When the Dawn Seemed Forever Lost (by Patina)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  26,200


With a calloused finger, Ben gently traced the curve of his wife’s jawline. He had often wondered if she didn’t like the feel of his work-roughened hands on her smooth skin. The feathery crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes weren’t yet as deep as his, nor did they detract from her beauty. His finger moved to her mouth, tracing the Cupid’s bow of her upper lip, then the pout of the lower. He leaned in and gently kissed the smooth lips. How she’d kept them from chapping in the dry air had always been a mystery.

“She’s beautiful,” said Joyce Edwards as she gazed upon Marie’s face. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was asleep.”

“Shaughnessy did a good job, didn’t she?” asked Ben in a hoarse whisper.

When the horse lost its footing and fell, Marie had been trapped beneath it. Her body had been broken but her face, her beautiful face, had been unblemished. In an odd way, Ben found that to be a blessing. If she haunted his dreams, it would be so with the face he’d loved, not that of an inhuman creature.

He placed his hand over hers and gently stroked her fingers, fingers that would never again feel the stubble on his face, smooth the graying hair back from his forehead, or tightly clasp him to her when they made love. Ben raised her hand and leaned his cheek against the cold palm before placing a kiss upon it and gently returning the hand to her side.

Shaughnessy laid a bouquet of wildflowers and roses on Marie’s stomach and placed her hands over the stems. Ben recognized the wildflowers as those that grew in the meadow down by the lake where they’d often picnicked; the roses were from the bushes he’d ordered from Sacramento to grace the front porch to provide Marie a sense of New Orleans. Ben thought if he unpinned Marie’s hair and placed a crown of flowers upon her brow, she’d resemble a fairy tale princess waiting to be awakened with a kiss.

Ben had respected Marie’s wish to be buried in the violet dress she’d worn on the day they’d married. The earrings Marie would wear for eternity were simple golden drops Adam had bought from a peddler as a birthday gift after Little Joe’s birth. A delicate band of gold, polished to shine, was on her left hand and a rose gold ring with a fiery ruby was on her right.

If it were possible, Ben would have given anything to hear Marie’s laughter again or feel her breath tickle his neck. He heard muttered condolences from friends and neighbors but didn’t listen to the words.

Little Joe sat in a chair in the corner, staring out the window. If Mama was asleep, why didn’t Pa wake her up? The boy quietly slid down to the floor and tugged the sleeves of his jacket. Mama had always fussed if his wrists peeked out. He made his way over to the table without anyone noticing.

He stood on tiptoe but still didn’t have a good view. Mama looked like the picture had Adam drawn of Sleeping Beauty; the only difference was Mama didn’t have on a crown. Balancing against the table, he took hold of his mother’s shoulder and gave her a shake. Normally, she’d look at him and tell him to go back to bed but this time she didn’t. He shook her again, causing her hands to slide and the flowers to fall. “Wake up!” he ordered.

“Joseph!”

Little Joe immediately stopped at his father’s gruff voice.

Adam picked up the flowers and tried his best to rearrange them in Marie’s hands; he then steered his youngest brother to the kitchen, where they would be away from their grieving father. Hop Sing had hot coffee on the stove, pies and cookies on the counter, and a ham on a platter. Adam handed a cookie to Little Joe before setting the boy on one of the stools.

“When’s Mama gonna wake up?” asked Little Joe around a mouthful of crumbled cookie.

Adam took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. He remembered grieving for the woman he’d called “Miss Inger” and then “Ma” when he was about Little Joe’s age. Even though he’d been a child, he’d understood death well enough by the time Ma died because he’d seen so much of it on the journey West.

“She’s not asleep. She’s gone.”

“No she ain’t. She’s in there.” Little Joe pointed in the direction of the big room.

Adam pursed his lips. How do I make him understand she isn’t coming back?

“You remember that calf that died even though everyone tried feeding it?”

Little Joe nodded. Pa and Will Reagan had tried to get other cows to take the calf as its own, but none would tolerate it. Several of the hands had taken turns giving it milk from a bucket. Little Joe remembered how it tickled when the calf had sucked on his fingers when it was hungry. Everyone had thought the calf would make it but one morning they’d found it dead in its stall.

“Sometimes animals — and people — just die,” said Adam. “It’s not that they want to leave us, but their bodies just stop working.”

Little Joe’s eyebrows scrunched together and he chewed on his lower lip. “I stomped on a lizard once, even though Hoss told me not to. He said I done squished it all to pieces. Did something stomp on Mama?”

Adam blew out a deep breath and knelt down so he could look directly into his youngest brother’s eyes. “Sometimes accidents just happen. Understand?”

Little Joe’s fingers toyed with the loose ends of Adam’s string tie. “How come Pa didn’t get a doctor to make Mama better?”

“Her body couldn’t work. There wasn’t anything Pa or a doctor could do.”

Joe thought about that for a few seconds before asking, “Can I have another cookie?”

“Sure, buddy.”

After brushing crumbs from Little Joe’s shirt and jacket, Adam led his youngest brother to the chair in the big room. Little Joe drew his feet up on the seat to rest his chin on his knees. Pa always told them not to put their boots on the furniture, but Little Joe figured it would be okay just this once.

Hoss sat on the stairs, leaning heavily against the rail. He’d taken his string tie off and was running it through his fingers, occasionally looping it around one before pulling it off. It ain’t fair, he thought, mean people live forever but the nice ones don’t. Except for Old Man Garvey; he’s nice.

“You doing okay, son?” asked a kindly voice.

Hoss looked into the concerned eyes of Roy Coffee and shrugged a shoulder in silent reply before turning his attention back to the tie.

*****

Roy gently squeezed Hoss’ shoulder before stepping away. Marie had been the rose of the Ponderosa — beautiful to look at but her sharp tongue had drawn blood as easily as a thorn when she’d been angry. When Ben had returned from New Orleans with a wife, the town gossips were out for blood as many women had set their sights on Nevada’s most eligible bachelor. Marie had been an outwardly confident woman, one who wasn’t easily riled by the talk of jealous women and often waved off second-hand gossip as idle chatter. Many biddies grew annoyed when she laughed in the face of their attempts to ruin her reputation. It wasn’t until a chance conversation after Little Joe’s birth, when she’d told Roy about the smear campaign perpetrated by her mother-in-law against her back in New Orleans, that he understood why she’d held her head up in town and greeted rivals with civility — those other women were amateurs compared to her first husband’s mother.

The sheriff retreated to a chair near the case clock. He studied Adam, standing ramrod straight a few steps away from where his father sat. Adam was a good boy — level-headed, smart, and tenacious — but Roy sure was glad his friend’s son had had a mother’s influence. A father could teach a son manners and respect but it took a woman’s touch to make a young man understand that everyone, even those whom society looked down upon, deserved to be treated kindly. Roy had heard the same whispers as everyone else about Marie — that she was a high-priced saloon gal or a soiled dove back in New Orleans — but, even if any of it were true, she saw to it that Adam spoke to the poorest folk and those placed in high society with the same courtesy.

Roy noted the way Ben slumped in a chair, as if a heavy weight pressed down upon his shoulders. Back when his Mary died, Roy had felt much the same way. If he’d been a weaker man, he might have turned to the bottle for comfort, but instead he threw himself into his work as a lawman.

It was shortly after Ben and his two sons arrived in Virginia City that Roy and the Cartwrights became friends. Roy was impressed by Ben’s determination to build a cattle ranch out of the wilderness. Back in those days, Roy admired Ben for soldiering on no matter what life threw at him. Roy had seen other men sell out and leave the territory after wives or children died and he prayed that wouldn’t be the case with Ben; the territory needed men like him if it was to ever become a state.

“I’m going back to town,” said Paul Martin, stopping by the sheriff’s side for a moment. “Get some sleep for the funeral.”

“I’ll say my goodbyes and ride back with you.”

Roy quietly walked up to Ben and gently laid a hand against his friend’s back. He whispered a few words of condolence before retrieving his hat from the sideboard near the door.

*****

Adam nodded a goodbye to the sheriff and doctor as he walked to the stairs. He stepped past Hoss and sat down a couple of steps behind his brother. Hoss still toyed with his string tie but Adam didn’t have the heart to tell him to put it in his pocket if he wasn’t going to wear it. The clock rang eight times, the last chime echoing in the nearly quiet room.

“You boys should go to bed soon,” whispered Shaughnessy.

Adam gave her a blank look and nodded in agreement. He trusted her as she never had an ulterior motive when she helped out at the Ponderosa. Some people — Marie had called them social climbers — only wanted to be seen doing charitable or helpful acts by others as a way to further their reputations as good people.

*****

An hour later, Shaughnessy knelt down by Little Joe and quietly said, “Time to go to bed.”

“Can I tell Mama goodnight?” he asked.

She nodded so he went over to the table, stood on tiptoe and said, “Sleep tight, Mama.”

Shaughnessy led him over to his father and told the boy to give him a kiss. Joe obediently complied, even though Ben didn’t seem to notice. Afterwards, she shepherded the boys upstairs, away from the prying eyes of folks looking for new fodder for gossip. She’d liked Marie’s spunkiness and irreverence, never letting any of those biddies in town get her riled up in public. Let them talk all they want, Marie used to say, there’s worse things in this world than the trifling gossip of a few poulets.

“Let me get Little Joe ready for bed,” said Adam.

She gave Adam a soft kiss on the cheek, before heading back down the stairs. When did that boy start growing whiskers? she wondered as he rubbed her lips.

*****

Adam tucked Little Joe under the covers and sat down on the mattress. Hoss sat at the foot of the bed, hands clasped together between his knees.

“Ain’t Pa goin’ to bed?” asked Little Joe.

“Maybe later,” said Adam.

“Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“Tell me a story.”

“Not tonight, buddy.”

“How come?”

“Because.”

Little Joe crossed his arms over his chest and pouted. “Why?”

“Just ‘cause,” said Hoss in a soft voice.

“Sing me something,” Little Joe insisted. His mother or Adam always told him a story or sang at bedtime.

Even though Adam’s heart wasn’t in it, he began singing a tune Marie had loved and often hummed while sewing in the evenings or working in her flower garden. Many a night he’d heard her singing Little Joe to sleep from his room down the hall. Adam preferred the words of Lily of the West to this tune instead of the words Marie usually sang. Adam hoped Little Joe would quickly drift off into pleasant dreams.

“’Twas on one bright March morning
I bid New Orleans adieu.
And I took the road to Jackson town,
My fortune to renew,

I cursed all foreign money,
No credit could I gain,
Which filled my heart with longing for
The lakes of Pontchartrain.”

Little Joe studied Adam’s face and wondered why he looked so sad. Mama always sang with a big smile.

“I stepped on board a railroad car,
Beneath the morning sun,
I rode the roads till evening,
And I laid me down again,
All strangers there no friends to me,
Till a dark girl towards me came,
And I fell in love with a Creole girl,
By the lakes of Pontchartrain.”

Adam paused, disappointed that Little Joe hadn’t yet fallen asleep.

“Don’t stop,” said Little Joe. “You ain’t got to the alligators.”

Hoss sniffed loudly and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Why did Adam have to sing this song? Why couldn’t he pick something else?

“I said, ‘My pretty Creole girl,
My money here’s no good,
But if it weren’t for the alligators,
I’d sleep out in the wood.’

‘You’re welcome here kind stranger,
Our house is very plain.
But we never turn a stranger out,
From the lakes of Pontchartrain.’

“She took me into her mammy’s house,
And treated me quite well,
The hair upon her shoulder
In jet black ringlets fell.

To try and paint her beauty,
I’m sure ‘twould be in vain,
So handsome was my Creole girl,
By the lakes of Pontchartrain.”

“Now you gotta get up so you can go down on one knee like Mama,” ordered Little Joe.

“Not tonight, buddy,” said Adam.

Little Joe yawned and Adam hoped the boy would fall asleep soon.

“I asked her if she’d marry me,
She said it could never be,
For she had got another,
And he was far at sea.”

Adam’s throat constricted, choking off his words. He fought back tears, wanting to wait until he could shed them in the privacy of his own room. Hoss’ sniffling announced he wasn’t as successful. Little Joe’s eyes had closed and Adam hoped his youngest brother had finally drifted off. Adam whispered the song’s words.


“She said that she would wait for him
And true she would remain.
Till he returned for his Creole girl,
By the lakes of Pontchartrain.

So fare thee well my Creole girl,
I never will see you no more…”

Adam couldn’t finish the song. Hot tears trickled down his cheeks and he was thankful Little Joe was finally asleep. He kissed his youngest brother’s forehead before going over to the window in hopes the cool night breeze would dry his wet face. Hoss soon joined him and they stood together in silence, listening to the yips of the coyotes off in the mountains.

“I’ll stay here,” Hoss said in a hoarse whisper after giving his older brother a pat to the belly with the back of his hand. “You go get some sleep. I’ll mind Little Joe. ‘Sides, you’ve got to be strong for Pa tomorrow.”

Adam nodded and did as told. He closed the door behind him, careful to make sure the latch didn’t make a loud click. Once in his room, he flopped down onto the bed and buried his face in the pillow to stifle his sobs. It’s my fault Marie died, he thought. He fell into a fitful sleep, tossing and turning so the covers cocooned him as if he were a mummy.

*****

Hoss leaned back in a chair that bore his weight on two of its legs. His feet dangled above the floor and he absently kicked them at nothing in particular. It ain’t fair Adam had two mothers and I only had one. She was the best mother, always kissing away his hurts, making him feel special because he wasn’t the oldest or the youngest. Now who would kiss the pain away when he mashed his finger? He leaned his head against the wall and stared at the ceiling until his eyes closed, pulling him into slumber.

*****

Unable to sleep, Ben kept vigil by his wife’s body. The flickering candles cast her face in light then shadow. He tightly clasped his hands and silently willed her to open her eyes.

The funeral was in a few short hours and this night would be his last to gaze upon the woman who’d banished his loneliness years ago in New Orleans. He’d recognized in her another soul drifting through the sea of life much as he had been, going through the motions each day, putting on a brave face for the world. While he’d had his sons to live for, she’d had no one. Wooing her had been a challenge but he had been sure he’d found a woman worthy of ruling the Ponderosa by his side.

Now he was adrift again. Long ago, practically a lifetime ago, he’d been told to not carry his dead wife on his shoulders for the rest of his life because she wouldn’t want that. Following Elizabeth’s death, he’d lived for his infant son, Adam, and planned to go West to build an empire. He’d spent four long years mourning her, closing his heart to the possibility of ever loving another woman. It was Inger Borgstrom who’d made him understand that grief didn’t have to seal a heart. When she died, he’d channeled his energy into forging his dream out of an untamed wilderness. His grief had eventually faded to a dull ache as he and his sons had carved the Ponderosa from the very trees for which his ranch was named. A spark had leaped to life within his heart as he’d gotten to know Marie and he’d realized that while she’d looked as fragile as a magnolia blossom, she’d been tempered by steel and could withstand the rigors of living on a ranch far from civilization.

She’d made the Ponderosa a home, full of warmth and laughter. And she’d given him Joseph — a fine boy.

How can I go on? What did I do to make God so angry? Ben asked himself.

He stifled a sob as he remembered Marie’s crushed body in the yard. It was ironic that the first time he’d laid eyes upon her, she was laughing as she pulled her spirited horse into a rear after nearly running him over in the street. She was an accomplished horsewoman and a fearless rider. Why this time? Why hadn’t she been able to control that damned beast? The accident had happened so fast the horse had fallen before he could leap from the porch to save her.

