Summary: A sequel to ‘Wet Bottom Warm Heart’. After 11 year old Elizabeth Carnaby saved Little Joe’s life, he promised to bring her to the Ponderosa. She arrives along with a sudden winter storm that blows in not only a little fun but a whole lot of trouble, including a killer named Fleet Rowse who is looking to make easy money by lightening the load in Ben Cartwright’s safe.
Rating: T (82,825 words)
All known and public characters belong to those who created them. All new characters belong to the author. There is no intent to infringe on copyright and no money is being made – just friends and warm hearts hopefully!
Wet Bottom, Warm Heart Series:
Sunshine with a Little Hurricane
There was nothing for it, Little Joe Cartwright was one nervous fella.
The older man leaning against the stage depot wall watched as the young’un pushed his black hat back on his deep brown curls, shifted his weight from one dress-booted foot to the other, and ran a hand along his back hairline. Next he anchored his thumbs behind his belt. Then he rocked from to his toes to his heels several times as he peered anxiously down the street in the direction the stage would come. Looking across the street, he saw that the Ponderosa hands who were sipping a beer and lingering in front of the saloon before heading out for the Cartwright’s autumn drive, were of the same opinion about Ben’s youngest boy’s actions as he was. So were the fine ladies standing, fanning away their jealousy on the porch of the International Hotel. Miss Abigail Jones – who had known Little Joe since he’d first attended her school and thanked the Lord that she’d survived it – must have thought the same thing as she stepped out of the mercantile noting that ‘Joseph’, as she called him, had his unruly hair well under control and was wearing his Sunday best. The older man, who had noted the same thing and knew what was coming, looked at his watch and calculated just how much time it would take Ben’s hot-headed and hot-blooded boy to rile some suitor and start some sort of brew-ha.
In other words, there had to be a pretty girl on that stage.
Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was, at not quite eighteen, already a legend in the hot, sleepy, slowly growing and over-reactive town of Virginia City. Bets were placed daily on what the handsome devil-may-care Devil would do. Most concerned how long Little Joe could be in town without getting into a fight. A few best not mentioned to his Pa – indelicate ones placed and cherished by the ladies who peopled the Bucket of Blood and other establishment as yet ‘officially’ off limits to the reputed charger of the Ponderosa – concerned length of time and well, size, among other things. There was quite a pot waiting for the first one to find out the answers on both accounts conclusively and report them back to the others. Other bets, though, among Ben Cartwright’s neighbors took on a darker dimension – how long it would be before the boy broke his neck, ended in jail, got himself a child on some innocent young thing, or ended up dead in the middle of the street after drawing on someone who proved, at last, faster on the draw than him.
Too often these bets were accompanied by a sneer of wishful thinking.
There were bets among Ben’s friends as well, half-joking but serious. Doc Martin and him had one going on how many bullets Paul would pull out of the boy in the next year. Paul had remarked, upon making the bet, that he had ordered the apothecary in town to stock extra laudanum, quinine, morphine, and codeine, and to hold back a stock of well-aged whiskey and brandy strong enough to knock the socks off of the boy’s restless feet.
No one was sure if the whiskey and brandy were for Little Joe or for his long-suffering father.
That young’un had to be tryin’ to the older man, whose head and feet were just about as firmly planted on the ground as any man’s could be. When they watched the four Cartwright men ride into town, most folks shook their heads. At the lead would come stalwart, honest, shootin’ straight-from-the hip, generous and grace-giving Ben. To his right would be his older boy, Adam. Adam was one of those strong, silent types the ladies drooled over, thinking there must be something deep stirring in that black-clothed well, so deep it just couldn’t find its way to his pursed lips. It tickled the edges of them though, turning their tips up like a bent iron.
Wasn’t a woman in Virginia City didn’t want that brand.
Most of the men-folk liked Adam. He was an easy man to be around, if not to know. Adam said little, but when he did speak, men listened. There was a lot of his pa in him, but then – to those who knew him well – there was also something of Little Joe. Adam had a temper near as volatile as his baby brother, but he kept it in check right up there under that black hat of his.
Heaven help the man he tipped it to.
Then there was Hoss. Ben’s middle boy was, without saying anything the stupidest man couldn’t miss, a mountain. It was all there. He’d seen Hoss tower over people, stopping their chatter with his shadow alone. The big man was tall like the pines on that mountain and just as firmly rooted, even if funny notions got in that big head of his and made the tops of those trees sway now and then. Hoss’ heart was big as the land and a river of gentleness ran through it. Those beefy hands had the strength in them to break a man in two, but he’d never worried about Hoss.
He’d seen him rescue and hold a frightened bird without crushin’ it a time or two.
No, it was just that young one of Ben’s he worried about. The one standing, waiting on the stage, pacing back and forth like a mountain cat in season. As Roy Coffee pushed off the wall and headed for the landing where the stage would eventually light, he wondered if there was some tether to the boy he couldn’t see. Else he didn’t know how in the world Little Joe hadn’t taken off like a stallion to meet that stage halfway to Carson City.
Coming up behind him, Roy paused, a slight smile lifting his lips so they tickled his mustache. “Someone important on that stage, boy?” he asked.
Little Joe jumped. Then he turned beet red. “Hey, Roy,” he said, quickly swallowing over his embarrassment. “What are you doing here?”
The sheriff loped up to stand beside the boy. He pulled his watch out again and looked at it. “Waitin’ on the stage, just like you. Looks to be right on time.”
Joe looked toward the rumbling, rattling vehicle that had finally come into view and was moments away from pulling up in front of the depot. “Is it? Seems like I’ve been here forever.”
‘Forever’ being about fifteen minutes.
The lawman snapped his watch shut. “Nope. Five-thirty on the dot.” Roy paused. “Someone important on that stage, Little Joe?”
If the boy’d been any redder he would have been an Indian.
“No… Not really. Just a…friend.”
Roy nodded. “Must be a mighty important friend.” He reached out and fingered Joe’s fine duds. “You’re powerful gussied up, boy.” He leaned in and sniffed. “Ain’t that cologne there on top of that Bay Rum you’re so fond of?”
Joe’s temper flared. Roy liked it when it sparked like that, snapping his nostrils open and puttin’ fire in his green eyes.
It made the boy look right cute.
“That’s none of your business!” Little Joe snapped.
“Well, now, I don’t know as you can rightly say that, son,” Roy drawled. “You see, I’m sheriff in this here town and, well, everythin’ is my business. Let’s say that young lady your waitin’ on steps off that stage and some other feller sees her and thinks she oughta be his. Could mean trouble.”
Joe’s reaction was priceless, even if Roy wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Those supple eyebrows of his dipped and then lifted toward the pile of ornery curls dangling on his forehead. Joe’s tightly pressed lips tightened and then one end slid up real slow-like toward that little pert nose he got from his dead mama. Then he started to laugh.
Lord, the angels listened when that boy laughed!
“Roy, I promise you I can whip anyone with a romantic interest in Bella,” Joe said, snorting in tear-snot.
“Sounds like a might pretty lady,” Roy replied, one grizzled eyebrow arched, not quite believing it.
Joe Cartwright was a little feller. Couldn’t have weighed more than a man-size bag of grain. He’d seen his brothers take him up in one swing and throw him over their shoulder and haul his sorry hide out of a lot of places he shouldn’t have been. But he was a tough one. Joseph Francis Cartwright had been kicking and screaming from near the moment he drew breath and that was bound to make a man strong in more ways than one.
As bound as it was to wear just about everybody else out.
“Oh,” Joe said, having better luck taming his laughter than his hair, “she’s a beauty all right. Bella’s got hair the color of sunshine coming out of Heaven; long, curly as a sheep’s winter coat, and just as thick. She’s got the face of an angel.” Joe extended his hand out as if paintin’ a picture. “She’s got eyes wide as the moon and deep blue as a night without stars.” The boy leaned in close, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “But they’ve got stars in them, Roy. They sparkle like moonlight hitting water.”
He could use a few lessons in poetry, but it was easy to see the boy had it bad.
Roy’s eyes went to the stage. It had finally found roost and sat like a red hen waiting to give up its eggs. He looked over his glasses at it and nodded. “Door’s openin’, prince charmin’. Don’t you think you best be seein’ to your lady friend?”
Little Joe’s impish eyes held his for just a second. Then he leaned in again and winked. “This is the one I’m gonna marry, Roy. I’m tellin’ you.”
Just like Little Joe had told him at least twice a year since he’d been old enough to know what a girl was for.
Roy watched as the young man pivoted lightly on his heel and headed for the disembarking passengers. Little Joe stood with his hands linked behind his back, burdened by a boundless energy that kept him bouncing on his feet. The first passenger off was an overweight, stuffy middle-aged businessman. The minute his gator shoes hit the boardwalk he was complainin’ about the dust and the heat and just ‘bout everythin’ else. Close behind him was a tall rail-thin man wearing a black suit with a white collar around his neck.
The lawman smiled. Good. That there parson showin’ up would go someway toward making Little Joe more temperate in the thoughts he was having about that young lady.
Following the preacher was another man and then – my, oh, my, the boy hadn’t been stretchin’ the truth any! – a stunning young lady in a form-fitting sapphire silk gown, with golden ringlets spilling onto her shoulders and a face to stop a stage. No, that wasn’t sayin’ enough. That there face and figure could have stopped one of them eastern trains runnin’ at full tilt. She looked to be a few years older than Little Joe, maybe more than a few. As the thought crossed his mind that Ben was gonna be none too happy about his youngest courtin’ another Julia Bulette, the lady favored Little Joe with a beautiful warm smile.
And walked on.
That left the aging sheriff scratchin’ his head.
Joe glanced over at him. His green eyes were dancin’ and he was doin’ the best he could not to start giggling like a girl. Turning back, he held out a hand. A young lady’s appeared to take it.
Maybe he oughta rephrase that.
A very young lady’s.
The girl was no bigger than a minute; skinny as a filly and barely nigh high to Joe’s chest. The top of her curly golden head ended at the bottom of the black silk tie the boy’d anchored around the collar of his fancy white shirt. Roy shifted to the side to get a look at her face and what he saw there near set him to giggling as hard as Ben’s baby boy had been before.
If that wasn’t love, he’d never seen it.
“Little Joe!” the girl cried out, bouncing just like the young’un had been on her toes. “Hey, little brother! You been behavin’ yourself?”
Roy’s plentiful brows peaked. There was a story there, he was bettin’.
“Hey, big sister!” Joe exclaimed as he reached down and caught her in his arms and then hefted her up to his height. “Ain’t been in one lick of trouble since I saw you.”
Little Joe was holding the girl in his hands near perpendicular to his body. Her feet, which were wearing a pair of fancy black dress boots, ended at his knees. She reached out and touched his face gently, lovingly. Then she scowled. “Are you tellin’ me the truth, Little brother? You ain’t done nothin’ wrong?”
