Benita Watson (by Calim11)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,500


 

Tuesday

“Hello, Hoss, Joe,” Benita Watson said with a warm smile. They returned her smile and tipped their hats, quickly stepping into Mr. Harry Gardner’s General Store and peered out the front window knowing their big brother was right behind them. Joe giggled as they watched Adam, distracted by something they’d pointed out to him in the other window, plow right into Benita and bounce back against the wall, himself showered with the many small packages she carried.

 Now it was said that walking into Benita Watson was like walking into a mountain. It wasn’t that she was taller than most men (although she was as tall as Adam) or even larger than Wally Turner (the rather large baker at the International House) it was just that she was, well . . . big boned as Hoss called it, and solid. Currently, she held her hand to her mouth and breathed a soft “oh” as Adam recovered, pushing himself away from the wall to pick up her packages from the sidewalk. Finished with that little task, he stood and touched his hat, giving her a small grin.

 “Miss Benita.”

 “Adam.” She beamed back at him, batting her eyelashes and he sighed.

 He knew his brothers had purposely distracted him so they could make their escape. Joe’s giggles confirmed that suspicion as he caught them looking through Mr. Gardner’s window. Smirking, he hefted the heavy packages in his arms, wondering what was in them, and looked at the young woman before him.

 Benita Watson, just returned from schooling in the East, had known the Cartwright boys forever. They’d all met her in differing circumstances, all resulting in stays at Dr. Paul Martin’s office. To say she was accident-prone was not correct. To say that she caused accidents was more truthful. Never intentionally, of course. Things just seemed to happen around her. Why her first meeting with Adam had been an up close and personal with her buggy resulting in ten stitches to his upper lip; Hoss found himself wallowing in a mud hole with two pigs and Joe, well, Joe had had the privilege of drawing her name at one of the town dances. He wasn’t able to wear boots for a week. Yes, Benita Watson was well known to the Cartwright boys.

 “Adam, are we still on for the dance Saturday?” she asked, excitement lighting up every word. He so hated to tell her the truth, but he might as well get it over with.

 “Miss Benita,” he began, “I was going to find you today and tell you that my back’s been acting up and I didn’t know if I’d be very good company. I hope it’s not too late to find another dance partner.” Her face fell and he immediately felt guilty. It was true! His back did hurt. After being slammed into a corral fence while trying to break a mustang just yesterday, he had, as Ben remarked, a hitch in his get along. Dancing didn’t seem to be in the cards this weekend.

“Oh,” she said then quickly recovered. “But I don’t mind. We could just sit and talk. I can tell you all about school.”

“Well . . .” Adam began only to be interrupted by a new voice from inside the General Store.

“I’ll take ya, Miss Benita.” They both turned seeing Oren Fudge moving into the doorway, a silly grin on his long face.

 Oren Fudge was visually the direct opposite of Benita. About Joe’s height and skinny (or lean and lanky as he liked to call it) with only a few hairs remaining on his head, he managed to call everyone friend. His family owned a farm just outside town and, as far as Adam knew, never had spared a glance at Benita before this. Ah, the plot thickens.

 “Oren,” Benita stuttered. “Well, I don’t know . . .”

 “Oren! You forgot your flour!” shouted Mr. Gardner from inside his store.

 “Wait just a second,” Oren said bounding back inside, leaving Adam to raise his brows and smile at her once again.

 “Well, Miss Benita, seems like you have a suitor,” Adam said watching her face squinch up like she’d smelled a skunk.

 “Oren?”

“You’ve known him about as long as you’ve known me. He plays a mean game of pinochle.”

“But . . . Oren?” she repeated her head simply not wrapping about that at all. Tall, dark and handsome to skinny . . . ah, lean and lanky and, well, Oren-like?

“Whatcha say, Miss Benita?” Oren practically yelled as he came bounding out of the store. Well, his loud question coinciding with an equally loud clatter from inside the store (pans it sounded like) made such a racket that everyone jumped, including Benita. She whirled toward the noise, her arms flying out and catching the packages in Adam’s arms, which flew into his face.

Assailed by the heavy items, he stepped backwards onto Oren’s foot and, losing his balance, fell against him. In a desperate attempt to grab something solid, Oren let fly his newly bought bag of flour high above him and head-butted Mr. Gardner who’d come out to see what all the commotion was about. It was Mr. Gardner’s turn to then stumble back against the china cabinet by the front door of his store making it wobble this way and that, Hoss and Joe frantically trying to catch the plates and cups that zipped through the air from the teetering display.

“Oh, my!” Benita was heard to say, hand over her mouth, as the calamity came to a noisy conclusion, followed by a deafening silence and a snow shower of flour.

Mr. Gardner lay clutching a delicate gravy boat half on and half off his display letting out a breath as everything came to a halt. He winced, though, when Hoss lost his grip on one of the plates and shattered the sudden silence.

“Sorry, Mr. Gardner,” Hoss said with a swallow carefully putting the rest of his catch on the counter next to the pans Joe had most recently knocked to the floor.

“It’s all right, Hoss,” the storekeeper answered daring not to move from his precarious position.

Adam raised himself to his elbows and shook his head, flour flying in every direction, pressing a hand gently against his left eye. What was in those packages? Taking a second, he decided he’d better get up and help Mr. Gardner recover what he could.

Having difficulty finding traction on the flour-covered sidewalk and deciding the best method would be to move to his knees, he grabbed onto the barrel of shovels in front of him to steady himself. His twinging back reminded him at that moment that if it wasn’t the mustang, it was definitely this that made dancing a no-no this weekend.

Beginning to rise, he stopped as a shadow fell over him forcing him to look up directly into the shocked face of Benita Watson. He didn’t know if it was the angle or not but it appeared she was headed directly toward him in an uncontrolled fall. Automatically raising his arms, he caught her, her momentum pushing them into the barrel of shovels scattering them everywhere.

“Ohhh!” was heard above this new noise as the two rolled through the shovels and off the sidewalk and into the muddy street to land in a breath-expelling heap. People said they couldn’t even see Adam lying underneath Benita, her dress having flown over her head covering them both. Only his hat was visible upside down in the mud.

Mr. Gardner leaned out as far as he dared to see what was happening as Hoss and Joe stepped past him and over a flour-covered Oren to see what had happened to their brother. Shovels littered the sidewalk and Benita’s bloomers were there for everyone to see along with her panicky voice calling to the man beneath her.

“Adam? Adam, are you all right?” Wondering where their brother was under all that dress, Hoss and Joe jumped into the muddy street, Hoss helping Benita to her feet. Both raised their brows as Adam became visible as she stood, his yellow jacket covered in mud and flour. He didn’t move. Joe knelt quickly by his side.

“Is he all right?” Hoss asked, worry etching his face.

