Relatively Speaking (by Claire)

Summary:  The return of Cousin Clarissa.  (With grateful thanks to Lynne.)
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5440


 

“I think I can safely guarantee that is the last time either of those boys will use that particular word!” Ben strode across the floor, rubbing his hands together with evident satisfaction, as muffled, spluttering sounds could be heard from the kitchen.

“Ben!” Marie reproached. “That’s a horrible thing to do – washing their mouths out with soap!” She closed her eyes for a second, feeling a wave of tiredness sweep over her. Joe had started teething and was generously sharing his pain and misery with the entire household, most especially his mother. In consequence, everyone’s nerves were strained and that evening, Adam and Hoss had bickered incessantly, finally resorting to some unpleasant name-calling.

“It had to be done,” Ben soothed. “From now on, I can guarantee that they will think before they speak.” Seeing the doubt in his wife’s eyes, Ben cunningly played his trump card. “After all, Joe will soon be talking and you don’t want your precious baby saying those sorts of words, do you?”

Marie jerked upright and her eyes shot open, wide with horror. “I most certainly do not!” She glared at Adam and Hoss as they slunk repentantly across the room, their mouths still puckered by the unpleasant taste of soap. “If either of you boys ever says that again, why – there will be blood for breakfast! Do I make myself clear?”

Adam and Hoss exchanged rueful glances: Pa was bad enough, but when Marie joined in – well, there was only one thing to do.

“Yes Ma’am,” Adam said contritely and gave Hoss a sharp nudge with his elbow.

“I’m sorry,” Hoss said, his head hung low.

Ben surveyed his sons. “And?” he demanded. “Don’t you have something else to say?”

Adam gulped. His father was obviously still furious. “We won’t do it again?” he volunteered.

“I should hope you would not be so foolhardy!” Ben retorted. “I think you boys owe one another an apology, don’t you?” He stood and watched, one foot tapping impatiently on the floor, as the boys exchanged muttered words of varying sincerity. “Right, off to bed with you – and go quietly! Don’t wake up the baby!”

Hoss permitted himself a small grimace. Pa had never minded a little rumpus before, but now he seemed to expect everyone to creep around on tiptoes. It wasn’t fair! No one scolded Joe when he woke up the whole house with his squalls, did they? Pa never gave Joe a row because he had woken up Hoss. Unable to resist the temptation, he clomped heavily upstairs, his boots thumping on each stair-riser.

“Hoss!” In frustration, Ben forgot to moderate his own voice and within seconds there was an answering wail from upstairs.

“Sorry, Pa.” Hoss disappeared into his room, feeling that he had made his point.

With a sigh, Marie started to rise from her chair, but Ben put a gentle hand upon her shoulder.

“You stay here. I’ll see if I can settle him, and if not, I’ll bring him down here.” His hand caressed her cheek gently and lingered for a moment, before cupping her chin and kissing her lips. Pale and tired, Marie was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Sending Adam and Hoss to bed early had the definite advantage of giving the elder Cartwrights time alone together – if he could persuade Joe to go back to sleep!

The cries increased in intensity as Ben entered the bedroom, to discover his youngest tossing restlessly in his crib. The covers were in tangled disarray as Joe kicked his legs furiously. With a sigh, Ben picked up the baby and started to comfort him, noticing the heat that radiated from his small body. Moving into the hall, where a lamp burned brightly, he noted the crimson cheeks with dismay – it looked as if another tooth was coming through.

As the cries subsided into whimpers, Ben moved softly along the hall. A line of light shone out from underneath two doors.

“Adam?” In deference to his eldest son’s burgeoning manhood, Ben tapped briefly on the first door before entering. “Don’t read for too long, son.”

Raising his dark head, Adam met his father’s eyes with a smile. “I won’t, Pa. And I am sorry. For arguing, and being rude to you, Marie and Hoss. And wakening Joe.”