Roy cleared his throat. “Maybe you’d best be askin’ me, Miss,” the lawman said, hiding his smile and trying hard to look like a big bad sheriff. Just to emphasize how big and bad he was, he let the tips of his fingers brush the firearm at his side.
They both turned to look at him. Little Joe’s look was amused – and wary. Poor kid. He wasn’t really all that much older than his ‘lady’.
Joe released the girl and she walked right up to him. “You’re Roy Coffee, aren’t you?” she asked.
He glanced at Joe. “You been tellin’ tales, boy?”
“Who? Me?” Joe shook his head. “Never.”
Roy knelt so he was on the girl’s level. “I take it you’re Bella.”
She held her hand out. “Elizabeth Annabelle Carnaby. My Pa calls me Bella. I told Little brother he could too.”
The name sounded slightly familiar, like something out of a tale told on a cold night by the campfire. Like the files in his office, Roy fingered back through the memories. Ben. Last year. On the porch at the Ponderosa tellin’ him how Joe’d been hurt. No bullet this time. Caught in a fire. This was after they’d brought the boy home, and after he and his posse’d hunted down the men what left Little Joe in a burning cabin for dead.
The sheriff shoved his hat back on his thinning hair. “Well, I’ll be hornswoggled! This is the little gal what done pulled you out of harm’s way and saved your sorry hide, ain’t it, Little Joe!”
Elizabeth Carnaby beamed like that sunshine Ben’s youngest had compared her blonde hair to.
Roy stuck out his hand. Growing solemn as she took it, he said, “I want to thank you, Miss Carnaby, for saving the life of one of Virginia City’s finest citizens. You ain’t got any idea what you did for this here town.” His gaze shot to Little Joe. “Why, I don’t know what I’d do if this here boy wasn’t around anymore.”
‘Cept have more hair and fewer wrinkles, and drink a whole lot less.
Joe had his hands locked behind that their fancy pin-striped suit coat he was wearin’. He was bouncing on his toes again and lookin’ at the sky.
“Ain’t that right, Little Joe?
Roy stood. “Now if you’re planning on takin’ this young lady out to the Ponderosa tonight, don’t you think you’d best be on your way? You got a long road and its gettin’ dark.” He paused and looked at the boy. “I take it Elizabeth’s here for a visit?”
The little girl answered. “After I put Little Joe in the water and pulled him out – and he wasn’t out of his head no more – he promised me I could come visit him this winter when he didn’t have a heap of chores to do. Ma and Pa are comin’ too, ‘cause Mister Cartwright – that’s Joe’s Pa – invited all of us to stay for the whole winter, but they had to stop in Silver Springs ‘cause Ma’s sister had a baby and she had to help take care of it for a while. They got my other little brother, Jack, with them, so’s now he gets to be a big brother, I guess, even though he’s little and he’s just a cousin. Since it’s Ma’s sister, that makes him a cousin, don’t it?” She finally drew a breath and added with a scowl, as if everything she’d said had headed toward that conclusion. “Jack’s four now and he’s a handful.”
Must run in the family, Roy thought.
He looked from Elizabeth to Joe. Heaven help Ben Cartwright.
Now he had two of them!
Joe Cartwright glanced at his companion. They were riding in his pa’s surrey. It was almost dark. Elizabeth was bundled up against the cold, and her small form and face were near invisible. Yes, sir, it was kind of hard to see her, but – Boy howdy! – could he hear her. Joe grinned. He knew what Adam would have said if he’d been riding along with them instead of being out on the open range with Hoss.
‘I would never have believed it, little brother. Someone who talks more than you!’
Chatty women usually bored him, but there was something about this particular chatty ‘would-be’ woman that charmed him instead. Maybe it was the fact that she wasn’t talkin’ about the latest fashion or how much she paid for her hat or – even more important – about herself. He learned at the start of their journey – along with just about everything else her family had ever done, was going to do, and might ever do – that this was Elizabeth’s first trip on a stagecoach by herself and that she was excited because she’d never been alone in a stagecoach before or this far south or west. She’d made a couple of trips to her aunt’s house when she was little, she said, but that didn’t count ‘cause she didn’t remember them and she didn’t do it on her own two feet, her being a ‘baby and all’ and only able to crawl. She thought she might have been able to remember crawlin’ even though she didn’t remember the trips, because she remembered her knees hurting real bad, and when she’d checked her brother Jack’s knees when he crawled, his were red, so she figured hers must have been too.
Had Joe crawled when he was a baby, she asked?
No. His only problem with the late night trip to the Ponderosa so far was stifling so much laughter it made his stomach hurt.
Joe shook his head and let out a long-suffering sigh. “Nope. I never crawled.”
“How come?” his young passenger asked. “Pa says its good for babies, though Ma tells him all the experts say he’s wrong.”
“Well, now, I don’t rightly remember this, but my brothers tell me that the moment my feet hit the ground I was on the move,” he said as he urged the horses on. The animals were tired. He should have stopped to let them rest, but he wanted to make the Ponderosa before sun down. “They said my Mama had such a hard time keepin’ up with me that she just let me go. Hoss said if I’d of had wings, I would have flown right up to the top of one of our Ponderosa pines.”
“Boys can’t fly, silly,” she pronounced.
“I don’t know.” Joe pursed his lips and shook his head. “Seems nobody told me that, and what a body doesn’t know, can’t stop him.”
He could see Elizabeth’s profile cut against the rays of the dying sun, including her pert little turned-up nose. “Are you tellin’ me the truth, Little Joe?” she asked.
Joe grinned. “No, I’m just joshin’. You’re right. Boys can’t fly.” He paused, remembering how his youthful antics had aided in his father’s hair turning to silver. “But I thought I could. I climbed right up to the top branch of one of those pines when I was a little younger than you.”
“What happened? Did you really try to fly?”
He laughed this time. “Not on purpose. I fell out of the fool thing. Put my shoulder out of joint and broke my left leg.”
She shook her head. “Boys sure are stupid sometimes.”
“They are, are they?” he snorted. “And I suppose you, bein’ a girl, ain’t ever done anything stupid?”
Perfectly serious, she replied, “Of course not. Girls are way smarter than that. I bet your Mama never climbed to the top of a great big old tree and tried to fly.”
No. She’d just ridden into their front yard on a feisty horse, hell-bent-for leather, and died.
When he said nothing, Elizabeth leaned in closer, studying him. After a moment, she asked, “Will your Mama be there when we get to the Ponderosa? I’d like to meet her.” She paused and then added shyly. “I bet she’s pretty as you are.”
For a moment Joe had no response, her second statement having taken him completely off-guard. He decided to ignore it for now and deal with her question first.
“I never got a chance to tell you. My mama died when I was younger than you, Bella. I was just a little older than Jack. I was about five.”
Elizabeth thought about that for a long time. Finally she asked, the puzzlement obvious in her voice, “So your Pa raised all three of you all by himself?”
She sighed. It was so deep a sigh the horses looked back at her.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“Ma always says a man can’t see the forest for the trees and if it was left up to him to raise up a child all on his lonesome, there wouldn’t be one woman who’d want anything to do with what he raised.”
It was a good thing it was dark. She couldn’t see him smiling.
“And your mama’s always right?”
“Sure thing.” Elizabeth fell silent again. He heard her shift and turn so she was looking toward the sunset.
“Leastwise, she’s always been ‘til now.”
Ben Cartwright shifted back in his desk chair. He argued with himself for half a minute and then rose and went to look at the tall case clock by the door. While Joseph and his young guest were not exactly late, he had expected them well before now. The stage was due in around five-thirty and it was now going on midnight. The twenty mile ride, taken at a good clip, should have taken no more than five and a half hours without mishap.
It was the thought of that ‘mishap’ that had him worried.
Whatever the reason, his youngest seemed to draw trouble to himself like a bear cub knee-deep in honey drew angry bees. Sometimes it wasn’t Joseph’s fault. As a young boy, Joseph had often been the target of bullies and boys twice his size who wanted to lord it over his son, whom they saw as a spoiled rich boy. While Joe had been known to take advantage of his position as youngest, and there were times when ‘spoiled’ fit – and not by a long stretch – the boy had never cited his wealth or used it to unfair advantage with his contemporaries. Joseph took it as a point of pride to make it on his own without counting on his connections. Still, his beloved son by his late wife Marie often came home with bruises and a nosebleed. Every time he would ask him what happened, it seemed Joe had taken a different ‘fall’.
‘I fell off the steps, Pa.’ ‘I fell off my horse.’ ‘I lost my footing and fell into the pond.’
And on and on.
So, whenever Joseph was late – even the slightest bit late – he began to worry. His older boys told him he was overprotective of the youngest member of the family. Ben shook his head as he walked toward the door. Maybe he was. No, he most certainly was.
But it was with reason.
“Mistah Ben worry about Little Joe?” a soft voice asked from beside him.
He didn’t know how Hop Sing did it. Their Chinese cook moved like a shadow.
Ben cleared his throat. “I was just going out for a breath of fresh air. Joe will be along soon. He’s not that late.”
“Little Joe come all the way from Virginia City with little missy, yes?” Hop Sing was holding a stack of towels and had been headed toward the stair. “Long way from there. Take many hours. Maybe stage come late. Maybe tree fall across road. Maybe Little Joe take little missy for soda before he comes home.”
He’d made all those points with himself. It didn’t help.
The Chinese man nodded. “Hop Sing understand. Mistah Ben’s love for his boys fierce like dragon. Worry much. Why you not find something to do other than worry? Need towels in little missy and Little Joe’s rooms.” Hop Sing offered him the pile of linens. “Honored grandfather always say, a man grows most tired while standing still.”
Ben hid his smile. He was pretty sure he had just been admonished.
He was reaching for the towels when he heard buggy wheels rolling into the yard. The silver-haired man exchanged a relieved look with Hop Sing.
“That’s them!” he said with a smile.
The other man nodded. “You go greet number three son and little missy. Very late. Both be tired. Hop Sing take towels upstairs so room for missy ready.”
Ben clapped his friend on the shoulder and then opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. As he watched the buggy slowly roll to a stop near the barn, he frowned. Joseph knew to pull the rig right up to the front of the house to let his young passenger disembark.
What was his son thinking?
Ben was halfway to the buggy when he realized something was wrong. The first thing that clued him in was the horses’ behavior. They whinnied and shied at his approach. The one on the left snorted and shook himself and then reared back, bumping the surrey and making the black fringe on its top swing wildly. Ben spoke soothingly to the animals as he approached them, even though his own heart was pounding fiercely in his chest.
It was dark and there was very little light in the yard, but a blind man couldn’t have missed it.
There was no one in the buggy.
Joe pulled off his dress boot and looked at his foot. Then he glanced at the youngster in front of him who was twirling in circles; her skirts flying like a girl at a cotillion. A short time before, the moon had broken free of a low-lying bank of clouds and its light shone steadily on the Virginia City road.
