Summary: Facing his first Christmas without his mother and with Adam away at college, Little Joe, armed with a completely confused interpretation of a Sunday sermon, sets out to make everything right.
Word Count: 17,700
In the flickering firelight, Ben saw his two younger sons frolicking in a self-styled version of tag. “Hoss, Little Joe—come here,” he called.
Tired of the chase, Hoss reached for Little Joe’s hand. “Come on, Punkin. Pa’s callin’.”
Little Joe scampered just out of reach. “I wanna play some more.”
“Thought you wanted to be a wrangler,” Hoss said with just a hint of reproof.
Little Joe thrust out his lower lip. “I am a wrangler.”
Hoss shook his head. “Wrangler has to do what the trail boss says, and you ain’t, so you must not be a wrangler.”
“Am, too,” Little Joe insisted, hurrying back to his brother’s side. “We go see what the trail boss wants now?”
Hoss grinned then. “Yeah, let’s do that.” Taking Joe’s hand, he led him back to his father. “You wanted us, Pa?”
Sitting near the campfire, Ben patted the ground next to him. “Time for lessons, son.”
Hoss scowled. “Aw, Pa, it’s too dark to read.”
Ben chuckled. “Adam wouldn’t have thought so, but I agree. No books tonight, just a geography lesson, of sorts. Sit down, boys.” He reached for Little Joe and placed the child between his legs.
“I don’t go to school, Pa,” the four-year-old protested. “I’m too little.”
“Only for formal schooling. You’re not too little to learn, sweetheart,” Ben said, kissing the rampant curls. “Did you notice all the bright stars tonight?”
Little Joe looked up at the pinpoints of light in the sky. “Lots,” he agreed.
“Did you know that the stars have names?”
Joe’s eyes widened at the innumerable lights. “All of ‘em?”
Ben rumpled his son’s hair. “Well, maybe not all, but many do.” He pointed to a group. “Like those. I’ll bet Hoss can tell you their name.” He arched an inquiring eyebrow toward his other son.
Hoss grinned. He didn’t mind lessons one bit when he knew the answers, and Pa had taught him this long ago. “That’s the Big Dipper.” He traced his finger from star to star, outlining the shape. “See, Little Joe. Don’t it look just like the dipper that hangs by our well back home?”
Little Joe nodded vigorously. “Who drinks out of that dipper, huh, Hoss? God, maybe?” His eyes brightened suddenly. “Mama?”
“Maybe,” Ben agreed quickly, seeing Hoss’ perplexed expression. “It isn’t a real dipper, though, Little Joe, just a picture of one.”
“A star picture,” Little Joe said, sounding awed.
“A star picture . . . and an important one,” his father continued. “Every night while we’re on the trail, I want you to show me where that star picture is, Little Joe. Do you remember why it’s important, Hoss?”
“Sure, Pa,” the other boy replied readily. He ran his finger on a line from the two stars at one end of the dipper until it pointed to another. “It shows the way to the North Star, and if we know where north is, we can always find our way.”
Ben smiled. “So, which way is home?”
Hoss lowered his finger to the horizon. “That way—north.”
“And which way is California?”
Hoss pointed to the left, where a range of mountains lay. “West.”
“Now point toward Adam.”
With a grin, Hoss swung his arm to the opposite side. “That way—back East.”
“Adam in Haven now?” Little Joe asked, staring east.
“He’d better be,” Ben chuckled. “He’s supposed to sit for that entrance exam tomorrow.”
“You reckon he’ll pass, Pa?” Hoss asked. “Adam said it was a real hard test.”
“Yeah, probably the hardest he’s ever taken.” A wistful look crossed Ben’s face as he thought of his oldest son, so far away, poised on the brink of a great adventure. “Boys, I think we should pray for your brother tonight, that God will help him on that test tomorrow.”
Little Joe crawled over his father’s leg. “Not me. I’m gonna pray he don’t do good; then he’ll have to come home.”
Ben pulled his youngest back into his lap. “Joseph, that’s a very selfish prayer.”
“Don’t care.” A petulant pout emphasized his point.
Ben tilted the tiny chin upward. “God doesn’t like us to be selfish, Little Joe.”
“Don’t like God much, either. He takes people ‘way.”
“Joe!” Hoss sounded as if he expected a bolt of lightning to strike his baby brother any second.
Remembering his own brief rejection of God after Marie’s death, Ben smiled softly. “It’s all right, Hoss. God’s big enough to deal with a little boy’s anger.” He cuddled Joe close. “It isn’t fair to wish your big brother bad luck, Little Joe. He’s always been good to you, hasn’t he?”
Reluctantly, Little Joe nodded. “He can’t be good to me in Haven,” he argued.
Ben brushed a drooping tendril from the child’s forehead. “Well, I don’t know about that. Maybe he can, somehow, but one thing I know for sure: he wouldn’t pray for bad things to happen to you. I bet he’s praying that God will take good care of you and keep you safe.”
“I—I want him safe,” Joe whispered.
“Happy, too,” Joe agreed after a brief hesitation.
“Then you need to pray that he’ll pass that test,” Ben said, “because Adam won’t be happy if he doesn’t.”
Joe sighed deeply and slowly. “Okay.” He folded his hands, as his mother had taught him, and his high-pitched voice piped a simple—and remarkably reluctant—prayer: “Dear God, keep Adam safe and make him happy in Haven and—and do it fast, so’s he can come home soon, okay?”
Ben chuckled as he tousled the child’s chestnut locks. “That’s a good prayer, though I don’t think that last part’s going to get answered very soon. Now, it’s time for all little wranglers to wrap up in their bedrolls. We have to be up early tomorrow.”
“To make up for today, huh, Pa?” Hoss asked as he spread his bedroll below his upturned saddle.
“We need to,” Ben agreed. Waiting for Hoss to return from the Hansons meant the drive had gotten a late start that morning. As a consequence, the herd was bedded down just north of Genoa, miles shy of where Ben had planned to be tonight. He spread his bedroll not far from Hoss and fixed a pallet of blankets between them for Little Joe. Pulling up his own blanket against the chill of the September evening, he gazed at the stars and let his mind drift eastward to his oldest son. God be with him. Like Little Joe, I want him home, but not at the cost of his dream. Make it possible for him, as you’ve made my dreams possible for me. You know how tired he’ll be after his long journey, with no time to rest up before that important test. Give him the strength he needs and—
A little body snuggled up against him. Ben turned toward his son and saw Joe’s tiny arm stretched over his head. “That’s north—Ponderosa,” a sleepy voice mumbled.
“That’s right.” Ben stroked the boy’s forehead.
Joe pointed toward the mountains. “West—California.”
“Shh—go to sleep.”
The little arm flung itself across Hoss’ slowly rising chest. “East—Adam.”
Ben drew Joe’s arm back before his brother awoke and tucked the covers snugly around him again. “Very good, son. Now, go to sleep!”
With a gaping yawn, Joe cuddled closer and drifted into his dreams.
“You are a precious nuisance,” Ben whispered just before he dropped a kiss on the smooth forehead.
Sitting on the hard wooden pew, Little Joe swung dangling legs back and forth, and then, for variety, began alternately pulling them apart and bringing his heels together with a satisfying smack.
Ben grunted as one of those little shoes barked his shin, and he made a restraining grab for the errant legs. Bending down, he whispered, “Be still, Little Joe, and pay attention to the preacher.”
Little Joe frowned eloquently until a stern glance from his father made him straighten up and rivet his eyes on the man in the pulpit. Paying attention to the preacher was not his idea of the best way to spend a Sunday morning. It was a far sight better than having his britches tanned, though, so he kept his feet painfully still and tried to look like he was listening. Suddenly his eyes brightened with genuine interest. The preacher was talking about three men coming from the East. East! That’s where Adam was! Maybe Adam was one of them; maybe he was coming home for Christmas!
Beside his brother, Hoss tried to concentrate earnestly on what the preacher was saying. Unlike Joe, he knew that the three men were from much further east than Adam had gone and from a long time past, back when Baby Jesus was born. The preacher was saying they needed to be like those wise men, to go looking for Baby Jesus, to follow the star of Bethlehem until it led them to the Savior. “Which star is it, Pa?” he asked when they’d loaded into the buckboard and headed for home.
“What?” asked his father, pulling the reins away from the grasping fingers of his youngest son.
“The star the preacher wants us to follow,” Hoss explained. “Which star is it? Can we really see it, still today?”
Ben chuckled. “No, son, not exactly. The reverend wasn’t speaking of a literal star. He meant to follow the light of God’s Word and let it lead you to the Lord.”
“Oh,” Hoss said, satisfied.
“Adam’s following that star,” Little Joe piped up cheerily.
Ben smiled wistfully as he thought of his eldest sitting reverently in chapel at Yale College, worshipping there as they had in church here. “I certainly hope so.” He tweaked Joe’s tiny nose. “And I hope you will, too, wiggle worm.”
Little Joe cocked a puzzled glance at his father. Then he pointed a tentative finger. “East—Haven—Adam.”
Ben eased the horses around a curve in the road. “What? Oh, yes—yes, of course, Adam’s east, in New Haven.” He exhaled gustily. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d heard that particular litany in the last three months, and he was half-sorry he’d ever taught that trailside geography lesson to Little Joe. Certainly, the child needed to learn his directions and how to chart his course by the stars, but perhaps—for his own sanity—he should have held that lesson back a couple of years. “That’s enough chatter, boys,” he said firmly. “Time we got home . . . before Hop Sing throws a fit.”
Hop Sing did, indeed, pitch a fit, as he tended to do when anyone was a minute late for mealtime. The Cartwrights, oldest to youngest, appeased him by giving due diligence to the food on their plates, so it was not until the cook had cleared the table that Little Joe asked eagerly, “When’s Adam comin’?”
Ben gazed blankly at the boy and then said gently, “Son, we’ve told you again and again that Adam will be back East for four years. I know it’s hard for you to comprehend how long that is, but it’s a very long time, Little Joe.”
Little Joe stared back at his father. “It’s not long ‘til Christmas, is it?”
“No,” Ben chuckled, amused by, although grateful for, the abrupt change of subject. “That’s only three days.”
“I thought so,” Little Joe said with a bounce, “and that’s when Adam’ll be here—for Christmas!”
Ben shook his head in consternation. Not a fortuitous change of subject after all, then, just a complete muddling of the things his youngest wanted most. He reached out to stroke the little lad’s curls with a comforting hand. “No, Joseph. I’m sorry, but Adam will not be coming home for Christmas. It’s too far, sweetheart.”
“Yeah, Punkin,” Hoss added. “Don’t you remember? Adam never did come home for Christmas, even when he just went to school in Sacramento, and that was a heap closer than where he is now.”
Little Joe’s head bobbed and he pointed a finger toward the west. “Mountains that way . . . and snow. That’s why.”
