A Stranger Came To Stay (by Puchi Ann)

Summary: What if Hoss had not regained his memory during his overnight stop at the Ponderosa and had, instead, gone off with the Vandervorts?  Could he ever find his way back to himself again and how would the other Cartwrights cope with a loss that might become permanent?  Discover the answers in this WHI for “A Stranger Passed This Way.”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  26,200


Prologue

Three Cartwrights stood in the front yard, watching the fourth drive away in the wagon of a couple they’d met only the night before. Seeing his youngest brother’s quivering lip, Adam rested a hand on his shoulder, but Little Joe shrugged it off. Not in the mood for comfort, then, Adam surmised.

What Little Joe was in the mood for, evidently, was confrontation. “Is that it?” he demanded of his father. “We just let him drive off, out of our lives…maybe forever?”

Ben’s voice was broken, almost choking, as he replied, “What else can we do?”

“Go after him!” Little Joe cried. “Make him stay!”

“He made his choice,” Adam said with purposeful calm.

“Choice!” Little Joe exploded. “How can he make a choice when he don’t even know what he’s choosing between?”

“And just how would you solve that?” Adam pressed with maddening logic. “By making the choice for him?”

“If he can’t do it for himself, yeah.” Eyes pleading, he turned to his father. “Pa, we can’t just let him traipse off to Michigan; he’ll never find his way back, head all muddled like it is. We gotta do something!”

Ben sighed. “Joseph, I think the only thing we can do is pray.”

“Pray!” Little Joe spewed the word at his father. “How’s that ‘sposed to stop him?”

Ben’s jaw tightened. “That’s quite enough, young man. Don’t add sacrilege to your insolence. I may put up with it, but you will not disrespect the Almighty while you remain under my roof.”

Notions of doing something as stupid as packing his bags and taking himself out from under his father’s roof flashed through Joe’s thoughts. Maybe he’d just go to Michigan himself. There, at least, he could keep an eye on his muddle-headed brother. Catching a glimpse of his father’s ashen face, though, he suddenly saw beneath the older man’s righteous indignation and realized that he was not the only one suffering from the stress of the last twenty-four hours. “I’m not, Pa,” he said, lowering his voice. “Sure, I’ll pray for my brother, but let me put feet to my prayers, go after him, tell him the truth. If he still wants to leave…well, then, I guess we’d have to accept it, but don’t ask me to sit back and do nothing. Please, Pa.”

“Don’t you think that’s exactly what I want to do?” Ben said, his voice heated with frustrated grief. “If you’d seen how Hoss reacted when I asked if he’d like someone to tell him who he was… I’ve never seen that boy look so distressed, so fearful, and with the doctor saying it might push him over an edge he could never come back from…” Unable to continue, a visibly shaken Ben stopped, spreading his hands in a gesture of helplessness.

“Doc Hickman is just a country doctor, Pa,” Adam suggested. “What does he know about how the mind works? He’s guessing, nothing more.”

Ben conceded the point with a brief nod. “There was a time once when I feared I was losing another son…to Julia Bulette and the life I feared she might drag him into.” He darted a glance at his youngest son, troubled by the depth of sorrow he still saw pooling in the boy’s expressive eyes at the mere mention of that woman’s name. “I told her then that I wouldn’t gamble with what I could not afford to lose, and I’m saying the same thing to you boys now. Maybe Dr. Hickman is wrong; maybe it wouldn’t hurt to tell Hoss who he is; maybe if he stayed here longer, familiar things might spark his memory, but I can’t take the chance. I offered the choice to Hoss. He chose not to know…not that way… and I have no choice but to honor that and to insist that you both honor it, as well.”

Little Joe opened his mouth, still wanting to argue the issue, but seeing the adamantine set of his father’s lips, he vaulted into the saddle of his waiting pinto and tore out of the yard in the opposite direction of the departed wagon.

Sighing, Ben rubbed his aching temple. “Go after your brother, would you, Adam?”

“Which one?” Adam quipped.

Ben wheeled on him. “Don’t start with me, young man. I’ve had quite enough flouting of my say-so for one morning.”

Adam bit his tongue. He’d intended to lighten the mood with that bit of repartee, but his words had been taken, instead, for the cocky sarcasm with which he was renowned for skewering his brothers. Unlike Joe, Pa was in the mood for comfort, so Adam quietly promised, “I’ll look after Joe, Pa,” not realizing what a full-time job that would be in the coming months.

*****

6 months later

“Hendrik!”

It wasn’t his real name, but it was the only one he knew, and he answered to it. “Ja. Comin’, Mama.” She wasn’t his real mother, either, but she liked to be called that, and he was content to oblige, since he’d known no other in the short lifetime he could remember. Sometimes he wondered if he had a real mother, somewhere in the world outside Holland, Michigan, and if she was as lonesome for him as Christina Vandervort had been until he stumbled into her life to fill the void left by her dead son. At times it bothered “Hendrik” to be saddled with that dead man’s name, but not enough for him to ask for another. What difference did it make to him what he was called? If that name offered a good woman comfort, why not give what he could in return for all the kindness she and her husband Klaas had shown him these past months.

The townsfolk had given him some mighty strange stares when Mrs. Vandervort had first introduced him as her son Hendrik. Too many people remembered the family from their earlier sojourn here and knew that he couldn’t possibly be what she claimed. Even if they hadn’t already known of the family’s tragic loss while in California, the son they recalled might match this young man in hair and eye color, but any resemblance ended there. The height, build and age were all wrong, and the fact that he couldn’t speak a word of Dutch when he first arrived was a dead giveaway, even to newer residents.

Someone had finally been bold enough to confront the returning couple, and Klaas had told them the plain truth, that this was not their Hendrik, but a young man who had lost his memory as a result of an injury to his head. Christina had hurried to add that he had become like a son to them and, therefore, was worthy to carry their son’s name, since he had none of his own and preferred Hendrik to Rumplestiltskin. There’d been whispers about what grief had done to the state of her mind after that remark, but they’d eventually died down. Now, the people of Holland had become as accustomed to the new Hendrik as he himself, and although things about him still seemed strange, they accepted him, if not quite as one of their own, at least as a welcome addition to their town.

Hendrik lifted the pail of water he’d pulled from the deep well outside their back door and carried it into the kitchen. “Here you go, Mama.”

“Ah, thank you, Hendrik,” Christina said with the smile that almost always graced her face nowadays. “You are so good to me.”

“Not half as good as you are to me,” he said sincerely. He sniffed the air with appreciation. “And whatever that is smells mighty good in its own right.”

“Hachee,” she told him.

“My favorite,” he said, smacking his lips.

Christina laughed. “I think all food is your favorite, mijn zoon, but hachee is good for these crisp autumn evenings, ja?”

Ja,” he agreed readily. Her beef and onion stew, as he knew from previous suppers, was good, almost as tasty as… He frowned in frustration. He sensed, as he had on other occasions, that he’d once eaten stew he favored more than his new mother’s, but he couldn’t recall where or when or even what made it different. Lest she notice his change of mood, he gave her a quick grin. “I best call Papa to supper now before this tasty stew just disappears somehow I wouldn’t like to confess.”

Ja, you do that,” she said, laugh lines crinkling the corners of her mouth. “He is watering the garden.”

Hendrik hurried outside again, grabbing and filling another pail before walking to the vegetable garden at the back of their lot. “Papa, you should’ve called me to help,” he chided. “I’m stronger than you.”

Klaas Vandervort straightened his back. “Your hands were more needed in the shop,” he said. “You have much skill with the wood, Hendrik, and I am not so old and weak that I cannot tend a few plants.” He wiped the sweat from his brow with an already damp handkerchief. “I do not know if even these few can be saved if we do not get rain soon.”

“This summer’s been a scorcher, all right,” Hendrik agreed with a slow nod. “Everything’s dry as tinder; anything could set it off. Heard today that the forest took fire, over toward Graafschap.” Then he gave the older man a cheering clap on the shoulder. “But the well’s deep, Papa, so our garden won’t wither; we won’t go hungry.”

“And you are hungry now and have come to call me to supper, ja?” Klaas chuckled.

Ja to both them thoughts,” Hendrik said amiably, and throwing his arm about the other man, he headed back to the house.

Soon the family gathered around the wooden table and bowed their heads to give thanks for the steaming stew. Then came Hendrik’s favorite part of the day, the sharing of the activities of their day over a good meal. Much as he savored the food, it was the sharing that the young man looked forward to. Oh, there was nothing special about the words they exchanged; they were ordinary and didn’t vary much from day to day. Still, they were filled with warm cordiality and honest concern for one another’s welfare, and somehow that seemed familiar, like something he’d experienced before, although he always sort of felt that something was missing, good as this was. It gave Hendrik hope that he came from good, loving people and, maybe, strengthened his chances of having been such a man himself. His greatest fear was that he’d been just the opposite. He could, after all, have been the black sheep in an otherwise perfect family. He had no way of knowing and wondered if he’d lost his memory because what he’d had to remember was something so awful he’d blotted even his name from his mind.

“Mr. Weersing came into the shop after you left for the day, Papa,” he said as Christina dished up his second bowl of hachee.

“To order something, I hope,” she said, handing it to him.

“Thanks,” Hendrik automatically replied, before continuing. “Yeah, he wants a whole set of furniture for the bedroom: headboard and footboard, chest and clothes cupboard, all carved with this special design he drew up. Told him I’d do my best, but he’d have to settle the price with you, Papa.”

Ja, because you always set it too low,” Klaas said with a teasing grin.

“Our son does not know his worth, ja, Papa?” Christina asked with a fond look at Hendrik.

Klaas stifled a sigh. He did not think Christina should call this boy their son, and he had told her so several times. It did not seem right when he had a father, if not a mother. They knew the man’s name, even if Hendrik did not, and to Klaas, it seemed like a lie to claim him as their own, despite the father’s affection he had come to feel for the young man. Christina persisted, though, so her husband had given up trying to dissuade her and answered to “Papa,” whichever member of his family used it. Perhaps she was right in saying that families could be chosen, as well as given by God.

“You make too much of me,” Hendrik was insisting. “The woodworking I do is all just simple things.”

Ja, but there is much beauty in simplicity,” Christina argued. “Not since the old country have I seen such work, ja, Papa?”

“She is right, Hendrik,” Klaas said, “and that is why I will charge Mr. Weersing what it is worth.”

“Well, it’s up to you,” Hendrik said. “Was that dried peach pie I smelled earlier, Mama?”

Ja, I get you some,” she replied, moving toward the kitchen. She was on her way back to the table when the alarm bell clanged.

“Fire!” Hendrik cried, springing to his feet.

“Oh, but your pie,” Christina moaned.

“Save it for me, Mama,” he said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Fire means all hands on deck.” He wondered, fleetingly, why that phrase had come to mind. Had he been a sailor in his forgotten life? He had a brief flash of seeing himself fall down a hole in some floor and splashing into salt water, but brushed it aside. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor — whatever he’d been before, tonight he, and every other man in town, was a fireman.

*****

When Klaas and Hendrik dragged wearily back in the wee hours of the next morning, a lantern was glowing in the window. Not that they needed the light to guide them home. Fires, still burning in outlying forest areas, gave the smoke-fogged sky an amber aura. “You reckon Mama’s still up?” Hendrik asked, recognizing with a half-smile, half-frown that the folksiness of “reckon” was one of the things that set him apart from the Hollanders among whom he lived.

“Up and still holding that plate of dried peach pie out to you,” Klaas chuckled.

“I’m more’n ready for it.”

It was not, however, pie, but soap and a towel that Christina offered the men as soon as they entered her tidy house. “You look like chimney sweeps,” she scolded playfully. “Such sooty faces will not sit at my table.”

Accepting the items offered, Klaas made clucking sounds with his tongue. “Heroes we are, saving the town, and still our sooty faces are not welcome, Hendrik.”

“Aw, we ain’t heroes,” Hendrik protested. “Everyone helped, same as us.”

“This is true?” Christina asked anxiously. “The town was in danger?”

“No, Mama,” Hendrik quickly assured her. “The fire was out by Hope College, but we stopped it.”

Christina’s hand touched her face. “And Dr. Crispell? Is the good man well, his home?”

Klaas placed firm hands on both her shoulders. “All is well, Mama.”

“And you are weary to the bone,” she said, gazing tenderly, first at him and then at Hendrik, “and now you must rest — and eat.”

A warm sense of nostalgia washed over Hendrik. Those were practically the first words he remembered her saying to him, the first words of his new life, and they’d been words of welcome and encouragement. Just the words a man lost to himself had needed, and they still carried that same sense of acceptance and love. Oh, it was good to have a mama and papa!

*****

There was little rest for the men of Holland that week. Though the town itself had been spared, again and again fiery fingers clawed at them, clutching in their sinister grasp an isolated barn or house on the outskirts. “It is good we settled in town,” Christina opined at breakfast on Sunday morning.

Ja, you were right,” Klaas said. Though he missed having more land to farm, that would come, in time. Here, in town, they’d had a steady income from the rustic furniture they built, and Hendrik had shown such a gift for that work that their little shop was becoming known, even beyond the borders of Holland itself. There’d been no time for woodworking this week, though. Ever since Wednesday night they’d been rushing one place or another to put out a fire. Mama was right, too, in saying that they should take this Sabbath as a true day of rest and thanksgiving to God for all that had been spared. So, to church they would go — and pray they could stay awake for the reverend’s typically long sermon.

Hendrik was grateful for the concession of a late breakfast. A big man like him was able to work longer and harder than older, less muscled men like Klaas, but even his strength was waning. He might have preferred a long nap to church on that particular Sunday, but he dutifully dressed and groomed himself and walked beside his adopted parents to the afternoon service of the First Reformed Church. The worship style still seemed strange to him, although he’d been relieved to find that it was conducted in English, unlike so many of the conversations among the residents. At least, he understood what was being said, and they were good words, but everything else seemed so unfamiliar that he wondered if he’d been a church-going man in his other life. He did recognize the Bible stories mentioned, though, so perhaps his own mama and papa had taken him to church as well. He hoped so. It seemed like a good thing to do, and his greatest hope was that the darkness of his past had been filled with good things.

“How cloudy it is!” Christina observed, her eyes hopefully scanning the skies. “Perhaps we will have rain at last.”

Ja, that is what we need,” her husband agreed.

Hendrik’s lips pursed together in an expression close to a frown. Much as he’d like to believe those looming clouds carried rain, he had almost a second sense that they did not. Their grayness did indicate more than just the smoky haze that had pervaded the sky for days, but he’d seen rainless storm clouds like that before, though he had no idea when or where. They were just full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. His expression deepened into a true frown as that phrase passed through his brain. That was from Shakespeare. How he knew that, he had no idea. He’d figured out long ago that he wasn’t a scholarly man, but he’d heard that phrase before and not in a theater. Someone had said it to him while looking at clouds like these, a man dressed in clothes darker than the clouds. He could almost picture the man’s face, but it faded when they arrived at church and began to exchange greetings and hopes for rain with other worshippers on their way in.

Over the last six months Hendrik had gotten used to the Hollanders’ hymns, and his voice rang out loud and strong, the music lifting his heart and reviving his flagging energy. Peace pervaded this place; it flowed from the trusting faces bowed in prayer and seeped into souls in need of refreshment. As the pastor preached, however, Hendrik could feel his eyelids growing heavy, and he was close to nodding off when the loud clanging of a church bell several streets to the south of their own brick building jolted him fully awake. “Fire!” the anxious whispers ran down each row, and without benefit of benediction, the people began to slip from their pews and head for the back door.

They thronged together outside the church, each gazing fearfully at the rolling cloud of smoke, lighted from within by the blazing timber in the fields south of town. “It’s good there is so little wind,” Klaas observed.

Ja,” Mr. Weersing agreed. “Without wind, it will take the fire at least until tomorrow night to reach the town.”