He imagined the whispered conversations behind his back were more smears to Marie’s reputation. These were the same people who mocked her accent and her ways because she was different. Now they put on mourning clothes and dabbed at false tears.

Beads clicked in the background as someone mumbled an Our FatherMarie would have enjoyed the irony of that, he thought. She hadn’t been a practicing Catholic since her first child had died. She’d said she couldn’t give thanks to a God who took an innocent child as retribution for his parents’ sins.

Hop Sing silently made his way across the room and placed a hot cup of coffee into Ben’s hands. When Marie had arrived, the cook had felt threatened, afraid he’d lose his place as the ruler of the kitchen. He needn’t have worried. While Marie had been perfectly capable of domestic chores, she hadn’t enjoyed doing them and had been more than happy to allow Hop Sing to continue to keep the kitchen and house orderly.

Startled by a touch to his shoulder, Ben dropped his coffee. The cup shattered into several pieces, coffee soaking into the boards. The saucer, though, wobbled in lazy half-circles as it slowly came to rest under the table. Before he could reach for the shards, Hop Sing was on his knees, efficiently plucking pieces of ceramic and putting them in his folded apron.

“You should get some sleep,” Joyce said. “We’ll stay up.”

Ben tried to smile but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, he shook his head and remained firmly rooted in the chair. The swish of Joyce’s skirts announced her retreat. He didn’t want to hear a lecture on being well rested or looking his best; it wasn’t as if Marie was going to fuss about his appearance. Let the gossips wag their tongues; they’d understand when it was their husband or wife lowered into the ground.

He heard the door open and smell of bear grease drifted through the room. There’s only one man who smells like that, thought Ben.

Abe Garvey, usually referred to as “Old Man” Garvey, was one of the last of the mountain men, a rare breed who enjoyed exploring uncharted territory and relying on his own skills for survival, able to read animal sign as easily as many people read the Bible. Despite his gruffness and ill manners, Abe had won Marie’s approval and he’d been a frequent Ponderosa guest. Marie had always been delighted by his stories of frontier survival and, unlike more “respectable” people, had never asked if the rumors were true that he’d killed his wife and fled to the west in order to escape the law and retaliation from the girl’s family. Ben figured Abe appreciated Marie’s refusal to put stock in gossip, preferring to take a man at his word.

After a few minutes, Ben felt the pressure of a hand on his arm. He looked into Abe’s eyes, crinkled around the edges by the sun as well as age, and noted the unspoken message of sympathy. With a nod, Abe silently excused himself. Ben wished others in the room would show as much courtesy by leaving him alone to mourn.

Ben went to the table and placed another kiss upon his wife’s lips. I’d trade the Ponderosa for your soul if it would bring you back.

When Elizabeth had died, he had a convenient reason to run away — she’d made him promise on her deathbed that he’d go West and make the dream they’d shared a reality. The journey remained unfinished when Inger died, so he had a reason to continue to run. With the Ponderosa a successful ranch, there wasn’t anything left to accomplish. It was as if he stood at the top of a mountain with nowhere to go but down.

He kissed Marie again before retaking his seat in the hard chair. People kept touching his arm and saying how sorry they were for his loss. They’d all should just leave — none of them cared about her when she was alive. He shifted in order to remain uncomfortable as he didn’t want to sleep and lose a moment before she was taken from him forever.

As the sun began to spread her warmth across the land, Ben heard the arrival of carriages and a wagon. The undertaker was bringing the casket, as Ben wouldn’t allow Marie to be placed in it until he was certain she was dead. He’d had to finally accept that her soul had abandoned her battered and broken body; there was no hope for a miracle.

*****

Adam slowly made his way down the stairs, his footsteps falling heavily. Unlike his younger brothers, he knew what to expect today.

He leaned against the table, looking one last time upon the face of the woman he’d slowly accepted as a friend more than a mother. I wish I could hear her count to ten in French to hold her temper or listen to her tell Little Joe one of those fanciful tales about New Orleans one more time. When Marie came to the Ponderosa, he was determined to shut her out as an intruder. It was Hoss who’d made him understand that their father’s choice of wife didn’t matter; it was her love for them that did. There were so many things unsaid and now it was too late. He pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket and tucked it into her sleeve; she’d take one last secret to the grave.

Ben draped an arm across his eldest’s back and firmly clasped his son’s shoulder. No words had to be spoken as both grieved for the woman who’d help make them into the men they were.

Behind them, the door opened and the undertaker, his assistants, and the minister, followed by Will and Carl Reagan came in, carrying a cast iron casket that looked like wood. The viewing plate on the lid had been cleaned until the glass was smooth and clear.

I can’t watch them seal her inside an iron box, Ben thought. Even though her body was lifeless, he could gaze upon her face or touch her hands while she remained in the house. Once she was in the casket, he’d no longer have any physical contact with her. His only reminders would be memories. He clutched a fist tightly against his chest as he struggled to breathe.

“Let’s go to the kitchen,” said Adam.

Ben allowed Adam to steer him from the room. It had been different with Inger — she’d died in his arms, her last words were to hold her tightly. There’d been no last words from Marie, not even a scream as the horse fell.

Hop Sing put plates of eggs, bacon, and biscuits before his charges and filled two sturdy mugs with coffee. He couldn’t force them to eat, but he hoped the aroma would entice them.

He then scraped scrambled eggs into a large serving bowl and carried it into the dining area. People should have respect for Mr. Cartwright — stay in town to eat, Hop Sing thought.

He returned to the kitchen where Adam was eating a biscuit and Ben was simply pushing food around on his plate. “You eat. Missy would want you be strong. Eggs give strength.” Hop Sing loaded up platters with the biscuits and bacon. He muttered under his breath in Chinese as he carried the armload of food to the table in the dining area.

“Where’s the coffee?” asked Tom Edwards as he plucked up a slice of bacon.

“Hop Sing get,” said the cook.

As Hop Sing poured the coffee from the metal pot into the large ceramic one, a piercing scream split the air followed by yelling from the big room.

“Get my mama outta there!”

“Take that boy to his father, Joyce!”

“Stop hittin’ the reverend, Little Joe!”

Adam gripped his father’s shoulders and forced him to remain seated while Hop Sing went to see about the commotion. The cook soon returned with a crying Little Joe.

Little Joe buried his face in his father’s lap and sobbed. Ben absently rubbed his hand against his son’s back.

“Make . . . make them . . . .” Little Joe had to stop and snuffle. “Tell ‘em to . . . get Mama . . . outta that box.”

Ben couldn’t hold back his own tears and they tracked down his face, dropping into Little Joe’s hair.

“What are they doin’ to Mama?” the little boy asked.

Adam gently pried his youngest brother from their father’s lap and hoisted him up. Little Joe buried his face in his oldest brother’s shirt front.

“Listen to me, buddy,” Adam whispered into Little Joe’s ear. “They have to put her in there before they put her in the ground. It’ll keep her safe from all sorts of bad things.”

“Adam,” Ben said. It was a plea rather than a command.

“There’s a piece of glass on the coffin so she can see out,” said Adam.

Little Joe asked around a sniffle, “Will she be able to see me?”

Adam held his brother closer. “Any time you close your eyes and think of her, you’ll be able to see her. She’s an angel now, so she’ll always watch over and protect you.”

“Like . . . like Hoss’ mama . . . does . . . for him?”

“Yeah,” said Adam, hoping Little Joe believed him, and hoping Inger watched over him as often as she did Hoss.

*****

Hoss leaned against the credenza and watched in morbid fascination as his mother was gently laid into the casket. He was surprised by how fancy the inside was — glossy black cloth held in place with gold tacks and a little pillow for her head to rest upon. Once her body was settled, a lacy white sheet was laid over her; the undertaker lifted her arms and placed them over her stomach as they’d been when she was lying on the table.

With help from Mrs. Edwards, the flowers were again placed in Marie’s hands and a rosary was threaded through her fingers. Hoss craned his neck as the men placed the lid on the casket and screwed it into place. Curious, he stepped forward and looked down on his mother through the glass plate. I wish I’d given her a bird feather or something as a final present, he thought.

Hoss moved out of the way as the casket was carried outside and he followed it to the hearse. He pressed his nose against one of the hearse’s windows so he could look at his mother’s face. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and scuffed his feet in the dirt as he made his way back to the house. Pa would probably have something to say about the dust on his boots and pants but Hoss didn’t care. Once inside, he again stood by the credenza and stared at a beetle slowly crawling on the floor. On any other day, he would have scooped it up and put it in his mother’s flower garden where it would be safe. Not today. He ground it into the floor with the toe of his boot.

As his father and brothers approached from the kitchen, Pa’s eyes called to mind those of the hands who complained of being hung-over after spending their pay in Virginia City’s saloons. Pa looks like he’s carryin’ that heavy cross the preacher says Jesus hauled on his back, Hoss thought.

Hoss felt his tie to make sure it seemed straight while Adam ran his fingers through Little Joe’s hair in an effort to tame the unruly curls. All of the mirrors had been covered with black cloth so Mama’s spirit wouldn’t get confused and remain in the house. It didn’t make any sense to Hoss, but that’s what Mrs. Edwards said would happen.

One of the undertaker’s assistants and Will Reagan waited beside the landau that would take the Cartwrights to the gravesite. The black plumes on the horses’ headdresses fluttered in the breeze, making them look like ravens wings.

Ben hoisted Little Joe into the seat behind the driver and climbed in beside him. Adam and Hoss got into the back seat. The undertaker’s assistant clambered aboard and took up the reins.

The order of procession was to be the undertaker, the Cartwright family, friends, and then ranch hands. Will had made sure the hands had polished up their gear and curried their best horses to honor their boss’s wife.

As the procession began its solemn journey, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, casting a shadow upon the land. Ben took it as a sign that the rest of the world was grieving with him.

Adam squirmed as he tried to get comfortable. The only sounds were the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, wheels traveling over the rocky ground, and jangling harnesses. On any other day, a trip to the lake would have included loud conversations and laughter.

The sun remained in mourning, hidden behind a bank of clouds, keeping a coolness in the air. Even the animals were subdued — no hawks flew overhead and no jackrabbits ran in front of the carriages.

How come they didn’t let Mama stay on the table? Little Joe wondered. Vases of flowers , treasures he or Hoss found, and things Pa had from his sailing days were kept on tables, so why wouldn’t she be kept on one, too? How come Pa or Adam didn’t stop them from taking Mama out of the house? He leaned in against his father, the scowl on his face directed at the undertaker’s wagon.

Ben sat ramrod straight, one arm encircling Little Joe and his free hand clenched into a fist. He’d always thought he and Marie would grow old together and that she, not he, would be the one making this trip as an elderly widow. He shook his head in an attempt to hold back more tears; he had to be strong right now. The past few days had been hard on his sons but the worst was yet to come. Adam had been through this with Inger and Hoss had been to a few funerals, but Little Joe had never seen anyone buried. His youngest had been kept shielded from life’s cruelties. Until now.

The undertaker halted the procession to give the horses a breather when the lake came into view. He dismounted and went to the Cartwright’s landau, stopping to talk with Adam.

“Did you decide on being a pallbearer?”

Adam’s only response was a nod.

The undertaker patted the young man’s knee and went on down the line to speak with the men who’d offered to carry Marie’s coffin from the wagon to the grave. Will Reagan, Carl Reagan, Tom Edwards, Roy Coffee, and Paul Martin each affirmed he would do his duty.

As the undertaker headed back to the hearse, he looked off to his right and his heart nearly leaped into his throat. A mounted group of Indians, painted and decorated with feathers in their hair, were heading for the procession. He stood rooted for a few seconds before trotting to the landau to warn Ben they might have to make a run for it.

Chief Winnemucca stopped his party a few feet from the landau. “We come to mourn your woman,” he announced. “She good woman to Paiute.”

Ben softly said, “Thank you,” as he nodded at the chief.

The Indians slowly made their way to the back of the procession. As the wife of Ben Cartwright, she was respected but it was her actions as mother that had endeared her to many in the tribe. She’d opened her home to the curious, danced with the other women when her family had visited the Paiute, and had wept with women who’d lost children.

A ray of sunlight reflected on the lake as the procession reached the place Ben and Marie had chosen years before. Carriages and buggies creaked as occupants exited; the pallbearers waited by the hearse. Ben, flanked by Hoss and Little Joe, slowly walked to the open grave and stood where the minister indicated. Adam took his place among the pallbearers. The Paiute remained behind the vehicles rather than stand among the whites.

Each pallbearer gripped a casket handle and walked carefully to the place the minister had indicated. When they reached the grave, they carefully set it upon the logs that had been laid over the open ground; ropes were beneath the logs to lower the casket.

Ben didn’t hear the words the minister spoke; it was as if bees were buzzing close to his ears. He uttered prayers mechanically, but the words no longer had any meaning. He loosely held Little Joe’s hand, vaguely aware of his youngest son’s crying.

Adam, one hand balled into a fist, tightly clasped his wrist during the burial service. Was it only a few days before that he’d rolled his eyes and shook his head when she told him he should get a haircut next time he was in town?

Hoss clasped his hands together against his chest and prayed as hard as he could for his mother’s soul. He wanted her to be happy in Heaven.

When it was time to lower the casket, the pallbearers clenched their fists around the ropes while the undertaker and his assistants removed the logs. Adam feared the rope would slip through his hands and the casket would tumble down and break the viewing plate. The other men braced themselves for the weight they’d have to bear.

Once the casket was resting at the bottom of the shaft, the minister picked up a handful of dirt and tossed it into the grave, saying “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” He then invited others to come forward and do the same. Out of respect for Ben, no one let dirt fall over the viewing plate.

“Make ‘em stop throwin’ dirt on Mama!” screamed Little Joe as he lunged for the open grave shaft.

Hoss grabbed Little Joe’s hand and jerked hard, pulling his little brother from danger. He openly wept as Little Joe struggled and screamed.

Ben numbly shook hands with people who paid their condolences. He acknowledged them with a curt nod rather than spoken gratitude. How dare they pretend to grieve for a woman many of them openly disliked, he thought. Hypocrites.

The sound of carriages and horses faded into the distance but Ben and his sons remained by the grave. Ben refused to leave until he was satisfied that his wife was properly buried. He didn’t want the men to quickly shovel dirt in and leave the grave a mess.

“You really should go home,” said the minister in a soft, gentle voice.

“No,” was all Ben croaked out.

“This isn’t a sight your youngster should see,” the minister said, hoping Ben would find that to be a reasonable suggestion.

The muscle twitched in Ben’s jaw and his eyes hardened to granite. The minister, fearing a fist to the nose, quickly stepped off to the side.

Dirt was tossed into the grave while Ben, Adam, and Hoss watched; Little Joe, sobbing loudly, pressed his face into his Hoss’ shirt, his tears soaking through the fabric. On the undertaker’s instructions, the dirt was directed towards the foot of the casket rather than the head. Ben stared down at his wife’s face, committing every wrinkle, every feature, to memory. His shoulders shook when dust obscured the glass and he could no longer see the woman he loved.

Adam and Hoss flanked their father; both put an arm around their father’s waist. Hoss’ tears fell from his nose and chin into the dust, leaving little spatters of moisture that quickly disappeared. Adam gave up on holding back his emotion and wept for the mother he’d been determined to reject.

