When Will I See You Again? (by Claire)

Summary:  A heartwarming story of love and sacrifice, and what is gained in the end.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,544


 

Prologue

 The young man opened one eye and gazed lazily at the window. Judging from the angle of the sun, it was already late afternoon.

“It’s getting late –I’ve got to go, honey,” he whispered, dropping a kiss onto the girl’s bare shoulder, as she moaned sleepily and twisted around to stare beseechingly at him.

“Don’t go – please? Can’t you stay here with me for once?”

Isabella’s voice was like molten honey and it was hard to resist her pleas, especially when her eyes beseeched him like that and her tousled hair did little to disguise the lush curves of her body, but he forced himself to get out of bed and began shrugging on his clothes. Propped up on her elbows, the girl watched him silently, admiring the strong muscles, the way his hair curled at the nape of his neck – she could never tire of watching him.

“When will I see you again?” Isabella looked incredibly vulnerable, sitting upright and clutching the sheets around herself, her apprehension making her suddenly modest.

“Soon, sweetheart, real soon,” he reassured her, bending down and kissing her tenderly on the forehead, before rushing out of the room, running down the stairs and back into his real life.

Exiting onto the busy, Boston street, Adam Cartwright breathed a sigh of relief and then strolled slowly back to college, tipping his hat and smiling roguishly at two fetching young girls who rode past in an open carriage with their mother and received identical squeals of delight at his gallantry. Replacing his hat at a jaunty angle, he set off towards his college, never thinking to look up towards the upper storey window of a dilapidated house, where a young girl, clad only in a threadbare robe, stood watching him wistfully. He was young, he was far from home and Adam was having the time of his life.

 *****

The sound of swift hoof beats made Ben raise his head and furrow his brow in displeasure as Joe rode into the yard at full tilt. Even from a distance he could see how Joe’s eyes sparkled with mischief and a broad grin displayed a flash of white teeth in his tanned face.

“One of these days,” Ben murmured grimly, rising to his feet, about to shout out a reprimand. A sudden flash of memory stilled his tongue, as he remembered one fateful day when Joe had misjudged his headlong rush home and had nearly broken his neck in the process, just as his mother had, in almost the very same place.

The boy is so like his dear mother, Ben thought, so very like Marie, in both looks and personality.

In many ways, he often felt that his sons resembled their mothers more closely than they did himself. Adam – with his calm, reserved, phlegmatic exterior and reluctance to share his inner soul with his family; Hoss, with his ready smile and wide, open heart, always ready to help anyone or anything that crossed his path. And Joe! Joe with his exuberance, his love of life, his wholehearted and ready acceptance of any challenge that crossed his path. All very different, which was as it should be. Ben prided himself in having raised three independent, individual sons and celebrated their differences. No matter what, Ben knew he would not change a single fiber of any of his boys.

Boys! Now, there was an irony. Joe was in his mid-twenties, which meant that Adam had to be… Ben paused for a moment, doing the arithmetic in his head – Adam was nearly forty! It scarcely seemed possible that he had a middle-aged son. Surely he wasn’t old enough for that? Where had all the years gone?

“Hi Pa!” Joe grinned broadly, his insouciant smile flashing out brightly. “Guess what was waiting for me in town?” Without waiting for an answer, he fished inside his jacket and pulled out an envelope. “A letter from Adam!” he said, waving it with a dramatic flourish before leaning down and dropping it into his father’s waiting hands.

Ben received the missive gratefully, smiling back up at his youngest son, the child he had thought he would never see and was unable to utter a single word of reproach. Joe lives life fully and that is way things should be, even if he did turn my hair snow white! Ben thought fondly. Restraining his whole-hearted approach to life would be like breaking all the spirit out of a horse.

Joe caught the wistful look in his father’s eyes and instantly regretted his impetuous arrival. He knew how much his father worried about him. Although he did his best to stand back and allow Joe to make his own mistakes, Ben was never quite able to suppress his concerns. That was part of being a parent – letting your precious child venture forth into the world, yet longing to keep him safe at home, where you could protect him. No matter how hard he tried, Ben was never quite able to let go of Joe in the same way he had relinquished Adam and Hoss. Joe knew this and although he sometimes chafed against his father’s concerns, he knew they were born out of love.

“Sorry, Pa – I didn’t think. I was so fired-up with excitement when I saw the letter…” Joe’s voice trailed off uncomfortably, for Ben Cartwright still had the ability to reduce his adult sons to bashful boyhood with a single look. It seemed just yesterday that he had sat at the table and surveyed two small boys, eagerly demolishing the rare treat of ice cream…

*****

Ben sat back in his chair with a sigh of utter contentment and watched as Adam and Hoss scooped up the ice cream with eager relish. He caught Marie’s glance and gave an almost imperceptible nod. He had held off long enough, but now the time was exactly right. “Boys?” For once his normally commanding and confident voice held a note of uncertainty. “Your mother and I have something to tell you.” Apprehension colored his words and transmitted his nervousness to his family.

Dark-eyed Adam darted a resentful look at his stepmother, still unreconciled to the term “Mother”. He felt a certain deliciously guilty satisfaction watching her squirm uncomfortably in her seat under his steady gaze. “Yes Pa?” he replied sweetly, as Hoss scraped around in his bowl, intent on retrieving every last morsel of ice cream, internally debating if he should ditch the spoon and just use his tongue instead.

Ben cleared his throat and wondered why he found it so difficult to meet his eldest son’s eyes. “We, that is, your mother and I… well…” He cast a pleading look at his wife, who colored as prettily as a peony rose, while giving an almost imperceptible shake of her head. Realizing he was going to have to continue without her help, Ben took a deep breath and managed to continue, albeit with some difficulty.

“We’re going to have a baby! You boys are going to have a little brother or sister!” Having delivered the news, Ben sat back in his chair and exhaled in relief, watching keenly as the boys digested the news.

“Really?” Hoss squealed. “I’m gonna be a big brother, just like Adam?”

Marie nodded and opened her arms wide, enveloping the child in a warm embrace. Over the top of his sandy head, she watched Adam carefully; aware of how difficult this news must be for him to digest.

“A baby?” Adam murmured in wonder. He was nearly twelve – he knew what that meant. Just this a few weeks ago, Pa had taken him for a long ride and explained a whole lot of things. He felt embarrassed just thinking about what must have taken place… But a baby! The first baby born on the Ponderosa – that really was something! The thought pushed Adam’s embarrassment to the back of his mind. “When?” he asked eagerly. “When will the baby be born?” The words tumbled out in excitement and Marie felt a sense of peace suffuse her whole being as she observed the delighted sparkle in her stepson’s eyes and heard the exuberance in his voice.

“In the summer,” Marie replied and reveled in the love that shone out from Ben’s eyes. They had hoped, prayed and planned for this child, for this most wanted child and now, now that the time for worry was finally past, her only worries were as to how her stepsons would take the news. Their joyous reactions convinced her that her fears were unfounded, that she was truly a part of the family and at last Marie felt she could relax and enjoy her pregnancy.

There was so much to do – a room to be prepared in readiness for the baby, a cradle to be made and a myriad of tiny garments to be lovingly fashioned from the finest, softest cloth she could find. Marie sat back in her chair, lifting her eyes from a delicate chain of forget-me-nots she was embroidering around the neck of a small dress, folded her hands across her stomach and let her thoughts drift pleasantly into dreams of the future, dreams where she and Ben would sit on the porch and watch their children frolic contentedly, happy and healthy and living life to the full.

The dark days of the past were pushed to the corners of her mind, for although her sorrows were still present, their pain was diminished and put into perspective. The memory of her long-dead baby and the nightmarish disintegration of her first marriage would always be with her; indeed they had made her the woman she was. Marie had suffered greatly during her life, but now there was a bright, shining future to look forward to, with the man she loved by her side and the baby she craved in her arms. Life seemed very sweet indeed and Marie gave heartfelt thanks for all her blessings.

*****

“What are babies like, Adam?” Hoss asked, as he helped his brother to milk the cow.

“Little!” Adam said prosaically. “Little and squirmy and noisy!” He grinned at Hoss, who stood beside the milking stool, his blue eyes wide with curiosity. “But cute with it. I can remember holding you and feeling there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to protect you.”

It took Hoss a moment to unscramble this complicated sentence. “You loved me right from the start?” he queried, furrowing his brow.

Adam nodded. “Before you were born, even. Just like I love this baby, even if it isn’t here yet.”

Hoss looked worried. “But I don’t know how to be a big brother!” he exclaimed. “Will you help me, Adam?”

“Of course I will.” Adam smiled reassuringly at his brother. “Don’t worry, Hoss – you don’t need to be taught to how to love – it comes from your heart. Love just blossoms forth and we can’t do anything about it. Just wait until the baby is born – you’ll see. Once you hold the baby, why – all of a sudden, this love pours out and you’ll wonder where it came from and how you ever lived before the baby was born.”

At the back of the barn, standing half-hidden in the shadows, Ben Cartwright had to blink several times in succession and felt an incredible surge of pride towards his eldest son.

It was difficult for Marie to sleep at nights – the warmth of early summer, the activity of the baby and the pressure on her bladder all contributed to ensure that she slept only in short bursts. She spent many hours in the calm solitude of the night, staring up at the stars and dreaming of the day when she would hold her baby in her arms and enfold it in love. Eventually, her eyes would grow heavy and she would return to bed, giving her stomach a final, loving pat and whispering “Dors bien, mon enfant”.

*****

And then it happened. Suddenly, without warning, the baby stopped moving and Marie felt a part of her die along with the infant. She clung frantically onto her hopes and dreams, refusing to accept the inevitable, even when Paul Martin sat on the side of her bed and explained, in slow, halting tones, even when Ben leant against the wall, unable to speak, but with tears rolling down his face.

