Thank you to Mr. Dortort who created the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa and shared them. And thank you to Ms. Sullivan who gave them new life. This story is purely for entertainment and is not intended to infringe on their rights or the rights of anyone else involved in the shows.
Gracias to ToLiMar and Virginia City Gal for their deft editing and helpful comments. This story, which follows "Wherewithal," is dedicated to the smiling-est dog of them all Max.
"Ahhhh I think perhaps this person can be of some assistance."
Eli Orowitz voice, though not raised, reached Adam Cartwright as he entered the trading post.
He turned toward the counter and the store owner nodded at a young woman facing Adam. "Miss Beth Parker," Eli said, "may I introduce Mr. Adam Cartwright."
Adams eyebrows rose at the "mister" that Eli had inserted in front of his name. Miss Parker extended her right hand and, since she did so with a straight wrist, Adam shook it. Thank heavens she hadnt given him one of those limp-wrists. Pa could press his lips to a ladys hand and not look ridiculous but Adam had not mastered that talent.
"Miss Parker," Eli explained when neither of them spoke, "is in the market for horses. She has not seen anything in town - of interest to her."
Which, Adam knew, was Elis polite way of saying that Miss Parker had already perused the horses at Frenchys livery and found them wanting. No, he corrected his thoughts, not Frenchys livery anymore. Now it was Jack Wolfs.
"Do you sell horses?" Miss Parker inquired.
Adam recognized her accent. She was from somewhere in the South. Not Louisiana. He could detect a Louisiana accent with a persons second word. And her speech was not as slow and drawn-out as someone from Georgia or Alabama. Mississippi, perhaps. Her forehead wrinkled and he realized she was waiting for his answer.
"My family sells horses, yes," he said.
She turned her head slightly, as if she heard better from one ear than the other. "And where does your family sell horses?" she prompted.
"Our ranch. The Ponderosa."
"Ponderosa," she repeated. "Thats Latin, isnt it?"
Adam had thought "ponderosa" was Spanish. "I uh suppose it could be Latin," he said uncertainly and decided to change the subject to something he knew more about. "What kind of horses are you looking for, Miss Parker?"
"Beth," she corrected. "I want well-trained horses with good dispositions, smooth gaits, and endurance. I find that endurance is mandatory in this territory."
Something behind him caught her attention and he turned instinctively. All he could see, beyond the doorway and the hitching post where Beauty stood curiously watching the comings and goings of the trading post, was the busy, muddy main street. Come August he would be piously praying for rain at the moment he thought they had received enough to float an ark.
"Im also looking for good configuration like that horse has," she declared.
Adam glanced back at Miss Parker Beth and then followed her gaze. She was admiring Beauty.
"And that kind of intelligence," she added.
Hands on his hips, he pivoted on his boot heels to face her. "You know horses," he said in admiration.
She gave a quick nod. "Yes, I do. Would you be so kind as to give me directions to your ranch?" she requested.
"Follow the right fork out of town. The house and barn will be on your left side."
"It is," Eli added from behind the counter, "perhaps an hours ride?"
Miss Parker Beth folded her hands in front of her waist. "Would it be possible for me to see the horses tomorrow morning?"
"Please," she pleaded. "My name is Beth. Its not short for Bethany or Elizabeth or anything else. And Im not Miss Parker or maam. Im just Beth."
Adam touched the brim of his hat and said, "Im just Adam." His hat? Hed been standing here all this time with his hat on? Reaching up to remove it he caught sight of his hands. Hed shaken her hand with his glove on?
"I shall see you at your ranch tomorrow morning," Beth said. She thanked Eli for his help, and then with the faintest hint of a smile, she gave Adam a deep curtsy. "It is a pleasure to meet you Adam."
Before he could respond she strolled through the doorway and out to the wooden sidewalk. She paused long enough to stroke Beautys muzzle and then disappeared from his view. Only when he turned back toward Eli did it occur to him that he had forgotten why he had entered the trading post. Even more baffling was the fact that he, who was so proud of his powers of observation, had no idea what Beth Parker looked like.
Hoss propped his right boot on a tack box as he watched Adam tend Beauty. "How many horses is she lookin for?"
Adam shrugged. "I didnt ask."
"Mares or geldings?"
"I didnt ask that, either."
"Youll do better to take that saddle off Beauty before you go to feed her." Hoss lowered his right foot and crossed the hay-strewn passage way between the barn door and Beautys stall. He took in a breath in preparation for his next question. But Adam and he had been brothers a long time and Adam answered before Hoss could ask.
"Parker. Her name is Beth Parker," the older brother said impatiently. "And no, I dont know anything about her family."
"I didnt figure ya did."
Adam lifted the saddle from Beautys back and, propping it against his chest, he heaved it to the top rail of the stall. "What does that mean?"
"Seems to me ya did good just to get her name." He grinned as Adam pursed his lips. Probably a good time to stop the teasing. "Did ya see Tess at the post?"
Adam tugged the blanket from Beautys back. "Why would I notice whether Tess was around or not?"
"Well, who was there?" Hoss persisted, eager for news.
Throwing his arms in the air, Adam said, "I dont know who was there. I wasnt paying attention."
Adam not paying attention? Hoss leaned from the waist. "You sure you aint sick?"
"Im fine!" Adams voice sounded more like it had when hed been a kid. It always did when he was aggravated.
"Whats she look like?"
Hoss pulled his head back. What was Adam getting so touchy about? "Beth Parker." He raised his eyebrows. "Is she pretty?"
"I didnt notice."
"You what?" Hoss blurted before he thought.
Adam turned on him and said each word slowly and clearly, "I did not notice."
"Theres a new girl in town and you caint tell me what she looks like?" Hoss studied his older brother and then pointed at him. "You want to keep her for yourself."
"Keep her for " Adam threw his arms into the air again. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Probably cause shes pretty. She is, aint she?"
"She is what?"
Hoss rolled his eyes, "Pretty, Adam. Is she pretty?"
His older brother snatched a rag from the pile on top of the feed sack to rub across Beautys back. "I dont know. I didnt "
"Notice," Hoss finished the sentence for him. "Fine. Ya dont want to tell me, then dont. Ill see her tomorrow." He waited until he was sure Adam was listening before he added, "After all, Im the one in charge of the horse operations around here. You can go on and take care of your chores in the morning and leave the horse sellin to me."
Adam turned his head and looked over his shoulder. "Thats exactly what I planned to do."
"I was just joking."
"Dang youre in a bad mood. Somethin happen in town?"
Adams shoulders tensed.
Hoss persisted. "Thats it, aint it? Something happened in town."
Adams patience snapped like a rope under too much strain. "Nothing happened in town!" He whirled on his younger brother and glared up into his eyes. "Would you stop harassing me?"
"Ha-rass-" Hoss smiled and nodded his head. "Somethin for sure happened. You always use them big words when youre mad."
"I am not - " Adam lowered his voice. "I am not angry. I am trying to finish a chore without you inundating me with questions."
"In-undating," Hoss repeated. "Youre mad, Adam. I can tell."
Adam clenched his teeth and turned his back.
"You sure you dont want to tell me what happened?" Hoss query was met with rigid shoulders and absolute silence. "Did ya get in a fight or somethin?"
"No," came Adams clipped reply.
Hoss cast about for some explanation for his brothers unusual behavior. Maybe hed hurt his head. "Did Beauty throw you?"
"No, Beauty did not throw me."
Hoss turned and walked toward the barn door. "Well something sure did."
Ben gave Hop Sing plenty of room as he reached toward the fire for the hot water kettle. What he needed was a cup of tea. What he did not need was another tirade from Hop Sing about what an abomination this side of the house was. An abomination, Hop Sing had maintained for the past two weeks, because everything was torn up and nothing was in its predestined place. Ben had never known anyone more convinced that every single thing had an appointed position in life and was to always be in that location when needed.
The first time Hop Sing had shared his concerns, Ben had patiently explained that construction of a new kitchen was a messy job. The second time Hop Sing had complained about the constant noise and sawdust, Ben had reminded him that when all was nailed and settled Hop Sing would have a cook stove to work with instead of a fireplace. The forty-second time Hop Sing had vented his aggravation, Ben had pretended he hadnt heard the young man.
Today Ben had seen Hop Sing peeking under one end of the tarp that covered the hole in the wall that lead to the soon-to-be kitchen. He would just as soon not hear Hop Sings opinion of the progress. So, as quietly as possible, he poured the hot water from the kettle over the loose tea leaves in the bottom of his ceramic cup. He had straightened his knees and was almost standing erect when Hop Sing noticed him.
Astoundingly, Hop Sings face was bright and full of good cheer. "The kitchen look very good."
Ben did not trust his ears.
"Door lead out to garden. Windows bring in plenty of light." He nodded and smiled again. "Very good job."
The Ponderosa patriarch had no time to respond because life took an even more bizarre twist. He watched in amazement as Adam entered the house for dinner and tried to hang his gloves and stash his hat in his coat pocket. When Adam caught himself attempting the impossible, he let out a sound of exasperation and immediately tossed his lightweight coat to the side table where they kept their hats - and hung his hat beside the coats. The third try brought success. Adam managed to put his gloves in his coat pocket, hang the coat, and place his hat on the side table. Then he promptly banged his leg into the corner of the table. Behind Bens dark-haired son, his blond-haired son grinned in quiet amusement.
