“Pa, what’s taking everybody so long?” complained a loud plaintive voice from the doorway. “The horses are hitched and I’ve been ready to go for ages!”
Ben Cartwright smiled at the impatient youngster. “Just a few more minutes, Adam. Marie is just finishing getting your brothers ready.”
Seemingly conjured by his words, the sound of boots clattering on the stairs was heard as a small blonde boy came dashing down and flung himself happily at his father, grasping his waist in excitement. “Did you get the pails, Pa? Lots and lots of ‘em? We’ll need lots cause I’m gonna pick more berries than the whole rest of the family and then we can have pie forever! You don’t suppose the birds got to the berries first, do you Pa? Gee, I hope not, cause then we’d have nothin’ to eat ‘cept fish and I like fish, but I like berries better. Don’t you think we ought to get moving, Pa, so the birds don’t beat us there? Did you remember the fishin’ poles and the worms me and Adam dug last night? And…”
Ben laughed and swung his frisky seven-year-old boy up into his arms. “Hold on there, Hoss. Yes, I remembered the worms, and the poles, and the pails. Lunch is already packed in the wagon in case the fish don’t feel like biting, and there’s plenty of time for us to get going. I rode out by that lake yesterday and saw that there are more berries ripe and ready than we or a whole flock of birds could possibly pick in one day. That patch must be a mile wide this year and the whole thing is just bursting with strawberries. Does that answer all your questions?”
Hoss beamed and gave him a tight hug around the neck. He started to wriggle and Ben set him back down on the ground. The boy kept hold of his sleeve and tugged him toward the door. “Let’s go, Pa!”
“Hold on a minute, son. We have to wait for your ma and your little brother to come down first.” Ben ignored the gusty sigh the boy released and walked to the bottom of the staircase, where he called up, “Marie, you and Joseph just about ready?”
Laughter floated down to him. “Just about. I had to get a few things together, but we’re almost done.” A moment later, Marie Cartwright walked down, perfectly dressed for a warm late spring day in a flowered cotton dress and a large beribboned straw hat. In her arms was her little boy, bouncing and smiling in excitement caught from his big brother, Hoss. “Here we are, Ben. Would you please take this bag?”
She shifted Little Joe in her arms and removed the shoulder strap of a cloth bag draped over her right shoulder. Ben took the bag and peeked inside. Extra changes of clothes for Hoss and Little Joe, extra diapers and pins, bandages, alcohol, towels and all manner of stuff lay inside. Ben smiled and kissed both his wife and baby on their rosy cheeks. “Darling, we’re only going out for one afternoon. You have enough supplies here for a week!”
“Maybe so, but I’d rather be prepared for anything with three children,” she explained. “Are we all ready to go?”
Hoss sprang forward and captured her free hand. “All ready, Ma. Let’s go before them strawberries are all gone.”
Little Joe laughed a delightful little gurgle of a laugh and bounced in his mother’s grasp. At eighteen months old, he was a perpetual motion machine, a little tottery still when he walked but a small sure blur of motion when he ran, which was most of the time. He was only just beginning to talk really well, but he knew the word his brother had just spoken. A legacy of Hoss’ inability to talk about anything else for the entire week before. “Sawbewwies!” he crowed. “Go Mama. Get sawbewwies!”
The entire family laughed and headed out together to enjoy a day in the sun and fresh air.
“There it is, Pa! Lookit, there’s the lake and you can see the berry vines clear over here!” Hoss was standing in the bed of the wagon, pulling excitedly on the seat of the buckboard where his parents sat perched above him. He pointed at the sight; bouncing up and down, just as if none of them had ever been to the lake before and he feared they would miss it if he failed to point it out. He could see the long stretch of wild strawberry vines, miles and miles of them it seemed, that stretched back away from the small body of water near where they would be having their picnic.
“Yes, son, I see it,” Ben answered patiently, craning his neck to look back at the little boy. “But you can’t get out until I get the buckboard parked, so please sit down and be patient.”
Hoss plunked down into the bed of the wagon next to Adam and was silent for nearly an entire minute when his anticipation got the better of him again and he called up, “Pa, are we there yet?”
Ben’s hearty laugh rang out cheerfully. He had been silently counting the seconds and was honestly rather impressed that his small son had made it past thirty seconds. “Just about.”
From his position sitting forward in his mother’s lap, Little Joe could not see his brothers and he wanted to, so he wriggled and squirmed, trying to turn around. Mama was not cooperating. She shifted him against her legs, admonishing him to be still. For an instant, Little Joe considered squalling to get what he wanted but a temper tantrum never worked very well with Papa around. There was one thing that might get him where he wanted to be, though. Marie looked down as she felt her son’s body jerk slightly and heard a small squeak from him. A couple of seconds passed and he did it again. “Are you all right, darling?” she asked. Her brow creased in concern as he frowned and his little face grew pink with effort as he produced another, somewhat louder squeak and jerked even harder. “Do you have the hiccups, baby?” Little Joe nodded his head enthusiastically and gave another loud chirp, beaming happily when Mama turned him around so that his face was over her shoulder. She patted his back for him and Little Joe squeaked again. He could see Adam and Hoss from here! He waved down to them and smiled and both of them smiled back. Joe forgot all about continuing his pretense at hiccups, but he had swallowed a great deal of air by then and the continuing soft thumps of Mama’s hand on his back soon produced a fairly impressive burp from the small boy. His brothers laughed but to Little Joe’s displeasure, Mama seemed satisfied and turned him back around to face front again, but there was no time to devise something new to do, for Papa had decided on a spot to park the wagon and everyone was getting out. Mama handed him down to Papa, who tossed him high in the air and caught him again, provoking shrieks of delight, while Adam hurried forward to help his stepmother down from her seat.
