A Diamond in the Desert by Puchi Ann

Summary:  Hoss isn’t sure whether Little Joe’s latest get-rich-quick scheme will leave him rich beyond his boldest dreams or dead in the desert.

Category:  Bonanza

Genre:  Western

Rated:  PG

Word Count:  24,439 words


                Little Joe, usually the last and most reluctant Cartwright to leave his bed, was up early and eager to get out the door, scarcely taking time for breakfast.  That was only typical of the young man when he was excited about something; he was today and everyone knew why.  At least, they thought they did.

                “Why is it you’re never this bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when there’s a day’s work waiting?” his oldest brother Adam asked, a half-smile lifting a corner of his mouth.

                “Because work will always wait, older brother,” Little Joe tossed back with a grin.  Nothing could dampen his mood this morning.  He’d been looking forward to this trip for what seemed like an eternity to the twenty-year-old.  How often, after all, did Pa grant any of them two weeks off to do as they pleased?  Especially two of them at a time, but he’d managed to wheedle Pa into letting both him and Hoss make a pleasure excursion into the mountains, to hunt and fish and refresh themselves for the hard roundup season just ahead.  “Haven’t you had enough to eat yet, Hoss?” he whined.  “Day’s half gone.”

                Hoss snorted.  “Half gone.  Sun’s barely up, little brother, and we got a long ride ahead of us, so I aim to fill up, just in case the fish ain’t bitin’ when we get there.”

                Little Joe nibbled his lower lip.  There was something he needed to tell Hoss, but not here, in front of certain other parties.  Preferably not until they were well down the trail, although they probably wouldn’t get far before he had to spill the beans.  Hoss might be gullible, but he wasn’t a fool, and he knew the lay of the land better than anyone except the Indians, who were here long before them.

                Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s Chinese cook, hustled in from the kitchen with a large package wrapped in brown paper.  “Here, Mr. Hoss, you take,” he ordered.  “In case fish not bite.”

                “Aw, thanks, Hop Sing,” Hoss said, holding the parcel up to his nose.  “Umm, umm, fried chicken.  I don’t even care whether them fish bite now.”

                “Yeah, yeah, so can we go?” Little Joe demanded.

                Their father, Ben Cartwright, loudly cleared his throat.  “Not until you’ve thanked Hop Sing for providing for you, Joseph.”

                A quick glance confirmed that the cook was frowning at him, so Little Joe hurried to say, “Oh, sure.  I was going to do that, as soon as I got Hoss headed for the door.  It was real thoughtful of you to fix us a meal, Hop Sing.  We’ll be sure to bring you back some fresh trout.”

                The little Oriental was all smiles again.  “You have good time, Little Joe, and be good boy.”

                “Can he possibly do both?” Adam inquired with a small smirk.

                “Just watch me, older brother,” Little Joe teased back.

                Adam laughed aloud.  “Someone needs to!”  Looking toward his other brother, he added, “I suppose that responsibility falls to you.”

                “Usually does,” Hoss jibed.

                “You are our brother’s keeper,” Adam intoned in a voice best suited to a pulpit.

                “Argh!” Little Joe growled.  “I’m gonna check the horses, just in case you ever make it out the door.”  He strode across the room and left, giving the front door an energetic pull behind him.

                Hearing the slam, Ben winced and shook his head.  “All joking aside,” he said to Hoss, “do keep an eye on him, all right?”

                “Sure, Pa,” Hoss agreed readily.  “Besides, what kind of trouble could he get into, up in the mountains?”

                Adam cleared his throat loudly enough to draw attention.  “You do remember this is Joe we’re talking about?”

                Hoss nodded as he grinned.  “I’ll keep an eye on him,” he promised as he plopped his tall hat on his head and went out the door.

                Ben turned to his oldest son and asked, “Do you know what they’re up to?”

                Adam arched an eloquent eyebrow.  “They?” he asked significantly.

                Since Adam was the son whose thinking most often matched his own, Ben immediately understood the meaning of that single word.  He smiled and corrected himself.  “He.  Do you know what he’s up to?”  He knew as well as Adam that if there were any mischief plotted, Hoss was not likely to be its instigator; in fact, he probably had no more knowledge of it than either of them.

                “Not a clue,” Adam said dryly, “and I think I’d just as soon keep it that way.”

                 “Um, I see your point,” Ben said, nodding.  “I just hope it’s nothing too drastic.”

                “And preferably nonfatal,” Adam added with a grin.

                “Preferably,” Ben chuckled in agreement.

*****

                Little Joe kept up a constant stream of meaningless chatter as he and his brother rode out from the Ponderosa.  That was sort of normal for him, of course, but he usually left space here and there for someone else to get a word in.  Not today.  Hoss didn’t pay it any mind at first—just Joe bein’ Joe, so full of energy it had to go somewhere, even if the only place was out his mouth.  Finally, though, Hoss quit listening and started looking around, and that’s when he realized something was wrong.  “Hey, Joe,” he said.

                Joe strung words together all the faster, and it dawned on Hoss that his little brother was trying to distract him.  He reined up and hollered ahead, “Joe!  You’re goin’ east, boy.  The mountains is west!”

                Taking a deep breath, Little Joe swung his horse around.  “Not all of ‘em,” he said with a nervous titter.

                Hoss frowned deeply.  He couldn’t deny the truth of what his little brother had said.  Nevada was made up of a whole string of parallel mountain ranges, and all but one of ‘em were to the east of the Ponderosa.  He had assumed, however, as any reasonable man would, that they would do their hunting and fishing in the closest and likeliest place, namely the Sierra Nevada range that skirted their sweeping ranch.   “Just which of these mountains are you aimin’ for, little brother?” he asked.

                “What difference does that make?”  Little Joe let his green-broke mount prance with the impatience he himself was feeling.  “We’ll be able to hunt and fish in ‘most any of ‘em.”

                “I got a feeling it makes a heap of difference,” Hoss said, lips puckering together in a straight, hard line.

                “I’ll explain it all later,” Little Joe said.  “Look, Hoss, we got a long way to go, and you’re stoppin’ us when we’ve barely got started.”

                Hoss’s frown deepened.  “Light down off that horse, boy,” he ordered.

                “Hoss.”  The way Little Joe drawled out his brother’s name was practically a whine.

                “Light down, Joseph,” Hoss said more firmly, “or so help me, I’ll drag you out of that saddle, and I can’t promise to be gentle about it.”

                Little Joe gave his bigger brother a penetrating look.  Most of the time Hoss was all bark and no bite, and he would never intentionally hurt his little brother.  However, you could only push him so far, and he had been known, on occasion, to misjudge his own strength.  Whatever he saw in his brother’s countenance, Little Joe promptly obeyed the order to “light down” from his horse.  “I can explain,” he said.

                “Get to it, then,” Hoss said as he dismounted and planted his fearsome figure in front of the younger boy.

                Little Joe raised his palms and waved them before his brother’s face.  “All right, all right.  Calm down.”

                “Joseph,” Hoss said in a cautionary tone.

                “Okay.”  Little Joe exhaled with exasperation and gazed back at Hoss with his best impression of a sad puppy.  “I wanted to surprise you, but if you’re just gonna insist on spoilin’ it . . .”

                “I think I am, Joseph.”  Folding his arms and jutting out his chin, Hoss steeled himself to resist his little brother’s well-earned reputation for charming the birds out of the trees.

                Little Joe sighed.  He really had hoped to be much further from home, well past the point of turning back, when this conversation took place, but apparently there was no help for it.  “Okay.  Back about a month ago . . .”

                “When you started wheedlin’ Pa to let us take time off,” Hoss put in.

                “Right before I asked him, yeah.”  Little Joe took a deep breath.  “Well, the reason I asked is I got in this poker game.”

                Hoss winced.  “You been playin’ poker?  You know what Pa thinks about that.”

                “That he don’t want me to grow up to be a river boat gambler,” Little Joe half-quoted with a roll of his eyes, quickly assuring his brother, “and I won’t.  This was just a friendly little game.”

                Hoss sighed deeply.  “How much did you lose?”

                Little Joe brightened.  “Is that what you’re worried about, big brother?  That’s real kind of you, but not at all necessary.  I won the whole pot!  Including one mighty special little something that I’d really like to keep as a surprise.”

                “Your surprises can be downright dangerous,” Hoss said, doing his best to look severe and not just plain curious, an itch of which was already beginning to crawl up his insides.

                “No danger here, brother,” Little Joe said enthusiastically.  “This is the chance of a lifetime, something that could set us up for a lifetime, if you know what I mean.”

                Hoss lifted his shaking head toward the heavens, although he couldn’t possibly have seen help coming from there, since he closed his eyes at the same time.

                “Hoss, pay attention,” Little Joe chided.  “This is important.”

                Hoss suddenly felt bad.  Here he’d demanded an explanation from his little brother, and now he wasn’t even listening to him, although it was mighty hard with all the noise of past experience swirling through his head.  “Uh, yeah, sorry, Joe.  You go right ahead.”

                Little Joe took another deep, bolstering breath.  “So, like I said, I won big in the poker game, made more than $200.”

                Hoss grinned broadly.  “Yeah?  That’s great, little brother.  Sure sounds like you’re playin’ better than you used to.”

                “Yeah,” Little Joe said with a proud lift of his chin.  “I been takin’ lessons on poker-face from our sober-sided brother, and I guess it’s working.”

                Hoss’s broad brow furrowed.  “Still don’t see how winning $200 gets us goin’ east, instead of up into the Sierras to hunt and fish.”

                “No, no, no,” Little Joe hurried to say.  “Not the money, although it helped me put together some supplies we’ll need.  I got them cached up ahead, so why don’t we mount up and . . .”

                “No, Joseph.”  Hoss managed to turn a deaf ear to Joe’s deliberate distraction long enough to remember the main question he was trying to get an answer to. “Why . . .”

                “Are we going east,” Little Joe finished with a gusty exhale.  “Okay.  Well, that’s because I didn’t just win the money.  I won something better than money, something that’ll keep bringin’ us money for years to come, Hoss!”

                “Oh, no,” Hoss groaned, burying his face in his wide palm.  Not another one of Little Joe’s get-rich-quick schemes.  He’d already been burned by those more times than his ability with ciphers could count.

                “Now, don’t be that way!” Little Joe cried.  “Here I am, doin’ my best to look out for your welfare, to get you the kind of security that’ll let you do whatever you want with your life . . . buy your own little piece of land or invest in special breeding stock or anything else you please, and all you can do is moan and groan before you even hear what a great opportunity this is.”

                Hoss looked instantly repentant.  “I’m sorry, Joe.  I wasn’t lookin’ at it like that.  It’s real good of you to think of me and all, but it’s hard to get past you feelin’ you had to trick me into comin’ on this here little . . . whatever it is.  You ain’t told me yet.”

                Little Joe’s face was the picture of offended innocence as he pressed his palm to his chest.  “Trick you?  It’s not a trick; it’s a surprise.  You know, like a present . . . for your birthday.”

                Hoss’s expression moved from repentant to puzzled.  “My birthday?  It’s nigh on to nine months ‘til my birthday, little brother.  Since when do you plan anything that far ahead?”  In truth, that his kid brother had thought to make plans a month ago for this trip showed more foresight than he’d ever seen before.

                Little Joe pulled a pout.  “Pa and Adam been talkin’ to me about that, and I’m tryin’, Hoss, honest I am.  A fellow could use a little encouragement, you know, instead of always bein’ fussed at for failin’.”

                Hoss wrapped one long arm around his brother’s slim shoulders.  “Aw, I’m sorry, little brother; I didn’t mean to be fussin’.  But now that you’ve mentioned my birthday, don’t you think you could give me a little hint.”  His head bobbed up and down, like a kid eager to get into some carefully wrapped package with a bow on top . . . and, maybe, a bag of sweetening tied on for decoration.  Ma—Joe’s ma, to be real specific—had done that a time or two, and old as he was, he still missed seeing that little bag on his birthday present.

                “Well, it’d take a lot of time to dig it out of our supplies right now,” Little Joe argued.  “Can’t you wait ‘til we make camp tonight, when it would be easier, instead of doin’ it here, under the hot sun?”

                “Oh, I reckon,” Hoss said.  “I didn’t mean to make no extra trouble for you.”

                Smiling like the Cheshire cat, Little Joe patted his brother’s brawny arm.  “That’s all right, Hoss; don’t think a thing of it.”  He quickly mounted his horse and headed down the trail, going east.  A day’s ride would take them far enough to make it easier to persuade Hoss to keep going; he’d be sure to let his big brother eat his fill of fried chicken, too, so he’d be content and much more open to suggestion.

*****

                Little Joe added a few more sticks to the campfire over which their supper coffee had brewed and stretched his bedroll out just the right distance to keep him warm through the night without one side being charred and the other turning to ice.  He yawned prodigiously.

                “I ain’t forgot, Joseph,” his older brother said.  “Now, you been lollygaggin’ around camp long enough.  Where’s my birthday present?”

                “Now, Hoss,” Little Joe said.  “I never said I had your birthday present here; I said it was a surprise, like a birthday present.”

                Frowning, Hoss cast his mind back, trying to remember what his little brother had said.  He couldn’t remember the exact words, and one thing he should have remembered was that with Little Joe, the exact words mattered, sometimes a whole lot.  One thing, however, he did recall clearly.  “You said you was gonna show this here present or surprise or whatever it is to me after we made camp tonight.  Now, we’ve made camp, so it’s time, little brother, any way you look at it.”

                Little Joe nodded.  “Sure, sure.  I’ll get it.  I just didn’t want you thinkin’ you wouldn’t be gettin’ an actual present, come your real birthday.”

                Every wrinkle of worry fled from Hoss’s brow.  “Aw, that’s real thoughtful of you, Little Joe.”  His face lighted up with expectation.  “So, where it is, huh?”

                “I’ll get it.”  Little Joe moved slowly toward his saddle bags.  Now that the time had come, he was beginning to question his plan to keep this secret until now.  He’d had to, of course; if he’d let Hoss in on it any sooner, his big brother, who couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it, would have long since spilled the beans to either Pa or Adam, probably both, and they’d have either laughed their fool heads off or tried to talk him out of what his poker opponent had assured him was a sure thing.  Not to mention how Pa was likely to react to the mere mention of poker.

                Dawdling as long as he dared, he drew out the yellowed paper and walked back toward the campfire, where Hoss was polishing off the last chicken leg.  He planted himself in front of Hoss, holding both hands behind his back, and pasted a sloppy grin on his face.  “Guess,” he said.

                “Aint much guessin’ to it,” Hoss said.  “I already seen it’s a piece of paper.  Some kind of deed, I reckon.”

                Little Joe’s grin faded.  “Well, no, not exactly,” he said.  Then his expression brightened again.  “Just as good, though.  What we got here is a map.”

                Hoss groaned.  “Tell me it ain’t to the buried loot of some bank robber again.”

                “Course not,” Little Joe said, looking offended.  “Hoss, I was thirteen when that happened.”

                “Yeah, but that dead sure ain’t the last time you led me down some turkey trail,” Hoss said.

                “This is a genuine map,” Little Joe insisted, “but if you ain’t interested, just say so.  I meant to share with you, but I can just as soon keep it for myself.”

                “Now, don’t go gettin’ your dander up,” Hoss said.  “I reckon I can, at least, listen.”