When the backfilling was finished, the undertaker warily approached Ben. “Mr. Cartwright? May we take you back to the house?”

Ben allowed the undertaker to gently guide him to the landau and assist him into it. He wasn’t aware of passing through an honor guard of sorts created by the Paiute nor did he notice them singing again.

Adam looked back and saw the Indians standing in a circle around the grave. Their eerie lament echoed in his ears.

Little Joe sobbed himself to sleep, his face still pressed into his father’s shirt. Ben absently rubbed the little boy’s back.

Hoss dabbed at his eyes with a red bandana that had been a present from his mother.

*****

As they pulled into the yard, Hop Sing trotted out of the house, intending to send his family around the back to go upstairs without having to interact with those who’d decided to return to the house for a meal. Adam carefully removed Little Joe from the landau, tenderly cradling his little brother against his chest, the boy’s breath warm on his neck.

“People inside talk loud, make much noise. Mistah Ben go upstairs back way.”

“Thanks for the warning,” said Adam. Does Pa know we’re home? he wondered as he looked at his father.

Hop Sing gently squeezed his employer’s elbow. Ben looked down at his cook with the gaze of a man who was lost without a compass.

“You need rest. You go upstairs. Hop Sing bring food.”

Ben stared blankly at Hop Sing, as if the man’s words hadn’t registered.

“Pa? Why don’t you go lie down?” said Hoss. “Me an’ Adam’ll see to everyone.”

Hoss and Hop Sing pried Ben from the landau and steered him into the house. Adam, Hoss, and the cook formed a protective shield around Ben and, once they were inside, guided him to the stairs. They ignored the whispered conversations, their sole purpose getting the grieving man away from the people more interested in the spectacle of a man breaking down than comforting a friend.

Once inside Ben’s room, Adam laid Little Joe down on the bed while Hop Sing and Hoss worked together to make Ben comfortable. Hop Sing knelt down and removed his employer’s boots while Hoss removed the jacket and string tie. While clothing was put away, Adam got his father to lie down. Little Joe rolled over and curled up beside his father. Ben stared at the ceiling, seemingly unaware of what was happening around him.

“You go on downstairs; I’ll stay with him,” said Adam.

“I’ll relieve you in a while,” said Hoss as he and Hop Sing headed for the stairs.

Adam settled into the rocking chair in the corner. He leaned heavily on one elbow, supporting his head with a fist. His memories of Pa in the aftermath of Inger’s death were of a man who mourned at night, when they’d stopped to make camp and the chores had been done. Adam had often awoken in the dim light of the low fire to the sound of his father crying. As a child of five, he’d been scared, afraid his father would one day give up and he’d be all alone with his baby brother. During that first winter without Inger, Pa had sometimes spent hours staring into the fire, seemingly thinking of nothing. Now Adam realized Pa must have been thinking of everything that would never be, all of the plans he’d made for the future that would perhaps never come to fruition. Adam sighed and closed his eyes, hoping to shut out the painful memories of his boyhood.

Downstairs, Hoss picked at a plate of ham and peas while people milled around the room, eating and talking as if this were a party. A gentle touch broke his concentration of stacking peas into a pile.

“Hoss?”

The boy started knocking the peas from the pile one by one and smashing them into the surface of the plate. He wasn’t interested in food that had so many happy memories. Like the time he and Little Joe put peas under Adam while he’d slept because Little Joe had believed that would awaken their older brother like that princess in the story. Or that time he and Adam had flicked peas at each other with their forks from the edges of their plates, convinced that what they were doing had gone unnoticed because their parents had been talking about boring, grown up things.

Joyce placed her hand over Hoss’ and gently forced him to set the fork down. “Look at me, Hoss.”

His eyes normally sparkled with happiness but now they shone because of the tears he wouldn’t allow to fall. Any other time, she’d compare his eyes to the sky, but now they reminded her of the lake that Marie had so loved.

“Why don’t I stay here for a few days? I could help Hop Sing and make sure your father gets the rest he needs.”

Hoss’ eyes narrowed in anger. “We don’t need you.” He jerked his arm away from her and returned to smashing the peas.

Joyce sighed in frustration. “I just want to help,” she said in reassurance.

“We got Hop Sing. We don’t need you.”

Before she could say anything else, Ben’s voice boomed from the staircase. “Get out you bunch of vultures!”

Conversation stopped and surprised eyes focused on Ben.

Adam ran out of the bedroom and grabbed his father’s arm. Ben flung him back without a look. The young man hit the wall with a loud smack and lost his footing, sliding to the floor.

Ben’s eyes glittered like black diamonds and his face flushed in anger. “All of you want to watch my family fall apart because the woman I loved, the woman many of you despised, is dead. You didn’t care a thing about her when she was alive.” He stretched forth an arm and pointed a finger, swinging his arm to encompass everyone staring up at him. His voice increased in volume. “You bunch of hypocrites just want to wait to see if I’ll go mad like Zachariah Wickham so you can lay claim to a piece of the Ponderosa.”

“None of that’s true,” said Tom Edwards. “We don’t think that at all.”

“Then why are you here?” Ben asked. A heavy silence hung in the air. “Get out.” The menacing tone encouraged people to quickly gather their things and leave.

Ben returned to his room long enough to pull on his boots and then he stomped down the stairs. He headed for the back of the house and the slammed door practically rattled the windows in the big room.

Adam slowly got to his feet, ran a hand through his hair, and grimaced from the tenderness of a rising lump. He went into his father’s room and saw wide-eyed Little Joe sitting on the bed, knees drawn up to his chest to make himself as small as possible.

“Is Pa mad?” Little Joe asked quietly.

Adam sighed loudly and sat down in the imprint his father’s body had left on the covers. He drew his youngest brother to him in a reassuring one-armed hug. “He’s not angry with us. His heart hurts really bad.”

“Mine does, too,” said Little Joe very softly.

Adam gently hugged his youngest brother before guiding him downstairs so they could get something to eat. The food didn’t have much taste but they needed nourishment.

After the boys ate enough to leave Hop Sing satisfied that his charges weren’t going to starve, the cook cleared the dishes and food from the table. Hoss stood in front of the fireplace and jabbed at the ashy logs with the poker. He was angry with his mother for dying and with Pa for shooting the horse. Something could’ve been done to save her, maybe the horse, too. I didn’t see what happened; just heard the gunshot and came running out lookin’ for robbers. A sharp jab to a cold log caused it to tumble from the pile and roll onto the hearth. Hoss smacked it with the poker and then plodded up the stairs.

Adam had sent Little Joe into the kitchen with Hop Sing, hoping the cook would keep the child occupied for a while. He wandered aimlessly around the big room, seeing constant reminders of Marie.

He opened the card table and pulled out a well-worn deck. As he walked back to the dining table, he idly shuffled the cards. Once seated, he dealt a hand of solitaire.

His greatest regret was the resentment he’d felt towards Marie as soon as she’d crossed the threshold. That resentment grew fiercer once he’d realized she’d been married to Johnny, a French-accented hand whose sophistication had contrasted sharply with his duties. How could his father betray Johnny’s memory by marrying the woman who’d driven him from New Orleans? There were many nights Adam had lain awake in bed, wondering why Pa hadn’t sent word home before arriving with her.

Adam snorted as he ran out of moves and had to gather up the cards to play again. It was Johnny who had taught him to play bourre, a game of chance played faster than poker and one that required concentration in order to strategically play the right cards at the right time. Johnny had said Adam was a natural at the game and would have done well on any river boat. The night Pa found him in the bunkhouse winning money from the hands was the night gambling on the Ponderosa became an offense that could end in a man’s firing.

When Marie had found out he knew bourre, despite Pa’s disapproval of gambling, they’d play for hours when Pa was away on business. They’d played after Hoss and Little Joe had gone to bed and they’d sworn Hop Sing to secrecy so Pa wouldn’t find out his house had been used as a gaming parlor. Instead of money, though, they’d bet chores. Her laughter rang through the house when her strategies piled up tasks for him to take on.

After losing at solitaire again, Adam swept his arm across the table, knocking the cards to the floor. Let them lie there, he thought. Adam went to the kitchen to check on Little Joe and found the little boy sleeping on Hop Sing’s cot, sucking his thumb for comfort.

Out in the barn, Ben stood at Bonnie’s stall. The horse hung her head, as if she, too, were grieving. He idly scratched the horse’s cheek, the animal a brief connection to the woman he’d loved. He was grateful Marie hadn’t been riding Bonnie that fateful day — Bonnie was a valuable brood mare and it would have pained him to have to destroy the horse. The creature Marie had been riding had met an unfortunate end, a bullet to the brain. Ben had killed the horse as efficiently as if it had been a rabid dog. After all, it was only fair — the horse had killed his wife.

Slow footsteps alerted Ben that he was about to have company. He ran a sleeve over his eyes in case it was some well-wisher coming to pay a visit.

As Adam’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw his father standing by Bonnie. Adam pulled an apple from his pocket and handed it to Pa before sitting on the tack box. Ben gently scratched the base of one of the mare’s ears as he held the apple enticingly near her muzzle. The horse gently took it and quickly ate it. After a pat to the mare’s neck, Ben joined his son on the box. The two sat in silence, each taking comfort in the presence of the other.

That night, Ben tried to sleep but the scent of Marie’s perfume no longer brought the comfort it once had. It was a scent Napoleon had ordered created for his empress, Josephine, and a perfume Marie had special ordered from New Orleans. When Ben had traveled, he’d carried one of Marie’s lacy handkerchiefs in his bag as a reminder of the passionate welcome he’d receive upon returning home. Now that she’d been buried, the perfume lingering in the sheets as well as on the clothes hanging in the armoire invoked physical desires he couldn’t satisfy.

Ben wearily hauled himself from the bed and slid his feet into dust-covered boots before heading downstairs. After stoking the fire, he poured a generous glass of brandy and stared into the flames. The amber liquid blazed a path that soon warmed him. Picking up the bottle for company, he tried to make himself comfortable in one of the red leather chairs. He and Marie had often sat before the fire after their boys had gone to bed, savoring a glass of sherry or brandy before they, too, had turned in.

He was lost in thought when a high-pitched scream pierced the silent house, raising the hair on the back of his neck. I should have told Little Joe a fanciful story about angels coming to escort his mother to Heaven rather than let him see what really happens to dead people.

Ben tried to summon the will to haul himself up the staircase to comfort his boy but he couldn’t find the strength within him. He was relieved when a door opened and footsteps crossed the hall. That had to be Adam, he thought. Adam will know how to comfort his brother. Raising the bottle to pour another glass, Ben was surprised to see there was barely a finger of it left.

Young man, Ben softly snorted. When had Adam grown from boyhood to manhood? All those years spent pursuing his dream had made his eldest into a man years before most boys were in long pants. Ben swirled the remaining brandy and was entranced by the play of light and shadow in the glass. Did Adam have a dream of his own? When I was his age, I wanted to come West and tame a piece of wilderness.

When Elizabeth died, Ben would have remained in Boston, working at the chandler’s shop, watching other men buying supplies to chase their dreams, if Abel Stoddard hadn’t encouraged him to go West. When Ben had made it to his brother John’s farm in Ohio, he’d worked on the farm and had taken on odd jobs to make extra money. Where Ben had been a planner, John had simply been a dreamer. Both had wanted secure futures in which they weren’t beholden to anyone, but it had seemed John never had any interest in hard work.

Ben and his brother parted on less than friendly terms because of a small loan; John didn’t think he had to pay it back since he hadn’t signed any paper drawn up by a lawyer or banker. When John told him to sell Elizabeth’s music box if he was in need of money, Ben broke his brother’s nose. He’d loaded up his son and his meager possessions the next morning and had headed West.

He took a sip of brandy and leaned against the chair’s wing, resting his head. The amber liquid in the glass in no way matched the shade of Inger’s hair. Even though he’d been nearly penniless and labeled a drifter, she’d seen a man who knew what he wanted from life. She’d been willing to put aside the chance of a comfortable life with McWhorter by hitching her wagon to Ben’s dream. Inger could have moved mountains by sheer force of will, he thought.

She’d recognized that his anger stemmed from the bitter disappointments life dealt. As Ben had worked in the saloon and heard the talk of the California gold fields, he often dreamed of making a big strike and living in comfort. She’d been far more down-to-earth and had reminded him that nothing ever came easy; if he wanted something, he had to be prepared to work hard to earn it.

The anger had quickly faded after Inger’s death as he hadn’t yet found his dream. With two sons to look after, there’d been no time for self-pity. Once he’d acquired his first piece of land, he’d begun to build the dream he and Elizabeth had envisioned those many years ago. As the seasons passed, his loneliness for a woman to share his dream with had grown. He’d satisfied his carnal desires with prostitutes but he’d continued to long for a helpmate.

He’d never intended to fall in love with Marie– his beautiful Marie –when he’d met her that afternoon at the club. His sole intention had been to deliver the news of her husband’s death, enjoy a drink, and then make arrangements to sell his furs so he could return home to his sons. Her cool indifference at hearing Jean’s name had disturbed him as he’d been sure she’d be heartbroken. The more he’d learned of Jean and old Madame de Marigny, Ben had realized there had been a reason for Marie’s heart to be encased in ice. He’d never intended to chip away the frost, but that’s what had slowly happened as he’d learned of the terrible conspiracy visited upon her by her beloved cousin, Edouard, and Jean’s mother.

Marie had come alive after leaving New Orleans, reborn as a woman who could again enjoy her surroundings and see the beauty in the world. Her smile and laughter had brought a joy to the Ponderosa that had been missing.

Now she was gone, too.

A thin shaft of yellow light on the floor announced a new day was dawning. He drained the glass and set it on the card table before going out to start on the chores.

*****

Hoss lay in his bed, watching a fly buzzing near the window. Why did she have to die? Maybe it was Adam’s fault, he thought. His own mother had died because Adam had been too small to help fight off Indians. The sun was coming up and he didn’t want to face the day yet, so he lifted the quilts and scooted until he was under the covers.

*****

Adam’s jaw loudly cracked as he yawned from exhaustion. He’d spent most of the night trying to comfort Little Joe. Nothing he’d said seemed to console the boy. At least his youngest brother was now curled up, sleeping with a finger in his mouth.

Since sleep wouldn’t come, Adam had spent much of the night thinking about all of the people he’d known who had died. There were those who’d been killed by clumsiness on the journey West — one man had died from gangrene after cutting his leg open with an axe while chopping firewood — or died from diseases. Some were killed by Indians who didn’t want whites passing through their land. Others, like Ma, had been killed because of another person’s arrogance and stupidity.

He thought he might as well get up and find some chores to keep from thinking but Little Joe grabbed a handful of nightshirt and snuggled in closer. Maybe I could sleep if I don’t think of anything.

Adam closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He opened them and was standing in a field full of depressions. There weren’t any buildings or trees within sight and the grass was yellowed rather than green. Taking careful steps, he wove his way through the dips in the ground, eyes scanning for any indication of what this place was. A sudden tug on the back of his coat made him quickly turn since he hadn’t seen anyone. There was a pull on his arm, but when he looked no one was there. Fearing the unknown, he took quick steps, no longer concerned about staying on anything that resembled a path. He leaped over a few depressions in his haste and nearly lost his balance. There was laughter as he regained his equilibrium so he picked up his pace. A small creek suddenly appeared in his path and he leaped it but it widened into a raging river flowing through a deep canyon when he was in mid-air; making it to the other side, his fingers managed to connect with the canyon rim. His feet scrambled for purchase as loose soil turned to gravel. The laughter increased in volume and he felt several hard tugs on his coat. The gravel turned to large rocks and his foot connected with a boulder that supported his weight; he used it as leverage and made it to safety. He lay on his back panting for a moment, his heart beating as loud as the drums in Winnemucca’s village. After regaining his feet, he was astonished to see the canyon was gone and the creek was again a trickle.

