Summary: (Sequel to “Tarnished Armor”)
Word Count: 8308
“Emily,” Hoss Cartwright repeated the name of the girl sitting beside him. Hoss knew something was wrong. Emily had seemed worried and distracted all morning and had not been listening since they sat down to eat lunch. “Just tell me what’s bothering ya, Em. Maybe I can help.”
“I don’t think so, Eric. It’s just, well, it’s just that my pa hasn’t been home the past three nights.” Emily gave Hoss a weak, half-smile. “I know there’s lots of nights he doesn’t come home. It’s just that he hasn’t stayed gone three nights in a row with no word before. I guess I’m worried something might have happened.”
Hoss watched Emily bite her lip and drop her eyes to study the sandwich in her hand. Hop Sing sent extra lunch in Hoss’s pail each day for the girl. Hoss knew that some days it was the only meal that she ate. Emily’s father was an alcoholic and spent the little money he earned from odd jobs mostly on his liquor. Emily spent a great deal of time alone at their broken down ranch house taking care of herself and doing what she could to keep the place in repair and grow a garden for food. Things had been a little better since Emily had been earning a dollar a week by assisting the teacher with the beginning students. That had been Hoss’s idea after Emily had started helping him with his studies, and Ben Cartwright had arranged it with the school board. Over the past three years, Hoss and Emily had been the closest of friends, and Hoss often pondered what he might do about the situation with Emily’s pa. So far he hadn’t been able to figure a way to fix the problem. The most he could do was watch out for Emily the best he was able.
Hoss was startled from his reverie as a small body threw itself against his broad back. Little Joe Cartwright landed against his big brother with his small arms hanging over Hoss’s shoulders. Hoss reached over his head, took hold of the boy, and flipped him over into his lap. Joe squealed.
“What ya want, Short Shanks?” Hoss inquired.
Joe scrambled from his brother’s lap and grabbed his hand. Tugging on his brother’s arm, Joe demanded, “We need ya, Hoss. The big boys took our ball and won’t give it back. Ya got to come get it for us. Come on!” Joe tried again to pull his brother to his feet. Watching the slight nine-year-old trying to move his oversized brother, Emily giggled.
“Go on, Sir Eric, before somebody starts a fight,” Emily encouraged.
Rising to his feet, Hoss slung his little brother over his shoulder and walked toward a group of arguing boys to settle the confrontation. At fifteen Hoss was the size of a grown man and not a small man at that. Few of his schoolmates were foolish enough to cross him when he felt compelled to give an order. Miss Cutter, the teacher, often gave a silent prayer of thanks that her largest and strongest pupil was by nature a peacemaker.
Miss Cutter dismissed school, and Hoss made his decision. He called to Emily and told her to wait for him. Then he went to saddle his horse and talk to his brother.
“Joe, I going to take you to Mrs. Kelly’s. I got something I need to do in town before we head home, and you can stay with Mrs. Kelly ’til I come and fetch ya.” Hoss knew his Pa considered Joe too young to make the ride to the ranch alone. It was Hoss’s responsibility to see that his brother arrived home unharmed each day, so the first thing he had to do was make sure Little Joe was safely settled.
“What do ya got to do, Hoss? I’ll come along and help ya.”
“Ya can’t, Short Shanks.”
“Why not?” Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Pa know about what ya going to do?”
“No.” Hoss bit his lip and lowered himself to his heels. Looking directly into his brother’s eyes, he let a pleading tone enter his voice. “Joe, Pa wouldn’t like me to go where I’m going, and he’d sure enough kill me if I took you along, but it’s real important that I go, so I really need ya to stay at Mrs. Kelly’s and be a good boy.”
“Pa’s gonna be mad when we get home late, Hoss.”
“I know, but I’ll tell him it was my fault, and you won’t be in no trouble.”
“You will, though.”
“It will be okay, little brother. Will ya do what I ask?”
Joe knew that whatever Hoss had to do must be really important if Hoss was willing to disobey their pa and risk being in trouble. Joe couldn’t count the number of times that his big brother had covered for him. Joe nodded.
Hoss quickly escorted Joe to the Kelly’s home and arranged for Mrs. Kelly to keep an eye on the boy. He had decided to leave both Joe’s pony and his horse at the Kelly’s also. Seeing Emily arrive at the gate, Hoss picked up his little brother bringing him up to eye level.
“Joe, if ya don’t stay put and mind Mrs. Kelly, Pa’s gonna hold me responsible, and I’ll be in big trouble.”
“Tanning trouble, Hoss?”
“For sure, Joe, so please be good.”
“I will. I don’t want ya to get no tanning, Hoss, but if you’re going where Pa don’t want ya to go…”
“It’ll be okay, Punkin. Don’t worry; just be good!” Hoss put down his brother and hurried to join Emily.
“Come on, Em. We’ll find your pa.”
Emily put both her hands on Hoss’s arm, bit her lip, and looked up into his eyes. “Are you going to get in trouble with your pa?”
“I’m hoping not to.”
“But what if you do?”
“Then I’ll have to take the consequences.”
“I don’t want you taking a tanning on account of me, Eric.”
