Cold Harbor (by Hazelmom)

Summary:  The Union army conscripts one member from every family to fight in the burgeoning war between the State.  How is it that all three Cartwright sons become involved in the war?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA (Adult Themes)
Word Count:  45,770


 

The mood in the Bucket of Blood was rowdy. Some of it undoubtedly had to do with the fact that it was New Year’s Eve. Men were doing their best to ring in the year with every bit of rotgut whiskey and beer they could get their hands on. Still it wasn’t just merriment that filled the air. There was a tension, almost a desperation to the celebration. Bosom buddies were hugging one minute, and hauling off a right hook to the eye the next. Every table was full, and the saloon girls had long since backed off as it wasn’t exactly safe in the midst of all that male energy.

Joshua Chamberlain surveyed all of this from the door. It was what he’d always imagined the West would be all those years ago when he first started sneaking the magazine serials depicting cowboys and Indians fighting on the Plains. It certainly didn’t do for the head of the English department at Bowdoin College to be reading magazine serials, but all of that was behind him now. Two years in the Union army saw to that, and now instead of lecturing students, he was standing in the doorway of a saloon watching real cowboys drinking and talking and smelling everything like he’d always imagined.

A large fellow came weaving his direction. He all but fell onto Chamberlain, who grabbed him under his shoulders and pushed him back to his feet. The big man slapped him on his back and declared. “Look fellers, we have a new neighbor in town. He’s got on the Union blues.”

Some men raised their glasses and others looked at him with nothing but a cold stare.

The man kept an arm around Chamberlain’s shoulders. “I bet he came in with the general. And now he’s come to drink with us common folk. Ain’t that something?!”

A few cheers went up, but the rest of the men just turned their attention back to the drink in front of them. The man leaned into Chamberlain, and the sick, sour smell of whiskey wafted into Josh’s face. He tried to push the man off, but the cowboy hung on stubbornly. Annoyed, he pushed again, and the cowboy spun off in a neat circle and landed in a pile on the ground. Another cowboy jumped up from a table, “What you doing to my friend, Mister? He ain’t done nothing to you.”

Chamberlain reached over to help the cowboy up, but the scrapping of chairs being pushed back alerted him and he backed away. Three drunk men advanced on him. Chamberlain tried to remember where he saw the sheriff’s office, but he knew it was no good to run. As a Union soldier, it would destroy everything they were trying to do here. He planted his feet widely and crouched, waiting for the first man to throw a punch.

Then a man bigger than any other man he’d seen in a long time waded in between them. One feller threw a punch and this giant of a man took it on the jaw. He didn’t flinch and he didn’t hit him back. He grabbed the man’s arm before he could throw another. “Okay boys, that’s enough. This ain’t no way to treat a guest from the Union army.”

Another of the cowboys tried to circle around him, but the giant grabbed his collar and pulled him back. “I mean it, boys. That’s enough. You tangle with him and ya’ gotta tangle with me. What do ya’ say, boys?”

The cowboys shuffled their feet and looked away. One of them looked up, “Aw, Hoss. We was just funnin’. Didn’t mean nothing.”

The giant frowned at him. “Ain’t no way to treat a guest. It’d give him a bad taste of Virginia City. Reflects on the whole lot of us. That ain’t no good.”

“Sorry, Hoss.”

“Tell it to the soldier.”

The cowboys suddenly seemed sober, hats in hand. “Sorry, Officer.”

“Go on now.” The big man shooed them away. “Tell Cosmo ya’ got a beer coming on my tab.”

Chamberlain stepped up and held out a hand. “I’m much obliged, cowboy.”

He gave a low chuckle. “Name’s Eric Cartwright. Folks call me Hoss.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain at your service.”

“Why aren’t ya’ at the big doings over at the town hall?”

“Needed a break from all of those speeches.”

“Your General Peeler had quite a bit of news, didn’t he?”

“And what’s keeping you away from the town hall?”

Hoss sighed. “I’m going to have another beer. Can I buy you one, soldier?”

Chamberlain followed Hoss who waded through the masses and got two beers without waiting. Men just naturally parted for the big man, but Chamberlain felt none of the resentment that comes along being an intimidating force. Men seemed to part easy, and more than one hand slapped Hoss on the back and called him friend. Hoss grabbed the beers, and led Chamberlain to the back of the room where he was sitting at a corner table. It was dim in this part of the bar, and somehow didn’t seem the right place for the affable young man.

The two men settled in, and Chamberlain got his first taste of what passed for beer in the west. He winced, but held it well. Everything out west was rough, even the brew.

Hoss took a long draw off his drink and put it down. “I reckon you weren’t actually at Fredericksburg. You wouldn’t have gotten out here so quick if ya’ had.”

Chamberlain nodded. “I was in St. Louis with the general at the time.”

“17,000 men in one day; that’s like the whole Nevada territory – men, women, children, white and Indian. Do you really believe all that could happen in one day?”

“It did. Hoss, this war is like no other. I have seen dead men littered on a battleground so thick, I couldn’t find grass.”

“It sort of seems like the end of world.”

Chamberlain smiled softly. “That’s about what it feels like when you’re there.”

“The President’s really going to sign this Emancipation Proclamation?”

“At the stroke of midnight, he will. And all slaves will be one step closer to freedom.”

“We really stayed out of the mix out here. I guess it’s such a hard life sometimes that we sort of felt like we weren’t obliged to be part of the problems out east.”

“I know. President Lincoln grew up in Illinois when it was as backwater as this place. He knows what its like and he understands. But he needs the West now. This thing is too big now, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

“The General claims he’s only asking for one son from each home. What’s he going to do if more than one son wants to go?”

“The General made the Territorial Governor a promise. He understands how important it is to tame this land, and he doesn’t intend to paralyze progress by taking too many. He’ll honor his word.”

“What a thing this is. A man leaves his family to fight to the death. Nobody at home sleeps until he’s home again or in a grave.” Hoss let out a deep breath. “War is a terrible thing.”

Josh Chamberlain nodded. “It amazes me, Hoss. Men will celebrate going to war. They will deem it their right, their privilege, and they march off as if to an adventure. And we’ll all say it’s God’s will.”

Hoss looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “You don’t sound like an army man.”

“I’m not. I was an English professor. I have no illusions. I’ve been in this fight for over a year. There is nothing noble about leading boys and good men to their death facing other boys, other good men. And at the heart of it all, there are men who will never see a battlefield and these men decide how many of our soldiers will die.”

Hoss wrinkled his brow. “You’re not a Lincoln man?”

“Oh, make no mistake. I left my professorship for that man, and I will follow him through the gates of Hell if necessary.”

Hoss pushed the brim of his hat back. “I got a good feeling about him too, and I guess this emancipation thing seals it. No one can tell me God wants one man to own another. Lincoln’s willing to stand up and fight for those poor people. I gotta’ figure he’s on the side of the angels.”

“You’re a wise man, Hoss Cartwright.”

Hoss shook his head. An outburst interrupted his thought. Four cowboys were rolling around in the middle of the room. Hoss jumped up and charged through a wall of men. Those who could darted out of his way, the others were pushed. He dived into the middle of the pile, and came up with a cowboy in each hand. The crowd dispersed in the face of it. In the wake stood a very large man with a cowboy in each hand. Josh Chamberlain cocked his head, and regarded the spectacle with interest. The men didn’t struggle; they just grabbed their hats and shuffled back to the bar.

Lieutenant Colonel Chamberlain signaled the barmaid for another two beers, and then sat down and waited for his new friend. Two years in the army had taught him more than he needed to know about men and what temperament worked best in the military, and this big fella’ was beginning to look as valuable as a gleaming gold nugget.

*****

Ben Cartwright had trouble swallowing his breakfast. A numbness had settled in him, and he ate slowly, distracted. Around him were raised voices but he was only faintly aware of their conversation. Imagining the carnage of 17,000 dead men in a Virginia meadow in one single day was only the prelude to the shock of realizing that he was about to lose a son to this monstrous conflict.

Ben was a strong man with a commanding presence. It wasn’t very often that he felt out of control, but General Peeler’s speech and the meeting that followed had cemented a panic in his gut. The only relief was in the knowledge that Peeler was only going to take one boy from each family. Ben looked at his three sons sitting around him, and wondered if they would all ever be together again.

“Pa!” His youngest broke his reverie. “The fact that he’s the oldest can’t matter this time. The stakes are too high. I gotta’ right to fight for this country just the same as he does.”

Ben blinked and looked down at his breakfast. He felt surprised at the food still on his plate. He pushed the eggs into a pile and contemplated another bite.

“Pa!”

Ben sighed but before he could speak, another voice erupted.

“Joseph! Let Pa alone. Can’t ya’ see he needs a little peace!”

Hoss’ outburst surprised them. His middle son might be the largest, but he was also the least combatant of them all.

Joseph pounded the table with his fist. “It ain’t fair!”

Adam pushed away his plate. “Come on, Joe. You’re 18 years old. I’m almost 30. You tell me who’s better prepared for this.”

“I’m a man and I’ll do what I have to do. I’ll join up with the confederates in Texas.”

Hoss’ fork hit his plate with a sharp crack and he pointed his finger at his little brother, his blue eyes blazing. “You listen here, Joe. You really think you could run off and join the army that’ll be fighting your brother? Is that the kind of man you are? Don’t give me no bull about your allegiance to the South, boy. You were born on this land, not the South. You ain’t a Southerner anymore than I am.”

“Hoss, simmer down.” There was something about the boy’s energy that spooked Ben.

Adam leaned forward. “Joe, Pa and I talked it over. As the eldest, it is my right to represent this family in the Union army. I’m going to be the one leaving with General Peeler at the end of the week.”

Hoss didn’t lift his eyes from his plate as he spoke. “Peeler said one man from each family. He said that Lincoln understands that we can’t strip Nevada Territory of men if we got any hope of becoming a state in the Union. You heard him and I heard him, and I figure that we make a pact right here and now that whatever happens, we promise that only one of us is going to this war.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Joe spoke. “I ain’t making a promise when I don’t know for sure what’s going to happen.”

“Hoss is right. If I go, that’s it. No one else will follow me. With the contract the army’s writing up with Pa, the rest of you can do your part by getting good beef to Denver on schedule.”

“Doesn’t seem…“

Hoss slammed his fork down again, startling all of them. “Don’t argue, Joseph. This ain’t just about you. If you was as grown as you think you are, you’d understand that. We’ll do the best job we can for this war by getting beef to those who need it. Do we have a deal?”

Joe made a face. “I ain’t interested in your deal, Hoss!”

“Joe, quit being so hardheaded. Do you think I want to go?” insisted Adam.

“Yeah, I do, Adam. I think you want to go so you can feel even more superior over the rest of us!”

“Enough! Last time I checked, this was still my house, and you all were still my sons!” Ben’s face was flushed, and his hands felt shaky on the table. A silence descended on the table. Ben waited until he had their attention. “I don’t want any of you to go. This isn’t an adventure; this is a war, and it isn’t just any war. When this is finished, we’re going to know if this grand experience of democracy is really going to last. The battles have been unlike any in the history of man. When have 17,000 men ever been killed in a single day? When!?”

Joe started to open his mouth, but the look in his father’s eye was enough to convince to keep his place.

Ben took a deep breath. “I can’t fool myself anymore. There is no way to keep all of you out of it. It was a fantasy, nothing more. But by God, they’ve only asked for one of you, and that’s all they can have. We all fight this war, but only one of us goes to it. Understood?”

Joe stared down at the table and acknowledged nothing. Ben leaned toward his youngest. “Joseph, you are too young.”

“Pa, the government says I’m old enough…“

“No! The government can say whatever it wants, but if a choice can be made, and Adam wants to go, then it’s a clear decision. He has the maturity to understand this war for the necessary but evil conflict that it is. My confidence is with him. As a man, I expect you to respect my decision.”

Joe shook his head, his eyes filling. “It tears at me so, Pa.”

“I know, son. You’re the passion in this family. Anything worth feeling just burns inside of you. I know this has gotta’ be a real struggle for you.”

Joe seemed to relax through the soothing tone of this father. He looked at his brothers. “Truth is, I wouldn’t join up with no Johnny Rebs. This emancipation thing seals it. I won’t fight against what I know is right. If I can’t go, then I’m going to have to…aw, I don’t know. I guess I just can’t go.”

Ben saw Hoss out of the corner of his eye. The big man seemed to be ready to explode. “Hoss, don’t worry so hard. Adam will be careful. He promises that.”

Hoss snorted. “I’m sorry, Pa. It ain’t what I’m thinking. We been sitting here talking on this and the whole time I been knowing something that the rest of ya’ don’t.”

Adam frowned. “What do you know, boy?”

Hoss nodded slowly. “I didn’t know quite how to approach this, but now I figure I got to quit worrying on it and just tell ya’.”

“Say it!” Ben growled.

“I met a fella’ last night at the Bucket of Blood. Name of Chamberlain. Said he was the aide de damp to that General Peeler. We had a few beers, and he told me a few things.” Hoss paused but put up a hand before anyone could berate him. “Chamberlain says they’re going to commission Adam, but they ain’t sending him out East.”

“What?!” Adam shouted. “Clearly, the man was drunk, Hoss.”

“Ain’t true, Adam. I believe him. He says you’re too valuable to put on a line. They need you back here working on the logistics of getting the cattle to Denver timely like. I guess you impressed ‘em with your proposal on cattle drive way stations and such.”

Ben felt the sting of tears in his eyes, and he struggled to hold his composure.

Hoss cleared his throat. “That’s not all. You see, things got a little dicey there, and Roy and Clem were at the town hall, and so I had to get involved and settle some squalls. Chamberlain was there for all that, and well, he was sort of impressed.”

“What are you trying to say, Hoss?”

“It seems Chamberlain is headed back for active duty. He has a platoon waiting for him back in Chicago. Seems he’s short a sergeant for one of his squads.”

“No, Hoss, no.”

“It wouldn’t look right if none of us went back East. Doesn’t matter if Adam is commissioned or not. People around here would think that we arranged it so none of us would be in the fight.”

“What did you do?” Ben gripped the edge of the table.

“I’m going with him, Pa. I’m going to represent for this family. I ain’t got no…fancy ideas like Adam. This is a good way for me to serve. I know it’s rough, and I aim to keep my head down. Ain’t going to volunteer for nothing. The truth is that I’m good with handling men. I know it and you do too. That’s what he needs. I didn’t sign nothing, but I told him I would go with him, and I figure my word just as good as a piece of paper.”

*****

There were times in history when any person with money could be a general, but those were the times when wars were gentlemanly affairs where battles stopped for meals and prisoners were treated like visiting guests. However, battles of the 19th century were suffering from technology. As men got killed in greater and greater numbers, battles required generals who had more than just money to claim. General Lesley Aaron Peeler was such a man. He’d graduated West Point, and spent the last fifteen years running the military college out of Baltimore.

A man like this made real decisions about life and death for this men on any given day. A man like this was a match for Ben Cartwright. Ben was used to getting his way. He’d earned the respect of most any man he knew by working harder, fighting harder, and being smarter than anyone else. He’d had an hour with the general and hadn’t gotten anywhere. He’d blustered, glared, and was on the verge of threatening when he realized that his normal tactics weren’t going to work with this man.

“I don’t know what else to say, General. You have Adam. You’ve commissioned him as a captain. That satisfies the promise you made to the families of Nevada Territory.”

Peeler sighed. “He’s commissioned as our agent here in Nevada Territory. The agreement your son made with Lieutenant Colonel Chamberlain is a different story. Since Captain Cartwright will not be leaving Nevada Territory, I don’t believe that he is violating our agreement. I feel no compunction to alter Colonel Chamberlain’s deal with your son, Eric.”

“Hos…I mean, Eric, is crucial to the work of getting beef to Denver in a timely manner.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I appreciate your position. My own son is a year into West Point. I pray every night that this conflict will end before he graduates. I have no illusions about the glory of war. I would prefer that he live out his service as a military professor or a fort commander.”

“Eric isn’t…he’s a good man. I don’t know that he…he’s never been east of the Rockies. He’s not…like other men. He’s…”

“It doesn’t matter, Mr. Cartwright. Chamberlain likes him. It’s decided. He’s a sergeant in the U.S. army.”

“My son, Adam, is ready…He’s…”

The General frowned. “You prefer to have one son go over another.”

Ben flushed deeply. “No, I don’t. It’s…Adam is older. He’s wiser…more worldly. Eric is…” Ben swallowed hard but couldn’t find words.

The general shook his head, and sat down to read the sheaf of papers on his desk.

Ben Cartwright stood there, unable to yield. He couldn’t quite imagine allowing his gentle ranch-bred giant of a son to go back East where they wouldn’t understand or appreciate who he was.

Ben Cartwright started to speak, then shook his head, and walked to the window. Anything else the general had to say was lost to the rancher who looked out the window and tried to imagine his son navigating a world outside the one he knew. He wondered what they would do with the middle son he loved so dearly.

*****

Hoss knew that Joe was scowling at him from the barn door, but he continued the deep brushing he was giving Chub. He spoke in low tones, telling the horse that he’d be gone for a bit. His soothing baritone seemed to slow the horse’s breathing, and the horse gently nuzzled his face with its nose. Hoss chuckled and rubbed Chub’s long neck. He could hear Joe shuffle impatiently behind him, but still he waited.

“How long are you going to pretend I’m not standing here?!”

Hoss closed his eyes and sighed. He patted Chub’s nose one last time and turned to his little brother. “You’re going to need to ride him at least two-three times a week. You know he tends toward the portly side. He’ll need the exercise.”

“Take him with you.”

Hoss shook his head. “Chub’s going to want to stay close to home. I ain’t going to wear him out dragging him all the way East.”

“I always looked up to you.”

Hoss chuckled. “Now tell the truth, Shortshanks. You always looked up to Adam. I was just your buddy. There’s a difference.”

Joe shook his head angrily. “I never thought you’d pull something like this.”

Hoss tried to pass by Joe, but the boy didn’t move. Hoss sighed and went over to sit on the tack box. “Say what you gotta’ say, boy.”

“Joining up like you did was a dirty rotten trick.”

“I just did what I thought was right.”

“And then you wanted us to make promises. That’s low, Hoss.”

Hoss took off his hat and scratched his thin, brown hair. “You think you’d have done any different in my shoes?”

Joe narrowed his eyes but didn’t say anything.

Hoss shook his head. “I took an opportunity. They weren’t going to send Adam. Somebody had to go. It wasn’t going to look right. You know that.”

“Who cares how it looks?”

“We do, every single one of us. We gotta’ live here.”

“It wasn’t fair.”

Hoss threw back his head and laughed. “Say what you’re really thinking, Joe. You want to be the one to go, don’t you?”

Joe kicked the dirt. “Everybody thinks I am too young. I’m a man. I could do it just as good as you.”

“Do what, Joe? Die? Kill men? This ain’t no game, boy. I don’t want to go, but I have to, for the simple reason that if I didn’t, you would. I’m doing this for you.”

“That ain’t true!” Joe’s face turned red.

“Joe, you’re a better shot. You’re smarter and braver, and you’re pretty as a picture to boot. All that’s true, but I can’t let you go. Watching over you is my job. I been doing it since you were big enough to crawl. This is something I can do so you don’t have to.”

“That’s no good, Hoss. I don’t want that. It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Joe couldn’t meet his eyes. His breathing sounded ragged.

“Joe, you’re 18 years old. You still need seasoning. Wanting something doesn’t mean you should have it. You got a lot to learn. I aim to make sure you got the opportunity to do that learning.”

Joe turned away and rubbed at his face angrily.

Hoss got up softly and walked toward him. Joe sensed him and stiffened. “I’m leaving tomorrow, Joe. You and I…we can’t leave angry. Neither one of us could live with that.”

Joe slammed a fist into the door. Hoss winced as the boy pulled back, pain radiating in his face. Hoss reached over to look at the hand, but Joe pulled away and ran out of the barn.

Hoss followed, but stopped short when he saw Adam walking toward him. Hoss let out a deep sigh. “I don’t have time for this. Did you see where Joe went?”

Adam nodded toward the creek, but then put out his hand to stop his younger brother. “What happened?”

“He hit the door. I just want to make sure his hand’s okay.”

Adam shook his head. “After today, you’re not going to be around to take care of him. You better let me go. I’ll make sure he’s okay.”

“Adam!”

“Hoss, he needs time, and you have a lot to get done before you go.” Adam smiled. “It’s okay, Brother. Nobody’s going to leave angry.”

Hoss stood there and watched his brother trot after Joe. Nothing made any sense anymore. He shook his head and went back into the barn.

*****

Adam found Joe down at the creek, soaking his hand in the cool, running water. Adam knelt down beside him. “Can I take a look?”

Joe glared at him. “I don’t need any help.”

Adam resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Come on, Joe. Let me just see if it’s broken.”

Joe finally pulled it out of the water and extended it. Adam took it carefully, noting the grimace on Joe’s face as he handled it. After kneading it for a couple of moments, Adam sat back on his knees. “You split a knuckle, but nothing’s broken. Go up to the house and let Hop Sing wrap it in some cotton.”

Joe looked at his eldest brother for a moment. “Aren’t you mad at him?”

Adam squinted up at the sun. “I was surprised.”

“Aw, come on, Adam, you were more than surprised. I don’t buy it.”

“Okay, I was, at first. But Joe, this thing is bigger than us. Hoss got caught up in it. You would’ve done the same thing if the opportunity had come your way. Admit it.”

“But he got in the way of you going. You’re not even upset about that?”

“Hoss didn’t get in the way of anything. U.S. army is going to do what it’s going to do. I don’t have to be happy about it, but I’m not looking to pick a fight either. Listen Joe, he’s leaving tomorrow, and you need to let it go or you’re never going to forgive yourself when he’s gone.”

Joe swallowed hard. “I can’t let him go without me. It’s not right. I’m going with him. We’ll watch out for each other. Pa will understand.”

Adam shook his head. “Joe, it’s not going to happen that way. Hoss won’t let it. Pa won’t let it. I won’t let it.”

“You can’t stop me.”

Adam grabbed his arm roughly. “Don’t do it, boy. You follow him, he’s not going to be able to do anything but worry about you. He can’t afford to do that. Let him do what he has to do. We need you here.”

Joe looked away.

“Joe, I mean it. Stop thinking about yourself. We do what we have to in order to serve the cause. You do more by staying than going. I need you. I can’t get this beef to Denver on time without you. We have to establish a route that gets the maximum amount of beef to Denver in the shortest amount of time, and we need to do it for as long as the army needs us. I can’t do that without you.”

“Feeding soldiers is the only role we play in this war?” Joe looked up at his brother.

Adam shook his head. “You think this is going to be a cakewalk?”

Joe thought for a moment and nodded. “We got to figure out how to take that 200 mile stretch of desert without losing any head.”

“It’s our biggest challenge.”

Joe pushed dirt around with the toe of his boot. “It’d be better if Hoss was doing this with us.”

“I know, Brother, but we got to deal with the hand we have in front of us.”

*****

Hoss looked at how distended his saddlebags were. He was certain that they hadn’t been that bad half an hour earlier, and he figured that Hop Sing had been at work again. The Chinese cook considered Hoss’ size a measure of his success. He was often pointing out Hoss to his relatives in Virginia City, his girth a source of pride to Hop Sing.

Undoubtedly, Hop Sing was stuffing the bags with whatever foodstuffs he thought would survive the journey. Hoss almost unpacked it as people were bound to notice his bags filled to bursting. It looked bad, and he knew he had to set an example now as he was in charge of the volunteers of Virginia City, but he figured that as long as he took care to share his bounty, folks would let it pass.

Pa frowned at the bags too, and shot Hop Sing a hard look, and Hop Sing frowned defiantly back at him.

Hoss shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Pa.”

“I still think we should ride into town with you.” Joe spoke to the foot that was drawing circles in the dirt in front of him.

Ben shook his head. “We talked about this already, Joe. Hoss needs to focus on his new responsibilities, and we have responsibilities of our own. We have to say good-bye here and let Hoss…go.”

Ben’s throat was strangely dry, and he turned away as he attempted to clear it.

Adam walked up to Hoss and gave him a hearty handshake. “My thoughts will be with you every day, Brother. You have a kind of instinct they just don’t build in many people. Use it. Rely on it. We need you back here.” Adam rubbed at the bridge of his nose and stood back. “Not going to say more. No need to make this a big deal. You’ll be home soon enough.”

Hoss nodded, grinning. “It won’t be long. You fellers better not get too comfortable around here without old Hoss. I’ll be back before you know it.”

Joe kicked up more dirt. Hoss looked down at his feet. Then he grunted, strode over, and enveloped the boy in a hug. Joe squirmed a bit, but Hoss didn’t pay any attention. He held him tightly. “You’re a man, Little Joe, and I’m sorry about anything I did that made you feel less than. I’ll miss ya’, Little Buddy.” Hoss released him and stepped back, unable to make eye contact with anyone.

Ben nodded and looked up at his giant son. “We’ll be thinking of you every day. I’m proud of you, son.”

Hoss wrinkled his nose, his chin trembling. “Good-bye, Pa.” Ben started to walk toward him, but before he got there, Hoss jumped on the red sorrel he was riding. He tipped his hat. “I’ll be home soon.” Then he galloped off, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.

Ben stared after him until the dust settled. Then he put his head down and walked into the barn. Adam turned on his heels, and headed for the barn. Joe found himself alone in the yard, and it felt quiet in a way that was unsettling. A soft whinnying alerted him to the fact that Cochise was tethered to the fence post in anticipation of following Hoss into town. Joe walked over to the paint, jumped on his back, and started in the direction Hoss took. After a few strides, he pulled the horse to a hard stop, and wheeled the horse in the opposite direction. Following Hoss wasn’t going to get him back home any faster. Joe chose a trail that headed up to Looking Glass Lake. The others had sought solitude for their emotions and he would as well.

*****

The first letter didn’t come from Hoss. There were 29 men who left Virginia City that January morning. Any news from any of them was news for the entire town. Gus Aitkins was the first one to get a letter through. His mother brought it to Sheriff Coffee, who painstakingly copied it and posted it outside his door. There was a crowd within minutes, and the few literate people were called upon to read it over and over. Joe happened to ride in that same afternoon. It didn’t take him long to catch wind of the excitement. He pushed his way to the front of the crowd. Mrs. Andersen tapped him on the shoulder. “Read it out loud, Little Joe.”

