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Your Heart Will Tell You

By Texas2002

 

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.

Rating: G

This story follows "Give and Ye Shall Receive."

Multitudinous thanks to Kierin, Kathryn, and Barb for reading the seventy-three versions of this story that I sent to them.

 

 

"You ain’t playing fair, Hoss."

"Come on, Hoss. You’re bigger than Joe and me put together."

"Ain’t you the one always saying it’s strategy?"

"Yeah, well, in this case it’s size."

"Ain’t that just too bad."

"I got it, Adam!"

"Run!"

"Dangit, Little Joe, I’m gonna get you yet."

The boyish laughter and taunts rode the late-afternoon breeze as it gusted through the open front doorway and into the hall where Ben stood rolling back the cuffs of his clean shirt. He was glad to be out of the dirty one he’d worn during a long workday and curious to see what had spurred this latest round of boisterous exuberance on the part of his sons.

When he stepped onto the front porch his eyes drifted to three pairs of boots, stuffed with wadded-up socks, standing, leaning, and laying in front of the bunkroom door. Hoss’ hat teetered crown-side down on the top of a nearby barrel. Adam’s hat rested inside Hoss’ hat, and in its turn held Joe’s hat. Gloves, neckerchiefs, two shirts, and one pair of suspenders were strewn from the hat pile to the boot pile. All of which led Ben to several thoughts: it would be an outright miracle if the youngster with a very small waist and almost no hips didn’t lose his pants; three young men were running around barefoot; and it was a blessing that they no longer grazed the cattle in the front meadow

The cause of the ruckus was two pieces of canvas that Hoss had stitched together the previous night - and which the boys had packed with dirt in the morning. The fraternal project had resulted in a fist-sized pillow that could raise a welt or start a bruise on any part of the body it struck. The boys had tossed it at one another whenever they had been able to slide a few moments of fun between chores. Now Adam, Hoss, and Joe threw the small pillow back and forth as they ran in and out of the long shadows cast by the pine trees. The game was one of many that the boys had invented through the years - another complicated free-for-all that had spontaneous rules and required lots of shouting.

A gentle nudge at the ankle of his left boot meant only one thing. Ben lowered his eyes to find Zeke peering up at him expectantly. The little pig appeared reasonably clean so Ben leaned down and lifted him. Zeke immediately cuddled against Ben’s chest, gave what sounded like a satisfied grunt, and closed his eyes. He, too, had put in a hard day’s work. Ben kept his eyes on the little guy as he patted between the floppy ears.

Zeke was determined to prove he was a valuable family member. He had ripped small holes all over feed sacks when he had tried to help move them. In a fit of cooperation, Zeke had tried to help Joe with his chores. The pig had had good intentions but he had upset a four-foot-high stack of split firewood, escaping amid squeaks and squeals. Then he had spooked the horses in the lower corral and come perilously close to being trampled to death. And that had been one of his good days.

Smoke had proven to be patient and indulgent with Zeke. But when the little pig had run to dinner and landed in Smoke’s food dish, the dog had opened his strong jaws and closed them around Zeke’s neck. Joe had screamed that Smoke was killing Zeke. But Adam, who knew something about being the older one in a relationship, had assured Joe that Smoke was only getting Zeke’s attention. When Smoke had released a chastened Zeke, Joe had blinked at Adam and had asked how Adam had known what Smoke had been thinking.

"Animals are a lot like people," had been Adam’s cryptic reply.

Zeke was great pals with Abigail and John Adams - at least until the three had decided to have a footrace today. The two cats had run from the barn to the tree by the well before Zeke had had a fair chance at the contest. His reaction had been predictable. He had plopped onto his backside with his small front legs splayed in front of him and had wallowed in self-pity.

Luckily, Cochise had diverted the little guy’s attention by whinnying to him to come play. Zeke had run circles around the corral while Joe’s colt had kicked up his heels in a show of spring fever. Smoke had sat by the corral gate, ready to intervene at a moment’s notice if Zeke was in danger.

"Hey, Pa." Hoss’ greeting turned Ben’s attention to his sons as they stepped onto the porch, offering their father smiles and nods. Hoss filled the wooden dipper with water from the bucket, took a drink, and then passed the dipper to Adam. While Adam drank, Hoss ran the back of his hand across his chin. Adam passed the dipper to Joe and slid the back of his hand across his nose. Joe took too big of a gulp and choked, spewing water everywhere and trying to escape Adam’s hearty slaps on his back. Zeke slept through the entire thing.

Ben nodded at the stuffed pillow in Hoss’ left hand. "Looks like an interesting game."

"Yeah," Hoss agreed. "It’s getting there."

"We need to agree on a few rules." Adam rubbed at his right elbow.

Joe’s eyes roved to his tallest brother. "We just need rules," he muttered.

Surely Ben had not heard Joseph requesting rules.

Hoss motioned to the sleeping bundle in Ben’s arms. "He’s sure growing, ain’t he?"

"He’ll weigh about two hundred pounds before he’s finished," Ben said as he looked down at Zeke.

"Two hundred pounds!" the boys exclaimed.

"How do you know that?" Joe challenged.

Ben gently eased Zeke onto the small circle of hay beside the porch bench. In less than a week, Zeke had acquired at least ten sleeping places around the barn and outside the house. All built by Hoss. The pig made a sound of mild distress that was quickly alleviated when Smoke curled up beside him. Zeke lowered his head and was soon lost in whatever pigs dream about.

"Pa," Joe persisted. "How do you know how big Zeke’s gonna be?"

Ben dusted his hands on the sides of his pants legs. "I read the newspaper." He turned on his boot heels and walked to the front door.

Hoss frowned as he directed his question to Adam. "You ever read anything about pigs in them papers you get?"

"Not that I recall, no." Adam squinted with suspicion.

"Two hundred pounds," Joe said slowly as they walked to the pile of boots. "That’s a lotta pig."

"That’s a lotta anything," Hoss corrected.

 

 

"Dance is in two days," Hop Sing observed as the family sat at the dinner table an hour later. "Everyone will attend?"

Ben slid his eyes from one son to the next, waiting for reactions.