Which was a good thing because they’d lost the surrey and were going to have to walk.
Elizabeth thought it was a great adventure. She’d been skippin’ and dancin’ ever since the horses had spooked and taken off for home without them. About nine-tenths of the way to the Ponderosa she’d told him she needed to relieve herself powerful bad. He couldn’t see trying to make a little girl hold it for another hour, but at the same time it made him uneasy to think of her walking into the woods alone. It was something he hadn’t thought about. He was used to traveling with his brothers and, well, when they had to go they just did – right there in front of each other, or maybe they took a step or two into the woods. Didn’t matter which. So when Elizabeth said she had to go, he’d had her hold on until they got to a spot where the trees were right up against the road and, once she went into them, he’d never been more than six feet away. He’d helped her down and walked her to the trees and then gone back to the surrey to wait. Everything would have been fine if near a half-dozen things hadn’t happened all at once. There was a shot in the distance. Someone shouted and a hoot owl flew overhead. It just so happened that at exactly the same time Elizabeth appeared out of the trees wavin’ her arms and singin’ at the top of her lungs. The horses started shying and whinnying and snorting, and then sure proof came of how little God loved him.
A deer dashed across the road.
He’d screamed at Elizabeth to keep back and then grabbed the reins and held on for all he was worth, trying to keep the team from running. All he got for his effort was fingers so stiff he couldn’t make a fist and the pattern of a buggy wheel painted in trail dust across his dress boot.
Plus a crushed foot inside it.
He was sitting there now, staring at it, watching it swell to twice its normal size and wonderin’ how in the heck he was going to manage to walk all the way home.
“That don’t look so good.” Elizabeth had finished twirling and was looking at his foot. “You should of moved out of the way.”
His eyes flicked to the girl as he momentarily wondered if she was related to Adam.
“Oh. You think so?”
“Sure. Your boot ain’t gonna fit anymore. Ma says walkin’ outside without your shoes on is like lickin’ your finger after you stuck it in a beehive. Feels good at the start, but there’s a wallop at the end.”
“Seems to me your Ma’s got somethin’ to say about just about every situation,” he groused as he gingerly worked his inflamed foot back into his boot. “She can’t always be right.”
Elizabeth drew a breath and let it out slow as she shook her head. “Pa says ain’t no woman ever been so right about so many things and so willin’ to share it. She knows so much about everything, he says, that knowledge just spills right out of her brain and onto her tongue and then its gotta go somewhere.”
Joe hid his snort in the mild cussing he did as his foot slipped into place in the boot. “Gosh-darn it!” he exclaimed as tears came into his eyes.
“That’s what Pa says too.”
That did it. Deep inside him all that laughter he’d been corralling like a wild pony broke free. Coupled with the pain he was in, it made him giddy and set him laughing, and then snorting, and then crying and coughing until he was doubled over and laying on the ground.
Elizabeth tilted her head, put her hands on her hips and scowled, doing just about the best imitation of his old spinster teacher, Abigail Jones, he had ever seen.
“You ain’t got the good sense God gave you, little brother,” she sighed.
Still giggling, tears streaming down his face, he smacked the ground with his hand. “Stop it! You’re killin’ me!”
She walked over to him and stood looking down, shaking her head. “I’d stop that if I were you. You’re like to bust a blood vessel.”
Joe sucked in another peal of laughter. He didn’t know how he was going to survive a whole winter with this child! Unexpectedly, a wave of sympathy for his two older brothers swept over him.
They’d made it eighteen years.
Elizabeth’s lips were puckered. She was holding out her hand. “Are you done yet?” she said, channeling her overly-serious mother.
He snorted in air and nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I am,” he said as he reached for it. As soon as he was on his feet, Joe sucked in a cry. It felt like someone had taken a hot poker to his foot.
His youthful guest looked up at him. “Put your arm around my shoulder. You can lean on me.”
He wasn’t a big or heavy man, but he was definitely too much for her to support for long. Joe shook his head. “Pa will be missing us and he’ll come or send someone after us soon. I think we’re just gonna have to sit this one out.”
As he said it, he heard a noise. It sounded like a rig coming down the road. The funny thing was, it was coming from behind them instead of in front of them. Instantly on the alert Joe pulled his pistol from its holster and moved to stand in front of Elizabeth.
“Little Joe, what’s wrong?” she asked.
He tried to sound reassuring. “Probably nothing. It’s just best to be prepared.”
Seconds later a fancy black buggy pulled into view. Since it was near midnight or after, Joe regarded it and its occupant as a threat. There was little good reason that anyone would be out on the road this late. ‘Course, that included them too! He limped to a position in the middle of the road, put Elizabeth behind him, and then put his weight down on his injured foot.
Fortunately it was dark and whoever it was wouldn’t be able to see the tears in his eyes.
The rig slowed and then pulled up short. Joe watched as a long lean man unfolded from the seat on the driver’s side and exited to stand beside it. There was a moment’s hesitation, as if the newcomer was as unsure of him as he was of them, and then, a thin, reedy voice called out.
“Elizabeth Carnaby. Dear girl!”
“Reverend?” the little girl replied. “Reverend Godfrey?!”
Before Joe could stop her, Elizabeth was skipping over to the rig.
He hobbled after her.
The reverend knelt and took Elizabeth by both arms. “Child, what are you doing walking on the road so late?” He hugged her and then rose to his feet and looked at him. “And who is your companion?”
“This is my little brother!” she beamed.
“Little Joe?” Godfrey asked.
Joe rolled his eyes. He held his hand out. “Joe Cartwright, Reverend Godfrey.”
The older man was grinning. “I remember you from the stage depot. You’re Ben Cartwright’s son?”
The question took him by surprise. “Yes, sir.”
“The youngest one, I bet. Adam would be, what, thirty now?”
“Thirty-one.” Joe was frowning. “Do you know Pa?”
He nodded. “I am on my way to take up a position in California. Over the years I have read about Ben Cartwright and his accomplishments in the newspaper reports. He’s come a far way from the young man I became aware of in Boston all those years ago. When I knew I would be passing through Virginia City, I made up my mind to look him up.” The reverend sighed. “There were no rooms to let in town due to the extra men in from the drives. I decided to take my chances and see if I could get an old friend to put me up for a night or two.”
The reverend looked to be in his mid-fifties. He might have four or five years on Pa.
Relieved, Joe grinned. “We’ve got plenty of room, Reverend. You’ll be welcome.”
The rail-thin man held out his hand. “Atticus, please. No need to stand on social conventions among friends.”
Joe ran a hand along the back of his neck. “You’re a sight for sore eyes – and my sore foot, Atticus.” He let his gaze wander to Elizabeth. “Bella here was gonna prop me up all the way home.”
The older man’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “Miss Carnaby is quite a determined young lady. We spent many hours together on the stage becoming acquainted. She spoke quite well of you.” The reverend paused. “I understand you two are to marry one day,” he said with a smile.
Joe glanced at Elizabeth and then nodded solemnly. “I promised her, and a Cartwright always keeps his promises.”
“I’m sure he always does.” Atticus smiled as he turned to Elizabeth, “May I help you into the rig, Miss Carnaby?”
“I was wonderin’ if you forgot I was here,” she said sulkily.
“Oh!” Joe laughed. “Couldn’t nobody forget about you. You’re unforgettable!”
The little girl’s frown turned into a smile as she took the reverend’s hand and boarded the rig. A moment after they took their seat, Joe carefully climbed into the passenger seat behind them.
An hour and a half later they were home.
He’d been at the door, hat in hand, ready to go to the barn and mount Buck and take off toward Virginia City, no matter how late or how dark it was, when Ben Cartwright heard a rig rolling into the yard. He had spent the last hour sitting by the fire, at war with himself as to whether or not to go. Joseph was nearly eighteen now and a man in many ways. Still, and perhaps this was his own fault, he was much younger at that age than either of his brothers had been. Adam, of course, had been forced to grow up too quickly due to the circumstances of their life. Hoss, well, Hoss had looked like a man at twelve and that was how men treated him. His middle son’s nature – quiet, steady, sure of himself and confident in what he could do – had brought quick respect, especially among the ranch hands. Joseph was another matter. Most everyone loved him – how could they not with his quick smile and engaging laugh? But Little Joe was quixotic. As high as he was one minute, he was low the next. And that boy had a temper. He had been too indulgent, he knew. Maybe he had even done it on purpose.
With Joseph grown he would, in a way, be all alone.
“You’re hopeless as an old woman,” Ben muttered to himself as he took hold of the door latch and lifted it. Going outside, he watched as a rig pulled into the yard. In the front seat he could see a man with a little girl beside him. When he stepped down and approached the vehicle, he realized the man was not his son. For a moment panic seized him. Then he saw his beautiful boy seated in the back seat. Joe was leaning over and saying something to the girl whom he recognized as Joe’s ‘big sister’, Elizabeth Carnaby.
“It’s about time you two showed up,” he groused as he came to the side of the rig.
Little Joe knew the tone and knew as well that he was in trouble – but only a little.
“Sorry, Pa,” his boy said as he waited for Elizabeth to debark. “We had to make a stop – lady’s business – and the horses spooked. ‘Fore I could do anything about it, they were flying home. Thankfully the reverend came along.”
Ben looked at the older man standing beside the rig. He was bone thin and about six feet tall. He was wearing a black parson’s suit with a tall white collar and had graying hair that might have once been brown. It was hard to tell in the moonlight. The man had a protruding Adam’s apple mounted square in the center of his long neck and a matching aquiline nose. Ben hid a smile. He reminded him of the illustrations of Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s ghost story ‘Sleepy Hollow’.
He was about to introduce himself when Joseph stepped out of the rig. His son drew in a sharp breath as his left foot hit the ground. Ben looked at him.
There were tears in Joseph’s eyes.
“Son. What’s wrong?” he asked while resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Brave as ever, Joe tossed off both his hand and his concern. “I’m fine, Pa. I just twisted my foot.”
“You ain’t supposed to lie, little brother,” Elizabeth scolded as she came alongside him.
Ben smiled at the little girl. It had been about six months since they’d met. She was growing like a weed.
“And how are you, Miss Elizabeth?” he asked.
“I’m right as rain, Mister Cartwright, but Joe’s hurtin’. He ain’t tellin’ you the truth. The carriage ran over his foot and smashed it.” She scowled. “It looks yucky.”
He spun toward his son. “Is that true, Joseph?”
Ever eager to prove he was a man, Joe answered, “It’s nothin’ I can’t take, Pa.”
Ben stepped up to him and looked into those green eyes, measuring what he saw there and not liking it at all. The boy was obviously in a good deal of pain.
He placed his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “Lean on me. We need to get you inside so I can take a look at your foot.”
