East, West: Home’s Best—The Easterner (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  At first, Adam isn’t sure how his eastern friend will feel about life on the Ponderosa, but he and the rest of the Cartwrights soon realize that George is not the only one who has a lot to learn from his visit.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  35,300


As happily surprised as he’d been to welcome his old architect-friend at the stage station, Adam had to fight to keep a disgruntled frown from his face on the drive toward the Ponderosa. George Arthur Pontpier — the third, no less — was an aristocrat, from his high noble forehead, down his classic Roman nose to his regally upheld chin, with the lineage to bear out his looks. The air with which he carried himself had always made Adam feel that if the Pontpiers hadn’t come over on the Mayflower, it was only because they had somehow managed to get here on an as-yet-undiscovered boat before that. They were, quite simply, the American elite and accustomed to all the deference and gracious living that went with it back East.

George himself wasn’t a snob, at least not a deliberate one. Adam could never have tolerated that, even in a casual friend. No, George was simply a man who loved luxury and had wallowed in it so long that it never occurred to him that there was any other way to live. Still, he had chosen to work, when he needn’t have, financially, because the creativity in his soul could find no other outlet than the design of beautiful buildings, the same urge that possessed the soul of Adam Cartwright. It was that kinship of spirit that had drawn them together as young apprentice architects back in old Boston.

Adam had been a frequent visitor in the home of his dignified friend. He’d felt overwhelmed on his first sight of the spacious entry hall with its sweeping spiral staircase to a chandeliered ballroom on the second floor, but he’d gradually grown comfortable with the copious elegance. Never, however, had he been comfortable with the deprecating remarks from his friend’s spinster sister. Her sharp barbs contrasting their graceful lifestyle with what she surmised must be that of those condemned to live in the untamed West had been a constant thorn in the flesh that was otherwise so sumptuously coddled in the Pontpier home.

It was to counter Madeleine Pontpier’s stinging remarks that Adam had first begun to sing the virtues of his own home. She’d never been impressed with his description of the majestic mountains and the lush forest of emerald pines or the sapphire beauty of sweeping Lake Tahoe, but the rest of the family had. Adam had painted the portrait of a paradise, and to him, of course, the Ponderosa was one.

Now, however, as he drove George toward his first sight of the real ranch, he wished he’d been less lavish in his praise. Nevada in August was scarcely Nevada at its best in any year, and never had it been more true than this year. The temperature had ranged above average since the end of June and now soared above 100 degrees almost daily. He couldn’t remember when they’d last seen a drop of rain. The ground was parched and cracked, the sagebrush brown and brittle, and even the evergreens were dropping needles at an alarming rate. Lake Tahoe was down, as well, although only a local was likely to notice that.

They pulled into the ranch yard and Adam reined the horses to a halt. “Well, there’s the house,” he said, hand sweeping toward the front door.

“Charming,” George said. “Rustic, but actually quite imposing, Adam, and eminently suited to its surroundings. Your design, of course.”

Adam laughed. “I was eleven when this was built, a bit young to serve as the actual architect! I put in my two-cents’ worth, of course, and some of those ideas did make it into the final plans.”

“I would expect nothing less,” George said with an admiring smile. “You know, I think I was about that age — perhaps twelve –when I presented my first architectural design to my parents. Nothing so ambitious as this, however — a domicile for the family dog, as I recall.”

“Well, I was nothing if not ambitious, then and now,” Adam observed with a grin. “Come in and meet the family.” He threw a warm arm around George’s shoulders and led him toward the front door. He’d been foolish to worry that his home wouldn’t be good enough for his friend. George was still the George he’d known back East, a man who had always accepted him just as he was, a man with nothing in common with Madeleine Pontpier except their shared last name.

*****

“And then Adam entered the ballroom, a lovely lady draping each arm, with a covey of others trailing in his wake,” George concluded his story. “It quite left me feeling like the proverbial wallflower. I don’t suppose I’d have danced a single waltz that night if Adam hadn’t taken pity and shared.”

The great room rocked with laughter, though Adam himself only gave his friend a chiding smile. “He exaggerates,” he said. “He always attracted just as many lovely ladies as…”

“As Little Joe?” Hoss’ laughter boomed out, and he dug an elbow into his younger brother’s ribs.

“Ah, yes.” Adam pressed his palm to his chest. “If only we could even aspire to such greatness, George,” he intoned theatrically. He bowed toward his youngest brother, as if in deference to royalty. “The citizens of Virginia City are even now constructing a memorial to all the ladies loved and left by young Casanova Cartwright.”

“Oh, they are not,” Little Joe scoffed, although his cocky expression said that he thought, maybe, they should be.

Hoss nodded slowly and solemnly. “Castin’ it in silver, last I heard — in the shape of a shotgun!” His hearty guffaw all but raised the rafters.

“Aw, come on now!” Joe protested futilely, for the laughter only got louder.

When it started to die down, George’s droll comment that he thought he’d caught a glimpse of the memorial while passing through town started it all over again. It only sputtered out when a voice sharply said, “Always too much foolishment. You eat now or I thlow away.”

“Don’t do that, Hop Sing.” Sounding alarmed, Hoss stood at once and headed for the dining area. “We’s comin’.” The other Cartwrights rose more slowly, but just as compliantly and headed after him, Adam slinging an arm around his youngest brother’s slim shoulders as an unspoken apology for making him the butt of the joke. None other was needed.

George remained on the settee for a moment, frowning. Who did this Chinaman think he was, ordering his betters about? He’d been taken aback, when he’d first entered the ranch house, to find the Oriental bobbing and beaming to welcome him to the Ponderosa. He’d read, of course, that many western households employed Chinese help, but he had never supposed that a sophisticated man like Adam would tolerate the heathen practices credited to the Celestials in the magazines he had read. And to put up with the impudence he’d just witnessed was beyond comprehension. He would never have tolerated it in any of his servants back home.

“George? Dinner?” Adam queried, glancing back with concern.

Whatever consternation George felt, courtesy demanded that he respond politely. “Yes, certainly, Adam.” Somewhat reluctantly, he moved toward the table. He only hoped the man could cook! He took his seat and almost instinctively reached for his napkin, but his hand hovered hesitantly above the linen. It looked clean and crisply starched, like what he used at home, but remembering what he’d read about how Chinamen did laundry, spraying it with water from their mouths before ironing, he daintily picked up the cloth between thumb and index finger on each hand and deposited it in his lap as quickly as possible.

Hoss was the only Cartwright who noticed, and while he thought it was an odd way to handle a napkin, he chalked it up to the prissiness of eastern etiquette, like quirking a little finger over a cup of tea or coffee. He just hoped Adam’s friend didn’t do anything that sissified in front of the men. They’d mock him, for sure, and then Hoss might have to pound some of them, just to keep Adam from doing it first. He didn’t like pounding people, although he often threatened his ornery little brother with it, trying to keep him in line. Once in a while, it even worked.

None of that mattered right now, though, because the platter of pork chops that had made its way from Pa to Adam to George was almost in his grasp. George dillydallied so long over the meat, though, that Hoss felt compelled to ask, “Don’t you like pork chops, George?”

“Of, yes, yes, of course,” George said, quickly selecting the smallest one and putting it on his plate before handing the platter on to Hoss.

“Didn’t mean to hurry you none,” Hoss said, anxious that he might have come across as rude. He held the platter where George could reach it. “Go on; get you another one.”

“No, thank you,” George demurred at once. “I’m not a big eater.”

Adam’s eyebrow arched, as he resisted the temptation to ask, “Since when?” Even if he hadn’t known the man previously, one look at his physique would have belied that comment. The George Adam remembered could have rivaled Hoss in an eating contest and still had the girth to prove that hadn’t changed much. Perhaps his friend was tired from the journey, though. That certainly could affect a man’s appetite.

Ben had a different concern. “I suppose this simple fare is different from the fine cuisine you’re accustomed to, George.”

George suddenly realized that his wariness over eating the Chinaman’s cooking might have given offense. After all, these were his hosts, and he was sure they were offering him the best they had. It wasn’t their fault if help was hard to find; sometimes that was true, even back East. “Everything looks delicious, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. Looking at his plate, he realized it was true. In all fairness, he should give the cook a chance, he supposed, as he sliced into his chop. The first bite brought a smile of relief to his lips. No odd Oriental spices added and cooked to precisely the right degree. “Quite tasty,” he said honestly.

“We’ll have to do you up a real party before you leave,” Little Joe piped in. “Hop Sing can sling together the fanciest food you ever imagined, better than anything you got back East.”

George sincerely doubted that, but he didn’t feel obliged to comment, for the boy’s father at once rebuked him for the insulting remark.

After Joe apologized, Ben said, “My youngest here does make a good suggestion, however. We should plan some sort of gathering, to give Adam’s other friends a chance to meet our guest.”

“And so George can dance with Adam’s covey of girls out here,” the ever-irrepressible Little Joe cackled.

Chuckling, Ben reached over to tousle the young man’s curly head. “Ignore this imp,” he said to George. “Now, tell me how long we’ll have the pleasure of your company, so we can set a date for that party.”

“Please don’t go to any trouble,” George implored earnestly. Cooking a simple chop was one thing — hard to ruin something that basic, he supposed, but he felt a genuine fear of the Chinaman’s “fanciest food.”

“No trouble at all, not for Hop Sing,” Hoss declared loyally, “and not for us, neither.” He grinned over at his younger brother. “Especially not dancin’ with them gals, right, Joe?”

“Right!” Joe agreed energetically.

“They won’t be denied,” Adam said with a smile. “Nor will I. I hope you’re planning a long visit, George.”

“Long enough to have two parties,” Little Joe bubbled, “or even three!”

“I’m afraid I may disappoint you on that score, Little Joe,” George said. “I sail from San Francisco at the end of September.”

“So soon?” Adam asked, his disappointment apparent. It had been so long since he’d seen George or anyone else who shared his love of architecture and culture that he’d hoped for more time together. Considering that the journey to and from Boston took longer, a month’s visit seemed so brief.

“I’m afraid so,” George said, his own regret apparent. “Madeleine has a grand celebration planned for our parents’ fiftieth anniversary, and it is, of course, worth my very life to miss it.”

“As if you’d want to,” Adam said with a grin. He knew, of course, that his friend had a deep affection for his parents and would not have dreamed of being absent from such an occasion, but he wanted to be certain that his own family understood that George was joking. The dry humor had been aimed at his sister, and without knowing how insistent on her own way Madeleine could be, they were unlikely to have understood the jest. “Well, we’ll need to plan it before roundup, then,” he continued.

“Hey, that’s pretty much perfect, ain’t it?” Hoss put in with enthusiasm. “Party right before roundup, and then ol’ George here can go along on the fall trail drive, and that’ll put him in Californy ‘bout the right time.” Catching his older brother’s wide-eyed stare, he gulped. “I mean, if’n you want to, George. We’d — uh — have time to teach you how to ride, if . . . if . . .”

George laughed. “My dear boy, of course, I can ride, and I’d quite relish a chance to see how ‘ol’ Adam’ here spends his time when I’m not around to keep him in order.” Having consumed the meat on his plate, he eyed the single remaining pork chop on the platter. “It must be the thought of all that exercise to come, but I do believe my appetite is heartier than I thought. Might I have that extra chop?”

Glad to see their guest enjoying what they had to offer, Hoss eagerly passed him the platter.

Just around the corner, hidden from view, Hop Sing relaxed. As usual, he’d been listening in, attentive to both the needs in the dining room and to any comments that might be made about his food. Mr. George had worried him when he wouldn’t take more than one pork chop and again when he didn’t seem to want to sample Hop Sing’s party food, but everything seemed better now. The cook hadn’t had much warning that this guest was coming, so he’d kept things simple tonight. Now that he knew how long Mr. George was staying, though, he could plan his meals and make some that would really impress the man from back East and make Mr. Adam proud. He scurried back into the kitchen, his head already bursting with ideas of what to prepare for the upcoming party.

*****

Four young men variously perched, leaned or sprawled about the great room, depending on their age, inclination or level of exhaustion. It was only the middle of the day, but it was Saturday, there was a dance in town, and the Cartwright boys were eager to clean up and head for Virginia City. George wasn’t certain how well he’d fare at a western dance, but he was probably more eager for the bath than any of them. “I can’t believe how my muscles ache,” he groaned, looking limp and lifeless in Pa’s padded leather chair.

Little Joe, perched on the table, gave Adam’s friend a cheeky grin as he reached for an apple and began polishing it on his shirt. “Thought you said you could ride, George.”

“I thought I could,” George bemoaned, “but this is different.”

“From his rocking horse back home, he means,” Little Joe snickered, tossing the apple to Hoss and selecting another for himself.

Leaning against the stone fireplace, Adam wagged an admonishing finger in his brother’s direction. “If you know what’s good for you, boy, you will not subject my friend to such obloquy.”

“Huh?” a blank-faced Joe said. “What’s that mean?”

“Consult a dictionary and improve your mind,” Adam suggested airily.

 “How’m I ‘sposed to do that, when I got no idea how to spell it?” Little Joe demanded, scowling when the two college graduates laughed at him.

“Your accusation is false,” Adam explained. “George is actually a fine rider, but mountain riding is tougher than a promenade in the park. Uses different muscles.”

“And I’m feeling every one of them,” George groaned.

As his brothers laughed, Adam said, “Don’t worry. Pa’ll be finished soon, and we’ll take our turn in the wash house. That’ll relax those muscles.”

“And I’ll be hoppin’ in right after you,” Hoss said. “What I done today wasn’t no promenade in the park, either.” Hoss gave his younger brother a determined stare-down. “I’m callin’ second rights on George’s tub.”

Little Joe bristled, glaring at first one older brother and then the other. “Leavin’ me with third chance, any way you look at it!”

“Hey, Adam, he can count!” Hoss cackled.

Adam looked impressed. “All the way to three now. That’s good, little buddy.” His tone was the one grownups used to encourage children not yet out of diapers.

Little Joe beaned him with an apple that had a single bite missing. “It ain’t fair,” he protested. “I’m always last around here.”

“Scarcely,” Adam scoffed as he rubbed his head.

“Are we still talking about bath water?” George asked hesitantly. “About sharing bath water?”

“Not you,” Adam said at once to reassure his fastidious friend. Having two tubs and a separate wash house made the Cartwrights rich by western standards, but in a dry season like this, even they had to be sparing of bath water, adding a fresh, hot bucket to the tub before each man used it without replacing the entire tubful. He’d explain all that to George later, as they soaked side by side.

“Certainly not,” Hoss chimed in fast. “First water for Pa and you both.” He gave one decisive nod as if that settled the question.

“I didn’t mean you, George,” Little Joe quickly added. “You’re our guest.” He deftly caught the apple that Adam tossed back to him. “Just don’t see why I always gotta take last chance. Ain’t fair.”

“‘Cause you’re the youngest,” Hoss announced with a patronizing smirk.

“And always will be, so there’s no need to cavil about it.” The arch of Adam’s eyebrow warned Joe to end the argument — and now.

Little Joe noted the eyebrow, shrugged and snapped off another bite of apple.

George didn’t know what to say or do. He felt as though he should offer that “first water” to the disgruntled boy, who certainly looked in need of a good wash, but his civilized soul balked at the thought of sitting in someone else’s body soil.

Before he could decide what to do, however, Hop Sing came in. “Mr. Ben done,” he announced. Pointing first to George and then to Adam, he said,” You . . . you . . . come now.”

Though he frowned at the Chinaman’s imperious tone, George was only too happy to comply.

Hoss tossed a narrow core into the fire and reached for a second apple from the bowl beside his younger brother. “That weren’t no way to act, Joe,” he scolded, with a glance toward the doorway through which the other two men had just exited.

“Aw, I was just aggravatin’ Adam, like he was doin’ me with that twenty-dollar word,” Little Joe said.

Hoss shook his head. “He knew that, but George didn’t.”

Little Joe winced. “Forgot he wasn’t one of us. Fits in real good and seems to know Adam so well. Guess I thought he’d know how to take me, too.” His expression deepened into a troubled frown. “Reckon I ought to apologize?”

Hoss clamped a consoling hand on the younger boy’s shoulder. “Reckon not. Adam’ll likely put him on to your ornery ways.” He finished with a toothy grin.

“Ornery ways? What ornery ways?” Little Joe protested.

“Can’t recite a list that long,” Hoss alleged, “or we’ll never make it to the dance.”

“Oh, funny,” Little Joe returned with a curled upper lip and a shake of his curly head. “You and that other brother of mine ought to put together a comedy act and take it on the stage. Come to think of it, you can add George to the act, too! That’s how he really fits in — with you and Adam, aggravatin’ me!”

Hoss stroked his chin in apparent consideration of the idea. “Could use some extra pin money.”

Little Joe’s arm drew back, but before he could fling another apple at another annoying brother, a familiar voice filtered down from the upstairs hall. “Adam, could you give me a hand with”—Pa’s head appeared around the corner, just as the apple-cupping palm dropped harmlessly into Joe’s lap. “Where’s your brother?” he asked.

“Wash house,” Hoss answered.

“Oh. Of course.” For a moment Ben appeared graveled. Then he said, “Well, you’ll do, Hoss. Come on up.” With a follow-me gesture he disappeared back around the corner.

Hoss looked just as perplexed as his father had. “What you reckon he wants help with?”

Little Joe gave a careless shrug. “Probably advice on how to spark the Widow Hawkins,” he suggested, an impish green gleam in his eyes.

“Now, who’s tryin’ out for an act at Piper’s Opera?” Hoss snorted. He headed up the stairs, declaiming in his most theatrical voice, “How is he ornery? Let me count the ways!”

Shaking his head, Little Joe chuckled. One thing you had to admit about Miss Abigail Jones: she sure knew how to make a poem stick in your head—whether you wanted it to or not.

“Little Joe?”

The hushed voice made Joe jump, for he hadn’t heard the soft-slippered approach of the family cook. “Hey,” he said, brightening. “They finish this quick?” Maybe he could slip in and nab second chance on George’s tub after all.

“No talk foolishment,” Hop Sing chided. “They soak long time.”

Little Joe slumped. Yeah, that figured.

“Little Joe?” Hop Sing began again. “Can talk with you?”

Little Joe brought his feet up on the table and hugged his knees. “Sure. What’s on your mind?”

Hop Sing leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “Why Mr. George not like Hop Sing?”

Little Joe cocked his head, confusion in his eyes. “How do you know he don’t?”

Hop Sing snuffled in disdain. “How you know someone not like you?”

The confusion was replaced with wide-eyed shock. “Who wouldn’t like me?” Little Joe asked. He donned his most angelic smile and announced, “I’m adorable.”

The snuffle was a blast this time. “You listen too many girls.”

Little Joe grinned. “You can’t listen to too many girls, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing spewed a string of Cantonese at the boy, threw up his hands and turned away, saying, “Too much foolishment.”

Little Joe hopped off the table and followed him into the kitchen. “I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make light of your troubles. I just think, maybe, you’re borrowin’ some where there ain’t none. I’m sure George likes you just fine.”

Hop Sing shook his head firmly. “He not like, not trust. Hop Sing know . . . in here.” He beat his chest with a doubled fist.

Joe’s forehead wrinkled in thought. “You mean you got a gut feeling?”

The cook’s head bobbed up and down this time. “That it.”

“Anything more than that?” Little Joe asked. Gut feelings, as he knew from sad experience, could just as easily be wrong as right.

Hop Sing struggled to put his thoughts into English. “He . . . shy of Hop Sing, always watching . . . not trust. Like now. He not want Hop Sing take dirty clothes, for wash.”

“Maybe they ain’t that dirty,” Little Joe suggested.

Hop Sing snorted. “They dirty. Not like this” — he plucked Joe’s shirt, grimy from his work in the barn –“but need wash. Why he not want Hop Sing take?”

Little Joe scratched his head. “Did you ask him in English?” Affecting a sage expression worthy of Miss Jones or Adam at his most didactic, he advised, “You got to remember, Hop Sing, that no one but me understands a word of that Chinese palaver.”

Little Joe got a swift earful of Chinese castigation and threw up his hands, palms outward, in self-defense. “Okay, okay, you spoke English,” he said, guessing at the cook’s meaning, for even though he had heard Hop Sing chatter in Chinese from the time he could toddle, he understood, at best, about one word out of ten, especially when the words came rapid-fire, laced with anger. “But there’s still a good chance he didn’t understand what you wanted.”

“Hop Sing speak velly good English.” Arms akimbo, the man thrust a defiant chin at the boy, daring him to challenge the statement.

Little Joe was not about to. “Yeah, okay,” he said, “but that don’t mean he understood.” Seeing the cook about to remonstrate, he patted the air. “No, listen. It ain’t you; it’s him. Ain’t you heard how he talks, how different he sounds from us?”

Hop Sing frowned thoughtfully and slowly nodded.

Sensing the more receptive response, Little Joe hurried on. “It’s that funny eastern accent of his, makes him hard to understand sometimes. I reckon he might have the same trouble with our western one.” Not to mention what happens when you layer a Chinese accent on top of that, he thought, but, wisely, only to himself. In his best imitation of Pa, Little Joe laid a hand on Hop Sing’s shoulder. “It’s not his fault he was born back there,” he said, as if he were speaking of a congenital defect.

The creases in Hop Sing’s forehead deepened. “You think that why?”

“Yeah, sure,” Little Joe said with a final, encouraging pat. “After all, why wouldn’t he like you?” The cheeky grin flashed back. “You’re adorable, too, ain’t you?”

Hop Sing harrumphed. “Like you with girls?”

“Oh, no,” Little Joe said, the grin broadening. “No one’s that adorable.”

