lightning speed, he changed the subject. "Are you sure you don't want to stay home today and play with your grandsons?"

Ben wagged a gloved finger under his son's nose. "I get to play with my grandchildren any time I please. That was one of the prerequisites that came with you and Honor living here, remember? What I really think you're after is someone else to help your wife today, isn't it? I am ashamed of you, Joseph. All she wants help with is a little furniture moving."

Joe shoved his hands into the small of his back and arched it, his shoulders rising and falling. How could he admit that his father was partly right? "A little furniture moving? Do you have any idea what she has in mind? I do and it scares me to think about doing that much work."

"Would it be different if it could be done from the back of a horse?" teased Ben then settling his hat a little firmer on his head, grinned. "Tell Hop Sing that I'll be home in time for supper, would you?"

Chuckling, he paused when he got to the door, seeming to remember something. "And Joseph?" he called out, "Welcome to married life."

The door banged closed behind his father and Joe flopped back down into the desk chair muttering. Married life, huh? Been married a long time and he's just noticing it? He barked a laugh at himself. No, just the first time you can't talk the hired help into doing…

At first, it had seemed like a logical idea: put another room onto the back of the house, joined to Joe and Honor's bedroom. It would be the bedroom for their twin sons. For the time being, there would be a single door that led into their parents' room and it would be heated by the same small fireplace that warmed them. When the boys were older, a doorway would be cut into the space under the great room's staircase. It hadn't taken long for the carpenters Joe hired to build the room. He had stood outside one day last week and marveled at how the addition looked as though it had been part of the whole for all the years the house had stood. Now it was finished inside as well.

Then, the real work began. Honor Cartwright showed herself to be a determined woman, insisting upon this and that in the spacious room. Although the boys were not quite two and had slept in the same crib since birth, she insisted that now they each have their own separate beds. She argued that they were getting too big to sleep in the crib and that a single bed was fine for their Hoss but AJ, the smaller of the two, needed something different.

"Up in the attic is a bed Joe used when he was little," Ben offered, recalling the bed with short railings along two sides that theoretically would have kept the boy from falling out, or getting out of bed without help. Careful to keep his face impassive, he also recalled how the child had quickly learned the art of climbing so that the railings were useless. He and Marie would find their child asleep in the oddest places for a good month after he got the bed. Afraid that the youngster would come to harm, a firm talking to and a spanking had followed. Joe, just four at the time, had stood, lip pouting out and rubbing his sore buttocks, then promised he would not do it again. It wasn't that they doubted his sincerity but late every night, Ben would feel Marie get up and check to make sure their pint-sized roamer was still in bed. He usually was and when he wasn't, he could usually be found with either brother.

Honor had latched onto the idea of the inherited bed like a coyote to a loose chicken. No amount of arguing that the boys were too young for such sleeping arrangements would dissuade her. Now that the building of the room was completed, she had boldly told her husband that they would venture into the attic for the bed her father-in-law had spoken of. Not only that, Hop Sing had told her that there were other pieces of furniture there that she might want to use in the room for her sons.

That morning, Joe had tried to dodge the attic-bullet once more. "Just go up there and decide what you want. Then tomorrow, I'll have a couple of the hands come haul the stuff down for you."

Her reply had been a napkin snapped at his arm as it lay on the tabletop. "These are your children, Joseph Cartwright," she scolded, "and I would think that you would want to do for your own. Isn't that right, Father Ben?"

Joe knew once she brought his father into the discussion that he had lost. He was right and, heedful of his wife's wishes, he'd caved. Of course, he figured once the boys were sleeping in their own beds in their own room, he and Honor could -

She must have read his thoughts since she smacked him again with the napkin, this time a little more playfully.

"The boys are napping. Come on, Joe," Honor broke into his thoughts.

Joe's eyes snapped open. Across the desk from him, Honor leaned. With snapping blue eyes and her lips and brow making a pair of determined lines, she jerked her head toward the stairs. In response, he smiled and twitched his own brows invitingly.

"No," she said flatly, realizing what he was wordlessly proposing. "The attic."

"Hmmm," he cooed softly, coming around the corner of the desk, ready to capture his wife in his arms for a little afternoon playtime of their own. "The attic, don't think we have ever made love in the -"

"And we won't this time either!" she erupted.

"You're right. It's too cold up there. We'll stay down here and -"

"Joseph! The attic!"

Morosely, his shoulders drooped and he followed Honor, repeating, "The attic."