They sent the boys away, as far away as possible, to stay with friends, so that they would not hear Marie’s cries of anguish as she labored long and hard to painfully deliver her dead baby. Such a perfect little baby, but one that would never breathe or even open its eyes, a baby that would never suckle at her breast or feel the painful fervor of her love.

Marie held her child, swaddled in a blanket, yet cold and unresponsive. She looked down at the tiny face, pinched and waxen, but still beautiful, pure and unsullied. There were no answers, no reasons, no comfort that anyone could give her. Her love was as boundless as the ocean but it thundered fruitlessly upon deserted shores. Ben watched in terror as his wife seemed to slip away between his fingers like sand in an hourglass, unable to breach the terrifying passivity of her response. She was as quiet and still as the baby they both mourned.

The boys returned home the next day, to hold the baby and weep for the sibling they would never know. Hoss realized that the love within his heart was pouring out with nowhere to go and tried to comfort his stepmother, but while she accepted his hugs and kisses, she could not help him in his grief. Unable to deal with her own heartbreak, Marie was barely holding on to the corners of her sanity. It felt as if the slightest breeze would whip away her reason altogether and she clung to her impassivity. Twice she had given birth, and twice her babies were taken away. Her belly was empty, but once again there was no baby to hold in her arms. She felt hollow – how could she ever risk loving again?

Marie was the only member of the family who did not cry. There was no point in crying. It would not bring her baby back and there were not tears enough to begin to express her grief, even if she should live to be one hundred. She hugged her mourning and sorrow to herself, wearing her grief like a shawl, wrapping it close around herself as if it might help to contain her misery.

*****

He placed a white flower placed between the tiny hands and marveled at how the baby looked as if it merely sleeping, with a sweet serenity on its face. It was hard for Ben to acknowledge that his child had never woken, never felt the warmth of the summer sun, never heard the sweet song of birds in the morning – and never would. Saying a final farewell and closing the coffin lid, in the full and certain knowledge that he would never again see the sweet face of his third child was the hardest thing Ben had ever done. No other sorrow had come close to piercing his soul with such exquisite, exacting pain.

They buried the baby by the lake, where the sound of the waves lapping against the shore would provide a gentle lullaby for a child that never knew its mother’s voice. Marie watched as the priest blessed the tiny soul and sent it on a journey into eternity and wondered how God could let such a tiny being make such a long voyage all alone. When would they meet again in Paradise? Would she recognize her two children? Would they know her? So many questions, all unanswered, all unanswerable. So many dreams, ground into gaping nothingness.

Ben had insisted on carrying the tiny coffin in his own arms, trudging slowly up to the lake, his head bowed and his entire body pressed down by crushing sorrow. He bent down, kneeling on the warm earth and laid his burden down as gently as if he were laying this precious child into a crib. Except there was no warm safe bed for this baby, whose only blanket was a miniscule shroud, while the dry, sandy soil of the Ponderosa proved a poor substitute for a counterpane. He remained at the graveside for a long time, until Marie tugged at his elbow and led him away. She could not bear to stay there a moment longer, for the threads of her control were unraveling with dizzying rapidity.

They stopped at the foot of the slope and turned for one final look, for what parent does not worry each time they lay their child down to sleep or pause in the doorway for a final look at beloved little being?

Back home, Ben took out the family Bible, opened it and stared long and hard at the list of names, written in many different hands. He dipped his pen into the inkstand and slowly inscribed the pitiful legend, recording birth and death on a single day. It seemed too bleak, too final and too impersonal to give his baby, his baby who had never lived, such a short memorial and, more than that, it felt like a betrayal. After a pause, he added “dearly beloved child of Ben and Marie Cartwright.” It wasn’t enough, but Ben knew he could never put into words what this child had meant to him.

Late that night, Ben took a solitary walk back towards the lake. Under the golden light of a harvest moon, he stood by the pathetically small mound. To his right, a bird rose from the buses and flew upwards, the moonlight beating down on its wings as it soared towards the sky, free and beautiful. Ben thought of the child he would never know, fell to his knees and wept out his love and sorrow into the still night air.

A sudden, splashing noise caught his attention and, looking up, Ben saw not one but two birds land upon the shimmering water and then start to paddle across the lake in perfect unison. They swam closely together, moving along a bright, moonlit path that turned the wine-dark waters into molten gold, guiding them towards an unseen destination. He watched, entranced, until they were out of sight and fancied that perhaps, just perhaps, he was watching Marie’s two babies, united in death and traveling into eternity together. It was a small comfort, for the thought of leaving his baby all alone in the dark emptiness had troubled his soul deeply.

*****

For a long time afterwards, Marie flitted around the house, as pale and unsubstantial as a ghost. A pall of sorrow seemed to overwhelm everything, yet still she did not weep, could not weep, for in truth Marie was beyond tears. Nothing could begin to express her grief. She even refused to have any marker erected on the gravesite, for what need was there? The memory of her baby was burned into her heart and all those who truly mourned knew where the child was buried. Her baby haunted her dreams. Night after night, Marie dreamt that she held a warm, living baby in her arms, only to awake to dull, despondent reality. Each day was a trial of endurance, a nothingness that seemed to stretch out towards an endless horizon.

Ben began to wonder if he would ever see the woman he married again or if she was gone and lost forever. He watched as she carefully folded up all the tiny garments, with love stitched into each seam and into each delicate piece of embroidery. Next, Marie tucked sprigs of fragrant dried lavender between the folds and then packed her dreams carefully into a cedar chest, which she gave to her husband to store in the attic, to be stored out of sight underneath the eaves. After completing that chore, Ben took the cradle out to the barn and smashed it with three swift, savage strokes from an axe.

Days passed in dreary succession, lengthening into months and yet nothing changed. Summer eased into autumn, and then froze into winter. Ben was heartily relieved when the year drew to a close knew that things had to change, that they had to find the strength to make a fresh start together. Late on Old Year’s Night, as the hands on the clock inched towards midnight, he sat down beside Marie and took hold of her hand. “I want to start again – to move on. For your sake – for the boys’ sake – we can’t continue like this. This is tearing us apart, little by little.”

Marie nodded, knowing he was right, longing for Ben to take hold of her hand and pull her out of this pit of despair. She no longer felt she had the strength to do that herself and desperately needed someone to help her, to save her from downing in sorrow.

“I love you.” Ben stared deep into her eyes, anguish etched on his face and searing into her heart like a lance. With a start, Marie noticed how tired and worn his face seemed and realized his grief was as deep and unresolved as her own.

“I love you, as I have never loved any woman. You are my life – my whole existence. And I can’t bear to stand by and watch you leave me. We lost the baby – but I can’t loose you too. I’m loosing you and I can’t stand it. I need you so much.” Unbidden, the tears rolled down Ben’s pale cheeks and then deep sobs racked his whole body as he burrowed his head in Marie’s skirts.

A gentle hand soothed across his head. “I will never leave you, Ben. I love you too much. I will always be with you. I will always love you.”

A pang of joy suffused Ben’s whole being as he raised his head, clasped her face between his hands and kissed her, knowing that they had made a start, but that some hurdles still had to be overcome.

“We will have another baby, I promise you,” Ben whispered, suddenly unmanned by the way her body folded in to his own, pressing and caressing. “I promise you – we will have another baby.”

And at last, at long last, Marie was able to cry. She wept healing tears, but ones that flayed the tender flesh of her soul. “I know, my love. But I wanted this baby.”

Finally, she could let her anguish and anger pour forth. Marie threw her head back and howled out her misery and bitterness at the injustice of the world .She wept for the children she would never hold, no matter how deep her love was; she wept for the loneliness that threatened to engulf her and she wept for the injustice of a world that denied her a baby to love and nurture. There were so many unwanted babies – why was she being punished in this way?

Holding on to one another for support, grasping at each other for succor, sharing their grief and gaining new strength and understanding, the New Year slipped in unnoticed… and slowly, life once again began to flourish, putting forth faint, green tendrils of love that entwined around their hearts and bound Ben and Marie even closer.

*****

“A baby? Are you sure?” Adam frowned. “Is it safe? Will it be alright?”

Ben wanted to reassure his son, to pacify him – but knew he could not lie. Both boys had lived with the dreadful reality of the stillbirth and they were still adjusting to the aftermath. “We have to hope and pray,” he said. “And help Marie all we can.”

“I don’t want another baby!” Hoss howled. “I don’t want Mama to be sad again!”

Nothing anyone could say or do would reconcile Hoss to the prospect of a new baby arriving before Christmas. Marie tired to involve him in preparations and told him how much she would need his help, but Hoss could not stand the thought of seeing his beloved mother being hurt again so badly. In vain, Adam tried to involve him, asking for his help to make a new cradle but Hoss resolutely refused to have anything to do with the new baby.

“Don’t see why we need a stupid baby!” Hoss proclaimed stubbornly one autumn evening and then stumped off to prepare for the school Halloween recital.

“Don’t worry, he’ll come around!” Ben soothed, noticing the anxious look on Marie’s face and the way she clutched her stomach protectively.

“It’s not Hoss I’m worried about!” The words hissed out between her lips. “It’s the baby – it’s coming!” She grabbed onto his arm for support, her nails digging painfully into his flesh.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes! I’m perfectly sure!” Marie yelled, wondering why men felt compelled to ask such stupid questions at the most inappropriate times.

Ben gulped hard, and then yelled for Adam. “Go get Doc Martin – and hurry! Tell him the baby’s coming!”

Adam looked at his stepmother, who was clinging onto Ben, her face as white as paper. “But it’s too early,” he protested.