A small sign appeared in the distance, so he carefully made his way through more depressions. He thought he heard his name whispered as a slight breeze ruffled his hair. Written on the sign was We knew Adam Cartwright and died because of him. Confusion swept over his face at the words. Hearing a familiar voice, he spun around and was surprised to see Marie.

“It’s your fault,” she said, pointing at him.

“I don’t understand.”

“You heard her,” said another woman.

Adam’s eyes widened in shock.

“If you’d picked up a rifle, she would have lived,” said Marie, as she hitched a thumb in Inger’s direction.

“That’s not true!” countered Adam.

“You were a coward, hiding in a corner behind a baby,” said Inger, pulling her shawl closer.

“I was protecting him! You gave him to me.”

“Did you think you were protecting her when you saddled that horse?” said a third woman pointing at Marie.

“It wasn’t my fault!” He looked from face to face as they moved closer and he stepped backwards, trying to avoid the fingers they pointed at him in accusation.

“You can’t deny you killed me,” said the third woman.

Adam’s eyes widened in terror as he realized this woman was his mother. Pa had always told him he didn’t cause her death; she had been sickly. Adam shook his head in denial as he continued his retreat.

His foot caught on something and he began to windmill his arms to keep from falling. Hands grabbed at his coat and at his pant legs, pulling him backwards into one of the depressions. He braved a look and was terrified by the faces of all of the people he’d once known — young and old — who’d died on the long trek West.

Elizabeth said, “If it weren’t for you, they’d all be alive. Who will you kill next? One of your brothers? Your father?”

Before he could answer, a trickle of dirt fell in upon him and he opened his mouth to yell for help, but heavy soil clogged his throat. As he struggled, Marie’s laughter rang in his ears. Inger pulled the arrow from her back and Elizabeth handed over a bow. The last thing he saw was the bloody arrow launched at his heart . . .

Adam’s body jerked into a sitting position as he yelled, “It wasn’t my fault!” The sheets were damp with sweat and his nightshirt stuck to his back.

Little Joe looked at his older brother, eyes wide in fright. When Adam reached for him, the little boy slid from the bed and ran out of the room, his bare feet slapping a staccato rhythm down the hall. Adam ran a hand over his face, smearing beads of sweat through the stubble on his cheeks. Marie’s death wasn’t my fault — it was an accident.

Hoss stood in the doorway. “What’d you do to Little Joe?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.

“Nothing.”

Hoss’ scowl suggested otherwise. Adam hauled himself from the bed and washed his face with cool water from the pitcher. The scent of buttery flapjacks drifted into the room and Adam’s stomach growled.

He buttoned his shirt on the way down to the table. The sound of silverware clanking against china was the only noise. Before Marie had died, there’d always been lively conversation, whether about mundane things around the ranch or news from town. Now there was silence. He took his place and slid scrambled eggs from the bowl and plucked a few pieces of bacon from the platter.

Looking at the painting behind Hoss’ head, Adam could see his brother leaning heavily on a fist and pushing butter-soaked flapjack around his plate. Hoss usually had the appetite of a bear and even ate when complaining of feeling sickly. From the corner of his eye, Adam could see Little Joe stacking broken pieces of bacon, arranging them to form a sort of fence around a flapjack.

“Eat up,” ordered Adam.

“I ain’t hungry,” countered Hoss.

“Me neither,” said Little Joe as he continued to construct his bacon fence.

“We don’t waste food.”

Hoss plucked the red-and-white checkered napkin from his lap and tossed it on the table. “Don’t order me around,” he growled. He stalked to the door and slammed it behind him.

Adam flinched at the resounding echo. He pushed at the scrambled eggs and chastised himself for trying to act as if everything would once again be normal. After breakfast, he’d make a list of chores for the hands to do, assuming Pa hadn’t already done it. The ranch couldn’t run itself, but with several top hands, cattle would be branded and horses would be broken as usual.

Little Joe slid off his chair, abandoning his building project. He scuffed his feet along the floor and went to the table where his mother had lain the day before. Placing his fingers on the surface, he stood on tiptoe and scanned the entire length, curious to know if every trace of her was gone.

“She ain’t comin’ back, huh?” he asked.

Thankful for the diversion, Adam set down his fork and joined his brother. “No, buddy, she’s not. But there will always be a warm spot in your heart for her. When you think of her, that’s where she’ll be.” He remembered hearing that on his birthday years ago, when Pa and Miss Inger thought he was asleep.

Little Joe heaved a large sigh and wandered up the stairs. Adam remembered his own grief following Inger’s death. There’d been no time to mourn because the wagon train had to get moving again in order to beat the snow. He’d had so many chores to do each day as well as helping to look after Hoss that he hadn’t had the luxury of grieving for the mother he missed so much. When they’d been forced to make camp for the winter, he’d spent many nights softly crying into his blankets.

The door slowly opened and Adam assumed it was Hoss, returning now his temper had cooled. Heavy footsteps plodded across the room. Strong fingers gripped Adam’s shoulder and Adam leaned against his father. The two men stood together for a few minutes and then Ben trudged upstairs. Adam wiped at his eyes and decided he’d better see Will Reagan about what needed done.

*****

Hop Sing scowled at the food left on the plates. He could salvage the bacon and add it to cornbread or green beans, but the flapjacks would have to be added to the hog’s slop bucket. The cook didn’t begrudge the hog a meal, but he’d rather his family ate the food he’d provided than toy with it. Many people in world without food such as this, people who gratefully eat someone else’s cast-off flapjacks. He carefully gathered up plates and utensils to clean for the next meal.

A knock on the door caught the cook by surprise. He hadn’t expected anyone to visit after Mr. Cartwright’s outburst. Torn between the load of dishes and answering the door, he finally set down the armload of china.

“I came by to see if I could be any help,” said Joyce. She craned her neck to look around Hop Sing.

“No help needed, thank you,” Hop Sing said.

“Are the boys alright? How’s Little Joe?”

“Boys busy,” he said. That wasn’t exactly a lie because he assumed they were occupied with chores.

Little Joe came out of his room and slowly walked to the landing, his sagging shoulders making him appear smaller.

Joyce pushed her way around Hop Sing and gathered her skirts in one hand as made her way up the stairs. Hop Sing glared at her back. He returned to the table and carried dishes off to the kitchen.

Joyce seated herself on the step above Little Joe and propped an elbow on her knee. She watched him pick at the wood, then flick the fringed edge of the Indian blanket hung over the rail.

“I know you miss your mother.”

Little Joe concentrated on tracing the outline of a black diamond.

“She’s an angel in Heaven now.”

He looked at her through teary eyes and said, “I don’t want her to be in Heaven. I want her to come home.”

“Oh, Joe, you sweet little boy. Heaven isn’t so far away. Anytime you look up in the sky, you’re looking up at Heaven. Know what?”

He shook his head.

“Your mother can see you from Heaven. Angels sit on clouds and look down at the people they love. We can’t see them because the sun is so bright, but our hearts know the angels are there.”

Little Joe chewed on his lower lip. I wish Mama would jump down from her cloud and come home.

She patted the space beside her and said, “Come sit here.”

He did as told, and she hugged him to her. His lower lip pushed forward in a pout as he tried to hold back his tears.

Ben stepped out of his room and his heart skipped a beat. For a fleeting moment, he thought Marie was sitting with Little Joe on the stairs.

“Why are you here?” He intended to sound calm and collected but instead sounded more like a snarling bear.

“I just want to help.”

“We have Hop Sing, that’s enough.”

Joyce quickly ascended the stairs and gently laid a hand against Ben’s arm. “I know this is a difficult time but I just want to be sure you’re well.”

The muscle in Ben’s jaw twitched as he gritted his teeth. “We don’t need anything from you. Go home where you belong.”

Joyce’s lips parted in a gasp and she reached out behind her for the stair rail as she moved away from Ben. She was being dismissed as if she were nothing more than a clod of dirt on the sole of a boot. Her lower lip quivered as she tried to hold back the tears; she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. Once past Little Joe, her skirts billowed out as she ran from the house.

“What was she doing here?” grumbled Ben under his breath.

“Miss Joyce was tellin’ me about angels.”

“What would she know?” Ben scoffed.

“She says angels live on clouds.” Little Joe sighed and hugged his knees. “I wish clouds weren’t so far away.”

Ben shook his head and returned to his room. Little Joe remained where he was, and was soon tracing patterns on the Indian blanket again.

*****

After storming out of the house, Hoss had gone straight to the barn to saddle his horse. He’d rummaged through the tack box for a ball of twine and had packed it in one of his saddlebags. Adam isn’t gonna boss me around and tell me what to do. As he pulled some fish hooks out of a small box, he cut a finger on the sharp point and yelped. He stuck the finger in his mouth and tasted the sharp coppery tang of blood.

“Where are you going?” asked Adam, leaning in the doorway.

“Ain’t none of your business,” answered Hoss as he reached for the cinch strap.

“You’ve got chores to do.”

Hoss mumbled as he lowered the stirrup from its resting place on the saddle horn.

“What was that?” asked Adam in an irritated tone of voice.

“Nothin’,” Hoss said in a snide tone as he led his horse past Adam.

Mounting up, Hoss set a course for the lake. When all those people had been around, the house was a busy place and he could imagine his mother wasn’t dead. Now the house was so quiet it just didn’t seem natural.

He’d wished for a mother his whole life, and his wish had come true when Marie had come to the Ponderosa. She always made sure that he knew she loved him, especially after Little Joe was born. Pa and Adam didn’t always have time to listen to his stories about critters he’d seen or treasures he’d found, but she made sure to set aside a few minutes each day just for him. Her smile was always really big when he brought her something he’d found while roaming the Ponderosa — an unusual looking rock or a bird’s feather — and she took special care to place the treasures in a small velvet bag she’d said was for “gris-gris.” He didn’t understand what that meant, but he figured it had to be something good.

Other boys made fun of him for being as dumb as an ox and girls said he was uglier than a mud fence. Mama always said that the way a person looked on the outside was no way to judge what they were like on the inside. She said a person’s actions were what determined if they were ugly or not—a person could be good-looking on the outside but dirtier than fresh-dug worms on the inside. Even though it wasn’t easy to ignore what others said about him, he learned to lock away their hurtful words.

Reaching the lake, he pushed his hat back a little ways, closed his eyes, and soaked up the warmth of the sun. He wanted to feel warm on the inside again, like he did before she died.

After tying the horse to a nearby tree, he tugged off his boots and waded into the cool water. The gritty sand stirred up as he walked and it settled between his toes. He remembered the last picnic they’d had –he and Adam and Little Joe had somehow ended up wrestling in the mud after splashing around. Mama didn’t get mad about their clothes; instead, she’d laughed at the way they’d looked. Now he’d never hear her laugh again. A fish swam nearby and he kicked at it, causing a splash that resulted in ripples spreading back towards shore.

He waded around for a while longer“I don’t wanna go home,” he said aloud. Returning to shore, he pulled the saddle off his horse, dropped it in a heap on the ground and then went in search of stout sticks and brush to construct a wikiup. He also collected some stones in order to build a small fire pit inside his shelter. Mama had often said home was where a person was happiest, so he figured this would do as home for a while.

*****

Adam, annoyed by Hoss’ disrespect, flung the front door open and tossed his hat on the credenza. Assuming no one but Hop Sing was in the house, he sat down in his usual spot near the fireplace. He leaned an elbow on the chair’s arm, propped his cheek against a fist, and wished he’d never saddled that horse for Marie.

Timbalier, a New Orleans thoroughbred, wasn’t quite as dumb as a box of rocks but he was faster than a card sharp pulling an ace from his sleeve. When Marie had wanted a thrill-seeking ride at top speed, she’d chosen him. Controlling the horse had never been a problem — he’d stopped when pressure was applied through a short tug on the reins. Marie’s ride would have ended as usual with a sudden stop in the yard if the horse hadn’t been so terrified that day.

Adam was so lost in thought that he hadn’t heard his brother’s footsteps. The soft voice startled him into awareness and he jerked upright, his heart beating as fast Timbalier galloping across a meadow. Little Joe, wide-eyed in surprise, took a couple of steps back.

“I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t know you were here.”

Little Joe walked into Adam’s outstretched arm and was drawn in close. He pinched a small amount of shirt fabric and rubbed it between his finger and thumb.

“Do angels live on clouds like Miss Joyce says?”

“I suppose they could. Why?”

“Do trees get tall enough to be in clouds?”

“No, buddy, they don’t. Know what?”

Little Joe shook his head but continued to play with the fabric between his fingers.

Adam lightly tapped his brother’s chest. “I think angels live in our hearts, that way we never forget them and they’re always with us. Understand?”

Little Joe nodded and trudged upstairs. “I wanna get close enough to the clouds to see Mama,” he said quietly.

*****

Will Reagan knocked on the stout front door, hoping to speak to his employer. He didn’t believe it proper to walk into the boss’ home unannounced. There was no answer, so he knocked harder.

Adam opened the door and Will noticed the dark circles under the young man’s eyes.

“I need to talk over chores for the hands with your Pa.”

“Come on in. I’ll go over them with you.”

“I think I’d best talk it over with him. When might be a good time?”

“Like I said, I’ll go over them.” Adam stood aside to let Will pass and the two men went to Ben’s sturdy desk.

Will’s list included moving cattle from the east pasture to one further south; gelding horses slated for sale to the Army; and moving the Ponderosa’s most cantankerous bull from one harem to another. Adam thought the tasks were straightforward and agreed with the assignments Will had made. The hands had a variety of ranching experience and Adam knew his father preferred to match veteran hands with those who were still learning. Will had a good mix of experience for each chore.

Adam rubbed behind an ear and said, “You’re a good foreman. I trust your judgment.”

The two men were shaking hands when a bellowed, “Joseph!” nearly shook the window. They rushed outside to join Ben who was looking up at the roof. Little Joe was standing a foot or so from the edge, red-faced at getting caught in the act.

“What’s he doing up there?” asked Adam.

“He was about to climb onto that tree. Get your brother down.”

Adam rushed into the house to do as told. He climbed out of the window and made his way over to Little Joe, who was now sitting with a large pout crossing his face.

“He’s fine, Pa,” hollered Adam.

Ben walked to the barn, shaking his head, and Will headed for his horse.

“What were you doing up here?” asked Adam.

“That tree is really tall. I thought maybe I could climb up to look for Mama.”

Adam asked, “What if you got up there and it was the wrong cloud?”

Little Joe pursed his lips in concentration and scanned the sky.

“How can I find the right one?” he finally asked.

“Remember I told you angels live in our hearts?”

Little Joe nodded.

“You don’t have to go looking for her because she’s in there.” Adam very gently tapped his brother’s chest. “All you have to do is think about her. Now let’s get inside before Pa gets mad again.”

Nimble-footed Little Joe quickly made his way to the window and climbed back in before Adam took a few steps.

