Perfect Woman
Vickie Batzka

Disclaimer:  David Dortort won’t give them to me, but I borrow them and play very nicely with them.  I always return my playmates in prime condition, and I do mean prime.

Explanation:  This story is the result of a writing challenge. We were to create the perfect woman for a Cartwright, and we couldn’t kill the character.

    As I rode into the yard,  I knew Pa would have a fit once he discovered I was hurt.   He was having trouble adjusting to my return from college in Boston after four long years.  A part of him remembered that I had grown up here, but another part was certain I had been gone long enough to be considered almost a greenhorn.

Until I returned, I hadn’t realized how much I'd missed the wide Nevada sky, the mountains standing like citadels along the horizon, and the feel of a good horse beneath me.  I was ready to go back to the backbreaking, bone-jarring work of ranching, with horses to be broken, cattle to be moved and fences and bridges to be mended.  I was home.  Pa wanted to ease me back into the outdoor work, making sure he or Hoss was along.  It was like he couldn’t remember I'd been able to ride most of the area around the ranch blindfolded before I left for college.  He seemed to have forgotten the years I had worked beside him, one of the other hands, or alone, doing the chores that needed to be done.

    He certainly was eager for me to assume responsibility for the paperwork, all the day-to-day bookkeeping necessary to run the ranch.  I didn't mind even though I knew it was more his own dislike for the chore than concern for me prompting that eagerness. Still, I wanted to be an active part of ranch life and a partner in future decisions, not just be the bookkeeper.

    Feeling light-headed and a little sick to my stomach, I swayed as I dismounted, awkward enough to alert Hoss something was wrong.  I heard Joe’s satisfied, "Pa’s fit to be tied ‘cause you’re late for supper,” just as Hoss reached my side.

    “What the Sam Hill you gone and done, Adam?  Yer head’s bleedin’.”  His big hands gripped my forearms, supporting me as I stood.  “Pa, Adam’s hurt!” vibrated through my aching head.

    The next few minutes were a blur as I half-leaned on Hoss and he guided me into the house.  Pa ‘s probing hands and muttering were the things I remembered, along with Joe’s insistent voice demanding to know, “What happened?”

    When I came fully conscious again, I was stretched out on the settee, legs dangling off the end.  Pa knelt by my side, tending my wound while Hop Sing stood waiting further instructions.  Hoss and Joe were hovering in the background; Hoss looked worried and Joe gaped at the blood with the morbid curiosity of the ten-year-old he was.

    “Son, how do you feel?  Can you tell me what happened?” Pa’s anxious voice was gruff as he tried to conceal his concern.

    Opening my eyes, I tried to smile reassuringly.  “I’m okay, Pa.  It’s just a bump on the head.”  I moved to sit up and four pairs of hands pushed me back.

    “Stay down for a minute and look at me,” Pa’s voice commanded.  I obeyed; he was holding up two fingers.  “How many do you see?” he requested, checking my pupils.

    “I see two fingers, Pa.  I’m not seeing double and my stomach’s a little queasy, but not sick-sick.  Really!” I hoped he saw the honesty in my eyes.  I had been concussed before and knew what it felt like.  I might conceal how I felt from Pa at times, but I never lied to him when asked directly.  Our relationship was based on mutual trust.  Besides, I didn’t feel that bad.

    Pa nodded his belief in my word and helped me sit up.  My head was pounding and I leaned against the back of the settee. The cool cloth Hop Sing laid on my forehead felt real good.  His best cook’s voice instructed us, “Dinneh be leady two minutes.  Mist’ Adam need tea for pain.  I fix.”  He scurried away in the felt shoes he wore in the house, busy about his task of caring for us.  He was a comforting part of our lives in spite of his constant threats to leave.  Over the years, Hop Sing had poured many a cup of his tea down my unwilling throat. Looked like time for more.  Another thing I had missed in Boston - but not much.

    I went into the kitchen to wash, not ready to climb the stairs to my bedroom for a proper clean-up, then joined the family at the table. Pa was waiting for me before he asked the blessing.  After grace, Hop Sing carried out a platter of roast pork with sweet potatoes, bowls of green beans and fresh tomatoes, and some spiced peaches he had gotten somewhere.  He had made fresh bread that day and there were lashings of butter and jam to go with it.  I knew it smelled heavenly to the others, but the odor of all that food made my stomach turn over and I buried my nose in the cup of fragrant tea by my plate.  Sipping it slowly, I waited while my stomach stopped its polka and settled a little.  As the food was passed, I took just a dab of each thing, enough to say I had eaten but not enough to challenge my digestion.  The bread spread with butter tasted best, so I ate a nice-sized piece of that.

    I must have looked a little better because Pa decided it was time for question-and-answer.  He didn’t say a word, but lifted that left eyebrow in his quizzical way, waiting expectantly.  Joe and Hoss sat at full attention, Joe barely restrained from speaking by Hoss’s hand on his arm.

    “I was on the way home after finishing your business at the bank and the lawyer’s, Pa.  Just as I got to the split in the trail, I heard a woman scream.  She sounded terrified.  The sound came from the left fork, the one that leads to Devil’s Curve, so I lit out to see what was causing the problem.  The screams came from a woman in a runaway buggy. She couldn’t control her horse and was headed for the curve and drop.  I knew the buggy would tip, dragging the woman and horse over the cliff.

    I thought about just grabbing her, but figured I could stop the horse from killing itself too.  Had enough space.  So, I got close enough to jump from Sport to the back of the runaway.  When I yanked up on the bit, the horse reared, hitting my head with his.  Buggy stopped.  That’s all.”

    I saw Pa suppress a shudder.  We both knew I’d had been darn lucky to stop the rig in time.  More than one vehicle had tumbled over the cliff along Devil’s Curve.  Even the cattle avoided the area unless forced to navigate it.

Joe was thrilled with the image of the daring rescue.  “Betcha I could’da stopped that horse without getting my head bumped,” he bragged.

    “Shortstuff, you ain’t heavy enough to stop any kinda bolt at your weight.  You may think you can ride anything on four legs, but you got some growin’ to do afore you try somethin’ like that.”  Hoss used his best “big brother" voice, having had four years of practice at keeping Joe out of trouble.

    Pa’s voice boomed over Hoss’s.  “Don’t you even think about trying that kind of stunt, young man!  It’s bad enough your brother had to do it to save a life; I better not catch you doin’ it for fun.  You hear me!”

    Joe lowered his eyes and muttered, “Yes, sir, I hear you.”

From where I sat, I could see the stubborn set of his mouth, denying that he intended to listen to Pa’s orders.  I was still shaking inside from the memory of my hopefully never to be repeated leap, but I knew Joe was too young and heedless to know the meaning of fear or wisdom.   In my short time back, I had rediscovered that it took all of us to keep him safe from his own recklessness.

