Someone to Care for Us (by LizK)

Summary:  Adam gets a taste of fatherhood.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  49,788


 

Adam Cartwright was ‘riding bog’. It was not his favorite job, finding cows that were trapped in the mud around the various water holes and pulling them out, but the spring rains had been especially hard this year and every water hole on the Ponderosa was full and overflowing, making otherwise safe ground a morass of sticky mud, just waiting for an unwary cow or calf to make a wrong step. This year it was taking every spare man on the Ponderosa to keep the cows out of the muck.

A week ago, he had sent his men out in pairs to the various points of the compass, choosing to work alone himself and taking the farthest southern section as his own assignment. There were two reasons for this. One, as the man in charge he didn’t feel it right to give another man the worst section, and two, the southern section was so remote it gave him plenty of time for the quiet reflection and solitude so necessary to his sanity.

He had worked his way slowly south, camping one night along the way and rescuing stranded animals around almost every water hole and in every low lying area water had had a chance to collect, and there were many. Towards the afternoon of the second day, both man and horse had been exhausted and muddy from head to foot. He had checked the last waterhole, liberating the unlucky cow and calf stuck in the unyielding muck and now he was free to head home for a much-needed rest. His mind was occupied with thoughts of Hop Sing’s cooking and the hot bath he knew would be waiting, when he saw the smoke rising into the sky several miles away.

He stopped Sport and took a good look. “Well, fella, who do you suppose that is?” He gave the animal a pat, and considered for a moment. It appeared to be coming from near the Carson River, just across the Ponderosa’s southern border. He debated with himself. His tired body was pleading with him to let it go, and for once Adam decided to listen to it. After all, whoever it was, they weren’t trespassing; they were probably just travelers on their way some place. They would no doubt move on in the morning, and he didn’t have the stomach for any extra traveling. “You either, I’ll bet.” he spoke to the horse. He took another long look at the rising smoke. “Well, I think we can let it go, what do you think, buddy?” Sure that the horse agreed with him and having convinced himself, he had turned Sport and headed for home.

Now here it was almost a week later, and he was making the rounds again. Fortunately, a week of warm dry weather had hardened the ground and he had had fewer cows to rescue. The days had been fine and Adam had thoroughly enjoyed THIS trip south. He was whistling his way towards the final water hole at the Ponderosa’s southernmost boundary when the telltale smoke caught his eye again. He stopped, surprised; a quick look around confirmed this was indeed where he’d seen the smoke last time. Whoever it was they were obviously staying awhile, and this time there was no excuse for not checking it out.

Adam sighed; he’d gotten away with it before because he and his horse were both at the point of exhaustion, but his conscience wouldn’t let him get away with it this time. He looked at the sun low on the horizon. It would mean a night ride home, but he was used to that. He’d told Pa he might be late, so they wouldn’t be worrying about him. He bit his lip thoughtfully. “Well, Sport, no excuse this time. Let’s see who’s campin’ on our doorstep.” He kicked his horse into a canter and headed towards the smoky beacon.

*****

Celia Cooper was only 13 and already life had thrown its worst at her, or at least it seemed so to her. She stirred the pot of stew over the fire, and sniffed appreciatively. Flipping her long brown braid over her shoulder, she went to get the bowls and spoons for the evening meal. I need to save some broth for Pa before I thicken this for the others, she reminded herself. If only he’ll eat it. She felt the tears prick the back of her eyes. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday and Celia was becoming more and more worried, as Pa seemed to slip farther away from them.

It was hard to believe it had only been two weeks since the tragedy that had sent their lives out of control. It had been such a beautiful morning; the air had been crisp with the first hint of spring. Ma had roused them before heading to the river for water. Celia still wasn’t sure exactly how it had happened, but she remembered hearing Ma scream, and Pa running, yelling towards the river. It had been chaos after that. Celia had stayed with Abbie and Laura while Will, Caleb and Josh had run to the river with Pa.

Ma had been so still and white when Pa and Will had carried her into the tent. There had been nothing they could do. The riverbank had collapsed and Ma had hit her head when she fell in the water; she was already gone when Pa and Will had pulled her out. Pa, already sick with a cold, had gotten worse in the night, and continued to worsen. He didn’t seem able to overcome it. He just lay on his cot, seeing and hearing nothing, not even when Celia told him how much she loved him, and needed him. He just slipped farther away. It didn’t make sense to Celia; her Pa had always been a strong man, and nothing could keep him down. Will said it was the shock of losing Ma; Pa just didn’t want to live anymore.

Celia looked up as Will walked out of the large white tent. Her eyebrows raised hopefully, then fell as the boy’s lips tightened and he shook his head at her.

She turned back to the stew as he sat, dejected, on the log near the fire. He placed his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands. She glanced at him.

“The stew’ll be ready as soon as I thicken it.” Her voice was quiet, its soft, southern tones the heritage of her long line of Georgia ancestors.

Will raised his head and gave her a brief nod.

“I’ll try ta get Pa ta eat some broth,” she said as she dished some of the warm liquid into a bowl.

The boy didn’t respond.

“Will?” The girl touched his shoulder.

Will looked up at her. “I doubt he’ll eat it, Celia.”

“But, we can’t jest give up. We have ta try,” Celia protested.

Will nodded, then stared into the fire, his eyes unfocused. Celia felt fear clutch her heart. Will had been so strong these last two weeks, so confident, so sure that everything was going to be all right. Sure that Pa would be fine, that all would be well. He had kept their courage up with his cheerful words and faith. Now though… He was only a year older than her, but Celia felt he had aged years. “Will?”

He looked up at her, his eyes haunted.

“Pa’s gonna be all right, you’ll see.”

“Celia…” He tried to say more, but couldn’t; he gave her a token smile. “Of course he will.”

Celia smiled back at him, and quickly stirred the flour and water mixture into the stew to thicken it. “Do ya think ya can get supper for the others, while I give this ta Pa?” She picked up the bowl of broth.

Will looked around. “Where are they?”

“Over there.” She gestured towards the wagon not far away, and the river beyond it. “They’re building an Indian village in the sand by the river.” Will nodded at her again and Celia made her way into the tent.

Pa lay so still on the cot that Celia was almost afraid to approach him. She laid a hand on his shoulder and shook him gently. “Pa?”

He half-opened his eyes and looked at her without seeing. Celia felt her mouth wobble as she tried to speak cheerfully. “I brought ya some broth, Pa.” She sat on the stool next to the bed. He closed his eyes again. Celia touched his shoulder, “Pa, ya gotta eat,” she pleaded softly. He didn’t respond. She ran a hand over his thick black hair. “Pa ya gotta fight; ya can’t leave us.” Her voice caught. “We need ya, Pa. I need ya.” There was no response, and Celia could only sit and pray.

*****

Will and the other children had just started eating when they heard the horse approaching. Will paused with the spoon halfway to his mouth, and glanced over at his 11-year-old brother Caleb. Caleb’s blue eyes were wide and looking back at him. In the dusk, they couldn’t see the horseman.

Will slowly put his bowl down. “Caleb,” he said softly as he picked up the shotgun that lay against the log next to him. “Take Laura and go inta the tent. Josh, Abbie, ya go with him.” Will never took his eyes from the direction he was sure the horseman would appear.

Caleb quickly gathered his little sister up in his arms and hurried with her to the tent, nine-year old Josh and five-year old Abbie hard on his heels. He saw his brother and sisters safely inside, threw a quick explanation to Celia, then turned to place himself in front of the tent flap. He crossed his arms as if daring anyone to try to enter.

Will stood as he heard the horse slow, and he could make out the vague shape of the horse and rider. The horse walked slowly to the edge of the firelight.

“That’s far enough, Mister.” Will tried to make his voice low and firm, but it cracked slightly, and he steadied it. “Ya jest hold up right there.” He raised the shotgun halfway to his shoulder.

Adam stopped his horse, and glanced quickly around the camp. He noted the two boys, and the shotgun in the older boy’s hand. It was held loosely, but in such a way that Adam had no doubt the boy knew how to use it and would if he felt it necessary. His quick gaze took in the tent and the wagon, the two mules picketed not far away, and the five bowls left haphazardly next to the fire. He leaned forward and crossed his arms on the pommel of his saddle.

“Hello,” he said smiling, “My name’s Adam Cartwright. Are your folks around?”

Will‘s eyes narrowed cautiously. “They went into town for supplies, but they should be back anytime,” he stated boldly.

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Into town. Without the wagon and mules?”

Will’s eyes flickered as he realized his mistake; he opened his mouth to reply when a shriek rose from the tent.

“Will!!! Will!!” Celia’s terrified voice rang through the clearing.

Will’s heart stopped, then jumped into his throat. He glanced at Caleb and they both ran for the tent, forgetting completely the stranger. Adam dismounted and quickly tied Sport before running into the tent himself.

The tent was large. A bed of blankets took up the entire back where Caleb, Josh and the two little girls sat huddled together. Will knelt next to his father’s cot, with Celia behind him, tears streaming down her cheeks and her hands pressed to her mouth.

Will gently patted his Pa’s cheek. “Pa, Pa! Please, Pa.” His voice took on a tone of desperation as the man failed to respond, “Come on, Pa…”

Adam stepped forward and laid a hand on Will’s shoulder. Will looked up at him, fear etched on his face.

“Let me,” Adam said.

Will moved back to let Adam kneel next to the cot. He stepped next to Celia and placed his arm around her.

Adam felt for a pulse on the emaciated form in front of him but found nothing. He laid his head against the man’s chest, still nothing. He sighed and stood, turning to the children who watched him with pale faces and wide eyes. He hated to destroy the hope he saw in their faces. Sorrow filled his eyes, “I’m sorry, he’s gone,” he told them gently.

Celia laid her head on Will’s shoulder and began sobbing again, her arms tight around her middle. Then Caleb, Josh, and Abbie were crying, too. Laura, not understanding, watched her brothers and sisters, then began crying louder than any of them. Will’s anguished eyes filled and he looked at Adam, What do I do now? His thought was so clear Adam almost thought he’d spoken aloud.

Adam placed a hand on Will’s shoulder, “Where‘s your Ma?”

Will gulped; he could see the compassion in this stranger’s eyes. He felt overwhelmed with all that had happened and the care of his brothers and sisters that had just landed smack down on his young shoulders. With Pa and Ma both gone… He looked up into the man’s face. His instinct told him that here was someone who could be trusted, someone who could help. He took a deep breath, hoping to control the tears that threatened to engulf him. “Ma died two weeks ago,” he said softly.

Adam just nodded; he had expected as much, otherwise the woman would have been here. “I’ll be outside for a bit, then we can talk.” He gripped Will’s shoulder, then left. He knew they would need time by themselves to let the initial grief subside.

The camp was neat and tidy, the wagon and stock well taken care of. It was a credit to the children’s upbringing that they had done so well, with their mother gone and their father ill. Obviously decent people, Adam wondered what had brought them here to this out of the way place.

He shook his head. Time enough for that later. He cared for Sport, hobbling him near the mules. There was good grass, and the Carson River was calm here. He knew the horse would stay close. He walked to the fire and added some logs. He glanced into the stew pot and at the still full bowls scattered on the ground. He’d interrupted supper apparently. He considered picking them up, but decided to let them lie, since he wasn’t sure what to do with them.

He retrieved his own coffee pot and coffee from his saddlebags, and the bit of jerky he’d tucked there yesterday morning. He chewed on the meat as he prepared the coffee. There were still muffled sobs from the tent. He sighed; he knew some of what they were going through, having gone through it himself, twice. At least he had had his Pa there to comfort him; he hadn’t been alone.

How much more difficult it must be for these children, who had no one but each other. There had been terror in young Will’s eyes, then relief when Adam had said they would talk. He had known Adam wouldn’t leave them to make out on their own. Of course, Adam had known it himself; he wasn’t the type of man to leave a bunch of children to fend for themselves.

He swept his hand over his face and sighed; this wasn’t going to be easy. He poured himself a cup of coffee and settled back against the log, looking into the fire. Six kids, no parents. He wondered if there were relatives. Back east, maybe? He doubted there were any around here. They had the look of travelers. How long might it take to notify the next of kin and…

Adam’s thoughts were interrupted as the tent flap opened and Celia stepped out. She hesitated slightly when she saw him, then walked quickly to the fire. Her eyes were red and swollen, but she wasn’t crying. She leaned over the stew pot and gave it a stir. She glanced at the bowls on the ground, and then at Adam, her look accusing him, as if it were his fault the bowls were still full. Well, Adam guessed it was, in a way. It had no doubt been his appearance that had sent the little ones scurrying for the tent without their supper.

“How are they doing?” Adam asked softly, hoping to break the silence.

Celia looked at him, but didn’t answer. Adam was puzzled by her reaction. It almost looked as if she were angry with him. He couldn’t quite read her face. She was obviously being more guarded than her brother had been.

With swift movements, and occasional hard glances at Adam, Celia dumped the stew back into the pot. Quickly she moved to the small kitchen area next to the tent and brought a bucket of water back to the fire. She knelt and carefully rinsed and wiped each bowl before stacking them neatly in a pile.

Adam decided to try again, “My name’s Adam Cartwright. What’s yours?”

Celia rose gracefully with the pot and bowls in her hands. She narrowed her eyes at him and raised her chin. Without a word, she turned and walked back into the tent.

Adam sighed and finished his coffee. Interesting reaction, he thought, I wonder if she’s angry at me or the world. He could hardly blame her either way. She had obviously been through a lot in the last few weeks. He moved the coffee pot off the flames, and followed Celia into the tent.

Celia had just given Will his bowl of stew when the tent flap opened and Adam walked in. She felt herself stiffen, and her stomach tighten. She didn’t like this man, whoever he was. He was too confident, too in charge. She turned her back on him and continued serving her little brothers and sisters.

Will stood and looked at Adam. “Mr. Cartwright?”

“Will, I hope I’m not interrupting; I was just wondering how you were doing.”

“We’re better, sir, thank you.”

“I’m glad; I was thinking it might be a good idea if we took care of your father now, if you feel up to it.”

Celia glanced at the cot where her father lay. What did he mean take care of him?

“Yes, sir,” Will agreed.

Will and Adam carefully pulled the blanket over Pa’s face. Adam tucked it around him and nodded at Will.

“If you think it’s all right, we can place him in the wagon for the night, and have the burial in the morning.”

“All right, sir.”

No!! Celia wanted to cry. What was Will doing letting this man make all the decisions? They knew nothing about him. Celia felt the anger within her build, anger at this tall stranger, anger at Will. They had no right, no right at all to… Celia’s fists clenched.

“Celia?”

She felt a warm hand on hers. She looked over to see Caleb watching her worriedly. “What?” she snapped, shaking off his hand.

“Are you all right?”

Celia felt the tears sting her eyes. Oh glory, now she was going to cry again. Hadn’t she done enough of that already? She wiped angrily at her eyes as she watched Will and Adam carry Pa outside. No, I’m not all right, she cried silently. Celia doubted she’d ever be all right again.

She looked over at Abbie and Laura, who were polishing off their stew, and then at her brothers. “Come on, let’s eat; Will can have his when he gets back.” She took a bite, and watched as Josh started on his, but Caleb just swirled his spoon in his bowl.

“I guess I don’t feel much like eating, Celia.” Caleb said and put his bowl down.

Celia understood she didn’t feel much like eating either. “You’ve got ta eat, Caleb.”

Caleb wiped a hand across his eyes. He nodded and picked up his bowl. They all three ate slowly, but the food was tasteless. Will returned and mechanically ate his supper, then went back outside to sit with Mr. Cartwright.

Celia tucked the two little girls into bed. She was glad they went quietly without fussing. Of course, they were too little to understand what was happening. For them, not much had changed; Pa had been so ill for so long, she doubted they’d realize the difference.

She looked at Josh and Caleb. “Best be gettin’ ta bed, too.” They both nodded and climbed in. Josh had tears in his eyes again, as Celia knelt beside him to kiss him goodnight.

“Cele?”

“Yes, Josh.”

“Pa’s in heaven with Ma now, huh?” His eyes glistened.

Celia felt her throat tighten. “Uh, huh.”

He was quiet for a moment. “I wish they was still here with us.”

Celia laid her hand on his cheek. “Yeah, Josh,” she said huskily, “me too.” She looked over at Caleb; tears were making tracks down his cheeks as he looked back at her. “Night, Caleb.”

He just nodded and rolled over. This was going to be a hard night for them all. She sighed and gathered up the dishes. At the door, she glanced back to make sure all was as well as could be, then left.

Outside Will and Mr. Cartwright were sitting next to the fire talking quietly. Celia caught her breath at the sight of Mr. Cartwright. Seeing him sitting there in the firelight, it dawned on her what had been bothering her about him. He looked like Pa. The realization hit her like a knife. She walked to her little kitchen, her mind racing. How could that be? She had heard it said that everyone had a double somewhere, and while Mr. Cartwright wasn’t Pa’s twin, they were enough alike to be brothers.

She glanced furtively at him as she did the dishes. They had the same build, tall and slim but muscled. Both had slightly wavy black hair, and their facial features were similar — high cheekbones, the nose — but Pa’s mouth was narrower, firmer Celia thought. Then, of course, the eyes were different, Mr. Cartwright’s eyes were light brown, maybe hazel — Celia hadn’t been able to tell — but Pa had blue eyes the color of the lake back home, with sparkles in them when he laughed. Celia wiped at her eyes furiously as another wave of grief tightened her stomach.

She watched Mr. Cartwright listening intently to something Will was telling him. If it had only been the physical similarities, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but he acted like him, too. Pa could look that intense. He’d look you in the eye, like what you had to say was the most important thing in the world. Pa had that same in control air about him, as if nothing would shake him. Celia couldn’t stand it anymore; she turned her back, glad she was almost done. She had to get away where she couldn’t see him anymore.

Celia finished the last dish and threw out the water. She wiped them carefully and put them away. Then every pore crying for relief, she quickly made for the tent and her own bed. Only then did she let go of the tears that were overwhelming her.

*****

The early spring morning dawned clear and cold but with the promise of warmth later in the day. Adam crawled out from his bedroll and stretched, breathing deeply of the crisp morning air. He had been uncomfortable sleeping in the tent with the children, especially as the oldest girl, Celia, still seemed to resent his presence among them. So he had made his bed next to the fire.

Adam stoked up the fire and filled the coffee pot. He rolled up his bedroll, and took Sport and the mules to water. Then he headed back to the fire and poured himself a cup of coffee. He was debating whether to attempt breakfast when Celia stepped out of the tent. She barely glanced at him as she moved to the temporary kitchen.

Adam watched as she carefully mixed a batch of biscuits. She moved to the fire and rearranged the coals to accommodate the Dutch oven, pointedly ignoring Adam sitting just on the other side of the fire with his coffee. Adam watched her with a slight smile on his face. He was amused at how noticeably she was trying to show him she had absolutely no use for him. Adam had hoped she’d be a little friendlier this morning. Well, no reason they both had to be disagreeable.

“Good morning,” he said pleasantly, “I hope you slept well?”

Celia threw him a disdainful glance then left, returning with the Dutch oven full of biscuits. She placed it carefully among the coals and used a small shovel to pour more coals on the lid.

Adam decided it was time for a more direct approach. He placed his cup down, and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “You want to tell me what’s bothering you?” he asked gently

The look she gave him was clear. Adam backed off and put his hands up. “All right. I guess not. I just want you to know I’m not going to hurt you, or your brothers and sisters. I only want to help.”

Celia didn’t respond, just rose and stalked toward the tent; at the entrance, she stopped and glanced over her shoulder at Adam. “We don’t need your help,” she informed him, then she disappeared inside.

Adam’s eyebrows shot up and he retrieved his coffee cup. Well, that was interesting. He considered Celia’s reaction to him. The others were friendly. Will especially seemed relieved and glad he was there. The younger ones seemed to take their cue from Will and appeared to accept him readily. True, the little girl, Laura, was shy, but that was natural for a toddler of two. No, it was only Celia who had a problem with him and went out of her way to show it. He hoped that he could eventually break through to what was bothering her.

*****

Will glanced up as Celia flounced her way into the tent. He was relieved to see her. He had been trying to get Laura dressed and wasn’t having much success. He was relieved that is, until he saw her face. “What’s got you all fired up?” he asked.

“That man is still out there.” She sat down hard on the cot.

Will sat down beside her. “You mean, Mr. Cartwright?”

Celia glared at Will. “I don’t have to give his name. You know who I mean.”

“Yeah, but I’m not sure what you have against him. What’s gotten into you, Celia? Mr. Cartwright’s promised to help us. Who knows what might have happened to us if he hadn’t been here.”

“We don’t need his help, Will. We’re doing fine on our own.”

“Are ya nuts! Six kids out here alone in the middle of nowhere. We’d all die and you know it, Celia.”

Celia knew Will was right, but she didn’t want to admit it. Anymore than she wanted to admit that they needed “that man’s” help. She didn’t want him; she wanted her Pa, and that man wasn’t him, no matter how much he might look and act like him.

Will sighed; he knew the look on Celia‘s face. It didn‘t help to reason with her when she got stubborn. “Look, Cele, you know what Ma and Pa’d expect. Ya just be polite ta Mr. Cartwright, ya understand? He’s gonna help us and we’re gonna be grateful and do what he asks. And no nonsense outa you!”

Celia glared sideways at Will. “Fine, I’ll be polite.” She stood and walked to the door. “But don’t ask me ta like it,” she huffed and left. He looked over to where Caleb and Josh were standing half dressed. Caleb rolled his eyes and Josh just shrugged. Will sighed, and pulled Laura to him. He for one was glad Adam Cartwright was here, because Celia alone was more than he could handle by himself!

*****

After breakfast, Adam and the children held the funeral for the children’s Pa, placing the grave on the little rise where their Ma had been buried two weeks earlier.

Will had told Adam how their Ma had been getting water when the bank collapsed under her, how his Pa had tried to rescue her, but had been too late. He also told him how the shock and cold had sent their Pa downhill from that day, and nothing the children could do had helped.

“Pa, lost the will ta live,” Will had explained, chokingly, “and nothing we did snapped him out of it. He wouldn’t even eat, these last days. Though Celia tried everything she could think of.”

Adam had gripped the boy’s shoulder in sympathy. Briefly, the thought had run through his mind that if he’d only checked on them last week, he might have been able to do something. He hadn’t known, though, and there was no use dwelling on what ifs.

Now they were burying the man next to his wife. Adam spoke the familiar words over the grave, then each of the children dropped a flower inside. Adam’s heart went out to the little group standing so solemnly beside their father’s grave. How well he could understand what they must be feeling. Hadn’t he stood in a similar place twice before?

The little ceremony completed, Celia took the little girls to the tent to start packing up while Adam and the boys remained to close up the grave.

By mid-afternoon they had the camp torn down and the wagon loaded. Adam had been impressed with how quickly the children went about the task of getting everything taken down and packed up. It was certain they had done this often before. Will and the boys set about moving everything out of the tent, while the little girls “helped” Celia pack up the kitchen things. Adam had stood unsure of what to do, until Will nodded towards the wagon.

“Pa always took care of getting the wagon ready and stuff packed in,” Will told Adam.

Adam smiled at him. “All right, I guess I’ll take care of that then.” He turned to see Celia standing close behind him.

“How kind of ya ta take Pa’s place, Mr. Cartwright.” Celia’s voice was syrupy sweet and her lips smiled pleasantly, but her eyes were insincere.

“I doubt any one could take your Pa’s place, Celia,” he told her gravely.

“Oh, really?” Adam winced at the sarcasm-laden politeness. “Isn’t that what you’re trying ta do?” She walked off before he could respond.

It had been the same the rest of the morning, Adam often caught Celia watching him, sometimes with a wistful expression that always hardened when she saw him looking at her. Each time she spoke to him, it was with the same syrupy politeness that made Adam long for a return to her sullen silences.

He tried to put it out of his mind as he tied down the canvas wagon top. He was testing the ropes when he felt a tug on his yellow coat. Looking down, he saw Abbie looking back up at him, Laura a little behind her, one finger stuck in her mouth. He hadn’t had much interaction with the little girls. He knelt down on one knee to place himself at eye-level with Abbie. She looked at him intently with serious eyes the color of the Nevada sky. He smiled encouragingly at her and waited, wondering what she wanted. She studied him intently for a moment, then suddenly launched herself at him, and hugged him tight. Surprised, Adam wrapped his arms around her and she snuggled close to him.

“You feel like my Pa,” she murmured into his shirt. Adam remained still, not sure what to do. Abbie turned her head and looked at Laura, her face beaming. “Come on Laura, it’s just like Pa.” Laura just stared until Adam smiled at her and held out one arm. She moved to join her sister in his embrace, and both girls cuddled close.

Well, Adam thought, at least somebody around here likes me. He hugged them, relishing the feel of childish arms around him. How long had it been, he wondered, since he’d held a child. He gave them another squeeze, then gently released them. He smiled. “Thank you, girls, I needed that.” Adam stood and laid a hand on Abbie’s soft hair. “You run along and help Celia now, all right? I need to get this wagon done, so I can get you all home.”

Abbie gave him a shy gap-toothed smile. “Can’t we watch ya? Pa always let us, as long as we stayed outa the way.”

“All right; how ’bout you and Laura stand over there.” He motioned to a spot a few feet away.

Abbie nodded and took Laura’s hand. “Come on, Laura, we gotta stand over here.” Laura smiled and followed her big sister.

The two girls had been his shadows the rest of the morning, but Adam had been pleased with how they had kept themselves out of his way. He had to admit their pleasant chatter was a relief from the angry glares Celia kept sending his way. Celia hadn’t been happy about the girls’ new found admiration for him, but Adam wasn’t going to deprive Abbie and Laura of whatever comfort they got out of being close to him. He decided that Celia would just have to deal with it.

It was just after noon when they had the final piece tucked into the wagon and the campsite cleaned. Celia and the younger children climbed into the back of the wagon under the canvas top and settled themselves, while Will and Adam took the wagon seat. Adam took up the reins and peeked into the back.

“Everyone ready?” A chorus of yes answered him, and Adam turned forward. He gave Will a smile. “Well, here we go.” And none too soon he thought. It was a long haul between here and the ranch house, and they wouldn‘t reach home until tomorrow afternoon sometime. He chirruped to the mules, and they were off.

They made good time. The mules were a good team, and Adam was pleased with how well they responded to his directions. The children were quiet; the older ones each seemingly lost in their own thoughts, while the younger ones slept, all of them exhausted by the emotions and activity of the last 24 hours. Adam was thankful for the quiet as it gave him a chance to sort out his own thoughts.

He was still in a bit of shock at how quickly he had become the de facto guardian to six children. He hadn’t really had any other choice. Hopefully, the children had some family somewhere that they could live with. If not… He looked over at Will sitting deep in thought next to him.

“Will.” Will jumped and looked at him, “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just wondering if you have any other family, around here or back East.”

Will nodded. “There’s my Aunt Lucille; she’s Ma’s younger sister. She lives back in Georgia. That’s where we’re from. Then my Uncle Blake lives out in Oregon. He’s Pa’s brother; that’s where we were headed before…” Will paused. “Well, before everything.”

“I see. Is that everyone? Just the one aunt and uncle?”

“Yes, sir, all my grandparents are gone, and Ma only had the one sister. Pa had another brother but he got himself killed during the war. If we had any other cousins or such, I never heard of them.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully. At least there were the two; hopefully one of them would be willing to take the children. “Well, we’ll send telegrams to your aunt and uncle as soon as we can. Until then, I’m sure my Pa will agree to your staying at the Ponderosa with us.” Adam saw a brief lightening of Will’s eyes, and understood the anxiety he must be feeling. Adam smiled at Will encouragingly. “Don’t worry, Will, I’ll make sure you and your brothers and sisters are taken care of; you have my promise on that.” He held out his hand.

Will looked at the hand held out to him and then into the face of the man it belonged to. He realized how fortunate they were to have Mr. Cartwright come along when he did. He reached out and clasped the outstretched hand tightly with his own. He felt tears prick the back of his eyes. “Thank you, sir, I can’t tell you what a relief that is.”

Adam just nodded and released Will’s hand. He turned towards the mules and clicked his tongue at them, giving Will a moment to recover himself.

They traveled through the afternoon in silence, stopping occasionally for breaks. The children were subdued, and Adam noticed Will furtively wipe tears away more than once. Quiet sobs came from the back now and then as either Josh or Caleb gave into their grief. Adam was thankful the two little girls were asleep or he was sure that it would have been worse.

He was sorry that the inactivity of travel was necessary as it gave the children too much time to think. Only Celia seemed unmoved as she sat holding Laura, with Abbie tucked up close beside her. Adam was worried about her; such stoicism wasn’t a good thing, he knew that from his own experience. He wished he knew if this was just the way she was or if it was his presence that kept her from acting on the sorrow he could see in her eyes in unguarded moments.