Hoss scrambled out of wagon, tin pail in one hand, fishing pole in the other and impatiently grabbed at his father. Ben reared back a bit to prevent being whacked in the nose with the end of the long willow pole and set Little Joe on the ground. “Easy there, son. You’re going to hurt somebody waving that thing around. We'll get going in a little while, but first I need you to stay right here and keep your little brother out of the way while Adam and your ma and I set up the picnic area.” He saw the child's disappointed face and patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t fret, Hoss. We’ve got all day to play.” Hoss smiled again, glad that Pa had not forgotten his promise to spend the day fishing and berrying and playing games with them. A few more minutes wouldn’t matter. He grabbed Little Joe’s hand and led him over to sit on an overgrown tree root to watch while the rest of the family unloaded the buckboard and spread the picnic blanket, food and the rest of the pails and poles on the grassy area beneath another large tree.
Little Joe was not very interested in the spectacle. He had spotted something much more intriguing. A bright yellow butterfly was fluttering its way from place to place among the grass and flowers at their feet, occasionally floating up almost close enough to touch. Joe’s eyes went round with delight when the tiny creature settled on his knee and he reached out a finger to touch its pretty wings. Hoss grabbed his hand before he made contact and Little Joe turned to him, bewildered. “Pittyfy,” he said, pointing at the insect.
“I know it’s a butterfly, Little Joe,” Hoss agreed. “It’s a real pretty one too, but you shouldn’t touch it.”
“Pet!” Joe insisted, reaching for it again. He stuck his lip out when Hoss again held his hands back. “Joe pet pittyfy!” His wriggling motion upset the butterfly and it fluttered away, much to Joe’s disappointment. He watched as the insect rode the breeze for a few seconds, then clapped excitedly as it came back toward him and settled again on the opposite knee. Its tiny feet tickled the skin of his knee and Joe laughed at the funny sensation.
Hoss had not let go of his little brother, wrapping his arms around the boy instead as they both leaned down to get a good look. “You can’t pet him for a reason, Little Joe,” he whispered. “Take a good close look at them wings. Butterflies have itsy bitsy little feathery things on their wings. That’s what gives them such pretty color. If you touch them, you could rub those feathers right off without ever meaning to. That would hurt the butterfly.”
Joe looked at him. “Hurt?”
“That’s right. Just like if I was to grab a piece of your hair and yank it real hard. You wouldn’t want to do that to that poor little fella, would you? Specially when he’s only come to say howdy to us.” Joe shook his head solemnly. The butterfly remained on the little boy’s knee for a few seconds longer then took flight again, winging far across the field. Joe waved to it until it was out of sight and Hoss grinned and did the same. Free from the confinement of his brother’s arms, Little Joe hopped down off the log and made a run for the direction of the departed butterfly but Hoss managed to reach out and grab him by the criss-crossed straps of his small jumper before he could get away. He scooped the little boy up under his arms, hugging him tight around the middle and carried him over to the blanket. Though only seven years old, Hoss was big and strong for his age and often hauled his baby brother around for short distances in this fashion. Joe was upset at being prevented from having his adventure, but he spotted his mother ahead kneeling on the blanket and holding her arms out to them and smiled, his naturally sunny disposition reasserting itself.
“Mama!” he shrieked, struggling out of his brother’s grasp. Hoss set him down and Joe made a dash for his mother. She caught him up, laughing, and kissed his face. He pointed excitedly back the way they’d come, babbling incomprehensibly about the ‘pittyfy’. Marie listened; trying to figure out what he was telling her than sent a questioning look toward Hoss.
Hoss plunked down on the blanket and snuggled into the embrace of the arm his stepmother offered him and explained. “He’s talkin’ about a butterfly, Ma. It came over and lit on his knees and he wanted to go chase after it when it flew away.”
Marie laughed and hugged them both. “I see. Well, Mon petite, I’m afraid the butterflies will have to wait until later. Your papa and Adam are ready to go fishing and Hoss is going with them, so you must stay with me.”
Hoss jumped up, his excitement of earlier fully restored by her words. “Oh, boy! Fishin’!” He dashed over to get his fishing pole from the spot where he’d dropped it earlier and retrieved a small can of worms, instantly ready to get started. He grabbed Adam by the hand and started hauling him toward the lake, Ben only a few steps behind.
“We’ll be back soon, love,” he called back to Marie. “I promised Adam we’d go berry-picking right after lunch. Now we just have to see if we can catch some fish!”
Marie waved them off with a smile, fully prepared should they return with a string of fish or nothing more to show for their efforts than a few wet clothes. Though it had never been successful thus far, Hoss had not quite given up on the idea that he could catch a fish with his bare hands if he tried hard enough and somehow everyone in his immediate vicinity always seemed to wind up as wet as he was by the time he was ready to quit. Little Joe crawled off of her lap and wobbled to a standing position. He took a few steps in the direction of his father and brothers then lost his balance and toppled over. He stood again and repeated the performance, then looked back at his mother and began to cry. His face scrunched up and fat tears rolled down his face. Marie checked him over, but saw no evidence of scrapes or bumps. “What’s wrong?” she cooed softly. It was unlike Joe to make such a fuss over falling. “Tell Mama what’s wrong, sweetheart.”