Joe had his right elbow on the table as he leaned into his hand and lazily raised his fork with his left hand. He looked tired and Ben wondered if his youngest son was growing again; he always needed more sleep when that happened. Joe had stopped asking to have his height measured every morning and had even asked in strictest confidence if people ever "quit growin’" when they turned twelve. Ben had assured the boy that he had never heard of such a thing.

Ben’s youngest son tapped his fork against his plate and moaned. "Do I hafta go to the dance?"

Ben pressed his napkin to his lips. "Yes."

The youngster spread his arms wide, nearly spearing Hoss with his fork. "It ain’t fair. Those dances are boring and dumb and there’s nothing to do."

Except eat all of the sweets he could stuff into his stomach.

Hoss didn’t raise his head but he looked from the tops of his eyes. "Tess has a real pretty new dress," he announced. "And gosh! She sure had her hair fixed a different way today."

Today? Hoss should have been working the cattle with Adam and Joe. "When did you have time to visit Tess?"

"Oh - I didn’t go there," Hoss answered easily. He reached for the bowl containing the boiled potatoes. "Tess and her ma came here."

Ben had worked around the house and barn and corrals all day and there had been no sign of the Greens.

As if reading his father’s thoughts, Hoss added. "They didn’t come here, exactly."

Was it going to be one of those explanations? "Exactly where were they?" Ben inquired.

Adam lifted his water glass. "The east pasture."

Yep, it was going to be one of those explanations. "The east pasture," Ben said.

His eldest son gave him a quick nod and sipped water. "About the bull."

The bull. Well, that explained everything.

Ben took a deep breath and decided he had eaten enough for one meal. "What about the bull?"

Adam frowned and paused with his fork above his plate. "What about the bull?"

This required a different approach. Ben shifted in his chair, getting comfortable for what promised to be a long discussion. "Why were Margaret and Tess at the east pasture?"

"About the bull," Adam and Hoss said in unison, frowning at his lack of understanding.

This was a joke. They had practiced this earlier in the day.

Joe put his knees in the seat of his chair and leaned precariously to reach the bowl of beans near Adam’s elbow. "Mrs. Green’s thinkin’ about buying our bull," he explained.

"Buying our bull."

All three sons nodded. Did Hop Sing understand this? Ben shifted his attention to his friend and received a look that included quirked eyebrows and a slight smile. Good. He was equally confused.

Ben licked his lower lip. He propped his left elbow on the arm of his chair and tried to sound relaxed. "Why does Margaret want to buy our bull?"

Hoss made a "tsk" sound and shook his head sadly. "Hers died."

"Died."

"Old age," Adam offered and then asked Hop Sing to pass the salt.

The problem, as Ben saw it, was that the boys didn’t seem to understand what wouldn’t happen if they sold the bull. He had had this talk with each son at the appropriate time but maybe he needed to remind them. "We need the bull if we plan to increase the size of the herd," he said gingerly.

"Pa." Joe sighed deeply - and thankfully applied his bottom to his chair seat. "We know all about stallions and roosters and bulls and - " He looked around the table for help when he ran out of examples.

"I’m relieved to know that," Ben replied.

Adam pursed his lips. Hoss blushed. Joe rolled his eyes. Hop Sing smiled and busied himself with his cup of tea.

"So would anyone like to tell me," Ben invited, "how we increase our herd if we don’t have a bull?"

Hoss shrugged and tore a piece of bread in half. "Get another bull."

"We wouldn’t have to get another bull if we kept ours." So help him, he would never understand Cartwright son logic if he lived as long as Methuselah.

"Are you taking Tess to the dance?" Adam asked Hoss as if the bull had never come up in conversation.

Ben blinked rapidly and wondered what Adam was hiding. Or not telling all the truth about.

"I’m meetin’ her there." Hoss answered. "You taking Beth?"

Please, Lord, anything but Beth.

Adam smoothed his napkin in his lap. "I’m not taking anyone."

"Well you’re goin’, ain’t ya?" Hoss demanded. Ben couldn’t remember any social event that the boys hadn’t attended together and apparently neither could Hoss.

"Yes," Adam said softly. "I’m going. And if Beth is there I will ask her for a dance."

"Oh, no," Joe muttered.

Ben muffled his laugh behind his hand and attempted to give Joe a look of correction. Then he slowly picked up the bowl of boiled carrots and casually passed it to his eldest son. Hoss caught the move and smirked.

Adam’s brow wrinkled as he faced Joe. "What does that mean?"

"You’re like some kind of walking disaster when she’s around," his little brother answered.

That got a bemused look. "Do you even know what a disaster is?" Adam quizzed.

Joe shook his head. "It sure can’t be any worse than the way you act around her." He jerked his chin at Hoss, which was a brother way of asking to pass the potatoes, please.

"You’re exaggerating," Adam replied.

"No, he ain’t," Hoss assured. "Tell me when you’re gonna dance with Beth, would ya?"

Adam squinted his eyes. "Why?"

"I wanna be sure Tess and me are walkin’ outside or something."

"Now you’re exaggerating." Adam was so distracted by his brothers - or maybe it was thoughts of Beth - that he almost fell for Ben’s joke. He raised the serving spoon from the bowl of carrots and had it halfway to his plate when he caught himself. He pushed the spoon back inside the bowl and lowered it to the tabletop, after which he gave Ben a less than amused look.

"Hoss ain’t eggs-agerating, Adam." Joe said. "Let me know, too, would ya?"

"Why?" Adam teased. "Who do you plan to be walking with under the stars?"

Joe made a fantastic face that involved a stretched mouth and huge eyes. "Not a dumb old girl for molly’s sake." He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms at his waist. "I figure it’ll be light enough for Wendell and me and the others to play some marbles with there being that full moon."

Ben slowly closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He had noticed long ago that all manner of strange things tended to happen when there was a full moon. That combined with the fact that Adam might see Beth at the dance did not bode well for the natural order of things.

"Pa?" Hoss asked. "You okay?"

The man nodded slowly and slid his hand over his mouth. "Just tired," he said through his fingers.

