Danny (by pjb)

Summary:  The Cartwrights become embroiled in a young widow’s fight to protect her baby from her in-laws’ attempts to gain custody.

Rated: K+  30,600

 

                                                       Danny

 

“. . . In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen.”

The spring breeze barely disturbed the black veil of the woman who wept so loudly as she stood between the coffins.  Her husband’s arm around her shoulders steadied her, but he allowed himself no public display of grief.  For all the emotion the other mourners saw, he might have been standing beside a stack of law books instead of the caskets of his two sons.

Most of Virginia City had come to say its goodbyes to Philip and Thomas Wagner.  A fair number of girls wept into lacy handkerchiefs, and even the boys looked stricken.  Philip had been only seventeen, Thomas a year younger.  Many of those in attendance had known the Wagner boys ever since the family had moved to Virginia City nearly fifteen years earlier.

Ben Cartwright watched Edward and Martha Wagner.  His heart ached for them.  To lose one child was unthinkable.  To lose both. . . .  He permitted himself a brief glance at his sons, breathing a swift, silent prayer of thanks that they were with him.

Standing apart from the others was a plump girl holding a baby.  Her borrowed black dress was too tight, and her bosom strained against its buttons.  Like Edward Wagner, she displayed no emotion as the preacher spoke.  Others dabbed at their tears, but she remained dry-eyed.  Only when the baby began to waken toward the end of the service did she seem to be jarred back to the reality of the present.  Then, she bent her head over the bundle in her arms, jiggling him to keep him quiet.

The preacher, having finished his prayer, took a step toward the girl.  Then, he paused.  He glanced at the boys’ parents as if seeking permission to continue.  When they appeared not to notice him, he moved toward the girl.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Wagner,” he said in a low voice.  “If there’s anything I can do for you or Danny, please let me know.”

“Thank you, Reverend.”  She looked puzzled, as though it were odd that he was acknowledging her.  Perhaps it was.  Few people had ever seemed willing to admit that she was Philip Wagner’s wife when he was alive.  Now that he was gone, the town had no reason to recall that this plain, solitary girl had been the wife of one of their most handsome and promising young men.

The reverend moved to Edward and Martha, and the girl was left alone with the baby as  mourners approached Philip’s parents.  She stayed where she was, as if waiting for her classmates to speak to her, but no one seemed to notice she was there.

Then, one of them separated himself from the group and approached her.  She smiled.  She should have known.

“Hello, Addie,” said Little Joe Cartwright.  “I’m so sorry about Philip.”

“Thank you,” she said.

For a moment, neither of them seemed to know what to say.  “Is this your baby?” Joe asked after too long a pause.

“Oh, no, I just borrowed him for the day.”  The retort startled both of them, and then short barks of laughter escaped them.

“I’m sorry, that was a stupid question,” said Joe, recovering.

“No, I’m sorry,” said Addie.  “That was rude of me.”  Deliberately avoiding the glares being flung like daggers in their direction, she said, “Little Joe, this is Danny.  Danny, this is Mr. Cartwright.”

“Does he understand you?”  Joe looked unsure.

“I don’t know,” Addie shrugged.  “But even if he doesn’t, I like to treat him like he does.  Besides, someday he will, so why not start early?”

“No reason at all,” said Joe.  “He’s a cute little fellow.”

“Thanks,” said Addie.  “Philip’s mother says he looks just like Philip, but I think he’s got my nose.”

Joe peered at the baby.  “I can never tell that kind of thing,” he admitted.  “But you see him the most, so you’re probably right.”

Addie opened her mouth to speak, but her eyes grew round and her words froze.  In the next moment, Ben Cartwright approached her, saying, “Mrs. Wagner, I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” she squeaked.

The tall man with the silver hair smiled at her baby, and suddenly he didn’t seem scary.  “That’s a fine boy you have there,” he said.

“Thank you, sir.”

He lowered his voice slightly.  “I know it’s hard to raise a child by yourself,” he said.  “If there’s anything we can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Hoss and Adam Cartwright came up behind their father.  They expressed their sympathy and admired her son.  Eventually, though, the Cartwrights turned to go.  Addie watched them leave and then turned her attention back to the crowds who still surrounded Philip’s parents.  She waited, but none of them seemed inclined to speak to the widow.  Finally, she kissed Danny’s forehead and started the long walk back to town.

* * *

Ben opened the door of E. Wagner, Attorney at Law.  There was no sign of the occupant.  “Anybody here?” he called.

“I’ll be right there,” called a voice.  Ben waited, and a few minutes later, Edward came into the waiting area.

“So sorry to keep you waiting, Ben,” said Edward, shaking his hand.  His eyes were clear, his whiskers neatly trimmed.  “What can I do for you?”

“You can bring Martha and come out to the Ponderosa for supper tomorrow night,” said Ben.  Nearly two weeks had passed since the funeral, and neither Edward nor Martha had been seen around town.  Knowing something of grief, Ben determined that perhaps a quiet evening among friends might be a small step forward.

Edward’s smile was clearly one of politeness rather than genuine pleasure.  “I appreciate the offer, Ben, but I don’t think so,” he said.  “Martha’s not really up for socializing these days.”

“I can imagine,” said Ben.

“No, I don’t think you can,” said Edward.  “It was hard enough on her when Philip had to get married—she thought she’d lost him then.  But now . . . well, she’s taking it pretty hard.”

“And how are you?” Ben asked gently.

Edward shrugged.  “It was all supposed to turn out so differently,” he said.  “If only Philip had gone off to university the way we’d always planned . . . but he couldn’t, of course.  He had to support his family.  I just wish he hadn’t decided to try the mines.  I offered him a job here, but he wanted to stand on his own two feet, he said.  And, of course, whatever Philip did, Thomas did.  Two peas in a pod, they were.  And now. . . .”

The two men stood, not speaking, until Edward raised his head.  “It’s all her fault,” he said, his voice curiously dispassionate.

“Whose fault?”

“That girl,” said Edward.  “That little tramp who seduced my boy, trapped him into marriage.”  He shook his head as he began to pace.  “I told him not to be ridiculous.  He was throwing away his entire future, and there wasn’t even any way to know whether the child was his.  A girl like that . . . the father could have been anybody in Virginia City.”

“Edward,” Ben remonstrated.

“But Philip was convinced that the child was his, and her parents demanded that he marry her.  I made them a very reasonable offer, but they wouldn’t hear of it.  Insisted on marriage.  Said Philip had disgraced their daughter and he had to do the honorable thing.  The honorable thing,” he repeated, bitterness rising.  “So, he did their honorable thing, and now he’s dead.  And where are they?  Left town as soon as they saw their girl married to a Wagner.  That was all they ever wanted anyway.  Didn’t have a pot to piss in, but their girl managed to marry money.  They probably planned it that way.  Well, no more.  My boy is dead, and she can just get out of Virginia City.  Go wherever her parents are.  I don’t care.  Just as long as we never have to lay eyes on her again.”

“But what about your grandchild?  Don’t you want to be near him?”

The lawyer turned a fierce glare on Ben.  “Oh, we’re keeping him,” said Edward.  “He’s all that’s left of our Philip.  She can go wherever she wants, do whatever she chooses, but that baby is staying with us.  We’ll raise him as we raised our boys.  He’ll have a pony and fine clothes and a good education.  And when it’s time, he’ll go off to the university, and no little floozy will stand in his way.  He’ll be everything his father never had the chance to be.”

“But, Edward—you can’t just take the child.  He has a mother.” 

Edward set his shoulders.  “That girl isn’t fit to raise a child,” he said.  “Any judge would agree with me on that.  She has no way to support him, and she’s morally unfit.  The only reason we didn’t step in before now was that Philip was there, and we knew he’d do right by the boy.  Without him, the baby will be nothing but a street urchin, running wild while his mother entertains men or works in saloons and ruins any chance he has to be respected by the decent people in this town.”

“Oh, now, Edward, that’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?”

“You don’t know her the way I do, Ben,” said Edward.  “I suppose it’s possible that she could trap another rich man into marriage, but not here.  Everybody in Virginia City knows what she is.  No, she’d have to go away from here to find her next husband, and we’ll take care of that.  We’ll take the baby, and as much as it sticks in my craw, we’ll give her enough money to get her out of this town and away from us forever.”

Ben waited a few moments before approaching Edward.  “I know you’re hurting,” he said quietly.  “I can’t imagine how it feels to bury a child.  I understand that you’re angry.  But don’t take it out on the girl or on your grandson.  I may not know exactly how you feel, but I know that the loss of someone you love deeply can make you want to do things you never would otherwise.  Don’t be rash now—take your time and think this through.  Don’t start something that can’t end well.”

The expression in the whiskered man’s eyes was chilling.  “My boys are buried under six feet of dirt,” he said.  “It’s too late for anything to end well.”

* * *

The preacher stepped up to the pulpit.  “Today’s reading is from the epistle of Paul to the church at Ephesus,” he intoned.

As the preacher began to read, Little Joe heard what sounded like whimpering.  He started to turn around, but his father nudged him sharply.  He could feel Pa glaring at him, but he fixed his eyes on the pulpit even as he tried to figure out what he was hearing.

It didn’t take long.  The whimpering got louder, and in the next instant, the preacher was completely drowned out by a crying baby.  Reverend Abbott continued even though people could hear him, because the baby wailed as if the world was ending.  People sitting in front of them were turning around to see where the baby was, and Joe took advantage of the moment to do the same.

In the back pew, he saw Addie bent over the blanketed bundle in her arms.  Her round face was frantic, and she was clearly trying to shush the baby.  Finally, she gathered up the baby and rose, mouthing, “I’m sorry” to the folks who were glaring at her.  She ducked her head as she took her son outside, and once the door closed, it muted the baby’s cries enough that St. Paul’s words were again audible.

Joe couldn’t pay attention, though.  It sounded like Danny was just crying and crying.  Why didn’t somebody go out and help her?  Surely, with all the mamas in the congregation, one of them would know what to do.  And yet, they all sat there, just like they didn’t hear anything at all.

Then, a most startling thing happened.  Hoss Cartwright stood up and whispered, “Excuse me, Pa.”  Before Pa could say anything, Hoss had squeezed past him and was heading up the aisle.  The door closed behind him, and a few minutes later, the baby’s cries subsided.

When they emerged from the sanctuary, Hoss was sitting on the front step with the baby sleeping in his arms.  He rose to allow people to leave the church, but apart from that, he didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything except the baby.

“Where’s Addie?” asked Joe as he and Adam came out of the church.

“I told her to go for a walk,” said Hoss.  “Poor gal’s worn to a frazzle.  Lookit this little fella.  Ain’t he cute?”

“What did you do to get him to stop crying?” asked Adam.

“Same thing we used to do with Joe,” said Hoss.  “Swooped him up an’ down a bunch of times.  Looks like Danny don’t like settin’ still any more than our little brother did,” he chuckled.

“What are you doing with that child?”  They turned to see Martha Wagner, her eyes flashing fire.  “So she’s abandoned him already?  Give me my grandson!”

“She ain’t abandoned him, ma’am,” said Hoss.  “She’s jest takin’ a little walk.  Look, here she is now.”

Addie was strolling along the sidewalk, but when she caught sight of Martha Wagner, she broke into a run.  “Stay away from my son!” she called out.  Her bosom heaved as she ran the last several yards to where Hoss was holding tightly to the child.

“You leave him be, you little floozy!” shrieked Martha.

“Hoss, give him to me,” said Addie.  Hoss turned his back to Martha, handing the child to Addie.  “Thanks,” she whispered.  More loudly, she added to the older woman, “You just leave us alone!”

“What’s going on here?”  Ben hurried down the church steps, Edward and the preacher close behind.

“That’s my Philip’s child!”  Martha tried to reach past Hoss to the baby, but the big man planted himself firmly in front of Addie.

“He’s my son!” shouted Addie from behind Hoss.

“Not for long,” said Edward in a voice meant to carry.  “Come along, Martha.  It’s the Sabbath, and we shall observe it in a proper manner.”  The threat of what would happen after the Sabbath hung in the air as he took his wife’s arm and escorted her away.

“What did he mean by that?” asked Joe.

“Never mind,” said Ben.  “We should be getting along.  Are you going to be all right?” he asked of Addie.

“I’m fine, sir,” she said.  She straightened Danny’s blanket and lifted her chin.  “Good day, everyone.  Hoss, thanks again for your help.”

“My pleasure, ma’am,” said Hoss.

“Addie, how about if I walk you home?” Joe said suddenly.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” she said.  “I’ll be fine.”

“I know I don’t need to,” said Joe.  “I’d just like to walk you two home.”

She looked startled.  Then, a shy smile stole across her face.  “That would be nice, thank you.”

“Pa, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” said Joe.  To Addie, he said, “Do you want me to carry the baby?”

“No, thank you,” said Addie.  “I’ll carry him.”  She adjusted his blanket.  “Time to go home, Danny,” she murmured.  She smiled again at Joe, and they headed down the street.

The small frame house was on one of the side streets that was only slightly larger than an alley.  Joe opened the door, and Addie carried her son inside.  She was so focused on the baby that she didn’t invite Joe to sit, and so he stood by the door, alert for any suspicious sound.

Once Danny had been settled in his cradle, Addie turned to Joe.  “That was very nice of you,” she said.  “I’d ask you if you’d like a cup of coffee, but your family is probably waiting.”

Joe nodded.  “You’re right,” he said.  “Maybe I can come back for that cup of coffee another time.”  She looked startled, and he asked, “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said.  “I just didn’t—I’m fine, don’t worry.  Thanks again for walking us home.”

“You’re welcome,” said Joe, touching the brim of his hat.  He turned to go, and then he turned back.  “Addie, what was all that about with Mrs. Wagner?”

The girl’s round face hardened.  “She wants to take Danny away from me.”

“She can’t do that.  You’re his mother.”

A humorless laugh escaped her.  “That doesn’t make any difference to the Wagners,” she said.  “They have money and power, and I don’t.  So, they figure they’ll get whatever they want, and what they want is their grandson.”

“What are you going to do?”  Joe closed the door and took off his hat.

“I wish I knew,” said Addie.  “I’ll have to figure out something.”

“Like what?”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t have to figure it out,” she shrugged.  “Anyway, don’t worry.  It’s not your problem.”

Joe’s gaze fell on the cradle by the fireplace.  The baby slept with one tiny fist up by his face.  Joe had never had much experience with babies, but suddenly, he wanted to know more about this one.  “How old is he?”

“Four months next Tuesday,” said Addie.  “He’s a little bit small for his age, but Doc Martin says it’s nothing to worry about.  Philip’s mother said he was small as a baby, too, and he ended up being almost six feet tall.”

“You miss him, don’t you?”  Joe’s voice was quiet.

Of all the reactions he might have expected, a snort of disgust wasn’t among them.  “Miss him?  Why would I miss him?”

“I thought—didn’t you love him?”  Joe was honestly perplexed.

“No.”  Addie turned squarely to face Joe.  “I didn’t love him, and he didn’t love me.  We got married because we had to, not because we wanted to.  He never forgave me for ruining his life.”  She began to pile the dirty breakfast dishes into a wash pan.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Joe, I need to do some cleaning while Danny takes his nap, and you need to get back to your family.”

“Of course.”  Joe put his hat back on and opened the door.  He turned back once more.  “Addie—if you need anything, let me know.  I mean it.”

“I’m sure you do,” she said.  Her eyes were ineffably sad.  Then, she tucked the wash pan under her arm, prepared to head out back to the communal pump.  Joe watched her for a moment, and then he touched the brim of his hat again and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

* * *

That evening, Joe was unusually quiet.  He picked at his supper, not even defending himself against Hop Sing’s shrieks of dismay over his largely untouched plate.  Ben watched as Joe picked up his fork, poked at a slice of beef or a string bean, and then seemed to forget all about it.  He caught Adam and Hoss watching their brother, and he smiled to himself as they exchanged your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine shrugs.

As soon as supper was over, Joe headed up to his room.  Ben settled himself in his red leather armchair with a book and his pipe, but he couldn’t concentrate on Mr. Dickens.  It was a fairly constant battle between his head and his heart:  his head recognized that his seventeen-year-old son was practically a man and deserving of the same privacy he would have afforded Hoss and Adam, while his heart wanted to go to the boy and urge him to unburden himself so that Pa could make things better.  Foolish old man, he chided himself.  He sipped his coffee, forcing from his mind the sudden image of Edward Wagner, sitting in his parlor with no sons upstairs, downstairs, or anywhere else.

The evening passed without a sign of Joe.  Hoss and Adam went out to bed down the stock.  Somewhat to Ben’s surprise, they didn’t holler for their little brother to get down here and help.  He waited after his older sons went up to bed, but Joe didn’t appear.  Finally, he closed his book and trudged up the stairs.

At Joe’s door, he paused.  Leave him be, he counseled himself.  But almost of its own volition, his fist rapped lightly on the door.

“Come in,” called Joe.

Ben opened the door to see his youngest son stretched out on his bed, hands under his head.  “It’s kind of late,” he said.  “Think maybe it’s time to turn in?”

A corner of Joe’s mouth quirked.  “I’ve been figuring out when to put myself to bed for a long time, Pa.”

Ben smiled.  Whatever the problem was, it couldn’t be too serious.  “Well, don’t stay up too late,” he said.  “You boys have a lot of fence to check tomorrow.”

“I won’t,” Joe said.  Then, his smile faded.  “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”  Here it is.  Ben stepped into the room.

“Would it be okay if I invited Addie to bring the baby and come out to the ranch for a few days?”

Ben peered at his son.  “Why would you want to do that?”

Joe shrugged.  “She looks like she could use a little rest,” he said.  “She’s got her hands full, what with the baby, and Philip being gone and his parents acting like they are.  I thought she might like a break, that’s all.”

Ben considered his words carefully.  “Have you already invited her?”

“Not yet.”  It was Joe’s turn to peer at his father.  “What’s the matter with inviting her here?”

“Well . . . nothing.  It’s just that—as you said, she has a lot going on right now, and maybe she won’t want to be all the way out here.”  Even Ben could hear how feeble the excuse sounded.

So could Joe.  “What’s wrong with inviting Addie and Danny out to the Ponderosa?”

Sighing, Ben sat on the side of the bed.  “Son, you know that there’s a pretty big dispute going on right now between Addie and the Wagners.  I just think that, if we invite her here, we give the impression that we’re taking sides, and I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“You mean how Mr. and Mrs. Wagner want to take Danny away from Addie?  Why shouldn’t we take sides?  They’re wrong, and we should say so.”

“It’s not that easy, Joseph,” said Ben.  “The Wagners want what’s best for the baby.  The fact is that they can offer him much more than Addie can.  Besides which, as you said, she’s got her hands very full.  She’s a young girl, Joe.  Maybe she’s too young to be raising a child all by herself.”

“But she doesn’t have to be all by herself,” Joe said.  “She has friends.  We can help.”