Lip wobbling, Little Joe turned his great swimming green eyes toward the lake and pointed. “Hoss bye-bye!” he wailed.
Marie understood at once. Hoss had been playing with Joe, then to Little Joe’s point of view, had abruptly abandoned him to run off and play with Adam and Papa. The entire family was constantly amazed and amused by how much the baby adored his big sandy-haired brother. He would follow Hoss everywhere like a frisky little puppy from the time he could first crawl on all fours and it had come as no surprise to anyone except the delighted boy in question when Joe’s first word, four months ago, had been “Hoss”. Since that time, he had picked up quite a number of other new words, including their names, though at present Adam was still being called, “Am-am”, but without a doubt his favorite word was Hoss’ name. He would sometimes amuse himself for long stretches by just repeating “Hoss” over and over again in a kind of singsong cadence. When Hoss went to school, Joe would always wave bye-bye to him until he was out of sight and when he came home, would crawl or run to meet him at the door. And now, he had been abandoned, or so he thought. With a sigh and little indulgent smile, Marie scooped her baby up into her arms and walked towards the lake.
Adam spotted her first. “Hi Marie! Did you decide you wanted to come fishing with us after all? We’ve still got an extra pole,” he offered eagerly.
Marie had declined the invitation before, but Adam looked so pleased to see her that she instantly bit off the denial that had been on her lips. She had worked long and hard to earn that kind of response from Adam. “Why yes,” she lied. “I thought I would take up your offer to teach me if you’re willing to bait the hook for me.”
He beamed at her. “Sure!” Then his dark brows came together in a concerned frown. “What’s the matter with Little Joe?”
Joe was still snuffling a bit, though his tears had mostly dried. Marie patted his back and smiled over at her stepson. “He’s all right, dear. Just got a little upset when he thought you men had left us behind.”
Adam’s scrawny chest puffed out proudly at being referred to as a man and he reached out and took Joe into his arms, bouncing him a little until he smiled. Though Hoss was clearly his favorite, Little Joe adored his oldest brother nearly as much. In fact, when the child had begun to show off his latest accomplishment of escaping his own small bed during the night, his parents had learned quickly that they had to look no further than Adam’s room to find him. Little Joe would almost invariably be curled up next to his big brother with a thumb stuck in his mouth, sleeping peacefully when someone came to reclaim him. And it was also Adam who could charm him back into a good mood whenever Joe was fussy or unhappy. Joe reached out and patted Adam’s nose and Adam responded in kind by pinching his baby brother’s tiny nose softly between his index and middle fingers then putting the tip of his thumb between them and showing it to Joe with a theatric gasp. “Oh my gosh, Little Joe! I’ve got your nose! It came right off! Should I put it back on?” Joe nodded energetically; his eyes nearly crossing as they watched Adam’s fingers slowly come toward his face again. When Adam was within an inch of touching him, he uncurled his fingers and pressed the tip of Little Joe’s nose with his index finger, making a sound like a buzzing bee and said, “There, that’s better!”
Little Joe and his mother both laughed, as did Ben and Hoss who had been watching from the bank where they sat side by side baiting their hooks. “Here, Adam,” Ben said, securing his pole against a rock and reaching out. “Pass me that little imp and I’ll keep an eye on him while you teach Marie all about catching a fish.” Ben’s eyes twinkled merrily. He knew, though his son did not, that Marie was already quite an accomplished fisher, a legacy of many afternoons spent sneaking out of her convent school to play hooky as a little girl. Adam passed Joe into his father’s hands and Ben pulled his legs up to sit cross-legged in the grass with his youngest son sitting comfortably against his stomach with his small legs resting atop Ben’s calves. He pulled his fishing pole up under his right arm, laying it down the length of his thigh and a little bit over to allow Little Joe to help him hold it as he dipped his line into the water.
Believing that he was fishing right alongside his family, Joe beamed at Hoss who grinned back and sunk his own lure into the lake. The entire family fished quietly for a while. Though Ben felt it unlikely that he would catch anything today since Little Joe kept trying to grab the fishing line every time he bobbed the pole up and down, he was very happy and contented. Hoss was concentrating with all his might on the lake, as if he might tempt a fish onto his hook through sheer will-power and Adam was carefully instructing his step-mother on all the ins and outs of fishing, pleased that she seemed to be catching on so quickly. When Marie made the first catch of the day, Adam looked as though he would burst with pride and Ben was hard-pressed not to laugh. “Say, that’s a good one!” he remarked as he got a good look at the flopping squirming creature that Adam removed from the hook.
