Family (by Judy)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17,234


 

Chapter One

Sunlight streamed through the trees as Ben and Marie Cartwright rode through the woods on the way to the lake. Marie was talking excitedly, telling Ben of the plans she had for the upcoming twelfth birthday party for their middle son, Hoss. Laughing, she told him how it was essential that they not let Little Joe overhear their plans so that he wouldn’t inadvertently tell Hoss the plans. Ben was only half listening to Marie as she talked; she had told him all this before. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested, but as always the sight of her, the sound of her, even the smell of her was almost overpowering and all he could think of was how much he loved her and their life on the Ponderosa. He was a man who had endured many hardships, but now his life seemed to be complete. The Ponderosa was finally beginning to thrive, Marie was a wonderful wife and mother to all of his three sons, and they had made a lot of friends and had established the Cartwright name as something to be proud of. His older two sons from his previous marriages loved Marie as if she had given birth to them. Adam had taken a while but she had won him over with her patience, goodness, and stubborn refusal to give up. Hoss, always so loving, had taken to her immediately, as she had to him. And Joseph—their son together, so much like his mother—their Little Joe.

Ben was awakened from his dream by a heart-wrenching, terrified scream. He bolted upright in bed with a start. Immediately he realized two things. It had been a dream—only a dream—his bed was empty. Marie was dead and buried at her favorite place on the edge of Lake Tahoe. And the source of that agonizing scream was their son, Joseph. Ben grimaced and as he turned to throw on a bathrobe, he pounded his fist on the bureau top in frustration, anger, grief, and hopelessness. He took a deep breath and forced himself to compose his face as he headed towards his son’s room. As he got to the door, he saw Adam and Hoss standing at the doorway immobilized by their own grief and sorrow. Ben wanted to offer them some solace too, but he had precious little to spare. He put an arm around each of them and gave a quick hug, more of a squeeze and then quietly said, “Adam would you see to getting Hoss back to bed? I’ll go to Little Joe.” With tears in his own eyes, Adam gently led Hoss back towards his own room.

Ben quickly crossed the threshold and went directly to Little Joe’s bed. Joe’s cries were somewhat muffled by the pillow he was holding tight to, as if he were hanging onto a person. But Ben knew what his words were; they were the same that he had been calling out several times a night every night for the past week since Marie had died. “No, Mama, Don’t leave me, Mama. Mama come back.” Then the cries wound down to a pleading “Mamaaaaaaa” and again Little Joe would cry until he could cry no more. Ben reached down and pulled Joe up and held onto him tightly, slowly rocking him back and forth and making soothing “Sssh” noises until Joe, completely out of breath and exhausted, resumed his restless sleep. He had tried at first to wake Joe up and comfort him, but he and Adam and Hoss had finally learned that it was better not to wake him, because waking him made it even more difficult, not only for Little Joe, but for them as well. Ben sat there for a long, long time, holding onto the son that was the result of the love between him and Marie. He watched the rise and fall of his son’s chest, heard the gasping sobs and snuffles as his body tried to recover from his nightmare and wondered how he would be able to cope with the loss of his mother. How would they all be able to cope with the loss? Again he felt the tears running down his own face as he contemplated a future without Marie Cartwright—his wife, step-mother to Adam and Hoss, mother to 5 year old Joseph, his best friend, and—his life.

The dawn found Ben Cartwright sitting in the rocking chair by the window of Little Joe’s room, holding his son and thinking—something he had avoided doing for the past week. The events of the week had gone past as if he had been watching them happen to someone else. The only thing he could remember clearly was the one thing he wished he could forget—that split second in which Marie’s horse had stumbled and fallen. She died almost instantly, by the time he reached her, she let out one small breath and then she was gone. Lost to them all. The minute before she had been full of life, in a hurry—she was always in a hurry. That he remembered, but he barely remembered the days afterwards, the funeral, the friends, and the well-meaning advice.

He was sure he and his sons would not have made it through the week if not for the help of his friends Roy Coffee and Paul Martin. Some of the other friends and neighbors, trying to be helpful had arrived soon after the news had spread and took over. Before he had been able to absorb the news and think rationally, neighbors had come and spirited Hoss and Little Joe away. He smiled grimly as he recalled that they had also tried to take Adam but he would not go with them and had protested when they insisted upon taking Hoss and Little Joe. To make things even worse, they had sent Hoss and Little Joe to two separate families. While he was still in his bedroom, Adam, against all advice of the well-meaning friends, had burst into his room. “Pa they took Little Joe and Hoss. We have to go get ‘em Pa. They need us.” Just as he was trying to comprehend what Adam was saying, Paul Martin and Roy Coffee had arrived. Upon hearing what had happened, Roy Coffee immediately took charge of the people trying to help the family, and Paul Martin went to retrieve first Hoss, and then Little Joe.

When he drove toward the Hopkin’s house where Hoss had been sent, Paul Martin met Hoss walking down the road. Hoss had always been shy around Dr. Martin and had avoided making eye contact with him, but when he recognized Dr. Martin, without hesitation he said, “Doctor Martin will you take me to the Landers’ to get my little brother?” Hoss and Paul had gone together to get Little Joe. They heard him before the buggy even stopped in front of the Lander’s house. His voice was hoarse, but he was still screaming, “take me to my Mama right now!” When the door was opened and Joe saw Hoss, he made a run for him and Hoss grabbed hold of him and picked him up. Without a word to anyone else, Hoss carried his sobbing brother to the buggy to wait for Dr. Martin to take them home. When Paul brought them home he had told Ben that he wasn’t sure who was more relieved to see Hoss—Joe or the Landers.

After that, no one attempted to separate the three sons from their father. Ben and Adam tried to keep check on their own emotions to be strong for Hoss and Little Joe. Hoss also tried to be brave and strong. Since picking up his brother at the Lander’s house, he wouldn’t let him out of his sight. With Paul’s assistance, Ben was able to sit down and explain to Little Joe that his mother was dead. Upon Paul’s advice, he kept the explanation short and simple. When Joe asked him, for the dozenth time and he knew he couldn’t stall any longer, Ben said, “Come here, Joe. Hoss, you and Adam, too, please.” With his voice breaking and tears in his eyes, he said, “Boys, your mother had an accident this morning. Her horse stumbled and fell on her. She died instantly.” By this time, Adam and Hoss were crying, watching Little Joe to see how he would respond. Joe was watching them, his green eyes wide as he tried to figure out what that meant. For a few minutes, he didn’t say anything and Ben thought he must understand. Then Little Joe said, “Mama will have to ride Sally again when she comes home, won’t she Papa?”

Despite repeated attempts by all of them to make Little Joe understand what death meant, he persisted in believing that she would be coming back. He was sad that she was gone and confused over all the goings-on in the house and all the people. He found some solace in Hop Tseng’s kitchen. Joe had discovered that while everyone else was treating him like a baby or something, Hop Tseng treated him like usual, although he seemed to have a cold or something and his eyes were all watery. When he was not in the immediate presence of one of his brothers or his father, he was with Hop Tseng in the kitchen.

Hop Tseng had arranged all their clothes for the funeral, shined their shoes, and starched and ironed their shirts. He volunteered to get Little Joe dressed while Ben and Adam and Hoss got dressed. Joe was extremely irritable that morning. Hop Tseng knew that although he didn’t understand all the implications of what it meant to “die” or to be “dead”, Little Joe was aware that it was not good and he was becoming increasingly insistent that his mother come home. He refused to listen anymore when his family or Doc Martin or Hop Tseng tried to explain to him. Hop Tseng believed that Little Joe did understand but did not want to believe it could be true. He thought to himself that he was like in his mother in so many ways.

Although later he realized that it had been a sunny day, Ben’s recollection of the day of the funeral was of a gray, dreary, sunless day, filled with dark shadows and cold winds and eerie sounds. Somehow they all managed to get dressed and into the over-sized buggy to go to the burial site for the graveside service. Hop Tseng lifted Joe into his Papa’s arms and turned to go toward another buggy to make the trip, but Ben reached out and grabbed his arm and said, “The family is all riding in this buggy, Hop Tseng. Sit here by me and Joe.” Hop Tseng nodded his head and climbed into the buggy. Hoss and Adam were sitting on one seat of the buggy; Ben, holding Joe, and Hop Tseng sat on the other. A neighbor was driving the buggy. No one spoke on the way to the lake. There were frequent sounds of sniffing, nose blowing, and an occasional choked sob.

*****

Chapter Two

Little Joe kept his head buried in his father’s arms, pretending to be asleep. He knew what they were saying about his Mama, but it couldn’t be true. His Mama had promised him she would always be with him. He could hear her laughing and telling him that “You are my little boy and I will always be your Mama.” How could she be his Mama if she weren’t here? Why doesn’t Papa just go find her and bring her home? He had been so sure at first, but now, he was beginning to have doubts. What if they were right? What if she didn’t come back? The longer this went on the more worried he became. Well they could just say whatever they wanted to, he knew his Mama wouldn’t leave him and as soon as all these people left, he would just go find her. All these thoughts and emotions went through his head as they made that trip to the lake.

When they reached the lake, Papa spoke to him, “Son, come on now, we have to get out here and go say goodbye to Mama.” As his father spoke, Joe saw the tears streaming down his father’s eyes and then he looked at Adam and Hoss—both of them were openly crying. Hop Tseng, with his arms around Hoss and Adam, was crying. Joe’s world was starting to cave in on him, but his stubbornness and his strong will to deny the awful reality was not yet ready to crumble. He watched his family with his green eyes wide and his face pale, but he said nothing and he didn’t cry. His father put him down on the ground and holding tightly to his hand, with one arm around Hoss, who was holding on to Adam, began to walk toward the spot where all the people were standing, looking at them. Joe began to drag his feet, trying to stop the forward progress. Hop Tseng grabbed hold of his other hand and Joe was pulled along. But every step closer to the group of people they took, the more panic Joe began to experience.