“Out cold,” Joe answered as Benita’s hand moved to her now flour covered face. “He’s got a right nice lump on his head.”

“Oh, goodness.” Hoss patted her on the shoulder raising a dusting of flour. “Probably all them shovels, Miss Benita,” he said with slight cough. “Don’t you worry none. We’ll get him over to Doc Martin’s and he’ll be right as rain in a jiffy. He’s got a hard head.” Hoss leaned over and picked up his unconscious brother, with Joe grabbing Adam’s wayward hat.

“I should go with you,” Benita said taking a step after them, dusting off her hands.

“No, no,” Joe said a bit too quickly, holding up his hand and making her stop, sure that his feet were well away from hers. “You stay here and help Oren and Mr. Gardner. We’ll take care of Adam.”

“If you think that’s best,” she said not even thinking about how fast Joe was moving down the street.

“We do, Miss Benita,” Joe called out to her with a quick smile as he followed after his brothers. “We do!”

“I’ll stop by later to see if he’s okay!” she called seeing Joe wave at her then disappear inside the doctor’s office. Sighing, she turned back toward the store to see what she could do to help finding Oren standing directly behind her giving her a flour-covered smile.

“I’d be glad ta take ya to the dance, Miss Benita, what with Adam lookin’ like he won’t be standin’ anytime soon.” Her eyes narrowed and her mouth pursed up, hands flying to her hips. The smile quickly left his face.

“Oren Fudge,” she began. “Adam could really be hurt. You shouldn’t be saying things like that.”

He began to fidget. “Well, its jest that ya want ta go ta the dance and I’m more than willin’ to take ya. I don’t see what ya see in him anyways. Jest because he’s got perfect teeth and talks nice don’t mean he’s better than me.”

“Better than I am,” she corrected. She was a teacher after all. Now this is odd. I’ve known Oren since I was little and he’d never even looked sideways at me and now, all of a sudden, he wanted to take me to the dance. Well, I don’t think so, mister! “Either I go to the dance with Adam Cartwright or not at all.”

Raising her chin in defiance she turned from Oren, pulled her dress up (so as not to trip again) and marched back toward the General Store, ignoring the looks from the growing crowd. Stepping inside a loud crash sounded followed by a raging bellow.

“MY GRAVY BOAT!”

*****

“I send you boys to get supplies,” Ben Cartwright began in quiet measured tones, his hands rising up. “And one of you ends up at Paul’s!” he ended loudly, his hands falling to slap against his thighs. He stood quietly then, shutting his eyes, taking a breath and forcing himself to be calm. “What happened?”

“Benita Watson,” both Hoss and Joe said without hesitation. Ben’s brows flew up as his eyes popped open.

“Oh.” No other explanation was necessary.

“Come on in, boys,” Paul Martin said opening the door to the surgery, his eyes falling on Ben. “You, too, Ben.”

They all filed in to see Adam’s flour-covered self, sitting up on the exam table, shirt open to reveal heavily wrapped ribs, one hand holding an ice pack over his left eye and the other one to the back of his head. There his son sat – a vision of flour, mud, and bruises. Ben didn’t know if he wanted the story or not. It should be a doozie.

“Hi, Pa,” Adam said with a weak smile as Ben approached.

“Let me see,” he said in his most fatherly way, pulling the pack from Adam’s eye. He winced at the sight.

“Benita Watson.”

“I heard.”

“At least you won’t have ta go ta the dance with her now,” Hoss said.

Adam peeked around Ben’s arms. “Oh, I’m going. I promised,” he answered putting the ice back on his tender eye. Always the upright Adam.

“Son,” Paul began nearing the table, “you aren’t going to be doing any dancing for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. She broke two of your ribs.”

“She?” Ben asked, looking from one son to the other.

“It was an accident, Pa,” Adam explained.

“She?”

“Miss Benita,” Joe provided. Tossing him a questioning glance, Hoss took up the slack.

“Fell on him, Pa, right out there in the street.”

“Fell on him,” Ben repeated trying to picture it in his head.

“More like fell on him, rolled into a barrel of shovels and landed hard in the street,” Paul added, Hoss and Joe looking at him. “I was watching through the window.”

“So that’s why the door was open,” Hoss said with a grin.

“Always good to be prepared,” Paul answered as he replaced his instruments on their tray.

“I thought going away to school, learning new things, building up her confidence would break her out of her . . . her . . .” Ben stopped, searching for the right word.

“Klutziness,” Joe stated.

“Awkwardness,” Ben added in a reproachful tone followed by a glare to his youngest. Joe lowered his eyes and fidgeted with something on his pants.

“She’s a jumpy thing, I’ll give ya that,” Hoss added with a nod.

“A loud noise started the whole thing, Pa,” Adam explained squinting his eyes against the pounding in his head. “Sounded like pans falling.”

“Pans?” Joe asked, a worried look crossing his face.

“That’s what it sounded like and then it all snowballed from there,” Adam continued. Joe glanced at Hoss who shook his head, hoping neither Ben nor Adam saw the look of guilt pass between them. “She just tries too hard, Pa. That’s why I have to take her to the dance.”

“Now, Adam,” Paul began, “it’s not wise for you to be gallivanting across the dance floor with two broken ribs and a concussion. You might just keel over.”

“I promised, Paul. I promised as soon as she came back from school, I’d take her to the first dance, like a welcome home gesture.”

“She’ll have to find someone else,” the doctor said with a shake of his head.

“Couldn’t you’ve just given her a book or something?” Joe asked. “It’s safer.”

“Ha, ha,” Adam said, holding his ribs as a pain passed through him.

“Dr. Martin,” came Benita’s voice from the front door. “Is Adam still here?” Both Hoss and Joe flattened themselves against the wall and Ben jumped like a rattlesnake had snuck up on him. Paul grinned and looked to Adam. He nodded.

“He’s in here, Miss Benita.” Quietly, she moved through the waiting room seeing Adam hastily trying to button his shirt, cringing at the black eye already forming on his handsome face.

“Oh, Adam, did I do that?” she said tentatively reaching for the injury.

Adam leaned back, out of reach, and grabbed her hand. “No, I did that, Benita,” he began. “I’m just clumsy. What did you have in those packages anyway?” he asked, touching his swollen eye. “Rocks?”

“Actually, yes.” He raised his brows. She glanced around at the men in the room. “I promised the girls in my class to send back rocks for their collections.”

“Rocks,” Hoss repeated as she nodded.

“Rocks,” she said, lowering her head. “Oh, I’m always causing problems.”

Adam squeezed her hand. “It was an accident, Benita,” Adam said. “Don’t worry about it.”

She turned from him to Paul who’d expertly put himself between her and his instrument tray. It wasn’t until later that he thought how dangerous that could have been. “Doctor, will he be all right?”