“Joseph, that’s very nice of you, but seriously, boy—what do you know about taking care of a baby?  Have you ever even changed a diaper?”

“That’s not what I’m saying, Pa.  I’m saying that we can help her fight the Wagners so that she can keep her baby.”

“And I’m saying that that may not be the best thing for the baby, and we should stay out of it.”

Joe stared as though his father had said something outrageous.  Small wonder:  Ben Cartwright had been stepping into the middle of disputes as long as his son could remember.  Ben forced himself to hold Joseph’s gaze even as he recalled dozens of occasions when he had—well, not interfered, exactly, but also not insisted that somebody else’s fight was none of his business.

He tried again.  “Joe, you’re only thinking about one side of this.  The Wagners lost both their sons.  It’s only natural they would want to do the best they can for Philip’s son.”

“It doesn’t make any sense, though.  They lost their sons, and the way to fix it is for Addie to lose hers?  People can’t do that!  What if Adam’s grandfather had said you had to leave Adam with him?  What would you have done?”

“That was different,” said Ben.  “I was much older than Addie.  I was twenty-one, and how old is she?  Sixteen?”

“Almost seventeen, I think,” said Joe.  “She was in our class because she was so smart, but I think she was a year younger than us.”

“So, that’s a five-year age difference—and it’s a pretty important five years.  Also, I wasn’t trying to manage the baby alone.  I’d hired a wet nurse to go along with us.”  And Lord knows how I’d have managed without Mrs. Caulkins, he thought now.  He was a grief-stricken ex-sailor who knew nothing at all about babies.  If it hadn’t been for Mrs. Caulkins, he sometimes doubted that Adam would have survived those first few months.

“What are you saying?  Addie should have to give up her baby because she doesn’t have enough money to hire help?  Pa, that’s just wrong and you know it!”

“What I’m saying is that this is a very complicated problem that doesn’t have an easy answer, and I think it’s important that we not appear to be taking sides.”  Ben tried to sound calm and neutral, but Joe’s agitation was contagious.  He didn’t quite know why it was so important to him stay neutral, but until he did, he didn’t want to have any more of these discussions.  He stood as he said, “So, the answer is no, you can’t invite her to come out and stay right now.  Let the Wagners and Addie work out their problems first.  Then, if you still want to invite her, we can talk about it.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Don’t raise your voice to me, boy.”  Ben waited until Joe had dropped his gaze before he spoke again.  “Sometimes, we can’t solve everyone else’s problems.  Now, it’s time for bed.  You’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.”  Joe’s jaw dropped, but one hard look from his father, and he closed his mouth.  “Good night, Joseph,” he added.  He waited a moment, but when his son just turned away with no responsive “good night,” he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

It was a complicated problem, that much was certain.  And if Joe intended on siding with Addie Wagner, the complications were only just beginning.

* * *

The next morning, Ben was coming down the stairs when he heard Joe saying, “Tell Pa I won’t be home for supper.”

“You can tell Pa yourself,” Ben said from the landing.  His youngest son’s head jerked around.  Something in the tense set of Joe’s mouth and the flare of his nostrils let Ben know that Joe hadn’t intended to be here when he came down.  “Where will you be going?”

“Into town.”  The words sounded almost like a dare, and Ben met it head on.

“To see Addie Wagner?”

“Yes.”  Joe turned to face him squarely.  “I’m going into town tonight, and I’m going to see Addie Wagner.”  Ben half-expected him to add, “Anything wrong with that?” or something similar, but no comment was invited.

Very well, then.  He wasn’t foolish enough to forbid Joe from seeing the girl.  Not that there was that kind of interest between them, of course.  But he knew his son well enough to know that clamping down was more likely to drive Joe toward the Wagner girl than away from her.  Let Joe offer friendship and assistance.  They’d been schoolmates, after all.  It wouldn’t be unexpected, nor would it be the kind of statement that inviting her to the Ponderosa would have been.

“Since when are you sparking Addie Wagner?” asked Adam.  Ben, who was passing the long, low table in front of the settee, squelched a sudden impulse to snatch an apple from the brass bowl and fling it at his eldest son’s head.

“You’re sparkin’ Addie?” Hoss asked through a mouthful of ham.

“Mind your own business!” Joe snapped.

“Settle down, everybody,” Ben interjected.  “Joseph is entitled to visit his friend without being subjected to an inquisition.”  His emphasis on friend brought a raised eyebrow, but thankfully, no comment from Adam.  To Joe, Ben added, “Just don’t stay out too late.  I want to start moving the herd tomorrow.”  He eyed his two older sons.  “Is Joe the only one with work to do?” he asked pointedly.

“I ain’t finished my breakfast!” Hoss protested.

“If you waste away before lunch, we’ll haul your carcass back here,” said Adam, rising as Joe headed for the door.

“Not a word about Addie Wagner, do you understand?” Ben said to his older sons in a low voice.

“But—” Hoss began.

“Not a word.”  Neither his tone nor his stern gaze invited further comment.  Grumbling, his sons followed their brother.  Not until the door closed behind them all did Ben sink into his chair.

* * *

A light sprinkle of rain was just starting as Joe emerged from Daisy’s Restaurant with a basket containing fried chicken, biscuits and sweet corn.  He’d debated about getting Danny a piece of gingerbread.  He knew so little about babies that he didn’t know whether Danny was even old enough for that kind of thing.  In the end, he bought apple pie instead; maybe Addie could feed him some of the filling.

He hesitated at her door.  Maybe he should have sent her a message to ask whether it was all right if he came by.  She might not even be home.  She could have made up with the Wagners, and maybe they were all having dinner together while Joe stood here with enough food to feed an army.

He straightened.  What was the worst that could happen?  She might not be here.  Or she could already have company.  Well, in that case, he’d just leave the food and head over to the Bucket of Blood for a beer—an option that was sounding better and better anyway.

Before he could give in to the temptation to do just that, Joe knocked firmly on her door.  Moments later, she yanked it open, her finger to her lips.  “He’s asleep,” she mouthed.

“Sorry,” Joe whispered.  When she just looked at him as though trying to figure out what he was doing there, he added, “Can I come in?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I’m so tired I thought I’d already asked you in.”  She stepped back, and he entered her home for the second time in as many days—and the second time in his life.

The smell of sour milk permeated the room.  Her light brown hair was damp and messy, with as much escaping the knot as contained in it.  The front of her dress bore splotches that Joe guessed had been created by Danny by one means or another.  Unwashed dishes teetered in piles on the table.  Even in the dim light of a single oil lamp, he could see dust on the room’s lone bookcase.

“Pardon the house,” she said, startling him.  “I haven’t had a chance to clean.  Danny has colic, and I spend all my time trying to get him to stop crying.”

“Oh, no, it’s fine,” Joe said hastily.  “I knew you were probably busy, so I brought you some supper.”

“Why?”  The girl’s gaze was clear and direct, even with redness around her eyes.

He thought briefly of making some sort of excuse, but she’d probably see through it anyway.  “It seemed like you have your hands full between Danny and your in-laws.  I thought you might like a little bit of help and maybe a friend.”

“And maybe some charity, with a little pity on top?” she snapped.

“No.  Just help from a friend.”  He stepped past her and set the basket on the table.  “Enjoy it.”  He strode past her and out the door.

“Wait,” she called.  On the sidewalk, he turned, but he didn’t come any closer.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “You’re being kind, and I’m . . . well, I’m sorry.”  When he didn’t respond, she said, “If you’d like to stay for supper, that would be nice.”  She smiled slightly as she added, “As it happens, it’s all ready right now.”

He grinned then.  “I’d like that,” he said.

A few minutes later, she had moved the dishes to the work table and spread a cloth over the round table in the middle of the room.  “Just give me a minute,” she said as she rummaged in the breakfront, emerging with two plates.  “I should have some glasses around here somewhere—oh, wait, here they are.”  She held up a pair of dusty goblets.  “A gift from my mother-in-law to her son,” she said as she wiped them with a towel.

“To her son?”  Joe wasn’t certain he’d heard correctly.

“Oh, they weren’t for me,” said Addie.  “She was very clear about that.  Anything they gave Philip or the baby was for them.”

“But you were Philip’s wife, and you’re Danny’s ma.”  Joe focused on opening the basket.  At least the fried chicken made sense to him.

Addie snorted.  “Not to them,” she said.  “They’d rather die than be related to someone like me.  Do you know that they’ve never even called me by my name?  I was married to their son for almost a year, and I’m the mother of their grandson, and not once has either of Philip’s parents addressed me by my name.”

“What about your folks?  Where are they now?”

Addie shrugged.  “Oregon, maybe.  That’s where they were hoping to go.  I have no idea whether they got there.  I haven’t heard from them since before Danny was born.”  Her voice grew soft and wistful.  “I wanted to write to them and tell them they had a grandson, but I didn’t have an address.  Neither does my sister—do you remember Julia?”

“I think so.  Didn’t she marry some fellow from back east?”

Addie nodded.  “Marcus,” she said.  “He’s a professor of history at a college for women.  She’s so lucky.”  Her voice trailed off.  Then, she brought her attention back to the conversation.  “They live in Ohio.  Anyway, I wrote and asked her about our parents, but she hasn’t heard from them, either.”  She shook her head as though to bring herself back to the present.  “We should eat before Danny wakes up.  Once he starts crying, there’s just no stopping him.”  She placed the food on the plates and looked up at Joe.  “This was very nice of you,” she said.  “I’m sorry I was so rude before.  I’m just so tired, and now with the colic and the Wagners—sometimes, I just forget how to be with people.”

“Don’t any of your friends come over?”  Joe couldn’t remember who her school friends had been.  He bit into a piece of chicken.  He’d never tell Hop Sing, but Daisy made the best fried chicken he’d ever eaten.

“Oh, no,” Addie was saying.  “Once people found out that I’d—that Philip and I—that we had to get married—well, none of the nice girls would have anything to do with me.”

“That’s not right,” said Joe.  He knew what she was going to say, though, and she did.

“Right has nothing to do with it.  It’s the way things are.”  She handed him another biscuit.  “We’ll probably end up leaving Virginia City eventually.  That’s the only way Danny’s going to have a chance to be anything other than a—well, you know.”

“He’s not a—‘you know’,” said Joe.  “You and Philip were legally married.  Besides, that kind of thing happens all the time.  I’ll bet you could find twenty people just on this block whose folks said they were born early, but. . . .”  He couldn’t quite believe he was saying such things out loud to a girl, but Addie didn’t seem at all perturbed.

“Maybe so, but they’re not related to the Wagners,” Addie said.  “If you think Edward and Martha are going to let anybody forget why Philip married me. . . .”

“But that was just as much Philip’s doing as it was yours,” said Joe.  “More, really.  My pa always said it was up to the boy to respect the girl and not take liberties.”

“Philip’s pa would have done well to teach his son the same lesson,” Addie said darkly.  “Have some more chicken.”

Joe took another piece, munching as he tried to figure out how to ask the obvious question:  how on earth had Addie McKinley and Philip Wagner ever gotten together at all?  Philip was wealthy and handsome and popular, while Addie was plain and bookish and smarter than a girl should be.  Just as he was going to ask straight out, an indignant wail came from the other room.

“That’s it,” said Addie over the baby’s shrieks.  “Feel free to finish your dinner, but if you want to take it with you, I understand.  This is going to go on all night.”  She disappeared into the other room, returning moments later with Danny in her arms.  “Come on, sweetie, calm down,” she said.  “You’re going to be okay.  I know you don’t feel good, but crying about it isn’t going to help.  Just settle down now.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Joe half-shouted to be heard

Addie shook her head.  “Not unless you want to go deaf,” she responded at similar volume.  “Thanks for dinner.”  She walked back and forth, jiggling the baby, her attention focused on her son.

“Okay, well . . . let me know if I can do anything.”  Joe waited, but when she didn’t acknowledge him, he picked up his hat and let himself out.  On the sidewalk, he could hear the baby’s wails.  He thought about what it would be like to try to manage a house and a screaming baby all by himself, and he shuddered.

Still, there had to be something he could do to help.  Lost in thought, he wandered over to the Bucket of Blood.  Maybe a beer would help him think.

Three hours later, he left the saloon with no more insight than he’d had when he entered it.  As he walked back to the livery stable, he could hear Danny Wagner’s cries halfway down the block.  He paused to listen, but the wailing showed no sign of stopping.

All right, then.  Even if he couldn’t take her out to the ranch, there had to be something he could do.  Damned if he knew what, but there had to be something.  He strode down the board sidewalk to her door.  He’d just lifted his hand to knock when he heard her sobbing, “Aren’t you ever going to stop?”

Abruptly, he made up his mind.  Let Pa say what he would.  They couldn’t just leave the poor girl alone to deal with this.  He rapped sharply and opened the door.  “Come on,” he said above the din.  “You’re coming with me.”

“What?  What are you talking about?”  Her face was nearly as red as her son’s.  “Just leave us alone!  I can manage!”

“Addie, you’re exhausted,” said Joe.  “Anybody would be.  Come on.  You’re coming out to the Ponderosa.  We can help you take care of Danny, and you can get even get some rest.”  She stared, open-mouthed.  Joe held out his hands.  “Give him to me and get some things together for both of you.  Come on, let’s go.  It’s already late.”

“But—what will your father say?”

“Pa won’t mind,” Joe lied.  He tried not to picture his father’s face when he brought a screaming baby into the house.  I couldn’t just leave them there, he argued silently.  “Besides, Pa knows all about colic.  He says I had it when I was little.  Maybe he’ll know something you can do for Danny.  Now, hand him over and get packed.”  He was bluffing big now, but he didn’t have a choice.  If she knew how Pa felt, she wouldn’t go anywhere near the Ponderosa.

She handed him the screaming, squirming, damp bundle that was her son and disappeared into the next room as Joe tried to figure out the right way to hold him.  “How’s that?” he asked the baby as he laid him on his back, head resting in the crook of Joe’s elbow.  He put his other hand under the baby and immediately drew it back.  “Do you have a dry diaper?” he called.

“What?”  She appeared in the doorway.

“A dry diaper.  This one’s . . . not good.”

Her eyes widened as though she’d never heard of such a thing, and a fresh onslaught of tears began.  Moments later, she was removing one of the wettest, smelliest diapers Joe had ever seen from her son.  “I’m sorry, Danny, I’m so sorry,” she sobbed.

“Take it easy, he’s okay,” said Joe.  He tried not to cringe too much as he took the diaper.  “Where does this go?”

“In the bucket over there,” she said, but he could hardly understand her through her crying.  He thought she said, “Bring me some water and a cloth,” so he did.  As he brought them to the table where poor Danny lay, she was saying, “Oh, you poor little one.  I can’t believe I never thought—I just figured it was the colic—I’m so sorry, sweetheart—”

“Ssssh,” Joe said.  “He’s fine.  Go sit down for a minute, and I’ll do this.”  Remarkably, she did, leaving Joe to figure out how to clean and change the baby.

It probably took him about four times as long as it would have taken Addie, but eventually, the baby was clean and dry—and quiet.  His mother, however, was not so easily consoled.  “I can’t believe I did that,” she wept.  “All he needed was changing, and I never even thought—I’m a terrible mother.  The Wagners should take him.  I can’t do anything right.  I’m so awful.  My poor little boy, wearing that dreadful diaper all this time and I never even realized—”

“Addie.  Enough.”  Joe kept his voice gentle as he rested his hand on her shoulder.  “You’re a fine mother.  You’re just worn out, that’s all.  Now, get your things, and let’s get going.”

She gulped and sniffled.  “You don’t have to do that,” she said.  “We’re fine now.  We’ll be fine.”

“You’re exhausted,” Joe said.  “I’m not leaving you here all alone.  You come out to the Ponderosa, and tomorrow, we’ll have a couple of Hop Sing’s cousins come in and put the house in order.  Then, when you’ve had a chance to rest, you and Danny can come home.”

She looked up at him with something akin to wonder in her eyes.  Her round face was red and shiny, most of her hair was loose, and the front of her dress was damp.  Her lips were trembling, and she sniffled again.  She wasn’t even remotely appealing–quite the opposite at the moment–but  he couldn’t just leave her here.  It would be like leaving a calf stuck in a mud bog.  He’d always been taught that if you could help, you should.  All right, then.  He could help, and he would.  And if Pa didn’t like it, then . . . well, he’d worry about that later.

Half an hour later, he was driving a rented buggy along a moonlit road while Addie and Danny slept beside him and Cochise trotted along, tied to the back.  Pa was going to have his hide, but even he would have to admit that there was nothing else Joe could have done.  He tried to remember how much money he had in the box on his bureau and whether that would be enough to pay to have one of Hop Sing’s cousins go over to Addie’s house to clean and do the laundry a couple of times a week.  He cringed as he imagined the look on Hop Sing’s face when he brought a baby into the house.  Pa wasn’t the only one who wasn’t going to be happy; the last time there had been a baby in the house, when Hoss and Joe had found that Shoshone girl when they were hunting and they brought home the girl and her baby, Hop Sing had been fit to be tied.  But there wasn’t anything to be done about it now.  Maybe he’d be able to think of a nice gift for Hop Sing to smooth things over.  He’d have to get over to the Chinese section of town and see if somebody could suggest something.  And as for his brothers—well, Hoss would try to help, but if the baby kept Adam up at night, it wasn’t going to be good.  Adam was grumpy enough in the morning when he’d had a good night’s sleep.  When his night got interrupted, the breakfast table could be a dangerous place.

The baby made a small noise, and Joe froze.  “Don’t,” he whispered.  All he needed was to drive into the yard with the baby already screaming, and they’d all end up sleeping in the barn.  Well, maybe not Addie and the baby, but certainly Joe.  His brothers would see to that.

All too soon, they were in the front yard.  Please, oh, please be asleep, he begged even though the lights in the living room windows made it clear that his plea was futile.  “We’re here,” he whispered to Addie.  “I’ll take you inside, and then I’ve got to tend the horses.”

“Huh?”  She blinked several times, and then she smiled.  “That was nice,” she murmured.  “I haven’t slept that much at one time in weeks.”  She peered at Danny and her smile widened.  “Ahhh,” she breathed.  “Here, hold him while I get down, but don’t jiggle him or you’ll wake him up.”  She handed the baby to Joe, who sat rigidly until she was standing on the ground and reaching for Danny.  “That’s it, punkin, you be a good boy,” she whispered.  The baby made another noise, and she and Joe stared wide-eyed at each other.  “Quiet, honey,” she whispered more urgently, but the baby began to whimper.  “Ssssh, Danny, you’re all right,” she said, but the increasing agitation belied her words.

The front door opened, and Joe closed his eyes.  Before he could do anything more than open them to see his father’s silhouette in the doorway, Danny’s whimper burst into full-throated wailing.  Addie jiggled him frantically, and Joe’s shoulders slumped in defeat.

“Who’s there?” called Pa.

“It’s me, Pa,” Joe called over the baby’s cries.