“It’ll be all right, Em. This is important. Do ya know which saloon we should try first?”
Emily’s worry for her father and her concern for Hoss battled. Finally she answered, “He spends a lot of time at the Mad Dog and the Diamond Lady. They’re both on D Street.”
Hoss swallowed hard and took Emily’s arm. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Emily clung to Hoss as they walked down D Street. Hoss slipped his arm protectively around her waist. They could both feel many eyes assessing them, and Hoss drew himself up to his fullest height and tried to give off an air of confidence he did not feel. This was a section of town that was forbidden to him because of the disreputable nature of its businesses and their clientele. As they walked toward the Mad Dog, Hoss felt his Pa was justified in his assessment of the area.
Hoss had thought that Emily might wait outside the saloon, but upon reaching the entrance of the Mad Dog, he decided it would not be wise to leave her alone.
“It will be fine, Em,” he whispered as they stepped together through the batwing doors.
The light was dim, and the air smoky with an underlying scent of liquor and unwashed bodies. An out-of-tune piano played and there was a rumble of gruff voices and clinking glass. Emily scanned the room looking for her father while edging further into its depths.
Hoss felt a hand run down his left arm and heard, “Honey, there’s plenty of girls here. No need to bring your own.” Hoss turned to see a woman leering at him as laughter rippled around him. The woman had on the most reveling dress Hoss had ever seen, and her face was heavily painted. Hoss jerked away from her hand, and felt his cheeks turn red. Emily had seen a still form in the back corner and released Hoss’s right arm to walker closer. Suddenly she was jerked to a stop as a hand grabbed her wrist.
“Now, Star,” bellowed the drunken miner who held Emily’s wrist, “this place could use something new and sweet like this one here.” The miner pulled Emily into his lap. Emily struggled and regained her feet. Hoss charged to her side. The miner stood and shoved Hoss away while grabbing Emily’s arm.
“Go back to Star, boy! She can teach ya a thing or two. I’ll take care of this one.”
Hoss’s swung, and the unexpected right caught the miner in the eye. He roared and released Emily. Breathing heavily, he attacked. Before a full- fledged brawl could erupt, the bartender fired a shot into the floor. Holding the gun on the combatants, he sent for the sheriff.
Sheriff Roy Coffee walked into the Mad Dog gun drawn.
“These two were about to tear up the place, Sheriff,” the bartender informed him gesturing toward Hoss and the miner. Focusing on the source of the problem, Roy Coffee’s eyes widen in amazement as he recognized Ben Cartwright’s middle son. Lord, help me; Ben’s going to kill him!
After asking a few pertinent questions, the sheriff ordered the miner to get out of town for now, and told Hoss and Emily to come with him. When the two were safely ensconced at the jail, Roy sent Clem to get Ben.
Ben Cartwright walked into the jail and saw his middle son sitting on a chair staring at the floor. Emily sat next to him holding his hand. Ben walked over to Roy Coffee.
Roy quickly launched into an explanation, ” Now, Ben, they’re both fine. Seems these two went into the Mad Dog looking for Emily’s pa.”
“They went into the MAD DOG!” Ben’s voice rose to a roar, and a shudder past through both Hoss and Emily.
“Yes, they were looking for Emily’s pa when a drunken miner took a hold of Emily, and when Hoss went to her defense, there was a scuffle. The bartender put an end to it and sent for me. I kicked the miner out of town, and brought the young ones here to wait for you.”
“Thank you for that.” Ben spun on his heels and walked over to Hoss and Emily.
“Emily, you’re sure you’re all right?” Ben said in a deadly calm voice. Hoss knew that his father had gone past shouting angry to an even deeper rage.
“I’m fine, Mr. Cartwright. Please, sir…”
One gesture from Ben cut off her remaining words. Ben turned his attention to his son. Lifting the boy’s chin in his fingers, Ben inspected his face. “Hoss?”
“I’m fine, Pa.”
“Where’s Little Joe?”
“With Mrs. Kelly.”
“They’re at the Kelly’s too.”
“Come with me.” Ben turned, but stopped at the sound of Roy’s voice.
“Ben, I’ll send Clem around to look for Isaac Thornton.”
“Thanks, Roy.” Ben walked out the door. Hoss and Emily followed.
Ben Cartwright collected a surprised Little Joe, thanked Mrs. Kelly, and then began the long ride home with the three silent children. When they arrived at the ranch, Ben told Hoss to care for the horses and then wait for him in the barn. Little Joe raced off to do his evening chores, and Emily accompanied Ben into the house. As the door shut behind them, Emily began pleading with Ben to understand that it was all her fault and that Hoss had only been trying to help her. Ben sternly reminded her that his son was responsible for his own actions. Ben showed Emily to the guest room, and as he closed the door Emily threw herself on the bed and began to sob.
Ben walked into the barn. His middle son sat still and silent on an old stool in the far corner. Walking up to the boy, Ben placed his hands on his hips and glared down at the miscreant.
“Have you an explanation, Eric?”
Hoss hesitated and then spoke so softly that Ben could barely hear, “Em was so scared about her pa. I had to do something.”