Finally they reached the cluster of people and the people parted to let them pass through. His family continued to walk until they reached some chairs that had been placed beside a big black blanket. Reverend Morris was there, holding a Bible and there were flowers all around and everywhere Joe looked were people crying. He saw all of the ranch hands and people from Virginia City and all of Hop Tseng’s family. They were all crying. Joe’s head began to swim; things were beginning to swirl around in his head and all he could think of was that he had to make them stop. Reverend Morris began to talk and then the people stopped looking at him and began to listen to Reverend. Joe had no idea what he was talking about but was vaguely aware that he was reading from the Bible.

At different times while the reverend talked, he heard his brothers crying and he felt, rather than heard, his father crying. Images and sounds swirled faster and faster inside his head. He heard the reverend talking, but he also heard his mother calling him and laughing with him. He saw the crowds of people but he also saw his mother when she played catch with him or when she gave him riding lessons. Finally the Reverend stopped talking and then some big lady with an ugly black dress on got up and sang some church song. The woman’s voice was joined by the sounds of his Mama singing him bedtime stories about someone named Jacque. Even the smells were becoming overwhelming to him as he smelled freshly-turned dirt, like when he and Mama helped Hop Tseng in the garden, and he smelled flowers, but he thought he smelled his Mama the way she smelled right after she took a bath and came in and hugged him or when she put on some of that perfume Papa gave her. Joe was becoming increasingly panicked as his senses were bombarded with more sensory stimuli than he could handle. He was beginning to feel like he couldn’t breathe.

Just as all these sensations were coming to a head, his Papa stood up and pulled on his hand to bring him up. He was trying to make all the feelings go away and hold them off, but he was losing the battle. As he was standing there, he began to sway, ever so slightly, as his legs became weak, like jelly. Still the people kept on, now they were moving the blanket, folding it back, right in front of him. Under that blanket was a hole. He could smell the dirt and it was making him want to throw up. He was barely holding on. Now the people were doing something else. Some men, including Doctor Martin and Sheriff Coffee were walking in two lines, toward the hole, carrying something between them. They walked right up to the hole and then Joe saw that it was a box—a big box made out of wood. The men began to lower the box into the hole with ropes. Finally they got the box into the hole and pulled out the ropes. The Reverend nodded to his Papa. Papa bent down to him and said, “Joseph, it is time to say good bye to Mama now.”

Joe looked at his father and then he knew. His eyes widened to maximum size and he gave a shriek that sounded like it came from his very soul, and yanked his arm away from his father and threw himself towards the hole., “MAMA” he cried. If Paul Martin and Adam had not caught him, he would have landed in the hole, on top of the casket. As they caught him and grabbed him back, he caught his father’s eye for a brief second and said, almost inaudibly, “Papa, don’t.” Then mercifully for him, and for his family, he fainted. Ben, despite his own grief, reached for his son and clasped him tightly to his chest, with Adam and Hoss and Hop Tseng all clustered tightly around.

*****

Chapter Three

Ben recalled how momentarily, he had envied Little Joe’s unconsciousness; he wished he could have succumbed to the same respite, to escape somehow from the awful reality, too. But somehow he found the strength to hold on. Thinking about it now, he knew that the only thing that kept him from running away and burying himself in his own grief was his three sons who needed him. His thoughts turned to them and he was somehow able to hold his own grief in abeyance so that he could be there for his sons. Adam, at 17 had known more than his share of grief already. His mother, Elizabeth had died in childbirth so he had never known her; things had been very hard for them when Adam was little. Then he met and married Inger and she was a Godsend for both of them, helping to give Adam a sense of security that he as a young father struggling to make a living had not been able to do. He remembered that period as an oasis for him and Adam; one that was intensified by the birth of Hoss. Yet soon again their sorrow was back with Inger’s death. Adam had withdrawn and it was at that point in his young life, that Adam left childhood forever, Ben believed. He knew he was responsible for that, by not realizing that Adam was too young to be so serious and so responsible, but at the time, he himself needed help and he relied too heavily on Adam. That had created problems when he had married Marie and brought her home.

Ben smiled as he remembered the battles that Marie and Adam had initially. Adam—Cartwright, through and through—stubbornly refused to accept Marie. An ordinary woman would have soon given in and gone swiftly back to New Orleans. But Marie was no ordinary woman. She quickly figured out the situation and met Adam tit for tat in the battle for his acceptance, respect, and ultimately, his love. It had not been pretty to watch and Ben had been at a loss as to how to deal with the situation. Fortunately, Marie did not expect him to solve the problem; in fact in no uncertain terms she had told him to “butt out”. And that is exactly what he did.

At times he was afraid that Adam would never come around, but Marie never wavered in her steadfast belief that she would triumph in the battle of wills. Ben still was amazed at the strong will and resolve and belief in herself that Marie Cartwright exhibited. She never lost faith and as things turned out—she was absolutely right. Ben recalled one puzzling conversation he had with Marie over the situation with Adam. “Marie I don’t know what to do. Adam seems to be getting worse instead of better.” Marie had looked at him as if he had three heads and then laughed, that wonderful, heavenly (pun intended), infectious laugh, and said, “Why you silly goose, can’t you see that victory is almost upon us, darling?” He had thought she was delusional and said so—something he quickly regretted. Marie Cartwright did not like to be told she was wrong and she told him so—loudly and vehemently. He soon admitted the error of his conclusion and apologized profusely. Afterwards, her passion was expressed in their lovemaking, and after, when they were lying in each other’s arms, she told him that she was sure they had just made a new Cartwright. He had thought again she was crazy, but had enough sense to keep it to himself. Once again, she had been correct, because exactly 8 ½ months later, she had given birth to Joseph Francis Cartwright, a tiny baby boy, born two weeks early.

Joseph, named Little Joe by his doting brother, Hoss, was now five years old. It was incredible to Ben that five years had passed. The past five years had unquestionably been the happiest of his life. The birth of Joseph had been the turning point of their lives. It seemed as if fortune had looked upon his birth with good will and blessed them as a family. Adam, who had been warming up to Marie gradually, was completely won over the first time he saw his tiny baby brother. Hoss had also been enraptured by the baby Joseph. Hoss had been a big baby and had been bigger than anyone his own age all his life. By contrast, Little Joe had been a tiny baby who barely weighed 5 pounds at birth and Hoss had been awed by the sight of his tiny brother. Joseph had been a very alert and engaging baby and had captured everyone’s hearts from first glance. He had thrived as a newborn despite his size and quickly demonstrated a distinct and strong personality and temperament. Joseph had inherited both Marie’s features and her personality. His antics over the past five years had kept family life from ever be boring. Despite his stubbornness and fiery temper, there was always more laughter than tears with Little Joe.

Just like the family, the Ponderosa seemed to flourish after the birth of Little Joe. Ben’s business decisions began to pay off and the Ponderosa empire seemed to grow and prosper on every front. The cattle business multiplied and the herds grew and their reputation for having healthy livestock at a fair price brought them more and more success. The timber business also greatly expanded when silver was discovered in the area, prompting the extreme need for timber to shore up silver mine excavations. Ben’s business investments in San Francisco also were successful and it seemed as though the sacrifice and struggles they had early on were finally over.

All the memories of the past five years passed through Ben’s mind in rapid succession. How could it have really been five years since Joseph was born? So much had happened in that time. So many good things, so much love. His heart broke as he realized that it was all over now. How could 5 years be enough to last them for a lifetime? He had thought he and Marie would raise their sons together, build the Ponderosa ever stronger together, grow old together, and play with their grandchildren together. He felt again that stab of pain, as if someone had actually stuck a knife into his heart. He was so afraid. How could he go on? How could he go on living without the woman that had made it all worthwhile and so wonderful? His grief and sorrow over the loss was too much to bear. He didn’t think he could do it. He knew he couldn’t do it.

Then, as he was sitting there, Little Joe moaned in his sleep, halfway between a cry and a word. Ben looked over at his son. Joe was restless, as usual; he had always been a restless sleeper. Like Marie, he was always in a hurry as if he didn’t want to miss a single experience in life. He fought sleep and when he slept, it was active sleep. Ben moved over and readjusted his blanket and his pillow to make him more comfortable. He stood looking down at his son—with the same soft, curly and sometimes unruly hair and sparkling green-gold eyes, dark eyelashes, and small, delicate features of his mother. He looked so innocent in his sleep. Joe had known no real sorrow in his life. Unlike his brothers, he had had the security of two loving parents, two doting older brothers, and an adoring Hop Tseng. Not to mention the many trusted and indulgent ranch hands and family friends, always willing to listen to him or play with him. He had not had to live through times when there were severe financial difficulties, the doubts about what they were doing, and the conflicts brought about by insecurity and hardships. Whereas Adam had known too much tragedy and loss already and Hoss who had known some; this little boy’s world had been steady and secure. His biggest concern had been getting into trouble sometimes over his pranks, his stubbornness, or his quick temper. He was totally unprepared to deal with sorrow and loss. How would he handle it?

As Ben stood at his son’s bedside, watching him twist and turn in his sleep, tears streamed down his face. He felt the weight of the world upon his own shoulders at that moment, because he recognized that it was up to him to see to it that Joe was not destroyed by the loss of his mother. He could not give into his own grief—he had to do whatever it took to make up for the loss of Marie to Joe and to Hoss and Adam, as well. It was going to be the hardest thing he had ever done in his life not only because he didn’t know how to do that, but also because it would require him to face his own grief and sorrow head-on, deal with it, and then let it go. He HAD to do this. He could do nothing less because he knew that Marie would expect him to do this. She had been so proud of her family, especially this little boy, so much like her. She would expect Ben to be more than a father—she would expect him to be everything that the two of them would have been together. Standing there, by his son’s bedside, he vowed to God and to Marie that he would do whatever it took to restore the sense of security and family that they had before she was killed.