“Joseph, what—?”  But Pa didn’t continue, because the answer was already too obvious.  Joe climbed out of the buggy as his father approached Addie.  “Why don’t you take him in the house?” Pa said as though she were an expected guest—which, Joe figured, she just might have been.  Then, Pa came near enough for Joe to see the fire in his eyes.  “I take it Mrs. Wagner and her child have a satchel?”

Joe swallowed hard and nodded as he reached into the buggy and removed the bag.  He held it out to his father, who snatched it from his grasp.  “Here’s the extra diapers,” Joe half-whispered, holding out a second bag.  As his father grabbed that one, Joe gave silent thanks for the fact that he was too old to be tanned.  Otherwise, he’d probably have ended up in the barn with Pa and his belt.

“Put the horses away.”  Pa bit off the words.  “I’ll have Hop Sing take care of your guests, and then I will be out to see you in the barn.  You and I need to talk.”

Joe gulped.  Somehow, it didn’t sound from Pa’s ominous tone as though he would have much of an opportunity to speak during this talk.  I’m too old to be tanned,he reminded himself, but as Pa turned on his heel and marched into the house, he couldn’t help wondering whether Pa would agree.

He was grooming the rented horse when Pa came back into the barn and closed the door.  His stomach dropped, but he kept working.

“I thought we had this discussion last night,” Pa began.

“I know,” said Joe, swallowing hard.  He turned to face his father.  “But, Pa, if you’d seen her there—you couldn’t have left her, either.  She’s so tired, and the baby cries all the time, and—she needs help.  She says he has colic.  You remember what that was like, don’t you?”  He watched as understanding, sympathy and dread crossed his father’s face.  “You said it took all four of you to handle me until it was past.  She doesn’t have anybody, Pa.  I don’t know how much use Philip was anyway, but it’s just her now.  The Wagners don’t help at all.  Everything’s on her, and—I couldn’t just leave her there like that.”  Pa wasn’t saying anything, so Joe pressed on.  “You won’t have to do anything, honest.  I’ll help her.  And you’ll like him.  He’s cute when he’s sleeping.”

“Your mother used to say that about you.”  Pa’s voice was unexpectedly gentle.

Joe decided to risk a tiny joke.  “What about you?  What did you think of me?”

“I’ll let you know when I decide,” said Pa dryly.  He shook his head as though dealing with a lost cause.  His weathered face grew serious.  “Son, this isn’t a permanent solution.  Addie has to work this out herself.”

“I know,” said Joe.  “I just thought that maybe, if she could get a few days to rest, she’d be able to handle it all better.  I think she’s kind of overwhelmed right now.  Even if she didn’t like Philip, he was her husband and he’s dead.”

“She didn’t like him?”  Pa looked so surprised that Joe bit his lip.

“I probably wasn’t supposed to say anything,” he said.  “Don’t tell her I told you.”

“Of course not,” said Pa.  “And you’re right—no matter how she felt about him, losing him is probably still hard, especially at her age.”  He shook his head.  “I still don’t think we should be involved in this, but it appears we don’t have a choice now.”  The stern look was back.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” said Joe, and he meant it.  He still didn’t understand why Pa didn’t think they should be involved, but he could see that something was troubling Pa beyond the obvious.

Pa looked as though he was going to say something serious, but then he smiled.  “It looks as though you’re finally going to learn to diaper a baby.”

“I already did,” Joe said.  “When I went back to Addie’s tonight, Danny’s diaper was messy, and I changed him.”  He wrinkled his nose at the memory, and Pa laughed.

“Luckily, babies have other things about them that make up for the diapers,” he chuckled.  He grew serious again.  “Just be careful, son.”

“About what?”

“About getting yourself into—well, something you’re not—”  Pa broke off as though unsure how to finish.  Joe peered at him, but he didn’t continue.  Instead, he said, “Make sure the buggy’s ready to go.”

“What—you’re not sending them home tonight?”  Joe’s eyes widened in horror.

To his shock, Pa laughed.  “No, Joseph, I’m not,” he said.  “But one of the things that we found that worked to calm you down was riding in the buggy.  I have no idea why, but it helped.  Fact is, you and I spent a lot of time driving up and down the road at night.”

“That’s why he slept until we got here.”  Joe felt as though he’d made a major discovery.

“Quite possibly,” Pa said.  “So, just be ready.  You and Danny may be going for quite a few rides until he settles down.”

“I can do that.”  Relieved, Joe turned back to the horse and began to brush.  If that was all there was to taking care of a baby, he could get Addie and Danny settled in no time at all.  As Pa opened the door, Joe turned to face him.  “Pa.”  When Pa paused, Joe said, “I thought you were coming out here to tan me for disobeying you.”

“It crossed my mind,” Pa said with a small smile.

Joe knew he should just keep quiet, but he had to ask.  “Why didn’t you?”

Pa’s smile widened.  “Finish the horses, Joe.”

“But—”  The word faded as Joe tried to sort out what he was seeing in Pa’s eyes.

“Finish the horses.”  Pa left the barn, and Joe watched after him until he heard the faint sound of the front door closing.

* * *

Shortly after sunup, three bleary-eyed Cartwrights gathered at the breakfast table.  The soft colors of the morning sky went unnoticed as Danny Wagner screamed from upstairs.  Somewhere around one in the morning, Adam and Hoss had taken their pillows and blankets and retreated to the barn.  Ben had longed to follow, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the baby with an exhausted young mother and a clearly-terrified Joe.  So, he’d dug deep into his memory, trying to recall anything he and Marie had done when their youngest had sounded the same.

“Where’s Little Joe?” Hoss mumbled.

“Probably hiding so that we don’t kill him,” snapped Adam.

“He’s hitching up the buggy,” Ben yawned.  “They’re going to try another ride.”

“I thought that used to work better.”  Hoss downed his coffee in one gulp and refilled his cup.

“Nothing’s perfect with colic,” said Ben.  “Buggy rides only worked about half the time with Little Joe.  Otherwise, the child probably wouldn’t have seen the inside of the house until he was a year old.”  He yawned again.  “I want you boys to go into town and bring back Mrs. Guthrie.  If this ranch is to have any hope of running while those two are here, we’ll need a woman to help out.”

“We’ll send her out first thing,” said Adam.

“‘Send’?”  His father raised his eyebrows.

“You don’t think we’re staying here through this siege, do you?”  Adam shoveled a load of eggs onto his plate.

“You most certainly are,” said Ben in a tone that would brook no interference.  “If I’m here, you’re here.”  He leveled a look at his eldest son that Adam held for a long minute before conceding by dropping his eyes.

Two hours later, Adam and Hoss stood at Harriet Guthrie’s door.  Adam could almost taste relief.  He was old enough to remember Joe as an infant, and it was not a sweet memory.  Not that the kid hadn’t been cute enough, but the incessant screaming had nearly driven them all mad.  Ironically, it had been that experience that led Adam to appreciate his stepmother, who had spent the most time with her son.  Up to that point, he’d dismissed her as a silly bit of fluff, but her determination and grit in handling a colicky baby changed his opinion.  If she could live through that, he’d figured, she was all right.

Their knock was greeted moments later by Mrs. Guthrie.  She was a widow whose children were grown and who now cared for the rest of the town.  Many families in Virginia City hired her to help out with household chores and child care.  The Cartwrights routinely brought her out to the Ponderosa when Hop Sing was away.

“Good morning, Adam, Hoss,” she said.  “Won’t you come in?”

The men stepped into her immaculate home.  Her own house was the best possible advertisement for her services.  “Good morning, Mrs. Guthrie,” said Adam.  “We were wondering if you might be available to help out at the Ponderosa for a few days.”

“Certainly,” said Mrs. Guthrie.  “How long will Hop Sing be away this time?”

“It ain’t Hop Sing, ma’am,” said Hoss.  “See, we got a houseguest and she’s got a baby that’s kind of a handful, and we were hopin’ you’d be able to help out.”

“Of course,” said Mrs. Guthrie.  “I raised seven children of my own, and I’ve probably tended half the children in Virginia City at one time or another.  Just let me gather my things.”

“That’s a relief,” said Adam.  “You know how to handle colic, right?”

Mrs. Guthrie smiled.  “Adam, nobody ‘handles’ colic,” she said.  “You just get through it.  How long will the lady be staying with you?”

“Probably not too long,” said Hoss.  “Just until she gets back on her feet.  She’s pretty young, and she just lost her husband, so she’s stayin’ out at the Ponderosa ‘til she can catch her breath.”

Mrs. Guthrie paused in the act of retrieving a fresh apron from the breakfront.  She narrowed her eyes.  “Who is this young lady?”

“Addie Wagner,” said Adam.  Something in Mrs. Guthrie’s expression shifted.  “Is there a problem?”

“As it turns out, I won’t be able to help after all,” said Mrs. Guthrie.  “I trust you will find someone else to assist you.”

“But, Mrs. Guthrie!”  Hoss was confused.  She’d just said—  “I don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” said Mrs. Guthrie.  “But I won’t have anything to do with a girl like that.”

“A girl like what?”  There was a touch of steel in Adam’s voice.

Mrs. Guthrie drew herself up to her full height of nearly five feet.  “That girl is the reason that the Wagner boys died,” she said.  “If she hadn’t seduced Philip, he’d have been at the university, and Thomas would have followed.  Instead, she forced Philip into marriage, and he had to abandon a promising future to support her and her—child.”  She spat the word out as though it was the worst obscenity.  “When I think what this disgrace, this tragedy—when I think of what it’s done to Philip’s dear parents—such fine, upstanding people—I can’t believe that you Cartwrights are taking that little hussy’s side.  Obviously, she’s not fit to raise a child, or you wouldn’t be here asking me to help.”

“She’s a young mother with no husband and a colicky baby,” said Adam, the steel hardening.  “And that’s why she needs help, and that’s why we’re helping her.  We’re not taking anybody’s side, except maybe that child’s.”

“If you want to do what’s best for that child, you’ll take him to his grandparents so that he can be raised properly!”  Harriet Guthrie’s eyes were flashing.  “And you’ll tell your father to make sure that she stays away from Little Joe.”

“Where did you ever get the notion that anybody can ‘tell’ my father anything—especially about Little Joe?” asked Adam.

“Don’t you get fresh with me, Adam Cartwright!  That girl already snagged one rich husband and destroyed his life.  Do you think for one minute that she doesn’t have her eye on Husband Number Two?  Little Joe would be a mighty fine catch for the likes of her, and don’t you think for one minute that she doesn’t know it!  Why, she likely started setting her cap for him before Philip was even cold—and don’t think she wouldn’t ruin Little Joe’s life the same way she did to poor Philip!”

“Wait a minute, ma’am,” Hoss began, but Adam took his arm.

“Let’s go, Hoss,” he said, his voice now fully hardened.  “Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Guthrie, but don’t worry.  It won’t happen again.”  He held her eyes until he saw a hint of worry as his meaning became clear.

“I’d certainly be happy to help you out in the future when Hop Sing is traveling,” she said hastily.

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” said Adam.  “Come on, Hoss.  Good day, ma’am.”  He touched the brim of his hat and led the way out, ignoring her sputters of protest and indignation.

Out on the sidewalk, the brothers regarded each other.  “Now what?” Hoss asked after a minute.

Adam shook his head.  “If that’s how Harriet Guthrie feels, it’s a pretty sure bet that’s how most of the ladies feel.”

“And I reckon everybody in town’s gonna know by noon that Addie’s out at our place,” said Hoss.  “How come this whole thing’s her fault, anyway?”

“It isn’t,” said Adam.  “But Philip was a man.  It’s a different standard.”

“It don’t make sense to me,” Hoss grumbled.

“Or to me, but that’s just how it is,” said Adam.  “The question is what we do now.”

Hoss thought for a minute.  Then, he snapped his fingers.  “I bet ol’ Hop Sing’s got some cousins who wouldn’t mind a few days work.”  Then, his round face grew somber.  “Or do you figure they’d be like Mrs. Guthrie?”

Adam grinned.  “They’re in a different part of town,” he reminded Hoss.  “They probably don’t know or care who the Wagners are.  Even if they do, I don’t imagine any of them would dare to face Hop Sing if they turned us down.”

“Then, come on!” Hoss crowed.  “Let’s go round up a few cousins!”

* * *

Exhausted, Ben closed the ledger.  Hop Sing’s cousins had been godsends, but in the end, four days of a colicky baby had brought back all too vividly the memories of his youngest son’s infancy.  It was one thing when it was your own child, Ben reflected.  It was quite another when the screaming infant was an unplanned houseguest whose visit had no end in sight.

To his credit, Joe was trying.  For someone who had never before held a baby, Joe had become passably good at rocking and diaper-changing.  Hop Sing prepared rice cereal for the child twice a day, and if Joe wasn’t yet an expert at getting the food into Danny’s mouth, he was making progress.  Ben recalled the unending frustration of scooping food back into baby Joe’s mouth as quickly as he spit it out, and it gave him no small satisfaction to see his son doing the same as he coaxed, wheedled and begged the baby to eat.

For the first day, Joe had insisted that Addie rest, that he and Hop Sing could handle the baby.  While he had obviously been relying heavily on the Chinaman’s skills in making that boast, the fact was that he was correct:  the girl was exhausted, and she needed rest.  Although there were, of course, some tasks that she couldn’t delegate, and she was understandably nervous about leaving her son to anyone else’s care, it soon became apparent that the prospect of truly resting was so attractive to the young mother that she was willing to set aside her concerns.  Ben suspected that her willingness to hand over her son had less to do with her faith in Joe than it did with her confidence in his father, his brothers, and Hop Sing.

Fortunately for Danny Wagner, when he wasn’t screaming, he had all the charm of a storybook baby.  His cheeks were chubby, his blue eyes round and surprisingly alert, his noises as soft as the coo of a dove.  He would grab at a finger being waved in front of him, and if he caught it, he would hold it with all his tiny might.  He had a froth of fine blond curls that he had clearly inherited from his father and a dimple in his left cheek that had apparently come from his mother.  More than once, as Ben sat in the red leather armchair, reading and holding Danny, he discovered that the baby had fallen asleep in his arms and was making tiny bubble noises.  It was enough to make him miss the days when his own boys—even Little Joe—had been that age.

As he’d walked the floor with Danny the night before, Ben found himself imagining the day when he would do so with his own grandchild.  In such moments, he pondered the fact that neither Adam nor Hoss had as yet found a woman to marry.  Well, perhaps that wasn’t quite true; Hoss would have married Emily Pendleton, and Adam might well have wed Sue Ellen Terry.  Sadly, neither girl had survived even to the asking.  At the rate things were going, the first Cartwright grandchild might well come from Little Joe.  Ben shuddered at the thought of his seventeen-year-old son taking on a home and family.  While he was well aware that some seventeen-year-olds managed such a thing, it was his personal belief that most of them—including his son—were simply too young for such responsibilities.

After all, look at Philip and Addie.  Philip had barely been seventeen when they wed, and Addie hadn’t even been sixteen.  Just from the little bit Joe had said, Ben’s impression was that that marriage had not been a happy one.  They were mere children, thrown together by circumstances neither had apparently foreseen.  Still, Ben didn’t have the impression that Addie particularly missed her husband.  She certainly didn’t act as though she was heartbroken by the loss of him.  At most, she seemed angry that he had left her alone to do battle with his parents.

Well, that was none of the Cartwrights’ business, Ben told himself firmly.  The sooner Addie could pull herself together and take her child home, the better things would be for all of them.  Either that, or the sooner she admitted that the best thing for her son was to hand him over to his grandparents, who would take excellent care of him and would raise him to be every bit as fine as their own sons had been.

“Mistah Cahtlight!”

Ben’s reverie was broken by an irritated Hop Sing.  Although Ben had caught the little man holding and singing to the baby on several occasions, Hop Sing’s official attitude remained one of annoyance at the undeniable increase in his workload as a result of having this non-housebroken creature in his house.

“What is it, Hop Sing?”  Ben allowed a note of weariness to creep into his voice in the hope that it might slow their worthy down.

It did not.  “Hop Sing need diapers!” the little man announced.

Ben resisted the urge to say that he seriously doubted this statement:  while it was quite probable that little Danny needed diapers, it was most unlikely that Hop Sing was similarly afflicted.  Knowing that Hop Sing would not see the humor, however, Ben contented himself with dealing with the meaning of the pronouncement.  “I thought your cousin was taking care of that.”

“Chun Xi go back to Virginia City, work in honorable father’s laundry today!  Hop Sing not have cousin to wash diaper fast enough!  All diaper washed and hanging up, no diaper dry!”

This was unquestionably a problem.  “How many clean diapers are left?”

Hop Sing frowned.  “Two,” he said.  The word was almost a dare.

“I’ll send one of the boys to town,” said Ben.  There was probably something in the house that Hop Sing could have cut up to serve the purpose, but Ben wasn’t about to suggest it.  “Is there anything else you need?”

“Hop Sing need Mistah Cahtlight send baby back to home, leave Hop Sing to run Ponderosa in peace!”  The little man’s pigtail swung emphatically as he turned on his heel and stomped back to the kitchen.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Ben, but not all that loudly.  The truth was that if it hadn’t been for the colic and the controversy surrounding the baby, he wouldn’t have minded having him here indefinitely.  Until he could get some grandchildren of his own, Danny Wagner was an excellent stand-in.

Not that he would let Joseph know this, however.  The last thing he needed was to have his son treat the Ponderosa as a home for husbandless mothers and their offspring.  His boys—Hoss especially, but all of them to one extent or another—already had a tendency to bring home any unfortunate person whose hard-luck story touched their hearts.  No, he wouldn’t let Little Joe know that he found anything positive in their current living situation.

“Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” said Addie.  Ben looked up to see the girl and her child coming down the stairs.  Just a few days’ rest had done wonders for her.  Already, she looked more peaceful, less disheveled.  She was more plain than pretty, but she certainly had a more pleasant appearance than she had when she arrived.

His smile widened as she approached.  “How’s he doing?” Ben asked

“He’s just fine,” she said.  “I wonder whether—would it be all right if—I mean, would you mind—”

Ben chuckled and reached for the baby.  “I’d be delighted,” he said.  “Hello, Danny.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Addie.  “I remember somebody telling me that babies should be held by lots of people so that they don’t get to the point where they’re so attached to one person that nobody else can hold them.”

Ben chuckled again.  He didn’t remember hearing any such thing, but if agreeing meant that he got to hold Danny, that was good enough.  “In that case, maybe Danny and I will go out on the porch, and you can take a nap.”

“Oh, that’s lovely, Mr. Cartwright, but I can’t,” Addie said.  “I’m going to make some of that rice cereal for Danny’s lunch.  Hop Sing shouldn’t have to do everything for us.”  She darted away before Ben could respond.

“Well, little man, it looks as though it’s just the two of us,” said Ben.  The baby cooed at him, and his heart swelled.

No two ways about it:  his sons were going to need to start producing grandchildren soon, or he was going to have to take drastic action.

