Cinnamon Rose (Kathleen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  36,000


 

“So! Who are YOU asking to the big dance next Saturday, Hoss?”

“I dunno, Apollo. I guess with the spring round up just over, and Adam about to graduate from college, I ain’t had time to give it much thought,” Hoss replied.

“How about Margie Owens? You’ve been sweet on HER since she’s . . . . ” Grinning, Apollo raised both hands to eye level and lowered them slowly, tracing the hour glass outlines of a trim woman’s figure.

Hoss, his entire face and neck flaming beet red, quickly bowed his head, averting his eyes to his knees. He bit his lower lip in a desperate attempt to keep back the smile trying to burst forth. “She . . . she HAS turned into a right pretty little filly at that, hasn’t she?”

Hoss Cartwright and his best friend, Apollo Nikolas, sat together on the bench just outside the general store, waiting for the former’s father to finish up his business inside. At the age of fifteen, both boys, at nearly six and a half feet, towered head and shoulders above all their peers and their parents as well.

Apollo’s body, though still reed slender, already showed signs of a burgeoning Adonis figure with broad shoulders, tapering down to a narrow waist and flat stomach. Hoss, by contrast, had inherited the build of his Swedish maternal grandfather, with a massive, barrel chest and torso that fell in a straight line from his broad, beefy shoulders to a thick waist.

“Well?” Apollo pressed. “Are you gonna ASK her?”

“Ask WHO?”

Apollo sighed and rolled his eyes. “Margie!”

Hoss shook his head.

“Why NOT?” Apollo pressed.

“She wouldn’t want to go with me,” Hoss murmured dejectedly.

“Why WOULDN’T she?”

Exhaling a short, exasperated curt sigh, Hoss raised his head and favored Apollo with an angry scowl. “Aw, come on, Apollo. Do I hafta spell it out for ya?”

“Spell WHAT out for me?”

“Margie Owens is one of the prettiest gals in Virginia City, if not THE prettiest,” Hoss said disparagingly. “She can have her pick of any fella she wants.”

“So?”

“So look at me, Apollo! You take a good long, hard look.”

“I am!” A bewildered frown creased Apollo’s smooth, unlined brow. “So what?”

“Y’ know? For a smart fella, you can be real thick sometimes,” Hoss retorted with a touch of annoyance. “I ain’t exactly what anyone’d call handsome. Why in the world would ANY gal . . . . especially a gal like Margie Owens, want to go to the dance with a big, ugly so ‘n so like ME?”

“Damn it, Hoss Cartwright, in the first place, you’re NOT ugly, and in the SECOND place, looks aren’t everything!” Apollo exploded, his hot Mediterranean temper getting the better of him. “The IMPORTANT thing is what a guy’s like in HERE!” He thumped on his own chest with his hand clasped in a tight fist, at the approximate location of his heart for emphasis. “In here, you’re one of the best . . . . . if not THE best!”

“Now you’re starting to sound like my pa,” Hoss growled.

“Oh yeah? Maybe you oughtta listen to him, then.”

“Apollo, I’m not asking Margie, and that’s THAT!”

“Hoss . . . . ”

“Just drop it, Apollo, OK?”

A sigh, borne of pure and simple frustration, exploded from between Apollo’s lips. “I’d sure like to drop YOU,” he retorted, “right on your head. Maybe THAT way, I could pound some sense into you.”

“You guys gonna fight, Big Brother?”

Hoss looked up and saw his ten year old younger brother standing directly in front of him, gazing from him to Apollo and back, his hazel eyes shining with excitement. Joe’s two closest friends, Lotus O’Toole and Mitch Devlin, ages ten and nine almost ten respectively, flanked him on either side. Hoss shook his head. “No, Little Buddy, Apollo and I ain’t gonna fight.”

The three children’s excitement and eager anticipation quickly gave way to intense disappointment.

“Aww, Hoss, why NOT?” Lotus demanded indignantly. She stood with feet placed shoulder width apart and arms folded across her chest glaring ferociously down at Apollo and Hoss.

” ‘Cause my pa’d kill me if he came out of the general store and found me out here beating up on Apollo, for no good reason,” Hoss replied.

” . . . and my MA’ D kill ME!” Apollo added, in all sincerity.

“Let me pass, please . . . . ” The frantic voice of a young woman rose above the usual cacophony of horses, wagons, and people. Its strident note of urgency caught and drew Hoss’ attention like pungent bait in a trap inevitably draws its intended prey. At the end of the walk, he spotted Danny MacLowry, one of his and Apollo’s peers, with a young woman he had never seen before.

As Hoss watched, the young woman moved to step around Danny.

“Hey!” Danny immediately sidestepped, planting himself right smack in the middle of her intended path. “Where ya going?”

“Please!”

“I’m ONLY trying to be FRIENDLY . . . . ” Danny whined.

“I’m sorry . . . . ” the girl cried out in anguish, “but I need to get back to my pa and stepmother. Please?”

Two more times, she tried to step past by her tormentor. Each time, Danny moved with her, blocking her path.

“Joe, you and your friends stay RIGHT here,” Hoss said tersely. He bolted to his feet with amazing speed and agility, given a boy of his height and bulk. “Apollo, YOU keep an eye on ‘em.” With that, he pulled himself up to the full height of his already impressive stature, and started walking briskly toward Danny MacLowry and the damsel in distress.

Apollo looked up into the trio of suddenly hopeful faces and smiled. “Looks like you kids are gonna get to see a fight after all,” he quipped.

*****

Hoss, his mouth and lower jaw set with grim, stubborn determination, strode briskly down the length of the wood board walk, his intense, baleful glare riveted to Danny MacLowry’s back. He quickened his pace, when Danny reached out and pulled the girl into his arms.

For her part, the girl neither screamed nor did she put up any kind of struggle. She stood, unmoving, staring up into Danny’s leering face through eyes round with horror. Mistaking her immobilizing terror for consent, Danny pulled her closer and kissed her, triggering a sudden, powerful surge of adrenalin. With palms flat against his chest, she pushed and kept pushing with all her might.

“Well, well, well! The cold corpse has suddenly turned into a raging tigress!” Danny whispered, as he tightened his grip.

Sobbing, the terrified girl’s entire body began to writhe convulsively within the constricting circle of his arms, in her desperate struggle to free herself.

The instant Hoss reached Danny and the girl, he grabbed the former by the shirt collar, and pulled, forcing him to release his hold on the girl. He immediately followed through with a swift, powerful right cross, that sent Danny flying out into the street.

Danny, his face nearly purple with rage, immediately scrambled to his feet, and with a primal bellow, lowered his head and charged Hoss like a bull. Hoss, acting on pure instinct, sidestepped, barely dodging the wiry, enraged juggernaut bearing down on him. Before Danny’s mind could even begin to register Hoss’ move, he plowed headlong into the wall, knocking himself senseless.

Hoss gently prodded Danny’s supine form with the toe of his boot, eliciting a faint moan. Satisfied that Danny was presently in no shape to continue the fight, he turned his attention to the frightened girl, huddled against the wall of the notions shop on his right. “Miss? Are you alright?”

*****

“Joe?”

Meanwhile, the sound of his father’s voice drew young Joe Cartwright’s attention from the incident involving his older brother at the other end of the walk. “Yeah, Pa?”

“Where’s your brother?”

“There!” Joe pointed.

Ben’s eyes followed the direction of his youngest son’s extended arm and pointing finger. He stood rooted to the spot, watching as Hoss’ fist slammed hard enough against Danny MacLowry’s left cheek to literally send him flying from the sidewalk into the street. His initial shock quickly gave way to rising anger. “Joseph, you wait right here. No wondering off, you understand? I want you to stay put RIGHT HERE.”

“Y-yes, Pa . . . . ” Joe murmured, taken aback by his father’s angry tone of voice.

Ben paused. “I’m not mad at YOU, Joe,” he said, addressing his youngest son in a kindlier tone. “But I want you to wait right here while I go fetch your brother, alright?”

“Yes, Pa, I will,” the boy eagerly promised, feeling a measure of guilty relief that, this time, his father’s anger wasn’t directed at him.

*****

“Eric Hoss Cartwright, I trust you have a good explanation for this?!”

Hoss, very slowly and very reluctantly turned upon hearing his full name spoken, and found himself staring down into his father’s face, its muscles taut and mouth thinned to a straight line. The furious intensity in Pa’s dark brown eyes, seemed to bore straight into the very core of his being. Hoss quickly averted his eyes.

” . . . uh, Mister?” the damsel in distress hesitantly spoke up for the first time.

Ben glanced up sharply.

“Please, Mister . . . don’t be too hard on him,” the girl stammered, her eyes round with apprehension. “It’s . . . well, it’s really all MY fault, actually . . . . ”

“No, it ain’t, Pa,” Hoss said in a quiet, firm tone, upon finding his voice. “Danny MacLowry was . . . . ” He immediately bowed his head upon feeling once again the tell-tale tingling of blood rushing to his face. “H-he was bothering this gal, Pa.”

Ben looked down at Danny MacLowry, who had begun to stir in earnest, then over at the still frightened girl, with her back pressed hard against the wall, clutching a small hand bag tight against her chest. “I . . . believe you, Hoss,” he said finally, at length, as his anger began to dissipate. “We’ll discuss this further at home.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Miss, do you live here in town?” Ben asked, as he turned his attention back to the girl.

“We . . . my pa, step-mother, and I, that is . . . just arrived on the stage day before yesterday,” the girl replied. “For now, we’re staying at the Kirks’ boarding house.”

“Hoss, why don’t you see the young lady safely back to Mrs. Kirk’s place?” Ben suggested. “Your brother and I’ll pick you up there after Virgil and Walt finish loading our supplies on the buckboard.”

*****

“Is . . . is your name really . . . Horse?” the girl asked, as they walked together toward C Street.

Hoss grinned and shook his head. “No, it’s HOSS . . . not horse. My pa once told me hoss is a mountain word meaning a big friendly fella.”

“Hoss,” she quietly, almost reverently, spoke his name. “Big, friendly fella! It suits you!”

“Thank you,” he murmured shyly.

She was modestly attired in a simply tailored long brown skirt and a loose fitting long sleeved white blouse, buttoned all the way to the last button, just below her chin. Her regal bearing and slim, willowy build gave her the appearance of being very tall, when, in fact, the crown of her head barely reached the middle of Hoss’ chest.

Close up, Hoss thought her very pretty, with her clear, flawless complexion, her small, slightly upturned nose, and enormous brown eyes. However her long, blonde hair, pulled away from her face in a tight chignon, seemed to somehow clash with her rosy skin tones.

“My name’s Cindy, uh . . . Taylor,” the girl said by way of introduction. “Actually, my full, real, and true name’s Cinnamon. Cinnamon Rose.”

Hoss smiled. “That’s a real pretty name. How come you don’t have folks call ya Cinnamon, instead of Cindy?”

” ‘cause Pa gets real mad if I tell people what my real name is,” she said sadly. “I only told YOU because you saved me from that other boy back there . . . . ” She shuddered, ” . . . and sometimes . . . well, sometimes, I just gotta tell somebody my full, real, and true name, or I feel like I’m gonna bust. You’ve gotta promise me you won’t tell anybody else, though. Pa says if too many folks find out my whole real name? There could be a lot of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

Cindy frowned as she mulled the question over in her mind. “Tell you the truth, I don’t know,” she replied with a shrug. “I don’t think Pa’s ever said . . . exactly.”

“I won’t tell anyone else your whole name, Cindy, but I’m glad you told me. It IS a pretty name . . . a REAL pretty name.”

She smiled, as her pale cheeks deepened to a rosy hue. “Thank you, Hoss.”

The pair lapsed into a companionable silence as they crossed C Street, turning at the corner onto the street where Eloise Kirk’s boarding house, officially known as Kirk’s Hostelry, was located. Hoss and Cindy found themselves standing on the verandah, before the front door a scant few moments later.

“Thank you very much for coming to my rescue, Hoss,” Cindy murmured gratefully. With a boldness that seemed at odds with her reserved, almost timid demeanor, she rose up on her toes and planted a kiss firmly on his cheek. “My hero!”

His cheeks flushed an even deeper red. “Aww, Cindy, I ain’t no hero, dadburn it! I would’ve done the same for ANYONE in trouble.”

“You ARE a hero, Hoss,” Cindy protested vigorously. “You ARE! I honest and truly don’t know WHAT I would’ve done if you hadn’t been there.”

“Some one else would’ve stepped in,” Hoss hastened to assure her.

“Maybe,” she murmured doubtfully.

“Not everyone’s like Danny MacLowry, Cindy. After you and your family’s been here awhile, you’ll see that most of the folks in Virginia City are honest, decent, and law abiding people.”

“What if Danny, or . . . someone ELSE bothers me, and NO one comes to help?”

“You just march yourself right on over to the sheriff’s office and let Sheriff Coffee know. He won’t stand for any of the kind of shenanigans that Danny MacLowry was trying to pull.”

She nodded. “Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cindy?”

“Do you think it was MY fault?”

“What?” Hoss queried. A puzzled frown knotted his brow.

“What happened with Danny MacLowry.”

“Now where’d you ever get an idea like that?”

“Some folks’d say so.”

“Then some folks are dead wrong!” Hoss declared stoutly, with an emphatic nod of his head. “Cindy, DANNY’S the one that acted like . . . well, like the back end of a horse, not you. From what I could see, you did everything you could to get away from him.”

Cindy quickly, furtively bowed her head, fixing her eyes on her hands clasped together in front of her.

Hoss knew by her excessively blinking eyes, and trembling lower lip that she was on the verge of tears. He immediately reached out, and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You sure you’re alright, Cindy?”

She nodded vigorously. “I . . . I’m just glad y-you . . . . well, that you don’t think what Danny did was m-my fault.” With that, she abruptly turned heel and fled into the house, leaving Hoss staring after her, shocked and completely dumbfounded.

*****

“Hoss?”

No answer.

Hoss.”

Still no answer.

“HOSS!” Little Joe finally shouted.

Hoss started violently, nearly tumbling into the supplies stacked in the back of the buckboard. “You just scared me outta ten years growth, Shortshanks,” he growled, favoring his younger brother, who sat sandwiched between himself and their father, with a dark glare.

Joe glared back, with equal ferocity. “I called you and called you, but you wouldn’t answer.”

Hoss sighed, his ire dissipating. “Sorry, Little Buddy. What were you gonna ask me?”

“I was gonna ask if you were taking that pretty lady to the dance coming up next Saturday,” Joe replied, as the trio rode toward home on their loaded buckboard.

Hoss stared down at his younger brother for moment, a puzzled frown knotting his brow. At length, he shrugged. “I . . . dunno . . . . Why do you ask?”

“Apollo said you might. Take the pretty lady to the dance, that is.”

Hoss scowled. “Dadburn it, that Apollo’s got a big mouth,” he grumbled.

“Apollo MAY have a big mouth, but he’s got a good idea, Son,” Ben hastened to point out. “This gal . . . . ”

“Cindy, Pa,” Hoss said quietly. “Her name’s Cindy.”

“I know you and Cindy just met, but . . . do you like her? Is she someone you’d like to know better?” Ben probed carefully.

“Yeah, to BOTH questions, Pa,” Hoss said immediately.

“Taking her to the dance would sure give you an opportunity for getting to know her better,” Ben continued. “You could also give her a chance to meet other people her own age by introducing her to some of your friends.”

“I didn’t even think of that,” Hoss murmured thoughtfully.

Ben smiled. “Tell you what, Hoss. Monday morning, I’ll send YOU into town to do the banking, and pick up our mail. You can also take your brother here to school, and pick him up later.” He paused. “Of course, while you’re in town . . . . ”

Hoss heard his father’s unspoken message very loud and clear. “Thanks, Pa,” he murmured gratefully, returning his father’s smile.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Little Joe?”

“You could also invite Cindy to that big party we’re having for Adam when he comes home from college next month,” Joe added, grinning from ear-to-ear.

“Y’ know , Shortshanks? For a little fella, you can sure come up with some real powerful good ideas,” Hoss said approvingly. “I’ll invite Cindy to Adam’s Homecoming Party on Monday, when I ask her to go to the dance with me.”

“Make sure Cindy’s parents know THEY’RE also invited to Adam’s homecoming party,” Ben said.

“I will, Pa,” Hoss eagerly promised. “I sure will!”

*****

The following Monday morning, Ben rose and dressed early, heartily grateful that Monday morning had finally come. The past two days seemed more like two YEARS, with his normally laid back, easy going son chomping at the metaphorical bit with a wholly uncharacteristic impatience he might expect from Little Joe.

“Mister Cartwright!”

Ben glanced up sharply, groaning inwardly, upon seeing Hop Sing, glaring down at him with arms folded tight across his chest. He sat behind the massive desk, that seemed to take up most of the space in the alcove designated his study, rereading Adam’s most recent letter.

“Breakfast ready!” Hop Sing snapped. “Third time I tell you!”

Ben placed the letter aside, then rose. “I’m coming . . . . ”

“Where Hoss and Little Joe?”

“Hoss isn’t down yet?” Ben’s eyes widened in mild surprise. He knew that his youngest son had a strong tendency to dawdle in the morning, especially on any given MONDAY morning, but Hoss? Never! Especially when Hop Sing fixed apple fritters for breakfast.

“Hoss not down! Little Joe not down! YOU here, not at ta—”

“PA! PA!” Joe shouted from the top landing, effectively nipping Hop Sing’s intended tirade in the bud.

Ben glanced upward. “Thank you,” he whispered gratefully.

“PA! HOP SING! GUESS WHAT?” Joe tore headlong down the stairs, fully dressed, his booted feet clattering against wood like an army of castanets.

“You’re a bundle of energy this morning,” Ben remarked, as he intercepted his young, exuberant son at the bottom of the steps. “What’s up?”

“Hoss is taking a bath, Pa,” the boy exclaimed, his eyes round with shock and astonishment, “and . . . it’s not even Saturday night!”

Hop Sing literally threw up his hands, then turned, and started back toward the kitchen, muttering under his breath in Chinese.

“Well, let’s you and I get ourselves to the table shall we?” Ben raised his voice slightly, while casting the occasional furtive glance at Hop Sing’s retreating back. “Hop Sing’s fixed up some apple fritters this morning . . . . ”

Hoss appeared in the dining room much later, bathed, dressed in a pair of navy blue pants, a clean, pressed white shirt, a navy blue string tie, and boots, polished to a high gloss shine. Ben also noted the tell-tale sheen of hair cream, and a faint hint of his own Old Bay Rum after shave. ” ‘Mornin’, Pa! ‘Morning, Little Joe! What’s for breakfast?” he asked, taking his usual place at the table.

An amused grin pulled at the corner of Ben’s mouth. “I think you mean what WAS for breakfast, actually . . . . ”

“We had apple fritters!” Joe blurted out, grinning from ear-to-ear. “Since YOU weren’t here, Pa and I got to eat all we wanted.” He punctuated his words with a resounding belch, drawing a warning glare from his father. “Excuse me,” he murmured promptly.

“Sorry we didn’t save you any, Son,” Ben apologized.

“Just as well, Pa,” Hoss replied. “I ain’t hungry anyway.”

Little Joe stared up at his older, biggest brother, through eyes round with shocked astonishment. His jaw dropped, bringing his chin down close to his chest. For a moment, Ben half feared that the boy was going to faint right there on the spot. “Looks like Hoss has got it REAL bad,” he murmured softly.

“What did you say, Pa?” Joe demanded, regaining his sensibilities once again.

“I said you’d better get upstairs and get your school books together, Young Man,” Ben said very quickly. “You know what Miss Gibson said was going to happen if you were late to school one more time.”

*****

After leaving his younger brother off at school, ten minutes before the bell, much to the shocked amazement of the school teacher, Miss Gibson, Hoss picked up the mail at the post office and got his father’s banking business taken care of straight away. The time was a few minutes past eleven, according to the wall clock in Mister Owens’ office. Hoss turned and began to walk toward the street, on which Kirk’s Hostelry was located.

“HOSS!”

He paused, and turned.

“HOSS! IS THAT YOU?”

It was Cindy. Smiling, Hoss stopped to wait as she ran to catch up.

“I was hoping I’d bump into you again sometime soon,” she declared, falling in step alongside him.

“I was just heading over to Mrs. Kirk’s to see YOU,” Hoss said.

Cindy smiled back. “Were you, Hoss? Really?”

“Yep! Next Saturday night, there’s gonna be a big dance at the community center, and I was wondering . . . . ” Two spots of bright scarlet appeared on his cheeks. “I was wondering if . . . well, if you, uhh . . . might like to come with me?”

Cindy’s shy, hesitant smile faded into surprise, akin to awe. “You r-really want to take me to a dance, Hoss? Honest ‘n truly?”

“I sure do, Cindy, more ‘n just about anything,” Hoss replied with heartfelt sincerity.

“Oh, Hoss, yes! I’d love to go with you!” The smile that suddenly burst forth lit up her entire face with the dazzling brilliance of a summer sun hanging high over head in a brilliant, cloudless blue sky.

For a moment, Hoss stood, unable to move, his eyes riveted to her face, dumbstruck with awe and wonder.

“H-Hoss?” Cindy’s smile faded into a look of anxious concern. “Hoss, are you alright?”

“Cinnamon Rose Taylor,” he whispered softly, the minute he found his voice, “you are just about the prettiest gal I’ve EVER seen.”

*****

“PA! MAMA CAROLYN! GUESS WHAT?” Cindy burst into the room she shared with her father and stepmother, smiling, her eyes shining with happy excitement.

Drew Taylor and his wife, Carolyn exchanged glances of surprise mixed with bewilderment.

“You remember that boy I told you about?” Cindy blissfully rambled on. “I ran into him just now and guess what?”

“What is it, Dear?” Carolyn queried gently, all the while doing her best to ignore the apprehension and dread slowly creeping into her husband’s eyes.

“He said there was going to be a dance next Saturday night, and . . . he wants ME to go with him! May I, Pa?” Cindy turned, toward her father, anxiously clasping her hands to her chest, her eyes guardedly hopeful. “May I please?”

“No!” Drew flatly declined permission.

Cindy’s face fell.

The crushing disappointment in his daughter’s face pierced Drew Taylor’s heart like a knife. “I’m sorry, Princess . . . . ”

“Pa, you PROMISED!” she wailed, utterly dismayed.

“I wish I COULD say yes, honestly, I DO! But, I can’t! It’s . . . it’s plain and simply OUT of the question.”

“Why?” Cindy sobbed. “Please . . . tell me why!”

“Cindy . . . .” Drew begged.

“Drew, I’d like to know why myself,” Carolyn said quietly, as she drew her weeping stepdaughter into the comforting circle of her arms.

“Carolyn, you KNOW why!” Drew snapped, angrily venting his anxiety and pain toward his wife.

“Drew, you DID promise,” Carolyn said quietly. “You promised Cindy and me both that we could stay here awhile, maybe even settle here. We could be part of a community again, even make friends.”

“It’s too risky!”

“There’s a whole country between us and them. You said so yourself right before we left Saint Joe.”

“I know, but . . . . ” Drew sighed and shook his head morosely. “No!” He looked over at his wife, his intense, blue eyes meeting her warm brown ones. “We can’t!”

“Drew, we’ve been moving around so much, I think it’s starting to affect your mind.” There was an anxious, pleading note in her voice. “There’s hundreds, thousands of miles between here and Boston. The three of us are strangers here. Why, I’ll bet anything that no one in Virginia City knows anything about . . . what happened.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” Drew murmured in a dull melancholy tone.

“P-Pa, please! Please let me g-go to the dance?” Cindy sobbed. “I really would like t-to . . . to know Hoss better.”

“Drew?”

He turned and looked over at his wife,

“I . . . when I went to the General Store on Saturday, I asked some of the ladies there about Hoss Cartwright. From what they said, he sounds like a real sweet young man.”

Drew’s eyes moved from Carolyn’s face to Cindy’s, then back again to Carolyn with the dull, hopeless look of a trapped, wild animal. “Even if I were to say yes, Cindy’s got nothing decent to wear, and . . . with what little I make cleaning up at the hotel and over at the Silver Dollar Saloon . . . that’s just enough to pay our lodging here and buy our food. A new dress . . . . ” He shrugged helplessly.

