Summary: How Little Joe got his name.
Word Count: 9789
Jeffrey Stanton wasn’t looking forward to the rest of his stint here in Virginia City. Looking for a bit of adventure, as part of his medical internship he had volunteered his services out west – but his thoughts had been more along the lines of San Francisco, not this cluster of brutish humanity that rested somewhere between hell and the edges of the earth.
He sighed. Ah, well. Nothing to do for it now. He would put in his two months alongside Dr. Paul Martin – a nice enough man but one who was undoubtedly far adrift of the latest medical techniques. Once those two months were finished, he’d pack his bags and move on to San Francisco where he hoped to establish a practice of his own. It would be eight weeks squandered, but his attempts to convince his superiors of that had been a waste of time.
Actually, the first two weeks had passed quickly enough already. A cave-in at the mines, a breech birth, and two broken legs from a wagon accident had kept him and Dr. Martin quite busy. And a myriad of gunshot wounds, of course. Nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing that even Dr. Martin’s basic skills could not handle.
The last few days had been uneventful, and now he was going to take Dr. Martin’s advice and head to the saloon for a beer – or rather, a glass of the swill they had there that dared to claim the name.
He was almost to the door when a score of gunshots rent the air. Alarmed, he stepped back and pressed up against the plank wall of the saloon and tried to decide which way to run. From within the saloon he heard shouts and screams and crashes along with more gunshots.
In less than a minute, most of the racket had stopped. Jeffrey crept carefully up to the swinging doors at the saloon’s entry and looked over the top of them. No doubt his services would be needed; somebody was bound to be hurt after all that. He could get started doctoring while someone else ran for Dr. Martin, but first he wanted to make sure the coast was clear. He wasn’t keen on getting himself shot, not even in the interest of medicine.
There was someone lying on the floor, just as he had expected. Couldn’t make him out with the crowd around him, but he recognized one of the fellows bending over him. Adam Cartwright. Jeffrey had had the pleasure of making Mr. Cartwright’s acquaintance some days before, and considered him a breath of fresh air in the midst of the muck that made up a large portion of the population of this vast territory.
Adam Cartwright was educated, civilized. Not that he wasn’t tough. Jeffrey had seen him fight. Fisticuffs seemed to be an important skill for a man to have in Virginia City, and Adam held his own there with little trouble, from what Jeffrey had chanced to see. But his anger seemed to get the better of him only with much provocation. Usually the man seemed to be quite pleasant, exceedingly calm and thoughtful, and given more to cutting words than fists when someone annoyed him.
If he had not had this initial impression of Adam, he might not have been so surprised when Adam whirled around and saw him. Before Jeffrey could move or speak, Adam had crossed the room and jerked him – quite rudely, Jeffrey thought – through the doors.
His face was not the same pleasant, introspective one Jeffrey had been introduced to earlier in the week. It was frightened and angry, with a wild light making his eyes more amber than usual, and it made Jeffrey want to put his arms up in an effort to shield himself.
But he couldn’t even if he wanted to, for Adam had his collar crushed in both fists. The frantic thought passed through Jeffrey’s mind that he was about to have his nose bloodied.
“My brother…you’ve got to help him.”
Goodness, the man’s chest was heaving. He was absolutely terrified – that was what had caused the transformation in his appearance. His brother – his brother was the wounded man on the floor, then.
Adam had mentioned that he had two brothers, but Jeffrey hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet them. Such a shame that he was now being introduced under such dire circumstances.
“Well, of course, I’ll see what I can do…” He wasn’t able to get the words fully out because Adam was shoving him forward. He had the distinct impression that if he didn’t move fast enough, he was in danger of being hurled there, so he hurried over to kneel down beside the injured man.
This Cartwright was young, not even a man, really. No, he was just a boy, surely no older than seventeen or so.
And he was losing more blood than any one man had to give.
“Towels!” he heard himself shout. “Bring me towels!”
The boy was conscious, but that was no blessing. Pain was making him writhe slowly on the floor, and he kept trying to curl into himself.
“Stay still, son,” Jeffrey murmured, and he put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Green eyes latched onto his as though to a lifeline, and even in his hurry, Jeffrey was caught by the intensity in them, layered though it was with pain. Eyes quite different from his older brother’s, and yet, there was something, something there that was the same….
The boy groaned. His hands were clutched at his middle, and they were soaked with blood that his shirt could no longer absorb. Gently but firmly, Jeffrey moved the hands aside. Adam held one of them and a very large man kneeling at the boy’s other side held the other. Grasping the two edges of the front of the boy’s shirt, Jeffrey jerked them apart with one violent motion. Buttons tore loose and rolled across the floor, and the shirt’s fabric fell aside to reveal the boy’s ravaged abdomen. Jeffrey bent forward to get his first look at the wound…
…and fell back in dismay.
“Oh, dear Lord,” Jeffrey whispered before he could catch himself, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Adam glance sharply at him.
Adam’s brother was not going to survive. Jeffrey knew that as certainly as he knew his own name. The wound was too severe and in one of the body’s most vulnerable areas. There was too much blood, too much damage. But he knew he had to go through the motions, so he took the bar towels that were passed to him and pressed them hard against the wound. He found he could not look at Adam.
It was with relief that he registered another flurry of activity that registered the arrival of Dr. Martin. Helping family members deal with death was something he didn’t think he’d ever get used to, nor did he intend to deal with it this time. Dr. Martin had mentioned that he’d been a friend of the Cartwright family for many years. Better for them to receive the bad news from someone they had an attachment to.
The next few minutes were blurred and rushed. Dr. Martin shouted for a stretcher to be brought even as he examined the boy. And while he ran fingers across the hole in the boy’s abdomen, he leaned over to talk to the boy himself.
“It’s all right, Little Joe. We’ve got you. Your brothers are here, and somebody’s gone for your pa. You’re going to be fine, you hear me? Just hang on now.”
If Jeffrey had been a betting man, which he was upon occasion, he would’ve placed high odds against that boy’s father ever reaching him on time.