As he reached the window, the sound of hooves caught Adam’s ear and he turned for a look. At first, he assumed it was Will, but the cadence didn’t sound right. Pa was headed out but hadn’t said where he was going. Adam didn’t begrudge his father time to mourn, but the Ponderosa couldn’t run itself.

Once inside, Adam steered Little Joe to the kitchen where Hop Sing could keep an eye on him. Somebody had to keep the boy out of trees and off roofs. Adam shuddered to think of the terrible things that could happen if no one watched his youngest brother. If Marie’s death left Pa in this state, what would Little Joe’s death do to him?

Hop Sing gave his charge a bowl of peas to shell. The work was better suited to small, nimble fingers anyway. Each snap of a pea assured him that Little Joe wasn’t left alone to sort things out.

“Hopsy?” Little Joe finally asked. He hadn’t called the cook that since he was two.

“Yes?”

“Where do people go after they die? Do they really become angels?”

Hop Sing smashed potatoes, squashing each one by leveraging pressure on the wooden handled masher. Should his own beliefs add confusion to what the boy had been told? He’d heard Little Joe’s screams the night of the funeral; should he tell the child about hungry ghosts that attacked innocent people because they’d been forgotten or the ancestors who caused family disharmony because their needs were neglected?

In his culture, the dead weren’t treated as if they no longer existed but instead as revered members of the family who still needed food and deserved the respect of their descendants. Ancestors didn’t sit on clouds looking down on the earth; they sat in the same room or sometimes lived in special cabinets. Missy Cartwright only had one little boy to honor her memory, so Hop Sing vowed he would venerate her spirit by placing food and gifts on her grave in order to keep her from turning against the Ponderosa in anger.

He looked over his shoulder and noted Little Joe scowling in concentration as he separated peas from broken pods.

“Angels all around us. No need climb high up to find them.”

“That’s what Adam says.”

“You listen Mistah Adam. Now help get lumps out of potatoes.”

*****

Ben arrived at Marie’s grave and tied his horse to a nearby tree. He knelt down, placing a hand on the cool stone and looking at the lake — its beauty almost matched hers. The pine needles from the surrounding trees would eventually create a blanket over her grave to keep her warm during the winter.

“Why did you leave me?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “We were supposed to grow old together. I don’t want to be alone.” He traced the letters carved into the gravestone and said, “I’m lost without you.”

He sat, leaning against the rocks that shielded the grave from the wind, to wait for sunset. After fifteen minutes, he decided to head for home as he wasn’t yet ready to appreciate Nature’s beauty.

Supper was a somber affair with everyone picking at their food. Hoss’ empty chair was a silent witness to the family’s grief. Marie’s chair had been moved to a corner so it wouldn’t serve as a reminder of her absence. Despite the lack of a chair, Hop Sing had set a plate and silverware for her, as if he’d expected her to come in and take her seat.

Adam mixed peas and potatoes together and then tried to separate them, occasionally eating a forkful of one or the other. Little Joe stabbed peas and ate them from the fork tines one at a time. Ben picked at his gravy soaked beef.

Following supper, Adam gathered up some sketches he’d made to show where a few line shacks should be placed and some land cleared for additional pasture. He wanted his father’s approval before giving instructions to Will.

Ben sat before the fire engaged in his evening ritual—sipping a glass of brandy and staring into the flames, mulling over regrets. If I’d never bought that horse, she’d still be alive. If she hadn’t been so strong-willed, she would have listened to me. I’ll never again buy a horse that can’t be used to work the stock.

“Pa? Are you listening?” Adam was unnerved by the blank look in his father’s eyes. He held one of the sketches out, hoping for a word or two.

Ben waved his hand in dismissal.

“Don’t you even want to look these over?”

“Take care of it,” was all Ben said before sipping at the warm brandy.

Adam tore a sketch in half and tossed it into the fire. Even though Ben was staring at the curling paper, he didn’t notice it was burning to ash.

*****

By the lake, Hoss lay on his saddle blanket, staring up at the myriad stars. Adam doesn’t care Mama’s gone and Little Joe’s just a kid, he doesn’t understand people die. I ain’t takin’ orders from Adam. Hoss ran a large hand over an eye to wipe away tears of anger.

Wailing voices carried over the silence of the lake and Hoss recognized the sound as a Paiute mourning song. He wondered if they’d lost someone, too, until he realized the singing was coming from the area in which his mother was buried. The moon cast enough light for him to find his way along the shore, moonlight rippling on the waves gently splashing against pebbles. He tried to walk as quietly as the Paiute and Old Man Garvey had taught him, his weight carried on the balls of his feet.

As he neared his mother’s grave, he saw shadowy outlines of Indians in a circle, heads tossed back, their keening cries echoing in his ears. He crouched down and watched as they raised and lowered their arms in time to their singing. An owl suddenly hooted nearby, momentarily stopping the Paiute. They looked around as if seeking an intruder in their midst and the hair on the back of Hoss’ neck prickled at the eerie cry. Once calm was restored and the singing began again, Hoss slowly made his way into the shadows and headed back for his wikiup, consoled that the Indians honored his mother.

Reaching his shelter, he took his blanket inside and curled up beside the embers of the banked fire. The chorus of frogs and crickets joined the Indians’ singing as a lullaby that soothed him to sleep.

*****

Ben tried to sleep but tossed and turned. The moonlight streaming through the window illuminated Marie’s side of the bed in a soft glow. He’d dabbed a few drops of her perfume on her pillow in hopes the familiar scent would lull him to sleep. He rolled onto his side and inhaled deeply, seeing her in his mind’s eye. She’d worn her long blonde hair in a thick braid at night and oftentimes it had draped over one of her breasts. The neck of her nightdress was usually open as she disliked confining clothing at her throat. Moonlight accentuated the contrast of her skin and hair — her Creole heritage was reflected in the tint of her skin and her hair reflected her French ancestry. It was her eyes, though, that had always captivated him — they’d sparkled like precious gems and the shade of green had often changed with her mood.

In his half-asleep state, he felt her hands and lips caressing him, heard her urgent words and soft moans. As a worldly lover, she’d known how to stir him to greater heights of passion that left him wanting more. Sometimes he’d felt as if he were standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff, in danger of falling with a strong gust of wind, that their love-making would surely send him over and tumbling into a deep abyss with no chance of rescue. He moaned her name and reached for her but woke in disappointment as the only thing there was cool bed linen. He buried his face in the pillow and wept.

In the early hours of the morning, Ben lay awake, lost in thought. Am I cursed? Am I doomed to roam the Earth without the love and companionship of a wife?

As the moonlight faded with the dawn, he could hear the house returning to life. Something heavy fell in the kitchen and Hop Sing swore in Chinese. At least Ben assumed the cook was cursing from the volume. Adam was up and walking to and fro, his boots clomping against the floorboards.

Ben decided to remain in bed rather than face the world. Adam seemed to have a handle on guiding the ranch, which was fine with Ben as he didn’t really want to do payroll or see to problems with the hands or stock. He draped an arm over his eyes to shut out the sun’s rays.

A gentle knock on the door interrupted Ben’s musings. “What.” It was a statement rather than a question.

Hop Sing, laden with a tray bearing a pot of coffee, several pieces of bread, and some thick slices of ham, slowly opened the door. It was as if the cook had read his employer’s mind and knew he wasn’t planning on leaving the confines of his bedroom.

Ben watched as Hop Sing set the tray down on the dressing table, but didn’t show any interest in getting out of the bed. Hop Sing brought a cup of coffee on a saucer to Ben and held it forth as he bowed. He remained in his position until Ben took the offered drink, then he backed out of the room and quietly closed the door. Ben sipped at the hot coffee, trying to ignore the smell of the ham and apple preserves. His stomach growled in protest but Ben was sure he could out-stubborn it and ignore his hunger.

The steady thump of boots on the stairs indicated Adam was going downstairs. Ben hoped his eldest had some chores to do away from the house today. Perhaps he could take Little Joe along, especially if stock needed counting. Ben wanted to be alone for no other reason than to spend the day in solitude.

Voices carried from the first floor — the rumble of Adam’s baritone and the higher pitch of Hop Sing’s broken English. Ben wondered if Hop Sing needed to go to town for supplies. If Little Joe didn’t help with any of the barn tasks, perhaps he could ride to town with the cook. Or Hoss could take his brother fishing.

Hoss. Ben remembered he hadn’t seen his middle son at the table last night. Maybe Hoss was playing nursemaid to a sick critter again. Ben snorted at the thought of Hoss sitting in the barn with a coyote’s head in his lap, trying to make it drink milk from a bucket. Only Hoss would see the value in mending a coyote and turning it loose to kill chickens again; any other person would just shoot the darned critter in retaliation for eating the hens.

Ben drained his cup and set it on the nightstand. Another cup sure would taste good, he thought. Maybe Hop Sing will come back and refill my cup another before the coffee gets too cold.

A few hours later, Ben heard a buggy pull into the yard. Maybe it’s Paul or Roy. I wouldn’t mind talking with either of them.

Who is Adam talking to? Ben wondered. Ben tried to place the voices through the open window but was having difficulty hearing more than a few words. One of them belonged to a woman, though. Hop Sing said something — probably about getting them some coffee.

Adam’s footsteps carried through the open window from the porch. Whoever it was must have stopped by to talk business. Let Adam handle it, Ben thought.

“Pa! Come down here!”

Ben scowled at his son’s bellow. After a few more shouts, Ben got out of the bed and put on his robe and slippers.

Ben froze at the top of the stairs, surprised to see Adam, cup of coffee in hand, conversing with Tom and Joyce Edwards. Joyce sat in Marie’s chair near the fireplace. How dare she? His anger at the world slowly returned.

After tying his robe, Ben slowly descended the stairs much like a recalcitrant child expecting to be punished. What did they want?

“Ben, we’re glad to see you,” said Tom, coming forward with his hand extended in greeting.

Ben numbly shook the offered hand and mumbled hello.

“We were thinking, Joyce and I,” said Tom. “Perhaps you should get away from the ranch for a while. Go someplace where you can relax and find things to enjoy. Maybe visit San Francisco for a month or two. Adam here thinks it a grand idea.”

Ben looked from Adam to Tom, his mouth turning down in a frown. His anger was like a campfire spark on the verge of leaping into a wildfire. Who did they think they are to tell me what I need to do? Why does Adam want to send me away?

Joyce came around the settee and gently laid a hand against Ben’s arm. “Think of the boys. You should take them away until the pain eases up. Don’t ignore them in your grief.”

“We’ll make sure the Ponderosa is run properly in your absence,” said Tom.

“Get out,” Ben said in a low voice.

“Now, Ben, don’t be upset,” she said. “We’re only thinking of you.”

He glared at his two old friends. “You’ve coveted my Spanish bull for years, Tom. Do you plan to remove it to your ranch if I go away?”

“Pa, they don’t mean anything like that,” said Adam. “Mr. Edwards and I were talking about what improvements need to be made and he says he’d make sure they get done.”

“Since when do you decide how the Ponderosa is to be managed?” Ben angrily asked his eldest son.

Adam’s eyes narrowed in anger and the heat of his glare matched his father’s. “You sure haven’t cared since Marie died.” The young man angrily stomped out the door and slammed it. Ben flinched as the echo of his eldest’s words rang in his ears.

Joyce wrung her hands while Tom looked at the dust on his boots.

Ben poured a glass of brandy and sipped without tasting. The Ponderosa is mine — no one’s taking take it away from me.

“We only wanted to help,” muttered Tom as he picked up his hat from the sideboard. He motioned for Joyce and the couple quietly closed the door behind them.

Ben threw his glass into the fire, the brandy briefly turning the flames blue. He put his hands on his hips and scowled. Only thinking of me, he snorted in derision.

“Hop Sing!” he yelled.

The cook rushed into the big room, expecting to be told to place extra settings at the table.

“Hot coffee. Now.”

Before Hop Sing could move towards the kitchen, Ben headed for the stairs. He untied the belt of his robe on the way since he was going back to bed.

He slammed the bedroom door and stomped over to the window, watching the Edwards become nothing more than a dot on the horizon. Joyce had been interfering too much and Tom needed to keep a tighter rein on her. It was probably her idea that he should abandon the Ponderosa for a while so she could be mistress of such a vast spread.

Ben had intended to spend the day in bed but now was too angry to be confined. He paced for several minutes, like a caged lion anxious to escape. Shucking his robe, he dressed, deciding to go to town for a beer. Maybe, if he was lucky, a fight would break out in one of the saloons and he could bust some heads.

He stepped into the barn with every intention of saddling Buck but a snort from Bonnie stopped him in his tracks. Ben rubbed the horse’s velvety nose with the back of a hand and thought it ironic that Marie had named her horse Bonheur, happiness. Now the animal was just a reminder of the happiness lacking on the ranch.

The horse hadn’t been exercised in several days, so Ben pulled on her halter and led her out into the sun. Bonnie pulled against the halter, wanting to break away and roll in the dirt. Ben took her to the corral and let her loose. The mare bucked a few times and then trotted around the perimeter for several minutes.

Adam watched his father through a crack in the barn wall. He’d scrambled up to the loft when he’d heard approaching footsteps and had been surprised to see Pa out of the house. Since his anger had evaporated, he made his way down and joined his father by the corral, leaning against the wooden slats.

Ben pointed to Bonnie and said, “No one is to ride that horse. Ever. Understand?”

“But, Pa,” started Adam.

“No. I won’t have her gored by a steer or ridden into the ground by some green tinhorn. If I find anyone riding her, there’ll be hell to pay.”

“She needs to be taken out and. . . ,”

At the anger in his father’s eyes, Adam backed up a few steps.

“Corral or the barn, nowhere else. And nobody rides her. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Adam sagged in relief against the corral after his father returned to the house. At least Pa hadn’t shot the horse.

*****

As the days passed, Adam fell into a routine of checking Hoss’ room in the morning and scowling because the bed hadn’t been slept in. Little Joe’s nightmares kept Adam up for most of the night –he was kicked and hit by the little boy as he struggled in his dreams. Adam figured the child was spending every night trying to claw his way through six feet of dirt to get out of a grave. When Adam did finally start to fall asleep, his own nightmare would begin — he was dragged into a pauper’s grave by skeletal hands while his mothers accused him of murder.

Hoss stayed down by the lake, tossing pebbles in or occasionally fishing. He’d return home for breakfast and mumble in response to Adam’s questions or demands to shoulder some of the responsibility for running the Ponderosa.

Ben spent his time idly wandering the ranch or visiting Marie’s grave. Without her, he felt adrift on a stormy sea and there was no safe harbor in which to find refuge. He figured Adam could take care of the ranch with Will Reagan’s help. And Ben figured Hoss could take care of himself as he understood the land. When he looked at Little Joe, he saw Marie — but his broken heart shut the boy out.

Little Joe wanted his father and often cried for him while in Adam’s bed, but he was getting used to relying on Adam and Hop Sing. He accompanied the cook on several visits to his mother’s grave, where they left gifts for her — a crown of woven flowers on top of her marker or some bird feathers on the grave itself — and a small amount of peas in a little porcelain bowl partially buried by the headstone. Since peas were her favorite vegetable, Hop Sing said it was important to always bring a small handful to leave in the bowl; Little Joe didn’t question why but carefully placed them as instructed. Little Joe never told Adam, or anyone else, about the presents he and Hop Sing left for his mother as he thought that should be their secret. Other people seemed to have secrets and he wanted to have some, too. The boy was still convinced his mother was an angel on a cloud but he hadn’t yet figured out how to find out for sure.