 

 

Ben loved the woodsy smell of the evening breeze. It brought back memories of nights when the family camped under the dark sky and listened to the pop of the fire or the hoot of an owl or the rustle of a mouse in the high grass. Invariably the boys succumbed to giggles - and Ben fell asleep with a feeling of deep contentment. The night was a welcome friend that watched over them until dawn. And the scent of pine and moist soil and abounding wildflowers was as soothing as a lullaby.

Tonight he stretched his legs, crossed them at the ankles, and wished, not for the first time, that there were some way to make the porch bench softer.

The bunkroom was as quiet as a church on Monday. Ben smiled as he recalled the boys’ alarm when he had informed them that he could hear what they considered whispers in their room while he sat on the porch. Did they really think they could do or say anything that he hadn’t done or said as a youngster?

"Pa?" Joe whispered.

Ben didn’t open his eyes. "Why aren’t you in bed?"

"I gotta ask you a question."

So much for Joe’s concern about paternal disapproval. "Um?"

Ben heard the small bare feet pad in front of him and then felt the bench shift slightly as Joe sat beside him.

"I got a business problem," the boy announced.

Opening his left eye, and turning his head, Ben asked, "A business problem?"

Joe’s chestnut hair fell into his eyes as he nodded. The boy really needed a haircut.

Ben clasped his hands over his waist and opened his right eye. "What kind of business problem?"

"Real serious," came the somber answer. "I got competition."

First "disaster." Now "competition." Where was Joe learning these words? Had he actually started listening to Adam? "What kind of competition?" Ben asked softly.

"The worst kind." Joe sounded as if his world was ending. "Me."

Him?

"You wanna know what I mean?"

"It might help me understand the problem, yes."

"See, I’ve been selling eggs but I’ve been selling chickens, too."

"I’m aware of that."

"Live chickens."

"I think I knew that, too." Ben watched Joe pull up his feet and tuck his nightshirt over his toes.

"I didn’t think very good, is the problem," Joe admitted. "Some of the folks are taking those live chickens and using them for laying hens."

"It would be difficult to use plucked chickens for laying hens," Ben observed.

"Pa, this is serious," Joe scolded.

Ben tried to look contrite. "What do you plan to do?"

"I sure as molly ain’t selling any more live chickens!" Joe declared. He wrapped his arms around his raised knees. "What do you think, Pa?"

"I think you have a decision to make."

The hazel eyes that studied Ben’s face were full of questions. "I do?"

"Um hum. Do you continue your business? And if you continue it, how can you compete?"

Joe shook his head. "This business-keeping is sure complicated."

A smile dimpled Ben’s cheeks. He rested his left hand on top of Joe’s head. "Yes, it is. And I can guarantee that you will think more clearly after a good night’s sleep."

His youngest son shot him a smile. "Is that you tellin’ me to go to bed?"

Ben lowered his voice in a mock-threat. "Yes, it is."

Joe giggled and pushed to his feet. "When I figure it out can I tell you?"

"I’ll be waiting to hear," Ben assured. He gave the boy a pat on the back. "Good night."

"That’s you telling me to go to bed again, huh?"

"Yes, it is."

Ben watched Joe walk across the porch and open the door to the bunkroom. That door had no sooner closed than the front door creaked opened and Hoss stepped into Ben’s view.

"Pa? I got a problem."

"Um hum?"

"Well, ya see - " Hoss paused as he stepped over Ben’s legs. "It’s a horse."

"A horse."

His middle son sat beside Ben and leaned back, stretching his arms along the back of the bench. "You know that pretty black one?"

"The one with three stockings?"

"Yeah." Hoss shifted his weight. "He’s a real fine horse, Pa."

"Yes, he is."

"Well, ya see, the thing is Mr. Jarvis wants to buy ‘im."

That’s what Ben thought the horse business was about. He cast a curious look his son’s way. "And that’s a problem?"

"Yes, sir."

Ben hazarded a guess. "He doesn’t want to meet your price?"

"Well, no, not exactly. Fact is he’s willin’ to pay more than I’m askin’."

Ben straightened until his spine touched the back of the bench. He bent his knees and then crossed his left ankle to his right knee.

Hoss raised his hands palm up in supplication. "I don’t want to sell ‘im."

"Because?"

His son swiveled toward him, his eyes bright with excitement. "He’s a real good horse, Pa. I reckon with some more work he could be just about the best horse we’ve ever had. And he’s smart, too."

Every animal that any of Ben’s sons wanted to keep was smart. He had a good idea where this conversation was headed.

Hoss shook his head and softly said, "I wanna keep ‘im."

Ben studied the stars and idly wondered if a cloudbank might roll in to cover the moon on the night of the dance. Would that forestall any full-moon madness?

"But," Hoss continued, "if I keep him - well - we won’t have that money."

"No, we won’t."

"What d’ya think, Pa?"

"I think you have a decision to make. Either you sell the horse and have the money or you don’t sell the horse and don’t have the money."

Hoss shook his head as he stood. "Sure wish it was as simple as it sounds."

Closing his eyes, expecting some quiet time, Ben said, "Good night, son."

"’Night, Pa."

Ben heard Hoss walk to the front door. Heard the creak of the door hinge. Heard the front door close. Then he heard the bunkroom door open and gently close. Well, there was only one son left.

"Pa, I have a problem," Adam announced as he crossed the front porch. The fact that Ben didn’t hear boot falls meant that Adam was barefoot again.

Ben took a wild guess and resigned himself to the fact that he would have to open his eyes. "Something to do with the bull?"

Adam nodded. He sat beside Ben, leaned forward, and rested his forearms on his knees.

"You know how hard a year Mrs. Green had." Adam glanced Ben’s way and, after a nod from his father, directed his attention back to whatever he found so interesting in the front meadow. "The last thing she needed was to lose that bull."

Ben squinted, trying to determine what Adam was looking at. "It was very unfortunate."

"The thing is," Adam paused. "The Eagle Ranch is selling a bull."

"And you think Margaret should buy it?"

Adam rubbed his palms together. "Not exactly, no."

His eldest son lowered his head sheepishly. "I think the Eagle Ranch bull would improve our stock."

So, Ben wondered, was this bull smart?

"He’s strong and he’s young and - "

"He’s smart," Ben guessed.