By the time the stretcher arrived and the boy was rushed off to the surgery, Jeffrey had figured out that the big man who had been kneeling beside him was the other brother, the one they called Hoss. Still thinking about the similarities he had seen in the first two brothers’ eyes, Jeffrey found himself sneaking a glance at the big man’s eyes as they both hurried along beside the stretcher.
But no. Cornflower blue eyes here, clear as the sky reflected in the waters of Lake Tahoe, although red-rimmed with emotion at the moment. Where his brothers had some…some passionate, undeniable will, this one instead had a gentleness. It was a discovery that somewhat surprised Jeffrey since Hoss was such a very large individual. Interesting people, these Cartwrights. It really was too bad he hadn’t been able to meet them all before their numbers had been cut down.
Within minutes after arriving at the surgery, Dr. Martin had ushered everyone out and shut the doors against them. Then he was grabbing up instruments with a speed that surprised Jeffrey. Surely the older doctor knew that this was a lost cause….
“I’ve got another pair of clamps just like this one on that bottom shelf in the second cabinet,” Dr. Martin barked at him. “Get them. Mrs. Murphy! I need you in here with that ether, now!”
Despite being convinced that they were working on a dead man, Jeffrey did as he was told. So did Mrs. Murphy, Dr. Martin’s housekeeper and sometime-nurse. A few short moments later, Joe Cartwright was out and breathing deeply.
For hours they stood there, tying off veins that insisted on pumping out more blood even when Jeffrey was sure they must be bled dry. They clamped and stitched and swabbed until Jeffrey’s back and neck burned with fatigue. Every now and then, Mrs. Murphy would place the ether mask on the boy’s face for a few more seconds.
At last Dr. Martin proclaimed them finished.
“We’ll sit here and wait for a few minutes, make sure we’ve got it all, and then we’ll talk to his family,” Dr. Martin sighed, rolling his neck around to work out the kinks. He glanced at his patient and shook his head. “He’ll be recuperating for quite some time.”
Jeffrey couldn’t stand it any more. “Doctor, this…surgery. You do realize it was all for nothing, don’t you?”
Dr. Martin looked at him and with surprise. “Why do you say that, Dr. Stanton?”
Jeffrey stared at him. “A belly wound of that magnitude…for heaven’s sakes, doctor, he’ll never make it through the night.”
Dr. Martin chuckled tiredly. “One thing I’ve learned over the past thirty-some odd years, Dr. Stanton. Never make assumptions about life and death. And when you’re talking about a Cartwright, especially that particular Cartwright – well, they just seem to have a little extra luck going for them.”
Jeffrey snorted. “That’s preposterous. Luck will help a man draw an inside straight. It won’t help keep him from bleeding to death. You know as well as I do that that boy’s chances of living to see the sun rise are slim to none.”
Dr. Martin smiled. “Thirty years ago I would’ve said the same thing, Dr. Stanton. But thirty years ago I didn’t know the Cartwrights. That boy there has swung on slim chances his whole life. I’ve patched him up more times than I can count, and somehow he always pulls through. Shoot, the first time I laid eyes on him I didn’t give him a snowball’s chance in hell of making it. He proved me wrong then, and he’s been doing it ever since.”
Jeffrey rubbed a hand over his face and sat down in a chair against the wall. He leaned his elbows on his knees and stared up at Dr. Martin. The older doctor might not be aware of all the latest medical techniques, but he certainly had optimism. An overabundance of it, Jeffrey thought.
“Tell me about that first time,” he said suddenly.
“The first time this kid proved you wrong.” The Cartwright brothers, for some reason, intrigued him. He found himself wanting to know more.
Dr. Martin sat down beside him and leaned back in his chair. “I reckon we’ve got a few minutes while we make sure he’s stabilized. You sure you want to hear the story?”
“Yes. Tell me.”
“Well, then.” Dr. Martin got up, leaned over his patient to listen to his breathing, and, satisfied, sat down once more. “It was in 1842—no, 1843, in the fall…”
The surgery door rattled and burst open, and there stood Adam Cartwright. Jeffrey noted that he looked every bit as wild as he had back in the saloon, and the desire to get up and run took hold of him. Fortunately, he was able to squelch that impulse, and instead of running, he slowly stood up to stand beside Dr. Martin.
“Adam, you know you have no business in here,” Dr. Martin said reprovingly.
“I’ve sent my father and brother down to the International House to get some coffee and a bite to eat,” Adam said, and his words were clipped and hard. “At least, that’s what I made them believe. Paul, I need to know how my brother is, and I need to know now. If I need to start preparing my father…” He looked past them, saw Joe lying on the surgery table, and pushed past them to stand next to the table.
Noting the clean bandages and the sheet drawn up to Joe’s chest, he let out a soft whoosh of air, and his eyes fluttered shut for an instant. “You’ve finished,” he said, but his attention stayed on the boy.
“Yes, and it’s a good thing, too, with idiots barging in off the street like this, bringing in God-knows-what on the air,” Dr. Martin scolded, but then he looked at Adam’s pale face and sighed, placing a hand on Adam’s back. “He’s still got a fight ahead of him, of course, but I think he’s going to pull through, Adam.”
Adam looked at him then, and his expression was a pleading one. Dr. Martin nodded. “I swear, son. I think he’s going to be all right.”
Jeffrey watched Adam’s throat working, and he knew the man was struggling to remain in control. Apparently they were quite close, these brothers.
“Thanks, Paul,” Adam said hoarsely, and then reached one hand out and rested it against the boy’s forehead. “Damn fool,” he whispered. “I told him to back off that miner. I should’ve slung him over my shoulder and thrown him on his pony and headed for home. I could’ve stopped it. I should’ve…”
“Adam. Stop it. Raking yourself over the coals isn’t going to help that boy one bit. Now come sit down.” Dr. Martin tugged at Adam’s arm. At first, Jeffrey didn’t think Adam was going to move from the boy’s side, but he allowed himself to be pushed down into a chair.