“And in that much time, the wind may turn and take it away from Holland altogether,” Klaas said. He turned to the young man standing at his side. “Don’t you think so, Hendrik?”

“I ain’t so sure,” Hendrik said, looking pensively at the clouds. “Wind can be mighty unpredictable.”

“What does he know of wind?” demanded another man. “This man who does not even know his own name!”

Hendrik swallowed the large lump that suddenly rose into his throat. Ashamed as he felt, he had never made a secret of his problem, but rarely had the people of Holland given him anything but looks of pity. Their expressions now, however, were filled with disgust for the man who had disparaged him. “For shame, Mr. Bronkhorst,” aged Mrs. Tolk finally said, and the many nods and whispers of those standing by spoke their agreement.

The pastor himself then came to Hendrik’s rescue. “Hendrik only speaks the teaching of Scripture,” he said and then quoted, “‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.’”

“There is time for the wind to turn, I say, and my word is as good as any man’s,” Dirk Bronkhorst insisted, stalking away.

Christina stepped between the two men of her household, resting a hand on each one’s arm. “Perhaps, if there is no danger until tomorrow, you should take this time to rest, as we have said. You are both so tired.”

“I feel I must help,” Klaas said, “but Hendrik has worked harder, longer than me and may need to rest.”

Hendrik shook his head. “No, I’ll help, but I think we ought to see to our own place first, Papa.”

“See to it?” Klaas asked.

“Wet down the roof, fill every extra bucket and tub we got with water — that’s what I meant.”

“So wise you are, my son,” Christina said, giving his forearm a tender squeeze. “If you will see to the roof, I can fill buckets and more with water. Then you will be free to help the sooner.”

Ja, ja, it is a good plan,” her husband said, and Hendrik echoed his words.

*****

The wind proved its unpredictability around two o’clock that afternoon. Hendrik was just giving the shake roof a final dousing when he felt the wind change direction, southwesterly now, more directly toward town. Even that would not have mattered, but he felt a marked increase in its velocity as well, especially when it whipped the blue knit cap from his head. Scrambling down the ladder, he called urgently, “Papa! Bring the shovels. We need to get to the fire line right quick!”

“Oh! You think the danger is coming?” Christina asked urgently.

“Not yet, but if this wind keeps up,” Hendrik said, “it’ll for sure get here before tomorrow night, like Mr. Weersing was hopin’.”

“Get what you can out of the house,” Klaas said. “Put it down the well or bury it, Mama, but do not strain yourself with anything heavy.

“Papa, you stay and help with that,” Hendrik urged. “You can be of more help that way, to us and to our neighbors. It’s strong backs like mine that are needed to stop that fire.”

Ja, you are right,” Klaas reluctantly agreed. “Better I stay in town and help those I can than get in the way of the real fire fighters.”

Hendrik grasped his adopted father’s hand with firm fingers. “We’re all real fire fighters, each in his own way.”

Ja, ja, we each must do what we can,” Christina said. “Go now, mijn zoon.”

*****

Warm smiles welcomed Hendrik when he joined the front line of firefighters. Even the few who retained suspicion of the strange young man without a memory knew well the worth of his strong back and seemingly tireless energy. He set to work with no more than a nodded greeting, forcefully thrusting his shovel into the earth. There was no water here in the timbered area, so the men’s only course was to dig a firebreak and beat out any sparks that flew over it with the backs of their shovels. Soon the all-too-familiar sensation of sweat-soaked shirt clinging to sweat-drenched skin, combined with the aching muscles left by similar battles earlier in the week, began to drain even Hendrik’s phenomenal physique. Today was different, however; the fire hotter, the flames higher, and soon his shirt was stiff and dry, the heat evaporating every drop of sweat as soon as it touched his fire-baked flesh. The only reason he and the others could carry on their fight was the water brought to them by a lad of fifteen, too slightly built to be of any use with a shovel, who ran up and down the line with a bucket and ladle hauled from town.

As the hours passed, however, Hendrik began to shiver despite the heat from the fire. The wind had increased throughout the afternoon, while the temperature steadily dropped. More and more sparks and embers flew over his head to set the parched grass behind him ablaze. Inch by inch, the men fought the fire, and inch by inch the fire won. Flames leaped from tree to tree, and rolling sheets of fire scythed through the timber and slash heaped on the ground.

The workers fell back into what had once been a swamp but now bore only a few miry spots that merited the name. Drought had dried the swamp, and many townsfolk had cleared wide swaths to enhance their harvest of lumber. Hendrik had frowned the first time he saw the waste with which that harvest was accomplished, instinctively sensing, without knowing how he knew, that there was a better way to manage timber. Now the sawdust, brush and discarded limbs that littered the former swamp did nothing but provide more fuel for the fire, which licked it up greedily and eyed the town itself as its next meal.

As the sun went down, he could hear the bell in the steeple of the Third Reformed Church, the southernmost in town, tolling a warning, but even past the time usually allotted to sounding an alarm, the bell continued to clang in the blustering wind. Long after dark, the men battled on, beyond hope beating back the flames, all the while praying that the wind would turn once again and spare their homes. Midnight came, and with it winds fiercer than before. Even as strong a man as Hendrik could barely stand against the force of that rainless gale. As scattered fires combined and spread, the men bowed to the inevitable. The heat and smoke became unbearable, and the howling wind cannonaded burning coals above their heads to land on roofs in town. When the buildings on the edge of Holland caught fire, the fighters, as one, shouldered their shovels and rushed back into town, to save what they could.

Hendrik ran with them through the hail of coal, ash and burning shingles that flew from blazing roofs. One of the firebrands struck his head forcefully enough to knock him off balance, but he ran on, ignoring the trickle of blood that dribbled from forehead to cheek. As he turned in the direction of the Vandervort home, he saw one of his favorite tykes, little Walter Post, pushing a small wheelbarrow that, no doubt, contained all his boyish treasures. Hendrik was moving toward the five-year-old, to help speed him toward safety when the pitiless wind picked up both child and wheelbarrow, which he continued to grasp in tenacious fingers, and carried them away.

“Walter!” Hendrik shouted as he raced after the boy, but the wind gave no heed. Or, perhaps, it did, for the boy came tumbling down to earth, still holding tight to his wheelbarrow. Hendrik ran up and knelt beside him, brushing the sand from the child’s face, and moments later, Walter’s father ran up to join them, stooping to take his boy in his arms. A father holding his little boy — it seemed so familiar to Hendrik, but he couldn’t be sure that feeling came from memory or his deepest dreams.

“I lost my hat, Papa,” Walter whimpered, rubbing his gritty eyes.

“It’s all right, son,” the still trembling father panted.

“But I didn’t let the wind steal the wheelbarrow,” the boy added with a proud smile.

Charles Post laughed in relief. “No, you didn’t, my boy, and that is harder to replace than a hat.”

Neither one of them harder to replace than the boy himself, Hendrik thought as he stood up. “Best get him down to the lake to wash out them eyes,” he suggested. “Might be the safest place.”

“Can anything survive a hurricane like this?” Post asked, but he quickly thanked Hendrik and hurried off with Walter to find the rest of his family.

Hurricane, Hendrik mused. He knew that word. He still didn’t think he’d been a sailor, but he thought, maybe, he’d heard about hurricanes from someone who’d been through them, because the picture that sprang into his head was so vivid he could almost see trees bending and swaying on some ocean shore. He shrugged as he turned back toward home. Just another of those half-memories that came to him sometimes. Odd, but they’d seemed to be coming more often this past week. Odd, too, that his head didn’t hurt the way it used to when something tried to push its way out of — or maybe, into — his mind. It hurt now, of course, from being hit by that flying shingle, but not like it used to when some memory tried to edge its way in. Maybe, with all his attention on the fires this week, he’d quit trying to block the memories; or, maybe, every other part of his body had hurt so much that he just plain hadn’t noticed something as insignificant as a headache. Either way, he didn’t feel inclined to push the half-memories aside any more, but neither did he have time right now to pursue them.

His most urgent need was to get home and make sure that his own family was safe. Ignoring his flagging strength, he raced through the business district of Holland to the small house just beyond. “Mama, Papa,” he shouted the moment his feet touched the yard.

Christina ran out the front door, her arms wide. “Hendrik! Mijn zoon! You are safe!”

Ja, Mama,” he said, giving her a quick hug. Catching sight of Klaas beyond her, he said urgently, “We have to go now.”

“The fire is coming?” Klaas asked.

“It’s here,” Hendrik said grimly. “The church roof is already ablaze.”

Christina’s hands flew to her cheeks. “Oh, no, not our church.”

“No, Mama,” he quickly assured her. “Not First Church. That’s brick and should stand, though the roof might burn. I meant Third Reformed, at the edge of town.” He suddenly realized that the bell there had stopped tolling. That could mean only one thing: the fire had reached the steeple. “It’s gone now. We have to leave!”

Christina’s gaze turned back to the house. “But surely there is time to –”

“No, Mama!” he said sharply. “You must go now. Down to the lake and into the water, if the fire drives you. I will stay, save what I can, and join you there when there is no hope.”

“People first, my boy,” Klaas said as he took firm hold of his wife’s arm.

“Always, Papa,” Hendrik promised. His heart surged with pride that, even in the face of losing of everything, his papa was a man who would not risk what could not be replaced for mere things that could. He went inside and looked around briefly, but seeing nothing of greater value than the lives of their neighbors, he decided to check on them first.

For the next hour, he ran from one house to another, calling the names of those he knew. Most of the houses were already vacant, but he checked each room, just in case. He was glad he had when he entered one bedroom and found a woman who had succumbed to the smoke. He carried her down to the shore of Black Lake and left her in the care of the first woman he saw and hurried back to check as many remaining houses as the fire sweeping northward would permit. In one he found a woman struggling to get her sick husband out of bed, while her feverish baby lay screaming in the cradle nearby. “God bless you,” she sobbed when Hendrik lifted the wasted man in his arms. Taking the baby, she followed him to safety.

The wind turned west, reaching its greedy claws toward the center of town. Seeing the business district threatened, Hendrik raced to the small shop where he built and sold his furniture. Flames were already licking the building next to it, so he had time to save only his tools. In this case, mere things were important, for the town would be sadly in need of rebuilding by morning, unless the wind changed yet again or God mercifully sent a deluge of rain. Neither appeared likely, and, if not, Holland’s fate was sealed. Tool box in hand, an exhausted Hendrik finally admitted there was nothing more he could do, and he walked to the edge of Black Lake.

Hundreds of people hugged the shore, the Vandervorts somewhere among them. He knew they would be concerned about him, but he couldn’t search for them, not yet. He’d fought the fire for more than twelve hours, and as he collapsed on the beach, he felt every last ounce of energy drain into the sand. All he could do was stare, hypnotized and helpless, as flames devoured the town, building by building. It was the eeriest scene he ever remembered seeing, although, in his case, that wasn’t saying much, he realized, his face twisting in a wry and sheepish grimace.

But even grim humor could not survive in the face of the hell before him. Fiery demons danced on rooftops, painting the heavens in the amber and ocher haze of their reflected glow and chasing the shadowy phantoms of those determined to save some last small treasure from the dying town. The sound was as horrendous as the sight. Crackles of fire faded in the explosion of places like the tannery and the crash of structures falling into ashes. Women wailed or softly wept, according to their individual bent; children shrieked, and no doubt the men would have joined the cacophony had not they been as spent as Hendrik himself. And everywhere the smell of charred wood and tangy smoke filled the air. For years to come, whenever any preacher needed an illustration of hell, he had only to bring up the recollection of that nightmare night in Holland and other communities dotted around Lake Michigan.

Some, fearing the heat, escaped into the lake itself, a fortunate few finding a boat to carry them to potential safety on the other side. As the crowd thinned, Hendrik finally lunged to his feet and began to scan the shoreline for his own family. He knew they would not leave, not even just to enter the water, until they found him. He had just caught sight of Klaas and waved to him when he heard a woman scream out a name, interwoven with cries for help. As he turned, he saw a small boy, floundering and flailing in the water, while a woman stretched futilely short arms toward him from a nearby boat. Without thought even for whether he could swim — and, frankly, he wouldn’t have known — Hendrik plunged into the rippling waves and, with a frantic cry of, “Joe!”, he rushed toward the child and snatched him up as his curly head sank beneath the surface.

Thankfully, he was no more than chest deep, for the little boy came up sputtering and squirming. “Hey, hey, easy now,” Hendrik soothed. “I got you.”

The child continued to fight him, and suddenly Hendrik found himself in another place, another time, holding another curly-haired, struggling youngster in his arms. “Let me go!” the little boy demanded, and in that moment Hendrik wasn’t sure whether the angry cry had come from the boy in his arms now or the one he’d held — when? He didn’t know, but the vision had been so clear that he knew it was real. He lumbered toward the boat and handed the boy into it. Just for a second, though, it was not the yearning arms of this mother, but those of a silver-haired man that stretched for the curly-haired boy.

Shaken, Hendrik barely heard the woman’s heartfelt thanks as he waded back toward shore. For the first time, he tried to hang onto one of his half-memories because he’d recognized that older man’s face. Not in the mist of his shadowy past, but sometime in his current reality, he’d seen that man. Now, if he could just place him…

“Hendrik!”

The picture vanished as he caught sight of Christina, and smiling, he headed toward her outstretched arms.

Weary as they were, sleep came slowly to the residents of Holland and, for some, not at all. Arms around each other, virtually all they had left in the world, they watched in horrified fascination as the flames devoured their homes and livelihoods, demolishing the majority of the town in an hour’s time. Some finally collapsed on the sandy beach, huddling together against the cold that had accompanied the wind, and tried to sleep in the waning hours of the night. The Vandervorts were among them and were more blessed than many, since Christina had insisted on bringing a quilt for each of them.

Hendrik wanted to sleep; he hoped that in his dreams he might again see the silver-haired father and his chestnut-curled child and, maybe, figure out who they were. He finally fell into a brief doze, and he did see, at least, the man again and remembered where they had first met. It had been while he and the Vandervorts were packing up to leave their California home. Then, later, they had stopped by the man’s ranch on their way here and had spent the night. What was there about a chance encounter like that to make him remember the man at a time like this? He’d thought the man a stranger, even to the Vandervorts, and there’d been no child on that ranch, at least that he could recall. Was his memory of recent events becoming as murky as his faded past? No, the picture that had flashed in his head a few hours before had been too clear, too real not to be a true memory, but what did it mean? That question effectively kept sleep from his eyes for the brief time until the sun rose upon a scene of devastation.

When the Vandervorts awoke, Hendrik shared with them their last small loaf of bread before setting out for home. Even that meager breakfast was more than most people had thought to bring with them. Many had assumed, or at least hoped, that their houses would miraculously survive the inferno or had waited until the last minute to flee and then had time to save nothing but their lives.

After eating, the trio walked through the level plain, now covered with smoldering ashes, that had once been Holland, Michigan. Their nostrils were assaulted with the acrid odor of smoke and their ears by the despairing cries of those seeing for the first time the remains of their homes. For the majority of the townspeople, nothing whatsoever remained — not homes, not stores, not factories or churches…just nothing.

Klaas, whose heaving chest still held the heart of a farmer, looked at the desolation and said, almost under his breath, “It is as if a reaper mowed it clear.”

Hendrik, though not a farmer, had spent his unknown life close enough to the land to instinctively understand the metaphor and nodded in solemn agreement. Not a fencepost, not a sidewalk plank, hardly, even, a stump of the leafy trees that had once shaded their streets and marked their property lines remained. He felt a small hand slip into his and looked down into the face of the curly-haired child he’d rescued from the lake the night before. “Hey, there,” he said.

The little boy, with the determination of a man on a mission, ignored the greeting. “Mama says to apologize for fighting you and thank you for saving my life.”

“No need to apologize,” Hendrik said with a smile. “We was all a little edgy last night. And I was happy to do it, Joe.”