                Little Joe was all smiles again.  “That’s the spirit, brother.”  He came closer and spread the yellowed sheet open.  “This is no turkey trail, as you can plainly see.  This is the trail to the richest gold mine in these parts.”

                “A gold mine?  Aw, Joe.”  Hoss slowly shook his head from side to side.  This had all the feel of that long-ago map to the robbers’ lair, sure enough.

                “Now, don’t be that way,” Little Joe protested.  “Look, maybe you’re right; maybe it won’t come to anything, but it’s worth checking out, isn’t it?  If it turns out to be a bust, we’ll just go back to our original plan of hunting and fishing for a couple of weeks.  Nothing lost but a little time.  But if you’re wrong and I’m right, well, then, big brother, we’re rich!”

                Hoss pursed his lips in thought and then came out of it smiling, as the vision of gold coins floated before his face.  “Well, I guess you got a point there, little brother.  So, whereabouts is this gold mine of ours?”

                Little Joe concentrated on folding the map carefully.  “Well, it’s in the mountains up ahead,” he mumbled.

                “Which mountains?” Hoss pressed.  Little Joe had hedged that question more than once, and he had a feeling he needed to know.

                “Well, not that it makes any difference,” Little Joe said, his voice dropping as he added, “but it’s in the Humboldt Range.”

                “The Humboldt Range!” Hoss exploded.  “That’s nigh on to 200 miles!”

                “Not from here,” Little Joe said, head bobbing with encouragement.  “We’ve already come partway.”

                “With a heap more to go than we’ve already come,” Hoss said.  “You have plumb lost your mind, Shortshanks.”

                Little Joe stared at his brother through narrowed eyes.  “Well . . . well, it sounds to me like you’ve plumb lost your courage, your spirit of adventure, your get-up-and-go.”

                “Oh, no, that’s in fine shape,” Hoss said.  “I am ready to get up and go right now . . . all the way home.”

                “Well, go on, then!  Run on back with your tail between your legs.  I could’ve used your help, totin’ all that gold ore out of the mine, but I reckon I can manage without you.”  Little Joe turned his back and folded his arms.

                Seeing that stubborn stance, Hoss gulped.  “Aw, now, you know I ain’t gonna leave you out here on your own.  I couldn’t never do that, little brother.”

                A crafty smile slid across Joe’s face, which he kept carefully turned away from his older brother.  “I couldn’t ask you to stay when I know your heart’s not in it, Hoss.  No, you go on back; I’ll just have to press on alone, hard as it’ll be, and hope I don’t run into any kind of trouble I can’t handle.”

                Hoss winced.  Trouble he couldn’t handle was exactly what Little Joe was known for running into, like he was a magnet for trouble’s iron filings.  “Joe, I can’t go home and leave you out here; you know I can’t,” Hoss said.  “Pa’d have my hide, especially since he made me promise to keep an eye on you.  Besides, I just wouldn’t feel right about it; it ain’t safe for a man to travel this part of the territory on his own.”

                “Well, I know that,” Little Joe said, something that sounded a little like fear creeping into his voice, “but—no, I just can’t ask it of you, Hoss.”

                Hoss reached out and swung his younger brother around to face him.  “Now, you listen here, little brother: you ain’t askin’; I’m tellin’ you, I ain’t leavin’ you here.”

                Little Joe’s face shone with the brightness of a full moon on a cloudless night.  “Then you’ll stay and help me find the mine!  Oh, that’s great, Hoss!  And you won’t be disappointed, you’ll see; we’re gonna be rich as silver kings—richer, even, ‘cause this is gold.”

                Hoss’s eyes glazed over.  Joe always could talk circles around him ‘til the world started spinning and he didn’t know which side was up.  Had he actually agreed to stay and keep looking for that fool gold mine?  He wasn’t sure he had, but Joe looked so excited and happy that Hoss just couldn’t take it away from him.  “Well, yeah.  Uh . . . it’s the least I could do?”

                Little Joe heard the questioning hesitation but chose to ignore it.  He clapped his brother on both broad shoulders and said enthusiastically.  “Oh, no, brother, it’s the most.  You’re the best brother ever!  I’d sure never get this kind of cooperation from Adam.”  Hoss’s “aw-shucks” expression was all he could have hoped for.

*****

                By the time the Humboldts came into view, Hoss had begun to wish he was more like Adam, even if his little brother did label him uncooperative.  So far, cooperating with Little Joe had gotten him nothing but a hot, dusty ride through some of the driest territory in Nevada, and he had a feeling that gold mine, if they ever found it, would be just as dry a hole.  Why was it Pa and Adam could always see through Joe’s twirling rope of words, while he found himself lassoed like a calf for branding every single time?  He wasn’t as smart as them, of course, but he always seemed to keep a steady head on his shoulders with everyone except this one connivin’ little scoundrel, and he just couldn’t figure out why.

                When they finally reached the mountains, Hoss wanted to track some game or get in a little fishing first.  “We gotta eat,” he said.

                “We got bread . . . and cheese,” Little Joe said.

                “Cheese!”  Hoss made a face like he was close to puking.

                Little Joe pulled the map out of his saddlebag.  “Let’s try to find the first landmark before we make camp, all right?  Then, if there’s a creek close by, you can fish some for supper.”

                Hoss scowled, but once again let himself be swayed by his brother’s eager face.  “All right,” he grumbled, “but I ain’t waitin’ past tonight for a decent meal of some sort, you hear?”

                Lost in his perusal of the map, Little Joe didn’t respond until Hoss asked the question a second time.  “Oh, sure, sure.  I get hungry, too, brother, but you don’t see me complainin’.”

                That, Hoss told himself, was another sign that his little brother just plain didn’t come equipped with common sense.

*****

                Hoss lifted the sizzling pan to his nose and inhaled with appreciation.  “Joseph,” he called.

                Face buried in the map, as it had been ever since they made camp, Little Joe mumbled an incoherent response.

                “Joseph!”

                This time the volume and sharpness of his brother’s voice made Little Joe lift his head.  “What?”

                “Supper,” Hoss grunted.  “Come and get it, such as it is.”

                Little Joe waved a dismissive hand in his brother’s direction.  “Take all you want; I’ll eat what’s left.”

                Hoss shook his head.  He was tempted to take his little brother up on his offer, for they’d been late finding this stream, and the fish hadn’t exactly been springing up onto the bank in their eagerness to feed the two men.  He’d only caught two, small ones at that, barely enough to keep his belly from growling all night long, but he wouldn’t’ve felt right, keeping them to himself.  “Joseph, put that thing away and get over here and eat your share,” he ordered.

                “You can have my share,” Little Joe said.  “I’m not all that hungry.”

                Probably true, Hoss knew.  Joe, who could eat like a lumberjack at times, could just as easily forget to eat at all if something grabbed his attention, and it didn’t even take something as enticing as a gold mine to do it.  It was at times like that he truly had to become his brother’s keeper, like the Good Book taught.  “I don’t wanna have to tote you out of here after you keel over in a dead faint, little brother,” he said, his voice both sweet and mocking at the time, “and that is what’s gonna happen if’n you don’t put something in that flat belly of yours.”

                “Argh,” Joe groaned, but he folded the map and stowed it carefully in his saddlebag before spearing one of the fish out of the pan.  “I sure thought we’d have spotted a landmark by now,” he said between bites.

                “You’d think so,” Hoss said.  “Guess whoever drew it wasn’t much of a mapmaker, huh?”

                “Guess not.  I’ll give it another look in the morning.”

                “Yeah,” Hoss said without enthusiasm.  Another look and another and another, he figured.  Once Joe got his mind set on something, he was awful hard to discourage, as his longsuffering older brother had good cause to remember.

*****

                The next two days followed a similar pattern.  Hoss woke each morning to the smell of coffee brewing and the sight of his little brother squinting at that infernal map in the dim light of daybreak.  Each morning Little Joe was sure he’d figured out the puzzle, and they’d set off in a new direction, only to end the day dragging into another camp, no more game worthy than the last, and eking out a meal from whatever they could scrounge close at hand.  “My belly thinks my throat’s been cut,” Hoss said on the second night, when he’d come across nothing but a quail that took him about two bites to finish off.  He’d only had that much to eat because Little Joe had obligingly said he could make do with the last of the cheese.  Hoss felt bad about taking the meat out of his little brother’s mouth, but since he couldn’t abide cheese, he took Joe up on the offer.

                “We’ll run across some game tomorrow,” Little Joe said.  “Bound to.”

                “No,” Hoss said, slowly and patiently, “we ain’t gonna run across any game, little brother; we are takin’ a day off to go lookin’ for it.  All the gold in Nevada won’t do us a lick of good if’n we die of starvation.”

                Little Joe opened his mouth to protest, but closed it just as quickly.  Hoss was right; his own growling stomach told him that, and much as he hated to stop the search before finding the mine, common sense said they had to take care of the basic necessity of something to eat first.  “Okay,” he agreed.  “If we can bag a mule deer, that’ll give us food for a few days, and we can get right back to the business we came for.”

                “Little brother, hunting and fishing is the business I came for, remember?”

                Little Joe nodded with chagrin.  Hoss had been a good sport about the change in plans; he could do no less than meet his older brother halfway.

*****

                The hunting wasn’t going well.  By midafternoon they’d still only managed to shoot one rabbit.  That meant they could eat tonight, but Little Joe knew it wasn’t enough, at least not for Hoss.  He couldn’t ask the big man to keep going on such short rations.  It plain took more to fuel his brother’s larger frame, so they’d have to spend another day hunting, and if they didn’t fare better than today, there was no way Hoss could be convinced to go back to looking for that mine.  Even Little Joe was beginning to wonder whether it existed or if he’d just been played for a fool in that poker game.

                “I think we ought to look for a place to camp,” Hoss said as he dismounted.

                “It’s not that late yet,” Little Joe said, doing the same.

                “Yeah, but we’re gonna have to go a ways to find a good spot.”  Hoss’s nose wrinkled as he looked at the gravelly ridge to the west of them and the barren hill to the east.  “Ain’t nothin’ hereabouts looks likely a-tall, and this stream ain’t much more’n a trickle.”  He bent to lay his near-empty canteen in the trickle.

                Little Joe nodded grimly as he squatted beside his brother and began to fill his own canteen.  “Last night’s campsite wasn’t anything to brag about, either.  I say we push ahead for a while, see if this stream broadens out—maybe deep enough for some fish?”

                “Yeah, that’d make a good breakfast,” Hoss said.  “Higher ground up ahead; let’s try it.”  He palmed a handful from the trickling creek and took a good swallow of the tepid water.  A mountain stream might give them good cold water to start the day tomorrow, too, even if it didn’t hold any fish.  He’d just capped the canteen again and was moving back toward his horse when the big animal neighed wildly and took off—straight up the gravelly ridge, with Little Joe’s horse right behind him.

                Little Joe dropped his canteen and took off after the animals, his boots slipping and sliding on the loose gravel.

                “Be careful!” Hoss hollered as he, too, began to run up the ridge, totally ignoring his own advice.  What else could they do, though?  A man couldn’t afford to be without a horse in this vast emptiness, and if something had driven their mounts crazy enough to take off straight up a hill, there wasn’t much they could do but follow.  They had to go fast, too, or the horses would get plumb away and leave them stranded.

                Little Joe had the advantage of being fleet of foot and agile.  While Hoss moved reasonably well on a dance floor, there was no way he could keep up with Little Joe, much less the horses, in a foot race.  Still, he pushed ahead, despite the way his foot kept rolling out from under him.  Suddenly, though, a sharp pain streaked up the back of his leg and he collapsed with a cry of pain that shot up the hill.

                Hearing it, Little Joe stopped dead in his tracks.  When he saw his brother crumpled up and grabbing his left leg, he scrambled back down, skidding the last few feet and plopping down beside Hoss.  “What is it?” he asked anxiously.  “You hurt?”

                “I think I broke it,” Hoss said with a groan.  “I heard something pop.”  He suddenly realized what Joe’s presence beside him meant.  “What are you thinking, boy?  Get after them horses!”

                Little Joe shook his head.  “They were already outrunning me, Hoss.  Only way we’re gonna catch up with ‘em is if they stop.”

                “Maybe they did.  Go check,” Hoss ordered.

                “Soon as I check you out,” Little Joe insisted.  “If they’re stopped, they’ll stay stopped, and if it’s broke, brother, we better get that boot off before your foot commences to swell.”

                Hoss grimaced.  “Yeah, okay; pull it off, and then go see about those crazy horses.”

                “You sure?  It’s gonna hurt,” Little Joe said.  “I could cut it off.”

                “Just pull it, will you?”  The pain kept him from realizing how loudly he was yelling at his brother.

                “Okay, okay,” Little Joe said placatingly.  “Brace yourself.”  He grabbed the heel of Hoss’s boot and, setting himself to ignore whatever sound his brother made, he pulled steadily until the boot came off and Hoss lay back on the gravel, unscrunching his facial muscles and breathing hard.  “Sorry,” Little Joe said, Hoss’s scrunch instinctively transferring to his own face.

                Hoss waved off the concern.  “Horses,” he panted, pointing up the ridge.  “Careful.”

                “Right,” Little Joe said and took off, proving once again that there wasn’t a careful bone in his body.  He wasn’t gone long.  From the top of the ridge, he had a sweeping view of the valley below, broad and empty—no horse, no man, no sign of civilization as far as the eye could see.  No doubt about it: they were in a pickle.  He turned and made his way back down the slithering gravel so slowly that Hoss knew the bad news before he ever arrived to deliver it.

                “Now what, little brother?” Hoss demanded, pain draining out his usual easy-going nature.  “Doggone, I sure wish you hadn’t talked me into takin’ those fresh-broke horses, to give our own mounts a rest.  Chubby and Cochise wouldn’t never have took off like that.”

                Little Joe knelt down beside his brother.  “First thing, I’m gonna take a look at your—what is it you think you broke?”

                “My ankle, I guess,” Hoss said.  “Ain’t so bad now, though.”  He started to get up.  “Maybe it ain’t . . .”

                Joe waved him down.  “Sit still ‘til I check it out.”

                Hoss might be the big brother and Joe the little one, but the big man did as he was told.  He winced as Joe poked and prodded, but it was only when Joe pointed the foot downward that Hoss slapped his hand away.  “That hurt,” he said.

                “Sorry,” Joe mumbled.  He settled back on his haunches.  “I don’t think it’s broke, Hoss; bones all feel like they’re in the right place.  Maybe just sprained.  You wanna stand up and see if it’ll take weight?”

                Hoss heaved a huge sigh.  “I don’t see as I’ve got much choice.  We got no horses, and I can’t see you totin’ me out of this miserable place on your back.”

                “Reckon not,” Little Joe said with a wry smile.  He was remembering a time when he and Pa and Adam and some neighbors had been carrying a wounded Hoss home, and someone had opined that as long as one of Ben’s boys had to get hurt, he sure wished it could have been the little one.  He’d taken a smidge of offense at the remark at the time, but now he, too, wished it had been he, instead of Hoss, that had taken that fall, ‘cause worse come to worst, Hoss could’ve carried him.  He helped his brother to his feet.  “Lean on me as much as you can,” he instructed.

                “Oh, you can count on that,” Hoss said.

                They soon realized that walking down that gravel-strewn hill was impossible.  The second time Hoss took them to ground, he decided they’d both be better off if he just inched his way down on his backside.  “We keep tryin’ it like this, one of us really is likely to break something,” Hoss said.

