Summary: The boys find that a day’s work does not turn out as any of them expect.
Word Count: 9,740
“Hoss Cartwright, sold to Mr. and Mrs. Burnside for one hundred and twenty dollars,” announced the auctioneer. Hoss’s older brother, Adam, had already been sold for one hundred dollars, and next it was the turn of his younger brother, Little Joe.
He mounted the platform smiling, seeing the women in the audience looking at him appreciatively.
“How much am I bid for this fine young man?” asked the auctioneer. A collective sigh went round the room from the young ladies present.
“Fifty dollars,” offered Mabel Atkins.
“Seventy dollars,” from Annie Laidlaw.
”Eighty dollars.” Mabel again. She looked across at Annie, smiling because she knew that she could outbid the daughter of the blacksmith. Mabel’s father was a lawyer and would allow her to bid higher. Annie looked despondent, but knew she was beaten.
Joe was watching with interest, wondering which of the lovely ladies he would end up with.
“Eighty five dollars.” A new bidder. Mabel looked round to see who was trying to spoil her fun. She got a smile from Louise Tatum, and Mabel knew she had lost. Louise’s father was the superintendent of the Yellow Jacket mine and would refuse his daughter nothing.
“Ninety dollars,” said Mabel. Louise might be able to outbid her but Mabel was determined to make her pay for it.
“One hundred and thirty dollars,” said Louise triumphantly.
Mabel sat and pouted, she didn’t dare go any further. Louise was just as likely to stop bidding in order that Mabel would have to find the money, and her father would be furious with her if she spent that much. The auctioneer looked at her but she shook her head.
“Are there any more bids?” he said glancing round the room. It seemed that there were not, but as he was about to bang his gavel, a voice from the back of the room said, “Two hundred dollars.”
Everyone looked round to see who had bid so much, and their gaze lighted on Mrs. Wilcox. She was an elderly spinster, recently come to settle in Virginia City from Carolina. No one knew much about her, except that they did not care for her. She never seemed to think that the west was as good a place as Carolina, the people were too rough for her, the housing was not up to eastern standards, you could not get the little luxuries that made life easier. She seemed to complain about everything, and looked so miserable all the time that people tended to avoid her.
Louise was afraid to bid higher. Her father was very generous towards her, but there was a limit even to his generosity. She looked at Joe and shook her head, Joe looked back pleading with her to bid. She felt that steady gaze on her and averted her eyes, looking at her hands lying in her lap.
“Sold to Mrs. Wilcox.” Joe heard the words with dismay. What had started out as such a good idea seemed to have backfired on him. He could see his brothers standing at the back of the room, and Adam was laughing, it seemed as though Mrs. Wilcox would get his revenge for him. Joe looked at their father, Ben, standing beside them, but he just spread his arms in a gesture that said there was nothing he could, or would do about it.
Adam sat in the blue chair by the fireplace at home. He was still laughing quietly to himself, looking at his brothers and father, sitting with him. It seemed that, for once, one of Joe’s bright ideas had left Adam the winner, and Joe and even Hoss, on the losing end. Joe was looking despondent, Hoss thoughtful.
Ben looked as though he had seen it all before. He knew what his youngest son had in mind, when Ben had asked for fund raising ideas for the new school building. Joe had suggested that, since there were a lot of single ladies, widows and elderly couples round Virginia City, perhaps they would contribute to the fund to have help for the day. Ben had agreed that, if Joe could find enough men willing to contribute their labour, it would be a good idea.
Ben had to admit that Joe had worked hard to get the men together, even managing to persuade his eldest brother. While not unwilling to help anybody who needed it, Adam objected to the idea of being ‘sold’, as he said ‘like a side of beef.’ But eventually Adam had been worn down by Joe’s gentle persuasion.
Adam laughed again. “Well Joe, that was a great success. You raised a heap of money, they’ll soon have that schoolhouse started. Pa, you should be very proud of your baby son.”
“Oh, I am. Joe, congratulations are in order. I must admit when you first suggested this, I was doubtful that you would find enough people who were interested to make it work. I thought that you had in mind to get bought by some lovely young lady, so that you could spend the day with her, showing off those muscles. But I was obviously wrong.” Ben also had a broad grin on his face.
He was secretly proud that his sons had attracted the highest bids. There was obviously going to be strong competition from the young ladies for Joe, with his sparkling smile, good looks and ready humour. Hoss was the biggest of Ben’s three sons, willing and placid, and his strength would attract interest from anyone needing help. He suspected that the reason for Adam’s being the lowest of the three was because most people found the eldest Cartwright son intimidating. He was handsome, intelligent and quiet, and just a look from his dark eyes had stopped many who had thought to challenge him. The possibility of having him around, at their command, would make most people uneasy.
“It’s all right for you to laugh, brother. The Widow Ambrose bought you. She’s a fine lady, kind, and good looking to boot. But I’m going to have to go to Mrs. Wilcox tomorrow. Can you imagine what she’s going to have me doing? She hates everybody, especially anyone young, it’s going to be the worst day of my life.” Joe put his hand over his eyes and shook his head, eliciting more laughter from his elder brother.
“Yeah, well I didn’t come out of this any better than you,” said Hoss. ”Them Burnsides have never liked us Cartwrights, think we have too much land, too much money, and too much influence round here. I jest cain’t understand why they wanted to buy me.”
Ben was serious for a moment. “Perhaps they simply wanted to contribute to the school fund.”
“Yeah? Maybe, but I sure ain’t looking forward to going there. Adam I don’t know how you did it, getting Mrs. Ambrose to bid for you, but right now I’d pay double to swap with you.”