    As dessert was served, my mind drifted back to what happened after the buggy stopped.  I had dismounted gingerly from the shaking horse, leaning heavily enough on him to feel the racing of his heart, almost as rapid as my own.  Something wet was running into my eyes and my head was swimming.  As I tried to lock my knees and regain control, I felt small hands touching the sore spot on my scalp, checking me out.  Those same hands tightened on my arms and helped me lurch over to a large rock and slide down, using the rock as a prop for my back and head.

    “Here, let me clean you up a bit and see how bad that cut is,” said a sweet voice with a trace of New England accent. I heard the sound of material ripping and then felt wetness as she cleaned my face gently.  “Take a sip of this,” she instructed, holding out my own canteen, much to my surprise.  I hadn’t been aware that she had gone to Sport or moved from my side.  Guess I was more out of it than I thought. I glanced over to see my horse ground tied and checking out the weeds he could reach.  Good thing he hadn’t headed for home.

    My first thought was, Need to clean up before Pa sees me.  Don’t want to worry him.

    My head cleared more and I got my first look at the victim who had become my rescuer.  I already knew she had gentle hands and a sweet, lilting voice, but now I saw that she had enormous eyes, the rich color of bluebell flowers like Shaughnessy grew, not the sky blue that I saw in Hoss’s face or remembered about Inger.   I felt I could drown in their depths.  Her face was oval, with high cheekbones and her mouth was smiling tremulously at me, the strain of the past few minutes still showing.  She wore a floppy straw hat decorated with purple flowers and tied under her chin with a violet bow.  The hair I could see was light brown and wisps of curls escaped the bowl of the hat and wafted in the light breeze.

    “Are you feeling better?” she asked when she saw I was fully aware.

    I started to nod, but thought better of moving my head for awhile. “Give me a minute, ma’am.  Pa says my head is the hardest thing about me, so I’ll be fine.  What spooked your horse?”

    “Brownie almost stepped on a rattlesnake sunning in the middle of the trail.  Really startled him and he shook his tail at us.  It was enough to scare the wits out of me and set Brownie running.  I can manage him usually, but we were both in pure panic.  I screamed and he bolted.”  She looked at the curve almost directly in front of us and at the steep drop.  Hunching her shoulders, she closed her eyes briefly.   “We're fortunate you came along. Otherwise….”  Her trembling voice trailed off.

    “Well, a threatened snake can make anybody panic, ma’am.  You might have stood a chance of regaining control on most trails, but this one’s very treacherous.  Glad I was around to help.  My name’s Adam Cartwright, and I live with my family on the Ponderosa, a few miles from here."  I looked at her, anxious to hear her voice again, find out her name and where she lived.

    There was a sheen of tears in the eyes that looked directly at me, but her voice had steadied and her smile looked real this time, small perfect teeth framed by luscious full lips.  “I’m Abby Babcock, and I'm staying with my sister and brother in law, Anne and Richard Snelling.  They bought the old Hickson place about 4 months ago.  Dick is an independent surveyor and he’s trying his hand at ranching as well.”  She looked down at her purple dress and continued.  “I lost my husband over a year ago and Anne thought I needed to get away, have a new start.  So, I came to help them get settled.”

    “Pleased to meet you, Miz Babcock.” I remembered my manners; new starts demanded no questions.  I closed my eyes briefly to shut out the glaring sun, then decided it was time to get moving.

    As I attempted to rise, I found her hands offering support until she was sure I could stand without help.  As I straightened, her eyes sparkled at my own pleasure in feeling better and I could see the laugh lines that told of good humor and tolerance.  It’s been my experience that you can read how a person approaches life from the lines on their face, be they laughter lines or frown lines.  This lady would be a pleasure to be around, I was certain of that. I...

        Pa cleared his throat, breaking into my thoughts, and asked, “You planning on eating that pie or worrying it to death?”

I noticed I was cutting the apple pie into pieces but not a morsel had made my mouth yet.  Looking around, I noticed Hoss’s plate was clean and his eyes were coveting my pie.  Grinning, I pushed it over to him.

 “Sorry, Pa, but I’m not too hungry tonight.  Did I tell you that Miz Babcock took me to her sister’s place in the buggy?  Didn’t want me riding by myself until she was convinced I wasn’t going to pass out on her.  Snelling wasn’t home, out on a job, but Miz. Snelling was as pleasant as Abby, I mean Miz  Babcock.”

    Pa looked disapproving at my use of Abby’s first name.  He waited.

    “Miz Babcock suggested that I use her first name, said there was no need for formality after I saved her life.” I changed the subject quickly. “They’ve fixed the house up nicely and they both insisted that I have some cookies and a cup of coffee with them.  Good cookies too, almost as good as Hop Sing’s.”  Hoss snorted and shook his head while Joe looked at me in disbelief.  As far as they were concerned, nobody made better cookies than Hop Sing.

    "I rested about an hour before I started home, but when I took Abby's bandage off, my head started bleeding again. "

    "Should'a left the bandage alone then, boy."  Pa’s stern eye told me he already figured out I had hoped my head would escape his notice.  "Do you need some pain powder before you go to bed?"  I knew protesting that I wasn't ready for bed would get me nowhere; besides, my head was aching and I really was ready to put it down for awhile.  It galled me to be sent off to bed like Joe, but I knew my ground was too shaky for a protest right now.

    "On my way," was my response.  "Good night, Pa," and as I turned, Hoss joined me with a friendly arm, not across my shoulders, but under my elbow so I could lean on him some without Pa noticing.  "Night, Joe," we said together, leaving our little brother as the last one up.  I knew he would relish the time with Pa.

    Next morning, I was up at my usual time, careful to leave the bandage alone as I prepared for the day.  As I stropped my razor, the door to my room flew open. No luck so far teaching little brother to knock.  Marie would’ve had a fit if I burst into a bedroom with that much abandon.  She was a real stickler for knocking and waiting permission, as I found out soon after her arrival as my step-mother.  "Joe, out and knock if you want to come in."  I saw his protest build and used my best glare.  "Now!"  I knew Joe hated me being "big brother" that way, but Marie would’ve wanted him to mind his manners. It was part of my job to make sure he knew his mama's standards, especially as she wasn't around to teach him herself. I still missed her, just like I still missed Inger.  Life's just not fair. I wondered if having a woman like Abby around would help Joe's manners.

    I heard the knock and invited Joe in.  He had an angry look on his face, but he came.  He was still young enough and my return was new enough that he liked to watch me shave, which I did every day because of my heavy, dark beard.  Hoss had a light beard and only shaved a couple of times a week, especially on Saturday night or Sunday, before church.  Sure wish I could get by that easy.  Anyway, Joe sat watching me shave and wanting to know when he would have a beard and could shave.  Talk about wanting to grow up fast. That boy just couldn’t wait.

