Summary: Eleven-year-old Adam never wanted another stepmother, but now that Marie is on the Ponderosa – and six months’ pregnant – there’s little he can do but be polite and try not to think of the beloved stepmother he lost. But when Ben goes away on a business trip and Marie is injured, Adam must ride alone for help. Along the way, he realizes that things have a way of becoming precious, even when we don’t intend them to.
Rating: K Word Count: 12,446
Je T’aime, Ma
By Sarah Hendess
Territorio de Alta California, Mexico
Adam rubbed his arms as his father double-checked the cinch on his horse’s saddle. The morning air was icy, and Adam wished he had put on his coat like his stepmother, Marie, had suggested.
“You really gonna be gone a whole month, Pa?” he asked.
Ben Cartwright glanced over his shoulder at his oldest son. “Yes, son. At least three weeks, anyway. It’s a good four or five days to San Francisco, and then I’ve got to close that timber deal and hire some men for our cattle drive this summer. Then another four or five days home.”
“Pa? You think San Francisco will be part of the United States soon?”
Ben furrowed his brow. He patted his horse’s neck and lumbered over to his son. “I think everything from here to the ocean will be part of the United States soon. We’ll either buy it from Mexico, or they’ll give it up.” He laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “What’s bothering you, boy?”
Adam’s intelligent hazel eyes snapped up and caught his father’s gaze. He shifted his weight. “Nothin’, Pa.”
A happy squeal issued from the small ranch house behind them, and father and son smiled at one another. Clearly, Marie had just caught hold of Adam’s five-year-old brother, Hoss, and attacked him with tickles. Even at six months pregnant, Marie was quick on her feet. Ben gave Adam’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Don’t you worry, son. I’ll be home in plenty of time for your birthday, and well before the baby comes.”
Adam’s eyes darkened. Babies were bad news for his family. His own mother had died giving birth to him, and Hoss’s mother had been killed by Indians only weeks after Hoss’s birth. Adam had spent the past few months trying to forget about his forthcoming sibling, but it was harder now that Marie’s belly was getting so swollen.
He hadn’t wanted another stepmother in the first place. Hoss’s mother, Inger, had been the only mother Adam had ever known. After she died, there had been no opportunity for either Ben or Adam to grieve. They were among hostile Indians in the middle of Nebraska, and they had a new baby to care for. So they buried Inger and carried on. Then six-year-old Adam had become his father’s primary helpmate and like a second parent to Hoss. A rush of heat still surged through Adam’s chest whenever he remembered Ben bringing Marie home last summer. Ben had gone off to New Orleans on business and had returned with a new wife without a word to Adam. In an instant, Adam had gone from being his father’s partner to being just another eleven-year-old boy who was always getting reminded to wash behind his ears. Then at Christmas, Ben and Marie had announced that Adam and Hoss would be getting a baby brother or sister the following summer. It was supposed to be a fantastic surprise. And for Hoss, it was. The pudgy little boy had thrown his arms around both Ben and Marie – whom he had started calling “Ma” the instant she’d arrived on the Ponderosa – and then spent the next several minutes running excited laps around their tiny living room. Adam had shaken his father’s and stepmother’s hands, congratulated them, and then cracked open the new book he’d received.
Marie stepped out onto the porch just then, Hoss clutching her hand. Both of them were pink-faced and giggling. Adam’s smile returned. Hoss deserved a mother, and Marie was a good one to him. While he preferred to keep his own distance, Adam was grateful to her for loving Hoss so well.
“Are you about to leave, mon chéri?” she asked Ben as he strode toward the house.
“Yes, I think I’ve got everything.” Ben swept an arm around Marie’s waist and drew her to him. They both laughed as he bounced off her belly. Ben leaned in and gave her a soft kiss. “You sure you’ll be all right with these two rascals while I’m gone?”
Hoss answered for her. “Don’t worry, Pa. I won’t let Adam get in no trouble.”
Ben chuckled again and ruffled his youngest son’s blond hair. Hoss jumped up at him, and Ben swung him into his arms.
“My goodness, you’re getting heavy!” Ben grunted. He gave the boy a quick hug and set him right back down. “You’re gonna outweigh me any day now!”
Adam decided this was probably true. His five-year-old brother already weighed as much as he did, and there was no doubt that in a few years, he’d be head-and-shoulders taller, too. Hoss Cartwright was on track to be as big as a grizzly bear.
Ben gave Marie another kiss and then returned to his horse, where Adam was still standing. He looked down at him and stuck out his right hand. The left corner of Adam’s mouth turned up in a half smile as he shook his father’s hand like men should.
“You’re the man of the house while I’m gone, Adam. You take care of your mother and brother, you hear?”
“Good man.” Ben smiled at Adam and chucked him under the chin before swinging onto his horse. With a final wave to his family, Ben turned his horse down the trail leading away from the house.
Adam let out a wistful sigh as he watched his father disappear on his tall, black stallion. With his father’s permission, he was allowed to ride Ben’s second horse, but it was no secret that Adam wanted a mount that was truly his own. One he could saddle up anytime he wanted and explore the vast expanse of the Ponderosa Ranch. Ben had bought 100,000 acres off the Mexican government for a song about three years ago. Since then, he’d increased his holdings to 350,000 acres, and he wasn’t done yet. Adam knew he’d never get to see it all without his own horse.
When Ben had vanished from view, Adam turned to Hoss and Marie. “Hoss, did you get the eggs already?” The little boy nodded. “All right. Let’s get those stalls cleaned out, then.” Adam started for the barn, but when he didn’t hear any footsteps behind him, he turned around. Hoss was still on the porch, looking questioningly up at Marie.
“You know you have to mind him even when your father is home,” Marie gently reminded Hoss. “So that goes double when your father is away. Go on.” She gave Hoss a little nudge. The boy trudged down the porch steps, a scowl on his face and his hands jammed in his pockets.
“Don’t like cleanin’ out the stalls,” Hoss grumbled. “They smell like poo.”
Adam bit back a laugh. “That’s the problem, you goose. The animals don’t like it, either.” He slung an arm around his little brother’s shoulders as they ambled toward the barn.
Adam kept Hoss busy until lunchtime and then let his little brother play for the afternoon while he continued fussing about. There wasn’t much that really needed to be done, but Adam was relishing being in charge. He brushed Ben and Marie’s horses until they shone and then spent the next ten minutes sweeping all the horse hair out of the barn that he and Hoss had cleaned so carefully that morning. If he’d remembered the horses were blowing their winter coats, he would have brushed them outside. He tried to brush their milk cow, too, but patient though she was, Bessie let her disdain for the currycomb be known with a loud, indignant “MOO!” right in Adam’s ear.
Near suppertime, Adam scrambled up into the hayloft to feed the horses. He chucked hay into the stalls and was about to climb down the ladder and go back to the house when he heard high-pitched mewing coming from one corner of the loft. He tiptoed over. When he was nearly to the corner, he dropped to his hands and knees and finished his approach at a crawl. Pushing aside some hay, he revealed a fat black cat lying on her side, a litter of tiny kittens nursing greedily at her belly.
“Gretel!” Adam exclaimed, breaking into a grin. “You’ve got yourself a family! Congratulations!”
Ben had brought Gretel and her male counterpart, Hansel, home from a trip to Eagle Station two summers ago, but this was their first litter. Adam glanced around but didn’t see the burly orange tomcat.
“Probably strutting around the ranch, pleased to pieces with himself,” Adam muttered. He turned back to Gretel and counted five kittens: two jet-black like her, two orange like Hansel, and one calico. They couldn’t have been more than a day or two old – their eyes weren’t even open yet. He smiled at the calico, who was a little smaller than the rest. “You’re gonna be Hoss’s favorite,” he told the kitten. Then he caught Gretel’s gaze. “I’ll leave you be. You take good care of these babies.” Still grinning, he crossed the loft, scampered down the ladder, and dashed to the house.
