The Hardest Goodbye – Book 1 of “A House United” (by Pulitzer2016)

The Hardest Goodbye
Book 1 of A HOUSE UNITED series

By Sarah Hendess (aka Pulitzer2016)

Rating:  K  (33,830 words)

A House United Series:

The Hardest Goodbye – Book 1 of A House United
And the War Came – Book 2 of A House United
Thenceforward and Forever Free – Book 3 of A HOUSE UNITED

 

Washington, DC
July 1859

 

Josephine Cartwright blew an errant strand of dark hair out of her face and shifted her position between her patient and the window to shed more light on the back of the man’s head. His hair was tacky with blood, and Josie had to wipe it down frequently with a damp cloth.

“However did you manage to do this in your bookshop, Mr. Roberts?” she asked in amazement.

Mark Roberts grimaced as Josie jabbed her needle through his skin for a final stitch.

“Clint was carrying a crate of books, knocked into me, and sent me flying backwards into one of the shelves,” he said, clearly exasperated by his son. This was not the first time Clint’s infamous clumsiness had forced someone to seek medical attention.

“Well, at least no one landed in horse manure this time,” Josie said, tying off her thread and gently bandaging Mr. Roberts’s head to keep the stitches clean. “Come back in a week, and I’ll take the stitches out. And take it easy the rest of the day. You may feel dizzy, and we don’t need you fainting and splitting open another piece of your head.”

Roberts chuckled. “Indeed I will.” He stood up and collected his hat. “What do I owe you for this?”

“I wouldn’t charge you for five stitches, Mr. Roberts. Reserve me a copy of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ when the serial is complete, and we’ll call it even.”

“I’ll be sure to do that,” Roberts said and headed toward the front door of the clinic. “Congratulations on your acceptance to medical school, by the way. I hear you had some special guests arrive to help you celebrate.”

Josie’s face split into a wide smile. “I did! My cousins Adam and Joe came all the way from the Utah Territory! I had not seen either of them since we accompanied Adam home after his graduation from Harvard nine years ago. Little Joe was only eight years old then. It’s just too bad my Uncle Ben and Hoss could not come along, too, but I guess someone has to run their ranch.”

“It’s hard when family is so far away,” Roberts reflected. “But it makes your time together that much sweeter.”

“I suppose so,” Josie agreed. “I would have liked to have gone back to the territory with them to visit for a while, but school starts in September.”

Roberts smiled at her. “You’ll make a fine doctor.”

“Thank you,” Josie said, smiling back. “Now remember what I said: take it easy the rest of the day.”

“Will do. Tell your father I said hello.”

“I will. Take care.” Josie closed the door behind Mr. Roberts and returned to the exam room to clean up.

Josie hummed as she dropped her used needle into a jar of alcohol and wiped up some stray drops of blood from the exam table. She would have loved returning to the Nevada region with her cousins, but she had dreamed of going to medical school since she was a small girl, so she knew her visit would have to wait at least the two years it would take her to earn her MD. And it helped that Adam was nearly as excited about her becoming a doctor as she was. He always had been bookish.

“Oh, someday,” she sighed to herself as she tossed away a bloody rag.

******

            When her father returned to the clinic just before supper after a round of house calls, Josie related the details of Mr. Roberts’s accident. Dr. Cartwright shook his head. “Poor Mark,” he chuckled. “That boy will be the death of him.”

“In his own bookshop, no less,” Josie added.

“Thank you for stitching him up,” her father said. “It’s good to have you home, even if it’s only for a little while.” His face fell, and Josie noticed for the first time the creases that had developed at the outer corners of his eyes.

“Everyone’s always missing someone,” she mused, her thoughts returning to her uncle and cousins.

Jacob Cartwright looked at her thoughtfully. “That’s true, I suppose. But just think! In two years, we’ll be ordering a new shingle for the clinic: Cartwright and Cartwright, MDs!”

Josie grinned. She couldn’t imagine any other vocation for herself than medicine, and working alongside her father made it that much sweeter. Jacob had taught her much about medicine over the years, but she had always been merely his assistant. Now she was going to be a doctor in her own right, the same as him, and someday take over the clinic for her own.

“Come on, Papa,” she said, threading her arm through his. “We’d best get home. Mrs. Crenshaw will be furious if we’re late for dinner again, and Mama will be furious if she has to deal with Mrs. Crenshaw being furious again.”

Father and daughter stepped out onto the front stoop, Dr. Cartwright checked that the door was locked, and they set off down the city street together toward home.

******

Female Medical College of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Sunday, September 11, 1859

 

Dear Adam,

I am at medical school! I can hardly believe it. We have had only one week of classes, but I already can tell I am in for a challenging two years. But who loves a challenge more than a Cartwright?

Everyone here is very pleasant. The dormitory mothers keep a tight watch on us, but they are not overly strict. We are allowed a fair amount of independent movement around the city. My roommate’s name is Michaela. She is from Boston, and her father is a doctor, too. Like me, she plans to join his practice after graduation. There are only fifteen of us in our class, so I expect we will all grow close.

As I have been in Philadelphia only two weeks, I have not yet had time to see all the sights you recommended, though next weekend Michaela and I intend to visit Independence Hall, and one of the dormitory mothers said she will lead a visit to Valley Forge early next month. I will be sure to write and give you all my impressions.

Philadelphia is a city wholly different from any I have been to before. In Washington, we are accustomed to the city growing up around us – or in the case of the Washington Monument, growing partway and then stopping abruptly – but Philadelphia is established. It is old like Boston, yet seems less preoccupied with decorum. Perhaps this is due to the lack of Transcendentalists. In any event, I expect I will be very happy here. I do not have to worry quite so much if I commit a behavioral faux pas, but thanks to Benjamin Franklin, I still have access to an excellent library.

Thank you for your letter of August 1. Though I am enjoying Philadelphia, it was nice to have something that felt like home waiting for me upon my arrival at school. I am so glad you and Little Joe had an uneventful journey home. I still cannot believe the two of you traveled four weeks each direction to celebrate my medical school acceptance with me, but I am forever grateful that you did. Nine years is too long to be separated, and I hope to visit all of you at the Ponderosa when I complete my medical degree. I am so eager to see the house you designed. The sketch you sent me was beautiful, and I am sure it is even more stunning in person. I expect the area near the Ponderosa will grow rapidly thanks to the Comstock Lode I heard about. They say it is the biggest silver strike ever discovered in the United States. Perhaps Nevada will break away from the Utah Territory and become its own state.

I keep the portrait the three of us had done while you were in Washington on my bureau here in my dormitory, and the other girls often ask about my “handsome brothers.” I have attempted to explain to them the Cartwright family tree, but they have collectively decided that you especially should be my brother, and so they call you.

I apologize for this letter’s brevity, but I must return to my studies. Please give my love to Uncle Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe, and relay my thanks again to Uncle Ben for giving you and Joe the time off from your work to visit me. It meant more than he will ever know.

I miss you.

All my love,

Josephine

 

Ponderosa Ranch
Western Utah Territory
Early November, 1859

 

Adam Cartwright pushed a stray lock of raven hair out of his eyes and reminded himself to go into town for a haircut soon. He had just reread his cousin’s first letter from medical school for at least the twelfth time, and he felt guilty he had let two weeks pass without writing back. He typically responded to Josie’s letters immediately, but he had felt melancholy since returning home from the East, and he did not want to squelch her excitement over medical school with his own dreariness.

He gently refolded the letter and placed it on his bureau next to a ferrotype of the portrait of himself, Josie, and Little Joe. He and Joe had traveled nearly a month to reach the eastern side of the country. It was five days by stagecoach from nearby Carson City to San Francisco, where the boys boarded a passenger ship. A fortnight at sea delivered them to Panama City, where they spent another day aboard a river boat on the Chargres River traveling to Cristobal. Once there, they had boarded another steamship that carried them through the Caribbean and up the east coast of North America to New York, where they caught a train for Hartford, Connecticut, where Josie was just completing her studies at the Hartford Female Seminary.

Adam was still astounded his father had given him so much time away from the ranch and even more astounded that Ben had also consented to Adam’s taking Little Joe along with him. Adam often did not understand his youngest brother, who was twelve years his junior. Joe was hot-tempered while Adam was level-headed, impulsive while Adam was reflective. But after the death of Little Joe’s mother, Adam had helped to raise the now seventeen-year-old and wanted to show him more of the world. The boy had never been east of Texas, and Adam had found his brother’s utter amazement at just about everything on their journey rather endearing.

They had been an odd sight during their day and a half in Panama – two young men from the American West taking a riverboat through the Central American rainforest. They could have taken the new Panama Railway that had opened since Adam last crossed Central America, but he wanted Little Joe to see the rainforest, and Adam enjoyed every minute of watching Joe experience it. Joe, for his part, had spent most of the day-long journey along the Chargres River shouting. Every time he spotted a new species of bird or animal, he would holler out, “WOW! Adam! Did you see that one?” By the time they had reached Cristobal on the eastern coast of Panama, Joe had concocted an elaborate scheme to capture a parrot to take home to their brother Hoss (something to do with a fishing pole and his left boot – Adam hadn’t caught all of the details), and Adam had intervened just in time to stop the boy from spending all of his money on a live spider monkey, after which a loud and rather lengthy argument had broken out over whether a monkey could be happy in Nevada.

Their voyage through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic Coast had been no less amazing to Little Joe, who attempted to dive off the ship near Florida to swim with a pod of dolphins. By the time they disembarked in New York City and boarded their train to Connecticut, Adam was exhausted from keeping his brother out of trouble, but Joe, for all his scheming, was still irritatingly energetic. But when they stepped off their train in Hartford and Adam saw his aunt, uncle, and Josie, grown into a young woman since last he had seen her, his fatigue fell away. The nine-year-old raven-haired little girl who had clung, sobbing, to him at their parting in Carson City nine years prior had grown into a beautiful raven-haired young woman of eighteen who now clung, sobbing, to him at their reunion in Connecticut. That reunion was the best day of his life to that point. Adam loved his father, his brothers, and their ranch, but reunited with his cousin, he felt complete.

They had spent a week in Hartford for farewell parties with Josie’s classmates, all of whom were delighted to meet Josie’s handsome cousins from Nevada, before traveling a day and a half by train to the eastern Cartwrights’ home in Washington, DC. Little Joe was sorry to leave the school and its lovely students and to everyone’s amusement expressed his desire to someday attend a ladies’ seminary. But he soon found Washington exciting, too. He thought the partially completed Washington Monument was hilarious (“Why would they spend all that money on a silly stone pillar that doesn’t do anything, Adam?”), expressed adequate interest while Adam explained the historical significance of the architecture of the White House and the Capitol, and even consented to sit still long enough for a portrait of the three Cartwright cousins before he and Adam had to return home.

Adam now picked up the ferrotype from his bureau and studied it for the hundredth time. Though the slightly mischievous expression on her face identified Josie as undeniably a Cartwright, Adam was still amazed by her uncanny resemblance to his own mother, whose hand-drawn portrait also sat on his bureau. The resemblance was no coincidence; Adam and Josie were double first cousins, leading Josie to sometimes refer to him as “Cousin-Cousin Adam” – a moniker Adam found annoying because he felt it made them sound inbred, yet he had never been able to bring himself to insist Josie stop using it. Josie’s father, Dr. Jacob Cartwright, was his own father’s younger brother, and Adam’s mother, Elizabeth Stoddard, and Josie’s mother, Hannah, were sisters. Or had been sisters. Though Josie’s mother was alive and well, Adam’s had died mere hours after giving birth to him. Grief-stricken, Benjamin Cartwright almost immediately took his infant son across the Great Plains, first to Nebraska, and eventually to the Nevada Territory, where he established the Ponderosa Ranch – now 1,000 square miles of prime land on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Adam had thrived as a boy in the West. He learned to ride, shoot, and run a ranch. Though his formal schooling was inconsistent until the little family had settled permanently in the western Utah Territory – then still a part of Mexico – when he was nearly ten years old, Ben made sure his oldest son could read, write, and do his figures. Adam exhibited a quick mind early on, and by the time he was fourteen, the local schoolteacher told Ben that she had taught him everything she could and asked if he had considered sending Adam back east to attend a university. By that time, Adam had two younger brothers, Hoss and Joe, by two different stepmothers. Hoss’s mother had died tragically when she was shot by a Lakota arrow in Nebraska when Hoss was only a few months old, but Joe’s mother, a Creole woman originally from New Orleans, doted on all three boys equally. Ben disliked the idea of sending his fourteen-year-old son so far away from home, so he ordered in books by the dozen from New York. Then, the spring Adam turned seventeen and Little Joe was not quite five, Joe’s mother, Marie, died after breaking her neck when she fell from her horse. Adam felt sick at the thought of leaving his father and brothers so soon after yet another family tragedy, but Ben insisted he keep his plans to travel to Harvard that summer. In retrospect, Adam was grateful for his father’s insistence. Those years in college had turned out to be some of the best of his life.

 

Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and Utah Territory
Fall 1847 – December 1850

When Adam arrived in New York City Harbor in August, 1847, his aunt, uncle, and cousin met his ship, having traveled by train from their home in Washington, DC. Adam had never met his extended family, but he immediately recognized his uncle, who, though certainly not Ben Cartwright’s doppelganger, was clearly his brother – something about the eyes and the tilt of the head.

“Adam!” Jacob Cartwright exclaimed, pumping his hand. “So good to finally meet you in person!” Jacob had been away at school when his nephew was born, and by the time the then sixteen-year-old Jacob had heard of Adam’s birth and Elizabeth’s death, Ben had already struck out west. Jacob now held Adam at arm’s length and took a long look at him. “My goodness, you ARE a Stoddard, aren’t you?”

“So I’ve been told, sir,” Adam said, blushing slightly. “I know I don’t much favor my pa. Or you, apparently.”

Jacob laughed heartily. “That’s all right, son. We’ll love you anyway,” he replied, slapping his nephew on the back.

As Adam smiled and thanked him, he caught sight of his Aunt Hannah and little Josie. Hannah Stoddard Cartwright had the wavy, black-brown hair of all the Stoddards but otherwise did not bear a strong resemblance to her older sister Elizabeth. But at only six and a half years old, Josephine Elizabeth Cartwright most certainly did. Adam’s breath caught as he looked upon the first member of his family he had ever met who looked like him. Josie had the same sable hair, hazel eyes that turned downward ever so slightly at the outward corners, bow-shaped mouth, and slight upturn to her nose that Adam had.

Jacob noticed his nephew staring in wonderment at his daughter and guessed what the young man must be thinking. His heart went out to this motherless boy who must have grown up wondering about his maternal family.

“So sorry,” Jacob said. “Allow me to introduce you to your Aunt Hannah, and your cousin, Josephine.”

“Hello, Adam,” Hannah said, wiping away a tear and embracing her late sister’s child for the first time since he was an infant. She held him a long time, and as they parted, she instinctively reached up and brushed a strand of hair out of his eyes. “Josie has that same unruly forelock,” she said, smiling through more tears. “My sister – your mother – had it, too.” Adam’s eyes welled up now, too, and before he could manage a reply, he felt a tug on his elbow. He looked down into the upturned face of the little girl who could be his sister.

“I’m Josie,” she said, proffering her little hand.

“Hello, Josie,” Adam said, pulling a serious face and solemnly shaking his cousin’s tiny hand. “I’m your cousin Adam, and I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise,” Josie chirped. “We’re actually double first cousins you know,” she informed him, “because our fathers are brothers and our mothers are sisters.”

Adam raised an eyebrow and caught his uncle’s eye. Jacob shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands as if to say “What are you going to do?” This was not the first time Josie’s precociousness had caught an adult off guard.

“That’s true,” Adam said, squatting down to her eye level. “Which means you and I are more closely related than anyone else in our family, so we better make sure we take real good care of each other. Is that a bargain?” he asked, offering her his hand this time.

“Mr. Cartwright, I do believe it is,” Josie said grandly, shaking Adam’s hand for a second time.

“Wonderful!” Adam exclaimed, standing up and plopping his cowboy hat on Josie’s head so that it fell down over her eyes. The little girl giggled and pushed the hat back so she could see but did not take it off. Instead, she reached up and took his hand. Adam’s heart soared.

“Better watch out for that one,” Jacob said, nudging Adam and pointing to Josie. “She’ll wrap you around her little finger so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

“I’m noticing,” Adam said, grinning down at his little cousin. The skills he had developed over eleven years of being an older brother were going to serve him well.

“Adam, dear, you must be famished,” Hannah interjected. “Let’s go to our hotel so you can clean up and then we’ll get something to eat.”

“That sounds wonderful, thank you, ma’am.”

“Aunt Hannah,” she corrected.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Hannah shook her head, and led the little party off the dock, her holding onto her husband’s arm and Adam holding tightly to Josie’s hand.

******

They delivered him to Harvard the next day, and Adam thanked his aunt and uncle profusely for going out of their way to meet him. They assured him it had been their pleasure and told him to send them a telegram in Washington, DC, if there was anything he needed.

“Don’t forget, you promised you would spend Christmas with us,” Josie reminded Adam sternly as they said their farewells.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world,” Adam assured her.

Adam enjoyed his first term at Harvard, where he studied engineering and architecture, and when the Christmas holidays arrived he took the train from Boston to Washington, DC, to his uncle’s home. All three Cartwrights met his train, and Josie flew into his arms when he stepped onto the platform. Jacob and Hannah included Adam in all of their family activities as if he were their own son. Jacob, especially, enjoyed taking Adam around Washington City to show him the government buildings, in whose architecture he knew his nephew would take a keen interest. Adam was disappointed that Congress was on a holiday recess and he could not sit in on a session of the Senate or the House, but his uncle placated him with a tour of the Capitol building. In the evenings after supper, the family sat together in the sitting room, Jacob reading, Hannah sewing, and Adam and Josie competing to see who could build the tallest tower of wooden blocks. On Christmas morning, Jacob and Hannah surprised him with a handsome volume of “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” while Josie, uncharacteristically shyly, presented him with a scarf she had knitted herself. Adam missed his father, his brothers, and if he was honest with himself, his horse, but at the same time, he had never felt so contented.

Adam’s school holidays passed in much the same way over the next three years. He reveled in his studies and his classmates at Harvard, but he spent every extended break with his family in Washington. He especially enjoyed his summer vacations, which were too short to warrant traveling all the way home to Nevada, but allowed him almost three uninterrupted months with Jacob, Hannah, and Josie, who had adopted him as an honorary older brother – a role he was happy to fill. When he was not taking Josie to the library, the new Smithsonian museum, or the theater, he was drawing up plans for the new ranch house he intended to build on the Ponderosa, doing odd jobs for Dr. Cartwright’s neighbors, or walking around the Federal City, soaking up the excitement of nation’s capital. On July 4, 1848, all four Cartwrights attended the laying of the cornerstone for the planned Washington Monument, watched a fireworks display, and stuffed themselves silly with fresh-churned ice cream. It was a glorious time.

When Adam arrived in Washington in early June 1849 for his summer break between his second and third and final year at Harvard, Jacob met him at the train station alone.

“Where’s Josie?” Adam asked, disappointed.

“At home with the measles, unfortunately,” Dr. Cartwright replied. Seeing the concern cross his nephew’s face, he added, “Don’t worry, she’s fine. Or will be, anyway. She came down sick a few days ago, and she’s still a bit feverish, but it isn’t bad. No signs of pneumonia setting in. She should be back to her normal self in three or four days, though I’m keeping her quarantined for the next two weeks.”

“She’ll love that,” Adam said.

Jacob chuckled, then grew serious. “Have you had the measles, Adam?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” Adam replied quickly. “I was a couple years younger than Josie. Got them right in the middle of the Great Plains. Pa still likes to remind me what a terrible inconvenience that was.”

Jacob laughed. “Good! I can take you home, then.”

The Cartwright men chatted amiably on the short buggy ride from the train station to the house. When they arrived, Adam greeted his aunt, who said he was welcome to look in on Josie. He took his suitcase up the guest room, which he had come to think of as his own, opened it, and removed the book sitting atop his clothes. Walking quietly down the hall, he stopped at Josie’s bedroom door and knocked gently.

“Adam?” Josie’s little voice sounded raw.