“Too much foolishment,” Hop Sing muttered, but he was smiling as he turned away to his kitchen duties.

His thoughtful frown, however, transferred itself to Little Joe’s face. Joe’s fast talk had turned the tide, but he wasn’t sure he believed his own spiel. Hop Sing’s pidgin English could be hard to understand, and a college education could fuddle a man’s talk even worse — older brother Adam was proof of that, tossin’ around words like that “a-blow-key” like they actually meant something. Maybe that’s all there was to it. Or maybe George had been afraid that Hop Sing wouldn’t use enough starch or bluing or some other fool thing Easterners prized. He couldn’t ask a guest such things, of course, but he’d keep a sharp eye and a sharp ear for any further problems, ‘cause much as he liked Adam’s friend, he liked — no, loved — the man who’d practically raised him since his mother’s death a whole heap more.

*****

Adam and George exited the house to find three other men waiting in the yard, saddled horses in hand. Hoss and Little Joe had their standard mounts, but the ranch hand who had been requested to saddle a horse for George was holding, along with Adam’s Sport, a prancing black gelding with a white star on its forehead. Adam exploded forward to snatch the black’s reins from the man’s hands. “Who put you up to this, Leo? Or should I even ask?”

Leo, who’d sported a slow, sloping grin until Adam started hollering, relaxed again when the boss’s baleful glare turned from him to take in both of the younger men. Hoss was trying — and failing miserably — to look innocent, and while the only thing that gave Little Joe away was the radiant gleam in his eye, Adam had no doubt about who had actually instigated the prank. “Meteor, Joe? How could you?”

Little Joe shrugged eloquently. “Well, George did say he liked a spirited mount, Adam.”

“Oh, he’s spirited, all right,” Adam fumed. “Fun is fun, but not at the risk of life and limb!”

“He does look like a fine animal,” George commented. “Meteor, you called him? Odd name for a horse.”

Hoss grinned. “Adam named him that ‘cause he takes off like one, shootin’ down to earth.”

“Only you’ll be the one shooting down to earth if you try to ride him,” Adam said dryly.

“Yup,” Hoss agreed cheerfully, “and then you’ll just lay there awhile, seein’ stars.”

“Stars, nothing,” Little Joe hooted. “Whole doggone constellations!” He let loose a high-pitched cackle that didn’t end until Adam cuffed him roughly on the shoulder.

“You scoundrel,” the older brother chided, though there was a chuckle in his tone, “I ought to throw you up on that shooting star.”

Little Joe thrust his chest forward. “Hey, you think I can’t handle him? We can settle that here and now, big brother.”

He reached for the saddle horn, but Adam grabbed him around the waist before he could swing into the saddle and hauled him back to earth. “Not today, little brother. Normally, I’d say, ‘Go ahead; risk your fool neck,’ but we’ve got roundup coming up and we’ll need every hand.”

“You don’t think I can ride him!” Joe charged.

“You have the skill, but I think you’re about fifty pounds light for the job,” Adam admitted. He aimed an index finger at Joe’s nose. “Don’t try it.”

“Well, I have at least fifty pounds on the boy,” George suggested, although somewhat hesitantly, “and contrary to everyone’s apparent belief, I can sit a spirited animal.”

Adam shook his head. “No one rides Meteor today. He’s barely green-broke and, therefore, not a fit working mount for any of us yet.” He’d hoped to have time to work the animal himself before roundup, but with a guest to entertain, the job would probably have to wait until he’d returned from the trail drive.

“He’s right,” Little Joe said, sobering suddenly in concern that he might have taken things too far. “I just had Leo here saddle him as a joke, George.”

“We never meant for you to ride him, George,” Hoss put in apologetically. “We was just funnin’.”

“For mercy’s sake, Leo, saddle Mr. Pontpier a decent mount,” Adam snapped. “Daylight’s burning.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Adam. Sorry for the trouble,” Leo said hastily.

“Not your doing,” Adam assured him. “Just don’t let these two lead you astray again.”

“Yes, sir — I mean, no sir,” Leo said and hurried off, taking Meteor with him.

George shook his head as he appraised the younger Cartwright brothers and then looked over at his friend. “How did you ever manage to grow up with these two without yielding to the temptation to drown them?”

“It’s only due to the restraint of my saintly character,” Adam intoned somberly to hoots of disbelief from both brothers.

“It does, at least, explain why you found an eastern education so enticing!” George laughed.

“And why I so often think of returning,” Adam added. “The superlative peace and quiet of the bustling city does, indeed, entice after another prank-fest from these loudmouths.”

Leo arrived back with a more suitable horse, and they all mounted up. As they rode away, Little Joe trailed behind, pensively biting his lip. He was almost sure that Adam was joking about heading back East, but there was a mighty span between “almost” and “sure,” an expanse populated with the phantoms of childhood pain and adolescent fears. Adam must be joking, but sometimes it was hard to tell, ‘cause big brother tended to sound serious about everything he said. Personally, Joe liked George, but adding this new concern to the worry he already felt about Hop Sing — well, maybe it was about time for the Easterner to head back where he belonged, before Adam decided that he belonged there, too.

*****

“All right, Leo, let him go,” Adam called, bracing himself for the jolt of rebellious horse flesh as Meteor erupted from the chute. The man’s lean body automatically adjusted to each ripple of the muscles between his firm thighs, each twist and turn of the majestic black horse. He had no business taking time to work with this animal. He knew that. Unlike the other horses he and his brothers would ride this afternoon, Meteor had no chance of being saddle-ready for the round up. He really should have concentrated on horses that could be, but he’d told himself that if he didn’t work Meteor, his little brother would give in to the dangerous temptation. Now, though, feeling the sheer joy of wrestling with a recalcitrant animal, he admitted the truth. He wanted the challenge of this noble beast for himself—and he wanted to show off a bit for his eastern friend.

When he’d taken the horse as far as he considered wise for one session, Adam beckoned to the hand circling the corral. The man rode over, placing his horse alongside Meteor, so that Adam could slide over the rump of the other animal and drop lightly to the ground. With a satisfied smile, he strode over to the rail, where his brothers and George had stood, watching his ride.

Hoss stretched out a hand to meet him. “Good ride, Adam.”

“Marvelous!” George declared.

“Yeah,” Joe echoed, a hint of envy edging his voice, for he couldn’t help wishing that he’d been the one in the saddle. “Not bad . . . for an old man.”

Adam cuffed the boy’s ear for his sass. “Well, youngster, you’ll get your chance to prove your mettle next.” He turned to holler across the corral, “Leo, load that feisty sorrel into the chute.”

Little Joe grinned spontaneously, his eyes sparkling. “You mean it? He’s not green-broke, like the others. Probably won’t be ready for round up.” Even as he voiced the objection, his yearning could be plainly heard.

“Neither will Meteor,” Adam admitted. “Chalk it up to entertainment for our guest,” he added with a laugh. “We can’t let him return east without seeing some genuine bronc-busting.”

“Yeah,” Hoss agreed. “Now you’ll see some real ridin’, George!”

“Thanks a lot,” Adam chuckled.

“Aw, I didn’t mean…”

Adam waved Hoss’ apology aside as unnecessary and turned to give Joe’s backside a light swat. “Go on, kid. Show him how it’s done.”

“You bet!” Joe bubbled as he trotted toward the chute. He stopped midway across the corral and glanced over his shoulder when he heard an audible gasp of shock.

“Adam! You can’t mean it,” George protested loudly as he stared at the sorrel rearing and snorting inside the chute. “You can’t put that child up on that bucking beast!”

Child! Joe fumed. He’d show that fool Easterner just who was the child on this range! Fire in his eye and fury on his face, he stormed toward the horse chute.

George grabbed Adam’s shirt sleeve. “Adam, that horse is completely untamed.”

Adam shrugged. “Well, that would be the reason for breaking him, wouldn’t it?”

“But he’s just a boy,” George pleaded. “He could be killed. I won’t have that on my conscience; I won’t let him risk his life just for my entertainment.”

Adam laughed. “This from the man who suggested I should have drowned him when he was small!”

“That was just palaver and you know it!” George sputtered.

Adam massaged his friend’s upper arm. “Do you seriously think I’d keep him off Meteor, only to put him on a more dangerous horse?”

Though George shook his head, he still looked worried. “You honestly think he can handle that animal?”

“I know he can,” Adam said confidently.

“Little Joe’s young, but he’s one of the best bronc busters we got, George,” Hoss said. “I really meant it when I said you’d see some real ridin’ now. No offense, Adam.”

“None taken,” Adam assured him. He suspected that one day Little Joe might surpass him as a rider, but he didn’t feel threatened. The boy had a natural gift, but Adam had more experience, so for now, he considered his own skills superlative. It didn’t bother him at all to hear his brother’s abilities praised; to the contrary, he felt proud, especially since he’d had something to do with developing those abilities.

That pride surged in his breast as he saw the sorrel race from the chute. Though the animal bucked and reared, charged and chased around the corral, Little Joe’s lithe body moved with him. Like poetry in motion, Adam thought. Almost as if they were not man and beast, but a new creation melding the best of both.

George expressed the same thought in a more classical vein. “He’s a young centaur,” the Easterner proclaimed as he watched in wide-eyed appreciation.

“Almost,” Adam agreed, pleased both with the compliment to his brother and the literate expression of his friend. Oh, how he’d missed conversations like this! No one here in the West could have captured the image so succinctly.

Suddenly, the image blurred and the poetry was broken as Hoss hollered, “Quit showboatin’, Joe!”

Adam instantly saw what his middle brother meant. Though Little Joe was still handling the horse, he was now holding on with only one hand, the other theatrically circling his hat above his head. “Joe!” Adam yelled and immediately wished he hadn’t. Little Joe’s attention snapped toward his oldest brother and in that distracted moment he lost his grip, mid-buck, and went sailing over the sorrel’s head.

Adam vaulted the corral rail and raced toward the boy sprawled in the dust, with Hoss close behind him. Giving a wave of thanks to the hands, whose quick intervention had kept the horse from injuring its former rider, Adam knelt beside his brother and began brushing his gritty cheek. “Joe? Joe!”

The green eyes opened just as George ran up, panting, “Is he all right?”

“I think so,” Adam grunted as he helped his brother to sit up. “Not for lack of trying to be otherwise, though.”

In hopes of easing the charged atmosphere, Hoss bent over Joe, hands on his knees, and joked, “Seen any constellations lately, Shortshanks?”

Little Joe rubbed his temple. “Yeah, maybe . . . but just the Little Dipper.”

“Are we to be thankful for small blessings?” Adam asked sourly, and then his voice rose. “What were you thinking, Joe? You know better!”

The twisted grin Joe bestowed on him was a bond between cocky and chagrinned. “Well, you said to put on a good show.”

“Oh, so this is my fault?” Adam exploded, grabbing his brother by both arms and yanking him to his feet.

“Well . . . sort of.” Joe’s expression, sheepish at best, wilted under his brother’s stern scrutiny.

Adam released him with a thrust, threw up his hands and turned toward George. “You were right the first time: I should have drowned him when he was younger!” Then he swiveled on his heel and stalked away, apparently fearing that he might drag a certain brother to the nearest body of water if he didn’t.

“I’m sorry,” George said contritely.

Hoss, brushing off the seat of Joe’s britches, shook his head. “Weren’t your fault, George. Was it, Joe?” It was no accident that his next brush carried a hint of sting to it.

“No,” Joe said grudgingly. “Leave me be, Hoss,” he added sharply and strode briskly toward the corral rail, where Adam was leaning on folded arms, still trying to calm down. “Okay, I’m sorry,” Joe said when he came up behind his brother.

Adam slowly turned to face his younger brother. “That didn’t sound very sincere,” he said flatly. “I was counting on your help this afternoon, boy.”

“You’ve still got it,” Joe argued. “I ain’t hurt, Adam.”

Adam snorted. “Just seeing constellations.”

Little Joe exhaled in exasperation, more with himself than Adam. “Not really. Just a few stars. I can still outride any man here.”

Adam shook his head. “Ride? You’re not even going to stay here and watch, little buddy. You are going back to the house to rest your star-struck head.”

“Aw, come on, Adam,” Joe protested.

“I said, ‘No.’” Each terse, staccato word was a warning. “Now, get goin’!” Adam pointed in the general direction of the ranch house.

Smoke blasting from each nostril, Little Joe stormed off. He hadn’t gone more than a few steps, however, before he heard George ask if he might be able to work some of the previously gentled horses. Joe didn’t wait to hear Adam’s reply. His head conceded the fact that George was only trying to help. His heart, however, screamed that not only was Adam’s friend upsetting Hop Sing and luring Adam away, but now he was trying to replace Little Joe himself. There was no question about it: the Easterner had to go.

*****

Conversation circled the dinner table that evening, each man relating the events of the day — with one notable exception. The silence from the normally loquacious youngest Cartwright was palpable. No one mentioned the incident at the corral, but it was obvious that, after being scolded for his foolishness by both his father and older brother, Little Joe was brooding on it. However, neither his father’s frown of disapproval nor Adam’s scowling glare made any noticeable impression on the boy, who spent most of the meal pushing peas from one side of his plate to the other. Only when George shared the contents of a letter from his sister that had arrived that afternoon did Little Joe look up and listen attentively. “Sounds like she’s plannin’ a real do,” he said.

George, who still felt unreasonably responsible for the friction between the oldest and youngest Cartwright brothers, brightened at the boy’s show of interest. “Indeed! No one organizes a ‘do’ quite as elaborately as Madeleine. Generally, I find her parties pompous and pretentious, but in this case — well, let’s just say that both Adam and I are blessed in the caliber of our parents, and I’m delighted to see Mother and Father the recipients of such a grand celebration. They deserve it.”

“You’re putting ideas in Pa’s head,” Adam said, but he smiled at his father as he spoke.

Ben chuckled. “I don’t think I’m likely to get anything of the sort from these three.”

“Aw, shucks, Pa, we’ll throw you a shindig sometime,” Hoss promised with a toothy grin, “maybe when you turn a hundred or some such thing. Ain’t promisin’ it’ll be fancy as what Miss Madeleine is workin’ up, of course.”

Ben laughed out loud this time. “I can guarantee it! It takes a lady to plan an affair like that . . . and since God chose to bless — although at times I think the right word is ‘burden’ — me with sons, instead of daughters . . .”

The others joined his laughter, except Little Joe, whose mouth pursed in thought. “Yeah, I can sure see as how you wouldn’t want to miss that, George,” he said, his brow furrowing as if some worry had just occurred to him.

“That’s why he’s leaving right after the trail drive,” Adam said pointedly, his eyes riveted on his youngest brother.

The concerned furrows deepened in Little Joe’s otherwise smooth forehead, and he shook his head. “I don’t know as we’re bein’ fair to George, Adam, makin’ him feel obliged to stay on for that,” he suggested solemnly. “You know good as me how unpredictable a drive can be. There can be all kinds of slow-downs along the way, and it’d be a cryin’ shame for him to miss his folks’ anniversary. If it was me, George, I’d head over the Sierras right away, so’s to make sure nothin’ kept me from it.”

The room was immediately plunged into an ice-cold pool of silence. For a moment no one could do anything but stare, stunned, at Little Joe. Then Adam growled, “How dare you?” His voice sharpened to a razor’s edge. “How dare you insult any guest in our home, much less my dear friend?”

“I didn’t! I’m only thinkin’ of what’s best for George,” Little Joe insisted. “I mean, if there’s the least chance we’d delay him so he missed the boat home . . . well, it ain’t as if he’d be much real help on the drive, anyway.”

“Joseph!” Ben hissed.

George folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate. “Perhaps I’ve worn out my welcome,” he said slowly.

“No such a thing!” Hoss at once declared, his open face pained with dismay that any guest would feel unwelcome at the Ponderosa. “That ain’t what Joe meant.” He looked pleadingly across the table, silently urging his younger brother to correct George’s misconception, but the boy did nothing but nervously lick his lips.

“Isn’t it?” Adam asked tersely, staring coldly at Little Joe.

“That’s just about enough out of all of you,” Ben announced, casting severe glares toward both sides of the table.

“What’d I do?” Hoss demanded, face and eyes wide with offended innocence.

“Nothing, son,” Ben sighed. “I didn’t mean you. George, you’ve seen us at our worst tonight. I apologize for the behavior of my eldest and youngest, and I’m sure that they both wish to express their own regrets for their behavior.” His tone plainly said that this was neither a suggestion nor a request.

“Oh, no, please,” George protested.

Hoss rolled his eyes. Pa had to know his own sons better than that. His brothers were both stubborn as mules, especially when they thought they were right, as Adam, for sure and rightfully so, did this time. He wasn’t so sure about Joe. Usually, he could read his little brother, but he was plumb perplexed by the boy’s behavior tonight. Sometimes that young’n just shot off his mouth without thinking, and other times he could be downright crafty, while looking just as guileless as he did now.

No one said anything for what seemed like an eternity. Then Adam turned to his friend and calmly said, “George, I sincerely apologize for the way you’ve been treated tonight.”

Ben frowned and Hoss swallowed hard, both having noticed that Adam had worded the apology in a way that accepted no blame. Neither did Joe when he mumbled, moments later, “Yeah. Me, too.”

Ben glowered at both of them, but since they had, technically, done as he’d asked, he didn’t know what to say without making matters worse.

George said nothing, either, but his flushed face screamed louder than words how miserably uncomfortable he was in a place where moments before he had felt at home.

*****

Seeing Hoss’ large frame fill the doorway, Little Joe scowled. “What? You, too? I’ve had enough lectures for one night, big brother.” His head, resting uneasily on his pillow, turned away.

Hoss ambled in and stood, his hefty right hand circling the oak post at the foot of Joe’s bed. “I reckon you have, at that.” Since his room shared a wall with Joe’s, he’d had almost a front row seat for the two lectures that had preceded his trip into the room. He rubbed the turns of the post, their smooth texture soothing his troubled spirit as he asked, “You wanna tell me what wolf’s been gnawing at your innards the last couple of days, little brother?”

Little Joe snorted as he turned back toward Hoss. “Called hisself Adam, as I recollect.”

Hoss had to grin. Doggone but the kid was quick with a comeback and not far from wrong, either. His older brother had pretty much chawed his younger one up one side and down the other. “Not that wolf, t’other one,” Hoss said. He spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Look. Somethin’s botherin’ you, little brother. Ain’t there some way I can help?”

The outstretched hands and worried words accomplished what neither Pa’s stern lecture, nor Adam’s loud lambasting had managed. The mask behind which Little Joe was hiding cracked, and the pain and fear seeped through the jagged edges. Word by ragged word, he told Hoss everything: Hop Sing’s misgivings, Adam’s jokes—or were they?—about leaving, George’s attempt to weasel himself into Joe’s rightful place on the ranch. Patiently, Hoss dealt with each issue, suggesting less threatening interpretations of every incident. He ruffled his brother’s already tousled locks as he finally stood. “Now, you quit your frettin’,” he urged. “Hop Sing ain’t headin’ back to China, and Adam ain’t goin’ nowhere, neither, and ain’t nobody could ever take your place, you doggone little nuisance.”

Little Joe smiled up at him in relief. “Thanks, Hoss,” he said.

“Get some sleep,” Hoss advised, gently cupping his brother’s neck. “You got you some hard apologies to make in the mornin’, and you wanna be fresh for that.” He tossed his brother a wicked grin as he straightened up. “Especially when it comes time to talk to that ol’ wolf that calls hisself Adam.”

Little Joe winced and nodded painfully as Hoss left the room. He lay there for a while, trying to follow his brother’s advice, but he couldn’t settle. His mind kept roiling with the shame of how he’d treated their guest and the dread of facing his older brother when morning finally came. Giving up on getting any sleep, he threw back the covers. He owed them both an apology, and tossing and turning the rest of the night wouldn’t make it any easier. No time like the present, folks always said.

He pattered into the hall on bare feet, heedless of the late hour, and headed toward Adam’s room. Then he halted, mouth puckered in thought. Adam didn’t like to be woke up in the middle of the night, and if he was still in as snarly a mood as he’d been earlier, Joe was afraid he might not survive the mauling to ever make his apology to George. Maybe, if he did that first, a certain wolf might feel less like biting his head off. Yeah, that was probably best. Joe reversed his steps and tiptoed down the stairs as softly as he could, skipping the squeaky step as if he were sneaking out for the night.

He made his way noiselessly past the settee to the door of the guest room and quietly slipped inside. Belatedly remembering that he should have knocked first, Little Joe called softly, “Hey, George? It’s me . . . Joe. Can I come in?” There was no answer, so Joe called again, raising his voice just a little, so as not to startle the Easterner from a sound sleep. When the room remained silent, he padded toward the bed, feeling his way in the near blackness created by the drawn drapes. He stretched his hand toward where George’s shoulder should have been and felt . . . nothing.

Shocked, Little Joe jolted back and collided with the pot-bellied stove behind him. Fortunately, it wasn’t burning on a hot August night, but the noise made him cringe and send a panicked look through the ceiling. Then he pulled back the thick drape just enough to give him a little look-around light.

The bed was empty, though the linens were twisted as though someone had been tossing in it. Fear rising in his heart, Joe tiptoed across the room, opened the armoire and breathed a sigh of relief. George’s clothes were still there, so at least he hadn’t taken off completely. Maybe he’d just gone for a walk, ‘cause he’d had as much trouble sleeping as Joe himself. A quick look out the window showed no sign of Adam’s friend, so he might have wandered off farther than a dude like him should. He didn’t know the ranch; he didn’t know the dangers that could lurk out there in the dark. He had to be found.