Ben pointed the opposite direction. “Mountains that way, too . . . and snow and plains and rivers and more mountains and more snow. It’s a very long way, Joseph. I know how much you want to see your brother—goodness knows, I do, too—but he simply cannot come home for Christmas. It’s too far.”
“He is, Pa!” Little Joe insisted. “The preacher said so, and he don’t lie.”
Ben stared at the earnest face, trying to fathom how even as overactive an imagination as Little Joe’s could have interpreted the morning’s sermon as having anything to do with his older brother. Failing completely, he finally asked, “Joseph, what are you talking about? The reverend didn’t so much as mention your brother Adam.”
Little Joe folded his arms. “He did!” he exclaimed. “You didn’t pay ‘tention!”
“I didn’t pay attention?” Ben sputtered. He turned to Hoss. “Did you hear anything about your older brother in that sermon?”
“Nope, not a word,” Hoss assured him. “The youngun’s gone plumb crazy, Pa. It ain’t like the sermon was about the Garden of Eden. At least, there’s an Adam in that one.”
“Yes, but how did this child manage to hear ‘Adam’ when the reverend spoke of nothing but the three wise men this morning?”
“From the East,” Little Joe chimed in excitedly. He held up one finger. “Adam”—he lifted another thoughtfully—“and a friend”—he raised a third finger, beaming—“and one more—all coming for Christmas.” He smiled brightly. “We got ‘nough beds or we gonna need a pallet?”
Ben dropped his head into his hands, his fingers kneading his temple, where a dull ache was starting to form. “You—you think your brother is one of the three wise men?” he croaked, finally making the connection.
Hoss snickered. “Well, Adam is mighty smart, Pa.”
Ben reared up to glare at his middle son. “That was not helpful, Hoss!”
Hoss gulped and shrunk back. “Sorry, Pa.”
Ben lifted Little Joe and set the child in his lap. “Baby, I don’t know how you got such an idea in your sweet little head, but Adam is not one of the wise men from the Bible.”
Little Joe pointed in approximately the correct direction. “Adam—east—Haven,” he said, his voice almost a whimper.
“Yes, I know,” Ben soothed patiently, “but the wise men the preacher was talking about are not from New Haven, and Adam is definitely not one of them.”
Little Joe’s lower lip trembled. “He—he is,” he insisted with a quavering voice.
“No, he is not,” Ben said firmly, “and that’s the last I want to hear on the subject.”
Little Joe wiped away the single tear trickling down his cheek and pressed his face into his father’s vest.
Ben was overcome with instant remorse. “Oh, baby,” he cried, cradling the crop of chestnut curls close to his heart. “Pa didn’t mean to be harsh with you. I just don’t want you to build your hopes up to a bigger hurt later on. Hush now,” he soothed as he felt the little body quivering against his chest. “You’ll have a merry Christmas, even though Adam can’t be here.” Later, as he tucked a still inconsolable Little Joe into bed, he wondered if that were true. With Marie gone and Adam away, there were two holes in the heart of this family that no amount of holiday merriment could fill. But he’d do his best for the two precious boys who would be here with him this Christmas, and if his own heart could not be whole, somehow he would see to it that theirs were.
Knees hugged tight to his chest and tiny toes tucked under the hem of his nightshirt, Little Joe huddled in the cushioned rocker beside his bed and contemplated the dream that had awakened him. It hadn’t exactly been a nightmare, like the ones he’d had after Mama died and right after Adam left, but it bothered him. It left him feeling that something was wrong and that he needed to fix it, but he didn’t know how.
The dream had made him happy at first, for he’d seen his oldest brother in it. Adam was sitting at a desk in a room Little Joe had never seen before, but he knew it had to be where Adam was staying back East, just as Joe knew, though he’d never met him, that the other boy in the room had to be Adam’s old friend Jamie, ‘cause that’s who Adam lived with now. Jamie was trying to talk to Adam about going home for Christmas, but Adam wasn’t paying any attention. He just kept his nose stuck in a book, the way he used to when he was here at home.
That’s when the dream had started to bother Little Joe. He had never liked Adam doing that—except when he was reading a story to his little brother, of course. Adam read stories real good, ‘most as good as Pa—and even better than Mama, although the youngster felt a moment’s disloyalty at such a thought. No, he decided, Mama wouldn’t mind him thinking Adam read better, ‘cause he really did; he just didn’t do it often enough.
He wasn’t reading a story in the dream, either. Little Joe could tell, ‘cause the book was one of those big thick ones that Adam liked and no one else did. Well, except maybe Jamie, since he was back East at that same school and seemed to be a lot like Adam, from what Joe had heard. Even Jamie, though, was ready to quit the books and take time for Christmas, but not Adam. “It’s too far,” Little Joe heard his big brother say.
Just then a man all dressed in red with white fur had come bursting into Adam’s room. “It’s not too far!” the man, who could only be Santa himself, cried. “We only have to follow the star!”
In the dream Adam had shaken his head sadly and said, “It’s not a real star,” and then he’d gone back to that awful book. That’s when Little Joe had awakened, not with a scream, as if it had been a real nightmare, but with an anguished whisper, “It is a real star, Adam. It is, and you’re s’posed to follow it home—you and Jamie and Santa, too.” Frown lines deepened in the child’s forehead as he worried whether Santa could convince Adam the star was real or Adam would convince Santa it was not. If that happened, there wouldn’t be any Christmas at all at the Ponderosa, and that horrid thought was enough to propel the little boy out of the rocker.
Bare feet pattered across the icy floor, down the hall and into the empty room across it. Little Joe rushed to the window of Adam’s room, and climbed into the chair beneath it to peer out through the frosty pane. He’d always felt like he could see more through Adam’s window than his own, the view from which was largely obscured by tall pines. He looked up into the heavens and smiled as he spotted the North Star. “See, Adam?” he whispered as he tapped the glass. “There it is. That’s the star that’ll lead you home. Pa says so. He taught Hoss and he taught me. Didn’t he teach you? Or did all that book learnin’ push the ‘portant stuff out of your head?”
Little Joe nodded soberly. That must be it. There was only so much room inside a person’s head, and Adam had pushed in so much book learning that there wasn’t room for the star lesson anymore. That must be why Pa had only said that he hoped Adam was following the star. Pa couldn’t be sure that Adam would still remember, and it looked like he’d been right to worry.
Then Little Joe remembered what Pa had said right after that, and his countenance lifted. Pa had said that he hoped Little Joe would follow that star, too, and the little boy suddenly realized that the same star that should have led Adam home could lead him straight to Adam. Adam had forgotten how to follow the star, and what Pa had meant, though he hadn’t said it straight out, was that he was hoping Little Joe would follow it to Adam and bring him home for Christmas. Adam and Jamie and Santa, too—they were the three wise men coming from the East, and it was Joe’s job to get them here!
With a gasp at the awesome responsibility, Little Joe hopped down from the chair and hurried back to his room to ready himself for the journey. He dressed as quickly as he could, for the room was cold and it would be colder still outside under the stars. Then he scurried to gather extra clothes. Pa had said it was real far to Haven, so it would probably take a couple of days to get there—and it was only three days ‘til Christmas. He really needed to hustle!
Little Joe’s fingers fumbled as he unbuttoned the case from his pillow. He wasn’t good with buttons, and this was taking much too long. He had to have something to carry things in, though, and the pillowcase was the best he had. He needed saddlebags, of course, like Pa and Hoss had, but theirs would be too big for him. Little Joe smiled vibrantly. Maybe he’d have a chance, on the way back, to talk to Santa Claus about his need for saddlebags—and a horse to go with them. If anyone could talk Pa into that, it would be Santa, but the important thing now was to get to Adam and bring him home for Christmas. That’s the only present I really need, Joe thought, ‘cept it’d be nice if Mama could come, too, just for Christmas Day. Adam and Mama, home for Christmas—that’d be the perfect present! You listenin’, Santa?
Little Joe put the loaded pillowcase over his shoulder, looking like a miniature Santa himself as he slipped quietly out of his room and tiptoed down the stairs. He could not have explained why he sensed such a need for stealth since he was supposedly carrying out his father’s wishes. Perhaps at some deep level he knew that he was twisting Pa’s words to mean exactly what he wanted them to mean, but Little Joe was too young to analyze what made him act as he did. He just felt strongly that what he was doing was right, but that at the same time it was something he should do very, very secretly.
Secretly described the way he entered the kitchen, too, peering cautiously around the doorjamb from the dining room. Though it was the middle of the night, Joe wouldn’t have been surprised to find Hop Sing in that kitchen at any hour, and he instinctively knew that little boys who snitched food from the pantry were likely to be in big trouble with the cook. As he stuffed a loaf of bread, some leftover cookies and a hunk of roast beef into his pillowcase, Little Joe was proud of himself for remembering to pack food. The last time he’d taken off from home without permission he hadn’t taken anything with him—no food or water or even a jacket. He’d been little then, of course, and now he was a big boy—well, bigger, anyway, and smarter, too. Satisfied with his preparations, he quietly opened the door to the yard and went outside.
The sky was as black as Little Joe had ever seen it and the moonlight only half as bright as it might have been, but the stars were twinkling brilliantly, just like the ones in the child’s eyes as he found the North Star. Purposely positioning it in line with his left shoulder, he started to trot in as straight a line as he could while climbing over fence rails and dodging around thick tree trunks. The cold night air made his breath puff like the smoke from Pa’s pipe as he whistled a happy tune to start off his urgent quest.
It wasn’t long before the trot turned into a walk and then into flagging footsteps accompanied by wide-mouthed yawns. Little Joe hadn’t slept much the early part of the night, and weariness quickly caught up with him. He didn’t see any good places to take shelter from the wind, though, and he was afraid he’d catch cold if he fell asleep with that whistling in his ear. Besides, he had a long way to go, and it was too soon to stop.
So on he trudged, coming at last out of the trees into sage-covered flatland. Even less favorable places to rest here, so he kept going, though his feet dragged through the dust and the pillowcase felt heavy enough to hold toys for all the children in the territory. He set it down for a minute and stretched his aching arms as he gave the biggest yawn yet. When he picked up the pillowcase again, he checked the position of the North Star, and as his eyes lowered to the horizon, he spotted a house perhaps a quarter mile away. He didn’t recognize the place, but figured that ‘most any neighbor wouldn’t mind him resting up a bit in the barn that stood nearby. He’d get out of the wind for a while and snatch a little sleep before heading east again. With renewed energy, Little Joe ran toward the barn. The heavy bar across its door was hard to lift, but he managed; then he pushed the door open a crack, and slipped in. Looking up, he saw piles of hay in the loft, and with a grin he climbed up, burrowed into its sweet-smelling comfort and promptly fell asleep.