“He’ll be just fine, Miss Benita, with some rest.”

“I’m glad,” she nodded. “Well, thanks anyway, Adam.”

“For what?”

“For wanting to take me to the dance. Maybe we’ll go next time.” She turned to leave but Adam held onto her hand.

“If you have someone else to take you, that’s fine, but I plan on being there.”

“But you’re hurt . . .”

“Only my head . . .

“And your ribs,” Joe added.

Adam scowled at him. “. . . but not my dancing legs,” he said with a smile.

“Now, Adam . . . ,” Paul began and was silenced with a look.

“I’ll pick you up around 6:00pm. I may not be able to dance more than twice.”

“Are you sure? Doctor?” Benita asked tentatively.

“Positive,” Adam interjected, eyeing Paul who shut his mouth on his objection.

She beamed at him and he smiled back. “6:00pm then.” She giggled and made her retreat, all of the men staying out of her way. Paul cringed when he heard a vase crash to the floor, the table it was on rolling into the surgery to stop at Ben’s feet. So happy was she, she hadn’t even noticed.

“I sent all the way to New York for that vase,” the doctor mumbled under his breath, rubbing the back of his neck and turning back to his patient. “Now, Adam, I meant it when I said you wouldn’t be doing any dancing anytime soon.”

“I cannot not take her, Paul,” he said. “I promised.”

“Look, son . . . ,” Ben began but Adam held up his hand.

“Pa, if I don’t take her she’ll be the laughing stock of the town.”

“She already is,” Joe added with a snort getting a stern look from his big brother. He looked the other way.

“And it’s not deserved. She’s been to school, she’s a trained schoolteacher, and she deserves the right to start over. We’ve known her forever, Pa. I can’t just let her be laughed at if I can prevent it.”

Ben smiled and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Just remember she’s enamored with you, always has been. Don’t you think taking her to this dance might not be such a good idea?”

Adam put the ice pack back on his eye and shrugged. “I promised,” he said with a sigh.

“All right then,” Ben said turning to his other two boys. “Now, does anyone want to tell me how all this,” he said, pointing at Adam’s flour-covered form, “happened?”

“It was like dominos, Pa,” Joe began eagerly ready to retell the tale.

“One minute they was standin’, the next they was flat,” Hoss finished as Joe nodded.

“They?”

“Yessir,” Hoss said. “Adam . . .”

“Mr. Gardner . . .” Joe added.

“And Oren Fudge,” they said together.

Ben looked at each of his son’s then sat down next to Adam on the table, pushing his hat back off his forehead. “From the beginning,” he sighed as Hoss took a breath.

“Well, we was mindin’ our own business when . . .”

 

Thursday 

Two days later, and finally able to move around by himself without pitching over, Adam made his way out of the house slipping past the ever-vigilant Hop Sing. Smiling at his escape, he rubbed his hands together and breathed in the fresh air. His quick grab for the hitching post proved that that was a regrettable action as a stabbing pain passed across his ribs forcing sweat to pop out on his forehead and stars to flit in front of his eyes. Groaning, he was in the process of slowing his fast breathing when he chanced to open his eyes on Oren Fudge standing in front of him, a mean look on his face.

“Holy . . !” Adam cursed, jumping a foot and putting a shaky hand to his chest. “Oren! Don’t sneak up on people. You could get hurt,” he explained finally noticing a peculiar look in the man’s eye, settling Adam’s ire and drawing his concern. “What’s the matter, Oren? Is something wrong?”

“Ya could say that,” he answered continuing to glare at Adam who was perplexed to say the least until he saw Oren raise his hands and turn them into fists.

“Now, Oren, what’s this about?” Adam asked pushing himself away from the post, raising his hands palms out.

“Ya know. Don’t act like ya don’t,” Oren said moving from side to side in front of Adam, turning up a dust cloud and making him cough.

“I don’t know, Oren, or I wouldn’t be asking,” Adam answered quietly hoping to distract him with this simple statement. He could see Oren thinking on it then watched him stop moving and sighed with relief. He was in no shape to take him on. “Now, what’s this all about?”

Oren looked into Adam’s face, trying to see if he was lying or not ‘cause he never thought Adam Cartwright was dense but then maybe that tumble though the shovel barrel dented his head. Maybe he should go easy on him. He lowered his hands. “Miss Benita,” he stated flatly looking away, missing Adam’s mouth falling open.

Benita. Benita Watson? thought Adam.

 “You all right, Adam?” Oren asked looking up and seeing the idiotic face before him.

Blinking a few times, Adam finally closed his mouth and rubbed his hand across his forehead. “Ah, Miss Benita?” he asked, trying to look a bit smarter. He still had a concussion and this was taking a moment, but then the light bulb went on and he began to smile. Oren thought he’d lost it for sure. “Oh.” Leaning back against the post, he held his aching ribs and plastered a smile across his face.

Not one to be put off, Oren once again raised his fists and began pumping them in the air. “Well, come on then,” he urged, thinking he could probably take Adam in his current condition.

Adam watched this skinny . . . ah, lean and lanky, man move his fists up and down, walking in a semi circle in front of him. Under normal circumstances he knew it would take one or two punches to knock him to the ground if he had too, but he was severely limited at present. The better part of valor and all that.

“You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” Adam admitted sounding quite noble to his own ears, giving his opponent a very slight bow.

It stopped Oren flat. Wow, it worked! “A disa what?”

Any storybook resolution gone with the wind, Adam sighed and tried something else.

“Broken ribs. Can barely move,” he said pointing to himself still not getting through to him, the pinched look on Oren’s face proof of that. “You’ve got me, Oren,” he said holding up his hands, “before we even start. I give up.” Adam watched him digest the news then slowly lower his fists.

“Oh, I guess . . . well, I guess that wouldn’t be fair,” Oren admitted, completely dejected.

“Not in the slightest. No,” he quickly added seeing that look reappear on Oren’s face.

Shoving his now useless hands into his pockets, Oren kicked at the dirt. “I jest wanted ta take her ta the dance, Adam. It’s taken me so long to git up the nerve. But, she’ll only go with you,” he said in a childish voice.

Adam tried desperately not to grin and rubbed his face with his hand to wipe it away. “Well, I promised her, Oren,” he explained, “before she even left for school.”

“I know.” He pulled some bark from one of the trees and fiddled with it. “Cain’t ya jest, I don’t know, fall down the stairs or sumthin’? I could break yer foot fer ya,” he offered with a smile.

“No, no. That’s all right,” Adam quickly said stepping back as Oren moved toward him.

“I guess that wouldn’t be right,” he decided, leaning over the post. “Do ya love her, Adam?” The question came out of left field and Adam’s brows flew up his forehead.