“You had to do something. You had to drag a fifteen-year-old girl into the WORST SALOON IN VIRGINIA CITY SO SHE COULD BE ACCOSTED! HAD TO DO THAT, DID YOU, ERIC?”
“Pa, I just wanted to help her. I couldn’t think what else…”
“Couldn’t think, didn’t think is more like it. Did you think to come to me and ask me to look or send a MAN to look for Emily’s father? Did you think to go to Roy Coffee, the sheriff who’s been a friend to this family for years? Did you think to go to him and ask for his help? Did you?”
“No, instead you decided to play the hero, didn’t you, boy? Do you realize what could have happened to you? Do you know what almost happened to Emily? DO YOU, ERIC GUNNER CARTWRIGHT?”
“Yes,” Hoss’s voice started to shake, “Pa, oh Pa, he put his hands on her, he said … he put ugly thoughts in her head, Pa, thoughts Emily shouldn’t even know. She won’t ever be able to get them out, not ever.” Hoss stopped speaking as tears overcame him.
Neither will you. Ben looked down at his man-sized child. Each of his sons cried differently. Adam fought each tear while great but nearly silent sobs wracked his entire body. Joe sobbed loudly and with great abandon. Hoss was always so still when he cried. He never sobbed. He simply took shallow breaths and sat in stony stillness while tears flooded his cheeks and dripped from his chin.
Ben stepped closer and placed one hand on his son’s head and one on his shoulder drawing the boy closer. Hoss put his arms around his father’s waist and buried his face against Ben’s chest.
Ben felt his son’s tears subside, and raised the boy’s face, so Ben could see into his despairing eyes.
“Eric, I know you had good intentions. You wanted to help Emily, I know that, but you had other choices, son. You didn’t have to disobey me and endanger yourself and Emily, did you?”
“No, sir. I guess it’s like you said. Pa. I guess I wanted to be her hero; only it all went wrong.”
“It usually goes wrong when you disobey me, doesn’t it, son?’
“Yeah, Pa, I guess it always does.”
“You understand why I’m going to punish you?”
Hoss wished he could tell his father that he didn’t deserve what he knew was coming, but he could not. “Yes, sir,” he said softly.” and stood up.
Little Joe heard Emily crying as he walked past the guestroom. He stopped and leaned against the solid door. Whenever he cried in his room, his pa or one of his brothers would come to him and make things better. Emily don’t have no brothers. Joe decided that it was up to him. He opened the door and walked over to the bed. Emily lay curled around a pillow her body shaking with every sob. Little Joe crawled up onto the bed next to Emily. Reaching across her shoulder, he placed his hand on the girl’s back and rubbed softly. “It’ll be all right, Emily. It’ll be all right,” he repeated over and over. Emily reached out and placed her arm around Joe’s waist pulling him closer. Slowly she stopped crying. She sat up and curled against the headboard. Hearing her sniffle, Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out the clean handkerchief that Hop Sing made him stuff there each morning. He handed it to the girl. “So ya can blow.”
Emily giggled softly and gave Joe a watery smile. “Does every Cartwright carry a clean handkerchief just in case some female starts to cry?”
Joe had not thought of that before, but maybe that was why Hop Sing was so firm about the clean handkerchiefs that Joe seldom bothered to use. “Could be.”
Emily wiped her face. “Thank you, Little Joe.”
“Emily, what did you and Hoss do?” Joe knew his brother was in serious trouble and was burning with curiosity as to why.
Emily did not think Ben Cartwright or even Hoss would want the little boy to know the details, so she answered softly. “Joe, Hoss and I went somewhere your Pa had forbidden Hoss ever to go. We thought we had a good reason, but we should have obeyed your pa. He had good reasons to forbid Hoss.”
“Pa caught ya there?”
“No, but there was trouble, your pa was sent for, and Hoss had to tell him where we’d been.”
“Hoss didn’t try to lie to Pa about it at first, did he?”
“That’s good. Then Pa won’t be as mad.”
“Your Pa’s plenty mad, Joe.”
“I know, but he’ll forgive Hoss. He’ll forgive ya too. He gets mad if ya disobey or do wrong, but he always forgives ya after he punishes ya.”
“I’m glad he’ll forgive Hoss.”
Emily tried to smile at the child, but Joe could see that the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “You’re worried about Hoss getting tanned, aren’t ya?”
Emily nodded her head.
“He’ll be all right. Just don’t say nothing to him about it, though, ’cause you’re a girl, and it’ll make him feel bad.”
“I’ll see to him, Emily; I can ’cause I’m his brother.”
This time Emily’s smile did reach her eyes. “Hoss is very lucky to have you for a brother, Joe.”
Joe smiled back. “Emily, are ya going to get in trouble with your pa?”
Emily shook her head. “That’s not a problem, Joe.”
“Cause he’ll be drunk?”
“So you don’t never get into trouble with him?’
“Not being punished trouble, no, I never get in that kind of trouble anymore.”
Joe pondered never having to worry about getting punished. Emily did not look very happy about it, and Joe was surprised to realize he did not feel like she should.
Ben knocked on the guestroom door and waited for Emily’s invitation to enter. Seeing her sitting on the side of the bed, Ben took a chair over and sat down facing the girl.