Hoss was beside himself with joy when Adam told him about the kittens over supper.
“Can we go see ‘em tonight, Adam? Can we? Can we, please?” The boy’s cherubic face glowed as he bounced up and down in his chair.
“It’s almost dark,” Adam said. “We’ll look at them tomorrow morning.”
Hoss’s face fell, but only briefly. “Tell me all about ‘em again, Adam!” he begged, his eyes shining.
Adam chuckled and told him for the fourth time about the five little kittens.
“They boys or girls?” Hoss asked.
“Couldn’t look that closely. They’re only a couple days old. Gretel would get real upset if we started poking at them already.”
“I think I remember hearing that calicos are almost always female,” Marie said as she began clearing dishes from the table. Adam sprang from his seat, took the dishes from her, and jerked his head toward the table, indicating that she should sit back down. “Thank you, Adam. Anyway, I just wish I could see them tomorrow, too. But I don’t suppose I should be climbing up and down that ladder in my condition.” She sank back into her chair and gave out a little laugh.
“When they’re big enough, Ma, we’ll bring ‘em down so you can see ‘em,” Hoss said. “How long do you think that’ll be, Adam?”
Adam returned from setting the dishes in the kitchen. He shrugged. “About a week, I guess. Once their eyes are open, Gretel probably won’t mind so much if we pick them up. But like I said, we go poking at them right now, and she’s gonna get real upset.”
“And when Gretel gets upset, people get hurt,” Hoss added.
“That they do.”
The Cartwright boys had learned that lesson the hard way. Last summer, Adam had accidentally startled Gretel while she was sleeping in the woodpile behind the house. Hoss rushed in to rescue his brother from the terrified cat, and both boys had emerged from the skirmish scratched to pieces. They were much more careful around the woodpile after that.
After supper, Hoss helped Marie wash the dishes, and Adam enjoyed a few quiet moments in the living room. The air had grown cold again after the sun had set, so he built a small fire in the fireplace and stretched out on the hearthrug with a sketchpad and a pencil. Adam liked to draw. He could draw passable portraits of people and animals, but it was buildings that really caught his fancy. With a new baby on the way, the Cartwrights wouldn’t be able to stay in the small two-bedroom ranch house forever, and Adam spent hours sketching ideas for a bigger house. He was so caught up in his most recent design that he barely noticed when Marie and Hoss joined him in the living room. Hoss paged through Grimms’ Fairy Tales – he couldn’t read much yet, but he loved looking at the illustrations – while Marie picked up her knitting. Adam couldn’t understand why Marie was knitting so much. The baby was due in July – not really the time of year that one needed wool socks. But it seemed to make her happy, so he said nothing.
A half hour passed, and Adam was about to tell Hoss to wash up for bed when Marie let out a little “Ooh!” and clapped her hand to her belly.
“Boys! Come here, quick! The baby’s kicking!”
Hoss scuttled across the sofa and slipped his hand under Marie’s. His face split into a huge grin and he let out a squeal.
“Adam! Adam, the baby kicked me! You gotta come here!”
Adam had looked up but hadn’t budged from the hearthrug. He was pretty sure he’d die of embarrassment if he put his hand on Marie’s stomach. Besides, he’d felt Hoss kick plenty of times through Inger’s belly. And he didn’t like thinking about Inger. It made him feel like there was a belt tightening around his chest and squeezing all the air out. “I’m all right,” he told Hoss. “You enjoy it.” He turned back to his sketch. Hoss shrugged and laid his head in Marie’s lap, giggling madly as his unborn sibling kicked his cheek.
When the baby settled down a few minutes later, Marie sent Hoss to the boys’ bedroom to get ready for bed. When the sound of Hoss banging around for a nightshirt wafted down the hallway to the living room, Marie turned to Adam.
“The baby will probably move around again soon, if you’d like to feel it,” she said.
“I’m all right, but thank you, Ma’am.” He turned to his sketch once more.
“Are you sure?”
Adam fought against the squeezing in his chest. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“You know, sweetheart, you can-”
Adam forced out a yawn. “If you’ll excuse me, please, Ma’am, I’m awfully tired. Think I’ll turn in early.”
Marie’s face fell, but she quickly plastered on a smile. “All right. I’ll be in to say goodnight in a few minutes.”
Adam zipped down the hallway toward his and Hoss’s bedroom, his sketchbook clutched in his hand.
“Whatcha doin’, Adam?” Hoss asked as his older brother burst into the room.
“Goin’ to bed. What else would I be doing?”
“At my bedtime? You feeling all right?”
“I’m feeling fine. Just tired. Get in bed, Hoss.”
The five-year-old obediently climbed into the top bunk of the bunkbeds he and Adam shared. Adam changed into his nightshirt and washed his face at the basin in one corner of the room. He tried to hurry so he could pretend to already be asleep when Marie came in, but he wasn’t quite fast enough. Marie knocked on the door just as he crawled under the covers. Hoss, of course, called her right in. Marie smiled as she entered the room and crossed to the bunkbeds. Hoss leaned over the top bunk to hug her.
Marie gave him her usual goodnight wish in French: “Bonne nuit, mon chéri. Je t’aime.” She kissed Hoss’s forehead.
“I love you, too, Ma!” Hoss said. He nuzzled under his covers and closed his eyes.
Marie bent down with some difficulty and pulled the covers up around Adam’s shoulders. “Goodnight, my darling. I love you,” she repeated, again in French.
“Goodnight, Ma’am,” Adam replied.
Marie gave him a sad smile and brushed a dark lock of hair off of his forehead. She hesitated for a moment, and Adam was afraid she was going to kiss him, too, but she just patted his shoulder and left the room. He rolled over and closed his eyes, the sensation of Marie’s soft hand lingering on his brow.
Hoss couldn’t wait until after breakfast the next morning to see the kittens, so as soon as the brothers were dressed, Adam took him out to the barn. He knew he should insist they complete their morning chores first, but Hoss’s excitement was infectious.
“Don’t go charging over there,” Adam instructed as he let Hoss climb the hayloft ladder ahead of him. “Wait for me.” The ladder groaned under their combined weight as Adam followed Hoss into the loft. Some of the rungs were rickety, too, which Adam hadn’t noticed the previous evening. He frowned. If the ladder were protesting him and Hoss together, it couldn’t be any safer for Ben. Adam finished his ascent wondering if his carpentry skills were advanced enough to build a new ladder without his father’s oversight.
Hoss clapped a hand over mouth to muffle his shriek of delight as Adam pushed aside the hay in the corner to reveal Gretel and her babies. The kittens were nursing again, and Gretel blinked up at them with sleepy eyes. Adam could have sworn she looked smug.
“Oh, Adam, they’re so cute!” Hoss whispered. “One, two, three, four, five, just like you said!”
“I know how to count,” Adam replied with a grin.
“What are we gonna name ‘em all?”
“I suppose that depends on whether they’re boys or girls.”
“Well which are they?”
Praying that Gretel wouldn’t attack him, Adam very slowly reached out one finger and lifted the tail of one of the orange kittens. He stared, his head cocked to one side. Wrinkling his brow, he dropped the thin orange tail and raised the one attached to the calico. Stumped, he checked every kitten before turning back to Hoss.
“I can’t tell,” he said.
Hoss giggled. “You don’t know the difference between boys and girls?”
“I know the difference!” Adam huffed. Ben had had that talk with him a couple years earlier, and besides, they lived on a cattle ranch. The animals made the difference quite plain. Ben hadn’t had much to tell Adam that the boy hadn’t already seen for himself. “They’re just too small. We’ll have to wait until they get a bit bigger.”