Ben scrubbed the sleep from his eyes and splashed his face with cold water from his washbasin. As he rubbed himself dry, he pondered why he always found it so hard to get started on Monday mornings. You’d think taking a day to rest, like the Good Lord intended, would make a man feel rested and ready for a new week, he mused, but all I seem to feel is a lazy urge to stay beneath the covers. Natural depravity, I suppose.
“Come in,” he called in answer to the light tap on his door.
As expected, Hop Sing came in with a hot cup of coffee, a kindly habit he had fallen into since Marie’s passing.
“Hop Sing, you spoil me,” Ben said, reaching for the coffee with an appreciative smile. He sighed with contentment as the warmth from the cup comforted his chilly hands.
“Just do job,” the Chinese cook insisted.
“More than that—in every way,” Ben returned. “The boys up yet?”
“Hop Sing not hear peep.”
“Hoss isn’t any fonder of Monday mornings than his father,” Ben chuckled, “but I’ll have to get him up soon or he’ll be late to school. No need to fix Little Joe’s breakfast until you see him, though. I suspect he can use a little extra sleep; he had a rough start to his night.”
Hop Sing nodded soberly. “He miss brother.” He added in a more tentative tone. “You, too, Mr. Ben.”
“We all miss Adam,” Ben agreed. “It’s just harder for Little Joe to understand time and distance.” He settled on the edge of the bed and sipped his coffee as the cook quietly slipped out to return to the kitchen. Spoiled or not, he had to admit he relished the pampering Hop Sing gave him every morning. Even Monday morning seemed easier to face after that first cup of hot coffee had warmed him through and through.
Setting the empty cup on his bedside table, Ben finished dressing and made his way down the hall to Hoss’ room. The snores he could hear through the door told him that Hoss was still dead to the waking world, and with a shake of his head, Ben went in to rouse the boy. “Come on, son, wake up,” he said as he patted Hoss’ shoulder.
“Huh?” Hoss woke with a start and then a soft groan. “Oh, hey, Pa. Mornin’ already?”
“Already,” Ben chuckled, tousling the sleep-tangled tawny hair. “Time you were up. School this morning.”
“Yeah, I know,” Hoss said with a discontented grunt.
Ben pulled back the covers and tickled Hoss’ bare foot until the boy squealed. “Up—now,” Ben said, giving the foot a final light slap.
“I am,” Hoss said. Yawning widely, he swung one leg and then the other over the side of the bed.
“See you downstairs,” his father said. Ben walked down the hall to the next door. Even pressing an ear against the door, he couldn’t hear a sound from Little Joe’s room, and since he intended to let the child sleep, he started to leave. Then he remembered Little Joe’s tendency to toss off blankets as he slept and thought he should at least check to make sure his little boy was covered.
The sight of an empty bed brought a troubled frown to his face. Poor little lad, he must not have slept well at all. I’ll need to spend some extra time with him this morning, try once more to help him understand. He didn’t begrudge the time, of course. Work never ceased on a growing ranch like the Ponderosa, but his sons came first. He did, however, wonder if he had the wisdom to deal with the parenting challenges that seemed much tougher to face without Marie at his side.
“Little Joe!” he called as he descended the stairs. There was no answer, and a quick scan of the great room with its easy flow from one area to another revealed that his youngest wasn’t there, either. The kitchen, then? With long strides Ben made his way across the room and through the doorway into Hop Sing’s domain.
The Chinese cook turned from the stove. “Bleakfast leady soon. You want mo’ coffee?”
Ben shook his head as his eyes searched the room. “No, I want my little son to come out from wherever he’s hiding. Have you seen Little Joe, Hop Sing?”
The diminutive Oriental looked perplexed. “Not see. Hop Sing tell you dat befo’, Mr. Ben.”
“I know, I know,” an appeasing Ben said. The last thing he needed to deal with right now was an offended cook. “I thought he might have gotten up while I was dressing. He’s not in his bed.”
The cook’s face wrinkled with concern. “Not see little boy. You want I look?”
Ben waved aside the offer of help. “No, just get Hoss’ breakfast cooked. Don’t want him late for school. I’ll see if I can locate the little mischief.”
“Hope he not go far, like befo’,” Hop Sing mumbled.
Ben shivered as he grabbed his coat from the pegged rack beside the door. “Like before,” he muttered. “Dear God, not that!” It had been only months since his youngest son had run away from a father so wrapped in his own grief that he’d had no strength left to soothe his sons’. That harrowing night, searching for Little Joe and finally finding him at the treacherous top of Eagles’ Nest, had snapped Ben from his emotional stupor, and he’d thought he had successfully rebuilt his relationship with his boys. Maybe not as well as he’d hoped, however, if disappointment over his big brother’s absence for Christmas could once again propel Little Joe into flight. No, it couldn’t be that, Ben assured himself. Joe seemed happy enough these days; he was just being his usual mischievous little self. Dear God, let it be mischief!
“Little Joe!” he called as he left the house. “Time to come in.” He deliberately kept his voice calm and steady as he added, “You better show yourself, little boy.”
Looking across the yard, he saw the barn door standing partway open. Ah, that must be it. Joe loved to visit the barn and the animals there. He wasn’t supposed to go in alone, of course, but Ben felt lenient this morning. He’d let the boy off with a soft scolding. “Little Joe, you in here?” he called as he entered the out building.
A ranch hand holding a pitchfork turned as the boss came in. “Ain’t seen the youngun this mornin’, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Little Joe,” Ben called loudly, aiming his voice into the loft. “If you’re hiding up there, you’d better come out.”
The other man shook his head in the silence that followed. “Don’t reckon he’s up there, Mr. Cartwright. I been in here a spell, and I think I’d’ve heard him by now.”
“Probably,” Ben conceded. Little Joe wasn’t noted for long spells of quiet. Ben left the barn and tried to puzzle where else a four-year-old might hide. He tried the outhouse, the smokehouse and the springhouse without success before finally turning back to the main house. Maybe the little scamp had been hiding inside all along. If so, he’d probably tired of the game by now and was ready to sit down to breakfast.
Hoss was seated at the table when his father walked in, but he immediately sprang to his feet. “Did you find him?” he asked anxiously.
“Not yet,” Ben said. “Sit down and finish your breakfast, son. I’m gonna check around the house again.”
“I already did that,” Hoss said. “I checked all the places he likes to hide, Pa. He ain’t in here, and if he ain’t outside, neither. . .” He gave his lower lip a nervous nibble. “He’s gone missin’ again, ain’t he, Pa?”
Ben sighed deeply. “It looks that way, Hoss, but don’t you worry; I’ll find him.” He noticed the half-full plate in front of Hoss. “Finish up your breakfast, son, and get on to school.”
“No, sir!” Hoss declared adamantly.
Ben arched a surprised eyebrow at this response from his normally tractable middle son. “Are you defying me, young man?”
“I guess so.” Hoss wasn’t entirely sure what “defying” meant, but he figured from the look on Pa’s face that he was probably guilty of whatever it was. “I’ll finish my breakfast, Pa,” he announced clearly, “but I ain’t goin’ to school today—not ‘til we find Little Joe.”
Understanding the concern that lay behind Hoss’ unaccustomed willfulness, Ben said gently, but firmly, “I can find your brother without your help, Hoss, and you need to be in school.”
Hoss’ chin began to quiver. “Pa, I wouldn’t learn a thing, not with worryin’ over Little Joe; I just know I wouldn’t. Let me help. Please!”
Ben hurried across the room and, kneeling beside Hoss’ chair, took the boy in his arms. “You’re right, son,” he said, his voice choking. “Of course, you’re right. Some things are more important than school work or ranch work, and finding your brother heads the list. Neither of us will be able to think of anything else until he’s home safe. You’ll come with me, and once we find Little Joe, you can go on to school.” It was his way of assuring Hoss—and himself—that they would find the child quickly. “Now, finish up that breakfast, so we can get started.”
“You, too, Pa,” Hoss insisted urgently. “Hop Sing said you ain’t et yet, ‘cause you was out lookin’ for Joe, and you gotta ‘fore we can leave.”
Ben smoothed his son’s wheat-hued hair with the tender touch this tender-hearted boy, so like his mother, seemed to draw out of him. “You’re right again, my wise young son. We both need to fuel up before we head out into the cold.” He shivered involuntarily at the thought of his youngest son out there in the cold, wondering if the child had given a thought to fuel for himself or even warm clothing. He hadn’t last time, but that had been summer. Maybe, since he was never allowed out without a coat these days, the little lad had, at least, had sense enough to dress warmly. He’d check to see whether Joe’s little coat was missing as soon as he finished the breakfast Hop Sing was now setting at his place at the table.
As she left the warmth of her kitchen and headed across the yard, the woman turned up the collar of her coat and pulled it snug about her neck. It had become habit as she went about her daybreak chores. Her lean flesh felt the chill of the early morning, and lately each had seemed chillier than the one before it. Even a nip of frost in the air today, but that was as it should be, so close to Christmas. All it needs is a blanket of snow, she thought, to make it a proper New England Christmas, and from the look of that sky, I might just have one.
It would be a comfort to have a touch of home, this first Christmas without her man. She hadn’t wanted to come out here to this God-forsaken barrenness in the first place. That had been Obadiah’s doing, and then he’d up and died on her and left her the care of a place she didn’t much want and scarcely knew what to do with. Somehow she’d kept it going and even put a little aside from the sale of her eggs and butter, enough for a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings . . . if only she’d had someone to share her table.
Brushing self-pity aside, for that went against her New England grain, she headed for the barn, but as she approached the door, she saw that it was slightly ajar. “I know I closed that door,” she muttered. She remembered putting the bar across it, too, so no amount of wind could blow it open and risk the health of her precious dairy stock, precious because upon their lives rested her own livelihood.
Someone had opened that door, she reasoned, and that someone might still be inside, maybe even planning to rustle himself a milk cow from a poor, defenseless widow woman. It was at times like this that she keenly missed Obadiah. She didn’t fancy facing down some thievin’ varmint, but she wasn’t about to let anyone waltz off with her best stock. That varmint was about to find out that this widow woman wasn’t as helpless as he’d hoped!
First she put a cautious ear to the doorway. She couldn’t hear anyone moving around inside, so she slipped in quietly, thankful that her spare bones enabled her to squeeze through the scant opening. She lifted the pitchfork from its place beside the door and came in, step by step. She still didn’t see or hear anything except the soft lowing of her cows. She checked each stall and breathed a sigh of relief as she tallied the presence of each animal. Not rustlers, then. Had she simply been so addle-minded last night that she only thought she’d shut and barred that door?
Then in the faint light that filtered through the partially opened door, she saw straw flutter down through the cracks in the loft floor and heard a slight rustle of movement. Someone was up there! Not a rustler, but a vagrant then. She wouldn’t have begrudged any man shelter on a cold December night, but one that took without asking might take other things without asking, too—like the virtue of a defenseless widow woman.
