Journey (Emmie)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,300


 

Riding up to the Ponderosa ranch house, Adam Cartwright dismounted his horse, tying him to the post. Entering the house, he saw his brother and his wife, their 6-month old son Buck and his own almost 3-year-old daughter Beth assembled in the great room.

“Why, Adam,” Hoss greeted him, “what are you doing here? I thought you and Katherine were headed over to the Shoshone camp.”

A slight alarm infusing him at his brother’s statement, Adam clarified, “No, this is news to me,” a puzzled inflection to his voice.

Hoss and Annie eyed each other with a little uneasiness. “Well….,” Hoss drawled out, “that’s what Katherine said when she dropped Beth off here. Er…,” he added at the look of sudden consternation on Adam’s face, “maybe that’s just what I thought she said….er, what was it she said Annie?” Hoss turned to Annie for support.

Not one to play with words, Annie observed forthrightly, “Looks like Katherine went out to that Shoshone camp by herself, Adam.”

“I see,” Adam acknowledged, suddenly turning on his heel to leave, suppressed anger in his body. Damn the woman. Didn’t she know the trouble that could be had? Even though the Shoshones were a peaceable people it just wasn’t wise to be out alone, especially for a woman. Mounting his horse Adam rode swiftly towards the camp.

******

Pulling up rein at the camp some time later, Adam dismounted his horse as he was approached by the Shoshone chief.

“Adam…Adam Cartwright,” the chief greeted, in halting English, recognizing the white man as a friend. “You are welcome.”

Nodding his head, Adam responded, “Thank you, Chief Red Cloud. Thank you for your welcome.” Nodding to each other again, the pleasantries dispensed with, Adam eyed the camp around him, looking for his wife. “I have come….I have come for my wife,” he stated.

“Wife?” the Chief asked, puzzled at the word.

“Woman,” Adam clarified. Knowing Katherine would skin him alive for this one, he clarified further, “Squaw.”

“Ah,” the Chief nodded, understanding. “The Fire Woman.”

“Fire Woman?” Adam asked, realizing the Shoshones had aptly named his auburn-haired wife.

“She is with the women and children. She teaches them the words of the white man,” the Chief replied. “I will bring her to you,” he added, gesturing to a young man at his side, the young Shoshone leaving to do his Chief’s bidding.

Adam only waited a moment before Katherine appeared, the young Shoshone by her side, freezing for a second when she saw him. Damn the woman, Adam repeated in his head. Damned if she didn’t look guilty. And well she should, he thought angrily.

“Adam?” Katherine spoke when she drew near him, her brow raised in surprise.

“Katherine,” Adam acknowledged her, his tone deceptively calm.

“What are you doing out all this way, Adam?” Katherine continued, perhaps unwisely.

What was he doing out all this way? Adam repeated angrily in his mind. Didn’t she realize? Didn’t she have the slightest clue that he might be worried. That is wasn’t safe for a woman to be out alone? He felt like shaking her, shaking some sense into her. But instead he gazed at her silently, intently, until a guilty blush came to her cheeks.

“I was only trying to help, Adam,” Katherine tried to explain herself to his silent accusation. “You know, help them to learn our language and maybe to read and write a little,” she continued, ever the teacher at heart.

“Get your things, Katherine. We’re leaving now,” Adam commanded, intending to have this out with her later.

Seeing the seriousness of Adam’s proclamation, Katherine turned to do his bidding, realizing, perhaps belatedly, that she’d done something wrong, something very wrong in the eyes of her husband.

A young Shoshone man moved forward to whisper into his Chief’s ear. Nodding his head the Chief called out to Adam and Katherine, “Wait,” startling both of them. Katherine turned back, meeting Adam’s eyes in puzzlement. “Run With Wind,” the Chief continued, gesturing to the young man who had whispered in his ear, “Run With Wind, he would take the Fire Woman. Make good trade for her.” The Chief was eyeing Adam now as Katherine’s eyes widened in alarm and shock.

Ignoring Katherine’s shocked expression and seeing his opportunity to teach a lesson of his own, Adam pretended to consider. “What would he trade, Chief Red Cloud?”

“ADAM!!” Katherine exclaimed in outrage, finding her tongue.

Leaning over to the young Shoshone as he whispered in his ear, the Chief relayed the offer. “Twenty beaver pelts, ten black bear.”

At Adam’s thoughtful consideration of the generous offer, Katherine shrieked, “Adam, they can’t be serious! Adam, stop this! I want to go home! NOW!!”

As Katherine moved to go past him, Adam pulled on her arm. “Now, Katherine, it wouldn’t be polite if I didn’t at least consider their offer,” he mocked.

But Katherine had had enough. Spewing words that would make an Irishman proud, she delivered her opinion on the proceedings in a fiery tone understood by all. Moving quickly away at the end of her tirade she mounted her horse, heading in the direction of the Ponderosa.

Eyeing her departure with some consideration, the Chief observed to no one in particular, “Perhaps it is well. A woman with such a tongue would give no rest to any man.” Eyeing Adam now with some pity, he added by way of parting, “Goodbye, Adam Cartwright. Goodbye, my friend.”

Nodding his head in parting, Adam mounted his horse to follow Katherine back to the Ponderosa, mulling over the Chief’s words.

No rest…no rest, indeed, he thought, his expression grim.

******

Pulling up to the Ponderosa ranch house, Katherine tied her horse Mollie to the post and bounded into the house, still furious. Nodding curtly to the startled Hoss and Annie, she bent to pick up her child, mumbled a brief “thanks for looking after her” and headed back to the door, just as Adam came through it.

As Adam blocked her exit from the house, Katherine grumbled to him, “Let me by, Adam. Beth and I are going home,” as Annie and Hoss eyed each other nervously at the tension between the couple.

“Not yet, Katherine,” he said, prying Beth from her arms. Crouching down low to set his daughter gently on the floor, Adam whispered into the child’s ear and nudged her back towards Annie, the child returning to her aunt obediently. “We’re having a talk first,” Adam said to Katherine as he straightened back up, pulling her outside and shutting the door behind them.

Eyeing his wife’s stance as she stood before him, her arms crossed in front, fire darting out from her green eyes, Adam felt a momentary uncertainty. Maybe he shouldn’t have done it. But, damn it, she had to learn. This wasn’t San Francisco out here and she was just too trusting for her own good. It was for her own protection if he’d seemed callous back there at the Shoshone camp.

“Katherine,” Adam began, jumping to the heart of the matter, “you will not visit the Shoshone camp again. Not without me, or my father, or one of my brothers accompanying you.” There was no room for negotiation in Adam’s tone. This was an order, plain and simple.

“I’ll do whatever I please, Adam Cartwright!” Katherine shot back, her anger ripe. As was usual for Katherine when she’d been hurt, her anger manifested itself as a convenient cover. And she’d been hurt. Hurt that Adam had treated the Shoshone’s offer so lightly, as if she meant nothing to him. Oh, she knew he hadn’t really considered the offer, but still, it hurt her pride to be treated that way. She was his wife, after all, not some possession to be traded and bargained for. “And you can stop treating me like a child!” she added angrily.

“Katherine,” Adam reached out to touch her arm, their eyes meeting as he continued seriously, “I am well aware that you are not a child.” There was something about that statement, something that smoldered in his eyes as he said it that caused Katherine’s breath to catch in her throat. Softening his demeanour Adam continued, his voice lowered, “Katherine, I love you. I want to protect you. Let me. Let me protect you.”

Her anger gone now, short-lived as it usually was, and seeing that Adam was only concerned, Katherine nodded to him. “I’m…I’m sorry, Adam. I should have realized you were only worried.” Moving her arms about his waist as Adam’s arms came about her shoulders, they embraced. “Why do you put up with me, Adam?” she teased, a sigh in her voice.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he teased back. Thinking of the Shoshone Chief’s words, he added, “Maybe I have this thing for fire-haired women with sharp tongues who give their men no rest,” as Katherine giggled at his confession. Arms about each other they turned back towards the door.

No rest…no rest, indeed, Adam thought, a smile on his face.

*****

A few days later…..

“You go to hell, Joe Cartwright!” Jenny yelled over shoulder at her husband as they stormed through the door of the Ponderosa ranch house.

“Oh, come on, Jenny!” Joe retorted, following her as she stormed angrily towards the kitchen, not noticing Hoss and Annie standing by the fireplace, watching the newlyweds with some concern.

Watching as Joe and Jenny disappeared back towards the kitchen, their voices still raised in anger as they fought, Hoss and Annie eyed each other, a little uncomfortable at being witness to such an outburst between the couple. The angry words suddenly ceasing, followed by an unusual silence, a small smile came to Annie’s lips.

“Do you think we oughter see if we can help, Annie?” Hoss wondered.

“No, Hoss,” Annie countered. “I think they’re just fine now,” she added in a knowing voice. At Hoss’s puzzled look, she clarified, “You know, I think those two fight sometimes just so’s they can make up.”

“Really?” Hoss wondered at this piece of information as Annie nodded to him. “Hey….,” Hoss wondered accusingly, the thought just occurring to him, “how come we never fight so’s we can make up?”

Sighing in mock resignation, Annie replied, “Well, alright, if you really want to….,” her voice trailing off, as she suddenly whacked him smartly on the arm.

“Hey…,” Hoss complained, more startled than pained. “Whatd’ya do that fer?”

“I’m sorry, Hoss. Do you forgive me?” Annie asked, eyes wide in mock innocence.

Seeing what her game was about, Hoss pulled Annie to him, a grin on his face and a glint in his eye. “I forgive you, Annie. Now let’s git to that making up part!”

*****

Some days later….

“We could make the trip there in a few weeks, Pa,” Adam was saying, pouring over the map next to his father as they stood together next to the table in the great room of the Ponderosa ranch house.

“Adam, I don’t want to put you to all this trouble. And what about the others? Surely you don’t intend to take Katherine and Beth along with you?”

“Well, why not?” Adam countered, just as Katherine approached them. “It seems like it’s really the best way to do it.”

“Best way to do what, Adam?” Katherine asked, overhearing the last part.