“I think that was probably my fault!” Ben said, patting Joe soothingly on his back, as the baby gnawed on his shoulder. “He’s normally a sound sleeper, but what with all this teething, on top of his cold… well, Joe’s a little out of sorts, just like the rest of us. Sleep well, son.”

“Night, Pa.” Within seconds, Adam was once again absorbed in his book, the outside world forgotten as he retreated into another realm of dreams and fantasies.

“Hoss? Are you asleep?”

Hair standing on end, Hoss emerged from under the covers, displaying a tear-stained face. “You still mad, Pa?”

Ben sat down on the edge of the bed, and shifted Joe more comfortably in his arms. His shoulder felt completely sodden. “No, I’m not annoyed with you. You’ve had your punishment, you said you were sorry and that is an end to it. Alright?”

The little boy’s face brightened immediately. “Thanks, Pa!” He reached forward to hug his father, inadvertently squashing the baby, who squeaked sharply and then began to cry with renewed force.

Now I know why God gave us two hands! Ben thought, as he removed the baby from immediate danger and joggled him on one arm, while clasping Hoss with the other. After a moment, he turned to the lamp and reached out.

“Don’t turn it off!” Hoss’ voice was shrill with fear. “I don’t like the dark.”

“I won’t,” Ben assured him. “But there is nothing to be afraid of, you know that, don’t you?”

Hoss leaned back against his pillows. “I know. But I still don’t like the dark.”

Ben lowered the flame, so that a small halo of light shone out. “There – is that better?” He bent over and kissed the little boy, who snuggled down under the covers. “Sleep tight – and let’s hope Joe does too, eh?”

Hoss nodded sleepily but then a thought struck him. “Pa? Why doesn’t Joe go to bed first? He’s the youngest, so he should go to bed first – that’s only fair!”

Fighting to keep the laughter out of his voice, Ben just said “Good night, Hoss,” and chuckled his way downstairs, as Joe gnawed fretfully on his fingers.

“Come to Mama,” Marie crooned lovingly. She delved into her pocket and produced an ivory and coral teething ring, dangling it temptingly in front of her son. Joe reached forward and grabbed it, happily substituting it for his fingers. “Poor little man – you are having a time of it, aren’t you?” She carefully eased her little finger into his mouth, feeling the sharp pinpricks on Joe’s upper gums. “It looks like both his front teeth are coming in together.”

Ben put his arm around Marie’s slender waist and hugged her close, breathing in her heady scent. Was it too much to hope that Joe would drop quickly off to sleep, so that he could have some precious time alone with his wife?

The baby gummed happily on the teething ring, making loud slurping sounds and dribbling voraciously. Ben wondered if it would be possible to strap a sponge underneath his chin. It would certainly save on the dozen or so bibs Joe soaked through each day.

“Did Adam and Hoss have trouble teething?” Marie asked, swaying back and forth in a hypnotic routine, guaranteed to soothe a fractious child, even one as stubborn as Joe.

“I had a nurse for Adam,” Ben admitted. “She looked after him and I tended to blot that sort of thing out, as much as I could. I wasn’t really very good with babies in those days. I seem to remember she would rub a little whiskey on his gums and that seemed to quiet him down nicely. It also helped when he wouldn’t go to sleep at night.” He raised a quizzical eyebrow at his wife, who bristled indignantly.

“Ben Cartwright! If you think I am going to let a drop of liquor pass this child’s lips, why…!” Catching sight of the broad smile, Marie contented herself with crooning softly to her baby, who responded with a sleepy gurgle. “And what about Hoss?”

“Hoss was late in getting his teeth,” Ben recalled. “And when they did come through, it was without any fuss at all – Inger didn’t even realize until he gave her a sharp nip one day when she was nursing him!” They both chuckled at the picture of poor Inger’s surprised discomfort.