The boy frowned. “I’m Peter.”

Hendrik blinked. He remembered calling out that other name the night before, but now, for the life of him, he didn’t know why. He knew a lot of the children of Holland by name, but this boy wasn’t one of them, and none of the ones he did know was named Joe. Why pick that name to holler out in a moment of alarm? He shook off the ill-timed question. “Oh, yeah, right. Ain’t sure why I thought it was…never mind. I’m just glad you’re all right, little fellow.”

Peter grinned, then, his open mouth showing the gap where he’d recently lost a front tooth. “That’s all right. And I meant it — what mama said to say, I mean.”

“You’re plumb welcome,” Hendrik chuckled. “Now, I reckon your mama will need all the help you can give her this morning.”

“I reckon you’re plumb right,” Peter said, his mouth twisting to form the unfamiliar phrasing of his new hero, and though it seemed scarcely possible, his grin only widened when Hendrik lightly swatted his bottom to send him scampering on his way, brown curls bouncing.

They weren’t the same color as the boy’s he’d seen in that flashed image last night, but something about them stirred a feeling inside Hendrik that he couldn’t identify. The name wasn’t right, either. Somewhere…sometime…he was sure he’d known a chestnut-curled little squirmer named Joe, but…

“Come, Hendrik,” Christina said with a resolute lift of her chin. “Your mama, too, needs help this morning.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hendrik said, his reverie broken, and he fell meekly into step behind her while she walked on, still praying, as was everyone on the far side of town, that something, anything, was left.

Though it was hard to tell one street from another with all the landmarks gone, they finally recognized the lot where their home had stood — and, by some miracle, still did, although damaged. Christina’s hands flew to her mouth to stifle a cry of mingled dismay and gratitude. Fully half of the roof missing and three walls at least partially charred, but the house stood, and if they spread their blankets in the sheltered corner, they would have a roof over their heads tonight. More than most of the townsfolk could say. The house beyond theirs had fared almost as well, although it was obvious that those neighbors had not taken the precaution of soaking their roof before leaving, and those further on had sustained little more than smoke-blackened walls. “We are blessed,” Christina finally said.

Ja, Mama,” Klaas said. “We have much work to make this a home again, but we have strong hands for the work, eh, Hendrik?”

Ja, Papa,” Hendrik agreed, rolling up his sleeves. They set to work at once, first clearing out the house and sorting what was worth keeping from anything beyond repair. Though they were, indeed, blessed, compared with most of the Hollanders, much would need to be replaced. The kitchen was a complete loss, including the table and chairs. Hendrik’s room was gone, too, and while the Vandervorts’ bed was no more than singed, none of them could bear the smell of the smoke-saturated mattress. They hauled it outside, in hopes that fresh air and sunshine might make it usable, at least temporarily.

Finding Christina peering down the well and fearing that she might attempt to retrieve the goods they’d thrown down it on her own, the two men stopped their other work. Hendrik offered to go down the well, but when Klaas pointed out that he was the heavier of the two and, therefore, the harder to pull up when they’d finished, they quickly decided to let the older man make the descent while Hendrik’s strong arms pulled up whatever could be salvaged. There wasn’t much. Although the water had protected whatever lay beneath its surface, everything down to that point had been consumed by the hungry fire.

Hendrik hauled up sopping bed linens and pillows and a few items of clothing that had escaped the fire. Having been the last things placed in the well, most of them had lain atop the water and been consumed. He handed them to Christina, but she could only pile them on the smoky mattress. As bad a drying place as that was, it was minimally better than the ash-covered ground. None of it would be useful until she found a way to launder and properly hang it to dry. Tonight they would again sleep on the ground with no cover but the quilts they had carried to the lakeshore.

They worked until they had no strength to do more and then dropped beside a small fire they built in the parlor, which had survived unscathed except for smoke damage. Even that was barely possible, for the fire that had taken two-thirds of the town had left little wood to burn, either for warmth or for cooking, had there been any food still in town. Like other residents, they’d put their supplies in burlap bags and buried them, but the violent wind had blown away the light sand, leaving everything exposed to the ravenous flames. Even the potatoes were burnt to an inedible crisp.

“You miss your pipe, Papa,” Christina said. Seeing her husband seated by the fire reminded her of how he loved to sit there after supper and puff on the old thing. Her nose had always wrinkled at the odor, but she would gladly have put up with it now, if it helped him relax.

Klaas chuckled softly. “I miss many things, Mama. A pipe will be the easiest to replace, I think.”

Not that one, she thought, but did not say it. That pipe had belonged to Klaas’s own papa and had come with them from the old country. Suddenly, old Holland’s fields of bright tulips seemed far away. Would they ever bloom again, here in Michigan’s Holland, or would they, like the pipe, become only a faint memory that faded with time?

Glancing at Hendrik, she saw him, too, gazing pensively into the flickering fire. He could not be grieving over things lost. He had few things of his own and cared little, even for those. Her adopted son had always been content, so long as he had shelter and clothes and food. Ah, that must be it. If there was one thing she knew well it was her Hendrik’s hearty appetite. “You are hungry, mijn zoon,” she said, her voice warm with sympathy. Her own empty belly was of no consequence, but a young man, especially one who had worked so hard and so long, needed food.

But Hendrik only shrugged. “Not so much.” In truth, both his body and his mind had been so absorbed in weightier matters that he’d scarcely noticed the growling of his stomach.

Christina’s brow wrinkled. “But something troubles my boy. Please, can we not help?”

Hendrik raised clouded blue eyes to her concerned gaze. He’d been mulling exactly that as they huddled close to the scant warmth of the room open to the elements on one side. Should he share the half-memories he’d been having, with increasing frequency and strength, these past few days? Could the Vandervorts help him put together the puzzle pieces his mind was straining to sort through? He had no desire to hurt these good people, especially when they might not have the answers he sought, either, but he decided that he had to risk asking. “There is one thing you might could help with,” he said slowly.

“If we can, we will,” Klaas said. “You have been free to give your help wherever needed, both to us and our neighbors.”

Hendrik smiled briefly. The way he’d handled himself during this community crisis had finally silenced, once and for all, the major question that had tormented him ever since he woke in the Vandervorts’ California home and first realized that he didn’t know who he was. He no longer feared that he’d been a black-hearted man in that misty past, for all his instincts, when faced with life or death, had been those of a man who cared deeply, even sacrificially, for others. He didn’t think he could have been much different before, and the peace that came with that thought gave him the courage to ask. “I been havin’ these sort of pictures pop into my head,” he began. “People, places I think I might have seen somewhere before.”

“You think you are starting to remember?” Klaas asked, as Christina’s lips began to tremble.

“I think I might be,” Hendrik said tentatively. “Most of the pictures are of folks I can’t place.”

“Ah, just dreams, then,” Christina said quickly.

“Maybe,” he admitted, “but there’s one face I do remember, and I think you would, too. You remember that last day, when we was packin’ up to leave? A gray-haired man came by the house.”

Christina turned away, lest he see the sudden panic in her eyes.

Ja, we remember,” Klaas said. “Go on, my boy.”

“Just a passin’ stranger, I thought,” Hendrik continued. “A kind man who offered us a place to stay overnight, when he heard we’d be going near his ranch. In Nevada, wasn’t it?”

Ja, that’s right,” Klaas said.

“Well, the thing is,” Hendrik said, “when I fished little Peter out of the lake and handed him to his mama, all of a sudden I saw myself handing a different little boy over to that man, and I can’t get him out of my mind.”

“We know nothing about that,” Christina said quickly.

“Mama.” Klaas barely whispered the warning, but she heard it and turned flaming cheeks to the fire.

“You think it’s possible I knew that man before?” Hendrik asked. Seeing the woman’s reaction, he phrased his question more firmly. “Do you know if I knew him before?”

Ja, my boy, you did,” Klaas confirmed.

Christina turned back to face them. “You must be careful, Hendrik. Remember that the doctor said it might be harmful to you to try too hard to remember the past. Perhaps you should wait until you are more rested, mijn zoon.”

“No, Mama,” Klaas said harshly. “He is not our son; he is that man’s son.”

Hendrik’s head jolted up. “His son? That man was my father?”

Christina began to weep. “Klaas, please,” she pleaded. “The doctor…”

“Hang the doctor!” Hendrik shouted. “Was that my father?”

Klaas nodded. “Ja, he is, your true father.”

Hendrik’s head moved slowly, side to side, his face blank with disbelief and bewilderment. “But, why?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t he?”

“The doctor’s fears,” Klaas said simply. “We told your father what the doctor had told us, that if you were to face the truth too quickly, you might become lost to yourself, but we left the decision to him.”

“He started to tell me,” Hendrik recalled. His memory of that conversation was hazy, overshadowed by the horrendous headache even the suggestion of being told who he was had brought on. “I told him…I didn’t want to know.” He closed his eyes in pain. “My own father — that must have half-killed him.”

Ja,” Klaas agreed. “He loved — loves — you greatly, Hendrik.”

“He must,” Hendrik said, head moving slowly, side to side. Then, his lips tightened. “You gave me your son’s name. Do you know my real one?”

“Your father used it,” Klaas said. He stroked his chin in thought, but shook his head. “I am sorry, my boy. I do not remember. Mama?”

Still looking away, Christina shook her head.

“Mama, tell me the truth,” Hendrik said, for he sensed that she had withheld much from him over the past six months.

She turned tearful eyes to his face, but her gaze was steady as she said, “I do not remember, Hen–”. Fearing to finish the name he seemed to be rejecting, she broke off, shaking her head.

His expression softened. “It’s all right, Mama,” he said. “For now, Hendrik will do.”

Klaas looked anxiously at his wife, but then turned with determination to the young man who had been like a son to him, as well as to her. “Hendrik, I made a promise to your father. I told him that if ever your memory were to return, we would help you make your way back to him. We have little to offer you here now, and if it is your wish, we will pay your stage fare back to Nevada.”

Christina gasped, her breath catching in her throat.

Hendrik bit his lower lip. He wanted to go back. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to return, in hopes that something there would further ignite his memory and bring him back to himself, but he shook his head. “You can’t afford that,” he said, “not with all you’re faced with after this fire.”

Klaas reached over to lay his hand over the larger one of the young man. “We carried our monies with us to the lake,” he reminded Hendrik, “and much of it was earned by you, anyway. Yes, we will need money to rebuild, but you have much to rebuild, too — in Nevada. The least we can offer for all the help you have given us these last months is the price of a stage ticket.”

Knowing what a sacrifice that would be at such a time, Hendrik was overwhelmed by the man’s generosity and compassion. It was true that he had charged nothing for his labor, taken nothing but room and board in exchange for his work. Perhaps he did have a right to part of that money, but he couldn’t take it, not yet. “You folks have been good to me, given me a home when I had none, at least none I knew of,” he said. “I can’t leave you now, without a roof over your heads. Let me help you get settled again, and then, maybe, I’ll take you up on that.”

*****

The big man stepped down from the stage arriving in Virginia City. Three months had passed since he’d made the decision to come here, but they had been busy ones for everyone in Holland. Relief had begun to pour in the morning after the fire, first from Grand Haven with cooked provisions for the starving villagers. Never had fresh bread and baked beans tasted so good! Surrounding areas had helped, too, but the main rebuilding had been done by the townsfolk themselves, and in that process, no one had worked harder nor more tirelessly than Hendrik Vandervort. His huge heart would not let him leave his neighbors, even those previously unacquainted with him, without a roof, any more than he could leave his adopted parents in that state. Things weren’t completely back to normal in Holland, even now, but everyone had, at least, some sheltered place to lay his head.

It had taken those months, too, to wean Christina from her beloved zoon, and she’d begged to spend Christmas with him before he went away. He couldn’t say no, but Klaas had spread the word before Thanksgiving that their Hendrik would be leaving to find his real family in a few weeks. The common knowledge made it impossible for Christina to try to convince the young man to stay, but it had also provided many compassionate arms to comfort her in the loss. It had provided, also, material aid, for those whom Hendrik had helped in their time of need wanted to do what they could for him in return. Though they had lost so much themselves, each offered some small gift: a few coins, a new knit cap, food for the journey, and from all, sincere prayers that he would find his own people and what was still more precious, his memory of them.

He felt the strength of those prayers now as he looked up and down the street, hoping to see something he recognized. He didn’t. To him, it was like any number of towns he’d passed through on his way here from Holland. Taking his carpetbag from the driver, he inquired where he might find a livery and then headed in the direction he’d been given. As he entered, the proprietor looked up and a wide grin split his face. “Well, lookee what the cat drug in,” he said. “Been a long time, boy! You have a good time, visitin’ them friends of yourn back East?”

Hendrik hadn’t expected to be recognized in a town this large, so the greeting knocked him off guard, but he quickly recovered and went along with the story that had evidently been given out to explain his absence. “Uh, yeah. Nice long visit. You got a horse I can rent?”

“Sure, sure,” the liveryman said. “Surprised Adam didn’t bring Chubby in for you. Didn’t he meet you at the stage?”

“Uh, no, didn’t tell anyone I was comin,’” Hendrik stammered, having no idea who Adam was and not wanting to ask.

“Oh, a surprise, huh? Well, it’ll be a welcome one, for sure. Just figured that’s why Adam was in town.” The man aimed his chin toward a tall chestnut standing in the closest stall.

Hendrik reached out to stroke the horse’s sleek side. This must be that Adam’s horse, he supposed. The gelding nuzzled his shoulder in seeming affection.

“Looks like ol’ Sport has missed you,” the liveryman said. “Whole town has, boy.”

“Thanks,” Hendrik said. “Listen, about that horse…” He was afraid if he didn’t get out of here soon, he’d give away not only himself, but whatever tales had been told to cover his long absence.

“Oh, sure, sure, forgettin’ myself. You must be anxious to get home.”

“You got no idea.” Anxious was the right word, too, Hendrik thought as he helped the man saddle his rented mount. Still without memory of his past, he had no idea what kind of reception he’d get from Ben Cartwright, the name Klaas had recalled as the owner of a ranch called the Ponderosa. He’d seemed like a kindly man from the brief encounter Hendrik had had with him the single night they’d stayed there on their journey, and the very fact that he’d withheld a truth that might injure spoke of loving concern. Hendrik had every hope he’d be welcomed back by such a man, but he couldn’t be sure. After all, he wasn’t the son this man had known; he was changed, not only by the knock on the head that had taken his memory, but by everything that had happened to him since.

Remembering the way from the last time he’d been here, he left town, riding carefully down the steep decline of Geiger Grade. He felt reluctant to show up so near to supper time, but the stage had been late and he didn’t want to delay this long-looked-for meeting. He had little choice but to go straight to the Ponderosa, anyway. While the Vandervorts and the townspeople of Holland had been more than generous with him, he’d taken only what he needed to get here and had little money left, not even enough to rent a hotel room. If the Cartwrights didn’t take him in, maybe they’d, at least, let him sleep in their barn, and then he’d set out to find work the next morning. In time, he could earn enough to make his way back to Holland.

He crossed the valley and rode into the forested hills beyond, breathing in deeply the fragrance of pine as the road climbed. Was it the fragrance of home? Had he known this scent through all his growing up years or had his family come here later in his life? It seemed familiar, but it wasn’t so different from the fragrance of the forests surrounding Holland, although that memory was now forever tainted with the odor of char and smoke.

He slowed as he made the final turn leading up to the ranch house and halted altogether when it came into view. It was a grand house, just as he remembered, so much larger and better furnished than the Vandervort homes he’d inhabited, but he’d been happy in those small places. Had he been happy here? Could he be again? Taking in and then slowly exhaling a long draught of fortifying air, he walked the horse into the yard, dismounted and tied the reins to the hitching post.