                Little Joe nodded glum acceptance of that assessment, and though he could have made it down much quicker on his own, he stayed with Hoss, trying to clear his path as much as possible.  After what seemed like hours, though it wasn’t, they finally reached the floor of the canyon.  “Sit and rest a spell,” Joe instructed.  “I’ll fetch the canteen.”

                Once he had it in hand, Hoss drank deeply.  “Now what?” he asked as he handed it back to his brother.

                Little Joe shrugged.  “Same as before, I guess. Head up the canyon, try to find a better campsite.”  He looked down at Hoss’s bare foot.  “If you think you can, that is.  Otherwise, I guess we make camp here.”

                Hoss scowled at the piddling trickle of water.  “This just gets better ‘n’ better.”

                “All right!” Little Joe snapped.  “I admit it’s my fault we’re out here in the first place, but ain’t no way I could’ve known a rattler would spook our horses.”

                “Is that what it was?”

                Little Joe exhaled gustily as he stood up.  “I think so.  Didn’t see it and not even sure I heard it, but I think I might have, right before the horses started makin’ a ruckus.”

                “Well, it makes sense,” Hoss said.  “If I’m gonna walk, though, I think we better put the boot back on.”

                Little Joe looked dubious.  “I don’t know, Hoss.  Broke or not, it’s probably gonna swell.”

                “I can’t walk on these rocks barefoot, Joe!”

                “Okay, let’s give it a try, then.”

                Maneuvering the boot back onto Hoss’s foot was a much harder proposition than getting it off had been and produced enough howling to ensure that anyone within a mile of them would hear.  The fact that no one came running to their aid further proved what they already knew: they were alone.  Once shod, Hoss lurched to his feet.  He would have toppled over had his little brother not caught him, but as soon as he regained his balance, they set off.  Progress was slow, and they hadn’t managed to get far before the sun began to sink behind the western ridge.  Finally, Hoss admitted he couldn’t go any further, and they sank down beside a stream that was somewhat wider than what lay behind them, but definitely not the fish-laden haven they had hoped for before everything went wrong.

                Little Joe eased Hoss down beside a spindly bristlecone pine and set both canteens next to him.  “I’m gonna gather up some wood and make a fire,” he said.

                “Good luck with that.”  Hoss’s face screwed up as he scanned the virtually treeless horizon.

                “Well, they don’t call me Lucky for nothin’.”  Little Joe’s high-pitched cackle echoed down the canyon.

                “That ain’t what they call you, little brother,” Hoss said.  “They call you Bad-Luck-Comin’.”  He was grinning as he said it, though, and that, to Joe, was the best he could have hoped for, under the circumstances.

                Joe scouted around for about half an hour and came up with enough wood to make a small fire.  Since they had nothing to eat, the horses having run off with their sole catch of the day, they stretched out on either side of its scant warmth.  “Hoss,” Little Joe said, “come morning, I’m gonna head out early.  There’s a town drawn on that map, and I’m gonna see if I can’t find it.”

                “If’n it exists,” Hoss reminded him.  “I don’t much think that mine does.”

                “Probably not, but the town does,” Little Joe insisted.  It had to.  A man might make up a gold mine to swindle someone, but surely not a town.  No profit in that.

                “Okay,” Hoss said.  “I reckon it is best for us to leave early, before the heat sets in.”

                “Not us,” Little Joe said firmly.  “I can make better time on my own, Hoss, and I can tell your foot’s botherin’ you something fierce.  You got some shade here and plenty of water.  I’ll go on alone and bring back help, maybe even a horse for you to ride.  How’s that?”

                “I don’t like you bein’ out there alone, little brother,” Hoss protested, “and we don’t even know where that town might be.”

                Little Joe propped himself up on his elbows.  “Well, we know there’s nothing back the way we came.”

                “Scarce even a rabbit,” Hoss grunted.  Then he quickly said, “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to sound so sour.  That’s as good a plan as any, I reckon.”

                Little Joe yawned.  “That’s okay.  I reckon you’re entitled to get growly as a bear, the way you’re hurtin’.  I’m gonna get some shut-eye; dawn comes early.”

                “Sleep snug, little brother.”  He gave a rough laugh, and it was returned with a chuckling groan.  With no bedrolls and a fire not likely to last through the night, neither of them expected to sleep well.  For once in his life, Little Joe would have no problem getting up with the sun.

*****

             Little Joe was, in fact, up long before the sun rose.  Once the fire died out, the bare ground below him and the chilly wind sweeping over him ensured that his night would be a short one.  Deciding that he might as well use that cool time of the day for the potentially long walk ahead, he rose as quietly as he could while Hoss snored on.  He might be the one in the family with the reputation for sleeping long and deep, but Hoss was the one who could really do it, Joe thought with a grin as he slipped quietly out of camp and headed north.  He even waited until he was well away to fill his canteen, so as not to disturb his brother.  Better this way, anyway.  It didn’t give Hoss a second chance to insist that they stay together when, sure as the world, that would only lead to a long, hungry stay in these unyielding mountains.

                The thought brushed through his mind that Adam would be proud of him for coming up with that apt a description for where they were, for the Humboldt range had, so far, yielded neither sustenance nor riches.  In fact, it had just barely yielded enough water to keep them alive, although that was changing, for the better, the further he walked.  As he had hoped, the creek was broadening into a real stream, although he still saw no sign of fish.  Maybe it was too early for them, too, he mused with a wide yawn.

                He walked up the canyon for another hour before he stopped to fill his canteen with the cooler water now available.  Then with a sigh he began to climb the western ridge, higher here and covered with scant scrub brush, but still treacherous with loose rock.  He left the refreshing stream behind with regret, but he knew he had to get to higher ground if he were to spot any sort of town, for the valley to the west was the most likely location for any habitation.  His first view of it, however, didn’t show much promise.  He kept going north, along the top of the ridge, as best he could.  The top wasn’t level ground, and more than once he slipped and slithered down a few feet before he could stop himself.  Once it was only a conveniently placed bristlecone that stopped his plunge down the steep side of the mountain.

                He walked for hours until the sun stood directly above, bearing down on him.  The wind was harsh in his exposed position, but he was grateful for it; it was the only thing that kept him from melting in a pool of sweat.  He stopped frequently to drink from his canteen, shaking it after each draught to see whether he needed to climb back down to the stream to refill it.  He had just tightened the cap after his last drink when he spotted a wisp of smoke rising over an outcropping, perhaps half a mile ahead, where the mountains jutted briefly westward.  Excited by the first sign of hope he’d seen since starting his difficult journey, he immediately headed down the western side of the ridge without a thought of backtracking long enough to fill his canteen.

                He realized his mistake almost immediately upon reaching the valley floor, but judged it too costly in time to make the trek back up and then down the ridge to reach the only source of water he knew of.  To do that and then make the same journey in reverse would consume hours, and he didn’t want to keep Hoss wondering and worrying about him any longer than necessary.  He felt his only choice was to go forward.  Surely, there’d be water, wherever that smoke was: smoke meant people, and people needed water to survive.  His steps dragged as the glaring sun continued to beat down on him, and the canteen went dry, but he pressed on.  He’d bet all his cards on that wisp of smoke, and he couldn’t afford to fold now.  His survival and, ultimately, Hoss’s would depend on winning the bet.

                Finally, he rounded the out-thrust promontory and saw the source of that smoke.  It was an isolated cabin, not a town, but to Little Joe, it looked better than the Pearly Gates, which he figured he’d come all too close to seeing for himself.  It was still some distance ahead, though, so he pushed on, willing his heavy legs to take one more step and then another.  By the time he got there, he was exhausted, cooled only by his sweat-drenched shirt, and his tongue was so dry he was afraid to touch it to the top of his mouth, lest it stick there.  As he came into the dusty yard, he saw a water trough with a pump at its end, and the sight poured energy into his enervated legs.

                He grabbed the pump handle and pumped a fresh stream of water; then he cupped his hands under it and quaffed the barely cool water as if it were iced lemonade.  He had just plunged his head beneath the water and was shaking his shaggy mane when a shot exploded next to him.  Instinctively, he lifted his wet hands and stared down the barrel of the shotgun pointed at the middle of his chest.  When he managed to raise his eyes from that to the face of the person wielding it, they widened in surprise.

                “Ma’am,” he squeaked.  “You don’t need to do that.  I don’t mean you any harm.”

                “And this’ll see to it you don’t do done,” the lady said, not lowering the gun an inch.

                “Ma’am, please,” he said, putting on his most charming smile, the one that generally turned women to mush.  This one had a hard look about the eyes, although the slim blonde would have been pretty enough if it hadn’t been for the livid scar slanting across her right cheek, from near the corner of her eye to her chin.  “I’m just a man in need of help.”

                “You’ll find it about ten miles that way.”  She jutted her chin to the right.

                “Ten miles!”  The squeak was back in Little Joe’s voice.  “Ma’am, I can’t walk that far, the state I’m in.  Besides that, my brother needs help, back up in the mountains there.”  He pointed in the general direction of where he’d left Hoss.  “Night’s comin’, and it would take too long for me to get help from that far.”

                “That’s as may be, but I’m a woman alone, and I’m not about to let some drifter take advantage of me,” she declared, “so don’t be thinkin’ you can.”

                Little Joe exhaled with disgust.  “Trust me, ma’am, that’s the last thing on my mind.”  He hadn’t meant it as an insult to her looks, although he could tell from the flush of her cheeks and the tightening of her lips that she taken it that way.

                “Town’s ten miles that way, like I said, and you’d best get walkin’ if you plan to make it before dark.”

                Little Joe stared her down, but saw no sign of yielding, so he sighed deeply and asked, “Can I, at least, fill my canteen?  It’s empty, and if you don’t want a death on your hands . . .”

                “Oh, all right,” she relented, lowering the gun slightly.  “Fill it and be on your way.”

                “Yes, ma’am,” Little Joe said.  As he filled the canteen, he kept a close watch on her out of the corner of his eye and saw the gun drop another inch or so.  She was a little thing, and evidently, it was getting heavy.  He took his time capping the canteen.  Then grabbing it by the strap, he flung it straight at her head and rushed her.

                With a sharp cry, she instinctively lifted her arm to shield her face, and Little Joe crossed the short distance between them and twisted the shotgun out of her hands while it was pointed skyward.  She turned to run, but he caught her by the upper arm and held her as she kicked and pulled and twisted in a futile attempt to get away.

                “Yeow!  Cut that out!” Little Joe yelled as her booted foot connected with his shin.  “I don’t want to hurt you, ma’am, but I’m not about to let you hurt me, either.”

                In stature, he wasn’t much taller than she, but his muscles were work-hardened, and while hers were, too, they were no match for even a slim, young man used to wrangling recalcitrant steers.  Finally, she fell to the ground and sat there, glaring up at him.  “All right,” she snarled.  “Go ahead and have your way with me; I can’t stop you.”

                Little Joe shook his head firmly from side to side.  “Ma’am, like I already said, I don’t want that.  All I want is some food and water . . . and a horse, if you got one.”

                “Just like a man to take a woman’s horse and leave her stranded out in this desert!”  She spewed the bitter words.

                “I’ll bring it back,” he said.  “I ain’t no horse thief, ma’am, just a . . .”

                “Man in need of help,” she sputtered.  “Don’t waste your breath; I heard you the first six times.”

                Little Joe was pretty sure he hadn’t said it that many times, but he didn’t consider the point worth arguing.  “Just get up and get the horse,” he ordered.  “And don’t try anything.”  He pointed the gun at her, hoping the threat would prove sufficient; he would almost rather have died himself than shoot a woman.

                She got up warily and brushed the dust from her brown calico skirt.  Then, flinging her long blonde braid over her shoulder, she marched toward a lean-to attached to the cabin.  Little Joe followed her, shotgun in hand.  When he rounded the corner of the cabin, he gaped, open-mouthed.  “You talk about bein’ stranded, when you got two horses and all I asked for was one?”

                “Why would a horse thief stop with just one?” she demanded hotly.

                “I told you: I ain’t a horse thief!”

                “You’re takin’ my horse at gunpoint,” she tossed back, hands on her hips.  “If that don’t make you a horse thief, I don’t know what does.”

                Little Joe twisted his neck, trying to work out the tension in his muscles.  “I know I’m right,” he said, “even though you make it sound wrong.”  He looked up, as a thought struck him.  “You got a wagon to go with this team?”

                “Oh, you want that, too, do you?”  Pure hatred shot from her blue eyes.  Though they were close to the same shade as Hoss’s, there was none of the calm peace that his generally conveyed.

                “Well, as long as I’m bein’ labeled a horse thief,” Little Joe chuckled grimly, “I guess I might as well get hung for a wagon nabber, too.”

                “And I suppose you want me to hitch it for you?” she fumed.

                The chuckle sounded lighter this time.  “Well, ma’am, I can’t hardly take this gun off you, now, can I?”

                “Ooff!”  She grabbed the harness off the wall of the shed and put it over the head of each horse and then led them out of the lean-to and around the back of the cabin, where a rough-slabbed wagon stood.  She harnessed the team with the deftness of one long accustomed to doing it.  “Go on, then,” she said.  “Get off my land.”

                “Food and water,” he reminded her with a cocky smile.  Now that the gun was out of her hands and into his, he found her feistiness kind of amusing, even admirable, in fact.

                Her gusty exhale blew straggling strands of wispy hair from her face as she led the team toward the front door of the cabin.  She stomped inside with Little Joe close on her heels.  He couldn’t take the chance that she might have another gun hidden inside; at the very least, she probably had a butcher knife she’d be all too willing to carve him up with.  At his direction she filled a flour sack with the half loaf of bread sitting on the table, as well as the remains of some sort of roasted fowl and a few biscuits left over from breakfast, or so he assumed.  It took only minutes to bag up what he knew hungry Hoss would consider a feast.  The sight of the food made his own stomach clench with anticipation, but he figured to wait until he was safely away before satisfying it.

                As soon as she’d placed the sack of victuals in the back of the wagon, he climbed up into the seat and, placing the shotgun beneath it, he gathered up the reins.  Holding them with one hand, he tipped his hat.  “Thank you for the help, ma’am,” he said, managing to keep all but a trace of irony out of his voice.

                Her next move caught him completely by surprise.  Hoisting her skirt, she stepped onto the wagon’s front wheel and vaulted into the seat beside him.

                “Ma’am?” he asked, his voice rising in a nervous squeak.

                “It’s my wagon,” she growled, “and I’m not lettin’ it out of my sight.”

                Little Joe rolled his eyes.  “I’ll bring it back, I promise.  How many times I got to tell you I’m not a horse thief?  And that includes the wagon.”

                “Huh!” she snorted.  “I reckon you’re not a bread thief nor a biscuit thief nor a mud hen thief, neither.  Don’t even bother denying those!”

                “I give up,” Little Joe said.  “I’m a calloused criminal.”

                “Which is exactly why I’m goin’ along, so’s you’ll have no excuse to just drive off with your so-called brother and accidently-on-purpose forget to bring back my property.”  She finished her declaration with a determined and climactic single nod.

                “Fine!” he snapped as he handed her the reins.  “That bein’ the case, I reckon you’d better drive.”  He wasn’t about to undertake this journey with his hands occupied with the reins and hers free to snatch up the shotgun.  He moved it to his far side and reached back for the sack of provisions as she started up the team.