Every house has an attic. Sometimes it is just a closet, sometimes a small cubbyhole but it is an attic all the same. The attic of any house is the memory-keeper for the family who lives there. Odd pieces of furniture linger there. Trunks full of forgotten clothes that had to be kept just in case of a future need sit waiting for that future. Boxes of once-treasured trinkets, mementos of days happy or sad, are there as well. Generations not yet born will one day look into the attic and find the bits and pieces, calling them valuable antiques. They will judge them, not knowing that the real value has passed: the memories each item held for someone else. For while the physical presence remains, memories do not survive the passing of their keeper unless shared. Yet some memories are too painful, too intimate to share.

As he climbed the rickety wooden steps behind his wife, Joe Cartwright could picture each piece in the attic as it had sat for years. Having grown up in the same house he now lived in with his wife and children, the attic was a familiar place to him. As he struck a match to light the lamp Honor had brought with her, the buttery golden glow traced not only the outline of the attic but of his life as well. It was, in an odd way, comforting to find that nothing had changed since he had last climbed those steps.

"Look at all this…stuff!" Honor yelped, a finger making a trough in the dust on an old bureau.

"I think it is the true Yankee in my father coming out. Never throw away anything because as soon as you do, you'll need it." Joe knew he couldn't hit the right deep tones of his father's voice but the words were vintage Ben Cartwright and made Honor laugh. "Come on, let's find the bed and get it out of here."

"It is cold. Should have worn my shawl." Honor chaffed her arms, looking about her as though searching for something to warm herself.

Joe opened a trunk that sat on the far side of the room. "Here," he offered, pulling out something from it and handing it back to his wife.

She held it up to the light. It was indeed a shawl but knitted in fine wool in an intricate pattern. It weighed next to nothing but as she draped it around her shoulders, it warmed her as though it were made of fire. Even though it was heavily scented with cedar to keep pests at bay, she buried her nose in it.

"Roses. It smells of roses, Joe."

When he didn't respond, she looked across to where he stood at the opened trunk.

She could tell that he was holding something and her curious nature wanted to know what it was. She tiptoed up behind him and looked around his shoulder.

In his hands was a small stuffed toy. A bear, she thought, wearing a vest and thin ribbon tie. It had seen better days. Even in the faint lamplight, she could see that there were places that the soft red-brown nap of felt had been worn smooth and shiny. As she watched silently, Joe lifted the head of the toy, supporting it much the way he had their sons when they were tiny infants. She gazed upon the bear's face, seeing the tattered ears and mismatched button eyes. The mouth had at one time been a smile of red yarn embroidered there.

"Wondered where . . . " Joe started to say but then changed his mind. "Honor, meet Bo." He held up the toy as though presenting a crown prince for the first time.

Honor touched the bear with one finger, tracking down his little bellies. "Am I to gather that this fellow is important to you?"

"He was once," Joe admitted and started to replace him into the trunk he had found Bo in.

There was doubt in her tone when Honor gently chided, "Once? He looks pretty well used to have been once." She reached around her husband and picked up the bear.

"So okay, now you know the truth about your husband. Bo was good company for a long time when I was growing up." Joe closed the trunk and turning, leaned against its rounded top. "But isn't there some verse in the Bible about when I became a man, I gave up childish things? Or something like that."

Still holding the bear in her arms, Honor moved away and, finding a box that would hold her, sank down onto it, wrapping the rose-scented shawl around her shoulders. "Tell me about Bo."

Joe cocked his head to one side and grimaced. "Let's just get the bed out of here, okay?"

"Not until you tell me about Bo."

He took a deep breath and held it, wondering how much he could get away telling her about Bo. It wasn't as though the memories wreathed around the little fellow were bad memories. For the most part, they were pleasant memories but there were . . . others.

"I'm your wife, remember? I didn't know you when you were growing up. All I know about that part of your life is what you and your family have told me. Something tells me that if this little guy could talk, he'd tell me a lot, but most of his mouth is gone so he can't, Joe. Whatever his little eyes saw, it couldn't be that bad. Tell me about Bo, Joe. Tell me what he saw, what he did, what he heard." She was glad that Joe had looked away because she found tears in her eyes when she finished.

"My mother made Bo for me before I was born," Joe said then stopped as though that might explain it all to her.

Honor could have bet her last penny on that fact. She could see the loving stitching, the creativity that seemed to glow from him as he lay in her lap. With a delicate touch, she straightened the string tie he wore.

"Adam and Hoss made his clothes. Never struck me that he never had pants, just the vest and the tie. That's all a good bear ever needs, I guess."