* * *

“I’m going to put him down,” said Addie, rising from the settee.  It had been a lovely peaceful evening.  Danny had been the focus of everybody’s attention, and for once, he hadn’t even spent the evening howling.  Hop Sing had insisted that his special rice cereal would cure Danny’s colic, and while “cure” might have been overstating the result, there was no question that the flare-ups were less frequent.  Doc Martin had told them that colic went away on its own and that while it sometimes resolved by the time a baby was only a few months old, there was no set timetable.

“If someone could invent a cure for colic, I guarantee he’d become a millionaire,” the doctor had said as the baby wailed in the next room.

But tonight, Danny was as sweet-tempered as Hoss had been at that age.  He burbled and laughed and grabbed at the toys Joe and Hoss dangled in front of him.  He watched intently as Adam sang, and he snuggled in Ben’s arms as his mother looked on proudly.  It was as tranquil a domestic scene as any of them could have asked for.  Finally, they all waved and called good night to Danny as Addie carried him up the stairs.

Once the pair was safely out of earshot, Hoss said, “She’s doin’ a lot better with him.  You reckon the worst is past?”

Ben smiled.  “I don’t know about ‘the worst,’ but she’s still facing a great many challenges.  Raising a child by yourself is one of the toughest jobs there is.”

“Lucky for you we were all such angels,” Joe quipped.

“You especially,” Adam retorted.  “The quietest, most obedient child the Almighty ever created.”

“I don’t believe I’ve met that Joseph,” Ben said.

“That’s ‘cause there ain’t no such person!” Hoss chortled.

“Hey!” Joe protested, laughing.

“Ssssh!  Don’t wake the baby!” Ben hushed his sons.

“He’s a cute little fellow,” Hoss mused after a minute.  “I think him and Addie’s gonna be okay.”

“What I don’t understand is how she and Philip got together in the first place,” said Adam.  “How on earth did a girl like Addie wind up with Philip Wagner?”

“It was a bet.”

For an instant, none of them moved.  Then, they turned as one to see the girl standing on the landing.

“Addie, I’m so sorry,” said Ben.  “We didn’t mean—”

“Of course, you did,” she said.  “Everybody has wondered from the moment we said we were getting married.  I’ve heard it whispered a thousand times.  But nobody’s ever actually asked me.  And that’s the answer.  It was a bet.”

“I don’t understand,” said Ben carefully.  He had a horrible feeling that he did understand, but he hoped for the girl’s sake that he was wrong.

She came down the stairs.  For a long moment, she stood at the foot of the staircase.  She met each one’s eyes squarely.  Then, she said, “I’m not pretty, Mr. Cartwright.  And I’m too smart for my own good.  That’s what my mother used to tell me, and she was right.  If I’d been plain and stupid, maybe I wouldn’t have understood.  But plain and smart . . . it’s about the worst hand a girl can be dealt.”

“Wouldn’t have understood what?” asked Joe.  He rose from the blue chair and gestured for her to sit.  With a sad, sad look in her eyes, she did.

“That there are two kinds of people in the world,” Addie said.  “No, not rich and poor, or haves and have-nots.  There are the fortunate and not-fortunate.  And those two types don’t mix.”  She leaned back as though preparing to tell a story.  “Philip was one of the fortunate ones.  He was like you, Little Joe.  You both had everything—charm, wit, looks, social position—and appearance, of course.  Everybody wanted to be your friend.  I remember watching both of you.  It seemed like every week, you had a different girl on your arm.  Always a pretty one.  Never one like me.”

“But—” Joe began, but Addie shook her head.

“Tell the truth, Joe,” she said.  “You never really noticed me.  You knew I was there, and you were perfectly pleasant to me, but it never would have occurred to you to ask to walk me home or go to a social or anything like that.  I wasn’t one of those girls.  Not for you, anyway.  And that was all right.  I knew my place, and it wasn’t at picnics and socials.  Because I had a plan.  I was working at the mercantile, and I was trying to earn money to leave Virginia City.  I was going to go to San Francisco or someplace else where girls could study, and I was going to go to college.  I could have done it.  I’m smart enough.”  She looked to Adam for confirmation, and he nodded.

“But one day, when I was leaving the mercantile, there was Philip.  I started to say hello and just walk past, but he stopped me.  He wanted to talk to me.”  She looked around as though to impress on them what this meant.  “We’d been in school together for years, and he’d barely said hello to me, and all of a sudden, he wanted to talk to me.  I didn’t know what to make of it.  He asked whether I would take a walk with him, just like I was one of the pretty girls.  We walked down C Street, and at one point, he took my hand and placed it on his arm, the way he would have if we were courting.  My head was spinning.  All those years of reading stories where the handsome young prince rescues the girl who seemed to be doomed to a life of drudgery—well, my mother always said reading would be my downfall, and it turned out she was right.  Because I thought—just for that little bit of time—that all those romantic tales were coming true.”

“Addie, you don’t have to—” Ben began, but she shook her head.

“I’ve never said it out loud before, Mr. Cartwright,” she said.  “And I’ll probably never say it again.  So just this once, I’ll tell it.”

“You don’t have to, Addie.”  Joe’s voice was quiet, but it fairly vibrated with guilt and pain.

Remarkably, she smiled.  “I think I want to—if that’s all right.”

“Of course, it is,” said Hoss in a voice that dared anybody to disagree.

“There’s not that much to tell.  He asked if I wanted to go for a buggy ride, and I went.  When we got to a secluded spot, he kissed me.  I knew I should be indignant, but it was the first time in my life any boy ever wanted to kiss me, and I was afraid that if I said he couldn’t, he’d take me home and never talk to me again and my fairy tale would be over before it had even begun.  And when he touched me . . . well, it was the same.”  Tears welled up in her eyes, and Hoss stood up.

“We understand, Miss Addie,” he said firmly.  “You don’t gotta say nothin’ else.”

“You’re very sweet,” she said.  She waited until Hoss sat down again before she continued.  “It was like I said.  He had a bet going with some other boys about how fast he could get a girl to. . . .”  She swallowed hard.

“If he wasn’t dead, I’d kill him.”  Joe’s voice was barely audible.  The others nodded their assent, but Addie didn’t seem to notice.

“Ten dollars,” she said after a long minute.  “He got ten dollars for . . . my virtue.”  She gave a short, humorless bark of a laugh.  “Six weeks later . . . I hadn’t seen him since that afternoon.  I’d written him letters—pages and pages—and he’d never responded.  I knew I felt dreadful and sick, but I didn’t know—I thought I was just heartbroken—but somehow, my mother figured it out.  Even then, I wasn’t going to tell her who.  I thought I loved him.  I thought I was protecting him.”  Tears were falling now, but her voice remained steady.  “Then one day, a whole crowd of Philip’s friends came into the mercantile.  Homer Cassidy and Marcus Stubbs and Jake Fuller and Philip’s brother, Tom.  I was kneeling behind the counter, putting away some fabric, and they couldn’t see me, so they didn’t bother whispering.  Homer told Marcus and Jake about how Philip was so good with the ladies that they’d made a bet about how fast he could . . . well, and that Philip had won it with the girl from this very store—and they were all laughing about it.  I just stayed there—I couldn’t move.  I felt . . . frozen.”  Unexpectedly, she laughed—a harsh, humorless sound—but her eyes glistened.  “And then, Tom said something—something about me, and whether he could try that bet.  That shocked me enough that I stood up, and I looked right at them.  Homer went white as a sheet.  I thought Tom was going to faint.  Marcus and Jake just looked confused, like I couldn’t possibly be the girl Homer was talking about.  We all just stood there.  Finally, I said, ‘Philip’s getting more than just his money.  He’s going to be a father.’”

“Good for you,” said Adam, handing her a handkerchief.

“And then, I got sick all over the counter,” she added.

“Too bad it wasn’t on Homer and the rest of them,” Joe said.

“I thought about that afterward,” Addie said.  She wiped her eyes and dabbed at her nose as she continued, “That night, Philip and his father came to our house.  His father offered me money to leave town, but Philip . . . it was the oddest thing.  He must have felt guilty, because he said that if marriage was what I wanted, he’d do it.  His father tried to say that he might not—that it might be someone else—but he said no, he was sure.  It was the closest he ever came to being decent about the whole thing.”  She blew her nose.  “My parents insisted that he marry me, so that’s what we did, obviously.  And here we are.”  She looked from one Cartwright to another, but none of the men seemed to know what to say.

“So, that’s the whole pathetic story,” she added, rising.  “I’m sure it’s wrong to be glad that Philip is dead, but the truth is all he ever gave us was his name and his wages.  There was no affection, no tenderness—not for either of us.  He barely spoke to me.  He never touched me again.  For more than a year, we lived in the same house, and he never touched me.  I can’t say for sure whether he ever even held his son.  He hated me, and he hated Danny.  He blamed us for ruining his life.”

“He blamed you?”  Joe sounded appalled.

Addie nodded.  “He told me once that even though he made the offer, he never expected that I’d take him up on it.  He said he thought I had more pride than that.  I told him it wasn’t about pride.  I just didn’t want my son to be a bastard.”  She lifted her chin in defiance as she spoke the word.

Then, she sighed.  “I suppose I’ll have to come up with some sort of a story for Danny when he’s old enough to ask about his father.”  She met Ben’s eyes.  “Do I have to tell him the truth, or can I make something up?”  Her voice grew wistful:  “I’d like him to believe that he was born out of love, not a schoolboy prank.”

“Addie, I’m so sorry,” said Ben.

“And now, they want to take him away from me because they want to raise him to be just like Philip.”  She practically spat the last words.  Then, she rose, her head held high, and made her pronouncement:  “I’ll see them in hell first.”  She turned on her heel and went upstairs.

After a long silence, Joe glared at his father.  “Do you still think the Wagners should raise Danny?”

“Joe, they’re not responsible for what Philip did,” Adam said.

“Why not?” Joe demanded.  “They’re the ones who taught him right from wrong.  And a piss-poor job they did of it, too.”

“So, when you mess up, is that Pa’s fault?” Adam asked.

“Of course not,” said Joe.  “But I’d never do anything like that, because Pa did teach me right from wrong.  Obviously, the Wagners didn’t teach their boys the kind of things we learned.”

“It’s not that simple, Joseph,” said Ben.  “Just because someone uses bad judgment doesn’t mean that his parents did a poor job of raising him.”

“Bad judgment?  That’s what you call it?  He does something like that to an innocent girl—just for fun, to see if he can—and you call it bad judgment?  How about bad character?  Or bad upbringing?  Or just being a lowdown slimy snake?”  Joe was on his feet, and he looked as though he was either going to cry or punch something.

“Sit down, son.”  Ben’s voice was unexpectedly gentle.

But Joe stared at his father as though he didn’t recognize him.  Then, before anyone could speak, he darted out of the house, pausing only long enough to grab his jacket.

“Let him go,” said Ben as Hoss rose to follow.  “He’s got a lot of thinking to do.”

“What do you mean?”  Adam asked.

“I expect some of Addie’s tale hit a little too close to home,” said Ben.

“What are you talkin’ about?  Joe would never do anything like Philip did.”  Hoss was aghast at the thought.

“No, he wouldn’t,” Ben agreed.  “At least, he’d never intentionally hurt someone.  I’m sure of that.”

“Then what?” Adam prodded when his father fell silent.

“I suspect that your brother’s probably had his share of . . . well, plain girls . . . who’ve had feelings for him and whom he simply never thought about or even noticed.  For all we know, Addie might be one of them.  And now, he’s seeing one of those girls as a real person, with her own thoughts and feelings—and I expect he’s feeling a little guilty at how easily he dismissed them.”

“I wonder whether he might even be a little worried,” Adam mused.  “For all he knows now, he might have led them on just by being polite.  He’s probably broken some hearts without ever knowing he did it.”

“I remember that little gal who used to follow him down the street when he was about fourteen,” Hoss said.  “I think her pa was the undertaker back then.  She was always makin’ cow eyes at Little Joe.  I used to tease him about her, an’ he’d just shrug and say it wasn’t anything.  I’m thinkin’ now that it might not have been anything for him, but maybe it was for her.”  His voice trailed off as he added, “I don’t know if he even knew her name.”

“I just hope he doesn’t decide that this is a good time to atone for his past sins,” said Adam.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“He’s already rescued Addie once.  What better way to make up to all those plain girls he’s ignored than to marry one?”

“But—he doesn’t have feelings for her, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have any for him,” said Ben.

“You’re forgetting.  That’s Sir Galahad out there,” said Adam.  “Give him a chance to rescue a damsel in distress—especially one who’s been wronged by an evil prince—and I can pretty much guarantee he’ll figure out a way to convince himself he loves her.”

“Oh, heavens, I hope not.”  For something to do, Ben went over to the table where he kept his pipes and tobacco.  Carefully, he selected a pipe, filled it, lit it, and drew on it.  When he could exact no more from the ritual, he turned back to his sons.

“What would be so wrong with Joe marrying Addie?” Hoss asked unexpectedly.  “She’s a fine little gal, and Danny’s a cute young’un.”

“She’s a very fine girl,” said Ben.  “And if things were different, I wouldn’t object at all.”

“Different how?” Adam asked.  “She was married when the baby was born.  There’s no issue there.”

“I wasn’t thinking about that,” said Ben.  “But Addie’s already married one man she didn’t love because she didn’t think she had a choice.  If Joe proposes, I’m sure she’ll say yes just because he’s decent and kind and will provide for her son.  But they deserve better than that, both of them.  They deserve to be with people they truly love, and who truly love them.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said Adam.  “I just hope they think that clearly about the whole thing.”  He rose, stretching.  “I’m going to turn in.”

“I think I will, too,” said Hoss with an enormous yawn.  “You coming, Pa?”

“I’m going to read for a little while,” said Ben.  He pretended not to see the glance his sons shared.  All right, fine.  So he was waiting up for Joe.  There was nothing wrong with that.  It was a father’s prerogative.  He bid his older sons good night and settled himself into his red chair with a book.  Maybe if he was lucky, Danny would start to cry and he could distract himself with the baby’s needs.

* * *

Ben didn’t realize that he’d dozed off until he was jolted from sleep by a noise he couldn’t identify.  He sat up in his chair, listening.  He still held the pipe which had gone out and was now quite cold.  His book was closed in his lap.  The fire had burned down and emitted only the barest crackle.

Then, he heard it again.  It sounded as though someone was outside the door, lurching unsteadily and bumping into the wall.  In an instant, drowsiness gave way to the sharpest attention, and he was on his feet before he could have articulated what he feared.

He yanked open the door to see Little Joe leaning against the wall.  His stomach dropped as the light from the living room highlighted the blood on his son’s face.  Joe was cradling his left arm with his right hand.  When the light touched him, he looked up slightly, and Ben felt his throat catch as he saw the bruises.

“Easy, son, I’ve got you,” he said.  He took Joe’s right arm and kept the boy on his feet as he got him into the house.  It wasn’t until they got inside that Ben realized it must have been raining, because Joe was soaked.  “Let’s get those wet things off you,” he said, unbuttoning Joe’s jacket as he spoke.

“Wait, I’ll do it,” Joe managed.  Still holding his left arm close to his body, the left-handed boy managed to maneuver the buttons of the jacket with his right hand.  Then, he tried to shrug his right arm out of his jacket, but he couldn’t get his shoulder free of the soggy fabric.

“Let me help,” Ben said.  He eased the jacket off and unbuttoned the boy’s shirt, so thoroughly soaked that he had to peel it off his son’s slim torso.  He reached for the button on the wet trousers, but Joe stopped him, murmuring, “Addie.”

Ben couldn’t help smiling.  He glanced up at the clock, and his smile faded.  It was past two o’clock.  Joe had left hours earlier.  It was anybody’s guess how long he’d been out in the rain.  “I’ll be right back,” he promised.  Within a few minutes, he came downstairs with the brown dressing gown that Adam and Hoss called Joe’s monk robe.  “You need to get the rest of those wet clothes off,” he said.  At Joe’s hesitation, he said, “They’re all asleep.  Addie, too.”  This time, Joe allowed him to help, and a minute later, the soggy garments lay in a pile on the floor and Ben was tying the belt of Joe’s dressing gown around his waist.

“What happened to your arm?” he asked as Joe sat on the settee and Ben perched on the table in front of him.

“My wrist,” said Joe.  “But it’s not that bad.”

“Let me see it.”  Ben pushed back Joe’s sleeve as carefully as he could manage.  The wrist was bruised and swollen, the hand and fingers puffy.  “Can you move your fingers?”  Joe obliged, biting his lip, and Ben allowed himself a moment of relief.  He felt the wrist carefully, bending it slightly this way and that.  “I think you probably just sprained it,” he said finally.  “Where else are you hurt?”

Joe shook his head.  “I’m okay.”

Ben allowed himself a lingering look at the blood and bruises on the boy’s face.  He’d noticed some bruises on Joe’s torso as he undressed, but nothing appeared to be life-threatening or causing the boy undue pain.  “I’ll be right back,” he said, rising.

Several minutes later, Ben returned with a tray that bore a bowl containing warm water, a washcloth and towel, a small bottle of arnica, another bowl of water with ice chunks, and a long strip of cloth.  “Let’s get you cleaned up,” he said, settling in for the familiar ritual.  “Put your hand in the ice water,” he said.  Wincing, Joe obeyed.  The crackling of the last embers was the only sound as Ben washed away the blood and dabbed arnica on the cuts.  When he finished, he dried Joe’s wrist and wrapped the bandage around it, pretending not to notice his son clenching his jaw against the pain.  Then, he met Joe’s gaze squarely and asked, “What happened?”

Joe looked slightly surprised, as though he’d thought he might get away without answering.  “I was on my way out of town, and I got bushwhacked,” he said.

The explanation was perfectly credible, but somehow, it was insufficient.  “Do you know who did it?”

Joe shook his head.  “I’m not even sure how many there were,” he said.  “Two or three, I think.  It’s all kinda fuzzy.”

“Did you recognize them?”

He shrugged.  “It was dark.”

“Did they take your wallet?”

Another headshake.  “They didn’t even look for money or anything.  At least, I don’t think they did.  They didn’t ask for it, and my jacket was still buttoned when I came to.”

That didn’t make sense.  “Did they say what they wanted?”  Joe pressed his lips together, looking away.  “Joseph,” said Ben.  “What did they want?  Lean forward,” he added.  Even as he asked for answers, his fingers sought different information, stroking Joe’s hair until they located the lump on the back of his head that the bushwhackers had left when they knocked Joe out.  “We’re going to need to put some ice on that,” he said.  He fished the largest chunk out of the bowl, wrapped it in the towel, and held it against the sore spot.  “Hold this,” he said, and Joe reached up with his good hand to hold the ice pack in place.  “What did they want?” he asked again.

Joe forced himself to meet his father’s eyes.  “Like I said, it’s fuzzy, but I remember somebody saying I should mind my own business.”

“Did they say why?”  A glimmer of a suspicion stiffened Ben’s spine.  He held his voice steady, but only with effort.