"How was town?" Ben asked.
"Fine," Adam answered curtly. He stalked toward the washstand and stood a moment as if he had forgotten what he had intended to do next. "I dont know how many horses she wants and I dont know what kind she wants. I didnt see Tess, I didnt get in a fight, and no, Beauty did not throw me."
Ben didnt know what the subject was exactly so he decided to change it to something he did know about. "And the supplies?"
His eldest son stopped splashing water from the wash basin onto his face. "What?"
"The supplies the hammer, the chisel - " Ben prompted.
Adam faced him and wiped his hands on the front of his shirt - the towel lay forgotten on the wash stand. "What supplies?"
Ben slowly walked toward this person who looked, but did not act, like Adam. "You did remember the supplies."
Abashed was the best way to describe the young mans expression. He was more embarrassed than Ben had seen him in a long time. In fact he hadnt seen Adam like this since one time in Natchez when -
"Uh - the supplies werent in," Adam offered. When he remembered what a terrible liar he was he closed his eyes and admitted, "I forgot them."
"Forgot them," Ben repeated.
Adam kept his eyes closed and nodded.
Forgot. That happened to other people but not to Adam. Adam never forgot anything - even when Ben fervently hoped he would.
Hoss stepped past his older brother and made a pass at cleaning his hands and face. "He found us somebody who wants to buy horses."
"How many horses does he want?"
"Dont know." Hoss wiped his hands on his pants legs. Which was fine. Hoss always wiped his hands on his pants. "And hes a she," he added as he walked toward the dining table.
"Her names Beth Parker."
Ben was confused. He looked from Hoss to Adam and back to Hoss. "You went to town with Adam?"
Hoss shrugged. "No."
Just once couldnt someone tell him what was going on around here without him having to pull it out of them inch by excruciating inch?
"See," Hoss continued as he sat at the table, "Adam met this lady named Beth Parker. He knows she wants horses. He dont know how many horses she wants and he dont know if she wants mares or geldings. But he knows shell be here in the morning and he dont plan to be here."
Why not? Was this woman hard to get along with?
Ben rubbed his left hand over his eyes. "A woman named Beth Parker is visiting the ranch in the morning and she wants to buy horses. Do I have the story so far?"
Hoss smiled amiably and covered the front of his shirt with his napkin. "Yeah. Thats about it."
So why had Adam mentioned not seeing Tess, not getting in a fight, and not being thrown by Beauty? Ben eased into his chair at the head of the table and as he put his mug of tea on the table top he asked himself if he really, truly wanted to pursue this. No, he didnt. Instead he placed his napkin in his lap - and watched Adam almost pour coffee onto his dinner plate instead of into the cup that sat to the right side of the plate.
Hop Sing paused before sitting beside Adam. Normally Adam sat at Bens right but now he sat at the end of the table, opposite Joe. For someone like Hop Sing, who believed everything and everyone should maintain the natural order of life, Adams change in position was unsettling.
At least, Ben observed, something in life was normal: Joe burst into the living room from the back door and offered his standard, pre-dinner greeting of, "Sorry! I kinda got busy."
Joe was always kinda busy but he never seemed to kinda get everything finished. Especially the kinda things which were kinda important. Ben grinned at the imp who raced to the wash stand to splash a minimum of water across his hands and then tear across the wooden floor to the table. He unceremoniously dropped into his chair beside Hoss and gave his big brother a cheek-dimpling grin. "Im so hungry I bet I can eat moren you can."
Hoss mussed the boys hair. "Youve got a bet."
And just as Ben had known they would, they turned their eyes to him and said in unison, "Not a bet, Pa. Just a bet bet."
Joe motioned to the dinner before him. "Gee, Hop Sing, it looks great. Lets eat." The moment that Ben finished saying the blessing, his youngest son heaped half of his plate with macaroni. "Barbara said to tell everybody bye."
"She goin somewhere?" Hoss piled an even bigger mound of the macaroni on his plate. He passed the bowl back to Joe to pass to Adam.
Nothing was wrong when Adam dipped the spoon into the bowl but then he momentarily held the mass of macaroni over his coffee cup before deciding it would probably taste better if it were on his dinner plate. He passed the bowl toward Hop Sings outstretched hands and released it. Only Hop Sings quick reflexes saved the bowl from an untimely suicidal fall off the table top.
Joe was slow in tearing his eyes away from his oldest brother to answer his other brothers question about Barbara. "Shes going to San Francisco. I mean, she went to San Francisco." He accepted the bowl of sliced carrots from Hoss. "I mean shes on her way to San Francisco," he explained. "She left today so theres hardly any way shed be there. Not yet."
Lord willing, Joe would never have to explain something quickly in an emergency.
Ben marveled at how disorganized his sons could be. First Joe was passing food to Hoss who passed it back to Joe to pass to Adam. Then Hoss passed food to Joe who then passed it to Adam. If they ran true to course, Joe would pass the next dish to Hoss who would then pass it back to Joe to give to Adam.
Hop Sing rested his forearms on the table. "What will she do in San Francisco?"
"Dunno," the boy answered. "Something about meeting a friend or something. Shes not real good at explainin stuff." He lifted the platter of fried chicken and grabbed a drumstick before handing the plate to Hoss. Ben smiled with the satisfaction of knowing that he had deciphered his sons passing pattern.
In the meantime, Adam placed a serving of carrots on his plate and put the bowl on the table, forgetting to pass it to Hop Sing. He paid no heed when Hop Sing reached for the bowl, all the time shaking his head at Adams lack of good manners.
Hoss blue eyes slid from the carrots on Adams plate to Bens face as he wondered if his pa had noticed what he had.
None of the food had made its way to Ben, yet. But that didnt worry him. What worried him was that Adam had actually put his fork under a few slices of carrots and then put them in his mouth and then chewed them and then swallowed them. Everyone was frozen in place as they stared at Adam. He was so busy looking down at his plate that he had no idea he was the center of attention.
Joe shifted slightly in his chair and rested his hands on either side of his plate one holding his fork upright, the other holding his knife upright. "Uh, Adam - " He jerked and quickly frowned at Hoss, who shook his head. Hoss wasnt about to let anything spoil this historic moment.
Adam looked up anyhow so Joe motioned toward the head of the table. "Maybe you oughta pass some of that food to Pa," he suggested in a tone of voice one might expect to hear him use with a baby.
After a moment of hesitation, Adam closed his right hand around the edge of the platter of chicken and then held it over his own plate as he noticed the carrots - and his fork resting beside them. He looked at the fried chicken, then at the carrots, then at the chicken. To Bens immense relief, his eldest son picked up the fork, although he used his left hand, and speared a chicken breast before he passed the meat platter.
Hoss and Joe grinned at each other but said nothing.
Food seemed to revive Adam. He placed his napkin in his lap, ignored the carrots, had a second serving of the chicken, and ate sparingly of the macaroni. Just when Ben thought life was back on track, Adam looked around the table and asked, "Has anyone seen Barbara lately?"
Joe wasnt sure whether he wanted to ride out to the herd with Adam this morning or not. Course it didnt much matter what he wanted. Pa had told Joe that he would be going with Adam and that was pretty much all there was to it. Best to save arguing with Pa for something more important.
It wasnt that he didnt like being around Adam. He liked it a lot. Adam was all the time telling him how good he was at things and then telling him secrets about how to do things even better. Hed tell Joe the secret was just between them. And it always was.
And Adam was almost always on Joes side about things. Joe had tried every way he knew of to get Pa to let him go into town by himself. After all, he was twelve years old and that was practically as old as Hoss and Hoss went into town by himself. Pa had sent Joe into town alone a time or two when thered been something important. But nothing Joe had tried would convince Pa to see things Joes way. Then Adam had talked to Pa and the next thing Joe had known he had permission to go to town twice a week so he could sell his chickens and eggs.
After that, Adam had helped him figure out how to make a pack that he could carry his goods in. While Adam had been working on that, Hoss had taught Joe how to lead the horse that would carry the pack. Leading a horse sure looked simple when Pa or Adam or Hoss did it. But it wasnt. It took Joe a couple of days to get the hang of it.
The day Joe had made his first trip to town, leading his pack horse, Hoss had been so proud of Joe that he had acted like Joed sprouted wings and flown or something. He had carried on and on about how it took a fella who knew horses and knew how to watch a trail and all kinds of other things to lead a pack horse to town and back all by himself the way Joe had. Adam had just smiled at Joe and given him a wink cause Adam had known all along that Joe could do it.
Best of all, old Adam had finally admitted that Joe was a good rider. Adam had told Joe that he had a good seat and light hands. Well, golly, Joed known that forever, since the first time hed been on a horse way back there in New Orleans. But it was nice to hear Adam finally say it. Itd be even nicer when Adam admitted that Joe was the best rider in the whole family. Hed have to be real careful to act humble when Adam finally said that. Nothing aggravated Adam more than when Joe got too big for his britches. Well, lying - that probably aggravated Adam more than anything. But after that it was not acting humble.