Emily stared down at her hands and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I got Hoss into such trouble, Mr. Cartwright. If you say we can’t speak to each other again, I won’t.”
Ben placed his hand under Emily’s chin and gently lifted her eyes to meet his. “Child, I have no intention of forbidding Hoss to associate with you. You and Hoss both made some wrong decisions today, but that’s hardly a reason to end your friendship. I wouldn’t want this family to lose someone who has become very special to all of us.”
Emily’s eyes filled with tears. As Ben reached into his pocket, Emily brought the handkerchief she had held crumpled in her hand to her eyes. Then she looked at Ben and said, “It’s Little Joe’s.”
Ben smiled back. Then his face grew stern. “You and Hoss could have been seriously hurt today, Emily Thornton. You are never, I repeat never to go anywhere near D Street again! Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry. You punished Hoss?”
“Yes. When I walked into the jail, I was ready to blister your behind as well, little girl.”
Emily bit her lip and twisted the handkerchief in her hands. “Joe says that after you punish, you always forgive.”
“I’ve forgiven Hoss,” Ben said reaching out and taking Emily’s hands in his, “and even without the punishing, I forgive you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ben.”
Ben’s voice deepened into the tone his sons knew to pay the greatest heed, “That doesn’t mean you can get away with doing anything remotely like this again. Next time, I’ll forget you’re not my child and deliver my message to your behind. It will be a very uncomfortable lesson. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir.” Emily replied believing every word he said.
“Emily, Hoss would do almost anything for you. He cares for you deeply and wants to be a hero in your eyes.”
“I care for Eric deeply too, Mr. Ben.”
“I know you do, child. That’s why you have a responsibility to help him make good choices not foolish ones.”
“I’ll try, Mr. Ben.”
Ben looked at the girl in front of him and told himself that she too was only a child. “That’s all I ask, little one, that’s all I ask.”
Ben Cartwright opened the door and invited Roy Coffee inside. Sitting down with a cup of Hop Sing’s coffee, Roy explained that he had located a dead drunk Isaac Thornton and brought him back to the jail to sleep it off.
“But I had to let him go this morning, Ben. I didn’t have a reason to keep him. I don’t think he was headed home.”
“I don’t suppose so.”
“You can tell the girl that he was in one piece.”
“I will. Thank you for what you did, Roy.”
“Didn’t do nothing but my job, Ben. Tell that girl to just come to me if she’s fretting over her pa, so I can be the one doing the checking up on him. Those young ones don’t need to be on D Street.”
“I think both Emily and Hoss got that message yesterday.”
“You weren’t too hard on the boy now, were you?”
“Roy, I did what I had to do. Most people look at Hoss and forget he’s just a boy. In places like D Street, that’s trouble.”
“You’re right, Ben. It’s just that Hoss is such a good lad, and he meant well.”
“You know which road is paved with good intentions.”
“That I do, Ben. It’s a shame Isaac crawled into a bottle when his wife died. A shame for him and a bigger shame for the girl. “
Ben thought of his own despair when each of his wives had died and thanked God for keeping him from Isaac Thornton’s fate.
Two weeks had past, and Hoss had come to a decision. It had to be done, and no one else was going to do it. It was not like choosing to go to D Street. Then there had been other options like Pa said, but no one else was going to do anything about Emily’s pa drinking himself to death while Em struggled worse off than if she was an orphan because then somebody could have taken over and cared for her. Hoss knew his plan might not save Mr. Thornton, but doing nothing was no longer an option.
Hoss stopped Little Joe about a quarter-mile from school. He got off his horse and walked over to Little Joe’s pony.
“Joe, I have to ask you to do something for me even though it’s gonna get ya in trouble. I don’t like it, but I have to,” Hoss stated with a deep sigh.
“What do ya need me to do?” Joe asked with trepidation.
“I need ya to tell the teacher that Pa kept me home today. Then I need ya to wait at school until Pa comes for ya and give him this note when he does.”
“You’re gonna play hooky, Hoss?”
“I have to, Joe. I got something important to do.”
Little Joe looked into his big brother’s eyes. “It ain’t a fun something, is it?”
“Naw, it ain’t nothing fun.”
“I’ll get a spanking for lying to the teacher and not telling on ya, Hoss.”
Hoss’s eyes filmed over with tears. “I hate asking ya, Short Shanks, but I need the time.”
Little Joe bit his lip. “You must have kept me from getting about a hundred spankings, Big Brother. I reckon I can take one for ya.”
“Thanks, Joe!” Hoss gave his brother a bear hug. “Now promise me, Joe. You won’t try riding home yourself. Promise me you’ll wait at school for Pa. I just can’t be worrying about ya, Little Buddy.”
“I promise,” Joe declared and solemnly crossed his heart.
“Good. Now get on to school, so you’re not late.” Hoss watched his little brother ride toward the school until he saw him enter the schoolyard. Then Hoss mounted his horse and rode back to the glen where he had hidden the packhorse. Leading the packhorse, he rode to the Thornton house.
