* Disclaimer: No profit is being made from this story. No infringement is intended on any holder of Bonanza copyrights, including David Dortort and Bonanza Ventures.
* Rated PG-13
The man entered through the open front gates, the arched ironwork high above his head spelling, Reedsville Cemetery. He walked down the familiar stone-lined path, turning right when he reached the eighth row. He proceeded past headstones bearing names like Barton, and Riggs, and Olmstead, not stopping to pay his respects until he arrived at a large gray stone that declared Cartwright in deeply engraved letters.
Two smaller gray stones resided in front of the imposing one that staked out this family plot. The man took off his hat. Despite the canopy the branches of the maple trees created above him, the early spring sunshine warmed his shock of thick, gray hair. He hitched up his left trouser leg, so he could comfortably kneel in front of the first stone.
Clara Eustacia Cartwright
Beloved Wife and Mother
Born: January 16th, 1795
Died: February 12th, 1861
The man reached out a hand, running his fingers over his wife’s name, and then brushing them across the date of her death. God had taken her from him so recently, that even though he sought comfort from his Bible, the pain was still fresh. He bowed his head, his lips moving in silent prayer.
When he couldn’t bear to mourn his wife any longer, he stood, put his hat back on, and shuffled sideways a few steps. This time he didn’t kneel, though anyone who knew the man was now standing in front of his only son’s grave might wonder why the same respect wasn’t given to the deceased child, as had been given to the deceased wife.
Daniel Weston Cartwright Jr.
Born: March 23rd, 1841
Died: August 27th, 1860
The man stared at the gravestone and shook his head with reproach, just as he did each time he came here. Just as if his son was standing in front of him and could hear the admonishment in his tone, and see the disappointment in his deep brown eyes.
“I’ve forgiven you, Danny. The Bible says the Lord wants us to forgive, because the final Judgment belongs to Him. It pains me to think of where your judgment has left you. I warned you that you’d be cast out of Heaven if you didn’t repent for your sins and change your ways, but you wouldn’t listen. ‘Children, obey your parents, the Lord sayeth,’ but you didn’t obey me, did you, Danny? You didn’t obey me, and now, for all of eternity, you’ll pay the price for that disobedience.”
The man swiped at a sudden tear trickling a crooked path down his face, as he quoted Samuel, Chapter 12, Verse 9.
“Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes?”
The man shook his head a final time, then turned away from his son’s grave. He headed for the stone path that would lead him back to the front gates, all the while asking softly of his dead boy, “Why, Danny? I just wish you could have told me why you despised the word of the Lord. Why, son? Why? After all the guidance and teachings your mother and I gave you, why? How I prayed you could tell me why.”
Just like had been the case when his son was alive, Daniel Cartwright received no answers to his questions. He passed through the cemetery’s gates, crossed the street, and walked the six blocks to the heart of town, where he entered Cartwright General Store. He’d established the business forty years ago in this rolling valley hamlet of Reedsville, Ohio, and had prayed God would some day bless him with a son who’d run the store by his side. He’d thought his prayers were answered when Clara gave birth to Danny “late in life” as the expression went, but by the time the boy reached his teen years, it was apparent that Satan was working hard at convincing him to make other plans.
Ben paid scant awareness to the steaming platters of food being set on the table behind him, as Hop Sing trotted between the kitchen and dining room carrying out supper. For the third time since Adam arrived home with the mail, Ben read through the letter from his brother John.
The man’s attention was barely drawn to the front door as it opened and closed. He did pay enough attention, however, to notice one son was missing. Without taking his eyes off the paper he held, Ben asked, “Where’s Little Joe?”
“Don’t know.” Hoss hung his hat on a peg and then unbuckled his gun belt. “Haven’t seen ‘im since he set off to mend that section of fence right after breakfast.”
Adam followed Hoss’s lead and hung up his hat; then placed his rolled up gun belt on the sideboard.
“And I didn’t see him town, so I’ll go out on a limb and say he didn’t sneak off to get in on a card game at the Bucket of Blood.”
Ben shot his oldest a look of reproach.
“What was that for?” Adam asked.
“For always assuming your youngest brother is up to no good.”
Adam laughed. “Pa, nine times out of ten he is.”
“Adam. . .”
“All right, all right. Allow me to refigure that. How about, five times out of ten he’s up to no good.”
“How about if you remember he’s only eighteen years old.”