He turned his thoughts from Celia and watched the country pass slowly by them. This was a lovely area of the Ponderosa, but so far away from the main house that he didn’t often get a chance to savor it, as now. Vast meadows, rimmed by hills covered with tall pines, were filled with fat cattle and their calves. Streams gurgled their way through rocky outcroppings. The spring rains had been good this year, and the grass was tall and lush. The meadow flowers grew abundantly, making bright spots of color against the green. Adam took it all in and sighed contentedly; it was times like this he was glad to be alive. Glad to live on the Ponderosa. Glad of the freedom and spaces, and sheer vastness of it. Glad that he had chosen to return home after college. He thought of his Pa and brothers at home waiting for him and his heart swelled in gratitude. He had truly been blessed. His thoughts turned to the children riding with him, and he vowed to himself to see that they had a chance to feel that life had been good to them, too. It was the least he could do, after all he had been given.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a clear, sweet, soprano voice singing. He looked at Will with upraised eyebrows. Will smiled at him.

“It’s Celia, Laura musta woke up,” Will explained quietly.

Adam glanced into the back. Sure enough, there was Celia, rocking Laura gently in her arms, singing a lullaby. The girl had a lovely voice, and Adam was surprised at the gentleness in her face. It was a side of Celia he hadn’t been allowed to see. Quickly he faced forward again, not wanting Celia to see him watching her, knowing if she did, the moment would be spoiled.

Will looked over at him. “Laura likes Celia to sing to her. Ma had a good voice, too.” Will bowed his head and looked at his hands, his deep blue eyes thoughtful. He was quiet for several long minutes. “It doesn’t seem real they’re gone,” he said softly.

Adam was silent, waiting for Will to continue if he wanted to. When he didn’t say anything, Adam spoke quietly. “I lost my Ma, too.” Will looked over at him surprised. Adam watched the back of the mule as he continued. “Well, not my real mother, I never actually knew her. She died when I was born. But my stepmother.” He paused. “Her name was Inger.”

“What happened?”

Adam looked over at Will then back at the mules. “She died in an Indian attack on our way west.”

“Did ya love her?”

“Yes.” He gave Will a small smile. “She was good to me, and the only mother I had known. She came into my Pa’s and my life like a ray of sunshine. She was a real Ma to me, even if we weren’t blood. When she died, I had a hard time realizing she was gone and not coming back. I kept expecting her to show up again.” Adam laughed a little self-consciously. “Of course, I was only six at the time.”

“So I guess Celia was wrong.”

“Oh?” Adam’s mouth quirked in amusement. “What did Celia say?”

“She said ya couldn’t know what we were going through.”

Adam looked at Will, his dark eyes serious. “Yes, Celia’s wrong. I know what you’re going through.” He turned back to the mules.

Will watched him a moment, and it finally made sense. Mr. Cartwright was helping them because he knew what it was like. Somehow the thought made Will feel better. “Does it get easier?”

Will saw Mr. Cartwright ponder that a moment.

“In some ways, yes; the raw pain will lessen in time. But you will always miss them. And sometimes you’ll see or hear something that will remind you of them, and it will all come rushing back.”

Will felt the tears prick his eyes, and his throat tightened. “You’re a lot like Pa,” he told Adam. “He was dark like ya, and tall.” Will looked out over the landscape, avoiding Adam’s gaze. “Sometimes there’s things ya do that are the same way Pa did them. I think that’s why Celia’s so mad at ya. Ya remind her too much of Pa, and she doesn’t like it.”

Adam wasn’t sure what to say to that; he hadn’t noticed a physical resemblance between himself and the children’s pa, but the man had been so wasted perhaps that wasn’t surprising. It did perhaps explain the younger children’s easy acceptance of him, and, if Will was right, Celia’s resentment.

Both Adam and Will sank into silence, each lost in their own thoughts, as they listened to Celia sing.

The sun was low in the sky when Adam stopped the mules. A small stream and a grove of saplings made this an excellent place to camp for the night. He and his brothers had used the area often on overnight excursions. He looped the reins over the whip stand and hopped down. “All right, everyone, here’s where we stop for the night.”

The children tumbled out of the wagon, groaning a little as tired muscles reacted to moving after being immobile so long. Then they spread out like chickens let out of their roost on a morning. Adam chuckled to himself when he saw the four youngest headed right for the creek. Just like Hoss and I used to, he thought to himself. Will and Celia followed them a little slower, and Adam knew they’d watch out for their younger siblings. That gave him time to take care of other things, like the stock.

Adam untied Sport from the back of the wagon and brought him up closer to the mules. “Hang on a bit, buddy; I’ll take you to water.” He gave Sport a pat and turned his attention to unharnessing the mules. He nodded in appreciation when Will joined him and began on the mule across from him. They worked quickly and efficiently together, and Adam couldn’t help thinking of how much Will reminded him of himself at that age — sturdy and dependable, seeing what needed done and doing it.

Adam got his mule unharnessed and took a quick check of where the others were. He was pleased to see they were hard at work, too, setting up camp for the night. Celia was giving orders like a good ramrod. She had Caleb and Josh gathering wood, and Abbie helping her get a fire ring built up ready for supper. Even tiny Laura was carrying blankets and pillows and placing them in a not necessarily neat pile near the fire. Adam grinned in approval. Will wasn’t the only one with a good sense of responsibility. It made him wish he could have known Gerald and Alice Cooper; they must have been good people, if their children were anything to judge by.

He grabbed Sport’s lead and with the horse and one mule he headed for the stream, Will close beside him with the other mule. He was standing with a hand on Sport’s shiny neck when he heard Celia shriek. He turned to run for the camp but stopped when he saw Josh and Caleb doubled over with laughter.

“Ya little worms! Ya know I don’t like those things!” Celia shouted at her brothers.

“What’s wrong, Celia, ya afraid of a little ol’ frog.” Caleb hooted at his sister.

Josh was rolling on the ground. “Oh, oh, Celia ya shoulda seen you’re face!”

“Very funny, boys!” Celia was not amused.

Adam shook his head and chuckled to himself; it was good that the boys felt like teasing their sister, but poor Celia had already been through a lot today. He might have to have a talk with Caleb and Josh about this. For a moment, he wished Pa were there. He’d know what best to do. He let the horse and mules finish drinking. Giving Will an amused glance over the backs of the animals, he said, “I noticed you didn’t head for your sister.”

Will shrugged and grinned. “It’s an old joke between Celia and the boys; they do it almost every night, with whatever critter they can find. Celia hates any creepy crawly, and they love ta scare her with them. She’s not really mad at ’em; its just part of the joke,” Will explained.

“I see, well, I guess I missed out on that, not having any sisters to scare with creepy crawlies,” Adam commented with a grin.

“Yes, sir, guess ya did.”

Laughing, the two led their animals back to camp.

Celia watched as Will and Mr. Cartwright came back to camp, laughing together. Her lips tightened and she turned her back to them. She didn’t want to watch Will so friendly with Mr. Cartwright. It hurt too much; she couldn’t believe Will had forgotten Pa so easily. She quickly wiped a tear away that had slipped out, and knelt to arrange the fire just right in the circle of rocks. It wasn’t fair the way all her brothers and sisters seemed to have gotten over what happened so easily. Celia felt as if her heart wouldn’t work right, and their was a terrible ache in her chest that just wouldn’t go away, and on top of it all was that man and the way they all fawned over him.

She laid the heavy cast iron spider over the fire and placed a skillet on top. She laid strips of salt pork in the pan and carefully turned the potatoes already lying in the coals. With a flip of her braid and another glare at Will, she picked up a bucket and headed for the stream for more water. They didn’t really need it. Caleb had already filled two other buckets, but anything to get away from Will and Mr. Cartwright. It was too bad the stream was so close.

Smoothly she knelt and let the bucket fill. A golden light began to filter across the water and Celia glanced up. The sun was a ball of molten gold as it set behind the mountains. Celia’s breath caught; it was beautiful. The dying sun’s rays had set the layers of clouds above it on fire. Brilliant red, orange and yellow streaked the sky and the mountains stood out in dark contrast to the blazing glory over them. Celia felt her spirit soar with the wonder of it and she remembered a verse Pa used to recite to her.

“I will lift up my eyes unto the hills.” she murmured softly to herself, “from whence cometh my help.” She stood mesmerized while the golden light she stood in transformed all around her and the sun slowly melted into the mountain. The sky changed from brilliant orange to scarlet, and Celia could only let out her breath in awe.

“Celia.”

The deep voice made her jump and she turned, for a moment her heart leapt Pa? But, no, it was only Mr. Cartwright. Celia felt again the sharp pain she now associated with his presence.

“Are you all right?”

No, how can I be with you here? she thought to herself. Celia saw the concern in his eyes, and she knew he was truly worried about her. He was kind, it would be so easy to…

No! She wouldn’t. Let the others give in to his insidious kindness; she wouldn’t let him make her forget. She picked up the bucket, and brushed passed him. “Just fine, thank you very much, Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam watched her go with a sigh; for a moment there, he had almost thought… Well, she was just a skittish little filly; he smiled wryly at the thought. It sounded like something Hoss would say. But he would no doubt be right. Celia acted just like a young horse, very unsure of herself, and him. Patience was the key he knew. He just wished he could think of some way to help her trust him. He sighed again and followed Celia back to the fire.

The children had gathered around, their hungry noses sniffing the aromas coming from the frying pan. Celia stuck a fork in a potato and pronounced it done. A cheer went up from the waiting group and she smiled at them. She ordered them to get their plates and they lined up next to her. Carefully, she placed a potato and some salt pork on each plate, as one by one they held them out to her and then marched over to sit cross-legged around the fire. Will brought up the rear, balancing Laura’s plate as well as his own. Celia looked over at Adam and then slowly, deliberately, she filled another plate, and held it out to him.

He walked over and smiled, “Thank you,” he said as he took it from her. Celia just nodded and turned to get her own plate. Adam sat down across the fire from the others, who were waiting expectantly, watching him. It took a moment, but then he realized it was up to him to choose someone to say the blessing. He cleared his throat nervously and looked at Will. “Will, could you say the blessing for us?”

Will nodded. “Lord, for this that we are about ta receive, may we be truly grateful, Amen.”

The ‘amen’ was as good as a gunshot to the children and they were soon devouring their food in a way only hungry children can. Adam chuckled to himself; it looked like Hoss was going to have some competition.

The rest of the evening went well, and Adam was grateful for that. After supper had been eaten and the dishes washed up and put away, Adam had gathered the children around the fire and told them a few of the tales he used to tell Joe, about the journey he and Pa and Hoss had taken West. Then Will had told him a little of their own travels, getting interrupted often as one of the others would correct him on some detail or other. There was some laughter, and more than a few furtive tears, quickly wiped away, as the children’s Ma and Pa came into the story. Only Celia remained silent and rather sullen, seemingly lost in her own thoughts.

Getting the children settled for bed had been a bigger challenge. Adam had the girls sleep on one side of the fire and the boys with him on the other. All went well enough while they were busy getting their bedrolls laid out, until Abbie realized she wasn’t going to get to sleep next to Adam and started fussing. Celia’s scolding for being a baby didn’t help and soon she was crying loudly. Laura, seeing Abbie crying, sent up a wail of her own, and was soon sobbing hysterically for her Ma. Celia knelt down to console Laura, while Will grabbed Abbie, told her to be quiet, and gave her a shaking which only intensified the crying. At which point Josh pushed Will and told him to leave Abbie alone, and Caleb entered the fray on Will’s side. Then the fight between the two little boys was on. Adam realized it was time for an adult to step in.

“All right, that’s enough!” he bellowed in a voice he hoped was as authoritative as his Pa’s. It must have been, because the silence was instantaneous. The children all looked at him wide-eyed. “Now,” he said quietly, “we can hear ourselves think.” He walked over to Abbie who was holding onto Celia and watching Adam as if he’d just grown horns. He knelt down in front of her and smiled to show her he wasn’t really angry. “What seems to be the problem?”

He saw Abbie’s face start to crumple again and he held up a hand, “No crying, Abbie just tell me,” he said quietly, but firmly.

“I want ta sleep next ta you,” she hiccoughed sadly.

“Uh, huh,” Adam said thoughtfully. “Well, Abbie, where did Celia say you were supposed to sleep?”

“With her.”

“That’s right. Now Celia is in charge, so you need to do as she says and no fussing about it, understand?”

Abbie nodded and glanced at Celia. She drew in a shuddering breath and her lip quivered, but she remained silent.

Adam cupped her cheek with his hand, and gave her another smile. “That’s my good girl.” He stood and looked around at the others who were still standing in silent shock.

“All right, kids, we have another long day tomorrow and we need to get some sleep. So everyone get your beds made and get in them. And no more fussing!” With relief, Adam watched as the children obeyed him. It was the first time he’d had to use his authority and he was glad the children hadn’t challenged him on it, since he knew it was pretty shaky at best, and he was still unsure of how far he was willing to go to enforce their obedience.

The children quietly settled into their beds, Celia and Will helping the younger ones. Adam waited a moment to make sure all was going smoothly then went for one last check of the animals. He was giving Sport an extra pat when he heard someone approach. He turned quickly to see Celia standing behind him and he raised an eyebrow at her.

“Abbie and Laura want ya ta tuck them in,” she said without expression and quickly turned back toward camp. Adam bit his lip in frustration; the girl was starting to get on his nerves. He followed her to the campfire and saw Abbie and Laura both sitting up in their bedroll. The two girls were sleeping together and he crouched down on his heals beside them.

“Celia said you wanted me to tuck you in.” He looked at Abbie, who nodded at him. “Well, down you go.” He reached over and took hold of the edge of the blanket; Abbie wriggled down into the blanket and Laura snuggled down beside her. Adam carefully pulled the blanket up over them. The girls smiled at him with sleepy eyes.

They sure are cute little girls, Adam couldn’t help thinking, and they were handling their parent’s absence better than he would have expected. They all were really, except maybe Celia, and Adam wasn’t even sure if it was her parent’s absence or his presence that was bothering her the most. Maybe she just plain didn’t like him.

“Mr. Cartwright” Abbie said softly.

“Yes, Abbie.”

“Pa always gave us a kiss.” The sadness in her eyes, smote him. He didn’t speak, merely leaned over and kissed her forehead; he felt her arms slide around his neck and she whispered “Good night, Mr. Cartwright.” in his ear.

“Good night, Abbie,” he said as he pulled away. He glanced over at Laura who was already asleep. He touched Abbie’s hair. “Sleep well.”

She nodded and, with a small smile on her face, she rolled over towards Laura and closed her eyes. Adam stood, a smile on his own face. He glanced around the camp; Caleb and Josh were in their bedrolls, but giggling quietly to each other. Celia had rolled herself in her blankets, and completely covered herself. He debated telling her goodnight and decided she’d been pushed enough for one day and let her alone. Will sat next to the fire, poking it, his look somber and thoughtful.

Adam walked over and sat on his heels next to him. Placing another log on the fire, he watched the sparks scatter into the night sky. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot over the fire and sat down on a box close by. Will hadn’t seemed to notice him. Adam sipped the coffee — it was still warm enough, but had gotten strong from sitting so long – – and he grimaced.

“It’ll be cold tonight,” Adam observed hoping to break Will’s reverie. “We’ll have to make sure to keep the fire built up. Wouldn’t want the girls getting cold.” He looked at Will, and waited a moment. “Anything you’d like to talk about?” he asked softly.

Will just shook his head, no, and Adam didn’t force it. He sipped the coffee again and waited. He knew something was on Will’s mind, but if Will was anything like himself — and he’d seen enough evidence that he was — prying for it wouldn’t work. Will would tell him or not as he chose. He was the same way, himself. Nothing could pry something out of him he didn’t want to tell, though his family sure tried it often enough. Adam had to smile at the realization that the shoe was on the other foot now. Here he was in Pa’s position, waiting. It gave him a new respect for Pa’s patience with him.

Finally, after several minutes had passed, Will sighed and stood. He sat down on the box next to Adam. “Mr. Cartwright?” Will began, “what are you going to do with us?”

Adam was puzzled, “I’m not sure what you’re asking, Will.”

“I mean after we get ta your house.”

“Well, I guess I figured you’d stay with us until we hear from your aunt or uncle.”

“But that could take awhile, couldn’t it?”

Adam had considered that. “Yes, it could, but I don’t want you to worry about that. You’ll be welcome at the Ponderosa as long as it takes.”

Will looked at him doubtfully. “What if you don’t find them?”

It was the one question Adam had been dreading, because he really didn’t have an answer for it. He sighed and swirled the coffee in his cup. “That’s one I can’t answer, Will.” He looked over at the boy. “Because I don’t know, not for sure. Hopefully, we’ll find your aunt or uncle and they’ll be able to come for you. If not, I’ll try to find a home for you around here.”

“That’s not going to be easy, sir, with six of us.”

“I know, but I’ll try.”

Will turned away from him and stared into the fire, his face hardened and his voice was determined. “I know what happens ta big families like ours when they lose their Ma and Pa. They get separated.” Will’s voice took on a fierce note. “Well, we’re not going to be separated, Mr. Cartwright. I just ain’t goin’ ta let that happen. I want ya ta know that now.” He turned his head and stared into Adam’s eyes, resolve clear in his young face. “I’ll take them far away before I’ll let that happen. We won’t be separated,” he repeated, emphatically.

Adam didn’t know what to say. He understood Will’s feelings, but it was possible the only solution would be to separate them. It would be very hard to find a family willing to take in six children at once. He took a deep breath, and wished for the hundredth time that Pa was here.

“I understand how you feel, Will. I don’t want to see you and your brothers and sisters separated any more than you do. And I promise I’ll do everything in my power to keep that from happening. But it just may not be possible.” He saw Will stiffen at that. “Will, you’ll just have to trust me that that will be the very last solution.” He laid his hand on Will’s shoulder. “I really don’t think it will come to that; there are a lot of other avenues to try first.”

Will nodded. “All right, I just thought ya should know how I felt about it.”

“I understand. Now what do you think of you and I getting some sleep.” He clapped Will’s shoulder and stood. Will gave him a slight grin and followed him to their bedrolls.

*****

The night was far gone when Adam was awakened by the sound of crying. He listened for a moment then raised himself on one arm. He glanced around at the forms lying around the campfire, trying to determine where the sound was coming from. It wasn’t one of the boys, for it came from across the way where the girls had bedded down. He sat up cautiously trying not to awaken Josh, who had somehow managed to get himself halfway onto Adam’s bedroll. He was pretty sure it was Celia who was crying; the sounds were muffled as if whoever was making them didn’t want anyone else to know about it. The poor girl, all day she had been so brave, and now in the dark she was crying her eyes out. Adam felt for the girl. Hadn’t he wept tears into his pillow often enough in the days after Inger’s death, and again after Marie’s, hoping Pa wouldn’t hear him, yet also hoping he would.

Adam slowly eased his legs out from under Josh and crept carefully over to where Celia lay. He could see her bedroll shaking, and he laid a hand on her shoulder. “Celia,” he said softly. He felt her tense up, and she turned towards him, her face pale in the dim light from the campfire. “Are you all right?”

Celia looked at the man beside her and felt the now familiar jump of her heart every time she saw Mr. Cartwright. How like Pa he is, Celia thought, I could almost imagine it is Pa. Celia closed her eyes and shuddered. She wondered how two men could be so much alike, and yet different.

She looked into Mr. Cartwright’s concerned face, and for a moment wanted nothing more than to throw herself into his arms and cry out all her anger and frustration. She wanted him comfort her and wrap his arms around her as she had seem him do to Abbie and Laura earlier today. Then she remembered how angry she had been at her sisters, and felt the same anger at herself. No, she wouldn’t do it. This man wasn’t a replacement for Pa, no matter how much he looked and acted like him. No one could replace Pa for her; she wouldn’t allow it.

“Go away and leave me alone.” Celia spoke through clenched teeth.

“Celia, I heard you crying, I thought you might need someone to talk to. I only want to help,” Adam said calmly hoping to deflect her anger. It only made it worse.

“HELP!!” Celia flung the blankets from herself and stood in front of him, angry tears now streaming down her face. “How do you think you can HELP?! Who do you think you are?” Her voice rose shrilly waking the others. “Do you think you’re my Pa? That you can help me! Go away and leave me alone. You ain’t my Pa, I don’t need you! Just GO AWAY!” She launched herself at him and he caught her arms as she tried to hit him. “Let go of me!”

Adam did, gently pushing her away and into Will’s arms, where she collapsed in wracking sobs.

“Celia, what’s going on? Mr. Cartwright?” Will looked at Adam in bewilderment.

“Oh, Will, I miss Pa so much.” Celia answered, brokenly.

Celia’s torment caused Will’s own eyes to tear, as he held his sobbing sister close. Then all the children were crowded around Will and Celia, crying for the parents they had lost. Adam could only stand and watch. He knew he was helpless to comfort them at that moment, so he did the only thing he could do, what he imagined his own Pa would do. He bowed his head and prayed that the heavenly Father would heal and comfort their broken hearts.

*****

They were on their way before dawn the next morning, Adam being determined to get to the ranch house before noon. He knew he was way overdue and was afraid his family would start worrying. He should have known it wouldn’t take even this long for the family to worry. They had hardly made a couple miles when Josh, who was sitting between Adam and Will, let out a yell and pointed.

“Hey, check out the Indian pony!” He turned to Caleb, behind him. “Hey, Caleb, look! An Indian pony!” Heads popped out between Adam, Will and Josh, eagerly looking for the pony.

“Is it an Indian, Mr. Cartwright?” Caleb asked excitedly and Adam laughed.

“No, Caleb, I’d say that’s my little brother coming to check on me.”

The children stared at him in surprise, then back at the black and white pony racing towards them.

“Wow, he sure is fast,” Josh breathed in admiration. Adam laughed again and stopped the mules to wait for Little Joe, who came rushing up to them in a cloud of dust.

“Hey, Older Brother, what’s all this,” Joe greeted Adam with a grin.

“Good morning, to you too, Little Joe.” The pleased sound in his voice took any sting out of his sarcasm.

Joe laughed, “Oh, yeah, Morning, but…” He gestured again. His eyes asking what’s with…

Adam replied with a shake of his head. Later, his own eyes answered.
Out loud, he said “Joe, I’d like you to meet the Coopers.” He indicated each child in turn. “Will, Celia, Caleb, Josh, Abbie, and…” He looked puzzled, “Where’s Laura?” Laura struggled out from behind her older brothers.

“Here I yam,” she said with a wide grin.

Adam smiled back at her. “…And Laura. Kids, this is my brother Little Joe.” They all greeted Joe in chorus, and Joe smiled back.

“So what brings you out this way so early, Joe?” Adam asked as if he didn’t already know.

Joe gave him a smug look. “Think you know that already. Pa was so worried when you didn’t show up last night, there was nothing else to do but saddle up and come lookin’ for you.”

Adam nodded; he could well imagine how that conversation had gone. Ben pacing, trying not to look worried, but doing a poor job of it. Hoss and Joe trying to convince him all was fine. He’d been in the same situation himself a thousand times when either of his brothers were later than expected. Nor could he blame his father; too often they HAD been in trouble of some kind or another, and the thought that the family would be looking for them was the only thing that kept them going.

“Glad to see it wasn’t anything serious this time,” Joe remarked, stressing the ‘this time’.

“No, I’m fine, just a little delayed. You can tell Pa we should be there around noon or so.”

“Sure,” Joe replied. And what do I tell Pa about the rest? his expression asked silently.

Adam answered the silent question out loud. “And tell him I have some guests with me.”

Joe’s eyebrows hit his hairline. “Guests?”

Adam sighed, He knew Joe was dying of curiosity, but there was no good way to go into it now. “Just tell him, Joe; I’ll explain everything when we get there.”

Joe realized he wasn’t getting anything else out of Adam at the moment. “All right, Adam, I’ll go home and get out the welcome mat. Kids, it was great meeting you!” He saluted and whirled Cochise away, then was gone as quickly as he had come.

“Wow.” Caleb exclaimed, “That’s one fast pony!”

“Is it really an Indian Pony, Mr. Cartwright?” Josh added.

Adam chuckled. “Well, Pa traded the Paiute Chief, Winnemucca, a buffalo gun for Cochise, so yes, I guess you could say he’s an Indian pony.” He smiled again at the look on Josh and Caleb’s faces. Obviously, Cooch had made a big impression. He’d have to remember to tell Little Joe; he was very proud of that pony of his. “But we are getting nowhere at this rate; everyone get settled again. Here we go!”

There was a rush to return to places, then Adam slapped the reins on the mules back and with a “Hiyyupp!” they were on their way once more.

The next few hours of travel were pleasant, the children seemingly recovered from the events of the night. They chatted and laughed together, and exclaimed as Adam pointed out favorite scenery, or gave the names of the various trees and flowers they saw in passing.

Even Celia had moments when her interest was aroused. But Adam noticed that most of her time was spent curled up with her arms around her knees, staring at nothing and snapping at anyone who came close. Adam had decided the only thing he could do about it was wait, and hope Pa could somehow get through to the troubled girl. He was getting nowhere himself and so left her strictly alone.

They were only an hour or so from the ranch house and Adam was pushing the mules hard, anxious to get home, when a brown head with two tight braids poked her head out of the back. “Will, I need to…you know.” Abbie looked desperately at her older brother. “Laura, too, Celia told me to tell you.”

Will looked embarrassed, but Adam just laughed and stopped the mules. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, they’re always havin’ to stop.”

“It’s not a problem, Will.” Though Adam sighed to himself; it was the fourth time in as many hours and he knew they weren’t going to make it home by noon. Somehow he hadn’t realized traveling with children could be so slow. He handed the reins to Will and turned to Abbie. “Here, sugar, let me help you.” She smiled her big gap-toothed grin, and clambered onto the wagon seat. “Where’s Laura?” Adam asked climbing down and grabbing hold of Abbie to swing her down.

“Celia’s got her; they went out the back”

“But you had to come out the front?”

“Sure, I like you better; Celia’s an ol’ crabby thing right now!” Abbie scowled in a good imitation of her cross sister.

Adam tried to look sternly at her, “Well, Celia’s having a hard time right now, so you be nice to her all right?”

“All right, Mr. Cartwright!”

“Abbie!” Abbie’s cross sister stormed up to them. “Will ya get a move on!” She grabbed Abbie’s hand and looked at Adam. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Cartwright, Abbie has business to take care of.” Adam groaned inwardly; there was that same syrupy politeness again, he still hadn’t decided which was worse, the silence or the politeness.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “That’s quite all right, Miss Cooper. Please. “He gestured towards some bushes and watched her drag Abbie and Laura away. He hoped they hurry; they couldn’t get home too soon. He needed someone else’s help with Celia.

*****

Joe was as good as his word, and a welcoming committee consisting of himself, Pa and Hoss awaited Adam and the children as they pulled into the yard of the large Ponderosa ranch house.

Adam halted the mules, and jumped down, handing the reins to a waiting ranch hand. He turned and helped the two little girls down, as the others scrambled out of the wagon by themselves and gathered in a small group close to the mules. They stared wide-eyed at the huge house and the three men standing in front of it.

Adam led Abbie and Laura over to the others, then walked toward his Pa and brothers. “Pa, sorry I worried you.” He gripped Ben’s hand.

Ben Cartwright clapped Adam on the shoulder. “That’s quite all right, son. Joe explained you’d been detained.”

Adam decided to ignore the question in Ben’s eyes. “Yes, unavoidably, I’m afraid.” He turned to the Coopers and gestured for them to come closer, and they shuffled forward, rather reluctantly. “Pa, Hoss, I’d like you to meet Will, Celia, Caleb, Josh, Abbie and Laura Cooper. Children this is my father, Ben Cartwright, and my brother Hoss, you’ve already met Little Joe”

“Hello, Mr. Cartwright, uh, Mr. Cartwright” Young Will spoke for them all; the others in too much awe of the rather stern figure in front of them to utter a sound.

Hoss grinned at Will. “Just Hoss is fine.”

“How do you do, children.” Ben was a little unsure himself. He turned again to Adam, his eyes searching his eldest son’s for some answers.

Adam knew he couldn’t ignore it this time. He placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I promise I’ll explain as soon as I can, but I think it might be better to get everyone inside.”

“Of course, you’re right.” Ben turned to the children; “Hop Sing has some hot food ready.”

Adam nodded. “All right, everyone,” he clapped, “into the house.” He picked up Laura and took Abbie’s hand, and led the way like a mother goose with a whole gaggle of goslings.

Joe grinned at Hoss, who stood unbelieving, looking after his older brother. It sure was a sight Adam Cartwright and all those kids!

*****

The firelight glowed softly, and flickered against the walls of the darkened great room. Adam sighed with contentment from his favorite chair next to the fire. It was good to be home again. It had been a stressful couple of days and sleep had been difficult in coming. He sipped the tea Hop Sing had made for him before retiring for the night. It was supposed to be restful, and Adam could only hope so. There were so many thoughts running through his mind, he was beginning to wonder if he’d ever get to sleep.

He settled back into his chair and stared into the fire. He was pleased with how well the evening had gone; he had been worried over how the children would act. He needn’t have been; they had been fine, and he had been proud of them. He smiled to himself at that thought. Funny how quickly a person becomes attached to something. He hadn’t realized how much he had wanted the children to make a good impression, or how much he wanted the children to like his family. He didn’t know why he had been worried; he had already known the children were well taught, polite, with excellent manners, and who could help liking his family?

The children had been shy at first, of course, but Hoss and Joe had soon put them at ease with their cheerful stories, and jokes, doing their best to draw each child out in turn. Dinner had been pleasant. Hop Sing had made a feast worthy of much more exalted guests, and the children had endeared themselves to the Cartwright’s fiery cook by devouring the meal with much evident enjoyment. Adam hadn’t the heart to spoil Hop Sing’s pleasure by pointing out that the children hadn’t had much but salt pork and potatoes for several weeks. He needed Hop Sing’s help if the children ended up staying for very long, and he was well aware that the way to Hop Sing’s heart was through praise of his cooking.