“I need to tell Pa…”
“No,” Dr. Martin said decisively. “If I know Ben, he’ll be glued to this boy’s bed for the next several days. Let him get that food and coffee inside him first.” He narrowed his eyes at Adam’s pale face. “You could use some yourself, son. Mrs. Murphy! Bring coffee!”
Jeffrey eyed Adam cautiously. He appeared more dazed now than angry, and Jeffrey found he was glad to see the anger gone. Anger in Adam Cartwright was a rather frightening thing to witness.
Jeffrey watched him rub a hand hard over his eyes and mouth.
“Dr. Martin was just telling me that your younger brother is quite the lucky individual,” Jeffrey offered, and was rewarded by a small smile.
“Lucky? Yeah, I guess a lot of folks might see it that way,” Adam murmured. “Sometimes I think it’s the other way around, what with all the fixes he manages to get himself hung up in.”
“Dr. Stanton wants to hear about the night Joseph was born,” Dr. Martin said.
Adam glanced at Jeffrey, one brow raised. “Really? Why?”
Jeffrey smiled. Why indeed? “Idle curiosity, I suppose. I’d like to hear the story, if you don’t mind.”
“Go on, tell him. It’ll keep you busy while we wait for your pa and Hoss to get back,” Dr. Martin told him. “I want to wait for a few more minutes before we talk to them anyway – we need to make sure he’s not still bleeding somewhere, that sort of thing.”
Adam shook his head and stared at Joe. “I don’t think so, Paul. I’ll just sit here with you if you don’t mind.”
“Fine, but I’m not going to let you sit there and torment yourself, either. Come on, now, keep yourself busy by telling Dr. Stanton his little story. I was going to tell it myself, but you know what happened better than I do.”
Adam shook his head. “I was just a kid, Paul.”
“Then please, just tell what you remember,” Jeffrey urged, and he found he really did want to hear it.
Adam sighed and sat back, his gaze still on his brother’s face, and then he shrugged. “All right.” He stared at Joe for a few seconds more, and then began to talk in a slow, soft voice, hesitating every few seconds as if trying to dredge up long-forgotten memories. “Winter came early that year…”
The breeze had a harsh bite to it, but Adam knew it wasn’t only the cold wind that sent a shiver up his spine. He sat on the porch in front of the house, Hoss close beside him, and he tried not to think about what was going on inside.
“How much longer, Adam?” Hoss whispered, and Adam sighed. He couldn’t count how many times his little brother had already asked that same question. But Hoss looked as wretched under the cold moonlight as Adam felt, and he knew he couldn’t be impatient with him.
He answered just as he had before. “I don’t know, Hoss. Nobody knows. It takes as long as it takes, that’s all.”
“What?” Distracted and worried, Adam felt another small wave of irritation flare up. He squashed it back down. “No, nobody knows.”
But Hoss nodded vigorously. “Yes, they do. God knows.”
Couldn’t argue with that. “Well…yes, God knows.”
For several minutes, they sat there in silence, watching the moon drift in and out of fast-moving clouds.
“Pa says it took a long time for you to be born, Adam.”
Adam shifted uncomfortably on the porch, but didn’t answer. He knew where this was going. Hoss was scared. He was only six, but he was well aware of the dangers involved. Women died in childbirth all the time. They both had more than one friend who had lost a mother or sibling that way. And of course there was Adam’s own mother…
“Do you want to go back inside, Hoss?” he asked abruptly. “It’s getting really cold out here.”
But Hoss shook his head adamantly and shrugged deeper into his coat.
Adam couldn’t blame his brother’s resistance. Going inside meant hearing Marie’s painful cries again. The noise was muffled by the closed door upstairs, but it was still disturbing to Adam, and he knew it was even worse for his younger brother. It had been Adam’s idea to wait outside, but that had been hours ago.
“Pa says it took a long time for you to be born,” Hoss repeated. “He says your mama worked really hard to get you born because she loved you so much.” Adam kept his gaze on the pine boughs swaying in the wind overhead, but he could feel Hoss’ eyes on him as the boy tried to work out the worries he had on his mind. “I asked Pa if he thought your mama would’ve gone ahead and had a baby if she’d known it was gonna be that hard. If she’d known that it was gonna be so hard that she would die from tryin’.”
Startled, Adam did look at him then, wondering if his younger brother realized how many times that very question had haunted him. He had never dared to put such a thought into words, though, not to his pa or even to himself, not even when he was as young as Hoss. “What did Pa say?” he asked, and his voice threatened to skip out on him in those four short words.
Hoss shrugged, obviously unaware of the importance of his answer. “He said she would’ve done it a thousand times over. Even more. ‘Cause she loved you so much.” His tone was matter-of-fact, but he was quiet for a few minutes after that. When he finally spoke up again, it was with, “Mama loves her baby, too. Even with it still in her belly, she loves it.”
Adam simply cocked his head at him.
Hoss bent and began to sift dirt through his fingers as he talked. “I don’t see how somebody can love somebody they’ve never even met, do you?”
Love was a confusing thing for Adam all the way around, especially during the past several months. He knew his pa had loved Inger with all his heart, so he’d been confused, angry even, when Pa had fallen in love with Marie. After all, if your heart belonged to one person, how could it be given to another?
Pa had told him it was like loving him and Hoss; he loved them both so much he thought his heart would explode with it. Loving more people only meant there was more love packed inside your heart.
“A heart that could hold only enough love for one person would be a sorry little thing,” Pa had told him, and Adam supposed it was true. They had all loved Inger; it didn’t mean they couldn’t love Marie, too. It had taken awhile, but eventually he had no longer felt guilty about liking her so much.
“Adam? How can somebody love somebody they’ve never even met?” Hoss persisted.
He didn’t know the answer to that and said so.
Hoss frowned. “I don’t know if I’ll love this baby. Jess Pruitt has a new baby brother, and he’s awful loud. And sometimes he smells worse than the barn stalls when they need cleanin’. I wouldn’t even want to sit next to him, much less love him.” He picked up another handful of dirt. “Pa says I’ll love our baby, though. He says we’ll all love him because our hearts already know him even if we haven’t got to talk to him yet.” He looked up at Adam. “Is that true, Adam?”
