Summary: A series of letters combined with a deadly illness set the Cartwrights against each other and the town when Roy takes one of their own into custody.
Word Count: 25,230
They were curious from the very first letter. Hoss never got much mail. Didn’t know too many people from other parts like Adam and Pa did. The other thing was the letter. The envelope was pink, and it smelled faintly of roses. Adam was the one to bring the letter home, and there had been something about the scent that was familiar; something that felt nostalgic. It wasn’t that distinct, and he chalked it up to memories of girls in pretty dresses who held onto him primly during the Virginia Reel.
Joe snatched it out of his hand on sight. He’d never seen a pink envelope before. He breathed in the scent and then batted his eyes at Hoss who blushed up past his thinning hair. The big man had few strategies for handling embarrassment other than a basic seek and destroy approach. Joe was hard to catch but not impossible. The boy always went a step too far; he played his hand a moment too long and Hoss grabbed him over Pa’s favorite high-back leather chair leaving behind them a trail of overturned chairs and tables. Adam watched from Pa’s desk, his arms folded. He’d long ago given up trying to referee their tussles. The fact that Pa was merely on the front porch never seemed to register once they started their roughhousing.
Hoss picked his brother by his collar and pulled the letter out of his hand. He then let Joe fall to the ground just in time for Pa who stood in the open doorway of his home with his hands on his hips. Adam squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the bellow.
His mouth opened, but no sound came out at first. Hoss spotted him first and froze. Joe was poised to leap at Hoss’ legs when Ben found his voice. “What in the name of all that’s holy is going on here?!”
“Aw, Pa, we’re sorry.” Hoss couldn’t meet his eyes. The big man always had the hardest time disappointing his father.
“You can’t do this outside!?”
Joe scrambled to his feet. “Sorry, Sir, it’s my fault.”
“Please! Boys! Leave the furniture alone!”
Hoss hung his head, the pink envelope in his hand. Ben looked sideways at him. “What do you got there?”
“I don’t know, Pa. I still gotta’ read it.”
He nodded. “You do that, son. Joe’ll clean up for you.”
Hoss nodded and strode past his father. Joe frowned as he surveyed the room. He looked ready to protest the circumstances, but Adam beat him to it, and began turning up chairs. Joe took the hint, and took care of the rest of the room.
Hoss didn’t return until his family was in the middle of a roast beef dinner with sweet potatoes. As incredible as it was for Hoss to get a pink letter in the mail, he rivaled it by not displaying much of an appetite once the food was passed to him.
Other than furtive glances, no one spoke a word until Ben finally put down his fork and sighed deeply, “Son, did you receive bad news? Is there something we can do to help?”
Hoss glanced up. “Reckon not, Pa. I guess I’m going to have to figure this one out all by myself.”
Joe could no longer be contained. “Come on, Hoss. It’s good to share your problems. We can help. We haven’t let you down yet, have we?”
Hoss looked at Adam for a moment, then frowned. “Naw, this is something I gotta’ figure out for myself.” He looked down again as if eating required all of his concentration. Joe pointed his fork at Hoss to say something, but Adam shook his head sharply, and so the boy slumped back into his seat. Being left out of something in Hoss’ life was a real change for Joe, and he sat back, arms folded, no longer interested in his meal.
Hoss finally looked up. “Pa, I was thinking about the fence line on the north end of the property. Wouldn’t hurt for me to go up and work it for the next couple of days, would it?”
Ben dabbed at his face with his napkin. “Well, we’ve been meaning to get to that, but I was thinking maybe we’d send Tim or Santos. It’s too far to get there and back in a day. Whoever goes is going to need to camp a couple of nights.”
“Yeah, I was thinking on that, and a few days up there riding fence sounds just about right for me.”
“Got some thinking to do?”
“I’ll go with him, Pa.” Joe threw his napkin on the table and pushed his chair back.
Hoss smiled. “Sorry, Little Brother, not this time. I just got to think this out on my own. Don’t you worry none. It ain’t nothing serious. Just a thing a man has to figure out on his own.”
Adam shook his head and pushed away from the table. In Hoss’ shoes, he would have snapped at the boy for pushing so, but Hoss seemed to have an endless well of patience. Sometimes it rankled him how Hoss never really held Joe accountable. It was only an hour ago that Joe was refusing to give him his personal property, waving it around like he had a right to it, and now the big man was comforting him. There were times when Adam got frustrated with Hoss for his endless patience, but there were more times that he prayed to God that he be given some of his brother’s tremendous store.
A month later another letter came, same kind of envelope, same scent. Joe brought it home this time, and it took every ounce of will the boy had to keep from opening it. He put it on the dining room table and sat down in front of it. Adam found him there half an hour later, leaning over the table his chin propped on his knuckles.
Adam sat across from him quietly and waited.
“It’s not fair,” Joe mumbled.
“I think we’ll find that this letter is much less exciting than you’re making it out to be.”
“One way to find out.”
“Yeah, but clearly you would have already opened it if that was your plan.”
“What’s your guess?”
Adam sighed and sat back. “Well, I think Hoss is corresponding with a young lady.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Obviously! But why won’t he talk about it?”
“Hoss doesn’t like to talk about his lady friends.”
“No, no, if it was just a love letter, Hoss would’ve blushed and acted all squirrelly, but he had a worry crease in his forehead and he distinctly said he had some thinking to do.”
“Maybe he’s thinking of asking her to marry him.”
“Hoss! That’ll be the day. Besides, when Hoss gets all moony over a girl, he talks about it. And, he’d be picking out a horse for her and greasing his hair back all slick and wearing clean shirts and stuff like that.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. Joe had a point. For awhile, they just sat opposite one another and regarded the pink envelope. Joe jumped when the front door opened. Ben Cartwright walked in, and cocked his head at the sight of two of his sons sitting at the table in the middle of his day. Then he spied the letter on the table. He pushed his hat back on his head and scratched his forehead. “Is it alive? Are you worried it’ll bite?”
Joe wrinkled his brow at his father.
Pa shrugged. “Just wondering why one innocent little letter would need two men to watch it?”
Adam sighed. “I can take a hint.” He got up and reached for his hat. Joe wasn’t so easily swayed. He folded his arms snugly and regarded his father. “So what you think is going on with Hoss?”
“It’s none of our business, Joseph.”
“Aw come on, Pa.”
Ben wagged a finger at him. “You seem to have forgotten what it’s like when you feel crowded by your brothers, when you feel they’re getting into your business.”
“Okay, Pa, I get your meaning.” Joe waved his arms in surrender as he walked out the door.
Ben shook his head and sat down. For a few minutes he did nothing but stare at the envelope. Then looking around to make sure he was alone, he picked it up, looking at it closely, back and front. Unsatisfied, he put it up to the light. Holding it at different angles did nothing to illuminate him. Finally he put it down, and walked out of the house.
Hoss read the letter, and disappeared for six days. He made it as normal as possible telling Pa that he had to visit an old friend, but he kept it vague; too vague as lying didn’t come naturally to him. Ben Cartwright didn’t say much to him. His son was a man, and he had to make decisions for himself.
Hoss walked back in during supper on a Sunday night. There was none of the usual cheer that generally surrounded the big man. He nodded at his family and took a seat as if he’d been gone only as long as it takes to put some hay up for a horse after a day’s work.
Ben tried to feign a casual air when he asked how his trip had been. Hoss shrugged his shoulders and reached for the roast chicken. Adam and Joe looked at one another, and then the youngest Cartwright slammed his fist down on the table. “You’ve been gone a week for God knows what reason, and then you come back and all you do is shrug!”
Hoss stared down at his plate and said nothing.
“Joseph! Leave your brother alone. He’s tired. He’ll talk when he’s ready.”
Hoss pushed food around his plate for a few moments before looking at his brothers and father. His eyes lingered on Adam the longest. “Do you think there’s ever a time when a lie is a good thing?”
Adam blinked and sat back. Hoss could be such an innocent sometimes. It was in moments like these that Adam believed his brother would forever need the protection of his family. He narrowed his eyes at Hoss. “I can think of very few situations.”
Hoss nodded. “So there are times then.”
Ben sighed. “Son, it would help if we had a better understanding of the particular situation troubling you.”
“Sorry Pa, it ain’t my story to tell. ‘Sides, I guess you’ll all know soon enough.”
“Aw Hoss, come on! What does that mean?” Joe’s tenuous control over his emotions was slipping.
Hoss shook his head. “I’m sorry, Joe. I really am. I wish I knew another way.”
“Son, you just tell us what we can do. We can listen or give you space. If you need advice, any one of us is here for you. You know that.”
Hoss swallowed hard. “Thanks, Pa. I’m real sorry about all this. All I can ask of you right now is that you trust me.”
“It’s not you we don’t trust.”
Hoss turned to Adam. “What’s that mean?”
“Someone could be taking you for a ride, and we don’t even know enough to be able to help you out.”
Hoss reddened. “Then, Big Brother, you’ll need to trust that I know what I’m doing. I may not be the brightest Cartwright, but I got a good gut for people.”
“That’s not what I was trying to…“
Hoss put his hand up. “Don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t have bitten at you. You’re just looking out for me and I can appreciate that.”
“Remember that, Hoss,” Ben pointed a dinner knife at him. “You’ll always have the support of your family.”
Hoss closed his eyes. In almost a whisper, he said, “I hope not to test that.”
The next few days were rather anti-climatic. Hoss worked hard to make up for all the chores he’d missed, and while he was just quiet, he seemed to be more of himself. They were almost starting to relax into their familiar routine again when the third pink envelope arrived.
Adam was the first one to get his hands on the envelope, and he carried it home in his breast pocket while the rest of the mail sat in his satchel. The scent from the envelope drifted up, and visions of dances and pretty girls filled his head. One particular face came to mind, and in an instant, he reined in Sport, and stopped dead on the dusty road from Virginia City. He pulled the envelope from his pocket and looked at it carefully. The writing was cramped but not particularly distinctive. The envelope was thick enough so that nothing showed through in the sun. The edge of the envelope was loose, and he sat there contemplating how it would be to pull it open and take a look. It was so loose, he was sure it wouldn’t tear. He’d read it and glue it shut again with the horse paste in the barn. The urge to act on this impulse gripped him until he pulled at the edge a bit to see what it would do. A tiny tear appeared and he stopped. It dawned on him that he was ready to invade Hoss’ privacy for no reason other than curiosity. It didn’t sit right with him. He had a nagging feeling, but that was not the same as knowing something was wrong. He was pretty sure Hoss would never invade his privacy. He carefully straightened the envelope and put it back in his pocket.
The scent on the envelope was the same one she used. Adam tried to still the unease in his gut. The last time he’d seen her was 6-7 years ago, and for much of the time, she was largely forgotten, but when memories of her came, they always left him unsettled in a way that he couldn’t describe. Maybe it was because, even though he squired her to dances for nearly a year, she was still, to him, indescribable.
The first time he saw her was when he came to the school house to save his brother’s considerable back. Adam was just back from college, and his brother Hoss at almost 17 years old, was one of the biggest men in the territory. He could do ranch work with an ease and confidence that surprised Adam. He was no longer the pudgy overgrown boy Adam left behind. He was powerful now, a presence. Hoss was good on the ranch; he had natural skills that earned him the respect of men twice his age and he would have spent all of his time out on the range, tending cattle or riding fence, if Pa hadn’t insisted he finish high school. It was a sore subject at home, and it didn’t help that Adam now carried with him an architecture degree with full honors.
One night soon after Adam returned home, Little Joe had announced at the dinner table that since Hoss wasn’t going to school anymore, he wouldn’t either. Hoss had turned red, and stared down at the table for a long time before he would answer. It turned out that he’d been suspended for throwing a spit wad at Berrie Jenkins, and had been spending his days riding up to Lake Tahoe. Adam had been startled by the vitriol of Pa’s reaction. It had been so peaceful since he’d gotten home, everyone on their best behavior.
Hoss hung his head through the entire tirade, refusing to defend himself. Little Joe looked just as miserable as he’d been the one to tattle on his big brother. When Pa was finished, Hoss looked up and told him that he wasn’t ever going to that schoolhouse again. Pa pointed his finger and pronounced that as long as he lived in this house, he’d follow his rules. With tears in his eyes, Hoss got up, went upstairs, and came down with a satchel. He mumbled something unintelligible to Adam, but Little Joe picked it up and told his Pa he was going to move out to the bunkhouse too. Hoss left and Joe would have followed, but Adam grabbed him by the arm and sat him roughly back in his chair.
Ben stood there open-mouthed as his easygoing middle son moved in with the hands. It took Adam only a few minutes to drag the story out of his youngest brother about how Hoss had been unfairly accused, and how the fastidious schoolmaster had pronounced him an idiot, a disgrace to the Cartwright name, and told him that Adam, whom he had as a student, was surely embarrassed by him. Joe had frowned at Adam after this confession as if Adam might really hold some shame for Hoss. Adam had been a prize student and the fussy little schoolmaster had lauded him to the point of embarrassment, but Adam had been uncomfortable with the attention and comparisons with other students, and he knew this wasn’t the first time the old schoolmaster had unfairly compared he and Hoss.
Once Ben heard this, he marched out and dragged his son back into the house. The last thing his impressionable boy giant of a son needed was to be influenced by rough, uneducated ranch hands that drank hard and knew only women in satin skirts and low bodices. Ben confronted the boy about the story, and the way Hoss stood there, unable to look at his father left Adam as angry as he’d ever been. It didn’t matter how big Hoss got, Adam felt he would always want to watch after the boy. Ben announced that Hoss wouldn’t have to return to that school, and Adam immediately volunteered to go get his books and finish his lessons at home. He was determined that Hoss finish high school just to prove to that old schoolmaster that he could. It was a much relieved Hoss who went to bed that night with Little Joe behind him complaining that he shouldn’t have to go to school if Hoss didn’t have to. Ben and Adam both knew that Joe would never have to face the kind of obstacles Hoss did, so his complaints fell on deaf ears.