Adam’s eyebrows rose. "How can you tell if a bull is smart?"

Ben waved his left hand. "Go on."

"The thing is," Adam paused. "He’s more than I want to pay and I’ve talked them down as low as they’ll go."

"And?"

"We have some good profit from the cattle."

Ben closed his eyes. "Yes, we do."

He heard his son take in a quick breath. "I was hoping to sell our bull and make enough off him to ease the extra amount that I need to pay for the Eagle Ranch bull."

"Sounds reasonable."

"But I know that Mrs. Green can’t pay as much as I need for our bull."

"And?"

"Mrs. Green needs help, Pa."

"Yes, she does."

"When we were starting out she let us throw our cattle in with hers for market. And she introduced you to that lumber buyer."

"Yes, she did."

"I thought I might lower my price for our bull. Sell him to her for less than what we paid."

"I see."

"I could watch my expenses for the cattle more closely," Adam’s tone was hopeful but wary.

"And buy the Eagle Ranch bull," Ben said slowly as he opened his eyes.

"Yes, Pa." Adam brushed his hair from his forehead. "I need to price our bull so that Mrs. Green can afford him but she won’t consider it charity. I don’t believe she would accept charity."

Ben laughed softly as he thought of the headstrong woman. "I don’t imagine she would."

Adam leaned back and shook his head. "What do you think?"

For the third time that evening, Ben said, "I think you have a decision to make."

His son looked at him expectantly.

"I think," Ben offered, "that you have to decide whether selling the bull to Margaret for less than you paid for him is good business sense."

Adam leaned closer and looked from the tops of his eyes. "Do you think it is?"

"You’re the one in charge of cattle operations. I’m sure you’ll make the right decision."

Adam stood. He looked at his bare feet. "I wish I was."

Ben closed his eyes. "Good night, son."

"Good night, Pa."

After the bunkroom door opened and closed, Ben sighed. One thing was certain: there would be at least one more night when he would not have any peace or quiet out here on the porch. If he knew his sons - and he did know his sons - they would want to share their decisions with him.

 

 

The boys were amazingly subdued the next day. They were also more solicitous of one another than usual - as if they sensed everyone needed extra care. Ben wondered what had triggered their moods until he found them sitting on the top rail of the corral after lunch, each of them chewing on a piece of straw, softly talking as they looked at the horses. He would have bet good money that they were discussing their problems. It was one of those moments when Ben realized how quickly they were becoming men. Men he admired.

He walked to the corral, pulled on his gloves, and unhitched Buck. "I’m going to town, boys. I’ll be back before dinner."

"Yes, Pa," Adam replied. He slapped the back of his hand against Hoss’ leg, signaling that they needed to get back to work. Hoss nudged Joe with his elbow.

When he was in the saddle, Ben sketched a quick salute to his sons and then urged Buck across the meadow.

They’d done it again. The boys had jumped off the corral fence according to their ages. He hadn’t noticed the birth order phenomenon until Joe had been about four years old. On that momentous day, Ben had found his sons farther away from their New Orleans neighborhood than they should have been, with candy evidence on their hands and faces. When they had become aware of their father, standing with his hands on his hips, they had broken their conspiratorial circle and had shuffled around until they had stood in birth, if not height, order from his left to his right. While Ben had fought hard to maintain a poker face, the threesome had quickly put their hands behind their backs and had looked up at him with guilt sticking to their candy-covered cheeks. He had strongly suggested that they wash up before their mother saw them. Three heads had nodded as three young voices had answered, "Yes, Pa."

From that day forward he had noticed that they stood in birth order when he spoke to them, they sat in birth order at church or concerts, they often passed items to one another in birth order, and they even helped one another with chores in birth order. Marie had said that she thought it was because Adam was accustomed to being the leader. But that didn’t explain the behavior of the other two. When Ben had mentioned that fact to his wife she had said that she thought that Joseph looked to Erik for protection and guidance just as Erik looked to Adam. Ben had laughed at the thought of Erik, who was taller and heavier, turning to his older brother for any kind of protection. Marie had thrown up her arms then and asked why he had asked her opinion when he obviously did not want it. Ben had decided he needed to check the woodpile.

All these years later, he still hadn’t found a plausible answer for his sons’ hierarchal behavior. And one didn’t reveal itself to him on this warm spring afternoon

He had not planned to travel to Eagle Station before the night of the dance. But this morning one of the town youngsters had ridden to the ranch with a note from John Gaulden - a note requesting that Ben meet him. Today.

Gaulden had owned the bank in Eagle Station for more than two years. The quiet, unassuming man had no family and kept to himself. Although he attended town hall meetings he rarely spoke at them and he could only be found eating at Shelby’s on the rarest of occasions.

Ben hadn’t known John very well until he had approached the banker about establishing an account using some of the money that Daphne de Ville had invested in Ben’s name. When they had agreed upon terms, Ben had informed John that if any rumors about the Cartwrights’ good fortune circulated in town then he would withdraw his funds. At first Ben had thought the man’s discretion was due more to a desire to retain the deposits than out of any disdain for gossip. But Ben had misjudged John Gaulden. The man was as good as his word - and he was an ethical businessman.

"Hello!" John greeted when Ben strode across the bank’s wooden floor toward the simple, wood-framed teller window. John was shorter than Ben, younger and more slender, but he had a strong handshake. The banker swung open the waist-high wooden gate to the left of the teller window. "I appreciate you taking the time to come by today."

John led the way to a small, but tidy, office that contained a metal safe in the right-hand corner.

Ben offered a polite greeting and sat in a wooden chair on one side of John’s walnut desk. John settled in a low-backed leather chair and then leaned back. There was something else that Ben appreciated about this man: he didn’t waste time on small talk. "I am engaging in something which will affect your deposits," he announced.

"Which is?" Ben rested his hat on the desktop and pulled off his gloves.

"A local rancher has found it necessary to borrow funds." John reached up with his left hand to smooth his dark hair.

"I’m sorry to hear that."

John smiled and added in an ironic tone, "It’s part of what banking is about, Ben."