He looked down at Elizabeth. “Yes, dear?”
“Ain’t you forgetting somethin’?”
Ben frowned. Then he had it. Looking over at the parson, he apologized. “Forgive me, reverend. Please, come with us. You’re welcome in our home.”
“Yes, Joseph?” he asked as they began to hobble toward the house.
“The Reverend Godfrey says he knew you back in Boston.”
He looked at the other man. There were no bells. “Oh.”
“It was a long time ago, sir. You might not remember me. You would remember my brother Leander better.”
Ben nodded. How could he forget a name like Leander Godfrey? “Of course, I do. You must be the older brother who went to seminary in England.”
“That would be me,” he smiled.
Joe looked a little dazed, but then it could have been from the pain. “I thought you said ‘you’ knew Pa.”
The tall man shrugged. “I said I knew ‘of’ him. From my brother. We did meet once, if you remember.”
“Well, anyway, you are welcome. Elizabeth,” Ben said with a nod, “would you please get the door?”
As the little girl shot past, headed for the house, Joe moaned.
The older man shook his head. Thirteen hours out of his sight.
It might have been a record.
Hop Sing scowled as he carefully lifted a pail of steaming hot water from the kitchen stove. As he headed to the great room, he let out a string of Chinese words calculated to make his ancestors blush. It wasn’t that he was angry or put out. Not in the slightest. He had simply learned long ago that if a man was going to be a part of the Cartwright’s lives, he had to find a way to dispel the demons of worry and anxiety. By the standards of his country Mistah Adam had been a man when he came to the Ponderosa, and Mistah Hoss, well on his way to being one. Mistah Cartwright’s number three son had still been in his mother’s arms and when those arms were taken away by death, he – more than anyone else – had tended to the child. Little Joe had grown up in his kitchen, helping with all the small chores, and he had found pleasure and purpose in answering the small boy’s endless questions. In his own way, he had helped to teach him to be a man, showing him by example that there was no room for complaining, that everything had its reason and purpose, even sliced thumbs and burnt forearms. All too soon Little Joe had joined his brothers and father doing ranch work, but he still visited – often late at night – and would sit for an hour or two helping him peel and slice and dice.
He loved Little Joe as if he had been his own.
When Hop Sing entered the room, he found only Mistah Ben and his number three son there. Missy Elizabeth had gone upstairs to the room prepared for her and the holy man with the chicken neck had followed shortly after. While Mistah Ben made Little Joe comfortable, he had taken up towels and prepared the extra guest room. The boy was seated now in the big blue chair by the fire. His injured foot, having been given permission, lay propped on a pillow on top of the table that fronted the last Mrs. Cartwright’s elegant settee. The boy’s foot was the color of a dragon’s breath and swollen to nearly twice the normal size. Beside him, seated on the table, was his father. The elder Cartwright had one hand under his son’s foot and ran the other gently, tenderly over the bruised flesh.
“Tell me when it hurts, Joe,” he said.
Joe grimaced. “Can I just tell you when it doesn’t?”
Mistah Ben stopped. He reached out with his hand and cupped the back of Little Joe’s curly head. “Son, if its that bad I should send one of the men for Paul tomorrow morning.”
“Joseph.” Mistah Ben waited. “I need the truth. I’m supposed to ride out to meet your brothers soon and I am not about to leave you alone with that little girl unless I feel you can handle yourself. Paul coming out doesn’t mean I won’t.” His tone softened. “As a matter of fact, his opinion might go a long way toward letting me know I can.”
Number three son mumbled something as Hop Sing sat the pail of water down on the hearth.
Mistah Ben’s eyes flicked to him and he nodded his thanks. “What was that, Joe?”
Little Joe’s brown curls tumbled over his green eyes. He looked exhausted. But then again, they probably all did.
It was two o’clock in the morning.
Joe huffed. “I said, Doc Martin told me that if he had to come back to the Ponderosa one more time this year to cut a bullet out of me, pull out an arrow, or patch up one more broken bone he was gonna recommend you turn me over to some university for medical study.”
Mistah Ben snorted.
Hop Sing did too, but he pretended it was the steam that made him sneeze. “Water ready to clean Little Joe’s foot,” he said, offering the older man a hot, wet cloth.
“Thank you, Hop Sing.” As he nodded his head, his employer asked his son. “Well?”
Number three son sank back into the chair. “I suppose you better send for Paul.”
Ben Cartwright nodded as he laid the hot cloth on his son’s swollen foot. The boy sucked in air and then seemed to relax. A second later his familiar grin appeared.
“At least this time I ain’t got a fever.”
“No, you haven’t,” the older man replied, rapping his son’s big toe so he yelped. “Yet.”
“Mistah Ben ready for ice?” Hop Sing asked.
The older man nodded. “Yes, and while you’re at it, go to the cupboard and bring one of the bottles of brandy over here.”
Joe looked puzzled. “You gonna pour brandy on my foot, Pa?”
“No, I’m going to pour it in a glass,” Little Joe’s father sighed. “I need a drink.”
Joe lay on his bed with his hands linked behind his head. His injured foot was propped on a pillow and there was a plate of some kind of cookies and a hot pot of tea on the bedside table. He hated to admit it, but there were times when he kind of liked being fussed over. Leastwise when it was Pa and Hop Sing who were doing it and neither of his brothers was around to make fun of him.
Hop Sing would have one of his conniption fits and tell him it was ‘foolishness’ if he knew it, but he kind of thought of him as the ma he never had.
Joe’d spent a lot of hours of his boyhood in ‘Hop Sing’s palace’, as he thought of the Ponderosa’s kitchen. After all, there was no denying who was emperor there. Even Pa was afraid to move a spoon from a rack without asking. All Joe had to do was close his eyes and breathe deep and he could smell the Chinese man’s cooking – coffee simmering, an apple pie in the oven; a big fat beef roast sitting next to it with onions and potatoes swimming in the drippings surrounding it. Hop Sing would often sing softly under his breath while he cooked. Usually some old Mandarin tune. When he’d ask about learning the words to those songs, Hop Sing had tried to teach him, but his tongue always got stuck on them like a wayward steer on barbed wire. When he caught him mangling the Mandarin, the Chinese man would narrow his black eyes, scowl, and scold him about not speaking Chinese proper using even more Chinese. When he did, Joe’d jam his fists into his hips and shout back in some kind of gibberish until they both start giggling, and then they’d end up on the floor, laughing so hard that they’d forget about that fat old beef roast and the onions and potatoes and let them shrivel up like a day in the desert.
His eyes were crinkling and his nose wrinkling, and a smile twisted his lips as a knock came at the door.
“Come in!” Joe called.
A familiar dark head peeked in the door. “Mistah Joe feel better?” Hop Sing asked as he stepped in.
Joe grinned. “Thanks for the pillow, Hop Sing. And the tea and cookies.”
The Chinese man came into the room and looked at him. With a frown, he anchored one fist on his hip. “Mistah Joe got all wrong,” he said, shaking a finger. “Pillow for head.” He pointed at the table with the tea and cookies. “Other for foot!”
Joe’s mobile brows jumped. “You mean, I’m supposed to feed the tea and cookies to my foot?”
Hop Sing sighed so deeply the chasm it created probably beat the Grand Canyon by a mile.
“What Hop Sing do with Little Joe? Number three son smart. Hop Sing say so. Smarter than Mistah Adam and Hoss together.” The scowl deepened. “Number three son on purpose make fool of Hop Sing?”
He was feeling really bad. “What’d I do? There’s a plate on my table and its got round things on it. For gosh sakes! What else would I think it was?” Joe paused. The smile returned. “You really think I’m smarter than Adam and Hoss put together?”
That smile ran away right fast.
“Ever since Little Joe little boy, Hop Sing use Chinese medicine. You no pay attention!” Hop Sing bustled over. “Cakes made from yanhusuo plant. Put in tea and soak foot.”
Joe eyed the cakes. “You mean you ain’t supposed to eat them?”
Hop Sing had put the cakes in a bowl and was pouring the tea over them. He paused to look at him, a mixture of exasperation and sympathy in his dark eyes.
“Little Joe not eat one….”
“Only one. I thought it was kind of dry.” Suddenly panicked, Joe asked, “Am I gonna die?”
The Chinese man sighed. “Little Joe not die.” Shaking his head, Hop Sing quietly began to move some of the furniture in his room out of the way, pushing chairs to the side and clearing a path to the corner that held the chamber pot.
“What’re you doing?” Joe asked, puzzled.
“Yanhusuo do one of two things to number three son. Make velly sleepy, or make run very much.”
Joe snorted. “I ain’t runnin’ with this foot.”
At that moment his insides turned over, gurgling like a hot water spring bubbling up through a hole in the ground, and he felt sick.
Hop Sing shook his head.
“Little Joe’s feet not what run.”
Ben Cartwright stepped out of his bedroom and stared down the hall toward his son Joseph’s room. He scratched his head and stood there, listening, wondering what the boy was up to now. He could hear Joe talking and Hop Sing answering, so even though the noises were odd – strange grunts, the sound of feet shuffling across the floor – he decided to leave them be.
Turning in the opposite direction Ben headed for the guest bedroom where he had left Elizabeth Carnaby sleeping earlier. He’d had Hop Sing prepare the room for her, but had quickly realized that neither he nor his Chinese cook really knew much about what a little girl would like. Earlier he’d told Joe to take the child to town at some point to buy her a wardrobe of new clothes and some toys to play with. With the help of the lady who ran the dress shop, he had already picked out one dress. He’d left it in Elizabeth’s room for her to wear the next day. From what he remembered the Carnaby’s didn’t have much, and he knew his son would enjoy making the little girl happy.
Other than that, he’d been at a loss.
The Ponderosa had been without a woman’s touch for so many years, he’d nearly forgotten what it was to have a female around for more than dinner. Casting his mind back, he’d sought memories of Marie and what she’d treasured. Flowers. Beautiful throws with lots of color. He’d come in from the range to find a parade of brightly colored fall leaves trailing down the center of the dining table and, for no reason other than that she thought their songs were lovely, the occasional canary winning through the house. In a moment of desperation he had gone to the closet in his room and fished out a small box that contained a few of his late wife’s possessions. He was saving them for Joe to give to the woman he loved and finally married. Some were too fine and too mature for Elizabeth. There was a stunning necklace set with diamonds and a blue-green stone, along with several other elegant pieces of jewelry. The box contained as well as a number of elaborate jeweled hair combs. It took a moment, but he’d finally managed to find what he’d been looking for. A small box within the box. In it were a half-dozen hand-carved feathered birds. One felt, looking at them, that if he tossed them into the air, they would wing away with a song. Marie had bought them in San Francisco. He’d taken the birds to Elizabeth’s room and positioned them on the windowsill.
He hoped she’d liked them.