She was standing on the schoolhouse steps when Adam arrived, and, for a moment, he thought she was a teacher. It was only as he got closer that he realized that she was still a girl. She had wild, dark hair, and eyes a color he would forever identify differently, depending where she stood in the light. Her mouth was full and red, and she looked at him with a directness that he had known only with much older women. She wasn’t pretty. That didn’t describe her at all. She was dangerous, and Adam caught himself breathing deep to catch the few she’d stolen from him. Four years of college out East had made him strong and confident, and yet this simple schoolgirl was reducing him to jelly with a mere look. He’d stammered his way past her, and gotten books and supplies from the schoolmaster, but was unable to fully castigate the man with his carefully prepared speech because his mind was on the medusa standing out front. Brusquely he informed the old man that Hoss would continue his studies at home and then left. When he got to the front, she was gone, but he wasn’t worried. Virginia City was a small town, and a girl like that was going to stand out.
A shout broke his reverie and Adam looked ahead to see his father and brothers approaching.
“Did you bring the mail?”
Adam pointed at his satchel and nodded. Hoss narrowed his eyes at Adam’s chest, and Adam suddenly remembered he still carried the envelope in his breast pocket. Wrinkled and ripped, he handed it to Hoss. Hoss frowned deeply. “This has been tampered with.”
Without thinking, Adam said, “Is it from Amelia?”
Hoss shook it at him. “Did you read this?”
Adam shook his head. “I remember her perfume. Couldn’t place it before. Is it Amelia?”
“Ain’t none of your concern.” Hoss turned Chubb sharply and thundered away.
Pa looked at Adam. “You didn’t read it, did you?”
Adam shook his head.
“You’re not talking about Amelia Saunders?” Joe pushed his hat back on his forehead.
Adam sighed. “So you remember her, huh? Actually, I believe her married name was Thompson.”
“That girl you used to run around with?” Pa couldn’t hide the concern in his voice.
Adam almost smiled. Pa could be the toughest of men, but when it came to his sons and women, he was like an old mother hen. Ben Cartwright never felt right about that girl. It used to rankle Adam to no end how Pa would frown every time Adam brought up her name.
“I don’t know if it’s her, Pa. I sure wish I did. I would really like to know who’s got Middle Brother in such a bundle.”
They expected another wait and another letter, but Hoss surprised them all by asking them to gather in the living room after dinner. He disappeared outside, and when Joe went to the window, he saw his brother pacing back and forth in front of the house. Finally the big man headed for the house, and Joe fell over himself trying to get back to a game of checkers he and Adam were pretending to play.
Hoss didn’t drop his hat. Instead he stood in the middle of the room abusing the rim with his fingers. “I got something to tell you all, and I know it ain’t going to sit well.”
Ben had had about enough of the stewing over this mystery. “Well then, out with it, Boy.”
Hoss looked at Adam. “That was old Amy Saunders writing to me.”
Adam didn’t move a muscle on his face.
“She wrote because she needed to correct…an error between the two of us. I…uh…made a mistake, and didn’t take care of it before she left 7 years ago. And, she…uh…let me know…”
“Doggone it, Hoss! What are you trying to say?” Joe reached over and grabbed the ten gallon hat away from him. It was distracting watching him reduce the hat to a shapeless mess. A big hat like that didn’t come cheap.
“Dadburnit! There ain’t no words for this. The plain truth is I compromised her, and she was writing to tell me that a child came of it all those years ago, and it’s time for me to make it right.”
No one moved. Ben sat with his mouth open, and Adam leaned forward his brows furrowed as to make one.
“Aw, come off it, Hoss! You never done that to no girl, and you know it.” Joe had reached the end of his patience, throwing his brother’s hat on the floor.
Adam spoke in a low, even tone, staring a hole through his brother. “This is a ploy to get money, Hoss. That’s all it is. Amelia is not above that and I should know.”
Hoss shook his head. “She got proof. I seen it.”
“You compromised a girl and didn’t do right by her!” Pa was on his feet, eyes blazing dark and furious.
Hoss shrank a bit from his pa’s fury. “Well, see she was with this other guy, and then they got married and I didn’t find out she was pregnant ‘til much later. And even then I assumed that…”
Ben slapped him hard across the face, the sting resounding like thunder through the room. Hoss closed his eyes and didn’t move when Ben walked up to him, hissing at him. “I taught you better than that.” Then he turned and stormed out of the house.
“She was my girl.” Adam stood but didn’t approach.
Hoss raised his head, a slash of deep red growing on his face. “You’d already discarded her.”
“I always thought being brothers meant more to you than this.”
Hoss could no longer face his brother. If Adam had gone over and punched him, there was certainty that Hoss would have done nothing more than stand there, arms at his side. Then Adam did something far worse. He spat at the ground in front of Hoss and followed his pa out the door. Eyes closed, Hoss sank into a chair, a hand delicately finding the place his father struck him. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw Joe still sitting there staring at him. He grunted. “It’s your turn, Little Brother. Say what you gotta; I ain’t going to do nothing.”
One corner of his mouth tugged, but it was another minute before he could say, “You ain’t a very good liar, Hoss. Usually they’re better at seeing it, but you right shocked ‘em with your lies, and they’re too busy feeling betrayed to realize it”
Hoss shook his head. “Ain’t no lie, Little Joe. If you come to town tomorrow, you’ll see for yourself.”
“I’m going to court tomorrow. Going to stand in front of a judge and tell him my mistake. Going to make it right for Amelia and the little girl.”
This was the first mention of the child, and Joe swallowed hard. “She’s going to take you for all your money.”
“No, she ain’t. Got that all figured out.”
“The whole town’s gonna know.”
Hoss shrugged. He sat there slumped in the chair for a while before slowly getting to his feet. “I’m gonna’ stay in town tonight. Tell Pa, I understand if there ain’t room on the ranch for me no more.”
Joe leapt to his feet. “I ain’t gonna’ stand for this. You ain’t going anywhere. This is your home.”
Hoss put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “This is Pa’s home, and I disgraced it. It ain’t my decision to make.”
Joe gripped his arm, and the intensity of it surprised Hoss. “This family is stronger than any single mistake. I promise you that.”
Hoss smiled grimly at his younger brother. Sometimes it was hard to remember the boy was only 18. The two had always felt like contemporaries; Hoss couldn’t imagine a life without his fiery little brother at his side. Gently he pulled away from Joe, and climbed the stairs to pack his things.
Adam tried to be nonchalant with his brother the first time he asked about the girl with black hair, but even Hoss, in all his innocence, couldn’t do anything but laugh at him. Amelia Saunders was on everyone’s dance card. She’d moved into Virginia City when her pa had bought the Gold Coin Mining Company. Rich and beautiful and 19, her father made her go to school even though she’d already graduated because it was the only way he could even begin to control the willful girl during the day.
As a courtesy, Adam asked Hoss if he was crushing on the girl, but Hoss had shook his head and mumbled something about knowing better than to play with fire. Adam didn’t take his brother seriously. At the next dance, he saw her from across the room turning down suitors until her eyes found him. In that moment, he realized she’d been waiting for him. Wearing a dark red gown, her black hair piled high, she reminded him everything of a painting he once saw in the National Gallery when he’d visited Washington, D.C. There nothing 19 years old about her. She carried herself like royalty, and took it for granted that he was there for her and for her only. He wasn’t prepared for her intelligence or her knowledge of literature. They spent most of the evening quoting their favorite Keats to one another, never once making it to the dance floor. She consumed him in a way that no woman had before or since.
Pa pulled up alongside him and Adam glanced over to see his father staring straight ahead, a look of abject misery on his face. Joe had told them about the court date and his intention to go. Neither man said anything, but each of them found their way on the road to Virginia City the next morning. Joe rode ahead as if making sure he could stay between his brother and Adam and Pa. He felt like he needed to do whatever was necessary to keep his family from imploding. But most importantly, Joe wanted to protect Hoss. He couldn’t give up on Hoss because Hoss would never give up on him.
Hoss sat in the courtroom staring straight ahead. Various townspeople had gotten wind of something interesting and the room was filling up with people who most likely had better things to do. If Hoss had turned his head, he would have seen his pa and two brothers walk in, hats in hand, and take the only open seats near the back. Hoss didn’t even look at Amelia who sat beside him dressed in deep emerald, a hat perched snugly in her hair. On the other side of her sat one very confused lawyer who had been asked to represent both their interests simultaneously.
Hoss had been too upset to think what to pack for staying at the International House, and he was still wearing ranch clothes. Somehow, he didn’t look so big or imposing sitting up there like a cowhand. Judge Talpert finished reviewing documents and then asked Hoss to stand. “Mr. Cartwright, do you contend that these documents are accurate?”
Hoss swallowed hard. “Yes, your honor. I am taking full responsibility for the…uh, paternity of Geneva Thompson.”
The judge nodded. “And Mrs. Thompson, what evidence have you that Mr. Thompson will not be contesting the paternity of Geneva Jean Thompson?”
Amelia stood, smoothing expensive sateen skirts with her hands. “I have supplied the court with three affidavits which state that, on numerous occasions, my husband, Tim Thompson, denied paternity of my daughter, Geneva. They also show that my husband was unkind to her on several occasions.”
The judge looked at the affidavits for a moment. “Mr. Thompson is not here in person?”
“No sir. My husband does not know that I am here. My husband has threatened to harm us both.”
“This is an unusual situation. Mr. Cartwright, do you harbor any doubts that the child is yours?”
Hoss looked down at the table for a moment before responding. “No sir. I only had to look at her to know the truth.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Both of her parents are dark-haired and brown-eyed.”
The judge sighed. “I’m sure you’re aware that the child’s hair color is not a definitive indicator of paternity.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m sure of this, Judge Talpert, and I want to take responsibility. You can’t tell me you get a lot of fellers coming in fighting for paternity.”
“Where is the child?”
Amelia shifted. “She’s in the outer room.”
“Please bring her in.”
Amelia squeezed past Hoss, her skirt rustlings, and disappeared into the room behind the judge. She walked back in holding hands with a little girl. The effect on the room was electric. The child had a halo of blonde curls that defied capture. Round blue eyes blinked at the room from a round face with pink cheeks.
The breath caught in Ben Cartwright’s throat. She indeed reminded him of Hoss as a child. Until he hit ten years old, his hair was white blonde, and with his blue eyes and rosy cheeks, he’d always reminded Ben of a little cherub, and now here was another cherub walking right into the room. Adam took a look, shook his head, and walked out of the courtroom. The murmurs around them agitated Joe to the point that he had to dig his fingers into the wooden arms on his chair to keep from exploding to his feet and telling everyone to shut up.
Hoss stood amidst the whispers, his gaze set on the judge. “You got any questions, Judge?”
Judge Talpert banged his gavel. “I’ll have order in this court or I’ll close this room to all visitors.” The noise died, and he leaned over his desk. “Mr. Cartwright, I am granting your bid for paternity of Geneva Jean Thompson. This court is adjourned.”
Hoss sat down and closed his eyes. He knew everyone was watching, and he suspected that all of Virginia City would be talking about this by the end of the day. He felt a hand on his arm and turned to Amelia. She was talking at him, but he hadn’t been paying attention. He shook his head and leaned in. “What’s that you’re saying, Amy?”
“I need to leave Geneva with you for awhile. I have business I need to do.”
He shook his head. “No way, Amy, we had a deal.”
“Hoss, I need time.”
“You can’t leave Gennie with me. I just met her a couple of weeks ago.”
She gripped him tightly. “I need space to think, Hoss. And she will be safe with you.”
“You promised me you’d get help.”
“And I will. That’s what I’m doing. I just need a little time. Please understand.” Before he could protest further, she pushed Geneva in front of him and backed away. Hoss took the little girl’s hand. The tiny blonde head whipped around as her mother made her way to the door. Her face screwed up and she screamed for her mother.
Amelia pushed past people to get to the front door, and she was almost there when a black sleeve came out of nowhere and pulled her into the judge’s chambers. She gasped as he shut the door, and she came face to face with Adam. He gripped her tightly by the shoulders, and stared at her. It took a moment for him to take her in. She was more beautiful than he remembered. Her face had lost its youthfulness and had become more defined; cheekbones and jawline delicately etched into her features. Those eyes that Hoss described as brown were actually a mesmerizing mélange of gold, green, and brown. He remembered back to days when he had tried to study those eyes for hours on end. But she was also thinner than he remembered and paler; there was a tinge to her skin that reminded him of women who never left their sitting rooms. She tried to jerk away from him, but he held fast. “I can’t believe you’d come to town and not see me.”
“Adam, I don’t want any part of this.”
“You can’t mean that. After all, you’re a member of the family now.”
“This was the right thing to do.”
“What? What is this, Amelia? You and Hoss have a child? I’m supposed to believe that.”
“You saw her, Adam.”
He shook his head. “I saw a blonde, blue eyed girl. That doesn’t make her Hoss’ child.”
“It’s just impossible for you to believe I could do something for the right reasons.”
“Amelia, it’s not about right or wrong for you, it’s about opportunity.”
His grip loosened, and she pulled away. “I don’t need money, Adam. My husband is rich, and my father left me plenty.”
“Then what is it?”
She wheeled around and walked up to his face. “Hoss is her father. I knew it from the beginning, but you can’t blame him for this. It wasn’t his fault. I went after him one night to hurt you. He was only 17 years old, and I was almost 20; he barely knew what was going on.”
Adam shook his head. “That’s disgusting.”
She laughed. “It was…even for me. I lost my stomach for it by the very next morning. Plus Tim Thompson was waiting for me to make the right decision. So I linked arms with him, and we set out for Carson City, and his pappy’s mining operation. I never looked back.”
“So why come back? Why not just ride into the sunset with your husband and your child?”
She looked down and Adam remembered how she hated to look at him when she was wrong. He reached out and lifted her chin. She looked at him reluctantly, and for a moment, he imagined getting lost in those eyes again. “Adam, he’s a drinker and he’s mean, and he’s never cared for her. I think he knew from the beginning. He didn’t say anything for awhile, but the marriage started to sour because I didn’t get pregnant again. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Adam rubbed his forehead and looked away.
“I’m telling the truth. I’m just tired, Adam. I think she deserves better, and frankly I do too.”
“Are you going to divorce him?”
She smiled grimly. “The Thompsons don’t divorce.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I just did it.”
“Amelia, this isn’t going to work.”
“It already did.” She went to the door.
“Where are you going?”
She cocked her head at him for a moment. “You know, Adam, you were the only one that ever felt real to me. It’s too bad I couldn’t make the grade. I would have made life interesting at the Ponderosa.” She slipped through the door without another word. Adam stood there, hands on his hips, and stared at the door.
The child hiccupped into Hoss’ chest while he rocked her. “That’s the way, Little Doll. You just listen to old Hoss. We’re going to have a good time, you and I. You just wait and see.”