Hoss walked into the Thornton house and found Isaac Thornton passed out on a bed. Hoss looked down at the man. Isaac Thornton was about Hoss’s height, but years of drinking his meals had wasted his body. Hoss had no trouble hoisting the man to his shoulder and carrying him out to the horses. Laying the man across the packhorse, Hoss tied Isaac in place. The man’s drunken stupor was so deep that he barely roused to grumble a few unintelligible words. Hoss mounted his own horse, took the reigns of the packhorse, and set off for the line shack he had chosen.
Emily stayed late at the schoolhouse. More and more often, she delayed going home to be alone. Closing the door and turning to go, she was startled to see Little Joe Cartwright.
“Heavens, Little Joe, you’re still here?”
“I’m waiting for Pa,” Joe replied nervously.
Emily knew that Ben Cartwright did not want his youngest making the trip to the ranch alone and came for the boy if Hoss did not attend school, but she was surprised that he would leave Joe waiting so long. She wondered what could have delayed him.
“Well, why don’t I keep you company for a bit while you wait. You can tell me what Adam had to say in his last letter. Hoss said one came last week.”
Happy that Emily had not asked any more difficult-to-not-lie-to questions, Joe launched into a discussion of his eldest brother’s latest news from college.
“Little Joe, why on earth? Where’s Hoss?” Ben Cartwright exclaimed as he dismounted from Buck.
Joe jumped to his feet and shifted nervously. “He ain’t here, Pa,”
“I see that, Joseph. Where is he?”
“Well, now, I don’t exactly know.”
“Don’t know!” Ben turned toward Emily who had scrambled to her feet. “Emily, what’s going on?
“I don’t know, Mr. Ben; Eric wasn’t at school today. When I saw Joe waiting, I thought I better wait with him in case, well, it was late, so I waited.” Ben could see the confusion in Emily’s face and turned back to his son.
“Joseph, I want an explanation NOW!”
“W…Well, well, Hoss told me to give ya this,” Joe managed to reply while thrusting the note at his father.
Ben took the paper and unfolded it.
Please don’t be mad at Little Joe. He don’t really know what’s happening and any wrong he done is my fault. I had to do something, Pa. I know you will be mad but I need a week. I’ll be safe. Really I will. Mr. Thornton will be fine so tell Emily not to worry none either. She didn’t know anything about this. Dr. Martin says the first thing has to be done is to get the alcohol out of his body. He said it gets bad and takes more than a day or so. That’s why I need a week. I have a safe place for us. I’m asking you not to look for us. Please Pa. I’m sorry to worry you. Please give me a week.
“Oh, my God!!”
The look on Ben’s face frightened Emily, and she clutched his arm, “What is it, Mr. Ben? What’s happened?”
Ben held out the note and collected his thoughts as Emily read it. Then he began giving orders,” Joe, you’re to go with Emily. Emily, take Joe to the café and buy both of you some dinner.” He thrust some money into the girl’s hand. “Both of you wait for me there. I’ll come for you after I talk to Roy and Paul.”
“Joseph! I don’t have time to argue. You will go with Emily. You will behave. You will eat.” Ben raised his hand, and Little Joe’s hands flew to cover his behind. “Do you understand?”
“Emily, take care of Little Joe.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Ben.”
Emily and Joe walked into the café and sat at a table in the back corner.
“Ya think ya can eat, Emily?” Joe asked. “I don’t think I can.”
Emily shook her head and then bit her lip. “Your pa said you were to eat, Joe.”
“My stomach don’t want to, Emily.”
“Well, let’s try, Joe. We don’t want to make your pa mad over anything else.”
Cally MacNab came over and asked them what they would have. Emily ordered coffee for herself and milk for Joe. Then she ordered some biscuits and honey.
“Joe, do you know where Hoss went?”
“No, Emily, do you?”
Emily shook her head. “Lord God, keep him safe,” she prayed.
Roy Coffee finished reading the note and looked at his friend. “So the boy intends to help Isaac Thornton dry out.”
“Paul says Hoss talked to him about two weeks ago. He had no idea Hoss was gathering information to put to use. That boy’s been planning this for sometime, Roy. When I get a hold of him….”
“Now, Ben, calm down. We’ll find the boy, if that’s what you want.”
“If that’s what I want! What do you mean if that’s what I want?”
“Well, Ben, have you given any thought to letting the boy have a chance to do what he’s trying to do?”
“Have I considered letting my fifteen-year-old son spend a week with a drunk going through delirium tremors? No, Roy, I haven’t considered it,” Ben replied in a tone that suggested Roy had lost his mind.
“Ben, you were aboard ship by the time you were fifteen, weren’t you? Don’t tell me you didn’t do a man’s duty sometime that year.”
“That has nothing to do with this. I want Hoss home, and I want him home quick.” Ben struggled to keep his temper under control.
“We can’t start searching until morning, Ben. Go see to Little Joe and Emily, and I’ll meet you at the Ponderosa early in the morning.”
Ben took Joe and Emily back to the Ponderosa. He spoke to Hop Sing and to his ranch foreman making arrangements to be gone. Emily was to stay at the ranch and help care for Little Joe. A ranch hand would escort the two to school and home again. Sure that the two children would be safe; Ben set his mind on finding his middle son.