Joe squinted and pushed Shorty Lamont out of the way. He cleared his throat, “Ah, Gus says, Dear Mother, I hope you are well. I am well. We are mailing this from Omaha, Nebraska. It is as big a city as I have ever seen. We will be in Chicago within the week, and will be given orders from there. Happy Nelson says tell his mother that he’s doing well. John Walker, Jamie Green, and Seth Watson say the same. Appleseed Warren fell off his horse in Dakota Territory, and he had to stay in Deadwood to recover. Should be making his way back to Virginia City soon enough. Hoss makes us drill every day. He says we can’t look like dumb cowboys when we get East. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but whatever it is, we’re going to do it all in formation. Tell Pa we’ll be home soon. Your loving son, Gussy.”

Joe ran across the street to the general store and bought a piece of paper and a pencil. He wrote out the letter word for word, and folded it up for Pa. It wasn’t much, but it’s all they had.

The letters started to trickle in after that. Families took them to Roy who posted them on the wall outside his office. The first letter from Hoss came a week later. Roy broke with routine, and rode it out to the ranch. Ben was alone these days, and Roy thought a little company would do him good. Ben seemed to appreciate the gesture. He motioned for him to sit, and read the letter a loud.

Dear Pa and Brothers,

We made Chicago last night. Craziest town I ever saw. Makes San Francisco look like a farm town. Colonel has us bunking in a stable near the stockyards. It’s smelling something fierce around here and the stable ain’t that clean, but I’m just glad for the roof. It’s the first shelter we’ve slept under in two weeks.

Tell all the families that the boys are doing good. They listen to me, and I ain’t had knock heads more than once or twice. Colonel says we are moving on East in a week. Don’t know where we’re headed. Wish I could say I was enjoying the adventure of it all, but I’m missing you all real bad. I miss the Ponderosa. Ain’t no land out here that can hold a candle?

Hard to believe this country’s at war. I keep thinking I oughta be seeing some sign of it by now, but everyone’s just going about their business. It almost seems like we were brought all the way East for nothing. I know it ain’t true, but I guess it don’t hurt to wish.

I reckon you are all busy with the cattle drive. Wish I was there with you.

Your son and brother,

Sergeant Hoss Eric Cartwright

 

Ben folded the letter carefully and laid it on the middle of the table. For a while, neither man spoke. Then Roy reached for the letter and studied it a bit, “You know, Ben. The boy sounds good.”

Ben nodded but didn’t look at his old friend.

Roy took a breath. “When did Adam and Little Joe leave?”

Ben blinked. “Ah, two…no, three days ago.”

“It’s a pretty big job they’re taking on. Adam promised to drive those cattle in half the time, didn’t he?”

Ben nodded and smile crept onto his features. “He has set up stations along the way. Hands will herd to a station and then pass the cattle off to the next group of hands who takes them to the next station. The first group turns around and brings another herd up to the station. Every group of hands works the same leg of the trip. They get familiar with the passage, and there’s more time to rest. Adam’s got it set up with four legs and five groups of men. He’s got another group who does nothing more than keep the stations stocked. He’s going to be funneling cattle for everyone in the territory.”

Roy shook his head, chuckling. “That Adam is destined for great things. No doubt about it. Sometimes I don’t know what keeps him on the Ponderosa.”

Ben sighed. “He’ll leave one day. Ponderosa isn’t big enough to keep him.”

“I expect so.”

Ben chuckled. “It’s funny, Roy. I’ve been through a lot, you know, but somehow I figured that once I got it right, I could hold onto it and protect it.”

Roy frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ll never leave, but my sons might. We’ll all die one day. God help me if one of my sons dies before I do. Nothing stays the same, no matter how hard you try to make it.”

“Reckon we wouldn’t desire it so if it did.”

Ben smiled at his old friend. “You’re not as dumb as you look, Roy.”

Roy chuckled. They sat in silence for a moment before Roy got up and donned his hat. “Gotta’ get back to town. Ol’ Riley Jones has a birthday today and he has money in his pockets. Reckon there’ll be quite a bit to mop up over at the Bucket of Blood before the day is out. Had Clem put up extra bunks in the cells. You know Ol’ Riley never does a birthday half way.”

Ben nodded.

Roy got to the door and turned. “I gotta’ a lot of faith in that middle boy of yours. The whole town does. Never met anyone that worked harder at doing the right thing.”

After the door shut, Ben sat alone in his big house and pondered on Roy’s last thoughts. He wasn’t at all sure that doing the right thing was going to get his boy back safe to the Ponderosa.

*****

Rodney Yeats stood before him, hands on his hips. “It ain’t fair, Hoss.”

“That’s Sergeant Hoss to you, boy.”

The boy frowned more deeply. “Come on. I never had to go to no church back in Virginia City.”

Hoss smirked. “Explains a lot, Rodney.”

“You ain’t in church.”

Hoss shifted on the picnic table. The sun was rising and he wanted nothing but shade. “If I went inside, I’d never be able to keep an eye out for you heathens sneaking out like ya’ do.”

Rodney glanced back at the church building. It was a beautiful white church with a steeple higher than any he’d ever seen back West. “That ol’ preacher’s going to be talkin’ all day ifn’ somebody don’t stop him.”

“Aw Rodney, let it go. A little soul savin’ goin’ do you some good. I don’t care if you’re a God-fearin’ or not. I just don’t want us to look like a bunch of rascals. Don’t inspire much confidence in folks, you know, when the troops is the most ragtag bunch of hooligans they ever did see. We need folks to trust us. ‘Sides, afterward there’s going to be a nice spread. How long it been since you had some nice woman cooked food?”

Rodney hadn’t lost the sour look on his face. “But then you got us raisin’ a barn.”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with being a good neighbor.”

“Don’t that good book say we gotta’ rest on Sunday?”

Hoss shook his head. “You boys’ idea of rest is confiscating some rotgut from the local bootlegger and gettin’ boozy all over the countryside. I ain’t havin’ it. My boys ain’t lurching about like a bunch of ol’ miners on Founder’s Day. Had enough of that.”

“This is punishment ‘cause we passed out on that farmer’s land last week. T’ain’t fair. We was just takin’ a bit of rest, ya’ know.”

“Scared that man’s womenfolk half to death. On your own, I don’t care what kind of fool you want to be, but you boys are mine for the length of this here war, and I ain’t havin’ you act like a bunch o’ half wits sprung from the local jail. Folks are goin’ ta’ think the West drained all the civilized out o’ us.”

“How long we goin’ to be in this here O-hi-O?”

“Don’t know, Rodney. Now stop wastin’ time. Get back in there and act like you was raised right!”

“Well, I wasn’t!” Rodney scowled deep at Hoss before marching back up the steps.

“Pretend, boy! Just pretend!” Hoss called after him. The boy had the good sense to close the church door quietly behind him. Hoss shook his head. Being Sergeant to these boys was nine shades of babysitting plus a fair bit of motherin’ with a side of takin’ ‘em out to the woodshed when the situation warranted. It was a headache most days, and he wasn’t shy about saying so to those who asked, but there was also a part of him that was discovering how good he was at it. Other Sergeants seemed to have a heap more trouble than he did. Their boys were always wandering off, getting drunk, or fighting. Some of those Sergeants seemed to take all of this as a fact of life. Hoss didn’t. One of his misbehaved, and he saw to it that boy got burdened with so much consequence that he’d never even think of making that mistake again. The boys who passed out on the farmer’s land could attest to that.

Chamberlain noticed his success too, and started sending him the hard cases for his squad. He was now running twice the men he had when he left Virginia City. It wasn’t lost on anyone that his group of boys was the biggest, best trained and most well-behaved bunch in Chamberlain’s division.

Today was letter writing day. No matter how tired they were after the barn raising, he was going to make every single one of them write a letter home. Every Sunday was letter writing day. At least half couldn’t even write their first name so it was always a burden for himself and others that could to write out a letter for each of and every one of those boys. When that was all over and all his boys were asleep, he’d sit at the fire and pen his own letter home. He knew to keep it cheery, and filled it with all kinds of news about each of the boys. He wouldn’t write about the struggles of being constantly on the move with no end in sight. He wouldn’t write about stale beans they’d been eatin’ or the fact that he needed suspenders to keep his pants up now. And he certainly wouldn’t write about his trip to headquarters near the Pennsylvania border.

Chamberlain took him with a week ago to Hooker’s camp just inside of Pennsylvania for a strategy session. Camp was in chaos when they arrived. Hooker’s men were still stumbling in after Chancellorsville when they arrived. The news was grim. Four days of fighting left almost twenty thousand men dead or lost. Hooker lost the ground and had to retreat.

Chamberlain disappeared into a large canvas tent with other high ranking officers for the better part of three days. Having no orders, Hoss knew only to stay close in case his commander needed something. Wave after wave of beaten men arrived. Their faces were dark with grime and they seemed to walk in a daze unaware of their surroundings as if they had become otherworldly creatures. Oftentimes, camp command had to step in to keep them from just marching on past into the endless countryside. It was their eyes that troubled Hoss most — wide, unblinking eyes that seemed to recognize nothing. Hoss had seen eyes like that once before when the surviving soldiers out of Fort Hudson had escaped to Virginia City after an Indian attack. They just wandered around like ghosts for days, seemingly unaware of their own basic needs. Townsfolk organized to make sure the soldiers ate and had beds at night. Ben had taken four out to the ranch to recover. Eventually, they woke up and started to care again, but Hoss never forgot how much it spooked him every time they would look through him as if he wasn’t there.

Sitting was no good for Hoss. After an afternoon of it, he paid a guard to keep an eye out for Chamberlain, and made his way to the hospital. Weeks earlier, it had been nothing but a pasture, but now it was the very depths of hell. Men lay everywhere. Some dead, some dying, and other howling from the pain of a lost limb or an untreated wound. Hoss didn’t look for anyone running that place; he just jumped in by attaching himself to a group of nurses and doing every last thing they told him. Night ran into to day into night into day again before the camp guard found him. In that time, he had held men down while doctors sawed off limbs, he’d carried countless bodies to the far end of the meadow where gravediggers waited, and he’d held the hands of boys who cried for their mothers in their last moments of life. It took every ounce of strength he had left to leave the brave and tireless nurses and follow Chamberlain back to Ohio. He was past exhaustion, but sleep was impossible. He rode next to Chamberlain for two days without saying a word. He just looked ahead, his face grim as visions of those soldiers played for him again and again. They eventually took on the faces of his boys as he knew that their turn at the battlefield was coming soon enough.

Hoss shook his head sharply to lose the images burned into his consciousness. It would come soon enough, and he was going to make sure his boys were healthy, strong, and as ready as was humanly possible for such a thing as war. The church bell clanged, breaking his reverie. People spilled out of the church, and he chuckled at the look of relief on their faces. Rodney might not have been that far off about that ol’ preacher. In midst of the townsfolk were his boys, a bit ragged but freshly scrubbed, acting polite, making conversation with townspeople. He spied Rodney offering an arm to an old woman at the stairs. This made him smile, but it faded as sadness blanketed him and made him shiver. Rodney and the others would be boys for only another couple of days. War was about to snatch their innocence away so abruptly, it would leave them all gasping for breath.

The old woman still had Rodney attached at the arm when she approached him. “Sergeant, where did you get this sweet boy? He is the epitome of a gentleman. Ohio boys could learn something from him.”

Rodney was grinned madly and Hoss threw back his head and roared. This was definitely going into the letter to Pa.

*****

Joe slid off Cochise and gratefully accepted a cup of coffee from the cook. Despite his youth, every muscle in his body protested the long, dusty ride. He strode over to the wash basin, and splashed water on his face. Rivulets ran down his neck black with dirt. He splashed some behind his neck where it felt the most crusted. It had been almost a month before he’d sat in a good bath, and he reckoned only another cowhand would get within ten yards of him about now.

He nodded at the cook. “I don’t see Adam. Thought he’d be here by now.”

“He was. Left about eight hours ago.”

Joe frowned as he toweled off his face and arms. “He and I were scheduled to meet here tonight.”

“Yeah, but things happen. We ain’t got no pinto beans. I been feedin’ hands off mesquite beans and fatback.”

“What! Raleigh was scheduled to be here with supplies three days ago.”

The cook chortled as he stirred the pot he had roasting over the fire. “Raleigh is dumb as a sheep. That boy let hisself get swindled out of your money ‘fore he even got to the general store. Came back here red-faced and empty-anded. The boys is hanging on with these mesquites, but they’re getting growly and ain’t no way we can wait another week for supplies. Adam fired Raleigh and then set off to get them supplies hisself.”

Joe shook his head and squatted at the fire. “You got nothing but mesquites for me?”

Cook laughed. “No, for you, Joe, I got a beef Wellington and Yorkshire pudding right in the back of the wagon.”

Joe scowled and focused on the bitter, black coffee in his hands. “I remember when Hoss and I got stuck up the mountains one winter, and we couldn’t find nothing but those mesquites. I swear I almost starved to death. I could barely choke them down.”

“Speaking of Hoss, I got a letter to pass on.” Cook leaped up and ran to the back of the wagon. He came trotting back with a worn piece of paper. Joe reached for it eagerly. It took him only a few moments to examine it carefully. Then he folded it again and stuck it in his pocket. He couldn’t hide the disappointment on his face. Hoss’ letters were so unfailingly cheerful that it sounded like they were on some kind of vacation. The letters lacked the information that he was so desperate to know. They were just letters about the zany antics of his soldiers and the quirks of Easterners. Hoss had stopped mentioning the war altogether. It worried him. Made him wonder how close Hoss was to the action. What was really happening to his big brother?

Cook cleared his throat. “Adam had the same look on his face after reading it. He read it to the rest of the boys too. Makes war sound like a grand adventure, don’t it?”

Joe sighed and stared into the fire. Cook got up and returned with a plate and a fork. He ladled foul smelling mesquites onto the plate and slide a thick slice of fatback on top. Then he handed it to Joe. “You know Hoss wouldn’t let ya’ go to bed hungry. He’d make ya’ lick that plate clean too.”

Joe stared down at the plate and nodded. For a moment he could put himself there with Hoss scolding him about missing meals. Hoss would make him eat it. He would be sitting right next to him until he was satisfied that his little brother finished every last bit.

*****

Hoss let them talk while they were marching as long as they kept formation. However, if they didn’t stay in formation, he wasn’t afraid to walk them another two miles after everyone else had stopped for the night and then two miles back again. Everyone had always known him as affable, and that was true enough, but Hoss also had a lot of Ben Cartwright in him and hard work had never bothered him. He figured if he put them through it now, he’d save a lot of trouble later on. And sure enough, while his boys could talk and joke around a bit, they worked hard to stay in formation. Hoss had already forced them on for the extra hike twice since they left Virginia City, and they had no interest in pushing him to do it again. Sometimes he had to stifle a grin when he saw his boys fussing at the new ones about their comportment and such. They weren’t about to let some new jasper ruin things for the lot of them.

Today they were walking in Pennsylvania, moving fast on orders from the new Commander-in-Chief, a fellow called Meade. Hoss had a feeling in his gut running all the way up his throat. He ignored the jokes and the teasing today. None of it sat right. Every minute they were moving toward the battles that up to this moment had been nothing more schoolboy fantasies to them. He felt in his heart that life was going to change for all of them shortly, and the dread filled his gut deeper than Hop Sing’s Christmas dinner.

“Sergeant,” called one of the boys. “We is taking bets as to how many rebs we gonna’ get in the first skirmish. Rodney here says he’s down for at least five. Think he can hit that many with that ol’ squirrel gun o’ his?”

“I ain’t interested in your dumb bets. Don’t try me today,” Hoss growled. “Ain’t nothing I’d like better than to march all you savages until sundown.”

“Aw come on, Hoss,” came another voice.

Hank Perdue reached over and slapped that boy on the side of the head. “Don’t call him Hoss, ya’ idjit!”

“Sergeant Hoss, are ya’ scared?”

Hoss stopped formation immediately and searched for the voice asking that question. He found him in the middle. Little Jamie Green stood there uneasily, his hair still as snow white as it was when he was in short pants. Hell, the truth was that little Jamie hadn’t yet grown into any notion of being a man. Being 18 didn’t mean that much at all, Hoss figured. He was only 24, but it seemed somehow decades older than 18. Every time he looked at Jamie or any of the other teen-agers in his outfit, he remembered he was doing all of this so Joe didn’t have to. It seemed a crime to send children to fight a war for a bunch of men who’d never see a battlefield up close. The boys next to Jamie drifted away as if trying to rid themselves of a troublemaker.

Hoss stepped forward ‘til he was in the midst of their ranks. He nodded at Jamie. “Yes boy, I am scared. Being scared is a pretty smart thing to be right now, I think. Glad you have the good sense to realize that.”

Around him, murmurs rose and bodies stirred. Hoss turned to face them all. “This ain’t no picnic you’re going to. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I know that it’s going to be rough. I don’t want you so scared that you can’t function, but I want you scared enough so that you’re not running into this like it’s some kind of game. You got folks and sisters and brothers and pretty gals all praying for you come home safe, and you can’t take that lightly. I expect you to fight hard but fight smart. This outfit don’t need no heroes. You understand me?”

Around him, heads solemnly nodded. Hoss immediately started to feel bad about being so stern with them all. There was time enough for worrying and fretting. It seemed a shame to take away whatever little fun was left to them now.

He took a deep breath and rubbed at his nose a bit. Then he searched out Rodney in the crowd. “How you think you’re going to hit five rebs with that squirrel rifle when you ain’t even hit five squirrels with it?”

The tension broke and they all started laughing. Even Rodney couldn’t help himself. “Well, Sergeant Hoss, I figure a reb target’s a mite bigger than a bitty little squirrel.”

“How you going to convince them ol’ rebs to stand still long enough for you? I reckon they got enough sense to run when they see you pointin’ that ol’ musket at ‘em.”

That started a roar of laughter mixed with different protests from some and bragging from others. Hoss let them go for a few minutes. Then he pulled them back into formation. “Come on, boys. Good or bad, we can’t waste any time now. Got to make it to a little strip of land called Gettysburg before nightfall.”

*****

Adam found his pa reading a newspaper in the International Gold Hotel in Denver. Joe was sitting across from him stabbing at a plate of eggs like it was personal. Adam swallowed hard. His pa was reading the same paper he’d just finished and he figured Joe must have gotten an earful as well the way he was punishing his breakfast. He sauntered over as casually as possible. Staying calm was his fall back position around his family. It was a good counter to Joe’s impatience and his pa’s frustration.

Ben looked up and spotted his eldest. Adam looked worn. Dust muted his dark clothes and hair, and there was a heaviness in his step that was telling. Adam dropped more than sat in the seat next to him. He motioned to the waitress for coffee and a plate of eggs. “How did it go?”

Adam sighed. “We were 125 short of what I said we’d ship.”

Ben leaned forward. “Adam, it’s still twice what anyone else in the territory can deliver.”

Adam nodded. “There are so many variables. Hands who don’t show or lose the supply money. Trouble with the cattle. There isn’t enough time built in to account for the unexpected.”

Joe pointed his fork at his brother. “Come on now, Adam. We just loaded 650 cattle on a train for Chicago. In my book, we did good.”

Adam didn’t respond. He took a sip of dark coffee and closed his eyes.

“Joe here has been telling me that you’re running yourself ragged. Says you aren’t getting enough sleep. Says you’re constantly on the move, never stopping for anything. Looks to me like that’s true.”

Adam smiled and shook his head. “There’s no other way, Pa. I can’t let this thing fall apart. Not when I made the promises I did. Not when there are armies out East counting on the food we send them.”

“Son, you can’t do it all yourself. Joe and I can do more.”

“Pa, I need you in Virginia City working things on that end, and Joe’s already busy working doing work between stations.”

Joe fixed his brother with a look. “I could do more. Right now, I’m just running errands. Give me two of those way stations, and that just leaves you three to manage.”

“It’s a lot of responsibility, Joe.”

“Well, you said you needed me. Was that just a ploy to keep me from running off with Hoss?”

Mentioning Hoss’ name was electric, and they all stopped what they were doing. Joe wasn’t about to let go. He pointed at the Denver Post in his father’s hands. “Did you read it yet?”

Adam nodded.

“Did you read the casualty count at Chancellorsville and Vicksburg?” Joe shook his head. “That stuff can’t be true. That many people can’t die in one day. There ain’t no way.”

Ben sighed. “Hoss couldn’t have made it to either of those battles in time.”

Joe pounded the table. “Pa, that ain’t the point. He’s there now, and this war is…savage. There ain’t another word for it. I don’t see how it’s ever going to end. Hoss is in the middle. Say what you want, but he’s sitting right in the middle of it right now, mark my words.”

“Joe! That’s enough!” Adam glared at his little brother. “True or not, there’s nothing we can do. No need to hammer at Pa about it.”

The boy stared at his plate. “I guess I can’t help it. I can’t seem to…I just can’t stand not knowing…I can’t stand not being there with him.”

Ben let out a deep sigh. “It’s okay, Joe. We all feel this. It’s hard not knowing. Each one of us thinks about him every day. I guarantee it. What we’re doing here is important. Best we can do for him right now is pray and work to get food there in time.”

Joe nodded. He looked so deflated as if the outburst took more energy than he had to give.

Ben looked at Adam. “Working yourself into an early grave isn’t any better than going off to war. You look terrible. If you were a horse, I wouldn’t pay two dollars for you. Stop drinking coffee and get a hotel room. You need to sleep until you can’t anymore. You hear me, Adam?”

“Pa, this thing is going to fall apart…“

“Not in a day, it isn’t. Joe will take the two stations nearest Virginia City. He can do it, and I’ll keep watch over him. You aren’t helping anyone running yourself down like this.”

Joe looked up, his eyes bright. “I can do this, Adam. Let me show you. I’m not a boy anymore.”

Adam rubbed at his eyes. His family waited. Finally he looked at both of them. “You got it, Joe. You take station 1 and 2. I run the rest. We’ll meet at station 3 on Wednesdays.”

“Sounds like a plan, Brother.” Joe was on his feet dumping the rest of his coffee down his throat. “I’m going to take care of things.”

“Right now?” Ben frowned.

“Hey, I slept. Don’t need no more rest. Got to get out there. We got a quota to meet for next week.” Joe grabbed his hat and weaving between tables before either of them could protest further.

Ben shook his head. He turned to Adam and found him already nodding off. He rolled his eyes, called for the check, and herded his son off to a bed and a bath.

*****

They stood at the top of a hill looking down at pastureland. It was a sight that left Hoss breathless. Below them, through patches of black smoke, men ran, crawled, and fell in every direction. The sound was deafening; explosions and shooting so thick as to be indistinguishable. As terrible as it was, men continued to pour onto the pasture. It seemed endless. Colonel Chamberlain walked between them and the sight below. “Looks horrific, doesn’t it? You’re wondering if we’re going down into that? The answer is yes. We’re going down into that.”

Hoss licked his lips and looked around at the other sergeants and lieutenants in his midst. Some were shaking their heads. Others were merely staring in horror. Two men were whispering bible verses under their breath.

“Some of you are thinking that you’ll do what you can, but if it’s too crazy, you’ll fall back ‘cause you can always live to fight another day.”

Men stared at him silently.

Chamberlain shook his head. “I got something to tell you, boys. We’ve been fighting for two years ‘cause of thinking like that. We are stronger, bigger, and better resourced than those Johnny Rebs, but they keep beating us. Let me tell you why. They beat us time and again ‘cause they’re fighting for a way of life that we’re trying to take from them. They don’t live to fight another day. They fight to protect what they know. They’re prepared to die. We aren’t. We live to fight another day. And they keep beating us and beating us.”

Hoss fixed his eyes on the colonel and didn’t flinch.

Chamberlain eyes were feverish. “If any of you retreat today, you’ll be doing it for those boys under you. You’ll think that you’re saving lives. Make no mistake! You save nobody with your retreat. Every inch of ground we fail to take today will be ground someone else will have to die for tomorrow. If you live today, you may die tomorrow for land that someone else failed to take.”

Hoss nodded slowly.

“This great country won’t survive ten years of civil war. If we don’t hold our ground, if we don’t make our stand now, then we condemn every man who will be forced to make it for us tomorrow. Are we prepared to live with that?”

Chamberlain paused and studied their faces. “If any one of you can’t commit, I want to know that now. If you take that field, I want you to be prepared to die for it. If this is not for you, I want you to tell me now. There will be no court martial. You’ll be stripped of your duties and transferred to another command.”

No one moved a muscle. Chamberlain glared at them steadily for a moment before continuing. “Then who among you is going to lead the charge? Who’s going to take that hill?”

Hoss was feeling a thousand different things. He couldn’t see Chamberlain anymore. Instead, he saw mothers and sweethearts. He saw crowds in front of Roy’s office waiting for the daily mail. He saw his brothers and his pa. It felt as if the whole world was looking to him for his answer. There were too many responsibilities, too many reasons why he shouldn’t and too many reasons why he should. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Then to a background chorus of explosions and screams and shouting, Sergeant Hoss Cartwright stepped forward.

*****

Staddy Hopkins has been the telegraph operator in Virginia City for twelve years. It was good work and it paid well enough, but the reason he loved his job was because everybody’s business was his business. He knew everything before anyone else. It was power, pure and simple, and the only reason he’d lasted twelve years in this town was because he’d learned early on that discretion was key.

However, none of that meant anything when his ticker started dancing one early morning in June 1863.

*****

Hoss wouldn’t ever be able to recall much of the events of that day. There was the moment when he talked to his boys before they went in. He remembered telling them that what they did today was for every man and woman in Nevada territory. He remembered that his heart beat so hard he wondered if it wouldn’t just burst. He remembered the terror in their eyes. He told the youngest ones to stick close to him. The rest of the day was lost to him. There were times he couldn’t see five feet in any direction. The noise was too much for conversation, and shouting seemed to carry into the wind. He saw boys drop around him but he knew he couldn’t stop. He stopped at every boulder propped his rifle and fired. Then he headed for another. Their eyes were on him, he knew this, and he resolved to show only strength.

*****

“Shorty loiters in town when he goes for supplies. Says it takes four days for him to return when I know dang well it should take him three so I told Bertha Hampton Shorty was sweet on her. That big ol’ girl is on him like a cougar on a jackrabbit the minute he walks into town. Shorty can’t get out of town fast enough now. In fact, he stocks up real good now so he only has to make half the trips he used to make.”