When he came to the child’s room, Ben put his hand to the knob and then stopped. Small, half-swallowed sobs came from inside. He hesitated, unsure of what to do, but then he thought of his own sons when they were small and it occurred to him that, in this circumstance, there was very little difference between boys and girls.
Elizabeth was, no doubt, missing her family.
Ben backed up and made a show of approaching the room, stomping his boots on the floor so she would be sure to hear him, and then called out as he knocked. “Elizabeth? May I come in? It’s Ben.”
He heard the familiar snuffling as she sucked in her tears and the sound of running and a small form striking the bed. How that brought back memories of his youngest who could never admit he had been standing by the window, looking out, watching and waiting for the return of someone he loved.
“Come in,” a small voice answered.
The moonlight was streaming in the window. A small square of it fell on the bed, highlighting the little girl who lay there. Ben crossed over to her and asked with a smile, indicating the edge. “Mind if I sit down? These old bones need as much rest as they can get.”
There was a smile, but it didn’t touch her eyes. “Sure.”
“You fell asleep downstairs,” he said. “I’m sorry if you were frightened when you woke up.”
“I ain’t scared,” she said, a little too quickly.
“Oh, I know you’re not scared. It’s just, well, sometimes when you wake up in a strange room and don’t know how you got there, it can be a little puzzling.”
Her eyes were wide. “It’s an awful big room.”
He hadn’t even thought of it. The room was about as big as her whole house.
“Yes, it is.”
“And a big bed….”
And she was very little.
“Well, you know,” he said, scooting in a little bit, “it has to be big because there are so many people in it.”
Her eyes went from side to side. Then to him. He had to hide a smile.
She obviously thought he was crazy.
He pursed his lips and raised a hand to his chin. “Actually, they’re not exactly people.”
Ben saw her eyes go to the coverlet, like she’d lift it and see if anyone was hiding there.
“Who are they then?”
It was something Marie used to say with Joe, a nightly prayer to help the sensitive, overly-imaginative boy go to sleep.
“Well, Uriel, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael for one,” he said.
“You mean the archangels?” Her blue eyes went wider. “Who else?”
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
She thought a moment. “Those are Jesus’ friends.”
“Yes. And they’re all here, watching over you because I asked them too.”
“You did?” Elizabeth blinked.
“Yes. I asked, ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed Elizabeth lies on. Four corners to her bed,
four angels ‘round her head. One to watch and one to pray and two to keep her ‘til the new day’.” He smiled. “So you see, there’s hardly room for you in that great big bed with all those people watching over you and keeping you safe.”
“I guess so.” The child thought a moment. “I sure wish I could see them though….”
“You can see me, right?” As she nodded, he went on. “How about I get a book from my room and come back here and read to you while they keep a watch over both of us?”
Again, a pause. Then, finally, a real smile. “I’d like that.”
He rose. Tucking her under the covers, he asked, “How does Hans Christian Anderson sound?” It had been Marie’s book. Her favorite story had been ‘The Little Mermaid’. Joe had loved it too, that and ‘The Little Tin Soldier’, though he refused to admit it when he got older.
The little girl’s eyes blinked with sleep as she nodded.
He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
Ben went to the door and stepped into the hall and headed for his room. Halfway there he stopped. Hop Sing was just leaving Joe’s room.
“Something wrong?” he asked, worried about Joe’s injury.
“Number three son fine now.”
The emphasis on ‘now’ brought his hackles up. “What was wrong earlier?”
“Nothing, Mistah Ben. Little Joe sleep now. Sleep long time. No get up on foot.”
They’d been fighting him. More than once Joe had tried to get out of bed.
“And how did you accomplish that?”
The Chinese man smiled. “Old Chinese secret.”
Ben’s eyebrows peaked. “And what’s that?”
Hop Sing smiled.
“Tea and cookies with no sympathy.”
It was early the next morning. The sun was up and smilin’ on the world.
Little Joe Cartwright wasn’t smilin’.
“Ah, Pa, come on!” Joe knew he was whining like a pup, but he couldn’t help it. Pa was treating him like a pup! “I don’t need some old biddy – old lady to come out here. Hop Sing and I are – ”
His father’s arms were locked tighter than the door on the bank vault in Placerville. One dark eyebrow arched toward his silver-white hair and the older man’s lips were straight as a demarcation line. The signs were all there. He should’ve known better than to argue.
Actually, he did, but he couldn’t help it. Every vision he’d had of a fine week without his pa and brothers, taking it easy and enjoying Elizabeth’s company, was vanishing in the face of some old lady who thought she should mother Ben Cartwright’s poor motherless child. Sure as shootin’ the Widow Guthrie would move in and take over and spend her time makin’ sure he was clean behind the ears and in bed by eight.
“Joseph. While I am not entirely unsympathetic to your…pleas…I cannot leave that little girl alone in this house with you for a week. It simply isn’t something that can be done.”
This time it was his eyebrows that danced. His mouth fell open. He pointed at his chest and then up the stair to where Elizabeth was, and then looked back at his pa.
“She’s a kid! What do you think I’m gonna do – kiss her?!”
His father gave him that look. The one that said, with him, there was nothing entirely out of the realm of possibility. Pa held it for a moment and then he laughed. A second later his hand was on his shoulder.
“While I have the feeling, Joseph, that Elizabeth might not be adverse to you giving her a kiss,” Pa said, trying, but failing to hide his amusement, “that’s not what I’m concerned about.”
“Well, then, for goodness sake, what are you concerned about?”
“For one thing, who will give her a bath?”
Joe frowned. Was that a trick question? “What’s wrong with Hop Sing? He gave us our baths when we were little.”
His father sighed. It was like Pa was wondering if what he’d given life to was an idiot. “And you and Adam and Hoss are….” he said leadingly.
Joe puzzled it out. “Boys?”
“And Hop Sing is….”
It was getting trickier. “Chinese?”
Another sigh. And a shake of the head. “And what else?”
He was gonna say ‘short’, but his pa had that look like, if he got it wrong, he’d get the switch.
“Joseph,” his father said, exasperated. “He’s a man. So are you. Hop Sing can, but probably shouldn’t bathe a little girl of Elizabeth’s age. You certainly can’t bathe her. We need a woman out here until Elizabeth’s mother arrives.”
A girl of her age?
“What do you mean, Pa? I’ve helped take care of other little kids. How come I can’t do it now?”
His father stared at him. He took his arm and said, “Come over to the settee and sit down.” As Joe limped over, he aimed for the table. “On the settee,” his father repeated.
His father positioned himself on the settee as well and turned toward him. “Did you ask Elizabeth how old she is?”
Come to think of it, “No.”
“She had a birthday just after we left their home. She’s eleven.”
Nah. Couldn’t be.
“Are you sure?”
His pa actually rolled his eyes this time. “No. Maybe she lied when I asked her.”
“Sorry, Pa. She’s just so dang little.”
“Like you were?”
Thanks for not saying ‘are’, Joe thought. “Yeah….”
“Depending on social status and region – and her parents’ beliefs – that ‘young lady’ could be engaged in two years and married in four.”
“To you, Joseph, Elizabeth is a child, but she’s a child on the edge of womanhood.” He paused. “The feelings she has for you are very real.”
“For me, Pa?” he laughed. “We’re just friends.”
“Friends?” His pa rose. “I seem to remember a young lady telling me last year while you lay recovering in her parents’ home, that you had promised you would wait for her and that the two of you would marry one day.”
“Ah, Pa, you know how it is.” Joe shrugged. “It was kind of cute, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
His father looked down at him. “Has it occurred to you that that is precisely what you are going to have to do one of these days. Unless you intend to keep your promise to wait and make her your wife?”
Joe swallowed. He looked pained. “I guess I didn’t think….”
“No, you didn’t. Son,” the hand came back, “you can’t continue to plow through life making choices, taking action, and making promises without considering the consequences. You may think Elizabeth’s feelings for you are something that will fade – and they may – but to her, at this moment, they are very, very real. She is in love with you.”
Joe shook his head. “Pa, no. She loves me like I love her, as a friend.”
“No, Joseph. She is a maturing woman and she is ‘in love’ with you. All it takes is one look to know it.”
He thought hard a moment. “Then how come I don’t know it?”
“Because you’re as thick-headed as you are ornery,” a deep ironic voice quipped even as the front door closed.
Just what he needed.
“How come you ain’t on the range gettin’ wrapped up in ropes and drug by a steer?” Joe snapped back even as Pa sighed deeply. He turned toward him. “Sorry, Pa, but Adam….”
“I am not sighing at your reaction to your brother’s rather inflammatory comment.” Joe smiled as that ‘look’ went to his older brother who stood, waiting by the door. Adam might be thirty, but Pa could still verbally smack his butt.
“ ‘Ain’t?’ ‘Drug’?” The older man pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know, you’re not too old to send back to school.”
It seemed a change of subject was in order.
Rising carefully and watching his foot, Joe skirted the edge of the sofa and went over to Adam. His brother was dressed in a white shirt and black pants and was wearing his heavy golden-brown coat over them. His black hat was on his head and on it was a rim of white. Joe reached for it and playfully knocked some of the white stuff off.
“It’s snow,” he said as he watched it fall to the floor.
“Yes,” Adam grumbled, “I know that.”
“What’ve you got snow all over your hat for?”
Older brother did a remarkable imitation of their father rolling his eyes. “Because it’s snowing. Hard.”
“Snowing hard?” Pa came to join them. “It’s only the last week in November.”
“Apparently the weather isn’t watching the calendar.” Adam shook the rest of the snow off and placed his hat on the credenza. “It’s not stopping, Pa. We’re going to have to move up the schedule if we want to get those cattle to a safe pasture before the trails are too hard to pass.”
“Where’s Hoss?” Joe asked.
“Already at it.” Adam frowned. “I came to get Pa and as many men as we can spare.”
Pa hadn’t been planning on going for a few days yet. Now it looked like he’d have to.
“I don’t know.” The older man was looking at him and shaking his head.
“We’ll be fine, Pa,” Joe assured him. “Elizabeth and Hop Sing and me. Soon as it stops, I promise I’ll send one of the hands into town to get Mrs. Guthrie.”
Adam started. “You’ve hired Widow Guthrie to come out while we’re gone? Pa, is that wise?”
Joe shuddered. She must be an old battle-ax.
Adam didn’t scare easily.
His pa was still looking at him. “I trust Joseph’s interactions with Mrs. Guthrie will be courteous and of a gentlemanly nature. Won’t they, Joseph?”
“She is in need of employment since the death of her husband, and is endeavoring to raise enough money to travel back east to rejoin her people,” his father said. “Mrs. Guthrie has no children of her own, and so she was excited to think of spending a week or two with us and looking after Elizabeth.”
Adam drew in a deep breath, raised an eyebrow, and did that funny little thing with his lips where they turned up on the ends like the grin on a fat old satisfied cat.