Three days later, Ben and Roy rode up to the line shack on the northern rim and saw Hoss at the well. Dismounting, Ben walked over to his son.
“Pa. Sheriff. “
“Where’s Isaac Thornton?”
“In the shack. He’s sleeping. We just got through one of the bad times, so I know he’s gonna sleep awhile.”
“Son, would you like to explain what in tarnation you were thinking?”
“Pa,” Hoss began then stopped to take a deep breath. He had expected his father to find him and had been trying for days to compose an explanation. “Pa, something had to done.”
“And you had to be the one to do it, Eric?”
“Pa, Emily couldn’t do it, and the guilt, well, the guilt was eating at her, Pa.” Hoss swallowed. He saw his father open his mouth to speak. “Please, Pa, listen to me. Ya know I ain’t good with words like Adam, but I want ya to understand.” Hoss saw his father’s slight nod. “Well, Pa, I talked to Doc Martin, and he said first ya got to break the alcohol’s hold on the body. Most always somebody’s got to help ya do that. Somebody’s got to hold ya back from it. Then ya got to break the alcohol’s hold on the mind. Doc said that’s a fight a man has to do on his own. I thought on it, Pa. See, Pa, ya always told me I was blessed with my size and my strength ’cause God wanted me to use it for good things, for the right fights like when I could keep bullies away from the little kids. Well, Pa, I got to thinking maybe God made me grow and get strong fast ’cause there was something I needed to do now. Pa, if Mr. Thornton kept on drinking like he was he would plum be dead before I got to be a man. But, Pa, God’s done already given me enough strength to hold him back ’til the alcohol ain’t got his body. The he’ll have a chance to fight it out of his mind. I know that’s his fight, Pa, but I had to help him have a chance. I’m strong enough, Pa, and when it gets bad I hold him, and I gentle him. I’m good at gentling things that are scared and in pain. Ya know I am.” Hoss let out a deep sigh. He just had not had enough time. “That’s what I was thinking, Pa.”
“Did you think I would leave my son in the middle of the high country with only a man who isn’t in his right mind half of the time?”
“No, I guess I didn’t. That’s why I had to hide us. Pa, can we wait ’til Mr. Thornton wakes up before we go? He needs to sleep some, and you and the Sheriff could rest up too.”
“Mr. Thornton can sleep as long as he needs. I won’t leave my son alone here, Eric, but I will stay with him.”
Since Roy Coffee had delivered the news that Ben had stayed to help Hoss with her father, Emily had waited finally allowing herself to hope for the first time in years that her father might return to the man he had been before her mother’s death. She spent many hours on the porch of the ranch house listening for the sound of returning horses. Little Joe waited less patiently for the return of his father and brother.
Hearing shouts through the walls of the house, Emily realized Joe must have raised Hop Sing’s ire once again. She told herself that she must get up and go in to try and smooth the troubled waters. With a sigh, she pushed to her feet. Little Joe erupted out the door and ducked behind her. He was followed by Hop Sing who was waving a large wooden spoon threateningly and shouting in Cantonese.
“Hop Sing, whatever is wrong?” Emily inquired in a soothing tone.
“Number three son vely bad. Little boy need bottom paddled.”
“I didn’t mean to make a mess, Hop Sing. Honest. I’m sorry!” Joe offered peering from behind Emily.
Emily turned to face Joe but kept her body between the cook and the boy. “What did you do, Joseph?”
“I…I… it’s a long story, Miss Emily.”
“Long stoly, long stoly, Hop Sing have no time for long stoly.” Hop Sing turned and entered the house muttering again in Cantonese.
Emily tilted Joe’s face up and looked sternly down at the boy. “What kind of mess did you make? Keep it short, Joseph.”
“Just some mud and some pond water and the flour and things that got spilled ’cause of the snake.” Joe dropped his head to his chest and placed his hands behind him.
Emily went down on her heels to look the child in the eyes. “Would your pa think you deserved a spanking?”
“Maybe not.” Joe ventured.
“As soon as I get Hop Sing calmed down, you will go in and apologize and help him clean up, and after dinner, you will clear the table and help with the dishes,” Emily stated as she stood up.
Joe nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Little Joe, next time number three son deserves a paddling, I won’t interfere. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Miss Emily.” Joe looked up and a smile spread across his face. “Thanks,” he said giving her a quick hug around the waist.
Emily ruffled his curls and went in to placate the irate cook. She succeeded, and the three shared a calm dinner. They had just finished cleaning up when Joe’s shout echoed through the house. “They’re home! Pa and Hoss are home!”
Emily rushed to the great room. Little Joe had already launched himself into his father’s arms. Emily stopped short and looked at Hoss and the man who stood beside him. Slowly she approached and faced her father. For the first time in years, she looked into his eyes and didn’t see the befuddlement brought on by alcohol.
“Papa.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Emily Ann.” Isaac Thornton drew his daughter to him. “Forgive me, child!”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Papa, nothing at all.”