Ben leaned over and laid a gentle hand on his baby son’s downy head. “This little one is determined to be different, isn’t he? Only a few months old and already asserting his personality and making his Mama and Papa dance in attendance!” He smiled fondly at the child, knowing that there was nothing else in life he would rather do than to be right here, with his wife and precious child. This made all the years of hard-work and heartbreak worthwhile and put everything into complete and clear perspective.

Settling down on either side of the fireplace, they started to relax, thankful for a little peace and solitude. Watching the baby carefully, Marie saw his eyes become heavy and rose slowly to settle him on the settee. Joe gave a small grunt of displeasure at the movement, then drifted into sleep, one hand still firmly clutching the corals.

“I had a letter today,” Marie said, careful to keep her voice low. Ben paused in the acting of filling his pipe, his suspicions immediately aroused.

“May I ask who it was from?”

Gulping nervously, Marie gave him an anxious smile, while delving down the side of the chair and pulling out a slightly bedraggled envelope. “It’s from Cousin Clarissa…”

With great difficulty, Ben stifled an explanation. “Again? Can’t the woman leave us in peace? She was only here a few weeks ago and in two days she almost managed to turn our lives upside down! What on earth does she want this time?”

“She’s coming to stay for a few days,” Marie admitted, handing the letter across. “She didn’t post the letter until after the stage had left, so it’s too late to stop her.”

“That woman will set foot in this house over my dead body!” Ben vowed. “She’s nothing but trouble and I don’t care if she’s family! I am not giving her house room again – never!”

*****

“How lovely to see you again,” Ben said, his face wreathed in insincere smiles.

Clarissa held out a limp hand. “I felt it was my bounden duty,” she responded, with a martyred air. “After all, it can’t be easy for you, living hand to mouth in this uncivilized country, with barely a roof over your heads.

“We’re very comfortable here,” Marie protested weakly, feeling the force of Clarissa’s not-inconsiderable personality effectively stifling any further argument. She looked at Ben nervously and wondered what the strange noise emanating from him could be. It was a full minute before she realized he was grinding his teeth in frustration.

Clarissa bustled forward into the house and went straight to the downstairs bedroom. “I trust your children are not going to discomfit me this time?” she enquired over her shoulder.

An especially loud crunch was plainly audible. Marie just hoped Ben had not fractured a molar – there were enough dental traumas in the family without him adding to them.

“Hoss made a full recovery,” she assured her visitor. “Both he and Adam are very well, thank you for asking.”

“I was not enquiring after their health, my dear, I was merely trying to ensure I was not going to be recklessly exposed to any more life-threatening diseases,” Clarissa informed her, in withering tones. “But what about your youngest son, Benjamin?”

“Joseph is having a little trouble with his teeth,” Ben responded weakly.

A loud sigh greeted this. “How terribly inconvenient. I do hope he will have enough consideration not to disturb my nighttime repose. Please see to it.” With that, she closed the door firmly behind her.

Ben walked with weary resignation across the room, and picked up Joe. Holding the baby up to his face, he regarded him gravely. “Now Joseph, it’s time you and I had a little chat. It’s about this teething – could you possibly see your way to not crying in pain? Your Cousin Clarissa finds it rather trying!”

While the words made no sense to him, Joe reacted happily to the teasing tone of his father’s voice and reached out to pat his face gently, gurgling contentedly as he responded in his own unique language.

“Is that a deal then? You’ll be as quiet as a mouse for Cousin Clarissa?” Laughingly, Ben disengaged Joe’s tiny fingers from his nose and cocked his head to listen to the stream of babble that answered his query. He caught hold of Marie’s hand and pulled her into an embrace. “Joe says that he will be a good boy, on condition that you and I go away for a trip of our own, to recover from this visit!”

“I think I will need a holiday,” Marie agreed, leaning in to Ben’s side, slipping an arm around his waist and dropping a kiss into the crook of Ben’s neck.

“Excuse me!” the outraged tones could only come from one person. “That sort of behavior is highly unsuitable before an impressionable child! You are setting a most reprehensible example.”

“What is wrong with Joe knowing his parents love one another?” Marie enquired sharply.

