Summary: A lost little girl, a restless Little Joe and a hungry puma converge, sparking a story that explores what it means to have family looking out for you–or counting on you to look out for them.
Word count: 9,300
Ben Cartwright was just about to take his first bite of Hop Sing’s pot roast when a tiny voice called in from the front yard.
“Hello! Hello! Is anyone home?”
“Sounds a bit young to be one of Little Joe’s friends,” Hoss said.
Ben couldn’t help but smile at seeing Hoss’ small grin and the dimples it drilled from his cheeks.
Adam, too, started grinning. “It does take me back a few years.”
“Hello?” the child cried out again.
Surprise and fond memories shifted quickly to curiosity. Ben set down his fork and pushed away from the table. “Maybe that child’s family met up with Joe on the road. I’d sure like to know why he’s not home yet.”
Adam rose to join him. “If they did meet up with him, I’d like to know where. Joe shouldn’t have been anywhere near the main road.”
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?”
Even Hoss stepped away from his meal. “Whatever it is that brought them out here, sounds like their little one’s plumb scared.”
Almost before the last word had left Hoss’ mouth, Hop Sing scurried out of the kitchen. “Little missy alone!” he proclaimed, waving his hands in emphasis. “All alone! On Little Joe horse!”
“What?” Anxious to see what his cook had already glimpsed from the kitchen window, Ben threw open the front door to find a very young, very frightened, tow-headed little girl perched high atop his youngest son’s horse, just as Hop Sing had described. And she was, indeed, alone.
“Are you Mister Ben?” she asked, her eyes going wide.
“Why, yes,” Ben answered softly, forcing a smile for the girl’s sake. He glanced toward Adam and Hoss before continuing. “Did Joseph tell you about me?”
His question left the girl looking puzzled. “Joseph?”
“Joe?” Ben ventured. “Little Joe? The man whose horse you’re riding.”
“Little Joe!” she exclaimed happily. “He told me his pa’s name is Mister Ben and he has white hair like you and Little Joe has two brothers named Hoss and Adam. I told him Hoss was a silly name and he said Hoss had eyes that were big and blue like mine. Is that Hoss standing behind you?” Ben barely opened his mouth to answer when the girl went right on talking. “I think that must be Hoss because he’s big as a bear just like Little Joe said and…”
“Slow down there, punkin,” Hoss broke in, moving forward to lift the child off of Cochise. “Don’t you think you ought to stop and catch a breath?” He held her in his arms and studied her, just as she studied him.
“I can breathe just fine, Hoss. You are Hoss, aren’t you? Because your eyes sure are blue.”
“I’m Hoss, all right. Now…”
But she wasn’t finished talking yet, and wasn’t about to let Hoss intervene. “And Little Joe said Hoss was big enough to move the whole mountain if he had to and you sure look big enough but you don’t have to move the whole mountain you just have to move enough of it so Little Joe don’t have to be down at the bottom of it no more.”
The child’s words struck like a physical blow to Ben’s stomach.
“At the bottom?” Hoss asked, sounding as though he, too, had taken a punch in the gut.
Ben swallowed the feeling as best he could. He needed to know more. “Where, sweetheart?” he asked softly, forcing another smile. “Where is Little Joe?”
“At the mountain where he fell when the cat jumped on him.” Her eyes went wider than they had on first seeing Ben — and Ben’s heart seemed to stop at the implications of her words. “It made a real scary roar and I started running and I was screaming and then Little Joe was there and he shot it and I ran to him on account of I was still scared and I wanted him to hold me like you are now only the cat wasn’t dead like I thought and it roared and I screamed and Little Joe pushed me down and the cat jumped on him and they both fell down all those rocks and the cat didn’t move anymore but Little Joe tried to climb up only he couldn’t climb back up and he told me all about his pa and his brothers and how to make friends with Cocheese…”
“Cochise,” Hoss corrected softly as he met Ben’s eyes, showing that Ben’s fear wasn’t his alone.
“Co-cheese,” the girl repeated. “He’s an awfully smart horse. Little Joe told me how to get him to stand by the rocks and wait for me so I could climb all the way up on top of him all by myself.”
“He didn’t help you?” This time it was Adam who spoke…and Adam whose eyes reflected Ben’s deepening worry.
“Who are you?” the girl asked.
Adam managed a veiled smile of his own. “I’m Little Joe’s other brother, Adam. And who might you be, little one?”
“My name’s Mary. But you can’t be Adam. Little Joe said Adam was real smart but you don’t sound too smart to me.”
Adam’s eyebrows shot up.
“He’s brother Adam, all right,” Hoss answered. “And he is mighty smart, just like Joe said. What makes you think he ain’t?”
“He asked why Little Joe didn’t help me get up on Cocheese, silly. If Little Joe couldn’t climb back up, then how could he help me? But he didn’t have to help me anyways ‘cause I could do it all by myself, just like I rode Cocheese here all by myself. Only I’m glad I didn’t have to tell Cocheese where to go ‘cause I didn’t know where you lived, but Little Joe said Cocheese could find his own way home and all I had to do was kick him some, only I didn’t want to kick him. Momma always says it ain’t right to kick anyone and I figure the same should go for critters, too, and I didn’t want to kick him but I did sometimes but not too hard and I think we’re still friends anyway because Cocheese likes me just like Little Joe said he would as long as I…”
“Okay, punkin,” Hoss’ interruption of the child’s rambling story roused Ben enough to realize that Adam had disappeared into the barn. Surely he was saddling the horses. Good. Very good.
“I think we got a pretty good idea about what happened,” Hoss went on. “Now, how ‘bout you stay here with our friend Hop Sing while we ride on out there and find Little Joe?”
“You don’t have to find him. He ain’t lost. He’s at the bottom of the mountain.”
“Yeah, I…I know,” Hoss said flatly, sounding numb. “We’ve got to go to him, so we can bring him home.”
The little girl started to sniffle. “I want to go home, too.”