Hoss’s shoulders slumped. “Maybe we can at least name that one.” He pointed to the calico. “Ma said most calicos are girls.”
“All right. What do you want to name her?”
Hoss scrunched up his face in thought so hard that Adam thought his head might pop. “Patches,” Hoss said at last. “‘Cause she looks like a little patchwork quilt.”
Adam smiled. It wasn’t very inventive, but Hoss had a point. “All right, then. Welcome to the family, Patches Cartwright.”
“Adam, do you think I can hold her?”
“I think we’re lucky Gretel let me touch her. You better wait at least another day or two. Besides, she’s eating. How would you like it if some giant picked you up in the middle of your breakfast?”
“Not very much,” Hoss admitted. “I do like breakfast.”
“Me, too. Let’s go get some.”
The brothers grinned at each other, and Adam carefully pushed the hay back into place to conceal Gretel and her babies so they’d feel safe. The boys picked their way back to the ladder. Hoss was about to clamber down, but Adam held out an arm to stop him.
“Let me go first,” he said. “I’m not so sure about a couple of these rungs.” Adam made his way slowly down the ladder, jiggling each rung to test its soundness. A couple of them could stand to be replaced, and one truly concerned him. It was beginning to splinter. Usually the Cartwrights looked for such signs of wear on their equipment each year when winter broke, but the winter had been especially hard that year. Come spring, they’d been so busy repairing walls and roofs that the hayloft ladder must have gotten overlooked. “Watch out for this rung here near the middle,” he called up to Hoss. “I don’t trust it. Skip it if you can.” Hoss nodded and made his way down slowly, stretching one leg as far as he could to skip over the damaged rung. Once he was safely on the ground, he and Adam raced each other back to the house, which was already emitting the delicious scents of bacon and eggs.
“Hey, Adam?” Hoss puffed as they reached the porch. Adam could easily outrun his little brother, but he’d made sure their race had ended in a tie.
“D’ya think we’re gonna get a baby brother or a baby sister?”
“I don’t know. I suppose the odds are even.”
“What’re you hopin’ for?”
Adam cocked his head and studied Hoss’s eager face. “Can’t say I’ve thought about it.”
“I want a little sister,” Hoss said thoughtfully. “Already got you, so a sister would even things out.”
“That’s a good point. But I guess we’ll get what we get, won’t we?”
“Oh, it’ll be a girl. Ma says I’m so cute I can get just about whatever I want.”
Adam laughed. “Come on, buddy. Let’s get that breakfast.”
Hoss slipped his plump hand in Adam’s as the brothers headed inside.
The days passed quietly on the Ponderosa while Ben was away. The half dozen hired hands were out on the range rounding up and branding cattle, so it was just Marie, Adam, and Hoss at the house. Adam tended the horses and cow while Hoss took care of the chickens. Adam was sorely tempted to saddle up his father’s second horse and go for a long ride, but he knew better than to venture out on the range alone and unarmed. While Ben would forgive him for borrowing the horse, he’d tan Adam’s hide if he discovered the boy had taken one of his rifles without permission. Adam knew Ben kept the key to the rifle cabinet in his top desk drawer, but he was to access the firearms only in a true emergency. He hoped he’d soon get a rifle of his own – maybe even for his birthday next month – but until then, the best weapon he had was a slingshot. He could probably scare away a wolf or even a mountain lion with it, but it would be no match for the Indians who were growing increasingly hostile as more and more white settlers poured onto their land. So instead of riding out and exploring, Adam stayed home and designed plans for a new hayloft ladder. He knew that something as simple as a ladder didn’t really need a formal design, but if this was going to be his first solo foray into carpentry, he wanted to get it right.
About two weeks after Ben’s departure, Adam’s plans were ready. There was some lumber in the barn leftover from their repair work earlier that spring, and Ben always had a healthy supply of nails on hand. So one rainy afternoon, Adam headed out to the barn to begin construction. It took longer than he’d expected, probably because he measured everything four or five times before he began cutting his pieces. It was two hours before he’d gotten all of his pieces cut, and Adam knew he’d run out of daylight before he could complete his project – he still needed to sand everything before he started assembling the ladder. But he was happy with pieces he’d crafted. He didn’t have a lathe, so the rungs would be flat instead of round, but he figured that would be easier to keep a foothold on anyway. He was gazing proudly down at his work when the barn door creaked open behind him.
“Ain’t done, Hoss,” he called without turning around. “This is gonna take longer than I thought.”
“Hi, Adam,” Marie replied.
Adam jumped and whirled around. “Oh! Hello, Ma’am. I’m sorry. I assumed you were Hoss.”
Marie smiled. “A logical assumption. But I’ve been making cookies this afternoon, so you can guess where your brother has been.”
Adam grinned, both at Marie’s comment and at the plate of chocolate cookies she carried.
“These are for you,” she said, holding the plate out to him. “You’ve been working so hard out here, I thought you might like a snack.”
“Thank you very much, Ma’am!” Adam took the cookies from her and crammed one in his mouth. They were still warm, and Adam closed his eyes as he savored the sweetness. He had to admit that Marie made the best cookies he’d ever tasted. He thought she’d turn and leave, but when he opened his eyes, she was still there smiling at him. Adam shifted uncomfortably. “Would you like one?” he said at last, offering her the plate.
“Oh, no, thank you. I shouldn’t. I had several while I was baking them.” But the way she stared at the plate reminded Adam of Gretel right before she pounced on an unsuspecting mouse. “On second thought, I suppose I could have one more. You know, for the baby.” She snatched a cookie from the plate.
Adam’s discomfort transformed instantly into amusement, and he laughed. Just after the first of the year, whatever nausea the baby had been causing Marie vanished and left a raging appetite in its wake. Marie was forever justifying her increased eating habits by claiming it was “for the baby.” When Hoss had tried to make the same claim to get a second helping of dessert one evening at dinner, Ben had had to explain that wasn’t how it worked.
Adam polished off the rest of the cookies as only a boy on the brink of puberty could and handed Marie the empty plate. “Thank you again, Ma’am. Those were delicious.”
Marie accepted the plate with the same sad smile she’d worn when she’d tucked Adam into bed a couple weeks earlier. “Adam,” she said softly. “I know you’re reluctant to call me ‘Ma,’ and I understand why…”
Adam’s chest tightened, and he gnawed on his lower lip. He did not want to talk about Inger. Especially not with Marie.
“But maybe we could think of something else,” Marie continued. “You don’t have to consider me your mother, but we are family now. I just thought that something a bit less formal than ‘Ma’am’ might be nice.”
Adam found himself unexpectedly curious. “What did you have in mind?”
Marie’s green eyes lit up with a glimmer of hope, but the way she searched for words told Adam she hadn’t thought that far. She had probably expected him to shut her out at the very suggestion. “Well, the French word for ‘mother’ is ‘mére,’” she said. “Maybe we could try that.”
Adam’s chest tightened again. “Maybe. I’ll think about it. But right now I really need to get these pieces sanded.” He gestured to the wood scattered about the barn floor.
Marie’s face fell. “All right. We’ll be eating in about an hour.” She turned and headed out the barn door.
The tightness in Adam’s chest suddenly leapt to his throat, making a hard knot. “Ma’am?” he called after her. Marie turned. “Maybe after supper, Hoss and I could bring those kittens down for you to see.”
Marie smiled again. “I’d like that.” She closed the door softly behind her.
After supper, Adam helped Hoss and Marie with the dishes so they could get out to the barn sooner, though Hoss was bouncing so vigorously with excitement that he wasn’t much help. When all the dishes were washed, dried, and put away, the trio set out for the barn. It had stopped raining, so even though the evening was growing cold, they took their time strolling across the front yard. Adam and Hoss each carried a lantern, and Hoss kept his free hand wrapped tightly around one of Marie’s. Adam smiled at the pair of them. With Hoss’s blond hair, he could have actually been Marie’s son. Ben Cartwright was hardly a small man, so that could explain Hoss’s size. Adam ran his free hand through his own black locks and sighed.
