Relatives and Reasons (by DJK)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  27,065


 

He sat in the blue chair with his bare feet resting on the low table. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness well enough for him to watch as the door slowly opened and the slim body of his youngest cousin slipped inside. He remained quiet, planning to go unnoticed, as he watched Little Joe place his hat on the proper peg and his gun belt softly on the credenza. It was not until Joe slipped off first one boot and then the other that a slow smile spread across Will’s face. Drawing in a deep breath, he thrust a single word into the silence in perfect imitation of his uncle.

“Joseph!”

Little Joe spun around managing to kept his boots from clattering to the floor by clutching them to his chest. His eyes too were adjusted to the darkness and took only seconds to identify the man staring at him from the interior of the room.

“Will! What in the blazes! I…” Joe’s hoarse whisper sputtered away.

“Thought I was Uncle Ben.” Will Cartwright’s statement ended with a soft chuckle. “He went upstairs to bed early tonight as you hoped he would.” The tone was remarkably like one that Little Joe had often heard highlighting his elder brother’s comments.

“Blast you, Will. What are you doing sitting around in the dark like some big spider?” Little Joe’s voice remained a harsh whisper as he advanced across the floor on his stocking feet.

“Just thinking, cousin. Don’t worry; I’ll not mention the hour of your return to your father.”

Little Joe snorted and came to a stop in front of his cousin. “Do you think I care if you do? I’m not a child, Will!”

“And I’m not the one holding my boots.” Will’s teasing tone matched the mocking smile that Little Joe was sure was on his cousin’s face despite the fact the moonlight filtering into the room did not allow either man to clearly make out the features of the other.

Little Joe snorted again. “Just because I have some consideration for others who might be sleeping.”

Sensing his cousin’s rising ire, Will shrugged. “Have it your way. Everyone else is sleeping actually.”

Little Joe let the wind leave his sails as he peered through the darkness. His cousin wore only his pants and an unbuttoned shirt. “Why aren’t you?”

Will shrugged again. “Who knows? Something woke me earlier, and I don’t like to toss about in bed, at least not alone. Anyway, I decided to get up and come downstairs.”

“Pa wouldn’t begrudge you a brandy, you know.” Little Joe settled himself on the settee as he spoke.

“I know. Do you want one, or have you had enough of the demon whiskey already tonight?”

“Actually, I’ve had exactly three beers the entire evening.” Little Joe leaned back and placed his own feet on the low table in front of him. “And an extremely fine run at the poker table.”

“Congratulations, so it was cards and not whiskey or women that kept you from your bed. Would Ben be pleased about that?” Will’s tenor was teasing once again.

“Not particularly, but, well, I’m not a little boy, and Pa knows that.”

Will lips curled. “Ahh, but the question is does he always remember it?”

“Did Uncle John?” The rejoinder left Joe’s lips like a ball automatically tossed back to its original sender.

“He didn’t have much of a chance.”

Little Joe’s teeth sunk into his lower lip. “Oh, yeah, you were only. . .”

“Sixteen. Well, closer to seventeen actually.”

“Pa tried to find you after the letter came about Uncle John. All he could find out is that you might have signed onto a ship. He tried and tried to find which one, but there wasn’t a trace.”

“Ah, yes, my voyage as an able-bodied seaman.”

Hearing the edge on his cousin’s words, Little Joe asked, “Didn’t you like the sea?”

“Not as an occupation. Perhaps if one could begin the seafaring-life as a captain, I would have felt differently.”

Little Joe opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again.

“I’ve no objection to traveling by ship though.” Little Joe felt as if his cousin’s comment had been made simply to fill the silence.

“Did you ever think of . . .well, did you know. . . I mean, there would have been a place for you here. Didn’t you know that, Will?”

“Actually, I did.”

“Then why didn’t you come to us?”

Will set his feet on the floor, stood, and walked over to the brandy decanter without answering. “Do you want one, cousin?”

“No, just an answer.”

Will finished pouring his drink and then turned back to face Little Joe. “I wasn’t looking for another family. I didn’t want roots anymore than my father did.”

“The Bible says there’s a time for everything. Maybe Uncle John would have finished his time for wandering and found a time for roots.”

Will walked back to his previous seat. “Are you asking if this is my time for roots?”

“Guess that is what I’m asking.”

Will downed his brandy in one swallow and set the glass on the table. “I don’t know, Joe. Until your father brought me here, I would have said that time would never come for me, but now, well, I don’t know.”

“Pa wants you to stay.” It was a simple statement of the truth.

“Do you and your brothers?”

“Do we?” Little Joe was less sure of the answer to that question. “You’re our cousin; there will always be a place for you on the Ponderosa.”

Reaching for the brandy glass, Will remembered it was empty and simply turned it around and around in his fingers. “Because Ben has instilled a strong sense of family obligation in each of you?”

“Well, he did, but that’s not all of it. Actually, we’ve started to like you.”

Will’s low chuckle once again floated between them. “You know, Little Joe, I expected to have this conversation with Adam not you.”

“Adam would be telling you not to stay just long enough to hurt our pa when you leave.”

“And how long would that be?”

Little Joe shrugged. “It’s probably been too late since the day you set foot on the Ponderosa.”

Will’s sigh barely reached Joe’s ears. “I’ve thought about what it might have been like if I had come here after my father died. I almost did.”

Little Joe wished he could light a lamp and see his cousin’s face clearly but was afraid the darkness was part of the reason Will was saying as much as he was,

“What changed your mind?” Little Joe’s tone did not demand an answer but simply requested one.

“I was going through my father’s things. I found a letter from your father to mine. It must have been written soon after my mother died. It asked my father to bring me and come to the Ponderosa. It offered us both a place here. My father hadn’t accepted the offer then; when I thought of that, I couldn’t come.”

“That didn’t mean that Uncle John wouldn’t have wanted you to come.”

“Perhaps not, but at that moment to me it did.”

“And now?”

“Like I said, I don’t know.”

“It’s not the same thing, you know. Your pa, well, he would have been going to his younger brother; well, maybe it was his pride; maybe he wanted to come, well, after he, well. . .”

“Found his pot of gold?”

“Pa doesn’t think of you as no poor relation, Will.”

Will ended the conversation. “Your father’s opinion would be that we both should be in bed.” Standing, he turned toward the stairs, “Good night, cousin.”

Little Joe watched as Will ascended the stairs and then went to his own bed.

*****

Turning his head at the sound of footsteps on the stairs, Adam took the final sips of his morning coffee as he watched his cousin descend. “Good morning, Will.”

“Morning, cousin.” Will strode across the floor and settled himself at the dining table. Picking up the coffee pot, he poured himself a cup. Then he asked, “More for you?” Adam nodded, and Will refilled his cousin’s cup before setting the pot back on the table and reaching for a platter of fried ham.

“You’re up early,” remarked Adam.

Will lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. “Never earlier than you though.” He reached for a bowl that still held a serving of eggs.

“Hop Sing will bring some out hot in a minute; I’m sure he’s heard that you’re down.”

“These are fine. Could you pass the preserves?” Will had plucked a biscuit from the another platter.

“Peach or cherry?”

An odd expression flickered across Will’s face. “There’s always a choice, isn’t there,” he muttered.

Adam’s right eyebrow rose slightly.

Will shrugged again. “Peach. Your family sets an awfully fine table.”

Adam heard a tone underlying his cousin’s comment that made the statement something other than a simple compliment. “Hop Sing sees to that.”

Will opened his mouth to speak but paused when Hop Sing walked into the room with a fresh bowl of scrambled eggs and a plate of griddle cakes. “These hot; eat now,” the cook commanded.

“Yes, sir!” Will drawled as he rolled his eyes, but he speared two griddle cakes and placed them on his plate. Hop Sing made an untranslatable comment in Chinese, shook his head, and departed. Will grinned. “He is one hell of a cook.” Will glanced at his cousin, chewed, and swallowed.

“Hop Sing is more than just an excellent cook.” There was an edge to Adam’s statement.

Will set down his fork and leaned back in his chair. “Is there something stuck in your craw, cousin, or was it just that my language offended?”

“Your language is your affair though Pa prefers that swearing remains outside the house.”

“Your pa prefers that it stays out of his sons’ mouths entirely.”

“True.”

“I’m not his son.” There was a challenge in the words and the look that Will threw across the table, but then he added, “Still, out of respect for him, I’ll speak more carefully while I’m here.”

“And how long will that be?” Adam asked himself but said instead, “Was Uncle John a swearing man?”

Will studied his plate for a moment before he answered, “No, so I imagine we can surmise that our grandfather wasn’t either.”

“Our grandfather.” Even though the words had not been stressed, they repeated in Adam’s mind. “But you. . .”

“Can be.” Will gave a cocky grin. “Actually, I picked it up on my first sea voyage. A ship can be quite educational when it comes to some aspects of life. Of course, not in the same way as college.”

Adam sensed something beneath Will’s mocking tone, and a question slipped from his lips, “Did you want to go to college?” To Adam an affirmative answer was readable in Will’s face for a second before Will resumed eating.

“Never gave it a thought.”

Adam already knew that his cousin could state a lie convincingly and simply wondered why Will was reluctant to admit the fact. Adam picked up his coffee and took a long sip. Then both men turned toward the stairs at the sound of someone descending.

“Morning!” Hoss’ voice was cheery. “Breakfast smells good!” He sat down in his usual place and reached for the coffee. “Little Joe better start stirring, or I’m going to eat every dang egg on this ranch before he gets to the table, the biscuits too.”

Will speared two more griddle cakes, and Adam grabbed another biscuit before he observed wryly, “Little Joe may not mind this morning if you do.”

Hoss glanced over at his brother while spreading preserves, “Came in late, did he?” He popped an entire half biscuit into his mouth and chewed slowly.

“His stomach shouldn’t be a problem; he wasn’t drunk.” At his statement both his cousins’ eyes turned toward Will questioningly. “I was up.”

“Well, that’s good.” Hoss smiled, and his grin widened as Hop Sing walked in with more eggs and griddle cakes.

“Last plate; no more eggs,” the cook stated as he set down his burden and left.

“So Pa’s already eaten,” Hoss observed.

Adam nodded. “Left early this morning for Carson City.”

“Well, then, this is all mine if Joe don’t get down them stairs right quick,” Hoss stated as he filled his plate.

Adam swallowed the last of the coffee in his cup and grabbed a biscuit. “Guess I’ll go up and give him fair warning.”

Hoss gave his brother an inquiring gaze and then shrugged as he watched Adam mount the stairs.

Adam rapped on Little Joe’s bedroom door and then entered. His brother was still in bed with the covers pulled over his head, but a low moan emitted from the bundle as Adam’s boots clicked across the wooden floor. “Better rise and shine, Little Joe!” Adam announced cheerily.

“Don’t wanna!” The announcement was muffled.

“Hoss has started on the last bowl of eggs, and the griddle cakes are almost gone.”

“Ain’t hungry!”

“You sure about that; it’ll be a long spell before lunch.” Adam held the biscuit next to the bedclothes in the general area of Little Joe’s nose.

Joe uncovered his face and opened his eyes. His view was blocked by the biscuit. “Well, maybe. . .” His hand snaked out of the cloth surrounding it and aimed at the enticement in his brother’s hand. Adam pulled it up and out of reach.

“No, no, little man, not until you’re up and out of that bed.”

“Adam!” Little Joe eyed his brother. “Oh, all right, I’m getting up. I’m getting up.” Joe pushed the bedclothes off his body and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. “Gimme!”

“I said up and out.” Adam passed the food swiftly under his brother’s nose and back out of reach.

“I swear, Adam, you just like to torment a fellow,” fumed Little Joe, but he pushed himself off the bed into a standing position. Adam handed him the biscuit. Little Joe ate half of it in the first bite. “You could have put on some preserves,” he grumbled and then shoved the other half into his mouth.

“And you could have been to breakfast on time.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes. “I got in a little late last night.”

“A little?” Adam’s eyebrow rose with practiced skepticism.

“Okay, a lot late,” Little Joe admitted as he walked past his brother to the wash basin.

Adam’s hand started to swing toward the passing behind but came up and rubbed his chin instead. “Will, told the truth. He was late, but there’s no sign of a hangover.” Adam stood with his arms across his chest and his hands tucked into his armpits watching his brother complete his morning ablutions.

“Something else you wanted?” Little Joe inquired as he wiped his face.

“Besides you up and at it? Not really.”

Joe turned and faced his brother. “If that was all you wanted, Hoss would be up here fetching me.”

Adam’s hands dropped. “There is that.” He settled himself into a lean that left him half standing and half sitting on Joe’s bed. “Will was awake when you came in?”

“Yeah.” Joe continued to dress as their conversation flowed.

“Did he say why?”

“Said he couldn’t sleep, is all.”

“So you talked?”

“Actually we did.”

“Well?”

“It was a private conversation, Adam.”

“Is that so?” Adam’s tone inferred his brother had something to hide.

“Not that there was anything much to be private about, really.” There was exasperation threaded through Joe’s tone.

“Well, then?”

“You can be awful nosey, elder brother. Pa should have taught ya better.”

“He tried.”

Little Joe snorted. “I did ask him about his staying. Told him Pa really wanted him to.”

“What did he say to that?”

“Asked if you, Hoss, and I wanted him to.”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What did you say?”

“I told him we had started to like him and that he would always have a place here.”

“That’s so.”

“Did you know Pa wrote to Uncle John and asked him to come live on the Ponderosa when Will’s mama died?” Joe sat down on the bed to pull on his boots.

“Actually, I did.”

“Wonder what that would have been like,” Joe mused aloud. “You met Uncle John, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I was really young; I don’t remember much about him really.”

“Well, anyways, he didn’t, and Will didn’t after he died, and Will doesn’t know if he’s staying now.” The sentence ended with a double stomp as Joe settled his boots on his feet and stood. “I’m going down and see what that galoot of a brother of ours has left me.”

Adam rose slowly and followed his brother from the room. When they arrived at the dining table, Joe sat down and immediately filled his plate with the remaining ham and eggs. Then he smeared one biscuit with peach preserves and one with cherry. Finally he snagged the only remaining griddle cake and soaked it in syrup. Adam remained standing.

Hoss poured himself a third cup of coffee. “Well, you’re a lucky fellow, Short Shanks, seeing as how I was a bit lacking in appetite this morning.”

“What I’m lacking is another griddle cake. Ya could have at least saved me two,” Little Joe’s voice carried a definite whine.

“Early bird catches the worm, Joe, early bird catches the worm,” Hoss chided and chuckled.

Little Joe simply snorted and snatched the last biscuit from the small basket.

Adam shook his head and began giving the day’s assignments, “Will, You can give me a hand moving some steers down from the high meadow. Hoss, you can oversee the men working on the south corrals. Little Joe…”

“I’ll have the last of those horses broke by noon,” Joe asserted as he washed a mouthful of food down with a large swallow of coffee.”

Hoss’ brow furrowed, “Adam, weren’t. . .” Adam caught his brother’s eye and gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “Fine then. I’ll tell Hop Sing you and Will need lunch but Little Joe will be eating at the house.” Hoss rose and departed for the kitchen. Adam’s eyes went to his cousin who was still seated.

“Is that fine with you, Will?”

Will Cartwright gazed up at his eldest cousin, and a slow smirk curled his lips. “Just fine, cousin, just fine.”

*****

“Here’s your coffee.” Will handed Adam the cup and took a sandwich from him in return. Both men settled on the grass next to the small fire they had started simply for the purpose of brewing a pot. They were in a meadow next to a small creek with the steers they had collected grazing to their right. Adam sat with his back against a tree and studied the man seated across from him.

“No listening ears about even if we set to shouting,” Will observed and then took another bite of his sandwich.

“Do you think there will be a reason for shouting?”

“No, but I do wish you’d get to saying whatever it is that you brought me here to say.”

Chewing the last bite of his own sandwich, Adam took the time to wash it down with a swig from his cup. “Good coffee,” he stated seeming to ignore his cousin’s comment.

“Anyone’s coffee would taste good in comparison to your own, cousin.”

Adam leaned his head back against the rough bark. “So true.” He settled his gaze on Will’s face. “Why haven’t you decided whether you’re staying or going?”

Will took a long swallow from his own cup. “How long did it take you to decide whether you were staying or coming home?” he inquired in return.