Carolyn smiled. “There’s the money I got squared away under the mattress.”

“M-Mama Carolyn . . . I can’t take your money,” Cindy protested.

“You’re not taking it, Young Lady, I’m giving it to you,” Carolyn said in a gentle, yet firm tone.

“What about all that talk about how important it is to have your own house on land you can call your own?” Drew asked, a bare hint of a smile now tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“It IS important, but Cindy’s happiness is important, too,” Carolyn said. She looked lovingly down into the face of the stepdaughter still cradled in her arms. “I think we got enough to buy some real nice material and a pattern.”

“Alright,” Drew sighed with great reluctance and a heavy heart. “I can’t fight the two of you. Cindy can go to the dance with Hoss Cartwright.”

Cindy gently slipped from Carolyn’s embrace, and ran across the room toward her father. “Thank you, Pa!” she squealed, as she threw her arms around her father’s neck with joyous abandon. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Drew hugged his daughter close, delighted to see once again the unbridled happiness that had been absent for far too long. He hoped and prayed fervently that he would have no cause for regret.

*****

“She said yes, Pa!” Hoss murmured with a complacent smile. He sat in his customary place at the table, with head resting solidly on his hands, and elbows flanking either side of a plate heaped with his supper, largely untouched. The unfocused, dream like quality in his son’s intense, sky blue eyes told Ben that Hoss was many, many miles away, reliving over and over again, his meeting with Cindy Taylor.

“Hoss’ gotta girlfriend, Hoss’ gotta girlfriend,” Joe began to chant softly, all the while grinning from ear to ear.

“Joseph Francis, THAT will be quite enough,” Ben admonished his youngest son quietly, yet very firmly. The slight frown deepening the creases already present in his brow, conveyed a silent and succinct message that he meant business.

“Yes, Sir,” Joe murmured, immediately picking up on the message.

*****

“Hoss not eat?!” A few clipped, terse Chinese syllables followed, as Hop Sing set himself to the task of clearing away the remains of their supper. “Hop Sing not believe if Hop Sing not see with own eyes! Say one thing! Mister Hoss in love, his papa save big bucks buying groceries.”

Ben, safely ensconced behind his desk, in the alcove designated the study, smiled and shook his head. “Must be more to this gal than I thought,” he murmured to himself, as he reached for the mail.

“Pa?” It was Little Joe. “What did you think there WAS to Hoss’ new gal?”

“Have you finished your homework yet?” Ben asked immediately, without missing a beat.

“Well, uhhh . . . no!” he sighed reluctantly. Leave it to Pa to remember homework just when an interesting subject came up.

“Then, I’d suggest you march yourself right upstairs and get to it, Young Man,” Ben exhorted in a gentle, yet firm tone. “Bedtime’s in one hour.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Ben watched and waited until his youngest son reached the top of the stairs and disappeared into the darkness of the hallway above. As he turned his attention to the stack of unopened mail Hoss had brought home from the post office, he noted the Boston post mark on the top envelope. His first thought was Adam, as he picked up a letter opener, and carefully sliced open the envelope. Had something happened to delay his homecoming, or worse, did he change his mind and decide to stay in Boston? Ben slid the letter out of the envelope, opened it and smiled. It wasn’t from Adam. It was from Jedediah and Esther Alcott, old friends Ben had known when he, himself, lived in Boston many years ago.

 

Dear Ben,

“Short and to the point, Old Friend. Esther and I will be arriving in Virginia City on Wednesday, July 15, at two o’clock in the afternoon. We have good reason to believe our missing granddaughter is there, or in the surrounding environs. I hope you and I might make time and place to get together, visit a while, perhaps at the best restaurant in Virginia City??

Though we have corresponded with regularity over the years, we have not laid eyes on each other since your oldest boy was born. Esther and I both look forward to seeing you.

Sincerely,

Jedediah Alcott.

 

” ‘We have good reason to believe our missing granddaughter is there, or in the surrounding environs.’ ” Ben silently turned the salient point of his old friend’s correspondence over in his mind, marveling and shaking his head. “How long has it been? Seven years . . . maybe eight . . . . ”

Jedediah, Jed to family and close friends, and Esther had only one child, a daughter, named Donna Lorinda. Donna married a college professor, who taught American History at Harvard University, no less. Though he was somewhat older than Donna, something on the order of ten, maybe fifteen years, if Ben’s memory was correct, Jed and Esther were very happy about the match.

Jed had befriended the man who was to someday become his son-in-law, when he first arrived in Cambridge to begin his studies as a freshman at Harvard. Their interest in history, particularly American History, had drawn them together. Jed had been particularly interested in the young man’s view of history through the eyes and minds of the people who had lived it. Knowledge of dates, places, and events, though important, assumed a lesser priority.

Jed and his young friend spent many an evening discussing, debating, and ultimately sharing knowledge. Ben smiled, remembering Jed’s accounts of the many times the two of them had literally talked the night away.

“You would think the pair of us would go through the next day, exhausted, sleep walking as dead men after having been up the entire night, but such is not the case. Speaking for myself, I feel curiously refreshed . . . . ”

Their interest and passionate love of history brought these two men together. Other common interests in art, literature, archaeology, and a good golf game, strengthened and cemented the bonds of friendship. Friendship deepened to family as yet another common bond made itself known and felt—Jed’s and the young man’s deep, abiding love for one Donna Lorinda Alcott.

Donna and the young man, by then a full tenured professor at Harvard, were married. The birth of a daughter, one year later, almost to the day, was the crowning joy of what should have been many years happiness to come, not only for Donna and her husband, but for Jed and Esther as well. Donna, whose health was oft described as delicate in Jed’s letters, had almost died bringing her daughter into the world. She survived, but the rigors of pregnancy, giving birth, and subsequent “child bed fever,” had extracted great tolls on her health. For the remaining three years of her life, she was a virtual invalid.

Her husband cared for her, “with a love and devotion far and above what can be considered the call of duty, taking wholly to heart the vows promised on their wedding day, particularly the one about abiding even ‘in sickness and in health,’ ” in the words of an awestruck father-in-law. After Donna’s tragic, though not unexpected death, Jed and Esther cared diligently for their young granddaughter and son-in-law, consumed with grief. The young man gradually worked through his grief, and had begun to take an interest in life again, especially the young daughter, who bore so much resemblance to her mother.

“Dear Ben,

I constantly marvel at how a mere friendship, borne of insignificant commonalities, has deepened into the love of family, especially since the passing of our beloved daughter, Donna Lorinda. Our granddaughter, so very like her mother in appearance and temperament is a delight and comfort to us all . . . . ”

Jed had penned those very words in the last letter written before those strong bonds of love and family were ripped to pieces.

Jed and Esther’s son-in-law remarried . . . .

” . . . . a coarse, ill-mannered woman, far below our station and place in life,” Jed had angrily written, “wholly unworthy of assuming the place left vacant by the passing away of our beloved Donna Lorinda.”

 

Remembering those words penned by Jedediah Alcott, brought the words of his former father-in-law, Captain Abel Stoddard, back to mind, words spoken when he and Adam, then an infant, left Boston for good. “Keep a warm place for her in your heart, but don’t carry her around. She wouldn’t want that . . . . ” Those words rang very hallow, in the wake of the terse, angry reply from Captain Stoddard to the letter Ben had written him several years later, informing him of his marriage to Inger. Captain Stoddard refused to have anything at all to do with the Cartwright family, until Marie had taken it upon herself to contact him, on Adam’s behalf, shortly after he turned thirteen.

Jed, however, had taken matters much further than even Abel Stoddard would have dreamed. Seven years ago, he had petitioned the court for custody of his granddaughter, citing her father and stepmother as unfit parents. The judge granted his petition. His son-in-law had apparently seen the handwriting on the wall as to the verdict. The night before Jed and Esther were granted custody of the child, she, her father, and stepmother disappeared. Jed had been diligently searching for the girl ever since.

*****

“Aww, dadburn it!”

“What’s the matter, Hoss?”

“Pa, my hands are shaking so bad . . . . I’m making a big mess of this tie.”

“Allow me, Son,” Ben kindly offered, trying his best not to smile.

“Thanks, Pa. I sure do appreciate it.”

As Ben worked, he recalled with a knowing, wistful smile how, for this big, gentle son standing before him, the days remaining until the big Saturday Night Dance had passed with a dreadful, agonizing slowness that sorely taxed even his great abundance of patience. Three nights ago, when he had looked in on Hoss before retiring to his own room and bed . . . .

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

Ben smiled. “Can’t sleep?”

“Pa, I haven’t gotten much sleep at night ever since . . . .since I asked Cindy to go with me to that dance.”

His eyes strayed over to his son’s night stand, widening in mild surprise upon seeing all the scrap paper piled there, some of it spilling onto the floor. They were covered on both sides with cross hatches, four thrusts drawn with a pencil, with a fifth line crossing over at a diagonal. “Hoss, what’s all this?”

“Aww, dadburn it, Pa! Counting the days ‘til the dance was ‘way too slow, so I started counting the HOURS. Today, I started counting down MINUTES . . . . ”

“Hoss?” The sound of Joe’s voice drew Ben back to present time and place. His youngest son stood framed in the open door to the bathroom upstairs, watching his and Hoss’ preparations for the dance ahead with a mild interest.

“What is it, Shortshanks?” Hoss replied, as he turned back toward the mirror and started to comb his hair.

“What are ya so nervous for?”

“It’s the first time he’s taken Cindy anywhere, Son,” Ben answered the question, as he, also, turned toward the mirror and began to tie his own string tie. “Hoss just wants to make a nice impression, that’s all.”

“I thought Hoss ALREADY made a nice impression on Cindy, Pa . . . the day he pounded that mean ol’ Danny MacLowry’s face in the dirt,” Joe said with relish.

“This is different,” Ben said. “You’ll understand a little better when you’re old enough to start taking girls to dances yourself.”

“YUCK!” Joe declared emphatically, making a face. “NEVER! Girls stink, except for Lotus O’Toole, her ma, and her grandma.” He looked up at Hoss, watching as his big brother squeezed a drop of hair cream into his massive palm. “Your girl, Cindy’s OK . . . I guess,” the youngest Cartwright son added as an afterthought.

“I’m glad you approve of Cindy, Shortshanks,” Hoss declared with a smile, as he smoothed in the hair cream.

“That’s ‘cause she’s YOUR girl, and . . . she really makes you happy, doesn’t she, Hoss.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

“Yeah, she does,” Hoss replied immediately.

“Happier than that ol’ Margie Owens?”

Hoss suddenly, much to his astonishment, realized that he hadn’t even thought of Margie Owens from the first moment he had met Cindy. “Yeah, Shortshanks. Cindy makes me a lot happier than Margie Owens ever did. Y’ wanna know something else?”

“What’s that, Big Brother?”

“I think Cindy’s a whole heck of a lot prettier.”

“I think she is, too,” Joe agreed solemnly.

“Well,” Ben declared, looking down at his youngest son in complete amazement. “That’s quite a compliment coming from YOU, Young Man . . . ”

As father and son stepped out the front door, they found the buggy hitched to that new pair of magnificent browns, Ben had acquired at an auction in Carson City a couple of months ago. Dunny Waggoner was also saddled and ready to ride.

Hoss climbed up into the buggy and picked up the reins. “Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“Thanks for letting me take the buggy tonight,” Hoss said gratefully.

Ben climbed up onto Dunny Waggoner, then turned and smiled down at Hoss, ensconced in the buggy, with reins in hand. “When a young man escorts a beautiful gal someplace nice for the first time, I think he should do it up in as fine a style as he possibly can.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

“This Cindy MUST be quite a gal to have made you forget Margie Owens so completely,” Ben mused, as his thoughts wandered back to his own first meeting with the girl. He admired Cindy for the way she had stepped right in and took up for Hoss, that day they all first met, despite being scared to death, not only as aftermath to that rude incident initiated by the MacLowry boy, but in the face of his own anger as well. Apart from that, however, the girl was plain, and wholly forgettable. So she had initially seemed to HIM.

“Cindy IS real special, Pa,” Hoss said quietly, his lips turning upward in a mysterious Mona Lisa type smile, “and when I’m with her? I kinda feel special myself.”

“Well, you’d best skedaddle, Young Man. You don’t want to be late picking Cindy up.”

“See you at the dance, Pa.”

*****

Within no time at all, Hoss found himself standing on the veranda of Kirk’s Hostelry, knocking on the front door. Eloise Kirk’s daughter, Rita Mae answered, gowned, coiffed, and bejeweled for the dance herself. She was a few years older, closer to Adam’s age, and nearly tall enough to look Hoss straight in the eye without high heels. “Good evening, Hoss! My don’t you look handsome.”

“I’m here to pick up Cindy Taylor, and take her to the dance,” Hoss said, as the color in his cheeks deepened to a rose pink.

“Come on in.” Rita Mae gently took him by the hand and drew him inside. “If you’ll have a seat in the drawing room, I’ll let the Taylors know you’re here.”

A few moments later, Cindy entered the room, smiling, wearing a deep, rose pink dress that complimented her natural ruddy complexion. Its tailored bodice with cinched waist and rounded neckline, tastefully accentuated her trim waist and rounded bosom. The full skirt with ruffled trim allowed for free and easy movement. White lace trimmed the edges of her short, slightly puffed sleeves, neckline, and place where ruffle joined skirt. A pair of pain white gloves, fastened at the wrist with a single, rounded pearlescent button, and a single strand pearl necklace, that once belonged to her mother, the mother who had given her life, completed her outfit.

Hoss rose to his feet slowly, knees trembling, thoroughly entranced by the lovely vision that had just entered the room.

Cindy’s smile faded into a look of concern as she quickly crossed the room to his side. “H-Hoss? Are you alright?”

A smile, shaky and uncertain, yet filled with absolute delight, slowly spread across his lips. “Cinnamon Rose Taylor,” he murmured, taking care to lower his voice. “Have I ever told you that . . . . well . . . . ” He quickly averted his face as the color of his cheeks deepened from rose pink to scarlet. “Have I ever told you that you’ve got to be the prettiest gal I’ve ever seen?”

“Yes,” she said tenderly, with a warm smile. “The day you asked me to this dance.” She gently took him by the hand and led him toward the sitting room door. “Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cindy?”

“Have I ever told YOU that . . . . except maybe for my pa, you’re the first man in my whole life who, somehow, makes me feel beautiful?”

Gazing down into her smiling face, and eyes glowing with the inner radiance of the warm, loving, and gracious spirit that animated them with life and light, Hoss longed so much to gently take her into his arms and kiss her. “No,” he silently chided himself, “not now. It wouldn’t be right.” He swallowed, then offered her his arm. “W-we’d best get going,” he said aloud, his voice unsteady. “Our folks are probably at the dance by now, wondering wh-what happened to the two of US.”

Cindy nodded and gently took his arm. Hoss cast a quick, sidelong glance at her face, as they turned to leave the sitting room at Kirk’s hostelry. For a brief, fleeting instant, he thought he saw disappointment.

*****

Athena Nikolas, Apollo’s twin sister, watched with interest as Hoss Cartwright entered the community center, grinning from-ear-to-ear like that Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, escorting a girl she had not, as yet anyway, had occasion to meet. She was a very pretty girl, with “curls and swells in all the exact right places,” as her twin brother would say. That deep pink dress, with its simple, straight forward tailored lines, and subtle ornamentation suited her perfectly. Best of all however, was the way she looked at Hoss, as if he were just about the only person in the world who mattered.

“Who’s the frump?”

Athena turned and found herself staring into the disdainful blue eyes of Margie Owens. “What frump?”

“That girl with Hoss Cartwright,” Margie replied, wrinkling her nose in disdain. “I mean, really! ANYONE can see that dress is home made!”

“Whoever made that girl’s dress sure did a fine job of it,” Athena murmured appreciatively. “Every bit as good as that new French woman who just opened up in town.”

“But, it’s so PLAIN!”

“Margie Dear, some people have a natural beauty all their own, and don’t need to draw peoples’ attention by way of a fancy-schmancy kind of dress,” Athena said, staring pointedly at Margie’s gown with its shimmering, glittering material, overlaid by fringe and lace.

Margie responded with a murderous glare, then turned heel and flounced off with Athena’s soft, derisive laughter echoing in her ears.

“Athena?”

She turned. It was Hoss Cartwright with his mystery girl.

“Athena, I’d like you to meet Cindy Taylor,” Hoss graciously made the introductions. “She and her family just moved to Virginia City about a week ago. Cindy, this is Athena Nikolas. She’s Apollo’s sister.”

“Cindy, I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance,” Athena offered her hand and a sincere smile this time. Anyone who could give Hoss Cartwright the kind of happiness she saw glowing in his face and in those bright, sky blue eyes, was top notch in HER book. Knocking the like of Miss Margie Owens clear off that high and lofty pedestal, mostly of her own making, only added to Athena Nikolas’ positive first impression.

“I’m very glad to meet you, too,” Cindy accepted Athena’s extended hand and returned her smile.

*****

“Mister and Mrs. Taylor?”

Drew and Carolyn Taylor both turned their heads in unison and found themselves looking up into the warm, smiling face of a big man, with hair graying to silver. The former unconsciously stepped forward, interposing himself between the big, smiling stranger and his wife. “Wh-what can we do for you, Mister?”

“Cartwright,” Ben said, his smile broadening. He politely extended his hand. “Ben Cartwright. I’m Hoss’ father.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mister Cartwright,” Carolyn smiled. She stepped around her husband and took Ben’s hand. “Hoss is a wonderful young man and . . . ” she gestured discreetly toward the dance floor, where Cartwright son and Taylor daughter danced together, completely oblivious to all but each other. ” . . . you can see Cindy thinks the absolute world of him.”

Ben returned Carolyn Taylor’s warm smile. “Your daughter, Cindy’s quite a gal,” he said quietly, with heartfelt sincerity. “Not only does HOSS think the world of her, but my youngest boy’s pretty taken with her, too . . . quite an accomplishment taking into account that Joe’s still at the age where girls stink.”

Carolyn laughed out loud. “That is indeed quite an accomplishment,” she agreed. “Are Hoss and Joe your only children?”

“I have an older boy, Adam,” Ben replied, warming immediately to Carolyn Taylor’s quiet warmth and charm. “He’s been away attending college for the past four years.”

“You must miss him terribly.”

“I do,” Ben admitted. “But, if my time calculations are correct, he should be finishing up with his finals, and getting ready to graduate . . . with high honors.”

“High honors? That’s wonderful, Mister Cartwright. You must be very proud of him.”

“You must indeed,” Drew Taylor spoke up for the first time, since Ben had introduced himself. “To graduate with high honors is no small accomplishment. May I inquire as to where your oldest son has been attending college.”

“Harvard University,” Ben replied, “Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

Drew Taylor’s face turned white as a sheet. His body, so rigid and still, and eyes round with alarm, reminded Ben of a deer mesmerized and rendered immobile by the light of a roaring campfire or brightly burning torch.

Carolyn Taylor, herself also stunned by the revelation of Adam Cartwright’s soon to be alma mater, was the first to find her voice. “H-Harvard.” She smiled, but with none of her previous warmth. “That makes your son’s scholastic accomplishments all the m-more . . . impressive.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Taylor,” Ben said, somewhat taken aback by their sudden reserve. “Adam will be coming home next month . . . for good.” He smiled. “I’m planning a welcome home party . . . nothing real big or fancy, just a cookout with friends and neighbors. I’d like to invite both of you, and your daughter.”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright,” Carolyn murmured in as stead a voice as she could muster. “Drew and I would love to come, and Cindy . . . . ” She nodded again to the dance floor, toward his son and their daughter. ” . . . I think Cindy will be delighted to come, also.”

“Ben?”

The Cartwright clan patriarch turned and saw Roy Coffee heading in his direction. “Mister and Mrs. Taylor, if you would excuse me?”

“Certainly, Mister Cartwright,” Carolyn murmured a tad too quickly. “Good talking with you.”

The minute Ben Cartwright turned to leave, Drew Taylor seized his wife by the elbow and steered her off to a secluded alcove. “Carolyn, are you out of your mind?” he demanded, sotto voce, the minute he was certain they were alone.

“Drew . . . . ”

“You heard him. His oldest son had been attending Harvard for the past four years.”

“Drew, please, get hold of yourself.”

“We are NOT attending that party Mister Cartwright’s having for his son’s homecoming,” Drew declared, his voice shaking. “We are going to go home immediately, and pack our things. We’re leaving Virginia City first thing in the morning.”

“Drew, stop it!” Carolyn begged. “Just stop it right now!”

“We have to move on, Carolyn, don’t you see? This Adam Cartwright almost certainly knows. Chances are Mister Cartwright does, too.”

“So WHAT if they do?”

Drew stared down into his wife’s face, looking at her as he might someone who had suddenly, inexplicably gone completely insane.

“OK, people talk. In the four years, Mister Cartwright’s son has been living in Boston and attending Harvard University, he, more than likely HAS heard something,” Carolyn reluctantly agreed. “But it would have been old gossip by the time he arrived there four years ago. A chain of events that happened to faceless strangers.”

“What if Adam, or one of his college buddies, knows them?”

“I don’t think that’s likely.”

“It’s STILL possible.”

“Drew, anything’s possible, but taking into account the fact that both Boston and Harvard University are very big places, the probability of Adam Cartwright knowing them directly or indirectly is pretty much nil.”

“We can’t take that chance, Carolyn.”

“Drew, I’m tired of running, and poor Cindy . . . . ” She cast a meaningful glance over toward the dance floor, where the music had just ended. There, Hoss and Cindy applauded the music, gazing contentedly into each other’s eyes. “I don’t want to take that away from her.”

Drew followed his wife’s line of vision, then abruptly turned away, heart sick. “I don’t either, Carolyn. Ever since she first met Hoss . . . well, she hasn’t been happy like that for a very long time.” He sighed. “What are we going to do?”

“We’re both going to stay put right here, and put down some roots,” Carolyn said firmly. “I’ve talked with a lot of the ladies in passing, met some of their husbands and children. Most of ‘em seem to be decent, friendly people. I also have a real strong feeling that they don’t much care what your past has been. They care a lot more about what you are and what your decide to make of yourself NOW. We’ll do fine here, Drew.”

“Alright,” he agreed reluctantly.

“Is . . . everything alright?”

Carolyn turned and found herself once more looking up into the face of Ben Cartwright. “Yes . . . and no,” she said quietly. “It seems my husband’s not feeling very well.”

“I hope it’s nothing serious,” Ben said anxiously.

“No, just a mild stomach upset, but all the same, I’d best get him home,” Carolyn said. “Would you mind doing us a big favor, Mister Cartwright?”

“I’d be glad to.”

“Please let Cindy know that we’ve left, but tell her also that we both want her to stay and enjoy herself.”

“Hoss and I will certainly see that Cindy returns home safely,” Ben promised. “However, I have a buggy outside. I’d be more than happy to drive you home.”

“I don’t want to put you out, Mister Cartwright.”

“No trouble at all, Mrs. Taylor. Why don’t you both meet me out front? I’ll let Hoss and Cindy know we’re leaving.”

*****

Ben diligently searched the dance floor, but could find neither hide nor hair of his son or the Taylors’ daughter.

“Mister Cartwright, have you lost something?” It was Athena Nikolas.

Ben turned and favored her with a rueful smile. “I was looking for Cindy Taylor and Hoss,” he replied. “Cindy’s father’s feeling a little under the weather, so I’m taking him and her mother home.”

She had spotted them a few moments before, quietly slipping out the back door. “If you’d like, Mister Cartwright, I’d be very happy to give them the message,” Athena immediately offered.

“Thank you, Athena,” Ben said with an amused grin, “and I hope Cindy wore a shawl, or some kind of wrap to the dance. It can still get pretty chilly outside after dark.”

Athena stared at Ben Cartwright’s retreating back, open mouthed with shock, wondering how in the ever lovin’ world did he possibly know.