“Yeah, Hoss, I reckon that’s true.”
“Did your heart already know me when I was born?”
Adam grinned. “Yeah, Hoss. My heart has always known you.” And he knew it was true, even though it didn’t make much sense.
Hoss smiled, and dug in the dirt some more. For a long time they were both quiet. When Hoss finally spoke up again, he kept his eyes on the toes of his scuffed boots. “God knows how long it will take for the baby to be born. He knows if Mama is going to die, too, doesn’t He, Adam?”
“She’s not going to die.”
Hoss looked up at him then, and the desperation in his eyes made Adam’s insides twinge. “You don’t know that,” Hoss said.
“She’s not going to die,” Adam insisted, but he found he had to turn his face away from his brother. Hoss was right; he knew no such thing.
“If Mama dies tryin’ to get this baby born, it’s gonna be awful hard for me to love him,” Hoss said in a low voice.
“Hoss…whatever happens isn’t the baby’s fault. You know that.” It was something he used to whisper to himself, over and over, when he thought of his own mother. It had taken a long time before he’d actually believed it, though.
Hoss nodded miserably and dropped his head. “I know.”
For a long time neither of them said anything more. Then, over the wind, an odd, shrill, animal-like keening drifted down to them, a sharp sound filled with anguish.
“Is that Mama?” Hoss whispered, and his blue eyes were as big and round as Adam had ever seen them.
For a brief instant, Adam considered lying. He could tell Hoss the sound must’ve come from a red-tailed hawk circling high overhead, but he knew Hoss was too astute to ever believe it, so he simply nodded. They both stared up at the lit window that marked their parents’ room, the glass strong enough to hold out the cold wind but not strong enough to keep the sounds of agony from slipping out.
“I wish Pa would come down and sit with us,” Hoss said miserably. “Or at least Hop Sing.”
“You know Hop Sing is helping Doc Martin,” Adam whispered, his eyes still on the window, “and so is Pa.” He didn’t add that he had heard his father refuse the doctor’s orders to leave the room.
“You’ll only be in the way, Ben,” Doc Martin had snapped as he rushed around getting things ready. “Just wait downstairs. We’ll call you when the time comes.”
“No! Ben! Please don’t leave me!” Marie had sounded so terrified that Adam had wanted to panic himself. The fact that alarm had washed his pa’s face of color didn’t make him feel any better.
“I’m going nowhere, Marie,” Ben had soothed, and sat down beside her, holding tightly to her hand. Adam had crept out of the room to the sounds of his stepmother gasping and his father murmuring reassurances. The door had been closed behind him, and he hadn’t seen either of them since.
Another pain-filled cry drifted down into the yard. Apparently it was all Hoss could take; he shot to his feet and took off. Adam called to him, but the little boy was headed for the barn as though the devil himself was at his heels. The barn door banged open as Hoss flew through it.
Adam hurried behind him, yet another piercing cry at his back.
The barn was dark inside.
“Hoss? Where’d you go?”
A muffled sniffle along with a horse’s soft nicker gave Adam his answer. He took the lantern from its place on a hook near the door and lit it, then carefully hung it back up.
Soft yellow light pushed the darkness back into the corners of the barn. In one of the stalls, under the benevolent eye of a large bay mare, stood Hoss. He rubbed the velvety nose of a tiny foal, taking care not to look at Adam. Adam decided to pretend he didn’t notice the tears staining Hoss’ cheeks.
It was warmer here out of the wind. Quieter, too. Distance and wind and plank walls kept the agonizing sounds of childbirth at bay. Adam wondered why they hadn’t had the sense to take advantage of the barn’s protective confines earlier.
Well, if they hadn’t been thinking clearly, neither had anyone else. The entire household was rattled. Pa and Hop Sing rushing about, Marie turning her face into her pillow to hide her pain, Doc Martin shouting orders – and fear, hard and cold, filtered over everything.
For the baby was coming early. Far too early.
“I never heard anyone sound like that,” Hoss whispered. He ran a hand down the mare’s sleek neck, over and over, staring at her rather than looking at Adam. “Why does she sound like that, Adam?”
Adam picked up a brush and moved to stand beside Hoss. “She’s hurting, Hoss.” He moved the brush over the mare’s side in rhythmic motions, knowing the task was more to soothe himself than because the horse needed grooming.
“Did my mama sound like that when I was born?”
Adam’s hand stilled for a moment as he looked down at his brother. “No. Inger was quiet through the whole thing.”
Hoss’ brow furrowed. “So not all ladies holler like that when a baby’s comin’?”
Adam thought about that. Some women were quieter than others. He wondered if it was because some could take more pain than others, or because some births were just harder. He suspected it was probably a little bit of both, although Marie didn’t strike him as someone who couldn’t stand up under pain. He knew birthing could be a long, arduous process, though. He had plenty of personal experience to draw from; several babies had been born on the trail when he and Pa and Inger had been in the wagon train. The canvas walls of the wagons hadn’t afforded anyone much privacy for anything, not even birth and death.
Two or three of those babies had been born too early. Not one of the early ones had survived, and one of the mothers had died as well.
He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. “Stop asking so many questions, will you?” he said gruffly. He moved to the other side of the horse and continued to flick the brush across the dark, shining hide.
Hoss ducked his face under the horse’s neck to look at him. “Are you scared, Adam?”
Was he scared? Yeah, he was scared. Scared for the new baby, and scared that his pretty stepmother, whom he had only recently begun to warm up to, would be gone before the night was done. Scared that his pa would once again walk around with that awful, lost look on his face the way he had done after Inger had died.
He swallowed the knot that had grown in his throat. “Yeah, Hoss, I’m scared.”
Hoss nodded and patted the mare’s neck. “Me, too.” He looked at the foal and then back at its mother. “Lucy didn’t make sounds like that when she had her baby. Just a few grunts and groans, and her baby just slithered out onto the ground, all wet and messy…”
“Marie’s not a horse, Hoss. It’s different.”