Anyhow, he didnt mind being around Adam. Not usually. But there sure as molly hadnt been anything usual about how Adam had been last night. Hed be fine and then all of a sudden hed do the strangest thing - like eating those carrots. That was just about the strangest thing Joed ever known Adam to do. His big brother had mostly settled down after that and Joe had thought everything was fine again. But then Joe had played around and poked at the fire - and Adam hadnt told him to stop. Adam always told him to stop poking at the fire. Even when he was in the bunkroom and Joe was in the living room and there was no way Adam could see Joe poking at the fire. Even then he would holler at Joe to leave the fire alone. When he hadnt said anything to Joe last night it had taken all of the fun out of poking at the fire.
So Joe wasnt exactly ready to ride out with his big brother this morning. Not until he was sure Adam was acting normal again.
"Come on, Joe. We have work to do," Adam ordered as he walked toward the chicken coop.
Joe paused in gathering the eggs and came up with a sure-fire way to know if Adam was better. "Thisd go a lot faster if youd come in here and help."
Adam looked at him from the sides of his eyes. "I dont like chickens."
Good. Adam was back to being Adam.
Joe was for sure that Adam was back to being Adam when they got out of sight of the house. That was when Adam looked over at him and gave a quick, short nod which was a signal that he was ready to race Beauty against Paint. Nobody ever won a race against Beauty and Adam but that didnt keep Paint and Joe from trying. Sometimes they finished pretty close - as close as about eight or nine horse-lengths.
Hed learned that word from Adam. A horse-length made a lot of sense cause it was just about the length of a horse when it was running. Adam had also taught him about betting and odds and favorites and all kinds of things hed learned from his friends in New Orleans who used to sneak in at the race tracks. Course Adam had never done that - never sneaked in at a race track. He said that had been one of those rules that if he broke it Pa would for sure have used his belt on Adams behind.
"I got a book for Pa for his birthday," Joe announced when theyd turned Paint and Beauty toward the east meadow.
Adam shifted in his saddle. "You did."
"The Red Rover."
Adam looked at him from the sides of his eyes. " By Cooper."
Of course Adam knew about the book. He knew about every book in the whole wide world.
"Why that one?" Adam asked easily.
"Barbara told me about it. I figured it sounded like something Pa would like."
Adams eyes were never still. They slid from one thing to another. Joe knew his brother was checking how the grass looked and if there were any signs of big cats or bears and if there were any dead campfires where somebody had trespassed on the Ponderosa. Since Adam was doing all that there didnt seem any need for Joe to worry over the same things.
"It sounded like something Pa would like," Adam repeated Joes answer. He took his eyes off the land long enough to give Joe a knowing smile.
"Well," Joe admitted, "it has pirates in it, too." His eyes grew large as he stressed how much Pa liked to read about pirates.
Adams smile spread until his eyes wrinkled at the corners. "It sounds to me like youve made an excellent choice, brother."
"Yeah?" Joe asked.
"The best gift to give is one that you would like to receive."
Joe knew what Adam was getting at - that hed bought the book for himself and not Pa. But that wasnt true. Well, not all true at least. "Pa likes pirates," he maintained. "And anyhow its got this place called New-port in it and Barbara said Pad been to New-port back when he was a sailor." He gave his brother a moment to say something. When Adams time was up, Joe spoke again. "Adam?"
"Pa went a lot of places back when he was a sailor, didnt he?"
"Is that how he got smart?"
Adams lips formed an o. "Thats part of it," he said slowly.
Joe wanted more than anything to be as smart as Pa so he pushed Adam to tell him more. "Whats the other part?"
"He reads. Remember all the newspapers and letters he read when we were in Independence? He did that so he would know about the trail."
"Pa talked to people, too."
Adam pointed at him as if Joe had made a discovery. "Youre right, he did." He looked toward the sky and asked himself aloud, "What else did he do?"
"He listened to them. And then he decided what made sense and what didnt. And he told us about what he knew so we would know, too." Joe had put it all together and he wanted to show Adam that he knew how to get smart. "So, Pa got smart from reading and from talking to people and from listening to people and from learning from other people?"
"I imagine so."
"Those people that he talked to and listened to?"
"Well, hed have to be sure they were smart, too, wouldnt he?"
Joe tilted his head and asked, "How can you tell if someone youre talking to or listening to is smart?"
Adam didnt say anything right away. That meant he didnt have an answer and he was having to think up one.
"Thats a good question, Joe," Adam admitted. He clucked softly to Beauty and directed her toward the shortcut. "Im not sure I can explain."
"Are ya gonna try?" Joe tried not to push too hard but he really needed an answer if he was gonna be smarter than Pa.
His big brother twisted his lower jaw to one side and was quiet a couple of minutes, during which time Joe had to tell Paint more than once that they were going to check the cattle and it was no time for her to stop and eat.
They rode over the rise and saw the herd grazing in the east meadow. The calves sure had grown a lot these past few days. Two of them were running around playing some kind of calf game. They were almost as frisky as Cochise - he wanted to play with everyone.
Adam stopped Beauty. He crossed his arms on the saddle horn. "You listen to that voice inside you," he said.
Joe shook his head. What was Adam talking about?
"The way you decide if someone is intelligent is to listen to that voice inside you," he explained.
"Ya mean that voice that tells you when youre doing something wrong or being mean or talking back?"
"Thats the voice."
Joe nodded, feeling smarter already because he knew how to be smarter. "Adam?"
His brother swung from the saddle and looked up at him. "Yes?"
"How does that happen?"
Adam loosened Beautys saddle. "How does what happen?"
"Where does that voice inside us come from?"
He received a raised eyebrow and a tilted head as an answer. That was a hint to get ready to work.
Joe stepped to the ground and followed Adams example by loosening Paints saddle. He dropped the reins, confident that Paint would stay where he left her.
"I mean, when do we get that voice?" Joe walked beside Adam, toward the lower sluice gate.
Adam looked down slope and then upslope and then at Joe. "Some people never have that voice inside them."
Was Adam teasing him? "They dont?"
"No. Thats why they get into trouble with the law."
"Or their pa," Joe quickly added.
Adam shoved him on the shoulder. "Or their big brother if they dont get up that slope and check that sluice gate."
Joe made a frowning face at Adam and, when his brother looked like he was going to chase him, Joe ran uphill as fast as he could. He wasnt afraid of Adam, not really, but sometimes he liked to pretend he was just so he could hear Adam laugh the way he was laughing now.
Adam wrapped the little bit of food that remained from Joes and his lunch and slid it into his saddle bag. Joe tended to do the same thing Hoss used to do: when he was out-of-doors he would eat more than usual, get quiet, stretch out in the shade, and drift into a sound sleep.
Lately, Joe was a puzzle that Adam couldnt solve. One minute his little brother giggled in delight as he and Pa played a game of checkers - and the next minute he flew into one of his tempers. Joe argued with Pa more than he ever had - and he was dangerously inclined to sass when he was upset. He had always been impatient and tended to think he knew more than he did. This winter those spells of impatience had grown closer together. He had also started a habit he would do well to quickly break: stomping. It was one thing to hit your boots hard on the porch to knock off the dirt or dried mud. But the wise son did not ever stomp away from Pa deliberately. Joe needed to gain the wisdom required for peaceful coexistence with Pa. Unfortunately most wisdom was learned the hard way.
Adam eased himself to the grass and leaned against the massive trunk of the same pine tree that shaded his sleeping brother. They were amazing, these ponderosa pines - tall and straight, strong and protecting. The rough bark resembled the metal plates that made up a suit of armor. But when you cut down one of these trees you found that the heart was soft and easy to work.
He smiled to himself as he realized some people were like ponderosas.
Thinking of ponderosas caused him to remember Beth Parker and her remark that the word was Latin. Thinking of Beth Parker caused him to wonder how Hoss was doing with the horse sale. He hoped it went well. Listening to Hoss spirited accounts about the bargains he drove as the Head of Ponderosa Horse Operations was always enjoyable.
Adam had been surprised to learn that Hoss was a natural salesman. A person would make an offer for a horse. Hoss would smile and shake his head and say that no, he couldnt let them have the horse for that. He would tell the prospective buyer that the horse was worth more than that as a saddle horse for the ranch. The buyer would offer more. Once again Hoss would smile good-naturedly and tell the buyer no. Then he would slowly draw attention to the horses good points. Hoss never lost his smile, the buyer never grew short-tempered, and eventually Hoss walked away with exactly the amount of money he had told Adam he would get for the trade. More than once he encouraged Adam to try his hand at selling a horse. Adam had done just enough of it to know that he didnt like it. When someone offered too little for a horse he had to bite the inside of his cheek to control his temper. He did not have Hoss knack for smiling good-naturedly and telling the buyer no.
When it came to selling cattle, though, Adam was in his element. He read every newspaper he could find or subscribe to. Most of them arrived several weeks after the news which they reported. But they always printed cattle prices and, with his love of math, he remembered every figure and every prediction about what the future held in store for cattle prices. Even Margaret Greene depended on Adam to keep her up-to-date on markets. In turn, she had introduced him to the cattle buyers she knew. For now it was easier to sell the beef to a buyer and let him, or his company, worry about getting the cattle to their destination. But Adam could foresee that, in a few years, their herd would be big enough for them to drive and make an even greater profit. Of course they would need extra hands for that kind of thing - and trying to talk Pa into letting anyone but family work the Ponderosa was a never-ending battle.