“What?” Oren turned toward him. Those shovels must’ve really done some damage.

“Do ya love her?”

 He was serious. Of course, he’s serious, you idiot! Can’t you see that look?

“Well,” Adam began, desperately trying to come up with something. Maneuvering a thoughtful look onto his face he faced Oren. “Not in the traditional manner.” There’s that look. “Just as a friend,” he simplified.

“Oh,” Oren said fiddling with the post ties. “Well . . . I think . . . I think I might,” he admitted surprising Adam. Never would’ve thought that.

“Might?”

Oren nodded and stood up straight. “I definitely . . . might,” he said, his tone sure and solid.

“Definitely might,” Adam mumbled.

“Yessir.”

Blowing out a long breath, Adam draped his arm around Oren’s shoulders and directed him toward the chairs on the porch. “Well, then, that’s whole different story.”

“Huh?”

“That you definitely might.”

Oren’s brows drew together and he dropped into the seat Adam offered.

 “Do you even know how to dance?” Adam asked as he sat down.

Oren’s face lit up. “Do I?! I’ll show ya.” Popping excitedly out of the chair, Oren began to bounce around in a very chaotic way, Adam wincing at more than his ribs. A few moments later Oren returned to his chair, out of breath. “What about that?” He smiled at Adam who tried to keep his fake smile from turning into a grimace.

“O-k-a-y,” Adam finally answered, Oren’s face falling at the tone and the look.

“Oh.”

Adam quickly patted Oren’s arm. “It’s not that it isn’t good,” he began trying to gloss over the complete badness of what he’d just seen, “it’s just that it’s different than what happens at these dances.” Whew! I need to bottle that for future use. “If I could teach you a dance or two before Saturday, you could  . . .”

“I could cut in on you!” Oren finished excited again.

“Exactly,” Adam said with a smile.

“Ya think that could work?” he asked, his smile returning to his face.

“We can try. Are you game?”

Oren fidgeted suddenly supremely aware of what little he had to offer her. “Well, I ain’t never danced fancy like. I don’t know . . .”

“M-i-s-s B-e-n-i-t-a,” was all Adam said, dragging out her name and wiggling his brows.

Oren smiled again. “Okay, let’s try.”

*****

“Ow!”

Adam sat in the blue chair with his head in his hands flinching at the oft-repeated sound. Roping Hoss into helping hadn’t been hard, he was after all just a bit taller than Benita, (Joe being too short), but after the last few hours Adam didn’t know how long he’d be able to keep his brother going. Sighing, he watched Hoss limp over to the large red leather chair and fall into it, holding onto his foot.

“I’m really sorry, Hoss,” Oren said following after him.

“I know you is, Oren. Ya don’t have ta keep sayin’ it.”

Throwing himself on the settee, Oren’s face fell into his hands. “I’m jest not cut out fer this fancy footwork,” he moaned. “I don’t think this is gonna work, Adam.” The sounds of three men sighing filled the room.

“You can’t give up, Mr. Oren,” came Hop Sing’s voice making them all look up. He moved out into the great room looking at the three gloomy men deciding he needed to step in. “The path to true love is fraught with danger. You must be strong.”

Oren had that look again and Adam put his hand over his mouth. “Fraught?”

Hop Sing opened his mouth then closed it again throwing a look toward Adam.

“What good are pearls of wisdom if no one gets them?” Hoss laughed as Adam bit his lip watching Hop Sing grab Oren’s hand and deposit a cup of tea within it, pushing it towards his mouth.

“Drink. Will make you light on your feet not Mr. Hoss’s,” insisted Hop Sing.

“What is it?” Oren asked wrinkling his nose at the odd smell.

“Tea. Cure everything. Drink.”

“Tea? That’s fer sissies.”

Hop Sing’s eyes narrowed and Hoss immediately broke in. “You’d better drink it, Oren,” he said, “or he’ll pester ya good ‘til ya do.”

Oren glanced at Adam who shrugged. “Couldn’t hurt.” He took one last look at Hop Sing who motioned him to drink, waiting there until he did. Reluctantly he took a sip, the worry lines creasing his face smoothing out after the first gulp. “That’s tasty,” he said.

“Of course,” Hop Sing said. “Now drink all. I bring more. You need lots of light feet.”

 

Saturday Night 

“Okay, Oren, here they come,” Hoss said, the two of them secreted outside the dance hall watching as Adam pulled the buggy to a stop, carefully easing himself to the ground then just as carefully helping Benita out, yelping only once as she stepped on his foot.

“She sure looks purty,” Oren stated with a dreamy smile.

Hoss shook him. “Ya don’t have time for that right now, Oren,” Hoss stated. “Now, ya remember what ya gotta do?”

Oren nodded. “Wait ‘til Adam gives me the sign then tap him on the shoulder and cut in nice like ya showed me then dance the night away with Miss Benita.”

“That’s right, Oren. My bruised feet are countin’ on ya, son. Just remember to wait for Adam’s sign.”

“I will. Thanks, Hoss.” He shook Hoss’ hand, straightened his oversized jacket (borrowed from Joe) and headed toward the backside of the hall. Hoss took a deep breath and moseyed on past Adam, winking at him then disappearing into the crowd. Adam took a breath, grinned at Benita and stepped inside.

Music filled the air along with flying dresses and grinning people, all of them, down to Jeb Trunkett on the fiddle, glancing their way as they entered.

Adam felt Benita stiffen and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry,” he whispered to her. “You’re going to wow them with that pretty dress of yours.”

“Do you really think so?” she asked glancing toward him and running her hand nervously across her middle. “It’s not too gaudy?”

“Nonsense.” He grinned scanning the crowd. “Why look at Angela Porter over there by Dan Jergens. Now that’s gaudy.”

Benita looked and giggled, covering her mouth. “It looks like all of Mr. Gardner’s bead selection blew up on her.”

“Exactly. And Miss Teresa Banks by the back exit talking to Joe, too plain. And then there’s Polly Smeed.” He leaned in close and whispered. “Well, she just looks like a saloon girl.”

“She is a saloon girl, Adam,” Benita whispered back.

“I know, but she doesn’t have to look like one outside work.” He smiled at her and she gave him a small laugh seeing the twinkle in his eyes.

“You’re bad.”

“Very,” he answered conspiratorially. “Now, what say we proceed with caution and take it slow? You don’t want me keeling over on you out there.” Taking a step forward, he was brought up short when she failed to move, his ribs reminding him they still had power over him. Grabbing his side, he moved back to stand next to her. “What’s the matter?”

“I know I was the one who wanted to come, but now that I’m here . . .  Oh, I’ve already stepped on your toes. Are you sure you want to do this?”