“Four years or four seconds depending on how you look at it.”

Will’s lips curled. “Well, I’ve already gone past the four seconds, but I doubt I’ll take the whole four years.”

“My pa. . .”Adam began.

“Is a family man with a very inclusive definition of family,” Will inserted swiftly.

“And that is a bad thing?” Adam’s voice sharpened, and he straightened his back.

“No. It’s just. . .” Will’s voice faded. Then he resumed the conversation. “I was surprised to find that your father had named one of his son’s after our grandfather.”

Adam failed to hide his surprised at both the statement and the veering of his cousin’s thoughts. “Why?”

Will answered with a question, “Did you grow up hearing many stories of your father’s father?”

Adam’s mind flickered through several memories before he answered, “My father tended to speak more of our future than of his past.”

“He told you stories of his sea days and tales of boyhood adventures with and without his big brother; he spoke reverently of our sainted grandmother, right?” He did not wait for Adam’s acknowledgement but continued, “Have you ever thought of how little you know about your paternal grandfather, cousin?”

“Is there something you think I should know that I don’t?”

“No. Like yours, my father rarely spoke of him.”

“Then why are we?”

“I suppose because of two things that he did say.” Adam’s eyebrow rose in inquiry, and Will continued, “He said once that his brother and father had parted badly. Another time he said there was a deal too much of his father in his brother Benjamin.”

Adam’s gaze hardened. “And this somehow is a reason for you to hesitate when it comes to making a life here?”

Will shrugged and once again veered from the conversational path. “Do you remember when you and your father stayed with my family?”

Adam decided to simply answer. “Not really, not clearly anyway.”

“Neither do I except for one thing.”

“One thing?”

“A spanking. I did something mean to you, and your father spanked me for it.”

Adam leaned forward and sputtered, “And nearly thirty years latter this is a problem?”

“No, it is simply the one thing I remember. That and the fact that my father allowed it because your father was family.”

“I fail to grasp your point, cousin.” Adam’s tone made it clear that he felt the reason he did not was because Will was deliberately trying to obscure any real point.

“Did you know that my parents wanted your father to leave you with us at least until he was settled and could provide you a more secure life?”

A thread of anger curled around Adam’s heart. “Obviously my pa didn’t accept any such offer.”

“Obviously.” Will rose to his feet. “You want to know whether I’ll stay or go.”

“Yes.”

“Well, when I decide I’ll let you know.” Will turned and walked toward the horses.

Adam threw the last of his coffee at the fire as he stood. Kicking dirt over the flames, he cursed beneath his breath. When the fire was completely smothered, he sighed. He walked to his horse chiding himself for thinking that he would get a straight answer out of his cousin when Will clearly was not ready to give one. He mounted Sport with a final thought, “He is a Cartwright after all!”

*****

Adam walked into the washhouse and found Hoss soaking in the largest of the tubs. Hoss’ eyes were closed, and Adam considered pushing his brother’s head beneath the water.

“Joe would, but I’m counting on you having more sense, Elder Brother,” Hoss commented without opening his eyes.

Adam’s hands slid into his armpits, “So you’ve taken up mind-reading?”

“I was reading your mind before I was reading books,” Hoss retorted as he straightened his back.

Adam shook his head and grinned. “You do a better job of it too.” He started filling another tub with hot water.

“Being as I’m tired, you can just tell me about why you changed your plans and went off with Will today.”

“I wanted to talk to him.”

“I knew that, brother; what I want is to know what you talked about.”

“Asked him if he plans to stay or go.” Adam added a bucket of cold water.

“Well?”

“He is as of yet undecided.” Adam set two buckets of water next to the tub and began to undress.

“You don’t think he’ll stay, do ya?” Hoss inquired.

”Not unless he can get out what is stuck in his craw.”

“Just what is that?”

“Wish I knew.” Adam lowered himself into the warm water with a sigh.

“Maybe he just don’t see exactly what his place would be.”

“Maybe.” Adam leaned back and closed his eyes. He listened to Hoss finish his bath and dress before speaking again. “Joe talked to Will last night. Are you going to take a shot at him?”

“It’s fretting Pa; he wants Will to stay.”

Adam opened his eyes. “Hoss, have you considered that Pa might have, well, an extra reason for wanting Will to stay?”

“Extra reason?”

“Well, one beyond just the fact that Will is his brother’s son.”

“Pa believes in family, Adam; he believes in family real strong, and Will’s family.”

“That’s true, but. . .”

Hoss studied his brother’s face. “But what?”

“Pa left his family. His parents and his brother and all his other relatives.”

Hoss’ brow furrowed. “Yeah, he did. He had a dream, Adam.”

“He did.” Adam agreed, but his brother saw the speculation in his eyes. “Are you going to talk to Will?”

“I expect I will before long.”

Adam leaned back and closed his eyes. He heard Hoss take a step and grinned. “As you said earlier, I expect you to have better sense.”

Hoss chuckled as he walked out the door.

*****

Will heard the door open and someone step out onto the porch. He sighed and did not turn but continued to stare at the night sky. Hoss crossed the porch to stand next to his cousin.

“Pretty night,” he commented after a few seconds.

Will let almost a minute pass before he said, “I haven’t decided.”

“I know.” Hoss hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “Just thought if there was some question ya needed an answer to, I might be able to help you find it.”

Several more seconds passed before Will spoke. “Your father takes obligations very seriously.”

“You think that’s all you are to Pa, an obligation?”

“How could I be much else?”

“I’ll give ya that when he went to fetch your body it was out of obligation, but you weren’t dead, and he fetched you, not a corpse, back here. It’s you not an obligation that he wants to stay here.”

“Why do all of you think it’s so important to him?” Will’s demand was sharp-edged, and Hoss turned to peer at him through the darkness.

“We don’t think; we know. As to why. . .” Hoss shrugged. “What kind of invitation are you looking for, Will?”

“I don’t need any kind of invitation. I don’t need a home or family ties or anything else the mighty Ponderosa has to offer.” Will spun to stand with his back to Hoss and took a step away.

“There’s lots of things a man don’t absolutely need that make his life better when he has them,” Hoss observed casually. Then he turned and walked into the house leaving Will alone and staring at the sky once again.

*****

Ben Cartwright studied his nephew as they ate. When Will once again left the house immediately after dessert, Ben picked up his pipe and followed the young man down to the corrals.

Will leaned with his arms crossed on the top rail staring into the darkness. Ben walked up and stood next to him. Lighting his pipe, Ben took a deep draw before speaking.

“I’m sorry if you feel pressured.”

“You’ve no need to feel sorry. You saved my life, helped me save my name, and offered me a home here.”

Ben noticed Will had not said that he did not feel pressured. He smiled slightly. His sons, particularly Adam, had given him a great deal of practice in giving as much importance to what was not said as to what was. “You don’t have to stay out of obligation, Will. You have a place here and always will, but you also have the choice to never take it.”

Wills arms uncrossed, and he gripped the rough wood of the rail with both hands. “My father offered you a place with us once.” Will’s tone held a challenge.

“Is there something from the past that we need to discuss?”

Will turned to face his uncle. “Are you trying. . .is there some reason you feel. . .” Will did not complete his question. “My father always said the two of you were close when you were young; he never said why you weren’t later.”

Ben drew in some smoke and then released it. “We went our separate ways. With so many miles between us. . .”

“It was more than that.” Will‘s retort snapped between them.

Honesty is the best policy! He’s man not a child. “Yes, there was more. It’s a long story.”

“Does it involve my mother?” Will’s voice was harsh.

Ben’s eyebrows rose as it occurred to him that his nephew’s conjectures might be far worse than the truth. “It involves the Cartwright family.” Will’s silence was expectant. Ben set down his pipe and continued. “You never knew your grandfather. He was a good man, a good Christian man.”

“You didn’t name your first born after him.”

“No, I understood my father better after having a son of my own.”

“What was there to understand?”

“A great deal.” Ben turned to lean his back against the rails of the corral. “My father loved his wife and his sons, but he was not an affectionate man. He had a temper, he was stern, and he was rigid in his judgments. Still he provided John and me a good home.”

“My father said you and your father parted badly.”

“So we did, and so did they.” He had committed himself to the telling, so Ben continued, “My brother was eighteen when he came to my father and told him he planned to marry. My father deemed it wiser that they wait. Then John told him there was a reason the marriage must take place as quickly as possible.” Ben heard the sharp intake of Will’s breath and knew his body had stiffened. “The banns were read the next Sunday and on the following Sunday your parents were married.”

“But. . .”

“Less than a month later your mother lost the child.” Ben paused to listen for a comment, but Will made none. “Perhaps things might have. . .” Ben ran his hand through his hair. “Your grandmother died six months later, and then there was the matter of the ring.”

“The ring?”

“My mother had one possession of real value, a ring. Its monetary value, though, was of less importance than the fact it had come from her mother who had received it from her mother whose husband had given it to her on their wedding day. My mother, having no daughter, would no doubt have given it to her eldest granddaughter, but, well . . . Some thought it would properly go to the wife of her eldest son.”

“Some people?”

“Your mother and John too, but not your grandfather. I don’t think it was the ring really but what John felt our father’s refusal signified. He thought Father saw your mother as unworthy to wear it.”

“My mother. . .” Will’s anger was understandable.

“Was a good woman. I did not say that it was true or even that Father felt that way, but I think John felt he did, and your mother voiced her thoughts. He and your mother moved away. The first of many moves that each took them further and further from our family home. John didn’t disappear; he wrote, and both Father and I wrote back, but still.”

“And what did my father think his younger brother believed?”

“John knew that I still lived in our father’s house, at least for the next year.”

“And then you went to sea?”

“Yes, against my father’s wishes and without a goodbye.”

“Why?” The anger was gone from Will’s voice.

“Grief does not simply bring sadness. It can bring other things, anger among them. I know this now, but I didn’t then. My father’s grief for the wife he loved, mine for my mother. . .there was not one thing, nothing as simple as a single fight.” Ben faced his nephew and placed a hand on his shoulder. “My father and I lost each other during that time. By the time I found him again, he had long been laid to rest beside my mother, and all my memories of him had been tinged with regret.”

“Wouldn’t that make not losing your brother even more important?”

“John and I never lost each other, not really.”

“Then why didn’t you stay and later why didn’t he come to the Ponderosa?” When Ben hesitated, Will said, “You disliked my mother.”

“No, she was a good woman.”

“What then!”

“She was not a good wife for my brother.”

“And you are the one to judge?” The anger had returned.

“You wanted reasons; I am giving you those I know, those your father demanded also. I did not feel that I could stay; I didn’t want things between us to fester, to destroy. I went west as I had dreamed. When John wrote to me of your mother’s death, I wrote to him.”

“I’ve read the letter.”

“Then you know I wanted you both here.”

“He didn’t come.”

“No, no, he didn’t.” Ben shook his head in regret. “I think he may have felt, well, that to come then would have been a, perhaps it is too strong a word, but I think he felt it would have been a betrayal.”

“A betrayal.” Will uttered the words as if repeating a lesson.

Ben again placed his hand on Will’s shoulder. “Are you hesitating because you feel to stay would in some way be a betrayal of your father?”

“If you think that, why did you tell me, why did you add. . .”

“You asked; you have a right to the truth. I hope you will see the truth. I hope you will see that there is nothing to be gained by your leaving, but there may be a great deal gained by us all if you stay.” Ben picked up his pipe. “I. . .you’re my nephew, Will, and wherever you find a place in this world, you will always have one in my heart.” A night bird called, and then silence settled over them. After a minute, Ben walked back to the house.

*****

Adam looked up from the ledgers as his father walked into the room. Ben had a cup and saucer in each hand.

“I’ve brought you coffee.”

Adam reached out and took the cup from Ben. “Thanks, Pa.”

Ben sat down across from his son. “Almost finished with those?”

“Almost.” Adam took a sip. Looking directly at his father, he set down the coffee and cleared his throat. “Pa, we all. . . I mean each of us has let Will know that there is a place for him here.”

“And he’ll decide in time if he wants to take that place. Until then. . .” Ben shrugged.

Adam cleared his throat again. “When we were talking, Will and I, he, well, he asked me about something, and. . .”

Ben’s eyebrows rose inquiringly as his son shifted and left his sentence incomplete. “Is there something you’d like to ask me, son?”

“Will pointed out that, well. . . it’s true that you seldom speak of Grandfather Joseph.” Adam cocked his head to the side. “Is there a reason?”

“There is always a reason.”

Adam heard the evasion. “If you’d rather not speak of it.” He made a dismissive gesture.

“Some of those we have lost can be spoken of with less pain than others.” Ben set down his coffee. “Truth be told, my father was his mother’s son.”

“I didn’t know my great-grandmother either.”

Ben’s lips curled upwards at his son’s retort. “No, you didn’t. Adam, my father was not a man who expressed affection easily.” Ben saw a thought flicker in Adams’ face and shook his head. “You have some of my father in you, Adam, as do your brothers, but in comparison to your grandsire you are quite affectionate with your family.”

Adam’s eyebrow slid upward. “Is that so?” His tone implied improbability.

Ben’s eyes sparkled. “Absolutely.”

Adam took a swallow of coffee and then grew serious. “Uncle John told Will you and Grandfather parted badly.”

Ben’s eyes darkened. He looked at his son and slowly released his breath. “You can remember my grief after Marie. “ He paused. “After Inger too, for that matter.”

“Pa. . .”

“Your grandfather loved your grandmother very much as did I and John.” Ben set down his coffee cup and leaned forward. “Grief pushed my father and me apart, Adam. I understand now what I didn’t then, but the knowledge came too late. Regret is a painful thing.”

“I’m sorry if. . .I shouldn’t have spoken of it.”

Ben shook his head. “No, no, you boys should know more of your grandfather. There are good memories I should share.”

“In your own time, Pa, in your own time. Now I best get back to these books.” Adam eyes dropped to the ledgers before him, and Ben departed to work of his own.

*****

Will walked over to his uncle’s desk and reached for the paper Ben had requested. His arm brushed against the frame of Inger’s picture and set it rocking. Will reached to still it and then paused to stare at the likeness.

“Do you have a likeness of your ma or pa, Will?” Hoss’ voice startled his cousin, and he stepped away from the desk.

“No, no, I don’t.” Will made his voice dismissive.

“Do you favor Uncle John?” Little Joe’s question was causal, but the eyes of everyone in the room settled on Will.

“No, at least no one ever remarked on a strong resemblance.”

“You favor our father actually.” Ben’s statement caused all eyes to swivel to him. “He had a full mustache, and he was taller, but then he was one of the tallest men in the county.” Ben mentally acknowledged the reason for the surprise in his sons’ eyes and studied his nephew’s face. “So, John, you told your son no more of Father than I did mine, or was it even less?”

“I,” Will began then seemed to change his mind, “I’ve never seen a likeness of my grandfather.”

“No, no, you boys couldn’t have nor of your grandmother either.” Ben’s sigh was audible to all. “I do wish the daguerreotype had been invented long ago. Even Father might have allowed that was worth the price.” The shift of Little Joe’s body as he exchanged a glance with Hoss caught Ben’s eye. He cleared his throat, “Your grandfather was. . .” He cleared his throat again and with a wry smile continued, “Let’s just say he was very conservative when it came to money.”

“He was a skinflint?” The inquiry was voiced by Will, but its match was in the face of each of Ben’s sons.

“Actually,” Ben’s eyes took on an odd sparkle as he answered, “actually, I have heard more than one person call him that.” Then his eyes grew serious again. “He had known some truly hard times when it came to money. Mostly, I think, he wanted to protect us from those, to not make his father’s mistakes.”

“His father’s mistakes?” This time it was Adam’s voice.

“Your great-grandfather was an irredeemable gambler.” Ben watched his listeners’ amazement and then added, “But the most generous and charming man you’d ever meet nonetheless.”

“Not a riverboat gambler?” Joe made his voice sound amazed and then lost himself in a giggle at the look on Ben’s face.

“It is sure enough a shame there ain’t no likeness of Uncle John though,” Hoss interjected returning to the original topic of discussion.

“There was the silhouette though,” Ben mused and then looked at Will. “You have seen that haven’t you?”

Will shifted slightly before answering, “When I was little.” He shifted again. “It wasn’t with Pa’s things later.”

“A silhouette?” Adam intended his words to be a nudge.