“You know best, Pa, but if you ask me – ”
Adam held his hands up in surrender.
Pa nodded. “Good. Now that my two sons have stopped debating every single thing I say, I will go upstairs and finish packing my satchel. Adam, you go on to the bunkhouse and see who’s there. Leave one or two men here to keep watch and send all the others on to help Hoss. I’ll catch up with you after I make that run to the bank to deposit the payroll money.” When Joe opened his mouth to protest that he and the ranch house didn’t need any more baby-sitters, a single raised finger stopped him. “And you, young man, will remain in this house until that foot is mended. Your ‘job’ is to make our young guest’s stay is the best she can have.”
He grimaced. “Yes, sir.” As his father headed for the stairs, Joe called after him softly, “Pa, is it okay if I take Elizabeth out in one of the sleighs? You know, she’d probably like to see the snow?”
“Just so you take Hop Sing with you.” At his look, he added, “If I know that little girl, she’s as headstrong as you are. All we need is for her or you, or both of you to get lost in the snow.”
Adam hadn’t left yet. He was pulling on his gloves. “Pa, you know Hop Sing doesn’t have any sense of direction.”
Joe gulped as their father looked right at him. “Well then, he and your brother will make a good combination.
“Sometimes Joseph doesn’t have any sense at all.”
Elizabeth Carnaby was staring out the window at the land surrounding Little Joe’s house. It sure was pretty. There were tall Ponderosa pine trees standing guard around it, lookin’ for all the world like an army of giants. She crooked her neck and looked up to see if their tops had fierce giant faces, and laughed when she saw that they did and that their long beards were made of snow.
It was snowing!
She loved snow. Her ma hated it, but her Pa said God made it for man. Snow was the only thing that slowed men down, he said, and made them take time to think. There wasn’t much to do in the wintertime but think, Pa said, and listen to the silence. That one had been hard for her at first – how did a body ‘listen’ to something that didn’t make a sound? Then one night when she was sitting on the porch on her Pa’s lap, all wrapped in a warm blanket and his arms, she understood. Pa told her the snow had a voice, but it was made of color and light. You couldn’t hear it. You could only see it, and even then, only if you looked.
It was so beautiful it made her cry.
Straightening up, Elizabeth turned back into the room the Cartwrights had given her and just stared at it. She’d paced it off and hadn’t bumped into a wall ‘til she got near twenty. Why, that was bigger than Ma’s whole garden. Bigger, even, then their barn. If she’d been allowed to swear, she would have sworn it was even bigger than her whole house!
Pa’d let her swear one time. She’d hit her thumb with a hammer and it was hurting something awful and nothin’, just nothin’, seemed to make it better. Pa scooped her up and took her to the pump to wash off the blood. He told her he was gonna have to ‘sanitize’ it with whiskey.
She didn’t like the sound of that.
He admitted it was gonna hurt and asked her if she thought cussin’ would help her to stand what he had to do. Now, she didn’t rightly know since she’d never cussed before, but she was willing to try anything because she remembered the last time she’d had something ‘sanitized’ and it had hurt real bad! Pa told her to think of the worst thing she could think of and to shout it out as loud as she could when he poured the whiskey over her thumb.
“Dad-blame it!” she cried, sucking in air. “Dang!”
It was their secret. They never told Ma or the preacher. Pa said you didn’t need absolving for saying somethin’ like that when there was a real true, sure-fire need.
Turning back to the window, Elizabeth went over to it and picked up one of the pretty little feathered birds and looked at it. She’d found them there when she woke up that morning. She didn’t know who had left them. She hoped it was Joe. After finding them she’d gone to his room to see if he was there. When no one answered, she pushed the door open and went inside. Little Joe was laying there, sleepin’, with one hand pressed against his face and the other gripping the blanket, with all those beautiful brown curls he had spilling over his forehead. The little girl sighed. He was prettier than all those little feathered birds put together. She’d been standing there, thinkin’ about him, when she heard someone coming down the hall. Knowing she wasn’t supposed to be there, she slipped under the bed and waited as the door opened and a man wearing black pants and shoes stepped inside. He stood just inside the door a minute, like he was checking on Little Joe, and then went back out.
A minute later she ran to her room.
Later on she got to thinking about it. Joe and his brothers and their Pa wore boots. She’d never seen any of them in shoes. That didn’t mean they didn’t wear shoes, of course, but it made her wonder if maybe the Reverend Godfrey’d been the one looking in. He wore black pants and shoes. ‘Course it made sense that the reverend would be checking on Joe. He’d probably been saying prayers for him.
That’s what reverends did.
A knock on her door interrupted Elizabeth’s thoughts. She turned back into the room and asked, “Who is it?”
“It’s Joe, Bella. Are you dressed?”
She looked down at her new clothes. The dress was a deep teal green and made from a heavy fabric that was smooth to the touch. It felt just like Jack’s bottom! There were layers and layers of white petticoats to go underneath it as well as pantalettes, and it had a little matching jacket with black soutache braid on the sleeves and front. There was a beautiful winter coat made of fur right beside it with a muff and hat.
She couldn’t believe they were for her!
“Sure am, Little Joe,” she said, twirling once as he opened the door.
“Mm-mm!” he exclaimed on seeing her. “My, oh, my, the belles of Virginia City are going to be jealous!”
She beamed. “You really think so?”
“I know so.” Little Joe came into the room. He was wearing a deep blue shirt and black pants today with a little black tie around his neck. Elizabeth’s eyes went to his feet as he limped into the room.
“I’ve come, milady, to escort you outside to yonder sleigh and chauffeur you about your kingdom,” he grinned.
He was always being silly like that.
“Is your foot okay?”
He hobbled a bit as he moved to the window. “It’s hurtin’, but its nothing I can’t stand. Pa said we could go if Hop Sing goes with us.”
Little Joe turned to look at her. “Now, you ain’t afraid of Hop Sing, are you?”
She didn’t want to admit it, but, yes she was. About an hour after coming back to her room, she’d sneaked downstairs while she was still in her night dress to take a look around the house. She’d gotten to the great room when she heard somethin’ her pa would have called ‘caterwauling’ coming out of the kitchen. Frightened, she’d run and hid behind Mister Ben’s big blue chair even as Little Joe appeared limpin’ on his bad foot and movin’ fast.
A man carrying a knife was following him. He had tanned skin and black hair and his eyes were really small like slits.
Joe was saying ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! No!” while the man was shouting, ‘You get out, Little Joe! You no come in kitchen, sneak food! You wait for breakfast like everyone else! You give Hop Sing sausage!”
“You come and get it!” Joe shouted back.
Then Hop Sing yelled somethin’ in some kind of funny language and started chasing Joe around the table with the knife!
She’d been so scared she’d run right back up to her room, dived into her bed and pulled the coverlet over her head. When she woke up again, she thought maybe she’d dreamed it.
“Wait a minute,” Joe said. “You weren’t downstairs this morning, were you?”
Boy, he was smart.
Joe grinned. “Yes, you were. If I was you – and you and me are two peas in a pod – I would have been sneakin’ around looking at everything when I thought no one could see.”
“Well…” She turned her foot. “Maybe. Just a little.”
Little Joe was grinning from ear to ear. “You saw Hop Sing chasing me with that knife.”
Elizabeth scowled. “Maybe.”
He thought a moment and then walked over to the door and opened it. “Hop Sing! Get up here!”
She paled as more of those funny words came up the staircase along with, “Little Joe no yell in house! Little Joe come down stairs talk to Hop Sing!”
“I got someone I want you to meet.” He glanced at her. “Come on, Hop Sing. Just this once.”
The funny words grew closer. A minute later the black-haired man with the tan skin appeared. He was scowling as he stepped into the room. One look at her turned it upside-down.
“Missy Elizabeth awake!”
“She sure is, Hop Sing.” Joe’s eyes were still on her. “Seems Bella here took a little walk this mornin’. She saw you chasing me with that butcher knife.”
Hop Sing shook his head. “Little Joe bad boy. Steal sausages.”
Her eyes were wide. “Were you really gonna stick him with that knife?”
Joe giggled. “I’m sure he was tempted.”
The funny-looking man came into the room and walked right up to her. He was taller than her, but shorter than Little Joe. His black eyes fixed on her and he smiled. “Hop Sing no hurt Little Joe. Hop Sing love number three son. Love all Cartwrights.”
Joe came over and put his arm around the funny man’s shoulders. “Hop Sing’s family, Bella. Pa hired him to cook for us about the time I was born. If there’s anyone to blame for how ornery I am, it’s him,” he said, giving him a punch in the shoulder. “He practically raised me!”
She looked from the man to Little Joe. “Really?”
“Really.” Joe released the other man. “He’s Chinese. I bet you ain’t never met anyone who’s Chinese before.”
“Little Joe not use ‘ain’t’,” Hop Sing said softly. ‘Ain’t’ not a word.”
He grinned. “See what I mean? Bad as pa.”
The Chinese man asked permission and then took her hands in his own. “Hop Sing sorry scare little girl. Make special breakfast for Missy Elizabeth.” He glared at Joe. “Had sausage, but now have none. Hope Missy like bacon with eggs.”
She looked from one to the other. “So you knew Little Joe when he was my age?”
“Hop Sing know Little Joe from when first born.” He patted her hand. “Missy come with Hop Sing. Tell many stories while finish breakfast.”
“Hey!” Joe said. “Now, don’t you go tellin’ any tales about me.”
The Chinese man locked her arm over his and walked toward the door.
“Little Joe not worry. Hop Sing ain’t.”
Roy Coffee’s crisp blue eyes rolled up and over the top of the gold-rim glasses anchored on his nose. They’d been a gift from his late wife and he loved them like he loved her, but he’d be danged if he didn’t need a new pair! Adjusting the spectacles again – and with only a glance at the wanted poster with the tiny little writin’ on it he was holdin’ in his hand – Roy turned his attention to the fresh, young, and edgy deputy named Luke Warren he’d made official only three days before. Luke was standin’ in front of his desk lookin’ for all the world like he was bound to bust a gut.
“Somethin’ I can do for you, Luke?”
“There’s been a brawl at the saloon!” he declared, all excited like.
Roy’s lips pursed. “Anyone dead?”
“A Cartwright involved?” He’d heard about Little Joe’s smashed foot, but that didn’t mean anythin’. It would take a mountain fallin’ on that boy to keep him down.
Clearly perplexed as to what was goin’ on, the sandy-haired young man – who was from out of the area – said, “I’m afraid I don’t know the Cartwrights, sir.”
Roy put the poster down on the desk top. “Well, that’ll be rectified soon enough,” he sighed. “There’s four of ‘em. Come to town at least once a week.”
“Are they trouble, sir?”
He held in his snort. ‘Trouble?’