Someone sat next to him and he turned to see his pa and Joe crouching next to him. Ben looked at him. “Did you know she was going to leave her?”
He shook his head and turned his attention back to the blonde ringlets resting on his shirt.
Joe smiled thinly. “She’ll probably be back in a couple of days.”
Hoss nodded and rubbed the tiny head of hair.
Pa reached over. “Give her to me.”
Hoss wrinkled his nose. “Aw, she’s a little fussy right now.”
“I know all about fussy. Hand her over.”
Hoss eased her off his chest and into his pa’s arms. The little girl seemed too tired to really care. Ben held her. “You just rest, Sweetheart. We’re going to take you to a nice ranch, and you’re going to have a room all to yourself. Joe here is going to get a puppy or a kitty or whatever he can find between here and the Ponderosa. And Hop Sing is going to make you ice cream for dinner tonight.”
The girl held onto his shirt with tiny fists and just listened. Suddenly a little voice emerged. “Does the puppy bite?”
Ben smiled. “No, Joe’ll make sure you get a puppy that doesn’t bite. Did you hear that, son; a puppy that doesn’t bite?”
Joe grinned. “I’m on it.”
Hoss wrinkled his brow. “Are you sure, Pa?”
Ben smiled at his middle son. “I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I’ve never hit you like that before, and it can never happen again. I don’t what’s happening here with this child, but I know that I’m not going to have any better luck until my middle son is back in the house with me.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Pa.”
Ben shook his head. “Let’s not talk about it anymore.”
Hoss nodded. He reached for Geneva, but Pa was already on his feet heading for the street. “Pa, everyone will see you.”
His pa looked over his shoulder. “And they’ll know that I’m proud of the newest member of my family. That sounds about right, don’t you think?”
Joe went straight to Tracy Ledbetter’s place for a pet. The girl was crazy, what with that rifle she was always swinging in every direction, but she knew how to raise dogs. She steered him to the hounds, but he didn’t figure the child would know what to do with one of those raw-boned howlers. Then she pulled him into the barn where a black and white herding dog was lying in the hay, six pups playing around her. He picked out one that was white with black patches on its back and one over its eye. Tracy told him they called that one Bluebeard because of the patch over one eye, and Joe figured they’d shorten it to Blue or something. He stuffed the squirmy pup in his shirt and headed home.
This was an errand that was pleasure to him. The events of the last 24 hours had weighed heavily on the boy, and when his pa told Hoss to come home this afternoon, Joe almost leapt to his feet and started screaming. He knew that his fierce fight for identity within the family made it look like he was trying to break away from the Cartwrights, but the truth was that he couldn’t imagine life without either of his brothers or father. The deeper truth, however, was that if Hoss left, he wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t leave with him. It was that way between the two of them. Hoss had always been there, always believed in him when others doubted. Hoss loved him like a brother, a mother, and a friend. It was as if he was a necessary extension of Joe; the part that exercised caution and patience. In fact, the way the big man fussed over him sometimes, it felt like he still had a mother.
Joe knew that the truth of the situation between Hoss and Amelia had still not come to light, but whatever it was, he figured it was his job to back his brother to the end.
Adam didn’t come home for three days. Ben was all about giving his boys space, but when one of the hands mentioned that Adam was picking fights at the Bucket of Blood, he figured enough was enough.
He stopped first at the jail reasoning that Roy would have thrown Adam in a cell by now, but the sheriff just shook his head, “Ben, I almost jailed him the first night, but once folks realized they needed to keep their snide comments about Hoss to themselves, it got real peaceful like around here. In fact, I would say that having him camped out over there at the Bucket of Blood has been a great deterrent to the fights that have been breaking out over Hoss.”
Ben winced. “People are fighting about Hoss?”
Roy got up. “You know that Hoss has done a kindness for more people than anyone else in the territory. There’s those who’ll defend him no matter what and there’s those who gotta’ judge a man. You got your folk who hate the success of the Ponderosa and everything Cartwright, and you got folks who know that Hoss would give a man the shirt off his back. I haven’t stumbled onto one conversation this whole week that hasn’t been about Hoss being a pa to that little girl.”
Ben furrowed his brows. “People need to mind their own business.”
Roy let out a chortle. “Good luck with that, Ben. People ain’t got all that much to talk about if not each other. Always been that way, always will be. You know that. I myself have had to have a few heated exchanges on Hoss’ behalf in the last few days. I mean, Ben, do you really think your boy fathered that girl?”
Ben glared at his old friend hard for a long minute, and then threw up his hands. “I don’t know.”
“That boy is really in a pickle this time.”
“Yes, well, I’m not here about all that, Roy, am I?”
Roy grabbed his hat. “All right, let’s go see Adam. I figure he’s probably not doing more than just nursing the bottle this time of day.”
“What kind of shape is he in?” It was a beautiful sunny day and people crowded the streets. Ben knew that all eyes were on him, but he didn’t care. A man who’d been through as much as he had in life didn’t take much stock on what people said about him behind his back.
Roy waved at passing folks. “He’s okay. I paid Sally to bring eggs over to the Bucket of Blood every morning and then supper at night.”
Ben reached into his breast pocket. “I’m much obliged.”
Roy put his hand up. “Put your silver away. You Cartwrights are about the closest thing I have to family in these parts. It was my pleasure.”
Ben nodded. They got to the Bucket of Blood, and blinked hard as their eyes adjusted from blinding sunlight to the dusty darkness of the saloon. Ben nodded at Sam, and looked around the room. There, in the corner, sat his son, his head resting on folded arms, a half full bottle of whiskey next to him. “How is he?”
Sam finished polishing a glass. “Same bottle as last night. I reckon his heart’s not in it anymore.”
Ben put a coin on the bar. “Give me the best bottle you got in the house.” Then he gestured at Roy. “And make sure the sheriff here has a full mug of beer for as long as he wants it.”
Roy smiled and sidled up to the bar. Ben grabbed the whiskey Sam handed to him and headed over to Adam. Adam was lifting his head before Ben could sit down. “Came to haul me back to the ranch?”
“No,” Ben unscrewed the bottle and poured one for Adam and for himself. “I figured if you were going to drink, you might as well get the good stuff. It’s easier on the head in the morning.”
Adam pushed the glass of whiskey back to his father’s side of the table. “I think I’ve done enough damage for quite awhile.”
“You still mad at Hoss?”
“I guess I am.”
“Son, I’m not sure what to believe about this, but you have to know that Hoss had his reasons.”
Adam snorted. “Hoss is not that child’s father. If he’d done what he said he did, he wouldn’t be able to look me in the eye. He’s not capable of it. It took three days and two bottles of whiskey to see that.”
Ben shrugged. “I don’t know another reason why he’d…“
Adam slapped the table angrily. “He did it because he thought he could save Amelia or maybe the child. I don’t know which one, but it’s what Hoss does. And usually, I just play along while gangs of strangers get put up at the house or he stops doing ranch work for a week because some neighbor needs his help or he almost gets the lot of us swindled out of everything we own. Usually, I can ride out one of his rescue missions pretty well, but this time it took a toll and I don’t want to encourage it anymore. And you know, Pa, you are the worst when it comes to that.”
Ben raised his brows at Adam and waited.
“You let him get away with all of it. He’s got a big heart, you’ll say. If he wants to hire good for nothings or misfits or whatever, it doesn’t matter ‘cause you’ll go along with it. If he wants to ruin the family name because Amelia Thompson asks him to, you’ll go along with it.”
“I didn’t know you felt this way.”
“I didn’t either. It’s another thing two bottles of whiskey clarified for me.”
Ben swallowed his drink and poured another. “I don’t know what to say.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing to say. I just want him to think things through before he disrupts all of our lives. It happens every time, and the fact that he does it for noble reasons is supposed to excuse the craziness that results. Believe me, Pa, this circus is only getting started. I mean, Pa, what is the plan? Are we raising a little blonde girl now? Is she a Cartwright? I bet you Hoss didn’t know that Amelia was going to take off like she did. When is she coming back or even, is she coming back?”
Ben sighed deeply. “I see your point.”
Adam grunted. “No, you don’t. I don’t have a point. We will all continue to allow him to try and fix every problem he sees. Even I know that. I won’t be angry forever, and there will always be a part of me that knows that Hoss is just doing what the rest of us oughta’ do.”
“Okay?” Ben contemplated a third glass from the bottle. Maybe whiskey would give him clarity too.
“This thing with Amelia will not end well.”
Ben waited for a moment before saying what he knew his son didn’t want to hear. “I didn’t realize that you still cared for her. I imagine we all thought she was never someone serious.”
Adam’s face clouded over and Ben steeled himself for an angry response, but the young man took a deep breath. “Honestly, Pa, I don’t know what I’m feeling, and I don’t really want to talk about it.”
Ben nodded. He expected nothing less from Adam. His eldest always kept his feelings close to his vest.
“How’s she doing?”
“Huh?” Ben blinked.
“The little girl, how’s she doing?”
Ben smiled. “Well, her name is Geneva and she’s very shy. She follows Hoss around like a puppy which, by the way, is what she now has. Joe got a little shepherd puppy from Tracy Ledbetter. They’re calling it Blue, I think.”
“Hoss has got a way with kids, doesn’t he?”
“Which is good because she was very upset when Amelia left her. Hoss has been working in the barn so he can stay close to the house. She doesn’t let him out of her sight. He even sleeps on the floor next to her bed.”
“Tell me more.” Adam rested his head on his chin.
“Hop Sing adores her and makes ice cream every night which has Hoss tickled silly. And last night, Joe and Hoss were telling her a bedtime story and I walked in as they’re telling her about some calf stuck in the mud being stalked by a timber wolf. I had to jump in, and explain that little girls shouldn’t have scary stories like that at bedtime. I mean, they claimed that it was going to have a happy ending, but come on, she’s 6 years old. But you know, they don’t know, and frankly, I don’t know either. I have to remember to go to the mercantile today to see if they might have some books of fairy tales; something a little more appropriate for a little girl.”
Adam nodded and pushed his hat back on his forehead. “Chet had some in. I saw them yesterday. Actually I saw them and bought them.” He reached under his chair and pulled up a few thin, brightly colored books.
Ben shook his head, sat back and regarded his son. “Okay, so what now? You going to bring these books home with you anytime soon?”
“I was just thinking of heading out when you showed up.”
“Do you know what you’re going to say to your brother?”
“I’ll know what I get there.”
“Fair enough.” Ben picked up the bottle of whiskey and followed his son. At the bar, he put it down in front of Roy who tipped his hat at his friend as he walked back out into the sun.
When he and Adam rode into the yard that afternoon, there was no emotional reunion. Hoss looked up from where he was shoeing a horse and nodded; the big man knew enough to give Adam his space. Adam tipped his hat and slid off Sport. Hoss secured the horse and waited. Adam looked around the yard. “I hear you got a new shadow; one that’s considerably prettier than you.”
Hoss couldn’t stop the broad grin spreading across his face. “She hid in the barn when she heard the horses. Just hold on a sec.” He turned his head and yelled, “Gennie, you come out now!”
Ben frowned. “Why is she hiding?”
Hoss shrugged. “I don’t know, Pa. She won’t tell me. She just skedaddles every time she hears a new horse.”
The little girl emerged slowly, a squirming puppy in her arms. She ran over and stood behind Hoss, gripping his pants leg tightly. Hoss reached around and picked her up. “Hey now, ain’t nothing to be worried about. This is Adam. Remember me telling you about him. He’s my big brother.”
She peeked at Adam out of the corner of her eye, the puppy struggling mightily in her arms. Adam reached over carefully and took the pup. “Can I meet Blue? He is a cutie. Looks like he’s acting a little squirrelly there.”
Adam rolled the pup over in his hands, and gently started to massage its belly. The rambunctious beast immediately settled down and let its limbs go limp. Geneva leaned forward in Hoss’ arms to get a better look. She wrinkled her brow and looked up at Hoss. He chuckled deep in his throat. “He’s just giving Blue a little nap. Ain’t nothing wrong. Dogs like getting scratched on their bellies.”
Adam knelt down. “Do you want to give it a try?”
Hoss put her down gently and urged her to reach out. The little girl did, and Adam took her hand showing where and how to scratch the puppy. Ben stood back and watched his boys. They were strong men, respected and sometimes feared, but they were also kind and gentle, and he felt proud that they weren’t afraid to let that part of their character show in a country where few men recognized the value of it. Joe sauntered out from the house, and joined his brothers and Geneva on the ground just in time for the puppy to stage a revolt, nipping Adam, and taking off across the yard. Hoss lunged for the dog, but ended up with a face full of dirt, Joe tripping over his brother’s arm in an effort to do the same. Geneva stood up and regarded the two men lying on the ground. Then she gingerly stepped around them and trotted off after the puppy. Adam threw back his head and laughed, “Girl’s got common sense. You two jaspers could take a lesson from her.”
Ben grunted his satisfaction and headed for the house. Whatever was coming would be manageable now that his sons were together again.
Geneva was a listener. She quietly paid attention to everything they said. Adam watched her from the window in Pa’s study. She seemed perfectly content to follow Hoss with her puppy, and listen to him all day long. Hoss, for his part, kept up a steady of facts and ideas about ranch life.
Adam discovered that bringing her books was definitely the way to her heart. She held them carefully and would kneel on the floor, resting the books on the couch and slowly turn the pages for hours. At bedtime, he’d suggested reading one to her, and she’d quickly picked out one with a girl in a red hood on the cover, and came straight over to him. It was the boldest thing he’d seen her do. Not having had fairy tale books when they were young, Hoss and Joe had an inordinate interest in these tales as well, and he found that he was reading to all three of them at night. Getting Hoss to stop interrupting with constant questions and worries about the characters proved to be Adam’s greatest challenge.
It turned out that she’d had no schooling yet so Adam picked up a primer and gave her simple lessons on the alphabet. It amazed him that a six year old child could work so diligently for such a long time, carefully copying letter after letter on the paper he bought for her. Despite her easy, quiet nature, Adam knew she was a very unhappy child. He wondered if it went beyond Amelia abandoning her. There was no way to know because questions to her about family went unanswered, and the discomfort she displayed went asked taught them all to avoid the subject.