Adam sat in the blue chair, while Hoss sank to the settee with a grateful sigh.
“I remember. You remind me of it often enough.”
“Then let me remind you of another thing.”
“That when you were eighteen, you were attending college in Boston.”
“What’s that have to do with Joe?”
“What it has to do with Joseph is this. Whatever mistakes or errors in judgment you made at eighteen, were made far away from the eyes of your family. Little Joe doesn’t have that luxury. Sometimes you need to be a bit more mindful of that before you decide to sentence him without a fair trial, so to speak.”
“What about Hoss?” Adam asked.
“What about him?”
“Yeah, what about me?” Hoss questioned in a tone that said he didn’t appreciate being drug into this discussion.
“You never mentioned his mistakes or errors in judgment when he was eighteen.”
Ben’s eyes twinkle and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “That’s because he didn’t make any.”
Hoss grinned with self-satisfied pride. “That’s right, Adam. See there. I didn’t make none.”
Adam shook his head at the pair, but kept his peace. Joe’s occasional waywardness and penchant for trouble was often a source of dissension between father and eldest son. There was no point in stirring things up before they even knew if Joe’s tardiness was the result of some transgression. Besides, Pa would just tell Adam that someday he’d have children of his own, and when he did, he’d understand that the wise father praised his child’s strengths, rather than constantly reminded him of his weaknesses.
Just as Adam decided a change of subject was in order, Hoss made the change for him.
“Adam mentioned ya’ got a letter from Uncle John, Pa.”
Ben held up the letter. “I did.”
“Ya’ gonna read it to us after supper?”
Their father reading aloud letters from far-away family members was a tradition that dated so far back neither Adam nor Hoss could remember a time when it wasn’t done. Sometimes letters from Pa’s family had been many months old by the time they caught up to Pa and Adam on their journey west, but regardless, no matter how dated the news was, Pa always welcome those letters like they were treasured friends.
“I plan to, unless you boys are past the age where you find it entertaining to listen to your father read letters from people you’ve either never met, or barely remember.”
Hoss shrugged. “Don’t reckon I’m past that age. Always felt like I’ve kinda got to know my kinfolk through them there letters.”
“Same goes for me,” Adam said. “Besides, Hoss and I get a good laugh out of watching the way those letters put Joe to sleep like a newborn baby not five minutes after you start reading.”
“Yeah, that is kinda fun ta’ see now, ain’t it?”
“Especially when his head drops face-first into his dinner plate.”
“Your brother’s sudden fatigue isn’t a reflection of my reading skills, I hope.”
“I don’t think so, but I suppose you’d have to ask Joe to be certain.”
“Yes, well, perhaps I’ll do that before he gets a chance to close his eyes.”
“Better be quick about it, Pa, ‘cause as soon as Little Joe sees one a’ them letters come outta yer pocket, his eyes set ta’ droopin’.”
Ben smiled and shook his head. “Okay you two, that’s enough teasing at Little Joe’s expense when he’s not even here to defend himself.”
“Speakin’ of Little Joe bein’ here, I sure wish he’d hurry up. I’m hungry, and that food Hop Sing’s got on the table ain’t gonna stay hot all night.”
“We’ll wait a few more minutes,” Ben said, “then start without him if he still hasn’t arrived.”
Ben folded the letter and put it in his shirt pocket, frowning slightly as he did so.
“Something wrong, Pa?” Adam asked.
“You seemed. . .distracted when Hoss and I first walked in, and you just frowned when you put that letter away. Uncle John didn’t give you bad news, did he?”
“Not exactly bad news, no. Just. . .unsettling news, I suppose you’d call it.”
“John’s concerned about Daniel. Says he’s taking Clara’s death very hard.”
“She just passed on a couple months back, didn’t she?”
Ben nodded as he answered Hoss. “In February. And it was only a few months before Clara’s passing that he lost Danny.”
“Am I correct when I say he’s not completely alone. One of his daughters still lives with him, doesn’t she?” Adam questioned. “Esther?”
“No, Ruth,” Ben said.
“That’s right. Ruth. Esther’s the one who lives in Toledo. Her husband owns a textile mill.”
“Nah, that’s Miriam,” Hoss said. “Esther lives some place in Pennsylvania.”
“No,” Adam negated. “That’s Anna. Esther lives just outside Reedsville, not far from Uncle Daniel’s store. One of her boys works for Uncle Daniel. I think his name is Joshua.”