Her grip tightened on the pitchfork as she held it warily before her. “You up in the loft!” she yelled. “Show yourself!”
She heard no response except the same soft rustling as before, but more straw trickled through the cracks. Finally, a small head peered over the edge of the loft, and wide eyes stared down at her.
“Land sakes,” she gasped when she saw the tiny boy. “Who’s up there with you, child?”
Little Joe shook his head. “Just me, ma’am.”
“Just you?” The woman looked dumbfounded. “What’s a little thing like you doin’ out on such a night?”
“Just travelin’, ma’am,” the boy lisped.
“Travelin’!” She collected herself. “Well, you can just travel down from that loft right now, boy!”
Little Joe stood up slowly and pointed a shaky finger at the pitchfork. “Put that down,” he quavered.
“Oh, lands, I’m not gonna hurt you,” the woman said, hastily setting the implement aside. She cocked her head and studied the child. “Why, I know you. You’re that little mite of a Cartwright boy, ain’t you?”
“Yes’m,” Little Joe said, relieved to be recognized, for surely no one who knew his family would use a pitchfork on him.
“Well, get on down here, child,” she ordered. “For the love of mercy, don’t Ben Cartwright never keep a watch on you?” It hadn’t been that long back, she recalled as the youngster climbed down from the loft, that half the countryside had been turned out to look for this boy, who’d run off looking for his dead mama, or so gossip at the time had said. She’d thought then, as she had almost from the first moment she’d heard of Marie Cartwright’s passing, that Ben ought to take himself a new wife to look after those three boys of his. Boys needed a mother, especially boys as young as this one, and if Ben Cartwright needed proof of that, this child’s traipsin’ ways ought to give it to him.
She met the boy at the foot of the loft ladder and brushed stray straw from his curls. “You know me, don’t you, boy?”
“Yes’m, you’re the widow Hunter, from church,” Little Joe said.
Mrs. Hunter scowled. She hated being known by that title. It reminded her of her still-painful loss and of a marital status she utterly loathed. Still, it wasn’t the child’s fault; he was, no doubt, only repeating what he’d heard. Touching his red cheeks, she exclaimed, “Lands, you’re cold! And no wonder, drafty as this barn is, me havin’ no man to mend it. You come in the house right this minute, child, and we’ll get you warm and fill you up with a nice hot breakfast.”
A warm kitchen and a hot breakfast sounded just about perfect to Little Joe, so he took her hand amiably, offered her his charming cherub’s smile and skipped at her side as they made their way across the yard to the house. For a childless widow woman, that was just about as perfect a start to a morning as she’d had in many a day.
Ben’s steps were brisk with determination as he left the ranch house. He’d been relieved to discover that Little Joe was evidently wearing his warm coat, and Hop Sing’s tirade about a loaf of bread and some other items missing from the pantry indicated that his little lad had provided himself with breakfast, as well. Still, Nevada winters could be highly unpredictable. There was always a touch of frost in the morning air, but the sky this morning looked as though something more than frost might develop.
Struggling to keep close to his father’s heels, a bundled-up Hoss asked, “Where we gonna look first, Pa?”
“Eagle’s Nest,” Ben answered brusquely.
“Where he run off before?”
“Yes.” Ben’s clipped response indicated his inner turmoil, his sense of failure as a parent. His little boy was unhappy and had once again run from him, rather than to him. I didn’t take enough note, Ben chastised himself. I thought we’d worked past the problems we had—that I caused—after Marie’s passing. I thought my boy knew now that I loved him and that he could trust me. Now, this. He’s hurt and it’s her he wants, her he trusts. Must be. What else could it be? We’ll find him soon. Have to. Dear God, let it be before he starts up Eagle’s Nest again. I don’t know how he made that steep climb before, and I don’t relish carrying him down during a snow storm.
“Thanks,” he said to the hand who had saddled his horse and Hoss’.
“Glad to help,” the man said. “Anything else I can do, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I think I know where he is,” Ben replied, “but if Little Joe turns up back here or you hear anything new, ride out to Eagle’s Nest and let me know.”
“Sure will, Mr. Cartwright, and I’ll be a-prayin’ you find the little feller.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, giving the man an earnest handshake. He swung into the saddle and once he saw that Hoss was securely mounted, he headed out toward Eagle’s Nest, where he confidently hoped to find his lost child.
Mrs. Hunter slid a plate of sizzling ham with fried egg, fried potatoes and a piping hot biscuit already spread with butter and honey before Little Joe. “There!” she announced with satisfaction. “I’ll bet you’re glad to get some woman-cooking for a change.”
“Hop Sing cooks good,” Little Joe replied just before he took a bite of biscuit.
“Well enough for his kind, I suppose,” Mrs. Hunter said, “though you don’t have enough meat on your bones to prove it.”
Little Joe flashed her a mischievous grin. “Hoss does.”
Mrs. Hunter laughed. “True enough. Do you like the biscuit? My Obadiah always prized my biscuits.”
“It’s real good,” Little Joe said with enthusiasm.
The woman patted his head. “Eat everything on your plate and you can have another.” She went back to the stove and after filling her own plate came back to sit across from the little boy. “Now, what’s this nonsense about you travelin’ somewhere by yourself? Were you lookin’ for your mama again, little lamb?”
“Oh, no, ma’am, she’s in heaven,” Little Joe said.
Mrs. Hunter scowled, but knowing it wouldn’t set well with Ben Cartwright, she kept to herself her opinion of the eternal destination of Catholics.
“I’m goin’ to fetch my brother home for Christmas,” Little Joe offered between bites of egg.
“Don’t tell me he’s taken off, too!” Mrs. Hunter cried, dropping her fork.
“Yes’m, all the way to Haven,” the child told her, “but I know how to find him.”
“Haven?” Mrs. Hunter looked confused for a moment. Then comprehension slowly spread across her countenance. “Oh, you mean New Haven, where Ben’s oldest boy went off to school?”
“That’s right!” Little Joe declared. “Adam’s in Haven—east.”
Mrs. Hunter tucked a straggling strand of jet black hair behind her ear. “I thought you meant your other brother, the one with meat on his bones.”
Little Joe shook his head, clearly confounded by such a colossal error. “Hoss? He’s already home, ma’am. ‘Sides, he could find his way anywhere; he knows about the star.” Chattering on, he reached for the glass of milk. “Adam’s comin’ home for Christmas,” he explained, “but I think, maybe, he’s forgot how to get here, so I’m goin’ to fetch him.”
Mrs. Hunter rested her elbows on the table, her chin in the palms of both hands, and stared at the child. “Does your pa have the slightest notion of this nonsense?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am!” Little Joe assured her brightly. “He wants me to find Adam. He said he hoped I would.”
Mrs. Hunter’s dark eyes widened as she chewed on that, along with her breakfast. Ben Cartwright was twelve kinds of a fool for trying to raise a little handful like this on his own, but she didn’t believe any man could be a big enough fool to send such a tiny tot to the East Coast by himself. “Child, that just can’t be,” she said when her mouth was empty.
“Oh, yes,” Joe insisted, head bobbing emphatically. “He told me to follow the star and bring the wise men home. Adam’s one of them—and Jamie and Santa’s the others.”
“What!” What sort of Popish sacrilege had Ben Cartwright’s late wife drilled into these innocent ears? The sooner Ben was made to realize this boy’s need of a god-fearing mother, the better! “We’ll just see what your father has to say about that, child. Soon as we’ve finished breakfast and I wash up these dishes, I’ll hitch the team and take you home.”
“I can’t go home,” Little Joe said, a stubborn frown forming on his lips. “I ain’t found Adam yet.”
“And you ain’t a-gonna find Adam, not today,” the woman declared, hands on her hips. “The very idea of a little mite like you traipsin’ off to the East Coast by hisself!”
“Pa said to!”
“If he did, his ears’ll be burnin’ by the time I get through tellin’ him my opinion on that subject,” Mrs. Hunter snorted. “Now, finish up your milk quick-like, child, so we can be on our way. If things stand the way I think they do, your pa’s likely frettin’ hisself silly ‘bout this time.”
“O-okay,” Little Joe, his head dropping, though he managed to keep her face within his line of sight. “I don’t want Pa to worry.”
Anyone who knew Little Joe would have been suspicious of such easy acquiescence, but Mrs. Hunter had not been blessed with experience with any child, much less one who might be generously described as crafty. She simply assumed that her child-rearing theories were being vindicated. All any parent had to do, she firmly believed, was state plainly the way things were to be, and a child would automatically comply. “There now, that’s a good boy,” she cooed. “And look how you’ve cleaned up your plate. Would you like another biscuit?”
Little Joe smiled sweetly. “Yes, please.” He accepted another light and airy biscuit, every bit as good as Hop Sing’s, and took a nibble before lowering it into his lap.
Attention fixed on her own plate, Mrs. Hunter didn’t seem to notice Little Joe sat quietly watching her, and anytime she looked up, he moved his mouth as if he were chewing the bread he had eventually slipped into his pocket. Grub this good should not be left behind when hitting the trail.
When the woman finished her breakfast, she looked across at the child’s empty plate. “All done?” she asked, and when Little Joe nodded, she stood and carried both her own plate and the boy’s to the basin of soapy water waiting for dirty dishes.
“Ma’am?” Little Joe asked as he walked up behind her. “I’d best go to the outhouse now.”
Her hands in the dishpan, Mrs. Hunter looked at him over her shoulder. “I’ll take you before we leave.”
“But I need to go now!” Little Joe wailed piteously.
“Oh, my goodness!” the woman ejaculated. “I wish you’d spoke up before I got my hands all soaped up.”
“I can go by myself; I’m a big boy,” Little Joe assured her. “It’s out back, I guess?”
“Of course, it is,” she said. “Well, I reckon you are big enough to manage, at that. You go on and do what needs doin’. That’ll give me a chance to wash up. Then we’ll head out to the barn.”
“Yes’m,” Little Joe said, adding as he scooted out the back door, “I’ll meet you there.”
“Wait, child!” she called, but the door shut with a slam. “Goodness!” she said, vigorously scrubbing the cast iron skillet in which she’d fried the eggs. “What a whirlwind! Ben definitely needs help with that one. Well, there’s nothing in the barn to hurt him; won’t hurt to leave him there alone a few minutes.”
The whirlwind slunk around to the side of the house, the opposite direction from the outhouse. He paused there only long enough to unbutton his fly and give the bare garden plot a sprinkle. His immediate need met, he hurried over to the barn, scrambled up into the loft to retrieve his pillowcase of supplies and scurried back down again. Spotting a back door to the barn, he quickly darted to it and through it. He couldn’t see the star, now that it was morning, but Hoss had told him that the sun always came up in the east, so Little Joe grinned at the golden orb rising in the cloudy sky and was soon running as fast as his legs could carry him—east, toward Adam and the other wise men.