Adam looked thoughtful. “I wonder why she did? I never thought that she had that kind of money to spare. It was very generous of her.”
Ben leaned over and put his hand on Joe’s arm. “Seriously son. I know this hasn’t turned out quite how you planned, but it was a very good idea, think what you have achieved. And it is only for one day.”
“Yeah, I suppose I can stand it for one day.”
The following day after breakfast, the three boys went their separate ways to the people who had bought their labour. Ben saw them go and thought how proud he was of them. He knew that Adam had not been keen on the idea, but that had not stopped him taking part, and they were all making their own contribution towards the new school, and he knew they would do their best to help those who had paid so handsomely.
Joe rode slowly towards the home of Mrs. Wilcox. She lived just outside town, in a small house with a couple of acres of land attached to it, which she only used to graze her horse. As he approached the house, he could see her waiting for him. She stood outside the front door, tall and slim, her grey hair pulled back and fastened in a tight bun. She was dressed all in black, a tiny white collar on her dress the only brightness.
“Well, it’s about time you got here,” she said as Joe dismounted. Joe decided that if he was going to get through this day he might just as well be agreeable, and held back the words he was thinking.
“Yes ma’am. Sorry if I’m late.”
“You’re here now so we’ll let that pass. I need some of the fences mending round the property. You can find tools in the barn.”
Joe stood for a moment. Mending fences, one of his least favourite jobs.
“Well don’t waste any more time, I don’t expect you’ll get very much done as it is, but I did not pay handsomely to have you standing around.” She knew that young people would idle the day away if they could, and she had paid to show this young man what hard work meant. No doubt being who he was, he was used to others doing the work for him. Well he was about to find out that you could not go through life wasting your effort on enjoying yourself while others laboured.
“Yes ma’am, I’m on my way. Is it all right if I leave my horse in the stable?”
“Yes, you may,” Mrs. Wilcox said and disappeared back into the house.
Joe went to the barn and after settling Cochise, found the tools he would need to fix the fences. He wandered out to the back of the barn, where the fence started that ran round the property, and began to survey the damage. In places the fence was in good repair, but in others one or two of the rails had fallen and he set about nailing them back in place. Occasionally he would find that the rail had rotted and got another from a small stack of timber. He knew that as he worked further from the house the trips to find replacements would take longer. With a heavy heart he approached the house, went up to the door and knocked.
“Well, what is it?”
“Would it be all right if I used your buggy to take some rails out to the further end of the fence, ma’am?”
“Why don’t you fix the fence nearest the barn first?” enquired Mrs. Wilcox, afraid that if Joe wanted to work on the fence furthest away, he would be out of sight and not do any work.
“Ma’am, I’ve finished that section. As I go further away it’s taking me longer to get replacements, I just thought it would save some time if I could use the buggy to move the rails.”
Mrs. Wilcox was suspicious.
“Let’s go and see what you have done, and I warn you if it is not done properly you will have to do it over again.” She walked past Joe and down to the back of the barn. She was surprised to see the fence looking in perfect condition.
“Well?” asked Joe, a quiet smile on his face, he knew he had done a good job.
“I suppose it will do. You may use the buggy. Young man, do you have a watch?”
“Er, no I don’t.”
“Then I will loan you one. I will serve lunch sharp at one o’clock. If you want to eat, you must be at the house at that time. I will not wait for you.” She handed Joe a small pocket watch.
“And make sure that you take very good care of that watch. It is not something that can be replaced, and I am loaning it to you against my better judgement. But I will not have it said that I refused to feed you.” As she went back to the house Joe wondered what it was that made a person dislike everybody so much. He shrugged his shoulders and hitched the buggy, carefully laying some fence rails along the foot well.
Joe worked diligently all morning, and at five minutes to one he knocked on the front door. Mrs. Wilcox answered it.
“You said not to be late,” Joe explained, when she seemed surprised by his appearance.
“So I did.” She took back the watch that Joe held out for her, looking at it carefully for any signs of damage, and finding none indicated that he should follow her inside. They made their way through the parlour and into the kitchen.
“After lunch you can finish the fence, and then I have some work that needs doing in the barn.”
“Ah, ma’am, I’ve finished the fence.”
“Are you sure, it hasn’t taken you very long?” she asked, certain that he must have skimped on his work.
“Yes Ma’am. Mending fences is something that we’re having to do all the time on the Ponderosa.” Mrs. Wilcox indicated that he should sit at the kitchen table, and dished up for them both a plate of ham and eggs. She sat down opposite him and was about to start to eat when Joe lowered his head to say grace. Mrs. Wilcox laid down her knife and fork
“Thank You, Lord for this food, and for this respite from our labours,” he said adding the last phrase a little impishly, but Mrs. Wilcox made no comment.
“So you do manage to do some work around your place then?” she asked pointedly. Joe noticed the ‘some’ she had used.
“Oh yes, Ma’am. Me and my brothers all work on the ranch. No use a man having three grown sons and then hiring extra help for work they could do. I do most of the horse breaking, my brother Hoss, he’s good with the stock, and elder brother Adam helps Pa running the ranch, you know with the paper work for contracts and such. But we all help out with the labour. Some days we’re out there from sun up to sun set, just to get it all done.”
“I see,” said Mrs. Wilcox. What this young man had said surprised her. She had imagined that the sons of the wealthiest rancher in the territory would have it easy, but if he was to be believed than it was not so. She thought of the work he had already done, and had to admit that to do it so quickly he must have experience at it. Perhaps he was telling the truth.