Adam opened the door and stepped through. Josie, who was under her father’s orders to sleep, was sitting up in bed with a book in her hands. Every bit of exposed skin was covered in a red, blotchy rash. “Hey, Josie,” he said. Josie reached her arms out to him, and Adam crossed the room in two strides and knelt down to hug her. His cousin’s skinny body was too warm through her nightgown, but not dangerously hot. Perhaps Uncle Jacob had been right about her condition not being serious – he was a medical doctor after all – but Adam felt better having seen her for himself.

“You should be sleeping,” he said.

“I am bored with sleeping!” Josie protested. “It’s all I have been doing for the last three days. I am reading now.”

Adam glanced at the cover of the book she was holding. “Frankenstein?” he asked, amused. “Interesting choice.”

“It was closest to the door,” Josie answered cryptically.

“Beg your pardon?”

Josie sighed. “I wasn’t supposed to be out of bed, so I had to sneak into the library to get a book. I wanted ‘Oliver Twist,’ but I thought I heard someone coming as soon as I got in there, and this one was closest to the door, so I grabbed it and ran.”

Adam laughed out loud. Josie reminded him strongly of Little Joe sometimes. “Well, here,” he said, handing her the book he had brought for her. “I brought you a present. Seems it was well timed.”

Josie examined the book, “The Children of the New Forest.” “I’ve heard of this!” she exclaimed, her face beaming. “Mary at school was talking about it, but I had already spent all my pocket money for the month, and Papa wouldn’t give me any more.” Her excitement was curtailed by a burst of coughing. Adam poured her a glass of water from a pitcher on the bedside table.

“Easy there,” he said, handing her the glass and rubbing her back. “We made a pact to take care of each other, remember? Help me out a little and settle down.”

When her coughing fit eased, Josie hugged the book to her chest. “I am going to treasure this forever and ever!” Then she sighed wistfully. “I would like to see the New Forest someday.”

Adam smiled. “That’s all the way in England, you know.”

“I know. But I would still like to see it. I want to see the Ponderosa, too,” she said.

“You do?”

“Of course! I want to see where you live and meet my Uncle Ben and Hoss and Little Joe.”

“You would like it there, I think,” Adam said. “We’ve got wide-open spaces, but lots of trees, too, especially pine trees. They call them ponderosa pines – that’s where Pa got the name for the ranch. We have mountains and fields, and at the edge of the property, the biggest lake you’ve ever seen.”

“Lake Tahoe,” Josie supplied.

Adam smiled. The little girl was bright. “That’s right,” he said. “Lake Tahoe, right on the border of the new Utah Territory and California.”

“Utah and California became part of the United States just last year,” Josie said, proud to show off her knowledge of current events.

“Also true.”

Though Americans such as Benjamin Cartwright and his sons had been living west of the Rocky Mountains for several decades, those regions had technically belonged to Mexico until the United States defeated them in the Mexican War in 1848. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, much of the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean was ceded to the United States.

“Will you take me there someday?” Josie asked.

“Someday I will,” Adam said. “That’s a promise. Now get some rest.” He kissed her softly on the forehead, tucked the covers around her, and left the room.

******

As her father had predicted, Josie recovered quickly from the measles, helped along by her new book and Adam’s company. She especially loved when he would bring his guitar into her room and the two of them would compose silly songs together.

The thought of his promise to take Josie to the Ponderosa weighed heavily on Adam’s mind, however, and when he received a letter in July from his father saying that he, Hoss, and Little Joe would attend Adam’s graduation from Harvard next spring, Adam had an idea. That evening, he approached his uncle in his study.

“That’s an intriguing idea,” Jacob said when Adam told him his plan. Dr. Cartwright folded the newspaper he had been reading and laid it on the table next to his chair. “It would be a lot of time away from my practice, but maybe I’ve earned a break after all these years. Let me talk to Hannah.”

In his excitement, Adam could hardly sleep that night. The next morning at breakfast, he could only pick at his eggs, prompting Dr. Cartwright to ask if he was feeling unwell. Josie immediately jumped down from her chair, skittered over to her cousin, and felt his forehead with the back of her hand.

“He’s not feverish, Papa,” she announced. Then, turning to Adam, she demanded, “Let me see your throat.”

Adam smiled at Josie’s tenacity. She was already turning into quite a little doctor at not quite nine years old.

Jacob chuckled. “I think I know what’s wrong him, Josie. And I think I can set his mind at ease. Adam, your aunt and I have decided your idea is a good one, and we would love to take you up on it.”

Adam jumped so violently in surprise that he knocked over both his chair and his little cousin. Horrified, he picked Josie up and set her on her feet. The little girl brushed off the front of her green-and-white dress indignantly.

“I hardly see the need for all of that!” she chastised. “What idea could you possibly have that would justify knocking me down?” Josie was verging on apoplectic.

Still apologizing to Josie, Adam glanced up at his uncle, who nodded at him to fill Josie in.

“Well,” Adam said as he tucked a loosened strand of dark hair back behind Josie’s ear. “Remember how I promised to take you to the Ponderosa?” Josie nodded. “How would you like to go next spring?”

There was a pregnant pause while Josie narrowed her eyes at him, clearly trying to decide whether her cousin was pulling her leg. She looked over at her parents, standing at the other end of the table and smiling at her.

“Really?” she asked skeptically.

“Really,” Adam said, and he broke into a huge grin.

Josie squealed, threw her arms around Adam’s neck and hugged him, then released him and started running laps around the breakfast table and screaming.

“I hardly see the need for all of that,” Adam teased. Josie stopped abruptly and stuck out her tongue at him. Adam laughed, and led her into the sitting room. He dropped easily onto the settee and pulled the little girl into his lap to fill her in on the details.

“My pa and brothers are coming for my graduation next May,” he told her, “so you’ll get to meet them!” Josie grinned, and Adam continued, “They’ll probably stay here a while to see all the sights, but when they take me home to Nevada, you, Uncle Jacob, and Aunt Hannah are going to come along and stay at the Ponderosa for an entire month!”

Josie clapped her hands delightedly. “Oh, Adam, will you teach me how to ride a horse?” As a city girl, Josie had never learned to ride alone. If the family needed transportation, they took either her father’s buggy or hailed a cab.

“Like a genuine cowhand,” Adam promised.

Josie hugged him again.

******

Adam’s final fall semester at Harvard passed quickly, and the Christmas holiday was soon upon him, though Adam did not return to Washington, DC. The Cartwrights had decided to spend Christmas 1849 in Boston with Josie and Adam’s Aunt Rachel, so Adam had only to travel the short distance from Cambridge to the Stoddard home in Boston.

All the Cartwrights except Hannah, who over the years had learned how to handle her oldest sister, were approaching this visit with trepidation. A spinster, Rachel Stoddard was a stern woman who spent much of her time complaining about the depths to which the Stoddard family had sunk. On the few occasions Adam had met her since coming east, she spoke highly of Adam’s intelligence, manners, and resemblance to his mother, but she always managed to inject a backhanded insult at the same time. “Such a handsome boy,” she would say. “It is a pity that father of his raised him in such a heathen country.” Or “He gets his intelligence from the Stoddard side, you know.   Thank goodness it was not diluted by that Cartwright blood!” Josie was even less fortunate than Adam; Aunt Rachel never attempted to shroud her disappointment with the little girl. Josie was never clean enough, polite enough, or interested enough in things Rachel thought little girls should take interest in. “If you ask me,” she would say without being asked, “little girls like that do not grow into ladies, if you know what I mean.” Jacob Cartwright had learned to avoid his sister-in-law as much as possible and therefore was ignorant of her opinion on him, though he assumed correctly that it was not favorable.

Despite his best efforts to arrive at the same time as the rest of his family, Adam found himself at the Stoddard home several hours before Jacob, Hannah, and Josie’s train was due. Though it was beginning to snow heavily, he thought he might walk around the city for a bit, maybe have a cup of coffee at a café, and then meet their train, but he dithered outside the house a moment too long. Rachel spotted him from the window and sent her butler to the door to summon him in. Adam heaved a long sigh and trudged up the front steps and into the house.

His aunt was waiting for him in the grand foyer. “Honestly, Adam Cartwright, wandering about in the snow!” she chided shrilly. “Your poor departed mother would turn over in her grave if she knew!” Rachel had upset Adam the first time she had alluded to his mother thus, but he was by now so used to it that he barely noticed. He tried to apologize to his aunt, but she shushed him and fussed at the butler to take Adam’s coat. “And bring my nephew some hot tea!” she ordered as the butler scurried down the hall with Adam’s coat. “Come, Adam,” she said, suddenly sugar and spice. “Sit and chat with me for a bit before the rest of the family arrives.”

Adam could think of several things he would prefer to chatting with Aunt Rachel for several hours – getting caught in a bear trap came to mind – but he saw little recourse, so he sat. He had always felt out of place in Aunt Rachel’s house. Adam’s grandfather had done well as a ship’s chandler and then owner of a merchant line after retiring as a sea captain, and the fine old colonial home was furnished accordingly. Ben Cartwright’s home in Nevada had a single sofa; Rachel had two in the sitting room, plus one in each of the house’s six bedrooms. The gold and crystal chandelier in the dining room alone was probably worth as much as the entire humble ranch house on the Ponderosa. Ben Cartwright had always met his sons’ needs, but Adam had never known wealth like this, and he felt keenly out of place.

The butler reappeared with tea and scones for both of them. Adam would have much preferred coffee, but tea was more common in the East, so he loaded it up with sugar and forced himself not to grimace while he sipped it politely.

“So, Adam,” Rachel launched in, “tell me all about your school term.”

Adam was grateful for a noncontroversial topic. He told his aunt about his favorite natural history course and the rowing competitions he had watched. Rachel listened attentively and asked polite questions at all the proper moments. The conversation was going swimmingly right up to the point when she inquired if he had met any young ladies. Adam immediately shot crimson from his hairline to his collarbone.

“N-no, ma’am,” he stammered. “My father sent me here to get an education, and that’s what I have focused on.” This was untrue. Adam had, in fact, courted a couple of young ladies during his two and a half years in Cambridge, but he certainly did not want to delve into this subject with his martinet of an aunt. For a refined Boston lady, she could not have broached a more awkward and uncomfortable topic.

“Yes, well, it was the least he could do for you, all things considered,” Rachel said, a snide twinge in her tone.

“Ma’am?”

Rachel nearly spat her answer at him. “What I mean, Adam, is that providing you a quality education is the least your father could do for you after dragging you clear across the continent to live like a savage without a mother and expect you to help him raise those wild half-brothers.”

Adam was astonished. He knew his aunt had protested his father’s leaving Boston for the West after Adam’s mother died, but he had never guessed she felt such a deep hatred for him.

“With all due respect, Aunt Rachel, Pa’s done his best by me, and by my little brothers.” Adam purposely omitted the distasteful prefix “half” when referring to his brothers. He had never felt Hoss and Little Joe were anything less than his full brothers, genetics be damned. Besides, Aunt Rachel had never met them. Who was she to judge?

“Oh, really?” Rachel’s eyebrows shot up so far they nearly disappeared into her hair. “You think it was ‘best’ to drag an infant across the Great Plains after killing the child’s mother? You think it was ‘best’ that after losing a second wife he got mixed up with a Creole woman, of all people? And then, if you please, he let her die, too. Tell me, Adam, do you really believe your father has made the ‘best’ choices?”

Adam had guessed long ago that Rachel blamed his father for Elizabeth’s death, and he took umbrage at this misguided condemnation. He also took offense at Aunt Rachel’s casual dismissal of the two other women who had been the only mothers Adam had ever known. “My father did not kill your sister, Aunt Rachel,” Adam replied coldly. “Her death was no one’s fault but mine. Excuse me.” He stood up and strode to the front door, where he realized he had no idea where the butler had put his hat and coat, so he left without them and headed toward the train station to wait for his uncle.

******

            By the time Jacob, Hannah, and Josie arrived on their train, Adam was shivering violently. The snow continued to fall, and the wind had picked up and cut through him like a knife. Josie spotted him as soon as she stepped onto the platform and raced to him before screeching to a halt halfway.

“Papa!” she cried. Even from a distance, Josie could see something was horribly wrong with her beloved Adam.

Jacob was talking to the porter about their luggage when he heard his daughter shout, and he looked up to see Josie run the rest of the way to her pale and horribly under-dressed cousin. He stuck a bill in the porter’s hand and rushed over to Adam, pulling off his coat as he went.

“Adam!” he exclaimed. “What happened to you? Where is your coat?”

“A- a- aunt R-rachel’s,” Adam managed to squeak out through his chattering teeth. His uncle quickly threw his own coat around the boy’s shoulders. He was alarmed to discover his nephew’s shirt was wet through as if he had been out in the elements for some time.

“Good heavens!” Hannah declared. “Adam, what happened? You’re as cold as ice.” She paused and narrowed her eyes. “What did my sister say to you?” Hannah loved her sister, but she was no fool. There was only one person who could have driven rational, logical Adam into a snowstorm in naught but his shirtsleeves.

“Not now, Hannah, we have to get him someplace warm,” Jacob said, putting his arm around Adam’s shoulders. After a couple steps, he changed position so Adam’s arm was around his shoulders and he put his arm around the boy’s waist. Adam was stumbling badly, and Jacob did not want his nephew to fall and crack his head open. Blessedly, there was a cab waiting for passengers outside the train station. Once inside, Josie helped her father unbutton and pull off Adam’s wet shirt and put his arms through the sleeves of Jacob’s coat. The girl then removed her own coat, climbed into Adam’s lap and pressed her back against his bare chest.

“Put your arms around me, Adam,” she instructed. “I’ll help warm you up.”

Adam obeyed, but his head lolled back against the wall of the cab, and he closed his eyes. “Where we goin’? I’m so sleepy,” he mumbled.

“Jacob-” Hannah’s voice broke. She knew the signs of hypothermia as well as her husband, and the confusion in her nephew’s voice frightened her.

Dr. Cartwright reached around his daughter and slapped Adam sharply across the face. Adam snapped to attention, his face registering surprise and pain.

“Papa!” Josie cried, horrified. She briefly contemplated slapping her father back but wisely decided against it.

“Stay awake, boy!” Jacob ordered.

Adam recognized the growl in his uncle’s voice – he had heard his father use it many times – and decided he had better do his best to obey. But it was hard. He was so sleepy, and the cab’s seat was so comfortable, and his little cousin in his lap was so toasty warm. He bit down hard on the insides of his cheeks, hoping the pain would keep him alert.

Adam’s shivering had slowed somewhat by the time they reached the Stoddard home. The butler opened the front door for them, and the Cartwrights burst in without greeting Rachel. Jacob pushed past his sister-in-law and directed Adam into the sitting room, where he sat him so close to the fire that Adam was afraid his eyelashes would singe.

“He doesn’t look frostbitten, Papa,” Josie said, expertly checking out the tips of her cousin’s ears and fingers. “Good thing he had the sense to put his hands in his pockets and stand back in that alcove.”

“Yes, I think he’ll be ok once we get him warmed up and in dry clothes. Some tea, please?” Jacob asked the butler who was standing in the doorway.

“I hate tea,” Adam croaked, accidentally speaking his thoughts aloud. He had not meant to complain, but he was having trouble thinking clearly. Hannah unintentionally burst out in a very unladylike guffaw. Three Cartwrights, one Stoddard, and a butler turned and stared at her in astonishment. Hannah Cartwright was nothing if not a sophisticated woman, and none of them had ever heard her carry on so.

“It took two years, but the Cartwright in him finally showed itself,” she said, still giggling, overcome with relief that her nephew was making sense again.

The butler produced the tea, and Adam tried to his best to seem gracious. The hot tea cup made his icy hands scream in pain and he nearly dropped it, but Josie sat down next to him and steadied his hand. It was then that everyone remembered Rachel’s presence and likely responsibility for Adam’s current state. Jacob was about to bless her out, but his wife beat him to it. Gentle Hannah Cartwright acted completely out of character for the second time in ten minutes and grabbed the ruffle on the front of her sister’s dress and shoved her roughly against one wall of the sitting room. Jacob and Josie’s mouths dropped open in surprise, but while Jacob’s mouth remained hanging open, Josie’s transformed into a wide smile of triumph and approval.

“What did you say to him?” Hannah demanded. “That is Elizabeth’s boy, Rachel! Her only child, and you drove him out into the snow!” Rachel’s mouth opened and worked up and down, but she emitted no sound. She was stabbed by a pang of guilt as she realized how badly she had hurt her departed sister’s son.

“It was nothing, Aunt Hannah,” Adam piped up, his voice blessedly clear again. “Just a misunderstanding. My fault, really. I reacted too quickly.”

Hannah cut her eyes at her nephew and knew he was covering up for Rachel, but she did not challenge him. Instead, she slowly let go of her sister and turned back to Adam. As she strode back across the room, she grabbed a quilt off an armchair and wrapped it lovingly around the young man’s shoulders.

Such an uncomfortable silence settled over the room that Adam considered intentionally dropping his tea cup onto the stone hearth just to make some noise. Rachel, however, acted first by ordering the butler to build a fire in the guestroom he had prepared for Adam, thus saving the tea cup from an untimely demise.

Jacob helped his nephew to his feet. “Let’s get you upstairs and into something dry,” the doctor said. He followed Adam closely as they made their way up the stairs in case the boy stumbled again, but he was relieved to see that Adam’s steps were fairly steady once more. Josie wanted to follow them; the thought of anything happening to her Adam was unbearable, but she did not want to embarrass him by poking in while her father helped him change his clothes.

As it turned out, Jacob helped his nephew not into dry clothes but into his pajamas. Adam tried to protest, but Jacob put on his sternest doctor’s expression and ordered the boy to bed. “You’re exhausted, Adam,” Jacob argued. “Your body’s spent too much energy trying to keep warm, and you need to rest or you risk developing pneumonia.”

Too tired to argue, Adam crawled into bed. Out of necessity, his father had raised him to be independent while they crossed the continent when Adam was small, and he now despised being coddled. But the fire was roaring in the corner fireplace, and the room took on a cozy atmosphere that made Adam sleepy again. Jacob brushed a lock of dark hair off Adam’s forehead in a paternal gesture that reminded Adam strongly of his father, and the young man closed his eyes.

“Sleep now, son,” Jacob said tenderly, his hand still resting softly on Adam’s forehead. When he was sure his nephew had drifted off, he slipped quietly out of the room.

When Adam reopened his eyes a few hours later, he saw a dark-haired woman watching him from a chair at his bedside. The still-crackling fire behind her cast a halo of light around her head, and she smiled serenely at him.

Adam was sure it was his mother.

“Well, that’s it,” he thought. “I’ve died.”

Just then, a little face popped up right next to his.

“Hey there, sleepyhead,” Josie whispered.

Adam blinked the sleep from his eyes as they focused on his cousin’s cheerful countenance. “Hey yourself,” he mumbled, a soft smile playing about his lips.

Josie placed her hand on his forehead. It felt cool against his skin, which had grown warm as he slept, and he sighed contentedly.

Worry creased Josie’s brow. “You’re a little warm. I’ll go get Papa.” She rose from where she had been sitting on the floor next to his bed and scampered out of the room, leaving Adam alone with the dark-haired woman, who he assumed was Hannah.

It wasn’t.

“Sleep well?” Rachel asked timidly.

“Very well, thank you,” Adam replied formally. He shifted his head on his pillow so he was no longer looking directly at his aunt, focusing instead on the flames dancing in the fireplace.

“You have every right to be angry with me,” she said softly. “And I doubt I can ever adequately apologize to you. You need to understand that your mother was my best friend. When she died, a piece of me died with her, but I consoled myself, saying ‘At least we have Adam.’ Even as a baby it was clear you were going to favor her. But then your father took you away, and everything I had left of my sister was gone. Getting to know you these past two years has been such a gift, Adam, but now that you are nearly to your last term in school, all I can think about is how Ben Cartwright is going to come and take you away from me all over again.”

“Not Pa’s fault,” Adam replied, cringing at the unintended petulance in his voice. “He needs me. My little brothers need me. I promised to build them a new house.” The explanation sounded pathetic when he spoke it aloud, but a lump rose in Adam’s throat as he remembered his little brothers’ elated reaction when he had announced he would build them a new house with separate bedrooms for everyone.