“Try telling that to your little brother or sister!” Ben informed him tersely. “Now ride into town!”

Adam nodded grimly, clapped on his hat and raced out to the barn, while Hop Sing rushed upstairs and returned, clutching Hoss in a firm grip.

“Need help in the kitchen,” the cook announced blandly, ignoring Hoss’ protests and Ben nodded his appreciation as Marie endured another burst of pain.

The brain refuses to allow us to recall pain in the abstract – but once it returns, its exact nature is unmistakable, prompting instant recognition. “I’d forgotten how much this hurts,” Marie forced out between gritted teeth, knowing that much worse was to come. Now she remembered just how badly it hurt and remembered all too clearly how the pain would build to a sustained crescendo.

“I know,” Ben soothed rubbing her back.

“How can you possibly know – you’re a man!” she retorted, pushing his hand away. “And don’t do that – it’s annoying!”

“I was only trying to help,” Ben said meekly and then wisely decided not to push matters any further. Slowly, supporting her with his arm around her waist, they went upstairs.

“It’s too early!” Marie moaned. “Ben – the baby is coming far too soon. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to this baby too. Please Ben, don’t let anything happen to my baby.”

“Everything will be fine,” Ben assured her, with a certainty he did not feel. Prayers from childhood circled around in his head. “Thou that sitteth on the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us….Lord, have mercy upon us, Christ, have mercy upon us, Lord, have mercy upon us…Oh Lamb of God, that takest way the sins of the world, Grant us they peace.”

They clung together, riding the waves of her labor, tossed up and down on an emotional sea that raged around their hearts, searching frantically for a beacon to shine a path to safe harbor.

“Baby determined to make an appearance, I hear?” Paul Martin’s voice was very reassuring. “These things do happen.” He set his bag down on the dresser and made his way over to the bed.

“Will it be alright?” Marie gasped, willing him to soothe away her fears.

Paul shook his head, “I can’t say for sure. But you’ve kept well all along, rested and eaten sensibly – you’ve done everything you could do – and more – to give this baby the best chance possible. And there is a possibility you might have got your dates wrong, isn’t there?”

“Maybe,” Marie sniffed. “I don’t think so, though. And it’s still too early, isn’t it?”

Paul finished his examination. “Too early or not, this baby is determined to see the world tonight.” He gave Ben a meaningful look. “Everything ready?”

Nodding, Ben stationed himself at Marie’s side. “I’m not leaving,” and smiled down at his wife, trying to impart some of his strength. Marie nodded briefly and then concentrated on enduring another barrage of pain that threatened to rip her apart.

*****

Hop Sing tried his best to keep the boys occupied, even going so far as to let Adam use some of his precious store of sugar to make toffee. Hoss shivered each time a low moan, or higher pitched scream made its way through the floor boards and more than one salty tear dripped into the saucepan, as he watched the sticky mass intently and tried very hard not to think of his beloved Mama in pain. He hated this baby for hurting her. He would never forgive it for doing this to his Ma and he certainly would never love it.

Adam shuddered as a particularly piercing shriek issued forth, followed by a silence that somehow seemed even louder and more sinister. He did not dare to look at Hop Sing and busied himself buttering a tray in preparation for the molten toffee. And then, a fierce, angry squeal shattered the air. With a start, Adam realized he had been holding his breath, as it whooshed out of him in one long stream.

“Hear that?” Adam took hold of Hoss by the shoulders. “I reckon we’re both big brothers now, eh little brother?”

Hoss refused to meet his eyes. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Ain’t this toffee ever going to be ready?” He didn’t want to think about anything else, until he knew his Mama was all right. That was all that mattered. He didn’t care about the stupid baby, which had caused his Ma all that pain. In fact, he hated it.

*****

“My baby – is my baby alright?” Marie struggled up onto her elbows and watched as Paul bent over a small, squirming bundle that continued to make loud, protesting noises.

“Hear those lungs? Nothing wrong with this little chap at all! He’s a bit on the small side, but otherwise – you have a fine, healthy baby boy!”

Swaddling the child in a shawl, Paul handed him to his parents, who were immediately lost in a world all of their own, where nothing and no-one could possible intrude. They stared with wonder at their baby.

“A boy – we have a son, Ben! A son!” Marie ran a finger down the tiny, puckered face. “Isn’t he the most beautiful baby you ever saw?”

Ben kissed the top of her head and joined in the baby-worship. “He’s perfect. Just perfect. Thank you, my love.”

Marie started to undo the folds of blankets, eager to examine every inch of her baby. She marveled at the tiny hands and feet, that curled and then uncurled in an ancient, primal rhythm, anxiously counted each finger and toe and placed her fingers on his tiny chest so that she could feel the reassuring thump of his heart. The baby subsided into a series of small whimpers, bemused by his strange new surroundings.

“I’ll go and tell the boys, shall I?” Paul said and received an abstracted nod from Ben, while Marie remained lost in adoration. Smiling happily, for welcoming a new life into the world was one of his greatest pleasures, Paul almost skipped down the stairs.

At the sound of his footsteps, Adam rushed forward, dark eyes burning in a pale face.

“Congratulations – you have a new baby brother!” Paul announced and reveled in smile that broke out across Adam’s normally solemn countenance.

“And Marie – is she? I mean…?”

“Mother and baby are both doing well,” Paul reassured him.

Hoss scowled. “Who cares about the stupid baby anyway?” he muttered, but only Hop Sing heard him, as Adam was busily demanding to know when he could go upstairs.

“Come on!” Adam grabbed Hoss by the arm and dragged him bodily along, ignoring the younger boy’s whimpers of protest.

Ben met them at the bedroom door. “Just a few minutes, boys – your mother is very tired and so is the baby,” he warned, guiding them in solicitously.

“Ma!” Hoss yelled in joy, and would have jumped onto the bed, had Ben not retained a strong hold of his shirt collar.

“Careful, Hoss – be gentle!” Ben urged, as his son wriggled free and trotted eagerly to the bed.

“I was worried about you,” Hoss confided, snuggling to Marie, thankful beyond words that his mother was all right.

“I’m fine,” Marie soothed, stroking back his fine hair. She looked up and Adam was taken aback at the look of serene joy and utter contentment on her face.

“And the baby?” Adam’s voice was no more than a whisper.

“Come and see,” Ben urged, and watched proudly as Marie eased back the shawl so that Adam could at last see his new brother.

“Isn’t he tiny?” Adam breathed, too scared to dare to even touch the child. “Tiny – but sweet!” he amended and then leant forward and kissed Marie on the cheek, then sat down beside her to study the baby intently.

Hoss leant over and took a critical look. “He looks like a skinned rabbit! All red and scrawny!” he said in disgusted tones and then promptly lost interest. “I made some toffee, Ma – do you want some?”

A firm hand pressed down on his neck. “Time for bed, boys! You start getting ready and I’ll be in shortly.” Ben propelled them out of the room, closed the door firmly behind them and then returned to gaze at his newest and most precious son with rapt adoration. Holding a new life, one so tiny he could almost balance the babe in one hand – was there any feeling in the world to compare with that? How could you rationally explain the feelings of love that suddenly poured forth?

Ben looked at his longed-for child and felt utter contentment fill his soul and heal the void that had existed for so long. It was not a betrayal of the baby who had died – it was a vindication. This baby was doubly precious.

*****

“Have you chosen a name yet?” Paul asked curiously.

Ben shook his head. “Not yet. We didn’t dare let ourselves think that far ahead, just in case…” He smiled and mentally apologized to the baby, who was still without a name!

Too excited too sleep, Adam had begged to be allowed to stay up for just a little while longer. Sitting by the fire, he pulled his nightshirt down over his knees and started to quote.

“I have no name:I am but two days old.”What shall I call thee?“I happy am,Joy is my name.”Sweet joy befall thee! Pretty Joy!Sweet Joy, but two days old.Sweet Joy I call thee:Thou dost smile,I sing the while,Sweet joy befall thee!”

After a moment’s silence, Ben filled two glasses with whisky, added a dash of water and then he and Paul raised them aloft.

“Joy and happiness!” Ben proclaimed, feeling quite giddy even before he had swallowed a single drop. His heart sang, suffused with the wonder of everything. Life seemed utterly wonderful and completely perfect.

“Long life to the newest member of the Cartwright family!” Paul responded joyfully.

Raising his glass of milk alongside the men, Adam joined in the toast and wondered if his Pa might see his way to allowing him a taste of whiskey. After all, he was a big brother twice over and surely that meant he was almost a man?

Ben clasped Paul’s hand warmly. “Thank you, Paul – for all your help and for being a good friend. Marie and I wondered if you would possibly do us the honor of standing as Godfather to the baby?”

Flushed with pride, Paul agreed readily and sipped his whisky with even deeper appreciation, while Adam tugged urgently at the edge of his father’s vest. “Pa – the baby will need two godfathers won’t he? And I’m old enough, aren’t I?”

“I couldn’t think of a better person,” Ben assured him, with a pang of remorse. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? “The baby is very lucky to have you as big brother and you’ll make a splendid godfather.”

“I’ll look after him,” Adam vowed. “I promise.”

*****

A letter from Adam was always welcome news, for although it was nearly four years since his eldest son had left the ranch, Ben still felt an occasional pang of loss. It was a matter of deep personal regret to him that Adam felt constrained on the ranch and could find no constructive outlet for his frustrated talents.

Joe had accepted his brother’s departure with comparative equanimity, regretting Adam’s decision but willingly shouldering the extras responsibilities and developing a new confidence and a maturity that had sometimes been suppressed by his elder brother’s presence.

In many ways, Adam’s departure made the Joe the fine man he is today, Ben thought and then felt immense sorrow that this should be the case.

