The Return of Abigail Jones (by pjb)

Summary:  Getting Abigail Jones and Hank Meyers married was the easy part. . . .

Rated: K+  WC  20,000

 

                                        The Return of Abigail Jones

 

A single crash woke all four Cartwrights. Even Hoss, who had once slept through a stampede while they were trailing a herd to market, staggered groggily to his doorway, blinking.

“What in tarnation was that?” He peered into the darkened hallway. He could hear what sounded like shouting coming from the front yard.

Adam, who had already pulled on his shirt, glared at his large brother. “What do you think?” he snapped as he headed for the stairs.

“What the—hey, Joe, what’s he talkin’ about?” Hoss grabbed his little brother’s arm as the crash of breaking glass momentarily drowned out the angry voices outside.

Before Joe could answer, their father stormed past, tying the belt of his dressing gown. He stopped to shake a finger at them. “You two and your smart ideas! You’ll fix this!”

“Dagnabit—what’s goin’ on?” Hoss was starting to feel like he’d slept through the first half of a show at the opera house.

Little Joe grimaced at his brother. “I think it’s Hank,” he said in a low, conspiratorial voice.

“Hank? Hank Meyers?”

“How many other Hanks do you know who’d be making this kind of a ruckus in the middle of the night?” Joe snapped. He didn’t like being awakened even at a reasonable hour, and three in the morning was nobody’s idea of reasonable.

“But—what’s he doin’ here? Why ain’t he home with Miss Abigail?” Even after five months, Hoss still wasn’t used to thinking of Miss Abigail Jones as Mrs. Meyers.

“How should I know? Just put your boots on, and come on!”

The younger Cartwright brothers emerged into the chilly yard to see what looked like a saloon fight of major proportions. Light streamed through the broken windows of the bunkhouse. Tables and chairs and bodies flew through the air. Even Ben Cartwright’s stentorian tones were barely audible above the shouting and crashing.

The blast of a rifle brought instant silence. For a moment, everyone was frozen. Then, they turned as one to see Hop Sing in his nightclothes, rifle pointed at the sky.

“No more noise!” the little man scolded. “You want eat in morning, Hop Sing need sleep! Everybody bed! Hmmpf!” He turned, pigtail swinging angrily, and stormed back into the house. An instant later, the door slammed.

“All right, now, what is going on?” thundered Ben. Those who couldn’t see his fury in the shadows could feel it. His two younger sons swallowed hard. Somehow, this was about to be laid at their feet.

“Well, Mr. Cartwright—we was just defendin’ ourselves!” offered Ned Peterson.

In the light from the bunkhouse, Ben’s raised eyebrow spoke eloquently of his skepticism.

“He’s tellin’ the truth,” insisted Frank Porter. “We was all asleep when—when he came in and started wreckin’ the bunkhouse!”

“‘He’?” Ben’s voice held that combination of doubt and threat that his sons knew all too well. Without thinking, Hoss and Joe put their hands behind them in a gesture that had never succeeded in protecting their backsides when they were younger.

“He,” said Adam from the doorway to the bunkhouse. He stepped aside, and a sheepish Hank Meyers stepped into the yard.

“Hank, what in blazes are you doing here at this time of night?” demanded Ben.

Hank stepped forward, and the light from the window showed what was likely the most miserable face on the Washoe. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, I truly am. I reckon I’m just unhappy. I’ll pay for the damage, sir.”

Ben drew a deep breath. Hank’s unhappiness had proven to be expensive in the past. The big man always offered to pay, but somehow, Ben could never quite make himself take Hank up on the offer. He surveyed the wreckage visible in the bunkhouse light. He didn’t even want to see what was inside.

“Hank, get into the house,” he said. “The rest of you—get this mess cleaned up!”

“But, Mr. Cartwright—it’s the middle of the night,” protested one of the young hands most unwisely. “But don’t you worry, sir, we’ll get it all cleaned up!” he hastened to add as one of the older hands smacked him on the back of the head. Reluctantly, they began to stack broken furniture as Ben half-dragged Hank Meyers into the house.

“Hey, Hoss, maybe we better help them,” suggested Joe.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” said Adam, seizing his young brother’s arm. “You’re coming inside.”

“Me? What did I do?” The youngest Cartwright’s voice fairly squeaked with innocence.

“Don’t even bother, Joseph,” said Hoss heavily. He followed his family and Hank into the living room, where Pa was lighting lamps so that they could all see his displeasure clearly.

Finally, Ben turned to the four men who were lined up in front of him. Adam had already resigned himself to the forfeiture of sleep as well as peace and harmony. Hoss still looked as though he could nod off standing right there. Joe’s eyes shifted nervously, and Ben could almost see him trying to figure out a way to get out of this mess. And Hank . . . well, Hank just looked every bit as unhappy as a man married to Abigail Jones had a right to look.

It wasn’t that Abigail was intentionally unpleasant; it was simply that she came from a different way of life. Ben recalled her well from Little Joe’s school days. She had more formal education than any other lady in town—as well as most of the men—and she made no effort to downplay it. Until Adam returned from college, Abigail Jones was the only person in Virginia City who said “whom.”

She was devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, and especially to the study of literature and history. Her special passion for the romantic tales of any age—Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet, John Alden and Priscilla Mullen—was well-known among her students. Her shortcomings, as it were, centered on her way of dealing with people who weren’t characters in books or from history—in other words, the small humans who populated her classroom and the larger ones who passed her on the street. While she was not unattractive, and she could even be quite pleasant in brief conversation, she always seemed as though she was on the verge of correcting someone. Ben Cartwright, who was undeniably well-spoken, found himself watching his grammar whenever they met.

It hadn’t helped that Little Joe had been a very energetic and imaginative child, taxing the patience even of those who loved him the most. Miss Jones, who had not fallen into that category, was greatly frustrated by this child who was clearly bright and capable, but was just as clearly far more interested in the world outside the classroom than in anything the teacher presented. While Ben was not one to make excuses for his son’s inattention, he had once tried to suggest gently to Miss Jones that young boys sometimes lack the attention span of grown-up ladies, especially about romantic poetry and the Renaissance.

Miss Jones had simply fixed him with a look. “Mr. Cartwright, I was brought here to educate the children of Virginia City. I am introducing their young minds to worlds they will likely never know in any other way. This is great literature I am reading to them, and I would be doing a tremendous disservice both to these children and to the people of Virginia City who have entrusted them to my care if I were to accept as an excuse for failing to do my best the fact that they are simply children. They can, and they will, learn to pay attention and to appreciate the incredible beauty and power of English literature.” Her voice faded and a faraway look appeared in her eyes, as though she were seeing herself before a room full of rapt children. Ben took that opportunity to mumble his thanks and escape.

Now, as they stood with Abigail’s husband in the living room in the middle of the night, Ben shot a quick look at his younger sons. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that this marriage had been their idea, they had practically turned the Ponderosa upside down to help Hank marry his beloved Abigail. The notion of the cultured schoolteacher with the unschooled ranch hand hadn’t made sense to anybody except Hank, but that hadn’t stopped Hoss and Joe from concocting one hare-brained scheme after another to try to get the two together, from re-enacting the scene where Sir Walter Raleigh laid his cloak across a puddle for a lady to cross to setting up Adam as some sort of musical Cyrano de Bergerac to serenade Abigail on Hank’s behalf. Eventually, and remarkably, Abigail had fallen in love with the big ranch hand. At the wedding, Joe and Hoss had been as proud as if they were the fathers of the bridal couple, and Ben and Adam had breathed a sigh of relief that as the Meyerses drove out of the churchyard, ready to live happily ever after.

Theirs might have been a match made somewhere other than heaven, but it could have been much worse, Ben reminded himself now. Abigail Jones could have succeeded in her original plan, which was to lasso Adam Cartwright. Had that happened, they would have had the lovely couple living under this very roof, at least until a new house could be built. That would have been the fastest construction in the territory, Ben thought before he could stop himself.

He drew a deep breath. He didn’t know what had brought Hank Meyers here tonight, but he had every reason in the world to sort the matter out, and right now. If marital bliss wasn’t restored in the Meyers household, his bunkhouse would be shambles. Worse, Hank could leave, and Miss Abigail could end up as a single lady, once again intent on wooing the eldest of the Cartwright brothers. Both prospects sent shivers down Ben’s spine, and he straightened, glaring at the lineup.

“Now,” he intoned in his deepest, most authoritative voice. He noted to his satisfaction that all four of them stood a bit straighter. Hoss looked almost awake. “What the devil is going on?” His powerful baritone could have caused the Ponderosa pines to quiver.

His sons all turned to glower at Hank. “Well, sir—the truth is, Mr. Cartwright, I don’t rightly know,” confessed the big ranch hand. “My little buttercup—”

“Who?” Hoss hissed at Joe.

“Miss Abigail,” muttered Joe.

Hank nodded as though everyone thought of his bride by this affectionate nickname. “Anyway, she—she—Mr. Cartwright, do you know anything about women?”

Almost as one, his three sons covered their mouths to hide their grins, but Hoss’s chuckle, Adam’s snicker and Joe’s snort were not quite successfully muffled.

Oblivious, Hank continued, “When we was first married, she seemed to like me just fine, but now—well, it’s like everything I do bothers her. Last night, I come home, and I set myself down on the settee, and she starts yellin’ at me about how I can’t set there ’cause I got dirt on my pants. Well, sure I do—I was workin’! Where else am I supposed to set? An’ while we were havin’ supper, I was cleanin’ my fingernails with my knife, and she starts yellin’ again. I thought she liked it when my fingernails were clean! An’ then, last night, when it was time for bed, she wouldn’t let me come in—said I stunk of cows and I should jest go and sleep with ’em. What does she want me to do, take a bath? It’s Wednesday! It’s like she wants me to take a bath every night or something! An’ the other day, I brung her lemon drops from the mercantile, an’ those are her favorites, and she jest gave me this real peculiar look and ran out of the room. I tell you, Mr. Cartwright, I dunno what’s wrong!”

Ben glared at his sons, who were still doing a poor job of stifling their amusement. He drew a deep breath as he tried to figure out how to ask the obvious question without actually having to ask it. He decided to start with a lesser point in the hope that he might be able to avoid the larger matter.

“Hank, adjusting to married life is—well, it’s more complicated than people realize,” he began. Joe snorted again, and Ben cleared his throat ominously. He met Joseph’s eyes with a silent warning so fierce that if the boy had been a few years younger, he would have feared for his ability to sit down. When Joe dropped his gaze, Ben continued, “When a woman has—well, strong opinions about matters in general, a man can sometimes find it difficult to know exactly how she feels about certain specific points.”

“I know how my buttercup feels,” said Hank. “She thinks everything I do is wrong.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s not the case,” said Ben. “It just seems that way because—well, because—”

“—because Abigail is such a refined lady, and you haven’t had the privilege of living with someone like her before,” Adam interjected smoothly. “It’s like—have you ever been to a foreign country, Hank?”

“Who, me? I ain’t never even been to San Francisco!”

“Yes, well—what I mean is that people have different ways of doing things, and it’s not that one way is better than another—it’s just different. Abigail’s way of doing things is different from yours, and you and she just need to work out a way so that you can—you can—”

“—you can live together without getting on each others’ nerves,” Joe supplied helpfully. “It’s like me and Adam here. He thinks he’s all cultured and stuff, and he’s always complaining about everything I do.”

“What do you do about it?” asked Hank.

“Oh, I just ignore him most of the time,” said Joe cheerfully. “Sometimes, I have to punch him, but most times, I just don’t pay any attention to him.”

“Not that anyone’s suggesting this as a way of dealing with your problem,” said Ben with a black stare at his youngest son. “Marriage is very different from living with a brother,” he added as Joe opened his mouth to offer another unhelpful comment. “Women are much more complex than men in many ways, and you’ll find that there are things that matter to her that would never occur to you.”

“I’m findin’ that, all right,” said Hank glumly. “I reckon she’d be jest as happy if I never came home again.”

“Oh, I’m sure that ain’t so,” said Hoss, laying a brotherly arm around the big man’s shoulders. “In fact, I’d bet she’s worried sick right now ’cause you ain’t there.”

Hank rolled his eyes. “So, when I go home, she’s gonna yell at me for that, too.”

Ben took a deep breath. “Hank, how long ago would you say this all started?”

Hank bit his lip as he thought. “About three months ago,” he said finally. “Mebbe a little more.”

“And you’d been married two months at that point?” When Hank nodded, Ben forced himself to ask the question. “Hank—is it—is it possible that maybe Mrs. Meyers is—well, that she’s—how has she been feeling lately? Has she seemed like she might be—well, a bit under the weather?” He let the question dangle, hoping that Hank would pick up on the hint.