Ben had been ignoring the strong tugging on his own line, assuming his son was causing it again, but when he heard Joe laugh and clap his hands he looked at the pole and realized he had a bite. It was a little awkward trying to maneuver the pole with a lapful of toddler, but soon Ben had a fish even bigger than the one his wife had caught. He passed it over to join the string Adam was creating. Within a half-hour both Hoss and Adam had caught a couple as well and Ben was about to suggest that they quit and go cook their catch for lunch when he felt another tug on his line. Little Joe had been growing steadily more excited as his family pulled the shiny fish out of the water one after another and he tugged at the pole in his father’s hands, eager to see the sight again. Ben grew a bit excited himself as the fish proved to be a fighter. With one hand on the pole and the other wrapped around Joe, who was trying to scramble over his legs to go look into the water and watch, Ben gave a great heave and his line flew out of the water. What he saw on the end proved to be something of a disappointment. For all of its fight, he had expected a true whopper but this fish was not even half the size of the others on the string. He took it off the line and was about to throw it back when Hoss laughed and said. “I guess that one must be Little Joe’s fish, Pa. It’s just about his size.” Little Joe was looking at the small fish with the same round-eyed fascination he had bestowed upon the others and Ben smiled and handed it over to Adam to put on the string.
Adam jumped up from the grass and offered his hand to Hoss. “Let’s go and get these cleaned up and started cooking so we can go pick strawberries,” he suggested. Hoss accepted eagerly and bounced up, ready to go at once.
Ben was not worried about leaving Adam to start a small campfire on his own. The boy had done it many times before and knew to be careful so he made no objection as the two youngsters scrambled off. Stretching his legs out, he hitched Joe up securely inside the curl of his left arm and got to his feet, offering Marie a hand up. “I think we’d better follow them before they forget all about the fish and pick every strawberry on the Ponderosa without us.” Marie laughed gaily and scrambled up, wrapping her arm around her husband’s waist as they strolled after their sons, taking a much more leisurely pace than the boys had.
By the time they arrived, Adam had cleared a spot and set up the kindling and was just working on getting the flames going. Hoss was sitting in the grass next to him, legs splayed to either side and tongue stuck out of his mouth and curled up in careful concentration as he used his brother’s pocketknife to strip the bark off a set of long sticks. With a little help from their father, the boys soon had a spit built over the fire and the fish cooking. While Marie tended to the cooking of their lunch, Ben engaged in a game of tag with his boys. Little Joe did not quite understand the rules of the game and did not try to tag anyone, but he was happy to run away from his brothers when they advanced on him and to chase them when they ran away from him. He was easily distracted and apt to forget the game in favor of chasing bugs or examining flowers, but he did not wander too far away from the watchful eyes of his father and brothers, so they let him do as he liked. By the time Marie called lunch, even Hoss was tired enough to quit playing and was panting a bit as he ran over to collect his little brother. Little Joe was sitting in a patch of wildflowers and he held out four somewhat scraggly flowers that he had picked and smiled, announcing, “Mama.”
Hoss smiled and pulled him up. “You picked those for Mama?” Joe nodded and sniffed at his small bouquet, repeating himself. Hoss saw his father over his shoulder and called, “Hey Pa, lookit! Little Joe picked Ma some flowers. Ain’t that cute?”
Ben scooped up his baby son into his arms. Joe smiled at him and thrust the flowers forward. One parent seemed just as good as another for presenting his gift to. “Pitty?” he asked, waiting for his father to accept the bouquet.
Taking one of the battered flowered from his son’s small fist; Ben tucked its stem into the pocket of his shirt, allowing the bright petals to stick out. “There, how’s that?” He pushed the other three flowers back toward Joe. “Why don’t we save the rest of your flowers to give to Mama, all right?”
The group strode over to the picnic blanket and took their places behind the plates Marie had already loaded up with slices of fresh fish and some of the other dishes they had brought along. Ben set Little Joe down between he and his wife and the little boy instantly thrust his fist forward, offering his prize to his mother. “Pitty, Mama,” he said, using his word for any bright and lovely object from butterflies and flowers to the shiny silver buckles on his mother’s best shoes. It did not matter what the object was. If it was pretty then that was what he called it. She accepted the gift with delight, touched beyond words by the simple gesture. She gave him a hug and kiss, then accepted Hoss’ offer to put them in her hair. The result was rather comical, with one bright blossom over each ear and a third stuck lopsidedly into the coronet of braids atop her head, but Marie did not mind a bit. She hugged Hoss and gave him a kiss as well, smiling at his blushing pleasure.
“Thank you, darlings. And thank you too, Adam,” she said, smiling at him across the blanket. He had looked a little left out as he watched her affectionate gestures toward his brothers and though she could not reach him physically from here, Marie did not want that.
Adam looked surprised to be included. “For what? I didn’t do anything.”
“Not right now perhaps,” she replied, “but who else has Joseph seen bringing me flowers time and again when he has strayed upon a patch of them somewhere? You’re a wonderful example to both your brothers, my dear, and I don’t thank you nearly often enough for teaching them and taking such good care of them for me.”
Adam blushed and shrugged one thin shoulder, looking down at his food. He was smiling a little, pleased to be noticed and praised, but at thirteen years old, accepting compliments was harder to deal with than accepting a dressing down. Ben ruffled his hair and gave his shoulders a squeeze then changed the subject to spare his squirming son any further embarrassment. “Well, this looks like a lunch fit for a king if I ever saw one! Let’s dig in, boys. We don’t want to keep those strawberries waiting any longer than we have to.”