*****

Chapter Four

Ben reflected on the days since the funeral and was not pleased with the way things had gone. Since the funeral, they had not had one meal eaten as a family. Hoss and Adam and he had eaten together a couple of times, but so far Joe had not eaten a regular meal. Either he or Hop Tseng had had to coax him to eat at all. After he had aroused after he fainted at the graveside, Paul had given him a sedative because he had become increasingly hysterical and out of control. He had then fallen into a deep sleep, sleeping for 12 hours. Since that time when he was awake, he would either cry for Marie or just stare at the wall or ceilings, ignoring their attempts to talk to him. The very next time he slept, the nightmares had begun and every night since it had been the same. Joe had had nightmares before but it was always Marie who could comfort him and make the bad dreams go away. These bad dreams were especially hard to deal with because they just further illustrated his loss.

Adam had assumed the role of caring for Hoss and together they were doing the chores and Adam was even directing the ranch hands. Adam was withdrawing into himself and the routine matters of the ranch, much as he had done when Inger had died. Hoss was trying so hard to take care of Little Joe that he was ignoring his own grief. Sighing, Ben knew that they all had a lot of grief to bear and that it would be more easily born if they did it together, despite their individual efforts to bear it alone. He would have to change that tendency to keep their own grief hidden away if they were to become strong and survive this tragedy.

Ben went to his own room, bathed, shaved, and dressed and headed downstairs. He was determined to start getting back to as near normal as possible and they would start with eating breakfast as a family this morning. He knew that Joseph would be the most challenging problem, but that Adam and Hoss also needed support for their own grief. He was determined that this time, the four of them would face this together and although it was going to be hard, that, together, they could survive.

He walked downstairs and into the kitchen. Hop Tseng was in the kitchen, drinking tea and looked surprised to see him. “Good morning, Hop Tseng.” He said, smiling at Hop Tseng “Do you think you could have breakfast ready in about thirty minutes?” he asked.

Smiling, Hop Tseng replied, “Breakfast for four?”

“Yes, Hop Tseng, breakfast for four.”

“You want me to go get little boy up?” Hop Tseng asked.

“No, Hop Tseng. Thanks, but I will go get the boys up. You just get some breakfast ready.”

Hop Tseng was already pulling out pans and stoking up the fire in the woodstove. “Hop Tseng make veddy good bleakfast. Be ready in no time.”

In his reverie, Ben had recalled a conversation with Marie about dealing with Little Joe, who from infancy had proven to be both a challenge and a joy to deal with. She had told him that one of the most important things she did to make life easier on Little Joe, herself, the rest of the family, and the world at large was to stick to a routine. She had said that it reassured him when some things were always the same. It had occurred to him that perhaps if they got back into as close to their normal routine as possible right away, that that may give Joe some reassurance that his world would still be somewhat the same as before. That was what prompted him to insist on a family breakfast and they may as well start it today. It was not going to be any easier to face tomorrow.

With that in mind, he headed up the stairs. He stopped first at Adam’s door and knocked softly, then entered the room. Adam was still in bed, but was awake. “Morning, Son.” Ben said. Adam was clearly surprised to see his father, and immediately assumed there was another problem. Ben, seeing the consternation on his face, went to him quickly and said, “everything is fine, Adam. I just wanted to let you know that breakfast will be ready in 30 minutes. We are eating together this morning.”

Adam raised an eyebrow and pointed his head in the direction of Little Joe’s room and said, “Joe, too, Pa?”

“Yes, of course, Joe too, Adam. We need to be together.” He put his arm around Adam and hugged him and said, “Son, we all will get through this together. I appreciate your help with your brothers, but I want you to know that I am here for you, too.” Adam found himself unable to speak; he was so choked with emotion. He knew then that his father was going to be okay and if his father was going to be okay, they all would be okay, too. He felt hopeful for the first time since Marie died.

Ben left Adam to get dressed and went over to Hoss’ room. Hoss’ room was empty, though his bed had been slept in. Ben knew without any real thought that he would find Hoss in Joe’s room. He quickly crossed the hall and sure enough, there was Hoss sitting in the chair by the side of Joe’s bed. Ben thought that this must be what a picture of a guardian angel would look like. Hoss looked at his Pa when he walked into the room and Ben saw that he had been crying. He went immediately to him and hugged him tight. Hoss clung to him and cried silently.

Ben gently led Hoss back into his own room, so as not to wake Little Joe up yet. Once inside the room, he took Hoss’s chin and pulled it so that he was looking directly into his eyes. Hoss’ crystal blue eyes were red-rimmed and the twinkle had faded. “Hoss, I know how much you loved Marie, and you know how much she loved you. We are all going to miss her, but together we will be okay.”

“But Pa, me and Adam we’ll be all right. But Little Joe, Pa. He’s only a little boy, Pa, and he loved her so much. What are we gonna do for him, Pa?” Hoss’ face was contorted with grief and despair.

“Hoss it will be hard for Little Joe, as it will for all of us, and we are gonna have to help him the best we can. But we can do this together—we are still a family and there is still plenty enough love in this family to go around.” He hugged Hoss again and looked earnestly at Hoss and he thought he saw just a spark of the usual light in his eyes. “Now then young man, you better get dressed so you won’t be late for breakfast. You sure don’t want to make Hop Tseng mad, do you?” Ben said, giving Hoss a gentle shove. “I have to go tangle with that grizzly bear sleeping in your brother’s room.” Ben said this with more confidence than he really felt. Hoss laughed slightly at the reference to Joe as a grizzly bear, which was what Marie called Little Joe in the mornings.

Ben didn’t bother to knock at Little Joe’s door. Instead he gently opened the door and walked softly back into the room of his youngest son. His heart constricted at the sight of him, for all the world like his mother in appearance and personality. He was turned on his side, all his covers were on the floor and he looked so young, angelic, and so vulnerable. He almost got caught up in his thinking of the night before about why this had to happen, but he shook it off and made himself go on. He leaned over and brushed the curls off his son’s forehead and said softly, “Joseph, it is time to wake up.” As he expected, Joe immediately rolled over and continued sleeping. Ben again called him and this time, gently shook his shoulder, getting pretty much the same response. Ben continued his efforts to wake Joe, getting a little more aggressive and persistent at each attempt, until finally, Joe was forced to open his eyes and acknowledge the intrusion on his sleep.

He looked up with his eyes half open at first, then seeing his father, he smiled and his whole face lit up. Ben knew that for the moment he had forgotten about Marie’s death, but his own heart nearly burst when he saw that smile and his immediate response was to smile back at his son. He opened up his arms and Little Joe climbed into them.

“Hi, Pa.” He said happily.

“Hi, yourself, son.” Then, in an instant, the smile was gone from Joe’s face and the light went out of his eyes. His countenance changed from that of a happy five year old, to that of someone who knew he was mortally wounded, but was not quite dead yet.

“It’s time to get up and get dressed, Joe. Hop Tseng has breakfast almost ready.” Ben said, trying to sound positive and reassuring.

“I ain’t hungry, Pa. I don’t want nothin’ to eat.”

Ben was at a loss as to what to do. Without thinking, he hugged the little boy in his arms tightly to his chest and said, “It’s gonna be all right, Joe. It’s gonna be all right, son.” Joe clung to his father tightly and Ben could feel his body trembling. “Son, it’s gonna be all right” he repeated. Still Joe didn’t say anything. Ben held him for a while longer, then said, “Come on now, let’s get you dressed and go downstairs for breakfast before Hoss eats it all.” He had hoped to get a little smile out of Joe, but his facial expression didn’t change.

He let Ben get him dressed, offering no resistance, but no assistance either. As he was dressing him, Ben knew that he and Joe were both thinking about the rows he and Marie had had over getting him dressed in the mornings. Joe had always been very particular about what he wore every day and sometimes his choices didn’t meet with her approval and they would engage in a battle of wills. Ben had once asked her why she didn’t just let him wear what he wanted to wear, since it didn’t really matter. She had informed him that the struggle had nothing to do with the clothes he wore, but everything to do with who was in charge and she wasn’t about to let him be in charge at that early an age, or they would have big troubles in a couple of years.

Finally, Joe was dressed and Ben took him by the hand and led him downstairs. When they got to the stairs, Ben saw that Hoss and Adam were at the table and Hop Tseng was waiting to serve. They headed toward the table and as they got to the table, Ben saw Joe’s attention focus on the now-empty chair at the opposite end of the table from his own place. He could have kicked himself; maybe he should have moved Marie’s chair. He picked Joe up and deposited him in his chair, then took his own seat. “Morning, boys. Morning, Hop Tseng. You have some food for some hungry men?” he asked trying to lighten the atmosphere. Hoss and Adam hadn’t said anything as they had watched Joe stare as if entranced, at his mother’s empty chair. But hearing their father trying to make conversation, they picked up on his cue and smiled and started to try to make light conversation.

“Hey little brother, ‘bout time you got up. I was afraid Hoss was gonna eat everything up.” Adam said, smiling at Joe.

Hoss pretended to be insulted and said, “Now Adam you know I woulda saved somethin’ for Joe. Now you, that’s a different matter, ain’t it, Short Shanks?” Hoss asked, using his pet name for Little Joe.