When he felt himself getting drowsy, Adam decided it was time to move. He slapped Joe on the shoulder with the back of his hand. The boy muttered and rolled away from him. "You have one more chance," Adam warned in amusement.
"Or what?" Joe challenged from under his hat.
"I drag you."
Joe slowly lifted his hat brim and squinted his eyes. "You would not."
Adam wrapped a gloved hand around each of his little brothers ankles. His movement had the desired effect. Joe swatted at Adam - but he got to his feet.
"How come we have to go home?" Joe plodded beside Adam toward the horses.
"We have a kitchen to work on, remember?"
"Yeah." Joe kicked at a small rock. "I remember." Mischief filled his eyes and he kicked the rock in front of Adams boots.
He was rewarded with a chuckle and then Adam kicked the rock back to him. Joe kicked it a little farther. Adam ran to it and kicked it so hard it landed in the water running through the sluice. Joe laughed and fished the rock out, then dropped it to the ground and kicked it toward the pines.
Ah, well, Adam decided. A little bit of rock-kicking wouldnt make them too late.
Hoss heard the buggy driving up to the corral and turned with a wide grin dimpling his cheeks. He expected to see Barbara but he recalled Joe saying that their cousin had gone to San Francisco just about the time he noticed the horse pulling the buggy. He was one of the prettiest buckskins Hoss had ever seen held his head just right, had a powerful chest, and muscled haunches. Pulling that buggy didnt seem to tire him at all considering how he was breathing when he stopped near the water trough. As Hoss reached toward the animal, he heard a womans voice ask, "Could you tell me whom I might speak with about purchasing some horses, please?"
Hoss hurried to the left side of the buggy and extended his hand to help the lady step to the ground. Then he remembered his hat, and tipped it. "I can help ya, maam. Im Hoss Cartwright." He wished he had said Erik instead, it sounded more like a businessman.
She didnt even raise an eyebrow at his name and didnt make any remark about how unusual it was. Instead she held out her right hand and announced, "Im Beth Parker. I spoke to Adam yesterday at the trading post."
This was Miss Parker? Hoss had been expecting an older lady, maybe even a spinster Pas age. But this little thing wasnt much taller than Tess and she was a whole lot younger than Pa, probably Adams age. She wasnt as pretty as Tess but she was nice-enough looking if a fella cared for dark hair and brown eyes. And she had a real nice smile.
She glanced around the corral, which was empty except for Cochise. "I was assured that you have horses to sell."
"Oh, yes, maam. Theyre down there," he said as he motioned. "In that bigger corral."
Miss Parker patted the buckskin on his shoulder and then turned her attention to the lower corral. "I need two geldings and one mare for riding," she said. "I would prefer that they be accustomed to cattle and - " She stopped in mid-sentence when Smoke tore out of the tree line and raced straight for the lower corral. From the way Miss Parker tensed, Hoss figured that she expected Smoke to duck under the lowest rung and scare the horses.
But he didnt. Smoke knew a lot better than to pull a stunt like that. Instead, he slowed to a walk and, when he reached the fence, stood with his front legs atop the lowest rung so he could check for predators. Finding none, he jumped down and ran toward their visitor.
Most women didnt care much for Smoke. Probably because he was so tall. But Miss Parker smiled at him and patted his head. The dog sat down and smiled at Miss Parker.
She laughed. "Who taught him that?"
"My little brother Joe."
She rubbed behind Smokes left ear and then slid her fingers to scratch under his chin. Smoke almost melted like a piece of ice in August. "Did he have to work with him for a long time?"
"Smoke? Nah, he was already trying to smile on his own. Joe just showed him how to make it look like a smile instead of a snarl."
Miss Parker laughed a real pretty laugh. She didnt put her hand over her mouth, or toss her head back, or laugh louder than a man. She just laughed lightly, the way a girl did. She looked up at Hoss. "How about those horses?"
Hoss had to admit that even though Miss Parker wasnt as pretty as Tess she knew as much about horses, maybe more.
When she entered the corral, five horses that stood almost shoulder to shoulder calmly watched her while the others shied toward the fence. Miss Parker concentrated on those five horses and never gave any of the others a second thought. She made sure to walk toward them from far away and the side. Anytime she moved around she was slow about it and she talked to them the entire time. Hoss leaned on the top rail and watched her stroke their withers and slide her hand across their muzzles. He was surprised that she didnt check their teeth and he almost had a fit when she lifted their hooves one at a time without a worry about being kicked. She checked them as thoroughly as Hoss had ever seen a horse buyer do except for not looking at their mouths. Miss Parker took more time with each horse than most fellas took checking out a dozen horses. As she walked toward the corral gate she asked if any of the five were gun shy.
"No, maam," Hoss answered. "My brother trained them about that."
She stood before him and rested her hands in front of her waist. "The brother who trained your dog to smile?"
"My other brother. Adam."
"Yes, we met yesterday at the trading post. He didnt strike me as someone who has the concentration needed to work with horses."
Hoss grinned. "I dont reckon he did yesterday, maam. He was in about the worst shape Ive ever seen except for that time in the mountains."
She showed her interest by relaxing her stance and actually leaning against a corral post. Her eyes roved to the slopes in the distance. "The mountains?"
"Oh, not those," Hoss hastened to explain. "We crossed some mountains on the trail here. Bunch of people took sick. Adam didnt run any fever but he couldnt think worth a lick for a couple of days. He got better once we cleared South Pass." A thought occurred to him. "Wonder if he was having another attack of that stuff yesterday."
Miss Parker seemed in no hurry to talk money. Instead she looked at the tips of her shoes and asked, "You followed the trail, too?"
"Yes, maam, all the way from Missouri."
"It was a difficult journey, wasnt it?" she asked.
"I suppose. But it was real pretty and we got to see all kinds of things wed never seen before." Hoss didnt want her to misunderstand him so he added, "I dont want to do it again."
Miss Parker laughed, shook her head, and said that she didnt either. She turned her attention back to the horses. "Lets talk money, Hoss."
Now they were to Hoss favorite part of the sale. He told her the horses were $15 each.
She continued to study them and said she would offer him $12 each and take all five. Then she looked at him from the sides of her eyes and Hoss noticed she had freckles just like Little Joe had. "But you wont accept that offer, will you?" she asked.
"No, maam. Theyre worth every bit of $15."
Miss Parker considered what he said. "How did you break them?"
Nobody had ever asked him that before. "We dont break our horses, maam. A neighbor of ours showed us a different way. We gentle em."
She tilted her head slightly, propped her left elbow on the middle rail, and asked, "Where did he learn about that?"
"From the Indians. But his daughters the one who taught my brother and me."
She was quiet for a full minute. He figured she was thinking up another offer. He couldnt believe his ears when she said, "Ill pay your full price if youll lead them to our place."
This was way too easy. Was it some kind of trick? "Wheres your place?" he asked cautiously.
She motioned to the meadow in front of the house. "On the opposite side of the Green Ranch from here."
Hoss thought that sounded reasonable. "Youve got yourself five horses, maam."
She followed him to the barn where she handed him the money and he wrote out a bill of sale. Then she held out her right hand. "It has been a pleasure, Hoss."
He carefully folded his large hand around her small one. "Yes, maam, it has."
"Please. Its Beth."
Hoss felt himself blush. "Yes maam. I mean, Beth."
She gave him another big smile and then turned toward her buggy. Hoss helped her step up. He eased back so the buggy could have some turning room.
"Well have them to you tomorrow," he told her.
Beth waved her left hand, called to her horse, and directed the buggy back to the road.
Hoss strutted toward the house, eager to share the news of his successful trade.
Ben picked up his hammer after Hoss had told his story. "You did very well, Hoss."
Hop Sing nodded. "You are champion Ponderosa horse trader."
After a self-conscious shrug, Hoss lifted a board and held it while Ben nailed it in place as part of the new kitchen wall. "She knew more about horses than just about any body I ever met. I figured we were in for some hagglin for sure."
Ben paused and looked up at his son. "She didnt try to lower the price?"
"Aw, she made me a kind of offer but she wasnt serious about it. I could see in her eyes how bad she wanted them horses."
Interesting. Ben had never known a horse trader who didnt try to drive a bargain. It sounded like she knew horses but not how to buy them. "Did she have someone with her to help her lead them?"
"Were taking them to her."
"Taking them to her."
"Yessir. I figure itll be a good way to meet some new neighbors."
"And where do these new neighbors live?" Ben motioned that he was ready for another board. Hoss snugged the next one above the previous one.
"The other side of the Greens."
"Do you plan to lead the horses by yourself?"
"I figured Id ask Adam to help out."
Ben grinned. "Not Joseph?"
"Tomorrows his day to go to town, Pa. Besides, you know how Joe gets distracted."
He knew how Hoss and Joe both got distracted. Better to keep them separated. Adam could generally help Hoss concentrate on the job at hand. Besides, Adam had already met Miss Parker so there would be less time spent in introductions, more time for them to head home and help with this kitchen.
Hop Sing asked if anyone wanted tea. Ben did. Hoss asked if he might have a glass of water.
So what about this Miss Parker who knew so much about horses but paid full price?
"Does she have her own place?" Ben asked.
"No, I get the feeling she has a family."
Ben nearly hit his thumb. "I thought you said she was a - that she isnt married."
