Bridging the Gap (by Helen A)

Summary:  Adam returns to find that he and Joe must readjust to each other. —  Sequel to ‘Care Package’.  Written 10-01.  

Rated: K (48,390 words)

The Care Package Series:

The Care Package
Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

Jim Dawson whistled softly as he rode into the main corral before the large ranch house, which housed his employers, the Cartwrights. Today felt like an extra fine day somehow. The sky was clear and blue, the birds were chirping gaily and a soft breeze blew through the trees covering every part of the vast Ponderosa. It was simply the kind of day that made a man feel good and glad to be alive. A steady horse beneath him and the prospect of a good meal and a game of cards ahead of him made Jim smile. He was a man who worked hard and took time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. The fact that he’d been sent to Virginia City for a few hours today to pick up the mail and send a few telegrams for Mr. Cartwright, and had therefore had time to stop in for a cold beer with a pretty saloon gal hadn’t hurt his feelings a bit either.

“Howdy, Jim!”

Jim heard the voice and shaded his eyes from the sun to get a look at the owner, though in truth he had known who it was without bothering to look. It was hard not to when he was the only little young’un on the whole spread. “Howdy, Little Joe! You getting them broncs busted for me, partner?”

The eleven year old boy laughed and hopped down from the fence where he had been watching a couple of the men tame the wild horses his father wanted to turn into riding stock. Little Joe was not considered big enough or strong enough to do the job himself, but everyone knew it would only be a matter of time. He was already an amazing rider and once the initial fit of hellfire and stubbornness had been ridden out of a wild horse, there was nobody on the whole Ponderosa who was better at training and gentling those animals than this boy.

“Cole and Danny have broken three horses since you left for town,” Joe reported to the hand, “but they’ve both gotten pitched off that big red sorrel twice already.”

Jim dismounted and hitched his thumbs into his belt, approaching the corral with an exaggerated mosey that set the boy laughing again. “Well, now, maybe I ought to just get on in there and show ‘em how it’s done!”

“Maybe you just should!” shouted Cole McGwire from the fence where he’d been listening to the exchange with a toothy grin. Cole was a big man, twenty years old with a shock of bright red curls, vivid blue eyes and a hint of a Scottish burr. He winked broadly at his partner, Danny Martinez, a nineteen year old Mexican vaquero who had signed on to the Ponderosa just recently. “What do you think, Dan? You think the old man can show us how it’s done?”

Danny thoughtfully smoothed his thin goatee, casting a doubtful eye on Dawson. “No, amigo, I think he is much too far past his prime to attempt anything so dangerous. Say, Jim, there’s a nice rocking chair on the porch over there if you need a rest after that long ride in from town!”

The two young cowboys howled with laughter at Danny’s jest.

Jim stooped and clutched at his back, puckering his lips over his teeth and squinting at his friends, threatening them with an imaginary cane. “Why, you whippersnappers! In my day, we knew how to show some respect!” This performance from a man who was only twenty five years old himself, sent his two fellow ranch hands and the boy at his side into fresh gales of laughter. Jim chuckled too. “Actually, boys I think I’ll leave the dirty work to you today. I got that fence to check on the north rim, just as soon as I drop off the mail to the house.”

“I’ll take it,” volunteered Joe. “I was about to head in anyway. They’ll probably be calling me any second for…”

“Lunchtime, Little Joe!” The voice of Joe’s father, Ben Cartwright suddenly bellowed out clear and strong from the doorway of the main house.

“Lunch,” finished Joe with a grin.

The three cowboys grinned back at him. A man could set his watch by the meals Hop Sing served to the Cartwright family. Jim fished into his saddlebag and pulled out a string tied bundle of letters and papers, which he handed to the child. “Looks like there’s one for you today Joe, right there on top.”

An expression of delight brightened the boy’s cherubic face. “It must be from Adam!”

Joe’s oldest brother, Adam, had been away attending college in Boston for nearly five years and though none of the three ranch workers had ever met him, they felt as though they had. His brothers talked about him all the time and had been known to share interesting items from his letters with anyone who would listen. Jim Dawson had several younger siblings himself and he appreciated the thoughtfulness of a brother who would think to send some of his letters home to a child. Though the contents were usually for the entire family, about one in three letters came addressed to either Little Joe or his brother Hoss. It was obvious how much Joe delighted in seeing his own name on the envelopes, for they were the only letters he ever got. His father understood the importance of the gesture as well, for Joe had proudly told the men that he got to read those letters first rather than just hand them over.

“Well, now, aren’t you gonna open ‘er up and see what he has to say?” Cole prompted, after watching the boy just stand there admiring the envelope for a few seconds.

Joe nodded and drew his letter out from the packet, carefully slitting the edge with the pocketknife Adam had sent him for his last birthday. He silently surveyed the contents for a moment, and then a look of utter shock froze his features. Quickly, his eyes scanned the page again and a huge grin broke out on his face. A joyful scream rose straight from his toes and all the way up as he threw his arms around Jim, nearly spinning him off his feet with the force of the hug. “He’s comin’ home, Jim! Cole, Danny, my brother Adam is comin’ home!” With that, the boy took off toward the house at a dead run, waving the paper and screaming the news loud enough to be heard clear back in Virginia City. Jim chuckled and rubbed his neck. Yes indeed, this was a right special kind of day.

 

Chapter 2

The stagecoach jostled violently as it hit a chuckhole in the road and Adam Cartwright jerked himself into an upright position to avoid being unceremoniously dumped on the floor. He had been trying to doze and had slumped down in the seat, but it had been a long time since he’d ridden anywhere by coach, and he had forgotten just how much bodily abuse was involved. The effort had been worthless anyway. He would have had just as little success sleeping if the stage had been a padded buggy on rails. He was almost home and the combination of anticipation and anxiety he felt had his stomach tied in tight knots. His heart was fairly singing with the joy of being back in his own beloved Nevada territory, and the longing he felt to see his family again was overwhelming, but there was sadness present too. He had grown to love Boston. There was a kind of satisfaction in its ordered streets and civilized way of life that Adam had never found in the west, and he wondered apprehensively if he would be able to be truly happy away from it. He had his degree in engineering now, and though there was no specific degree program available for architecture, he had specialized his studies in that field and had graduated with honors two weeks before. Though he had gone after the degree intending to return to the Ponderosa and apply what he’d learned to the many facets of ranch life he would be wholly or partially in charge of, a niggling doubt ate at him. Suppose his newfound skills proved useless on the ranch and he wound up just an overeducated cowhand; somebody the other hands put up with just because he was the boss’s son and not for his own contributions. Adam did not think he would be able to stand that.

“Hey, wake up Cartwright!” The hand slapping his knee startled Adam out of his thoughts and he looked across the coach at the smiling face of his best friend, Paul Dwyer. “You’ve been pushing and cajoling me into making this visit for about five years now. Don’t tell me you’re too busy regretting it now to even show me the sights!”

Adam colored slightly, but could not take offense at the rebuke. Paul was right. They had been planning this journey together for a long time and he should not let a little misplaced melancholy destroy their fun. He smiled and studied his friend for a moment, remembering how easily Paul had started up a conversation with the shy newcomer from the west on their first day of class registration, and how grateful he had been that day to have someone to talk to. That companionship had quickly become a constant in his life and Adam cherished every day of it, knowing how easily he could have spent his entire college career just keeping to himself and never opening up to anyone at all. “I’m sorry, Paul. I guess seeing all this familiar landscape again had me lost in thought. I didn’t mean to ignore you.”

“That’s okay, pal, I’m sure I’d be the same way if I hadn’t been home in five years. You look all you want and don’t worry about me.” Paul gave him an understanding smile. “I’ll just have some of this lunch I picked up at the last way station.”

That comment drew an appreciative chuckle from Adam’s throat, dispelling the last of his somber mood. Though physically slight and rather childlike in his features, Paul’s appetite was a thing of legend among his peers. He still stood nearly a foot shorter than Adam, and still weighed just enough to keep him from floating away in the breeze, and his thin flyaway blonde hair still looked like an untidy haystack as he idly flipped his new hat on and off his head. He was twenty three, the same age as Adam, but he looked about seventeen, a fact he had used to his advantage more than once when his natural mischief and thirst for adventure had dragged both he and his conscience, as he called Adam, into hot water situations.

Paul had just finished his own higher education, emerging from it an ordained minister. It had been a considerable shock to everyone who knew wild, fun-loving, mischievous Paul, when he had boldly announced one day after class that he had decided to transfer to the seminary, but he had pursued his dream with the same energy and enthusiasm with which he did everything else. He and Adam had still managed to spend many of their weekends together, often on double dates with young ladies unable to resist Adam’s looks and Paul’s charm, which seemed to only increase when they considered the possibility of landing a would-be minister for a husband. This past year, it had been much harder to find free time so they had not seen each other much, but Paul had expressed interest in trying his new starched white collar out in his friend’s part of the world. They had agreed that when Adam went home, Paul would go with him. Adam wondered whether any prospective parishioners would be willing to trust care of their souls to a man who looked young enough to be their son.

“Do you think there’ll be much business for me out this way, Adam?” Paul asked, seeming to read his thoughts. “I sure don’t fancy the idea of going back home to Philadelphia and taking my father up on his offer to join the family business, but I’d hate to have all this schooling go to waste.”

Adam smiled. “Paul, I think you’ll have more business, as you call it, than you know what to do with before long. I know there’s a lot of folks out this way who’ll be excited beyond words with the prospect of having their very own local minister. I think they’re tired of getting married by Judge Mayfield or the circuit preacher, Reverend Wyatt.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Paul asked curiously.

“Oh, nothing much. Just that the man is 90 years old if he’s a day, and he can’t recall where he’s preaching half the time. Pa wrote that he started three marriage ceremonies last month with the words, ‘we are gathered here to mourn the loss’. Frankly, I think he’s beginning to make them a little nervous.”

“Did you remember to write and tell your family when you’d be home, and that you’d invited me along for the ride?” Paul asked, suddenly changing the subject, which told Adam just how nervous he really was over the prospect of beginning his new profession. Paul could talk a subject into the ground, then dig it up and start all over again, but when he got nervous he tended to bounce from topic to topic.

“You know I did,” replied Adam calmly. “You were right there in the room when I wrote to them and I specifically made sure to tell them to have the spare room made up for you, because you’d be staying with us a while.”

“Oh, that’s right, you did. I forgot,” he apologized. “I hope your father doesn’t object. Your brothers will probably want you all to themselves after all this time, too. Hope they don’t all see me as an interloper.”

Rolling his eyes with a sigh, Adam kicked his friend lightly on the shin. “Will you knock it off! I’ve told you about a thousand times that you’ll be welcome. As for Joe and Hoss, you’re just as likely to get adopted by them as cause any resentment. I don’t think those two have ever met anyone they consider a stranger in their entire lives. I’ll bet you five dollars that they squeeze your entire life story and a promise to go fishing out of you within 20 minutes of our arrival!”

Paul laughed. “I think you’re exaggerating just a might. I say they’ll be way too wrapped up in you to give me much notice for at least a day.”

Adam held out his hand and cocked an eyebrow. “Then take the bet. I know my little brothers.”

“I really shouldn’t. Gambling is supposed to be kind of sinful, you know, especially for a minister,” Paul reminded him. Then he grinned, obviously decided that minister or no, it wouldn’t hurt to make a few easy dollars. He reached out and shook his friend’s hand firmly. His eyes sparkled with fun as he said, “I can’t wait until we get there.”

Adam looked out the coach window. He could see the edge of the Sierras peeking up above the landscape if he craned his neck just right and his heart leaped at the sight. “Neither can I,” he breathed. “Neither can I!”

 

Chapter 3

“Will you two please stop fidgeting? The stage will be here any minute!” barked Ben Cartwright, placing a firm hand atop Hoss’ knee to stop him from bouncing his heel up and down and shaking the entire bench upon which they sat waiting. He reached his other hand out and pulled Little Joe’s fingers away from the shiny brass buttons of his Sunday suit, which he was twisting around and around in nervous anticipation of Adam’s arrival.

“But Pa, that’s what you said when we first got here and it’s been ages!” protested Little Joe. “You don’t think it lost a wheel or got attacked by Indians or anything, do you?”

Ben quirked an eyebrow and pulled out his pocket watch, noting that his son sounded more excited than worried over his speculations. He held out the timepiece for Joe to look at. “Joseph, it’s only been fifteen minutes since we arrived. Much too early to start imagining things.”

“Yes, sir,” he mumbled. Then, suddenly, Joe jumped up and pointed to an approaching cloud of dust, shouting, “There it is, Pa!”

The stage rumbled slowly to a stop, more dust blooming through the still air around it as the driver pulled the reins and set the brake. He jumped down from his perch and placed the portable steps down in front of the door and opened it, helping out a woman and a little girl. The Cartwrights were all standing close, breathlessly waiting as a small wiry-looking blonde boy got out followed by the person they’d all been waiting for.

“Adam!” shouted Hoss excitedly; grabbing his arm and enveloping him in a bear hug before the startled young man could even speak.

Adam laughed and returned the hug, pounding Hoss on the back. “My gosh, boy, you’re a tree! What has Hop Sing been feeding you?”

“The question is when has Hop Sing been feeding him, and the answer is, always!” Joe piped up saucily as his brothers ended their embrace. Adam turned to look at him and his mouth dropped open. Joe grinned and flung his arms around his big brother. “Welcome home, Adam!”

“I don’t believe it!” Adam said, ruffling the curly brown hair, which seemed to be the only thing about Little Joe that had not changed in the last five years. “Where did my baby brother go?”

Joe beamed at the comment; pleased that Adam had noticed the change. “I guess he’s gone now, but you’ll get used to me pretty quick.” He laughed at his own joke and Adam laughed with him, delighted to hear that unique giggle again.

“Welcome back, boy.”

Adam looked up at the sound of a deeply melodious voice and felt as if the air had been removed from his lungs, pushed out by the enormous swelling of his heart as he beheld the smiling face of his father. As much as he had missed seeing his two little brothers over the years, it was this man whose absence had been most keenly felt. Adam moved slowly across the sidewalk, unable to find any words, but knowing that his feelings were probably written all over his face. He reached out, and took his father’s hand to shake it, touched that his father had remembered how uncomfortable he had always been with public displays of affection. They smiled into each other’s eyes a moment, then Adam threw his natural reserve to the winds and hugged with all his might. “Pa,” he choked out. “It’s so good to see you.”

Ben hugged back, surprised but incredibly touched. He held his boy close for a moment, then let him go. He tried to hide his emotion behind a sniffle and a gruff clearing of his throat as he gave Adam a hearty clap on the shoulder. “Well, Adam. Aren’t you planning on introducing us to your friend?”

Adam grinned as he looked over his shoulder and spotted Paul hanging back by the luggage, smiling broadly as he beheld the tender family moment. “Paul, come over here,” he ordered, ushering his friend into the curious circle of his family. “I’d like you to meet my brothers, Hoss and Little Joe, and my father, Ben Cartwright. Everyone, this is my friend whom I’ve written so much about over the years, Paul Dwyer. Or should I say, Reverend Dwyer.”

Ben smiled and shook hands, then Hoss did the same, nearly pumping Paul’s arm right out of its socket in his enthusiasm. “Howdy, Paul. Boy, I didn’t think we was ever gonna get to meet you face to face. Adam has written so much about you, I feel like I know you already. Ain’t your family upset that you chose to come out here instead of going back home now that you’re out of school?”

“Uh, well, they’re a little disappointed that I’ve chosen not to stay in Philadelphia, but they’ll get over it,” Paul stammered, a bit overwhelmed by the greeting.

“Adam says you’ve got two little sisters and a brother about my age, so I’m sure your folks will have plenty of help back home,” Little Joe added sagely. “You ever been this far to the west before?”

“Well, no, actually this is my first time away from the east at all,” Paul said, smiling at the boy’s bright grin. “I’ve always wanted to come, though.”

“Maybe we can take a ride around the Ponderosa tomorrow and I can help Adam show you the ranch!” Joe was bouncing up and down on his feet; his mind already filled with various destinations that Adam’s friend simply had to see. “Not that you could see it all in one day, but I can show you some of the best spots. We’ll figure out which horse you want to ride while you’re here and we can go anywhere you like.”

Paul chuckled. “Well, that sounds great, Little Joe, but I’m afraid I’ve never ridden a saddle horse before, so I might need a little help.”

Joe and Hoss looked at each other with incredulous glances. “You’ve never ridden a horse?” Hoss said with awe. Then he blushed as he remembered the profession his brother’s friend had chosen. “Oh, well, I guess maybe you wouldn’t have, being a preacher and all.”

Adam laughed. “It’s got nothing to do with that, Hoss. Lots of men of the cloth ride horses. Paul’s just a city boy, is all. He hasn’t had the change to spend much time out in the country.”

Little Joe giggled. “Golly, ain’t they got horses in the city? We’ll have to do something about teaching you how to ride right away. Everybody does out here!”

“Boys, boys,” Ben interrupted, deciding he’d better rescue this poor young man before he got roped into more than he could handle. “Lots of people in cities are more used to riding carriages than horses. It’s not as uncommon as you seem to think. If Paul wants to learn to ride, I’m sure you’ll both be of great help teaching him, but in the meantime I’m sure he and your brother are both tired from their long journey and we have plenty of time for sightseeing later.”

“Sorry, Pa,” they chorused. At Ben’s gesture, they moved to grab the luggage and load it into the back of the surrey. Joe clambered into the vehicle’s back seat, behind Adam and flanking Paul who sat with Hoss on his other side. As the surrey began to move towards the road leading to the Ponderosa, Joe could be heard saying, “Hey, Paul, I always thought ministers were supposed to be old. How come you decided to be one?”

“Well, if a minister is really lucky, Little Joe, he has what’s known as a calling. That’s a sure certain feeling deep inside his heart and mind that God exists and has chosen him to help spread the message of His love and teaching to other people. I found that calling one afternoon a few years ago. I was out on the grounds by myself, studying for an upcoming exam and daydreaming about a young lady I wanted to take to a dance. Then right out of nowhere, it hit me. Boom!” Paul shrugged with a slightly self-conscious smile. “I knew at that moment that I’d figured out what I was meant to do with my life, and there was no going back.”

“Wow,” Hoss commented, impressed. “Guess that’s like me wanting to take care of animals, and Joe wanting to be a bronc rider and spend his life around horses. We just knew, from the moment we first knew anything, that that’s what we was meant for.”

Paul looked thoughtfully at the young man, then nodded, pleased with the comparison. “That’s it exactly.”

Joe picked that moment to swing the conversation back to his original line of interest. “Speaking of horses, if you want to take a buggy instead of a horse tomorrow, I know a really great fishing spot we could still go to. You want to?”

Paul grinned and passed something up to Adam, who was half turned in his seat, watching the exchange with a gleeful expression. “Assuming I don’t go down in flames before the Virginia City congregation tomorrow morning, I’d love to, Little Joe.”

Adam looked down into his palm and faced forward, trying not to laugh. It was a five-dollar gold piece.

 

Chapter 4

“…So then me and Jim braced them ropes on either side of the mother cow to keep her from thrashing around and hurting herself even more. The poor thing was in so much pain she didn’t know what she was doing, and I was scared to death she was gonna lash out and kick Little Joe in the head.”

“And you were in the bog with the cow?” Paul confirmed, eyes alight as he turned to Little Joe. “Why didn’t you just pull her out and then worry about the baby after she was on high ground again?”

“Well, we couldn’t, see,” Hoss explained, determined to finish telling the story before Joe could steal the spotlight. “Between her being stuck in that mud hole and having that calf suddenly decide it was time to be born, she was just in too much of a panic to do anything but resist. I was about to go in after her myself, but Jim said he needed my strength to help him hold her steady cause she kept churning herself deeper and deeper into that bog.”

“I could tell it wasn’t too deep for a person to wade in, so I jumped into the mud as soon as Jim and Hoss secured their lines. I tried pushing her out from the back while they pulled, but I could see the calf starting to poke out already. Problem is, he was coming out backwards and I didn’t know what to do,” Joe confessed.

Paul whistled. “So it was a breech birth. Did you get it turned around?”

Joe grimaced; looking a little nauseated at the memory and nodded his head. “Jim told me I had to help her and gave me directions on what to do. I had to stick my arms all the way up her…well, you know, and push the calf around so it’d come out head first.”

Hoss grinned and slapped his younger brother lightly on the leg. “He did a good job, too. For just a minute I thought sure he was gonna faint, but he held together. Got that baby out and safely up on the bank, then helped us heave that mama cow out too. Both of them were right as rain, but Joe was so tired I thought I’d have to carry him home. Poor little fella was covered so thick in mud, I couldn’t tell where he left off and the bog started!”

The family and Paul all laughed heartily when Joe scowled and poked Hoss in the ribs with his elbow. Soon Joe smiled a little, and said, “Pa said he was proud of me for doing such a good job, but he still made me go back to school the next day. Said I couldn’t miss out on my math test.” He tone clearly expressed the lack of fairness in his father’s decision, but he got no sympathy from his audience.

“Well, I’ve never delivered a calf, Little Joe,” Paul told him with a grin. “I have helped to deliver a human baby, though, and just between us I think I’d rather do the arithmetic.”

Joe returned his new friend’s impish expression with one of his own. “Just between us, I wouldn’t!”

“All right, young man,” Ben said, checking his watch with an indulgent smile. “In honor of your brother’s return, I’ve allowed you to stay up an hour past your bedtime already, but we’ve got church tomorrow and I don’t want you falling asleep in Reverend Dwyer’s face on his first day, so get on upstairs.”

“Come on, little buddy, I’ll tuck you in myself,” Adam offered, rising to his feet with a catlike stretch. He had missed their once-nightly ritual over the years and was looking forward to a few minutes alone with Joe.

“Okay,” he said agreeably. As he mounted the stairs, he turned back to Paul and said, “Preach about something interesting tomorrow, okay? I’ve been telling my friends about you coming and they’re all bringing their folks to take a look at you.”

“I’ll do my best,” Paul promised. He grinned over at Hoss and Ben as Adam shooed his little brother up the stairs. “No pressure there!” he laughed, shaking his head.

 

Chapter 5

“I’m awful glad you’re back, Adam. I was starting to kind of worry that you might like Boston so much you’d never come home again.” Joe was lying on his bed atop the covers, rolled onto his stomach. He had put on his nightshirt and washed his face as he did each night, then flung his body onto the mattress with enough force to nearly jounce Adam right off onto the floor. He lay now with his pillow scrunched up high between his arms, chin resting upon it as he stared up at his brother, his lower legs swinging through the air behind him in a rhythmic response to the tune filtering out from Adam’s guitar. Adam had always played for him at night when he was younger and he had requested it now, needing to find some connection to a past that, for him, was growing distressingly dim. “I was thinking that maybe if you didn’t come back, I could make my way out east to see you, but Pa would’ve made me wait until I was grown up to go by myself.”

“Don’t you think Pa would’ve brought you before then?” Adam asked, eyes reflecting the warming he had felt in his heart at hearing his little brother’s words.

Joe’s face scrunched up in thought, and then he shrugged. “Maybe, but every year since you’ve been gone he’s talked about getting out to pay you a visit, then we never go because something always happens to keep Pa from leaving the ranch for too long. He really wanted to, though!” He tacked that last bit on hastily; fearing that Adam might misunderstand and think Pa had been making up reasons not to see him.

Adam understood perfectly and comforted him with a smile. “I know. He always told me that when he wrote to me, but I understood. I couldn’t come back here on vacations for the same reason. Never enough time.” He paused, dropping his eyes to his guitar and strumming quietly for a few seconds. “Joe, you didn’t really think I wouldn’t ever want to come home, did you?”

“I-I’m not sure,” the boy responded. “I used to lie awake sometimes and think about all the things you wrote about in your letters. About how much you liked learning how to build things and all the friends you had, and the places you went. You sounded really happy. Like maybe you liked all that stuff better than you did home.”

There was dismay and a hint of trepidation as Little Joe spoke, as though he feared that by reminding Adam of how much he had enjoyed his life in the east he might cause him to jump the next stage back to Boston. Concerned, Adam laid his guitar aside and wriggled around until he was lying face up on Joe’s bed, close to his side where he could look up into his face. As he stared into those eyes, seeing the way they looked at him with the same faith and trust they had so vividly expressed the last time Adam had seen them so many years ago, he found himself telling the truth where he had meant to tell a comforting fib. “Some parts of it I guess I did like better, Little Joe. Boston is an exciting city with lots of wonderful things that I’ll probably never find an equal to here at home.” He saw the sadness and disappointment shimmering like tears in Joe’s eyes and reached a hand up to lightly grip the back of his neck, giving him a smile. “But something was waiting for me back in Nevada that meant more to me than anything I ever found in the east.”

Joe breathed a little sigh and flashed his brother a grin, showing off the space left by his recently lost upper right canine tooth. “Thanks, Adam. I sure did miss you.”

“I missed you, too, Joe; all of you. I want to thank you for all the letters you sent me while I was away. I don’t you don’t like writing letters much, but they always brought me home for a little while and I appreciated every single one.”

Little Joe flopped over to lie on his back, copying his brother’s position of having one arm curled behind his head and the other resting atop his stomach. “It was nothing. Writing to you wasn’t like writing to relatives to thank ‘em for birthday presents or whatever, like Pa makes me do. When I write to them I can never think of anything to say, but with you it was easy. I’d just ask Hoss what he wrote to you about, then give you my side. Usually I could think of other stuff after that and you usually asked me questions, so that helped.”

Adam smiled. “So you didn’t find my own letters too boring, then? I always wondered.”

With a laugh, Joe sat back up and looked at him. “They were fine as long as you weren’t droning on about being in love. Seems like every other letter for a while there was all full of mushy stuff!” He clasped his hands and fluttered his lashes. “Miss Cosgrove has eyes as blue as Lake Tahoe in springtime. Miss Daniels smiles, and it’s like the sun has broken through the clouds on a stormy day. Miss Harris is the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen. When we dance together, I feel…”

“Okay! Okay! Enough already!” Adam protested, smacking Joe with his own pillow. Joe grinned and flopped back down. “My God, I haven’t thought of Evelyn Daniels since my freshman year! What did you do, memorize every letter I ever sent home?”

“Uh huh,” Joe replied, surprising him. “Pa keeps them all in his desk, but I hated to ask him for them, so I’d just read them a few extra times when they first came. That’s why I was happy to find out Paul was such a nice person. I always thought he sounded like somebody I’d get along with, but when you said he’d become a minister I thought maybe you’d been making up some of the things you two did together. I’m glad you didn’t, Adam. I like him!”

“That’s good to hear,” Adam said happily. “I always thought he’d fit right in like one of the family, and I told him so, but I think both of us were relieved to find out that actually was the case.”

Joe was interested. “Is that why he gave you that gold piece? Did you two have a bet as to whether he’d like us or not?”

A hearty laugh rang out as Adam regarded his all-too-observant sibling. “You don’t miss a thing, do you? Actually, the bet was about whether you and Hoss would like Paul, not the other way around. I knew he’d like you. You two are like two peas in a pod as far as personality goes.”