                “Thought that was for your brother,” she taunted.

                “It’s one biscuit!” he protested.  “Believe me, he would spare me that much!  In fact, he’d gladly give me the whole bag of victuals, no questions asked.”

                “Makes him sound almost decent,” she said.  “Must not be much like you.”

                “Different as night and day,” he said in a mocking tone that almost no one would have taken seriously, but she accepted without the blink of an eye.

                She drove south, the direction from which he’d originally come, until he told her to stop.  “I don’t see no brother,” she scoffed as she pulled up the team.

                He pointed his chin up the ridge to their left.  “On foot from here, and don’t even think I’ll leave you behind with the team.”

                “Up there?”  She shook her head.  “How you expect to get a hurt man down that?”

                “I don’t know!” he snapped.  “But that’s where he is, so I got to do it somehow, don’t I?”

                “He’s straight over that way?” she asked.

                “Near as I can figure.  Why?”

                “There’s a better way,” she said, starting the team up again.

                “This better not be a trick,” he grunted.

                “You’re the trickster, not me,” she snorted and kept driving south until she came to a trail that led up into the mountains.  “It’ll be rough,” she said, “so hold onto your seat.”

                “How far’s it go?” he asked.

                “Not as far as you’d want,” she said, “but it should make it easier on your so-called brother.”

                “There’s no so-called to it,” he insisted.  “He’s real enough.”

                For the first time she looked at him with something less than total contempt.  “I’m beginnin’ to believe he is.”  After all, if this man had really just been out to rob her, he’d never have gone along with this turn into a road that led nowhere in particular.

                They rode along in reasonably tolerant companionship for, perhaps, a mile and a half before she began to circle the horses back the way they’d come.

                “Wait, wait, wait,” Little Joe protested.  “What sort of shenanigan is this, missy?”

                “It’s the last place we can turn the team around,” she said.  “Your brother will have to walk to here.”  Her forehead wrinkled in sudden wondering.  “Can he walk?” she asked.

                Little Joe’s face crinkled with concern.  “That’s sort of the problem,” he admitted.  “It’s his foot he hurt.”

                “Lucky for you—more to the point, him—that I brought you this way, then.  It’s an easier slope than where you stopped before.”

                “Good.”  Little Joe eyed her warily.  “You get down first, ma’am, ‘cause cooperative as you’re soundin’ at the moment, I’m not about to leave you behind with the wagon while I fetch Hoss.”

                “Hoss!”  She responded with a rough laugh.  “What kind of name is that for a man?”

                “‘What’s in a name?  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’” he quoted with a sarcastic smile.

                “What kind of drivel is that?” she demanded.  “I was askin’ about your brother, not some posy.”

                Little Joe had to grin.  Any woman with sense enough to call something from Shakespeare drivel couldn’t be all bad.  “Get on down,” he said.  “I’m right behind you.”

                “Reckon I could count on that,” she snorted and promptly left the wagon.  When she saw him start to pick up the shotgun, she said, “Oh leave it behind.  You’ll need both hands to help your brother, won’t you?”

                “Yeah, but . . .”

                She shook her head at the stupidity of men.  “Truce for now, all right?  Ain’t sayin’ what I’ll do once we get your brother down, but I won’t try nothin’ ‘til he’s safe.  Fair enough?”

                “Long as you mean it,” he said cautiously.

                “Trustin’ sort, ain’t you?” she grunted, as she headed up the narrowing path ahead, leaving him to follow or not, as he chose.

                Heading up the hill, Little Joe instantly recognized the benefits of this route over the one he had chosen.  Though the path narrowed until there was barely room for two, walking side by side, its rise was more gradual than at the place he’d climbed before, and it was beaten earth, not loose gravel.  The climb up from the canyon would still be rough for a man with a lame foot, but the descent to the wagon should be easier.  When they reached the top of the ridge and began making their way into the canyon, he judged, chiefly by the width of the waterway, that they were to the south of where he’d left Hoss, but no more than half to three-quarters of a mile.  “Think we can get there and back to the cabin by nightfall?” he asked the young woman, bowing to her greater familiarity with these mountains.

                “No,” she said plainly after asking where he’d left his brother, “but if we can get him to the wagon before it’s full dark, I can get us back to my place easy enough.”

                “How’d a lady like yourself get so acquainted with this area, if you don’t mind me askin’?”

                She looked askance at him and then shrugged, saying laconically, “Hunting.”

                “You don’t have a man to do that for you?” Little Joe asked.

                “Not since my husband passed,” she said.

                “Oh.  Sorry for your loss, ma’am.”

                “I’m not.”

                Little Joe looked away so she wouldn’t see his lips form a silent whistle.  Just when he’d thought she might be softening up a little, she turned prickly as any cactus in this dry land.  He couldn’t help wondering why she felt no sorrow for her husband’s death, but figured it might be worth his life to press the issue.

*****

                Hoss Cartwright couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the vision coming down the ridge.  The descending sun surrounded the two dark figures moving toward him with a bronze aura.  One, of course, was his little brother.  He’d have known that silhouette anywhere, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the figure walking slightly ahead of Little Joe.  While he couldn’t yet make out any features, he knew it was a woman by the shape of her skirt, and the rich hues of the setting sun cast a golden glow over her that made it appear, to him, like a halo.  Even the beat-up, mannish hat he could see as they drew closer didn’t change his first impression that God had sent an angel down to earth.  Since a gentleman always stood when a lady entered a room, he instinctively lurched to his feet, wincing and almost crumpling as he put weight on his injured foot.

                The woman’s first reaction to Hoss was fear.  The man was a giant!  Her next response was pure anger and disgust.  Brother, indeed!  That imposing hulk of a man had nothing in common with the lying runt walking behind her.  That scrawny specimen was barely bigger than she was.  Then she saw the big man almost go down when he tried to stand, and her emotions did another spin.  He was hurt.  That much wasn’t a lie, and her heart went out, as it did to any injured critter.  She felt pity and even a smidgen of shame that she’d been so reluctant to give aid when it was asked, although her irritation with Little Joe continued to blunt the prick of her conscience.

                Hoss doffed his hat as they reached the level land of the canyon and moved toward him.  “Ma’am,” he said, “you are a sight for sore eyes.  You, too, little brother.”

                She halted when she heard what he called the other man.  Brother, he’d said.  Unless the two of them had made up the story beforehand, it had to be true, but as she glanced back and forth between the two, she shook her head.  It still made no sense.

                Discerning what was going through her head, Hoss grinned.  “Same pa, different mothers,” he explained.  “Much as I hate to admit it at times, he is my little brother, ma’am.”

                “I suppose you thought I lied.”  Little Joe grunted.

                “Wouldn’t put it past you,” she said, giving him a hard look.

                Hoss’s eyes narrowed.  “Ma’am,” he asked, “is this one of those times I ought not to be admittin’ that me and him are kin?  If he’s been anything less than a gentleman, you just tell me, and I’ll give him a good pounding.”

                “Depends on whether snatchin’ a lady’s shotgun and takin’ her team and wagon at gunpoint is your idea of gentlemanly, I reckon,” she said dryly.

                Hoss turned a tight-lipped glare on his little brother.  “Joseph, you’re a shame to the name of Cartwright.  You ain’t been reared to act like that.”

                “Huh!” Little Joe snorted.  “The lady forgot to mention that she was holdin’ that shotgun on me when I took it away!  I didn’t fancy havin’ it go off and leave you without a brother, but, maybe, that don’t matter to you.”

                “I got a right to protect myself when a strange man comes on my property,” she spat.

                “Yes, ma’am, you do,” Hoss said calmly.  “A pretty little gal like you can’t be too careful of strangers, but I can assure you that, ornery as he is, my little brother wouldn’t’ve done nothin’ but steal your heart.  I’m afeared he’s well known for that.”

                “Wasn’t interested in my heart; just my horse, wagon and a bag of victuals,” she snorted.

                Hoss shook his head at Little Joe.  “Joseph, Joseph,” he scolded, “I’m sure if you’d just asked . . .”

                “I did,” Little Joe ground out between clenched teeth.

                “Not nice enough, obviously,” Hoss said.  He turned back to the lady with a bashful smile.  “I apologize, ma’am, for how it came about, but I sure am glad to meet you.  I don’t reckon this rascal thought to give you my name, but I’m . . .”

                “Hoss, he called you,” she said.  “Thought he was joshin’, but I reckon it suits you.”

                “Yes,’m.  And what might be your name, since Little Joe didn’t bother to make a proper introduction?”

                “He never asked,” she said with a proud toss of her head.

                Little Joe rolled his eyes.  Did no one stop to consider how having a shotgun pointed at you might drive all thought of proper introductions from a man’s head?

                The lady took a deep, appraising look at Hoss and made a bold leap of faith.  “My name’s Daniel,” she said.

                Hoss doffed his hat again.  “Pleased to meet you, Miz Daniel.”

                She shook her head.  “No, my married name’s Bartlett, but I don’t use that since he passed.  Daniel is what my pa named me.  Wanted a boy, so he gave me a boy’s name out of spite when Mama disappointed him.  Reckon you think that’s odd.”

                Little Joe did, but he had sense enough to let Hoss handle that hot potato.

                “No odder than Hoss,” he said with his crooked smile, “though that’s just a nickname.  My ma named me Eric.”

                Her expression turned wistful.  “Mama called me Dani and gave me the middle name of Lynne, to soften it some, make it more girlish,” she said, “though she didn’t dare write it down in the family Bible.”

                “That’s real pretty,” Hoss said, “and since we’re old friends now, maybe it’d be okay if we went by nicknames, huh?”

                “I reckon it would,” she agreed.  “Now, do you think you can make it up that hill, if we support you on either side?”

                “Miss Dani, I reckon I’m gonna have to,” he said.

                She came to his injured side and placed his arm over her shoulder.  “Well, come on,” she said roughly to Little Joe.  “Sun’s headed down, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

                Little Joe’s mouth skewed as if he’d tasted sour lemon, but he moved to his brother’s other side.

                They began to walk, Hoss wincing with almost every step, but with their help remaining upright, at least on the canyon floor.  Climbing was harder, of course, but he watched his steps carefully and only took the three of them down once before they reached the summit.  From there, it was easier, as Dani had predicted, and they reached the wagon while a semi-circle of sun still hovered briefly on the western horizon.

                “There’s bread and fried mud hen in that bag,” Dani said, again taking the reins.  “Help yourself.”  She looked over at Little Joe.  “I guess you might as well have some, too.  That one biscuit you burgled can’t have filled even your scrawny belly.”

                Little Joe reached into the bag Hoss held up to him, happy to take whatever he came up with.

*****

                It was full dark by the time they made it back to Dani’s cabin.  “I’ll unhitch and see to the team,” Little Joe offered, “if you think you can trust me with ‘em.”

                “I’ll chance it,” Dani said with an expression he couldn’t read as either serious or joshing.  “Help me get your brother inside first.”

                Little Joe looked surprised, although not as much as if the invitation had included him.  She obviously felt sympathy for the injured man, but he didn’t figure the kindly feeling would extend to the man who’d borrowed her property at gunpoint.  After helping Hoss down from the wagon and into a chair in the house, he tended to the team and plumped up the straw in one corner of the lean-to as a bed for himself.  The air was chilly, and he didn’t even have a jacket, since that, too, had galloped off with his horse.

                Finally, he worked up the courage to knock on the cabin door, in hopes of sweet-talking the lady out of a blanket.  When the door opened, he started to make his request, hat in hand, but she just shook her head.  “Slow as you are, you’d best not ever look for work at a livery.”  Stepping aside, she stared at him.  “Well, get on in; I don’t aim to stand here all night with the door hangin’ open.”

                “Oh, yes’m,” he said and quickly edged past her into the room.  No sense giving her a chance to change her mind.  He saw his brother Hoss seated at the plank table, sipping a cup of hot coffee.  “Any chance I could have some of that?” he asked.

                “Slim one,” she said, though her mouth quirked up when she turned away to reach for the pot.  She plunked the tin cup down on the table and motioned with her head for him to sit down.  “Your lucky day, I reckon.”

                “Thank you, Miss Dani,” he said sweetly, and this time she was the one unsure of whether she was being thanked, teased or outright mocked.

                Though she still had her doubts about Little Joe, she’d taken Hoss Cartwright’s measure and decided he could be trusted.  “S’pect you’d best take the bed,” she said, “you bein’ ailin’.”

                “Aw, ma’am, I ain’t ailin’,” Hoss protested, “just hurtin’ a mite.  I can sleep wherever.”

                “Take the bed,” she insisted.  “I’ve slept on a pallet many a time, and I’ve got plenty of blankets to make a thick one.”

                Little Joe cleared his throat as he stood.  “Uh, you think, maybe, I could borrow one of those blankets?  I’ve got a bed made up in the lean-to, but nights do get chilly hereabouts.”

                She studied him for a moment and then turned to Hoss. She’d taken a trusting shine to him right off, which, given her history, was some sort of miracle, but she still lumped the one who’d held a gun on her with all the men of her past experience.  “Can I trust him to keep his hands to himself, if’n I let him stay inside?” she asked Hoss.

                “Ma’am!” Little Joe protested, looking insulted.

                Hoss just grinned.  “I reckon you can,” he said, “and I will be here to keep him in line, after all.”

                She grinned back.  “Only reason I suggested it.”  She was no more than half-joking.

                Little Joe stifled a groan.  He was pretty sure they were both teasing, but he wasn’t sure enough to sass them back.  A pallet indoors beat out a straw bed in an open lean-to, any night of the year.

                “The bed’s big enough for two,” Dani said, “and it does get cold at night.  Just so’s the two of you stay on your side of the room . . . and just so you’ll know, I’m sleepin’ with the shotgun.”

                “Won’t be necessary, ma’am,” Hoss assured her, “but if’n it makes you more comfortable, you go right ahead.”

                Little Joe snickered, earning himself a hard look from his brother.  He couldn’t help it, though.  He’d slept with Hoss before, and it was no picnic (each brother said the other was a bed hog) but taking a shotgun to bed sounded about as comfortable as sharing that picnic with a mound of ants.

                “What’re you laughing at, hyena?” Dani demanded.

                “Ants,” Little Joe cackled, and both of the other occupants of the cabin stared at him like he belonged in an asylum somewhere far, far away.

*****

                The cabin lay dark and still, but for an occasional adjustment of position on the bed or pallet.  Hoss Cartwright was lying awake, not even trying to sleep.  “Joe,” he finally whispered.  “You awake?”  He’d slept with his little brother before and was pretty sure, from the stillness of the body next to him, that Joe wasn’t sleeping, either, though probably from a different reason.

                “Tryin’ not to be,” Little Joe mumbled, but he dutifully turned over to face his brother.  Hoss was always good to listen to him when he wanted to talk, and he could feel a spell of chattiness coming over the big fellow.

                “She’s a pretty little thing, ain’t she?” Hoss whispered.

                “Who?” Little Joe asked, feigning ignorance.

                Hoss’s voice rose in aggravation.  “Miss Dani, of course!  There ain’t no other she here.”

                “Shh,” Little Joe warned.  “Oh, her.  She’s all right, I guess.  Kind of hard for me to judge when she’s holdin’ a gun on me half the time.”

                “Oh, she don’t do no such thing,” Hoss hissed, “and you can’t hardly blame a lone woman for protectin’ herself.”