“Oh, uhm, well,” Adam hemmed, not sure if this was just the right time to tell her of his plan.

Raising her eyebrow at Adam’s evasiveness, Katherine turned an enquiring eye on her father-in-law.

“Really, Katherine,” Ben defended himself to her unasked question. “I told Adam it wasn’t really necessary. And I mean it, Adam,” Ben turned to reiterate his stance to his son.

“Pa, we’ve been all over it and it really is the best way,” Adam countered.

“Somebody want to let me in on the deal?” Katherine asked dryly, thinking both her husband and her father-in-law were pretty good evaders when they wanted to be.

“Katherine, it’s like this….,” Adam began. “You remember that piece of land I told you about that we want to buy out on the east side of our holdings?”

“Hmm,” Katherine acknowledged her understanding, vaguely remembering Adam having spoken of it once or twice.

“Well, we’ve hit a little problem over it. Seems like the owner wants the deal settled by the end of the month or he’s going to sell it to someone else.”

“And?” Katherine prompted, still not following.

“And, in order to finalize the deal, he wants the money delivered in cash,” Adam continued by way of explanation.

“And?” Katherine persisted.

“Well, he lives all the way over in Dalhousie,” Adam explained.

“So?” Katherine was trying to patient.

“So,” Adam continued, “someone has to take him the cash.”

“Oh? Is that all, Adam? Are you going to be the one to take it, Adam?” she wondered.

“Yeah,” Adam confirmed. “But…but it gets a little tricky here,” he added, scratching his neck as he glanced nervously at Katherine.

“Oh?” Katherine asked.

“Well, you and Annie and Jenny will have to come too. To sign the papers.”

“What? Why is that, Adam?” Katherine was puzzled at this strange development.

“Well, Pa wants the land recorded in your names. So you have some property and security of your own, in case…in case, well, if anything should ever happen. Do you understand, Katherine?”

“Adam, I understand about the property, but why do we need to go along? Can’t we just sign the papers here?”

Shaking his head, Adam explained, “No, that won’t work, Katherine. The papers need to be recorded in the land office in Dalhousie, witnessed by the judge there.”

“Hmm,” Katherine mulled over the information. “How long will the trip be, Adam?” she wondered, thinking of the long uncomfortable journey she’d once made from San Francisco to Virginia City.

“Well….,” Adam hesitated. “If we took the stage it would take too long, Katherine. If we travelled by horse, I think we could do it in a few weeks.”

“By horse!?” Katherine exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Adam confirmed, moving quickly to show her the map now that the cat was out of the bag. “Look, here on the map, Katherine,” he instructed. “If we travel by horse and take the short-cuts here and here,” he outlined the route on the map, “I think we could make the trip in half the time.”

“But…but…,” sputtered Katherine, the whole idea a little foreign to her, “what about Beth? I’m not leaving Beth for…for…well, two weeks there and two weeks back, that’d be a month, wouldn’t it? And what about Annie? She’s still…she’s still nursing. She can’t leave Buck.”

“We’ll take the children with us, Katherine,” Adam explained. “Joe and Hoss, they’ll come too. We’ll take a few pack horses with us, so we’ll have enough provisions to make camp at night.”

“Adam, you can’t be serious!” Katherine exclaimed.

“Katherine, it won’t be that bad. My brothers and I have made many trips like this before. Really, we can do it.”

“Now, Adam,” Ben interrupted. “I think if Katherine has some reservations about this idea….,” he trailed off.

Seeing that her husband was serious in his proposal, Katherine met his eyes to inquire, “This…this is important to you, Adam, isn’t it?”

“Well, of course it’s important, Katherine. It’s important for all of us,” he clarified.

Seeing something in his answer, something that caused her to swallow her worry and forget about that other thing on her mind these days, she nodded her head. “Alright, Adam, if you think it’s best,” she agreed.

“Good,” a pleased smile came over Adam’s face at his wife’s consent.

*****

“Well, I think that’s everything,” Adam Cartwright said to his father, as he prepared to leave, the horses at the ready, loaded with supplies.

“Now, son, you take care. I’m counting on you to look after things,” Ben said, placing his hand on his eldest son’s shoulder, as he eyed his family about him.

“I know, Pa,” Adam replied, understanding. “I’ll take care of them. You don’t need to worry,” he added, seeing his father’s apprehension. “You’ll have enough on your hands looking after both places,” he teased, referring to the Ponderosa and his own place.

Nodding, Ben watched as Adam helped his wife onto her horse as his brothers did the same with their own wives. Reaching down Adam reached for his daughter as Little Joe lifted her into his arms before he moved to mount his own horse. Settling his daughter into the saddle before him Adam watched as Hoss tied his son in a sling to his chest and carefully mounted his horse. Seeing that they were all ready, he turned and led them away, shouts of parting called out to their father as he stood watching in the courtyard. Watching till they were finally out of sight, Ben whispered a silent prayer for their safekeeping.

“Godspeed, my children.”

*****

Travelling across the land, Adam setting the pace, Katherine was just deciding this wasn’t so difficult after all. She’d been a little worried, worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the others. Somehow sensing this trip was important to Adam, she didn’t want to fail him in his quest. But, sighing in relief, she’d made it through the first day almost no worse for wear. Adam was stopping for frequent rests, probably more for the children than her, so it wasn’t really as hard as she had worried it might be.

Making camp that first night, they’d cooked up their supper over the campfire and then settled in for the night, rolling out their blankets near the doused fire. Beth wedged between her and Adam, Katherine fell asleep just as soon as her head touched the headroll.

As Hoss and Annie settled nearby, Hoss remarked nervously, “Annie, maybe you better move Buck over onto your side. I don’t wanna hurt him in my sleep.”

“Well, alright, Hoss, if you’re worried about it,” Annie replied, lifting Buck from between them as she turned on her side away from Hoss, nestling her child to her front. Moving close to them, Hoss sighed in relief, sleep quickly claiming him now that he knew Buck was safe.

Settling next to her husband as they lay on the hard ground, not far from the doused campfire, Jenny sighed. She just couldn’t get comfortable. And she was so tired she wanted to sleep so badly. Wiggling against her husband’s side, she tried to find a comfortable position.

“Jenny, what are you doing?” Joe questioned, wondering at her movement. He was trying to get some sleep himself, tired as he was.

“Just trying to get comfortable, Joe,” she explained, wiggling some more.

“Jenny….Jenny…..,” Joe began, suddenly wide awake.

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Could you….could you stop wiggling, Jenny?” he pleaded, gritting his teeth a little at the action.

“Okay, Joe,” she agreed, yawning, as she finally found a comfortable position nestled against him, her head on his shoulder, her hand resting on his chest, as she promptly fell asleep.

Joe looked down at his sleeping wife, thinking how lucky she was to be able to fall asleep so quickly.

Sighing, he knew it’d be a long while yet before he fell asleep.

*****

By the third day of the journey, Katherine was in agony. Every muscle in her body was screaming at her in outrage and complaint. And she was tired, so tired, but she sort of expected that, knowing what she did. But this other. Just how did Adam and his brothers make frequent trips like this, she wondered, shaking her head. And she’d caught Annie looking at her strangely a few times. Sighing, she realized she had not only her husband’s eyes to fool but Annie’s. Struggling, Katherine carried on.

Making camp that night, Annie spotted her husband and brother-in-law Adam talking together by their horses. Leaving her spot by the fire, she approached them.

“Hoss,” she directed her comments to him, really intending them for Adam. “I think we’re riding too hard.”

“Annie?” Hoss questioned, surprised at her complaint.

“I mean it, Hoss,” Annie repeated, “we’re riding too hard. We have to slow down.”

“Why, Annie,” Hoss replied, casting a nervous eye towards Adam at Annie’s criticism of the pace Adam had set for them. “I’m sure Adam knows what….,” he trailed off.

Turning to Adam now, Annie spoke, “Adam, I think we should slow down a little.”

Exchanging a glance with his brother Hoss, Adam replied, feeling a little guilty she was voicing her complaint that he’d been too hard on her, “I know it’s hard, Annie. We can go a little slower if it’ll help you, Annie.”

“It’s not fer me,” Annie snorted at his meaning.

“Well, I’m sure the children….,” Adam searched for her meaning.

“It ain’t the children neither,” Annie clarified.

“Jenny?” Adam continued.

“No, it ain’t Jenny,” Annie shook her head, a small smile coming to her lips, “that girl was born in the saddle.”

Well, if it wasn’t Annie, or Jenny, or the children and it certainly wasn’t any of the men, Adam thought, that just left…..

“Katherine?” Adam questioned, wondering at Annie’s meaning. Katherine hadn’t voiced any complaints to him and she would have if the ride was too much for her. She would have, wouldn’t she?

Nodding her head at Katherine’s name, Annie elaborated, “It’s too hard on her. She ain’t used to it.”

“Now, Annie….,” Hoss shuffled, a little uncomfortable that Annie was challenging his brother’s judgment.

“She ain’t used to it,” Annie repeated. “Jenny and me, we was raised out here. We know what it’s like. But she come from the city….,” she trailed off, hoping that reason alone would made them slow the pace.

“Annie, Katherine’s a strong woman,” Adam defended his wife, worrying just the same that he’d pushed Katherine too hard. Had Annie seen something he hadn’t? “Besides, she hasn’t said anything to me,” he added.

Annie snorted at his lack of insight. “She wouldn’t do no complaining. She’s too proud fer that. Don’t you know that?” she asked, mild derision in her voice.

Uneasy now at Annie’s comments, comments that he somehow knew were true, Adam nodded, “I’m sure she’ll be fine. We’ll slow down a little till she gets more used to it.”

Narrowing her eyes on him, Annie debated a moment, thinking that Adam would likely slow for a few days and then pick the pace up again. Damn, was she the only one around here with eyes?

“Slowin’ for a few days ain’t gonna do no good, Adam,” Annie informed him. “That might have worked afore, but not now,” she stated, eyeing him directly before slowly adding, “She’s acarryin’.”