"I only meant - "

After a gentle laugh, John shook his head. "I know what you meant." He leaned his chair forward, put his elbows on the desktop, and made a tent with his fingers. "I’m loaning a sizable sum, Ben, which means of course that I am using some of your deposits."

Ben nodded that he understood.

"In the event that you should require a large withdrawal, I would need a few days’ notice so I could procure the funds."

"All right," Ben agreed.

John’s dark eyes locked with Ben’s. "She’s had an unusually bad year. But she has the knowledge and determination to save her ranch."

She? Ben knew of only one woman who had a ranch in the area.

John realized his misstep and quickly added, "I trust you won’t say anything, Ben."

"Of course not," Ben assured, dazed by the knowledge that Maggie would borrow money. Her situation was obviously worse than he had thought if she would resort to such a solution. There had to be something he could do, some way to hold out a helping hand. His eyes roved around the office, taking in the Spartan furnishings, and then settled on John. "I have an offer for you," he ventured.

Gaulden was an astute businessman. He tilted his head to one side but remained silent.

"How much interest are you charging Maggie?"

John was hesitant to disclose the information, as Ben had known he would be.

It didn’t matter how much interest Maggie would be paying, anyhow. There was no way around the fact that Ben wouldn’t make money if he did this. Abel Stoddard had warned him more than once that a man should never let his emotions dictate a business decision. But he couldn’t stand idly by when a neighbor needed help.

He shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. "What if I buy her note from you?"

Of all the things John had been expecting, Ben’s idea had not been one of them. "Why would you do that?"

Ben wasn’t about to tell the banker that he had every intention of returning the interest to Maggie at the end of the loan. John would never understand Ben’s willingness to invest without expecting a monetary return - so Ben bluffed. "It makes good business sense."

John tapped his fingers together again. "How does it make good business sense?"

Ben assumed his best no-nonsense tone. "I buy the note from you. You get the interest - the profit - up front and the funds you would have loaned out are available to you to make more profit. If you prefer, I’ll arrange a transfer to increase the deposits." Ben watched John nod. "I assume Maggie’s ranch is her collateral?"

John’s eyes were unfocused as he considered Ben’s offer. "That and a few personal assets." He lowered his hands and tapped his right index finger on a brass inkwell. "This is not unheard of, Ben, but it is a little - unusual - for this area."

Ben raised his eyebrows. "Think about it, John. You have your profit without tying up funds. And if Maggie can’t pay the note, then I have her land."

A begrudging smile parted John’s lips and raised his thin, dark moustache. "I may have been underestimating you," he admitted.

Ben raised his left index finger. "Margaret has to believe that you hold the note. She makes the payments to you and then you deposit them in my account."

John shrugged, indicating that he accepted the condition.

Ben gathered his hat and gloves and shook John’s hand.

"Ben," John said as he opened the office door. "You have an amazing ability to justify your actions."

The rancher pushed his hat on his head and wondered how he would justify this business decision to Adam. He mentally rehearsed the words. I made a business decision, son, and we won’t make any money on it. Maybe he should phrase it another way -

"Benjamin!"

A familiar voice hailed him from near Shelby’s saloon.

"Benjamin! Join us, man!"

Ben glanced from under his hat brim and saw who he was expecting - Angus - and then someone he hadn’t expected - Margaret Green. He wondered if his surprise showed when he walked to the couple and removed his hat. "Maggie," he said and then added, "Angus."

"We were headin’ ta enjoy a spot of Shelby’s coffee before we parted ways. Have a cup with us?" Angus invited.

"Well - " Ben glanced around. He hadn’t planned on an extended stay in town but how long could it take to drink a cup of coffee? "Sure," he answered. He followed Maggie and Angus through the saloon doors.

"Well, now." Shelby walked around the bar. "It ain’t every day that fine upstandin’ citizens like you three drop by. What’ll it be, Margaret?"

The dark-haired woman smiled in that characteristically shy way of hers. "Coffee, please, Shelby."

The bar owner gave a curt nod, put her hands on her hips, and spoke around her cigar. "You gents havin’ something a little more bracin’?"

Ben said that he would have coffee, too. But Angus considered and then answered that he thought a whisky would help chase the chill of the day. The sky was sunny and the breeze was warm. But maybe Angus was cold-natured.

"So, what brings you two to town?" Ben asked in way of conversation.

"Business at the bank," Margaret answered softly. "You?"

"The bank," Ben said. He turned to Angus in silent inquiry.

"Well, ‘twould seem old John’s been a might busy, wouldn’t it?" Angus laughed. "I’ve also been ta the bank."

They were quiet until Shelby placed the coffee mugs, and one shot of whisky, on the table.

As Ben had known he would, Angus tossed his head back and swallowed the whisky in one big gulp. After a sigh of satisfaction, he said, "I was speakin’ ta John about m’concerns with this money situation."

Maggie looked over the rim of her coffee mug. "Money situation?"

"Aye," Angus said with a strong shake of his head. "These goings on in California are not good, not good a’tall."

"You mean the different coinage?" Margaret asked.

"Indeed. Different coinage with different weights a gold." Angus turned the empty shot glass around and around.

"And different purities of gold," Ben added. He sipped his coffee and was surprised at how good it tasted. He hadn’t heard about Shelby hiring a cook.

"What we need," Angus announced as he leaned his left elbow on the arm of his chair, "is some trained, honest assayers over there."

Maggie kept her eyes averted, "What we need," she said softly, "is for California to join the Union."

That was an interesting observation. Ben tilted his head. "Why’s that, Maggie?"

She raised her dark eyebrows and looked first at Ben and then at Angus. "Because if California were part of the Union we could have a federal mint there."

Angus looked as surprised by Margaret’s observation as Ben felt. "A federal mint, ya say?"

She rested her coffee mug on the tabletop and spread her hands. "What better way to keep at least some of the gold in California as well as standardize the coinage?"

"Well," Angus drawled. "I’ll warrant it’ll be no time ‘til California’s a state. But I don’t see tha government havin’ any interest in a mint there."

Ben swirled his coffee by slowly turning the mug. "They will if they’re smart."

"How’s that?" Angus asked.

Ben waved in the general direction of the street. "We need a common money system. I’ve seen everything from reales to wildcat money to half eagles changing hands out there."