"She aint, Pa. But I imagine she will be some day. Shes a nice looking girl."
This time Ben didnt miss. He hit his thumb and said something he wished he hadnt.
His son stretched his face and then fought to look sympathetic. "Maybe I oughta hammer for a while."
Ben handed him the thumb-whacking device and took over holding the board. "Shes a girl?"
"Well - not a girl exactly."
How was she not exactly a girl?
"I guess shes still a girl," Hoss said more to himself as he drove a nail into place with two hammer strikes. "She looks to be about Adams age."
A suspicion gnawed at the back of Bens thoughts. "What does she look like?"
Hoss hammered another nail into place and glanced around. "Were almost through with this inside wall, aint we?"
His son returned to Bens question. "Shes not as pretty as Tess. Shes taller. Her eyes are the color of a chestnut horse and her hairs about as deep brown as those spots on Paint."
Ben hoped that Hoss never tried to write a love poem.
"You gonna paper these walls, Hop Sing?" Hoss asked as he accepted the glass of water with an automatic, "Thank you."
Hop Sing shook his head. "Paper is not safe near cook stove."
Ben thanked him for the cup of tea and looked around the room. "Maybe we should paint."
Hop Sing waved his hands at chest height. "Not if it take more time."
That got a chuckle from Ben. Little did Hop Sing know that Ben was just as anxious to have this project finished as Hop Sing was to witness its completion. There was no telling what good food they might enjoy when there was actually something decent to cook on. Maybe Hop Sing would make chicken pie again. Ben had always liked that when the family had lived in the boarding house in Eagle Station.
Hop Sing took one more approving look around before bending under the tarp and returning to the living room.
Ben heard the front door open. The boot falls told him that Joseph and Adam had returned.
"Hi, Hop Sing." Josephs voice was full of excitement as it always was when hed been riding.
Hop Sings response was lost to Ben because Adam ducked under the tarp and appeared in the kitchen with the remark that they were really making progress.
Hoss looked over his shoulder. "Some of us are. Some others seem to take a awful long time to check a bunch of cows."
"Herd, Hoss. Its a herd - of cattle." Adam stepped beside Ben and relieved him of holding the board. "Howd the sale go?"
Ben watched his middle son wag his head back and forth two or three times and stick out his chest. "I sold five," he said in a deeper voice than normal.
Adam resisted the temptation to tease his brother about his behavior. Instead he said, "I dont know how you do it, brother."
"Its my charm," Hoss answered proudly.
"So what youre saying," Adam made eye contact with Ben as he spoke to Hoss. "What youre saying is that if you hadnt used your charm you could have sold a dozen or so?" Hoss made a fist and faked a genial slug at Adam, who ducked as he laughed. When they calmed down, and were back to holding the board and nailing it, Adam said, "Which ones did she take?"
Hoss motioned to another board which Ben handed to Adam. As Adams hand brushed his fathers, he noticed the swollen thumb and winced. "Thunder and perdition?" he asked no one in particular.
"Damnation and heck," Hoss corrected his brothers assumption about what their father had said when he had wounded himself. " Cept he said just the first part of the damnation and put in a it and a to and used that other word for heck."
Adam held the board in place but turned to give Ben a look of mock astonishment. "Whered you hear words like - "
"She didnt take them," Hoss said, having remembered his brothers question. "So I figured wed lead them to her place tomorrow."
"You did." Adam eyed Hoss cautiously.
"She just lives the other side of the Green place."
Ben smiled and quickly raised his mug of tea for a sip when Adam asked, "When are we supposed to work on the kitchen, Hoss?"
Hoss gave Adam a look of doubt. "When we get back."
Adam waved his right hand toward the front door. "Stringing horses to the other side of the Green Ranch and then riding back will take the better part of a day."
Uh oh. Adam had left himself wide open for what was coming.
"Well," Hoss voice was heavy with calculation, "thats why I figure well get up extra early."
"Extra early!" Adam yelped. "We already get up while the stars are out!"
Ben didnt realize that Joe was in the room until the youngster said in a honey-sweet voice, "Id go for ya, Adam, but tomorrows my town day."
"I am not," Adam declared, "getting up earlier than usual."
Hoss lowered his eyes. "Id do it if you asked me."
Adam leaned toward his brother. "Thats because you know good and well that I would never ask you to get up extra early."
"Thats for sure," Joe said.
His big brother shot him a look.
Joe shrugged. "I was just agreeing with ya, Adam. Wasnt I, Pa?"
All three boys looked to Ben. He
smiled apologetically at his eldest son and said that it seemed
to him that Joseph had been agreeing with Adam. Hoss gave out a
hoot of laughter and then quickly changed his expression when
Adam glared at him.
"I am not getting up extra early," Adam repeated.
"Does that mean youll go with me?" Hoss asked innocently.
"Yes, I will go with you."
Ben counted to five before Adam asked the inevitable question. "How much did you get for them?"
"Fifteen dollars each."
If there was one thing that always impressed Adam it was numbers. "Seventy-five dollars!" he exclaimed.
Hoss gave his brother a look steeped in superiority. "How much did you make this morning?"
"Sorry," Hoss said. "I didnt hear ya."
"You bent that nail."
Ben glanced down at Joe, who raised his eyebrows and nodded. They slipped out of the kitchen without Adam or Hoss being any the wiser.
Why was it, Joe wondered, that just because his brothers had to leave extra early they had to wake up all of tarnation, too? They didnt even try to be quiet or considerate of Smoke and him. Adam and Hoss tramped all over the room. Then Adam had to go start a fire and boil some water so he could shave. And could he shave out there in the rest of the house? Course not. He had to come back into the bunkroom and light the brightest lantern they owned and prop it on the table and then fuss about how dang near impossible it was to shave in the dark. Hoss told him to just leave it be but Adam told Hoss that if Hoss ever started shaving hed understand how bad a days growth felt. Joe rolled onto his stomach and put his pillow over his head when Hoss hollered that Adam knew good and well that Hoss was shaving. He just didnt see the need to shave every day. Adam said that was because Hoss only needed to shave once a week. And Hoss said, "Oh yeah?" and Adam said, "Yeah." And then Adam said something under his breath which meant hed nicked himself shaving.
From the sound of it, Hoss left the room about then. From the smell of it, he returned with some cups of coffee. Then he sat right down on top of Joes bottom and when Joe yelled into his pillow Hoss acted all innocent and asked, "What are you doing there?"
Joe lifted his head as much as he could. "Would ya get off of me?" Sometimes big brothers were just a pain in the -
"You should be asleep," Adam scolded.
Joe motioned to the room in general. "I been tryin ever since you two started stomping around."
"You should have been asleep
before that," Adam said.
"I was!" Joe declared.
Hoss stood and put his right index finger to his lips. "Quit yelling. Youre gonna wake up Pa for sure and you know how touchy he is first thing in the morning."
Joe lowered his face into his pillow in abject defeat. "Aint it time for you to leave yet?"
Adams voice was full of the devil as he sat down on his bunk bed and said, "I plan to enjoy my coffee first."
From his sprawled posture on the floor, Smoke growled that the brothers should keep the noise down. Joe rolled onto his back and pointed his finger at Hoss. "You better not sit on me again!"
Hoss swatted at Joes legs. "Then move over."
"Move over! Its my - "
Hoss put his finger to his lips again.
"Its my bed," Joe whispered angrily.
"Im just borrowing it until we finish our coffee. Then you can have it back."
Joes jaw hardened. "I never said you could borrow it."
Hoss pushed Joes hair into his eyes. "Thats cause I didnt ask."
"Which horses did she buy?" Adam rubbed his left hand on his knee like he was trying to warm up his hand, or his knee, or maybe both.
Joe lowered his eyes and noticed his older brother was still barefoot. Oh great. No telling when they would leave Smoke and him alone.
"She bought three geldings and two mares. One of the geldings is that pretty dun with the - "
Joe was not believing this. Not only were they taking their own sweet time drinking their coffee and not only was Adam still barefoot but now Hoss was gonna describe each one of the five dumb horses. Couldnt Adam wait and look at them when they got out to the corral? Why couldnt they get dressed and leave?
Hed just ignore them. Thats what hed do. He planned a new war for his toy soldiers and then he played a counting game in his head. His brothers were still talking about horses when he tired of counting. He closed his eyes and launched into a pretend about pirates.
"Aw, look at that," Hoss said in way too sweet a voice. "Little brother fell right back to sleep."
Now Adam had to get into it. "He looks just like he did when he was a baby, doesnt he? Hed curl up and make that smacking sound with his lips and then - "
"Hed wet his diaper," Hoss laughed. "Every single time he was drifting off to sleep hed - "
"I am not asleep," Joe announced and opened his eyes. "Im playing pirate so I dont have to listen to ya."
Adam snapped his fingers. "That reminds me. We need to ask Hop Sing to cook something special for Pas birthday."
Hoss frowned. "Whats playing pirates got to do with Pas birthday?"
"I got a pirate book," Joe answered wearily.
It was too early for Hoss to follow either of his brothers thought processes. "Whats your book got to do with Pas birthday?"
"Its not my pirate book. Its a pirate book I got for Pas birthday."
Hoss clucked his disapproval at his brothers announcement. "Joe, youre supposed to get something for the person whos having the birthday. You aint supposed to get something for yourself for their birthday."