Things had been completely different with Hoss. Supremely happy in his own life, he vehemently opposed Adam’s plans, which he perceived as a rejection of Ben’s legacy, a betrayal of all the man had worked a lifetime to achieve. Just when his father should be looking forward to relaxing and letting his sons take charge, Adam had to decide to leave! It was rare for Hoss to express his anger, but Adam had actually quivered when Hoss unleashed the full extent of his fury.

Joe had interposed himself between his two elder brothers, grabbing hold of Hoss’ arms and, just for a moment, was afraid his brother was so enraged he would take the brunt of his anger.

“Hoss! If you really love Adam, then you have to let him go,” Joe gasped and watched as his brother’s face crumpled as he was realized the truth of this statement.

Adam smiled wryly. “Maybe one day you will understand why I have to leave.” He gave a self-depreciating shrug and went outside.

Ben often thought of these words and wondered if there was some deeper meaning hidden behind them. Adam had never been willing or able to share his feelings with others, but perhaps he should have probed a little further. The more Ben thought, the more he was sure that something had been gnawing at his son’s conscience.

*****

“Come on, Pa! Don’t keep me in suspense!” Joe vaulted lightly off Cochise in a smooth movement and slung the reins over the hitching rail, tying them in a loose knot before draping an arm around his father’s shoulders. “A letter from Adam is a rare treat these days.”

“Which is precisely why I want to wait until Hoss gets back home,” Ben chided. “You really will have to develop some patience, Joe!”

Pulling a face, for he knew better than to argue with his father when he was in one of his intractable moods, Joe ambled into the house in search of a well-earned cup of coffee.

With a deep, throaty chuckle, Ben followed his son, tucking the precious letter into his vest pocket. A pleasure delayed was often infinitely sweeter, he thought.

After dinner, Ben settled comfortably by the fireside, packed his pipe with sweet smelling Virginia tobacco, carefully opened the letter and began to read out loud.

Dear Pa, Hoss and Joe,

Boston is interminably hot! And the crowds – why it is impossible to walk more than two steps before one is obliged to make a sudden dart to the side in order to avoid being mown down by groups of eager young students, or young ladies intent on seizing a bargain from one of the large stores. I am considering investing in a stout walking stick, for my own defense, of course!

I have met a good many old acquaintances during my stay here, and was even offered some interesting prospects, which I was sorely tempted to accept. But for the past few years, my life has been unsettled and living out of a suitcase is becoming more than a little wearisome! Perhaps returning to Boston again has finally allowed me to consider matters more clearly. I can almost see the ghost of the boy I once was, standing by my college, looking at the man I have become and shaking his head.

A man must make a commitment – and I now feel ready to do that. I’ve been to Europe, I’ve traveled across this wonderful country of ours and I have a store of precious memories. But now I want to see my family again and to walk once again in the high woods of the Ponderosa. I want to come home, Pa – if there is still a place for your errant son?

Your loving son and brother

Adam

“Well!” Joe puffed out his cheeks and bounded to his feet. “Adam’s coming home! I’d say this calls for a drink to celebrate.” He rushed over to the sideboard and picked up the brandy decanter.

“I never thought I would see the day,” Ben murmured, staring at the letter as if he could not quite believe the words he had just read out.

Hoss sat in silent contemplation on the sofa, wondering why he felt a disturbing sense of unease at such joyous news. Busy pouring out three generous glasses of brandy, Joe did not notice his brother’s uncharacteristic silence and his step was light and carefree as he handed out the glasses.

“To Adam!” Joe proclaimed. “Here’s to a safe journey – let the road rise up to meet him, may the wind be upon his back and the sun shine on him until he returns to us and we meet again.”

“To Adam!” Ben and Hoss echoed.

“Now, go and write that letter and tell him to come home as fast as he can!” Joe demanded impetuously. “Or, better yet – send a telegram. I’ll ride into town at first light and send it off.”

Hoss shook with laughter. “It’s been nearly four years – surely a few days won’t make a difference?”

The laughter faded from Joe’s face. “Every day counts, Hoss. Every single day. I want to see Adam home again as soon as possible.” He put his glass down on the table and wandered over to stare at the fire. “I’ve missed him,” he mumbled, watching as the flames danced and blurred out of focus.

A warm hand pulled him into an embrace. “We’ll see him soon, I promise,” Ben whispered. “Just as soon as he can get here.”

 *****

“Joe! Aren’t you going to even say hello?”

Looking slightly abashed, Joe sidled over to the vivacious saloon girl, waving coquettishly at him.

“This is a fine way to treat a good friend,” she teased, curving her body towards his and resting her head on his shoulder in a proprietorial manner that made him feel uneasy.

Joe pulled away. “I can’t stay,” he protested, looking around anxiously. “I’m here with Pa and Hoss – we’re waiting for the stage.”

“You find the stage more exciting than me?” she pouted and Joe had to laugh.

“Not normally – but today is different. My brother’s coming home today.”

Sally looked confused. “But I thought you said Hoss was with you?”

“Not Hoss,” Joe explained. “My other brother – Adam.”

“I never knew you had another brother,” Sally accused. “Nobody has even mentioned him before.”

“Adam’s been away for a long time, but I can assure you that he definitely exists!” Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw a cloud of dust billowing around the bend of the street and knew this signaled the imminent arrival of the stage. “I really do have to go now.”

“When will I see you again?” Sally wailed.

“Next time I’m in town and free as a bird!” Joe promised, throwing the words back over his shoulder as he broke into a run.

For a moment, Sally watched him sprinting towards the depot, admiring his lean, athletic build, the way his hat slipped back I could almost let myself fall in love with Joe Cartwright, she thought. Then pragmatism returned and, giving herself a little shake Sally smiled adoringly at a cowboy who was strolling past.

“Hey Hank! Aren’t you going to say hello? My, that’s a fine way to treat a good friend like me!” Ignoring his blushes, she tucked her arm into his and led him into the saloon.

“You cut that fine!” Hoss whispered, as Joe dashed up, just as the stage turned the corner and trundled sedately towards them, the horses slowing down automatically as they recognized their rest stop, where fresh water awaited to slake their thirst.

Joe glared at him, but before he could say a word, the coach door opened and the passengers streamed out, eager to stretch their legs after the long journey. An elderly lady, carrying a small pug was first, followed by a young girl, who blinked owlishly in the bright sunlight. Two men in dark suits, covered with a fine powdering of dust followed and then, finally, Adam stepped out. “Hi Pa.” For a moment he was bashful, uncertain what to do next. “I’m home.”

After that, there was no need for further words as Ben took his hand, shook it firmly and then pulled his son into a brief hug that was all the welcome he could ever have dreamed of.

*****

Hoss barreled forward and clapped Adam heartily on the back, then turned him around, held his brother at arm’s length and scrutinized him carefully. A slow grin spread across his face.

“Don’t say it!” Adam warned meaningfully, but laughter lightened the threat.

Hoss just shook his head meaningfully, while running a hand across his thinning crown and looking gleefully at Adam’s similarly balding pate.

“Guess I’m last in the queue again,” Joe complained. “Never did understand why I had to be the youngest.”

“Pa needed all the practice he could get before he was ready to deal with you!” Adam informed him, with a familiar hint of acerbity flashing forth.

Joe shrugged carelessly. “Positive, comparative, superlative!” he countered and then suddenly grew serious in the blink of an eye, wondering why he felt so shy. “It’s good to have you back,” he said softly.

Adam patted him on the shoulder. “It’s good to be back,” he assured his brother.

“Let’s go home boys.” Ben was anxious to get back to the Ponderosa – only once he saw his son sitting in his familiar place by the fireside would he really believe that Adam truly was home once more.

“This brings back a few memories,” Adam said, as they bowled along in the buggy. “Reminds me of the time you all met me when I came home from college. Nothing’s changed much, has it?”

Hoss punched him on the arm. “You’re still the smart one, I’m still the strong one and Joe’s still the small one!” he joked.

“Don’t tease your little brother!” Ben admonished, entering into the joke and watching as Joe folded his arms and leant back in his seat with a resigned expression on his face.

“What’s with the gloves?” Adam asked curiously, noticing the black leather gloves that fitted snugly across his brother’s hands.

Hoss choked back a snort. “Oh, he’s gotta keep his hands smooth and baby-soft for all these young ladies he’s sparking.”

“They’re very practical!” Joe protested, surreptitiously flexing his fingers and admiring the way his hands looked in the supple fabric.

Adam gave him a consoling pat. “Of course they are,” he soothed. “It does seem strange to see you wearing gloves, especially when I remember the trouble Marie used to have keeping gloves and bootees on you when you were a baby. She was determined you would be properly dressed and you were equally determined not to wear them.”

“I recall one trip to church when Pa had to stop the buggy five times to go back and pick up your little socks, ‘cos you kept pulling them off and tossing them out onto the road!” Hoss laughed. “Boy, was he furious and he gave you the biggest scolding, but you just sat on your Mama’s lap and chuckled at him!”

“It was the same with bonnets too,” Adam reminisced. “No sooner did Marie put a bonnet on you, than you pulled it right down over your face!”

Joe turned around to face him. “I’ve developed a modicum of sense since then,” he assured his brother solemnly. “I know the effect my devastating good looks have on ladies and I decided it’s no good hiding my light under a bushel – or even a bonnet! But I don’t let it go to my head,” he added, running his fingers through the thick hair that curled riotously over his head. Adam and Hoss exchanged mock-aggrieved looks and, satisfied that his jibe had hit home and the honors were once again even, Joe flashed a triumphant smile at his discomfited brothers and settled back down for the rest of the journey.