The entire family dug in with a right good will. Little Joe made a face at the small piece of fish meat his mother placed in his mouth and spit it out. He refused to open his mouth for anything else until the rest of the offending fish had been removed from his plate and passed over to Hoss, who had offered to trade a freshly buttered roll for the meat. At home, both of his parents would have insisted that Joe eat what was placed before him and would have waited him out, no matter how long it took, but neither wanted to risk ruining the wonderful mood everyone was in by provoking a tantrum. Happy to have his own way, Little Joe placidly munched through the soft piece of bread, then laid his head against his mother’s side and went to sleep while she was distracted from her attempts to make him eat more by a question from Hoss. A surprised glance down at the curly head that had suddenly plunked down upon her lap produced a wry but tender smile that was matched by the one on Ben’s face. Though less than two years old, their baby son was better at bending the world to his will than any child they had ever come across. He would have been easier to resist had he not been such a cute little charmer, but as it was he got his own way more often than not. Fortunately, he showed no sign thus far of becoming spoiled by all the love and devotion lavished on him by his family.
Lunch was finished quickly and the two older boys asked for and were granted permission to grab a couple of pails and begin picking berries. The clanking of buckets roused Little Joe from the spot where his mother had set him on the edge of the blanket and he instantly toddled over to retrieve his own small pail. Busy with gathering the remainder of lunch up and putting it away, his parents failed to see him wander away in pursuit of his brothers.
“Aw, Hoss, will you quit poking and come on?” Adam said, his tone exasperated. “You’re eating as many of those berries as you pick and we haven’t even reached the good patch yet. It’s still up a little farther.”
“I don’t want those ones, I want these,” Hoss insisted with a defiant little nod of his head.
“But those ones are puny compared to the ones that always grow up there,” Adam objected. “The far patch grows great big fat strawberries, almost as big as apples. Wouldn’t you rather get those?”
Hoss sat himself down on the ground and crossed his arms. “No! I found this patch and I’m not leaving until I get all the berries from here. You can go pick that other patch if you want and we’ll just see who has better!”
Adam looked tempted but doubtful. “Pa won’t like it if he finds out we split up. You know he always tells us to stick together. Suppose he gets mad.”
Hoss popped another berry into his mouth and wiped off the red juice that ran down his chin with his sleeve, leaving a bright red stain on the light brown material. “How will he get mad if he don’t know? I won’t tell if you won’t.”
He knew that Pa would skin him if he found out, but doing any kind of work with Hoss was always so slow and Adam really did want to explore a little on his own. Hoss was getting to be a big boy now. He’d be all right. “Well…okay, but you stay right around here and don’t wander off,” Adam ordered. “I’ll be back just as soon as I fill up these two pails I brought.”
“Okay,” Hoss agreed, stuffing his mouth full of berries. He was perfectly happy to stay where he was and eat for now and as soon as he started filling his pail he just knew he would pick more than Adam would. Just cause Adam was bigger he always thought he knew better, but he would see when they got back and showed off their bounty to Ma and Pa. He smiled to himself as he watched Adam walk away, waving at him when he gave one last doubtful glance back over his shoulder.
“I’m so glad you suggested we come out here today, my love,” Ben muttered into his wife’s hair as he took a deep breath of her sweet perfume and nuzzled the soft skin of her neck. She turned in his arms and they shared a long kiss, happy to have this rare opportunity away from the watching eyes of their two older sons. They spent several minutes petting and kissing then Marie pushed away with a throaty laugh. Ben sighed with regret but smiled at her. “I suppose we had better stop before we get carried away and do something we shouldn’t with Joseph around.”
She smiled and looked over to where their son had been laid down for his nap, then gasped. “Ben, he’s gone! Joseph is gone!”
Ben strode over to the spot where his son had been sleeping and began to scan the area as if expecting the child to magically reappear. There was no sign of him in any direction. “Joseph!” He called, then waited a few seconds and called again, “Little Joe, where are you? Come on out now, son. This isn’t the time to be playing hide and seek.” There was no answering giggle or sudden reappearance of a little boy playing his favorite game as Ben had expected and he and Marie exchanged a worried frown.
“Oh, Ben, where could he be?” Marie cried several minutes later as a more thorough search of the area revealed no trace of Little Joe. Her face paled and she clutched Ben’s arm as a horrible possibility occurred to her. “You don’t think he wandered back to the lake to watch the fish again, do you? You saw how fascinated he was with them! What if he tried to catch one and tumbled in? He doesn’t know how to swim, Ben!”
Her husband’s face took on a ghastly ashen color as he considered the possibility. Choking, “Stay here in case…in case he comes back,” Ben turned and ran to the lake, praying that his wife had been wrong. Knowing how much his baby loved the rippling water and shiny fish found in lakes all over the Ponderosa, he realized that it was very likely that she was right. A memory filled his mind of a five-year-old child, the son of one of his fellow ranchers, who had been found drowned last year after being missing for two days. He had seen more than one man drowned during his days at sea, but Ben had never been as affected by the sight as he was when he pulled that small still body from the pond in which he had fallen. Images of the same thing happening to Joe, of seeing his bright, lively, whirlwind little baby boy floating cold and dead in the lake assaulted Ben’s mind relentlessly with every step nearer the water. That was why he had told Marie to stay behind. He did not want her to see it if the horrific images filling his mind should prove to be real. “Dear God, please don’t let it be,” he whispered as he drew closer to the water. “Oh, why didn’t we keep a closer eye on him? Please, don’t take him from us. He’s just a little baby. Please, God!”