“Yeah, he’s a great guy,” Joe agreed, making Adam grin. Joe sat up again, his face filled with awe. “And did you see how much he ate at supper? I’ve never seen anybody eat that much in one sitting before. Not even Hoss! Hop Sing was ready to adopt him.”

Adam could not longer control his mirth at this echoing of the thoughts he’d been having all evening long. He sat up, hugging his little brother. “I really have missed you, Joe. Now, I think it’s time you quit talking and settled down to sleep. Paul is going to need all the moral support he can get tomorrow morning, and like Pa said, we don’t need you falling asleep in church.” He stood up and turned back the covers while Joe said his prayers.

“Good night, Adam,” Joe said, smiling as he snuggled down between the sheets.

“Good night, little brother. You need me to leave the lamp burning for you?” Joe had always required some light to get to sleep in his younger days.

“No, I haven’t needed the lamp for a couple of years now,” Joe scoffed. Then, craning his head to make sure nobody was out in the hall that could overhear him, he whispered. “If I show you something, promise me you won’t tell anyone? Especially Pa?”

Curiosity aroused, Adam nodded solemnly, then watched as Joe leaned over the side of his bed, reaching underneath and rummaging until he came up with a familiar object. Adam drew a sharp breath. It was Joe’s old stuffed bear. “You still sleep with Bo?” Looking a little embarrassed, Joe nodded, then tucked the dilapidated toy under the corner of his pillow, where he could touch it but it would not show to the casual observer. “I remember when you sent him to me, Joe. Those few weeks he was with me meant a lot, just knowing you’d given him up so I wouldn’t be lonely.”

“I’m glad,” Joe said shyly. “It was hard to give him up, but somehow he became even more special to me when you sent him home again. I don’t know why.”

Adam’s voice was warm. “I think I do. Good night, Joe. Sleep well.”

“You too, Adam. G’night.”

 

Chapter 6

The population of Virginia City turned out in droves the following morning. It was a fine sunny Sunday, perfect for the debut of a new minister. The church, which had been newly constructed just a year ago, and was rarely more than a quarter full for the circuit preacher, was packed. Joe had not been exaggerating when he had said everyone was curious about Paul.

The moment the Cartwright buggy pulled into the front yard of the church, the family was pounced upon by at least a dozen people. Most used Adam’s return as their excuse to come over, exclaiming over him with surprise and pleasure and asking him about his schooling back east. A few of them actually made these inquiries with no ulterior motive, but most of the gathered crowd quickly attempted to interrogate Paul as Adam introduced his friend.

The minister made a quick exit, citing his need to make certain everything was ready inside and the moment he was gone the crowd melted away and the tongues began to wag. Adam was somewhat disgruntled at being used as a means to an end this way, but his father soon set him to rights.

“Don’t worry about it, son,” he said, his expression understanding. “They’re just eaten up with curiosity about Paul right now. I’m sure your real friends will wait until after church, then welcome you back properly.”

As he looked again at the departed townspeople, Adam realized that none of them were among those he or his father had ever counted as close friends, even before his departure. In fact, he did not even know a couple of them, and had assumed them to be acquaintances he had forgotten over five long years due to the familiarity of their greeting.

“I guess you’re right, Pa. I don’t see anybody I really know yet. I thought we must have arrived late because of all the people gathered by the door, but church isn’t even due to start for a half hour yet.” He shook his head, as he looked them over. “Man, what a crowd! No wonder Paul was so nervous this morning.”

“We’d best take our seats before somebody beats us to it,” Ben directed, herding Hoss and Little Joe before him as he and Adam neared the porch steps.

“Hey, Pa?” Little Joe was craning his neck around to look over the other churchgoers, hoping to spot some of his own friends, but so far all he saw were grown-ups.

Ben led him to the family’s usual pew and took a seat, then raised a questioning brow and muttered, ‘Hmm?’

Joe squirmed into his place on the hard bench and asked, “How come so many people are in church today? Is somebody getting married after the service?”

Hoss grinned and answered in his father’s place. “Nobody’s getting married, Little Joe. It’s just that after all the fuss they’ve been making about wanting a preacher in Virginia City, none of them folks would dare not show up on the first day, now that we got one. ‘Sides, I think they want something to gossip over at Sunday dinner tonight.”

“Oh,” Little Joe thought this over, tilting his head to listen to some of the whispers around him. Some folks were already criticizing the new minister for his youth and inexperience, sharing their initial impressions of him with those unfortunate enough to have gotten to church after he had done his disappearing act. Nobody seemed very willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and Joe was disappointed in them. He leaned over his father to whisper back to Hoss, “No wonder Paul looked like he was gonna throw up this morning! I sure hope he don’t do it up there in front of everybody!”

“Hush,” Ben hissed, pushing Joe back into his place with a warning look. He too hoped that nothing would happen to upset the young man’s first sermon, but there was no excuse for allowing his young son to show disrespect in church by speaking of such things.

Adam said nothing, though he agreed with Joe’s diagnosis of Paul. He was too busy praying that nothing would go wrong. He had his own doubts about Paul’s ability to perform his new job. He had never heard him preach, but the very idea of funny, flighty Paul Dwyer solemnly quoting the Good Book to a huge crowd of cowboys, miners and shopkeepers was enough to make him want to laugh.

A few minutes later, the excited babble of the congregation turned into absolute silence when Reverend Dwyer stepped from behind the curtained rear of the church and into full view.

“Why, that can’t be the preacher! He’s only a boy!” a woman’s voice whispered sharply. Someone quickly shushed her but Adam could see the effect her comment had had on his friend. Dressed in his simple black suit, the white collar of his office freshly starched and ironed, blonde hair reluctantly tamed to lie flat across his head from a side part, Paul looked neat and proper. Unfortunately, he also looked impossibly young. His thin face was pale; eyes wide and a little frightened as he faced the massive crowd, and the comment had created a visible flush in his cheeks that only accentuated his youth. Adam saw him, frozen in place, and knew he had to do something fast. He cleared his throat loudly, startling several people, but getting his desired result as Paul’s frightened gray eyes flicked over to meet his. Adam gave him an encouraging nod, brows knitting in concentration as he tried to get his silent message across. ‘You can do this. Don’t be scared. You can do this!’

Paul caught the look and tried to obey it. His gaze slid over to Adam’s father, who also gave him a nod, then to Hoss, whose bright smile was trying to reassure him that everything would work out fine. Finally, he looked at Little Joe. The boy seemed to be taking in everything that was happening around him and was frowning slightly as he heard the people around him beginning to mutter, grumbling about the new minister taking so long to begin his sermon. Joe leaned over and whispered something to his father, who gestured subtly up toward Paul and answered. Awareness dawning in his eyes, Joe looked straight up at his new friend and gave him a big grin. Looking first left then right to indicate the people around him, Joe shrugged casually, then held up his father’s Bible and pointed to it, then thumped his fist against his heart. Paul smiled suddenly, growing visibly calmer as he laid a hand over his own bible and began to speak in a clear, pleasant voice.

“Today, I’d like to introduce myself to you all by talking about a subject so simple that most of us forget how important it really is,” he began. “I’m talking about love. Unselfish, pure, nurturing love that can see us through any hardship if we only open ourselves up to believing in it. The love of our God for each and every one of us…”

~*~*~*~*~

An hour later, the church doors opened and people flooded out, all of them wearing various expressions of surprise and new respect. The talk was a complete contrast to what had come earlier. Those who had condemned Paul for his youth now spoke of him as proudly as if he were their own adopted son. The dedicated were breathing a sigh of relief and gratitude that they finally had a minister they could believe in and the curious were silently vowing to come again, to see if the follow-up was as good as the opening performance. Ben Cartwright and his two younger sons were glowing with pride and pleasure and Adam was dumbly astonished.

“Is something wrong, Adam?” Paul asked anxiously as he joined them. “Didn’t you like it?”

Adam placed his hands on the small man’s shoulders. “That was…I don’t know how to describe it, Paul. You were incredible! I know you’ve talked to me a little about your calling, but until today…I just had no idea. You really are doing what you were meant for and I’m sorry I ever teased you about it.”

Paul placed a hand atop Adam’s for a moment. Pleasure and deep emotion shown in his eyes and reflected in his voice as he said simply, “Thank you, my friend.”

“He’s right, you know,” Joe piped up. “That was the best sermon I ever heard. You weren’t boring at all, and you didn’t drag on and on forever either. Whenever Reverend Wyatt comes here, he talks in one long unending sentence; for hours, it seems like. Last time my legs both fell asleep before he quit and I couldn’t stand up when it was time for the singing.”

Ben placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder to silence him, giving him a reprimanding look that stilled his criticism of Rev. Wyatt instantly. Privately, though, he agreed with the boy! “A fine sermon, Reverend,” he said, shaking the young man’s hand. “Now I’m even more glad you decided to come out west with my son.”

Paul smiled warmly. “Thank you, sir. I’m not sure I ever would have gotten started without all of you, though, especially Little Joe. He managed to snap me out of my stage fright and remind me why I was up there.”

Joe puffed up proudly and Hoss hugged him around the neck with one arm as he too, shook Paul’s hand. “I’m sure glad you remembered, Reverend. That was some mighty fine preachin’. I’ll bet that sermon must’ve worked up quite an appetite, too, didn’t it?”

Paul perked right up at the suggestion of food and he and Hoss eagerly led the way to the Cartwright buggy, leaving the other three in a cloud of dust behind them.

Several people stopped Paul to congratulate him again on his sermon before he left, and it was obvious that Virginia City was wholly satisfied with its new minister.

 

Chapter 7

The next several weeks passed by in a series of long, lazy, perfect summer days. Paul Dwyer continued to fit in at the Ponderosa as if he’d been born there, and for Adam it was the homecoming he’d long dreamed of. His old friends had come calling one by one, quickly drawing him back into his old life, while at the same time treating him with a new and very satisfying respect. Every time he went to town, some new person stopped him to express their pride in his accomplishment, or to ask when he’d be making something that they could all point to as having been built by their own native son. In response, Adam had assigned himself an opening project. That of designing and building a house for his friend, next to the church in town. Paul had been delighted, and had happily agreed to stay on at the ranch until its completion. Every Sunday morning he and the Cartwright family drove into town together, where the young minister continued to impress the citizens of Virginia City.

Ben and Hoss were both thoroughly caught up in the pleasure of having their oldest son and brother home at last, and Adam often felt as though he were a sponge, happily soaking in the long denied nourishment of his father’s presence. As they rode, worked and talked together, their conversations seemed to have no end, and each found deep satisfaction in the other’s company.

Talking to Hoss was like picking up a conversation right where you’d left off, but with the added flavor and interest of the maturity that separation had brought to each of them. Hoss would never be a sophisticate, but he had a unique way of looking at almost everything that his brother found as refreshing as a drink of cold spring water on a hot day

Adam and Little Joe did not have much time to spend alone together. Joe was busy keeping his promise to teach Paul to ride a horse, and much of the rest of his time was taken up with swimming, picnics, fishing and enjoying the pleasant summer afternoons. Hoss worked the ranch on a regular basis now, but he often found the time to join his little brother and their new friend for a few hours of play, and Adam often went along as well. He and his college roommate regaled the two younger Cartwrights with story after story of the things they had done together, and the fun they’d had. Adam would have preferred to keep some of those stories under wraps, but a mischievous wink and grin from Paul and a little coaxing from his brothers and Adam would find himself telling them anyway.

It was not until Paul’s manse was finished and his visit ended with the summer that the homecoming began to seem anything less than idyllic for anyone.

~*~*~*~*~

Reverend Dwyer hummed a little tune as he swept off the front steps of the church, his final task of the morning as he prepared for the arrival of his congregation in an hour’s time. He was the sort of person who liked to be prepared early; his friends all claimed it was so he would have time to horse around before getting down to business, but in reality it simply gave him pleasure to know that everything was neat and ready.

Walking down the front steps, Paul took a long look at his little church and smiled. It was hard to believe that nearly four months had gone by since he had first seen it. He shook his head, remembering how scared and unsure of himself he had felt then. For the first six or seven sermons, he had felt as if he was taking an oral exam in front of a very large and condemning school board, but finally he had relaxed. They liked him here, and he liked them.

“It needs paint,” a voice commented casually behind the minister.

Paul turned around and smiled at the speaker, having recognized his voice at once. “Good morning, Little Joe. What brings you into town so early this morning? Come to make sure I’m not planning to preach about anything boring?”

Little Joe grinned and shook his head. A special friendship had sprung up between Adam Cartwright’s best friend and his little brother after that first Sunday, and ever since Paul had moved into his new residence in town, Joe had been making periodic visits. “No, I trust you.”

The minister laughed. “Well, that’s good. So, if it wasn’t the quality of the sermon, what are you doing here so early?”

The smile faltered, then faded from Little Joe’s face. He suddenly looked very unsure of himself, shuffling from one foot to the other, and biting his lip.

Paul had developed enough of an instinct toward people by this time to recognize a silent plea for help when he saw one. Without a word, he put an arm around the boy’s shoulders and led him inside and up to one of the front pews.

“What’s troubling you, Joe? Is it Adam?” Joe looked up with startled eyes at the question, then ducked his head and nodded. Paul smiled a little. It had not escaped his notice that there was a great deal of tension between his two friends lately, and he had been half expecting a visit. He had thought the visitor would be Joe’s oldest brother, though.

“Adam doesn’t know I’m here,” Joe told him quietly. “I told Pa I needed to come to town early because you wanted some help getting this place ready. I know I shouldn’t have fibbed, especially about church, but I wanted to talk to you alone and they would have wanted to know why I needed to see you.”

“Sounds important. I’ll tell you what, Little Joe. Why don’t you help me lay out the hymnals in all the pews, then you won’t have lied to your Pa.” Little Joe grinned and readily agreed. They spent a few short minutes doing the job, then Paul asked, “So, why don’t you want to talk to your Pa about what’s troubling you? I had the impression that Mr. Cartwright was the sort of father a child could talk to about almost anything.”

The boy colored slightly. “He is, mostly. Only I’m not sure if I can talk to him about this. You’ve seen how he is. Ever since Adam came home, Pa has been really happy. He talks all the time about how the family is complete now, and how good it is to have my brother home, and about all the things Adam has done, and will do, and such. He doesn’t like it when I don’t get along so well with Adam, and, well you see, I just can’t talk to Pa about this.”

“I think I understand. Tell me, Joe, why aren’t you getting along? You two certainly seemed happy to be together when he and I first got here. What’s changed?”

Little Joe heaved a sad sigh. “I’m not sure. It was great at first. Adam was so much like I remembered him. He kind of looked different, but inside he was still the same. Lately, though, he seems to think he’s Pa or something. Every time I turn around he’s giving me orders, and sniping at me for the way I do things, and disapproving of time I spend with my friends, and running to Pa every time I do something he doesn’t like, and…”

Paul held up a hand to stop him. “I get the picture. You feel that he won’t allow you any freedom, and he feels that you’re allowed too much freedom. Is that about the size of it?”

Joe looked surprised, then nodded vehemently. “See, I knew you would understand!”

“Well, I do have siblings of my own,” Paul reminded him. “Plus, I’ve known your brother for a long time now, and I know how he sometimes gets, believing that he can find a better way to do most things than the way they’re already being done.”

“Yeah, except it’s only better if he’s the one doing it,” Joe grumped, crossing his arms over his chest sulkily. “He acts like I’m too much of a baby to know how to do anything by myself. Do you know that he threatened to fire Jim yesterday for letting me help out with the horse breaking? Jim has been with us a long time, and I always help him. Adam had no right to say anything! I told him that, and he said he’d just see what Pa had to say about it.”

“And what did he say?” the minister asked mildly.

“Same thing I did! That I’d asked him and he said I could. Pa told Adam that Jim was one of our most trusted hands and that I wasn’t going to get into any trouble with him around,” Joe answered, sounding slightly miffed at the unspoken implication that he would get in trouble if not supervised by an adult.

Paul hid a smile, knowing that Joe would likely interpret it badly if he were to see it. “So, did Adam back down?” He felt sure of the answer, knowing Adam to be a fair man, but wanted the boy to say realize that by saying it out loud.

Little Joe was too caught up in his own indignation to recognize the minister’s intent. “Yeah, but why couldn’t he have just believed me when I told him? He didn’t even bother to ask if I’d gotten Pa’s permission or not, he just assumed I hadn’t, and started yelling about it being too dangerous for a kid my age to be up on a horse that wasn’t completely broken in yet. When Pa told him, Adam sort of apologized to Jim, but all I got was a lecture on safety and responsibility that was twice as long as the one Pa had already given me. Course I got mad and said a couple of things I shouldn’t have said in front of Pa, and Pa got mad at me and restricted me from finishing with the horse-breaking job as punishment. You should’ve seen that dumb ol’ Adam gloating away at dinner last night. I hate him.”

“No, you don’t,” Paul said gently. He had decided not to interrupt the torrent of hurt, knowing that it was better for the boy to get his feelings off his chest, but now it was time to step in. “You’re angry with him for being high-handed, and for what you feel is him butting in on how your Pa is raising you. Unless I miss my guess, you’re also resenting him for taking some of your father’s attention away from you.”

Joe shrugged as his friend raised an inquiring eyebrow in his direction. The gently persuasive eyes of the minister finally forced him to answer. “Yeah, I guess, a little, though I wouldn’t have minded if Pa had paid a little less attention to me after dinner last night.”

Paul’s lips twitched, picking up the unspoken implication. “You must have really said something interesting to Adam,” he commented. “Use a few words you shouldn’t have?”

Little Joe shrugged again, but nodded a little sheepishly. He was not about to tell his friend what he had said, especially not while sitting in a church pew! He continued to pout for a moment, then relented and let his tense posture relax some. He heaved a regretful little sigh. “One thing’s for sure. Pa seems a lot more interested in what Adam has to say these days, than in anything Hoss and I have to say.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Paul told him, smiling when Joe fixed disbelieving eyes on his face. “After all, he did take your part over Adam’s when he knew you were in the right yesterday, didn’t he?”

“I guess he did,” Joe admitted reluctantly. “Lately, though, every time I start talking to him about something, the conversation somehow twists around to Adam, and the next thing I know, I’m not even in it any more.”

“Don’t be too hard on him, Little Joe,” the minister advised. “I think right now your father is just excited to have all of his sons back together again. He might be overdoing things a bit, trying to show Adam how much he likes having him home, but that doesn’t mean he values you and Hoss any less.”

Little Joe sighed. “Guess that means there’s nothing I can do until Pa gets used to Adam being back then, huh?”

“Just give him a little time,” Paul suggested.

“But it’s been months already!” the boy protested.

The minister smiled sympathetically. He could still remember how much differently time moved for a child. While Adam’s return was still a new and refreshing change for his father, and perhaps for Hoss, it would seem as though ages had passed to someone Joe’s age. “All I can really advise is to get your father alone, Little Joe. Tell him some of what you’ve told me. I’ll bet Mr. Cartwright doesn’t have any idea you’re feeling so left out of things.”

Little Joe scrunched his face up this way and that as he considered it. “You really think so?”

Paul nodded. “I really do.”

A few seconds ticked by, then Joe asked, “What about Adam? Why has he turned into such a fussy ol’ nag since he came home?”

Young Reverend Dwyer prided himself on his ability to maintain a straight face no matter what his parishioners might choose to say to him, but at Joe’s disgusted question he burst into a hearty peal of laughter. “He is, kind of, isn’t he?”

Joe laughed as well. “He sure is. He can’t just let anything be.”

Paul grinned. “That sounds like the Adam Cartwright I know, all right. Little Joe, there’s something I want you to consider, if you can.”

“Okay,” the boy said willingly.

“Have you ever stopped to think that it might not be Adam who’s really changed? Oh, I’m sure he’s grown and matured a great deal since you saw him last, but he was already pretty well grown up before he ever left for college, wasn’t he?”

Joe nodded. Adam had always seemed grown-up to him.

The minister tapped a finger softly against the boy’s breastbone. “You, on the other hand, were only six or seven when he left. He came back home to find an independent young boy of almost twelve where he had left a small child.”

“I guess that is kind of a lot of difference, huh?” Joe said thoughtfully.

Paul nodded, smiling a bit when he saw that his young friend was already starting to consider the matter beyond his own point of view. It was one of the characteristics that he found most likable in all three of the Cartwright brothers. “Adam showed me some of your letters, Joe. He was so proud of you every time you learned to do something new, or told him all about some adventure you’d had, or asked him for advice on something. By the time I finally met you, I had a really clear picture in mind of what you’d be like, and you were almost exactly what I’d pictured, but it’s not the same for Adam.”

“Why not?” Little Joe was intrigued, and it did not bother him at all that Paul had seen his letters. It made him feel as though he had written to his new friend as well as his brother.

“Because I had nothing to compare the letters to,” the minister explained. “For me, they were the first introduction I had to you, and so my first impression was of a spunky, independent minded little boy who could be both fun and something of a handful.” Joe laughed at the description, knowing it was pretty accurate. Paul continued. “Adam knew those things too, but unlike me, he also had memories of a baby, and a toddler, and a small child who’d needed him, and whom he had protected during a time of great sadness in both your lives.”

Joe’s chin dropped toward his chest. “You mean, when my mother died?”

“That’s right. He’s told me how he took care of you almost single-handedly for a while, and how you had clung to him for a long time afterward,” Paul said gently. “It’s hard for him to reconcile that memory with the boy you are today. It’s been five years and you’ve learned how to live without him, Joe. Adam loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and the thought that you might get hurt on one of those horses you love so much, or worse yet, that you really might be able to get along just fine without him are terrible for him.”

Little Joe had grown very still. He had never considered that Adam might be scared that he’d get hurt on one of the horses. Joe knew what he was doing, and was sure enough of his own abilities that the idea of someone doubting him had been insulting. Maybe Adam didn’t know him well enough any more to recognize those abilities. Maybe for him, seeing Joe on a half-wild horse only caused memories of Joe’s mother, Adam’s step-mother, Marie, who had died after being thrown from an untrained horse. “You really think he’s worried that I don’t want him around?” he asked, keeping his deeper thoughts to himself.

“I think it’s a possibility,” Paul told him. “You don’t really feel that way, do you, Joe?”

“Of course not,” the boy objected. “I just wish he’d quit picking on me all the time! If anybody else bothered me as often as Adam does, Hoss would’ve pounded him for me by now, but he can’t do that to his own brother. Poor Hoss goes out working with Adam every day, so he probably doesn’t know whose side to take.”

Paul patted him on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’re right. Being in the middle is probably hard on him, but very natural as well. Hoss is not only the middle brother, he’s one of those lucky people who has the gift for being able to get along with most anyone.”

“Like you,” Joe observed, his smile making a blazing comeback.

Paul smiled back. “I suppose so. Some people have to work at it a little harder, but that makes the successes all the more worthwhile, don’t you think?” Joe nodded agreeably. “Talk to your Pa, Joe. Tell him how you feel about all this. If you do that, I’ll talk to Adam, and maybe we can smooth things over a little for both of you.”

Little Joe held his hand out to shake. “Thanks, Paul.”

The minister smiled and shook hands. “Why don’t you go outside and wait for your family to arrive. I’ve got to get my sermon in order and there’s no point in you sitting around for an extra half hour waiting on me.”

“Sure,” the boy agreed, sticking his hands in his pockets as he rose and walked out of the small church.

 

Chapter 8

“Good service today, Reverend,” Ben said, smiling as he shook the young minister’s hand. As usual, the Cartwrights had hung back long enough to let the other churchgoers file out before they came to speak to Paul. Unlike some of the families who lived closer to town, they were not able to make it in every week now that they were no longer responsible for ferrying Paul to and from Virginia City. On the Sundays they did come, they always stopped to have a few words with their friend, usually inviting him to come back to the Ponderosa with them afterward for lunch.

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I realize that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the text I had posted for today, but I decided to make a last minute change after speaking with a member of the congregation.” Paul glanced down toward Ben’s left side. “What did you think of it, Joe?”

Little Joe grinned at him. “I’m not sure. Either you were telling me I should appreciate having Adam back, or warning me that Adam and Hoss have figured out an easy way to get more of Pa’s attention.”

The men laughed and Ben gave his impudent young son a squeeze around the shoulders. “Now, son, you’re taking the sermon much too literally, but I’m glad to know you were at least paying attention.”

“Yes, sir, I sure was,” Joe assured him.

The boy hesitated when he noticed Paul giving him a wink as he drew Adam and said, “Adam, mind if I have a word with you?”

Adam looked surprised. “Sure, we’ll just be a few minutes, Pa.”

Little Joe licked his lips. “Hey, Pa, do you think we could go someplace too? It’ll only take a little while, but there’s something I kind of want to talk to you about, just you and me.”

Ben opened his mouth to object that it could wait until later, then stopped, remembering that Joe had asked to come in early this morning to see Paul. As he watched his oldest son follow the young clergyman up to the front end of the church, and noticed Joe watching them too, a hopeful expression on his young face, Ben realized that Joe’s sudden desire for a private chat might well be connected. He turned to Hoss. “Is that all right with you?”

Hoss smiled, curious but unwilling to pry, particularly since he suspected he knew what Joe wanted to talk to their father about. “Sure, Pa. Why don’t I go on over to the café and have something to eat. Y’all can just meet me over there when you’re ready.”

“That sounds fine, son. Thank you.” Ben gave him a smile as he patted him on the back. Good old Hoss; sometimes he didn’t appreciate that thoughtful young man near enough, he reflected.

There was a set of shaded benches taking up the small space between Paul’s home and the church. Father and son walked over to one of them and sat down facing each other. Little Joe looked nervous but very determined, and Ben smiled as said, “What did you want to talk to me about?”

~*~*~*~*~

Inside the church, Adam Cartwright was asking that very same question. “What did you want to talk to me about, Paul?” The young minister loosened his tight white collar and brushed a hand back through his straight blonde hair, effectively ruining its neatly combed appearance. In one second he went from looking like a dignified young man of the cloth, to looking like a rumpled teenager, and Adam could not help grinning at the change. There was a very serious look in Paul’s gray eyes as he contemplated his friend, and it instantly swept away the quip Adam was about to make. “Is something wrong?” he asked instead.

Paul considered his answer for a moment, then said, “Potentially.”

Adam looked confused. “What?”

“Adam, I’m not sure quite sure if I should be speaking to you as your friend, or as Reverend Dwyer,” the minister said, “but I’d like to talk to you about Little Joe.”

An expression of irritation instantly sprang across Adam’s handsome face. “I might’ve known. What’s the little scamp been up to? Whatever it is, I apologize, and as soon as I get my hands on Joe, I’ll see to it that he does too.”

“What makes you think he’s been doing something he shouldn’t?” Paul asked curiously.

Adam demanded, “Well, hasn’t he? Isn’t that what you just said?”

“No, it isn’t, and he hasn’t done anything wrong. All I said was that I wanted to talk to you about him, and you instantly jumped to the conclusion that he was in some kind of trouble.”

“Oh.” Adam looked confused and a little embarrassed by his mistake, wondering what had caused him to automatically take such a belligerent attitude at the mention of his young brother’s name. “I guess that was kind of unfair, wasn’t it?”