Adam shook his head, smiling. “I never knew you to be such a schemer, Joe.”

Joe nodded. “It’s kinda’ fun, actually.”

“Be careful it doesn’t come back and bite you, Little Brother.”

Joe smirked. “I’m too fast for those ol’ cow pokes.” He reached over and cut off another piece of jackrabbit from the spit on the fire.

Adam wondered if he had ever been that cocky. He imagined he was, but there was something about the daring with which Joe approached life that both amazed and worried him. He thought that giving Joe two way stations to manage was going to be a world-class mistake, but the boy had been handling the problems with amazingly creative solutions.

Sun was going down, and the hands were lounging around the fire, eating beans and drinking whiskey. One of the hands was sawing away on a harmonica, and another was crooning out an old ballad about a girl named Bessie Sue. Joe and Adam sat away from the rest of the men, picking at a rabbit Adam caught on the way, and discussing the mechanics of the drive.

Joe took a long draw off his coffee and sat back. “How close are we to making quota this week?”

“If everything is on schedule, then there will be 850 head of cattle in Denver tomorrow in time for the train.”

Joe let out a yell and pumped a fist into the air. “We’re doing it, Brother!”

Adam allowed himself a grin. “We are indeed.”

“We’re moving twice as many cattle twice as fast as anyone ever did. Can you believe it?”

“It is something, isn’t it.”

“Just imagine what we could do, Adam. We already did the impossible. You and I working together with Pa and…Hoss…”

Joe’s voice trailed off. Adam looked over at him. “I miss him too, Little Joe.”

Joe nodded and looked away.

Adam sighed. “It’s not the same though, is it Joe? The two of you were attached at the hip for as long as you remember.”

“Does it ever bother you…you know, that Hoss and I are tight like that.”

Adam threw the remains of his coffee on the fire. “Not really. You were so much younger, and well, I guess I like my solitude. Plus, Hoss doesn’t really let a person get lonely. He was always there whether I needed him or not. Before you were big enough to trail after him, he followed me everywhere.”

Joe sighed. “I sure do miss him.”

Adam looked over Joe’s shoulder at the cloud of smoke. “Someone is coming in.”

Joe twisted around. “Looks like Shorty. Thought he’d be another day with supplies.”

The horse pounded into camp, and a grizzly old hand jumped off.

Joe glowered at him. “Are you going to tell me that ol’ Bertha Hampton scared you out of town? You didn’t even bring back supplies.”

The man shook his scraggly white beard. “Supplies are coming out tomorrow. New hand is bringing ‘em. Your Pa wanted me to ride out tonight to bring you the news.”

“Well, spit it out, Shorty.” Adam was growing worry in his gut.

“There was a big battle out East at a place called Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Got reason to believe that our boys were there.”

“Is that all you know?” Joe felt the pitch of his voice rising.

Shorty looked down. “Don’t know much more. Heard tell there was something like 150,000 men in that fight. Also heard that about a third of them didn’t walk away.”

The men stood silently around Shorty. Adam and Joe weren’t the only ones with family in that regiment. For a long while, the only sounds around there were that of crickets and a stubborn owl sounding from a nearby grove.

Finally Shorty looked up. “Your Pa said that if they learn more, he’ll ride out personal to tell you. He was waiting for some wires when I left.”

Joe whirled around, threw his hat in the dirt, and stomped off into the dusk. Adam started to follow but stopped. The boy needed a moment. Hell, he needed a moment. He waved the men back to the fire, and stood by himself on the edge of camp, staring out into the horizon long after the last rays of sun disappeared over the horizon.

*****

He stared at the flames flickering the fire in front of him. At times, parts of his brain recognized that it wasn’t in a proper fire pit, and that it should bother him, but he couldn’t seem to access information about what should be done about it. He wondered if the fire was there to keep him warm, and if it was, it certainly needed more wood ‘cause he felt nothing but cold all the way to his bones.

Hands landed on his shoulders but he shrugged them away. There were voices, but they seemed distant and unconnected. Then a man was in front of him pushing and shouting.

Hoss got to his feet confused and afraid. Then he felt a sharp slap to the side of his face. “Hoss! Hoss!”

He blinked and found himself staring into the eyes of Colonel Chamberlain. The colonel’s eyes were red, and his face was streaked with dirt. “Hoss, I need you to snap out of it!”

Hoss stumbled away from him and looked around. It was almost evening, and he found himself standing in the remains of a charred meadow. In every direction there were bodies laying still, guns strewn about, some of the uniforms were gray and some were blue. Smoke from small fires burned what remained of the grass into the dirt. He shook his head violently and turned back to the colonel. “I’m missing some of my boys, Sir. My count is short. Figure they slipped off for a bit. Nothing AWOL. Just got a little panicked. I just need a few minutes to round them up, and we’ll be right as rain.”

The colonel shook his head. “They didn’t run off, Hoss. Some of your boys didn’t make it.”

“Can’t be, Sir. Some of those boys came with me all the way from Virginia City. I know their ma’s and their pa’s. Promised I would take care of ‘em.” Hoss began searching the ground frantically. “Haven’t seen little Jamie Green since this thing started. He’s just a slip of a boy. Been meaning to talk to you about him. He might be 18, but he’s really too young for all this. Think it would be best if we shipped him back. He can come back next year.”

The colonel pulled him over to the body of a blonde boy lying in the grass looking as peaceful as if he was just taking a nap on a warm afternoon. “You lost six boys, Hoss. Three of them came with you from Virginia City. This right here is Jamie Green. You lost Gus Aitkins and Russell Wood, also from Virginia City.”

Hoss closed his eyes and groaned. He wanted to drop down beside the boy and shake him. After all, boys were always causing mischief, but the colonel held him fast.

“Hoss, you did good. Four of your boys are wounded, but the rest made it. You took the hill. You took it and the rebs had no choice but to turn tail and run.”

Tears started rolling down his cheeks, but he didn’t care. “What am I supposed to tell their mamas?”

The colonel forced Hoss to look him in the eyes. “Tell them that their boys become men, and as men they fought bravely. Tell them that their boys did their part to save this country, and there is nothing this country can ever do to repay them. Tell them their boys were heroes. Tell them their boys died honorable deaths.”

Hoss pushed away from him. “Does that mean anything?”

Chamberlain followed him. “To me, it does, and it better to you too. You will look those poor folks in the eye and tell them that their sons’ deaths meant something. You understand me?”

Hoss nodded.

Chamberlain gestured with his head. “Your troops are sitting over this hill waiting for you. They aren’t going to leave without you. You need to gather them up and get them back to camp. Make sure they eat and then make sure they go to sleep. Then you go check on your wounded boys. Okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

Chamberlain gripped his arm tightly. “Then you take care of yourself. You fought hard today, Hoss. You did a hard job and you did it bravely. You made a difference. I won’t forget it.”

Hoss closed his eyes. He felt nothing but pain and anger inside. He had no way of acknowledging the praise coming from his commander.

Chamberlain seemed to understand. He squeezed Hoss’ arm and then walked away. Hoss felt a strong urge to stay. The burned meadow seemed timeless, a place where his dead boys could merely be sleeping and he was just waiting for them to wake up, but then he remembered he had a larger group of boys waiting for him just over the hill. And if he was feeling scared, he couldn’t imagine what they must be going through. He swallowed the rest of his tears and rubbed angrily at his face. Then he turned and marched resolutely over the hill to join them.

*****

It was six weeks before anyone in Virginia City heard the fate of the squad. They didn’t learn anything from the army. Official letters often took 6-12 months to arrive. The first notice came in four white envelopes addressed in Hoss’ distinctive cramped handwriting. Ben didn’t know about it until Mrs. Green brought it to the Ponderosa. She knew what it said. People in town had read it to her, but she wanted to hear it again and again until she knew every word by heart. It was the first sign Ben had that his son was alive, but he tried hard not to betray his emotions. The woman was grieving the loss of her only son. He read it for her carefully and repeatedly. She wasn’t angry. She had no energy for rage. Everything about her just seemed so desperately sad. She stayed all afternoon, but he was happy to take the time. These words written by his son were his only present connection and he found them revealing. Hoss wrote simply but eloquently about her boy. It was personal but not bombastic. There were no allusions about little Jamie Green fighting off the rebs singlehandedly. It was just stories about how hard he tried and the challenges he faced, and how he handled it all with integrity. She finally smiled through the tears and thanked him for his time.

Ben waited for his letter. He knew Hoss was alive but that wasn’t enough. His middle son felt everything, and he could imagine the emotional turmoil he was experiencing.

Other letters started pouring in, but none from Hoss. One Sunday, Mr. and Mrs. Yeats came up to him after the service, and congratulated him on Hoss’ promotion to Lieutenant. Ben couldn’t hide his surprise. Mr. Yeats explained that Rodney wrote to him about it, saying that Hoss turned it down repeatedly until Colonel Chamberlain threatened to court martial him. Rodney wrote that they still see Hoss, but he has a whole platoon now. The colonel put three squads under his command.

A month after that, Ben got his first letter. However, it wasn’t from his son. It was from Colonel Chamberlain. When the Postmaster handed it him, a fear gripped and he had to sit down. The most powerful man in the Nevada territory felt too terrified to move from the dusty steps in front of the Post Office. People passed by, some pausing at the sight. A few noted the letter in his hand, but no one stopped; if anything, they quickened their steps. No one wanted to be a part of the shadow of death that followed the mail these days. Finally Roy Coffee noticed him. Roy was a man of action, and he didn’t need all the particulars to know enough to go over and pull his friend up, and steer him over to his office.

“Listen to me, Ben. We would have known if there had been a major battle. Clearly this is something else.”

Ben sighed deeply. “I’m trying to tell myself that.”

“Well, open it. You can’t tell me that not knowing is doing you any favors.”

Ben nodded, picked up the envelope he’d been holding so tightly and tore it open. He looked at the letter and let out a deep breath.

“What?!”

Ben licked his lips. “It says, Dear Mr. Cartwright, I am writing to tell you that your son is alive and well.”

Roy sat back and relaxed while Ben read the rest of it silently. Then he looked up, his brow furrowed. “He says that Hoss was promoted and has acquitted himself honorably at Gettysburg and the few minor skirmishes they have encountered since then. He then goes on to say that Hoss has been invaluable to him. He heard that Hoss hadn’t written in awhile, and wants me to know that it isn’t because Hoss isn’t able. He says that some men encounter war in such a way that they don’t know how to adequately express themselves once they experience it.”

Ben stopped and frowned at Roy for a moment before continuing. “Chamberlain says that he reminded him how important it was to stay in touch with his family, and told him that he would drop this note so I would know he was okay. He said that Hoss would write me shortly.”

Roy reached over and poured a cup of coffee. “I can’t say I’m surprised, Ben.”

Ben took the offered cup. “I don’t understand.”

“Hoss is a sensitive man. He’s feeling for all of the boys he’s responsible for. I know what it’s like. It reminds me of my first deputy, Wade. I sent him into a situation that I knew was deadly ‘cause there wasn’t any other choice. The boy died, and I had to talk to the family. It wasn’t my fault. I was a lawman and he was a lawman, but I never forgot that he was dead as a direct result of a decision I had made. I didn’t want to talk to anyone for a good long time.”

“Hoss can’t blame himself.”

“I know. I’m sure he’s confused as much as anything. Just needs some time to sort it all out.”

Ben nodded. “If he was here, he’d talk to me.”

“He’ll figure it out, Ben. He’s young but he’s all Cartwright. You’re all a resourceful bunch. Look at how the other two are blazing trails with their newfangled cattle drive. Hoss has got quite a few tricks up his sleeve. I ain’t go no worries on it.”

Ben received his first letter from Hoss a few weeks after he’d heard from the colonel. It was the first he’d heard from Hoss in almost five months. It was brief and there were attempts at cheers, but the passage Ben went back to again and again said, “Pa, I didn’t realize it would be so hard not having you around for counsel. You’ve made this crazy world make sense for me so many times. This time I got to reason it out on my own. There are days when I understand why I’m here and why we’re doing what we’re doing, and there are days when I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hold my head high in Virginia City again. Other men don’t question what happens here and they sleep fine. I wish I could be that sort of man.”

Ben kept the letter in his breast pocket. He pulled it out every day hoping to find some clue that would help him better understand what was happening to his son. He reckoned that he was every bit as confused as Hoss was.

*****

The speech was only a month old but Hoss had already worn a copy of it to a frazzle. He read it most every day. He read it to his sergeants and soldiers as well although he was surprised to find that few of them found it as comforting as he did.

 

There were answers in the address President Lincoln gave at the ceremony to memorialize Gettysburg in November. Hoss wasn’t sure exactly what they were, but he felt comforted by the words. Reading the address left him feeling less like he was part of a horrendous nightmare, and more like he was a part of something with real purpose and meaning. It was the last part of the short address that comforted him most.

“….It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It made him feel like taking that hill had meant something. Jamie, Russell, and Gus had died fighting for something important. It filled an emptiness that had been gnawing at him since the day he found their dead bodies. It didn’t matter that his boys didn’t understand it; he’d keep reading it to ‘em ‘til they did.

*****

Ben couldn’t hide the pleasure he felt at having two of his sons home again. There was no way to drive the cattle effectively to Denver over the winter months. Adam and Joe went onto Denver to meet with General Peeler, and returned two days ago with a surprise. Adam was promoted to Captain, and Peeler commissioned Joe as a Lieutenant. Joe was so excited he wanted to wear his bars on his ranch clothes. Adam had a quiet word with Joe about it, and he put them away. Ben watched this in amazement. Joe and Adam had always been more like oil and water; yet here they were, Adam giving Joe direction and Joe nothing more than nodding his head in agreement. Hoss’ absence wore on him like a heavy cloak every day, but watching his other two sons discover each other without the big man to serve as a buffer was an unexpected surprise.

Hop Sing was cooking up a storm for Christmas dinner. Everyone made an effort at cheer for the holiday, but it felt forced. It wasn’t the same without Hoss there hovering, sneaking bites, teasing Hop Sing. Hoss embodied holidays at the Ponderosa. His exuberance about any celebration had always filled the house with a festive air. The Cartwrights didn’t realize the extent of Hoss’ presence until they tried to replicate his holiday cheer. They were all operating outside their family roles, but it didn’t stop them. Christmas demands a sense of normalcy so they refused to leave out any of the trappings.

Ben invited all of the families whose boys were out East for Christmas, and Joe had impulsively invited General Peeler and his family. While the General wasn’t able to leave Denver, his wife and two comely daughters made the trip. Joe made no secret of his interest in General Peeler’s youngest daughter, Augusta. She was a lovely girl with light brown hair that danced in ringlets about her head, and blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires. She had a wonderful energy, and Ben had to admit he couldn’t help but smile when she was in the room. The older daughter was an interesting contrast. Joan Peeler was like Aphrodite herself – blonde hair, blue eyes, calm, intelligent. Augusta made him smile but Joan made him stare. It didn’t take him long to notice that Adam was also observing the blonde goddess. Luckily, Ben’s duties as a host to General Peeler’s wife kept him from looking like a lovesick schoolboy. Mrs. Peeler required quite a bit of his time. She seemed under the distinct impression that her job this visit was to evaluate the suitability of Cartwright men as potential husbands. She brought very little subtlety with her. Ben found himself queried on all sorts of subjects from the quality of ladies society in Virginia City to the extent of his financial holdings. He did the best he could to accommodate her while still maintaining a sense of decorum.

Hop Sing put out a roast pig, several stuffed geese, and beef steaks. There were potatoes and yams and corn puddings. The sideboard groaned under the weight of pies and cakes. Men with fiddles played waltzes by the fireplace. Everyone came, and the house was filled with dancing and eating. Mothers gathered around Ben’s desk. Everyone brought all letters they received, and exchanged them as if they were all pieces of a gigantic puzzle and by putting them all together they would finally understand their sons’ experiences. Ben was no less interested than any of them, and would have stay huddled around his desk with them all night if not for his responsibilities as a host.

Joe pulled Augusta around the dance floor with such gusto that, at times, it looked as if she was hanging on for dear life. Adam took Joan out for a few spins, but mostly the statuesque girl preferred to sit next to her mother and sip on champagne punch.

The frenzy of the festivities carried an edge of desperation as folks struggled to find celebration with each other in the absence of their beloved sons. Joan Peeler might have been sipping at her punch, but her mother seemed to be inhaling it, and Adam had lost count of the number of times he’d gone to the bowl to refresh her drink. He was on one of these missions when a flushed Augusta bumped into him, her light curls wild about her face. Adam reached out to steady her. “Joe finally let you go, huh?”

Her face was damp and mottled red, and he wasn’t sure if it was exhaustion or embarrassment that had hold of her, but she smiled brightly at him. “I am having the most marvelous time. Who knew such diversion could be found out here in the West?

Her spirit really was infectious and he couldn’t help but smile in response. “We have our moments, Miss Augusta, but it isn’t anything the society one finds in a large city.”

She scrunched up her face. “I am so tired of those stiff old bags. Their parties are grand, but everyone is so boring, and I am always doing something wrong. Mama says I am a scandal on my best day.”

He nodded. “Well, I would have to agree that it is less stuffy here. Would you like to live in a place like this?”

Her face flushed even more deeply. “I don’t know. I suppose…I could.” She looked away in embarrassment.

Adam quickly changed the subject. “How long have you been in Denver?”

She smiled again. “Five years. Before that it was Chicago, and before that it was Cincinnati, Ohio.”

“Your sister is quite well-read. Where were you educated?”

“Tutors mostly. Joan is the smart one. Mama says I have the artistic temperament.”

Adam offered her a glass of punch, nodded, and started to head back to her mother and sister.

“Adam, wait please.”

He stopped.

“We really are having such a wonderful time here. I can’t remember when I’ve ever laughed so much. Joe is such a gentleman. He’s just…wonderful.”

Adam put down his glasses. “Yeah, he really is something, that little brother of mine.”

“I just feel so happy.”

He studied her for a moment. She was quite fetching in a powder blue gown, her eyes sparkling. He was certain that Little Joe was thinking about how wonderful she was as well. He took in a breath. “Augusta, has Joe told you much about our brother, Hoss?”

She nodded. “He’s big and sweet and as strong as a pair of field oxen.”

“And Joe misses him terribly.”

She looked down. “He is quite worried about him.”

“Joe and Hoss have been inseparable since…since the day Joe was born. Joe’s really been lonesome since Hoss went off to war.”

She chewed her bottom lip in a way that made Adam feel something odd and unsettling inside. “You wanted me to know this for a reason?”

He nodded. “Joe hasn’t been happy since Hoss left and then he met you.”

“He makes me happy too.”

“I can see that, but it makes me wonder if what’s happening between the two of you right now is because the two of you belong together or because Joe is so very lonely.”

She jerked her head up and blinked. “Adam Cartwright, what are you saying?”

Adam put out a hand to steady here. “I’m not saying he doesn’t like you, Augusta. He would be a fool not to. You’re the prettiest girl in Nevada territory.”

She scowled and gestured at her sister. “I’m not even the prettiest girl in this room.”

He shook his head. “Pretty is more than just looks. It’s the joy you bring, the way you light up a room, the way you…” Adam cleared his throat, wondering if his face was growing as red as hers. “Augusta, I am very happy that you and Joe have found each other. I just want you to take it slow. Joe’s in a…vulnerable state right now. He misses his brother very much.”

Her beautiful eyes filled with tears and her chin quivered, and for a moment, he thought she might dissolve right in front of him, making him the most miserable excuse for a host this side of an Indian scalping party. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, and pressed her lips together. Then, amazingly, she seemed to swallow all of the heartache, and when she opened her eyes again, she was completely composed. He let out breath he didn’t even know he was holding. She reached for his hand. “Thank you so much, Adam. I know that you’re doing what you think best.”

He blinked his surprise. “I’m so sorry for…“

“Don’t, Adam, don’t be sorry. You care about Joe. You should never apologize for that.”

Adam found himself at a loss for words in front of this slip of girl. Suddenly, Joe was there, his eyes merry. “What are two of you doing, huddled here around the punch like a couple of thieves?”

Augusta’s face brightened. “I want to dance.”

Joe whooped, and hooked her around the waist, spinning her out onto the dance floor. Adam stood there, watching them dance about deliriously. After a few moments, he realized he was staring, shook his head, and headed back to the Ladies Peeler.

*****

Hoss pushed Rodney out of the way as he strode down the beautifully paved streets of Hopewell, Virginia. Rodney stumbled, got to his feet, and ran after him. “Lieutenant Hoss! We got orders. Captain Reynolds said we could appropriate supplies. It’s Christmas!”

Hoss ignored him and jumped on the porch to the General Store. Union men were stacking boxes in a wagon. He brushed past them and into the store. A Sergeant Muller was directing activities while the shopkeeper and several women clustered behind the counter. Hoss walked into Muller, grabbed him by his collar, and then dragged him out of the store. On the porch, he pushed him against the wall, and watched as the smaller man slid down until he slumped to the ground. Hoss pointed a finger in his face. “There will be no looting on my watch. Do you understand?”

The sergeant shook his head as if trying to clear and looked up. “I got orders. Captain Reynolds said we could appropriate supplies for the Christmas celebration. I got orders!”

“Well, now you got new ones.”

Muller scrambled to his feet. “You can’t do this, Lieutenant. The Captain will bust you down to private. We took this Reb town fair and square. ‘Sides, it ain’t fair to the boys. We been struggling for grub for months now. The boys deserve the celebration. You can’t just take it away ‘cause you got silly old ideas that have no place in this war.”

Hoss advanced while Muller backpedaled until he ran out of porch and landed hard on his backside in the street below. “You go on back to Reynolds, and you tell him I spoiled his fun. Ifn’ he wants to bust me, he can go right ahead. I ain’t fond of my job much as it is.”

A red-faced Muller scrambled after his hat, and headed for his horse. The soldiers who had been stocking the wagon started to unload it without asking for orders. Hoss nodded at them, and then walked back into the store. Rodney slapped the wall in frustration and followed him.

Inside, Hoss doffed his hat and nodded. “I’m sure sorry about this, folks. My boys are hungry, and sometimes they forget their manners.”

One of the women narrowed her eyes at him. “Typical Yankee!”

“Yes Ma’am. It sure does appear that way, but I have good men under me, and it’s only circumstances that turned ‘em wild.”

The shopkeeper swallowed hard. “How much are you taking?”

Hoss shook his head. “Ain’t taking none of it. The only way we take something out of this town is with coin.”

“Your coin isn’t any good here.”

“Yes Sir, but I have an idea about that. Would you be interested in some bartering?”

An angry woman stepped forward. “We’d rather starve. We can’t be doing business with the enemy while our boys are suffering on the line. It’s just plain wrong.”

Hoss nodded. “I see your point, Ma’am. However, it is a holiday, and I expect every last one of us could use some cheer about now.”

“You don’t have anything we need.”

“Yes Ma’am.” Then he turned to Rodney, lowered his head, and started whispering into the boy’s ear. Rodney nodded and whispered back to him. Hoss straightened up. “Ma’am, I’m not sure if you’re speaking for all the folks in this town. Here’s the deal. We’ll see if anyone takes it. We have flour and sugar. Now I imagine that you folks have little of either, being as so many of the mills are up north and such. In return, we would like eggs and milk.”

Rodney tugged at his sleeve and whispered more at him. Hoss smiled. “Rodney here figures you ain’t had much in the way of meat either as your menfolk ain’t around to shoot no game and you’re low on stock. We can help you out there too. I reckon we can rassle up a mess of squirrel, rabbit, and game hen for you as well.”

The women huddled and started to discuss it. The shopkeeper stood to the side, and it was clear that he let the womenfolk make decisions for him. There was another woman not huddled with the rest. She was young, but met Hoss’ eyes directly. She had thick brown hair and big, soft brown eyes like a whitetail doe. She stared at him steadily for a moment and then stepped forward. “I’ll barter with you, Lieutenant.”

The angry woman broke from the pack before Hoss could respond. “You will not Georgia Mae Houston. You back away from him right now.”

Georgia flinched but stood her ground. “You’re my sister-in-law, Mary Ellen, but that’s all. I can make my own decisions.”

Hoss intervened. “Ladies, when this war is over, we’re going to find out that there’s about the same amount of goodness and meanness on both sides of these here conflict. I reckon that if your menfolk were here, they wouldn’t begrudge you for getting some extra vittles for your young ‘uns even if it is from Yankees. I know my family wouldn’t.”

Georgia turned to her sister-in-law. “He’s right. John wouldn’t want me to pass up an opportunity to get some meat and flour for Mason.”

Mary Ellen planted her hands on her hips. “Don’t you go speaking for the dead!”

Georgia’s mouth quivered. “He was my husband.”

“And you’ve done nothing but spit in his memory from the day he rode out of here with General Stonewall Jackson’s regiment.”

Georgia turned away from her. “Lieutenant, I have six old milking cows and a mess of laying hens. I can keep you in eggs and milk for the time you’re here. All I ask is that you supply flour and sugar to the General Store here and Mr. Gaines here can ration it out as he sees fit.”

“Ma’am, we’re most likely camping here for the winter.”

Georgia nodded. “My livestock can provide for as long as you’re here.”

Hoss smiled. “I’ll have the boys catch some rabbits for you this afternoon. And I was noticing that some of these roofs are in disrepair. I’ll have ‘em starting working on it in the morning. We’re happy to help with other chores as well.” He turned to Rodney. “You heard her, boy. I want fifty pounds of flour and twenty pounds of sugar in this man’s store before sundown. And I want eight rabbits a day for these folks.”

Rodney grinned. “I’ll hunt ‘em myself.”

Hoss grabbed Rodney’s collar before he could run out of the store. “Remember, Rodney, hunting ain’t the same thing as catching.”

“Awww, Lieutenant.”

Hoss nodded. “Just take a few boys with you is all. There’s plenty of work for all of you. Oh, and tell Cook he’s making cakes for Christmas.” He let go and watched as the boy bolted out the door and down the street.

“You’re nothing but a Yankee lover, Georgia Mae.” Mary Ellen sneered.

Georgia smiled sweetly. “I’m sure you don’t want to partake in any of these tainted goods. Let’s arrange for Mr. Gaines to leave you out of the rationing. I don’t want to stain your good character.”

“Well, I never!” Mary Ellen puffed up, picked up her considerable skirts, and marched out of the store.