“I know.”

Adam’s left eyebrow shot up. Rachel Stoddard was not known for admitting when she was wrong.

“You are right that they need you,” she said, “but you are wrong on one serious point.”

She reached down and gently tilted her nephew’s face up to look into hers. Adam allowed this and met her gaze, hazel eyes into hazel eyes. He raised his other eyebrow, waiting for her to continue.

“Your mother’s death was not your fault.”

Now Adam did look away. He rolled over so he faced away from his aunt. His mother’s death was his fault. He had always known that and struggled to understand how his father could love the boy who had killed his wife. Rachel leaned forward and brushed the stubborn lock of hair out of Adam’s eyes.

“Adam, listen to me. I was there. I know. Your mother came down with a fever a month before you were born. Her death was the fever’s fault, not yours; it sapped her strength to the point she could not carry you as long as she should have. When her pains began a month early, we all feared the worst, not only that we would lose her, but that we would lose you as well. You were so tiny when you were born your father could hold you in the palm of one hand. But you were strong, and you thrived. Your mother simply wasn’t. All of her strength was gone, but it was not your fault. It was never your fault. Plenty of otherwise healthy people in town died of that same fever without first birthing a baby. I guess in a way, your mother was the strongest of them all.” Rachel’s voice trailed off sadly.

The tears Adam had been fighting spilled over and coursed silently down his cheek onto his pillow. His father had told him the same story, but hearing it from Aunt Rachel, a source wholly independent from Ben Cartwright, lent it more credence. Maybe there was some truth to it.

Rachel pulled a white lace handkerchief out of her skirt pocket and dried her nephew’s tears. She stood and in a maternal gesture wholly foreign to her, kissed his forehead. “You do feel warm,” she said. “I’ll see what’s keeping your uncle.”

She swept out of the room, dabbing at her own eyes as she went. A few moments later, Jacob entered the room, followed closely by Josie. Adam rolled back over to greet them as Jacob sat down in the chair his sister-in-law had vacated. Jacob felt Adam’s forehead and confirmed he had a low fever. He pulled a stethoscope out of his ever-present medical bag and listened to Adam breathe.

“Your lungs sound clear,” he announced. This was not news to Adam who had experienced no trouble breathing, but Josie and Jacob were visibly relieved. “I expect your body’s just trying to remember what temperature it’s supposed to be. It’s not unusual in cases of mild hypothermia. I’ll send up some willow bark tea for you.”

“Oh, boy. More tea.”

Jacob laughed at the crestfallen expression his nephew’s face.

“I have great faith in your ability to choke it down,” he said. “I expect by this time tomorrow you will be feeling normal again.”

“And until then, I will look after you,” Josie informed Adam. She turned to her father. “We have a pact, you know.”

“You better honor it then.” Dr. Cartwright patted Adam’s shoulder and headed downstairs to see about the tea.

Josie plunked down in the chair and stared intently at her cousin.

After several long moments during which Adam grew increasingly self-conscious, he asked her what she was doing.

“Watching to make sure your fever does not go up,” she answered haughtily.

“I’m not sure that’s how it works.”

“I have lived with a doctor my whole entire life. Do not presume to tell me how it works, Adam Cartwright.”

“My apologies.” Adam rolled over so Josie could not see the grin spreading across his face.

Josie returned to staring at him, and Adam could feel her gaze boring into his back like a bullet. He wondered how long she could go without blinking.

“Tell you what,” he said, rolling back around to face her. “Why don’t you go get a book for each of us?”

Josie believed strongly in the healing powers of stories and cheerfully acquiesced to this request. In her brief absence, the butler came in with Adam’s tea and set it on the small table next to the bed. Adam thanked him, and the butler bowed stiffly and retreated. Propping himself up to a seated position, Adam reached for the tea tray and was dismayed to discover the butler had neglected to bring him any sugar or milk. He was working out a strategy for how to successfully ingest the pungent beverage when Josie came bouncing back into the room, a book in each hand. She took one look at the way Adam’s nose was wrinkled up against the tea’s strong odor and giggled.

“Wait until it cools and then drink it all in one big gulp,” she recommended. “That is the only way I can manage it.”

Adam did as she suggested. The tea certainly was less offensive in one go than it would have been in small sips, but it still made his face screw up in disgust. Josie snickered and handed him a peppermint stick she extracted from her dress pocket.

Adam’s eyes lit up. “Thank you!” he exclaimed. He was genuinely touched by this unexpected gift and happily stuck one end of the candy in his mouth, grateful for something to rid him of the bitter aftertaste of the tea.

Josie pulled a second peppermint stick out of her pocket and popped it in her own mouth. “Please don’t tell anyone I have these,” she requested, her speech garbled around the candy. “Aunt Rachel thinks she has them well hidden for Christmas morning.”

Adam grinned. “I won’t,” he promised. He leaned over, grabbed Josie around the waist, and pulled her up onto the bed next to him. He laughed when he saw the book she had brought for him. “’Frankenstein,’” he chuckled. “Good choice.”

Josie leaned her head onto Adam’s shoulder, and the cousins sat there together, reading and crunching their candy until Hannah called Josie down to supper.

Adam took his supper on a tray in his room. Afterward, his stomach full of hot beef stew and unfortunately, more willow bark tea, he could not fight the drowsiness that swept over him, and he fell asleep with “Frankenstein” splayed open across his chest. Hannah found him thus when she went to remove his supper tray and check his temperature. She paused next to his bed for a moment and studied him, face smooth in peaceful sleep, long, ebony eyelashes brushing his cheeks, and that stubborn lock of hair drooping over his brow again. “Oh, Elizabeth, if only you could see him,” she whispered. Her sister would have been so proud of her kind, intelligent, handsome son.

Hannah was so caught up in her thoughts that she did not notice her daughter enter the room behind her.

“How is he, Mama?” Josie whispered.

Hannah started a little, and Josie apologized. “Not at all,” Hannah assured her. “And Adam is fine. Sleeping well, it seems.”

Josie went up to the bed and felt his forehead. “He is a bit cooler,” she said.

“I expect we will have a hard time keeping him in bed tomorrow, then.”

“Yes,” Josie agreed, letting out a long sigh. She leaned against her mother and took her hand.

“What is it, child?”

“I wish we could keep him. He is happy here with us.” The little girl’s lower lip trembled.

“I know, darling.” Hannah pulled her daughter close to her side. “But he has a family who needs him in Nevada.”

“But we’re his family, too. And I need him. He’s my brother.”

“I know.” Hannah fought back tears. The connection between her daughter and her sister’s son ran deep, and it pained her to think of splitting them apart. “Come, let’s let him sleep.” Hannah gently extracted the book from Adam’s curled fingers, tucked a slip of paper into the place he had left off, and laid the closed book on the table. She extinguished the oil lamp, and the two ladies slipped quietly out the door.

******

As Hannah had predicted, it took all three Cartwrights plus Rachel and the butler to keep Adam in bed the next day. His fever had vanished in the night, and he saw no reason why he should not be allowed to rejoin the family. Finally, after twenty-four interminable fever-free hours, Jacob granted his wish, and Adam was set free.

The rest of the Christmas holiday passed peacefully and even joyfully at the Stoddard home. Once properly attired, Adam loved playing in the snow with Josie, and the cousins spent nearly every afternoon building snowmen, having snowball fights, or tobogganing down the hills in the park. At night they would sip hot chocolate while Adam read to Josie from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Two days after Christmas, the four Cartwrights returned to Washington, where one evening, Adam’s uncle pulled him aside. “You know, Adam,” Jacob began, “you’ve become an indispensable member of this family.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I know you are planning to return to the territory after graduation, but if you would like to stay here for a while, I could introduce you to some men I know in the architectural field. There is a lot of construction happening in Washington, and I am sure you would have no trouble finding work. Lucrative work, at that. And we sure would love to keep you nearby.”

Adam was momentarily stunned. He had considered this, certainly. He missed his father and brothers and the Ponderosa greatly, but he had never felt as carefree as he did in Washington with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. Indeed, carefree was an emotion altogether new to him, and he was enjoying it. He stood silently for several moments, unable to put words to his thoughts.

“I don’t mean to pressure you, son.” Jacob laid an understanding hand on Adam’s shoulder. “We have grown awfully fond of having you around, but I understand if you still need your own father.”

Adam at last found his voice. “He needs me, sir,” he explained. “With all due respect, you and Aunt Hannah and Josie all have each other. Pa doesn’t have anyone to help him out but me. I have to go back, at least until Hoss and Little Joe are grown. But please don’t think I’m ungrateful for your offer. Maybe if Little Joe’s mother hadn’t died…”

“Given my own good fortune, it’s easy to forget sometimes how much tragedy my brother has had in his life,” Jacob said. “I understand the four of you keeping close. But we sure will miss you.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said huskily around a rising lump in his throat.

******

Adam’s final semester at Harvard flew by, punctuated by several “last nights out” with his friends that typically ended with at least one young man, including Adam in turn, being horribly sick. Most of Adam’s friends were headed to jobs in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, and they teased him good-naturedly about returning to Nevada to build the grandest barn the country had ever seen, though more than one secretly wished he, too, was heading west.

In April, Adam received a letter from his father saying that Little Joe was recovering from the measles and would not be traveling with Ben and Hoss to Adam’s graduation the following month. Adam was disappointed he would have to wait longer to be reunited with his youngest brother, but he was glad he was not the one who had had to tell Little Joe he was staying behind. The fit that boy must have pitched probably shook the entire Utah Territory. Regardless, Adam felt bad for Little Joe and resolved to take him on a grand adventure someday.

Four days before graduation, Benjamin and Hoss Cartwright’s steamship arrived in New York City, where Jacob, Hannah, and Josie met them, just like they had done for Adam nearly three years prior. Jacob and Ben had not seen each other since before Adam’s birth twenty years ago, and neither man could stanch their tears.

“Jacob,” Ben said huskily, “thank you. Thank you for looking after for my boy.”

“Don’t mention it.” Jacob’s voice wavered, too. “You would have done the same for Josephine.”

At the mention of his niece, Ben glanced around for the girl. When he spotted her, his breath caught, much as Adam’s had the first time he had met Josie. As Ben greeted his niece for the first time, Josie dutifully took a handkerchief from her dress pocket and dried his face.

“You look so much like your Aunt Elizabeth,” Ben said softly.

“That is what I have been told, sir,” Josie sweetly chirped. “People mistake Adam and me for brother and sister all the time.” This fact clearly pleased the little girl, and it made her uncle smile. He was glad Adam had found someone to belong to and who so clearly belonged to him.

Then Josie spotted her cousin Hoss.

“Whoa!” The little girl’s exclamation was so loud that several other people on the boat dock turned to look. “You’re huge!”

Hoss blushed and ducked his blond head. “Reckon I am,” he said, looking around at the more diminutive New Yorkers around them. A month shy of his fourteenth birthday, the boy already stood six feet and one inch tall, the same height as his twenty-year-old brother.

“Are you sure you are as young as they say you are, and you haven’t been misinformed?”

Hoss furrowed his brow at this unexpected query and tried to work out a response. Hannah shushed her daughter and reminded her to be polite.

“Sorry,” Josie said to Hoss. “Adam just told me you were his LITTLE brother, that’s all.”

“Oh, well, I was littler than him last he saw me. Not by much, though.”

“Hoss here hasn’t been little a day in his life!” Ben said, slapping his boy’s back. “Now let’s go put some food in him!”

The Cartwrights departed the dock for their hotel, and the next morning the five of them set off on the train for Boston, where they received a polite if chilly greeting from Rachel Stoddard, at whose house they were staying. Rachel and Adam had reached an understanding after the events of last Christmas, but she still felt no warmth toward the man who had come for her nephew. She did, however, find herself unexpectedly delighting in Hoss’s presence, despite her determination to remain strictly anti-Cartwright. Though man-sized, Hoss maintained the sunny disposition of a happy-go-lucky boy and was uncommonly kind to man and beast alike. He unwittingly endeared himself to her forever when that first evening he gently removed a splinter from the paw of Rachel’s beloved white terrier. The dog had bared its teeth and snarled at anyone who had tried to render assistance, but after an hour of sitting near the dog and talking softly to it, Hoss had coaxed the animal to him and pulled out the splinter with surprising deftness for someone with hands the size of saucers.

Jacob observed that perhaps his older brother should send Hoss back east for school when the time came. “He’d make quite a doctor himself,” he said approvingly.

“Oh no, sir,” Hoss replied politely. “I don’t much care for book learnin’. I can read and write and do my figures, but I’d rather be out there doin’ stuff than sittin’ around reading about it.”

“I couldn’t run the Ponderosa without him,” said his proud father.

******

The next morning, the five Cartwrights and Rachel boarded a train for the short ride up to Cambridge. Hoss could hardly sit still for the excitement of seeing his older brother again after nearly three years apart. Ben was equally excited but contained himself better than his 13-year-old son. He cared deeply for all three of his boys, but Ben and Adam had a special bond. For five years after the death of Adam’s mother, the boy was all that Ben had had, and the pair had seen each other through many difficult situations, not the least of which were the deaths of Ben’s second and third wives. Ben regretted that Adam had needed to grow up so quickly, but he was grateful he had been able to provide his son with a university education that allowed him time to discover who he was apart from his family and maybe even to let loose a little.

Adam was waiting eagerly on the platform well before the Boston train pulled into the Cambridge station. Hoss spotted him through the train window and nearly deafened everyone aboard shouting “PA! PA! There he is! There’s Adam!” Forgetting all his manners, the giant boy shoved past everyone else in their car and burst out the door before the train had fully stopped. Adam had just enough time to register that his burly younger brother was charging full-speed toward him but not enough time to step out of the way. All 230 pounds of Hoss Cartwright slammed into him, knocking both young men to the ground and causing a chorus of alarmed gasps and “Well I never!”’s to erupt from the other people on the platform.

“Sorry ‘bout that, Adam,” Hoss said sheepishly. He rose to his feet and extended a hand to his older brother. “My excitement done got the better of me.”

“S’ok,” Adam croaked, clutching at his ribs and trying to regain the wind Hoss had knocked out of him. He took his brother’s proffered hand and was startled by the ease with which the younger boy pulled him to his feet. Upright once more, Adam looked directly into the bright blue eyes of the boy who three years earlier had been six inches shorter than him. “Pa wasn’t exaggerating in his letters,” Adam said as he shook his head in wonder. “You DID get big!” He moved in for a proper hug and immediately regretted it when Hoss nearly squeezed the air right back out of him.

“Hoss! Hoss! Don’t kill him!” Ben Cartwright called as he half walked, half jogged up to his sons. He pulled Adam to safety and into his own arms. Father and son embraced for several long moments, finally reunited after their longest separation. Ben eventually stepped back, holding Adam’s face gently in both his hands and wiping a stray tear from his son’s cheek. “Adam, you look good, son. New England has agreed with you?”

Adam smiled. “Yes, sir.”

Ben dropped his hands and slapped his son’s back. Then he stepped aside as a blue and white blur raced toward them and launched itself into Adam’s arms. Adam caught his little cousin and swung her around. Josie squealed with delighted laughter and threw her arms around Adam’s neck. Ben’s heart melted at the sight of his son and his niece so overjoyed to see one another. He felt a brief spasm of pain as he thought how wonderful it would have been to have given Adam a little sister. Had Elizabeth lived, he realized, that little sister probably would have looked just like Josie.

“So,” Adam said, still holding Josie and turning toward his father, snapping the man out of his reverie, “how angry was Little Joe when you told him he couldn’t come along?”

Ben rolled his eyes heavenward. “It was pretty bad,” he said, shaking his head at the memory of the colossal tantrum his seven-year-old son had thrown.

“Yeah,” Hoss agreed, “he screamed for three days and then wouldn’t speak to anyone for another three.”

Adam’s chuckling cut off abruptly as a horrific thought occurred to him. “You didn’t just leave him on the ranch with Hop Sing, did you?!” The Cartwrights’ cook and housekeeper was a kind man, but Little Joe could test anyone’s limits.

“Goodness gracious, no!” Ben thundered. “He’s staying in Carson City with the Larsons.”

“That’s a shame,” Adam said. “The Larsons have always been good friends. Now they’ll never speak to us again.”

The Cartwrights’ laughter was interrupted as Jacob, Hannah, and Rachel made their way through the crowd and greeted their nephew, who set his cousin down on her feet. The adults started fussing about getting to their hotel and cleaning up for supper, and before the three younger Cartwrights knew what was happening, the adults had whisked away off the platform, leaving the younger generation behind and confused.

“That was rude,” Josie observed.

“Come on,” Adam said, offering one arm to Josie and draping the other across Hoss’s shoulders. “We better catch up. We wouldn’t want to miss supper.”

******

Adam’s graduation from Harvard two days later was a grand affair. Ben frequently had to shush Josie and Hoss, who could not stop giggling over how ridiculous they thought Adam looked in his gown and mortarboard, but when the university president announced “Adam Benjamin Cartwright, summa cum laude,” Josie and Hoss clapped until their hands stung.

“What’s that mean, Pa?” Hoss asked, still clapping.

“It means ‘With highest honors.’”

“So Adam did real good in school?”

“He certainly did.” Ben unconsciously puffed up his chest with pride.

“I am going to graduate with highest honors someday,” Josie announced when the family had reunited with Adam after the ceremony. She decided her cousin’s mortarboard was no longer so silly when he let her wear it, and she twirled around to make the tassel spin.

“I can see that,” Jacob said amusedly.

Ben and Hoss accompanied Adam to his dormitory to help him move out his things. After Adam bade farewell to his friends and promised to write, they met back up with the rest of the family at their hotel.

The next day the entourage returned to Boston to deposit Rachel, whose farewell to Adam and Hoss was tearful but to Ben was chilly.

“Don’t ever forget,” she whispered into Adam’s ear as she hugged him, “it was never your fault.” Adam nodded, clasped her hands briefly, and followed his family to their waiting cab.

They continued on the train to Washington, where they spent a week helping Jacob, Hannah, and Josie prepare for the long voyage to Nevada.

Josephine attempted to pack everything she owned. “It might be useful, Adam!” she insisted whenever he tried to talk her into leaving a particular object at home. In the end, Josie’s packing was limited by the spatial confines of the single small trunk her parents permitted her to take. Once her clothes, shoes, and a few books and hair ribbons were in the trunk, there was no remaining space for the letter opener, magnifying glass, or portrait of Thomas Jefferson she had insisted were vital to their journey.

The night before the Cartwrights’ departure, Josie was too excited to sleep. She had never traveled more than three days from home, and the thought of traveling for four weeks to so distant a land as Nevada was unimaginable. As Adam sauntered down the hall that night to go to bed himself, he saw a light emitting from under his cousin’s door. Adam knocked softly and heard a tiny gasp from inside the room, followed by the familiar sound of a small person diving into bed. Chuckling, he opened the door a few inches and stuck his head in.

“Oh, Adam, it’s you,” Josie sighed in relief. She had been about to pretend she had fallen asleep while reading, but she now set her book aside.

“It’s past ten, Josie,” Adam gently admonished. “You should be asleep.”

Josie flung herself dramatically back onto her pillows. “How can I possibly sleep when the whole WORLD is in front of me?”

Adam smiled and stepped all the way into the room so he could sit on the edge of the bed next to Josie.

“If you don’t sleep now, you’ll sleep right through our train ride to New York tomorrow,” he reasoned.

“I have been to New York plenty of times,” Josie pointed out. “It really is not as exciting as everyone says. But the ship, Adam! I have never been on a steamship before! Do you think I will be seasick? I hear people get sick sometimes on ships.”

“You come from a long line of sailors and sea captains. I expect you will be all right.”