“Just a little,” Paul agreed. He ushered the other man into the very same pew where he and Little Joe had enjoyed their earlier discussion. “You know, Adam, I’ve been meaning to have this conversation with you for a couple of weeks now, but until Joe came in this morning I couldn’t decide whether it was any of my business that you two are having problems.”

Caught completely off-guard by his friend’s directness, and the implication of his words, Adam sat back against the hard wooden back of the pew and slumped. “Are you trying to tell me that my brother came to talk to you in your official capacity?”

Paul nodded. “More or less. I think he came to me more because I’m a close friend, yet not part of the family than because I’m a minister, though. He didn’t feel comfortable talking about you to your father, and confronting you directly wasn’t an option either.”

“So he asked you to intervene,” Adam concluded. He grimaced, glancing back over his shoulder to where his family had just departed. “I don’t know what to tell you, Paul. I know I painted kind of a rosy picture of my relationship with Little Joe, but I honestly expected things to be like that, just like they used to be. And they were, at first, you saw that!”

Paul smiled; agreeing that his first few weeks spent around Adam’s family had indeed been conflict-free.

Adam slapped his hat down beside him and ran a hand through his hair disgustedly. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, lately. Every time I try to talk to him, Joe gets so willful and angry. Seems like no matter what we start talking about, we end up fighting, so we don’t talk much at all. Frankly, I can’t figure it out. He never seemed to have any problem talking to me in his letters.”

“True, but you weren’t right there with him, putting your own perspective into every event in his life either. All you had to go on was what you read,” Paul pointed out. “Maybe it was easier to talk to you from a distance.”

“Maybe,” Adam grunted.

Paul slouched against the bench beside his friend, folding his arms across his chest as he observed the stormy expression on his face. “He didn’t quite say so when we spoke this morning, but I got the distinct impression that your little brother is unsure how to act around you right now. He seems to think that no matter what he does, you’ll find some reason to disapprove of it and come down on him for it.”

“Oh, please,” Adam dismissed the idea in disgust “Maybe I’m a little strict with him sometimes, when he’s pulling some crazy stunt that could get him into trouble, but it’s for his own good. That kid gets away with more things than I would have ever dreamed of trying. Somebody has to keep after him, or who knows what kind of foolish things he’d do!”

Paul shrugged his shoulders, and nodded as though agreeing with every word. “Right. Sliding down the banisters, doing tricks on horseback to impress his friends, that sort of thing?” Adam was nodding in agreement, pleased that his friend seemed to understand. Then his face fell when Paul continued, “Carving his initials on the leg of his father’s desk with a pocket-knife he wasn’t supposed to have, jumping out of the loft onto a rope suspended from the support beams, getting lost in the woods hunting for game after being told to stick by the house…”

He paused, smirking a bit at the look on Adam’s face.

Anger reddened Adam’s cheeks. “I suppose you think that’s funny?”

Paul grinned, and nudged him in the ribs with a bony elbow. “Sure, just like I did when you first told me those stories of your misspent youth.” He sat up straight to meet his friend’s eyes. “Adam, haven’t I always told you that your biggest problem is that you don’t know how to loosen up and not view everything as life-and-death?”

Adam nodded, smiling reluctantly. “You’ve tried to tell me that a time or two, I guess.”

“Then listen to me now, and don’t take everything your brother does so seriously!” He laughed. “You know, my folks are always writing to me about some hair-brained thing my younger brother and sisters have done, so I know how you feel. I write back with suggestions, and when I’m home I do my best to try and steer the kids away from doing anything really dangerous. I worry sometimes, but I know they’re bound to get into some kind of trouble no matter what I do. Every kid does, and you know it. You did, I did, and Little Joe will for some time yet. You can’t stop him from being a kid, Adam, and frankly I don’t think you really want to.”

Adam sighed. “No, I suppose I don’t. I want him to have as good a childhood as he possibly can, but I want him alive to see his adulthood too. Sometimes the things he wants to do are so dangerous!”

“Like helping the men out in the horse corral?” Paul suggested.

Adam shot him an irritated look, which his friend met with a raised eyebrow. “All right. I admit I overreacted to that, and I shouldn’t have threatened to fire Jim without making sure he was just following Pa’s order. I apologized for it.”

“Did you apologize to your brother for assuming he was lying when he told you he had permission to be out there?” Paul’s tone was flat, not accusing, but not affording his friend any undue sympathy either.

“No,” Adam admitted grudgingly. “I suppose I should.”

“It could go a long way towards softening the resentment he’s probably feeling toward you. Especially since he wasn’t doing anything wrong.” Adam gave a noncommittal shrug, and Paul decided to try another tack. He let a few seconds drift by as he settled back into his comfortable slouch, allowing Adam to relax a bit, then said casually, “He’s really an excellent rider, you know. I may be new to riding myself, but I’ve seen enough exhibitions to know skill when I see it. You’ve told me that your brother tends to be reckless and impatient, and I’ve seen some of that, but when he was teaching me to ride he was both patient and knowledgeable. I asked your father about it, and he told me what a natural Joe is, and how he’s unusually good at gentling horses. The only reason he doesn’t break them yet is his size.”

Adam was a little surprised at what he was hearing. “I know he’s a good rider, Paul. I’m not denying it, but we’re talking about a lot more than just being a skilled rider in open territory. These mustangs are excitable, stubborn, wild creatures. It takes a firm hand to control them, but if you want them to be both tame and reliable, yet not lose their spirits you’ve got to have the patience and instinct for knowing when to push them into obedience, and when to let them have their own way.”

“Well, if understanding is a key then it seems to me that Joe is ideal for the job,” the minister said with some amusement, “because you just described your little brother perfectly. Only in the case of your particular wild mustang, I think he’s going to need a lot of love and gentling too, not just a firm hand.”

Once again, Adam was left with nothing to say; caught off guard as he realized how neatly Paul had turned his own words around to show him what he’d been missing. “You know, I hate it when you do that.”

Paul’s eyes twinkled. “I know. That’s what makes being your friend so much fun.”

Adam laughed and punched him in the arm.

“You mind if I offer you a little friendly advice?”

“If I say no, will it stop you?” Adam asked dryly.

His friend grinned brightly. “Probably not.”

“Offer away, then,” Adam said. “As long as we’re clear that I don’t promise to take it.”

Paul inclined his head. “Fair enough. I just want to encourage you to think about Little Joe’s feelings in all this. For almost half his life you’ve been the long-distance relative who sent letters home once a month. The big brother who had been there for him as a little kid, then disappeared into a faceless world he couldn’t follow you to.”

“You make it sound like I abandoned him,” Adam objected. “Like he doesn’t remember me.”

“He does remember you, but he doesn’t quite know you anymore,” the other man countered. “You probably don’t fit the memories of a seven-year-old kid. He remembers you as the big brother that read him stories, and sang him songs, rescued him from bad dreams and helped him with his homework. After you left, you became the person who wrote him funny stories and advice, and sent him great presents every birthday and Christmas. Now that you’re back, from Joe’s perspective, all you do is order him around and get him into trouble with his father, usually over things Little Joe doesn’t consider to be all that important. The real you probably doesn’t quite fit the fairy tale picture he’d built up in his mind, and he resents you for it.”

“I suppose that’s probably true,” Adam admitted, sighing softly. “I know it was a shock to me to see how much he’d changed in five years, how much more confident and independent he’d become. Guess I have overreacted some, but I’m not about to just let him run wild and not say anything. He may not like it, but it’s my job to look out for him.”

“I agree,” Paul said, his even tone calming the other man. “That’s part of being a big brother. I’m just suggesting that you might be taking it a little far sometimes. Let him get used to you again, Adam, and let yourself get used to him. Your father has done a pretty fair job raising you guys so far, and you should trust the way he’s handled Little Joe. I advised Joe to talk to your father about all this, and you might want to think about doing the same.”

Adam still looked a bit doubtful, but his friend seemed very sure of himself. “You really think that’s all this is, Paul? Just a matter of putting each other into proper perspective?”

The minister shook his head. “Not all, but it’s certainly a start.”

Adam rose from the pew as he put his hat back on his head. “I’ll try.”

Paul smiled. “That’s all anyone can ask, my friend. Now, you’d better get outside before your family thinks you’ve decided to move in here.”

An answering smile tilted Adam’s mouth, causing the hidden dimple in the left corner to show. “You still coming back to the Ponderosa to have lunch with us? Hop Sing was frying chicken and baking a cake when we left.”

The minister grinned and grabbed his hat and jacket from behind the pulpit, straightening his clerical collar as he hurried to join his friend. He had done what he’d promised Little Joe. Now the rest was up to the two brothers.

 

Chapter 9

Blue white smoke curled lazily on the soft early fall breeze, drifting from the fragrant pipe clutched in Ben Cartwright’s hand. He watched it billow and spread upward into small wisps which slowly disappeared into nothingness at the edge of the porch, where the light from the house behind him extended to shake hands with the night. Stars brightly sparkled overhead, and the man sighed softly, both admiring their beauty and wishing they could offer some guidance to a troubled heart.

“It sure is a pretty night, ain’t it, Pa?”

Ben turned away from his contemplation of the heavens to smile at the young man walking toward him from the barn, where he had just finished settling the animals in. “It sure is, son. It won’t be long now before it’ll be too cold to stand out here stargazing, so I figured I’d better do it while I can.”

Hoss nodded, giving the diamond-like constellations an admiring glance. “Sorta makes a fella feel like his troubles don’t amount to much when he sees a sight like that. Somehow, when I look at them stars, I just know that God knew what he was doing when He created everything and everybody, and that we’re all in good hands, no matter what.”

A gentle smile drifted over the elder Cartwright’s features as he studied his son’s serene face. “I know just what you mean.”

Taking a seat on the porch, Hoss smiled up at the man leaning against the support post and said, “Y’know, Pa, sitting down here like this, looking way far up at you kinda reminds me of when I was a little kid and you first built this place. Adam would be inside studying some book up in his room, and Marie would be rocking Little Joe to sleep, and you and me would come out here and look at the stars together. You’d stand right where you’re at now, smoking your pipe, and I’d be right there beside you. Sometimes I’d be tellin’ you all about somethin’, and sometimes we’d just do our talking without words. Seems like there weren’t nothing in the whole wide world I couldn’t say, but what you’d understand.”

Curiosity and concern grabbed at Ben as he listened to the slightly wistful memory outlined by his teenage son. He sat down next to him, laying his pipe aside. “Hoss, is there something you’d like to talk about? Perhaps something you’ve been wanting to tell me, that I haven’t been taking the time to hear?”

Hoss leaned forward to rest his forearms atop his knees, studying his interlaced fingers as he lightly asked, “What makes you ask a thing like that, Pa?”

As he observed the all too casual question, and the tense body language of his large middle boy, Ben nodded to himself, realizing that Hoss was indeed wanting some of his father’s attention. “I’m sure you’ve been wondering what it was that Little Joe wanted to talk to me about this morning,” he suggested, “and it can’t have escaped your notice that Adam also was struck with a sudden need to have a private conversation before supper this evening.”

Hoss’ blue eyes flicked in his father’s direction for a moment, giving away his curiosity before he once again looked away. “Did seem kinda strange, but it ain’t my place to pry into their business if Adam and Little Joe didn’t want to tell me.”

Ben placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Hoss, it isn’t that they wanted to exclude you. It’s just that I don’t believe either of them felt comfortable having anyone hear what they had to say. Little Joe in particular seemed to feel nervous that I wouldn’t want to hear him out. He told me in not so many words that I’ve been spending too much time worrying about keeping Adam happy now that he’s home, and that I haven’t been giving much time to you or him.”

Startled, Hoss sat up straight and met his father’s eyes. “He did?” Ben nodded, watching as the surprise faded, and curiosity got the better of Hoss. “What about Adam?”

“It seems that Paul gave Adam a little friendly advice this morning. You’ll have to ask him for the details, but the point of it was that Adam feels he doesn’t know Little Joe any more, and that the source of their conflict of late has been mostly misunderstanding.” Ben placed an arm around Hoss’ broad shoulders. “I’ve been thinking about both conversations for the last hour, and have come to the conclusion that both your brothers have some valid concerns. Now, I want to know how you feel.”

Hoss shrugged uncomfortably. “I reckon we’ve all been a might out of sorts lately, Pa. Them two seem bound and determined to make me take sides when they start in on each other, and I just can’t. I think Adam takes Little Joe’s foolishness a might too serious sometimes, but then Joe goes and pushes Adam just as far as he can, to see where the give stops. I don’t which of them is right, or if either one of them is.”

Ben nodded. “I see; and what about me? Do you agree that I’m giving an unfair amount of my attention to Adam? Joe seemed pretty certain that he wasn’t alone in thinking that. Was he right?”

Hoss hesitated a moment, but his father’s dark eyes were warm and understanding, and slowly he nodded. “It ain’t like I don’t understand why it is, Pa. Adam’s been gone a long time, and I know how bad you missed him, and how glad you are to have him back. It ain’t that I’m not happy to have him around for my own sake, neither, cause I am. Sometimes I’m so glad to come downstairs and see him standing there that I could just about burst with it, but, well, sir, I reckon I understand how Little Joe feels too. Sometimes Adam does parcel himself out a mite too much authority around here, acting like me and Joe ain’t got enough brains to come in out of the rain. And I also reckon that maybe we’re both a might jealous when we get to thinking about how you’ve always been around for us to talk to, and see that it ain’t that way no more.”

Dismayed by what he was hearing, Ben protested. “Of course it’s still that way, boy. I’m still here for you both, as well as for Adam, and if you need me for anything, all you need do is ask.”

“Pa, that ain’t what I mean,” Hoss said, frustrated that he was not making himself clear. “I know you’re still here for us, I know that. It’s hard to explain, Pa, but sometimes it’s like when Adam’s around, Joe and I just ain’t. He feels it and so do I.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” the distraught father demanded. “Little Joe told me almost the exact same words this morning, and if it seemed that way, I’m very sorry, but I had no idea either of you felt this way. Son, I have never intentionally favored any of you over the others, and if I have unintentionally made either you or Joe feel second rate, then all I can do is apologize.”

The teenager blushed, uncomfortable in the face of his father’s emotional distress. “I’m sorry, too, Pa. I guess we should’ve talked to you about it, but it just didn’t seem important. I knew it wasn’t nothing more than the newness of having Adam back not having worn off yet. It seemed silly to complain about it, specially with them two brothers of mine already riling everyone up by going for each other’s throats all the time.” He looked around, hoping for a distraction from the discomfort of the topic. “Say, where are they anyway?”

“Having their own peace talks inside, I think,” Ben said, smiling a bit. He was a bit stunned at his own blindness where his sons were concerned, having always prided himself on his understanding and close relationship with the three of them. “I asked them to talk to each other, and extracted a promise from your two brothers that I’d like to get from you as well.”

“What’s that?” Hoss asked, knowing he would give it no matter what.

“If a wound is not properly exposed and cleaned out, it festers. I don’t want any of you boys to feel resentment, and anger, and jealousy toward each other, or toward me, and then just let it roil away inside of you until it gets completely out of control. We are a family and when something affects one of us, it affects us all,” he said solemnly. “Hoss, I would like you to promise that you’ll come to me, and talk to me if anything like this happens again. Promise me you’ll talk if something starts eating at you, son, and if I don’t seem to want to listen, you’ll keep trying until you make me listen.”

Hoss read the sincerity in his father’s words and in his eyes, and he smiled, feeling relieved as a burden seemed to fall away from his soul. “Yes, sir, I sure will.”

Ben squeezed the boy’s shoulders affectionately. “Good.”

They stayed outside a long time that evening, observing the night. Talking now and then, but generally just sitting together quietly, a loving father and beloved son, enjoying a closeness that each had recently feared was drifting away.

~*~*~*~*~

Meanwhile, within the walls of the Ponderosa ranch house, another discussion of equal importance was taking place.

“So then, Paul told me that maybe the reason you’re so grouchy and strict all the time is that you don’t know what I can do now, or how much I know about things, and you think I’m gonna do something dumb and get killed if you’re not watching.”

“He said that?” Adam asked incredulously.

Little Joe shrugged. “Something like that. He says you care a lot about what happens to me, so you can’t help it. Is that true?”

From his place sitting on the end of the low table before the fireplace, Adam contemplated his little brother and his words. Joe was ensconced in their father’s red leather chair, nearly swallowed up the large piece of furniture as he hunched down into the seat so that his feet would reach the floor, his arms nearly parallel with his head as they rested atop the arms of the chair. His chin was resting atop his chest and he stared right back at Adam with lively, yet serious, green eyes. “Yes, it’s true,” the older brother answered finally. “I do care about you very much, and I do worry about you. That’s never going to change, I’m afraid.” Joe wrinkled his nose. Clearly he did not care to have Adam worrying about him if it resulted in his brother acting like a self-appointed baby-sitter. “You want to know what Paul said to me about you?”

The boy tipped his head to one side thoughtfully, then said “Okay.”

“He said you deserved a little more leeway and a lot less seriousness than I’ve been showing you,” Adam told him frankly. “He also told me that I owed you an apology for yesterday, for accusing you of lying, and for not trusting you to know what you were doing in the corral. He’s right, and I’m sorry.”

Joe’s eyes widened. He had never expected to hear that! “You are? I mean, well, thanks, Adam. I’m sorry too, for what I said to you after, and for being deliberately mean to you and all.”

Adam smiled. “That’s okay, buddy. I guess neither one of us has been treating the other very nice, have we?” Smiling shyly, Little Joe shook his head. “I had a talk with Pa tonight, too. He seems to agree with Paul that part of the reason you and I aren’t getting along is that we don’t know each other very well anymore.”

“He said that to me too, but that’s silly,” the boy scoffed. “Paul told me you read him my letters and I already told you I learned yours by heart. He thinks we can’t get past remembering what each other was like before you left, but that can’t be, cause I’ve been trying and I just can’t remember very much about you that far back.”

“What do you remember?” Adam asked curiously.

Little Joe hitched himself up in the chair and pulled his legs up to sit cross-legged in the wide seat. Adam very nearly ordered him to put them down again and sit properly, but bit his tongue. This was not the time to issue any unwanted reprimands.

Unaware of his brother’s thoughts, Joe said, “I remember you putting me in front of you in the saddle and taking me for rides, and I kind of remember you showing me how to read and write my name. I remember those little flour-paste animals you used to make for me and bake in the oven so they’d get hard and not fall apart, and how you and Hoss would play tag or hide and seek with me every night before supper.” He thought for a moment longer, looking a little discouraged as he again met his brother’s eyes. “That’s not much, is it?”

“That’s all you recall?” Adam asked, his expression remarkably softened by the boy’s halting memories. He could also remember every one of those events, and the special significance each had played in his life.

Joe hesitated, then said, “I remember when Ma died, and how scared I got that everyone else would die too, and I’d be left all alone. You used to come into my room and sit with me in your lap, and tell me stories or sing to me until I wasn’t so scared any more.”

“You remember that?” Adam was astonished. His little brother had not even quite been five years old when those events had occurred.

The child nodded. “How come it ain’t like that now, Adam? I don’t mean the things we did together, cause I’m too old for all that baby stuff now, but you just don’t seem very much like I thought you would be.”

Adam winced internally. So his friend had been right. “I guess you’re not much like I thought you’d be either, Little Joe,” he admitted. “But, maybe it’s not too late to start over again. I’ll make you a deal. You make an effort to get to know me, the way I am, and I’ll do the same for you, and maybe we can both try and be a little bit more patient with each other. Deal?”

Little Joe flashed a bright smile at his brother, and held out his hand to shake. “Deal. Only you gotta not be so crabby every time I don’t do something your way.”

He clasped the small hand. “Only if you’ll try to stop and think before you deliberately do things that you know will make me get mad.”

Reluctantly, the boy nodded. “I’ll try.”

A deep chuckle rose from Adam at his brother’s answer, and he firmly shook hands with the boy. “That’s a start, and as a wise man once told me, that’s all anyone can ask.”

 

Chapter 10

“By Golly, Adam, this is gonna be the best present that kid ever got in his whole life,” Hoss said excitedly. “You sure we can’t wake him up and give it to him a little early?”

“Shhh!” The sound of the reprimand cut through the quiet night like a whip-crack. Adam looked carefully toward the darkened house, as though half expecting to see a small face peering at him from the upstairs window. “No, we cannot. It’ll be daylight in an hour, and after all the trouble we went through to get away without letting Little Joe hear us, we can’t ruin things now. You know Pa wants it to be a surprise.”

Hoss grinned, undisturbed by his older brother’s grouchy tone. Little Joe had been so excited the previous evening about his upcoming birthday, begging and finagling for hints about his gifts, that getting him to go to sleep at his usual bedtime had been impossible. It had been nearly midnight before he had finally drifted off, and Adam was feeling the lack of sleep in his own pre-dawn rise to pick up the boy’s present. Hoss had been bright-eyed and cheerful over the prospect and his good mood had worn on the nerves of his sleepy sibling. “I just can’t wait to see his face, Adam.”

A soft smile lifted Adam’s mouth, as he allowed himself to respond to Hoss’ enthusiasm at last. “I can’t either, but we’ve got to finish getting everything ready before he gets up. I have a feeling this will be one morning when Little Joe won’t be interested in sleeping in.”

Hoss laughed. “I think you’re right. Too bad, too. His birthday is about the only time Pa wouldn’t mind him doing it.”

As they approached the barn, the large door swung silently open, revealing the soft glow of lantern-light. “Hurry up and get in here, you two,” a voice ordered. The Cartwrights entered the barn, and carefully shut the door behind them. Paul Dwyer grinned brightly at them, circling around as he took a good look at Joe’s birthday present. He whistled softly. “I remember you telling me how bad Little Joe has always wanted a pinto horse, Adam, and this one is a beauty. Thanks for letting me help you get him ready.”

“We oughta be thankin’ you,” Hoss told him, slapping the thin young man on the shoulder. He would not have even considered doing such a thing in public, at the risk of a lecture from his father on showing proper respect for a man of the cloth, but in private the other man was just Paul, and it was all right. “If you hadn’t been out this way callin’ on a neighbor, and stopped by, we never would’ve got Little Joe distracted enough to stop asking all those questions.”

Paul laughed. “Well, lucky for us that Mrs. Abernathy just happened to remember that dinner she’d promised me and invited me out this way tonight, isn’t it?”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Sure is, and it’s even luckier that this just happened to be the one time where you forgot to notice the lateness of the hour and had to stop at the Ponderosa to stay overnight. Interesting coincidence.”

The two old friends shared a conspiratorial grin. “By the way, buddy,” Paul added. “You owe me one. If I never have to sit in old Mrs. Abernathy’s front parlor eating soggy cakes and rock hard cookies again, it’ll be too soon. That dinner she served was enough to ruin even my appetite.”

Hoss shook his head in sympathy. “She’s a nice old gal, but she sure ain’t much of a cook, that’s for sure.”

The minister grimaced. “Well, it seems to be a family characteristic. Her four daughters cooked the meal together, and I had to sit there smiling and praising everything all evening, while Mrs. Abernathy trotted out a never-ending list of all the reasons that any one of her very, very eligible daughters would make a perfect minister’s wife!”

The Cartwright brothers burst out laughing, both having been subject to mothers of ‘eligible’ daughters in their own rights a time or two. “And naturally, since you had to show up here seeking lodging at just the right time, you couldn’t make any excuses for a hasty retreat,” Adam concluded.

Paul sighed forlornly, then grinned. “Well, I’ve survived worse. Besides, I had a feeling Little Joe might appreciate an early birthday gift, so it was worth enduring the Abernathys for a few hours to give it to him.”

“That sure is some gadget,” Hoss commented, shaking his head. “I think I’m as glad you brought it out as Joe was.”

“My pleasure, though I’m not sure if my present helped calm him down or made him too excited to sleep,” Paul said apologetically. He had given Joe a Stereoscope, a device where one looked through a set of special lenses at a drawing, which then could be viewed as a three-dimensional image. The entire Cartwright family had been fascinated with the device, save for Adam who had seen it before. “I’m glad everyone liked it, but I have a feeling that once Little Joe sees what you all have got him, he’ll forget all about the Stereoscope.”

The pinto responded to the comment by tossing his head about, as if to say that he agreed completely. Hoss grinned and patted the horse’s pretty flank. “Pa sure did pick a fine one,” he stated. “Took him nearly two days to negotiate this pony away from Winnemucca, and he still paid a pretty price, including his best buffalo gun. It’ll be worth everything, though, when Little Joe sees it. The braves at the Indian village thought it was kind of strange that Pa asked them to hold the horse until nightfall, so we could come back there and pick him up, but they didn’t give us no trouble about it.”

“Did Joe know your father had gone to the Indian camp?” Paul asked, stroking his hand over the pony’s smooth mane.

“No, we just told him Pa had an urgent business trip,” Adam said. “That’s a common enough happening that Joe didn’t question it. He was kind of worried that Pa wouldn’t make it home in time for his birthday, but he made it back last night, so the kid doesn’t suspect a thing.”

“Yeah, the hard part was getting all this new tack finished up and in here without him seeing any of it,” Hoss added, holding up a brand new saddle and hand-stitched bridle, while Adam displayed a set of hand-tooled saddle-bags with his youngest brother’s initials stamped into the leather. Hoss looked them over with pride. “We been planning this present with Pa for months.”

“They’re beautiful,” Paul said sincerely. “I’m sure Little Joe will love them. Are you going to put them on the horse before he sees it?”

“That’s the plan,” Adam told him cheerfully.

Unfortunately, the little Indian pony was not as willing to go along with their plan as the young men had hoped. He made no objection to the saddle blanket, but when they tried to put the saddle on, and replace the hackamore with the new bridle, the pony reared and shied violently.

“Dadburnit, hold still,” Hoss commanded. It was no use, though. The animal would not cooperate, and was only growing more restless and wild with every attempt.

Adam put a hand on his brother’s arm. Disappointment showed in his voice as he said, “Never mind, Hoss. Pa told us this pony was only culled from the wild herd a couple of weeks ago. Guess we shouldn’t expect him to wear this tack willingly.”

“He’s still wild?” Paul asked in surprise, looking at the horse, which had seemed so placid and docile a few moments earlier, eyeing the three humans with wild-eyed suspicion.

Adam nodded. “One of the chief’s main points for driving the price up was that the animal was spirited. Pa told me he almost decided against this horse for that very reason, but this is the only one that was exactly like what Joe’s always wanted. We’ll have to work on getting him gentled and saddle-broken before Joe can ride him.”

Paul cleared his throat significantly, and Adam looked at him, eyebrow raised. “Why don’t you let Little Joe train the horse himself?” the minister suggested. Adam’s eyes opened wider, a look of mixed alarm and outrage springing into his face. Paul rushed to speak first. “Make it part of your gift, Adam. You know he can do it, and you know how much it would mean to him to know you trust him to do it.”

The silence stretched between them as the two friends stared hard at each other. After a minute, Adam turned to Hoss. “What do you think?”

Hoss nodded without hesitation. “Pa thinks Little Joe is ready, Adam, and so do I. He’s been growing some and this little pony is still growin’ up, too. It’ll be good for ’em to learn together. You or I can be with Joe the entire time, teachin’ him, and Pa won’t object as long as he knows Little Joe’s bein’ properly looked after.”