Little Joe raced outside, nightshirt slapping his bare calves, and searched the immediate vicinity of the house, but there was no sign of George, nor any answer to his timorous calls. In the back of his mind, Joe knew that he should rouse the house to join the search, but since he didn’t really want to die young, he crept back inside and up the stairs as stealthily as he had descended them. He dressed quickly and, carrying his boots, made his way back down. On the porch he sat down long enough to pull on the boots and then ran for the barn to saddle Cochise.

*****

Little Joe squatted in the road and squinted at the tracks in the pale moonlight. His brow creased in puzzlement. Right about now he wished he had, at least, awakened big brother Hoss, the acknowledged expert in the family when it came to tracking, ‘cause what he was seeing made no sense. Joe could understand a man taking either a walk or a midnight ride to sort out his thoughts, but why would anyone walk down the road, leading a horse? Even an Easterner ought to be smarter than that. Near as he could tell, there was nothing wrong with the horse — no missing shoe, no sign of one foot being favored — but he wasn’t as good at this as Hoss, so maybe he was the one missing something. There was no point in pining for his brother’s help, though. He’d made the decision to tackle this on his own, and going back now would only waste time, maybe time that Adam’s friend might end up paying a heavy price for.

After chewing the possibilities over for an interval that seemed longer than it was, Joe stood up. He wasn’t getting any answers this way. Best to just keep following along and hope he came across George before the fool dude ran into real trouble. He hadn’t followed long, however, before the trail left the dirt road and traipsed off into the pasture. Reining Cochise to a stop, he leaned over to stroke the horse’s neck as he mulled over whether George was lost or, if not, what his intentions might be.

Suddenly, he straightened up, spine rigid and heart plummeting down into his gut. Just over the next rise, a few rods past where he could actually see, was the scene of this afternoon’s commotion, which had provoked him into his disgraceful treatment of their guest at the dinner table. Joe could think of only one reason a man would lead a horse to the breaking corral, but even an Easterner couldn’t be foolish enough to try breaking a horse alone, in the dark, could he? Fearing he knew the answer and had even been the push behind the rash action, Joe urged Cochise ahead only slightly faster than was safe in the dim light.

As he topped the rise, his worst fears were confirmed. George was alone in the corral, his leg just swinging over the back of a black horse. Little Joe’s eyes widened in shocked recognition of the animal and realization that George had just gone from fool to full-fledged lunatic. Of all the horses on the Ponderosa, why did he have to pick that one? Kicking Cochise into a frantic gallop, he raced down the slope, though he wasn’t sure what he could do to avert the disaster he envisioned. If he’d learned one thing from this afternoon’s hubble-bubble, it was not to distract a man on the back of a bucking bronco. But if he couldn’t shout out a warning, how else was he supposed to get the greenhorn off a horse he’d had no business mounting in the first place?

As it turned out, Meteor took care of that little detail all by himself, about ten seconds after the Easterner plopped into the saddle. Joe leaped off Cochise and vaulted over the fence, but before he could reach George, he heard a scream that sent frissons of horror down his spine. Don’t panic, don’t panic, he told himself. Get the horse.

Easier said than done. Meteor reared up again, and Joe heard a second scream, this time accompanied by a sickening crunch. “Hyaw! Hyaw!” he cried, waving his arms as he ran toward the wild-eyed animal. As he’d hoped, Meteor bolted away from the noise and movement, away from the man sprawled on the ground. “Lie still, George!” Joe shouted as he trotted past.

Though his heart was still pounding like a horse on the final yards of a stakes race, he forced his steps to a walk as he guardedly approached the skittish horse. “Easy, boy, easy,” he cooed, his voice as soothing as a dose of Ayer’s Wild Cherry Pectoral to a sore throat. Meteor snorted and backed away. The horse pawed at the ground, so Joe stood still for a moment. “It’s okay, boy,” he murmured and cautiously edged a step forward. Meteor eyed him warily, but didn’t move, so Joe took another step and then another, all the time offering words of comfort, until he held the trailing reins in his hand and was able to secure the animal to the top rail of the fence. He ran his hand along the heaving flanks and promised, “Be back soon, boy. Just stay steady, okay?” Then he backed away until he felt safe to turn around and hurry over to George.

Kneeling down, Little Joe gingerly touched the man’s shoulder. “Hey, George,” he said softly. “Where’d he get you?”

“Leg,” George gasped. “Broke?”

Little Joe winced at the awkward angle of the other man’s leg. “Yeah, looks like. I’ll find something to splint it with.” He stood and walked over to the loading chute. The boards of the gate were both thinner and shorter than any others in the corral, so he tussled a couple loose. Realizing that the best option he had for something to tie them to George’s leg was the leather strands of Meteor’s bridle, he exhaled in gusty exasperation and again made his slow, cautious approach to the horse. Thankfully, the big black was calmer now, and he was able to remove the bridle without problem.

Back at George’s side, he explained what he planned to do. “I ain’t gonna try to set it,” he said, “but I will need to straighten it some. I’ll move it as little as I can, but it’ll probably hurt.” George nodded his understanding, and Little Joe set to work. Wishing once again that Hoss were here, he tried to emulate his big brother’s gentle touch. Since he figured that his best tool for distracting George was his gift of gab, he started jabbering, aimlessly at first. “Pity I ain’t got any moonshine in my saddlebags. Nothin’ like bein’ a mite tipsy to ease the pain, you know. What were you thinking, anyway? Adam wouldn’t even let me ride Meteor, and—no offense—but I got a lot more experience at this than you.”

George moaned, breathing heavily, as his leg was slowly straightened, inch by inch. “Wanted . . . prove . . . real help . . . for roundup.”

Recognizing his own words, Little Joe’s face contorted as if he were the one whose broken leg was being manipulated. “Aw, doggone it. I’m sorry, George. I feel terrible about the way I acted at dinner. I was comin’ to tell you . . . and now — this is all my fault.”

“Stupid thing . . . to do,” George gasped.

“Yeah,” Joe muttered, directing the word inward. He knew, of course, that George was taking responsibility for his own actions, but no one else, Joe included, would fault the man. As for Adam — well, Joe figured he could count his lucky stars (constellations, even) if his oldest brother didn’t lynch him from the nearest tree, when he heard. All that was of secondary importance now, though. What mattered most was to get George the help he needed; he’d deal with what Adam — or Pa, for that matter — did to his hide later. He secured the last strand of leather and said, “I’m gonna have to go back to the house and get a wagon and some help to lift you into it.” He squeezed George’s shoulder. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, and– uh — don’t worry; I’ll take Meteor with me.”

“Good,” George grunted, obviously relieved that he wouldn’t be left alone in the corral with that particular animal.

With a final, reassuring pat Joe stood and headed toward the horse.

*****

Little Joe was on his guard as he edged past Adam’s door. Not that he could keep the sad truth hidden much longer, but figuring that as soon as older brother heard, younger one would get his head handed to him in a basket, he wanted to put a sizable shield between himself and Adam before he said anything. Though wearing boots, he still managed to tiptoe past Adam’s room and slip quietly into his other brother’s. “Hey, Hoss,” he called softly as he shook his protector’s shoulder.

“Huh?” Hoss jerked, nose wrinkling as if a pesky fly had lighted on it. He automatically rolled onto his side, the same action he always took when someone woke him up to complain about his snoring.

“Hoss!” Little Joe raised his voice slightly. “You gotta wake up. I got trouble.”

Hoss grunted, wishing that fly would twitch off and pester somebody else. Somehow, though, he woke up enough to hear Joe’s last word, and it made him crack open an eyelid. “Joe?” he muttered. Then both eyes shot open. Trouble? What kind of trouble could even Joe could into in the middle of the night? “Why ain’t you in bed?” Hoss grumbled.

“I need help,” Joe said. “George needs help.”

That brought Hoss upright fast. “What you done to that poor man now?” he demanded.

Little Joe winced, for there was more truth to the accusation than he cared to admit. “Nothing you don’t already know,” he said, hands patting the air in a calming gesture. He quickly explained how he’d gone to George’s room to apologize, found him missing and tracked him down to the breaking corral, where he’d found Adam’s friend trying to ride Meteor.

“Meteor!” Hoss cried. “What in the…”

Little Joe clapped a hand over his brother’s mouth. “Hush!” he scolded. “You want Adam to hear?”

Pushing Joe’s hand aside, Hoss scowled, but lowered his voice and said pointedly, “I don’t think you’re gonna be able to keep it from him, little brother.”

“I know that,” Little Joe hissed, “but I ain’t facin’ him alone.”

“Do you good,” Hoss yawned. “Now, get in there and wake him up, and let me get back to sleep.” He tried to slide back down in the bed, but was stopped by an iron grip on his shoulder.

“But, Hoss,” Joe almost whimpered, “just picture what he’s gonna do to me when I tell him that George busted his leg ‘cause of what I…”

“Busted his leg! Why didn’t you…?” Again his brother’s hand slapped across Hoss’ mouth.

“Shh!” Joe demanded. “Can you picture it?” he asked, eyes as frantic as those of a hare being run to ground by a pack of rabid dogs. “He’ll tear me limb from limb.”

“I got half a mind to let him,” Hoss snorted, irritated because Joe’s worries over Adam had made him forget what the boy had said first, that George needed help. “Fact is, I got more than half a mind to help him do it, but that’ll have to wait. George still down at the corral?”

“Yeah. I splinted his leg,” Joe explained quickly, “and come back here to get help, quick as I could.”

“And lollygagged about as much as you could after you got here,” Hoss groused as he snatched his pants from the back of a nearby chair. “You get down that hall and…”

“Hoss, please,” Little Joe pleaded.

“And tell Pa,” Hoss finished sternly. “I’ll wake Adam, ‘cause like I said, we ain’t got time for him to rip you apart just now.” He gave his younger brother’s backside a smart swat. “Now, git!”

Little Joe hurried toward his father’s room and was just about to knock when he heard a loud yell from the hall behind him:  “I’ll kill him!”

Forgoing courtesy in favor of life preservation, he pushed the door open and rushed in, hollering, “Pa, wake up! George’s hurt and Adam’s plottin’ murder!”

Somehow in the frenzy that followed, appropriate explanations were conveyed, mostly by Hoss, and plans made, primarily by Pa, with Little Joe carefully keeping both of them between him and the fire-breathing dragon previously known as Adam. Soon the buckboard was hitched and a mattress placed in the back to cushion George’s return to the ranch.

As Ben and Hoss climbed onto the wagon, Little Joe mounted his still-saddled horse. “I’ll tell him you’re coming,” he called as he took off.

“Joseph, get back here!” Ben hollered after him.

“Might as well shout at the wind,” Adam snorted, leading Sport from the barn. He swung into the saddle. “Don’t worry, Pa: there’s room for two in that buckboard, if he breaks his reckless neck.” As he headed out of the yard, he heard his father call, “Go easy, Adam.” He acknowledged the caution with an uplifted hand before urging the horse forwardbut he wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Was his father warning him against tearing down the road in the dark the way Joe had or admonishing him to “go easy” on the boy who had driven his friend to such rash action? The first he would do instinctively; the latter might be beyond his powers of restraint.

*****

There was little restraint in Adam’s actions once he reached the branding corral. He vaulted over the fence rails with an abandon more characteristic of his youngest brother, who was stooped at George’s side, jabbering goodness only knew what. Grabbing Joe’s shoulder with strong, lean talons, Adam thrust the younger man aside.

“Hey!” Joe yelled as his butt hit the packed dirt of the corral. “Watch what you’re doin’!”

“Why? Because you do that so well?” Adam snapped. “Just keep out of the way.”

“I wasn’t. . . .” Sensing that defending himself would only make Adam madder, Little Joe broke off. He stood up, dusted the back of his britches and moved a prudent distance from his older brother, though still within earshot.

The anger dissipated as Adam bent over his friend. “George, I’m so sorry,” he murmured.

“My fault,” George moaned.

Just as quickly, the anger was back, although Adam kept it in check. “Not altogether,” he muttered tersely.

Little Joe winced and turned his head away. He felt about as comfortable as a worm squirming on a fishhook. Worse, he felt that he deserved to dangle there, just waiting for that big fish swimming right next to him to snap him off the hook and chew him up for dinner. Joe breathed a huge sigh of relief when he saw the wagon top the rise and head down to the corral. As he edged toward the fence to meet it, inspiration suddenly struck, a way to put an even safer distance between himself and Adam, while at the same time making amends to George.

He leaped lithely over the fence and began to untie Cochise. Then, figuring that it was time he showed some degree of sense and told someone what he was up to, he stood, holding the reins, until the wagon reached him. “Pa, I’m gonna ride into town and get the doc,” he said, but just as he was about to swing into the saddle, he heard his father shout, “No, Joe!”

His foot slipped off the stirrup, and he almost ended up on his backside again. “Why, Pa?” he demanded, embarrassment at his awkward position sharpening his voice. “George needs a doctor, and I’m the fastest rider.”

Ben frowned at that prideful, although unfortunately accurate, announcement of a quality he considered nothing to boast about, yet all he said was, “I need you here.” Looking up, he spotted his oldest son at the fence. “Adam, you need to ride into town and ask Dr. Martin to come out,” he called over Little Joe’s protests.

Adam, having overheard the previous exchange, exhaled with disgust. “I’m staying with my friend. Let Joe go,” he said with a jerk of his head in the other boy’s direction. “I doubt even he could foul up such a simple assignment.” He glared at his youngest brother. “No side trips to the Silver Dollar until after you’ve seen the doctor . . . understood?”

Little Joe flushed fiery red. “Hobble your lip, Adam, or I’ll hobble it for you!”

“Haven’t you done enough hobbling for one night?” Adam growled. “And in case you’re too dense to take my meaning, I’m referring to George’s leg!”

“That’s enough!” Ben shouted. “In case you’re both too dense to take my meaning, I am still in charge of this ranch. I decide who handles which assignment. Is that understood?” Smoke was practically snorting from both flared nostrils.

Seeing that, Little Joe backed down hastily. “Yes, sir, Pa; you’re in charge,” he said, head bobbing frenetically.

Adam’s lips tightened in a stubborn line. “This is where I belong,” he insisted. “George is my friend.”

“Then be a friend and get him medical attention,” Ben dictated bluntly. “You do him no service by haggling like this. Just get going!”

With an exasperated toss of his hands toward the heavens and a final glare at his youngest brother, Adam stalked to his horse with long, active strides, mounted and charged up the hill toward the road.

Pulling a kite at his brother’s departing back, Little Joe checked to make sure that Pa hadn’t seen him make that mocking face and fell into step beside Hoss. “Don’t know why Pa wanted him to go, instead of me,” he grumbled, careful to keep his voice too low for their father to overhear. “I’m a better rider than older brother, so I could’ve got help for George a heap faster.”

“No point in barkin’ at a knot,” Hoss grunted. “Pa’s got his reasons.” He was pretty sure he knew what they were, but having been wrong more than once, he didn’t like to second-guess his pa. And telling Joe what he was thinking would’ve been just plain foolish, especially when they all needed to concentrate on doing what was best for George. “Come on. If you’re so all-fired anxious to help, let’s get them rails down, so’s we can get him to the wagon easier.”

By the time Ben reached George, his face was forcibly relaxed and deliberately cheerful. “Well, young fellow, you’ve got yourself in quite a pickle.”

“Sorry to be . . . so much trouble,” George gasped.

Ben patted the man’s shoulder in genuine sympathy. “Don’t worry about us, son. I’m just sorry to see you hurt.” His hand slid down to grasp George’s. “Adam’s gone for the doctor, and he’ll get you fixed up just fine. In the meantime we’re going to get you back to the ranch and make you as comfortable as we can. We’ve got a mattress in the back of the wagon, and we’ll go slow, so we don’t jar you more than is unavoidable.”

“I . . . appreciate that,” George murmured.

Hoss came striding up, with Joe trailing behind. “Hey, there, George,” the big man said with an overly wide smile. “How you doin’?”

“F-fine as f-frog’s hair,” George said with a shaky grin, hoping he’d correctly used the phrase he’d heard Hoss say a couple of times.

“Wouldn’t take much to get that one nailed to the counter,” Hoss chuckled. Then, seeing that George didn’t understand, he quickly interpreted, “Proved a lie.”

“Oh,” George grunted. “Cowboy jargon . . . worse than . . . Greek ever was.”

“I reckon,” Hoss said, although he looked skeptical. Cowboy jargon, as George called it, painted pictures that made a heap more sense to Hoss than any of the Greek or Latin he’d ever heard Adam spout. He glanced over at his father. “Pa, I figure the best way to move ole George here is for me to get under his back and take most of the weight, while you and Joe manage his legs.”

“Sounds good,” Ben agreed. “Joe, you take the uninjured leg, and I’ll hold this one.” When he saw the wounded look on his youngest son’s face, he almost regretted that decision, but he knew it was the right one. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Joe to be careful, as the boy’s expression plainly said he had assumed; rather, Ben knew moving the leg would hurt George, no matter how careful they were. He just didn’t want the all-but-inevitable cries of pain to add to the all-too-obvious load of guilt his son was already carrying.

Working together, they soon had George settled into the wagon. “Joseph, tie Cochise onto the wagon,” Ben directed, “and then climb in with George. You can help steady him if we hit a rough spot.”

“Yes, sir!” Joe answered, eager to help ease George’s pain in any way he could.

As he climbed onto the wagon seat beside Hoss, Ben smiled to himself. Not only had he forestalled another wild dash down the dark road, but he’d given his son a way to assuage some of that guilt burdening his young soul. Killing two birds with one stone might not give him grounds to vie with King Solomon for wisdom, but it was highly satisfying.

*****

Huffing heavily, Adam raced down the road, his breath as much taken by the outrage building inside his chest as by the physical exertion of a rapid ride. Had his entire family taken leave of their senses? First his idiot of a brother treats a guest shamefully, with total disregard for the consequences. Then, as if that weren’t enough irritant to deal with, his father pulls rank and sends him on an errand the fool kid should have been given. Might even have taught him a little responsibility! But, no, Pa has to spare his baby son the inconvenience of a long, tiring ride through the dark of night, while treating his eldest as if he were barely out of short pants. I’m a grown man, he fumed, still living under my father’s roof and rule! At times like this, he wondered why and whether it was time to strike out on his own.

Suddenly, Sport stumbled, his right forefoot sliding on some loose rock at the side of the road, which Adam had inadvertently hugged too tightly. Strong, solid mount that he was, the horse shifted his balance and stayed upright, and as Adam intuitively slowed his pace, he instantly realized why he’d been sent on this errand and not Joe. While he’d made a caustic joke earlier about his brother breaking his reckless neck, truth was truth: the kid was a reckless rider. In a situation like this, Joe would ride hell bent for leather, with no deference to terrain or visibility. In his haste to help George, Adam had almost fallen into the same trap, but his innate common sense had prevailed. Joe, unfortunately, had none to fall back on, and as angry as Adam still felt, he cared too much for the boy to wish him bodily harm (other than a few well placed whacks on the backside, had he been a bit younger).

By the time he reached town, Adam presented the calm, controlled character with which he customarily faced crises. He roused Dr. Martin, gave him a concise, but comprehensive description of his friend’s injury and harnessed the doctor’s buggy and had him on his way to the Ponderosa in the shortest time possible. He could only imagine the wild words and frantic arm-waving with which Little Joe would have delivered the same message. Had Pa really perceived all that in the mere moment he’d taken to assess and make that assignment. As they rode out, Adam acknowledged with a wry smile that he probably had.

Dawn was tip-touching the pines with orange and orchid as they arrived at the Ponderosa. Dr. Martin had no sooner shooed all the Cartwrights out of the downstairs guest room, so that he could examine George in private, than Hop Sing appeared. “Family come to table now,” he demanded. “Eat breakfast while hot.”

“I ain’t hungry,” Little Joe, whose eyes were riveted on the closed bedroom door, muttered.

Over the last few hours, Adam’s attitude had faded from angry to simply aggravated. “Why don’t you try just doing as you’re told for a change?” he suggested with the sheerest hint of acidity. “We have quite enough to deal with without having you keel over from lack of nourishment.”

It was so much milder a rebuke than Little Joe had expected from his oldest brother that he found himself moving toward the table without a word of objection. When Hop Sing slid a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him, however, he could do nothing but stare at it. None of the Cartwrights, in fact, seemed to have much appetite, although Hoss was trying to make his usual enthusiastic remarks in hopes of easing the tension in the room. Even he finally gave up and set his fork aside. “Sure got us a hair in the butter, ain’t we?” he sighed.

“To put it mildly,” Adam said. He scowled at the disgusting description of the dilemma they now faced.

Little Joe pushed scrambled egg to one side of his plate and then the other. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Adam arched an eyebrow. “Well, I would imagine so, since you didn’t even get what you wanted.”

“Adam,” Ben cautioned.

“Yeah, I know: go easy,” Adam grunted. He took a deep breath. “I am trying.” He looked back at Joe. “I don’t know why you were trying to encourage George to leave early, but you do realize, I hope, that you got exactly the opposite. A broken leg virtually insures a longer stay, and I had better not hear one word of complaint or one hint of how much better medical care he could get back East!” Try as he would, Adam couldn’t keep the acrimony from his voice.

“Adam, I wouldn’t,” Little Joe protested weakly. “I know this is all my fault, and I am sorry, honest I am.”

“I’m sure your brother knows that,” Ben put in with a steadfast look at his eldest.

Not trusting himself with further words, Adam just exhaled slowly and nodded.

“You reckon George is gonna miss that anniversary party for his folks?” Hoss asked hesitantly.

“I don’t see how he can do otherwise,” Adam said bluntly, while Joe all but buried his face in his left palm. “We certainly can’t expect him to spend a couple of weeks sleeping on the velvet couch with a broken leg.”