*****

“I don’t believe it!” Adam breathed, as Ben pulled the buggy to a stop. The porch was bedecked in paper lanterns, each of which shone with a tiny light and underneath them, Hop Sing stood, wreathed in smiles.

“Memory failing you, older brother?” Joe chided teasingly. “Surely you remember that no celebration on the Ponderosa is complete without the Chinese lanterns?”

“I remember,” Adam said, his eyes misting over as he recalled the very first of those celebrations and how he had stood so proudly under the very same lanterns. He could see his baby brother so clearly: lying soundly asleep in his arms, gloriously bedecked in an elaborate christening gown, newly baptized with the resplendent name of Joseph Francis Cartwright. Once again Adam could smell the balsam-scented oil of chrism floating up towards him and it was almost impossible to believe that twenty-six years had passed – until he looked at the young man walking beside him.

*****

Hop Sing had prepared a fabulous meal, which was complemented by a selection of fine wines from Ben’s carefully assembled cellar. The table rang with chatter as the Cartwright’s reminisced and brought Adam up-to-date with everything that had been happening.

“Port? Or would you prefer a brandy?”

“Port will be fine.” Adam swirled the liquid around in his glass before taking a deep draught. He sat up a little straighter in his chair. “I have something to tell you,” he began, steeling his soul. “I didn’t come alone – I had company on my journey from Boston.”

“A lady?” Joe asked, his green eyes twinkling with mischief. “I always said you were a dark horse, Adam! You never mentioned her once in any of your letters, did you? Have you set the date yet?”

“It’s not like that! You really have no idea what you are talking about. How dare you make such crass assumptions?” Adam flung angrily at him. The vehemence of his words startled everyone, especially Joe, who visibly flinched at the barely restrained fury and loathing in his brother’s words.

“Adam?” Ben’s voice was a curious mixture of reproach and understanding. “Why don’t you explain?”

Leaning his elbows on the table, Adam propped his chin on them and spoke in a low, unemotional voice. “I traveled with a young lady who wanted to meet her family. You saw her briefly at the depot.”

Ben nodded, recalling a young woman in a plain gown.

“She’s my daughter,” Adam said baldly.

“What?” Ben wondered if he had heard correctly. The woman he remembered was not that much younger than Joe. “You have a daughter? A grown up daughter?”

Adam nodded, not trusting his voice.

“And you never thought to mention her until now?” Ben demanded acerbically.

Before Adam could respond, Hoss broke in. “That’s why you left four years ago, ain’t it? I allus knew there was something you weren’t telling us.”

“It seems that there is a good deal Adam has not seen fit to share with us!” Ben commented, one dark eyebrow raised in silent query.

“My daughter is called Catherine. Catherine Rose.” Adam said defiantly. “She will be twenty-one next summer.” He was absurdly gratified to see the start Ben gave when he announced these details.

*****

Carefully tucking his textbooks under his arm, Adam locked his door of his college room. He was not looking forward to the morning’s tutorial in the correct use of the genitive in Latin, but it was a compulsory element of the curriculum, so he forced himself to endure the subject and applied himself as best he could. It was not always an easy task or one that Adam relished. As he passed the linen room, Isabella popped out her head.

“Adam! Thank heavens – I’ve been waiting to see you for ages,” she whispered, and dragged him inside, discarding the sheet she was mending. She had worked as a maid at the college for some months now, laundering the students’ clothes and mending their bed linen. Most of the young men ignored her, but from the first moment Isabella saw Adam, she knew he was different to the sophisticated, town-bred students. For a start, he always greeted her with a pleasant smile and this soon progressed into small, inconsequential chats. Finally, Adam plucked up enough courage to invite Isabella out for tea.

His first few weeks in Boston were, quite frankly, miserable. Adam missed his home, his brothers and most especially his father. He had never found it particularly easy to make new friends, a legacy from his childhood when he and Ben had continually traveled westwards and the young boy had never been in one town for long enough to bond with his peers. Adam still experienced a clench of fear in his stomach whenever he was introduced to a new group and felt ill at ease at large social gatherings.

Two lonely people, thrust together by circumstances, they found a kindred spirit in one another, a spark of kindness that was otherwise missing from their essentially lonely lives. Adam and Isabella discovered one another and were able to push the heartlessness of the world far away, loosing themselves in the intimacy and exhilaration of their love.

“Can’t it wait? I’ve got a tutorial in ten minutes.” Adam looked over his shoulder, fearful that they might be interrupted. Students were expressly forbidden to associate with the college servants and he lived in fear that their liaison might be discovered, knowing it would result in his expulsion and being sent home in disgrace. “I’ll come round this evening,” he promised, noticing pale and upset she looked.

“It can’t wait any longer,” Isabella said sadly. She laid a hand on his arm and looked up into his face, her eyes searching frantically. “I need to tell you something and it can’t wait any longer. I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.” She looked very young and vulnerable.

“A baby? Are you sure?” Her pronouncement seemed to echo hollowly in Adam’s ears, his head was spinning and he closed his eyes for a brief second, trying to make sense of things.

She nodded, as a tear trickled slowly down her cheek. “I’m certain.” Isabella struggled to keep calm, but she had kept her secret to herself for too long now, and she was terribly scared. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m so very sorry!”

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for,” he said mechanically, feeling completely numb. “It’s my fault, I should have been more careful.” All his hopes and dreams tumbled down around him and Latin had never seemed more pointless or irrelevant.

“Let’s go for a walk,” Adam suggested, overcome by the need to get far away from college, where anyone might overhear. “We’ve got a lot of talking and planning to do, haven’t we?”

Cheered by the use of “we” and beginning to feel that there might be some way out of this nightmare, Isabella agreed.

They walked for a long time, strolling slowly through streets and parks of the city, talking quietly, trying to find a solution. Eventually, noticing that Isabella was starting to look very weary, Adam hailed a cab and barked out a destination.

“Where are we going?” Isabella asked, sinking back onto the leather seat with relief and watching as the driver encouraged the horse through the traffic with a deft flick of his whip.

Adam slipped his arm around her. “To the only person who can help us – my grandfather.”

*****

Abel Stoddard threw out the lifeline his grandson needed – but not before delivering a stern interrogation that left Adam feeling as mentally bruised and battered as if he had been keelhauled.

“You young idiot!” Abel concluded. “You stupid, careless young idiot.” He gave Isabella a ferocious smile that also managed to convey considerable sympathy and understanding. “And just what do you want to do, eh?”

Adam stood up straight and looked directly into his grandfather’s eyes, holding his gaze with steadfast resolution. “I want to do the right thing,” he said stoutly. “I want to marry Isabella.”

It sounded very grown up and terribly final, Adam thought as he gulped back his fears. Actually, what he really wanted to do was to go to sleep and then wake up to find that this had all been a dream. Or should that be a nightmare? No matter – it was not about to happen and he had to make the best of things.

“I want to make a home for Isabella and the baby – and I need your help.” His voice sounded very far away: it was almost like hearing another person speak.

Abel relaxed visibly. These things did happen, even in the best regulated families – even in his family. A baby appearing a scant six or seven months after the wedding was not an unheard of occurrence, after all. “You did the right thing, coming to me,” he said gruffly.

Isabella felt relief wash over her and soothe away all her worries. There was something very assuring about Abel and she felt that she could finally relax, secure in the knowledge that he and Adam would look after her.

*****

“We married as soon as possible,” Adam said. “A small, quiet ceremony in a Fisherman’s Mission Church, with Grandfather and his housekeeper as our witnesses. And then Isabella gave up her sewing job at my college and went to live with in his house, while I returned to my studies.” He sat back, relieved to have finally shared his long-held secret with his family.

“Adam – I am very disappointed.” Ben poured himself a large glass of port, wishing it would start to blot out the pain he was enduring, but knowing that even the strongest opiates could not begin to deaden his emotions. “I am disappointed in the fact that you did not feel you could confide in me. That you did not trust my love for you was strong enough to conquer all odds, to forgive any indiscretion and to offer whatever help and support I could. Hearing your story makes me realize that I failed you – that I was not there for you, as a father should be. And that disappoints me greatly.”

Ben stood up and pushed the chair back towards the table. “I would have supported you and stood by you, no matter what. There was a home for you, your wife and your child, right here on the Ponderosa. We would have accepted them with open hearts. But you chose to deny us that opportunity.”

Ben shook his head sadly, then started to walk slowly out of the room, haggard with grief and looking much older than his years.

“Pa!” Adam sprung to his feet, his chair crashing to the floor behind him. “Pa – it wasn’t you – it was me! Grandfather implored me to include you, but I refused. I knew you had enough to cope with, without me adding to your troubles. I did what I thought was best. For everyone. I didn’t want to hurt you again.” He sounded like a contrite child.

Ben halted at the foot of the stairs, with a look of consummate sadness. “I would have liked to have been able to help you, to comfort you,” he said. “I would have loved to be included in your life.”

Joe could not bear conflict. Outwardly he was a supremely confident young man, brimming with confidence and trusting in his own undoubted abilities. But witnessing the death of his mother and then enduring the long depression of his father and the departure of his brother to a college on the other side of the country had left their mark. He sat perfectly still in his chair, casting anxious glances at his father and brother, sympathizing with both while longing for a resolution to be reached.

Taking one look at the combative stances of father and son and only too aware of Joe’s unease, Hoss stepped into the breach. “So, young Catherine Rose wants to meet us, does she? I sure am looking forward to that.” His smile held immense comfort.

“Why don’t you tell us more about her?” Joe invited, in a thin, anxious voice that was a mockery of his normal insouciant tones. Ben walked slowly back to the table and stood briefly behind Joe’s chair before he sat back down in his accustomed seat at the head of the table.