Paul pressed his point. “I think this is just what you’ve been looking for, Adam. Joe has been trying hard to get along better with you these last couple of weeks, just as he promised, and I know you’ve been trying to let him know that you appreciate it.”

“And you think letting him have complete charge of this horse will prove that I have confidence in him,” Adam said flatly. His friend and brother looked at each other, then back to him, and it was clear that they were in complete accord, but willing to let Adam make the final choice. He observed the horse for a few seconds, noting that the pony was calming quickly as Hoss muttered soothing nonsense into his pointed ear. With a reluctant sigh, he nodded. “Let’s put him out in the corral without the tack, and let Joe get a look at him there.”

 

Chapter 11

Little Joe came clattering down the stairs to breakfast only seconds ahead of his father. Adam, Hoss and Paul were already at the table, calmly sipping coffee when he arrived. They casually wished the new arrivals good morning, then went back to their discussion of the weather. Joe waited for them to say something more, but nobody did. Ben smiled and patted him on the shoulder in passing, but did not otherwise do anything out of the ordinary as he went to take his own place, with a comment about how good breakfast smelled. Joe took a long look around the living room, casting hopeful glances at the coffee table and credenza, but both were empty, and he frowned.

“Joseph, sit down and eat your breakfast,” Ben ordered.

“Yes, sir,” the boy muttered, still casting around for anything different, a worried expression stealing over his face when he could not find anything. Hoss filled a plate for him and handed it over, and Little Joe began to pick at the food.

Ben looked over at him. “Joseph, I said eat that food, not play with it. There are chores waiting to be done.”

The boy’s confused expression turned to one of dismay. “Chores?” By tradition, the birthday boy was not required to do chores, his brothers doing them instead. “But I… It’s my…” He stopped, wondering suddenly if he could have possibly dreamed the wonderful evening he had enjoyed last night, everyone playing with his new gift, or if he was perhaps dreaming now.

Ben saw his confusion and hid a smile, deciding to let him off the hook. He rose and pasted a stern look on his face, tossing his napkin into his empty plate as he walked around the table. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten that I owe you a tanning, either, young man.”

Joe paled. This was no dream. This was a nightmare! “Tanning?” he squeaked.

Suddenly, the whole family broke into wide grins, as Ben scooped up his youngest son and flipped him across his knees. He administered a dozen gentle swats to Joe’s backside, then one hearty one as he finished his count with the words, “One to grow on! Happy Birthday, son.”

“Aw, Pa!” Joe groaned, unable to help grinning as he stepped back from his father, rubbing his hands over his seat in protest, though in truth he had barely felt the light swats. “You guys really had me going for a minute there. I wasn’t sure if you’d forgotten my birthday, or if I was still asleep.”

Adam and Hoss stood and stepped forward, laughing. They each gave their brother a quick embrace and wished him a happy birthday. Paul shook Joe’s hand and added his own good wishes.

Joe looked around the room again. “So, where’d you hide my presents?”

“Who says you’re getting any?” Adam asked lightly, and grinned when Joe stuck his tongue out at him. He raised an eyebrow to his father. “Pa?”

Ben nodded, smiling at them both. “Let’s show him.”

Crooking his finger to his little brother, Adam moved out of the dining room and toward the front door. Little Joe eagerly followed, obeying instantly when he was ordered to shut his eyes. He let his father and Hoss lead him outside and across the yard. Ben leaned down next to his ear and whispered, “Take a look.”

Little Joe drew a deep breath to prepare for what he hoped he was about to see, and opened his eyes. The sound he made, a very slight, choked “Oh,” surprised everyone, as they had been expecting a far more exuberant response. The boy turned and threw his arms around Ben’s neck, hugging him so tight he could barely breathe, then let go and slowly approached the corral. The family watched, enraptured, as Little Joe held out his hand and made soft clicking noises at the nervous-looking paint. The horse’s restless motions ceased at once and he stepped forward, eyes settling on the small figure stepping up onto the boards to straddle the corral fence. Pony and boy stared at each other, and slowly the horse stretched his long neck forward and pressed his nose into Joe’s palm. Joe climbed slowly back down the fence on the inside.

Unable to prevent it, Ben took a step forward. “Be careful, Joe.”

A slight nod was the only indication that the boy had heard his father. Talking low and soft, he approached the pinto, stroking the soft nose and strongly muscled neck lovingly. The pony lowered its head and nibbled at Joe’s collar, then whiffed a cloud of sweet alfalfa breath into his hair. Minutes passed as they got to know one another, then at last, Joe ran his hands along the pony’s back and grasped a handful of mane as he swung himself up into a seat on the broad bare back.

The Cartwright family and Paul all gasped, expecting Little Joe to be bucked off immediately, but beyond a little dancing and a puzzled look as he took in the small human’s change of position, the horse did nothing. “Joe, be careful, ” Adam echoed. “He’s still wild.”

Little Joe flashed his brother a radiant smile; a mist of tears visible in his eyes. “It’s okay, Adam. Isn’t it?”

A flash of understanding passed between them and Adam moved closer to the corral, leaning on the fence. His smile was warm as he said, “Yes, it is. He’s all yours, buddy.”

~*~*~*~*~

Little Joe spent the entire morning working with his new pony, taking things slow and easy, showing more patience than Adam would have believed his little brother had in him. Eventually, he left the corral and went to the barn to examine his other gifts, exclaiming happily over each one, but his eyes continually strayed back out toward the horse and whenever anyone looked, the horse was standing at the fence, staring right back.

“So, little brother,” Hoss said with a grin. “You decided on a name for that little pony yet?”

Joe smiled back. “He’s an Indian pony, so he needs an Indian name. Something strong and brave, fitting the best horse that’s ever been born.” He looked lovingly over at his new friend, never noticing the grins of his family over his rapturous tone. “I think I’ll call him, Cochise.”

 

~*~*~*~*~

“Would one of you please go out and bring your little brother in?” Ben asked, checking the grandfather clock. “He saw Paul and Mitch out an hour ago, and they were the last ones. It’s getting late, and the temperature is dropping.”

Adam and Hoss smiled at each other. Joe’s birthday party had been a resounding success. Since he was lucky enough to have had his birthday fall on a Saturday, his family had arranged a big surprise party and invited all of Joe’s friends from town, his school chums, the sheriff, the blacksmith, and several others. Age seemed to make little difference to Joe when it came to offering friendship. He had been utterly delighted to return from the east pasture where Hoss had taken him out to give his new pony a good run, to find everyone waiting for him with gifts and good-wishes. Of course, nothing he received had compared to his family’s gift, though the boy was very gracious about everything. He had proudly escorted his friends outside to show off Cochise, and when the last guest had left, he had stayed out there with the horse, unwilling to let the day end. Adam rose from his chair. “I’ll go get him, Pa.”

As expected, Adam found his little brother out in the barn. He had picked out a stall for his new horse and was happily brushing him down, softly talking to the animal.

“I already showed you the stereoscope Paul got me, and the tack Hoss and Adam made for us, and the new clothes Pa got me. Let’s see, what else? Oh, Roy gave me a real deputy’s badge, Cochise! Course it ain’t official unless I swear an oath, and Pa says it wouldn’t be legal anyway until I’m at least sixteen, but it’s still pretty neat. Most of the kids from school gave me games and candy, except Tuck, Seth and Mitch. They saved up together and bought me that slick little black hat I was admiring in the general store window a couple weeks ago. Can you imagine them doing that for me? I’ll have to think of something really special to give them on their birthdays next year. Um, oh yeah, Jim gave me a pair of boots with fancy stamping on the sides just like the ones he always wears, and Danny and Cole made me a pair of chaps. When we get you saddle-broke and start working the ranch together, I’m gonna look darn near as good as you do, Cochise.”

“You’re quite a pair, all right,” Adam said, smiling as he made his presence known. He patted the small pinto horse on the neck. “You made out like a regular bandit today, didn’t you, little brother?”

Little Joe grinned at him. “I sure did. I wouldn’t have cared if I hadn’t gotten anything else, though, as long as I had him.” He swung an arm around the horse’s neck, giving him a little squeeze. Cochise shied a bit, but did not otherwise protest. “I’m going to let him get used to the bridle tomorrow and just ride him with the blanket for a while. Ollie told me that he’d put horseshoes on for free as his present to me if I bring Cochise in to the blacksmith’s shop. I want to get him gentled a little more first before I try, though.”

“Good idea,” Adam agreed. “You made a real fine start on him today. Think you’ll be ready to try the saddle soon?”

Joe puffed up a bit at his brother’s approval. “As soon as he gets comfortable with the bridle. You planning to help me train him?”

Adam hesitated, not sure if the casual question was a request for aid, or a request for him to back off. “I don’t know. I’ll have to check the work schedule with Pa. If you’d rather have Hoss, or one of the hands help you out a little, I’ll see to it that they have time away from their regular duties.”

The crestfallen expression in the boy’s face immediately told Adam he’d said the wrong thing, even before Joe muttered, “Yeah, guess you probably got better things to do, anyway. I’ll ask Hoss.” Little Joe put up his brushes and walked past his brother, with a final pat of Cochise’s smooth flank. “I’d best be getting inside.”

“Joe, wait!” Adam hurried after his brother, catching the running boy just before he reached the front steps. Joe stopped and looked up at him a trifle warily. Adam knelt down and put his hands on his brother’s shoulders. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean I wouldn’t help, or that I don’t want to. I just thought you might prefer somebody else. I’d be happy to show you the ropes.”

A smile brightened Little Joe’s glum expression at once. “You would? Gee, Adam, that’s great. I was hoping you and Hoss might both give me a few pointers. Not that I don’t know what I’m doing,” he added hastily, “but I’ve never been allowed to do the saddle-breaking myself before.”

“I understand,” Adam told him. “Don’t worry, Joe. I already agreed with Hoss that the job is yours, but we’re not going to leave you to do it all alone. We’ll see to it that you have proper instruction, but you have to promise that if either of us gives you an order, you’ll obey it.”

“Sure,” the boy agreed easily. Adam clapped him on the arm and rose to his feet again, draping an arm around his brother’s shoulders as they crossed the porch. Just as he reached to open the door, Little Joe took one last long look back toward the barn and sighed happily. “This is the best birthday I ever had.”

 

Chapter 12

“Okay, now just remember, keep a firm hand on the reins, but don’t yank on ’em,” Hoss instructed. “Let your body ride with the bucking, and your instincts will tell you which way to move.”

“And if you get tossed, try to fling yourself away from the animal and roll with the impact,” Adam added. “You got a lot less chance of hurting yourself that way. You ready?”

Little Joe drew a deep breath and settled himself firmly into the saddle, flexing the wrist of his gloved left hand as he gathered the reins into them, trying to obey Hoss’ instructions. He had been looking forward to this for so long, but now that the moment was here he felt more nervous than he could ever remember. “I’m ready.”

Adam sent up a small prayer, feeling his gut clench nervously. His brother was so small yet, and so very young. What if they were making a mistake and he wasn’t ready? What if he got hurt, or worse? Cochise had not taken kindly to the introduction of the saddle yesterday, despite a week of bridle and blanket training. Joe had spent the day walking him around the corral, leaving the saddle in place until the horse finally seemed to stop noticing it, but he had still kicked up quite a fuss at the saddle’s reintroduction today. What if it was too soon?

Hoss looked over at his older brother, reading the doubt and fear in his eyes and feeling a tingle of both in himself. He had been the one to convince first Pa and then Adam that Joe was ready for new challenges, and that he deserved the chance to train Cochise himself. If anything went wrong, if Joe was not really ready yet, then the fault would lie squarely in Hoss’ lap. Had he allowed himself to be swayed too easily by his little brother’s wheedling ways? Joe just looked so tiny up on that angrily fidgeting horse, Cochise himself seeming to have suddenly grown a great deal bigger in the last several minutes. The teenager looked into Little Joe’s eyes, which were questioning his hesitation to release the horse so he could get started, and saw a little fear, but also confidence and pride.

Adam watched the exchange, seeing Hoss’ wavering confidence in Little Joe’s abilities suddenly solidify back into faith again as he looked into the boy’s eyes. His own fears quieted and he nodded to them both as they turned in unison to look at him. “All right, then. Hang on tight, little brother. Let ‘er go!”

The gate was released and Joe and Cochise took off. Cochise was infuriated by the addition of a person’s weight, however slight, to the already irritating saddle clutched around his middle. He reared and kicked, galloped and stomped, doing his best to dislodge the rider. Little Joe held his breath and hung on, feeling his teeth crash together every time the horse leaped into the air and came down again. His entire body felt as though it were being jarred apart into so many little pieces and he could barely make out the whistles and cheers of encouragement from his brothers and the gathered ranch hands. Finally, with great force, Cochise bucked and Joe lost his grip on both reins and saddle as his feet flopped out of the stirrups. The boy went flying, remembering just in time to tuck and roll before his body met the ground with a thudding impact.

Hands reached to pick him up at once, dusting him off and inquiring as whether he was all right. Little Joe took a few wobbly steps toward the fence, gripping it gratefully as dizziness overwhelmed him. Soon, the world quit spinning and he realized that the concerned faces hovering just inches from his own belonged to his father and brothers. “Hey, Pa. When did you get here?” he said faintly. He looked over at his horse, still dancing in place as he was forced back into the small chute. “Is Cochise okay?”

Seeing that he was unhurt, though a little shaken up, Ben Cartwright hugged his youngest son around the shoulders, proud of both the ride and his concern for his mount above himself. “He’s just fine, son. You almost had him, I think, but he got the best of you and so he’ll be a little harder to control next time. You want to try again, or should we let Adam have a crack at him?”

Joe blinked, surprised that his father was asking his opinion in the matter. His family had told him that he was in charge of this horse, but somehow he had still expected to defer to whatever Pa and Adam wanted. He knew that it would ultimately be bad for Cochise’s training not to continue riding him until he’d settled today, but he had not thought that he would be offered another go at it. “I’ll do it,” he said, the strength returning to his voice, accompanying the tingle of pride in his heart.

Before he returned to the saddle, Joe took a few minutes to talk to Cochise, calming and praising him in hopes that he might be less jumpy. The pinto responded by blowing into his hair and blinking sweetly at him. Hoss saw it and laughed. “Don’t let him fool you, Shortshanks. He’s gonna try just as hard as he can to give you another tumble in the dirt, and he’s gonna keep trying until you best him.”

Joe nodded, taking a grip on Adam’s shoulder as he swung his legs over the fence and got back into the saddle. Cochise gave a small warning hop, and the boy swallowed. Adam patted his back. “Don’t be nervous, Joe. He’ll sense it. You’ve got to let him know which of you is boss. You came pretty close to sticking on him last time, but you didn’t know it and you let him gain control. Wait until you feel him start to slow down his motion, indicating he’s about to change tactics, then grip him hard with your knees and tighten the reins just a bit. Not too much, or he’ll rear, just enough to let him know you’re not letting him have his way.”

Licking his lips, Joe nodded and settled his hat down firmly. “Gotcha. Let’s try it.”

Doing his best to keep all the instructions in mind, Joe again let himself be jerked and wrenched about as Cochise hopped around the corral. He began to sense what Adam had been talking about as he felt the bunching of the horse’s muscles and detected a slowing in his wild dance just before each change of method and direction. Twice more, Little Joe was thrown, but each time he managed to stay in the saddle a little longer. After each go-round, he took time to discuss the ride with his brothers, getting tips and relaying his own physical observations. By the forth ride, he had picked up on the pattern and rhythm of the pony’s movements and Cochise could not toss him no matter how he tried. Slowly, the bucking and running stopped and the young horse dropped into a trot, then a walk, then a standstill as Joe gently guided him with his legs and a few expert tugs at the bit.

A massive cheer rose up from the assembled men, Hoss leading the pack as he jumped down off the fence and took Cochise in hand, passing him off to one of the hands. He swung his brother up into the air and onto his shoulders just as though Joe was a little boy again, and the raucous burst of laughter Little Joe gave in response was a crow of purest triumph.

Following a sort of victory lap around the corral, Hoss brought Joe down to ground level again to receive the congratulations of the assembled men. Ben hugged him proudly and Adam clapped him on the back nearly hard enough to knock the wind out of him, both of them grinning hugely. There was a sense of great relief as well as pride in their hearty behavior, but Joe was oblivious to it. All he knew was that he had done what he set out to do. It was his finest hour.

Ben allowed his youngest son to work with Cochise for a few minutes more, just to reinforce the lesson, but then he led a protesting Little Joe out of the corral with orders to groom Cochise and put him away. “But, Pa, he wants to do more,” the boy tried. “There’s lots more he has to learn and I know we can get it if we keep going.”

“Joseph.” That one word stopped the begging at once. “You don’t want to confuse him. You’ve done a good day’s work with this horse, but that’s enough for one day.”

“All right,” he said reluctantly. “Can I try another horse, then? I want to make sure I got all the instructions down, so I’ll remember next time.”

Adam was listening and he laughed. “Little buddy, you just spent well over an hour getting pitched and jounced every which way. You might not know it now, but you’re going to be as sore as you’ve ever been in a few hours. Trust me, the last thing you need is another wild horse under you.”

Little Joe scowled at him, but Ben backed his eldest up. “He’s right, son. Adam and Hoss can handle the rest of the horses for this afternoon. You are going to put up Cochise and give him a good rubdown, then get yourself into a hot bath with some Epsom salts. That way, you just might feel up to continuing your horse’s training tomorrow.”

“Aw, Pa, I feel fine,” Joe tried again, but his father and brother were not listening. Adam tousled his hair and went back to work, and his father marched him straight toward the barn and waited for him with crossed arms and an understanding smile as Joe gave his horse an extra good brushing and currying session.

Still somewhat reluctantly, Little Joe followed his father into the house and joined him in an afternoon snack while Hop Sing readied the bathhouse. Soon, though, Joe was happily reliving his first day as a horse-breaker, giving his smiling father a play by play account, just as if he had not been standing there watching the entire thing. When Ben left him to soak in the big copper tub fifteen minutes later, Joe switched his attention to Hop Sing. The oriental man had intended to just drop off towels and clean clothes for the boy and leave, but instead found himself a captive audience, nodding and smiling at Little Joe’s enthusiastic prattling.

“Sound like Little Joe have very fine time,” Hop Sing said, when he could work a few words in. “Hop Sing fix big roast beef dinner to celebrate. You take bath, and I go to kitchen. Finish getting everything ready.”

The cook took his opportunity and fled before the boy could get started again, and Little Joe lay back in the tub, a bit put out that Hop Sing was not as excited about the new accomplishment as he was. Taking a deep breath, Joe sank beneath the water, blowing a fountain of bubbles up to the surface. He came up laughing, his happy mood restored as he settled back to relive the day in his own thoughts.

 

Chapter 13

Jim Dawson whistled as he finished tightening the gear on all of the horses. As he reached the last one, he patted the little black and white pinto affectionately. “You take good care of Little Joe today, you hear?”

The pinto tossed his head and danced in place, seemingly agreeing with the young wrangler. Jim patted him again. It had been just under two months since Joe had received Cochise, and he had worked with the animal every day. It had taken very little time for the horse to become comfortable with his tack, and to the pleasure of the entire family, Cochise was already showing good instincts and steady nerves, both requisites of being good working stock on a cattle ranch. Joe’s big brothers had been helping both horse and boy learn the day to day trade of a working rancher every time they had a few minutes to spare. It had been something of a rush job, as Ben wanted the rudimentary lessons finished before true winter set in.

Hoss had predicted the first blizzard of winter would come within a few days. Everyone knew he had an almost supernatural instinct for such things and were hard at work getting ready. Frost was evident each morning now, and the mountain fed lakes and streams that covered the vast Ponderosa were already half-frozen. The stock had been gathered in, and quantities of winter-feed were stored for their survival. Some of the ranch hands had been taking turns every day bringing in food stores and other supplies from town. Still others had been chopping cords of firewood, delivering it to the line shacks, the ranch house and bunkhouse.

Unable to do much of the harder work yet, Little Joe had been pitching in wherever he could, and had been in town every day that he could coax the trip out of his father, helping Paul set up needed donations for the poorer families around the area. The bundles of food and warm clothing were ready, and today Joe and Adam would pick up the last of the packages and deliver them to their destinations. Hoss believed they would be cutting it close, and so everyone was in a great rush to finish up and get safely home.

“Hi, Jim. Is everything ready?” Little Joe came out of the house and straight over to the hitching rail to offer a treat to Cochise as he asked the question.

“Yep,” the man told him cheerfully. “Danny and I just finished helping Hop Sing load the last of the baked goods he’s donating into the back of the wagon, and your horses are all ready to go.”

“Thanks. It sure was nice of Hop Sing to make all that fresh bread and cookies for those folks, even if he did almost drive Hoss crazy telling him he couldn’t have any of it.” Joe critically looked over the partially loaded wagon and nodded. “Looks like plenty of room left for all the bundles,” he decided.

“Glad you approve,” Adam’s voice answered, as he finished pulling on his gloves and came outside to join his brother. “Soon as we pick up Paul and load the supplies, we’re in for a long day, little brother. You sure you’re ready for it?”

Joe glared at him. “Of course I am! It was my idea, after all.”

Adam patted him on the back, ignoring his defensive attitude. “I know, and it was a good one. A real Christian act, as Paul put it. I just meant that you might want to get a heavier coat, or you’re going to freeze before we get home this evening.”

The boy shrugged. “I’m fine. I’ve got my woolens on under my clothes, and Pa made me put that ugly sweater Cousin Clarissa sent me for my birthday on besides. I’m probably going to be too hot, not too cold.”

Adam chuckled. “Why don’t you go get the heavier one anyway. It’ll keep Pa happy.”

“Okay,” he said reluctantly. “I’ll bring it, but I’m not going to wear it unless Hoss’ blizzard starts early.”

“We’ll just hope that doesn’t happen,” Adam agreed indulgently. He could understand Joe’s reluctance to bundle up. He had always disliked it himself, finding the extra clothes restrictive, but their father tended to worry about chills. As Joe trudged back inside to get the coat, Adam tied Sport and Cochise behind the wagon. They would be loading the supplies into the wagon, then making several side trips today, as it was far quicker to split up and deliver the bundles to some of the outlying ranches on horseback, than it was to drive the lumbering wagon to each and every place. Joe returned, wearing the heavy coat and a sour expression, and Adam hid a grin. Obviously, Pa had intercepted him and made him put it on. “Ready to go?”

“Sure,” Little Joe grunted, climbing up into the wagon seat. “Let’s get out of here before Pa thinks of something else I have to bring.” With a laugh, Adam joined him and they set out toward Virginia City together.

 

~*~*~*~*~

“Just a few more deliveries, and we can go home!” shouted Adam, struggling to make himself heard over the increasing howls of the wind that swirled bitterly around them. “You two sure did pick a hell of a day to go playing good Samaritans!”

Paul Dwyer laughed, but the sound was instantly snatched away by the greedy wind. He leaned closer to his friend, across the body of Little Joe, who sat between them on the wide wagon seat, and yelled, “It wasn’t the day I’d have picked either if I’d had a choice! If Hoss is right, we’re in for a bad winter. If we’d waited any longer we might not have been able to get to these farms for weeks and they need these supplies!”

“I know! They’ll get them, don’t worry!” The wind died suddenly, leaving him shouting into the silence. Adam grinned sheepishly, and said in a normal tone of voice, “We’re making good time.”

“Did you see Mrs. Batzka’s face when we put that big box of food and all those things Hop Sing baked on her kitchen table?” Joe asked happily. “I thought she was going to cry!”

“She did cry when you distracted her youngsters so I could give her the other sack with the toys and warm clothes for their Christmas in it,” Paul told him, impulsively reaching an arm over to hug the boy. “I told her it was all your doing and she just broke down. Kept saying, ‘the little angel’, over and over again.”

“Is that why she kissed me when we left?” Joe asked, smiling in a slightly embarrassed way as he rubbed the side of his face where her gesture had landed. “You shouldn’t have told her, Paul. It was supposed to be a secret. Besides, everyone else donated money and stuff. I just asked for their help.”

“But it was your idea, and you organized the whole thing, took the pledges, collected the money, and charmed every store keeper in Virginia City into donating goods to the charity drive. More than all the material goods in the world, some of the folks we’re making these deliveries to just need to know that somebody cares, and I wanted to let them know how much you’d done for them, Joe. I’m proud of you.”

“I am too,” Adam said sincerely. Every day for the last few weeks before school let out for the winter break, Joe had been rising early to go into town and help Paul, and he had spent nearly every hour of his weekends there as well, when he wasn’t working with Cochise. His family had not minded, as long as his chores were kept up and he did not neglect his health by not getting enough food and sleep. They figured that as long as Joe was with the minister they could at least be assured that he was not up to any mischief. He had told them all about the charity drive, coaxing a very generous donation out of his willing father for it, and they had known that it was his idea, but until now, Adam had not realized just how much personal effort his little brother had put into it. “You’ve done a wonderful thing, Little Joe.”

Joe beamed at the praise, especially that of his oldest brother. “We’re almost at the cross-roads. We gonna split up again, Adam?”

“I suppose so,” he said, checking the list in his hand as he took it out of his pocket. “Only three more deliveries to make.”

The wind picked up again with no warning, sending icy prickles down the spines of men and boy, and Joe was forced to make a grab for his hat as it was picked off his head. “Golly Moses!” he exclaimed, borrowing one of his brother Hoss’ expressions. “That wind is really something!”

Adam swore vigorously at the wicked wind and chafed his arms briskly. “After all the times I spent boring you to death telling you how beautiful Sierra winters were, and how much I missed being home at this time of year, you’d think I’d be a little happier to be out here, wouldn’t you?” he asked Paul with a grin of apology for his blistering words of a moment before.

“I think nostalgia tends to forget things like frozen toes and ears,” he joked back. “You want to know the truth, though? I suddenly feel nostalgic for Professor Peterson’s lecture hall!”

Adam’s deep chuckle filled the frozen air. “I never thought I’d hear you say that!”

“Who’s Professor Peterson?” Joe asked, hunching down into his coat as he tried to make himself less of a target for the biting wind, grateful now that Adam and Pa had insisted on his wearing it.

“Our second year history teacher,” Paul told him. “His class was so boring that everybody used to complain that an hour in his class was worse than a month in detention. Then a surprise snowstorm hit and the entire building was buried for three days! We couldn’t go anywhere, and Peterson’s lecture hall was the warmest place that many people could hole up in, so we wound up waiting out the storm in there.”

“It was the longest three days in the history of mankind!” shouted Adam. “I’ve got to admit, though, I’ve never forgotten a single detail of the Revolutionary War since then! I was starting to think George Washington’s men had been lucky to march through the snows of Valley Forge with no supplies, just cause they didn’t have to listen to Peterson lecture about it!”

Joe and Paul both laughed, then a frozen gust came up so strongly that it rocked the entire wagon. Snow that had been falling sporadically in bursts of white flakes all morning suddenly erupted from the sky in a fluffy curtain and the temperature began to plummet. All merriment abruptly ceased as the three travelers looked up nervously at the thickly gathered clouds.