This failed to settle Josie down any – she continued to bounce up and down – so Adam pulled off his shoes, swung his legs up on the bed, and leaned back against the headboard next to her. She snuggled up next to him and laid her head on his chest. Instinctively, Adam wrapped his arm protectively around her thin shoulders. A wave of déjà vu washed over him, and his memory flashed back to a night when he had held Little Joe in just this way as the small boy sobbed into his shirt. Joe had been just shy of his fifth birthday when his mother died and Ben, nearly broken with grief himself, had been unable to comfort him. It had fallen to Adam to put his little brothers to bed that terrible night, and Joe had clung to him and cried until he fell asleep from exhaustion. Automatically, Adam began humming “Amazing Grace,” which he had sung to Joe that night to lull the heartbroken little boy to sleep. His free hand reached up and absently stroked Josie’s dark hair. Josie sighed contentedly, and her breathing slowed and evened out. When Adam was sure she was asleep, he carefully slid off the side of the bed and eased Josie onto her pillows. He pulled the covers up around her shoulders, kissed her forehead, and extinguished the lamp and left the room, closing the door quietly.

******

            Josie rose before dawn the next morning and set about waking everyone else in the house. Her excitement spilled over to Hoss, and by breakfast the two of them were dancing around the sitting room and shouting at everyone not to forget anything. When it was time to leave the house, Josie and Hoss raced each other out the front door and down to the two waiting cabs, where their fathers intercepted them and gave the children stern lectures on minding their manners or no one would be going anywhere. They were then directed onto separate cabs, the men loaded the luggage, and the entourage was off. Adam craned his neck to watch the house – his second home – grow smaller until they turned a corner and he could see it no longer.

Once on board the train to New York City, Josie insisted on sitting next to Hoss so she could tell him about everything they could see out the window. The lesson never came to fruition, however, as within ten minutes of pulling out of the station, both children were sound asleep, Hoss with his face smashed up against the window and Josie with her head on Hoss’s broad shoulder. They woke for lunch and then, bellies full of hot food, fell asleep again. By the time they arrived in New York City late that afternoon, however, Hoss and Josie had come back around, and Hoss listened politely while his cousin showed off her knowledge of the city.

The next morning, the six Cartwrights boarded the steamship that would take them down the east coast and through the Caribbean before delivering them to Cristobal, Panama. Ben had booked a handsome two-bedroom suite for himself and his sons, and Hoss was glad that he would finally get his older brother to himself for at least a little time each day.

Adam’s emotions were a jumbled mess as the ship pushed back from the dock and began its slow progress out of New York Harbor. He was thrilled to return to the Ponderosa and begin building the new house he had been planning for the past three years, and he could hardly wait to see Little Joe again. The boy could be an enormous pain in the neck, but he was also undeniably charming and had the brightest smile west of the Mississippi River. Adam still felt guilty about leaving his baby brother so soon after the death of the boy’s mother, and he wanted to make it up to Joe somehow. With his father’s permission, Adam planned to buy Little Joe a .22 rifle for his birthday at the beginning of July and take the boy raccoon hunting.

But leaving the East was also painful. The past three years had been the best of Adam’s life to that point. The scope of his education had far exceeded his academic studies. The years away from his father and brothers and their ranch had given him time to discover who he truly was on his own, and the time with his mother’s family had restored a piece of himself that he had always felt was missing. And Josie. The little sister he never had. From their first meeting, the little girl had held his heart in her delicate hands, and Adam had no expectation of ever getting it back.

So lost in thought was he that he visibly jumped when his father came up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. Ben apologized for startling him.

“You are awfully preoccupied,” Ben observed. Adam nodded without averting his gaze from the slowly shrinking shoreline. “What’s on your mind, son?”

Adam sighed heavily. “I want to go home, but I don’t want to leave.”

Ben nodded his understanding and put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, Adam, you’ll see this city again. I know you will.”

“I just don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye to Josie,” Adam ruminated.

This admission surprised Ben. His reserved oldest son typically did not open up this easily. “That little girl is something special,” he concurred.

“She is.”

“And she looks so much like your mother.”

“It’s more than that.” Adam hesitated, not wanting to hurt his father’s feelings, and then decided he had gone too far already not to proceed. “She’s the first family member I’ve ever met who looks like me.”

Ben gave Adam a look of comic shock. “What are you talking about?! You and Hoss look so much alike I have trouble telling the two of you apart!”

Adam smiled despite himself.

“Seriously, though, Adam,” Ben said, turning his son to face him, “you have two more months before you have to say goodbye. Don’t start dwelling on it now. Think of all the things you’ll be able to show and teach Josie on the Ponderosa! Don’t worry about the goodbye until it’s time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And who knows? Maybe she’ll want to move west someday.”

Adam smiled again. “I wouldn’t be surprised. She and Little Joe could become outlaws together.”

It was Ben’s turn to smile. He put his arm back around his son, and the two of them watched New York City fade slowly away.

******

            Once they were fully out to sea and Adam no longer had a city skyline to brood over, all the Cartwrights had fun on the first leg of their voyage. Josie’s long ancestral line of sea captains and sailors came through for her, and she did not get seasick. The weather was pleasant for most of the journey, and the three younger Cartwrights spent most days on deck in the sunshine, reading books, watching the occasional bit of sea life swim by, or seeing who could concoct the most outrageous tall tale – a game at which Hoss exhibited unusual and disconcerting skill; Adam speculated he had been getting lessons from Little Joe. At night, Hoss and Adam would lie awake in their bedroom until late, catching each other up on the last three years of their lives. Hoss kept Adam in stitches with tales of his and Little Joe’s exploits (apparently their school teacher was deathly afraid of toads), and Adam enchanted his younger brother with stories of life in the big eastern cities.

“You sure were lucky to have Uncle Jacob and Aunt Hannah and Josie nearby,” Hoss observed one night, long after the boys should have gone to sleep.

Adam murmured his agreement.

“I wish I had me a cousin like Josie,” Hoss continued.

“Josie IS your cousin, Hoss. She’s the child of our father’s brother.”

“You know what I mean,” Hoss insisted. “Someone related to my ma, too. Yesirree, that’d be real fine.”

A somber silence settled over the little bedroom. For the first time, Adam realized he had an advantage over his little brothers. While all three of them had lost their mothers – Adam and Hoss as infants and Little Joe as a very small boy – Adam at least had a connection to his mother through Josie and Aunt Hannah. The realization made him feel a bit guilty. If any of them deserved a mother, it was Hoss, Adam thought. Hoss was a gentle, caring soul. He was forever bringing home stray and injured animals, and he was the first to lend a hand to anyone in need. And if there was a “doctoring touch” running through the Cartwright line, Hoss had inherited it. Though he had no formal training, the 13-year-old could already stitch up a wound and lower a fever. In Adam’s opinion, Hoss was the best of the of the Cartwright brothers.

The boys wished each other goodnight and drifted off to sleep.

******

            Everyone’s favorite part of the journey was the riverboat across Panama. The mosquitoes were brutal, but the sights and sounds of the rainforest were well worth the scratching, though Jacob worried about malaria. Having made the voyage once in the opposite direction, Hoss considered himself an expert on the Panamanian rainforest and spent the entire day telling Josie everything he knew – and a few things he made up – about parrots. Adam spent the day practicing his Spanish with the natives and asking them about the railroad the country was building across its narrowest point. He was impressed by their plans to one day dig a canal across a forty-mile corridor so passengers and goods could pass through from the Pacific to the Atlantic on a single ship.

“Imagine how much time and money that would save!” he told his father in amazement. “The only thing better would be a train from California all the way east.”

Ben ruffled his son’s hair. “I could have used one of those about twenty years ago.”

The Cartwrights spent only a single night in Panama City before boarding their steamship to San Francisco, where they arrived after an uneventful ten-day journey. Josie was fascinated by the nearly unbroken string of sea lions all the way up the coast of Mexico to San Francisco, but she was disappointed by San Francisco itself. She had expected a large, bustling city on the same scale as New York, and what she discovered instead was a dingy little town of only a few squat buildings.

“It does not look like much,” Josie whispered to Adam as they disembarked from their ship.

“Not yet,” Adam said, “but give it time. Pa’s friend John Sutter discovered gold here in California two years ago, and this town has been filling up with people. So much so that California should be a state by the end of the year, if Congress can sort it out.”

“What do you mean?” Josie inquired. She often heard snatches of political news in Washington, but at only nine years old, she did not find it particularly interesting.

“Well, California wants to be a free state, but the Southern states don’t want such a large free state joining the Union because then the free states will have more representatives in Congress than the slave states have.”

“So?”

Adam smiled. This was his thought exactly. “So, the Southern states are afraid that if the free states get too much of the power then they’ll outlaw slavery.”

“That would be good, though,” Josie insisted. “I have seen those slave auctions. They’re terrible. All those people being poked and prodded like they were horses.”

“I agree.” Adam had also seen a slave auction during his time in Washington, and he had walked away nauseated. Several of the male slaves had the tell-tale crisscross scars on his back from an overseer’s whip, and one potential buyer had ripped the ragged dress right off a woman to get a better look at the “goods.” Adam was afraid he knew only too well which “goods” the man had been interested in. The memory of that afternoon still left a bitter taste in his mouth, and Adam decided to change the subject. “I need to do some shopping once we check in at our hotel. Would you like to come with me?”

Josie happily accepted the invitation, and after they delivered their luggage to the hotel, she, Adam, and Hoss set off into town to refit Adam for returning to ranch life. He had already dug his cowboy hat out of his trunk and replaced his eastern-style bowler with it, and his Colt Walker .44 once more hung from his right hip, but he needed a new pair of boots. He was still wearing the brogues that were popular at Harvard because boots he had worn from Nevada three years ago now pinched his feet.

While Adam tried on a pair of boots at the shoemaker’s, Hoss sidled up to him. “Hey, Adam,” he said.

“Hey yourself.”

“I was just thinking. If we’re taking little ol’ Josie out to the Ponderosa, well, she’s gonna need some suitable outfitting. She can’t run around a cattle ranch in that little dress and pointy-toed shoes.”

Adam glanced over at his cousin who was chatting politely with the shoemaker’s young daughter. Hoss was right. Josie looked like a little porcelain doll in her stylish ruffled blue dress and brown, high-topped leather shoes, but her attire was inappropriate for running wild around the Ponderosa with Little Joe, which she was certain to do. The porcelain-doll getup was just a ruse.

“Excuse me,” Adam caught the shoemaker’s attention. “Do you sell children’s boots?”

“Sure do,” the shoemaker said. “What size?”

Adam pointed across the shop to Josie. “About that size.”

The shoemaker grinned. “Well, let’s see what we can do.”

Twenty minutes later, both Adam and Josie clomped their way out of the shoemaker’s shop in their new boots. Josie was elated.

“Now I can learn to ride like a genuine cowhand, just like you promised!” she squealed.

“Not quite yet,” Adam said and directed the trio toward the tailor’s. He had hoped to buy Josie some split skirts for riding, but as he had expected, the tailor told him those would have to be special-ordered, so after exchanging an amused look with Hoss, he bought Josie two pairs of boy’s trousers, a few shirts, and a black cowboy hat just like his only with a string on it to keep her from losing it if – no, when – it flew off her head. Josie wanted to change into one of her new outfits right then and there, but Adam told her she had to wait until they reached the ranch. This was a purely selfish order – he wanted his pretty little cousin to impress everyone when they arrived home.

“You want to look like a sophisticated Eastern lady when we arrive on the stage in Carson City,” Adam reasoned.

“No, I don’t.”

Adam cast a despairing look at his brother, who, as usual, saved the day.

“You don’t want California dirt on your new duds,” Hoss explained. “It’s nasty. Nevada dirt is much better.” This logic was just odd enough to satisfy Josie, and she settled for swapping her bonnet for her new hat.

After a quick stop at the gunsmith’s to buy the .22 for Little Joe, the cousins headed back to the hotel, their arms laden with their purchases. Josie thanked Adam for her new clothes all the way back to the hotel.

“Please don’t tell Aunt Rachel I bought you trousers,” he begged. “She’ll come all the way out to the Ponderosa just to shoot me.”

“Aunt Rachel does not believe in violence,” Josie piously informed him.

“Something tells me she’d make an exception.”

Back at the hotel, Ben and Jacob found Josie’s new apparel highly amusing, but Hannah frowned. She knew her daughter needed play clothes for the ranch, but she had hoped for something a bit more ladylike. Hannah had spent the past nine and a half years trying to wrestle her stubborn, independent daughter into a proper and sophisticated lifestyle, and she was dismayed by how cheerfully Josie cast it aside.

The look on his aunt’s face made Adam do a double-take. “Be careful,” he warned her with a sly smile. “You look just like Aunt Rachel when you make that face.”

Hannah slapped her nephew good-naturedly on the arm and laughed at herself. “I suppose I should dry up,” she admitted. “If we didn’t bring her out here to enjoy herself, what was the point of bringing her at all?”

The family spent two quiet days in San Francisco before their stagecoach departed for Carson City. The morning of their departure, Josie once more awoke before dawn, slipped into Hoss and Adam’s room, and pounced on them while they were still sleeping. Hoss jumped up, knocking Adam, who had had precious little space on the bed as it was, onto the floor, where he landed with a thud. Josie bounced off of Hoss and landed safely on the side of the bed her Cousin-Cousin Adam had so conveniently vacated. Giggling, Josie hung backward over the edge of the bed and peered upside-down at Adam, who was still blinking and shaking his head as he tried to sort out what had just happened.

“What are you doing down there, silly?” she chirped.

Adam raised one eyebrow at the little girl and looked up at his brother, who was now peeking over the edge of the bed next to Josie. “I told you we should have locked the door.”

“I did lock it.”

Hoss and Adam turned simultaneously to Josie, who smiled angelically.

“Hairpin,” she said simply.

Hoss burst out laughing, and Adam’s other eyebrow shot up. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed sarcastically as he picked himself up off the floor. “We have a burglar on our hands.”

The boys shooed Josie out of the room so they could get dressed. She left, but they could hear her dancing in the hall just outside their door.

“Adam,” Hoss began, “you ever worry about her and Little Joe teaming up when we reach the Ponderosa?”

“Hoss, it’s been my foremost concern for some time now.”

“She sure is ornery like Joe,” Hoss observed. “A lot like you, too, though. Looks like you, and she’s real smart.” The boy looked wistful.

“She’s a lot like you, too, Hoss,” Adam said.

“How’s that?”

“She cares very deeply about other people like you do. You should see her working with someone who’s injured. A little boy came by the house last summer because he’d sliced open his hand. It wasn’t bad, but it was bleeding, and he was frightened. Uncle Jacob wasn’t home, but Josie brought him right in and bandaged him up like she’d been doing it every day of her life. She told that little boy funny stories while she was doing it, and by the time he left, he had a smile on his face a mile wide. It reminded me of that time you wrapped up Little Joe’s hand when he got his fish hook stuck in it.”

Hoss beamed at the compliment, and the two boys hurried up with their dressing so they could join Josie for breakfast.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits, the six Cartwrights piled into the stagecoach headed for Carson City. The family and their luggage took up the entire coach. Josie was every bit as excited as she had been the morning they left Washington, DC, but she quickly discovered that five days in a stagecoach was nothing to be excited about. To a girl raised in eastern cities, the 250 miles of desert and mountains between San Francisco and Carson City offered stunning scenery, but the accommodations were less luxurious than she was accustomed to. All six Cartwrights crammed into the tiny coach, where they sat in two rows facing each other, the adults’ knees touching those of the person sitting opposite them. When one accounted for the fact that both sets of Cartwright brothers in attendance comprised large men, three of whom wore guns on their hips, the coach grew even cozier. Sandwiched between her father and Hoss, Josie had barely enough free movement of her arms to turn the pages of the single book – “The Children of the New Forest,” of course – she had been allowed to bring into the coach.

Then there was the heat. The weather in San Francisco was mild year-round, but the June heat increased steadily as the entourage made its way deeper into California. By the time they reached Sacramento at the end of the first day, the outside temperature was ninety degrees and inside the stagecoach nearly 100, even with the leather windows tied open as wide as they would go. Josie had expected to be irritated with the stagecoach stopping every twelve to thirty miles as Adam had described to her, but by the time they reached Sacramento, she was grateful for the frequent opportunities to stretch her legs and get out of the dust that flew ceaselessly into the coach, nearly choking the passengers and leaving them coated in thick grime.

Adam pitied his little cousin who had never known discomfort in her nine short years, but she impressed him with her fortitude. Never once did Josie complain about the rough conditions of the ride. Even when they left Sacramento and entered the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range where the roads grew so rutted and bumpy that the Cartwrights were often thrown into each other inside the coach, Josie uttered nary a protestation. Indeed, her happiness seemed to increase in proportion to the difficulty of the journey. It was as if she had been born for the West, Adam thought. He briefly envisioned his cousin as a young woman, tall and slender, her inky hair cascading around her shoulders in waves, as she stood in the front yard of the as-yet-unbuilt ranch house, smiling at him and his brothers as they rode in after a long day of work on the ranch. As quickly as this vision hit him, Adam shook his head to clear it. Josie belonged to Uncle Jacob and Aunt Hannah. No matter how complete her presence made his family feel to him, he could not lay claim to her.

In light of their inevitable parting, Adam renewed his resolve to make the most of every moment he had left with Josie, just as his father had advised him to do upon their departure from New York City. Josie made this easy for him with her endless barrage of questions about the region and its wildlife. At one way station, Hoss made the mistake of pointing out some old mountain lion tracks to her, and for the rest of the journey, Josie was desperate to spot a cougar – a sentiment none of her traveling companions shared; they were content to reach Carson City mountain-lion-free, thank you very much.

Even without a mountain lion spotting, Josie was captivated by the Sierra Nevadas. She was familiar with the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from Washington, but she had never seen such soaring peaks, and she was astounded that even in June – and this unbearable heat! – some of the mountains still sported white caps of snow.

“Do they have snow on them all year round?” she asked incredulously.

“Some of them do,” Ben replied. “It’s not so bad up there in the summer, but they can be mighty dangerous during the winter.”

“They sure can!” Hoss interjected eagerly. “Why, just a couple of years ago, there was this party led by a feller named Donner trying to cross ‘em, and they started too late in the year and then got lost in a blizzard.”

“Hoss…“ Ben knew exactly where this story was going and deemed it unsuitable for his young niece. Josie however, was eager to hear the rest of the tale and cut him off.

“What happened to them?” Her hazel eyes were as wide as wagon wheels.

“Hoss!” Ben tried again, but the boy was so caught up in his storytelling that he noticed neither his father nor the sharp jolt from the road that knocked his head against the leather-lined wall of the coach.

“Well,” Hoss continued, “they run out of food, and when people started dyin’, they ATE ‘EM!”

Josie squealed in delighted terror at her cousin’s story and buried her face in her father’s chest, giggling the whole while.

“Eric Cartwright!” Benjamin Cartwright bellowed, and all five of the other passengers fell silent, their eyes wide. Hoss’s jaw dropped open; he could count on one hand the number of times his father had called him by his Christian name, and it never boded well.

“Ooooooh, you’re in trouble now, boy!” Adam crowed, jabbing his younger brother playfully in the ribs.

“Adam!” Ben snapped and cut his dark eyes toward his eldest son.

“Sorry, sir.” Adam dropped his head and stared at his lap, doing a poor job of stopping his shoulders from quaking with the laughter he so desperately wanted to set free.

Josie, however, was not finished with the gruesome saga of the Donner Party. “Did any of them make it out alive?” she asked breathlessly.

“Of course they did, silly,” Adam said. “Otherwise how would we know the story?” Adam, too, found the topic distasteful in present company, but could not stop himself sating Josie’s curiosity.

Josie contemplated this for a moment. “So there are people out there walking around like normal who have eaten their FRIENDS?!”

Adam opened his mouth to reply, but his uncle cut him off. “That’s enough of the Donner Party!” he proclaimed. He gestured to his nephews. “If she wakes up screaming tonight from a nightmare, the two of you get to deal with it.”

“Sorry, sir” Hoss and Adam mumbled. The nightmares of small children were familiar to them both. Little Joe had suffered them almost from birth, and they had worsened after the death of his mother. In the brief interim between Marie’s death and Adam’s departure for Harvard, Little Joe had spent most nights tucked into Adam’s bed, snuggled up tightly against his oldest brother’s chest. Neither Adam nor Hoss relished the idea of awakening in the dead of the night to the terrified screams of a child, though both of them doubted Josephine Cartwright would be traumatized by the story of the Donner Party; the child was seemingly fearless. Hoss caught Adam’s eye, then had to drop his gaze again as the two boys broke into mirthful smiles that threatened laughter. They had no wish to incur their father’s wrath further.