“I expect your father gives you plenty of time off though.” She was goading him, trying to get to the truth of the matter. She could not believe that this boy didn’t get away with idling.
“No, ma’am. Pa says that we have to be seen to do as much as any of the men, if they are to have any respect for us. Sometimes it’s left to us to tell them what to do, and they have to know that we could do it as well as they can.”
For a long minute she did not say anything, and Joe thought that this was going to be a long meal. Mrs. Wilcox questioning him or remaining silent.
“Ma’am may I ask you something?”
“If you like.”
“You don’t have to answer if you think it impertinent, but why did you come out here, to Virginia City?”
Martha Wilcox’s first instinct was to tell this youth to mind his own business, but the things he had told her about himself and his brothers, had made her look at him in a new light, and perhaps he deserved an answer.
“Young man, I have trouble with my breathing, and the damp air back east was making it worse. The doctors told me that I should move to somewhere drier. I travelled west to find such a place. I wasn’t sorry to leave my home. The town had grown to such an extent that I hardly knew anyone anymore, and there was a shortage of work. So many of the young people had no jobs, they would sit about all day with nothing to do. They would get bored and into all kinds of mischief. They would come round to the house and make a lot of noise, and if I told them to go away, they would throw stones at the windows. No one seemed to be able to do anything about it. So, I was quite glad to leave.
“I decided that I did not like places such as Arizona. Oh, they are dry rightly enough, but so dull. Just mile after mile of desert, so I decided to try Nevada. Dry air, but the mountains make it bearable. And the country is so beautiful, different throughout the year as the seasons change. Sparkling with new life in the spring, summer days when the land seems to shimmer in the heat, the fall when the land begins to go to sleep, and the winter snows covering everything in a carpet of white, keeping it safe until the spring comes again.” She stopped speaking, a dreamy look in her eyes, then seemed to shake herself as she realised that she had shown her feelings to this young stranger.
Joe was smiling.
“I suppose you find it funny that an old lady like myself should be able to enjoy nature,” she said sharply seeing Joe’s smile, and annoyed with herself for saying such things.
“Oh, no ma’am, I was smiling because that is just how I see this land. On the Ponderosa we use the land, and the seasons. The spring brings new grass for the cattle, the long summer days mean hard work but we can get so much done, all the jobs needed to look after the place, including mending fences.” He smiled at her and after a moment, she smiled back. “In the fall we cut trees and move the cattle, and then the winter comes, a time of rest for us and the land.”
They both sat in silence thinking about what had been said. Joe had finished his meal and thought he had better get on with his work, Mrs. Wilcox obviously had a busy afternoon planned. He stood up.
“Ma’am, you said you wanted some work done in the barn?”
“What? Oh yes. The ladder to the loft is in need of repair. Do you think you could fix it?”
“I’ll have a look. If there’s a problem, I’ll come and let you know.”
Joe left her sitting at the table and went out to the barn. Sure enough, several of the steps of the ladder leading to the loft were loose or broken. He looked round and found a saw and cut some new treads, then set about fixing them in place.
“Thank you young man. You have done a good job,” said Mrs. Wilcox, entering the barn.
“Please call me Joe. Would you like me to clean out the barn while I’m here?” Joe suggested.
“No. Would you take me for a ride in the buggy?”
“But what about the work you want doing?”
“Young…” she started, “Joe, would you mind showing me some of your home? The Ponderosa I mean, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Joe was amazed, why would this woman want to see the Ponderosa? Still, if it meant that he didn’t have to do any more work, he wasn’t going to object. He re-hitched the horse to the buggy and they left in the direction of his home.
They drove on until Joe announced, “This is where the Ponderosa starts, from here to Lake Tahoe is all our land.”
“I understand the lake is quite beautiful.”
“Haven’t you seen it?”
“No. It would involve a long drive if I were not to trespass on your land,” replied Martha Wilcox regretfully. Joe heard the tone.
“We could go there now if you like?”
“I think I would like that very much, thank you.”
Joe pushed the horse just a little, the afternoon was wearing on and if they were to get to the lake and back to Virginia City by a reasonable hour they would have to hurry.
He heard Mrs. Wilcox draw in a breath as she first caught sight of the lake.
“Oh my, it’s lovely,” she said. This afternoon the lake was looking particularly good. The clear blue sky reflected in the waters of the lake, and the mountains in the background, still with a covering of snow on their peaks, framing the dark green of the pines.
Eventually Joe drew the buggy to a halt near the edge of the lake. Mrs. Wilcox sat looking out over the water and Joe, looking at her face, thought she looked like a child having it’d first taste of ice cream. She got out of the buggy, and walked to the edge of the low cliff where they had stopped.
“Joe, could you take me down to the shore, do you think?”
“Yes, if you like. There’s a path over here, it’s a bit steep but I’ll help you.” He led Mrs. Wilcox down the slope until they were stood on a small beach.
“I didn’t realise that it was so beautiful.”
“Yes ma’am, it’s pretty all year round, changes all the time of course with the weather and the seasons, but it’s always lovely.”
“You are very lucky to live so near it.”
“I’m lucky to live on the Ponderosa. To know that it’s safe for the future.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well my Pa and brother Adam are always very careful what they allow to happen on the ranch. They say that we have to be careful what we do now, not to ruin the land for the future. We could mine the silver more than we do. We could cut a lot more trees and graze many more cattle, but they say that would mean that there would not be so much in future. I don’t mean for next year, they are thinking of our grandchildren and their children.”