*****

Hoss gazed into her warm, dark brown eyes, reflecting back the silvery light of the near full moon, and glowing with her own inner light. The next thing he knew, their lips were touching, in a gentle whisper of a kiss. Hoss pulled back abruptly, eyes round with horror, both hands trembling. “C-Cindy, I . . . I’m s-sorry . . . . ”

“Oh, Hoss, I’m not,” she said softly, her hand caressing his cheek. She lowered her head, as two bright spots of red, discernable even in the subdued light of the moon, appeared on her cheeks. “I . . . I was hoping you would . . . even before we left Kirk’s.”

“Y-you were?” Hoss stammered, staring down at her in wonder. “Cindy?”

“Y-yes, Hoss?”

“Cindy, can I . . . may I . . . would you be mad at me if I . . . if I kissed you again?” Hoss, much to his chagrin, felt the sudden rush of blood to his own face.

“I-I’d be mad at you if . . . if you DIDN’T kiss me again . . . . ”

Hoss, his heart pounding, gently gathered her in his arms and kissed her. He was astonished and pleased when her arms, loosely encircling his waist, tightened and she began to kiss him back.

“Hoss . . . is this how two people feel when . . . when they love each other?”

“I don’t rightly know, Cindy,” Hoss murmured gazing down in wonder at the girl still clasped in his arms. “I only know one thing. I don’t want to be without you.”

“I don’t want to ever be without you, either, Hoss,” she half sobbed, as she buried her face against his broad shoulder.

“Well, well, well! Ain’t THIS cozy!”

Hoss and Cindy both turned their heads in unison and found Danny MacLowry standing in front of them, arms folded across his chest, leering balefully at both of them. Cindy, her eyes round with fear, tightened her arms around Hoss’ waist and pressed closer.

“What’re you doin’ here, Danny?” Hoss demanded. An angry, indignant scowl creased his forehead.

“I was gonna ask the purty lady to dance,” Danny replied, his voice generously laced with angry sarcasm. “But, when I turned to ask her? No purty lady!”

Drawing a measure of strength and courage from Hoss’ close proximity, Cindy pulled herself up to full height and cast a dark, withering glare of her own toward their antagonist. “For YOUR information, I don’t want to dance with YOU. Not now, not ever! In fact, if I never, ever see you again, that’ll be too soon.”

Danny laughed mirthlessly. “Oh, I get it! You think you’re something almighty special just ‘cause one of the great and powerful Cartwrights stopped to notice ya,” he sneered, directing his words toward Cindy. “Well, ya AIN’T!”

“Come on, Cindy, let’s us g’won back inside.” Hoss, keeping one arm protectively around Cindy’s shoulders, moved to step around Danny.

Danny immediately side stepped, placing himself directly in front of Hoss and Cindy once again. “That’s rude . . . leaving before I’ve had a chance to finish what I have to say.”

“Stand aside, Danny,” Hoss growled.

“Not ‘til I’ve finished saying what I have to say.”

“Cindy and I don’t wanna hear what you hafta say. Now stand aside!”

“Why don’t you let the lady speak for herself?”

“Alright, I WILL speak for myself!” Cindy said, her voice shaking with anger and fear. “I DON’T want to hear anything you have to say. I also don’t want to see you, dance with you, or have anything to do with you at all! Ever! Is THAT clear enough?”

“How do you know whether or not you wanna have anything to do with me?” Danny spat, his face contorting with a potent fury born out of wounded pride. “Ol’ Hoss ain’t exactly let you spend any time with other guys!”

“Danny, that’s enough! Now you stand aside right now, and let Cindy ‘n me get by.”

Danny laughed again, its sound harsh and grating. “The only reason you think an ugly cuss like Hoss is so much better than a guy like me is because I ain’t got all that Cartwright money! OK, fine! Fine and dandy! You just remember one thing, Gal! After ol’ Hoss here’s loved ya and left ya, don’t you dare come crawling back to me! ‘Cause Danny MacLowry don’t want none of Hoss Cartwright’s used up leftovers.”

Hoss immediately moved Cindy behind him, then followed through with a powerful right cross that connected solidly with Danny’s jaw. The MacLowry boy reeled back dizzily a couple of steps, before recovering a measure of his equilibrium. Before Hoss realized what was happened, Danny lowered his head and charged, slamming hard into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Hoss, his mouth open, gasping for breath, wavered, then fell over backwards. With a yowl of triumph, Danny leapt on his fallen opponent, raining down hard blows on his chest and face.

Cindy screamed.

Angelina Thundercloud Woman, full blooded Shoshone wife of Houston O’Brien, friend and neighbor of the Cartwrights, appeared at Cindy’s elbow with her daughter, Crystal.

“P-Please, Ma’am . . . y-you’ve got to help Hoss . . . h-he’s . . . he’s killing him!” Cindy turned to Angelina, with tears pouring down her cheeks like a swift running waterfall.

“Crystal, you run on inside and fetch Sheriff Coffee,” Angelina ordered, her face darkening in the spirit and manner of her namesake.

Crystal nodded, then set off, beating a straight path back to the community center.

Angelina, meanwhile, strode resolutely over toward Danny and Hoss, her back poker straight, and jaw set with grim, stubborn determination. She seized Danny MacLowry by the back of his shirt collar and pulled him away from Hoss with almost ridiculous ease. Then, in the same fluid movement, she threw the startled boy down onto the ground.

Danny MacLowry gazed up into the dark, angry face of Angelina Thundercloud Woman, stunned. Initial shock quickly gave way to rage. “Damn Squaw Woman!” he spat.

Angelina leaned over, and, grabbing him by the lapels, hauled him unceremoniously to his feet, bringing his face within less than an inch of her own. “I am NO squaw woman!” she literally spat in his face. “I am daughter of chief and granddaughter of many, many chiefs.” With that, she immediately followed through with a swift, hard punch that sent Danny MacLowry toppling to the ground a second time.

Cindy, meanwhile, with heart in mouth, ran to Hoss, half-falling, half-collapsing beside him. “H-Hoss?”

“I . . . I’m alright, Cindy,” he murmured.

Cindy immediately got behind him and helped him from a prone to sitting position. “Oh, Hoss . . . ” She began to gently dab the bleeding places on his face with the edge of her light shawl, ” . . . y-you’re hurt.”

“I reckon I AM banged up a little,” Hoss said ruefully, giving her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “But, I’ll be fine. How about you, Cindy? You alright?”

“I . . . I will be,” she sobbed, throwing her arms around Hoss’ neck. “Now that I know YOU’RE going to b-be alright.”

“What the Sam Hill is going on down here?” A familiar sonorous voice, tight with anger, fell upon Hoss’ ears.

Angelina Thundercloud Woman O’Brien turned to face Ben Cartwright, as he walked briskly toward then, his own face a veritable thundercloud. Sheriff Roy Coffee and her daughter, Crystal, followed at his heels. Clem Foster, newly appointed deputy, and Gerald Malone, carrying a white lace wrap that belonged to the lady he had escorted to the dance, brought up the rear.

“Ben, when Crystal and I came upon them, that ruffian . . . ” Angelina directed a dark, menacing glare in Danny’s general direction, ” . . . had poor Hoss on the ground and was beating the stuffing out of him.”

“He started it!” Danny said, thrusting his arm with pointed finger toward Hoss.

“He’s lying!” Cindy shot back, her entire body trembling with the pent up fury growing within. “HE started it! Hoss and I stepped out for a breath of fresh air when he . . . he came up to us, started heckling us . . . we tried to go around him, but he wouldn’t let us pass!”

“Mister Cartwright . . . Sheriff Coffee . . . Hoss’ lady friend’s telling the truth,” Gerald said. “I went to the buggy to get Lucille’s wrap, and saw the whole thing. I was coming to help, but Mrs. O’Brien here beat me to the punch.”

“Sh-Sheriff Coffee?” Hoss ventured hesitantly, speaking for the first time.

“What is it, Hoss?”

“This ain’t the first time Danny’s bothered Cindy,” Hoss said. “First time happened about a week ago right outside the notions shop.” He took Cindy’s trembling hand in his and gave it a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “He did the same thing to her then that he did t’ US now.”

“Miss Taylor ain’t the first gal he’s harassed either,” Roy said, favoring Danny MacLowry with a baleful glare. “With YOU running around loose, it seems the streets of Virginia City ain’t safe no more for decent young ladies, and I for one am sick and tired of it. Ben . . . . ”

“Yes, Roy?”

“I honest and truly hope to heaven you wanna swear out a complaint, so I can put this . . . this lowlife behind bars where he belongs,” Roy said tersely.

Danny’s eyes went round with genuine terror. “No! Y-You . . . . you CAN’T put me in jail! My pa . . . . he’ll KILL me.”

“Maybe you shouldda thought of THAT before you tried to force your attentions on Miss Taylor here,” Roy countered, his mouth stretched to a thin, angry line. “Ben?”

“You BET I’m going to swear out that complaint,” Ben replied, his voice tight with fury, barely controlled. “Mister and Mrs. Taylor, the young lady’s parents may want to swear out a complaint as well. I fully intend advising them to do so.”

“In THAT case, Danny MacLowry, you’re under arrest,” the sheriff informed the hapless youth with relish. “The charges are harassment, assault and battery.”

*****

“What is it THIS time, Sheriff?” Rob MacLowry demanded, as he strode briskly into the sheriff’s office, the Monday morning following the dance. The scowl on his face was darker than the black clouds, heralding the approach of a violent thunderstorm. “Did that Cartwright kid use my boy as a punching bag again, and scrape his soft knuckles?”

“No,” Roy replied sardonically. “Seems THIS time your boy used Hoss Cartwright as a punching bag.”

A hard, mirthless smile spread across his lips. “Well good for Danny! About time someone started putting those high, almighty Cartwrights in their place!”

“Ben Cartwright’s worked very hard to earn the respect of folks hereabouts,” Roy said sternly, “and I can’t ever rightly recall a time when the parents of the young ladies living in and around Virginia City ever talked about locking up their daughters because the Cartwright boys’re coming to town.”

“You referring to that Taylor bitch?” Rob growled, bristling.

“From what I’VE seen of her, Miss Taylor seems a perfectly fine young lady to me.”

“Fine young lady indeed!” Rob snorted derisively. “She led my boy on, y’ know! Bold as brass, she stood right out there on that sidewalk last week and led him right on. She did the same thing at the dance!”

“Well, according to Hoss, the incident at the dance was the SECOND time your boy’s harassed Miss Taylor, and tried to force his attentions on her,” Roy Coffee hastened to point out.

“Agggh! Who does Hoss Cartwright think he is anyway? Just ‘cause HE’S one of them high and mighty Cartwrights . . . he probably thinks he OWNS that gal. He’s got no call to be so selfish and take up ALL her time. He oughtta sit back and let OTHER guys spend some time with her.”

“Mister MacLowry, did it ever occur to you that maybe Miss Taylor WANTS to spend all her time with Hoss?”

Rob MacLowry laughed out loud at the very notion. “Come ON, Sheriff! That gal’s a real looker! Why in the world would she WANT to spend time with the likes of Hoss Cartwright . . . especially when she’s got a real man like Danny fawning after her?”

“I can give ya a hundred reasons why Miss Taylor, or any other gal for that matter would choose Hoss Cartwright over your boy in a heartbeat,” Roy Coffee stoutly took up for Hoss. “Looks ain’t everything!”

“Maybe not, but they sure count for an awful lot!”

“Not near as much as you think, Mister MacLowry. As I said before, what happened at the dance makes TWICE now, your boy’s tried to force his attentions on Miss Taylor.”

“He was ONLY trying o’ be FRIENDLY,” Rob vehemently protested.

“That AIN’T the way Miss Taylor saw it!”

“Ahh! Miss Taylor misunderstood and overreacted!”

“From the accounts given by OTHER witnesses . . . . ”

“OTHER witnesses?! WHAT other witnesses? Hoss Cartwright and his good buddy, Apollo Nikolas?”

” . . . and you can add Mister Malone to that list, Mister McLowry,” the sheriff said in a wry tone. “He went out to his buggy to fetch a wrap his gal had left on the seat when the two of ‘em went in. He saw the whole thing. So did Mrs. O’Brien and her daughter.”

“Damn’ squaw bitch and her half-breed whelp?! Hah! Who in the ever lovin’ world’s gonna take the word of the like of THEM over a couple of decent, honest, and true Americans like my boy and me?”

“Me, for one, Mister MacLowry, and Judge Faraday for another.”

“Aggh! Friends of the Cartwrights! Judge, sheriff, and witnesses! The lot of ya will say anything Ben Cartwright tells ya to!” Rob snorted derisively.

“In the FIRST place, Ben Cartwright AIN’T that kind of man,” Roy Coffee stoutly defended his old friend. “He’d never ask his friends to lie for him. In the SECOND place, I got testimony from at least a dozen MORE witnesses who saw what happened outside the notions shop. There’s quite a few among ‘em who AIN’T friendly with the Cartwrights, and a couple who don’t even know the Cartwrights from Adam’s house cat!”

While his father and the sheriff argued, Danny McLowry, seated against the wall running perpendicular to the sheriff’s desk turned and stared at the wanted posters tacked to the bulletin board above his head to his right. He quietly rose and walked over for a better look.

“Wanted . . . Andrew Ford Sandringham,” Danny softly read aloud the wanted poster that caught his eye first. “Boston Police Department . . . for kidnapping child. Known aliases . . . Andy Smith, Andy Ford . . . . ” He silently studied the picture, copied from an old daguerreotype. The man staring back from the wanted poster was clean shaven, with dark eyes, and dark wavy hair cut short with sideburns. He had a cleft chin and wide jaw line.

Danny’s eyes dropped down to the picture of the girl Andrew Sandringham had allegedly kidnapped. She looked to be around the same age as his younger sister, Mary, who had turned eight her last birthday. Like Mary, this girl’s hair was also woven into a pair of braids that reached down to about the middle of her chest. He peered at the girl’s face, noting the wide jaw line, her small, down turned mouth and thin lips, the pixy-ish, upturned nose, and the eyes. Something about those eyes . . . .

“I’ve seen her before . . . . ” Danny murmured aloud. He frowned, trying hard to recall.

” . . . alright, Sheriff, how much is the boy’s fine?”

“Assault and battery, disturbing the peace, harassing Miss Taylor . . . . all that comes to five dollars even.”

Rob MacLowry angrily slapped a five dollar bill down onto the sheriff’s desk.

“Your boy’s free to go,” Roy said, as he picked up the single bill and placed it in the strong box, sitting in the middle of his desk. “You be sure to tell your boy to stay away from Miss Taylor, ‘cause if he don’t . . . . OR, if I hear tell of him harassing any OTHER young lady, he’s gonna be keeping me company right here for a whole month of Sundays.”

Danny waited until his father turned his attention back to the sheriff, then deftly removed Andrew Sandringham’s wanted poster from the bulletin board. He turned his face back to the wall, and folded the poster down to a thick two inch square.

“DANNY!” Rob MacLowry’s angry voice cracked sharply like a whip, startling the boy.

Danny quickly stuffed the purloined poster into his pants pocket. “Y-yes, Pa?”

“Come on!”

*****

“Hop Sing, dinner was just wonderful,” Carolyn Taylor complimented the chef with a broad grin. “You’re a real genius in the kitchen . . . an absolute genius!”

“Hop Sing thank Mrs. Taylor very, very, VERY much,” the Cartwrights’ chief cook and bottle washer accepted the compliment as his due, grinning broadly from ear-to-ear.

“This apple pie’s especially good,” Drew added. “Hop Sing, is there any way I can persuade you to share your apple pie recipe with my wife?”

“Very sorry, apple pie recipe family secret.” Though Hop Sing adamantly shook his head, the smile in his face remained fixed very firmly in place. “Come all the way from China.”

“Shall we take coffee in the great room, over next to the fireplace?” Ben invited.

“Sounds like a wonderful idea to me,” Drew agreed.

“Hard to belief the Taylors have only been in Virginia City a month,” Ben mused silently, as the six of them rose from their places at the Cartwrights’ dining room table. The strong bonds of friendship and easy camaraderie between the Cartwright and Taylor families seemed more the stuff of a long, enduring friendship of many years, rather than an acquaintance that had begun a mere four weeks ago.

Hoss and Cindy had slipped into the patterns of a young courting couple, and as such, were virtually inseparable. If he wasn’t visiting the Taylors at Kirks’ Hostelry in town, she was here. Ben, himself, was captivated by her warmth and charm. In odd moments of silence and solitude, he found himself thinking of Cindy Taylor in terms of prospective daughter-in-law, much to his own amazement. Little Joe followed Cindy around the house like a loved starved puppy dog. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say young Joseph Francis has a king-sized crush on Cindy himself,” Ben mused silently.

“Pa?”

The sound of Hoss’ voice scattered Ben’s thoughts, and sent them stampeding back into the deep recesses of his brain, like frightened cattle, to be pondered later. “Yes, Son?”

“Would you . . . and you, too, Mister ‘n Mrs. Taylor . . . would it be alright if Cindy and me took a short stroll outside to kinda let our food settle?” Hoss asked.

“It’s alright with Carolyn and me, if it’s alright with YOU, Ben,” Drew said quietly.

“You kids go ahead,” Ben also gave his permission, “but, don’t go far.”

“Cindy?”

“Yes, Mama Carolyn?”

“It’s probably gotten pretty chilly outside, it not out right cold,” Carolyn said, ever so slightly anxious. “You’d better take your wrap with you.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Cindy immediately went to the pegs next to the door to remove the light shawl, hand crocheted many years ago by her late mother.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“Can I go with Hoss and Cindy?”

“I think YOUR time would be best spent upstairs in your room studying, Young Man,” Ben said in a very firm tone, that brooked no argument. “I understand you have a big history test coming up on Friday.”

Joe’s face fell. “Who told you that, Pa?”

“I ran into Miss Gibson last Saturday at the General Store,” Ben replied. “She also told me you’re on the verge of failing history.”

“Boy! Bad enough Miss Gibson has to be such a slave driver,” Joe groused. “NOW she’s turned into a tattletale.”

“Miss Gibson was absolutely right to tell me,” Ben said sternly. “You have a couple of hours before bed time. I’d strongly suggest you get yourself right upstairs and start hitting those books.”

“Aawww, Pa, it’s no use.”

“Joseph . . . . ” Ben’s tone held a definite threatening not.

“It’s TRUE, Pa! I’ll NEVER remember all those dates and places, not ever, not in a million years!”

“Joe?”

“Yes, Mister Taylor?” The youngest of the Cartwright brothers turned toward Drew expectantly, grateful for any reprieve of having to go upstairs to his room and begin studying, no matter how slight.

“What are you studying in history class?”

“The War of 1812,” Joe sighed dejectedly.

“Ah yes. America’s SECOND war of independence,” Drew said quietly.

“It IS?”

“Yes, it is,” Drew replied with a smile. “Ben?”

“Yes, Drew?”

“May I share something with Joe? I promise, I won’t detain him very long.”

“Alright.”

“Joe, this is a poem written by a lawyer named Francis Scott Key, after he witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, in Baltimore,” Drew said as he reached into the right hand pocket of his pants and drew out his wallet. From his wallet, he extracted a sheet of paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. “Mister Key originally titled his poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry.”

He unfolded it with great care, and began to read:

” ‘Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there. O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’ ”

Ben listened closely as Drew Taylor read aloud the words to the poem in a clear voice. The rise and fall of his voice, the way he almost caressed the words as he read told the Cartwright family patriarch that this poem was a much loved one for the man who read it aloud. “I . . . think I know those words,” Ben said quietly, when Drew paused at the end of the first verse. “But, I think I remember them as a song.”

Drew looked over at him and smiled warmly. “You are absolutely right, Ben. These words WERE set to music, a popular tune at the time, and published in 1815 as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ ” He, then, returned his attention to Joe Cartwright. “Francis Scott Key went to Baltimore in the company of a friend, a man by the name of Colonel John Stuart to meet with a couple of British officers, Major General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn to request the release of a friend of theirs, a man by the name of Doctor William Beanes, who had been arrested by a detachment of British troops for imprisoning two of their own. Mister Key and Colonel Stuart were themselves taken into custody, and told they would be detained until the fighting was over.”

“Why?” Joe asked.

“During the course of their negotiations for the release of Doctor Beanes, both those gentlemen might have picked up information useful to the Americans, particularly with regard to the imminent Battle of Baltimore,” Drew replied. “To put it simply, Mister Key and Colonel Stuart very likely knew too much. So they watched the attack on Fort McHenry under British guard from eight miles away. Going back to the words of that first verse of the poem, Joe, what’s the first thing you notice?”

“Would you please read it again, Mister Taylor?”

Drew willingly complied.

“Sounds like he . . . Francis . . . ?!”

“Francis Scott Key,” Drew prompted with a smile.

“Sounds like he’s asking a lot of questions.”

Drew nodded, his smile broadened. “The attack against Fort McHenry lasted about twenty-five hours, which meant it went on into the night. The Battle of Baltimore and attack on Fort McHenry were all part of a three part invasion plan. Had the British been victorious in Baltimore, it might very well have been the beginning of the end.”

“The end of WHAT, Mister Taylor?”

“The end of our nation.”

“Y-you mean . . . the end of America?” Joe’s eyes were the size of dinner plates as he posed his question, barely above the decibel level of an awed whisper.

Drew nodded. “Everyone knew that, I think, British and American alike,” he continued. “After darkness fell, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart had no way of knowing how the battle was going. They could hear the British warships firing, as well as the cannons at Fort McHenry firing back. Though out the night, by the occasional light of ‘the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,’ they saw the American flag . . . the American Star Spangled Banner . . . still flying from the fort.”

“That meant the Americans still had control of Fort McHenry?” Joe asked, thoroughly entranced.

“Yes,” Drew replied, the passionate intensity in his own eyes and face matching the growing keen interest in Joe Cartwright’s. “Had the British been victorious, they would have taken down the American stars and strips and hoisted their own Union Jack.”

“So all night long they didn’t know?” Joe asked. “Francis Scott Key and Colonel . . . is it Stuart?”

“Stuart it is.”

“What happened?” Joe pressed.

“Francis Scott Key’s very question throughout the first verse,” Drew replied. “It’s dawn . . . what happened? Does ANYONE know whether or not the American flag still waves over Fort McHenry? We saw it in the light from the fire exchanged, but with the sun not yet up and all the smoke from the fighting, we can’t see. He continues to ask the question through part of the second verse.” Drew raised the sheet in hand and began once again to read:

” ‘On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep, Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes, What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep, As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses? Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:’ is the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!’ ”

“It was the American flag still flying above Fort McHenry when the smoke cleared, wasn’t it.” Joe said, stating fact rather than posing a question.

Drew smiled and nodded again. “Yes, it was.”

“Wow!” Joe exclaimed. “When did Fort McHenry get attacked?”

“September 13, 1814.”

“1814?!” Joe looked over at Drew Taylor as if the man had suddenly sprouted a pair of purple antlers. “Why is it called the War of 1812?!”

“Congress declared war in 1812, on June 18th to be exact. Mister Madison’s war, they called it.”

“Why?”

“Tell you what, Joe. If it’s alright with your father AND my wife, perhaps you might fetch down your history book and we could return to the dining room table and discuss the War of 1812 further.”

“May I, Pa? May I PLEASE? PRETTY please?” Joe fervently begged, his eyes round and soulful as a young puppy begging scraps from the dinner table.

“It’s alright with me, IF Mrs. Taylor says yes,” Ben replied, delighted, yet thoroughly astonished to see his youngest son taking such a keen, if sudden, interest in American History.

Joe turned toward Carolyn Taylor, favoring her with the same smile that had already proven irresistible to women of all ages and would in years to come leave a long trail of broken hearts in its wake. “Can we, Mrs. Taylor?”

“You certainly may,” Carolyn replied, captivated more by the eager gleam she saw reflected in her husband’s eyes.

Joe let out a wild whoop at the top of his lungs. “Thank you, Pa! Thank you, Mrs. Taylor. I’ll be right back ‘soon as I get my history book.” With that the boy bolted up the steps, taking them two and three at a time.