Josie did not have nightmares that night, and after one more long, dusty, jolting day aboard the stagecoach, they finally rolled into Carson City. As they wheeled down the main street, Adam observed that the town had not changed much in three years.

“Hasn’t been much need to,” Ben said. “We’ve gotten a few more miners in the area since the gold rush in California, but nothing much to speak of.”

“Maybe there’ll be a gold strike here, too,” Hoss suggested.

“Maybe,” Ben said. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”

When they got closer to the stage depot at the far end of town, Hoss jabbed his older brother and gestured out the window. “Lookee who’s waitin’ for ya.”

Adam followed his brother’s gaze and his face split into a huge grin. “Joe!” he cried.

The little boy, tightly restrained by the strong arms of Mrs. Charlotte Larson, heard his older brother call his name and tried to jump up and down, but Mrs. Larson had a death grip on his shoulders. “ADAM!” he shouted. Mrs. Larson held fast, not out of spite, but because she knew if she released him, Little Joe would tear into the road directly into the path of the oncoming stage.

Adam was halfway out the stagecoach door when it stopped in front of the depot. He leaped down at the same time Mrs. Larson released Little Joe, and the curly-headed boy flew into his older brother’s arms. Adam picked his brother up and held him tight. Joe flung his arms around Adam’s neck, buried his face in the crook between Adam’s neck and shoulder, and burst into tears.

Fighting back his own tears, Adam reached one hand up and rubbed the little boy’s back. “Shhhh,” he comforted his brother. “Hush there, little buddy. It’s ok. I’m home. Adam’s home.”

Ben had stepped down from the coach right after Adam and now stood watching the brothers’ reunion. To his surprise, he was overcome with a wave a relief. Not because Adam was actually back in Nevada – Ben had never doubted his son would return – but because as a single father, Ben had often worried what would become of his boys should anything happen to him. Now he knew: Adam would take care of them. He swelled with pride once more at the man his son had become in his years away.

Joe’s snuffling slowed, and Adam held him back a little bit to get a good look at him. “You got bigger while I was gone,” he said, poking the boy in the belly and making him giggle. “Not much, though. Hey, Pa!” he called over his shoulder to his father. “You were supposed to feed him while I was away!”

Ben, who was now helping his sister-in-law out of the stagecoach, did not turn around. “Hm,” he grunted. “Knew I forgot something.”

Adam set Joe down to help Josie out of the stagecoach, a procedure complicated by the fact that Little Joe had wrapped his arms securely around Adam’s left leg and would not let go. Adam managed, however, and set Josie safely on the ground. Hoss and Jacob bundled out of the coach behind her. Little Joe let go of Adam long enough to greet Hoss and then stuck himself back onto Adam. He continued to cling to Adam with his left arm while he shook his aunt and uncle’s hands with his right. The boy was not known for shyness, but he seemed determined to make sure his big brother did not get away again.   Josie, however, was not content with a quick hello and stepped behind Adam to get right into Little Joe’s face. Joe’s green eyes widened under his mop of curly brown hair; he was used to little girls giggling and averting their gazes around him, not invading his personal space. He was a beautiful child, and it was already apparent to the girls his age that he would grow into a dashingly handsome young man.

“I’m Josie,” she said, offering him her hand in precisely the same manner she had to Adam three years ago. Nonplussed, Little Joe reached out a suspicious hand and shook Josie’s, never taking his eyes off her. “It’s ok,” Josie said. “You will get used to me.” Then a thought occurred to her. “Hey, Papa? Why did you and Uncle Ben name us nearly the same?”

“We both wanted to name a child after our father, Joseph,” Jacob explained. “At the time you were born, we did not know Little Joe would be coming along, so we thought we better take advantage of the situation.”

Josie’s eye met Little Joe’s, and the children reached a silent understanding. Little Joe grinned mischievously at Josie, who grinned right back, her hazel eyes dancing, and a confederation was born.

“I’m gonna show you all around the Ponderosa,” Little Joe boasted. He cocked his head to one side and gave Josie a sidelong glance. “Can you ride?”

Josie blushed and kicked at a pebble on the ground. She did not like to admit there was anything she could not do. “Adam said he would teach me,” she mumbled.

To Josie’s great relief, Little Joe gazed up at his older brother admiringly. “Adam’s a great teacher!” he said. “He taught me to ride, and now I’m the best horseman in the whole territory.” He puffed out his skinny chest.

“He still rides a pony,” Ben muttered to Jacob so the little boy could not overhear. The brothers shared a quiet chuckle, but Little Joe did not notice. “Speaking of horses,” Ben now turned to Adam, “they’re bringing back the horse race at the Fourth of July festivities next week. Beauty’s getting a little old to be competitive, but I’ve got a couple of fast two-year-olds in the stable if you’re interested.”

Adam’s eyes shone. He desperately wanted to race, except for one problem. “We’ll see, Pa. It’s three years since I’ve been in a proper saddle.”

Adam had done some riding with his friends at Harvard, but in true New England style, they had ridden with English tack, not Western. It had taken Adam a little while to get used to sitting on a comparatively small saddle and having to hold the reins with both hands at all times, and now he was concerned it would take him some time to readjust to the point he could race.

“It’ll come back to you,” Ben assured his son. “Now, let’s get you home!”

Within minutes, Ben and Hoss had thanked Mrs. Larson for watching Joe and scooted over to the livery and retrieved the carriage, buckboard, and horses they had left when they departed for the East. Adam’s entire face lit up when he saw the horse tied behind the wagon. “Beauty!” he exclaimed. He shook Little Joe off his leg and rushed over to his precious chestnut mare, who whinnied when she saw her long-lost master. Adam stroked the horse’s face, and she started snuffling at his pockets, hoping for a handout. Adam laughed. “I just got off the stagecoach, girl! Look at me, I’m filthy. I don’t have any sugar.”

Ben smiled at his oldest son. “If you want to ride ahead and meet us at the house, I think everyone will understand.”

Adam glanced at Little Joe and Josie, both of whom looked distinctly put out over being abandoned for a horse, Joe’s shoulders sagging. Adam thought fast. “Hey Little Joe,” he said, walking back to his brother and placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I need you to do something very, very important for me.”

Joe raised an eyebrow in an uncanny impression of Adam.

“See, you know this territory better than anyone else, and I need you to ride in the carriage next to Josie and tell her all about it on the way home. Think you can do that?”

Little Joe broke into his trademark radiant smile and puffed himself back up. “Of course I can!” he exclaimed. “By the time we get home, Josie’ll know everything there is to know about the Ponderosa.”

“Atta boy.” Adam ruffled Joe’s hair and turned to Josie. “Little Joe will take good care of you on the way home, ok?”

Josie was disappointed that Adam would not be riding in the carriage with her, but she consented. She sensed how eager he was to be back on his horse and riding through the land he had grown up on. Adam smiled at her, bid a temporary farewell to his family, and mounted up.

“Ah,” he sighed as he sat back in his saddle. “That’s more like it.” He paused a moment to adjust his stirrups – they needed to be lowered about an inch since he had last used his saddle – then waved to his family once more, leaned down toward Beauty’s ear, and let loose a loud “HA!” Horse and rider darted off down the street and out of town, kicking up a swirling cloud of dust in their wake.

Josie watched admiringly as Adam tore off down the street. A change had come over Adam as they neared Carson City, she noticed. In Boston and Washington he had worn a suit, had not carried his gun, and had seemed for all the world like a proper New England gentleman. Once they had landed in San Francisco, however, he had transformed back into the cowboy whom she and her parents had met in New York City three years ago. Josie decided she liked both iterations of her cousin: the suave young man who took her to the theater and the rugged cowboy who was going to teach her to ride a horse.

“I suppose we better catch up,” Ben said. He helped Hannah and Josie into the carriage, and then he, Jacob, and Little Joe climbed aboard, Little Joe and Josie squeezing into the front seat next to Ben, and Jacob and Hannah situating themselves comfortably in the back row. Hoss clambered into the driver’s seat of the wagon, now laden with luggage, and they rolled out of Carson City. They quickly found themselves in countryside of soaring ponderosa pine trees, scrub brush, rolling hills, and an endless azure sky. Josie was breath-taken. She had never seen so much wide-open space, and she imagined herself as a grown woman, wheeling away through it on horseback like Adam had just done.

******

            Several miles up the road, Adam pulled Beauty to a stop. They had run hard for quite a while, and Adam wanted to savor the rest of the ride. He was going to be saddle-sore tomorrow, but he did not care. He breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet aroma of the ponderosa pines. After three years in the industrial northeast, he had almost forgotten what fresh air was. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, letting the hot Nevada sun beat down on his face. Adam was certainly going to miss Boston and Washington, but he had never imagined it would feel this wonderful to be home.

After a couple hours, the small, single-story ranch house came into sight, and Adam thought the squat little log house had never looked so good. Its four rooms – kitchen, sitting/dining room, and two bedrooms – were completely inadequate for the family, especially with Hoss growing as quickly as he was, but it was home. Adam spurred Beauty once more, pulling up only when he reached the hitching post in the front yard. He jumped down from the mare before she had come to a complete stop.

“Hop Sing!” he called. “Hop Sing!”

The Cartwrights’ Chinese cook was already on his way out the front door. He had heard the galloping hoofbeats approaching the house and guessed who it was. He flung open the door and ran into the yard to greet the boy – his boy, as he thought of each of Ben Cartwright’s sons. Ben had hired Hop Sing when Little Joe was born and Adam and Hoss were twelve and six years old, respectively. He had baked their birthday cakes, bandaged their scrapes, cooled their fevers, comforted them in times of sadness, and celebrated their triumphs. After Marie’s death, Hop Sing had taken up the role of second parent, and he had felt Adam’s absence these past three years as keenly as any other member of the family. Ben Cartwright was not the only man who could lay claim to the boys.

Indignant chickens clucked and scattered as Hop Sing and Adam raced through the yard toward one another, colliding in a warm bear hug. Hop Sing’s grin was so wide he thought his face might split. Even as a boy, Adam had not been particularly physically affectionate, so Hop Sing relished every hug he got from the young man.

“Mr. Adam!” Hop Sing cheered. He held Adam at arm’s length and took a good look at him. He noticed the same changes Ben had. Adam was a little taller and broader, and his features were sharper. Tears welled up in the cook’s eyes as he compared the boy of his memory with the young man before him. All he could think to say was, “You forget to eat in Boston! You too skinny!” He jabbed a finger into Adam’s chest for punctuation.

Adam laughed. “You spoiled me with your cooking all these years, Hop Sing! Boston just didn’t have any cooks who could compare to you.”

“That probably true,” Hop Sing agreed. He took Adam’s elbow and led him into the house, beckoning as he did so for a stable hand to take care of Beauty. “You come inside. Hop Sing make all your favorites for dinner: roast chicken, baked potatoes, green beans, biscuits, and blueberry pie!”

Adam’s stomach rumbled at the thought. “I can’t wait,” he said happily.

By the time the rest of the Cartwrights had reached the house, Adam was nearly dancing in anticipation of his homecoming meal. He raced outside to help unload everyone’s copious luggage. Jacob and Hannah were taking Ben’s room, while Josie bunked in the boys’ room with Little Joe. Ben, Hoss, and Adam would sleep in the bunkhouse with the ranch hands for the duration of the visit.

“You can have top bunk, if you want,” Little Joe magnanimously offered as he showed Josie the tiny bedroom he shared with his brothers. “I usually sleep up there, but I’ll letcha have it if you want.”

Josie peered into the room. A set of bunk beds was pushed up against one wall, and another single bed stood a few feet from it. Two small wardrobes took up the remaining wall space near the single window. Josie realized her bedroom at home was huge by comparison, and she did not have to share it with two people.

“Hoss used to sleep on bottom bunk,” Joe continued, “but he’s been sleeping in Adam’s bed for a while now. Got too tall and would crack his head on the underside of my bunk every time he sat up. I’ll be glad to have him out of here for a while. He snores like an old grizzly bear.”

Josie giggled. She liked this younger cousin of hers. Though he was nearly eight years old, Little Joe was the size of a six-year-old. He had always been small for his age, but the doctor had assured Ben not to worry. Joe was a strong, sturdy little boy, and he most likely would catch up in size over time.

The children were called to dinner, and they raced each other to the table, screaming with laughter as they tore through the small house. Josie pulled up when she reached the table – her sense of etiquette too strongly ingrained in her not to – but Little Joe collapsed breathlessly into his chair, still laughing. Ben raised an eyebrow at his youngest offspring, and the boy fell silent, his cheeks rosy and his skinny shoulders still quaking with laughter. Adam typically would have been annoyed with his baby brother’s inability to comport himself, but not tonight. Tonight Adam was thrilled to see Little Joe joyous again. When Adam had left for college, Little Joe was still grieving his recently deceased mother, and Adam had missed his bright smile. He was relieved to see his brother’s exuberance had returned to him. Adam was also glad that Little Joe had a playmate, at least temporarily. By the time Little Joe was born, Adam already had a busy schedule between school and chores, and now that Hoss was a teenager learning to run the ranch’s cattle business, he, too, had precious little time to play with his baby brother. At least for the next month, Little Joe would have another child close to his own age with whom to run wild around the Ponderosa.

After an unnecessarily long grace, in which Ben thanked God for Adam’s safe return, the visit with their extended family, the food, the Ponderosa, the United States of America, the food again, and “blessings as yet unknown,” they finally tucked into Hop Sing’s feast. Adam had always admired his father’s unwavering faith, but sometimes it was better to be quick and let hungry people eat their supper.

As they ate, Adam complimented his father on the new barn and bunkhouse, both of which had been built while Adam was away at school.

“Our operations are expanding,” Ben explained. “We need at least a dozen hands year round; more when we drive the cattle to market. We’re looking at getting into mining, too, after that big gold strike in California. There’s already a mining camp springing up just over the northeastern line of our property. May even become a town eventually.”

“That would be helpful, wouldn’t it?” Jacob asked. “It might be nice having a town a little closer than Carson City.”

Ben agreed and launched into an explanation of how a closer town would increase the Ponderosa’s local beef sales. Uninterested in business talk, the younger Cartwrights took turns making goofy faces at each other to try to make the others laugh out loud and get scolded for interrupting. Even Adam, still overjoyed to be home, joined in the silliness. Naturally, his father turned to him just as he was screwing up one eye and sticking his tongue out the opposite side of his mouth at Little Joe, who stuffed his fist in his mouth to stifle his giggles.

“Adam?” Ben said.

Adam realized a split second too late that he turned to his father with his tongue still out. He retracted it and gave Ben his most winsome smile. Josie nearly drowned in the milk she was trying to swallow and broke out in a fit of sputtering giggles.

Ben sighed and covered his eyes with one hand. “My son, the sophisticated college graduate,” he moaned. Ben was not really annoyed; he was thrilled that Adam was being silly with his brothers and cousin. Adam had never been prone to goofiness, and letting go a little was the best homecoming gift he could have given his father.

When everyone had recomposed themselves, Ben asked Adam what his plans were for the following day. Adam replied that he thought he would put Josie on a pony and show her around the ranch. Josie’s eyes lit up, but Little Joe looked put out.

“Don’t worry, little buddy,” Adam said to him. “I wouldn’t dream of leaving you behind.”

Placated, Little Joe happily finished the rest of his supper and then scampered off with Josie to play until bedtime.

Watching them go, Hoss turned to Adam and said, “Think I’ll come along with ya tomorrow. Might need an extra hand keepin’ an eye on them two.”

“Good idea,” Adam agreed.

Everyone was worn out from their trip and went to bed early. Little Joe tried to keep Josie up talking to him after the two youngest Cartwrights were put to bed – he wanted to know all about Washington, DC – but Josie was so exhausted that she fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Stretched out on a top bunk in the bunkhouse, Adam listened to his father’s and brother’s easy breathing and smiled to himself. He had not expected to be this content to be back on the Ponderosa. But with his family around him, he felt at peace. He was home.

******

            After breakfast the next morning, Adam headed out to the stable to saddle up horses and ponies for the day’s adventure. Beauty was eager to head out again, and her enthusiasm rubbed off on Little Joe’s pony, Champ, and the older pony, Daisy, whom Adam saddled up for Josie. Hoss joined him and tacked up his own mare, Lady. The young men led all four animals out to the front yard, where Little Joe and Josie stood waiting in perfectly coordinated outfits of brown trousers, blue checkered shirts, and black hats and boots. Little Joe wore an empty pistol holster on his left hip, and Josie had her black hair secured in a single long braid. Hoss and Adam chuckled at the sight of them.

“Two of kind, ain’t they, Adam?”

“We could be in for a very long day.”

Hannah came out of the house and handed Adam a picnic lunch Hop Sing had packed for them. Adam could see the worry creasing her face. “Is it safe?” she asked, looking warily at Daisy.

“Don’t you worry none, Aunt Hannah,” Hoss said. “Daisy here’s so old she wouldn’t bolt even if the devil himself were after her. At her age, it’s just too much trouble.”

“We’re not going over difficult terrain, Aunt Hannah,” Adam chimed in. “I’ll take good care of Josie.”

“I know you will,” Hannah said, smiling at her nephew. If there was anyone she could trust to keep her daughter safe, it was Adam.

“C’mon, Josie!” Adam called. “Let’s get you up on this pony.” Josie scampered off the porch, but Adam held up a hand to stop her. “Not like that,” he said, gently but firmly. “Never run up on a horse, especially one you don’t know. You don’t want to spook her and get kicked.”

Josie went crimson. Her first day on the Ponderosa and she was already disappointing Adam. Shamefaced, she plodded slowly over to where he stood holding Daisy’s lead.

Adam noticed her despondence. “It’s ok,” he said, smiling at her and chucking her under the chin. “You didn’t know.”

Josie perked up and listened intently while Adam instructed her how to mount up.

“Ain’t you gonna lift her?” Hoss asked.

“No, I want her to learn how to do it by herself.”

Josie walked up to Daisy’s left side, took hold of the reins and a fistful of mane in her left hand and the saddle horn in her right, stuck her left foot in the stirrup, and vaulted herself up. She sailed right over the pony and landed with a loud “Oof!” on Daisy’s opposite side. Still on the porch, Little Joe burst out laughing but Ben, who had wandered outside with Jacob to watch the riding lesson, silenced him with a quick smack upside the back of his head.

Hannah gasped, but Dr. Cartwright stopped her from rushing to their daughter’s side. He had seen Josie take worse falls, and he knew she was fine. He was also having a hard time swallowing his own laughter.

Adam walked around Daisy and picked up Josie and set her on her feet. Hot, embarrassed tears coursed down the little girl’s red face.

“What’s all this about?” Adam said, brushing the dust off his cousin. “That was an impressive show of strength! Even big old Hoss here has never been able to vault himself clean over a horse like that!” Josie gave him a watery smile. “How about we try that again? Just give it a little less oomph.”

Josie walked carefully back around Daisy, set herself back up for the mount, and this time successfully settled herself in the saddle. “I did it!” she exclaimed, tears forgotten, face beaming.

Adam grinned at the girl’s glee as he adjusted her stirrups and showed her how to hold her reins. “Now usually you’ll give the horse a little kick to get her moving, but for right now, I’m just going to lead you around the yard here to let you get a feel for it.”

Adam tugged on the pony’s bridle, and Daisy lurched to life. Josie instinctively grabbed the saddle horn to keep from falling off. It was like being in a tiny boat on rough water, she thought. She was certain she was going to hit the dirt again, but after a few passes through the yard, she found some semblance of balance and managed to hold on only to the reins.

“Alright, fellas!” Adam called to his brothers. “Mount up!” The three Cartwright boys swung onto their horses, or in Joe’s case, pony. Seeing the apprehensive look on Josie’s face, Adam reined up next to her. “Don’t worry. Hoss and I are going to stay right next to you and tell you everything you need to do.”

“I’ll be fine,” Josie insisted indignantly, her natural self-confidence returning to her.

“Oh, I know you will be,” Adam said. “But Hoss is a worrier, so we better humor him.”

“What’s that?” Hoss asked. He had been explaining to the parents where they would be riding and had not heard what Adam said to Josie.

“Nothing!” Adam and Josie chimed in unison.

“We’ll be back before supper,” Hoss said.