And suddenly Ben felt shamed for letting his concerns about a grown man — albeit a young man who also happened to be his youngest son — steal his thoughts entirely away from the wellbeing of a little girl who should never have had to ride anywhere, let alone such a distance, by herself. “Where is that, sweetheart?” he asked her. “Where is your home? Your parents?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” Crying, she buried her face in Hoss’ chest. “I got lost! I was lost and then the big cat was chasing me and I thought Little Joe would bring me home and then he said I had to ride Cocheese but I was so scared and I didn’t want to go!”
“No, of course you didn’t darling,” Ben said. “And I’m sure Little Joe didn’t want to ask you to go. But you were very brave.”
Sniffling again, she looked up at Ben. “Little Joe said I should stay right there. He said it over and over again that I should stay put. He even yelled at me when I wanted to look for someone to help. But then he said I should go and that’s when he told me how to get Cocheese to stand still so I could climb up on top of him from the rocks. I don’t know why he wanted me to go when all that time he didn’t want me to go except maybe I was talkin’ too much. Papa yells at me sometimes when I talk too much and he says he’s tired and Little Joe sounded even tireder than Papa when he yells. So I guess maybe Little Joe just wanted to take a nap and he didn’t want me to talk so much but I don’t know why he would want to sleep on all them rocks.”
Ben nearly choked on his increasingly growing fear. He was grateful to see Adam starting to lead the horses from the barn. “I imagine you must be pretty tired yourself after that long ride,” he managed to utter, surprised to find his voice sounding far more confident than he felt. “Why don’t you go on inside with our friend, Hop Sing? You can have some supper and a nice long nap, and then, after we come back with Little Joe, we’ll find your parents for you so you can go home, too.”
Her bottom lip quivered into a hearty pout. “It ain’t my home no more,” she sobbed.
“’Course it’s your home,” Hoss said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I ran away.”
Ben could see there was much more to learn about this small girl who’d ridden for miles alone on Little Joe’s horse. She needed their help. But so did Joe. And from the sound of Mary’s story, he was hurt. Hurt so badly he’d felt it necessary to send her off on her own.
“Hop Sing take little missy inside.” Easing himself between Ben and Hoss, Hop Sing reached for the girl. “Have good supper. Make missy vewy comfortable.”
“I want to stay with Hoss.”
Hoss had to pry her arms from around his neck. “Now that wouldn’t be fair to Little Joe, would it? You said he needed his bear of a brother to move some of that mountain, now didn’t you?”
Mary nodded hesitantly and sniffled.
“Well then I’d better get to it before it gets so dark I can’t see that mountain to move it, don’t you think?”
Casting a glance around to Ben, Hop Sing and then Adam with the horses, Mary returned her attention to Hoss and gave another hesitant nod.
“Now go on with Hop Sing,” Hoss said. “Eat up all your supper and he might even give you some cookies. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Nodding again, she allowed Hop Sing to take hold of her, and even snuggled up into his shoulder. “Will you tell Little Joe Cocheese and I got along just fine?”
“I’ll tell him.”
“And…tell him I’m sorry?”
“What on earth do you have to be sorry for?” Ben found himself asking.
“I’m sorry he fell on account of me.”
“From what you’ve told us just now,” Hoss answered, “seems to me the only one to blame was that big ol’ cat. Now go on along with Hop Sing. We’ll be back before you know it.” The wink and the smile he gave her then were genuine, but in those big blue eyes that were so like Mary’s own, Ben saw a trace of doubt.
I don’t know why he would want to sleep on all them rocks, Mary had told them. Ben knew the answer did not bode well. Not well at all.
The voices of his pa and brothers echoed around him, pulling Joe from the numbing fog.
His back hurt. His legs…his arm…his head. Something sharp was digging into his cheek.
Where was he? Broken thoughts confused him: a bawling calf…a prowling puma…a little girl….
“My name’s Mary,” she’d hollered down at him. “What’s yours?”
“Joe,” he’d shouted back. “Little Joe.”
“Little? You’re not little. I’m little.”
Hoss? That was Hoss calling out to him, not Mary. Joe’s big ol’ bear of a brother, Hoss….
“If you’re so anxious to go ridin’ today, little brother, how ‘bout you round up them strays? I’ll finish up this fence.”
Joe had happily accepted his big brother’s offer. All that work toting posts and boards had left him feeling hot and stiff…and ornery. A good, hard ride with Cochise was about the best thing he could think to do. Rounding up a few strays along the way wasn’t so bad; it would give him some freedom and allow him to do his share of work to boot.
But it hadn’t been a bawling calf he’d heard, had it? No. It had been a lost, little girl. And by the time Joe had found her crying in the shade of a boulder up at the pass, a puma had found her, too.
Joe had told little Mary not to worry. Joe’s oldest brother, Adam, was real smart. Adam would know just what to do. He would find a way to get Joe out of that ravine.
The ravine… Joe started to relive how he’d come to be there — how he’d shot the puma, and how Mary had run toward him, wrapping her arms around his legs. There’d been an instant of inattention when he’d turned his focus to the child; that had been all the puma had needed to rise unnoticed. Joe had caught a glimpse of movement…just a glimpse, so little warning. He’d barely managed to push Mary out of harm’s way before the puma had launched itself into the air toward him.
Joe once more felt the puma hitting his shoulder with its claws extended, knocking him backward until the earth fell away, raking its claws down his arm before it tumbled away from him…and then tumbling himself against the unforgiving rocks.
Pa? Pa, help me! I can’t…can’t climb back up.
It hurts, Pa. Everything…everything hurts. I can’t hardly move anymore. Can’t….
His family had come looking for him just as Joe had told Mary they would. Or maybe…maybe they came because he’d sent Mary for help.