“And Isabella?” he asked, wondering why Adam still did not mention his wife. “Did she never wish to meet the rest of your family?”

Crumpling his napkin into a ball, Adam forced himself to continue. “We were very young and never really knew one another. We had so little time together and, after Catherine was born, we began to grow apart. I was busy with my studies and she was engrossed with the baby. It was… difficult. I visited as often as I could – but we grew apart.”

Joe concentrated all his energies on folding his own napkin into neat concertina folds. He could not bear to look at the naked anguish that was evident in his brother’s face. Just hearing the pain in Adam’s voice was almost beyond endurance.

“I asked her to come back home with me, I really thought that if we could start afresh out here, then we might have a chance – but Isabella refused. She told me she had met someone else, and that they wanted to marry and be a real family. When I saw how Catherine loved him, and how he adored her, I knew I couldn’t refuse. You see, I only ever wanted them to be happy – both of them. So…I set Isabella free, free to begin a new life – and then I came home, alone.”

*****

“Poor old Adam.” Joe kept his voice low, not wishing to be overheard. Sitting on the end of Hoss’ bed, with a quilt wrapped around his shoulders to ward off the chill night air, he was trying to make sense of things. “To think he went through all that heartbreak and never said a word. He carried all that sorrow around for so many years and none of us ever guessed.”

“Sometimes it’s easier not to talk about things,” Hoss said. “It doesn’t mean you forget about them or that they hurt any less though. Most people have their own secrets, Joe, things they keep hidden from the world. You’d be surprised at the things we hold in the secret places of our souls, locked up inside ourselves.”

“I guess you’re right,” Joe admitted reluctantly. There were a few things he carefully omitted to mention to his family, but he would not exactly class them as secrets. Joe looked at his feet, which were slowly turning blue with cold, pulled a corner of the bedding loose and tucked his toes underneath the blankets. “Do you have secrets from me?”

His brother’s blue eyes were kind and guileless. “Reckon I do.” He regarded his brother impassively, which only whetted Joe’s curiosity all the more.

“And?” Joe wheedled. When no answer was forthcoming, he prodded Hoss with his big toe. “And?” he repeated.

“And I’m tired. It’s been a long day.” Reaching over, Hoss turned his lamp down so that only a faint beam shone in the darkness.

“I know when I’m not wanted!” Joe hopped off the bed and shook his head in mock sorrow. “And I thought we were close!” he proclaimed, in mock-tragic tones.

Hoss chuckled richly and then remembered the deep resentment and, if he were honest, near-hatred he had felt towards Joe when he was a baby. That had long since transmuted into a deep love, but if Joe should ever discover how he had felt… that was beyond contemplation.

With a new appreciation for Adam’s dilemma, Hoss stared up at the ceiling and wondered if life would ever be the same again. Perhaps some secrets should never be told, for once revealed, life could fracture beyond all hope of repair. He thought back to his furious jealousy and cringed with shame and embarrassment. Just thinking about how he had felt and how he had behaved made Hoss very uncomfortable and normally he suppressed the memories, but some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard they are pushed them into the dark, untended corners of the mind. Time after time, Hoss would remember how he had rejected his baby brother and feel fresh sorrow at the heedless actions of his youth. No matter how much he loved Joe now, he could never eradicate the past.

*****

“Feel his hair,” Adam urged, drifting a gentle hand over the soft fuzz that covered Joe’s head. “It’s as soft as thistle-down.” He studied his baby brother carefully. “And I think it’s going to be curly, just like Marie’s.”

Hoss busied himself with untangling a knotted bit of string, unearthed in the depths of his pocket and wished that Adam would change the subject.

Adam laid his cheek on top of the baby’s head and marveled at the warmth that radiated from it. How tiny his brother was and how incredibly new. He looked at Hoss and remembered holding him as a baby – only it seemed impossibly that Hoss could ever have small enough to hold comfortably in his arms.

“Just look as his little hands and feet!” Adam offered his pinky to the baby and smiled in a besotted fashion as Joe’s tiny hand clasped firmly around his finger. “Isn’t he cute?”

“Sure,” Hoss responded in a disinterested tone of voice. Everything had changed since the baby arrived and he did not like the new circumstances he was pitched in to one little bit. Gradually, he became aware that Adam was crooning a lullaby that sounded familiar. Despite his avowed intent to ignore Joe and anything to do with him, Hoss found his curiosity aroused. “Whatcha singing?”

Adam’s eyes did not leave the baby, who had started to yawn sleepily and Hoss wondered what on earth he found so interesting. It wasn’t as if the little shaver actually did anything, after all. He just slept, and cried and made a nuisance of himself. Why everyone made such a dadburned fuss over such a small, puny little creature was beyond his comprehension and Hoss wished fervently that things would return to normal, to the way they had been before. Who needs a stupid baby anyway? he thought.

“Inger taught me that song and we used to sing it to you, when you were little,” Adam answered, rocking slowly back and forwards. He was totally unprepared for the reaction his innocent statement would stir in his brother.

“Don’t you sing my Ma’s song to that baby! Don’t you dare!” Hoss jumped to his feet and tugged urgently at Adam’s arm, joggling Joe, who immediately responded to the rude interruption with a loud wail of protest.

“Hoss! Now see what you’ve done!” Having just spent ten minutes easing his new brother into peaceful slumber, Adam was understandably disturbed. Hoss gave him a wounded look that eloquently spoke of the betrayal his young soul felt and ran out of the house, his resentment stoked up with new fuel and burning more brightly than ever.

Adam sighed in bewilderment, just as Ben came downstairs, having caught the end of the exchange.

“Don’t worry, son. Hoss is just having a little trouble adjusting to his baby brother.” With an experience born of long years of practice, Ben gently lifted his crying son and rested Joe close to his chest as he walked slowly around the room. “Babies like to feel secure,” he said in a low voice. “We all do – but poor Hoss isn’t feeling too happy right now.” Gradually, the wails started to subside and Ben sat down beside Adam.

“It’s a big change for all of us,” Ben explained, “but especially for Hoss. He was used to being the youngest in the family and that has all changed. You are still the oldest, but now Hoss is in the middle, he doesn’t know what to expect and he’s finding it hard to adjust. Plus, he loves Marie so much and I think he is scared that this new little one will compete for her affections.”

“I didn’t feel like that when Hoss was born, did I?” Adam screwed up his face and tried to think back, but it was so long ago.

“No, you didn’t,” Ben agreed. “In fact, you were a great help to Inger and I. But then, your life was very different to Hoss’ – you were used to change, as we seldom stayed anywhere for very long. In fact you would get quite restless if we stayed in one place for too long! Now, all Hoss can really remember is living here and being a part of a family. At the moment, he sees his life changing and he can’t do anything about it and that is making him feel angry and resentful towards the baby.”

Adam thought about this carefully. “Things have changed,” he agreed. “But they’ve changed in a good way,” he decided. “I just wish Hoss could see that too.”

“It took you a while to accept Marie,” Ben reminded him. “And that wasn’t an easy time for any of us either, was it?”

Adam felt his face burn as he remembered how rude, ungracious and unwelcoming he had been at first. It wasn’t something he liked to think about and he wriggled uncomfortably on the sofa. “I was horrid!” he admitted. “I made everyone miserable – but most of all myself.”

Ben shifted Joe into the crook of his elbow, so that he could put his other arm around Adam. “We knew you were hurting,” he comforted. “And we knew that we had to give time and space. As I said, none of really like change, but it’s an inevitable part of life. So just try to be patient with Hoss, will you?”

“I’ll try,” Adam sighed and then smiled down at the baby who was making little snuffling noises in his sleep. “But he’ll miss so much if he won’t allow himself to love Joe.”

“Hoss is one of the most loving children I’ve ever met and it isn’t in his nature to be unkind,” Ben assured him. “Just try to remember that when he lashes out, it just shows how confused and hurt he is. We all need to show him he is still a loved and valued member of this family – and that nothing can ever change how much we love him.”

*****

It was only to be expected that none of the Cartwrights passed a particularly peaceful night after Adam’s dramatic revelations. Hoss tossed and turned, beset by troubled dreams, while Adam tried to summon up the courage to arrange a meeting between his daughter and his father and brothers. Joe sat by his window and stared out towards the dark body of Lake Tahoe and wondered how he could ever attempt to heal the hurt in his brother’s soul and heal the divide that gaped to develop between father and his son. It seemed that the past was always with them and Joe was beginning to believe that some secrets were best kept hidden.

In his bedroom, Ben sat staring at a portrait of Elizabeth, another young girl from so long ago and wondered if their union would have survived intact. It was impossible to tell, he concluded. They were together for such a short period of time, much of which was occupied with the heady excitement of becoming parents. But had he really known her? Had he loved her enough to actually spend the rest of his life with her? Could she have grown alongside him and been a part of life on the Ponderosa? It seemed almost blasphemous to consider Elizabeth here, living in the house that held so many memories of Marie, where every room brought back an image of her and where her presence still sounded out clearly.

A part of his mind was still reeling at the news that Adam – sensible, reliable Adam – could have been so foolhardy as to get a young girl into trouble. All his teachings and tender words; his strictures to respect young ladies; his carefully delivered information about the consequences, both moral and medical, of entering into a physical relationship had been summarily cast aside, almost from the minute Adam arrived in Boston, it seemed. Ben was no fool – he was a highly realistic man, but he had never considered the possibility of Adam being the son to fall from grace in this way. He knew that a dalliance of this nature was totally against everything that Hoss stood for, but if Joe had come to him and told him he had got a young girl in the family way, well, Ben knew that he would have been equally disappointed, but not entirely surprised.