Clarissa sighed wearily. “My dear, I know you are a foreigner and that the niceties of polite society are a closed book to you, but you really must take the word of someone with considerably more experience than you.”

“I was not aware that you were married, cousin,” Ben retorted. It was bad enough to be interrupted, but to be berated for his actions in the privacy of his own home was beyond endurance. “My congratulations. Will we be meeting the lucky groom?” He looked around, almost as if he expected the lid of Clarissa’s trunk to spring open and a slightly crushed husband to enfold himself from his enforced incarceration.

“Do not be obtuse, Benjamin! You know very well what I mean. Children need discipline and stability and their parents should set a good example by behaving with restraint and decorum, not – flaunting themselves wantonly!” She turned on her heel and stomped back into her bedroom.

“I’ve always had a hankering to be a wanton woman,” Marie said teasingly. “Do you think my eau de nil silk nightdress would fit the part? Or perhaps the peach one?”

“Both would be equally unsuitable in Clarissa’s eyes – and just perfect in mine!” Ben assured her and they exchanged a meaningful look that held great promise, but would undoubtedly have shocked their guest to her stern and moralistic core.

*****

“I don’t see why I’ve gotta get all gussied up!” Hoss complained, as Adam brushed his hair smooth with water. “Cousin Clarissa likes me just as I am – and I like her too!” He stared defiantly at his brother.

Adam sighed deeply, for his younger brother appeared to be the only member of the family to meet Cousin Clarissa’s exacting standards. Her habit of plying Hoss with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of candies had won her a staunch ally. “Just don’t each so many peppermints that you’re sick again,” he cautioned.

Hoss gave him an offended look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he declared and marched downstairs, hugging himself with glee. Cousin Clarissa had shared a secret with him – this time she had stocked up this time with lemon drops, believing them more easily digestible for a young child. Hoss’ mouth watered as he thought of the delicious treats awaiting him.

Marie was already seated at the table, trying to coax Joe to take a spoonful of sieved apples, while he resolutely keeping his mouth shut. When she eventually succeeded, Joe tolerated the food for ten seconds, before spitting the apples out.

“That child should learn to eat what he is given and to be grateful for it!” Clarissa stated firmly, as Marie scraped the apples from Joe’s chin. Hoss sat down beside her and slid his hand into hers in an unmistakable gesture of solidarity.

“He’s still teething and off his food,” Marie ventured, deciding to admit defeat and offering her son some milk instead. She sighed with relief as Joe’s hands reached forward eagerly and he guzzled his milk happily.

“Mark my words – you are making a rod for your own back!” Clarissa said, with all the understanding and certainty of one who has resolutely avoided all contact with babies. “That child needs to be taught some discipline before it’s too late. All this pampering is simply not good enough.”

“What do you suggest?” Ben asked dryly. “Should I warm his backside for him or send him to chop some firewood?”

Adam sniggered softly. “With all those diapers padding his butt, I don’t think he’d feel any paddling, Pa! And as we don’t have an axe that’s small enough for his hands, I guess we’ll just have to put up with him a bit longer.”

Clarissa heaved a long-suffering sigh and looked fondly down at Hoss, who was sucking contentedly on a lemon-drop. At least one child was grateful for his food! She gave a contemptuous look at Adam, who was leaning across the table to coo at his baby brother. “All joints on the table will be carved!” she barked, and was satisfied to see the boy shoot back into his seat.

“For what we are about to receive, May the Lord make us truly grateful,” Ben intoned, and then carved the roast pork with a professional flourish. He put three slices onto Clarissa’s plate and then added a generous serving of cabbage, knowing how the vegetable disagreed with her digestive system. “Do help yourself to potatoes,” he murmured politely.

Clarissa stolidly munched her way through the detested cabbage, casting disdainful glances across at Joe, who was contentedly blowing milky bubbles, interspersed with the odd snuffle.