No. That wasn’t quite right. Not completely. He’d sent her home with Cochise to make sure she was safe…because Joe couldn’t protect her anymore. He’d fallen too far; and when he’d tried to climb back up, the rocky wall had loosened — crumbled — sending him down even further than before and twisting his already injured knee. His arm had grown useless as much from the puma’s claws as from his falls. And his head… It had been getting harder and harder to think — to talk — to listen.
Yes. He’d sent her away.
“Joe! Little Joe!”
They were getting closer. Joe wasn’t sure he dared believe it. He’d waited so long….
Before he’d sent Mary away, he’d watched the sun sink lower and lower until the trees had blocked most of its light. He’d spent the time helping Mary to forget she was lost and alone by telling her about his family and asking about hers. And he’d waited. Surely her family was already looking for her, and Joe’s would begin looking for him before too much longer. Someone would come along sooner or later. Trouble was, it kept getting later and later. And when Joe had started losing moments, slipping further from conscious thought, he’d known the wait had to come to an end — at least for Mary. He’d had to do something to help her, to prevent her from wandering off when he couldn’t talk anymore, when she found herself truly alone again. But trapped as he was, hurt as he was, the only thing he could think to do was to send her home with Cochise.
He could trust Cochise to ferry her home. And his family… He could trust his family to take care of her. He could trust his family to find hers.
“I have a little brother now,” she’d told him.
Joe had found himself smiling. He knew all about being a little brother. “He’s lucky to have a big sister like you.”
“I’ll bet you take good care of him, just like…my big brothers took care of me…when I was little.”
“Naw. That’s what my momma and papa do. That’s all they do anymore — is take care of him. I just get in the way.”
“That’ll change. Before you know it…it’ll change.”
“He’ll grow up…start gettin’ into all kinds of trouble…just like I did.”
“You got in trouble?”
“Sure did. But my brothers…they looked out for me…stopped me from gettin’ into worse trouble.”
“Is that what I’m supposed to do? Stop my little brother from gettin’ into trouble?”
“Sometimes. And sometimes…you won’t be able to stop it from happenin’. But then you’ll do what you can…to help him get out of trouble.” Like today, Joe thought.
His brothers were looking out for him. Or…looking for him.
My family’s looking for me, just like yours, Mary. Only…Mary wasn’t there anymore, was she? No. Joe had sent her away.
Adam? I’m here, Adam! I’m…here…. But Joe couldn’t answer, not really. Not out loud, anyway. His throat was too dry and he just couldn’t draw in enough air to allow for anything more than a groan.
“Here,” he cried softly — too softly for anyone to notice. I’m here.
Hoss had had a general idea where his little brother had been headed when he’d run off after strays, and it wasn’t hard to follow Cochise’s tracks to the rocky mountainside where missing animals — or lost little girls — could easily hide. Before too long, they’d even managed to find the spot where Mary’s story had surely unfolded. A child’s prints and those from a man’s boots had made distinctive marks in the sparse sand, and a blood trail — the puma’s, most likely — led from a small, rocky ledge overlooking the path to the top edge of a ravine.
Unfortunately, the ravine itself was not as willing to give up its secrets. It was too deep for the dim glow of the growing night to reach. And no matter how many times the elder Cartwrights shouted out, they never heard anything back from the youngest brother.
“Joseph! Can you hear me, boy? Answer me!” Ben hollered as loud as he could, and then raised a hand to silence his two oldest sons.
As each time before, no reply came.
“We’ll never find him this way,” Adam said, his tone both frustrated and determined. He started to pull a coil of rope from his saddle. “I’m going down there. It’s a fair guess Joe could be hidden by that outcropping on the…”
“Hey!” Hoss tapped Adam’s arm with the back of his hand. He wasn’t looking at his older brother; he was looking into the ravine. “Down there!” He pointed.
“Do you see Joe?” Ben asked hopefully.
Hoss shook his head, his brow furrowed in concentration. “The cat, I reckon. It’s too dark to see clear enough, but it’s too small to be Little Joe.”
Adam sighed. “The angle’s right.” He tapped his brother’s arm right back. “Help me with this rope, and then lower me down there. If we wait any longer, we’ll have to hold off until dawn, dark as it is already.”
“No,” Ben said, his eyes focused on the shadowy form Hoss had pointed out. “We can’t hold off.” He left the rest of his words unspoken. Surely Adam and Hoss knew what he was thinking. They might not have until dawn. Joe might not have that long.
“I see him!” Adam hollered. Joe was sitting on a narrow ledge, leaning against the rocky wall of the cliff face. He wasn’t moving. And Adam was too far away. Dammit! “I can’t reach him!”
Adam wasted time scrambling up to reposition himself and then hurrying back down again, but it couldn’t be helped. By the time he was close enough, it was full night.
At least he’d found Little Joe. That had to count for something. It had to.
“Joe?” He touched Joe’s arm…his shoulder…his head, needing to find out how badly his little brother was injured and cursing the loss of the sun. “Come on, Joe. Let me know you can hear me.” Joe’s left sleeve had been shredded by the puma’s claws; the warm, wet stickiness beneath made it pretty clear the boy’s arm was similarly damaged. But…thank God…Adam felt heat emanating from the wound. It was a worrying sign of infection, certainly — but it also meant Little Joe was still alive.
“Adam?” Pa hollered down.
“I’ve got him!” Adam answered. What more should he say? What else could he say? “It’s all right, Joe,” he added quietly, more for himself than for his all too quiet brother. Then he swallowed hard as his hand brushed across more blood in the boy’s hair. “We’ll have you home before you know it.”
There was nothing he could do for Little Joe’s injuries there on the ledge and in such darkness, so Adam focused on securing his brother with a second rope. He was both thankful and disturbed that his efforts got through to Little Joe as no amount of shouting or talking had. Joe shifted, trying to pull away, and let out a soft, agonized groan.
“Sorry, Joe. I know it hurts, but I have to get you out of here.”
Joe groaned again, louder than before.
“Just hang in there a little longer, buddy.”