Hoss had to lower his head to hide the smile growing on his face.

*****

Adam shut the front door behind him, and dropped his hat and coat on the sideboard. It had been a long day rounding up strays. Winter run off told him they be able to start the round up in a couple of weeks, and having cattle on trains traveling east within a month. The logistics of pulling the drive together again were mind boggling especially since he’d pledged 950 head a week for the entire season.

The fire was roaring, and he wanted nothing more than to sit in front of it with a cup of coffee and close his eyes. “Hop Sing!” he shouted.

The Chinese man hurried out of the kitchen. “Coffee coming up for you straight away. And for you, Miss Augusta?”

Adam turned his head to find the maddening Augusta Peeler seated in the high-backed red chair across from him with one of Ben Cartwright’s thick books laid out in her lap.

She smiled brightly. “No thank you, Hop Sing.”

All chance of rest was lost for him now, but he settled in the chair nonetheless. “I thought that you ladies were going to be in town all day.”

“Mama and Joan went in, but I was in the mood for something quieter. Your father gave me permission to look through his library, and I’ve been having the most wonderful afternoon.”

He nodded at the large book in her lap. “I thought you were the one with the artistic temperament.”

“Being artistic doesn’t mean I’m illiterate. I enjoy reading about natural history, and this is a most interesting journal of the naturalist Sir Francis Chadwick’s exploration of the Dakota Territory.”

He settled back in his chair. “Sir Francis had some very interesting observations on the American Buffalo.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Perhaps although I think he made altogether too many conclusions about the species.”

Adam cocked his head. “I don’t understand.”

She grinned. “Ah, the Age of Enlightenment…science can explain all things.”

“Now I’m really confused.”

She leaned forward. “I had this tutor once — he was wonderful so of course my mother fired him — but I had him for a year and what a year that was.”

Adam smiled. “Tell me more.”

“Well, he told me that the problem with science is that the more we think we know, the less we actually do. Once we think we know, we stop seeking. We have become so fond of facts that we create them where they don’t exist. They are the legitimacy of science. There is no accomplishment where there is no conclusion.”

“I bet your mother did fire him.”

“You agree with her?”

Adam considered this for a moment. “Your tutor addresses a very real problem. Poorly conceived science can be very harmful; it can mask the real truths and lead us to erroneous conclusions. However, there are demonstrable truths, and I believe that the natural world can be logically explained.”

She pulled the book shut and rested it against the chair. “Men are so fond of logic.”

Adam frowned. “Of course, we are. It is the basis of all understanding.”

She turned her attention to the crackling embers, and her profile left him marveling on how the rose color of her gown so perfectly matched the color in her cheeks. No amount of hair dressing seemed to capture the light brown ringlets that framed her face. Then she leaned back and looked at him again. “Logic is overrated. It doesn’t account for exceptions. It doesn’t account for…so many things.”

“Only because people refuse to apply it correctly.”

She laughed. “You are really something, Adam Cartwright.”

He regarded her carefully. “There’s something about you, Augusta. You have the uncanny ability to leave me feeling tongued-tied. I don’t know how you do it.”

“Because I’m only a mere slip of a girl?”

He cleared his throat. “I didn’t say that.”

“I’m going to be twenty this summer.”

“And I am going to be 32 in the fall.”

“Age isn’t everything, Adam Cartwright.” She folded her arms across her chest.

A silence descended. He couldn’t quite figure how the conversation landed here or what exactly they were talking about. He winced at her. “I think I’ve offended you and I’m not sure how. Do you understand what we’re talking about?”

“Why don’t you use some logic? I’m sure it will come to you.”

He closed his eyes. “I concede. Logic can’t be used to understand everything…especially when it comes to women.”

She pointed a delicate finger at him. “Nor does logic explain why I leave you tongue-tied.”

Hop Sing chose that moment to come in with a nice hot cup of coffee, and Adam reached for it as if it were the nectar of life itself.

She laughed at his discomfort. “Let’s not fuss. They’ll be back any minute and I promised Joe a walk after dinner. Can I show you the maps Chadwick made of the Dakotas? I’m fascinated by how he drew the topography.” Without waiting for his response, she reached for the book and headed toward him.

*****

Hoss looked forward to the morning walk. He always got up before the sun, harnessed the mule to the cart, and walked the three miles to her farm. The cows were already milked and the eggs gathered by the time he got there. It wasn’t work for a Lieutenant in the Union army, but he insisted on doing it. It was a chance for him to be by himself, something that rarely happened these days with his responsibilities. It gave him space to plan the day, and ponder on the current challenges of command.

If that wasn’t reason enough, there was also the opportunity to see Mrs. Georgia Mae Houston on a daily basis. He trapped each short visit in his mind, bringing it out for those moments before sleep when he needed thoughts that were peaceful and good. The woman with the deep, sad eyes captivated him.

Russell, a large Black man, emerged from the barn and nodded to him. Behind him was Russell’s son, Donald, who was already taller than his pa, but skinnier than a fence post. Hoss smiled and urged the mule forward. As usual, he was looking around the yard for some signs of Mrs. Georgia Mae. It must have been obvious because Russell shook his head. “She ain’t out here today, Lieutenant. The boy took sick in the night. She’s been nursing him.”

Hoss frowned. “She didn’t send for a doc?”

Russell shook his head. “Ain’t any left in these parts. They’re all off at the field hospitals.”

“You think Mrs. Houston might need anything?”

Russell shrugged. “I ain’t got no nursing skills. These days we all have to make due on our own.”

Hoss nodded. “I’ll just check on her while you load me up.”

The white house was big and ornate with a porch that wrapped around all four sides. He noted how fine the detailing was. It was quite a contrast to his own home which, while majestic, was rough hewn in comparison. He stepped up to the porch and knocked. There was no answer. For a moment, he stood awkwardly on the porch, and then he tried the door. It swung open. “Ma’am…ah, Mrs. Houston, are you in?”

There was no response and he stepped in. The inside was as ornate as the outside. Every piece of furniture carved within an inch of its life. He couldn’t imagine that kings lived any finer. Through the kitchen was a drawing room with a grandfather clock ticking dutifully in the corner. The room was typically dark with ruffled curtains covering windows so that the sun wouldn’t fade the prints on the settees, chairs and pillows. At the end of the room, he heard a moan and strode over. A small boy with dark brown hair was groaning in his sleep under a lacy afghan. The boy’s cheeks were scarlet and Hoss laid the back of his hand gently on his face. It was hot and dry. Without thinking about it, Hoss lifted the boy up and carried him into the kitchen where there was more light. He sat in a chair and carefully examined the boy for signs of rash or pustules.

“Mason!?” came a high pitched scream, and Mrs. Houston ran down the stairs.

Hoss stood up. “In here, Mrs. Houston.”

She came rushing in, her dark hair disheveled and hanging on her shoulders. “What happened? He was sleeping…“

“Shhh!” Hoss drew a finger to his lips. “He still is. I was just checking on him.”

“How did you…why…what do you want?” Mrs. Houston leaned unsteadily on the back of a chair.

“It’s alright, Ma’am. Your man said your boy was sick. I just came in to see if I could help.”

“You’re not a doctor.” She walked up to him and pulled the boy out of his arms.

“Well, Ma’am, you’re right on that score, but I did grow up out in the territories. Doctors were hard to come by. My little brother used to fever up something regular, him being such a puny thing and all. I guess I’ve had a bit of experience in this area.”

Her shoulders dropped perceptibly. “Mama always called the doctor in when we ailed. I don’t have much experience with this.”

He put out his arms. “Hand him over now. Just going to make sure he doesn’t have anything serious. Then we’re going to see about getting him some treatments.”

She gave the boy back reluctantly. He was awake now, but too fevered to worry about who was holding him. Hoss checked him over just as he’d seen Pa and Hop Sing do with Joe on many occasions. “It looks good, Ma’am. I think he’s probably got a bit of swamp fever. Can’t tell for sure, but I think he’ll be fine just as soon as we get something in him to reduce his fever.”

“I don’t have anything.”

Hoss smiled softly. “These woods are full of medicine. It ain’t a problem. What I need is simple. Could you ask Russell’s son to gather up some calendula and some chamomile. Do you know what those look like?”

She nodded.

“Good, good. You and I are going to make some tea for the boy. Do you mind asking Russell if he’d pull the mule back to my camp? I reckon it’s going to take a few hours for all of this and the milk ain’t going to wait that long.”

She hesitated, looking at him for a moment as if trying to find certainty in her heart about the big Union soldier. Finally, she nodded and hurried out the door.

Hoss walked her through every step. The boy fussed over the tea, but Hoss had a piece of brown sugar wrapped in cloth in his pocket. He melted some in the tea, and the boy took to sucking at it with a great deal more enthusiasm. Embarrassed, he looked up at Georgia Mae. “I brought the sugar for the boy anyhow. Figured he’d warm up to a treat. He usually just runs away when he sees me.”

She sat across from him, looking worn, but her eyes were focused steadily on her son. “I’m used to people doing…for me. Then this war happened and my husband died and I’ve had to figure out so many things.”

“You have family here?”

She smiled. “My in-laws, I suppose. My own family went north after Fort Sumter. My papa was a newspaperman and an abolitionist. We weren’t very popular around these parts. But I married for love and I had to stay.”

“You felt right marrying into a family with slaves, I mean, you being an abolitionist and all?” Hoss immediately sensed the intrusion of the question.

She bit her lip for a moment. “My husband convinced me that his slaves were like family, and, to be fair, I think he cared about them, but he didn’t respect them. When he died, I set them free. That’s one of the reasons I’m not in good standing with my in-laws. They say I had no right.”

“What about Russell and Donald?”

“I can’t run this farm without them. I told them that if they stayed, they could share in the sale of the place when the war is over.”

Hoss nodded. “Sounds fair.”

She started to laugh. “There’s nothing fair about it, Lieutenant. If life was fair, I wouldn’t be a widow at 24 and you’d be at home with your wife and family. Russell and Donald wouldn’t have ever been slaves.”

He nodded. “I can’t argue with you there, Mrs. Houston. Life ain’t fair, but I guess some of us have more good fortune than others.”

“Are you fortunate?”

Hoss worried his bottom lip for a moment. “I’d have to say that I am most fortunate. I don’t have a wife or children, but I have a Pa and two brothers, and we’re a strong family. When this is over, I intend to go back to Nevada, find a nice girl, build a house near my Pa, and have maybe, 10 or 15 kids.”

Georgia Mae snorted delicately into her hand.

Hoss narrowed his eyes. “That seems like too many, don’t it? I reckon I should make sure I find a girl that would be up to that much birthing and baby raising. Or, ah…maybe I’ll go down on the number a bit. Wasn’t really thinking on how all that would be for a girl. Looks like I got to look at this from a few more angles.”

She shook her head. “Forgive me. Keep your dreams, Lieutenant. I’m just a bitter Southern girl with nothing to look forward to but more debt and humiliation.”

“Ma’am, I know this ain’t going to mean much now, but this misery ain’t going to last. Life wasn’t made to be only good or bad. We just forget that when it’s bad. We forget that one day it’ll be good again. I know you don’t feel it, but I guarantee that life’s gonna’ look up for you again.”

She looked away. “I don’t know if I believe that.”

“I realize I’m a simple country boy, but I just can’t help believing that good times are just around the corner.”

She didn’t respond, and for a few minutes, there was an awkward silence between them. Then a little fist reached up and grabbed the bars on his collar. Mason’s big brown eyes were open. Hoss extricated his collar from the boy and felt his forehead. Then he smiled. “I think that tea did the trick.”

Georgia Mae reached for the boy and hugged him tightly. She looked up to see Hoss already on his feet. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”

He reddened a bit. “Ah, ‘twas nothing, Ma’am. Just make sure he gets some of that tea every morning for a week. He’ll be fine.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Lieutenant.”

He looked at the floor. “Well, I…I reckon I oughta’ pass this chore on to one of my sergeants. It was something of a luxury to go off by myself like this every day. Spring is on full now, and I figure we’re going to get orders any day. I can’t afford anymore time daydreaming. It was nice meeting you, Ma’am. You and your son are going to be just fine.” He tipped his hat and was out the door before she could say a word.

*****

“All I’m looking for is a promise.”

“Of what, Joe? I just don’t see the point.” Augusta played with a curl at the nape of his neck. Joe Cartwright was one of the most beautiful people of either sex that she had ever seen. He seemed perfect in many ways: exciting, handsome, bright, considerate, rich. Kissing him seemed to feel like heaven itself. She knew she should feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

“I won’t see you for months, maybe 6. You’re going to leave for Denver on the stage tomorrow. Adam and I are going to be on the trail by the end of the week. I want to know that you’re still going to be my girl.”

Her eyes widened. “Now Joe, I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He leaned over and kissed her again. “Aggie, I think about you all day every day. You’re the most beautiful girl in the world. You’re the kind of girl I can imagine spending the rest of my life with.”

She broke away. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Cartwright. However, you and I are not ready for promises or thinking about the future or anything else.”

“Aggie…“

She put a finger to his lips. “Shhh! Nothing’s real right now. Years from now, people will talk about how things were before the war and how things were after the war. Wartime is just a holding pattern. Feelings, desires, goals: everything will feel different when the war is over. There’s no need for promises until things are real again.”

“What I feel is real and you can’t tell me nothing else, Aggie Peeler.” Joe got up off the sofa.

She leaned toward him. “Let’s wait ‘til Hoss gets back. Let’s see how things are going to be then.”

Joe snorted. “That ain’t going to make no difference. I don’t need him to tell me what I already know.”

She looked down at her hands. “I’m just not ready, Joe.”

The front door opened and Ben Cartwright came in, shaking rain of his coat and hat. “It’s a good spring rain. Just the sort of rain we need on the grassland right now.”

Joe turned on his heel and marched past his father out the door. Ben blinked as he watched his youngest run right into the pouring rain. Then he turned and saw young Augusta Peeler, chin trembling. Three wives taught him that a sight like this doesn’t get ignored. He cleared his throat and walked over to the girl whose eyes were getting redder by the moment.

“Augusta dear, can I get you something to drink?” She shook her head. He sat down next to her gently. “It’s not so bad to quarrel, you know. All young lovers do it.”

She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “I can’t give him what he wants, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben’s face darkened. He knew from experience that there were very few things that young men truly wanted from young ladies.

She saw his face and her eyes widened. “No sir. Joe’s been the perfect gentleman.”

“Then what is it that you can’t give him?”

“Mr. Cartwright, did you marry for love?”

He nodded. “Remarkably, I married for love three times.”

“Did you ever meet a girl who was just perfect in every way, but one that you didn’t want to marry?”

He furrowed his brow while he thought. “I believe that there were a few ladies like that in my past.”

“I don’t understand how love works. If someone is everything you want, then the feelings should just be there.”

He smiled. “Love is magical, Augusta. It defies logic.”

She leaned over, touching his arm. “But sometimes love grows, right? Sometimes, it isn’t there in the beginning, but it grows.”

“Yes, sometimes it does, but why push it? Neither of you needs to be in any hurry.”

She rose up to her knees. “I’m not, Mr. Cartwright. I want to wait. I don’t want to push anything.”

Ben nodded. “I see. My son is impatient.”

“He wonderful in every way imaginable, but I don’t feel what I think I should feel.”

“You think you know what love feels like, Augusta.”

She closed her eyes. “If it feels crushing and overwhelming and hopeless, then I know.”

“You don’t feel that for Joe?”

She shook her head slowly.

“But you feel that for someone else?”

She nodded.

“Then you’re right not to promise Joe anything. You have to explore these feelings. Finding love with the right person is important.”

The tears spilled over. “It’s hopeless, Mr. Cartwright. I’m just a girl. I’m just a silly, silly girl.”

*****

They skirmished almost every day now. Reb soldiers seemed to be hiding in every grove. Hoss had been waiting for orders to take his boys and find the war when it appeared that the war found them. Two of his men had been sniped at while eating breakfast just that morning, and Hoss was itching for the generals to come up with something better than sitting around like targets. He was ready to go to the newly promoted General Chamberlain about it when the orders came through. Troops from both sides were converging on a small place in Virginia called Cold Harbor. This was the first big engagement for Hoss and his boys since Gettysburg the summer before.

That old foreboding feeling rose in his gut, but he knew it did no good to entertain it. Walking into a big battle inspires butterflies in the most seasoned of warriors and there wasn’t a dang thing that could be done about it.

He owed a letter home, but struggled over it. Something told him his would be his last, and nothing he told himself could shake it. An emotional letter home would do nothing but worry his pa, but it rankled him more going into this battle without writing things he wanted his family to know. Finally, he was able to shape the words that best fit his feelings.

Dear Pa and Adam and Joe,

It’s been near a year and a half since I left. I’d tell you that the homesickness has left me if it were anywhere near the truth, but it isn’t. I wasn’t born to be a traveling man. My place is on the ranch with you fellers and there’s nothing that’s ever going to change that.

We’re sitting at the eve of a big battle again. I didn’t believe that anything would ever match Gettysburg, but here we are again, men stretching out as far as the eye can see. Something happens to men when they fight in numbers this large. It’s like we forget that we were ever ranchers or farmers or any other kind of simple folk. A man only wants to shoot and kill in a battle like this. No one wants to meet eyes with the enemy. Nothing matters but the killing. It’s only the color of the uniform that drives us. This life isn’t for me.

Reports tell us that Johnny Reb is starting to weaken and I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before this thing is over. We pretty much got all the marbles on this side of the line. We just have to wait them out. I just wish I knew how long it would all be.

This here part isn’t easy to write. The battle tomorrow could go either way. We might be in the front or in the back. There’s no way to know. It’s the men with the brass on their coats that make those decisions. Whatever it is, we’ll fight like men and do you all proud.

You all know how much family means to me. You know I always been proud to call myself a Cartwright. This has been a good life. If I don’t make it back to camp tomorrow, I want you to know that there are no regrets. I lived good, and I had the best brothers and the best pa a man could have.

All my love,

Hoss

*****

Breath stuck in Joe’s throat. The last time he felt this much panic, a Paiute brave was pointing a lance at his chest. He looked around wildly, convinced that danger was near. Adam reined in Sport beside him. “What’s wrong, Joe?”

Joe blinked at him. The desert expanse was empty save his brother and himself. “I had a…feeling. I felt something in my gut.”

Adam knew his brother lived on instinct, and he knew that Joe’s gut was usually not wrong. He turned Sport a few times, getting a chance to eyeball the landscape around them. “I don’t see anything.”

Joe stared ahead for a few moments, then turned to Adam. There was a look of tremendous sadness in his eyes. “Hoss ain’t coming home.”

“Don’t say that, Joe.”

“I just have this feeling. I just feel it.”

Adam shook his head. “Don’t do this. We only think good thoughts.”

“I can’t help it.”

Adam grabbed his reins. “Listen to me! You miss him. I miss him. Being scared for him is natural, but you can’t let it take over.”

Joe looked away.

Adam shook the rein. “You hear me? Don’t do this!”

Joe closed his eyes and nodded. “You’re right.”

“Look at me!”

Joe turned to his older brother, looking at him tentatively.

“We’re going to have faith in middle brother. Okay? We’re going to have faith.”

Joe nodded. “Sorry. I don’t know what happened. I guess I’m acting like an old woman.”

“Don’t think about it.”

Joe managed a grim smile and then spurred Cochise forward. Adam watched him warily. Like his father, he had no time for superstitions and such. Yet, he couldn’t stop a feeling of unease growing in his gut as well.

*****

Rodney’s shoulder hurt tremendously. Sitting up seemed to take forever; he needed to stop every few seconds or he would have never stayed conscious. It was eerily silent in the meadow. Bodies littered the ground around him. It took him a moment to remember all that had happened. The battle had been fierce, even worse than at Gettysburg. There were so many men, both rebel and union, fighting in such a small meadow that it was hard to know who he hit when he pulled the trigger. The plan was to stay with his lieutenant, and protect him with his own life if need be. Hoss wasn’t hard to keep track of; the man towered over men on both sides of the line. The big man didn’t know how to keep his head down either. He was one of the first in the platoon to be shot. Bullet hit him square in the chest and he went down. It was the most amazing sight. Rodney hadn’t believed it was possible for anything to down Hoss Cartwright. Rodney started making his way to Hoss’ side when the force of a sledgehammer hit him in the shoulder.

That was the last he remembered, and now he sat in a field littered with bodies; the air still heavy with smoke. Turning his body sent waves of pain through him, but he needed to look around, he needed to know.

His breath caught at the sight of a red-headed boy to his left. It was Cleary Hawkins. They had walked side by side for most of the trip across the plains. He didn’t need to check if Cleary was breathing; his neck was almost completely severed from his body. Bile rose in his throat, and it took a minute to retch the fear out of his system. He continued scanning, looking particularly for his lieutenant. The man was only four years older, but Rodney thought of him like a father. His own pa had died when he was just a little boy. There was something about Hoss’ guidance and tough love that left Rodney fiercely devoted to him.

Tears started running down his face when he spotted the big man laying face down in the grass. Hoss’ eyes were closed and he looked surprisingly peaceful. Rodney cried out as he struggled to his feet, pain shooting through his entire body. It took him a moment to steady himself as lightheadedness took hold.

Behind him a gun cocked, and he closed his eyes waiting for the inevitable bullet to the back. Then a voice as thick as maple syrup spoke, “Listen up, boy. You’re a prisoner of the Confederate states now. Put your hands up before I stick you with this bayonet.”

*****

Hop Sing was the one who called him out to the porch. Horses were approaching, but the dust made it impossible for him to see faces. For a moment, he and Hop Sing just stood and waited for recognition to emerge. He made out the color and shape of the Army uniform. He nodded slowly and turned to Hop Sing. “They’ve ridden hard. They’ll be hungry and thirsty.”

Hop Sing didn’t move for a moment. He could sense something incredible was happening.

Ben looked at him sharply. “Go, Hop Sing!”

He felt calm as the riders slowed to a walk. He knew why they were here. It had haunted his dreams for so many nights; the reality of it seemed long in coming. He stood silently until they reached the yard. Recognizing General Peeler in their midst merely confirmed his fears.

Remembering himself, he stepped off the porch. “Welcome to the Ponderosa, General.”

The General nodded and slid off his horse. His men took his horse and theirs to the barn. “My wife and daughters have talked about your ranch all spring long. Augusta especially has spoken of her time here with great fondness.”

Ben forced a smile. “They were a pleasure to host; beautiful, accomplished, refined. You have a wonderful family.”

The General took off his gloves and looked around the yard. When he saw the barn door close behind his men, he turned back to Ben. “I assume you’ve deduced why I am here.”

Ben stood as still as a statue, waiting.

“General Chamberlain wired me with the details. I thought it best if I not hand it over to someone else.”

A buzzing started behind Ben’s ears, and it became hard to hear or understand the general.

“Might we go inside, Mr. Cartwright?”

It took a moment for it to register, but finally Ben nodded and led him into the house. The general walked past him in the living room upon seeing the brandy and poured two of them. Without a word, he pressed one into Ben’s hands. “The papers out here aren’t carrying much about Cold Harbor. It was a battle about ten days ago. Bloody, mismanaged mess. 5,000 Union troops downed in the first ten minutes. The papers spent all spring predicting that the war would be over by July, and then Cold Harbor happens, and destroys what little confidence we had.”

Ben stared at the amber liquid in his glass.

“The continued incompetence of our armies is excruciating. Grant will win this war, but he will do it in the most inelegant way possible.” General Peeler shook his head and sighed deeply. “Your son’s platoon didn’t go in that wave. They went in later. They had an objective, and your son was determined to meet it. Unfortunately, other platoons didn’t show the same commitment.”

Ben’s throat was dry, but it never occurred to him to bring the brandy to his lips. The voice of the general was a monotone buzz in the background.

“They took the hill before it became apparent that the flanking platoons had fallen back. Rebs surrounded them. Only four of the Virginia City boys made it out.”

Ben looked up “Only four? Are you telling me that only four Virginia City boys survived?”

“We don’t know. We never retook that hill. Some may be prisoners of war. A witness saw your son fall, but no one knows the extent of his injuries.”

“He might be alive?” Ben could barely bring sound to his words.

Peeler shook his head. “There is no way to know that. You should be aware, however, that being in a confederate prison camp is not that much different than dying on the battlefield. The stories that come out of Andersonville are horrifying. Thousands of men are kept behind a barbed wire fence with little food and water. There is no medical attention. Anyone trying to escape is summarily executed. A wounded man wouldn’t stand much of a chance there.”

Ben put down his brandy. “I’ve heard that people have been able to successfully ransom soldiers from that camp.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it. You can’t go yourself. You’d have to find an agent; someone you can trust. Then you have to find a way to get them out of Georgia. Most folks who try it lose their money and get no thanks for it. I don’t really know of many soldier ransoms that worked out. I’m sorry, but I don’t hold out much hope that your son would even be there. It’s a forced march of more than 200 miles from Cold Harbor.”

Ben stood. “Thank you, General. I appreciate your advice, and I am honored that you would take the time to come and speak with me personally.”

A few minutes later, Ben was alone in his home again. It was a large home, big enough to hold parties for half of Virginia City, but there wasn’t an inch of it that didn’t feel crowded with memories of his middle son. It had been lonely this last year without the big, cheerful man, and the idea that he was never coming home was more than he could bear. Emotion gripped him, but a man like Ben Cartwright would never wallow in his grief. Action always won over. He grabbed his hat and marched out the door.

*****

Ben waited for three days at the third way station for both sons to show up for their weekly meeting. Telling them about Hoss was more wrenching than he had imagined. Joe sat quietly at first until he heard the part where Hoss had fallen in battle. Like a shot he was on his feet and running toward Cochise. Ben’s impulse was to follow, but Joe was 20 years old now, and deserved a chance to grieve as he saw fit. It was days before Joe returned to the way station, and by the time he did, both his father and brother had left.

Adam was more stoic as was his nature. However, holding in emotion is exhausting, and long before Joe returned, Adam was showing the signs of emotional fatigue. Ben could see the changes settling in his face. Adam kept his father at arms length, which is why it was a surprise on the second evening when Adam approached him as Ben sat at the dying embers of an evening fire. “Pa, I’m not going to wait for Joe. I need to get to Denver. I should have left this morning.”

“Adam, you need some time, a couple of days at least, to get past the shock.”

“I don’t have time.”