Catching the disapproving looks, Marie hastened to explain. “I’m afraid Joseph is getting over a bout of bronchitis, and still has a cold.”

“Well, if you can sit at table with a child who sounds like a herd of sheep, who am I too argue?” Clarissa retorted. “I am merely a guest. “She took a close look at Joe. “I thought he was looking rather puny,” she said. “Which is all the more reason he should be made to eat. I simply cannot abide to see good food going to waste.” She patted Hoss’s hand gently. “He needs to follow his brother’s splendid example, doesn’t he? There is nothing quite so satisfying as seeing a man who enjoys his food.”

Beaming proudly, Hoss puffed out his little chest as far as it would go and held his plate out for a second helping.

“You will grow up to be a big, strong man!” praised Clarissa. “But unless that baby knuckles down, he’ll be a poor little creature.” She turned to Marie. “He must get that from your side of the family, dear. All the Cartwrights are solidly built men; men a lady can rely on. No flightiness in our blood.”

Having recently discovered the poetry of Lord Byron, Adam was entranced with the romantic ideal represented by the poet – pale and languid, dressed in unrelieved black; dashing, devastatingly brilliant and irresistible to the ladies. Somehow, a “solid build” did not seem to fit that mould. He laid his knife and fork neatly on the plate and shook his head politely when offered another slice of roast pork. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know,” he thought enviously and wondered how he could possibly cut short Cousin Clarissa’s visit this time. Sadly, despite frantic conjecturing, nothing came to mind.

After dinner, Hop Sing cleared the low table in front of the fire, and retreated back into the kitchen.

“No coffee for me,” Clarissa announced. “It is far too invigorating at this time of night. But I will partake of a nice dish of tea.” She opened her eyes wide with disbelief when Hop Sing re-emerged, carrying a copper canister full of water in one hand and a small, shallow tub in the other. “Is this one of these strange western customs, Benjamin?” she enquired acerbically.

“Don’t you bath babies back east?” Adam asked, with an innocent expression. Hoss thought his father must have swallowed something that had gone down the wrong way, as he seemed to choke into his napkin.

“Perhaps you would like to help?” Marie added, undressing Joe, while Hop Sing readied everything in preparation.

With a vivid memory of what had happened the last time the baby’s diaper was removed in her presence, Clarissa retreated to a position she judged to be safely out of his range before responding. “My dear, I scarcely think it is appropriate behavior to disrobe that child in my presence – some things should be kept private and under wraps, so to speak.” Clarissa sat back, folded her hands in her lap and assumed a pious air.

“It is perfectly natural to give a baby a bath!” Ben exploded. “And this is the warmest and most suitable place in the house to do just that!”

“Would you like to help?” Marie asked, with a definite twinkle in her eye. Sprawled unselfconsciously in her lap, Joe gave his cousin a charming smile and opened his arms invitingly, kicking his legs up in delight as his mother gently stroked his bare tummy.

Clarissa put a hand up to her eyes in horror. “In all my days,” she whimpered piteously. “I never thought to be exposed to such a sight!”

“Come out onto the porch with me,” Hoss urged. “It’s nice and peaceful out there and we can talk.”

A small, round object, with an unmistakable scent of lemon, was pressed into his hand. “At least one person in this family has a modicum of sense!” Clarissa said, and stalked out of the room, Hoss trotting eagerly in her wake. Neither of them turned around when Joe crowed with glee as he splashed happily in his bath.

*****

“I’ve been practicing every day!” Hoss confided. “Do you want to see?”

Clarissa hustled him around to the side of the house, where they were hidden from sight and out of earshot, and then nodded. “Go right ahead! And remember – I’ll be watching carefully, so do your best!”

Hoss nodded solemnly, then crouched down, his arms bent at his sides, and cocked his head to one side. Gradually, his face took on a slightly pained expression, with the merest hint of surprise. He shifted position slowly, creeping around while still doubled over and letting out a low and prolonged “squa-awk!” These noises then increased in volume and frequency, finally resulting in a crow of jubilation, whereupon the boy turned around and examined the ground with evident pleasure and pride.