                “Guess not.”  Little Joe yawned.  “That what’s keepin’ you up, thinkin’ about her looks?”

                “That and everything else about her,” Hoss said.  “I sure wish we could stick around long enough for me to get to know her better.”

                Little Joe chuckled softly.  “Well, you got a built-in excuse,” he said, “and if it’s love-makin’ you’re plannin’, I’ll be more’n happy to clear out.”  He felt, rather than saw, his big brother blushing.

                “Reckon I could use some time to rest up,” Hoss said, “if’n she wouldn’t mind me stayin’ on a spell.”  He grinned as he contemplated sending his little brother back home alone to try to explain things to Pa.  He wished he could be there to see a show like that, but a man couldn’t have everything, and right now, he’d rather have Dani.  He wasn’t sure how she’d feel about it, though; after all, he was still pretty much a stranger.

                Dani lay on her pallet, listening, with a quizzical wrinkle of her forehead.  She’d taken him for an honest man; yet he’d called her pretty.  She knew better, of course.  Her pa’d told her often enough that she was plain, though her sweet mama had said different.  She knew which one to believe, though,

‘cause Mama’d always looked at her with eyes of love, and love blinds; she’d heard that—or, maybe, read it—somewhere.  Her husband, too, had never said anything about her looks, but with him, it was more a case of not caring, one way or the other.  He treated her same as any other work animal about the place, and looks didn’t matter in a beast of burden.  Her job was to fetch and carry, plow and seed, cook and clean for as long as the sun gave light, and when it quit, her job was to service him, and in the dark looks didn’t show.  She instinctively touched the scar on her cheek.

                Even if she’d looked passable before, one punishing blow had changed that forever.  His little brother had noticed; she’d seen it in his eyes.  Not hate or revulsion, like some men had shown; just pity, but that didn’t make her feel any less a spectacle.  Hoss, now, he hadn’t even seemed to notice, and now he was talking about wanting to know her better.  Was it just talk or, worse, was he making sport of her, setting her up for a harder fall than the one that had put the mark on her face in the first place.  It was a risk, of course, but she wanted to know him better, too, so she was all for havin’ that gun-snatchin’ rascal clear out, like he’d said, and give her the chance.

                Morning came, and as was her habit from the time she was twelve, she rose to prepare breakfast.  She was only sorry she had so little to offer.  She’d stretched her supplies over the last several months, but unless one of these Cartwrights boys was kin to the Prophet Elijah, her flour barrel was bound to run dry before she’d made many more biscuits.  She could hunt and fish pretty well—having a father who wanted a boy had seen to that—but storekeepers tended to prefer hard cash for staple goods, and she had no more than a few dollars left.

                She fried the last of the fat back, all four slices of it, and used the grease in place of lard for a handful of biscuits.  There was still some of the yeast bread left from her last baking, but she decided to save that for lunch.  She’d open up a jar of jelly, left from better times, and that would have to do until she could get some hunting done.  The lack of hospitality shamed her, but after all, she hadn’t asked to have two men land on her doorstep, one of them a big eater, by the looks of him.  How she wished she could give him a taste of her considerable talent with a bake oven!  For some reason, she wanted him to see her in a better light, but all she could offer was her pitiful leavings.

                Little Joe was exhausted from his exertions of the day before, but Hoss was still more hungry than tired, and once his nose caught a good whiff of baking biscuits, he just naturally woke with a smile on his face.  Scooting up in bed, he called “Mornin’, Miss Dani.  That sure smells mighty good.”

                “It ain’t much,” she said.  “Just fatback and biscuits.”

                “Smells like a feast to me,” he said.

                She smiled demurely.  “You’re just hungry.  Man your size needs more, I know, but I’m low on supplies.”

                “Man my size could eat you out of house and home,” he chuckled, “but fatback and biscuits’ll do just fine.  Don’t know how I’m gonna get to it, though, with this rascal between me and the table.”  He gave his brother’s unruly curls an affectionate tousle.

                “Shove him out,” Dani suggested, a touch of vinegar in her voice.  While she’d basically forgiven Little Joe for his actions of the day before, she hadn’t totally let go of her grudging toward him.  But for his big brother’s sake, she probably wouldn’t even have given him a biscuit.

                “Might come to that,” Hoss admitted.  “He sleeps sound.”

                “Your foot painin’ you?”

                He shook his head.  “Only if I move it a certain way.”  His nose wrinkled sheepishly.  “Trouble is, it’s the way you need for walkin’.  Hate to trouble you, ma’am, but I ain’t sure I, at least, can get out of your hair soon as you might want.”

                She turned away to hide her smile.  Having heard his nighttime whispers with his brother, she knew exactly how eager he was to get away . . . or her to let him.  “You can stay long as you need,” she said, “but like I said, supplies is low; I ain’t got much to share right now.”

                “Well, maybe we could send the rascal for supplies,” Hoss suggested, his whole countenance perking up at the thought of getting Little Joe out of the cabin for a few hours.

                Flushing, but reluctant to admit she had little with which to purchase supplies, she muttered, “Maybe,” and turned to check the biscuits.  Seeing that they were done, she took them from the oven and put half on a plate, along with two slices of bacon.  One apiece would do for her and the skinny fellow, she figured.  She handed the plate to Hoss.  “Since you don’t seem of a mind to shove the rascal out,” she said with enough of a smile to tell him she was teasing.

                He thanked her and sank his teeth in, his mmm-mmm’s as he ate loud enough to finally rouse the sleeping man beside him.

                Little Joe sat up.  “Breakfast in bed?”  His voice sounded both amazed and filled with anticipation.

                “Not for you,” Dani said, squelching any notion that he deserved the same service.  “Get up and get to the table.”

                Figuring beggars ought not be choosers, Little Joe got up and got to the table, faster than he ever made it down to breakfast at the Ponderosa.  “This all there is?” he squeaked when she offered him two biscuits and a single piece of bacon.

                “Joseph!” Hoss said sharply.  “Mind your manners.”

                It was enough of a reminder that Joe pinched back the retort on his lips.  Pa’d always taught him to remember that not everyone had as much as the Cartwrights and to accept what he was offered with thanks.  It was only the difference between the way the woman was treating him and the way she treated his brother that made him feel testy about the meager breakfast.  He’d gotten off on the wrong foot with Miss Dani, no bones about it, and he had a feeling no amount of the famous Joe Cartwright charm was going to get him set back on the right one.  Still, manners were manners.  “Sorry, ma’am,” he said.  “I was forgetting myself.  Thanks for fixing breakfast.”

                The meek reply appeased her some.  “Sorry it can’t be more,” she said.  “I’m low on supplies.”

                “I was thinkin’ you might go into town and fetch some, little brother,” Hoss suggested, and since Dani was facing away from him, he signaled his underlying intentions with a pronounced wink.

                “Well, sure,” Little Joe said, foregoing the urge to wink back, “if Miss Dani will trust me to take the wagon into town.  I need to fetch the doctor out to see you, anyway, and rent a horse . . . or two . . . from the livery.”

                “There’s no doctor,” Dani said.  “Ain’t but eleven cabins to the whole town.”  She knew she should have mentioned the fact that there was no livery, either, but she really wanted to get him out of the cabin for a while, and the excuse of needing supplies wouldn’t work, since she didn’t have enough cash on hand to buy much.  She’d hoped to trap some furs or, maybe, find that stupid gold mine her husband had searched for endlessly, after some passing drifter sold him a map, but so far neither of those last-chance hopes had panned out.

                “I don’t need a doctor, no how,” Hoss said.  “All I need’s a little time off my feet.”

                Little Joe wiped his mouth with the frayed gingham napkin and set it aside as he stood.  “Reckon I’ll head on into town now.  Can I fetch you back anything, ma’am?”

                “I’ll check while you hitch the team,” she said, though she knew, almost to the ounce what was left in her larder.

                He left quickly, before she could change her mind.

                Sighing, she raised sorrowful eyes to Hoss’s face.  “Don’t know how to tell him . . . or you, neither.  You’re more’n welcome to stay on, but I can’t offer you much.  Only thing lower than my supplies is what’s in my cashbox.”

                Having already guessed as much, Hoss nodded.  “I wish I had more to offer you, but we kind of planned to eat off the land, so I didn’t bring much cash with me.”

                “I wasn’t hintin’ you should do the buyin’,” Dani said.

                Hoss waved her concern aside.  “Aw, shucks, ma’am.  Least we could do, seein’ as how we’re eatin’ up what you got.  Joe hardly ever has a spare dime in his pockets, but I’ll ask.”  He suddenly remembered his brother’s poker winnings and hoped—prayed, more like—that there was, at least, some of it left.  Otherwise, the three of them would be in a world of hurt real fast.

                “Yeah, I got some cash money,” Little Joe said in answer to his brother’s first question when he returned, “and I reckon it is right for us to chip in, seein’ as how Hoss here is likely to eat more’n you and me put together.”

                “A healthy appetite is a compliment to the cook, little brother,” Hoss said.

                “That pretty much makes you the most complimentary person I’ve ever met,” Little Joe jibed back.  Looking toward Dani, he said, “Just make a list of what you want, ma’am, and I’ll get as much of it as I can after I pay for renting the horse.”  No one had said anything, but he’d read between the lines and figured out that the meager breakfast had probably been the best she could offer, and he was heartily ashamed of how poorly he’d first taken it.

                After he’d gotten the list and driven off with the wagon, Dani looked shame-faced at Hoss.  “Reckon I should have told him there ain’t no livery.”

                “Reckon,” Hoss said, but his wide grin told her he was just as glad she hadn’t.  “On the other hand, I reckon he’ll figure it out soon enough, and we do need the supplies.”  He sobered, and his face reddened as he asked, “Miss Dani, you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

                Her fingers brushed the scar on her face.  “About this, you mean?”

                Hoss looked flabbergasted.  “Oh, no, ma’am.  Certainly not!  I mean, sure, I noticed, and I got as much curiosity as the next man, but I wouldn’t ask you to talk about anything that personal.  What I was wonderin’ was how long it’d been since your husband passed, if you don’t mind me askin’.”

                She shrugged.  “No reason for me to mind.  It was near five months ago.”

                Chagrin flooded Hoss’s face.  Doggone!  That recent, and here he’d been entertainin’ feelings that just weren’t proper to have for a newly widowed woman.  “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said.  “Here you are still grievin’ and you get landed with a couple of clumsy clodhoppers like the Cartwrights.”

                She shook her head.  “I’m not grievin’, Mr. Cartwright.  Shocked me some, that first day, left me at loose ends, but I never wasted a minute in grief.  Sorry if that sounds hard, but Wade Bartlett never gave me reason to grieve his passing, hard as it’s been to make ends meet without him.”  She turned away, not wanting him to see the mist in her eyes, fearing that a decent man like him could never understand why she wept in pity for herself, instead of in sorrow for a man’s death.

                Hoss’s lips pursed briefly; then he asked, softly, “Was he . . . rough with you, ma’am?  Was he the one that . . . ?”  He broke off, realizing that he’d just asked the question he’d said he wouldn’t pry into, but he didn’t take it back.  He wanted to know.

                Her hand again moved involuntarily toward her cheek.  “Yes . . . and no.”  Seeing the quizzical cock of his head, she choked back a giggle, deeming it inappropriate for such a serious conversation, but at least it kept the tears away.  “He was a hard man, a rough man and, yes, there were times he hurt me, lots of them, but this?”  She ran her finger along her cheek.  “Well, I don’t know whether to blame him or count it an accident.  He was beatin’ me at the time—nothin’ new about that—but he didn’t cut me.  He was late gettin’ home that night, and I hadn’t managed to keep his supper warm enough to suit him, so he was throwin’ me around the place.  When he knocked me into the table, the butcher knife fell off and came down on my cheek.”

                His face had hardened as she spoke.  “Don’t you never feel even a mite of guilt over not mournin’ a man like that, Miss Dani,” he said.  “All I can say is it’s a good thing he’s already dead and gone.”

                “I didn’t wish him dead,” Dani said, “but gone is good . . . real good.”  Seeing that his cup was empty, she went to the stove and brought back the pot.

                “Is that all there is?” Hoss asked anxiously, as the last drops dribbled into his cup.

                “In this pot,” Dani said.  “I can make more.”

                “Oh, no, no,” he said.  “That ain’t what I meant.  Just hate to leave you short, and we can’t be sure whatever Joe’s got in his pocket will stretch to coffee.”

                She smiled.  “The one thing I’m not short of, Hoss.  Wade was a big coffee drinker, but I never had much taste for it myself.  Since the tea ran out, I’ve been makin’ a pot now and then, but there’s plenty more beans in the pantry.  You want more?”

                He shook his head.  “Nope.  Rather sit and talk, and water’ll do fine for that.”  He wished he’d known before about her preference for tea; he’d’ve made sure to have Little Joe bring some back.  Well, maybe he’d just have to send the rascal back again tomorrow, he thought with a barely contained smile at the notion of another afternoon alone with Dani Lynne.  He hadn’t dared yet to call her that to her face, but he sure liked the ring of it and the way it felt on his tongue when he’d mouthed it in the dark.

                “You got a family, Hoss?” Dani, well content to sit and talk, asked.

                “Sure,” Hoss said.  He saw disappointment flash across her face, but didn’t understand why.  “You’ve met Little Joe, of course,” he rattled on, “and I got an older brother, too.  His name’s Adam, and then there’s Pa and Hop Sing.  That’s our cook.  He’s Chinese.”

                She fought to keep from laughing.  “I figured,” she said.

                Catching her meaning, Hoss let loose a belly laugh.  “Yeah, his name don’t exactly conjure up an Irishman, do it?”

                “Not exactly,” she chuckled.  “Is that all?”

                “All?”  He looked puzzled, but suddenly understood what she was asking.  “Oh, yes, ma’am.  No wife, no young’uns.”

                She shook her head.  “Five men.  And none of you have ever married?”

                “Well, Pa did,” Hoss said.  “Three times.”

                 “Oh, that’s right.  You said you and your brother had different mothers.  That makes two, anyway.”

                “Adam’s mother was the first,” Hoss explained.  “Then, mine, and last of all, Little Joe’s.  She was the only one I ever knew, and she died when he was about five.”

                “Oh, that’s hard,” Dani said.  “My mama passed when I was twelve.”

                “Yeah, it’s hard,” Hoss agreed, “but Pa did a fine job of bein’ both Ma and Pa.”

                She sighed.  “Wish my pa had.”

                He reached across the table to take her hand.  “I do, too,” he said softly.

                Throughout the day they talked of many things, until Hoss felt that he could ask her anything without making her uncomfortable.  Finally, he said, “Miss Dani, it don’t seem to me that you got much prospect here.”

                “It don’t to me, either,” she admitted, “but I don’t know what else I could do.”

                “Anything keeping you here?” he asked.  “Anything but the property, I mean.  You could sell that and move to a likelier place.”

                “Wouldn’t even have to do that,” Dani said, “on account of we were just squatting here, and there’s still plenty of free land about for anyone to do the same.  Course, that also means I wouldn’t have any nest egg for startin’ over.”

                Instead of looking discouraged by that, Hoss almost bubbled with excitement.  “Then, why don’t we just pack you up and head on to the Ponderosa?”

                She drew back.  “What you suggestin’?”

                Seeing her alarm, he was quick to say, “Nothin’ indecent, ma’am.  Just a place to stay ‘til you find your feet.”