*****

After a particularly trying night of comforting Little Joe and hoping for dreamless sleep, Adam headed for the stairs to begin a new day. He held up a hand in silent greeting at Carl Reagan, sitting on the edge of the coffee table, cup of coffee in hand. A glint of silver caught Adam’s eye and he saw the ring on Carl’s finger.

“Where’d you get that?” asked Adam, pointing at Carl’s hand.

Carl balled up his fist and moved it so the light reflected off the ring. “Birthday present. Pa made it for me.”

Adam slid his hand around the back of his neck and rubbed to relieve the stiffness. “Happy birthday.”

“Me and some of the hands are going to the Bucket of Blood tonight. You wanna come?”

Adam sat on the arm of the settee and leaned forward, resting the palms of his hands on his muscular thighs. “No thanks, I’m not up for painting the town red.”

Carl looked at hand while twisting the ring and said, “I didn’t figure you were but I wanted to ask anyway.”

After a moment, Carl said softly, “I’m real sorry, Adam. I sure liked your Ma. She was a nice lady.”

“Yeah,” was all Adam said.

The silence was broken by a sharp rap against the door. Adam heaved himself to his feet and opened it.

“Mornin’, Adam,” said Will. “There you are, boy,” he said, looking around Adam. “Your birthday isn’t a day off from work.”

Carl set the cup down on the table and said, “Yes, sir. I just wanted to talk to Adam.” He sidled past his father and headed to the bunkhouse for his gear.

Will watched his son for a moment and said, “He’s a good boy.”

Adam was closing the door when he remembered Carl’s mention of a birthday celebration in town. “Will?”

The foreman, halfway between the door and yard, turned to see what Adam wanted.

“Tell Carl and the other boys to stay out of trouble when they’re in town tonight.”

Will tugged on the brim of his hat in a silent, “Yes, sir.”

Adam crossed the room to the dining table and poured a cup of coffee. He leaned his elbows on the hard surface and rested his head in his hands. His fingers clenched in his hair and his thumbs rubbed behind his ears.

Little Joe came downstairs, hopping loudly from one step to the next. He climbed up onto his chair and nibbled at a piece of toast.

“Adam?”

“Yeah, buddy?” Adam asked.

“Can birds sit on clouds?”

“No, they sit in trees.”

“Chickens don’t.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Adam?”

“Yeah?” he asked, rubbing a hand over his eyes to wipe away the sleep.

“Can eagles fly in clouds?”

Adam took a swig of coffee and raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Little Joe shrugged a shoulder and said, “I dunno. I just wondered if they could fly that high.”

“Probably. Sometimes if you look way up in the sky you can see them circling around.” Adam scratched behind an ear, trying to make the connection between eagles and clouds. “Eat your breakfast.” Adam picked up his coffee and headed out to the porch.

Hop Sing brought a glass of milk to the table for Little Joe. “Boy eat food. Grow strong and tall like brothers.”

“Hopsy?”

The cook, on his way back to the kitchen, turned and asked, “Yes?”

“How come chickens don’t fly as high as eagles?”

“Because they easier to catch if they don’t.” With that, he returned to the kitchen to wash up pots and dishes.

Little Joe scooped eggs onto his plate and picked them up with torn pieces of toast. As he ate, he wondered where a good place would be to see if eagles could fly in clouds.

*****

A few days later, Adam’s annoyance with his father began to boil into anger because the man spent most of his time in his room or at the lake by Marie’s grave, leaving Adam to shoulder more and more responsibility for running the ranch. It was as if Pa had nothing to live for—he was becoming a shadow of his former self, hair turning whiter and cheeks hollowing in from his lack of appetite and sleep. Adam frowned at his reflection in the mirror each morning and thought, I can’t run the Ponderosa alone and take care of my brothers. I need you, Pa.

Late one morning, Adam stepped into the dim bunkhouse, hoping to find Will. With no one around, he sat down on one of the bunks and gave serious thought to stretching out for a nap. Leaning back, he heard something crinkle under the blanket. Lifting the blanket, he was embarrassed to see a poorly written love note scribbled in Carl’s handwriting. Carl had written some poetry phonetically, most likely to memorize some pretty lines to impress one of the saloon girls he’d met the other night. Adam folded the paper and put it back where he’d found it, smoothing the blanket so Carl wouldn’t have any cause to suspect another man of snooping.

Adam drew up a leg and propped a foot on the edge of the bedframe. I wish I could just be one of the hands, taking orders rather than giving them, he thought.

He let out a low groan as he stood. Pa and Roy make that noise when they haul themselves out of a comfortable chair, he realized.Reluctantly, he stepped out into the bright sunshine and headed to the barn to saddle his horse to make the rounds and check on the various tasks the hands were doing on his orders.

*****

Hours later, Adam reined his horse to a stop in the south pasture. He adjusted the brim of his hat to keep the sun out of his eyes. I wonder if I’ll end up in Mexico if I keep going south.

Hoofbeats brought Adam out of his daydream of sitting in a cantina with a lovely senorita in his lap. He turned in the saddle and noted the approaching rider was Carl.

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” said Carl. “I thought you’d be figuring wages.”

Adam’s eyebrows drew together and he asked, “Why?”

“Saturday’s payday,” answered Carl through a big smile. “I promised one of those pretty gals at the Bucket of Blood I’d buy us a bottle of whiskey when I got my wages.”

Adam sighed and shifted in the saddle to hook a leg around the saddle horn. He wistfully looked south and said, “You suppose the gals in Mexico really are prettier?”

Carl said, “Only one way to find out. We oughtta go, Adam. I heard talk in town that war is coming with Mexico over Texas. We could join the Army and have us a big adventure down there. I bet we could have any gal we wanted and there’d be so many of ‘em we wouldn’t have to steal ‘em from each other.”

Adam leaned back to move his leg and then slid his boot back into the stirrup. “I’m not much for celebrating right now.” He turned his horse and nudged him into a gallop to hide the embarrassment of crying.

Carl watched Adam until his friend was a speck in the distance. He looked south again and wondered what his Ma would say if he told her he wanted to join the Army. Kicking his horse into motion, Carl headed back to the cattle.

*****

Nearing the head of a trail that wound its way down to the lake, Adam pulled his horse up and scowled at the sight of Hoss’ wikiup. It isn’t fair that Hoss stays here and avoids chores like riding fence.

A gentle breeze ruffled his horse’s mane and Adam took a moment to look around. The wildflowers laid like a multi-colored blanket draped on the hillside. Bees flew in arcing patterns, feasting on nectar. This place looks like the meadow where we used to picnic — no wonder Hoss set up camp here, Adam realized.

Adam clicked his tongue and encouraged his horse to move down the trail, his irritation with his brother gone. He’d intended to chastise Hoss for neglecting his chores but now it didn’t matter so much.

Dismounting, Adam loosely tied a rein to the wikiup and went inside. The shelter was small but snug with a bed made from the saddle and blanket, a small cooking pot sitting on one of the hearthstones, a soup bowl nearby, and the coffeepot sitting in the fire’s embers.

Something heavy fell to the ground with a thunk and Adam stepped outside for a look. Hoss, axe in hand, stood behind a small pile of wood gathered in from the pine forest.

“Whaddya want?” asked Hoss in an unwelcome tone.

“Nothin’,” said Adam in reply. He strolled over to a nearby log and sat down. “Nice place.”

The only sounds were birds singing and the lake gently lapping against the pebbled shore.

“You oughtta come home,” said Adam.

Hoss shrugged a shoulder and one corner of his mouth turned down.

After a few minutes, Adam stood and headed for his horse. He stopped beside his brother and both of them gazed at the lake, lost in their own thoughts. Hoss didn’t realized Adam was gone until he caught the sound of fading hoofbeats.

*****

That evening, Adam reviewed receipts to enter items into the ledgers and tallied the balances due. Adam dropped the pencil and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.

“Pa? I need your advice.”

Ben stared into the flames dancing upon the logs in the fireplace, preferring to engage in his evening ritual of drinking a glass of brandy.

“Did you hear me?”

A “huh” sounding grunt was Ben’s reply. He rolled the nearly empty glass between his finger and thumb, more interested in the interplay of light and shadows.

“I need your help, Pa.”

Without a word, Ben drained his glass and headed upstairs. Adam folded his arms on the desk and laid his head down. For the first time in several years, he considered running away from home. Stifling a yawn, he stretched and then reviewed the ledgers one more time before heading for bed.

*****

The next afternoon, Hoss lay by the lake, his fishing line tied to his big toe. He’d spent close to an hour watching clouds drift by, seeing shapes of animals. Lots of people said clouds looked like woolly sheep but he saw a buffalo, a deer with a large rack of antlers, and an elephant. The gentle breeze lulled his eyes closed, but he was hungry so he hoped to hook a good-sized trout for his supper.

He immediately sat up when he felt a tug on the line but his head almost collided with Abe Garvey’s knee. Startled for a moment, he couldn’t say a word; then he leaned back on his hands with a slight frown on his face.

“The lake sure is a sight, ain’t it?” asked Abe.

Hoss leaned forward to untie his fishing line. “I guess so,” he answered in a low voice.

Abe plucked a blade of grass and rubbed it between his hands. “Your Pa needs you right now.”

“No he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about us.”

“Losing a wife can be hard on a man, make him forget what’s important.”

Hoss toyed with the line, not wanting to think about his father.

“Your brothers need you. Especially Little Joe. That little shaver must be tore up inside.”

“Adam’s too busy giving orders and Little Joe just doesn’t understand.”

Abe stuck the piece of grass in his mouth and chewed on the end for a moment.

“When I was about your age, my Ma was killed. I was helpin’ my Pa and uncles cut trees to build a barn. She brought us a bucket of water along with some food so we stopped choppin’ at that tree. It wasn’t cut all the way through, so we didn’t think it stood a chance of toppling over. She was headed back for the cabin when the tree started over. We got to Ma and thought she was lucky because the trunk missed her and she was trapped under branches. By the time we dug her out, she was dead. One of those branches went right through her so I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d got to her faster.”

“That was an accident,” Hoss said softly.

“Maybe so, but Pa sure thought it was his fault. I thought I should bear the blame since I should have toted the water instead of her.” He pulled the piece of grass from his mouth and let it drop to the ground.

“What did your Pa do?”

“He became a powerful drunk. Took to the bottle and beat me everyday, tellin’ us kids we couldn’t do anything right. Since I was the oldest, I took it on myself to protect my brothers and sisters from him so one day I packed up what we had and set out to take ‘em to Ma’s kinfolk.”

“Did you see your Pa again?”

“Never did. The cabin burned to the ground one night. My uncles figured Pa was in his cups and knocked over a lantern.”

He saw Hoss swallow hard.

“You go on home, son. Your pa needs you and your brothers even if you don’t think so.”

The line jerked in Hoss’ hand and he pulled in a large trout. “You wanna stay for supper?” asked Hoss.

“I sure would like that,” said Abe.

*****

Adam was working on the books the next day when Ben came down the stairs dressed as if he was going somewhere. Curious, Adam went over to the buffet where Pa was strapping on his gunbelt.

“Are you going anywhere in particular?” asked Adam.

“None of your business.”

“I just . . . I just wondered if you were going to check on the cattle or timber or . . .”

The blank look on his father’s face surprised Adam.

“Don’t wait up,” was all Ben offered before going out.

*****

The route to Marie’s grave was so familiar to Buck that Ben didn’t have to guide his horse. He held the reins loosely, hearing his wife’s passionate sighs in the wind and seeing her soulful eyes in the varying shades of green in the pines and grass. There were reminders of her everywhere he looked and it was as if the ranch taunted his loss by constantly stirring memories. The yellow flowers growing in the meadow where they used to picnic draped the lush grass as the long, blonde hair did down her back; the brown hues of the soil at times matched the tint of her skin; a bubbling spring brought to mind her vivacious laugh.

Buck came to a halt and Ben slowly realized he’d reached his destination. He shut his eyes tight and pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping he’d been living a terrible dream. After dismounting he let the reins drop to the ground. The scent of pines and fresh-turned soil didn’t bring the comfort it would have months ago. He removed his hat and knelt by the stone marker simply inscribed with her name and “In Loving Memory.”

An owl hooted in a nearby tree and Ben practically jumped to his feet, quickly jerking his gun from the holster and firing in the bird’s general direction, yelling, “Damn you!” He emptied the chamber, anger fueling his desire for revenge. His only thought as he pulled the trigger was of the owl that had swooped low in front of Marie’s horse as she’d ridden into the yard that day at her usual breakneck speed; the owl had spooked the horse, causing the animal to rear and lose its footing. If it hadn’t been for the bird, Marie would still be alive.

The click of the hammer against the empty cylinder finally brought Ben back to awareness. He struggled to breathe as tears welled in his eyes. Gently, he ran a finger across the top of Marie’s gravestone.

“What am I to do? I can’t bear to stay here without you and the boys don’t need me. Adam runs the Ponderosa and Hoss is so angry. Our son prefers Adam to me; when he has a nightmare, he goes to Adam’s room for comfort.” He wiped tears with the back of his hand. “I can’t go on. Without you, there’s nothing left to dream.”

He removed the cylinder from his weapon and slowly reloaded. All it will take is one bullet, he thought as he replaced the cylinder and idly spun it. He’d always thought men who killed themselves were cowards, preferring to run from their problems rather than face them head on. Now he knew it wasn’t cowardice; it was simply emptiness.

Pulling back the hammer, he steeled his courage, willing himself put the gun to his temple. Several minutes passed as he stood rooted in place, tears falling down his cheeks, hand remaining at his side. The snap of a breaking stick caused him to spin quickly to confront the intruder.

Hoss’ stance brought to mind a grizzly on the verge of attack. The boy’s knuckles were white from the tight curl of his fists, his teeth were bared in a grimace as he breathed loudly, and his blue eyes stood in stark contrast to the bright red of his face.

“You pull that trigger an’ I ain’t gonna keep the name Cartwright.”

At eleven years old, Hoss was close to six feet tall and weighed well over 150 pounds. If he’d been a full-grown man, trouble-makers would have thought twice about riling him up.

“I’m sorry, son, but you just don’t understand.”

With a deep growl, Hoss lowered his head and smashed into his father, knocking him down. The force of the blow sent the gun flying off several feet. Hoss smashed his fists into his father’s belly.

Ben tried to curl into a ball to protect himself from the onslaught, but that only exposed his back to his angry son. A rough pull at his collar brought him up to his knees and he raised his arms to protect his face.

The resounding echo of a gunshot stopped Hoss before he could land a fist against his father’s face. Ben lowered an arm and was surprised to see Winnemucca holding the smoking pistol.

“A son should respect his father, not attack him.”

Hoss wiped a hand across the back of his mouth and sat hard on the ground. His large body shook as he cried. His tears fell partly from anger but also from shame, the shame of being chastised by a man he respected.

Ben got to his feet and leaned forward, hands on his knees, breathing hard through the pain. His ribs felt bruised but not broken.

Winnemucca held onto the gun but waited for the white men to speak. When neither did, he said to Ben, “Your boys not yet men. They need a man to guide them.”

“I . . . I can’t go on,” muttered Ben.

“Why? Because your woman is dead?”

Anger flickered in Ben’s eyes at the scornful tone in Winnemucca’s voice. Marie hadn’t been any woman — she’d been his wife. The woman he’d shared his hopes and dreams as well as his bed with.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Ben mumbled as he caressed the top of the gravestone with a finger.