“Something wrong, Adam?” Marie asked.
“No, Ma’am. I’ll, uh, I’ll go pull out the milking stool for you to sit on.” Adam dashed ahead and ducked into the barn.
Once Marie was settled on the stool, Adam and Hoss climbed up into the hayloft and collected the kittens. Adam winked at Hoss as he tucked three of the kittens safely into his coat pockets. Hoss giggled and followed suit with the other two. Gretel didn’t protest, but she did follow them to see where her babies were going.
“Careful of that bad rung, Hoss,” Adam reminded his little brother as they made their way back down the ladder.
“Aye, Captain!” Hoss replied. Adam shook his head. Hoss loved echoing the nautical terms their father still used from time to time.
Marie’s face shone as the boys pulled kittens from their pockets.
“How precious!” she cooed. Gretel wound around Marie’s ankles, purring proudly. The blond woman reached down to pat her. “They’re beautiful babies, Gretel,” she said. “Especially this one.” She held up the little calico for inspection.
“That’s Patches,” Hoss said. “We ain’t named the others yet ‘cause Adam don’t know the difference between boys and girls.”
Adam’s face burned despite the cold night air. “I know the difference!” he insisted. “I just couldn’t tell before because the kittens were so small!”
A ghost of a smile crossed Marie’s face despite her biting down hard on her lower lip. “I expect we could probably tell now,” she said. “Let’s see, shall we?” She and Adam started checking under tails. When they’d finished their inspection, they had counted three boys and two girls. The calico and one of the black kittens were both girls, while the two orange and the second black were all boys.
“We gotta name them!” Hoss declared.
“Yes, we should,” Marie agreed. “But maybe we could think of names back inside the house. It’s really getting cold out here.”
“It is,” Adam agreed. The weather was unseasonably cold for mid-April. The temperature on some nights still fell to freezing, and tonight felt like it would be one of those. “Come on, Hoss. Let’s put these kittens back, and then you two can go inside and start thinking of names while I milk Bessie.”
“I’ll lead her out and tie her for you, shall I?” Marie said. “Since I can’t climb that ladder.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
Hoss and Adam returned the kittens to their pockets and made their way back into the hayloft. As soon as they were settled in their corner, Gretel plopped onto her side, and all five kittens started nursing.
“They sure are hungry little things, ain’t they?” Hoss observed.
“Reminds me of you,” Adam replied. He laughed as Hoss stuck out his tongue at him. “Let’s climb back down. Get you back to the house where it’s warm.”
“Just another minute, Adam. I wanna watch the kittens some more.”
Adam smiled. “All right. Not too long, though. I don’t want to have to explain to Pa when he gets home why you’re frozen solid.”
Hoss grinned back. “You won’t.”
Adam patted his little brother on the shoulder and climbed down to the barn floor. Marie had already tied up Bessie, so Adam pulled the stool up alongside the cow and started milking.
“Would you like some tea when you come inside?” Marie asked. She laughed as Adam wrinkled his nose. “I’m sorry. I always forget you don’t like tea. Maybe some hot chocolate instead? I have some chocolate left over from making those cookies.”
Adam grinned up at her. “That would be-” A shriek from the hayloft interrupted him. Hoss had started to climb down the ladder but apparently had forgotten about the rotting rung in the middle. He set his foot down on it a bit too hard and crashed right through, losing his balance and plummeting the remaining few feet to the barn floor. The five-year-old landed with a loud “Oof!” as the wind got knocked out of his lungs.
Marie and Adam both screamed and lurched toward the little boy. In his haste, Adam kicked the milk bucket with his left foot, knocking it into one of Bessie’s hind legs. Already startled by all the hollering, the usually placid cow let out a frightened moo and kicked backward. Marie, who had already taken several running steps toward Hoss, caught the flying hoof squarely in the small of her back. She let out a cry as she pitched forward and landed hard on her pregnant belly on the wooden floor.
Adam stood frozen for a second, not knowing whom to help first. Hoss aided his decision by drawing in a ragged breath and spitting out a word that Ben would have tanned his hide for using. Adam rushed to Marie and dropped to his knees next to her.
“Ma’am?” His voice trembled. “Ma’am, are you all right?” His heartbeat was so loud in his ears that he could barely hear her reply.
“Yes,” Marie gasped, rising to all fours and clutching her stomach. “I’m all right, Adam.” She turned her face toward him and gave him a tight smile. “Bessie just gave me a little surprise, that’s all. Is Hoss all right?”
Adam glanced over to where his brother was frowning over a new hole in the elbow of his jacket.
“Yeah, he’s all right.”
“Thank God.” Adam helped her to a sitting position. She was still clutching her stomach, but she was breathing more normally. “Let’s go inside. I think we’ve all had enough adventure for one evening.”
“I agree,” Adam said. “Hoss, help her inside. I’ll be in as soon as I get Bessie put away.”
Turning away from his torn jacket, Hoss finally noticed Marie sitting on the barn floor.
“Ma!” he cried, scrambling over to her. “Ma, what happened?” Tears spilled from his bright blue eyes.
“Bessie kicked her,” Adam answered. “But she’s all right. Just help her inside, ok?”
Hoss nodded, and the two boys helped Marie to her feet. She panted a few times as she stood, but she seemed steady enough. Hoss took her by the hand and, grabbing one of the lanterns, led her slowly out of the barn.
Adam stood and watched them leave, but as soon as the barn door closed behind them, he sat heavily down on the milking stool and started trembling all over. He was supposed to be taking care of Marie and Hoss, and in the space of thirty seconds, both of them had nearly met with disaster. He reached up one hand and gave Bessie a reassuring pat.
“You all right, too, girl?” he asked. “I know you didn’t mean to do it. Sorry I startled you.” He glanced down at the creamy liquid seeping into the floorboards. “Guess I ruined the milk. Oh well. Hoss won’t die without it between now and tomorrow morning.”
Standing up, he untied the animal and led her to her stall. Giving her one last pat, he slipped out of the barn and headed for the house.
He’d made it only halfway across the yard when a coatless Hoss tore out of the house, screaming his name.
“Adam! Adam! You gotta hurry! Somethin’s wrong with Ma!”
The hair stood up on the back of Adam’s neck, and he didn’t wait for Hoss to explain further. He sprinted toward the house and burst through the door without bothering to knock the dirt from his boots first. Marie wasn’t in the living room, so Adam tore down the hall to her and Ben’s bedroom. For the first time in his life, he barged in without knocking.
Marie was lying on her side on the bed, facing the door. Her legs were curled up, and she clutched her belly. Beads of sweat glistened on her pale face, and her eyes were scrunched tightly closed. Adam froze.
“Ma’am?” He licked his lips. “Are you all right?”
Marie’s eyes fluttered open, and she gave Adam a wan smile. “Yes, sweetheart, I’m all right. Just a little sore where Bessie kicked me.” Her voice trembled.
“But you’re holding your stomach. Bessie kicked you in the back.” Sweat broke out along Adam’s hairline.
“Pain moves around sometimes. Like when you bump your elbow and your hand tingles.”
Adam wanted desperately to believe her, but just then, Marie cried out and clutched her stomach even more tightly. Adam’s legs went rubbery, and he gripped the nearby dresser for support.
“Adam? Adam is the baby comin?” Hoss whimpered. The little boy had a death grip on the back of Adam’s coat.
“No, of course not,” Adam replied bracingly. Then, at a whisper, “Please, not yet.” He knew enough about babies to know that one didn’t have a hope of surviving at only six months.
“Adam, what’re we gonna do?”