“I see, and what do you think about that? If they could make more money would it not benefit yourself?”
“Yes it would, but I agree with them all the way. Ma’am…”
“Young man, you may call me Martha.”
Joe stood with his mouth open for a second, but then recovered. “Er, Martha, I think it’s time we were getting back, it’s going to be quite late as it is.”
“Yes I suppose you’re right.” They turned and walked back to the buggy, where Mrs. Wilcox stood looking again at the sight before her.
“Martha, any time you want to come here then do. You don’t need to worry about trespassing on the ranch.” He smiled as she turned towards him. “You have my permission, in my father’s absence, to visit as often as you like.”
They got back in the buggy and returned to Virginia City. Mrs. Wilcox went into the house and Joe unhitched the buggy and put the horse to rest in the barn. He went up to the house to say goodbye. Mrs. Wilcox met him on the step.
“Joe, may I tell you something? When I bid for you at the auction, I had in mind to teach you a lesson. I thought the young people round here were the same as those back home, and I wanted to give you a hard time, to show you what work really meant. But you have shown me a different side to youth. You have worked hard, been unfailingly polite despite my bad temper, and you have shown me that you have a love of this country that I did not expect to find in one so young. Thank you, my money was well spent.”
“Martha, while we’re being honest with each other may I tell you something?” Martha nodded so Joe continued, “When you bid for me, my heart sank. I knew how you felt about young people, and I thought I was in for the worst day of my life. But instead, it’s been one of the best. Thank you.”
Joe took off his hat and gently kissed Mrs. Wilcox’s cheek, and she coloured up like a girl.
“Oh Joe, really.” He winked at her and rode off.
Hoss rode towards the Burnside’s small ranch, wondering what was in store for him. He knew the couple slightly, but had never had a conversation with either of them. They did not like the Cartwrights, whether through jealousy or for some other reason he had no idea.
He dismounted outside the house and knocked on the door. Mr. Burnside answered it. He was dwarfed by Hoss, but if he felt that the difference in size was awesome, he did not show it.
“So your father decided he could spare you did he?”
“Sir, you paid good money for me to be here, did you expect me not to show up?”
“You can never be sure.”
“Sir? What would you like me to do?”
“I suppose you would think it beneath you to start cleaning out the stables?”
“No, sir, if that’s what you want done, that’s where I’ll start. May I settle my horse first?”
“Yes, if you must.”
Hoss was about to turn away, when a small, fluffy, white dog ran between his legs and into the yard, closely followed by Mrs. Burnside.
“Come here Angus,” she shouted, the dog took no notice but continued to run round the yard. Hoss instinctively set off after it and managed to catch Angus by the barn. He picked up the little dog and handed it to Mrs. Burnside, who thanked him coldly, and took the animal back into the house.
Hoss unsaddled Chubb, and then started on his assigned task, cleaning out the used straw and refilling the stalls with fresh, filling the water troughs and feed nets. By the time he had finished, the barn was in apple pie order. He went to the house and knocked again. Mr. Burnside answered.
“I’ve finished the barn, what else would you like me to do?”
“Finished already? Well, they said you were a hard worker, looks like they were right. I need the storeroom painted. There’s brushes in the store and tins of paint.” Mr. Burnside shut the door abruptly, so Hoss took himself to the store and having found the paint started to cover the building. As usual whenever Hoss got a paintbrush in his hand, just as much went on him as on the surface he was painting, and he ended up with white patches all over him. He was just finishing the job when he again heard Mrs. Burnside calling out to Angus.
“Oh Angus, you are so naughty, get back here at once.”
Hoss looked up and saw the bundle of white running across the yard just as one of the hands came riding in on his horse. The man could not stop in time and the dog ran under his horse’s hooves, yelped painfully, and then lay still. Mrs. Burnside ran over, distraught.
“Oh Angus, oh no, please no.”
Hoss ran to her side and looking down saw Angus lying on the ground, eyes closed. He looked unconscious, so Hoss knelt down and put his hands under the small dog and lifted him gently.
“Take him inside, please,” said Mrs. Burnside, and the two of them went into the house. Mr. Burnside saw them coming and opened the door for them. Hoss took the dog into the kitchen.
“Would you get a towel please, Mrs. Burnside, so I can lay him on the table.”
When the towel was laid out, Hoss put the dog down gently. He was about to examine the animal when Mr. Burnside spoke.
“You’d better go now, you don’t need to do any more work here. Go home, leave us.”
Mrs Burnside had gone into the front parlour and Hoss went in search of her.
“Ma’am, ma’am,” he repeated when he got no reaction.
“Yes what is it, what do you want? My husband told you to leave.”
“Ma’am, I think I can help your dog.”
“What? Why should you help us?”
“Ma’am, the dog is sufferin’ and I reckon I can help if’n you’ll let me.”
“What can you do?” she said, looking at this big man and thinking of her tiny pet.
“Well I won’t know ‘less you let me try.”
Mrs. Burnside relented. “Come with me.”
Hoss followed her back to the kitchen.
“Jack, Hoss thinks he can help.” Jack looked up suspiciously, why would a Cartwright go out of his way to help them? But he moved aside to let Hoss look at the dog. Hoss ran his hands all over the small animal staring at the floor as he did so, concentrating.
Finally he spoke. “Well, he may have a couple of busted ribs, but the worst thing I can find is a broken leg.”
“I suppose we’ll have to destroy him,” said Mrs. Burnside, and turned to her husband with tears in her eyes.
“Not if’n I can help it, you won’t,” said Hoss passionately. “Let me try to save him.”
“Do you really think you can?”