“I lose five wives,” said the Indian as he held up his hand, fingers spread apart. “Even lose a son. I don’t choose this way.”

“You don’t understand,” Ben said churlishly. “Besides, you’re a chief. Your people need you to lead them.”

“You chief, too. Chief of Ponderosa. You lead men who work the cows, teach sons to be men. That make you chief.”

Ben shook his head. “No, Adam is practically running the ranch. He tells the hands what to do and when to do it. Little Joe relies on Adam now. My sons don’t need me.”

Hoss’ whole body shook as he sobbed.

“This son need you,” said the Indian as he pointed to Hoss. “His fists tell you so.”

Winnemucca’s words startled Ben, making him realize he’d been so wrapped up in his own grief he hadn’t bothered to think of his boys. Adam had stepped into the role of rancher so easily that Ben assumed he was no longer needed; his eldest was a man whom the hands respected and obeyed. Little Joe had two older brothers to guide him on his journey to manhood; with an example like Adam, Joe would grow into a man capable of running the Ponderosa.

What of Hoss? He was between boyhood and manhood; Ben had assumed his middle son, normally a gentle boy, would easily fall into the routine of ranching. Ben had never even thought that Hoss was spending so much time at the lake in order to avoid the ranch and the daily reminders of his mother. He stretched an arm out towards his son. Hoss got to his feet and embraced his father, his large body still shaking from the force of his crying. Ben rubbed the back of the boy’s neck and cried along with him.

When the two had spent all their tears, Hoss sniffled and said, “I’m awful sorry, Pa.”

“I shouldn’t have ignored you and your brothers.”

Hoss wiped a large hand under his nose and sniffled again. “Can you forgive me?”

Ben hugged his son to him again and whispered soothing words in his ear. He thought he’d better have a talk with Hoss before too long about using those fists in anger; his son could easily kill someone.

The two finally noticed that Winnemucca was gone. Ben wondered what had brought the Indian to Marie’s grave. Was it happenstance or had there been a reason?

“Where’s your horse?” Ben asked Hoss.

“Down by my wikiup.”

Ben led Buck as the two walked together. Hoss wiped at his eyes and nose as he told his father about the little shelter he’d made and trout he’d caught with his bare hands in the lake’s cool water. Ben rested a hand on his son’s shoulder and noted the pride in Hoss’ voice as he talked of living off the land. As they trekked, Ben realized how little he knew of his middle boy; Hoss’ easy-going nature led Ben to believe his son easily adapted to change when that wasn’t the case at all.

After a brief inspection of Hoss’ living quarters, the two mounted up and headed back to the house. As the horses walked, Ben and Hoss traded stories of the woman who’d made the Ponderosa a home full of warmth and love. Hoss silently vowed to share as many memories of their mother with Little Joe as he could, as Adam did.

When they finally reached the house, both were surprised to see a buggy parked near the hitching rail. Hoss offered to put the horses up since whoever was here was most likely stopping by to see his father.

Ben straightened his clothing and gently felt his ribs, double-checking to be sure none were broken. He was thankful Hoss’ fists hadn’t connected with his face.

Striding into the house with confidence, Ben greeted his guests. “Tom, Joyce,” he said, warily shaking Tom’s hand. “What brings you out?”

“Mr. Edwards and I were negotiating stud fees for that Spanish bull. He’d like to improve his stock and add some new blood,” said Adam.

Before Ben could tell Tom what he thought about the man’s timing, Hoss’ yelling from the yard caught everyone’s attention.

“Pa! Little Joe’s gone!”

Hoss burst into the house, four stunned faces waiting for more information. “Nobody’s seen him since this morning. Fred said he saw Little Joe riding out but no one’s seen him since.”

“I saddled his horse,” said Adam. “I figured he was going to going to Marie’s grave.” Why didn’t I ask? Adam berated himself.

“Hop Sing!” Ben’s yell nearly shook the rafters.

The cook trotted into the room in answer to the shouted command.

“Have you seen Little Joe?” Ben asked.

Hop Sing tried to remember if he’d spoken to the boy but didn’t think he had. He’d been busy soaking beans to cook up some food for the hands and peeling potatoes for the Cartwrights’ meals.

“Bring boy milk for breakfast. Not see boy since.”

“Doesn’t anyone keep an eye on him?” asked Ben, eyebrows drawing together as he scowled.

Adam sagged against the settee. He’d killed three mothers and lost a brother. What else could go wrong?

Ben quickly resumed his role as head of the family and boss of the Ponderosa. “Adam, go find Will and some of the hands and send someone for the sheriff. Tell them we’ll rendezvous in the east pasture in four hours. Tom, would you let our neighbors know Little Joe is missing and ask if they could spare a few hands?”

“Sure, Ben. Can I borrow a horse?”

“Just get one from the barn. Joyce, would you stay here in case Little Joe comes home?”

She took one of Ben’s hands and said, “Yes. I’m sure he’s perfectly alright. You know how little boys can be when something interesting gets their attention.”

Ben smiled wanly and hoped she was right. Maybe Little Joe was down by the lake catching frogs or chasing dragonflies.

“Hoss, go back to the lake and look for him there.”

“Yes, sir,” said Hoss as he hurried for the door.

Ben figured Adam would direct the hands where to search so he set out on his own course. Little Joe roamed the ranch but someone usually had an idea of where he was.

The sun was beating down upon the earth and Ben took a moment to look at the sky. There were a few puffy clouds that looked like fluffy sheep in a blue pasture. If it was going to rain, he hoped it would wait until after Little Joe was safe and sound. He nudged Buck forward and then suddenly tugged the reins. Looking up at the sky again he remembered Little Joe wanting to climb high enough to see if angels sat on clouds. His heart skipped a beat as he saw terrible images of a battered and broken little body.

Ben urged Buck into a lope and headed for the dense pine forest as he remembered Little Joe trying to climb into the pine tree from the roof. The boy had a healthy dose of stubbornness so once he made up his mind he’d find a way to do what he wanted.

Buck picked his way carefully through the trees, pine needles muffling the sound of his hooves. Ben yelled his son’s name and was disappointed each time there wasn’t a response. He stopped for a moment and checked his pocket watch—he’d have to give up for a while to meet Adam and the men in the pasture. Horse and rider wove through the trees to wide open space. Once out of the trees, Buck changed his stride to a gallop, sensing his rider’s urgency.

*****

Adam reined his horse to a stop and pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe the sweat from the band inside his hat. He took small comfort in the day being clear and hot; it could be worse –Little Joe could be wandering through snowdrifts or trying to cross a river overflowing its banks from the spring melt.

Clods of dirt flew up as Carl brought his horse to a sudden stop. The animal danced sideways as Carl tightly held the reins.

“Little Joe knows every rock and tree around here,” said Carl with confidence. “He’s probably off visiting a neighbor, having a big ol’ slice of pie.”

Hooves pounding against the hard-packed earth got their attention and Adam stood in the stirrups. Will and several of the hands were arriving for the scheduled rendezvous.

“Here comes Hoss!” shouted one of the hands.

Hoss’ mount was lathered with sweat from pushing hard to arrive at the pasture at the appointed time. The horse hung its head, blowing hard.

“He ain’t been down to the lake,” said Hoss. “At least not that I can tell. Ain’t no tracks of him or his horse.”

Adam chewed on his bottom lip for a moment.

“There’s Mr. Cartwright!” yelled Carl, pointing to the cloud of dust. Some men turned in their saddles.

Ben pulled Buck to a stop and scanned the faces of his sons. Their silence told him everything.

“Don’t you worry, Pa — we’ll find him,” said Hoss with an assurance he no longer felt.

Everyone talked at once, offering suggestions on where a lone little boy might go.

Ben held up a hand to call for silence. “I think we should start looking off the Ponderosa. No one’s seen any sign of him yet so maybe he’s wandering elsewhere.”

Adam nodded in agreement. He didn’t want to think of what could have happened to his youngest brother as there were so many possibilities. He dreaded the thought of one of the hands coming across a small skeleton months from now on a remote corner of the Ponderosa.

“We’re burning daylight, so let’s get a move on,” said Ben as he turned his horse.

“I’ll come with you,” said Adam to his father.

“No, you and Carl ride together. Hoss, you ride with Jimmy.”

Adam watched his father disappear into the distance. They had to believe Little Joe was alright and would be found unharmed.

“We’ll find him,” said Carl.

Adam adjusted his hat and hoped Carl was right.

*****

Ben looked at the sky and worry settled among the fears in his gut. More clouds were gathering; he hoped no rain would fall until they found Little Joe. It was bad enough no one could find any tracks but he didn’t want to think of his small boy struggling against the current of a raging river or swept down a mountainside in a torrent, flailing his little arms in a desperate attempt to find something to cling to.

Sunset would be in a few hours and any hope of finding tracks would be lost. Ben feared his son, wandering alone in the dark, would be an easy meal for a coyote or mountain lion.

He realized he was no longer on Ponderosa land and hoped his son hadn’t wandered into this area. Boulders were strewn around, like toys tossed from the mountains by a giant. Trees were becoming scarce, offering little in the way of protection from the elements. He hoped Adam, Hoss, or one of the hands was having better luck at finding a clue that would lead them to Little Joe.

Buck, stopped for a rare breather, shook his head, then suddenly jerked it up and pricked his ears. Ben noted the animal’s reaction and hoped his horse hadn’t smelled a predator enjoying a meal. The animal took a voluntary step forward, ears alert. Ben strained to listen for what his horse had heard. He nudged Buck forward and they soon heard a nicker from another horse. Ben’s heart fell with disappointment as a riderless horse — Little Joe’s horse — approached.

Ben dismounted and inspected the animal, checking its hooves and tack. There was no blood or any other outward sign of injury. Little Joe knows better than to leave a horse unsecured like this. Ben scanned the landscape, fearing his youngest could be lying injured in the rocks. He held the other horse’s reins tightly and mounted up, continuing his search in the muted light of sunset.

Darkness would soon hide all evidence of Little Joe’s trail. Buck plodded along as Ben cupped his hands around his mouth and called his son’s name. Frustration overcame the worry as he wondered how it was possible for Little Joe to not have left a single boot print upon the ground. It was as if the boy had vanished into thin air.

As the moon rose, Ben was thankful it was a hunting moon. There should be enough light to find a clue to where Little Joe might be. The animals of the night were stirring, giving rise to new fears. His little boy could by lying injured somewhere, unable to defend himself against a meat-hungry creature.

A coyote howled in the darkness. The hair on the back of Ben’s neck prickled. “Please, God, spare my son. He’s only a child,” he prayed in a fervent whisper. “Please, Lord, send me a sign.”

The other horse snorted and Buck again pricked his ears. Ben reined his mount in and shifted in the saddle. A slight breeze gently kissed the brim of his hat and fluttered the ends of his neckerchief.

“Come on, boy, let’s get a move on,” he said, nudging his knees to prod Buck into motion.

A faint sound carried on the wind and Ben tugged his horse to a stop. Was that a voice? An animal? He cocked his head to listen but there was once again nothing. He removed the canteen from the saddle horn and took a long drink. Buck champed on the bit.

Ben was putting the canteen back in place when he heard it again. He stood in the stirrups, eyes straining against the moonlit landscape, calling out “Joseph” instead of “Little Joe.” He kept Buck to a walk as they continued on.

A sound drifted down but Ben couldn’t determine the location as it echoed off the rocks. Buck continued to pick his way through the rocky terrain, setting his hooves delicately in between pebbles and larger stones.

A cloud crossed the moon, momentarily blocking out the light. Ben stopped his horse, fearing the animal might misstep and fall. Man and beast strained to filter the sound of a child from the night noises. “God, please help me. I can’t go on if you take my son, too.” Hot tears brimmed in his eyes and he roughly wiped them with back of his hand.

Just as the moon peeked out from behind a cloud, Ben was rewarded with a distinct yet hoarse shout of, “Mama! I can’t see you!” The cry echoed for a few moments.

Ben squirmed in the saddle, trying to figure out which direction his son’s voice came from. Another shout and Ben’s heart quickened its pace. His eyes bulged in shock for a brief second as he realized he’d been studying the wrong place — instead of looking up, he’d been looking at the ground. Turning his gaze skyward, he saw a shadowy figure atop Eagle’s Nest. How Little Joe had managed to make his way up the nearly sheer rock face frightened Ben. If he climbed up and scared the boy, it was likely Little Joe could tumble into the rocks. He closed his eyes tightly to banish the image of his son’s battered body lying like a broken doll.

It was a miracle that Little Joe had made it to the summit. Ben figured it must have taken the boy most of the day to chart a course up the mountain. He couldn’t risk his son falling so he was going to have to climb through rocks that were difficult enough to maneuver in the brightness of day.

“Guide me to my son, Lord,” Ben said, looking up at the twinkling stars in the heavens.

There was nothing handy to secure Buck to so he let the reins drop on the ground, trusting the horse to remain where he was. He wiped his palms on his pants to free them of sweat. He was afraid to yell out his son’s name in case Little Joe stepped close to the edge and lost his footing.

“Mama! Where are you? I can’t see you!”

Ben softly cursed as his fingers sought secure holds in the rock face. In his haste to reach the summit, he could easily lose his footing and Little Joe would be left truly alone. Both Adam and Hoss would take care of their brother and do their best, he was sure of that. He stopped for a breather and looked down, realizing that only hours ago he would have gladly given into the temptation to let go and plunge to his death if it would have reunited him with Marie.

“Mama!”

Ben heard the anger and desperation in Little Joe’s voice. Little Joe was too young to understand that dead people didn’t come at the beck and call of the living. Ben berated himself for being a fool, ignoring his sons when they’d needed a father’s strength.

As Ben climbed, the breeze changed from a gentle caress to a swift current. Ben’s hat blew off as he fought the urge to shout Little Joe’s name. A choked sob followed by “Mama” caught his ear. His son must be devastated to realize there were no angels sitting in the clouds.

Finally nearing the top, Ben softly called, “Joseph.”

Little Joe’s dusty face was streaked by tears. “Mama ain’t here,” he sobbed. “She ain’t here like Miss Joyce said.”

Pulling himself up to the summit, Ben sat down in a slight depression in the rock and pulled Little Joe to him, gently rubbing the boy’s back while they both cried. How can I make him understand he doesn’t have to see his mother to know she loved him?

“I . . .I climbed . . . the highest . . . place . . . to . . . see clouds . . . and . . . she ain’t . . . here.”

Ben felt helpless as there was nothing he could do to comfort his child other than hold him while he sobbed. Marie’s grave was a physical reminder they could visit but her spirit lived on in their memories. Little Joe was so young — Ben wondered if his son would have many memories of his mother to draw upon as he grew older. I’ll keep you alive in Little Joe’s heart, Marie. The way you made it like springtime year-round, the way you loved life. How you treated Adam and Hoss as your own.

“Why . . . can’t Mama . . . come back?” asked Little Joe in a ragged whisper.

“Listen to me, Joseph,” said Ben as he gently placed a finger under the boy’s chin and tilted his head back so they could see eye-to-eye. “Your mother loved you very much. You know that, don’t you?” Little Joe nodded. “She never wanted to leave us. We’ve all been sad without her.” He covered Little Joe’s hand with his own, placed it on his much broader chest and said, “The people we love always have a home within our hearts. When we think of them, we feel warmth from the love they gave us. Do you understand?”