 He grabbed her other hand and looked her in the eye. “Am I, Adam Cartwright, being turned away?” he asked. “You’ll ruin my reputation, Miss Benita.”

Looking back at him, she knew he was kidding and loved him all the more for it.

Inwardly she sighed. Her schoolgirl crush remained in full bloom and would do so forever. And she wasn’t so deluded to think that she even had a chance with this tall, dark and handsome man who was just so, well, tall, dark and handsome. But having him as a friend would do just fine.

She was taking too long to answer and Adam moved in closer, a serious tone to his voice. “Benita, if you’d rather leave that’s fine with me. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.”

 She heard his words then looked over the crowd of annoyed young ladies and decided that whatever they thought, or whatever they would say tomorrow, she had the best looking man on her arm tonight. Go for it!

“Let’s go,” she finally answered practically dragging him onto the dance floor.

Gracefully recovering, he followed after her, ignoring the humorous looks he was receiving from the assembled ladies. He liked to think it was his black eye, which was now turning a fashionable shade of yellowish purple and not his date that was causing the whispers and smiles. He searched the crowd for Oren. Finally spotting him near the punch bowl, hiding behind a plant, he looked away when Oren waved, trying not to roll his eyes. Returning his attention to Benita, he smiled at her as they moved into the rhythm of the dance.

It occurred to Adam about halfway through that no harm had come to him or anyone else for that matter. Did he dare tempt fate and bring it up or keep the observation to himself? Oh, why not.

“Benita,” he began, his insides cringing at what might follow, “we’ve been out here twirling around and not once has anything gone awry.”

“I didn’t want to say anything,” she admitted shyly. “It must have been all those dance lessons I took when I was away at school. I thought if I could control one thing in my life maybe other things would fall into place.”

“It seems to have worked.”

“I don’t have problems when I’m sewing or teaching either, just when I’m out in the world meeting people,” she said with a wave of her hand.

“Maybe it’s because you don’t have to think about it. Its second nature to you; you don’t have to try because you know you can.”

They stopped as the music did and she turned to him. “You’re very smart, Mr. Cartwright.”

He mirrored her smile and then noticed that that smile seemed to be running away with her face. She was either melting or he was about to pass out.

 “Are you all right? Adam?” she asked her smile fading as she noticed the color draining from his face.

“Ah, I think I should probably sit down for a minute.”

“Oh, my.” Grabbing his arm, she led him quickly toward one of the settees against the wall, motioning people aside as she settled him down, stepping on Mr. Gardner’s foot in her hurry. Memories of the gravy boat mishap descended upon him and he beat a hasty retreat.

Benita pulled a kerchief from her sleeve and handed it to Adam who nodded his thanks and wiped his brow, looking towards the rear of the building to see if he could catch Oren’s eye. Now would be the perfect time for him to make his play. But all Adam’s eyes fell on was a large fellow with a scraggly beard and a patched shirt eyeing him back, the sight interrupted as Hoss came into view.

“You all right, Adam?” Hoss asked, dragging Sadie Young behind him. “I saw Miss Benita pull ya off the floor.”

“I just got a little lightheaded.”

“I just danced his feet off,” Benita said with slight laugh. “Oh, not literally,” she finished.

Hoss smiled and turned to Adam. “If’n ya want to go, just say the word.

“No, no, I’ll be fine as long as I rest a bit.” He eyed Hoss and inclined his head towards the back of the building.

Hoss’ brows came together then flew apart. “Gotcha. Come on, Sadie. There startin’ the Reel.”

Adam watched Hoss move onto the floor always amazed at how light on his feet he was, whirling Sadie about, both grinning from ear to ear, working his way towards the back.

“You have such nice brothers, Adam,” Benita said a bit wistfully.

“You’ve got yourself a nice couple of brothers, too, Benita.”

“That’s true. But I’m kinda the black sheep.”

“You?” he said with a short laugh. “After what Dillon did last year?”

“Oh, that was nothing,” she said.

“Nothing,” Adam restated. “He practically burned down Virginia City.”

“True, that brother of mine is always getting into trouble.”

“Then why do you consider yourself the black sheep?”

She sighed and patted his hand. “Because all I have to do is almost kill a Cartwright, in the street, in front of everyone, and I’m back in the news.”

He grabbed her hand. “You didn’t almost kill me,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. “It was the shovels, the rocks . . .”  His voice trailed off and he gave her another smile. “Don’t go feeling sorry for yourself, Benita. You’re a beautiful dancer, a trained educator and a great seamstress. Don’t sell yourself short. I bet there’s a few men here tonight who are wanting to dance a time or two with you.”

“Now, Adam, don’t go making up stories just to make me feel better.”

“I’m not. Take Brian Dinker over by the window. He keeps looking this way, or Caleb Johnston by the front door, or even . . .”  He’d started to say Oren Fudge by the punch bowl but what met his gaze was that large fellow with a scraggly beard and a patched shirt. “Or even someone else,” he finished lamely.

“Oh, Adam, you’re to kind.”

He gave her a weak grin and the both of them watched the dancers for a spell, Adam spying Hoss finally making his way toward the punch bowl, glancing toward the plant by the back door. He looked back toward Adam and shook his head. Where the hell was he?

“Are you feeling better?” she asked, startling him.

“I believe I am,” he answered, handing her back her kerchief. “Better enough for another turn.”

“I think it’s a slow one coming up.”

“The slower the better in my condition,” he admitted pushing himself up and hiding a wince. Holding out his arm the two made their way back to the floor.

The music started and the two of them began to dance, Adam continuing to glance over toward the punch bowl. Where was Oren?! His eyes fell, once again, on that large fellow. This time the man reacted, slamming down his cup of punch on the table and walking straight for them. Adam tried to move her out of the way but Benita plowed right into the man and stomped on his foot. Letting out a whoop, the large fellow grabbed his wounded appendage as snickers arose about them. This evening was going south with each passing minute.

“See here, good man,” Adam began having to tilt his head back to look him in the eye for he towered above him. This was not a good idea. “Unless you plan to cut in,” he asked hopefully, “you’d better step aside.”

The large fellow dropped his foot and glared at Adam. “You keep makin’ goo-goo eyes at me, mister, and I don’t like it,” he announced.

“What?” Adam asked, all gallantry gone in a flash by the dropping open of his mouth.

“You been lookin’ at me all night. Now stop it or I’ll just have ta punch ya.”

“I wasn’t . . .”  Think fast. “I was looking out the window. It looked like rain earlier.”

“You cain’t see nothin’ out that tiny window.”

“If that’s what he says he was doing,” Benita cut in, suddenly emboldened, “then that’s what he was doing.” She held her chin out in defiance to this rude individual.

“Benita . . .” Adam began, a warning in his voice. The large fellow glared at her then turned back to Adam.