Joe didn’t answer either of them, nor did he seem to even hear them. He sat there in his chair, staring at his mother’s empty chair, his eyes brimming with tears. But he said nothing. Hop Tseng came around and brought him a glass of milk and poured Adam, Ben, and Hoss a cup of coffee. He then placed platters of scrambled eggs, bacon, hashed brown potatoes, and biscuits on the table. Then he went back to the kitchen, saying “I have surprise for Little Joe.” And returned quickly with a platter of pancakes and a pitcher of syrup.

“Hey lookit that, Short Shanks, flapjacks—your favorite!” Hoss said. Hop Tseng placed three pancakes on Joe’s plate, then placed a large mound of creamy, homemade butter on top and then drenched the stack with syrup.

When Hop Tseng had brought in all the food, he withdrew to the kitchen and Ben said, “Well what are we waiting for? Let’s eat.” Then there was an awkward pause, because at that point, Marie always said, “First we must thank God for our wonderful blessings.” Ben recovered and attempted to move forward, but it was too late. Little Joe gave a sob that he couldn’t suppress and got up and ran from the table, heading out the front door. Ben, Adam, and Hoss all gave each other the same devastated look and leaped up from the table. Ben said, “You two go ahead and eat and I will go to Joe. I want to talk to you later though, so please stick around the house today. Adam, would you tell Charlie that I want to meet with him some time this morning, too please?”

“Sure Pa.” Adam said. He and Hoss sat back down and after glancing at the three empty seats at the table shook their heads sadly. Then they both said at the same time, “It’ll be all right.” Each anxious to reassure the other. When they both said the same thing at the same time, they kind of smiled and then began to eat their breakfast.

*****

Chapter Five

Little Joe ran blindly out the front door with no destination in mind; with no thought in mind. He didn’t know if he were running to something or running from something. He saw some of the ranch hands in front of the barn, so he turned to the right and ran around the side of the kitchen, past the vegetable garden that he and his Mama had just been working in last week, and kept running. He ran past the clearing and on towards the pine thicket on the other side. He vaguely heard someone calling his name, but it didn’t filter through to his mind. He continued to run until, finally, he could run no more and he collapsed on a big rock outcropping near a small stream of cold water coming down from the mountains from the melting snows. He huddled in a heap on the rock and cried his heart out.

Ben followed Joe as quickly as he could; despite the age difference, Ben Cartwright was a strong, energetic, and vigorous man. He heard Joe before he got to him, and his heart beat faster when he heard him. He wanted so much to ease the suffering of his little boy. When he caught sight of Little Joe, he stopped for a minute to get his breath and collect his thoughts. He looked heavenward and said softly, ““Marie, please help me do this right.” Then he went to Joseph and pulled him onto his lap and hugged him close. He didn’t try to stop Joe’s tears, figuring that he needed to cry. He gently rocked him and waited and before he knew it, he was crying himself. After a while, Joe’s sobs began to decrease and eventually they tapered off. Father and Son continued to sit there, as their tears decreased until they were finally able to talk.

Joe spoke first, “Papa why did Mama leave me?” he looked at his father and his eyes were wide and innocent and so grief-filled, that Ben had to force down more tears himself in order to answer.

“Son, Mama didn’t want to leave us. It was just an accident.” “But Papa, if it was an accident, why doesn’t she just come back?” he asked, his voice sincere. Joe was too young to fully understand the finality of death and he figured that if it were an accident, then it could be fixed. He was accustomed to his Papa or his Mama being able to fix anything and to make all things right in his world.

“Joe, son, Mama is in Heaven and when you go to heaven, you can’t come back. But one day we will go to Heaven too, and then we will be with her again. She is waiting for us there.” Ben said to reassure Joe.

Joe looked at him and said, “Papa let’s go today then. I want my Mama now.” His face was so earnest and Ben saw just a flicker of hope in those eyes of his mothers. He realized that he was probably handling this all wrong and again he pleaded silently for Marie to send him the right words to say.

“Son, we don’t get to choose when we die and go to Heaven. We don’t know when that day will come. We have to wait.”

The small glint of hope left Joe’s eyes again and something else took its place. “Papa I want my Mama. I want her to come back to me or I want to go where she is now!” Joe said with the beginnings of anger.

Ben was having a very hard time with this conversation and he knew he was not going to be able to make Joe fully understand in one conversation. He was too young, too innocent, and too determined. He tried to think what Marie would have said to him. “Joe do you know how much your Mama loved you?” Ben looked at his son and waited for Joe to answer. When no answer was forthcoming, he repeated his question; “Do you know how much Mama loved you, Joe?”

Joe’s eyes filled with tears again and he nodded his head and said, “I guess so, Papa.”

“Well I KNOW how much she loved you, Joe. She loved you more than anything or anybody in the world. She was so proud of you and wanted so much for you.” Joe interrupted him, “but now she’s gone, Papa,” crying again. “Joe, Mama is not gone, not really. Mama is still with you—with all of us.” He saw that he had Joe’s full attention now.

“Where Papa? I don’t see her,” Joe said, looking around them.

“Mama is right here,” he said, touching Joe’s chest, over his heart. “And she is right here” he said, touching his own heart with Joe’s hand. “Now Mama will be with us—with all of us—every single minute. No matter where you are or what you are doing, Mama is right here with you” he again touched Joe’s heart and then he touched his head and said, “She is also right here, Joe. Every time you think about Mama she is right here with you.

Joe was thinking about what he said, Ben could tell. He decided that perhaps that was enough for right now, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a clean handkerchief and said, “Here, let me wipe that face, son.” He wiped his face, then gave Joe the handkerchief and said, “Now, blow that nose, Joe.” And he did. Then he got up from where they had been sitting, still holding Joseph. He then put him down on the ground beside him and holding his hand firmly, said, “Now then let’s go see if Hop Tseng saved some of those flapjacks.” And with that, he began to walk back toward the house, bringing the undecided Joe along with him. Ben knew that there would be more questions and more tears but he felt that at least he had made a start in the right direction. He sighed, thinking of how far they would have to go and how difficult the way would be.

*****

Chapter Six

Something had been nagging the back of Ben’s mind all morning. Something besides the ache he felt in every fiber of his being. He had managed to talk to Charlie and go over some details of some upcoming projects that were scheduled for the Ponderosa. Charlie had volunteered to take care of getting the jobs done and said he would let Ben know if there were any problems on the ranch. He would have preferred to throw himself into ranch work completely and let his weariness at night make him sleep, instead of lying in the bed that would never again hold Marie. But he didn’t have just himself to think about–he had to put his son’s welfare above his own. He had to think of Joe, and Hoss and Adam, who were suffering too. Joe’s sorrow was easily seen, but Adam and Hoss tried to be brave and pretend they were all right. Adam was quiet, serious, and focused on taking care of Hoss and Joe. Hoss was the same way, though he couldn’t hide his sadness as well as Adam. Both of them hurting so bad themselves, but wanting to help their little brother. Ben’s heart was heavy from the burden of knowing that somehow he had to help heal himself and his sons.

Adam and Hoss had taken charge of Little Joe when he and Ben had returned. After he talked with Charlie and made plans for the immediate running of the ranch, he sat alone on the side verandah of the house. This was a private place, not seen by visitors and not used for entertaining. It was his and Marie’s special place. He sat there surrounded by the flowers that she lovingly planted, watered, and weeded. The air was fragrant with the heavy smells of jasmine, gardenias, and snapdragons. He knew the names because she had told him all the names and what kind of soil, how much sun, and how much water they required. He intended to care for this garden himself, and let Hop Tseng care for the big garden that she and he had planted together. Sitting there, he felt that at any moment, Marie would come running up to him, excited about some new flower or something Little Joe had done or that Hoss or Adam had said. He closed his eyes and he could see her, smell her; he reached out his hand, halfway expecting to touch her. But his hand merely moved through empty air, giving him another pang of sorrow.

As he sat, he recalled conversations they had had recently, the conversations running together in his mind—the way conversations with her tended to go—fast and changing subject quickly. Then all of a sudden he remembered what had been nagging him all day. Tomorrow was Hoss’ 12th birthday. Marie had planned to have a family party with Hoss’ favorite meal and a huge coconut birthday cake with homemade ice cream for dessert. He recalled the argument he and she had had over the choice of birthday gifts for Hoss. She had had some silly notion about giving him a fancy engraved watch but he had told her Hoss was too young and too irresponsible for such an expensive gift. He had insisted upon a more serviceable plain watch and a new rifle. He had picked out the rifle and she had wrapped it. She had wrapped the watch too. Now he wished he had not argued with her over something as silly as which watch to purchase. He chided himself, “What possible difference could it have made if we spent a little bit more for the watch?” Well, it was too late for that, but it wasn’t too late for the birthday cake and party.

He went inside and talked to Hop Tseng about a birthday celebration for Hoss tomorrow evening. He could at least let Hoss know, and Joe and Adam, too, that some things would go on as before. Hop Tseng was glad to hear that he was going on with the party. He had thought about it, but didn’t know whether to bring it up or not. Hop Tseng knew that it would mean a lot to Hoss and to the whole family, too. Ben told him that there would be no other guests invited, however. He didn’t think anyone of them was up to visitors yet. Hop Tseng told him that lunch was ready and asked him to bring in the boys. Ben left Hop Tseng busily planning for the coming feast, talking of chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, and fresh-grated coconut cake.

He went out to see where the boys were and found them out at the first corral. Hoss and Adam were trying to get Joe interested in the new horses they had just bought from the Lazy L Ranch, but Joe was clearly not paying attention. Hoss was inside the corral, and Adam was standing beside the fence. Joe was sitting on the top rail of the fence. Adam was close beside him, ready to keep him from falling, but not quite touching him. When they saw him walk up, Adam looked up and the relief on his face was evident. He and Hoss had been trying, but the situation was difficult for them all. He walked on over and spoke before he came right up to the fence, “those are some mighty fine looking horses you got there Hoss. How ’bout that little pony over there? He looks real fine, don’t you think?”