“Ben Cartwright, he’s about the straightest man you’ll ever meet, Luke,” he said as he headed for the coffee pot with its day old coffee. “Honest as the day is long. A man of strong moral character. He don’t stand for anythin’ that ain’t fair. Got him a mite of a temper.” He shook his head as he poured. “Get’s him in a pickle all the time.”
“You said there were four?”
“Patience, boy,” the older man said as he took a sip and winced as the thick cold liquid slipped down his throat. “You gotta learn patience if you’re gonna make a good lawman.”
He winced again. ‘Sir’. Eyeing Luke as he took another sip, he wondered if the boy’d lied about his age. He’d said he was twenty-one when he signed up.
Looked more like twelve.
“Ben’s got three sons,” Roy said, heading back to the desk. “Adam’s the oldest. That boy’s got as sure a head on his shoulders as you’re like to find. Straight up and straight shootin’. There’s no nonsense with Adam.” He sat down. “Trouble is, that boy’s got principles so high he can’t quite climb to the top of them and if he gets somethin’ in his head, there’s no movin’ or changin’ it.” Roy smiled. “I’ve knocked heads with him and I can tell you, it’s a toss-up at to whose is harder!”
Roy’s grizzled brows leaped.
Was he really that bad?
“And the second and third sons?”
Roy leaned back and smiled. “Ben’s second son is called Hoss. His momma gave him another name, but Hoss just suits him fine. That boy’s big as a grizzly and just about as determined.”
“So he’s the troublemaker?”
The older man eyed the eager young one before him. Jumps to conclusions, he noted. Black and white with no gray areas in-between.
Second one, good. First one, bad.
He’d have to hammer that out of him.
“No. Hoss ain’t no troublemaker, and you can thank the good Lord for balancin’ out that giant frame of his with the biggest heart in the territory for that!” Roy put his cup down. “The only trouble with Hoss is he’s got a fierce love that sometimes makes him lose his head.”
“A woman, then.”
Roy scowled. “Boy, you a fortune teller?”
Luke shook his head.
“Then stop tryin’ to read my mind!”
His new deputy blanched, which wasn’t a good thing. Bein’ one of those pale-skinned, freckled-faced, red-headed types, he was afraid Luke would just plain up and faint the next time ‘round.
Roy slapped his hand on the desk. “And stop callin’ me, ‘sir’! Dag-nabit! You and me is partners now. Just call me plain old ‘Roy’.”
“Yes, sir…er…Roy… Sir….”
Well, at least the boy’s mama had raised him up right.
“If it’s not a woman, may I ask what this ‘fierce love’ of Hoss Cartwright’s is?”
Roy’s eyes strayed to the street outside his window, thinking of all the times he’d heard footsteps on his porch and the door had opened and whoever had stepped in had had two words on their lips….
“Little Joe,” he breathed.
Luke’s brows peaked toward that tousle of reddish hair that flopped on his forehead like a pony’s tail swatting flies.
“Littlest Cartwright. Boy’s barely a hair under eighteen and he’s got a nose for trouble.” Roy glanced at the wanted poster again and moved it with his finger. There were times when he thought he might just end up seein’ Little Joe’s name printed on one of them. “Only time I’ve had to come down hard on Hoss has been when he was protectin’ his little brother.”
Luke ‘s voice was hesitant. “So this time – with Little Joe – you mean he really is trouble?”
Roy sighed. What did he mean with Little Joe? The boy wasn’t exactly ‘trouble’, not as a lawman used the word, but Joe sure as Hell found himself swimmin’ in it more often than not.
“The boy’s got a hot temper and goes off half-cocked more than half of the time,” Roy admitted with a shake of his head. “He’s had to learn to hold his own with those two big brothers of his and, I can tell you, boy, he’s learned! Joe’s not a big feller – Hell, he’s practically half the size of Hoss – but he’s a scrapper. Most the fights I end up breakin’ up at the saloon, he’s come out on top!”
Luke hesitated. “You sound like you almost…approve.”
He had to admit it. Little Joe Cartwright held a special place in his heart. He’d never had no children of his own but, if he had, he wouldn’t have placed an order with the good Lord for one as contrary ornery as Joe. Still, that boy had a way of workin’ himself into your heart.
“Joe’s not a bad kid,” the older man said. “He’s just young and God didn’t give him the sense to know when he’s wrong.” Roy paused. “I guess, if you think about it, when I described his pa, I was describing Little Joe. The boy’s got a high sense of honor. He don’t like injustice, and he don’t back down.” Roy chuckled. “Which sits him square in the lap of trouble with a capital ‘T’ just about every time he opens his mouth.”
Luke was shaking his head. “This sounds like an…interesting town.”
Luke had come from Placerville with his young wife about a month back, taking over the old Smith place on the west side. They had twin boys and seemed to be right nice folks. With his other deputy away, he’d needed an extra hand. The boy’s pa was a lawman back East and so he’d thought he’d give him a try.
Snot-nosed or not.
Roy picked up the wanted poster and rose from his chair and went around the desk and placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You got to be home any special time today, Luke?” he asked.
His sandy head shook. “Amy’s ma is staying over for a few days, helping with the twins.”
“Well, it just so happens I’m about to ride out to the Ponderosa – that’s where all them Cartwrights live. Why don’t you come along? I’ll introduce you to Ben and the boys.”
“I’d like that, sir…Roy. But what about the fight at the saloon?”
That’s right. He’d been so busy talkin’ about the Cartwrights he’d dang near forgot that Luke had come in talkin’ about a buster at it.
“You said no one was dead?”
“One man was beat up bad. Another had a bottle broken over his head before he was thrown through the window and shattered the glass. There’s a saloon girl yelling about being mistreated, and the saloon keeper’s insisting we arrest the man who started it and see that someone covers the damages.”
Roy nodded thoughtfully.
“Business as usual,” he said with a smile. “Now, let’s go see those Cartwrights.”
The door to the Ponderosa swung in admitting three snow-covered figures. Two were laughing and the third was emitting a long line of unintelligible Mandarin Chinese. It was followed by a string of sharp words in English.
“Little Joe, Missy Elizabeth, bad, bad, bad! Go to fire, get warm! Hop Sing get dry clothes! Hop Sing fix hot tea to warm up! Hop Sing heat water for baths!” The Chinese man stopped, fists on hips, to glare at them. “You die of cold, you tell Mistah Ben, not Hop Sing’s fault!”
The snow in Joe’s hair was already melting. Water dripped from the brown ringlets on his forehead into his eyes. He was wiggling his way out of his wet wool coat and stopped with one arm still in it.
Snorting, he asked, “Ain’t that gonna be kind of hard, Hop Sing, if I’m dead?”
He heard Elizabeth giggle as their cook let go more Chinese words and then shouted in English, “Father find Little Joe buried, maybe he be happy! No more trouble around here with only number one and two sons!”
“Nah,” Joe laughed as the coat fell to the floor, leaving its own puddle. “Pa’d get old and fat fast with only that granite-head and big lovable Hoss around. All he’d do is sit and sip brandy and read books.”
“Father work hard. Deserve sit down and sip!” Hop Sing pointed to the floor. “Little Joe pick up coat. Not born in barn!”
Joe couldn’t help but laugh when he heard one of his pa’s favorite expressions coming out of the Chinese man’s mouth. He saluted.
“Yes, sir!” he said as he picked his coat up and hung it on the hook.
Hop Sing did a really mean impersonation of his pa’s glare too. He threw his hands in the air as he passed. Muttering more words under his breath, the Chinese man disappeared into the kitchen.
“He’s funny,” Elizabeth said.
Joe laughed. “Don’t you let Hop Sing hear you say that. He means every word.”
She had shinnied out of her wet coat too. Looking at her now, Joe felt a twinge of guilt. Elizabeth’s golden ringlets were dripping wet as was her dress – and she was shivering.
“Here,” he said gently, “let me help you out of your dress.”
“You gonna be my ‘ma’?” she smiled. “Like Hop Sing’s yours?”
He’d told her about that. Probably a mistake.
“I ain’t your, Ma, I’m….” Joe’s voice trailed off. What was he exactly? Elizabeth liked to call him ‘little brother’, but he wasn’t really that. They were friends but, well, it seemed like somehow they were more. As he sat down on the hearth and began to undo the buttons on the back of her dress, he realized his pa had known what he was talking about. Elizabeth was a child, but a child on the way to womanhood. He laughed quietly as he let go and watched her work her way out of the wet garment. It was funny, him feeling funny.
He certainly had enough experience with women.
Elizabeth turned to look at him. Joe shook his head. She sure was one of the prettiest he’d even seen.
Joe reached out to touch her underpinnings. They were wet too.
“I guess we got a little carried away with that snowball fight,” he said with a wince.
“Oh, but it was fun! I don’t care that I’m wet,” she protested.
“You wait here,” Joe said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Bounding up the stairs, he went to his room and pulled the banyan that he’d never worn out of the bureau. Adam had given it to him for his last birthday. Somehow the idea of slipping into a heavy satin robe and sitting around reading books suited Adam, but it didn’t suit him. With the garment in hand, he took the steps two at a time until he reached the bottom. Returning to Elizabeth, he held the banyan out so it screened her small form.
“You go ahead and take off those wet under things where I can’t see and then we’ll wrap this robe around you, all right?” he asked.
“Okay…” she said, a little hesitation in her voice. “How come?”
“‘How come’, what?”
“How come you can’t watch? Pa don’t hide when I get dressed.”
“Well, that’s ‘cause he’s your Pa. And I ain’t hidin’. I just ain’t watchin’.”
Did he irritate his brothers when he asked this many questions?
“‘Cause I’m a boy and you’re a girl.”
“Pa’s a boy,” she said as the first of the garments hit the floor.
“I know he’s a boy, but he’s your Pa…”
She gave him that look over her shoulder – the one he remembered giving his older brothers. It was a mixture of childish arrogance, annoyance, and just plain cussedness.
The blonde ringlets bobbed.
Another wet garment fell to the floor just like the snow had fallen off that tree branch his last carefully-aimed snowball had hit by mistake. Hop Sing, who was waiting in the carriage, had chosen just the moment he threw it to let off a mighty sneeze. It was accompanied by a long string of words that in no uncertain terms told him it was high-time they headed home. The sneeze made him start, and starting made him come down on his bad foot, which threw off his aim. The snowball flew. The branch shuddered and then shook as he dove for Elizabeth, and then dumped a wagonload of snow right on top of both of them.
Truth to tell, he hadn’t had such a hooting good time since the last time he’d gotten into a fight at the saloon!
Elizabeth looked over her shoulder at him again. “I’m done.”
Joe nodded and then wrapped the heavy garment around her small frame. It was a good thing he wasn’t a big man. He had to wrap it almost twice as it was before tying it. Suddenly, the image of Elizabeth wrapped in one of Hoss’ gigantic robes came to him and he started giggling.
He’d of never found her again!