“WHAT?” Adam reacted sharply to her words as Hoss, hands in his pockets and his head down, shuffled in embarrassment.

“You heard me,” Annie replied, turning sharply and walking away, realizing she’d likely gone too far. Peering over at his brother’s shocked expression for just a second as he stood frozen on the spot, Hoss turned away to follow his wife.

Allowing a minute or two to get over his shock, Adam moved back into camp. Seeing only Joe and Jenny and the children, he enquired, “Where’s Katherine?” mild fierceness in his tone.

“She went down to the creek,” Jenny supplied, eyeing Joe in puzzlement at Adam’s tone.

Without another word, Adam turned on his heel towards the creek. Stealing up behind his wife, he watched her as she knelt at the creek’s edge. Her shirt on a bush nearby, she was clad in her shift, raising a handful of water to her arm, her movements slow and painful as she washed.

“Katherine,” he called to her as he approached, his heart aching. How come he hadn’t seen it before he wondered? Seen her slowness and her pain?

Turning at his voice, Katherine replied, “Oh, Adam, I didn’t hear you. I’m just trying to wash some of the dirt off of me,” her tone was teasing. “But maybe that’s just wishful thinking,” she added, her voice still teasing.

Coming close by her and crouching low next to her, Adam searched her face. She was pale, too pale, he thought with a pang. And her eyes. She was tired, the dark circles telling him that.

“Something wrong, Adam?” Katherine was a little uneasy about the way he was looking at her…like he was trying to see something.

“Katherine…I think….I think….,” he began hesitantly. “I think we’ve been riding too hard. Tomorrow we’ll stop off in Rubicon and get a wagon. It’ll be easier that way.”

“A wagon, Adam?” Katherine asked, puzzled. “But that’ll slow us down. We’d have to stick to the roads then. And Rubicon is out of our way. Why do you want to do that, Adam?”

Hesitating a second before replying, Adam, explained, “You’ll ride easier in a wagon, Katherine,” his eyes intent on her.

“Me?” Katherine wondered. He was doing this for her? But surely he couldn’t know how hard the trip was for her. She’d been so careful to hide it from him, hadn’t she? Suddenly nervous and uneasy, Katherine defended, “But Adam, I’m fine. I don’t need to ride in the wagon. I can keep up. Honestly, I can. If we take a wagon we might not reach Dalhousie in time.”

“Katherine, we’ll still make Dalhousie in time,” Adam’s tone was soft and soothing, a tone she well knew.

But suddenly panicked that she’d become a burden, something she’d done her utmost to avoid, Katherine pleaded, “Really, Adam. I can do it. I’ll try harder.”

“Katherine, there are more important things than land,” Adam said, reaching out to touch her arm, his eyes tender upon her.

A sudden suspicion formed inside Katherine. The suspicion that he knew. HE KNEW. But how? It’s not like he was overly observant about these kinds of things, thinking back to the first time she was with child. Then how? she wondered. Why there was only one other person that might even suspect that she was…..

“You’ve been talking to Annie, haven’t you Adam?” Katherine asked, suddenly knowing.

At Adam’s silent nod to her, Katherine dropped her head, tears springing to her eyes. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m so sorry,” she apologized, her voice catching with her tears.

Pulling her to her feet Adam took her in his arms, his heart tearing. Is this what he’d done then? His wife crying over the news that she should have been rejoicing over?

“I’m sorry, Adam,” Katherine cried to him. “I don’t want to be a worry to you. You don’t need this right now.”

“Shhh, Katherine,” he soothed. “It’s not a worry to me. Never a worry, Katherine. Only a joy.”

“Really?” Katherine asked, seeking assurance.

“Yes, really,” he confirmed, as she looked up at him, sniffling as her tears ceased. “Besides,” he added, a note of teasing creeping into his voice, as he crinkled an eye and tilted his head thoughtfully, “it seems to me I had a little something to do with it.”

A soft smile coming to her face, Katherine teased back to him, “Seems to me you had a lot to do with it.”

Adam looked down on the smile on her upturned face, taking in her tear-streaked face, her dark-shadowed eyes and unkempt hair. God, he thought, before lowering his head to claim her lips, how could one woman be so beautiful.

*****

Coming up to Annie as she knelt at the creekbed two days later, ringing out some clothes, Katherine offered, “Here, Annie, why don’t you let me do that? You go on back to camp and get some rest.”

Surprised at the offer, Annie looked over at Katherine who was now crouching beside her reaching out to lift a shirt soaking in the creek. “Then you aren’t….you aren’t….,” Annie trailed off, wondering that Katherine wasn’t angry with her for what she’d done. There were certain lines you didn’t cross and telling someone else’s husband their wife was expecting was one of them. “It’s alright then….what I done?” Annie asked hesitantly.

Meeting Annie’s eyes and understanding her question, Katherine answered, a slight blush to her cheeks at the reference to her condidtion, “Everything’s just fine, Annie.” The two women smiled at each other, Annie in relief and Katherine in forgiveness. “Besides, it’s better this way. I can do more when we camp at night since I’m resting most of the day,” she reasoned, referring to the comfortable mattress placed inside the covered wagon. “That’ll make it easier for you and Jenny,” she added, glad of her contribution.

Nodding in understanding, Annie ran her hands along her knees, drying them. “Well, alright, then, Katherine,” she agreed. “I….I’d appreciate it. I am kinda tired,” Annie admitted, more for Katherine’s sake than her own.

“Well, alright, then, get going,” Katherine instructed, jerking her head in the direction of the camp before turning her attention back to the clothes in the creek.

Pausing a second, Annie reached out to touch Katherine’s arm, stilling her. “Thanks,” Annie said, their eyes meeting.

“You’re welcome, Annie,” Katherine smiled, watching as Annie got up and headed back to camp before she turned back to the task at hand.

********

Scanning the distant horizon, Adam pulled the wagon to a halt as he called out to Hoss and Annie riding out in front. “Hoss! Annie!”

Stopping and turning at his brother’s voice, Hoss answered, “Yeah, Adam?” just as Joe and Jenny rode forward to see why the wagon had stopped.

“Something wrong, Adam?” Joe asked.

Nodding his head to the horizon in the east, Adam explained, “There’s a storm coming.”

All of them looked over to where Adam indicated, the dark ominous clouds moving closer even as they looked.

“Storm coming?” Hoss hissed through his teeth. “I thought this was supposed to be the dry season?” he wondered at the anomaly.

“Not by the looks of those clouds,” Adam countered, his tone grim. “I think we’d better shelter the wagon and the horses just in case,” he added. Looking around him, Adam decided, “There. At the base of the incline,” tilting his head to the spot not far away. “That’ll do as well as anything.”

The sky darkening quickly around them, Adam reined the team over to the sheltered spot. He helped Katherine and Beth into the back before jumping down from his seat to unhitch the horses.

The women and children safely in the wagon now, Hoss eyed the terrain around him, seeing that it didn’t offer much protection for the animals. “I think…I think I’ll take the horses down to that spot over yonder, Adam,” he offered, concerned for the well-being of the animals, just as the first roll of thunder reached their ears.

“Hoss, I don’t think there’s time!” Adam yelled to him above the thunder, the wind beginning to swirl angrily around them, even as Hoss was pulling the first of the animals away. Adam and Joe sharing a look of mutual understanding, they quickly reached for two other animals and followed Hoss, knowing he would complete his task with or without their help.

A little while later, as Joe and Adam filed into the wagon just as the first drops of rain began to fall, Annie questioned, “Where’s Hoss?” concern in her voice.

“He’s right behind us, Annie,” Adam reassured her as Annie peared out the back of the wagon, anxiously scanning the darkened air for the sight of her husband. Staying an extra minute to soothe the frightened horses, Hoss felt the first drops of rain as they descended from the sky. Delivering a final pat to the neck of one of the animals, he turned to quickly run back towards the wagon, just as the heavens opened up and a torrent of rain crashed down upon him. Reaching the back of the wagon, he hoisted himself inside, his clothes dripping water in a puddle around him as he sat.

“Hoss! Hoss!” Annie called to him, moving close.

“I’m alright, Annie,” he reassured her. “Just got a little wet, is all,” he admitted sheepishly.

Turning to her sister-in-law, Annie instructed, “Here, Jenny, would you take Buck a minute?” handing the child over to her, as she reached for a blanket. “Take your shirt off, Hoss,” Annie instructed, as Hoss obeyed, used to her commands by now. Wrapping the blanket around his shoulders, Annie ran her hands up and down his arms to warm him as she knelt before him. “Do you feel alright, Hoss?” she asked, worry in her voice.

Revelling in his wife’s tender care, Hoss answered, “I feel jist fine, Annie.”

Watching as Jenny cradled Buck in her arms, Little Joe felt the stirrings of something inside him. The stirrings of feelings he somehow recognized but, even still, were new to him. Trying to put it into words, he leaned close to Jenny to tell her.

“You look good like that, Jenny,” he said.

“Hmm?” Jenny asked, wondering at his meaning.

How did he tell her what he meant? he wondered, wanting to express the emotion inside him. Leaning closer he whispered into her ear so only the two of them would hear. “You look good with a baby in your arms, Jenny,” he explained, something of a promise in his voice.

Meeting his eyes as he pulled away, Jenny stared at him silently, understanding his meaning before she gently reached out to touch his face. Suddenly shy as she did so she dropped her hand and her eyes from him, turning instead to look at the child. You know, she thought, it FELT good to have a baby in your arms.

As a loud clap of thunder sounded close by, Beth suddenly wailed at the loud noise, frightened and crying, even the comforting arms of her mother not calming her.

“Here, let me take her,” Adam instructed, reaching for his daughter, the child winding her arms about her father’s neck. “There. Now. Now. It’s just a little thunder,” he soothed, rubbing her back as he held her to his chest as she cried. “You remember what I told you about thunder, don’t you?” Sniffling, the child nodded into his neck. “Well, there, see, it’s nothing to be afraid of,” he explained, the child calming at her father’s soothing words and tone.

A quietness settled over the group as they all sat listening to the rythmic pelting of the rain on the wagon tarp above them. The stillness continued a moment or two, each lost to their own thoughts, as they waited for the storm to pass.