Adam heard horses, and saw the tiny girl pick up her skirts and disappear into the barn; the little puppy chasing after her. He walked out of the house in time to see Hoss greet Regina Gant in a dusty old wagon. Regina was a fine woman married to a rancher named Jason Gant with a small spread north of the Ponderosa. Together they had four children. They struggled to make the mortgage every month and always looked tired, but seemed to carry the deep satisfaction that folks had who felt true meaning to their lives. Regina was not a beautiful woman, but her goodness gave her a warmth that made people smile. The fact that she was Amelia’s little sister never failed to amaze Adam.
Hoss lifted her off the wagon and steered her toward the porch. She smiled at Adam and took the seat he offered. Without preamble, she looked up at him, “I’ve come to see my niece.”
“Well, she’s hiding from you right now. Hoss went to get some refreshment. We’ll wait ‘til he comes back. He sort of has the touch when it comes to that little girl.”
Hoss appeared as if on cue. “Hop Sing will bring out some lemonade straight off, Miss Regina.”
“Can I see Geneva?”
Hoss nodded and turned to the barn. “Come out, Gennie. Got somebody I want you to meet.”
For a moment, there was nothing, but finally the little girl slinked out of the barn and trotted over to Hoss who picked her up and sat her in a chair next to Regina. Regina took her little chin and looked her over carefully. “I haven’t seen you since you were a baby. Your mama had me out to Carson City when you were first born. I stayed for a good couple of months. Brought my two girls, but I’m sure you don’t remember any of that.”
The little girl blinked at her but said nothing.
Regina sat back. “We were getting along back then, Amelia and I. She was lonely, and I was happy to be there.”
“You haven’t talked to her since?” Adam asked.
She shook her head. “I tried, but you know Amelia. She can be quite stubborn. When is she coming back?”
Hoss took off his hat and scratched his head. “I don’t rightly know, Miss Regina. She never said. I wish I knew. I think Gennie misses her something fierce.”
Regina raised an eyebrow at that last statement. “In any event, I’m glad she’s here with you.”
Hoss blushed and looked down at the floor.
She smiled. “Did you know that my husband married me for my brains? He said to me, ‘Regina, a wise woman is worth a lifetime while a pretty one is only worth the time it takes for her looks to fade. If I’m going to marry one, I might as well get the lifetime model.’ I’m not here to judge. I don’t know if you are the father — I have my own theories on that — but I’m glad that she is somewhere safe. I’ve prayed for her every night for six years.”
Hoss gently pulled Geneva off the chair and deposited her on the ground. “Go on, Gennie. Blue needs a walk. Go circle around the fence with him like I showed you.”
The little girl looked at him briefly, then put the puppy on the ground and trotted off.
The three of them sat quietly for a moment, unsure of where to take the conversation. Then Adam said, “I don’t know what you mean, Regina.”
She looked down at her lap. “She’s a drinker, he’s a drinker. Neither was much interested in that little baby of theirs. I guess I said something wrong ‘cause she told me to pack up one day. I offered to take the baby, but Amelia wouldn’t let me. Her pride couldn’t handle it.”
Adam took note of the fact that Hoss wasn’t saying anything.
“The truth is that I don’t want to cause any trouble; I just want to see the child. I want my children to know their cousin. I want to see if she knows how to smile.”
Hoss nodded. “Miss Regina, you and your kids are welcome here any day. I think it would be good for her to have other kids around. She’s gotta’ be getting tired of trailing around after me all day.”
“I think Amelia will get mad.”
Hoss shook his head. “Well, she ain’t here to squawk none about it so we’re not going to worry about that.”
“Can I bring them tomorrow?”
Hoss grinned. “I’ll have Hop Sing make us up a picnic lunch. We’ll have a grand ol’ time.”
Ben was having as much fun as anyone. It had been years since he’d had kids running around the yard, and watching Regina’s kids chase around the yard brought him back to times when Joe and Hoss would tear around like for hours until they literally dropped from exhaustion. Geneva had been shy at first, holding Blue tightly, but these children were a happy, hardy bunch. They were tickled to have a cousin, and treated her like a little princess. Eventually this wore down her defenses, and soon she was chasing around after them, although Ben was pretty sure she was lost as to the purpose of it all.
Regina sat beside Ben sipping lemonade and laughing. His sons were out on the range, this marking the first time Geneva had let Hoss out of her sight since she’d come to the ranch. He thought she might get scared, but they had to try it sometime. Right now, she seemed to be doing okay, but Ben knew that it was best he stay where she could see him in case she started to worry.
Regina sighed. “I wish Lottie could have come. She’s closest to Geneva in age, but she was feeling kinda’ peaked this morning so I thought it best she stay back. Jason is working close to the house so he’s keeping an eye on her.”
“I thought we were short a Gant child.”
She smiled. Tom, the oldest boy, came running up to his ma. He all but barreled into her as he reached around her neck to give her a hug. “My head hurts.”
She frowned at him and felt his forehead. “Maybe you should rest a bit.”
The dark eyed boy considered his options for a moment before wriggling away from his mother and running back into the fray. Ben chuckled, “Boys are like that. Tell them to rest and all of a sudden, they’re feeling just fine.”
She nodded, but kept a worried eye on her son. “I hope the children aren’t coming down with something. I would hate to expose Geneva to anything.”
He waved away her concern. “They’re fine. Kids and runny noses just go together is all.”
“Do you know that Amelia named Geneva after me?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“It was a gesture, I guess. She wanted us to be close. I had married Jason against my father’s wishes, and so I was out of the family as far as he was concerned. I think she admired my gumption. Of course, the truth was it was nothing but pure survival. Our father was neither an easy nor a nice man. It wasn’t brave really. I just didn’t want any part of his world. Since my father was still alive, she named her Geneva; Gennie for short. Gennie is short for Regina. It was her compromise, and I was really touched.”
“You must miss her.” Ben filled her glass with more lemonade.
She shrugged; her eyes still on the children. “I grew up with her, but I never really knew her. I think I miss what we should have been. She was beautiful and smart, and always trying to get Papa’s attention. She didn’t have much time for me. I just sat back and watched. I think people thought I was jealous of her, and I would be happy to admit it, but the truth was she was never satisfied. She always wanted what was beyond her reach. She was so miserable all the time that it was hard to be jealous. God gave her beauty, but he gave me contentment. I knew from the first moment I saw Jason that he was the one for me, and I’ve never felt any different. No amount of money will ever make her feel that. I think I feel sorry for her more than anything else.”
Ben was just thinking about what a wonderful woman she was when the sounds of hooves erupted. Hoss, Joe, and Adam came thundering in, scattering the kids to the porch. He was about to get cross, but he could see that they were aware of the kids and were doing it to play with them more than anything else. Geneva jumped down and ran after Hoss, grabbing his pant leg tightly. He chuckled and hoisted her up onto his shoulders. Horses tethered; the three of them headed for Pa and Regina.
Regina stood up. “I reckon if your boys are home for supper, my Jason is starting to think the same thing.”
“Howdy, Ma’am, did you have a nice day here?”
“I did, Hoss. I was just telling your father that my youngest, Lottie, wasn’t able to come, and she’s a bit heartbroken. I’m hoping that we could do this again soon or Lottie will drive me right crazy asking after her.”
Hoss nodded. “Well, how ‘bout after church on Sunday? Gennie and I will come over and she can play with them all afternoon. If I remember right, Jason said he’s got a bull he wants me to see. It’d be a right good opportunity to get both of those things done, don’t you think?”
“Sounds perfect. I’ll see you then.” She let Adam help her into the wagon, her three kids being hoisted into the back by Little Joe.
As they left, Geneva squirmed out of Hoss’ arms and jogged after them to wave good-bye. She’d only made a few steps when she tripped on a rock and fell to the dirt. Joe went over to pick her up. He noted a big tear in the back of her stockings, and as he was looking at it, he saw something that made him gasp. The girl in his arms, he whirled around to Hoss and shouted, “Who did this to her?”
They had all crowded around, and everyone got a good look at red lines faintly etched onto the back of her thighs. Hoss rescued her from their midst, and walked off with her down the trail to the meadow behind the barn. It was an odd response; he didn’t attempt to explain anything. Ben watched him disappear with her down into a meadow. Joe looked at him; shock still etched on his face and Ben shook his head. “Hoss will tell us later.”
“He’d better,” Joe muttered.
“Don’t worry, Little Brother. I’ll crack his head if I have to, but he’s talking.”
Adam stood, arms folded, and stared off at the meadow long after Ben and Joe went inside.
Geneva was used to being at the center of attention at the Ponderosa, but that evening she was nothing less than a princess. They all sat with her that evening, watching her page through her books; the room quieter than usual. She sat in Hoss’ lap for a long time with her Jack and the Beanstalk book. He challenged her to tell him the story, and she went through it page by page, remembering most of the words by heart. The Cartwright men couldn’t help but smile as she adapted a deep voice when the giant came on the page. She even let Joe pick her up and take her to bed without Hoss. It was clear that she was starting to feel safe with all of them.
Hoss seemed to know he wasn’t going to bed without an explanation. He sat in front of the fire with hands folded until Joe came back downstairs. He sat up and turned to his family. “She’s not my child.”
Adam snorted. “We didn’t wait all evening for you to tell us what we already know.”
“Why would you lie? I don’t understand.”
Hoss looked at his father. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t know another way. I figured none of you would have let me go through with it.”
“You think?” Adam carried a dangerous tone.
Ben sighed. “You better start from the beginning.”
“She sent me a letter. She said she needed help for her and her little girl. She said I was the one she could count on. She said that she and her little girl were being hurt by her husband. I went there after the second letter to see for myself.”
“What did you find?”
“She wasn’t expecting me. The house was dark, and when she answered the door, the smell of brandy just sort of hit me. I never saw the husband. Geneva was there playing with a doll; just a shy little splinter who hid from me most of the time. Amy told me that her husband never believed the girl was his. She reminded me of the night she’d tried to…um…be with me, and said that if I said I was the father, Thompson would believe me. She said she would be able to leave him without him coming after her and using the girl to get back at her if I said she was mine. I told her I didn’t think it would work, and I didn’t want to get mixed up in it.”
“Great. At what point then did your common sense leave you?”
Hoss could feel the anger rising off Adam, and knew his brother had been bottling it for sometime. “Amy fell asleep, I guess you could say, in the middle of the afternoon. The cook came and got the child for a bath. The child started screaming ‘cause the woman was being rough with her in the tub, soapin’ her and dunkin’ her and such, and when I ran in, I saw the lines on her, all the way from her thighs up her back. It was clear to me that somebody had been hitting that child too hard. The cook wouldn’t answer questions, and later Amy just said her husband did it, but she wouldn’t look at me. It just didn’t feel right.”
“You thought Amy did it?” Ben was leaning toward him, his brow furrowed.
“I don’t know, Pa. Truly I don’t. I mean, could a mother really strap her child such that the marks would scar for weeks or months? It just seems so mean. I ain’t ever known no woman like that.”
Ben sat back. “Drinking can change a person. We’ve all seen men who go from gentle souls to mean animals with too much whiskey. I don’t know why it can’t be the same for women.”
“I was bound and determined to get away from that house. I figured that getting involved in this would come to no good, but she started crying and begging and then there was the little girl; I couldn’t get her out of my head. Finally I told her that I would do it if she got some help for the drinking. I told her she could stay out at the ranch with us until all those urges had passed and she was feeling in control again. She agreed, but then she switched up after the hearing, and now I don’t know where she is.”
Adam pushed himself out of his chair and started pacing. “Well, of course she was going to renege; I can’t believe you were so dumb you didn’t realize that.”
“Adam, I didn’t think…“
“If you had come to me — the one person who really knows her — and asked me about this, I would have told you this is what she would do.”
Hoss got up and walked over to his older brother. “You got a right to be mad, Adam, and I’m sorry for hurting you and Pa and Little Brother, but you might as well know the bigger truth here. I ain’t sorry I done it. I’m glad she’s here. She don’t talk none about missing nobody. Just today she asked if she could stay here forever. Dadburnit, she’s starting to smile; she’s starting to be a happy little girl. I ain’t ever going to let her go back to Amy or Thompson or anybody unless I know she’s going to be safe.”
He started to walk away, and then whirled around at the foot of the stairs. “And as for her trying to make love to me…I knew I could never do that to you even though she wasn’t your gal anymore. It just wasn’t right. I was a kid and she was drinking, and, no matter what she said, it would have been wrong to compromise her like that. I ain’t built for that kind of guilt. The truth is it was about the most confusing and embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. So unless you really gotta’ know something about it right now, I don’t ever want to talk about it again.”
Without waiting for anyone’s reply, he marched up the stairs.
Joe stood up. “I knew he would never have done that to that girl.”
Adam looked up. “We all knew.”
“But you didn’t have faith in him like I did. That’s the truth, Adam. And here’s another thing; I think he’s doing the right thing by that little girl and I’m going to stand by him on it too.”
“So I’m the bad guy now, huh?”
Joe closed his eyes and sighed. “I just don’t think he was dumb or too innocent to know better. He can’t stand the suffering of others, he has to step in no matter what; it’s just who he is. I accept that about him, I’m proud of it, in fact. Can you say the same?”
Joe followed Hoss up the stairs, and Adam shook his head and looked at Pa. “What’s going on? Why do I gotta’ be the one to apologize?”
“You have anything to apologize for, son. I just think your brothers are asking you to be a bit more patient. Joe’s right. Hoss is always going to react to other people’s suffering, and there are times that he’s going to be real clumsy about it, but he does it for all the right reasons.”
“You know, Pa, they say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
“True, but what Hoss does is more than just good intentions; that boy is willing to risk everything for what he believes. Standing up to us and the whole town took real courage. Getting that girl out of that house was the right thing to do, and if our name is dragged around because of it, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
Adam sat back and stared at the fire. “The reputation of the family doesn’t really bother me; I don’t know exactly what is bothering me, but it isn’t that.”
Ben leaned toward his eldest son. “It has to do with that woman, Adam. You’ve haven’t been right since her name first came up. I don’t know what it is, only you can know that, but I think you gotta’ be honest with yourself about it, son. There’s no other way.”
Adam dropped his head into his hands. Ben waited for awhile, but when it became clear that Adam was only going to war with himself, he got up and went to bed.
Ben looked around the room at his sons. It had been three days since Hoss told them the real story of Geneva, and a pall had settled over the house. Everyone was polite, but he hadn’t seen much in the way of smiles. Joe was the only showing any signs of life. He’d recently taken a real interest in how much Geneva was eating. It took Ben back to those days when Joe was a boy, and it took all of his patience and then some to get that skinny little boy to finish his plate. Now that hen had come home to rest, and Joe had someone to fuss over about eating.