“What do you mean? Do you think she’s sick?” Hank’s eyes were wide with sudden fear.

“Aw, Hank, that’s not what he’s asking!” Joe rolled his eyes in disgust. “He’s asking if it’s possible you’re gonna be a daddy!”

“What? How—you mean—” For a man who had handled breeding stock since he was four years old and leading the family cow out to pasture, Hank seemed flabbergasted at the notion.

Ben clenched his teeth. What had he ever done that was so awful that he should be punished by being forced to talk about the private lives of Hank Meyers and Abigail Jones? “Hank, it’s just that—well, sometimes, if a woman is—in the family way—she can get—I mean, things might bother her that ordinarily, she wouldn’t mind,” he managed.

“That’s right,” Hoss chimed in. “When Little Joe’s ma was carryin’ him, we wasn’t allowed to wear boots in the house. Had to take ’em off outside the front door.”

“You what? How come?” Hank looked even more amazed than before, if that was possible.

“She didn’t like the noise,” said Hoss. “An’ Pa wasn’t allowed to smoke his pipe in the house, and Hop Sing couldn’t cook greens, and Adam wasn’t allowed to whistle around her.”

Hank whistled. “Women sure do get peculiar, don’t they?”

“That they do,” said Adam, remembering. “I was reading aloud one night, and Marie just burst into tears, and she couldn’t stop crying.”

“You shouldn’t have been reading her something sad,” Joe snapped, his fists already clenched as he stood ready to defend his mother.

“It was The Comedy of Errors,” said Adam wearily. “Shakespeare,” he added when Hank looked blank.

Hank shook his head. “Mr. Cartwright—you think my little buttercup might be gonna—gonna have a—you think she might be. . . .” He looked stunned, as though he couldn’t quite sort out how this might have happened.

All three brothers were suddenly seized with coughing fits as Ben fought to keep a straight face. “It’s—well, it’s possible, Hank,” Ben said when the noise finally died down.

“You think mebbe I should ask her?” Hank asked.

“No!” The force of Ben’s answer caused his sons to dissolve into more faux-coughing. “You never ask a woman about that,” he said, regaining control. “You just don’t,” he added firmly as Hank opened his mouth.

“So, what should I do?” asked Hank.

The Cartwrights exchanged helpless looks. Finally, Ben rested his hand on Hank’s shoulder and delivered the wisest advice he could think of to the man who might be the father of Abigail Jones’s baby.

“Tonight—sleep in the barn.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Ben stood in the front yard, surveying the remains of the wreckage piled neatly outside the bunkhouse. “What’s left intact?” he growled.

Adam pushed his hat back on his head. “None of the chairs, one of the tables, and about half the bunks,” he said. “Hoss and Joe are on their way into town to pick up lumber so that we can build new ones.”

Ben nodded and started to turn back to the house. Then, he froze. Slowly, he turned. “Did you say Hoss and Joe?” he asked. Adam nodded. “Those two are going into town this morning?” Adam nodded again, his brow furrowing. “Alone?”

“What’s the problem, Pa?”

Ben closed his eyes. “Think about it.”

Adam thought. Then, his face went pale. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said. “It never occurred to me—do you want me to go after them?”

“How long ago did they leave?”

“Right after breakfast,” said Adam. “About two hours ago.”

“So, they’re probably there already,” said Ben. He drew a deep breath. “Let’s just hope they have the sense to go straight to the lumber mill and come straight back here.”

Adam smirked. “This is Hoss and Little Joe you’re talking about,” he reminded his father with more than a touch of smugness.

Ben considered this and shook his head. “Even they won’t want to tangle with Abigail Jones in her condition.”

“Are you sure she’s going to have a baby?” asked Adam. “It could be that married life with Hank just isn’t what she thought it would be.”

“Of course I’m not sure!” snapped Ben. “But at least if she’s expecting, there’s a chance that Hank’s misery will end. If she’s just unhappy with Hank, there’s not going to be much anybody can do.”

Adam shook his head. Abigail Jones Meyers in the family way. He shuddered at the thought of Abigail as a mother. “I hope she has a girl,” he mused. “If she has a boy, that kid is going to get beaten up by every other boy in school—and probably most of the girls, too.”

“If she has a boy, hopefully he’ll take after Hank,” said Ben.

“Amen,” said Adam. Resignedly, he headed into the bunkhouse, where a crew was busy repairing bunks. Please don’t let those two go anywhere near Abigail Jones, he thought. Knowing his brothers, they’d end up squarely in the middle of whatever was going on between the Meyerses. Adam suddenly had a horrible vision of Hoss and Joe driving into the yard with Miss Abigail sitting right there between them.

No, they wouldn’t, he assured himself. Not even Hoss and Little Joe are that foolish.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Good morning, Mrs. Meyers,” said Joe, almost hiding his nervousness. His fingers worked the brim of his hat as he tried to hold a pleasant smile in place. He elbowed his big brother, who echoed him with a faint, “Good morning, ma’am.”

Abigail Jones Meyers looked from one Cartwright to the other suspiciously. “Good morning, boys,” she said, her inflection evidencing doubt as to the morning’s goodness. “What can I do for you?”

Joe looked up at Hoss expectantly. Hoss took a deep breath and said, “Well, ma’am, we just thought you might want to know—you see, Hank—”

“Did something happen to him? Is he all right?” she interrupted.

“He’s fine, ma’am,” said Hoss. “We just—we wanted to let you know that he’s out at the ranch.”

Her worry faded to puzzlement. “Of course, he is,” she said. “Where else would he be? Why are you telling me that?”

“Well—we thought you might be worried,” said Joe, now puzzled himself.

“Worried?”

“Because he wasn’t here last night,” clarified Joe.

Abigail turned pale. “What are you talking about?”

Joe and Hoss exchanged startled glances. “Mrs. Meyers, you knew Hank came out to the Ponderosa last night, didn’t you?” Joe ventured.

“He did no such thing,” the lady said indignantly. “My Hank and I are perfectly happy, and he was here with me last night. How dare you insinuate that he might—that there might be—how dare you come here and ask personal questions about our lives? Who do you think you are, anyway?” She drew herself up to her full height, her stare as fierce as it had ever been when Joe was a restless pupil.

“But, Miz Meyers—” Hoss began, but Joe cut in.

“Our mistake, Mrs. Meyers,” he said hastily. “Sorry to have bothered you. Let’s go, Hoss.” He tipped his hat and grabbed Hoss’s arm, pulling his big brother away from the door that slammed just as they cleared the porch.

“What in tarnation was that all about?” Hoss demanded when they were safely on the sidewalk.

“You got me,” said Joe. “I’m guessing she didn’t know Hank snuck out. She probably had the poor guy sleeping on the settee.”

“I don’t reckon either one of them would thank us for noticing,” said Hoss. “Well, let’s get that lumber and get goin’.”

“Wait a minute,” said Joe. “We can’t just walk away.”

“An’ why not?” demanded Hoss.

“Because if they don’t make up, we’re gonna be making this same trip back to the lumber mill tomorrow, and again the day after, and we’re gonna have to keep on doing it for as long as Hank’s unhappy,” Joe pointed out. “And you know as well as I do that Pa’s not gonna let this go on forever. Sooner or later, he’s gonna fire Hank, and do I need to remind you that Hank’s about the only fellow on the ranch who’s as big and strong as you are? So, if we ain’t got Hank, all those chores that need a really strong back are gonna fall right on you. Now, is that what you want, Big Brother?”

Hoss pondered his brother’s words, his face growing more and more glum by the moment. “I dunno, Joe,” he said finally. “I just can’t help thinkin’ that we should probably mind our own business.”

Joe shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. “I ain’t the one who’s gonna have to haul all those heavy sacks of grain all by myself, and I won’t be havin’ to carry all those fence posts—but if that’s your idea of a good time, I’m not gonna be the one to spoil it.”

“Dadburn you,” muttered Hoss. Joe hid his smile of triumph as Hoss demanded reluctantly, “What do you think we should do?”

“Well, Big Brother, this is what I’m thinking. . . .”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Would you like another sandwich, Mrs. Meyers?” inquired Ben. If Abigail Jones Meyers was in the family way, it certainly wasn’t interfering with her appetite.

“Why, thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” said Hank’s wife. She perused the platter, scrutinizing its offerings as though she would be held to account for choosing wrongly. Finally, as the others waited, she selected a roast beef sandwich, and the Cartwrights relaxed.

“I was most surprised that Hoss and Little Joseph invited me to lunch.” She was busy enough slicing her sandwich that she didn’t see the black look Ben shot at his youngest son.

“Well, we haven’t really seen you since the wedding,” said Ben a bit too heartily.

“It’s a shame that Adam couldn’t join us,” said Miss Abigail as she continued to cut her sandwich into smaller and smaller pieces.

“He’ll be sorry to have missed you,” lied Ben. The eldest Cartwright son had leapt into the saddle and ridden off over his father’s protests as soon as the wagon bearing two Cartwrights and Mrs. Meyers had driven into view.

The front door opened, and Hank clomped into the room. “You wanted to see me, Mr.—Buttercup!” His mouth hung open as he gazed upon his bride at the dining table. “What in tarnation are you doin’ here?”

Miss Abigail smiled so sweetly that the Cartwrights all fixed their attention on their plates. “The Cartwrights were kind enough to invite me to lunch,” she said. If she was at all surprised at being conveyed all the way to the Ponderosa for sandwiches, she wasn’t saying so.

“Huh?”

“Don’t say ‘huh’,” Miss Abigail instructed. Having reduced her sandwich to bite-sized pieces, she surveyed her plate with satisfaction.

“Hank, won’t you join us for lunch?” Ben interposed hastily before more corrections could be issued.

“Um—well, sir, I mean—” Hank seemed to be flabbergasted at the notion.

“Come on, Hank, pull up a chair!” Joe favored him with a grin that anybody else would have known instantly to distrust.

“I—uh—I gotta wash up,” said Hank. He scurried from the room, leaving the Cartwrights to cast worried glances at each other while Miss Abigail placidly nibbled one of her newly-carved tea sandwiches.

A few minutes later, Hank sat at the foot of the table. His face, hair and shirtfront were wet, and he’d removed most of the dirt from his hands. Miss Abigail barely favored him with a glance until he began to tuck in his napkin at his collar.

“Hank!” she snapped. Instantly, Hank yanked the napkin from his neckline and dropped it into his lap. His bride nodded approvingly, and Ben scowled again at Joe, who pretended not to feel the heat emanating from his father’s eyes.

A long, long silence ensued. Finally, Ben said, “Mrs. Meyers, have you read any good books lately?”

Abigail Jones Meyers looked up from her sandwich. “Why, yes, Mr. Cartwright, I have,” she said brightly. “Mr. Dickens’s newest novel,Great Expectations, is without question his finest work. Have you read it?” She looked around the table expectantly. When all of the men had reluctantly turned their attention from their food to her, she began, “It’s about a young boy named Pip. . . .”

Half an hour later, Mrs. Meyers’ recitation of the story of Great Expectations drew to a close. Joe and Hoss had spent the past twenty-nine minutes shooting their father looks that were by turns incredulous, reproachful, and downright irritated at his having asked such a question. Hank had finished his lunch in the first five minutes and had spent the next seven gazing raptly at his bride. But more than that was too much even for a man who was in love with Abigail Jones. Around the thirteenth minute, he began to fidget, only to be subjected thereafter to periodic frowns from the lady, who hissed “Hank!” when his clinking of silverware and shuffling in his chair threatened to distract anyone from her tale.

“Well, that was fascinating, Mrs. Meyers, but the boys and I need to return to work,” said Ben when she had finally finished. Hoss and Joe rose with more alacrity than they had ever shown when heading off to work, and Hank sprang to his feet.

Abigail Jones Meyers folded her napkin. “That was a most delightful meal, Mr. Cartwright,” she announced. “In fact, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a meal more.”

Ben shot a fiery glare at his sons before one of them could offer an ill-advised comment about Mrs. Meyers’ monologue. “It was a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Meyers,” he said. “Hank, why don’t you drive your wife back home?”

Hank blanched. “Mr. Cartwright, don’t you want me to see about movin’ that stock out of the west pasture?”

“Oh, we’ll do that,” Hoss assured him a bit too heartily. “You take your missus home, an’ we’ll see to the stock.”

That resolved, the lady rose from the table. Almost at once, though, she staggered, reaching for the table as she sat heavily in her chair.

“Buttercup! What’s the matter?” Hank rushed around the table to her side.

“Are you all right, Mrs. Meyers?” asked Ben, fingers mentally crossed.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I just felt a trifle faint for a moment. I’m certain it’ll pass.”