Suddenly, almost as quickly as it came, the rain let up, the sky lighting along with it. With only a few solitary drops of rain still falling, left behind after the storm, Hoss reflected, “Well I reckon no one was expectin’ that!”

“No, it was a pretty strong storm for this time of year, wasn’t it?” Joe asked, agreeing.

“Yeah, well, good thing we had the wagon, now wasn’t it?” Hoss noted, peeking out at the rain-drenched land.

Suddenly meeting Katherine’s eyes in some surprise at the revelation of the strange way things sometimes worked out, Adam said, his voice humble, “Well, thank goodness for small blessings.”

*****

“Now you know it ain’t my Annie’s fault!” Hoss protested to his brother Joe, following him as he stormed away through the trees, away from the creek.

“Well, you’re not gonna blame all of this on Jenny!” Little Joe retorted, stopping in the clearing to turn back to Hoss, as he angrily defended his wife, the two brothers engaged in a verbal dispute, the unmistakeable sounds of splashing water and shrieking women coming from nearby. “Annie shouldn’t have called her a tomboy!”

“Oh, yeah?,” Hoss countered right back, “Well, Jenny shouldn’t have teased Annie about the way she talks!”

Seeing his brothers off in the distance as they argued, Adam peered into the wagon at the sleeping children before heading over to see what was the matter.

“Hey, what’s the matter, you two?” he enquired, as he reached them.

“Now, Adam, you just stay out of this!” Hoss complained. “This is between me and Joe,” he added, turning back to his younger brother, poking his finger into Joe’s chest. “And I say Annie didn’t have nothing to do with it, Joe!”

“Oh, yeah?” Joe countered, poking back. “And I say she did!”

“Yer wrong, Joe! It’s your Jenny what started it!” Hoss claimed angrily.

“Well, I guess Jenny and Annie’ll settle the issue between themselves, now won’t they?” Joe flung back at Hoss, just as more shrieking and splashing reached their ears.

Identifying the sounds now, Adam chuckled to himself. Surely his brother’s wives weren’t fighting with each other? Fighting in the creek no less? Wasn’t it just like it for their wives to take after his two raucous younger brothers.

“Well, don’t you think you’d better go on down and break up the fight?” Adam drawled to his brothers, highly amused.

Hoss and Little Joe turned simultaneously to stare coldly at Adam’s bemused expression. “I wouldn’t be acting so smug about it, Adam,” Hoss informed him coldly. “Yer wife’s down there too!”

“WHAT?” Adam shrieked in disbelief, his amused expression effectively wiped from his face as he headed off through the trees to the creek’s edge, his brothers following. Sure enough, three women were in the shallow creek bed, covered in mud, wrestling and slinging mud at each other. Recognizing the one that belonged to him even through her mud-spattered form, Adam waded into the creek, pulling Katherine away from her two sisters-in-law.

“Let me go, Adam!” Katherine yelled angrily as she struggled to free herself from his grip. “I AIN’T FINISHED YET!” she bellowed, breaking free.

Ain’t!? Ain’t!? Was this his Katherine talking? Whatever had gotten into her? His efforts to break up the women’s fight not being effective, seeing that Jenny and Annie weren’t letting a little thing like his presence interfere with their intended target, Adam called angrily to his brothers, “Joe! Hoss! Help me here, would ya!” ducking just as a handful of mud sailed above his head.

Moving to the creek’s edge, Hoss and Joe eyed the muddy water distastefully. “Do you think we oughter intervene Joe?” Hoss asked, not really wanting to.

“I dunno, Hoss,” Joe debated with him, postponing the unpleasant task. Nudging his elbow into Hoss’s side, he added, “Especially since it seems like my Jenny’s winning,” as he eyed the women, a hint of pride in his voice.

“Seems to me my Annie’s not doing too badly neither,” Hoss reflected proudly.

“JOE! HOSS!” Adam bellowed, just as one of the women flew backwards, knocking him onto his backside into the muddy water.

Sighing as they shrugged their shoulders at each other in resignation, Hoss and Joe faced forward to the creek, knowing the time had come. Wading into the water, they moved towards the flailing bodies. Each grabbing a woman, one pretty much indistinguishable from the other by this point, Hoss called out, “Hey, Joe…Joe…you got mine, Joe!” A quick exchange executed to right the pairs, the three brothers pulled their wives apart, dragging them towards the shore. Coughing and sputtering as they reached the grassy shore, the women shook off their respective husbands, angrily storming back to camp.

Looking down at his mud-spattered clothes, Hoss cursed, “Dadburn women!” shaking the mud from his hands, as Adam stood frozen, covered head-to-toe in mud, gaping after the women, not believing what had just taken place and especially not believing his wife’s part in it.

It was Little Joe…Little Joe…for once the wisest of his brothers, who made the observation, as he watched the women retreating in the distance.

“Well, I guess they’re really sisters now.”

*****

“Jenny, what have you done?” Joe asked in exasperation a couple of days later. Really the girl was one for getting into trouble, Joe thought, the irony of his thought lost on him. And just what was that twig doing sticking out from the hair on the top of her head? he wondered.

“Now, Joe,” Jenny tried to placate him, seeing his annoyance, as she backed slightly away from him, stopping when her back touched the tree trunk. “I was just showing Annie where to find those berries out in the brush.”

“Hmpff,” Joe commented, eyeing her dishevelled appearance and torn clothes. She’d been showing Annie alright, likely showing her on her hands and knees. Shaking his head in exasperation, Joe chided, “Well, I hope those berries were worth it,” as he reached his hand out intending to pluck the twig from her hair.

Seeing his hand coming towards her and knowing that he was annoyed, Jenny instinctively raised her arms in front of her face, shrinking from him. “Don’t hit me!” she cried, as Joe froze in shock.

Good God! Joe thought, did she think he was going to hit her?

The expected blow not materializing, Jenny lowered her arms a little to peer over them at Joe. Seeing his shocked expression, she suddenly realized her mistake. Of course Joe wasn’t going to hit her. She knew that. She KNEW that. Why had she reacted the way she had? Ashamed now, ashamed at what he must think of her, Jenny bolted away.

“Jenny!” Joe called, running after her.

Katherine Cartwright was startled to look up and see Jenny running past her, tears streaming down her face as she ran towards the woods. Joe coming up close on Jenny’s heels, Katherine reached out to stop him.

“Joe? Joe?” she questioned him, a worried look on her face. Katherine had never seen a man cry before and if she wasn’t seeing one now, this was certainly the closest thing to it. “What’s wrong, Joe?”

“Jenny…,” Joe choked out brokenly, the apple of his throat bobbing erratically, “…she thought…she thought I was going to hit her!” There was anguish in his voice.

Seeing that Joe was in no shape to talk right now, Katherine soothed, “Joe…Joe…let me talk her. Let me talk to her, Joe. It’ll be alright.” Squeezing his arm reassuringly, Katherine waited for his nod, before she turned to find Jenny.

Coming up on her sister-in-law as she sat crying on the tree log, Katherine approached her and sat beside her. Not speaking she let Jenny cry for a minute or two, finally moving to drape her arm around her back. Silently, she waited.

Jenny’s sobs began to recede as she sniffled and rubbed her eyes on the back of her sleeve. Seeing that she was ready, Katherine gave her a gentle shake.

“I hurt him, didn’t I?” Jenny asked, a catch in her voice.

Nodding her head, Katherine acknowledged, “He’s hurting, Jenny. So are you.”

The words coming out in a rush now, Jenny berated, “I don’t know why I reacted like that. I know Joe wouldn’t….wouldn’t…I know he’d never hurt me.”

“Jenny….Jenny….,” Katherine began, searching for the words, unused to the role of confidante and counsellor. “Jenny, I know your father hit you. It’s not really so surprising that you’d think another man would hit you too.”

“But Joe….,” Jenny protested.

“I know, Jenny,” Katherine continued. “Joe would never hit you. But you lived with your father a long time, Jenny. It’ll take a little while for you to truly trust any man. You have to give yourself time, Jenny.”

“But what if…what if Joe doesn’t…?” Jenny trailed off, not wanting to put into words her fear that maybe Joe wouldn’t give her time.

“Joe’ll give you all the time you need, Jenny,” Katherine answered, sensing her question. “You just have to let him in a little, okay, Jenny? Just let him in. Talk to him about it. Joe wants to help, Jenny. Can you let him help?”

Mulling over the words, Jenny nodded her head silently. “Okay, then, Jenny,” Katherine squeezed her, relieved. “I’ll send Joe over….only Jenny….,” she trailed off, a slight teasing note in her voice.

“Hmm?” Jenny looked up at the slight smile on Katherine’s face.

“….only you might want to take that twig out of your hair first,” Katherine finished, grinning now.

Giggling, Jenny reached up to pat her hair and finding the offending object she pulled it free from her tangled locks.

“Good,” Katherine complimented. “That looks so much better.” Smiling at each other now, Katherine gave Jenny a final squeeze before getting up to leave.

Passing Joe where she’d left him, Katherine nodded to him and watched as he rushed past her into the woods. Sighing with something more than weariness, Katherine turned and headed back to camp. Coming into the camp, she spotted her husband, his shirt off, standing before a small mirror propped before him, a soapy beard on his face as he shaved. Moving swiftly to him, she knocked his hands away from his face and out to his sides as she flung her arms around his neck in a fierce hug.

“Katherine!” Adam exclaimed, startled. Didn’t she know she was getting soap all over herself? he wondered, as he held his arms away from her, careful of the blade he held in his hand.

“Shut up and hug me a minute, will ya, Adam,” she commanded.

Ever the dutiful husband, Adam flung the blade aside and wrapped his arms around his wife.

*****

Adam woke with a start. Instinctively he reached for his gun, not yet knowing what had awoken him. Listening a minute more, he heard it. The noise. Barely audible, far away. But it was there. Horses. Pulling away from his sleeping wife, he quietly snuck out of the wagon and over to where his brother Hoss lay sleeping, crouching by him as he laid his hand on his shoulder. His brother awakening immediately at his touch, Adam put his finger to his lips to silence his question. Alert at his brother’s demeanour, Hoss pulled quietly away from his sleeping wife and reached for his gun as Adam moved over to Joe to repeat the process.