“Evidently you boys have paid pretty good attention to all these letters throughout the years.”
“Guess so,” Hoss said, “considering I never even met Uncle Dan’l or his family.”
“And considering you, Adam, probably barely remember playing with Daniel’s girls.”
“Barely is right,” Adam acknowledged. “You worked in his store for a few weeks when we were passing through Ohio, didn’t you?”
“Uh…yes. Yes, I did.”
“Not cut out to be a shopkeeper, Pa?” Hoss teased.
“No. . .no, not really,” Ben replied in a vague tone, as though there was more he could say about the short period of time he’d spent working for his eldest brother, but decided better of it. “Besides, my dream was to head west, not remain in Ohio.”
“But we were going to stay there for the winter,” Adam said as long-ago memories began to surface. “If I recall correctly, you’d enrolled me in the local schoolhouse. I remember being excited about the prospect of attending school with my cousins.” Adam made the kind of a face he might of as a five-year-old boy. “Even if they were girls.”
Hoss chuckled as Ben said, “Well. . .yes. . .yes, that was my intention, but my plans. . .my plans changed at the last minute. And it was a good thing they did, too.”
“Why’s that, Pa?”
Ben looked at his middle son. “Because if they hadn’t, you likely wouldn’t be sitting here with us. It was because I decided to travel on to Illinois, that I met your mother.”
“Sounds like a good reason to travel on to me.”
Ben smiled. “To me too, Hoss.” The man sobered again. “Now as to why I was distracted earlier. . .after reading John’s letter, I was mulling over the possibility of extending an invitation to--”
Before Ben could finish his sentence, the front door opened. The three men looked in that direction as Joe shuffled in with an arm gingerly wrapped around his ribs, and with his head bent so the brim of his hat hid his face.
Joe grimaced as he reluctantly lifted his head to meet his father’s gaze through the only eye that wasn’t swollen shut.
Ben shot out of his chair. “Joe! What happened?”
Hoss echoed his father’s words as he got to his feet and hurried around the settee.
“Little Joe, what happened? Who did this to ya’?”
Adam was the only one who remained seated. It wasn’t as though this was the first time Joe had come home beaten up, and it likely wouldn’t be the last time either.
As Pa and Hoss hustled Joe off to the kitchen to clean him up and inspect the damage, Adam sighed and pushed himself out of his chair. He traipsed along behind his family, all the while thinking; Leave it to Joe Cartwright to put an end to a perfectly fine discussion.
Joe winced and jerked away from the white cloth soaked with some kind of liniment that stung like the dickens when his father dabbed it against the gash above his right eye.
“Joseph, this is the last time I’m going to tell you to hold still.”
Joe was tempted to challenge his father with, “Or you’re gonna do what?” but decided that, even though he was eighteen and a half years old, he wasn’t foolish enough to bait Pa. It was interesting to reach young adulthood and discover that, while you were long past the age of being put over your father’s knee, you had too much respect for him to smart off in a way that would have earned you a trip to the woodshed when you were twelve. . .and too much respect for him to test your theory that you were long past the age of being put over his knee.
Therefore, Joe steeled himself as the cloth that smelled like a mixture of alcohol and camphor was aimed for the gash again. While Joe endured his father’s ministrations to his cut and bruised face, Hoss felt along his ribcage. Joe jerked away again.
“I didn’t mean to move, Pa! Hoss tickled me.”
“I didn’t tickle ya’ on purpose. I’m just tryin’ to see if any a’ them ribs is broke.”
From where he stood leaning against the kitchen table, Adam quipped dryly, “An educated guess tells me that if your doctoring ‘tickled’ him, Hoss, then his ribs are fine.”
Joe glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah, listen to Adam, will ya’. My ribs are fine.”
Ben finally lost his patience with his youngest.
“Joseph, by the way you’re jumping around in that chair you can’t possibly be seriously injured.”
“I never said I was seriously injured.”
Ben sighed. “No, you didn’t, did you.” He handed the cloth to Hop Sing. “Rinse this, please. And you can throw this water out, too.”
Hop Sing took the cloth from his employer and picked up the washbowl that held water stained pink with Joe’s blood. After Hop Sing stepped outside, Ben looked down at the son still seated in front of him.
“All right, Little Joe, what’s this all about?”
“Two against one.”
“It’s about two against one. If it’d been a fair fight, I could have taken either of ‘em with one hand tied behind my back.”