Staring up at the top of Eagle’s Nest, Ben breathed a sigh, whether of relief or dismay he couldn’t say. Both, he decided. Relief that Little Joe wasn’t perched precariously atop that craggy pinnacle, dismay that he didn’t know where to look now. After staring thoughtfully at the rock formation for a long time, he asked pensively, “Hoss, does your brother have a strong enough sense of direction to find his mother’s grave?”
Hoss lowered the muffler wrapped around his nose and mouth. “Maybe,” he said, but he sounded doubtful.
“Do you think he might go there?”
Hoss’ forehead crinkled in thought. “I ain’t sure he could, Pa. I don’t recollect you ever talkin’ ‘bout what direction that was from the house.”
“What he can or can’t do may not be the right question, son,” Ben said. “It’s what he might try to do we have to ask ourselves.”
Hoss nodded soberly. “He might try. Him and me’s been there a time or two on our own, and he might recollect which way we went. He does seem to like it there.”
Ben sighed heavily. A shot in the dark, but so would be every other choice he might make. “Let’s look there, then.”
Best bonnet tied on with an attractive bow beneath her left ear and wrapped in her warm woolen cape, Elvira Hunter came into the barn. “Child, where are you?” she called when she saw no sign of the little boy. “Are you up in that loft again?” When only silence met her ears, she raised her voice. “You’d best answer me, boy!” There was still no answer, so gritting her teeth with resolve, she marched toward the loft ladder. Just as she mounted the first rung, however, a gust of wind blew open the back door, which Little Joe had failed to latch. “Oh, my gracious!” Mrs. Hunter cried as she stepped back down and ran to the door. Looking through it, she could see no trace of the child, but she knew, sure as the world, that the little hellion had taken off again.
Hurriedly she harnessed the team to her buckboard. “East, he said,” she muttered. “Not sure he knows which way that is, but it’s the best place to start.” She climbed into the seat, flicked the reins and took off, head swiveling every few seconds, so she could search both sides of the road. After she’d gone two miles, she pulled the team to a stop. A child on foot couldn’t have come this far, so either he’d gone a different direction or he wasn’t traveling along the road. Since she couldn’t travel cross country in the wagon, she turned it around and headed back the opposite direction, keeping up her constant search of the roadsides. She still saw no sign of Little Joe, but she kept going this time and even quickened her pace as a flutter of snowflakes sprinkled her maroon felt bonnet. The road would ultimately lead her to the Ponderosa, where she could give Ben a piece of her mind and tell him that he needed to mount a search on horseback.
Little Joe wedged himself inside a nest of boulders. No one had to tell him that the widow Hunter would come chasing after him as soon as she realized he was gone. She was a nice lady, and she really thought that taking him home to Pa was the right thing to do, so he couldn’t be mad at her. But he couldn’t let her stop him, either. He had a job to do, a job Pa was trusting him to do, so running away and hiding from her was the right thing for him to do. He’d run as hard as he could, as long as he could; then he’d spotted the boulders and decided they’d be a safe place to rest a spell. He pulled the biscuit from his pocket and nibbled it. Still good, even if it was cold now, and he’d been smart to take an extra one and save Hop Sing’s loaf of bread for later. The lady was a good cook, and it had been nice to start the morning with a hot breakfast, especially since it seemed extra cold this morning.
A snowflake plopping on his nose startled Little Joe and made him grin with delight. Snow for Christmas—that was just perfect! The pines on the Ponderosa were beautiful when they were dusted with snow, and Adam would think so, for sure. One of the letters his big brother had written when he was going to that old academy in Sacramento talked about how he missed seeing snow at Christmas. Joe wondered for a minute if there was snow in Haven or if Adam was missing it now. He shrugged. He didn’t know, but Adam could tell him when they met up—or, maybe, if he had to go all the way east, he’d just see for himself.
Little Joe finished the biscuit, stood up and peeked over the boulders to make sure the nice widow lady hadn’t caught up with him. Then he stepped out and began walking toward the fading light of the cloud-covered sun, catching the falling snowflakes with his outstretched tongue.
A shot in the dark. That’s all it had been, and like most of its kind, it had struck nowhere near its target. Dejected, Ben dismounted and, gathering the reins in one gloved hand, led the buckskin toward the familiar grove of pines. Sensing his father’s need to be alone, Hoss held back and watched as his father knelt by the engraved headstone.
“Oh, Marie,” Ben sighed, his face falling into his right hand, “I’ve failed you once again—failed him again—failed to understand how lonely his little heart was—for you, for Adam—especially at this time of year, when family ought to be together. I’ve lost our little boy, Marie, and I’ve looked everywhere I can think of. God and good angels brought him back to me once before, and I have no right to ask such grace again. But I am asking, because I must, and, perhaps, because God is gracious, He will hear . . . again.”
Lifting his tear-streaked face, Ben addressed his Creator directly. “Lord, You know the heart of a father, for You are one Yourself. At this season of the year we’re reminded of how You were parted from Your Son, but You knew that He was on a mission the two of You had planned together before the earth was formed. I feel that way about Adam. Much as I miss him, I know he’s working toward Your mission for him, and I’m comforted in the separation, knowing it’s for good purpose and that it won’t be forever.” His voice broke. “It—It’s different with Little Joe. He’s not on a mission; he’s just lost.” Snowflakes mingled with salt droplets on his upturned face. “He’s so little, Lord, and it’s turning so cold that if we don’t find him soon, he may never even start whatever mission you have for him in this life. Oh, please, please show me what to do, which way to turn. I have no other hope.”
He ended with a broken sob, but just as he reached the end of himself, an inexplicable peace settled over his troubled heart. He rose from his knees and walked back toward Hoss with purposeful strides. “Let’s go, son,” he said.
“Where now, Pa?” Hoss asked.
Ben smiled, though his lips quavered. “Home, son.”
“You think Little Joe’s found his way back there?”
Ben swung into the saddle. “I don’t know. I just know we need to go home. I can’t explain, Hoss, but I feel it in my heart.”
Hoss, who of all Ben’s sons best understood being led by the heart, immediately turned his horse around. “Let’s go home, then.”
Sitting in the ample armchair beside the great stone fireplace, Elvira Hunter sipped a hot cup of tea and surveyed the interior of the Ponderosa. There was a grand majesty about the way the room flowed from one function to another, but the décor lacked a certain polish, she thought. Odd, since Ben’s woman had seemed to carry herself with a sort of flair that one might have expected to carry over to the house. What I could do with this place! Elvira mused as she took another sip of the warm drink. It’ll never look like a print from Godey’s Lady’s Book, but a few well placed doilies would soften all this rugged masculinity, give the place some genteel grace. She swirled the beverage around in her mouth. The child had been right about one thing: the Chinaman could cook—well, at least, he could brew a decent cup of tea, which made a certain amount of sense, she supposed, with tea coming from China.
She shivered as the front door flew open and two snow-frosted figures came in, along with a strong gust of icy air. “Lands! You’re lettin’ all the warm air out,” she called sharply, setting the china cup and saucer down with a clunk as she came to her feet.
“El—Elvira?” Ben blinked in bewilderment. He’d seen the rig outside, of course, but would never have guessed that a solitary woman would be out on a day like this. “I—uh—it’s good to see you, of course, but I’m afraid I haven’t the time for a social call just now. I’ve a bit of a problem on my hands.”
“Out of your hands, don’t you mean?” Mrs. Hunter snorted. “I know all about your problem, Ben, and you’ve got my sympathy, tryin’ to keep track of that one.”
“Hop Sing told you?” Ben surmised.
“As if I needed to be told!” Elvira marched across the room and stood before Ben, knuckles planted on her hips. “I know all about it, Ben Cartwright, all about your oldest boy and Santa Claus bein’ wise men and followin’ a star to fetch ‘em back here for Christmas. Of all the mixed up batch of ferdoodlement I’ve ever heard!”
Goggle-eyed, Ben stared at her. It was the most mixed up batch of whatever ferdoodlement was that he’d ever heard, too, and he found himself wondering if Elvira Hunter had completely lost her mind.
“Adam is mighty smart,” Hoss suggested hesitantly.
Ben spun to glare at his middle son. “Hoss, that is not helpful!” He stopped short as he recognized that he and Hoss had had this conversation before. “You don’t mean . . . ?”
Hoss had winced when his father started yelling, and the worry lines remained etched around his mouth as he slowly nodded. “I think . . . maybe . . . yeah.”
“Would one of you start talkin’ sense?” Elvira demanded. “This is no time to be blatherin’; that child is out alone, Ben, with a storm comin’ on.”
Seeing genuine concern reflected in the woman’s eyes, Ben set aside his own fears for a moment and laid a consoling hand on her bony shoulder. “We’ll find him, Elvira,” he said with more confidence than he felt. “Come back over by the fire and tell me what you know about this. Who told you about the wise men and a star?” he asked as he led her back to the warmth of the blazing logs.
“Why, the child himself,” she said. “Goodness, Ben, what were you thinking to fill an innocent child’s head with that Popish nonsense?”
Ben shook his head to clear it. “It isn’t Popish nonsense,” he said. “It’s just childish nonsense. Little Joe told you?” The implication of that suddenly struck him, and his face lit up. “You’ve seen him?”
“Seen him? I fed him breakfast,” Elvira declared.
Ben’s hands raised in an automatic gesture of praise. “Oh, thank God! Where is he, Elvira? You brought him home?” He closed his eyes and gave his head another shake. “No, no, you said he was out alone . . . but . . . you fed him breakfast.” He stared blankly into her eyes. “I don’t understand. They can’t both be true, can they?”
“They can when you’re dealin’ with that child,” Elvira Hunter grunted. Her gruff expression crumbled. “Oh, Ben, I been chidin’ you for a fool, but I’ve been just as big a one. I let that little conniver trick me into thinkin’ he was just goin’ to the outhouse, but he took off on me, still headed east, I reckon.”
“East? He’s headed east?” Ben babbled.
“To get Adam, Pa,” Hoss, who had trailed them over to the fire, inserted. “The wise men came from the East, remember? And he knows that’s where Adam is.”
Ben reached over to massage his son’s shoulder. “Yes, yes, of course,” he said, as if everything they were saying made perfect sense. “He’s trying to get to New Haven, then.”
“That’s what the child said,” Elvira reported, “and he said you’d sent him there to fetch his brother home for Christmas.”
At the sound of that wild bellow, Elvira shriveled back in the armchair, as cowed as Hoss had been moments before. “Well, it’s what he said, and I said to myself, ‘Ben may be twelve kinds of a fool for tryin’ to raise this child without a woman’s help, but he couldn’t be that big a fool.’”