“I’ve managed before, I’ve saved critters that others said wouldn’t make it, you never know.”
“Go ahead then. Is there anything I can get for you?”
“Yup. I’ll need some bandages and some short straight lengths of wood, and Mrs. Burnside could you warm up some more towels?”
They went off to do his bidding, Mrs. Burnside returning first with the towels, which she put near the stove to warm. She handed one to Hoss and he covered the little body with it, to keep it warm. He instructed Mrs. Burnside to keep changing the towels so that the dog stayed warm. One of the greatest problems with small animals was that the shock of such an injury would kill them, even if the injury didn’t.
Mr. Burnside came back with the wood that Hoss had asked for. As soon as he had it, Hoss started to straighten the dog’s front leg. He asked Mr. Burnside to hold the elbow, and then he started to pull it straight, his big hands covering the small leg. As he pulled, he felt the bones underneath ease back into place, and as soon as they did so, he got the wood and splinted the leg, immobilising it.
Hoss put his ear to the dog’s chest and listened intently, to the fascination of the Burnsides who had never seen such goings on for a poor animal.
Hoss straightened and pronounced himself satisfied with the dog’s progress.
“Is there anything else we can do?” asked Mrs. Burnside.
“There is one thing ma’am.”
“What is it?”
“Well, it’s pretty near dinner time, I wonder…”
“Of course. I’ll get something right away.”
She soon returned with some soup, and cold beef and bread, and the three of them sat together to eat it.
Occasionally Hoss would get up and change the cold towel covering the little dog for a new, warm one. They finished their meal and again Hoss went to the table. He knelt down beside Angus and put his hand gently on the dog’s neck, stroking it rhythmically.
The Burnsides watched, fascinated. This big, strong man, son of a man they actively disliked, was gently stroking their pet, soothing it as though it was a baby.
“There now, Angus, don’t you worry none, you’re gonna be all right. Your folks are right here with you, and they’re gonna take care of you.”
Angus opened his eyes and looked straight at Hoss, who swallowed hard. Those eyes were so trusting, it was almost as though he understood every word and believed the speaker. Angus tried to raise himself up onto his feet, but Hoss put his hand firmly on his shoulders and stopped him.
“No, little one you cain’t get up jest yet, you need to rest a while.” The dog lay back and remained still. Hoss turned to Mrs. Burnside.
“He’ll need a good deal of watching, to make sure he don’t put any weight on that there leg for a while.”
“That’s no problem. He’s used to me carrying him, I’ll just carry him everywhere. We’ll take great care of him.”
“I’m sure you will ma’am,” said Hoss and prepared to leave.
“Hoss, may I ask you something?”
“Why? Why did you do it?” Hoss looked puzzled by the question, so Mrs. Burnside explained.
“Why did you help us?”
“No, I didn’t mean for the day, I meant with Angus. You must know how we feel about your family, why, despite that, did you help?”
“Ma’am, I don’t know why you don’t like Cartwrights, but it ain’t Angus’s fault, no cause for him to suffer. I won’t leave any animal to suffer, no matter who it belongs to.”
Mrs. Burnside looked contrite; Hoss was right, the animal was not to blame for their dislike of his family.
“Hoss, when we first came here, my husband and your father wanted to buy the same piece of land. Your father outbid Jack fair and square. But now we are almost surrounded by the Ponderosa, it has grown so. Jack is afraid that your father will one day take away even this little property.”
“Ma’am, my Pa won’t take nuthin’ from nobody less they want to get rid of it. You’re quite safe here, he don’t want your property.”
“Too small for him to bother with now, I suppose.”
“No ma’am. It would suit Pa very well to have your property; it’s got good water and grazing, but he won’t steal it away from you as you seem to think.”
“I wish I could be sure of that.”
“Ma’am, would it help if you spoke to Pa, let him tell you?”
“Perhaps it would help Jack,” she said, looking towards her husband.
“Shall I get him to call on you tomorrow?”
Jack turned round to look at the big man, did he really mean what he was saying, or was it another Cartwright trick to lull them into a sense of security?
“Ma’am, if you’ll let me I would like to come back tomorrow to check on Angus. And every day until he’s well again, and I’m sure he will be. Let me bring Pa with me, speak to him, you’ll see that I’m tellin’ you the truth.”
“Jack?” Mrs. Burnside wanted her husband to agree. The worry had gone on long enough, and this young man was holding out a glimmer of hope for them.
“If you think he’ll come, I suppose it can’t hurt,” Jack agreed.
“Great. Now you keep Angus warm like I showed you. I’ll come by tomorrow with Pa.”
Hoss was sure that his father would be able to put their minds at rest, and he left Mr. and Mrs. Burnside leaning over Angus, talking softly to him, and made his way out of the house.
As Adam rode towards Mrs. Ambrose’s house, he tried to imagine why she had wanted his labour for the day. She lived in a neat house on the outskirts of Virginia City. As he approached, he could see that the house was well cared for, it was freshly painted, and there were white lace curtains at the windows. The property looked neat and tidy, nothing seemed in need of repair, yet she had spent a hundred dollars for his day’s labour.
Adam tied his horse to the hitching rail and went up to the front door and knocked. There was no answer and he knocked again. This time Mrs. Ambrose opened the door, wiping her hands on her apron. She reached behind her to untie the apron, revealing the rest of the pretty gingham dress she wore. She was young, in her late twenties Adam estimated, with dark red hair and just a hint of freckles on her attractive face.
“Oh Mr. Cartwright, so good of you to come. Please come in.”