A hand shot upward, grabbing hold of Adam’s shirt. “Adam?” Joe’s eyes were open. Adam couldn’t see them clearly, just the faintest moist reflection from the rising moon. He couldn’t tell how focused they were. But they were open.
“Ready to go home?” Adam gave his brother a small smile, although he doubted Joe could see it any better than Adam could see Joe’s eyes.
“Mary?” Joe asked through panting breaths.
“Hop Sing’s taking care of her.”
Joe’s grip loosened…fell away. “I was…worried. Didn’t…shouldn’t have sent her.”
“You didn’t have much choice.” Adam tightened a knot, eliciting another groan from Joe. “Sorry.”
“I tried.” Joe took small, gasping breaths. “Kept falling. Couldn’t…get back up.”
“Yeah.” Adam shuddered inwardly, imagining the pain those attempts must have caused. “Well, this time you just leave it to us, all right?”
“Thanks.” Adam heard relief in his brother’s tone. “I told her…told her you’d know what to do.”
“Little Joe said Adam was real smart but you don’t sound too smart to me.” Adam smiled again, remembering the little girl’s words. “I’m glad I didn’t let you down.” Giving the ropes one final check, Adam squeezed Joe’s good shoulder. “Ready?”
“Adam?” Joe took hold of Adam’s shirt again, though his grip was weaker than before. “You need…need to talk to her.”
“Tell her…what it’s like to be…oldest.”
“What’s that got to do…”
“That’s why…why she…ran away. She’s got a…a little brother now. I told her…she’s got to…keep him…out of trouble.”
“That’s a pretty tall order, don’t you think?”
“She can do it.” Joe sounded confident. “Just like you.”
“If I could keep you out of trouble, little brother, you wouldn’t be in this mess, now would you?”
“It’s the cat’s fault. But…you…you’re here now.”
“Hey, Adam?” Hoss called down then.
“We’re ready!” Adam hollered back. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he added more softly. “This is gonna hurt, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to shield you from the worst of it.”
“Just like always.”
Yeah, little brother. Just like always. A pretty tall order, indeed….
Mary had expected Hoss to move mountains. He sure wished he could. If he could have moved that whole mountain out of the way, he could have gotten his little brother home quicker.
At least there was one mountain Hoss didn’t have to move. He didn’t have to worry about how far it was from Virginia City to the Ponderosa. The doc was already at the ranch house. Charlie had come through for them, sending one of the men ahead to fetch Doc Martin. But…someone else was there, too. There were two buggies in the yard.
Hoss jumped down off of Chubb and immediately went to work helping Adam take Little Joe from Ben. “I can get him inside,” he said, meeting his older brother’s eye. “You get the door.”
Adam didn’t argue. He relinquished his hold on their young brother…and then Hoss’ stomach turned yet again. Maybe Little Joe wasn’t a mountain, but he sure was dead weight in Hoss’ arms.
Swallowing back another hearty dose of fear, Hoss barreled into the house right behind Adam. Once inside, he stopped — just for a second, just long enough to see a blonde-haired woman looking up at him from Pa’s chair by the fire. Little Mary was in the woman’s lap, sound asleep, her head resting on the woman’s shoulder.
“Bring him upstairs, Hoss,” the doc said.
Hoss barely heard him. The woman’s soft humming filled his head with a thick feeling — a warm sort of thick feeling that somehow reminded him of a blanket and made him believe everything was gonna be just fine. And, besides, he was already moving toward the stairs. He was moving before he even knew that’s what he was doing. The doc hadn’t needed to say a word.
There was a stranger in Joe’s room. Hoss, Adam and Ben each eyed him warily as they brought Joe in and got him settled on his bed. But neither Doc Martin nor Hop Sing seemed concerned about the stranger being there, and the Cartwrights were far too focused on Little Joe to give any thought to introductions — until the doc got to chasing Joe’s family out.
Ben was indignant. “Who’s this?” he said gruffly after Paul Martin asked the stranger for fresh water, making it clear the man was meant to stay.
“Name’s Connelly.” His hands occupied with the basin, the sandy haired stranger simply nodded in greeting.
“Mary father,” Hop Sing added without looking up, his attention already given over to removing Joe’s torn clothes.
“And he’s no stranger to treating wounds,” the doc added.
Connelly shrugged, looking sheepish, or, perhaps, embarrassed. “Served as a medic for a time back in Ireland.”
“Out now,” Doc Martin gently pressed Ben’s shoulder. “I need room to work, Ben. Missus Connelly’s downstairs. She’ll explain.”
“Needs my attention. Please, Ben. I can’t have you hovering right now.”
Hoss took hold of his pa’s arm. “Doc’s right, Pa. Come on. Let’s go down and see how Mary’s doin’.”
“You know,” Adam added, “she’ll likely be the first thing Joe asks about when he wakes up.”
Pale with worry, Ben’s eyes had a lost look to them, a pleading look he gave to both of his two oldest sons before glancing longingly back at his youngest. Finally, he nodded tersely and started to walk toward the door.
At the first hint of Ben turning, when his lips were just beginning to part, Paul answered his yet-to-be spoken question. “I will send Mister Connelly or Hop Sing down with information as soon as I have any to provide.”
Another glance at Little Joe brought another terse nod. Only then did Ben allow Hoss and Adam to usher him into the hall.
Mrs. Connelly was closing the door to the main floor guest room as the Cartwrights slowly descended the stairs.
“Why, look at you three.” Her tone was light, as were her steps as she made her way toward them. She seemed almost to float across the floor. “There’s no point to bein’ so glum. ’Tis better to have faith than to fear the worst. Your young man’s still breathin’?” She studied them each in turn, her brows raised in expectation and her eyes sparkling with a smile just on the verge of forming.
“Yes’m,” Hoss answered when his pa and Adam held silent.
The smile appeared. “Right, then. No point to believin’ that might change, hmm?” Her brows rose again, leaving Hoss to feel as though she was a teacher in a classroom prompting all three of them to accept responsibility for a lesson learned.