“They said something about ‘that Wagner kid.’  I figure that meant Danny, not Philip or Addie.  I don’t remember what else they said, except that I should mind my own business.  Next thing I remember, I was waking up on the ground and they were gone.”

A sour taste filled Ben’s mouth.  He’d have sworn that Edward Wagner was incapable of such a thing.  No matter how strongly the lawyer might have felt about getting his grandchild away from Addie, Ben would have bet his last nickel that Wagner would never hire thugs to beat up anybody, and especially not a boy.

But who else could have done it?  Were they friends of Philip Wagner’s who resented Addie?  Bad seeds floating through town who’d heard some talk and decided to jump in?  But that didn’t make sense.  Why bushwhack Little Joe?  The act seemed so random, but the message was clear and deliberate.

None of it made sense, but this wasn’t the time to try to sort it out.  Ben had a more pressing situation to take care of.  “Come on,” he said, rising.  “Let’s get you up to bed.  It’s late.”  He helped Joe to his feet and dropped the half-melted ice into the bowl.   Between Hop Sing and his cousins, someone would tend to the tray and the wet clothes in the morning.

As they climbed the stairs, Ben kept his arm around Joe to steady him.  They were nearly at the top of the stairs when the too-familiar cries of Danny Wagner began.  Joe winced, and Ben allowed himself a small smile.

“We’ll close your door,” he promised.

Joe had been focused on the floor in front of him, but now he looked up at Ben.  “Just don’t let anybody take him out for a drive,” he said with unexpected seriousness.

Ben stopped.  “You don’t think—”

Joe shrugged.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “But whoever bushwhacked me was mighty interested in Danny.  I wouldn’t want to give them a chance at him.”

“Well, in any case, we wouldn’t take him out in the rain,” said Ben.  His attempt to downplay his son’s concern felt flimsy to him, and he could see that Joe was unconvinced.  “Let’s get you into bed,” he added as though changing the subject would help.  He supported Joe, who seemed wobblier with each step, until they reached Joe’s bed.  He eased the boy onto the edge and reached under the pillow for a night shirt.  Joe was swaying as Ben undid the knot of his dressing gown tie, and so Ben slid the dressing gown off his son, got him into the night shirt, and drew back the covers without further comment.  Only when Joe was lying down, relief and worry equally obvious in his eyes, did Ben pause in his ministrations.

“You get some sleep now,” he said, stroking Joe’s hair.  “And tomorrow, I want you to take it easy.  Consider it a day off.”

But Joe shook his head.  “I’ve got to find out what this was all about.”

“No, son,” said Ben.  “I’ve got to find out what this was all about.  You’ve got to stay here and rest.  Besides, the last thing we need is for you to be laid up with a cold for the next two weeks.  There’s too much to be done around the ranch.  Just let me handle this.”

“What are you going to do?”  Even drowsy, the boy sounded unconvinced that his father could handle matters without his assistance.

“For a start, I think I need to talk to the sheriff—and maybe pay a visit to Edward Wagner.”

Joe looked pointedly at the closed door beyond which the baby cried, and he gave a soft snort.  “I think I’m going to get more rest if I go with you.”

Ben smiled.  “Let’s see how you’re feeling in the morning.”  If he had his say, the boy would spend the day in bed, but he knew from long experience that unless Joe was feeling truly miserable, he’d be up and about as soon as his father left the house anyway.

He watched his son fighting to keep his eyes open.  The bruise on his jawbone and the puffiness on his cheekbone would probably display spectacular color by morning.  For all his protestations that the sprained wrist was nothing, his left arm rested gingerly on top of the covers.  Ben suspected that he probably had a whale of a headache from the blow that had knocked him out, and lying out in the rain would likely contribute to a cold.

All because Little Joe wasn’t willing to stand by and do nothing as a young widow and her baby were struggling.

Ben felt hot anger building in his chest.  He still didn’t know what was best for Danny Wagner, and his heart still ached for the couple who had lost their boys, but a line had been crossed now.  If Edward wanted a fight, he would get one.  Ben might not have been willing to take sides before, but now. . . .

“Go to sleep, boy,” he murmured, but Little Joe was already asleep.

* * *

Hoss and Adam were already at breakfast when Ben came down the next morning.  “‘Bout time you got up,” said Hoss with a wink.  “We figured you were startin’ to take after Little Joe.”

“Who hasn’t been down yet, either,” Adam added dryly.

“I don’t expect you’ll see him this morning,” said Ben as he took his seat.  “He ran into a little trouble last night, and I’m going into town this morning to try to get to the bottom of it.”

Both brothers set down their forks.  “What happened?  Is he okay?”  Hoss’s easygoing tone vanished, replaced by the first growl of anger.

“He’ll be fine,” said Ben.  “He got bushwhacked.  Nothing too serious, but I want him to take it easy today.  You two can handle moving the herd, can’t you?”

A look darted between Adam and Hoss.  “We’ve got enough hands that one of us can handle the herd,” said Adam.  “And the other can go with you.”

“Joseph already offered to come along last night,” said Ben.  “And I’m going to tell you what I didn’t tell him:  somebody needs to stay here with Addie and Danny.”

“Why?  What’s going on?”  Adam’s gaze was intent now.

Ben sipped his coffee to delay answering.  There was no way not to tell them, though.  “Joe said that the men who bushwhacked him mentioned Danny and told Joe to mind his own business,” he said.  “So somebody needs to say here with them, just in case whoever beat up Joe decides that they want to send a more forceful message.”

“How’s Joe doing?  Is he okay to take care of them if we go to town?” asked Hoss.

“He needs to rest,” said Ben.  “He got knocked out, sprained his wrist, and spent a while lying out in the rain.  I’d rather not have him worrying about defending the Ponderosa—at least, not today.”

A sneeze from the top of the stairs caught their attention.  Moments later, Joe came into view.  As Ben had expected, his bruises had blossomed so that his handsome face bore splotches of black, purple and red.

“Dadburnit, boy!  What’d they do to you?”  Hoss was on his feet and bounding across the room.

“I’m fine,” said Joe irritably, pushing past his brother.  Not surprising, Ben reflected.  When Joe was seriously ill, he was quiet, and when he was fine, he was generally delightful.  When he was only moderately indisposed, however, he was as grouchy as a bear with a sore paw.

“What are you doing up? Ben asked as his youngest son approached the table with Hoss behind him.  “I thought I told you to rest.”

“I did rest,” said Joe.  “But I got things to do today.”

Adam gestured to the bandaged wrist.  “What do you figure you’re going to do with one hand?”

“Anything you can do with two,” Joe snapped.

“All right, simmer down,” said Ben.  “Joseph, I meant what I said.  I want you to rest up today—maybe tomorrow, too.  We’ve got a busy few weeks coming up, and you’re not going to be any good to anybody if you end up sick in bed with a cold.  So, you’ve got two choices.  Either you agree to take it easy here at home today, or I’ll put you to bed and set Hop Sing to watch you—and I don’t think either of you would enjoy that.”  He cast a stern eye at his youngest son, studiously ignoring the grins his older sons were trying to hide.

“I’m fine,” Joe muttered, defeated, and Ben hid his smile.  There had been a number of times over the years when Ben had been forced to leave Hop Sing in charge of keeping Joe from getting up from a sickbed, and the experience was never pleasant for anyone.  Between Hop Sing’s nasty-tasting ancient Chinese remedies and his young charge’s impatience at being restrained, the two who were normally so fond of each other would be practically at each other’s throats.  On one notable occasion when Joe was twelve, matters had reached the point that Hop Sing had had his bags packed and was throwing them into the buckboard by the time Ben returned.  It had been nearly impossible for Ben to understand what Hop Sing was saying, partly because the little man was shouting in Chinese and partly because Little Joe had come running out of the house, barefoot and clad only in a nightshirt, to argue his own case just as loudly.  The matter had eventually been settled:  Hop Sing was given bonus pay and time off, and Joe spent the rest of the day lying on his stomach and fuming about the unfairness of it all.

“Well, you’ll have plenty of company,” said Ben.  “Adam’s going to be around today as well, so you’ll have him as well as Addie and Danny.”

“Speaking of whom, where are they?” Adam asked.

“Her door was closed,” said Joe.  “I didn’t hear anything.  I figured she was feeding him.”

The others exchanged glances.  “I’ll go check,” said Adam before anyone could articulate their concerns.  He headed up the stairs, and Joe peered at Ben questioningly.

“Eat your breakfast,” said Ben as though there was a chance of distracting the boy.

“Pa, you sure you don’t want me to go with you?”  Hoss speared another ham steak, his round face creased with concern.

“This is still a working ranch,” said Ben.  “We can’t devote all our resources to taking care of a baby.”

As if on cue, a cry from upstairs split the morning peace.  A minute later, Adam came back down the stairs, a sheepish grin on his face.  “They’re up there,” he said unnecessarily.  “Sleeping—or at least they were until I knocked on the door.”

“Thanks for nothing,” said Hoss.

“What do you care?  You get to leave the house,” grumbled Joe.  He pushed his scrambled eggs around his plate, then put down his fork.  “I should come with you, Pa.  I’m the only one who can tell the sheriff what happened.”

“He’s got a point,” said Adam.

“He’s also got a fever,” said Ben as he laid his hand on Joe’s forehead.  The boy wasn’t too warm, but it was enough to confirm Ben’s concerns about the onset of a cold.  “I can tell the sheriff everything you told me last night,” he said to Joe.  “And if Roy has any questions, he can come out and talk to you himself.  No more arguing,” he added as Joe opened his mouth.  “Finish your breakfast and go back up to bed.”

Whatever protest Joe intended to lodge was lost in another sneeze.  Before he could speak, Addie came down the stairs with her son in her arms.  The baby was whimpering, but nothing more.  “Good morning,” she said with far more cheer than Ben would have expected for someone who had been up in the middle of the night with a crying baby.

“Good morning, Addie,” he said.  The others offered their greetings, and she was about to sit when she caught sight of Joe’s face.

“Joe, what happened to you?”  She came around the table and peered closely at him.  “When did this happen?”

“Last night,” said Joe.  “I went out for a ride.”

“What happened?  Did you fall off your horse?  What did you do to your hand?”

“It’s just a sprain.  Nothing to worry about,” said Joe.  He took the baby’s fingers in his as if to shake hands.  “Hey, Danny, how’re you doing this morning?  Mean old Adam woke you up, didn’t he?  He doesn’t let anybody sleep, does he?”

“Mean old Adam may put you to sleep permanently if you don’t watch yourself,” Adam said.

“Addie, Joe and Adam are going to stay at the house today with you and Danny,” Ben said, ignoring his sons.  He didn’t want to alarm the girl, but there was no point in keeping secrets from her, either.  “I’ve got to go into town, and until I get back, I’d prefer it if you stayed close to the house.  Don’t take Danny out for any drives or walks.”

“Is something wrong, Mr. Cartwright?”  Addie looked from Ben to Joe.  “Does this staying around the house have anything to do with how Joe got hurt?”

“I’m not certain,” said Ben.  Sometimes he wished she wasn’t quite so smart.  “The men who bushwhacked Joe mentioned Danny.  Since we don’t know who they were or why they were talking about him, I’d just feel better if you two kept to the house today.”

She balanced the child on one hip and reached out with her free hand to touch Joe’s face lightly.  “I’m so sorry, Joe,” she said.  “I feel awful.  The idea that someone beat you up because of us—”

“You have nothing to feel bad about,” Joe interrupted.  “We don’t know who did this, but just because they knew about Danny doesn’t mean that they did it because of you.  They might just be drifters from town who heard talk about you being here.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Addie said before Ben could voice the same opinion.  “If they were drifters, how would they know who you were, much less who Danny is?”  She shook her head, lips pressed together angrily.  “I’ll tell you who it sounds like,” she said.  “I probably shouldn’t say it, but if I were you, I’d be looking to Philip’s father.  Let’s face it—lawyers know the bad folks.  After all, they represent them.  Who’s to say there isn’t somebody Edward did a favor for—maybe got him off a serious charge and didn’t charge him?  And maybe that fellow wants to return the favor.  Or—”

“There are a thousand ways we could guess,” said Ben, less because he disagreed than because he didn’t want her to become too agitated.  The last thing they needed was for Addie and Joe to sit here and feed off each other’s ideas about some sort of conspiracy involving the Wagners.  “That’s why I’m going to speak to the sheriff, and I’m going to speak to Edward Wagner.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to come up with some answers.”  He rose and dropped his napkin beside his plate.  “Hoss, take as many of the men as you need to get that herd moved.  Adam, as long as you’re here, there are some figures that need to be entered in the ledger.”

“Sure, Pa,” said Adam.

Ben paused, his gaze intent on Joe.  “I meant what I said,” he reminded his youngest son.

“Yes, sir,” Joe grumbled.  Truth was, he looked drowsy already.  Ben had a feeling that it wouldn’t take much convincing to get Joe to go upstairs and lie down for a while.

“And you, young man,” Ben added, ruffling what little hair Danny had, “you have yourself a good breakfast and great big nap, and don’t give your mother any trouble.”  The baby squinted at him, and Ben chuckled.  He’d forgotten the way babies wrapped those tiny fingers around your heart.

Within a quarter of an hour, Hoss had headed off to oversee the moving of the herd, Ben had left for Virginia City, and Addie had retreated with Danny to the kitchen.  Adam turned to Joe, who remained at the table although he hadn’t eaten anything since his father had dispensed instructions.

“Joe,” said Adam quietly.  When Joe looked up, his eyes glazed, Adam suppressed a smile.  “Go lie down for an hour.”

“Adam—” Joe began.

“Listen, Little Brother,” said Adam.  “I don’t know what’s going on, but from the sounds of things, I may be needing you, and you’re not going to be any good to me if you’re as exhausted as you are now.  From what Pa said, you got maybe half a night’s sleep, and that was after you got bushwhacked.  Even if you can handle a gun right-handed, you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn right now, and don’t try to deny it.  I doubt Addie can even fire a gun, and she’ll need to be watching out for Danny, so if something comes up, it’s going to be you and me.  That means that you’ve got to rest up so that if I need you, you’ll be ready.”

Joe regarded him carefully, looking for signs of subterfuge.  Adam held his gaze, and after several moments, Joe let down his guard.  “Okay,” he said, exhaustion unveiled at last.  “But if anything happens, you call me.”

Adam nodded.  “Count on it.”  He watched as the boy moved stiffly across the room and up the stairs.  From the looks of him, once he nodded off, it was going to take dynamite to waken him.  Adam found himself hoping fervently that the day would bring nothing more taxing than erroneous entries in a ledger.

Because if anything else happened, he was going to be on his own.

* * *

“Ben, you ain’t got no proof that Edward Wagner had anything to do with this,” Roy Coffee said for the third time in five minutes.  “Now, I’ll go check around, but I don’t want you gettin’ in the middle of this.”

“I already am in the middle,” Ben retorted.  “That was my son who got beaten up, and that girl and her baby are my houseguests.  If one had anything to do with the other, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that somebody’s going to be trying again.”

“Now, Ben, what do you think Wagner’s like?”  Roy rolled his eyes.  “He’s a lawyer, not a hired gun.  Don’t you think that if he really wanted that baby, he’d have got a court to hand him over by now?”

“On what grounds?  The fact is that the child has a mother, and she’s perfectly capable of caring for him.  There’s no basis for a court to take the baby away from her.”

“I don’t know about that ‘perfectly capable’ part,” mused Roy.  “I done heard she’s having a pretty rough time.  Mebbe she’d be better off if Edward and Martha took the boy.”

“Edward and Martha didn’t exactly do a sterling job with their own son,” Ben muttered.  At Roy’s startled expression, he shook his head.  “It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that somebody—whether it’s Edward or someone he’s hired—wants that baby badly enough to get violent.”

“But it don’t make no sense,” Roy protested.  “You said yourself that nobody knew Little Joe was going out until he went.  Why would some hired thugs be wandering around just in case they run into him?”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted.  “But Joe said that they specifically mentioned ‘the Wagner kid’.  Who else could they mean other than the baby?  Surely they wouldn’t have called the girl that, and Philip is dead, so there’d be no call to tell Joe to stay away from him.”

Roy scratched his head.  “You said Adam’s out at the Ponderosa with Little Joe and the girl and the baby?”

Ben nodded.  “I wanted somebody there who could handle things if whoever beat Joe up came back.  He’s nowhere near steady enough to defend himself today.”

Roy’s mustache bristled with concern.  “You gonna have Doc Martin go out and have a look at him?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Ben.  “What he needs at this point is rest.  Hopefully, Adam’s gotten him to go back to bed.”

Roy looked skeptical.  “Well, lemme go talk to Wagner an’ see what he says.”

“I’m going with you,” Ben announced.  “I’m the one who saw Joe and heard what he said,” he added at the sheriff’s frown.  “I’ll know if something doesn’t add up.”

“You can come, but you better keep quiet and let me handle things,” said Roy.  He knew there wasn’t a chance of Ben Cartwright really keeping quiet under the circumstances, but hopefully, just saying it might slow him down a bit.

When they reached the lawyer’s office, they found the door locked.  Roy knocked loudly.  “Edward!  It’s Roy Coffee!  You in there?”  They waited for a minute.  “Edward Wagner!  It’s Sheriff Coffee!  I need to talk to you!”  Still no response.

“Maybe he’s down at the courthouse,” Ben said.  “Is anybody on trial?”

“Not that I know of,” said Roy.  “I ain’t got no prisoners in my jail, but that don’t mean nothing.  Folks get out on bail.”  The two men headed down to the courthouse.

But when they arrived, the courtroom was empty except for Harold Esty, the judge’s clerk.  “Morning, Sheriff, Mr. Cartwright,” said the young red-haired man.  “Can I help you?”

“You ain’t seen Edward Wagner this morning, have you?” asked the sheriff.

“No, sir,” said Harold.  “I haven’t seen him since the Haines trial last week.  Shame about that one.”  He lowered his voice.  “Mr. Wagner didn’t seem to be himself, if you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t know,” said the sheriff.  “Tell me.”

“Well, it’s just–usually he’s real prepared and everything, but this time he seemed kind of distracted.  I’m not saying he did a bad job, but Judge O’Brien would say something and it was like he didn’t even hear him, and you know Judge O’Brien.”  That last was delivered in a low voice with a quick glance back toward the closed door that separated the courtroom from the judge’s chambers.

“I do,” Roy said, nodding.  Judge O’Brien was not widely known as a patient man.  “His Honor say anything to Mr. Wagner?”

“No, sir,” said Harold.  “At least, not that I heard.  After court adjourned, I saw Mr. Wagner approach the bench, but the judge just walked away like he didn’t even know he was there.  Maybe he didn’t,” he allowed with another glance at the door.

“Thank you for your time, Harold,” said Ben.  He and Roy left the courthouse and stood on the sidewalk in the weak morning sun.  “What do you think?  Should we pay Edward a visit at his house?”