The Cartwrights exchanged grim looks. With no choice, Ben said, “Mrs. Meyers, perhaps you’d like to lie down for a short while before you start that long trip home.”

“Hey, Hank, take your wife upstairs to the guest room,” said Joe.

“Joseph, I think you should show Mrs. Meyers the way,” said Ben with a meaningful frown.

“Yes, sir,” Joe mumbled. “Right this way, Mrs. Meyers.” At the jerk of his father’s head, Joe moved to Mrs. Meyers’ side and offered her his arm. She looked for a moment as though she was about to refuse. Then, she placed her hand on Joe’s arm and allowed him to assist her across the living room, with Hank following so closely that he nearly bumped into her when she paused at the foot of the stairs.

Several minutes later, Joe all but ran down the stairs. “Pa, she’s heaving her guts,” he announced.

“Joseph!”

Joe shrugged. “Hop Sing!” When the little man appeared, Joe said, “Mrs. Meyers is sick. Can you get some rags or something to clean up with?” As Hop Sing headed back into the kitchen, Joe lowered his voice. “You think she’s really. . . ?” He let the notion trail off as the others cringed.

“We don’t know,” said Ben firmly. “It may simply be that lunch didn’t sit well with her.”

“I don’t know, Pa,” said Hoss, shaking his head. “I got a bad feelin’ about this.”

“Bad how?” asked Ben ominously.

Hoss crossed his arms. “Bad like she ain’t leavin’ here any time soon.” He and his father both turned to glare at the youngest Cartwright.

“Joseph.” On Ben Cartwright’s lips, that one word could have any of a thousand meanings. Right then, Little Joe knew exactly which one his father intended, and he winced.

* * * * * * * * * *

Adam Cartwright closed the door behind him gratefully. The wind had been picking up for the past hour. No question about it: snow by morning.

“What’s for supper? I’m starved!” he announced as he hung up his coat. When there was no answer, he called out, “Hey, Pa! Hoss, Joe! Anybody home?”

“Adam!” his father hissed from the top of the stairs. “Keep your voice down!”

“Why? What’s the matter? Is everybody all right?” It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d come home to find one of his brothers laid up with some new injury and Pa trying to keep said brother quiet.

“We have a guest,” said Ben. Adam had never before heard that word sound quite so ominous. “Mrs. Meyers is here,” he added.

Adam stood very still. “Why?” he managed finally.

“She came for lunch,” said Ben. “And then she began to feel poorly.”

“How poorly?” Adam felt dread descend upon him like the imminent snowfall.

“Poorly enough that she’s not leaving tonight.” The words were heavy.

“But . . . she’ll be leaving tomorrow, right?” Please, oh, please. . . .

Ben looked his eldest son in the eye. “We don’t know,” he said. “It appears that Mrs. Meyers is indeed going to have a baby.”

“Well—that’s hardly a reason for her to stay here! I mean, when Hoss’s ma was carrying him, she was driving the wagon and helping out with all sorts of work!” Adam didn’t actually recall much of the work Inger had done as the wagon train moved west all those years ago, but he was sure he’d remember if she’d been laid up due to her condition.

“Hoss’s mother was very different from Mrs. Meyers,” said Ben in what could well have been the understatement of the year. “Besides which, each woman’s situation is different,” he added diplomatically. “I’m sure you recall that Marie had a much more difficult time with Little Joe.”

“Haven’t we all,” Adam muttered.

“So, if Mrs. Meyers needs to rest up before making the trip home, then that’s what she needs to do,” Ben concluded as though Adam hadn’t spoken.

“But, Pa—there’s a snowstorm coming. If we get snowed in, it could be days.”

“Or longer,” his father reminded him. “But we have no choice. Where are you going?” he added as Adam reached for his coat.

“I’m going to go out and find your sons,” Adam said. “And then, I’m going to wallop the daylights out of both of them for creating this mess.”

Normally, Ben would have chastised Adam for such a sentiment. This time, he merely shrugged.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Hey, Adam, can I borrow your guitar?” asked Hank on the third day of the snowstorm.

“Huh?” Adam looked up from his book. “Oh, sure, Hank.”

Then, the implication of the request hit them all at the same time. “Hank, you ain’t gonna sing, are you?” asked Hoss, the red checker in his hand suddenly forgotten. Joe took advantage of his brother’s distraction to slide two black pieces to more helpful positions.

“Well, sure!” Hank looked from Cartwright to Cartwright as though they were all a trifle simple. “My buttercup loves to hear me sing.”

Hoss and Joe exchanged an eye-roll. No one knew why such a refined lady was so enamored of the songs of a cowboy who sang through his nose, but she was. In fact, it had been Hank’s barely-melodic crooning that had won Abigail Jones’s heart. More proof that there was just no understanding women, in Hoss’s opinion.

“I’ll bet she’d really like it if you read to her instead,” Joe began, but his father silenced him with a look.

“You go on and have a good time, Hank,” said Ben firmly. As the big man charged up the stairs, guitar in hand, Ben said in a low, fierce voice, “If it makes her happy to hear Hank sing, then Hank will sing. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Joe mumbled.

There was no question that their houseguest had proven to be somewhat less than a delight. Her periodic nausea and occasional lightheadedness had dictated that she would be more comfortable resting in bed. This had not, however, made her quieter or more relaxed. Rather, bedrest seemed to be giving her far too much time to think, and every time someone went into her room, she began to assail him with her views on Elizabethan poetry or the price of dry goods at the mercantile. The Cartwrights had plied her with books, but it soon became apparent that her taste in books was vastly different from theirs. Even Adam’s collection failed to satisfy her: he offered Paradise Lost and Moby Dick, and she wanted Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love sonnets.

“I gave her Shakespeare’s sonnets, but apparently, that wasn’t quite good enough,” Adam had reported the night before. “I have no idea what she wants.”

“I don’t know, but I’ll bet she could find it at home,” Joe muttered.

The Cartwrights had had guests who had stayed for weeks, even months, without wearing out their welcomes. Abigail Jones Meyers had exhausted their collective patience in less than ninety-six hours. Privately, Ben considered this something of a record.

Still, there was nothing to be done about it. He was now certain that Mrs. Meyers was in the family way. Her physical symptoms, her rapidly-changing moods, and her strange cravings were all too familiar from the days when his wives had carried their sons. Besides, he wouldn’t have sent a woman out from under his roof in this storm under any circumstances, but especially not now. They would simply have to wait until it was safe for Hank to load her into the buggy and drive her back to town.

That day couldn’t come too soon.

Hank’s song drifted down the stairs. “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising,” came the pinched tones. Hoss and Joe cringed. Adam’s mouth was set in a tight, determined line.

“At least he stays on pitch,” Ben offered.

All three of his sons turned as one to glower at him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Fully a week passed before the sun broke through. That was the good news. The bad news was that the snowstorms had deposited more than five feet of snow which drifted in some spots to well over eight feet. It was hard enough to get from the house to the barn to care for the stock. Getting a wagon out to drive Mrs. Meyers back to town was impossible.

It didn’t help that the snow meant that the ranch hands had little to do. Men accustomed to being outside and working hard tended to become restless when confined to a bunkhouse. At least once a day, the Cartwrights found themselves breaking up a fight over a card game or some imagined slight.

Unlike the other hands, Hank Meyers had the dubious pleasure of being snowed in with his wife. That the pleasure was dubious was underscored by the fact that Mrs. Meyers was most definitely exhibiting all the signs of a woman who would bear a child within a few months: morning sickness that lasted all day, extremes in emotion from giddiness to despair to fury, and demands for odd food combinations, such as roast beef with sugar and spearmint. Even Hank, the one man on the Ponderosa who was truly fond of Abigail Jones Meyers, winced as he approached the guest room that they now shared.

“It’s his own doggone fault,” Joe muttered to his brothers as they took refuge in Adam’s room. “If he’d picked himself a normal girl, none of this would have happened.”

“And if you two could mind your own business for five minutes, we’d be snowed in with nobody for company except Hop Sing,” said Adam without lifting his eyes from his book.

“I always used to like being snowed in with Hop Sing,” Hoss grumbled. Being expectant had enhanced Mrs. Meyers’ sense of smell, and there seemed to be a great many cooking scents that she found objectionable, including baking bread and roasting pork. So, instead of spending his snowbound days making all sorts of delectable treats to relieve the tedium, Hop Sing was grumbling and stomping around the kitchen—though not clanging pans in his usual fashion, since this was likely to awaken Mrs. Meyers from her slumber, and no one was eager for that to happen.

A knock on the door snapped them all to attention. “Who is it?” Adam called.

“Your father,” came the terse reply.

“Sorry, Pa,” said Adam as he leaned over to open the door. Ben entered, and Joe jumped up to close the door firmly behind him.

“What are you three doing up here?” Ben demanded as though he didn’t know.

“Hiding from Mrs. Meyers,” said Joe. “She wanted to have a discussion about some article from The Territorial Enterprise.”

“And you think it’s polite to hide from your guests?” Ben raised his eyebrows as he fixed his gaze on first one son, then another, and then the third.

“Aw, Pa, it ain’t that.” Hoss never wanted for anyone to be unhappy, but for once, he was willing that the group of not-unhappy people should include himself. “It’s just that—well, it’s the paper from the day before the snowstorm, and we’ve already discussed everything in it three times!”

“I’ve offered her other things to read,” said Adam. “As it turns out, her taste in literature is a bit different from mine.”

“Besides, it ain’t enough for her to just read something,” Joe said. “She has to tell us all about what she reads, and—doggone it, Pa, it’s just so danged boring we can’t stand it!”

“Now, you listen to me, young man.” All three sons sat up straight at their father’s tone. “Mrs. Meyers is a guest in our home, and you will be polite to her. And if that means discussing articles and literature, then that is what you will do. Now, get yourselves out of this room and entertain our guest!”

Ben crossed his arms as his sons got to their feet and slunk from the room. He waited until he could hear them going downstairs. Then, he seated himself in Adam’s armchair and picked up the book his son had abandoned. He figured that it would be at least half an hour before anyone noticed that he was missing.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Hey, Pa! Great news!”

Joe burst triumphantly through the door. He was so thoroughly bundled up against the bitter winds that between his hat and his muffler, the only part of him that actually showed was his eyes, but they were glowing as though he’d just won a million dollars.

“Let’s have it!” At that point, Ben would have accepted mediocre news. Nearly two weeks of being snowbound had left them starved for any word from the outside world.

“The Virginia City road is passable!” Joe held up his hands like a performer expecting cheers and applause, and that was pretty much the reaction he got from his grateful family. For the moment, the lack of response from Abigail Jones Meyers, who reclined on the settee, went unnoticed.

“That’s great, Little Brother!” Hoss pounded Joe on the back. “How’d you find out?”

“I was trying to see if I could make it over to the Devlins’, and Clem came along. He said that it took him longer than usual, but a couple of the mine owners wanted the road open so that they could get their men back to work, so they’ve had a crew working on clearing it for a while.” He pulled off his muffler, hat and gloves as he told the story.

“Wait—why were you going over to the Devlins’?” his father interrupted.

Joe paused in the act of unbuttoning his coat. “I figured it would be nice to check and see if they needed anything,” he said with such innocence that his brothers had to cough to cover their laughter. Mitch Devlin had been one of Joe’s closest friends since their school days. Unlike Joe, however, Mitch Devlin was well-known for planning ahead. The notion that the Devlins might need anything was about as far-fetched as the idea that Abigail Jones Meyers might want to borrow one of Joe’s dime novels.

“What made you think them newlyweds weren’t perfectly happy bein’ snowbound all by themselves?” asked Hoss before he thought. Joe had been the best man at Mitch’s wedding to Kathleen Morrison, a ceremony that had taken place only a week after the Meyers nuptials.

“Anyway,” said Joe with a fierce glare at his brother, “the point is that if Mrs. Meyers wants to, we could take her back home now that the road’s clear.” He favored their houseguest with his most charming smile.

But Mrs. Meyers didn’t look charmed. If anything, she looked a bit troubled by the news. “Are you certain that the road is completely clear?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” said Joe. “Clem said he rode out from Virginia City, and it was just fine.”

“But isn’t it terribly cold outside?” she inquired.

“Um—it’s not so bad as long as you’re wrapped up real warm,” said Joe. He’d been rubbing his hands to warm them, but now he stopped and held them motionless by his sides. “In fact, I’d bet that with the sun out, it’s probably not much more than ten below zero.”

Mrs. Meyers frowned. “That seems awfully cold to me,” she mused. Then, she turned to Ben. “What do you think, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Well, I think that it’s up to you and Hank,” said Ben, ignoring his sons’ wordless urgings. “After all, ladies are more delicate than men,” he added as though this was news. “And especially since you haven’t been feeling well—I definitely think that this is a decision you and Hank should discuss. Joe, why don’t you go out to the bunkhouse and fetch Hank?”