    Hoss gave a quick rap at the door and came in as I hollered, "Yeah."  He joined Joe on the bed and asked, "You feelin' all right, Adam?  You looked a mite peaky last night."

    "Much better, thanks.  Hop Sing brought me a headache powder so I got a good night's sleep."  I smiled as Hoss heaved a sigh of relief.  We were supposed to check fences today and it's a tough job for two men, let alone one.  Besides, we were looking forward to talking about the party Pa was planning for a week from Saturday.  It was to be a welcome home party for me, to give me the chance to see all our old friends and meet the newcomers to the area. There was a bunch of new folks I had heard about but not met yet, even at church.  After all, Virginia City boasted three churches, along with the numerous saloons and stores.

     I knew Hoss was hoping a girl he had known in school would come.  Her name was Cindy and my shy brother was real smitten with her.  Hoss was very self-conscious about his size and his clumsiness.  I wanted to give him a talking to before the party, so he would be willing to dance with Cindy and not hide behind the food table all night.  Hoss was the best of us three, or would be when he was older. He was almost too gentle and obliging for his own good; his kind nature made people take advantage of him or underestimate his smarts.  It was important to me that he have a good time at the party.

        I had convinced Pa I didn't need a grown-up party, but wanted everybody to bring their kids too.  After all, Joe needed friends to keep him out of our hair when the dancing started.  Joe was at the age where he held snails in higher regard than girls, but I knew that wouldn't last much longer.  My baby brother was much too charming for his own good and even the older girls swarmed over him like bees on clover.  Yeah, Hoss and I definitely needed him occupied at the party and not with us or our girls.

    Another sharp knock at my door, and on hearing my voice, Pa strode in.  My mouth kicked into motion before my brain.  "Why is my room busier than a railroad station this morning?  Can't I have a minute to shave before the whole family descends on me?"

    Pa's glare reduced me to silence and he let it linger for a minute before he spoke.  "Didn't know your brothers were in here, son.  I wanted to take a look at your head before breakfast.  All right with you?"  The sarcasm was clear.

    "Yes, Sir.  Sorry, Pa."  I wiped my face with a towel, put my razor away with a sharp glance at Joe, who reached for it.  "Leave it alone, Joe.  It's not yours and it's not a toy." Joe's glare was back, but at least Pa refrained from jumping in, either to admonish Joe or to remind me who the father was.  We had had that discussion several times since I got home, and I have to admit, my head wasn't up for an argument this morning.  I sat on the bed and waited for Pa's hands to cut away the bandage.  He was gentle, as always, and I closed my eyes while he worked.

    "Pa, if Hoss and I finish the fences by mid-afternoon, may I take some of Hop Sing's jelly over to Abby? She and her sister were real nice to me yesterday and I ought to thank them."

    Pa's hands paused briefly in their work, then continued.  "That would be a nice gesture, son, though I think they owe you more than you owe them.  Still, it’s a neighborly thing to do.  I haven't met them yet.  Haven't seen them at church or in town, far as I know."

    He finished fiddling with my head and gave me a pat on the back.  "Sure you feel like checking fences today?  It might be an idea..."

    "Pa, I'm fine,” I interrupted. “My head still aches some, but we need to get fence checking done.  Besides, if I can't work, I can't go to see Abby and the Snellings this afternoon, can I? I wasn't gone long enough to forget the rules of the house.  No work or school, no play."  I grinned at him and, after a short pause, he smiled, nodded and opened the door, gesturing all three of us out ahead of him and toward breakfast.

    At supper, Pa asked how the visit had gone.  I mentioned that Mr. Snelling was out again, but that the ladies had been delighted to get Hop Sing's wild blueberry jelly from last year.  I'd offered to get them some honey too, from Tom Proctor, who kept hives of bees rather than gathering it from the wild.  I must've gotten carried away some in talking about Abby and her cooking, as Hoss looked at me funny and remarked, "Yer a smidge taken with this gal, ain't you, big brother?”  That innocent remark got me a strange look from Pa, like I wasn't old enough to be interested in female company.  Wonder what he thought I did for four years in Boston - hibernate?

    We worked hard that week, hustling to get all the chores done prior to spring roundup, which was coming soon.  It would start the week after my welcome home party and we’d spend days beating the bushes for new calves and their mamas.  One of the hardest times of the ranching year, I looked forward to it with an equal amount of anticipation and dread.  The living would be rough, the work backbreaking, but the results would ensure that we’d be able to make changes and additions to the ranch for its’ continued growth.  Like a new lumber mill, one of my dreams.

    Saturdays were different than regular workdays on the Ponderosa.  Generally, the hands, including Hoss and I, finished our chores by noon or so.  Pa planned it that way so everyone could get cleaned up and get into town for Saturday festivities by mid-afternoon, if they worked at it.

    At breakfast that morning, I told Pa that I wanted to take the buggy over to the Snelling place and maybe escort Abby on a ride around the countryside.  She hadn't seen much of the beauty of the place, I figured.  Told him too, that if I got asked, I might stay to dinner with them.

    Pa looked very hard at me when I made my request, but didn’t say anything, just nodded acquiescence.  Again, it was Hoss who pushed.  “That’s the third time you seen that Miz Abby this week, Adam, but you ain’t told us much about her.  What’s she look like? How come yer spendin’ so much time with her?”  Joe’s head lifted and he looked like a hunting dog at full point, not likely to miss a thing.  Pa kept his gaze fixed on me and waited.

    How did I feel about Abby?  I wasn’t sure how I felt yet and had no intention of discussing her with my family.  I knew if I refused to answer, Pa would be determined to pursue the subject.  Nothing bothers him more than me refusing to talk about something he thinks is important.  He’s real good at digging long enough to find out stuff too.  It is sometimes a game we play, but we hadn’t played it since I got home from school and the subject of Abby wasn’t going to be the first topic. So I played my  ace card, threw her to the wolves, if you will.

    “I remember a poem by William Wordsworth that expresses how Abby looks better than I can.  It goes:

      She was a phantom of delight
     When first she gleamed upon my sight;
     A lovely apparition, sent
     To be a moment’s ornament;
     Her eyes….
I knew the results before I started my recitation.  Hoss’s eyes glazed over totally and he and Joe both interrupted to ask permission to leave the table.  Pa tried to give me his attention, but I knew he didn’t care much for poetry either.  I decided to be nice, so I stopped and smiled.  “Does that explain, Pa?"

    Pa nodded, but didn’t have any more questions about Abby. I wasn’t crazy about Wordsworth myself, preferred some other poets, but who said poetry didn’t have its uses? Girls loved it and my family hated it.  I felt some guilt, but it achieved the goal of cutting off questioning.

    Before he could rally his defenses and ask for more information, I excused myself and headed to the barn to saddle up and begin the day’s tasks.

Hoss was waiting, but he didn’t open conversation again.