Following their brother away from the camp just a little way so they could talk without waking the women, Joe and Hoss looked at Adam with concern.

“What’s up, Adam?” Hoss whispered.

“I heard something.”

“What?” Joe asked.

“I’m not sure. Sounded like horses. Far off.”

Exchanging a meaningful look with Hoss, Joe speculated, “Maybe some wild horses?”

“Maybe, Joe. Maybe not. We’re carrying an awful lot of money with us,” Adam replied, pointing out the obvious.

“Then you think maybe….?” Hoss prompted.

“I dunno, Hoss,” Adam said. “But I think one of us should keep watch at night from now on. Just in case,” he added, ominously.

“Right,” Joe and Hoss agreed, simultaneously.

“I’ll finish up tonight. You two go on back to bed. And don’t go worrying the women about it just yet, okay?”

“Okay, Adam,” his brothers agreed, moving away, as Adam took up patrol, peering anxiously around him, alert to any sound or movement.

*****

Riding out front of the wagon on her horse, Hoss on his horse next to her, Annie suddenly felt it. A distinct uneasiness. She kept riding, hoping the feeling would go away, somehow knowing it wouldn’t. Looking over at Hoss beside her, their sleeping son Buck strapped to his chest, she pulled her horse up to a stop.

Riding next to his wife, Hoss noticed that Annie had stopped her horse. Pulling up a few paces beyond her, he turned in his saddle to look back. “Annie?” he questioned. But Annie didn’t answer, just sat still and quiet in her saddle, a thoughtful look on her face, like she was trying to figure something out.

The wagon pulling up close to the halted riders now, Adam reined the team to a stop. “Hoss? Annie?” he called. “Something wrong?” he questioned, wondering at the delay.

“Just a minute, Adam,” Hoss called back to him. Turning his horse he came full up to Annie to look her directly in the face. “Annie, what’s the matter?” he asked, worried at her expression.

“Hoss….,” Annie began, trying to find the words. “I…I….,” she faltered.

“Hoss?” Adam queried from behind.

“I said just a minute, Adam,” Hoss called forcefully to his brother, in a tone he rarely if ever used. Surprised at the unusual command, Adam held his tongue and waited.

“It’s okay, Annie,” Hoss turned his attention back to her. “Take your time,” he soothed, seeing that she was struggling with something.

“Hoss, I got a bad feeling,” Annie finally confessed.

“A bad feeling about what, Annie?” Hoss probed.

“I…I…don’t know, Hoss,” Annie replied, fearful that she’d said too much. What must he think of her odd statement?

“It’s okay, Annie,” Hoss soothed again. Trying to help her figure out what was bothering her and knowing just how accurate her strange intuitions were, he probed, “Is it here, Annie? Is there something wrong here?”

It was a strange question, really, but Annie didn’t seem to notice as she turned her gaze one-by-one on each of the party. Hoss, Buck, Adam and Katherine on the wagon, Beth between them, Joe and Jenny pulling up the rear. “No, Hoss, it’s not here.” Scanning the horizon, Annie looked east, south, west, finally stopping when her gaze reached north. “Hoss, it’s up ahead. The road ahead. I got a bad feeling ahead.”

Nodding his understanding at the cryptic information, Hoss rose to action. “Okay, Annie, you and Buck get in the wagon.” Calling to his brother Adam, Hoss instructed, “Adam, get Katherine and Beth in the wagon.” Pulling his horse over to the side, he called to his younger brother, “Joe, get Jenny into the wagon.”

“Hoss, what’s going on?” Adam asked as Joe rode forward to see what the commotion was.

“There’s trouble ahead,” Hoss supplied.

“Trouble?” Adam and Joe asked, almost in unison.

“Trouble,” Hoss confirmed, reaching to untie his son from his chest and handing him over to Annie.

*****

Watching the travellers from their place in the hills along the road, the four armed bandits wondered why they had stopped. Watching as the women moved into the wagon, their horses tied behind, the leader of the group wondered aloud to his co-horts, “Just what do you suppose they’re up to?”

“I dunno,” one of his comrades answered, as he watched the group continue on its way, moving closer to the spot they’d selected for the ambush.

*****

Scanning the horizon as they slowly moved forward, guns at the ready, the three Cartwright brothers were tense with anticipation. Annie had alerted them that something was not as it should be but now they could feel it themselves. That feeling of being watched, stalked even. Watching for the slighest movement in the hills surrounding them, they continued uneasily on their way.

*****

“Not yet, Duke,” the leader instructed, placing his hand on his co-horts arm to stop him as he raised his rifle and aimed it down below. “Not just yet….,” he trailed off, waiting for the moment to strike.

*****

“Joe, Joe,” Jenny called to her husband from the opening at the back of the wagon as he rode up the rear. “Joe, give me your rifle,” she instructed, glancing back at her two sisters-in-law huddled low in the wagon with their children.

“Jenny….,” Joe trailed off.

“Joe, give me your rifle,” she repeated, urgently.

Giving in to his wife’s demand, Joe reached down to pull his rifle strapped to his horse’s side, sliding it quickly across to her, just as a gunshot pierced the air.

Jumping from their horses as Adam pulled the team to a stop, Hoss and Joe crouched low by the wagon’s wheels, firing back in the direction of the shot. Seeing movement in the hills now, Hoss called, “How many do you figure you see, Joe?”

Doing a quick count, Joe answered, as Adam dove for cover nearby, “Three…four maybe.”

The fire exchange continued rapidly now, the Cartwright men fierce in their protection of their families. Firing suddenly with deadly accuracy at a blur of motion up in the hills, Adam’s sharp aim was rewarded as one of the bandits arched in reaction as he was hit, falling forward and rolling to a motionless stop.

Inside the wagon, Katherine and Annie huddled low, clasping their children protectively as the sound of gunshots rang in their ears. Seeing her sister-in-law crawling to the wagon’s edge, pulling the rifle alongside her, Katherine called out, “Jenny! Jenny, be careful!”

“I’m alright,” Jenny called back reassuringly. Crawling closer to the side of the wagon near the back, Jenny carefully peeled the tarp back, exposing a small window. Peering up over the wagon’s edge, she looked out, seeing the clouds of smoke as the bandits fired on them from the hills around. Carefully lifting the rifle to rest on the wagon’s edge, she aimed it out towards the hills.

“Joe! Joe! There’s one there by the rock!” Hoss informed his brother just as Joe spotted the movement, firing in quick reflex. His aim true, a second man succumbed to their retribution, falling limply and lifelessly to his side.

“Only two more….only two more….,” Hoss was chanting, scanning the hills, suddenly firing. A third man shot, the Cartwright men ceased firing, a still silence falling over the air, in sharp contrast to the noisy gunplay of a moment before.

The silence continuing as no shots came down on them from above, Adam called, some hesitancy in his voice, “Is that all of them?”

“I dunno, Adam. Joe counted four,” Hoss replied, still uneasy.

“Maybe he ran off,” Joe supplied, thinking three guns against a lone bandit were mighty big odds.

The men continued to hold their stance, not risking the chance just yet that they were in the clear. Watching the hills from her place in the wagon, her eyes sharp and piercing, Jenny saw it. The slight, infinitesimal movement. Cocking the rifle with some force, she fired up to the hills, the sound of her gunshot ripping through the silence in the air.

Stunned, the Cartwright men watched as the final man fell to the ground, felled by a shot none of them had made.

*****

Creeping into the wagon that night after stopping to make camp, Adam paused at the sight before him. Pulling back on his haunches, he looked down on his wife and child, asleep already although it wasn’t yet dark. Katherine was on her side, Beth nestled to her chest, the child’s thumb in her mouth as she slept. Adam smiled tenderly at his daughter’s gesture, knowing how hard Katherine was trying to break her of the habit, and, he realized now, how badly she’d failed. Their hair mingling on the pillow, Katherine’s so fiery, his daughter’s almost black, so like his own, he thought about the two of them….no, he corrected himself, the three of them, a slight smile coming to his mouth as he briefly wondered about the new one yet to come, asking himself just why he had been so blessed. A flood of feelings coursed through him. Protective, tender, awed. Moving forward, he crept on his hands and knees alongside Katherine, the urge to be close for just a moment overwhelming him. Stretching his length out along the back of her, he inched closer, moving close next to her. At his touch, Katherine stirred in her sleep as he shushed her soothingly. Reaching his arm around them, Katherine, Beth, and…and…he hugged all three to his heart. For just a minute, he told himself as he settled his head on the pillow. He wanted just a minute to savour this feeling. Then he’d get up and leave, he promised, as he took a deep relaxing breath, his last conscious thought before sleep.

*****

Settling her back to the tree as she sat on the ground, Annie draped the blanket discreetly across her shoulder and down her body as she cradled her son to her as he nursed. Sighing a little in weariness and relief, she leaned her head back against the tree, closing her eyes for moment.

Watching his wife as she nursed their son from a short distance away, Hoss finally approached them, sitting beside them, his back to the tree. Feeling her husband’s presence, Annie tilted her head a little towards him as she rested it against the tree, keeping her eyes closed, just enjoying his company in silence.

Breaking the silence after a moment or two, Hoss spoke. “You did good today, Annie,” he said, some hesitancy in his voice, aware that she was sensitive to the matter.

“Hmmm?” Annie wondered at his reference as she opened her eyes.

“I was saying you did good today, Annie,” Hoss repeated, meeting her eyes, his own filled with intensity.

“What do you mean, Hoss? It was Jenny that shot…..,”

“No, Annie,” Hoss interrupted her. “I don’t mean that. I mean the way you…the way you…told me about what you was feeling,” he clarified, deciding there’d be no more secrets between them.

Blushing at his reference in discomfort, Annie wiggled uncomfortably, not wanting to tell him the whole of it, worried still that he’d think she was strange, or crazy even.