The knock at the door roused Ben Cartwright from his light nap by the fire. He’d dozed off in daylight like this far too often in recent months, the result, he well knew, of late nights spent waiting up for his quicksilver youngest. Strange, to be getting a caller this late in the day, he thought as he rose from his chair. He only hoped it wasn’t the sheriff. Roy Coffee’s anything-but-social calls were another thing he’d received far too often of late.

He opened the door and stared, gape-mouthed, at the fulfillment of his hopes and prayers for the last nine months. A strangled cry surged up his throat, but he stifled it just in time. He was not, after all, certain who stood before him, his beloved Hoss or, once again, a stranger passing by on his way to another place. “Well, young man,” he finally said. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Thank you, sir,” the visitor said. “It’s good to see you again, too.” Just how good he didn’t yet dare say. “Could — uh — I come in?”

“Of course! Of course!” Ben stepped aside to let the other man enter. “Forgive me for forgetting my manners. I was just so surprised to see you.”

“Nothing to forgive,” the younger man said in warm sincerity. How could this man, who had given him life and, beyond that, the unhindered chance to find himself ever think he’d need forgiveness?

Ben showed his guest to the settee and returned to his own chair by the fire. “Are you and the Vandervorts returning to this part of the country?” he asked. Oh, if only they were! Then he might have an occasional opportunity to visit his son, if only in the guise of a family friend.

“No, just me.”

“Things not work out in Michigan?” Ben asked, recalling the couple’s destination.

“They worked out fine.” He shifted uneasily. “I’m sorry to be botherin’ you so late in the day, sir. I came straight from the stage, but it got in late.”

“No bother, no bother at all, son.” Ben bit his tongue, but then decided that salutation was common enough from an older man to a younger to pass unnoticed. “You’ll join us for supper, of course, and we’d be happy to have you spend the night…to stay as long as you like, in fact.” He prayed his voice didn’t reveal his eagerness for that invitation to be accepted.

“I’d like that, sir. I…aw, doggone it.” The younger man looked uncomfortable again. “I don’t how to do this any way but to speak plain, sir.”

“By all means,” Ben urged.

He edgily brushed his lower lip with an index finger and then looked steadily into the other man’s eyes. “I…know who you are, sir.”

“You do?” Ben willed his pounding heart to remain in his chest. Did that mean . . .?

“Mr. Vandervort said you were my father.”

Tears formed in Ben’s eyes. “Yes, yes, I…you remembered? No, you said he told you. Your memory is still…?”

“Gone, except for bits and pieces that seem like they might be memories.” Hoss leaned forward. “I saw you, kind of in my mind’s eye, and just knew I’d known you before, so I asked, and he told me.”

“Thank God.”

“I do, and I thank you for lettin’ me go ‘til I was ready to hear the truth. That’s what I’m here for, to ask some things and…”

“Anything. Anything, son!” Ben could use the word freely now. His son knew he was his son!

The young man looked alarmed for a moment, but then settled down. “I don’t mean everything, all at once, ‘cause I’m still hopin’ to remember things on my own. Could you just let me stay here awhile and ask questions when I feel the need?”

“Of course, you can stay! This is your home.”

The big man smiled as he nodded. “I thought you’d say that, judgin’ what kind of man you are from the little I know. Thanks.”

“Is… is there anything you’d like to ask now?”

“Just a couple things for now.” His eyes clouded, and his lips trembled as he said, “I’d like to know my own name. I reckon it’d be better if I was to remember it by myself, but I been usin’ a borrowed one for months now, and I’d sure like to know the real one.”

Seeing his son’s emotions so stirred, Ben fought to keep control of his own. “Eric is your given name,” he said.

He shook his head. “Don’t ring any bells.”

Ben uttered a short laugh. “Well, that might be because you’re almost never called that.”

His heart raced. “What am I called?”

“Hoss.” Seeing his son’s bewildered look, Ben explained, “It’s what the mountain men call a big, friendly man. Your uncle suggested it, and your brother Adam insisted.”

“It suits me,” Hoss said. “Adam’s my brother, then? I reckon he’s still in town.”

Ben looked surprised. “You met Adam in town?”

Hoss laughed. “Just his horse. Liveryman thought he must’ve been in town to meet my stage. I didn’t feel obliged to tell him I had no idea who Adam was!”

*****

At the outburst of laughter, Adam Cartwright froze in the act of tying Sport next to the unfamiliar mount at the hitching rail. Laughter had been so much a part of this house for as long as he could remember, but it hadn’t been heard within these walls for months. In better days, his younger brothers had been the chief creators of merriment, and neither one of them had been available for that good purpose in a long while. Hoss was simply gone, and Joe — well, Joe hadn’t been available for any good purpose in longer than either he or Pa cared to admit. That was Pa laughing now, though, and much as Adam wanted to go in and see what had produced such a marvel, he didn’t want to squelch it, either, by reporting the failure of his current quest. For the first time, he’d been completely unable to find his baby brother, despite searching all of Joe’s usual hidey holes and trouble havens. Instead of entering the house, he turned toward the barn and followed his father’s old adage of seeing first to the needs of his mount. He’d tend to the other horse later, if the unknown guest intended to stay over, as he probably would need to at this hour.

He worked quickly, however, unable to resist the pull of that laughter, even though it had stopped by the time he opened the front door. He walked inside, and for the second time that evening, froze in mid-act, this time while reaching for the buckle of his holster. The visitor on the settee turned to face him, and amazingly, impossibly, it was his brother Hoss, big as life and twice as beautiful to Adam’s eyes. But was Hoss Hoss or was he…? Taking no chances, Adam came forward, hand outstretched, and said with a smile, “Hendrik, isn’t it?”

Grinning mischievously, the big man shook his head. “You must have me mixed up with someone else, Adam; my name is Hoss.”

Light shone in Adam’s hazel eyes. “Does that mean…?”

“No, son,” Ben inserted. “He asked me his name. Your brother still has no memory — or, very little — but the Vandervorts finally told him who his family was, and he came here in hopes of finding himself.”

Adam grasped his brother’s hand between both of his own. “That’s wonderful, Hoss. I’ve thought all along that you had a better chance of that here, where familiar things might trigger your recall.”

“I’m hopin’ so, too,” Hoss said.

“Sit down, son,” Ben said to Adam, “and let us fill you in on what Hoss has already shared.” His face sobered as he looked toward the door. “You’re…alone?”

Adam nodded. “I’m sorry, Pa; I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find him.”

“Well, never mind; he’ll be along.”

As Ben settled back in his seat, a light smile touched the lips of his oldest son. That was the calmest reaction he’d seen from his father — well, ever. Obviously, even Little Joe’s near-daily dereliction of duty couldn’t dim Pa’s happiness tonight.

Ben sat up in sudden thought and called, “Hop Sing!”

“Yes, Mr. Ben?” The Chinese man appeared so quickly that Ben knew he’d been hovering, as he habitually did, just beyond sight. In fact, Ben was almost positive he’d seen a pair of almond eyes peeking around the corner a time or two. “Would we have time for some coffee before supper without inconveniencing you?” Goodness knows, their Cantonese cook had no scruple against telling them, vociferously, if he felt inconvenienced, and Ben wanted no tirades tonight.

Apparently, neither did Hop Sing, for no Cartwright had ever seen the man so obsequious and obliging. He bowed frenetically. “No trouble, no trouble,” he assured them. Then he hesitated, but decided to offer, anyway. “You want Hop Sing hold supper little bit for…”

“No,” Ben interrupted sharply and then schooled his voice to sound more amiable. “Thank you for the thought, Hop Sing, but as Joseph may be delayed, we won’t wait on him.”

Eyes clouding, the cook bowed once more and disappeared into the kitchen and deep into his own mournful memory of all the meals his Little Joe had missed. But he would eat now. Oh, yes, surely Number Three Son would eat again, now that his brother, the Cartwright most appreciative of Hop Sing’s fine meals, had returned. A feast there should be this night, he decided, as he set the coffee pot on to brew. There wasn’t time for roast pig, just the fried chicken he’d originally planned, but surely the occasion called for something special. Maybe-so, pie? Number Two Son loved pie, and while baking would delay the meal, Hop Sing was almost certain no one would complain.

As soon as the coffee was ready, he took the prepared tray into the great room and set it on the low table before the fireplace. Beaming broadly, he bowed eloquently to Number Two Son. “I fixee strong, like you like, Mr. Hoss.”

“Oh…uh… thanks, Mr.–” Hoss glanced helplessly toward his father.

“Hop Sing,” Ben supplied.

“Thanks, Mr. Hop Sing,” Hoss said, swallowing hard when he saw the look of disappointment on the little man’s face. “I…uh…say something wrong?” he whispered when the cook had returned to the kitchen.

“It’s just Hop Sing, not mister,” Adam explained.

“Oh, okay.” His brow wrinkled. “I knew him before, didn’t I?”

“He’s been with us from the time you were a boy,” Ben said.

“Part of the family,” Adam added.

Hoss shook his head. “Bothers folks when I don’t remember, I know, but I don’t mean to cause hurt.”

“Of course not,” Ben hurried to say. “You couldn’t…ever.”

Again, it was Adam who explained more fully. “Not in your nature…never was.”

Moisture washed Hoss’ eyes at this further confirmation that even if he couldn’t remember a single action of his earlier life, he’d been a good and honorable man.

*****

After a dinner eaten with enough relish to satisfy even Hop Sing, the three Cartwrights moved to the area in front of the fire to enjoy thick slices of apple pie, fresh and hot from the oven, and more coffee. They began to talk, politely at first, but more freely as the night wore on. Avoiding the more dangerous area of memories, Ben and Adam shared episodes of ranch life during the time Hoss had been gone, and Hoss told them about his life in Holland, ending with a description of the fire and how pictures that had come to his mind during that lengthy fight had drawn him back to the Ponderosa.

“There was one so strong it had to be real,” Hoss said, going on to describe how he’d rescued the little boy in the lake. “Then, when I handed him up to his mama, all of a sudden I saw myself holding this curly-haired, feisty little fellow that fought me tooth and nail, just like little Peter was doin’, and I saw myself handing him over to…to you, sir,” he concluded, turning toward Ben. “That jolted me, ‘cause I remembered you from when we stopped here, and that made me think the whole thing was real. Did I ever know a little fellow like that?”

Ben had come to the edge of his seat while Hoss was relating the incident. “That sounds like a perfect description of your brother Joe.”

“Joe?” A look of awestruck joy transfixed Hoss’ face. “That’s it! That’s the name I hollered out when I ran into the water.” Then he cocked his head in puzzlement. “But I don’t remember seein’ a youngun that size when we passed through here before, sir.”

Ben chuckled. “Well, he has grown up some since that terrible day.”

“In some ways, at least,” Adam murmured wryly, but pursed his lips at his father’s rebuking glance.

“It is a memory, then,” Hoss said, hands pressing into his knees in anticipation. “It really happened?”

Ben nodded. “Your little brother was about five and normally a very good little swimmer.”

“Better than you,” Adam put in, smiling at Hoss, who shrugged good-naturedly.

“Yes,” Ben agreed. “And that’s why I felt no qualms about letting him go in the creek with the older youngsters after the church picnic. I meant to keep an eye on him, of course, but one of the ladies demanded my attention…”

“Clementine Hawkins, as I recall,” Adam smirked.

Ben waved away the unwelcome insertion. “While I wasn’t looking, Little Joe got caught up in the current and swept downstream. Thank God you were there, Hoss.”

“Does that bring the memory back in more detail?” Adam asked.

“Little bit,” Hoss said. “I can see the creek and… cottonwoods?…on the shore.”

“That’s right,” his brother said.

Though they talked on, into the night, nothing they shared compared with that moment of revelation. None of them could seem to get their fill of being together, however. In fact, it was only when Hop Sing discreetly served them hot chocolate, instead of replenishing the coffee pot yet again, that Ben realized how late it was getting. He had hoped that his youngest son would come home in time to take part in the joyous reunion, but when he saw Hoss try for the third time to stifle a yawn, he knew that wouldn’t happen tonight. “You must be exhausted from your long journey,” he said. “Perhaps we should go on to bed, continue this in the morning?”

Hoss gave a single nod. Just knowing he had a family that he could “continue this” with in the morning moved him in such a powerful way that he was afraid his emotions might give way if he tried to say anything. He stood up, but then looked bewildered.

“I’ll go up with you,” Adam said, immediately discerning that Hoss didn’t remember which room was his. “Pa?”

“I’ll be along,” Ben said.

For Hoss’ sake, Adam squelched the words on the tip of his tongue and, smiling, put an arm around his big brother’s shoulders and guided him toward the stairs and up to the room with the bed built just to his size that Hoss remembered from his previous visit. “This was my room, then…always?”

“Almost always.” Mindful that Hoss wanted a chance to remember things on his own, Adam didn’t mention living in a smaller cabin before the sprawling ranch house was built or the still smaller wagon in which Hoss had been born. When Hoss didn’t ask anything further, Adam wished him good night and left.

Alone at last, Hoss wandered around the room, touching the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the grooming brushes on the washstand and, finally, picking up the picture of a pretty blonde lady. Surely, this was someone he was supposed to know, but he didn’t recognize her, any more than the other things he’d touched, so he put the picture back where he found it and, yawning and stretching, moved toward the inviting bed and started to undress.

Adam had crossed the hall to enter his own room only long enough to remove his boots and pad soundlessly downstairs again. “Pa, are you sure you want to do this tonight?” he asked hesitantly.

Ben looked up at him with a rueful smile. “‘Do this’?”

“Confront Joe,” Adam said plainly. “Wonderful as this occasion has been, it must have been draining for you, as well. Why spoil it by another futile discussion with my baby brother?”

“Oh, I have a feeling tonight’s discussion might be a little less futile than usual.” Ben lifted a significant gaze toward the upper floor. “And I can scarcely let Joseph see his brother magically appear at the breakfast table.”

Adam secretly thought the chances of Little Joe’s appearing at the breakfast table early enough to find anyone still there were slim to none, but Pa was right: Joe had to know Hoss was home again before actually seeing him. Goodness only knew what that young rake-hell was likely to say or do, if caught off guard. “Let me do it, then,” he suggested.

“No, son; it has to be me.” Though Ben’s tone was tender, it was also firm enough for Adam to know that no argument would change his father’s mind. He nodded his concession and, after saying good night, made his way back upstairs.

Anticipating a long wait, Ben opened his Bible, and between reading and prayers of thanksgiving, the time passed unbroken but by the occasional chiming of the long clock by the door. Finally, his eyes grew tired, and he set the book aside with a sigh. Joseph was later than usual tonight, and that did not bode well for the condition in which he might arrive, although the boy had taken to drink less often of late than in the immediate aftermath of his brother’s departure. No, these days Little Joe was more given to picking fist fights with anyone who would oblige him, as if by lashing out at any available target, he could expend the surplus of volatile emotions tormenting him. What he apparently had not learned yet was that there was always fresh fuel for those hellish fires.

As the hours passed, Ben became concerned that his youngest would not be coming home at all that night. At best, he might be spending the night in Roy Coffee’s jail for disorderly conduct; at worst, he could be lying along the roadside, exposed to the bitter cold of a January night in Nevada. Thank God, it wasn’t snowing, and thank God, too, for the peace in his heart that said God would not both give and take a son on the same night. No, that would be cruel, and God was not cruel. Joseph wasn’t cruel, either, at least not by nature, but what he’d been putting his family through of late certainly was.

Finally, in the wee hours of the still-dark morning, the front door creaked open. After a brief pause by the credenza, step by tiptoed step, Little Joe moved across the room, hoping, if he even saw, that his father was asleep in that chair by the fading fire. That hope was squelched just as he reached the foot of the stairs and heard his father’s voice call softly, “Joseph.”

Little Joe slumped, left hand tightening on the newel post. Without turning, he said, “Can’t the lecture keep ‘til morning, Pa? I’m really beat.”