Ben leaned back, drew on his pipe, and made the decision to tell the story. “John had left school and started working. He’d come in every Saturday and hand his wages to Father. Father would set aside ten percent for the Sunday offering and then count out ten percent into John’s hand. John would go up to our room and divide those coins evenly. Half went into an old cigar box he had scavenged somewhere and half into his pocket. You can’t imagine how I envied him that money in his pocket. Anyway, he had been working for nearly a year before he spent any of the money in that cigar box.”

“On a silhouette?” Ben had long ago become use to his youngest’s interruption of every story he was told.

“Not just the silhouette. There was a town about five miles to the south, you see, and every other year a fair was held there. One night while Mother cleared the dishes, John spoke up. He asked if he might have permission to go to that fair on Saturday, his master having already given the boys working for him the day free. Father allowed as to there being no reason John shouldn’t attend but pointed out that he would have to go shank’s mare and be home before dark so as not to worry our mother. I was nearly choking on envy when John spoke again and asked Father if I might accompany him. Father looked at John and said, ‘Benjamin has no pocket money of his own, you know.’ I wanted to shout that I was willing simply to trail behind without spending a penny, when John said that it would be his treat. Father nodded and said, ‘He’s your responsibility then.’ Truth be told, that trip to the fair was one of the finest gifts I ever received.”

“You walked five miles to a fair.” That observation came from Hoss.

“You had no pocket money?” was Little Joe’s inquiry.

Ben ignored them both and continued, “We left at dawn with most of the money from the cigar box in John’s pocket, a packet of food from Mother, and a skein of water. It was a beautiful fall day, and our spirits were as bright as the weather. Father had admonished me privately as to the consequences if I didn’t give John due obedience and respect, and I’m sure he had lectured John on his responsibilities. Truth is, I had no desire to spoil the day with poor behavior. John, for his part, was in a magnanimous mood though he explained repeatedly that his pockets were only so deep and serious decisions would have to be made as to how any money would be spent. We pondered possibilities as we walked and arrived at the fair midmorning. It was a grand sight, I’ll tell you. For a while all we did was wander about with our eyes hanging out trying to see everything at once, and there was plenty to see even if John hadn’t had a penny in his pockets.” Ben leaned back with a smile on his face and a distant look in his eyes. “After a time all the sights and sounds and smells sorted themselves out, and we set our minds to choosing how John’s savings could best be spent. We had decided on one show which advertized amazing feats of daring and then a feast from the food booths for each of us when we spotted the man cutting silhouettes. We went over to watch. There were maybe half a dozen people waiting. One by one, they went to stand against a canvas hung between two trees. The man would take a sheet of black paper and start to snip. Minutes later he would hold up an image. The image wasn’t detailed, mind you, but still it was somehow unmistakably the person who had been posing. Actually, I’ve seen other silhouette makers, but I’ve never seen a better one.” Ben paused and shifted in his seat.

“So ya had yours done?” Hoss’ inquiry nudged Ben back to his tale.

“John wanted one from the moment he saw them.”

“But you didn’t.” The observation was Adam’s.

“Oh, I thought them nice but far too dear. I wanted to see that show, and my mouth had been watering the whole time we’d been at the fair.”

Joe’s interjection came next. “But it was Uncle John’s money, so you had no say.”

“Actually, I did though I had no right to one. John was more than fair. In the end, we decided Mother’s sandwiches would do if we bought some cool cider, and John would have his silhouette done. That would leave just enough to let the two of us see a less expensive show in one of the smaller tents. John got in line, and when his turn came the man asked if he wanted a single or a double. You could have a double silhouette done for half again as much, and I’d been standing next to John the entire time. I piped up and told the man we had only enough for a single. John stared down at the money in his hand, and I could tell he wanted to have me with him, but he didn’t want to take away what he’d promised me. The silhouette maker must have noticed something earlier, or he was just a kind man who understood the look in John’s eyes. Anyway he made a remark about having a hankering to do two brothers together and motioned the both of us toward the canvas. John sputtered, but the man waved his hand and declared, ‘Two for the price of one!’ He stood us with me in front of John and John’s hand on my shoulder. When he glued that black silhouette against another sheet of white paper, there the two of us were as plain as day. He hung it up with some others on a line. People could leave them for safekeeping while they explored the fair, and they did double duty as advertising. We went off and had a glorious time until mid afternoon.”

“Did something happen then, Pa?” There was a shadow of concern in Hoss’ voice.

“No, no, the time simply came when we had to leave, and I couldn’t talk John into even half-an-hour extra. He was adamant about not bringing me home late to Father. He was right, of course. We got the silhouette, and John carried it like it was precious crystal. Father was sitting on the bench in front of the house smoking his pipe when we walked up. He drew out his watch, looked at the time, and then smiled. ‘You’re home on time and look no worse for wear, so I’ve but one question, John, and you know how I feel about lying. Did Benjamin mind you the entire time?’ I can tell you I was glad that John could answer in the affirmative. Then Father said Mother was waiting for us, and we all went inside. It was Mother noticed the silhouette in John’s hand. When John rolled it out to show it, she gasped and started to cry. For a moment John and I both thought we had done something wrong, but Father reassured us, and Mother started exclaiming and insisting that the silhouette be hung in the parlor. It was after Father made a frame for it. Father was an excellent carver when he set his hand to it. That frame was a thing of beauty in itself.” Ben’s voice dropped to almost a whisper. “And a sign of Father’s approval.”

“It had your initials.” Will’s voice drew Ben’s eyes to his nephew.

“So it did.”

“Shame as to how it ain’t still here for us all to see.” Hoss’ sense of loss was clear in his voice.

“Yes, a real shame,” As Adam spoke, he scrutinized his cousin.

“Well, things often get damaged or lost when one moves about,” Ben observed, “At least memories never do.”

Adam watched Will shift and turn away to face the fire. “He knows what happened to that silhouette. I wonder. . .”

“I was thinking you or Uncle John would get into some trouble.” Little Joe’s musings interrupted Adam’s thoughts.

“Pa ain’t you, Little Joe. Some folks can go a whole day without no shenanigans.”

“Well, sure but. . . ” Joe giggled, “maybe the stories we need to hear are the ones about Great-grandpa. A gambler did ya say, Pa? Imagine that!”

Ben snorted, ignored Joe, and turned his attention and the discussion back to business. When the discussion was finished, Adam noticed that Will had left the room.

Adam announced that he was headed to bed and ascended the stairs with a thoughtful stride. When he was about to enter his room, he gazed down the hall and made a decision. Rapping on Will’s door, he waited for a response. Seconds later his cousin’s “Come in” came faintly through the wood.

Will was leaning against the window frame when Adam entered, “Something you need, cousin?”

“Just the rest of the story.” Adam stopped and leaned against the dresser.

Will shrugged. “Like your father said, things get damaged and lost.”

“You know when and how.” It was a declaration not an inquiry.

Will did not deny that he knew what had happened to the silhouette in its hand-carved frame. He made a dismissive gesture. “Does it really matter?”

Adam countered with “It does to you.”

Will’s body tensed, and his entire weight settled onto his feet. “I’m not obligated to tell you.”

“You’re not answering might say more than any answers you’d give.”

Will looked appraisingly at his cousin. “Have you always insisted on inspecting other people’s dirty laundry?”

Adam made no reply, but his arms crossed on his chest as his gazed remained fixed on Will’s face. The seconds passed into minutes. Will finally turned and gazed out of the window as he spoke. “My mother and father had an argument. After he stormed out, my mother threw the silhouette against the back wall of the fireplace. The frame broke. Then it all fell into the fire and burned.” Will turned and looked at Adam. “My mother wasn’t quite as saintly as yours. She had a mean temper.” Before Adam responded, Will strode across the room and out the door. Adam straightened as the door banged against the wall and then went to his room hoping his father would wait until morning to investigate what had happened between his son and his nephew.

*****

Will stepped out into the hallway but paused as the voices drifted from the open doorway of Little Joe’s room.

“Leave me be, Hoss. I’ll get up in a minute.”

“You’ll get up now, little brother, if’n ya don’t want me liftin’ you outta that there bed and totin’ ya down to the table just as you are.”

“You wouldn’t do that, ya big galoot.”

“Wouldn’t I?”

“No! I ain’t wearing a nightshirt. Pa’d have a fit.”

“That’s your worry, Short Shanks. It wouldn’t be my moon shining for the world to see. Pa told me to see ya was at the table on time this morning, and one way or the other that’s where ya gonna be.”

“All right all ready. Get out then if you want me to get up and get dressed.” A distinct whine had entered Little Joe’s voice.

“I ain’t leaving until ya got your boots on.”

“Hoss!” Joe’s indignant wail was followed by the sound of creaking bed springs and thumping feet.

Will heard boots on the floor behind him and turned to see Adam coming down the hall. Will looked toward Little Joe’s open door and stepped back to let Adam pass. Instead Adam stopped and leaned against the wall with a smirk on his face.

“You really don’t need to worry about Joe’s modesty; it only asserts itself when he has ulterior motives like extra minutes in bed.”

Will crossed his arms and leaned into the wall behind him. “Some men do like their privacy.”

“Everyone does at times, I suppose, but as I said personal modesty was never one of my baby brother’s chief concerns. He once mooned a whole camp meeting on a dare.”

“Really? I would have thought. . .”

“He underestimated Pa’s ability to recognize a son in any position.”

“To his regret, no doubt.”

“To his regret most definitely.”

“And never took another dare.”

“Joe.” Adam rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the statement. “Joe still takes dares, foolish ones, risky ones, and every other kind. But you have to give it to the kid; he owns up and takes the comeuppance when it comes. He never did tell Pa who made that particular dare.” Adam straightened and resumed his saunter down the hall. Will watched him pass and then cleared his throat. Adam hesitated.

“Was it you or Hoss?”

Adam looked back over his shoulder, gave a shrug of ignorance, and then turned and walked to Joe’s door.

“Get a move on, Joe. Pa wants us all getting an early start.”

Joe’s disgruntled voice answered, “Get this big lug of a brother of ours out of my way then. How’s a body suppose to get dressed with half the town standing around watching and bellowing.”

Will started down the hallway giving only a sideways glance as he passed Joe’s room, but it managed to capture all three of his cousins, and his mind registered the fact that there was no rancor in any of the faces.

*****

“You can just tell me to shut up, you know.”

Will turned his head and gave his youngest cousin a wry grin. Raising one eyebrow, he asked, “I can?”

“Adam does. He says it’s a brother’s prerogative; I guess that can go for a cousin too.” Little Joe gave a nonchalant shrug. “Hoss just starts hearing without thinking like my chattering was the same as some squirrel’s, so it doesn’t get under his skin.” Joe shifted on the wagon seat. “Now Adam, well, he listens until he wants to think about something else, then he can’t take it and tells me to shut up.”

“And do you?” Will drawled giving Joe a pointed look.

Joe grinned, “Sometimes.” They were still a ways from the fencing they had set out to repair, so Joe settled more comfortably on the wagon seat before speaking again. “Adam says they had trouble shutting me up even before I learned to talk and that it’s been impossible since.” Joe deepened his voice in imitation of his elder brother. “Blessed silence is an anathema to you, Joseph,” he intoned and then giggled. “Hoss says the first thing I’ll do when I get to the Pearly Gates is start in bending St. Peter’s ear or else Old Nick’s if I ain’t that lucky.”

Will heard no trace of concern in Joe’s voice. “He might enjoy the conversation.” Will’s comment elicited another giggle from Joe.

“When Adam first came back from school and had some money in his pockets and he really wanted some peace and quiet, he’d bet me a nickel I couldn’t go a half-hour without talking.”

“And did he have to pay up?”

“About half the time. Guess he thought it was worth it though ‘cause he did it quite a few times before Pa got wind and put a stop to it.”

“Why?”

“Why’d he stop it?” Little Joe shrugged. “He never really said.” Joe took a breath and then veered the conversation. “Did ya know our great-grandpa was a gambler?”

“I don’t think it was his occupation, cousin, just his avocation.”

“Well, Pa sure doesn’t advocate gambling. I mean, he makes a bet now and then, and he don’t go around ranting on the subject, but, well, he’s had a few things to say when he thinks I’ve spent too much time at a poker table, and he’s got this frown when any of us. . .” Joe let his thought fade and looked over at his cousin. “Where did Uncle John stand on the subject?”

Will shifted and then cleared his throat. “He hardly ever played cards, and I only know of one bet he ever made.”

“Guess he didn’t take after his grandpa then.” It was a comment lightly made, and Joe was not prepared for the serious tone of Will’s response.

“My pa said once that he had learned about high stakes from his grandfather.” Little Joe held his tongue, and Will’s next comment seemed more of an internal observation than a shared confidence. “I think Pa didn’t bother with gaming because he always gambled for the highest stakes.”

“Like gambling all ya got on a new dream?” Little Joe slipped the question in softly and waited in silence for an answer.

“Over and over again.” Will straightened then and flicked the reins in his hands. His voice was flippant when he said, “Bet ya a nickel you can’t stay silent until we get to that fence.”

Joe laughed. “You’re on, cousin!” In one swift motion, he went over the back of the wagon seat, stretched out, and tipped his hat over his face. Will glanced over his shoulder and rolled his eyes before focusing once again on guiding the team.

*****

They were late getting back to the ranch. The afternoon had been filled with one small delay after another. The lights in the ranch house had been lit before Will drove the wagon into the yard.

Little Joe hopped to the ground. “I’ll pay up on our bet and see to the team, Will; just you see to it that there’s something left when I get to the table.”

“I don’t know about that, Joe; I’m not planning to get between Hoss and any of Hop Sing’s cooking. He nearly took my hand off when I reached for the last chop last night.” Will’s gaze went from his cousin to the porch at the sound of the house door opening.

Hoss stepped out and called, “You two best get your ornery hides into this house right quick. Pa’s had Hop Sing holding supper, and they’ve both got up a full head of steam.”

Will exchanged a glance with Joe and then shrugged. “I’m on my way to wash up unless no one at the table would mind mud, sweat, and stink.”

Hoss ran his eyes over his cousin and brother. They were filthy and looked the worse for wear, but nothing indicated a serious problem had delayed them. “Hop Sing don’t let nothing smelling like the two of you at his table.” He gave an exaggerated sigh. “I guess I’ll just have to see to that team, so the two of you can get clean enough to be presentable before I wither away from lack of food.”

Little Joe gave a whoop of glee. “Good thought, brother. We’ll see who gets to that table first.” He headed toward the washhouse at double speed.

Will looked over at Hoss. “He lost our bet.”

Hoss smiled. “Ain’t the first time I’ve covered his debt. Go on and get washed. Hop Sing’s serving chicken and dumplings tonight.”

“Well, then. . .” The rest of Will’s comment faded as he dashed off after his cousin. Hoss gave a shake of his head and cooed to the horses, “Come on, boys, you’re needing your supper too, I suspect.”

Hoss came in the front door as Will and Joe descended the stairs in clean clothes.

“What delayed you, Joseph?” Ben rose from his chair.

“This and that, Pa, but the job’s done now. Had to replace more posts then we planned, but things should hold up for a good while. Boy, something smells good.”

Ben Cartwright could read his youngest son well enough to realize no further interrogation was necessary. “Well, then let’s get dinner started.” Everyone moved toward the dining table as Hop Sing came in from the kitchen.

“No more wait! Dinner now!” He set a large tureen in the middle of the table and retreated back to the kitchen muttering in Chinese.

The next few minutes were occupied with the filling of plates. When the discussion that followed turned from occurrences of the day to plans for the morrow, Little Joe studied his father’s face and cleared his throat.

“Ya know, Pa, Will and me put in some extra work time today, so maybe we could shave a bit off tomorrow. Just enough to be cleaned up and in town before the night’s half gone.”

Ben paused and glanced from his youngest to his eldest. “If nothing unexpected comes up, I would think all of you boys could be done in time for us to sit down to an early supper. Then anyone who desires to head into town would have the opportunity to enjoy themselves without having to be out until the wee hours of the morning.”

Little Joe kept from rolling his eyes at his father’s last comment and instead flashed a smile at the entire table. “Sounds like a plan. I’ll make sure Hop Sing knows.”

Hoss reached for the last biscuit in the basket, “A night in town does sound pretty good. What about you, Adam; are you coming in too?”