“Oh wonderful – bravo!” Clarissa clapped her hands together with glee and kissed Hoss on both cheeks. “A magnificent performance – I couldn’t have done it better myself!”

Hoss flushed with pride. “I’ve been watching the chickens everyday, and trying to copy how they look when they lay an egg. Was it really good?”

“It was perfect.” Clarissa put her arm around his shoulders. “But remember – this is our secret. No one must know that I taught you. I think that everyone else has forgotten that I used to be a young girl, full of laughter and mischief. They all expect me to be a crotchety old maid, and I do so hate to disappoint them. But I sensed a kindred spirit in you, Hoss and decided to pass down my skill.”

“Thanks!” Hoss reached up and planted a wet kiss on her cheek and then ran back indoors.

In the soft, warm darkness, Clarissa reached up and laid her hand upon the damp spot on her face and smiled at the memories it brought back. She could not say what had drawn her to Hoss, but she sensed that they shared a commonality that spoke across the generations. And it was getting increasingly difficult to keep up this pretence of being disdainful and disapproving, when sometimes she longed to kick up her heels and laugh uproariously. But to do that, would be to invite pity and sympathy – and Clarissa could not bear that. Duty – the sense of responsibility towards a family member…that she could cope with, but not pity. No, anything was better that to be an object of pity.

“I had my dreams,” she whispered, so that only the stars could hear her. “So very many dreams.”

Straightening her back, and fixing a sour expression onto her face, she walked back towards the house, back towards her cousin and his family, in the full and certain realization that she could never really be a part of their lives, no matter how often she might visit. Exclusion was nothing new to Clarissa, she was used to be alone, but something about Hoss had stirred a longing in her soul, and it was with a painful joy that she realized there was now one person in the world who really loved her.

How easy it would be to pick up baby Joseph, to cuddle him close and pretend, just for one moment, that he was her baby – but then she would have to give him back. No, it was better to hold back, to discourage people from thinking too deeply about her emotions, to project an unpleasant image. Anything was better than evoking sympathy. Clarissa could deal with many things – but not with that.

The lamps cast a soft, golden glow around the family clustered together, Marie at their heart, hers arms enfolding a rosy-cheeked baby, his downy golden curls still damp, chuckling happily, the very picture of contentment. Clarissa favored them with a forced smile.

“It is getting late and I am very tired. I think I will retire to my room now.”

“Sleep well,” Marie called.

Clarissa fought the temptation to join them. “Joseph – he is very like you, my dear. You are truly blessed.” Then she shut the door behind her, leaned against it and let the tears pour down her face.

*****

Hoss glared balefully at Joe. “Go check on the baby, Hoss!” he muttered. Everyone else was outside, enjoying the spring day and he had to check the baby was all right! “What do they think you’re gonna do, eh? You don’t do nothing, ‘cept make a fuss. You’re just a noisy nuisance, that’s what you are.”

Joe gurgled happily in response and babbled some nonsense in return, waving one fist around, as if to emphasize his point.

“I don’t know what you want!” Hoss said. He watched as Joe stuffed his fingers into his mouth and started to chew frantically upon them, whimpering slightly. “Aw, don’t cry now.” Tentatively, he patted the baby, but this just seemed to make matters worse, and large, fat tears welled up in Joe’s eyes, making them appear even greener than normal.

“Stop that!” Hoss pleaded, feeling totally helpless. He didn’t like the baby – he was just a nuisance, getting in the way and always demanding attention, but even so, Hoss hated seeing him in pain. He looked around for the familiar coral teething ring, but it was nowhere to be seen. A cry forced its way passed Joe’s fingers and it was more than Hoss could stand.