"And Bo was a good bear, wasn't he?" she asked, trying to lift her husband's disquieting mood.

"Bo was a fine bear. He even went all the way to Boston once." Joe went on when Honor's face showed her disbelief. "Yep, it was right after Adam had gone away to college and I figured he needed something to remind him of home. He kept him a little while then sent him home with a note that said Bo was a little homesick but that he knew I would make him feel better since I had made Adam feel better. Kid stuff, really. Got to admit, when Bo came home, I felt a lot better myself." He chortled as though to himself then sat down on the floor at his wife's feet.

"Yes, Bo had lots of adventures with me. Together, we discovered how cold Lake Tahoe is in early spring. I caught a terrible cold and a spanking out of the expedition. Bo got hung by his ears on the clothesline until he dried out. He went to school with me and hid in my saddlebags all day. On the way home, I would tell him all about my day in school and he would listen, never gave me wrong advice, just listened. When I got out of school -" Again, Joe paused and looked suddenly at the floor. When he looked back up, he had caught his lower lip with his teeth, fighting a losing battle to not tell her something. " My first day of real work as a Ponderosa hand, Pa sent me to fix fence on my own. I thought I was all grown up, let me tell you! I saddled my horse, put my tools in my saddlebags along with the lunch Hop Sing had wrapped up for me and off I rode. Along about midmorning, I got to feeling real lonesome out there on that stretch of fence line. I had hoped that at some point, Pa or Adam or Hoss would have come out to check on me, like they had before. But they didn't. By lunchtime, I was pretty low to the ground. I pulled out my lunch and sitting with my back against one of those damn fence posts, opened it. Guess who was there with my sandwich?"


Joe nodded, smiling broadly at the remembrance. "Bo. I never said anything about it and I still don't know how he got into my lunch. Pa, I would guess." A shadow passed over Joe just then and when he spoke again, his voice was thick and heavy with emotion. "I put Bo away after that. Didn't see him for a long while. Then, right after Alice died, when I had to get away, to be by myself. . . ." Here his voice came to a halt completely and Honor could hear her husband's heart breaking all over again at the memory of the death of his first wife. As he sat staring off into the past, she placed Bo into his hands and brushed her fingers through his hair.

"I was camped over on the Trinity River in Northern California. I'd been gone from the ranch for about six weeks, just drifting. It was drizzling rain so I'd put up a lean-to and built a little fire, had some supper then rolled into my blankets to sleep some. I don't know why, but I went digging through my saddlebags for something. That's when I found Bo. He was all the way in the bottom of one bag. There was a little scrap of paper stuffed into his vest. I could tell right off who wrote the note even though it wasn't signed. Pa had written it. All it said was I love you. You'd have been really proud of your husband that night. There I was in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, crying my eyes out because of a child's toy I'd found in my stuff. Really grown up, let me tell you!"

Honor slipped to floor and laid her head in his lap. "No," she whispered. "I would have been proud of the fact that husband knew how important that child's toy was. It isn't that Bo is a toy. It's what he represents. Home. Family. Love. Those are all important things and that night you needed those things. Thank you, Bo."

As he spoke, Joe placed the bear on his wife's stomach and addressed them both. "You are probably right since it wasn't long after that I headed home. Got a little sidetracked but I came home. So, yep, thanks, Bo! You done me right again."

"I kind of envy you. I never had a Bo. Dolls galore but none that I could play with or have adventures with like you and Bo." Honor admitted and tapped the bear on the nose.

"Okay then," Joe sat his wife up as he grabbed the bear. "Bo Bear, this is Honor Cartwright. She is as special to me as you were once. When I'm not around, you take care of her for me?" Because of the looseness of the neck's stuffing, the bear's head was easy for Joe to make nod. "Good Bo!" With his spread fingers, Joe pushed the arms forward as though they were reaching for Honor.

Laughing at his antics and feeling the deep love behind them, she took the little bear and hugged him to her breast.

"But don't go getting real familiar with her, boy, because she is a married woman," he chided jokingly then got to his feet. "Come on. Let's get the bed and get downstairs where it's warm enough I can remind that woman she's married."

Pulled to her feet, Honor kissed first Bo then Joe and put the one who would fit in her apron pocket. "I agree. The bed downstairs, set up, made. Then if there's still time -"

"I'll make time!"



