Word Count: 1350
“Look at this turtle! Ain’t he big?” asked Little Joe, nearly out of breath after his run from the lake with his prize.
“Mais oui, he’s very big. Why don’t you put him back?”
“Can’t I keep him?” the boy asked, his lower lip starting to poke forward.
“Hey, Lil Joe! Come see the frog Adam just caught!”
Before Marie could disappoint her son by telling him he couldn’t keep the turtle, he was running for the lake to marvel at the kicking frog his older brother was trying to hold.
Marie nestled back into the crook of her husband’s arm with her head lying against his broad chest. His hand rested lightly upon her belly, providing a comforting connection. The light breeze rustled through the leaves and caught the strands of hair that had come loose from her chignon. She lazily waved at a fly that buzzed around as she watched her sons playing down by the lake, darting in and out of the water as they looked for creatures that only boys could appreciate.
The picnic lunch left her feeling a bit drowsy; the warm sun and wafting wind only added to the feeling. She heard a squeal and then saw Adam holding Joseph by the ankles with the top of his head barely touching the water’s surface. Her brief moment of fear dissolved and she smiled as she watched her eldest swing her youngest back and forth.
As she watched them play, she thought of the son who never had the chance to grow from infancy into boyhood. He’d died shortly after birth, but she’d been so ill she didn’t know for several days.
During the pregnancy, she was confident that her baby would be a boy. She’d daydreamed of a child with the flashing eyes of a Creole and the aristocratic nose of a Frenchman. Jean had left her but her son would be a reminder of the love that had created him.
Following his birth, she had a clear memory of holding a blanket cocooning a warm and heavy baby that cried and flailed small arms. The little hands had been clenched into fists and she’d pried one open to marvel at the tiny fingers that wrapped around one of her own. Downy, dark hair covered the top of his head. She’d lightly rested her cheek against the fuzz and then nuzzled his small cheek.
The cries of her newborn son soon competed with the sound of rustling silk as her mother-in-law crossed the room. There were no congratulations for the safe delivery of a healthy baby; instead, the old crone tore him from her arms and carried him away. The sound of her own crying mingled with the echoes of her son’s and she tried to go after him. The midwife and the maid struggled to keep her in the bed as she cursed Jean’s mother for stealing her dreams of a future filled with love.
When she’d learned of her child’s death, she’d mourned for months. The loss was far more devastating than Jean’s departure. Her baby’s heart had beat in rhythm with her own during her pregnancy; she was certain of that. With his death, her heart was truly alone.
Her baby never marked the milestones that other children did. He never crawled across a floor to get from one place to another. He never stood on shaky legs, trying to take that first step. He never ran with the wild abandon of a boy caught up in the excitement of life. He never rode a horse at breakneck speed, feeling the wind on his face.
A loud splash broke her reverie and a cry of frustration caught her ear. Adam and Hoss were trying to teach Joseph to skip stones across the water. She cocked her head as Adam knelt down to help his little brother choose a rock from the pile they’d collected and then guide his arm and hand so the stone would skip across the lake. Her youngest decided to try it alone and she had to stifle a giggle when the stone made a loud ker-plop. Hoss and Adam patiently helped him until a rock finally skipped three times before sinking.
“Didja see that?” Joe yelled in excitement.
Adam lifted Joe onto his shoulders and trotted back and forth along the lakeshore to celebrate his brother’s triumph. Hoss tossed pieces of grass in the air to sprinkle Joe with bits of green confetti.
She wondered if Adam would have been more accepting if she’d arrived on the Ponderosa with a son of her own. Ben’s eldest son had a warm heart locked in what he’d believed was an impenetrable fortress. Adam may have resented her as his new mother but she was sure he would have welcomed a new sibling and playmate. He would have quickly taught her son everything he knew about ranching as well as the mischief that only boys can create. Even though he had experienced so much tragedy in his life, she saw the defenses around his heart crumble when he held Joseph the first time. That alone made her certain he would have taken her other son under his wing.
Her son would have been close to Hoss in age when she arrived on the Ponderosa. Hoss would have been delighted to have a new brother to share the rugged ranch with. His heart was so open and generous it immediately made room for anyone new. A smile spread across her face as she imagined Hoss and a smaller, dark-haired boy covered in dirt and dust, their pockets bulging with the prizes they’d found while exploring—most probably rocks, feathers, and earthworms.
She heard a soft snore and stole a glance at Ben. Would he have accepted another man’s child as his own? Back in New Orleans, his eyes shone with love when he spoke of the boys he’d left behind in Nevada. His sons were his lifeblood as surely her child would have been hers. Her heart was sure that he would have welcomed her son into his family and given the boy his name. She placed a soft kiss against his jaw as he slept.
A shouted, “En garde!” drew her eyes to the lake and woke Ben. The boys were using cattail stalks as epees. She winced as they lunged at each other and tried to parry and thrust. Joseph and Hoss quickly joined forces to drive their older brother into the lake; Adam’s moves were catlike as he gracefully defended himself. He was larger but no match for the determination, and cheating, of the other two—when he parried, one of his brothers would try to tickle or shove him. They soon had him at the water’s edge as he valiantly made his last stand. While Joseph occupied Adam with a riposte, Hoss pushed their opponent into the lake, creating a loud splash. The younger boys pointed and cackled as droplets of water rained down on their heads.
Marie and Ben laughed as Adam pulled his brothers into the water. They watched the boys wrestling and slinging mud at each other.
“What a mess,” she finally said, as mud streaked the boys’ clothes, hair, and faces.
“Boys will be boys,” he answered as the trio moved from the water to the grass.
She nestled back into the crook of her husband’s arm and watched as Joseph tried to hold Adam down by sitting on his back. A laughing Hoss yelled, “Buck him off!” as Adam pretended to be a bronco. As soon as Joseph was “thrown,” the boys were again chasing each other. In her mind’s eye, she saw a fourth boy, a dark-haired boy with an aristocratic French nose, join in the fun down by the lake.