                “How’s your family gonna feel about havin’ a strange woman landed on their doorstep?” she probed.

                “Pa and Adam?  They’ll be fine with it; we do it all the time, ma’am.”

                Her alarm doubled.  “You take in women all the time?”

                He laughed.  “No.  No.  I ain’t real good at stringin’ words together, Miss Dani.  I mean, sure, if’n they need a helping hand, we take in women . . . and treat ‘em with respect, too . . . but I meant anyone who’s in need of help.  Folks landin’ on our doorstep ain’t nothin’ new to Pa; that’s what I was tryin’ to say.”

                “Oh.”  She smiled, then, but within a second or two her brow was wrinkled in thought.  “But what would I do to make my way, even in a new place?  I got no skills, except keepin’ house and, well, servicin’ a man.”  She flared up briefly.  “I got no intentions of doin’ that for a livin’.  I’d rather starve!”  The fire died quickly, however, as she blushed furiously and buried her face in her hands.

                “Oh, ma’am, no, of course not,” Hoss said.  “I didn’t mean . . .”

                “I know you didn’t,” she said, looking up at him with trusting eyes.  “You ain’t the sort to even think such things.  Besides,” she added with a self-deprecating laugh, “I ain’t got the looks to make a dance hall floozie.”

                “Quit puttin’ down how you look,” Hoss scolded.  “You’re pretty now, to me, and once that scar fades some, I reckon an ugly cuss like me won’t stand a chance against pretty boys like Joe.”

                Dani snorted.  “I wouldn’t have him on a platter!”  She brushed her cheek then with light fingertips.  “You think it will fade?”

                “Scars do,” Hoss said, “and I take it that one’s kind of fresh . . . about the time your husband passed, I’m guessin’.”  He gulped, for how the man had died was the one question he hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask.

                She burst out laughing.  “I didn’t turn the knife on him, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

                The relief was visible on his open face.  “Not that I’d’ve blamed you,” he was quick to say.  “You’d’ve had a right to defend yourself, same as any man in a gunfight.”

                “Thank you for that,” she said, still chuckling, “but you can rest easy.  Wade took pneumonia, and I nursed him best I could.  Maybe it would’ve helped if there was a doctor here, but he worsened and died in his bed, like the righteous man he wasn’t.  I wasn’t sorry, but I got nothin’ to feel guilt over, and that’s a blessing.”

                “Anyway,” Hoss said, “gettin’ back to the subject, I sure wish you’d come with us.  There ain’t nothin’ for you here, Miss Dani, and maybe in Virginia City you could make that new start.  You got skill as a cook, if nothin’ else; I can tell that much from what you’re able to do with what little you got.  You could hire out to do that or be a housekeeper or, if you’re good with a needle, take up dressmaking.  I know there’s things you can do, Miss Dani, that’ll make you a better livin’ than hunting these hills or tryin’ to be a miner, which I figure you got less gift for than bakin’ biscuits.”

                “That’s the pure truth,” she admitted.

                “And, well, to tell the pure truth,” Hoss said, “I’d sure like you to come with us, so I could have the chance to know you better.  I like you a lot, Miss Dani.”

                She twiddled with the hem of her apron.  “I like you a lot, too, Hoss, and knowin’ you better would be something I’d relish, too.”

                “Is it settled, then?” he asked eagerly.  “You’ll come?”

                “If’n your little brother don’t pitch a fit,” she said.

                “If he does, I’ll pitch him out the front door,” Hoss vowed, looking serious, although she’d seen enough of the give and take between him and Joe to know he wasn’t.

                “Serve him right,” she teased back.  “In fact, I might just go along with you to aggravate the rascal.”

                He took her hand and gave it a good shake.  “It’s a deal, then.  Now, what can I do to help you pack up?”

*****

                Little Joe came back madder than a wet hen.  “You think you might have mentioned that there wasn’t a livery in town?” he grumbled, giving Dani a hard glare.

                “I guess I might’ve,” she said, turning away lest she give in to her urge to giggle.

                “We needed supplies, anyway,” Hoss put in quickly, “unless you planned to give up eatin’ altogether, little brother.”

                Little Joe hitched his neck first one way and then the other.  “Not altogether,” he admitted, “and I brought plenty.  Even found some of those canned peaches you like so much, Hoss.”

                Dani spun around from whatever she was doing, leaning over a crate on the bed.  “Oh, good.  If’n you brought flour and sugar, too, I can make us a pie.  I still got some lard and salt.”

                “I brought both,” Little Joe said.  “I just had enough for staples, mostly—flour, sugar, potatoes, carrots, onions.”

                “Sounds like stew and pie for supper,” she said.

                “Ah, now, you don’t have time to make a wallopin’ meal like that,” Hoss protested.

                Little Joe stared at his brother as if he’d lost his mind or, at least, grown an extra head to drain off half his thinking power.  Since when did Hoss turn down any meal, wallopin’ or otherwise?  And what on earth was Miss Dani supposed to be so busy with that would keep her from puttin’ a meal on the table?  “What are you doin’ there, ma’am?” he asked.

                Hoss answered.  “Hadn’t had a chance to tell you yet, Shortshanks, but Dani Lynne here is gonna let us use her wagon to get home.”  They’d gotten so chummy that afternoon that he’d finally worked up the courage to use the name he liked so much.

                “Since there’s no livery,” she said over her shoulder.  “Seems like the only way to get shed of you.”

                “She’s goin’ with us, of course,” Hoss said.

                “What?”  No doubt about it: Hoss had grown an extra head, ‘cause he clearly wasn’t thinking straight.  “Good lands, Hoss.  That’s a long, rough trip for a woman, and we’d see to it she got the rig back, if that’s what’s worryin’ her.”

                “I’m not worried.”  This time Dani definitely giggled.  The look on the rascal’s face plain invited it.  “Figured turn about was fair play, so I’m just gonna move in with you a spell.”

                “What?”  As Little Joe’s head swiveled from one grinning face to the other, he made up his mind.  Both of them had definitely lost theirs.

                “Well, pitch in and help Miss Dani pack up,” Hoss ordered.  “Least we can do, if she’s gonna take time to bake us a pie, and I can’t do much, hobblin’ around like I am.”

                “Okay,” Little Joe said slowly.  He was all in favor of peach pie and stew, of course, though he had no idea what she’d use for meat, since his money hadn’t stretched past bacon.  Besides, it might be better just to go along with these lunatics until he got a chance to talk to Hoss alone.  He’d always had a knack for talking his brother into things; hopefully, it would work just as well for talking him out of one.

                His chance didn’t come until they’d all turned in for the night.  “Hoss, I don’t know how to tell you this,” he whispered, “but I don’t think Miss Dani is plannin’ on comin’ back here.”  If she was, she’d lost her mind for sure, ‘cause she’d packed up all her pots and pans, as well as every stitch of clothing she owned.  Granted, that wasn’t much, as he’d noticed when he loaded the wagon, but it was more than any woman ought to need for a short time away.

                “Of course, she ain’t,” Hoss said.  “No reason for her to.”

                “Ain’t much of a place, I admit,” Little Joe conceded.

                “Exactly.  That’s why I talked her into comin’ to the Ponderosa.”

                Little Joe felt, rather than saw, the huge grin on his brother’s face.  “Uh—uh, you ain’t gettin’ any notions about—uh . . .”

                “Maybe,” Hoss said.  “She says she ain’t grievin’ her husband, but I reckon it’s too soon for her to be takin’ up with another man just yet.  I ain’t gonna push, but I sure am drawn to her, Joe.”

                “Take it slow, brother,” Little Joe advised.  “Real slow.”

                “Oh, like you always do?”

                “Yeah, yeah,” Little Joe admitted, “but I get over ‘em quicker than you, too, brother.  Take it slow.  She might just blow your head off, if she decides you’re . . . you know . . .”

                “A rascal like you?” he snickered.

                “Shh, shh,” Joe hissed.  “You’re gonna wake her up, and then the two of us might get blown out o’ the bed.”

                Dani stifled a snicker.  She wasn’t about to let on, but she was even starting to take some liking to the rascal who’d held her at gunpoint.  As for his brother, she couldn’t deny the attraction she felt for Hoss, and the fact that he was so concerned about whether she was ready for a new relationship made her like him all the more . . . if like was even the right word.  Not love; not yet.  She wasn’t even sure she knew what that felt like.  Nothing she’d known before had prepared her for a man who could care—or was it love?—so selflessly.

*****

                If he lived to be a hundred, Little Joe grumbled internally as the wagon hit yet another bump in the road, he was never likely to endure a more uncomfortable trip.  In the first place, there plain wasn’t much place for him in the back of the wagon, amidst most of Dani Bartlett’s worldly possessions, and of course, it went without saying that there wasn’t room for him on the seat up front.  That was amply filled with his bulky brother and the diminutive widow, with a scant few inches left between for decency and propriety.  Frankly, it seemed to Joe as they lurched along, that the inches grew scantier, right along with the concern for decency and propriety.

                But if the accommodations were uncomfortable, they were nothing, compared to the conversation that pounded his ears from first light to dying firelight.  The two lovebirds, for no other title did them justice, explored each other’s lives and feelings on every topic under the sun, his own opinion unwelcome on any topic beyond whether he wanted a second cup of coffee in the mornings.  The day it turned to childbearing, however, he knew things between his brother and the lady were moving much too fast.

                They both agreed they would love to have a passel of kids.  (They were just talking generally, of course, neither of them yet admitting that they were thinking of the other as a possible sire for those kids.  If that was the right word for the female in the partnership.  Mire, maybe?  Sire and mire.  Yeah, that was about the size of it; he was afraid his big brother was about to get himself mired down with a shotgun-wielding desert lady.)  The only sticking point seemed to be Dani’s concern that he might not welcome all young’uns equally.  Knowing something of her background by now, Little Joe wasn’t surprised to hear her ask if Hoss would rather have boys or girls, but having to ask sure proved that she didn’t know him well enough to even be considering having kids with him.

                Of course, Hoss had answered, just as Little Joe had known he would, that it didn’t make him a mite of difference.  “Just so long as they’re healthy,” he’d said, adding with a little wink at the lady that he’d just as soon have a pretty little gal, like Dani Lynne herself.  Maybe it was her not seeing herself that way that made her clam up after that, but Little Joe was sure glad she had.  His ears had a few minutes peace, at least, even if his mind didn’t.  They were getting close to the Ponderosa, and the looming dread of how to explain all this to Pa effectively drove from his head his growing concern for what Hoss was contemplating with the lady.

                They were about a quarter-mile from the house when Little Joe rose up.  “I think I’ll walk the rest of the way, stretch my legs a mite,” he announced.

                “You stay put, Joseph,” Hoss said in the closest thing to a no-nonsense voice he ever achieved.  “You ain’t about to send me on ahead to explain things to Pa.”

                “Explain what?” Little Joe squeaked.  “Why you went hunting and came home with a woman, instead of a deer?”

                “That ain’t gonna bother Pa none,” Hoss said.  “On t’other hand, I reckon you got your hands full, explainin’ how we set off for the Sierras and ended up losin’ our horses in the Humboldt range.”

                “I never said the Sierras,” Little Joe protested.

                “Yeah.”  Hoss shook his head with a cunning grin, “but what counts is what you led Pa—not to mention me—to believe.”

                “Oh, well, if you’d rather we’d gone the other way,” Little Joe tossed back.

                Hoss looked fondly at Dani.  “Never said that.  I forgive you, little brother.  May even end up thanking you, but Pa and Adam don’t got the reasons I do to overlook your orneriness.  And I hate to even think about how Hop Sing’s gonna take on when he don’t get those trout you promised him.  I’d make sure there ain’t a meat cleaver close to hand when you let that out, little brother.  Now, sit yourself down and think on how you’re gonna get yourself out of this one.”  That Joe could was something he didn’t doubt for a minute; his little brother had a silver tongue when he came to talking his way out of scrapes.  Besides, once Pa and Adam got one look at pretty little Miss Dani Lynne, they wouldn’t fret over whatever scheme of Joe’s had brought her to the Ponderosa.  Pa’d probably start calculating when his first grandchild might make an appearance, and if things went the way Hoss was hoping, he figured Pa’d be holding that fat, healthy grandboy or girl a year or so from today.

*****

                Hearing horses coming into the yard late one afternoon, Adam went to the door and looked out.  “Pa, they’re back,” he called, “and they’ve brought someone with them.”

                “That Hoss,” Ben chuckled.  “Always bringing back strays, even from the high mountains.  At least, it’s not an injured raccoon.”

                 Adam grinned.  “Definitely not a raccoon,” he said.  “In fact, considering the type of stray it is, it’s more likely Joe that brought her home.”

                That remark, of course, was guaranteed to bring Ben Cartwright to his feet, and he was on his oldest son’s heels as they went out to meet the wagon.

                “You’re back early,” Adam called, “and I see you had to borrow a wagon to haul back all the fresh meat and fish you harvested.”

                “Now, hush your joshin’,” Hoss scolded.  “You’ll give Miss Dani here a bad impression of Cartwright hospitality.”

                Adam nodded to the woman seated beside his brother.  “Pleased to meet you, Miss Dani.”

                Ben came forward.  “I’m pleased to meet you, as well, young lady.  I’m Ben Cartwright, Hoss’s father.”

                “I figured,” she said with a shy smile, “and you’d be Adam.”  She nodded at the other man.

                “Where’s your other brother?” Ben asked.

                Hoss pointed a thumb over his shoulder.  “Come on out, Joseph,” he called.

                Little Joe peeked up over the seat, between its two occupants.  “Oh, hi, Pa.”  He yawned as if he were just waking up.  “Bet you’re surprised to see us home early and bringing a wagonload of goods, too.”  He chuckled nervously.

                “Joseph, little you do surprises me anymore,” Ben said.  Because a guest was present, he refrained, for the time being, from demanding an explanation.

                Adam, on the other hand, had no such qualms.  “Where’re your horses?” he asked.

                “Uh, well, that’s a long, sad story, brother,” Little Joe said as he clambered down from the wagon and stretched his aching back.

                “If it’s going to take that long, perhaps you should start talking,” Adam said dryly.

                Hoss came to his little brother’s rescue.  “It can wait,” he said, “least ‘til we’ve had a cold drink of water.  It’s been a long, hot drive.”

                “Of course,” Ben said at once.  “Do come inside, miss.  I think we might persuade Hop Sing to make us a pitcher of fresh lemonade.”  He reached up to help Dani down.

                “That sounds like heaven,” she said as her toes touched ground.

                When Hoss climbed down, however, everyone’s attention was diverted from their guest by the way he hobbled toward the house.  Ben immediately moved to his son’s side.  “Hoss, what’s wrong?  You hurt, boy?”

                “Just a mite, Pa,” Hoss said, his wince belying his words as he put his arm over his pa’s shoulders.

                As Ben helped his son into the house, Adam offered his arm to the young woman and escorted her in, with Little Joe reluctantly dragging behind them, a ranch hand having come out from the bunk house to tend to the team.

                Hop Sing soon bustled into the front room with a pitcher of lemonade on a tray with tall glasses filled with ice from the packed-in-straw supply they’d harvested last winter.  “Where meat?” he demanded.  “Not good leave meat and fish in hot sun.”

                When Little Joe didn’t answer, Hoss said, “Ain’t no meat, nor fish neither, except for some bacon.”