*****

“Thank you so much for a wonderful evening, Ben,” Carolyn Taylor said with a warm smile, when she, her husband, and stepdaughter, took their leave shortly after the grandfather clock downstairs had struck the half hour of ten-thirty.

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself, Carolyn,” Ben replied, returning her smile. “I’m sorry Joe monopolized so much of Drew’s time.”

“Oh, please . . . DON’T be sorry,” Carolyn said immediately. “Drew has always had a very keen interest in history, particularly the history of our country. It’s . . . well, it’s been a very, very long time since he’s had an opportunity to share his interest with so appreciative an audience.”

“The fact that Drew’s audience WAS so appreciative is in and of itself quite amazing,” Ben said, still not quite knowing what to make of things. “To say that Joe has little interest and even less patience when it comes to his school work, especially history, is understating the case.” He paused briefly. “Carolyn . . . . ”

“Yes, Ben?”

“Mrs. Georgianna Wilkens . . . she’s president of the Virginia City Literary Society as well as an old, very dear friend of mine,” Ben said quietly. “She’s also been the head librarian at the Virginia City Lending Library for the better part of the last decade or so. When I saw her in town the other day, she told me that she’s looking for someone to work as an assistant while she trains him, with the idea of stepping into the position of head librarian when she steps down next spring. I immediately thought of Drew. He’s always impressed me as being very intelligent . . . like someone who knows his way around books. And seeing him with Joe tonight . . . . ”

“That sounds like a wonderful opportunity,” Carolyn said gratefully.

“I have a feeling that the pay’s a lot better than what he’s making at the Silver Dollar Saloon and the International Hotel,” Ben added hopefully.

“I can’t answer for him of course, but I WILL speak to him about that opening in the library, Ben,” Carolyn eagerly promised. “Thank you so much for thinking of him.”

“Carolyn.” It was Drew. “Hoss and Cindy have finished saying good night,” he continued with a smile and a playful wink of the eye. “We’d best be moving along. It’s getting very late.”

“Indeed it is,” Carolyn agreed. “Good night, Ben.”

“Good night, Carolyn.” Ben turned and waved to Drew and Cindy, already waiting next to the buggy.

“Good night, Ben,” Drew called back, smiling. “Thank you for inviting us over this evening.”

*****

“Class, please pass ALL of your assigned homework to the front of the room,” Hazel Gibson ordered in a brisk, no nonsense tone of voice. “Estelle?”

Estelle Perkins, aged sixteen going on seventeen, immediately rose. “Yes, Ma’am?”

“I would like you to take the first graders to the back of the room and read aloud to them the next two lessons in their history book,” Hazel instructed. “You will find questions at the end of each lesson. I want you to go over them with the first grade students at the end of each lesson.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“First Graders, please rise . . . quietly. No talking.”

A half dozen young students obediently rose and stood quietly beside their desks.

“You will accompany Miss Perkins to the empty desks in the back of the room for your history lesson this morning,” Hazel Gibson addressed the solemn group of first grade students still standing silently next to their desks. “You will listen quietly while she reads, and you will remain quiet, unless she calls on you to answer questions.”

“Yes, Miss Gibson,” the six immediately chorused in unison.

“The rest of you, please take out your history books,” Hazel turned her attention to the rest of the class. “Grades eight through twelve, read the next three chapters and answer ALL of the questions at the end of each chapter. You will have exactly forty-five minutes to complete this assignment, so I strongly suggest you get right to it, with NO talking.”

A smattering of ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘Yes, Miss Gibson’ followed in response as the upper grade students got out their history books and set right to work.

“Grades two and three, I want you to read the next lesson in your books and answer the questions at the end,” Hazel continued. “If you have time, you may begin reading the lesson after that.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” a dozen students, all seated in the first three rows, against the wall on Miss Gibson’s left responded in unison.

“Grades four through seven, we will begin with you,” she said turning her attention to the students occupying the seats in the middle of the room. She was surprised to see Joe Cartwright eyes and face glowing with anticipation. “Your assignment last night was to read the chapter on what caused the War of 1812. So. Who can tell me what started the War of 1812?”

Five hands immediately shot up.

“Lotus O’Toole?”

Lotus quietly rose and stood next to her desk. “American sailors were being impressed by British sea captains and forced to serve on British ships,” she said.

Miss Gibson began a list on the blackboard. “Thank you, Lotus. You may sit down. Anyone else?”

“Miss Gibson?” Joe involuntarily called out as he waved his raised hand back and forth.

The school teacher was so surprised by Joe Cartwright’s sudden urge to participate in the class discussion, she entirely forgot to reprimand him for speaking out of turn. “Yes, Joe?”

Joe Cartwright immediately scrambled out of his chair and stood, ram rod straight beside his desk, grinning from ear-to-ear. “There’s two sides to every argument, Miss Gibson,” he began, repeating what Mister Taylor had told him the night before, when the two of them sat down at the dining room table after supper. “The British were at war with Napoleon and the French just before the War of 1812. In 1806, Napoleon wouldn’t let British goods into the rest of Europe. The British set up a blockade, and started grabbing American AND French ships. ”

“An excellent point, Joe,” Hazel replied as she listed the causes Joe had named on the black board.

“Miss Gibson?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“I guess America was kinda caught in the middle between things, right?”

“What do you mean by caught in the middle?” Miss Gibson asked, clearly intrigued.

“The French were our friends in the Revolutionary War, Miss Gibson,” Joe replied. “If the Americans decided to take Napoleon’s side in the war between him and the British, the British would’ve been in deep trouble, wouldn’t they.”

“Yes, that’s very possible,” Hazel replied.

“Maybe THAT’S why the British took American ships, too . . . with the French ships.”

“You’ve raised some very interesting points, Joe . . . . ”

*****

“Mrs. Wilkens, I’ve re-shelved all of the books returned last night and this morning,” Drew Taylor, the new assistant librarian as of eight-thirty that very morning, reported to his immediate supervisor. “If you’d like, I can begin an inventory on the boxes in the store room and get those books out on the shelves.”

“Mister Taylor, my goodness! You are an absolute wonder!” Georgianna Wilkens exclaimed in a voice dripping with mint juleps and magnolias. She was a petite woman, aged in her late fifties, with iron gray hair, worn in a simple chignon and sharp gray-green eyes that missed absolutely nothing. “I declare, Ben Cartwright certainly showed himself the true friend he is by steering YOU in my direction.”

“Amen to that,” Drew agreed. He had been reluctant to apply initially. In fact, when Carolyn had mentioned the opening, he had out and out refused. That, in turn, had led to a row loud enough to inspire an angry Eloise Kirk to come banging on their door shortly after one-thirty in the morning . . .

“Drew, do you trust Ben Cartwright?” Carolyn asked in a very quiet voice, after Mrs. Kirk had left.

“I . . . . ” The question had taken him completely off guard. “I . . . well, I guess I have no reason NOT to trust him.”

“HE’S the one who mentioned the job to me, as we were leaving his house,” she pressed. “In fact, he thought of YOU for this job first. He told me so, himself. He also told me that the pay might be somewhat better than what you’re making now at the Silver Dollar and at the hotel.”

“I . . . I don’t know, Carolyn, I just plain don’t know.”

“It’s a good opportunity for you.”

“I know, but . . . . ”

“But, nothing, Drew Taylor! We’ve agreed that we want to stay here, and be part of this community. Well, if we’re going to settle down here, we can’t board with Mrs. Kirk forever. Sooner or later, we need to find ourselves a proper home, and we can’t do that unless you have good, steady work that pays decent.”

“Alright, Carolyn, alright! I’ll stop in at the lending library and see Mrs. Wilkens first thing in the morning . . . . ”

Drew Taylor had to admit that he was glad now beyond measure that he had applied for that job as assistant librarian. As Ben Cartwright had promised his wife, the pay WOULD be far more than what he had earned working at the Silver Dollar Saloon and the International Hotel. His new boss, Georgianna Wilkens, was an intelligent, charming, gracious force of nature crammed into a miniature package. He eagerly looked forward to working with her and getting to know her better.

“Good afternoon . . . Mister Taylor?”

Drew glanced up sharply, his dark eyes meeting the bright clear blue eyes of the tall, slender, blonde haired woman standing before the check out desk. He immediately rose and politely offered his hand. “Yes, Ma’am, I’m Mister Taylor.”

“My name is Hazel Gibson,” the woman said in a brisk, no nonsense tone of voice. Her hand shake was firm and strong, especially for a woman. “I’m the school teacher here in Virginia City.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Gibson . . . . ”

“MISS Gibson,” she politely corrected him.

“What can I do for you, Miss Gibson?”

“I understand you and one of my students, Joseph Cartwright, have been having some interesting discussions about American history.”

“Oh dear! Miss Gibson, if our discussions have in ANY way compromised your curriculum . . . . ”

Hazel Gibson smiled and shook her head. “Mister Taylor, I’m not here to in any way censure you,” she said immediately. “Quite the opposite in fact.”

“Oh?” Drew queried, looking over at her, mildly surprised.

“Joseph Cartwright is, as I’m sure you yourself have realized, a very bright young man,” Hazel said. “Every bit as bright and intelligent as his oldest brother, Adam, who’s about to graduate magna cum laud from Harvard.”

“I’ve heard.” Mention of Adam Cartwright’s soon-to-be alma mater still stirred within him a nebulous, vague foreboding. “Your point, Miss Gibson?” Drew queried, in a sharp tone, suddenly wary and feeling oddly defensive.

“My point, Mister Taylor, is this. The interest young Joseph has shown in his school work has been grudging at best,” Hazel said. “Until now.”

“Oh?”

“To say that Joseph had no interest in history whatsoever was the understatement of the year,” Hazel Gibson continued, “until he started having these discussions with you. Now, he’s not only interested, but he’s contributed some thought provoking ideas to our class discussions. In my opinion, anyone who can stir that kind of interest in someone like Joseph Cartwright, should be teaching himself.”

“I’m not a teacher, Miss Gibson,” Drew said very quickly.

“I disagree, Mister Taylor. The reason I came by today is to ask if you would consider tutoring,” she said.

“Tutoring?”

Hazel nodded.

“I don’t know, Miss Gibson . . . . ”

*****

“Drew, I think it’s a wonderful idea!” Carolyn Taylor exclaimed, with a delighted smile.

“No.”

Carolyn’s face fell. “Drew . . . . ”

“I SAID NO!” Drew rounded on his wife furiously.

Carolyn paled in the face of his sudden ferocity. She stared back at him open mouthed, her eyes glistening with the bright sheen of newly forming tears, yet unshed.

“Carolyn, I . . . I’m sorry!” Drew apologized contritely. The look on her face stabbed him straight through the heart, dissipating his fury.

“Drew, I saw Joe’s face last night after we all had finished our supper,” Carolyn ventured slowly, haltingly. “When you told him about the War of 1812, the Battle of Baltimore, and Francis Scott Key. Joe was absolutely captivated . . . and I . . . well, I haven’t seen your eyes shining and face so all aglow since— ” She suddenly broke off, and averted her eyes. A strained silence fell between herself and her husband.

“Carolyn?” Drew ventured hesitantly.

“Y-yes?”

“Truth be known? I . . . couldn’t help but notice the way Joe’s eyes lit up myself,” Drew said with a wistful smile.

“You have a gift, Drew, surely you see that.”

“I must confess, I was tempted to pounce on Miss Gibson’s suggestion . . . . ”

“Why don’t you?”

“Sadly, My Love, it’s completely out of the question. Taking on the job as librarian is risky enough,” Drew said, his tone filled with regret. “To actually do any teaching . . . . ” He adamantly shook his head. “No, Carolyn, as much as I would give anything to accept Miss Gibson’s offer, I . . . I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because sooner or later, someone’s bound to start asking questions. Where did he learn how to teach? What kind of educational background does he have? Where did he go to school? What are his credentials? Those are the kinds of questions that stir up curiosity. That kind of curiosity too often leads to the truth.”

“I don’t for the life of me see how,” Carolyn said morosely. “There’s nothing . . . absolutely nothing that can possibly connect Drew Taylor to . . . to what happened back there.”

“You’re probably right,” Drew agreed reluctantly. “Even so, people are going to ask those questions sooner or later, which means you, me, even Cindy would have to start living this . . . this tangled tissue of lies, always worrying about keeping the story straight . . . no! Carolyn, our lives are complicated enough.”

“I know. Drew?”

“Yes?”

“Are you sorry we stayed?”

“When I see Cindy with Hoss . . . with new found friends like Athena Nikolas and Colleen O’Hanlan, living the kind of life a young lady her age should be living . . . I’m not sorry in the least,” Drew replied. “Then I remember Mister Cartwright telling me his oldest son has been living in Boston for the last four years . . . that he’ll soon be graduating from Harvard and returning home for good . . . or the occasional patron who comes into the library, giving me that sidelong glance . . . knowing that he, or she’s, wondering how a man who spent the better part of his first month here cleaning up saloons, suddenly has the wherewithal to be librarian . . . those are all times I’m scared to death, Carolyn. Times I lie awake nights wondering when the other shoe’s going to drop.”

Carolyn stepped over to her husband and hugged him fiercely. “That other shoe’s NOT going to drop,” she said, her voice trembling. “The jump between saloon and librarian is easy to explain. We were new in town. You have a wife and daughter to support. That saloon job earned enough money for our room and board. That library job opening up as it did was an opportunity. An opportunity you took!”

“What of this Adam Cartwright?”

“He has absolutely no way of connecting Drew Taylor to what happened in Boston.”

*****

“PA! HOSS! IT’S COMING! THE STAGE COACH IS COMING” Joe shouted, his eyes shining with excitement and eager anticipation. He thrust his arm and pointing index finger out in the direction of the approaching stage, just rounding the corner.

“You better move back off the street, Shortshanks,” Hoss warned, “or else that stage is gonna run you right over.”

Joe took his big brother’s warning to heart and moved well out of the street. A moment later, he was standing alongside his father dancing from one foot to the other, back and forth. After what seemed an endless eternity to the youngest of the Cartwright brothers, the stagecoach finally rolled to a stop in front of the Stage Lines Depot.

Adam, clad in a dark blue suit, with matching string tie, and clean white shirt, was the first to disembark from the stagecoach.

“ADAM! ADAM! YOU’RE BACK!” Joe yelled as he broke from his father and beat a straight path directly toward his oldest brother, finally come home.

“Hey, Buddy! Good to see ya!” Adam greeted his younger brother with a big, if weary smile.

“I missed you, Adam,” Joe said as he threw his arms around Adam’s waist.

“I missed you, too, Little Joe,” Adam said, hugging the young boy back, “though I don’t think we’re going to be calling you LITTLE Joe too much longer.”

“Have I grown, Adam? A little?”

“No, Buddy, you haven’t grown a LITTLE! You’ve grown a whole LOT!”

“Welcome home, Son.” Though Ben’s greeting was far more subdued than that offered by his irrepressible youngest son, it was certainly no less warm. He put his arms around his oldest son and held on for a long moment.

“Glad to be back home again, Pa . . . finally,” Adam said, in all sincerity. “By the way, I ended up traveling from Boston with a couple friends of yours.” He turned and offered a hand to the elderly woman, who was having difficulty negotiating the climb down from the stagecoach to terra firma.

“Ben?” the woman said, turning to face the Cartwright clan patriarch. “After all these years, it that really you?”

“Esther?”

“It’s so wonderful seeing you again,” Esther Alcott murmured with a weary smile. She walked over and politely shook hands. “You look well, I must say.”

“Esther’s right, Ben. This climate out here seems to really agree with you,” Jed Alcott declared with a wan smile as he stepped down out of the stagecoach.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw Adam and Hoss greeting each other, then turning to include Little Joe. “Boys,” he turned and waved them over. “I understand you’ve met Adam.”

“Indeed we did, Ben,” Esther said. “I found him to be a delightful young man.”

” . . . and so knowledgeable, especially about architecture,” Jed added. “We had a wonderful time talking the miles away.” He looked over and favored his wife with a weary, indulgent smile. “I’m afraid poor Esther couldn’t get much of a word in edgewise.”

Esther reached over and patted her husband’s wrist affectionately. “Oh, Jed, I didn’t mind one little bit. Why I haven’t seen you so animated since— ” She abruptly fell silent.

“It was good talking to Adam,” Jed said curtly.

A strained silence fell between the Alcotts, as Esther, her cheeks flaming scarlet, turned and looked away.

“Pa?” It was Hoss. “You call us?”

“Jed . . . Esther, I’d like you to meet my other two sons,” Ben said, relieved to have a valid excuse to break that uncomfortable, prickly silence. “This is my middle son, Hoss, and this squirming bundle of energy is my youngest, Joe. Boys, this is Mister and Mrs. Alcott, old friends of mine. The three of us knew each other many years ago, when I was still living in Boston.”

“How do you do, Mister and Mrs. Alcott?” Hoss politely offered his hand to Esther first, then her husband. “Welcome to Virginia City.”

“I’m pleased to meetcha, too, Mister and Mrs. Alcott,” Joe enthusiastically acknowledged the introduction, with a big smile.

“Ben, I’d love to stay around and visit, but we’re both pretty exhausted,” Jed said wearily. “If you could direct us to the International Hotel?”

“You’re both perfectly welcome to come, stay with us at the Ponderosa,” Ben invited.

“Perhaps later,” Jed replied. “I’ve got an appointment to see a Mister Lucas Milburn tomorrow morning. He’s the lawyer here, who has been working with a private investigator by the name of John Murphy. Perhaps you’re acquainted with these gentlemen?”

“I know Lucas Milburn quite well, Jed,” Ben replied. “He’s been my lawyer and a very good friend for many years. As for Mister Murphy, I know OF him, but I’m not really acquainted with him. I understand he has a fine reputation.”

“Your Mister Milburn’s been working with my lawyer, Edward Phillips, in Boston,” Jed said quietly. “Ed seems to be very favorably impressed with him AND Mister Murphy, as well. He told me that John Murphy is one of the best private investigators this side of the Mississippi, if not THE best. Esther and I are hopeful, Ben. VERY hopeful.”

“I hope things work out for the best, Jed,” Ben said quietly. “I know you’ve been searching for a very long time.”

“Thank you, Ben.”

“Pa?”

It was Adam. Ben turned and looked over at him expectantly.

“If I might make a suggestion, why don’t you drive Mister and Mrs. Alcott to the International Hotel? In the meantime, I’ll grab my smaller bags, make arrangements to have the three trunks delivered to the house, and . . . take my brothers to the ice cream shop for a welcome home sarsaparilla.”

“Can we, Pa?” Joe begged. “Can we, please?”

“Is that alright with you?” Ben asked, looking over at his friends.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” Esther agreed.

Jed Alcott arranged to have his and his wife’s trunks taken to the International Hotel later on that afternoon. After retrieving a carpet bag that belonged to Esther, and his own small, black leather valise, Jed and his wife rode over to the hotel with Ben in the buckboard.

“Thank you so much for the lift, Ben,” Esther murmured gratefully, upon reaching the International Hotel, located a few blocks down from the stage depot. “For me, it’s going to be a nice hot bath, a little supper, then bed.”

“Me, too,” Jed agreed wholeheartedly.

“Good luck tomorrow,” Ben said. He climbed down from the buckboard, then turned to give Esther a hand getting down. “Oh! Jed . . . Esther, next week, I’m having a welcome home party for Adam. Nothing real fancy, just a cook out, with some of our friends and neighbors. You’re both more than welcome to join us.”

“Thank you, Ben, we just might take you up on that,” Jed said with a wan smile. “Hopefully, by then, we’ll be reunited with our granddaughter.”

“If so, then by all means, bring her along, too.”

At Ben’s urging, Jed escorted his wife into the hotel lobby, to register and finally get settled in their room, leaving him to fetch down their carpet bag and valise from the back of the buckboard.

“Pa?”

Ben turned, and saw Adam approaching with a half drunk bottle of sarsaparilla in one hand and his jacket over the other. Hoss and Joe followed close behind.

“You get the Alcotts settled?”

“They’re inside registering,” Ben replied. “I just need to take in their luggage.”

Hoss downed his whole bottle of sarsaparilla in a single gulp, then placed the empty bottle in the back of the buckboard. “I’ll take ‘em in, Pa,” he volunteered, as he leaned over to pick them up.

“Thank you, Hoss. If the Alcotts have already gone to their room, take their bags to the desk and tell the clerk they belong to Mister and Mrs. Alcott.”

“Sure thing, Pa.” He turned to his younger brother. “Hey, Shortshanks, you wanna come along?”

“Can I, Pa?”

“Go ahead, Little Joe, but you make sure you behave yourself.”

“I will, Pa,” he promised, before running off to catch up with Hoss.

“Here you are, Pa,” Adam handed Ben a cold bottle of sarsaparilla. “We figured you’d be thirsty, too.”

“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully, accepting the proffered drink from his oldest son.

“You’ve talked about the Alcotts a lot, but I was under the impression they were closer to YOUR age,” Adam observed, his eyes on the retreating backs of his two younger brothers.

“They ARE my age, Adam,” Ben said quietly, “give or take a couple of years.”

“Really!?” Adam murmured, his eyes round with surprise. “To look at them, I’d guess them to be at least a good twenty years older, Pa, maybe even more.”

Ben opened his sarsaparilla bottle, and took a big, long swallow. “I haven’t seen the Alcotts since YOU were a baby, but if I was to hazard a guess, I’d say this seven year search for their missing granddaughter has taken its toll.”

“Mister Alcott told me the whole story on our way out here. From what he said, their son-in-law and his second wife sound pretty despicable.”

“You’ve only heard one side of the story, Adam,” Ben hastened to point out.

“You surprise me, Pa. I thought the Alcotts were your friends.”

“I consider them to be,” Ben replied. He took another gulp of sarsaparilla, then recapped the bottle. “I understand where Jed and Esther are coming from, but I can also understand where their son-in-law might be coming from, too.”

“Oh? How so, Pa?”

“I could have very easily been in his shoes, Adam, if your grandfather, Abel Stoddard had chosen to seek custody of you, after I had married Inger,” Ben said soberly. “I think maybe I have reason to be thankful he decided not to speak to us for a few years.”

*****

” ‘Morning, Pa,” Adam greeted his father stiffly as he ambled into the dining room, dressed in the same clothing he had worn yesterday, when his family had met him at the stage.

“Good morning, Adam,” Ben greeted his oldest son with a smile the following morning, as he took his place at the dining room table, on his father’s right. “I guess you got used to dressing for meals while you were in Boston, but . . . this ISN’T Boston and those are hardly what I would call work clothes.”

“I agree completely, Pa. Unfortunately these seem to be the only clothes I own that fit me,” Adam replied in a stone cold voice.

“Too long Mister Adam live like city slicker,” Hop Sing quipped with an impish grin, as he entered the dining room with two large serving bowls, one filled with fluffy, yellow scrambled eggs, the other filled with fried potatoes. “Grow big belly.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing, for so kindly and graciously pointing out the obvious,” Adam muttered through clenched teeth.

Ben immediately raised his napkin to his mouth to hide the amused smile. “Tell you what, Adam. Why don’t you g’won into town and buy yourself some new work clothes? You can also drop Little Joe off at school and pick up the mail. That would leave me free to ride out and see how Hank and Jacob are coming along with that fence mending.”

“OK, Pa,” Adam agreed. “I just feel bad about deserting you my first day home.”

“Well, you can’t very well rope cattle and bust broncs in either THAT outfit or in the all together,” Ben quickly pointed out, unable to quite hold back the amused smile still tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Besides, we’ve managed to muddle through the last four years while you were away at Harvard. I think we can make it through one more day.”

“Boy, you sure know how to make a guy feel like he’s needed around here,” Adam growled.

“Pa?” It was Little Joe, dressed for school. “What does in the all together mean?”

“It means nekkid,” Hoss replied as they took their places on the other side of the dining room table, facing Adam.

“WOW!” Joe exclaimed, his eyes bright with excitement and anticipation. “Is Adam really gonna rope cattle and bust broncs nekkid?”