Adam swallowed hard and stared as his stepmother let out another wail. Hoss dashed over to her and gripped her hand until the contraction eased.
“There, you see?” Marie panted. “I’m all right. The pain’s gone now.”
“Hoss, fetch her some water,” Adam said. Hoss dropped Marie’s hand and sprinted from the room. Adam’s eyes met Marie’s and held her gaze. “You’re not all right. Something’s wrong.”
“I’m fine, Adam, really. I just need to rest.”
Hoss returned with the water before Adam could argue. Adam helped her into a sitting position, and some of the color returned to her cheeks as she sipped the water. Adam relaxed. Maybe she really was all right after all. But ten minutes later, just when Adam felt it safe to leave the room, Marie dropped the glass and hunched forward, biting her lip so hard that a trickle of blood dribbled down her chin.
Adam’s jaw clenched. He knew what he had to do. “I’m riding for the doctor,” he said.
“Adam, no! It’s too far!” Hoss cried. “It’s almost six hours to Eagle Station!”
“I can do it in five if I ride hard,” Adam said, his eyes never leaving Marie’s doubled-up figure. A familiar tightening gripped his chest.
“You ain’t allowed to ride all that way by yourself,” Hoss argued.
“Pa told me to take care of you two, so that makes me allowed. I have to go, Hoss. It’s what Pa would do.”
Hoss looked up at his older brother with tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please don’t leave me,” he whimpered.
Adam put his hands on Hoss’s shoulders and crouched down so they were eye-to-eye. “She needs a doctor, Hoss. Now you’re the man of the house while I’m gone. You keep her in bed and keep her quiet. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I promise.” He stood, and Hoss flung his arms around his waist, buried his face in Adam’s coat, and sobbed. Adam patted the back of the boy’s blond head. “It’ll be ok, Hoss. I’ll come back with the doctor, and he’ll get your ma all fixed up.” Hoss nodded, and Adam pried his arms away. He turned to Marie, whose contraction was easing. “Hoss is gonna take care of you, Ma’am. I’ll be back quick as I can.” He shot out of the room before Marie could protest. He heard the bed squeak as she rose, but then she gasped again. Another squeak from the bed, and Adam assumed she had sat back down.
“Please lie still, Ma,” he heard Hoss plead. “Adam’ll be back quick as lightnin’ with the doctor.”
On his way through the living room, Adam paused next to his father’s desk. Taking a deep breath, he opened the top drawer and removed the key to the gun cabinet. “It’s an emergency, Pa,” he whispered as he unlocked the cabinet and took out a rifle. It was one of his father’s smaller rifles, but he couldn’t reliably handle one of the big ones. Better to have a gun he could manage than one that would blast him backward if he fired it. He loaded the weapon and grabbed a box of extra bullets. Then, buttoning his coat up all the way to his chin, he snatched up his hat and dashed out of the house.
He decided well before he reached the barn which horse he was going to take. Marie’s little bay mare was quicker, but his father’s burly chestnut gelding had more stamina – a trait Adam needed in a horse tonight. With four white socks and a white blaze down his nose, the gelding was a magnificent animal, and Adam hoped to own one like him someday. Tonight, however, his trembling fingers fumbled with the straps as he tacked up the horse – especially attaching the rifle scabbard – and the gelding gave him a reassuring little bump in the chest with his velvety nose.
“We gotta ride fast tonight, Apollo,” Adam whispered. “I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask a lot of you.”
The horse snorted, and Adam led him out of the barn. A Quarter Horse, Apollo was seventeen hands high, and Adam had to heave himself up hard to swing into the saddle. Not for the first time in his life he hoped he’d grow at least as tall as his father someday. With one last glance at the house, he gave the horse a swift kick and shot off into the night.
If not for the full moon that night, Adam never would have known which way he was going. But the silvery orb cast a bright spectral light on the landscape as Adam and Apollo charged southward down the trail. Despite the light, Adam started at every shadow, every rustle of a tree branch as they bounded past. He’d never ridden this far – nearly thirty miles – alone, and certainly never at night. His father was very strict about the boys staying close to the house after dark. There were too many dangerous animals who would be all too happy to make a meal out of a little boy. Not to mention the local Indian tribes who were known to carry off white children as recompense for warriors whose lives were lost in skirmishes with the ever-increasing European population in the region. Adam reached forward and rested a hand on the butt of his rifle. He tried to calm himself with some deep breaths, but the night air had turned icy, and each inhalation made his lungs scream. He wished he had brought a scarf. Or at least heavier gloves. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to unwrap his half-frozen fingers from around the reins.
Even though they slowed to a jog after half a mile or so, Adam knew that he had to rest Apollo eventually. After two hours’ hard riding, he reined the animal to a stop next to a stream. The powerful horse was hardly winded, and Adam patted his neck.
“Good boy,” he whispered as the horse slurped up water from the stream. A branch snapped behind them, and Adam lunged for his rifle. He ripped it out of the scabbard and whirled around, expecting to see a bear, or a mountain lion, or a fierce Paiute.
Instead, he spent the next ten seconds being chastised by a fat raccoon before it waddled away and disappeared into a clump of scrub brush. He sagged against Apollo in relief.
“You might have told me it was just a raccoon,” he said. He tried to laugh, but the sound was shaky, way too close to weeping for Adam’s comfort, and he clapped his jaw shut. Deciding they’d rested long enough, Adam returned the rifle to its scabbard and climbed back into the saddle.
The next three hours were worse than the first two. The air had grown even colder – it had to be below freezing now – and Adam cursed himself for not dressing more warmly. His coat was buttoned all the way up, but underneath, he was wearing only a cotton shirt. With an hour left to go, he started shivering. He soon felt himself getting drowsy – he couldn’t last much longer without finding shelter. When the first tiny golden glow of Eagle Station appeared on the horizon, Adam kicked Apollo back to a gallop and tore into the little town at full speed.
He’d been to Eagle Station a half a dozen times with Ben, and he knew the doctor, a young fellow fresh out of medical school, lived in a cabin at the end of town. If you could call a trading post, a blacksmith’s shop, and a doctor’s surgery a “town,” that is. Adam yanked Apollo to a halt in front of the doctor’s squat little home and leapt from the saddle. His frigid knees gave out, and he fell hard to the ground. With apologies to Apollo, Adam reached up and gripped the saddle’s girth to help him haul himself to his feet. Too tired to protest, the gelding stood still while the boy stood up, gave him a final pat on the neck, and hobbled to the cabin door. He’d never ridden so far or so hard in one clip, and Adam felt lucky he could even walk. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sit down comfortably for several days – and he still had another thirty miles to ride back home.
He flinched as he pounded his cold, stiff knuckles on the door.
“Dr. Martin!” he hollered. “Dr. Martin, please, it’s an emergency!”
He hammered on the door for a full minute before he heard footsteps on the other side. The door creaked open a couple inches, and a single brown eye peered out at him as he stood on the porch, his teeth chattering. The eyebrow shot up, and the door flung open all the way. Without a word, the doctor grabbed the collar of Adam’s coat and yanked him inside.
“Man alive, son, it’s below freezing out there!” Dr. Martin exclaimed as he wrenched at the buttons of Adam’s coat.
“Sir, it’s not me!” Adam protested as the doctor ripped his coat from his shoulders. A young woman, wrapped in a thick dressing gown, rushed into the tiny living room. Her eyes went wide when she spotted the shivering boy.
“Mary, stoke the fire, please. Then start the kettle for some tea. This child’s half frozen.” Dr. Martin checked the tips of Adam’s fingers and ears and then started rubbing his chest and back to get the blood flowing.