Adam’s eyes swept around the table. “I believe I shall.”

Little Joe studied Adam’s face for a second before exclaiming, “Good! What about you, Pa?”

Ben shook his head. “I think I’ll take advantage of the quiet this house so seldom sees, but you boys enjoy yourselves.” Then catching the sparkle that came into his youngest son’s eyes, he added, “Within reason of course.”

Will watched the glances that his cousins shared as Little Joe hurried to state, “Of course, Pa, everything within reason.” Then with a grin he added, “We won’t do anything that great-grandpappy wouldn’t approve of.”

The look Ben shot Joe caused his son to shift nervously, take a mouthful of dumplings, and then declare loudly, “Hop Sing, I believe these are the best dumplings you’ve ever made.”

*****

“Looks like this hand is mine.” Will Cartwright smiled as he swept the money in the middle of the table toward the stacks of coins in front of him. No one else at the table smiled, and a quite large miner slapped his cards on the table with a growl.

“You’re awful lucky tonight, mister. There wouldn’t be a reason for that, now would there?” The sneer on his face made it clear to everyone what the miner felt was the reason behind Will’s luck at the poker table.

Will picked up his beer and took a swallow before he answered, “It appears Lady Lucky is feeling comfortable on my shoulder. Perhaps she likes the smell of bay rum.”

His comment brought snickers from the other players around the table as the miner’s unwashed body sent off an odor that was decidedly less pleasant than Will’s bay rum.”

The miner was intelligent enough to recognize the insult immediately. “Why…” he jumped to his feet and curled his hands into fists. “I don’t know who you think you are, you. . .”

The scrape of Little Joe’s chair as he pushed it back distorted the miner’s next words and drew his attention.

“Since we haven’t all introduced ourselves, gentlemen, allow me to do the honors. His name is Will Cartwright.”

“Cartwright?” the miner sputtered recognizing the name immediately.

“I’m his cousin Joe Cartwright.” Little Joe paused and without even glancing over his shoulder gestured with his thumb. “He’s my brother Adam.” The room had grown quiet enough for Joe to hear the footfalls approaching, and his grin widened. “And that would be my brother Hoss.”

Adam read the miner’s reaction to Hoss’ arrival and used his “bull of the woods” voice, “Since it’s a long ride to the Ponderosa, and everyone seems to have lost interest in the game, I propose we Cartwrights head for home.” He emphasized the words “we Cartwrights”, saw capitulation in the miner’s stance, and sent a look toward his cousin.

“Well, it is a long ride.” Will picked up his winnings and stood. Little Joe followed suit, and the four Cartwrights walked out of the saloon shoulder to shoulder.

“Pa will be best pleased when we all get home at a decent time,” Hoss observed as they stood outside the door.

Little Joe knew when he was being prodded but decided his pa’s good books might be the preferable place to be. “He would at that.”

“If he survives the surprise,” Adam drawled.

“It’s not like I’m never home on time,” Little Joe sputtered.

“No, but home early and with money in your pocket, now that is a red letter day.” Adam’s tone was blatantly teasing. Little Joe snorted, and opened his mouth for a rejoinder, but Hoss spoke first.

“He’s got ya there, Short Shanks!” Hoss’ good natured-laughter erupted and enveloped them all. “In fact, ya may have to use the stirrup to get up on Cochise with all that silver in your pockets.”

Little Joe performed his swing mount and smirked down at his brothers. “Never!” Come on, you old codgers, moonlight’s wasting.” He giggled at his own joke.

Hoss slapped Will on the back. “Be glad to give you a boost, cousin, seeing has how you’ve got even more weight in your pockets than little brother.”

Will shook his head. “Thanks but no thanks, cousin.” He mounted his horse with ease.

“Ah, that’s right, Will, you are the big winner. I don’t suppose anyone told you about the Cartwright poker tradition.” Adam mounted Sport and waited for his cousin’s inquiry.

“What Cartwright poker tradition?” Will asked as it was clear by the expressions on Hoss’ and Joe’s faces that any poker tradition was news to them.

“Why the one that says the big winner always buys the first round the next time we’re in town,” Adam replied easily and nudged Sport into the road.

Little Joe reacted immediately, “Yeah, that’s one tradition I’ve always believed in upholding.”

“And just how long has always been?” Will asked with a pronounced edge to his voice.

“Why as long as the tradition has been in place.” Joe grinned widely.

Will shook his head and then declared, “Since we wouldn’t want to break tradition, the next time the drinks are on me!”

Little Joe gave a whoop, and the four set off at a pace of which Ben Cartwright definitely would not have approved.

*****

Adam led the way out of the barn followed by Hoss. Little Joe walked slightly behind his brothers and paused when he heard Will say his name. He looked over his shoulder and turned when Will walked up to him.

“In the saloon you didn’t even turn around to look.” The question in Will’s statement was obvious to Joe.

“Didn’t have to. There’s never been a time in any saloon when Adam hasn’t had at least one eye on me. Now, Hoss, he keeps one ear cocked for my voice. That big brother of mine can smell Hop Sing’s cooking a mile away and hear my voice at least that far. Wasn’t a chance in Hades they wouldn’t be standing at my back.” Little Joe gave his cousin a conspiratorial smirk. “Lots of times it’s a burr in my backside, but sometimes it comes in handy.”

“Along with the Cartwright name? You could see his face change the minute you said it.”

“Pa’s worked real hard to make the Cartwright name mean something; around here it does.”

Will’s arms slipped across his chest. “Ben made it clear that he doesn’t agree with the Bard’s ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ I don’t suppose any of you would ever say ‘and I’ll no longer be a Cartwright.’ ”

Joe knew that his father and cousin had fought about Will’s plan to bury another man under his name in an attempt to escape the counterfeiters who were pursuing him. The ease with which Will had been willing to forfeit his name had confounded them all. “We’re proud to be Cartwrights, Will.” Joe’s declaration was clear and vehement; the query that followed was soft and hesitant, “Aren’t you?” When his cousin made no immediate reply, Joe ventured further, “Wasn’t Uncle John?”

“My father was always a proud man.” Will’s voice held a flatness Joe could not decipher.

Joe’s voice became the barest whisper, “Weren’t you proud of him?”

Even in the dim light, Will could read in Joe’s voice and stance the incomprehensibility of a Cartwright not being proud of his father. “My mother never was.” Will was in motion before he uttered the first syllable and left Joe staring open-mouthed at his back.

*****

Will ambled into the kitchen. Hop Sing turned from the vegetables he was chopping. “Mista Will up. Hop Sing fix some breakfast.” Hop Sing set down his cleaver.

“No, no, all I want is some hot coffee.”

“You need eat. Hop Sing fix eggs and. . . .”

“You don’t have to Hop Sing. If there’s a biscuit or two left from the breakfast I slept through, that and some coffee will do fine. It will leave me more room for your Sunday dinner.”

Hop Sing shook his head, muttered in Chinese, and pointed to the kitchen table. Will walked over and took a seat as Hop Sing brought over a cup and the coffee pot. He set them down and went to get the biscuits he had placed in the warming oven to keep until the fifth Cartwright had come down.

“Thank you, Hop Sing.” Will took a second swallow of hot coffee before breaking open and buttering a biscuit. “Everyone’s off at church, I suppose.”

“All Cartwrights go to church Sunday. Every Sunday if snow not block road; if does, read Bible together.” Hop Sing’s tone made it clear that he thought Will should have joined all the Cartwrights.

“Are you asking why I don’t?”

“Hop Sing no ask, not his place, but listen if you tell.”

Will rolled his eyes but replied, “I attended faithfully while my mother was alive. After she passed, well, it was harder when my father and I were moving around.”

“Still father took?” Hop Sing voiced it as a question, but his tone stated he was sure of the answer.

“Yes, more Sundays than not.”

“Then why you not go now?”

Will shrugged. “Out of the habit, I suppose.”

“Go to church should be more than habit.” The admonishment was clear in his voice.

“Yes, it should,” Will agreed. He chewed a few seconds, and then asked, “Has Uncle Ben ever tried to get you to church, Hop Sing?”

“Mista Cartwright no press Hop Sing change what he believe. He think man must make own choice.” Hop Sing went back to chopping. “Hop Sing go to church once to hear Mista Adam sing to his god. Mista Adam sing beautiful to God.”

Will made no comment. Instead he buttered another biscuit and smeared it with peach preserves.

“Next Sunday you go church; please Mista Cartwright all family be at church.”

“Maybe,” Will replied as he shoved the remainder of his biscuit in his mouth. He refilled his cup and departed taking his coffee with him.

*****

Little Joe sat between his pa and Adam on the hard wooden pew. His eyes on the preacher, he sat as if giving rapt attention. He remained still, though, after the preacher gave a resounding “Amen” and asked the congregation to stand. He was still sitting when his father leaned over and hissed, “Joseph!” It was not until Adam’s hand settled on his shoulder with a pain-inducing squeeze that he gave a startled jerk, glanced around, and sprang to his feet as the first verse of the hymn reached its conclusion. When the service was complete, he was not surprised that his father’s hand settled on his arm as the rest of the congregation exited the church. He looked into the scowl on Ben’s face and gave a sheepish grin.

“I wasn’t asleep, Pa, really. I, I was just thinking.”

“You should be pleased, Pa, that the reverend’s words elicited such a deep meditation.” Adam’s tone was silky and sarcastic. The fact that Little Joe ignored Adam’s tone changed Ben’s own.

“What were you thinking about, Joe?” he inquired mildly.

“Just, um, just something Will. . .” Joe words faded, and then he asked, “Pa, what was Will’s ma like?”

“Will’s mother? Why. . .what was Will’s mother like?” Ben repeated his son’s question but made no attempt to answer it.

“Yea, Hoss and I we never met her, you know, only Adam.”

Ben looked past Joe and into the face of his eldest. “Do you remember your aunt?” Adam shook his head. “I thought you might remember. . .” Ben swallowed and then said, “She was a good, Christian woman.”

“Yeah, but. . .” Joe shifted and plunged ahead, “was she. . . did she. . .Will said she wasn’t proud of Uncle John.”

Ben took in a long breath and let it out slowly realizing that all three sons waited for his answer. “Your aunt,” he began and then paused to draw in another breath, “she grew up in the same town as John and I. Not that our families were close, mind you, but it was not a large town. Her father was a deacon in our church, a rigidly religious and unforgiving man. Your aunt, well, she never learned much about forgiveness in that house. She and your uncle, well, truth be told. . .” Ben hesitated. “They’re all grown men!” he admonished himself. “They made an inappropriate choice and when the consequences revealed that, her father condemned her for it. He never forgave her for the shame he felt she had brought to his family. Your aunt, well, she never forgave herself or your uncle for that mistake and carried the burden of believing that anyone who knew condemned her for it. The guilt. . . well, it tainted many things between your uncle and his wife.”

“Did you condemn them, Pa?” Little Joe voiced the question that was in the mind of all Ben’s sons.

“No, no, never in the way she thought I did.” There was a deep weariness in Ben’s voice. His sons exchanged glances, but none of them voiced a further inquiry or opinion. They all moved toward the door of the church. It was not until they had exited and his brothers had moved out of earshot that Adam said to his father, “What was it you thought I might remember?”

Ben studied Adam’s face and then replied, “She spanked you.”

“For good reason?”

“You gave her a reason, but she’d been looking for one because I had spanked Will.” Ben watched the shadows fill Adam’s eyes.

“Is that. . .is that why you didn’t leave me with them when they asked.”

“You uncle asked.” Ben’s voice dropped to a whisper, “No, son, that wasn’t the reason. You were even younger when we left Boston and Abel would have been nothing but loving. The simple truth is that I could never bear the thought of not having you with me. If my selfishness…”

Adam interrupted, “Never, Pa, never.”

Several congregants in the churchyard noticed Ben Cartwright touch his son’s cheek and walk off with his arm around Adam’s shoulder. Some even commented on the man’s affection for his sons.

*****

“We could make this game a little more interesting, Cousin.” Little Joe’s voice had taken on a silky tone. Ben glanced up from the Bible he was reading and settled his gaze on Little Joe and Will.

“And how might we do that, Cousin?” Will drawled the last word and raised his left eyebrow.

“Oh, a little wager on the outcome makes anything more interesting.” Joe’s eyes had take on a definite sparkle.

Hoss looked up from the leather he was braiding. He glanced over at Adam whose eyes had left his book, and they exchanged a significant look. Then Hoss cleared his throat. “Umm, should we warn him, Adam?”

A slight smirk gathered on Adam’s lips. “You mean should we warn our innocent cousin, or remain loyally silent to our little brother?” Both players attention immediately went to the conversation.

“Yeah, that’s what I mean. What do ya think?”

“Well, it is quite the dilemma. I never did like seeing a lamb led to the slaughter, but then Joe is our baby brother.”

Little Joe had started to bristle and at the word baby his cheeks flushed. Will turned toward Hoss and asked, “Just what do I need to be warned about?”

“Yeah,” Little Joe sputtered, “just what does he need to be warned about?”

“I guess since ya both asked I might as well tell ya, Will, that when it comes to checkers Joe can cheat slicker than new boots on ice.”

“Cheat!” Indignation put Little Joe on his feet.

“Now, Joseph, you know that skillful maneuvering of checkers without your opponent’s knowledge is one of your more well-developed talents.” Adam’s cool tone only served to heat his brother’s temper.

“I don’t…”

“You do, Short Shanks. Though to be fair you only do it when ya playing somebody from the family, and that’s cause we let ya when ya was little.” Hoss smiled and kept his voice warm while gauging how far he and Adam had prodded Joe’s temper.

“He cheats at checkers?” Will cast an appraising gaze at his opponent.

“Quite well,” Adam answered, “but, like Hoss said, he only cheats members of the family.” Adam sent Will the same glance he would have sent Hoss. Will caught it and smiled.

“Last time I checked my last name was still Cartwright.”

“Then I wouldn’t make any bets on checker games with Little Joe. Hoss or I haven’t in years.”

Little Joe took a step toward Adam but stopped dead when Ben’s voice rang out, “Joseph!”

“But Pa. . .”

“Son, nothing they have said is untrue.”

“Pa!” It was an indignant wail, and the room erupted with laughter.

“If ya want to gamble with Little Joe, Will, stick to cards. He’s honest as the day is long when it comes to cards,” Hoss observed.

Then Adam added, “And you can always tell when he’s bluffing because. . .”

“Adam!” Joe’s voice drowned out his brother’s. Adam laughed and shook his head.

“Enough.” Ben’s voice carried above all other sounds in the room. “I don’t think bets or cards are appropriate on the Sabbath.”

Joe threw his body onto the settee and muttered, “I bet great-grandpappy bet on Sundays.”

“You would be wrong, young man, and you’d best be glad he isn’t here to hear you say that. Grandfather did not abide disrespect. He had a quick, hard hand and would have considered someone your age still only half grown.”

Little Joe slumped lower. “I didn’t mean any disrespect. You said he was a gambler.”

“And he was, but he was also a good Christian man. Besides he promised my grandmother never to gamble on Sunday. It was a promise he never broke.”

“Great-grandmother didn’t approve of his gambling then?” This query came from Will.

“There were many things of which my grandmother did not approve. She had more reason to condemn gambling than most.” Ben paused and then lightened his tone. “Sabbath was strictly kept in our homes. That checkerboard and even Dickens would have remained on the shelf.” Both Adam’s eyebrows rose. Ben smiled and turned his gaze on Will, “And all beds were empty on Sunday mornings unless the doctor had already been called. In fact we attended services both morning and evening.” Will shifted, and Little Joe made sure only his brothers saw his eyes roll. “I remember one time. . .” Ben looked at his sons faces. A small smirk flitted across his lips. “But Will has probably heard that story, so. . .”

“Pa!”

Will shared a glance with his cousins, leaned back, crossed his arms, and said, “I’m sure I haven’t. Pa seldom told tales on himself.”

“And you expect that I shall?”

“Now, Pa, if you don’t, who will?” Hoss nudged gently.