“Why is it different for animals? Don’t mama animals hurt when they’re tryin’ to get their babies born?”
“Well, yes, I imagine that it does hurt them, but…”
“Then why don’t they holler?”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Oh, for Pete sakes, Hoss, have you ever heard a horse holler?”
“I sure dadgum have.”
Adam’s eyes snapped to Hoss’ face. “What?”
“Remember last winter when that chestnut gelding stepped in a hole and broke his leg? That horse screamed when it went down, Adam. It was awful.”
Adam gulped at the remembrance. It had been awful. “Yeah, well…that’s different.”
“A horse with a broke leg is different than one that’s tryin’ to have a baby?”
“Yeah. It’s different.”
“Why? They both hurt, don’t they? Why would they sometimes holler when they go down with a broke leg but not when they’re havin’ a baby? Why is it different?”
Adam sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I don’t know why, Hoss. It’s just different, that’s all. Here, brush on Lucy for awhile. It’ll give you something to do.” He handed the brush to his brother and leaned against the wall, peering out the smudged window of the barn to the house. Much as he didn’t want to hear Marie’s cries, he was desperate to know what was happening.
Hoss obediently began to brush. “I’m glad animals don’t holler when their babies come. You know why?”
Adam gave a long-suffering sigh and shook his head. “No, why?”
“Well, you know how the calves mostly hit the ground pretty much at the same time at the end of winter? Just think how much racket there’d be if all those cows were screamin’ at the top of their lungs. We wouldn’t be able to hear ourselves think.”
Adam had to smile at the ridiculous vision his brother had painted. “I reckon you’re right about that, Hoss.”
Hoss stopped brushing and stood still. Watching Lucy’s foal as it settled down into the straw, its long legs tucking themselves underneath its body, he said softly, “Adam, you remember what happened to Lucy’s foal last year?”
Poor Hoss. Adam knew at that point that his younger brother did completely understand the particular danger that Marie and her baby faced. Adam watched him carefully. “Yes, I remember.”
“Pa said the foal came too early. That’s why she died,” Hoss whispered. “Our baby isn’t s’posed to get here ‘til Thanksgivin’. It’s goin’ to die, ain’t it?” His voice was small and shaky.
Adam had no easy answer. Hoss’ fear could very easily come true. He eased off the wall and moved around to put an arm across Hoss’ shoulders. “Doc Martin is doing everything he can. You know that.”
Hoss nodded. “I know, but…Mama is scared, Adam. I saw her face. I know she’s cryin’ some because of how she’s hurtin’, but some it is because she’s scared.”
“Yes. She’s scared.”
“Adam…I think maybe it’s my fault.” Hoss’ bottom lip quivered. “I feel like maybe God knows I’m not sure I can love somebody what smells like manure. Maybe He’s decided to bring the baby early so that He can send him back, ‘cause I don’t love the baby already like Mama does.”
Despite himself, Adam rolled his eyes. “Come on, Hoss, there ain’t no truth in that at all. You’re talkin’ nonsense. You know that, don’t you?”
Hoss shrugged. “Yeah…I reckon.” But he looked unconvinced.
Adam shook his head and moved to a wooden chest that sat outside the stall; he withdrew several horse blankets from it. “Come on. Unless you want to go back to the house we might as well make ourselves comfortable, since we don’t know how much longer it’ll be.”
Hoss didn’t argue, and they settled themselves into the straw beside Lucy’s foal. They lay back and Adam tucked the blankets in around them.
“I’m hungry, Adam. Hop Sing forgot all about supper.”
“I know, Hoss. He’s awful busy. We’ll get something to eat later, all right?”
Hoss grumbled a rather petulant agreement and squirmed around for several minutes before he finally sat up again, rubbing his nose. “These blankets are itchy.”
Adam didn’t bother to answer. The blankets were itchy. But they were warm, and he quickly grew drowsy despite his worry.
“You didn’t like Mama when she first came.”
Adam turned his head to see his younger brother watching him. “It wasn’t that I didn’t like her, Hoss. It was just…well, it’s complicated. You’re too young to understand.”
“But you didn’t like her. You said she was like a claim jumper. You said she was…”
“I said a lot of things,” Adam interrupted. “People say things they don’t mean sometimes when they’re scared.”
“You were scared of Mama? How could you be scared of her? She ain’t even that big. You’re already taller than her. How…”
“I didn’t say that I was afraid of her!” Adam protested, and he was aware that his voice had risen a little higher than he had intended.
“Yes, you did. You just said being scared made you say things you didn’t mean…”
“I didn’t say I was scared of her,” Adam said. “Oh, come on, Hoss, just lie down and go to sleep, will you?”
Hoss frowned. “If you weren’t afraid of her, what were you afraid of?”
What had he been afraid of? Lots of things. Mostly that his father, obviously smitten, would devote more and more time to his new wife and less to him and Hoss.
But Adam hadn’t realized then what he knew now. That love spread wasn’t diminished. It was multiplied. “I guess I was afraid she’d change things, Hoss,” he said quietly. “I liked our family the way it was – you, me, Pa. Hop Sing. I didn’t think we needed anyone else.”
Hoss nodded and lay back down, seemingly satisfied. “But we did need Mama, didn’t we, Adam?”
“Yeah,” Adam whispered, and this time his eyes stayed wide open as he stared into the rafters overhead. “Yeah, we needed her.”
“Adam, it’s mornin’. Adam? Adam!”
Hoss’ insistent voice brought him out of a dream he was only too happy to leave. He had been riding on the seat of a covered wagon with his pa and Hoss. Nobody else was around them – no other wagons, no people, no horses. A heavy mist swirled around them, and they couldn’t see where they had been or where they were going….
“Adam, I’m awful hungry.”
Adam struggled into a sitting position and rubbed his knuckles against his eyes, determinedly clearing away the last vestiges of sleep and dreams as Hoss stood up and dusted bits of straw off his pants.
It wasn’t a good sign that no one had come for them. Either Marie was still in labor, or…or something worse.