“You have paid handsomely for me to be here,” he said as he stepped inside.
“Do you mind coming into the kitchen, I was just doing some baking?” Adam followed her and she told him to sit down and offered him a cup of coffee.
“Ma’am, if there’s something you’d like me to be doing perhaps I should get on with it, I am only here for the day,” he pointed out. She set a cup of coffee in front of him and he sat down. She obviously was in no hurry for him to start work. She sat down opposite him, with her hands on the table, clasped together nervously.
“Please call me Adam, round here my father is the only Mr. Cartwright, it gets too confusing otherwise,” he said smiling at her, trying to make her relax.
“Harriet,” she said, smiling in return, and they shook hands.
“Adam,” she said, as though testing the sound, “I will explain to you why I have brought you here. When you have heard that explanation, if you wish to leave, you may.”
Adam was intrigued, what was she going to ask him to do?
“I have a young son, Jamie, who is eight. His father died in a mine collapse when Jamie was four, and I now make a living dressmaking. I am very good at it, and do well enough to make our lives comfortable, in a small way. But there is something missing. Jamie lacks a man’s influence, which every boy should have as he grows up. I have seen you around town, I know how people here look upon you, a man to trust, honest and straightforward in his dealings. Would you spend the day with Jamie? Show him what a boy should learn from his father, show him how a man should grow up?”
Adam was speechless, him as a father figure!
“Ma’am…Harriet, I don’t know…”
“That’s all right, I knew it was a lot to ask. I really don’t mind if you prefer not to.”
“No, it’s not that. I’d be happy to spend the day with Jamie. I just don’t know if I am the right person for the job. You’d be better off with my father, he has raised three sons on his own. He knows more about being a father that I ever will.”
“No, Adam, it’s you that I want, will you do it?”
Harriet went to the kitchen door. “Jamie, would you come here please.”
Harriet stood aside as her son entered the kitchen.
“Jamie, this is Mr. Cartwright.” Jamie looked at Adam but said nothing. Adam stood and went over to the boy. He held out his hand,
“Adam,” he said. Jamie did not take the offered hand but looked at Adam.
“What are you doing here?”
“Well I thought that you might like to go fishing. I know I would, and it is more fun if you have someone to go with,” explained Adam.
“Can’t go fishing, haven’t got a rod.”
“Well then, it’s lucky that I have a spare one. Will you come home with me to get it?”
Harriet raised her eyebrows at Adam and he matched her look. He could see that this was going to be a difficult day.
“Do you have a horse?” Adam asked.
“Then you can ride double with me as far as the ranch, and we’ll find you one. How’s that?” The mention of a horse seemed to light something in the boy’s face.
“That’d be good.”
“Ok then, let’s go.” Adam went to the front door followed by Jamie and his mother.
“Thank you, Adam.”
Adam just smiled at her and ushered the boy out of the door towards his horse. Sport was the biggest horse that Jamie had ever seen, and when Adam lifted him into the saddle he was not sure he liked being up so high, but then Adam mounted behind him and put his arms round the boy and he felt more secure. Adam tipped his hat, and Jamie smiled to his mother as they rode away.
“Mister, does this horse gallop?”
“Yes, of course,” said Adam, “but not with two of us on his back, it wouldn’t be safe.”
“Please,” Jamie pleaded.
“No, as I said, it’s not safe.”
“You aren’t going to let me have any fun, are you?” complained the boy.
“It might be fun for you, but it would be no fun for me to have to go back to your Ma and tell her that I had given her son a broken leg, or worse. She’s trusting me to look after you.”
Jamie sat in sullen silence, he had thought that today might be fun, but it looked as though this man was the same as all the other adults, stopping him from enjoying himself. Adam tried to get the boy to talk, but Jamie wouldn’t answer him, and they rode the rest of the way to the ranch in silence. Adam pulled Sport to a standstill in front of the house. Ben heard a horse in the yard and came to see who was visiting.
“Adam?” he said, surprised. “What are you doing here?”
“Tell you later, Pa. In the meantime, would you take Jamie, and get Hop sing to put together a picnic lunch for us, while I saddle Jethro?”
“Can’t I help you Adam?” Jamie asked. He had never seen a horse prepared for riding.
“If you like.”
Ben went back into the house, puzzled, to get the lunch his son had asked for, while Adam took Jamie into the barn. He went over to the stall where Jethro was standing munching hay. Jethro was a pretty grey pony that Joe used to ride before he outgrew it. The pony did not get ridden as often as he should, but had a placid temperament, and would suit the boy. Adam handed Jamie a brush and after showing him how to use it, told him to brush Jethro’s coat.
“Why do I have to brush him first? Why can’t we just go?”
“Because you need to make sure that his coat is clean and free from anything that might rub under the saddle. If you expect him to carry you, you must make sure he’s comfortable,” explained Adam patiently. Jamie looked as though he would like to protest but one look at Adam stopped him, and taking the brush in his hand, he did the job adequately. Adam threw the saddle on the pony and was fastening the girths as Ben came into the barn.
“Thanks Pa, I’m just going to get some fishing gear. Would you stay with Jamie?”
“I don’t need anyone to stay with me,” he said to Adam’s retreating back, but Adam ignored him. He returned a few minutes later with the gear and fastened it to Sport’s saddle. He went over to Jamie to help him mount Jethro.
The boy looked uncertain in the saddle and Adam suddenly realised that he did not know how to ride. He stood beside the horse and gave Jamie some instruction.