“Well, actually, John and I had thoughts similar to Joe’s about Grandfather, laying strictness about the Sabbath at Grandmother’s door. When Father took Mother to visit her sister, John and I were sent to stay with our grandparents. That Sunday we attended services with them, of course. Then Grandmother was sent for. She served as a midwife at times, you know.” Ben stopped, shook his head, and continued, “No, I don’t suppose you did, but nevertheless, she was called to assist in a birthing, so we knew she would be gone for hours, most likely until the next day. Grandfather settled in by the fire, and John and I slipped out of the house. We weren’t quite foolish enough to get out a deck of cards in Grandmother’s house, but we reasoned the barn would do and if Grandfather stumbled upon us the most we would get was a scolding.”

“He found you,” was Hoss’ observation.

“You were wrong,” came from Adam.

“How old were you?” inquired Little Joe.

“John was thirteen and should have known Grandfather better, but when it came to our grandsire he had always been a favored and coddled boy.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Ben gave his nephew a smile and said lightly, “Well, it often seemed that way to me.”

“What happened?”

Ben looked at his youngest. “Must you have every detail, Joseph?”

Little Joe grinned, “Every last one, Pa!”

Ben shook his head. “The short version is that Grandfather found us playing cards and stood watching long enough to hear that we were betting, not money mind you but chores. When he said our names, the heart stopped in the both of us. John tried to wheedle our way out of trouble, but it only made him first in line. Grandfather made clear his opinion of our breaking the Sabbath that way and then impressed that opinion on our backsides. We could not help but fidget through services that night and prayed that our father would think Grandfather’s punishment sufficient when he returned.”

“Did he?”

“Yes, in the end he did. It was the only time Father was that lenient.”

“Your grandfather interceded?” Adam voiced the words as a question but just barely.

“My father gave heed to his father until the day Grandfather died.” Ben managed to make the observation ring with the opinion that he expected his sons to heed his father’s example. “Grandfather reminded Father that when he taught a lesson no extra instruction was needed and that Father should know that better than anyone.” Ben saw Little Joe’s gaze go to Adam and an odd smile turn up Joe’s lips.

Little Joe felt his father’s gaze and shifted in his seat. Then a grin spread over his face. “I guess all the quick, hard hands in this family can be laid at great-grandpappy’s door then, though I remember you saying that great-grandfather was a charming man.”

“Oh, he charmed many people who never felt his hand on their backside.” Ben chuckled. Then a gentle smile settled on his face. “He often charmed even those who did. In truth, Grandfather’s hand was as quick to pat or pet, and he gave hugs that are rivaled only by yours, Hoss.”

“He was a big man then?” Will’s voice joined the discussion.

“Tall and strong. All my uncles were tall too. The Cartwrights were known as tall men.” All eyes immediately went to Little Joe who simply snorted. Ben’s voice softened. “You may not have inherited his height, Joseph, but, well, a certain easiness you have with people, the ability to reach out physically, well, I’ve often thought how like my grandfather you are in that way.”

A faint blush rose in Little Joe’s cheeks, and he squirmed at the words. Hoss drew the attention away from his little brother. “Did he have a long life, great-grandfather I mean?”

“He lived to be eighty-two. Barring accidents, the Cartwrights were also known for living to a ripe old age.”

“Longevity. Now that’s something we can all be glad is in our bloodline,” Adam observed drily.

“Ain’t it though!” Hoss’ exclamation filled the room with laughter that included Will’s.

*****

Adam waited until his brothers and cousin had gone upstairs to bed. Then he spoke to his father, “You wrote to your grandfather when I was little.”

“I wrote to my grandfather until I had word of his death.”

Adam shifted and leaned forward resting his elbows on his thighs. “I remember. You and Marie had just returned from New Orleans. You were going through the mail that had been waiting for your return. You told me your grandfather had died. I…” Adam cleared his throat, “I never asked you about him. I wondered but. . .”

“You weren’t really taking to me at the time,” Ben finished for him.

“No, I wasn’t, but, well, did you and your grandfather part badly? Is that why you’ve never really talked about him before?”

“No, no,” Ben sighed. “I suppose I just, well, I thought I was just keeping the past in the past. Maybe I thought if I put my toe in the water, I’d slip and fall in head first.”

“And now?”

“I realize there are things I should share with all of you boys.”

Adam stayed silent for a few seconds and then asked, “Grandfather Joseph… well, I remember you telling me I had only one grandfather.”

“My father died before you were born.”

“How?”

“Fighting a fire. He was injured. Your mother had told me she was with child, and I had planned to write my father with the news. It would have been my first letter in a long time. I thought there was no rush. The letter from my grandfather came before I did. He said… he said Father struggled for three days and then… then he just gave up.” The heaviness in Ben’s voice was clear to his son.

“I’m sorry, Pa.”

“Before we left for the West I took you to meet your great-grandfather.”

Adam’s voice was barely audible when he said, “I wish I could remember.”

Ben’s was just as low when he added, “I wish he could have meet Hoss and Little Joe.” Then he gave a shake of his head. “Some wishes can’t come true. Still. . .” He rose. “It’s late, son.”

“And morning will come early.” Adam followed his father up the stairs.

*****

As they sipped the last of their lunchtime coffee, Little Joe felt Will’s eyes on him and then saw them slide away when he turned his head toward his cousin. “You heard?”

Will did not bother with “Heard what?” but answered, “Ben is sometimes difficult not to hear.”

“And this morning was one of those times.” Joe thought of the dressing down his father had administered to him before breakfast and shrugged. “At least both the house and the bunkhouse have thick walls, or else every hand on the ranch would know all our business.”

“Ben definitely has a knack for dressing a man down. Stance, eyes, voice, just the right edge on his words. It’s no wonder that you all, well, would rather avoid giving him reason.”

Little Joe smiled. “Yeah. Adam says Pa must have developed that skill when he was an officer on The Wander what with Adam’s grandfather there for an example. I think that’s probably true, but that to get as good as he is Pa had to be born with a natural talent.”

“What is Hoss’ opinion?”

“He agrees with me and says God gave Pa the talent ‘cause he knew how much he was gonna need it with the three of us for sons.” Will laughed. Joe let a small smirk lighten his face. “Now I think maybe it’s just another of those Cartwright traits. Adam’s got a pretty good way with a dressing down himself. Did Uncle John?”

Will hesitated a moment before saying, “He could get the job done when he set his mind to it.”

Joe noted the hesitation and the tone. “But he didn’t very often?” Will did not respond. Little Joe nudged. “Was Uncle John not a strict father?”

“Strict?” Will muttered the word. He glanced over at Little Joe. His cousin’s expression loosened Will’s tongue. “My mother was the strict one. When I was little, she took care of the discipline; he really didn’t have to very often, except when I really, really messed up.”

“And when your mama passed?”

“Pa, well, I guess you’d say he kept a slack rein on me most of the time.”

“Most of the time?”

Will chewed the corner of his lip. “About some things Pa had no give. I’d do something thinking if I got caught out, well, that I could slide my way around him just to find out. . .” Will’s words dropped away. Little Joe simply waited. “There were things he just didn’t put up with. I always knew I was dead when he’d stand there all granite and blazing eyes and say ‘A Cartwright doesn’t. . .’ well whatever a Cartwright doesn’t that I just had.”

“I’ve heard ‘A Cartwright doesn’t’ more than a few times myself. Do ya think they got that one from our grandfather? It sounds like maybe he was stricter than Pa even.”

“That phrase has probably been handed down father to son through a long string of Cartwrights, Cousin.”

“Yeah. Hey, Will, you think you’ll use it on your kids some day?” Little Joe’s eyes danced.

“My kids? Don’t plan on having any, little cousin. I’ll leave home and hearth with a wife and kiddies to your branch of the family tree.”

“Ah, Will, we were hoping you’d get busy and give pa some grandnephews and nieces, so he’d be in less of a hurry for grandchildren.”

Will shook his head, and his voice became droll, “I’m afraid I shall have to decline. I nominate Adam as the best man for the job.”

“Yeah.” Joe laughed and then added in a more serious tone. “Adam would make a good pa.” He chuckled softly, “He’s been practicing on me and even Hoss for a long time.” Joe glanced over at Will. “Did you ever wish you had brothers, Will?”

“Once in a while, I guess I thought about having one.”

“Would you have wanted him to be older or younger?”

Will shrugged. “He could have been either.” Will rose and tossed the rest of his coffee on the ground. “We’ve got work to do, cousin. We’d best get on with it if we don’t want another display of Ben’s indisputable talent.”

Little Joe watched his cousin mount up and wondered just what thought had cast the shadows onto his cousin’s face.

*****

“Reverend, I’d like you to meet my nephew, Will Cartwright.” Ben placed his hand on Will’s shoulder. The smile on Ben’s face beamed.

“Very pleased to have you with us.” Reverend Potter shook Will’s hand vigorously. He had heard about the appearance of Ben Cartwright’s nephew in Virginia City and had expected to see him at services much sooner.

Will cleared his throat. “That was quite an interesting sermon, Reverend.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing you regularly from now on.” The speculation in town was that the nephew would seize a good thing when it was handed to him on a silver platter.

Will cleared his throat again, and Ben saved him from a reply. “We’re just hoping to keep him on the Ponderosa for awhile at least.” Ben then moved forward letting other parishioners step up and take the reverend’s attention. After a few steps, Will repeatedly found himself being introduced to politely smiling townsfolk.

“Do you think we should go and save him?” Little Joe stood between his brothers at the side of the churchyard.

Adam rubbed his chin, and the sound that issued from his throat was unintelligible. “Umrump.”

“Iffin’ there’s any hope of Will deciding to stay, we’d best. That’s Gertrude Larson and her momma headed their way,” Hoss declared and started to move forward. Little Joe laughed and fell into step beside his brother. Adam decided enough cavalry had gone to the rescue and stayed put.

“Seems everyone at church this morning wants to make your cousin’s acquaintance.” Roy Coffee had come to stand at Adam’s right.

“Will does seem the popular fellow this morning,” Adam replied dryly.

“Especially to families with eligible females of the right age,” Roy observed. Adam turned to look at the sheriff and raised his eyebrow. “The thought of another bachelor on the Ponderosa named Cartwright has the town matchmakers chaffing at the bit.”

“I’m afraid they are destined to be disappointed; I don’t think Cousin Will is the marrying kind.”

Roy Coffee’s voice grew serious, “Have you figured out just what kind he is, Adam?”

Adam’s right hand came up and tugged his left ear. Roy was one of the few people who knew the entire story of Will’s involvement with those counterfeiters. “He’s an honest man, Roy; I have no doubts about that really.” He gave his ear another tug. “He hasn’t any designs on a share of the Ponderosa, not the way some people might think.”

“You’re sure about that, are ya?”

With a final tug, Adam declared, “Positive.” He watched as his father, brothers, and cousin started striding purposefully in his direction. “We plan on lunch at the International, Roy; would you like to join us?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Roy agree affably, and they moved to join the family group.

*****

“Guess I still have room for some apple pie,” Roy Coffee leaned back and patted his stomach.

“Chocolate cake for me!” Every man at the table could have predicted Joe’s choice.

Adam rolled his eyes and requested cherry pie as did Will while Ben and Hoss opted to join Joe. Joe smiled at the girl taking their orders and elicited a promise that his piece would be the biggest.

“Durn, Little Joe, now why would a smart gal give a puny fellow like you the biggest piece when a fellow my size is sitting at the table,” Hoss grumbled good naturedly.

Joe flashed a huge grin and preened. “Now, do I really need to explain, big brother, or will one good look at me do?”

Hoss shrugged. “No matter how big that piece is it ain’t gonna be bigger than the two pieces I intend to have before I’m through.” Hoss rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Or maybe if Roy says it’s prime, I’ll just top my cake off with a big slice of that apple pie.”

Ben shook his head and looked across the table at Roy. “Is it any wonder that Hop Sing has to send in for supplies two or three times a week?”

“And I thought the third time in a week meant one of the boys had a hankering for town and bribed him,” Roy replied with a grin of his own.

“Now, don’t go giving away Little Joe’s secrets,” Adam said dryly which set Joe sputtering. Luckily, the girl arrived with their desert and took attention from the conversation.

After a few bites of pie, Roy started it again. “Maybelle Lewis’s solo sounded real nice this morning.” He turned his head to give Adam an inquiring look. “Haven’t heard no hymns from you in a good while. When are ya planning to give the congregation another solo?”

Adam shifted in his seat, glanced at his father, and then said, “Not until I can’t avoid giving the reverend a definite answer, so you should be safe for a while yet.”

“Now, Adam . . .” Ben began. It was Will’s voice that interrupted.

“Hop Sing said he had gone to the church to hear you sing.”

“And did he mention that happened only once?” Adam said in an attempt to be self-deprecating.

“Actually, he said, and I quote, ‘Mista Adam sing beautiful to God.’”

“And he was right,” Ben declared. “You sing often enough for your own pleasure, son, and the pleasure of others, I simply don’t understand why you agree so seldom to sing for God’s pleasure in His house.”

Little Joe looked at his elder brother and smirked, “I guess you ain’t noticed that Adam has to wade through every unmarried female church-goer and most of their mamas when he does.” Joe felt Adam’s boot on his shin, but as he had expected the blow he managed not to yelp.

“Yep, our big brother’s voice singing them holy words does seem to put some less than holy thoughts into some minds. Adam just don’t want to encourage that kinda thinking in God’s house, Pa.” Hoss chuckled and managed to avoid Adam’s boot.

Ben’s eyes darkened. “I don’t think your brother’s use of his God given talent to praise the Lord should be an object of jest.”

“I think it should stop being the topic of discussion completely.” The glare Adam sent his middle brother did connect.

“Did Adam inherit his voice from the Stoddards or the Cartwrights?” Will’s question turned heads in Ben’s direction.

“Neither.”

“Neither, but . . .?”

“He inherited it from my mother’s father, and he was a Winfield.” Ben watched as each of his sons and his nephew appeared to register for the first time that they had more than one great-grandfather. “My mother’s family lived more than a day’s travel from us, so we did not visit often, and my Grandfather Jacob died when I was nine. My clearest memory of him is of his singing.”

“I always thought. . .” Adam’s soft mutter faded away but not before Ben heard it.

“Your mother loved music and to me her voice was beautiful, but in truth, well, a marvelous singing voice was not one of my criteria in choosing any of my wives.” Ben looked at Will, “It was Brother John that fell in love with a singer.” Will’s eyes widened, and Ben saw the amazement in their depths. “Your mother had a truly lovely signing voice, Will.”

Will’s eyes were locked on his uncle’s, and he seemed to forget the presence of others at the table. “I don’t. . .she did?”

“Yes, she often sang at services, sometimes with her sister and sometimes alone. John told me once that he first realized, well, that he had feelings for her while he was listening to her sing.”

Confusion set into Will’s eyes. “She never. . .I don’t remember ever. . .well, with everyone at church but not. . .”

Ben ran his thumb around the rim of his coffee cup once, then again, and again. “Your grandfather had some very strict, very, shall we say Puritan religious views. Your mother and her sister were only allowed to sing hymns. He felt the gift of their voices should be used only in the praise of God. Oh, not that they didn’t sing outside of church but only hymns.” Ben paused, and his thumb traced the outline of the rim yet again. “It’s not a story I know firsthand, but, well, we lived in a small town and in a small town. . .” Ben shrugged and then continued, “Your mother would have been, oh, fourteen or fifteen. There was some sort of social gathering, and a group of young people started singing popular songs of the day, old favorites, and the like. Your mother joined in. They were having a grand time until your grandfather walked up. He grabbed your mother by the arm and took her home. Word had it that her punishment was quite severe. No one I know ever heard her sing anything but a hymn after that. Even after she married John. . .well, your mother kept strongly to the beliefs she was taught as a child.”

Ben’s sons sent glances racing around the table but held their tongues. Roy shifted uncomfortably. Will dropped his eyes to his plate and took a large forkful of pie. A heavy silence hung over the table.

“Sure a shame she gave up singing,” Hoss observed softly. “I remember Ma singing around the house, singing lullabies to Little Joe.”

“Not even lullabies, Ben, not even a lullaby to Will.” His brother’s voice echoed in Ben’s head. “Marie did love to sing. We were fortunate to hear her often.” Ben’s voice still caressed the name of his wife.

Will looked up in time to catch the roll of Adam’s eyes, and the nearly imperceptible wince when Hoss’ boot connected with Adam’s calf.

Roy Coffee took it upon himself to lead the conversation in a different direction and began a discussion of a new proposal by the city council. After Hoss’ second piece of cake, Roy announced that he had to depart and took his leave.