Adam opened the barn door, and a sharp wind cut across his face. The sun wasn’t yet over the mountains, and even when it came, it wasn’t going to bring much warmth; the heavy mantle of clouds would see to that. Apparently autumn was being shouldered out of the way as winter bullied its way into an early appearance.
They walked across the yard and stopped at the porch, both of them stopping to look up at the window overhead.
“I don’t hear anything, do you, Adam?”
“No. Sure you want to go in?” He wasn’t sure himself.
“I gotta. My belly’s cavin’ in clear to my backbone.”
Exaggeration or not, Adam could appreciate the sentiment. He was hungry, too.
“All right, let’s go in the side door. We’ll get you some breakfast.” And they could escape quickly out of the same door if Marie’s cries started back up, Adam thought, but he didn’t say it.
The kitchen was strangely empty and quiet. Usually Hop Sing was busy in here before dawn, bustling around as he readied breakfast and kneaded dough for the day’s bread. The clatter of dishes and cutlery along with Hop Sing’s sharp reprimands toward anyone foolish enough to enter his domain mingled together in a cacophony of hectic activity. For the past year, Marie’s ringing laughter had joined in with the noise as she and Hop Sing prepared meals together.
But not this morning. There was no bread baking and no laughter. The dishes sat untouched in their cupboards. Only the stove was performing its normal task, sending up shimmering waves of heat from the embers within. On its top sat a kettle full of steaming water, and on the back of a nearby chair hung several towels. Adam didn’t know what it meant that boiled towels were still needed, but apparently someone had at least kept the fire going.
Adam surveyed the kitchen. Along one wall sat a low, long wooden table. Various tins and bowls rested there, including a crockery bowl filled with what was left of yesterday’s eggs. “We’ll have breakfast in no time, Hoss.”
He picked up the bowl of eggs, and Hoss pointed.
“Mama’s dice,” Hoss said matter-of-factly.
Yes, Marie’s dice. Adam was well aware of the dice that stayed hidden in the corner behind the egg bowl. He’d even confronted Marie about them once after walking in on her and Hop Sing while they were engaged in a game of craps – for some reason, a hilariously funny game of craps. They’d both been laughing and hooting at one another. Worse, Hoss had been rolling the dice and laughing too. It had been before things had eased between Marie and Adam, and he had felt a short, sharp pang of jealousy that he hadn’t been among them, giggling and joking.
Instead of joining in, however, he’d said accusingly, “You know Pa don’t hold with gamblin’.” Hoss had flushed and shot him an anxious look. Hop Sing had taken one look at the glower on his face and then had very quickly risen and busied himself at the stove.
But Marie hadn’t been shamed at all. She’d stopped laughing, but a smile still hovered at the edges of her mouth as she looked him straight in the eye. “We’re not gambling. We’re playing a game. There’s a difference, Adam. It’s just a way for Hop Sing and me to enjoy passing our time while we wait for water to boil or meat to brown. Just a game, that’s all.”
He’d narrowed his eyes at her. “You don’t play when Pa is around.”
Her smile had faltered and something uneasy had flashed across her eyes. “No, because I know it bothers him. He’s afraid of…that I…” She’d given her head a slight shake and put her smile firmly back in place. “It makes him uncomfortable, so I choose to do it only when he is not present.”
He’d looked at the dice lying on the table and then back at her, and then he’d tilted his chin up and said coldly, “Ladies – real ladies – don’t touch dice.”
She’d sucked in a breath and winced. Sharp words had crossed between them before, but this time he had the definite impression that he’d crossed the line. Part of him had wanted to take the words back. He’d known it was a cruel thing to say. The other part of him, though, the part that didn’t want to like or trust his pa’s new wife, was glad that he’d drawn blood.
But Marie had never been an easy target. She had stood and moved to stand directly in front of him, drawing herself to her full height and raising her chin to look him as squarely in the face as she could. He’d had to fight to keep from taking a step back from the fire flashing in her eyes.
When she spoke, her voice was cool but soft. “I’m likely as close to a…real lady now as I ever will be, Adam. I’m sorry if that’s not close enough to suit you, but I set my life’s course long ago. You, however, still have time to choose your own paths. And if one of those paths includes becoming a…real gentleman, you’d do well to remember that true gentlemen treat every woman they meet with deference and respect, whether that woman is a countess or a saloon girl – or even your father’s wife.”
With that, she’d gathered her skirts and left the kitchen, her head held high, leaving him standing shame-faced in a now-silent kitchen.
He touched one of the dice now, its bone surface smooth and cool under his fingers, and gave a tiny smile. He had apologized later – much later. But he’d been sincere in his regret, just as she had been sincere in her acceptance of it. The dice games hadn’t stopped, and although he’d never joined in on them, neither had he spoken of them to Pa. He sometimes even watched for a few minutes. He had decided the issue was none of his business. If the dice games were truly a bad thing, his father would discover and ban them soon enough without Adam’s interference. There wasn’t much on the Ponderosa that went on for long without Ben Cartwright’s knowledge.
Carefully, Adam pushed the dice back under cover behind a tin of flour. “Come on, Hoss, let’s scramble up these eggs.”
He let Hoss help him crack the eggs, even though he knew it meant they’d be crunching on bits of shell later. In a few minutes they were both tucking into plates of scrambled eggs, their bellies soothed with the warmth of comforting food even if their minds were still tense with worry. So far they hadn’t seen hide nor hair of anyone else. It was as though they were the only ones home.
“Good eggs, Adam,” Hoss mumbled around a mouthful, and Adam nodded even as he picked a piece of shell out of his mouth.
And then a single, long, horrible cry, worse than all the ones they had heard last night, resounded down the stairs and throughout the house.
Startled, Hoss jerked back, accidentally knocking his plate off the table. Eggs scattered across the plank floor.
“Good thing we didn’t use Mama’s china,” Hoss said mournfully as the tin plate bounced and rolled into a corner. The plate rattled noisily to a stop and Hoss stared into Adam’s face as they both waited, on edge and tense, for another cry.
It never came.