A final twist of the wrench and Joe had the small bed's frame put together. Some of the support slats had been broken and he would need to replace them. A glimpse out the bedroom window showed him that because of the coming darkness, the slats would have to wait until tomorrow. He placed the ones he had then stood to look down on his handy work. Yes, it would suit AJ right down to the little one's toes! He'd taken a few measurements and given them to Honor, telling her that the mattress would need to be that size to fit. She'd kissed his cheek then scurried away with the paper. The last he had seen of her, she was headed off somewhere on some errand and he had been left minding his boys.

At two years old, the boys were about as different as night and day with no sign that they were actually twins. The biggest one, named for his grandfather and deceased uncle, had inherited the size of both and thus the nickname of the latter. Called Hoss, he was a delightful child with a quick agile mind. He had been the first to walk and the first to talk even though some of what he said now was an unintelligible babble. An active child, he possessed a curious nature about all things, turning small things this way and that in his pudgy fingers. Hoss laughed easily and seemed to impart delight to others when he did. Like his namesake, he ate everything placed before him and with gusto, much to his parent's dismay at times.

On the other hand, AJ, which was short for Adam Joseph, was a quiet child. In the past year, when his brother had taken off walking, he seemed disinterested in the whole process. He was more inclined to sit and watch than to actively participate. Just now, and only at his parents and grandfather's insistence, was he pulling himself up on the furniture and taking unsteady steps. His favorite pastime seemed to be listening to talk and he would sit quietly in a lap while the preacher gave a sermon or his grandfather read a story. Unlike his brother, AJ was rather reticent about speaking, which bothered his mother no end, but as his father pointed out, Hoss did enough for the two of them. Indeed, there did seem to be a sort of communication between the two and Hoss was of such a congenial personality that sharing with his brother seemed natural. There were rarely fights between the two as one might expect of toddlers sharing the same household. In the instances that there did arise a dispute, it always seemed that Hoss was the aggressor. Once AJ started crying though, Hoss was hard pressed to continue his bellicose ways. That seemed to be AJ's strong suit for he was, like his namesake uncle and father, a charmer. And his most reliable targets were women. A flash of a smile and his bright green eyes and the women, with no age barrier determined, felt enamored of the tyke.

Joe had no more than laid aside the wrench he had used to tighten a bolt than Hoss had tried picking it up. He spouted off a string of sounds that ended on a high note that his father took to be a question.

"Wrench," Joe said clearly then turned to see what his son was up to just as the little one managed to clear the floor with it.

Standing on two wobbly legs and his feet stumbling in his short dress-like clothing, Hoss was prepared to help his father. Again he let loose with a stream of sounds, his face turned up to his father, clearly expecting an answer.

Joe pulled the boy and the wrench into his lap as he sat back down on the floor. Across the room, sitting in a pile of bedclothes destined for their two beds, AJ clapped his hands and beamed as though he had just heard a funny story. His father gently pried Hoss' fingers from around the wrench's handle and showed him how it was used.

"See? It goes around and around, making this nut tighten on the bolt. It's a tool, Hoss."

The little one's dark eyes blinked then, as if he were twenty, not two, said, "Nut on bolt."

"Yeah!" Joe crowed. "Wondered when you were gonna start speaking English, boy!"

The next sounds out of Hoss' mouth were a stream of babbling again, this time directed at his brother across the room. He struggled out of his father's lap and went across the room where he stood yammering at AJ for a good minute. Then he returned to his father, apparently pleased as punch by what he had done.

"Nut on bolt," Hoss repeated then patted the slats of the bed.

"No, that's the bed frame to your brother's bed. Seems your mother has certain ideas about your sleeping arrangements."

"Night-night?" the boy asked, his round face puckering as if he were about to cry.

From across the room, AJ seemed to understand that something his father said was making his brother upset. He took off at his fastest crawl, the hem of his long gown caught up between his teeth, holding it out of the way. As soon as he reached his father, he sat down with a plop and proceeded to smack his father's hand. On the whole, it appeared that the youngster had a firm concept of discipline and that his father was in need of some.

"No," Joe said, in between fits of laughing, "no night-night now." He gathered AJ into his lap.

Hoss clambered up onto the slats and sat down. He touched the hard oaken wood and set his mind to working, clearly, since his face screwed itself about.

"Little hard for a bed, don't you think?" Joe asked and to his delight, AJ nodded, his little head rubbing his father's chest.

"Hard," Hoss repeated.

"Won't be for long. Momma's gonna get a mattress made for it just like your bed, Hoss." Joe pointed to the single bed not four feet from them. It sat close to the floor and already had a thick feather-stuffed mattress on it. The linens for it were still an unorganized pile, full of the bright colors that attracted Hoss' attention.