Ben gave his head a slow, puzzled shake. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Connelly, I…”
“Sorry?” she asked. “And what is it you have to be sorry for? My name’s Margaret, by the way. Maggie, to most.”
“Yes,” Ben answered mechanically as he took her hand in greeting. “I’m Ben. And these are my sons, Adam and Eric. Hoss, to most,” he added with a small, quick smile.
“And fine it is to be meeting all of you. Would you be likin’ some coffee? Or perhaps something a wee bit stronger? I understand from Hop Sing brandy might offer some comfort?”
This time it was Adam’s brows that rose.
Ben cleared his throat. “Please, Mrs. Connelly, have a seat. Allow me to…”
“Maggie,” she corrected sternly as she took hold of Ben’s arm and started guiding him toward the seating area in front of the fireplace. “And let’s have none of that nonsense, now. This be your home, certainly, but there’s no need for you to be playin’ host with me, not after what you’re family has done for mine. Now you come in here and settle yourselves, all of you, and allow my family to do for yours. Come along.”
Adam met Hoss’ surprised glance with the trace of a grin, and then settled his own self into the blue chair. “Mary’s asleep, I take it?”
“Aye, and soundly too, bless her. She’s a stubborn one, you know. Willful and oh so headstrong. How she got it into her head there was only room for one child under our roof….” Maggie Connelly’s eyes strayed toward the guest room, her smile fading behind a look of consternation. She shook her head slowly.
“Joe said she’s got a little brother now.” Adam’s words came as somewhat of a revelation to Hoss. The ride home had been a quiet one. Adam had told them Joe had talked a bit before losing consciousness, but he hadn’t given many details. Of course, no one had been too interested in saying much of anything.
“Aye. Michael. We left him in Virginia City with the Hamiltons soon as we heard young Mary was here. By the grace of God we were just askin’ the sheriff to help us find her when your man rode in to say she’d already been found. It’s grateful I am we could leave Michael with our dear friends as we did. That wasn’t the way of it ‘til recently. He came early, you see, and he’s sure been a handful. So needful. ‘Twas us fearin’ the worst ‘til now, I’m afraid. And what did all that fear bring us?” She gave Adam her now familiar, expectant look, although this time she answered herself. “A little girl lost and a young man needin’ a doctor’s care.” Shaking her head, she abruptly changed her tone. “Now, what shall it be? Coffee or brandy?”
Ben’s back straightened. “How about both?” he offered. “And what do you say we share the responsibility of playing host?” Kindness and sincerity began to lighten the worried shadows in his eyes.
The gaze she returned reminded Hoss of her gentle humming when they’d first come through the door. He sighed, feeling comforted again.
“Right, then,” Maggie Connelly said softly. “I’ll get the coffee.”
“And I’ll get the brandy,” Ben answered.
And then Hoss pulled his lower lip between his teeth. Otherwise, he was pretty sure he’d start singing out, and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye. Yep, he felt comforted, all right. He looked to Adam and then on up the stairs, and he flatly refused to fear the worst. “You know, Adam. I get the feelin’ Joe’s gonna be just fine.”
Leaning forward with his elbows propped on his knees, Adam nodded. “Somehow I don’t think Maggie will accept anything less.” He grinned just the slightest bit. And then he did the most peculiar thing. He started whistling the very song that was rolling through Hoss’ mind.
“Ah,” Maggie Connelly called out from the kitchen. “A grand song that is.” She even started singing when she emerged with the tray, although the words she used were not the ones Hoss had learned. “Oh, red is the rose, that in yonder garden grows. Fair is the lily of the valley. Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne, and my love is fairer than any.”
Music. Joe heard music. It was a pleasant enough sound. Someone was playing a guitar. But that wasn’t Adam singing. It was someone else…someone with a higher pitch to his voice. A tenor.
Curious, Joe tried to gather his jumbled thoughts. He realized he was coming awake an instant before he discovered he was in his bed. An instant after that, he began to feel all the reasons why he was in bed. Pain elicited a heavy groan he simply didn’t have the strength to contain, and he started to thrash about, desperate to find a more comfortable position.
“Easy now, son.” The voice wasn’t his pa’s. The hand pressing down on his chest was also too small.
Joe opened his eyes to tiny slits and looked up at Doc Martin.
The doc smiled back at him. “Seems you’ve made a hero of yourself, Little Joe.”
Little Joe…. The words stirred the memory of a young girl. “Little?” she had shouted down to him. “You’re not little. I’m little.”
“Mary,” Joe whispered as he allowed his eyes to slip closed again.
“That’s right. Mary Katherine Connelly. Her parents are downstairs singing your praises even now.”
“Sounds like…sea shanty.”
“They’re singing, anyway. And do you know why?”
Joe looked at the doctor, puzzled.
“Because Mister Connelly has pronounced that he expects you to recover nicely.” Doc Martin sighed as Joe’s puzzled gaze deepened. “Despite the fact that his experience consists entirely of field medicine with absolutely no formal training….” He smiled softly. “I happen to agree, thanks to that Cartwright constitution of yours. And, if faith can move mountains, as Missus Connelly insists, there’s no reason to believe otherwise. But I’m counting on you to prove us all right. You hear?”
Joe blinked slowly.
“That means I’m counting on you to be a model patient. Take your medication when your father says it’s time, stay put in that bed until I pronounce you fit enough to move about, and then take things slowly until your wounds heal and your strength returns. Now, do I have your word?”
“I’m not…going anywhere…today,” Joe rasped out tiredly.
“Hmmm… Well, I suppose I’ll have to accept that answer for now.”
The sound of the doc’s bag snapping shot pulled Joe’s eyes open once more. “Doc?”
“Can I have…medicine…now?”
“Well,” Ben Cartwright’s voice rumbled into the room. “Now there’s a surprise! Joseph Cartwright asking for medicine?” And suddenly Joe’s pa was standing where the doc had been barely an instant earlier.