And therein lay the essential difference. Ben knew that Joe would have come to him for advice and support. Joe would never have excluded his father from this important part of his life. That Adam had deliberately suppressed the information that he had a daughter for twenty years made Ben very sad. Not only had he missed being a part of Catherine’s life, his own son had not been able to share his great sorrow and joy with him. And it was truly ironic that Adam was now a virtual stranger to his own daughter.

Where had his son gone? Was the little boy who had incessantly burbled at his side on the high seat of the wagon now subsumed? Would he ever be able to reach out and touch the young man who had shared his overwhelming joy at the birth of his baby brother? Ben shivered to think that just a few years after Adam had stood as godfather to Joe, he had become a father himself, even it he had not been able to share that news with his family. The ties that bound them all seemed to be stretched almost to breaking point.

He placed Elizabeth’s portrait facedown on his dresser and stared out of the window, realizing that a grey dawn was breaking. The faint hoar-mist still hovered a few inches above the ground as Ben stretched his weary body and went quietly downstairs.

The spicy scent of coffee tantalized his nostrils and Ben lengthened his stride, craving the strong, sharp taste that would surely help to jolt him back to reality. With an eventful day ahead, he needed to have his wits about him.

“Morning Pa,” Joe said, holding the coffee pot up invitingly. “Shall I pour?” He tilted his head quizzically, with a faint hint of a smile. Ben nodded wearily and sank down into a chair. All of a sudden, he felt very old and very tired and was willing to be fussed over. He watched in silence as Joe savored the aroma wafting up from his cup of coffee, before adding a dash of milk and taking a long, appreciative swallow.

Joe looked up and gave him a wry grin. “Cooch never has forgiven me for giving up sugar!” he joked, patting the taught muscles of his lean belly. He took another sip of coffee, wrapping his hands around the warmth of the cup. Ben looked at the slender, well-shaped fingers and the memory of Marie was fierce and sweet. He felt a fierce pang of love for this impetuous son, who relished his father’s company and readily shared his life, loves and feelings.

A flood of remorse cast irrepressible dark hues over the early morning. Ben knew it was not right to judge one son against another; it was something he had always fought against. It was not Adam’s fault that he was self-contained, in many ways it was a positive factor – but it did not make him an easy person to live with – or, if Ben were totally honest, to love.

“Give him time,” Joe advised. It was almost as if he could read his father’s innermost thoughts. “There is more to tell – I’m sure of that. Adam has always kept his own council, and this isn’t easy for him.”

Ben nodded and gave thanks, as he did every day, that a small part of Marie was still with him. Just looking at Joe brought back so many memories – the way he would cock his head to one side, or how a small smile would tug irresistibly at the side of his mouth before a peal of joy escaped in a laugh that was inimitable, yet reminiscent of his mother. And it was not only the physical traits that recalled Marie, for Joe’s overflowing love, so readily given and returned and his impetuous, headstrong nature were equally strong reminders of his mother. Adjusting to Adam’s departure had been hard, but Ben could not even begin to contemplate life on the Ponderosa without Joe. He grew somber as he realized he had once thought exactly the same about Marie…

Reaching across, Joe laid his hand gently on top of Ben’s. “This will pass,” he said softly. “Your pain and sorrow will lessen. Just give it time.” He gave a rueful smile, thinking of all the times he had supposed his own heart to be broken by a pretty girl, only to discover a few weeks later he could barely recall the color of her eyes.

“When did you get so wise?” Ben joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

Joe looked directly at him, his green eyes vivid in the soft morning light that spread bright beans across the table that separated them. “I had a good teacher,” he said. “The very best.”

The two men sat quietly, drinking their coffee and giving silent thanks for the true love that bound them so tightly to one another.

*****

Later that morning, Joe was schooling a horse intended for sale to the Army. Concentrating hard on getting the animal to respond to the smallest movements of his hands and legs, he was not aware of Adam leaning on the rails of the corral, keenly watching his every movement. Sensing the horse was beginning to pull against him, Joe decided the lesson had gone on for long enough. Training a horse to this level demanded a lot of patience, as well as skill and understanding, there was no sense in pushing things. He dismounted and stroked the horse’s neck briefly, seeing how the combination of hot sun and hard work had produced a faint sheen of sweat on the animal’s coat. “Fred! Walk Torrin around for a bit to cool him off, then give him a good rub-down, will you?”

The ranch-hand nodded, grabbing hold of the bridle and leading the horse away from the corral. Joe stretched lithely, easing the muscles in his shoulders and realized that his shirt was sticking uncomfortably to his body. Unbuttoning it as he walked, Joe suddenly became aware of Adam.

“That’s a fine horse,” Adam said conversationally. “He works well for you. I can see you’ve put in a lot of work there.” He was stunned at the way Joe had controlled the horse: sitting so straight in the saddle, hardly appearing to move, yet effortlessly coaxing the horse to change legs while cantering and even moving into a diagonal trot. Joe had always been the best rider in the family, but Adam could see that his skill had now moved onto a completely different level.

“Thanks,” Joe said, undoing the last button and gratefully pulling off his shirt. Flinging it over his shoulder he strode to the water barrel and poured a dipper of water over his head and neck, shaking his hair so that a cascade of water droplets flew through the air, sparkling in the bright sunlight.

“Just like a puppy!” Adam chuckled, watching as Joe repeated the process, this time trickling the water down his chest, shivering slightly as the cold water made contact with his hot flesh.

“Best way to cool off!” Joe retorted cheerfully, then slowly rolled his head in a circular motion, trying to ease some of the tension in his neck and back. Rotating each shoulder in turn, he could feel the muscles start to relax. After a few moments, Joe held both his arms out at shoulder-height, turning them so that his palms reached up to the sky, arched his head backwards and tilted his chest up to the sun. There was something primal and elemental in his deliberate movements that reminded Adam of a young warrior worshipping a deity.

“That’s better!” Joe stated, relaxing his stance and grinning at his brother, who seemed frankly bemused by the whole performance. “We always make sure the horses cool down properly, don’t we? Well, it makes sense to me that I should do the same.”

“That’s good thinking,” Adam admitted. “And you look to be in good shape.” He looked at Joe, as if seeing him clearly for the first time, his eyes taking in the smooth golden chest, the long, taut muscles that covered his brother’s lean frame and felt a pang of envy and regret.

“It’s hard not to be, working around here!” Joe gave him an appraising look. “A few weeks from now and you won’t know yourself!”

The words lay uncomfortably between them as Joe realized what he had said. “Adam! I didn’t mean…I’m really sorry…” His voice trailed off miserably.

Adam shrugged, trying to seem unconcerned. “I know you didn’t mean anything, Joe. Don’t beat yourself up about things. We’ve all got a ways to travel before things settle down, but it will be a slow journey if you feel you have to walk on eggshells the whole time.”

“If I can help in any way, just let me know?” Joe pleaded, as they walked slowly back to the house, side by side.

“Just be yourself,” his brother said, and touched Joe lightly on the arm. “You’re close in age to Catherine and I know she’s looking forward to meeting you.” Adam could see the emotion painted clearly on Joe’s expressive face. “Everything will be alright – I promise you, Joe.”

*****

Dressed in a crisp white shirt and dark pants, Joe roamed impatiently around the living room, pacing from the fireplace to the study window; peering out and then wandering restlessly back to the fireplace where his family sat awaiting the arrival of their guest.

“You’re gonna wear a path in that floor,” Hoss warned, tugging uncomfortably at his string tie, which threatened to constrict his breathing.

“Why not go outside onto the porch and then you can give us a shout?” Adam suggested. Part of him understood how Joe was feeling, but he also found his brother’s constant motion deeply irritating. The tension in the room eased palpably when Joe closed the door behind him and the three men exchanged thankful glances.

“There are times when that boy would try the patience of a saint!” Ben murmured, but the fondness in his voice took any possible sting out of his words.

Adam snuggled into his favorite blue chair, relishing how the familiar contours eased around his body. “Never still for two seconds, is he? Always on the go, seeking out new challenges…”

“New ways to torment us with his monkey tricks!” Hoss added.

Ben looked at them. “I often wonder if Joe would ever like to travel, to see a bit more of the world,” he confessed. “I would hate to think that he stays here out of a sense of obligation.”

“You really think that?” Hoss asked, genuinely perplexed. “You think Joe would ever leave here? Can’t you see that the Ponderosa is everything to Joe – his whole reason for existing? Joe knows that he would never be happy any place else, don’t you worry about that, Pa.”

“And besides,” Adam smiled, “You know what Joe is like when he wants something – he makes sure we all know about it. Remember the incessant pleadings of “Please, Pa – can I have a pony?” I kept count one day and he said it one hundred and fifteen times – until you sent him to his room! And even then, he stopped half-way up the stairs for one final attempt!”

“Still, it worked, didn’t it?” Hoss said, giving his father a reassuring smile. “Couple of weeks later, you got him that little Shetland pony, name of Glen.”

“Which only goes to show there are limits even to my legendary patience!” Ben looked at the clock and was wondering when his granddaughter would arrive, when a cry from Joe galvanized them all into action and they rushed to join him on the porch, just as a hired buggy drew up.

*****

Taking a deep breath to compose herself, Catherine gathered her skirts up in one hand, accepting Adam’s outstretched fingers with the other. He gave her a brief smile and then turned to the two men still sitting in the vehicle, looking ill at ease.

“Welcome. Won’t you join us?” He gestured with his arm to where Ben, Hoss and Joe stood on the porch, unsure of quite what to do next.

Catherine smoothed back her hair and walked towards her waiting family, trying not to show how nervous she felt. It had seemed to strange to discover that she had a grandfather and two uncles and she was not quite sure how to react to them. “I wonder what the etiquette writers would advise in this situation!” she thought and had to struggle valiantly not to laugh, certain that her peculiar circumstances would never appear in the painfully correct newspaper columns that devoted so many inches to the correct way to curtsey, or how many gloves a lady should have on her gloves.