"Bed," AJ said and looked up at his father, his eyes round in amazement.

The child was not the only one amazed. His father was likewise. "Yes, that's Hoss' bed and this one will be yours," he explained once more, rubbing the small back and was delighted when the baby leaned into the motion. "You two are getting to be big boys now. I understand that Momma has started housebreaking the pair of you. You know, don't you, once you can do without diapers, you get to wear pants."

"Like Papa!" Hoss crowed and Joe wondered where that observation had sprung from. AJ only clapped his hands together and laughed.

"Then I suppose the next big step will be going to school. Learning to read and write; learning about the world outside." Joe paused, realizing that he was growing entirely too melancholy for an afternoon with a pair of two year olds. The children though seemed adeptly in tune to their parent's mood for they also had grown somber. Joe hugged AJ to his chest and rubbed Hoss' sturdy little shoulder. "You guys are growing up way too fast. You know that, don't you? I wanted you to stay little fellas for a long while but I guess that's being foolish, isn't it?" He snorted. This was probably the same thing his father had said on at least three occasions.

AJ squirmed in his father's arms and using the adult shoulders close at hand, pulled himself up and looked in his father's eyes. He seemed to study them for a few moments then patted his father's cheek and smiled.

"No sad," the little one said beseechingly and laid his own cheek on Joe's.

"Not ever, guys, not as long as you are with me."



When Ben Cartwright returned home late that afternoon it was to the sounds of little boys whooping and laughing. He followed the joyous raucousness into the new addition. There, amid tossed blankets and a chair on its side, he found his son playing with the pint-sized noisemakers. He sighed, recalling how this same man had lured others into playing with him when he had been a child.

"I see you finally found someone to play with," Ben teased, leaning against the doorjamb and pulling off his gloves. "Go easy on him, Hoss and AJ; there's two of you and one of him."

"I keep trying to impress that fact upon the pair but they don't seem to get the gist of it," Joe explained as AJ sat on his chest, holding him down.

"'Course not. They can't count. Hop Sing says supper will be ready in a bit if you think you can get these hooligans cleaned up by yourself. Oh, I see you found the bed in the attic."

"Yeah," came Joe's reply as he swung Hoss up to his shoulder where the boy sat wide-eyed. "Is it right? I mean, wanting to make the boys sleep in beds. I mean, they're still babies, Pa."

Ben had been in the midst of leaving when Joe asked his question. He could hear himself asking that same question years before but he had not had a third party to ask. For a little bit, he considered how he should answer the query then it came to him and he was grateful that it was here, where the only witnesses would have no concept of what he was saying or doing.

"All babies," he said as though choosing his words with great care. He crossed his arms over his broad chest then brought up one fist to rest his chin in, giving him the appearance of a wise old man about to impart some great worldly wisdom. "All babies grow up and the wise parent lets them."

"But I wanted them to be little for a little while longer." Joe bent and disengaged AJ from around his leg while holding Hoss steady.

"I shall repeat to you something your mother told me once. Do you know what she said when I complained about a certain curly-haired lad growing up and sleeping in a real bed? She said it was good because then the crib would be empty and the good thing about that was that you could always fill it up again." At that, Ben Cartwright summoned all of his parental authority about him like a golden cloak and walked out.

It took Joe a full minute to figure out what his father had said. "You don't suppose that is what your Momma is really after, do you?" he asked his sons but they, of course, had no response beyond a pair of giggles.



He had no idea what it was that peeked from out of his mother's apron pocket. There were ears and he had watched them to see if they moved. His mother was sitting in front of the big fireplace, warming her back as she often did when she came back from being gone a while. While his brother Hoss was busy entertaining Grandpa, he had crawled over to sit on the floor beside his mother's legs. It was so that he could study what it was his mother had for it interested him. Using the fabric of her skirt, he pulled himself to stand up and this put him right there beside it. He studied it, waiting again to see if it moved. It didn't. He poked at its bulk through the thick white of Momma's apron but it still didn't move. He pulled on one ear and was surprised to find that it came up easily. He stopped when it was halfway out and looked around at the adults. They were all talking and laughing, not paying the least attention to him so he continued. Momma didn't react when AJ got the entire puzzlement out of her pocket. With one hand clutching his prize, he sat back down, facing the stonework of the fireplace so he could study it without interruption.