“Please, sir, it’s my stepmother!” Adam’s voice shook as the doctor’s ministrations nearly threw him off balance. “She’s injured! Please, sir, she’s… she’s…” He could barely bring himself to say the next words. Thrilled as the Cartwrights were about the upcoming baby, pregnancy wasn’t something one discussed in polite company. “She’s in a family way,” he finished, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
The doctor paused and held Adam at arm’s length. “What happened?”
Adam related the story of Bessie kicking Marie and Marie’s subsequent waves of pain. Dr. Martin was already gathering up his medical bag by the time Adam finished.
“Where is she?”
“Our ranch, sir. The Ponderosa.”
“Ponderosa?” The doctor wrinkled his brow. “Ponderosa, Ponderosa…” His eyes popped in sudden recognition. “The Ponderosa! You must be, uh, um…” He snapped his fingers a few times. “Carter! You’re Carter’s boy!”
“Right, Cartwright! All right, young Cartwright, you sit here and warm up while I get dressed.” He gestured to his dressing gown and slippers before disappearing through a door Adam presumed led to the bedroom.
Mrs. Martin had gotten the fire roaring quickly, and Adam sat so close to it that he could feel his hair curl. But he didn’t care. It was warm. Every joint in his body ached as the blood flow returned, and he felt himself growing sleepy again. And no wonder. As he sat there in front of the fire, the clock on the mantel struck the half-hour. Adam glanced up at it. One-thirty a.m. He’d made it in almost exactly five hours. His thoughts wandered homeward, and he sent up a silent prayer that Hoss and Marie were doing all right. He didn’t want to think about what it would do to poor little Hoss if Marie lost the baby right in front of him.
“Why’d you have to pick now to go to San Francisco, Pa?” he whispered. A hard lump rose in his throat, and he scrubbed at his face with both hands.
Light footsteps approached, and a soft hand alit on his shoulder.
“I’ve brought you some tea,” Mary Martin said gently.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Adam tried not to wrinkle his nose as he accepted the kind young woman’s offer of his least-favorite beverage. He took a tentative sip and smiled as he realized she’d loaded it with sugar. It wasn’t enough to fully mask the bitterness, but it was tolerable. And hot. That first sip sent a tendril of warmth right down into his belly. He tried to smile, but his eyes were welling up, and he had to wipe at them with the back of one hand.
“You poor thing, you must be exhausted,” Mary said. “We don’t have a guestroom, but I’ll bring you a pillow and some blankets. We keep this fire going, and you’ll be quite comfortable out here.”
Adam looked up at her and gave his head a little shake. “Thank you, ma’am, but I have to get home. I promised my little brother I’d be back as quick as I could. It would scare him half to death if Dr. Martin showed up without me. Besides, he’ll get there faster with me leading the way.”
Mary looked like she wanted to protest, but Dr. Martin burst out of the bedroom just then, buckling a gun around his hips.
“Paul, the young man says he’s going back with you.”
Adam set his jaw and unblinkingly met the physician’s gaze.
“I don’t care how cold it is, sir. I have to get home. I promised my family.”
Dr. Martin disappeared into the bedroom again and reemerged carrying a heavy woolen shirt. He tossed it to Adam.
“Put this on at least.”
That stupid lump in his throat tried yet again to make his eyes leak, and Adam chomped down on his lip as stuffed his arms through the shirtsleeves. The shirt was way too big for him, but it would certainly keep him a lot warmer than he’d been on the way there. He rolled the cuffs up until he could see his fingers again and then hurried back into his coat, hat, and gloves. Mary produced a scarf and wrapped it around Adam’s nose and mouth.
“Go to your family,” she said with a smile. She rose and kissed her husband goodbye. Promising not to wait up for him, Mary waved as Dr. Martin and Adam stepped outside into the frigid night.
“I have to saddle up my horse,” Dr. Martin said, beckoning Adam to a tiny, two-stall stable next to the cabin. He caught sight of Apollo and frowned. “And we’ve got to get you a fresh one. You’ll kill that poor animal riding him home tonight.”
Adam scurried over to his father’s gelding and unwrapped his reins from the hitching post. Leading the horse, he followed Dr. Martin to the little stable. Though it was a matter of minutes for Dr. Martin, an eternity passed in Adam’s world as he untacked Apollo and put his saddle and bridle on a black-and-white paint gelding while Dr. Martin saddled up his buckskin. At long last, they were ready, and the pair set off at a jog for the Ponderosa.
Three hours in, they stopped at the stream where Adam and Apollo had rested earlier. Adam glanced around, but there was no sign of the raccoon that had startled him. There was, however, a fresh set of mountain lion tracks, and Adam shivered at the thought of how close that cat must have been to him.
“You all right, son?” Dr. Martin asked.
“Fine, sir. Just anxious to get home.”
The doctor nodded and mounted back up. Adam followed suit and led him once more in the direction of the Ponderosa.
The first rays of dawn streaked across the sky as Adam and Dr. Martin galloped into the Cartwrights’ front yard. Adam slid from the saddle before his paint had come to a complete stop. His knees tried to give out again, but he was prepared this time and grabbed hold of the hitching post to steady himself. Shaking out each leg in turn, he bolted through the front door ahead of Dr. Martin.
“Hoss?!” he shouted. “Ma’am?!”
“Adam?” Dressed in his nightshirt, Hoss toddled out of Ben and Marie’s bedroom, rubbing his eyes with the back of one fat little hand. “Adam! Adam, you didn’t get ate up!” He launched himself at his brother and threw his arms around Adam’s waist. “We thought a cougar done got you for sure.”
“No, not this time.” Adam prized his brother’s arms off him. He hated ripped the little boy off him like that when Hoss was clearly so relieved to see him, but there was a more pressing matter at hand. Waving at Dr. Martin to follow him, Adam took off down the hall.
“Ma’am?!” he called as he darted into Ben and Marie’s bedroom.
Marie was asleep, but her eyes snapped open at the sound of Adam’s voice. “Mon dieu! Adam! Adam, thank God!” Tears rolled down her cheeks as she leapt from the bed with as much alacrity as a six-months-pregnant woman could muster. She wrapped her arms tightly around him and buried her face in his hair. “I was so worried about you.” Her voice was muffled in Adam’s dark locks.
Adam stood stiff as a stone gargoyle, his arms straight down at his sides. Marie had often opened her arms to him but had never forced an embrace on him like this. To his surprise, he had the urge to put his arms around her, too. But that hard lump welled up in his throat again, and he gently shook her off and took a step back.
“I brought the doctor, Ma’am.” He ran a hand through his hair, trying to regain his dignity.
Dr. Martin stepped forward, his right hand extended. “Mrs. Cartwright, Adam here told me about your accident. With your consent, I think I should examine you.”
Marie’s jaw clenched, and she put her hands on her hips in a stance that Ben lovingly referred to as her “Cajun standoff.” Adam was terrified she was going to send the doctor packing, but she glanced at him, and her eyes softened.
“All right,” she relented. “Adam, go get ready for bed.”
Bed sounded heavenly, but he couldn’t go just yet.
“I will, Ma’am. Soon as I take care of the horses.” As Ben liked to say, a good rancher always saw to his horses before himself.
Marie shook her head. “You are your father’s son.” She smiled. “Just be quick.”
Adam was. The cold had kept the horses from sweating too badly, so Adam was able to pat them down and blanket them both in a matter of minutes. The doctor was still in with Marie when he returned to the house, so he slipped into his and Hoss’s room to change into his nightshirt. Hoss attacked him with another bear hug, and this time, Adam let his brother hang onto him for a while before that knot in his throat told him he’d better step back. He pulled off his shirt and trousers and dropped his nightshirt over his head. Hoss giggled.
“What’s so funny?” Adam demanded.
“Your nightshirt’s too short.”
Adam glanced down. Hoss was right. His nightshirt ended a good six inches above his ankles. Adam shrugged.