“Pa.” Little Joe’s hand absent-mindedly tapped his empty fork against the table, “I’ll see the rest of you later at the house.”

Hoss nudged Adam. “Gonna do a little courting, are ya, Short Shanks.”

“Uh,” Joe cleared his throat, “uh, no, I. . .I thought I’d go up to the lake for awhile.”

Ben’s voice held a different tone than Will had expected when he said, “Try to be home in time for supper.”

“I will, Pa.” Joe grinned. “I promise.” He was on his feet and headed for the door in seconds.

Ben gazed around the table. “Are the rest of you headed home, or. . .”

“I need to keep an eye on Sunbeam,” Hoss declared, “so I’ll be riding with ya, Pa.”

“I want to start that new book I picked up Friday.” Adam stated as he rose.

“I,” Will began, paused, and then said, “I’m headed home too.”

*****

Will waited until Ben and Hoss had pulled ahead to move his horse closer to Adam’s. He voiced his question softly but directly, “I gathered that you did not enjoy Marie’s signing as much as Ben did, am I right?”

Adam looked over at his cousin. “My stepmother had a pleasant voice, soft and often lilting, but she sang off-key, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot but without exception off-key.”

“And your musical sensitivity found that offensive.”

“Not offensive.” Adam gave his cousin another glance. “At first I found it grating, later, well, I guess you could use the word enduring. I missed her singing after she was gone.”

“”My father was pleased when he got Ben’s letter saying he had married yet again; it made me wonder. . .” Will did not complete his thought.

“Wonder what?”

“Well, my mother had been gone for, um, a few months. I wondered if he might marry again and give me a stepmother.”

“But he never did?”

“No, no, he didn’t, but then most of the places we went, well, let’s just say the pickings were lean and already gleaned.” Will did not look at Adam when he asked, “Are you glad your father did?” Then before Adam could answer, he added, “Or are there two answers to that question? Ben did give you two stepmothers.”

“I. . .I never think of Inger as anything but my mama. Truth is I loved her before Pa did.” There was the edge of affront in Adam’s voice.

“That wasn’t true with Marie though, was it?”

“No, but I learned to love her in time.”

“So the answer is that you are glad?”

Adam stopped his horse to turn toward his cousin. “My stepmothers gave me my brothers. That alone would make me glad.”

“That would be a better reason than most,” Will observed as his heels sent his mount loping down the road.

*****

Will walked down to the working barn and found Hoss leaning against the half-wall of a stall that held a pregnant mare. “Ben says that supper will be within the half-hour. He put Hop Sing’s soup on to heat and is cutting meat for sandwiches even as we speak.”

“I’ll head back with ya then. I don’t think she’ll be needing me before tomorrow,” Hoss replied.

“Do you think she’ll have a problem with the birthing?”

Hoss wiped his hands on his pants. “Ain’t no real reason to think she won’t be able to handle it all herself.” He wiped his hands again. “It’s just a feeling I have.” He took a few steps toward the door.

“I thought Little Joe did most of the work with the horse operations?” Will fell into step next to Hoss.

“He does; he’s been overseeing them for about four years now.” Will could hear the pride in Hoss’ voice at his brother’s accomplishment.

“But he’s up at the lake, and you’re here with the horse?”

“Oh, well, yea, but that ain’t . . .I mean. . .I’m the one who sees to some things. Adam calls me the Ponderosa midwife. Joe, well, Joe’s got a way with horses, but, well, he ain’t got a way with a birthing; he’s too excitable. When a mama’s bringing a youngun into the world, well, they need them that’s calming with them, steady and calming.”

Will gave his cousin an appraising glance and conceded mentally that if he was having to give birth he might well prefer Hoss at his side than Little Joe. He decided to ask a different question. “Why did Joe go up to the lake? I would have thought it more likely he would stay in town or, like you said, go off courting.” Will listened to Hoss clear his throat. “He wouldn’t be meeting some girl up there, now would he? Ben seemed. . .”

“Little Joe went up to the lake to visit his mama.”

“Visit his mama?” Will’s voice held confusion.

“Ma’s buried up by the lake. Little Joe, well, he goes up to visit her grave real regular. Pa knows he goes up there to, well, that he feels like he can talk to her up there. It helps Joe think things through.”

“Oh. . .I. . . I see.” Will seemed uncomfortable. “We, I mean, Pa and I visited my mother’s grave until we moved. After that, well, we were never close enough.”

“Adam’s mother is buried in Boston; he visited her grave when he went back East to school. My mama, well, I know about not being close enough.”

“You always say Ma when you are talking about Marie.”

“She was my ma, the only one I remember, like my mother was Adam’s mama.”

“You were closer to Marie than Adam was.” Will made it sound like a foregone fact.

“Now, I don’t know as that is exactly right. It was different with me and Ma than with Adam and Ma, but I don’t know as how closer is the right of it. I might’ve loved her quicker and all but. . .” Hoss shrugged, “Love ain’t for measuring with a ruler.”

“Does Joe, I mean he was what, less than five; how well does he remember his mother?”

Hoss rubbed his chin. “He remembers some, but truth probably is that a lot of what he remembers is remembering what Adam, Pa, and me have said. We always talked to Joe a lot about Ma.”

“You did?” Will chewed the corner of his lip before an admission slipped out. “My pa and I didn’t, well, we didn’t talk much about my mother after she was gone.”

“Pa never could talk to me and Adam that much about our mamas either. I guess, well, I guess the three of us trying for Joe made it easier. ‘Sides when Joe gets his hook into a question, well, he just never lets ya slip off.”

“Really?” Will’s sarcastic drawl set Hoss laughing. “So Joe feels he knows his mother and can talk to her.”

“Yea, he does. Joe thinks of his mama as an angel watching out for him.”

“That’s nice for him.” Hoss wondered if it was envy he heard in his cousin’s voice. Then the sound seemed more like bitterness. “Was she an angel here on earth?”

“Not many angels walking around down here full time.” Hoss thought about things he now knew about Will’s mother. “Adam says Joe, well, the word he uses is idolizes; Adam says Little Joe idolizes his mama, and I guess he does. Of course, we kept giving him mostly angel memories, so I expect it’s to be expected.”

“Adam doesn’t idolize Marie though.”

“No, no, he saves that for my mama.”

“Not his own?”

“Not the same way. She’s the angel from the story; his mama was the angel in his life.”

“And you?”

Hoss smiled. “Pa and Adam are always telling me I’m too quick to see the good in people, and to just keep on seeing it; well, that might be true, but it don’t mean I don’t see folks clear. I guess I just don’t mind folks having warts is all.” They had reached the ranch house yard, and the sound of a horse and rider drew the attention of both men.

“Hey, Short Shanks, you’re just in time to keep your promise.”

Little Joe swung down from Cochise. “Yea, that’s me and my perfect sense of timing.”

Hoss laughed and in a few seconds Little Joe and Will joined him.

*****

Adam closed his book and stretched. “I think I’ll follow Joe and Hoss’ lead and turn in.” He rose. “Good night, Pa. Night, Will.”

“Good night, son.” Ben watched Adam ascend the stairs and then switched his gaze to his nephew who sat silently staring at the cards laid out before him. While Will had supposedly been playing solitaire for the past hour, Ben noted that not more than three plays had actually been made. He rose and walked over to stand next Will.

After a few seconds, Will acknowledged his uncle’s presence by turning his head and looking up into Ben’s face. “Is there anything else you know about my mother that I don’t?”

“There are always a great many things we don’t know about a person, even those we know and love best.”

To Will Ben’s statement sounded like a platitude and even more like an evasion. “Well, next time you decide to share a tidbit about my mother that makes me looks like. . . like a. . . well, I’d appreciate being informed without an audience.”

“I’m sorry if you were embarrassed, Will; there’s really no reason you should be.”

“There isn’t?” The words snapped, and a long breath escaped with a hiss. “I didn’t know. . . hadn’t even thought. . .” Will slapped the cards he still held onto the table. “Adam says Marie sang off-key.” The words had a cutting edge.

Ben smiled. “She did.”

Will shook his head ruefully. “You found it enduring, I suppose?”

Instead of answering Ben said, “Your mother couldn’t dance.”

“My grandfather allowed his daughters to dance?”

“No. John tried to teach her after they were married, but she had two left feet. He teased that she said dancing was of the devil simply so no one would know.” Ben chuckled and then added, “John loved to dance.”

Will swallowed. “He did. I didn’t know until one night; it was at least two years after my mother passed. We were in a camp town. I was so surprised when I saw him. He danced for hours that night.”

“That brother of mine would dance with anyone: little girls, old ladies, wallflowers. Father would grumble after a dance that John always needed new soles on his shoes.”

“He didn’t dance while he was married to my mother.”

“No, no, he wouldn’t.” Ben’s voice was soft and melancholy.

Will pushed back his chair and rose on one swift motion. “One more thing to lay at her door, hey, uncle?” Will spun on his heel and strode toward the stairs.

“Will!” Ben took a step forward but then stopped. After a second he walked toward the fire place, placed a foot on the hearth, and leaned against the mantel to stare into the dying flames.

*****

“Joe!”

Little Joe pulled Cochise to a walk and looked back over his shoulder at his cousin. “Yeah, Will?”

“Tell Hop Sing I won’t be there for supper.”

Cochise was reined to a complete stop. “You won’t be to supper? Why not?”

“I’m going into town; I’ll get something there.” Will’s words were quick and clipped.

“But. . .” Joe sputtered as Will had spurred his horse into a fast trot. Little Joe chewed his lower lip. “He’s had a burr under his saddle all day.” Making a decision, Joe shouted out to one of the hands returning with them. “Hank, tell them up to the house that Will and I headed into town and not to hold supper; we’ll be eating there.”

“I’ll see to it. Is something. . .”

Little Joe shook his head. “Just need a bit of relaxation. Tell my pa, well, tell him not to worry if we’re a little late getting back.”

“Sure thing.” Hank waved and rode on toward the ranch house.

Little Joe turned Cochise toward Virginia City. The horse gave a whinny of protest. “I know, Cooch, and I’m sure I’m gonna be regretting this the next time I see Pa, but. . .” he gave a mental shrug and set Cochise into a gallop designed to catch up to his cousin.

“What the . . .” Will had stopped at the sound of the approaching rider.

Joe pulled his horse beside Will’s with a flourish. “Thought I’d join you, Cousin!”

“Why?”

“A night on the town just sounded too appealing to let you have it all to yourself.” Little Joe flashed a broad grin.

Will raised his eyebrow. “Ben’s not going to be too happy,” he observed.

“No, but, hey, you’ll get half his efforts, so. . .” he broadened his grin, “Let’s go!” Cochise shot off at the nudge of Joe’s heels. Will shrugged and followed.

*****

Little Joe leaned his chair back on two legs and sipped his beer. Will had declined the suggestion of a meal at the International House, and Joe had followed him to a saloon on D Street which obviously catered to a less demanding clientele than the Silver Dollar or even the Bucket of Blood. Supper had consisted of overcooked beef stew and undercooked biscuits washed down by his first tepid beer. Now they sat at a sticky table that rocked listening to an out of tune piano. Will had made no move to join one of the three poker games currently in progress, nor had any of the half dozen girls enticing the men to drink caught his attention, and his first beer was only half gone.

Joe took a larger swig and then wiped his hand across his mouth. “Looks like I’m just gonna have to ask what in Hades we’re doing here!” He settled his chair back on four legs and leaned forward, “There are other saloons in town if. . .”

“You’re free to go where you like, Cousin.” Will’s tone raised Joe’s hackles, but Joe bite back his first reply.

“When ya got a burr under your saddle sometimes another set of eyes can help you find it and pull it out.”

Will leaned back and stared at Little Joe. “Perhaps the only burr under my saddle is . . .” Little Joe expected to hear some version of the word you, but Will shrugged and said, “Look, little cousin, I don’t know why you followed me here, but maybe you should just call it a night.”

“And maybe you should just tell me what you’re doing eating lousy food and barely drinking lousier beer while that music sets our teeth on edge.”

“The food wasn’t that bad.”

“The pot scrapings Hop Sing throws out are better.”

“That may be true. . .”

“May be?” Little Joe challenged and let his lips turn up slightly. Will shrugged again. “Admit it, Will, or next time Hop Sing’s cutting pie, I’ll just happen to mention. . .”

“Okay, okay, we gave up seats at one of the best tables in the territory for, well, bar fare and not too good a bar fare at that.”

“You going to tell me why?”

“Let’s just say nostalgia.” Little Joe’s nose wrinkled at the word. Will sighed. “Cousin, I’ve eaten a durn sight more suppers like tonight’s than any other kind. You’re spoiled, you know.”

“Adam’s told me that lots of times.”

“I meant the lot of you.”

This time it was Little Joe who shrugged. “In some ways I guess that’s true, but just what about that is eating you?”

“Nothing, nothing at all.” Will picked up his beer and downed the remainder in one long swig. “Looks like I need to go get another.” He rose and strode to the bar.

Little Joe chewed his lower lip and took a few seconds to look around the room. Two men walked in as his eyes focused on the door. “Good Lord not those two!”

The Fairley brothers spotted Little Joe immediately and sauntered over standing close enough for the rank odor of their sweat to reach Joe’s nose.

“Now if it ain’t Baby Boy Cartwright just as big as you please down here elbowing aside the riff-raff,” Jake Fairley boomed. Little Joe told himself neither Fairley was worth the effort and simply took a sip of his beer.

“Iff’n I’d known we was gonna be in such high and mighty company, brother, well, I just mighta taken myself a bath. Nawww, the pretty boy here has got this place smelling like a Ladies’ Society tea as it is.”

“I’m sure it won’t take long for you to have it smelling like a pig sty again.” The words slipped off Joe’s tongue as he set down his mug.

“Oh, pretty boy, does the smell of a real man offend you? Guess when you’re raised with the smell of a French trollop’s perfume filling the house. . .” Little Joe’s fist ended Jake’s insult and sent the elder Fairley sprawling across the table behind him. He came up swinging, and his brother moved at Little Joe from the right only to find himself pushed back by a fellow he had never seen before. Will blocked Jonah’s first jab, but the second connected and sent Will backward into the wall. The fight didn’t end until four chairs, two tables, and over a dozen glasses had been broken; and Roy Coffee had fired a shot into the back wall over the heads of the four combatants.

*****

Little Joe listened to the snores of the Fairley brothers as he pondered the fact that things could be worse. After all, he was sharing the cell with only Will and not the Fairley brothers, the cell had two bunks, both bunks had a decent blanket, and Roy Coffee kept his entire jail clean and free of any vermin with more than two legs. Roy had given them clean towels and warm water to clean up any blood, and no one’s injuries amounted to more than cuts and bruises, even if every single one of them ached. Old Frank Nagin had volunteered to ride out to the Ponderosa that night. Of course, his motivation was probably the fact he knew Ben Cartwright would never send him back so late but would give him a bed in the bunkhouse and a good breakfast in the morning in addition to paying him for his messenger duties. At least Pa and his brothers would know they were in one piece. The thought that Pa would also know he was spending the night in jail and why was a matter best not dwelt upon. Joe sighed. There was no doubt in his mind that hoping Hoss would bring in the money for the damages and arrange their release was wasted effort. Little Joe chastised himself for pure stupidity. He was going to pay the piper a hefty sum, and he had not even gotten to dance. He glared over at Will who was sprawled on the other bunk. Will took no notice as his hat was tipped down over his eyes.

“How’s this for nostalgia, Cousin?” Little Joe’s voice held the sharp edge of frustration.

“Been in worse.” Will rolled onto his side and pushed back his hat. “If someone had had the foresight to bring enough money to cover the damages as well as the fine, we could be almost home by now.”

“Yeah, if only someone had had a little foresight. Of course, my brothers say I never think ahead.” Joe’s sarcasm dripped onto the floor. Will stepped over it.

“Next time, I’ll remind you to tuck a little spare cash in your boot.”

“Just the place for a few bills when you’re pulling a cow out of a mud hole.”

“Well, there is that.” Will agreed amiably and chuckled.

Little Joe shook his head and stretched out. “Ain’t no sense in spending the night awake.” He pulled the blanket up to his shoulders.

“No, there isn’t.” A few minutes passed before Will spoke again. “I take it this was just a continuation of an old fight.”