“Make it thirteen kinds of a fool, and you’ll about hit the mark,” Ben muttered. “Why didn’t I think about him heading east?”
“’Cause it’s plumb loco,” Hoss said, plopping down on the settee and dropping his chin into his hands.
Elvira nodded her agreement. “I hitched up the rig and tried to follow him,” she went on, “but he wasn’t on the road and I couldn’t leave it with a team. I told the first hand I spotted when I got to your ranch, and he sent another one out toward my place, while he took off after you.”
“He didn’t find me,” Ben said, realizing that he had left Eagle’s Nest by the time his man had searched for him there. “Elvira, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your driving over here to tell me this. It means we know which way to search now. You’re welcome to stay here, but I need to get saddled and head out.”
“Of course, you do,” Elvira declared. “Ain’t that what I’ve been sayin’ all along.” Recollecting her manners, she stood up. “I thank you for the invite, Ben, but I’d best be headin’ on home. I’ve got stock to tend.” She looked over at Hoss. “You reckon you could help me hitch my team back up, boy?”
Hoss looked anxiously over at his father. Ordinarily, he would have agreed at once, knowing that he was expected to do whatever he could to help a neighbor, when asked. But Pa’d said he could help search for Little Joe, and they needed to leave quick as they could.
“Yes, he can,” Ben answered for his son. “In fact, he can drive the team for you.”
“But, Pa . . .” Hoss protested. “You said . . .”
Ben took his son’s face between his hands. “I know, but that’s as far as I can let you go, Hoss. There’s a storm brewing, and I won’t have two sons out in it.” He looked over at his neighbor. “He can stay with you until I return for him?”
“Of course, he can.” Her tone was an unmistakable rebuke for thinking her answer might be anything else. “You get on your way, Ben, and find that little tyke. I’ll take good care of your other boy for you ‘til you get back with him.”
“Bless you, Elvira,” Ben said in benediction for her faith that he would find Little Joe. Impulsively, he planted a kiss on her forehead and hurried out the door.
Blushing with elation at how this morning’s events were advancing her relationship with the elusive Mr. Cartwright, Mrs. Hunter turned toward Hoss. “Can you handle a team, boy? You look big enough, but I know you’re younger than you seem.”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. I’m real good with stock.” Hoss still looked wistfully after his father, but knowing that Pa trusted him to drive the lady, even with a storm coming on, swelled his pride, easing his disappointment at not helping to find Little Joe. He squared his shoulders. “We’d best get on, ma’am, before the roads get too slick.”
“You’re right, boy,” she replied as she took her coat from the peg by the door. She tied on her bonnet and followed him out into the barn to get her horses.
Spinning round and round, Little Joe frantically scanned the sky. The snow was still pretty, but it was coming down so thick and fast now that he couldn’t see the sun, and dark as it was, the star still wasn’t shining to guide his way, either. His pant legs were wet, up to the knees, and he was feeling cold and miserable . . . and scared. The same uneasiness that had made him sneak out of the house earlier was creeping over him. He wasn’t quite ready to admit that he’d known all along that Pa didn’t really want him to go after Adam—that admission might lead to one of Pa’s “very necessary little talks”—but that conclusion was slowly working its way up to the surface of his mind.
The little boy stomped the numbness from his feet, while he pulled on his lower lip with his mittened left hand. Which way was east? He couldn’t tell. Should he go home then? Real panic hit when he realized he didn’t know which way that was, either. Instinctively, he bolted forward, not sure whether he was trying to get to Adam now or back to Pa. He just knew that he had to get out of the cold, wet snow, and one direction seemed about as good as another.
Slackening his speed only enough to spare his mount needless risk, Ben had ridden hard until he reached the Hunter ranch. Then, heading east from there, he’d slowed down. In the fast-falling snow, there were no tracks to follow, so he had to rely on sighting the child, and no one knew better than he what a wild stroke of luck—or more likely, the guidance of Providence—it would take to spot one small boy in this swirling white nightmare. Eyes stretched to both horizons, he kept going, as near due east as he could, even though he knew Little Joe’s sense of direction couldn’t be strong enough to keep him on that steady a course. What other alternative did he have, though? The sage plains were broad expanses of sparsely settled territory, where neither Nature nor man provided much by way of shelter. They could easily swallow up a child as small as Little Joe.
How would I bear that? Ben asked himself. Merciful God, You can’t let it happen—not again! I’ve lost two good women to this difficult land; I can’t lose my son, too. Show me where he is! The wise men followed the star until they came to where the young child lay, he recalled from Scripture, but I’m no wise man and there is no star—no sun, either, now, no way for Little Joe to find his bearings. Which way should I go?
Not east. He suddenly knew that as certainly as if he’d heard a voice from heaven. Not due east, at least. He’d been foolish to try to keep that course, when he knew Little Joe couldn’t. No, his son was at the mercy of the elements, and his path would be more directed by the force of the wind than by the unseen sun and stars or landmarks the father might recognize, but the son would not. He slackened the reins and let his horse pick its own path, hoping that somehow it would respond as a child might.
Little Joe stumbled and fell forward into a deep drift of snow. Clawing his way out, he clambered wearily to his feet. “Papa,” he whimpered. No answer came, but a trickle of tears did, and he furiously wiped them away with his damp mittens before they could freeze on his face and tattle that he wasn’t a big boy. He was ready to admit now that he’d done a bad thing in sneaking out of the house. Pa would be mad, but he didn’t care anymore. Pa could be as mad as he wanted—even mad enough for that necessary little talk—just so long as he found him. Little Joe was sure he would, even without a star to follow. Pa was very smart about finding things. In the meantime, though, it was cold—real cold. Little Joe knew he couldn’t just stand still in the freezing wind. He had to find some rocks or something to hide behind until Pa came for him. He walked on, though it was harder with each step through the deepening snow.
As his buckskin plodded forward according to instinct, Ben raised his eyes to the leaden gray sky. Was it his imagination or was the snow easing up? And was it his imagination, too, that the terrain seemed more level? No, that sensation was definitely real, and Ben smiled with sudden understanding. The horse, taking the path of least resistance, had made his way back to the road. Would Little Joe have done the same? He wouldn’t know where to look for it, but if he stumbled across it? Yes, he might stay with the road then, choosing it for the same reason the horse had, since the cross-country route he’d charted before must be increasingly hard for those short, tired legs to maneuver. The road led more north than east, but Ben had long since given up the notion that his son was still headed east. He’d follow the road for a while and see where it took him . . . hopefully toward Little Joe.
Little Joe trudged through the snow, but the going didn’t seem as hard as before. The ground felt different, somehow, and now the snow didn’t seem like a wild monster, eager to gobble him up. Just pretty snow again, drifting down real slow . . . but there was so much of it already. The wind was still cold, too, and he hadn’t found a good place to get away from it.
Then, up ahead, he saw something. He wasn’t sure what at first, but it was big. Boulders, maybe? he thought as he cocked his head for a closer look. Funny shape for boulders, but they could be ‘most any shape, couldn’t they? As Little Joe squinted, trying to puzzle out what he was seeing, the wind blew aside some of the snow piled against the object, and he saw—spokes! A wheel! A wagon—it was a wagon! And wagons meant people and maybe a house nearby. Hope pouring energy into his exhausted legs, Little Joe ran for the wagon. “Hello! Hello!” he called, loud as he could, but no one answered.
He was almost up to the wagon when he skidded to an abrupt halt. Something was wrong. The wagon had a cover over its top, like people used when they were traveling far, and harness was trailing on the ground, but there were no horses. Cautiously, he approached the still silent wagon and slowly climbed up onto the seat. He peeked through the front opening in the wagon cover and immediately tumbled inside, eyes wide with excitement.
Presents! The wagon had packages, wrapped in paper and tied with ribbon. Oh, it had the usual stuff people packed for a trip, too—trunks and bags and pots and pans and odds and ends of all kinds—but this wagon had presents, too. It must be Santa’s wagon! Then puzzlement furrowed across his brow. But where was Santa? And where were the other wise men? Most importantly, where was Adam?
Little Joe nodded in sober decision. Lost, just as he’d feared. Maybe he hadn’t been wrong, after all, to come out looking for his brother, except now they were both lost in the snow, without a star to guide them. If he could just find Adam, though, they’d at least be together, and Pa wouldn’t have to look for the both of them. That would help Pa be less mad . . . but where had Adam and Santa and Jamie gone?
His tummy was rumbling, so he retrieved his pillowcase from beside the wagon, where he’d dropped it, and took out the cookies. Cookies always seemed to perk Hoss up when he came home from school. Maybe they’d help him think better, too. As he brushed the last crumbs from his lap, however, he still had no idea where the wise men might have gone.
He crawled over the assorted goods and gifts in the wagon until he could peer out the small oval opening in the back. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to see, but not such a clearly marked trail. Of course! The horses—or were they reindeer?—would leave a broad path like that, even through the snow. All he had to do was stay in the path and it would lead him straight to Adam—and Santa, too. Maybe he’d even get an extra present for finding them!
The back opening was laced too tightly for even so small a child as Joe to fit through, so he scrambled back to the front of the wagon and clambered out the way he’d come in, dragging his pillowcase behind him. He jumped off the wagon, and once he’d picked himself up out of the cushioning snowdrift, he raced for the back and followed in the path of whatever animal had been pulling the wagon. It was better than a star, ‘cause it was wider and harder to miss. His eyes shone with expectation, and his heart sang for joy.
We need more men, Ben thought. Too much territory to cover. Even in good weather it would take an army, stretched out in a line, to be certain we weren’t riding right past him. Just two searchers now. Earlier he’d spotted Hank Carlton, the hand who had tried to find him at Eagle’s Nest, across the road and after checking the bounds of that man’s search, he’d sent him back to the Hunter place.
Hank had protested at first. “I’m mighty fond of that little youngun, Mr. Cartwright, and finding him’s the important thing. We can all rest up later.”
“I know, and I appreciate your help, more than I can say,” Ben had told him, “but you’re half frozen, man. Get Mrs. Hunter to give you a cup of coffee, at least, and warm up awhile.”
“What about you, Mr. Cartwright?” Hank had challenged.
“He’s my son,” Ben had stated in a voice that brooked no argument. Hank had acquiesced and gone on his way, promising to get back to searching soon.
Good man, Ben mused now. Not many who would ride out in a snowstorm to find one wayward little boy. Actually, he knew a good number of neighbors who would have readily joined the search, but they lived far apart and he hadn’t wanted to waste time riding around to inform them. Once he knew which direction Little Joe had gone, he had hoped to find the boy quickly, without needing to disturb his neighbors so close to the holiday. Fool, he chided himself. Will I never stop making foolish mistakes, mistakes that could cost me all I hold dear?