Hoss replied, “Yes sir, Pa. That’s a fine lookin’ pony. Make a mighty good riding pony, I bet.” Little Joe had been begging for a riding pony for the better part of a year now and they had hoped to spark some interest, but he continued to sit there, hearing them, but not really hearing them.

Ben decided to try another strategy, he put his arms around Joe and swung him down from the fence and on top of his shoulders, the way he loved. This usually elicited shouts of glee from Joe and warnings from Marie to be careful. However, this time, Joe seemed to panic and cried, “Papa NO, put me down!” Ben was shocked; he hadn’t anticipated this reaction at all. He quickly put Little Joe down on the ground and before he could kneel down to talk to him, Little Joe ran towards the house and went inside, letting the heavy door slam shut. Ben, Hoss and Adam shared a look of common hurt and grief. But for some reason, this shared demonstration of sorrow was somehow reassuring to them all. They were grieving and sad, but they were not alone in their grief. Ben put his arms around his two older sons as they walked towards the house, “It’s going to be all right boys. We will be all right as long as we stick together.” All three of them had tears in their eyes when they entered the house.

“Pa, let me go see if I can get Joe to come down to eat” Hoss said.

Ben’s first response was to go get him himself, but he refrained and told Hoss, “Sure, son. That’d probably be a good idea.”

Hoss walked upstairs and entered Joe’s room. He didn’t see Joe, but he heard him crying. He looked around and found him beside the dresser and the wall in his room, as if he were hiding in a cave. Hoss sat down and reached over and put his hand on Little Joe’s arms and said, “Hey Short Shanks, come on and sit with me.” Joe looked up at Hoss with tear-streaked eyes and with a sob, practically fell into Hoss’ arms. Hoss just held him, much the same way his father had until Joe’s cries gradually subsided. Hoss then quietly handed Joe his handkerchief and Joe dutifully blew his nose. “Joe, I know you miss Mama. So do I.” He said. Joe looked at Hoss and then put his arms around his brother and gave him a big squeeze, in recognition that Hoss missed Mama too.

“Anytime you want to talk about Mama or if you are missing her real bad, you just come to me, ya hear? And we can help each other. Promise me, Joe?”

“I promise, Hoss.”

“Cross your heart?” Hoss continued.

“Cross my heart, I won’t lie, stick a needle in my eye.” Joe completed the pledge.

When he finished they each spat in their hands, then rubbed their hands together. They didn’t know that Ben and Adam had come up to see how it was going and observed them take the oath. “Now come on, Joe, lunch is ready and I am getting’ hungry.” He grabbed up Joe and Joe gave a slight giggle. Ben and Adam carefully backed out of the doorway and went quickly down the stairs toward the dining room table. When Hoss came downstairs followed by Joe, Ben reminded them to go wash their hands.

“Aw Pa we washed ’em at breakfast and we ain’t got ’em dirty” Hoss complained.

Ben repressed a smile and said, “Never-the-less, I would prefer it if you would wash up.” Hoss shrugged and headed on to the kitchen, Joe right behind him. Ben and Adam shared a slight smile.

*****

Chapter Seven

The rest of the day passed relatively quietly for the Cartwrights. Ben suggested that they go riding over to Spring Creek meadows to look at the herd there. Ben let Little Joe ride his pony and ride in front of the rest on the trails, something that made Little Joe happy. He took the time to talk to both Adam and Hoss to see if he could tell how they were doing. All three of them moved around the conversation somewhat awkwardly. They each wanted to comfort the others, but they didn’t know how. But they were each comforted by the attempts of the other person anyway.

They spent the afternoon riding and the natural beauty of the surrounding areas and the warm sunshine and cool breeze both comforted and saddened them. They all thought how much Marie would have loved this excursion and this day. She, of course, wouldn’t have been content to ride along slowly, she would have been right up there, riding with Little Joe and going faster and faster. As painful as the memories were, they seemed to hurt less and bring some solace now, whereas a few days ago, the memories only brought more pain.

They were late getting home and Little Joe was almost too sleepy to make the ride home, yet he refused to double up with his father so he could sleep, refusing to admit that he was sleepy. When they got home, Ben sent Joe to get ready for bed while Hop Tseng warmed their dinner. When he didn’t reappear in the normal amount of time, Adam went upstairs to check on him and found him asleep, on top of the comforter, with his mother’s picture clutched in his hands. Adam gently moved him under the covers and positioned him comfortably, leaving the picture of Marie in his hands.

The three older Cartwrights ate dinner alone that night. Soon after eating, Hoss said he was tired and retired to his room.

“Adam, do you know what day tomorrow is?” Ben asked as soon as Hoss had gone upstairs.

Adam thought for a moment, looking puzzled at first, then his eyes opened wide in recollection; “Hoss’ 12th birthday is tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Son, it is.”

“Pa what are we going to do? Marie was going to give him a party.” Adam said, cautiously saying her name out loud and watching his father’s reaction. He wasn’t sure it was safe to say it out loud yet.

“Well I don’t think we are up to a big party, but I did speak to Hop Tseng about a special dinner and birthday cake and homemade ice cream. And I have the presents that…..that Marie and I had selected for him.”

“I have a present for him, too.” Adam said.

“Well we will just have a family celebration then.” Ben said, satisfied.

“Pa, what about inviting Sheriff Coffee? And maybe Doc Martin?” Adam asked, thinking that may make it easier for his father.

“No, Son, I think it would be better if it were just the four of us and Hop Tseng. That is going to be our family now and we need…..We need some time to get comfortable with it. Do you understand, Adam?”

“Yes, Pa, I understand.” Adam replied and reached over and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. Ben looked up into the eyes of his oldest son and saw; perhaps for the first time, a grown man, his son….his friend. He reached over and father and son embraced.

“Adam, I……..” Ben started, but was unable to complete the sentence.

But Adam understood and interjected, “I understand Pa. I know how hard it is for you, too. Please let me help you anyway I can, and that will help me, too. We are all going to miss her so much Pa.”

“I appreciate you, Adam.” Was all Ben could get out, but he knew that Adam knew that and much more.

*****

The household was again wakened by the terrified screams of Little Joe, but his father got to him and held him until the nightmares faded and sleep triumphed. He was actually surprised that he was only awakened once by the nightmares–that was an improvement. Ben realized that it had been almost three weeks since Marie had died. It seemed like it was just yesterday, judging by the hurt he still felt, but it surprised him, too, that it had been so long. As dawn’s pink light overtook the black of night and the shadows receded as the light moved in, Ben felt a hint of enthusiasm for the day. That was a feeling that he had expected to never feel again and offered a short prayer to God for giving him the strength to get through the past few weeks somehow. Then he got up, shaved, bathed, and dressed and then went downstairs for breakfast.

He and Adam had concocted a plan to get Hoss and Joe out of the house so that Ben and Hop Tseng could get everything ready for Hoss’ birthday party that afternoon. Adam told Hoss that Pa was going to be busy and needed them to watch Little Joe for the day, so they together decided to take him to work with them. This was something that Little Joe was always begging them to let him do, so they expected no resistance. But when the time came for them to go, Little Joe seemed reluctant to leave his father. They could tell that he wanted to go, but something was stopping him, making him ambivalent. They convinced him that they needed his help and to clinch the deal, Adam told him he could ride Bandit, one of the feistier ponies. That indeed, clinched the deal, but just as they were getting ready to leave, Joe went running up to Ben, his arms outstretched. Ben reached down and picked him up in a bear hug, surprised to see that Little Joe was crying.

“Joseph. What’s wrong Son?” Ben asked, alarmed and confused.

“I don’t want you to leave me, Papa, not like……” he couldn’t continue for the tears and sobs that wracked his body.

“Joe, I am not going to leave you, Son. I’ll be right here when you return.”

“But Papa Mama said she would be back too and she didn’t come back.” Joe continued to cry. Ben changed his mind about the plans.

“Adam, you and Hoss go on and finish that job. Joe can stay here and help me today. Okay, Joe?”

Joe’s crying stopped almost instantly, and he gave his Pa a brave smile, despite his snuffles. Adam and Hoss went on and left Ben and Little Joe on the porch, holding hands.

When Adam and Hoss were out of sight, Ben reached down and swung Little Joe up to his shoulders, without thinking about the consequences from his last attempt to do that until it was too late. This time, however, he was rewarded by the delightful giggle that only could come from Little Joe Cartwright. He spent the morning reading to Little Joe and letting Joe help him with some barn chores and watering the plants in his Mama’s garden. He was glad to have some time alone with his youngest son and to hear Joe resume his nonstop chatter and endless questioning.

After lunch he told Joe what their plans for the afternoon was and was gratified to see the light and sparkle come back into Little Joe’s eyes. They spent the afternoon, helping Hop Tseng clean up the house. They set the table with Marie’s fine china and crystal and they cut fresh flowers from her garden for the coffee table and for the dining room table. When it was all finished, Little Joe ran to his room and came back with a small, crudely wrapped box with a big bright bow on it.

“Now what is that you have there, Joe?” He knew what it was, because Marie had told him about Joe’s birthday present for Hoss that he had wrapped himself but had asked her to make a bow for. Joe had spent all his saved up money—$1.67, to buy candy for Hoss. That had amounted to quite a lot of licorice, gumdrops, jelly beans, peppermint sticks, maple taffy, cinnamon balls, rock candy, and caramels. Joe had spent nearly half an hour picking it out, very carefully weighing his selections and indulging in quite a few “samples” to help him decide.