“You have to at least finish your flapjack and your ham before you leave this table. Ya’ hear?”
The little girl cocked her head at him. “But I’m not hungry anymore.”
Joe shook his head. “No, no, I said one whole flapjack and one piece of ham before you get up. You can’t get big and strong eating like a bird.”
She frowned at him. Hoss looked up from his third stack of flapjacks. “Aw, Joe, leave her alone. She won’t starve. Kids always figure out how to get enough food in. In fact, I seem to recall a little splinter who used to drive Pa half crazy with his picky eating.”
Adam grinned. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
Joe glared across the table at both of them. “This ain’t no time for dumb ol’ story that nobody wants to hear.”
“I’d like to hear it,” Geneva said as she pushed her flapjack around the plate.
Joe pointed a fork at her. “You focus on eating that flapjack.”
“Do you remember the caterwauling he used to do, Pa?” Hoss was growing one of his toothy grins.
Ben was grateful for the anything that lifted the tension. “They do have a point, Joseph.”
Joe threw his hands in the air. “So sue me. I’m just trying to help her avoid the same mistakes I made.”
“You worried someone’s going to call her Little Geneva.”
Hoss guffawed. “Good one, Adam.”
“Okay, that’s enough, boys. Hoss, I’m going to need you and Joe to come in to town with me today. You both have to sign the assessor’s report at the land office.”
“I think I’ll stay here and do the account books today.” Adam dropped his napkin onto his plate and sat back.
Ben nodded. “Well, Hop Sing needs to come to town with us, and load up on supplies.”
“Well Gennie, I guess that means you’re coming to town,” Hoss said as he pushed his chair away from the table.
“Oh no, Hoss, she can’t come to town. We have to go through that entire contract. It will take us at least a couple of hours.”
Hoss frowned. “Old Hop Sing’ll watch her.”
“No, no, no,” rang a voice from the kitchen. “Old Hop Sing has enough to do getting the pantry stocked. Hop Sing is not paid to be babysitter for Cartwright babies.”
Ben nodded. “He’s right.”
Adam blinked and looked around the room. “Okay…so, what’s the plan?”
“She’ll stay here with you.”
Adam sat up straight. “How do I suddenly have time? You told me you wanted the books done this week.”
“Aw, she ain’t going to be a problem, Adam. She’s mostly just going to play with Blue in the yard.”
“I ain’t going to just play. I can do the barn chores.”
Ben frowned. “Don’t say ain’t. You aren’t going to just play, Geneva. I may have lost this battle with my two youngest sons, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let a little girl grow up in this house sounding like a ranch hand.”
“Yes sir,” she said, reaching over to grip Hoss’ pant leg.
He reached down and pulled her hand off. “You ain’t, I mean, you isn’t…aren’t…Dadburnit! You don’t got nothing to worry on, Little Doll. Pa’s just trying to teach you how to be a lady. Ladies don’t talk like cowhands. It ain’t…aren’t, uh, isn’t fitting.”
Joe started to giggle. “Hoss, I think it’s best that you don’t even try. We’ll just use you as the example of how not to talk.”
“All right, people. Let’s go back to my little dilemma.” Adam stood, hands on hips, glaring at his family.
“What’s the matter, Adam? She said she’d do the barn chores.” Joe jumped away out of his brother’s reach.
“Hey, that’s a good idea.”
“Hoss!” his pa roared. “She can’t do barn chores.”
“No, no, Pa, listen. She’s been watching me for pretty near two months. She knows that barn. She can supervise Adam, tell him what needs doing. It’ll be fun.”
“For whom?” drawled Adam.
Hoss ambled over. “Big brother, your resourcefulness has always been an inspiration to me. I can’t wait to see how this all turns out.”
Before Adam could protest, his brothers and Pa were crowding each other as they piled out the front door. He turned around, and there she was standing there, staring at him.
She regarded him for a moment and then said, “I think I’ll have you start in the hayloft.”
He had to admit she impressed him with her knowledge of the ranch and animals. It was clear she was a little sponge much like her mother must have been at that age. He was surprised at how cautious she was. Hoss clearly did a good job teaching her the dangers of a ranch yard. She confined herself to getting him tools and sweeping the floor. When they walked outside again, it was already mid-day. Blue danced around them, eager for attention. Adam picked up a piece of rawhide from the porch and played tug of war with the puppy. Geneva laughed out loud as the puppy gamely pulled on the rawhide, growling, hair raised on his back.
Adam smiled at her laughter. It was good to see the solemn girl enjoying herself. He let go of the leather, and the puppy scurried off to chew on his toy in peace. Adam disappeared into the house and returned with some lemonade Hop Sing had left in the icehouse. He poured her a large glass and sat next to her. For a minute, all they did was sip the cool drink and watch Blue wrestle with the rawhide. He felt her eyes on him and turned to her. The little girl struggled with her words for a minute before saying, “Are you going to try and send me back to my mama?”
“Ah…where did you get that idea?”
“Mama doesn’t want me back.”
“Why would you say that?”
“She says that I am in the way. Hoss says I can stay here. I like staying here.”
Adam stared down at his glass. “You don’t want to see your mother.”
The little girl was drawing circles in the dirt with the toe of her shoe. “Mama feels sick a lot. I want Mama to come here and get better.”
“You would like it if your mother came here?”
“I want her to get better. She drinks her medicine all day, but she never gets better.”
“Did your mother hit you with the belt?”
Geneva turned away from Adam. He waited for her to speak, but she wouldn’t. Finally, he put a hand on her shoulder. “Would you like it if I went to see your Mama? Make sure she’s okay, and if she wants to get better, I’ll bring her back here. How does that sound?”
He felt her tiny body shudder and then she turned and fell into his arms. For a long time, he held the girl and let her sob into his chest.
It was late afternoon when they finally came home. Adam looked up from the account books to see Hoss barrel in. He looked at Adam with wild eyes. He nodded at the couch. Hoss ran around the couch and picked her up. He felt her forehead while she groaned the half sleep of a waking child.
Adam stood up. “What’s going on?”
“The Gant kids are sick.” Hoss sat down with her in a chair and let her wake up slowly.
“Kids get sick.”
Pa, Hop Sing, and Joe came through the door. “Is she okay?”
Hoss nodded. “She’s warm, but I think that’s just from the sleep. Her eyes look clear.”
“How sick are these kids?” Adam felt something strange growing in his gut.
His pa turned to him. “Doc’s worried they might have typhoid.”
Adam nodded slowly and walked over to the child who was awake but resting on Hoss’ chest. “She seems fine. She was good all afternoon; only been napping about an hour.”
Then he turned to Ben. “What’s the incubation on typhoid?”
“It can be up to two weeks. The Gant children were here over a week ago. Hoss was going to take her over on Sunday, but Regina sent word to the church that two of her kids were still feeling poorly.”
“Is the Doc sure?”
Ben shook his head and shed his coat. He went over to Geneva and felt her head himself.
“I’m going to make special Chinese chicken soup with herbs. It will ward off the bad spirits.” Hop Sing took off for the kitchen.
Adam headed for the stairs. Ben looked up. “Where are you off to?”
“I’m getting packed. I’m going to San Francisco to find Amelia.”
“You know where she is?”
“I sent out a telegram a month ago to friends about her. Tom Moore sent one back a week ago saying she was staying at the Grand near the bay.”
Ben frowned. “You’ve known where she was?”
“Didn’t seem there was any reason to care. Child was happy and safe, but she told me today that she wants her mother to get better. I’m going to go see if that’s possible, and with the news you’re bringing, I better go now in case the child really needs her.”
Ben nodded and dropped into a chair. Joe sat next to Hoss and stroked her head. For a long time after Adam left, they all sat there quietly, each in his own thoughts praying that everything would be okay.
Two nights later, Hoss felt a tug on his sleeve. He opened his eyes, and there she was standing there, her head a wild mass of curls. “My head hurts.”
He sat up, eyes blinking hard, and slid out of bed. He picked her up and laid the back of his hand on her forehead. It was hot and dry. Hoss felt the air leave his chest. He carried her down to the living room, grabbing the Indian blanket off the railing and wrapping it around her. He sat in the chair in front of what was left of the burning embers and rocked her gently. He closed his eyes tightly and prayed that it was nothing more than a spring cold. Finally, the two of them fell back into a fitful sleep.
Again, Hoss was startled awake. This time it was sharp knocking. He struggled to his feet, Geneva still lying on his shoulder. He opened the door to find Sheriff Coffee in the doorway. Hoss squinted at him. “Roy?”
“Is she sick?”
Hoss felt a ball of fear grow in his gut. “She’s just a little…it’s just a cold.”
“Lottie Gant died tonight. Doc’s putting everyone into quarantine.”
Hoss backed up a step. “Its okay, Roy. We’ll stay here. All the hired men are in the north pasture. Uh, we’ll send Joe to town…and Hop Sing. Pa should go to, I suppose.”
They both turned to see Ben on the landing peering down at the two of them. “What’s happening?”
“The youngest Gant child died. The Bingham’s on the next farmstead are infected too. Doc’s declared a quarantine. I gotta’ take the little one here.”
Ben frowned. “She’s not sick.” Then he saw the look on Hoss’ face and hurried down the stairs. Hoss backed away. “Keep your distance, Pa. She started to fever just a few hours ago.”
Roy stepped forward. “Hoss, you hand me the child now. She’s going to be in good hands. Miss Allie is there, and she does real good with children.”
“I’m coming along.”
Roy shook his head. “There’s no need. You ain’t showing symptoms. I don’t see any reason you gotta’ be exposed to those sick folks. Come on, Boy, you trust me. I’ll take good care of her.”
“I ain’t giving her to you.”
“Hoss! You can’t defy the law. She has to be in quarantine.” Ben said.
Hoss nodded at his pa. “That’s fine, but I’m going with her.”
“There’s no need, son. Listen to Roy. Miss Allie is at the Doc’s house. She’ll care for Geneva.”
“No, Pa! I ain’t leaving her. I remember standing in this room ten years ago when Joe had scarlet fever. You stayed up in his room with him for three days. Adam was away at school, five people in town were already dead from the fever, and I thought I was going to lose Joe. When the fever broke, I remember Doc Martin saying to you that it was you being with him through the whole thing that saved him. Pa, she needs someone to do that for her. She needs someone who loves her enough to stay with her every minute.”
Roy shook his head. “A man as strong as you thinks that nothing can cut him down. I’m here to tell you it’s not true. Doc says Jess Bingham isn’t going to make it ‘til morning, and he’s almost as big as you are.”
“It don’t matter, Roy. This is how it’s going to be.” Hoss turned to his father. “I don’t want to go back upstairs. I haven’t been near anyone since she started to show signs, but Joe’s up there, and I don’t want to risk him waking. He catches sick so easy, and he won’t want to stay away from her. I need someone to bring things into town for Gennie and me. I’ll take her like she is for right now.”
“Hoss, listen to me…”
Hoss squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “Please, Pa, don’t make me disobey you. I ain’t done it but once or twice in my life, and just the idea of it hurts. You’re the best pa any man ever had, but I gotta’ do this. She needs someone fighting for her so she can know how to fight for herself.”
Ben sighed deeply. “I’ll have clothes and things in town by morning.”
Hoss nodded. “Ain’t no hurry, Pa. We’ll do just fine.”
“It’s okay, Pa. I’ll take care of her, and I ain’t going to get sick. Remember to gather up her books. She’ll want her stories.” He disappeared out the door before his father could say another word.
“Hop Sing, hurry up!” Hands on his hips, Ben yelled into the kitchen.
“I only got two hands, Mr. Ben. I need my pans if you want me to cook out of cousin’s kitchen,” came Hop Sing’s harried reply.
“Tell me again, Pa! Tell me again why you didn’t wake me.” Joe was pacing the living room.
Ben glared at him. “Hoss didn’t want you to get sick.”
“Look, son, I’m not going to argue the point with you. What’s done is done.”
“Well, we should have kept her here.”
Ben shook his head angrily and turned his attention back to Hop Sing. “What’s keeping you so long?!”
Hop Sing leapt out of the kitchen, his face beet red. “You want me to move my kitchen, laundry, everything so I can be near Doc Martin’s and help out. Fine! Hop Sing wants to help Mr. Hoss and little Geneva, but I can’t be ready in five minutes!” Without waiting for a response, he disappeared back into the kitchen.
“Make a list! One of the hands can bring it later”
A string of Chinese phrases issued from the kitchen. “No cowhands are touching Hop Sing’s pots and pans. I am ready in two minutes!”
“Pa! Listen to me! We’ll go in, and get the both of them and bring them back here. I’ll help Hoss with Geneva. We’ll tell Roy to go to the devil.”
“No! We’re not defying the law!”
Joe threw up his hands. “Is the law more important than your own family? You know, staying in that house will make them sick for sure. It’s not safe there.”
Ben advanced on his son, “Don’t ever question my love for this family again, Joseph. Do you hear me?”
Joe let out a rush of air and nodded.
“We are not above the law. There are consequences to not following the law; consequences that have nothing to do with Roy Coffee. So don’t tell me I’m not thinking about my family ‘cause that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Joe stood there silently.
Ben pointed his finger at him again. “Do you know what the people in this town would do if Geneva or Hoss infected someone by being outside of quarantine? Do you know how many people are waiting for this one opportunity to prove that we have the law in our pocket? Do you know what that would mean for all of us? Can you live with the guilt of someone else dying because we felt we could do whatever we wanted? Hoss understands. That’s why it wouldn’t matter what you or I want. He won’t leave quarantine until Geneva’s better or…”
“I’m sorry, Pa. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Ben ran a hand over his face. “Joe, I want you to go to Carson City.”
“I need you to find Tim Thompson. I need to know if he cares about this child. If he does, she might need him.”
“That man is responsible for…“
“Joseph, we know nothing about what that man is or isn’t. We have no idea what Amelia lied about. I don’t know how quickly Adam can get back here with her. I just feel like we need to know if he loves Geneva.”
Hop Sing came out wearing a frown. “Everything in wagon. I can’t wait all day. I’m leaving now with or without you.”