“Real old. The Fairley brothers picked me out for a target when I was, oh, about eleven. Jonah’s only two years older than me.”

“Any particular reason?”

“I had what they didn’t. That seemed to irritate them real bad. I don’t run into them much anymore, though.”

“Sorry I saw to it that you did tonight.”

Joe leaned up on one elbow. “The fight wasn’t your fault, Will. Thanks for jumping right in.”

“No thanks needed, little cousin.”

Joe shook his head at the little but let it pass without comment. A few silent minutes passed before Will spoke again.

“What’s the first fight you remember being in?”

Little Joe was not surprised at the question. The tone was a familiar one for men who spent time sitting in the dark around flickering campfires.

“Umm, I was maybe six, no five, ‘cause my mama. . .yeah, I was five, and I got into a fight with Jimmy Miller behind the church during the Fourth of July picnic.”

“Who won?”

“Nobody really. We were rolling around throwing a few punches and pulling hair when Adam came along and jerked us apart.”

“Did Ben set off a few early fireworks when he heard?”

“He never heard. Adam popped each of us a good one on the behind, scared us both to death about getting caught fighting on church grounds, and then cleaned us up before sending us back to our mamas.”

“I would’ve thought, well. . .”

“Yeah, but Adam weren’t as grown then as later, and, well, I was little enough to be real pitiful when I was scared.”

“Lucky for you.” Will sent Joe a wry grin.

“Yeah. What about you?” They both knew the rule for these conversations was tit for tat.

“Six. Second day of school during the lunch recess. Fought Andy Crawford because we both wanted to sit next to Missy Dexter.”

“Who won?”

Will’s voice softened. “Both of us really. Not at first, of course. The teacher broke it up and gave us each three good licks with her switch.”

“I wouldn’t call that winning,” Joe observed.

“No, but, well, when we were leaving for home Ephraim came up and stopped us both. He went down on his heels and put a hand on each of our waists.” Will’s voice told Joe his cousin was deep in his memory. “He was Missy’s big brother. He, well, he told us that his folks were raising Missy to be a lady and ladies didn’t like folks yelling and hitting and rolling around in the dirt and making them part of a commotion. He said if we really liked Missy, we would have asked her who she wanted to share the bench with her. He said other things like that and had us shake hands. The next day he got the both of us, and he and Missy and Andy and I had lunch together. Missy brought a dozen sugar cookies.” He paused and then murmured, “I haven’t thought of Missy and Ephraim in years.”

“That Ephraim seems like a good sort.”

“Yeah, he, well, he sort of kept an eye on Andy and me after that, well, for awhile anyways.”

“Awhile?”

“The Dexter’s up and moved about three months later. Andy and I stayed friends, though, for years.” Will rolled over with his back to Joe. Joe had learned to listen to a person’s breathing to tell if they were asleep. He knew Will was still awake when he drifted to sleep himself.

*****

“Good Lord in Heaven, he sounds just like Pa.” The thought crossed Will’s mind yet again as Ben’s voice continued to bellow. Fighting the urge to lower his eyes to the floor, Will shifted slightly and gazed over his uncle’s left shoulder. Ben had arrived about twenty minutes after the Fairley brothers’ departure. The door between the outer office and the cells had wacked the wall to announce Ben’s entrance. Since then his uncle had paced in front of their cell pausing periodically to glare at the two inmates. His voice had fluctuated from thunderous roar to vehement hiss and back again. “And he’s just as good at making me squirm, inside anyway. Probably because I can’t really disagree with anything he’s said.” Will opened his mouth and then closed it without speaking; his cousin’s final advice when they had heard Ben’s voice in the outer room had been “Stay quiet and just ride it out.”

“Is that clear!” Ben’s voice was flat and hard as a steel blade. Will heard Joe’s “Yes, sir” and felt it sufficient.

“Is that clear!” The volume had increased two-fold, and Will blinked.

“Very clear, Uncle.”

“And it will be done completely and correctly before you even think of coming back to the house.” Ben dropped the finger he had been pointing at Little Joe and turned on his heel. “If you are extremely lucky, Hop Sing will leave your supper in the warming oven.” With that Ben strode out to pay Roy what was needed.

Will turned and looked at his cousin. “Your theory on getting only half his efforts was a poor one. Clearly, he simply doubled them.”

Little Joe shrugged. “It’s like most kinds of misery, though; ain’t as bad when you have company.” He grinned. “I counted seven times before I quit. How about you?”

“He said ‘A Cartwright doesn’t’ at least ten times. He also used every single word I have ever heard for self-centered behavior.”

“Yeah, and Pa knows quite a few.”

Roy Coffee’s entrance with the cell key ended their conversation.

*****

Little Joe looked at his cousin. Will’s legs and arms were encased in mud while the rest of his body was splattered heavily with the same muck, and from the feel of it his own body must appear much the same.

“Completely and correctly done?” Will drawled.

Joe nodded. “Completely and correctly, so in, oh, say an hour and a half, we should be home ready for that meal in the warming oven.”

“Are you sure there will be a meal in the warming oven?”

“Yeah, and if he got over being mad quick enough Hop Sing will have made something that doesn’t dry out or go tough with the sitting.”

“Better add a half-hour to that estimate just for getting this muck off.”

“Hoss will see that there’s plenty of water hot when we get home and if we’re lucky he’ll volunteer to see to the horses.”

“Taking care of little brother, uhh?” Will observed as he mounted his horse.

“I told you sometimes it comes in handy,” Joe replied as he swung onto Cochise.

They rode a few minutes in silence before Joe ventured an inquiry. “Will, you know, I mean. . . well, Pa treated you like he did me, not like a hand or like a guest or anything.”

Will slowed his mount and looked over at Little Joe. “Yeah, I noticed that he treated me like his youngest.” He turned his head away. “If it had been Adam and you last night, would it have been Adam and you doing a complete and correct job?”

Little Joe’s brow wrinkled. “I can’t see Adam. . . yeah, it would have been the two of us doing the same dirty job to pay the piper.”

“Really.” The edge of disbelief was clear in Will’s voice.

“Really.” It was a statement of affirmation. “Will,” Joe started then let his voice fade, and they rode in silence for the next few minutes. Then Little Joe said softly, “Adam and I talked about it once. He said, well, lots of things, but one thing he said was everyone has a piper to pay one way or another; he said Pa was a better man than most to let set the price.”

“That’s what Adam said?”

“Yeah, and he said something else too; he said that if the thought of getting punished chaffs to just think of it as atonement.”

“Atonement?”

“Yeah, atonement.” Little Joe let a grin lighten his countenance. “Hoss, well, Hoss has always seen the sense in, well, laws and rules and family ways and such. He says if ya go and do wrong don’t go grossing about the price of learning your lesson.”

“Is this lesson going to be marked paid in full or does further atonement await us?” Will’s tone had grown lighter.

“Pa won’t be mad tomorrow, still a little irritated maybe, but not mad.”

“Then let’s pick up the pace and get the blazes home.” Will spurred his horse into a gallop and Little Joe followed.

Hoss met them in the yard shaking his head and grumbling the entire time he was taking the reins of the horses and telling them there was hot water in the wash house and that Hop Sing had made beef and noodles and raspberry cobbler, but they better not expect any cobbler because he had just finished the last of it.

As Will and Joe settled into two tubs, Joe dunked his head and then leaned back against the high back and closed his eyes. He heard Will echo his own sigh.

After a moment Joe heard, “You came with me because…well, because you count cousins about like brothers.” Will’s voice was soft and not sure enough to eliminate the question there.

“Yeah,” Joe answered just as softly.

“Thanks, cousin.”

“You’re welcome.” Little Joe’s manners had been well taught.

*****

Will come down to breakfast before his cousins and took a seat to the right of his uncle.

“Coffee?” Ben lifted the pot and filled a cup when Will nodded. “You’re up early.”

“Not earlier than you.” Will filled his plate while Ben sipped his coffee. After a few bites, Will set down his fork. “Um,” Will swallowed again, “Little Joe, well, he only went to town, well, he wasn’t being self-centered.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “Oh, he wasn’t?”

“No, and he had good reason to deck that Fairley fellow.”

“No doubt, and there is no doubt he will have good reason again.” Ben’s tone was simply one of agreement. He took a swallow of coffee. “Did Little Joe try just leaving?”

“Should he have to leave just because two obnoxious bullies walk in?”

“No, he shouldn’t have to, but sometimes should has nothing to do with wise. Taking on the two of them in a place where there would be more of their kind than Joe’s. . .”

“He wasn’t alone, and the only reason he was there was me.” Will’s voice had gone tight with tension.

“Next time he might be.” Ben set down his cup. “Just why were you in that saloon?” Will shrugged. “Better yet, Will, why you did sign onto a ship and go to sea?”

“It seemed like the thing to do at the time. What does it matter now?”

“Because I think your reason for going to sea was much the same as one of mine.”

This time it was Will’s eyebrow that rose. “Pa said you always had an interest in the sea.”

“An interest but never a true yearning. John never mentioned any interest on your part in the sailing life.” Ben leaned forward and stared directly into his nephew’s eyes. “I went to sea to get beyond the reach of my father. Did you go to sea to get beyond my reach?”

Will’s eyes dropped away from his uncle’s gaze. “Why would I have needed to bother?”

“You were not of age; the court would easily have made me your guardian.”

“I was old enough to take care of myself, obviously.”

“Old enough when necessary does not mean old enough to be preferable.”

Will’s gaze snapped up and fixed on Ben’s face. “If I had been there when you came, if I had said no, would you. . .would you have forced me to come with you to the Ponderosa?”

“Yes.” Ben’s answer held not a trace of equivocation.

“You think you could have?” Will challenged.

“Yes.” Ben smiled. “I was younger then too and just as stubborn as I am now.”

“And just as sure you’re always right!” Will hissed as he pushed back his chair and stood.

Ben reached out and caught Will’s forearm. “John would never have let my sixteen-year-old son face the world alone.”

Will shook off Ben’s arm. “I’m long past being sixteen.”

“And there is still no reason for you to face the world alone.”

Without a word Will strode from the room. A few seconds later, Adam walked to the table and took his seat.

“You heard?”

“Some. I didn’t mean to. . .” Adam began. Ben made a dismissive gesture. “Pa,” Adam paused, “Why is he so angry with you?”

“He’s angry with many things, Adam; I’m simply the one that is here.”

“Still. . .” Adam let his comment go unspoken. He cleared his throat. “You know there’s a good chance. . .”

“That he won’t stay?” Adam nodded. Ben’s gaze turned toward the door that Will had slammed behind him. “He may leave, son, but he will leave knowing that he has a real family… that he has a place to come home to.”

“That’s true.” Adam poured himself a cup of coffee and listened to Hiss’s footsteps descending the stairs.

*****

“You can’t say he shirks work,” Hoss observed.

“He’s a hard worker,” Adam agreed, “and a smart one.”

“He and Joe work well together.”

‘They do.”

“He waded right in when Joe took on them Fairley brothers.”

“He was the reason Joe ran into the Farleys in the first place.”

“He took his comeuppance same as Little Joe. Joe said he didn’t do no grossing while they were working.”

Adam’s left hand slipped upward and tugged his right ear. “This morning he told Pa it was his fault about Joe being there.”

“I heard a door slamming.” Hoss’ statement was clearly a question.

“The idea of Pa stepping up and taking him in when Uncle John died seems to set him off.”

“He told Little Joe that Uncle John kept a real slack rein; he can see Pa wouldn’t have.”

“I don’t think. . .like you said he took his comeuppance without grossing. I don’t think it’s really about reins, tight or slack.” Adam’s ear received another tug.

“Yeah. You know if something’s stuck in a body’s craw they have to spit it up or it could choke ‘em.”

“Pa said when he finished the books he was going to take a ride up to the lake.”

“He should have them done by now. You got a reason in mind for getting Will there?”

“I will by the time I ride over to Will.”

*****

Will slowed his horse and looked out at the lake. Then his gazed moved to focus on the man standing beside the grave. He considered turning his horse around, but Ben looked up and motioned him forward.

Will stopped his horse next to Buck and dismounted. “I don’t mean to intrude. Adam wanted me to give you this.” Will took a folded piece of paper from his pocket and offered it to his uncle. Ben unfolded the note and read it.

“He seemed to think it was important.”

“It is.” Ben turned his gaze to Marie’s grave. Will’s eyes followed; he noticed the flowers lying against the dark stone.

“Hoss said Joe comes here to talk to his mother.”

“Little Joe feels closest to her here.”

“Do you?”

A melancholy smile settled on Ben’s lips. “Not really, just as I feel no further from Elizabeth or Inger because I cannot visit their graves.”

“You loved them all?”

Ben’s eyes came back to his nephew’s face as he replied simply, “Yes.”

“Well. . .” Will turned back toward the horses.

“I think you would have liked Marie.”

Will stilled. “Would she have liked me?”

“Yes.”

Will turned abruptly back toward his uncle. “Joe punched that Fairley fellow because he insulted his mother.”

Ben’s face showed no surprise. “Little Joe has never yet and never will let an insult to his mother pass.”

“Would any son?” Will’s voice held a challenge.

“Not any Cartwright son.” This time Ben turned away and stood facing Marie’s grave. “It made Marie furious that the boys let others use her to goad them into fights.”

Will blinked. His voice had lost its edge when he asked, “Was it always the same insult?”

“Variations on the same theme.” Ben slapped the hat in his hand lightly and repeatedly against his leg. “Marie was a beautiful woman. She was very young when. . .” Ben’s voice faltered. He swallowed. “She faced many troubles and some of them pushed her into choices. . .well, there are some people that saw them as . . .” Ben turned to look directly into Will’s eyes. “She was always truthful with me. The choices she made. . .I would not have made them for her, but they meant nothing to me. She was a good and loving wife. I loved her; I still do.”

Will returned Ben’s gaze with one equally as intense. “My father loved my mother.” He tensed as if anticipating disagreement.

“Very much,” Ben replied, “Cartwright men always and only marry women they love, and then they love them completely, sometimes inexplicably, but always forever.”

“Did you leave out undeservedly, uncle?”

“No.”

“You said she was not a good wife.”

“I never said she was undeserving or that she didn’t love John. All of the reasons they could not make each other truly happy cannot be laid at her door.”

“Just some of them?”

“Will, your mother. . .” Ben searched for words.

Will inserted his own, “Was not a loveable woman. Isn’t that what you meant by inexplicably?”

Ben shook his head slowly. “Actually, I was thinking more of my grandmother.” Ben saw Will’s expression of surprise. “My grandmother was an extremely straight-laced, rigid, sometimes even dour woman who seldom displayed any sign of affection for anyone. I use to marvel at the idea that my grandfather married such a woman, but then I realized he must simply have been head-over-heels in love with her because he still was.” Will made no reply. “Your mother and father married when they did because of the child, but they were in love long before that.”

“And you would know.” Sarcasm dripped from Will’s words.

“Actually I would. Little brothers see and hear a great many things, and I knew my brother well, William.”

Will shifted and dropped his eyes to the ground. “My mother was the only one who ever called me William.” He looked up. “Just what did little brother see?” There was flippancy in his words but pleading in his eyes.

“I followed them once. I planned a prank because, well, John had let something slip to Father and I thought my brother deserved a little retribution, but as I lay hidden watching them. . .” Ben drew in a deep breath, “he made her laugh, and she reached out and touched his cheek . . .his fingers twirled her hair. . .he looked so. . .he looked at her the way I had seen my father look at my mother, had seen my grandfathers look at my grandmothers, my uncles at my aunts. . . I played no pranks that day; there are some things even a boy recognizes shouldn’t be ruined. Instead I covered for John when Father came looking for him and his chores were still undone.”

Will swallowed thrice before speaking. “She thought. . .”

“About some things, Will, your mother was simply wrong.” Ben’s hand reached out, but Will moved suddenly and swiftly away. Ben stayed silent as his nephew mounted and sent his horse immediately into a gallop.

*****

“I don’t think I ever saw Ma more furious!” Hoss declared.

“She had every right to be,” Adam observed as he moved his bishop to take Will’s rook. “The dining table was a shambles, every pastry she had spent hours preparing was either smashed, smeared on something, or inside the two of you while the most exacting biddies in the territory were expected in minutes.”

“Yeah, the place was a sure a mess, and so were we. Then Joe sees how mad Ma is and sets to squalling at the top of his lungs. I figured she’d give us all a reason to be squalling any second.”