The object he held was soft and had a curious face. At least he took it for a face since he thought the black spots were eyes and it had a nose and almost a mouth. Then, little clues clicked into place. He and his brother had other things like this. One that Hoss liked a lot was like one of the horses that pulled their wagon only smaller. Much smaller. It was soft and warm to the touch just like this was but this didn't have four legs. Instead, it had two legs and two arms, almost like a person. It even wore a vest like Grandpa's and had a string of black shiny stuff around its neck. AJ laughed to himself, thinking that whatever this thing was, he was sleepy since his head wouldn't stay up on his wobbly neck. He tried to make it stand up but it wouldn't oblige him, sitting down promptly. AJ almost laughed out loud again, thinking how much like himself this little stuffed person was.

He heard Hop Sing saying something but only recognized one word: dinner. Quickly he put his new acquisition under the square table, leaning it against a leg. He was about to tell it to stay put and be a good boy, the same way Papa did, when Momma reached down and scooped him into her arms for a ride to the table.

He and his brother Hoss always sat in the high chairs between Momma and Papa. Since Momma had stopped nursing them all together a while back, meals had taken on a new dimension to him. No longer was food something to experiment with but a source of adventure. Most of the time, the adventure would be of the hands-on variety with those little green things that rolled squishing between his fingers when he trapped them. There were other times, especially when there were people AJ didn't recognize that such was not allowed. He would be handed a spoon and given to understand that he was supposed to use it but he lacked the skill to make the food stay in the spoon all the way to his mouth. When that was the case, Papa would step in and give him a hand. It wasn't that AJ disliked having his father help him but it sure took a lot of fun out of eating.

Tonight it was only the people who lived here all the time so he was allowed to ignore the spoon even though it was placed close by. Hoss, on the other hand, seemed to be showing off that night, using his spoon adroitly. AJ studied his technique then went back to his smash and grab method of eating. It seemed so much easier and far more direct.

Drinking was a different matter but Papa was there to help him. As he tried to keep up with the flow of milk from the lip of the glass, he studied Momma's breasts. It had been so simple and, to him, so comforting, to curl up in her arms and take her milk. He remembered not so long ago that he had been allowed to fall asleep nursing, laying between her and Papa in their big warm bed then magically he had awoken in his own place, snuggled beside his brother. If he had it figured right by watching what was happening, not only was Momma a thing of the past but so was sleeping with Hoss. He wasn't sure he liked the idea but maybe the new thing he'd found in Momma's pocket would like to sleep with him.

Dinner was over. Papa was cleaning the remains off his hands as AJ squirmed, wanting down before Hoss. He was afraid that his big brother would discover - Grandpa came to rescue, swooping down and taking AJ in his arms and carrying him back to warm living room. He gazed over Grandpa's shoulder at Hoss. Grandpa would beat Hoss. No doubt about it. But when Grandpa sat down, he was torn. He could stay with Grandpa and listen to the rumbling sound Grandpa's voice made in his ear when he laid his head on Grandpa's chest. Or he could get down and check out the little person he had found in Momma's pocket.

The new thing won and Grandpa let him go since Hoss was climbing up to take his place.


"What have you got there, AJ?" Ben asked as he watched his grandson pick up something and head bowed deep over it, studied it. Ben shifted Hoss back into the deep red leather chair and pulled at AJ's little shoulder.

The little one at first hunkered down but with a little more coaxing, showed what he had to Grandpa. Ben saw Bo in the tiny hands and laughed. He swept AJ into his arms and sat back in his chair, his lap full of grandsons.

AJ held the soft thing up and listened when Grandpa again said "That is Bo."

"Bo," Hoss repeated and reached for the toy but AJ gave his brother a dirty look and clutched the toy tighter.

"What's this?" Joe called from the dining room where he and Honor still sat finishing their coffee.

"Don't know where he found it but AJ has your old stuffed bear, son." There was laughter in Ben's voice.

All at once, Joe was beside his father's chair and was trying to pry Bo out of AJ's grasp. He wasn't meeting with any success. His own father was of no help whatever.

"Let him play with it, Joe," Ben insisted. There was a little touch of heat in the words that once they were out, he wished them back.

"I just wish he wouldn't, Pa." Joe sat back on his heels, seeing the interest his littlest took in the toy.

AJ was lost in his discovery, seeing that the eyes were like the shiny black things on some of Momma's dresses. He fingered them carefully then touched what remained of the red yarn mouth, tracing its shape. He then touched his own lips with his fingers and made them smile the same way. The nose he tapped playfully, the same way Papa did when they played but Bo didn't laugh. Maybe he doesn't feel like laughing, AJ considered. There were times when he didn't want to laugh. Maybe it was the same way with Bo.