“Catherine?” The silver-haired man stepped forward. “You are very welcome here, my dear.” He bent down and brushed his lips across her cheek and then tucked her arm into his.

Tilting her head upwards, Catherine surveyed him carefully, searching for some resemblance to herself, and saw that his eyes were as dark as her own, which pleased her immensely.

Stopping for an instant, she looked back at her two companions. “Father! Matthew – won’t you join us?”

With a pang, Ben realized that the man Catherine addressed as “Father” was not his son, but a tall, spare man, with pale blond hair and a small moustache. He noticed how Adam’s body tensed momentarily, but his son’s face remained schooled to impassivity, even though a small muscle twitched in his cheek.

“Let’s go inside,” Ben suggested and a look of relief flashed across Adam’s face.

John Naismith looked at his surroundings with interest. Isabella had said very little about her first husband, and even less about his family, so the obvious wealth of the Cartwrights came as a complete surprise. As manager of a small manufacturing company, John had been able to give his wife and child a comfortable life, but the magnificence of the Ponderosa was something he had never expected.

Sensing his nervousness, Hoss took the man’s hat and placed it gently on the credenza, before guiding him over to a seat by the fire and offering him a cup of coffee.

Joe wandered over to the younger man and held out his hand. “I’m Joe Cartwright – Adam’s younger brother.”

So this is Catherine’s uncle! He doesn’t look much older than she is! Matthew thought, before introducing himself. “Matthew Drummond. I’m Catherine’s fiancé.”

“Congratulations!” Joe wrung his hand firmly, his firm grip almost causing Matthew to wince in pain.

Ben turned to Catherine and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“That is the reason for our trip,” she explained, stretching out her left hand to show the amethyst ring on her finger. “Well, one of the reasons,” she corrected herself. “I’ve wanted to meet you ever since Adam came to Boston four years ago, after my mother died.”

Hoss gave John a sympathetic look. “I’m very sorry,” he said in a low voice. “I had no idea.”

“It was very sudden,” John said somberly. “Isabella began to suffer from pains in her chest and the doctors could do nothing to help. After she died, I wrote to Adam. It was the least I could do.” There was no animosity in his voice, for Adam had given John the greatest gift any man could – he had given John his daughter and John loved her dearly.

“That’s when you went back east.” Hoss looked at Adam for confirmation.

“I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help,” Adam agreed. “And to say farewell to Isabella. We hadn’t met or corresponded for years, but she was an important part of my life. Going back was the least I could do.”

He had not been prepared for the bitter jolt John’s letter would give him, but straightaway, Adam had made plans to return to Boston. Unable to tell his father and brothers the truth, he had made excuses about striking out on his own, putting his skills to proper use, making his own mark on the world. How could he tell them he was going back to see his daughter after fourteen years?

“Adam told me so much about you!” Catherine wanted this meeting to be a happy one; she wanted to have pleasant memories of her family to look back on in years to come. “I feel as if I already know the Ponderosa! For four years, I’ve been hoping I could come out here – and now, here I am!” Her creamy skin was pink with excitement and her eyes twinkled merrily.

Joe could not resist a little teasing. “I hope we’re not too much of a disappointment, ma’am?” he enquired gravely.

“Why no,” she parried, without missing a beat. “You are just exactly as I pictured you, dear Uncle Hoss!”

The initial tensions dissolved and the rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly as shyness was put aside and new bonds forged.

“We’re on our way to Mexico,” Matthew explained. “I work for a shipping company and I’ve been offered a good job down there.”

“I can’t believe I’m seeing so much of America!” Catherine bubbled. “I’ve hardly been outside Boston, and now all this!” She flung her hands out expansively. “All this and I’m getting married and meeting my family too!”

Yet despite her contagious joy, the visit was bittersweet. There was such a short time and Adam sat, drinking in everything about his daughter, only too aware he would probably never see her again in this life. He knew that even if they should ever meet again, they would always remain as virtual strangers to one another. The ties of blood could not come close to emulating the times of love that clearly existed between Catherine and John. Yet, in a strange way, this gave Adam some comfort, as it reassured him that he had done the right thing, all those years ago. Catherine was happy and she was loved. He could not ask for anything more. And if he grieved for the child he had never known, well that was his own private business…and a man had a right to some secrets, didn’t he?

*****

“I’ve never really thanked you properly.” Adam shook John’s hand firmly “For all you did, for all those years…”

John shook his head. “Thank me? Adam, there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t thank you – you gave me the greatest gift any man could – you gave me your daughter and trusted me with her care. I’ll always be in your debt. You could have come back east any number of times and been a part of Catherine’s life – but from the start you wanted her to have one father, so she wouldn’t be confused, or teased by her friends. I can’t imagine the heartbreak that must have caused you – but I know that you did it out of love.”

“I only ever wanted what was best for Catherine – and Isabella. That’s all I ever wanted.”

“Your sacrifice gave me the happiest life a man could ever imagine,” John told him. “I’m forever in your debt.”

Adam nodded and then clasped Catherine in a fond embrace. “You be happy now,” he commanded tersely, afraid all his self-control would fly away to the four winds.

Returning the hug, Catherine hugged him fiercely. “And you. You’ll always be a part of my life, and now I know where to find you. Whenever I think of you, I’ll picture you right here, on the Ponderosa.”

“If you ever need me, I’ll be right here,” her father promised. Adam took a step back to stand and watch as his only child rode out of his life forever.

*****

“She’s a fine girl,” Ben remarked, taking down the family Bible and opening it. “And a part of this family.”

He looked at the page, with a long list of names and dates inscribed upon it “Catherine Rose – you remembered.”

“She was my little sister, and I could never forget her,” Adam whispered, looking at the inscription from long ago, written in his father’s strong hand: “Rose Anne Cartwright – dearly beloved child of Ben and Marie Cartwright.”

“No, you never forget,” Ben agreed, then picked up the pen and added a new entry – Catherine Rose Cartwright.

They looked at one another with a new understanding – two parents who had each loved and lost a child. The sorrow and the joy bound them together in a way that had never existed before and spanned whatever differences there had once been, coaxing their hearts back into complimentary rhythms.

Blotting the entry carefully, Ben ran a loving finger of the inscription that detailed the brief life of his own daughter, the child who lay up by the lake with a single white rose clasped between her tiny hands.

“The first of a new generation,” Adam mused. “I wonder when you’ll add another entry?”

“Do you have something to tell me?” Ben felt secure enough now in his relationship with Adam to make a joke, but he was stunned by the look of misery that crossed his son’s face.

“No. Catherine is my first and last child.”

“You can’t be sure of that. I know Marie and I sometimes despaired of having another baby, but then Joe came along and made our lives complete. Don’t deny yourself the possibility of happiness, Adam.”

“It’s different for me.” Adam stood up and walked over to the stove, carefully keeping his back turned. He could not look at his father and manage to break this news. “After I had that accident that hurt my back, when I was building the house for Laura, well things haven’t been the same. To put it bluntly, I’m not the man I once was.”

He forced himself to turn around and meet the compassionate gaze of his father. “I thought time might sort things out, but it didn’t. I’ve been to doctors all over – in Boston, New York, London, Paris – you name the specialist and I’ve probably seen him. But I have to face facts – I’m never going to be able to father another child.”

“Oh Adam.” There was a world of understanding and love in Ben’s voice. “I never knew. I never even thought about such a thing.”

“The doctors tell me it’s not uncommon after a spinal injury,” Adam said in a tight voice. “But I can’t help wondering if this is my punishment. I gave my child away, so why should I be trusted to have another one?” He thumped his hand hard on the wall, welcoming the pain that flared up.

“There are so many things in life we can’t explain, that we simply have to endure.” Ben thought back to all the tragedies that he had experienced and his heart wept for his son.

“You won’t tell Hoss and Joe, will you?” Adam pleaded. “I wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t bear it if they knew as well.”

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Ben promised and embraced his son, trying to take away a little of the pain, to ease his sorrow just a fraction. That was what fathers did – they tried to comfort and protect their children, no matter how old they were.

Unable to hold back his emotions any longer, Adam did something he had not done for more years than he could remember – he wept in his father’s arms.

*****

“You took your own sweet time!” Sally protested. “I was beginning to think I’d never see you again!”

“I told you I’d be back. Just had to make sure the coast was clear.” He looked around the busy saloon and saw his brother was engaged in a game of cards. “You coming?”

“Is that any way to treat a lady?” Sally giggled, grabbing his hand and pulling him towards her room.

“Sshh! I want to keep some secrets from my family! I don’t want everyone knowing my business!”

In the dark safety of the hallway, he pulled her into a tight embrace that almost took her breath away, his hands firmly caressing the rounded curves of her buttocks, pressing her close to his demanding body.

“You Cartwrights – you’re uncontrollable!” Sally opened the door to her room and ushered him into her room with a broad, welcoming smile.

Joe pushed his hat back and surveyed the cards with interest, before taking a long pull of beer. “Anyone seen Hoss?” he enquired.

The other players assumed innocent looks.

“He was over by the bar, last time I looked,” Andy Martin said, exchanging a broad wink as Joe looked back down at his hand. Every man deserved a little privacy, after all. And only a fool would get on the wrong side of Hoss Cartwright.

“I just hope he’s keeping out of trouble,” Joe mused, pondering his next move. “It’s real hard being the responsible member of the family!” A happy smile spread across his face. “Now boys – who wants to see me?” he challenged and settled back to enjoy the evening.

***End***

 (The poem Adam quotes is Infant Joy, by William Blake)

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