Ben kept his eyes on Joe. Joe finally nodded. Ben put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
Adam checked into the Grand. He looked out of place, a man in dungarees among suits and top hats. It didn’t bother him. He was used to that sort of dichotomy in his life. He was a cowboy who was an intellectual who was also a musician and an architect. He had walked in too many shoes to worry about how he might be perceived by any one group of men. He walked up to his room which was almost the size of the living room back at the ranch. He dropped his gear on the bed. More than anything he wanted to pull the silken cord by the door, and have someone draw him a nice hot bath. Then he’d climb into that big feather bed, and sleep until the sun had risen high in the sky.
But this was not reality for Adam. He knew that Amelia was holding a salon in her suite this evening, and he fully intended to be there. Amelia would undoubtedly have a room full of pseudo-intellectuals who would have nothing more than dry, overanalyzed, elitist opinions about things. She would seek legitimacy by making sure that some of her guests were writers, poets, artists, and actors.
Adam opened a paper package on the bed. He pulled out a clean shirt and pants, and threw them on the bed. Then he pulled the dusty shirt he’d been wearing for the last four days out of his pants and began his transformation.
A trio was playing violin in one corner. The rest were mostly men, dressed formally, and drinking squashes or gin fizzes. In the midst of them she sat looking regal in a maroon gown, an emerald necklace dropping from her neck. She was laughing deep and throaty at a short man brandishing a book of verses. As a good hostess would, her eyes wandered when she heard the door open. He looked at her, a half smile on his face watching as she stopped laughing, her mouth still open. She shook her head as if trying to focus. He accepted a gin fizz from a wandering waiter, and sipped it slowly. She excused herself from the gentleman with the book and made her way in his direction. It reminded him of that first dance. There were many people in the room, but they had eyes for only each other.
She took his hands in hers and smiled warmly. “This is the most wonderful surprise.”
He had to fight the urge to just melt into her graciousness. “Amelia, we need to talk as soon as possible.”
She didn’t change her expression. “We’ll have drinks and talk just as soon as my guests have left.”
“Amelia, it’s about Geneva.”
She put a hand on his arm. “I know Hoss is taking good care of her. I can’t think of anyone better for her.”
“No, Amelia, this is not a game. We need to talk.”
She closed her hand around his and whispered into his ear. “Drink up. Relax. It will take me just an hour to get all of these blowhards out of here. Then it will be just you and me.”
She walked away before he could protest. Exasperated, he put the drink down the mantel and turned to a portly gentleman smoking a large cigar. “If she wonders where I went, tell her I’m in room 214 — asleep.”
The man snorted. “I’m sure the lady will not be requiring the knowledge of your room number.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.”
At times, it seemed like she could see and hear him, but then her brow would wrinkle and it felt like she was lost in a world all her own. He dabbed at her forehead, and kept up a steady stream of conversation about the ranch, Blue, Pa, Joe, Adam, and Amelia.
Typhoid is not a gentle illness, so sometimes he just picked her up and held her tightly when the aching became too much. The Bingham’s and Gant’s were all there, and so far no one else had shown up. It had started with the children, and maybe it had stayed that way. School wasn’t in session currently because of planting so they were all hoping against hope that it was limited to whom the children had contact with.
A loud keening started up again, and Hoss squeezed his eyes shut. Jess Bingham had died a few hours earlier, and his wife still had three sick children on her hands. Lara Bingham was beside herself with grief. The sound was eerie, and it sent shivers up his spine. It was the sound of despair and fear and hopelessness, and Hoss wished it didn’t cut through the house quite so loudly.
He was in the attic with Geneva, and through the window he had a view of the rope Roy had set up stretching across the street. Roy stood at the rope carrying a rifle. Others were there too watching and waiting for another body to be laid on the front porch. Hoss didn’t pay attention to any of them. He kept his eyes on the lone figure in the calfskin hat pacing back and forth, occasionally stopping to stare at the house with his hands on his hips. Hoss wished he could do more to assure his Pa. He figured it must be agony just being out there with nothing to do but wait.
Creaking of the wooden floorboards sounded behind him, and he turned to find a very pale, tired Regina Gant in the doorway. Her bun has long since lost its shape, and hair spilled out around her long plain face, and yet Hoss thought she was one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen. She hadn’t stopped moving for a moment despite the loss of her youngest child. She seemed to be everywhere, and had even found time to hold Lara Bingham when they carried Jess out to the porch.
She managed a small smile for him. “How is she?”
Hoss nodded, afraid to put emotions to words.
“She’s Amelia’s girl. You know there’s strength buried deep in her. Amelia can survive anything and I know she passed that onto her child.”
Hoss tried to match her smile.
She looked past him out the window. “I remember sitting with your father on your porch less than two weeks ago. I kept thinking what life would have been like if I had had a father I could look up to and admire. I don’t remember my mother at all. I think it must have wonderful to have Ben Cartwright as a father.”
This time his smile was real. “I don’t know where I’d be without him.”
“Jason’s like your pa. He’s not all that successful, but he’s kind and loving. My children adore their father.”
“How is he?”
She shook her head. “Doesn’t look good. He’s fevering up like Jess did. My son, Tom, is too. Cammie and Todd seem to be holding their own.”
“Why don’t I bring Gennie down with me? I’ll sit with your family while you shut your eyes for a few minutes.”
She wrapped her arms tightly around her chest. “What if something happened and I wasn’t there? I would never know if one of mine left because I wasn’t there encouraging them to stay.”
“You’ll drive yourself into a grave before any of them if you aren’t careful.”
She shrugged and he knew then she was past all caring for her own well being. He stood up, keeping his head low in the cramped space of the attic. “Come on, Regina. You’ll sleep on the floor right next to where I’ll be sitting. Anything happens, I’ll shake you — God’s honor. I believe you are the only one who can encourage them to stay living.
Adam heard the door open quietly and he fumbled for his gun on the nightstand. He reached and whipped around to meet his attacker when a laugh rang out and a lantern swung in front of him. She sat shamelessly on the bed, and Adam was suddenly aware that all she had to do was pull down the silk comforter, and she’d have a full view of him as God made him. He gripped the cover tightly with one hand to prevent such an unveiling. She sensed his discomfort and laughed again, the smell of brandy drifting off her. “Adam, you are such a puritan. You should be happy to see me. I saved your life earlier and you should thank me. Old Henry Stanhope wanted to challenge you to a duel for impugning my character before you left the salon. I had to promise all sorts of things I don’t want to do, and now I’ll have to fudge and say I was too drunk to remember any of them. He is sure to pout for a week.”
He took the lantern away from her and set it on the nightstand. She was tipping it precariously, and he didn’t want a lapful of hot lamp oil. “You’re drunk, Amelia.”
“It’s the fashion in San Francisco this season.”
“Then I suspect you’ve been in fashion most every night.”
She wagged a finger. “You are a sharp one, Adam Cartwright. Whatever made me fall for such a sour man?”
He grabbed her wrist roughly. “Listen to me, Amelia. I am here because your child is sick and she needs you.”
“Hoss wouldn’t let anything happen to her.” She swayed away from him.
He pulled her back in. “She has typhoid. Pa confirmed it in a wire this morning. She needs her mother.”
Amelia struggled with him. “She does that. She pretends to be sick so that she can have attention. Don’t give into her.”
“She could be dying, Amelia. She needs her mother.”
He finally pinned her arms behind her, and she closed her eyes, breathing heavy, her perfect mouth almost on his. It was too much for him, and he pushed her away. She pulled herself up by the bedpost and glared at him. “Don’t look at me like that. I didn’t make her sick, and I can’t make her well.”
“What kind of monster are you?”
She laughed. “The kind of monster who knows her limits. Do you know yours? The great Adam Cartwright, so disciplined and intellectual and proper, is afraid of a pretty woman. You know you can’t control yourself. How can that be possible? I thought Adam Cartwright was above such human foibles.”
“Amelia, this is not about me and you. This is about a six-year-old girl; this is about your child.”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand, Adam. That little girl is better off right where she is. I can’t be what she needs, and I have the sense to know that. Not even you can turn me into something I am not.”
“Don’t you even love her?”
She swung around the bedpost and off the bed, coming around at him, her voluminous skirts rustling behind her. “Don’t you judge me! I won’t have it. You did it to me when I was a girl, and you broke my heart. You think I am cold! I will tell you cold! Cold is what you were when you decided I wasn’t good enough for you.”
“You were a girl! It was a simple flirtation!”
Like lightning, her hand struck his face. Tears sprang to her porcelain cheeks. “It was no simple flirtation. Don’t you dare lie to me about that! I saw how you looked at me. You loved me. I felt it. It was the only real thing that ever happened to me. And then one day, I’m in the mercantile, and that old gossip, Millie Hanson tells me that you were taking Mary Ann Byers to the box social.”
“I was young too, Amelia, and I was angry with you.”
She threw up her hands. “Why? Because I snuck drinks before dances?”
“You snuck more than a couple of drinks. It got so I was smelling whiskey on your breath every time I saw you.”
“And so what? I was damaged? I was no longer perfect?”
“You lied about it. You were sneaky. You treated Hoss like a puppy dog; making him fetch for you and take the blame for your deeds in school.”
She narrowed her eyes. “And you loved me.”
“I don’t think a person can truly know that when they are young.” He sat up in bed, careful to bring the comforter with him.
“Remember who you are talking to, Adam. I’m not one of your sycophants. I can think and read and reason just as well as you. I was your match and you loved the challenge.” She climbed back on the bed. “Tell me again that you didn’t love me.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“It was yesterday for me.” She sat beside him against the headboard.
“Do you have any feeling for your child?”
Her voice was throaty as she whispered in his ear. “Enough to know that she would become a version of me if I didn’t let her go.”
“You’re the one who put those marks on her.”
She looked away. “Do you think I gave her to Hoss just because he’s weak and can be manipulated.”
“That would be your style.”
She chuckled. “He has resolve. He lives from the heart, Adam. The heart doesn’t compromise. If I wanted to come back in a flurry of maternal feeling, and take her away, the head might rationalize it, but the heart would know. Hoss isn’t going to let me indulge my whims. He’ll protect her to the end.”
“Why didn’t you just give her to Regina?”
“Hah! And be judged by the little farmwife. I don’t think so. Besides, she isn’t as strong as he is. She would let me take her back if I wanted her.”
“You do love your child?”
A tear rolled down her cheek. “I can’t just hold her whenever she wants it. I try, but I can’t do it.”
“No one did it for you when you were young.”
“She wanted me all the time. She needed my approval constantly. Sometimes, I couldn’t look at her without wanting to slap her silly. It was a constant battle for me. Just because I can give birth doesn’t mean I can raise a child and deal with the constant nonsense of a silly little creature who knows how to do nothing but need, need, need. Being a woman means you have no choice in this matter, but I couldn’t give in. It wasn’t who I was.”
“Amelia, all women go through struggles with their children.”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand. I don’t want that life. I want this. I want to read and discuss and entertain. I want to be the most beautiful woman in the room for as long as it’s possible. I want to be the center of attention.”
Adam was suddenly aware of how she was leaning on his shoulder, and it seemed like it would be the easiest thing in the world to just pull her in closer. She wouldn’t fight him; that much was certain, and he suspected it wouldn’t be the first indiscretion she’d ever committed. Years of dreaming of the creamy skin around her throat overwhelmed him and he reached for her. For a few moments, it was as sweet as he imagined, her skin soft and her mouth generous, but then he remembered big, blue eyes and they weren’t Amelia’s. He pulled away from her and off the bed carrying the blanket with him. He gathered up his clothing and disappeared into the sitting room attached. When he emerged, fully clothed, she was lounging on the bed looking at him. Wary of even going near the bed, he stood over by the door. “Amelia, there is a time and a place, and this is neither. This is about Geneva.”
She sighed. “There never will be, will there?”
He stopped and regarded her, flushed and perfect on his bed. Then he slowly shook his head. “No, Amelia, there never will be.”
“You’re the only man to ever refuse me, other than Hoss that is, but I hardly count him. He’d rather die than hurt you.”
He found a chair across the room and sat down. “I did love you, Amelia. You were a dream for me, and you’re right about my need for perfection. I’m 30 years old, and there’s no reason for me to still be single other than I need just the right woman. I do have high expectations.”
“You’ll end up alone.”
“I suspect I would be even lonelier if I was in the wrong marriage.”
“Well, don’t look at me when you say that. I’m in the perfect marriage. Timothy lets me be who I am.”
“He know where you are?”
“Of course! Who do you think is paying for all this?”
“How can he…I don’t understand.”
She sat up, fixing her bodice. “There is nothing to understand. He’ll do what he has to in order to keep me happy.”
“Your child needs you, Amelia.”
She swallowed hard. “I…I’m no good for her. I can’t help her.”
“If she felt your love, maybe it would make a difference.”
“I don’t know, Adam.”
He got up. “Amelia, she needs you. Hoss can’t do for her what you can. You have to realize that.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “There is nothing Hoss can’t do for her. She doesn’t miss me.”
“She told me she did. She told me she wanted you to come to the ranch to get better. She wants you to stop drinking.”
She got up off the bed. “You really think she wants to see me?”
“I do. She needs to know she matters to you.”
Amelia’s eyes were bright. “What time do we leave?”
“First thing in the morning. Can you be ready?”
She nodded and walked up to him. She was inches away, but she didn’t touch him. “If you had chosen me, Adam, you might not have been happy all the time, but you would never have been bored. I think I know what you would prefer between being bored and being occasionally unhappy.”
She brushed him as she walked past, and he closed his eyes. He didn’t move again until he was sure the door had closed behind her.
Joe came back the third day. It was clear that he’d ridden all night, and Ben doubted the boy had laid down for rest since he left for Carson City three days ago. He returned empty-handed. Timothy Thompson wanted nothing to do with the child. He said that Amelia had denied he was the father since the beginning, and so he never took the time to know the girl. Despite all of this, the man seemed stubbornly devoted to Amelia, and asked after her repeatedly. In the end, all he would offer Joe was a donation of blankets and medicine. Joe would have punched him in the nose if it weren’t for the fact that he rather felt sorry for the handsome miner owner who was willing to compromise everything just to keep his wife happy. It was new lesson for young Joe, who in his 18th year was just learning to feel confident about being a man. He hadn’t known quite what to make of this man who indulged his wife’s every indiscretion, and so he could see no reason to try and get the man to come to Virginia City for Geneva. He just accepted the donations and rode off in a cloud of befuddlement.