Ben reached out to touch him. “Son, it will eat away at you if you don’t let it out.”

Adam pulled away. “Pa, I need to work. This hole in my gut isn’t going to do any healing until the war is over. We don’t have the luxury.”

Ben took a deep breath. “I’ve taken steps to find the men from Virginia City in Andersonville. I’ve written to the de Marginy’s in New Orleans. Joe’s family has quite a bit of influence. I think they can help me set this up.”

Adam sat down slowly. “I don’t understand, Pa. I thought you made it clear that Hoss wasn’t there.”

“I have to do something. Even if he isn’t, I have the power to save the others. Can you imagine what that would mean to the families they left behind?”

Adam snorted. “So Joe runs away, I bottle my emotions, and you have to save the world. I think Hoss was the only one of us who ever knew how to grieve like a normal person.”

“What if, Adam? What if?”

“You’ll lose your money, Pa. There’s no way you’re going to make it to Georgia. You’re going to have to hand that money over to someone, and you’ll never see it again.”

“Do you think I care about the money?” His voice was sharper than he intended.

“It’s a fool’s errand, Pa.” Adam stared at his father from across of what was left of the glowing embers.

“I have to take a chance, and I think Joe’s family will help me.”

“Are you going to tell him about this?”

Ben shook his head. “I guess I still want to protect him. I don’t want him to grow hope for something that will surely disappoint.”

“I agree.”

“Tell him I’m going to be gone on business. Tell him….I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now, Adam. I have to keep trying to do what can be done. It’s who I am, it’s what I do. I don’t know much about giving up.”

*****

Joe sat at the top of the bluff his knees drawn up to his chin. The desert cooled considerably at night, but he paid no attention to the shivering that racked his body. He stared at the full moon and prayed that he was a different man. He needed to be a man who didn’t suffer so terribly at the loss of a brother. He needed to be a man who could control his feelings, tucking them away when it got too hard to breathe. Being a man of emotion was worse than being a girl with pigtails.

Joe prayed that night that he be given the gift of apathy. He wanted to care about nothing and no one. He wanted to banish all memory of the giant, sweet man with the big heart. Then he could function and walk among men with his head high. Right now, he couldn’t even take a deep breath without catching a sob.

He wrapped his arms more tightly across his knees, and squeezed his eyes shut. The wind whipped through him, but he didn’t move. He was going to sit like this all night and survive it. From now on, he was going to reject all parts of himself that showed any signs of weakness.

*****

Adam left General Peeler’s office and leaned against the adobe wall outside. He had ridden hard the last three days. Working was the only antidote to his pain, and he was pushing himself more than he ever had.

He pushed away from the wall and started for his horse when a familiar voice sounded.

“Adam!”

A twinge of annoyance grew in him. There was no room in his life for playing games with young girls especially girls who left him discombobulated. It was only propriety that made him turn and greet her.

Augusta smiled softly. “I didn’t know you were in Denver.”

He tipped his hat. “Only for the day, really. I have to get back to the drive.”

“You look tired.”

He shrugged. “It isn’t easy work, Augusta.”

“And you’re hungry.” She patted a basket on the ground beside her. “I brought lunch for father, but his lieutenant says he ate in the mess.”

“I really don’t have time.”

“Nonsense! You look like the very devil. I have chicken and green beans and Mother’s chocolate cake. You probably haven’t had a decent meal in weeks.” She pointed to a tree in a nearby field. “We’ll set up over there.”

Without another word, she marched in that direction. Adam had no energy to fight with her so he merely followed. She was right about the food. He hadn’t had much beside hardtack in him since Pa gave him the news. Obediently, he sat across from her while she busied herself with the lunch. In minutes, he had a plate full of chicken and beans in front of him, and another one with a thick slice of cake.

He set to eating, and had to remind himself to breath between bites. She watched him with her hands set primly in her lap. Adam noticed that Augusta looked nothing like the party girl he remembered from the previous winter. She wore a plain white blouse and a dull navy blue skirt. Her curls were tied back in a simple knot, and her complexion had lost some of its peaches and cream glow. He could feel her eyes on him, and the idea that she could expect anything from him made him angry.

She worried her mouth for a few moments and then spoke, “I heard about your brother, Hoss. I’m so very sorry.”

Adam couldn’t meet her eyes.

“I had so looked forward to meeting him.”

The twinge of annoyance grew. “Augusta, how are the parties in Denver this season?”

She looked away. “There aren’t parties in Denver right now.”

“What a pity. However will you pass the time?”

Her face flushed pink down to her neck. “Well, you know us silly girls; we manage to find a way.”

“I bet you do.” He immediately regretted it. She had done nothing to deserve his vitriol.

She slowly began gathering up dishes. “There’s fever in town. Doc thinks it might be yellow fever. Parties are forbidden until the contagion passes.”

Shame enveloped him. “I didn’t know.”

She pushed stray curls off her face. “There’s no way you would. It’s contained mostly.”

“You shouldn’t be out. You need to go home and stay inside.”

A soldier approached and Augusta looked up at him. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She gathered up her skirts and stood up. “I wish we had met under better circumstances, Adam. Again, I am so sorry for your loss. Sergeant, could you please carry my baskets to the wagon?”

She nodded at Adam, and then strode toward a waiting buckboard.

Adam watched her for a moment. Then he eyed the sergeant. “Make sure she goes straight home. She should know better than to leave the house in the midst of an epidemic.”

Sergeant grunted. “She ain’t going home, Fella’. She’s going off to the hospital. She’s been there ever’ day.”

Adam got to his feet. “Why?”

“She been nursing soldiers since this thing started. The general is beside himself, but that girl has more will than a regiment. She hasn’t been home in two weeks. I brought this here food basket for her, not the general. She’s been working herself day and night. Got her mother worried half crazy. She don’t act like any refined lady I ever knowed.” The soldier threw the basket up on his shoulder and followed Augusta.

*****

St. Louis, Missouri was beautiful. Ben hadn’t seen it in twenty years, but there was a refinement about the paved roads and sculptured homes defined beauty for him. However, no amount of refinement could match the majesty of the Ponderosa.

Henry de Marginy wrote that there would be an agent waiting for him in St. Louis, but Ben didn’t seek out the man right away. Ben had no intention of allowing a stranger to transact such crucial business without him. He was going to make sure the agent had no choice but to take him along to Andersonville. Paper currency was going to do him no good for money in the South, and he imagined that folks were desperate enough to rob a man carrying large amounts of gold. He’d hatched a scheme on the ride to St. Louis, and once there, he immediately made his way to a wholesale gem dealer. An hour later, he had $50,000 worth of emeralds in his pocket. It would probably take him all night, but Ben planned to sew each one of those gems inside the lining of his leather vest. Next he went to the bank and drew out $10,000 in gold bars. This was about as heavy a load as he could carry, and he figured that the agent and whoever else was up to no good could keep themselves focused on those gold bars.

He checked into the Mississippi Hotel, and waited. It was only three days before the agent found him. His name was Remy Bordeaux and he looked to Ben like a dandy dressed in fancy duds, a handlebar mustache with tips as tight as a needle. His accent was deep, and Ben strained to understand his inflections. Ben had expected a fight but the agent seemed to expect Ben to accompany him.

Bordeaux pulled out a thick cigar at the end of dinner. “Ah was told by ol’ Henry that you’d want to come no matter what. Ah figure we get the train tomorra’. Should be in Georgia in a coupla’ weeks. Betta’ let me do the talkin’, Sir. Ya’ sound like a cowboy and that’s going to stand out where we’re going.”

Ben nodded. “Just get me to Andersonville. You do that, and help me get these men out of there safely, and there will be healthy compensation for you.”

Bordeaux grinned out of one end of his wide mouth. “Ah don’t need ya’ money, Sir. De Marginy paid me well. Ah’m doing this as a favor to him and because we’re desperate for money at Andersonville.”

Ben frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“We’re not all bad, Mistah Cartwright. Boys are starvin’ in that place ‘cause we don’t have the resources to keep them alive. Your money is gonna’ buy us a shipload of supplies for those boys. There’s no honor in lettin’ soldiers suffa’ like that, even if they are Yankees.”

“You get me there and Andersonville will have money for two shiploads of supplies.”

Bordeaux tipped his hat, a toothy smile growing on his face. “Ah think we’re gonna’ get along like a house afire, Mistah Cartwright.”

*****

Joe had been riding hard for the fifth way station for two full days. Adam hadn’t met him at the third way station, and when Joe hit the fourth way station to check on him, they hadn’t seen him later. He stopped short about half a mile before he got to the fifth. He could see it down in the valley ahead, but it looked a lot quieter than it should. The station should have had at least a dozen cowboys and a couple of hundred cattle, but he couldn’t spot a soul. He approached at an angle keeping an eye on all directions. There wasn’t much Indian activity in the area, but folks had been surprised before by an attack.

All of a sudden, a figure popped up from behind a large boulder and waved a gun at him. Joe squinted, and made out the features of one Lefty Farrell, a longtime Ponderosa hand. Joe dug his heels into Cochise and burst forward. Lefty stopped him about fifty yards from camp. “Hey Joe! I am sure am happy to see you.”

“What’s going on, Lefty? It looks like you all packed up and left. Where’s Adam?” Joe slid off Cochise.

Left shook his head. “Man, am I glad you’re here.”

“Enough already, Lefty. What gives?”

“I figured the riders I sent to way station four would have caught you.”

Joe shook his head angrily. “I was in a hurry. I rode through the gulch. Haven’t run into anyone in two days. Now you better tell me what’s going on before I decide I gotta’ beat outa’ ya’.”

Lefty backed up a step. “Alright, Joe. I hear ya’. Adam’s here but he’s sick.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He came in two days ago, feeling poorly. Said Denver’s got yellow fever. He went to sleep and the next morning he couldn’t get up. I cleared out the supply tent and moved him in, but I couldn’t risk all the fellers in camp so I sent the herd on to Denver with enough supplies so they could camp outside the city for a week or two until it was safe. I sent a couple of fellers to backtrack to see if they could find you, but it looks they didn’t.”

Joe pulled off his vest and headed for a basin of water. “How is he, Lefty?”

“He ain’t good, that’s for sure. I get water and food to the tent opening, but I ain’t gone in. I ain’t had this fever and don’t figure on dying from it either.”

“He’s been in there all by himself?” Joe shook the water out of his hair.

“Joe, I know you ain’t seeing clearly right now. I done what I could and I’m staying close, but I ain’t trying to get sick. I tole the boys going to Denver to bring back a doc. Should be here in a couple of days.”

Joe just shook his head and ran toward the tent. He crawled in, and was immediately hit by the heat and smell of sickness. “Adam, wake up. Adam, it’s me.”

His brother lay silently in a corner of the tent soaked in sweat. His breath was shallow and fast, but Joe was just happy to see it. He immediately set about getting the wet, hot clothes off his brother. Then he opened up the flap. “Lefty! Lefty! Get some fresh water. I want it cold from the creek. I need some towels and a fresh blanket. And get some broth!”

Joe felt the wind coming in gently from the west, and so he ran to that side of the tent and pulled the canvas down. Adam needed fresh air and attention. Joe took the basin of water and towels from Lefty and climbed back in beside his brother. “I’m here, Adam. I’m going to cool you off so you can rest better. Figure your body just really needed this rest so you got no choice now.” Joe started sponging cool water on Adam’s forehead. Then he took another towel, wet it, and laid across Adam’s bare chest. “It’s okay, Brother. You just needed to rest. You can do that all you want, you hear? You rest, and then when you’re feeling better, I’m going to need you wake up. You understand, Adam? I’m short a brother right now, and uh…I can’t spare you. You hear me? Losing Hoss…I can’t do it, Adam. I can’t do it. I can’t face Pa without you. I can’t face anything…”

Joe rubbed angrily at the tears falling down his cheeks. He had promised himself that he was going to be a different man, but he was being to realize that being a different man required a different heart than the one he had. He crawled out to pull in the broth that Lefty brought. He folded a towel under Adam’s head, and coaxed a spoon to his mouth. Most of it dribbled out. “That’s okay, Brother. I reckon Lefty’s broth ain’t the best, but I’m going to keep trying. Good or not, you need some food inside you. We’ll just take it slow, you and I. We have all day and tomorrow. Hell, Big Brother, we have as many days as it takes to get you on your feet again.”

*****

Joe slept little naps that invariably ended in nightmares. Closing his eyes gave way to images of him alone, calling for family and finding none. Sometimes graves loomed in the distance or Hoss appeared in the distance but couldn’t hear him, and as he ran toward him, his big brother would disappear again. Once Adam joined Hoss on the horizon and they both started walking away. Joe woke up screaming after that one. Adam still lay unconscious, fevered and breathing hard. Joe kept Lefty busy getting cold water and keeping food nearby. Any anger Joe harbored toward Lefty dissipated as the hand kept a constant vigil on the hill beside the tent; always ready to get whatever Joe needed. Joe hadn’t left the tent in the two days since he’d crawled in. When he wasn’t sleeping or cooling Adam, he was talking to him. He kept up a steady chatter of whatever was on his mind, hoping that Adam would sense his presence.

The morning of the third day, Lefty came close to the tarp. “Joe, wake up. Riders are coming from Denver direction. Maybe it’s a doc for Adam.”

Joe rubbed his red eyes furiously and stumbled out of the tent. He was dressed in nothing but his britches as the tent was too steamy for clothing. He narrowed his eyes at the cloud coming toward them. As they neared, he picked out three riders, noting that one of them sat funny on the horse. It took a couple of minutes to realize that the third rider was a female. Startled, he turned to find a pair of pants, and found Lefty standing there with a clean pair. He pulled them on just in time as the horses trotted into camp.

One was a hand, one was army, and one was Miss Augusta Peeler. She slid off her horse and rushed at him. He pushed her away. “Aggie, this is not the time. You shouldn’t be here.”

“I’m here to help.”

“Adam’s sick. He needs a doctor.”

The soldier stepped forward. “I’m Lieutenant Banks. There is no doctor who could come. There are too many sick men at the fort. Miss Peeler insisted on coming. I’m her escort.”

Joe stepped around Augusta. “Lieutenant, he’s dying. He needs a doctor. He needs medicine.”

“Miss Peeler has spent the last month caring for the sick of this epidemic. She brought whatever is needed.”

Joe turned to Augusta, but she was gone. He ran toward the tent. “Aggie, you shouldn’t go in there.”

She poked her head out of the tarp. “I need the black bag, Lieutenant.” She turned to look at Joe. “I’ve been with yellow fever for the last month. If I haven’t gotten it yet, I’m not going to. Now, it looks to me like you could use a decent meal, Joe.”

“Aggie!”

“I know what I’m doing!” Her merry blue eyes snapped a ferocity he never imagined in her. “Already, I can see he’s going to need more wet towels. Cowboy! You there!” She gestured at Lefty. “I got a dried broth in my saddlebags. It’s a special mixture. Heat that up for me.” Then she disappeared into the tent again. The four men outside stood silently for a moment. Lefty scratched at his ear. “I ain’t ever met a she-devil who didn’t look like she spent her formative years in a mining camp. That little girl looks like a duchess and talks like a trail boss.”

The lieutenant gave him a look. “She’s a Peeler. Sounds more like her father every single day. Life rides real smooth around her just as long as you do what she says. That’s my advice to you boys. Figure she’s going to be looking for that broth in about ten minutes. You want to be the one to tell her it’s not ready?”

Lefty blinked and jumped to her saddlebags, rooting until he found the broth. He headed toward the fire at a near run. Joe dropped to his haunches, taking a moment to process the last ten minutes. It wasn’t what he expected, but he was going to take whatever help he could get.

*****

Ben stared silently out the window of the Pullman car. He and Bordeaux had been traveling for five days. They were now moving through the beautiful green hills of Eastern Tennessee. August in the South was an experience for which he was not prepared. He sat with his heavy vest carefully folded in his lap. He kept the window open, but the only relief was a window as hot as a blacksmith’s bellows. The car was deadly silent most of the time. Most of the passengers were women, but they looked worn. The war wore heavy everywhere he looked. Two of the stations they passed through were burned clear to the ground. The few times he sighted Confederate soldiers, they were wounded men, thin and pale; sent home because of their infirmities. The papers were full of fire about General William Tecumseh Sherman and his men who had begun a bloody march straight into the heart of Dixie. Different than other armies, Sherman was burning civilian targets as well as military. He was being lauded as the devil incarnate. Ben himself couldn’t condone Sherman’s methods, but he was beginning to think that only something truly drastic would end this war.

Bordeaux spoke little, and Ben grew curious about the man. He wore a stunning black hat with a silver band, and he seldom seemed to sleep. He forever sat against the back of the seat with his eyes half closed, only changing expression if a lady passed. Then he tipped his hat, and murmured a greeting as sweet and slow as molasses. He seemed to have the patience of Job, never exhibiting one sign of restlessness. On the fifth night, Ben waited until all the ladies had gone to their sleeping berths. Then he leaned over to Bordeaux. “I’m curious. What brings you into this business?”

The slow dark eyes turned toward him. “Ah told you, Mistah Cartwright. Henry de Marginy is a friend.”

“And that’s it.”

Bordeaux let out a sigh. “The war has shut down my business enterprise and ah was at loose ends. Ah had the time.”

“What business were you in?”

“Import.”

“The Union blockade. You weren’t able to bring in cargo.”

“Exactly, Mistah Cartwright.”

“What did you import?”

Bordeaux stared him straight in the eye. “Slaves, Mistah Cartwright.”

A shudder of revulsion ran through Ben.

Bordeaux saw this and smiled. “Ah’m the very devil himself, aren’t ah?”

Ben’s eyes flashed. “Your trade is gone forever, Mr. Bordeaux.”

He shrugged. “Ah imagine it is. Ah don’t feel much good or bad about it, though.”

“They’re human beings, just like you or me.”

Bordeaux nodded. “Did it too long not to know that. It was a business, one my family had been in for four generations. History tells us there are always people who get used by those in power. Ah wasn’t doing anything that was illegal.”

“So you justify it?”

“No, ah’m mostly glad it’s ovah. Ah man can only tell himself so many lies. Ah’m a poor man now, but ah’m less heavy.”

“You felt guilty?”

“Ah guess ah didn’t know it ‘til it was gone.” Bordeaux rolled his tongue into his cheek. “Gonna’ jump out the window now? Figure a fine, upstanding man like you wouldn’t want to sit next to the likes of me.”

“Just get me to Andersonville, Mr. Bordeaux. I’m not the one you’ll have to answer to when it’s all said and done.” Ben turned away from him, and settled against the windowpane. He closed his eyes to the gentle rolling of the moving train.

*****

Her hair was plastered to her scalp, and her blouse had long since absorbed the yellow dust of the desert. If it hadn’t been so entirely impossible, she would have torn off her heavy skirts, and escaped the lightheadedness she constantly felt in the hot tent. Joe and Lefty had pulled off more tarp, but relief relied on wind, and the air was as still as a cemetery.

Augusta forced herself to ignore everything but the man in front of her. Adam’s fever had lasted five days, and it worried her a great deal. Some of the yellow fever survivors had woken up in Denver different people than they had been before they’d fallen sick. There was memory loss in some and others remained in a half conscious state, eyes open, blinking but unresponsive. The doctors called this brain damage, saying it happened when fever cooked the brain. Augusta didn’t understand the physiology of it, but the thought of it chilled her.

Joe sat at the edge of the tent looking in anxiously over her shoulder until she told him sharply that he was blocking what little cool air was available. After that, he sat about ten yards away, watching silently. Sometimes she traded spaces with him, knowing that he needed the proximity to his brother. Then she would wage a losing battle with the dust and grime that remained on her no matter how many times she washed.

After the first day, Joe seemed to understand Augusta’s competence, and he would stay with his brother long enough to calm his fears and then vacate the tent again so she could return. They spoke barely a word between them. Words were dangerous when emotion filled the body so.

Augusta kept Adam cool, and fed him the strong, medicinal broth she brought with her. She rolled him from side to side every once in a while so that his muscles didn’t cramp as she’d been taught in the hospital. And she talked to him. Like Joe, she understood how important it was to keep a presence known around the sick man. Unlike Joe, she believed somewhere deep inside that Adam might get lost in himself if she didn’t keep a voice showing him the way out; she worried that he would end up like people who woke up but no longer felt the world around them. She generally whispered when she knew Joe was close, but let her voice grow when Joe was sleeping. She tried to sing once but remembered that Adam was a gifted singer and worried that her own tortured melodies would send him off away from her, instead of moving toward her. It was another thing that Joan was good at that she wasn’t: Joan with the straight, golden hair and the iconic beauty. Joan was all grace and elegance and talent while Augusta saw herself as merely quirky and stubborn — cute and sweet, but never a beauty.

It didn’t bother her as much anymore. She had found a niche outside her ornately lacquered world. She found that her fierce energy and spirit were well-used in the current crisis. She had the strength to withstand twice the stress other women could. It was exhilarating; every day a discovery of ability she never knew she had. Her family was too burdened currently to effectively contain her, but when this was over, she suspected that they would pull her back in so forcefully that it would be a struggle to catch a breath. Hurried proposals from eligible suitors and steady pressure to accept one were sure to follow.

Just as she knew her family would seek to control her, she knew that she was going to die a spinster. There wasn’t a man in Denver for her. There wasn’t a man in the whole world other than the one in the tent next to her, teetering on the precipice between life and death. She would nurse him with all the love in her heart. She would make him well, and then she would see him look at her with those intelligent eyes and know that he was only seeing a silly girl, a child, someone not worth his considerable charm and affections. She knew that when that disappointment occurred, her work was done, and she could return to Denver and let her panicked family take over her life again.

Adam stirred again, and she crawled up to his face. He was having moments like this now when it appeared he was struggling for consciousness. It was a good sign, and Augusta was determined to help him through the haze. “Adam. Adam, do you hear me? It’s Augusta here. Can you believe it? How did a simple girl like me end up out here doling out broth to ailing cowboys? You must be hard up if I’m the best they could send.” She reached for a wet towel and wrung it out in the basin. “Do me a favor, Adam. Open your eyes for me and give me one of those famous smirks. You know the one; the smirk you use to show that you’re miles ahead of anyone else in the room. I’ve seen it. It’s devastating. My sister, Joan, has her own version, but hers is a bit haughty for me. I much prefer yours.” She patted the towel around his face soaking it into his raven hair. “Come on, Adam. You can’t let silly little Augusta have the last word here. I would never let you live it down if you did. You hear me, Adam?”

*****

On the morning of the sixth day, Joe awoke with the sun. His muscles were stiff, and he stretched them long and hard. His mind immediately went to the tent, and he got to his feet. He crouched down at the open west face, and looked in. Adam’s breathing had slowed which was remarkable in and of itself, but Joe could focus on nothing but the young woman curled up on his brother’s chest. Joe had to bite his lip to keep from guffawing a reaction. It was entirely improper for a lady to be found in such a position, and while Joe was willing to give some room for circumstances, there was something about it that left him speechless.

“Joe, why is there a woman on top of me?”

Joe whipped his head around and found Adam looking up at him solemnly. “Adam!”

Augusta stirred, but her exhaustion was just too deep. She squeezed her patient tightly around his middle, buried her face into his chest further, and then her breathing settled into sleep again.

“What is going on?” Adam wore a look of immense confusion.

Joe was too excited to respond to the scandal unfolding in front of him. “I knew you could do it, Adam. You old goat! Had me scared, you did. What a thing to do! I should really let you have it for putting me through all this.”

“Who’s the woman on top of me?” Adam hissed.

“Augusta Peeler, of course. Who else would it be?” Joe smiled brightly, waking up muscles he hadn’t used in almost two years.

“God in heaven! What did you do? Is she drunk? Did you hit her over the head, Joe?” Adam was too weak to do much other than complain, but his distress was beginning to register for Joe.

“She came to nurse you. Been up for two days and nights. She’s just exhausted, is all.”

“Get her off me!”

This registered for all of them including the twenty year-old woman asleep on his chest. Startled, she sat up, her eyes blinking wildly. Then she looked down at Adam and saw him looking back at her. “Oh my God!” She realized how he found her, and her hands flew to her hair and clothing, patting and fixing hair and buttons.

“I found you sleeping right on top of him. Must have been real tired, Augusta.” Joe announced; a smile plastered on his face. Apparently, he thought that the discomfort of the situation needed a bit of heightening.

Augusta’s sweet young face reddened deeply. For a moment, she couldn’t look at either of them. Then she raised her head to Adam. Avoiding his eyes, she reached over and felt his forehead. “Fever’s broke, Adam. Are you feeling okay?”

He nodded simply.

She kneaded the glands under his chin softly. “I think you’re going to be fine. You seem alert. We’ll get some solid food in you today, but no moving from this tent for at least another day…” Her voice caught and tears sprung to her eyes. Unable to hold herself any longer, she got to her feet and brushed past Joe, trotting up and behind the hill.

Adam turned to look at Joe, eyes narrowed. “You’re an idiot!”

Joe nodded, still grinning madly. “I am, Big Brother. I am.”

“Go apologize to her!”

“You’re the one who ordered her off you. I would have let her stay myself.” Joe refused to be distracted from the joy he was feeling.

“We hurt her feelings, Joe!” Adam’s distress seemed only to grow with each passing minute.

“I know, I know. I’ll go talk to her. I’m just so glad to see you awake, Brother. Don’t know why. Guess it’s because you really let the work pile up. I’m just so…”

“Go!” Adam thundered with as much force as he had at his disposal.

Joe scrambled to his feet and went.

*****

Later, Adam woke again. The sun outside was hugging the horizon. For the first time in a week, he felt like a human being again. The fever was gone and the cramping. He rolled, and leaned up on an elbow. Dizziness hit him, but he hung on and it passed. He pulled back the tarp and looked out. Lefty was starting dinner; he could smell the spices Lefty threw into the beans.

Joe and the lieutenant were on the hill looking off into the distance. Adam heard rustling and turned to see Augusta sitting next to the tent, brushing dust off her skirts. He smiled at her efforts. “Augusta.”

She jumped at the sound of his voice.

He chuckled. “Sorry to surprise you, but you have to admit you deserve it. You gave me quite a surprise this morning.”

“Adam, have a heart!”

“You were tired, and admittedly, I make a pretty good pillow.”

She shook her head. “It was silly. I’m so silly.”

Adam reached out an arm and grabbed her hand. “Do I do that to you? Do I make you feel like you’re just a girl?”