“Yes, sir.” Deflated, Joe pulled his outerwear back on and trudged out to the bunkhouse.

The Cartwrights ended up spending the remainder of the afternoon upstairs in their rooms in order to give the Meyerses privacy to discuss the trip, although Joe and Hoss eavesdropped from the top of the stairs and periodically reported in about the state of the negotiations.

It seemed that Hank was more than willing to drive his buttercup back to town, but he felt that he should remain on the ranch. Mrs. Meyers took the position that the two of them should remain together, either at home or on the Ponderosa. “Then both of you should go home,” Joe whispered, and Hoss smacked him on the head.

Ultimately, it was decided that the Meyerses would go back to town the next morning. That night, supper seemed like a party even though Mrs. Meyers couldn’t stand to have the cornbread on the table and she required no fewer than six glasses of milk during the course of the meal. Tomorrow, the Cartwrights told each other silently, she would be gone and life would return to normal.

If only.

*************

The next morning, Ben Cartwright woke with a sense of relief so overwhelming that at first, he could not fathom its source. Then, he remembered. Today, Abigail Jones Meyers was going home.

Ben burrowed down among his warm bedclothes instead of throwing them back to prepare for the day—a moment of luxury to celebrate the Ponderosa’s imminent independence from Abigail Jones. He sighed with contentment, reveling in a deep sense of well-being as the winter sun peeked around the edge of the draperies. Tomorrow morning, it would be just himself, his sons and Hop Sing. Peace was within their grasp at last.

Not for the first time—or the fiftieth—he allowed his mind to wander into the question of what on earth Hank Meyers saw in that woman. True, she was refined and clean and sweet-smelling, but surely Hank must have known other women who fit that description. Why he had fixated on Abigail would remain one of life’s mysteries.

Who could say what led a man to choose this woman rather than that one? After all, there had been those who had questioned his decision to marry Marie. Of course, their objections had had nothing to do with his bride’s personality. Even her most ardent critics could not have truthfully said that she was anything other than charming, vibrant and witty. Her laugh rang through the house like sweet silver bells. Her generosity was boundless; on one notable occasion, she had removed her new hat, just received from New York, and bestowed it upon a woman who had just been snubbed as poorly-attired by some of Virginia City’s self-proclaimed elite.

On the other hand, her tongue could be sharp when she was crossed. Marie Cartwright was the most passionate defender of anyone she cared about, and the people of Virginia City learned quickly not to criticize Ben, her boys, Hop Sing, or anyone else in her circle.

Her son’s tendency to try to fix other people’s romantic lives was a direct legacy from his mother. Even now, Ben chuckled as he recalled Marie’s hapless attempts to match the local seamstress with one of the miners. That the man was shy and slight with receding chin and hairline to match, while the girl could most charitably be described as robust and well-fed, interfered not at all with his wife’s determination that Rosalie Evans should wed the man of her dreams. The fact that Marie had barely two months before Little Joe’s birth did nothing to diminish her enthusiasm for this endeavor. She enlisted a reluctant Adam as courier so that she could send lengthy notes to the girl, advising her in such matters as how to find out her beloved’s favorite kind of pie so that she could bake it for the upcoming church social, or how to best position herself so that he would know that she was favorably disposed toward an invitation to next Saturday’s dance. When the miner ultimately proposed to a girl he had known back in St. Louis, Marie was nearly as despondent as Rosalie.

“Mr. Cartwright!”

The urgency in Hank’s voice yanked Ben from his memories back to the present. Snatching up his dressing gown, he fumbled for his slippers and barreled out of his room. Adam, Hoss and Joe, similarly attired, ran from their rooms as Hank appeared in the doorway of the guest room. “What’s the matter?” Ben demanded.

Hank’s face was frighteningly pale. “She’s bleeding, Mr. Cartwright!”

Frantically, Ben’s mind raced through the possibilities, none of them good. “How much blood?”

“A lot.” Hank’s eyes beseeched Ben to do something.

“Joseph, go and fetch Doc Martin,” Ben barked. “Adam, Hoss, see if Hop Sing has something that can help.” He had no idea what that something might be, but if there was any way to hold off a catastrophe until Doc arrived, he was willing to try it.

Five long hours passed before Doc’s buggy drove into the yard. From the doorway to the guest room, Ben breathed a prayer of thanks for the mine owners who had cleared the roads. He approached Hank, who had sat by his wife’s bed all morning. “The doctor’s here,” he said quietly.

Hank didn’t appear to have heard, but Abigail looked up at Ben. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “Hank, you can go with Mr. Cartwright now. The doctor will see to me.”

“But, Buttercup—” His words faded as she nodded firmly.

“Wait downstairs, Hank,” she said as the doctor appeared in the doorway. Hank squeezed her hand and rose, head bowed as he squeezed past Doc Martin.

Fully another hour elapsed before the doctor appeared at the top of the stairs. Immediately, Hank was on his feet, and the Cartwrights leaned forward in their seats. “How is she?” Hank demanded.

“She’s fine,” said Doc. “So is the baby. Lucky thing she was here. She said you’d been planning to go back to town this morning. If this had happened on the way in, it wouldn’t have been good for either of them.”

“But they’re all right?” Hank was still focused on the most important thing.

“They are,” the doctor affirmed. “Mind you, she’s going to need to be very careful until the baby’s born. I don’t want her out of bed until then.”

“But—but—” Joe’s sputtering spoke for all the Cartwrights, and the doctor nodded.

“Mrs. Meyers cannot travel to Virginia City,” he said. “She needs to stay right where she is until the baby is born.”

“And just how long is that?” Adam’s deceptively even tone bore a thin edge of trepidation.

“My best estimate is four months.” If the doctor enjoyed this particular pronouncement, he gave no sign other than a brief twinkle in his pale blue eyes.

“Four months?” Ben’s voice was faint.

The doctor nodded. “Complete bedrest,” he added. “She’s not to be up for any reason.”

The emphasis on “any” did not go unnoticed by his audience. As one, the Cartwrights turned their gazes to the floor. None of them would look up and meet Hank Meyers’ eyes. Four months of Abigail Jones Meyers in bed was a hardship that they knew they were only just beginning to appreciate. That the four months would run through most of the winter, when forced proximity due to harsh winter weather routinely wreaked havoc on the family’s usual close relationships anyway, only heightened their dread of what lay ahead.

Ben raised his head defiantly. He had sailed storm-tossed seas, fought rustlers and land barons, and defended his sons and his Ponderosa against far bigger challenges than this. He had always faced trouble head on, and he would not back down now. “Adam, I want you to take the buckboard and go into town with Hank, and bring back all of Mrs. Meyers’ books,” he announced. At their startled expressions, he added, “We can’t ask her to spend the next four months in bed with nothing to read except what we’ve got here. Hank, see if there’s anything else your wife would like for you to bring her to make her time more pleasant—maybe some sewing or something.”

A smile crossed Hank’s face for the first time all day. “That’s right nice of you, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “Hey, Adam, you write good. Bring up a piece of paper so’s we can write down everything my buttercup wants us to fetch.”

“Of course,” said Adam, pressing his lips together to keep from saying more. It wasn’t that Pa’s logic was flawed. After all, whatever could be done to keep Mrs. Meyers amused would undoubtedly work to all their advantages. He just didn’t see why this task couldn’t have been handed to Little Joe, who was, after all, the cause of the whole problem. Clearly, Pa didn’t understand.

“Hoss, you go with them,” Ben continued. “We need supplies anyway, and Hop Sing will need to know what foods Mrs. Meyers prefers in her condition.”

“I’ll go with them, too,” Joe offered a touch too eagerly.

“No, Joseph, you won’t,” said his father. “You will stay here and make sure that Mrs. Meyers has everything she needs. If she calls for anything, you will take care of it.”

Adam turned away to hide his smile. Pa understood just fine.

* * * * * * * * * *

Large, lazy, late-January snowflakes danced outside the window of the guest room as Joe tapped at the door. “Come in,” came a distracted voice.

Joe pushed the door open. Mrs. Meyers was engrossed in her book and barely seemed to notice his presence. How she could spend so much time re-reading the same stories over and over made no sense to Joe, but she declined offers of other reading material with the singular exception of The Territorial Enterprise. Although the newspaper was published daily, the winter’s storms meant that many days sometimes passed in between trips to town for fresh news. At Ben’s request, the editor, Dan DeQuille, had begun to set a copy aside each day, and whenever the weather permitted, a boy was dispatched to the Ponderosa to deliver all the issues that had been published since the last storm. Ben’s appreciation for this supply of reading material made itself known monetarily, with the result that the boys in town were vying fiercely for the privilege of delivering newspapers to the Ponderosa and DeQuille was considering whether there might be others who would pay to have the newspaper delivered to their homes.

“Newspapers are here, Mrs. Meyers,” Joe announced. He dropped onto the bed the stack of papers he’d secured under his arm. Then, he set the tray carefully across Mrs. Meyers’ ever-decreasing lap. “There you go, ma’am,” he said. “Enjoy your lunch.”

The rich aromas of Hop Sing’s vegetable beef soup and freshly-baked bread were tantalizing, but their houseguest didn’t seem to notice. Instead, she merely set aside her well-worn copy of Romeo and Juliet. “Thank you, Little Joseph,” she said.

Joe hesitated at the door. “Uh, ma’am,” he said. “If you wanted—I mean, it’s all right if you call me just plain Joe.”

Abigail Jones Meyers was rearranging her silverware, and for a moment, Joe wasn’t certain she’d heard him. He was about to repeat himself when she looked up. “I don’t believe in nicknames,” she said, her glance clearly dismissing him.

“But—” Joe stammered. “‘Little Joe’ is a nickname. So is ‘Hoss’—and so is ‘Hank’!”

Abigail Jones Meyers laid down her spoon. “Are you correcting me?” She fixed him with the look that had so often preceded a note to Pa, with all the unpleasantness that brought.

Joe gulped, but he stood his ground. “No, ma’am,” he said.

“I think you are,” said the teacher. “You’re correcting me, and you should know by now that correcting someone is impolite.”

“But—” The obvious protest died on Joe’s lips. “I just meant—I just meant to let you know that pretty much everybody calls me ‘Joe’ now—so you don’t have to call me ‘Little Joseph.’”

She watched him without speaking. The silence stretched out between them, just as it had so many times when he’d made some sort of misstep in her classroom. I’m a grown man, he told himself. I can just walk right out of here. There’s nothing she can do to me now. Pa would never tan me—I’m too old. Besides, he’d never have tanned me over something like this anyway. I should just leave. Don’t say a word. Just walk right out the door and leave her to her lunch.

But the words blurted themselves out in spite of him. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” Joe said. “I didn’t mean to correct you.”

She considered him for another long moment. “You’re forgiven, Little Joseph,” she said, turning back to her lunch. She ignored him as his eyes grew wide and his lips trembled with the effort of holding back the words. She didn’t appear to notice as he stormed out of the room, stomping down the stairs.

Hoss and Adam were in the barn when Joe barreled in. “What’s your problem?” asked Adam as he forked hay into a stall.

“We gotta get rid of her,” said Joe. “She’s making me loco!” His breath formed furious clouds in the frigid January air.

His ever-sympathetic brothers snickered. “What happened now?” asked Adam.

The snickers grew to snorts of laughter as Joe recounted the events of the past few minutes. “And after all that, she still called me ‘Little Joseph’!” Joe finished.

“Well, Little Brother, it ain’t like there’s not still a fair number of people who call you ‘Little Joe,’” Hoss said when he’d regained his breath. “Me and Adam, and Pa, and Hop Sing, and Roy Coffee, and the doc—”

“But that’s different!” Joe snatched the pitchfork out of Hoss’s hands and began flinging hay into a stall.

“And how is this different?” inquired Adam. “I already did that one,” he added as Joe flung hay into the next stall.

“Because I like all those people!” Joe shoved the pitchfork into the haypile. “Besides, you all call me ‘Little Joe.’ She calls me ‘Little Joseph’—it sounds stupid!” Hay scattered as he tossed it into a stall.

“Well, he’s got a point there,” Adam said, still chuckling. “But unfortunately, Little Brother, it looks as if you’re stuck with it until this baby’s born. After that, she can go home, and you never have to see her again.”

“I’d be happy if I never had to see her again right now,” muttered Joe. “Believe me, I’ve seen all of Abigail Jones that I ever want to.”

“You might want to keep your voice down,” Hoss warned. “Hank could be around here someplace, and he’d flatten you into a Little Joseph flapjack if’n he heard you say something like that.”