“Can’t think where else he’d be,” said Roy.  Without further comment, the two men walked the six blocks over to the Wagners’ home.  When they arrived, Roy lifted the brass knocker and rapped it against the small brass strike plate.

A few moments later, Edward Wagner yanked open the door.  “Quiet, please!” he whispered.  “My wife is lying down.”

“Mind if we talk for a minute?” Roy said, his voice lower than usual but by no means a whisper.

Wagner looked over his shoulder.  “Come in, come in,” he whispered.  He ushered Ben and Roy into the parlor and closed the door.  “Martha’s not feeling well,” he said.  “I’m working in my study here today.”  The usually-controlled lawyer sounded agitated.

“I’m sorry to hear that your wife isn’t well,” said Ben.  “As it happens, neither is my son.”

“Ben.”  Roy’s tone cautioned him to wait.  After a moment, the sheriff turned to Wagner.  “You still set on gettin’ that baby away from Addie?”

The lawyer stiffened.  “If you’re asking whether we still intend to do what’s necessary to gain custody of Philip’s son, the answer is yes.”

“That’s a mighty interesting way of sayin’ it,” Roy mused.  “Mighty interesting.”

“What do you mean?”

“Somebody bushwhacked Little Joe Cartwright last night,” Roy said.  “Warned him not to get involved with Danny.  You know anything about that?”

“Are you serious?  Are you asking if I bushwhacked that boy?”

“That, or if you had somebody do it for you,” said Ben.  The sheriff glared at him, but he continued, “Somebody deliberately targeted my son.  They didn’t take his money or his horse.  They beat him up and left him lying in the road, and they told him to mind his own business and they talked about the baby.”

“Seein’ as you’re the only one besides Addie who’d have any interest in what happens to little Danny there, and she sure ain’t the one who did it—well, you see why we’re askin’.”

“You’re not asking.  You’re accusing.  Without a shred of evidence, I might add.  Because the Cartwrights have decided to take that girl’s side, you’ve decided that I’m capable of hiring some ruffian to beat up a boy.  I’m sorry to disappoint you both, but I had nothing to do with it.  I have—had—sons of my own.  Even if I were willing to break the law that I’ve spent my life upholding, I would never do anything like that to another man’s son.  Not for any reason at all, and most certainly not for sport or whatever the reason was here.”  He stood straight and tall, with light from the window glinting off his iron-gray hair.  Either he was a gifted actor, or he was telling the truth.

Roy and Ben exchanged a quick look.  “Thank you for your time, Mr. Wagner,” said Roy.

“Thank you,” said Ben.  “Tell Martha I hope she feels better.”

The man’s countenance softened slightly.  “Thank you, Ben,” he said.  He opened the parlor door and ushered them into the front hall.  As he reached for the door knob, he paused.  “Your boy isn’t seriously injured, is he?”

“No,” said Ben.

The lawyer smiled.  “I’m glad to hear it.  Goodbye, gentlemen.”  He opened the door, holding it as they exited and closing it quietly behind them.

Ben and Roy walked a block in silence.  “So, what now?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know,” said Roy.  “He sure sounded like he was telling the truth, but if it weren’t him, I ain’t got no idea.”

“Neither do I,” Ben admitted.

*****

Adam eased open Joe’s bedroom door.  The boy was curled up under an afghan, fully dressed except for the boots that lay next to bed.  Even in his sleep, he sniffled and snorted.  Adam shook his head.  That was going to be a humdinger of a cold by the time it settled in.

He startled at the slight touch on his sleeve.  Turning, he saw Addie trying to peer past him.  He held a finger to his lips, and she nodded.  They both stepped back into the hallway, Adam pulling the door closed.

“How is he?” she whispered.

“He’ll be fine,” Adam said.  A crinkle between her brows revealed her skepticism.  “It looks worse than it is,” he assured her as they moved toward the stairs.

“I just feel so awful,” she said.  “He got beaten up because he was trying to help us.  I wish there was something I could do for him.”

“Right now, the best thing you can do is to let him rest,” said Adam.  “Speaking of rest, is Danny sleeping?”

She held up crossed fingers.  “For now,” she said.  “We’ll see which one of them wakes up first.”

“With any luck, it’ll be Joe,” said Adam.  At the foot of the stairs, he veered off toward Pa’s desk, but her voice stopped him.

“May I ask you something?”

May I.  Adam could barely suppress a smile.  The distinction between “may” and “can” was something he’d never managed to impress on his brothers.  “Certainly.”

“You went to college, didn’t you?”

Adam nodded.  “In Boston.”

“What was it like?”

Adam regarded the girl.  Her eyes shone the way another girl’s might have at the sight of a beautiful dress.  “It was the greatest experience of my life,” he said.

“Tell me.”  The words were nearly breathless.

Adam settled himself in the blue velvet chair as Addie perched on the settee.  No one had ever been so eager to hear about his college days.  Pa and his brothers had listened to his stories and even asked some questions, but it was clear to Adam that they were doing so because they cared about him, not because they found college itself to be interesting.  But Addie’s entire face glowed as he told of attending lectures and concerts, spending hours in the library reading great books, debating profound questions with professors and other students.

“You’re so lucky,” she whispered when he finally stopped.  “My sister’s husband is a professor.  I used to think that maybe someday, I could go and live with her and go to the college where he teaches.  But that was before—well, before Danny.”

“You never know,” Adam said, but even he could hear the weakness in his words.  There was no question that the girl was intelligent enough.  If things had been different, she could have succeeded admirably in any college.  But—

Right on cue, Danny’s cries floated down the stairs.  The light in her eyes faded as she rose.  “Sometimes you do,” was all she said.  She headed up the stairs, leaving Adam to ponder the way life worked out for some people.

*****

By the time Adam heard the horses in the yard, he was well and truly sick of the ledgers.  Pa’s handwriting wasn’t as bad as Joe’s, but sometimes it was close.  Adam stood, stretching and yawning.  He was so tired of squinting at the tiny numbers that it took him a moment to realize what he’d heard.

Horses.  More than one.

Suddenly, he was alert, his senses humming.  He stood very still, listening.  It was possible that Pa had brought the sheriff out to talk to Joe.  It was also possible that Hoss had sent men back to pick up something from the barn.

And it was possible that the men who’d bushwhacked Joe were going to try again.

The voices he heard outside were low and male, but Adam couldn’t tell anything more.  Silently, he moved to the credenza and slid his gun from the holster that lay on top.  With great care, he lifted the latch on the door and opened it slightly.

The door burst open, banging into the right side of his body and knocking his gun to the floor.  Three men stood before him, hats pulled down and bandannas over their faces.  “Don’t move and nobody gets hurt,” said the tallest one in a thin, reedy voice that he was trying to deepen into something fierce.

Adam relaxed slightly.  These weren’t men; they were boys.  Joe’s age, or maybe slightly older.  The faces were familiar; he’d undoubtedly seen them around over the years.  Still, they all held guns that were trained on him.  “What do you want?” he asked in his most casual way.

“We want the kid,” said the tall one.  “Just hand him over.”

“What kid?” Adam furrowed his brow as though he had no idea what the boy meant.

“The Wagner kid!” the chubby one snapped.  His eyes were dark under his hat.  “Get the kid and we’ll leave you alone.”

“Sorry, but I can’t do that,” said Adam.  He knew better than to treat these kids carelessly.  They didn’t know how to manage this kind of situation, and they were liable to shoot just to show that they were in control.

“You better do it!” the shortest one chimed in.  He was skinny, and his hat was too big for him.  It rested on his ears, bending them down like jug handles.

“I can’t,” said Adam.  “That baby’s not going anywhere.  Now, why don’t you kids just ride out and we’ll forget all about this.”  He raised one eyebrow slightly, the same way he did when Joe was propounding some ridiculous notion.

“We’re not leaving without the kid!”  The tall one raised his gun so that Adam was staring directly into the muzzle.

Adam raised his hands to show them that he was unarmed.  For the moment, he was grateful that his gun lay on the floor behind the door.  “You don’t want to do this,” he said.  “If you shoot an unarmed man, you’re looking at prison—and if you kill me, it’s the gallows.  That baby isn’t worth you dying.”  He was gratified to see the boys exchanging swift, uncertain glances.

Then, the tall one straightened.  “Inside,” he said, gesturing with the gun.  He pushed the door open wider and said to Adam, “Over there.  Sit down with your hands on your head.”

Not taking his eyes off them, Adam walked over to the settee.  He wished that the highbacked blue chair wasn’t so close to the stairs; if they hadn’t already figured out that the baby would likely be upstairs, he didn’t want to draw their attention to the staircase.  He sat on the settee and placed his hands on his head as if he were merely stretching.

“Where’s the kid?” the chubby one demanded.  He looked like Andy Stubbs.  Adam fished in his memory for the name of Andy’s little brother.

“I don’t have him,” said Adam.  Marcus, that was it.  Marcus Stubbs.

“What do you mean, you don’t have him?”  The tall one had icy blue eyes that glared beneath the brim of his dirty brown hat.

“I don’t have him,” Adam repeated, gesturing as though inviting them to look around the room.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement at the top of the stairs.  Don’t come down, he wanted to shout.  He didn’t know whether it was Addie or Joe, but it was time to switch tactics.  He had to buy time so that they could escape.  “What do you want with a baby, anyway?” he asked, shifting so that he was facing toward the stairs.  As he’d hoped, they all adjusted to face him, their backs to the staircase.  “You fellows don’t know anything about babies.  Why do you want this one?”

“That’s none of your business!” the short one retorted.  Adam dug deep, but he couldn’t put a name on this one.

“Look, mister, we got a job to do and we’re gonna do it!” Marcus said.

Adam raised his eyebrows.  “A job?  So, you’re not trying to get the baby for yourselves, is that it?”

“Why would we want a baby?” the tall one snorted.

“That’s what I said,” Adam reminded them.  “How much is Mr. Wagner paying you to do this—Jake, right?  Jake Fuller?”  He was gratified when the tall boy looked startled.

“Who, him?  He ain’t payin’ us nothin’.”  Marcus rolled his eyes.

“You mean you’re doing this for free?  You’re trying to kidnap a baby and threatening to shoot an unarmed man, and you’re not even getting paid?”  He narrowed his eyes as if to suggest that they were being taken advantage of.  If he could deflect their attention from Danny to whoever hired them, he might have a chance of persuading them that they were on a fool’s errand.

“‘Course we ain’t doing it for free!” Jake snapped, offended.  “We already seen the money.”

“So who hired you?” Adam asked.

“That’s none of your business!” the short one—Homer, maybe?—said again.  “Now, where’s the kid?”

“I told you, I don’t have him,” Adam said.  Mentally, he crossed his fingers as he said, “The baby has colic.  We take him out for rides in the buggy to settle him down.”  The two sentences were true enough.  Hopefully, these kids hadn’t thought to look in the barn to see whether the buggy was there.

Sure enough, they looked uncertainly at each other.  Jake snapped to Marcus, “Go check in the barn.  See if the buggy’s there.”

“They might have taken the buckboard,” Adam offered.  “They do that sometimes, too.”  He thought he remembered somebody loading the buckboard this morning to take supplies up to where the crew would be working.

“Go check,” Jake said, and Marcus dashed out the door.  Jake turned to  Adam.  “You better not be lying to us,” he said.

“I’m not,” said Adam.  He tried to look relaxed even though two kids were holding guns on him.  “Why don’t you fellows sit down,” he suggested.  “I’m not going anywhere.”

Marcus came running inside.  “Buggy and buckboard are both out there,” he announced.

Jake moved closer.  “Where’s the kid?” he shouted.

Adam bit his lip.  Almost to his surprise, though, there was no cry from upstairs.  Run, Joe, he thought as he stared into the barrel of the tall boy’s gun.  Take them and run.

*****

“Ben!”

Ben reined in his horse.  Turning, he saw Edward Wagner bustling down the street at a somewhat undignified pace and waving to him.  He waited, and finally the lawyer caught up to him, out of breath and sweating.

“I’m glad I caught you,” Edward said.  “Ben, I was wondering if it would be all right for me to accompany you back to the Ponderosa.”

Ben regarded the man.  “Why?”

Edward flushed slightly.  “I haven’t seen the child in nearly three weeks,” he said.  “I’d like to see him.  He’s my grandson.”

“What about Martha?”

“Mrs. Oliver arrived shortly after you left,” he said.  “Our cook,” he clarified at Ben’s frown.  “She offered to stay with Martha this afternoon.”  He looked up at Ben.  “That child is all I have left of Philip.  Don’t make me beg.”

“It’s not up to me to say yes or no,” Ben said.  “It’s his mother’s decision.”  But he remembered the soft warmth of the small body in his arms, the sparkling blue eyes, the light coo of happiness when he tickled the child’s belly.  Keeping his voice intentionally stern, he said, “You can ride with me out to the Ponderosa if you like, but whether you see Danny is entirely up to Addie.  Is that clear?”

Anger flared for an instant in Edward’s eyes; then, he nodded as one defeated.  “I understand.”

*****

Joe woke to a frantic Addie shaking his arm.  “There are men downstairs with guns,” she whispered.  “They have bandannas over their faces.  They’re pointing their guns at Adam.”

Joe sat bolt upright, ignoring the shaft of pain in his head.  “Get Danny and go down the back stairs,” he hissed.  “Be as quiet as you can.  Go down to the root cellar and stay there.  I’m going to see what’s going on.”  Without putting on his boots, he slipped down the hall and stood at the top of the stairs, out of sight, listening.

Come on, Adam, he thought as he heard somebody say that the buggy and the buckboard were still here.  Stall them.  Think of something.  He heard somebody yell, “Where’s the kid?” and his heart began to pound with fury.  It was the same voice he’d heard last night.  His attackers had had the nerve to come into his home to kidnap Addie’s son.  Like hell you will, he thought as he moved silently back down the hall to his room and pulled on his boots.  He looked around to see whether he had anything that could be used as a weapon, but nothing presented itself.

As soundlessly as an Indian, Joe made his way to Hoss’s room and peered out the window overlooking the yard.  Three horses, but no riders.  As he opened the window, he sneezed.  He froze like a rabbit spotted by a fox.  Don’t hear, don’t hear, don’t hear, he thought as hard as he could.  He crouched down on the side of Hoss’s bed away from the door and listened.  Even when he heard nothing—no voices, no angry boots pounding down the hall—he counted out the seconds for five minutes, just in case.

Two ninety-eight, two ninety-nine, three hundred.  Still staying low, he crept over to the window and slid the window up, grimacing as he gripped the frame with his left hand and climbed out onto the roof.  Crouching low for balance, he scuttled to the edge.  Damn.  Climbing down would be challenging with a bad hand, but it couldn’t be helped.  He clenched his teeth as he made his descent, sucking in his breath every time he had to grab the post with his left hand.  As soon as he could, he dropped to the ground.  The horses nickered, and he ducked behind the rain barrel, but nobody came outside.

He could hear Adam talking.  Don’t make them mad, he wanted to shout.  Joe couldn’t hear the words, but he’d guess that Adam was explaining to them that they should get the hell out of there because kidnapping a baby was a lousy idea that would just land them in jail.  Not a bad approach, except that Adam was using his superior voice.  Even after all these years, Older Brother hadn’t figured out—or didn’t care—that this tone was pretty much guaranteed to irritate whoever he was lecturing.  Joe knew this for a fact, because he was usually the one being lectured.

He thought briefly of slipping into the barn and saddling one of the horses, but there wasn’t time.     His left hand and wrist were flaming with pain.  Even if he could lift a saddle onto a horse with just his right hand, it would take too long to maneuver the saddle and bridle one-handed.  So, he swung into the saddle of the nearest mount and kicked as hard as he could, jerking the horse around and galloping out of the yard.  Sure enough, shouts and gunfire followed him, but he bent low and the shots weren’t good enough to hit him before he was out of range.

All but one.

He thought he was clear when his body was suddenly slammed forward.  Only a lifetime of riding kept him in the saddle.  An instant later, the fire in the back of his left shoulder threatened to consume him.  Still holding the reins in his right hand, he grabbed mane and kept riding, not even trying to keep from moaning as each stride jolted his body.  He held as tightly as possible with his legs, but he felt himself sliding.  “No!” he managed, just before blackness overtook him.

*****

“Who was that?” Jake demanded.  He’d kept his gun trained on Adam as the other two shot at the retreating horse and rider.

“Someone who doesn’t want to see you get away with that baby.”  It was all Adam could do to keep his voice steady.

The two boys ran back into the house.  “Did you get him?” Jake barked.

“Not sure,” said Marcus.  “Thought maybe I winged him, but he kept going.”

“Well, go after him!” shouted Jake.  “I can handle this one.”

“But—” the short one began.

“But what?”

“What about the kid?  We’ve gotta find it.  Whoever took your horse couldn’t have had a baby with him.”

“My horse?  They took my horse?”  He aimed at Adam’s face.  “I should just kill you right now.”

“That would be the worst idea you’ve had yet,” said Adam, keeping his voice steady with an effort.  “There’s somebody out there on your horse.  If anything happens to me, it’ll be the easiest thing in the world to trace it back to you.”

“I’ll just say it was stolen,” said Jake.  “Which it was.”

Adam shook his head slightly.  “You didn’t report it to the sheriff,” he said.  “Besides, your friends here aren’t going to want to hang for what you do.  They’ll talk before it gets to that.”

Just as a look of uncertainty darted through the tall boy’s eyes, Adam heard a faint but distinctive cry.  It sounded as if it was coming from beneath them.  Joe must have sent them down to the root cellar, he realized.  A good plan unless the kidnappers decided to search, because there was only one way in or out.  If they found the door to the root cellar, Addie and Danny would be cornered.  Hurriedly, Adam started to talk about anything that crossed his mind in the hope that they wouldn’t hear the baby.

*****

The ride from Virginia City to the Ponderosa wasn’t short, but Ben couldn’t recall a time when it seemed longer than it did that afternoon.  Forget the fact that he was hungry, although he was; the man riding beside him hadn’t spoken since they left town, and few things could make a ride seem longer than a silent companion.  Ben had tried to start a conversation a few times, but Edward Wagner never offered more than a word or two in response.

Fine, Ben thought.  He’d wait until they got to the house.  The expression on the lawyer’s face when he saw Joe’s bruises and his bandaged wrist would tell them everything.

They were less than a mile from the house when they rounded a curve to see a riderless horse standing in the road.  “What the—” Ben began.  Then, he saw the crumpled form on the ground by the side of the road, and his heart knew what he saw before his mind did.  He yanked Buck’s reins roughly and was out of the saddle before the horse had fully stopped.

“Ben, who’s that?” asked Edward.

“It’s my son.”  Ben could barely get the words out.  He knelt beside Joe, feeling his throat for a pulse.  It was fast and thready, but definitely present.  Before he could feel relief, he saw the splotch of blood on the back of the boy’s shirt.  “Joe,” he whispered.  “Son, can you hear me?  Joseph, it’s Pa.  Can you hear me, boy?”