She bit her lower lip.

“I don’t mean to, Augusta. You’re a damn fine woman.”

She tried to pull away, but he held tight.

“Augusta, I don’t know another woman who would have come all the way out here to take care of me. It was very brave of you.”

Her cheeks colored. “I…uh, the doctor couldn’t leave. I had no…other choice.”

He laughed. “Well, that doesn’t do much for my ego.”

“I mean…I…uh, I don’t know, Adam. It made sense. You needed help, and I have the…strength to do this.”

Adam tried to sit up, but the exertion was too much, and with a groan he slumped back onto the ground.

“Oh for goodness sakes, Adam. A day ago, you weren’t even conscious, and now you want to go dancing about the prairie.” She reached over for a fresh blanket to put over him.

He suffered her attentions with good humor. “Augusta, I need to apologize to you.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m the one who startled you this morning.”

“No,” he caught her arm again. “I need to apologize for my appalling behavior back in Denver.”

“You were tired, probably already sick. I asked you about Hoss. I shouldn’t have pressed you.”

“Well, it’s nice of you to make excuses for me, but the truth was you’re weren’t being anything but kind. I was boorish.”

“It’s in the past, Adam.”

He regarded her carefully. Despite the thin layer of dust that existed on every inch of her skin, she looked as beautiful as he’d ever seen her. Her eyes stood out against the gray of the landscape, the only bright color to survive the harsh conditions. She looked proud, fierce even. He realized that she wasn’t a girl to him anymore. She was a bright woman who could discuss natural history with him, and match his every remark with an equal witticism. She was brave, as brave as any man he knew. And the breathlessness he felt upon every encounter with her suddenly fell into place, and he knew what was happening. It both excited and frightened him and he looked away.

“Are you okay?” She leaned into the tent to look him over.

He had to physically resist the urge to pull her in, and tell her all of his new discoveries. She looked into his face for a moment, and backed out. He was not looking at her in the way she expected. “Ah, Adam, I’m going to go check on those beans.” She trotted off toward Lefty.

Adam wasn’t the only one making discoveries. Joe had finished his conversation with Lieutenant Banks, and started back toward camp. He saw Adam talking with Augusta. And when he got closer, he saw his brother reach for her with his hand, but it wasn’t this that caught his attention. It was look in Adam’s eyes. He’d watched his brother his whole life. It was natural. Adam was good at absolutely everything, and Joe learned a great deal from him. But the thing that Adam didn’t teach to Joe was about feelings. His older brother kept all of that close to his vest. Guessing his brother’s moods had long been a challenge. Today was a different story. Closed, reticent Adam was sharing everything with his body language. His eyes almost sparkled with affection for the girl.

Joe tried to put the image out of his mind, but it came to him again and again as he stared into the evening fire. He didn’t feel a sense of betrayal; he had no doubt that these feelings were new. He also knew that men rarely chose whom they loved. When it happened, it often knocked them half-blind. Joe figured Adam was just the same as any other man.

Seeing Adam with Augusta left Joe feeling strangely alone rather than betrayed. If Adam could find happiness with Augusta, Joe had no intention of standing in the way. It somehow brought him to thinking of Hoss again. He missed having that big man watching after him, caring for him; it was impossible to feel lonely with big brother Hoss around.

Joe threw the rest of his coffee into the fire. He needed sleep because first thing in the morning, he was going back to running the drive. Adam could stay and recover. They needed space away from him so they could decide what it was that was happening between them.

*****

Ben could smell the camp from a mile away. The stench grew with proximity, and as they neared, he noticed that guards had taken to wearing handkerchiefs around their faces. It was clear that the camp was overcrowded; faces pressed along the wire fence. In Ben, a thousand emotions churned from revulsion to anger to a twinge of hope he’d been unable to suppress. Beside him, Bordeaux was expressionless. The man had taken him across the entire South, and while Ben knew he should be only reviled by the man, there was an odd sense of honor about him. He suspected that Bordeaux truly sensed the evil of his past actions. He got the sense that Bordeaux was trying on this role as a means of testing the possibility of redeeming his soul. Ben found that he worried less that this man was after his money. It was more likely Bordeaux was seeking evidence of his own soul.

At the front gate, Ben let Bordeaux do all the talking. There was a guard house inside, and the two men were escorted in. The guard explained that it would be impossible for them to wander among the prisoners as there were roving gangs and the real possibility that hungry, desperate prisoners would mob them. Ben gave the guard a list and the man disappeared. Bordeaux gestured for Ben to sit at the simple pine table, but Ben was unable to relax. The guard house was hot, and the only window open on the gate. Ben paced nervously for what seemed like hours. Finally the door opened, and the guard ushered in a thin boy. Ben stopped and stared at him. For a moment, there was no recognition; then he advanced on him. “Rodney? Is that you, Rodney?”

The boy scrunched up his face and began to bawl. It was an unlikely response, but Ben understood it entirely. He enveloped the boy in his arms and let him sob into his shirt. It was several minutes before the boy was able to compose himself, but Ben was in no hurry. He knew Rodney wouldn’t have been the first Virginia City they found if his boy was alive, and the truth of it was going to tear into his heart.

Rodney pulled away and scrubbed at his face. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. I’m real sorry.”

Ben grasped him by the shoulders. “Rodney, tell me how many of our boys are still with you.”

“There’s twelve of us, Sir. Only twelve.”

Ben rubbed at his forehead, struggling to maintain his composure. He knew the answer to the next question, but it needed asking. “What about Hoss, Rodney? What happened to Hoss?”

The boy couldn’t look at him for a moment, and it was clear he was fighting his emotions. “He fell at Cold Harbor, Sir. I tried to get to him, but he fell. I’m so sorry. I should’ve…he was my lieutenant…I should’ve…I wanted to get to him, but I was hit…just a graze, but I couldn’t reach him.”

Ben pulled the boy in again as he sobbed as much for his own comfort as for Rodney’s. Still holding the emaciated boy, he looked up at Bordeaux, “How much for my boys?”

“The commander wants $500 a head. I’m sure we could bargain down…“

Ben shook his head furiously. “No, pay him what he wants. I have the money.” He took off his vest and began ripping at the lining. Green emeralds spilled onto the table. For a moment, all the men did nothing but stare. Ben scooped up 6 of the gems and gave them to Bordeaux. “Each is appraised at $1500. Give him all six. It’s more than owed, but he’ll feel satisfied of their worth. I just want these boys out of here.”

Bordeaux took them, and followed the guard out the door. Ben turned to the boy. “I need you to gather all of them up right away. I want all of us out of here within an hour. Understood?”

The boy nodded and bolted out the door.

Ben sagged against the table. His son was truly gone, and the truth of it sucked the energy out of his body. He squeezed his eyes against the tears, and prayed for the strength to get these boys home.

*****

She found him seated at the window, and the surprise of it almost caused the tray in her arms to go crashing to the ground. “Lieutenant?”

The large face turned toward her, blue eyes puzzled. “Ma’am, I still don’t quite get the order of it all. I need you to go through it with me one more time.”

She put the tray on a table and rushed over to him. “You shouldn’t be up. You woke just a couple of days ago.”

He let her lead him back to the bed. “Please tell me again what happened.”

She propped the pillows behind his back. “We don’t have anything fancy, but I thought you could try some eggs today.”

“Ma’am…“

“I know, I know. You start eating and I’ll talk. It’s no wonder you don’t have it all. You’ve fallen asleep every time I’ve tried to explain this to you.”

He relaxed and focused his stiff muscles on manipulating his eggs. She sat on the edge of the bed. “As I told you earlier, this wasn’t planned. Cold Harbor was a good twenty miles away from here. It’s just that after the battle, there’s the problem of dead bodies, and my men, Russell and his son, Donald, got pressed into service along with other slaves.”

He peered at her between bites. “I thought you said your men weren’t slaves.”

Georgia Mae nodded. “Most folks around here don’t make a distinction. They see only color. We need to avoid trouble so Russell and Donald went with them. Anyhow, it was Donald who spotted you among the dead. You were still breathing, but no one noticed. Donald remembered you, of course. When it was dark, he and his father got you in a cart and brought you here.”

“It was a risky thing to do.”

“Yes, it was. I didn’t know what to do.” Then she smiled. “The three of us sat at my kitchen table for hours trying to reason through keeping a Union soldier behind enemy lines. In the end, none of us had the courage to do anything but what was right.”

Hoss grunted. “I owe you a debt, Ma’am, and your men. They could have been shot if they’d been caught.”

“As it was, they had to return to Cold Harbor and take a beating for disappearing like they did.”

Hoss grimaced and pushed the plate away. “I ain’t happy to hear that.”

“They’re good men. And I asked Russell what made them take such a risk, and he said that he liked you. He figured that finding a white man who would look him in the eye was a true treasure, and he wasn’t about to waste it.”

Hoss smiled. “No matter what the state of the world, it seems like good folks ain’t hard to find.”

She put the plate back on the tray. “We’re not out of the woods yet, Lieutenant. We still have to keep you out of sight. I’ll have to ask you to stay away from the windows.”

Hoss shifted as if testing his strength. “I shouldn’t stay here, Ma’am. I don’t want anything to happen to any of you all. If you can get my clothes, I can take to the woods.”

“No, you don’t.” She put the tray down and pointed a long finger at him. “Woods are crawling with soldiers right now. They’ll catch you and figure someone’s been harboring you. You do us no favors by leaving.”

“But Ma’am…“

“You stay in that bed! You hear? If we need an escape plan, we’ll do one together. My men know these woods better than anyone. You’re not going it alone.”

Hoss settled back into the bed. What color had been in his cheeks had drained through this last exertion. “Yes Ma’am.”

She looked at him for a moment, hands on her hips. “Seems like we should know each a bit better by now. My name’s Georgia Mae.”

He nodded. “You’d do me a service by calling me Hoss.”

“Hoss?”

“It means big, friendly fella’. Folks been calling me Hoss since before I can remember.”

“Well now, Hoss, you rest, and maybe later, I’ll bring up a checker board. What do you say?”

Hoss blushed and nodded as the brown-eyed woman as she closed the door. Then he remembered something crucial. “Ma’am…I mean Georgia Mae.”

She popped her head back in the door. “Yes Hoss.”

“My boys, my men, I need to know…Could there be others still alive at Cold Harbor? Maybe, there are others who didn’t die. I had three squads of men under my command. I need to know…“

“Hoss, there are no more bodies that were breathing.”

“Russell and Donald are still there, right? Maybe, there are more.”

Georgia Mae chose her words carefully. “I think you might be confused about time. This didn’t happen yesterday, and it didn’t happen last week. Hoss, you’ve been unconscious for almost three months. What happened to bodies at Cold Harbor has long been decided.”

“Three months?”

She nodded. “The leaves on the trees are starting to turn. We’re due our first frost within the month.”

She could see he had a lot to process, and she closed the door softly on his stunned face.

*****

They watched the cattle disappear over the horizon, the dust leaving a cloud in its wake. The sun was setting on the cattle is if it was following them out of the valley. She smiled, “Did you know it would be that beautiful?”

Adam looked down at her. “I had a feeling.”

Augusta looked over the horizon again. “This country…it has a wild beauty.”

“Not many women appreciate it.”

“Well, if you had to shake dust out of your skirts five times a day, you might understand.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Can’t say I’ve ever had to do that.”

She laughed. “Ready to go down?”

He shook his head. “Lefty hasn’t even started the beans. We go down now, and we have at least an hour of conversation about bovine diseases ahead of us. Lefty really fancies himself an expert. Let’s take a walk.”

He surprised her by taking her arm securely. He steered her down the other side of the hill. “You were kind enough to offer condolences regarding Hoss when we met in Denver. I would like to tell you about him if I may.”

“It would be an honor to hear about him.” It was the most she could offer him as she fought the surge of emotion welling within her.

“Hoss is the middle son as you know. My mother died at birth, and my pa and I headed west alone. My pa was pretty broken after her death, and he really didn’t know what to do with himself. He was a good father, but he was sad. I was a quiet child. Moving like we did, I had to learn responsibility early. When he worked, I knew I had to behave on my own. I got used to sitting in corners while he worked or playing quietly in rented rooms. It was important that I not be a burden.” Adam stopped for a moment. “Pa has since talked to me about that time. He wants to apologize for not giving me a better childhood, but I won’t let him. He cared for me well. On those days, I was everything to him, and I always knew that. It was enough to give me what I needed.”

Augusta squeezed the arm hooked in hers.

“He met his second wife, Inger, when I was about four years old. She is my one true memory of a mother. Beautiful and sweet: she had so much love for everyone around her. She took me in as her own immediately. I thought she was everything. When I was 6, she gave birth to my brother, Eric, otherwise known as Hoss.” He smiled.

“He was as big a baby as anyone had ever seen: blonde, blue-eyed and rosy. I couldn’t believe he belonged to us. Watching over him might have been a chore for some folks, but I wanted to be around him all the time. It was a good time, but it didn’t last; Inger was killed when I was just 7 years old. I think that was those were the worst days I can remember. It wasn’t just about losing her; it was about losing this light she’d brought into our lives. She had such a spirit. And the only consolation for me was that she had passed on that spirit of love and kindness to her son. I kept Hoss with me all the time, and I protected that spirit within him. I didn’t want him to think the world was a hard place, but I didn’t have to worry. Hoss had a natural ability to see the best in all things. It was just a part of who he was.”

Adam stopped for a moment, and looked off at the horizon, and she could feel the struggle in him. She wanted words that brought comfort, but couldn’t find them. In the end, all she had was, “He was special, Adam.”

Adam nodded. “He got so big nobody thought he was cute anymore. People were frightened of him or they took advantage of his kind nature. Yet none of that changed him. Hoss took his time to learn, and people treated him like a dummy, but that didn’t change him. People compared him to me or Joe, and said he was different, but he never lost his goodness. He was always there for people in need; those the rest of us had given up on. He changed lives.” His face wrinkled for a moment. “I never thought of this before, but I’m just realizing how much he taught me. He thought I knew everything. Used to tell people how smart I was. Yet I think I learned more about kindness, redemption, and goodness from him than anything I ever taught him.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder, tears falling down her face. It was all she had to offer, and while she didn’t know if it was anything, he didn’t pull away. Instead, he put his arm around her waist and pulled her in, and they stood like that until the sun disappeared behind the Colorado hills.

*****

Bordeaux left them at the border to Missouri. Ben had waited this whole time, watching the man, debating this course of action, but in the end, he took him aside. “Thank you for bringing these boys this far safely. You’ve made a difference for a lot of families.”

Bordeaux tipped his elegant black hat.

“I can’t stop thinking of the Union soldiers still at Andersonville. The conditions…I pray that they will last through the war.”

“Ah will do what ah can, Mistah Cartwright. It’s a worthy cause.”

Ben reached into his hip pocket and brought out a handful of emeralds. “I can’t believe that a slave trader would know anything about honor, and so I find you to be a perplexing man. I don’t know if you are trying to change; I don’t know if you did this to find redemption or to just stay a step ahead of the devil, but I feel like I can trust you.”

Bordeaux waited patiently.

Ben reached for his hand and poured the gems into it. “On your honor, will you use these to continue bringing in supplies to the soldiers at Andersonville?”

Bordeaux nodded solemnly. “On my honor, each of these emeralds will be used to buy food and medicines for those boys.”

Ben stepped back. “Thank you, Mr. Bordeaux.”

Bordeaux gave an exaggerated bow, sweeping his hat before him grandly. He reminded Ben of the swashbucklers, the old salts used to tell of when he was a boy. “Godspeed to you, Mistah Cartwright.” Then he doffed his hat, and climbed onto the train. Ben waited until the train left the station, and then he turned to face the twelve boys he was bringing home with him.

*****

He picked up the red checker jumped one, then two, then three.

“Why Hoss, I never knew you to be so ruthless.”

He smiled. “You let me win that one, Miss Georgia Mae. I seen you holding back.”

“I’m sure you’re mistaken. I would never surrender to a Yankee without a fight.”

He laughed and put the board away. “I can say with all truthfulness that playing with you is a sight more fun than with my brothers. You ain’t seen ruthless until you’ve gone against Little Joe.”

“It’s going to be Christmas in a few weeks. You must miss them something horrible.”

He nodded solemnly. “It’ll be the second Christmas away from home. The worst part is that they think I’m dead or captured. It won’t be a joyous holiday at the Ponderosa this year.”

“I pray this war would end before it drowns us all in sadness.”

“That sounds just like a poem, Miss Georgia. You have such a beautiful way of saying things.”

She blushed. “And you have made this terrible time so much more bearable for me.”

For a moment, neither of them spoke. Then a small, dark head peeked in the room. Hoss smiled wide. “I believe that there’s some risk of attack from members of the Comanche Nation, Ma’am. I think I have just spotted one of their best braves.”

At that, the little boy plowed through the door, hooting and hollering and jumped into Hoss’ arms. Hoss rolled with the boy, tickling him until he cried, “Uncle!”

Georgia Mae had to jump out of the way in order to avoid ending up in the middle of their bout. “Enough, boys, enough! Mason, you come here. Hoss can’t take that much horse play. Come on now!”

Mason dutifully slid off the bed while Hoss breathed hard against the pillow. “Ain’t nothing, Ma’am. A feller needs a good ambush every once in awhile. It gets the blood pumping.”

Mason broke away from his mother, and climbed up next to Hoss. “I didn’t hurt you none, did I, Mr. Hoss?”

Hoss patted his head. “Not a bit, Boy. Ain’t nothing more exhileratin’ than a Comanche raid is what I always say.”

The boy laughed and snuggled up to him. “I wish that you don’t ever get better.”

“Mason, what a thing to say!”

Mason held onto Hoss stubbornly. “If he don’t get better, he won’t ever leave, Mama. I want to keep him forever.”

Hoss colored. “I ain’t going anywhere too soon, boy. And don’t you worry ‘cause whatever happens, you and I are going to stay good friends. You hear me?”

Mason nodded up at him. Georgia Mae shooed him off the bed. “Go get washed up for dinner.”

The boy disappeared out the door. She smiled softly at Hoss. “Don’t mind him, please. He’s been lonely since his father left.”

“He was only two or three when he last saw him?”

“Yeah, I guess he needs a man around. It’s funny. John didn’t spend that much time with him, but all Mason talks about is wanting his father.”

“I think it’s a natural thing with boys, Georgia. I think we naturally look for a man so we can know how to be, how to act.”

“Now, he only has me.”

“You’ll find love again. A pretty woman like you with those big, brown eyes isn’t going to have any trouble at all.”

She looked down at her hands. “Sometimes you find love, and you think it’ll all be okay, but you wake up one day and realize you were just a young girl who fell in love with good looks and charm. That alone isn’t enough to sustain a good marriage. A man with integrity, a man with a good soul is worth a thousand sweet-talking gentlemen. I wish I had been smart enough to know that.”

“You can’t look back, Georgia. There’s nothing for you to do about any of that. You got a future to plan for you and your son.”

She looked at him steady. “I know, Hoss. I’ve been thinking about that nonstop. I do think I know what I want.”

Hoss swallowed. “When you’re ready to talk about it, Georgia, you let me know. I’ll be waiting.”

*****

It was the day before he went back to the cattle drive that he smoothly took her in his arms and kissed her. She hadn’t expected it nor had she anticipated that she would kiss him back with such fervor. He pulled her behind a hill, and they kissed until her lips were numb. He held onto her so tightly she could feel his heart beat, and she slid a hand up to cover it with her palm.

He began whispering into her neck. “I don’t know what to do about this, Augusta. Everything tells me that this will hurt both of us. I am not an easy man to know. I…struggle with getting close to anyone. Ask any woman who has ever tried.”

She stayed still against his chest.

“You have such spirit. It hit me the first time we met. I’m drawn to you, Augusta. I know that I need a woman who’s my equal. And there you are, this girl who surprises me at every turn. You’re brave, beautiful, smart, and good. It’s a lethal combination for me. You remind me of Hoss’ mother. I’ve told myself a thousand times that this is nothing but folly, but I…can’t resist you. You take my breath away, Augusta.”

She started to pull away, but he held her in.

“We also have to think about Joe. I can’t hurt him. It’s been bad enough with losing Hoss. Those two were inseparable. I can’t betray him.”

She broke out of his grip and stared at him for a moment, breathing hard. Then she walked into him again until her hand was planted firmly on his heart. “Listen to me, Adam. I love you. I truly do, but it’s not enough. I can’t be part of this war you’re having with yourself. If you come for me, it’ll be when that war is won: not before. I’m not the perfect woman for you, and you’ll find many reasons to know that. Trust me. I’m too young. I could get hurt. It’ll hurt Joe. There are so many reasons to make this impossible. But Adam, I believe I am the right woman for you. And I am telling you now that when you know that, you come for me because I’ll be waiting for you.”

She stepped away from him. “And if you don’t come for me, you need to know that I’ll be okay. I am full of life just like Inger Borgstrom. I won’t shrivel up and fade away. I’m too strong for that. A woman who’s strong enough for you, Adam, has to be strong enough to survive without you. I am that woman.”

She backed away. “I’ll be waiting, Adam Cartwright.” Then she picked up her skirts and ran back to camp.

*****

Ben sat at the edge of the bluff under the pretense of guard duty. They’d been on the trail back to Virginia City for a couple of weeks, and were making good time. He figured he’d have them all home a week before Christmas. He couldn’t wait to get back to the Ponderosa. He was feeling tired, a lot more tired than he should have felt. He’d taken to finding a place off by himself when they stopped, and letting them make camp. He only joined them for meals. It wasn’t the most neighborly way to act, but he had so little energy and spending time with all of these young men, excited to get home and see their families, was draining.

He stared out on the bare expense of land that held little more than scrub grass and lonely trees gnarled by wind. It was a hard land, and not nearly as bountiful as his own Ponderosa, but it felt like the right place to be for right now. It was as if the land was a current reflection of his soul.

“They tried to make him a captain, Mr. Cartwright. I been wanting to tell you that.”

Startled, Ben turned to find that Rodney Yeats had climbed up behind him on the bluff.

“You scared me, boy.”

Rodney nodded. “I’m real sorry about that. I’m real sorry about disturbing your peace too. I figure a man goes off by himself for good reasons. It’s just that I been itching to tell you some things, and with you going off so much, I didn’t reckon I’d have much of a chance.”

Ben knew the boy would want to talk about Hoss, and he had no idea if it would feel like a good thing or if it would suck what little strength remained in him. Still, he knew that Rodney was hurting too, and it wouldn’t do to turn his back on the boy. “Sit down, Rodney. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

The young man settled in beside him. “I was wanting to tell you that General Chamberlain tried to make him a captain last spring, but Hoss wouldn’t have it.”

Ben nodded. “I thought that happened when the General made him a lieutenant.”

“Happened both times, but this last spring, Hoss didn’t back down. He refused to put the bars on and everything. He didn’t tell anyone, but we all saw. And General Chamberlain came and tried to talk to him, and we were worried that he was going to get court-martialed. Cleary Hawkins said he heard Hoss tell the general that he was as high in rank as he aimed to be. Said he couldn’t leave us boys. General finally just had to let him be. I guess I never saw anyone be that stubborn like that especially when the general could’ve shot him ifn’ he’d of wanted. Hoss didn’t even seem scared.”

Ben snorted. “My son, Adam, used to call Hoss a ‘Missouri mule’.

“Maybe that’s a funny story to want to tell you, but I remember it ‘cause we’re all so amazed. We figured he was the bravest man ever. We would’ve followed him anywhere.”

Rodney looked over for reaction, but Ben’s face was like stone.

“I know it’s gotta’ pain you to hear about him, but I just wanted you to know that we thought real highly of him. The general did too. Hoss had the best platoon in the whole regiment. People were always saying it too. I reckon they just wanted to keep promoting him, but Hoss knew where he needed to be.”

Ben nodded softly.

“Just wish I’d done a better job protectin’ him. Just wish I’d been there at the right time. Would’ve taken the bullet for him. It’s the truth, Mr. Cartwright. I would’ve done anything to keep him safe.”

Ben patted his knee. “Don’t fret, Rodney. You did what you could, and I appreciate you telling me about him.”

“I got more stories too. Got lots of them, but I figure you’re not ready for all that quite yet.”

“No, I’m not quite ready.”

“Reckon I should leave you in peace again?”

Ben let out a long sigh. “Just save me a plate of beans, Rodney.”

The boy nodded, and got up quietly. Ben turned back to the horizon, and didn’t move again until Rodney called him down after nightfall.

*****

Joe hadn’t thought much about Christmas until he rode into Virginia City. It had been a tough few weeks on the trail. The wind started bringing down cold air from the north, and three mornings in a row he awoke under a blanket of snow. It had been a hard six months riding trail between Virginia City and Denver, and his young muscles ached every move he made. Weather had started going sour the last time he saw Adam, and they decided that only one of them would finish the drive to Denver so that the other could get back to the Ponderosa in time to spend the holiday with Pa. Adam said that Pa shouldn’t be alone this holiday, and when Joe pressed for details, Adam just said that Pa had finished a long business trip and would tell him all about it. Joe knew there was something not being said, but he didn’t press.

Joe trotted Cochise down the main street, and noted a level of festivity he hadn’t seen since before the war. Wreaths and ribbons were festooned all over storefronts, windows, and even hitching posts. Joe pulled Cochise up to the Bucket of Blood with thoughts of a couple of cold beers before heading out to the ranch.

The saloon was bustling with activity, but Joe focused only on getting Cosmo’s attention. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find himself face to face with Hank Perdue. The last time he’d seen Hank, the boy was following Hoss out of Virginia City.

“Hank?!” Impulsively, he grabbed the lanky man and hugged him tightly. Hank let out his distinctive braying laugh. Suddenly, there were other men there, patting Joe on the back, and his breath caught as he recognized more and more members of Hoss’ squad. “Is the war over?” he cried as the crowd thickened.

Hank shook his head. “Only our part, Little Joe.” Then he started pushing others. “Come on, boys. Ain’t got no call to smother Hoss’ little brother.”

His brother’s name sent shivers through him. “Hoss is home! Hoss made it home!”

His words sucked the good cheer out of the air. Silence fell around them. Hank shook his head. “I’m sorry, Little Joe, but Hoss didn’t make it home.”

Joe looked at them all wildly. “I don’t understand. How did you all get here? You were with him. I don’t understand.”