Joe stabbed his pitchfork into the floor and flung himself onto the hay pile. “This is all your fault,” he said, glaring at Hoss.

My fault?” The big man’s voice nearly squeaked in amazement. “You’re the one who decided she oughta come out here!”

“But you didn’t stop me!” argued Joe. “Pa always said it was your job as the big brother to keep me out of trouble!”

“Now, I’ve heard everything,” said Adam. “When was the last time Hoss kept you out of trouble? When he went along with your plan to rob the bank? Or the time you two stole that emerald when you thought the Widow Hawkins had been swindled? Or maybe when the two of you took up bullfighting? Or when—”

“Now, you jest hush up!” snapped Hoss. To Joe, he said, “It ain’t my job to keep you from doin’ stupid things. Lord knows, if it was, I wouldn’t have time for nothin’ else! Now, you’re the one that came up with this notion to bring Mrs. Meyers out to the Ponderosa in the first place, and I don’t wanna hear you complainin’ about her no more. You hear me? ’Cause if you make her unhappy, ol’ Hank’s gonna get unhappy, an’ if that happens, he’s gonna break up the whole danged ranch an’ then I’ll have to pound you right into the ground!”

Joe crossed his arms and huffed. Then, he looked up from his seat in the hay, eyes wide and guileless. “Hey, Hoss,” he said, as friendly as though they were sitting around and having a beer. “Wouldn’t you like to fetch her tray and take it down to Hop Sing?” His smile was as innocent as a sunny spring day, and he held it that way right up until his brothers doubled over, their guffaws echoing through the barn.

“Not a chance, Little Joseph,” said Hoss when he’d caught his breath. “Today’s your day. I got her tomorrow, and that’s soon enough.”

“Don’t even ask,” added Adam.

“Hmph!” Joe tried to get to his feet, but his attempt at a dignified exit dissolved as he lost his balance and fell backward into the hay pile. He floundered in the hay until Hoss reached down and yanked him to his feet. “Some brothers you are!” Joe muttered as he tried ineffectually to brush the hay off himself.

“You missed some,” said Adam. He delivered a sound swat to the seat of Joe’s pants as he announced, “There, that’s all of it. Just trying to help,” he added innocently as his youngest brother glared.

“Don’t you worry, Older Brother,” Joe said. “I’ll go get her tray—and I’ll be sure to let her know you sent your love.”

“Joseph!” snapped Adam. He lunged for Joe, but the younger Cartwright was too quick. Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm as Joe scooted out of the barn. Adam glowered at Hoss, who shrugged.

“There’s more’n one way to keep that young’un out of trouble,” said the big man philosophically.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Three more weeks,” muttered Joe as he slid into his seat at breakfast. “Just three more weeks, and she’ll have this baby, and her and Hank can go home.”

“She and Hank,” said Adam as he refilled his coffee cup.

“Now you sound like her!” Joe snapped.

“Hush up, you two,” said Hoss. “I done heard all I want to hear about her. I took her breakfast up, an’ she told me eggs make her sick, so Hop Sing had to make her some flapjacks.”

“Eggs make her sick? Since when? She had eggs for breakfast yesterday!” Joe’s voice went higher with indignation.

“She’s having a baby,” said Adam as though any of them needed reminding. “Women’s likes and dislikes change from day to day when they’re with child. Marie’s certainly did, anyway,” he added before Joe could challenge Adam’s superior knowledge.

“Don’t you compare her to my mother,” Joe warned. “I don’t care what you say—my mother could never have been anything like Abigail Jones.”

“If you say so,” Adam muttered. It was a pointless discussion.

“You sure it’s three weeks?” Hoss asked after a few minutes of silence.

“Yep,” said Joe. “Three weeks and two days, if you count from when Doc said four months.”

“You do realize that he was just estimating,” said Adam. “Nobody can predict exactly when a baby is going to be born.”

“Of course you can—it’s nine months.” Joe speared another ham steak from the platter.

“Nine months from . . . an event we don’t know the date of,” Adam reminded him. Satisfied, he watched as his brothers cringed in unison at the mental image of that particular event. “And even if we knew, there are all sorts of things that can make a baby come early or late. By all estimates, you were almost three weeks early,” he added as Joe seemed about to comment.

“That’s why he’s so doggone puny,” chortled Hoss.

“If that’s how it works, then you musta been three months late!” Joe retorted.

“What’s going on?” asked Ben as he descended the stairs.

“Just the usual high level of intellectual discussion,” Adam assured him as his brothers stared daggers at each other.

Ben Cartwright knew when it was better not to get involved. “Which one of you is responsible for Mrs. Meyers today?”

“Me,” muttered Hoss.

“All right, then,” said Ben. “Adam and Joe will head up to the north pasture with some of the hands to see how the herd is doing. It’s anybody’s guess when we’ll have this chance again.”

“Hey, Adam, I’ll trade you,” Hoss offered brightly. “It’s mighty cold out there, an’ I reckon you’d rather set by the fire with that book you was readin’ last night, wouldn’t you?”

Adam chortled. “Not a chance, Big Brother.” At Hoss’s glare, he added, “Much as I appreciate the offer, I find that a brisk ride in the winter’s air helps me to appreciate a quiet evening by the fireside.”

“Just you wait,” Hoss muttered. “You’re gonna wish you traded.”

It was a statement Adam Cartwright would recall later that afternoon as the sun was setting and he was making the frosty ride into Virginia City to fetch the doctor. Even with his head bent against the frigid wind, he could feel the hairs in his nose freezing and his eyes watering. When he finally reached the doctor’s office, he was so cold that he had to thaw out by the stove in the main room before his teeth stopped chattering enough to enable him to speak.

“Hank Meyers broke his leg,” he managed at last as Rose Martin pressed a cup of coffee into his grateful hands.

“How did he do that?” Mrs. Martin asked as she bustled about, assembling the necessary equipment.

“I’m not quite sure,” Adam admitted. “His horse stepped into a hole, and he went down, and then he was trying to check on the horse, and the next thing anybody knew, he was on the ground, screaming.”

“Such a shame,” clucked Mrs. Martin. “And with his wife almost due! Lands sakes, but that family has had its share of hard luck lately.”

“That they have,” agreed Adam, and it was by a mighty effort that he refrained from commenting on another family that had had its own share of hard luck as a result of the Meyerses’ misfortunes.

Later that night, the doctor came out of Hoss’s room, where the only bed big enough for Hank Meyers was now occupied. Doc unrolled his sleeves, sighing as he headed down the stairs.

“How is he?” Ben demanded.

“I don’t like it,” Doc Martin admitted. “It’s a bad break. I wish we had a surgeon here in town. I’m not at all comfortable with the way I had to set that leg.”

“What’s wrong with it?” asked Adam.

“It needs more expertise than I have,” admitted the doctor. “Hank needs a surgeon, not a country doctor.”

“Does Mrs. Meyers know?” asked Ben as Hoss came down the stairs. The middle Cartwright was often recruited to serve as the doctor’s assistant, especially when the task at hand required muscle to hold a suffering patient in place.

“I told her as little as I could,” said the doctor. “In her condition, the less that upsets her, the better. I told her only that Hank had broken his leg. I didn’t mention the surgeon. No point until I know whether I can find one.”

“Isn’t there a surgeon around here?” asked Joe.

“Closest one is Dr. Hennepin in Carson City,” said Doc. “And that’s if he’s not gone to San Francisco—he’s got a daughter there, and so he makes that trek a couple times a year. I’ll wire him when I get back to town and see where he is, but I’d like for Hank to see him as soon as he can.”

“You tell him that if he’ll come here, I’ll cover all the costs,” said Ben.

Doc smiled wearily. “I’ll let him know,” he said. “Now, if it’s not too much trouble, might I have a cup of coffee before heading back to town?”

“Of course,” said Ben. He called for Hop Sing, who already had a pot of coffee and a plate of sandwiches ready for this moment.

After the doctor left, the Cartwrights regarded each other. “Do you think we should tell her?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head. “You heard the doctor. In her condition, she shouldn’t be upset.”

“But won’t she be more upset if she finds out that Hank needs an operation and nobody told her?” asked Joe reasonably.

“We’ll deal with that problem when we get to it,” said his father firmly. “For now, Hank will stay in Hoss’s room, and Mrs. Meyers will stay in the guest room, and we just won’t mention anything that will trouble either of them.”

“Where’m I supposed to sleep?” asked Hoss.

“Bunk with Joe,” said Adam before anyone could suggest that his large brother share his room.

“But he talks in his sleep!” Hoss protested. “Last time, I heard all sorts of stuff about some gal—”

“And Hoss snores louder than a typhoon!” Joe cut in before his brother could elaborate.

“Hoss, if you want to go out to the bunkhouse, I’m sure the men won’t mind,” said Ben as though he had no idea what reaction that suggestion would evoke.

“The bunkhouse? But, Pa—last time I slept there, they all said I snored so bad I was shakin’ the timbers, an’ they poured cold water on me to wake me up!” Hoss looked downright miserable at the memory.

“It’s that or Joe’s room,” said his father.

“Why me? Why not Adam?” demanded Joe.

“Because my room is next to Mrs. Meyers’ room, and Hoss’s snoring is liable to keep her awake,” said Adam.

“Dadburn it,” muttered Hoss.

“Doggone it,” Joe grumbled at exactly the same time. “I get the bed,” he added before his brother could speak. “You can sleep on the rug.”

“Dadburn it,” Hoss muttered for the second time in as many minutes.

* * * * * *

The news from the surgeon was not good. He was indeed in San Francisco, but he anticipated returning to Carson City by the beginning of the week, weather permitting. If the Cartwrights could transport Mr. Meyers to his offices there, he would be happy to examine him promptly upon his return. If he was required to come to the Ponderosa, he would not be able to see Mr. Meyers for at least another week due to previously-scheduled matters.

“There’s no choice,” said Ben as he perused the letter again. “Doc says he needs to be seen as soon as possible. So, it looks like we’ve got to take Hank to Carson City.”

“Who’s going to go?” asked Hoss.

“I should go,” said Joe. At his brothers’ skeptical looks, he said, “Hank’s gonna need somebody to fetch and carry, and I’m the youngest and I got the most energy.”

His brothers doubled over, laughing. “By that logic, you should stay here and wait on Mrs. Meyers,” said Adam when he caught his breath.

“I should go,” said Hoss. “Pa’s gonna need somebody who can help move ol’ Hank, an’ I’m the only one big enough to do it.”

“Maybe Pa should stay here, and Hoss and I can take him,” said Joe.

“Pa’s going with him,” said Ben. “As far as which one of you will be going—well, that’s not something we need to decide tonight.”

“When will you decide?” asked Joe hopefully.

Ben raised an eyebrow. “Is there some reason you need to know soon? Some plans that you’ve got that would be affected if you went away?” He waited for Joe to look away as he routinely did when caught trying to adjust the Ponderosa’s activities to his plans to meet up with a girl.

“No, sir,” said Joe, holding his father’s gaze. “I just figured that the sooner we know, the sooner we can sort out who’s doing what.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said his father in a tone that said as clearly as words that the topic was closed.

* * * * * * * * * *

The next afternoon, Adam approached his father’s desk. “Pa, I need to talk to you about something.”

Adam’s demeanor was so serious that Ben felt his stomach lurch. He kept his expression impassive as he nodded for his eldest son to take a seat. “What is it, son?” asked Ben when Adam said no more.

“Pa—I think I should go with you to Carson City,” said Adam.

Ben relaxed. “You do?” he inquired. “Strangely enough, each of your brothers has said the same thing.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Adam. “But I really ought to be the one to go.”

“Oh? And why is that?” Assured now that the matter was nothing serious, Ben sat back in his chair, fingertips together.

“Because Mrs. Meyers is in love with me,” said Adam.

“Again?” Ben barely suppressed his smile.

“It’s not funny,” said Adam. “I won’t be responsible for breaking up a family!”

“Adam, I think you’ve overreacting a bit,” said Ben.

“Pa, you haven’t heard her,” Adam protested. “Every time I take her something to drink, she wants me to read her poetry or sing to her.”

“She’s probably just bored,” said Ben.

“It’s not just that,” said Adam. “She keeps telling me how much she misses having someone who can talk about literature and art and music. She says that Hank can’t talk about anything other than the Ponderosa or his mare. She likes to talk with someone who’s her intellectual equal—her words, by the way.”

“I still don’t think that means she’s in love with you,” said Ben.

“This afternoon, when I was setting the tray on her lap, she kissed me.” Adam crossed his arms and waited for his father’s reaction.

Ben didn’t disappoint. “She did what?”

“She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek,” said Adam. He shuddered at the memory.

“What did you do?”