"Bo?" AJ said softly as though he were calling the bear. A motion caught his eye and AJ looked into his father's face and he listened closely as his father said some words to him. He didn't understand them but he did the emotion behind them. Papa wanted to take his new friend away. He held him close to his chest and patted Bo's back the same his father did him, telling him with the voice in his head that no one was taking him.

"Honor, how about get one of their other toys," Joe pleaded. "How about if we swap, AJ? You get whatever Momma is bringing and I get Bo back?"

AJ eyed the stuffed horse Momma brought. He knew that it was Hoss' favorite so he had no incentive to turn loose of Bo. Instead he continued to hug the bear and rock in Grandpa's arms. Papa tried reaching out to take him and Bo together from Grandpa but he cried out and pushed harder into his grandfather's arms. He buried Bo between them, holding him as safe as he thought he could.

"Like I said, son, let him keep it for a while," Ben again encouraged but saw that his son was determined and he shook his head, not understanding. "Don't make a big deal out of it."

"You don't understand, Pa," Joe whispered. He remembered Honor's words of what the little stuffed bear represented: home, family, love. AJ had all those things in abundance, Joe's mind screamed. So did you, and you still do, came his own silent response.

"Joe?" Honor called softly. "Come help me?"

"Don't let him . . . " Joe began but Ben waved him on.

Once into their room, Honor gestured toward the remains of the time Joe and his sons had played. "We need to straighten up a little in here, don't you think?"

Woodenly, Joe went about helping her, picking up blankets, setting the chair back upright. She made up the single bed, its bright coverlet subdued in the lamplight. The other bed still sat unadorned by softness, the several slats still missing looking like missing teeth.

"Guesses they get to spend one more night in the crib, huh?" Joe asked sorrowfully.

"No, Hoss can sleep in his bed and AJ can have the crib. We've talked this over a dozen times, Joe. The boys need to separate a little. Maybe that will push AJ into talking more, make him more dependent on himself than on Hoss."

"I suppose the next thing you'll tell me is that I was wrong to try and take Bo away from AJ. How did he get him anyway?"

Honor heard the deep hurt and knew there was no way to release it. "I put Bo in my apron pocket when we were in the attic. I was going to fix the tear in his vest and redo his mouth so he'd have a whole smile. I guess that somehow, AJ got him out. I'm sorry Joe. Neither AJ nor I meant to upset you. Please believe me."

Joe sat on the edge of Hoss' bed and pulled his wife into his arms, burying his head in her warm embrace.

"I know that. It's just that I was scared AJ would hurt Bo; take him apart so he couldn't be put back together. It's just your husband being a sentimental fool again. Give me another fifty, sixty years and I should get over it."

She ran her fingers through his hair then let her hands rest lightly on his shoulders. "I think I could give you a hundred years, easily, but you know something? I don't want you any different than what you are right now, Joe Cartwright. To the outside world, you are one tough critter but here, in these rooms, with me, with your sons, well we all know differently. I don't want that steely-eyed, hard-as-nails man for a husband and my sons don't need that for a father."

He looked up at her and smiled. "I love you, woman."

"I know. Now will you let me handle AJ and Bo? I promise you, as a first rate doctor, there isn't much that could happen to Bo that I couldn't put back together again. Stuffed bears are easier to work on than people, you know."


AJ refused to be parted from Bo. As he settled into his crib, he eyed the outside world, feeling more than a little lost. Through the bars of the crib, he could see Hoss being settled into his big bed and AJ cried silent tears. Momma had just patted Hoss on the back and Papa had turned the lights down low when AJ's crying got the better of him. Papa came toward him, a concerned upset look on his face so he pulled Bo closer. Then Papa picked him up and held him just as close as he held Bo.

Sitting in the rocking chair, Papa rubbed AJ's back, softly talking to him in little words he could understand. He talked about love. He talked about being comfortable and warm and being able to sleep in his own bed tomorrow night. He talked about getting to be a big boy. He said he was proud of AJ. Proud that he was walking more. Proud that he was talking some, like learning Bo's name so quickly. Proud that he was his. Little by little, AJ forgot he was upset and listening to Papa's words, he fell asleep, his hand still wrapped around Bo's neck.

"Shh," whispered Joe as he eased AJ down into the crib and covered him with the quilt there. "Go to sleep, little one. I love you."