Ben made him take a room at the hotel, but Joe only stayed in bed for a few hours. It was almost dusk when he joined his father again on the street near Doc Martin’s house. “Anything to know?”
Ben shook his head, never taking his eyes off the house. “Hoss’ late coming out to get the evening meal.”
On the ground about 20 feet in front of them sat a covered basket as well as fresh linens and clothing. Roy carried items out there twice a day. Then he would retreat behind the rope, and someone from the house would come out and retrieve them. Hoss had taken care of it every morning and night since he’d arrived. Tonight, he was late by almost two hours, and the crowd at the rope was collectively holding their breath.
Doc Martin was the first to emerge, carrying a sheet covered body. Hoss came after him with another small body in a sheet. They set them down on the porch side by side gently. Wailing sounded from the doorway and the crowd got a glimpse of Regina Gant and Lara Bingham holding each other tightly. Ben closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder as if to assure himself that the boy wasn’t straying from his side. Hoss started to kneel beside the bodies but Doc stopped him and pointed at the food in the yard. Hoss got up slowly. Ben and Joe could see that there was more than just exhaustion in the unsteady gait he had coming across the yard.
The big man looked up, startled, as if he had forgotten the crowd that watched their every move. He squinted despite the lack of sun in the sky and swayed such that the crowd tensed for his drop. “Pa?”
“The bodies, Hoss, who were they?”
Hoss wrinkled his brow as if concentration were as complicated as walking. “Cammie Gant and Josh Bingham; neither of them any bigger than a sapling.”
Hoss shook his head and looked down at the ground. “She’s struggling. I don’t know, Pa.”
“Hoss, you’re sick. Don’t move. I’m coming.” Ben grabbed the rope and hoisted himself over it. Hands grabbed him from all angles, Joe using all his weight to hold his father back.
“Roy!” Hoss bellowed. “Don’t let him in.”
Roy slipped under the rope and stood between Ben and Hoss. “You can’t do this, Ben. I gotta’ have law and order here.”
Ben couldn’t see his old friend. His eyes were fixated on his big giant of a son who looked weak enough to drop at the next good breeze. “It’s okay, Hoss. I’ve been around typhoid before. I’ll be okay.”
Roy planted himself in Ben’s face. “Now you know the Doc told you that wasn’t good enough. You just stay back. This ain’t helping nobody.”
Cries rose in the crowd, and Roy and Ben turned their attention to Hoss. The big man had fallen to his knees, but even more startling was Joe Cartwright who had slipped under the rope and was running toward him.
“Joseph!” Ben shouted, but it was too late. Joe was there putting his arms around his brother, struggling to help him to his feet. Ben pushed by Roy and ran toward his two boys.
Hoss looked up at his little brother’s face and started to tear. “Joe, I don’t want this. I don’t want you to be here. More than anyone else, I didn’t want you here.”
Ben was there grabbing his son under his armpits. Together he and Joe were able to half walk half drag Hoss back to the porch.
Roy cursed and threw his hat to the ground. He turned to the crowd. “Another one of you pulls something like that, and I’m gonna’ put a piece of lead in your leg just as easy as sitting down to supper. I swear that to you right now.” The crowd murmured, but didn’t move, and Roy suspected that none of them would even consider the foolishness that had just played out on the street. He shook his head and climbed back over the rope.
The note said that Amelia was to complete a simple errand with her lawyer and meet him in the lobby at 9 a.m. Adam held on to the faith of that note until 9:50. Then he started asking questions. It took half an hour and a fair imitation of his father’s bellow before he got the manager to open her room for him. There was a pink envelope identical to the ones she sent to Hoss on the sideboard propped up against a single red rose in a crystal vase. He ripped it open and read:
When I left last night, I truly intended to go with you in the morning, but as the night grew and I went over the scenarios in my head, I knew that there was no good end to this story. Geneva’s been raised by cooks and maids, and nothing I could do for her now would change that. Those marks on her backside are from a cook with a real mean streak. I fired her, but did nothing for my daughter other than hire a new cook to take over her care. That is who I am, Adam. I don’t particularly care if you believe me. The marks are my fault whether I put them there or not. I freed her from my life and gave her to the kindest and strongest man I ever knew. It will be the most selfless thing I’ll do in this lifetime and I can’t ruin by trying to make myself into an image of what would please you but would hurt her.
Oh Adam, the thought of going to the Ponderosa as a redeemed woman, playing innocent during the day and finding ways to plague you at night would be nothing short of heaven for me, but I truly cannot put her through any more half-hearted attempts at nurturing. It’s not fair.
I know you’ll scour the city looking for me, but I want you to go home to support Hoss through this time. I boarded the steamer Mary Ellen at 6:30 this morning bound for Hong Kong. There is a gentleman, Mr. Harris, who is going there on business, and has been pursuing me for some time. Today is his lucky day. I am actually quite excited as he has ties to the royal family, and I have long heard of the beauty of their gardens, and the poet, Shi-Tzu is said to reside in the city.
I do pray Adam, and will ask God to look after my child every day. Please remember the girl I was as I will always remember the strikingly handsome young man who met my eyes from across the room that night so long ago.
Adam sighed and folded up the letter. She was right. This was about how he wanted her to be. He imagined her right now, standing at the bow of the boat, the wind freeing tendrils of curly black hair, her tiger eyes blazing with plans for this adventure. He wasn’t sure about her soul; at times he felt it, but at others, it was as if she was beyond all that. It didn’t matter. All he knew was that he planned to take her advice and remember her as that girl on the doorstep of the schoolhouse, so strikingly beautiful it knocked the breath right from his body. That was the only Amelia that felt real to him.
He grabbed his bags and headed for the stage. He didn’t plan on stopping until he was back on the ranch with his family and the little girl they were going to raise.
The big man insisted they lay Geneva beside him. He was shaking and fevering, but wanted her near for those moments when the fog cleared enough for him to whisper encouragement into her ear. The house felt like a tomb, smelling of human sweat and stale air. Ben set Joe to opening windows, getting water, and burning the sheets and clothes of those who had passed. For himself, he couldn’t really tell who was sick and who wasn’t. Regina, Doc, Miss Allie, and Lara Bingham were all versions of ghosts, pale-faced and weak. Lara and Miss Allie could barely stand so he put Lara to bed with her two remaining children, and helped Miss Allie up to the attic. Regina and Doc Martin were still standing, but he pushed them over to a table with Hop Sing’s chicken soup on it. Doc Martin was asleep over his bowl within minutes.
Joe came back in, and sat down next to the two Gant boys with a bowl of cool water. He put a towel in the water, wrung it out, and started working to cool down their faces and necks. Ben felt a pang of fear in him. He had somehow imagined that he could keep the boy busy with house chores and away from the sick folks, but he knew that was nothing more than a fantasy. As bad as it all looked though, he felt no regrets about being in here with Hoss and the other sick folks, and he didn’t fault Joe for it neither. It was Cartwright nature to put others first. Standing out there behind the rope just felt wrong, and it was in here that he felt like the man he was.
Hoss groaned and opened his eyes. Ben hurried over and sat with him. Hoss tried to sit up, but Ben restrained him. “Just rest, Hoss.”
“Pa, we gotta’ get Joe outa’ here. Take him out the back. Put him on a pony, any pony. He can outride any man I know.”
Ben shook his head. “Shhhh! Hoss, we’re here and we have to stay.”
“It ain’t right, Pa. It just ain’t right. Poor Adam can’t be left all alone.”
Ben sighed deeply. “Hoss, we weren’t meant to sit on the sidelines; not a one of us. I fully expect Adam isn’t going to stand behind a rope either. I can’t believe I waited as long as I did.”
“But Pa, the Ponderosa…”
He put a cool towel on Hoss’ forehead. “Son, the Ponderosa is the four of us. It isn’t the land. The land has no meaning for me without you. It would be the same if any one of you were left alone with it. We fight side by side. Its how it’s always been, and always will be.”
“I don’t want you and Joe and Adam to suffer this—“
“Shhhh! Hoss, don’t fret on it anymore. What’s done is done.”
Hoss’ eyes wandered to the sweat drenched little girl lying beside him, his arm around her protectively. “She’s the one you gotta’ save, Pa. She never had what we had. She deserves another chance.”
Ben took the towel and started patting her face and arms. The little girl was breathing hard to the point of panting, and he wasn’t sure how long her little body could take the punishment.
“Come on, Little Doll. You are a strong ‘un. Think of Blue. He’s back at the ranch feeling sad right now ‘cause his good friend ain’t there. He needs you to come back to him. I need you, Little Doll. I need you to come back. We’re going to have such times. I’m going to teach you to ride and raise calves. Fact is, I’m going to pull Emily’s best calf as soon as she’s born, and we’re going to raise her together.” Hoss’ voice was nothing more than a hoarse whisper, but Ben could feel the emotion in it, and he found it hard to swallow as he thought about the depth of his son’s love for this little girl.
“Hoss, I’m going to go get you some soup. You just talk to her and I’ll be right back.” He stood up and caught Joe’s eye. The boy was frightened, there was no doubt, but Joseph wasn’t going to give up; it wasn’t in him. Ben gestured at Hoss, and Joe nodded. He got up and went to sit with his brother. Hoss saw him and started scolding him about jumping the rope. Joe didn’t say anything in his own defense. He just started working cool towels on his brother’s hot face while a half addled Hoss rattled out the different punishments he was going to mete out to his little brother the minute he could stand again.
“Hoss. Hoss,” he called to his son. He and the boys were at the lake fishing on a beautiful summer day. The sky was cerulean blue, the lake was as clear as a pane of glass, and the heat held off by a gentling breeze. Hoss was in the midst of one of his stories. He was on his feet, gesturing and making faces. They were all laughing. It didn’t matter what the story was about as much as watching Hoss tell it with his comical features. His son was a born actor; his expressive face could tell a thousand stories. Ben felt the joy leave his body as he found it increasingly hard to follow the story. He wanted Hoss to slow down and tell it again. They were all laughing, but he could no longer make out the narrative.
“Hoss. Hoss,” Ben said in an effort to get his son’s attention, but the big man didn’t look at him. Joe and Adam were rolling around on the ground with laughter, and Ben felt anger swell in his gut because none of them were paying attention to what he was saying.
“Hoss, Hoss, wake up. Wake up, Hoss!” Ben sat up suddenly. There was no lake or beautiful day. He was on the floor next to Hoss’ bed, and it was dark. The plaintive cries issued from above. Ben scrambled to his feet and found Geneva leaning over Hoss, shaking him. He picked the child up and held her to him. Instinctively his hand went to her forehead, and he was surprised to find that it had cooled considerably. She squirmed in his arms. “I can’t wake Hoss.”
“Shhh! Its okay, Baby. He’s sleeping. That’s a good thing. We just need to let him be.”
She stopped reaching for Hoss and relaxed in his arms, whispering into his ear. “I’m hungry and thirsty.”
Ben smiled, hugging her tightly. “That’s good to hear, Geneva. In fact, that’s the best news I’ve heard in a month of Sundays.”
His youngest son appeared, hair tousled, eyes blurry. “What’s the matter, Pa?”
“Her fever broke. Take her. She needs some soup. Just a little bit now, Joe. Her stomach’s not ready for much, okay?”
Joe scooped up the girl and she clung tightly to his neck. “How’s Hoss?”
Ben sat on the bed, and felt his son’s face. It was hot and dry; his face was flushed deeper than he’d ever seen. He shook him, “Hoss! Hoss! Wake up!”
The big man didn’t respond. It was then he noticed the faint rattle in his son’s breathing.
Ben let out a jagged sigh. “Joe, you better wake Doc.”
Adam put down his bag at the rope. He turned to Clem, “You going to shoot me when I cross?”
He shook his head, his rifle still resting in his arms. “If my whole family was in there, I’d cross this rope too.”
Adam nodded and stepped over the rope. Around him murmurs rose up in the crowd, but he ignored them and moved on. As he closed in on the porch, a little blonde head emerged. When she saw him, she came running out, down the stairs, and into his arms. “Did Mama come?”
He hugged her as tightly as he dared. She pulled away and looked into his eyes. “She’s not here?”
“No, Geneva, she couldn’t come.”
The girl didn’t ask any questions; Adam suspected that she knew the truth of it without an explanation. She slid down out of his arms, and he knelt beside her. “I thought I was going to get back here and find you still sick. I’m so glad to see you up and about.”
They both looked up to see Regina Gant in the doorway. She was so pale and thin he almost didn’t recognize her. She tried to smile when she recognized him, but her face wore too much exhaustion. “I didn’t see you, Adam. Just wanted to make sure she didn’t get too close to the rope. People are really anxious that it doesn’t spread.”
“How is your family?”
She looked down, her long brown hair falling past her shoulders as if she was a young girl. “I lost my two girls, Adam.”
Adam climbed the steps, and took her hand. She leaned into him, and he held her. “I’m so sorry, Regina.”
“Did you see Amelia?” She spoke into his shirt.
Adam just held for another moment before responding. “She’s not coming.”
“Is the crisis over? Anyone still sick?”
She blinked at him. “You don’t know, do you?”
Adam furrowed his brows and searched her eyes. Then he let go and ran past her into the house. Despite the sunny day, the house was dark and quiet. He found them all in the living room which had been converted into a bedroom. They were gathered around a large bed in the corner. Adam felt his heart skip a beat. Joe turned and looked at him. “Is it really you?”
Adam nodded, his mouth too dry for words.
Ben turned sharply and nodded when he saw his eldest. “It’s good you’re here.”
Adam approached the bed. His brother, Hoss, lay there breathing heavy like a bull after a charge. His face was deeply flushed. Adam looked at Doc. “How bad?”
“The fever is too high. He’s starting to convulse. It should only be a couple of hours now before he passes.”
Adam reached past him and touched Hoss. “Why aren’t we cooling him?”
Ben took his arm. “We’ve been doing that for the last twelve hours. He’s too big. The towels don’t do enough.”
“We need ice. Where’s the ice?”
Doc shook his head wearily. “We don’t have a tub big enough. Beside the shock would be too much for his body right now. I’ve seen men die from the shock quicker than they would have from the fever.”
Joe choked a bit before speaking. “We don’t know what to do anymore. We’ve tried everything.”
Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder but couldn’t speak. Adam stared down at Hoss for a long moment and then swallowed hard. He turned to his Pa. “You’re all too tired now, but don’t worry because I’m here now and I’m going to take care of this.”
Ben looked confused.