“You mean on roundup?” Hoss asked. “Yeah, ain’t no way George could be comfortable sleepin’ on a bedroll. Doggone shame. He was lookin’ forward to ridin’ with us.”

“And that puts us a man down,” Adam said, adding with a glance at Joe, “even if some people think he wouldn’t be ‘much real help on the drive.’”

Joe moaned miserably at the repetition of his own words, which sounded twice as hurtful now as when he’d first said them.

“It puts us two men down,” Ben corrected. “One of us will need to stay here with George.”

“That’s true,” Adam agreed with a sober nod.

“Hop Sing?” Hoss suggested. “He’s right good with hurtin’ folks.”

“He’s also ‘right good’ — and definitely more irreplaceable — as trail cook,” Adam pointed out. “As difficult as it’ll be to find an extra hand at this late date, finding a cook would be infinitely harder.”

Hoss nodded his agreement. “Scarce as hens’ teeth.”

“So, what are we gonna do?” Little Joe asked anxiously.

“Give me some time to think, son,” Ben said. “We’re all tired, concerned about George. Let’s just take one thing at a time.”

“I can tell you the first thing we better tend to,” Hoss said, as he spied Hop Sing eavesdropping in the kitchen doorway. “If we don’t dig in and clean these plates, we’ll have to hogtie the cook we got to keep him from takin’ off for China.”

Hearing the sotto-voce echo from the next room, every man there lifted his fork and, lack of appetite notwithstanding, pluckily did his duty.

*****

Stifling a yawn, Adam approached the alcove, where his father was seated behind the wide wooden desk.

Ben offered him a wry smile and observed, “Apparently, you didn’t get much rest.” After breakfast he had suggested that each of them try to get a couple of hours sleep before starting work.

“I didn’t get any,” Adam admitted. “Couldn’t get my mind off our ‘hair in the butter,’ as my brother so revoltingly referred to it.”

A rasping chuckle rattled deep in Ben’s throat. “I had the same trouble. I hope the boys, at least, are getting a little sleep.”

“Hoss is,” Adam reported, “judging by the snores reverberating down the hall. I didn’t check on Joe, but I didn’t hear anything when I passed his room.”

“Good. That gives us a chance to talk,” Ben said, leaning back in his chair.

Adam sat in the captain’s chair across from his father and steepled his hands as he rested his elbows on its arms. “I keep coming back to the simple fact that George is my friend. If it weren’t for me, he wouldn’t even be here, so logically, I should be the one who stays behind to care for him.”

Ben rubbed his lower lip with his index finger as he slowly shook his head. “Adam, you know it can’t be you. You’re bossing this drive, which makes you the most irreplaceable person on the entire crew. It would be different if I were available to head it up, but. . . .”

“The legislature,” Adam supplied with a sigh. “I know.” His father’s invitation to consult with the Territorial legislators about a bill pertaining to water rights was the original impetus behind the decision to have Adam head up this fall’s cattle drive. Ben would be spending days, possibly even weeks, in Carson City, so there was no way he could ramrod the trail drive. He couldn’t effectively be the injured man’s caretaker, either: even if he returned home each night, George would still be alone and unaided most of the time. “I thought, maybe, Hoss could head up the drive,” Adam suggested tentatively.

Ben sighed. “I suppose he could, in a pinch. He can handle moving the cattle, of course, although some of the new men might balk at changing horses in midstream, so to speak. The negotiations in Sacramento, though. . . .” Ben spread his hands. “He’d be very uncomfortable with that.”

“Uncomfortable, but not incapable,” Adam insisted.

“No, not incapable.” Ben shrugged. “All right. It’s one option. I don’t think it’s the best one.”

A sickening suspicion sank to the pit of Adam’s stomach. To forestall what he feared was coming, he said quickly, “Yes, I suppose Hoss would be more useful as George’s caretaker. He’s always been gentle and skillful with injured men and animals, and if George should need to be lifted, Hoss could…”

“Adam, Adam,” Ben interrupted, shaking his head again. “You’re trying too hard to avoid the obvious.”

“Joe?” Adam snorted. “That’s your idea of ‘obvious’?”

Ben leaned forward, arms folded on the desk. “Which of your brothers is the greater asset on the drive?” he asked pointedly.

Glancing at the ceiling, Adam exhaled with exasperation. “Hoss, of course,” he said bluntly. He looked back at his father. “Not that Joe isn’t a good hand, well on his way to becoming a top one, but he doesn’t have Hoss’ experience.”

“Exactly,” Ben said with a smile.

“But let’s not be blind to the other side of that coin,” Adam continued tersely. “Joe doesn’t have Hoss’ experience as a caregiver, either, and George may not welcome being left to the tender mercies of a boy barely out of his cradle!”

Ben straightened up. “I agree. We should leave it to George.”

“That’s not what I said!” Adam sputtered.

“Shh,” Ben cautioned. “Do you want to wake him?”

There was small chance of that, after the dose of laudanum the doctor had administered, and they both knew it, but the caution served to settle Adam down. “What I said,” he continued more calmly, “was that from cradle to caregiver is a considerable leap.”

Ben cleared his throat, a sound each of his sons had come to recognize as a warning. “In the first place, young man, your brother has been out of his cradle for some years now. I agree he’s inexperienced, but George is not suffering from a life-threatening illness, either. Once the doctor has him in a cast, he won’t need a lot of care, just some help with personal grooming and, well, someone to provide food and company and just be here in case a problem does arise.”

“And my point,” Adam pressed, “is that he may not welcome the company of the boy who put him in that bed.”

Ben frowned. “I think you’re overstating your brother’s responsibility, but if George feels that way, then certainly we shouldn’t force him into Joseph’s care, even if it is the best solution for our own problems. As I said, we should let him choose—unless you’re saying that your young brother is incapable of fetching and toting for an injured man.” As Ben threw Adam’s previous argument for Hoss back in his face, the look in his eye warned Adam to be painstakingly honest in his reply.

“Not incapable,” Adam admitted grudgingly.

“Then I suggest you wake your brothers, so we can discuss it with them,” Ben said in a tone that was no suggestion.

“Oh, joy,” Adam replied with an acid smile.

Ben chuckled. “Comes with the territory, trail boss.”

“We’re not on the trail yet,” Adam pointed out as he stood to comply. Returning about ten minutes later, he herded his brothers toward the alcove. Hoss was yawning prodigiously, but although Joe’s clothes were rumpled, he looked as though he hadn’t slept at all. His muscles were tense, his eyes anxious as the three brothers stood before the desk.

“Adam and I’ve been discussing our situation,” Ben began.

“What are we gonna do?” Little Joe interrupted to ask.

Recognizing the restlessness for what it was, the combined result of a guilty conscience and plain ordinary worry, Ben didn’t bother to correct his son’s manners. “Sit down, Joe,” he said softly. “You, too, Hoss.”

Little Joe would have much preferred to stand, but he took one of the captain’s chairs and balanced tensely on its edge. Hoss took the other, while Adam rested one hip on the corner of the desk. Ben briefly outlined the options he and Adam had discussed and finished by saying, “So, if George will have you, Joseph, we feel it’s best that you remain behind with him.”

Looking slightly green around the gills, Little Joe gulped. “But, Pa,” he protested weakly, “Don’t you think he’d be better off with Hoss. I mean, what if he falls over, tryin’ to use his crutches or somethin’. I might not be strong enough to pick him up.”

“He’s scarcely that heavy,” Adam snorted.

“And you ain’t no dadburned weakling,” Hoss added gruffly.

Joe squirmed on the edge of his chair. “No, but…”

“But nothing,” Adam said sharply. “I don’t doubt that you planned to cut yourself some fancy capers in San Francisco, but missing out on that is pitifully small penalty for what you’ve cost George.”

“That’s not it,” Little Joe protested hotly, although the flush of his face revealed that, while it wasn’t his main concern, the thought had crossed his mind.

“Then what is it, Joseph?” Ben interjected. “All things considered, don’t you feel some responsibility to our guest?”

“Yes, sir, of course, I do,” Little Joe said, slumping as if the weight of that responsibility had suddenly thudded down on his shoulders once again. Then he straightened hopefully and made one more, earnest argument, “But like you said at breakfast, we’ll be a hand down, and I’m supposed to be wrangler on this drive. It’s an important job, Pa.”

Ben fought to keep the smile from his lips, while Adam struggled even harder to halt the outright snicker tickling his own mouth. While they had both previously emphasized the importance of the assignment, they each knew, as did Hoss, that the job of wrangling the remuda was generally given to the hand with the least experience. Joe did have more talent than most at handling horses, but any young fellow who’d grown up on a ranch could probably manage feeding and watering them and rounding one up when a driver needed to change mounts.

“Surely you’re not suggesting that you’d be harder to replace than Hoss,” Adam observed, arching a skeptical eyebrow.

“Well . . . no,” Little Joe replied and then muttered, “not him.”

The significance of Joe’s emphasis on the final word did not escape his oldest brother’s notice. “Oh, so you think you’d be harder to replace than the trail boss,” he scoffed. “Is there no limit to your pride, boy?”

Little Joe’s nostrils flared. “Anybody can bark orders.”

“Why, you cocky little…”

“That’s enough!” Slapping the desktop with his hands, Ben leaped to his feet and glared at both boys, and both fell instantly silent. “Maybe you’ll think I’m just barking orders, too,” he said sternly, “but as I reminded you both last night, I still run this ranch; I still make the assignments. Yours, Adam, is to boss the trail drive, and you, Joseph, will devote — and I do mean devote — yourself to making George’s confinement as pleasant as possible. Beginning now, you will sit with him, make him as comfortable as possible, talk with him or read to him if he so wishes, bring him food and supply any other need he may express. Is that clear?”

His father’s voice had risen with each phrase, and Little Joe gave the only response possible in the face of that ferocity, a meek “Yes, sir.”

 “Good.” Ben sat down again and intentionally adopted a more conciliatory tone. “Now, as you say, the horse wrangler is an important position, so I’m sure Adam would appreciate your expert advice on who to hire.” He directed an inquisitive side glance at his eldest, who being no fool, took the hint.

“Absolutely,” Adam agreed. “Which of your friends would you recommend for the job, Joe?”

Little Joe stared at his brother. Caught off guard by his brother’s attitude of respect, he stuttered for a moment. “Uh — well — uh.” Then he brightened. “What about Dick Simon? He’s pretty good with horses. Not as good as me, of course.”

“Of course.” Adam forced himself to nod solemnly, while Ben and Hoss studiously avoided looking at each other or either of the participants in the exchange.

“I know his pa ain’t plannin’ to drive any steers to market this fall,” Joe explained, “on account of he’s still tryin’ to build up his herd after losin’ so many to winter kill back in January.”

“He should be available then,” Adam commented, “assuming he hasn’t hired on with any other outfits.”

Joe shook his head. “He ain’t. Well, as of last Sunday he hadn’t, anyway, and I know he could use the work.”

“We oughta check with him right quick,” Hoss suggested, “‘fore someone else snaps him up.”

“If,” Joe said significantly.

“If?” Hoss cocked his head.

Little Joe swallowed the lump in his throat. “If George picks me, that is. I still think he’d be better off with you.”

 “I think he’d be better off with Hoss, too,” Adam said gruffly, “but it’s up to George and I suggest we put it to him as soon as possible.”

“Tonight,” Ben said. “I’d like us all to be there, so don’t say anything to George today, Joseph.”

“No, sir.” Joe’s promise was easily made.

“All right, then. Daylight’s burning, and you all know what’s expected of you.”

Adam circled his arm above his head, as if he were twirling a lasso. “Head ‘em up; move ‘em out.”

His brothers chuckled at the jest, and good humor reestablished, each went his about his work for the day.

*****

Little Joe thought that afternoon was the longest and most boring he’d spent in his entire life. As he sat at George’s side, listening to his soft snores, he wondered how Pa and Adam and Hoss had stood it all the times they’d nursed him through illness or injury, and he felt a new appreciation for their stockpile of patience. His was shrinking fast, and he didn’t figure it was likely to get any easier once George was awake. Talk to him? About what? Adam was hard enough to talk to, with his fancy words and peculiar tastes, but at least Joe had a few things in common with his brother. He sure couldn’t say that about the Easterner, who was pretty much another pea in Adam’s pod, in all the wrong ways. Read to him, Pa had said. Judging again by Adam’s likes in literature, George wouldn’t be interested in anything . . . well, interesting . . . and Joe didn’t think he could tolerate hours upon hours of Shakespeare or any of those other sissified English poets that Adam favored. The thought of exchanging an exciting trip to San Francisco for such stultifying boredom was enough to push bile into anyone’s craw, but Little Joe knew he had no choice. Someone had to do it, and even if his own conscience hadn’t already told him that he was elected, Pa had made it clear.

If anything, things only got worse when George finally woke up, ‘cause there were certain bodily needs that just had to be taken care of, no two ways about it. Putting another man on a bedpan was beyond awkward, but Little Joe had been on the other end of that one, so he did his best to keep any embarrassment off his own face, so George wouldn’t feel ashamed of needing help with such a private matter. Once that was out of the way, though, Joe had brought Adam’s friend some lunch and chatted with him while he ate, commiserating about the time he’d broken his own leg. George seemed to take comfort from seeing how well Joe had recovered, but he soon drifted off to sleep and the boredom drizzled down on Joe again. When he could stand it no longer, he slipped out of the room to ask his father if it would be all right for him to go up to his own room and fetch a book.

Ben looked up from his monthly tussle with the bookwork and responded with a chuckle. “Of course, Joseph. When I said you were to sit with George, I didn’t mean you could do nothing else. Just don’t dawdle up there.”

“No, sir, no dawdling,” Little Joe said and raced for the stairs.

Ben started to rebuke him for running in the house, but decided it was probably wiser to let his youngest burn off a little pent-up energy. With a scowl he started to add that pesky column of figures a third time—and then a fourth when Little Joe’s race back down the stairs distracted him again.

The afternoon dragged on, but George finally woke, and Little Joe offered to read to him from “this real exciting tale I just started.”

“What is it?” George inquired hesitantly.

“It’s called Seth Jones, or The Captive of the Frontier,” an animated Little Joe informed him. “Seth Jones — well, he was a scout with the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen, so you can see it’s real historical, too, and the Indians are on the warpath, and they capture this real pretty gal, just a mite younger’n me and…”

“Oh, dear,” George murmured. He smiled weakly when he saw that his comment had abruptly dampened Little Joe’s enthusiasm. “Is there anything else you might suggest?” he asked.

Little Joe’s mouth skewed to one side in undisguisable distaste. “You mean, like Shakespeare?”

“No, not exactly,” George replied slowly. Goodness only knew how the boy might butcher the immortal bard! “I do enjoy adventure tales, if you have any by a more — um — established author.”

Scratching his head, Little Joe pondered what made George think that Edward Ellis wasn’t an established author. Joe himself had never heard of the writer — oh, wait, maybe that was it. Who would George have heard of, then? In his mind’s eye he scanned the bookshelves near Pa’s desk and smiled as he landed on one of his personal favorites. “Would Scott be established enough for you?” he asked with a cheeky grin.

George laughed in delighted surprise. “Sir Walter Scott? An excellent choice, Little Joe!”

Pleased with himself, Little Joe stood up. “Got a favorite?” he asked as he moved toward the door.

“Surprise me,” George said.

Joe’s grin broadened. He returned shortly with Quentin Durward and spent the next hour or so reading of the Scot’s adventures in France. He had just come to the end of a chapter when the door opened, and the other three Cartwrights filed in. He immediately closed the book and waited for the announcement he’d been sitting on all day.

They all exchanged a few pleasantries, inquiring how George was feeling and sharing a few details of their activities for the day. Then Ben began. “George, we’re all sorry, of course, about your injuries and how they will affect your plans to travel home. The situation does affect us, as well, and we’ve been discussing what would be best for all concerned. We have come up with a plan, subject to your approval, and I’d like to tell you about that now.”

George smiled wanly. “I’m so sorry to be causing you problems, sir.”

“Not at all, George, not at all,” Ben assured him, and the sentiment was echoed by both Hoss and Adam. A nervous Little Joe was hanging back in the corner, in an apparent attempt to blend into the wall plaster, as his father explained the plan that he and Adam had worked out. “So, if it’s acceptable with you,” Ben concluded, “Little Joe will remain behind to assist you in any way you need, while I’m in Carson City and the other boys manage the trail drive.”

George’s jaw set with an adamantine determination that none of them except Adam had ever seen before, and he firmly declared, “No. Absolutely not.”

The Cartwrights stared at him in shocked silence. It was the hurt in Little Joe’s expressive eyes, however, that drew George’s concerned attention, for the boy’s first flicker of relief was almost instantaneously replaced with a blink of injured incredulity. “No, I didn’t . . . you’ve misunderstood me,” George stammered. “It’s not that I object to Little Joe’s company.” He set his chin with iron resolve. “I merely meant that no one needs to remain behind on my account, because I won’t be staying here. My ship leaves from San Francisco at the end of the month, and I will be aboard it.”

Straddling the chair beside the bed, Adam folded his arms across its ladder back. “How do you propose to get there?” he inquired with a skeptical cock of his head.

George pulled himself up in bed and locked eyes with his friend. “I’ll crawl if I have to!”

Adam exhaled slowly and eloquently before casting a glance over his shoulder at his family. “He would, you know.”

“Aw, Adam, that just ain’t reasonable,” Hoss argued.

“Nonetheless,” Adam observed with a wry smile.

Ben gave his eldest a reprimanding glare and, turning to George, said after a paternal clearing of his throat, “Now, son.”

“I’m not your son,” George said bluntly. Swallowing hard, he continued, “I mean no disrespect, Mr. Cartwright, but I have a father — and a mother — and they are celebrating a momentous occasion, which I absolutely refuse to miss.” He sent an appealing look toward the three Cartwright brothers. “How would you feel if it were your” — his voice broke off abruptly in sudden realization that none of the Cartwright sons could possibly comprehend what it meant to celebrate his parents’ fiftieth anniversary — or even their fifth. “I’m sorry,” he said, slumping forward. “That was thoughtless.”

“Not at all,” the others variously murmured.

Hoss moved closer to lay a consoling hand on the injured man’s shoulder. “Don’t fret yourself none, George,” he said. “We understand.” His throat tightened as the image of a silver-framed portrait in his room came to mind. “I mean, we can sort of imagine how it’d be.”

“Of course, we understand your desire to be with your parents at such a time,” Ben interjected, “but, son — please allow me that liberty and let me speak to you from a father’s heart — sometimes our desires have to give way to circumstances, and in this instance a particularly difficult set of circumstances does lie in the path of your desire.”

George nodded. “I know that, sir, but I must be there. I don’t wish to interfere with your drive, however. Just put me on a stage: that’s all I ask.”

Jaws dropped around the room, Adam’s being the only exception. Hoss gaped at George, wondering how a young fellow who had seemed so levelheaded before could have taken such complete leave of his senses, while Little Joe just shook his head at this further proof that a college education was of no use whatsoever in the real world.

“You know not what you ask,” Adam suggested calmly, but soberly.

“That’s gonna hurt,” Hoss said more explicitly.

“Bad,” Little Joe added. The jostling of stage travel was rough on a healthy body, much less one that was already hurting.

George met their gaze, stare for stare. “I’ll ask your Dr. Martin to prescribe a healthy dose of laudanum.”

Ben latched onto one phrase as a man in quicksand might grab a tossed rope. “Ask the doctor . . . yes,” he said. “That’s precisely what we must do. We’ll let Dr. Martin decide whether you are fit to travel, and you will follow the doctor’s advice, young man, whatever it may be.” His tone was as firm as that he might have used with his own sons, and though he had no right to expect from George the submission he would have demanded from them, he was grateful to see their visitor settle back against his pillows with a look of resignation.

“Yes,” George murmured. “Yes, of course, I’ll do as the doctor says.” His own father would have required no less.

Carrying a tray with two plates of food, Hop Sing walked through the open doorway. “I bring dinner for Mr. George,” he announced and then ordered, “Family come to table now before food cold.” Hoss at once headed for the door, while Ben paused only long enough to say that he hoped George would enjoy the meal.

When Little Joe sighed softly as he took the tray from the cook, Adam chuckled and, rising, grasped it on both sides. “Consider yourself reprieved,” he offered. Joe’s quick grin was almost as speedy as his exit from the room, closing the door behind him.

“Actually, you’re the one deserving the reprieve,” Adam said as he placed the tray over George’s legs and removed the plate containing the dinner originally intended for his younger brother.

“Oh, he wasn’t that bad,” George said, adding with a twinkle in his eye, “once we got past his offer to read some atrocity called Seth Jones.”

Turning the chair around so he could eat facing his friend, Adam winced. “I don’t think I even want to know what that was about.” He sat down and spread a napkin in his lap before setting the plate atop it. “You are a paragon of patience, my friend, but I hope you realize that you don’t have to be.”

“Hmm?” George asked around a mouthful of peas.

“You don’t have to accept Little Joe as your companion,” Adam said plainly.

Swallowing, George set his fork down. “I told you: it has nothing to do with Little Joe. No one needs to stay behind to be with me.”

“Yes, someone does,” Adam said frankly. He held up a hand to silence his friend’s protest. “Even if Dr. Martin does release you to travel, you can’t possibly make a journey like that alone in your condition, George. You will need help with any number of practical matters. Common sense should tell you that much.”

The iron glint in George’s eyes melted under the compassionate, but unyielding gaze of his friend. Moaning, he shook his head. “I’m causing you such trouble.”