A familiar voice sounded at the back of the crowd. “Alright boys, let me through.”

Roy Coffee got up to Joe and then nodded at Cosmo. “Set us up with a couple of beers in the back room.” Then he gestured for Joe to follow. In the back room, he gestured for Joe to sit. “Your pa was afraid of this. I told him I’d keep an eye out for you, but I guess I didn’t do a good enough job.”

Joe shook his head angrily. “Don’t talk in circles, Sheriff.”

Roy nodded. “Fair enough. Your pa used your de Marginy relations to get into Georgia. He ransomed the Virginia City boys there.”

“He didn’t tell me anything about this.”

“I know, Little Joe, but he knew you’d insist on going.”

“Damn right I would!”

“And if you were using your head, you’d know that a young man not wearing a uniform would stand out something fierce in the South right there.”

Joe was suddenly gripped with another realization. “Hoss wasn’t there. Pa got the others, but Hoss never made it.”

Roy looked him in the eye. “Your pa knew better than to hope. He knew Hoss fell at Cold Harbor. There was no reason to believe he would’ve made it to Andersonville. You knew all of this, Joe.”

“But that’s why Pa went, isn’t it?”

Roy sighed. “He had to know for sure. And the stories coming out of Andersonville were bad, real bad. He had the means to do something and he did it.”

Joe’s breathing deepened. “This means he’s gone. This proves that Hoss ain’t coming home.”

Roy pushed his chair back and took the two beers the girl brought into the room. “Have a drink, Boy.”

Joe looked away.

“Listen to me, Joe. I can’t figure on what you must be feeling right now. It’s an agony to hear about the truth about your brother plus I know you gotta’ be feeling steamed that your pa left you out of his plan.”

“I gotta’ go.” Joe got to his feet and grabbed his hat.

“Sit down, boy!”

Joe froze.

Roy pointed a finger at him. “Listen to me. Your pa brought those boys home a week ago. You should have seen him. He stood there while mothers cried and fathers patted him on the back, but he couldn’t feel none of it. When I saw him, I thought, ‘he looks beat.’ Ben Cartwright looked beat. Did you ever think you’d hear anyone say that?”

He rounded the table until he was in Joe’s face. “Don’t go home buried in bad feelings. Your pa can’t take it. I’m talking to you like a man, Joe. As one man to another, you need to know that he can’t take it. You gotta’ bury whatever feelings you have about being left out or cheated or lied to or whatever. Do you hear me? He’s a broken man right now, and he needs you. He just needs to be with his son.”

Joe seemed to slump back into his chair. “I understand.”

“Go home, boy. Be his son. Be the one he doesn’t have to worry on right now.”

Joe nodded. He picked up his hat and slowly got to his feet. “I gotta’ go, Roy. Got to get home to Pa. Thanks for talking to me. I needed it.”

*****

Adam sat in the reception of General Peeler’s office. He could hear the General behind the thin office door fussing at his oldest daughter, Joan. Adam felt strangely voyeuristic despite the fact he was only sitting where the Sergeant put him. The Sergeant behind the desk near the door shuffled through papers seemingly oblivious to the voices behind him. The door burst open, and the majestic Joan sailed through with her father on her heels. She saw Adam and her face lit up. “What a surprise, Adam. You are a breath of fresh air in a very dark world.” She threw a look back at her father.

Adam stood and allowed her to buss his cheek. “You’re even more striking than I remembered.”

“Please say you are staying with us, Adam. You’re just the thing to save the holiday, what with Augusta’s difficulties and Father’s scrooge-like behavior.”

Adam frowned. “Augusta’s difficulties?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Nothing serious. Nothing at all compared to Father’s locking up my two best suitors. It’s completely unfair!”

Peeler threw up his arms. “They were fighting over you like a couple of saloon rats.”

“It’s romantic!”

“It’s criminal! Officers do not use fists on one another in front of enlisted men. It isn’t done!”

“It’s chivalrous!” She planted hands on her hips.

“It’s conduct unbecoming an officer! They stay in the stockade until after the holidays. Enough said!” With a thunderous clap of his hands, he turned and stomped back into his office. She shook her perfect head, and stormed off out the door.

For a moment, Adam just stood in the wake of the storm. Then he heard, “Cartwright! Get in here!”

Adam reluctantly followed the stressed voice into the office. For twenty minutes, Peeler drilled him about numbers of cattle and prices. Finally the general sat back in his chair. “Major Cartwright, you and your men have done a bang up job. Even with your illness, you kept the drive moving until all your numbers were met. Outstanding, Major. Outstanding!”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Christmas is in two days. Surely, you’ll be my guest for the holidays.”

“Uh, Sir, I am deeply flattered, but I should head back to the Ponderosa. I don’t wish to leave my father and brother alone on Christmas.”

“You’ll never make it back in time. Besides, the pass is snowed in.”

Adam shifted in his chair. “Are you certain? I thought it was still open.”

Peeler shook his head. “Foot of snow fell last night. You try it now, and you’re going to be hip deep in places. I don’t figure a Christmas celebration is worth that much risk.”

“I, uh, I hadn’t considered anything other than heading back.”

Peeler put his hands flat on the desk. “Well, it’s decided. You’ll come home with me. Now that brings us to our other problem.”

“Sir?”

“What did you do to my youngest daughter?”

Adam colored. “I can assure you…“

“I’m not interested in your excuses. You just listen up.”

Adam sat back, stunned.

“My Augusta is strong-willed. She’s bright and has a love of life that is amazing. I’ve indulged her. I take responsibility for that. I never understood why smart, capable women should sit around drawing rooms like so much furniture. So when she has wanted to stretch, I’ve let her.”

Adam shifted uncomfortably.

Peeler raised his arms. “She spent the holidays with you last year, and I thought she’d come home engaged to a rancher, but that didn’t happen. Then she couldn’t sit around the house while an epidemic was happening. I wasn’t happy. I can tell you I made my position very clear, but she didn’t blink. She just packed up and moved to the hospital. Did you know she came to nurse you without my consent?”

Adam shook his head slowly.

“I had to send Banks after her in the dead of night.”

Adam closed his eyes and let out a sigh.

“Then she comes back and do you know what she tells me?”

Adam’s face was like stone. He had no idea what was coming.

Peeler narrowed his eyes. “She tells me that she’s going to be a spinster. Says she’s done with men. She’s twenty years old! I told her, ‘Augusta darling, you have years for this.’ She says, ‘Papa, it’s no good. I had my chance. I’m not to marry.’ She wouldn’t even attend parties.”

Adam cleared his throat. “Well Sir, I…“

“I know what you did!”

Adam got to his feet. “Sir, I only…“

“You told her she should be a careerist!”

“What?”

“Like all of those other women who fight for abolition, the evils of drink, and the social betterment of the masses. All of your intellectual talk has her thinking she doesn’t need a home and a family.”

“I never told…“

The interruption this time came from the General’s adjutant at the door. “Sir, Lieutenant Banks says it’s urgent.”

The general sighed deeply behind his desk. “Send him in.” He turned to Adam. “You, don’t go anywhere!”

A harried Lieutenant Banks came in. General Peeler glared, “Did you find her?”

Banks nodded.

“So, she’s home.”

He shook his head slowly.

Peeler got to his feet. “Where is she?!”

“She is down at the McTavish Mining Camp.”

“Why didn’t you bring her back?”

“She wouldn’t come. She says there’s cholera down there and she refuses to leave.”

“And you just let her stay?!” Peeler aimed his deepest glare at the Lieutenant.

Banks blushed. “The miners removed me. They ejected me from the camp…forcibly.”

“What?!”

Adam stepped forward. “I got it, General. I just need to know where the camp is. I’ll bring her home.”

“You’ll stop this nonsense about turning my daughter into a suffragist?”

Adam nodded vigorously. “It’s not a problem, Sir. I will bring her home tonight.”

General Peeler turned to Banks. “Get Major Cartwright down there now!”

Banks stood at attention. Yes, Sir!”

*****

Joe opened the door gingerly. The only light in the house was coming from the fireplace. He could make out his father’s profile in the leather chair at the fireplace. Joe waited for his father to notice him, but there was no movement. Joe swallowed hard, and closed the door behind him. His father’s snowy head turned toward him. “Joseph?”

Hello, Pa. I’m home.”

A smile spread slowly across his face. “Joseph, it’s so good to see you.”

Joe relaxed. “It’s good to be home.”

“Did you stop in Virginia City?”

“Yes.”

His father was silent for a moment. “Did you see any of them?”

“Yeah, Pa, I saw them.”

“Joe, I didn’t tell you about it because…“

Joe put up a hand. “Don’t fret on it, Pa. Don’t think a thing. I don’t.”

“Joe?”

“I’m glad to be home. I know you figure you don’t have to do much to make it a holiday, but I’m expecting better than that.”

“Oh?”

“The boys in Virginia City have a dance planned for Christmas Eve. You’re the guest of honor.”

“I don’t think I can do it.”

Joe smiled and reached over to shake hands for his father. “Pa, I’m gonna’ go. I think you should too. I got a lot of pride for what you did. Men are home with their families this Christmas. It’s a blessing, and you made it happen.”

“I figure you must be wondering why I didn’t tell you about it.”

“I think I know, and the truth is that it doesn’t matter. You did what you had to do. I can respect that.”

Ben seemed to physically deflate. “You’re not angry with me?”

“No, Pa. I’m not mad. I’m proud. That’s all.”

“I don’t think I can go to this dance.”

“I know, Pa, but I want you to think about this. I think Hoss would want us to go. I think he would worry about just what I saw when I walked in the house. He doesn’t want us alone, and he doesn’t want us hurting like this. He’d want us to be there, and celebrate with his boys.”

Ben dropped his head. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“Pa, if you can’t do it, nobody can. Everybody I know learns strength from watching you.”

Joe turned his head when Hop Sing walked into the room. Hop Sing looked at both of them, “I have three roast goose in the kitchen. They’re going to Virginia City for the party. I go to the party. Maybe, I am the only Cartwright there.”

Joe smiled. “I’m going with Hop Sing tomorrow.”

Ben looked up. “Hoss would like this?”

“Has Hoss ever turned down a party? Ever?”

Ben grunted. “We won’t stay late.”

“No, Pa. We won’t stay late.”

“Adam?”

“He’s in Denver, Pa. Things went long. He’s finishing business.”

“It was a good season?”

Joe hesitated. “Adam got yellow fever, but he’s fine now.”

Ben’s breath caught.

“It’s okay, Pa. He’s fine. He’ll come home soon.”

“All of you are so precious.”

“I know, Pa. I know. We’ll get through this together. Okay?”

Ben let out a deep sigh. “Yes, Joe, we’ll get through this together.”

“Yes, Pa.”

*****

“Ain’t letting no army in, especially not with that one.” The old miner pointed his rifle at Banks.

Banks started to protest, but Adam put up a hand. “Gentlemen, we understand that there may be sick people. We’re here to help.”

“Why would you want to help a bunch of savages?”

Adam frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“That’s what he called us. Told Miss Peeler we wasn’t worth her time. Don’t have to put up with that.”

Adam gave Banks a long look. “I don’t happen to share Lieutenant Bank’s views. How about we arrange for him to stay here, and I’ll come into the camp alone.”

“Reckon we can do that.” The miner waved him in.

Adam followed him down the crude dirt path. Like most mining camps, the smell of raw sewage greeted him almost immediately. Crudely built shacks and tents appeared on either side of the path. Snow was starting to accumulate in piles against the fragile structures. The faces that peered out were almost exclusively men wearing scraggly beards and a week’s worth of grime. Few women stayed in these camps. The men were rough and focused only on mining what few gold nuggets were resting in the streams. A woman like Augusta Peeler would be a rare sight, and one who would be at grave risk among frustrated, desperate men.

The miner brought Adam down to a large tent sitting at the edge of the stream. Adam figured this tent probably served for eating, meetings, and as a general gathering place. Today, there were sounds of groaning coming from within. Adam brushed past him and opened the flap. There were bodies everywhere and in the midst of them sat Augusta alone with a basin of water and towels. She turned her flushed face to him, and he immediately saw how overwhelmed and frightened she was.

All of his indignation at the willful young women drained away, and he went over and knelt down next to her. “Augusta?”

“My God, Adam, where did you come from?”

“Never mind that. I see you’ve put yourself in the middle of yet another mess.”

“And you thought you’d just swoop down and to rescue me?” She brushed a damp curl off her forehead.

He shook his head. “I’m here to help, Augusta.”

She studied him for a moment before nodding. “I’ve been reading. The latest journal out of Oxford says cholera is most likely transmitted through the water. The miners have to stop using the creek for bathing, drinking, and sewage.”

Adam nodded. “I have read this too. We need to bring in water. The creek has to be contaminated.”

She gestured at the men lying around her. “They need safe water and nursing.”

Adam nodded. “You stay until doctors, nurses, and water comes. Then I take you home and you don’t leave. Do you hear me? No more gallivanting around, no more saving the world.”

She looked down at her lap. “Did you really expect me to just sit at home and wait for a man who was never coming for me?”

“I’m here now.”

“We both know what I’m talking about.” A man let out an anguished groan, and she turned to him, reaching for a wet towel.

“Augusta, I’m sending Banks for supplies and personnel. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He waited, but she didn’t acknowledge him with a response. She was already deeply absorbed in the needs of the fevered men.

*****

It had been a wonderful Christmas dinner. Georgia had saved flour and sugar for the occasion. There was a goose and strawberry preserves, canned green beans, bread, and a Lady Baltimore cake laced with bourbon and dusted with nuts. Russell and Donald came and they all sat around the table until midnight and shared stories about their different lives. Donald held a huge fascination with the West, and Hoss was called upon to tell story after story about life in Nevada Territory. He regaled them with stories of cattle drives and frontier town justice. He told them about facing grizzly bears and mountain cats, and he talked about the land. He knew he was sitting among people who knew how to love the soil for its beauty as well as its challenges. They didn’t need fancy stories about foreign ports or big cities. These were simple folk who wanted a patch of land to call their own; somewhere they could stake their pride, something they could give to their children. Hoss was one of these people. All he wanted in life was to get back to his patch, and grow it and love it ‘til the day he died.

Georgia Mae tied on an apron after Russell and his son left, and began scrubbing at dishes. Hoss wanted to urge her to leave it until morning, but the situation provided an opportunity for a conversation that he needed to have with her. He carried plates to the sink while he worked up the courage, “Georgia, I talked to Russell earlier. He said that he heard there’s Union troops no more than 20 miles north of here. He agreed to take me.”

She stopped scrubbing. “The woods are full of Confederates.”

“Russell thinks he can get me past them. I imagine he knows these woods better than any other man alive.”

She hung her head as if suddenly very tired. “You’ll be captured.”

“Georgia, even if I was, I’d never tell them about you. You can trust me on that.”

She turned her soulful eyes to him. “We’d never see you again.”

“It’s too dangerous to stay. There’s Confederate soldiers moving down the road out there every day. Someone is going to notice something. I can’t put you at risk like that.”

She returned to her scrubbing, putting more force into it. The glass bowl in her hand cracked under the pressure and broke in two. She stared at it until tears started rolling down her face. Hoss walked over and gently took the glass pieces away from her. Then he took her hands, turning them palm up. “I don’t see any cuts, Honey. I think you’re going to be just fine.”

Her hands tensed in his and she hissed at him. “I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay here. I want you to stay with Mason and me…forever.”

‘You’re lonely, Georgia. It ain’t goin’ last. Things will be right again real soon.”

“You’re not strong enough, Hoss. You can’t do twenty miles.”

He held her hands firmly. “I can’t just sit here and risk your lives.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “What we feel, what I feel means nothing to you?”

Hoss dropped his head. “I got my share of common sense, Georgia. What you feel right now is from loneliness. It won’t feel the same when this is over and your life is ahead of you. You’re not going to want a big oaf like me.”

His hands were so big as to completely engulf hers. She looked up at him. “What do you feel, Hoss? Am I the only one feeling something?”

He grinned out of one side of his mouth. “My heart opens easy, and loving you started almost the first day I met you. You’re pretty and strong and good-hearted. It makes you just about impossible to resist. Plus you let me win at checkers, and there ain’t a nicer thing to do for an ol’ dummy like me.”

She led him over to the sofa and gestured for him to sit. She put her hands over his and looked into his big face. “Hoss, I need you to listen to me carefully.”

He nodded.

“I want you because you are good and kind and real. I had exciting and handsome, and it got hollow real fast. I want a man who stakes a claim and settles in. I want to grow old with a man who I can trust. I don’t want fancy stories. I want a man who does what he says he’s gonna’ do. I want a man I can admire.”

“Georgia…“

She put her fingers to his mouth. “I’m not done, Hoss. At night, I ask God how I ever deserved to meet you. It isn’t just circumstance. My heart feels joy for you. Can you understand that?”

Hoss could think of nothing but to pull her in and hold her tightly. A sob escaped her. “I love you, Hoss. I love your big, kind face and your strong arms. I love how gentle you are with my son. I love that I feel safe with you. I love how solid you are. I love…“

Hoss interrupted her with a kiss. After a few minutes, he smiled at her. “If you really want me, I’m gonna’ hold onto you and I ain’t ever gonna’ let go.”

*****

Joe sat at the dance, and wished it would end. It was a new feeling for him. Dances were pure pleasure for a handsome, charming young man like Joe, but his circumstances left him tired from forcing cheer. Pa sat at the other end of the room among the parents, but he was looking better than Joe was feeling. Joe was surprised to find his pa looking better than expected. Using Pa as an excuse to duck out early wasn’t going to work as slick as he had hoped.

The truth was that going home wasn’t a big improvement. The two of them went through the motions, but the big house felt empty in a way that haunted them. The weather was too cold for much outside work, but inside the sorrow was measured in the slow, steady movements of daily life. His pa was teaching him that this is how a man survives a loss; he just keeps moving until one day it all means something again.

Joe was cut from a different cloth than his father. His body screamed for the space to explode. He wanted to run from it all, hide in another life until this one didn’t ache so much. If it had been any other situation, he would have done just that, riding off for weeks or months until he could breath easy again. But God saw fit to take the one man who would have taken care of things until he got back. Joe was forced to sacrifice his angst so he could give his father some peace. Everyday, he had to temper his grief in order to take care of his pa. Every evening, he would look wistfully at the horizon that could be his if not for the responsibilities of family. For the first time in his young life, Joe was coming to understand what being a man was really like.

*****

Adam stood among a group of soldiers dressed in starch stiff blues. He himself was wearing one with the insignia of well displayed. It had been a week since he’d arrived in Denver, and the pass still wasn’t open for travel. The oldtimers talked about a warming trend over the next couple of days, and he was going to wait for that window, and plow through that pass. He figured if he didn’t take that opportunity when it came, there wouldn’t be another until spring. A flash of lavender caught his eye, and he turned to get a look at Augusta dancing the waltz in the arms of a handsome Lieutenant. She clearly loved dancing, and she threw back her head every few moments with a throaty laugh. He’d done his best to keep a distance from her, but the magic about Augusta still drew him in completely. There were other women there who were arguably more beautiful, but he had no time for anyone other than the brave girl with the laughing blue eyes.

It had taken him an entire day to get her out of the mining camp. The situation was helped by her father’s realization that she wasn’t leaving until relief came. Troops, medical supplies, and water wagons began pouring in a few hours after Banks went for help.

At home, the two of them slipped into the proper roles with Adam as house guest and Augusta as General’s daughter. There wasn’t a moment for the two of them alone, and frankly, Adam didn’t know what he would do with that kind of time. The pull of her was so confusing to him that he wasn’t sure if he would kiss her or run from her.

Impulse took hold, and he found himself weaving around dancing couples until he was tapping on the shoulder of the nameless lieutenant who now had her. The soldier was too startled to put up much of a fuss, and soon Adam had her in his arms. For a few minutes, he concentrated on showing her what smooth dancing felt like. He could feel her staring at him, but he stayed focus on his movement.

“I knew you would dance like this,” she said.

He smiled in spite of himself. “I’m happy to live up to your expectations.”

“I have no expectations, Adam. Expectations can be very dangerous with a man like you.”

Adam slowed their pace. “I’m being careful, Augusta. How can that be bad?”

“It’s not.” Augusta gave her body fully to him as he twirled her around. “I just feel like there will always be reasons not to do things.”

Adam gave her an extra turn and steered her off the floor and down a long hallway. To the right, he found a deserted library and pulled her inside. He closed the door behind her. She was the one who reached for him, and kissing him felt as smooth and as practiced as his dancing. This time when he broke away, he backed up several steps.

She shook her head in frustration. “Are you scared of me now?”

His hands were fists. “I can’t control this. I need…to protect you…and Joe and my father. Hoss is gone, but I…can’t let him down.”

“Adam,” she stepped toward him but he moved away.

“I must look so foolish to you. I just don’t know what to do. I can’t hurt Joe, not now.”

“Talk to him.”

“I want to, but his world is so upside down. It feels…selfish.”

Augusta groaned. “Like loving me. Do you feel selfish for loving me when your family is suffering so?”

He nodded. “And I feel incapable of giving you the happiness you deserve. I don’t have the joy in me that you deserve from a man. I love you, but it…doesn’t feel like I know it should for you.”

“Listen to me, Adam. I can help you. I have the strength for this. I bring enough joy for the both of us.”

“I’m just not ready.”

She closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. “I know. It’s doubtful you ever will be.”

“Don’t say that. What I feel for you is…very real. It consumes me, Augusta. I just need time.”

“One of my worst faults is my lack of patience. I don’t know what kind of time I can give you. I can’t just sit and wait. You have to know that by now.”

“Augusta…“

“My aunt in Chicago has invited me to come and stay. I think Mama and Joan are a little tired of my crusades, and Papa, well, I think he needs a break. I worry him so.”

Adam leaned against a chair. “That’s very far away, Augusta.”

She blinked away tears. “Women are supposed to be patient creatures who sit by the window for how long as necessary for their man to come home, but I don’t know how to do that.”

“Come here.” He pulled her into him. “You’re not like other women. It’s part of what’s so special about you. Go to Chicago.”

She looked up at him. “Is this it? Does this mean we stop trying?”

He shook his head. “I’m not stopping, and I pray that you don’t either.”

“But we can neither of us make any promises. We have to know that there are no guarantees.”

Adam said nothing. He just held her: her head on his chest, his fingers in her hair until they both forgot where they were.

*****

They had worried that Mason might say the wrong thing so when that time came, Hoss scooped the boy up and headed for the attic. He and Russell had fashioned a hidden door in the roof. Hoss opened it with great care, and pushed the small boy out ahead of him, whispering for him to hold the tiles tightly. He followed him, and closed the door quietly behind him. Now the two of them lay still on the upper roof. Soldiers would not be able to see them from the ground. Hoss carefully encircled the boy with his arm and pulled him in tightly. He could hear the shouts of men on the ground. They were directing Russell to open up the barn. Pounding sounded below him, and he knew that they had entered the house. The idea that Georgia had to handle these angry men on her own set his teeth on edge. More than anything, he wanted to drop down and start swinging.

He felt the steps pounding closer, and he tensed. A groan from Mason told him he was holding him too tightly. “Shhh!” he said softly to the boy. Mason was only four, but he understood enough to know he should stay as still as possible.

They were in the attic, and Hoss knew that all of their lives depended on the work he and Russell did on the seams of the hidden door. The footsteps disappeared, but Hoss knew to wait until she came for them. It was another half hour of tortured breathing before Georgia knocked on the door. Hoss carefully handed Mason down to her. When he dropped into the attic himself, he looked at Georgia. “I leave tomorrow morning at dawn.”

She started to protest, but he put up a hand.

“I will not do this to you. I will not do this to Mason or Russell or Donald.”

“It’s February: too cold to be out in the woods.”

He took her by the shoulders. “This was so close, Georgia. What would have happened to you and Mason if they’d found me? Imagine that.”

“I love you, Hoss.”

He hugged her tightly. “The day this war is over, I will come back here, and I will take you and Mason with me. Do you hear me? We’re going to Nevada together.”

She nodded.

*****

Sleep was impossible after the Confederate visit, and so Hoss was fully awake when Georgia slipped into his room late that night. She wore a thin white gown, and her thick hair hung in a braid down her back. She climbed in beside him. Startled, he turned to her. “Georgia, what are you doing?”

“I want to be with you tonight.”

“Honey, I’m coming back. Do you really think I would leave you behind?”

She slid an arm across his broad chest. “I know you’ll come back for me, but I’m scared, Hoss. It is a terrible time. If this is the last time I’ll ever see you…I want to give myself to you fully.”

He turned to her and traced the hair framing her face. “You don’t have to do this.”

“This is what I want.”

He smiled. “You’re going to be my wife, Georgia Mae.”

She took his hand and kissed his palm. “Make love to me, Hoss.”

Hoss had worried about this moment his entire life. He wasn’t a virgin. There was a saloon girl in Carson City he went to see every few months since Adam had introduced them on his 19th birthday, but that had nothing to do with this particular moment. He had always figured that when it was time, he would have a chance to plan, to rehearse the words he would say to her on the wedding night. Instead, he discovered that he didn’t need all of that preparation. What he felt, what he said, where he touched her; all of it felt completely natural.

When he said goodbye to her at dawn, it felt like she was already his wife.

*****

Dinnertime was achingly polite. Adam had been home for a month, but Hop Sing still couldn’t get the hang of cooking for only three men. Dinner always ended with serving bowls only half empty. It offended Ben’s sense of proportion, and he spent the end of each meal staring at them angrily. This would all transpire in silence, and while Hop Sing was clearly cognizant of its effect on Ben, he was seemingly immune, and no amount of fussing changed his portions.

Adam struggled to find ways to talk about the feelings trapped inside, but it was as there was a moratorium on conversations that required any amount of emotional energy. Even Joe seemed removed from anything unrelated to work.

Newspapers were claiming that the war was on its last legs. The three of them devoured any news of the battles they could find. One evening in early March, Ben stood up out of his chair and faced his sons. “On the day this conflict ends, I’m going East. I’m not going to allow my son to be buried in an unmarked grave.”

Adam held his tongue. It would be easy to point out the various ways in which this was imprudent if not futile. Thousands of men lay in unmarked graves or worse, mass graves. Even if they found him there would be the issue of transporting the remains across country.

“I’m going with you, Pa.” Joe stood up.

Adam ignored the illogic of it. “You’re not leaving me behind.”