The boy’s closed eyelids parted slightly.  “Pa?”  His voice was more breath than sound.

“What happened, son?  What are you doing out here?”

“Adam.”

“What about Adam?”

“Bushwhackers.  Came back.  Danny.  Adam.”  Each word was clearly taking enormous effort.

Terror clutched at Ben’s heart.  It was an impossible choice:  stay here with Joe, or go back to the house and try to rescue Adam and Addie and Danny.

As if he knew what was in his father’s mind, Joe murmured, “Go.”

“I’ll stay here, Ben,” said Edward Wagner.  Ben had forgotten his presence until that moment.  The lawyer dismounted and knelt on the other side of the boy.  “He can’t ride.  I can keep him comfortable until you can get back with a buckboard.”

“But—”

Edward laid his hand on Ben’s arm.  “It sounds as if there’s trouble,” he said.  “You’re better equipped to handle it than I am.”

“Go,” Joe murmured again.  “Adam.”

Helplessly, Ben looked from his son to the man kneeling beside him.  “I’ll be right back,” he said to Joe.  “Mr. Wagner will stay here with you.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”  The boy’s forehead wrinkled slightly, as though he was confused, but there wasn’t time to explain.  Ben patted Joe’s hair and stood.  To Edward he said, “I’ll be right back.”  Without waiting for a response, he mounted his horse and galloped toward the house.

*****

So much pain.  Fiery daggers slashed his back and arm whenever he tried to move.  His head pounded like there was a crowd of angry miners inside it who were using pickaxes to to try to get out.  When he tried to open his eyes, light sliced into his brain.

“Take it easy, boy.”

The voice was strange.  A man, but not Pa.  This voice was lighter, crisper.  He didn’t know if he’d ever heard it before.

“We just have to wait here for your father to get back.  He’s going to bring a buckboard so he can take you home.”

Unfamiliar hands lifted his head slightly.  One hand held his face while the other slid something—some sort of cloth, maybe—underneath.  Then, the hands eased him back down so that his cheek rested against the cloth.

“That should help.  I don’t think we should try to turn you over, though.”

Joe managed a small sound.  Who are you?

Someone was patting his good shoulder.  It felt awkward, like the person wasn’t sure he ought to be doing it.  “It shouldn’t be too long,” the voice said.  “We’ll just wait here.”

Joe tried opening his eyes again, but it was so hard.  Everything in him just wanted to go to sleep, but somehow his gut was saying to stay awake.  He couldn’t remember how he got here, but it couldn’t have been good.  He tried to say something, but all he managed was another sound.

“It’s all right, boy,” said the voice.  “You just rest.  Your pa will be here soon.”  There was a slight chuckle.  “But boys never rest, do they?  Mine never did.  Not that they got hurt much—not like you here.  Philip wasn’t all that much for rough riding or things like that.  Thomas would have done more of it, I think, but he knew Philip thought it was silly.  That was my Philip.  Couldn’t figure out why you’d want to take the hard road if the easier one was right there.  Not that he wasn’t a hard worker, because he was.  He could have been anything.  He wanted to be a lawyer like me, but he could have gone farther.  He could have been a senator or maybe even the governor.  If it hadn’t been for that girl, there’s no telling what he could have done.”

Joe forced his eyes open.  All he could see was somebody’s pantleg.  Whoever was talking must have been down on the ground with him.  But who?  The names were familiar—Philip and Thomas—but his brain felt like scrambled eggs and nothing was making sense.

The man kept talking.  It was hard for Joe to keep up.  Philip.  That girl.  The child.  Philip.  Martha.  Thomas.  Philip.  That girl.

So strange.  It almost sounded like the person might be talking about Addie—but why?  Who would come along and sit down in the road and talk about Addie and Philip?

“Who?” he murmured.  Who are you?

If the person heard, he gave no sign.  He just kept talking about Philip and that girl and how hard it had all been on Martha.  How it wasn’t her fault because she’d lost both her sons.

“Who?” Joe murmured again.  Who is Martha?

“I don’t hold it against you or your father,” the person said.  “You were snared in that girl’s web, the same as Philip.  You’d better watch out.  She’ll ruin your life the way she’s ruined everyone else’s.”

Who?  Joe tried to lift his head to look at the face of the person talking, but in doing so, he moved his shoulder, sending fresh flames of pain through his body.  He didn’t realize he’d cried out until the person was patting his head and saying, “Easy, boy.  Don’t you move.  Your pa will be back soon.”

It couldn’t be.  It didn’t make any sense at all.  But—could it really be Philip Wagner’s father?  Sitting on the ground beside Joe?  What on earth would Mr. Wagner be doing here?

“Mr. Wagner?”  At least, that’s what he tried to say, but the words were slurring so badly that Joe didn’t know for sure what he’d said.

“What is it, boy?  Do you need to move?”

“No,” Joe managed.  If there was one thing he didn’t want to do, it was move.

“You let me know if you do,” the man—Mr. Wagner—said.  He kept patting Joe’s head like he was trying to soothe him, and he kept talking like Joe understood what he was saying.  Joe tried to follow his words, but they sounded like he was getting farther and farther away, and then they stopped altogether.

*****

“Somebody’s coming,” Marcus announced.

“Well, make sure he doesn’t get in here.”  Jake was trying to sound annoyed, but his eyes kept cutting back and forth between Adam and the door.

“How do you know it’s not the sheriff?” Adam suggested, less because he thought it might be than to distract the boys from the faint sounds coming from the root cellar.

“If it’s the sheriff, he’ll be sorry,” said Marcus.  He cocked his gun as if anybody might not understand what he meant.

“Your ideas just keep getting worse,” Adam said.  “Bad enough to shoot a regular person, but a lawman?  You’ll hang for that one, and nobody’ll care how young you are.”  He was gratified to see them looking uncertainly at each other.

“Where’s the kid?” Jake barked.  “Just give us the kid, and we’ll leave everybody alone.”

“I don’t have him,” Adam said for what felt like the fiftieth time.  “Look around.  Do you see him here?  No.  Because I don’t have him.”  It was a fine line between being authoritative enough to keep them off-guard and so arrogant that they lost patience and shot him.

“You’re a liar,” said Marcus.  “You’re lucky we don’t just shoot you right now.”

“With somebody coming?  You think that’s smart?”  Adam tried to balance a superior smirk with enough reasonableness not to irritate them into carrying through on their threat.  He had to keep them off balance enough that they wouldn’t hear Danny, whose cries were getting louder.

“Hey!  Do you hear something?”  Marcus looked around the room.

“Hear what?  I don’t hear anything,” Adam said with his best perplexed look.  “Except maybe a couple of riders.”  With any luck, the kids wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the hoofbeats of one horse or two.

“Sounds like a baby,” Marcus insisted.

“A couple of riders?”  Jake glared at Adam.  “Homer, go see who’s coming,” he said to the short boy.

Adam nodded to himself, relieved to have the last piece of the puzzle in place.  Of course—Ella Cassidy’s boy, Homer.  Adam and Ella had sparked briefly many years back, before Adam left for college and Johnny Cassidy rode into town.  Ella was no bigger than a minute, as Hoss would say, and Johnny was even shorter than Joe.  No wonder their boy was so small.

Homer darted into the kitchen, and Adam held his breath.

“Hey, looky here!” came Homer’s voice.  The cries grew suddenly louder, and Adam flinched.  The kid had found the door to the root cellar.  “You better get up here!” Homer shouted.  “Or I’m gonna come down and blow your fool brains out!”

“You’ll do no such thing, and we both know it,” Addie retorted.  Her voice sounded a bit shaky, but she wasn’t giving in.  “You shoot me and you’ll hang, mark my words.  Shooting a woman who’s protecting her baby—you’d likely be lynched before you ever got to trial, Homer Cassidy.”

“You just shut up and bring that baby up here!” Homer shouted.  Danny’s cries were growing louder; it was difficult for Adam to know whether Addie was coming upstairs or Danny was simply getting more irritated.  “Hey, Marcus, look who I found!” the kid yelled over the wailing.

Jake was craning his neck to see out the window over Ben’s desk, but he turned around when Homer came strutting into the room with Addie and Danny.  “Would you shut that kid up!” Jake snapped.

“It’s not that easy!” Adam shouted over Danny’s shrieks.  “He has colic!  This could go on for hours!”  He caught Addie’s eye and nodded firmly before she could blurt out that these weren’t colic cries and that more likely, Danny just had a messy diaper.

From outside came a deep voice.  Adam was nearly positive it was Pa, but the fact was that they couldn’t actually make out any words over Danny’s cries.

“What did he say?” Homer asked.

“I don’t know!” Marcus yelled back.  “Make that kid be quiet!”

“It doesn’t work that way with babies!” Adam shouted.  “They just cry until they’re done, and there’s nothing anybody can do.”

“There’s something I can do!” Homer announced.  He lunged for Addie, but her foot shot out.  In the next instant, the boy was curled up on the floor, clutching his groin.

“If you ever try to come near my son again, you’ll wish that was all I did you to,” she snarled.  She glared at the other two boys, who were wide-eyed.  “Which one of you wants to be next?”

Marcus leveled his gun at her.  “Hand over the kid.”

“She’s not going to do that,” said Ben Cartwright from the doorway.  Their heads snapped around.  In his best irate-father voice, he said, “Drop your weapons.  Now!”  Adam was amused to see that this tone had the same effect on these boys as it had had on the Cartwright brothers in years gone by.  They dropped their guns and raised their hands.  Nimbly, Adam jumped up from the chair and collected the firearms before the boys could think of anything else to do.

“Good work, Pa,” he began, but Ben said, “Your brother’s been shot.  Edward Wagner’s out on the road with him.  We need to get him back here.”

Adam dropped the guns into a drawer and snatched his own gunbelt.  Better to have a familiar weapon.  “You and you, come with me,” he said, gesturing to the two who were standing.  “We’ve got to hitch up the buckboard and get my brother.”

“I didn’t shoot him!” Homer protested from his place curled up on the floor.  “It was Marcus!”

“What’s the matter with that one?” Ben asked.

“Nothing that can’t be cured by time and a soft place to sit,” said Adam.  To the other two he said, “Let’s go.”

“Can I go, too?” asked Homer, who was trying to get to his feet.

“You?”  Ben raised his eyebrows.

“Anything to get away from all that screeching,” the boy explained.

*******

“How’s Joe?” Addie asked as Ben and the doctor came down the stairs.

Ben smiled.  “He’ll be fine,” he said.  The bullet hadn’t hit either bone or organ; it was a simple flesh wound.  Of course, on top of the boy’s other injuries, it meant that he was going to be laid up for a while, but considering what could have been, Ben knew enough to be grateful.

The three would-be kidnappers were still seated side by side on the settee.  Ben fixed them with a stern glare; then, he escorted the doctor to the door.  When he turned around, he said to them, “Assault, attempted kidnapping and attempted murder.  You boys are looking at some jail time.”

“But we didn’t do anything!” Jake protested.  “It was Marcus who shot your boy!”

“Who bushwhacked him last night?” Ben asked.  Jake shrank back into his seat, and the other two looked around as though the answer might be written on a wall.  “That’s what I thought,” he said.  “Why?”

The three of them looked at each other.  “It wasn’t supposed to be—nobody was supposed to get hurt,” said Marcus.  “We were just supposed to get the baby.”

Ben turned to Edward Wagner.  “Did you hire these boys to kidnap Addie’s son?” he demanded.

“No,” said Wagner firmly.  “I did no such thing.”

“They just said—” Ben began.

“It wasn’t him, mister,” Jake said.

“What?”

“It wasn’t him that hired us.”

Ben, Adam and Addie exchanged perplexed looks.  “Then who—” Adam began, but his voice trailed off as the same thought occurred to all of them.”

“It was her, wasn’t it?”  Addie’s voice was icy.

Jake nodded.  “She gave us five dollars each,” he said.  “All we had to do was bring Philip’s baby home to her.”  Ben caught Adam’s eye, both grim at what was clearly a quote from Martha Wagner.

“He’s my son, and he is home,” Addie said.  “So help me God, if you ever try to lay a finger on him, what I did to that one—” she pointed to Homer “—will be child’s play by comparison.”  The three boys paled.

Ben turned to Edward Wagner.  In the voice his sons had learned to dread—righteous anger held on a tight rein—he demanded, “Did you know about this?”

The whiskered man shook his head slowly.  His gaze traveled from Addie and Danny to the three boys on the settee, and then to Ben.  “I had no idea,” Edward said.  “I swear, I didn’t know.”  The crisp, clear voice that had persuaded so many judges and juries was little more than a whisper.  “Obviously, I knew she was distraught about—well, everything, but it never occurred to me that she would go such lengths.”  He turned to meet Addie’s fierce glare.  “Please believe me when I say that I am truly sorry.  I know this hadn’t been easy for anyone, but—I’m sorry.”  He rose, his hands trembling only slightly as he put on his hat.  To the boys, he said, “You three will go with me back to town.  We’re going to the sheriff.”  He turned to the Cartwrights.  “You’re welcome to come along to see that everything is handled properly.”

Ben and Adam exchanged a long look.  Adam shook his head slightly, and Ben nodded his agreement.  “I don’t think that will be necessary,” Ben said.

“What are you going to do about your wife?” Addie asked.  “Are you taking her to the sheriff, too?”  She lifted her chin as if daring him to say the wrong thing.

Edward looked helplessly at all of them.  “I suppose there’s no choice,” he said after a long minute.

“Adam, take those three into Virginia City,” Ben said suddenly.  “Addie and I need to talk with Mr. Wagner.”  He didn’t quite know what was about to happen, but his gut told him that there shouldn’t be an audience.  Not until the door had closed behind his son and the would-be kidnappers did Ben turn back to Edward and Addie.

He drew a deep breath.  He wasn’t quite certain how to say it, but he had to try.  “As far as Martha and the sheriff are concerned—well, I’m not so sure about that,” said Ben.  “Obviously it’s not entirely my decision—after all, Joe was only one of the targets—but it seems to me that maybe what Martha needs is a doctor, not a jail.”

“Do you mean—you’re not going to press charges?”  The lawyer looked unsure.

Ben allowed himself a moment of relief.  At least the man hadn’t taken umbrage at the suggestion that his wife’s mind had broken under the strain of grief.  To Addie, he said, “What do you think?”

Addie’s eyes searched Ben’s face.  “I don’t know,” she said, her voice tight.  Danny cooed and reached up, his fingers brushing her cheek.  She bent her head to her son, kissing his head.  Her plump arms tightened around him as if to keep Edward  Wagner from snatching the child away.  After a long minute, she looked up at Ben.  “My son is fine.  Yours is the one who was bushwhacked and shot.  So I think it should be your decision.”

But Ben shook his head.  “No, my dear,” he said.  “You and Danny were the ones she—” He broke off, unsure of how to say it without causing Edward even more pain.  Finally, he just said, “It’s up to you, Addie.”

Danny’s cooing turned to squawks.  After weeks of living with him, Ben knew what was coming next.  Before he could say anything, the baby’s face squinched up, his toothless mouth opened, and he let loose with a wail that sounded as though it came from a child three times his size.

“I’ll be back,” Addie said over the baby’s cries.  She was out of the room before Ben could offer to take Danny.

“Why don’t we have a seat,” he suggested to Edward.  “This may take a while.”  He gestured toward a chair, adding as casually as possible, “I don’t know about you, but right now I could use a brandy.  Would you like one?”

“Thank you.”  The man’s voice sounded almost breathless.  And then he began to speak.

Ben Cartwright never repeated what he heard that afternoon.  He listened without comment as, fueled by brandy and grief, Edward Wagner spoke of the family he’d once had, the hopes and dreams they’d cherished as their two fine sons grew to manhood.  Even when Philip married Addie, there had still been the bright promise of the baby.  Ben’s heart ached as Edward told how the ghosts of what would never be haunted their too-silent home.  He spoke of the dark fears that had grown as his wife began to act strangely, constantly reliving the tragedy, until she had no other topic of conversation.  He wanted Philip’s child, of course.  He wanted to raise the boy properly, to provide him with a good home, moral guidance, and every advantage they could bestow.  He wanted the baby, but she was obsessed.  He blamed himself, Edward said.  He’d waited too long.  He wanted to let the initial shock of the boys’ death pass before he brought the baby into their home, and he waited too long.  He should have known that she would become impatient, desperate.  He should have seen what was happening, should have seen that something more than grief was driving her now.  He should have figured out that she would try to get the child back without waiting for him, for the law.  He thought he could care for her, could comfort her, could somehow make up for the fact that the boys they had loved and cherished now lay rotting in pine boxes.  But he had failed, and that failure had nearly cost another man his son.

“I’m so sorry, Ben,” he said a dozen times or more.  “To think that she could have inflicted on you the same grief that we live with every waking hour. . . .”  He drained his glass.  Without asking, Ben refilled it.  Edward barely seemed to notice.  His gaze was turned inward, fixed on a vision of what could never be.  Finally, he said, “I still wish . . . but it’s impossible now.  I can’t bring a child into the house.  She’s too—she’s too—I can’t.”  He sipped his brandy.  “So the girl wins.  There’s nothing I can do now.”

“Addie’s a good mother,” Ben said gently.  “And she’s a good girl.  If you knew the whole story—”  He broke off.  No father should have to know what Philip had done.  But then he saw a glint of something in Edward’s eyes, and he wondered just how much Edward knew, or at least suspected.

And how much his attacks on Addie’s character might have been an attempt to bury those suspicions.

The two men sipped slowly, but their glasses were still long empty by the time Addie and Danny returned.  Carefully, she avoided looking at Edward.  It occurred to Ben that he couldn’t have said when Danny stopped crying—or how much of Edward’s confidences Addie might have heard.

“Is he all right?” Edward asked.

Addie shrugged.  “He does this all the time.”

Edward smiled slightly.  “I remember those days,” he said.  “Philip and Thomas both had colic when they were babies.”

“So does Danny,” Ben said when Addie said nothing.  “But Addie handles it.”

“With help from the Cartwrights,” she said.  “And Hop Sing’s rice cereal.”

“You’re very fortunate to have such good friends,” Edward said.

“Yes, I am.”  The girl wasn’t giving an inch.

“Addie, Mr. Wagner needs to be getting back to town,” Ben said.  “What do you want to do about pressing charges against Mrs. Wagner?”

“You don’t have to decide now,” Edward said unexpectedly.  “We’re not going anywhere.”  He studied the girl’s face as though he’d never seen her before.  Ben half-expected him to recount some of the things he’d said about the effect of her sons’ death on Martha, but the whiskered man said nothing more.  He sat quietly, straight and tall as he waited for the sixteen-year-old girl who held his grandchild to decide his wife’s fate.