“Did she?” Will reached out and moved a pawn.

“No, she grabbed up Little Joe and plopped him in Adam’s arms, hissing at us to get him and ourselves cleaned up before anybody could see us. Then she shouted for Hop Sing. That’s the first time baby brother ever got a cold water bath. We was all in clean clothes with our wet hair slicked down before the first buggy rolled up. Onliest time I remember Joe actually staying put when Adam set him on a chair and told him to stay, but then Adam’s face could’ve turned a three-year-old to stone easy as not.”

“You were mad?” Will’s eyebrow did a sardonic rise as he looked across the chess board.

“My little brothers had once again managed to get me into a peck of trouble, and all I had been doing was trying to learn.”

“You should’ve learned to keep both eyes on Little Joe before then, ‘specially when he was your responsibility; instead you stuck your head so far up that math problem dynamite could have gone off without you knowing.”

Adam gave Hoss a pained and pointed look. “Shall we mention that I should have already learned about keeping an eye on you whenever there are sweets around.”

“I woulda only eaten one.”

“We had been forbidden to even look at them.”

“You’re getting mad at us is what started the food flying.”

Adam blew a breath out of his nose and rolled his eyes. “It didn’t help my mood that I was expected to listen to Little Joe sniffle and Hoss mumble about getting our tails lit up while I spent my afternoon taking care of buggy teams and little brothers and thinking about how those ladies would get an earful about me and what Pa was going to do about it.”

“I see.” Will watched Adam reach for his knight. “And the ladies knowing was the worst of it, right, cousin?” Adam’s hand hovered and then moved a pawn instead.

“ ‘Cepting that fuming was all for nothing,” Hoss drawled.

Will looked up from the board. “It was?”

“Marie just apologized for the late and simple refreshments and let the ladies lay whatever reason they thought up at her door.” Adam’s thumb ran along the edge of the table. “It was only sometime later that I realized, well, the sacrifice she made doing that.”

“Ma knew ya real well by then, big brother.”

Little Joe had remained silent. He had heard the story before, more than once, and sometimes almost thought he could remember something of it. He spoke softly, “And she never punished us.”

“No, she barely gave us a scolding, and when she told Pa about it, she made it sound like we’d paid the piper and all he needed to do was laugh about the funny parts.” Adam looked at Will’s last move and realized he would be losing his queen. With a mental shrug, he feinted with his bishop. “Ma never could stay mad when Joe and Hoss looked pitiful.”

Hoss looked across the checker board at Joe and mouthed softly, “Or at Adam when he was embarrassed.”

Will reached out and tipped his king to the board. “You’ll have me in a few moves, cousin. I’ll just concede and take myself up to bed. Good night all.” Will’s departure was as quick as it was abrupt.

Ben caught Adam’s eye with a silent question. Adam shook his head. “He would have had me.”

Ben rubbed his chin. “Are any of you ready for bed?” Each of Ben’s sons knew he expected a negative answer and gave one. Ben followed his nephew up the stairs. He knocked at Will’s door. After a few seconds Will opened it.

“Ben?”

“I would like to speak with you.”

“Could it wait until morning? I am really. . .”

“Unwilling,” Ben stated flatly. “No, Will, it should not wait until morning.”

Will shrugged as he stepped back, and Ben entered the room. Ben looked around and saw the small ways that the room had become his nephew’s instead of just a guest room.

“Well, what is it that couldn’t wait?” Will’s voice was harsh and demanding.

Ben turned to look Will square in the face. “What was it about that story that sent you running?”

“I,” Will blinked, “I hardly ran.”

“What about that story bothered you?” Ben’s voice remained calm but was still insistent.

“What could have? A sweet story with a sweeter ending: a mother who understood and couldn’t punish her sons. Well, son and stepsons.” Will made the words dismissive and walked past Ben to his bed. “Now, if that is all you wanted. . .”

“That is not all I wanted!” The words snapped with authority, and Will jerked. “Will.” There was no response as Ben studied his nephew’s back. “William!” This time there was a slow and insolent turn.

“Yes, Ben.” It had been years since Ben Cartwright had heard that particular tone. He drew in a deep breath.

“We shall talk, and while we do I would appreciate your remembering that, no matter what, I am your uncle.”

“And a Cartwright is never disrespectful to an uncle.” The tone of Will’s words matched the smirk on his lips.

“Not if he doesn’t want a reminder of lessons he learned at a very young age.”

“You weren’t around for me to learn them at a young age, uncle,” Will retorted smoothly.

“No, no, I was not, and that is one of the things in my life that brings me regret. I have always regretted that my sons grew up without more family near; your father regretted that for you too.”

“As much difference as that made.”

Ben straightened. “Do you think I owe you an apology for not living nearby?”

“No.” The syllable was uttered grudgingly.

“There are still many with whom you share a blood tie in your father’s hometown. Would you like for me to arrange for you to meet them? You could go home in your father’s stead; right what you feel is an old wrong.”

Surprise widened Will’s eyes. This time his answer was sputtered, “No, I…I don’t think that.”

Ben gestured to the bed. “Sit down. I want to tell you about something.”

Will tried once more for a flippant air. “I’m a little old for bedtime stories, uncle.”

“Then start acting like it. Only a child hides behind his own petulance.”

“Fine!” Will sat down, but not a muscle in his body relaxed.

Ben swung a chair nearer the bed and seated himself on it.

“My father had four older brothers. Only Grandfather’s eldest son left the town where he was born for a life away from the family. My father’s other brothers, their wives, and children; they were all a nearly daily part of John’s and my lives.”

“And the prodigal son?”

“My oldest uncle came home three times that I can remember. The first time he stayed one week, the last one he stayed five. I was twelve.” Ben paused, but Will said nothing. “The day before he was to leave again, he was chopping wood and I was stacking it. We stopped for a break. I had been cheeky towards him that entire morning and during that break I crossed the line into total disrespect.”

“Imagine that.”

Ben ignored the comment and continued. “I can see him now standing there with his hands on his hips fixing me with the same glare my father would have had. ‘ Does my baby brother allow his sons such displays of disrespect,” he growled. I said, “No,” but purposefully left off the sir. I watched his fingers clench as he asked, ‘Would any of my brothers allow it from you?’ Having just a small bit of sense left, I answered, ‘No, sir,’ that time. ‘You can rest assured that I shall not either!’ He picked me up by my arms, strode to the fence, and slapped me down on the top rail where we could be eye to eye. ‘First we shall settle the problem between us,’ he said and there was no doubt in my mind that he would have the truth from me.”

“And what was the truth?”

“I was angry that he was going. My grandfather, my father, my uncles. . .we had started to hope that he had come home for good. I told him he was hurting people by leaving and that he didn’t even care.”

“And what did he say to that?”

“That he had made no promises to stay and had to live his life as he saw fit. I told him if he didn’t want to be around and be my uncle, it was perfectly all right with me. He put his hand on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and told me, ‘Here or thousands of miles from here, lad, I’m your uncle, and I always shall be.’”

“So that’s the moral of this little story?”

“Part of it.” Ben pinned Will in place with a look. “I’m not finished. My uncle then explained to me that he loved all of his family, cared about us, but could not live his life to suit us. He said he hoped that I would understand that when I grew older. Then he said he might not have many opportunities to fulfill his duties as an uncle, but when he was there he would, and, as a Cartwright did not allow children to grow up impudent and disrespectful, he would have to give me a necessary lesson in manners.” Ben’s lips turned up at the corners, “Be glad, nephew, that you are too old for the same type of instruction.”

Will dropped his eyes but then lifted them again, “And did you understand that he couldn’t live his life to suit you or your family?” Will’s intention was clear.

“Not immediately, but after a time. That’s not what I want of you, Will.”

“What is it you want then?”

“I want you to understand. I want you to choose for the right reason. I don’t want you thinking that your bridges need to be burned.”

“Fine. I understand. Now. . .” Will started to stand. Ben’s hand settled on his forearm.

“I’ve not finished. My father’s youngest brother had seen the last of it, and I soon felt his arm around my shoulders.” Ben paused as his mind filled with the memory.

“Is eavesdropping, then, another Cartwright trait?”

Ben smiled. “Bad habit but occasionally it turns out for the best.”

“This was then the wise uncle.”

“All my uncles had their own wisdom. This was the uncle, though, that was most gentle with the dispensing of his.”

“And exactly what wisdom did he dispense that time?” There was an edge to Will’s tone, but it was not as sharp as before.

“I told him about what had happened. He shook his head and said, ‘So you think he should stay because we want him here?’ I said that he had no good reason to go. ‘There’s always a reason, Ben my boy, and always a great deal you don’t know about people and the past. It’s not that you think he has no reason; it’s that you don’t like the reason you think he has.”

“How profound!”

“Be as flip as you like, but listen to me. My uncle was right. When we don’t know the reason for another’s actions, we give them one of our own making. A great deal of hurt has been caused by people assuming the worst reason instead of the best.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” This time Will made it to his feet.

“That is what I think you, your mother, John, my father, myself, and countless others have done one time or another.” Ben was on his feet also. “I doubt anyone would say I haven’t fulfilled any family obligation I might have toward you. Duty, William Cartwright, is not the reason I want you here; neither is guilt. If I wronged your father or your mother, that was between us and settled long ago.”

“Then why… why does it matter to you at all!” The anger was there again.

“Is it so hard to accept that I loved your father and that I care about his son? That I have always cared?” Will walked past Ben without a word but simply went to stand at the window and stare out at the night. “You never answered my first question, Will. Why did the boys’ reminiscing upset you?”

After a few seconds, Will asked, “You said it made Marie furious when others used her to make your boys fight, but Joe, well, he was so little. Surely. . .”

“I was speaking of Adam and Hoss. Mostly Adam really.”

“Did he love her?”

“After a time.”

Will turned to look at Ben. “And she loved him?”

“Yes. She loved all of my sons.” There was no trace of hesitation or equivocation in Ben’s statement. Will turned to look out the window.

“So that’s it! ” Ben closed the distance between himself and his nephew and placed his hand on Will’s shoulder. “Your mother loved you, Will, you and John, but in truth you above all others.”

“Well, she never mentioned it to me.” By the final syllable, the bitter edge had been lost in the despair. Ben’s hand squeezed gently, and he drew to within a hair’s breadth of Will.

“Did you know that your mother miscarried four children before you and three after?”

“I knew. . .no, no, not that many, but shouldn’t that mean. . .”

“I can’t say that what I believe is the irrevocable truth, but I’ve had many years to ponder things, to try to understand. I think what I’ve come to believe is true. You can listen and decide for yourself.” Ben’s fingers tightened gently on the shoulder beneath them.

“Are you going to tell me that my mother never learned to be affectionate? Would you have me lay it all at my grandfather’s door?”

“No, no, though I think that played a part. My father loved John and me though there were times when his actions left us to wonder. I did not learn to cuddle my sons from my father, and your mother’s father was not the only person in her world.”

“What then?”

“Fear.” Ben exhaled the word and then swallowed. “Most of all fear.”

“Fear?” Incredulity turned Will toward his uncle.

Ben spoke softly and steadily. “After their marriage, John and your mother lived for a time with us. I was the one who ran for my grandmother when the pains of the miscarriage began. It would have been better, I think, if the midwife had been anyone else.”

“Why?”

“Will, despite everything, both John and your mother wanted that child; they loved each other, and the thought of the child brought them great joy. The loss of that child brought great despair, especially to your mother. She felt the loss of the child was her punishment from God for conceiving that child before her wedding vows. My grandmother was just the person to reinforce those thoughts. Each miscarriage that followed, well, I believe each one made your mother sink deeper into that belief. John thought so too.”

“The two of you spoke of it?”

“Yes. Your mother thought God was punishing her for her sins by denying her children. She said it more than once to John.”

“But then she had a child. She had me. Didn’t that mean anything to her?”

“It meant a great deal. I think the happiest time in your mother’s life was the year and a half after you were born.”

“And then?”

“She lost another child, and God had turned his face from her again.”

“Still. . .”

“And there was a new and very powerful fear. If God became angry enough, he might punish her by taking you.”

“So she. . .”

“She dealt with that fear in a way that put a wall between the two of you and between her and your father. She became inflexible in her attempt to give God no reason for anger, not at her and not at you. Did she push you away so that when it happened there would be less pain, or was she trying to fool God into thinking that it wouldn’t be the worst punishment of all? We can’t know another’s mind, Will. I’ve no doubt she loved you. Maybe she thought if she said the words she would be pointing God’s wrath at you.”

“But. . .but. . .” Will choked on the words.

Ben took the risk and drew his nephew into his arms. His mouth next to Will’s ear he whispered, “Even if, and I don’t believe it for a moment, but even if she didn’t love you as much as I believe she did, the lack was in her and not in you.”

“I didn’t. . . .not after I was very small. . .I didn’t say it either.”

Ben’s arms tightened. “Even so the love was there.” It had taken his eldest six months to cry for Marie; Ben’s heart ached at the thought it had taken Will all these years to cry for his mother.

*****

“Mistah Will need better breakfast. Sit down. Hop Sing make. . .”

“Coffee and biscuits are fine. I want to get an. . . .”

Hop Sing saw Ben Cartwright enter the kitchen and read clearly the motion of Ben’s head. “You see he eat, Mistah Cartwright. Hop Sing need get eggs.” Hop Sing made a swift exit as Will turned to face his uncle.

“I wanted to get an early start. There was a lot I didn’t get done yesterday.”

“But a great deal else was accomplished, wasn’t it?” Ben stepped closer to Will.

Will’s answer was soft. “Yes.”

Ben read his nephew’s stance and noted that Will’s eyes had moved constantly so as not to make contact with Ben’s. “Ahh! But I’ve dealt with this before.” Ben spoke in a stage whisper that could travel only to Will’s ears. “Last night was a private time between an uncle and his nephew.”

“I. . .I know you wouldn’t, well, I know you wouldn’t carry tales.” Will shifted from foot to foot, and his arms came across his middle.

“You should know something else, but then you’ve had little chance to learn it. No matter how old a son is, a father is allowed to hold his child and soothe his tears.” Ben’s eyes finally caught and held Will’s. “And an uncle can claim the same right.” He held Will’s gaze for a few more seconds and then released it. “The early start can wait. I expect you at breakfast with the family.”

Will cleared his throat. “Yes, uncle.” The smile that turned each set of lips upward was very much the same.

*****

Adam set his after-dinner coffee on the credenza, stepped out onto the porch, and went to stand beside his cousin. Will’s legs were stretched out before him, and his chair leaned back on two legs. Adam gazed down and cleared his throat.

“Need something, cousin?” Will’s body remained relaxed, and his question ended with an upturn of his lips.

“I need to know if you’ll be here long enough to handle overseeing the timber production on the Ophir deal if we land it.”

“That would take what? Four to five months.”

“You’d have to count on closer to five.”

Will leaned forward and settled the front legs of his chair firmly on the planks of the porch. “A job that big is usually overseen by you or Ben, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Would I have to run my decisions by one of you?”

“No. We’d discuss what needs to be done, what’s expected, but no, not any more than any of us would consult with the others.”

Will stood and walked to the edge of the porch leaving his back to Adam’s appraising gaze. “I told you that I’d let you know when I decided.”

Adam’s hands slid beneath his forearms, and he leaned his hip against the chair Will had vacated. “And have you?”

“Yes. You can plan on my overseeing the Ophir contract.”

Adam’s right eyebrow slid upward. “You’ve found a reason to stay?”

Will turned to face his cousin. “Actually, I found that I have no reason to leave.”

“Then you’re saying you’ll stay until there is one?”

Will stepped forward stopping inches from Adam. He looked directly into Adam’s eyes. “That would be the real truth in any case, wouldn’t it, cousin?”

“If you’re in charge. . .”

“I’ll see the job through.”

Adam’s lips curled into a wry grin. “So you do have the Cartwright sense of commitment.”

Will returned the grin with an amazingly similar smirk. “Must be inherited.”

“Pa will be pleased.”

“Yes, I think Pa just might be.”

Adam’s chuckle was soft and low. “It never hurts to please your pa from time to time.” He turned and gestured toward the door. As Will started to walk inside, Adam fell into step beside him. By the time they passed the credenza, their conversation was as easy as their saunters.

***The End***

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