Minutes went by. Adam gave his own eggs to Hoss as he got down on his knees to clean up the mess on the floor, but he noticed that Hoss only picked at the food. He couldn’t blame him. His own appetite had disappeared quickly.
When footsteps sounded on the stairs, both of them jerked their faces in the direction of the sound. Adam froze in the middle of wiping the eggs up off the floor. Was it over? Was someone coming to tell them that the baby was here, and that Marie was fine…or…or… He shook himself, refusing to consider the alternative.
Within moments, Hop Sing appeared in the doorway, circles under his eyes and lines of exhaustion marking his face. He hardly glanced at either of them, but the fact that he didn’t seem to notice the eggs marring his floor was what really made Adam’s heart skip in fear. Normally the cook would’ve chastised them for dirtying his kitchen, but he said not a word.
Something awful had happened. Only something truly bad would distract Hop Sing from the care of his kitchen like this.
Taking up a pair of tongs, Hop Sing began to dip clean towels into the steaming water. Adam got up off the floor, leaving the eggs where they lay, and walked over to him. “Hop Sing,” he said hoarsely. “Marie?”
Hop Sing turned his head and blinked as though surprised to see him. “Mister Adam. You and Mister Hoss up early. I get breakfast soon. First take towels up to Doc Martin, then cook.” He turned back to the stove, and Adam put a hand on his arm.
“Hop Sing. Marie…how is she?” Part of him didn’t want to hear the answer. He wanted to bolt out the kitchen door before Hop Sing had a chance to tell him that Marie was gone, that springtime was once again only a season and not a feeling, that months of grieving were all any of them had to look forward to.
But Hop Sing gave him a small smile and nodded. “Missy be fine. Must rest now. Birthing hard work. All done now.”
Adam let out a deep breath. He wanted to collapse with the relief of Hop Sing’s news. Hot tears stung his eyes even as he felt a smile nudge at his mouth.
Hoss, silent and still until now, jumped out of his chair. “The baby is here?”
The baby. Heaven help him, he’d been so frightened for Marie he hadn’t even thought to ask about the baby.
Hop Sing nodded at Hoss. “Yes, baby here. Fine son for Mister Ben. Fine brother for you.” Hop Sing’s smile stumbled, though, and there was a note of sadness in his voice that sent a cold foreboding through Adam.
Hoss, always perceptive, caught the undertones as well. His face crumpled and tears welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. He shook his head sadly at Adam. “I told you our baby was gonna die, Adam. Not s’posed to come ‘til Thanksgivin’. Not s’posed to…”
Hop Sing cut him off. “Stop foolishment. Baby still here. Not die.” He dropped more towels into the water.
Adam pushed determinedly for more information. “Hop Sing, what do you know about the baby? How is it?”
Hop Sing interrupted his towel-heating to look at Adam, and he sighed. “Baby very small, Mister Adam. Not good be so small.” Then he shook his head and went back to work. “You leave Hop Sing alone now. Doctor need towels.”
Not good be so small. No, it was never good to be born too early and too small. Adam chewed his bottom lip, his initial glad relief dampened by his burgeoning despair for a tiny person he didn’t even know.
Our hearts already know him.
Hoss’ chin jutted out. “I want to see Mama,” he proclaimed, and he sounded so determined that Adam knew there would be no arguing with him. Besides, he wanted to see Mama—Marie—too.
“All right, but you have to promise you’ll be quiet,” Adam ordered, and Hoss nodded vigorously.
“I’ll whisper,” Hoss promised. Adam grinned despite his worry. Hoss didn’t realize that his voice was as big as the rest of him, and what he thought came out as a whisper could be heard across a room.
“All right, but if Marie and the baby are sleeping, just don’t say anything at all, okay?”
They crept upstairs together and hesitated in the open doorway of Marie’s bedroom. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace, making the room feel stuffy and overly warm. The lamps were still lit. A pile of crumpled sheets rested in one corner of the room, ostensibly waiting for Hop Sing’s removal.
In the bed, Marie lay propped up against several down pillows, her hair in disarray such as Adam had never seen. Marie was always very careful about arranging her hair just so, but not today. Her skin was pale, and there was a smudge of purple beneath her eyes. She looked awfully tired.
Pa, too, looked exhausted. He stood beside the bed, his hand gripping Marie’s.
Neither of them noticed Hoss or Adam. Both of them had all their attention riveted upon Doc Martin as he bent intently over a small, wrapped bundle that lay on the bed beside Marie.
Hoss’ hand edged into Adam’s; Adam grasped the boy’s stout fingers and held on tightly.
The doctor’s back was to them, and Adam couldn’t see what he was doing to their baby, but whatever he was doing, he wasn’t talking about it. Pa and Marie were also silent.
In fact, silence pervaded the room, and Adam suddenly realized that the baby wasn’t crying. Fear sank hard and cold into his belly. New babies always cried, or at least whimpered. The only ones he’d ever seen that were silent like this were…were babies that had died.
“Doc?” Pa’s voice was shaky, and the sound of it made Adam’s insides tremble.
Doc Martin straightened then, and heaved a loud sigh. “He’s fighting, Ben.” He stared at Pa and Marie and then shook his head. “But I feel that it would be wrong of me to give you false hope. He’s just so early…” Doc Martin bent his head and shook it again. “The truth is, his odds aren’t good. Not good at all.”
As he watched Pa and Marie grow even paler, Adam slowly became aware of pain in his hand; he realized that Hoss was squeezing for all he was worth.
“No!” Hoss blurted. “He can’t die!”
The adults looked up, startled, and Hoss ran to the bed and threw his face down onto the quilt covering Marie’s legs.
Marie placed a hand on his head. “Hoss, it is all right. Do not worry. Your brother will be all right.” She shot Doc Martin a defiant look as if daring him to argue. Doc, though, only dropped his gaze to the floor and said not a word.
Pa stepped forward and grasped Doc Martin’s shoulder. “Please, Doctor, surely there’s something we can do…. Anything….”
Doc Martin stared at him, and the truth of the grief in his face made Pa drop his hand and step back as though he’d been burned.