“It’s Hoss’ birthday present, Papa.” Ben saw Joe’s face turn suddenly sad, and he waited for Joe to say more. “Mama helped me pick it out and I wrapped it, but Mama made the bow Papa. Now we won’t have any bows, Papa, not without Mama.” Joe was about to cry again.

Ben took him in his arms and said, “Joe, I’ll make you a promise—we WILL have bows if I have to learn to tie ’em myself.”

“Really, Papa?” Joe asked, looking at his father with something like relief in his eyes. Ben knew that the issue with Joe was not really the bows, but the things that bows represented to him—the kinds of things that Marie had done—the little things that made their life more pleasant. He knew that he would have to become more attuned to those kinds of things that he had taken for granted, but had also appreciated.

“Well if you have already gotten out Hoss’ present, I’d better see about getting out the other gifts, huh? You wait down here; young man and I will go see what I can find. No peeking!” He was rewarded with another giggle from his son, who was always trying to find where presents were hidden at birthdays and Christmas.

*****

When Adam and Hoss came home, everything was ready. Hop Tseng had prepared all of Hoss’ most favorite foods—chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh beans, corn, biscuits, and fresh-grated coconut layer cake. Hop Tseng had the ice cream churn all ready for ice cream making, right after they ate. When Adam and Hoss came into the house, Little Joe, Ben, and Hop Tseng all said “Happy Birthday, Hoss” and hugged him. Adam beamed at him and said, “Now do you see why I couldn’t let you come home early?”

Hoss was caught completely off guard, he had forgotten his own birthday, and he was touched that despite everything, his family had remembered it. The Cartwrights sat down immediately and everyone ate heartily, even Little Joe ate more than usual, Ben noted. After they ate, Hop Tseng brought the ice cream churn into the living room and after padding the top with a thick towel, he gave Joe the job of sitting on the top to make it heavier and Hoss the job of turning the dasher. The recipe was one that Marie had given him and the boys loved it. They also loved to help. Joe usually wanted to turn the churn, but after a couple of turns, he was happy to sit on the top instead. Soon the ice cream churn was harder and harder to turn. Hop Tseng took over and soon declared it finished.

Want the recipe for homemade vanilla ice cream?

Marie’s French Vanilla Ice Cream

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 cups cream
2 cups milk
2 tsp vanilla

Beat eggs and milk together in large saucepan. Add sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thickened (approx. 10 minutes). Mixture should smoothly coat the spoon. Cool, then add cream and vanilla.

“Now I pack in ice, let set little while. Then we eat birthday cake and ice cream,” he said, removing the churn to the kitchen.

Ben said “Well, Little Joe do you think you could bring in those presents, Son?” Little Joe happily complied and ran to get them. Adam got up and went to his room to retrieve his present for Hoss. Hoss looked at his Pa and said, “Thanks, Pa. But you didn’t have to do this. I woulda understood.”

“Hoss, nothing is going to keep me from celebrating my son’s birthday! Happy birthday, Son.”

Then Joe and Adam came down the steps together. Fortunately as it happened, because Joe was overloaded, trying to carry three presents in one trip and not watching where he was going, he tripped and would have fallen, but Adam was there to catch him.

“Here, Hoss, open mine first” Little Joe said in his excitement. “I bet you can’t guess what it is!” he said.

Hoss stared at the box for a minute then said, “Why I believe it is a new pair of boots, Joe.”

“Ah, Hoss a new pair of boots wouldn’t fit into this box” giggling again. Ben thought that hearing that giggle again was a sign that Little Joe was doing all right.

Hoss opened the present from Joe and was appropriately enthusiastic about it. He realized that Joe must have spent all his money on him, and he knew that he had chosen the kind of candies just for him. He gave his brother a tight bear hug, and then popped a gumdrop in his mouth to show his appreciation.

Next he opened the box from Adam, finding a set of woodcarving tools in it. He had always had an interest in whittling or carving wood, so he was pleased with this gift. He gave Adam an appreciative nod, smiling at him.

The next gift was from his father and it was obviously either a new rifle or a new shotgun, since there was not much to do to disguise a rifle. But he played along with Joe guessing impossible objects, until Little Joe in his excitement untied the bow, allowing the wrapping paper to fall off. The rifle was finely made with a silver inlay with his initials on the stock. “Thanks, Pa, that is the one I have been looking at in Harry’s store.”

“Yes, son, you dropped several very clear hints about that!” Ben said, laughing at the pleasure the rifle had brought Hoss. Finally, the last gift–the one from Marie. Hoss picked it up gingerly and stared at it for a moment with tears in his eyes. Ben said gently, “Go ahead, Hoss, she picked this out for you months ago.” Hoss untied the ribbon and removed the wrapping paper. He let out an enthusiastic whistle when he saw the watch. He had seen that same watch before and wanted to get it, but Pa had said he was not old enough for one like that. Ben was a little confused over Hoss’ exuberance over the watch and leaned over to look at it. Instead of the plain serviceable watch that he and Marie had “agreed” on—it was the fancy pocket watch that Hoss had wanted. “Marie! You sneaky woman you!” he thought to himself. Hoss turned the watch over and read the inscription, “To Hoss with all my love, Marie”. Underneath the message Hoss’ birthdate was engraved. Hoss and Ben shared a glance at each other and ever so slightly, something passed between them—a common bond, a common emotion, a common determination to remember.

*****

Chapter Eight

The rest of the evening was spent in a peaceful and pleasant mood. Hoss and Joe made a big dent in Hoss’ candy, until Ben had to caution them to put it away. Ben and Adam read a little and reminisced a little—but silently. Bedtime came soon and Ben tucked the two younger sons in and then he and Adam shared a final cup of coffee before turning in themselves. As he went upstairs to his own bedroom, Ben checked on both Hoss and Little Joe. Hoss was sleeping soundly, on his back and snoring. Ben found it hard to believe that Hoss was now 12 years old; it seemed like only yesterday Inger had given birth to Hoss. So many things had changed; so much time had passed; yet it seemed like only a moment when he thought about it. He quietly closed the door and went to check on Little Joe.

Little Joe was also asleep; however the resemblance to his brother’s sleep ended there. Whereas Hoss had been quiet and still in his sleep; Little Joe was active and moving around even in sleep. He had already knocked the comforter off the bed and the top sheet and blanket were tangled around his legs and his feet were sticking out of the cover. Even as Ben stood there watching him, he wasn’t still. He thrashed around in the bed and changed position constantly. Ben straightened out the sheet and blanket and picked the comforter off the floor and covered Little Joe up with it. Instinctively he patted and rubbed Joe on the back and Joe seemed to calm down. Ben stood there quietly, calming his son down for several minutes. He realized that doing this brought as much comfort to him as it did to Joe. Finally, he kissed his son lightly on the forehead, after brushing back an errant curl and turned to leave. He turned the flame down to the lowest level, but didn’t blow it out, so that Joe wouldn’t be in the dark if he awoke. He wondered as he left if he would be awakened soon to terrified screams of a heartbroken and scared little boy.

Several hours later, Ben was awakened and immediately arose and ran to Little Joe’s room. He was surprised when he got there—Joe’s bed was empty. He realized that the sounds he had heard had not been screams, but the sound of crying–and it was coming from Hoss’ room. He ran to Hoss’ room and opened the door but stopped in the doorway. Hoss was the one crying and Little Joe had climbed into bed with him and was patting his back and talking soothingly to Hoss, exactly as they had been doing for him when he had a nightmare. Ben went over and sat on the bed and took Little Joe in one arm and with the other, he patted Hoss on the back, saying the same things he had said to Little Joe on many occasions. Hoss was in a state between sleep and awake, but his cries were heartbreaking. Ben continued to console him and Hoss also calmed to his father’s touch and soothing voice. When Hoss’ sobs subsided and he was sleeping soundly again, Ben rearranged the covers and tucked him in. He then got up off the bed, holding the now sleeping Little Joe. Ben lit the lamp in Hoss’ room and turned the flame low. He figured that perhaps Hoss needed a little extra light tonight too. He then carried Little Joe back to his room and put him in bed and covered him up. He checked the lamp and left it burning too.

Ben went back to his own bedroom, but he didn’t get into bed. Instead he sat in his rocking chair for a long time, thinking about the tragedies of his life–first Elizabeth, then Inger, now Marie. Just as he was reaching the point of despair, he noticed a soft breeze coming through the window, gently rustling the curtains that Marie had made. He recalled her saying how she wanted them to be soft enough to move with the breezes and not block the fresh air. He got up and looked out the bedroom window. The moon was full and the Ponderosa courtyard was bathed in soft white light; it appeared to him to be almost shining in the light. He looked at the mountains and pine forests in the distance and his spirits lifted. His thoughts turned, unbidden, to the joys and blessings of his life. He thought of the three sons sleeping in the adjoining bedrooms, of the love he had had for each of their mothers, his love for the three of them, and the love of the Ponderosa. He realized that he must take some action to help them all to grieve and go forward—as a whole family—not as a broken family. He stood at the window for a long time as he contemplated a plan for doing that. Once his plans were made, he too, climbed back into bed and slept soundly. The next sound that he heard was the sounds of Hop Tseng’s prize rooster, alerting them all that a new day had begun. He stretched in bed for a minute, then jumped up and began to dress.

*****

Chapter Nine

Ben went downstairs to get his coffee, just as Hop Tseng was preparing to bring it to him. He accepted the piping hot cup of coffee gratefully.

“You want me to go wake up sons?” Hop Tseng asked.

“No, Hop Tseng, let them sleep a little longer. I want to talk to you about something.”

He motioned Hop Tseng to sit in the living room so he could tell him of his plans.

“I am going to take the boys on a camping trip, Hop Tseng. I think it will be good for us to get away for a while and they love camping.”

“Is velly good idea, Mr. Cartlight.” Hop Tseng smiled his approval of the plan.