"Ah, well," Angus said deeply. "The only way around that, Benjamin, is ta stop acceptin’ anythin’ but the federal money. And that seems ta be scarce as church services ‘round here."

Ben hadn’t been aware of Shelby’s interest until she leaned against the bar and said, "What’d help is if people’d stop all this tradin’. Had a feller in here yesterd’y tryin’ to trade me a bridle fer a coupla drinks."

Angus grinned. "Sounds like a good trade ta me."

Shelby puffed on her cigar. "Yeah? Well, you didn’t see that bridle."

"One thing is certain," Margaret said. "Sitting here is not getting my work done."

Ben and Angus stood as she did; Ben scooted back her chair.

"Thank you for the coffee, Angus," she said with a nod. Ben noticed that she had only taken a few sips.

"Pleasure’s mine, I assure ya." Angus walked to the bar to pay Shelby as Ben accompanied Margaret out the door.

She pushed a few loose strands of hair behind her right ear and looked at Ben with eyes rimmed by dark shadows. "It seems that all I do is worry about money lately. If it weren’t for Tess, I’d - "

Ben shook his head. "Things will get better, Maggie, you just have to ride it out."

Her smile was accompanied by a shake of the head. "I wish I shared your optimism, Ben." She took a deep breath and straightened her back. "I suppose you’ll be at the dance?"

As he helped her into her buggy, he assured her that he wouldn’t miss the fun. "Hoss says Tess has a pretty new dress."

Maggie closed her hands around the reins. "Actually it’s a dress we made from three others. But Hoss is right, she looks lovely in it." She tilted her head. "I’ll see you Saturday, then."

"Saturday," Ben replied. As she drove away he prayed to Heaven that he had been right about things getting better at Green Valley.

 

 

The boys that Ben returned home to were not the trio he had parted from earlier in the afternoon. For one thing, they weren’t nearly as clean. Matter of fact they were soaked to the skin, had dirt and hay clinging to their clothes, and were doing something Ben had never witnessed before - they were dancing in the barn. Well, Adam and Hoss were dancing with each other while Adam hummed a tune Ben almost recognized. Joe was sitting on a tack box, patting Zeke with one hand and Smoke with the other. Ben stepped back so he could peek around the barn door without being seen.

"See?" Adam asked Joe as the older brothers stepped away from each other. "That’s how easy it is."

"It looks dumb," Joe maintained.

"Come on, Joe," Hoss cajoled. "It’s easier than it looks."

The youngster wrinkled his nose. "I’m sorry I ever asked."

Adam leaned down, resting his hands on his knees. "You have to learn sometime."

Joe’s chin jutted and he abandoned the animals so he could stand. "I ain’t never dancin’ with a girl."

"Well," Adam raised his brows and looked at Hoss, who was shaking with laughter. "That sort of narrows the possibilities, Joe." He jumped back when Joe swung his left arm. "Tell you what. If you’ll give this your best try then I’ll milk Buttercup for you this afternoon. How’s that?"

There ensued a long, serious study from the freckle-faced twelve year old and then a begrudging, "Ya gotta take care of Paint, too."

Adam spit in the palm of his right hand. "Deal."

Joe followed suit and a moment later the two brothers stood in the middle of the barn floor while Hoss leaned against a stall and scratched John Adams’ forehead.

"All right," Adam said softly. He put his left hand at Joe’s waist and the boy batted it away.

"Ya can teach me without all that lovey stuff," he instructed, greatly offended.

"Lovey stuff!" Hoss laughed. "Shoot, Joe, you got a whole lot to learn."

Adam’s lips compressed and he looked down to hide his amusement. "Fine. Watch my feet. See what I’m doing?"

"Yeah, you’re dragging your heels," Joe shot back.

Adam stopped and put his hands on his hips. "I am not dragging my heels."

"Yeah," Hoss said with a sideways nod of his head, "you were, Adam."

"Do you want to learn or not?" Adam’s voice rose in pitch. When Joe started to open his mouth, Adam cunningly added, "Or do you want to milk Buttercup and tend to Paint?"

Ben pulled away from the doorway and indulged in a smothered laugh. As soon as he thought he was in control again, he leaned to look around the door. Now Hoss was standing in the middle of the barn with Joe facing him. Adam was out of Ben’s line of sight.

"Okay," Hoss said as he looked down at his boots. "This here’s the easiest step in the world. You put your right foot here - "

"Why?" Joe asked.

Hoss frowned down at his little brother. "Why what?"

Joe pointed to their boots. "Why do you start with your right foot?"

"’Cause the lady starts with her left."

"Why?"

Hoss frowned in exasperation. "I don’t know, Joe. That’s just how it is. Why do you get on a horse the way ya do?"

He had intended the question to be rhetorical but Joe didn’t know that. "’Cause the right side is the - "

"Well - would - you - look - at - this."

Ben hunched his shoulders as Adam’s voice came from behind him.

"Look who I caught eavesdropping, brothers." The glint in Adam’s eye was as shiny as a polished mirror. His expression was one of pure, unadulterated delight.

Hoss thrust his hands in his pants front pockets and slowly shook his head. "Pa, I’m real disappointed in you."

Then it was Joe’s turn. He tilted his head back until surely his neck hurt. "Easydripping is against the rules, Pa."

"Eavesdropping," Ben corrected.

"That, too," Joe said with a firm nod.

Adam pursed his lips before lamenting, "I never expected Pa to set such a bad example."

"Downright pitiful," Hoss agreed.

Adam leaned toward Ben. "Pa, would you like to tell us what you were doing?"

Ben lunged at Adam but the young man had anticipated the move. He laughed and skipped backwards toward the meadow.

A sharp thwack against his back pulled Ben up short. He turned, looked down, and saw the dirt-stuffed pillow on the ground. As he lifted it in his right hand, a very guilty-looking Joseph inched sideways toward the barn.

"I meant to hit Adam," the boy whimpered.

"Sure ya did." Hoss laughed. "He aimed right at ya, Pa."

Hoss jerked his arms up as Joe flailed his fists. It was Ben’s opinion that Hoss should be protecting more below the waist.