“I told her that I was glad she appreciated her lunch, and I left. What else could I do?”

Ben stroked his chin. “It’s possible that she didn’t mean it the way you’re taking it,” he began.

“Pa, come on! This is the same woman who thought she and I were going to get married—and that was just last summer! Believe me, I know when a woman has feelings for me!”

Ben pretended to search in his desk drawer to hide his smile. After a few minutes, he gave up his faux search and sat back. “Son, do you remember what Marie was like when she was carrying Little Joe?”

“Some of it,” said Adam. “I seem to remember a lot of dishes getting broken.”

“Yes,” conceded Ben. “She was—a bit—well, short-tempered during that time.” Adam resisted the urge to point out that, expecting or not, his stepmother had always been “a bit short-tempered,” or that anybody who was going to produce Little Joe had good reason to be peeved. Ben continued, “Women who are in the family way tend to be—well, moody. I suspect that Mrs. Meyers is simply a little bit lonely. After all, she spent months in bed while Hank was out working all day, and now with him restricted to bed in another room, all she has for company is us. I wouldn’t read too much into her behavior.”

Adam looked unconvinced. When several minutes passed with his eldest son doing nothing more than pinching the bridge of his nose, Ben decided to take pity on him. “Son, I appreciate your concern for the integrity of Hank and Abigail’s marriage,” he said. “If you think that coming along to Carson City will help with that, then I think you should come.”

“Oh, I do, Pa, I truly do,” said Adam.

Somehow, I thought you might, thought Ben. “Well, then, it’s settled. Remind me to let your brothers know in the morning.”

“Of course. Good night, Pa.” Adam bounded up the stairs the way Joe did, and Ben smiled.

Your brothers may never forgive you for this, he thought.

Little did he know.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Pa, you ain’t serious!” Hoss’ voice squeaked. “What if—what if—I mean, she could—”

“Pa, Miss Abigail could have that baby while you’re gone!” Joe’s eyes were wide with horror at the thought.

“Mrs. Meyers is not going to have the baby before we get back,” said Ben firmly, as if his pronouncement could make it so.

Ben Cartwright hath spoken, thought Adam, fighting to maintain a straight face.

“And if something should happen, you just send someone to town for the doctor,” continued Ben, apparently recognizing that the remote possibility that his word might not be law where Abigail Jones Meyers was concerned.

Joe pounced on that bit of equivocation like a hound on a rabbit. “But what if he ain’t around? What if there’s an accident at the mines, or a blizzard, or—”

“Enough!” thundered Ben. “Adam and I are going to take Hank to Carson City to meet with the surgeon, and you two will stay here with Mrs. Meyers. Is that understood?”

“Besides, I’m sure you have nothing to worry about,” said Adam with a truly annoying bit of smugness in his voice. “Mrs. Meyers will refuse to have that baby until Hank is back—and you know Mrs. Meyers when she sets her mind to something.”

“Older Brother has a point,” said Hoss, looking slightly less frantic.

“I don’t know,” grumbled Joe. “I bet she’d do it just to spite us.”

“Joseph!” Ben’s scowl was so ferocious that none of his sons could see him holding back his own laughter.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe mumbled. “Hey, Older Brother—I’ll trade with you. Twenty dollars, and I’ll do your chores for a month—no, two months. Two months, Adam. Three.”

“Sorry, Little Brother.” Adam’s smile was so self-satisfied that both his brothers had to restrain themselves from knocking it right off his face. “I’ll be sure to give the lovely ladies of Carson City your best wishes.”

“Joseph!” thundered Ben as Little Joe lunged for Adam and Hoss grabbed his arms. “If the three of you are finished, Adam and I need to get going. Adam, my wallet’s upstairs. Would you get it?”

“Sure, Pa,” said Adam genially. With a quick wink at his youngest brother, he loped up the stairs.

“Now, you two listen to me,” Ben said in a low, fierce voice. “Hank is already nervous enough about leaving his wife this close to her time. You will not say another word, do you understand me? The last thing Adam and I need is to have Hank become unhappy on this trip. So, you will reassure him that everything is going to be fine here so that the only thing he needs to concern himself with is this operation. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said Hoss with a sidewise look at Joe.

“Yes, sir,” mumbled Little Joe. “But—don’t you think it would be better if one of us went up with the men into the north pasture to work on the roundup? After all, with you and Adam and Hank gone, we’re going to be getting real far behind.”

“Both of you will stay at the house,” said Ben, glaring. “The hands will be up at the roundup, and with Hop Sing away, you’re both going to be needed to care for Mrs. Meyers. Neither of you goes any place. Is that understood?”

By the time he’d finished speaking, Ben was nearly nose-to-nose with his youngest son, whose eyes had grown wider and wider. Little Joe swallowed hard. “Yes, sir,” he whispered.

“Good!” Ben reached for his coat, hat and gun. “Now, get Hank into the wagon, and remember—everything is going to be just fine back here.”

“Yes, sir,” said Hoss. “Come on, Little Brother. Let’s go reassure Hank.”

Ben watched as his two crestfallen sons headed up to Hank’s room. Over the clatter of boots on wooden stairs, he heard Joe mutter, “I always knew Pa liked Adam best.”

You think so, Ben mused as he buttoned his coat. All Hoss and Joe had to do for a few days was lounge around the house and take a few trays upstairs, while Ben and Adam were going to deal with a very large, very nervous and, after the operation, very cranky ranch hand. His younger sons might not believe it right now, but they were getting the sweet end of this deal. Ben was sure of it.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Hey, Joe, telegram!” shouted one of the hands as he rode into the frozen mud of the yard.

“Thanks, Cody!” Joe grabbed the envelope eagerly and tore it open. He scanned it quickly and whooped with exultation. “Hey, Hoss!” he shouted, waving the paper as he ran back into the house.

“Hush yourself, Joseph! What’s the matter with you, anyway?” Hoss caught his arm, glaring at his noisy brother.

“Wire from Pa!” Joe announced, shaking off Hoss’s hand. “Operation went well. They should be home by next Friday!”

“Hallelujah!” crowed Hoss. Five days alone with Abigail Jones Meyers had already worn through the patience of the most patient Cartwright.

The brothers shared a satisfied grin. Eight more days, and they could hand their guest back to their father, her husband, or anyone else who would have her. And then—

A piercing scream split the relative peace of the living room. Eyes round with the effort of not understanding the significance of such a sound, they stared at each other. She screamed again, and Joe murmured, “No. No, it can’t be. It just can’t be. Hoss. . . .”

One more scream, and Hoss nodded slowly. “Put some water on to boil, Joseph.”

“But, Hoss—Hank’s gonna be back next week! Can’t she wait until then?”

Another scream resonated, and Hoss snorted a humorless laugh. “It don’t sound like it.”

“What’ll we do?” Joe’s voice was climbing the scale.

“Send one of the hands for Doc Martin,” Hoss said. “It’s for sure Miz Meyers won’t want the likes of us tending her.”

“Us? No—no, we can’t do anything like that.” Joe sounded more than a little bit panicky.

“Jest send for the doctor,” said Hoss. “I’ll go up an’ see what’s goin’ on.” Joe darted out the front door, and Hoss took a deep breath. If Mrs. Meyers had been challenging before, he had a feeling that that was nothing compared to how the lady would be during childbirth. Better Doc than us, he thought as he climbed the stairs.

Late afternoon faded into early evening. Having ascertained that their houseguest was indeed in the early stages of labor, Hoss was doing his best to calm her. Joe’s contribution was to stay as far away from the lady’s room as he could manage without actually leaving the Ponderosa.

Finally, Hoss heard the hoof beats of a single horse. Frowning, he sidled up to the window and snuck a look out. No buggy of any kind—just Cody, swinging down from his horse and conversing earnestly with Joe. Even from the window, Hoss could see in the waning light as the color drained from Joe’s face.

“Is it the doctor?” asked Abigail Jones Meyers. Her normally impeccable hairstyle was mightily disheveled, and her face was shiny with perspiration in spite of Hoss’s repeated ministrations with a damp cloth.

“No, ma’am,” Hoss admitted. “I’ll go an’ see what’s goin’ on.” Before she could answer, he was out of the room and down the stairs.

When he came out onto the porch, Joe was alone. He repeatedly punched one fist into the other palm as he watched the direction in which Cody had ridden. “Where’s Cody?” Hoss asked.

“I sent him out to Gold Hill Mine.” Joe’s voice sounded tight and strangely disconnected.

Hoss peered at his brother, who was still staring at the road. “What’d you do a thing like that for?” he demanded. “Where’s the doc?”

Joe turned to him at last, his gaze grim and stony. “Doc can’t come,” he said. “Big accident at Gold Hill Mine. Cave-in. They figure as many as thirty men might be trapped. I told Cody to take all the hands and whatever equipment they need.” Hoss nodded his approval. Then, Joe ventured, “Do you think—”

But Hoss shook his head. “I need you here,” was all he said, but for once, Joe didn’t argue.

* * * * * * * * * *

Joe had lost track of how many times he’d trudged up and down the stairs with bowls of cool water and glasses of ice chips. Every time he went into the guest room, he looked everywhere except at the woman in the bed, and even so, he knew that her face was red with exertion from screaming.

“Here you go, ma’am,” he’d say, handing her the glass of ice chips and beating a hasty retreat. He felt bad about leaving Hoss alone with her, but the notion of being there when she had her baby scared the dickens out of him. If he hadn’t been convinced that Hoss would put his head through the wall for leaving, he’d have hightailed it out to the Gold Hill Mine. Blasting through rock seemed a quiet, safe and sane way to spend the next few days.

He hadn’t meant to fall asleep on the settee, but at some point in the night, Joe awoke to Hoss shaking him. “Joseph, wake up! Miss Abigail’s gettin’ close to her time!”

“But—but—” Joe sputtered as the clouds of sleep gave way to cold reality.

“No buts,” said his brother firmly. “You come with me. We got a baby to deliver.”

“Hoss!” Joe’s voice reached heights it hadn’t even when it was changing. “We can’t!”

“Well, what do you reckon we should do? Let her birth the baby herself?”

“No, but—but—Hoss, we’re gonna have to see—we’re gonna see her—her—her parts—” The eighteen-year-old suddenly sounded as if he were ten.

“It ain’t like you never seen a lady’s—parts—before!” snapped Hoss. It had been almost a year since Little Joe had met up with Julia Bulette. A long time afterward, Joe had admitted to his big brother that, all his big talk to the contrary, Julia was his first actual experience in that area. Even though he had discouraged Joe from sharing details, Hoss was quite certain that those few months with Julia had taught the boy infinitely more than he now needed to know about a lady’s “parts.”

“Yeah, but—that’s different! I ain’t never seen Abigail Jones’s parts, and I don’t want to!”

“Dadburnit, Joe, she’s just like any other lady. Jest—pretend it’s somebody else, somebody you like. Pretend it’s Sally Ann from the Bucket of Blood!” He didn’t know what Joe’s relationship with pretty blond Sally Ann had been like up to this point, but knowing Joe, there’d at least been some pretty colorful imaginings.

Just then, their patient let loose with an operatic scream from upstairs, and Joe’s face went white.

“Sally Ann doesn’t scream like that when I—when we—I mean, sure, she screams, but not like—I mean, I ain’t never heard a girl scream like that when I—”

“Joseph!” The big man clapped his hands over his ears and squinched his eyes shut as if he could erase the picture his brother had so obligingly provided. “Would you just shut up already! Dagnabit, pretend you’re birthin’ a cow, then!”

“I can do that,” said Joe, nodding vigorously. “If this danged cow just shuts up!” Another scream from upstairs, and Joe said, “I’ll go boil some more water.” Like a jackrabbit, he darted out of the room, leaving Hoss to rue the day he’d ever heard of Abigail Jones, Hank Meyers, or Little Joe Cartwright.

* * * * * * * * * *

The mid-morning sun shone with what Joe felt to be completely inappropriate cheerfulness. When he’d gone out to tend the stock that morning, the horses had tossed their heads and nickered brightly as though they were having quite a fine day. Even the squeak of the pump handle and the water splashing into the bowl sounded irritatingly happy.

Joe’s stomach growled as he set another kettle of water on the stove. Heck if he knew why he had to keep boiling water when all Hoss ever seemed to need was the cool water to make Miss Abigail feel better. He took a moment to steal into the pantry, but there were no breads, no cakes or cookies, nothing that he could grab for a quick snack. Instead, the shelves were full of jars of fruits and vegetables that Hop Sing had canned at the end of the summer. Joe looked around as though someone might be watching, and then he snatched a jar of bread-and-butter pickles from the shelf. He wrenched off the lid and fished out a handful of the tart slices. Nobody, but nobody, made bread-and-butter pickles as good as Hop Sing’s.