    Spanking clean and in fresh clothes by mid-afternoon, I debated between taking the buggy and riding Sport.  The buggy would be more comfortable, but we could reach more spectacular views by horseback.  Finally, I decided to drive, but hitch my mount to the back on the off-chance that Abby would prefer riding.

    As I drove up, a man was splitting wood in the yard.  He stopped as I approached, leaning on the ax and taking a hard look at me.  Jumping from the buggy, I approached with my hand outstretched.  “I’m Adam Cartwright.  Mr. Snelling?”

    He smiled then and shook my hand.  “Right, and I’m pleased to meet you.  Abby and my wife have been singing your praises.  I want to thank you for rescuing my sister-in-law.  We are in your debt, sir.”  Then, with a slight laugh, he confessed, “I’m almost as grateful for the jelly from your cook.  We haven’t been here long enough for Annie to have made up her first jelly batch, and I do love hot biscuits and jelly.” He rubbed his protruding belly a little, “And my girth shows it.  More to love, my wife says, when she is being polite.” We both laughed.

    “I suggested to Miz Abby that I’d like to take her for a ride today.  She around?”  As I spoke, the door opened and Abby walked out to greet me.  She was wearing a simple housedress, but it was pretty on her, fresh and cheerful.

She gave me a warm hug and brushed my cheek with her lips.  I blushed at her touch, but felt my heart expand at her pleasure in seeing me.

    “Adam, I wondered if you’d come.  I thought you might have made other plans or gone into town with your family.”

    “No, it just took longer than I thought to finish this morning.  I don’t think it’s too late for a ride, Abby, do you?  I brought the buggy, but thought you might prefer a horseback ride.  The buggy can’t go to the best view of the lake, but there’s lots of other places to see.”

    Her face lit up and she turned to her brother-in-law.  “Dick, may I ride Star?  I promise I’ll be careful with him.”  She laughed and so did he.  “Anne is taking a nap; I gave her headache powders and she should sleep the rest of the afternoon.”

    Turning to me, she explained her sister had a sick headache and that she would need to be home in time to fix supper for them.  I nodded, knowing I wouldn’t be invited to dinner, not with Miz Snelling under the weather.  Abby excused herself to change into riding clothes and Dick (he insisted I call him Dick) and I discussed ranching, surveying, the weather, all the things men who don’t know each other use to fill the silence.  After unhitching the buggy and putting the horse into the small corral, I went with Dick to saddle Star, the gelding Abby would ride.  I wondered how good a rider she was, but her brother-in-law didn’t seem worried, so I decided to wait and see.

    Abby came out in a well-worn riding habit and a brimmed hat decorated with ornate stampede strings.  “My first purchase in the West,” she bragged as she cocked the hat jauntily on her smooth head.  “I love to ride, but we only have the one good mount, so far.  This will be a treat for me, a ride, a handsome escort, and gorgeous scenery. “  She grinned wickedly as my face flushed red.  For some reason, it tickled her to make me blush.

              Wonder how that tendency will wear over time.  Probably not bad.

    “I’ve got some fruit and you have a canteen of water.  That’ll hold us on our trip.”  I liked her thinking about something to munch on cause it meant she knew we were stopping for awhile to rest.  Or whatever.

    I took her along the trail toward the Lake.  The top of the ridge had the prettiest view in God’s world, at least the best view I knew.  She was a woman who knew how to keep silent when there was nothing to say.  It wasn’t a strained silence or uncomfortable.  Rather, it allowed us to share the joy of the ride without the smallness of words.  I had rarely met a woman who could be fun to talk with and fun to be silent with. It was wonderful!

    As we got close to the ridge, I challenged her to a race, and she accepted.  I held Sport back at the end, so that she got to the top ahead of me and had her first glimpse of the sparkling blue waters of Lake Tahoe, with snow-capped mountains framing its pristine glory.  It was a sight to be viewed alone initially, in order to be awed by its magnificence. For a minute, my heart ached, as it always did, because my own mother and my Ma, Inger, never got to see it.  I remembered how much Marie had relished the view, though her favorite spot was lower down, where she was buried. I was sharing the best I knew with Abby.

When I saw her face, I knew she recognized the gift.  There was a shimmer of tears in her eyes, and she was turning slowly in a circle, trying to take in the 360 degrees of stunning beauty. Not a bad view in the whole turn. Then she smiled, a dreamy lift of her lips that gradually grew until her whole face glowed with its power.  “I…I’ve never seen anything like it, Adam.  It’s beyond magnificent; there… there are no words."  Then she stood, struck with beauty and trying to absorb every inch through her blue-violet eyes.

    “You let me get here first, didn’t you?”

    “The lake and mountains are meant to be seen in solitude the first time.  A body needs time to drink it in.  I was by myself the first time too.  We were traveling through to California and camped near here.  Pa wanted to continue to “the land of milk and honey” but I thought this was where Ma wanted us to settle, among tall trees and high mountains.  So, I sorta ran away and found this spot.  Pa came after me and when he saw it, he decided we should stop traveling and put down roots here. Claim what we could for ours.”

    “How old were you?”  Her soft question called me back from my memories.

    “I must have been 6 or 7.  Hoss was still a baby and we had lost Ma only a few weeks before.” I looked into her sympathetic eyes and added, “It’s a good thing we didn’t know what we were doing, or we might’ve moved on.  It’s hard country, Abby.  The winters are frigid and stormy.  We can go weeks just doing basic chores cause the snow is too deep to get into town.  You have to be tough to survive, but the beauty of the land and the pleasure of making a living where you want to be makes up for a lot.”  It was important that she understand the trials of living in God’s country.

    She smiled.  “I know about those kind of winters.  We have them in Vermont, too.  Days of gray, snow to the roof top, isolation.  I learned to love and hate them at the same time, but I always knew spring would follow even the hardest winter.  That’s one thing I believe, Adam, that spring and new life always comes.”  She turned her eyes again to the lake and its crown of mountains while I looked at her, enjoying her beauty and her obvious appreciation of my world.

    “Would you like to rest here for a few minutes?  We could sample that fruit of yours or maybe that gingerbread I glimpsed in your bag.”

    She looked back at me. “You don’t miss much, do you?”

    Grinning, I replied, “When you have two younger brothers, one of who eats like a horse, you learn to make sure you get your share.”

    I spread a blanket we had brought while Abby set out some fruit and gingerbread.  Fetching the canteen, we shared the water. Munching on the fruit and taking bites of gingerbread, we talked about everything under the sun, about books and music, art that we had both seen or read about.  Abby loved poetry too, not the same poets necessarily, but the compactness and structure of the words, the way they expressed feelings that were common to all of us.  Even in the few weeks since I had gotten home, I’d become aware of the voids in my life because I was different. I appreciated things not usually found in the homes I knew around Virginia City.  I knew my family would have been astonished at the flow of conversation from their “quiet brother”; that’s me.  Even in Boston and New York, I hadn’t really found a woman who appreciated both intellectual pursuits  and the natural beauty that surrounds us, no matter where we are.