With a shake of his head, he tossed aside the condemning thoughts. Waste of time, such thoughts. If he let such foolishness distract him, so that he missed that one vital sign that would lead him to Little Joe, he’d have a lifetime remaining for self-accusation. No need to waste time on it now. With renewed determination he again began to scan every inch of land around him before moving further down the road.
Though the snow had stopped, the sun was still obscured by clouds. Even had it been out, however, the light from Little Joe’s face would have beamed brighter. A barn—the wise men had found a barn! While he’d set out looking for them, they’d been the ones to lead him to shelter. Shoulda known, the boy acknowledged with a grin, ‘cause Adam is real smart, like Hoss said, and his wise men friends would be smart, too, especially Santa.
He ran now, knowing he was only a few steps from Adam’s arms. He pulled eagerly at the bright red door. It was heavy, so he only cracked it as far as he needed to get in. “Adam!” he called as he came into the dark interior.
He froze as he heard a clicking sound, and in the dim light from the doorway, he saw the barrel of a rifle, pointed straight at him.
Ben dismounted and slowly approached the abandoned wagon. At least, he assumed it had been abandoned, since the team that had pulled it was obviously gone. Still, it would have made an ideal shelter for a small boy, if Little Joe had come this way. “Hello . . . the wagon!” he called with rising hope.
There was no answer, but he had to check, so he climbed up and looked inside, just as his son had done before him. No sign of life, but there were indications that life had been here . . . and not too long ago. The wrapped gifts told him someone had been traveling to some sort of Christmas gathering, but something—probably the snowstorm—had gone wrong and caused them to leave the wagon.
He circled the wagon and soon spotted the problem, a wheel broken after slipping off the icy road. But where were the people? He could see, by the wake of the draft animals they’d taken with them, that they’d gone back the way they’d come. Did they have a destination in mind or were they strangers to this territory, aimlessly floundering through the snow? If so, he really would need to take time to notify neighbors, and he could ill afford interrupting his search for Little Joe that long. It could mean his child’s death. However, he couldn’t ignore the imminent danger to those others, either.
Where could they have gone? Where would someone who knew the land go? The Hunter place was the closest ranch, but these people hadn’t headed that way. Suddenly, Ben’s head reared up. No, there was shelter closer than that, and even a stranger might have seen it, coming down this road. He mounted quickly and rode as hard as he could. He’d check on the strangers, make sure they were all right, and get back to searching for his son. Maybe, depending on what kind of folks these were, he might even enlist some help.
“Marty, don’t!” a high-pitched voice cried. “It’s a child.”
The rifle lowered and a loud exhale of relief could be heard. “Land o’ Goshen, boy, where’d you come from?”
“The Ponderosa,” Little Joe said, his voice still quavering, though he no longer felt threatened. “Wh-where’s the wise men?”
The woman, who had been reclining at the rear of the barn, rose on one elbow. “Come in, child,” she said gently, waving him forward with a welcoming gesture.
Little Joe moved slowly toward her, as the man passed him to look out the barn door.
“No one out there,” Marty reported. “What’s a youngun like this doin’ out alone in a snowstorm?”
“Lost, same as us, I reckon,” said the woman. “That about the size of it, boy?”
“I guess,” Little Joe admitted. “I was lookin’ for the wise men. I found their wagon . . . I thought.”
The woman smiled softly. “It was our wagon you found. You followed us here?”
Little Joe nodded.
“Smart youngun,” Marty said, coming back over to the woman. “What’s your name, son?”
“Little Joe,” the child lisped. “Little Joe Cartwright. You know my pa?”
Marty shook his head. “No, we’re new to these parts.” He extended his hand as if the little fellow before him had been a grown man. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Little Joe Cartwright. We’re the Maguires. I’m Martin—you can call me Marty—and this is my wife”—he broke off with a cackle. “Well, we’ve got a Joseph to go with you now, Mary, and we got the stable. Now all we need’s the baby.” He reached down to give his wife’s ample belly a loving pat.
“Baby Jesus?” Little Joe asked in an awed whisper.
“I’m mighty tempted to name him that,” Marty chuckled, “all things considered.”
“It is not funny,” Mary said through gritted teeth. She held her stomach until the mild contraction ceased. “At least,” she panted, “that other Mary had a manger . . . and some hay to lay her baby.”
“Yeah, gotta admit this is the barest barn I’ve ever seen,” her husband agreed. “Our horses the only stock and not a stray strand of straw for them. Lumber even smells fresh-cut. It’s shelter, though, and we oughta be grateful for it.”
“You seen the wise men yet?” Little Joe asked, sitting down and companionably cozying up to the woman. “Guess not, or they’d still be here. They’ll be comin’ to see Baby Jesus, though, so can I wait with you? My brother Adam’s one of them, and I need to take him home.” His face puckered as he wondered just where home might be from here. “Or, maybe, he needs to take me home.”
“What on earth?” Marty exclaimed.
“Tell us, child, what you mean and how you came to be here,” Mary said, stroking the curls lying against her breast.
Little Joe sat up and dug into his pillowcase. “Want some bread?” he asked, holding out the loaf. “You look hungry.”
Marty took it gratefully and broke it into three pieces. Little Joe accepted his share with a smile, but he didn’t eat yet; happily and confidently he began at the beginning, his nonstop chatter accompanied by the munching of bread and accentuated from time to time by Mary’s low moans.
Ben dismounted and walked cautiously toward the building. “Hello . . . the barn!” he called, following the frontier tradition of announcing himself.
The door opened, and a thin young man wearing a bedraggled felt hat came out, rifle in hand.
“You the people from the wagon back a ways?” Ben asked.
The man held his rifle warily. “We don’t mean no harm, just needed shelter.”
“I assumed as much,” Ben said, “Are there more of you?”
“My wife,” Marty said, lowering the rifle, “and a stray youngun . . . that’s all.”
“Stray youngun?” Ben asked, rising hope making his voice squeak. “Curly hair, green eyes? About yea tall?” He held his hand at Little Joe’s height.
Marty grinned. “Yeah, and if he’s got an imagination twice as big as he is tall, I reckon I’ve got what you’re lookin’ for, mister.”
“Thank God,” Ben murmured.
Marty opened the door wider and Ben went in. As soon as his figure filled the doorway, Little Joe scrambled to his feet and ran pell-mell into him. “Papa!” he cried. “I knew you’d find me!”
Ben dropped to his knees and engulfed the little boy with hugs. “Oh, baby,” he whispered between kisses on the wind-reddened cheeks. “Pa is so glad he did find you.”
Little Joe pulled back and gave his father a rebuking pout for calling him a baby, but it faded a moment later and he threw himself back into his father’s arms. “I couldn’t find the wise men,” he said sadly into his father’s ear.
“The wise men are exactly where they should be,” Ben said, “but we’ll talk about that later.” He stood up, still holding his son on his shoulder, and walked further into the barn. “Good evening, ma’am,” he said, touching his hat brim with his free hand. “I don’t know how you managed it, but thank you for finding my little boy.”
Mary smiled. “He found us. If this is your barn, sir, we’re mighty obliged for the use of it.”
“It’s not mine,” Ben replied. “It’s Thee Winters’ barn, and there’ll be a fine new house to go with it in time. His family’s staying in Carson City until it’s built, and I know he wouldn’t begrudge shelter to anyone in need.”
“Carson City!” Mary cried. “Why, that’s where we were headed.”
Marty moved alongside his wife. “Shouldn’t’ve been, I reckon, with my wife ‘great with child,’ like the Good Book says.”
“Marty,” his wife chided, blushing furiously. “Such things ain’t spoke of.”
“The man has eyes, Mary,” Marty said, rolling his own. “Anyway, the baby wasn’t supposed to come ‘til after the new year. Her folks are in Carson, so we thought we’d go there for Christmas and stay ‘til the baby was born.”
“Baby Jesus,” Little Joe supplied with a wide yawn.
The adults all laughed. “I don’t think so, Joseph,” Ben chuckled, patting his son’s back, “but a child just as precious to these folks.”
“We weren’t expecting the snowstorm,” Marty explained.
“Or the broken wheel?” Ben added with a smile.
“Or the broken wheel,” Marty agreed with a shake of head. “We’d seen this building from the road when we passed, so we made our way back here. Never thought my boy…”
“Or girl,” Mary interrupted.
Marty nodded. “Or girl would be born in a barn, but it’s sure beginnin’ to look that way. . . unless Carson is closer than I think.
“Too far for your need,” Ben said soberly, “but if you think you could manage about five miles, ma’am, we can do better than this barn. Solid walls, a bed and even a woman to help with the birthing.”
“A woman!” Mary cried. “Oh, Marty!”
Her husband looked dubious. “Mary, I’m not sure even five miles is close enough.” He looked at Ben. “She’s havin’ pains.”
“How far apart, ma’am?” Ben asked.
Mary glanced away for a moment. Then, eased of her embarrassment by Ben’s solicitous manner, she answered plainly, “Closer than I’d like, but my water’s not broke yet.” She turned pleading eyes on her husband. “Oh, please, Marty, let me try. A woman, Marty, and a proper bed!”
“All right, Mary, all right,” Marty said, still sounding concerned. “We’ll try, but you gotta promise to hold off long as you can. I don’t relish layin’ you down in the snow for this business.”
It was a promise no woman could realistically make, of course, but Mary made it anyway, and the two men felt they had no choice but to let her have her way.
“Come away from that window, boy,” Elvira Hunter said sharply, looking up from her knitting. “You’re puttin’ prints all over it.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Hoss said, reluctantly pulling back from the window, to which his face had been pressed. He came back over and perched next to the woman on the hard settee. “I was just hopin’ to see someone comin’.”
“I know that, and . . . well, I reckon, it’s understandable,” she said more softly, “but a watched pot never boils, son.”
Elvira chuckled. “Just an old saying. In this case, it means you won’t make ‘em come sooner by smearing your nose on my windowpane.”
Hoss gave her a lopsided grin. “Guess not. I didn’t mean to mess your window, ma’am. If you tell me how, I’ll clean it for you.”
Elvira waved the offer aside. “It’s no matter,” she said. “Just you and me to see it.” One of Ben’s men had been here earlier, but had left again after having a hot cup of coffee and a good warm by the fire, so it was just her and the boy now, as it had been most of the afternoon. Seeing him wistfully eyeing the window again, she patted his arm. “You’re a good boy, and you’ve been plenty of help to me today. I’ve got a nice hot soup simmering and fresh bread in the oven. Be ready soon.” She’d made a big pot, since she’d invited the hand to come back for supper and bring the other man with him, if they crossed paths. And she was especially looking forward to sitting across the supper table from Ben Cartwright.
“It smells good, ma’am,” Hoss said, smiling politely at her; then his eyes strayed back to the window.