“No,” Adam replied curtly, while leveling a murderous glare in the direction of his younger brother, Hoss.

“Dadburn it!” Joe pouted, his lower lip stretched to its limit.

“Aaww, you would’ve had to miss it anyway, Shortshanks,” Hoss pointed out, “seein’ as how today’s a school day.”

“You boys had best dig in,” Ben exhorted his sons, as Hop Sing returned with a serving platter filled with bacon and sausage. “Adam, you and Little Joe need to be on your way in the next twenty minutes, so he can be at school on time, and Hoss . . . your chores aren’t going to get done by themselves.”

*****

“Good morning, Mister and Mrs. Alcott, I presume?”

“Yes indeed,” Jedediah Alcott nodded and held out his hand. He was mildly surprised to find a lawyer and gentleman of Lucas Milburn’s eminence, according to Ben Cartwright anyway, standing outside on the sidewalk, apparently waiting for them. “You must be Mister Milburn.”

“Yes, Sir,” Lucas replied as he cordially shook hands with Jedediah Alcott.

“Mister Milburn, this is my wife,” Jedediah turned and made the formal introductions.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Alcott.”

” . . . and I you, Mister Milburn. A very old friend of ours speaks very highly of you . . . Mister Benjamin Cartwright, of the Ponderosa.”

“Ben! He and I have been friends for the better part of the last twenty, twenty-five years perhaps. He was one of my first clients when I first put out my shingle as a green kid just out of law school.” Lucas Milburn opened the door to the building in which his office was located. “He and I’ve been friends since.”

“Good morning, Mister Milburn,” the lawyer’s secretary, Clarence Mortimer, a young man, aged in his early twenties, greeted his employer in a polite, yet crisp, business-like tone.

“Mister and Mrs. Alcott, my secretary, Clarence Mortimer,” Lucas quickly initiated the round of introductions.

“How do you do, Mister and Mrs. Alcott?” Clarence correctly acknowledged the introductions. “Mrs. Alcott, may I take your shawl?”

“No, Young Man, thank you very much. I’d prefer to keep it, since I very easily get chilled these days.”

“Can I get you anything? A cup of coffee perhaps? I have a fresh pot brewing.”

“No, thank you,” Jedidiah politely declined. “Mister Milburn, my wife and I would just as soon get down to business, if you don’t mind?”

“Of course,” Lucas agreed at once. “Clarence, I trust you will hold down the fort while I’m in conference with Mister and Mrs. Alcott.”

“Yes, Sir, I will.”

“Please see that we are not disturbed.”

“I certainly will, Mister Milburn.”

Lucas Milburn ushered the Alcotts back into his inner office, adroitly dubbed ‘the inner sanctum,’ by Clarence Mortimer. He very gallantly gestured for Mrs. Alcott to take the cushioned chair next to his desk, while he pulled a hard backed chair over for Mister Alcott.

“So, Mister Milburn . . . what word have you on my granddaughter?” Jed asked, his eyes gleaming with an almost predatory anticipation.

Lucas took a deep breath, and mentally braced himself. “Mister and Mrs. Alcott, all I can offer you at this juncture is my deep regret and most heartfelt apologies.” He heard the sharp intake of breath from Mrs. Alcott, and saw the blood draining right out of her face, leaving it white as a sheet.

Jedediah Alcott looked over at the lawyer, with a puzzled, bemused expression on his face. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, Mister Milburn.”

“The trail has gone cold, Sir, almost from the time and place it begins,” Lucas explained with much reluctance. “I, of course wired your attorney in Boston, Mister Edward Phillips, I believe . . . unfortunately, my message was delayed because wires were down somewhere between here and Chicago. Consequently, Mister Phillips didn’t receive my wire until a week after you had left Boston.”

An uneasy silence fell on the Alcotts and Lucas Milburn, that, to the lawyer seemed to stretch into a dreadful eternity.

“M-Mister Milburn?” It was Esther Alcott who finally broke the silence.

“Yes, Mrs. Alcott?”

“Wh-What happened? Ed . . . Mister Phillips sounded so positive when he received that report from the private detective . . . oh dear, I seem to have forgotten his name . . . . ”

“Murphy,” Lucas supplied that piece of information. “John Murphy.”

“Damned bumbling incompetent!” Jed spat contemptuously. “He ought to have his license revoked.”

“Jedidiah Alcott, I don’t care what the situation is, I will not tolerate you swearing like a . . . a . . . like some kind of common street thug in my hearing,” Esther admonished him severely, her face darkening with anger. “You owe ME an apology and you owe Mister Milburn one as well.”

“Sorry,” Jed growled. “Now would you please tell us what exactly happened?”

“I have a copy of the report Mister Murphy sent to Mister Phillips in Boston,” Lucas said quietly. “He checked the passenger list for the stage that rolled in from Saint Joseph . . . it was a month, going on a month and a half ago now, looking for someone else.

“Mister Murphy saw the name of an Andy Smith, listed as traveling with his wife Lyn, and daughter Rose,” Lucas continued. “He recognized them from a wanted poster he saw in the sheriff’s office as aliases used by your son-in-law. He made some inquiries, and learned from the ticket master that Mister Smith asked to be directed to a boarding house, clean but not expensive. The ticket master directed the Smiths to Kirk’s Hostelry, a few blocks from the stage depot.”

“Did this Mister Murphy bother to inquire at this . . . this Kirk’s Hostelry establishment?” Jed asked sardonically.

“He did not inquire immediately, because he was doing work for another client,” Lucas replied, “work that he did not complete until a week or so later. At that time, Mister Murphy and Sheriff Coffee went to Kirk’s Hostelry together and looked over the registries. They found no Andy, Lyn, and Rose Smith registered.”

“I’ll just bet the proprietors weren’t cooperative,” Jed groused.

“On the contrary, Mister Alcott, Mrs. Kirk was very cooperative and forthcoming,” Lucas said. “She cares very much about the reputation of her establishment . . . a reputation that would suffer greatly if she were to become known as someone who knowingly harbored fugitives.”

“There’s nothing else, Mister Milburn?” Esther asked, her eyes gleaming with the brightness of tears she desperately strove not to shed.

“I’m very sorry, Ma’am, but there is nothing else.”

Esther rose. “If anything comes up between now and the time the next stage leaves, my husband and I will be at the International Hotel,” she said in a very small, very sad voice. “I want to thank you for everything you HAVE done, Mister Milburn, and for seeing us today.”

“Esther, just a da—dar—-just one minute here,” Jed protested.

“Jed, I see no reason in the world why we should belabor the point,” she said firmly. “Mister Milburn said there was nothing else.”

“But, what about some of the other places around here . . . the ranches, perhaps. He could be working as a hand somewhere, hiding out on one of these big spreads.”

Esther shook her head. “Not Andrew. I seriously doubt he knows the back end of a horse from the front.”

“That was . . . what? Seven years ago? Eight?” Jed argued. “That’s certainly plenty of time to LEARN, Esther.”

“Jed, PLEASE!” she returned irritably. “We’ve already taken up more than enough of Mister Milburn’s time. I’m also very tired and I want to go back to the hotel.”

“Esther . . . . ”

“NOW, Jed, please. Right now!”

*****

“Hi, Adam.”

“Good morning to YOU, Miss Lotus,” Adam greeted his youngest brother’s best friend affably, with a smile.

She frowned. “What are you all dressed up for? You’re not courting someone so early in the morning . . . ARE you?”

“No,” Adam replied, “not hardly.”

“He’s all dressed up ‘cause he’s been living like a city slicker for too long,” Joe said, grinning from ear-to-ear, as he quickly jumped down from the buckboard. “That’s what Hop Sing said this morning.”

“What does THAT mean?” Mitch Devlin demanded.

“It means it’s the only clothes Adam’s got that fit him,” Joe explained.

“Oh.”

“Lotus, Mitch, and you, too, Joe! You’d best get your things together. The bell rings in five minutes.” It was Hazel Gibson, the school teacher. She turned her attention to Adam, still sitting in the buckboard, as the three children ran off. “Welcome back, Adam,” she greeted him with a warm smile. “I knew you were arriving home sometime soon. Joe’s talked about nothing else.”

“Thank you, Miss Gibson,” Adam replied with a smile.

“I understand congratulations are in order,” the school teacher continued. “I heard you graduated from Harvard University, no less, with high honors.”

“Y-Yes, Ma’am,” Adam nodded, as two bright splotches of red colored his cheeks. “Thank you.”

“How was Boston?”

“Wonderful,” Adam replied. “I was able to get acquainted with my maternal grandfather before he died, and I met and got acquainted with some other members of my mother’s family, as well.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“I also took advantage of the cultural offerings, operas, plays, and lots of concerts,” Adam continued, “and I took the opportunity to visit some of the historical landmarks in Boston, especially places we talked about in your classes when we studied about the Revolutionary War. One of my cousins took me to the Old North Church, and the place where the Boston Massacre happened. We even made a point of driving out to Braintree so he could show me the house where John Adams was born.”

Miss Gibson smiled. “That must have been very exciting to actually visit those places,” she said with a touch of envy.

“Being there . . . visiting those places, makes those things you taught me about the Revolutionary War come alive . . . it all seems more real to me now.” Adam said, returning her smile. “But, between you and me, Miss Gibson? I’m very glad to be back home. I had no idea how much I had missed Pa, Hoss, Joe, and Hop Sing, until I stepped off the stage yesterday.”

“Glad to see you back, Adam. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost time to ring the bell.”

“I’ll see you this afternoon, then, Miss Gibson, when I come back to pick up my brother,” Adam smiled again, and tipped politely tipped his hat.

While Miss Gibson chatted with Adam, Joe approached a group of children in and around the same age as himself and his two friends. Lotus and Mitch both followed close at his heels. The other children, mostly boys, were tightly packed in a close knit circle around toward the back of the school house.

“Hey, Zeke,” Joe sidled up to Ezekiel Gregg, one of the boys hanging around at the very edge of the circle. “What’s going on?”

Zeke shrugged. “Pat MacLowry’s found an old picture o’ somebody, I dunno who. He’s drawin’ a moustache ‘n a beard on ‘im.”

“Oh yeah?”

Zeke nodded solemnly.

Joe turned and started to edge into the circle for a closer look.

“Hey, Cartwright, you hold on right there.”

Joe turned and found Danny MacLowry, his big brother’s worst enemy looming over his, with a sneer on his face.

“Where do ya think YOU and your little friends are going anyway?”

“None of your business, Danny MacLowry,” Joe said defiantly, as he leveled a dark, angry glare in the older boy’s general direction. Lotus and Mitch quietly flanked Joe on both sides, their faces twin masks of grim, stubborn determination.

At that moment, the bell rang, summoning the children from the playground to the classroom.

“Let’s go, Joe,” Lotus said. She reached over and gently touched Joe’s arm, all the while keeping her eyes glued to Danny MacLowry. “You, too, Mitch.” She, Joe, and Mitch turned and started toward the entrance to the school house, with the children, who had been standing clustered together in the tightly packed circle began to disburse and follow.

Within a scant few moments, Danny MacLowry was left alone with his younger brother, Patrick, who continued to draw, oblivious to the fact that the bell had just rung.

“Hey, Squirt! Whatcha doing?” Danny demanded, glaring down at his younger brother.

Pat jumped at the sound of his older brother’s voice, then glanced up slowly, very slowly, almost reluctantly.

“Whatcha got there?”

“N-Nothing!” Pat squeaked and he worked desperately to fold the paper spread out on the ground before him.”

“Gimme that!”

“No!” Pat snatched up the paper and held it away, far out of his older brother’s reach.

Danny scowled upon realizing that the paper in his brother’s hand was the wanted poster he had taken the Monday after the dance, when his father had FINALLY come to bail him out of jail. “Hey! Where’d you get that?”

“I found it,” Pat shot back.

“Where?”

“I just found it!”

Danny roughly seized his brother’s shirt collar and unceremoniously hauled him to his feet. “Like heck you just found it,” he growled. “You been snooping through my stuff again, haven’t you?!”

Pat glared up at Danny defiantly, but said nothing.

“You snoop nosed little brat!” Danny muttered, as he snatched the well creased, defaced wanted poster from his brother’s hands, nearly tearing it in two in the process. He then lifted Pat, kicking and screaming, high enough off the ground that his feet dangled.

“PUT ME DOWN, YOU DIRTY, ROTTEN, NO GOOD, STINKIN’ PIG!” Pat shouted, angrily, while ineffectually swinging his fists and legs.

“What-ever-you-say, Brother Dear!” Danny replied in a mocking, sing-song voice, before throwing his younger brother down on the ground hard.

“OW! THAT HURT!” Pat howled in protect, on the edge of angry tears.

“Let that be a lesson to ya, Brat Boy! Keep you hands OUT of my pockets, and away from my stuff!” With that, Danny turned heel, and angrily stalked off. He walked around toward the back of the school house and rounded the corner. He paused, just long enough to cast a quick furtive glance over his shoulder. No one had followed. Satisfied he was, for the moment, quite alone, Danny held up the wanted poster for a closer look.

“Damn stupid kid!” Danny muttered angrily under his breath upon seeing the crudely drawn mustache, beard, and bushy eyebrows. He crumpled the poster into a tight ball, then pulled back his arm to throw it as far as he possibly could. He abruptly halted. Something about that face . . . . .

Danny very slowly, very carefully straightened out the wanted poster and studied the picture of Andrew Sandringham, with penciled mustache and beard. “I’ll be—that kinda looks like Mister Taylor!” His eyes moved to the picture of the little girl Andrew Sandringham had supposedly kidnapped, and lingered. Then slowly, very slowly, his eyes still glued to the girl’s face, Danny reached into his pocket and drew out that piece of yellow chalk he had pocketed a few days ago, after having been called on to do an arithmetic problem at the board.

Danny placed the creased and torn wanted posted up against the back of the school building. Using the yellow chalk, he carefully colored over the girl’s dark hair. “Well, well, well! Looky what I have here!” he murmured, gazing down with great satisfaction at his own handiwork. He pocketed the chalk, then refolded the wanted poster. “No uppity little bitch is gonna play foot loose and fancy free with Danny MacLowry, no sir-reee! By the time I get through with her, she’s gonna regret the day she was ever born.”

*****

“Well, well, well! Ain’t YOU the dude!” Walt Jared teased, grinning from ear to ear. “You going to see a lady friend, Adam?”

“No,” Adam replied stiffly, as he placed the clothing in hand down on the counter. Ten work shirts, and four pair of pants, all black. He remembered how some of the ladies of his acquaintance back in Boston actually envied their peers, whose family was in mourning. True, it took a drastic toll on one’s social life, but none could deny the potent slenderizing power of basic black.

“You holding out on us, Adam?”

“No, I’m NOT holding out on you, Walt,” Adam muttered through clenched teeth. “Now if you would be so kind as to total my purchases— ”

Walt tilted his head upward, and rapidly stroked the underside of his nose. ” ‘Now if you’d be so kind as to to-TAL my purchases,’ ” he mimicked. “Hey, Virg, you hear THAT? He even SOUNDS like a city slicker.”

“Well, it wouldn’t hurt you none to talk a little more like a refined gentleman, Walt,” Amelia Jared, who stood nearby sweeping the floor, upbraided her young brother-in-law severely.

“Dandified sissy, you mean!” Walt snorted derisively.

“It also wouldn’t hurt you to dress up occasionally either,” Amelia added. “That goes for you, too, Virgil.”

“AAGGHHH!”

“Alright, you two, time out, back to your respective corners,” Virgil Jared, chuckling, stepped in to nip the potential argument between his wife and younger brother in the bud. “Walt, why don’t you g’won back and finish unloading our supplies from that buckboard, so we can get it on back to the livery stable.”

“Gladly!” Walt snapped, glaring at Amelia, then at Adam. “The company in here’s getting a little too refined for MY taste!”

“Come on over here, Adam, I’LL total your stuff,” Amelia said, as she placed the broom in hand up against the nearest wall, and moved in behind the counter. “I know your pa and brothers have been looking forward to you coming home for the last month of Sundays. They ain’t talked hardly about nothing else.”

“When didja get in, Adam?” Virgil asked, as he reached into one of the candy jars sitting on top of the counter and helped himself to a big red jaw breaker.

“Virgil Jared, you stop that!” his wife hissed, lightly slapping his wrist.

“I got in yesterday, on the four o’clock stage,” Adam replied.

“Yesterday afternoon?! Shame on ya, running off into town your first day back home,” Amelia admonished him severely, as she completed the tally.

This elicited a hearty snort of laughter from Virgil. “Ain’t like the man had a choice, Amelia. Don’t tell me you ain’t noticed how, ummm nicely ol’ Adam here’s filled out since he’s been attending that fancy college back east?!?”

” ‘Course I noticed!” Amelia snapped. “SOME of us are too polite to mention it, that’s all!”

“Aawww, come on, Amelia! Adam can take a little man-to-man horsing around.”

“Adam, that’ll be ten dollars,” Amelia said in a brisk, business like tone. “You want me to put it on your pa’s account.”

“No,” Adam shook his head. “I have the money.” He opened his wallet and counted out the necessary cash.

“Thank you, Adam, pleasure doing business with ya,” Amelia beamed, as she reverently placed the cash in the strong box she kept under the counter. “I’ll have these wrapped for ya in a jiffy.”

“Amelia, I’ll be back to pick up my new clothes in about an hour,” Adam said. “There’s a couple friends of the family staying over at the hotel. Since I’m in town anyway, I figured it’d be nice to stop by and see them.”

“They’re staying over at the hotel!?” Amelia echoed, looking over at Adam with upraised eyebrow. “How come your pa didn’t ask ‘em out to the Ponderosa?”

“He DID, actually, but they had some business to take care of in town,” Adam replied. “They decided it would make more sense to remain close.”

“Aww, Amelia, there you go again, poking your nose right where it DON’T belong!”

“Virgil Eugene Jared, you hush!”

*****

“Adam Cartwright! Is that really YOU?”

“In the flesh, Mark, big as life, twice as real and about ten times as ugly,” Adam greeted Mark Garrett, the hotel clerk and one of his oldest friends, with a warm smile.

“Heard you were coming home. When did you get in?”

“Yesterday afternoon, four o’clock stage,” Adam replied.

“Looks like city life and being away at school agreed with ya,” Mark observed, his eyes straying to Adam’s girth. “You’ve filled out very nicely.”

“So everyone keeps telling me,” Adam retorted with a wry grimace.

“Aww, you got nothing to worry about. You’ll trim down real quick, once your pa puts you back to work busting broncs and roping steers,” Mark chuckled. “So! What can I do for ya?”

“A couple friends of pa’s are staying here,” Adam replied. “Mister and Mrs. Alcott. Are they in?”

Mark nodded. “Just got in about an hour ago from a meeting with Mister Milburn. You’ll find ‘em in room number 204.”

“Thanks!”

Adam bounded up the stairs two at a time, and within a few minutes found himself standing in front of the fast closed door to the Alcotts’ room, knocking.

“Who is it?”

“Adam Cartwright, Mister Alcott.”

The door opened. Jed Alcott’s face was drawn and pale. His hand, resting lightly on the door knob, trembled slightly. The soft, muffled sounds of a woman’s heartbreaking weeping could be heard from the small alcove that served as a dressing room.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mister Alcott,” Adam immediately apologized. “I can plainly see that I’ve come at a bad time. I can come back later . . . . ”

“It’s alright, Adam, please . . . come in.” Jed stood aside and gestured for the young man to enter.

“You’re sure, Mister Alcott? I CAN come back another time . . . . ”

“I’m afraid there won’t be an opportunity for another time,” Jed sighed.

Adam entered the room. “I . . . take it the news wasn’t good?”

“No.” Jed mournfully shook his head, as he quietly closed the door. “Please, sit down, Adam. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you, Mister Alcott,” Adam said quietly, while seating himself in one of the wooden straight backed chairs. “I’m sorry the news wasn’t what you had hoped.”

“Thank you.” Jed sighed. “After all these years, I should be used to this by now. But . . . I had really hoped that this time— Adam, Esther and I AREN’T getting any younger. I’m beginning to think we’ll never again see our beloved granddaughter ever . . . at least not in this life.”

“If there’s anything I can do . . . . ”

“No. Esther and I will on the first stage leaving Virginia City tomorrow morning.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I know Pa was hoping you’d come out to the Ponderosa for a few days, and I was looking forward to the pleasure of your company at my homecoming party.”

“I’m sorry, too, Adam.”

The eldest Cartwright son glanced up sharply, and saw that Mrs. Alcott had entered the room. Her overall appearance shocked him. Her face was alarmingly pale, a fact greatly emphasized by the fading rouge applied to her cheeks earlier. She had dark circles under eyes that appeared to be dull, and lifeless.

Adam rose, and noting how heavily she leaned against the bed post, walked over and offered his arm.

“Ben’s told us so much about you three boys and the Ponderosa over the years, I was looking forward to seeing it . . . and meeting YOU . . . well, I DID get to meet the three of you.”

Adam helped ease her down onto the small settee.

“Thank you, Adam,” Esther said, favoring him with a grateful, though weary, smile.

“Mister Milburn told us this morning that a man by the name of Andy Smith, that’s one of the names my former son-in-law has been using, was listed as a passenger on the stage that arrived here in Virginia City about . . . . ” Jed paused to do some mental figuring. “It’s been nearly two months now. There was a woman with him and a young girl, aged sixteen or seventeen . . . the age my granddaughter is now.

“The man behind the ticket counter at the stage depot told a private investigator here that this Andy Smith asked to be directed to lodging, something inexpensive. He said that he gave Mister Smith directions to an establishment known as Kirk’s Hostelry.”

“Ah, yes. Eloise Kirk’s place.”

“What kind of an establishment does this Mrs. Kirk run?”

“A very good one, actually,” Adam replied. “She keeps her place spotless. Her customers get clean towels and bed linens, changed once a week. Hot water for washing and bathing is always available on request, and her cooking is passable, what you might call good old fashioned home cooking. Her prices fall in what I would call the moderate range, which discourages a lot of riff-raff.”

“Thank goodness,” Jed breathed a sigh of relief. “At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that if my granddaughter was there, she was in a decent enough place.”

“I don’t think she was there, Jed,” Esther said sadly.

Jed reached over and patted his wife’s hand. “Mister Milburn made inquiries, actually checked over Mrs. Kirk’s register himself. No one by the name of Andy Smith ever registered at Kirk’s Hostelry.”

“I’m quite frankly surprised Mister Milburn didn’t wire you in Boston.”

“He did, Adam,” Jed said wearily. “Unfortunately there were lines down . . . somewhere between here and Chicago, he said. My lawyer didn’t get the message until about a week after we had left.”

“I’m sorry you had to come all this way to receive bad news,” Adam said sympathetically. “I DO wish you would reconsider Pa’s invitation to come and stay at the Ponderosa, if only for a few days.”

“Thank you, Adam, but I just plain want to go home,” Esther said wearily.

“I think I can understand that, Mrs. Alcott,” Adam said, rising. “I need to be running along. My brother, Joe, gets out of school in the next half hour, and I’m picking him up. If you DO change your mind about Pa’s invitation, please, just come on out.”

“We will, but I don’t think we’re going to change our minds.”

“If I don’t see you again, Mister and Mrs. Alcott, I wish you a safe journey home.”

“Thank you, Adam,” Esther rose. “Please tell Ben that Jed and I are— ” Her eyes suddenly rolled up under her eyelids. She wavered on her feet before collapsing back down on the sofa in a dead faint.

“Oh, Dear God! Esther . . . . ?!”

Adam was at the stricken woman’s side in an instant. “It’s alright, Mister Alcott. She merely fainted.”

“I was afraid of something like this,” Jed murmured dolefully. “Esther’s . . . Mrs. Alcott’s health hasn’t been the best . . . not since our granddaughter disappeared.”

“Doctor Martin is right down the street, Mister Alcott,” Adam said. “I’ll have the desk clerk send for him, if you’d like.”

“Yes, thank you. I would appreciate that very much.”