As he reached the lakeshore, Ben heard the rustling of his wife’s skirts and the crunching of the grass and twigs as she ran up behind him. He turned around, intending to stop her, but one look at her face stopped him. The muscles in her pale face were rigidly set and her wide frightened eyes held more determination than could be denied. “I have to be there, Ben. If anything has happened to him, I have to.” Grimly, he nodded. They approached the water together, eyes carefully scanning the bank and water, looking for any sign that their son had been there and praying they would not find one.
Meanwhile, far away from the location of his parents’ frantic search, Little Joe had managed to find his way to the first cluster of strawberry vines and was blissfully pulling the bright pieces of fruit off the vines and popping them into his mouth. He waited for some time, expecting to see one of his brothers appear as they always did, but when nobody came he pushed himself up and wandered off to find them.
Hoss had nearly filled up his shiny pail. He had grabbed the biggest bucket he could find in anticipation of making a large haul which would result in lots of delicious strawberry pies, but now as his bucket grew heavier and harder to carry, he began to wonder if he should have stayed with Adam. His brother would have carried it for him, perhaps trading him one of the two smaller pails to carry himself. Thinking of Adam, Hoss suddenly realized that he had disobeyed his order to stay where he had been until his older brother came back for him. Once he had begun picking berries in earnest it had begun to seem that the ones closest to him were not nearly as plump and inviting as the ones further down the slope. Hoss had steadily wandered further and further away from his original location, each patch of strawberries he reached seeming not as good as the next one ahead as he envisioned all the lovely desserts that would be made from his efforts. Only the best would do to take back to show Ma and Pa. Now, Hoss looked around and began to feel a thin thread of panic. Everything looked the same to him now. He had no idea which way he had come or how to get back to where he was supposed to be waiting for Adam.
Adam was getting angry. He had returned with two full buckets of strawberries, intending to collect Hoss and get back to find Pa so they could all come back for another load but his brother was nowhere in sight. “Hoss, where are you?” he demanded. “I know you can hear me so you’d better quit fooling around and get out here.” He waited impatiently, but Hoss did not show. “This isn’t funny! Pa’s not gonna like it if he finds out you run off. I ain’t kidding, Hoss! You’ve got five seconds to come out here or I’ll tell on you and Pa is gonna tan your britches. One, two, three, four, five!” The warning produced no results, much to Adam’s surprise. Usually by now, his brother would have sprung out from wherever he was hiding, full of apologies and begged requests not to tell on him. He looked around, calling as he began to grow a shade worried, then finally he got mad all over again. That little skunk had skipped out on him! Hoss had been bragging all week about how he was going to pick more berries than anyone else and how he was going to be the first to bring some back to show off to their father and stepmother. He must’ve waited until I was out of sight then picked his berries and run back to the picnic area to show them off! Adam thought. Taking one last look around to be sure Hoss wasn’t simply carrying a game too far, Adam picked up his pails and stalked off in the direction of the lake, growling threats under his breath the whole way about what he would do to a certain little brother of his once he caught up with him. If Hoss thought Adam would cover up for him when Pa figured out what he had done, he had another think coming!
Adam reached the picnic area just as his parents came back from their trip to the lake. They had found nothing and while this profoundly relieved them, the worrisome fact still remained that Little Joe was gone without a trace. Ben spotted his eldest son walking toward him and felt a spike of relief. He called out, “Adam, have you seen your brother?”
“No, Pa,” Adam said grumpily. “I’m sorry I didn’t keep him with me, but he promised he would wait for me while I picked the upper slopes.”
Marie and Ben looked to each other with a mixture of confusion and anxiety. “Adam, what are you talking about? Do you mean to say that Hoss is missing too?”
“Too?” Adam’s face took on a frightened expression as he caught the implication in their question. “Hoss wanted to pick strawberries off the lower slope while I got the upper. He was supposed to wait for me but when I got back, he was gone. I thought he came back here to show off his berries to you. Do you mean to say that he isn’t here and that Little Joe isn’t either?”
“No,” Marie told him anxiously. “Your father and I finished packing up lunch and we were talking. Little Joe was taking a nap over by that tree but when I looked over to check on him, he wasn’t there. We’ve looked everywhere! The wagon, the trees, the lake, everywhere!”
“You don’t suppose they could be somewhere together, do you?” Adam asked uncertainly. “Hoss was with me and Joe was with you, but if they’re both gone…” He shrugged, knowing it was not likely but seeking comfort in the idea that his two missing brothers might not be wandering around completely alone.
Ben rubbed his face, trying to compose himself for the sake of Adam and Marie. “I’m afraid that isn’t likely Adam. Joe was still sleeping when you and Hoss went to gather strawberries and…” He stopped talking suddenly as his eyes passed over the pile of buckets next to the tree and realized that something was missing. “Little Joe’s new pail! It’s not here and I know we brought it with us.”
“He must’ve seen me and Hoss were gone and followed us!” Adam said excitedly. “If so, then we should find both of them somewhere in the fields!” All three of them looked out toward the rambling expanse of vines growing over the hilly area beyond the lake and then at each other. The plants themselves grew low to the ground, no more than two feet high at the utmost, but the area beneath the vines was full of dips, crooks, and fallen branches; any of which could easily hide a small boy. Adam bit his lip. “Where do we start looking?”
Placing a hand on his shoulder, Ben said, “Show us where you last saw Hoss.”