“But what about angels?” Little Joe asked through a sniffle.

“Angels are always around us even though we can’t see them. Sometimes we can feel their touch in a gentle breeze that kisses our cheeks or brushes our hair. Never doubt that your mother loved you and was always proud of you.” He kissed the top of Little Joe’s head, deeply breathing in the scent of sweat mixed with dust.

“Pa?”

“Hmmm?”

“Hopsy says Mama will live forever because of me.” Little Joe wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Why?”

Ben brushed soft curls back from Little Joe’s forehead. “A child carries a little bit of both parents. You have the same color eyes as your mother and your smile is so much like hers. When people look at you, they’ll be reminded of what she looked like.”

Little Joe seemed satisfied with that and leaned against his father. The moon was again covered by a cloud, shrouding them in darkness. Ben cradled his son, gently rocking him and whispering, “I love you,” into his ear. He looked up at the Heavens, silently thanking God for this miracle. A shooting star streaked across the inky sky, leaving a blazing trail for a few seconds. I want us to be a family again, wished Ben.

The hoot of an owl carried in the cool, desert air. Ben couldn’t bring himself to hate that particular species of bird now that he had his child safe in his arms.

A soft, “Pa?” caught his ear.

“Hmm?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Let’s go home, okay?”

Ben was thankful for the moonlight as he made his way down the mountain, Little Joe held tightly in his arms. Pebbles and loose rock skittered a few times, resulting in a gasp of fright from the boy.

“I won’t let you fall,” promised Ben.

Little Joe yawned loudly when they reached the horses. His head fell against his father’s chest, his ear pressed against the coarse shirt. Ben mounted up, careful to hold his child close as he swung his leg over the saddle. Buck was eager to go home but Ben kept a tight hold to prevent the horse from stumbling over the rocky ground.

As they made their way back to the Ponderosa, Ben was comforted by the warmth of Little Joe nestled in his arms. Even though Hoss’ fists had pounded sense back into his granite head, he knew his patched heart would be torn apart again if one of his sons died, especially Marie’s son. His heart was still mending from her loss and he couldn’t bear the thought of the child they had created being destroyed by his own carelessness.

Tom and Joyce were right, Ben thought — getting away from the ranch would be for the best.

One of Ben’s greatest regrets was not sharing his memories of Elizabeth with Adam when Adam was a child about Little Joe’s age. His own grief wouldn’t allow him to talk of the happiness he’d experienced in their short marriage. Adam had deserved to know how courageous, strong-willed, and tenacious his mother had been. As the daughter of a sea captain, she’d bent with the breeze and had charted her way through stormy weather. When her mind had been set, she’d found a way to get what she’d wanted and she’d never backed down from her opinions. Thanks to Inger, Ben had realized that Adam should know his mother was more than just a picture and a music box.

Shouts caught Ben’s ears and he saw lights in the distance, reminding him of a lighthouse signal that indicated the safe way into a harbor.

Buck, encouraged by the scent of familiar horses, strained against the bit, eager to be home with a belly full of grain. Ben kept the horse under tight-control, despite having the reins in one hand.

“Pa! You sure are a sight for sore eyes!” said Hoss, a large smile crossing his face.

“We thought you were as lost as Little Joe,” said Adam.

“Lost?” Ben asked. “I can’t ever get lost with a compass which points to the Ponderosa.”

“Are we home?” asked Little Joe through a yawn.

“We sure are,” said Ben. He wasn’t surprised when Little Joe went right back to sleep.

“Where was he?” asked Adam.

“He was looking for angels in the clouds,” was all Ben said, smiling down upon his little boy’s head.

*****

Once home, Ben cradled Little Joe in his arms to take him up to bed. He carefully opened the front door and was momentarily surprised to see Joyce sleeping in Marie’s chair by the fire. She’d been waiting as he’d asked.

“Joyce?” he called her name softly so as not to wake Little Joe. He called her name again and she rubbed her eye with a finger.

“You found him,” she said with a smile.

He nodded in the direction of the guest room near the dining table and said, “Why don’t you and Tom stay the night?”

The clock struck two as Tom entered the house, followed by Adam and Hoss.

“Ben offered us the guest room,” Joyce told Tom.

“Thank you,” was all he said before heading for bed.

Ben carried Little Joe to his own bedroom, pulled back the bedcovers, and laid the boy down before tugging off his own boots. Afterwards, he sat on the bed then rolled onto his side, pulling Little Joe to him and tucking the covers across his son’s shoulders. Ben draped an arm protectively around his youngest and held him close. A gentle breeze wafted through the open window, stirring the boy’s curls. Little Joe sighed and rolled over, snuggling his face against his father’s chest. Ben smiled — perhaps that was Marie, letting us know angels are most likely to visit when we’re least aware of it.

Adam popped his head into the room to say goodnight but remained silent at the sight of his father curled around Little Joe.

No one was ready for the sunrise a few short hours later. Ben stirred as the house came to life. Little Joe rolled over, the morning light kissing his cheek; the little boy rubbed the sleep out of his eye with a balled up fist.

Ben gently kissed his son’s forehead and pulled the covers up, assuming Little Joe would sleep a while longer.

“Pa?” Little Joe asked, cracking one eye open.

“Yes?”

“I didn’t have no bad dreams last night.”

“That’s good, son, that’s good,” he said with a smile. “I’ll see you at the table.”

Downstairs, Adam picked at his food. I can’t run the ranch and keep an eye on Little Joe. What if the kid had been attacked by a bear or mountain lion?

“Morning,” said Adam sullenly to his father as he pushed food around his plate.

“Tom and Joyce up?” asked Ben.

“Hop Sing said they left at first light.”

Ben figured they’d been anxious to get home after yesterday’s excitement but was disappointed that he’d have to wait to let them know of his decision to take their advice to go away for a while. It had been so long since he’d savored breakfast that he enjoyed the fluffiness of the eggs, the buttery toast, and the salty bacon.

He studied Adam for a few moments over the brim of his cup. Those dark circles under Adam’s eyes must be from spending half the night looking for Little Joe, he thought.

“Where’s Hoss?”

“In the barn,” mumbled Adam. At least I know where he is.

Ben leaned on an elbow, the cup held midway to his mouth. “I just don’t see how Little Joe managed to roam so far without anyone noticing.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. If Pa is going to blame me, he should just come out and say so.

“He’s so much like his mother sometimes,” Ben said. “You know how she could be when her mind was set.” He took another swig of coffee and said, “We’re lucky he wasn’t killed.”

“So his blood would be on my hands, too?” Adam asked, nostrils flaring in anger. He shot his father a glare hot enough to melt a horseshoe before storming out of the house.

Ben gently set the cup into the saucer and leaned back in his chair. He plucked the napkin from his lap and set it on the table but then gathered the piece of cloth into his fist. As he squeezed the fabric, he realized the reason for Adam’s outburst — Adam had saddled Marie’s horse that fateful day, and only yesterday he saddled Little Joe’s horse.

Hoss walked in, hands jammed deep into his pockets, and said, “Pa? Adam’s out in the barn and he’s powerful angry. I thought he was gonna jab me with the pitchfork. You know what’s wrong with him?”

“I have an idea,” said Ben before patting his son against the belly and heading for the barn.

Pausing at the corner of the barn, Ben peeked through a crack and saw Adam slashing at hay with the pitchfork and then tossing the hay nowhere in particular. Ben felt his ribs and wondered if it’d be better to let Adam work out his anger than to go in and bear the brunt of it.

With a cry of frustration, Adam threw the pitchfork into what remained of the pile of hay.

Working up his courage, Ben decided he’d better clear the air now rather than let Adam’s wounds continue to fester. “Adam.” He said his son’s voice in a low voice rather than a command.

“I’m busy,” Adam replied curtly

Ben noted the young man’s surly tone. Sliding his hands into his pockets, he slowly approached. “We need to talk.”

“About what?” Adam placed his hands on his hips, gripping the fabric of his jeans tightly, causing his knuckles to stand like knobs.

Ben lit the lantern hanging on a post and took in his son’s haggard appearance. The soft glow only enhanced the shadows under Adam’s eyes, the tight set to his mouth, and the unruliness of his hair. Adam’s entire body radiated tension, as if he was a cornered lion ready to spring at anything that might provide sustenance.

Slowly walking over to the tack box, Ben kept his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor. He’d been in too many fights because he looked an angry man in the eye. And that’s what Adam was whether Ben wanted to admit it to himself or not — a man. Not just by virtue of his age, but by his sense of duty, responsibility, moral fiber, and adherence to family. Ben might have abandoned the ranch and his sons, but Adam was trying to the best of his ability to keep everything — and everyone — together.

“Come sit down.”

With a loud sigh, Adam walked over to his father. Rather than sit, he crossed his arms protectively across his chest and eased into a lean.

Seeing his own stubbornness reflected in his eldest, Ben realized he and Adam needed to talk man to man rather than as father to son. I’ve taken him for granted, letting him bear the burden of running the ranch alone.

“You blame me, don’t you?” Adam asked, breaking the silence. His arms seemed to hug his body tighter.

“It’s not your fault Little Joe wandered off the ranch,” said Ben.

“That’s not what I mean,” said Adam in a snide tone.

“What are you talking about?” Ben asked, one eyebrow rising in question.

Adam snorted as if the answer was obvious. “I’ve noticed the way you look at me. You haven’t said it but I know you hold me responsible for her death. I killed her just like I killed my own mother.”

Surprise was reflected in Ben’s eyes. “You . . . she . . .”

“I knew it,” said Adam, breaking the silence. “You do blame me.”

Ben shook his head. “That’s not true. You didn’t kill Marie and you certainly didn’t kill your own mother. Marie’s death was simply an accident, one I should have foreseen years ago. She always rode into the yard too fast, even though I told her there was no need to show off. God knows she never listened to me where horses were concerned.”

“But I saddled her horse that day. She wanted to ride Timbalier and I didn’t try to stop her. It’s my fault.”

“No, Adam, it’s not. Marie was a grown woman, not a child. It wasn’t your duty to protect her.”

“Don’t you understand?” Adam’s voice rose in volume and his face darkened with his anger. “She died because of me. Just like Inger. Just like my mother.” Adam jabbed himself in the chest with his thumb to emphasize that he was to blame. “If I’d saddled a different horse, Marie wouldn’t have died. If I’d picked up a gun, Inger wouldn’t have died. If I’d never been born . . . ,”

Ben cut Adam off and rose to his feet, his own temper flaring into a blaze. “What will it take to make you understand I don’t hold you responsible? Your mother died because her body was weak and the doctor couldn’t save her, not because of you.” He grabbed Adam by the shoulders and shook him hard, making his head bob. “Inger’s death was Rockwell’s fault, not yours. If he hadn’t killed that Indian, we wouldn’t have been attacked at Ash Hollow.” He shook Adam harder. “Her life was taken helping to defend everyone in that wagon train.” Ben released Adam and took a step back. “Would you sacrifice Hoss if it would bring Inger back? Would you?”

Adam shook his head and his shoulders slumped as if a burden had been removed. Frustration, anger, and grief were released in sobs and tears. Ben pulled his son over to the box and held him protectively under one arm that encircled the broad shoulders. Adam rested his head against his father’s shoulder and wept.

Softly, Ben said, “If anyone’s to blame for Marie’s death, I am. I encouraged her wild streak and recklessness. Don’t ever think I hold you responsible.” He rested his cheek against the top of Adam’s head. The Ponderosa held so many good memories but Marie’s death overshadowed them all.

“I miss her, Pa,” Adam said through sniffles.

“I know,” Ben replied softly.

*****

That evening, after supper, Ben tamped his pipe with cherry tobacco and called his sons over to the settee. “Boys, I’ve decided we should take a trip, go somewhere else for a while.”

“Where to, Pa?” asked Hoss.

“New Orleans,” said Ben.

“New Orleans?” asked Hoss, wrinkling up his nose. “Ain’t that a long trip?”

Ben retrieved a rolled up map from his desk and spread it out on the coffee table so the boys could look it over.

“See this long river?” he asked his sons. “That’s the Mississippi.”

“Your ship sailed up and down that?” asked Hoss.

Ben chuckled and said, “No, son. Before I married Adam’s mother, I was a sailor on the high seas, far away from land.”

Hoss traced the river with a beefy finger to its connection with the Gulf of Mexico. A star indicated the location of New Orleans.

“We’ll go by sea, rather than land. You boys have seafaring blood in your veins; life aboard ship will come naturally to you.”

Little Joe chewed on his lower lip as he toyed with a corner of the map. “What will happen to the cows?” he finally asked in a soft voice.

Ben knelt down and placed a large finger under Little Joe’s chin. He tilted the boy’s head up to look into Little Joe’s eyes, eyes that so resembled those of the woman he loved. “They’ll stay here while we’re gone. The hands will take good care of them.”

“What about the horses? Ain’t they gonna miss us?”

Ben gently massaged the back of Little Joe’s neck. “It’ll seem like we’re gone a long time but we’ll be back here before you know it. The hands will make sure the horses get plenty of exercise and apples.”

“Horses don’t forget smells, Little Joe,” assured Hoss. “Your horse’ll take one sniff and know you right away.”

Adam crouched and placed his palm firmly against Little Joe’s back. “You’re going to love New Orleans. All of the different people to see, the markets, the shops. Just wait ‘til you taste a praline — there’s nothing like it in the world. It just melts in your mouth.”

“What’s really wrong, Little Joe?” asked Ben.

“How’s Mama gonna know where we are? Ain’t she gonna miss us?”

“Listen to me, Little Joe,” said Ben softly, “the grave is just where her body is, not her spirit.” He gently tapped Little Joe’s chest and said, “She’ll always be here.”

Little Joe placed a small hand on his father’s chest and asked, “Is she in there, too?”

Ben placed his hand over his son’s and said through a smile, “Yes, she is.”

*****

The next morning, Ben saddled Buck and rode to Marie’s grave. He placed a calloused hand on the cool headstone and thought of the woman transformed from a cold and lonely person to one whose heart sang with joy each day. Cherished memories would sustain him as he raised their son into a man she’d be proud of. The locket she’d given him for Christmas rested in his vest pocket—one day, I’ll give it to Little Joe in remembrance of the woman who turned her back on a world of bubbles and honey to forge a new life.

He vowed Little Joe would know his mother had been a woman he could have respected and admired. There had been many facets to Marie but he’d make sure their son knew the best parts of her—her caring, generosity, tenderness, and capacity for love. She’d made the Ponderosa more than just a ranch—she’d made it a home.

Ben placed two fingers against his lips and then pressed them against the headstone. He gathered up Buck’s reins and headed for home.

He pulled his horse up at a spot with an unobstructed view of Lake Tahoe and admired the water sparkling like a sapphire under the bright sun. The last time he’d traveled to New Orleans, the Ponderosa was in its infancy, a few head of cattle grazing in a hand-planted pasture. Now, the ranch was thriving with its timber operations and mining interests in addition to cattle. His dream of carving a kingdom from the wilderness had come to fruition. If he was a king, then Marie had been his queen. The ranch was as much her legacy as it was his.

Ben held a hand over his hat brim as he looked up at the sky, a few lazy clouds idly floating as if they were leaves in a pond. He smiled and wondered which cloud was Marie’s. For the first time since Marie’s death, he could feel the warmth of the sunrise with its promise of possibilities.

***The End***

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