He had settled the children into two of the guest rooms shortly after supper. The tired children drifted off to sleep soon after piling into bed. Even Will and Celia had been grateful to crawl in next to their respective siblings in the big guest beds, and lose themselves to the world.

Adam glanced up at a step on the stairs. A deep voice from the landing whispered his name.

“Adam?”

“Down here, Pa.”

Ben made his way down the rest of the steps. He smiled at his tall son. “What’s the matter? Couldn’t sleep?”

Adam shook his head. “Too much on my mind I’m afraid”

Ben settled himself in the chair across from Adam, and took out his pipe. He lit a match against the stones of the fireplace, and Adam saw Ben’s face briefly in the glow as he lit the pipe. “They’re good kids,” Ben remarked, leaning forward to throw the match into the fire.

Adam murmured his agreement, then returned to watching the flames.

Ben settled back, preparing to wait his son out. He studied Adam’s face in the firelight and was pleased with what he saw. Adam looked relaxed, and rather pleased with himself. Well, why not? Ben thought. He has done a good work the last couple of days. Ben smiled just as Adam glanced up at him.

“What’s so funny?” Adam asked, smiling himself.

“Nothing,” Ben replied. “Just thinking how proud I am of you.” He knew Adam would be embarrassed but couldn’t help himself, he was proud of his son.

Adam shrugged but his expression was pleased. “I didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t have done. I could hardly have left those children out there all by themselves.”

“No, no you couldn’t. Any idea how they ended up clear out there along the Carson River instead of on the trail along the Truckee?” Ben felt a little smug that he’d gotten Adam to talk so soon, and hoped to keep it going.

“Not exactly sure.” Adam paused to sip his tea and think a minute. “Will said they came out last summer with a wagon train, but that Laura and Abbie had gotten sick just outside of Reno. The family decided to stay the winter and continue on to Oregon in the spring, rather than risk the little girls across the Sierras”

“Oregon?” Ben asked in surprise. “Then they really were lost.”

“Yeah, can’t figure that one out myself, but that’s where Will said they were headed. They have an uncle on the Willamette River. They were going to settle by him. We may never know how they ended up so far off the trail.”

“An uncle, that’s good. I assume you’re planning on contacting him?”

“Uh huh. I thought I’d head into town first thing and send him a telegram. There’s an aunt back in Georgia, too. Hopefully one or the other can come get the kids.”

The two men were silent for a moment until Ben finally asked the question they were both thinking. “And what if they can’t?”

Adam ran a hand over his face; his Pa had just voiced his worst fear. “I don’t know Pa. For now, I’m just praying that one of them can. Besides it really is pointless to talk about until we’ve heard from the aunt and uncle; one or the other is bound to come for them. They’re their own kin, after all.”

Ben nodded. “Yes, they’re their own kin, but I think you and I both know that doesn’t always make a difference, but as you say, there’s no sense worrying about it at the moment. Well, it’s getting late.” Ben leaned forward and tapped his pipe into the fire. “And this old man needs his sleep.” He chuckled and began to rise.

Adam took a deep breath and looked at Ben. “Pa, there’s something else I’d like to talk to you about, if you have a minute.”

Ben sat back down and waited. Adam sat with his head against the back of the chair, staring at the ceiling. Ben could see the indecision on his face. The minutes ticked slowly by, as the emotions played over Adam’s face. Ben knew his son well, after another minute of silence he spoke. “You mind if I take a stab at what you wanted to talk about?” Adam looked at him. “It’s the oldest girl, Celia, isn’t it?”

Adam looked at Ben in surprise, and Ben chuckled. “No, I didn’t read your mind, or at least not literally. I noticed she’s not taking this well, and knowing you, I realized it would weigh on you.”

“Well, it is weighing on me. I just can’t seem to get through to her. I was hoping you’d have some ideas.”

“Any idea what she has against you? I mean that literally. It does seem to be you that’s the trouble.”

“Yeah, so I noticed,” Adam remarked drily “She was fine with you and the others.”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say she was fine, but she did seem to go out of her way to let you know she wanted nothing to do with you.”

Adam chuckled humorlessly. “It was that noticeable.”

“It was.”

“No, I don’t know what she has against me, but it’s been this way since I first found them. There are times she seems to soften a little, and it has actually gotten better.” Ben raised an eyebrow at that, and Adam smiled. “Believe it or not.”

They both sat silently for a moment. “Will did say I looked like their father; he thought that might have something to do with it, Adam said softly.

Ben looked at him. “Oh?” He nodded thoughtfully. “I can see how that would be difficult for her. She was close to her father?”

“I couldn’t say. She does seem to think I’m trying to take his place.”

“And she resents it. Well, Adam that is a perfectly logical explanation, and frankly, an understandable one as well.”

“Yes, perfectly logical.” Adam stood suddenly and leaned against the fireplace. He stared into the flames. “And perfectly understandable.” He looked at Ben, the frustration he was feeling plain on his face. “But it doesn’t help me figure out what to do about it, how to help her. I’m not trying to take her father’s place. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, which I don’t” He turned back to the fire. “I just don’t know how to convince her of that,” he finished softly.

Ben stood and laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “You may not be able to, son, at least not at first. But in time, she’ll see that all you want to do is help.” Adam looked at Ben. “It may not be the answer you want, Adam, but I think the only thing you can do is be kind to her, be patient, show her you’re her friend, and give it time.”

Adam nodded, accepting the wisdom of his father’s words. “Perhaps a little easier said than done.” He smiled.

“Most things are,” Ben acknowledged with a smile of his own.

*****

Adam, Will, Caleb, and Josh made the trip to town the next day. Celia had elected to stay at home with the two girls, and Adam was a little guilty over the relief he felt over it. Not guilty enough to try to change her mind, though, Adam thought to himself. He wasn’t used to living in the same house with someone who disliked him so much; it was not a comfortable situation to be in.

Fortunately, Celia and Hop Sing had found common ground in an equal love of the culinary arts, and Celia had offered to help Hop Sing with the cooking while she was there, an offer that would have normally sent the little man into nervous prostration, but to everyone’s surprise he had accepted with a smile and the two seemed to be on their way to becoming firm friends.

Adam pulled the wagon up in front of Cass’ General Store, and he and the boys hopped down. The three boys, looking like peas in a pod with their white shirts, suspenders and flat brimmed hats, looked around eagerly at the new town, each trying to take in as much as possible.

“All right,” Adam said, taking out the list Hop Sing had given him. “Let’s give this to Mr. Cass, and then we can head over to the telegraph office, and get those telegrams sent to your aunt and uncle.”

Adam and the boys headed into the store, the list was handed over to Mr. Cass’s daughter, Sally, and then the three walked together to the telegraph office down the street. Adam paused outside. “You boys wait here; this will only take a minute.”

“Yes, sir,” Will replied for all of them, and the three sat on the bench by the door.

“You think Mr. Adam will get aholt of Uncle Blake, Will?” Caleb asked, kicking his heels against the bench.

“Sure he will; then Uncle Blake will come get us,” Will responded confidently.

“But what if Aunt Lucille shows up first?” Josh asked

“Then I guess we’ll go live with her.”

“Back ta Georgia?! No thanks!” Caleb curled his nose at the thought.

“Come on, Georgia wasn’t too bad.” Will grinned as he pulled Caleb’s hat off his head and tried to tousle his hair. Caleb ducked to avoid Will’s hand, knocking into Josh. Josh pushed back and they all would have been tussling if a dark shadow hadn’t fallen across them, making them look up nervously.

The sight of the gentleman with the silver badge on his vest sent the boys scrambling to their feet, hats off. Sheriff Coffee smiled slightly, and rocked back on his heels. “Hello there, young fellas, whatcha doin’?”

Will gulped, trying to swallow his nervousness. “Nothin’ sir, we were just waiting for Mr. Cartwright.”

The Sheriff looked them over for a moment. “Uh, huh, waiting fer Mr. Cartwright.” His eyes narrowed. “Which one?”

Will could feel the eyes of his younger brothers on him. He scrambled to figure out what it was this lawman wanted. He and his brothers hadn’t been doing anything wrong, had they? Will glanced towards the telegraph office door and prayed for Mr. Adam to show up.

“Well, boy?” the sheriff asked again.

“Mr. Adam, sir, he’s in there sendin’ a telegram ta our aunt and uncle.”

“Do I know you?”

“No, sir, we’re…”

“Well, Roy! How are you?”

Will felt his whole body sag with relief at the sound of Adam’s voice.

“Adam.” Roy held out his hand. “Just gettin’ acquainted with these young lads here. They say they’re friends of yourns.”

Adam smiled and shook the proffered hand. “They certainly are.” He laid a hand on Will’s shoulder. “Roy, this is Will, Caleb and Josh Cooper. Boys, I’d like you to meet Virginia City’s sheriff, Roy Coffee.”

“Pleased ta meet you, sir,” the three boys murmured politely.

“You too.” Roy nodded at the boys then looked at Adam. “Where they from? Your Pa was inta the jail jest yesterday and didn’t say nothin’ about company.”

“Well, they’re visiting us kind of unexpected,” Adam said, sidestepping the issue, not wanting to go into a lengthy explanation in the middle of Virginia City’s sidewalk. “But we best get going, Roy, I’m sure Sally has our order for us by now.” Adam tipped his hat to Roy and signaled for the boys to head up the street. The boys nodded to the Sheriff and headed towards Cass’ store. “See you later.”

“Hold on a minute, Adam,” Roy tried to stop him.

Adam held up a hand in farewell and threw Roy a big grin. “Sorry, Roy, gotta run!”

*****

The ranch house kitchen was full of chatter as Abbie and Laura watched Hop Sing roll out the dough for his famous doughnuts. The two girls stood side by side on stools beside the kitchen’s central table and asked question after question that the man good-humoredly answered. He was enjoying the attention more than he expected, and the two girls had been very good; talkative but not getting in his way.

“Why come you have to put it in flour?” Two-year old Laura wanted to know as she watched Hop Sing carefully cut out the round circles with his doughnut cutter.

“So doughnut not stick to cutter,” he explained for what he thought must be the hundredth time.

“Yeah, he already tole ya that ‘member?” Abbie chided her little sister, “Can I do that Mr. Hop Sing?” Abbie asked eagerly, “I’ll be real careful.”

Hop Sing considered a moment; he threw a glance toward the counter where Celia was peeling apples for a pie. He had been watching her all morning, wiping away at her eyes in a gesture more associated with onions than apples. There she went again, and Hop Sing’s heart wept for the girl.

He turned back to the anxiously waiting Abbie. “All light, I let you cut, you be vedy careful, okay?” He handed Abbie the cutter and moved over next to Celia. He gently reached out and took the knife out of her hands. She looked at him in surprise.

“Not good mix tears with apples; make pie sour,” he said gently. Celia bowed her head and said nothing. “Miss father and mother vedy much?”

Celia nodded.

“Is hard, Hop Sing know. Was hard when Missie Cartlight die.” Celia looked at him in surprise. “Little Joe’s mother, but mother of all boys.” Celia took the knife back and began peeling again, but Hop Sing could tell she was listening carefully. “Vedy hard on Little Joe, but hard on Mr. Hoss and Mr. Adam, too.” He saw Celia stiffen at the mention of Adam, and he sighed to himself. He too had noticed the animosity she had toward Mr. Adam. He chose his next words carefully. “Mr. Adam, he understand how hard, you let him help, you see.” He saw her bite her lip and the tears welled again in her grey-blue eyes. “Hop Sing help, too, no worry.” He took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. “Now you dry eyes, make pie, but no more tears. All light?”

Celia took the handkerchief he offered, and gave him a wobbly smile. A cheerful “All done” from the center of the kitchen caused them to turn toward Abbie and Laura. The sight that met their eyes had both of them gasping. Abbie and Laura had managed, in the short time Celia and Hop Sing had been occupied, to completely cover themselves, the table, and the floor with flour. The two beaming girls proudly displayed their rather lopsided doughnuts with the neat half moons cut out of nearly a third of them.

Hop Sing opened his mouth to reprimand the little girls, until he saw Celia’s face and the way her mouth twitched in what could only be silent laughter. He smiled himself. A messy kitchen worth it, if it turn poor little girl’s tears to laughter, he thought to himself. He glanced at Celia and winked at her. “I tink girls do vedy fine job, yes? Make vedy big mess, vedy good!” He laughed and Celia laughed with him. Soon all four were laughing merrily, as Celia went back to her apples and Hop Sing engaged Abbie and Laura in clean up duty.

*****

Sally Cass had Adam’s order ready and waiting when he and the three boys walked into the general store with a tinkle of the bell. She smiled a greeting. “Hello, Adam, I’ve got everything ready for you.”

“Thanks, Sally, I’ll get it loaded up.” He acknowledged her smile with one of his own. He turned to Will. “Do you think you boys, can give me a hand with this?” He noticed the longing looks they were throwing at the jars of hard candies lined up along one side of the counter. He walked over and placed his arms around Caleb and Josh’s shoulders. “Help me with the boxes and then you can each choose a treat,” he told them with a smile.

Their huge grins were answer enough and all four quickly had the wagon loaded and ready to go.

“Now,” Adam rubbed his hands together, “let’s see if we can’t get something nice to take home to your sisters, and then something for yourselves.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Adam!”

The boys helped Adam pick a colorful storybook for Abbie and a doll for Laura.

“‘Cause she likes babies,” Josh informed Adam.

“And what about Celia? What do you think she would like?” Adam was enjoying himself immensely, the smiles on the boys’ faces as they chose gifts for their sisters mirroring the huge smile on his own. He looked at Will, hoping he would have an idea for Celia.

Will was fingering a soft blue shawl, “I think she’d like this, but maybe that’s a little much?”

Adam walked over and felt the shawl. “It is beautiful, and I don’t think it’s too much. Your sister needs whatever we can give her at the moment.” Adam’s voice was suddenly serious.

Will looked at him, thinking once again how fortunate they were to have this man find them. He only wished Celia could see it. “Thank you, Mr. Adam; I know Celia will like it.”

“Then let’s get it for her,” He turned to Caleb and Josh who were trying to decide on their own presents. Caleb was waffling between a “genuine” Barlow knife, and a harmonica while Josh was eyeing a package of fishhooks and twine. Adam chuckled at them, remembering how hard it used to be for him to decide when his Pa had allowed him the rare treat from the store. His choice had usually been a book of one kind or another, but it had often been a difficult decision when so many other wares had glittered before him.

Finally, the boys decided; Caleb taking the knife and Josh the fishhooks, while Will had settled on a packet of drawing pencils and paper, a choice that had caused Adam to raise his eyes in surprise, and Will to sheepishly confess how much he liked to draw. “I haven’t had much chance of it lately, but I filled a whole notebook on the way West,” he explained.

“That’s wonderful Will, I like to draw myself,” Adam said enthusiastically. “Maybe you could show me what you’ve done when we get home.”

Will smiled his eyes gleaming, “Sure, I’d like that, if you’ll show me yours.”

Adam clapped Will on the shoulder. “It’s a deal.” He turned to Caleb and Josh. “All right, boys, lets head over to the Hotel for some lunch and then get ourselves on home.”

With eager faces, the boys agreed and with a salute and a goodbye to Mr. Cass and Sally they headed out the door.

*****

The kitchen had been cleaned and the doughnuts fried to golden perfection and given their powdery, white sugar coating. Celia’s pies had been baked, their spicy lusciousness sending its perfume throughout the whole house, waiting to welcome the wayfarers from home when they walked in the door.

Hop Sing had taken Abbie and Laura out to the garden to help him gather peas for supper. Celia had been entrusted with the task of getting the large beef roast ready for the oven, where it would simmer the afternoon hours away in anticipation of the return of the men and boys weary from their day on the range and in town.

Celia hummed to herself as she peeled and pared the potatoes and carrots. She enjoyed cooking. There was so much satisfaction in seeing a bunch of various ingredients turned under her skillful hands into something wholesome and delicious. Ma had always told her there was nothing so heart-warming as seeing the fruits of her labors devoured by her hungry family and watching the delight on their faces. Celia felt her eyes sting. How she missed Ma. She threw off the thought and continued to peel potatoes. She was done crying for the day; she didn’t want Hop Sing after her again. What a dear funny little man he is! That thought brought a smile as she carefully cut and placed the potatoes in the large roaster.

She glanced over at the pies. She’d managed to get them prepared and baked with no more tears, and she was proud of their golden loveliness. No sour pies for me. She thought about what Hop Sing had said of Mr. Joe’s mother. She hadn’t realized they had lost her, though now she thought of it, that was the only thing that made sense, since she hadn’t met a Mrs. Cartwright. Celia wasn’t exactly sure where she had thought she was; truthfully, she just hadn’t thought of it at all. She had been too lost in her own pain and anger to really care about anything else.

Celia added the carrots and new baby onions to the roaster, and seasoned the top of the roast. Ma had always told her that if she worked carefully, and followed directions, her creations would come out well, but that she shouldn’t be afraid to try something new. Celia considered the jar of chili pepper on the counter and pulled it toward herself, speculatively. Hop Sing had been very precise in his directions, and chili pepper hadn’t been in the instructions, but her Pa had liked a little spice in his meat.

Pa. Would everything keep reminding her of him? She shoved the jar away. Well, what did she expect when she had a living, breathing, walking reminder staring at her every time she turned around. She clamped the lid down on the roaster angrily, and fought the tears that were threatening again. She remembered Hop Sing’s words about Mr. Adam helping her. How can he help, when he’s the cause of the problem? She argued with a mental Hop Sing. Mr. Adam no cause problem; it not his fault he look like your father, the mental Hop Sing replied. Celia couldn’t help an unamused snort at how much her mental Hop Sing sounded like the real one. But he was right. It wasn’t Mr. Adam’s fault. It wasn’t Pa’s fault. Celia wasn’t sure who’s fault it was; all she knew was that it hurt every time she looked at Mr. Adam, and when she watched her brothers and sisters taking to him just like Pa had never even existed, she wanted to scream. You’re being unfair, Celia. It was her Ma’s voice now, and Celia wondered where that had come from, but Ma had always been the one who straightened her out when she was overreacting to things, so perhaps it made sense.

Celia knew she was being unfair, but the fact was she couldn’t help herself. The anger was there whether she willed it or no. Besides there has to be a least one member of this family that remembers Ma and Pa, that doesn’t succumb totally to Mr. Adam, and his “kindness”, Celia defended herself. She swept the leftover peelings and scraps into the slop bucket and wiped the table with a vicious swipe that held every ounce of her confusion and anger in it.

Your brothers and sisters haven’t forgotten me, Celia. Her mother’s voice interrupted again, and Mr. Adam is a good, kind man who deserves your respect if nothing else. The voice in her head comforted Celia, though she knew it was really her own thoughts in her mother’s voice. Regardless, the sound left a horrible ache inside. She collapsed on the stool and laid her head on the table. “Oh, Ma.” She said aloud into the silent kitchen. “I wish it wasn’t so hard.”

*****

Two tornados greeted Adam and the boys as they entered the ranch house. Adam only had time to set down the box he was carrying and kneel to catch the two girls as they flung themselves at him.

“Mr. Adam, you’re back!” Abbie squealed, and Laura echoed the squeal if not the words.

Will, Caleb, and Josh laughed at their little sisters’ enthusiasm, and who could help it? With their huge grins, chubby pink cheeks and sparkling blue eyes, the two girls were enough to make anyone smile.

Adam certainly couldn’t help himself, and he gave the girls his own wide, dimpled grin. “So what have you girls been up to today?” he asked.

“We’ve been helping Hop Sing!” Abbie said proudly.

“Hepping, Hop Sing,” Laura echoed with an emphatic nod.

Adam raised his eyebrows and looked impressed. “Helping Hop Sing. That’s very good.” He smiled at them again. “What did you and Hop Sing do?”

“We made doughnuts, and I got to cut them out!” Abbie explained excitedly

“Made doughnuts!” Laura repeated.

“Well, it seems you have been good today.”

“Yep,” Abbie confirmed.

“Yep,” replied her faithful echo.

Adam stood and winked at Will. “Then since you’ve been so good, Will has a surprise for you.”

The two girls immediately transferred their attention to Will, who pulled the girls’ surprises from the box. Their renewed squeals brought Celia from the kitchen. She entered the great room slowly, wiping her hands on her apron.

Adam glanced at her. He noticed how hesitantly she entered, and her eyes were red. She had been crying again. Adam retrieved the brown wrapped shawl from the box, and walked over to her with a smile.

“Celia, Will thought you’d like this,” he said carefully.

She looked at him, the expression on her face unreadable, as she reached out and took the package. She looked down at it almost as if she thought it would bite her.

Adam smiled again. “Go ahead, open it,” he said encouragingly.

Will and the others had stopped to watch and were smiling their own encouragement to their sister. Celia looked around at them and then slowly removed the string and unwrapped the brown paper. She let out a small gasp as the lovely blue folds of the shawl fell over her hands. “It’s beautiful.” she said softly, as she rubbed the silky material against her cheek.

“I’m glad you like it.” Adam replied.

Celia stopped and looked up at him. A look almost of fear, Adam thought, passed through her eyes, and they widened, then narrowed slightly. Adam watched in confusion as her face lost its look of surprised pleasure and turned passive and unreadable again. She swallowed then held the shawl out to him.

“No, thank you, sir.” She turned and walked back to the kitchen.

Adam stood with the shawl in his hands. He turned to Will, whose face had the same puzzled look he was sure was on his own. Will shrugged, not knowing what was going on either. Adam sighed. Patience, he reminded himself of Pa’s words. Patience, and kindness, and time.

*****

Dinner that evening was a relaxed one. Ben was pleased to see that even Celia seemed to have gotten over whatever had been bothering her earlier and entered into the general conversation and laughter. He enjoyed listening as each person told about his or her day. Will, Caleb, and Josh were especially excited about their trip to town, and regaled their audience with an enthusiastic description of all they had seen.

Will had everyone laughing over his tale of their brief meeting with Sheriff Coffee, and their relief at Adam’s timely arrival. Abbie jumped in with her own version of “helping” Hop Sing with the doughnuts, with Celia adding a picture of the two flour covered girls, and the infectious laughter continued. Ben chuckled along with everyone else. How good it was to see everyone in such a good mood.

The arrival of Hop Sing with dessert only added to the festive atmosphere. Hop Sing waited patiently by Ben’s side until everyone had been served and the first bites taken, he held up his hand to stop the compliments sent his way.

“Hop Sing, no make pie. Missie Celia, make pie. Do vedy, vedy, good job! Enjoy.” With a bow, he turned and left.

Caleb and Josh immediately started to gag, while Hoss and Joe loudly praised the young cook. Celia bowed her head shyly and her cheeks turned pink, but what Ben thought was most interesting was the furtive glances she cast at Adam, who had yet to taste his piece. Whether she realized it or not, she was looking to him for approval. Ben saw that as a very good sign. Now he looked at his oldest son, and willed him not to lose this opportunity. He wasn’t disappointed.

Adam glanced at his brothers on one side of the table and Celia’s on the other. “Well, I’m going to have to try this wonderful pie, myself,” he said as he cut a bite.

“No, don’t, Mr. Adam!” Caleb cried, laughing.

“It’ll kill ya, Mr. Adam, sure ‘nough,” Josh added.

“Best pie, you’ll ever eat,” Hoss promised his blue eyes wide and grinning.

“No, joshin’, Adam. Just try it.” Joe encouraged with a wink at Celia.

Adam took a bite and paused. Josh and Caleb groaned, and Will smiled proudly at his sister, while the others waited for Adam’s verdict. A look of pure pleasure spread over Adam’s face as he savored the bite. He looked at Celia and smiled. “Celia, that has to be the best apple pie I’ve had in a very long time. You’re an excellent cook.”

The table erupted again, with more laughing groans on the one side and loud praise on the other.

Ben watched Celia, who was blushing hard and trying not to smile, but the pleased expression wasn’t easy to hide and he nodded to himself in satisfaction, as he added his own praise to the others. He sent a mental well done to Adam; it was a start.

*****

Over the next few weeks. life on the Ponderosa settled into a routine. Most days Celia and the little girls stayed at the ranch house helping Hop Sing, with Ben an occasional participant. He found he enjoyed gathering Abbie and Laura onto his lap in the big leather chair and reading to them the fairy stories he had once read to his own little boys, not too terribly long ago it seemed to him. The girls’ lively chatter filled the silent house in a way Ben hadn’t even remembered to miss.

Will, Caleb, and Josh would usually head out with whichever of the men had a job that could easily be done by three young boys, though there were days when nine-year old Josh had to stay home. On those days, Ben would set the young boy to chopping firewood or cleaning tack, or something else to keep his hands occupied. He had learned quickly that, though Josh was a willing worker and a good one, his ability to get into mischief, if not otherwise occupied, was second only to his own youngest son.

Will and Caleb took to ranch work as if they had been born to it. They had each been given a horse to use, and its care had become their responsibility. The varied tasks of the ranch in spring could be arduous and time consuming, but the two didn’t complain and worked along with the other hands with a willingness that brought praise from the wiser and more experienced men.

The spring rains continued heavy and lasted into the first warm days of summer, so there was still the constant lookout for bogged cattle. Adam continued to take the worst of the chore and often took Will with him, leaving Caleb to Joe or Hoss, who usually had simpler tasks more suitable for a young boy such as fixing fences or riding the range keeping a lookout for cows in any kind of trouble.

Adam and Will were having a difficult day. Already they had found several cows in the mud. One of which had decided to be difficult, and Adam ended up in the muck with her. He pushed, while Will and his cowpony pulled with the rope around the cows horns. With a heave and a pull, the cow got her feet under her on firm ground and with a yell from both Adam and Will and a bellow from the cow she was up and out. Adam collapsed with a groan onto the muddy bank of the stream.

Will rode up, coiling his rope as he went. “She sure was a stubborn one,” he said looking down at the prostrate Adam.

“I think they get worse every year,” Adam chuckled, then groaned as he rolled over and looked up at Will. “Next time you get to get down and push,” he threatened.

Will just smiled. Adam had made the threat before, but each time he himself had gotten down into the muck and left Will to rope the cow and pull. Using the excuse that since he was already covered in mud it only made sense that he should do it, Will realized it was just the kind of man Adam Cartwright was. He was not one to take the easy route and leave another to do the dirty work. Though his brothers might hoot at that, Will thought, remembering some of their stories about Adam’s schemes to get out of work. Will had been working with Adam for several weeks now, though, and hadn’t seen it. He’d never seen a harder worker himself, except maybe his Pa and his Uncle Blake. Will’s admiration for the man who had found them and taken them under his wing only increased with each passing day.

Adam wiped himself off as he stood. It didn’t do much good. Try as he might to wipe some of the sticky mud off in the grass, he only managed to smear it around. With a grimace and a sigh, he approached Sport. “I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready to call it a day,” he said as he slowly swung himself up into the saddle, and groaned as he settled down into it.

“Whatever ya say; you’ve had the worst of it,” Will replied.

Adam looked over at him. “You’ve got the right of it there, but you’ve done a good job, too. It would have been a whole lot harder without you.”

Will blushed a little at the praise. Then the two headed their horses for home. They rode in silence for a short while. Finally Will spoke. “Mr. Adam?”

Adam pulled his mind back from where his thoughts had taken him. “Hm?”

“I was wondering if ya’d heard from Uncle Blake or Aunt Lucille yet?” Will asked.

“No, no I haven’t,” Adam replied. He looked over at the boy, “but I wouldn’t worry too much yet. It takes a long time for a letter to make its way East or West.”

Will looked puzzled. “I thought ya sent telegrams? Shouldn’t we ’ave heard from ‘em by now?”

“Well, the telegram only works if there’s someone to deliver it who knows where the recipient is. Sometimes, as in perhaps your Uncle Blake’s case, it can be awhile before someone gets to town and picks up any messages or letters. Or if someone has moved, a letter will find them where a telegram won’t. That’s why I sent both,” Adam explained. “I was hoping for a reply to the telegram — it certainly would have been faster — but I haven’t given up hope of hearing from one or the other. It just might take a little longer.”

“But ya still think we’ll hear from them?” Will asked, an anxious look on his face.

Adam paused for a moment, wanting to be completely truthful with him. “I hope so, Will; I can’t say for sure. Your Pa’s papers had very specific addresses for both your aunt and uncle. That’s where I sent the telegrams. But it’s been a year and either of them might have moved. That is why I also sent letters, which as I said are more likely to get to them, even if slower. And if I don’t hear back from them in the next few weeks, I’ve already contacted people in Oregon and Georgia who will do a search for them, and we can find them that way. So you see we have a very good chance of locating them. It’s just a matter of time.” Adam gave Will a puzzled look, “Why are you asking? You that anxious to leave the Ponderosa?” he teased.

Will’s eyes widened and he was quick to deny any such thing. “Oh, no! sir, I love it here. And ya all have been great. We can’t thank ya enough! It’s jest, well…” Will paused a moment to gather his thoughts, “It’s jest I’ve been thinking.” He took a deep breath and plunged on. “I’ve been thinking about, what if ya can’t find ‘em.” He looked Adam in the eye. “What if ya don’t? Ya remember that talk we had?”