Joe scrunched his eyes closed for a long moment, hoping to chase away his confusion. “Hurts, Pa.” He felt a familiar hand on his good shoulder.
“I know, son,” Ben said more softly. “I’m proud of you, Joseph. I want to tell you that was a foolish thing to do, but…I can’t. You saved that girl’s life. If you hadn’t jumped in…”
“The puma,” Joe said. “It was the puma…that jumped.”
Ben’s grip on his shoulder tightened slightly. “You saved Mary’s life, Joe. And you did the right thing sending her home on Cochise.”
“Don’t you mean Cocheese, Pa?” Hoss’ voice drew Joe’s attention back to the doorway, where both of his brothers were entering. “That’s what Mary calls him. Cocheese.”
Joe tried to smile; he grimaced in pain instead.
“I imagine you wish you’d stayed with Hoss,” Adam said.
Looking to his family gathering around his bed, Joe took in a small pull of air, hoping it might clear his head. “No. I’m glad.”
“Glad you got walloped by a puma?” Adam asked, although his own, small grin made it clear he knew that wasn’t what Joe was saying.
“Glad I was there…for Mary.” Joe tried to take a deeper breath. All it did was remind him of his pain.
“We’re all proud of you, Joe,” Adam said then, a small, honest smile replacing the grin.
“Sure are, shortshanks.” Hoss patted Joe’s foot — the only undamaged part he could reach.
“I’m just glad…she’s okay.” Joe let his eyes slip closed…until he remembered something important. “Adam?” he called out softly. “You’ll talk to her? About….”
“About being oldest?” The grin was back. “And taking care of her little brother?”
Nodding, Joe finally found a trace of his own smile.
“I’ll talk to her. But….”
“What?” Joe asked, concerned.
“She’s got her work cut out for her if she thinks that little brother of hers could ever live up to you.”
“I always thought I had…a hard time…living up to you.” Joe’s eyes moved to Hoss. “Both of you.”
“Aw, shucks, Joe. I ain’t never thrown myself in front of a puma.”
Joe smiled again. “You’ve saved…my hide…a time…or two.”
“Or ten,” Adam added.
Joe couldn’t smile any longer. He just hurt too darned much.
“Paul?” Ben’s voice called softly through the encroaching darkness. “I think we’d better let him have that medicine now.”
“Thanks…Pa.” But somehow…strangely…Joe fell asleep without it.
Seated at breakfast with his two oldest sons and William and Maggie Connelly, Ben experienced an instant of déjà vu at hearing young Mary’s voice calling for someone. Only this time, she was calling from the guest room, not the yard. And she wasn’t asking if anyone was home.
Moments later, her small hand clinging tightly to her mother’s, the child was ushered into the dining room. She rubbed her eyes and looked all about her in confusion. “Where’s Michael?”
“He’s with the Hamiltons, darlin’.”
“We wanted to come get you as quickly as we could.”
“You left him for me?” Her eyes widened.
“Of course, child. You needed…”
“But we’re a family, aren’t we?”
“Of course, we are!”
“Little Joe said families have to stick together.”
Ben traded sentimental smiles with Adam and Hoss, and then briefly met Maggie Connelly’s gaze.
“Aye. That they must,” Mary’s mother said, as much to the men at the table as to her young daughter.
“But if Michael’s not here, then we’re not sticking together.” Poor Mary sounded quite distraught.
Surprise and concern swung Maggie’s full attention back to her daughter. “Of course, we’re stickin’ together,” she assured the child. “The Hamiltons are…”
“But Michael should be here,” Mary argued. “I need to look after him. I’m the big sister. You can’t leave him behind for me!”
“Darlin’, he’s just…”
“I’m supposed to make sure he stays out of trouble!”
“Sweetheart, sure and I am he can’t possibly get into trouble with…”
“But I need to, momma! I need to look after him! I promised Little Joe!”
“I think that’s my cue.” Adam set his napkin beside his plate and pushed back from the table. “After all, I also made a promise to Little Joe,” he added with a wink to his father and brother.
“Why don’t you and I have a little talk?” Adam reached his hand out, wordlessly inviting Mary to take it. “Big brother to big sister?”
Mary looked for her mother’s encouraging nod before slipping her hand into his and letting him lead her to the settee.
“First of all, Mary,” Adam settled himself onto the low table in front of her, “when Little Joe said families stick together, he didn’t mean they’re always in the same place at the same time.”
“It’s not always possible. I wasn’t with him on that ridge yesterday, was I?”
“Why not? You’re his big brother. You’re supposed to look out for him.”
“I do. And he looks out for me, too. You see, it goes both ways now, because we’re both grown. Just like it will be for you and Michael after you’re both grown.”
“But you didn’t look out for Little Joe yesterday.”
Stung, Adam took a deep breath. “Not at first, no. He didn’t need me to, because he’s grown enough to look out for himself.”
“But when he fell, he couldn’t look out for himself.”
“That’s right; he couldn’t. That’s why we went out there to take care of him and bring him home.”
“But if you were with him, you could have stopped him from falling.”
Taking another fortifying breath, Adam glanced at the table where his family and hers were quietly watching. “We can’t always stop bad things from happening,” he answered finally.
Mary pursed her lips. “That’s what Little Joe said. That’s when big brothers and big sisters have to help get little brothers out of trouble.”
Adam couldn’t help but grin. “That sounds about right.”
“But if my little brother’s not here, I can’t stop him from getting into trouble and I can’t get him out of trouble. I can’t do anything at all!”
“You don’t have to, because you know he’s safe.”
“Because he’s with people who will protect him just as well as you and your parents would.”
“Well, the Hamiltons know how important it is to protect little ones who can’t protect themselves.”
“All right, young lady.” William Connelly rose to move toward them. “That’s enough questions for now. Let Mister Cartwright eat his breakfast.”