Her father-in-law was still sitting beside the fire reading when Honor came back into the main room. Joe had gone out to check the stock and Hop Sing was finishing the dishes if the rattle and clatter coming from the kitchen was any indication. She pulled her shawl closer as she sat down on the settee.

"First time I have ever seen Joe act like with his boys. Over a stuffed toy, for land's sake," opened Ben, loading his pipe with its fragrant tobacco.

Honor filled her coffee cup from the carafe there on the table but still sat on the edge of the settee. "Just a stuffed toy, huh? Then tell me, Father Ben, when Alice died and Joe left home, why did you add Bo to his things? Why did you write the note if all that little bear was only a toy?"

Ben's face twisted suddenly in her direction, the expression on his face one of surprise. "You know about that?"

"Yes, he told me this afternoon. About all the adventures he and Bo had while he was growing up, about the tears and heartbreaks that only Bo knew about. No, that little bear is more to Joe than just an old favorite toy. Good night, Father Ben." She hadn't even sipped her coffee but she couldn't stay in the room another moment, suddenly overcome by the betrayal she had been part of.

She slipped back into their room and started to light another lamp in the shadowy room then changed her mind. Instead she prodded the fire to more life and lay on another log. Apple wood, she thought it was from the pleasing scent it gave off after a bit. As she rose, something in her pocket crackled faintly. Sticking her hand in her apron pocket she drew it out and knew immediately what it was. It was the long-ago note that Bo had held for so many years.

Honor glanced toward the door, afraid now that she didn't have the time she needed. It was closed and beyond it in the house, all was still quiet. She went into the boys' room and gently removed Bo from AJ's grasp. The little boy only stirred a tiny bit before he nuzzled his pillow and fell back into a deep slumber. Back into her room, Honor went to her small writing desk and dipped a pen into the ink well there and, in her finest hand, wrote two words on the note then blew them dry. She slipped the little missive back into the gap between Bo's vest and his body, his arm holding it firm again.

She heard muted words on the other side of the door that told her Joe was coming to bed so she quickly went to the fireplace mantle and sat Bo just behind the lamp there. With his head wobbling, it was like he had laid it on the smooth glass, peeking around it to look into the room. Honor covered her mouth to keep from laughing aloud at the comic appearance. Yes, she thought, that's a good place for you, Bo.

"Plenty cold out there. You sure the boys will be warm enough?" asked Joe as he came into the room, rubbing the chill from his arms. As he sat on the edge of the bed to pull his boots off, he watched as his wife slipped out of her heavy woolen dress and into a nightgown that wasn't exactly the sort to keep a person warm on a cold night. That is unless she was sleeping with someone who would make sure she stayed comfortable.

"They'll be fine. Those are down quilts on them. Guaranteed to keep them warm." She loosened her hair from the knot she'd worn it in. Its red-brown waves caught the glow from the fire as she brushed it down. A quick glance over her shoulder showed her that Joe was already crawling into bed, his clothing in a heap beside it. Another few swipes with the hairbrush and she was blowing out the light and slipping beneath the cold sheets to join him. Out of long habit, they curled together, his arm around her, pulling her to him. He told her once again that he loved her. And she answered that she loved him as well. It had become a tradition between them every night and every morning to reaffirm that their love still burned bright.

Honor knew the exact moment when he saw what she'd done for she heard him suck in a sharp breath then laugh shortly.

"You want me to get him and bring him to bed?" she teased then slipped out of bed and did just that. When she climbed back into bed, she faced him and put Bo on the pillows between them.

"No," he whispered. "I found something better than you, old boy." He picked up the little bear and was about to lay him aside when the little white piece of paper dropped out of its hiding place. He sat up and turned the scrap so he could read it by the fire's orange glow. Again, he saw the simple declaration of a father's abiding love for a son lost in deep despair but just beneath that were two new words, written in a feminine hand. Me too, it said.

Joe slipped the note back into Bo's keeping then set him on the night stand beside the bed and slid down beneath the warm blankets and quilts to his wife. He gathered her into his arms, pulling her face to his shoulder then nuzzled the top of her head playfully.

" I just realized something," he said, tightening his grip on his wife. "You and Bo have the same color hair."

Her breath was warm on his chest as she laughed.

Just before he dropped off to sleep, Joe looked over his shoulder at where the little bear sat, slumped forward as though he was very tired, his mismatched button eyes reflecting the light of the fire, his little mouth still turned in his half smile. "Thank you," Joe whispered.

In his silent little bear ways, Bo replied, "I love you," and let his boy go for another night's sleep.


And so the love continues……….



Tahoe Ladies

February 2004


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