Adam nodded, “I remember.”

“Well, I know ya said ya’d do yer best, but it looks like yer best might not be good enough. So I jest wanted to tell ya again, I’m not gonna let…”

Adam stopped Sport and held up his hand. “Will, you don’t have to go on. I know, and I agree with you.” He looked at Will, his face serious “And you have my promise, I won’t let you and your brothers and sisters be separated. I don’t want that to happen any more than you do. I’m not GOING to let it happen. You have my word on that.”

Will saw the determination in his face, but couldn’t help asking, “But what if…”

“There are no what ifs.” Adam cut him off. “I’m not going to let it happen. Now you just rest easy on that.” Adam started Sport again as if that ended the conversation, and for Will it did. He had come to know Adam Cartwright well enough to realize, that if he gave his word on something he’d move heaven and earth to keep it.

*****

As the days ticked by and turned into weeks, it began to seem more likely that Adam would have to find a different way to keep that promise, as no word came from either the children’s aunt or uncle. Adam began taking inventory of the various families in the area that might be interested in taking in children. Though he thought there were several who might be willing to take one or two, he realized finding a home for all six together was going to be difficult, if not impossible. It weighed heavily on his mind, as he began to realize that the only solution to the problem might very well be one he wasn’t sure he was willing to take on: that of keeping the children himself, though there were a hundred and one reasons against it. Still as the days passed and his attachment to each of them increased, the possibility became more and more appealing, if not any more practical.

But the problem of a permanent home for the children wasn’t his only concern. Celia was still causing him worry enough. She remained aloof, seldom acknowledging his presence, though she was friendly enough with the rest of his family. She had developed a firm friendship with Hop Sing, and he knew he had the wise cook to thank that Celia’s animosity had lessened over the intervening weeks. He knew Hop Sing was working in his favor; he had seen glimpses of softening on Celia’s part, but they were few and far between and Adam could only continue to pray that somehow he could break through the hard wall Celia had built up against him.

Time, patience, and kindness had become his mantra. He found himself repeating it often, as Celia did her best to find subtle ways to annoy him. Usually, it only took a look and smile from Ben to remind him of his father’s wise words, but as the days passed, he felt his patience slipping little by little.

*****

The smell of coffee and bacon wafting through the house indicated that Hop Sing was up and hard at work. Ben and Hoss sat eating in comfortable silence, the first beneficiaries of his labors. The silence didn’t last long, as the sound of at least one other person descending the stairs reached them.

Ben looked up and what he saw caused his eyebrows to rise. It wasn’t the clothes Adam was wearing, the red shirt and black pants were common attire for his son, no, it was the yellow gingham clad little girl on his shoulder that had Ben wondering, even as a smile spread over his face.

“Good morning.” Ben said as they reached the bottom of the stairs.

“Good morning, Pa, Hoss.” Adam said cheerfully. Little Abbie just grinned and waved from her high perch.

Ben was surprised again when instead of coming to the table, Adam headed for the door. “Where are you two going?” he asked

Adam turned towards his father but Abbie answered him. “Mr. Adam is taking me riding.” she announced excitedly.

Ben’s eyebrows rose again. “This early?”

Adam chuckled. “I promised Abbie a ride; we won’t be long.” He turned back towards the door, but paused next to the hat rack. “Hat,” he ordered Abbie and she plucked his black hat off the hook and plunked it down on her own head. She giggled and Adam’s wide grin dimpled up at her. He opened the door, “Duck,” he commanded, and the two ducked as they gave Ben and Hoss a last wave and went laughing through the door.

“That sure is one cute, kid,” Hoss commented as turned back to his bacon and eggs.

“She sure is,” Ben agreed with him.

“You think Adam’ll find a home for ‘em?”

“I think he’s still hoping he’ll hear from their relatives.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me iffen he just decides to keep ‘em himself, as attached as he’s gettin’.” Hoss observed.

Ben’s face grew serious, and thoughtful. Hoss noticed the change, “Ya, don’t like the idea, Pa,” he said, a worried frown on his face. “They sure been a lotta fun, and they’ve really taken ta Adam.”

Ben rested his elbows on the table, and pressed his clasped hands to his mouth. “They’re good children, there’s no doubt about that,” he replied thoughtfully, “but six children is a big responsibility for anyone.” He looked up at Hoss. “I‘m just not sure how I feel about Adam taking that on himself.”

“We’d be here to help him, Pa.”

“Yes, of course, we would, its just…”

The sound of many footsteps on the stairs ended the conversation. Ben and Hoss looked over as Will, carrying Laura, Celia, Caleb, and Josh came down the stairs together. With polite “Good morning, sirs”, the children settled themselves into their seats and began helping themselves to breakfast.

Ben noticed Celia scowling at Abbie’s empty seat and sighed. She was in a mood again. Ben had noticed improvements in her attitude the last few weeks, but most of the time she remained… well “difficult” was the kindest word Ben could think of at the moment. Patience, kindness, time. Ben repeated his own advice to Adam to himself, but he had to admit his patience with Celia was growing thin.

“Where’s Abbie?” Celia frowned toward Abbie’s chair.

“She and Adam went for a little ride this morning; Adam said they wouldn’t be long,” Ben replied calmly.

He saw Celia’s lips tighten but she said nothing, and Ben sighed with relief.

The entrance of Adam and Abbie soon after proved Adam had been true to his word. The two came in a little breathless and laughing; they had obviously enjoyed their ride, short as it was. Ben could see Celia stiffen as she watched the two. Adam helped Abbie settle into her chair, and chucked her under the chin, before sitting down himself across from Ben at the head of the table.

“Enjoy, your ride, Abbie?” Ben smiled at her.

Abbie nodded her head vigorously. “Yep, Mr. Adam took me all the way to the creek and back.”

Caleb gave Josh a nudge in the ribs and winked. “All the way to the creek, did ya hear that, Josh?”

“Yeah, you went a looong ways, little sis.” Josh added.

Abbie stuck her tongue out at her brothers, “Well, at least I got ta go. You two were still lazing away in yer beds.”

“Yeah, well…” Caleb began again, when Adam stepped in to head off the fight.

“All right, all right, Let’s change the subject.”

Ben watched Celia’s eyes narrow at Adam’s words, but her voice was smooth as she spoke. “It seems a little early ta be riding, wouldn’t ya say.”

Adam looked at Celia and smiled, “Not really, I had to saddle Sport up anyway. Abbie asked me for a ride last night before supper, but I’d already put Sport away, so I told her I’d take her this morning if she was up early enough, and she was.” He gave Abbie an extra smile and a wink.

“I woulda appreciated it, if ya’d told me,” Celia’s voice was accusing, and cold.

Adam raised an eyebrow.

“Told ya, Celia? Whatever for?” Will jumped in, surprised, Celia whirled on him.

“So I didn’t worry about where she was.”

“There was no need to worry, Celia; you should know Adam would watch out for her,” Ben reminded her mildly, hoping to calm the agitation he could see rising in her eyes.

“I worry because she’s my sister, and it’s my job ta look afta her, and I ain’t about to turn it over ta anyone, especially no second rate excuse of a man,” she sneered and glared at Adam, challenging him to argue with her right to worry over her sister.

There was the sound of indrawn breath around the table. It was the first time Celia had challenged Adam so openly. Hoss looked down at his plate knowing if he looked at Celia he’d say something he shouldn’t. Caleb, and Josh sat staring wide-eyed at their sister, and Will’s face flushed in anger and shame. Ben looked up at his son. Adam watched Celia and Ben could see his jaw clench and unclench as he worked to stay calm. Then his eyes went to Ben’s and he could see the silent message. I’ll take care of it, Pa. But before Adam could speak, Will jumped in.

“Celia.” He almost shouted her name, and he spoke through clenched teeth. “You apologize right now!”

“Whatever for?” Celia seethed back, “I’m sick and tired of the way he acts like he’s got a right to us, like we’re his kids or something.” Her voice rose as she pushed herself up from her chair.

“Young lady,” Ben’s voice was low, the warning clear.

She whirled on him, beyond caring, as all the fear and frustration and bitterness of the last two months poured out in a torrent.

“I’m not going to take it any longer! I don’t need any of ya. I don’t need this place. Ya ain’t my folks!!” With that, she rushed around the table and from the house.

A stunned silence followed Celia’s sudden departure. Ben looked at Adam flabbergasted, and Adam started to rise from his chair, his face stern. Will stopped him.

“I think it might be best if I talk to her, sir.” His tone was quiet almost pleading, yet there was an edge there, too, that did not bode well for his sister.

Adam looked over at him, and Will held his gaze, hoping Adam would understand. Adam nodded shortly, and sat back down. “All right,” he gave Will permission.

Will didn’t speak, merely pushed back his chair, gave a nod, and followed his sister out the door.

The arrival of Little Joe, still groggy from sleep, helped diffuse the tension in the room. Ben’s eyebrows rose as he watched Little Joe take his seat. Joe grinned at him sheepishly and reached for the bacon, and eggs.

“Glad to see you all left me some,” Joee said with a grin. He looked at the still solemn faces around the table. “Uh, did I miss something?”

Hoss glanced around the table, then at Joe. “No, Joe, nothin’ important. Best jest eat.” and he turned his attention to his own plate.

Ben nodded. “That’s excellent advice for all of us.”

*****

Will found Celia in Cochise’s stall. She had taken a liking to the black and white pinto and spent as much time as Joe would allow petting and grooming him. Nobody knew it but the sweet horse had become Celia’s confident, and she had often poured out her troubled heart to the patient and gentle Cooch. So it was little surprise that this was where Will found her, vigorously running a stiff bristled brush over Cochise’s back. The pinto stood quietly with half closed eyes, enjoying the feel of the brush.

Celia looked at Will as he stood at the door of the stall. “I don’t want ta hear it, Will, so jest save yer breath.”

“Well, ya are gonna hear it, so ya might as well jest listen,” Will told her, his voice warning her he wasn‘t going to put up with any nonsense. He walked into the stall and stood next to the wall.

“Fine, say yer piece,” she said, then walked around Cochise, putting the horse between herself and her brother.

“What was that all about in there?” Will asked, gruffly.

“Don’t know what ya mean.” Celia bluffed, and began brushing Cochise even more swiftly.

“Ya do, too. Celia. I’ve had about enough of this nonsense. Ya act like Mr. Adam is your worst enemy, instead of the best friend we got.”

Celia looked up at him. “He ain’t my friend.”

Will glared at her frustrated. “He is, too, though why, I don’t know, the way ya treat him.”

“Don’t know why he needs me, when he’s got the rest of ya fawnin’ all over him.” Celia retaliated, her air of indifference starting to slip.

“We don’t fawn on ‘im, Celia…”

“Dontcha?” Celia’s grey-blue eyes snapped. “Dontcha? All I hear from any of ya, is Mr. Adam this and Mr. Adam that. Ain’t Mr. Adam so great, Celia? Why dontcha behave nicer to Mr. Adam? All he wants is ta be yer friend, Celia.” Her mocking voice rang through the stall, and Cochise moved restlessly, interrupting her. She was breathing hard and struggling to keep back tears. She moved to Cochise head and made a show of straightening his forelock, ignoring Will.

“Cele,” Will began, trying to keep his voice calm, and struggling to find a way to reach his sister. “I’m jest tryin’ ta understand that’s all. What is it? Why ya so against him? All he’s…”

“Will,” Celia interrupted, struggling to keep her voice steady, and calm to match his own. “Iffen ya tell me one more time, that all he’s doin’ is tryin’ ta be my friend, I’ll scream!” She glared at her brother, “I really don’t care what he’s tryin’ ta do…”

“All right.” It was Will’s turn to interrupt. “So at least tell me what ya have against him.”

Celia waited a moment. She scratched Cochise’s forehead. She wasn’t sure she could explain to Will what troubled her most about Mr. Adam, because it sounded so awful. How could she tell Will she hated him because he reminded her of Pa, because she was afraid that if she let down the wall she had built up she’d forget Pa like her brothers and sisters seemed to have, and how she just couldn’t let that happen. Even to herself it sounded terrible and unfair, because none of it was Mr. Adam’s fault, and he WAS kind to her even though she was horrible to him, and she wished… Silent tears began to fall on Cochise’s soft nose.

“Cele?” Will’s voice was soft, “Can’t ya tell me?”

“Jest leave me alone, Will.” She looked at him, her eyes filled with the struggle taking place within her. “Jest…” her voice broke. “Jest leave me alone.” She turned her back to him, and Will realized she was done talking. He sighed heavily.

“All right, Cele.” He stepped forward and laid a hand on her shoulder “But ya can’t go on like this; somehow, yer gonna have ta get over it.”

Celia shrugged his hand from her shoulder, and Will sighed again. He wished she wasn’t so stubborn; he turned and left the stall, leaving Celia to fight her battle on her own.

Celia hardly noticed when Will left. She laid her head against Cochise’s. I’ve got to get away somewhere, somewhere where I can be alone for a while. She stepped back as Cochise lifted his head and nibbled at her hair, then placed his neck over her shoulder in the horse equivalent of a hug. She put her arms around his neck, “You understand, dontcha Cochise,” she whispered. An idea flitted through her head and made her gasp at the audacity of it. Then her eyes hardened, I’ll do it! Without considering the consequences, she quickly turned and left the stall.

*****

The subdued atmosphere around the breakfast table had lightened by the time Will returned, thanks mostly to Little Joe’s cheerful attitude. Having missed Celia’s outburst, he was in a good mood, and was systematically imparting it to the rest of the table’s occupants. He complimented Abbie on her lovely dress, making her grin, and had Laura giggling with his reminder that she owed him a trip to the chickens to gather eggs.

He teased Caleb and Josh about not eating their breakfast, warning them that if they didn’t eat, they’d never grow as big as Hoss. After which they promptly fell to with an energy that had Hoss and Ben both chuckling, and even the corners of Adam’s mouth quirking. Joe’s lighthearted teasing soon had all the children cheerful again as if nothing had happened.

Ben smiled at his irrepressible son. Little Joe might be perennially late for breakfast, but he always brought sunshine with him when he did show up.

No one seemed to notice when Will silently reclaimed his place at the table, and tried to finish his now cold breakfast, but he felt eyes on him and looked up to see Adam watching him. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders at him, and he saw Adam’s mouth tighten. Will knew Mr. Adam was disappointed, but Will didn’t see anything any of them could do any more. Celia was going to have to decide to come to grips with herself, or… Well, Will wasn’t sure what the “or” was, but he knew neither Mr. Adam nor Mr. Ben were going to take much more of Celia’s attitude.

“So what we got going today?” Little Joe asked as he grabbed a second cinnamon biscuit.

Ben wiped his mouth, and laid his napkin on his plate. “Well, Hoss and I have business in town. I thought you, Adam” he nodded towards Joe then his oldest son. “and the boys here could look over the pasture along Cabin Creek. I want to move that herd of cows from the home pasture here, into there. The grass is already getting thin here.”

“If it’s all right, you want us to go ahead and move them?” Adam asked from his end of the table.

“No, we can do that tomorrow; for now, just check to make sure the fencing is tight, there’s no noxious weeds growing and that the stream is cleared and running. The usual.”

“That’s not going to take all day, Pa; we’ll be done by noon at least.” Adam observed.

“No, it won’t.” Ben glanced around the table, “but I thought you boys might like to take a bit of a break; you’ve been working very hard these last few weeks.”

Hoss clapped his hands “Hot dog, fishing!”

Ben cocked an eyebrow at him, and tried not to smile. “Aren’t you forgetting something, son?”

Hoss’ face fell, “Oh yeah, I gotta go with you.”

There was laughter around the table at Hoss’ disappointed look, and Joe clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s all right, Hoss, we’ll bring some fish home for you!”

“Sure, thanks a heap, Little Joe.”

“Can we really go fishing, Mr. Adam?” Josh asked excitedly, his blue eyes shining.

“Well, since Pa’s giving us a half holiday, I don’t see why not.”

There were cheers from the younger boys, and Abbie and Laura immediately begged to go, too. The ensuing hubbub was quieted by Adam holding his hands up.

“All right, all right, we’ll make an afternoon of it.” He smiled at Abbie and Laura, “and you can go, too.” He looked up at Ben and winked, and Ben chuckled back at him.

“Well, it sounds like you all are settled.” Ben looked at Hoss, who had a frown on his face, and rose. “Coming, son?”

Hoss sighed, “Yeah, I’m comin’.” He rose also. “I jest can’t believe I’m missin’ out on a afternoons fishing.”

Ben walked around and clasped his shoulder. “Well, I’ll treat ya to lunch at the hotel. How does that sound?”

“Not nearly as good as fishing,” Hoss said sadly.

Adam stood also “Well, the rest of us better be going, too, or we’re not going to have time for fishing either.” There was the sound of chairs being pushed back, as they all stood.

“I’ll see to the horses, Adam” Little Joe offered and Adam waved a chin at him in acknowledgement.

“I’ll help, Mr. Joe,” Will offered, and the two headed out to the barn.

Adam walked to the kitchen to make sure Hop Sing could keep an eye on the little girls as Celia still hadn’t come back. Ben and Hoss followed Joe and Will to the barn.

With a hug and quick kiss on both of the girls’ chubby cheeks, Adam turned Abbie and Laura over to Hop Sing. As he came out of the house, he stopped short at the sight of Little Joe raging, the others milling around close to him. He stalked up to Adam his nostrils flaring, and pointed towards the barn. “Adam,” his voice was low and dangerous, “Adam, that, that girl of yours…”

Adam’s brow furrowed, “Celia?”

“That girl of yours has stolen MY HORSE!!!” Joe’s voice rose on each word, as he shook his finger at the barn.

“WHAT??” Adam’s heart fell into his stomach, and he rushed towards the barn, Joe hard on his heels.

Adam stopped short inside the door. There was Cochise’s stall, but the horse was gone.

“See, what’d I tell you. He’s gone. She took my horse, Adam.” Joe looked at him accusingly. Adam nodded, and went back out the door to where Ben and Hoss were standing close by, Joe following him.

“Where do you think she’d go?” Ben asked

Adam shook his head, “I have no idea; I just can’t believe she’d do this.”

“Well, believe it Adam, ’cause she did,” Joe exclaimed in frustration.

“Joe, that doesn’t help,” Ben cautioned.

“Maybe not, but I’d like to know what Older Brother here intends to do about this?” Joe stood with his hands on his hips, anger pouring out of every fiber of his being. Cochise was his pride and joy, his HORSE, and here in the west a person just didn’t mess with a man’s horse.

“All right, Joe, just calm down and let me think,” Adam said in exasperation. His brow was furrowed and he pinched the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t sure what to do. The Ponderosa was a big place…

“Calm down!!” Joe exploded “Adam, she took…”

“All right, Little Joe!” Ben’s bass voice finally stopped his son’s tirade, “this is no time to lose it. Our main concern is to get the girl back safe, not stand here and argue over it.”

“Frankly, I don’t really care about getting her back; it’s my horse I want. I’ve had enough of that girl!”

“Joseph.”

Joe closed his lips tightly, the warning in his Pa’s voice enough to make him realize he was perilously close to crossing the line.

“Pa, I think me and Adam, should saddle up and go looking fer her. She can’t ‘ave gone far.” Hoss suggested.

Ben nodded thoughtfully, “Yes, you’re right. I’ll go too; Joe can stay here with…”

“Mr. Adam?” Will spoke from the porch where he and Caleb and Josh had been standing, silent spectators to the aftermath of Celia’s foolishness.

Adam looked over at him, and he pointed silently down the road. There coming towards them was Celia and Cochise. Adam closed his eyes, “Thank you,” he whispered. The girl had come back on her own, and he was surprised at the depth of his relief; he hadn’t realized the extent of his fear.

The four men watched in grim silence as Celia rode up to them. She noticed the stern faces and gulped, then dismounted slowly. She stood silently watching the men, her face solemn. Adam glanced at Ben and then laid a hand on Little Joe’s arm as Joe started forward. “Let me handle this, please, Joe.”

Joe looked up at him, intending to refuse, but the pleading look in Adam’s eyes stopped him. “Adam…”

“Joe, please.” Adam said softly.

“Joe.” Ben spoke and Little Joe looked at him. Ben cocked his head towards the house, and Joe sighed.

“All right, Adam.” Joe waved a finger at him, “but there’d better not be, even a scratch on my horse, or so help me…”

Adam gave a nod, “Yeah, Joe I know.”

With a last glare in Celia’s direction, Joe left for the house with Ben, Hoss and the others; leaving Adam and Celia standing, staring at each other across the ranch yard.

Adam waited a moment trying to gather his thoughts. He had a feeling he was at a turning point with Celia, and he didn’t want to mess it up. He knew one wrong word and he would lose every tiny inch he’d gained over the last few weeks, and yet… He watched her. She didn’t seem angry anymore, in fact she seemed quite subdued, standing there quietly, her head down, playing nervously with the reins in her hands.

“Why don’t you take Cochise back to his stall?” he told her, stalling for time.

She glanced up at him and nodded, then led the horse into the barn. Adam paced silently, praying for inspiration. He stopped and looked towards the barn, then with a heavy sigh he followed after Celia.

He walked quickly to Cochise’s stall, and entered. Celia ignored him, and he leaned back against the edge of the stall. Crossing his arms over his chest, he prepared to wait. Celia kept her back to him, and stood fiddling with Cochise’s mane, her head down. They stood that way for several minutes, the silence heavy between them.

Finally, Celia spoke softly, “I’m sorry”

Adam cocked his head sideways, “Oh? For what?” he said, equally as quiet.

Celia took a long, shuddering breath. “For taking Cochise without permission.”

“Is that all?” Adam questioned.

Celia was quiet again. Adam wished he could tell what was going through her mind, but somehow he sensed that the time had come for a little push in the right direction. He waited another moment.

“Celia,” he said gently. “I’m sorry, too.”

She turned to him, her grey-blue eyes puzzled.

“I’m sorry, that I look so much like your Pa, I’m sorry that he died and left you here with me. I’m sorry that this whole thing has been so difficult for you.”

Celia turned back to the horse, and leaned her forehead against Cochise’s rough mane. Adam uncrossed his arms and went to stand next to her, laying one arm across the saddle.

“But I think it’s time you forgave me for what I can’t really help,, don’t you?”

Celia’s head bowed further, and Adam waited, praying that his words would melt the wall around Celia’s heart.

“It’s time to let go, Celia,” he said softly.

He saw the tears start then, and she turned towards him. “Oh, Mr. Adam.” she leaned into him and he held her gently. “I’m so sorry.” She sobbed and her tears began loosening the tight knot in her chest and washing away all the terrible bitterness and anger.

Adam placed a hand on her soft hair and closed his eyes. Time, patience, and kindness, he recited to himself, smiling gently, his heart grateful.

*****

The change in the Cartwright household was noticeable from the start, not only because the tension between Celia and Adam was gone, and the sullen, morose, girl who had haunted the house for weeks with it, but because a Lark seemed to have moved in, in its place. Celia was a singer, and the past weeks of silence had been unnatural to her. It seemed now she was trying with all she had to make up for it. She hummed as she got Laura dressed and ready for the day, she whistled while helping Hop Sing with the household chores, and sang merrily for the others after supper, when they gathered outside on the front porch to enjoy the cool night air.

It became their favorite way to spend the evening. Adam would get out his guitar, Celia would settle herself next to him, often with Laura on her lap, and the others would gather around. Then Adam would strum a note and Celia would hold it, and they would sing all their favorite songs. Celia’s sweet, girlish soprano would meld with Adam’s rich full baritone, and their listeners would sigh and smile at each other over the loveliness of it. Soon, though, Will and Joe’s tenors would pick up a verse, and Ben’s deep bass would join in, and then Hoss and the others would start warbling cheerfully along with them, without regard to notes or timing.

It was a happy time for the children, their only concern the continued silence of their aunt and uncle, and what would happen to them if there was no response, but as they settled into the new routines, the children became less and less worried about that. They enjoyed the Ponderosa with its fun and work, and the four men, five with Hop Sing, always available to provide the stability and love that are the most important things to a child.

They still missed their parents and often one or the other would go away quietly by themselves when something brought a fresh memory to their young minds, but in all they were adjusting well, thanks in no small part to the man who had found them, and who now watched over them, doing all in his power to see they were taken care of and happy in their temporary home.

Adam was relieved that everything had shaken down so well. He was especially relieved and very grateful that Celia had finally laid aside the heavy burden she had been carrying. There were still moments, he knew, when his resemblance to her Pa still pained her, but now instead of blaming him and withdrawing into herself, she would slip away to Cochise’s stall for some time by herself.

Joe had graciously forgiven her for taking his horse, after Celia had apologized and presented him with his favorite dessert for supper. He didn’t mind if she spent time with Cooch as long as she gave her word never again to take him out of his stall without permission. Celia had promised and she kept it.

She always returned with a peaceful expression on her face. She never spoke to anyone, nor did anyone ask her, about her times with Cochise or about the day she had ran away with him. Adam believed that whatever had happened that day, it had been profound. He knew it had been more than his words that had been at work in Celia’s heart, the change had come before she returned.

It was a little more than a week later that Adam was in the study area working, once again, over a timber contract. The wet spring had put them behind on several of their orders, but the dry weather since had allowed them to catch up, and he needed the current contract he was working on to keep his men busy through the rest of the summer and fall. He had been wrestling with it for several hours and felt ready to toss the whole thing out the window, when he noticed Will standing cautiously in front of him.

He leaned back, and smiled. “You’re just in time, Will, any more of that and I’d be a candidate for the insane institution.”

“Yes, sir. I mean no sir,” Will blushed at his confusion, “I mean I doubt that would ever happen, sir”

Adam grinned wryly, “Then you don’t know timber contracts!” He threw his pencil down on the documents in front of him. “What’s on your mind?”

“I was wondering, sir. Well, ya see, Celia’s birthday is the fourteenth,” Will began cautiously.

“The fourteenth!” Adam interrupted “That’s next Tuesday.”

“Yes, sir, I was hoping we could do something for her.”

“Of course, I’m glad you said something. What did you have in mind?”

Will smiled, relieved that his request had been taken so well. “Well, we always have a special dinner and a cake for our birthdays.”

“Sounds great. I’m sure Hop Sing won’t mind preparing something extra special. I’ll talk to him about it.”

Will grinned. “Yes, sir, thank you.”

The next Tuesday, the ranch house sparkled from Hop Sing’s careful attention. He had brought out all the finest linens and the best china and crystal for Celia’s birthday dinner and the table was a masterpiece. He outdid himself preparing Celia’s favorite meal, and making sure everything was perfect for the young girl who had won herself such a firm place in his heart.

The meal was a merry one. Celia blushed time and time again as the others complimented and teased her in turn. When the meal was over the group moved to the sitting area before the fireplace to present Celia with her presents.

Celia had a place of honor between Hoss and Joe on the settee, while Ben took the red leather chair to one side of the fireplace, and Adam took the blue chair across from him. Will and the others lined up along the fireplace hearth, across from Hoss, Joe, and Celia.

Ben looked at the small pile of neatly wrapped presents on the table in the center of the room. “Well, I’d say it’s about time for the birthday girl to open these up.” He smiled at Celia, who blushed and smiled a shy smile back at him.

“I should say so!” Hoss agreed and reached for the first package, a small rectangular one, neatly wrapped in colored paper. “It looks like this one here is from Pa,” he said as he handed it to Celia.

She carefully unwrapped it and her eyes lit up as a small book appeared. “Oh, Mr. Cartwright! It’s about Jenny Lind! Thank you so much,” With a quick jump she ran over and gave him a hug and then was back in her seat, turning the book over in her hands. “Ma and Pa saw her in Atlanta when she was there on her American tour; they said she was magnificent.”

“She was,” Adam confirmed, “I saw her in Boston when I was back East. Fabulous voice, I’ve never heard anything like it since.”

“Well, we’ve got our own nightingale here,” Ben nodded towards Celia, “so I thought she’d enjoy that.”

“Oh, I will, thank you.”

“This one is from Hoss and me.” Joe said as he handed her a small, rather lumpy package.

Celia grinned at him and Hoss as she removed the wrapping. She held up the string of pink coral for everyone to admire. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she breathed.

“Not as beautiful as the pretty little filly that’s gonna wear it.” Hoss replied and Joe took it from Celia’s hands to tie it around her neck.

“There,” he told her smiling, “now it’s perfect.”

“Yes, it is. Thank you, Mr. Joe, Mr. Hoss,” she said giving them each a quick hug.

“Just a minute.” Hoss frowned. “You knowm I just can’t get used ta hearing you kids call me Mr. Hoss all the time. It gives me the shivers every time ya do it.” Hoss looked around making sure he had everyone’s attention. “I been thinkin’ about this for awhile now, and I know ya don’t want ta call us by our first names on account of your parents teachin’ ya to address adults respectful. But what iffen you just made us all honorary uncles. I think I could get used ta Uncle Hoss all right, and it wouldn’t sound nearly so formal.”

“What a wonderful idea, Hoss!” Ben agreed. “Will, Celia, what do you think?”

Will looked at Celia and shrugged, “It’s all right with me. Cele?”

“As long as the rest of you don’t mind. I think it’d be wonderful to have you all as ‘uncles’.” Celia smiled at them.