Adam looked to him and smiled. “I think I can handle a few more questions.”
Mister Connelly’s brows rose. Then he shrugged and held back, although he remained standing.
“You’re more grown than your little brother, right?” Adam asked Mary next.
“And the Hamiltons are more grown than you.”
She nodded again.
“They’ve learned how to protect themselves and those around them. Just like you’re learning, right now.”
“Sure, you are. I’ll bet you learn a little something new every day.”
“Like yesterday. I’ll bet you learned that wandering outside alone is dangerous, right?”
Her eyes went wide and she nodded emphatically.
“Well, you can save your parents and your little brother a whole lot of trouble by teaching Michael the same thing before he starts wandering himself.”
“You sure can. And you know why?”
She shook her head.
“Because that’s what big brothers and big sisters do. They help their little brothers and little sisters to grow up safe. And they always stick together, even when they’re miles apart.”
Mary scrunched her brows tight, deep in thought. “How do I stick together with Michael if he’s with the Hamiltons and I’m here?” she asked after a moment.
“Oh, that’s easy.”
“All you have to do is promise that whenever you’re together, you’ll help him to learn how to be careful, like Hoss and I helped our father to teach Little Joe. Think you can do that?”
Mary nodded, but the way she pulled her lower lip in between her teeth showed that she was bothered by something. “Mister Adam?” she asked. “Do you ever get mad at Little Joe?”
Surprised, Adam pulled his cheek between his own teeth and glanced over at Ben and Hoss. As expected, they were both grinning sheepishly. Finally, Adam admitted, “Yes, Mary. Yes, I do get mad at Little Joe.”
“But you still take care of him?”
“Even when I want to punch him, I still make sure he’s safe.”
“Then it’s okay if I get mad at Michael when he won’t stop crying?”
“As long as you don’t punch him.” Adam winked.
Mary gave one great big bob of her head. “Good. ‘Cause I don’t know how I could ever promise not to get mad at him. But I can promise to look out for him.”
“Good,” Adam repeated. “Now, how about that breakfast? Are you hungry?”
“I sure am!”
While Mary jumped off the settee and hurried over to her mother, Adam rose more slowly, meeting her father’s eye.
“It never would have dawned on me,” William Connelly told him, “to have that particular conversation with her.”
Adam’s grin seemed to have found permanence. “Maybe that’s because it’s hard to think clearly with a crying baby in the house,” he said slyly.
William grinned back at him, nodding. “Maybe so.” He cocked his head then, considering. “You sound as though you speak from experience.”
“I was old enough when Joe was born to remember what it was like.”
“Yes, well… You make an excellent older brother, if I do say so myself.”
“I’ve had some practice.”
As Adam headed back to the table, he saw his pa’s appreciative nod and listened to Hoss’ contagious chuckle, and he found himself wishing Joe was there, although he had to admit, listening to Pa and Hoss in the days to come regaling Joe with the story of Adam’s little talk with Mary — embellishments no doubt included — could prove to be entertaining for all of them.
“Mister Adam?” Mary asked just as Adam was about to take a bite of his now cold eggs. “I reckon maybe you are kinda smart, just like Little Joe said.”
Hoss’ guffaw was loud enough to wake everyone on the Comstock. Little Joe didn’t stand a chance to sleep through it, medicine or not. He blinked the room into tenuous focus and found Hop Sing seated beside him.
“Little Joe hungry?” the cook said softly, sounding concerned despite a dark look in his eyes.
Joe smiled inwardly. He knew that look. Someone was going to be scolded before long. Hoss, most likely.
“Hop Sing get broth.” The cook nodded decisively, tapped Joe’s arm, and then rose.
“No, Hop Sing,” Joe tried to argue. His voice was so weak he was almost surprised to see the man hesitate and turn back to him. “Not…hungry,” Joe added. The very idea of food turned his stomach.
“Number three son must eat.”
“Later. Maybe.” Joe closed his eyes again, wishing for sleep even as he longed to be downstairs sharing in whatever conversation was prompting so much laughter. Most of all, he just wanted the pain to go away.
The next time Joe opened his eyes, the house was quiet and Hoss was dozing in the chair next to him. He considered asking for a drink of water, but Hoss looked awfully tired — like maybe he really had moved a mountain for Joe, just as Joe had told Mary he could.
The whole family was probably tired, Joe realized. Tired as much from pulling him up out of that ravine as from looking out for him right there in that bed.
Looking out for him… They were always looking out for him, weren’t they?
That’s what big brothers and big sisters do, Joe had told Mary.
Joe wished he could do more looking out and less getting looked after. But, he knew he could always count on his brothers, and he was glad of that. No matter what, no matter how ornery or pigheaded he might be, he could count on them. Like when Hoss let him go riding instead of helping to finish the fence. Or like that very moment right there in Joe’s room. Hoss was still looking out for Joe even when it was clear he needed some sleep, too.
Joe hoped they knew they could count on him just as much as he counted on them.
Well, maybe he couldn’t do much looking out for anyone in bed like he was. But there was one thing he could do: he could let Hoss sleep a little while longer. It wouldn’t hurt Joe any to skip a sip of water.
Joe tasted beef broth. He couldn’t remember eating it, but he sure as heck could taste it. He could smell it, too. Confused, he scrunched up his brow while he gathered the strength to open his eyes again.
“Joe?” his pa called to him. He heard the clatter of a dish against wood. “Joseph?”
Blinking, Joe came awake to find his pa smiling at him.
“It’s good to see you awake, son.”
Just like he couldn’t remember eating, Joe also couldn’t remember moving, but he was propped up in bed with a mound of pillows beneath him. Sudden apprehension drove his eyes toward the bedside table to find a bowl sitting there, just as he’d expected. Just as he’d feared. Dang. His pa had been feeding him.
Ben followed Joe’s reaction. “I’m afraid you’ve been…asleep for a while.”