“Oh, lands, if that’s the only thing that comforts you, go smear up the window some more,” she ordered, giving his shoulder a push. “I’ll check on the bread.”
The bread was almost ready, so Elvira puttered around in the kitchen awhile, setting out bowls and spoons, a glass for Hoss’ milk and cup for her coffee. She peered out the kitchen window, not looking for anyone, since it faced a direction no one was likely to come from, but gazing anxiously at the sun dipping toward the horizon. Surely, Ben Cartwright would be back before nightfall . . . one way or the other. She shook her head sadly. She’d known loss in her own life, but to lose a child . . . she couldn’t even imagine the hurt of that, especially so soon after losing the boy’s mother. Her heart had sent up silent prayers all through the long afternoon of trying to distract Hoss from his fretting, but the more time passed, the less likely it seemed that they would be answered.
She had just pulled the bread from the oven and set it aside to cool when she heard Hoss call from the other room, “They’re comin’! They’re comin’!”
“Stay where you are, boy!” she cried as she hurried from the kitchen. She’d learned her lesson from Little Joe and knew now how fast boys could disappear.
“But it’s them, I know it is!” Hoss cried.
“I hope so, boy, I do, but you ain’t traipsin’ out in your shirtsleeves, even if it is.”
“I’ll get my coat.”
Hoss tried to rush past her, but Elvira gripped his shoulder in her strong, lean fingers. “Stay put, boy.” She maneuvered him back to the window and looked out herself. “That’s your pa, right enough, but lands sakes, he’s got a whole caravan with him.” She turned Hoss loose. “All right. Go get your coat . . . and mine.”
“Yes’m!” Hoss shouted and took off.
Bundling into their winter wraps, they made their way outside just as the “caravan” was arriving. “Pa!” Hoss shouted. “You found him!”
“Shh,” Ben hissed. “You’ll wake your brother.”
“Is the child all right, Ben?” Elvira called from the front step.
Ben smiled broadly. “Exhausted, but otherwise fine.” He motioned Hoss forward and handed Little Joe down to him. “Get your brother inside, son, and then get the animals into the barn. We’ll groom them later.” Then he dismounted and stepped briskly over to Elvira. “I came across some stranded travelers,” he explained. He leaned close to whisper, “The woman’s in labor.”
“Oh, good lands!” Elvira cried. “Get her in the house. Hurry now.”
Marty helped his wife down from the back of the draft horse he had been leading, and, making a saddle of their interlaced hands, he and Ben carried the expectant mother inside. Elvira led the way. “Here . . . into the bedroom,” she said.
“Sorry to land on your doorstep like this, ma’am,” Mary said, sinking onto the bed.
“Don’t think a thing of it,” Elvira said. Scowling at the men standing around like stiff and stupid fence posts, she shooed them out. “One of you might set some water on to boil, if you aren’t so useless you never learned how. And there’s soup and fresh-baked bread waiting in the kitchen for anyone who’s hungry. Help yourselves.” She turned her attention back to Mary. “There now, dear, let’s get you settled.”
Ben clapped Marty on the back. “I guess we’ve got our orders.” He led the stupefied father-to-be from the room and into the kitchen.
Hoss came in next, leading a very groggy Little Joe. “Sorry, Pa,” Hoss said meekly. “Guess I woke him up after all.”
Ben, who was pulling open cabinet doors, right and left, turned. “It’s all right, Hoss. He needs to eat. Just set him at the table, and I’ll serve you both up some of Mrs. Hunter’s good soup . . . as soon as I can find a pot to boil some water.”
Hoss grinned and, dropping Little Joe’s hand, hurried over to his father. “Here, Pa,” he said, swinging open the one door Ben hadn’t tried. “I saw her get the soup pot from here.”
“Thank you, son,” Ben said with an absent-minded brush of the boy’s sandy hair. Only dropping the pot once on the way to the pump, he filled it with water and set it on the stove to boil. “Now, for the soup,” he said. He looked back at his middle son. “I don’t suppose you know where she keeps soup bowls.”
“Dishes is up high,” Hoss said, “but I ain’t sure what kind.”
Since this had been a two-person household, there weren’t enough soup bowls for to go around, but between those and serving dishes Ben managed to find enough for everyone. Then he sliced the warm, aromatic bread and saw that each person had a piece. Since Little Joe was so sleepy that he could barely lift a spoon, Ben set the child in his lap and encouraged him to eat, bite by bite.
Little Joe leaned his head back against his father’s chest and raised his eyes. “You mad, Papa?”
Ben dropped a kiss on the curly head. “No, Joseph, Papa isn’t mad. I’m too tired and too relieved to be angry, but you do know that you were very naughty to run off like that, don’t you?”
“Very naughty,” Hoss added emphatically as he reached for a second slice of bread.
Ben chuckled. “I can handle this, Hoss. Joseph?”
A trace of a pout touched the boy’s lips. “I tried to follow the star, like you told me, Pa.”
“Like I told you?” Ben shook his head in bewilderment. “Joseph, I never said anything of the kind.”
“Uh-huh,” Little Joe insisted. “You said you wanted Adam to follow the star and me, too.”
Ben turned dazed eyes on his other son. “Do you have any idea what your brother’s talking about, Hoss?”
Hoss rested his chin in his palm and slowly nodded. “Yeah, sort of. Don’t recollect it real clear, but seems like you said something about him and Adam followin’ a star on the way home from church, when I asked you if the preacher was talking about a real star.”
Memory gradually filtered back. “But I said it wasn’t a real star,” Ben recalled, dragging a frustrated hand over his face. “I said that clearly, didn’t I?” He looked to his middle son for confirmation.
Hoss just shrugged. As he’d had many opportunities to observe, clear wasn’t always clear to Little Joe.
The youngest Cartwright tugged at his father’s sleeve. “I tried, Pa, but I couldn’t find him; I couldn’t find Adam.”
He sounded so sorrowful that Ben cuddled him close. “Baby, didn’t I tell you that Adam couldn’t come home for Christmas, that New Haven was too far?”
Little Joe rubbed his face up and down against his father’s vest.
“Has Pa ever lied to you?”
The little head moved sideways.
“Then will you trust me in the future?”
Little Joe yawned in response. “Sleepy, Papa,” he mumbled.
Ben smiled, acknowledging the futility of further discussion. “All right. Let’s bed you down then.” He carried his son into the parlor and laid him on the settee, covering him with the crocheted coverlet draped across its back. With a kiss he tucked the boy in and wished him a good night.
As Ben again took his seat at the table, Marty said, “I hope you’re not gonna be too hard on the little fellow, Mr. Cartwright. If it hadn’t been for him findin’ us and then you findin’ him . . . well, things sure would’ve been a lot tougher for my Mary.”
“He’ll probably get a lot less than he deserves,” Ben admitted wryly, “especially since, according to both my boys, I’m the one to blame for this massive confusion.”
“I didn’t say that, Pa,” Hoss protested.
A sharp cry from the other room forestalled Ben’s response. Marty flinched and winced in commiseration
Ben laid a steadying hand on the other man’s arm. “Bear up, man,” he urged. “I can tell you from personal experience—thrice over—it’ll get worse before it’s better.”
Marty shook all over, like a wet-furred dog. “Don’t know how I can stand it. Don’t know how she can.”
“Women are strong creatures,” Ben said. He leaned close and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Just between you and me, though, I think we’ve got the harder job. Not to make light of what the women endure, but to sit and wait, listening to the love of your life screaming in pain and feeling nothing but useless, as Mrs. Hunter put it—that’s about the hardest work a man ever does.”
The pain and the heart-wrenching cries went on and on. Ben and Hoss had gotten away from it long enough to tend the stock, but it only seemed more intense when they returned. Well past dark, Ben’s two men finally showed up at what they viewed as headquarters for the search and were overjoyed to find that the lost had been found. Ben dished them up what was left of the soup, after setting aside some for Elvira and Mary, and filled them in on how he’d found Little Joe and what was taking place in the next room. It wasn’t often that single men had the chance to be in on the birthing of a baby, so after they’d eaten, the two men joined the others lounging around the parlor. Marty was beside himself by this time, and no amount of reassurance could stop his restless pacing of the floor. The commotion eventually woke Little Joe, who crawled into his father’s lap and refused to be soothed back to sleep with so much to interest him going on.
Finally, the men all broke into broad smiles as the distinctive cry of an infant interrupted their conversation. Marty was slapped, punched and pounded in masculine expressions of congratulations, and then Elvira stepped into the room to announce that he could come back to the bedroom.
“So, what is it?” one of Ben’s hands demanded, but she just shook her head in disgust at the ways of men and followed Marty.
It was a good ten minutes before he returned, carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle. Little Joe stood up in his father’s lap for a better look. “You gonna name him Jesus, like you said?” he asked eagerly.
Marty walked over to the little boy and uncovered the baby’s face for him to see the delicate features and wisps of dark hair. “I think Jessica might suit this little mite better,” he chuckled.
“Ah, it’s a gal,” said Hank, as everyone crowded around for a look at the little girl.
“Mercy sakes, give that child air to breathe,” Elvira scolded.
With the grace to look a little shame-faced, Ben stepped back. “We should be going,” he said. “We’ve imposed on your hospitality long enough.”
Elvira planted both fists on her hips. “Ben Cartwright, you will not take these boys out into the cold night air. It’s miles to the Ponderosa!”
“Well, I know, but…”
“But nothing,” she declared stoutly. “It’ll be crowded, but we’ll manage. The Maguires can take my bed, I’ll sleep here on the settee, and we’ll lay a pallet for the young ones.” She spread her hands, looking at the others with some abashment. “The best I can offer you men is my barn, but a stable was good enough for our Lord, so it ought to do you for one night. Might even give you a kinship with Him at Christmas. I got plenty of quilts to go ‘round, and if you choose to stay—and I think you should—I’ll send you off tomorrow morning with a hot, hearty breakfast.”
“She makes real good biscuits,” Little Joe offered.
“Real good everything,” Hoss, who had sampled two meals of Elvira’s cooking, added.
After seeing the agreeable nods from his men, Ben took the hand of the suddenly flushed widow. “We’re pleased to accept your fine hospitality. Thank you, Elvira.”
The crimson in her countenance deepened while his hand held hers. “Well, never let it be said there was no room in this here inn,” she said with a coy lowering of her eyes.
The clouds had parted, and the stars shone clearly as Ben, quilt over his arm, made his way from the house to the barn, where his men had already turned in for the night. He paused and searched the sky for the North Star. “East—Haven—Adam,” he whispered. “Merry Christmas to you, my son. I wish you could be here with us, but you still have that dream to find, and once you have, you’ll find your way back to us. Just follow the star, Adam; follow the star.”
Author’s Note: The prologue is taken from the upcoming Heritage Five. To what extent the body of this story ultimately forms part of that work will depend on how unwritten portions of the book develop.