“Keep yer woman quiet. I’m talkin’ ta you.”

“Now just a minute, sir,” Adam began, pulling himself to his full height and readying himself for a fight, when he saw Benita out of the corner of his eye narrow hers. Ah oh. A warning popped into his head and was just about out his mouth when the large fellow began hopping and hollering in pain, both arms holding onto his right foot.

“That was on purpose!” Benita shouted to be heard over his baying dropping her skirt back to the floor. Turning back to Adam she noted his surprised look. “Well, I had to do it, Adam. You’re in no condition to take on a man that size.”

 When she was right, she was right. “Very true. Now, we need to disappear.”

Glancing at the large fellow, she quickly grabbed his outstretched hand. “I agree.”

They started for the door, leaving laughter in their wake then a hushed silence and Adam knew what was coming. Stopping in mid-step as a large hand descended upon his shoulder, he cringed.

“Just a minute there, fancy pants,” the large fellow bellowed.

I should have listened to Paul, thought Adam.

“NO YOU DON’T!” Adam heard Benita yell then saw her deliver a full left cross toward the man. Too busy being impressed by her form, Adam didn’t see the large fellow lean back until it was too late and Benita’s left cross crossed towards him and landed on his face sending him sprawling to the floor. “Oh!” she was heard to exclaim, hands to her face as her tall, dark and handsome man slid along the floor to lie still against the far wall.

The large fellow began to laugh until he felt someone poking him on the back. Turning, his face met up with Hoss’ fist and he dropped to the floor, coming to rest against Oren Fudge’s feet.

“What’d I miss?” Oren was heard to say as the large fellow shook his head and flung himself at Hoss, the two colliding with the long table at the side of the room – the table that held Mrs. Henry Gardner’s brand new crystal punch bowl.

Shrieking, Mrs. Gardner scrambled through the gawking crowd toward her precious bowl, following it as it moved from one end of the table to the other all the while sloshing punch all over her white linen tablecloth and the floor.

“Oh, Lordy,” Mr. Gardner was heard to say as the crowd egged on the combatants. Benita held Adam’s head in her lap, gently tapping his face, trying to wake him up while Joe took bets on his other brother’s bout near the back door.

The large fellow gave Hoss a good one to the stomach, then the chin, then watched him bounce back into the table, Mrs. Gardner’s fingers almost connecting with the bowl as it moved out of reach. Moving swiftly to his feet, Hoss tackled the large fellow, the both of them rolling into the crowd only to be tossed back into the room by said crowd eager to continue the fight. The last straw came when both men grabbed each other and tumbled directly into the table toppling it over and sending the punch bowl flying into the air.

It was said that time seemed to slow as Hoss kicked the unconscious man off him and Mrs. Gardner plucked her wayward bowl out of the air only to slip and shower Hoss with any remaining punch left . . . along with the bowl that flew from her slippery hands.

Silence filled the room for a full minute as the brawlers lay quiet then Jeb Trunkett picked up his fiddle and began playing. Joe collected his bets and the crowd returned to the dance floor.

“What’s goin’ on here?” Sheriff Roy Coffee said from the doorway, glancing down at an unconscious Adam and Hoss and an unknown large fellow flat on the dance floor. He shook his head. “I don’t really want to know,” he mumbled with a shake of his head, motioning some of the men to help. “Miss Benita, you stay here until we can get everyone situated.” He smiled at her and followed the boys carrying Adam out the door.

“Um,” came a voice behind her as she moved out of the way for Hoss, then the large fellow. “Um,” came the voice again making her turn. Oren Fudge, all dandied up, stood behind her. Hm, he cleans up nice. “Is it too late ta ask ya ta dance, Miss Benita?” he asked with a toothy grin, Jeb Trunkett’s fiddle going on in the background. The hairs on the back of Oren’s neck stiffened up at the look she gave him. He swallowed hard and shut his trap.

*****

 “Did I not tell you you shouldn’t be dancing, young man?” Paul Martin asked holding onto Adam’s shoulder, glancing over at Ben who leaned against the wall, hand over his mouth.

“Yes,” was all Adam would admit, feeling his teeth to make sure they were all seated properly with one hand while the other held his ribs.

Paul nodded. “And did you listen to your family doctor?”

“No,” Adam responded as Paul shook his head.

“No,” Paul repeated.  “And what happened?” Adam cleared his throat as if to speak and then just didn’t continuing to massage his chin.

“It wasn’t Adam’s fault, Paul,” Hoss broke in, holding an ice pack to the top of his head, his nice white shirt now the color of punch. Joe leaned back in the settee giggling. “Oren just wasn’t where he was supposed ta be and, well, Adam kept eyeing that big fella who took offense.”

“A big fella?” Ben asked, looking at his middle son.

“Big,” Joe added, holding his hand up in the air. “Big fella.”

“He left before ya got here, Pa,” Hoss added.

 Ben knew he had to ask this question even though he didn’t know if he really wanted an answer. “And why did this ‘big fella’ take offense?”

Hoss squinched up his face and swallowed, glancing over at Adam who offered no help.

“Well, ya see, Pa, he thought . . .  Well, he thought Adam was . . .  Well . . .”

“Well what?”

Hoss looked terribly uncomfortable and pulled at his sticky shirt. “Well, Pa, he thought Adam was . . .”  His voice trailed off not quite sure how to put it.

“Making a pass at him,” Joe finished trying to keep a straight face.

Adam just shut his eyes and sighed while Ben desperately tried to keep the grin off his own face.

“And Miss Benita, well, she’s got a wicked left cross,” Hoss continued. “Wouldn’t ya say so, Adam?” Hoss gave his brother a grin that wasn’t returned.

“Can we just go home?” Adam wanted to know, fully aware that his matchmaking ability obviously was, well, crap.

“No,” Paul said. “You’re staying here tonight.”

“I-feel-fine,” Adam said enunciating each word and easing himself off the bed. Before his knees hit the floor, Paul and Ben grabbed him and placed him firmly back on the bed.

“Not listening to your doctor again,” Paul tsked him, holding Adam until he caught his breath, then turned towards Hoss. “Now, you, young man,” he began tenderly poking the lump on his head. “You can go home. Take it easy for a couple of days, no work, and you should be fine.”

“A couple of days!” Joe exclaimed.

“A couple of days, Joe. Getting hit in the head with a regular punch bowl may only warrant a few hours rest, but a crystal punch bowl is completely different.”

 Hoss raised his brows then smiled at Joe as only a brother can when he knew what Paul’s declaration meant – Joe would have to do not only his own chores but Adam’s and Hoss’ as well.

“Somebody bonk me so’s I can get a vacation, too,” Joe whined.

“Dr. Martin?” came Benita’s voice from the door making everyone jump.