“I’m sorry, Ben. It’s his lungs, you see. When a baby is born too early, sometimes the lungs are not developed enough to cope with the task of taking in oxygen. And his size…he’s a little fighter, or he’d be gone already, but he’s weak. That’s why he’s not crying. He’s just so small….” Again Doc shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ben,” he repeated. “If there was anything I could do….”
For an instant Adam watched his father’s face take on the same broken, devastated look he had worn in the weeks following Inger’s death. But then he straightened and set his shoulders back. “My boy will not die,” he said, jutting out his chin.
“Ben, I know how you feel, but…”
“My boy will not die,” Ben said again. He looked back at Marie, at Hoss staring up at him with wide blue eyes, at Adam still standing in the doorway. “He will strengthen, and he will live. The four of us will see to it.”
Marie set up straight. Along with tears, there was something shining in her eyes that Adam could not quite put a name to—desperation? Gratitude? Determination?
“My husband is right, Doctor. The four of us…” She looked around, her gaze lighting upon each of them in turn, and took a deep breath. “The four of us, as Ben has said, will ensure this baby’s survival.” Then she picked the baby up and held him close to her face.
“There, you see, my son?” She was whispering, but Adam could hear what she said from where he stood. “Four. A ‘Little Joe.’ One of the most difficult rolls of the dice to make, and you already have it in your hand. You will not lose.”
A Little Joe. A dicing term meaning a roll of four. Adam had heard Marie shout it out more than once during those secret games of chance.
“A Little Joe, Hoss! That is what you must roll to win! You need four! A Little Joe!”
“You are already lucky, my son,” Marie whispered. “You will beat the odds.”
“Little Joe.” It was Hoss, and he was leaning toward the baby. “Little Joe, Little Joe, Little Joe,” he chanted. He had grasped onto Marie’s optimism with all his strength. “You’ve got a Little Joe, baby. You’re going to win! Little Joe, Little Joe, Little Joe…”
“Hoss, that’s enough, son,” Pa said, and he looked slightly alarmed. But Hoss paid him no mind. Instead he reached for the baby’s hand and held it in his.
“A Little Joe, baby. That’s what you’ve got. Me, Adam, Mama and Pa. You can’t lose.”
“Hoss, come down off the bed,” Ben ordered, and reached for him.
Hoss evaded his grasp. It was the only time Adam could ever remember Hoss deliberately disobeying their father.
And now he was shouting, and even Adam was alarmed. He moved forward. “Hoss, stop!” he cried.
“Little Joe!” Hoss shouted at the top of his lungs. “Little Joe, Little Joe, Little Joe!”
His voice echoed against the walls of the room, and still he shouted. Pa was pulling at him now, trying to get him away from the baby, and Doc Martin watched him as though gazing upon a terrifying new species of insect. Marie was staring at him with an open mouth even as she tried to cover the infant’s ears with her hands.
It was too late. The startled baby’s eyes, shut before, were now wide open, and fixed on Hoss’ face. He gave a big shudder, opened his tiny mouth, sucked in a huge breath of air…and then let out the most unearthly squall Adam had ever heard. The noise drowned out even Hoss’ shouts.
Surprised, Hoss shut his mouth.
The baby did not.
Escalating in volume, his screams went on. And on.
Adam sat quietly for a long time. Jeffrey watched him, somehow disappointed that the story seemed to be at an end.
“So the four Cartwrights became five?” he said.
Adam smiled, but an old sorrow lay hidden within it. “Only for a little while,” he said. “Marie died in a riding accident when Joe was still very young.” He stood and moved to stand near his brother again. “It’s been just the four of us ever since,” he said softly.
“A fact frequently bemoaned by the mamas of all the eligible young ladies in Virginia City,” Dr. Martin commented wryly, and Jeffrey had to laugh.
They watched Adam watching his brother.
“You stay here, Adam,” Dr. Martin said quietly. “Dr. Stanton and I will go collect your pa and Hoss. They’ve waited for news long enough. We’ll be right back.”
Adam barely acknowledged their departure as they left the surgery.
“So you see, Dr. Stanton, Joe’s nickname didn’t come from his stature as a child, although it was certainly appropriate there as well,” Dr. Martin said as they walked toward the International House. “It came from his good fortune – the ability to roll a four, a Little Joe, first rattle out of the box.”
Jeffrey frowned at him. “That’s absurd. Surely you don’t really think there’s something special about the number four.”
Dr. Martin drew himself up as though offended. “’Course not! I’m a man of science, not superstitious gobbledy-gook.” Then he spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “It’s just that – well, this is a family that…I don’t know, that draws strength from one another. Always have.”
They walked for a moment in silence.
“Are you a gambling man, Mr. Stanton?” Dr. Martin asked suddenly.
He looked at Dr. Martin and shrugged. “I like a card game every now and then. Just for pleasure.”
“A four is hard to get. A Little Joe,” Dr. Martin said matter-of-factly.
Jeffrey nodded. “Yes, it is. One of the lowest odds you can get.”
“Want to lay odds that four Cartwrights will be riding back to the Ponderosa? Oh, not in the next several days, certainly, but eventually. I’m willing to put down a considerable wager…”
Jeffrey frowned. “Is that ethical?”
Dr. Martin laughed. “Hell, son, we’ve done the surgery already! It’s up to that boy and God now. Nothing you or I do is going to change what happens.”
Jeffrey considered, and thought again about the kid lying on the table in the surgery with his brother standing over him. Half an hour ago he would’ve considered that bet a sure thing. But now…
Something told him he’d be losing his money.
“Well, son?” Dr. Martin pressed. “What do you say? Do we have a bet?”
Jeffrey shook his head, smiling. “What kind of fool would I be,” he said, “to bet against a kid who has a habit of rolling fours every time he tosses the dice?”
Dr. Martin grinned back at him, and then opened the doors to the International House. “Come on, Doctor. We’ve got news to deliver. The rest of that boy’s family is waiting.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Yes, Little Joe is actually a gambling term meaning a roll of four.