“Yeehaa, I get ta be an uncle.” Hoss cheered. “Didn’t think it was ever goin’ ta happen the rate my brothers are goin'”

“Yes, well, you certainly aren’t making strides in that area yourself.” Adam teased. “And I like the idea of being an honorary uncle very much.”

“Sounds great to me, too.” Joe added in approval.

“Well, then it’s settled.” Ben declared. “Celia, it looks like you’ve got a few more packages there.”

Joe reached forward and handed Celia another package, this one a large round one. “Thank you, Uncle Joe,” Celia told him with a grin.

“Uncle Joe.” He beamed, “I like it.” He sat back to watch Celia open her package.

“That one is from us, Cele. Caleb, Josh, and me.” Will explained. “Mr…I mean Uncle Hoss helped us pick it out.” He grinned at Hoss over his slip, and Hoss winked back at him.

Celia opened the package to find a sewing basket, complete with thread, scissors, needles, and all the other notions a seamstress needed. “Oh, Will, Caleb, Josh, thank you. You remembered.”

“It was Will’s idea,” Caleb said giving credit to his older brother, “but Josh and I pitched in ta buy it.”

“We thought this one was pretty didn’t we, Mist… uh, Uncle Hoss?” Josh said; it was obvious the new titles were going to take some getting used to.

“Well, it is beautiful, and thank you again for remembering a girl needs her own sewing basket on her 14th birthday.” Celia smiled at her brothers, and laid the basket on the floor at her feet.

“Is that a family tradition?” Adam asked, curious.

“In Ma’s family, yes.” Celia answered. “All the Afton girls receive a sewing basket on their 14th birthday, I was afraid I wouldn’t get one, but…”

“You should have known I wouldn’t forget, Cele,” Will admonished her, but his eyes sparkled at his sister.

“Yes, I should have.”

“Looks like you’ve got a couple morem” Adam reminded her, looking at the table.

Abbie jumped up eagerly and handed Celia the small tin that had been laying next to the large rectangle package that Celia was eyeing. “This one is from me and Laura, and Uncle Hop Sing,” she said carefully, remembering the new title.

“Thank You, Abbie,” Celia said as she took it and Abbie squeezed in between her and Little Joe.

Celia opened it and found an array of chocolates. “I told Uncle Hop Sing these were yer favorites,” Abbie explained.

Celia put an arm around her and squeezed. “They are, thank ya very much. You, too, Laura.” She smiled at her little sister, who was snuggled up next to Will. Laura grinned at her.

“Well, it looks like I’m last.” Adam told Celia with a smile as he rose to hand her the last package, then sat back in his seat.

Celia had had an idea of what the package might contain as it lay there, and the feel of it in her hands increased her certainty. She felt her eyes mist and she looked at Adam. He was smiling gently at her, but she could see the uncertainty in his eyes. Celia unwrapped the package, and sure enough the soft silky folds of the shawl were revealed, the soft material the same deep blue color of the lake back home in Georgia.

She pulled the shawl out and clutched it to her chest. “Thank you.” she whispered, smiling through the tears in her eyes.

“I was hoping you might feel more able to accept it, now,” Adam told her.

He rose to meet her as she came over and gave him a tight hug. “Thank you, UNCLE Adam, for everything,” she said.

He hugged her back, “You’re very welcome, Celia.”

“Well,” Ben’s pleased voice resounded in the big room. “It looks like you’ve done very well for yourself, young lady.”

Celia turned around, her face beaming, and she quickly rubbed the tears out of her eyes. “Yes, thank you all so much for the gifts and for making my birthday so wonderful! I hardly know how to thank you, all of you,” she said.

“Well, no thanks needed Celia,” Hoss told her. “We’re all just glad you had a nice time.”

“Speaking of which, what next?” Little Joe remarked. “This party can’t be over already.”

“What would the birthday girl like to do?” Ben asked with a glance at Celia.

“A game, Cele,” Caleb announced, loudly

“Yeah, Jacks,” Josh suggested.

“I want to sing,” Abbie demanded.

“We’ve got that new Dissection, Celia,” Will reminded her.

“Oh, I know,” Caleb jumped up. “How ’bout Blind Man’s Bluff!”

“Yeah,” Josh agreed, “Blind Man’s Bluff, Celia.” He looked imploringly at this sister.

Celia laughed, “All right, a game. And Blind Man’s Bluff is fine with me, if it’s all right with Mr. Car… Uncle Ben.” Celia said, deferring to the master of the house.

“Haven’t had a rousing game of Blind Man’s Bluff in a long time. Sounds just fine,” Ben agreed.

“Well, ya all better watch out because I’m a champeen BBB player.” Hoss boasted with a grin, as they all headed outside.

The evening was pleasant. A full moon, just rising in the eastern sky, shed a silvery light over everything, making the front yard of the Ranch House a perfect place for Blind Man’s Bluff, the keep away game being even more fun in the shadowy half light from the moon.

Celia was “elected” to be first and Little Joe covered her eyes with his neckerchief, while the others gathered around. Ben set down the rules, so that everyone was clear.

“All right. You have to stay within the boundaries of the house, the barn and the corral. Be careful of the “blind man”. Make sure he doesn’t trip into anything, and no roughhousing or the game stops immediately. As soon as the “blind man” touches you, you’re it. Any questions/”

A giggle from Abbie was his only response. He looked at her and she covered her mouth with her hands, but her eyes twinkled at him, and he winked at her.

“All right, then, Celia’s it!” The game started and Ben moved over to the porch out of the way. Adam joined him and they both watched as the others tried to keep away from a flailing Celia. Josh got a little too close and Celia grabbed him. With much laughing she pulled her blindfold off, and put it around Josh’s eyes. The teasing was worse now as Josh tried to catch another victim.

Ben shook his head as Hoss snuck up behind Josh, and tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped away as Josh swung around, and barely managed to stay out of reach of Josh’s outstretched hands. A quick leap forward by Josh took Hoss by surprise though, and before he knew it, he had been caught and Josh was pulling the blindfold off with a laugh.

With Hoss “it”, the fun began in earnest, and Adam and Ben watched in amusement as one after another, the children and Joe got close to him then jumped away at the last second. Finally, he managed to grab hold of Abbie, and the giggling girl became “it”.

“It’s good to see her having such a good time, isn’t it?” Ben remarked quietly to Adam, as a laughing Celia stepped close to Abbie so that the little girl could touch her.

“Yes, it is. I’m thankful for it,” Adam replied. “The change really is amazing.”

“And a long time coming.”

Adam silently agreed; he had almost given up on her.

“No word from the aunt and uncle?” Ben asked.

Adam shook his head. “No, I contacted Bunt and Waglers in Atlanta; they sent a man out to Elton. I guess the Aftons and Coopers are old Southern families, but their plantations were taken over during the war. The Cooper’s completely destroyed and the Afton’s used as a barracks and storage facility for the Union Army.”

“Which may explain why they were headed west.”

“Yes, the aunt has moved away, but they were pretty sure they could locate her, as she still had friends in Elton.”

“That’s good, and the uncle?”

“He’s a little more difficult. The sheriff in Salem was helpful. Knows Cooper, and says he comes into town for supplies once a month or so, but the rains have been heavy and he hadn’t seen him yet this summer. There’s another little settlement closer to him, and I’ve sent another letter. I guess we can just hope on that one.”

“Well, it’ll work out, I’m sure.”

There was a shout of laughter from the yard as Will, with a quick twist managed to snag Joe who had been feeling very smug, as he had yet to be caught. The merriment was catching; Adam and Ben laughed along with the rest, as Joe humbly, but with a wide grin, accepted the neckerchief.

“Founder’s Day is this weekend,” Ben commented. “You taking the children in>” Ben knew Adam had been avoiding town as much as possible because of the questions he inevitably received.

“I thought so; the kids will enjoy it.” He noticed Ben’s shrewd look and knew exactly what his father was thinking. “I figured it’s time to stop hiding and just let Virginia City get used to seeing me with a passel of kids.”

Ben wasn’t sure what Adam meant by that, but let it pass. “Well, you’re right; the children will enjoy it.”

Adam looked out at the game still in progress. He smirked and a calculating gleam appeared in his eyes, as he watched Little Joe who was still the blind man, try unsuccessfully to capture Hoss. “You know,” he said, “I think it’s about time for me to join that game.”

Ben stared at him his eyebrows raised in surprise. Adam winked at him, and with two quick steps forward he did a one handed vault over the hitching post and went to join the melee in the middle of the yard. A shout from the others caused Joe to move his blindfold down. He grinned as he saw the reason for the shout. “Well, well, well, Older Brother, decided to try your luck against the blind man, eh?”

“Won’t take luck against you, Younger Brother,” Adam retorted.

“We’ll just see about that,” Joe replied and he replaced the blindfold.

Ben laughed as he watched his oldest son trying to outmaneuver his youngest. It was good to see Adam running and laughing with the others just like a kid. Joe came very close to catching him, but Adam dodged in time and Joe tripped over Caleb who had sprinted in front of him. Caleb and Joe landed in a laughing heap.

Adam, breathlessly holding his knees, smiled over at Ben, “Hey, Pa, why don’t ya join us? It’s great!”

“Yeah, Pa come on” Joe said from the ground where he and Caleb were trying to untangle themselves. “We’ll go easy on ya.”

“Easy on me!” Ben said indignantly. “I’ll show you, easy, young man.” and he walked out to join the others. “Give me that blindfold.” He said holding his hand out to Joe, who handed it over to him with a laugh. Ben quickly tied it around his eyes, and the game was on.

*****

Founder’s Day was held, not on the day Virginia City was founded, but whenever the “founders” decided it would be a good time. As no one knew for sure the day Virginia City had begun, as there were several differing versions, and since the charter incorporating the city had been signed in February, not a good time for a picnic, the “founders” had agreed that whenever the “founders” decided to have the celebration would be “Founder’s Day”. Thus it would change from year to year, but was usually held in late spring or early summer. On this particular year, the heavy spring rains had put everyone behind and Founder’s Day had been declared to be June 18th.

Virginia City had gone all out and “gussied” up fancier than any society matron for this grand occasion. Flags and bunting lined every street, businesses had swept and tidied the front of their stores, and long trestle tables lined the length of the main street in readiness for the various contests planned throughout the day. The good citizens of Virginia City had come out in all their finery, and now walked the length of the sidewalks greeting each other and being seen by each other, and which of the two was the greater attraction was anybody’s guess.

In the clearing set aside for such occasions long tables were beginning to fill with the homemade baked goods over which the various Ladies’ Aids, societies, and church groups had spent long hours, ready to sell to hungry picnic goers. Large bowls full of punch and lemonade stood ready, their frosted sides a promise to thirsty patrons that the water they were made with had been cold. A platform had been set up nearby for the speeches and special songs to be rendered later, and a brass band was tuning up in preparation for the dancing that would follow.

Already the sound of childish laughter could be heard as children ran and chased one another, dashing in and out around their elders, who greeted each other with light hearts and rather loud voices. Today was a day to forget the difficulties of their lives and enjoy themselves without worrying about what they really should be doing. To miss Founder’s Day was considered a slight to Virginia City, and it’s loyal citizens would hardly forgive it for any excuse other than near death.

The Cartwright and Cooper clans arrived at the picnic grounds mid-morning. The children wide-eyed at the sights and sounds around them, clustered close to the adults, until Josh and Caleb spied some friends from church and with a quick look at Adam for permission and an admonishment to be back at the clearing before noon, they were gone. Hoss and Joe soon followed, making their way towards the contests that were about to start in town. Hop Sing pulled the large boxes full of his baking out and hurried away to add his contribution to the bake sale. Ben turned toward Adam. “Well, they’re abandoning ship fast,” he said

“So it would appear. What do you have planned?” Adam asked.

Ben looked around and caught the eye of Sheriff Coffee. “Think I’ll go see what Roy is up to.” He looked back at Adam. “How ’bout you?”

“I guess Will, Celia and I will take the girls around to see the exhibits, and see how Hoss does in the flapjack contest.”

“The flapjack contest! I didn’t think he was going to do that this year,” Ben said in surprise.

“Yes, well, I think Little Joe got to him,” Adam observed drily.

Ben rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised.”

“Uncle Adam?” Adam looked over at Will, “I told Tom Sellers I’d watch the horse races and contests with him, if it was all right with you.”

“Sure, Will, just be back here by noon,” Adam gave permission.

“Yes, sir, thank you!” and he was off to find Tom, with whom he had struck up a fast friendship over the last couple of weeks.

Adam looked at Celia, and the little girls and smiled, then back at Ben. “Well, it looks like it will just be the girls and me.”

“Somehow, son, I think you can handle it,” Ben said with a clap on the shoulder and he left them to join Roy.

Adam, Celia, Abbie and Laura walked towards town, stopping along the way to greet the various neighbors and friends they met. Adam noticed the glances given to the girls and the polite smiles for him. He knew the people of Virginia City thought he was crazy to be keeping the Coopers for such a long time, and that several of the matrons thought he should have found a home for the children long ago. They had told him so in no uncertain terms. Gossip had been rife throughout the committees, group, councils, and parties where dear ladies gathered, and Adam knew he and the children had provided fodder for the gossip mill for several months now.

He could see it in their faces as they greeted him, and could read it in their minds, Poor man, poor children, such a tragedy, I can hardly believe Adam Cartwright taking on all those children, whatever possessed him…. On and on, but Adam simply smiled as if everything was fine, introduced Celia, Abbie and Laura to those who hadn’t already met them, and responded politely to the innumerable and nosy questions posed to him, until he thought his face would crack, and his patience expire. This was the reason he’d avoided town up to this point, but if the children’s aunt and uncle didn’t show up, he had about decided to keep the kids himself, no other option having presented itself, and he wanted Virginia City to get used to the idea, whether they thought him crazy or not.

After walking up and down Union Street, crossing the square to C street and back again they ended up in front of the International Hotel, where hawkers were vending their wares and the tables had been set up for the flapjack contest. Adam smiled at the sight of Joe and Hoss. Hoss looked a little sick and unsure, but Joe was talking quickly into his ear. Providing encouragement no doubt, Adam thought.

“Want to stay and watch Uncle Hoss make himself sick?” he asked the girls.

Celia looked at Hoss. “I think he looks sick already.”

“Well, he hasn’t had good luck with this sort of thing,” Adam explained.

“Maybe we should let him do it on his own then,” Abbie offered sagely.

Adam chuckled. “I think that might be a good idea.” He swooped the tiring Laura into his arms, and they headed back towards the picnic grounds. They passed Caleb and Josh and their friends who were watching a juggler, with open mouths, and a little further waved at Will and Tom as they sat waiting for the races to start along D street.

Back at the picnic grounds they found the blanket Hop Sing had spread for them under the shade of a cottonwood tree, and Adam and the girls settled down on it.

“Ah, that’s quite a walk, carrying a heavy girl like you, Laura.” He poked Laura’s nose and she giggled.

“Uncle Adam, I’m thirsty,” Abbie said kneeling in front of him.

“Me, too,” Laura said.

“Well, in that case I think some lemonade is in order. How does that sound?”

The girls nodded vigorously, their braids flapping.

“Okay,” Adam said rising, “Lemonade for everyone coming up; you stay here with Celia, I’ll be right back.”

Adam made his way towards the table where the lemonade was being served. He noticed Eva Truman standing nearby, and smiled. Eva had moved to Virginia City last summer with her family, and they had been seeing quite a bit of each other since. Of course, the last few months had kept him from any social engagements, but the sight of her reminded him why he had been so attracted to her in the first place.

He approached her and the way her eyes lit up at sight of him; he knew she was as glad to see him, as he was to see her. “Hello, Eva,” he said.

“Hello, stranger,” ahe replied, smiling, her eyes sparkling at him. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen you.”

Adam smiled. “I know; I’m sorry about that. I’ve been rather busy lately.”

“Oh, yes, I heard about the children you’re watching over. So terribly sad about their folks.” Her face became suitably concerned.

“Yes, it is,” Adam agreed.

“How much longer do you think they’ll be with you?” she asked carefully.

“I don’t know. I’m hoping to hear from their relatives soon, though.”

She smiled again, “That’s good to hear, but if you don’t…” Her eyebrows raised in question.

Adam wondered why this conversation always came around to this. What if you don’t? What if… He smiled at her. “Well, in that case it looks like I’ll be keeping them myself.”

Adam could see the shock in her eyes and on her face “Keep them yourself!” she exclaimed, “You can’t mean it!”

Adam felt the heat rise in his face, and turned away from her. His gaze found Abbie and Laura. His eyes softened as he saw Abbie carefully explaining how to make a daisy chain to Laura. “Don’t you think I can handle it?” he said turning back to Eva.

“Adam that’s not what I meant.” Her eyes searched his face. “It’s just… six children… it’s just… Well, it’s a big resp…”

“I know,” Adam cut her off sharply, “It’s a big responsibility, so everyone keeps telling me,” He said roughly, the annoyance plain on his face.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to upset you,,” Eva apologized softly.

“No, I’m the one who should apologize,” Adam responded. He dropped his eyes, as she did hers, neither willing to meet the other’s gaze.

“It’s all right,” she replied.

They stood for a moment, the silence heavy between them. Adam lifted his eyes and watched her. He could almost read her mind as she stood there thinking, her bottom lip caught between her teeth.

He liked Eva; he liked her a lot. She was fun, intelligent, and sensible, with an infectious laugh that made him feel as if nothing else mattered but to hear that laugh again. He had enjoyed the times they spent together, and had even begun to wonder if, perhaps…

Looking at her now, the dismay so clear on her face, as the possibility of his keeping the Coopers sunk in, he realized there might be more drawbacks to adopting the children than he had imagined.

A man with six children would no longer be such a great catch, even if he was a Cartwright. Few women in their right minds would want to take on the responsibility with him. It was clear Eva wouldn’t.

He stirred himself, and she looked up at him. “Well, I guess I should get the lemonade for the girls,” he said with forced cheerfulness.

“Yes,” ahe said softly, and there was an apology in her voice. “Thank you for saying hello.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes, nor did she attempt to keep him.

Adam nodded and walked away. The joy seemed to have gone out of the day as he purchased lemonade for himself and the girls and made his way carefully back to where they waited for him. He handed the cups to Celia, then turned as Abbie and Laura came running back, their arms filled with daisy chains. He crouched on his heels as Abbie approached him.

“What do you have there?” he asked pretending ignorance.

“Crowns, see.” And she promptly settled one on his head, and giggled. “Now you’re the king!” she said giving him her gap-toothed smile.

He pulled her to him and gave her a hug.

“Thank you, Abbie,” he said, realized suddenly that the sun WAS still shining, and he pushed thoughts of Eva and the whole jumbled mess away. He looked at Laura who was holding out a bunch of wilting daisies to him and grinning from ear to ear.

“For ya, Unca Adam.”

“Thank you, sweetie.” He took the daisies and included her in the hug. He looked at them both, “You girls having a good time?”

“Yep,” Abbie said firmly. “It’s great.”

“Good,” He gave them another squeeze then stood. “Celia has your lemonade.” He said and the girls ran to their sister. He noticed Caleb and Josh making their way toward him, and smiled, pleased that they had remembered. Hoss, Joe and Will arrived at the same time, Hoss looking as if he needed to lie down.

Adam smiled to himself. He raised an eyebrow at Hoss, who sat down with a groan. “How’d it go. Hoss?”

Hoss groaned again, “Don’t ask; as a matter of fact, I think the best thing ya could do is jest shoot me.”

Adam couldn’t help laughing. He looked at Joe, who was grinning widely.

“He did great, Adam! He won!” Joe answered Adam’s unasked question.

“He did!” Adam was surprised and looked at his big brother with new respect. “You really won, Hoss?”

Hoss just held his stomach and groaned again. But Joe answered enthusiastically, “Sure he did; ate more flapjacks than anyone; I knew he could.”

Hoss looked at Joe. “Joe, next time you try to get me into anything like this again, I’m gonna… Well, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but it ain’t gonna be good!” He rose, holding his stomach. “I’m gonna go try an’ walk this off a bit.” He swiped a hand in goodbye, and tottered slowly away.

Adam shook his head. He noticed Abbie’s concerned little face, and smiled down at her.

“Is Uncle Hoss, going ta be okay?” she asked.

He laid a hand on her head. “He’ll be fine, Abbie; he just ate too much, and that gave him a tummy ache.” He looked over at Joe, who was beginning to realize the price poor Hoss was paying for his enthusiasm.

“You should have seen him, Adam. It was really amazing!” Joe said, trying to justify himself.

“Mm Hm.” Adam replied, “I’m sure it was.”

******

The next two weeks were difficult ones for Adam. The information from his contacts in Atlanta and Salem continued unpromising, and the hunt for another suitable family that would take all six children hit dead end after dead end. It began to seem more and more likely that the only way to keep his promise to Will would be by keeping the children with him on the Ponderosa.

He found his thoughts returning time and time again to Eva. He hadn’t seen her since the picnic, and word had reached him that she was seeing John Applewood. He held no hard feelings toward her. It was a lot to ask of a woman, to take on a ready made family, especially such a large one, and he didn’t hold it against her that she wasn’t willing to do so.

The fact was he didn’t know of many who would, and it preyed on him as he went about his duties. He knew he had left marriage late, but it didn’t mean he didn’t hope that sometime, someday, he would find a woman to love, to settle down with, to have a family. It looked like now he would have the family, but without the woman to love.

Added to the disappointment over Eva was the dawning realization that it wasn’t going to continue to be so easy keeping the children well and happy and out of mischief. He didn’t know if it was how comfortable they were becoming around him and the others, how well they were settling in at the Ponderosa or just some other freak of nature, but in the last two weeks, in fact since the Founder’s Day picnic, they each, individually and collectively, seemed to be determined to teach him exactly what adopting them permanently would entail.

It started with Josh, two days after the picnic. Adam had told him to clean out the chicken house. A rather nasty job, true, but one that needed to be done, and he was perfectly capable of doing it. Five hours later Adam had returned to find the door to the chicken coop open and still filthy, the chickens scattered, and Josh nowhere in sight.

A quick search had found Josh down by the creek bed with Abbie and Laura, a complete town built in the mud. It was a genius of engineering and Adam was impressed with it. What he wasn’t impressed with was the mud that covered the three children from head to toe.

He had had to discipline all three of them, because Abbie and Laura had been told to stay with Hop Sing, and had already been warned several times not to go near the creek. It was the first time he had spanked any of the children, and Adam found it much more difficult than he had imagined. He knew it was for their own good, but still… Abbie and Laura took it well, and their tearful hugs and promises not to do it again relieved Adam of some of his own distress over the matter.

Josh was a little more difficult to read. He had taken his punishment manfully, and then cleaned the coop as ordered. But Adam noticed a little more reserve in his manner toward him, as if Josh suddenly realized that Adam was not as easy going as he had thought, and now wasn’t quite sure what to make of him.

And so it had gone. Caleb had left the gate to the corral open and the horses had scattered. Josh had gotten distracted and failed to bring the eggs to Hop Sing, and they had ended up tipped over and broken all over the front porch. Abbie wanted a bouquet for her tea table and stripped the roses from Hop Sing’s prize bush. Laura had managed to open the middle drawer of the desk, where the pens and ink were kept, and had proceeded to empty it completely and make lovely ink drawings all over the back wall. It had taken all Hop Sing’s ingenuity, but he had bleached them enough that they weren’t noticeable unless you were looking for them.

Caleb and Josh had gotten into a fistfight over who would get to go with Hoss into town. Abbie tried to give the kitten Joe had given her a bath, and swamped the washhouse. Laura had found Adam’s copy of Ivanhoe, tore the pages from it, and used them to decorate the pigsty. Even Will and Celia continually squabbled and had finally gotten into a argument that only ended when Adam sent them both to their rooms to calm down and think it over. On and on it went and by the end of two weeks Adam was ready to tear his hair out and was seriously wondering if he shouldn’t be admitted to that insane institution after all.

It had given him a major taste of what life could be like for him, and he was beginning to seriously question his readiness for permanent fatherhood.

So when Hoss arrived from town early in July, with two letters for him — one from Georgia and one from Oregon — he wasn’t as distressed as he might have been two weeks earlier.

The first was from Lucille Afton, written in an elegant hand on embossed stationary with a faint scent of violets about it. She had received his letter and was writing to inform him that she was on her way to get the children as soon as possible. She would telegram as soon as she knew when she would arrive in Virginia City, but expected it to be no later than July 20th etc. etc.

The second was from Blake Cooper, and Adam could tell by the straightforward and neatly printed letter that he was going to like the man. He also wrote to inform Adam of his intention to come for the children, and that he expected to be in Virginia City by the end of the month at the latest.

Adam leaned back in the chair he had been sitting in, and struggled to make sense of his feelings. Relief most of all. After all it was what he had been praying and hoping for all these months. Yet, there was too, the melancholy realization that he had come to care for these children very much, and there was a part of him that had wanted very much to keep them, in spite of the trials they had put him through. It was going to be hard to let go. Of course, it was not as difficult as it might have been, two weeks ago. He acknowledged to himself with a wry grin. He realized also that this might not be so easy on the children, they had settled in here at the Ponderosa, they had come to care for him, Pa, Hop Sing and his brothers almost like family, he thought. He sighed deeply, and wondered how the children would take the news. He prayed fervently that they would take it well. They had already had so much difficulty in their lives; he would hate to be the cause of even more.

He told the children at supper that evening. He realized by their faces and the immediate stillness that the news was a surprise to them; that they had begun to think their Aunt and Uncle were never going to come for them. He understood; he had begun to think it himself.

“You’ve heard from Aunt Lucille and Uncle Blake?” Will asked his face betraying the shock he was feeling.

“Yes, just today. Funny how their letters arrived at the same time,” Adam replied, simply and directly, hoping that if he was matter of fact about it the children would be as well.

Abbie looked from Celia to Will then to Adam. “Aunt Lucille? What do ya mean?”

Adam took a deep breath, glanced at Ben for encouragement, and receiving Ben’s nod, began. “It means, Abbie, that your Aunt Lucille and Uncle Blake are coming for you, so that you can go live with them, or rather one of them.” He tried to keep his voice steady.

She looked at him puzzled, “But I thought we was staying with you.”

“Well, you have been for awhile, but we always expected your aunt or uncle to come for you, and that you’d go live with them.

Abbie’s brow furrowed. “I don’t want to live with them, Uncle Adam, I want to stay here with you and Uncle Hoss and Uncle Joe, and Uncle Ben, and Uncle Hop Sing.”

Adam was at a loss what to say; he knew it wasn’t going to be easy for the little girl to understand, he looked around the table at Ben and his brothers, pleading for help.

Ben cleared his throat. “Well, we would like to have you live with us, too, Abbie, but it’s best for you to be with your own family. Your Aunt Lucille is your Ma’s sister; your Uncle Blake is your Pa’s brother. They are your family. We, as much as we care for you, are not, so if possible it is best that you live with them.”

Will looked at Celia, and jerked his chin toward Abbie. Celia gave him a smile understanding. “Abbie, you remember Aunt Lucille don’t ya?” She said brightly, “She’s Ma’s sister? Surely ya remember her.”

Abbie looked distressed. “I remember her a little, but not very much. Not enough ta go live with her.”

“You’ll like her Abbie,” Caleb assured her. “She’s pretty and she always gave us sweets, even when Ma said ‘no’.”

“Used ta make Ma mad. But Aunt Lucille would jest laugh at her and say it was an Aunt’s privilege to spoil her nieces and nephews,” Will chuckled.

“That’s right, and ‘member when she took us to see the parade in Elton, and got us ice cream?” Josh added.

“Sounds like my kind of aunt,” Little Joe commented with a wink at Abbie.

“Yeah, I coulda used one like that myself,” Hoss added.

“She’s the best, really!” Caleb agreed.

“Yes, and Mamie, remember her? She always had that big jar full of sugar snaps,” Celia reminded them.

“And she’d warn us not ta tell Ma she’d helped us spoil our supper, and make us pinky promise before she’d give us any.” Will added, and the four older children looked at each other and laughed over the memory.

Abbie looked at them, wondering if perhaps this aunt person might not be so bad after all. Adam looked around at the smiling children and inwardly sighed in relief. He glanced at Ben, who raised his eyebrows at him and smiled. That had gone better than he expected. Of course, he should have realized Aunt Lucille was close to the children and that they would be glad to see her, and he was happy for it. It was going to make this a whole lot easier.

The older children continued to reminisce about their aunt and the life they had left behind in Georgia, until even Abbie began to get excited about meeting this aunt she remembered so vaguely. Laura simply sat wide-eyed not really understanding any of it, but happy that her brothers and sisters were excited about something.

Adam could only hope the enthusiasm would continue. He thought it interesting that none of them had mentioned their Uncle Blake, but assumed that it was because they had all been too small when he went West to really remember him.

Over the next few weeks the children’s enthusiasm waxed and waned, as they alternately grew excited about seeing their aunt again, and grew sad over the thought of leaving the Ponderosa and all that they had come to care about.

Adam understood, he had had a similar experience when he left for college, and his own feelings were up and down and all over the place as well. He would miss them. Each time Abbie gave him that gap-toothed grin and begged him to give her a ride on Sport, each time Will brought another drawing for him to look over, each time Caleb and Josh whooped over a fine cast with a rope, each time Celia blushed over the compliments given her for another fine dessert, and each time Laura snuggled up with his Pa over a story, Adam realized how much he would miss them all over again.