“I’m not so sure we’re going to miss that blizzard, after all,” Adam said, his voice quiet but carrying to his companions nonetheless. “Maybe we’d best head back to town.”

“I’d say we’ve got about an hour before it really gets bad,” Joe offered. Hoss had been teaching him to read the weather signs for several years and he was nearly as good as his brother by now. “That’s not enough time to make it back to Virginia City, Adam, and we’ve still got three more bundles to deliver. Why don’t I take the Duncan family their package, since their place is just over the next rise, and you take the Willis place up the road to the east? We can meet Paul and the wagon at the Lynch farm. They’re not as bad off as the other families, and I think they’d be willing to take us in for awhile.”

Adam did not care for the idea of letting Joe out of his sight in the increasingly heavy storm, but had to admit that his idea was a good one. The Duncan and Willis families were desperately poor, and needed these gifts more than almost anyone else on the charity list. The Lynch family was better off and also one of the families who hated receiving charity. They would be more than pleased to offer needed shelter in exchange for the supplies. “All right,” he agreed. “Go as fast as you can, but be careful! It’s getting harder to make out landmarks out here and I don’t want you getting hurt by something you can’t see, or turned around in the storm. Come back to the main road when you’re finished and I’ll catch up to you if I can.”

Little Joe nodded, tying his hat down extra tight with his scarf. “I’ll be careful, Adam,” he promised. Paul stopped the wagon and Joe hopped out, selecting the appropriate bundle by touch from the back, and untying Cochise. He hooked his burden onto the saddle horn and climbed aboard. With a wave at his brother and friend, Little Joe took off toward the west.

Adam and Paul watched him for a moment until he disappeared from sight, each praying silently for his safe return. Adam then retrieved his own bundle and climbed aboard Sport. “You gonna be able to find your way to the Lynch place all right, Paul? You know the way?”

“I’ll be fine,” the minister assured him. “I’m not the greenhorn who rode out this way with you for the first time six months ago, Adam. I’ll meet you there.”

“Will do! If all goes well, I should get done fairly quickly and get back here to meet Joe. We’ll come join you together.” Adam touched his gloved hand to his hat brim and spun Sport to the east, riding out with an urgency that gave clear voice to his inner feelings.

Paul sent up a silent prayer for Adam just as he had done for Joe, and chucked the horses into motion.

 

Chapter 14

“Little Joe, have you gone crazy? What are you doing out here all by yourself in this weather?” Winifred Duncan did not wait for an answer as she reached out and ushered the snow-covered boy inside her home, taking the oversize bundle from his arms and laying it to one side as she dusted frozen powder off his coat and pants with brisk strokes of her hand. She hurried him over to stand before a small fireplace. “You must be near frozen, child!”

“No, ma’am, I’m all right,” he told her, tugging his gloves off to warm his hands as he stretched them out toward the crackling fire. That cheerful little blaze was just about the only part of this tiny, rundown shack that was cheerful. The rest of it, the curtained off second ‘room’ that only partially hid two worn, sagging feather ticks and a small cradle with a sleeping baby in it, and the neat, but all too empty kitchen area, bespoke the sadness of the Duncan family’s dirt-poor existence. Mrs. Duncan was a widow with six young children, and very few prospects for a better life. Joe was suddenly overwhelmingly grateful for his warm, well-stocked home, and ashamed of how often he took those things for granted as he lightly said, “I came from town to deliver your package. Are the kids around?”

She looked confused and a little wary as she shook her head. “They went to get what wood they could find before the storm gets any worse,” she muttered. “What package are you talking about? I didn’t order anything from town.”

Little Joe smiled his most charming smile at her, recognizing her unspoken statement, that she could not afford to buy anything in town. “Oh, it’s not an order. It’s a gift, Mrs. Duncan; a present from a lot of the folks in town who wanted to make sure you and your kids have a really swell Christmas.” He saw the way she ducked her head to hide the expression on her kind, careworn face, and hurried to untie the sack he had brought in with him. “Hop Sing sent you some bread and some of his cinnamon cookies. You know the ones that Christie and Cathy specially liked last time they came to my place to play after school? Well, he sent a whole mess, and you might as well start on them now, cause I don’t think they’ll keep three weeks until Christmas, but I brought sacks of flour and sugar, and some butter and things if you want to make more. It’s all tied to my saddle, cause it’s pretty heavy. This sack is the other stuff, the candy, and clothes and toys for you to hide away until Santa can deliver them proper. Ma’am, are you all right?”

Joe had been talking rapidly as he spread his bounty over the kitchen table. He was afraid that if he stopped, Mrs. Duncan might tell him she didn’t want charity and to take it all back, the way a couple of the other families had, before Adam and Paul had talked them around. He had chosen the gifts for this particular family very carefully. Four of the Duncan children went to his school, and he had been mentally filing away ideas for their gifts for weeks. He had personally selected books, dolls, knitting supplies, pocket knives, a jumping jack and a brightly painted baby rattle just for them, in addition to the clothing items every family was getting. He had been sure their mother would be delighted, but now as he looked at her, he saw that Winifred Duncan had tears streaming down her face. He moved closer and touched her arm, his face worried as he asked, “Don’t you like them?”

“Like them!” she exclaimed, pulling him close to hug him. “Little Joe, I don’t know what to say. This is the answer to a prayer. I’ll pay you back for this some day, I promise you.”

Embarrassed by the emotional display from the normally stoic Mrs. Duncan, Little Joe awkwardly patted her on the back. “You don’t have to do that, ma’am. I told you, it’s a gift, and it’s from the whole town, not just me.”

She let him go and wiped her face on her apron, but the smile that lit her face and smoothed away some of the permanent etchings of worry was a beautiful sight that warmed Joe more than the fire had. “I’ll do it just the same, darlin’, cause I know this was your doing even without you saying it. Think you can help me hide all this before the kids get back?”

Little Joe smiled again. “Sure, only I gotta hurry. I’ve got to get back to the road to meet my brother Adam. Paul, I mean, Reverend Dwyer, is waiting for us up ahead and we’ve got to hurry before the blizzard hits.”

Recognizing that time was indeed running out, Mrs. Duncan rapidly swept the gifts for her children back into the gunny sack and gave it to Joe to hide in the barn while she went to retrieve the second, heavier sack of food stores from his pony’s saddle. Cochise shied a bit at the stranger’s touch, but stood, as he was eager to be moving again, out of the snow and into some shelter. As she saw Joe out to his horse upon his return, Mrs. Duncan hugged him again and asked, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay here? That storm is coming up fast!”

“No thank you, ma’am,” he said politely as he swung up into the saddle. “I’ve got to meet Adam. Thanks for the offer, though. Merry Christmas!” He waved to her, and to her children as he spotted them trudging up from the woods behind the house carrying armfuls of kindling and logs. They had no hands free to wave, but they grinned back and called out greetings to him as he rode past.

Mrs. Duncan clutched her shawl tightly around herself, smiling at the thought of the surprises waiting for her children as she watched them approach. She squinted through the snow to get a last look at the rapidly disappearing boy on the black and white horse and softly said, “God bless you, child.”

 

~*~*~*~*~

Adam had made good time at the Willis farm. There were only three of them, an old couple and Mr. Willis’ ancient maiden-aunt, and there were no children, so he had not been burdened by the extra bundles of toys and sweets. Their package had primarily consisted of food staples and warm clothing, and they had been graciously accepting of the help from their town neighbors. Like Joe’s friends, the Duncans, the Willises had suggested that Adam stay out the storm with them, but he had told them that he was meeting his little brother on the road and they had not argued. In truth, Adam suspected they were grateful for his refusal. He hurried away as fast as he could, unable to shake the ominous feeling that the storm was dogging his heels with every step.

The gusts were blowing ever stronger and the snow was beginning to fall heavily again, making it harder and harder for Sport to push his way forward. They were only halfway to the main road when the blizzard was not inclined to wait any longer. It rose with a great scream of wind that nearly ripped the clothes right off Adam’s back and sent his horse into a panic as they found themselves suddenly blinded by stinging pellets of ice attacking them from every direction.

Adam struggled down out of his saddle and lifted his scarf over his face to keep out as much snow as he could. He looped his horse’s reins over his shoulder and held tight as he forced his body forward into the onslaught. The fear that came over him at the thought of his baby brother, small, frightened and alone in this frozen hell, completely overrode the more reasonable voice inside that insisted to him that going forward was madness. It told him that he should go back to the shelter of the small farm he had just left, but Adam squelched the voice ruthlessly. He had to reach Little Joe.

 

~*~*~*~*~

“Adam!” Little Joe’s screaming was lost in the howling gale, but he could not make himself stop. “Adam, where are you? Adam, please answer me!”

Joe had reached the crossroads minutes before the storm hit, and his nervous expectancy as he watched the side road for signs of his brother had given way to panic as that road disappeared before his eyes. There was nothing but white now, no matter where he looked. Cochise was fighting to move, not liking their exposed position one little bit, but Little Joe would not let him go. He hung on tightly to the reins with one hand, as he stood hunched against the pony’s side, afraid to get too far away from him. Knowing it was dangerous to stay where he was, the boy could not make himself go. He couldn’t go and have Adam show up to find nothing.

The wind changed direction again and came up from behind, knocking Little Joe to the ground with a mighty slap. He tried to get up, but it was as if the storm had become some kind of hungry beast intent on tearing him to pieces and devouring what was left, as it slapped him down again, ripping at his clothes with icy talons. Joe lost his grip on Cochise and cried out wordlessly as the pinto recognized the slackening grip and charged forward, instantly disappeared into the blank whiteness that surrounded them. Joe pushed himself up to his knees, reaching blindly toward the spot where his horse had been. Tears began to slide down his face, but they froze against his skin before they could fall. Little Joe scrubbed them away, struggling not to let any more follow. “Cochise!” he sobbed. “Come back! Adam! Somebody, please help me!”

~*~*~*~*~

Head down, Adam pulled himself and Sport forward into the wind, fighting it with every step. It was like trying to walk through a wall of mud, and he grudgingly stopped a moment to rest and try to get his bearings. He was panting hard as he slapped a hand against his scarf to break away the film of ice that had formed over his nose and mouth as his warm breath froze in the cold. He had tried hard not to deviate from his set course, but the swirling whiteness made it difficult to tell how well he was succeeding. Adam silently pleaded, ‘Please Joe, be okay. Be safe at the Duncan house. Don’t be out in this with me,’ but the same inner sense that had always mysteriously told him when his youngest brother required comfort from nightmares, or was in trouble he could not handle alone, was now screaming that Joe was out here somewhere, and needed him badly. “I’m coming, buddy,” he gasped. “I’m coming!” Adam forced his numb feet and aching legs to start forward once more.

 

Chapter 15

“Pa, I don’t like this.” Hoss Cartwright looked out at the fast moving clouds and increasingly heavy snow falling around the Ponderosa ranch house, and shook his head. “Them clouds are moving about twice the speed I expected them to. The blizzard will be here any second, and Adam and Joe ain’t back yet.”

Ben joined his son at the door, worry creasing his brow as he assessed the weather and agreed with the young man’s prognosis. “They wouldn’t have had time to finish all their deliveries and get back to town,” he said quietly. “I’m sure Adam has decided to hole up at one of the farms along the way.”

Knowing that his father did not believe those words, but was only trying to comfort both of them by speaking confidently, Hoss nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right, Pa.” He manufactured a small chuckle. “Knowing Little Joe, he probably don’t want to go in. That boy loves the cold weather like nobody I ever saw. He’ll probably drive whichever folks they’re staying with crazy, cooped up their house while there’s all that snow to play with. He and Adam will be home in a couple of days, Pa, don’t you worry.”

Ben draped his arm over Hoss’ broad shoulders and pulled him closer, and together they watched as the speed of the snow and wind picked up and the blizzard began in earnest. Neither said another word, just standing and watching with worried eyes until Hop Sing came to yell at them for letting the cold weather in, and they reluctantly shut the door, and went inside to sit by the roaring fire. Neither one noticed its warmth. Their thoughts were with Adam and Little Joe out in the freezing cold, and neither man would find warmth or rest until those two were back safely once again.

~*~*~*~*~

A deep, painful groan emerged from beneath a mound of snow. It went unheard, as anyone who might have been close enough to notice the peculiar noise would never have caught it over the keening wind. Reverend Paul Dwyer reached a hand up and felt the lump forming on his skull, dully noting that it had been bleeding, but now appeared to have stopped, leaving only a throbbing ache. He struggled to think. What had happened to him? He remembered the storm, the terrifying blast of icy wind and thick snow that had come out of nowhere, frightening the horses, and himself, half to death.

The wagon! Paul gasped, remembering suddenly that he had lost control of the team of horses and had driven off the road, completely unable to see it. He had felt a great jolt as the wheels slammed into the side of the road where a ridge of packed mud had built up, and had been horrified to hear the crack of the wagon tongue breaking as the frightened horses tried to change direction. After that, the minister could recall nothing except a headlong flight through the air and a jolt of pain as his head had struck something. A startling realization came to Paul suddenly. He could feel snow beneath his body, chilling him, but there was no light, and very little noise. He could still hear the wind, but it seemed muffled, distant, and the blinding brightness had given way to almost total darkness. Had night fallen? Had the blizzard stopped so soon? Or had the blow to the head affected him somehow?

Frantic to know the answers to his questions, Paul started to sit up, then let go a curse that would have given his congregation a horrified thrill if they could have heard it, as his head slammed into something hard. He rubbed the spot gingerly. At this rate, he would soon have a matched set of lumps, he thought with a spark of grim humor.

Slowly, and a great deal more cautiously, he raised a hand to feel the space around him. His fingers encountered the roughness of wood just a few inches above his face and wooden walls to either side, though at somewhat more distance, and Paul groaned again. It was the wagon! When it had hit the rut it had flipped completely over, and he was underneath it. He could remember now, lying on the ground and seeing the huge vehicle falling towards him. Knowing he could not get out of the way in time, he had rolled toward the falling object to prevent the side panel from cutting him in half, feeling his body being pushed into the snow by the heavy impact above him. He had passed out then, grateful to be spared a sudden, early death, but now Paul wondered if he had only postponed the inevitable. Would being eviscerated by a falling wagon, or freezing in the storm, be any worse than this, a slow suffocation?

Paul struggled futilely for a while, exhausting himself, then stopped. There was no point. There was simply no way he could lift the impossibly heavy weight off by himself. His head was throbbing, and as darkness rushed to surround him again, Paul fought it. If this was to be his fate, he could accept that, though he had no wish to die, but he did not intend to go easily, and he knew, between the cold and the injury to his head, that to fall asleep might be to sleep forever. The pull of unconsciousness grew stronger, and the minister’s thoughts turned to his two friends, hoping, praying, that they were better off than he was. “Please, God, let Adam and Joe be all right,” he whispered.

 

Chapter 16

Little Joe lurched forward, stumbling and trying not to fall again as he headed for what he hoped was Adam’s direction. He had remained on the road for a minute after the desertion of his horse, but the rapid numbing of his limbs had convinced him that to remain in one spot would be suicide. He could see nothing, but at least with the strongest wind at his back, it was not as hard to walk. In fact, the strong push would have helped him had it not been for the snow that now came up past his knees, slowing him down. The child was exhausted, wanting so much to stop and rest, but he knew that he could not. He had to ignore the increasingly overwhelming need to surrender to the weariness and cold, and keep pushing one foot in front of the other. Ragged panting was the only sound he uttered now, but Little Joe’s heart continued its desperate litany, calling out for his brother.

Suddenly, Joe screamed, the sound hardly more than a shocked squeak as the ground dropped out from under him. He landed hard on his rear, then onto his back, the force of impact driving the air from his lungs. For long moments, the boy did not move. Snow was still falling above him, coming down through the hole he had made, but the wind was gone and the sudden stillness was overwhelming.

Joe blinked stupidly, his mind refusing to snap out of the dull numbness that it had fallen into as he trudged through the storm. Finally, he slid his hands out and felt his surroundings. Dirt, roots, and the dead remains of leaves and twigs lay around him and as he slowly sat up and shifted, Joe could feel hard packed dirt walls behind him. It was an animal den of some sort, he realized, or more likely a forgotten trap pit some hunter had set to capture one. He had walked right over the top of a burrowed out space of ground and fallen into it when his weight had proved too much for the covering of foliage that someone had dragged over the top. His entry had disturbed only the outermost edge of the cover, so that the rest of the brush, and the snow that had packed above it, still held, providing a canopy of sorts.

Very slowly, Little Joe pulled himself upright. The pit was not too deep. If he reached up, he would be able to touch the canopy, and would probably be able to climb back out without too much difficulty. He sat back down instead. Snow was already starting to crust over the top of the hole again where a few of the branches had flopped over when his fall had disturbed the ones closest to them. It was not the most ideal of shelters. Joe knew that he could very well become buried alive if he stayed, as he would not be readily visible to anyone searching for him. For the moment, though, he just could not face going back out into that horrible storm. He would stay for a few minutes and catch his breath.

Little Joe scrunched his back against the solidity of the dirt wall and pulled his legs up. He was shaking with cold as he tucked his gloved hands under his arms and huddled into a tight ball. Before he knew it, the exhausted boy had fallen into a deep sleep.

~*~*~*~*~

Adam crouched in the snow behind a thickly clustered stand of pine trees, wheezing as he tried again to catch his breath. He had found the trees the hard way, by walking straight into the furry boughs of one. It had startled him, as there should not have been such a grove if he had kept on the correct course back to the main road, and he had momentarily given up his search.

Pulling Sport into the shelter offered by the pines, the oldest of the Cartwright brothers had slumped to the ground in defeat. How was he ever going to find Joe in this? He was not even sure where he was, much less where his little brother might be by now. They might be miles from each other, traveling in opposite directions, or they might be close enough to shake hands and still not see each other. There was simply no way to tell until the blizzard let up, and it did not look like it would be doing that anytime soon.

Adam’s vision blurred, and he removed one glove as he reached up to dash at his eyes. To his surprise, the wetness that came away on his fingers was a watery red and Adam touched his lids again carefully. The area around his eyes had been the only part of his face exposed to the darting crystals of ice and he was bleeding slightly where they had cut. He could feel nothing in any part of his body, not the pain, the contact of his fingers with his face, or even the cold itself. Adam knew that he could not stand much more exposure to the elements, but what could he do? Even if he knew of some better shelter for himself, he simply could not desert Little Joe. Nor could he face the idea of surviving the blizzard intact, only to go home and tell his father and Hoss that he had allowed Joe to perish in the storm. Better to keep searching for the boy until he died trying than to do that.

With renewed determination, Adam readjusted his facial coverings and put his glove back on, and struggled to his feet again. He was just about to choose a direction and start out again when Sport gave an excited whinny and began tossing his head and struggling to pull away from Adam’s grip. Shocked, Adam held on with all of his strength, even as the horse physically dragged him out of the grove and back out into the storm. “Whoa!” he cried out, struggling to stop the animal. “Damn you, I said stop!”

The horse paid him no attention and Adam did not know what to think. He had trained Sport from the time he was a colt, and he had never behaved like this. Maybe the storm had affected him in some bizarre way. Adam was nearly knocked to the ground Sport neighed loudly again and reared up on his powerful hind legs. He was clearly excited by something, but the man holding his reins in a desperate grip could not imagine what that something was until the wind died down enough for him to make out an answering whinny from somewhere close by. With no more thought of control, Adam let Sport lead the way, and in moments a second animal joined them.

“Cochise!” Adam shouted, flatly amazed to see his little brother’s pinto standing before him. The black parts of the spotted coat were all but invisible thanks to the crust of snow that covered him, but it was definitely Joe’s new horse. Adam felt his way around the new arrival on both sides, his heart sinking when he realized that Little Joe was not with him. “Cochise, where is Little Joe? Do you know where he is?”

Normally, Adam would have felt foolish demanding answers from a horse, but this time, for some reason, he did not. The little Indian pony’s sides were heaving and breath heaved from his flaring nostrils in great frozen puffs that were quickly carried away on the wind. He was clearly tired from fighting the blizzard, but he danced eagerly in place and turned back the way he had come, turning his head to look at Adam and Sport, almost as if inviting them to follow him. For the briefest of moments, Adam hesitated, then Cochise looked him straight in the eye, turned, and started walking. Adam hesitated no longer. He had read stories about animals that possessed an incredible rapport with their owners, and that they often displayed something like a homing instinct for those people. Of course, the stories had mostly been about dogs and birds; he could not remember any of them being about horses, but Adam had been praying hard for a sign to show him where Joe was. He was not about to waste the one that had shown up, no matter how strange it seemed to him.

“Come on, boy,” he said to Sport. The big red horse moved forward at once, and Adam wondered if it was deliberate the way he had taken up pace with Cochise in such a way that the human walked between the slight shelter offered by their two large bodies. He dismissed the idea quickly, smiling a little as he wondered if his brain was getting frozen. Bad enough that he was imaging Cochise as a homing pigeon without turning Sport into a mother hen!

 

Chapter 17

Inside his closely pressing shelter, Paul shivered uncontrollably. The absence of wind had done much to bring back the sensation to his numb extremities, but unfortunately that meant he could feel the cold that seeped into his clothes from the snow underneath his body. Not that he wished the accumulation away. It had probably saved him from a broken back or other horrible injury when he had impacted with the ground, but it did make for a very uncomfortable wait.

Carefully, the minister shifted his body, feeling every corner of his strange prison for anything that might help his situation. Not really expecting to find anything, he jerked in surprised relief when his stretched out left foot kicked a large object in the far corner. It was the charity bundle he had been delivering to the Lynch home, he realized. It was still here! Sending up a quick fervent petition of thanks, Paul wiggled and tugged and somehow maneuvered the wrapped object up to his groping left hand. Getting the knots in the sacks untied proved to be another challenge in the cramped dark space, but after several minutes, he succeeded. In a way, he hated to disturb the package, knowing how much the Lynches needed it, but at the moment he needed it worse.

The mittens and socks and such were of no use, being sized for children, but there were several blankets and a new knitted shawl for Mrs. Lynch among the items. The shawl was easily folded into enough of a pillow to lift his aching head off the ground and with a little more twisting and careful rolling, Paul managed to wrap his half-frozen body into the thick dry blankets. Most of the food would do him no good, being raw or canned, but there was some fresh fruit and Hop Sing’s baked goods. Paul suddenly felt ravenous. He had always had a large, some would say enormous, appetite, and the physical toil of his ordeal was causing it to kick up fiercely. The desire to tear into anything edible and gobble it down at once was strong, but he contented himself with just one piece of fruit and two of the cookies. He could be here for a long time before anyone found him, and the food would have to last.

 

Chapter 18

Inside his shelter in the ground, Little Joe stirred and stretched in his sleep, wondering vaguely why his bed felt so uncomfortable. His foot kicked a solid surface and the boy woke with a start, squinting in confusion at the dirt walls around him. His situation came back to him all at once. His muscles felt cramped and stiff and he could hardly feel his hands and feet at all anymore. Little Joe began to breathe rapidly in fear at the realization that he had accidentally gone to sleep, and was lucky to have woken up at all. Gripping the wall to help him stand, Joe walked shakily a few paces back to the area where he had entered the pit. As he looked up, he moaned softly. The snow had been falling thickly while he slept, completely covering the hole he had come down through, throwing the pit into frightening darkness.

Bracing himself against the wall, Joe reached up to the boughs overhead and pushed. They did not budge. Gulping down a surge of panic, Joe tried to do as Adam was always telling him and think through his situation. It was still terribly cold down here, but the air itself seemed warmer and rather stifling. Clearly he had been asleep for longer than the few minutes he had initially supposed; long enough for the snow to pack solidly enough above the small hole to form a protective den. Pulling himself up the side of the pit for more leverage, Little Joe listened closely. He could vaguely make out the howl of the wind above him. Hopefully, that meant he was not buried too far down. He had a choice, then. Stay here, possessing no supplies and no way of letting anyone know where he was, or go back out and take his chances that he might run into Adam, or somebody else who could help him.

Both choices seemed equally unappealing, and Little Joe could not prevent a sob from breaking free. He did not want to have to make the choice. He wished desperately for someone to tell him the right thing to do. It was lonely and dark here, but he was sheltered. Above, he would be thrust back into the blizzard, but had a better chance of being found. “What would Pa do?” the boy asked quietly. He knew what Pa would tell him to do; stay put and keep out of trouble. He was sorely tempted to obey that directive for once, but the thought of Adam freezing to death up there alone while he sat here waiting would not let him. Hitching his body up a little higher, Joe braced his left hand flat against the snow roof and pushed with all his strength.

~*~*~*~*~

Adam felt as if it had been hours since he had encountered Cochise, and the elation of that meeting had long since faded back into the frozen numbness that had taken over his thoughts once again. He moved automatically now, arms still holding tight to the two horses out of reflex, being pulled along more than walking. When the two mounts stopped, it took the human a few seconds to realize it. As he lifted his head, it occurred to Adam that the storm was taking a breather. Probably a short one, but it had stopped for the moment. Through the hat brim and scarf that pressed down over his ears, he could hear only stunning silence. His eardrums ached with the lack of sound, and ghost whispers of the moaning he had been hearing for hours filtered through.

“Why did we stop?” he mumbled thickly. He was not expecting an answer, but Cochise provided one anyway as he began excitedly shifting in place and pawing at the ground with one hoof. Sport seemed to catch the excitement, for he whinnied again, the sound echoing shrilly in the silence. Adam squinted forward, wiping his eyes once again as he tried to make out a shape in the distance. Finally, the fog in his mind cleared enough to tell him that he was looking at a house about a half-mile up the road. Shaking his head, Adam cleared away the last of the cobwebs, recognition of his surroundings clearing his thoughts. He had somehow made it to the Lynch farm!

Adam started forward, excitement moving his blood for the first time since he had become lost out here, as he tried to run forward, to see if his brother had managed to make it here ahead of him. He was nearly jerked off his feet by two unmoving horses when the length of rein in his still-clutching hands ran out. Cochise pawed the ground again, fighting the man when Adam tried to pull him forward. They struggled against each other, Sport watching placidly, seemingly content to wait them out. Pulling and cursing, Adam failed at first to see the motion of the ground a few feet behind him. It was Cochise’s sudden cessation of fighting that made him pay attention as he yanked backward to no resistance and fell on his backside in the snow. The snow shifted just inches in front of his nose, as if something was pushing it from underneath. With a gasp, Adam began clawing at the ground, using both hands to pile snow away from the area. At last, a small hand in a heavy brown glove popped through, and Adam grabbed it tightly in his own, pulling hard, even as he pawed more snow away with his other hand.

“Adam!” Joe cried out joyfully as he was lifted from his little cave and out into the open. He flung himself into Adam’s open arms, knocking him back again with the force. “You’re okay! Oh, Adam, I knew you’d find me, I knew it!”

Adam held onto his brother tightly, frantically, as he realized how close he had come to passing right by him. If the horses had not stopped, or if the storm had started up again before he reached this spot, he might never have seen Little Joe alive again. He longed to ask how the boy had found his way this far, where he had been, and a million other questions, but a tickle of cold wind reminded him that the danger was not over yet. “Joe, we’ve got to get out of here. This is just a lull. The blizzard could start up again any second and we’ve got to reach the house.”