“Oh well. Pa will notice soon enough and get me a new one. S’pose as long as my trousers still fit, I’m all right.”
Hoss giggled again, and Adam was about to drop onto his bed when he heard Marie’s door open. He and Hoss shared a brief wide-eyed glance before tearing out of the room.
“Easy there, boys!” Dr. Martin said, catching them before they knocked heads trying to get into Marie and Ben’s bedroom at the same time. “It’s all right. Your ma and the baby are just fine.”
Hoss cheered and wriggled free of Dr. Martin. He raced into the room and hopped onto the bed next to Marie. He rested his cheek on her stomach. “You hear that, Baby?” he addressed her belly. “You’re ok!” He rolled onto his back and giggled with delight.
Adam smiled at his little brother, nodded to Marie, and led Dr. Martin to the living room.
“How is she, really?” Adam asked in a low voice when they were out of earshot of the bedroom. He drew himself up to his full height, which at not quite twelve years old, wasn’t very tall. “It’s all right. You can tell me. I’m in charge here while my father’s away.”
Dr. Martin’s eyes twinkled. “Adam, she’s fine. Her and the baby both. Really.”
“But that pain she was having…”
“Is normal for a woman in her condition who suffers a blow like she did. It certainly can indicate a problem, and you did the right thing riding for me, but in this instance, she’s fine. A few more months, and I see no reason why you won’t have a perfectly healthy baby brother or sister.”
Adam swallowed hard. Maybe he should have Dr. Martin look at his throat. That dang lump was really becoming a problem. The young physician reached out and squeezed his shoulder.
“I’ve told her to stay in bed for the next week, just to be safe, but apart from a pretty ugly bruise on her back where that cow kicked her, she’s ok. I promise.”
Chomping down hard on his increasingly sore lip, Adam nodded. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Thank you very much, Dr. Martin. Oh, hold on.” He raced back to his room and retrieved the doctor’s woolen shirt. “Thank you for letting me borrow this. Made a world of difference.”
The doctor smiled and accepted the shirt. “I was planning to come up this way to visit another rancher later this week. I’ll bring your horse back.”
Adam’s face fell. “Oh, the horses!” He glanced down at his truncated nightshirt. “Give me a minute, please, sir. I’ll get my britches back on and get your horses ready for you. Maybe you should take my stepmother’s. Yours are probably pretty tired, and-”
“I can handle saddling a horse,” the doctor interrupted. “And those two will be fine for the way home. We won’t be riding hard.”
“All right. My father should be back in a week or two. He’ll come down to Eagle Station and settle your bill.”
“Very good. Get some sleep, son. You look pretty ragged. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’d been riding through the cold for the last ten hours.”
Adam grinned and assured the doctor he would rest. Thanking him one last time, Adam showed Dr. Martin to the door. With the door latched behind the doctor, Adam took another shuddering breath and headed down the hallway.
Ben and Marie’s door was ajar, and Adam poked his head in. Hoss was snuggled up in bed next to Marie, his eyes drooping. He must not have slept very well last night if he was more inclined to go back to sleep than ask for his breakfast. Marie spotted Adam in the doorway and beckoned him in.
“I was just wonderin’ if you needed anything before I went to bed, Ma’am,” he said as he crossed the room and stood next to the bed.
Marie beamed up at him. “No, thank you, sweetheart.” She paused, searching for her next words. “You know, I-” She cut off abruptly and clapped a hand to her stomach.
Adam’s guts did a somersault, and he was about to race outside and holler for Dr. Martin to come back.
“The baby’s kicking!” Marie exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. “Quick!” This time, she didn’t give Adam a choice. She threw back the covers, grabbed Adam’s wrist in a surprisingly strong grip, and pressed his hand to her belly.
Adam’s face burned – even the tips of his ears went red. He tried to pull back, but Marie had a death grip on his wrist, and he didn’t want to hurt her by ripping his hand away. He tried to protest.
Three quick thumps against the palm of his hand stopped him dead. He glanced up at Marie, his eyes wide and his jaw slack. She smiled at him and loosened her grip on his wrist. His chest heaved as that lump in his throat tried to choke him again. Before he could stem the flood, his face crumpled, and he burst into tears.
Adam stood there in his too-short nightshirt, his hand still pressed to his stepmother’s belly, and cried – great barking, bone-rattling sobs that he knew made him sound like a sick cow but he could do nothing to stop.
“Oh, Adam!” Marie said, tears welling up in her eyes, too. She sat up and slipped an arm around his waist. She gave a little tug to draw him to her. Adam tried to resist, but his rubbery legs refused, and he collapsed onto the bed next to Marie. He buried his face in her shoulder and continued to sob, nearly twelve years’ of heartbreak, anger, and fear pouring out of him.
On Marie’s other side, Hoss’s blond head snapped up, his eyes wide in alarm. He’d never seen his older brother fall to pieces before. “Ma! What’s wrong with Adam? Is he sick?”
Marie smiled at Hoss as Adam continued to soak the sleeve of her nightgown. “No, mon chéri, he’s not sick. He’s exhausted. And sometimes when you’re this tired, there’s nothing you can do but cry.” She turned back to Adam and curved her arms around him. “And no wonder you’re tired,” she whispered to him as his bawling began to slow. “You must have had a terrible night. Oh, my sweet boy. Thank you for taking such good care of me. You were so brave. Your father will be so proud of you.”
“Not brave,” Adam hiccupped into her arm.
Adam lifted his head a fraction of an inch. “I’m not brave,” he sniffled. “I’m not brave at all. I was so scared the whole way!” A fresh wave of sobs washed over him, and he buried his face in Marie’s shoulder again.
Marie stroked his hair with one hand as she used her other to pull the blankets up over them both. “Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, sweetheart. Bravery is doing what needs to be done no matter how frightened you are. And you were very brave tonight.” She leaned down and kissed his temple. “Sleep now, mon chéri. You have earned it.” She softly hummed a French lullaby she often sang to Hoss.
Unwittingly, Adam snuggled up against Marie and closed his eyes. With her arms still wrapped around him and her lips soft on his forehead, he let the weariness of his sleepless night overtake him.
Adam blinked awake. Daylight flooded the room and burned his eyes. He snapped them shut again. “Pa?” he repeated. He tentatively cracked open one eye and glanced around. He could have sworn he felt his father’s presence, but Ben wasn’t there. He rolled over and caught a whiff of the pillow his head rested on. The faint scent of Ben’s aftershave wafted up. That must have been what he’d sensed. Adam sat up and rubbed his eyes with one hand. He was surprised to find himself in Ben and Marie’s bed. What was he doing there? Slowly, the memories of the previous night returned. He let out a groan and pulled the blankets up over his face.
“Oh good, you’re awake!” Marie’s shining face popped around the door. “Hoss and I have made lunch.”
Adam ripped the blankets from his face. “Ma’am! You’re supposed to be resting!”
Marie smiled. “I have been, I promise. I only got up a half an hour ago. All we made were some sandwiches. Nice and easy.”
Adam’s stomach rumbled at the mention of sandwiches, but there was another matter he had to address first. He cast his eyes down and picked at a loose thread on the quilt. “I’m sorry I fell apart last night – well, this morning, I guess. Suppose I got a little over-tired. It won’t happen again.”
Marie crossed the room and gently tilted his chin up so he had to look at her again. “Don’t ever apologize for having feelings, Adam. You handled more last night than any other eleven-year-old boy I’ve ever met could have done. So don’t apologize for being a little overwhelmed by it all. There’s no shame in that.” She kissed his forehead, and Adam didn’t draw back – for the first time, he didn’t want to. “Now come have some sandwiches. You’ve got to be half-starved.” She smiled at him again, and Adam smiled back. He threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
“What time is it, anyway?” he asked as he stuffed his feet into his slippers.
“Nearly two o’clock.”