“Joseph!”

Cursing softly, Joe set down his prize and took up the bowl of water. Hoss hadn’t had any breakfast, either, and he wasn’t complaining. Then again, he hadn’t left Miss Abigail’s side all night, ever since he’d thought the baby was about to come. Either Hoss had been wrong then, or the little fellow had changed his mind. Faced with the prospect of having Abigail Jones Meyers for a mother, the baby might have decided he was never coming out. Joe surely wouldn’t have blamed him.

Joe edged into the guest room with the bowl. The rest of the house was cool, but this room felt steamy and damp. A pile of wet towels rested on the hearth, and the fire blazed cheerfully as though this was a regular day. Hoss was wiping Miss Abigail’s red face with a damp cloth. Just as Joe began to set the bowl down on the bedside table, she shrieked, startling Joe, and the bowl crashed to the floor.

“Joseph!” snapped Hoss, who was looking pretty damp himself.

“Sorry,” Joe muttered. He grabbed a towel to sop up the water. Hastily, he picked up the pieces of broken china and wrapped them in the towel. Hop Sing was going to have his hide for breaking his favorite mixing bowl, but there was nothing he could do about it now. The saturated towel dripped freely, and Joe hop-stepped around the trail of water that he left from the room to the hallway and down the stairs to the kitchen.

“Can’t do anything right,” he muttered as he grabbed the next largest bowl and began to pump. He could hear Hoss calling for him. “I’ll be right back!” he shouted.

Hoss’s next words were probably unprintable, but it didn’t matter because Joe couldn’t hear them over the thumping of his large brother tumbling down the stairs. “Hoss!” He darted out to the living room to see Hoss lying on the floor below the landing, pieces of the broken railing scattered around him. “Hoss! Are you all right?”

The big man’s eyes were glassy and unfocused. Joe knelt beside him. “Hoss!” He slapped his brother’s face gently, and Hoss turned his head slightly. “What happened?” Joe asked as though the answer wasn’t obvious.

“Slipped,” Hoss muttered. He started to lift his head, but in the next moment, he groaned and let it fall back.

“Just stay still,” Joe ordered. He opened his mouth to ask whether his brother was in pain, but a scream from upstairs drew their attention. “Don’t worry, she’ll manage this one by herself,” Joe instructed. “Where do you hurt?”

“’M okay,” Hoss mumbled unconvincingly. He lifted his head again, and this time, he was able to hold it up. He started to move his arm as though supporting himself to a sitting position when he let slip a word his father would definitely not have approved of. “My arm,” he managed between clenched teeth.

“Lemme see.” Joe crouched on Hoss’s right side and unbuttoned his cuff. As carefully as he could, he slid the sleeve up until the muscular forearm was exposed.

Joe Cartwright had seen numerous broken limbs in his time, including a few of his own, and he knew a bad break when he saw it. This break was definitely bad. At the sight of the inappropriate bend in Hoss’s already-swollen forearm, Joe had to take a deep breath to keep the pickles from making an unceremonious reappearance.

He sat back on his heels and considered his choices. Doc was at the mine, and so were all the hands. Hop Sing was taking care of some cousin or other. Pa and Adam were in Carson City with Hank. Somebody needed to tend to Hoss, and somebody needed to take care of Miss Abigail, and there was only one somebody between the Ponderosa and Virginia City.

Resolute, he rose. Somehow, he would have to figure all this out.

Damned if he knew how.

* * * * *

Half an hour later, Joe stood before his brother, saying, “Now, you just stay there. I’ve got everything under control.” It was the biggest lie he’d told in a long time, but right then, he didn’t have much choice.

Hoss looked like he’d been drinking for days and was paying the price. Luckily, the bump on his head didn’t seem to be too serious. Setting and splinting the arm had been the challenge. Joe had had to brace his boot against his brother’s side and pull with all his might, but as near as he could tell, both bones were back in place and properly splinted with makeshift sticks and a torn-up sheet.

That was the easy part.

The hard part came when he went upstairs to the guest room. He’d done his best to ignore the screams from upstairs while he tended to his brother, but Hoss had sent him up to check on Mrs. Meyers’ progress so often that it was a wonder Joe had ever gotten the arm set at all. Faced with the lady’s increasingly strident demands for Hoss, Joe had hedged, quibbled, prevaricated, and finally downright lied. He held cool compresses against her face the way his father always did when he was hurt, and he tried his best to concentrate on what needed to be done, but every time he thought about pulling back the sheet and looking at Abigail Jones Meyers’ parts, he had to resist the urge to scream right along with her.

“What’s the matter with your brother? Where is he?” Mrs. Meyers shrieked. “Doesn’t he know I’m having a baby here?”

“Yes, ma’am, he knows,” said Joe wearily.

“Then where is he?”

“I expect he’s out in the barn,” Joe said, not caring whether the lie was even a tiny bit credible.

“In the barn? What on earth is he doing in the barn? This baby’s coming—I can feel it!” The last words dissolved into a scream that made Joe want to clap his hands over his ears.

“Wait here,” he said when she stopped screaming. He darted out of the room and down the stairs to find Hoss trying his best to get to his feet.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Joe demanded. “Sit right back down there and don’t move!”

“She needs me.” Hoss’s voice was thick and groggy.

“How’re you figuring on getting upstairs? You gonna crawl?”

“Mebbe.” Hoss’s eyes were still unfocused, but he squinted at Little Joe.

“With one good arm? I don’t think so, Big Brother.” Joe gave the slightest shove, and Hoss fell back into the chair. Squatting down in front of his brother, he said, “Now, you listen to me. I’ve birthed as many calves and foals as you have. You just stay here, and I’ll get this little one born.”

“Joe, you can’t—”

“Yeah, I can,” said Joe with far more certainty than he felt. “Just tell me—is there anything about humans that’s different from livestock?”

Hoss grinned slightly. “Little Brother, if you ain’t figured by now that ladies are different from cows, I don’t reckon there’s much hope for you.”

“Oh, shut up and go to sleep. I’ll let you know when Abigail Junior is here.” Joe rose, and Hoss caught his hand.

“Help me upstairs,” the big man murmured. As Joe started to protest, he added, “I don’t want her thinkin’ I ran out on her. Even if I can’t do nothin’, I think it’ll make her feel better if I’m there.”

Joe took a deep breath. He couldn’t speak for Miss Abigail, but he knew he’d feel a whole lot better if Hoss was there to give direction. “Okay, then. Come on, you big galoot.” He pulled on Hoss’s good arm until his brother was standing, and he ducked under Hoss’s arm so that it rested across his own shoulders. “Lean on me,” he instructed, holding Hoss’s good hand against his chest.

“I do that, and I’ll crush you like a bug,” Hoss warned.

“You want to stay down here instead?” Joe staggered slightly under his brother’s weight, but he stayed upright, and slowly, they made their way to the stairs as Mrs. Meyers screamed.

Three more screams later, they entered her room. “Where have you been?” she demanded. Her eyes widened at the sight of Hoss. “What happened to you?”

“Just a little tumble,” said Hoss. “Joe here’s gonna deliver that baby, and I’m gonna tell him what to do. Don’t you worry, Mrs. Meyers, you and the baby are gonna be just fine.”

“Joseph? Deliver my child?” But her horror at the suggestion was lost in another scream.

“You feeling that baby?” Hoss asked as though they were having a normal conversation.

“Yes—yes, I—I can feel it!” Wildly, she looked from Hoss to Joe.

“You better sit down,” Joe said to Hoss, who was looking unsteadier by the minute. He dragged a chair down by the foot of the bed and dumped his brother into it. Then, he turned to Mrs. Meyers. “We need to see how things are coming,” he said, reaching for the sheet.

“No! No, don’t you dare!” She clamped one hand on his wrist.

“Mrs. Meyers, we don’t have a choice,” Joe said.

“Ma’am, we gotta see how you’re coming,” said Hoss groggily.

“You’re drunk! That’s where you’ve been—drinking!” Her voice was so shrill that Joe thought his eardrums might burst, but the accusation made his blood boil.

“Hoss hasn’t been drinking, but Lord knows, if he had been, he’d have had a good enough reason!” he snapped. “Ain’t he been listening to you screaming for hours and hours? When this is all over, I aim to get blind drunk myself!”

“Joseph!” Hoss sounded like Pa at his most fierce, but right then, Joe didn’t care.

“Then why don’t you just get out of here right now!” Mrs. Meyers pointed to the door.

“Because in case you didn’t notice, Hoss doesn’t have but one good arm! He fell down the stairs and broke his arm and hit his head, and that’s why he’s sitting over there and I’m here! Now, you might not like this, but I’m all you’ve got, so you better just do what you’re told so’s we can get this baby born!”

“Dadburnit, Joe, that’s enough!” Hoss tried to rise from the chair, but he sat back down heavily.

Joe yanked back the sheet and braced himself. As he turned to walk to the end of the bed and get an eyeful of something he’d never wanted to see, he heard a small sound. If it had been anyone else, he’d have said it was a whimper. But it couldn’t have been, not from Abigail Jones Meyers. He turned back to face her.

Her eyes were brimming with tears. And then, Joe moved closer, and he saw reflected in her face exactly what he was feeling.

Terror.

At that, everything that had paralyzed and infuriated him melted away. In its place came a familiar feeling—the need to protect someone who was afraid and in pain.

He straightened up. Without so much as a glance at Hoss, he drew the sheet up over Mrs. Meyers, all the way up to her bust. He squatted so that they were eye to eye, and he drew a deep breath.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “That was an awful thing for me to say.” She sniffled, and he took her hand. “Now, you need to listen to me, ma’am,” he said, and his voice carried a quiet authority that caught her attention. “Maybe I’m not the one you’d have picked to do this, but I’m what you got. I promise you that I’m not going to let anything happen to you or that little one. I swear it.” He searched her face for a sign that she believed him. “It’s going to be okay, really. You and Hoss and me are going to work together, and when it’s all done, you and Hank are going to have a little baby, and you’re going to go home and be a family together.” Her eyes were still round, but she was listening, so he kept going. “Now, I’ve never been in your place, and I reckon it’s probably pretty scary, so here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to listen to what me and Hoss tell you, and we’re going to get this baby born.”

“Hoss and I,” she whispered.

Joe couldn’t help himself. He laughed. Nobody else in the whole wide world would have said that at that moment. “Hoss and I,” he conceded. “Well, Hoss and I aren’t going to leave you here alone, not even for a minute. Like it or not, we’re here with you, and we’re all going to go through this together.” She looked slightly skeptical about that last part, and Joe reflected hastily that she was probably right to, but before anybody could say anything, her face went white and she yelled. “Hold my hands, ma’am,” Joe shouted above the din, and he took her hands in his and didn’t even wince when he thought she was going to break every bone in them.

* * * * * * * * * *

“All right, now, we’re gonna try it again.” Joe tried to sound as energetic as he could, but the truth was that they were all just plain beat, Mrs. Meyers most of all. “When I count three, you push as hard as you can. Ready? One, two, three!” Mrs. Meyers screamed as she pushed, and Hoss and Joe cheered her on as though they were watching a horse race.

“Okay, that was a good one, but now you’ve gotta push even harder,” he said when she lay back, panting. He glanced at Hoss, who looked serious. This baby seemed to be wedged in place, and if they didn’t get him out soon, the little fellow was going to be in serious trouble. “Ready? On three—one, two, three! Come on, come on, you can do it, come on!” Damn it, he could see the baby’s head. Frantically, he tried to remember what they’d done the last time this had happened to one of the cows. But people were so much smaller than cows, and where he could have hoped to get his hand in with Maisie, there was barely room for a finger or two.

“I can’t.” The words were barely audible.

Joe looked up from between her knees. Tears were coursing down her face. In that moment, she didn’t look like the imposing teacher he’d endured or the demanding houseguest he’d dreaded. She looked like any other woman—frightened and exhausted, and absolutely ordinary.

He rested his hand on her knee. “I know,” he said softly. “But you have to. Your baby needs you to keep trying.” He caught Hoss’s eye and jerked his head in Mrs. Meyers’ direction. Understanding, Hoss got to his feet and dragged the chair over so that he could sit beside her.

“Come on,” the big man said with as much heartiness as an exhausted man with a broken arm and a head injury could muster. He took her hand with his good one, and at the gratitude in her eyes, Joe found himself fighting tears. “We’re gonna try again,” Hoss said. “This time, don’t you yell, Miz Meyers. You just put all your strength into pushing that baby out into the world. You ready now? Joe, you count three.”

“One, two, three! Come on, Mrs. Meyers, push! Push! Harder! You can do it! He’s coming—he’s coming—he’s—he’s—oh, my gosh, here he comes!”