                Hop Sing snorted.  “That what you hunt?  Better you go Virginia City, not mountains.”  Jabbering something indecipherable, he shuffled back to the kitchen to continue his supper preparations.

                “No luck at all?” Ben asked incredulously.  “The Sierras are usually teeming with game.”

                “Is this where the long, sad story begins?” Adam asked, sending a smirk in Little Joe’s direction.

                “It dead sure don’t begin in the Sierras, does it, little brother?”  Hoss winked at Adam, egging him on in the right direction.

                “Isn’t that where you were goin?”  Adam acted innocent, although his intent was anything but.

                “Uh . . . no,” Little Joe stammered with a long, pleading look in Hoss’s direction that produced nothing but Hoss’s best imitation of Adam’s smirk.  “Well, you see, it’s like this:  I—uh—never actually said where . . . or what . . . we’d be hunting.  I didn’t realize, of course, that you’d assumed it was the mountains west of here.”

                “What other mountains would we assume you’d be hunting, young man?” Ben demanded.

                “And what might we assume you’d be hunting, other than game?” Adam added with a knowing chuckled.  The way the kid was squirming and hedging every word, he had a feeling Joe’s long, sad story would not only provide twitting material for months, if not decades, to come, but might even go down in the annals of Cartwright lore.

                “Yes, Joseph,” Ben Cartwright continued, “we’d be most interested in an answer to both those questions . . . without any more hemming and hawing around.”

                “Well, you see, I—uh—came into possession of this map,” Little Joe began.  Then he launched into an explanation so filled with hems and haws that, eventually, Hoss took pity on his family and finished for his brother.

                The older two Cartwrights were struggling to contain their totally opposing emotions.  Adam, known for his control in any situation, managed to hold his amusement to an occasional chuckle, while Ben’s head of steam kept building until he finally blew.  “Is that all?” he shouted.  “You didn’t rob any banks or stumble across any gypsy girls during this escapade?”

                “No, Pa, of course not,” Little Joe said.  “You know I wouldn’t”—he stopped, remembering that he had, on a couple of occasions, been guilty of exactly those infractions.

                “No, Joseph, I don’t know that,” Ben said, incensed, “and, furthermore, I don’t know that you won’t lie about your whereabouts, do I?”

                “I didn’t lie, Pa!” Joe insisted.  “I just . . . well . . . didn’t say.”  He finished weakly as he saw his father rise to his feet and tower over him.

                “An avoidance of the truth amounts to a lie, young man,” Ben stormed.  “And what was the result?  You lost your horses; you got your brother hurt and both of you stranded.  Even if your mounts had made it home, we’d have gone searching for you in the exact opposite direction from where you were!  All because you ‘didn’t say’ where you would be!”

“Yeah, yeah, I see your point, Pa,” Joe said hurriedly; then grinning in desperation, he added, “But I did get help for Hoss, after all.”

                Ben’s glower grew darker.  “And exactly how did you obtain that help, young man?  You accosted a woman in her home and took her only means of transportation at gunpoint.  She’d be within her rights to send for the sheriff and have you put in jail!”

                “I wouldn’t; I won’t,” Dani whispered.  Almost in tears, she pleaded, “Oh, please don’t hurt him, not on my account.”

                Hoss, seated beside her, felt her tremble.  “Pa, ease up some.”  He squeezed Dani’s hand.  “Not everyone knows better than to take you serious.”

                “I know someone who had better take me seriously,” Ben said, but his voice softened, and his face relaxed.  “I apologize, ma’am.  I’d forgotten we had a guest.”

                “You forget wash up for supper, too,” Hop Sing scolded.  “Do now, please, and come to table before I throw away.”

                Adam stood at once.  “Of course, Hop Sing,” he said placatingly.  “We’ll do that at once, so your fine meal doesn’t grow cold.”

                “Come on, Dani,” Hoss said, standing and offering her his hand.  “I’ll show you where you can clean up.  He led her into the downstairs guest room, and as soon as he’d closed the door, he took her in his arms.  She was still shaking, he noticed as he rubbed her back gently.

                Finally, her breathing slowed and she stepped back.  “Will he beat him?” she asked anxiously.

                “Huh?”  In an instant Hoss understood what she was asking . . . and why.  “No, of course not,” he assured her.  “Pa barks and blusters, and he paddled the boy’s canoe some when he was young and headstrong, but not like your pa done.  Just enough to get the message across, but never enough to hurt.”

                Dani wiped her eyes.  “I know me and Joe’s had our differences, but I can’t abide seein’ any living thing hurt . . . even the rascal.”

                Hoss grinned at what had become their pet name for his little brother.  “The rascal’s safe enough,” he promised, vowing to himself to share enough of Dani’s story so his father wouldn’t tear into anyone in front of her again.  Dani still had some healing to do, he thought, and until she did, he’d make it his job to protect her, even from his family’s tendency—and his own, for that matter—to jokingly threaten what they had no intention of actually doing.  “I’ll fetch you some water,” he said, reaching for the pitcher in a bowl on the chest of drawers.

                She took it from him.  “I’ll do the fetchin’ and carryin’,” she said.  “You sit down and put your foot up.”

                “Yes’m,” he said and settled into the single chair in the room.

                “I didn’t mean—ooh!  I’m beginnin’ to see where the rascal gets it from.”  Still, she was smiling as she took the pitcher and flounced out of the room.  She was back soon.  Filling the bowl, she looked over her shoulder.  “You gonna watch me?” she said.  “I think I can be trusted to wash behind my ears.”

                “I reckon,” he said, “but I was figurin’ to wash my own face after you were done.  I’m dirty, too.”

                “I won’t argue with that,” she chuckled.  “Hate to come to table in this dusty dress, but then I’d hate to make your family wait while I change.”

                “Won’t matter none.”  As she washed up, he smiled at the image conjuring in his head of a time when this might be a nightly ritual for the two of them.  “Dani Lynne,” he said, “I was thinkin’ I might ride into town tomorrow and let the doc take a look at my foot.  You wanna ride along with me?  We could pick up any little thing you think you might need.”

                She turned to face him.  “I still got next-to-no cash money.”

                “Anything you need’s on me.”  He raised a palm toward her as her mouth opened to protest.  “No.  I insist.  If it weren’t for you, I’d be stranded out in them hills, maybe even dead.  Least I can do in thanks is buy you a few female gewgaws.”

                “Well, we’ll see,” she said, “but I’ll ride along with you.  Maybe we’ll hear of someone hirin’ a cook or such.”

                “Maybe,” he said, in two minds about that.  Her finding a job would help her stay close by, but he was hoping she wouldn’t just yet, so he could keep her here at the Ponderosa for a spell.  He hadn’t asked yet if she could, but he knew his father.  Pa might complain about the strays he brought home, but he’d never turned one away, not even the wild ones he’d been forced to turn loose, once they were healed.  Dani wasn’t wild, but just as much in need of healing as any chipmunk or bear cub.

*****

                “What you think, Doc?” Hoss asked as Paul Martin finished his examination of Hoss’s foot.  “Pretty bad sprain, I reckon.”

                “I don’t think it’s a sprain, Hoss,” the doctor replied, looking grave.

                “It ain’t broke,” Hoss said.  “I think I’d know if it was broke.”

                “No, not broken,” the doctor said, “though I’d be more confident if it were.  From the popping sound you described when it happened, I think you may have torn your Achilles tendon, son.”

                “Huh?  Ain’t never heard of that, Doc.”

                “It’s a cord that connects the muscles of your calf to your heel, Hoss,” Dr. Martin explained.  “I’m hoping it’s only a partial tear and that it will heal itself, but that can take a long time, and you’ll be spending it on crutches.  No weight whatsoever.  Ice it down regularly and rest it as much as possible.”

                “Guess that means I ain’t going on roundup, huh?”

                The doctor laughed.  “You’re not riding anything rougher than an easy chair or the seat of the buggy you drove here.”

                Hoss skewed a sour smile.  “Puts us down a man, but I reckon it can’t be helped.”

                “I think I have a set of crutches that might work,” the doctor said.  “I’ll help you out to the waiting room and check on that.”

                “Thanks, Doc.  Listen, I got a friend out there.”

                “I saw her,” the doctor said.  “She seems very nice.”  He’d seen the tall young man grow up from a never-small child and knew how rare a thing it was for him to keep company with a young lady, so he was hoping the best for his old friend’s son, the one he secretly thought would make the best husband of Ben’s three boys.

                “Oh, she is,” Hoss said, “but she’s got that scar on her face.”

                “I saw that, too,” the doctor said quietly.  “You know how it happened?”

                Hoss told him and then said, “I talked her in to lettin’ you take a look at it.  I’m hopin’ you can convince her that it ain’t as bad as she thinks or that it’ll fade in time or somethin’ like that.  It don’t matter to me, no how, but she thinks less of herself ‘cause of it, I can tell.”

                “A woman would,” the doctor murmured.  “I don’t lie to my patients, Hoss, but I think I can give her some reassurance.  I’ll see her before I search for the crutches, then.”

                Dani timidly entered the exam room.  “Don’t know what Hoss told you,” she said.

                “He told me how the accident happened,” Dr. Martin said as he helped her onto the exam table and gently probed her cheek.  “Was the knife clean or had it been used?”

                “Used it to cut up the raw meat for supper,” she said.  “That make it worse?”

                He nodded.  “Greater chance of infection.  From the redness that’s still showing, I’m concerned some of that might still be festering inside, although your natural resources seem to have thrown off most of it.”

                “Will it lighten up, then, once I throw it all off?” she asked, looking hopeful.

                “If you throw it off, it’ll lighten in time,” he said.  “There’s a fair chance you will, but if you’re willing, I could open the wound again and clean it out properly.  I think if I stitch it up this time, there’s also a good chance of minimizing the scar, making it thinner, at least.”  Seeing her nervous lick of her lips, he said, “I realize that may be an odd suggestion, to cut your cheek open again, but I think you’d be better pleased with the result, and I could do it under anesthetic, so you wouldn’t feel any pain except what normally occurs as a cut heals.”

                “I’m not afeared of that,” she said.  “I know how to handle pain.”

                All too well, he sensed, also sensing that there was something else troubling her.  He waited, not even asking.  The instincts Hoss Cartwright had always shown toward wounded critters the doctor had developed, as well, in his years of dealing with wounded humans.

                “I—I don’t have money enough to be payin’ for such as that,” she finally said.  “I’ll be lookin’ for work, and if you’ll tell me how much it’ll be, maybe I could figure how long it would take me to save it up, and you could tell me then if’n that would be too late to do any good.”

                He smiled compassionately.  “Sooner is always better when dealing with infection,” he advised.  “Why don’t I do the work and trust you to pay it off over time?”  As she started to protest, he raised a silencing hand.  “You’re not the only patient I’ve ever made that bargain with, and I’ve rarely had reason to regret it.  If you’re willing, we could do it today.”

                “It’ll make it harder to get a job,” she murmured, “if I look ugly enough to scare young’uns.”

                “You won’t scare young’uns,” he promised, “but if it’s a job you’re needing, I think I know someone in need of nursing care, and he won’t care a fig how you look.”  He gestured with his head toward the waiting room behind the closed door.

                “Hoss?” she asked, surprised.  “Is his foot bad, then?”

                “Bad enough,” Dr. Martin said.  “He needs to stay off it, which means he’ll be staying home from roundup, and with the rest of the family gone, he’ll need someone to make him meals, maybe fetch and carry from time to time.  If you think you could manage that, I think I could talk him into taking you on.”

                She laughed.  “I don’t think it’s gonna take a lot of talking—for either of us.”

                He laughed, too.  “I didn’t think it would.  I’ll step out long enough for you to take off your bodice and get him those crutches I promised.”

                “Yes, sir, but could I ask you one other thing?”

                He turned back to her.  “Of course.”

                She blushed furiously.  “Can you tell if a woman is fit to bear children—healthy children, I mean?”

                “You look healthy enough,” he said with a kindly smile.  “Is there some reason you’re afraid you might not be able to carry a child?”

                “I’m more afeared it might not be able to get out proper,” she whispered, looking down in shame.  “I’m—I’m damaged goods, Doctor.”

                His jaw tightened.  “Your husband’s work?”

                She nodded.  “He knocked me around a lot.  Maybe Hoss told you?”  Seeing him nod gravely, she continued, “There was this one time, couple years back, that he was doin’ that, and I fell straight down on my tailbone.  Pain was as bad as anything I ever felt, and I can’t help thinkin’ I must’ve broke something down there.”

                “Does it still hurt?” he asked, concerned.

                “No, sir, not now, though it did for a long time.  I’m just scared, I reckon,” she admitted.  “If’n I ain’t right, I wouldn’t want to . . .”

                “Remarry?”

                Her blush deepened in her knowledge that he knew exactly who she was dreaming of as that future mate.  “Yes, sir, if I prove worthy.”

                “I’ve no doubt of that, but I’ll check you out thoroughly after I finish with your cheek.  I’ll need you to undress fully from the waist down,” he said.  “Get back on the table once you’re ready and cover up with the sheet; I’ll be with you shortly.”

                “Don’t tell him, please,” she pleaded.

                “I guard all my patients’ privacy, dear,” he said as he left in search of the crutches.

*****

                Dr. Martin waited until his patient woke from the light anesthetic he’d administered and was fully dressed and ready to leave before he discussed what his other examination had revealed.  “Your question was whether you could give birth to healthy children,” he said.  “The answer is yes.”

                Her face was alight with such pure joy that he hated to snatch it away, but he had to tell her the complete truth.  “However, you might not want to.”

                “Why wouldn’t I want to, if I can?” she asked.

                “Because you were right.  The violence you suffered did result in a broken coccyx . . . your tailbone,” he said in answer to her quizzical look.  “You remember how painful that was?”

                “Yes,” she said, “but it didn’t last forever.”

                “That’s good; that means it did heal, though probably not exactly as it was before,” he said, adding soberly, “but having suffered a broken coccyx once, you’re at greater risk of a second break . . . especially during an event like childbirth . . . particularly if the child is a large one, as someone the size of Hoss Cartwright, for example, might be expected to sire.”

                “Oh.”  She sobered, too, but after a moment’s reflection, she asked, “But the child—it wouldn’t be harmed?”

                “No, the child would be the one breaking the bone.”  He almost smiled as he saw the light return to her eyes, but he had a physician’s obligation to make sure she fully understood the risk she was facing.  “You must realize, though, that while you suffered no lasting effects from the original break, there is no guarantee that a second one wouldn’t result in continuing tenderness in that area, when you’re sitting or rising from a chair, for instance.  Considering that, giving birth is something you should only attempt after you and any future husband have given it serious thought.  Do you have any other questions?”

                Eyes veiled, she shook her head.  He took her by the hand, then, and escorted her to the outer room, where Hoss was waiting.  Dr. Martin walked them to the door and helped them both safely into the buggy.

                As he drove out of town, Hoss said, “You’re mighty quiet, Dani Lynne.  Everything go all right?”

                She looked up at him and smiled.  “Everything went fine; I’m just tired, I guess.”

                “Me, too,” he admitted.  “This took longer than I’d figured, so I guess we’ll have to come back another day to do any shopping you need.”

                She slipped her arm through his.  “I have everything I need for now,” she said.