“Man alive!” Adam patted his hair to try to flatten the pieces that always stuck straight up in the morning.
“I know,” Marie said with a little laugh. “It’s chilly outside, and you and Hoss kept the bed so toasty warm that none of us wanted to wake up.”
Adam flushed at this mention of how he’d fallen asleep cuddled up next to Marie, but, strangely, the shame was wearing away. Besides, his stomach’s angry growling reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in nearly twenty-four hours. He followed Marie out to the table, which sat in a little alcove off the living room.
Hoss was already seated at the table and was wolfing down a roast-beef sandwich. His mouth was full, so he gave Adam a little wave in greeting. Adam waited until Marie was seated to take his own seat, but as soon as his rear end hit the chair, he snatched up two sandwiches and crammed half of one in his mouth at once. He polished off the pair in record time and grabbed a third, and then a fourth, before he finally sat back and sighed contentedly.
“You’re not about to outgrow all your clothes, are you?” Marie asked, her eyes sparkling.
“He already outgrew his nightshirt!” Hoss blurted. He pointed to Adam’s half-exposed shins.
Adam gave Marie a sheepish grin and shrugged his shoulders. “Just tryin’ to keep ahead of Hoss,” he said.
“Best of luck,” Marie replied with a giggle as she rose to clear the plates. Adam leapt to his feet.
“I’ll get these, Ma’am. You go lie back down. Doctor Martin told me you’re supposed to stay in bed for the next week.”
Marie groaned. “This is going to be a long week.”
“It’s ok, Ma.” Hoss patted her hand. “I’ll read you stories.”
“I could bring in a couple of those kittens for a little while, too,” Adam added. “Don’t think Gretel would mind if I borrowed them for an hour.”
“Thank you, boys,” Marie said, blinking back tears. “I’d like that.” She kissed the tops of both their heads and headed back to her bedroom.
Adam and Hoss cleaned up the dishes, and then Adam got dressed and went out to the barn to do his chores. They were down to one horse, so it didn’t take him long to clean out the stalls. Bessie hadn’t been milked that morning and was mooing in discomfort, so Adam pulled up the stool and milking bucket.
“Guess you won’t have much for us tonight,” he said when he’d finished. “But you should be back to normal tomorrow.”
Before heading back inside, Adam inspected the old hayloft ladder. The rung that Hoss had broken was snapped clean in half, and Adam marveled that his little brother hadn’t been injured when he fell. “We all got lucky last night,” he mused. He glanced behind him at his unfinished ladder. Jutting his chin high in the air, he strode over and began assembling the pieces.
An hour and a half later, Adam yanked the old ladder away from the loft and raised the new one in its place. Giving it a good shake to test its soundness, Adam began a slow ascent, jiggling each rung as he climbed. The ladder was solid and never wobbled. When he reached the loft, Adam puffed out his chest and marched over to the corner where Gretel lay with her kittens. The cat didn’t protest as Adam pocketed Patches and one of the orange kittens and took them with him back down the ladder and over to the house.
Marie was delighted when Adam delivered the kittens to her bedroom. She tried to get up to cook dinner, but Adam assured her that he could handle it. He’d helped his father prepare many a meal before Marie had come to the Ponderosa. Dinner was nothing fancy – fried pork with some potatoes and johnnycake – but it was good. Marie even had seconds – “for the baby,” of course.
When Hoss and Adam had cleared away supper and the boys had taken care of the evening chores, including returning the two kittens to their mother, Adam sent Hoss to bed. Sleeping until one-thirty hadn’t really compensated the little boy for barely sleeping the previous night, and he was yawning well before his usual bedtime. He didn’t even protest when Adam told him to get washed up. Not quite ready for bed himself, Adam curled up in his father’s armchair with a book. He was just getting lost in the story when Marie, who had been tucking Hoss in, wandered out to the living room.
“Going to bed, Ma’am?” he asked.
“No, not yet.”
Adam frowned. “Doctor Martin said-”
“I know what Doctor Martin said, but I think the goal is for me to be resting. And is there really any difference between me sitting in bed and knitting and sitting on the settee and knitting?”
Adam had to admit there was not. Marie smiled at him and settled herself on the settee. Adam returned to his book, the pleasant silence broken only by the soft clicking of Marie’s knitting needles.
After several minutes, Marie put her hand on her belly, and let out a light giggle. Adam smiled behind his book. Whenever Marie did that, it meant the baby was moving around.
“Hoss thinks we’re gettin’ a sister.”
Adam started at the sound of his own voice. He hadn’t intended to speak.
Marie’s twinkling eyes shifted from her belly to him. “Does he now?” she asked slyly. “What do you think?”
Adam shrugged, surprised he didn’t feel himself blushing. “Don’t know. Doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“I suppose not.” Marie gazed into the fire and laughed lightly. “Can you imagine your father with a baby girl? I don’t think the poor man would have any idea what to do!”
Adam snorted. “Just imagine Pa going into the trading post at Eagle Station and asking for pink ribbons!” He started laughing so hard that he nearly fell out of his chair. Marie joined in.
“I think he’d be all right until the little girl became a young woman. The first time a young man came to call, Ben would end up on trial for murder!”
Adam and Marie laughed at Ben’s expense until tears streamed down their cheeks.
“Maybe we better just hope for another boy,” Adam hiccupped as he clutched his aching sides.
“Perhaps,” Marie agreed. She grew suddenly thoughtful, and she rubbed her belly with one hand. “You know, Adam, I want this baby to grow up speaking French as well as English. But it’ll be hard since I’m the only one around here who speaks French. I was wondering if perhaps I could teach you some French so you could help me?”
Adam’s face lit up. Ben had taught him well and provided him with crates of books, but his formal schooling had been haphazard. Teachers were few and far between in the territory, and there was not yet a schoolhouse nearby. “Yes, Ma’am!” he replied eagerly.
Marie smiled and pointed to the bookshelf. “Hand me that little blue book on the bottom shelf, please.” Adam dropped his own book on the seat of his chair as he popped up and plucked the book from the shelf. He handed it to Marie, who patted the settee next to her. He dropped down next to her and scooted close to her side so he could look at the book with her.
“I can teach you to read and write French, too, if you like, but tonight we’ll just start with speaking some simple phrases, all right?”
Adam nodded his head so vigorously that his hair flopped into his eyes. He shoved it back with one hand and peered into the little book.
“All right, then,” Marie said. “Let’s start with hello. Bonjour!”
“Bonjour!” Adam repeated. Marie gave him an approving nod, and the pair spent the next forty-five minutes working through basic phrases.
Adam was in his element, picking up new knowledge, and he didn’t even notice when he started leaning against Marie or when she put her arm around his shoulders. But yesterday’s long night and this morning’s strange sleeping pattern wore heavy on him. Despite his interest in the little blue book, his eyes began to droop nearly an hour before his usual bedtime. Marie gave him a little shake.
“I think that’s enough for tonight,” she said, closing the book. “Tomorrow evening we can review all of this and learn a bit more.”
“Merci, madame,” Adam replied with a grin. “I’d like that.”
Marie smiled. “I would, too. Go get washed up. I’ll come in to say goodnight in a few minutes.”
Adam scampered down the hallway and washed his face and hands before pulling on the too-short nightshirt. He was just crawling under the covers when Marie slipped into the room. She made a production of tucking the blankets all around him, and Adam had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing aloud and waking Hoss. Despite the cold night, a warmth spread through him as Marie bent down and kissed his forehead.
“Bonne nuit, mon chéri. Je t’aime,” she whispered.
The hard lump Adam had battled all last night rose in his throat again, and he barely managed to croak out his reply.
“Je t’aime, Ma.”
Tears spilled from Marie’s eyes as she kissed his forehead a second time and then slid quietly out of the room.
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