“Now’s your chance, Joe,” Hoss whispered, watching him move his feet quickly onto the settee.

“In here, Miss Benita,” Paul called, realizing his error with the instrument tray the other day, now standing on the other side of Adam’s bed instead. Ben smiled courteously at her then quickly stepped away to stand next to Joe not willing to take any chances.

“Oh, Adam,” she said holding her hand to her mouth as she spied the large lump already forming on the side of his face. She turned toward Ben. “I’m afraid I’ve injured your son again, Mr. Cartwright. I didn’t intend too it’s just that that man got me so mad. I didn’t know he was going to duck.”

“That’s all right, Miss Benita,” Ben began. “Don’t you worry now. Adam’ll be just fine.”

“Oh, I should just lock myself up and never come out,” she stated in obvious distress.

“Nonsense,” Ben said stepping towards her, ignoring Joe clutching at his sleeve. “From what I heard you were only doing what was necessary,” he began holding onto her shoulders. “In his condition, you may have saved Adam greater injury. Did you ever think of that?”

Adam opened his mouth to comment but Paul shushed him, directing his attention toward Ben as he stepped closer to Benita’s infamous feet, Joe and Hoss angling their heads to watch what they knew was coming. If they’d been alone they would’ve taken bets.

“Do you really think so, Mr. Cartwright?” she asked looking into his kind face.

“Yes, I do. In fact, as a thank you, why don’t you come out to the house next Saturday? We’re having a get-together and I can’t think of a nicer person to have around.”

She beamed, looking from Joe to Hoss then Adam. “Really?”

“Yes. One of the boys’ll pick you up around 6:30pm.”

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I’d be delighted.” She reached in to hug him and everyone cringed but nothing untoward occurred. Turning, she looked toward Adam.

“See you on Saturday, Benita,” Adam said with a smile while she grinned, turning toward the exit. Paul sighed as that same table rolled into the surgery again sans the new vase he’d just purchased at Mr. Gardner’s store.

“I’ve got to stop decorating,” the doctor whispered as Ben turned to his sons.

“I don’t know why you boys seem to have trouble with her. Nothing happened.” Ben gave them all a wise smile, seeing Joe’s attention drawn toward Paul’s office window.

“Ah, Pa,” Joe began, a sickly smile on his face.

“Yes, Joe?”

“Isn’t that Buck?” Looking past Joe and out the window, Ben caught the tail end of his horse disappearing from sight. Without a word, he ran from Paul’s office, all of them watching as he ran past the window yelling down the street.

“Sorry about that, Mr. Cartwright!” floated into the office as Benita made her way down the street. Joe burst out laughing, followed by Hoss as Adam grabbed his ribs, trying to restrain himself as best he could. Paul just shook his head.

 

Sunday Morning

“I got hot, Adam,” Oren explained looking at everything in Paul’s office but him.

Hoss looked up from where he was helping his brother with his boots. “Hot?”

Oren glanced at Hoss. “Well, it was hot in that corner and I had to use the necessary bein’ nervous an’ all, an’ that big fella kept givin’ me the eye. Made me nervous. Well, the next thing I know’d you was on the floor and that big fella, well, he practically slid right into me. It was then I said what I said.”

Adam eyed him, buttoning his shirt taking second to his desire, however later regretted, to find out what Oren had said. He let out a breath. “What did you say?”

“Well . . .” Oren stammered fiddling with his hat.

“Oren.”

“Well, I asked Miss Benita if she’d like to dance.”

“You asked her to dance?” Adam repeated.

“I did. And she got so mad. Her face turned as red as her dress.”

“You asked her to dance with both Hoss and I lying on the floor?”

“Ah, yessir,” Oren repeated a bit quieter than before.

Adam turned to Hoss. “And I wonder why this isn’t working.”

“As soon as I said it, I know’d it was wrong,” Oren jumped in. “But it was too late. I couldn’t suck the words back in. What am I gonna do, Adam?”

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted, finishing with his shirt and easing himself off the bed, Hoss holding his arm just in case.

“But ya gotta know, Adam. Ya know everything.”

“Why don’t ya just try talkin’ to her, Oren?” Hoss asked placing Adam’s hat gently on his head as Oren’s face squished into disbelief.

“Talkin’?”

“Ya, Oren, talkin’ like we’re doin’ now,” Hoss said. “Normal like.”

“Oh, what would I talk ta her about?”

“I don’t know. Ask her about her schoolin’ or the weather.”

Oren shook his head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.”

“Why not?” Adam asked willing to hear the answer to this one.

“’Cause I’d have to talk to her to do that.”

Hoss opened his mouth then closed it trading a look with Adam who hadn’t a clue.

 “Oh, I’ve spoken to her before but they was just pleasantries. I don’t have the schoolin’ like she does, like you do, Adam, to keep up a conversation. I only know about plantin’ and harvestin’. No gal like Miss Benita’s gonna be interested in that.”

“How do you know?” Adam asked as Hoss helped him with his coat.

“Oh, don’t go teasin’ me, Adam.”

“I’m not. She’s a teacher, Oren, and I’ve found that teachers are interested in many things.” Oren just shook his head.

“No, I cain’t do it. It’ll make me look dumb.”

“Dumb? You’ve already . . .” Hoss began as Adam jabbed him in the ribs to shut him up.

“If you can’t talk to her now how else are you going to be able to tell her that you definitely . . . might . . . love her?” Adam asked drawing a funny look from Hoss. “Later,” he mouthed.

Oren looked up then directly at Adam and smiled. “Well, I thought you . . .”

Adam’s brows shot up and he held up a hand. “Oh, no. No, no, no,” he said with a firm shake of his head finally understanding the path of this conversation.

“But, Adam . . .”

“No, Oren. My job as a matchmaker is over. You’re on your own now.”

“Oh, please, Adam. Ya got them nice words and all . . .”

“NO!” He held Oren’s gaze and watched his happy face crumble.

“Now, Adam . . . ,” Hoss began, Adam seeing that same lost puppy look on his brother’s face as on Oren’s. He knew fighting against that ‘look’ was near impossible. He sighed. It wasn’t fair them taking advantage of his injured state. “All right. All right. I’ll think of something.”

“Oh, thank you, Adam,” Oren said, grabbing his hand to shake. “You won’t regret this.”

“I already do,” he said, holding his ribs, all of them turning as Ben entered the room.

“Ready to go home?” Ben asked, everyone ignoring the scraps up the right side of his face. Hoss leaned over to pick up his own hat to hide his smile as best he could.

“Please,” was all Adam could get out as he eased himself past Oren and his father, hiding his own grin.

“What happened ta yer face, Mr. Cartwright?” Oren asked breaking the silence. A stony glance met his question.

“A slight mishap with my horse is all,” Ben answered following Adam and Hoss out the door and into the morning sunshine.