“Here – take this! You can chaw down real good on a lemon drop!” Generosity knew no bounds as Hoss closed his brother’s small finger around the hard candy and watched as Joe instinctively stuffed it into his mouth. At first, the rosebud lips puckered at the unusual taste, but the sweet taste soon reconciled Joe, and his eyes boggled with delight. Hoss sat back, a feeling of selfless gratitude suffusing his being. “Don’t you start expecting candy now,” he warned sternly. “This is just because I can’t stand to hear you cry no more. I don’t get that much candy.”

Joe’s eyes seemed to bulge a little further out in agreement. His face took on an interesting dusky shade, and with a sense of horror, Hoss realized the sweet was no longer in Joe’s hand – it was inside his mouth and his baby brother was choking.

“Joe! Spit it out!” The baby ignored the frantic cries. “Come on, Joe!” he pleaded frantically, picking up the baby and giving him a shake. A strangulated, gagging noise answered him, followed by a croaking whoop as Joe tried desperately to pull some air into his lungs.

“Pa! Pa! Come quick – it’s Joe!”

His father raced in from the yard, his heart pounding twice as fast as his footsteps. There was no time to think, only to act. Ben grabbed his baby out of Hoss’ arms, holding the stiff little body so that his torso lay along his arm, facing the ground and then administered three smart slaps between the small shoulder blades.

Nothing. No answering whoop of breath, no outraged cry. Ben heaved in a deep breath and repeated the process. At the outer edges of his consciousness, he could hear Marie crying and Adam trying to comfort her. He had to think – how could he save his son? In desperation, Ben repeated the actions, cupping his hand, so that it reverberated against the tiny back.

There was a hollow clatter on the floor and then Joe’s body stiffened, his legs spasmed out in fury and he bellowed his protest against this treatment. Ben could feel the tears streaming down his face as he held his son up, reassured by the angry screams that he was all right.

“Oh Joseph! It’s all right now – everything is all right. You’re safe and Papa has got you.” The words poured out as he hugged his indignant child in a fierce embrace.

“And I thought you didn’t believe in smacking a baby, Ben Cartwright” Clarissa said slyly. She released her hold on Marie’s shoulders. “Your baby is fine, my dear, just fine. But he needs you now.” The look in her eyes was very tender as she watched Marie envelope Joe in her arms, running her hands all over his body, reassuring herself that he was really still here, alive and well and screaming.

“I didn’t mean it!” Hoss blurted out. “I didn’t mean to hurt him – honest I didn’t! I was only trying to help.”

Ben and Marie were too absorbed to hear him, but Clarissa took one look at the lemon drop lying on the floor and knew. “Of course you didn’t,” she soothed, getting down onto her knees and holding her arms wide. “Of course you didn’t.”

Adam watched in astonishment as Hoss flung himself into Clarissa’s embrace and sobbed against her shoulder.

*****

“I do hate to disappoint you, Benjamin, but I fear I must be leaving you,” Clarissa announced. “I know how much you need my assistance, but I have received an urgent cry for help from dear Cousin Albert and I really cannot ignore him in his hour of need.”

“Of course you cannot,” Ben agreed, trying to keep the jubilation from his voice. “You are so selfless, Cousin.”

“I do my best,” Clarissa agreed.

Hoss pushed his oatmeal aside and smiled up at her. “I sure will miss you,” he confided, then hugged her tightly.

It was difficult to breathe under such force, but Clarissa managed to whisper “And I you, my dear friend Hoss. My dear boy.”

*****

“Have you heard?” Adam announced breathlessly. “There’s going to be a talent show in town!”

Hoss came charging in on his heels. “And I’m gonna enter!”

Elder brother surveyed the younger contemptuously. “And just what are you going to do?”

“This!” Hoss settled himself into position and arranged his features into a perfect mimicry of a hen about to lay an egg. His family watched spellbound as he portrayed the agony and ecstasy of laying an egg and burst into hearty applause at the culmination.

“Who ever taught you to do that, son?” Ben enquired.

Hoss beamed up at him. “A friend, Pa. A real good friend.”

***End***

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