Joe sat up and spoke slowly. "I got the pirate book for Pa for his birthday," he said even though he wanted to yell. It was just way too early in the morning - or late at night - for talking.
"Oh." Hoss nodded and sipped some coffee. "So whats pirates got to do with Pas birthday?"
Adam leaned his arms on his knees and looked at Hoss from the tops of his eyes. "Hoss? Just let Joe and me worry about Pas birthday, okay?"
Hoss said that sounded like a good idea, being that he was so busy selling horses. Adam and Joe exchanged looks of immense relief.
"Youre sure?" Adam asked for the third time since they had left the ranch house. "She said it was just the other side of the Greens?"
For the third time, Hoss nodded.
Adams arms were tired from leading two horses. He swapped the rope, and his reins, from one hand to the other. "She didnt say how far on the other side of the Greens this place was, did she?"
"Well - no," Hoss admitted.
"And you didnt think to ask," Adam pronounced.
This was just fine, Adam fumed. Just fine. First Hoss had to wake him up before the break of dawn, when the stars were still out and the coyotes were yipping and even the brainless chickens knew to be asleep. Then they had had trouble with the rope when they had hitched up the sale horses. Then Hoss had realized hed forgotten his gloves. That had stoked Adam into a blaze. Then Adam had realized he had forgotten his coat. That had been embarrassing.
Then they had ridden out toward the other side of the Green Ranch. And about half an hour ago they had realized that there were several different sides to the other side of the Green Ranch.
Hoss head went up and his back straightened. "Bacon."
Adam turned toward his brother. "What?"
"Bacon. Dont you smell it?"
"No, I dont smell - "
"Do you smell the strawberry jam?"
Hoss had a legendary ability to smell food from astounding distances but even Hoss could not smell strawberry jam.
A huge smile brightened Hoss face. "Who do you reckon is cooking?"
An idea pierced Adams tired brain. "Can you tell where the smell is coming from?" he asked excitedly.
"You hungry, too?"
"If we can find the people who are cooking that food then perhaps they can help us locate the Parker place," Adam explained with exaggerated patience.
Hoss leaned back in the saddle and shook his head. "Dang, Adam, I never wouldve thought of that."
"I know," Adam muttered as he shifted the lead line to his right hand and the reins to his left hand. "Wheres the smell coming from?"
Hoss pointed slightly to his left. "There."
Adam quickly looked at his brother again. "How do you know?"
"Theres smoke coming out of the chimney."
There was a chimney, all right, and smoke. Somehow he had to persuade Hoss that when they reached the house they only had time to ask for directions. There would be no visiting and no breakfast.
Adam turned to his left. Beth Parker rode toward them atop a slender roan horse.
"Youre just in time for breakfast, Hoss." She stopped in front of the brothers and added as an afterthought, "Adam."
Adam tried to touch the brim of his hat but couldnt find it.
Hoss said something like, "That food sure does smell good."
What food? Adam wondered.
Beth Parker pulled her horse alongside Karly. "Mothers a good cook. May I?" She held her hand palm up and nodded toward the lead rope that Hoss held. He immediately relinquished the job. Beth Parker slid appreciative eyes over Karly. "How much would you sell that one for?"
Hoss shook his head. "Ive had her since I was a kid in New Orleans. Shes like family."
"New Orleans? Did you live there?"
Adam wondered about that, too.
"Yes, maam, I mean, Beth."
"Its a wonderful city, isnt it?" She raised her eyebrows. "Do you know the best thing about New Orleans?"
Hoss reset his hat. "Iced cream."
Adam had a vague memory of iced cream. It was a candy.
Beths laughter danced in the light fog. "And dont forget the pralines."
"I try not to," Hoss admitted. "Sure do miss them."
Who were the Pralines? Adam didnt remember anyone in New Orleans named Praline. But then he didnt really remember New Orleans. Was Hoss sure that they had lived there?
"Mother makes them," Beth said.
"Well send several home with you." She softly said something to the roan and then eased it, and the three sale horses, ahead of Adam and Hoss.
Send what home with whom - uh - who?
Hoss turned in his saddle and looked back at Adam. "You all right?"
When had he pulled Beauty to a stop? He signaled her to follow Karly and was nearly jerked from the saddle by the two horses on the rope behind him. They had taken the momentary pause in action as permission to nibble at the grass - and they were not eager to leave their meal behind.
"Come on," Adam ordered. The gelding raised his head, gave it a violent shake, and proceeded to ignore him.
This was fine. Just fine.
These horses knew better than this. Adam called to them again and tugged at the rope. The mare pulled against the lead and nearly rose on her rear legs.
"Oh for - " Beth bit off her remark. When had she turned back? When had she handed the lead rope for the other three horses back to Hoss? She tapped Adams gloved hand. "Let me have them."
His gloves? Why did she want his gloves?
She pried his fingers away from the rope. When she gently called to the horses, they immediately tagged behind her like ducklings following their mother.
Beauty snorted that she was impatient to join the parade. Adam eased back in the saddle. Beauty blew out a breath. What was wrong with her, now?
"Adam," Hoss called impatiently.
By the time Adam and Beauty caught up to them, Beth and Hoss had the horses in the corral and were walking toward a house. Had Hoss started courting this girl? Was he going in to meet her parents? Not knowing what to do, not sure why he didnt know what to do, not even sure where he was, Adam stepped up on the porch and walked into a support post.
Hoss would not have believed it if he hasnt seen it all with his own two eyes. The minute they walked into the Parker house Adam fell plumb all to pieces. It was even worse than the other day in the barn when hed started to feed Beauty before hed taken her saddle off. There was for sure something wrong with Adam but for the life of him Hoss couldnt figure out what it was.
They were no more inside the front door than Adam started acting like he hadnt been raised right. Beth introduced her mother and then her father and then her three little sisters. Hoss shook hands with Mr. Parker, said hello to Mrs. Parker, and smiled at Ruth, Mary, and Dinah. When it was pretty obvious to everyone that Adam wasnt doing much more than breathing, Hoss hit him in the ribs with his elbow. Adam stirred like hed been asleep and then he stammered around until he made some passable greetings to everyone. Hoss was downright embarrassed for him.
Mrs. Parker asked them to breakfast. Hoss was already sitting in a chair when Adam asked what everyone was doing.
Mr. Parker laughed and said Adam might as well at least have a cup of coffee because it was for sure that Hoss had time for breakfast.
Adam pulled out a chair and sat at the table without another word. Well, not without any words but with dang few. He remembered to say "please" and "thank you" when he accepted a cup of coffee from Beth. But he never did put his napkin in his lap. And once or twice he even slurped his coffee. When he wasnt making rude noises like slurping, Adam was so quiet that a body would have sworn he didnt know how to talk.
So it fell to Hoss to be neighborly. He told the Parkers about the Ponderosa and how he ranched it with his Pa and brothers and their friend, Hop Sing. Dinah said shed never heard a name like "Hop Sing." At great risk of letting his eggs get cold, Hoss told her how Hop Sing had come from China and how hed worked for Miss Sterret and how he had studied medicine back in China and how he knew about all kinds of plants. After that, Hoss left it to the Parkers to tell him about themselves.
What theyd done, the Parkers, was theyd followed the trail from Missouri to California last year. Theyd gone clear to California but Mr. Parker couldnt get out of his mind some of the valleys hed seen in the mountains and as soon as the pass was open they were headed back east. Back to here.
It turned out that the pretty roan that Beth had been riding had come all the way around from the other side of the country on a ship. Theyd picked him up in San Francisco and hed spent the winter with them there in California where it was warm. That roan and the buckskin shed driven up with yesterday had both come back through the pass. Hoss knew for sure, then, that those horses were as strong as he thought even if that roan had skinny legs.
"I bought this property from a gentleman in California," Mr. Parker said when hed finished his breakfast and was leaned back in his chair, smoking a pipe. He wasnt a real big man, just about as tall as Adam but with more weight on him. "It reminded me of our place in Mississippi."
Hoss swallowed the rest of his biscuit. "Weve been to Mississippi."
"Is that so?" Mrs. Parker asked. She passed him the plate of biscuits so he wouldnt be without.
Hoss liked Beths mother. You wouldve thought with her being such a good cook and all that shed be a whole lot bigger than she was. Truth told she was only a little bigger than Ma had been but her color was all different. She had light hair and light eyes and her face was kind of reddish. Pa had always said that Mas face looked like a china dolls and when Hoss finally saw a china doll in one of the shop windows hed decided Pa was right as always. He remembered Mrs. Parkers question and smiled in quick apology. "Yes, maam. We were in Mississippi while we were waiting to go on to Independence. It was a real pretty place. Just about anything they put in the ground grew and there were magnolias and dogwoods and hi-deranged - " Hoss faltered as he tried to remember the name for the pretty pink flowers.
"Hydrangeas?" Beth offered. She did it real nice without a bit of teasing in her voice.
Hoss nodded. "There were almost as many flowers as there were in New Orleans."
"Hoss lived in New Orleans," Beth said to her family.
"Its a lovely city." Mrs. Parker refilled her coffee cup. "And you settled here?"
"Yes, maam. We were headed to California, same as you. But our ma was gonna have a baby so we stopped here and we kinda liked it so we stayed."