Adam cocked an amused eyebrow. “Oh, of that I have no doubt considering all that brawn you sport.”
Joe whipped around, half-standing. “You wanna go outside and--”
Ben placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder, urging him to the chair while throwing a warning glance at Adam that said, “Keep your comments to yourself, please.”
“No one’s going anywhere,” Ben declared. “Now would you kindly explain to your father what happened that caused you to arrive home in this condition.”
“Yeah, Joe, come on. Start explainin’. Supper’s gettin’ cold.”
“Not much to explain, really. It was the Dunn boys.”
“Paul and Charlie?” Ben questioned.
Joe nodded. Paul and Charlie were the two oldest amongst the eleven Dunn offspring, or the “Dung boys” as Paul and Charlie had often been called – much to their displeasure – back when Joe attended school with them.
Joe broke his father’s gaze. “They showed up while I was fixing fence. . .started shootin’ their mouths off, saying some stuff I didn’t like. . .” Joe shrugged. “Then one thing led to another and. . .uh. . .well. . .um. . .”
“I think I understand,” Ben said before his son could further avoid his questions by employing stammered words and unfinished sentences. “You threw the first punch, didn’t you.”
“Not if it counts that Charlie shoved me before I hit him.”
“In my book it doesn’t count for a thing.”
Joe’s head shot up, fire burning from his eyes. “Then what was I supposed do?”
“Walk away! Pa--”
“Joe, I’ve told you time and time again that problems aren’t resolved with your fists.”
“I wasn’t trying to resolve a problem, I was trying to make them eat their words.”
“Words are just words, Joseph. They don’t mean anything unless you let them. You’re old enough to know that by now.”
“Not even when they said my father is a lying cheating scoundrel who only owns the Ponderosa ‘cause he probably stole it from someone?”
“Not even then.”
“While I appreciate your quick defense of my good name, I don’t want to see that defense come at the risk of serious injury.”
“I already told you, I’m not seriously injured. It’s just a few cuts and bruises.”
“I realize that, but next time you might not be so lucky.”
Adam pushed himself away from the table. With a slight flick of his head, he motioned Hoss toward the side door.
“Come on. Let’s go have a nice friendly talk with Paul and Charlie. Make them realize that speaking ill of our father – and beating up our little brother – doesn’t set well with us. Maybe--”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Ben said, while Joe just buried his head in his hands and moaned at the prospect of his big brothers fighting his battles for him.
“Pa, come on. Let us head over there.”
“Yeah, Pa, what’s it gonna hurt? Like Adam said, we’ll just have a friendly sorta chat with them boys and--”
“No. Adam, Hoss, I mean it. You stay away from Paul and Charlie. I’ll ride over to the Dunn ranch tomorrow and talk to Jim. We’ve been neighbors a long time. There’s no reason for these hard feelings over nothing more than timber contracts.”
“Lucrative timber contracts,” Adam reminded his father. “Contracts that, until a few weeks ago, have gone to Dunn Timber Operations for the past fifteen years.”
“Lucrative or not, I realize Jim is disappointed that the Ponderosa was awarded the contracts, but the bids were handled fair and square.”
Joe lifted his face from his hands. “Not according to Paul and Charlie.”
“Then all the more reason for me to pay a visit to their father.”
“Pa, don’t do that,” Joe begged; the thought of his father fighting his battles as bad as the thought of Adam and Hoss doing so. “It’ll only make things worse.”
“It’s not going to make things worse. I’ve known Jim since before you were born. He and I should be able to talk this out. I won’t have those boys of his jumping one of my sons every time the notion strikes.”
Joe moaned with despair again, but no one paid him any mind as Hop Sing came in the door and ushered everyone toward the dining room by waving his hands like he was shooing a flock of chickens to the henhouse.
“Eat, eat, eat ‘fore food get cold! Hop Sing not cook all afternoon to have father and sons say food no good ‘cause cold!”
“I won’t be sayin’ that, Hop Sing,” Hoss assured. “Even if it is cold, I know it’ll still be good.”
“He’d think the food was still good if it got dumped on the barn floor before it was put on his plate,” Adam muttered to Joe.
“No kidding,” Joe agreed as he slipped into his chair, while Adam walked around to his place next to Hoss on the opposite side of the table.