    There were periods of tranquility, when we simply were present in the beauty around us, needing to be silent out of respect for nature and its glory.  The afternoon slipped away from us on the wings of discovery and pleasure.  In one of the periods of repose, I closed my eyes and was awakened by a grass stem tickling my nose.  Thank goodness I didn’t utter the oath that would have greeted such an antic by one of my brothers..  As I sat up, I noticed the sun now low in the western sky, still bathing the area in golden light, but I knew that darkness fell fast in the mountains and we needed to get moving.

    Packed and ready, Abby flashed a quick smile and challenged, “Shall we try again?”, kicking her horse to a gallop.  Sport tossed his head in insult, stretched out his neck and legs and flew.  One thing I love about my horse is his refusal to stay second in any race.  Like me, he lives to be first.  As we reached the end of the mountain trail, Sport was in front and I turned to grin mockingly at Abby.  “Not this time.”  She laughed and slowed Star to a comfortable walk. Sport eased back and we waited for them to catch up. There was room for side by side here and I knew we had more to talk about.

    “Tell me about your family, Adam.  You’ve mentioned two brothers, Hoss and Joe, several times.  How old are they?  Your turn.”

    Because she had shared information about her past life and family, I knew she had a right to question me.  Besides, she needed the answers, needed to know about the Cartwrights. So, I told her about my brothers.  About Hoss, the boy who was so big he looked like a man by the time he was twelve.  I told her how he loved to eat, of his big kind heart that hated to see anything or anyone hurting.

    “He has two of the cutest raccoon babies in a pen behind the barn.  Found the mother dead when the kits were only a few days old.  He’s hand feeding them until he can turn them back to the wild.  None of us would stomach caging wild animals permanently, but he sure saved their lives.  Hoss drags home every hurt creature he finds and cares for them.  Almost too tender-hearted, that’s my “little brother”, though he stands a couple of inches taller than me and heavier too.”  I saw the fellow feeling in her face as I described Hoss.  They would get along fine, I was willing to bet.  Plus, Abby would probably be out there helping him with his critters.

I described the little brother I was just becoming acquainted with again.  Joe had been a small child when I left for school, barely six, and now he was ten, pushing hard to be treated like a man, even when he still acted like the boy he was.  I told Abby how he could charm the birds from the trees and how his temper and impulsive nature could get him into trouble faster than I could blink an eye.

“Like last week, he put a frog into Amy Simpson’s lunch bucket.  Now you have to know that Amy is a prissy, snobbish girl who takes great pleasure in tormenting Joe because he is small for his age.  Well, according to the teacher, the frog jumped, Amy screamed and ran and the entire class was disrupted for the rest of the day. Joe, of course, laughed until he fell to the floor.  He was punished at school, brought a note home and got punished by Pa too.  It was all I could do to keep a straight face as he tried to reason with Pa about ‘getting her back first.’  He’s put more gray hairs in Pa’s head already than Hoss and I did together, and there are a lot of years to go yet.”  I couldn’t help laughing and the twinkle in her eyes told me that Joe might have a possible ally in future pranks.

    I told her about my Pa, about how he had walked across the land with a small child, following a dream.  I touched briefly on the two women who had shared our lives and each given Pa another son.  It still hurt to remember losing Inger and Marie, so mostly I talked about the life we led.  I’m sure I talked too much, but telling her things was as easy as falling off a log.  Somehow, I knew she cared, that she was really interested.

    We got back to their place before the light had begun to fade from the blue sky and as we approached the yard, I popped the question.

 “Abby, we’re having a little get-together, with food and dancing, next Saturday night at the Ponderosa.  Kind of a welcome home for me and a way to meet the new folks who’ve moved here while I was away.  Would you and Miz Snelling and Dick like to come? That way, you can meet my Pa and brothers for yourself.”

    “Actually, Adam, we might meet them tomorrow at church, if Anne is well enough to attend.  We’ve meant to get there for the past few Sundays, but haven’t made it.  I’ll speak to Anne and Dick about next Saturday night.  For myself, I’d love to come.  It’s been a long time since I danced, not since before my husband died.”  Her eyes clouded, just like Pa’s did when he thought about Marie, but then she smiled again. “Yes. I accept your invitation for all of us.  We’d love to come.  Shall we bring something?”

“Only yourselves.”  I knew I had to be beaming; I could almost feel the width of my smile.

Abby is coming to our home, to meet Pa and my brothers.

Dick came out of the barn as we approached.  “Did you have a good ride?  Star behave himself?”  He smiled and took the bridle.  “I’ll put him away.  Your horse need water or anything, Adam?”

I allowed Sport to take a drink while I hitched the buggy horse and then tied Sport to the rear.  Abby had gone into the house to check on her sister, but she came back out as I climbed into the buggy.  “Adam, hope we see you tomorrow.  It was a lovely ride.  Thank you so much,” and she again reached up to kiss my cheek.  I managed to control my blush better this time, but I tugged my hat, wished them good evening and drove home.  Maybe floated home would be a better description.

When I got there and went to put away the horses and buggy, I discovered Buck, Chubb and Dusty were gone.  Done with the chores, I went into the house to find it empty of all life; even Hop Sing was absent.  Pa had left a note on his desk, telling me he had taken my brothers into Virginia City for supplies and would eat dinner at the hotel before coming home.  He’d let Hop Sing go into town too.  I glanced at the low dip of the sun and decided I didn’t have the energy or inclination for a long ride to town even for a good hotel meal.

It would be impossible to starve around Hop Sing’s kitchen, no matter what Hoss says.  I cut four slices of homemade bread, stuck some leftover roast pork between them, put some of Hop Sing’s barbecue sauce on it, grabbed some hot coffee from the pot on the back of the stove and took it all to the dining table.  In the center of the table was a big slice of cake, covered and waiting.  Hop Sing always took good care of me.  I went upstairs to get the book I was reading and brought it down.  Books weren’t allowed at the table when Pa was around, but I had gotten into the habit of reading at meals while in school.  So, in the absence of anyone to care, I ate and read and relaxed.

My head was aching a little, so after my meal, I cleaned up and went to bed.  Lucky for me, I had already gotten a bath earlier in the day, as tomorrow was Sunday and we always went to church. Pa accepted practically no excuse other than illness to miss.

    Abby said she might be there.  As I fell asleep, that was my last thought.  Through the haze of sleep,  I heard Pa and my brothers arrive a short time later, but I didn’t wake enough to even greet Pa when he did his nightly bed check.

    After breakfast, I went to the barn to start hitching the horses, before Pa finished his first cup of coffee and could start asking questions.  During the ride to church I talked with Hoss about spring round-up plans and asked Joe about school, anything to keep the questions about Abby down.  Much to my disappointment, there was no sign of her or the Snellings at church that day.  Lots of people were there, some I hadn’t seen in more than four years and some I didn’t know, but the ones I wanted never showed.  I decided Anne must still have her headache.