“I’m glad of it, Annie,” Hoss offered, seeing her discomfort. “I’m glad you got those feelings, Annie.”

Looking intently at her husband now, Annie confessed slowly, “I don’t know why I get those feelings like I do, Hoss. I know other people don’t get ’em. I’m….I’m glad you don’t mind about it.”

“Mind?” Hoss teased, moving his arm around her and drawing her close, pleased that she’d finally told him of her unusual gift. “Why of course I don’t mind it. Seems like it’ll make things a whole lot easier, now won’t it?” he reasoned, squeezing her a little.

Turning her face into his neck, Annie sighed, a weight lifted from her. A moment or two of silence followed before Annie spoke again, her voice so soft a whisper Hoss strained to hear her.

“Thank you, Hoss.”

******

Leaning backwards against the large rock as he stood next to his wife as they stared out at the lake, the moonlight reflected on the water, Joe felt a peace settle on his soul. He felt content, content and proud, proud of Jenny, of what she’d done today. Nudging closer, their shoulders touched, just as the sound of a loon’s cry drifted over to them from across the waters, haunting and beautiful.

“Are you cold, Jenny?” he asked.

“Hmm, no, Joe, I’m not cold,” Jenny answered honestly.

“Jenny….,” Joe began, a slight reprimand in his voice. “You’re supposed to say you’re cold so I can put my arms around you,” he instructed.

“Oh?” Jenny wondered at this piece of information, still unknowing of the little games played between men and women. “Is that how it works, Joe?” she asked.

“Hmmm. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works, Jenny,” he confirmed.

Jenny mulled over his words. “But Joe?” she countered, “couldn’t I just ask you to put your arms around me if I wanted you to?” wondering at the subterfuge.

“Well, I suppose,” Joe answered, his voice noncommittal.

A minute of silence fell between them before Jenny crossed her arms to rub her herself. “It’s getting a little chilly, isn’t it Joe?” she asked.

Smiling, Joe turned to her to pull her close, wrapping his arms around her. Quick study, that girl, he thought, savouring the feel of his wife in his arms.

“Joe?” Jenny’s voice came to him, muffled as it was into his chest.

“Yes, Jenny?”

“So, Joe, what do I say if I want you to kiss me?” she asked, trying to learn the rules.

Looking down into her eyes as she looked up at him, Joe answered, “Nothing, Jenny. You don’t have to say anything at all,” his voice a tender whisper.

Lowering his head, Joe kissed her. At the touch of her lips to his, he felt it. The fire. It was between them now, sprung quickly and fiercely like it always did. It amazed him just how quick and fierce it came, taking on a life of its own. Fighting it, Joe struggled…struggled to be tender…gentle…giving.

“Don’t fight it, Joe,” he heard the words between the kisses. Jenny. Jenny. She couldn’t know what she was saying, he thought, fighting the fire, not letting himself give in to it. Afraid, even, of what he’d find there if he did. Afraid of what he’d find on the other side. Not wanting to look.

“Joe…Joe…,” the words again. “Don’t fight it, Joe…..I don’t want you to….,” she breathed to him, as they touched, lips, hands, hearts, souls. The fire was brighter, stronger, stronger than him, but still he tried.

“Joe,” the single word. Just that one word. He touched the fire, walked through it. Knew it, felt it, amazed at what he found on the other side of it. It had a name, then. This place, this feeling, this completeness. It had a name.

Jenny.

*****

Crossing the flatlands, Adam was alert at the sight of two Indian braves approaching them in the distance. He’d diverted the wagon from the road thinking to save some time cutting across the land at what he thought would be a relatively trouble-free crossing.

The two braves moving closer, Adam was relieved to see the familiar markings of the Shoshone tribe. The Shoshones were a friendly people, rarely given to violence. The braves pulling up in front of them now Adam stopped the wagon as the others pulled their horses to a halt. Handing the reins to Katherine next to him, Adam instructed, “Stay here. I’ll talk to them.” At her worried look, he added, “It’ll be alright. They’re Shoshone,” as Katherine nodded her head in understanding.

Moving to the braves on foot, his brothers alert on their horses behind him, Adam stopped a few feet in front of them.

“Shoshone land,” one of the braves began. “White man on Shoshone land,” the brave added, his tone indicating his displeasure at finding trespassers.

“We mean no harm,” Adam tried to appease him, only now realizing the error of his chosen path. “We only want to cross the land….,” he added, gesturing with his hand to the horizon behind them.

“No,” the brave was adamant. “Shoshone land. White man go around,” he indicated, gesturing with his hand back the way they had come.

Knowing a retreat would mean the loss of several days, Adam persisted, “The Shoshone people and my family….we are friends.” At the braves doubting look, Adam elaborated, “Chief Red Cloud, he is my friend.”

“You speak of my brother. You are friend to my brother?” the brave asked, his tone still doubting.

“Yes, I am Adam Cartwright, friend of Chief Red Cloud,” Adam clarified, thinking they were finally getting somewhere.

Mulling over the name, the brave shook his head. “No, my brother has not spoken of Adam Cartwright.”

Well, damn, thought Adam. If that wasn’t just his luck. Pausing as he deliberated just what to do next, Adam was startled by a voice behind him.

“Adam?” Katherine approached him silently. “Is something wrong?”

Turning at his wife’s voice, Adam instructed, “Katherine, go back to the wagon.” Seeing that her help was not wanted and feeling, if she were truthful, a little miffed at Adam’s quick dismissal of her, Katherine turned to go, stopping as the brave spoke.

“Hair like fire!” the brave exclaimed, noticing the unusual colour of the white woman’s hair.

“Fire Woman,” Adam supplied almost involuntarily, remembering Chief Red Cloud’s name for his auburn-haired wife.

“Fire Woman! She is the Fire Woman?!” the brave was animated, excited at this discovery.

“Well, yes…..,” Adam confirmed, eyeing the brave suspiciously. How did he know what the other Shoshone tribe had called his wife?

“I have heard of the Fire Woman,” the brave remarked, in answer to Adam’s unasked question. “My brother has spoken of the Fire Woman.” Eyeing Katherine directly the brave rendered his verdict. “The Fire Woman may pass on this land. The Fire Woman and her people,” he clarified, as Adam took in the setdown of his stature.

Moving to her husband’s side and secretly pleased at the development, Katherine spoke to the brave, “Thank you. The Fire Woman thanks you.” As the braves turned to leave, Katherine halted them. “Oh…and Adam Cartwright thanks you too,” she added slyly, a mild gloating in her voice.

“Katherine, will you just be quiet and let them leave,” Adam hissed to her under his breath, thinking now was not the time to be rubbing it in. No, now was definitely not the time to be rubbing it in.

Sighing, Adam knew there’d be lots of time to rub it in later.

*****

“Are you doing the cooking tonight, Jenny?” Joe asked he came upon his wife next to the campfire, stirring a pot of beans.

“Yeah, Joe,” Jenny answered. “Annie and Katherine just seemed so tired, I thought I’d help out. Are you hungry, Joe?” she asked, reaching for a enamel plate.

“Well, I guess I could stand something to eat,” Joe teased.

Jenny ladled two large spoonsful of the meal onto his plate and then handed it to him. “Well, I hope it’s alright, Joe,” she said, a little note of doubt in her voice. “I…I’m not a very good cook.”

“Jenny, I’m sure it’s fine,” Joe reassured her, thinking after all, how hard was it to cook up a pot of beans? Digging his fork into the first mouthful as he sat himself down on the camp stool, Joe brought the fork to his mouth. With the first chew of his wife’s cooking, Joe knew something was seriously wrong. Something seriously, seriously wrong. Just what had Jenny put into the beans to make them taste so bad? he wondered. Continuing to chew as Jenny looked over at him, Joe forced a look of pleasure on his face, forcing himself to chew and swallow. Holy smokes! He didn’t think he’d ever tasted anything so bad.

“So it’s alright, Joe?” Jenny asked, uncertainty in her voice.

Not quite being able to talk just yet, Joe winked at her as he nodded his head in a silent version of mmm mmm mmm, bringing another forkful of the dastardly dinner to his mouth.

“Oh, I’m glad, Joe. I was a little worried,” she confessed.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss called to his brother as he moved closer. “You eatin’ already, Joe? You’d better save some fer me!” he chastised.

Save some for him? Joe thought. Heck, Hoss could have the whole dang potful! As Jenny scooped up a serving for his brother, Joe watched as Hoss brought the first forkful to his mouth. A most peculiar look coming over his face as he chewed, Joe quickly intervened just as Hoss was about to render his opinion.

“Hey, Hoss,” Joe said. “Did you know Jenny cooked the supper tonight?” he asked nervously.

Swallowing the ungodly creation, Hoss looked over at Joe, the pained expression on his face quickly masked, “Is that right, Joe?”

“Sure is, Hoss,” Joe was nodding his head enthusiastically now. “And it’s real tasty too, isn’t Hoss?” he asked, still nervous.

“Well, sure it is,” Hoss answered, feigning pleasure as he reluctantly lifted another forkful to his lips, the fork for some reason stopping just shy of his mouth. Swallowing nervously as he stared at the food that he held to his face, his lips thinning in unhappy anticipation, Hoss ventured, “You know, I don’t reckon I’m as hungry as I thought.”

“Is there something wrong with the beans, Hoss?” Jenny was quick to note her brother-in-law’s lack of appetite, worry in her voice.

Looking over at Joe as Joe met his eyes with a silent pleading, Hoss swallowed nervously again. “Why not at all, Jenny, they’re jist fine,” he complimented, forcing the forkful into his mouth. Chewing quickly the better to be done with it, he quickly swallowed, looking over at Joe as he too continued to choke down the unpalatable dinner.

Hearing Buck cry off in the distance where Annie had taken him to bathe him, Hoss seized his opportunity. “Hey, that’s Buck acryin’. I’d better go on over and see what’s the matter,” he said, setting his plate down quickly and rushing away.

As Jenny turned to look at Joe, a questioning look on her face at Hoss’s quick exit, Joe nodded his head in confirmation. “Buck’s crying,” he repeated, nervously echoing his brother’s excuse.