When the meal had been eaten, the dessert plates cleaned of gingerbread cake, and second cups of coffee poured, Ben pulled his brother’s letter from his shirt pocket.
Joe wasn’t certain what his father meant when he teased, “Now, Joseph, I’d appreciate it if you could manage to stay awake while I read this.” Nor did Joe know why his brothers laughed so hard when he said, “Sure, Pa,” as though they doubted his ability to do what Pa requested.
When the laughter died down and his father began to read, Little Joe propped his left elbow up on the table and rested his chin in the palm of his hand. Despite his good intentions, Joe fought to keep his eyes from drooping as news of weather in Ohio, and what cousin was getting married in June, and what babies were born over the winter, and who had passed away in recent months, was relayed by Pa as he read Uncle John’s letter.
“Little Joe. . .Joe . . . Joseph!”
A hand shaking his arm finally roused Joe.
“Uh. . .what?” The young man blushed when he realized he’d done just what he’d promised his father he wouldn’t. “Sorry, Pa.”
Joe tossed his smirking brothers a dirty look, then quickly returned his attention to his father when the man asked, “So, is it all right with you, Little Joe?”
“Is what all right?”
“What I was just discussing with
“About sending you to boarding school back East.”
“Should have done it years ago,” Adam bantered to Hoss.
“That’s what I was juz thinkin’. Years ago. Like when he was four.”
“Might have kept him out of a good deal of trouble.”
“Prob’ly would have. Not to mention how much easier we’da had it with no pesky little brother ta’ keep track a’.”
Joe glared at his siblings. “Oh, you two are real funny.”
Pa chuckled. “Perhaps this will teach you to stay awake the next time I read a letter from one of your uncles or aunts.”
“I wouldn’t go bettin’ any money on it, Pa.”
Joe looked at his father. “How much longer are you gonna let those two go on?”
“Not much longer at all, because I’d like an answer from you so I know whether to send a wire to your uncle Daniel.”
“As I said to Adam and Hoss while you were. . .um. . .resting your eyes, I’d like to invite Daniel to spend some time with us. Your brothers think it’s a good idea.”
“Sure, why not?” Joe was quick to agree. “Whatever you wanna do, Pa. He’s your brother.”
“I haven’t seen him in many years. Not since Adam was five.”
“All the more reason to invite him,” Joe said.
Pa seemed to be mulling something over, as though he had more to share about his brother, but then appeared to change his mind.
“Yes, Joseph, you’re right.” Pa smiled as he passed Uncle John’s letter to Adam. “All the more reason to invite Daniel.”
Joe’s mind drifted as his father and brothers started talking about the various bits of news conveyed in John Cartwright’s letter. To Joe, most of the people mentioned were just names recorded in the family Bible. The only sibling of his father’s that he’d met was Aunt Dorcas, the sister born twelve months after Pa. When she and her family were on their way to homestead in Oregon, they’d spent a few weeks on the Ponderosa. Joe was eleven then, and enjoyed every moment of their stay. Aunt Dorcas loved to laugh, and she had a brood of nine kids who loved to laugh too – and three boys near Joe’s age who’d enjoyed nothing more than getting into mischief with him. When they finally moved on, Joe was sad to see them go, and for a long time afterwards pestered his pa about making a trip to Oregon to see Aunt Dorcas and her family. That trip never happened though, meaning seven years had now passed since Joe had seen the cousins he’d often wished lived within visiting distance of the Ponderosa.
As far as the remainder of Pa’s siblings went, Joe knew them only through the letters that sporadically arrived at the Virginia City post office. Uncle Daniel was his father’s oldest brother, born to Joseph Francis and Anna Leigh Weston Cartwright fourteen years before Pa. After Uncle Daniel, Grandma and Grandpa Cartwright buried six children, as Pa had noted in the Bible next to the names of the brothers and sisters he never knew.
Thomas died from the measles at the age of eight months. Next came Samuel, who lived to be three years old, then passed way from lockjaw after suffering a puncture wound from a rusty nail in the sole of his barefoot. Following Samuel was Virginia, who succumbed to diphtheria a week before her second birthday. Dying during that epidemic too, was five-month-old Ivy, who passed away two days after her older sister. A year after that came the twins, Francis Joseph and Fredrick Joseph, babies who arrived far too early and died just hours after they’d been born.