“House?” the boy asked, confused. He looked where Adam pointed and saw the structure, recognizing it instantly. A glance at the sky was enough to tell him that his brother was correct. The clouds were still moving fast, and it looked as thought they would let loose again any second. The wind was already picking up force again. “We gotta hurry, Adam!”

The two Cartwrights struggled to their feet. “Let’s take the horses,” Adam said. “Riding them won’t be very fast, but they can still pick their way through this stuff better than we can, and we might just make it.”

Until then, Joe had been too caught up in his rapture over being safe with his big brother again to notice the animals, but at Adam’s words he spun around and his face lit up with pure joy. “Cochise! Adam, you found him!”

Adam gave his brother a boost up into the saddle then struggled up into his own. “Other way around, buddy. Somehow, he found me. Led me right to you.”

They started out, moving as fast as they could toward the near, yet all-too-distant shelter of the Lynch house. Little Joe patted Cochise on the neck, marveling at his brother’s words. If he had not already known that Cochise was the greatest horse in the entire world, he certainly knew it now.

A hundred yards from the house, the blizzard started again, blasting back into full force with an angry howl that sent shivers down the backs of the two riders. Heads down, they urged their horses forward. The two steeds seemed as determined to make it as their riders were. After what seemed an impossibly long time, just as both Adam and Joe began to fear that they had somehow gone too far and missed it, they saw the house loom in front of them, a huge gray blob. Struggling down, they got as close as they could, then Adam held onto both horses while Little Joe pounded the door with his fists. “Help! Let us inside!”

The door opened, nearly hitting the person inside in the face as the wind slammed it back. Roland Lynch gasped as he saw the two snowy figures on his front stoop and pulled Little Joe in.

“We’ve got to get our horses inside,” the boy gasped.

Mr. Lynch nodded, grabbing for his coat and muffler without a word. He pushed Joe into the waiting hands of his wife, Doris, and went outside, yanking the door shut behind him. He approached Adam and took the horses, leaning close to shout in his ear as he said; “I’ve got a guide rope tied between here and the barn! I’ll take care of your horses, Adam! You go inside with your brother!”

Too exhausted to protest, and knowing that his friend would take good care of the two horses, Adam nodded and obeyed. Doris Lynch took him in hand at once, pulling him toward the wood stove and removing his frozen hat and muffler. They crackled as they unbent; they were so filled with ice. Joe was also standing before the fire, still in his coat, though his scarf, hat and gloves had also been removed. The two brothers squinted at each other as they tried to get used to the relatively dark interior after being out in the bright white snow. They smiled at each other as Adam followed his brother’s example and began to stamp his booted feet to restore the circulation.

Mrs. Lynch called out orders to her children, standing nearby. “Joan, get some more hot coffee brewing, add some water and potatoes to the soup, and heat some extra bread. Peter, there are some blankets heating before the fireplace. Go get some, please. Melissa, help me get these coats and boots off. Henry, get the warming bricks off the stove, wrap them in towels and put them here on the floor.”

All four scurried to obey. Melissa Lynch, the oldest of the four, stepped forward to peel Joe out of his coat and the heavy sweater he wore beneath it, while her mother did the same for Adam. They briskly chafed their hands over the arms and hands of the two half-frozen visitors, to aid in circulation, until Peter brought the warm blankets to drape around them. Adam and Joe were pushed into two chairs, watching in numb exhaustion as their boots were removed and their stocking-clad feet were placed atop the two towel-wrapped hot bricks that Henry brought for them.

Having had some slight rest and respite from the blizzard, Joe felt the treatments begin to work almost immediately as his feet, face, ears and hands began to tingle and burn. He gritted his teeth at the pain and said nothing, knowing that it was a good sign that he had not suffered frostbite. Adam took somewhat longer to respond, worrying Joe considerably, until finally he gasped slightly and jerked, and color began to flood back into his too-pale skin.

Little Joe’s teeth would not stop chattering, no matter how tightly he tried to clench them against it, and he could see that Adam’s were too. He clutched the blanket tighter around him, but he just could not seem to warm up. He saw Mrs. Lynch’s concerned look, and told her, “I c-c-can’t get w-w-warm, ma’am.”

“I’ve got just the thing,” Mr. Lynch offered cheerfully, as he returned from bedding down the horses in the barn. He went to rummage in a kitchen drawer, returning with a tall half-filled brown bottle in his hand, which he set down next to the steaming cups of coffee his daughter had just brought in. “For emergency use only,” he said, smiling as he tipped a dollop of whiskey into Adam’s mug, and a smaller one into Joe’s.

Little Joe looked wide-eyed at Adam, silently asking if he should drink it or not. Adam smiled and nodded as he took a drink from his cup, then sighed in pleasure at the feel of the hot liquid traveling down his frozen insides. “Thank you,” he said gratefully. “Thank you all.”

Trusting Adam’s reaction, Joe took a curious sip from his own cup and grimaced. At home, he was not permitted to touch liquor, coffee only on rare occasions. He found that the combination of the two was not very much to his liking. Still, he took a second longer drink, as his brother had, and after a moment he began to relax as the warmth seeped through him, dispelling some of the chill. “Where’s Paul?” he asked eagerly, looking around the room in expectation of seeing his friend.

“Paul?” Mrs. Lynch repeated.

“You know, Reverend Dwyer,” Joe clarified. “He was supposed to come ahead and meet us here, only we got lost in the storm.”

Mr. & Mrs. Lynch exchanged a worried look that soon spread to everyone in the room. Adam and Joe both paled as Mr. Lynch said, “He never made it.”

 

Chapter 19

“I don’t like it, Hoss,” Ben told his son as he got up to look out the small window above his desk. It would have been too dark to see anything now, even without the storm, but Ben could not prevent himself from looking anyway. “I keep trying to tell myself that they’re safe, and that I shouldn’t worry, but I can’t shake this feeling I have that your brothers are in trouble.”

Hoss nodded and came to join his father. Though it was past their normal bedtime, neither had even thought to suggest it, knowing sleep was the last thing they would be able to do tonight. They stared into the blank whiteness at the window for some time, then the young man confessed, “I think they’re in trouble too, Pa. I’ve had the strangest, scariest feeling inside ever since that snow first started fallin’, and I can’t shake it. We ain’t the only ones who feel it either.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked curiously.

“Hop Sing’s been polishing the silver for hours, just scrubbing every bit of it clean enough as if he was expecting the Queen of England to show up for tea. I walked into his kitchen awhile ago and took a couple cookies without asking and he didn’t say a word of complaint. Just sat there polishin’.” Hoss sat down on the desk and folded his arms tight against his chest, shivering as another frozen blast rattled the small window, worry etching small lines into his smooth round face. “And then there’s the horses.”

Already disturbed by his son’s account of Hop Sing’s behavior, Ben’s frown deepened. “The horses?”

“When I tended them a while ago, Buck and Chubb were as fidgety as I’ve ever seen ’em. They kept shifting and jumping with every little sound I made, and Chubb kept looking toward the barn door. I think they sense something wrong with Sport and Cochise, Pa.” Hoss’ blue eyes implored his father to tell him that he was being silly, that his imagination was running away with him, and that everything was fine.

Seeing the look, Ben smiled at his son and laid a hand on his shoulder, urging him to stand up and move back to the comfort of the fire. Hoss was still as much boy as man, appearances to the contrary, and right now he was a very scared boy. The two of them were forced to sit and wait for now, but while Ben felt horribly frightened for his oldest and youngest sons, he realized that he could at least offer comfort to this one. So, instead of taking his usual place in the red chair by the fireplace, Ben sat beside Hoss on the settee, placing an arm around him. “I’m sure that it’s just the noise of the blizzard upsetting the horses, son,” he began. “They’re always jumpy in bad weather, you know that.”

“Yes, sir, I guess they are at that,” Hoss agreed, scrunching his tall frame down into a slouch. He told himself that it was so he could stretch his feet toward the warmth of the fireplace, but he could not deny that he felt a lot better when Ben responded to the shift by drawing him in a little closer so that Hoss’ head was practically on his shoulder. “What about Hop Sing?”

A deep chuckle answered the question. Ben smiled at his son and gave him a squeeze, thinking how long it had been since he had sat with Hoss this way. Normally Joseph was the only one who openly sought physical reassurance from his father, and it felt good to know that Hoss still looked to him for it as well. “Well, son, despite what he’d like us to believe, Hop Sing is merely a mortal man. Subject to the same flights of fancy and awful imaginings as the rest of us on occasion. He loves all three of you boys as much as I do, and he worries just as much when any of you are in trouble. Right now, Adam and Little Joe may very well be in some serious trouble, and Hop Sing feels just as frustrated by his inability to help them as we do.”

“I guess so,” Hoss agreed glumly. “I’ve been praying hard for ’em, Pa. For Adam and Joe, and for Paul and all them poor folks they was out helpin’ today too. I sure wish there was more I could do, though.”

“So do I, son,” Ben told him sincerely, “but until this blizzard dies down, prayers will have to be enough.” He gave the young man another squeeze and said briskly, “Well, now. What do you say we try and distract ourselves a bit with a game of checkers?”

“In a little while, Pa,” Hoss said, smiling shyly at him. “For now, I’d kinda just like to stay here like this. Just for a few minutes longer. Is that okay with you?”

Ben gave him a warm smile in return and rested his cheek against the honey colored hair on his son’s large head. “That’d be just fine, son.”

~*~*~*~*~

Miles away in the small farmhouse where they had found shelter, a similar scene was taking place. Night had fallen, and still the storm raged unabated, shaking the walls until it seemed that they would topple down around the ears of the eight people huddled inside of them. The Lynch family had insisted that Adam and Joe take Peter and Henry’s bed for the night. The two boys did not mind at all sleeping in bedrolls before the fireplace, and had joined their parents in urging the Cartwrights to take the more comfortable sleeping place. After some token protest, they had accepted the offer gratefully. So, soon after eating a hot, filling dinner of potato soup and bread, Adam and Joe had retired.

“Adam,” Joe whispered. “You asleep?”

“No,” he replied softly. Adam had lain in the bed for some time, willing himself to relax and get some rest. He was finally feeling somewhat warm again, but between the storm and his worry over Paul, he felt taut as a bowstring. He had suspected that the same was true of Little Joe, for the boy had always been a very restless sleeper, even when exhausted. Tonight he had settled into his side of the borrowed bed quietly and had not moved a muscle except for some slight trembling that Adam could feel without even touching him. “Are you cold, Little Joe?”

“A little,” he said. “Can I move over next to you?”

“Sure.” Adam rolled over a bit more and extended his arm so that his brother could move in closer. He brushed his fingers over Little Joe’s cheek and neck, and he could feel the chill in the boy’s skin where the layers of woolen underwear and borrowed nightshirt did not touch. Joe tucked his cold hands up to his chest, where their combined body heat could warm them, and Adam hugged him. There was such a familiar feeling to this, a loving natural bond of protector and protected that Adam had begun to feel sure he would never find with his youngest brother again. He smiled and rested his cheek against Joe’s curly hair. “Is that better?”

Joe nodded. Both began to relax at last, then the wind shrieked loudly, rattling the entire house, and Joe’s tense shivering grew pronounced again. “I’m scared, Adam,” he whispered in a trembling voice. “I thought today that I was never gonna see you again. When I was inside that pit, I kept thinking about what might happen to us, and remembering all the mean thoughts I’ve had about you since you came home. About how life was better before, without you, and how I didn’t need you around to tell me what to do, and stuff like that. I didn’t mean any of it, Adam, you gotta believe me!”

“Shhh,” Adam hushed, as his brother’s voice began to grow a bit shrill with anxiety. He reflexively pitched his own voice to be as mellow and comforting as he could make it, a tone that he had used to comfort this little brother for many years, in many different situations. “I know you didn’t. You only thought those things when you were mad at me, though, isn’t that right?”

Again, Joe’s head bobbed in a nod. “I wanted you to let me do stuff on my own. Then today, when I was out there alone and had to make all the decisions by myself, and I just wished you were there to tell me what to do. Funny, huh?”

Adam smiled in the darkness. “I’m glad, Joe. I’d hate to think you really could get along fine without me.” Without even realizing it, he pulled the small body tighter. “I’ve got a confession for you, little brother. I was just as scared out there as you were. I didn’t want to keep pushing through the storm, but I couldn’t stop.”

“Cause you’d have frozen?” the boy asked quietly.

“Cause all I could think of was how I’d feel if I lost you. I don’t think I could’ve stood it.” Adam’s voice trembled as he made his confession, and Little Joe hugged him tightly, gratefully. Then he pulled back and settled himself down into a more comfortable position. Brushing his brother’s cheek, Adam was relieved to find that it was warmer to the touch than it had been before. “Think you can sleep now?”

“I think so,” Joe answered. He was quiet for several seconds, and then he spoke again. “Adam, do you think there’s any chance that Paul will be okay?”

A deep sigh met the timidly asked question. It was one Adam had been asking himself for hours. He had hoped that Little Joe might have temporarily forgotten his worry, as he had not spoken of Paul all evening, since Adam had told him there was no chance of searching for him until the storm quit. In truth, though, he had known that their friend was just as firmly on Joe’s mind as he was on his. “If he found some kind of shelter, a cave or another farm, then yes, there’s a chance. If he didn’t…”

Adam did not complete the sentence. He did not have to. Joe brushed at a tear sliding down his face, and sniffled as he buried his face in Adam’s shoulder and fell silent again. In time, weary bodies overcame worried minds, and the Cartwright brothers slept.

 

Chapter 20

Adam groaned softly as he lifted a pitchfork full of soiled straw from the stall where his horse was being kept, and tossed it in with the other waste. He had not slept very well, despite his exhausting ordeal of the previous day, and it was only now that he realized how tired he still was, and how sore. Little Joe was still asleep, and Adam would have been willing to bet a considerable sum that his brother would be equally sore when he woke up. The barn door blew open behind him, and Adam turned to see Roland Lynch entering the building. The other man struggled to close the door against the push of wind on the other side, and Adam hurried to help him.

“Well, I was wondering where you’d got to,” Mr. Lynch said, latching the door securely. “You didn’t have to start the chores, Adam. I expected you to still be sleeping a while yet.”

“Couldn’t,” he said tersely, spreading fresh straw into the stall and moving on to the next, “and I don’t want you to take on extra chores on my account. It’s bad enough that you and your family got stuck with two extra mouths to feed at your table, and two extra horses in your barn. Especially since we didn’t get your Christmas gift delivered.” He and Joe had told the family their reason for being out in the storm.

The older man watched him finish the second stall, then laid a hand on his arm. “My wife and I already told you not to fret about that,” he scolded. “It was nice of you folks to think of us, but we’ve got enough to get by on, extras or no. You and Little Joe are welcome guests, and I don’t expect guests to be working in my barn out of some false feeling of debt.”

Adam thumped his pitchfork into the ground and leaned into the handle with a slight smile for his host. “Nothing false about it, friend. If not for your family, my brother and I might very well have frozen to death yesterday. Doing a few chores is the least I can do to repay you. Why don’t I just finish up over here while you do the milking, then we can both go back inside where it’s warm?”

Either respecting Adam’s wish to close the subject, or recognizing the sense in two people getting the work done twice as fast, Mr. Lynch simply nodded and went to finish the chores.

Adam caught the look that the other man shot him as he turned away, and sighed. Clearly, he had not been doing as good a job of hiding his feelings as usual. He did not know why, but he suddenly felt the need to explain them. “I’m sorry if I was a little short with you a minute ago,” he apologized. “It’s just driving me crazy, having nothing to do. Especially knowing my best friend is out there someplace, maybe hurt, while all I can do is sit here and wait until the blizzard stops. If it weren’t for the fact that my stubborn little brother would probably sneak out and come after me, I’d go out there right now, storm or no storm, and start looking.”

“Then I reckon it’s a good thing Little Joe is here,” Lynch commented, “Cause you wouldn’t last ten minutes out in that muck. It’s about twice as bad today as it was yesterday.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Adam agreed, glowering at the few flakes of snow forcing their way underneath the tightly closed barn door. “I should never have encouraged Paul to come out here with me. He might be dead out there right now, and it’s all my fault.”

“I thought Joe said coming out here was his idea; his and Reverend Dwyer’s,” Lynch said in confusion. “How do you figure it’s your fault?”

“That’s not what I mean, though I do wish I’d had him wait at the crossroads instead of sending him on ahead to meet us. I mean it’s my fault Paul is anywhere near that blizzard at all!” Adam rubbed his tired, gritty-feeling eyes with the heels of his hands, grimacing as the tender skin around them stung with pain at the contact. Maybe it was weariness that had him speaking so freely, or perhaps it was simply that he’d had enough of listening to the silent condemnation in his own mind and needed to speak the words out loud, but he found he could not stop. “Paul went to college with me, that’s where we met, and I’m the one who convinced him to come out here to live instead of heading home to Philadelphia after we graduated. If only he hadn’t listened to me, he’d be safe at home and not lost out in the middle of nowhere, frozen to death.”

“Now, boy, you listen to me,” Roland Lynch said, his voice stern but kind. “First off, you don’t know that he’s dead, or even hurt. The fact is, you don’t know anything except that he ain’t here. Second, that young minister doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who’d meekly do what he’s told, just cause you think you know what’s best for him. Part of the reason I like him so much; he’s got backbone, and he’s mighty persuasive. I’ll lay odds it wasn’t purely your idea for him to come west, and if he wanted to set up housekeeping out here, then nothing you’d have said would probably have made a speck of difference.”

Despite his worry, Adam smiled. “You’re right. He was pretty determined to make it out here, and if I hadn’t brought him with me, he’d probably have shown up on his own. I just wish I’d tried harder yesterday to convince him and Joe not to head out this far with a blizzard on the way.”

Lynch chuckled. “Do you really think you’d have been able to stand up against both Reverend Dwyer and your brother, Joe?”

This time, Adam could not help laughing. “It sounds like you know both of them pretty well. I knew Joe liked to come up this way to play with your children, but I didn’t realize you’d spent any time around Paul.”

Lynch nodded. “We’d spoken after church a few times, and we had him out for Sunday dinner a time or two.” Lynch’s eyes twinkled. “Of course, I’ve come to know him a lot better since he’s been out this way paying social calls on Missy every week.”

Adam blinked, thoughts derailed by that last statement. “Paul is calling on your daughter? But she’s just a kid!”

The older man’s grin spread wider as he enjoyed the result of his announcement. “Melissa is seventeen, Adam, and she’s grown up as pretty as her mama. So, you see, I don’t think you’d have much luck talking Reverend Dwyer into going back east when this is over, if that’s what you have in mind.”

“I guess not,” Adam mumbled, still trying to digest the news. He felt a little resentful that Paul had not dropped so much as a hint to his best friend, but suddenly he felt far less guilty. If what Lynch was implying was true, then the young minister had likely used the charity mission as a convenient excuse to come out this way to check on Melissa and her family before the blizzard started. “That little sneak,” he murmured.

Lynch laughed at the soft comment and slapped Adam on the shoulder. “It’s getting cold sitting out here. We’d best finish up the chores and get on inside before my missus begins to think we’ve got lost.”

Adam stood and went back to his work, all the time thinking over what he had just said and heard. As Lynch finished covering the milk pails and they prepared to depart, he laid a hand on the man’s arm. “Do you really think there’s a chance he’ll be all right?”

Roland smiled. “There’s always a chance, son. We just gotta have faith.”

They opened the barn door and stepped out into the storm, taking hold of the guide ropes and beginning the slow journey back to the house. Glancing heavenward for a moment, Adam nodded to himself, knowing his friend would likely tell him the same thing if he could. “I just hope faith is enough,” he whispered.

~*~*~*~*~

Little Joe was up and dressed by the time the two men made it back to the house. He interrupted his breakfast of hot porridge to jump up and help Adam out of his coat and wraps. “Are you okay, Adam?”

Hearing the anxiousness of the boy’s tone, Adam put an arm around Joe and smiled. Clearly his little brother had been disturbed to wake up and find him gone. “Sure I am, buddy. I was just helping Mr. Lynch with the chores before breakfast. How are you feeling this morning?”

“Achy,” the boy replied honestly, with a little grin. “I feel like I did the day after I started breaking Cochise. Is he okay, Adam, and Sport too?”

“They’re both fine. Happy to be safe in the barn, I think.”

Joe grinned. “I don’t blame ’em. Hey, Adam, did you know your face is all red? You look like you’ve got a sunburn.”

“Seen a mirror lately?” Adam shot back, taking a seat at the table and accepting the bowl of porridge and a cup of coffee that Mrs. Lynch handed him. Joe put a hand to his own cheek, wincing a bit as he touched the red, blotchy skin where the wind and ice had marked him.

“I’ve got some salve that will take the sting out of that for you,” Melissa offered, flinching sympathetically. “I’ll put it on for you after breakfast.”

“We’d appreciate that,” Adam said, accepting for both of them. He had Joe dug into their breakfasts. It was not too plentiful, but it was hot and filling. All through the meal, Adam kept sneaking glances at Melissa Lynch, wondering how he could have not known that his friend was interested in her. Suddenly, Paul’s familiarity with the area as they’d been driving through it yesterday morning made a lot more sense, and he almost smiled as he recalled asking his friend if he was sure he knew the way to this farm.

After the meal, as Adam and Joe sat on their borrowed bed waiting for Melissa to return with the salve, Adam found himself wondering if his brother had been any better informed about Paul’s interest in the girl than he had. He had to be careful how he asked though. Joe, like most youngsters, was not known for his romantic discretion. “Melissa’s grown up to be a real pretty girl, hasn’t she?” Little Joe nodded his agreement, but gave no other response, so Adam tried again. “Didn’t she used to be sweethearts with Hoss a few years back? I wonder what ever became of that.”

“They weren’t sweethearts,” Joe said with a grin. “They were just friends. He used to take her to dances and stuff so they’d both have somebody to talk with and wouldn’t have to dance. You’re not thinking about sparking her, are you, Adam?”

Adam shrugged. “No, I was just curious.”

Little Joe’s mouth twisted up into a little grin, not at all fooled by his nonchalance. “Oh, well that’s good, cause I don’t think Paul would take too kindly to you courting his gal.”

Eyes narrowing, Adam bumped his brother sideways with a nudge of the arm. “You knew what I was getting at all along, didn’t you?” Joe’s eyes sparkled with fun as he giggled in reply. “How long have you known?”

“About Missy and Paul? A few weeks,” Joe said, clearly enjoying having known the secret before his older brother. “Joan told me. Pete and Henry think it’s yucky when Missy and Paul go all moony-eyed over each other, and hold hands and stuff, but Joan thinks its romantic.”

“And what do you think?” Adam asked, amused by his little brother’s matter-of-fact report.

“I think it’s neat,” he said. “I hope they get married. At least, I hoped they would.”

Watching the boy’s eyes fill with tears as he put their friend into the past tense, Adam draped an arm around him and squeezed gently. “Don’t count him out yet, little brother. As I’ve just been reminded, Paul is a stubborn fellow, and he’s got the man upstairs on his side if anyone does. We’ll be dancing at his wedding yet.”

“Whose wedding?” Melissa asked, smiling questioningly as she returned with the salve. “Is somebody getting married?”

“We kinda thought maybe you would, when Paul… Oomph!” Little Joe squawked and shot Adam an indignant glare as his brother clapped a large hand over his mouth, cutting him off. He saw the exasperated look Adam shot back and then noticed the tears in Melissa’s eyes. Biting his lip in frustration as he realized what he had done, Joe clumsily patted her harm. “I’m sorry, Missy. I didn’t mean to say anything to make you cry.”

She sniffled and tried to smile as she wiped away a tear. “It’s okay, Little Joe. I know you didn’t. It’s just that, Paul and I haven’t come to any formal understanding yet. We’ve talked a little, but, well…”

“You don’t have to explain,” Adam said kindly, taking her hand in both of his.

She looked up and met his eyes. A sharing of fear for the man who meant so much to both of them, followed by a resolution of strength and support should the worst prove true, passed silently between them. Melissa drew herself up with a deep breath, and her smile was steady again, her expression peaceful, as she nodded her thanks to Adam. He marveled at her strength, and found himself hoping Paul would be well for yet another reason.

“Well, then. Let’s get those faces tended to, shall we?” the girl said briskly.

Little Joe looked from one to the other with a confused expression, knowing that something had just happened, but not understanding what. As Melissa touched the cooling salve to his sore face and began to gently smooth it on, he shrugged. Perhaps Adam would explain it later.

 

Chapter 21

The snow lay thick and heavy upon the earth, nearly swallowing him to the hips as Ben struggled to wade through it. He could see nothing through the blinding whiteness, but the sounds he could make out above the wind frightened him to his very soul. The screaming of his youngest son and the pleading cries for help from his eldest drove him relentlessly forward. The blizzard seemed to be getting fiercer and colder with every passing moment, but still Ben struggled. His sons needed him and he had to get to them.

Suddenly, Ben reached the end of the path, nearly falling as he realized that he had walked right up to the edge of a cliff that had been hidden by the storm. The voices cried out to him again even more frantically than before, and the swirling ice died away, allowing him a clear vision of a terrifying scene. There was another cliff, slightly above the one Ben stood upon. He was separated from the other mountain by a deep fathomless gully that seemed padded from below by dense fog. From the edge of that other cliff, dangling by fingertips that struggled and clawed trying to hold on to the icy surface, was Little Joe.

“Pa! Pa, please help me! I’m slipping!” The child stared across the distance with wild, frightened eyes that seemed to freeze Ben’s heart in his chest as he observed the tears pouring from them.

“Joseph! Hang on, boy, I’m coming to get you!” Ben made to go to his son at once, but to his horror, was unable to move. He looked down at his legs and discovered that as he had stood there, his feet had frozen to the ground and the ice was slowly moving up his legs toward the middle of his body. “No! Joseph!”

He reached out to his son, tears falling as he watched gravity drag the child downward inch by inch toward the gully. Fingers of cold fog reached up eagerly to caress the dangling boy. Ben called to him again, urging him to hold on, but the only answer was a shriek of terror as Joe’s fingers grasped at empty air, his grip falling away from the cliff as he plummeted into the sheer white nothingness below him.

“Joseph!” That one word rang shrilly through the air, bouncing off the rocks, the ice, and seemingly off the fog itself, mocking his pain as he stood, helpless staring into the blankness that had swallowed his son.

“Finally decided to show up, did you? Too bad you didn’t try a little harder, before it was too late.” The familiar voice fairly dripped with sarcasm, cutting through Ben like a sharp knife. He struggled to turn and face his eldest son, but he could not move. The ice had crawled up to his chest now, freezing his arms into the outstretched, pleading position they had assumed when Joe fell to his death. Adam walked around to stand before him, and Ben gasped to realize that he was standing on the very air itself. He spoke again, and Ben noticed that his normally warm, deep voice had a strangely hollow, echoing sound. “Why did you let us die out here, Pa? Figure it was more trouble than it was worth to come out here?”