Seeing that Joe was almost done his dinner, Jenny asked, “Would you like some more, Joe? There’s plenty left.”

More? MORE? Hell, he didn’t want more of the danged…..

“Sure, Jenny. I’ll have some more,” he answered, reaching his plate out to her. Watching Jenny as she filled his plate anew, Joe felt his stomach turn in protest. Bringing the plate to his lap, he stared down at it, expelling his breath and tipping his hat back on his head at the daunting task before him.

As the others filed into camp, Jenny ladled plates for Adam and Katherine, as Annie declined a helping, already forewarned by Hoss. As Katherine took her first mouthful, her eyes widening in alarm as she turned away to hide her expression. As Adam chewed his first bite, a thoughtful expression came over his face. Neither one took a second bite but continued to push the food around on their plates. Ladling her own plateful, Jenny settled back against the tree stump to eat. Raising the fork to her mouth she finally tasted the fruits of her handiwork. Quickly turning to spit the odious concoction out of her mouth, Jenny exclaimed, “Holy smoke! That’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever tasted!” her opinion of her own cooking brutally honest. Looking over at Joe and the others she queried, “How can you eat that?” shaking her head in disbelief, thinking they must have peculiar tastes indeed. Seeing that Joe had almost finished his plateful, she asked again, “Joe, how can you eat that?” shaking her head in wonder.

Finally free of the pretense, Joe’s stomach churned in revolt. Bolting towards the woods and a little privacy, he rid himself of the wretched meal.

Staring after her husband, the sounds of his misery audible to all, Jenny wondered aloud, “But why did he eat it if it was making him sick?” Looking around at the group, Jenny asked again, her gaze stopping on Hoss, “Why did he eat it, Hoss?”

“I dunno, Jenny. Why do you think he did, Adam?” Hoss turned to his brother, a sly grin coming to his face.

“I dunno, Hoss. Why do you think he did, Annie?” Adam asked his sister-in-law, mock puzzlement in his voice.

“Hmm. Got me,” Annie replied. “Why do you think Joe did it, Katherine?” she asked her sister-in-law, a sly smile on her face.

“I’m sure I don’t know, Annie,” Katherine replied, feigning ignorance. Their game complete, the four burst out into laughter, Hoss guffawing and slapping his knee.

Staring at her new family, Jenny shook her head. They were looney. All of them. Plum loco. Somebody really ought to have warned her about these crazy Cartwrights. Shaking her head some more, she got up and went to find her husband.

*****

“Owwww!” Katherine cried out as she walked into the tree. Pulling away, she reached her hand to her forehead, feeling the trickle of blood there. What a stupid thing to do, she thought, gingerly fingering the cut. She’d been looking away, not watching where she was going, only to turn suddenly and find the tree before her. It was a clumsy, stupid thing to do. But then clumsy was something she knew all too well, she thought, sighing.

“Katherine, what have you done?” she heard Annie’s voice off in the distance, calling to her.

Moving swiftly to her sister-in-law, Annie’s sharp eyes assessed the damage as she pulled her sister-in-law to a nearby tree log. “Here, sit down and let me take a look,” she instructed, as Katherine obeyed, raising her face upwards for inspection. “It don’t look too bad,” Annie assessed. “How does it feel?”

“It doesn’t feel too bad,” Katherine echoed meekly.

“You wait here and I’ll get my bag,” Annie commanded, referring to the bag of medical supplies she’d brought along with them.

Heading back into the camp, Annie quickly located the supply bag and was just heading back when Hoss stopped her.

“Hey, where’re ya going with that, Annie?” he asked, recognizing the bag. “Somebody hurt?”

Nodding absently to him as she hurried past him, Annie answered, “Katherine hurt herself.” Moving quickly away, she disappeared from view.

A little alarmed at his wife’s terse statement, Hoss was about to follow her when he headed in the opposite direction instead. Coming up to Adam as he washed by the creek, Hoss informed him, “Adam, Katherine’s been hurt.”

“What?” Adam said in alarm, his heart in his throat.

Nodding in affirmation, Hoss turned, Adam following quickly behind him.

Back at the tree log, Annie was cleaning the cut to Katherine’s forehead as Katherine chuckled a little.

“Well, I guess you win, Annie,” she stated.

“Hmm?” Annie questioned, her mind on her task.

“That day at the creek,” Katherine explained, referring the mudfight the sisters had had. “When we…when we fought. You said I was clumsy and I took exception,” Katherine continued, recalling the origin of the spat. “Well, I guess you were right after all,” Katherine conceded.

“Now, now,” Annie placated. “You’re not clumsy….,” she denied her sister-in-law’s statement. At Katherine’s look of “oh, really?”, Annie amended, “well….maybe just a little accident-prone,” as the two shared a smile of understanding.

“Well, I think that’s it,” Annie said, straightening up as she finished the task, Katherine rising to her feet at her words.

“Katherine!” Adam called to her from a distance away as he hurried over to her, still stripped to the waist from his ministrations by the creek.

Seeing his look of concern as he moved quickly to her, Katherine was quick to reassure him. “Adam, it’s just a little cut. Nothing to worry about.”

Grabbing her by the shoulders, Adam raised a hand to tilt her face, as he inspected the cut. “Then…then the baby’s…?” he asked, not finishing the question as he met her eyes.

“Adam, the baby’s fine,” she reassured him, a slight blush coming to her face as she squirmed, aware that Annie and Hoss were nearby.

Enormously relieved that she was okay, that the baby was okay, Adam pulled her roughly to him. “Adam!” Katherine exclaimed, aware of their audience. “Adam….!” she repeated, as he tightened his hold.

“Shut up, Katherine. Just shut up,” he commanded, his voice a growl, as he lowered his head for a passionate kiss, wrapping his arms possessively around her, his mouth effectively silencing her.

Moving discreetly away, Hoss and Annie headed back to camp, an identical smile on their faces.

*****

It was a weary group of travellers that pulled into Dalhousie that day. Not wanting to wait any longer, they quickly conducted their business at the land office, delivering the money to finalize the deal, before heading over to the hotel, as Adam stopped at the wire office first.

Arriving at the hotel shortly after the others, Adam met his wife in their room.

“Well, I just wired my father and let him know that everything went through fine and that we’ll be home in a couple of weeks,” Adam told Katherine as they stood in the hotel room, just as a knock sounded on the door.

“Oh, that’ll be my bathwater,” Katherine said with anticipation as she opened the door and two hotel employees traisped in carrying buckets of hot water.

“Adam, could you disappear for a bit while Beth and I get cleaned up?” Katherine asked, wanting some privacy.

“Well, okay,” Adam agreed, eyeing the water a little enviously himself.

Leaving his wife to her ministrations, Adam descended to the hotel lobby. Finding his two brothers there, he approached them, leaning on the wall next to them when he drew near.

“Hey, Adam,” Hoss greeted him. “You get booted out too?” he teased.

Chuckling that his brothers were in the same predicament as himself, Adam drawled, “Yeah, what is it about women and baths anyway?”

“Well, now, I reckon they jist like to be cleaner than we do,” Hoss winked.

Nodding his agreement to that, Adam looked around the lobby, wondering what to do as his brothers stood silently nearby, wondering themselves.

After a moment, Adam began, “So….you two feel like doing anything?”

“You feel like doing something, Adam?” Hoss asked.

Shrugging his shoulders, Adam replied noncommittally, “I dunno. You feel like doing anything?”

“Well, I guess we could go on over to the saloon and get a beer,” Joe volunteered the suggestion casually.

A quick look passing between the brothers, their eyes brightening at the suggestion, Adam straightened suddenly as the three brothers turned in silent agreement and rushed to the door.

Entering the saloon a few minutes later, they sat at an empty table nearby.

“Can I get you boys something?” a comely saloon girl approached them.

“Three beers,” Joe instructed, nodding to her as she turned away towards the bar.

“Yessir, I’m sure looking forward to a cool glass of beer,” Joe sighed longingly, clasping his hands together in anticipation.

The barmaid returning with their drinks, and setting them on the table before them, she eyed Little Joe admiringly before speaking, “Say, you’re kind of cute. Wanna buy me a drink?” she offered.

Looking up at the woman, something of a guilty expression on his face, Joe replied, a slight nervousness in his voice, “Well, uh, no…thanks just the same.” At the woman’s slight surprise at the turndown to her offer, Joe elaborated, “See, I’m…I’m a married man.”

“Well, that never stopped any other man,” the woman noted dryly.

“No, really,” Joe persisted, as she made to sit next to him, Hoss and Adam watching the scene with some amusement. “The beer’s fine. We just want a beer,” Joe explained.

“Well, suit yourself,” the barmaid pouted, turning to leave.

A silence falling between the brothers at the woman’s departure, Hoss and Adam eyed other as they nursed their beers, a thoughtful look on their faces. Deciding to test his theory out a little more, Adam looked around the room before offering, “Yeah, there’s some real pretty women here, Joe, wouldn’t you say?”

“Hmm?” Joe looked up from his beer and followed Adam’s gaze around the room.

“Some real pretty women,” Adam repeated. “Wouldn’t you say?”

Shrugging a little in response, Joe answered, “I guess so. I dunno,” before turning his attention back to his drink.

Exchanging a glance of mild surprise with Hoss, Adam persisted, “I’d even go so far as to say they’re prettier than the girls back home. Wouldn’t you say so, Hoss?” Adam turned to his other brother.

“You know, I think you may be right,” Hoss agreed. “What do you think, Joe?” Hoss asked, playing Adam’s game.

Looking around the room again at his brother’s insistence, Joe shook his head wonderingly, “You know, I don’t know what you guys are seeing. Some of them are pretty enough but…but…not one of them could hold a candle to Jenny. She’s just beautiful.”

Smiling at their brother’s admission, Hoss and Adam turned back to their own drinks, as a thoughtful silence fell between the brothers.

“Yup, it’s sure been an interesting trip,” Adam observed a moment later. Nodding their heads his brothers agreed as more silence fell between them.