    As was customary, Hop Sing had a delicious Sunday dinner waiting. I loved his fried chicken and ‘smashed taters’ almost as much as Hoss and we all ate until we were stuffed.  I knew that Hop Sing would wash the dishes and then be gone until Monday afternoon, when he would return to his chores. Sunday supper and breakfast the next morning were ours to prepare. As he cleared the table, I asked for a favor.

    “Hop Sing, could I have some of that tea you brew for headaches.  No, not for me.  Miz Snelling had a bad headache yesterday and I bet she still has it.”  I looked at Pa and continued, “They were planning to be at church today, if she was better.  I bet your tea would be real good for her.  It always cures my headaches.”

    Hop Sing nodded his approval and muttered, “Be vely good for lady.  Make bettel fast.  I bling you bag.”  He marched away to prepare the parcel.

    “Pa, may I take it over to the Snelling place?  I won’t stay long, but it would be right neighborly.”  I tried my best to look casual about the request.

    Pa gave me a very sharp look indeed, then looked at Hoss and Joe.

“What are your plans this afternoon, boys?”

    Joe piped up, “I’m meetin’ Mitch to go fishin’.  Wanta come, Hoss?”

    Hoss looked at me hopefully.  “It’da be kinda nice, Adam, if you and me did a little fishin’ too.  We ain’t been since you got home from Boston.  Ifen we caught a mess of ‘em, we could clean ‘um and Hop Sing could serve ‘um tomorrow night fur dinner.” He waited a beat, then added, “Seems yur spendin’ a lot o’ time with that Miz Abby.  You was just over there yesteday.”

    I felt guilty.  I knew Hoss and I hadn’t spent much time together since I got home.  Working time didn’t really count.  Still, I knew Abby and the Snellings would appreciate the tea.  Besides, I wanted to be sure about my feelings for Abby, and today would be the last chance before the party next Saturday.

    “Why don’t we plan on going fishing Monday afternoon, Hoss?  We’re almost done with that fence repair in the north pasture and it’ll be too late to start the new repairs along the east range.  We’ll go in the afternoon, clean what we catch and they’d be fresh for Hop Sing instead of kept overnight.  Sound good?”

 Hoss shot me a quick glance and figured out the sense of what I wasn’t saying.  Tomorrow Joe and Mitch would be in school, and we could talk without little ears overhearing.  I knew he wanted to hear more about my time in Boston than I was willing to share with Joe, or maybe even Pa.  Hoss had been my first baby and I had always found him to be my staunchest supporter.  He might not always understand what I needed or wanted, but he never begrudged me getting it.  I saw the pleasure and the promise in his eyes, so I knew it was all right.

Pa frowned and I watched him debate telling me NO, but he must have decided it was a bad idea.  Hop Sing came back with a paper-wrapped box and offered it to me.  “Hope make lady feel bettel, Mist’ Adam.  Bling your lady to palty next week?”

Pa started like he’d forgotten about the party.  “Adam, why don’t you invite Mrs. Babcock and the Snellings to our shindig?  That way we all get the chance to meet your friend.”

I tried to look innocent.  “Pa, that’s a great idea.  I’ll check this afternoon.”   I got a penetrating stare, but Pa didn’t actually ask me if I already had asked. I knew better than to volunteer the information.  Not that he’d really mind their coming, but he might have objected to my jumping the gun on an invitation without permission.

 “I won’t be late tonight.  Do you still want me to read Moby Dick?” I asked Joe.

 He looked startled, like he thought I might have forgotten my promise, then he smiled. "Yeah, I sure do, Adam,” and he looked pleased.  Joe and I’ve been finding our way again since I got home. I ‘d missed a lot of his growing up and sometimes treated him like the child I ‘d left behind.  Reading to him had been a habit from the past and it was one I wouldn’t mind getting into again.  Besides, I knew Hoss would listen too; he liked to hear me read.

    I rode over to our neighbors’ with the tea and spent a pleasant couple of hours.  Escorting me into the parlor, Abby left me while she brewed a cup of the special tea for her sister. She returned as I softly fingered the guitar I’d found there.  Listening for a minute, she sat down at the piano by the front window.  Equally softly, she began to play the melody I was strumming. She sang in a sweet, true voice and I added my baritone.  We kept it quiet out of respect for Miz Snelling and her headache.  Shortly,  Dick came in and added his bass to our impromptu group.  It was such fun; I missed the music that had abounded in Boston, both the concerts and the drawing room performances. Wonder how it would be to have more music at the Ponderosa?

Happily, in a short time Anne Snelling joined our group, telling us she felt better, thanks to Hop Sing’s tea.  She didn’t sing, but she put her head on the back of the chair and listened with a smile on her face.  After the music we talked, discussing the latest Supreme Court ruling, speculating about the next territory to achieve statehood, dissecting the latest book by Ralph Emerson, discussing poetic styles. At the end of a couple of hours I had been stimulated and entertained, not to mention well fed with tea and cookies.  Time to head for home if I was to be in time for supper and a reading session.

    When I took Sport into the barn to groom him and check my gear for the next day, I found Pa, Hoss and Joe there, doing the same chores.  As we worked, Pa asked, "How was your afternoon, son?  Did our neighbors appreciate Hop Sing's special tea?"

    "Sure thing, Pa.  Abby made her sister a cup and a while later, Miz Snelling joined us in the parlor.  We had a grand time.  Abby plays the piano and sings, so we made some music together, and Dick has a good voice too.  The three of us sang; then we talked about all kinds of things: politics, poetry..."  I shot a sly smile at my father, who knew how much I loved those kinds of discussions, and he gave me an irritated look that faded to amusement

    "Sounds like you are enjoying her company a whole lot, son.  I suspect you miss friends to have music and literary conversations with."  His statement sounded almost like a question and I was at a loss on how to answer.

Yes, I did miss my friends and music and other things about Boston, even the sometimes fishy smell of the ocean and the bustle of street life.  But, I wasn't sorry to be home either.

    I nodded and Pa continued, "Did you ask the young lady and her family to our party next Saturday night?  I hope we get the opportunity to meet them all.  Abby sounds delightful; at least you seem to think so."

    Hoss jumped into the conversation.  "What's she look like, Adam?  Purty?"

    "Yes, she's pretty, but not so pretty as to be scary, little brother.  Bet she would love to dance with you, if you'll ask her."  I saw the dread in his eyes before he dropped them. You and I are going to have a long talk before the party.  Abby will be good for you; she is kind and will help you forget to worry about your size.  You'll like her, Hoss.

I didn't say anything more about Hoss dancing, but I knew one of my objectives at the party was to make sure he wasn’t a wallflower or just stood up with the matrons.