Hoss was growing more tired and more frightened by the moment as he picked his way through the tangle of vines which grew up past his knees, searching for some familiar sight that would tell him which direction to go. Most of the things he could have used for landmarks, boulders and a few tree stumps and such had been grown over and obscured when the originally small patch of wild strawberries had spread out. Now, everything he looked at appeared the same as everything else. Why had he gone and disobeyed Adam, he wondered forlornly. Not watching where he was going, Hoss did not see the tight loop of plants interwoven with a fallen tree limb and set his foot right in the middle of it. The pressure of his step cinched the plants tight around his ankle, toppling him straight over onto his face. Trying not to cry, Hoss attempted to get up and cried out in pain, his left leg crumpling under him. Sitting on the ground, lost, tired, hurting and who knew how far away from his family, Hoss lay down, hid his face in his hands and began to sob. Unfortunately, while he had been easily visible standing among the low growing strawberry plants, they topped his head and obscured him from view as he lay stretched out on the ground. Thus it was that his parents and older brother missed him completely as they hurried by on their way to the spot where he had begun his journey.
Little Joe was beginning to be decidedly unhappy. He had been walking for a long, long time now and his brothers had still not shown up. He was quickly growing tired and was just trying to decide whether he was unhappy enough to put up a fuss when he heard someone close by. Happy to have found company at last, Little Joe tottered through the nasty clingy plants that kept trying to grab him and followed the sound. It was Hoss! Joe walked right up to him and plopped down on the ground beside him, but Hoss did not seem to notice him. He was crying and Little Joe began to cry too, upset to see his brother so distressed. He reached out and patted his brother’s blonde head. “Hoss? Hoss?”
Hoss looked up quickly, shocked to hear the familiar sound of his baby brother’s voice calling his name. Joe’s lip was quivering and tears rolled down his cheeks, but he smiled when he saw that Hoss was looking at him. “Little Joe! What are you doing here?” Not waiting to see if the little boy would answer, Hoss tried to jump up, forgetting his ankle, as his hopes that his family had found him rose. The painful reminder of his injury felled him once more and Hoss hit the ground with a little cry and started sobbing again. “Pa?” he called. “Pa, are you there?”
Joe poked him to get his attention. “No Papa,” he said solemnly.
It took a moment for Hoss to accept what he was hearing, but as nobody else appeared or could be heard calling to either him or his brother, the truth set in. “You mean, you’re out here by yourself?” Little Joe nodded, then seeming undisturbed the idea, held out his pail to Hoss and smiled. “You followed me, didn’t you?” Hoss asked and again his brother nodded complacently, helping himself to a fat strawberry from the bucket. He watched Hoss calmly, certain that he would know what to do next and was puzzled when Hoss did not move. “Then,” Hoss snuffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve trying to remember that he was the big brother and had to be in charge. “Then I guess that means we’re both lost.”
Little Joe shook his head, his golden brown curls bouncing. He pushed himself up again, nudging his bucket toward his brother’s hand. “Joe find,” he announced cheerfully and ran a few yards away.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Hoss shouted in alarm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
The toddler turned and looked at him with a big smile. “Joe find.”
“Find who?” Hoss asked, his voice exasperated. “There ain’t nobody out here ‘cept us.”
Joe blinked and pointed to a spot in the distance. “Am-am,” he said.
Hope renewed itself inside of Hoss. “You mean you know where Adam is?” Little Joe looked uncertain, then shook his head. “Well then, how you going to find him if you don’t know where he is?”
“Find Hoss,” Joe said reasonably. Apparently feeling that he had explained sufficiently, he turned and began to follow his original course. Hoss watched for a second, his mouth hanging open. Somehow it kind of made sense. Little Joe had found Hoss, who he apparently thought had been hiding from him, and now he would find Adam as well. There was no way he could let him go alone, though!
“Joe, wait!” He struggled to get up but his ankle would not support his weight and trying to crawl on all fours hurt badly as well. He stopped moving and Joe slowly moved back to his side, pulling on his sleeve and wondering why he did not just come along. Hoss tried to smile at him but he wasn’t very successful. “I hurt my leg, Little Joe. I can’t get up.”
They sat together for a while not knowing what to do then Joe stood and moved away again, his manner suddenly confident. “Find Papa.” He ignored Hoss’ orders and pleas to come back, determined as usual to have his own way. He would find Papa and everything would be good because Papa always knew what to do. As he wandered further away, Little Joe began to call for his father as loud as he could.
“We were right here, Pa,” Adam said for the third or fourth time, his voice beginning to grow slightly shrill. He had been sure they would find one or both of his brothers before now and their continued absence was frightening. They had been searching the area for some time and had turned up nothing. “I swear, I only left Hoss alone for about 15 minutes. I knew I shouldn’t have but I didn’t think he’d go anywhere. He promised to stay here and I thought he’d be okay. This is all my fault!”
Though Ben felt a great need to take out his mounting fear and anxiety on someone, he checked the angry impulse to shout at his oldest son. The boy’s conscience was clearly already flaying him into tiny pieces and there would be nothing gained by chastising him now. Ben patted Adam’s back. He realized that part of his anger was directed at himself. “If you’re at fault, boy, then so are we. After all the times we’ve warned you boys to keep a sharp eye on Little Joe, Marie and I should have known better than to turn our backs on him for even a few minutes.”
“I don’t understand why we haven’t seen them,” Marie said, twisting her hands together as she carefully looked over the landscape once again. “Joseph might not be easily visible among these plants but we certainly should have seen Hoss!” Her carefully held composure was beginning to crack. Ben placed an arm around her and began to murmur words of comfort and reassurance. Suddenly Adam grabbed his arm.