After another moment or two, Hoss spoke up, “We didn’t make it in too bad a time,” as his brothers nodded, sipping and silent, still thoughtful.

After a prolonged silence to the last remark, Joe suddenly looked up to ask, “Hey, how long do you figure it’ll take the women to have their baths?”

Looking up sharply at Joe’s question, the same question having run through their minds, Adam and Hoss answered almost simultaneously, “I think they should be done by now,” and “Don’t reckon they need any more time.” Quickly putting down their drinks and throwing some money on the table, the men bounded from their chairs and raced eagerly out the doors.

*****

They stayed in town another two days, resting up for the journey home and enjoying and appreciating the luxuries denied to them on the trail.

Settling into routine, the trip home proved less eventful than the trip there had been. One night about a week into the return, as they settled close around the campfire, a sleeping Buck in Hoss’s arms, a drowsy Beth sitting in her mother’s lap, the group was weary but not yet ready for sleep as they talked quietly together.

“We made good time today,” Hoss observed.

“Yeah, better than yesterday,” Joe concurred, before silence settled on them again.

Breaking the silence, Annie added, “Hoss, I wrung out that other shirt for you so it’ll be dry to wear tomorrow.”

“Why thank you, Annie,” Hoss said.

More silence.

Listening to the crackling of the fire and dragging a stick lazily through the flames, Adam observed, as he raised the burning stick to his face to blow out the flame, “Well, I guess it’s pretty late and we ought to turn in,” not really wanting to himself.

“Yeah, I suppose,” sighed Joe, not really wanting to either.

A few moments of silence passed, before Jenny spoke up, a little slowly and with some hesitation, like she knew she was revealing something about herself. “You know, this reminds me so much of when my mother was alive. She loved to camp out.”

“Did she, Jenny?” Katherine asked, her tone gentle, as Jenny nodded her head in answer.

“So…so, Jenny…I’m guessing it was your Ma that did most the cooking when you camped out?” Joe asked, a little teasing note in his voice.

“Yes, Joe,” Jenny confirmed, smiling as she slapped his arm lightly in retribution, “it was my Ma that did the cooking.”

Seeing Jenny’s thoughtful look on her face as she remembered more of the times spent with her mother, Joe asked, his tone gentle, “So, Jenny, what else did you do with your mother?”

“You mean when we were camping?” Jenny asked, not sure of his meaning.

“Yeah, when you were camping or…or anytime, Jenny,” Joe answered, wondering about her mother, since she’d never really spoken of her very much before.

“Well, after…after my Pa had turned in,” Jenny began, rushing over the mention of her father, “we would sit around the fire, like this, just the two of us. Sometimes we’d talk and sometimes we’d sing. My Ma….my Ma, she had a real nice voice…,” Jenny trailed off, the look on her face reflective, like she could still hear her mother’s voice.

“Why, Jenny,” Joe noted, “that must be where you get your talent from. I’ve heard you sing before. You must have got that from your mother, then.”

Shrugging her shoulders slightly in answer, Jenny mumbled, “I dunno, Joe. Maybe.”

“Jenny, why don’t you sing something for us now?” Katherine suggested, as the others nodded and added their support.

“Oh, no,” Jenny declined modestly. “I’m…I’m not used to singing in front of people,” she added, shaking her head.

“Hey, Jenny, you sang in front of me that day,” Joe tried to persuade her.

“But, Joe, I didn’t know you were listening,” Jenny defended.

Seeing that the others weren’t having much luck, Annie spoke up, “Jenny, it’s not like you’re singing in front of “people”, we’re your family. Can’t you sing fer us?”

Jenny marveled a little at the fact that Annie was right, these people sitting around her now were FAMILY. More family than she’d ever had in her entire life. She could sing for them, couldn’t she? It’d be like when she sang for her Ma. Nodding her head, Jenny acquiesced. “Alright, I suppose I could,” as Joe flashed her a pleased smile. “I know it’s not Christmastime but my Ma always loved this song,” she stated by way of introduction. Slowly, quietly, tenderly, Jenny began to sing.

O Holy Night

The stars are brightly shining

It is the night

Of our dear saviour’s birth

Picking up strength and sureness, her voice rang out clear and pure in the night air.

Long lay the world

In sin and error pining

‘Til he appeared

And the soul

Felt it’s worth

Her voice gaining strength and volume, Jenny continued on.

A thrill of hope

The weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks

A new and glorious morn

Her voice soaring at the chorus, Jenny closed her eyes and sang, singing for them and for her mother, sustaining the notes on high.

Fall on your knees

And hear the angel’s voices

The notes soaring higher still, she pressed on.

O night, devine

O night, when Christ was born

Higher still, the words soared to the heavens, before dying out around her back to the silence of before.

O night, Devine

O night, O night divine

At the deathly quiet that greeted her finish, Jenny squirmed uncomfortably. They hadn’t liked it then, she thought, wishing maybe that she hadn’t done it.

Katherine was the first to gather her wits about her after the stunning thing she’d just heard. “Jenny….Jenny….that was just beautiful!”

The others just coming out of their own stupors, the compliments began pouring in, “I ain’t never heard anything so nice,” Hoss complimented. “Just wonderful, wonderful,” Annie added. “You have a rare gift, Jenny,” Adam informed her.

Pleased at all the attention his wife was getting, Joe teased, “Well, why do you think I married her? I knew she could sing like that.”

“Joe, you didn’t marry me because I could sing!” Jenny protested.

“Well, that and a few other things, Jenny,” he teased, reaching out to pull her close as he squeezed her.

“Hey, how ’bout that O Suzanna song, Jenny? Do you know that one?” Hoss suggested.

“Sure I do, Hoss,” Jenny answered, “but only if you’ll sing it with me.”

“Me?” Hoss asked. “Well, are you shore you wanna hear ME sing?” he teased.

“‘Course I do, Hoss. We’re all just family here, you know,” Jenny explained, revelling in the sentence.

“Well, alright, then. Hey, Adam and Katherine, you too. You too, Annie. Joe, you’re not making me do all the singing!” Hoss coaxed.

Laughing the Cartwrights launched into O Suzanna, the resultant rendition surprising pleasing.

“Hey,” Little Joe observed when the song had ended. “You know, I think we could take this show on the road. We could become famous. The Cartwright Family Singers….we could get a real act together…play all the best theatres….,” Joe’s voice warmed as he got carried away with his fanciful idea.

Shaking his head at his brother’s scheming, Hoss turned to Jenny and advised her in mock warning, “Now, Jenny, you jist watch out for this one,” he warned, pointing to his brother. “He’s got a scheme around every corner.”

“Yeah, and around the corner’s where he should leave ’em,” Adam drawled dryly.

Taking his brother’s teasing good-naturedly, Joe laughed as he defended himself, “Hey, I’m just being creative. It’s not like you two would ever come up with the idea.”

“No, Joe, you got that right. We’d never come up with such a hairbrained scheme. Ain’t that right, Adam?” Hoss countered, teasing back.

Curling into her husband’s side, his arm about her, as she listened to the men banter jovially with each other, Jenny yawned in contentment. Tonight had been good, she thought.

It had been good to sing with family again.

*****

Pulling the wagon into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house behind the riders, Adam watched as the front door opened wide and his father came out, excitement and pleasure on his face at the arrival of his family. Racing to his two sons as they dismounted from their horses, Ben reached his hands out to clasp each of them.

“Joe! Hoss!” Ben exclaimed, the words escaping him for once. How happy he was to see his family again. All of them. You know, a man didn’t really appreciate what he had till it was gone from him. And if Ben didn’t know what he’d had before, he certainly knew now.

“Hey, Pa!” Hoss greeted him. “It’s good to see you, Pa! And I can hardly wait to git some real food in me….no more of that trail food for me!”

“That’s Hoss for you…always thinking of his stomach!” Joe teased. “Hey, Pa! It’s good to be home.”

“Well, ain’t you looking forward to something ‘sides trail grub, Joe?” Hoss defended himself.

“Me? I’m looking forward to sleeping in a real bed for a change…that’s what I’m looking forward to,” Joe remarked, a sly look directed at his wife.

“Well get on inside. I want to hear all about the trip,” Ben directed, reaching out to greet Jenny and Annie, pausing to ooh over his grandson.

As Adam helped Katherine and Beth down from the wagon, Beth suddenly squealed in recognition. “Grampa!!”

Hearing his name, Ben turned to the child, slapping his hands together before crouching down low and reaching his arms out to her. The child racing to her grandfather, Ben scooped her up into his arms. “How’s my girl? How’s my best girl?”

“FINE!” squealed Beth.

“Well, I’m mighty glad to hear it!” Ben responded enthusiastically.

Smiling, Katherine approached her father-in-law as he held her daughter. “Katherine, it’s good to see you!” Ben greeted her.

“And it’s good to be home. Here, I’ll take Beth inside. You’ll want to talk to Adam,” Katherine instructed knowingly as she took her child into her arms and headed into the house, following behind Joe and Hoss and their wives.

Alone in the courtyard with his father now, Adam watched as Ben approached him. There was something about this moment. This moment between the two of them. Thinking, Adam tried to sort it out, make sense of it. And then it came to him. Him. His father. A covered wagon. A journey. Thinking back in time, he remembered. All that time ago. Joe wasn’t born yet. Hoss was too young to remember. It was something between him and his father. Just the two of them. The shared memory.

His father close by him now, Ben spoke, “Welcome home, son.”

Meeting his father’s eyes, Adam saw something in their depths. So he felt it too. “Thanks, Pa. It’s good to be home.”

The words unspoken between them as they gazed at each other, the shared memories deep between them, a connection between father and son.

“Was it a good journey, son?” Ben asked.

A good journey? Adam pondered a moment. Bandits, and thunderstorms, and mudfights, and Indians, and new babies and….and…

“Yeah, Pa. It was a good journey.”

“Good,” Ben answered, clamping his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Come on in the house and tell me about it, son. I want to hear all about it.”

“Okay, Pa,” Adam answered, turning into step beside his father, Ben’s arm slung across his back as they headed into the house.

***The End***

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