    Joe had finished his pony and was standing listening to me talk about Abby. I heard was a familiar taunt.

    "Adam's got a girlfriend.  Adam's got a girlfriend.  Adam and Abby sitting in a tree.  K-I-S-S-I-N-G.  First come love, then comes marriage.  Then comes Adam with a baby carriage."

    I grabbed for my aggravating little brother.  Even as I did, Hoss joined the refrain, singing along,  "Adam's got a girlfriend."

    "Pa, make them stop," burst out of my mouth before I could put my brain into gear.  I closed my eyes and smacked my forehead. Help!  I sounded just like a whiny kid instead of the adult I was supposed to be. I peeked at Pa's face through half-closed eyes, expecting to see anger and perhaps a little disgust.  He always hated for us to whine.

    Pa had a strange look on his face, at least strange for him.  His mouth was smiling just slightly, but his eyes were shiny, almost like he had tears in them.


    "I sent a boy off to Boston and he came back a man.  I was afraid the boy I knew was gone forever, but I guess he came home too."

    I cocked my head to look at him and understood, at least a little. Well, if he wanted that boy back, I guess I could oblige.

    "The Tickle King is after you," I whooped and caught Joe under the arms with my fingers.  He fell to the barn floor, luckily into a pile of clean hay, and began to giggle that hysterical, high-pitched laugh of his that was so infectious. Hoss tipped me over easily and the three of us began to roll around tickling and squealing like three piglets at play.  Pa stepped aside to avoid our gyrations and began to laugh.  It was the first time we had roughhoused since I got home and it felt good.  Must have been good for my brothers too, as they kept trying to pin me down and nobody hollered 'uncle' for a long time.

    "If you three are finished wiping the floor with your bottoms, we might want to go find some supper."  We knew Pa wasn't really upset so we stood and traipsed to the house, busily picking hay off each other's clothes and out of each other's hair.  The laughter stayed around us all through the meal and the story afterwards.  Home felt good.

    The week went downhill from there.  Nasty weather put us behind in fence mending, not to mention postponing the fishing trip with Hoss.  For three days the rain made our working lives miserable.  We came home each night wet and mud-covered, too beat to do more than clean up, eat and fall into bed. Even Joe was too tired to make mischief.  By Thursday, the weather had cleared and the sky was blue and bright again.  Whew!  Hopefully that meant good weather for the party on Saturday night, because it was to be outdoors, with the food served outside, and the yard of the house used as a dance floor.  Pa had asked Clem and his friends to provide their toe-tapping music and Hop Sing had been cooking all week.  Between the chores and the nasty weather, I hadn't found time to go back to visit Abby though I'd sent word by one of the hands, explaining my absence.

    Finally, it was Saturday.  Pa excused us from all but the basic barn chores and Hop Sing took over our time.  He needed tables and benches out, Chinese lanterns hung from the trees and posts, and all the dishes in the house cleaned and put out for folks.  Most would bring their own plates and utensils, but there would always be the few who couldn't.  Ponderosa hospitality was famous for providing everything a guest needed and Hop Sing was determined no one could fault his party.  We cleaned and polished and arranged things all day long until Hop Sing pronounced himself satisfied with 'his house'.

    I had debated about what to wear.  I had several dress suits including my best frock coat with tails. In Boston, I would have worn a dress suit and ruffled shirt with no hesitation, but here…  I finally decided on a similar outfit to what  I would’ve worn to church.  It looked nice, but without the flair of elegance I might have liked.  Still, it fit me like a glove and the plain shirt was very much my style.  Brushing my hair once again, I decided I looked fine enough to impress Abby.  Now to check on my family.

    Going to Pa’s room, I found him getting ready to slip into his coat.  He was wearing his best suit and silver vest.  He looked dignified and handsome.  If I say so myself, my Pa is a good looking man, distinguished and refined, and I was proud of him. He was a far cry from the man in working clothes I recollected dancing with Inger on the wagon train.  He looked more like the man I remembered dancing with Marie downstairs, but his eyes held more sadness and wisdom than I recalled from before.  I helped him into his coat and straightened his tie, even though it didn’t really need it.

    “You look real fine, Pa.”

    Smiling, Pa returned the favor by checking my tie and smoothing my coat across my shoulders.

    “Checking to make sure I’m fine enough to meet your lady, son?” Pa’s smile held a hint of a question.

    “No, sir, just checking, period.  It’s been a long time since I attended a party at the Ponderosa.”  My memory fled to the last New Year’s Eve party, the one before Marie’s horse fell in the spring.  Pa’s face clouded and his eyes were filled with sorrow.

    We stood silent for a brief time, then Pa shook himself slightly.  “You’d better check on those brothers of yours, make sure they’re ready for this party, too.”  He smiled and dismissed me with a nod of his head.

    Hoss’s door was open, so I rapped on the frame as I walked in.  Hoss was buttoning his shirt, the shirt I brought him from Boston.  A school friend had recommended a seamstress who had made shirts for both my brothers.  She’d shown me some heavy silk, the same sky-blue as my brother’s eyes, and I had to have it.  The shirt was plain, no ruffles, but the color made Hoss’s eyes glow.  I remembered Inger wearing a blue dress that color, all those years ago.

    “Hoss, you look wonderful.  The girls will love you in that shirt.  They’ll be falling all over themselves to dance with you.”  Hoss grunted in disbelief, but his shoulders straightened up and he looked relieved.  He was a fine figure of a man, even though he was only 16.  “I remember your Ma wearing that same color.  You look like her, little brother.”

    Hoss grinned that wide, infectious grin of his.  “Thanks, Adam, for the shirt and for …  Well, for everything.  I’m goin’ ta ask Cindy to dance, just like you said.  You look fine too.  Bet that Miz Abby’s goin’ be right impressed with us Cartwrights tonight.  We clean up real fine.”

    I nodded and went over to Joe’s room.  He was standing in front of the mirror and trying to bring order to his head of curls with fingers instead of a brush or comb.  Typical!  I had brought Joe a green shirt back from Boston.  It was the same material as Hoss’s and I watched as my hedonistic youngest brother stroked the front of his shirt with pleasure.

    “Looking good, Joe.”  I picked up his brush and started untangling his chestnut curls with care.  “I remember your Mama in a gown almost that color.  She loved the feel of silk too, said it slipped through her fingers like sunlight.”

    Joe tried to jerk away from the brush, then stood still while I finished his grooming.  His green-flecked eyes asked for more, so I continued.  “I remember your Mama was the prettiest woman at that last party.  She always did outshine the other ladies and the gents loved the way she talked, with a trace of French accent in her high-pitched voice.  You laugh a lot like she did. ”

    I finished with his hair and helped him shrug into his coat.  The shirt required no tie, which I knew he would like.  Joe’s ties seemed to get loose in two minutes and lost in ten.