“I don’t intend to lecture you, Joseph,” Ben said with strained patience, “but, no, it can’t keep. Come here, please.”

Little Joe’s upper lip fluttered as he exhaled gustily and turned around with an air of resignation.

One glance and Ben was out of his seat and at the staircase. “Joseph!” he cried, reaching for his son’s battered face. “Are you all right?”

 “I’m fine,” Joe muttered, turning away to evade the probing fingers.

“You’ve been fighting again.” The accusation escaped, despite Ben’s prior intention to avoid confrontation with his youngest.

Joe looked directly and frankly into his father’s face. “I didn’t start it.”

Ben arched a silver-tipped eyebrow. “Well, that’s a refreshing change.” He gestured toward the settee. “Sit down, son.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes. So much for no lecture. A sit-down one, no less. Well, hopefully, it wouldn’t turn into the kind where he couldn’t sit down for a week. Pa hadn’t gone that far in years, but Joe couldn’t deny that he had a “very necessary little talk” coming. Every day he intended to do better, tried to do better, but every day he seemed to slip a little further in both his own and his father’s expectations.

“Do you want a steak for that?” Ben asked, nodding toward his son’s black eye.

Joe shook his head, smiling wryly. “Doesn’t help.” He fidgeted uncomfortably as his father continued to gaze into his face. Why couldn’t Pa just get it over with?

Like Hoss before him, Ben wasn’t quite sure how to begin, but he thought it best to ease into the subject. “Something happened here while you were away, Joseph.”

Eyes flaring with alarm, Little Joe almost came off the settee. “What? Is Adam all right?” he asked urgently, having seen his father’s quick glance upstairs.

Ben reached out to pat the young man’s thigh. “Your brother is fine,” he soothed. “It isn’t bad news, boy.”

Little Joe leaned back, breathless but relieved. Life was hard enough without something happening to his only brother. He knew Pa wouldn’t like him thinking that way, but he’d been grieving Hoss’ loss so long that he had begun to think of him as dead. Maybe they should have told that to everyone, instead of that cock-and-bull yarn about his older brother visiting friends back East. Friends, he scoffed internally — kidnappers, more like. “Okay. What is it, then?”

Deciding that Hoss’ direct approach was better, after all, Ben said, excitement ringing in the words, “Your brother is home.”

Little Joe laughed disdainfully. “Well, of course, he is. Adam is your good son, remember? He’s the one who’s always home for supper and up at the crack of dawn to start his chores, the one who never comes home with even a hair out of place, much less battered and bloody.”

“That’s enough, Joseph,” Ben said sternly. “I’m trying to tell you something important.”

“That Adam’s home? No disrespect, Pa, but I don’t think that’s gonna make the front page of the Enterprise.”

“Well, I doubt your brother Hoss’ return will make the front page, either, young man,” Ben retorted, “but I thought you’d consider it good news!”

Little Joe gasped; in fact, he held his breath so long that Ben feared he might pass out. “That’s hitting below the belt, Pa,” Joe finally whispered, his voice so glazed with pain that Ben instinctively reached out to comfort him. As he had with every previous such offer, Little Joe flinched away.

“Joseph, I’m sorry,” Ben said. “That wasn’t the way I meant to break it to you, but your brother Hoss did come home today.”

Little Joe began to shake visibly. “Don’t say it if it ain’t so,” he croaked. He’d worked hard to bury his hope and wanted no false resurrection to reawaken that agony.

Ben reached out again, and while Joe didn’t respond, at least he didn’t pull away this time. “Joseph, have I ever lied to you?” he asked gently.

Eyes swimming, Little Joe shook his head.

“And I’m not lying now,” Ben said, beginning to trace circles on the young man’s arm with his thumb, a touch that, from boyhood, had always calmed his son. “Your brother Hoss has come home; he’s upstairs right now.”

Little Joe leaped up and would have headed straight for the stairs had not his father’s fingers circled his forearm and pulled him back. “Joe, Joe,” he chided softly. “It’s the middle of the night. Your brother’s asleep.”

“But he’s here? He’s really here, and he’s Hoss again?”

“He’s really here, but as to the other…well, sit down and let me explain.”

As if there had never been a breach between them, father and son sat on the settee, and while Ben described the events of that evening and explained Hoss’ present mental state, Little Joe drew closer and closer to the place where he had always sought comfort, within the circle of his father’s sheltering arm. “I can’t believe it,” he said when his father had finished. “It’s like…”

“A miracle,” Ben finished for him. “Yes, it is.”

Little Joe fumbled with a button on his shirt. “You never lost faith, did you, Pa?”

Noting the downcast eyes, Ben said, “Oh, I had some bad moments, son, but, no, I never completely lost faith.”

“I did.” The words were heavy with shame. “I gave up, Pa… so quick, so easy… and I’m sorry, not just for that, but for the way I’ve been acting. I’m gonna do better; I promise I am.”

Ben took his son’s chin in hand and slowly raised it until he could look into the boy’s eyes. “I never lost faith in Hoss,” he began.

“I know,” Little Joe interrupted.

Ben laid his index finger across his son’s lips. “And I haven’t lost faith in you, either, Joseph.” He smiled. “But I do think that it’s time you got to bed if you plan to join us for breakfast…and I think this is one breakfast you really don’t want to miss.”

“Yeah.” Still half-dazed, Little Joe stood.

Ben did, as well, wrapping both arms around his son in a gesture he had missed all these lonely months, but he immediately pulled back from the embrace when he felt Joe cringe. “What is it? You are hurt!”

“Couple of cracked ribs,” Joe admitted. “Don’t worry, Pa; I saw Doc Martin, and he taped me up.”

“Oh, Joseph,” Ben sighed.

“It really wasn’t my fault, Pa.”

“All right, son.” Ben wanted to say more, at least to ask the circumstances of this injury, but it was late and they both needed to get some sleep, although he wasn’t sure whether either of them could. “You go on up to bed. I’ll bank the fire and be right behind you.”

“Yes, sir…and thanks, Pa.” Little Joe went up the stairs, and though his own door was closer, he slipped past it to the next one, smiling broadly at the familiar but long unheard snores rattling through it. He pressed his palm against the wood, needing to feel, at least, that much closer to the brother he could not yet touch, and whispered the words he yearned to say: “Welcome home, Hoss.” Then, lest his father — or worse, Adam — see the foolish gesture, he hurried into his own room, and only taking time to remove his boots, crawled into bed, where for the first time in months, his dreams were sweet.

*****

Little Joe was the first Cartwright downstairs the next morning. “What’s for breakfast, Hop Sing?” he called, leaning through the doorway into the kitchen. “It’d best be a big one.”

“Hmphf,” the Chinese cook snorted. “You not come home for supper — again! What make you think you get breakfast, bad boy?”

“‘Cause you got a big heart, and I got an empty stomach, and you know you can’t resist that combination,” Little Joe tossed back with an easy smile. “Besides, you got an extra — not to mention an extra big — mouth to feed this morning, so you’re bound to be in a good mood.”

“Maybe so, maybe so,” Hop Sing conceded, truly unable to resist the combination of his best eater’s return to the table and the brightest spirit his Little Joe had shown in more days than he could count. “You go table, bad boy. Maybe-so Hop Sing mood be good enough for throw you scrap or maybe-so give all to Mr. Hoss. He appreciate.”

“I appreciate, too,” Little Joe insisted, his lower lip pulled pitifully out. He snatched a piece of toast from the plate lying on the work table and, tittering at the tirade unleashed behind him, skittered back into the dining room. He couldn’t remember when he’d last felt this feather-light and full of heady hope.

Adam was just descending the stairs, with Hoss right behind him. “Well, well,” he said. “Up early. You may not remember, Hoss, but seeing our baby brother at the table ahead of us verges on a miracle of Biblical proportions.”

In good times and bad, such a remark had always been guaranteed to get a rise out of Little Joe, but now he stared wordlessly at Hoss, lips parted, barely breathing.

“Trying to catch flies?” Adam suggested dryly.

Little Joe clamped his mouth shut and awkwardly held the piece of toast toward Hoss. “You hungry?”

As Adam stifled a snicker, Hoss chuckled uneasily. The idea of this skinny kid giving away his food to a strapping man like himself was laughable, but both good manners and his general sense of discomfort kept his humor in check. “That’s all right, young fellow,” he said. “I ain’t aimin’ to take nobody’s breakfast from ‘em.”

“Oh, there’s plenty,” Little Joe babbled, toast flopping in his limp grasp. He turned, floundering, toward Adam. “Hey, wonder what’s keeping Pa? He’s usually first down to breakfast.”

“I suspect he might be a little tired this morning,” Adam said pointedly.

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Joe glanced apologetically at Hoss. “I got in kinda late last night, and you know how Pa gets when one of his chicks ain’t in the nest.”

Having been out of the nest for a long time, Hoss had no idea how Ben reacted to that, but he could imagine, so he just smiled and nodded.

“I’m sure he’ll be down soon,” Adam said. “Shall we take our places?” He indicated the seat to the left of the head of the table to Hoss. When Joe moved toward his own chair, Adam caught sight of his brother’s bruised eye and took his chin in hand. More abruptly than he had with Ben the night before, Little Joe pulled away and dropped into his chair. “My, aren’t we colorful this morning?” Adam observed as he, too, sat down and opened his napkin into his lap.

“Not my fault,” Joe mumbled through a rain of toast crumbs.

“Gratified to hear it, but would you kindly not eat with your mouth open, little brother?” The emphasis on the adjective was deliberate.

That was one insult too many for Little Joe, but he never lacked ammunition in his war of wits with Adam. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he said, “Of course, older brother. I wouldn’t want to add to your troubles the teeniest mite.”

Adam arched a cautious eyebrow. “My troubles?” he felt obliged to inquire. “I wasn’t aware that I had any particular troubles, unlike another Cartwright I might mention.”

Feigning shock, Little Joe shook his head. “Well, just goes to show the difference in people, I reckon. Now, me, if my best girl was laid up in the hospital, I’d feel her troubles like they was my own, but I reckon you’re just built a little cooler, Adam.”

Adam fixed his brother with a wary eye. “Against my better judgment, I am going to ask which young lady of my acquaintance finds herself in the hospital.”

“Why, Miss Abigail, of course,” Little Joe replied with an innocent air of surprise. “Hadn’t you heard that she was struck down by the flu Saturday night?”

“Abigail Jones?” Adam growled.

“Your one and only,” Little Joe snickered. He winked at Hoss across the table, but the big man didn’t seem to be enjoying the joke, so Joe turned back to his eldest brother. “I guess you gotta deny it, her bein’ a married lady now, but you sure spent a lot of time with her over the years, so I figured you might still have some feeling for your lost love.” His jaybird laughter burst out, unrestrained, at sight of Adam’s glowering face.

“All the time I’ve spent with her over the years was on your behalf,” he spat, “and about now, I wish I’d never intervened!”

“Aw, now, it wasn’t all on my behalf,” Joe continued to cackle. “Part of it was to help ol’ Hank. It ain’t our fault Adam’s irresistible to women, is it, Hoss?”

“I — uh — guess not,” Hoss said, eyes moving back and forth between the faces of his brothers. For the life of him, he couldn’t make heads nor tails out of this peculiar conversation, although the bantering had a familiar, kind of fond feeling.

The laughter fizzled out, as Little Joe suddenly realized that Hoss didn’t remember how they’d combined forces to lasso Adam into their project of teaching their ranch hand to serenade his chosen lady.

“What our little brother is referring to,” Adam explained, “is the many times I had to visit the local schoolmarm to obtain pardon for his latest transgression.” As they had all, with the exception of Little Joe, discussed the previous night, he kept the explanation simple, leaving ample details for Hoss to recall on his own.

“I see,” Hoss said slowly. “Miss Jones, huh?”

“Mrs. Myers,” Adam corrected. “As Joe said, she’s married now.”

“Thanks to us,” Joe put in with a conspiratorial grin that faded when Hoss failed to share it.

“So, was she my schoolmarm, too, or did she come after I finished school?” Hoss asked.

“Yours, as well,” Adam replied.

Hoss shrugged. “Wish I could recollect her, but I don’t even remember goin’ to school.”

“Well, where Miss Abigail’s concerned, that just might be a blessing,” Little Joe snorted. “Wish I could forget all them tiresome lessons about Sir Walter Raleigh and John Alden and Shakespeare and the rest of his sappy tribe.”

Hoss chuckled. “She must’ve done a decent job of teachin’, though, ‘cause I remember all them fellers. I was wonderin’ where I learned to quote Shakespeare.”

Little Joe, who had just taken another bite of toast, spewed crumbs onto the red-checked tablecloth. “You, quote Shakespeare? Your head really is scrambled, Hoss. We leave that stuff to the Plato of the Ponderosa.” He angled his head toward their brother.

Hoss turned toward Adam, and at sight of his brother, dressed all in black, the pieces suddenly fell into place. “You!” he cried. “It was you I saw. We was standing out in a pasture somewhere, looking up at a cloudy sky, but you said it wouldn’t storm. ‘Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ you said. And I knew it was from Shakespeare, but I didn’t know how I knew.”

Adam looked at him, amazed.

“Like you said, it don’t signify nothin’,” Little Joe said.

“Don’t you see?” Hoss said earnestly. “It was a memory, one of my first strong ones. I couldn’t see the man’s face, but now I know it was you, Adam!”

Still looking dazed, Adam slowly shook his head from side to side. Then he uttered a short laugh. “You’re supposed to be the one with memory problems, but I don’t remember that incident at all.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re always spoutin’ that gibberish,” Little Joe alleged.

Hoss chuckled. “Didn’t seem like gibberish to me.”

“It’s not; it’s artistry.” Adam wagged his finger at Little Joe. “And you keep your mouth shut. If our brother is learning to appreciate Shakespeare, who are you to interfere?”

“The voice of common sense,” Little Joe popped back, and if Adam had been nibbling toast at that moment, he would no doubt have spewed crumbs from the foot of the table to its head. Instead, he just laughed, a deep, rolling laugh. Hoss’ hearty guffaw boomed alongside him, and finally even Little Joe couldn’t resist joining in. Hoss might not be fully himself yet, but oh, it was good to have him home!

Ben halted his descent on the lower landing as waves of warmth and wellbeing washed over him. He came into the room and circled the table to take his place at its head. “Well now,” he said brightly. “What’s causing all this jollity?” My boys — all three of them gathered around the table, filling the house once more with laughter. What could be better than that?

“Oh, just Joe being Joe,” Adam responded lightly.

The words told Ben nothing — and yet, everything. Joe was, indeed, being more like Joe than he had in months. That son, too, was coming home again, in a different way from his older brother, but in a reunion just as achingly longed for. Ben wasn’t fool enough to think that either boy’s problems would instantly disappear, but they were both on their way back, and that was all it took to ease the fret lines from his forehead and broaden the smile on his face. “Well, if I’m not going to get a sensible answer to that,” he chuckled, “perhaps you’ll be more serious if I ask your plans for the day.”

Having no idea what was expected of him, Hoss looked back blankly, and Little Joe, who tended to let each day fall where it would, just shrugged. Adam, the perennial planner of the group, cleared his throat and said, “We need to get some feed to the stock in the north pasture.” With a significant glance toward his youngest brother, he added, “I could use some help.”

“Yeah, okay,” Little Joe muttered. This was a day for celebration, not mundane chores, but you could hardly expect hungry cattle to appreciate that.

“I’d be glad to help, too,” Hoss put in so quickly that he didn’t notice his father’s open mouth.

“Are you sure you’re rested enough from your journey?” Adam asked.

“Huh?” Hoss’ attention had been broken by the timely arrival of heaping platters of bacon, eggs and hotcakes to the table. Compared to what he’d been used to at the frugal Vandervorts, this was a feast. The question finally filtered through his wide-eyed appreciation of the food. “Oh, sure. Just let me fuel up and I’ll be ready to go.”