“Try to be a stranger!” Paul called after them as they made their way toward the wagon where Joe was fiddling with the horses’ harnesses.

“Adam!” came Benita’s call from a few doors down making all of them turn. Forgetting the horses, Joe leaped into the wagon; Hoss struggled over the side, his head still ringing this morning.

With no way to get Adam into the wagon quickly, Ben reached for Benita as she slid in the mud and pulled her to the side.

“My!” floated around them as she crashed into Ben, sending the backs of his legs hard against the wagon, making him yelp. Paul covered his face with his hand and peered through his fingers as Joe slapped a hand over his mouth to silence himself

“Benita,” Adam said from around Ben’s shoulder, glad that for once it wasn’t him.

“How are you feeling this morning?” she asked getting her feet back under her. He grabbed his chin and moved it from side to side. “I didn’t know you had such a good left cross. You’ve got to teach me that sometime.”

She blushed. “I’m so sorry about that, Adam.”

“I should’ve ducked,” he answered.

“Mornin’, Miss Benita,” Oren interrupted, smiling away at her from beside the wagon. She kept her eyes straight.

“Mr. Fudge,” was all she said. His face fell and he looked toward Adam who tilted his head toward her, spurring him on.

“I . . . ah, I . . .”  Oren cleared his throat. Now or never. “I . . . I wanted to apologize for sayin’ what I did last night. It wasn’t gentlemanly.”

She shifted a look to him without turning her head. “No it wasn’t.”

“Well, I’m right sorry, Miss Benita, truly I am, but I was just so enamored of yer dress,” he said, his words tumbling over each other. Adam winced and Hoss shook his head. Oren glanced at them then back again, turning his hat in his hand and decided to plow on. “It . . . it was a . . . beautiful piece of tatting I’ve seen in a long time.” There. He’d said it. Now she’d never speak to him again.

Benita began to reply then changed her mind, looking at Adam who gave her a lopsided grin. Joe’s mouth dropped open as Ben and Hoss exchanged funny looks. Even Paul pulled his hand from his face.

“I mean that now,” Oren said. “Well, I’ll be goin’ . . .”

“Wait, Oren,” Benita started, not knowing where she was going with this. “That was a very nice thing to say.”

He smiled then and cleared his throat. “I jest wanted ya to know I noticed. Did ya do that yerself?”

She stood a bit straighter. “Yes I did. How do you know about such things?”

“My Ma,” he began. This talking thing wasn’t so bad. “She’s been sewin’, lord, goin’ on thirty years or more. Taught me a stitch or two. I was wonderin’ if . . .” he started, and then decided against it. “Ah, never mind.”

“Wondering what, Oren?” she asked. He traded a look with Adam who nodded back, egging him on.

“Well, I was wonderin’ if’n ya’d teach me some of that.” Silence fell and they held their breaths, the boys thinking Oren may have overstepped himself.

“Sewing is usually something a woman does. Wouldn’t you find it awkward?”

He nodded before he could stop himself and cleared his throat again, fiddling with his hat. “Being truthful and all, I’d find it right sissified, but a man’s gotta learn a trade ta fall back on in case the harvest fails. Still gotta feed everyone.”

“Well . . .” she said with a slight hesitation casting a glance toward Adam who tilted his head toward Oren. “I could use the help,” she admitted, tapping her chin with her finger.

“What do ya mean, Miss Benita?” Hoss asked.

Her eyes brightened. “Oh, my news. Adam, you were right. Polly Smeed came to see me late last night.”

“She did?” Adam said shocked at the admission.

“I’ve got my first order for a new dress.” She giggled then narrowed her eyes at him.

“You didn’t have anything to do with that, did you?”

“Not me,” Adam said. “I was knocked out on the floor remember?” He glanced at Hoss and Joe and they both shook their heads. “Congratulations. I told you everything would work out.”

“Yes, you did. Thank you so much, Adam,” she said wrapping her arms about him in a rib-crushing hug. Paul felt for him as sweat popped out on his face. He gave her a pain filled reassuring smile as he held onto the wagon for support. “Thank you for everything.”

“Don’t mention it, Benita,” he answered through clenched teeth as she let him go.

“I’ve got to get over to Mr. Gardner’s. Polly’s going to meet me there. Oh,” she said stopping herself, “hopefully he’ll let me back in since the gravy boat incident . . .  No matter,” she said waving the thought away. “I must be going. I’ve got work to do.” She smiled at all of them and turned, Oren suddenly by her side.

“Mind if I walk with you, Miss Benita.”

She thought on it a moment, then nodded. “Please do, Mr. Fudge.” She started off without him and he turned and smiled at the Cartwrights.

“Well, lookee there,” Hoss said. “He actually talked to her and see what happened?”

“Looks like she might be taking a shine to Oren, Adam,” Joe said with a grin. “Sorry for your loss.”

“Benita’s a good person. She just needs to have a little faith in herself,” Adam said, Ben returning to help him into the wagon. A startled cry caught their attention and they all looked down the street. Oren lay flat in the muddy street as Benita stood on the sidewalk, a loose board from said sidewalk lying by his side.

“Goodness,” they heard as Paul disappeared into his office only to reappear a few moments later, bag in hand.

“Once more unto the breach,” the doctor mumbled reaching the downed man just as he sat up.

The Cartwright’s tried to keep their laughter to a bare minimum as Oren decided he was all right despite the large bruise already forming across his forehead and would continue with Miss Benita to Mr. Gardner’s store. Watching him walk in a none too straight line even made Paul smile.

“That could be you, Adam,” Joe said wistfully.

“That was me a week ago,” he reminded them watching the two of them enter Mr. Gardner’s store.

“That could be all of us,” Ben said, turning back to Joe. “Except Joe. How’d you get so lucky?”

“Quick on my feet,” was his answer as he picked up the reins. Quite suddenly a loud shattering sound came from the area of Mr. Gardner’s store and the horses reared yanking both the reins and Joe into the muddy street. Everyone could hear their loose harness flapping as they made their way down the street at a gallop.

Hoss laid his head back and howled, doubling over as his youngest brother grabbed the side of the wagon with one muddy hand then the other, his dirt-encrusted head following after.

Paul just turned away and walked right into his office shaking his head. “I saw nothing,” he said, closing the door behind him.

“You may be quick on yer feet, shortshanks,” Hoss began through his laughter, “but yer hands need work.”  Joe gave Hoss an unhappy grin and listened as Ben broke out in laughter. Adam grabbed his ribs trying not to laugh.

“Ha, ha, ha,” was Joe’s only response as he started dejectedly down the street after the wayward horses, drawing stares and laughs as he went, leaving his brothers and father to laugh themselves silly behind him.

***The End***

 

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