“What? What?” Hoss got to his feet in time to see Joe holding a small figure that looked like it was covered in Hop Sing’s gooey white burn salve. “Miz Meyers, you did it! You did it! You got—” he peered at the infant “—a boy!”

“Is it—did it—let me have him!” Tears poured down her face as she reached toward Joe.

But Joe looked up at Hoss, and his face was stony as he shook his head slightly. He bit his lip as understanding registered on Hoss’s face.

“Jest hang on,” the big man instructed as he made his way to the foot of the bed. “He’s had a hard night, that’s all. Hold him upside down, and smack his backside.”

“What’s the matter? What’s wrong with my baby?” Abigail Jones Meyers’ voice was getting higher and higher.

Joe held the baby up by its feet and tapped its bottom. Nothing.

“Try again, harder.” Hoss’s eyes were fixed on the motionless form.

Joe hit the baby lightly. Still no reaction.

“What’s wrong with my baby?” she demanded, her voice now shrill with panic. “What did you do to my baby?”

Hoss kept his voice low. “Try again, Little Brother. Not too hard, but make sure he feels it.”

Joe gritted his teeth. It seemed wrong to hit such a tiny creature, but if it was what he had to do. . . . He took a deep breath and delivered a stinging swat to the baby’s bottom.

“Waaaaah!”

The baby’s indignant cry sounded so much like his mother’s that for a moment, Joe wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. He didn’t realize that he was doing both until he looked up and saw Hoss doing exactly the same thing.

“Come here, you,” Joe said to the baby. He took the blanket Hoss offered and wrapped it around the tiny creature. “It’s time to meet your mama.”

“Joe, the cord,” Hoss reminded him. Joe nodded to show he’d heard, and he cradled the baby in the crook of his arm as he tied off the cord. He held it steady as Hoss cut it, and then, for the first time in hours, Joe straightened up. His back ached and his legs were so cramped that they felt permanently bent, but he took a deep breath and tried to stretch as he made his way to her side with the precious bundle.

“Mrs. Meyers, I believe I have someone here who’d like to meet you,” he said as he handed the baby into her eager arms. He watched as she bent over the baby, cooing and marveling just like any other mother.

There was still much more to do, of course—deliver the afterbirth, wash the baby, change the bed, get everybody something to eat—but right at that moment, it didn’t matter how much needed to be done. It didn’t even matter that it was the middle of the night and none of them had slept in so long that they couldn’t quite remember what it meant to rest. The only thing that mattered was that at long last, the little baby nestled in his mother’s arms, safe and sound.

* * * * * * * * * *

Abigail Jones Meyers nearly screamed. In the thin light of earliest dawn, she could see someone bending over the cradle. “Who’s there?” she demanded.

“Oh, sorry, Mrs. Meyers,” said Little Joe. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I just came to check on him and make sure he’s all right. He’s a big fellow, ain’t he—I mean, isn’t he?”

“He surely is,” agreed Abigail. “Light the lamp, please, Joseph.”

“That’s all right, ma’am, I’ll just leave,” said Joe. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, honest.”

“I’d like to talk to you for a minute,” said Abigail. “There’s something we need to discuss.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Joe, a touch of apprehension creeping into his voice. He lit the lamp and stood by the foot of the bed, hands behind him.

“With everything that went on, I didn’t get a chance to thank you for all you did,” she said. “I know that—well, it wasn’t an ideal situation, for either of us, but—thank you. Very much. Without your help, I don’t know what would have happened.”

“No thanks necessary, ma’am,” said Joe nervously. He’d been about to say, It’s my pleasure, as he usually did, but he didn’t want her to get the wrong idea. “I’m glad I could help,” he added, pretty sure that was all right.

“I need to ask you something,” Abigail said. “Does your brother Hoss have any name besides ‘Hoss’?”

“Yes’m,” said Little Joe, puzzled at this unexpected turn in the conversation. “He’s named for his grandpa on his ma’s side and for his uncle—Erik Gunnar Cartwright. I guess that explains why he likes to be called Hoss.”

“Erik,” she said thoughtfully. “Well, that’s a relief.”

“Ma’am?”

“Would you please bring the baby to me?”

Joe lifted the sleeping infant from his cradle. Funny how natural it felt to hold the little fellow. For a second, he forgot what he was supposed to be doing; he just looked at the round red face and marveled. Only a few hours ago, this baby had been living inside Miss Abigail, and now, here he was—a whole separate person that anybody in the world could just pick up and hold. What a peculiar way to make new people, Joe reflected.

“Joseph?”

“Oh, sorry, ma’am.” Flustered, Joe carried the baby the few feet to the bed. He relinquished him into his mother’s arms, shoving away the sense of being oddly bereft as he did so. “I guess he probably needs to eat,” said Joe. “I’ll be going now. I’ve got to see to the stock.”

“Wait a minute, please,” said Abigail. “I don’t believe the two of you have been properly introduced.”

“Ma’am?” Confused, Joe peered at the sleeping infant.

“Joseph Cartwright, may I present my son, Joseph Erik Meyers,” she said, holding the baby up slightly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Joseph Erik Meyers,” she repeated. “After you and your brother.”

“But—ain’t you naming him after Hank?”

“‘Aren’t’,” she said reflexively. “And no, we’re not. It’s all right,” she added. “Hank will agree with me on this.”

I don’t expect he’ll get much choice, thought Joe. He took the tiny fist between his thumb and forefinger. “Pleased to meet you, Joseph Erik Meyers,” he said. “I bet nobody’s gonna call you ‘Little Joe.’”

Abigail smiled. “I imagine you’re correct,” she said. “But I hope that he grows into as fine a man as the ones he’s named for.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Joe. For an absurd moment, he felt tears threatening as he thought of this little baby growing into a man. He swallowed hard and smiled. “I’d better let you two get on with his breakfast,” he said. “I’ll see you later, Mrs. Meyers.”

His hand was on the door latch when her voice stopped him. “Joseph,” she said. He turned back to see her smiling. “You may call me ‘Abigail.’”

For an instant, he was stunned. How peculiar that, after everything they’d been through, this seemed to be such an intimate gesture. He tried, but he just couldn’t get the words out. Finally, he said, “Yes, ma’am. Thank you—ma’am,” and he slipped out the door.

He couldn’t have said for certain, but as the latch clicked, he thought he just might have heard her laughing.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Well?” All eyes were on the doctor as he came downstairs from Hank’s room.

“The leg is healing beautifully,” said Doc Martin. “Hank still needs to be careful, of course, but as long as he doesn’t fall or overdo, there’s no reason he needs to stay in bed any more.

“And that means?” Ben was half-holding his breath, and the doctor nodded.

“Hank and his family can go home any time.” He smiled as all the Cartwrights sighed with relief.

“Thank heaven,” muttered Adam as his father showed the doctor out. Between the baby crying, Hank calling for food, and Abigail barking instructions about the care of both her men, the Cartwrights hadn’t had a moment’s peace in the three weeks since Ben, Adam and Hank had returned from Carson City.

“I’ll tell you this much, I ain’t gonna be sorry to see the back of ol’ Hank,” said Hoss. The makeshift splint Joe had concocted had been replaced with a plaster cast, leaving the big man unable to do much besides play checkers with Hank.

“You just want your room back,” said Adam.

“Not half as much as I want him to have his room back,” said Joe. Once Hank had returned, Hoss had moved back into Joe’s room, and Joe had reluctantly given up the bed to his injured brother. Sleeping on the cold floor had proven to be more of a sacrifice than he was willing to make, though, and he’d soon moved downstairs to the settee.

“I have to admit, this has been quite an experience,” said Ben. “Who would ever have thought we’d survive six months of Abigail Jones?”

“Aw, she’s not so bad,” said Joe unexpectedly. The others stared, and he just shrugged.

“I think you just like the baby,” said Adam. It hadn’t escaped any of them that Joe seemed to spend a great deal of time these days holding or rocking the child when Abigail was tending to Hank.

“Who, me? I don’t know anything about babies,” said Joe so fervently that they almost believed him. The truth was that he really did like the little fellow. Maybe it was because he’d been the first person ever to hold him, but Joe felt like there was some sort of special connection between himself and the baby, almost like they were related. He wondered whether Doc Martin felt that way about all the babies he’d delivered—including Joe himself.

He pulled himself back to the conversation as Hoss chortled, “Who’re you joshin’? Next thing we know, you’re gonna get hitched and have a whole passel of kids.”

“Let’s not rush into anything,” Ben interjected hastily. “There’s plenty of time for that kind of thing.”

“Don’t you want grandchildren?” asked Adam, his eyes twinkling.

“Not right now,” said Ben. “At least, not until one of you is properly married.” He eyed his three bachelor sons, all of whom suddenly found the toes of their boots most interesting.

“Excuse me, gentlemen.” Abigail Jones Meyers stood on the landing, the baby in her arms. “I just wanted to let you know that Hank and Joseph and I will be leaving in the morning.”

“You don’t have to rush, ma’am,” said Joe, his gaze intent on the baby.

“But you should feel free to do whatever you think best,” Ben added with a glance at his son.

“I think it’s time we went home,” said Mrs. Meyers. “You’ve all been most generous, and we appreciate everything you’ve done, but we should be getting home. Shouldn’t we, my precious little darling?” she added to the baby in her arms, her voice suddenly high and soft. “We’ll take the itty bitty baby home, won’t we? We’ll hitch up the horsie, and Papa will say ‘Giddyap!’, and Mama will cuddle the eensy beansy baby all the way home, and. . . .” Abruptly, she straightened, regaining her usual dignified bearing. “Thank you all very much for everything you’ve done,” she said firmly, and she swept up the stairs more rapidly than usual.

“You’re very welcome,” Ben called after her.

The Cartwrights sat silently until they heard the door to her room close. Then, they turned to stare at each other.

“‘Precious little darling’?” Adam said finally.

“‘Take the itty bitty baby home’?” Hoss managed.

“She never struck me as the type to hitch up the horsie,” Joe admitted. It wasn’t the moment to admit that he’d said similar things to the baby a number of times—but only when they were alone, of course.

“All right, boys, that’s enough,” said Ben. “Just wait until you have children of your own. You’ll be surprised what you’ll say to them.”

“You certainly never called any of us your ‘precious little darling’,” Adam pointed out.

“Did it ever occur to you that there might be a good reason for that?” his father asked drily.

“Mama used to call Little Joe her ‘petit cheri’,” Hoss recalled. “Ain’t that the same thing?”

“That was when he was a baby,” said Adam. “Before anybody knew how he was going to turn out.”

As his sons bantered, Ben found himself thinking about the woman who was upstairs packing. Maybe they’d misjudged her after all. Maybe she really was just like every other woman.

Well, she’s Hank’s responsibility now, he reflected with deep relief. Just a few more hours, and—

From upstairs came a crash, a deep howl of pain, and a baby’s cry. “Dadburnit!” Hank shouted.

“Hank! Look what you’ve done now! You woke the baby!” came his wife’s reprimand.

“It ain’t my fault!” Hank called back. “I didn’t mean to fall down!”

The Cartwrights exchanged wide-eyed stares. “You don’t suppose—” Adam began, but he was cut off by another howl of pain.

“Mr. Cartwright!” called Hank.

Abigail Meyers appeared at the top of the stairs, the screaming babe in her arms. “Mr. Cartwright, would you come up here, please?” she shouted over the baby’s cries. “I think Hank’s hurt his leg.” Her skirt swirled as she turned on her heel and headed back to her husband.

“Look at the bright side,” Joe offered feebly as Ben laid aside his book and rose with obvious trepidation.

“What bright side?” his father demanded.

Joe winced. “At least the baby’s already born.”

“By the time they get out of here, there could be an entire dynasty of Meyerses,” Adam muttered as he followed his father up the stairs. Below, Hoss and Joe regarded each other.

“Want to play checkers?” Joe suggested. Hoss shrugged and seated himself on the settee as Joe fetched the board and pieces.

“Just one thing,” Joe warned as he set the pieces in place.

“What’s that?” Hoss slid a red piece forward.

Joe waved a black piece for emphasis as he made his pronouncement: “Next time Abigail Jones has a baby—you’re delivering it.” He clapped the piece onto the board with more force than necessary, adding, “Your move.”

From upstairs came the summons, clear and fierce even over the howling and the baby’s cries. “Hoss! Joseph! Get up here—now!”

“D’you suppose we can say we were in the barn and didn’t hear him?” Joe suggested even as they rose.

Hoss rolled his eyes. “Let’s go, Little Brother.” As they headed upstairs, Joe turned back to cast an exasperated gaze at the settee. Somehow, he had a feeling it was going to be a long, long time before he got his room back.

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