Much as Ben would have loved to keep his boy here with him today, he knew his sons also needed time together, and Hoss’ offer would solve another problem. “You and Adam take care of that, then,” he said.

Little Joe, showing a sudden and uncharacteristic interest in ranch chores, sat up straight and said, “Hey, I’m goin’, too.”

“No, Joseph, you’re not,” Ben said firmly.

“Why?” Joe demanded hotly.

Ben looked his youngest directly in the eye — the blackened one, specifically. “You know why.”

Adam moistened his lips in thoughtful consideration and then decided to brave the lion in its den. “Should we really be turning down one of Joe’s rare offers of help?” He knew, as he was sure his father did, too, that Joe’s transformed attitude reflected his desire to be with Hoss, and he could scarcely be faulted for that.

Ben’s fixed stare moved from the face of his youngest to that of his eldest. “I said no.”

Finding the edict inexplicable and, under the circumstances, even unkind, Adam ignored the strong intimation to stay out of it. “I thought the standard penalty for misbehavior was more chores, not less,” he said.

Hoss, lost on a sea of confusion, could only look from one to the other and pray that his new-found family didn’t come to actual blows. Judging by their flashing eyes, open warfare was about to break out.

Perhaps Ben caught a glimpse of his middle son’s anxious face, for he settled back and forked a bite of scrambled egg. “It’s not punishment,” he said. Looking once again at Adam, he added, “Surely, you’ve seen the state of your brother’s face.”

Adam smiled wryly. “I think he can work with a black eye, Pa.” Honestly, sometimes Pa could carry the mother hen role far beyond reason!

Ben swallowed his mouthful of eggs before saying, “I take it he hasn’t mentioned the cracked ribs?”

“Aw, Pa,” Little Joe whined, quieting when his father snapped his fingers.

Adam slowly pivoted toward Little Joe. “Why, no,” he said, elongating the word. “I guess he forgot to mention that.”

“I can still work,” Joe mumbled.

Adam chuckled. “I don’t think so.”

“Ain’t no need, anyway, with me here,” Hoss said, oblivious to the glare Joe sent across the table. “You just rest them ribs, little feller.”

Adam, who was fully aware of how irritated his youngest brother already was, nonetheless chimed in, “Yes, you take it easy, little fellow; and Hoss and I will see to the cattle.” When the glare turned toward him, he gave Joe an easy wink. “You never did say what happened to create this lovely new look, as well as the chore-ceasing damage to your ribs.”

“Aw, it was that Chad Larrabie from the Bar L,” Joe said. “I bumped into him… purely by accident…and he didn’t take kindly to me sloshin’ his drink, even though I offered to buy him a fresh beer. He’d already had more than he needed, and you know how he gets when he’s drunk.”

Both Adam’s and Ben’s expressions immediately lost all levity. Larrabie, who wasn’t a bad man when sober, became boisterous and belligerent whenever he’d had too much to drink. And since he outweighed Little Joe by a good fifty to sixty pounds, they could only be grateful that the boy had come out of it with no more than a couple of cracked ribs.

*****

Breakfast over, Adam and Hoss loaded the wagon with bundles of hay and drove out with a wave toward their droopy-faced brother and their father, standing just outside the front door to see them off. Throughout the meal, Adam had considered asking Pa if Joe could come along, so long as he did no work, but he finally decided the offer would be pointless on two counts. In the first place, Pa would have said no to his injured chick’s being out in the wintry air; even if he’d agreed, there was no way Little Joe wouldn’t pitch in to help. They all teased him mercilessly, with significant justification, for his laziness, but once he overcame his intrinsic distaste for work, Little Joe always did his share and, when properly motivated, could work with an energy it was exhausting to watch. On this particular morning, he’d be even more eager to work at Hoss’ side, not sit and watch from the seat of the wagon like a weakling.

While Adam sympathized with Joe’s desire to be with their newly returned brother, he secretly felt pleased to have Hoss to himself this first morning. Like Joe, he considered Hoss his best friend, and, for him, the relationship went back even further, to the first moments after that strapping baby boy’s birth. It was a different relationship than Hoss and Joe shared, more mature and, Adam liked to think, deeper.

They sat side-by-side on the wagon seat, with little need for words, and that, too, was different from any time spent with their loquacious younger brother. It had always been that way between Adam and Hoss, though; each simply understood what the other was thinking or feeling, whether thought or emotion was spoken or not. Adam wasn’t sure it was still that way for Hoss. Maybe he didn’t even remember any thought or feeling they’d ever shared, but Adam hoped that at some place deep inside his brother did still sense that same strong bond.

He almost laughed when Hoss did speak up, for his first question was about Little Joe. Typical, he thought with a wry grin when Hoss asked if their little brother often got picked on by bigger men. Though he couldn’t remember Larrabie, he assumed, from the damage done, that the man must be bigger than his scrawny kid brother. For that matter, he figured most men were.

“Not as often as you’d think,” Adam answered. “Joe’s a lot tougher than he looks, and he can usually hold his own, even against a larger opponent. We taught him that, brother! Besides, he’s such a likeable kid that he gets along with most people.” Or did, he might have added, but for now he chose to spare Hoss the knowledge of just how touchy and decidedly unlikeable their quixotic young brother had become over the last nine months. Like his father, he hoped that self-destructive behavior was behind Joe; also like Ben, he feared it was not.

They reached the north pasture, and quickly fell into a rhythm that seemed familiar to both as they worked to unload the hay. “I got a feelin’ I like this kind of work better’n anything I did back in Holland,” Hoss said when they’d finished and were headed home again.

“Farming, you mean? I seem to recall that being what the Vandervorts did,” Adam said.

“In California they did,” Hoss said, “but we didn’t grow much more than garden truck in Holland, just enough for the table. Didn’t have enough land for more. Mostly, we made furniture. I ever do that here?”

Adam shook his head. “Not much. You’ve done some fine wood carving, though — little toys and animals, Christmas gifts for the kids at the orphanage, that sort of thing — so I’d say you do have a natural aptitude that would have made you quite successful in that line.”

“Did right well,” Hoss admitted. “Just simple pieces, but I fancied things up when I got a chance. Guess I know now why it came so easy. Still sort of think I like bein’ around animals better.”

“You always did,” Adam said with a smile. “Brought home every stray dog, cat, coyote and bear cub you could lay your hands on.”

“Coyotes and bears? You funnin’ me, brother?”

Adam laughed. “Actually, it was more likely a raccoon or fox or a bird with a broken wing. If you’d found a coyote or cub caught in a trap, though, I guarantee you’d have brought it home.”

“Well, yeah, if it was hurt, I reckon I would,” Hoss admitted. He had no specific memory of such things, but it didn’t seem likely his feelings now were any different than they’d ever been.

“Yep. Spent my whole life, standing between you and Pa’s wrath on that subject…and the rest of it saving Joe from it for a wide variety of transgressions.”

Hoss chuckled. “Thought you said he was likeable.”

“Did I forget to mention the temper?” Adam said airily. “Believe me, if that kid weren’t so likeable, he’d be dead by now…quite possibly by my hand…or yours.”

Hoss laughed heartily, but then his forehead creased and he turned a quizzical eye on his older brother. “Two lives? Ain’t that about one more than most folks get?” Jesus and Lazarus were the only exceptions he could think of at the moment.

“Hmm?” Then Adam recalled his earlier remark, and grinning with pleasure that Hoss had added it up and caught the mistake, he observed with a perfectly arched eyebrow, “Did I also forget to mention that Cartwrights come equipped with nine lives, just like cats? And in Joe’s case, especially, that’s a very good thing.”

*****

Hoss had thoroughly enjoyed his time with Adam that day. He only knew the man was his brother because he’d been told, but this one day had shown him that this was a man he really liked. Until, that is, they drove around the last curve into the yard, and Adam said, “Soon as you get in the house, sneak off to the kitchen and snitch us a couple of donuts or cookies or whatever else is lying around.”

Hoss stared back at him, aghast. “I ain’t no thief.”

Adam pulled the reins to stop the team. “Yeah, you are,” he said with a grin. “Biggest one of the bunch, I might add.” Seeing his brother’s dubious look, he continued, “Hop Sing will be disappointed if you don’t, Hoss. Oh, he’ll fuss and fume, maybe even threaten to go back to China, but he’ll take it as a personal insult if you don’t eat your fill at every meal — and in between.”

Still frowning in concentration, Hoss asked, “You ain’t funnin’ me?”

“Nary a bit,” Adam said, hand raised as if taking an oath in court.

Hoss continued to scrutinize Adam’s face. “Why not you?” he asked pointedly.

“Because you’re better at it.”

Thinking it must be a family trait, Hoss tried to copy the skeptical arched eyebrow of his father and brother. “Joe?” he asked, giving up the failing effort. If the cook truly liked to see people eat, Hoss couldn’t see how he could ever turn down the one who most obviously needed feeding up.

“Better than either of us,” Adam admitted. He swatted Hoss’ shoulder with the back of his hand. “Excellent idea, brother! We’ll put the kid on the job, probably the only one he’s fit for with those ribs. In fact, they’ll arouse our esteemed cook’s sympathy and make him all the more likely to look the other way.” That issue settled, he gathered up the reins and urged the team forward.

After stabling the animals, they both entered the house, but when Adam saw his father dozing in the chair by the fire, he quickly touched a finger to his mouth. Hoss nodded, and in silence, the two men removed their coats and hats and hung them on the pegs by the door. Then, chilled from their time outdoors, they approached the fire almost on tiptoe, but stopped at the foot of the settee when they saw their brother sprawled on it, sound asleep, one stocking-clad foot curled under the other.

Adam chuckled, but Hoss stared in wonder. Now that he knew, he could see the resemblance between this boy and the one he’d visualized that night in the lake. It had been that moment of memory that had propelled him back to the Ponderosa, but what swept over him now, as he picked up the blanket that had slid to the floor and tenderly tucked it around the slumbering boy, was even more powerful. Perhaps it was the action itself, the unrecalled reenactment of others taken through the years, that roused in Hoss such strong, protective feelings that he scarcely knew what to make of them. In the short time he’d been here with his real family, he’d felt respect for his father and genuine liking for his brother Adam, but what was this? Love? He didn’t know anything else to call it, but saw no reason to feel it for his baby brother more than either of the others, unless…maybe when you’ve saved someone’s life, like he now knew he had Joe’s, it just knit you together with ‘em in a way that…

He felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning, he saw Adam aim a thumb at the dining room and, taking the hint, he followed his older brother through that room and into the kitchen.

“How about some coffee, Hop Sing?” Adam asked. “Certainly would help to warm our bones.”

“Coffee always on stove,” Hop Sing said, barely looking up from the potatoes he was paring.

“I’ll pour us both a cup, brother,” Adam said, inclining his head toward the table, where a plate full of sugar-dusted donuts filled the room with their enticing yeasty fragrance.

Hoss gulped. With their brother sleeping the afternoon away in the next room, apparently the job of thief had landed back on him. Doggone it, them donuts was temptation enough to drive any man to crime, but they weren’t more’n two feet from the man who’d made ‘em, a man with a sharp knife in his hand.

Adam filled the first cup and then pointedly looked from Hoss to the donuts in a way that told Hoss he’d better get the job done before that second cup was filled. Hoss edged closer and then, as quietly as he could, hooked the fingers of his left hand over two donuts, hiding them behind his back before filching two more with his remaining hand and backing slowly toward the door to the other room.

“Thanks for the coffee, Hop Sing,” Adam said as he followed his brother out. Though the cook never looked up, Adam was almost certain he saw a smile flicker on the round face. Taking the coffee into the dining room, he motioned for Hoss to join him at the table, where they traded coffee and donuts, so they each had an equal share of the loot from their foray into the kitchen.

“That was tough,” Hoss said. “I was sure he was gonna look up and come after me with that knife.”

Mindful of the sleepers only yards from them, Adam chuckled softly. “No danger there. All bark and no bite, our Hop Sing…and he knew full well you took those donuts.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“That’s a relief.” Hoss bit into his donut, licking the sugar from his lips. “These are good. I could eat a fair dozen.”

“A dozen might push the limits of Hop Sing’s leniency,” Adam said.

They heard a stirring from the next room and turned to see their younger brother slowly coming to life. Finally, Joe sat up, rubbing his eyes and then staring at his father, still asleep in the chair, as if it were a sight as rare as a two-headed chicken. He must have felt the others’ presence, for he looked their direction and padded softly toward them, not even bothering to cover his prodigious yawn.

“Sleeping Beauty awakes,” Adam quipped, delighted to see his brother scowl in distaste.

The expression changed almost immediately when Joe caught sight of the donut crumbs littering the table. “Hey, where’s mine?”

“Where do you think?” Adam said. “In the kitchen.”

“But you gotta pilfer ‘em,” Hoss advised, although on second thought, he figured Joe, with his intact memory, probably knew that better than he.

An exquisite pout at once adorned Joe’s face. “You mean, you’d make me tackle a chore like that, me bein’ hurt and all? You were never that mean before.”

Hoss felt terrible. Of course, the little fellow shouldn’t have to brave that knife-wielding Chinaman when he was already hurt. He started to get up and head for the kitchen, but sank back into his chair at Adam’s urgently mouthed, “No.”

“Don’t take advantage, Joe,” the oldest Cartwright brother said sharply. “Go filch your own.”

Little Joe shrugged and disappeared into the kitchen, feeling a little heart-sore and more than a little ashamed. He’d only been teasing, of course, playing on Hoss’ big heart the way he always had, but Hoss hadn’t recognized the game at all. To continue it would have been taking advantage, as Adam had rightly said, but giving it up was a painful reminder that Hoss wasn’t really Hoss, at least not the Hoss he’d always known.

Joe was back within a minute, bringing the entire plate of donuts with him, to the wide-eyed astonishment of his next-older brother. “You weren’t kidding when you said he was the best at this,” Hoss told Adam.

“It’s those sad puppy eyes of his,” Adam opined. “Hard to resist, even when you know he’s trying to pull the wool over your own.”

“Ha, ha,” Joe snorted. “Keep that up and I won’t share my pirate booty, maties.” That threat was, of course, the surest guarantee that his older brothers would cease all teasing and extend their hands for their allotment.

“Save some for honorable father,” came an authoritative decree from the kitchen, and the three Cartwright brothers grinned in perfect harmony.

*****

Without knocking, Little Joe popped into his brother Hoss’ room. “Ain’t you ready yet?” he complained. “Purtiest gals’ll all be took if you don’t get a wiggle on.”

“Aw, I can’t get this dadgum neck noose cinched right,” Hoss said, staring at the lopsided loops of his string tie in the mirror over his washstand.

“Here, let me do it,” Little Joe offered. He pulled it loose and started over, quickly and easily tying a perfect bow at his brother’s neck. “There you go.”

“Thanks,” Hoss said. He picked up the suit coat lying on the bed and thrust his arms into it. “You sure this is mine?” he asked, moving his shoulders inside the coat. “Seems a mite loose.”

“You seen anybody else on the ranch that thing would fit?” Joe scoffed. He ran an appraising eye over Hoss’ figure, remembering a time when Hoss had struggled to fasten the buttons over his ample girth. “Reckon you have lost some weight since you wore it last. Those Vandervorts must not have set much of a table.”

“Did the best they could,” Hoss declared loyally. “Just didn’t have as big a larder as you folks.”

“‘You folks’?” Little Joe scowled. “We’re not ‘you folks,’ Hoss; we’re your family.” Not them, he felt like adding, but bit his tongue.

“I know you are.”