“Adam, I didn’t! I swear I didn’t. I wanted to come, but the storm; it was too much!” Since he could not move his hands, Ben begged with his eyes for the young man to believe him, but Adam just stared at him. His hazel eyes had turned a strange shade of gray, as had his hair and clothing, giving his pale bluish skin a kind of glow in contrast. Those eyes held only condemnation. Ben wept at the sight. “Adam, please!”

“You left me to freeze to death, Pa,” the spirit said harshly. “And how much worse did Little Joe suffer?”

He held out a hand to the fog below and Ben shuddered as he beheld the creature that rose to join them. The small figure had the same frigid coloring that Adam had taken on, but a thick blue liquid also seeped from his slackened mouth and from dozens of open wounds. Little Joe’s head dangled limply to the side from a neck that had obviously broken, and that somehow made it all the more horrifying to see his eyes open and staring at his father with the same cold accusing gaze that Adam had. “I called you and called you, Pa,” the small ghost sobbed. “Why didn’t you come for me before it was too late?”

The ice crept further up, leaving Ben unable to answer. Only his eyes remained uncovered, pleading with them to understand and to forgive him, all the while dripping icy tears for all that he had lost.

~*~*~*~*~

“Pa! Pa, wake up!”

Ben jerked into awareness with a strangled shout, shocked to find Hoss sitting next to him on his bed, holding his shoulders. A final shake from those large hands brought Ben all the way into wakefulness, and he stared into the boy’s large frightened blue eyes. He felt unable to speak and his breath dragged heavily through his lungs as he struggled to shake off the horror of his nightmare.

“Pa, are you okay? I heard you shouting clear downstairs.”

Ben wiped the remains of sweat and tears off his face with a trembling hand. “Nightmare,” he croaked.

“That must’ve been some dream,” Hoss commented, watching his father carefully. “You kept shouting out to Adam and Little Joe, and saying you was sorry. Had something bad happened to them?”

A simple nod was the only response Ben felt willing to give. He would not share the contents of that particular dream with Hoss for anything. Though he knew in his heart that neither Adam nor Joe would ever condemn him the way they had in his dream, he felt a strange, superstitious fear that to reveal the events of the nightmare would somehow give them shape in reality. “We’ve got to find your brothers today, Hoss. Blizzard or no blizzard!”

Hoss was rather surprised to hear his father advocate going out into the storm, but he quickly broke the good news he had been on his way up the stairs to deliver when he had heard the first shouts from the bedroom. “Pa, we ain’t gotta go out in the blizzard. I was just coming up to tell you that it’s stopped.”

“Stopped?” Ben repeated blankly.

“That’s right, Pa,” Hoss said excitedly. “I woke up about fifteen minutes ago thinking I heard something, then I realized that I was listening to silence. I went downstairs to go outside and have a better look, and this ain’t no lull. The blizzard is over!”

Throwing back the covers from his bed, Ben sprang to the window and verified his son’s words with his own eyes. It was still dark outside, probably a couple of hours before dawn, but all was quiet. “Let’s get ourselves ready, boy,” he ordered, feeling suddenly energized beyond belief. “We’ve got some plans to make, because as soon as it’s light, we’re going out and find those brothers of yours!”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said gladly, leaving his father to get dressed in private.

“Hold on, boys,” Ben whispered, adding another silent plea to God that his nightmare would prove false as he began to get dressed. “I’m coming for you. Just hold on a little while longer.”

~*~*~*~*~

Hoss and Ben were finishing up a hearty breakfast, both of them eating as fast as they could safely manage in their eagerness to get out and start searching with the dawn. Hop Sing had made no complaint over being requested to start cooking breakfast an hour early. He had already been dressed and almost ready to emerge from his room when Hoss had come tromping down the hall to his room, shouting that the blizzard was over. He had understood what that implied perfectly and had gotten straight to work while Hoss and Ben dug their way to the barn to take care of the animals. While the Cartwrights ate, the little man had run up to the storage room to gather the supplies they would need.

“Mr. Cartwright have everything needed to find Mr. Adam and Little Joe,” the faithful servant announced, returning from his latest trip with two sets of snowshoes under his arms, which he added to the supply stack on the coffee table.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben replied gratefully. “We’re going to need those. Did you remember the medical supplies and the extra blankets?”

“Everything all here,” Hop Sing reassured him.

Hoss finished his coffee and stood. “I’m done, Pa. You want me to go hitch up the cutter? I don’t think Chubb and Buck are gonna be much use on those deeper drifts, so I was figuring on hitching up Willie and Sarah instead.”

Willie and Sarah were a pair of draft horses Hoss had obtained from a neighbor a couple of years earlier. Ben had been a bit skeptical over their purchase at first, as they were bred more for hauling freight than herding cattle, and ate far more than they earned for the ranch, but they had proven their worth many times since, being abnormally patient and sure-footed on uneven or dangerous terrain, including snow. The cutter was a small speedy sled Hoss and Little Joe had built for taking wintertime jaunts over the Ponderosa. It was a bit narrow for two grown men the size of Ben and Hoss, but would be far more maneuverable in the current conditions.

“That’s a good idea, son,” Ben approved, as he got up to check on the supplies and make sure there was nothing he had forgotten that they might need. As he picked up the two packs and prepared to join Hoss in the barn, he nodded in satisfaction. Worried as he was about his two missing boys, it felt good to be taking action toward bringing them home.

 

Chapter 22

“You are not going with me and that is final!”

“I am going, and you can’t stop me,” Joe stamped one small foot loudly as he answered his brother’s exasperated exclamation, his jaw taking on a very familiar stubborn cant. “I’ll wait until you’re gone and follow you, if you don’t take me with you!”

Adam’s nostrils flared in annoyance as he silently counted to 20, trying to keep his temper in check. Under other circumstances, Joe’s behavior, particularly the childish stamp, would have amused him. Right now it just fanned the anger flaming in his breast. “Joe, it’s dangerous out there! How many times do I have to tell you that? I don’t need the added burden of looking after you while I search for Paul.”

“I wouldn’t be a burden,” Little Joe countered, hurt evident in his tone. “I could help you. The blizzard has been over for hours, and I know this area better than you do, even covered over in snow. I’m out here ‘most every week visiting Peter and Henry, and you haven’t been here since you came home, have you?”

“Well, no,” Adam admitted, “but I don’t…”

Joe interrupted eagerly, trying to press his advantage. “You could use an extra set of eyes, couldn’t you? And, besides, what am I going to do here? Mrs. Lynch and her kids don’t need me for anything, but you do. I’m not a little kid anymore, Adam, and it’s my fault Paul is out there, so I’ve gotta help you find him.”

Adam could feel himself weakening under the persuasive argument and pleading face of his little brother, but he was brought up short by the boy’s final, misery-filled, statement. “Joe, it isn’t your fault he’s out there, any more than it’s mine, or Paul’s or anyone else’s.” He glanced over at Roland Lynch, who nodded in agreement, acknowledging their earlier conversation in the barn. Adam looked back at his brother and felt a pang of sympathy for him. I should have realized Joe would be blaming himself, too, he thought with a purely mental sigh. His tone suddenly became far gentler, as he laid a hand on Little Joe’s shoulder. “It was just bad luck that the blizzard started early, and that Paul didn’t make it back here the way you and I did. You getting yourself hurt or lost again out there won’t change anything. Paul wouldn’t want you putting yourself in danger for him, and neither do I. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” Joe pouted, refusing to look up at his brother. “You think I’d be in the way, just like always.”

Little Joe turned his back on Adam and walked away, crossing his arms as he plopped down to sit on the bed in the corner. Adam studied him for a moment; tempted to be on his way and save the patching up for later, but he could not leave things as they were. Crossing the room in a couple of quick strides, Adam knelt before his brother, so that the boy could not avoid his eyes. “Little Joe, I want you to listen to me. I know how much you want to find Paul, and how much you want me to trust you to do a man-sized job, but no matter how much you want to be, you’re not a man yet. You’re still a kid, and I have to protect you from what we may find out there.”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked, looking suspiciously into Adam’s eyes as he tried to decide whether he was being patronized, or whether his brother truly believed there was danger.

Adam took a deep breath. He did not want to think about what might lay in store for he and Roland Lynch, much less say the words out loud, but he had to make his brother understand why he couldn’t go.

“Joe, as much as I hope and pray that Paul found himself a safe place to hole up in these last couple of days, odds are that he didn’t. He may have gotten stranded out in the open, or hurt himself, or a dozen other things, and he may be dead.” The boy flinched and tried to turn away, to deny those terrible words, but Adam wouldn’t let him. He repeated himself for emphasis. “He may be dead, Little Joe, and if he is, then I don’t want you to be the one to find him.”

Tears spilled over Joe’s wind-burned cheeks as he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Adam’s neck. “I hope you don’t have to be the one either, Adam. I hope you find him alive.”

Adam returned the embrace, rubbing his hand over his brother’s back soothingly. He was glad to realize that Joe understood what he was trying not to say, and was accepting of his order to stay behind. There was a good possibility that today’s search would yield no result, particularly since no one knew for sure where to begin, but then again, there was an equal possibility that it would. Adam knew how badly it was going to tear him apart inside if he found his best friend in the condition he was expecting, and he wanted to spare his young brother that sight. “I hope so too, buddy. I truly do.”

 

Chapter 23

It was so dark. The cold had long since ceased to bother him. In fact, he could not even feel it anymore, and had become vaguely aware of a dim, comforting warmth instead. Even the hunger had finally gone. That terrible gnawing hunger that had brought with it such a sense of helplessness and despair after he had eaten the last few meager crumbs of perishable supplies trapped with him. The worst part of the hunger came with knowing that there was so much more to eat just inches away, sealed inside of jars and cans to which he had no ready access. He had managed to break open one of the jars of preserved peaches by smashing it against the side of the overturned wagon, not an easy task in the cramped space, but those had not lasted long. By the time he had attempted to try another, he found that he had no strength left to smash the heavy glass. Lack of sleep and the continuing unending cold had robbed him of physical power, which had never been anything to boast of anyway.

He wondered how long he had been trapped here. Hours? Days? There was no way to know, for the wagon had buried itself so deeply in the snowdrift that even the wagon seat, which should at least have lifted the vehicle enough to let in some light, if not a chance of escape, was buried completely. At least he hadn’t had to worry about thirst, he reminded himself with a spark of grim humor. The snow had provided mouthfuls of cold moisture any time he wished to scoop it up, though by this time even that was running low.

None of it bothered him now, though, not the cold, not the hunger, not the thirst. Only the darkness seemed to carry a threat, for he knew there might be nothing else for him, ever again, until the darkness of impending death was replaced with the glory of heaven’s light. He had prayed throughout this ordeal, alternating one-sided talks with God with repeated commands to himself not to give in to the ever-increasing need to sleep. Vaguely, he wondered if he was betraying his calling. Shouldn’t he, a minister, a servant of God, be happy or excited by the prospect of joining Him? Perhaps he was simply too weak in spirit, too attached to the ties of mortality to appreciate the prospect. He wanted to live, to continue the work he had so newly begun; to enjoy the company of his friends and parishioners; to declare his feelings for the young lady he now knew he would love for the rest of his mortal, or immortal, life. He wanted to marry his Melissa, to see his dear friend Adam’s face when he broke the news and asked him to stand up with him as his best man. To be as good a father to the children he and Melissa might have together, as his own father had been to him. Sorrow flowed through the young minister. He was not ready for eternity yet, but as the darkness seemed to grow even deeper, and the call to sleep finally became impossible to ignore, Paul Dwyer thought that perhaps eternity was ready for him.

 

Chapter 24

“Little Joe?” Mrs. Lynch ascended the stairs to the small cramped attic, half of which her two daughters shared as a bedroom. “Are you up here?”

“Yes’m.” The quiet answer filled her with relief. She had seen him come up here with Joan and Henry hours ago, but the other children had long since come downstairs where it was warmer. When Little Joe had not reappeared after a significant amount of time, Mrs. Lynch had begun to worry that he might have somehow gone through with his threat to sneak away to help her husband and his brother find Paul.

Climbing the rest of the way up the steps, Mrs. Lynch crossed to the small window. Little Joe was sitting on the floor in front of it, wrapped in a borrowed quilt. His head rested against the edge of the window frame as he stared into the endless expanse of white outside. The accumulation rose nearly to the top of the windows downstairs, but from up here there was a clear view of the sky, the treetops, and mile upon mile of snow. It sparkled brightly in the late afternoon sunshine, and one could almost believe they were sitting atop a fluffy cloud.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, coming to kneel beside him for a better look. He nodded silently. Mrs. Lynch reached out a hand, stroking his soft brown curls gently. “It’s too cold for you to be up here, sweetie. Why don’t you come downstairs with the rest of us where it’s warm?”

This time Joe shook his head, still staring outside. “I’m fine, ma’am.”

“Melissa is fixing up some hot tea and toast for all of us, and the children are getting ready to play some word games. They say they can’t start without you,” she coaxed. When he did not respond, Mrs. Lynch stole her arm around him and urged him closer. He did not resist at all, willingly snuggling into her motherly embrace and laying his head against her shoulder, though his eyes never left the frosty windowpane. “I know you’re frightened and worried, Little Joe. We all are, but you sitting up here in the cold willing them to get home faster isn’t going to help any.”

“I guess not,” he whispered, “but it’s been such a long time since they left. Suppose something is wrong. What if they got lost or Adam was right and they found Paul, but he’s…” He couldn’t finish the thought.

“Little Joe,” she scolded gently. “You mustn’t think that way. You’ve got to keep faith that everything will work out for the best. It’s hard going out there right now, and they have to move slow and careful as they search to keep from missing any sign that might point the way to Paul.”

“I wish Adam had let me go along and help, like I wanted to,” Joe said sadly. “Waiting is a lot harder.”

She laughed softly and turned his small body toward her to wrap both arms around him in a sympathetic hug. “Isn’t that the truth! Don’t you know how badly Melissa and I wish we could be out there helping too? Especially given what that young man means to Missy.”

Surprised, Joe looked up into her kind face, seeing the worry and understanding in her eyes. “I forgot. I’m sorry, Mrs. Lynch. I didn’t mean to be selfish. Is Missy doing okay?”

“She’s worried, but she’s keeping busy and that helps. It’ll help you too, I promise. Will you come downstairs with me, and help me get those games started?” He smiled a little and nodded, scrambling to his feet and offering a hand to help his friend to hers. Together, they descended to join the others.

 

Chapter 25

The cutter made good time across the frozen drifts, propelled by the two large horses at its head. Hoss had done some figuring as to how far the trio of good Samaritans could have gotten along their planned route before the storm had begun. Taking into account both Adam’s plan to make the deliveries as quickly as possible to avoid the impending weather, and the inevitability of an elongated visit with certain talkative neighbors, he figured that they had to have been at least two-thirds of the way through with the deliveries. It was an inexact guess, but it did give them a place to begin searching.

“Any luck?” Hoss called, as his father carefully trekked across the ground on his wide rope snowshoes, heading in from the Willoughby place, the latest of several small farms they had come by.

Ben paused to remove his snowshoes before squeezing back into the cutter beside his son and answering, “They were here about thirty minutes before the blizzard started. Midas told me that they were on their way to see the Batzkas and the Cutlers next.”

“That only leaves a few more places to check along that part of the road. Which one you want to try first, Pa?” Hoss felt enormously cheered to hear that his brothers had made it this far. The rest of the farms on their route were all fairly close together, which meant that there was a good chance that Adam, Joe and Paul had reached shelter before the storm hit.

“When they heard that Paul and the boys were missing, Midas and Samson immediately volunteered to head out to the Cutler’s just as soon as they can get their gear together. That means we’ll be going to the Batzka place.”

“Hot diggity,” Hoss said gleefully, snapping the reins. The horses, Willie and Sarah, took off with a bound, causing Ben to grab for his hat as he was jerked back in his seat. Hoss grinned as his father glared at him. “Sorry, Pa. We sure do have some mighty fine neighbors, don’t we? I think we’ve had men join the search at just about ever’ place we’ve come by. I’m kinda surprised to hear that the Willoughby boys are willing to help out, though. I tried to tell Paul when he was planning out where to stop that they ain’t exactly filled with the milk of human kindness. Wonder what’s got into ’em?”

Ben smiled at him. “Well, son, I think maybe you might’ve judged them too harshly. The Willoughby twins aren’t exactly the friendliest lot I’ve ever run into, but they’ve been known to do a kindness now and then. Besides, they feel they’ve got a personal stake in this. Samson told me that after their crops failed last summer, there wasn’t hardly enough of a harvest to keep them from starving. It seems that Reverend Dwyer has been finding little ways to help them along ever since he got here, and Joe has been out here several times bringing gifts and doing little jobs for them to help out.”

“I didn’t know nothin’ about that,” Hoss said, gaping in astonishment.

“Neither did I,” Ben told him. “I’ve been hearing similar comments at half the places we’ve been to, though. All about how Little Joe will stop by and visit just to cheer folks up, and let them know they’re not forgotten. Seems he’s been bringing quite a few deliveries of bread and other foodstuffs out this way too.”

“Well, I’ll be,” Hoss muttered, his face taking on a wide smile to hear of the secret good deeds of his little brother. “He’s been riding out here most every weekend for the last couple of months, and I just figured he was coming out to play with the Lynch kids. I wonder how he got all them things away from Hop Sing without getting caught? You know he had to be getting the stuff from our kitchen.”

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” Ben mused. “I’m guessing that a certain Chinese cook we know has been in on the secret all along. You saw how quickly he agreed to help when Paul suggested that we donate some baked goods to the Christmas baskets.”

The two men grinned at each other, both wishing they’d been in on the secret so that they might have helped, but still very proud to learn of the selfless attitude of their youngest family member. Hoss’ smile disappeared into a startled frown instantly as the cutter lurched, and Willie and Sarah swerved sharply to the left. The horses slowed down, weaving their way carefully over a weak section of ground. The snow beneath the cutter creaked and crumbled, and the two Cartwrights held their breath nervously, both releasing startled shouts as the ground suddenly collapsed into a miniature avalanche that nearly took the small sled down with it as the horses surged forward, pulling them to safety. Hoss pulled up sharply, he and his father looking grimly behind them at the newly revealed hollow of rocky ground, realizing how close they had come to falling straight through without ever seeing the danger. After a moment, Hoss snapped the reins again, willing the horses to go just a bit faster as renewed worry for the three missing people swept over him.

~*~*~*~*~

“Roland, hold up!” Adam cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted to the other man. Mr. Lynch was making his way along the line of trees to the north of the invisible stretch of road Paul should have been traveling across when the blizzard struck, while Adam did the same to the south. The two had been inching their way along in this fashion, scanning the area for any signs of human passage, for hours. Both were beginning to feel that the situation was hopeless. Everything looked the same. At Adam’s shout, the older man reined in his horse and began picking his way over to Adam.

“What is it?” he asked as soon as he was close enough.

“I think maybe Dixie has found something!” Adam climbed out of Sport’s saddle and tried to run over to where Lynch’s hunting dog was eagerly digging into a slightly elevated mound of snow. His boots, designed for stirrups and dry ground, could find no purchase in the soft powdery snow, and he slipped and stumbled repeatedly before finally reaching the dog. Roland joined him and together they watched. After a moment, Adam gasped and dropped to his knees, joining the animal in scooping handfuls of snow back as quickly as he could. “It’s the wagon!”

~*~*~*~*~

By the time another hour had rolled by, Hoss and Ben had visited the Batzka home, and afterward the Duncan home. Neither had yielded the hoped-for results. Both women verified that they had seen one or all of the missing minister and Cartwright brothers before the storm, but beyond expressing considerable worry over their current safety there was nothing they could do to help.

Hoss frowned as he checked off the Duncan farm from the list he had compiled. “That leaves just a couple more places to check, Pa,” he commented. “The Willis’ & Lynches. Can you think of anyplace else we ought to check if those don’t pan out?”

The lines of worry etched in Ben Cartwright’s face over the last two days deepened as he thought. His early optimism was fading fast. He had felt sure that they would find the boys, and by now he was automatically placing Paul in that class along with his own sons, before they came this far out. The three of them would have been cutting it dangerously close to reach either of the remaining farms in time. Finally, he shook his head. “I guess we’d better try the Willis place next. They’re a little closer than the Lynches.”

Nodding his agreement, Hoss snapped the reins. He drove for about half a mile, and was just getting ready to make the turnoff toward the Willis place, when he stopped, grabbing his father’s arm excitedly as he shouted, “Pa, look up ahead! It’s Adam!”

Hoss’ exclamation carried clearly in the still, cold air, and made Adam look up sharply from his concentrated digging. His usual quiet composure deserted him entirely as he spotted the cutter, and jumped up, running and stumbling toward the new arrivals, laughing and whooping and waving his hat, signaling them to hurry. Soon, the two brothers and their father were together, pounding each other on the back in jubilant reunion.

“Boy, are you two a sight for sore eyes!” he said with feeling. “Roland and I were just trying to decide which one of us should go back to his house and get some better tools, but I see you brought some. How did you know?”

“I wasn’t sure where we might wind up finding you, so I tossed some picks, shovels, ropes, and a few other things in the cutter before Pa and me started out,” Hoss told him, preening a bit at the complimentary tone of his older brother’s voice. He looked around, tipping his hat to a grinning Roland Lynch, then frowned when he realized that the two men were alone.

“Adam, where is Little Joe?” Ben asked anxiously. For an instant, he had been caught up in the delight of his reunion with Adam, but had soon looked around expecting to see his youngest son and their friend. Their absence sent a spike of fear through his heart.

“I left him back at the Lynches’, Pa. I thought he’d be safer there,” Adam explained. Ben’s tense shoulders relaxed a bit and he opened his mouth to ask another question, but his son anticipated it and said, “We all got split up when the blizzard hit. Joe and I each managed to make it to the Lynch place, but Paul never showed. Roland and I have been out here all morning and afternoon searching for him, but we didn’t find anything until just a few minutes ago. Roland thinks he’s under there.”

He pointed to the mound and Hoss moved closer to take a better look, noticing for the first time the hound eagerly tearing at the high-packed snow with her forepaws. “What you got there, girl?”

Dixie responded to his soft call, bounding across the snow, panting and wagging happily. Hoss bent down to pat her side and received a big sloppy kiss for his reward. Dixie barked her excitement and returned to her former spot, obviously attempting to point the way to the humans around her.

Hoss obeyed the canine directive and moved closer still, eyes widening as he recognized the wheel of an overturned wagon. His voice held amazement and disbelief as he muttered, “Well, I’ll be dadburned. Adam, you trying to say that Paul is under the wagon?”

“It makes sense,” Roland answered in Adam’s place. Adam and Ben moved to stand beside the others, and Lynch pointed to the dog. “There’s no way to know for sure until we can get the wagon moved, but Dixie doesn’t usually get this excited unless she’s scented something. Often as Paul has been to my place lately, he and Dix have developed a real close friendship. I’d bet my last dime that he’s down there.”

Hoss made an impatient gesture. “We’d better get to work, then. He ain’t getting any closer to freedom while we all stand around here jawing away the daylight.”

Dixie offered up a sharp bark, as if to agree with the young man’s assessment, and went back to digging even harder than before. Taking their cue from the dog, the four men got down to work.

~*~*~*~*~

Two hours later, thanks to the added efforts of several of Roland Lynches’ neighbors who had joined in the search after Ben and Hoss had visited them, the wagon was completely uncovered. While the Cartwrights worked on moving the snow, one of the men had borrowed the cutter, and had gone back to his home for some extra ropes and pulleys, as well as a large sled to transport the probably injured minister.

“Got everything we’ll need to move that wagon, boys,” the man called out, as he drove up and began distributing the gear to the rescue team.

Ben and Hoss stepped forward to take some of the equipment. Ben knelt next to the edge of the overturned wagon. “I’ll take care of this end, Hoss. Why don’t you hitch the other end to Willie and Sarah?”

Hoss moved to obey. The men had decided to hitch ropes to the exposed wagon wheels on one side, using the Cartwright team, and the Willoughby brothers’ team to pull the heavy vehicle up. As soon as they were ready, Midas Willoughby moved to their head and waited for Hoss to get back into position on the other side of the wagon. At a signal from Adam, he shouted the horses’ into motion, bringing them forward slowly while the remaining men pushed and steadied the wagon, shoving it up and onto its side. A collective gasp rose up as they got it into place and beheld the sight underneath.

“Paul!” Adam shouted. He was on his knees beside the young minister in a heartbeat, frantically checking his still, pale body for signs of life. He tore off his right glove and felt for a pulse. It was faint, but there. Adam sagged with relief. “Thank God. He’s still alive, Pa!”

Dixie was faster than the rest of the men in reaching Paul’s side. She had held back on a command from her master until now, fidgeting and whining throughout the moving of the wagon, but the babble of excited shouts from the men had released her back into motion. She snuffled and whimpered at the unconscious man, taking small swipes at his face with her tongue. Adam tried to shoo her away, but she would not go. He forgot all about getting rid of the dog, however, when he caught a flutter of motion from his friend’s eyelids.

“Paul?” Adam shook the minister ever so slightly at the shoulder. “Paul, can you hear me?”

Two gray eyes slowly fluttered open. Paul frowned slightly, blinking in the bright glare of sunlight and snow. He did not speak, but his eyes asked a question and Adam placed a hand on his face to assure his friend that he was real. Paul gave him a slight smile. His lips were cracked and slightly blue, and his voice was weak as he murmured, “Good old Adam, always right on time for everything.”

Adam laughed and snuffled, dashing at his eyes as relief and emotion sparkled clearly in their hazel depths. He responded to his former roommate’s old joke with the traditional response, “Same old Paul. Gonna be late for your own funeral.”

The minister smiled again. “Count on it,” he whispered, then passed out again.

“All right, everyone, we’ve got to get this man inside as soon as possible!” Ben barked, taking over the situation as he observed everyone standing around watching, and realized that for right now, Adam was in no shape to take charge. “Let’s get those blankets and medical supplies over here. Some of you men tie ropes to that sled so we can put the Reverend on it without jostling him. Hoss, you ride back to the Lynch place and let your brother and Mrs. Lynch know that Paul has been found, alive but in pretty bad shape. One of you other men help me hitch our horses back to the cutter, then get into Virginia City for the doctor. Let’s move!”

No one questioned Ben Cartwright’s tone of command. Galvanized into action, everyone scrambled to his assigned task.

 

Chapter 26

Dixie had taken it upon herself to warm her friend on the slow trip to her home, carefully curling herself atop his cold body on the sled, instinctively spreading herself over as much area as possible. Having resumed his post at the upstairs window following a quick visit from Hoss, who had come by to deliver the good news about Paul and check on his little brother before heading back out to help the other men, Little Joe grinned at the sight. He wondered who had been the one to remember that the quickest way to warm a person up was through body heat, and had therefore allowed the dog to keep her place. “Had to be Hoss,” he muttered, then turned and shouted down the stairs, “Hey, everybody! Here they come!”

The young sentry’s announcement caused a bustle of activity downstairs. As the front door opened, the two women instantly descended on the unconscious minister, directing the men on where to put him while they grabbed the things they would need to safely warm him up. Paul was placed in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, chosen because it was the only room in the house that could be shut off from the others. Adam quickly disappeared into the room with his friend, Mrs. Lynch and Melissa, while the other Lynch children busied themselves offering hot coffee and doughnuts to the rescue party. Most of the men did not stay long enough to eat, simply expressing their wishes for Paul’s speedy recovery, then leaving for their own homes after a quick warming cup of coffee. Hoss helped himself to the leftover doughnuts as he sat back and allowed himself to relax for the first time in days.