“See that you are,” Ben replied from the porch. “And be careful.”

“We will,” Little Joe said. The boy was impatient to be off riding with both of his older brothers again.

The foursome waved to their parents and set off slowly with Little Joe in the lead.

“Where are we heading?” Josie asked.

“It’s a surprise,” Adam said, wiggling an eyebrow at her.

As they rode, Adam and Hoss coached Josie on proper riding form.

“Sit back in your saddle.”

“Keep your heels down.”

“Don’t let your elbows flap around.”

Josie was determined to get everything right, but there was so much to remember all at once, and she could not help sitting stiffly. She found the whole thing rather frustrating. Like Adam, she was a quick study, and she was unaccustomed to catching onto something slowly.

Adam watched his cousin fondly. He knew her fall had shaken Josie up more than she let on, and he could tell she was still uneasy atop her pony, but he admired her tenacity. It was obvious that she was no natural horsewoman, but she would spend the rest of her life working at if she had to.

After ninety minutes of riding, Josie was wriggling in her saddle. “How do you ride all day in one of these?” she asked.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember,” Adam said, shifting his weight in his own saddle. As expected, he was sore from yesterday’s pell-mell ride from Carson City and was beginning to wish he had put the riding lesson off a few days.

“Quit bellyachin’!” Little Joe bossed. “We’re nearly there.”

He was right. Within a few minutes, Josie spotted a slight shimmer on the horizon. “What is that?” she asked Hoss.

“That’s where we’re goin’” he answered.

Slowly, an enormous sapphire mass came into focus. Josie’s eyes widened, and she forgot about her sore backside. “Is that Lake Tahoe?” she breathed.

“Sure is!” Adam grinned at her. “I promised I’d show it to you, didn’t I?”

“It looks like the ocean!”

“Shoooooot,” Little Joe drawled. “It ain’t as big as all that.” He had seen the ocean exactly once and considered himself a maritime expert.

From the top of the hill they were on, Josie could see the azure water stretching out before her clear to the horizon. She had never seen, or even imagined, a lake so large.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, not once taking her eyes off the water.

“One of these days I’m gonna build me a boat and row all the way across it,” Little Joe boasted.

“Not with those puny arms, you ain’t,” Hoss teased.

Little Joe stuck his tongue out at his brother and spurred Champ down the hill. The other three let him go and picked their way carefully down to the lakeshore where Josie and Adam gingerly dismounted. They spread out a blanket Adam had brought along and tucked into their picnic lunch, Hoss and Little Joe sniggering at the way Adam and Josie tried to keep their weight on one hip or the other inside of sitting directly on their aching rear ends.

Afterwards, befuddled by their hearty lunch of fried chicken, biscuits, lemonade, and apple pie, the four cousins stretched out lazily on the blanket in the shade of a large oak tree, hats over their faces. Josie had pulled off her boots and socks and let the warm breeze tickle her bare toes. She listened to the water gently lapping the shore and the soft breathing of her cousins on both sides of her and thought she had never been so content.

They dozed for an hour or so, when Adam said they should head home. He hated to end their afternoon together, but he did not want the parents to worry. The ride home was a little faster as Josie had gotten more comfortable aboard Daisy, but she and Adam were still glad to dismount when they reached the ranch house.

Ben’s dark eyes twinkled in amusement when he saw Adam and Josie walking spraddle-legged back from the stable. “Little sore, there, you two?”

Adam refused to admit defeat. “I’m fine,” he snapped defensively. “Josie’s fine. We’re both fine.”

Ben shook his head and chuckled as he led the little pack into the house for supper.

******

            The following days passed in much the same way. Once Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe had finished their chores, often assisted by Josie, the foursome would ride off around the ranch; Josie was still a little unsteady on horseback but making progress. On July 2, the family celebrated Little Joe’s eighth birthday with a big chocolate cake after supper, and Adam presented him with the .22 rifle he had purchased in San Francisco. The little boy was beside himself with joy and wanted to go outside and start shooting it right then, but Adam told him it was getting too dark and he had to wait until the next morning. Little Joe stuck his lower lip out in a classic pout, but Hop Sing cheered him up with a second piece of cake.

The next morning, Little Joe bolted his breakfast and dragged Adam outside before he had even finished his coffee. Josie decided to tag along. She had no experience with guns and was curious to see what all the fuss was about. As the trio marched across the yard to get some distance from the house, Hoss glanced out the window and exploded in laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Hannah asked.

“Adam!” Hoss exclaimed, laughing so hard he clutched his sides. “He looks like a big ol’ mama duck!”

The three adults rose from the table and joined Hoss at the window where they saw that Adam did indeed look just like a mother duck. He was leading the way across the yard with Josie and Little Joe skipping along in single file behind him, all three of them clad in dark trousers, red shirts, and black boots and hats.

Jacob shook his head. “Would that we were all so popular,” he said, smiling.

A few minutes later, the report of a small rifle let them know the lesson had begun. It was not long, however, before the shots ceased and the group indoors heard heavy footfalls racing toward the house. Alarmed, Ben, Hannah, and Jacob rushed out the front door, nearly colliding with Adam who was on his way in, eyes wild and sweaty hair plastered to his forehead. He clutched Little Joe’s new .22 in his right hand.

Fearing the worst, Ben grabbed Adam’s shoulders and demanded to know what had happened.

“Pa!” Adam shouted in his father’s face. “Pa, you’ve gotta see this! She’s a crack shot, Pa!” With that, he spun on his heel and sprinted back to where he had left Little Joe and Josie.

When the adults finally caught up, they found Josie beaming triumphantly next to a downcast Little Joe.

“Show them, Josie!” Adam said, handing her the gun.

Josie pulled the rifle to her shoulder, took careful aim at the first of five cans sitting on a fence rail about twenty yards away, and fired off five quick shots, each one blasting a can from its perch. Three sets of eyes went wide.

“God save the first man who breaks her heart,” Ben said.

“I can shoot good, too,” Little Joe asserted. “I was just lettin’ her use my gun to be polite.”

“And that was very nice of you,” Aunt Hannah gushed over the little boy.

Josie cottoned on to Little Joe’s feelings. “Especially after I fell off my horse yesterday,” she offered.

Joseph was only slightly mollified and spent the rest of the day pouting. Josie wisely gave him a wide berth and helped Hoss clean out the barn that afternoon while Adam and Ben rolled out Adam’s blueprints for the new house and began planning how much labor and lumber they would need to have the house completed by winter.

The next day, the six Cartwrights and Hop Sing left bright and early to travel into Carson City for the Independence Day festivities. Hannah had coaxed Josie into a dress for the occasion, and even the typically disheveled Hoss had slicked down his hair. Little Joe was still pouting, but he recovered quickly when he found himself in need of a partner for the three-legged race. When he and Josie took first place, all was forgiven, and the two youngest Cartwrights were a team once more.

Adam felt confident enough in his riding to race one of the two-year-old colts that afternoon. The entire family cheered wildly for Adam except Jacob. He usually was not a worrier, but as Adam came charging down the homestretch, all Jacob could think of was how many of Adam’s bones he would have to set if the boy were thrown, and he hid his eyes behind his hands. Being a doctor had its disadvantages. But Adam safely crossed the finish line as a close second to his best friend, Ross Marquette, who good-naturedly teased Adam for going soft in college. Ross’s fun was cut short, however, when Adam and Hoss easily defeated Ross and his older brother in a tug-of-war match.

The Cartwrights spent the rest of the afternoon cheering for Hop Sing as his blueberry pie took first place in the pie contest, playing horseshoes, and stuffing themselves with ice cream, just as Adam and Josie had done two years ago in Washington. Those two, however, had learned their lesson and were careful to stop after two helpings

When the sun went down, the band fired up, and the dancing commenced. The townsmen had constructed a spacious outdoor wooden dance floor for the occasion. Colorful paper lanterns were strung above the floor to illuminate the entire area with a soft glow. Josie danced with her father, her uncle, and each of her three cousins, though Little Joe took some convincing. He was still under the impression that dancing with a girl could give him a terminal infestation of cooties, even if that girl was his cousin. Flushed and breathless after a fast reel with Hoss, Josie collapsed onto a bench on the side of the dance floor to catch a second wind. She was just thinking about getting up for some lemonade when a blond boy about her own age sat down on the bench next to her. He was holding two cups of lemonade and offered one to Josie.

“Thank you!” she said, beaming at him.

“You’re very welcome.” The boy stuck out his hand to her. “I’m Simon. Simon Croft.”

“Pleasure!” Josie shook Simon’s hand. “Josephine Cartwright. People call me Josie.”

“Oh! Are you one of the Ponderosa Cartwrights?” Simon asked eagerly. “I didn’t know Mr. Cartwright had any daughters.”

Josie explained her relationship to Mr. Benjamin Cartwright of the Ponderosa and how she had come to visit for the summer. Simon seemed disappointed, though he asked a few polite questions about Washington, DC, before the conversation’s momentum died away.

An awkward silence settled over the children, who both turned stiffly toward the dance floor to watch the couples whirl past. Adam had found himself a pretty young brunette, resplendent in calico, and even Ben was whisking a dark-haired woman gracefully around the dance floor. Jacob and Hannah were oblivious to everyone around them as they danced together, eyes locked in a loving gaze.

For the next song, one of the band members produced an Irish pennywhistle and struck up an irresistibly lively jig. Simon turned to Josie and caught her eye. His mouth opened, but he could not force out the words, so he offered her his hand once more. Josie smiled, took it, and let him lead her onto the dance floor.

Young Simon Croft was quite the dancer, and the sprightly Josie found herself hard-pressed to match his steps, but before long the two children had caught everyone’s attention as they pranced expertly around the dance floor. So caught up in their dancing were they that they did not notice the adults step aside to give them more space. By the end of the tune, they were the only couple left on the floor as everyone else in attendance watched in awe and delight at the dancing children. Well, almost everyone. Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe were awed but undeniably less than delighted. Adam had abandoned his comely partner to stand next to his brothers, each of them with their arms folded across their chests as they glared at Simon Croft. Adam was strangely aware of the .44 strapped to his hip, and Hoss unconsciously drew himself up to his full height and flexed his massive biceps. Little Joe furrowed his brow and wished he were bigger.

Ben caught sight of his sons and bit back his laughter. They were quite a sight: two tall, broad young men and one short, scrawny one, all poised to rescue their cousin from the evil clutches of a skinny ten-year-old boy. “Relax, gentlemen,” Ben said, stepping over to his children. “This is a party.”

Adam shot his father a look but said nothing. The song had just ended, and Simon bowed grandly to Josie, who curtsied in return. Then, hand in hand, the two children scampered off to find more lemonade. Adam moved to follow them, but Ben put up a hand to stop him. “Simon’s a good boy,” he reassured his eldest son. “His father just bought a ranch on the east border of the Ponderosa. I was planning to invite the entire family to supper sometime.”

Adam grunted and remained otherwise silent. He resolved to keep a close eye on Simon Croft for the remainder of Josephine’s visit.

Over at the lemonade stand, Simon was telling Josie all about his father’s new ranch, the Lucky Star.

“It’s nowhere near as big as the Ponderosa – no other ranch is,” he explained, “but my pa is confident that we should have a good herd of cattle to sell by this time next year.”

Josie listened politely while she sipped her lemonade, and when the band fired up another jig, she grabbed Simon’s hand and dragged him back to the dance floor. They danced nonstop until the end of the evening when the band announced they would finish off with a waltz.

“Dang,” Simon said sadly. “I don’t know how to waltz.”

“Fortunately, I do.” Adam stepped out of a shadow from whence he had been keeping careful watch over Josie. “Miss Cartwright?” He bowed low to Josie and extended his hand with a flourish. She giggled as she accepted and casting an apologetic glance over her shoulder to a dejected Simon, let Adam lead her onto the dance floor. Josie had never been happier than she was in that moment as her adopted older brother swept her expertly around the dance floor. When the waltz ended, she jumped up and threw her arms around his neck. Grinning, Adam carried her off the dance floor to their waiting family.

“Hang on!” Josie cried when Jacob said it was time to head home. She scurried over to where Simon stood waiting for his parents. She shook his hand vigorously. “Thank you for the dances!” she gushed. “And all the lemonade.”

Simon blushed and kicked at an imaginary pebble on the ground. “Wasn’t nothin’,” he mumbled. Checking that no adults were watching, Josie pecked him swiftly on the cheek and scampered back to her family. Astonished, Simon watched her go, one hand on the cheek Josie had kissed.

Little Joe and Josie were so exhausted from the big day that they collapsed against each other and fell asleep within minutes of Ben slapping the horses with the carriage’s reins and setting off for home. Once or twice the carriage hit a bump in the road, knocking the children’s heads together, but they were so deeply asleep neither of them stirred.

It was nearly 2 a.m. when they finally returned home. By that time, even Adam and Hoss were half asleep in their saddles. Jacob and Ben lifted their sleeping children and carried them upstairs to bed, little heads lolling open-mouthed against big shoulders.

Everyone slept in the following morning before settling into a routine that would carry them through the rest of the month. After morning chores and breakfast, Little Joe and Josie would race outside to play while Adam stayed behind with Ben and Jacob to organize the building supplies that were now coming in for the new house. Adam was proud that he had designed the house to be built entirely from lumber and stone taken from Ponderosa land, and he had flabbergasted everyone with his cutting-edge plans for indoor plumbing.

“See, Pa?” Adam said one day, tracing a line on his blueprints with his finger. “We connect pipes to the stove in the kitchen and run them through the walls to the second floor, so every time Hop Sing cooks, he’s also heating water for the upstairs washroom. It won’t be unlimited hot water – we’ll still have to carry up buckets of heated water sometimes – but it’s a start. The best part is that we won’t have to drag full tubs outside to dump them out any more. Just pull the drain plug, and the water runs out these pipes to irrigate Hop Sing’s garden behind the house.” Ben marveled at his son’s ingenuity.

Most days, Hoss would either help with the building supplies or ride off to check the cattle they would drive to market at the beginning of August. Hannah enjoyed sitting in the shade of a tree to read or watch the men work. She considered making herself useful, but ultimately decided to enjoy this respite from her busy volunteer schedule back home. Adam made a point to take at least a couple hours’ break every afternoon to join Josie and Little Joe in whatever adventure they were having that day. He continued coaching her on riding, with which she still needed ample help, and shooting, with which she did not.

Three days before the visit ended, Josie and Little Joe announced at lunch that they were going fishing that afternoon.

“You’re not going down to the lake by yourselves,” Ben informed them.

“We know,” Little Joe said impatiently. He knew he was not allowed down at the lake without his father or one of his brothers. “We’re just goin’ over to the duck pond.”

“All right,” Ben said, “but you two stay out of that old oak tree down there. It took a lot of damage last winter, and it’s nearly rotted through. I don’t want either of you breaking your neck.”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe and Josie chorused.

After finishing their lunch, the two smallest cousins grabbed a couple of fishing poles and took off toward the duck pond about a half mile from the house. Once there, Little Joe peeled off his shirt, and they both shucked their boots and socks and sat under the dying oak tree at the pond’s edge, their feet dandling in the cool water. Twenty minutes passed without so much as a nibble on either child’s line, and Little Joe grew impatient.

“I don’t think there’s any fish over here,” he complained.

“So move.”

“What if there’s no fish over on the other side, either? I’d just be wasting my time.”

“It’s fishing, Joe, the whole point is to waste time.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes at Josie and flung himself back onto the grass. Looking up at the branches of the oak tree gave him an idea. With a mischievous grin, he popped up, put his boots back on, and picked his way over to the tree’s gnarled trunk. Josie watched him suspiciously.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Just thinkin’ that if I could get up high I could see where the fish are.”

Josie sighed. “Joe, Uncle Ben said we’re not allowed in that tree. It’s rotted.”

Little Joe kept staring up at the tree’s branches and waved a hand dismissively at Josie. “Branches won’t break under me. Whole family’s always saying how I don’t weigh nothin’. Besides, what Pa don’t know won’t kill him. You comin’ or what?”

Josie shook her head. “Not me,” she said. Like most Cartwrights, she harbored a healthy disregard for rules, but she had to side with her uncle on this one. The battered tree looked as if it were being held up only by God’s good humor, and many of the branches were cracked and dangling from the trunk at crazy angles.

“Fine, scaredy cat, be a girl.” With that, Little Joe grabbed a low-hanging branch and swung himself up into the tree.

He made good progress for about fifteen feet when Josie asked if he could see any fish.

“Not yet!” he called down. “But there’s a branch in my way. Lemme get a little higher.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea!” Josie shouted back, but Little Joe had already recommenced his ascent. Josie cringed when a branch creaked under Joe’s left boot, but he made it another ten feet, where he reported that all the fish were, in fact, on the other side of the pond.

“Excellent!” Josie yelled skyward. “Now get outta that tree!”

Proud of his ingenuity, Little Joe grinned down at Josie and began a careful descent. He was doing fine until he reached the last branch about seven feet off the ground. He set his weight on it and just as he was letting go of the branch above him, the moldering limb split, and Little Joe plunged toward the ground. He landed heavily on his right side and grunted as he lost his wind. Josie’s stomach lurched, and she wheeled over to him. Relieved that he was conscious, she instinctively began checking him for injuries as he gasped for breath.

“Did you hit your head?” Josie demanded.

Little Joe shook his head as he finally, mercifully, was able to draw a full breath. Josie ran her hands up the arm he had landed on and announced that it was not broken but was, unfortunately, bleeding freely from a deep gash about three inches long between his elbow and wrist.

“Must have sliced it on that root,” Joe said, indicating a sharp root sticking up from the ground where he had landed.

“Hold still,” Josie ordered. She ran back to the pond’s edge and grabbed Little Joe’s discarded shirt. She pulled a pocket knife Hoss had given her out of her trousers pocket and quickly sliced off one arm of the shirt.

“Hey!” Little Joe protested. “Ruin your own shirt next time!”

“Stay out of the tree next time!” Josie shot back. Little Joe shut his mouth and let Josie wrap the sleeve tightly around the cut on his arm. To their collective dismay, blood almost immediately saturated the fabric, and Josie shook her head. “This is a deep cut, Joe. It needs stitches. I better go get Papa.” She rose to her feet, but Little Joe grabbed her arm with his left hand, his eyes wild with fear.

“No, Josie!” he practically screamed at her.

“Joe, I have to. That arm needs attention.”

“You can’t!” the boy sputtered. “If you tell Uncle Jacob, he’ll tell Pa, and Pa’ll know I was up in the tree after he told me not to. And I will be in so much trouble.”

“Guess you should have thought of that before you climbed the tree.”

“He’ll kill me, Josie. And my death will be on your head.”

Josie rolled her eyes. Little Joe could be more melodramatic than the girls at school. “What do you suggest, then, if you’re so smart?”

“You do it.”

“Me?!”

“Yeah!” Little Joe insisted. “You’re practically a doctor; Uncle Jacob said so. Can’t you do it?”

Josie bit her lower lip. “I don’t know, Joe,” she said uncertainly. “I have practiced on some old hides Papa gave me, but I’ve never stitched up a live person before.”

“How different can it be, really?” Joe contended. He looked directly into her face, his big green eyes welling up with tears and his bottom lip trembling. “Please? Try?”

Josie heaved a long sigh. He looked so pathetic, but something told her she was not the first person to receive Joseph Cartwright’s injured-puppy look. “Wait here,” she said, defeated. “And keep pressure on that wound!” Despite the July heat, she ran full-out back to the house, praying the entire way that the adults would still be fussing with materials for the new house and would not notice her return.

She was relieved when she arrived at the house to discover that the older Cartwrights were still occupied with their work. There was a horse tied up in the front yard that Josie recognized as belonging to Hop Sing’s cousin Li, but she knew they would be sitting in the kitchen having tea. If she was careful, she just might pull this off.