Little Joe shook his head. Hoss knew what he’d been told, but that’s all; he had no real family feeling, and Joe hated to admit how much it bothered him. Pa still had faith that all the memories and feelings would come back to Hoss and patience enough to wait if it took forever. Adam — well, nothing ever bothered older brother; Adam always took things in stride, no matter what. Joe, on the other hand, couldn’t take this whole not remembering thing in stride or any other way, and he’d never had much patience for waiting on anything, much less something that seemed more impossible with each passing day. Of course, Hoss had only been home a week. Maybe straightening out a muddled mind took longer than that. Regardless, Joe was determined that this night be one of pure fun. Though with some reluctance, Pa had agreed that all three Cartwright brothers, including the one with tender ribs, could attend the Saturday night dance in town, and Joe planned to make the most of it…and see that Hoss did, too. Maybe, then, he’d remember all the good times they’d had together. He slapped Hoss’ broad back and said, “Come on, brother. Let’s not keep the ladies waiting.”

Hoss plastered a nervous smile on his face and followed his brother out. He wished he could match his younger brother’s enthusiasm, but he felt more scared than excited. Tonight would be the first time he’d gone out among the community, among people who probably knew him and expected him to know them. He’d met a few ranch hands, but not many had been kept over during the slow season, and he hadn’t had much contact with those few. He wasn’t sure Pa had done a wise thing in hidin’ the truth from folks. There’d be less questions that way, but keeping up the pretense put pressure on him he hadn’t felt back in Holland, where everyone knew and most accepted him, despite his problem.

And a dance, no less! That meant a whole room full of people to trip a fellow up with an innocent question or remark. He’d even been fearful at first that he might not know how to dance, but Adam said he was good at it, and Adam could be depended on. He couldn’t quite say the same for Joe, whom he never knew whether to take seriously or not. His little brother might look like a cherub, especially in sleep, but he was no angel, unless it was the sort of fallen kind. He was a likeable kid, like Adam had said, but he sure liked to tease, though the jokes often fell flat for Hoss, since he couldn’t remember the truth behind them.

Adam was already dressed, waiting for them. He closed his book and stood up as soon as his brothers started down the stairs, but they couldn’t leave until Pa had lined them up and passed down the line with an appraising eye. “You all look very handsome,” he said in final assessment. “Have a good time — and try to be home at a decent hour. We’ll need to leave early for church in the morning.”

Church. Great. Another chance to meet more strange faces, more questioning eyes. Well, at least, a lot of the morning would be spent singing or listening to the preacher talk, so, all in all, church might be a whole lot easier on him than tonight’s dance, Hoss figured.

*****

Hoss balked at the door to the dance hall, and Little Joe plowed into his back.

“Hey!” the younger boy protested.

Seeing his brother’s crinkled face, Adam asked “What’s wrong, Hoss?”

“Don’t let me make a fool of myself, okay?” Hoss pleaded.

“Of course not,” Adam assured him. “We’ll stick close, won’t we, Joe?”

“Well, it’s awful hard to dance that way,” Joe grumbled. Then, noticing both Adam’s glare and Hoss’ panicked eyes, he said, “Yeah, sure, we’ll be there if you need us, but you won’t, Hoss. Just quit frettin’ and have a good time. Now, get in there and ask some pretty little thing to dance.”

“For once our little brother is offering sound advice,” Adam said. “You’ll be fine, Hoss.” As the big man preceded them into the hall, Adam pulled Little Joe aside. “Let’s get him settled first. You won’t have any trouble finding a partner afterwards.”

“Never do,” Little Joe said with a cheeky grin. “Hey, Hoss, how about a cup of punch first?” he said, catching up and snaring his brother’s arm.

“Yeah, sounds good,” Hoss said. Anything that put off the inevitable moment he had to ask some total stranger, who might not be a stranger at all, to dance sounded good to him.

Several people noticed Hoss with his brothers and, as it had been months since they’d seen him, they came over to say hello and welcome him back to Virginia City. Either Adam or Joe was careful to call each person by name, so Hoss would be spared the embarrassment of not recognizing any of them. Since everyone had come to dance, however, the conversations were both general and short, until a tall woman dressed in red calico came up and said, “I been waitin’ for you to traipse over and ask for a dance, Hoss,” the big-boned blonde chided, “but ‘pears I’ll have to do the askin’.”

Adam thrust out a hand, which she took, though she barely gave him a glance. “Bessie Sue, please forgive us; I’m afraid we’ve been inconsiderate, keeping Hoss to ourselves, when I’m sure he’d much rather dance with you.”

“Oh…yeah,” Hoss said. “How you been, Bessie Sue?”

“Good as I could be without a proper man to squire me around,” she said, taking hold of his arm and half-dragging him to the dance floor.

Little Joe sidled up to Adam. “Hurt your hand?” he asked with an impish grin, for Adam was trying to massage out the ache of Bessie Sue’s bone-crushing grip.

“Watch it, little brother, or I’ll offer you up as her next partner,” Adam advised.

“Oh, no, not me.” Little Joe backed away, waving both hands before his face. “I’m gonna find me a sweet little thing, just my size.”

“Coward,” Adam taunted, knowing it wouldn’t faze Little Joe for even a moment.

Between each dance that evening, the oldest Cartwright brother checked to see how Hoss was faring, and Little Joe made a practice of guiding his partners close enough to do the same while the music played. From what they could see, their brother seemed to be holding his own, and as the evening progressed, even to be enjoying himself.

Bessie Sue claimed most of Hoss’ dances for herself. At first, that made the big man uneasy, for he feared staying around the same person so much might show up his defect all the sooner, especially when so many of Bessie Sue’s remarks began, “Remember when we…” He quickly learned, however, that if he paused for even a moment before responding, he didn’t need to say anything at all, for the woman just assumed he knew what she meant and rattled on, about a mile a minute. With the pressure of conversation off his shoulders, Hoss just relaxed and enjoyed the dancing, pleased as punch to discover that his feet remembered the steps, whether or not his mind did.

Toward midnight, Adam tapped Hoss on the shoulder and suggested that it was time for them to leave.

“Oh, that late already?” Hoss asked.

“Definitely,” Adam replied. “Say your goodbyes, and I’ll see if I can’t drag Joe away from the latest love of his life. He’s been through about three tonight alone.”

Hoss turned to Bessie Sue and explained, “Pa wants us home early, so’s we ain’t late for church tomorrow. Will I see you there, ma’am?”

Bessie Sue guffawed. “Did you think I’d turned heathen while you was gone, Hoss Cartwright? Course, I’ll be there, same as always. And –” She dragged the word out “– I’d better see a heap more of you, now that you’re home again.”

“Yes’m, I’d like that.” Seeing Bessie Sue’s pointedly puckered lips, he took the invitation and gave them a shy peck.

Adam arrived back, pulling Joe, who was looking dreamily over his shoulder at a vision in blue silk, and the three Cartwright brothers left together.

“You must’ve had a good time, brother,” Little Joe said as they rode home, “hard as it was to drag you away from your best girl.”

“Is she?” Hoss asked, looking toward the more reliable source of information. “I mean, really my best girl or like Miss Abigail is yours?”

While Little Joe dissolved into high-pitched giggles, Adam shrugged. “Honestly, I can’t tell you. You’ve spent a lot of time with Bessie Sue, but you’ve never discussed your feelings one way or the other.”

“I think I’d like to see more of her,” Hoss said.

“Well, I doubt she’d turn down the offer of dinner or another dance.”

“Or goin’ partners in a log-tossing contest,” Little Joe snickered. “But, listen, brother, you gotta promise me not to get too serious about Bessie Sue. Her idea of sayin’ howdy can crush ribs quicker than Chad Larrabie ever dreamed of!”

*****

The snows came and claimed the Nevada landscape as its playground, keeping the Cartwrights indoors more often than during active seasons of ranch life. All of them dreamed of that far away, fairy tale time when Hoss’ memories would move happily-ever-after into place, but as the weeks passed, only Ben still believed. Though Adam felt skeptical, he also seemed content with his current relationship with his brother, but for Little Joe, both belief and contentment felt equally out of reach. He wanted his brother back, and the frequency with which he dropped reminders of adventures he and Hoss had once shared became almost frenzied, or so it seemed to an increasingly uncomfortable Hoss, and progressively more irritating to their father, whose most commonly used phrase became “That’s enough, Joseph.”

As an alternative to unwanted conversation, Adam offered song fests to the skillful accompaniment of his guitar, and Joe countered with games of checkers he hoped would be memory-nudging. Hoss liked the game, even though he lost more often than not. At times, when something distracted his attention, he’d look back at the board and think it looked different from when he’d last seen it, but he shrugged it off. The Cartwrights were honorable men, so he couldn’t imagine one of them actually cheating, especially at a silly game. He wondered, though, why Little Joe always seemed to be watching him expectantly in those moments, only to droop with disappointment when he won yet another game. Just too good-hearted to want anyone to lose as often as Hoss did, the older boy supposed.

As the weeks passed, Hoss began to notice that his little brother was eating less and less. No one else said anything, though he caught their father casting concerned glances to his right as his youngest son pushed food around his plate and grew increasingly silent at mealtimes. Finally, Hoss decided someone ought to speak up. “Kind of off your feed, ain’t you, littler feller?” he asked one morning. “You feelin’ poorly?”

Little Joe didn’t even look up from the plate of scrambled eggs he was doing nothing but scrambling more. “I got a name, you know,” he muttered.

Hoss’ brow creased with concern. “I know that.”

The younger boy’s head came up, and there was fire in the glare he sent across the table. “Then, why don’t you use it?”

“I’m sorry…Joe. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” Truth was, he did at times call his little brother by his name, but he settled on “little feller” more often because that’s how he saw Joe, as someone young and small in need of protection. It reminded Hoss of his one clear memory of his brother, that image of rescuing him from the water, but Joe didn’t know that and, like as not, didn’t relish bein’ reminded that he was the youngest and smallest on the ranch. “You just wanna be called Joe, then?”

“I don’t care what you call me.” Joe shot up from his chair and, slamming his napkin to the table, stormed outside.

“Sorry,” Hoss said to his father and other brother.

“You didn’t do anything to be sorry for,” Adam said. “Ignore him.”

Hoss shook his head. “Don’t see how I can do that and live under the same roof.”

“Don’t worry, son,” Ben said. “We all get a little testy when we’re cooped up indoors too long.”

“Some more than others,” Adam put in dryly.

“Yeah, but why?” Hoss pressed, refusing to accept an explanation he knew was only intended to keep him from feeling bad. “Why’s he so mad?”

“I did warn you about the temper,” Adam pointed out.

“Yeah, but there’s gotta be a reason. Even a little kid don’t throw a temper tantrum for no reason.” Hoss squared his shoulders to face an unwelcome truth. “It’s me he’s mad at, ain’t it?”

“No, son,” Ben quickly inserted. “Your brother is angry with me.”

“You, Pa?” Hoss looked astounded.

“For letting you leave with the Vandervorts, instead of forcing the truth on you.”

Hoss shook his head. “It was love made you do that, and you was right to, ‘cause I wasn’t ready for the truth. He knows that; that can’t be what’s eatin’ him.”

“I don’t think even Joe knows what’s eating him,” Adam observed.

“Aw, come on,” Hoss snorted. “Ain’t no use skirtin’ around the truth: what’s eatin’ Joe is me. Was it always like this? Did we not get along…before?”

“Of course, you did, son,” Ben said.

“You were inseparable,” Adam said with fervent feeling. “From the day he was born, you were his playmate, protector, co-conspirator and best friend, all rolled in one. The bond went deep.”

Hoss pursed his lips. “That’s what’s eatin’ him, then, me not bein’ that anymore, me not even rememberin’ all that. Must be hard. I wish I could fix it for him, for all of you…and for me, too. But I can’t. Harder I try, the more the memories slip through my fingers.”

“Then don’t try,” Ben said softly. “Hoss, I love you just as much today as the day you were born. I hold every memory close to my heart, and anytime you want them, they’re yours for the asking, but if you’d rather just make new ones, that’s fine, too, because the man you are now is every bit as cherished by me…and by your brothers…as the person we knew before.”

Tears brimmed in Hoss’ lake-blue eyes as his heart flooded to overflowing, and in that moment he knew that he felt more than just respect for this wonderful man: he loved him…and Adam…and, yeah, even Joe. Maybe all the pieces weren’t in place yet, but love was the most important one, after all, and it was sitting smack at the center, spreading its light over every dark and unknown shadow lying just beyond remembrance. He swiped at his eyes and, mostly to divert attention from that, asked, “Well, we can’t just leave the kid out in the cold, can we? Reckon one of us ought to fetch him back in. I’d go, but that might just set him off again.”

“I’ll go,” Adam said. “I have a notion where to look.” He went out to the barn and walked first to the pinto’s stall, where he paused to rub the bridge of the horse’s nose. Well, if he hadn’t taken Cochise, Joe was still right here, as Adam had suspected, in the place he’d often sought solace as a boy in times of heartache or fear, both of which he was probably feeling in this moment. Adam’s eyes rose toward the loft and he called, “Joe. I know you’re up there.” There was no answer, nor had Adam expected one. Some things never changed, and the remedy would be the same as always, he was sure. He climbed the ladder and moved toward the back corner, where he found his little brother huddled in the hay.

Squatting down before the younger boy, Adam asked, “Want to talk?”

Mouth stitched shut, Joe shook his head.

“Prefer freezing?”

Joe smiled ruefully at that. “No, but I can’t face ‘em yet.”

“You’re facing me,” Adam pointed out.

“You didn’t leave me much choice!”

Adam chuckled. “Well, we can always organize a family reunion here in the loft if that’s what it takes. Now, why don’t you just come on back and spare us that?”

Little Joe again shook his head. “I can’t.” He raised pained eyes to his brother’s face. “I’m so ashamed.”

“No one else is ashamed of you,” Adam said softly. “We understand how hard it is.”

Joe exhaled in exasperation. “Not for you. Not for Pa.”

Adam sat down and, pulling out a wisp of hay, twirled it in his hands. “What makes you say that?”

“Nothin’ bothers you,” Little Joe accused.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Adam said, breaking the hay in half and tossing it aside. “It’s hard on all of us. Maybe, being younger, it’s…”

“That’s no excuse,” Joe grunted. “I’m not a little kid.”

Though Adam was tempted to point out that he was acting like one, instead he agreed. “No, you’re not. So, talk to me, man to man. Tell me what’s making it so hard.”

Little Joe sank back against the pile of hay behind him. “I don’t know,” he sighed. “It’s just…I spent all those months bein’ mad at Pa for lettin’ Hoss go, thinkin’ that him stayin’ here would have made all the difference, but now he’s back, just like I wanted, and it ain’t made a lick of difference. Hoss just ain’t Hoss anymore, Adam. He’s like some stranger come to stay at our place.”

Adam pulled out another wisp of hay and chewed it thoughtfully. “I don’t think that’s it,” he said finally. “Sure the memories are gone, but Hoss’ nature hasn’t changed. Hoss is still Hoss.” He took a deep breath and said gently, “I think the problem is that Joe isn’t Joe now and hasn’t been since the day Hoss rode off with that Dutch couple. Maybe, Hoss would have a better chance of recognizing you…and remembering you, if you were. And I have to tell you, I miss my youngest brother every bit as much as I ever did Hoss while he was gone. I want him back.”

Little Joe turned his head away. “He ain’t no prize.”

Adam reached out to grasp his brother by the neck and pull him close. “Nonetheless, I prize him, and so does Pa… and, yes, Hoss, too, more than you realize.”

“Yeah?” Joe nibbled at his lower lip for a moment. “Might be hard to believe, but I have been tryin’, and I think I’ve been doin’ some better. At least, I don’t pick fights with every bully in town these days.”

At what cost? Adam wondered. Aloud, he said, “I’m going to give you the same advice Pa just gave Hoss: quit trying; just be Joe and know that’s good enough. He stood up and extended a hand toward his brother. “Now, come on; time to face the music.”

“Just hope it ain’t a funeral dirge,” Joe said as he let Adam pull him up.