Finding the bedroom door shut in their faces, Ben and Roland shrugged their shoulders and went back to the main room to wait with the others.

“Pa?”

Ben turned at the speaking of his name to find Little Joe standing at the base of an attic ladder, keeping out of the way, but bouncing in place in his eagerness to be noticed. Relief crashed over the Cartwright patriarch as he spotted the boy. Hearing Adam say that Joe was safe had assuaged his worry for the most part, but mere words could not compare to the relief of seeing his youngest son alive, or of having him rush forward for a delighted embrace. The feeling of Joe’s warm, sturdy little body in his arms chased away the final remnants of Ben’s nightmare of the night before and he hugged the boy close. “Little Joe, thank God you’re safe,” he said emotionally, his words partly muffled against his son’s curly hair. “Thank God you all are.”

Joe stepped back, hope and worry mingling in his eyes. “Is Paul gonna be okay, Pa? Hoss told me you found him buried safe under the wagon, and that he talked to Adam, but he didn’t look too good when he went by just now. Is he hurt bad?”

As he tried to decide whether to be completely honest or comfortingly vague, Ben noticed that all three of the younger Lynch children had also gathered near, waiting for his answer. His eyes met Hoss’ across the room. The young man nodded, his face serious. Clearly he believed that all four of the youngsters deserved to hear the truth. Taking a seat on a nearby sofa, Ben faced the small group and said, “He wasn’t injured in the wagon crash from what we could tell, but he’s got some signs of frostbite and will probably lose some toes and maybe a couple of fingers as well. He’s a bit malnourished and dehydrated, and we noticed some signs of breathing difficulty on the way back.”

“Do you mean he might have pneumonia?” Joan asked the question bluntly, startling Ben considerably.

“Joan went through a bout of pneumonia two years ago, Ben. You remember,” Roland reminded him. Ben nodded, patting her arm sympathetically. Roland continued. “The Reverend may get pretty sick, honey, but then again, it may just be that the long time lying on the cold ground has given him the start of a cold. We’ll just have to wait and see. The snow that fell on top of the wagon seems to have insulated him from the worst of the weather, so we may all get lucky.”

“We’ll pray for him, Pa,” the girl said confidently. “He’ll be okay then.”

Henry nodded his agreement. “We’ve been doing it all along ever since we found out he was lost, and he made it back. That means God just can’t give up on him now.”

Roland smiled at his children and hugged them. Ben looked at Little Joe and noticed that he did not seem quite as confident as the others. He was staring worriedly at the closed bedroom door, but brought up a half-hearted smile when he noticed his father watching him. Peter Lynch did not seem to share his siblings’ optimism either. He and Joe were both twelve, old enough to have lost a little of their childish certainty that everything would be all right just because they wished it so. Little Joe in particular knew that wishing and praying did not automatically guarantee the safety of the ones you love. He had learned that lesson early, with the loss of his mother and had never forgotten it. Ben understood. “He’ll be all right, Little Joe,” he said quietly, gripping the boy’s shoulder gently. “Paul is a tough young man, and he’s got a lot to hang on to in this world. You just wait and see. He’ll be talking your brother Adam’s ear off, and eating the Lynches out of house and home within a couple of days.”

Little Joe smiled fully this time, allowing himself to hang onto the certainty in his father’s deep voice, giving him another tight hug. “I’m really glad you’re here, Pa.”

 

~*~*~*~*~

Behind the closed door, Adam Cartwright would have given the world to have his father’s words to Joe come true, had he heard them. He and the Lynch women had gotten Paul as comfortable as possible, and had done what they could to warm him, but he remained unconscious and cool to the touch. His always-thin face looked drawn and so pale that Adam could make out the pattern of tiny blue veins beneath the skin. The effect made him shiver. If not for the raspy breathing, he might almost have believed he was looking at a corpse. Dixie had remained close by, not disturbing the proceedings around her, but watching from the corner. As soon as the humans stopped hustling around, the dog had reclaimed her position as bodyguard, hopping up on top of the quilt to add her warmth to that of the hot irons placed under the covers. No one had objected this time, figuring Paul could use all the help he could get. There was nothing left to do now but wait for the doctor and watch for any sign of improvement or distress.

~*~*~*~*~

Throughout the long day and well into the night, the Lynches and Cartwrights watched over Paul. His color gradually improved to a more normal hue, and his skin grew warmer, eventually becoming somewhat hot to the touch, but he did not reawaken. Everyone had been in, spending a few minutes or several, but Adam and Melissa took turns standing constant vigil through the hours.

Doctor Martin finally arrived around midnight. It had been tough going over the deep snow and there had been many patients for him to visit. The man Ben had dispatched to bring him had not even tracked down the doctor until well into the evening. When the doctor did arrive, there was little fanfare. Most of the inhabitants of the small house were asleep, sitting in chairs or tucked in blankets on the floor around the fireplace. Though they also were tired, exhausted in Adam’s case, Adam and Melissa still stood watch and they willingly volunteered to assist Martin in whatever needed doing.

~*~*~*~*~

Ben Cartwright awoke with a start. He had tried to roll over in bed, then felt himself falling and reached out to stop himself. His brain had registered the fact that he had fallen asleep slouched in an armless wooden chair just in time to save him from tumbling over onto the hardwood floor. He yawned and stood, stretching his arms overhead and wincing as his tired muscles protested his unusual sleeping arrangement. He tried to stretch them out as he moved to peek out the window. The view was still mostly blocked by snow, but he could see enough to tell that the sun was just coming up.

Everyone else was still asleep, so Ben moved as quietly as possible into the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee. He had not gotten more than halfway through before he heard the sound of woman softly clearing her throat behind him. His smile was a bit guilty as he turned to face Doris Lynch. “I’m sorry I invaded your kitchen, but I thought I’d get some coffee started, to have it ready when the rest of you woke up.”

She smiled, her eyes twinkling at him. “That’s a very sweet idea, Ben, but I’m not sure I ought to let you do it. Little Joe has told me that your bad coffee is a thing of legend on the Ponderosa.”

“Oh, he has, has he?” Ben’s lips pursed a bit in annoyance as he glanced into the other room, to where Little Joe was sleeping rolled up in a blanket next to what had been his father’s chair. The frown softened into a smile as he watched the child sleep. He had tried to persuade his son to take a place closer to fire last night, but Joe had insisted that he’d rather be next to him. Remembering that, it was impossible to be mad at the boy for sharing what was unfortunately an undeniable fact. Ben chuckled softly. “I guess it’s no secret why Hop Sing is so adamant that I stay out of the kitchen at home. Maybe you had better do it.”

“If you’d like to help me out in the barn instead, Ben, I won’t turn down the help,” Roland said, alerting the others to his awakened state as he, too, stretched and groaned his way out of a wooden chair. “After all, we’ve got four more horses to look after than we had yesterday.”

“Four?” The number surprised Ben, as he had been aware of only the addition of Willie and Sarah to the Lynch barn after all the other men had gone home.

“Dr. Martin made it in late last night,” Roland told him. “I didn’t know it myself until I got up to check the fire last night and saw him talking with Missy. I offered to help him if he needed it, but he told me everything was under control and that I should go back to sleep.”

As though conjured by the speaking of his name, the door of the closed bedroom opened and Dr. Paul Martin stepped out. He looked tired, but there was a smile on his face. “Good morning. I thought I heard voices out here. I don’t suppose you have a cup of coffee handy?”

“It’ll be ready in two shakes,” Mrs. Lynch told him. “How is Reverend Dwyer this morning, Doctor?”

Before the man could answer, another voice piped up, “Is Paul gonna be okay, Doc?” Little Joe scrambled up out of his covers to come over and join the others, and his excited motions roused the other children and Hoss. They looked around in various states of sleepy confusion, then one by one everyone noticed the doctor and joined the crowd standing around the kitchen table. Soon, everyone was clamoring for news of their friend.

Paul Martin smiled and held up both hands. It was unusual to be delivering a diagnosis to such a large and eager audience, and he was pleased that the news he had was mostly good. “I’m glad to tell you that you got to him in time. A few hours more out there and I’m not sure I’d have been able to say the same, but it looks like the good Reverend will make a complete recovery.”

Cheers and sighs of relief greeted his words. Joan tugged on the physician’s sleeve. “He don’t have pneumonia, does he, Doctor? My Pa said that he wasn’t breathing too good yesterday.”

“Well, that’s true,” Martin went on, instantly quieting the others, “but his breathing has become steadier over the last few hours. He’s got a pretty bad cough, but there’s no sign of pneumonia, and his fever has gone down. It’s a reaction to the shock his body has gone through, but it isn’t life-threatening.”

“What about frostbite?” Hoss moved closer to the doctor and asked the question quietly, sliding it under the cheering of the children so that they would not hear him. It worked for all but Little Joe, who had wanted to ask the same question. Hoss noticed his attention and draped an arm around his shoulders, as he continued, “His hands and feet looked pretty bad when I saw ’em yesterday.”

The Doctor sighed, regretting that he could not have delivered only good news today. He nodded. “I had to amputate a good portion of the left foot, two toes from the right, and the last two fingers on the left hand. Lack of circulation had caused gangrene to start in those places.”

Tears pricked at Little Joe’s eyes as he leaned in closer to Hoss. “Oh, no,” he whispered sadly. “Does he know yet?”

“Yes.” The word was flat, simple, and full of sympathy for both his patient and those who obviously cared so much about him. “He came to a little while ago when I was changing the bandages. I had to tell him the truth.”

Silence filled the small kitchen for several heartbeats, no one knowing what to say, then Mrs. Lynch took a deep breath. “Well,” she said briskly. “As long as he’s alive and on the mend, that’s all that really matters. Doctor, please have a seat here at the table. You must be tired. Hoss, will you please stoke up the fire and bring me some kindling? Boys, why don’t you go help your fathers take care of the horses, while Joan and I get breakfast started. I’m sure that Adam and Missy are about ready for someone to relieve them by now and all of us, especially Paul, could use a good breakfast.”

Relieved to have something to do, everyone scattered to do the small woman’s bidding.

 

Chapter 27

“Supper!” Adam announced loudly, as he opened the door to the bedroom and entered with a well-laden tray. “Everybody decent?”

Two faces looked up at him and smiled. Missy blushed a bit at the mildly off-color remark but her eyes sparkled. It had been two days since Paul had begun his recovery and much of the usual, playful banter between he and his old roommate had been restored. Melissa had quickly grown used to their irreverent attitude toward each other, and in fact, she and Adam had developed a strong friendship of their own.

“Adam, if that was meant to be your subtle way of interrupting a tender moment, then you’re losing your touch,” Paul told him with a grin.

Adam winked and set his tray down. “Missy, your Ma wants you to come help her in the kitchen,” he told the girl. He then raised an eyebrow at the bed-ridden minister. “See, unlike somepeople who get their meals delivered early on silver platters, the rest of us have to wait until supper is ready and on the table.”

Melissa and Paul both laughed. Melissa stood and leaned over to kiss Paul softly on the mouth. She had been shy about doing such a thing with Adam present at first, but the awkwardness had quickly worn off. “I’ll be back a little later,” she promised. Her eyes never left his face as she slowly walked out into the main room, finally shutting the door behind her.

“You’re a mighty lucky man,” Adam commented, smiling at his friend as he set the tray down and gently slid his arm beneath Paul’s thin shoulders to lift him up onto the pillows he stacked against the headboard behind him.

Paul grimaced at the various twinges of pain his friend’s careful efforts caused, but offered no complaint. He stared at the door for a few seconds with an enigmatic expression, then glanced down at his bandaged left hand. “I am,” he agreed.

Adam set the tray on the bed and took a seat. Paul ate automatically, too absorbed in his own thoughts to make conversation. Adam studied him carefully as he ate, and neither of them spoke again until the last bite was gone. “You certainly seem to be feeling better,” he commented with a chuckle, as he removed the tray. “You know, Pa has been keeping track of all the extra food we’ve been using up so he can pay the Lynches back for their hospitality, but at this rate you’re going to have us putting up the Ponderosa for security!”

Paul seemed startled to realize that the meal was over. He hadn’t even taken any real notice of what he was eating. “Thanks,” he said, unable to think of any other response.

Adam was a bit surprised at the lack of a snappy comeback. He decided to try another tack to finding out what was on Paul’s mind. He had a pretty good idea, so he said, “You know, you just might cost me that $5 gold piece I won off you a while back.”

Confusion painted Paul’s expression. Then he remembered the bet he had made with Adam his first day in Virginia City. “How’s that?” he asked, grinning a little.

“Hoss and Little Joe both think they hear the sound of wedding bells in the air. They think you’ll be asking a certain question of a certain young lady we both know before the week is out.” He pretended to study his fingernails, before looking up into his friend’s bemused face. “Of course, I don’t believe things are nearly that serious, so I bet them that $5 that they were wrong.”

The minister looked a bit shocked, but then he smiled shyly. “What do you think that certain young lady would say if I did?”

“I think she’d say that you’d better get busy and start looking for another preacher to perform the ceremony,” Adam told him. “And I’d say you’d just done the first really smart thing you’ve ever managed to do in our acquaintance.”

“Coming from you, that means a lot,” Paul chuckled. Then the corners of his mouth twisted up in a wistfully tender smile. “She really does love me, doesn’t she?”

Adam dropped his teasing for the moment. “I know she does. I think she loves you as much as you love her, and I’ve never seen you act toward anyone the way you do toward Missy. Like I said before, my friend, you’re a lucky man.”

Paul nodded. He was again lost in thought for a moment, then smiled and asked, “Are you mad that I didn’t talk to you about this, when I first started coming out here?”

Adam grinned and admitted, “I guess I am a little put out that my youngest brother knew before I did, but I figure you had your reasons for wanting to keep it quiet.”

Paul nodded. “I just wanted to be sure this time. Little Joe only knew because he was out here all the time. Not that I made a public display of mooning over Missy, but he’s a pretty observant kid.”

Adam laughed. “Too much so, sometimes!” He did not ask what the other man meant by wanting to be sure. All the way through college, Paul had made a habit out of falling in and out of love on a weekly basis, until it had become a regular joke for his best friend. All things considered, Adam thought that maybe he would not have shared the news of his love for Melissa Lynch either, had he been in Paul’s place.

“I’ve never felt this way about anyone else,” Paul continued. He bit his lip, then confessed, “I thought I was going to die out there in the cold. There was a moment, probably not long before you found me, when I could almost feel the life seeping out of me, and all I could think about was Melissa. I kept thinking about all the years and all the experiences I was never going to have with her.”

“It sounds like you’ve been given a second chance, in more ways than one,” Adam told him solemnly.

Even as he nodded his agreement, a tiny frown lined Paul’s brow as his gaze drifted down his legs and toward his injured feet. His eyes then drifted to his bandaged hand. “Adam, do you think any of this is going to matter to her? That I won’t be able to take her on long walks, or horseback rides, or to dances? I won’t even be able to walk her down the aisle.”

Adam waited until the other man looked up and met his eyes to answer. “First of all, I don’t think any of those things are what’s really important to her. If you love each other, you’ll find a way around the things you can’t do together and find other things that you can. Secondly, you don’t have to walk her down the aisle. Her father gets that job. All you have to do is stand there and look nervous.”

Paul laughed. “Guess it’s lucky that she’s the one who has to wear the wedding band too,” he shot back, waving his injured left hand with a hint of macabre humor. “Can I count on you to stand up there with me and make sure I don’t faint, or panic and change my mind?”

It was Adam’s turn to laugh. Both of those things had happened during weddings Paul had recently presided over in Virginia City. “I’d be proud to,” he said honestly. “Does this mean I just lost $5?”

Paul’s grin widened. “Get ready to pay up, buddy.”

 

Chapter 28

Little Joe eyed the reflection of his string tie balefully as he stared into the mirror. “Dumb ol’ thing. Why can’t I get you set right?” he demanded, then pulled the twisted, uneven loops loose for another attempt.

“Having troubles?”

Joe turned at the question from his smiling older brother, gesturing helplessly toward his collar. “I just can’t get it to tie straight!”

“Let me see what I can do.” Adam stepped into the room and took the two ends of inch-wide black material between his fingers, smoothing and straightening them with the ease of many years’ experience. He softly hummed a holiday tune as he wove the two sides into a perfect bow between the color tips of Little Joe’s best shirt, smiling as he thought upon all the times he’d been called upon to do this particular task when his brothers were little. He gave the bow a small pat as he finished. “There you go.”

Joe checked his reflection again, giving it a satisfied grin this time. “Thanks, Adam. What time is it? Are we going to be on time for church?”

“Since when are you in such a hurry to get to church?” his brother asked innocently.

The boy shrugged, not minding the teasing. “I’ll bet a lot of people show up tonight. Not just cause it’s Christmas Eve, but because it’s Paul’s first time back since the blizzard. You think he’ll be okay?”

As he watched his young sibling fuss and primp in front of the looking glass, Adam helped himself to a seat on Joe’s bed. “He’ll be just fine. The doctor has had him walking with that prosthetic boot and the cane for nearly a week now. I’m sure he’ll do great. Besides, Missy and her folks will be there tonight, so he’ll have lots of moral support if things don’t go well.”

“I wish we didn’t have to wait until springtime for their wedding,” Joe commented. “It seems like a long time off.”

“I think Paul and Missy wish that too, Little Joe, but Reverend Wyatt won’t be back until the weather warms up, so they’ve got no choice.”

Joe shrugged, accepting the truth of that. “You think we’ll get anything extra good for Christmas this year?” he asked, changing the subject to one he had been conjecturing on for most of the day.

Adam settled himself back comfortably against Little Joe’s headboard and watched as the boy carefully combed his hair and checked critically to see that no strand was out of place. He looked so serious that Adam smiled. “I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see if Santa decides we’ve been good this year.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes. “Come on, Adam. I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. I’m not a little kid, you know.”

Adam looked down at his hands, trying not to smile at the indignant statement but it broke through anyway as his attention was drawn to the pillow beside him. The small well-worn paw of Joe’s little stuffed bear was peeking out from underneath it. He pulled Bo out of his hiding spot, turning the old toy in his hands, then holding it up for Joe to see. “I remember when you used to take this with you everywhere you went. You wouldn’t leave the house unless you had it, even if it was just tucked inside your saddle-bag.”

Little Joe turned around, blushing a little when he saw what his brother held. “I haven’t done that in years,” he muttered, eyeing Adam warily as he examined the treasured stuffed animal. “Not since I was little.”

“I know.” Adam brushed his fingertips over the worn but still-soft hide of the toy. A long-forgotten image suddenly filled his mind. He could see his stepmother smiling as she carefully worked and trimmed a scrap of soft brown flannel, then shaped and stitched and stuffed it, transforming it into this little bear. He could remember how she had looked all during that autumn, her face seeming to grow more radiant and beautiful with every passing day, her hand straying every so often from the toy to her expanding middle. He remembered wondering what that little baby would be like, and what it would think of that lovingly made gift.

Adam could also remember another Christmas; some nine years ago, when he and Hoss had worked together to make a miniature set of clothes for that bear, as their present to Little Joe. Bo had worn that same small vest and string tie ever since. Adam smiled again as he straightened the tiny tie just as he had done his brother’s a moment ago. “I was just thinking how much you’ve matured since those days,” he continued, a trace of sadness mixed into his fond tone. “You’ve really come a long way.”

Joe sat down on the bed and took the small bear into his own hands. “You really think so?”

He was smiling at the recognition, and Adam placed a hand on his shoulder. “You know a few months ago, when you and Paul tried to tell me how much you’d grown up since I left for college, I just couldn’t see it. I tried, but I couldn’t. Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve changed my mind. You did a fine thing by organizing those charity baskets with Paul. It meant a lot, not just to the people who received them, but to Pa, and Hoss and me, too. Then later on, during the whole blizzard ordeal, I was even more proud of you.”

The boy ducked his head and shrugged, pleased but rather embarrassed by so much unaccustomed praise from his oldest brother. “I just did what I thought you, or Hoss, or Pa would’ve,” he mumbled. “Besides, you already told me you were proud of me for that, back at the Lynches.”

“I know,” Adam told him seriously, “but I wanted to tell you again now, so you would know that I meant what I said. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, little brother. I was going to wait until tomorrow morning and give this to you when we all open our gifts downstairs, but I think I’d rather do it now.”

“A present?” Little Joe sat up straighter, instantly interested. Though he had been trying hard in recent months to be viewed as more than a child, his age clearly showed in his eager demand of, “What is it?”

“I was going to sneak this into your stocking before we left,” Adam explained, pulling a gaily-wrapped small box out of his coat and handing it over. Little Joe hefted it in his palm, a bit surprised by the size and weight. It was heavy enough to suggest a pocketknife, but he already had one of those from Adam, still practically new. Besides, the shape was all wrong. Curiously, he tore off the wrappings and found a small, square, hand carved wooden box. It had a hinge on the back and a clasp in the front. Little Joe’s brows lowered into a puzzled frown and Adam smiled at the curious look he received, and told him, “It’s a snuff-box.”

Joe grinned. “I don’t think Pa would like you giving me something like this, Adam. He’d probably say I’m not quite that mature.” Adam laughed and Little Joe laughed with him. “Where’d you get it?”

“Grandpa Stoddard gave it to me with a bunch of other curios he’d collected from his sea voyages and I thought it would make a nice little trinket for you, as well as being the perfect size to hold your real gift.” Adam helpfully flicked open the front clasp, encouraging his brother to look inside.

Pleased to realize that there was more to the gift than just the fancy little box, Joe quickly popped open the top and looked inside. “A pocket watch!” he exclaimed. He pulled it out and whistled as he took in the fine gold chain and the tiny rearing horse etched into the metal. “Wow, this is even nicer than Pa’s!”

“Your ma gave me that the Christmas after you were born,” Adam told him, eliciting a gasp of surprise. “It belonged to her father before he died, and she told me that she had always intended to give it to a son of her own the day she felt he was old enough to take proper care of it.”

Little Joe smiled. “A son of her own,” he repeated. “Were you surprised when she gave it to you?”

“Shocked, is more like it,” he admitted. “I’d been so mean to her for so long that I couldn’t believe she would ever think of me that way. By the time you were born we had became a lot closer, enough that I had started to wish I really was her son, but I thought sure that having you would destroy any chance for me to take on that role.”

Little Joe was fascinated as he heard the unusually wistful tone in Adam’s deep voice. He had always loved hearing stories of his mother, but Adam rarely spoke of the time before the two of them had become close. “What happened?”

“That Christmas morning I woke up extra early and went downstairs to see what was under the tree. Your ma was already down there, rocking you because you were crying and she didn’t want you to disturb the household. She couldn’t get you to calm down, so I ran back upstairs and snuck past Pa to get this little bear out of your cradle. I took you out of her arms and sat down in Pa’s chair, and as soon as I gave Bo to you, you stopped crying and went right to sleep.” Adam stopped talking, feeling too choked up to speak for a moment.

“What does that have to do with this watch?” Joe demanded, impatient to get to what he considered the important part of the story.

Adam cleared his throat. “Well, like I said, you went right to sleep. Marie watched us together for a couple of minutes, then she said, ‘You really love him, don’t you?’ I gathered up all my courage and said, ‘I love you both.’ And I think, for the first time, both of us realized that I meant it. She got really quiet, and then she reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out this watch. She used to carry it all the time, and I had heard her tell Pa about wanting her son to have it someday when he was ready. I had thought she meant that it would be for you when you grew up, but that morning she put it in my hand and kissed my cheek, and she said, ‘I think it’s time for you to have this.’ Then she told me she loved me and wished me a Merry Christmas. We never actually spoke of it after that, but I showed the watch to Pa and Hoss, and I’m sure Pa knew what had gone on. I carried it every day until after Marie died, then I put it away in a safe place.”

“And now you’re giving it to me?” Joe asked, his voice very low. “But Mama wanted you to have it, Adam. She gave it to you.”

“She did, because she wanted me to know that she loved me, and trusted me, and that she was proud of the person I was growing up to be,” Adam said softly. “I think she’d like knowing I was giving it to you for the same reasons.”

There was a moment of stunned silence as Little Joe absorbed the impact of his brother’s statement, then, gulping back a rush of tears, Joe reached out to hug Adam tightly. Adam held him for a moment, then the embrace ended and they smiled at each other, neither knowing just what to say next.

“Oh, there you two are,” Hoss said, unwittingly interrupting the flow of emotion filling the room as he walked in.

Grateful to him for preventing what could have become an uncomfortable moment, his brothers both cheerfully responded, “Hi, Hoss!”

Hoss looked amused by the enthusiastic greeting, grinning as he said, “The horses are all ready to go, and Pa is muttering about the time, so you two had better hurry up.”

Little Joe smiled at the mention of time, tucking his gift carefully into his pocket with a glance at Adam. “Did you fix up the horses like we talked about?”

Hoss winked. “Sure did. Buck didn’t like it much, but the others all look right proud of themselves. Especially your Cochise.”

“What did you do?” Adam asked warily.

“Come on and see,” Joe suggested, leading the way out of his room as he dashed down the hallway and clattered loudly down the stairs in his haste to see the horses. Adam and Hoss grinned at each other and followed.

“Joseph! Come back here and put on your coat!” Ben Cartwright’s exasperated statement greeted his two older sons as they reached the stair landing, and they chuckled at the sight of the door left wide open to the frosty evening air. They hastily followed their father outside, snatching hats and coats off the rack as they went. Ben had grabbed his youngest son’s coat as he went out, but the sight that met his eyes made him pause, irritation vanishing in a great ringing laugh as he beheld Little Joe proudly petting the muzzles of four horses whose tack had been decorated with strings of tiny bells.

Cochise tossed his head at the sound, causing an answering ring from the bridle bells. The pinto’s ears twitched, but he seemed to like the musical little chimes as he repeated the motion. Sport and Chubby likewise jingled their new decorations while Buck watched the proceedings with an almost insulted air. Ben walked up and patted the horse on the neck, handing Joe his coat with a raised eyebrow.

“How do you like it, Pa?” Hoss asked, grinning at his father as he and Adam joined them. “Joe and I borrowed them from Hop Sing. We thought that since all of us are decked out so fine for tonight, that they should be too.”

With an indulgent smile and a shake of the head, Ben mounted up. The high accumulation of snow had mostly gone by now and he had deemed it all right to ride the horses into town rather than take the buggy or sleigh. “I’m sure they’ll be the best looking horses in Virginia City.”

Pleased that they would be allowed to leave the decorations in place, Hoss and Joe smiled smugly at each other. Adam grinned as he watched them. For all his praise of Little Joe’s new-found maturity minutes earlier, it was times like this, when Joe acted like a child and took Hoss right along with him, that Adam was most aware of how much they both meant to him. It made him realize anew how glad he was to be home with his family once again. He swung an arm around each of them, pushing them forward toward their waiting saddles. “Let’s not keep Paul waiting, boys.”

The End

 

 

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

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