Ben bounced the pillow in the palm of his hand. "So you didn’t mean to hit me on the back?" he asked. "Did you mean to hit me like this?" He flung the thing at Joe, who ducked just before the pillow slammed into the side of the barn.

"So that’s how it is," Hoss said slowly. He grabbed the pillow with his right hand. "Just remember, Pa, you started it!"

Ben ducked as the dirt-packed missile sailed past. He heard Adam go "pffft" behind him. "I did not start it, Hoss. Your little brother did."

"I don’t care who started it," Adam said as he fought for breath. "I’m finishing it."

Ben pitched forward as the pillow once again hit his back. He turned on Adam, who frantically waved toward the barn. "I was aiming at Hoss!"

After a methodically slow sideways lean to retrieve the pillow, Ben growled, "You boys seem to be having trouble hitting what you’re aiming at." In the next instant he turned on his heel and fired the canvas bag at Hoss, hitting him on the left thigh.

Hoss lowered his head in what Ben always considered his charging bull look. "All right, Pa, you asked for it."

Twenty minutes later four Cartwrights sat on the edge of the porch, laughing between gasps for air, and moaned when they accidentally touched their bruises.

 

 

Ben had thought he would have two, possibly three, nights of solitude on the porch before the boys solved their problems. But his hot tea was still steaming in the mug resting beside him on the bench that night when the bunkroom door opened - and Joseph approached him barefoot and in his nightshirt.

The boy put his hands on the right arm of the bench and leaned slightly toward Ben. "I figured it out."

Ben waved his left hand toward the empty place on the bench. "What did you figure out?" he asked as Joe walked around him and sat beside him.

"I don’t think it’s a real good bus’ness decision," the youngster said in as deep a voice as he could muster.

Ben’s mouth twitched to the left so he ran his right hand across it. "Why’s that?"

"Well - " Joe sighed deeply. As he had done the night before, he pulled his feet up to the bench seat and covered them with the hem of his nightshirt. "The whole idea of havin’ a bus’ness is makin’ money."

"Um hum."

"And I’m not gonna make much money."

Ben considered that admission. He consciously softened his voice. He didn’t lower it, that always seemed to put the boys on edge, but he gentled it as he had for what the boys had called "quiet stories." "Why is that?"

"Aw, Pa, it’s a real long story," Joe wailed.

Ben eased his left arm around his son’s shoulders. "Start at the beginning and take your time."

Joe rested against Ben’s side. "A couple of those people in town started using their chickens for laying hens?"

"Yes."

"And they’re right there in town and people can buy eggs any time from them and so they figured they’d charge more for the eggs on account of they’re always there."

A typical Joseph sentence. "And?"

"Folks are willing to pay more for the eggs ‘cause they can get ‘im right then. But, Pa?"

"Um?"

"That isn’t right. ‘Cause there are people going through town and there are some people in town and they don’t have the money to buy those eggs like that and that’s not right because they have boys and girls and Ma always said that boys and girls need good food so they’ll grow up good."

Ben interrupted so his son could catch his breath. "Yes, she did."

"The way I see it," Joe said with conviction. He sat straight and folded his arms across his chest. "The way I see it, them charging so much for eggs that people with children can’t buy them - Pa, that isn’t right. What I’m gonna do is keep on sellin’ my eggs and I’m gonna sell ‘em for a fair price and then those people who can’t afford to pay that much will still have food. It won’t make a lot of money but it’s a whole lot better than being mean to people."

"I think that’s a good decision, Joseph."

Joe looked up at Ben with his mouth hanging open. "You do?"

Ben tapped the freckled nose. "I think it’s a fine decision, son."

Strengthened by Ben’s approval, Joe vaulted from the bench and announced, "And I ain’t selling any live chickens."

Ben nodded his head solemnly. "I think that’s a wise decision, too."

Joe grinned and ran to the bunkroom door, shouting, "’Night, Pa!" over his shoulder.

Ben counted to ten and, as he had expected, Hoss ambled to the porch from the front door. He stepped past Ben and sat on the bench very slowly. Apparently he had more bruises than Joe did.

"I figured it out, Pa."

Settling in for another interesting discussion, Ben asked the obligatory, "What did you figure out?"

Hoss was hesitant. "I don’t think it’s a real good business decision."

Let’s see. What was the next question. Oh, yes. "Why’s that?"

"Well," Hoss leaned forward and put his forearms on his knees.

Now that wasn’t right. That was the way Adam usually sat when he was trying to solve a problem.

"Ya see," Hoss said. "The point of havin’ a business is to make money."

"Um hum?" Ben closed his eyes. And I’m not gonna make -

"And I’m not gonna make any money offa this."

"Why is that?" Aw, Pa, it’s a real long -

"Aw, Pa," Hoss said in disgust. "It’s a long story."

Oh, good. It wasn’t a real long story. Ben stretched his legs. "Start at the beginning and take your time." He heard Hoss shift and lean back, then stretch his arms along the bench back. Good, things were normal again.

"Well - ya see - it’s like this. I have that black gelding?"

"Yes?"

"And Mr. Jarvis wants to buy ‘im. He’s even offered to pay more than I’m askin’. But Pa, I just cain’t sell ‘im."

"Why’s that?"

Ben could imagine Hoss flinching because he knew the decision would bring no money into the horse operation. "I just have this feelin’ about ‘im, Pa."

"Mr. Jarvis?"

That got a good-natured laugh. "The horse, Pa."

"Sorry."

"See, I reckon if I work with ‘im he could be a real fine horse."

And he’s smart, too.

"And he’s smart, too."

Ben opened his eyes in time to watch Hoss give his head an emphatic nod. "So, I’m keepin’ ‘im, Pa. I’ll just have to be careful how I spend the horse money." He slid his eyes to the right to watch his father’s reaction.

"I think that’s a good decision, Hoss."

Hoss didn’t let his mouth hang open, but his sky blue eyes rounded. "You do?"

"I think it’s a fine decision, son."

A softly murmured, "Well, don’t that beat all," caused Ben to grin. "You know what?" Hoss asked as he stood.

"What."