Ben nodded. “It seems foolish, I suppose, but I like the idea that we all go. I think we need to do this.”

“If this war is on its last legs, we need to get things done so the ranch can run without us.”

“Who’s going to run the place? We don’t have one man capable for all that.”

Joe slapped his father on the back. “I know. We’ll use three of them; they can all be in charge of something. I think Curly would do well, JW is good, and how about Josiah.”

While his father and brother discussed this idea, Adam found his thoughts drifting back to a sweet girl who could make him laugh, yell, and desire, all in the same breath. It was becoming harder and harder to control them. He couldn’t find room in himself for juggling simultaneously the grief of losing a brother and the love for a woman. Going East with his family, no matter the futility, was as good a means of healing as he could imagine.

*****

Hoss crouched in the wet morning grass. He’d been in the woods for most of the last three days. Growing up in the wild was as good a training as he could have for this endeavor. He survived on the hardtack Russell made for him, and slept under fir branches at night. It didn’t save him from a bone chilling cold that seems to cover him like a blanket at all times. Georgia had been right about his health. Five miles winded him terribly, and he often had to crouch inside bushes to catch his breath.

Patrols had been a concern the first two days. He often hid for hours while Confederate soldiers roamed the woods. There was such an aimlessness to their wanderings that he suspected that they were too hungry and tired to patrol very cleanly. The 3rd morning, he didn’t see or hear anyone. A painful cough had begun, and he imagined that he’d have pneumonia soon if he didn’t get out of the woods. He kept his eye on the tree moss, and moved north with as much purpose as he could muster. It was late afternoon when he heard the first sign of men; wagon wheels sounded ahead of him. He found himself near a well-traveled road. He lay under some bushes and waited. It was only minutes before he spied another wagon. Quietly, he waited until he could see the uniform. One came into view in the distance, and it was dull, clearly a dark gray of some kind. His heart sunk until the man came closer, and then he noted that the uniform wasn’t gray, it was dirty. It was a dirty blue uniform. It was all he could do to keep from busting through the bushes, whooping his joy. However, Hoss had enough sense not to startle soldiers with guns. He waited until they passed. Then he got up, smoothed his clothes as best he could, picked up his rifle, and trotted after them.

*****

Spring thaw was early, and Adam drew strength from the green grass sprouting up around the hills. He’d never had much of an emotional attachment to spring before, but the renewal of life touched him in ways he hadn’t anticipated.

Across the valley, he spied Joe on Cochise. It was amazing how much he’d matured. Adam found himself consciously working not to call him boy. Joe hit an empty expanse of grass, and dug his heels into the pony’s sides. Cochise erupted with speed, bringing Joe across the valley like the wind. Adam watched with admiration. Joe could already outride and outshoot all of them any day of the week. The fact that he was the smallest Cartwright belied the fact that he was also the most dangerous.

Adam waved at him from atop the hill, and Joe steered Cochise in his direction. Soon Joe joined him at the top, his pony breathing hard. Joe jumped down, and led the pony to a little stream breaking through the rocks.

Adam nodded at him. “You almost brought him to a foam.”

Joe laughed. “He loves to run. He wouldn’t move with such heart if he didn’t.”

“Did you find the herd in the south pasture?” Adam hopped off Sport and joined him at the edge of the bluff.

“Yep. They weathered the winter great. Only found two dead ones.”

“Good.” Adam lapsed into silence. This was the only kind of conversation he and his brother had had in the last two months.

Joe squinted out at the horizon and then looked at Adam. “I had a lot of time to think the last two days, being out there alone and all. I find that I’m mighty curious about something.”

Adam looked at him. “Lay it on me, Brother.”

“What happened with Augusta?”

A surge of anxiety shot through him, and it was a struggle to hold his face. “I don’t know what you’re saying, Joe.”

“Last summer, I watched the two of you. There were clearly feelings between you.”

“I had yellow fever. It wasn’t a romantic situation.”

“I could feel it between you; could see it too.”

“Nothing happened, Joe. I promise you.”

Joe sighed and looked off into the distance again. “Sorry to hear that. I was hoping something was developing.”

Adam frowned. “I don’t understand. You loved her.”

“I did, but it wasn’t more than that. I didn’t want to marry her.”

Adam looked down, unsure of what to say.

Joe nodded. “You held off because you were worried about me. You thought it would hurt me.”

Adam didn’t dare move a muscle.

“I want you to be happy, Adam. I saw how you looked at her. I’ve never seen you look like a girl like that.”

“She’s young.”

Joe smiled. “Brother Adam, you better tell me what you’ve been doing about this girl. I’m beginning to suspect that you’ve made this terribly complex.”

Adam opened his mouth but nothing came out. He kicked dirt in the way he did when he was a boy and Pa was scolding him. Finally, he was able to shape, “I love her.”

“Then where is she!?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Is this about Hoss? Do you think you honor him by turning away the woman you love? If he was here, he’d pop you real good about now. I’m serious, Adam. Hoss knew more about love than the rest of us combined. He’d never let you give up an opportunity like this.” Joe’s breath caught. “He’s looking down at you right now, and he wants you happy.”

Adam closed his eyes.

Tears stung Joe’s eyes. “I want you happy. Pa wants you happy. Crawling into a dark place and giving up ain’t no kind of way to honor your brother.”

Adam turned his head. “What about you and Pa? I’m not the only one grieving.”

“We don’t got this opportunity. You do!”

Adam’s chest was tight like he’d just inhaled dust.

Joe grabbed his shoulder. “Look at me!”

It shocked him that even his youngest brother understood emotions better than he did. He looked at Joe.

“Adam, if you find love with Augusta, I’m not going to be feeling angry or betrayed or jealous. I’m going to feel happy for you, and your happiness will help me and it will help Pa.”

“I sent her away.”

Joe shook his brother. “Then you find out where she is because we’re going for her. Pa’ll want to come too. You’re going to marry her if Pa and I have to make it a shotgun wedding. Hear me?”

*****

Aunt Louisa was General Peeler’s sister. Augusta had never met her. She knew her father was devoted to her, evidenced by a religious exchange of mail. She also knew that her mother spoke of her with the same tone of voice she reserved for talking about Sioux Indian raids.

Louisa had been widowed young and left with a considerable fortune. Augusta expected to find a very proper Chicago lady, but shocked with the refined lady turned out to be a sharp reformer. The first week, she dragged Augusta to political meetings every day, and when there was an occasional break from that, she was ladling out soup at a relief kitchen.

When the shock wore off, Augusta found herself stimulated in ways she had never before experienced. It was a good distraction, but didn’t keep her from thinking about the dark, serious man who’d run off with her heart.

It was the one free evening she’d had in two weeks when Aunt Louisa finally got down to business. Unlike real ladies, Louisa didn’t sit on the edge of a chair, straight as a young pine. She tended to drape herself over chairs as if she’d just collapsed on them. She’d just made a dramatic drop into chaise lounge that evening after dinner when she announced, “I think you should know that your father wrote me all about your young man.”

Augusta sat up, blinking. “My father knows of no young man.”

Louisa threw back her head and laughed. “Lesley notices a great deal more than he mentions. He didn’t need you to tell him about the older Cartwright boy.”

Augusta blushed deeply.

Louisa looked over and softened her approach. “Augusta, you’re a special young woman, very much like your father and your grandfather as am I. It isn’t easy to have characteristics best suited for a man.”

Augusta looked down at her hands folded in her lap daintily as her mother had so carefully taught her.

“He sounds like a man who values your intelligence, independence, and strength.”

“He does,” she said softly.

“Your father suspects he is too burdened by grief over his brother to properly woo you. He hopes you’ll have the patience to wait for him.”

Augusta’s eyes were red and wet, but she wasn’t sure what it was she was feeling.

“I’m glad you came, Augusta. I think the change will be just the distraction that you need.”

“I don’t think he’ll ever be ready.”

“Nonsense! I can’t tell you for sure that he’ll ever propose, but I can tell you that the unexpected is a daily part of life. A possibility that doesn’t exist today may exist next week. We must live each day eager to discover what happens next.”

“I wish I had your clarity.”

Louisa laughed again. “It’s the gift that comes when other parts of your life start to fade. If I’d had clarity and youth at the same time, I would have taken over the world.”

Augusta found herself laughing along with her lively aunt.

“Rest up tonight, girl. Tomorrow, we are going to a field hospital set up to handle the men who are trying to get home. They aren’t very organized. I suspect we’ll be quite busy for the next few weeks.

*****

Hoss was in a Union field hospital fighting pneumonia when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9th, 1865. A week later, President Lincoln was shot and killed. The excitement Hoss had been feeling was tempered by a loss he felt keenly despite having never met his president.

He wanted to immediately get on the road to Georgia’s home, but soldiers warned him strongly against it. There were still gangs of marauding soldiers; some who didn’t know the war had ended and some just bent on revenge. Waiting grated on Hoss, and he left the day after Command discharged him his commission. He had another reason to push. Downed telegraph lines made it impossible to get word to his family that he had survived the war. He wanted nothing more than to collect Georgia and Mason, and start traveling West.

He avoided everyone by traveling in the woods. The invincible Hoss Cartwright was now only a shadow of his former self. He had no faith in his ability to fend off even a single attacker. It took him four days to get back to her farm. Along the way, he saw enough burned houses to keep him moving as fast as his weakened state would allow. Finally, he got close enough to see the top of the house, and it become clear to him that Georgia’s farm had been spared.

He was only halfway up the drive though when a dark haired man with a limp came out from behind a tree with a raised rifle. Hoss put everything down. He didn’t know who the man was, but he wanted to make sure the man could see that he posed no threat. The man narrowed his dark eyes. “What are you doing down here, Yankee?”

Hoss swallowed. “I’m here to visit a friend.”

“There aren’t any Yankee friends down here.”

“I was stationed down here for a bit. There was a woman and her son. I am here to make sure they’re okay.” Hoss was careful not to allude to the time he spent hiding on the farm.

“Nobody needs you to check on them. Now go on, Yankee. Go on back where you came from.”

“I can’t do that, friend. I need to see her, and I need to talk to her.”

“Not possible.” Behind the man, Russell emerged quietly from the wood. At first, Hoss thought he would take the man from behind, but Russell just stood there quietly.

“My name is Hoss Cartwright. What’s yours?”

The man laughed sharply. “Named after a horse, are you? Very fitting I would say. Be nice if you had one right now. It’d help you get off my property in a timely manner.”

Hoss worked to temper his breathing. “I told you my name. What yours?”

“I’m John Raleigh Houston and this is my farm.”

Russell stepped forward. “Mr. Houston, I know this gentleman.”

Houston looked back sharply. “We don’t welcome Yankees on this property.”

“He helped us during the war, Sir. He made sure we had supplies. He’s a good man.”

“Russell, you let him on my farm? I swear to God, man!”

“Sir, we thought you were gone. There were official papers and everything. Miss Georgia was just doing what she needed to in order to care for your son. The Lieutenant here was kind to us.”

“So, you’re saying that he’s a good man, huh?” Houston challenged Russell. “A man who comes back after the war sniffing after another man’s wife. You call that a good man?”

Georgia appeared at the edge of the wood. Hoss saw her, but didn’t say anything. He prayed she would take that as a signal to go back. Still, she came running toward them, her long skirts billowing behind her. “Stop it, John! Stop it! He’s a friend!”

He turned to his wife. “So this is how you honor your husband while he’s off to war.”

“The war is over, John. Can you understand that?”

“Cuckolded by a Yankee. Such a fitting tribute to my years of faithful duty as a husband.”

Hoss frowned. “She didn’t do anything against you. She ain’t got no cause for guilt.”

Houston leveled his gun at Hoss’ chest. “There isn’t a man in this county who would convict me of drilling you with a bullet right now.”

“Even if nobody listens to a Black man in this town, I’ll make it known you shot an unarmed man for spite.” Russell said in a tone that surprised everyone.

Houston looked at him.

Russell shook his head. “You ain’t used to the fact that I’m not your slave anymore. You’ve been treating me like one since you got back.”

“After all I’ve done for you?” Houston seemed confused more than angry.

Russell chuckled. “Donald and I have family in Georgia. We’ll be gone by the end of the week.”

Hoss stepped forward. “I ain’t leaving this property until I get a chance to talk to your wife.”

“I’m betrayed by the lot of you!” He threw his rifle and stomped off to the house. Russell picked up the rifle and followed at a distance.

Georgia ran to Hoss and held him tightly. “Hoss, I didn’t know he was alive. I had no idea.”

“It’s okay, Georgia. I believe you. Now, all we have to do is get Mason and walk away from it all.”

Georgia started to sob. “I’m a married woman!”

Hoss knew she was stating a complexity they couldn’t ignore but he wasn’t ready to reason it out. “Has he hurt you?”

She shook her head. “He’s angry, but he’s not vicious.”

“Come with me, Georgia.”

She stepped away. “How long could we convince ourselves that this is the right thing?”

Hoss looked away.

“Hoss, he’s angry and he’s not the man you are, but he’s not a bad man. He fought for four years, and he deserved better when he got home. He loves Mason.”

“I can’t ignore what I feel.”

“Hoss, I would leave with you in a moment if I could justify taking Mason away from his father. John’s tired and he’s hurt. He has no money and we’ll probably have to sell the farm. He’s lost and he needs me.”

“No Georgia, no.” Hot tears fell down his face.

She put her hands on his face. “It isn’t just me, Hoss. I know you well enough to know that it would always stand between us. We wouldn’t be able to be legally married, and we would always know that we’d taken a son away from his father for no reason other than our own selfish desires. It would eat at both of us.”

“You’re sure he won’t hurt you?”

She shook her head. “He doesn’t have it in him. My biggest struggle will be to channel his anger into something productive. There’s no need to fear for me or Mason. We’ll be fine.”

“I won’t.”

She lay against his chest. “I love you. I will always love you, but if you stay any longer, I won’t be able to resist you. We will end up making decisions that are selfish.”

He stroked her back. “Selfish ain’t all bad, Georgia. I figure you and I are due a little selfishness.”

For a long moment they stood like this silently. Then he gently pulled away from her. “I could probably get away with telling myself stories about why I took you from your husband for the first couple of years, but I know that one day it would come down to knowing that the decisions we make in life define us. I’d have to…” he swallowed hard and stopped.

“We almost had a chance, Hoss. I’ll grieve you something fierce, but I’ll also hold memories of our love. I’ll save thoughts of you for those moments when I’m alone and the house is quiet. Let’s not stain those memories by doing something half wrong now.”

“Don’t tell Mason I came. Best not to confuse the boy. Let him grow something with his Pa.”

She nodded. He reached for her once more, but she jumped back, her face wet with tears, grabbed her skirts, and went running back to the house. Hoss stood there for a long time. He knew Houston could come back with that squirrel gun, but he didn’t care. It’d been too long a journey with too many wounds to his body and his heart to care about another bullet.

*****

Adam got a wire from General Peeler with Augusta’s address the same day that news of the surrender came through. He, his brother, and father were on a stage two days later. Joe had wasted no time filling Pa in on Adam’s feelings for Augusta. Ben had been excited, but couldn’t read his eldest son. Days later, he looked at him seated across him on the stage. Joe had fallen asleep on Adam’s shoulder. The sight reminded Ben of his sons as boys; so different but so devoted to one another. Memories of his middle son were inevitable, but he found that they were becoming less painful and more comforting. If Hoss had been there, he’d most likely be sitting between them. Joe would be teasing Hoss about something, and Hoss would be smiling about it. Adam would act annoyed, but Ben knew he enjoyed his brothers’ tussles. He started to smile at the memory.

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Penny for your thoughts.”

Ben shrugged. “Just remembering.”

Adam nodded and turned to look out the window again.

“Adam, are you sure about this?”

Adam gave him a puzzled look.

“Are you sure that Augusta is the one?”

He smiled. “I love her.”

“I just want you to be sure. Joe’s enthusiasm for this isn’t enough to sustain a marriage.”

“She’s remarkable, Pa. I don’t just love her, I admire her. There’s something about her…I don’t have the words.” Adam thought for a moment. “She reminds me of Inger. I don’t know why exactly…” He frowned.

Ben smiled. “It makes sense to me. She does have something special about her.”

“Being around her makes me want to be better. I want to learn from her. I know she’s young, but there’s something about her that’s ageless.”

Ben let out a low whistle. “You’re in deep, son. I just pray she’ll take you.”

Adam laughed.

*****

For days, Hoss walked aimlessly. The road was growing thick with other men also going home. He ate little and slept by the side of the road. Every day, it seemed less likely he was going to end up anywhere familiar.

On the third day, he found a boy who looked as young as Jamie Green had two years ago. It didn’t matter to him that the boy wore gray. He had vacant eyes and seemed to be largely unaware of his surroundings. Hoss immediately took him under his wing. He put more effort into finding berries and edible roots, and forced the boy and himself to eat them.

He talked to him continually, but the boy seemed confused. He gave Hoss a different name every time he asked. The only consistent answer he gave was that he was heading to Missouri.

The third day he was with the boy, he remembered that scurvy can often leave a man confused in the head. At the next town, he spent an exorbitant amount on three oranges, and made the boy suck them all down. Hoss had taken to calling the boy, Goose, after his green gooseberry colored eyes.

The next day the boy woke remembering where he lived and his name which he reported was John Wesley Boggs. Hoss had had enough of the name John, and went back to calling him Goose. The boy didn’t complain.

As they walked, Hoss tried to figure out he’d get Goose to his hometown in Missouri. The boy was clearer, but was nowhere near ready to find his way on his own. Hoss knew he couldn’t walk the boy that far. He stopped in the next town, and used another large sum to buy the boy a set of clothes. It was safer for him if he looked as neutral as possible.

In the next town, Hoss used the last of his money to buy the boy a ticket home on the stage. By then, Goose was lucid enough to thank him for his life. Hoss didn’t say anything. The truth was that the boy probably did as much to save Hoss’ life.

Two days later, he was in Chicago. It was still as big and crazy as he remembered. For half a day, he walked in a daze. Then men started pointing him to a field hospital for soldiers going home. There was a long line of men waiting to register, and Hoss settled in to wait. When he finally got to the head of the line, he declared himself Lieutenant Cartwright, and handed over his discharge papers. The man noted them and handed them back.

Hoss leaned in. “Sergeant, I need to talk to someone about getting more scrip.”

The harried man looked up. “You got what was coming with your discharge.”

“It seems that I ran through it.” Hoss was careful not to mention he’d used it to dress and rehabilitate a Confederate soldier.

“Officers,” the sergeant said, rolling his eyes. He turned to a clerk behind him. “Check to see if there’s any money coming for a feller named Cartwright.”

“Cartwright?” echoed the clerk.

“Cartwright!” The sergeant repeated. Nearby a nurse looked up and stared their direction.

“Ain’t nothing here for him.”

The sergeant looked up at him. “I can’t help you, fella’. Next!”

Hoss had no energy to even formulate a response. He moved out of the line, and looked around for the soup kitchen. A young nurse walked toward him. She was a pretty little thing with soft curls and eyes like bright jewels. He still had enough presence left to nod and smile at her. She stopped in front of him, searching his face. “What’s your name, soldier?”

“Lieutenant Eric Cartwright.”

Her breath caught. “Where do you live?”

“Nevada territory. My pa has a ranch there named the Ponderosa.”

She covered her mouth with both hands, and for a moment, he worried she was about to get sick.

“You okay, Ma’am?” He reached over to steady her arm.

“Hoss?”

His brows furrowed. “I… Do I know you?”

“You’re Hoss Cartwright?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I know your family, Hoss.” Her chin trembled, but she held her composure. “They miss you terribly.”

“You know my family?”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Hoss, they’re going to be so excited to find out you’re alive.”

Hoss winced. “I was afraid they’d think I was dead.”

She took him by the arm. “It’s okay. Don’t worry. We’ll wire them right away.”

“You really know my pa and Adam and Little Joe?”

She smiled at him warmly. “I do, Hoss. And I feel like I know you too. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m Augusta, Hoss, and you’re going to come with me. I’m going to take good care of you.”

Hoss was feeling more than a little confused, but she was wonderfully sweet and he was desperately tired. He allowed her to lead him away from the field hospital.

*****

Adam, Pa, and Joe got to Chicago late in the afternoon, but none of them wanted to waste any time settling in to a hotel. Bags in hand, they headed for Augusta’s address. The maid told them she was at a field hospital at the edge of the city. Adam suppressed a twinge of annoyance. Augusta was always going to be in the thick of things. He imagined it would save him time if he accepted it rather than fighting it in her.

They grabbed a hansom cab, and the sun was beginning to set by the time they got to the hospital. A nurse pointed them to a kitchen canteen. Adam found the excitement in him overwhelming. He led his brother and pa over just as she stepped outside the tent. “Augusta.”

She looked up, recognition slowly dawning on her features. Tears immediately sprang to her eyes. “Adam?”

“I’m here for you, Augusta. Joe and Pa came with me.”

She couldn’t stop the tears falling down her face.

Adam wrinkled his brow. “Are you okay? Are you happy?”

She covered her mouth. “How can this be? I sent the wire only a week ago. You couldn’t have…”

“What wire? We never got a wire. I came for you. My family came…we were hoping you would come with us to Cold Harbor. We’re going to see if we can find Hoss. We need to bring his body home. Augusta, will you come?”

She shook her head. “No, Adam, you don’t need to do this. I have somebody I want you to see.”

Adam deflated. “I’m too late, aren’t I? You met someone. I shouldn’t have waited.”

“No, Adam, no.” She reached for him. “You don’t understand. Come!”

She pulled him over to the tent and opened the flap. “Look, Adam.”

He peered inside. The canteen was empty save one lanky, rawboned man who was putting great energy into inhaling a bowl of stew. A feeling washed over Adam; he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. Joe peered over his shoulder. While Adam hovered in shock, Joe did exactly what his excellent reflexes had always afforded him. “Hoss!”

The man looked up, and they all saw the familiar big face with the blue eyes. Joe ran straight at him, and before anyone else could react, Joe had scrambled over the top of the table and tackled his brother. The two of them fell over in a crash. A groan rose from behind the table. Augusta ran in. “He’s not well, Joe.”

Ben Cartwright rushed past her, and pulled his youngest son off Hoss. Then he knelt beside him. “Son?”

The blue eyes blinked at him. “Is it a dream, Pa?”

Ben put a hand on his cheek. “I hardly recognize you.”

“It ain’t been no picnic.”

“Hoss, how…you fell at Cold Harbor.”

Hoss wrestled his elbows under him, and tried to rise to a sitting position. Joe was there to push him upright. “Pa, it’s a horrible long story. Let me just say that an angel saved me and brought me back to life.”

Ben searched his face. “Who? Hoss, who can I thank for this? Take me to her. I need to meet her.”

Hoss shook his head. “It ain’t possible, Pa. Let’s not talk about it now, okay?”

Ben nodded, certain his son was hiding some deep kind of sadness.

Hoss smiled at him. “You look great, Pa.”

“Son, you look horrible. What happened to you? We’re going to get you to the finest doctors.”

Hoss shook his head. “It ain’t no mystery. I’m tired, got a hole in my chest, ain’t eaten half what I need to stay upright, and been struggling with a bit of pneumonia.”

Joe tousled his brother’s thinning but overgrown head of hair. “He’s going to be fine, Pa. I just know it.”

“As long as you’re around, Little Brother,” Hoss reached for him affectionately.

Joe was about to squeeze him around the middle again when Ben wagged a finger at him. “Don’t touch him! He’s in no condition for your antics.”

Adam watched all of this from the tent flap. Letting go of it felt somewhat risky. Emotions were spilling over, and he was just trying to keep from drowning. Augusta came over, and hugged him tightly, laying her head on his chest. Her presence helped ground him. He looked down. “I don’t have a ring yet. There were a few hours to look in Denver, but nothing stood out. We could look for a ring here in Chicago.”

She giggled into his shirt. “I’m not worried about a ring.”

“Did I ask you? Did you…Augusta?”

She tightened her hug, sighing deeply. “You didn’t but I do.”

He chuckled softly. “Thank you.”

“I’m going to make you the best wife.”

Joe was pulling Hoss to his feet. The man was still big, but his body looked almost hollow in its weakened state. Pa frowned at his son’s condition. “I still think we need a doctor.”

Hoss chuckled. “Just get me to the Ponderosa. I just need my home. That old goat, Hop Sing, will fix me up just fine.”

Then the big man looked for Adam. “Adam! Get over here, Brother. I ain’t got the strength to go chasing you around this tent.”

Augusta pushed him. “Go!”

Adam lurched forward and pulled Hoss into him. The two brothers hugged tightly. Then Hoss held him at arm’s length. “I know about you, Big Brother. Augusta is a good friend of mine. I know you ain’t treated her much better than a polecat in a chicken coop. You better do right by her or things are going to get a little brisk around here.”

Adam swallowed. “She said yes.”

Hoss whooped and slapped him across the back. “That’s the way, Adam. I taught you well. Go get her.”

Adam turned around, grabbed his fiancée around the waist and twirled her around the room. Joe and Hoss cheered them on. Ben closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. This was one of the moments of his life, and he was determined to tuck it away somewhere safe inside himself.

*****

The dress strained against her midriff. Every day, it was becoming more of a struggle, but she had no other solution but to suck in her stomach and pray that this would not be her day of reckoning. She kept a shawl slung low, but it looked awkward exactly as if she was trying to hide something.

She stayed at one end of the mercantile fully aware that her sister-in-law, Mary Ellen, was gossiping about her at the other end. Finally she had what she needed, paid the merchant, and walked past Mary Ellen, her head high, refusing to acknowledge her nastiness.

Mary Ellen and her friend watched Georgia as she walked down the street. “You can see that she’s pregnant.”

Her friend nodded. “She’s showing alright. Guess she didn’t waste any time once John got home.”

Mary Ellen glared at her. “Are you not paying attention, Selma? How long has John been back?”

“Well, I remember it was the week before Elmer’s birthday. Must have been the middle of April.”

“That was eight weeks ago. Does she look eight weeks pregnant to you?”

Selma’s mouth dropped. “That girl’s four months gone if she’s a day.”

Mary Ellen nodded. “And John’s going to hear about it. Trust me on that, Selma.”

***The End***

(Authors note: I worked all summer on this, and it’s epic long. I hope you’ll take the time to climb in this story. And I hope to hear what you thought.)

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