The little girl was watching him. “You sure like to laugh, don’t you, little brother?”
“Best medicine there is, big sister,” he said, wiping away a tear. “And I should know!”
“Little Joe go crazy crazy?” Hop Sing asked in a slightly quieter tone as he entered the great room bearing a tray with two steaming mugs and a small plate of sandwiches. “Hop Sing hear boy laugh like hyena.”
Joe was still wiping tears. “I was thinkin’ about Elizabeth wrapped in one of Hoss’ robes,” he snorted.
The Chinese man smiled. Then he frowned. “Missy Elizabeth dry. Why Mistah Joe still wet?”
Joe looked down. The puddle under him was bigger than the one that had been under his coat. He’d forgotten he hadn’t changed yet.
“Hop Sing watch little missy. You go upstairs and – ”
He was cut off by a knock on the door.
Joe lifted Elizabeth up and placed her in his pa’s chair and scooted it closer to the fire. He kissed the top of her head and said, “You get some of that tea in you. I’m gonna see who’s at the door.”
As she nodded, he limped across the room, trailing water on his pa’s wood floor and thinking of the scolding he was gonna get if the water left marks. When he opened the door, wind and snow blew in, followed closely by Roy Coffee and another man he didn’t know. The stranger was wearing a badge, so he assumed he must be a new deputy. Looking at their feet, he saw a pile of snow.
At least now he didn’t need to worry about the water trailing off of him.
“Hey, Roy,” he grinned. “What brings you to the Ponderosa tonight? It ain’t too nice out there.”
Roy shook snow off his hat and then blew it from his grizzled mustache. “You been swimmin’ in this cold, Little Joe?”
He glanced at Elizabeth. Hop Sing was drying her hair with a thick towel.
“Snowball fight. The snow won.”
As the older man snorted Joe glanced at the younger one with him. What he saw made his eyebrows rise. It appeared the man disapproved of him and they hadn’t even been introduced!
Roy saw him looking. “This here’s Luke Warren. Luke and his family’s just arrived from Placerville. His pa’s been sheriff there.”
Joe held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Luke.”
Luke eyed him a moment longer and then took it. “Little Joe.”
His eyes went to Roy, who was smiling a little too much. “Just Joe, if you don’t mind.”
The sandy-haired man nodded.
“So, you didn’t answer my question,” Joe said, turning back to Roy. “What brings you to the Ponderosa?”
“Foolishment!” Hop Sing declared as he moved past, wagging a finger at them before heading to the kitchen. “Many wet men! Many puddles on Mistah Ben’s floor! Hop Sing go get many rags!”
Luke looked at bit bamboozled by the whole thing.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, Luke,” Roy said in a soft aside. “It’s Hop Sing really runs the Ponderosa.” Then the lawman reached into the pocket of his coat and drew out the folded piece of paper. As he opened it, the older man asked, “Your Pa home, son?”
Joe shook his head.
“Adam?” At another shake, Roy asked hopefully, “Hoss?”
“Nope. Just Hop Sing and me – and Elizabeth. There was a preacher here earlier – the one who got off the stage with Bella – but he left this morning before the worst of the snow hit. As to Pa and Adam, they went to help Hoss. They’ll be on the range for a week or so movin’ the cattle north before the snow gets too deep. Nearly all the hands went with them.”
The lawman’s frown deepened.
Joe bristled. “Hey! I can take care of everyone here – ”
“Now don’t you go firin’ up that temper of yours,” Roy cautioned. “You’ll be provin’ everythin’ my new deputy here’s heard about you, and Luke ain’t been in town all that long!” The older man offered the paper to him. As he took it, Joe realized it was a wanted poster. “It’s just that this here feller is one mean son-of-a-gun and I ain’t exactly sure I feel safe with only you and Hop Sing and the girl here.”
Joe looked at the poster. ‘Mean son-of-a-gun’ about said it all. The man staring out at him from the printed page wasn’t the type he would have wanted to come upon unawares in an alley, that’s for sure. The outlaw had bushy black hair. A solid fringe of it ran across his forehead like an upside-down cresting wave. He had narrowed slits for eyes and a straight-line mouth that looked like it had never known laughter. Worry or hate or maybe both had plowed deep lines around his lips and dug even deeper furrows between his thick dark brows. Beneath the artist’s drawing there was a long list of crimes, chief among them robbery and murder.
“Fleet Rowse?” he asked. “Sounds like a mean cuss. Should I have heard of him?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Roy replied as he took the poster back, folded it, and returned it to his pocket. “Worked for your Pa years ago when you were just a little tyke. ‘Fore your ma died.”
So, at least twelve years before.
“You’re worried he’ll head here? Why?”
The older man shook his head. “Well now, if I was a man who made a livin’ by takin’ what other’s hard work has earned, and I’d seen the Ponderosa once upon a time and knew what your Pa kept in that there locked safe, I’d be doin’ me a good bit of thinkin’ about whether or not I could get that there money for myself. Rowse’ll know this time of year you got payroll there waitin’ on the men to return from the drive.”
It was nearly empty now, but he didn’t bother to tell Roy that. Pa had been afraid to leave thousands of dollars in it with Elizabeth at that house for just such a reason.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed, “but Rowse’ll also know we keep that money safe. Pa left hands to keep watch. They’re riding about a mile out from the house.”
“True. True.” Roy pulled at his whiskers. “But Fleet’s gonna know your routine. Goes on right like clockwork year after year.” He grinned. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You know what I mean?”
Joe glanced at Hop Sing as the Chinese man reentered the room, dry rags in hand. “Look, Roy, I appreciate your concern – and the warning – but we’ll be just fine. Won’t we Hop Sing?”
He was shooing Roy and Luke back toward the door. “Men go away! We fine here! Take wet boots outside!”
The lawman continued to frown. “You got all the doors and windows locked, Little Joe?”
He laughed. “Heck no! I threw them all open to let in the cold and the snow.” Sobering, Joe admitted, “They’re all locked, Roy. Like I said, I appreciate your concern and you riding out here to tell us about Rowse, but, really, we’ll be okay.”
As Roy glanced warily at Hop Sing, who was getting ready to move from mopping the floor to his boots, the older man added softly, “I’m accountable to your Pa, you know that, son, you being under eighteen and all.”
“Hop Sing not under eighteen. Hop Sing old man! You go!” their cook said as he rose to his feet. “Hop Sing keep Little Joe and Missy safe! Little Joe smart. Missy smarter. Hop Sing smartest of all!”
Joe’s eyes twinkled. “There you go, Roy. You heard it from the emperor’s mouth.”
The Chinese man’s eyes flicked to him. An affectionate smile lit them even if the emotion didn’t reach Hop Sing’s turned-down lips.
The lawman threw his hands in the air. “You see what I told you, Luke,” he said to the younger man who had remained by the door, watching the scene unfold with disbelieving eyes. “Ain’t no one like the Cartwrights!” Roy straightened his hat and brought the bill down over his eyes. As he turned away, he said, “Let’s get goin’, boy. It’s a long ride back into town through blowin’ snow.”
Joe glanced at Elizabeth. She was sitting by the fire with her bare toes pointed at the flames, warming herself. He felt just a twinge of fear for her. Not for himself, mind you, but her.
“You think maybe you should just stay the night, Roy? It’s gettin’ late and the snow’s flying.”
The lawman shook his head. “Thanks for the invite, but I got me a warm office back in Virginia City and a mountain of paperwork bigger than any snow drift to go through.” Roy glanced at his companion who had his hand on the latch. “‘Sides, Luke here’s a new pa and I’m sure he wants to get home to that pretty little wife of his and those twins.”
Joe followed them as Luke opened the door and the two lawmen stepped out. The wind was howling like a hungry wolf and the snow was steady. There were several inches on the ground. He knew from experience, though, that those inches could soon be one or two feet in the higher elevations.
A sudden concern for his pa and brothers hit him. They were out in this while he was here, at the ranch house, safe and warm. Glancing up, he tried to judge the sky. From the looks of it, it would be at least a couple of hours before the storm moved on. And only Heaven knew if there was another one behind it.
Joe nodded absentmindedly. “Sounds good. You take care on the road, Roy, you hear?”
Luke nodded and Roy waved as the two men mounted their horses, turned the animal’s noses toward town, and began to move. Joe watched until they disappeared around the barn, becoming one with the white night. Then he turned, intending to go into the house. At that moment, however, he heard another sound.
A woman singing.
Turning back, Joe squinted into the blowing snow, looking for the source. It wasn’t two minutes later that a snow-covered rig, driven by a single woman, came in from the opposite side of the barn. The rig crossed the yard and stopped in front of the house.
The woman in the carriage was all bundled up. She had a winter hat on and a scarf wound around her throat. Between them they concealed just about everything but her eyes.
“Is this the Ponderosa?” she asked in a muffled voice.
Joe limped toward her. “It sure is, Ma’am. I’m Joe Cartwright. Can I help you?”
Her small form seemed to crumple. “Oh, thank God! I thought I would never make it! I must have driven right past the house the first time!”
“You could’ve chosen a better night to visit,” he laughed. A second later he offered his hand. “What brings you out here?”
The woman took his hand and let him help her out of the buggy. “I’m Mrs. Guthrie,” she said, somewhat breathless. “Here to help with the little girl.”
That explained it. Her being a widow and all. He’d wondered why she had come out alone.
“Pa said you were coming. Sorry I wasn’t here to help you. You’re early.”
“I thought, with the storm….”
Joe reached into the carriage and drew out a large carpet bag. “This all there is?” he asked, looking in the buggy’s back seat.
“That’s it. I don’t need much. Mister Cartwright said it would only be for a week or so. Maybe two at most.”
He nodded. “Until Monday. Pa and my brothers are due back then.”
Joe linked his arm with hers and slowly led the way, making certain she didn’t trip on something hidden beneath the snow. When they opened the door, wind and more snow blew in with them.
He could hear Hop Sing sigh clear across the room.
Elizabeth, who was still by the fire, turned to look at them. Then she rose and crossed the room, dragging the ends of his banyan on the floor behind her.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
Joe turned toward her. His look was apologetic. Here they went, with Pa’s old battle-axe there to watch over them like they were two snot-nosed kids. As the woman behind him divested herself of all of her winter gear, he said, “This is Mrs. Guthrie, Bella. The woman Pa – ”
Elizabeth looked stunned.
Puzzled, Joe turned toward Mrs. Guthrie.
‘Stunned’ was the right word!
Standing before him was a beautiful woman – maybe thirty years old – with a head of wavy chestnut hair, green eyes, a peach-perfect complexion, and a wide, generous mouth. The cold had given her cheeks a crisp apple red bloom.
Joe swallowed and his eyebrows popped toward the curly fringe of hair on his forehead. “I…didn’t get your first name.”
She laughed. “I didn’t give it. Aurora.”
He was in love.