"I’ve got a name for ‘im. I’m gonna call ‘im Chubb."

Ben blinked. "Chubb?"

Hoss rolled his shoulders. "Yeah. It’s the name of this new fella workin’ at the Green’s. He’s from somewhere in Tennessee or somethin’."

"And you’re naming a horse after him?"

"He knows more about ‘em than anyone I ever met." Considering his choice of names logically explained, Hoss gave Ben a quick wave. "’Night, Pa."

Ben managed a, "Good night, Hoss," before chuckling. When he pushed into a straighter position on the bench, his right hand brushed the tea mug. The dark liquid was more than likely tepid by now. Ben lowered his mug as Adam closed the bunkroom door behind him.

"Pa," Adam nodded in greeting as he walked toward the bench. He leaned his right side against the nearest porch post, his back toward Ben. "I made my decision."

"What did you decide?" Ben squinted. He had a funny feeling that this discussion wouldn’t follow the pattern of the previous two.

"You won’t like it," Adam warned.

Ben could afford a smile since the young man wasn’t looking at him. "Why do you say that?"

"Because we’re in business to make money."

Well, this was sort of following the pattern. "And?"

Adam looked down and kicked his foot at some imaginary object. "I’m going to lose money on this one."

"Would you like to talk about it?"

After running his right hand through his long, dark hair - this son needed a haircut, too - Adam turned and walked to the bench. He took the customary spot to Ben’s left.

It’s a long -

"It’s a long story, Pa."

Let’s see – what was Ben’s line in this play? "Start at the beginning and take your time."

Adam did a double take. "I always do."

Ben was lost. "Do what?"

"I always start at the beginning and I tell you the whole thing."

Ben raised his right eyebrow.

Adam waved his left hand in concession. "Well, I tell you as much of the whole thing as it’s safe to tell you," he amiably confessed.

"Why will you lose money?"

"I’ve talked the Eagle Ranch down as low as they’ll go for that bull."

This was the son who generally took the most time to say something. Unless he was arguing. Then he could fire sentences as quickly as a porcupine could shoot quills. Ben sipped from the ceramic mug and decided there were a lot of things wrong with tepid tea.

"How do you drink it cold like that?" Adam questioned.

How did Adam know it wasn’t hot?

"It can’t be hot," Adam continued. "There’s no steam rising from it."

Adam could discern that with only the soft light of the porch lanterns and the splash of moonlight that angled past the porch roof? Ben leaned forward and put the mug on the floor. "You’ve talked the Eagle Ranch as low as they’ll go for the bull," he reminded Adam of the topic of conversation.

His son jerked his left shoulder unconcernedly. "So I’m paying their price."

Ben kept all emotion out of his voice. "I see."

Adam leaned forward and put his forearms on his knees. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was the way he started slapping his palms together - not loudly, but slapping all the same. "Pa, Mrs. Green’s had a real hard time of it lately."

"Yes, she has."

"She needs a bull."

Actually, her cows needed a bull.

"Well," Adam ducked his head, "her cows need the bull."

Ben startled.

"Is something wrong?" Adam asked.

"Bug bite."

He knew what his eldest son would do. Adam rolled his eyes around and found no bugs in sight. He then glanced Ben’s way. "A bug bite." His eyes sparkled with mischief.

"What about the bull?" Ben tried to sound gruff but Adam was not impressed.

"I decided to do what I hope someone would do for me."

"And?"

"I’m selling our bull to Mrs. Green." A beat. "For less that we paid for him."

"I think that’s a good decision, Adam."

"I know it is."

The response was so unexpected, but so typically Adam, that Ben leaned his head back and laughed deeply. After Ben wiped his eyes, he smiled at the flush on Adam’s face.

"But I’m glad you agree," his son said in a miserable attempt to sound humble. He looked away for a moment and then back at Ben "How do you know what a grown pig weighs?"

"I told you, I read the paper."

Adam didn’t believe him for a second. "Pa," he said. "I have never seen anything like that in the paper."

"We aren’t reading the same papers."

"Pa."

Ben licked his lower lip. "I had a pig."

The prospect of finding out something new about his father enlivened Adam. "When?"

"I was about six."

"In the city?"

Ben nodded. "His name was Plato."

"Plato!" Adam whooped.

Ben gave his son a cautionary look. "Do you intend to continue to interrupt me or do you want to hear about Plato?"

Adam wiped the smile from his face. But he had turned to face Ben and had his right knee bent in front of him as he grasped his right ankle.

"Plato was the best pig a boy ever had. He followed me everywhere he could and some places he shouldn’t have. He was black with white, grew to be about two hundred pounds. He killed snakes and nibbled at my mother’s flower garden more than once. Plato - " A giggle from Adam which Ben pretended not to hear. "Plato faced down three dogs that came after me one time. We sneaked onto a sailing ship and nearly got caught but we dived off the deck."

"You had a swimming pig?"

Ben grinned. "He was smart."

The joke was wasted on Adam just as it would have been on any of Ben’s sons. Instead, the young man leaned forward from the waist.

"How can you tell?" he asked.

"How can I tell what?"

"How can you tell that a pig is smart? Or a bull?"

Ben shook with silent laughter. "I think that’s something you need to figure out for yourself."

"In other words it’s my problem."

"Something like that."

Adam stood and smiled shyly. "Good night, Pa."

"Good night, Adam."

Ben wasn’t so worried now about explaining his decision to buy Maggie’s note to Adam. None of his sons had made a particularly good business decision - but they had listened to their hearts and Ben liked what they had heard.

"He what?" Hoss’ exclamation flew out of the open bunkhouse window.

Adam laughed. "He had a pig."

"You’re makin’ that up," Joe argued.

"No, I’m not. His name was Plato."

"Plato!" his brothers shouted.

Ben smiled up at the night sky. "And he was smart," he said softly.

"And he was smart," Adam enthused.

A gentle nudge at Ben’s ankle could mean only one thing. He looked down to find Zeke peering up at him expectantly. Ben leaned down and lifted him with one hand - and was not the least bit surprised when Zeke snuggled and closed his eyes.

Life was good when a man could listen to his sons laugh in their room while a little pig slept in his arms.

 

 

The end