*****

” . . . . I DID stop by, Pa, after I picked up Little Joe from school AND my purchases from the general store,” Adam said. “Doc Martin and his wife were in the hotel room, presumably still examining Mrs. Alcott. Mister Alcott was in the hotel lobby, waiting for Doc to finish. He was still pretty adamant about leaving on the first stage out tomorrow morning.”

“I hope to heaven Paul can talk some sense into that ornery ol’ scalawag!” Ben said grimly.

“It wasn’t MISTER Alcott who was being stubborn, it was Mrs. Alcott. She flat out told me that she just plain wanted to go home,” Adam said.

The Cartwrights, minus Hoss, were just finishing up their evening meal.

“Pa?”

Ben turned to Little Joe, tonight seated in Hoss’ chair, on his left. “What is it, Son?” he asked, favoring the boy with a wan smile.

“Can . . . . ” Joe looked over at Adam and cringed. “MAY I please be excused? I have some homework I have to finish before bed.”

“Certainly,” Ben readily gave the boy permission to leave the table. “I’ll be up in a little while to check over your school work.”

“OK, Pa.” Joe immediately climbed down from his chair and bolted toward the steps.

“That’s a first,” Adam observed wryly, as he watched his youngest brother run upstairs, taking the steps two and three at a time. “Somehow, I don’t remember him as being so enthusiastic about doing his homework.”

“He’s NOT,” Ben said. “I guess the Alcotts’ bad news put a damper on things tonight.”

“Sorry, Pa,” Adam murmured sheepishly.

“It’s not your fault, Adam.” Ben sighed and shook his head. “It’s too bad Lucas’ wire got held up like it did, though.”

“If you’d like, I’ll work on those accounting ledgers . . . bring ‘em up to date,” Adam offered, as he and Ben rose from the table.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t mind, honest! Just think of it as my way of making it up to you for having to go into town to purchase new work clothes,” Adam said, leading the way over to the desk. “By the way, where’s Hoss tonight?”

“He’s having supper with the Taylors.”

“That his new girl?”

Ben nodded, and smiled. “She and your brother have been inseparable ever since they met a couple of months ago.”

“He’s really in love with her, isn’t he?” Adam asked as he seated himself behind his father’s desk in the alcove designated study.

“Yes, he is.”

“What about her? Does she feel the same way about HIM?”

“Absolutely,” Ben declared with an emphatic nod of his head.

*****

“Mrs. Taylor, that was one mighty fine meal,” Hoss complimented the hostess with genuine heartfelt sincerity and gratitude. “You’re cookin’ is every bit as good as Hop Sing’s . . . but, please! Don’t tell him I said so?!”

Carolyn smiled. “Thank you, Hoss, and your secret is safe with me.”

“Can I give ya hand with clearin’ the table, Ma’am?”

“No! Absolutely not!” Carolyn said sternly, then smiled. “Hoss, you must be exhausted after darn near moving us from Kirk’s Hostelry to this house single handed.”

” . . . uuhh, Ma’am, it wasn’t like ya had much . . . at least not in the way o’ heavy stuff . . . t’ move.”

“We did have this dining room table, along with eight chairs and two leaves.”

“None o’ that was very heavy.”

“Be THAT as it may . . . I still say you’ve worked very hard today, helping us get moved,” Carolyn said. “Now that you’ve had a nice dinner, you are going to sit back and relax. Do I make myself clear?”

“But, Mrs. Taylor . . . . ”

“I wouldn’t argue with her, Hoss,” Drew said, a half smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “It’ll do you NO good. Once my wife make up her mind . . . . ”

“Tell you what! Hoss, if you absolutely MUST do something . . . you and Cindy could go out for a stroll in our new garden,” Carolyn suggested with a secretive, yet knowing kind of smile. “It’s a lovely night, and with the moon nearly full, there’ll be plenty of light for your path.”

“But, Mama Carolyn, the dishes— ” Cindy protested.

“Your pa and I will manage with the dishes just fine, Young Lady,” Carolyn said with mock sternness. “Now you and Hoss skedaddle!”

“If you put it that way . . . yes, Ma’am,” Cindy said, smiling.

Drew Taylor dutifully set himself to the task of clearing the table of dishes and leftover food, while Hoss and Cindy let themselves out. He placed the last of the dirty dishes down next to the kitchen pump and sink, where his wife stood washing the plates, bowls, cups, saucers, and utensils already removed from the table.

“Carolyn . . . . ”

“Yes, Drew?”

“She . . . she’s in love with him, isn’t she,” he said, stating fact.

Carolyn smiled. “Don’t tell me you’re just now figuring that out.”

Drew nodded, as he picked up a clean, dry hand towel and set himself to the task of drying the dishes and putting them away. “I . . . think when it comes to his daughter’s love life, a father’s always the last to figure it out. How long have YOU known?”

“I think I’ve known since that day she came home, her eyes all lit up like a Christmas tree, because Hoss asked her to that dance.”

“Is THAT why you insisted on us staying here in Virginia City?”

“Partially.”

“What’s the rest?”

“Hoss reminds me a little of my older brother, Dominic.”

“The minister, who died when his ship sank on it’s way to the mission field in Africa?”

Carolyn nodded sadly. She finished washing and rinsing the last of the eating utensils, then passed them to her husband. “Hoss doesn’t fully have his growth in yet, but he’s going to be a big, strong man like my brother. He’s already every bit as kind and gentle. For us to have just up and left would have at least hurt him as much as it would’ve hurt Cindy.”

“I was just standing here thinking how much Cindy reminds me of Donna when SHE was her age.”

“From what you’ve told me, by the time Donna was the age Cindy is now, she’d been in love with you for a very long time,” Carolyn said gently. She gathered the serving bowls and the meat tray from the counter and carried them over to the sink.

“I didn’t notice at the time, of course, but looking back, I think you’re probably right. You, ummm . . . think I’m actually looking at a prospective son-in-law here?!” Drew queried, as he took the larger dishes from his wife. He, then stepped over to the washtub and set himself to the task of scraping the remaining food and gravy from the meat tray.

“I don’t know,” Carolyn said thoughtfully. “This is the first time our Cindy’s fallen in love . . . . ”

“Had the opportunity to fall in love, you mean,” Drew said with a touch of bitterness.

“Don’t you dare go putting words in my mouth I not only didn’t say, but had no intention of ever saying, Drew Taylor,” she admonished her husband severely. “I’m not going to pretend our life together’s been all fun and games, but we did what we had to do. I have no regrets about that, Drew, nor will I ever.”

” ‘Sorry.”

Carolyn smiled. “Apology accepted. I was also going to say that I have a feeling this is the first time Hoss Cartwright’s ever fallen head over heels in love, too. He’s young, but he’s got a lot of maturity about him I don’t see much in other young men his age. He also knows what he wants out of life.”

Drew nodded. He finished cleaning the meat tray, then rinsed it under the kitchen pump. “He loves the Ponderosa every bit as much as his father does. I’ve heard it said that home is where the heart is. Well, if that saying has any truth to it, the Ponderosa is where Hoss Cartwright’s heart lies.”

Carolyn nodded.

“You think Cindy will be able to adjust?”

“Ask me that question again, oh . . . say a couple of years from now?!”

*****

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cindy?”

“How’s Guinevere’s new foal doing?”

Hoss smiled, remembering . . . .

It became clear early on that it was going to be a breech birth. Pa had sent for the vet immediately of course, and over the next several hours, everyone pitched in, including Cindy. She did whatever was asked of her without fear of her skirt and blouse being soiled, or her hair mussed. Best of all, she snowed no sign whatsoever of being squeamish. If Pa hadn’t been impressed by her before, he sure was after it was all over.

Afterwards, Hoss and Cindy stood together, side by side, watching with rapt attention as the newborn foal, his stance growing more steady with each passing second, nursed from his mother . . . .

“Sir Lancelot’s getting bigger and bigger every day,” Hoss answered her question. “He eats like there no tomorrow, and he’s friskier than a pair of bear cubs on a real fine spring day. You’re gonna hafta come out and see him for yourself.”

“May I when we come for Adam’s party?”

“Sure. Cindy— ”

“Hoss, would you do me a favor, at least while we’re out here?” Cindy asked as she took him by the hand.

“Sure,” Hoss agreed.

“While we’re out here, for tonight anyway, would you mind calling me Cinnamon Rose?” she asked, gazing earnestly into his face and eyes. “I . . . I just feel like having someone call me by my whole, real name, and since you’re the only one I’ve ever told . . . . ”

“I was hoping I could sometime, Cind—Cinnamon Rose,” Hoss replied. “It’s such a pretty name, I wish I could call you that all the time.”

“I wish you could, too, Hoss.”

“Maybe I’ll be able to someday, when we— ” Hoss was about to say, ‘When we get married.’

“Hoss?” Cindy queried, noting that he seemed to suddenly be staring off into space through eyes the size of Mama Carolyn’s meat platter. “Hoss, are you alright?”

“I . . . I think so,” he stammered, as he slowly returned to present time and place.

“You were talking when you suddenly stopped right in the middle.”

“Y-yeah,” Hoss’ cheek flushed a very deep pink. “I was saying that maybe I’ll be able to c-call you Cinnamon Rose all the time someday, when it won’t get anybody into trouble.”

Hoss remembered again the night Sir Lancelot was born, the way Cindy—Cinnamon Rose pitched in and did what was asked the way he and Pa did, without the slightest hesitation or second thoughts. Many ladies he knew would have fainted dead away or suffered a serious attack of the vapors, or some such, but not Cinnamon Rose. After it was all over, with Sir Lancelot safely born into this world, she stood next to him, watching, take his first steps along with his first meal, with the same look of awe he saw on Pa’s face, and that he knew to be in his own.

Suddenly, he wanted more than anything, to ask her flat out if she would marry him. He actually opened his mouth with every intention of saying those words, only to have them stick in his throat as Pa’s voice echoed through his mind and his thoughts . . . .

“Marriage, Hoss?! You’ve known each other barely two months!”

“I feel like I’ve known her all my life, Pa.”

“You’re only fifteen, Son . . . she’s only seventeen. I know you care about each other very much, but you’re both too young.”

“I know we’re young, but I know what I want . . . and one thing I want more than anything is to be with Cinnamon Rose, Pa, forever and always.”

“Hoss, if the two of you are meant to be together . . . forever and always . . . then you’ll still be together three years from now. You’ll be eighteen then, she’ll be twenty. There’s a lot of growing up that happens between then and the ages you are now. You need to let that happen . . . . ”

Hoss smiled. Trust Pa to have those words of wisdom, even if he didn’t speak them, save within his son’s mind, and his heart.

“Hoss?”

He turned and found Cinnamon Rose regarding his with a bemused look on her face.

“A penny for your thoughts, Hoss.”

He smiled. “I was just thinking how much I love being with ya, Cinnamon Rose, and how, when were NOT together, I kinda feel like I’ve gone off and forgotten something I really need . . . . ”

She stopped walking, turned, and took both of his hands in hers. “I feel the same way, too, Hoss . . . about YOU.”

“Cinnamon Rose, I . . . I’d be honored ‘n real proud t’ boot if . . . if you’d . . . well, if you’d be my gal.”

“Oh, Hoss,” she half sobbed as she threw her arms around his waist. “I already consider myself your girl. I . . . I think I have since you asked me to that dance.”

Hoss slipped his arms around her shoulders and gazed down at her in dazed wonder. “Y-you DO? Really?”

“Yes, I do. Really. Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cinnamon Rose?”

“I love you.” The smile that burst out upon his face out dazzled the moon over head, or so Cinnamon Rose thought.

“I love you, too, Cinnamon Rose,” Hoss declared, then lowered his head and kissed her soundly. When, at long last their lips parted, both were left breathless. “And maybe . . . just maybe, three years AIN’T such a long time t’ wait after all,” he mused in happy silence.

*****

“Black?!” Ben exclaimed incredulously, as Adam, attired in the new clothing he had purchased in town the day before, took his place at the breakfast table. “You actually bought BLACK work clothes?!”

“Yes . . . . ”

“Not real practical, Son. I know black has its slenderizing effects . . . . ”

Adam glanced up and glared sharply at his father.

Ben smiled. “I lived in Boston when I was a young man, too, Adam, and I know all too well that numbered among the few advantages of being in mourning. Unfortunately, black also shows up every single speck of dust and dirt. Hop Sing’s going to have a fit about all the laundry.”

“It’s only until I’m back down to the size of my other clothes,” Adam said, very much on the defensive.

“Hey, Pa!” Joe cried out with excitement, as he ran toward the table. Hoss followed behind his baby brother, ambling at a much slower paced, grinning from ear-to-ear. “Who’s the gunslinger?”

“What gunslinger?” Adam queried in a wry tone as Joe climbed into the chair, directly facing his oldest brother, on the opposite side of the table.

Joe stared over at Adam with a bewildered frown on his face. “You sound like my brother, Adam?”

“And for good reason. I AM your brother, Adam.”

Joe stared over at Adam, open mouthed with shock and astonishment for a long moment, before suddenly, bursting into gales of laughter. “You STILL look like some kinda gunslinger!” the boy declared. “Don’t he look like a gunslinger, Pa?”

“DOESN’T he look like a gunslinger, Pa,” Adam corrected through clenched teeth.

“That’s what I just said!”

“No comment,” Ben said firmly, as he quickly raised his napkin to his mouth to hide his own amused smile. “Joseph, you’d best dig in. You have to leave for school in an hour.”

“Yes, Sir,” Joe murmured as he reached for the serving bowl with fried potatoes.

” ‘Morning, Pa . . . ‘Morning, Adam, and you, too Shortshanks,” Hoss greeted everyone with an affable smile. “Say, Pa, I thought I heard horses pulling up out in the yard when I was coming down the stairs just now.”

“I’ll go see,” Joe immediately volunteered as he leapt from his seat.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Adam’s arm snaked out with all the swiftness of a striking rattler. He snared his youngest brother by the shirt collar, and hauled him back to his place at the table. “YOU are going to eat, like Pa just said. I will go see who it is.”

Joe scowled darkly at his oldest brother’s retreating back and stuck out his tongue.

“What’s for breakfast, Pa?” Hoss asked as he seated himself on the other side of the table, in the chair facing his littlest brother. “I’m hungry enough to eat a horse.”

“I think Hop Sing will be very happy to hear THAT,” Ben said in all sincerity. “He was getting a mite worried about you, Son.”

“Does THIS mean you’re not in love with Cindy any more?” Joe asked, looking a trifle crestfallen.

“It don’t mean nothing of the sort, Little Brother,” Hoss replied. “I love Cindy more and more every day.”

“Hoss getting his appetite back means the love between Hoss and Cindy’s not new anymore, but something now that’s grown more comfortable, more settled,” Ben tried to explain.

“Is that good, Pa?” Joe queried dubiously.

“Yes, Joe, that’s VERY good. It means Hoss and Cindy are becoming good friends along with being in love. You’ll understand it more when you’re older.”

“Pa,” it was Adam, returning to the breakfast table. “We have company.”

Ben quickly placed his napkin down next to his plate on the table and rose. Adam entered with Esther and Jed Alcott following close behind.

“Good morning, Ben,” Jed greeted his old friend with a rueful smile. “I know you said to just come on out, if we changed our minds . . . even so, I hate barging in on you like this.”

“Jed, Esther, you’re not barging in at all. Would you like some breakfast?”

“No, thank you. Esther and I ate before we checked out of the hotel this morning.”

“In that case, Adam?”

“Yes, Pa?”

“Would you mind showing Mister and Mrs. Alcott to the guest room upstairs?”

“Not at all, Pa,” Adam replied with a smile. “Mister and Mrs. Alcott, if you’ll just follow me.”

“I’ll give you a hand with the luggage,” Hoss volunteered, rising from his own place at the table.

“I’ll help, too.” Little Joe started to rise.

Ben reached out and grabbed his youngest son by the wrist. “Oh no you don’t, Young Man. YOU are going to sit down and finish your breakfast. You NOW have half an hour to eat and wash up before time to leave for school.”

*****

“I’m so glad you changed you minds and decided to come and stay with us,” Adam said as he led the Alcotts upstairs.

“Truth be told, Adam, your Doctor Martin changed our minds for us,” Esther admitted.

“Oh?”

“He said I need a few days rest before attempting to make that long trip back to Boston,” she said.

“He actually said a month of Sundays, Esther.”

“Now don’t you start up again, Jedediah Alcott! To stay for a whole month would be a dreadful imposition on Ben, and besides . . . I’m home sick. The opera season will be starting soon, and we haven’t yet purchased our tickets.”

“Mister and Mrs. Alcott, I think I can safely say I speak for Pa in saying you’re both welcome to stay as long as you like,” Adam said with a smile, “though I can’t blame you for wanting to return home in time for the opera season.”

“You an opera fan, Adam?” Esther asked hopefully.

“Yes, I am. I can’t say I’m all that knowledgeable, but I did manage to find time and enough funds to go occasionally, while I was attending Harvard.”

Jed favored his wife and Adam with an indulgent smile. “You two can talk opera to your heart’s content. Whenever I go, I always seem to end up getting a good night’s sleep.”

“That would be wonderful, perhaps later,” Esther said, beaming. “Right now, I think I’d like to wash up a mite, then take a nice long nap.”

“I’ll ask Hop Sing to bring you up some hot water,” Adam said, as they reached the door of the guest room. He wrapped his fingers loosely around the doorknob and swung the door wide open. “Your home away from home, Mister and Mrs. Alcott. Hop Sing always keeps clean sheets on the bed. Can I get you anything else?”

“No, Adam, thank you very much. I’m fine,” Esther said, with a weary smile.

“In that case, if you’ll both excuse me, I’ll go down and give Hoss a hand with your luggage.”

“I’ll walk down with you, Adam. I’m hoping maybe your pa has some coffee left over. I could sure use a cup.” He turned to his wife. “Will you be alright by yourself for awhile?”

“I told you, I’ll be fine,” Esther replied. “In any case, I plan to take a nap, so I won’t be much company at all, anyhow. You go on, have that coffee, and maybe a good visit with Ben.”

“We’ll see you later, Mrs. Alcott. I hope you have a good rest in the meantime.”

“I’m sure I will. Now scoot! Both of you!”

Jed removed his jacket and tie, then followed Adam back out into the hall.

“Out of curiosity, how long do you plan to stay with us?” Adam asked, as he quietly closed the door behind them.

“I’m hoping to stretch things out for a week, beyond that . . . . ” Jed shrugged. “Esther CAN be a very determined woman, when she sets her mind . . . and her mind is definitely set on going home.”

“That would be wonderful if you can convince her to stay the entire week. You’ll be here for my homecoming party . . . . ”

*****

“Goodness, Ben! It looks as though you’ve quite literally killed the fatted calf to welcome your prodigal back home!” Reverend Broderick Matthews exclaimed as he looked in amazement at the animal roasting over a low fire on a spit, being turned by several of the younger ranch hands.

“Fatted HOG is closer to the truth, Broderick,” Ben replied with a smile. “I’m glad you could come, though I don’t see Louise . . . . ”

“Louise received word just this afternoon that her mother’s taken a turn,” Broderick said. “She and her sister, Pearl, are with her and their father.”

“I’m sorry to hear that her mother’s not feeling well,” Ben murmured sympathetically. “Please tell Louise she AND her parents will be in my thoughts and my prayers.”

“I certainly will, Ben, thank you.”

“In the meantime, there’s plenty to eat and drink,” Ben said, gesturing toward the food tables with a broad sweep of his hand and arm. “Please . . . help yourself.”

“Good evening, Ben . . . Reverend Matthews.” It was Clara Mudgely, the church organist, with a tall, gangly woman, with frizzed, nondescript brown hair, and horn rimmed glasses, in tow. “This is my niece, Buellah Crane. Buellah, this is Mister Cartwright and Reverend Matthews.”

“How do you do, Reverend Matthews . . . Mister Cartwright,” Buellah acknowledged the introduction in a distinctly nasal tone.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Crane.” The good reverend’s smile never quite reached his eyes. “Your aunt, Miss Mudgely has told us all so much about you.”

“Did you know, Ben, that my niece is a graduate herself this year?” Clara continued with a genuine warm smile, which she directed very pointedly toward their host.

Ben swallowed nervously, trying his hardest not to flinch away from the church organist’s intense gaze. “R-Really? Where . . . ?!”

“From the Emmeline Portnoy Lewis Finishing School for Young Ladies back in Saint Joe,” Clara declared with a proud smile. “ALL of the Mudgely women have attended and graduated from that fine institution beginning with my grandmother. Buellah here is the very first of the FOURTH generation of Mudgelys to graduate from the Emmeline Portnoy Lewis Finishing School for Young Ladies.”

“That’s umm, quite a, uh . . . long standing tradition,” the good reverend observed as he tried to unobtrusively back away. His efforts in that endeavor were nipped in the bud by a dark glare from Ben.

“Ben . . . . ”

“Yes, Clara?”

“Now that ADAM has graduated from that college back east, done his wandering and returned home, it’s high time HE thought of settling down.”

“He has, Clara. Adam’s been working with Art Menken . . . he’s my foreman down at the saw mill . . . learning the operation. In fact, I think he’s been formulating some ideas about improvements to increase production next spring. He’s also— ”

“That’s NOT what I meant,” Clara snapped, rudely cutting Ben off at mid-sentence.

“Oh?!” Ben queried, with great fear and trembling as he entertained suspicions now as to what she did mean.

“I MEANT that Adam needs to seriously think of taking a wife, Ben, having a family, as is his bounden duty before God and to YOU, in keeping your name and lineage going,” Clara declared stoutly, confirming the very worst of Ben’s fears. “Has he anyone special in mind?”

“Well, uhh . . . no . . . no, he doesn’t,” Ben stammered, feeling as if he had somehow betrayed his own son into the hands of the very devil himself. “As I just said, he’s getting himself back into the routine of things HERE . . . I just figure, he’ll take a wife . . . when he’s ready . . . AFTER he’s met the right gal . . . . ”

“Ben, something this vital, this important should NEVER, not under any circumstances be left up to chance,” Clara admonished her host severely, then smiled. Ben shuddered as her complacent smile reminded him of the perpetual upward curving lines of an alligator’s closed mouth. “My niece, Buellah Crane will be visiting me for the remainder of the summer. Perhaps the four of us . . . you, me, Adam, AND Buellah might get together for dinner some evening. I have a feeling that Adam and Buellah have a lot in common.”

“We’ll see,” Ben said evasively. “In the meantime, I . . . well, as host, I have to see to my other guests, as well . . . . ” He refrained from mentioning that he also had to warn Adam.

“Yes, of course, Ben. We’ll talk again Sunday, and set up a time then.”

“A time, Clara?” Ben queried with a bewildered frown. “A time for WHAT?”

“To have dinner, Silly.” Clara giggled like a geriatric school girl, and winked coquettishly at him. “You and me . . . Buellah and Adam.”

“Over my dead body,” Ben growled under his breath, as he moved to greet his arriving friends and neighbors, the O’Briens.

*****

“He’s beautiful, Hoss . . . and so ‘s Guinevere!” Cindy exclaimed with delight as she stood alongside the biggest of the Cartwright boys, watching Guinevere munching on fresh hay, while her young foal, Sir Lancelot drank greedily from his mother’s milk. She and Hoss had stepped into the barn for a brief respite away from the gathering crowd of arriving friends and neighbors outside. “I STILL can’t get over how he got up on his feet and started walking when he was only a few minutes old.”

Hoss looked over at her and smiled. “That’s because horses are food for other animals, like cougars and wolves, leastwise they are out in the wild. When wild horses come into the world, they’re born real quick, and up, walking around even quicker . . . or else they end up being somebody’s dinner.”

“Guinevere and Sir Lancelot would’ve been in real big trouble, if they’d have been in the wild.”

“Yep.”

“What’s going to happen to Sir Lancelot? After he grows up, I mean.”

“That’ll be up to Pa, but I’d say he’ll more than likely be gelded, then saddle trained once he’s old enough.”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cindy?”

“You think you could teach me how to ride?”

“I sure could, if it’s alright with your folks and my pa,” Hoss replied.

“Maybe we could ask them after the party?”