“You didn’t cause it.” Adam gave his steak a sharp jab. “That was Joe’s doing.”

George looked up quickly. “No, it wasn’t.” He silenced Adam’s protest in mid-phrase. “Oh, I don’t deny that the boy’s taunts did gall me, but you’re overlooking the highly pertinent fact that he is a boy, while I am a grown man, even if I did react with as much gumption as a mere babe. Little Joe didn’t suggest that I ride Meteor to prove my worth; I came up with that idea all by myself. As Hoss might say, a blame fool one it was, but it was my idea, not that boy’s. If you’re going to be angry with someone, Adam, be angry with me, not him.”

Adam Cartwright was a man rarely struck speechless, but he sat back now with his mouth gaping. Then he released his anger in a slow, voiceless whistle. George was right. He could legitimately charge Joe with rudeness, but not for the decisions a grown man had made in response to it. He hadn’t been willing to fault his friend, so he had thrown all the blame onto his brother — to an unfair extent, he was now ready to concede. Looking up at George, he smiled. “You always did have a gift for perspective, both in architecture and in life,” he said. “Thank you. Now I suggest we both clean our plates before we draw down the wrath of Hop Sing upon our hapless heads.”

George focused on his plate to shield his irritation. While the Cartwrights might profit from his perspective on their subjection to the domineering of a hireling, this was not the time. He’d given his friend Adam enough to think about for one night. To change the subject, he asked brightly, “Did you catch the look on Little Joe’s face when he thought I was rejecting him? Utter amazement that anyone could possibly not want his company! Not what I intended, of course. I felt bad about hurting his feelings, but that expression was priceless.”

“No, I didn’t see it,” Adam said, adding with a grin, “but I can well imagine it. My little brother fervently believes that he is God’s gift to delight humanity, particularly the female half, which means, old chum” — he pointed his fork at George — “that should you take him as your companion, you automatically become responsible for fending off any shotgun-toting fathers that may show up, demanding he do right by their darling daughters.”

“How many have you driven off?” George challenged.

Adam emitted an elongated sigh. “Dozens, my friend, dozens. Someday epic legends will be written.”

“Ah, but will they compare with the exploits of Seth Jones?” George bantered back.

At the dining table in the next room, heads turned in wonderment at the explosion of laughter just beyond the bedroom door.

*****

Two days later the Cartwrights were again gathered in George’s room, this time accompanied by Dr. Martin. After examining the injured leg, the doctor looked up and smiled at him. “The swelling’s gone down nicely, George. I think we can put it in a cast and get you on crutches, so you can start to move around.”

Ben had contained himself as long as he could. “That’s all well and good,” he said, “but will you kindly tell this young fool that he cannot possibly consider riding a stagecoach to San Francisco?”

Paul Martin’s mouth skewed to one side as he considered his friend’s crusty attitude. “Are you requesting my medical opinion,” he asked tartly, “or dictating it?”

“Huh!” Ben snorted. “I’m requesting it, of course” — his eyes narrowed in scrutiny of the doctor’s face –“although I think common sense should carry some weight!”

“Well, then, from a common sense standpoint, I wouldn’t advise it,” Dr. Martin said. Then, seeing George’s crestfallen face, he continued, “However, if this young man could arrange a means of transportation that doesn’t have schedules to keep, I don’t see why he couldn’t safely travel wherever he pleases.”

George’s expression brightened as Ben’s fell. Seeing both, Adam intervened. “You mean in a wagon or carriage, at his own pace?” he inquired.

“Preferably a well-padded wagon,” the doctor chuckled, “but, yes, that’s what I meant. It would still be a long journey with considerable discomfort, but if your friend is determined…”

“I am,” George put in forcefully.

Avoiding Ben Cartwright’s glare, the doctor focused on his patient. “In that case, let’s get that cast on, young fellow.” Without turning around, he added, “I can use one assistant with that process, but not four, so if you will clear the room, gentlemen, I’ll get started.”

Little Joe’s lip curled sourly. No one had to tell him that he would be the doctor’s designated helper, even if medical procedures tended to twist his stomach inside out. At least, there wouldn’t be any blood or innards involved in this one, so he could probably hang on to his dinner.

Ben’s nostrils were still blasting smoke at his erstwhile friend as Adam and Hoss joined forces to steer him from the room. “I can see that I should have had a word with our friendly family doctor before we let him see his patient!” he fumed, dropping heavily into his fireside chair. “I suppose there’ll be no convincing the young fool to be reasonable now.”

“None whatsoever,” Adam observed dryly as he moved toward his favorite blue chair.

Face scrunched, Hoss nodded and took a seat on the settee between his father and brother. “So here we are stuck with that same hair in the butter again. What we gonna do now?”

Adam shrugged. “Pad a wagon thick with mattresses and drive him — slowly — to San Francisco.”

“With the herd?” Hoss asked incredulously.

Adam laughed. “No. No need to put him through extra miles with the dust of the drive in his face. He can take the shorter route around the lake and down to Sacramento.”

“With who as driver?” Ben demanded.

Adam scratched the back of his neck to delay what he knew would be an unwelcome answer. “Our options are precisely the same as they were before, Pa.”

“Joe?” Hoss risked a wary look at their father and saw pretty much what he had feared he would.

Ben glowered at Adam. “I seem to recall you saying something about cradle to caregiver being a considerable leap.”

Flushing, Adam nodded. “And you pointed out — correctly, I might add — that Little Joe has long since left the cradle.”

“That’s as may be,” Ben said gruffly, “but surely you see that it’s a giant leap from Joseph caring for George here at home to him doing the same thing all the way from here to San Francisco!”

“It’s a greater responsibility, yes,” Adam agreed. He leaned forward, his folded hands dropping between his legs. “Face it, though, Pa: it has to be either him or Hoss, and from a simply practical standpoint, it’s easier if it’s him. We’ve already hired a replacement for Joe, while he and Dick Simon together don’t add up to one man with Hoss’ experience.”

Ben’s lips fluttered as he exhaled forcefully. “Well, I just don’t know,” he said with a shake of his head.

“Aw, Pa, I reckon Joe can handle it,” Hoss said. “George ain’t no trouble to tend to, and Joe’d be happier ‘cause he’d get his trip to San Francisco after all.”

“That, young man, is exactly what concerns me,” Ben said with a scowl at his middle son.

Adam brought his hands up to cover his smile. Little Joe in San Francisco without the supervision of either father or older brother was, indeed, a scenario to inspire concern. Given that boy’s propensity for trouble, he could easily wind up drugged and robbed by some pretty waiter girl on the Barbary Coast or shanghaied onto a ship headed for the tropics. “I think George would act as a deterrent to any — uh — wild behavior,” he said.

“Oh, that’s a fine way to treat a guest, saddling him with that task,” Ben snorted.

Adam chuckled. “I think you might find George more than up to it.” His head lifted as a thought suddenly came to him. “I’m due some time off after the cattle are delivered, aren’t I?”

“What does that” — Ben broke off, bewildered by the abrupt change of subject –“Yes, of course.”

“Enough for a trip east?” Adam suggested. “After all, George will need assistance on the voyage, as well, and I would like to honor his parents, too. They were very welcoming to me when I was back there.”

“Doggone. He’s right about George needin’ help on the ship, Pa,” Hoss said, “and that dead sure can’t be Joe.”

“No, definitely not,” Adam agreed quickly. The idea of Little Joe loose in San Francisco might be daunting, but the notion of him adrift on the high seas or out on the town alone back East was appalling.

Ben shivered in agreement.

Just then the door to the bedroom opened, and the doctor emerged. Paul Martin snickered at Ben’s scowling face. “Is it safe to request a cup of coffee or should I just grab my hat and run?”

“Hop Sing bring honorable doctor coffee right away,” the cook announced from the kitchen doorway.

Ben threw a perturbed look at the Chinaman’s back and flicked an irritated hand toward the settee.

“Why, thank you,” the doctor said with exaggerated politeness as he settled next to Hoss.

“I expected a little more support from my old friend,” Ben muttered.

Paul shrugged one shoulder. “I wasn’t here as your friend, Ben; I was here as George’s doctor, and I always give my patients honest answers to their questions.”

“Yes, of course,” Ben conceded with a grudging rumble.

Hop Sing entered and set a coffee service on the table. To give himself an excuse to eavesdrop, he began pouring and serving the coffee.

“Do you have any advice on ways we can make this journey easier on George?” Adam queried.

“Take it slowly,” Dr. Martin said. “Plan frequent stops and, if possible, allow some time for him to rest in San Francisco before he sails.” He took a cup from Hop Sing. “He assures me he’s not prone to seasickness, so it should be an easier trip from that point. I would recommend providing him with a rolling chair. Much easier to maneuver on ship than crutches.”

“I think we can manage all that.” Adam immediately began to chart the journey in his head. Not until the doctor had left, however, did he share his conclusions with Ben and Hoss. “We can give George four or five days here to get used to the crutches,” he explained, “and then Joe could take him up to the logging camp. That would give him another night — more if he needs it — in a reasonably comfortable bed.”

“Not to mention a right hearty breakfast the next morning.” Hoss almost smacked his lips in remembrance of the breakfasts he’d shared with the Ponderosa’s lumberjacks.”

Adam chuckled. “And more importantly, Jake Webber can give our capricious younger brother a little supervision.”

Ben’s tense shoulders started to relax. He could trust Jake to send word home if anything seemed amiss with Little Joe and his charge.

“From there on to Placerville,” Adam continued. “If they hook onto the stage route, there are home stations where they could rest along the way, and we can have Joe pay our respects to the Zuebners once he gets there.” He didn’t have to tell Ben that those old friends from their journey west would also check on his reckless youngest and wire him if they saw reason for concern.

Leaning back, Ben thoughtfully rubbed his chin. “Short trip to Folsom, where they can take the train to Sacramento and then the steamboat to San Francisco. It’s a good plan, Adam.”

“Lot easier on George that way,” Hoss agreed. “Good thinking, older brother.”

“Then it’s your intention to meet Joseph in San Francisco and continue on with George in his place?” Ben asked Adam.

“If you can spare me that long,” Adam said quietly.

Ben smiled fondly at his eldest. “You’ve earned it, son, and we certainly owe our guest that much consideration, as well.”

“And me and Joe can come home together,” Hoss said to further reassure his father.

Ben took a deep breath and nodded. “I’m still not entirely comfortable with it,” he admitted, “but under the circumstances I think it’s the best we can do.”

*****

At first, Little Joe was delighted with the new plan. He wouldn’t have to miss the long-anticipated trip to San Francisco after all! And with no father or brother to hold him back once he got there, he envisioned high times in the melodeons and saloons around Portsmouth Square. When each passing day brought a new list of admonitions from Pa, however, his young shoulders began to sag beneath the ever-increasing weight of responsibility. Warnings about holding the horses in check, to spare George unnecessary jolting, nibbled away at his confidence, and while he felt quite capable of caring for the injured man, as long as things went according to plan, his father’s constant cautions reminded him that they might not. On previous visits to California, he’d usually been the instigator — albeit an innocent one, he assured himself — of any mishaps along the way, while some older Cartwright had always been there to ride to his rescue, faster than the U. S. Cavalry against a band of renegade Apaches. On this trip, he’d be the cavalry, and he wasn’t sure he was even cut out to be a foot soldier.

Another unvoiced anxiety niggled at the back of his mind. His original rudeness to George had arisen from concern that the Easterner might draw Adam back to the sophisticated life they had once enjoyed together. Now, because of Joe’s own regrettable reaction to that fear, Adam was definitely headed there as George’s escort. Would he return or would the enticements of city life prove irresistible enough to pull him away from the Ponderosa forever? If it did, Joe had no one but himself to blame, and that belief did nothing but add another stone or two to the bag of boulders he had already hefted onto his back.

On the night before they were scheduled to leave, George had eaten an early supper and retired almost immediately afterward, so he would be well rested for the journey. Little Joe was, therefore, able to eat supper with his family for the first time since the decision had been made. Adam and Hoss, who had been preparing for the roundup from dawn to dusk, had seen almost nothing of him in days and were glad of this last chance to share a meal together.

Not that Joe had eaten much of it, Adam recalled as he closed the book he’d been reading in his room after they’d all retired. He’d seen his brother pushing food from one side of his plate to the other, but distracted by all the discussion at the table, he hadn’t really taken the notice he should have of one of Joe’s defining signals of something wrong. Nor, evidently, had anyone else. Now, in the quiet of the dark night, the barely touched dinner and the purple shadows under his brother’s eyes finally registered. Although he knew that Little Joe should be sound asleep by this hour, Adam was certain that he was not, that he was lying awake, stewing about some anxiety that, hopefully, an older brother could assuage.

Sliding off the bed, he padded across the hall in his stocking feet and cautiously opened Joe’s door, in case the boy actually were sleeping. Then his breath caught in his throat, for Little Joe was not only awake, but nowhere to be seen. Had he gone downstairs to check on George? With the aid of laudanum, the injured man had been sleeping through the night, so although someone always checked his room before they all retired, Joe hadn’t slept down there in several nights.

Returning to his own room, Adam picked up his boots and carried them downstairs, where, just in case, he looked into George’s room. Silent, but for the man’s soft snores. Though he considered it unlikely, Adam looked into the kitchen, on the off chance that Joe had gotten up for a snack to make up for his skimpy supper. Cold, dark, empty. With a worried frown Adam pulled on his boots, went out the kitchen door and headed for the barn, where he saddled Sport and rode as fast as safety allowed down the road, across the field and over the rise to the site of the previous fiasco.

The corral was empty. Adam pulled up just short of it and exhaled with heavy relief, mingled with consternation at his own stupidity. Why had he immediately leaped to the conclusion that Joe had brought Meteor down here? Because George had? Where was the logic in that? The kid could be reckless, of course, but he was no fool. Even if he’d wanted a try at breaking the horse, he wouldn’t have attempted it in the dead of night.

But if not here, where the trouble had started, then where could he be? Adam’s suspicion that something was seriously bothering his little brother was confirmed. If he were six, I’d know just where to look, he thought with a wry smile as he recalled the many times he’d found Joe hunkered down in the loft of the barn. But Joe wasn’t six any longer. Where would his almost-a-man brother now find the same comfort that sheltering straw had afforded then?

Suddenly, Adam knew. He turned and rode west, toward that one particular copse of trees overlooking the lake where his young brother often headed when he needed to think something through . . . or, perhaps, talk something through. Adam had never quite understood the attraction Joe felt toward his mother’s grave, maybe because, except for those brief years he’d spent back east, he’d never had the opportunity to make a similar pilgrimage. He’d felt reverence and a sense of loss when he’d visited that New England cemetery, but never the intimacy that Pa and Joe and, to a lesser extent, Hoss felt with Marie here on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Maybe it was a case of what Pa called his education getting in the way of his thinking, but he’d never felt her spirit here. He was glad Joe could, though. Everyone needed a person . . . or a place . . . where he could find himself.

As he tethered his horse in the trees, Adam wished that he had taken time to go back into the front room for his jacket. Although it was still summer, according to the calendar, the nights were cool, especially when the wind blew across the lake, as it was doing tonight. Seeing his brother squatted down beside Marie’s headstone, his shoulders hunched inside the green corduroy, Adam walked forward softly, hesitant to disturb their sacred communion. As he stepped on a dried pinecone, however, he heard it crunch underfoot.

Little Joe spun around, his left hand flashing like lightning for the gun in his holster.

“Easy, boy,” Adam said, raising his hands, palms out. “We haven’t come to that, have we?”

Joe’s lips fluttered with his gusty exhale of irritated relief. “Don’t you know better than to sneak up on a man?” he snapped.

Adam resisted the easy temptation to say that he hadn’t, not on a man, and smiled, instead. “Come on, Joe. You sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, and you’ve got to know at least one of us will come looking.”

Joe dropped the pearl-handled gun back into his holster. “I figured to be back before anyone noticed,” he said. “What has you prowling around at night?”

Adam wanted to throw the question back in the kid’s face, but decided to just answer it truthfully. “You,” he said simply. “I had a feeling something was bothering you, went to your room to ask and found you missing. Want to talk about it?”

The boy’s eyes answered yes, but he shook his head.

“Want me to leave you alone?”

Joe hesitated and then shook his head again. With a sigh he turned back to his mother’s gravestone and ran his hand across the smooth top, as if in farewell.

Slowly, Adam moved closer, ready to back off if Joe turned skittish again. Joe didn’t move, and finally Adam stood at his side and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Big day tomorrow,” he said gently.

“I don’t need remindin’,” Joe grunted.

Adam nodded. “I guess you’ve had plenty of reminding already.” He gently massaged his brother’s shoulder with his long, supple fingers. “But if there’s anything you’re uneasy about, buddy, feel free to ask.”

Little Joe scowled. “Shouldn’t be. You and Pa planned it all out . . . with plenty of folks to check up on me along the way.”

Adam caught the edge of resentment in the final words. “That’s for Pa’s peace of mind,” he admitted, “but, Joe, those same people are also there to help, if you need it. No matter how old or experienced a man is, there can always be unexpected problems, and it’s good to know where you can turn in times like that.”

“Jake Webber at the logging camp, the Zuebners in Placerville and the Larrimores in San Francisco,” Joe recited in a near monotone. Then he looked up into Adam’s eyes. “But there’s a lot of territory between them,” he said hesitantly.

Placing a hand on each slim shoulder, Adam turned the boy toward him. “And a lot of other people you can turn to, especially if you follow the stage route, as I suggested. You know the station masters at Yank’s and Strawberry, and even the ones you don’t know will recognize the name Cartwright. Don’t be afraid to toss it around, boy; it can open doors in unexpected places.”

Joe grinned at the conspiratorial wink his brother directed toward him.

“Anything else bothering you?” Adam asked.

There was. Adam could see it in the boy’s always expressive eyes, but although for a moment he looked as though he wanted to say something, Little Joe denied it with a shake of his head. Then he abruptly asked, “What do I do if you don’t make it to San Francisco in time?”

Adam laughed. “Is that what’s worrying you? I’ll be there, Joe.”

Little Joe moistened his lips. “Yeah, but like you and Pa keep sayin’, anything can happen — to you, same as me.”

With one arm Adam pulled his brother to his side. “I’ll be there,” he promised again. “Now, we’d better get you back into bed before Pa discovers you’re gone, little buddy.”

There was no denying that — and no denying, if Adam had had eyes to see, that all the questions his little brother had asked were primarily subterfuge to avoid asking the one he dared not voice.

*****

None the wiser regarding the nocturnal wanderings of his eldest and youngest, Ben ran through a long litany of final instructions as Joe and George sat on the wagon seat the next morning. Finally, Adam asked with an annoying arch of his eyebrow if they should alert Hop Sing that the pair would be staying on for dinner. Ben harrumphed grumpily, but apparently got the point, as he offered only one more admonishment before sending them on their way.

“Whew! I didn’t think we’d ever get off,” Little Joe observed as they rounded the curve that put the ranch house out of sight.

George, who had in his time been favored to similar parental lectures, chuckled in commiseration for the boy. “Will it keep us from reaching the lumber camp in time for dinner?” he inquired.

Little Joe gaped at the easterner’s ignorance. Then reminding himself that George didn’t understand much about travel in these parts, he closed his mouth quickly. “We weren’t gonna do that anyway,” he said a moment later. “I was aimin’ for supper there, but we can go slower if you need to. I can just as easy set up camp anywhere in the woods between here and there, and the beds there ain’t much, if any, better than what we got rigged up for you in the wagon.”

“And the meals?” George asked with a grin.

“Better there,” Little Joe admitted with a self-deprecating shrug, “but I got supplies, and I can fix us a meal, if need be.” He added with a teasing twinkle in his eye, “Probably ought to camp out at least one night, if’n you’re to get the whole Wild West experience you come out here for.”

George elbowed him. “I came out here to see my friend, you scamp.” Then he laughed. “Well, maybe a little bit to have that whole Wild West experience I’d heard about from him.”

“Yeah.” Joe looked across at him ruefully. “Sorry I spoiled that for you.”

George gave the boy’s leg a friendly slap. “Not at all.” He tapped the cast on his own leg. “This predicament is more my own doing than yours.” He lifted his eyes to the trees standing like sentinels along the road. “Besides, I expect to experience a lot of what I’d hoped for on this trip, more than if I’d taken the stage to California.”

“That’s for sure,” Little Joe said enthusiastically. “We’ll be traveling through some of the prettiest parts of the Ponderosa — and California, too. Ain’t no scenery grander than the Sierra woods and mountains.”

“And you’re the best tour guide, right?” George teased.

Little Joe shook his head. “Hoss would be. He could tell you the name of every sort of tree, flower and plant you came across. Animals, too.”

“And you can’t?” George’s question was serious this time. “You’ve grown up here.”

“Yeah, I can name a lot,” Little Joe said, “but Hoss — well, livin’ things is just extra special to him, so he studies ‘em more. He knows as much about livin’ things as Adam does about books.”

“That’s a lot,” George chuckled. “So, if Hoss knows the most about flora and fauna and Adam the most about the wisdom in books, what’s your area of expertise, my young friend?”

Little Joe flashed him a quick, easy grin. “That’s easy. Girls, of course,” he answered readily.

George guffawed. “Yes, so I’ve been warned.” Looking almost serious for a moment, he asked, “Did we even pack a shotgun?”

Joe’s lips pursed into a tight line at the reference to a joke he’d evidently heard more than once. “I got a rifle,” he grunted, “but we won’t need it for that.” He sharply pointed at a twenty-foot pine just off the road. “That’s a piñon. You won’t see them once we get into the high country, but they’re real important to the Indians. They harvest the seeds about this time of year, but I think it’s still a mite early. White men cut ‘em down for firewood, but Pa won’t let us, ‘cause then the Indians don’t have enough to eat.”