Ben Cartwright sat in his favorite leather chair staring into the fire that warmed his home. He thanked God that his two youngest sons slept safely upstairs and gave a silent prayer that his eldest slept as safely in Boston. Emily too was asleep in the guestroom and Isaac Thornton in the bunkhouse. It had been agreed that the Thorntons would remain a few weeks on the Ponderosa before returning home. Isaac would work for Ben and earn some money to grubstake his new life. Ben offered another prayer that Isaac would have enough strength to remain sober. He knew the man still had a great struggle ahead.
The troubled father sighed. He had some decisions to make, and they were keeping him from the comfort of his bed. Ben thought back to his time at the line shack. His middle son had shown a strength of character that made Ben so proud. The compassion Hoss had when dealing with Emily’s father was amazing as was Hoss’s ability to quiet Isaac’s demons. Ben had seen that strength of spirit in only one other person. Hoss was most truly Inger’s son. No man in the territory could have shown more resolve or fortitude. The problem was that his son was not a man; he was a boy, and Ben did not want the rest of his childhood to slip away from his middle son. His brother Adam had lost too much of his childhood, and Ben did not want Hoss going down the same road. Hoss’s size had always made him appear older. It had been so easy for everyone, including his family, to expect Hoss to act his size and not his age. Hoss had done a man’s duty in that line shack, but Ben would not declare him a man at fifteen. Ben thought back to his time on board ship. Roy had been right when he said that Ben had done a man’s duty at times when he was only fifteen. Ben smiled at the thought of Captain Stoddard. Able Stoddard had repeatedly made it clear that year and for years to follow that Ben still had maturing to do before he would be truly a man. Part of Ben Cartwright loathed the thought of punishing his disobedient child, and part of him feared to not do so.
Ben walked quietly into his youngest son’s room. The moonlight coming through the window allowed him to see that Joe was lying with his head at the foot of the bed, on top of the blanket and with his pillow on the floor. Ben rearranged his son and the bedclothes as he did most nights, kissed Little Joe’s forehead, and departed. Next, he opened the door to his middle son’s room and stepped inside.
The room was silent, so Ben realized that Hoss was not asleep.
“Pa, can we talk?”
“Of course, son.” Ben lit the lamp and sat in the chair beside the bed. Hoss pulled himself up and sat leaning against the headboard. “What is it you want to talk about?”
“It’s just that… uh… ya spanked Little Joe for lying for me, didn’t ya, Pa.”
“Before we left to look for you, yes, Joe received a spanking.”
“I’m feeling real guilty about that,” Hoss muttered tears filling his eyes. “I got me a big load of guilt, Pa.”
“You shouldn’t have asked your brother to lie for you, but he made the decision to do it himself. All you can do now is ask his forgiveness and resolve never to do it again.”
“Oh, I ain’t never gonna do it again. I just thought … I’ll apologize to Joe tomorrow,”
“What else are ya feeling guilty about, son?”
“I’m really sorry about the three days ya was worrying and looking for us. I don’t like to make ya worry, and ya lost all that time on the things ya should have been doing instead of looking for me. Guess that’s true about Sheriff Coffee too.”
“Roy is a good friend; and, yes, he was worried too.”
“I’ll be apologizing to him soon as I can.”
“That would be the right thing to do. Anything else.”
“Well, I played hooky from school. Leastways the first four days I was playing hooky. I’ll have to answer to Miss Cutter for that, though.” Hoss bit his lip. “Hooky is the onlyest thing she gives a switching for. Two licks for each day.” Hoss raised his head to look at his father. “It’ll be the first time I ever got a switching at school, Pa. First time anybody but you or Ma ever give me a licking, but ya always say we got to accept the teacher’s authority, so I… ya don’t think she’ll think I was playing hooky the whole time?”
“I intend on going to school with you. I’ll explain to Miss Cuter that the majority of the time you were with me.” Ben intended to explain a great deal more to Miss Cutter, and from his knowledge of the teacher he was confident she would deal out any punishment with fairness and compassion.
Hoss dropped his head once again, and the tears started to slip from his eyes. “I done disobeyed a lot of your rules, Pa, and I guess sneaking off and trying to hide our tracks was deceitful, but I didn’t mean no disrespect by anything I done, Pa, really I didn’t.”
Ben reached out and placed his hand under his son’s chin. Lifting the boy’s eyes to his, he said gently, “I know, son. I understand your intentions, and I’m proud of what you were able to do for Isaac Thornton. You know how much I love you, don’t you Eric Gunner Cartwright?”
“Course I do, Pa. We all know how much ya love us. That everything ya do, even the things we don’t like, ya do ’cause ya love us. We love ya too.”
Ben looked at Hoss. This son had always known and accepted that he was loved in a way that neither of his brothers ever had. Ben knew Adam and Joe sometimes hungered for his love, even though they had it, but Hoss never did. For Hoss, his father’s love had always been a certainty.
Ben smiled at his son. “Doesn’t seem like you have left me much to lecture you about, son. You already realize what you did that was wrong. There’s no more to be said about it except that I forgive you.”
Hoss swallowed, and his voice was barely audible. “I guess that just leaves the doing about it.” Ben saw that the boy’s whole body began to tremble. “Pa, I ain’t got no right to ask ya to favor me right now, but, Pa, please, I know what with all I done this tanning’s gonna be… well, I don’t know if I can… I don’t want …Pa, please, I know it would mean another day of me missing school and all, but Pa, could ya wait ’til Joe and Emily leave for school tomorrow and then do it. I can’t face them right after, Pa, please!”