Before opening the front door, she used what little moisture remained in her mouth to spit on the creaky middle hinge Little Joe had warned her about. She beamed triumphantly when the door opened with nary a squeak. Josie slipped soundlessly into the house and crept down the hall to Ben’s bedroom, where her parents were staying. Feeling like a thief, Josie unlatched her father’s black medical bag and pulled out a bottle of silver nitrate, some bandages, a spool of catgut, and a needle. Guilt ran her over like a stampede of cattle. Jacob had imparted to his daughter the importance of staying out of his medical bag – there were things in there that could be harmful – and Josie knew she was stealing. But she thought of Little Joe sitting under the oak tree trying to staunch the bleeding gash on his arm and shoved the catgut and the needle – safely wrapped up in the bandages – into her pockets, re-latched Jacob’s bag, and slipped out of the room. She stopped in the boys’ bedroom to grab a fresh shirt for Little Joe – she tied this around her waist by its sleeves – and then headed back into the common room.

She was nearly out the front door, when she realized there was something odd about the voices coming from the kitchen. One of them was clearly Hop Sing, but also clearly not Hop Sing. Curiosity got the better of her, and Josie crept closer to the kitchen doorway, being careful to stay out of sight.

“Do not worry, Li,” she heard Hop Sing say, “Henry Clay will ensure California enters the Union as a single free state. It won’t make the Southerners happy, but I’m sure he will come up with a consolation for them.”

Josie wrinkled her nose, trying to deduce exactly what was off about Hop Sing’s voice. When she finally figured it out, her mouth dropped open with a soft popping sound. She clamped a hand over the offending orifice, but the damage was already done.

“One moment, Li,” Hop Sing said. Eight years of living with Cartwright boys had given him the sharpest senses on the continent.

Josie’s heart pounded as she heard a chair scrape across the wooden kitchen floor and then Hop Sing’s soft footfalls coming closer to her hiding place next to the supper table. There was nothing for it. Concealing the bottle of silver nitrate behind her back, she stepped into view of the kitchen doorway just as Hop Sing reached it from the other side.

“Hiya, Hop Sing!” she said brightly.

The cook narrowed his eyes and gazed at the little girl suspiciously.

“What happen to Little Joe?” he asked in his usual pidgen.

Josie knew she was caught and decided to go for broke. “What happened to your accent?” she challenged.

Hop Sing’s eyebrows shot up. “You overheard,” he said, returning to the perfect English she had heard him use mere moments before. Josie said nothing but gave him a wry smile. “Josie, you need to understand something.” Hop Sing pulled a chair out from the supper table and sat down facing the girl. He rubbed his temples under his pillbox hat. “Mr. Cartwright is a good man, but it would not be… appropriate for him to hear me speak this way. Do you understand?” The puzzled look on Josie’s face made it plain that she did not. “How can I explain?” He stared up at the ceiling. “Josie, white folks tolerate the Chinese in this country because they believe they are intellectually superior to us. This is a charade we maintain in order to keep ourselves safe and employed. If we were to make it known that we are intelligent, capable people, we would find ourselves even more unwelcome than we already are. Does that make sense?”

This time it did. “It’s like the black people back home,” Josie mused. “They play dumb so they do not get beat up in the streets. So people don’t feel like they’re dangerous.”

“Exactly!” Hop Sing said, smiling. “So I will make a bargain with you. If you promise never to tell anyone how you heard me speak today, I will not breathe a word about the bottle of liniment you have hidden behind your back, which I assume is for a certain curly-headed boy of our mutual acquaintance.”

Josie smiled sheepishly. “Deal,” she said, extending her hand to Hop Sing, who shook it.

“You better run along,” the cook said. “I expect Little Joe is anxiously awaiting your return.”

Josie grinned again and raced out the front door, leaving Hop Sing wiping his brow at his near miss.

The little girl sprinted back to her cousin, who was sitting leaned back against the trunk of the dead oak with his hand pressed firmly over the cut on his arm.

“How you doing, Joe?” Josie asked anxiously. The boy had grown awfully pale in her absence, and Josie wished she had not wasted time eavesdropping on Hop Sing.

“Ok,” he said shakily.

Josie removed the blood-soaked sleeve and checked the wound. Fortunately, the bleeding had stopped, but Little Joe had lost a lot of blood, especially for such a small boy.   Josie grabbed her canteen and a small brown-paper package from where she had abandoned them next to the pond. She unscrewed the canteen’s lid, took a couple quick swigs, and handed the canteen to Joe with orders to drink up. He took the canteen and drank deeply while Josie unwrapped the package, which contained a half-dozen sugar cookies Hop Sing had sent along with them after lunch. She handed one of them to Joe.

“Eat this. It will make you feel better.”

Little Joe gratefully accepted the cookie and jammed it into his mouth. While he chewed, Josie pulled the bandages, needle, and catgut out of her pockets. Joe swallowed his cookie, and Josie used the silver nitrate and the canteen’s remaining water to flush out the cut. Joe gasped and lost what little color was returning to his face as the medicine set his arm afire.

“I’m sorry,” Josie said gloomily. “I have to clean it out.”

“I know. Just hurry up, ok?”

“I’ll try.”

Once she was satisfied the wound was clean, Josie cut a long length of catgut and threaded it through the needle. Little Joe’s eyes went wide, and his cookie churned in his stomach. Josie read the fear so plain on his face and suggested that he not watch. Joe nodded bravely and turned his face away from his injured arm and squeezed his eyes shut. Josie surveyed the cut and decided to start at the end closest to Little Joe’s elbow. Then she could sew him up from left to right, just like writing a sentence. She took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and poked the needle through her cousin’s skin. Joe squeaked at this first stab of pain, and a single tear squeezed out of the corner of his clenched right eye. Josie bit back tears herself. She knew this had to be done, but she hated to cause Little Joe pain. She reminded herself that this was Joe’s own fault and refocused on the work at hand. In her head she chanted, “In one side, out the other, make a diagonal path to the next spot.”

After what seemed like an eternity to Josie and Little Joe but was really mere minutes, Josie tied off the thread and snipped off the excess. She took a clean bandage and carefully wrapped up the arm.

“It’s ok,” she told Joe. “You can look now.”

Little Joe glanced down at his bandaged appendage and let out a long, shuddering breath. “That wasn’t so bad.”

Josie saw the tears still welled up in her cousin’s eyes and knew he was just trying to be brave. She leaned over and gave him a big hug, being careful to avoid his bandaged arm. Little Joe wrapped his good arm around her and hugged her back.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Any time.”

Josie broke away and gave Little Joe another cookie. After the cookie and some water from his own canteen, Joe felt a little better and the color returned to his cheeks. Josie helped him into his clean shirt, and the two children sat together under the tree, polishing off the remainder of the cookies.

At length, Little Joe glanced up at the sun. “We better get back. It’ll look suspicious if we’re late for supper.”

A horrible thought struck Josie. “But we don’t have any fish!”

“Oh,” Joe said dismissively, “no one would really expect us to come home with anything from this old pond.”

Josie was about to ask him why, then, they had bothered to attempt fishing in the first place, but after a month in Joe’s company, Josie knew better than to expect his decisions to be logical, so she kept her mouth shut.

Little Joe rose slowly to his feet, and Josie stood by, ready to catch him if he got dizzy. But Joe took a couple of deep breaths and held firm. They gathered up their fishing poles, canteens, and the brown paper from the cookies and started for home.

“Oh, wait!” Josie said. She rushed back to the pond, used a stick to dig a small hole next to the oak tree, and buried the remains of Little Joe’s ruined shirt. Joe looked on approvingly.

“Good idea,” he praised, and the cousins set off toward the house.

For most of the evening, it seemed they would get away with their little escapade. They had arrived home with just enough time before the adults returned for Josie to replace her father’s medical supplies, and at dinner, Josie was careful to sit on Little Joe’s right side so no one would unwittingly bump his stitches. Though the evening was warm, Little Joe kept his shirtsleeves rolled all the way down to his wrists, but no one seemed to notice; they were all too busy talking about the new house. Josie and Joe shared several knowing smiles during the meal. Things were going great.

Right up to the point they didn’t.

Everyone had finished their meals, and Hop Sing was bringing out coffee. Disinterested in coffee, Little Joe and Josie asked to be excused. After receiving permission, they carried their dishes into the kitchen and then scampered past the table again as they made their way to the sitting area, where they intended to play checkers until bedtime. As Little Joe passed his father, Ben remembered the children’s fishing trip that afternoon and caught Little Joe’s right forearm to stop him so he could ask if they had had any luck.

Ben’s strong hand clamped down right on top of Little Joe’s stitches. Joe blanched and let out a wheezing “ooooo” sound like a dying steam engine. Josie froze mid-step, her supper suddenly unsettled.

“Joseph, whatever’s the matter?” Concern creased Ben Cartwright’s tanned face as his hand reflexively sprang open to release his son’s arm.

“Nothing, Pa,” Little Joe gasped out, cradling his injured arm. “Just jammed my wrist this afternoon. It’s fine.”

Jacob immediately rose from his chair. “Here, son, let me take a look at it.”

Little Joe took two steps backward, away from his father and approaching uncle. “No, sir!” he exclaimed, a little too loudly. “It’s fine, really.”

Now everyone’s suspicions were raised. The three oldest Cartwrights stared expectantly at Little Joe, while Adam and Hoss smirked at each other. They could hardly wait to hear what their baby brother had gotten into this time.

“Joseph,” Ben said, “show your uncle your arm.”

Ben’s soft tone was worse than his angry one. With a despairing glance at Josie, Little Joe reluctantly rolled up his sleeve.

“Good heavens!” Ben thundered when he saw the bandage that concealed most of his youngest son’s forearm. “What happened?”

Joe seemed to have lost his voice, so Jacob walked over to the boy and gently unwrapped the curiously familiar-looking bandage. A row of even stitches winked up at him from his nephew’s arm. Jacob looked over at his older brother and raised an eyebrow.

“Joe,” Dr. Cartwright began, “who gave you these stitches?”

Ben’s gaze shot over to his middle son. “Hoss, did you stitch him up?”

Hoss wiped the smirk off his face. “No, sir! Pa, you know I wouldn’t sew him up without tellin’ you first. Besides,” he glanced at the stitches, “that’s a lot prettier than anything I woulda done.”

Ben had to accept the truth behind this statement. “Well,” he said impatiently, “if Jacob didn’t stitch him up, and you didn’t stitch him up, then who did?!”

All eyes drifted over to Josie, who was tiptoeing out of sight behind Ben’s blue armchair.

“What?” she said innocently.

“Josephine Elizabeth, come here,” Jacob ordered.

Josie’s heart sank as she slunk over to her father.

Jacob pointed to Little Joe’s arm. “Did you do these stitches?” he asked quietly. Like Little Joe, Josie would have felt better if her father had shouted at her. His soft tone was laced with disappointment.

“Yes sir,” she whispered, staring down at her boots.

“Am I to assume this means you went into my medical bag without permission?”

“Yes sir,” Josie whispered again.

Jacob pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “If you knew Joe needed stitches, why didn’t you come for me?”

Little Joe shot Josie a look of sheer terror and shook his head, silently begging her not to tell. But Josie knew she was caught, and lying would only get both of them into more trouble.

“Because,” she began, then faltered. “Because…” she ended in a sigh.

Hannah rose and joined her husband, and they both stared down at their daughter, waiting for her to continue.

Seeing his cousin under interrogation on his behalf filled Little Joe with unbearable guilt. “Because she didn’t want to get me into trouble!” he blurted.

All eyes shifted back to Little Joe, who reddened with shame.

“I fell out of that oak tree by the duck pond and gashed my arm on a root,” he confessed. Tears spilled out of his eyes. “I talked Josie into stitching me up herself so I wouldn’t get in trouble.”

“You’re in trouble now anyway, young man!” Ben thundered. “I specifically told you to stay out of that tree, for this very reason. You’re lucky you didn’t break your neck. Why did you disobey me?”

“I was tryin’ to see where the fish were,” he mumbled. Hoss and Adam snorted with laughter. Ben shot them both a stern look, and the two young men bit their lower lips and avoided looking at one another for fear they would break into uncontrollable hysterics.

“Josephine!” Hannah cried in horror. “You’re older. Why didn’t you stop him?”

Josie opened her mouth to reply, but Ben cut her off.

“Hannah, don’t hold Josie responsible. When Little Joe gets a harebrained idea like this, the Lord Almighty himself is hard-pressed to stop him.” He turned to his son and niece. “But since the two of you clearly need more supervision, you’ll spend tomorrow helping Hop Sing with the housework.”

“Yes, sir,” the downcast children replied.

Ben turned to his older two boys. “Adam, Hoss, first thing tomorrow I want the two of you to go down to the duck pond and chop down that tree.”

“Yes, sir,” they said.

Josie fought back tears. She had disappointed her entire family, and now she and Adam would not be able to go out riding together tomorrow like they had planned. Josie did not particularly enjoy riding – she still felt unsteady in the saddle – but she had looked forward to getting Adam to herself one last time before she and her parents departed for home.

Jacob was still examining his daughter’s handiwork. “What did you use to clean this out?” he asked her.

“Silver nitrate and water,” she said.

“Also from my medical bag,” he muttered, but a half-smile played about Jacob’s lips as he nodded in approval. He rewrapped Little Joe’s arm, and he and Ben sent the two children to bed early as part of their punishment. As she trudged toward the bedroom, Josie heard her father apologize to his brother.

“Ben, I am so sorry. I never would have let her stitch up your boy.”

“It’s alright, Jacob,” Ben replied. “No harm done it would seem.”

“Yeah,” Jacob chuckled. “You have to admit, that little girl did a damn fine job. Those are some of the neatest stitches I’ve ever seen.”

Josie smiled. She would serve her punishment tomorrow, but her father had forgiven her.

Exhausted from the day’s adventures and blood loss, Little Joe had no trouble falling asleep early, but Josie lay awake staring at the ceiling. Try as she might, sleep refused to come. After an hour of counting sheep, she heard footsteps outside the door. A small shaft of light spread across the floor as the door opened a few inches. Josie shut her eyes and pretended to be asleep. She heard someone enter the room and slip quietly over to the bunks.

“Faker,” a familiar baritone whispered in her left ear.

Josie sighed and rolled over. “I have been trying, Adam, honest I have,” she said.

“I know,” Adam replied.

“I’m sorry we can’t go on our ride tomorrow,” Josie said sadly. “I spoiled everything.”

Adam reached up a hand and brushed Josie’s hair off of her face. “Only half,” he assured her, smiling wryly. “Little Joe spoiled the other half. He’s good at that.”

Josie smiled back, but a tear trickled down her cheek.

“Enough of that,” Adam said, wiping it away. “Tomorrow’s shot, but Sunday we’ll have another picnic down by the lake, just like your first day here. How does that sound?”

“Good,” Josie said, smiling a little wider now. It seemed fitting that her visit would end the way it had begun.

“It’s settled then.” Adam kissed her forehead. “Now go to sleep.” He stooped down to lift Little Joe’s legs back onto his lower bunk – how did that child manage to sleep like that?! – and slipped back out of the room.

Hop Sing worked Josie and Little Joe nonstop the next day. Immediately after breakfast, he set them to washing the dishes. Once they finished that, they set the table for lunch and headed outside to feed the chickens. Josie thought this was great fun. She had never had chickens, and their sassy clucking and the way they shoved each other to get the feed made her laugh. Little Joe rolled his eyes at her. He did not see what was so great about feeding chickens.

After lunch, they washed the dishes again and then got to work scrubbing the floors. Little Joe tried to reason that he could not scrub floors with a lame arm, but Hop Sing reminded him that he was left-handed and it was his right arm that was laid up. Scrubbing the floors took the rest of the afternoon, and Josie gained a new appreciation for all the hard work her family’s cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Crenshaw, performed.

Once Hop Sing was satisfied that the floors were clean, he had the children set the table for supper and then allowed them thirty minutes’ of closely supervised play before the rest of the family came home. Because their visit was nearly over, Ben had taken Jacob and Hannah on a last buggy tour of the ranch while Hoss and Adam had chopped down the old oak tree and then finished digging the foundation of the new house, which would be about half a mile from the old one, next to the new bunkhouse and barn.

“Next time you come to visit, we’ll put you up in style!” Adam announced proudly to Josie.

Josie smiled, but she and Adam shared a sad gaze. They had both been trying to ignore how very little time they had left together, but now that they were down to their last thirty-six hours, it was hard to push to the backs of their minds.

Adam and Josie both slept fitfully that night and woke the next morning pale and bleary-eyed. Ben, Jacob, and Hannah watched in concern as the two cousins pushed their breakfasts around their plates without eating much. Josie had trouble swallowing around a stubborn lump in her throat, and Adam felt a weight on his chest that was familiar, yet he could not place it. Finally, as Hop Sing cleared away the breakfast dishes – frowning at Adam’s and Josie’s nearly full plates as he did so – it occurred to Adam that it was the same weight he had felt when Little Joe’s mother, Marie, died.

“Don’t be daft, Cartwright,” he told himself. “No one’s died.” But try as he might to convince himself otherwise, the impending loss of Josie felt the same.

Silently, Adam and Josie tromped out to the barn to saddle their horses for their ride. Still unsteady in the saddle, Josie had at least mastered tacking up her own mount. The rest of the family watched them go, and even Little Joe, who would have loved to invite himself along, stayed quiet. In an unusual bout of intuitiveness, he sensed that this was a ride Adam and Josie needed to take alone. Besides, he and Josie had already had an exciting final adventure together, and he would forever carry the scar to prove it.

Adam and Josie mounted up, waved to the family, and headed slowly out of the yard. They rode along in silence for the entire two hours, Josie drinking in the fresh air and expansive sky. When they reached the glimmering lake, they spread their blanket under the same oak tree they had sat under on Josie’s first full day on the Ponderosa and opened their picnic basket. Skipping breakfast had caught up to both of them, and they dived greedily into their lunch despite their lingering sadness. Hop Sing had packed them each a roast beef sandwich, an early-season apple, and several cookies. The mood lightened considerably when Adam bit into his apple and immediately sucked in both cheeks.

“It’s a bit tart,” he squeaked as his eyes started to water.

Josie laughed hysterically. “Be careful!” she warned between peals of laughter. “Your eyes are about to pop right out of your head!”

Adam took a big swig of water from his canteen to wash down the offending fruit. “Dare you to eat yours,” he challenged, grinning slyly.

Josie could not resist a challenge. Staring straight at Adam, she took a gigantic bite out of her apple.

“Ooooo!” she squealed around the fruit. Now Adam erupted in gales of laughter as Josie’s eyes crossed. Adam was impressed that Josie managed to hold the enormous piece of apple in her mouth long enough to chew and swallow it.

“I think Hop Sing was a little over ambitious picking these apples this early,” Adam said. He stood up and sauntered over to Beauty, who happily accepted the rest of his apple. Josie did the same for Daisy and sat back down on the blanket next to Adam. Despite the early afternoon heat, she nuzzled under his arm and rested her head on his chest.

“I don’t want to go home,” she sighed.

“I know,” Adam said. “We’ve had fun these past few years, haven’t we?”

Josie nodded. That stubborn lump had risen again in her throat and she did not trust herself to speak without crying. Adam toyed absently with the end of her braid.

“It’ll be ok,” he said, fighting to keep his voice from breaking. “We can write each other letters, and we can visit again.”

“Yeah.”

There was nothing else to say, nothing that could properly convey the heartbreak, so they sat in silence under the oak tree and watched the sun glide slowly over the water. Eventually, they dozed off, exhausted from their restless night. When Adam stirred again a few hours later, he was alarmed to see how low the sun had sunk. He shook Josie, and the cousins rose stiffly to their feet, packed up their picnic basket and blanket, and high-tailed it home. Or as fast as they could high-tail it, anyway, with Josie still wobbling in her saddle from time to time.

Supper that night was a somber affair. Occasionally someone, usually Hoss or Little Joe, would tell a joke to try to break the gloomy silence, but the punchlines all fell flat. Ben felt that he should say something philosophical to wrap up his brother’s visit, but he could not deduce exactly what that something should be. In the end, everyone ate quickly both to escape the depressing atmosphere and to get around to spending one last evening together.

While the five oldest sat around the common room drinking coffee and chatting, Little Joe beckoned Josie into the boys’ bedroom. Josie was supposed to be packing, and her empty trunk lay open in the middle of the bedroom floor.

“I wanted to show you somethin’,” Joe said. Josie watched with interest as Little Joe stepped into her trunk and curled up inside, his knees up against his chest. “I fit!” he crowed, his voice slightly muffled.