"You should see all the flowers in California," Mary told him. She looked to be about Joes age and, like all the girls, had wavy dark hair and big dark eyes like Beth. "I have some pressed in the back of a book if you want to see them sometime."
Hoss forgot his food for a moment. "Me, too. I mean, I have all these flowers from when we were traveling and theyre all in the back of a book, too."
"Do you have any other brothers?" Ruth asked. She looked closest to his age.
Dinah tilted her head. "Little Joe?"
"Well," Hoss said. "His real names Joseph but hes been little since the day he was born and hes the littlest - I mean the youngest - so we just call him Little Joe."
Mary frowned. "Does he like being called that?"
Hoss put down his fork and wrapped his hand around his coffee mug. "Hes kinda decided there aint much he can do about it."
Mr. Parker laughed. "Apparently brothers tease as much as sisters do."
Now there was something new to think about. Hoss had never considered that girls might treat each other the way boys did. They probably didnt wrestle and have shooting contests or horse races like brothers did, though.
"Have yall met the Greens yet?" Hoss asked.
"Eli introduced me to Margaret at the trading post," Mrs. Parker answered. "And Mr. Wolf introduced Beth to Tess."
Hoss choked and knew his face went red. He looked at Beth in surprise and asked how she knew Jack - Mr. Wolf.
She answered as if knowing the man was nothing out of the ordinary. "We met on a riverboat." Beth gave her father an amused look. "As I recall, he beat you in an all-night card game."
Mr. Parker nodded that her recollection was correct. "Dont ever play cards with the man, Hoss. Hes the best poker player Ive ever had the misfortune to meet." His warning was serious but his tone was amused.
Hoss told the man that he didnt have to worry about Hoss ever playing anyone for real money. "I wouldnt stand a chance of winning. Leastways not like Pa." He noticed Mr. Parker scooting forward in his chair.
"Your father likes to play poker?" he asked.
"Well, he plays it but he doesnt play it for money much. Just with friends."
Mr. Parker smiled. "Thats the best way," he agreed.
"And your mother?" Mrs. Parker asked.
Hoss went still. "Maam?"
"What about your mother?"
"She died last year, maam."
Everyones eyes went sad at the news.
"Im so sorry," Mrs. Parker said.
"Yes, maam," Hoss answered. It was hard to think of Ma and be sad for very long though. He smiled at Mrs. Parker. "She was what they call Cajun."
Mrs. Parker nodded that she understood. Encouraged by her attention, Hoss continued. "She liked to dance and to play cards and to sing." Hoss looked at Beth. "And she could ride a horse like nothing you ever saw. Pa was all the time fussing at her that it was dangerous but she never did pay much attention to him about that." He laughed and shook his head. "Come to think of it, she never did pay him much attention about much of anything."
Mr. Parker laughed real hard and Mrs. Parker looked at her husband as she stood from the table. "Not a word, Jeremiah. Not one word."
The girls giggled and Hoss was pretty sure that their ma was a lot like his.
The whole family was so easy to be around that Hoss really hated when it was time to leave. He sure wished they lived closer. Mrs. Parker was a mighty fine cook.
He had to hit Adam on the shoulder kind of hard to get him to move from the table. Then he had to remind him to pick up his hat. Hoss thought he was gonna have to remind Adam how to walk, too, when his big brother tripped walking out the front door. He stood around like he didnt have any brains while Mr. Parker thanked them for bringing the horses and he was still standing there when Hoss was halfway to Karly. Luckily no one was watching by then. Hoss walked back to Adam and leaned down to look him in the eye. Adam didnt blink.
"I know we got up early," Hoss said. "But youd better quit sleeping while youve got your eyes open or youre liable to get hurt."
Adam blinked then. And he gave Hoss just about the strangest look Hoss had ever seen. It was that way Adam would get when they were kids and Adam was all lost in some book and when he finally knew Pa was talking to him he had what Pa called "a look blanker than a clean slate." Hoss hadnt seen that blank look in a long, long time. But he knew it when he was looking at it. And he was looking at it now.
"Adam," he whispered. "We gotta head home."
"Right," Adam answered. He turned around like he was gonna walk back into the Parkers house, like he thought it was the Ponderosa.
Hoss grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him back around so he was looking toward their horses. Maybe he needed to do what Pa did with them sometimes - break something into smaller pieces. "You need to get on Beauty, Adam."
Adam looked more normal as that dark part of his eyes got smaller. "Right."
"And when you get on Beauty, ya need to pick up the reins. And then ya need to turn her to the right and - "
Adams eyes for sure got normal then. Matter of fact, they sparked. "Im the one who taught you how to ride a horse, brother."
Hoss shook his head. "Well its good to see that you remember something."
"What does that mean?" Adam challenged.
Hoss told him to never mind, just to get on Beauty. He thought Adam was back to the way he always was. But he knew there was still something wrong with his big brother when Adam put his left boot in the stirrup and swung up onto Karlys back.
Adam looked down at the saddle and frowned. "Who lowered the stirrups?" He slid around in the seat. "Whose saddle is this?"
After a weary sigh, Hoss said the saddle was his.
"What the deuce is it doing on Beauty?" Adam demanded.
It was gonna be a real long ride home.
Ben tried to keep his temper in check. He even counted to fifty. Twice. But when Adam and Hoss finally returned to the ranch in the middle of the afternoon it was more than even the most patient father could be expected to tolerate.
He waited for his sons to dismount before he stepped off the porch and demanded, "Do you want to tell me where in Zeus you have been?"
Adam gave a short, dismissive wave toward his brother. "Ask him."
"That is not an answer," Ben pointed out.
His eldest son faced him. "Well its the only answer I have, Pa. I dont know why we had to get up in the middle of the night. It just gave us extra time to wander all over creation because Hoss didnt have the sense to ask where the Parker place was - "
Hoss was quick to defend himself. "It was right there on the other side of the Green place like Beth said it was."
"On the other side!" Adams voice rose an octave. "It was halfway to Hangtown!"
"Adam," Ben said softly.
"And then," Adam continued, "and then when we finally found the Parker place - "
Hoss stiffened. "Im the one who found it."
"Smelled it is more like it." Adams voice rose again.
"Im the one that found it. If it was up to you wed still be out there lost as - "
Adams voice lowered and he leaned dangerously close to his brother. He jabbed his left index finger into Hoss chest. "If itd been up to me, we wouldnt have needed directions to the Parker place because the Parkers would have had to pick up their own horses."
Hoss lowered his head like an enraged bull ready to charge. "If it was up to you," he growled, "we wouldve been lucky to get $10 apiece for them horses."
"Ten dollars," Adam hissed. "Im the one that sold that pair of horses for $25."
"Im the one that sold five horses for $75."
"Gentlemen," Ben said deeply.
They reluctantly unlocked stares.
"Where are the supplies?"
Saints help him they both frowned at him.
"Tell me," Ben said through gritted teeth, "that you did not forget to go into town and pick up those tools." He was frowning so much that his forehead hurt.
Adams hand shot out to point at Hoss. "He was supposed to remind me."
"Remind you!" Hoss shouted. "How was I supposed to remind you when it was all I could do to get ya home?"
This did not sound good. "What do you mean it was all you could do to get your brother home?"
Hoss shook his head. "He couldnt walk, he didnt even know which horse was his - "
Adam rushed to add, "Its not what you think, Pa."
"Then enlighten me!" Ben roared and both boys squinted their eyes.
"Pa," Hoss whispered, "youre shouting."
"And I intend to do a lot more of it if I dont get straight answers - now!"
"Wh - What would you like to know?" Adams voice was soft and wary.
"Why couldnt you walk?"
His son ran his hand through his hair. "I dont remember, Pa."
Ben didnt even bother to count. It wouldnt do any good anyhow. Summoning the tattered shreds of what self-control he had, he addressed Hoss. "Why doesnt your brother remember?"
Hoss shrugged. "I dont rightly know, Pa. For a while there it was a flat out miracle that he knew how to breathe."
Ben clenched and unclenched his fists. He slammed his eyes into one son and then the other; and then he jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "You will get in that kitchen and you will work like you have never worked in your lives. Am I understood?"
"Yes, Pa," Adam assured.
"Yes, sir." Hoss couldnt get away from Ben fast enough.
To Bens disbelieving eyes, they skirted around him and headed for the porch. "Adam! Hoss!" When they appeared in front of him, they had their hands behind their backs. "After you take care of your horses, please."
They looked at each other in surprise and then behind them at Beauty and Karly.
Ben cupped the palms of his hands over his face and forced himself to breathe deeply. When he could finally straighten his shoulders, he dropped his hands to his sides and walked to the porch.
"Hey, Pa!" Joe called as he rode up on Paint, leading his pack horse behind him.
His sons cheerful greeting eased Bens tense shoulder muscles. He leaned on the porch post and folded his arms across his chest. "Did you sell all the eggs and chickens?"
Joe leaped from Paints saddle. "Sure did, Pa. And I got orders for more." His face was bright and his hazel eyes twinkled. "I got a surprise for ya, too."
Please Lord, let it be a good one. "A surprise?"
Joe turned back to the pack horse and rummaged around in his custom-built cargo pack. The youngster faced Ben, triumphantly holding a cloth sack that looked like the bottom was about to tear out. "See?" he announced.