Wanting to make peace, George commented, “I don’t believe Hoss could have explained that any better.” The bright smile he received in return was reward enough.

*****

Little Joe helped George down from the wagon and walked close beside him, in case he had trouble negotiating his crutches over the uneven ground. When they reached the camp chair that Joe had previously set up, he eased George into it. “You just rest,” he said, “and I’ll get the coffee on.”

“Can you make coffee?” George asked somewhat dubiously, for having a cook at home himself, he knew he’d never personally attempted a pot.

Little Joe shrugged and with a sheepish grin said, “We’re about to see. Hop Sing’s been givin’ me lessons while you been sleepin’ the afternoons away, but I ain’t sure they took.”

“Well, that sounds . . . hopeful,” George said in a voice that sounded anything but. “Do you feel any more confident that his cooking lessons, which I presume he’s also given, ‘took’?”

Little Joe laughed. “Not really, but we don’t have to test that yet. Hop Sing packed us up a good-sized lunch, probably sandwiches with whatever roast beef we had left from supper last night.”

George sighed with relief. “That does sound promising!”

“You do like his cooking, then?” Little Joe asked as he opened the pouch the Chinaman had prepared. “We kinda thought you didn’t, at first,” he added hesitantly, pouring coffee beans into a pan to roast.

Embarrassed that his feelings had been so transparent, George flushed. “My first bite disabused me of whatever concerns I originally had.”

“Well, that’s good,” Joe said. “So, did you ever get disabused of ‘whatever concerns you had’ that he couldn’t do your laundry right?” He almost literally bit his tongue, but, as usual, too late. The words were already out. “Sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t’ve…”

George’s face was flaming now. “He’s been doing my laundry,” he murmured defensively.

Little Joe snorted. “You ain’t worn anything he’s washed. I’ve been watching’.” And with that admission his face flushed almost as crimson as George’s.

“That’s not true,” George protested, although weakly, for the truth was that he had avoided wearing the clothes Hop Sing had laundered until he could have them redone by someone less . . . Celestial. After his accident, however, he had so appreciated having a clean nightshirt presented each morning that he’d overlooked whatever method might have been used to provide it. Seeing Little Joe’s reproachful look of disbelief, he stammered, “It’s just that I’d read things — in magazines back East — describing how Orientals do it and — well, found it distasteful.” He briefly described what he’d read.

“That’s poppycock!” Little Joe sputtered, several coffee beans flying out of the pan he slammed to the ground. He started to scoop them back in, but fortunately, thought better of it. “Pure poppycock,” he said more calmly. “He boils the clothes like anyone else and irons ‘em same as anyone, too. You just can’t believe every fool thing you read, George.”

“That’s true enough,” George conceded. “I’m sorry, Little Joe. I meant no offense. I tried not to let it bother me, but it’s hard to get something out of your head, once it’s in.”

Little Joe scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah, I’ve had problems with that a time or two myself. I’m sorry, too. Ain’t right, me snappin’ at a guest, but you just gotta understand that Hop Sing is real special to me.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed.”

There was nothing in the words themselves, but Little Joe instantly reacted to the note of disapproval in the way they were said. “Now, what?” he demanded.

“Oh, dear,” George sighed. “I’ve offended you again. I’m sorry — again. It’s just hard for me to understand how you Cartwrights treat your menials.”

“Menial!” Little Joe exploded, jumping to his feet.

“It means…”

“I know what it means!” Joe planted both hands on his hips and glared down at Adam’s friend. “Hop Sing is not a menial! He’s family, almost the same as Pa and Adam and Hoss. Why, he half raised me after Mama died.”

“I can understand your loyalty,” George mused, “if he, indeed, served as your nanny.”

“Nanny!” Little Joe all but choked on the word. “I’d like to see you call him that to his face!”

“We never deliberately antagonize our help,” George sputtered, “but neither would I ever allow someone to whom I pay wages to dictate to me the way Hop Sing does to all of you.”

“Dictate?” Little Joe looked genuinely puzzled.

“Threatening to throw out your food if you don’t come to dinner precisely when called, for instance,” George explained. “I assure you, none of our servants back East would dare to speak so to us!”

Little Joe laughed. “Aw, George, you didn’t take that stuff seriously, did you? That’s just his way of talkin’.”

“But you all give in to it,” he accused. “You all look positively petrified when he threatens to return to China if you don’t do as he says.”

Grinning, Joe shook his head. “I reckon it does look that way to an outsider, but that ain’t how it really is. Look, we give in ‘cause it suits us, not ‘cause we’re afraid of what he’d do if we didn’t. Even me, who’s got next-to-no authority in the house, has told him no when I felt the need, and the others say it even easier. His bark’s a heap worse than his bite, and ain’t no way he’d ever go back to China, ‘cause like I said, we’re family, and family don’t run out on each other — especially not over somethin’ as foolish as dried-out roast.”

The mention of roast reminded him of the sandwiches and his duty to his charge. He pulled one out and handed it to the other man. “Roast beef, like I thought,” he said. “There’s cheese, too, if you like that.”

“I do,” George said, reaching for a slice and putting it between the bread, along with the beef.

After filling the coffee pot and setting it on to boil, Little Joe sat down, cross-legged on the ground in front of George, and took a bite of his own sandwich. “Even good cold,” he said with satisfaction.

Hearing the hint for a compliment to the cook, George welcomed the opportunity to smooth things over with his young companion. “It is, indeed. One thing we can agree on is the quality of Hop Sing’s beef.”

Joe grinned back. “We’d probably agree on the quality of his apple pie, too, if I decide to let you have one of those slices I found in the pouch.”

“You would deny dessert to a guest?” George asked, pressing his hand to his chest with mock offense.

“To one that disrespected my family, I might,” Joe jibed back. While his good humor had been restored by the compliments to Hop Sing, he took one more jab to press home his point.

George just laughed, having come to understand that, in common with a certain other member of the family, Little Joe’s bark was also worse than his bite. “Hand over the pie,” he dictated, getting into the Cartwright spirit of things, “or I’ll personally purchase Hop Sing’s passage back to China.”

*****

“Ruts seem deeper here,” George commented a few hours later.

“Means we’ve linked up with the road from one of the outlying camps,” Little Joe explained. “They bring the logs to the base camp up ahead for milling. Wagon full of logs is heavy, so it cuts a deeper track.”

“We’re getting close, then?”

Little Joe flashed his characteristic grin at George. “Gettin’ tired? Should’ve laid down in the back, like I suggested.”

George rubbed his leg. “Perhaps,” he admitted, “but I hated to miss any of this spectacular scenery. You didn’t answer my question, though.”

“I said ‘up ahead,’ didn’t I?” Little Joe chided.

“But not how far.” George stretched the words out, along the line of a taunting tune.

“Oh, yeah.” Joe looked momentarily chagrinned. “Well, it’s not far, so I’m hoping we’ll make it in time for supper.”

“I should think your men would feed their employer whenever he arrived,” George pointed out a bit sharply.

“There you go, actin’ snooty about ‘menials’ again,” Little Joe accused. “What you gotta understand about loggers is that it’s sorta like takin’ a meal with Hoss. He’d split his last biscuit with you, if he knew you were hungry, but if you came to the table late, that biscuit just might already be gone.”

George laughed then. “I know exactly what you mean. You’re saying that loggers all have his hearty appetite.”

“I’m sayin’ they can eat him under the table,” Little Joe snorted. “It don’t pay to come to supper late.”

However, the sun was sinking behind the purple- and sage-shadowed hills when he finally drove into a central yard surrounded by a cluster of buildings. A short, burly man in a checked flannel shirt strode briskly to the wagon. “Beginning to wonder if I should send out a search party, boy,” the man said.

Little Joe’s face scrunched with a perturbed frown. “Didn’t realize you were expectin’ us, Jake,” he grunted, irked that either Pa or Adam had apparently sent word ahead to keep an eye out for him, as if he were some kid who couldn’t handle himself in the woods. “Had to take it kinda slow, so’s not to shake George’s banged up leg too much.”

“Here, young fellow, let me give you a hand,” foreman Jake Webber offered, reaching up toward George.

Though George had felt reasonably secure with Little Joe’s assistance earlier, he instantly felt the difference when the logger’s muscular arms supported his descent. “Thank you,” he murmured gratefully as the man adjusted the crutches beneath his arms.

A curt nod acknowledged the words. “Better get straight to the cookhouse,” Jake advised. “Men are already at the table, so just set yourselves down and I’ll see to it some grub gets passed your way.”

“Thanks, Jake, but I better see to the team first,” Little Joe said.

“I’ll do that,” Jake said. “You get on in and pack in some grub, boy, ‘fore you blow away in the first stiff breeze.”

Joe rolled his eyes, but didn’t bother to respond. He’d learned long ago to expect jokes about his slight build from the strapping men up here in the camp.

*****

“What’d you think of the grub?” Little Joe asked as he escorted George toward the bunkhouse shortly after the meal.

“Quite filling,” George said. The fare had been plain, but the sort to stick to a man’s ribs: beef stew in a thick brown broth with large pieces of potatoes, carrots and green beans and substantial slices of pound cake for dessert.

“I like breakfast up here even better,” Joe observed. “Not as good as Hop Sing’s, of course…”

“Of course,” George interrupted with a teasing smile.

“But more of it,” Little Joe finished. Then, still feeling defensive about his friend, he hurriedly added, “Not that Hop Sing wouldn’t give me as much as I wanted, anytime, but, well, up here they expect the men to eat a lot.” He shrugged. “And I gotta admit, I eat more up here. Something about the air, maybe.”

“Or maybe the example set before you?” George suggested with a chuckle.

Holding the bunkhouse door open for the other man, Joe laughed. “I get that example set before me every meal, remember?”

“Ah, yes,” George laughed in return, for he’d been at the Ponderosa long enough to recognize another of the perennial references to Hoss’ appetite. He winced slightly as Little Joe helped him down onto the lower bunk closest to the door, the only one he could get into from the side. The rows of double-tiered beds that lined the forty-foot room on either side were set so close together that the men would have to enter the others by crawling in the end, a feat that would have been impossible for someone with a broken leg.

“Hurtin’?” Joe asked anxiously when he saw George’s pained expression. “I got some laudanum, if’n it’d help you sleep.”

“Perhaps I should,” George admitted. Then seeing the consternation on the boy’s face, he added quickly, “Don’t look so distressed, Joe, please. I’m not in agony, by any means, but the leg does ache enough that I might have trouble getting to sleep.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I can see as how you might — especially in a strange bed.”

As Joe dug into his saddlebag for the medicine, George took advantage of the boy’s turned back to give the mattress a sour scowl. Not only was the bed strange to him, but he’d heard something crunch as he sat down. No downy feathers tonight, obviously. Judging from the long tawny piece of filler poking through the fabric, it was probably straw. Yes, he’d be thankful for the aid of a little laudanum in getting to sleep tonight.

“When do the men turn in?” he asked as Little Joe helped him lie down and spread a wool blanket over him.

“Lights out at nine,” Joe said, “but since there ain’t no windows, it should be dark enough for you to sleep.”

“Why is that?” George inquired.

Little Joe shrugged. “Men only come in for sleepin’. Don’t need windows for that. And it stays warmer without ‘em, too. Even if it is still summer, it gets cold up here at night. In fact, I might better hunt you up another blanket.”

“I’d appreciate it,” George admitted. As Joe turned to leave, he called, “And, Joe, don’t feel you need to stay inside with me. I’m sure I’ll be asleep within minutes.” His gaping yawn gave witness to his words.

“Okay, then,” Joe almost chirped. “That’ll give me a chance to spread around a little of the Cartwright charm.”

“On whom?” George asked with a roll of his eyes. “Last I looked, there weren’t any girls up here.”

From the door Joe grinned back at him. “Then you won’t need a shotgun, will you?” He looked only slightly more serious as he explained, “Just makes the men feel good to hobnob a mite with the boss, you know?”

“Boss,” George scoffed into his pillow. None of the Cartwrights quite matched his picture of what a boss should look like, Little Joe least of all. As the laudanum took effect, he fell asleep to dreams of the youthful charmer waltzing around camp with iron-muscled girls in the checked flannel shirts and corked boots with metal spikes that he’d seen the lumberjacks in the camp yard wearing.

*****

“Roll out or roll up!”

George cracked open an eye at the strident command from an unfamiliar voice, but saw nothing in the prevailing darkness. All down the room, however, came sounds of feet hitting the floor, the rustle of shirts and pants being pulled over long underwear and the snap of suspenders being hooked to waistbands. “Joe?” George called softly.

“I’m . . . here,” came the groggy response.

George felt his mattress sag as someone settled down beside him. “It really is dark in here without any windows,” he whispered.

Little Joe laughed. “It’s dark outside, too, George. Sun ain’t up yet. You can sleep in if you’re willin’ to skip breakfast. If you aim to eat, though, you better decide fast.”

George pulled up on his elbows. “You must be right about the air whetting the appetite, because despite the amount I packed in last night, I’m hungry again!”

“Let’s get you up and dressed, then,” Joe said. He worked as quickly as he could, but since the loggers, accustomed to pulling on their own clothes in the dark, hadn’t bothered to light the coal oil lamps, he fumbled to find first his own things and then George’s and get them both properly accoutered. “Watch your step,” he warned as they came outside. “You don’t wanna get mud on that cast.”

Even in the faint light of dawn, George saw at once what his young caregiver meant, for the loggers soaping up and washing at the troughs located just outside the bunkhouse door were splashing just as much water on the ground as on their bodies.

Little Joe leaned in to whisper, “You wanna visit the privy first, give ‘em a chance to thin out?”

“Definitely,” George muttered back and readily accepted Joe’s help in managing that personal need. Oh, how he yearned for the indoor plumbing back home! The crowd at the water trough had disappeared by the time they returned, so they washed quickly and made their way across the yard. “Joe, why aren’t they wearing shoes?” he asked, as the final few men filed into the cookhouse ahead of them.

“Corked boots tear up the floor,” Little Joe explained. “I usually keep mine off, too, but it ain’t really necessary since mine don’t have spikes, and, of course, those crutches give you a natural pass. Surprised you didn’t notice last night, though.”

“Too tired, I guess,” George admitted ruefully.

They made their way to the closest table that had seats open and, sitting down across from one another, began helping themselves. George contented himself with pancakes and bacon, alongside a single egg, while Little Joe heaped his plate full of everything on the table: biscuits, ham, fried potatoes and donuts, in addition to everything George had taken. “Good lands, boy!” George laughed. “Did you stuff Hoss’ hollow leg down your trousers?”

Little Joe scowled and shook his head. “Shh,” he hissed under his breath and went back to eating.

George blinked in surprise. Never, in all the time he’d known the youngest Cartwright, had he found him unwilling to take a joke. Of course, he had observed how much the boy hated to be dragged out of bed in the morning, and it was very early. Certain that was the problem, George decided to avoid jokes and start a different topic of conversation. “I was wondering, Joe, whethe…”

“Just eat,” Little Joe rumbled out the side of his mouth, as he glanced edgily down the table.

What on earth is bothering the boy? George wondered, for he’d rarely known Joe to be less than loquacious over a meal. Then his ear suddenly caught disapproving grunts to his right and left, and he noticed that, other than an occasional “Pass the bacon,” no one was saying anything. After the banter-bolstered breakfasts he’d shared at the Ponderosa, the almost total silence of forty to fifty men amazed him. The loggers seemed completely consumed with filling their stomachs, and as soon as they had, they walked out in their stocking feet.

When the last of them had left, Little Joe looked across at him sheepishly. “Sorry. I should have warned you that they don’t take much to table talk up here.”

“They talked last night,” George said, although as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wondered whether that was true or whether he’d just been too tired to notice the unusual mealtime quietude. It had certainly been true of their attire.

Little Joe shrugged. “Maybe. It’s a little different at supper, when the day’s done. In the mornings all they want is to fuel up and get to work.”

“Impressive,” George murmured, although he looked anything but impressed.

Little Joe let his fork drop with a clatter. “It’s just the way it’s done here,” he said tersely. Picking up his fork again, he added, “Don’t say it.”

“I didn’t say anything,” George protested.

“No, but you sure thought it loud and clear,” Joe muttered. “That stuff about how we treat our ‘menials,’” he grumbled. “Just don’t start it up again.”

George stabbed pancake onto his fork. “All right, I won’t.” Much as someone in this family needs to hear it!

“Good.” Little Joe took a deep, calming breath and asked, “So, what is it you were wondering?”

“Hmm?”

“When I shushed you,” Joe explained. “You said you were wondering about something.”

“Oh, that.” George shrugged. “I was just wondering how far it was to our next stop.” It wasn’t at all what he had intended to ask, but he no longer had the slightest desire to spend another night in the lumber camp to learn more about the Cartwrights’ timber operation.

*****

Little Joe felt a sweet sense of victory as he helped George up the steps into the passenger car of the Sacramento Valley Railroad. The trip had gone well. He and George had made peace with one another, each having resolved to keep certain opinions to himself, and they’d enjoyed driving through the magnificent mountains together. They’d stopped over an extra night at Yank’s, to let George rest up and relish the renowned tall tales of station master Ephraim “Yank” Clement, and since they were still ahead of schedule, they’d stayed over in Placerville, too, Joe having assured George that the stew and strudel at Mama Zuebner’s were not to be missed. “I have to talk Hoss out of proposin’ marriage every time we pass through,” he’d quipped, “on account of her bein’ old enough to be his mother.” George had seemed to welcome the return of mealtime teasing and, after eating Ludmilla’s strudel, had even suggested that Hoss had better act fast or George might marry the German matron himself.

From there it had been only a short drive to Folsom, and Joe figured it was all downhill from here. A couple of hours on the train would bring them into Sacramento, where they could spend the night and take a steamer on to San Francisco the next morning, arriving with a good week to spare before George had to board his ship for home. As they boarded, he noticed dark clouds moving rapidly eastward, and sent two prayers heavenward: one of thanks that rain hadn’t come while he and George were out on the trail and another of petition that it wouldn’t reach the herd, wherever it was by now. As he knew from experience, there was little more frustrating than driving cattle through the mud.

*****

Scouting ahead of the herd, Hoss pulled rein and stared, scrunch-faced, at the glowering sky overhead. “Dagnabit,” he groused to the air. “Ain’t we had enough bad luck already?” Adam might have argued philosophically that negligence and the frailty of man had more to do with the woes they’d faced so far on the drive than did luck, but he would have heartily agreed with the sentiment that they’d had enough. They’d gotten no further than a half-day’s journey past Genoa before the trouble started. . . .

When the axle on the chuck wagon broke, Adam, of course, berated himself for failing to properly check all equipment before setting out, despite the distractions at home that had disrupted the single-minded attention he normally gave to any job of which he was in charge. Now, a full day or more would be lost in making the repair, but it could have been worse. At least, they were still close enough to town to easily obtain the materials needed.

Being close to town, however, created more problems than it solved. Not only did the men balk at the idea of continuing the drive without the good grub that had been promised them, but several loudly voiced the opinion that they should make use of whatever comforts the town offered during the delay. Adam refused, feeling that to grant that privilege to some would only build resentment in those detailed to stay with the herd. “I’ll personally stand you all to an extra round of drinks in Sacramento,” he promised in compensation. The long-term hands seemed to accept that with good grace, but there were grunts of grudging compliance from some of the men hired on just for this drive.

Sometime in the middle of the night, grudging compliance had given way to stealthy exodus from camp, and Adam awoke the next morning to find himself perilously short-handed with a herd that was already beginning to stray. He quickly assigned the men still in camp to pull the remaining herd together. “Ignore the strays for now,” he instructed as he prepared to ride into town to find his missing crew—or, preferably, replace them with more dependable men.

On the way into Genoa, he met Hoss, who was on his way back to camp with the new axle. “Stay there,” Adam ordered brusquely. “Someone else can return the hired buckboard, and I need someone I can trust to take charge back there.”

“You got it,” Hoss replied. Though taking no offense at his brother’s sharp tone, he added, “Try to settle down before you get there, Adam. Gettin’ riled don’t help none.”

Adam bristled momentarily, but then nodded crisply before continuing on to town. Hoss was right. Though he had every reason to rake those worthless hands over the coals and discharge them immediately, chances were he’d have to take them back. Top hands were always hard to find and on short notice might well prove impossible to replace. He needed to keep a cool head and make wise decisions for the good of the drive.

Keeping a cool head that morning grew steadily more challenging. Adam had correctly guessed that he’d find the missing men in a saloon, but even as small a town as Genoa had more than one, and the men had not obligingly stayed together. After searching all the town had to offer, a couple of men were still unaccounted for, and Adam again correctly guessed that he might find them housed in the local jail for excessive carousing. He was tempted to leave them there, rather than pay their bail, but they seemed contrite and he could ill spare a single hand. He settled for a stern lecture, reminiscent of one of his father’s finest, and herded the woozy miscreants back to camp.

On arriving there, he put an addendum on the lecture with his growled order to get a fresh horse and get after the strays their foolishness had set loose across the territory. “Any man who doesn’t come back with at least three might just as well keep riding!” he’d finished with a flourish.

“Uh, Adam,” Hoss, who had been standing aside until the tempest died down, said. “You…uh…might want to rethink that first part a mite.”

Just as quickly Adam rounded on his brother to demand, “Now what?”

“Well…uh…it’s like this,” Hoss stammered with a glance off toward the edge of camp.

Adam followed that line of sight to where he’d last seen the string of spare mounts tethered. He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly before asking with constrained calmness, “Where’s the remuda?”