Then he would think of what had happened with Eva, of having a wife and family of his own. He would think of the difficulties in watching over six children, and how much simpler his life had been without the added responsibilities. Back and forth he would waver, until he began to long for Miss Afton and Mr. Cooper’s arrival, so that it would just be over once and for all.

******

Three weeks later, Adam was waiting for the Overland Stage Company to arrive from Salt Lake City and points east. It was already several hours late and he was hoping it wasn’t going to be several hours longer, when it arrived in a cloud of dust, pulling up in front of the International Hotel with a creaking of wheels and stomping of horses.

Adam waited curiously as the passengers disembarked, looking carefully at each one as they stepped from the coach. He had a mental image of Miss Afton, but knew it was only speculation; the only description the children had given him was that she was young and pretty and liked to laugh a lot. He carefully examined each woman of suitable age who stepped from the stagecoach. There was three, one a rather stout woman in a bright red dress, who was met by a gentleman in equally bright attire, and obviously not the one he was waiting for. One was a Negro woman of about 30 or so, dressed neatly in a gray dress, hat and gloves, and the woman who accompanied her was most definitely the Cooper’s aunt.

Lucille Afton looked as he imagined Celia would in another 15 years or so. The children had been right; she was beautiful; tall and slim, with a mass of shiny, coffee brown hair tucked beneath a stylish hat. Her pale blue dress was simple, but elegant, and she carried herself with an air of good breeding that proclaimed her the lady she was. She scanned the crowd with grey-blue eyes rimmed with long, dark lashes, until she saw Adam watching her and smiled hesitantly. He stepped forward, removing his hat, and smiled back at her.

“Miss Afton?” he asked.

“Yes, you are…” She paused, her voice was low and modulated, and Adam recognized the soft accents of a well-bred southern lady.

“Adam Cartwright,” he introduced himself. “Welcome to Nevada.”

She held out her hand to him and smiled. “Pleased ta meet you, Mr. Cartwright.” He took her hand and bent over it slightly. He caught her eye.

“The pleasure is mine, I assure you.”

She inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement, then turned to the Negro woman standing beside her. “This is Mamie, my dear friend and companion. She traveled with me to help me bring the children back.”

Adam nodded to Mamie. “How do you do?”

“How do?” Mamie offered him her hand as well, and he took it, bowing over it with the same politeness he had offered Miss Afton.

“The buggy is just up the street; I’m afraid I didn’t realize there would be two of you.” Adam explained apologetically, “but I think we’ll make it, if you don’t mind a little tight quarters.”

“I’m sure that it’ll be fine, Mr. Cartwright.” Her southern accent caressed the words. “No doubt it will be an improvement over how we’ve been traveling these last few weeks.” She smiled pleasantly at him, and he chuckled.

“No, doubt. And please, you can call me Adam.”

“Very well, but only if you return the favor.” She smiled at him.

“With pleasure,” he said gallantly. “Are these your bags?” He asked indicating the luggage that had been set next to them on the ground.

“Yes, thank you.”

Adam picked up two of them and looked at the rest. “We’ll have to send someone in for the others. I’m afraid there isn’t room in the buggy for them all.”

“That will be fine.”

Adam quickly arranged for the other bags to be stored until he could send someone to pick them up, then led the way to the waiting buggy.

Lucille and Mamie glanced at one another as Adam stored the bags they were taking with them. A silent message passed between the two women. Lucille arched an eyebrow and cocked her head in Adam’s direction. Mamie grinned and gave her friend a quick wink. Their faces became all innocence once again, as Adam turned to them with a smile and prepared to help them into the buggy.

“As I said, I’m sorry it isn’t bigger,” he apologized once again, holding his hand out to Lucille.

“It’s not a problem, Adam, I’m sure we’ll be fine.” She flashed him a smile, as he helped her settle and turned to do the same for Mamie. “Is it far to your home?”

“It’s a ways,” he told her, then went around to climb in the buggy himself. He gathered up the reins and gave another smile to the two women. He clucked to the horse and with a quick jump it started forward.

They were silent until they were past the outskirts of Virginia City, then Adam remembered his manners, and turned to Lucille who was seated next to him.

“I hope you had a pleasant journey?” he asked politely.

Lucille looked at him, then laughed a bright, twinkling laugh that made Adam smile. He saw Mamie grinning from beyond Lucille.

He looked at Lucille again, with one eyebrow raised. “I’m not sure I understand what’s so funny.” There was a chuckle in his voice.

“No, I don’t suppose ya do,” Lucille replied, “but if you had been with us the last few weeks ya would see the humor in supposing that any part of our journey could have been pleasant,” ahe explained. “It was hot, dusty, crowded, long, arduous and completely exhaustin’. Which is why I appreciate this delightful buggy, crowded though it may be, these cool trees, and the present company.” She smiled and arched an eyebrow at him.

“Well, I’m glad your first impression of us is a good one.”

“Quite good,” and she settled further into her seat. “Is it far to the ranch, the Ponderosa, you call it?” she questioned, changing the subject.

“Well, not far to the Ponderosa itself, we’ll be within it’s boundaries just over that next hill, but it’s another hour or so to the house.”

“The Ponderosa is large then?”

“Quite large.” Adam responded, “It takes a lot of room to raise cattle.”

“So I see.”

They rode in silence once again, and a soft snore from Mamie revealed that she had succumbed to the fatigue of the journey. Adam seemed engrossed in his own thoughts and Lucille took the opportunity to study her companion. He was a handsome man, she thought to herself, and somehow familiar. She had felt it the first moment she had seen him. She pondered a moment and then it came to her, Gerald. Adam and Gerald looked enough alike they could have been brothers, almost twins. It was uncanny really, and unsettling to see the face of a man you had once known so well, replicated in a complete stranger. Almost like seeing a ghost. She shivered slightly and Adam glanced at her.

“Are you cold?” he asked kindly, though with surprise in his voice as the day was warm.

“No, I’m fine. How are the children?” She asked quickly in order to avoid further questions.

“They’re well, looking forward to seeing you.” Adam replied.

She smiled gently, “I’m looking forward to seeing them; it’s been too long. How long do ya think it will be before they can be ready to return ta Georgia with me?”

Adam cleared his throat, and paused a moment. “Well, that depends on how soon their Uncle Blake arrives and what you two can arrange from there.”

There was no response and Adam looked over at her. Her face was a mask. “Blake is coming?” she asked quietly and Adam could detect a coldness in her voice, edged with something else he couldn’t identify.

“Yes, I received his letter the same day I received yours.”

“Really, what a coincidence,” she said wryly, the coolness even more definite and Adam wondered at it, but decided not to comment.

“Yes, I thought so at the time myself. I expect him here by the end of the month, so you shouldn’t have long to wait. Just enough time to enjoy all the Ponderosa has to offer.”

She didn’t reply, and Adam glanced sideways at her. Her thoughts were not pleasant, he could see it in her face. He decided to take a shot in the dark.

“I assume you know Mr. Cooper?” He asked.

She turned to him wide-eyed and laughed a short, mirthless laugh, “Oh my, yes, Blake and I grew up together. The Aftons and Coopers have lived side by side for ages; they were neighbors before America was a nation. Our great-great-great grandfathers were given grants from King George himself. Afton Hill and Oak Grove began the same year,” She paused a moment, as if a thought pained her, “and now they have ended the same year, rather ironic is it not?” Her voice was brittle.

“I had heard that the Cooper plantation, Oak Grove?” He asked quickly and Lucille nodded, “was destroyed during the war, I hadn’t realized you lost your home as well. I am sorry,” he said quietly.

“Afton Hill wasn’t destroyed, but it might as well have been after them Yankees were through with it,” Lucille spat out the word “Yankee” as if it were a swear word, and Adam decided this wouldn’t be a good time to bring up his own Yankee roots. “I sold it after Gerald and Alice left and then I moved to Atlanta,” Lucille continued, “There was nothin’ left for me there, anyway, and no money to keep it goin’, no one to work the fields, and with the war goin’ on.” She paused, then sighed deeply. “So now there are no more Aftons or Coopers there,” ahe finished quietly.

Adam didn’t know how to respond, he couldn’t imagine what it must be like to lose a place that held such deep family roots.

“Mamie is the only one I have left, other than the children,” Lucille spoke again, her voice meditative, and Adam wasn’t sure she was actually speaking to him, or simply musing. Then she turned to him. “My father gave her ta me when I was five; she was my birthday present.” She looked at him closely, watching his reaction, a challenge in her eyes.

Adam held her gaze. “She’s a slave?”

“She was.” Lucille wondered again at how much he reminded her of Gerald, as she watched his face harden at her mention of slavery. Gerald had often had the same look, for the same reason, only, where Gerald’s eyes were deep blue, Adam’s were dark and they seemed to pierce down into her very soul. She could feel them searching her now. “I freed her when we both turned 21,” ahe told him, and felt a moment of satisfaction. He hadn’t expected that. “I may be Southern, Adam, but that doesn’t mean I approve of slavery.” She answered the surprise in his face.

He had the grace to blush. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right, I’m rather used ta it. Everyone who sees Mamie and me together jumps to the same conclusion. But, she is free. She stayed with me, and now we’re inseparable. I’m sorry I failed ta mention she would be comin’ with me. I guess I’ve gotten so used to havin’ her around,” she trailed off apologetically.

“That’s quite all right, we’ve plenty of room. The children will be glad to see her, too, I think. They’ve mentioned her quite a bit.”

“Oh, yes,” Lucille laughed suddenly. “Mamie is a favorite with ’em; she spoils them somethin’ awful.”

“I’ve heard she’s not the only one,” Adam teased her lightly and she laughed again. Adam found he was beginning to like that laugh. I was obvious to him why it was the one thing the children remembered best about her.

“Have they been tellin’ tales on me?”

Adam laughed also, and his eyes twinkled at her. “I’m afraid so.” They continued the banter, both relieved to have navigated into safer waters. Soon after, Mamie woke and the conversation continued light and pleasant until they arrived at the ranch house.

The children must have been on the look out for them, because no sooner had Adam stopped the buggy than they poured out of the house and barn, all eager to see and greet and hug their Aunt. Adam smiled at their joyful shouts when they caught sight of Mamie as well.

She was out of the buggy before Adam had a chance to help her and had Caleb and Josh wrapped in a hug. Lucille jumped after her just in time to accept Celia’s embrace, then Will’s. They exclaimed to one another, and the women remarked at how much the children had grown. Adam could see tears in more than one eye, through the smiling faces, and he quietly removed the bags and left them to their reunion. There would be time enough later, he thought, to introduce them to the Ponderosa and the rest of his family.

Little Joe pounced as soon as Adam entered the door.

“Well, Adam, what’s she like?” he asked eagerly, green eyes sparkling.

Adam contemplated his answer, trying to decide if he wanted to tell Joe the truth, that Lucille was a beautiful and elegant woman, and watch “Charming Joe” go into high gear, or fudge a little and give Joe a shock. An amused grin flickered across his face as the temptation for the latter hovered in his consciousness.

“She’s nice,” he said keeping his face carefully neutral. “I can see why the children like her so much.” He started for the stairs, bags in hand. Joe grabbed his arm as he went past.

“That’s it? She’s nice!”

“What else did you want to know, Joe?” Adam asked, innocently.

Joe blushed slightly, but he was annoyed with his brother. Adam could be very frustrating when he wanted to be. He knew exactly what Joe wanted to know.

“I think he wants ta know iffen she’s as pretty as the kids said,” Hoss pointed out with a chuckle from the leather chair where he was sitting. Joe threw him an annoyed glance.

“Ah.” Adam said; Joe could see that irritating smirk begin in his brother’s eyes and travel all the way to his smiling mouth. He raised his eyebrows at Ben standing to one side of the fireplace. “I’m going to take these up to the guest’s rooms. I’ll be right back.” Without another glance at Little Joe, he headed up the stairs.

Joe stood with his hands on his hips. “Well, how do you like that!”

Ben and Hoss just laughed.

“I think that means she’s as pretty as the kids said she is,” Hoss grinned at Joe.

“What makes ya say that?”

“‘Cause iffen she weren’t, he woulda told ya.”

A slow grin spread over Joe’s face. “Yeah. Hey, big brother how did you get so smart?”

“Well now, I ain’t lived all these years with you an’ Adam without learning a thing or two about how ya operate.”

He winked at Joe as Adam came back down the stairs and went to stand next to Ben. Joe joined them, and the four men chatted quietly as they waited for the children to bring the guests in. They didn’t have long to wait. Soon Lucille and Mamie entered surrounded by the excited children.

Hoss stood and Adam stepped forward as the two women stopped, waiting for him to approach them.

“Lucille, Mamie.” Adam walked over to them, and gestured toward where Ben and the others stood politely waiting. He followed the women into the sitting area, the children tagging along like a pack of puppies, unwilling to let their aunt and Mamie get too far away. “May I present my father, Ben, and my brothers, Hoss and Little Joe.” He pointed to each as he introduced them. “Pa, Hoss, Joe, I’d like you to meet Miss Afton, and Miss Mamie.”

Ben stepped forward, and held out his hand. “Miss Afton, Miss Mamie, welcome to the Ponderosa.” His voice was warm as he greeted them, and he shook hands with them in turn.

Hoss grinned and nodded from his place in front of the fire. “Miss Afton, Miss Mamie, pleased ta meet ya.” They nodded back to him in greeting.

Little Joe moved forward and Adam could tell he was in full charm mode. He took Lucille’s hand in his. Raising it to his lips he kissed the back of it lightly and grinned, his eyes twinkling. “Very pleased to have ya here, Ma’am.” He said slowly his normally slight southern drawl more pronounced. Adam and Hoss rolled their eyes at each other.

Lucille arched one delicate brow at Joe. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. It is indeed a pleasure ta be here.” She removed her hand from his.

“Please, call me Joe,” he said suavely.

Lucille’s mouth twitched in amusement. “Certainly, Joe, if you’ll call me Lucille.”

“It will be a pleasure.” Joe stood smiling at her until Ben cleared his throat slightly. Joe glanced at Ben and saw his discreet nod toward Mamie. Joe turned his charming smile toward her.

“Miss Mamie, it’s a pleasure to have you here, also. I hope your stay will be a pleasant one.” He took her hand also, leaned over and brushed the back with a kiss, grinning up at her as he did so.

“Laws a mercy, Miss Lucille.” Her wide white smile flashed at Joe. “But this one’s a charmer!”

They all laughed at that, and Joe winked at her as he released her hand.

“Well, I imagine you ladies are tired from your journey,” Ben said, “Joe, why don’t you show them to their rooms.”

“I’d be glad to. Ladies.” Joe gestured for them to precede him up the stairs.

Lucille flashed a smile around the room. “It was a pleasure to meet you, gentlemen.” Then lifting her skirts slightly she started up the stairs. Mamie, with a wide grin of her own, followed her. Joe gave Adam a wink as he passed by his older brother, and bounded up the stairs after them. Adam snorted and shook his head; Joe was incorrigible.

“Children, I imagine you still have chores to finish,” Ben reminded them as they started to follow their aunt. They looked disappointedly at Adam, who smiled back and gestured with his chin towards the front door.

“You’ll have plenty of time to talk to Aunt Lucille later. Pa is right, chores first.”

With murmurs of “Yes, sir,” the children slowly left to complete their unfinished jobs.

*****

The next few days were pleasant ones for everyone. Lucille and Mamie proved to be excellent guests. They were charming and charmed with everything around them. They oohed and aahed over the children’s ponies and the kittens in the barn. They laughed merrily at the antics of the calves in the big pastures, no longer little, but still adorable, as they gambled friskily around their mothers. They exclaimed, awestruck, at the beauty of Lake Tahoe, and the Sierras. They showered their hosts with compliments and were delighted with everyone and everything around them.

On the other’s part, they did their best to make the ladies’ visit enjoyable. Little Joe brought in two fine horses and tacked them up in the best equipment the Ponderosa had to offer, which was very fine indeed, and placed them at Lucille and Mamie’s disposal. He then proceeded to show them all the beauties of the Ponderosa. Hoss brought home wildflowers and placed then in their rooms daily, and Adam and the children conspired together to provide outings for them during the day, and entertainments during the long summer evenings, at which Adam’s guitar and Celia’s voice were a prominent part. Lucille also had a lovely voice, but they enjoyed most the Negro Spirituals that Mamie would sing for them in a full, rich, melodic voice, that was hauntingly beautiful.

It was during the second week of Lucille and Mamie’s stay that Adam and Hoss took Lucille, Mamie and the Coopers to the lake for a picnic and some fishing. Ben had ridden into town on business and Little Joe was left holding down the fort at the ranch house.

Joe had spent the morning catching up on the various small chores that had built up during their guest’s stay, and was oiling his saddle on the front porch, when he saw a stranger approaching on a dark grey horse. He straightened, then walked forward and stood waiting as the man rode up to him. The stranger dismounted and Joe knew immediately who the man was. Blake Cooper looked enough like Adam to have been his brother. He was tall, heavily built, and well muscled. He had a heavy thatch of dark black hair, and a shallow cleft in his chin. He was heavier and taller than Adam was, and his face was wider and more chiseled. He had friendly blue eyes that smiled into Joe’s as he stood in front of him.

Joe stretched out his hand. “No need to tell me who you are; you have to be Blake Cooper.”

Blake took the offered hand and smiled at him a little uncertainly, “Yes, I am but how’d ya know?”

“Wait till you see my brother Adam and you’ll know.” Joe grinned. “I’m Joe Cartwright, by the way. Welcome to the Ponderosa.” Joe was pleased at the grip Blake gave him. It was strong and firm but not challenging, he found himself liking him immediately.

“I’m pleased ta meet ya, Mr. Cartwright.” Blake’s voice was deep, with a strong Georgia accent.

Joe waved away the ‘Mr. Cartwright’. “Please, call me Joe; you’re practically one of the family, with the kids and all.”

“Thank ya, Joe. I appreciate that.”

“Well.” Little Joe clapped his hands, and rubbed them together. “Let’s get this horse of yours taken care of, then I can show you to your room. I’m afraid we’ve had to put you in the bunkhouse, on account of all the company we’ve got.” He said over his shoulder as he led the way to the barn, and Blake followed after him with the horse.

“I imagine all those children take quite a bit of room. It’s a nice sized house, though. Bigger than most ranch houses I’ve seen.” Blake commented, leading his grey into the stall Joe indicated. Joe settled himself on a barrel and wrapped his hands around a knee.

“Yeah, It’s come in handy lots of times; it ain’t often we run outa room.”

Blake chuckled lightly, “No I don’t suppose ya do.” He flipped a stirrup up and began uncinching the horse’s saddle.

“Well, we woulda been fine this time, too, but then Lucille brought Mamie with her and we weren’t expectin’ that.” Joe explained.

Blake’s hands stopped, he stared at the saddle and swallowed. “Lucille is here?”

Joe didn’t notice Blake’s hesitation and he answered cheerfully, “Yeah, got here about a week ago. Boy, she sure is something. You met her?”

Blake’s hands began to move over the cinch again, and he answered carefully. “Yeah, I know her.” Joe noticed the coolness in his voice and looked at him in surprise.

“Something wrong?” He asked.

Blake pulled the saddle from the horse. “No, nothin’ wrong.” He smiled over at Joe. “Just wasn’t expectin’ Luc… Miss Afton ta be here.” He swung the saddle up onto the edge of the stall. “I’m glad, though; it’ll be good ta see her again.”

Joe just nodded and said nothing, but he was thinking that Blake Cooper looked more like a man about to face his worst enemy than to meet an old friend.

Joe made Blake comfortable in the bunkhouse and returned to finish oiling his saddle.

Several hours later the rest of the family and guests returned, tired but happy after their day spent along the shore of the lake. Josh and Caleb ran to Joe, waving the mess of fish they’d caught.

“Hey, Uncle Joe, lookit what we got!” Josh exclaimed.

“Yeah, I got the most of ’em,” Caleb bragged.

Josh glared at him. “Yeah, well mine was the biggest!”

Little Joe laughed. “Well, that’s the finest mess of fish I’ve ever seen.” He interrupted before an argument could break out. “Why don’t ya take ’em on in to Hop Sing? We can have ’em for supper.”

“Yes, Sir!” The boys said, then ran off to show their prize to Hop Sing.

Joe made his way toward the rest of the group, who were removing picnic gear, and tending to the horses and buggy. Lucille and Mamie walked past him heading towards the house, their arms filled with baskets and blankets. Abbie and Laura trailed along behind, carrying a picnic hamper. He winked at Lucille and Mamie as they went by, and Mamie flashed him her wide smile. Then he knelt beside Abbie who was trying to hold up the hamper by herself after Laura had let go of her end.

“That looks a little heavy for you gals,” he said, opening the lid and grinning at its empty contents.

Abbie grunted, as she tried to drag the hamper. “It wouldn’t be iffen Laura would quit droppin’ it.”

“It’s too heavy!” Laura defended herself with a small pout.

“Well, it’s pretty big for a little gal like you. Why don’t ya just leave it here, and let someone else get it,” Joe suggested.

Abbie scowled at him. “We can do it, Uncle Joe! We’re big!”

“Yeah, we big!” Laura echoed. She edged her chubby hands under the hamper and lifted. Together the two little girls staggered toward the house. Joe watched after them grinning, then turned toward Adam.

“Hey, Adam, your second guest arrived today,” Joe announced walking up to him.

Adam looked over at him from where he was unsaddling Sport. “My second guest?” Adam asked a little puzzled. The others gathered around Joe, wondering as well.

“Yeah, you know Blake Cooper.”

Adam’s face lightened and he smiled. “Well, that’s wonderful! Where is he?”

“I put him up in the bunk house; he was pretty worn out. Rode all the way here from Oregon.”

“Did ya say Uncle Blake is here?” Will asked, touching Joe’s arm.

“Yep, got here, oh, about two-three hours ago.”

“Oh”

Adam noticed Will and Celia look at each other, and could tell by their faces what they were thinking. With Blake Cooper here, their fate would be decided and then they would be leaving.

“Well, let’s get these animals taken care of, then we can go meet your uncle,” he said cheerfully. “How does that sound?” He clapped Will on the shoulder and smiled at Celia. They gave him weak smiles in return, and went back to helping put everything away.

*****

It was at supper that night that Adam first observed the coolness between Lucille and Blake. He noticed that while the conversation was general among everyone at the table, Lucille and Blake never spoke directly to one another, or looked in one another’s direction. A difficult thing to do as they were seated across from each other at Ben’s right and left. Adam, from his usual position at the bottom of the table, had even seen several times when eye contact had been studiously avoided. He tried to remember if they had greeted each other earlier when Joe had brought Blake into the main house to introduce him to the family. There had been so much going on that he couldn’t recall exactly what had occurred between the two. He remembered the coolness in Lucille’s voice when he had mentioned Blake would be coming to the Ponderosa, and he realized there was something more going on between the two of them.

The careful avoidance of each other continued throughout the evening. Even after the children had been put to bed and the adults gathered on the porch to enjoy the cool night air, Adam noticed that Lucille quickly placed herself between Hoss and Joe leaving no room for Blake to get close to her. Not that he was trying to, Adam noted; he remained in deep conversation with Ben, seeming not to notice the trio laughing not too far away. Yet Adam had the curious feeling that they were intensely aware of each other, nonetheless. He made his way over to where Mamie was standing near a porch pillar watching the stars.

“Beautiful, aren’t they,” he commented to her indicating the stars overhead. He leaned against the post, facing her.

“Yes, they’s lovely. So big and bright,” she agreed, then smiled at him. “They’s almost as pretty as the ones at Afton Hill.”

Adam chuckled at that. “You must think a lot of Afton Hill.”

She shrugged. “It’s my home. Or was, ’til ‘dem Yankees, come and take it all away.”

“Yes, I was sorry to hear about that.”

“Thank you, but it’s all right, Mr. Adam. I’s still got a home with Miss Lucille. I guess that’s what’s mos’ important anyways.”

He smiled gently at her. “Mamie, how many times have I asked you to call me Adam?”

She laughed. “Oh, probly a hunnerd. But I’ll tell you the same thing I tole Miss Lucille. She on me all the time about that, too. That and the way I talk. But I tell’s her I’ve called her Miss for more’n thirty years and I’s not goin’ ta stop now, and I’s talked dis way for more’n thirty years and I’s not goin’ ta stop now, and I’s been callin’ white folks by mister and misses for more’n thirty years and I’s not goin’ ta stop now,” she said emphatically, her dark brown eyes twinkling with good humor. “I is who I is, an’ I don’ see no good reason fer changin’ it. So you’ll jus’ have ta accept me the way I is.” She smiled at him, and he realized she meant every word she had said. Mamie was a person completely comfortable with herself.

“All right, I’ll let it go,” Adam conceded with a smile, “so long as you realize it really isn’t necessary to call me mister, or any of the rest of us, for that matter.”

“Oh, I know that! You all has treated me fine, welcoming me and treatin’ me as nice as ya treat Miss Lucille.” Tears began pooling in the corners of her eyes. “It ain’t like that eveywhere, I’s tellin’ you, Mr. Adam. Some people treat ya like ya ain’ even dere. But not you an’ your family; dey treat me like I’s a real person; can’t tell ya how much I appreciate dat.” She gave him a watery smile.

“Well, we’re very glad to have you with us,” Adam assured her, with a smile.

“And I’s glad ta be here!” Mamie replied with a wide smile of her own.

There was a comfortable silence between them for several minutes. Adam stood watching Blake and Lucille through slightly narrow eyes. He contemplated how best to bring up the subject that had been bothering him all day. Finally, he decided that the direct approach would be best, and took a deep breath before turning to Mamie. “What’s up with Lucille and Blake?” He asked bluntly. “They don’t seem to like each other very much.”

Mamie glanced over to where the others were talking then looked at Adam slyly. “What give you the idea, they don’ like each other?” She asked.

“I don’t know. Perhaps, it’s the way they’ve been avoiding each other since he arrived.” Adam said a hint of sarcasm evident in his voice.

Mamie laughed quietly. “Yes, sir, that do be what it look like don’ it? And that be what dey thinkin’ too. But don’ be fooled Mr. Adam, dose two, they don’ hate each other; dey jus’ think they do.”

“I’m afraid I’m not following you, Mamie.”

“Well, Mr. Adam, it’s like dis. Those two dey grow up together. They as close friends as two chillen ever be. Then when they get big, dey jus natural fall in love with each other.” Mamie stopped to make sure that Adam understood her. He nodded and she continued. “Well, den, Mr. Blake he start hearing talk abou’ Oregon and how great it is, and he gets a hankerin’ to go dere. But Miss Lucille, she don’ wanna go, ’cause it’s too far and too wild and rough, she thinks. An’ she don’ wanna leave Afton Hill, or her Mama, an’ Papa. Mr. Blake he plead and plead, but she tell him iffen he go to Oregon, he goin’ without her. He say iffen she love him she go wid him, She say iffen he love her, he stay in Georgia. But he determined to go and she determined to stay. So he go without her. And now dey both think dey hate each other.” She looked at Adam sagely, “But dey don’ hate each other, no sirry, dey don’. Dey hurt each other and dey hurt each other bad, but you’s don’ get over dat many years of lovin’ so easy. Iffen dey had, it wouldna matter dey see each other now, but it do matter. Dat’s how I know dey’s jus’ pretendin’.”

Adam looked over at Lucille and Blake and considered what Mamie had said. He wasn’t sure if Mamie was right that they still cared for each other. He couldn’t see any sign of it himself. In fact, he would have said it was exactly the opposite from their actions, but Mamie had known them both far longer than he had. If she was right it could make the next few days very interesting. He smiled to himself, very interesting indeed.

*****

It WAS interesting. Adam watched Lucille and Blake carefully over the next few days. He thought perhaps the coolness was wearing off slightly. He smiled contentedly to himself, and began to speculate on what exactly might come of all this, and how he might best move it along. He felt what a great thing it would be for everyone if Blake and Lucille decided to patch up their differences and make a complete family for the children.

With this in mind, he began trying to find ways for the two of them to be alone together. It was a task in which he was helped by Mamie and, unfortunately, hindered by everyone else. Their need to talk things over as far as who would keep the children gave Adam an excellent excuse for recommending time alone, but both Lucille and Blake resisted any suggestions he had.

Which meant that, so far he hadn’t had any luck at all, but the more he thought of it the more the idea appealed to him, as the best and right solution. Now he only had to find some way to convince the two interested parties. It would not be easy, he knew as the main obstacle to their getting together still remained. Blake lived in Oregon, and Adam wasn’t sure Lucille would be any more open to the idea of moving there than she had been before. Though, the fact that there was no one left for her in Georgia would have to help.

Try as he might over the next few days, he couldn’t manage to get Lucille and Blake together, alone or otherwise. Blake was interested in each facet of the Ponderosa, and spent long hours of each day with Ben in deep discussions over their various enterprises, and plying Adam with detailed questions about every aspect of running the Ponderosa. It was extremely gratifying, as Blake had a keen mind and was suitably impressed with what they had accomplished, but also extremely frustrating, as he watched Lucille ride out with Little Joe day after day. His suggestions that Blake join them were met with a blank look and Blake’s assurance that he’d much rather see the lumber mill Adam had told him about.