    “Guess the Cartwright boys are ready to face the world.” I steered him into the hall where Hoss stood waiting.  We looked at each other with admiration and a little amusement, then headed downstairs to the next ritual of the evening.

    Since the first party I recall at the Ponderosa, the same group has gathered to toast each other.  Doc Martin, Sheriff Coffee, and Shaughnessy were waiting with Pa in the great room, holding drinks.  I felt a catch in my throat, missing Marie,  but pushed my brothers in front of me for inspection.

    “I can’t believe how fast you boys are growing, can you, Paul?  Seems just yesterday that Adam and Hoss was just boys and Joe a tiny mite of a thing.”  Sheriff Coffee had come into my life when I was about 12 and Paul Martin had been our doctor even before then.

Shaughnessy, well, Shaughnessy was just herself.  Her husband had died when they first moved to the territory and she had been a widow for as long as I could recall.  She had always been there to be neighborly when we needed help.  She had nursed Hoss and me through childhood illnesses and injuries and  kept us part of the time Pa was in New Orleans.  She had helped deliver Joe and was still the one Pa called on for anything that needed a woman’s touch.  She and Pa were friends, but neither seemed to want to be more than that.  I reckoned she was the only widow I knew in the area who had never set her cap for Pa.  Maybe she knew the sons too well to want to take us all on.  Nothing dumb about her.

Pa put wineglasses in our hands.  Even Joe got one with a small amount of wine.  Then he raised his in the traditional toast.  “To our family and our good friends who make life better on the Ponderosa.  We are grateful for you.” We drank, laughing, talking, reminiscing in the way of people grown comfortable with each other.  A part of me wondered if Abby would fit into this group and another part knew she would.  Time for the party.

Hoss teased me.  “Adam, you reckon we look fine enough to meet this lady friend of yourn’s.”  He addressed the entire group.  “Adam’s all adither about us meeting Miz Abby Babcock, the lady he rescued a couple of weeks ago.  He’s been frettin’ all day to be sure things are perfect.”

Hoss missed the sharp glance Shaughnessy threw me, but I saw it.  She looked hard at me, opened her mouth to ask a question, then cut her eyes to Pa and kept quiet.  Before anyone could comment, we heard the first wagons arriving and went outside to greet our guests.

Folks came fast and furious for the party.  Even if they had never come before, Hop Sing’s cooking was legendary.  Hoss talked about it all the time. Besides, it was early summer and any excuse for a get-together, especially with good food and dancing, was a welcome break from the day to day grind.  Soon the yard was full of people laughing, visiting each other, wetting their whistles with Pa’s own recipe for punch, and eyeing the laden tables of food.

As host, Pa expected his sons to remain by his side to greet our guests. Part of the reason for the party was to introduce me to newcomers in the area, so I was happy to stay with him.  Hoss was chomping at the bit to get to the food table and Joe, well, Joe just wanted to cut loose and find his friends.  Before my brothers could affect their escape, I looked around to see Abby, accompanied by Dick and Anne, approaching.  Abby looked beautiful.  She was wearing a lilac (purple as Hoss would say) dress with little white flowers woven through the pattern.  It made her eyes look violet and showed off her honey-gold complexion.

“Adam, you look so handsome.”  She greeted me with these words and a small peck on the cheek, making me blush, as I’m sure she planned.

“Abby”, I turned her attention to my father for introductions. “I’d like for you to…” It was one of those moments when you wish the ground would swallow you.  There was an unexpected break in the conversation around us and I heard Joe’s piping voice.

“She’s old, Hoss. I thought she…” Hoss’s hand must have covered Joe’s mouth at that point, but the damage was already done.

Abby’s eyes caught my father’s and I saw the spark of recognition as two parents shared the marvel of how children could so innocently hit the heart of any subject.  My father looked appreciatively at the slender woman who was trying not to laugh and they both shook their heads.  I saw his eyes light up with an excitement I hadn’t seen in a long time. There was real interest in them, interest in a woman.

I’m sure I looked smug. I certainly felt smug.  Things looked promising and I saw Hoss look at her, at Pa, then at me and start to grin.  Joe just looked nervous.  Abby held her hand out to my father.

“Adam’s told me so much about his family and home.  I am delighted to meet you, Mr. Cartwright.”

Before she could continue, Pa asked, “Please, call me Ben?”

“Only if you call me Abby.” They exchanged smiles.

She turned her lively eyes to my brothers and continued, “You must be Hoss.  Adam told me about your baby raccoons.  May I see them later?”  Hoss blushed and shook her small hand. I watched with pleasure as he fell under her spell.

“Joe, it’s so nice to meet you, too.”  She leaned over and I heard her whisper to him, “I put a frog into my teacher’s desk once.  Got a terrible whipping, just like the one I bet you got.”

Joe’s eyes brightened and he looked at her with astonishment.  An adult who admitted to mischief.  Like Hoss, he was enchanted, even though he didn’t know the meaning of the word.

As I drew Dick and Anne Snelling forward for introductions, I saw Abby look at the house and the scenery that surrounded it with appreciation.

“It’s even lovelier than you described, Adam. I am so pleased that I got the opportunity to see your home before I left.”

My mouth dropped open.  “Before you…  I didn’t know you were leaving.  I thought you were settling here with Dick and Anne.”  I couldn’t continue.

All my plans!

“I told you about my daughter, didn’t I?  She is a little younger than you but she’s been married for several years to her childhood sweetheart. She’s finally in the family way and wants me to come back to Vermont and help her. It’s a new beginning, Adam, like we talked about. It’s a new life for them, for a baby and for me.”

Her happy eyes made it impossible for me not to rejoice with her.  She had told me how lost and empty she felt after the death of her husband of twenty years.  I had hoped…  Well, never mind what I had hoped.

“What wonderful news for you, though I am sorry that we won’t get to enjoy your company longer, Abby.”  Pa’s voice broke through my thoughts.  “As long as this will be your only visit, shall we start with supper?  Then, may I have the first dance with you?”  He offered his arm and she took it willingly.  I could see them talking as they strolled toward the tables.

Hoss looked at me with sympathy, but before he could comment, Joe caught sight of his friend Mitch and took off with a whoop.  I shook my head at Hoss.  “Why don’t you go see if you can claim Cindy for that first dance. Hoss?  The early bird gets the worm, or in this case, the girl.” Hoss hesitated for a moment, then took himself off to the far side of the yard where several young girls were gathered in a chattering circle.

A fleeting line of poetry reflected how I was feeling right then.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
Drat it, Abby had been perfect for Pa. Perfect for all of us.  Oh, well, as they say in the engineering field,  "Back to the drawing board.”  Later.

Right now, I could see Lucy Fletcher, a girl I’d attended school with.  She looked much improved, enough so that I thought I just might try my hand at getting reacquainted. Onward to being a good host!

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