"Are those the tools?" Ben asked in disbelief.
Joe gave his head a jaunty tilt. "Yep. I stopped by the trading post for some rock candy - " He grunted as he lifted the sack to Bens outstretched hands. "I didnt buy much, promise. Mr. Orowitz asked me to bring these tools to ya."
Ben raised his eyes and smiled at his youngest son. "Thank you, Joseph. Thank you very much."
The boy smiled right back. "Sure, Pa. I gotta take care of Paint and Spot. Then I gotta check on Webster and Cochise. And Ill have Buttercup milked before dinner. I just need to clean out the chicken coop." Joe scurried off.
Adam was as addle-brained as a kid, Hoss was angry, and Joe was behaving responsibly? If it were a little later in the day he would have taken his brandy bottle to Joes cave and spent a couple of quiet hours contemplating the vagaries of fatherhood.
There had to be an explanation. Ben knew that.
Joseph was being momentarily responsible because of something else he had done that was not responsible. Ben knew that.
Hoss was upset because of Adams fits of absentmindedness. Ben knew that.
But Adam was witless because - well, thats what Ben didnt know. If his eldest sons behavior had been consistent, Ben would have written it off to spring fever. But it wasnt consistent, it wasnt even predictable, and it didnt make sense.
Hoping he might divine an answer, Ben asked Adam to ride to town with him Friday morning. He was encouraged by the fact that after breakfast the next morning Adam was aware it was Friday, remembered to get his coat, and knew how to saddle Beauty. The situation looked good. Adam even asked the purpose of the trip into town.
There were several reasons, Ben told him as they followed the well-beaten trail. They needed to check the mail, needed to pick up the provisions that Hop Sing had ordered, needed to find out when Eli expected the cook stove to arrive - and they needed to buy a new ax.
Adam flinched at that one. He had broken the ax.
Ben and Hoss had no idea how Adam had broken it. He had not broken the blade from the handle. He had not broken only the handle. He had split the blade right down the middle and cracked the ax handle in the process. Joe had been impressed and asked Adam how he had done it. Ben had known what Adam would say: he didnt remember.
Ben returned to the reasons for going to town. He had a council member meeting to discuss a spring dance -
Adam perked up. "A dance?" he asked. Then he his brain slipped a cog. "What kind of dance?" But he recovered before Ben could moan in agony. "You dont have to take someone, do you?"
So that was it. Adam hadnt taken anyone to a dance since Isabella had left. He hadnt enjoyed a dance since Isabella had left, either. But he was considering this dance. He actually seemed to be looking forward to it.
"I imagine there will be some couples and there will be some people who come by themselves; like all the other dances."
There was a furtive look from under the black hat brim. "Not a Ladies Dance."
Ben leaned back in the saddle and laughed. "No, son, not a Ladies Dance."
The ride was easy and enjoyable. Adam discussed the progress of the kitchen. He said that once the project was completed he needed to gather supplies for Barbaras house. He wondered aloud how long their cousin planned to stay in San Francisco. Then he went into detail about the herd and how many cattle he planned to sell.
When they dismounted in town, Adam offered to run errands while Ben attended the meeting. They planned to meet in an hour at the trading post.
The council member meeting was shorter than Ben had expected, due in large part to the fact that they were experts at planning dances. There being no other business, Eli adjourned the meeting after about twenty minutes. Jack remarked that it had hardly been worth the walk. Shelby, who had only had one cup of coffee, growled that she wished that just once Jack would keep his o-pinion to himself. Margaret and Ben escaped quietly through the side door. After the usual pleasantries, Ben waved as Maggie drove away.
He walked toward the trading post but stopped in mid-stride when he saw Angus and Adam standing by the side of the building. He was so close that it was impossible not to overhear them even though they spoke in normal tones of voice. Of course, Angus normal tone of voice invited listeners from all over town. And Ben was so attuned to his eldest son that he could hear the boy even when Adam muttered behind Bens back.
"I know ya said ya dont hold it against me, lad. That was grand of ya. But tha fact is that things still arent tha same betwixt us. Id no right ta hit ya, no right at all. Im not excusin what I did. Im not excusin mtemper. Im apologizin to ya and hopin ya understand that it pains me not to see friendship in yer eyes."
Ben pushed back his hat. He had never, in all the time he had known the man, heard Angus apologize.
Adam took a deep breath. "Mr. McNally, my father has taught me many things." His voice softened. "He always says that our friends may disappoint us but thats no reason to abandon them. I understand what he means, sir, but I find it hard to do." He raised his chin and looked Angus in the eyes. "But I will try."
Bens throat tightened. He lowered his eyes. He had no business listening to the two of them - but he was glad he had. The sound of Angus clapping Adam on the shoulder caused Ben to raise his eyes.
Angus smile was filled with relief. He nodded his head vigorously and put a large hand to Adams neck. "Benjamins a wise man. And e as a fine man fer a son."
Adam tugged off his glove and they clasped hands.
That done, Angus declared, "I thank ya, Adam."
Adam touched his hand to his hat brim.
Bens friend turned his back and strolled across the street, whistling for all he was worth. Adam glanced around and Ben hoped he didnt look like hed been eavesdropping.
"Everything finished?" he asked as he pulled on his gloves.
"Ready to ride home?"
Adam hadnt heard him. Adam was looking dreamily toward Angus back.
Not again. Ben turned to see exactly what Adam was looking at. And that was when the answer swung off the back of a pretty roan horse and walked to the bank.
She had to be Beth Parker. Her hair was as dark as the spots on Paint. Ben would have bet good money that her eyes were the color of a chestnut horse.
Now that he understood the source of his sons malady, Ben was relieved that Adam at least knew the girls name. That was an improvement over when the boy had been 15 and had fallen madly in love with Gabrielle Stewart.
Ben put his right hand against Adams back. "Son?"
A jerk and then the deep blue eyes shot to Bens face. "Yes, Pa?"
"Were ready to go home."
Ben laughed softly when Adam turned and walked into the side of the building.
"You do?" Hoss asked excitedly that night after Ben told him that he knew what was wrong with Adam.
Ben shifted on the porch bench and grinned over his cup of coffee. "Oh, yes."
Hoss rested his hands on his knees. "Is it serious, do you think?"
"I think it might be."
"How long do you figure itll last?"
Ben crossed his right ankle to his left knee; a movement which John Adams decided was an invitation to sit on Bens right leg. Ben patted the cats back.
"How long do I think Adam will be this way?" Ben asked. "I think hell be better after the dance."
"The dance?" Hoss repeated. "Whats gonna be at the dance thats gonna help Adam get - " His eyes skipped from Bens face to the moon-lit meadow grass. Then he leaned toward Ben as if they were sharing the secret of a lifetime. "Its a girl, aint it?"
Ben was impressed by Hoss insight. His awe lasted as long as a cricket chirp.
"Who do you figure this girl is?" Hoss asked.
He had no desire to spend the remainder of the evening guiding Hoss to the answer. "Im not sure, son."
Hoss laughed softly. "Dang. Adams sweet on a girl." His expression clouded. "You think were gonna have to put up with this til the dance?"
Hoss shook his head from side to side. "Lordy."
"Indeed," Ben agreed.
Their conversation ceased, replaced by the "ribit" of the frogs, John Adams purring, and the sighs of the pines.
It was too good to last. The front door opened and Joseph walked toward Ben, his arms held away from his sides as if he would flap and fly any moment.
"Pa, you need to do something."
Ben smiled and put his hand behind the boys waist. "Is that so?"
"Yes, Pa." Joe was wide-eyed and serious.
"What do I need to do something about?"
"Hes gone to sleep, Pa."
"Hes probably just tired, Joe."
"Pa, you dont understand," Joe insisted.
Ben moved his hand from the boys waist to brush the dark hair from his eyes. "What dont I understand?"
"Hes sound asleep, Pa. On the dining table."
Ben sat up and lowered his right leg, causing John Adams to meow his protest as he jumped to Hoss lap. "Hes sleeping on the dining table?"
Ben looked at Hoss. Hoss looked at Ben. Ben looked at Joe. There was only one thing to ask.
"Did he take off his boots?"
"Oh, yeah. He took off his boots and his shirt and his pants and hes sleeping there on the table with his pillow and his blankets."
Ben nodded. "Good."
"Good!" Joe blurted. "Pa, theres something wrong with Adam and - "
Hoss put John Adams on the bench and stood. "Hell be better after the dance," he announced confidently.
"Whats a dance got to do with Adam?"
Hoss crooked his index finger for Joe to join him. "Lets take a walk and Ill explain it to you."
Ben smiled as he watched his sons ramble through the meadow, Hoss big hand atop Josephs head. It would be interesting to hear how Hoss explained this to Joe. Ben was sure that when all was said, Joe would make one heck of a disgusted face and say he didnt know what was so all-fired interesting about girls.
Joe would find girls interesting some day. And when he finally fell in love, he would enjoy one of lifes greatest blessings.
Slowly, insidiously, the realization slithered into Bens brain. The youngster had enough trouble concentrating on a task as it was. Just imagine what he would be like when he was smitten by the presence of a girl.
Ben stood and walked toward the front door.
A touch of brandy in his coffee was just what he needed.