They walked across the yard together, Joe taking courage from Adam’s strong arm around his shoulders, so as soon as they entered the house, he was able to walk up to Hoss and say, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Joe,” Hoss said, both voice and expression so like the brother he’d always known that Little Joe thought Adam might be right, after all.

“So, uh, you wanna play some checkers?” Joe said, not really knowing what else to say.

Ja, sure,” Hoss said.

Little Joe’s lip curled. “You got that from them, didn’t you?”

“Them?”

“The kidnappers.”

Hoss instantly knew whom he meant. “Aw, Joe, they weren’t kidnappers,” he said. “I went with ‘em of my own free will.”

“You didn’t have any will of your own, not then,” Joe argued.

“Joseph.” Ben’s voice carried its customarily cautioning tone.

Hoss raised a restraining palm toward his father. “Let him talk, Pa. You say anything you need to, Little Joe.”

Fresh shame washed over the younger boy. Here he was, pushing again, when he’d just promised himself he was through with that. He shook his head. “I don’t need to say anything.” When Hoss continued to look at him, inviting if not outright demanding a more honest answer, he swallowed the lump in his throat and said, “To me, they are kidnappers; they took my brother. I just don’t like bein’ reminded about them, that’s all.”

“Fair enough,” Hoss said, “but I ain’t sure what I did that reminded you of ‘em. I just said I wanted to play checkers.”

Adam chuckled. “Ah, but it was the way you said it, ja?”

“Yeah…Dutch talk,” Joe said with a face that looked like he’d been sucking lemons.

“Oh, didn’t notice,” Hoss said. “Guess I heard it so much in Holland that I sort of picked it up. Surprised I ain’t used it more.”

“I’ve heard it a time or two,” Ben said.

“Sort of a pleasant reminder, don’t you think, Pa?” Adam suggested with a nostalgic smile.

Ben nodded. “Yes, very much the way she said the word.” Seeing the confusion of both his younger sons, he said, “Your mother, Hoss. She was Swedish, not Dutch, but both Adam and I used ‘yah’ while she was with us.”

A dreamy look stretched across Hoss’ face. “There’s this picture of a lady in my room, real pretty. Is that…?”

Ben nodded. “Your mother, yes.”

Little Joe laughed. “Who’d you think it was, your sweetheart? You know Bessie Sue would skin you alive if you had another girl’s picture on your bureau!”

“I been fearin’ exactly that,” Hoss said, and the entire family burst out laughing.

*****

Ben counted it a blessing that Hoss had returned in winter. The Cartwrights needed time to come together again as a family, and winter’s frosty days gave them that. There was still work to be done, of course, but no one dawdled over chores in the wintry air, and the entire family spent hours reuniting beside the roaring fire. They talked — oh, how they talked, conversations both trivial and essential, though sometimes Ben thought that the trivial ones were the most essential of all, those foolish bits of banter between the boys that had always kept this house full of laughter and joy, whatever storms life brought them. This one had been long and turbulent, threatening to tear their home apart, but thank God, the clouds were parting and the sun was peeking through.

There were occasional disagreements or misunderstandings, of course. Four men, living in close quarters for weeks on end naturally fell victim to cabin fever, and among smaller flares, there was one notable explosion when Hoss absent-mindedly referred to the Vandervorts as Mama and Papa in front of his little brother. The conflagration that sparked threatened to burn the house down, until Adam drew up a compromise satisfactory to both brothers: Hoss would no longer use familial names for anyone but family and Little Joe would stop referring to the Vandervorts as kidnappers. Once again, the storm was weathered, and the Cartwrights emerged, not only intact, but more closely knit together than before.

Spring came, and with it, a deluge of chores that, of necessity, scattered the family across the ranch. By that time, though, the bonds were strong again and the brief separations bearable. The connection between Hoss and Little Joe was still more tenuous than any other, so Ben often paired the two for work assignments, and the stratagem was successful. Hoss found that he enjoyed this brother’s company just as much as he did his brother Adam’s, even if it did require more work to maintain.

Little Joe was working hard, too, to accept the brother he now had, instead of yearning for the one he’d cherished all his life. Some things he had to give up, mostly the pranks he’d pulled on his gullible big brother. They weren’t funny, anyway, when met with a blank stare, and as Adam had said, it wasn’t fair to take advantage of Hoss’ muddled head. It was like hitting a man when he was down, and Joe had never been given to that sort of meanness.

As the two rode out one day to round up strays, Little Joe could not have felt more chipper. This was his kind of work. He loved being outdoors, astride his favorite horse, especially on a day that was cooler than usual for spring. Hoss liked being out in the open air, too, and while he would never be at one with a horse like his little brother and his paint pony, the big black they’d told him was called Chubby seemed to fit him like a glove and made him sit almost as easy in the saddle as Little Joe.

It wasn’t Chubby, then, that was making him edgy. Looking up at the sky, he realized what was causing his discomfort. Sheets of gray mist streaked from the clouds to the nearby mountaintops, suggesting rain in the hills. The wind was blustery, too, bringing with it memories of that awful night when a fierce gale had driven fire through the streets of Holland.

“Hard to lasso strays up there,” Little Joe, riding back to the place where his brother had stopped to stare at the clouds, teased.

“It’s a storm sky,” Hoss said. “Makes my skin crawl.”

“We won’t see a drop down here,” Little Joe laughed.

“No,” Hoss said, but his skin still prickled with foreboding. Unable to identify the reason, he shrugged. “Guess it just reminds me of that fire I told you about. It was stormy that night, too.”

“Oh, yeah.” Little Joe scratched his head. “That was somethin’, wasn’t it, fire breakin’ out all them places the same night?”

“Yeah,” Hoss said, “and all anyone ever remembers is the Chicago one. Wasn’t even the worst. ‘Course, neither was Holland.”

“We’re thankful for that,” Joe said. When he’d heard the story of that night, he’d shivered at how close he’d come to losing his brother altogether. He thumped Hoss on the arm. “We better get back to it, though, or Pa’ll do worse to us than any fire ever could.”

“Yeah,” Hoss scoffed. His brothers both liked to talk like they was scared spitless of crossin’ Pa, but he’d learned weeks ago that Pa, like Hop Sing, was mostly bark without bite when it came to his boys, and what they really fretted over was disappointing the man they loved and respected above all others.

They came to a spot where a ridge separated two narrow draws. “You wanna take the right or the left?” Little Joe asked.

Hoss frowned. “Sure you wanna split up?”

“Neither one of em’s very long,” Joe said. “We’ll save time by splitting up.”

“Good enough. Last one back here rides drag.”

Little Joe just grinned as Hoss urged Chubby off at a run. The winner of this particular race would be the man who found the fewest strays, and that had more to do with dumb luck than speed. In a dead race, he’d beat Hoss every time and knew it. Besides, a handful of steers wouldn’t stir up enough dust to make it matter much where a man rode.

The minute Joe saw the calf tangled in a clump of thorn bush, he figured luck was with Hoss that day. “Hey, now, quit your bawlin’, buddy,” he soothed as he dismounted and approached the animal. “How’d you get yourself in this fix, anyway, hmm? Yeah, you really stuck your foot in it this time, didn’t you, boy?” Literally, the calf had. Its foot had broken through a crust of ground into a deep pocket beneath, and his futile attempts to pull it out were the reason he was now so hopelessly wrapped in spiky branches. “This is gonna take some doin’,” Joe muttered and went to work.

Meanwhile, Hoss was pondering how best to gloat over his assured victory. By the time he reached the end of the draw, he’d found only three strays and already shooed them back the way he’d come. They’d be easy to catch up with and herd back to the meeting place, so Hoss took a minute to give the sky another anxious look. Something about the lay of this land, in conjunction with the storm clouds overhead, niggled at the back of his mind. It was sort of like those half-memories that used to nudge him back in Holland. He guessed that it was a place he’d known well when he used to live on the Ponderosa, but he couldn’t imagine why it made every hair on his body stand on end and scream danger. After all, it was just a simple draw, narrower than most, but — then it hit him.

By instinct he looked toward the hills and saw what he’d prayed he wouldn’t, a wall of water rushing down the canyon, racing toward the ridge where it would split and cascade down the two draws. Flash flood! Headed straight for him…and for Joe. Hoss gave a mighty shout and swatted Chubby’s flanks to get him moving. He raced for the opening of the draw, praying that his little brother had seen the danger in time and was doing the same up his side.

Absorbed in untangling the calf, while avoiding the little animal’s flailing hooves, Little Joe only looked up when he heard a roar and the terrified neighing of his pinto, who took one look at the debris-laden foam sweeping everything before it and charged for the open end of the draw. Joe frantically pulled at the knotted branches, trying to free the calf, but it was useless. He waited one second too long before giving up the effort, and the wall of water slammed into him, washing him up the draw, just one more particle of detritus careening toward the valley beyond.

Hoss outrode the oncoming flood, which hit the broader valley and spread out, depositing its load of small animal bodies, loose rock, topsoil and uprooted vegetation across the flat land. As he scanned the horizon, a flash of riderless black and white flew past him. “Joe!” he cried and wheeled his reluctant horse around. Though the water was now only inches deep, Chubby wanted no part of it, but Hoss prodded him on, heart in his throat, eyes anxiously searching…searching.

When he finally spotted the motionless body, Hoss spurred Chubby through the slosh to where his brother lay, battered and winded, but breathing. Hoss jumped off his horse and splashed over to gather the younger boy up in his arms. “Punkin!” he cried, holding him close. “Are you all right? Say somethin’, Punkin!”

Little Joe’s eyes fluttered open to stare directly into the fearful blue ones hovering over him. “You called me…Punkin.” He barely managed to get the words past his near-paralyzed throat.

Hoss laughed in relief. Joe was alive and breathing, and that’s all that mattered. “Yeah, I know you don’t like that ol’ baby name,” he said, “but it’s how I think of you when you’re –” The rest of his words were muffled by his brother’s hand, smashed across his mouth.

“How’d you know to call me that?” Joe asked, slowly removing his hand.

Hoss ignored the ridiculous question to focus on more important business. “Are you hurt?” He examined each limb, the rib cage and, finding little but scrapes and bruises, thanked God the drive through the canyon had been such a short one.

Little Joe batted away his brother’s exploratory hands. “I’m fine. How’d you know to call me Punkin?”

Hoss stared at him. “What d’ya mean, how’d I know that? I’m the one that gave you that name, remember?” He started to check his brother’s head for lumps, thinking that, perhaps, some of the debris might have knocked his noggin and jolted his memory out of place. Then, suddenly, he understood: Joe wasn’t the one who’d lost his memory; that was…him. “Doggone,” he whispered and a moment later cried out excitedly, “I remember!” Forgetting any risk to his brother’s battered body, he pulled the younger boy into a crushing bear hug. “I’m Hoss Cartwright…and you’re my baby brother, Little Joe Cartwright…my Punkin…Shortshanks! Joe, I know you, really know you, and — and Pa and Adam and all them shenanigans you roped me into…tryin’ to set ol’ Hank up with Miss Abigail…and her fallin’ for Adam ‘cause he’s irresistible to women and… and… doggone it, you cheat at checkers!”

Lost in wonder, neither brother could, at first, say another word. Then Hoss jumped to his feet, bringing Joe up with him. “Joe, we gotta get home; we gotta tell Pa and Adam.”

“Huh?” Joe shook his head sharply to shake his scattered wits back into place. Then as a sly twinkle sparkled in his eye, he put both palms against his brother’s chest. “Whoa, hold up a minute, Hoss. You can’t go springin’ a shock like that on Pa. You gotta consider his heart condition.”

“Joseph,” Hoss chided with an air of perturbed patience, “My memory’s back now, and I know good and well Pa ain’t got no heart condition, so don’t even try pullin’ the wool over my eyes.”

Little Joe could not have been more elated at being caught, but he relished the challenge of testing his long dormant skill as a manipulator. With a sorrowful look, he patted Hoss’ cheek. “Hoss, Hoss, you’re remembering Pa the way he was before you left, but you ain’t takin’ into account the strain that put on him. Pa’s an old man, Hoss, and losin’ a son is hard on an old man’s heart.”

“He don’t seem no different,” Hoss said slowly. He didn’t trust Joe; in fact, he remembered all too well that Joe wasn’t to be trusted, but what he was sayin’ did make some sense.

“We kept it from you, of course,” Joe hastily explained. “I mean, you did ask not to be told anything unless you asked and that, of all things, we would have held back, you already havin’ so much to deal with.”

“Oh, man, I never thought.” Gulping the dangled bait, hook included, Hoss swallowed the enormous lump that rose in his throat. “Don’t hold nothin’ back now, Joe,” he pleaded. “How bad is it?”

“Oh, not that bad, especially not now that you’re home again,” Joe said hastily. Mischief might be second nature to him, but he drew the line at pure meanness, and he didn’t want Hoss to fret needlessly; he only wanted to slow him down a mite, tinker with his head a little, just like old times.

“So me gettin’ my memory back ought to be even better for his heart,” Hoss said, scratching his head.

“Oh, it will; it will,” Joe assured him as they walked toward the big black horse. “We just gotta break the news to Pa kinda slow like, so’s he don’t collapse from the shock of too much sheer joy all at once. You see what I mean?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hoss said. “How we gonna do that, Joe?”

“Let me think about it,” Joe said. “Somethin’ll come to me by the time we get home.”

“Thanks.” Hoss helped his little brother into the saddle and then mounted behind him.

“Wonder where Cooch is,” Joe muttered, looking all directions.

“Halfway to the barn, if I know that cantankerous critter,” Hoss grunted and headed his own, steadier mount toward home.

Little Joe slid off Chubby as soon as they reached the house and looped the reins around the hitching rail. “Come on,” he said to his brother. “Just don’t say anything right off, okay?”

“Ease into it, huh?” Hoss said. “Yeah, gotcha.”

They walked in, Hoss with an attitude of studied nonchalance and Little Joe bubbling with excitement he could barely contain. In fact, couldn’t contain, for the moment he saw his father, he burst out, “Pa, guess what: Hoss called me Punkin!”

Hoss stared at his little brother. This was breaking the news slow and easy like? “Joe,” he hissed. “Remember Pa’s heart.”

Then Joe turned toward him with the impish grin he now remembered so well and started to cackle like a hyena. Hoss’ cheeks puffed out as his lips tightened into a taut frown, and Little Joe, with his excellent instincts for survival, turned tail and bolted for the stairs.

“You better run,” Hoss hollered after him, recalling exactly how such treachery traditionally was dealt with, “‘cause when I catch you, I am just naturally gonna toss you through the nearest window, clean into next week.” With rowdy relish of the time-honored ritual, he gave chase up the stairs.

Ben and Adam stared at each other in complete confusion until the glorious truth struck them both at the same moment. Not since before Hoss had left them had either of the two boys romped this freely with the other. That they were now could mean only one thing: Hoss was back, fully himself again, and so, God help them all, was Joe. Father and son raced up the stairs to share the wonder of the Cartwright clan made whole again.

***The End***

Notes:  Everyone’s heard of the Great Chicago Fire, attributed (probably incorrectly) to Mrs. O’Leary and her cow, but fewer know that the Midwest was ravaged by five major fires that same night of October 8, 1871, at Chicago, Peshtigo, Port Huron, Manistee and Holland. Though Chicago was the largest town affected, the fire at Peshtigo actually caused more damage and greater loss of life. While two-thirds of Holland was destroyed, apparently only one elderly woman, Mrs. Jacob Tolk, died. Happening upon an article about this shortly before Camp in the Pines started and remembering that the Vandervorts were on their way to Holland in Michigan kindled the idea for this story. As fantastic as it sounds, the incident of young Walter Post and his wheelbarrow actually occurred, and it is to his father’s account of that night that much of the detail of this story is owed.

The Shakespearian quote is from Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, and the Scripture about the wind is John 3:8.

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