“So?” Josie asked. Little Joe hated being reminded of his diminutive stature, and Josie could not figure out why he should be so excited to fit into her traveling trunk.

“So I can come back to Washington with you!”

Josie’s eyes lit up with excitement. “You’ll love Washington, Joe! I’ll show you all around the city, and you can come to school with me!” She examined the trunk. “We’ll have to punch some air holes in here, though. You don’t want to suffocate.”

Little Joe’s head popped out of the trunk. “I already thought of that,” he said proudly. He hopped out of the trunk and slid halfway under Adam’s bed. When he emerged, dust wafting down from his brown curls, he held an awl in one hand and a hammer in the other. He glowed triumphantly. “I borrowed these from the barn this afternoon while you and Adam were out riding.”

“You brilliant, brilliant boy!” Josie cheered.

Little Joe glowed at the praise and knelt next the trunk. “I’ll take my canteen and some food in there with me, but you’ll need to let me out at nights so I can get more food and water and, you know, go,” he said.

Josie nodded in agreement. “I can do that.”

“Alright,” Joe said, “let’s figure out where to put these holes.”

Back in the common room, Ben realized he had not heard any sound from Josie and Little Joe for quite some time.

“Adam,” he said, “go check on the little ones. They’re being entirely too quiet.”

Adam dutifully rose from his comfortable seat on the settee and ambled toward the boys’ bedroom. He entered the room just in time to see Little Joe raise the hammer in preparation to bore the first hole into Josie’s trunk.

“Watcha doing?” he asked.

Both children jumped, and Little Joe dropped his tools.

Josie sighed in relief. “Oh, Adam, it’s just you. We’re poking air holes in my trunk.”

Adam forced back an amused smile. “Dare I ask for whom?”

“Me, of course,” Little Joe said, realigning the awl. His older brother could be awfully stupid sometimes.

Adam stepped around the trunk and swiped the awl from his brother’s hand.

“Hey!” Joe protested.

“Joe, you can’t stow away in Josie’s trunk.”

“Why not?!”

Adam turned to Josie. “How were you planning to explain Little Joe’s absence tomorrow morning?”

Josie wrinkled her nose. “We were still working on that part,” she answered. In truth, it had not occurred to either of them.

Irritation unexpectedly slammed into Adam. “You need to get packing,” he snapped at Josie. With a final disapproving glare at Little Joe, Adam took the awl and the hammer and stalked out of the room.

Josie was utterly flabbergasted as she watched Adam’s retreat. Adam had never scolded her before, not seriously, at least. She fought back tears and realized she was angry with Adam for the first time in her life.

“Killjoy!” she shouted after him and kicked her trunk in rage.

Josie’s epithet fell heavily on Adam’s ears as he made his way back into the common room, and he immediately felt regretful. He had not meant to be short with Josie, but he felt so edgy this evening. He resolved to make it up to her with an extra bedtime story. At nearly ten years old, Josie was getting a bit big for bedtime stories, but some of his best memories were of reading with Josie, so Adam decided he could stretch the story-telling one more night.

Back in the common room, Adam showed everyone the awl and hammer and explained what Josie and Little Joe had been attempting. Jacob hid his growing smile behind the book he was reading and avoided looking at his older brother, knowing that any eye contact would set them both to laughing. Hannah was alarmed, but Adam assured her he had intervened before the trunk sustained any damage. Hannah excused herself to supervise her daughter’s packing.

Once Josie’s things were safely packed and the children were washed up for bed, Adam slunk guiltily back into the bedroom.

“Hey,” he said softly.

“Hey,” Little Joe replied. Josie did not answer. She rolled over and faced the wall.

Adam stepped across the room to Josie’s upper bunk. “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he said. “Guess I’m a little uptight tonight.”

Josie remained silently facing the wall. She intended to make Adam pay for his transgression.

Adam played his trump card. “I brought a book,” he said, holding up the collection of Andersen’s fairy tales in his hand.

That did it.

Josie rolled over to face her cousin. “Apology accepted,” she said and rewarded him with a smile.

“C’mere.” Adam tossed the book onto the other bed and grabbed Josie around the waist. “I can’t climb up there to read to you. One of us will fall out, and I’m afraid it might be me.”

Josie giggled, wrapped her arms around Adam’s neck and let him lift her out of bed. Adam set Josie on the floor and bent down to peer at Little Joe.

“You comin’?” he asked.

Little Joe grinned and hopped out of bed, too. Adam plopped himself in the center of the larger, free-standing bed, and Little Joe and Josie climbed up next to him, one on each side. Joe was careful to sit on Adam’s right so he would not smash his stitches between himself and his brother. The cut on his arm still ached a bit.

Adam wrapped an arm around each child and held the book in front of them. It fell open to the first page of a much-loved story, and Adam began to read.

From the common room, Hoss heard his brother’s smooth baritone start in with “There were once five-and-twenty tin soldiers. They were all brothers, born of the same old tin spoon.” Hoss grinned. He loved “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” The soldiers reminded him of himself and his brothers; they were all born of that same old “tin spoon,” Benjamin Cartwright. And though its ending was sad, Hoss thought the one-legged soldier’s love for the ballerina doll was the most beautiful tale in the world. He excused himself from the common room and headed into the bedroom, where after nodding to Adam, he pulled off his boots and stretched out on Little Joe’s abandoned bottom bunk to listen.

Little Joe made it only halfway through the story before he fell asleep with his head on Adam’s chest. Josie lasted nearly to the end of the story before she, too, succumbed to sleep, snuggled up against Adam, one skinny arm thrown across his chest toward Little Joe. Hoss made it to the end, but only just. As Adam’s voice trailed off of the final words, Hoss muttered “That sure is a nice story,” smacked his lips twice, and drifted off.

Adam sat there for several long moments, just listening to his brothers and cousin breathe. Feeling a bit drowsy himself, he slid down a little so he could rest his head on the edge of the pillow he was leaning on but did not disturb Josie and Little Joe. He thought he would read another story to himself before slipping out to the bunkhouse, but within two pages of “The Wild Swans,” he, too, fell asleep, the open book sliding into his lap, his arms still encircling the sleeping children.

Sitting next to her husband and reading a book, Hannah realized it had been quite some time since she had last heard Adam’s voice drifting out from the boys’ bedroom. She rose and walked over to the bedroom door, which was slightly ajar. She pushed it open, looked in, and was greeted by the most touching scene she had ever witnessed. Hoss was stretched out to his full length on the bottom bunk – was it possible he had grown taller in the month they had been visiting? – and Adam was asleep in the middle of the single bed with Josie snuggled up against him on one side and Little Joe pressed against him on the other. Josie’s left arm reached across Adam so her hand was resting atop Little Joe’s right hand.

Hannah stepped out and turned toward the common room. “Jacob! Ben!” she hissed. The men looked up. “Come see this!”

The brothers shared a questioning look and got up to join Hannah at the bedroom door.

“Heh,” Jacob sniggered.

Ben smiled, his heart swelling with love for his niece and sons. He took a step into the room to wake Adam and Hoss and send them to bed in the bunkhouse, but Hannah stayed him with a gentle hand on his arm.

“Leave them be. It’s their last night together.”

Ben nodded and stepped back. He watched as Hannah crossed over to the bed and carefully removed the book of fairy tales from Adam’s lap. She tenderly kissed all four foreheads, extinguished the oil lamp, and ushered the fathers out of the room, closing the door gently behind her.

The morning sunshine streaming in the window the next morning spread itself warmly across Adam’s face. He blinked awake slowly, wondering where he was and why he had no sensation in either of his arms. As his eyes focused, he also wondered why there was a small, grubby foot in his face, mere inches from his mouth. Gradually, he remembered reading “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” last night and realized he must have fallen asleep. His dead left arm was still curled around Josie, who was sleeping soundly against his chest, and his right had been around Little Joe, but somehow in the night, Little Joe had rotated 180 degrees so his knees rested on Adam’s stomach, making his feet stick up directly into his brother’s face. Adam’s right arm was now pinned under Little Joe, whose face was smashed against Adam’s right knee. Joe clearly had been drooling all night long because the knee of Adam’s trousers was soaked through to the skin.

Adam jostled Josie gently. “Hey there, sleepyhead,” he said softly. The little girl blinked and raised her head, looking every bit as confused as Adam had felt when he first awoke. She smiled up at Adam, then frowned as she remembered what day it was. Wordlessly, Josie rose from the bed and stretched. Adam used his now-free left arm to roll Little Joe off of his right arm and cringed as the blood flow returned to his fingers. He stood up, shook Hoss awake, and the two older brothers headed out to the bunkhouse to wash up.

After a quick breakfast, the seven Cartwrights headed to Carson City so Jacob, Hannah, and Josie could catch their stagecoach back to San Francisco. Adam insisted on driving the carriage, so Ben mounted up on his tall, black stallion. Hoss drove the buckboard full of luggage again, while Jacob and Hannah settled into the backseat of the carriage and Josie sat up front with Adam. Little Joe considered his options and then, to everyone’s surprise, climbed up not next to Josie, but next to Hannah. Delighted, she put her arm around the small boy, who, slightly abashed, nestled up close. Adam watched his little brother and immediately understood how he felt. Hannah had been a mother to him, too, these past three years, and they would miss her dreadfully.

No one felt much like conversing on the four-hour ride to Carson City. Jacob and Hannah took in as much of the scenery as they could. It was a beautiful, clear day, and they did not know when they would get to see such unspoiled wilderness again. Ben rode just behind the carriage, watching the back of his younger brother’s head sway with the wagon’s movements. Jacob had still been a boy when Ben had struck out West, and now the older brother rued having missed so much of Jacob’s growing up. He prayed silently that it would not be another twenty years before they met again.

Hoss drove along and tried to distract himself by counting pine trees. But he soon realized the futility of this endeavor on a ranch named “The Ponderosa” and instead tried to clear his mind of all thoughts. Thinking was just too sad this morning.

Josie sat pressed against Adam, legs, hips, and arms touching. She had never felt so sad in her short life. Her stomach felt like it was hosting a butterfly hurricane, and a weight as heavy as a ponderosa pine settled on her chest. Adam tried to distract himself by mentally conjugating Latin verbs as he drove. “Abbito, abbitis, abbitit, abbitimus…” He cut himself off when he realized he was using the Latin word for “approach” – a concept too painful for that morning of parting.

This morning the typically interminable ride to Carson City passed all too quickly, and before it seemed possible, they were rolling into town. Josie spotted the waiting red stagecoach, and she felt her world crash down around her. It was real; she was leaving. Adam echoed her despair and unenthusiastically reined the horses to a stop in front of the stage depot. Everyone either dismounted or hopped down from the carriage, and Jacob, Ben, Adam, and Hoss unloaded the luggage and helped the coach driver load it onto the waiting stage.

“We’re pullin’ out in three minutes,” the driver drawled.

The Cartwrights formed a small circle and stared awkwardly at one another. They all knew it was time to say goodbye, but no one wanted to start. As he so often did, Hoss rescued his family from embarrassment and crossed over to Jacob, whom he caught up in one of his trademark bear hugs.

“Thank you so much for comin’, Uncle Jacob,” he said. “It’s been real fine gettin’ to know ya.”

Jacob returned his nephew’s hug. “You, too, Hoss. You take good care of your old man, you hear? Don’t let him get into any trouble.”

Hoss smiled. “No, sir, I won’t.”

Hoss bid farewell to Hannah and Josie, making sure the girl still had the pocket knife he had given her. She gave him a sly smile and showed him she had it tucked into her dress pocket.

“You hold onto that,” Hoss said. “Never know when you might need to cut yourself loose.”

Little Joe took his turn saying goodbye to Jacob and Hannah, whom he held onto a little longer, and then turned to Josie. The cousins gazed into each other’s eyes for several moments, and then Joe threw his arms around Josie and squeezed her tightly, all his previous fears of catching cooties forgotten.

“Thank you for stitching me up,” he said, still clinging to Josie.

“You’re welcome. Make sure Hoss takes those out in a couple days.”

They broke apart but continued to stare at each other. Tears broke loose from Little Joe’s green eyes and cut rivulets through the dust on his cheeks. “You have to come back, Josie,” he hiccupped.

Josie’s eyes betrayed her and set free tears of their own. “I will,” she trembled. “I promise.”

Little Joe nodded and stepped aside so his father could bid Josie farewell. He swung her up in his strong arms, and she hugged him tightly around the neck. She kissed his cheek and thanked him for his hospitality, and then Ben set her down so he could say goodbye to his brother and sister-in-law. He hugged Hannah warmly and instructed her to keep a close eye on Jacob.

“I always do,” she said, smiling through her tears.

Ben stepped over to his brother. He had so many things he wanted to say, to tell him how proud he was of the man Jacob had grown into, how beautiful his wife and daughter were, how much he was going to miss him, but all that came out was, “It won’t be twenty years again.”

“No,” Jacob agreed, and the brothers embraced, tears flowing.

Hoss looked on, imagining how he would feel saying goodbye to one of his brothers, not knowing when he would see them again. Adam leaving for college had been bad enough, and at least they had known when he would be back. Hoss teared up just thinking about saying goodbye to Adam or Little Joe on such uncertain terms.

Adam paid no heed to the brothers’ farewell because he was busy saying goodbye to his Aunt Hannah.

“I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me,” he said, his voice wavering.

“And you will never have to, sweetheart,” Hannah replied, caressing his cheek. “You will always have a home in Washington.”

Adam bit his lower lip and nodded, then embraced his aunt. After a similar goodbye with Jacob, there was only one person left.

Adam turned to Josie, who looked up at him, her hazel eyes, so similar to his, flowing freely. She attempted a watery smile, then her face crumpled, and she ran to him, sobbing. She wrapped her arms around his waist, buried her face in his stomach, and bawled. Adam, aware his entire family was watching, fought to maintain his composure even as he felt he might vomit all over himself. He pried Josie’s little arms off his waist and stooped down to catch her eye. She would not look up at him, so he cupped her chin in one hand and tilted her head gently upward.

“It’s not forever,” he said huskily, trying to convince himself as much as Josie.

Josie needed a moment before she was able to speak. “I’ll write you all the time, Older Brother,” she forced out between sobs.

“I’ll write you back, Little Sister.” The tears welled up in Adam’s eyes and threatened to spill over. “I’m always here if you need me.”

Josie nodded, then threw her arms around his neck. “I love you, Adam,” she sobbed.

“I love you, too, Josie,” Adam croaked; he couldn’t draw enough air into his lungs. He could not bear to watch Josie board that stagecoach and ride away. Watching her go would break him. He pulled away from the hug, placed his hands on her shoulders, and said, “You be good, ok?” Then, too quickly for anyone to stop him, he spun and ran, away from Josie, away from his father and brothers, away from the whole terrible scene. He sprang up onto his father’s stallion and wheeled away, the horse’s hooves thundering down the dirt street.

“He stole your horse, Pa!” Hoss exclaimed in utter astonishment.

Little Joe, unused to seeing Adam behave so abominably, was momentarily startled out of his own sadness and shook his head. “He’ll hang for that,” he said grimly.

Ben, nonplussed by Adam’s rude behavior, turned to apologize to his brother, but Josie piped up first.

“Don’t be angry with Adam, Uncle Ben,” she squeaked through her tears. “He just couldn’t hold it in anymore.”

Ben understood and offered his hand to Josie to help her into the stage. He clasped his brother’s hand one last time before Jacob boarded the stagecoach behind his wife and daughter, who buried her face in his lap as soon as he sat down. The driver slapped the reins across the horses’ haunches, and just like that, they were off.

“Come on, boys,” Ben said to Hoss and Little Joe once the stagecoach faded into the distance. “Let’s go home.”

“What about Adam?” Hoss asked. He had never seen his older brother so distraught, and it frightened him. Adam had always been the epitome of composure and control.

“Adam knows the way home,” Ben assured him. “He just needs some time to himself.” He climbed into the carriage with Little Joe and turned the horses in wide circle to head back toward the Ponderosa with Hoss following behind in the buckboard.

Several miles up the road, Adam pulled up alongside a small, clear brook. His father’s stallion was coated in a thick, white lather, and his canteen was nearly empty. He stopped under a willow tree next to the brook and dismounted, ground-tying the horse in a shady spot where he could reach both water and grass. Adam knelt down and dipped his canteen in the brook. He let it fill, took several deep swigs and filled the canteen again. He sat under the willow tree and leaned against its cool trunk, his arms resting on his propped-up knees. Only then, when he was certain he was alone, did he let go. Great, wracking sobs tore out of his throat so fiercely Adam thought he would choke. He sobbed until his chest and throat burned and his nose dripped. He felt as if he were crying not only for Josie but for every loss in his life. His mother, whom he had never met. Hoss’s mother, Inger, who had nursed him through illness. Joe’s mother, Marie, who had helped convince his father to send him to college when Ben was reluctant to part with his son.

When Adam’s sobs finally subsided and he could once again draw a full breath, he checked the pocket watch his father had given him as a graduation gift. He was startled to see he had been sitting under the tree for only twenty minutes; it had felt like hours. His eyes burned and his stomach felt like it was twisted around itself. He rose shakily to his feet and returned to the little brook, still babbling away, cheerfully oblivious to its visitor’s anguish. Adam knelt down again and splashed his face with the cool water. He took a swig from his canteen and ambled over to the stallion, who was waiting patiently. Adam swung into the saddle, clucked to the horse, and set off again for home.

Adam was forever grateful that his father said nothing about his hasty departure from the stagecoach depot. But Benjamin Cartwright understood sorrow all too well and gave his son space to grieve. Over the next several months, Adam threw himself into the construction of the new ranch house; he was determined to have at least the exterior completed by the first snowfall. The house went up even more quickly than Adam had dared hope. Ben had hired a dozen men from Carson City to help with the construction, and even Little Joe pitched in any time something needed to be painted. By mid-October, they were laying the wood-plank floor on the first level and constructing the second story.

Ben had been surprised when Adam showed him the plans for six bedrooms – five plus the washroom upstairs, and an additional guestroom on the ground floor.

“But, son, there are only four of us!” Ben had exclaimed. Adam had patiently explained that they might have guests. It was unspoken, yet understood between father and son, that Adam was planning space for Jacob, Hannah, and Josie to return.

By Christmas they were moving in the furniture – and discovering how much more furniture they would need to fill so much space; the new house was at least three times as large as the old one. Ben ordered a new sofa and armchairs for the sitting room, new beds, wardrobes, and dressers for everyone, and a handsome, leather-topped desk for himself. He had to admit, the house was beautiful, and not just because his son had designed it. He loved the way that Adam had left the first floor open – the kitchen was walled off, but the dining room, giant sitting room, and Ben’s study flowed in a single great-room. Adam had made good use of the house’s orientation, too, by ensuring there were plenty of windows on the east and west sides to draw in as much daylight as possible. And that indoor plumbing was a stroke of genius. None of them would miss making mid-winter trips to the outhouse in the blinding snow.

Adam was grateful for the diversion of building the house. It felt good to build something for his family, to give something back to his father who had sacrificed so much for his sons.

As she had promised, Josie sent Adam regular letters, telling him about school, the politicians she had met in Washington (Henry Clay was her favorite – he told her she was as pretty as a china doll), and how her father had allowed her to start stitching up small wounds in his clinic and would soon allow her to assist with surgeries. The first letter he received stabbed Adam through the heart, and he felt every bit as overcome as he had that horrible morning in Carson City. But he always wrote back, telling Josie about the house’s progress and Little Joe and Hoss’s latest exploits (Hoss had very nearly convinced Little Joe that he needed to be cemented into one of the bedroom walls to provide support). And as time passed, Josie’s letters cheered him more than they saddened him, though he felt a pang every time one arrived.

Next Story in the A House United Series:

And the War Came – Book 2 of A House United
Thenceforward and Forever Free – Book 3 of A HOUSE UNITED

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2 thoughts on “The Hardest Goodbye – Book 1 of “A House United” (by Pulitzer2016)”

  1. My favorite stories are always about family and you have grown the family beautifully. I enjoyed this story immensely. Josie is a perfect new addition to the family.

  2. I like the way Adam has family. You’ve broken away from the canon, but in believeably so. Josie is a little sweetheart, and it’s good to see Adam with her.

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