Closing his eyes, Joe blew out a long breath. He knew there was no point to being embarrassed. But how could he not? Little Joe, the little brother, the baby of the family had had to be babied for two days.
“How do you feel?”
“Sore.” The realization struck him at once, pulling his eyes open again. He was sore. Things certainly hurt. But his pain wasn’t as intense as it had been. “Better,” he added then, pleasantly surprised.
“Good. That’s very, very good. You do look better. Much better.”
Joe cautiously took another deep breath and was grateful it didn’t fill him with the stabs of fire he expected. “Sorry.”
“Sorry?” Ben looked at him, clearly puzzled. “For what?”
“You must be tired.”
“Nonsense. I’m fine. Just fine.” Ben’s smile deepened, lending strength to his words.
Joe tried to match that bright smile. He hoped his own looked better than he imagined it must. “Sure. Me, too.”
“Fine as frog hair?” Adam’s voice called Joe’s attention to the doorway, where his oldest brother was leaning against the frame with his arms crossed over his chest.
“You bet,” Joe rasped out in answer.
“Hmm.” Adam nodded and sauntered into the room. “I’m not sure I can believe that, but you do look much finer than you have been looking. You might even be up to a visit from Mary in a few days.”
“M-hm. She’s anxious to introduce you to her little brother — and to show you she’s being a good big sister.”
“She’s anxious to show both of you,” Ben corrected. His brow lifted as he glanced toward Adam.
The implications encouraged Joe. “You talked to her?”
Adam flashed a quick smile. “Yes, I did, but your talk left such an impression there wasn’t much I really needed to say.”
“I don’t…” Joe started, confused. “I don’t know anything about…being a big brother.”
“Could have fooled me,” Adam argued. “You were every bit the big brother out on that ridge.”
“Hey, Joe!” Hoss cheerfully called in from the hallway. “I thought I heard talkin’ in here.”
“He woke up a few minutes ago,” Ben explained.
Hoss bobbed his head knowingly. “Just like that Mrs. Connelly said. All we had to do was think good thoughts.”
“And follow doctor’s orders,” Ben added, turning his attention back to Joe. “The Connelly’s are quite a family. They were a big help when we brought you home the other day. They feel very…very indebted to you.”
Indebted? Joe didn’t like the sound of that. Adam was calling him a big brother and his pa was acting like he’d done something special, but he’d only done what anyone would do. He hadn’t even done it well.
Ben misread his reasons for closing his eyes and furrowing his brows like he did. “Maybe we’d better let your brother rest.”
Taking in a small pull of air, Joe opened his eyes again. “I was clumsy, Pa. My aim was off. I didn’t hit that puma clean.”
“You saved Mary’s life.”
“My bad shot could have gotten both of us killed,” Joe admitted softly.
“It wasn’t a bad shot,” Adam said. “You were surprised by a wild and unpredictable animal that you hadn’t been hunting for. You had to shoot quick and you did. Face it, you didn’t do anything wrong. You took the best shot you could and you managed to look after Mary even after you were hurt.”
“Yeah, Joe,” Hoss added. “Like it or not, you’re a hero to that gal and her family.”
Ben nodded. “To this family, too.”
“Any one of you would have done the same, only…better.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.” Adam cocked his head. “You’re a good shot…among the best I’ve seen, especially when speed matters.”
Taken aback, Joe studied his family. Their postures were relaxed, their smiles, genuine. He saw no sign of tension…or…or belittlement. Maybe…maybe he even saw something that looked a whole lot like respect.
Adam had said Joe was a good shot. Among the best he’d ever seen? And it was pretty apparent that he truly meant it. Joe really didn’t know how to respond, except perhaps to say, “I learned…from you.”
The words elicited one of Adam’s sideways grins. “Well, what do you know about that, Hoss? Our little brother has admitted to learning a little something from his big brothers.”
“Yeah. I reckon shortshanks here is gonna start movin’ mountains next.”
Ben’s eyebrows shot up. “He already has.”
“More like…,” Joe muttered tiredly as he settled back into his pillows, “the mountain moved me.”
“You, son, moved a confused little girl to realize some very important truths about responsibility and family.”
Adam’s grin faded. “I think he moved a much bigger mountain than that, pa.” He looked to Ben and then each of his brothers. “Me,” he admitted before easing his grin back into place. “Let’s just say you forced me to acknowledge that you’re not always the selfish brat I occasionally accuse you of being.”
Joe matched his grin…and maybe even surpassed it. Back in that ravine, he’d told Mary how special it was to be a big sister. But there was something pretty special about being the little brother, too. Right there, at that moment, hearing pride and respect in his big brother’s words made Joe feel about as good as he could ever imagine feeling. It was almost enough to let him forget the pain of his injuries.
Almost. But not quite. He grimaced at the twinge in his arm where the puma’s claws had struck him.
“All right, boys,” Ben said. “That’s enough for now. Your brother needs his rest. And, as I recall, there are still some strays to round up.”
Joe wasn’t about to argue. But, there was one more thing he wanted to say. “Adam?” He waited for his brother to turn. “Thanks.”
At Adam’s responding wink, Joe closed his eyes again. He did need his rest, just like his pa had said. And, it was okay, he decided. There was no point to worrying about being babied.
“I’ll take the high country,” Hoss started saying as Joe began to relax, “where Joe was lookin’. Bound to be some of them cattle made their way up there.”
“Well, then,” Adam answered, “I suppose I’ll take the low country.” There was a playful tone in his voice.
An instant later, Adam surprised Joe by singing out, “And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.”
Curious, Joe opened his eyes in time to see Adam leading Hoss from the room with his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. And then, suddenly, both of Joe’s brothers were singing. “Me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond….”
They didn’t make it to the next verse, not after a certain Chinese cook started scolding them for making so much noise and foolishment while number three son was trying to sleep.
Joe couldn’t help but giggle…until his soreness grew painful enough to steal his breath. But even then, it was all right. He wouldn’t trade those big brothers of his for anything.