“Sure.”

Cindy smiled. “That would be wonderful! I’ve always wanted to learn how to ride, but with all the moving around we’ve done in the last seven years or so, I guess I just never got around to it.”

“Your folks ever learn to ride?”

“Pa never learned. He told me that his ma and pa were too poor to keep a horse,” she replied. “Fortunately, he grew up in a big city where he was able to walk everywhere he needed to go. I don’t know about Mama Carolyn, though.”

“Hoss . . . Cindy?”

The pair turned toward the door, where they say Joe Cartwright with a glass of punch in one hand and a big sugar cookie, half eaten, in the other. “You better not eat too many o’ them cookies, Shortshanks,” Hoss admonished his younger brother. “Hop Sing’ll have a fit if you fill up on cookies, and have no room to eat your supper.”

“Pa said I could have one,” the boy said defensively.

“How many HAVE you had?” Hoss asked with a knowing glare.

Joe immediately averted his eyes to what remained of the cookie and glass of punch in hand. “Three,” he replied sheepishly.

“You just better watch it, and make sure ya save room for your supper,” Hoss warned.

“Yes, PA,” Joe returned, then stuck out his tongue.

Hoss and Cindy both returned the gesture, much to Little Joe’s delight. “So, what’s up, Shortshanks?” the former asked.

“Pa’s looking for ya.”

“Tell him I’m coming, Li’l Brother.”

“I will . . . ” With that, Joe bolted out of the barn running at top speed.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cindy?”

“Would it be alright if I . . . well, if I waited here for you?”

He noted her trembling hands and eyes round with alarm. “You OK, Cindy?”

“I’m OK, it . . . Oh, Hoss, I feel terrible having to say this, but . . . it’s your pa’s friends . . . you know, that couple from back east?”

“The Alcotts?” Hoss queried, looking over at her in surprise.

Cindy nodded hesitantly. “They . . . they scare me. I don’t know why . . . . ” she looked up at Hoss and shrugged helplessly, “but they scare me.”

“They’re different, that’s for sure,” Hoss said thoughtfully. “They’re nice enough, I think they are, anyway, and real polite, but there’s something that’s kinda . . . well, kinda stand-offish about them, too.”

“Y-You think maybe that’s why they scare me?”

“Could be part of it, Cindy. I was a little put off by them myself that first night I met them, ‘til Pa told me folks’re more formal, and reserved in Boston, where the Alcotts come from,” Hoss said. “That first night I met ‘em? They’d just arrived in Virginia City, on the same stage as Adam. They were pretty tuckered out, and Pa said neither one of them are well. He also said they got some bad news a few days ago, when they met with Mister Milburn.”

“I’m sorry they’re not feeling well, Hoss . . . and I’m sorry about them getting bad news,” Cindy said slowly. “I’ll TRY not to be so put off by them, at least until I get to know ‘em a little better. But, would you do me a favor?”

“Sure, Cindy, anything.”

“Could you stay real close, Hoss? Somehow, I don’t feel quite so afraid as long as you’re close by.”

Hoss smiled. “I’ll be more ‘n happy t’ stick close,” he agreed very readily, then offered his arm. “Shall we go see what Pa wants?”

*****

“Drew . . . Carolyn . . . . ”

“Good evening, Ben,” Carolyn greeted their host with a warm ingratiating smile. “If you’re looking for Hoss— ”

Ben smiled back. “I know. Joe just told me he and Cindy are in the barn looking at Sir Lancelot,” he replied. “However, I wasn’t looking for Hoss. I was looking for you and your husband.”

Drew and Carolyn exchanged quick, furtive glances. “What can we do for you, Ben?” the former asked.

“I wanted to introduce you to a couple of very old friends of mine . . . . ”

“Ben Cartwright, we’re not THAT old,” Esther Alcott quipped.

“Mister and Mrs. Taylor, this is Mister and Mrs. Alcott,” Ben graciously made the introductions. “They were in Virginia City to take care of some family business, and decided to stay with us here at the Ponderosa for a few days before returning home.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mister and Mrs. Alcott,” Carolyn smiled and held out her hand.

” . . . and I’m most pleased to make YOUR acquaintance, Mrs. Taylor,” Esther smiled and graciously took her hand. “Ben tells us you and your husband are new in town.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Where are you from?” Esther asked, as the pair ambled slowly over toward the punch bowl.

“Saint Joseph, Missouri, Mrs. Alcott,” Carolyn replied. “Where do YOU call home?”

“Boston is my home these days,” Esther replied, “though I grew up in Cambridge.”

“Have you been to Boston, Mister Taylor?” Jed asked upon noting the look of recognition in the younger man’s eyes when his wife made mention of Boston and Cambridge.

Drew Taylor clasped his hands very tightly together in front of him, in an attempt to hide their trembling. “I . . . uh, n-no. I remember Mister Cartwright saying that his son, Adam, has been attending Harvard University for the past four years, but . . . . ” He shrugged.

“Never been to Boston? Ever?”

“No,” Drew replied, averting his eyes away from Jedidiah Alcott’s sudden, intense scrutiny.

“You look familiar to me, Sir,” Jed said, his hard, almost lizard-like glare never wavering. “I thought if, maybe, you had visited Boston, we might have actually met.”

“I’ve never been to Boston, Mister Alcott.” Drew’s tone was terse, his syllables clipped.

“I overheard your wife telling mine just now that you come from Saint Joseph,” Jed continued.

“Yes.”

“May I inquire as to your reasons for leaving Saint Joseph and moving here, to Virginia City?”

“Jed, I really don’t think that’s any of our business,” Esther said, taking care to lower her voice. “We’ve only just now MET Mister and Mrs. Taylor.”

“They may know something,” Jed argued. “Andy Smith, his wife, and daughter ALSO came from Saint Joseph. The Taylors may have met them there.”

“Jed— ”

“The Taylors and the Smiths obviously arrived HERE in Virginia City at the same time. Chances are they rode in on the same stage. They may have talked, and in so doing, its possible Andy Smith might have mentioned their next destination to Mister Taylor here.”

“Jed, stop it! Just stop it!” Esther demanded, on the edge of tears.

“Esther— ”

“No! Jedidiah Alcott, this is supposed to be a PARTY . . . a welcome home party for Adam, not some . . . some inquisition.” She, then turned her attention to the Taylors. “I must apologize for my husband,” she said contritely. “A few days ago, Jed and I received some bad news, but he has no right to take it out on you.”

“It’s alright, Mrs. Alcott,” Carolyn murmured, shaken now to the core of her own being. “I’m sorry to hear things aren’t going as well as they might for you.”

Esther managed a wan smile for Carolyn Taylor’s benefit. “Thank you, Mrs. Taylor. Ben?”

“Yes, Esther?”

“Would you please excuse me? I’m . . . with all that’s happened, I think it’s taken a greater toll on me than I thought,” she said quietly, her voice catching. “Would you mind conveying my apologies to Adam and the rest of your guests?”

“Not at all,” Ben murmured sympathetically, with a touch of concern. “Doctor Martin is here at the party with his wife. I can ask him to— ”

“Thank you, Ben, but I don’t think I need a doctor, just rest. I was planning on retiring for the evening.”

“Good night, Mrs. Alcott,” Carolyn said quietly. “I hope you’ll be feeling better very soon.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Taylor, you’re very kind.”

“Pa?”

Ben turned, and smiled upon seeing Hoss and Cindy approaching, her arm linked through his. He waved the young couple over. “Hoss, would you mind seeing Mrs. Alcott to the house? She’s not feeling well— ”

“Thank you, Ben, but you needn’t trouble Hoss,” Esther declined politely. Her eyes moved from Ben’s face, and came to rest on the girl clinging to Hoss’ arm, almost for dear life it seemed. She smiled. “Good evening, Young Lady.”

“Mrs. Alcott, this is my daughter, Cindy,” Carolyn made the introductions with a warm smile of her own. “Cindy, this is Mrs. Alcott. She and her husband are old friends of Mister Cartwright.”

“I-I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Alcott,” Cindy murmured fearfully, as she extended her hand.

” . . . and I’m delighted to meet YOU, Cindy.”

Hoss’ attention, meanwhile, was drawn away by the sounds of approaching horses. He turned toward the barn, just in time to see Roy Coffee riding into the yard, scowling, his mouth set in a grim, determined line. Rob MacLowry and his oldest son, Danny, flanked the sheriff on either side. “Dadburn it, who invited THEM?” he growled under his breath.

“I can’t say I entirely approve of Roy Coffee’s choice of friends either, Son,” Ben muttered. An angry scowl creased his brow. “But, this IS your brother’s home coming, and I won’t have it spoiled by you making a scene with the MacLowry boy. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss muttered reluctantly, his own brow darkening with anger, as Cindy edged closer.

“Tell you what! Why don’t the BOTH of you see Mrs. Alcott inside the house?” Ben suggested in a kindlier tone. “I’ll ask Joe to bring you a couple of plates in a few minutes.”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright,” Cindy murmured gratefully, relieved at the prospect of taking shelter inside the house, well out of the sight of Danny MacLowry.

“Good evening, Roy,” Ben walked over and greeted his old friend, determined to keep a good face on things despite the appearance of the MacLowrys.

” ‘Evening, Ben.”

“We have plenty to eat if you want to— ”

“Ben, I’m afraid this ain’t a social call,” Roy said grimly, as he dismounted from his horse. The MacLowrys followed suit. A malicious, triumphant grin spread across Danny’s face as he dismounted.

Ben stared over at Roy, wholly taken aback.

“I’m here to pick up Mister and Mrs. Taylor, and take them both into town for questioning.”

“WHAT?!”

Roy Coffee scanned the faces of the guests, friends and neighbors all, as he tethered his horse to the hitching post. “You heard me, Ben.”

“Why?” Ben demanded, as he turned and favored the MacLowrys with a dark, angry glare. “What are the charges against the Taylors?”

“According to Mister MacLowry and his boy, Danny, Mister and Mrs. Taylor may be fugitives, guilty of kidnapping the granddaughter of a couple in Boston . . . . ”

Jed Alcott, who had been conversing with Adam, glanced up sharply, upon overhearing the sheriff’s words. “Adam, please excuse me.”

Esther, leaning very heavily on Hoss’ extended arm, with Cindy walking quietly on her other side, turned and spotted her husband, his face set with a grim, stubborn determination, making his way through the crowd toward the place where Ben stood, talking with the sheriff and two unkempt strangers. Adam followed close behind him.

“Hoss?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I recognize the sheriff, but . . . who’s the man and boy with him?”

“That’s Mister MacLowry ‘n his son, Danny,” Hoss replied, his scowl deepening. “I know Pa invited Sheriff Coffee, but NOT the MacLowrys.”

“Why are they here?” More to the point, why was her husband listening so intently to what they, the MacLowrys, had to say.

“I have no idea in the world why they’re here, Mrs. Alcott,” Hoss said grimly. “If I had MY way, they’d be high tailing it right back to town where they came from.”

“Would you mind seeing me over there? I’d like to know hear what the MacLowrys and Jed are talking about.”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cindy?”

“If you and Mrs. Alcott don’t mind, I’ll go join my ma and pa. I want to put as much distance between me and the MacLowrys . . . . ” Cindy grimaced as she might if she had eaten something with an exceptionally foul taste, ” . . . as I possibly can.”

Hoss nodded, understanding. “I’ll look for you in a little bit,” he promised, before turning and once again offering Esther Alcott his arm.

“I see them, Sheriff Coffee,” Danny declared with a smug, triumphant smile, as Ether and Hoss drew up alongside Jed. “That’s them! Over there next to the punch bowl with their daughter.” He pointed.

Roy nodded curtly, and set off on an intercept course toward them, with the MacLowrys, Ben, and Adam following close behind.

“Jed?”

“What do you want, Esther?”

“What’s going on?”

Jed turned to face his wife with a smile not unlike the same on Danny MacLowry’s face. “We may yet have some good news,” he said, before turning and falling in step behind Ben and Adam.

Hoss and Esther Alcott followed a short distance behind Jed.

Roy, leading the delegation, reached the punch bowl and the Taylors first. “Mister Taylor?” he queried, placing a firm hand on the man’s shoulder.

At the sound of his name, Drew started violently.

“Sheriff Coffee, you don’t have to sneak up behind a man and scare him half out of his wits like that,” Carolyn Taylor, her face pale and voice trembling, admonished the sheriff severely.

“I’m very sorry, Ma’am,” Roy apologized. “I need to take you and your husband into town for questioning.”

“What for?”

“To find out what you may or may not know about the kidnapping of a child, a nine year old girl, from her grandparents in Boston.”

“They know plenty, Sheriff Coffee, ‘cause that’s THEM,” Danny sneered.

A dark angry scowl creased Hoss’ normally smooth brow. “You’re lying,” he spat, bringing the full brunt of his wrath to bear on Danny.

Danny involuntarily took a step backward. “No, I’m not,” he stolidly maintained. He reached into his pants pocket and dug out the wanted poster he had been carrying around since removing it from the sheriff’s office nearly two months before. “Take a look, Cartwright!” he sneered, as he waved the creased, torn poster up in front of Hoss’ face. “Tell me THAT don’t look like Mister Taylor!” He pointed to the picture of Andrew Sandringham.

“It looks like a picture some kid drew a moustache and beard on,” Hoss growled.

“Maybe so, but with that moustache and beard, this guy STILL looks like Mister Taylor.”

“You lying piece of sheep dirt!” Hoss spat. “You’re just doing this to get back at Cindy here, because she won’t give ya the time of day.”

“Well I’m GLAD she wouldn’t give me the time of day, Cartwright! You hear me? I’m glad! ‘Cause if she HAD, I’d be arrested, too, for associating with known criminals!”

“So help me, Danny, I’m gonna make you eat every lying word . . . . ” Hoss stepped over toward his nemesis, with fists tightly clenched and eyes blazing with fury.

“Hoss Cartwright, you so much as lay a finger on Danny MacLowry, I’ll run YOU in for assault and battery,” Roy warned sternly.

” . . . and I’ll be right there to swear out a complaint,” Rob threatened.

“Mister MacLowry, I think it might be best for all concerned if you and your boy went on home,” Roy said tersely.

Danny’s face fell.

“Why?” Rob demanded. “So you can sweep this whole thing under the rug without US seeing . . . because the Taylors happen to be friends of the Cartwrights?!”

“One more word outta either one of ya, I’ll put YOU under arrest for interfering with a lawful investigation into a committed crime,” Roy countered. “I’ll need a statement from your boy, but you can bring him in to my office tomorrow morning for THAT. For now, I’d appreciate it if you and your boy moved along.”

“If you’re not well on your way within the next five minute, Mister MacLowry, I’ll add trespassing on private property to Sheriff Coffee’s list of charges,” Ben growled.

“Alright, we’ll see you in the morning, Sheriff,” Rob MacLowry growled. “Let’s go, Danny.”

“But, Pa . . . . ”

“I SAID let’s go! NOW!”

“Pa . . . Sheriff Coffee, Danny’s lying!” Hoss protested, as he slipped a steadying arm around Cindy’s waist.

“No, Hoss, he’s not,” Drew Taylor said in a very quiet, yet very firm tone of voice. The anxious lines etched so deeply in his brow had faded leaving a forehead nearly as smooth, as unlined as Hoss’ own.

“Drew, what are you saying!” Carolyn protested, her eyes round with alarm.

“It’s over, Carolyn,” Drew said gently.

“Drew . . . . ”

“Pa? Mama Carolyn?” Cindy looked from one to the other. “What’s this all about?”

“Are you Mister and Mrs. Andrew Sandringham?” Roy asked, his eyes on Drew Taylor’s face.

Drew looked over at his wife and held out his hand. Carolyn moved forward hesitantly, her eyes shining with the brightness of tears, newly forming. She slipped her small hand within the large one of her husband’s and took her place at his side. “Yes, Sheriff Coffee. I AM Andrew Sandringham. This is my wife, Caroline.”

Cindy looked over at her father and stepmother in complete and utter disbelief. “Pa? M-Mama Carolyn? What is all this? What’s going on?”

“It’s the end of a very long search, Child.”

Cindy turned and found herself staring up into the face of Jedidiah Alcott. A murderous scowl darkened his entire face, giving emphasis to the fires of the wrath that had consumed him over the last seven years, now glowing with frightening intensity. She edged closer to Hoss.

“Mister Andrew Sandringham and Mrs. Caroline Sandringham, you’re both under arrest,” Roy said tersely. “The charges are kidnapping an underage child and taking her across state lines.”

Upon hearing their names, the blood drained from Esther Alcott’s face, leaving it a sickly ashen gray. She stared over at the people, who had just a short time before been introduced to her as Drew and Carolyn Taylor, through eyes round with mind numbing shock.

“N-No!” Cindy protested, shaking her head in complete and utter disbelief. Had it not been for the steadying strength of Hoss’ arm firmly about her waist, she would have almost certainly collapsed. “Mister Cartwright, please! Don’t let Sheriff Coffee take Pa and Mama Carolyn away— ”

Ben walked around and took his place on her other side, his eyes fixed on Jedidiah Alcott. “I’m very sorry, Cindy,” he said gently, as he placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “There’s nothing I can do. The only man who can put a stop to this is your grandfather.”

“M-my grandfather?!” Cindy echoed, incredulous.

“Well, Jed?” Ben queried, his gaze never wavering.

“Sheriff Coffee, take them away,” Jed ordered.

Roy bristled. “Mister Alcott, I don’t know who you think you are to be barking out orders to me like some cavalry drill sergeant— ”

“For YOUR information, Sheriff Coffee, my wife and I happen to be the grandparents and legal guardians of the young lady kidnapped by the Sandringhams seven years ago,” Jed stated imperiously.

“I see,” Roy said tersely. “You’ll need to come to my office in town tomorrow morning to swear out a complaint, and give a statement.”

“I’ll be there, first thing,” Jed vowed.

Sobbing, Cinnamon Rose left Hoss and ran over to her parents. “P-Pa . . . M-Mama C-Carolyn, I’m sorry . . . s-so sorry . . . all MY fault.” She threw her arms around her father’s neck and buried her head against his shoulder.

Andrew Sandringham put his arms around his weeping daughter and held her close for a moment. “Princess, look at me,” he said softly, at length.

Cinnamon looked up, as her tears continued to flow, unchecked down her cheeks.

“Cindy . . . Cinnamon, it’s NOT your fault,” Andrew said in a gentle, yet firm tone. “None of this is your fault.”

“Oh, Pa . . . if I . . . if I hadn’t insisted we stay . . . . ”

“Mama Carolyn and I wanted to stay, too, Princess, and I’m NOT sorry we did stay. I don’t want YOU to be sorry, either.”

Cinnamon nodded and buried her face once again against his chest.

“If we had it to do all over again, knowing how it was going to turn out, I wouldn’t do anything different,” Andrew added as he hugged his daughter close.

“Pa, what’s going to h-happen to me, if they . . . if you . . . . ”

“You will be coming back home with your grandmother and me to Boston, Cinnamon.”

Cinnamon shuddered at the ice cold voice falling on her ears. She looked up slowly, with reluctance, and found Jedidiah Alcott standing beside her.

“N-no . . . . ” Cinnamon sobbed softly, shaking her head in vigorous denial. She turned to appeal to her grandfather. “Please, don’t let Sheriff Coffee take them away! M-Mister Cartwright said y-you could stop this . . . . ”

“You will stop this nonsense at ONCE, Cinnamon. You will return to Boston in the company of your grandmother and myself. The Sandringhams . . . . ” he grimaced as if he had just eaten something incredibly sour, “WILL go to jail.”

“No!” Cinnamon said vehemently as she backed away.

“Now you see here, Young Lady,” Jed turned to reprimand his granddaughter.

“NO!” Cinnamon shouted, giving full vent to the fury and grief boiling up inside her. “YOU SEE HERE, GRANDFATHER! I DON’T CARE WHAT ANY LAWYER, ANY SHERIFF, OR ANY PAPERS SAY, I’M NOT GOING BACK TO BOSTON OR ANYWHERE ELSE WITH YOU! I’M NOT!”

“Cinnamon Rose Sandringham, you will apologize— ”

“I’LL . . . I’LL SEE YOU BOTH IN HELL FIRST BEFORE I APOLOGIZE . . . OR GO ANYWHERE WITH YOU!” Cinnamon screamed and sobbed. “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU BOTH!” With that, she pushed past Esther and Adam, then fled, sobbing, into the night.

“I’ll go after her, Pa,” Hoss said. His words, though softly spoken, fell like loud thunderclaps on the ears of the stunned company gathered. Without waiting for an answer, he turned and set off after Cinnamon Rose.

Esther moaned softly, then burst into tears herself, burying her face in her hands.

Jed gathered his wife into his arms, while directing a murderous glare at Andrew and Caroline Sandringham. “This is YOUR doing!” he spat. “This is all YOUR doing! You’ve poisoned her mind . . . turned her against us . . . . ”

“I did NO such thing!” Andrew harshly denied the allegations. “Although you doubtless would have turned Cinnamon against me had she been in your custody these last seven years, I was determined NOT to turn her against you.”

“He’s telling you the truth, Mister Alcott,” Caroline said. “We never told Cindy . . . CINNAMON the real reason why we had to move around so much. We intended to do so after she came of age, when she would have had the maturity to understand.”

“Sheriff, get them out of my sight, please!” Jed snapped. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

*****

“Adam?”

“Yeah, Buddy?”

“Sorry your homecoming party got busted up early,” Joe said sadly as he, Adam, and their father made their way back toward the house after seeing the last of their guests off.

“Thanks, Joe,” Adam said, favoring his youngest brother with a weary smile. “Know what?”

“What?”

“First of all, I’m very glad to be home,” Adam said earnestly. “I enjoyed myself in Boston, but I missed you, Pa, Hoss, and Hop Sing, too. Second . .”

“Yeah?”

“Second, the BEST homecoming for me was when I got off the stage in Virginia City and saw you, Pa, and Hoss there, waiting.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Adam said firmly. “I think right now, I’m more worried about Hoss and Cinnamon than I am about the party ending early.” He looked over at Ben, two pair of dark eyes meeting and holding. “Pa, you think maybe one of us should go look for them?”

“Not just yet,” Ben shook his head. “They’re both on foot, so they’re not likely to go far.”

“You think Cinnamon will come back with Hoss?”

“She loves him, Adam, and she trusts him,” Ben said with the quiet conviction that comes with knowing. He sighed, and dolefully shook his head. “I’m not so much worried about where they are, or will they come back. I’m more worried about what’s going to happen when they DO come back.”

*****

When Hoss finally caught up with Cinnamon Rose, he found her amid a group of large rocks, leaning heavily against the largest with her head cupped in the circle of her folded arms.

“Cinnamon Rose . . . . ?!”

With a heart wrenching sob, she turned from the rock and ran into the protective circle of Hoss’ open arms. Cinnamon wrapped her arms tightly around his waist and buried her head against his chest. Hoss slipped his own arms around Cinnamon and held her close, as tears began to stream down his own face. They remained thus, each clinging desperately to the other, weeping together as the moon rose steadily in the heavens above them.

“H-Hoss?” Cinnamon ventured, as the intensity of their weeping began to subside.

“Y-Yeah?”

“I hate them, Hoss,” she said in a firm, resolute tone, as she pressed even closer.

“Cinnamon Rose, you can’t m-mean that . . . . ”

“I can and I do,” she insisted. “They’ve taken Pa and Mama Carolyn away from me, and now . . . . ” Her eyes shone with newly forming tears. “Now they want to take me away from YOU.”

“Pa told Adam and me about the Alcotts, and a little about your pa, and your ma . . . the ma who brought you into this world,” Hoss said slowly. “He showed us some of the letters Mister Alcott wrote him right after your ma died, telling him . . . MY pa . . . how much he loved your pa . . . and YOU . . . how much delight ‘n comfort you brought to your pa, and to him and Mrs. Alcott, too.”

“If he loves me . . . and loves my pa so much, why is he doing this?” she demanded with a heart wrenching sob. “Why is he . . . why is he having Pa and Mama Carolyn jailed . . . and why is he taking me away, not only from THEM, but from you, too?”