“When you leave?” he asked, mentally making a list of the supplies he would need to assemble.

“I thought we’d leave after breakfast if that gives you enough time to get some food and supplies ready for us. That will give me sufficient time to get Charlie and the hands ready.”

“No problem, Mr. Cartlight. Hop Tseng get started soon as breakfast ready. How long you be gone?”

“Well at least a week, maybe two, we will just need to be back before the roundup begins. I think Charlie can take care of everything else ’til then.”

“Hop Tseng get everything ready. Is good for family be together.” Hop Tseng repeated.

“Hop Tseng, would you care to join us? You’re part of the family, you know.”

Hop Tseng’s heart was gladdened by this invitation, but he thought it would be better for the father to be alone with his sons.

“Hop Tseng’s cousin #5 is sick. Since family go on trip, Hop Tseng go help care for cousin in Virginia City.”

“Are you sure, Hop Tseng?” Ben asked, looking at the diminutive Chinese man encouragingly.

“Hop Tseng sure. Now must get busy, finish breakfast, get packed. You get sons up. Hop Tseng velly busy.” With that Hop Tseng turned away and headed into the kitchen, with just the hint of tears glistening in his eyes. He was happy to be considered part of this family, and he had no sick cousin, but he thought it would be better for the family to be alone together.

After Hop Tseng headed back to the kitchen, talking to himself in Chinese, Ben sat there for a moment and finished off the mug of coffee, planning what he would tell the ranch foreman. When he had drunk the last drop of the coffee, he sat the heavy mug down on the coffee table and got up to go talk to Charlie about the running of the ranch while he was gone. Just as he headed out the door, Adam came down the stairs. Ben saw him and motioned for him to join him; he put his arm around his son’s shoulders and said, “Adam I am glad you are up, I could use some help getting ready.”

“Getting ready for what, Pa?” Adam asked, confused by the energy and determination from his Pa. He hadn’t seen that since, well, since Marie died. “Pa’s acting like his old self.” Adam thought to himself.

“Adam, you and I are gonna take Hoss and Joe on a camping trip.”

“Oh, what do you have in mind, Pa? One or two nights?” he asked, pleased at the prospect of getting away from the chores and the constant reminders of the way things used to be.

“No, Son, I mean a REAL camping trip. I was thinkin’ we would head over to Mesquite Springs and camp there.”

Adam raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Mesquite Springs, Pa? Why that’ll take 3 days at least just to get there, maybe more with Little Joe along.” He said, thinking his father had lost his mind.

“Three days to get there, three days to get back, Pa. Even if we just stay there one night, it’d take at least a week.”

Ben held up his hand and said, “Adam, I am going to talk to Charlie right now. I’m sure he can manage the ranch for a couple of weeks. As long as we’re back by the round up, it’ll be fine. I think it’ll do us all good, Son.”

“Pa, look, why don’t you just take Hoss and Joe and I’ll stay here and help Charlie.” Adam countered.

Ben looked at Adam and smiled his appreciation, “Thanks for the offer, Son, but we are all going on this trip—we are a family and we are going on a family camping trip.” He said firmly, with one hand on each of Adam’s shoulders.

“And besides” he chuckled, “you don’t think I am taking those two younger brothers of yours off on a trip like this ALONE, do you? “

Adam laughed and then said, “No Pa, in fact, don’t you think you ought to ask Hop Tseng to go along with us? I think it’ll take two people just to keep an eye on Little Joe and then who is gonna look after Hoss?” They both laughed at this statement, knowing there was a lot of truth behind the teasing.

“Well, Son we will just have to do the best we can, because Hop Tseng has a sick cousin in Virginia City and he has declined the invitation.”

They both laughed over this, too, since they knew that “sick cousins” was Hop Tseng’s ol’ standby excuse when he wanted to go somewhere.

“Well if you are determined to do this, I’ll help Hop Tseng get the supplies and get a couple of pack horses ready, while you talk to Charlie, Pa.”

“All right, Son, and how about getting those two scalawags out of bed and get ’em to do the barn chores this morning. It’ll be good for ’em. You might want to wait a little bit before you tell Little Joe of our plans though, cause if you tell him now, he will ask if it’s time to go about 100 times between now and breakfast.” They both laughed at that again and then went off to make preparations for the camping trip.

Adam got Hoss up first, told him of the plans and let him have the assignment of waking up Little Joe. Before he got to the kitchen, he knew he had made a mistake. Hoss, having a hard time getting Little Joe to get out of bed, had resorted to telling him of the plans for the trip and Little Joe was up and out of bed and down the stairs in a flash, still wearing his nightshirt and with Hoss trailing behind him, yelling at him to go back and get dressed. Adam just stood back and watched the sight and did nothing to interfere. Joe made it to the door way ahead of Hoss but the door was heavy and it took Joe some effort to get it open and just as he got it open and was set to run outside, Hoss swooped him up and threw him over his shoulder and carted him off upstairs. Joe was intermittently yelling at Hoss to put him down and giggling at being carried over Hoss’ shoulder. This little scene, combined with his Pa’s renewed vigor, gave Adam a sense that perhaps things could be right again.

*****

Chapter Ten

Breakfast that morning was the liveliest meal that had been served at the Cartwright household since Marie had died. Hop Tseng, watching and listening to his family, thought it sounded almost like it used to sound, with Little Joe excitedly talking and his father coaxing, encouraging, and finally, threatening him to eat his food rather than play with it. Hoss and Adam were also talking more animatedly than he had heard them in a long time. But most heartening of all to Hop Tseng was the almost imperceptible change in Ben Cartwright. He still sounded the same for the most part, but there was something in his voice that Hop Tseng had thought he might never hear again—-hope, optimism, even gladness. For the first time, Ben Cartwright seemed to really believe what he was saying and not to be putting on a brave front for the sake of his sons. Hop Tseng was very happy to see this sign of healing of the deep sorrow that had been in every fiber of Ben Cartwright’s being.

He watched the family talk and eat for several minutes, out of sight of the family. Then he came into the dining area and announced loudly, “Hop Tseng must go visit sick Cousin #4. Can not go ’til family finish eating. Please to hurry so Hop Tseng can go to sick cousin.”

Ben Cartwright winked at Adam and said, “Hop Tseng, I thought it was cousin # 5 who was sick!”

With this Hop Tseng launched a Chinese diatribe at Mr. Cartwright and the whole family, with a stern look on his face. Ben and Adam laughed at the joke, but Hoss developed a concerned look on his face and said, “Pa don’t make Hop Tseng mad, he might quit.”

Little Joe who had also been laughing, looked at Hoss with a reassuring look and said, “No, Hoss that ain’t what he’s sayin’. He just said he packed molasses cookies in the supplies for us to have for snacks today.” At this Ben, Adam, and Hoss laughed at Little Joe’s unusual interpretation of what Hop Tseng had said, sure that it had nothing to do with cookies, molasses or otherwise.

“Well we better not take any chances, boys, let’s get ready and get going.” Ben said, as he leaned over and pulled Joe to a standing position in his chair and carefully wiped the remains of what food Joe had pretended to eat off his face. As he finished, Adam walked up behind him and he reached over and grabbed Joe by the waist and swung him up onto his shoulders and said, “let’s go, Pardner!” and headed towards the door. Joe giggled and laughed and pretended Adam was a horse and told him to “giddy yap.”

*****

Chapter Eleven

The Cartwrights left the ranch house about 15 minutes later with Ben riding Buck, Hoss on Chub, Adam on Sport, and Little Joe, much to his delight, on Nutmeg. Nutmeg was a little bigger and livelier than the other ponies, and Little Joe was ecstatic over being able to persuade his father to let him ride her. He was losing the argument but Adam and Hoss joined him and Ben reluctantly gave in. But after about 30 minutes of being nervous, Ben had realized that they had been right, Little Joe could handle Nutmeg easily and skillfully.

The ride was nothing short of glorious that morning. The temperature was comfortable, a little brisk, but not cold. The sun was shining and sparkling, promising a clear and beautiful day. The grass was lush green, set off by a perfectly brilliant azure sky with a few white, puffy clouds just to add highlights. As they rode up to the lake, they all paused to take in the view of the crystal clear. The wind created gentle ripples across the surface, which when they caught the sun shone and sparkled like precious jewels.

After a few moments’ hesitation, Ben said, “Why don’t we stop and pay our respects, boys?” Adam and Hoss were a little surprised by this. They had each talked about how Pa was going there every day still and spending varying amounts of time there, but they had never taken Little Joe there since the day of the funeral. He had become so distraught there that they weren’t sure this was a good idea. But as they caught their father’s eye, he gave them a small smile and nodded, reassuring them that he knew what he was doing. Little Joe had not said a word during this exchange and was staring quietly at the tops of the headstones, just visible above the bluff overlooking the lake.

Ben jumped down and went and took hold of Little Joe and pulled him off his horse, “Come on Joseph. Let’s go visit Mama for a few minutes.” He noted that the color of his son’s face had lost it’s glow and was pale and his eyes looked terrified. He hugged him to him and said, “It’s all right, Joe. I’ll be with you.” He then looked at Hoss and Adam and said, “Perhaps you two could wait here for us. We won’t be long, I promise.” Adam and Hoss nodded and gave him encouraging looks to show their support.