“What are you talking about?” Doc Martin frowned.
Adam brushed past him and ran outside. He made straight for Clem. “I need ice, a tub filled with ice. No, make it two tubs. The man who can get it here in the next ten minutes can name his price.” He turned to the crowd. “Did you hear that? Ten minutes and you can name your price. Two tubs!”
People looked at each other, and then men started running for the icehouse behind the hotel. Joe trotted up to Adam. “What are you doing? We’ve had ice. We’ve been cooling the towels on it.”
“I have an idea.”
Joe nodded. No one had a quicker mind than his brother. “What can I do?”
“I’m going to need two clean blankets.”
Joe turned and ran for the house.
Adam tucked the blankets in under Hoss. Then he looked at the doc. “We’ll pour the ice on him in batches. If he starts to get too cold, we scoop it off. We can adjust it as we need to.”
“We were too tired to see it, Adam.”
“You’ve been at this for a week, Doc. I’m surprised you’re still standing.”
Ben and Joe came stumbling in with the first tub of ice. All four of them plunged their arms into it, and pulled out as much as they could carry. Leading the charge, Adam spilled it over his brother. Then he spread the ice evenly as others dropped it. Ben moved around to Hoss’ head and leaned over. “We’re all here with you, son. We just need you to fight a little bit longer. Can you do that for us?”
There was a squeal, and the little girl broke away from Regina, and ran up to the bed, trying to climb up to Hoss through the slippery ice. Joe plucked her off it and held her close. Geneva started to cry, wailing that they needed to get the ice off Hoss. Joe rocked her in his arms until Regina got there. She took the crying child and disappeared up the stairs.
Doc followed her, and then there was no one but the Cartwright men in the room. Ben pulled up a chair next to Hoss’ head and slowly stroked the light hair on his head. Adam and Joe found seats around the bed, and waited. After a few minutes, Joe grunted, “Remember the time the three of us got caught in that mountain cabin during the blizzard? We were trapped up there for three days until Pa showed up.”
Adam gave a half smile. “We took turns telling each other stories to distract from the hunger and the cold.”
Joe chuckled. “It was like being caged with a grizzly. Remember how surly he was on an empty stomach?”
Ben looked up expectantly. “What else happened?”
“Nothing. I don’t know why I brought it up.”
Adam sighed. “We had no control over anything. We made it because we stayed together. It was our spirit that kept us going, sort of like what we’re relying on now.”
Joe nodded. “I would give anything…I really would.”
Ben smiled. “We all would, Joe.”
“We won’t be together forever.”
Ben looked at Adam sharply. “It doesn’t matter, Adam. We’ll fight for each other as if we would be.”
Adam chuckled. “Ah, the illogic of humanity.” He looked at his father, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m with you all the way on this. It’s just that it’s such a hard road we travel when we live by our hearts.”
Joe looked up. “How did you ever do it, Pa? You lost so much, but it didn’t stop you from giving us all of your heart.”
Adam spoke before his father could respond. “It’s called courage, Joe. Pa knew he couldn’t raise us with only half his heart no matter what the cost.”
Ben couldn’t meet his sons’ eyes. “I don’t know how I’ll survive this one. I knew my wives for such a short time. You boys have been a part of my life for so long that it’s hard to remember what anything was like before you were with me.”
“I don’t care what anyone says, losing Hoss will be too hard. I can feel the hole in my heart already.” Joe’s voice cracked and he hung his head.
Adam busied himself with shifting the ice more evenly, and Ben toweled the sweat off Hoss’ face; the sound of Joe’s muffled tears audible to them all.
Doc walked in carefully hours later. The room was dead quiet except for the sounds of soft snoring. The ice had long since melted, and Hoss lay in water soaked blankets. His family had finally given in to pure exhaustion. Joe even slept draped over Hoss’ legs, his shirt soaked with melted ice water. Adam was leaning up against a bedpost and Ben was resting on the headboard. Doc weaved his way gingerly between them and reached for Hoss. The man’s face was cool, and for a moment, his heart sunk. It slowly dawned on him that it wasn’t the hard, cold feel of a dead body, but the cool feel of a living, breathing person. This was the last fever to break. Everyone else was on the way to recovery. It had been a hard week; lots of death and grieving families, but it was always with a sense of satisfaction when he got to the moment when he realized that there were those who made it. Four dead was bad, but seven made it through, and Doc had been around long enough to know that this was worth celebrating. Ben stirred, his leg brushing against the doc, and this startled him awake. Blinking wildly, it took him a moment to focus on the room around him.
Doc smiled. “He’s okay, Ben.”
“He’s okay. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’d do better without these wet blankets.”
“He’s okay?” Ben reached for Hoss’ face, and felt the cool, damp skin.
“It’s as close to a miracle as I’ve seen in years, the truth be told. I didn’t think he had a chance once those convulsions started.”
Ben patted his face. “Hoss! Hoss!”
The big man moaned, moving his head side to side.
Blue eyes blinked open. “Pa?”
“Yes! Hoss, I’m so glad…“ His voice caught.
Adam sat up and shook Joe.
Ben swallowed. “Boys, let’s get these blankets off him.”
Together, they pulled the wet blankets from him. Doc came in with a fresh blanket and spread it on him. Hoss looked at his pa. “Where’s Gennie? Did she make it, Pa?”
He turned to Joe. “Go get her.”
The big man tried to lift his head, but Adam pushed him down gently. “Hey there, little brother, you just rest easy. Everything is alright now. Joe’s gone to get her. She’s just fine.”
Joe reappeared with a sleepy child in his arms. A smile grew on Hoss’ face. He set the child on him, and she hugged him tightly around the neck. Hoss reached down and kissed the top of her head. Then he looked up at his family. “You know, fellers, I think it’s going to be a good day.”
Hoss sat back in the rocker, and smiled as he watched Tom and Todd Gant rolling around in the street. It felt good to see them roughhouse when less than week ago, no one knew if they were going to live or die. Other than being a bit too thin, they looked like any other boy on the block.
The rope was gone; it’d been gone three days now. People were still a bit anxious about passing by Doc Martin’s door, but each day more and more took the risk. Doc Martin had taken a few days to just rest, him not being a young man anymore, and he and Hoss had played quite a few games of checkers. Doc finally put his coat back on this morning, took his bag, and went out on a few calls.
Hoss took his eyes off the boys long enough to spot Regina Gant walking down the street toward the Martin house, Geneva holding on to her hand. Geneva looked up at Regina and said something. Regina nodded and let the little girl run off to play the boys. The little girl went barreling into their midst, and squealed in delight when she knocked them both over. Hoss threw back his head and laughed. The two little boys dusted themselves off, but didn’t fuss at her. They still treated her with kid gloves as if aware of how precious little girls were after the loss of their sisters.
Regina climbed the stairs and sat down next to Hoss on the porch. “Lara and the kids got off okay.”
Hoss nodded. “Going back to St. Louis is probably the best thing for her. She seemed real happy about it.”
“How long are you going to stay?”
“Aw, Doc said I just needed another few days ‘til I had my wind again. I imagine I’ll, I mean, we’ll head for the Ponderosa sometime later today.”
She watched the kids for awhile. “She really loves being with the boys, and they adore her.”
“Yeah.” He smiled down at them.
“We’ll have to make sure the kids have plenty of time together. The boys….well, they miss their sisters, and….uh, Geneva is…quite taken with them.”
Hoss looked down at the wooden slates of the porch. “That’s the truth.”
“Maybe we can arrange to meet in town on Sundays. We can picnic and the kids can play. I’ll admit I’ll need to see her as badly as they do.”
“That’s a fine idea, Regina.”
She looked at him for a moment. “You seem sad about it somehow. Are you sure it’ll be okay?”
He looked up at the sun. “I got too many thoughts going through my head right now. But it’ll be okay. I’ll make sure it is.”
“You’re feeling alright, aren’t you, Hoss?”
He sighed deeply. “When did Jason say he was coming for you?”
“Ah, he’s going to come about noon. It should be in about an hour, I think.”
Hoss stood up slowly. “Excuse me, Regina. I gotta’ couple of things to do.”
She watched him walk slowly into the house, his head down, and wondered if the fever aches were starting to come back for the big man.
Hoss rode Chubb into the yard, and was immediately greeted by Blue who was already looking more dog than puppy. Hoss dismounted amidst a steady stream of barking, and scooped up the puppy. The dog immediately took to licking his face, and Hoss had to pull him away, rubbing at his face with his free hand. He put the puppy down and headed for the house. Before he got to the door, Hop Sing came out. “Mr. Hoss! Hop Sing is glad you’re back. These other Cartwrights eat like hummingbirds. Hop Sing has a kitchen full of leftovers.”
“Good to see ya’, Hop Sing.”
“It’s nice day. You sit out here, and Hop Sing bring you some lemonade and cold fried chicken. What you say?”
“You’re the boss.” Hoss shed his saddlebags and sat down on a chair. The spring sun was still bright in the early evening sky, and he basked in its warmth. His eyes were closed for only a few minutes when he heard hooves. Joe, Adam, and Pa were coming in from the range. Hoss gave a half hearted wave. The lemonade and chicken were sitting on the table in front of him, and he wondered how Hop Sing had done it without waking him. He didn’t feel hungry though, and so he left it sit.
Pa reached the porch first. “You’re looking good, Boy.”
Joe came out of the barn, a puzzled look on his face. “Where’s Gennie?”
Hoss looked down at his lemonade and put his hand around it. He noted how cool it felt in his palm, but didn’t drink.
“Hoss, where’s Gennie?”
Hoss sighed and looked up. “She didn’t come home with me.”
“What?!” Adam pulled his hat and headed over.
“Where is she?” Joe’s face was starting to flush. “It was the fever, wasn’t it? It came back.”
Hoss closed his eyes. “No, it ain’t anything like that, Joe. It’s okay. She’s okay. She went home with the Gants.”
Ben sat down next to his son, a worried look etched into his features.
“She hasn’t even been home yet, and you already have her out visiting folks. She still needs her rest, you know?” Joe regarded him sternly, hands on his hips.
“She ain’t visiting, Joe. She’s living with them.”
Ben sighed deeply.
“What do you mean?” Joe’s voice rose. “How did that happen?”
“It’s just better that way.”
“Did you talk to any of us? No, you just decided all on your own. We had our hearts…we love that little girl, and you just decide to do something like this without even saying a word to any of us. You know what, Hoss. Adam’s right about you. You never think about what your actions mean for the rest of us. It’s always about other people.” Joe threw his hat down into the dirt and walked away.
Hoss stared down at his hands. “I’m sorry. I am. But there wasn’t no other way to do it.”
“Dang it, Hoss. I don’t want your apology. You just go get that little girl right now.”
Ben barked at his son. “Joseph! Simmer down! Let’s hear what Hoss has to say about this.”
“I don’t want to hear it. I’m with Adam on this one.”
Adam raised a brow. “Hold on now. I’m not sure what I feel about this, Joe. You just sit down, Boy. Let’s hear him out.”
Joe sat on the edge of the porch, but he refused to look at Hoss.
It took a minute before Hoss spoke. “I did what needed to be done. Regina lost those two girls. She needed Geneva. Her boys needed Geneva. You should have seen the look on Jason’s face. I thought he was going to cry.”
“We need her too, Hoss. She’s not some trinket you can pass around.”
Hoss sighed. “I know, Joe, but it ain’t just about the Gants. You see, we know what its like to be without a ma. And we know that it’s hard, but a person can still grow up healthy and happy. But what we don’t know is what it’s like to wonder if your mama even loved you. We lost our ma’s, but we knew they loved us. Pa told us so plus I reckon we could all feel it in our hearts. I don’t think Gennie has that. It’s hard for her to understand that Amelia just wasn’t cut out to be a mama.”
“We would tell her, Hoss.”
“I guess I just figure it ain’t good enough. She has a second chance at a mama’s love, and I couldn’t deny her that.”
“Did she want to go with the Gants?” Ben’s tone was gentle, the tone he often used when listening to Hoss’ reasoning.
“She fussed a bit. But I told her that I’d be out to see her real soon, and she let Regina hold her and put her in the wagon.”
They were all silent for a moment.
“I thought about bringing her here, but I knew it would be harder for her. She would see our hurt, and she would stay. I wanted to be free from our feelings so she could choose the Gants.”
Ben nodded solemnly. “Son, you did the right thing. Regina’s is the best possible mother for that child. You did right, Hoss.”
Hoss hung his head, and it became clear that he had struggled mightily with this. Finally he lifted it. “I know it feels like I take you all for granted sometimes. I am real sorry about it too. I just feel like we’re so lucky to have each other. I feel like we can handle the disappointment and inconvenience just ‘cause we’re the Cartwright’s. We’re strong and we love each other, and I figure we’ll be okay no matter what. I guess I shouldn’t do that so much ‘cause I end up hurting you all and I don’t mean to do that.”
Adam stood up. “I started this when I felt hurt about you getting involved with Amelia. But I’m not angry about that anymore. You did the right thing. Hoss, you got the biggest heart in the whole Sierras. Sometimes, it does get in the way, but I think you’re right about us Cartwright’s. I think it’s good you help us remember that we can handle the disappointments. We are strong enough for the burden that comes with putting others before us.”
“I’m sorry about getting you mixed up with Amy again.”
Adam shook his head. “It’s okay. It was good to see her. I think we both needed to let go of some old anger and finally see each other for who we were. Neither one of us measured up for the other.”
Ben looked down at his youngest. “Joseph, do you understand what Hoss did?”
Hoss looked at his little brother. “She was asking for Blue, and well, I ain’t quite up to wrestling with a pup all the way to the Gant place. Do you think maybe you’d want to take Blue over there tomorrow? Maybe spend the day? Regina said she’d have a nice lunch waiting for you when you got there and Gennie really wants to see her Uncle Joe.”
“I’m sorry, Hoss. I didn’t think about how hard this was for you.”
Hoss smiled. “Its okay, Shortshanks. I’m going to see her on Sunday and every Sunday after that. We all will. She ain’t but a two hour ride away.”
Joe nodded and jumped to his feet. “Hey Blue! Come here! You’re going to get a new home, Boy.” The little black and white collie came and danced around Joe, excited for no other reason but to match Joe’s. Joe teased him and the puppy swatted back at him, jumping up on hind legs and barking at the sky. Hoss threw back his head and laughed; Adam and Pa joining him as Joe and the puppy chased each other around the yard.