He was deep in thought over the dilemma several evenings later. Everyone had gathered in the sitting area after another of Hop Sing’s delicious suppers. Blake, sitting on the settee with Hoss and Joe, had been plying Ben, who was sitting next to him in the deep leather chair, with questions of his journey west and how he had found and built the Ponderosa. It was a story Adam had heard many times, and lived through as well, so he let his mind wander, until the mention of his grandfather’s name brought him back to the conversation with a jolt.

“Yes,” Ben was saying, “that was when I went to work for Abel Stoddard, and of course, met Adam’s mother.” He smiled fondly at his oldest son, who was sitting at the far end of the hearth with the children lined up in one long row next to him.

“Ya know, I still can’t believe both you and Adam are Yankees,” Lucille put in smiling, from her seat across from Ben, where she sat next to Mamie. “Ya are both just far too nice.” Her tinkling laugh sounded through the room and the others joined her.

“Yeah, they’re Yankees but we don’t hold it against ’em,” Joe remarked, causing another round of laughter.

“Very funny, little brother.” Adam said dryly.

“Did you say Adam’s mother was a Stoddard?” Blake asked a thoughtful look on his face.

Ben looked at him and smiled. “Yes, Elizabeth Stoddard, why?”

“From around Boston?” Blake queried, a smile beginning on his face.

“Yes, near there, but…?” Ben voice trailed off as Blake’s smile quickly turned into a full-blown laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Adam asked.

“Nothing really, it just explains everything, that’s all.” Blake grinned over at Adam, his blue eyes twinkling merrily.

“Explains everything? I don’t understand?” Adam asked perplexed.

“Well, it’s perfectly clear, that’s all.” Blake beamed at the curious faces around him.

“Blake.” Lucille broke in, her voice annoyed. “Would ya please just tell us!”

“Yeah, Uncle Blake. Just tell us,” Will begged, from his seat on the hearth. The others watched Blake expectantly, and he glanced around at the group making sure he had their full attention.

“My great, great grandmother was a Stoddard,” he announced. “One of the few Yankees on our family tree. We used ta blame all the family idiosyncrasies on her,” he said his voice full of humor. “Any time any one of us did something stupid, we’d say that was just the Yankee blood of Grandma Essie coming out.” He grinned at the surprised faces around him.

Joe’s high-pitched laugh broke the stunned silence. “Hey, pa! That explains Adam! It’s that Stoddard blood of his! That’s why he’s so strange!” He giggled at his own joke, and Hoss joined him.

“Ain’t that the truth, Pa. ‘Ol’ Adam just can’t hep hisself,” Hoss grinned over at his brother, who was still trying to digest what Blake had said.

“Very funny, boys.” Ben gave them a stern look, which silenced the giggles but did nothing to erase their glee or their wide grins as they looked at each other.

“You mean you think that you and I are cousins?” Adam said haltingly, his eyes on Blake.

“Well, distantly obviously, but it would sure explain why we look so much alike.”

“But Pa, did Adam’s Ma have an Aunt Essie?” Hoss wondered.

“I can’t say about that. She never mentioned one if she did. ” Ben smiled at Hoss. “But she did say she wouldn’t be the first Stoddard female to leave her family to follow the man she loved. She mentioned a great aunt back in the family tree who had married and gone south to live.” He nodded toward Blake. “I’d say considering the amazing resemblance between Adam and Blake, it’s very possible.”

“Uncle Adam looks even more like Pa,” Celia reminded them quietly.

Before any one could respond, Will jumped in, a small frown on his face. “Does that mean Uncle Adam is really related to us?”

“Well, we’d have to do some checking to say for sure, but it sounds like it’s possible,” Ben answered him, amusement in his deep voice.

“What do ya know about that.” Will grinned at Adam. “I guess we coulda been callin’ ya Cousin Adam, all this time.”

“Yes, so it seems,” Adam replied with a sideways grin of his own. His eyes twinkled at the children lined up along the hearth. “I kinda like the thought of being related to you all.”

Abbie scowled over at Will from her spot between Josh and Adam. “I don’t wanta call Uncle Adam, Cousin Adam; I like him as my uncle!” she announced, decisively.

The others laughed at that, and Adam put his arm around her and pulled her close. “You can call me anything you want, Abbie.” He twitched her nose and she wrinkled it at him, and a ripple of laughter circled the room again. The laughter quieted as the conversation turned to other things.

“So, Blake you were telling me earlier about a new irrigation method you were trying in that orchard of yours,” Ben said settling back in his chair.

Blake leaned forward, “Yes, I think it would work well for you on that north pasture you showed me today,” he began eagerly.

“Orchard?” Lucille’s cool voice interrupted them, “You have an orchard, Blake?”

He turned to her his eyes guarded. “Yes, the seedlings I brought with me from home have done very well in Oregon.” He raised an eyebrow at her and his voice held a note of pride. “I have several orchards, apples, peaches, cherries, and walnuts.”

“Real apple trees, Uncle Blake, like back home?” Caleb asked his eyes shining.

Blake smiled at him. “Yes, Caleb, real apple trees, exactly like back home.” He had the children’s full attention now. “You see I took dozens of seedlings with me when I left Georgia, some from each of the orchards at Oak Grove. I tended them all the way across the country, and it wasn’t easy, many of them died along the way, but I knew if I could only get them to Oregon they’d be all right, and they were.” He looked at Ben. “Oregon’s a great country for fruit trees, Ben, you should see it. The soil is deep and rich, and there’s plenty of rain. It took awhile to tame the wilderness around me, but with lots of hard work, I’ve managed to carve out a place, not all that different from this one.” He waved his hand in the air. “My last three seasons have been very good, and I’ve even got plans for a new house in the works, big enough for a family.” He smiled at the children, “and just in time, too.”

“Assuming, of course, the children go live with you,” Lucille broke in smoothly, “We still need to discuss that, Blake.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything to discuss, Lucille.” He looked at her coldly, “I think we both know who can give these children a better home.”

“Really?” One delicate eyebrow arched upward, “I guess that means the children and I can leave anytime we choose,” she replied, with a glint in her eyes, and a raised chin.

“That’s not what I said at all and I think you know it!” Blake answered her, his own voice deepening dangerously.

They glared at each other and the children watched them wide-eyed. Hoss and Joe looked at each other uncomfortably, as the tension crackled in the air. Adam’s eyes darted between the two, wondering if he should jump in, but a quick glance at his father and a shake of Ben’s head, kept him quiet.

“Then what exactly did ya mean, Blake? That you can provide better for MY sister’s children!” Lucille’s voice remained low and even, but her tightly controlled anger was evident in her snapping grey-blue eyes, and the clipped way she spoke her words. “Do you seriously think I’m gonna let you take them inta that wilderness of yours, Blake Cooper? The children are goin’ back ta Georgia with me!” She held his eyes, daring him to contradict her.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “And do you seriously think I’M going to allow you to take my nieces and nephews back into that war ravaged hell?” he said his voice, deep and threatening. “There’s nothing left for them there. That’s why Gerald was headed for Oregon, he wanted a better life for his family, and he knew there was nothing left in Georgia!”

“And look what it got him!” Lucille interrupted her voice raised. “He’s dead and my sister with him!” She stood up trembling, and caught her lip between her teeth struggling for control. She took a deep breath, and looked at Blake her nostrils flaring, “I’ll not discuss this any more, now,” she said tightly, “but I am taking the children back ta Georgia.” With a swish of her skirts she turned and marched up the stairs. Mamie stood, glanced apologetically at the others, then followed Lucille up the stairs.

Blake took a deep breath and stood also. He looked at Ben, then at Adam, Hoss, and Joe who all watched him silently. “I’m sorry. Ya all, shouldn’t have had ta see that.” He ran a hand through his dark hair, then glanced at the children who sat soberly, their eyes fixed on him. “Don’t ya worry kids, your Aunt Lucille and I will work this out.” He attempted a smile, then turned to the others. “I think I’ll head out to the bunkhouse now. Good night, ya all.” With a nod of his head, he left.

There was a rather stunned silence among those remaining. The children looked over at Adam their eyes unsure and a little frightened.

With a smile, he hastened to reassure them. “You heard what your Uncle Blake said, there’s no need to worry, I’m sure your aunt and uncle will work something out. They’re just a little upset right now.”

“Maybe we should just stay here,” he heard Josh grumble under his breath.

“Yeah, I don’t want ta go all the way back ta Georgia,” Caleb agreed with him.

Ben looked at them both. “Now, boys,” he said his eyebrow lifting, and his eyes kind, “you know that isn’t really possible, as much as we’d like to have you. Your Aunt Lucille and Uncle Blake are your family. They’ll do what is best for you,” He scanned the row of children. “All of you, I’m sure.”

“But Uncle Ben, Aunt Lucille seems so determined and I don’t want to go back to Georgia,” Caleb almost wailed.

“Yeah, why don’t we get some say in where we end up?” Josh wanted to know.

“Because we’re kids that’s why, and we have to do what the grownups say,” Will responded, bitterly, his eyes dark. “Even if it’s not what we want.”

“Will, that’s not completely true.”

“Isn’t it?” Will stood and turned to Adam, “Have either of those two asked us who we’d like to live with? Are they thinking about us at all, or just about which one is going ta win out over the other one. You’ve seen how they’ve been acting since they got here, as if the other doesn’t even exist. They haven’t once discussed who’s gonna take us, and then tonight they have a big fight over it.” Will waved his hands, his frustration clear on his face.

“Will, sit back down, son,” Ben said soothingly. Will’s lips tightened and he gulped, but he sat. Ben glanced over at Adam, who took a deep breath, and looked at the children.

“I’m sorry, guys. I should have realized how much this has been weighing on you. That fault is mine. I’ll try to talk to your aunt and uncle and hopefully they can come up with a solution, soon.” He paused a moment to look each in the eye, one after the other. “For the record, I would like to know how you all feel about this. Who you’d like to live with. It may help them with their decision if they know your preference.” He gave Caleb a crooked grin. “And no, I’m afraid the Ponderosa isn’t an option any longer. Not when you have two loving family members who BOTH want you, but I would like to know if you’d rather go with your Aunt Lucille or Uncle Blake.” He smiled at them and waited.

The children looked at one another, then Will raised his eyebrows at Celia who nodded back at him. He cleared his throat. “Well, Cele and I HAVE talked about it and, well, while we’d really like to stay here.” He gave Adam a shy smile, then glanced at Joe, Hoss and Ben. “‘Cause you’ve all treated us so much like family, we’ve almost felt we were. And you, Uncle Adam. Who knows what would have happened to us if ya hadn’t come along. But we realize, too, that staying here really isn’t an option, not when we’ve got our own kin to take care of us, and I guess when it really comes down to it, we know that’s the best anyway. The thing is it’s been kinda hard ta decide who we’d rather live with.” He looked at the adults again.

“See, we know Aunt Lucille and Mamie, so part of us would really like ta live with them, ’cause it’s goin’ ta be awful hard ta say goodbye again, but I don’t think any of us really want ta go back ta Georgia.” Wo;; looked at his siblings, who nodded their heads in confirmation, all except Abbie and Laura who weren’t quite following what was going on, but were watching their brother with serious faces. “Ma and Pa set out for Oregon, and so there’s the other part of us, that wants ta finish the journey for ’em. They wanted a better life for us than what we coulda had in Georgia. They believed we’d have that out there, livin’ next ta Uncle Blake. So I guess we all feel…” He paused and looked at Celia, Josh, and Caleb again for confirmation, who nodded back at him, urging him on. “Cele, Caleb, Josh and me, that we’d like best to go on ta Oregon. ‘Cause we think that’s what Ma and Pa woulda wanted.” He smiled at his two littlest sisters, their tiny faces staring so intensely at his own. “Course, Abbie and Laura, don’t really understand, all Abbie’d say was she wanted to stay with you,” He smiled at Adam. “And then Laura’d say the same thing, but I think they’ll be happy wherever we are.”

Adam nodded, “Well, I can’t promise that’s the way it will be, but I’ll try talking to your aunt and uncle. It’ll be hard on your Aunt Lucille, but I think you’ve made a wise decision.”

“I agree,” Ben confirmed, “From what your Uncle Blake tells me, he’s made quite a place for himself in Oregon, I think you’ll be happy there.”

“Aunt Lucille isn’t going to like it.” Celia said softly, “She really wants us ta come ta Georgia with her. She’s been telling me about all sorts of things she wants ta do with us when we get back. And how wonderful it will be having us with her, one big family again. It’s going ta be more than hard on her, I think it’ll break her heart.”

There was silence as the children grappled with the realization that there was going to be disappointment in store for some of them no matter how things turned out.

“Well, it really is getting late.” Ben ended the silence, “and time for you children to be in bed. And don’t worry.” He smiled gently at them. “Everything really will turn out all right.” He caught and held Will’s eye, nodding to him. He knew the young boy, especially, would need the admonishment not to worry.

Will’s mouth lifted slightly acknowledging the unspoken encouragement. “Thanks, Uncle Ben, We know it’ll be all right.” He stood and motioned to his younger brothers and sisters. “Come on, guys, time for bed.”

The children headed for the stairs, saying “good night” over their shoulders to the others as they did so. Adam followed them.

“I’ll be back down.” He caught Ben’s eye, and Ben nodded, acknowledging his unspoken message. They needed to talk.

Ben, Joe and Hoss were silent, each lost in their own thoughts, as they waited for Adam to return from tucking Abbie and Laura into bed. A ritual he had done since their first night at the Ponderosa, and one he knew he would miss dreadfully when they were gone.

Several minutes later, Adam made his way slowly down the stairs and settled into the familiar blue chair across from Ben. He leaned forward his elbows on his knees and looked around at his silent family. He took a deep breath, then let it out quickly. “Well?”

Little Joe silently chewed on his lower lip and avoided Adam’s eyes. Hoss simply looked at him and shook his head, not knowing anything to say. Adam looked at Ben hopefully. “Pa?”

“I don’t know what you want me to say, Adam. I agree with the children. From what I’ve seen of both Blake and Lucille, and heard of what they have to offer, I think the children are right in wanting to continue to Oregon. I’ve nothing against Lucille; she’s a very charming and kind woman, and I think she would do her best for the children. But the fact remains, that the South is still embroiled in this war; it’s no place for children. I think you’re going to have to convince Lucille of that.”

“Yes, if she gives me a chance. I haven’t pushed it, believing that Blake and Lucille needed to talk it out themselves without any interference from me. After all I really have no legal right to the children, and therefore no real say in what happens to them.”

“Yeah, well, you got a moral right, Adam,” Hoss interrupted him. “After all ya done for these kids, the way ya been watchin’ over ’em and all. I don’t think there’s anyone else on this earth with more right ta say what happens ta those kids than you do, including their aunt and uncle.”

“I agree with Hoss on that one,” Joe concurred, “The way ya took those kids in, and’ve been caring for them all this time. I don’t think anyone knows better what will be best for them.”

“Thank you, guys, but there’s a big difference between legal rights and moral ones, and unfortunately, in circumstances like this, the legal ones are the ones that take precedence more often than not, but I don’t intend to let them get caught up in a big tug-of-war either. If Lucille and Blake can’t work this out quietly between themselves, I may have no choice but to step in myself.”

“I’d leave that as a last resort, Adam.” Ben cautioned. “It really will be best if they can work this out amicably, themselves, for them and for the children.”

Adam nodded acknowledging the truth of what Ben said. “Well, I don’t suppose there’s anymore we can do about it tonight. I do think I’ll have a talk with Blake and Lucille tomorrow, though. Hopefully, I can get them to at least start talking to each other.”

Joe snorted, “Good luck, looks to me like open warfare was declared tonight.”

Hoss frowned, “Yeah, wouldn’t want ta be in your shoes, Adam, getting those two to talk about anything am…” He stopped and looked at Ben “What was that word you used, Pa?”

“Amicably.” Ben smiled at his son.

“Yeah, amicably.”

“Well, Adam does have his work cut out for him it would appear, but he is no doubt up to the challenge.” He smiled fondly at his son. “And we’ll be here to help if you need us, Adam, you do know that.”

“Thanks, Pa, it’ll help knowing you all are behind me. But then you have been this whole time.” He stood and smiled at his Pa and brothers. “I think I’ll head for bed now myself. How bout you all?”

“Right behind you, Older Brother.” Joe jumped up.

“Sounds like a good idea for all of us,” Ben agreed, and the four men headed up the stairs.

*****

Adam was in luck. The very woman he wanted to talk to was alone at the dining room table when he came down for breakfast the next morning. He had been up long into the night, thinking over the situation with Blake and Lucille and had decided that the person in the best position to help was Mamie. He had come to admire the former slave for her unfailing cheerfulness and good sense, and he knew that if anyone could bring Lucille around to allowing Blake to take the children to Oregon, she could.

“Good morning,” he greeted her, seating himself across the table from her.

“Good mornin’, Mr. Adam, hope ya slept well,” she replied, smiling cheerfully.

“I did, thank you.”

Hop Sing entered with a basket of warm biscuits and placed them at Adam’s elbow. “Good morning, Mista Adam.”

“Morning, Hop Sing, it looks delicious as always.” He flashed Hop Sing a grin.

“Well, you eat up, before get cold!” Hop Sing admonished, hiding his pleasure over the compliment. He turned and hurried back to the kitchen.

“He really is an amazin’ cook,” Mamie observed, helping herself to a biscuit. “You all’s lucky ta have ‘im. Awful feisty, though ain’t he?”

“Yes, but I don’t think we’d have him any other way,” Adam acknowledged with a chuckle. He filled his plate, and his expression sobered. He bit his lip thoughtfully, trying to decide how best to start.

Mamie caught the expression and cocked her head at him. “Somethin’ on your mind, Mr. Adam?”

Adam looked up at her relieved that he wouldn’t have to open the conversation himself. “Yes, as a matter of fact, there is.”

Mamie nodded sagely, “Uh, huh, and I spects I knows what it is, too. That little blow up las’ night ‘tween Miss Lucille and Mr. Blake.”

“How’d you get so intuitive, Mamie?” Adam’s eyes smiled at her, as he filled his coffee cup and hers.

“Don’t take no intuition ta guess that.” she laughed at him. “I knows how you been watchin’ over dose chillen, all dis time, and then you’s thinkin’ all dat takin’ care of is over, ’cause their aunt and uncle here now ta do it for ’em. Den you find out, Miss Lucille and Mr. Blake not talkin’ and now dey’s fightin’.” She looked at him gently, and placed one warm hand on his. “I know it’s tough, waitin’ on ’em, but dey come around you see. Jes’ give ’em a little more time. Maybe dey look like dey still ignorin’ one another, but dey ain’t.” Mamie winked at Adam and grinned. “No, dey ain’t.”

Adam chuckled. “I’ll have to take your word for it about that, Mamie, cause I’m sure not seeing it. Especially after last night.” He gave her a look that told her what he thought of last night, and she laughed again. He paused a minute to take another bite, using it as an excuse to gather his thoughts, and put off what he knew would be difficult for her to hear. He swallowed and looked up at her. “But it wasn’t only that, Mamie, that I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh, what else is it den?” Mamie asked curious, her eyes on Adam as she pulled her hand away and reached for another biscuit.

“I had a talk with the children last night after you, Lucille and Blake left.” He caught her eye and held it. “They want to go to Oregon with Blake,” he told her gently.

Her eyes fell. She set the biscuit on her plate and folded her arms on the table in front of her. “I see. Somehow, I knew that’s what you’s was goin’ ta say.” She shook her head slowly. “Miss Lucille ain’t goin’ ta take that easy, Mr. Adam.” She looked him in the eye, her own dark brown ones serious. “She ain’t goin’ ta take it easy at all. She ain’t thought of nothin’ since she got your letter but comin’ ta get dese kids and bringin’ dem home ta Georgia with her.”

“I know it won’t be easy for her, Mamie, but Pa and I both think it’s for the best, not to mention it’s what we believe their parents would want.”

“Don’t mention that last one ta Miss Lucille. She so mad at Gerald for draggin’ her sister all da way out here, and gettin’ her killed.”

“That’s why I don’t intend to tell her, Mamie. I’m hoping you will.” His dark hazel eyes pleaded with Mamie. “You know her best, Mamie; she’ll listen to you.”

“Oh, Mr. Adam” Mamie said shaking her head sadly. “You don’ know what you askin’ me.” She leaned toward him. “Miss Lucille jest ain’t one ta change her min’ when she make it up. An’ I sure ain’t neva been no good at it.” She leaned back again and shook her head once more. “No, I’s sorry, Mr. Adam, I jest can’ do it. I could try, but it wouldn’ do no good, an’ den Miss Lucille she jest be mad at me, too.” Her eyes saddened and she looked at him. “An’ she goin’ ta need me somethin’ awful, iffen you and Blake is both decided dose chillen ain’t goin’ back ta Georgia with us.”

“I haven’t spoken to Blake yet, just the children. They’re the ones that want to go to Oregon, Mamie. Though they did say it was going to be very hard saying goodbye to you and Lucille again,” Adam assured her.

Steps on the stairs caused them both to look up and they saw Hoss, Joe and Ben descending followed by several of the children. Adam knew any other attempt to convince Mamie to help would have to wait for another time. Within a few minutes everyone had gathered around the table for breakfast except Blake and Lucille. Their absence was noted by the adults and then politely ignored. The children proved more curious, and Caleb looked at Mamie with a puzzled frown.

“Where’s Aunt Lucille and Uncle Blake?”

“Don’ know where your Uncle Blake is, but your Aunt Lucille went out early dis mornin’. She’ll be back soon, don’ you worry.”

Will and Celia looked across the table at each other. They wondered if it was good or bad that both Aunt Lucille and Uncle Blake were gone. The sound of the front door opening interrupted the usual morning table talk, and Blake and Lucille came in together. They walked to the table, and Blake helped Lucille into her chair before settling himself in his own.

“Good morning, everyone,” Lucille said pleasantly, as she settled her napkin on her lap. There were murmured ‘good mornings’ in return, and not a few raised eyebrows at her and Blake’s calm demeanors after the fireworks of last night.

Blake cleared his throat and looked at Adam. “Lucille and I would like to speak with you after breakfast if that’s all right?”

“Of course,” Adam assured him.

“Privately.” Blake glanced toward the children who were all watching him, their intense gazes catching every nuance of the adults’ conversation.

Adam flicked a look at Hoss, who caught the unspoken message. He smiled across the table at Caleb, Josh, and Abbie. “Hey, you all, what say we head on up ta tha lake today and see iffen we can’t catch us that big trout that’s been givin’ us so much trouble all summer? Then these grown ups can have the house ta themselves.”

“All right, Uncle Hoss,” Caleb and Josh exclaimed in unison, their too serious faces, exploding into huge grins, their blue eyes shining. Fishing with Uncle Hoss was their all time favorite thing to do on the Ponderosa.

Abbie wiggled in her chair, and grinned at him. “Me, too, Uncle Hoss?”

“Yep, you too, Abbie. You all get your breakfast eaten, an’ I’ll get Hop Sing to make us up a big lunch and we’ll get going. Mamie and Joe you can come to iffen ya want.” He opened his blue eyes wide at Joe.

“Sure, Mamie and me wouldn’t miss it. Would we Mamie?”

“No, sir, Mr. Joe, I’s comin'”

“Celia, Will?” Adam asked the two oldest, who sat quietly eating, their faces still grim. They looked up at him. “You two goin’?” He asked them gently.

Will swallowed, glanced a Celia, than back at Adam. “Yeah, we’ll go.”

Breakfast was finished quickly, the excited younger children carrying the conversation for their more subdued elders. Adam had an uneasy feeling that whatever it was that Blake and Lucille wanted to discuss with him, he wasn’t going to like it. It made him nervous, as he couldn’t think why he would be feeling that way. Perhaps, it was something in Lucille’s eyes, a gleam that told him she had gotten her own way, and it made his heart sink.

It didn’t take long after breakfast for the party heading for the lake to get ready. They had done it a lot over the last few months and everyone knew what they had to do. Ben, Adam, Blake and Lucille waved at the happy group as they trotted away; the men and boys on their horses and Mamie driving Celia and the little girls in the buggy.

“I hope you don’t mind if Pa joins us?” Adam asked as the group walked back into the house and settled in the sitting area; Blake and Lucille on the settee, Adam standing in front of the fireplace.

“No, of course not, I’d be glad to have you,” Blake assured Ben.

Ben sat down in his familiar red leather chair to the left of the fire place and lay back his legs crossed. As far as he was concerned, he was there merely as a spectator, and he observed each of the others closely.

Adam leaned his back against the fireplace, his arms crossed over his crisp, white shirt, and waited for one of them to begin.

Blake took a deep breath and glanced quickly at Lucille, who nodded, before looking up at Adam. “Lucille and I discussed this impasse we seem to be at in regards to the children, and while it’s not easy for either of us, we’ve decided that the only fair thing for us to do, is for each of us to take the children.”

“Each of you take the children?” Adam’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, he was not quite sure he had heard correctly.

“I’ll take Will, Caleb and Josh,” Blake continued, “Lucille will take Celia, Abbie and Laura.”

A look of disbelief, mingled with disgust and dread spread across Adam’s face as he realized what Blake had just said. He stood and dropped his arms, his eyebrows lowered and his eyes sparked. “What?” he said, his voice low.

“Please hear us out, Adam,” Lucille said softly, holding one hand up toward him. “Before ya blow up, just listen.”

Adam leaned back and crossed his arms again, his face guarded. He swung one hand toward them. “Please, by all means continue.” he said his voice laced with sarcasm.

“We both want the children, Adam. This was the only fair way we could come up with.” Blake continued.

“Yes, and the more we thought of it, the better it sounded.” Lucille added.

Adam raised an eyebrow at that.

“You see, it’s going to be much easier for each of us to only have three of the children to raise. And with Blake taking the boys and me the girls, we won’t have the trouble we would have otherwise. This way is much more practical.”

“Practical,” Adam repeated. Ben could see the warnings signs of Adam’s rising temper in the clipped way he pronounced the word.

“Yes, practical.” Blake continued, “Can you imagine me, alone, trying to raise those three girls?”

“Or, me raising the three boys, by myself?” Lucille added reasonably.

Adam remained silent but his face was hard, his eyes glowered and Ben could see the tightness of his jaw as it clenched and unclenched. His son was holding tight to his temper, but barely, and Ben’s heart ached for him. It was Adam’s worst fear come to life.

“This really is the best and most fair way for all of us, Adam, surely you see that,” Lucille finished.

Adam took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. He raked the two in front of him with his dark gaze, and they paled under it.

“Practical. Fair. Best,” je hissed quietly through clenched teeth. His eyes locked on theirs “All neat and tidy and reasonable, a perfect and sensible solution.” He continued his voice low and hard. Suddenly he shot out his arm towards the door and his voice raised. “Do you think those kids care about what’s practical or reasonable? All they care about is each other and staying together. I’d like to see you tell them, the perfect solution is for them to be separated by an entire continent!” His outraged voice echoed through the room. He stepped forward and placed his elbow on the back of the blue chair next to him. His intense eyes flashed as he leaned toward Lucille and Blake.
“These children have just lost their mother and their father,” he continued his voice once again low and hard. “Now you sit there and tell me you think it’s the best thing for THEM to lose each other as well! No, it’s not best for them; it’s best for YOU. YOU both want the children. It will be fair to YOU. Just having the boys or the girls will be easier on YOU.” He stood straight, his disgust clear on his face. “Well, I’m not going to let it happen.” He stood facing them his hands on his hips, his feet apart. “I won’t allow it.”

Lucille gasped, and Blake’s face hardened. “YOU won’t allow it?” He said incredulously.

“That’s right.” Adam replied, coldly. “I gave Will my word that I wouldn’t let them be separated. It’s a promise I intend to keep.”

“And how exactly do you intend to do that, Adam?” Lucille asked, her usually soft voice, now hard and angry.

“That’s simple; if you and Blake are unwilling to set aside your differences and do what is best for your nieces and nephews, if you both feel that the job is too difficult for you to handle alone…”

“It’d be difficult for anyone ta handle alone, Adam Cartwright, and you know it.” Lucille interrupted, stung by his words. “Those children dear as they are would be a big responsibility for anyone to take on alone, and you know it.” She said sharply. She paused and her eyes glittered. “Would you even be willing to take it on yourself, I wonder?”

The corner of Adam’s mouth lifted. “As a matter of fact, I would.”

“Oh, really?” Lucille’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief.

“Yes, If the choice is between letting you split them up and take them to opposite sides of the country or keeping them here on the Ponderosa. I’ll keep them here,” je stated firmly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he said shortly, “I have business to attend to.” With muscles taut and teeth tightly clenched he strode to the door. Pausing only long enough to snatch his hat from the sideboard, he walked out the door, slamming it behind him.

Ben raised his eyebrows and looked at Lucille and Blake who sat silently stunned. He leaned forward and clasped his hands together. “Well, it would appear this discussion is at an end for now.” He rose. “So, if you’ll excuse me,” he said mildly and followed his son out the door.

Lucille and Blake sat quietly, the silence between them lengthening, until Blake finally spoke. “He’s right you know,” Blake told her softly.

Lucille sat back into the settee impatiently. “Of course, he’s right. But you and I both know neither one of us is going to give in on this Blake. Unless you’re willing to let me take all the children with me, it’s the only choice. I’m not sending Celia and the girls with you.”