“Just hold onto the reins with one hand. If you want him to go left, move your hand that way; opposite to go right. When you want him to go forward, just give him a little tap with your heels, not too hard, because the harder you kick him the faster he’ll go. Hold onto the saddle with your hand if you feel you need to; it’ll help you to keep your balance. And relax, Jethro knows what he’s doing.”
Jamie watched as Adam mounted Sport, who looked even bigger beside the pony and they set off, leaving a puzzled Ben watching them leave the yard.
Adam made his way to his favourite fishing spot by the lake, and dismounted.
“Can’t we ride a bit further?”
“No. We’re going fishing and this is the best place.”
Jamie looked sullen. Yet again, he couldn’t do what he wanted. Adam came to help him down, but Jamie jumped from the horse before he could get there. The boy stumbled as he hit the ground, and Adam caught him before he could fall.
“It’s all right, I don’t need your help,” Jamie said as he straightened.
“No, I can see you don’t,” said Adam as he turned to get the fishing gear and the picnic from Sport. “Follow me.” He started off round the side of the lake, with Jamie following a few steps behind. Jamie really wanted to go fishing but he was not sure that he wanted to go with this man who seemed determined not to let him have any fun. Adam found the place he wanted, and stopped and laid his burdens on the ground. Adam handed one pole to Jamie, and started to fix the line to his own. Jamie stood uncertainly.
“I don’t know how to fish.”
Adam looked at him startled. It had never occurred to him that the boy would not know about fishing. He put down his own pole and took up Jamie’s, showing him how the line ran from the reel up the pole and out into the water. He put down the pole and got a small shovel that he had brought with him. Jamie looked curious.
“You can’t expect the fish to just bite the hook, you have to give them something to tempt them. Round here we use worms, but we have to dig them up.” Adam set off into the woods, with Jamie watching him, and soon he returned with a handful, which he put in a little glass jar. Adam took one out and fixed it to the hook on the end of Jamie’s line, and then he took another and fixed it to his own. Then he showed Jamie how to cast his line out into the water.
“What do we do now?” Jamie wanted to know.
“Now we wait,” said Adam reasonably.
“How long for?”
“Until a fish thinks it likes the look of your worm.” He sat on the ground holding his rod. Jamie did the same and they sat in silence for a while.
“Adam, what’s it like to have a father?” Adam looked at the boy, knowing the question was asked from a need to know what life would have been like for him if his father had not died.
“Well you must understand that I have never been without one, so I suppose I take it for granted that he’s there. But I’m lucky, my father is a good man, he loves his sons and does all he can for us. Not all fathers are like that. He taught us all we know about life, that you can’t learn from books. He taught us to care for each other and for other people.”
Adam decided to throw the question back at Jamie. “Let me ask you something. What’s it like to have a mother?”
Jamie looked at him, taken aback by the question.
“Don’t you have a mother?”
“But you must have had one, everybody has a mother.”
“Not me, mine died when I was born. I never knew her. I knew my brothers’ mothers for a short time, but not my own.”
Jamie thought about this for a minute.
“Your brothers’ mothers? How many were there?” He was confused.
“My brothers and I all had different mothers.”
“Did they leave?”
“No, like your father, they died.”
“Oh. Well having a mother is all right. It’s nice to have someone who can take care of you, she nurses me when I’m sick and bakes great cakes, and she makes the house cosy and pretty, but she lets me have manly things in my room,” said Jamie, in case Adam should think him too soft. “And she comes and reads to me when I’m going to sleep. And she smells nice.”
They sat in silence, each thinking about what the other had said. Adam did something he had not done for a long time, he tried to imagine what life would have been like if his mother had lived. He sat deep in thought, and fought back the tears as he realised what he had missed. Jamie saw the sad look on his face, and came closer to him, putting his arm round Adam.
“Nothing, I was just thinking how lucky you are to have a Ma who cares for you, who looks after you.”
“But you have a Pa; that must be great, to have someone to go fishing with, to take you riding and do all the things men do.”
“Yes, it’s great. But I live in a house full of men, I think sometimes we could do with a woman’s touch about the place.”
These two looked at each other, one just eight years old the other nearly thirty, and realised how much they had in common. Jamie smiled at Adam and he smiled back.
“Let’s eat,” said Adam, and got the hamper that Hop Sing had packed for them. They sat eating their way through the cold ham and biscuits and fruit, until the basket was nearly empty. Suddenly there was a splashing at the end of Jamie’s line.
“What do I do?” he cried.
“Pick up the pole and pull the line back, slowly, you don’t want to lose it.” He helped Jamie land the fish, but the boy did not need much guidance, he seemed to know instinctively how to keep his catch on the hook. The fish was a good size.
“That’ll make good eating,” said Adam.
“Can we eat it now?”
“No, wait until we have another; then if you like, we can cook them,” Adam promised.
They caught several more fish between them but threw them back, until Adam caught a fish of similar size to Jamie’s. As promised he lit a fire and cooked the fish. Jamie ate appreciatively and they sat side by side in front of the fire as dusk came.
“Adam, will you take me fishing again one day?”
“Any time you like. I’ve enjoyed it.”
“Really, do you mean that?”
“Yes, but I think it’s time we were getting back, your mother will be worried if we’re late. Jamie, thank you for today.”
Jamie didn’t know what to say so he just went up to Adam, who was kneeling on the ground packing up their gear, and put his arms round his neck and hugged him. Adam responded, putting his arms round the boy. They stayed like that for a minute, then Adam released his grip and stood up, gathering the poles and empty hamper in his arms. As they started to walk back, Jamie came up, took the hamper from Adam’s hand, and replaced it with his own, and they walked hand in hand back to the horses.