Addie turned to Ben, her eyes questioning now.  He simply looked back at her.  He gave no hint, yea or nay.  The choice had to be hers.  But as the girl stroked her baby’s fine hair, he bit back the urge to say, Don’t do it.  Don’t seek revenge.  It’s not worth it.  Even though rage burned in his heart every time he thought of Little Joe lying wounded in the road, he would not take the matter to the sheriff.  Edward and Martha Wagner had buried two sons.  That family would never stop suffering.  Ben Cartwright, whose sons were alive and whole, would not add to their pain.

But Martha Wagner had tried to kidnap Addie’s son.  Insane she might be, but she had paid those boys to steal a baby from his mother.  The child could easily have been harmed.  And Addie was just a girl.  A bright one, to be sure, but she was young and headstrong.  She’d borne so much pain because of the Wagners, Edward and Martha as well as Philip.  If Little Joe hadn’t brought the girl here, it was anybody’s guess how she’d have managed.  She should have been able to turn to her husband’s parents–her son’s grandparents.  Instead, the very people who should have stood by her had hurled accusations and subjected her to threats and gossip and abandonment when she needed them the most.  Whatever retribution the girl chose now, the Wagners had earned it.

Addie kissed Danny’s head.  Then, she looked squarely at her father-in-law.  Almost grudgingly, she said, “I suppose Mr. Cartwright is right.  Losing a child—I can see where that might make a mother do things she might otherwise not.”

Ben exhaled silently.  He felt as though he’d been holding his breath for a long, long time.  “Then it’s settled?” he inquired, just to be clear.

Addie nodded.  Her eyes met his, and he felt pride swell as he reached over to pat her hand.  The tension in her mouth eased slightly, but her expression was still grim as she turned to face Edward Wagner again.  “Get her some help,” she said.  “And tell her that if she ever tries to take my son again, I will do everything in my power to put her away forever.”

“Addie,” Ben remonstrated.

But Edward Wagner nodded.  “I understand.”

***********

“He looks mighty cute,” Joe said as Addie straightened Danny’s shift.

“He does, doesn’t he?”  She smiled first at her son, and then at the boy who was lying on the settee with the baby in his lap.  “You’re looking pretty good yourself these days.  How much longer until you’re up and about?”

“Doc says probably another week or two,” said Joe.  He’d spent the better part of the past three weeks in bed, and only this morning had the doctor given permission for him to move downstairs to the settee.  “Pa says those kids didn’t end up going to jail.”

“The judge put them on probation,” Addie said.  “Six months.  They have to clean the sheriff’s office, the courthouse, the school—pretty much any chores the sheriff says.”

“Too bad he couldn’t give them diaper duty,” Joe said, wrinkling his nose.  “Save the diapers up and let them wash them.”

“That would be poetic justice,” Addie agreed.  Her smile faded at the sound of a horse outside.  “That’s him.”

“You’ll be fine,” Joe said.  “We’re all right here with you.”

Addie scooped her son up and took a deep breath.  When the knock on the door sounded, she forced a smile.  “Here goes,” she said as Ben came into the room from the kitchen.  She nodded, but remained standing by the settee as Ben opened it to admit Edward Wagner.

“Hello, Edward,” Ben said.  “Won’t you come in?”

Addie stood ramrod-straight as Danny squirmed in her arms.  “Good afternoon, Mr. Wagner,” she said.  “I believe you know my son, Danny.”

The lawyer stood by the door.  “Come in, Edward,” Ben said, urging him forward.

“Hello, Addie,” Edward Wagner said.  Her name sounded foreign when he said it, almost as though he’d never uttered the word before.  He allowed Ben to lead him to the red leather chair by the fireplace, where he perched uncomfortably.  He cast an uncertain look around the room before settling his gaze on Joe.  “Hello, Little Joe.  How are you?”

“I’m doing fine, sir,” said Joe.  He still hadn’t decided what to think of Edward Wagner.  He slid his feet off the settee and sat up straight to make room for Addie and Danny, but the girl remained standing until Ben said, “Addie, why don’t you have a seat?”  She hesitated, and he gave her an encouraging nod.

No one spoke.  The only sound was Danny burbling softly.  Edward laced his fingers together.  He and Addie were only on opposite sides of the long, low pine table, but they seemed as distant as though miles separated them.

“Edward, would you like some coffee?” Ben suggested, more to break the silence than because his guest seemed as though he might care for refreshments.

“What?  Oh—no, thank you, Ben.”  Another silence.  Then, Edward leaned forward.  His voice broke just a little bit as he said, “Hello, Danny.”

Addie adjusted the baby so that he rested against her shoulder, his face turned away from Philip’s father.  “Where’s your wife?” she asked stiffly.

“Addie,” Ben chided as Edward winced.

“I didn’t mean—I meant, is she still in Virginia City?” the girl amended.

“For now,” Edward said.  “We’ll be leaving for San Francisco tomorrow.  The hospital there is supposed to be excellent.  Doctor Martin recommends it highly.  He says that with proper help, she’ll be much better.  She’ll learn to cope.  As much as one can,” he added, his voice trailing off as he looked down at his boots.

Ben watched Addie.  He’d tried to talk to her about the Wagners, but he’d felt constrained.  He  would not repeat what Edward had confided.  Instead, Ben spoke of his own experience with loss and grief in the hope that she would understand.  He urged compassion, but in the end, her face remained stony.

Still, she had agreed to this visit, and that was something.  Two days earlier, Hoss had come home from Virginia City with a note for her from Edward.  The older man wanted to see Danny once more before they left for San Francisco.  “It’s up to you,” Ben said when she showed him the note.

“I know,” was all she said.  She said nothing more about it for the rest of the evening, but the next morning, she handed him a folded piece of paper and asked him to have someone take it to Edward Wagner.

And now, here they were.  Her gaze was fixed on the older man.  Ben wondered if she could understand anything about what Edward had endured.  It was possible.  She was young, but she’d had to grow up fast.  No matter her own feelings about Philip, she knew what it meant to love a child, to risk losing him.  As though she could hear Ben’s thoughts, she held Danny a bit closer, pressing her lips against his fine hair.

Then, she rose.  Head held high, she walked across the room to where Philip’s father sat.  She shifted the baby so that he was facing Edward.  To her son, she said, “Danny, this is your grandpa.  See?  He has whiskers.  You’ve never seen whiskers, have you?  I’ll bet if we ask nicely, he’ll let you touch them.  What do you think?  Do you want to touch Grandpa’s whiskers?”

Edward’s eyes glistened.  “Hello, Danny,” he said again.  He reached up to lay his hand on the baby’s chubby leg.  “I’m your grandpa.”

“You can hold him if you like.”  Addie’s voice was tight, as if she still didn’t trust him, as if some corner of her mind still thought he might take the child and run.  But bless her heart, she was trying.  Ben and Joe exchanged a quick glance, and Ben nodded slightly.

“Thank you,” Edward whispered.  Addie handed him the baby and stepped back, watching.

Edward Wagner cradled the child in his arms.  Danny’s musical laughter burbled as he reached up with one dimpled hand to touch his grandfather’s face.  Edward bent his head down, and the baby swung at him, grasping at the mottled gray and black whiskers.  Addie’s eyes never left the pair.  Her arms were crossed over her chest, her jaw clenched.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve held a baby,” Edward said without looking at her.  “He’s grown so much.”

“Babies do that,” she said.

He stroked Danny’s round, soft cheek.  “He’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

For a long minute, everyone watched Edward hold his grandson.  Then, the older man lifted his head and met Addie’s eyes.  He seemed determined, as if he was about to resolve things once and for all.  And yet his words were unexpected:  “Was it Philip’s fault?”

“I beg your pardon?”  The girl bridled, her nostrils flaring.

“Did Philip—did he—”  His voice, so strong in a courtroom, trailed off.

“Yes, Danny is Philip’s son.”  She bit off the words with cold fury.

“No—you misunderstand me.  I never—I don’t doubt that.  What I’m asking is—did my son—when it happened—did he—I don’t know how to say this—”

The room was eerily still.  Ben stood motionless, his hand clutching the back of the settee, barely touching his son’s shoulder.

A furrow appeared between Addie’s brows.  “Are you asking if he—if he forced me?”

“I suppose—I don’t know.”  The older man looked helplessly from Joe to Ben.

“No.”  Addie shook her head.  “No, Mr. Wagner.  Your son didn’t force me.  I made my own choice.  Whatever that says about me.”

“But—did he—”  Edward swallowed hard.  “Did he behave honorably?”

Ben inhaled sharply, but Addie and Edward didn’t seem to notice.  Joe glanced up at his father, his eyes mirroring Ben’s concern.

“When I told him about the baby—he didn’t question that it was his.  He stood up and took responsibility.  He gave us a home, and he gave Danny his name—even though you and his mother didn’t want him to.”  As she spoke, she looked Edward straight in the eye.  Her voice was firm now.

“That’s not what I’m—”

“I know, but that’s what I’m telling you.  Philip and I made a mistake that day, both of us.  We were both foolish.  But in the end, your son gave me the greatest gift anyone could.  I’ll always be grateful for that.”  She reached down to stroke her son’s downy hair.

Edward tapped the baby’s nose with his fingertip, and Danny laughed.  He looked up at Addie again and smiled, his eyes glistening.  “He has your nose.”

“I think so, too,” she said, and now her voice trembled.

The silence stretched out.  Finally, Edward spoke.  “We—I—all of us owe you an apology,” he said.  “For whatever Philip—and for his mother, and for me—I apologize.”

Addie looked as stunned as though he’d slapped her.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  “And I—I’m sor—”

“No,” he cut her off.  “Please don’t.  You have nothing to apologize for.”

“But I—”

“I mean it.”  Edward waited until she’d closed her mouth.  “You’ve done a fine job of raising my—raising your boy.”  He tickled Danny’s belly, and the beautiful music of the baby’s laughter filled the room.  Then he said, “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to keep in touch.  I don’t know how long we’ll be in San Francisco, but if I could give you an address, and if you’d be willing just to send me a note once in a while and let me know how he’s doing–how you’re both doing—”

Addie nodded.  “We can do that.”

“Thank you,” he whispered.  He rose and kissed the child’s forehead.  “You be a good boy now,” he said to his grandson.  “Don’t give your mother any trouble, or you’ll have Grandpa to answer to.”  For a few moments, he held the baby close.  Then, he handed Addie’s son to her.  His eyes were ineffably sad, as though he was seeing what could have been, what could never be.  He turned away and caught Ben’s eye, and Ben saw the anguish of a father who had lost the last remnant of his son.  But Edward Wagner simply nodded to the Cartwrights.  He opened the front door, turning back to his grandson and daughter-in-law one more time.

“Goodbye, Danny,” he said.  He managed a small smile as he added, “Goodbye, Addie.”  The girl opened her mouth to answer, but he had already closed the door behind himself.

*****

“Are you sure you want to go?”

Joe didn’t look at Addie as he asked the question.  He forced himself to sound casual as he checked the straps tying her satchel closed, as though he hadn’t really been serious last night when he asked her to marry him.

Except that he had been, and they both knew it.  Just as they both knew that when she said “no,” it was the right answer.

“You’ve been incredible, Little Joe,” she said now, as they stood in her little house among the trunks and barrels that would be shipped to her sister’s house in Ohio.  “I don’t know how we’d have survived without you.  But what you and I have—I’ll always treasure it, but it’s not a marriage kind of love.  And I think both of us deserve that.”

There was no point in arguing.  Not if he wanted to maintain some shred of dignity.  So Joe forced a smile.  “You’ve always been smarter than me,” he said.  “I just hate to see the two of you go.”

Addie smiled.  “You don’t think I’m going to let Danny forget about his Uncle Joe, do you?”  Her voice was gentle.  “Besides, you’re going to come and visit, right?”

“Bah!” came a high, light voice.

“Bah, yourself!” Joe chuckled as Danny crawled across the room.  The child hadn’t yet mastered more than one wobbly step at a time, but he was as speedy as a jackrabbit when he crawled.  “Come here, you little rascal!”  He caught the child up, swinging him so high that Danny squealed with delight.  Addie laughed as Joe swooped the child up and down.

“You’re going to make a wonderful father someday,” she said when Joe finally dropped into a chair with Danny on his lap.

The wistfulness in her voice made his heart leap for a second.  Then, he made himself rein in his feelings the way he’d done a thousand times in the past month.  It wasn’t going to happen between him and Addie.  It was like Adam had said when Joe told the family he planned to propose:  You can’t marry Addie just because you love her son.  At the time Joe had protested, but in the light of day, he had to admit that Adam was right.  He cared deeply about Addie, but the one he loved was Danny.  All these months of caring for the baby, playing with him, feeding him, driving him up and down the road under a starlit sky, cheering him on as he started to crawl, to make sounds, to take steps, to grow from an infant into a real person—Joe Cartwright had fallen in love in a way he could never have imagined.  His love for this child was fierce and protective, tender and all-encompassing.  Every time he thought of being separated from Danny, it was like a wildfire raging inside him, leaving his heart in ashes.  He wanted to be there for every milestone in Danny’s life, and all the moments in between.  He’d hoped so much that Danny would say his first word before they left, but all the child had managed so far was “Bah!”

He forced himself back to the conversation.  “Be sure to write and let me know what his first word is,” he said.  “And it had better be ‘Joe,’ or you two are going to have to come back here so I can teach him properly.”  He put his nose almost against Danny’s.  “Joe.  Joe.  Joe.  Come on, say it.  Joe.”

“Bah!” Danny said.

“He’ll learn plenty of words,” Addie said.  “I’ll read to him when I’m studying.”  Her eyes glowed at the thought.

“I’m so glad you’re going to get to go to college after all,” said Joe as Danny nestled against him.  He hoped that she couldn’t hear the unsteadiness in his voice.  She was so happy; he had to be happy for her.

This was the reason she was leaving.  Her sister Julia had written to say that if Addie wanted to come to Ohio, she might be able attend the college where Julia’s husband taught.  Julia, who had no children of her own, would be delighted to help to care for her nephew.  What she offered was a dream come true, but it had still been a challenge to work out since some of the faculty had disapproved of the notion of a young widow as a student—especially one with a child.  Ben had written a compelling letter of reference, and he had organized others, including Addie’s teacher and Reverend Abbott, to do the same.  Ultimately, though, it was Edward Wagner who got the job done.  He contacted a judge he’d known back when the two of them were apprentices in a law firm in Chicago and who now sat on the Ohio Supreme Court.  The judge, in turn, wrote to the dean of the college and informed him that the school would be fortunate indeed to have such a fine, upstanding, intelligent girl as Adelaide McKinley Wagner among its students.

“Did you know that the Wagners are paying my tuition?”  Addie’s voice was full of wonder.

“You told me,” Joe said gently.  She’d told all of them, at least a dozen times or more.  It was the kind of thing his father classified as a full-blown miracle, but Joe felt was only right after all they’d put Addie through.

Addie had wept when she read Edward’s letter.  He wrote that he and Philip’s mother agreed:   as Philip’s wife, she was a member of the family and so it was only right that the family pay for her education.  “And he said that when it’s time for Danny to go to college, they’ll pay for all of it,” she added, sniffling.

“That’s wonderful,” Pa had said.  Joe had to bite his tongue not to ask what Mrs. Wagner really thought; he’d have bet a month’s wages that, regardless of the “we” talk in the letter, this was all Mr. Wagner’s doing.

Not that it mattered.  What was important was that Addie was going to do what she wanted so much to do, Joe told himself now, as firmly as Pa might have said it.  He felt the heavy warmth of the child sleeping in his arms, and he had to bite his lip to hold back tears.  He swallowed hard and said, “Come on, buddy.  You’ve got a stage to catch.”

“I’ll take him,” Addie offered, but Joe shook his head.

“You’ll have plenty of time to be carrying this little fellow around,” he said as he rose, adjusting Danny without waking him.  “Not that he’s so little anymore, so be careful,” he added.  “You don’t want to hurt yourself.”

“We’ll be fine,” she assured him.

A knock on the door, and Hoss came in.  “Stage is gonna be here soon.  You ready?”

“All ready,” Addie said.  At Hoss’s request, she pointed out the bags that were going with them on the stage, and he hoisted them all and carried them out of the house.

At the door, Addie paused and looked around the little house one last time.  She shook her head slightly, as if she didn’t really believe all that had happened.  Then, she smiled at Joe.

He had to try once more.  “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” she said.  Standing on her toes, with one hand resting on her son and the other on her friend, she kissed Joe on the cheek.  “Thank you for everything,” she whispered.  Their eyes met, and then their lips.  Her hand cradled his head as the kiss intensified.  Joe’s free arm went around her, drawing her close against him, and she pressed herself closer.  Their mouths opened as their tongues began to explore, and—

“Bah!” Danny woke with a protest at being sandwiched between them.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” she said.  Joe relaxed his arm, and she stepped back, out of his grasp.  He became intent on shifting the baby in his arms, and she focused on smoothing the bodice of her brown traveling dress.  Then, as if she couldn’t help it, she looked up at him, her eyes wide.  His heart expanded like a bellows.  They stood motionless, caught in the fantasy of what could have been.  I love you, he wanted to say, because for that moment, it was true.

“Bah!” Danny said again, and the moment was over.

“Come on,” Joe said instead.  “You’ve got a stage to catch.”  This time it was Addie who nodded wordlessly.  She followed Joe and Danny out of the house, closing the door behind her.  The three of them walked down the street to where the other Cartwrights stood in front of the stagecoach office.  As they reached the sidewalk, the stage came around the corner.  Everyone exchanged hugs and kisses, the bags were secured on top of the stage, and Addie climbed aboard.

She reached down to take Danny out of Joe’s arms.

“Goodbye, little man,” Joe whispered.

Danny grabbed for Joe’s nose.  “Pa,” he said, loud and clear.  “Pa.”  He nuzzled his face in Joe’s neck, his high, sweet voice muffled only slightly as he chanted, “Pa.  Pa.  Pa.”

“Hey, did you hear that?  He said ‘Pa’!” Hoss announced.

“Good work, Danny!” Adam said.  “Just one little thing, though.  That’s Pa.”  He gestured toward Ben.

But Ben was watching Joe.  The boy’s eyes were glistening and he had to swallow hard, but his voice was steady and just a hair too loud:  “I told you, buddy.  ‘Joe.’  Work on ‘Joe.’”  He kissed the baby’s head and handed him up to his mother.  Addie leaned down to take him.  Her words were barely audible as she murmured, “He got it right.”

She settled herself and her son on the seat.  The stage driver took away the step and slammed the door.  He climbed up on the high seat, called to the horses, slapped the reins.  Ben rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  The stagecoach drove away, leaving the four Cartwrights standing in the dusty, empty place that a little baby and his young mother had left behind.  Amid the bustle and shouts of Virginia City, Joe heard his pa’s quiet words, overflowing with the love and heartbreak that only a father could understand.

“You got it right, too.”

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

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4 thoughts on “Danny (by pjb)”

  1. I realized I hadn’t read “Danny” in the “new” library. It takes a long time for stubborn people to change their ways. Joe was the first to do what was right and everyone seemed to follow his lead. Nicely done, Jo!

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