“No, I’m not willing to let ya take all the children with you.” He waited a moment, then turned and leaned closer to her, his arm laying against the back of the settee. His blue eyes looked deeply into hers. “But there is another way,” He said softly.

Her eyes narrowed and she searched his face, “Another way?”

His mouth crooked into a smile. “Yes.” He paused and scanned her face, then carefully he raised his hand and brushed a stray curl back from her forehead and behind her ear. She didn’t flinch or pull away, and he moved his hand to rest against her neck. He watched her eyes intently with his own. “You could come to Oregon with me.” He told her gently. He heard her sharp intake of breath and she tried to pull away, but his hand on her neck stopped her. She opened her mouth to speak and he rushed on. “Luce, listen to me, I know I hurt you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve regretted that over the last eight years.” He paused and searched her face again, looking desperately for any sign she was hearing him. “I don’t regret going to Oregon, but I do regret leaving you behind, Luce.” His eyes bore into hers, and he saw hers soften, the coolness of the last few days slowly replaced with a glow he had seen before. It gave him courage and he continued on, pleading now. “Luce, I still love you, I never stopped. At least think about it, at least…”

Lucille gently placed a finger on his lips and smiled softly at him. “Blake, I’ll go to Oregon with you.” she said simply.

*****

Ben found Adam pacing back and forth in the barn. The grim set of his jaw and the scowl between his eyebrows, clues enough that he was still fuming over what had happened.

Adam glanced at Ben as he came in, but said nothing and continued to pace. Ben sat on a bench, and watched his son. Adam stalked to the barn wall then turned on his heel and stalked back. He stopped in front of Ben, his eyes narrow, his mouth rigid, and every muscle of his body strung tighter than barbwire.

“Can you believe those two!” Adam ground out between clenched teeth, he turned and marched back across the barn, his fists on his hips, then he turned and marched back toward Ben. This time he simply waved a hand toward the house and shook his head, before beginning his brisk march back to the other side of the barn. It would have been amusing, Ben thought, if he hadn’t realized the depth of his son’s anger, disappointment, and helplessness. It was the disappointment and helplessness, Ben knew, that was fueling the rage his son felt. Disappointment that the happy ending he had hoped for wasn’t to be; helplessness, that, without a change of heart on Lucille and Blake’s part, there was no way he could keep his word to Will, in spite of his defiant words to Will’s aunt and uncle

Adam had stopped at the far end of the barn. He stood with his back to Ben, staring at the ceiling. His fists were still on his hips, and his back arched as he rolled forward onto the balls of his feet and then back, several times. Ben knew without seeing it, that his son’s bottom lip was being ground between his teeth. Suddenly Adam swung around to face Ben. He took several steps forward, then stopped, his right arm flung out before him, one finger waving toward the house.

“I’m not going to let them split those kids up, Pa. I don’t know what kind of legal ground I have to stand on, but I’ll find one. It just isn’t going to happen.” His voice shook with the depth of his feeling and his hands went back to his hips. “I won’t let it happen” He muttered shaking his head. He turned and stalked back toward the other side of the barn once again.

Ben decided it was time to calm his son down if he could. “Adam,” he said gently.

Adam swung around to face him. “What!”

“I don’t think this is helping,” Ben told him, his voice low and soothing.

Adam glared at his father for a moment, his jaw working and his breathing heavy. Then he sighed heavily and wiped a hand across his face. He nodded, and gave Ben an ironic smile. “No, I don’t suppose it is.” He walked over and sat down next to Ben. Dropping his head into his hands, he rubbed his face. “I just don’t know, Pa. I gave Will my word.” He looked over at Ben. “What do I do if I can’t keep it?” Ben could see the torment in Adam’s eyes and wished he knew of some way to relieve it. Unfortunately, the decision lay in other hands. Adam may have spoken tough to Blake and Lucille, but Ben and he both knew he didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. If Blake and Lucille decided to separate the children, there was nothing Adam could do about it. “I just never thought they’d do this. I thought when the kids’ aunt and uncle got here, everything would be fine. Now I wish I’d never even written them.” Adam buried his face in his hands once again.

Ben placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not over yet, Adam. There’s still time for Blake and Lucille to change their mind. They have to know deep down that this isn’t what the children want or what’s best for them. You’ve made that very clear.” Adam snorted, as if he didn’t think much of his attempt to make his position clear. “You’ve done everything you could for these children, son. They couldn’t have had a better friend.” Adam tucked his hands beneath his chin, he wasn’t exactly agreeing, but he was listening, and Ben pressed on. “The rest is now in other hands. And if the worst comes and the children are separated, you’re going to have to accept that and not blame yourself for it.” Adam’s head bowed further, and Ben’s heart broke for him. Adam would blame himself; it was the way he was.

“I’m proud of you, son, very proud of you,” he said softly. “You have nothing to reproach yourself with or feel guilty over. You’ve done your best and no man can do better than that.” Ben paused a moment letting his words sink in, he saw Adam’s mouth tighten, and knew he was resisting Ben’s attempt at comfort and Ben sighed inwardly, his son could be so stubborn sometimes.

“I think there is something else you should consider before you let yourself get too worked up over this. Blake and Lucille may change their minds. They’re both good people, and I believe deep down they do have the children’s best interest at heart.” Another snort from Adam told Ben what he thought of that sentiment, and Ben couldn’t help a brief chuckle at that.

“I don’t think they have been thinking very clearly,” Ben continued, his deep voice persuasive. “I think they both came here with the intention of taking the children, but there are a lot of bad feelings between them and when they saw each other again, well, it became a contest, a way to get back at each other, with neither willing to give an inch, or even discuss it.”

“Yeah, and the kids got caught in the middle.” Adam finally spoke, his voice bitter.

“Well, yes, at the moment, but it’s not over yet.” Ben smiled wryly as another snort came from Adam.

“Pa, I appreciate it, but I think the only thing we can hope for,” he looked over at Ben, “at the moment, is a miracle.”

Ben’s eyes twinkled at his son and he grinned. “Well, son, I happen to still believe in miracles.”

The sound of the barn door opening startled both men. Blake and Lucille entered side by side, both smiling and Lucille’s hand in Blake’s arm. The men stood, and Adam leaned back on one leg, crossing his arms, all the tension that had eased with his father’s words back full force. He watched Blake and Lucille approach with lowered eyebrows and narrow lips, and Ben laid a warning hand on his arm.

Ben could feel the tension through Adam’s shirt, and he knew that, even though Adam was in control of his temper, it wouldn’t take much to set him off again. His son was a man of extreme patience, but he had a limit and once crossed, he found it hard to get back. Ben knew these two people had pushed Adam to that limit and beyond, with their seemingly callous decision to split the Cooper children between themselves.

“Adam, perhaps you’d better let me handle this,” Ben whispered quietly.

“Why, don’t you think I can,” Adam said tightly, his voice ominous.

“Not in your present mood, no.” Ben smiled at him, then stepped forward, and waited as Blake walked up to him, smiling also. Ben raised an eyebrow at him.

“I was wondering if I might borrow your buggy for awhile,” was Blake’s surprising request.

“My buggy?” Ben asked puzzled.

“Yes,” Blake answered. He smiled at Lucille. “Luce, and I would like to go for a drive, if you don’t mind.” Lucille smiled back at him her face glowing.

“Why, why of course, that’d be fine,” Ben stuttered somewhat stunned. He turned to Adam, who was watching the couple with a wary expression. “Adam, do you suppose you could help Blake get Sarge hitched up.”

“Certainly,” He glanced at Blake and coolly assessed him with narrowed eyes. “You mind telling us what this is all about, first.”

Blake noted the stubborn lean and Adam’s crossed arms. “Well, we thought it might be a good idea ta talk things over a little more, now that we know your feelings on the subject,” Blake said hoping to diffuse some of the anger he could feel radiating from Adam.

Adam nodded his head toward Blake. “I think that is an excellent idea.” He said dryly, making it perfectly clear he thought it was about time. He moved to help Blake back the buggy out of the barn, while Ben got the horse. The three men worked quickly, and Blake was soon helping Lucille into the buggy, and settling himself in beside her.

He smiled over at Adam and Ben. “We should be back by supper, thanks.” He clicked his tongue at the horse, and with a slap of the reins they were gone, Lucille waving merrily back at the two men as they went.

Ben and Adam stood in silence, the dust settling around them, as they watched them disappear around the bend in the road.

Adam looked over at Ben, “Now what do you think that is all about.”

“I think we may have just seen that miracle you were talking about,” Ben said, giving Adam a lop-sided grin.

Adam couldn’t help smiling back at him. He looked at the sky and suddenly felt a great burden lift from his shoulders, and the tension and anger start to melt away. He chuckled to himself. “You know what, I think I still have time to get a little fishing in, if I hurry.”

“That’s sounds like a great idea, you just do that.” Ben clapped Adam on the shoulder, and headed for the house. He turned as Sport galloped out of the yard, thankful that once again; a miracle had seemed to come at just the right time. He felt his own burden ease, and winged a grateful prayer heavenward, as he watched the broad shoulders of his son disappear in the distance.

*****

The sun was warm, the breeze light, and the steady clip-clop of Sport’s hooves as he cantered along the trail had a soothing effect on Adam’s temper. He felt his spirits rise with every mile closer to the lake he got, and his worry over Blake and Lucille and his curiosity over the sudden change in their attitudes slipped away.

He heard the laughter of the group around the lake long before he saw them and grinned to himself, wondering if they’d managed to catch any fish, silence being the first rule of any successful fishing endeavor. He didn’t suppose it mattered in this case. He doubted any of them had gone to the lake to “fish”, and the happy laughter wiped away the last vestige of the turbulent emotions he had endured over the last few hours.

He stopped Sport next to the other horses, tying him and making him comfortable, then strode with a lighter heart toward the sound of the childish voices, interwoven with the deep tones of his brothers.

He was greeted with cheers and a hug from Abbie and Laura, who came running as soon as he stepped from the trees surrounding the lake.

“Hey, Adam, you’re just in time!” Joe exclaimed waving him over to where he and Hoss were lounging against log.

Adam swung the two little girls up and made his way over to his brothers, stopping to say hello to Mamie and Celia, who were reading together on a blanket nearby, before moving on. “You actually catching anything?” he asked with a nod to the slack lines running out into the lake. He set the girls down and settled himself next to Joe with a sigh.

“Nope, not us.” Joe nodded up the lakeshore where Caleb, Josh, and Will were sitting intently watching their lines. “It’s our job ta scare the fish on up their way. Right Abbie?” He winked at the little girl, who nodded and tried to wink back at him.

“Oh, I see. Well, that’s a pretty important job.” Adam tried to keep his face serious.

“Yep, that’s what Uncle Hoss says, but Will said we was just being a nuisance. That’s why they went clear up there.” Abbie waved an arm in the boy’s general direction.

“Yeah, but that’s all right, ’cause we’re havin’ fun down here anyway, ain’t we.” Hoss poked Laura in the stomach and she giggled, then threw herself down next to him.

“How’d things go back at the house?” Joe asked.

“Don’t ask.” Adam sighed and lay back, tipping his hat forward over his face.

“That bad?” Joe replied concern in his voice.

“I’d just rather not talk about it.” Adam’s voice came from deep within his hat.

Hoss looked at Joe. “That bad,” he said and shook his head sadly.

Hoss and Joe settled back against the log again in comfortable silence watching the wind make ripples across the blue water of the lake. The sun left silver dapples over the water, and across the way the smooth surface reflected the pines, and mountains, and the blue sky with the fluffy, white clouds.

Hoss sighed with contentment. “You ever know anything more perfect than a day like today.” Laura and Abbie had settled down between him and Joe and were quietly pulling petals from daisies. Joe looked down and smiled at them fondly.

“Nope, never have,” Joe agreed with him.

“It’d be more perfect if it were quiet,” came a drowsy voice from under the black hat.

Joe rolled his eyes at Hoss. Adam could be such a wet blanket. Abbie looked up at Hoss, and smiled. Hoss tweaked her nose, and couldn’t help thinking again what a cutie she was. He sighed again and wondered what Blake had wanted to talk with Adam about. Obviously, it was about the children, and obviously, too, it hadn’t gone well. He tried to shrug off his worry, knowing that Pa and Adam had it well in hand, he was sure. Still it was going to be awful hard seeing the kids go. The Ponderosa just wasn’t going to be the same.

A triumphant shout from Josh ended his reverie, and the brothers sat up quickly. Josh was running helter skelter toward them jumping and hooting in excitement, Will and Caleb, just as excited, hard on his heels. “I got ‘im, Uncle Hoss! I got ‘im!” Josh yelled holding high his line with the large cutthroat trout dangling from the end.

The group by the log scrambled to their feet as the excited boy rushed up to them. “Look at it, Uncle Hoss, have ya ever seen a bigger fish!”

Hoss gently took the line and looked it over good. “Nope, I sure haven’t, Josh,” he said, “That has got ta be the biggest fish I ever did see, sure enough.”

“I’d say it is, Josh, good job,” Joe pounded the boy’s back proudly.

“Is it the one we been trying ta get? Is it Uncle Hoss?” Caleb asked excitedly.

“Well, hard ta say fer sure but it sure looks like ‘im don’t it?” Hoss answered.

Josh turned to Adam, “Did ya see it, Uncle Adam?”

“I did, Josh, and it’s a beaut,” Adam said ruffling Josh’s hair. Josh carefully took the fish from Hoss. “I’m gonna go show Miss Mamie and Celia.” He dashed off with Will, Caleb, Abbie and Laura, running behind him.

Adam, Hoss, and Joe laughed over their childish enthusiasm, each remembering the times they had rushed to show Pa a prime catch of their own. Together they sauntered along after the children.

Mamie and Celia were exclaiming over the size of the fish to Josh’s complete satisfaction.

“How many fish you got over dere, boys?” Mamie asked, thoughtfully.

“Oh, ’bout seven I guess, but not all as big as this one,” Will told her.

“That sound like plenty ta me.” Her eyes twinkled and she winked at the Cartwright brothers. “What you say, we build us a fire and cook dose fish for dinner.” The children looked at Mamie wide-eyed then at Adam for his approval.

“Mamie, that’s a grand idea,” Adam said, and the children cheered.

“It sure is,” Hoss agreed. “You kids gather some wood and pine cones, and I’ll have us a fire started pronto.”

The Cooper children scurried away to gather the wood and pinecones. Even little Laura helped, finding small twigs and hurrying back with them, plopping them down in a jumbled pile next to where Hoss was clearing the ground to make a fire ring.

In hardly any time at all they had the fish cleaned and skewered over the hot coal bed Hoss had prepared. Soon the tantalizing aroma of cooked trout wafted out over their little picnic sight.

Mamie and Celia watched the fish and set out the rest of the meal. Hoss and Adam checked and watered the horses, while Little Joe and Will took the younger children wading by the lake, after a near mishap by Caleb, caused Mamie to scold about “chillens, being too much underfoot”. Hungry noses stopped periodically to sniff the air, and soon Mamie’s cheerful voice was calling them all to gather around the feast spread out on the blanket.

The meal was a jolly one. The fish was delicious as only fresh caught trout cooked over an open fire and eaten after a morning of fresh air can be, and after the meal the various members of the party scattered in groups of two and three to play or sleep or chat the rest of the afternoon away. As the sun slowly eased its way towards the horizon, the group roused themselves and headed for home.

Adam listened to the chatter and laughter around him, as he rode along with Abbie snuggled close in front of him in the saddle, she was describing the one and only fish she had managed to catch with “Uncle Joe’s help.” He smiled and listened to her with one ear and let his thoughts drift.

It had been a good day, the kind of day one cherished up in ones memory to dust off in years to come, when times were hard. He glanced at Caleb and Josh who were riding double on the small dun Caleb had chosen that first week they had been at the ranch. It seemed a long time ago now. Josh leaned forward to speak to Caleb who laughed back at him. They were quite a pair those two, Adam thought. Almost like twins, and almost always coming up with something to keep everyone else on their toes.

A laugh from the buggy turned his thoughts toward Celia, and he smiled to himself. What a difficult time she had had those first few weeks. Though one would never know it looking at the blooming, laughing girl now. He noticed that Laura had fallen asleep, which was little surprise after the busy day she had had. He always thought of her as Abbie’s echo. The two girls seemed to always be together, much like Caleb and Josh, a result of the closeness of their ages he imagined. He would miss the two little girls perhaps the most, they were the ones who had clung closest to him during those first difficult days, and even now turned to him in a way the older children hadn’t. He hugged Abbie closer to him. She smiled up at him, and he winked at her, yes, he’d miss the little girls the most.

His thoughts moved to Will, riding along side Joe. He was a fine boy, and would some day make a fine man. Adam saw a lot of himself in him; the same unalterable sense of responsibility, the same steadfastness. Will could easily have become to Adam what Adam was to his own father and Adam sighed. Regardless of the rightness and reasonableness of the children going to live with their aunt or uncle, and Adam had to admit to a sneaking suspicion it just might be both, he knew there would always be a part of him that would wonder “what if”.

“Don’t ya think, Uncle Adam?” Abbie interrupted his thoughts.

“What, Abbie? I’m sorry I wasn’t listening.”

She turned to gaze up at him, “Don’t ya think Uncle Blake will let me take Kitty with me?” she asked again, patiently.

“Well, we’ll have to see, I’m afraid that would be an awful long trip for a kitten. Kitty might not like traveling all that way.”

“I could tell her how fun it’s going to be. Uncle Blake says he has chickens, too. Did ya know that Uncle Adam? And he said I could take care of ’em. but I’d be real careful of the eggs.” Her happy chatter continued, and Adam realized she didn’t really need an answer from him.

He was glad Abbie was so excited about the move to Oregon. Assuming of course, she goes to Oregon. He thought. But that little jaunt of Blake and Lucille’s had given him hope that what he considered the best and most perfect solution might still be possible. From the way they had walked into that barn it appeared they had done some quick patching up, and there had been a look in Lucille’s eyes when she smiled up at Blake, that had Adam almost believing in that miracle Pa had talked about.

The noisy group arrived at the ranch house, their laughing voices announcing to every one that they were home. Hoss, who had been riding between Adam and Joe most of the way, dismounted quickly and reached up to take Abbie from Adam. As Adam dismounted himself he noticed a flash of blue through the trees next to the small creek that ran around the house toward the back. It was Lucille and the sight of her brought about a twinge of conscience over his behavior earlier, as well as an overwhelming curiosity. He contemplated a moment then stopped Will, who was walking by, his blue roan following along behind.

“Will,” he said holding out Sport’s reins. “Do you think you could put Sport up for me? I need to talk to your aunt.” He nodded to where Lucille could be seen walking along the creek.

“Sure, Uncle Adam,” Will agreed.

“Thanks.” Adam handed over Sport’s reins, and started toward the creek.

Lucille’s back was to him and the sudden snap of a twig beneath his boot startled her. She turned suddenly and smiled. “Oh, you’re back!” her low voice sounded pleased. “Did ya have a nice time?”

“Yes, very nice. And you, did you and Blake enjoy yourself?” Adam asked.

A slight blush hovered over her cheeks, and her eyes sparkled. “Yes, we had a lovely time.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” He paused a moment. “I wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier. I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that and I’m sorry.”

“Please, don’t be, Adam.” Lucille told him, her eyes sincere as she looked up into his. “You were right, and Blake and I were wrong, and we needed ta hear it.”

“But, perhaps, not quite so forcefully,” Adam’s wry tone made them both smile.

“I’m not sure less forcefully would have done any good,” Lucille disagreed. She turned and they began walking together along the creek. “Ya see Blake and I can both be very stubborn.” She continued her voice soft. “We have been since we were children. And we hurt one another very much.” Her voice trailed off, and she stopped to gaze thoughtfully out towards the hills. “We were so young and so very, very stubborn,.” she repeated, and Adam wondered if she even remembered he was there. “Blake had a big dream, all he wanted was ta go ta Oregon, and have himself a fine, big piece of land. I just couldn’t see it, and though I loved Blake dearly, I couldn’t bring myself ta think of leavin’ Afton Hill.” She glanced up at Adam and smiled ruefully. “I can’t tell ya how many times I’ve regretted that over the years, Adam. I think I regretted it the instant Blake’s wagon disappeared down the lane leading from Oak Grove the morning he left, only I was too stubborn ta admit it.” She looked away, back over the hills. “I’ve been too stubborn, until today.” She looked back again at Adam, and smiled gently, her eyes soft. “I’ll think ya’ll be glad about what we’ve decided ta do with the children.”

“Do you mind if I take a guess?” Adam asked quietly, but his hazel eyes were teasing.

Lucille blushed, and her smile widened. “Not at all; I thought ya might already know.”

Adam’s smile deepened. “Well, I don’t know for sure, but I must admit I’m hoping. You and Blake are getting married?”

“MmHm.” Lucille nodded happily, her grey-blue eyes shining with happy tears. “And we’ll be goin’ ta Oregon with him. All of us, together.”

“Then I am glad, very glad,” Adam said, his deep voice ringing. “I can’t tell you how happy that makes me, Lucille. For you and Blake and especially the children.”

Lucille laid a hand on his arm. “We have you ta thank for it, Adam.” She looked deeply into his eyes, and her face turned serious. “If ya hadn’t said what ya did this morning, how ya did. Blake and I woulda taken those children ta opposite sides of the country and never looked back. We were that blind.” She held his arm as he shifted uncomfortably beneath her intense gaze, and she moved to look and hold his eyes again. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. “For everything.”

Adam moved his arm from beneath her hand and clasped it between both of his. “You’re welcome.” He said, warmly. “I’m not sure I agree I handled it the best.” His eyes crinkled at her. “But I am glad about the result.”

“Me, too,” Lucille laughed softly, and Adam let go of her hand.

“Aunt Lucille, Uncle Adam?” Will’s voice called. They turned to see him walking towards them. “Uncle Ben told me to find ya and let ya know supper’s ready.”

“Thanks Will, we’re coming.” Adam offered his arm to Lucille. “Shall we?” He asked with a smile.

Lucille glanced at his arm and then at her tall nephew who had come up beside her. “Actually, if ya don’t mind, Mr. Cartwright,” she said, with a glint of humor in her eyes and teasing in her voice. “I was hopin’ I could get this fine young man here ta escort me.” And she held out her hand to Will, who blushed and bashfully tucked it under his arm.

“By all means,” Adam said with a flourish, and laughing gaily the three headed for the house, while the sun slowly set in a blaze of glory behind them.

*****

Supper was a long and leisurely affair, each person unconsciously realizing that there wouldn’t be many more suppers together, and wanting to savor each one that remained.

It was while Mamie, after quickly motioning Lucille and Celia to remain where they were, was helping Hop Sing clear the supper plates in preparation for dessert, that Blake cleared his throat and stood, catching Lucille’s eye as he did so. He looked around at those gathered, then his eyes settled on Ben at the head of the table. “Ben, I want ta thank ya for your hospitality these last three weeks. You and your sons have been very gracious hosts.” He smiled and his blue eyes twinkled. “I’ve learned an awful lot about ranching, mining, timber and many other things that I’ll be able to use back home. I thank ya for that also.”

Ben smiled at him. “Well, you’re most welcome, we’ve enjoyed having you, and I’ve learned quite a bit from you as well.”

“Thank you, I’ve enjoyed being here, but the summer is gettin’ on and if I don’t get headed back soon, I won’t make it home before the snows block the passes into the Willamette.” He paused and looked slowly at each of the Cooper children one by one. “Will, Celia, Caleb, Josh, Abbie, Laura.” He gave a quick smile as he mentioned the last two. “I’m sure you’ve all been wondering who you’ll be living with, myself or your Aunt Lucille. Well, Lucille and I have decided that you’ll live with both of us,” Blake announced.

Adam saw Will’s face blanch and he turned horrified and pleading eyes towards him, but Celia, he noticed, had a small smile on her face, and her eyes were shining as she turned toward her aunt. Adam wondered if perhaps Mamie hadn’t been talking to the girl. The other children simply looked confused, not understanding. He noticed Joe and Hoss staring at him as well, but Ben was smiling widely from his end of the table. Adam nodded and smiled at Will, hoping to convey to him that everything was going to be all right, then turned his attention back to Blake.

“You see children, I’ve asked your Aunt Lucille to marry me, and she has said, yes. Which means we’ll all be going to Oregon together, as soon as we can get everything arranged.” He smiled again at the stunned group, then sat down.

Ben looked down the long table at Adam and winked, then turned to Blake. “Well, let me be the first to offer my congratulations, to you both,” he said, firmly. “That really is wonderful!”

“You mean, we’re ALL going to Oregon?” Will asked, still stunned.

Lucille sitting beside him, laid her hand on his arm. “That’s right, Will, all of us, together, even Mamie if she wants to.” Lucille looked fondly at her old friend, who came walking in, behind Hop Sing, with dessert.

“I was ready ta go ta Oregon the first time iffen ya remember, and ya ain’t about ta get rid of me now!” was Mamie’s cheerful reply.

“Wait a minute Mamie,” Hoss asked her. “How did ya know what she was talkin’ about? You wasn’t in here when Blake told us about him and Miss Lucille.”

Mamie set a large piece of pie down in front of him and laid a hand on his large shoulder. “Mr. Hoss, I knew Miss Lucille and I was goin’ ta Oregon the minute, Mr. Adam tole us Mr. Blake was comin’, and it ain’t no surprise ta me!” Her wide grin, sparkled at him and laughter rippled around the table. The congratulations flowed in from every side then, and the questions as well, and it was a long time before dessert was finished.

Finally, a motion from Ben, who noticed Hop Sing impatiently watching from around the corner to the kitchen, sent everyone on a general exodus from the table.

As everyone settled into the sitting area, Adam took the opportunity to slip outside. He felt the need to be alone for a while, the events of the day had been difficult and had run the gamut of emotions. He needed some quiet to sort them out, and recover his equanimity. He laughed to himself at the thought of Joe rolling his eyes over that last word. It was true though, He needed the peaceful night to calm his thoughts and restore his “evenness of temper”.

The night was dark with only a fingernail moon to lend it’s light to the stars. He stopped a moment to let his eyes adjust, then walked over to the corral fence and turned to lean back against the top rail. He breathed deeply of the clear, cool night air. The night sky was black velvet studded with gems and he smiled to himself as he remembered Mamie’s words about the stars at Afton Hill. He remembered feeling the same way when he had lived in Boston. Somehow those stars had never seemed as bright or as beautiful as the ones here on the Ponderosa. He wondered what the stars were like in Oregon, and he smiled to himself.

He felt a deep contentment inside, a feeling that at last all was right with the world. Such moments came to him rarely, and he relished the feeling now. He took deep satisfaction in knowing that Will, Celia and the others were going to have a real family again, with two, no three, he corrected himself, people who loved them dearly. He couldn’t think of anything that would have pleased him more. Though, he had to admit to himself that deep down there was still a part of him that would have liked to have kept them himself. He had grown very fond of each of them, each so different, each with their own special place carved into his heart. He turned and laid his arms against the fence rail, resting his chin on his arms, and sighed deeply, he was going to miss them.

He sensed his Pa’s presence before he heard him. Ben stepped up beside him and laid an arm along the fence rail, facing his son.

“You all right?” Ben asked quietly.

Adam turned his head to look at him. “Yes, Pa, I am,” he said contentedly and smiled at the concern in Ben’s face. It was just like Pa to worry about him, and he felt a surge of gratitude toward him. “I’m very glad for Lucille and Blake and for the kids. They’ll have a Ma and Pa again. It’s what I’ve been hoping and praying for. Why wouldn’t I be all right?”

Ben searched his son’s face, looking deeply into his eyes. He was pleased with what he saw, and nodded. “I was just worried when I saw you leave, I thought you looked a little sad.”

“Perhaps, I am a little, deep down,” Adam conceded. “But I’m mostly just very, very relieved and very happy, for all of them.”

He saw Ben raise an eyebrow at him.

“Yeah, sure I’m going to miss them,” Adam answered his Pa’s unasked question. His father knew him so well. “And, yes, there is a part of me that would have liked to have kept them.” He paused a moment, and looked out over the corral. “It’s been a very interesting and educational experience.” He turned back to Ben. “And I’ve gotten a chance to see what fatherhood might be like. Which makes me appreciate you even more.” He said with a wry grin at his father and Ben chuckled at him. “But I’m ready to turn the responsibility of it over to Blake. He’s a good man and I know he’ll do a good job.”

Ben nodded, “Yes, he will. The man has a good head on his shoulders, and he does love those children, that’s plain to see. With Lucille to help him, I think they’ll be just fine. All of them.”

They stood silently together for some time, both lost in their own thoughts and content to simply be together. Finally, Ben roused himself. “Well, I suppose I’d best get back to our guests.” He turned toward the house as a ripple of laughter floated to them on the night breeze. “You coming?” He looked back at Adam.

Adam nodded, “I’m coming,” he said, turning around.

Light streamed from the open doors and windows of the Ponderosa ranch house, a warm, comforting contrast to the darkness without. They could hear the sound of happy and excited voices, followed by another round of laughter. Ben looked at Adam and they grinned at one another. They started together toward the warmth and laughter, Ben’s hand on Adam’s shoulder, side by side, just as they had so many times before.

***The End***

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