They rode back into town and pulled up in front of Jamie’s house. Adam helped him down and he ran up the steps into his mother’s waiting arms.
“Ma, I’ve had a great day.”
“Well come inside and you can tell me all about it.” Adam stood beside Sport, watching Jamie in his mother’s arms.
“Adam,” said Harriet, “won’t you come in for a moment, I have a fresh batch of cookies all ready.”
“Sounds great,” said Adam, and followed her inside. Again, they made their way into the kitchen, where Adam sat down. Jamie came and sat on his lap, as though it was the most natural thing to do.
“Jamie it’s time for bed,” said Harriet.
“Aw, Ma, do I have to?”
“Yes you do. Now say ‘goodnight’ to Adam.”
Jamie threw his arms round Adam’s neck and held him tight, then released him.
“Goodnight, and thank you.”
“No, thank you Jamie.” The boy took off at a run making for his bedroom.
“Thank you Adam. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you.”
”No, seriously I had a good day. Jamie is a great kid. I think he enjoyed himself. I’d like to take him out again, if you don’t mind, that is. He’s a natural fisherman, and likes riding. I’d like to show him some of the Ponderosa. The pony outside is one that my little brother used to ride until he got too big; he needs the exercise.”
“Of course, any time.”
Adam took his leave of Harriet, asking her to tell Jamie that he would be back on Saturday afternoon.
Ben was sitting in the living room waiting for the boys to return. It was nearly supper time, and he knew that Hop Sing would be cross if they were late, and one thing they all tried to avoid was upsetting their Chinese cook, who would threaten to go back to his cousins in San Francisco, leaving them all to starve.
Joe, Hoss, and Adam arrived home within ten minutes of each other, and they sat down to eat together.
“Well how did it go today?” enquired Ben.
“You know, Martha isn’t so bad when you get to know her. I had a good day; she’s a fine lady,” said Joe and received astounded looks from three pairs of eyes.
“Martha!” exclaimed Ben. “You’re joking?”
“No, I mean it. I took her for a ride this afternoon, out to the lake, and she really loved it. She had a pretty hard time before she came here, that’s why she doesn’t like youngsters. But if anyone round here would take the trouble to get to know her, she’s really very nice. She loves it here. But it is the country she loves; she just finds it hard to get along with people.”
Ben looked at Joe as though he had taken leave of his senses, but saw that he meant what he said.
“How about you, Hoss. How did the Burnsides treat you?”
“Pa, there’s somethin’ I need to ask you.”
Ben raised his eyebrows encouraging the question.
“Well, would you come to the Burnside’s tomorrow? I have to go back to see how their little dog is doing. A horse’s hooves hit it and I hope I fixed it, but I must go back tomorrow to check on it. Could you come and tell Mr. Burnside that you don’t want his place, that you’re not planning on forcing them out?”
“What? Why would they think that I would try?”
“Because you bought that piece of land that Jack wanted. He thinks that you might try to take the rest of the place as well.”
“But that’s ridiculous.” Ben was astounded at what Hoss was telling him.
“Yes, I know. But I think they want to hear it from you.”
“Well if you think it will help, of course I’ll come.”
Ben turned his attention to Adam, who thus far had not said anything.
“How about you, son. What were you doing here earlier?”
“Here?” exclaimed Joe surprised.
“The kid was Harriet Ambrose’s son. She didn’t want me to work on her property; she wanted me to spend the day with her son.”
”Dadburnit, some people have all the luck,” said Hoss remembering the backbreaking work he had done.
“I knew you were going to have it easy,” said Joe, thinking of the length of fence he had mended.
“What sort of day did you have?” asked Ben. There was a strange look in his son’s eyes, and Ben wasn’t sure he liked it.
“We had a good day. I’m going to take him fishing again on Saturday, maybe show him some of the ranch.”
“Well, I expect he’ll enjoy that,” agreed Ben.
Supper finished the men sat quietly through the evening, Hoss and Joe were playing checkers, Adam was reading, and Ben caught up on a little paperwork and then sat smoking his pipe. Eventually it was time for bed. Adam held his father’s arm, allowing Hoss and Joe to disappear upstairs.
“What is it son. Did you have some problem today?” Adam had not said much about his day, and Ben remembered the look in his eyes.
“No, there’s no problem. Joe thought that I was going to have it easy today, but I think that perhaps I had the most difficult day I can remember in a long time.”
Ben moved to sit down again, encouraging Adam to join him.
“Jamie asked me what it was like to have a father, and I didn’t know what to say. I started to imagine what it would be like to have a mother as well. I know I had Inger and Marie, but I was too young when Inger was killed, and Marie and I…well I didn’t make her life easy, I know that. But to have your own mother, well I never have. I tried to imagine it, and realised what I had missed. But I just want to say that if I had to choose between having a mother and having you…well there is no choice. You have been mother and father to me and I’m grateful. Grateful for all you have done for me, for all of us, and I wouldn’t change that for anything. I’ve never said it to you, and I just wanted you to know.”
Ben stood, and drawing Adam to his feet, embraced him. “Thank you, son. I know life hasn’t always been easy for you, but I want you to know that I have the finest sons a man could ask for, as today has shown. Hoss and Joe have got to know people who have no cause to like them, and have made friends of them, and you have shown a boy that a man can be his friend. If he has made you look at your life and examine it, and you found that it hasn’t come up wanting, then he has given you a precious gift.”
Adam just nodded in response and went up the stairs, leaving Ben to think about the day. It had been a day of discovery for all of them.