*****

                Dani lay awake long into the night.  Her cheek throbbed a little, but it was more the thoughts swirling in her head that kept her from sleep.  She’d told him she had everything she needed, and she hadn’t been talking about “female gewgaws,” either; she’d meant him.  Now here she lay, dreaming dreams she’d never dared, filled with imaginations a woman like her knew better than to entertain.  Such dreams were only for pretty girls; she’d known that almost from her first breath, yet she was dreaming, anyway, of life with a good man, when she’d grown up thinking there were none.

                Hoss had changed that.  Oh, she’d known decent men before and seen the difference between them and those she’d lived with, but the other kind were still more plentiful, and most of them hadn’t paid much mind to her.  Hoss had, though; he’d even called her pretty, which might prove nothing more than that he was weak-eyed, but if being paired with a blind man was what it took to find one that didn’t see her flaws, she’d welcome him with open arms.  Open heart?  That’s what she wasn’t sure of: that she could.  Could she ever get past thinking of men as the source of pain and disdain?   If she could ever see one as the wellspring of love, though, she thought it might be this one.

*****

                They stood together in the yard, watching the others ride out.  Even Hop Sing had gone on the roundup as chuck wagon cook, so they were alone in the house.  It was daring, almost scandalous, an unmarried man and woman, living alone under the same roof, but she was an employee now, his nurse, though she still felt more like a guest.  She’d insisted she only needed room and board in payment, but Ben Cartwright had insisted just as strongly that there’d be something else besides.  “You don’t know how much this boy of mine can eat,” he’d said.  “You’ll earn your keep, Miss Dani, as a cook alone.”  As if cooking for a healthy eater who bragged on every bite was a chore!

                “Come on,” she said to Hoss as his family disappeared around the bend in the road.  “Time we got you back inside.  You’re supposed to be restin’ that tendon thing.”

                “Not every minute,” he said.

                “Yes, every minute,” she said.

                “You sure?”  He bent his head toward her and touched his lips lightly to hers.

                “Well, most minutes,” she said, feeling weak in the knees.  And if she was, what must a man with a weak foot be feeling?  She stepped back and smiled at him.  “We can do this inside, instead of out here for all the world to see.”

                Hoss chuckled.  “All the world’s took off and left us, in case you ain’t noticed.  Besides,” he added as she moved toward the house, “you are my world.”

                “My, but don’t you talk flowery,” she teased, “and here I was thinkin’ you were a man that had his feet on the ground.”

                “Just one of ‘em,” he teased back.  “Doc won’t let me set the other down.”

                “Get on in here and stop your foolishness,” she scolded softly, inclining her head toward the door.

                “Yes, ma’am,” he said, sounding a lot meeker than his playful smile said was true.

*****

                The days went by so quickly, days she wished would never end.  At first she tried to stay professional, to carry herself as the nurse, there only to meet the needs of her patient, but by the second night she found herself perched on his lap, cuddling and kissing all the hours past supper.  It was bliss; it was what marriage should have been and the most intimacy she’d ever known with a man, there having been none in the way Wade had bedded her.  Hoss didn’t even suggest that they take that final step toward acting like man and wife, though, and she couldn’t decide whether he didn’t want her that way or he simply found it too hard with his foot still crippled up.  That he held himself back out of respect and love never occurred to her.

                Ten days after her minor surgery, the doctor came to remove the stitches.  “It’s healing nicely,” he said, “and I think you’ll be pleased with the result.”

                “There’ll still be a scar,” she said, not quite making it a question because she already knew the truth in her heart.

                “There’ll always be a scar,” he admitted, “but it shouldn’t be as noticeable, and it’s already lighter, with more healing still to come.”

                “Didn’t mean it as a complaint,” she said quickly.  “I’m pleased already, and I thank you for your kindness.  I’ll have something I can give you on it, soon as Mr. Cartwright gets back from roundup.  Not sure how much, seein’ as how we never settled on a salary, but he seems like a fair man.”

                “Ben Cartwright?”  The doctor chuckled.  “You’ll find him beyond fair, but I’m not concerned about my fee and I don’t want you to be.”  He knew perfectly well that her bill would be paid, if not by her, then assuredly by either Ben or Hoss.  They’d done it for others they had far less personal interest in than Daniel Lynne Bartlett, the name she’d given him for his records.

                Since he was there, he checked on his other patient, too.  “I see you’ve been obeying your doctor’s orders,” he said cheerily.

                “Dadgum nurse won’t let me do no less,” Hoss grumbled, the twinkle in his eye negating his put-on grumpiness.

                Dr. Martin clucked his tongue in apparent sympathy.  “Yes, I can see how abused you are, not to mention how you’re wasting away from lack of sustenance.”

                Hoss patted his belly.  “Yep, it’s a shame she don’t cook no better than Hop Sing.”  He grinned broadly.  “No worse, neither, though.”

                “Umm hmm.  Well, you stay off that foot, young fellow.  It’s doing better, but it will be weeks before it’s ready to take on ranch work.”

                “Yeah.”  Hoss sighed.  Weeks, too, before it was ready to do something else he wanted.

*****

                A telegram arrived, telling Hoss of the successful sale of the cattle his family had driven to market and advising him of their expected date of return.

                “Bad news?” Dani asked, seeing the glumness come across his face.

                “What?  Oh, no,” he said.  “Everything’s fine.  Just Pa lettin’ me know when they’ll be back.”

                “Oh.”  She suddenly understood his expression, and though she didn’t realize it, the same emotion played on her own countenance.  “Guess that means I’d better be makin’ plans on what to do next.  You reckon the doctor could find me more nursin’ jobs?  I think I’m a fair hand at it, judgin’ from how much better you’re doin’.”

                “You do a great job, at that and everything,” Hoss said, “but you don’t got to be in any hurry.  We’d all be happy to have you stay on awhile.”

                “I got to earn my keep,” she said firmly, “and I still got that doctorin’ bill to pay off.”

                “I’ll take care of that,” Hoss said.

                “No, sir, you will not.”  She planted her hands on her hips adamantly.  “You got no obligation to me, and I pay my own bills.”

                “I’d like to have that obligation,” Hoss said.  He bit his tongue after the words came out.  He knew what he wanted, but now wasn’t the time to ask, not while he was laid up, feelin’ like less than half a man.  She deserved better.

                The hands stayed planted, and her chin came up defiantly.  “I won’t be a kept woman,” she announced.

                “Good lands, Dani Lynne!  I wasn’t suggestin’ that.”  Hoss lurched to his feet in protest.  “What kind of man you think I am?”

                Her hands flew to cover her reddened face.  “The best ever,” she choked out.  “I shouldn’t’ve said . . . even thought . . . oh, Hoss!”

                Doctor’s orders thrown to the wind, he covered the patch of space between them and took her in his arms.  “I’m thinkin’ it, too, little darlin’,” he said.  “Dani Lynne, I wanna ask you to be my wife, but I wanted to do it right, and I’m afeared if I go down on one knee, I won’t make it up again.”

                “Just say it,” she said, “and that’ll be as right as anything out of a fairy story.”

                He took her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers.  “Dani darlin’, will you marry me?”

                She stood on tiptoe and kissed him.  “Can’t believe you want me, but I want you more’n anything.  Yes, Hoss, oh, yes!”

                There being nothing wrong with his arms, he picked her up and swung her from side to side, although his own feet never moved.

                “Put me down!” she demanded.  “You ain’t supposed to put any weight on that foot, and here you are puttin’ yours and mine both on it.  I’m still your nurse, and I’m givin’ you a direct order.”

                “Yes, ma’am,” he said, setting her down and accepting her help back to his father’s thickly padded armchair.  “Just so’s you know, though: once we’re hitched, I give the orders.  Can’t have you thinkin’ you wear the pants in the family.”

                The same sort of remark, made by Wade Bartlett, would have set her trembling, but she knew Hoss well enough now that she felt no dread.  They were continents apart, those two men, and she knew this one would never give her cause to fear.  He loved her, and that love filled her with all the confidence she needed to give him her trust.  “Like dresses better, anyway,” was all she said.

                He laughed and pulled her into his lap.

*****

                The family returned, rowdy with news of how well the drive had gone.  “We got along just fine without you,” Little Joe assured him, thinking to relieve any guilt Hoss felt over leaving them a man short.

                Hoss, who no longer felt that anyway, snorted.  “Got along just fine without you, too, Shortshanks.”  He grinned.  “Found me a partner who lets me win at checkers.”

                “I don’t let you,” Dani said.  “I’m just no good at it.”

                “You’re good at better things.”  Hoss’s shining face as he beamed at her made it almost unnecessary, but he told them anyway.  “Me and Dani Lynne’s gettin’ hitched!”

                Little Joe whooped and almost jumped on his big brother before he realized that Hoss was still on crutches and propelled himself onto Dani, instead.  “I told you!” he said, turning back to Pa and Adam.  “Didn’t I tell you?”

                “Repeatedly,” Adam said.  He extended his hand to Hoss.  “Not that we couldn’t have guessed ourselves.  You’re a lucky man, brother.”  After shaking hands, he turned to give Dani a kiss on her good cheek in consideration that the other might still be tender.  “And you are a brave woman,” he declared, “to take on the Cartwrights.”

                “When’s the happy event to take place?” Ben asked.

                “We ain’t decided yet,” Hoss said.  “Kind of depends on me, I reckon.  I’m bound and determined I’m walkin’ the aisle on my own two legs.”

                “I keep tellin’ him I’d gladly push him down it in one of them rolling chairs,” Dani said, “but he won’t have it.”

                “Nope.  We’re doin’ this right,” Hoss said.

                “You’ve already made the right start,” Ben observed, “by loving each other.  The rest will fall into place, trust me.”

                His three sons smiled and nodded in agreement, and Dani, who’d had time now to learn the family history, joined them, ready to be one with the Cartwrights in every way.

*****

                The wedding took place a little over two months later.  Though his heel still smarted a bit when he moved his foot certain ways, the Achilles tendon seemed basically healed, and he felt he’d be able to escort his new bride down the aisle, when the time came.  “You got the ring?” he asked Little Joe as they stood at the front of the church.

                “For the fifth time, yes,” Little Joe muttered under his breath.

                Hoss had debated over which of his brothers to have as his best man, but Dani had settled it when she pointed out that they would never have met if it hadn’t been for the rascal and his ill-fated gold mine map.  Adam had understood, and he’d played an important part, too, in helping his younger brother select an engagement ring and wedding band.  “Little Joe may have gone looking for gold,” Adam had said when the choice was made, “but you found a real diamond in the desert, brother.”

                Dani’s face shone like a diamond, too, as she walked the aisle toward her intended on the arm of his father, and as Hoss walked her back down it after their first kiss as husband and wife, not even diamonds could outshine the brightness of their united happiness.

*****

                Nearly four months passed before Dani was sure, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell Hoss she was with child, mostly from shame of what she still held secret.  She just hadn’t been able to tell him about the difficulty she might have in childbirth.  As tenderly as he loved her, she knew he’d want to forego having children altogether, rather than cause her pain, and she could not permit him to make that sacrifice.  He was a man who deserved children, a man who would make a wonderful father, and she wouldn’t deprive those future children of one like him, either.

                Her motives weren’t completely selfless, though.  She wanted children, too; she always had, just not Wade’s children, not children to be brought up under the lash or blows from his fists.  She wanted them to shower with love, of course, but also to love her back and to remember her.  Ever since she was a tiny girl, she’d felt like such a nothing that she feared no one would miss her when she was gone or even remember that she had existed.  Children would provide that remembrance, just as she remembered and cherished her own dear mother, as Hoss, too, remembered and cherished his, though he’d never really known her.  That was the way it was meant to be: a loving family that endured beyond the final separation, with hopes of reuniting again in the heaven to come.

                For now, the heaven here on earth was enough for her, and she wanted no clouds to hover over their happiness and the joyous prospect of the fruit it had produced.  They were still living at the Ponderosa, while Adam was building them a home beyond her dreams.  “We need it big,” Hoss had insisted, adding with his bashful grin, “We’re gonna fill it full of young’uns, remember?”

                “I remember,” she’d whispered, “and we will.”  The best way to ensure she kept that vow, of course, was to also keep her secret.  She wasn’t sure she could manage that in the throes of labor, but all women screamed in labor, didn’t they?  Maybe her tender, gentle-hearted husband would never have to know that her pain was worse than what most women felt.  And maybe God, who had worked so many miracles for her already, would grant one more, and the problem she feared just wouldn’t happen.

*****

                The new house was ready and waiting, furnished and supplied, down to the nursery with its stack of soft, hemmed diapers, but they decided not to move in until after the baby came.  Hoss, who was back to working full days on the ranch, didn’t like the thought of her being alone in that big house when her time came, and she’d agreed.  Hop Sing hovered over her, treating her like a princess.  So did all the Cartwright men, for that matter.  Her fairy tale had come true, and it was better than any she’d read as a child, better and sweeter for all the sour that had come before, because she appreciated it as no one who had lived in a fairy tale her whole life could have.  She found herself believing that even that impossible miracle she’d dreamed of was about to come true in pain-free birthing.

                Then her labor started, and all such nonsense fled from her head.  Eve had settled her fate long before, back in the Garden, and it was obvious that Dani, too, was going to give birth in pain, as had every other woman from the dawn of creation.  Out the window went all thoughts of keeping her cries from revealing her secret.  Let him know!  She no longer cared.  All she wanted was for it to end and for her to hold in her arms the half-grown giant now pushing his or her way through the birth canal.

                She knew when it happened; she felt the bone break as the head pushed through and knew there was no way to keep Hoss from knowing.  She’d forgotten that the pain would last for weeks, perhaps months or even be there always, the way his poor foot seemed to hurt him from time to time, so there’d be no hiding it.  He’d be upset with her for not telling him, but at least they’d have their—what was it?  Doc had said, she was sure, but she couldn’t quite recall.  She unfolded the blanket around the bundle in her arms and peeked just as Hoss walked in.

                “It’s a boy,” she whispered, awed by the tiny toes and fingers, even as she wondered how anything that small could have felt so huge on his way into this world.

                Hoss grinned.  “I know.  Doc told me.”

                “Can we name him after your pa?” she asked.  She’d never have named a child after her own, but Ben Cartwright had become a true father to her over the months she’d spent under his roof and she wanted to honor him.

                “He’d be right proud,” Hoss said.  “How about Benjamin Daniel?  It’s a good name for a boy.”

                “It didn’t turn out to be so bad for a girl,” Dani said with a smile.

                “A rose . . . or a diamond . . . by any other name,” Hoss said and bending over her, he kissed her tenderly.  Dr. Martin had told him what happened during the birth and how Dani had known all along that it might and still taken the risk to give them this child.  He was a mite put out that she’d kept it from him, but he understood why and talking about it could wait.  For now, he just wanted to cherish her and care for her and the new little Cartwright their love had brought forth.

***The End***

Author’s Notes:

Originally written for the Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.  My poker hand required use of the following words or phrases: Achilles tendon, coccyx, fear of being invisible or forgotten, healthy children, map to a gold mine

Passing reference is made to “The Rescue,” by Steve McNeil.

Dani’s reference to the prophet Elijah is taken from the story of the widow of Zaraphath and her never-empty barrel in 1 Kings 17:8-16 and her identification with Eve during childbirth to the account in Genesis 3:16.

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2 thoughts on “A Diamond in the Desert by Puchi Ann

  1. What a sweet ending! I have been reading your work for a while and really enjoy it. Hope to see more in the future. , (Please!) 🐱

    Like

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