Hoss raised his palms toward his brother and softly patted the air. “Now, Adam, the boy meant no harm.”

“What’s he done?” Adam roared, while the hands edged back, grateful that the boss’s ire had found a new target.

Hoss winced in the face of his brother’s anger. “Well, it ain’t so much what he’s done as what he ain’t done.”

“What ‘ain’t’ he done?” Adam bellowed.

Hoss set his jaw with determination. “Adam, you gotta calm down. The boy was only tryin’ to help.”

“By losing the horses?” Adam snorted.

“By rounding up strays,” Hoss explained. “No reason he shouldn’t, except . . . well, I reckon he didn’t have the remuda secured good as he thought.” His face scrunched in sympathy, although whether for the young wrangler or for his older brother, those watching would have been hard-pressed to decide. “He’s young, Adam.”

“So’s Joe,” Adam grunted, “but it’s not a mistake he’d have made.”

Hoss’ chin bobbed in agreement. “No, but Dick Simon ain’t had Pa . . . nor you . . . for a teacher.”

Adam sighed, oblivious for the moment to both the compliment and the fact that Hoss had modestly not mentioned himself as one of Joe’s mentors in horse-handling.

“He’s out now, tryin’ to round ‘em back up,” Hoss continued, “and if’n you don’t need me here no more, I reckon he could use some help. He feels terrible about it, Adam.”

“You get that axle changed?” Adam asked in a tone that said he’d welcome any good news at this point.

“Finished not a quarter-hour ago.” Hoss took Adam’s nod as permission to go. Passing by, he laid his solid hand on his brother’s shoulder and gave it one empathetic squeeze. “Hop Sing’s got a right tasty stew on the fire. Have yourself a bowl and let it settle your innards, at least.”

“Yeah,” Adam muttered, raising a limp hand in farewell.

One of the bailed-out hands sidled up to Adam. “Hey, boss,” he ventured cautiously with a longing look toward the cook fire. “Reckon we could get a bowl of that stew before we head out after them strays?”

Adam slowly swiveled in his direction and with a face set like granite, asked, “What do you think?”

The man gingerly backed toward his horse, mounted and, along with the others, galloped out even before Hoss left the camp. . . .

Yeah, it had been a run of bad luck, Hoss told himself as he scowled at the overcast sky, and it looked like it wasn’t over yet. Feeling as though he were taking his life in his hands, he rode down from the overlook to meet his brother. “Adam, I hate to say it, but sure looks like a storm’s headed our way. Reckon we ought to find us a place to hunker the cows down ‘til it passes.”

Adam’s sigh was eloquent with frustration, but since experience had taught him to trust Hoss’ instincts in such matters, he merely nodded and gave the order.

*****

As he cut into his steak, Little Joe flashed a self-satisfied grin across the table at George. “Pretty successful trip, I’d say. Even with all our piddling, we made it to San Francisco with four days to spare before your ship sails.”

“You have my heartfelt thanks,” George said, adding with a chuckle, “although I do believe we should give some credit to Adam’s excellent planning.”

Joe’s grin turned positively impish. “He’s not here to do any planning now.”

“Meaning?” George drew the word out with the air of suspicion he had absorbed from the older Cartwrights for any suggestion that came from the youngest.

The smile softened to that of an innocent angel. “Why, just that you can trust me — better than older brother, in fact –to show you a good time during your short stay in the big city — if you’re feeling up to it, that is.” The last was added with a slight frown of concern.

George resisted the temptation to point out that he’d seen far bigger –and more sophisticated –cities than San Francisco. “I would like to see some sights,” he admitted, “but not tonight.”

“Of course not,” Joe said at once, although a glimmer of disappointment flickered in one eye. “Tonight we rest. We got to get you fixed up with that rolling chair first, anyway.” He sighed deeply. “Which means I better send word to the Larrimores right off.”

George looked puzzled. “Why wouldn’t you want to? I thought they were old friends.”

“Of Pa’s,” Little Joe said pointedly. “Maybe even Adam’s. Me and Hoss got better taste.”

“Why, what’s wrong with them?” George asked.

“Well, Mr. Larrimore’s decent enough, I reckon,” Joe admitted, “but his wife is prissy as…” He suddenly clamped his mouth shut.

“As what?” George demanded. “An Easterner? Is that how that sentence was going to end?”

Little Joe winced. “Well . . . yeah. Sorry, George. I didn’t mean you, honest I didn’t, but I’ve seen my fair share of dudes, and . . . well . . . they’re a sorry sight, most of ‘em.”

“I would remind you, my quick-to-judge young friend,” George said, perturbed, “that you have never traveled back East, so your ‘fair share’ of Easterners is not likely to be a large sampling.”

“Larger than your sampling of real Easterners,” Little Joe countered with a smirk. “The kind that come from the Far East, that is.”

A startled laugh stuck in George’s throat. “Are you referring to Hop Sing again?”

“Pretty quick to judge him, weren’t you?” Little Joe demanded.

George dragged his fork through his creamed potatoes. “Yes, I was,” he admitted. He raised his head to meet Joe’s gaze. “You don’t want to make the same mistake, do you? Really, Joe, if you were to meet my friends in Boston, without prior prejudice, you might actually enjoy their company.”

“Maybe,” Joe conceded, though he sounded doubtful. He shrugged. “Ain’t likely to get the chance, though.” With a laugh he added, “I can’t see Adam stowing me away in one of his bags!”

George chuckled dutifully. “I wouldn’t want to see your father’s face if he tried!”

“That’s for sure!” Joe’s laugh was hearty enough to turn heads in the restaurant. At George’s “Shh,” he settled down. “Okay, I’ll send word to Mr. Larrimore that we’re in town and what we’re looking for. If he doesn’t have one of those fancy chairs in his emporium, he’ll know where to find it.”

“Yes, so your father said.”

Joe nodded crisply. “And if our luck holds, Mrs. Larrimore won’t hear you’re from the East and decide she’s just got to throw some fancy dinner to show you how cultured she is. Then, once we get you rolling, we can have some fun. I know all the best places.”

“Really?” George asked skeptically. “How, pray tell? I was under the impression that you hadn’t been to ‘the big city’ many times yourself — and never alone.”

“I got friends,” Little Joe said, giving his steak an irritated stab. “I did some askin’ around, back before you got hurt.”

“Oh, dear.” George closed his eyes for a moment in painful contemplation of just what sort of entertainment Little Joe’s friends might have recommended. “Are you certain that these are — um — places that Adam — not to mention your father — would approve?”

Little Joe conveniently ignored the reference to his father. “Adam knows how to have a good time,” he insisted. He shook his head in sad assessment. “Of course, most of the time he leans toward real boring stuff like opera and such, but once in a while he lets himself enjoy the finer things of life.”

George snorted. “I’ll have you know, you young ruffian, that there are no finer things in life than opera — unless, of course, it would be classic Greek drama.”

Only choking on the food in his throat kept Little Joe from groaning aloud. “Now, George,” he insisted when he’d recovered, “you won’t learn a thing about the West if we waste our time on that claptrap. You do want to see what the West is like, right?”

“Right,” George drawled out cautiously. He straightened in his chair. “Just for comparison purposes, though, let’s see what sort of more traditional entertainment your West has to offer first, shall we?”

Little Joe sighed. “If you just gotta.”

“Oh, I think so,” George responded quickly. With any luck Adam might arrive in the meantime and spare him a sample of Little Joe’s idea of “the finer things of life.”

*****

As he walked up to the chuck wagon, Adam drained the water from the brim of his hat — again! — and slammed the limp felt against his thigh. “As unending as Odin’s pitcher of mead,” he muttered, “with less than half the pleasure.”

Hoss handed his brother an opened can of cold beans. “Huh?”

Adam shook his head as he accepted what had become their staple meal. Ironic, he thought, that Inger’s son, of us all, should have no knowledge of Norse mythology. My fault, I suppose. I told him Aesop’s Fables to lull him to sleep. “Does it never end?” he offered as a more readily understood alternative.

Hoss’ face contorted with a sour grin. “Yeah, sure it does — right about the time it gets to where it’s really needed.”

Adam uttered one short laugh in recognition that most of this relentless rain would never make to the thirsty land east of the mountains. Perversely, it would pour its bounty where it was least appreciated, on a herd of cattle slowly slogging its way west.

*****

George pressed his hands hard against the wheels of his rolling chair. “Just a minute, Little Joe.”

Little Joe leaned around the chair to peer anxiously into the other man’s face. “Something wrong?”

“Are you sure you’re going the right way?” George inquired. “Don’t you think this area is starting to look a little — well, seedy, shall we say?”

Little Joe shrugged nonchalantly. “Looks okay to me.”

George’s gaze narrowed. “We wouldn’t be on the Barbary Coast, would we? I distinctly remember your father telling you to stay away from the Barbary Coast.”

Joe patted the other man’s shoulder. “No, no,” he denied and then added in a quick burst of honesty, “Well, okay, maybe just at the edge of there, but we’re not going much further. See? That’s the place.” He pointed two doors ahead.

“The Stinking Stilton?” George’s nose curled as if he’d gotten a sudden whiff of the cheese itself. “How could a place with a name like that be anything other than unsavory?”

“‘A rose by any other name,’” Little Joe quoted with a chuckle. “They go in for kind of outlandish names down here, George. This one’s supposed to have a sort of continental flair; I thought you’d like that. Wait’ll you see what they call some of the girls!”

“Girls,” George said with a longsuffering sigh and a shake of his head. “And we still don’t have a shotgun.”

Little Joe laughed outright. “We won’t need one.” Straightening up, he massaged the seated man’s shoulders. “Just stick with me, buddy, and I’ll show you how to have a good time, western style.”

“I can’t wait,” George stated in a flat staccato that said he could easily wait forever for this particular educational experience. He began to fervently wish that he had insisted on the opera for their first night on the town, but since they had been unable to avoid an invitation to the Larrimores for dinner the previous night, he hadn’t had the heart to inflict another stultifyingly boring evening on his young caretaker. He had a feeling he would regret that burst of generosity before morning.

Though Little Joe tried to ease the wheels down the stairs of the concert saloon, George felt every bump as they descended into the liquor-laced atmosphere of a rectangular cellar with a low, confining ceiling. A narrow bar with a larger-than-life rendering of a voluptuous and barely draped form stretched along one side, and a few small round tables circled an open area, apparently for dancing, in the center. Little Joe rolled his charge up to an empty table near the platform at one end of the room. “You should have a good view from here,” he said brightly.

“I’m sure of that,” George muttered with a roll of his eyes. In fact, this vantage point virtually guaranteed that he’d be able to see up the skirts of any female performer on stage. At present, however, only a trio of out-of-tune fiddles screeched out a lively accompaniment to the clacking keys of an upright piano.

A vixen with fiery tresses whose color could only have come from a bottle swished her voluminous knee-length skirts in their direction. “Ooh la la, mon cherry,” she cooed, wrapping her arms around Little Joe. “You will dance with the Beaufort Ballerina, wee?”

Oui,” Little Joe replied with a flashing smile.

A loud snort erupted behind him. “Ballerina?” an equally well endowed lady scoffed as she tossed her shoulder-length curls of darkest ebony. “The way this one dances, laddie buck, she would better be called the Beaufort Buffalo! If you don’t want your toes tromped on, you come along with the Cheshire Cow. I know how to show a lad a good time!” Her imposed English accent was every bit as authentic the Beaufort lady’s French one.

“Ladies, ladies,” Little Joe said, beaming first one direction and then the other. “There’s plenty to go around.”

“Joe.” George elongated the name in a cautionary tone.

Each arm circling the waist of a pretty waiter girl, Little Joe turned toward his brother’s friend. “Oh, here I am, forgetting my manners,” he said. “Ladies, meet George.” He whispered in the ear of the Cheshire Cow. “He’d really love to dance with you, I’m sure, but he’s got this bum leg.” His head drooped as he sighed dramatically. “And it’s all my fault. You’ll be kind to him for my sake, won’t you, dear lady? I just know your gentle charms will ease his suffering.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” the Cheshire Cow cooed, plopping down in George’s lap and entwining his neck with her arms.

“No, really, this isn’t necessary,” George, whose leg had not been bothering him at all until she sat on it, insisted as he tried to disentangle himself.

Little Joe leaned down to hiss in George’s ear, “You got to learn to milk a situation like this, George.” He straightened up and with a determined jut of his chin pointed the other man’s attention to the lady in his lap. Then, turning his own attention to the lady on his arm, he waltzed off with the Beaufort Ballerina to the dulcet tones of the scratchy violins.

For this, I gave up opera? George moaned to himself.

After ten minutes of lavishing the unresponsive man with solicitous caresses, the Cheshire Cow finally jumped off his lap and flounced over to the other pair. “Fair’s fair, Buffalo,” she announced. “You take your turn sittin’ with gimpy over there. He ain’t got a bit of go to ‘im, and this lovely lad deserves better.” She dragged her fingers possessively through Joe’s chestnut curls.

“Git your dirty mitts off him, Cow!” declared the Beaufort Ballerina, losing her accent as she slapped aside the other woman’s hands.

“Ladies, please,” Little Joe protested, though but mildly. Couples scattered across the dance floor as an all-out catfight ensued, and loud cries egged them on.

Feeling the swift descent of disaster, George rose from his chair to rescue his young caregiver — and just as quickly dropped back into it with a cry that brought Little Joe scurrying to his side. “What’s the matter with you, George?” the boy scolded. “You know better than to try walking on a broken leg.”

“Get us out of here,” George hissed.

Little Joe stared back at him with innocent eyes. “Why? Aren’t you havin’ a good time?”

George fixed him with an icy stare. “We need to leave — now.” Before I really need that shotgun, he might have added.

“But we haven’t even heard the concert yet.” Little Joe proffered his most persuasive pout. “I know how much you like music.”

George momentarily closed his eyes against the pain of hearing more of the prevailing music in the room. “I need to leave,” he insisted. Painting on the smile of a patient invalid, he added, “My poor leg, you know. It aches so when I overdo a night’s entertainment . . . and since it is ‘all your fault’ . . .”

Little Joe’s pout hardened into a frustrated frown, but he dutifully began rolling the chair toward the door. Once they were on the street, Joe started to chuckle. “When I said you needed to milk your injury, George, I didn’t mean with me!”

“The least you had coming, you scamp,” George snorted. “Tomorrow night you are coming with me to the opera for some decent music — and don’t try milking out of it, either!” As he rolled back toward the hotel, he wondered how much longer it could possibly be before Adam and Hoss arrived to take responsibility for their own little brother.

*****

Adam flung open the door to the Sacramento hotel room he was sharing with Hoss and slammed it behind him with a force worthy of the big man himself.

Hoss, who had been lying on the bed with his arms folded behind his head, sat up abruptly. “What’s wrong now? Ain’t you and Fitzhugh come to terms yet?”

“Yes, finally,” Adam growled through gritted teeth. The negotiations which should have taken no more than a day had stretched into a long two. Conscious of the deadline looming before him, Adam had almost thought he’d have to give in and take the ridiculously low bid Fitzhugh had made, but true to form, his face and manner had revealed nothing of his inner agitation. He’d finally gotten the terms he wanted and now nothing remained but the drawing up and signing of the contract and, of course, final delivery of the cattle.

“Well, that’s good then. I just go in and sign for us in the morning, right?” Simple as that sounded, Hoss still felt a bit daunted at the prospect of representing the Ponderosa by himself.

“Not exactly,” Adam grunted. “Fitzhugh wouldn’t agree. I told you last night what a stink he sprayed about dealing with the second in command. I talked my way past that one, but now he insists on concluding the business with the man he started with. Says he doesn’t believe in switching horses in the middle of a stream. Lets you off the hook, but leaves me dangling rather dangerously.”

Hoss gulped hard. “Doggone. That’s gonna be cuttin’ it close.”

“Yeah.” The single word summed up the frustration that had been building inside the oldest Cartwright brother since that morning outside Genoa when everything had started going wrong. He’d hoped to reach Sacramento days earlier, but between the follies of men and the vagaries of the weather, he’d arrive with little time to spare. He’d squandered two days on endless negotiation; another morning would be wasted just signing papers before he could catch a steamboat to San Francisco tomorrow afternoon. Thanks to all the delay, he’d be arriving the night before he and George were scheduled to sail. So much for dreams of showing his friend some of the more refined attractions of the coastal city!

Adam dropped onto the bed opposite Hoss’. “Think you could handle a couple of errands for me tomorrow morning?”

“Anything, Adam,” Hoss said. “Anything I can do, you know I’ll do.”

Though weariness showed in the lines at the corners of his mouth, Adam’s smile was warm with appreciation. “Nothing difficult. I just need you to purchase my steamer passage and then send a wire to Little Joe, telling him when I’ll be arriving. No need for him to meet me. I’m bound to be coming in late.”

Hoss reached over to give his brother’s leg an encouraging pat. “I reckon I can handle that. I’ll even get your gear stowed aboard, so all you got to do tomorrow is sign that contract.”

“Thanks. That’ll help.” Adam stretched his arms to work out the kinked tension of his muscles. “All I really need is that satchel with my grooming tools.”

“Yeah. Good thinking, sending your trunk ahead with Little Joe.” Hoss stood and pulled his brother up by one arm. “What you need now is a good meal in your belly and a good night’s sleep. Don’t fret none, Adam; it’ll all work out.”

Adam nodded his agreement and followed Hoss down to the restaurant.

*****

At the sound of a knock on the door, Little Joe leaped to his feet. “That’ll be breakfast,” he announced cheerily. Having had a late night at the opera, he and George had elected to both sleep in and have breakfast delivered to their suite.

When he opened the door, however, Little Joe was surprised to see only a uniformed man extending an envelope. “Telegram for Mr. Cartwright,” the man said.

“Oh, thanks,” Joe said, tipping the messenger and taking the envelope. He stared at it, almost afraid to open it. Telegrams had a reputation for bearing bad news, and he was already feeling antsy. He’d been expecting Adam for a couple of days now, and he couldn’t help feeling concern at this departure from his big brother’s typical punctuality.

George was obviously feeling it, too, for he asked anxiously, “Is it from Adam?”

Joe shook his head. “Hoss,” he said, reading the signature line first. Then he quickly scanned the body of the message and broke out in a relieved smile. “It’s okay,” he told George. “Adam’’ll be here late tonight. Cuttin’ it kind of close, but he’ll be here.”

“That’s a relief,” George said. “I was beginning to fear I’d have to sail without him.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Joe muttered. He folded the paper and put it in his pocket. “Well, I guess it’s just you and me again tonight. Any ideas on what you’d like to do?”

George laughed. “Is just making an early night of it an option?”

“Well, sure,” Little Joe said. “I never meant to wear you out — not that the opera was my idea.”

“You didn’t wear me out,” George said, ignoring the disparaging remark about his choice of entertainment, “and I don’t mind seeing some sights today. I’d just rather stay in tonight, in view of the early start tomorrow.”

“Yeah, makes sense,” Little Joe admitted. He thought for a minute. “Well, there’s Russ’s Gardens or, maybe, the Willows. Just kind of nice places to wander around — you know, flowers and statues and such. They got restaurants there or” — he brightened –“we could have the hotel pack us a picnic lunch, maybe ask some ladies along and… ”

“Oh, no,” George interrupted quickly, wagging a remonstrating finger at the boy. “The only ‘ladies’ we’ve met so far are the Beaufort Ballerina and the Cheshire Cow, and I don’t care to promenade with either of them.”

Little Joe exaggerated a pout. “George you are as big a stick-in-the-mud as Adam at his worst.”

From his rolling chair, George bowed at the waist. “Thank you for the compliment.”

“Okay, but if we’re not going to invite any lovelies along,” Little Joe said, “we’d better go all the way to the Willows. At least, they got bears and sea lions.”

“Bears and sea lions should be a massive improvement,” George maddeningly declared.

Just then a second knock sounded on the door, and this time it did signal the arrival of breakfast.

*****

As planned, Adam arrived at a restaurant near the docks just past noon. “Any trouble booking passage?” he asked as he took a seat across from Hoss.

“Well, a mite,” Hoss said, looking chagrinned.

Elbow propped on the table, Adam massaged his aching temple. “Now what?” he moaned.

“Now, calm down; it ain’t all that bad,” Hoss scolded gently. “I just couldn’t book you on the New World, like you asked. It was full up, but I got you on a different line. Boat’s got kind of a funny name, the Asiago, but names is as names does.”

“It’s not funny,” Adam said. “It’s Italian. The owner probably has some connection with that region.”

“Oh, yeah, reckon so.” Having accepted years ago that Adam knew more about the world than he did, Hoss shrugged off the correction and went on to what, for him, were more important considerations. “It leaves at 2:00, so you got time to eat a decent meal before you board.”

Adam frowned slightly. “Does it look seaworthy?”

Hoss spread his palms. “I ain’t no great judge of such things, but it’s brand, spankin’ new. Ought to run fine. Anyways, it’s the only boat leavin’ today that had room left.”

“Which makes it top of the list,” Adam chuckled. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Hoss, and if the accommodations turn out to be less comfortable than the New World’s, I’m sure I can stand it for a few hours. Did you get the telegram off to Joe?”

“‘Course, I did. Now, will you quit frettin’ and let us order. My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”

Adam made a deliberate effort to do as instructed, and over the leisurely meal, his good humor returned. Certainly, they’d faced problems enough to daunt any man with a deadline, but they’d met each and every one. Tonight would be a short one for him, since the ship for the East sailed early the next morning, but once it did, he could sprawl in his berth and catch up on the sleep he’d missed. If he was poor company for his friend the first day of the voyage, so be it. He chuckled softly to him. George might even welcome the peace and quiet of his own berth, after having Joe talk his ear off for days now.