“Pa, Marie, listen!” he said excitedly. “Do you hear that?” Not waiting for an answer he turned and pelted through the bushes to his left, just as his parents heard it too. The sound of their baby’s voice calling out for Papa. The two of them instantly charged after Adam, Marie impatiently yanking her skirts free from the vines that tried to hold her back.
Little Joe sent up a crow of delight when he saw his brother come crashing toward him and yelled, “Am-am!” as Adam caught him up into a hug that nearly squeezed the breath out of him.
“Little Joe!” Marie half-laughed and half-sobbed as her baby was passed into her arms. Ben did not wait but hugged the two of them at once. “Oh, baby, I was so worried about you! Don’t you ever run off like that again!” Kisses and tears were raining down upon Little Joe and he squirmed and pushed to get out of the crush of his parents’ joint embrace. They couldn’t help laughing as they saw the expression on his face and felt the relief of his safe return wash over them.
“Hoss!” Little Joe yelled the name over all the commotion surrounding him and the attention of his parents and brother was instantly recaptured.
“Joe, have you seen Hoss?” Adam asked eagerly. “Do you know where he is?” Joe nodded vigorously, then to everyone’s surprise began to cry.
Ben picked him up and wiped away his tears, looking the small child in the eye as he asked anxiously. “Baby, is there something wrong with Hoss?”
“Hoss hurted!” Joe wailed.
The Cartwright family exchanged worried glances. “Where is he, son? Can you tell me?” Ben asked softly. Little Joe snuffled and pointed back the way he had come. For such a young child, his sense of direction was surprisingly good and his family did not hesitate to follow his silent command. All three called out Hoss’ name loudly; hoping the boy was not unconscious or injured severely enough that he would not be able to answer. Soon, Joe began calling too, still pointing the way.
Hoss was trying hard to think of something else as the throbbing pain in his leg got worse, forcing fresh tears from him. Both his ankle and knee on the left side hurt awful bad and he was worried about his little brother on top of it. Suppose Joe got hurt or lost even worse and nobody ever found either of them? Suddenly, Hoss perked his ear up. Had he heard his name being called? Yes! There it was again. It was Pa! “Pa! Pa, I’m over here,” he shouted. He could hear the voices of the rest of his family too now, even Little Joe! He had found them after all. “I’m here,” he screamed again.
“Over there!” Marie exclaimed. She had caught sight of her stepson’s blonde head a moment before his voice had called out to them. Running ahead, she reached him and caught the sobbing little boy up in her arms, kissing him as her own tears began anew. “Darling, are you all right? Little Joe said you were hurt?”
“I fell over something and hurt my leg,” he told her, clinging tightly to her neck. “Little Joe found me and I tried to stop him when he said he was gonna go find Pa, but I couldn’t get up. I’m sorry I didn’t stay like Adam told me to, Ma.”
Ben and Adam had reached the boy as well by now and had knelt down beside him. Ben hugged Hoss tightly and Adam ruffled his hair with a grin, too relieved to find him safe to still be mad at him. Little Joe was happy again now that his family was all together and he too reached out to hug Hoss. Their parents looked at their two lost lambs and as their eyes met, they silently shared a prayer of thankfulness. The boys were dirty and scratched and tired, but they were safe and whole and except for Hoss’ leg, none the worse for their adventure. Neither of them questioned that Little Joe’s finding of first Hoss and then his family was anything less than a miracle. There was no other way to explain it.
Hoss yelped as his father carefully felt along his injured leg and it was clear even through the material of his scuffed overalls that his knee was swelling up. The ankle looked even worse and Ben shook his head. “I’m afraid you’ve managed to sprain your ankle, son, and your knee got twisted a little when you fell. We’ll have the doctor look at you to make sure nothing is broken but it looks like you’re in for a few days bed-rest no matter what.”
Though he looked unhappy at the news, Hoss accepted it without complaint. He chewed his lip as he tried to meet his father’s gaze. “Are you gonna thrash me when we get home, Pa?” he asked in a small voice. “I didn’t mean to get lost. I just wanted to pick the very best strawberries for you and Ma.”
Ben considered him seriously, tipping his chin up to look him full in his brimming eyes. “Do I have your word that you’ll never do anything like this again?” Hoss nodded. “You won’t wander off without permission or run away when you’ve been told to stay put?” Hoss shook his head, doing his best not to cry. Ben smiled and hugged him tightly. “Then no, I’m not going to thrash you. I think we’ve all had a day and been taught a lesson that we won’t soon forget and I’m content to just let things stand. Now, let’s get you boys back to the wagon so we can go home, all right?” Hoss smiled and breathed a sigh of relief, wrapping his arms around his father’s neck as he carefully lifted him up, holding his leg steady to keep it from bouncing as they moved.
Marie picked up Little
Joe and held him close as Adam put a guiding arm around her shoulders and
followed his father back to the picnic area. Hoss looked over his
shoulder and called to his brother, “Hey Adam, don’t forget my pail!
We ain’t gonna have no pie otherwise!” He sounded so anxious that
Adam started to laugh. He picked up both Hoss’ pail and the much
smaller one belonging to Little Joe and swung them in his hands.
The last of his own worry faded away at his brother’s words. If Hoss
was thinking about food then everything was going to be all right.
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