Ben carried Joe to the gravesite, his son still silent on the way. When they reached the grassy bluff where the gravestone was, Little Joe’s grip on his father’s shoulders tightened, but still he said nothing. Ben put Joe down on the ground long enough to sit down himself and then he pulled Joe onto his lap. He began talking to Little Joe softly, telling him he knew how much he missed his Mama, how much they all missed her. He told him how his Mama’s death was just an accident, that she hadn’t wanted to leave them, but how she would always be there with them in their hearts. As he said this, he turned Little Joe around to look him in the eyes; he could see that Little Joe was listening and he could see tears glistening in his eyes. He hugged him close and Little Joe hugged back and the tears and the sobs came. But the crying was different. It was crying born of sadness and grief, but not of despair. Ben continued to talk soothingly to Joe, occasionally wiping tears from his own eyes, until they both sat quietly. Ben promised his son that they would come back there often and that when he got old enough, he could come on his own. Eventually, they collected themselves and rejoined Adam and Hoss. Ben started to apologize to them for taking so long, but they both waved it off—no explanations were needed.

They stopped at noon and shared the lunch that Hop Tseng had prepared for them. After they had eaten the sandwiches, sliced cold chicken, and fruit, Hoss began rummaging through the supplies. “Hoss what are you looking for?” Pa asked.

“I’m looking to see if Hop Tseng put anything sweet in here. I got me a craving for something sweet, Pa.”

Little Joe piped up; “Yeah Hoss get us a molasses cookie!” The others laughed, remembering Little Joe’s misinterpretation of Hop Tseng’s morning tirade.

In a minute Hoss pulled out a wrapped package and said, “I bet this is something sweet.” He quickly pulled open the package and looked at it in disbelief, and then looked at Little Joe.

“What is it, Hoss?” Adam said, noting the look on his face.

“It’s…it’s molasses cookies, Adam. Pa, it IS molasses cookies.”

Little Joe smiled and said, “I tol’ ya so. Gimme one.” Hoss handed him a cookie, a quizzical look on his face.

Adam laughed and said, “Oh Hoss he had to have made ’em yesterday, Little Joe must have seen ’em is all.”

“Yeah, that’s probably it, Adam.” Still though, all three of the older Cartwrights looked at the youngest one, happily munching a molasses cookie, his favorite.

*****

Chapter Twelve

The rest of the trip to the campsite they had selected passed uneventfully. The older three Cartwrights were content to ride and enjoy the view and to be lost in their own thoughts. The youngest Cartwright made this somewhat impossible, since he was constantly talking, asking questions, pointing out various sights, and generally disturbing the peace. They were all relieved though to have him returning to his normal talkative, inquisitive self—at least at first they were. But his talking made the trip go faster and before they knew it, they had reached the campsite. They quickly outlined set-up chores and began to get the campsite in order. Joe finished the chore he was assigned with alacrity and then came back and began “helping” the rest of them, hoping to get everything done so that they could all go fishing for their supper.

Finally, exasperated, Ben suggested that Hoss and Joe go ahead and start fishing and he and Adam would finish setting the camp up and then join them. This suited Hoss just fine, he was as excited about fishing as Little Joe was. He collected the fishing gear and he and Little Joe headed towards the river. The spot they had decided on to fish was a small bluff overlooking the river. The view was spectacular and there was a deep spot where some fish were always lurking Hoss informed Little Joe. They got to the site and Hoss helped Little Joe get his line started and then he set out his own line. True to Hoss’s prediction, the fish were biting and before 10 minutes had passed, they had each caught a fish. Within 30 minutes, they had plenty of fish for supper and since that had been Hoss’ objective, he lost some of his enthusiasm for fishing and became more interested in just enjoying the peaceful surroundings and watching his little brother catch fish after fish, never completely satisfied with the present one. He was surprised at how quiet his little brother could be when they were fishing; seems that was the only activity he could do without talking.

Little Joe continued to fish, excited with each new catch but determined to catch the biggest fish of all. He knew that if he just kept trying, he would soon land the one that Hoss always said “got away”. In his excitement, to see the spot where they were fishing, he began to move closer and closer to the edge, not remembering the mark Hoss had made and told him not to go any closer to the river than that. Hoss noticed that Little Joe was moving too near the river and was about to bring him back, when they heard their Adam and Ben calling to them. Both Little Joe and Hoss turned to yell to them so they could find them. Just at that time; however, Little Joe got a strong tug on his fishing line that he was unprepared for. Off balance he stumbled and was headed for the edge and let out a startled half-yell. Hoss grabbed for him, yelling “Let go of the pole, Joe”, but it was too late. Little Joe, in the blink of an eye, hurtled over the edge of the riverbank, into the water rushing swiftly by. Ben and Adam had come to the spot, just in time to see him go over and they were rooted to the spot in shock.

Hoss, closest to Little Joe ran to the edge and saw him going under the water. Realizing the water current was too swift for Little Joe to swim in, Hoss jumped in. He hollered at his Pa and Adam to get a rope as he leaped over the edge. Hoss’ voice gave them the impetus they needed to begin to take action. Adam said, “Pa, you go downstream and keep up with them. I’ll get the rope and my horse and catch up with you.”

When he hit the water, Little Joe was still clutching the fishing pole. The water, filled with melting snow from the mountains was very cold. He was pulled under the water and swirled around and around for what seemed like an eternity before he found himself at the surface again. He was just able to get one quick breath before he was pulled under again. This time the shock of the water was not so extreme, and he was able to think a little bit. He forced himself to release the fishing pole and began to kick his legs to get to the surface. He was not able to get to the surface however, before his breath gave out. He tried to continue to kick but the water was so cold and the current so strong that he felt himself going deeper and deeper into the circular motion of the river. He was having disjointed thoughts and seeing flashes of images of his family as he was pulled deeper and deeper into the water. But then he felt something grab him. At first he tried to resist, but he realized he was being pulled toward the surface and he relaxed. He briefly thought “Hoss” before he lost consciousness due to the cold water and lack of oxygen.

Hoss grabbed Little Joe and pulled him to the surface. He was terrified when he looked at his little brother’s blue face. He couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. He held Little Joe out of the water as he tried to think. He had to get him out of the water, but he was so far out into the river that they were being pulled along with the current. He knew he wouldn’t be able to swim and hold Little Joe out of the water, but he didn’t see any other choice—he had to get Little Joe out of that water and get him warm and dry and get the water out of his lungs right away. He was about to try it, when he heard Ben shouting at him. He couldn’t make out the words, but he was reassured that at least he was there.

Suddenly he saw Adam come riding up on Sport. Adam jumped off the horse and handed his father a rope. Ben uncoiled one end of the rope and handed it back to Adam. The other end, he coiled and, with expert aim, tossed the rope to Hoss. Hoss grabbed hold of the rope with one arm, continuing to hold Little Joe above the water with the other arm. As soon as they saw Hoss had the rope, Adam tied one end off on Sport’s saddle horn and he began to ease the horse backwards, while Ben held onto the rope and gave him instructions. Very quickly they had pulled Hoss and Joe onto the shallow bank of the river. Ben rushed into the water and took Little Joe out of Hoss’ arm and ran to the bank. He was also terrified by the look of him, but he forced himself to carry on.

Adam helped Hoss out of the water and Hoss collapsed beside Ben and Little Joe. Adam ran back toward the campsite. Ben held Joe up and began to pat him on the back. Almost immediately, Joe choked and spit up a mouthful of swallowed river. Then he began to gasp and draw rapid, deep breaths, which were followed by more choking and spitting. Adam returned to the riverbank, bringing blankets. He gave his father one to wrap Little Joe in, and then he wrapped one around Hoss’ shoulders. Hoss was by now, sitting up, anxiously watching his Pa and Little Joe.

Joe’s breathing was still fast, but his coloring was improving some. Ben held him tight while his brothers looked on anxiously. After several minutes, Little Joe tried to speak. Initially Ben hushed him; saying to wait a minute before he tried to talk and every attempt Little Joe made to talk was shushed. His coloring continued to improve; though the cold still left him blue. Ben said, “Adam, can you get a fire going at the campsite? They both need to get warm again.”

Adam said, “Sure, Pa. Come on Hoss. Let me help you.” And held out his arm to Hoss.

Hoss said, “Wait Adam, not ’til I’m sure Joe’s okay.” And brushed off his arm.

With that, Joe spoke up and this time his voice was louder, more insistent, and almost like his normal voice. “Hoss, I almost caught that one you told me about.” He said, looking at Hoss earnestly.

Hoss, confused, answered, “What are you talkin’ about Half-pint?”

“I almost caught the one that got away Hoss!” Little Joe said, a note of disappointment in his voice. “But I’ll catch ‘im next time!” he finished. Six eyes stared at the little boy incredulously. Here he was half-drowned and all he could think about was fishin’. They looked at each other and smiled and then, looking down at the determined expression on that little cherubic face, they all laughed. When Joe looked confused by the laughter, Adam said, “Little Joe, I believe you will. I surely do believe that one that got away better look out next time!” His proclamation was met with loud laughter from Pa and Hoss. Little Joe merely nodded his head, his face expressing his opinion that his family must have surely gone mad.

******

The Cartwrights remained at the camp for a week, despite Pa’s initial thought that they should go home immediately. Little Joe and Adam and Hoss convinced Pa to stay on. Little Joe suffered no ill effects from his immersion in the river; besides the fact that everyone else watched him like a hawk and made sure that there was always someone between him and the river’s edge. They fished, they hiked, they rode their horses, they explored. They sat for long hours at night, listening to Pa tell of his many journeys—from his days as captain on a ship to his westward journeys. He told them of his their mothers, their triumphs, their joys, their sorrows, their lives together, and how he had picked up the pieces and gone on after their deaths. Their conversations around the campsite gradually turned from the past to the future. They talked of their hopes and dreams and plans for the future. Ben told them of his vision for the Ponderosa and of their place in that future. Somehow, sometime, during those late night campfire conversations, they all realized that whatever the future could bring—whether it be joy or sorrow—that, together, they could face anything. They were still, and would always be—a FAMILY.

***The End***

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