*****

“How’s she look?” Hoss asked anxiously.

“Brand spankin’ new,” Adam said. Everything about the Asiago, bow to stern, inspired confidence: fresh paint, shiny brass railings and a whistle whose voice was as yet untainted by age or corrosion.

“Advertises a good spread in the saloon, too,” Hoss advised.

Adam laughed. “Are you sure you aren’t vying to go in my place?”

“Oh, no,” Hoss cackled back. “This here boat’s big enough for me. I don’t got no desire to set foot on that big ocean-goin’ one. Besides, someone’s got to make final delivery on them cattle.”

Adam nodded. “You should be able to get that done tomorrow and meet Joe the following evening. We don’t want to leave him on his own too long.”

“That’s for dadgum sure! Likely to get hisself shanghaied off to China.”

Adam grinned broadly. “And you do not want to face our father if you let that happen.”

Hoss stroked his chin. “Doggone it, maybe I ought to take your place on that big ole boat after all.”

“Not on your life!” Adam laughed. He reached for his brother’s hand. “Time I got aboard.”

“Have a good trip, Adam,” Hoss said, giving Adam’s hand a hearty shake. “Give George’s folks our congratulations on their anniversary and tell ‘em thanks for lettin’ George visit with us. I sure enjoyed havin’ him.”

“He enjoyed meeting you, as well.” Hearing the steamer’s whistle blow again, Adam raised a hand in farewell and hurried up the gangplank. He had no sooner boarded than he sensed an excitement in the air that stirred a note of apprehension within him. The deck was all abuzz with talk of a race between the shiny new upstart and the Senator, veteran of the Gold Rush days. Adam groaned. A race! All he’d wanted was an ordinary — and safe — trip down the Sacramento River. A race might actually work to his advantage, of course, and bring him into San Francisco ahead of time, but anything could — and frequently did — happen when one captain tried too hard to best another.

Shouldn’t have bothered having Hoss book me a stateroom, he thought as he pressed through the crowd on deck. It always seemed like an extravagance for such a short trip, but it gave a man privacy and a place to rest, instead of pacing the deck for six hours. After the stress of the last week, Adam had intended to fully savor the luxury, but he doubted he’d see the inside of that refuge this afternoon. A steamer race was always exciting, and the conclusion of this one too personally important for him to be anywhere except where he could see it for himself. He pushed to the ship’s rail and stood leaning over it, craning his neck to examine the other boat readying for departure.

Both ships were fully loaded with both passengers and freight. That, in itself, told Adam that this was not an elaborately planned competition. Steamers generally trimmed their loads of any excess weight when they had advance warning of a race down the river. No, this had apparently been a last-minute challenge. A better test of a boat’s merit, he supposed, but a race wasn’t always won by the best boat. The pilot’s familiarity with the river was an important factor, too, and the Senator and her pilot had been traveling this run a long time. Odds were against the upstart, but Adam couldn’t help cheering the Asiago on as both boats left the dock.

For a short distance the two steamers ran neck and neck; then the sleeker Asiago leapt ahead and stayed in the lead for the next hour, although the Senator remained in sight, not far behind. When they came to the first bend in the river, the Asiago veered wide. Though some of the passengers hooted in derision, Adam was glad to see that the pilot was steering with caution, not cutting too close to shore in an attempt to shave a few minutes off the running time. The Senator, rounding the same bend some scant two minutes later, displayed the advantage of having a pilot who knew the river like the back of his hand, for she was able to safely follow a channel closer to shore and, thereby, pull into a slight lead over the newer boat.

For the next couple of hours the two steamers exchanged the lead a dozen times, neither taking foolish chances to do so. Adam had been in races where the opposite was true, one hair-raising one in particular in which the boilers had been pushed to the bursting point. Fortunately for him, it had been the other steamer that exploded, but his vessel at the time had stopped to rescue as many passengers as possible. While he hadn’t begrudged the loss of time on that trip and wouldn’t, even now, if lives were at stake, he could ill afford it today. Apparently, he had nothing to fear on that account, however; this was stacking up to be a good, clean race, with nothing but pride to be lost in the outcome. He might as well enjoy it.

The tight race kept the passengers alternately cheering or groaning, depending on which boat was in the lead at the moment, and when they drew close enough together that the men on one boat could almost spit on the deck of the other, they exchanged boisterous taunts, each bragging on the prowess of his own ship. Though Adam had often ridden the Senator and considered her a good, solid ship, he was not above throwing a little gratuitous heckling her way today, just for sport.

As the sun began to dip toward the horizon, however, Adam found himself yawning more than shouting, and the race began to lose interest for him. Passing through the saloon, he stopped long enough for a sandwich and a drink and then made his way to his stateroom. He could lie down for a couple of hours and still be back on deck to see the end of the contest. Almost as soon as he stretched out in his berth, though, his weary eyes closed, and in his dreams the roar of water over the paddle wheel transformed itself into the soothing slap of salt waves against the sides of a steamer sailing for Boston.

*****

Little Joe rolled George’s chair into the hotel late that afternoon. “You want to go straight to the dining room,” he asked, “or to the room first to freshen up?”

George smiled wearily. “I think I’d better do the latter. I feel limp as the proverbial dish rag.”

His companion winced. “Guess we did overdo things a mite. Never meant to keep you out so long.”

George reached back to pat the hand guiding his chair. “I don’t regret it; I thoroughly enjoyed our outing.”

Wheeling the chair down the hallway, Little Joe suggested, “I could have ‘em bring supper to the room, if that’d rest you better.”

“Oh, that does sound good,” George said. “Just something light, please. I’m scarcely starving after polishing off that rather substantial picnic basket.”

Little Joe grinned. “The way I remember it, I did most of the polishing.”

“That’s the way I remember it, too,” George chuckled, “but, even so, I had all I could handle. I have no need of a large supper.”

“Soup and sandwich?” Little Joe suggested.

George nodded, adding, “I think I may get into my night clothes first and go straight to bed afterwards.”

“Probably a good idea,” Joe conceded. He took George directly to his bedroom, laid his night clothes within easy reach and then trotted back down the hall. Unlike the debilitated Easterner, he still had energy to burn, enough, in fact, to fancy the enticements of the Stinking Stilton. He shook his head sadly: it wouldn’t be right to sneak out on George, and it panged his conscience that little things like that bothered him. A good man, he was sure, would take tailoring his own inclinations to the need of another in better stride, but if he were painstakingly honest — and he generally was — he was looking forward to turning the responsibility of caretaker over to Adam tomorrow –no, tonight; Adam was coming tonight! He took the final few steps to the dining room with an extra surge of buoyancy.

*****

Adam woke with a start to a dark stateroom. Surprised to have slept so long, he swung his legs over the side of his berth and felt another jolt of revelation: the boat wasn’t moving. It must have already docked in San Francisco. That’s the soundest nap I’ve taken in years, he thought as he grabbed his boots and hastily pulled them on. Then, grabbing his belongings, he left the stateroom.

He frowned at the empty saloon as he passed through. Had everyone else, passengers and crew alike, debarked and left him sleeping here? No, he could hear voices outside, so perhaps the boat had just arrived. He stepped on deck into fog so thick that he could scarcely see two feet in front of his face. Still, he would have expected some lights on shore to pierce the pea soup. There weren’t any, and he knew in that instant that they weren’t in San Francisco. Something was wrong — very wrong.

He tossed his gear back inside the saloon and groped through the haze until he caught sight of another man. Catching his arm, Adam asked, “Where are we?”

The man snorted irritably. “Ain’t that the question of the hour?” Then, evidently thinking better of his manners, he said, “Your guess is as good as mine, mister. Middle of nowhere, near as I can tell.”

Adam moved ahead, asking the same question of everyone he met until he found someone who could answer it. The answer, when it finally came, was disheartening. They weren’t quite stranded in the middle of nowhere, but for him, it was almost that bad. Somehow, the inexperienced pilot had lost his course in the fog that had descended late that afternoon and had drifted into a tributary of the Sacramento River, instead of the main channel. He hadn’t realized his mistake until the Asiago had plowed into a sandbar far up the shallower waterway.

Stripping off his boots and socks and rolling up his pants legs, Adam dropped over the side and, along with a few other passengers, began helping the crew free the boat. He had little hope that his efforts would make much difference. It would probably take hours to get the boat back to the main channel, and he had precious few to spare. Even minutes might matter now, though, so he put his back into the shovel and his heart into every grain of sand he threw over his shoulder.

*****

Knees drawn up and bare feet resting on the sill, Little Joe perched in the front window of the suite, which overlooked the street. Adam would probably tease him about acting like a scared kid or, maybe, a mother hen, but he just couldn’t seem to settle down until he knew his big brother had made it in. Probably comes from seeing Pa wait up for us so many times, he mused as his chin dropped to his interlaced fingers. He wasn’t worried, exactly. Adam had promised to be here, and Adam was a man of his word. Besides, Hoss would have wired if their big brother hadn’t been able to make it aboard the steamer this afternoon, wouldn’t he? All the reassuring in the world, however, did nothing to stop that niggling notion that something could go wrong. Stupid boat might not have carried enough stoke wood or — stop it, Joe chided himself. Don’t borrow worry; just traipse on off to bed. He’d do that; he’d do that real soon . . . but not . . . just . . . yet. For now, just sitting here, staring out the window, felt more restful than the plushest feather bed in town.

*****

The Asiago had carried plenty of stoke wood — for a normal run. Since she was racing, though, she had spared herself the weight of a stick more than was actually needed. Unfortunately, she hadn’t calculated the extra distance of a side trip up and back a tributary and, all too predictably, had run out of wood soon after regaining the main channel. With a long exhale of exasperation, Adam shouldered an axe; and along with the crew and the same passengers who had helped before, he marched into the woods lining the shore to provide the fuel he needed to get to San Francisco. All thought of the race with the Senator had vanished. The race now was against the rising sun, which never ran short of fuel or suffered delay.

*****

Little Joe caught himself just before toppling out of the window. Groggily, he stumbled over to the sofa and plopped down, dropping his face into his hands. What could be keeping Adam? There’d been no telegram from Hoss, so he assumed that his brother had left Sacramento. If that were true, though, Adam’s continued absence raised more disturbing possibilities, an explosion or collision with another steamboat being the worst. Adam hurt, maybe drowned? Joe violently shook the thought out of his head. Don’t borrow worry, he scolded himself again. Probably just ran into a spot of trouble and is running late.

He stretched out on the sofa and tried to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. His mind raced with busy questions. What could he do to save Adam time, since he was running late? And if he didn’t get here in time, what then? In that case, Joe still felt responsible for George. Maybe he could talk the Easterner into waiting and taking the next ship east, but he doubted it: George had seemed pretty determined. Little Joe’s askew grin made him look as if he’d just sucked a lemon. “Determined” didn’t say the half of it; “stubborn” was more the word. Yeah, George had seemed as stubborn — well, as stubborn as Joe himself would have been in the same situation.

As the first light of dawn filtered through the curtains, Little Joe gave up all attempt at sleeping. He went into his bedroom and dressed in his comfortable range clothes. The sight of Adam’s trunk brought a thoughtful frown to his face; then, with a decisive nod, he pulled out his own carpetbag and began stowing his belongings inside. Since something had obviously delayed Hoss, too, it made no sense for him to stay by himself in this large suite. He’d just pack up now, while he had extra time, and be ready to move to a smaller room as soon as he’d seen George—and, hopefully, Adam—off at the dock.

About an hour later George swung skillfully into the parlor on his crutches. “You look ghastly,” he chuckled when he caught sight of Little Joe, lounging on the sofa. “Don’t tell me Adam kicked you out of bed.”

Little Joe seemed oblivious to the attempt at humor. “Look, George, ain’t no point in beating around the bush: Adam didn’t make it in.”

The mirth in George’s expression was replaced with instant concern. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Perhaps he took a separate room last night, to avoid disturbing us.”

Little Joe’s mouth skewed to one side. “Adam ain’t never had much scruple against shovin’ me over when we shared a bed, but I’ll check with the clerk,” he said as he stood. “Want me to order breakfast brought in while I’m at it?”

“Yes . . . please,” George murmured absently.

Little Joe returned a few minutes later, conveying the results of his inquiries with a sad shake of his head. “Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.

George responded with a disconsolate shrug. “I don’t see that I have any choice,” he sighed. “I’ll have to travel on without him.”

Wrinkles lined Little Joe’s smooth forehead. “You sure? That’d be real hard on you, George, and you do have a choice. You could take the next boat, instead, give Adam time to make it.”

George gave him a scornful look. “And miss my parents’ anniversary? Much as I — and they, for that matter — will regret Adam’s absence, I can’t do that. Now, don’t worry: I’m sure someone on board will give me any assistance I need.” Then he added with a strained smile, “Most people have kind hearts, Little Joe.”

Little Joe nodded, though lines still creased his brow. He’d noticed that himself, but a man couldn’t always trust that kind of person to be around when he was needed. Besides, it was a long voyage, and kindness could wear thin when it had to be repeated day after day. He knew that from his own recent experience. “Adam might still make it,” he suggested tentatively. “I know he’ll give it every effort, and Adam most generally succeeds at anything he tries.”

“That’s true,” George said, his warm affection for his friend softening his troubled expression.

Little Joe brightened, too. “I figured to take his trunk to the ship, ‘cause a few minutes might make a heap of difference, with him running late.”

“That’s good thinking, my young friend,” George said with a smile of genuine regard for the young man whose rollicking spirit he had come to relish almost as much as Adam’s more refined one.

They dallied over breakfast as long as they dared, still hoping that Adam would arrive. Finally, Little Joe suggested that they had better go on and wait aboard for his brother. George nodded his agreement, not trusting his voice not to betray his shrinking expectation that his friend would come before the ship sailed.

When they reached the pier, Little Joe supervised the transport of George’s luggage and rolling chair into his cabin and, still struggling to maintain what seemed increasingly like a fairy tale, also had Adam’s trunk delivered to the adjoining cabin? Then he and George, on crutches now, waited at the ship’s rail, hoping against hope.

Hearing the final call to board, George took Little Joe by the hand. “Time for you to leave, my friend. Thank you for all you’ve done to help me since my accident.”

“Aw, it was the least I could do,” Little Joe demurred.

“Above and beyond,” George insisted, “and you mustn’t feel bad about leaving me now. I assure you, I’ll be fine.”

“At least, let me help you down those stairs to your cabin,” Little Joe suggested, “unless you’ve a mind to watch ‘er sail out.”

“No,” George said bluntly. “I’d rather . . . not.” Hidden beneath the words was the unspoken reality that Little Joe understood all too well: the only sight George wanted to see was the one that there was no longer any hope of seeing. Carefully, the younger man assisted the older down the steps and into his cabin. Once settled, George touched Joe’s elbow and said softly, “You’d better get Adam’s trunk unloaded. Much as I’d like to think it would entice him to come east on the next ship, I doubt he’d appreciate my trying to force his hand.”

“Yeah, Adam’s peculiar that way,” Little Joe said with a grin. He reached out a hand. “I’m glad you came to visit,” he said. “I know there was times I didn’t act like it, but I really do kind of like you, you know.”

“I really do kind of like you, too,” George chuckled, grasping Joe’s hand firmly. “Now, get off this ship before you end up in Boston.”

“Yeah,” Little Joe laughed dutifully.

“Oh, and Joe,” George called, wagging an admonishing finger, “stay away from the Beaufort Ballerina and her Cheshire friend.”

“Can’t promise that!” Little Joe teased as he waved a final farewell. Back on deck, he looked around for someone to help with Adam’s trunk, but when a sailor did stop in answer to his summons, he found himself asking, instead, how long it would be before the ship actually sailed. Learning that only ten minutes remained, he pursed his lips thoughtfully. He could make it to the hotel and back in that time, and there was just the slimmest chance that Adam had gone there first. He knew that didn’t make sense, but he had to try.

Spurning a carriage as too slow, he ran down the street. He stopped at the hotel’s front desk only long enough to ask if there’d been any messages for him. There weren’t any, so he hurried to the suite he’d shared with George and almost automatically snatched up his carpetbag. Only when his strong young legs were again racing down the street did he admit the real reason that he’d packed that bag this morning: George couldn’t sail alone; he just couldn’t.

*****

Gear in hand, Adam stood on the deck of the Asiago while she limped into port. As soon as the steamer docked, he ran down the gangplank and hailed a waiting carriage-for-hire. “Pacific Steamship Company pier,” he ordered, “as fast as you can. I’ll tip generously.” He collapsed inside the carriage, hoping that he’d be in time, although that goal now felt as near-impossible as the Scriptural analogy of a camel going through the eye of the needle. He had no idea when the ship was actually scheduled to sail, only that it was this morning; he’d planned to get the exact time from George or Joe when he arrived. There was always a chance that he’d even be early, he fantasized, but odds were against that, so he didn’t want to risk stopping by the hotel first. He could only hope that his younger brother had had the sense to load his luggage aboard, along with George’s.

Arriving at the pier, he paid the driver, including the generous tip he’d promised, and ran to the small office nearby to inquire breathlessly, “Has the California left yet?”

“Why, yes, sir, some thirty minutes ago,” the clerk responded.

Adam’s shoulders slumped and his head fell forward. Then he straightened up and asked, “Was Mr. Pontpier aboard?”

The clerk checked the ship’s manifest and reported, “Yes, sir, he was.”

Good, Adam sighed. At least, I didn’t cause him to miss that anniversary. “I’m Mr. Cartwright,” he then told the clerk. “I was supposed to sail with him, but I was unfortunately delayed. What is your procedure for securing a refund for my passage?” He expected a detailing of company policy, but what he heard next floored him.

“You’re Mr. Cartwright?” the clerk asked, frowning as he again glanced at the manifest.

“Yes,” Adam said, stifling his impatience.

The clerk’s frown deepened into suspicion. “But Mr. Cartwright was aboard the California when she shipped out, sir.”

Both of Adam’s eyebrows rose sharply. “But that’s . . . not possible,” he stammered.

The clerk tapped the manifest before him. “Clearly stated here, sir. Are you suggesting that someone has falsely assumed your identity?” The baleful eye he turned on Adam indicated that he was making an entirely different assumption, one far from flattering to the character of the man standing before him.

“No,” Adam said automatically, although in that moment he felt a frisson of fear that someone — and he knew who –had done exactly that. Collecting himself, he tried to explain the inexplicable. “No, I’m sorry. I’m afraid my haste to reach here before the California left has scrambled my wits. The Mr. Cartwright who boarded was my younger brother, whom I had intended to join on the journey.” Scarcely true, but he didn’t want Joe’s right to be aboard questioned.

Recalling that it was Mr. Pontpier, not a younger Mr. Cartwright, about whom this gentleman had first inquired, the clerk’s brow furrowed. “You mentioned a refund,” he pointed out.

Adam laughed awkwardly. “Did I say ‘refund’? Obviously, the journey left me more addled than I realized. What I had intended was to inquire about booking passage on your next ship. So sorry for the confusion.”

Faced now with the prospect of a new sale, the clerk’s demeanor instantly transformed. “Why, certainly, sir,” he chirped cordially. “I can accommodate you with that. Our next departure will be aboard the Chesapeake, which leaves on October 10th.”

Adam quickly calculated that that would put him ten days behind George and Little Joe. He’d miss the anniversary celebration, but that was far from his greatest concern at this point. “I’d like to book passage on the Chesapeake, then,” he said to the clerk’s delight. If he arrived at the hotel and discovered that his fears were unfounded, he could always cancel the passage — or, if Pa remained willing, take the later ship and enjoy a visit East, almost as planned.

Little Joe was evidently traveling under his older brother’s name, so Adam purchased his own passage in the name of Joseph Cartwright, to forestall further questions. Then, receipt in hand, he walked toward the hotel the Cartwrights always used in San Francisco. He hoped he’d find Joe there, but evidence indicated the contrary. Contrary — a perfect word to describe his little brother! What on earth possessed the boy to take my place on that ship? I’ll wring his neck when I—suddenly, Adam stopped dead still on the street, as his mind flashed back to the conversation he’d had with Little Joe at the shore of Lake Tahoe.

“What do I do if you don’t make it to San Francisco in time?” Little Joe had asked, but Adam had brushed the question aside with a laugh and an easy promise that he’d be there. That promise had proven anything but easy to keep, and because he hadn’t taken the question seriously, he’d left his younger brother to his own devices, never a wise course of action.

“Sorry, little brother,” he moaned softly as he continued toward the hotel. He checked the room the clerk said was registered in Joe’s name and found it empty, with not so much as a hair brush or a single item of clothing. There could be no doubt now that Little Joe was aboard the California, headed for the East Coast, because his older brother had failed to give him the requested advice. Well, that was not a mistake he’d make again. He left the hotel immediately to ensure that Little Joe knew exactly what to do when he arrived in Boston. Though the telegraph only went as far east as Carson City now, the Pony Express would pick it up there and carry it to the westernmost relay station, where it would be wired on. The telegram would not reach its destination for nearly two weeks, but it should still arrive at the steamship office in New York before Little Joe did.

Adam walked briskly to the Pacific Telegraph office, where he wrote out his instructions in explicit language that even Little Joe could not fail to comprehend. To cover all bases, he addressed the terse message to Adam Joseph Cartwright:

STAY PUT
STOP
I’M COMING
STOP
OLDER BROTHER
FULL STOP

***The End***

Author’s Note:  Obviously, there’s more story to tell. Look for the upcoming sequel, East, West: Home’s Best—The Westerners.

Historical Note:  All ships except the Asiago are historical vessels of that time and place.

 

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