“I think, maybe it’s because he and Mrs. Alcott’ve been worried about YOU for the last seven years you’ve been with your pa and Mama Carolyn,” Hoss said thoughtfully. “Maybe, now that he knows YOU’RE alive, well, and safe . . . maybe, if he has time to think about it, maybe he’ll change his mind.”

“I don’t know, Hoss,” she said doubtfully.

“Cinnamon Rose, do you trust me?”

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation.

“Well I trust my pa,” Hoss continued. “If you come on back with me, we’ll talk with MY pa, first thing in the morning. I think HE’LL understand, and maybe he can talk with Mister Alcott.”

“You think Mister Alcott . . . my grandfather . . . will listen?”

“I think there’s a good chance, Cinnamon Rose. Mister Alcott and my pa have been friends since before Adam was born.”

“Alright, Hoss, I’ll come back with YOU . . . so we can talk with your pa.”

*****

Ben, clad in white nightshirt, his dark maroon robe, and a pair of slippers, sat in the blue chair, with open book in hand. As the grandfather clock next to the door chimed the hour of midnight, he sighed, upon realizing that he had just read the same paragraph over for the tenth time, and snapped the book shut. He placed his book on the coffee table before him, then rose and started across the room toward the front door. The soft sound of footfalls on the stairs, halted him in his trek mid-stride. He turned, and spotted Jed Alcott, attired in pajamas and a dark, navy blue robe, walking down the stairs.

“Jed? I hope I didn’t wake you . . . . ”

“I’m too upset to sleep,” Jed said tersely as he walked down the remainder of the steps. “I got tired of just lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, listening to this clock down here striking quarter hour after quarter hour . . . . ”

“Would you care for a glass of brandy?”

“No, thank you, Ben. I take it they’re not back yet?”

“No,” Ben shook his head, regretting now that he hadn’t taken Adam up on his offer to go out and look for Hoss and Cinnamon.

Jed Alcott walked over toward the fireplace and sat down on the settee. “If anything happens to Cinnamon Rose . . . anything at ALL, I’ll hold YOU personally responsible,” he said through clenched teeth, as he folded his arms tight across his chest.

Ben felt his own ire suddenly rising within. “You’re upset, Jed,” his words were terse, his syllables clipped. “I understand that— ”

“Damn it, Ben Cartwright, don’t you DARE patronize me,” Jed Alcott rounded furiously on his old friend. “She’s been here all along, yet you NEVER said one word . . . not ONE word, to Esther and me. You were just going to let us go on back to Boston, believing that we’d either missed her or that she was never here.”

“Jed, I had no idea that Mister and Mrs. Taylor were your son-in-law and his wife,” Ben said earnestly, half pleading.

“I find that hard to believe, Ben, VERY hard to believe.”

“It happens to be the truth.”

“How could you have NOT known?”

“Mister and Mrs. Sandringham aren’t the only people who have ever come to Virginia City as drifters, two parents and a child,” Ben argued. “I had no reason to suspect they were not who and what they said they were.”

“Even so, you think that’s any kind of life for a child?”

“No, I don’t, for the simple reason that Adam and I were drifters ourselves from the time we left Boston until I met Inger, when he was five or six,” Ben said, taking no pains to conceal the anger growing within him. “We were no different from the Sandringhams. Those years weren’t easy for Adam or me, but we were together.”

“Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe you were chasing after a will-o-the-wisp, Ben? That maybe, for Adam’s sake you should have stayed put in Boston instead of pursuing this pipe dream of yours?”

“I have no regrets about leaving Boston to head west, Jed,” Ben declared in a tone of voice that was colder than ice. “None! Even if I hadn’t have done as well for myself as I have, I’m find myself very grateful that there was at least a thousand miles between me and MY father-in-law so that HE couldn’t so easily go to court and try to take Adam from me when I decided to remarry.”

Jed’s face paled, then turned an odd shade of purple. “How DARE you, Ben Cartwright? How— ”

The sound of voices, Hoss and Cinnamon Rose, accompanied by the front door opening brought the escalating quarrel between Ben and Jed to an abrupt halt. Both men rose, with their eyes glued to the door.

“Pa, sorry we took so long,” Hoss said wearily as he and Cinnamon Rose entered the house together, hand-in-hand.

“I’m just glad to see you both back, safe and sound,” Ben said with genuine, heartfelt relief.

Jed glared over at Hoss, then his granddaughter, who shrank back away from him, into Hoss’ protective embrace. “So help me, Ben, if your boy’s harmed my granddaughter in ANY way . . . . ”

“Jed, I’ve tried very hard to be patient, knowing how upset you and Esther must be,” Ben’s tone was harder than steel. “I was willing to overlook a lot of what you said about me, but I will NOT stand by and allow you or anyone else to falsely accuse my son of improper behavior.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“Cinnamon Rose and I need to talk with ya,” he said, favoring Jed Alcott with an angry scowl. “First thing in the morning, if we can.”

“Cinnamon Rose will be leaving with her grandmother and me first thing in the morning, Young Man,” Jed informed Hoss in a cold, imperious tone of voice. “After we conclude our business with Sheriff Coffee, we will check into the hotel until we can catch a stage out of Virginia City.”

“No!” Cinnamon Rose protested vigorously. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Not now, not EVER! You try to force me, I’ll . . . so help me, I’ll run away the first chance I get.” With that, she turned heel and fled upstairs.

“It’s plain as the nose on my face that my granddaughter is in desperate need of discipline,” Jed said grimly, as the lines of his already furrowed brow deepened with anger.

“Now you just hold on right there, Mister Alcott,” Hoss said, his own face darkening with anger.

“Hoss . . . . ”

“No, Pa, I’m gonna have my say, even if it DOES mean a trip out to the barn,” Hoss said firmly. “Mister Alcott, Mister and Mrs. Taylor . . . Sandringham . . . are good people. They’ve had to be on the road a lot, and now I understand a little why, but they love Cinnamon Rose very much, and have done the best they could by her.”

“You call a life of aimlessly drifting the best this Mister and Mrs. Sandringham could do by my granddaughter?” Jed demanded, venting the full brunt of his fury against Hoss. “If she had been with US, her grandmother and me, she would have had a proper home and upbringing, gone to the best schools . . . . ”

“Maybe her pa and Mama Carolyn couldn’t give her all those things, because of having to be on the run the last seven years,” Hoss argued, “but they DID give her the one thing she . . . and everyone else needs a lot more. Love! Mister ‘n Mrs. Sandringham love Cinnamon very much, and she loves them. Can’t you see that by jailing the Sandringhams and trying to force her to go back to Boston with you is breaking her heart?”

“Love!” Jed spat. “What can that . . . that lousy excuse for a father and poor replacement for my daughter possibly know about love?”

“That’s what it all boils down to, ain’t it?” Hoss charged. “Your daughter died, and her husband took another wife. You don’t care a dadburn thing about Cinnamon Rose. You just want to punish her pa!”

Jed’s face suddenly lost every bit of what little color it had. His mouth thinned to a tight, straight angry line, and his entire body trembled with rage. He clenched the fingers of both hands so tightly, his knuckles turned white. With lightening quick swiftness, he raised his arm and balled fist, fully intending to strike Hoss. “Ben,” he spat, “if YOU don’t discipline this smart mouthed young puppy of yours right here and right now, so help me, I WILL!”

Ben, his own face a veritable thunder cloud, immediately interposed himself between Hoss and Jed. “In the FIRST place, Jedidiah Alcott, I am NOT in the habit of striking another man for telling the truth, even if he IS my son,” he countered, tight lipped with raw fury, his voice barely above a whisper. “Second, if you so much as lay a finger on my son, even if it’s to tap him on the shoulder, I’ll have YOU jailed for assault and battery so fast it’ll make your head swim.”

“You wouldn’t DARE!”

“If Ben doesn’t, I WILL.”

Ben, Hoss, and Jed all turned toward the stairs, where they saw Esther Alcott, clad in nightgown and robe, standing at the top of the stairs. She glared down at all three of them, with posture ram-rod straight, and thin, slender arms folded tight across her chest.

“Esther, WHAT are you saying?” Jed demanded furiously.

“I’m saying that Hoss Cartwright is telling the truth,” Esther replied in a cold angry tone.

“How can you say that, Esther? How can YOU of ALL people, possibly say that?”

She turned and walked down the stairs. “I say that because I remember the love, the respect, even the admiration you had for Andrew in those horrible months . . . and years after Donna died. You never stopped talking about how wonderful, how devoted a father Andrew was . . . until, suddenly, the day he remarried.”

“You wrote the same thing to me, Jed,” Ben added his own words to Esther’s, pleading. “I saved every last one of those letters. I don’t know why, but I did. You can read them yourself, if you want. They’re in the bottom left hand drawer of my desk over there.”

“Ben, I’d rather NOT,” Jed snapped, angrily. “As for YOU, Esther, how can you dishonor the memory of our beloved daughter— ”

His words were abruptly cut off mid-sentence by a resounding slap on the face from Esther, her eyes glinting like sunlight on hard steel. “How DARE you?” she spat.

Jed’s hand rose slowly to touch the cheek his wife just slapped . He stared over at her, through eyes round with shock and astonishment.

“I loved our daughter, Jed,” Esther said, her whole body trembling with fury, “I loved her more than life itself. I still love, honor, and cherish her precious memory, but Donna is DEAD. It’s monstrously unfair she had to die so young, leaving behind a loving husband and daughter not much more than a baby. It’s ALSO monstrously unfair to expect her husband and daughter to stop living themselves.”

“I DON’T expect them to stop living,” Jed protested vigorously.

“Don’t you?”

Jed lapsed into sullen silence.

“Jed, the fact that your son-in-law fell in love again, and remarried is a tribute to the love he and your daughter once shared,” Ben said quietly. “You remember Elizabeth, how happy she and I were the brief time we had together. I was devastated when she died. For awhile, I wanted to die, too. But, as time passed, I found that I not only wanted to live, to see my son, Adam, grow to manhood, but I wanted to share my life . . . and my heart with another, BECAUSE of the love and happiness I had known with Elizabeth.”

“Jed, what if Donna Lorinda had lived, and ANDREW died?” Esther pressed. “Would you have denied HER a second chance at happiness?”

“That’s different!”

“Why? Because Donna Lorinda was our daughter?”

“Esther, you’re twisting things around,” Jed declared, exasperated. “Yes, Cinnamon WILL miss her father and . . . that woman for a time. But after she’s been with us, known the security of having a proper home, all the finer things in life money can buy . . . I guarantee she’ll forget all about them.”

“You’re wrong, Mister Alcott,” Hoss said in a very quiet, very firm tone. “She WON’T forget her pa and Mama Carolyn, any more than I’D forget MY pa, if someone took me away from him.”

“Jed, what’s more important to you?” Ben pressed. “Keeping a perpetual shrine in memory of a daughter now dead, or binding up the broken heart of a granddaughter still living?”

“I’m going to bed,” Jed spat, then pushed his way past Ben, Hoss, and his wife.

“Jed . . . . ”

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, with his hand on the railing. “Esther, I told you I’m going to bed. Tomorrow, we will go to the sheriff’s office to formally press charges against the Sandringhams and petition for their extradition to Boston. We will then assume custody of our granddaughter, then check into the International Hotel until we can catch a stage out of Virginia City.”

“Jed, you haven’t heard one word that any of us have said . . . have you?” Ben asked, as anger began to give way to sorrow.

“Ben, Esther and I thank you for your generous hospitality. I AM willing to extend to you the benefit of the doubt regarding your alleged ignorance of the Taylors’ true identities . . . . ”

“Jed, there’s going to be a change of plans,” Esther said in a cold, angry tone. “Unless you drop all charges against Andrew and Caroline Sandringham, I will go right to Ben’s lawyer and ask that he petition Judge Faraday on MY behalf for sole custody of Cinnamon Rose.”

“You’re bluffing,” Jed disdainfully accused his wife.

“Oh no, I’m NOT, Jedidiah Alcott. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that it was MY family connections that got us custody of Cinnamon Rose in the first place.”

The blood drain right out of Jed’s face as he turned to face his wife, leaving it an ashen gray.

“Furthermore, I will ALSO ask Ben’s lawyer to file for divorce.”

“Esther, y-you can’t . . . . ” Ben barely managed to stammer out a protest.

“On WHAT grounds?!” Jed demanded.

“Cruelty.”

“What kind of trick is this, Woman? I’ve never, not on all the years we’ve been married, EVER raised a hand to you.”

“No, not physically,” Esther admitted. “But cruelty’s not always physical. For the past seven . . . nearly eight years now, I’ve been forced to stand by helpless, and watch the gentle, kind, loving, and generous man I love turn into a stranger . . . a virtual stranger . . . filled with a bitterness and hatred that’s eating him alive.”

“It’s all Sandringham’s doing!”

“Andrew and Caroline were both very wrong in taking off with Cinnamon the way they did, that I’ll grant you,” Esther said. “But, we were wrong, too. Instead of trying to take that child away from her father, you and I should have been sitting down with him . . . AND his wife . . . to talk, and iron out our differences. If we had . . . maybe, just maybe we would have all been together these last eight years.”

“This is blackmail, Woman.”

“No, Jed. This is trying desperately to begin putting some terrible wrongs back to right,” she said firmly. “I’ve made up my mind to do whatever I have to do, even . . . even if it means divorcing the only man I ever have and ever will love. I only pray, for Cinnamon’s sake that it’s not too late.” She paused long enough to allow her husband to absorb the import of her words. “Ben?”

“Yes, Esther?”

“Would it be too much trouble to ask Hop Sing to make up the bed in the guest room down here?”

“Hop Sing put fresh linens on that bed this morning,” Ben said sadly.

*****

“You’re sure you want to do this, Mister Alcott?” Roy Coffee asked.

“Yes, Sheriff,” Jed said wearily, with remorse. “My wife . . . my friends, and I exchanged some harsh words over all this last night, but . . . well, in thinking things over, I see the wisdom in what they said.”

“I’ll need it in writing, signed . . . that you and Mrs. Alcott are dropping all charges against the Sandringhams,” Roy said quietly.

“You’ll wire the Police Department in Boston, Sheriff?” Esther asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. Clem?”

“Yes, Sheriff Coffee?”

“Mister and Mrs. Sandringham are free to go.”

Clem nodded.

*****

Ben found Hoss and Cinnamon Rose where he knew they would be: standing together at the corral fence watching the frisky antics of young Sir Lancelot. His mother, Guinevere, grazed quietly nearby. As he crossed the yard between the house and corral, Ben noted the easy, comfortable closeness between the two, in the way they stood very close together, with Hoss’ arm draped protectively around her shoulders and in the way she rested her head against his chest, holding his free hand in both of her own.

For a moment, he saw himself there, younger . . . much younger, standing beside Inger, his second wife, Hoss’ mother, and remembered again the natural ease in which she could reach out and touch, how that as much as her love set free a widowed drifter, with a young son, who, in grief, had all but closed his heart to everyone around him, especially the boy, who needed him most. In less than a heartbeat, the brief vision faded, leaving in its wake an aching heart within the father, that went out to his big, gentle son and the beautiful girl, standing together at the corral fence.

Ben coughed softly as he approached, making his presence known. Though both of them straightened and glanced up, Hoss’ arm remained firmly in place around her shoulders, and Cinnamon continued to hold his hand in both of hers. “I thought I’d find you both out here.”

“We was just watching Sir Lancelot, Pa.”

“So I see.” Ben noted the unusual brightness of his son’s eyes and the redness of Cinnamon Rose’s eyes and cheeks, as he took his own place at the fence, on the other side of Hoss. “Everything . . . alright? I couldn’t help but notice that neither one of you touched much of your breakfast.”

“Sorry, Mister Cartwright, I . . . I wasn’t very hungry this morning,” Cinnamon said in a very small, very quiet voice.

“Me neither. Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

Hoss turned and gazed earnestly into his father’s face, worry and concern mixing with hope. “Did Mister and Mrs. Alcott say anything to you before they left with Adam and Little Joe this morning? Anything at ALL?”

“Nothing, other than good morning,” Ben said, wishing he could give them a better answer.

“Dadburn it! Pa, this not knowing . . . it’s killing BOTH of us!”

The sound of horses and a wagon brought all conversation to a complete halt. Ben, Hoss, and Cinnamon Rose tensed as they turned their anxious faces toward the other side of the barn. After a seeming dreadful eternity of waiting, the Cartwrights’ buckboard rolled into view. Andrew Sandringham, much to the delighted surprise of the three waiting, held the reins. Esther Alcott, looking very careworn and weary, sat beside him on the front seat.

“PA!” Cinnamon Rose shouted, her joy mixed with great, heartfelt relief. She immediately left her place next to Hoss at the corral fence and ran headlong toward the buckboard. Ben and Hoss followed at a slower pace.

The instant Andrew Sandringham’s feet touched the ground, he had his arms full of his daughter, laughing and crying at the same. Andrew slipped his arms around Cinnamon and held her close. Hoss immediately walked over to the other side to help Esther Alcott alight from the buckboard.

“So . . . what happened?” Ben ventured, not without much trepidation.

“The good news, Ben, is that the Alcotts have decided not only to drop all charges against Caroline and me, but they’ve agreed to restore custody of Cinnamon Rose back to us,” Andrew said quietly, with one arm still around his daughter’s waist.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Princess?”

“Where’s Mama Carolyn, Adam, and Grandfather?”

“I left Mama Carolyn . . . Mama CaroLINE and Adam at our house . . . to pack our things.”

“Pack our things?” Cinnamon echoed, incredulous. “Why?”

“We’re all going back home,” Esther Alcott said. “To Boston. There’s a stage leaving this afternoon at four o’clock. Your grandfather’s in town now purchasing our tickets.”

“Princess, I’m so sorry,” Andrew said gently, his own voice tremulous, unsteady, “for you and for Hoss . . . . ”

*****

Hoss spent the remainder of the afternoon alone, in the barn, up in the hayloft, with visibility reduced to a watery blur of color. He tried to find a measure of consolation in the knowledge that Cinnamon Rose’s pa and Mama Caroline weren’t going to jail after all, and that the three if them were free now, to settle down without fear, without constantly looking over their shoulders. Maybe he would later. But, right now, his heart, which had just been shattered into a million pieces, simply ached too much.

He was grateful beyond measure that Adam had gone with Mama Caroline to help her pack their meager things, that Little Joe was in school, and Pa, no doubt had his hands full helping Mrs. Alcott pack up her husband’s things. Hoss settled back down into the hay, trying desperately to gather some measure of strength. He had to be strong, not only for himself, but for Cinnamon Rose, too.

“Please, Dear Lord, please . . . help me to get through what I hafta get through,” he prayed fervently, in silence, as tears once again filled his eyes.

“Hoss?”

He sat up suddenly, at the sound of his father’s voice in the barn down below. He stared at his surroundings in complete bewilderment for a moment, surprised to find that his eyes strung and his throat was very sore. He must have fallen asleep, though he had no memory of doing so, and from the lengthening shadows in the loft, he had to have been sleeping for a very long while.

“Hoss!” Ben called once again. “It’s time.”

Then he remembered. Cinnamon Rose. Her parents and grandparents. Returning to Boston.

“Son, if . . . if you’d rather NOT go into town with us . . . . ”

“I’m comin’, Pa,” Hoss finally responded with a very heavy heart.

*****

They were at the stage depot. Everyone. The Alcotts, the Sandringhams, and the Cartwrights, even Little Joe. Mrs. Alcott and Mrs. Sandringham were already in the stage, seated and waiting. None could help but note the touch of color in the former’s cheeks, and the slight spring in her step. Adam and Mister Alcott stood a little apart from the others, their heads together in earnest conversation, while Mister Sandringham engaged Joe.

“Jed?” Ben approached Adam and Jed after the last of the luggage had been loaded on top of the stage.

“Ben, I want to apologize for . . . well, for all of the horrible things I said to you and Hoss last night,” Jed said immediately. “I have no excuse for it. None at all.”

“Apology accepted, Jed,” Ben said, smiling. “I have a little something for you. A going away present.”

“Thank you, Ben,” Jed accepted the proffered package wrapped in brown parcel paper and bound with twine.

“Reading material for the trip home. I hope you’ll share them with the Sandringhams and most especially with your granddaughter.”

“Them?”

“The letters you’ve written me over the years, Jed. I wasn’t lying last night when I told you I had saved every one.”

“Mister Alcott?” It was the stagecoach driver. “You’re luggage is on board, strapped, ready to go. Since you folks are the only passengers, we can leave whenever you’re ready.”

“Thank you, Ben. I must confess I . . . well, after you and Hoss went to bed, I was still so angry I couldn’t see straight, let alone sleep. So I went back downstairs, and before I even thought about it, I was sitting at your desk reading my letters.”

“Is THAT why you changed your mind, Jed?”

Jed nodded. “Ben?”

“Yes, Jed?”

“Anytime you and Hoss want to come to Boston for a visit, you’re both more than welcome to stay with us.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

“Speaking of Hoss and Cinnamon . . . . ” Jed looked from Ben to Adam, then back again to Ben. “Either of you have any idea where they’ve gone?”

“I think they went around to the other side of the coach, Mister Alcott,” Adam said quietly, “to say good-bye.”

*****

“Hoss, I . . . I wish I didn’t have to go . . . . ”

“I wish you didn’t hafta go, too, Cinnamon.”

“Hoss?”

Cinnamon Rose’s voice, quiet and tremulous, brought his attention back to the two of them. “Y-Yeah, Cinnamon Rose?”

“What’s going to happen to US?”

“Cinnamon, if we’re meant to be together, we’re gonna be together,” he said with heartfelt conviction. “It won’t matter if we live across the country from each other, or across the street. But if we’re NOT meant to be together, we won’t be. It’s as simple as that.”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Cinnamon?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too, Cinnamon, more than I’ve ever loved anyone, except maybe my pa and brothers.”

“Will you write me?”

Hoss managed a tremulous smile. “You bet I will, if YOU promise you’ll write me.”

“That’s a promise, Hoss.”

“Cinnamon?” It was her father. “Time to go, Princess.”

Unable to keep back her tears, Cinnamon threw her arms around Hoss’ neck and, for a long moment, clung for dear life. They separated briefly, only to come together once again in a lingering kiss. “G-good-bye, Hoss. No m-matter what happens . . . I’ll never, ever forget you.”

“I won’t ever forget YOU either, Cinnamon.” His eyes glistened with tears, as he opened the stagecoach door, and gently helped Cinnamon climb inside.

“EEEYAAGH!” The stagecoach driver snapped the reigns, setting the horses in motion, moving slowly first, gradually gaining speed as they headed away from town.

Hoss watched with a heavy heart as the stagecoach receded further and further into the distance, taking with it the young woman he had come to love more than life itself. He stood, his eyes glued to the stagecoach, waving, until it finally turned the corner and disappeared from view. For one brief, terrifying moment, he felt like a tiny rowboat, suddenly adrift in the vast ocean, moving aimlessly with the currents and winds, with no direction, no land in sight. Then he felt a gentle hand coming to rest on his shoulder, and the strong presence of his father standing by his side.

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Ben murmured sadly, wishing with all his heart he could take away the agony that even now tore his son’s heart to shreds. He knew all too well he could not.

“I’m sorry, too,” Hoss’ voice caught and broke, as he slipped his arm around Ben’s waist. “I wish . . . . ” He turned and gazed down into his father’s face earnestly, his blue eyes unusually bright, his cheeks wet with tears. “Pa, I wish with all my heart— ” He broke off, unable to continue.

“I know, Son, believe me, I know.” Ben’s own voice broke on the last word. For a moment, he held the biggest, and gentlest of his three sons close.

For a time, Hoss clung to his father, in a way he hadn’t done for a very long time, since he was a child, younger even than Little Joe now. He felt Adam’s hands on his shoulders, and Joe’s wiry thin arms clasped tight around his waist, both offering comfort in their own ways.

“Pa?” Hoss ventured when they all finally separated.

“Yes, Son?”

“Let’s go home.”

***The End***

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