Ben replied softly, “It can wait.”
Ben walked into the kitchen to find Emily already awake and helping to fix breakfast. His face registered surprise that Hop Sing allowed the girl to invade his territory.
Emily smiled. “He only let’s me help at breakfast, and that took some doing.”
“Missy Emily have enough on hands with school and number three son,” Hop Sing interjected.
“So Joseph was a problem while I was gone?” Ben asked his eyebrows drawing together.
“Little Joe missed you and Hoss terribly, Mr. Ben,” Emily stated quickly. “He really didn’t do anything that bad.”
“Hop Sing,” Ben said looking directly at the man who had helped to raise Joe since he was a baby, “did Joseph do anything I need to take care of?”
Hop Sing answered with a shake of his head. “Missy Emily handle little boy vely well. All things alleady settled.”
“All right then.” Ben trusted Hop Sing’s judgment implicitly. “Is that coffee ready?”
Ben drank his coffee and then went upstairs to get Little Joe for breakfast.
Little Joe was about to enter his brother’s room when he heard his father’s voice.
“Joe, don’t go into your brother’s room.”
“I was just gonna make sure he wasn’t late to breakfast.” Little Joe was not sure how much trouble his brother was in for going off to help Emily’s pa, but he thought it a good idea to prevent Hoss from being in trouble over anything else.
“Your brother will be sleeping in today.”
“Ya mean he ain’t going to school?”
“Hoss will be back at school tomorrow. Today he’ll be sleeping in.” Ben’s look told Joe the discussion was at an end.
“Okay, Pa,” Joe answered following his father down to breakfast.
Joe led his pony and the horse Emily had ridden to school into the barn. When he saw his big brother was leaning with his arms atop one of the stalls, he dropped the reigns, tiptoed over, and jumped onto Hoss’s back. “Hey, Big Brother!”
Hoss stepped back startled for a moment and then reached back to grab Little Joe under the arms and flip the boy over his shoulder. Hoss sat Joe down on top of the half-wall of the stall. Placing a hand on either side of the child, Hoss grinned. “Hey, yourself, Little Brother!”
Little Joe had had no chance to talk to Hoss alone after his return the night before. He placed his hands against Hoss’s broad shoulders and leaned his face into his brother’s. “I missed ya terrible, Hoss. Don’t ya ever go off like that again!”
“Don’t plan to, Short Shanks. I missed ya too.” Hoss paused and swallowed. “Joe, I got something I need to say.”
“Joe, I done something I shouldn’t ought to have done, and I’m real sorry about it. It was wrong of me to ask ya to lie, and I’m real sorry I got ya a spanking. I wish there was something I could do about that. I’m real sorry there’s not anything.”
“It weren’t a hard spanking, Hoss. Really it weren’t.” Joe’s face grew serious. “What Pa said made me hurt a whole lot worse. If ya would have got hurt, I would have been a part of helping ya hurt yourself. I couldn’t stand ya getting hurt, so I can’t never lie for ya bout something like that again. Ya worried me, Hoss.”
For a moment Eric Gunner Cartwright felt regret deep as he had ever before experienced. Then his brother wrapped his arms around Hoss’s neck and his legs around Hoss’s waist and declared,” I forgive ya, Big Brother, ’cause I love ya so much, and ’cause I’m betting your spanking was a whole lots worse than mine.”
Hoss walked into his bedroom and was started to see Emily sitting on the chair next to his bed. Emily had spent most of the previous evening with her father, and the two friends had not yet spoken privately.
“What in tarnation, Emily! Is something wrong?”
” No.” Emily sprang up and much like Little Joe launched herself at Hoss. She threw her arms around his neck and exclaimed, “So much is right now! Thanks to you; so much is right!” She released her hold on him and stepped back to look into his eyes. “Thank you for giving me my father back, Eric. I just wish it hadn’t gotten you a… I wish you weren’t in trouble. I’m sorry, Eric. I’m so sorry!” Tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
“Ain’t nothing to be sorry for, Em. It weren’t your doing, and ‘sides I ain’t in trouble with my pa no more. He’s done forgiven me, and I ain’t even on restriction.”
Emily knew for sure then what punishment Hoss had received and burst into sobs. Hoss scooped her up like a one would a toddler and without hesitation carried her across the hall and into his father’s room. He sat down in Marie’s rocker and held her in his lap as she cried. When her sobs turned to sniffles, he pulled out a clean handkerchief and wiped her face. Then he held it to her nose and said, “Blow.” He didn’t understand Emily’s responding giggles, but enjoyed the sound of them anyway.
“A girl should always have a Cartwright around when she needs a good cry,” Emily declared. Then she sighed. “Your Pa has a rocker with flowered chintz cushions?”
“It was Ma’s. She used to hold me and read to me and tell me stories while she rocked me even when I was too big for that.”
Emily leaned against his strong chest. “Stories like once upon a time in the land of the Ponderosas there lived a family of brave knights. The strongest, bravest, and truest was Sir Eric.”