After the deaths of the twins, Grandpa and Grandma’s luck changed where their children were concerned. First, Anna Ellen arrived, called “Ellen” to distinguish her from her mother. Then in quick succession after Aunt Ellen came Lillian, John, Pa, Dorcas, and Adele. Based on things Pa had said over the years, Joe knew these six siblings were close during their growing up years. Playing together, fussing at one another, teasing, joking, pulling pranks, walking back and forth to school together, and sharing the workload of the daily chores on their parents’ farm in the Ohio Valley. Pa rarely mentioned Uncle Daniel whenever he spoke of his childhood, but Joe supposed that made sense, considering his father was only three years old when Uncle Dan married at age seventeen and left home.
As the talk around the supper table about far-away family members continued even after Hop Sing had cleared the dishes, Joe’s mind moved from relatives he didn’t know, to the neighbors he was well acquainted with, and the incident that occurred while he was mending fence.
Although Joe wouldn’t call Paul and Charlie Dunn good friends of his – not friends in the way Mitch and Tuck were friends – they’d been boys he’d chummed with now and again during his childhood, and boys who’d always joined in the various schoolyard games with him and his buddies. Paul – actually James Paul Dunn Jr. – was the oldest, and the same age as Joe. Charlie was a year younger. They’d both stopped attending Virginia City’s schoolhouse at the same time Joe had. When school resumed for the fall session the October Joe turned sixteen, he remained on the ranch as a full-time employee, rather than gathering up his slate and books and heading for town each morning. Likewise, Paul and Charlie began working full-time for their father that year as well. Only a very few boys in this part of the country continued their education past the age of fifteen or sixteen, those with plans of going on to college for the most part. As for the girls, there weren’t many of them still in school beyond their mid-teen years, either. If they didn’t get married, or stay home to help tend house and look after younger siblings, or perhaps go to work at one of the shops in Virginia City, then they got their teaching certificates and took a job at whatever schoolhouse in the area had a vacancy.
Since leaving school, Joe hadn’t seen Paul and Charlie on a regular basis. But when he had run into them in Virginia City or somewhere in the surrounding countryside, he’d always been friendly to them, and likewise, they’d been friendly to him. As far as Joe was concerned, there was no reason not to be. Or at least not until today. While Joe knew his father had been awarded timber contracts that for many years in the past went to Mr. Dunn, he’d never given it a thought that anyone in the Dunn family would hold a grudge over it. As Pa always said, business was business. You couldn’t let the ups and downs of timber contracts, and cattle prices, and unpredictable weather, and a neighbor’s good fortune versus your streak of bad luck, get in the way of the important things. The things a man should always be thankful for – mainly family, friends, a warm fire to come home to, food on the table, and good health.
Joe still wasn’t completely certain what had the Dunns in an uproar. His pa sure didn’t steal those contracts out from under Jim Dunn, as Paul and Charlie accused. His father had simply been able to underbid Mr. Dunn this year, plain and simple. Pa bid against Mr. Dunn plenty of other years and lost. To Joe’s way of thinking, the pendulum had simply swung in the other direction. It wasn’t like Mr. Dunn wouldn’t be able to feed his kids or keep a roof over their heads just because of the loss of these contracts. Like the Ponderosa, the Dunn Ranch was well diversified, with many ways for an income to be made each year. And unlike Pa, Mr. Dunn had eleven children and a wife to help him keep things going, meaning his annual payroll was smaller than Pa’s. Well, maybe the youngest two kids weren’t much help yet, but give it a couple of more years and they’d be old enough to gather eggs, fill the wood box, and help with chores like clearing the table and drying the dishes. Joe figured with eleven kids in the house there was always a pile of dishes needing to be dried. Especially if any of them kids ate as much as Hoss.
The more Joe thought about the dustup with Paul and Charlie this afternoon, the more he wanted to talk his father out of going to see Mr. Dunn. He was sure if Adam or Hoss had come home a little bruised and battered Pa wouldn’t go running over to confront Mr. Dunn about it. Not that Pa wouldn’t have been upset and concerned if either of his older sons arrived home in that condition, but for whatever reason, Pa still treated Joe like he was a little kid sometimes. Personally, Joe was of the opinion that if Pa would just let this incident die a quiet death, then things would blow over, the Dunns would eventually get past being sore losers, and the next time Joe encountered Paul and Charlie he’d likely buy them a beer, or vice versa, in way of saying, “Hey, no hard feelings.” Sure, it still got his temper riled to think of what those guys had said about Pa, and it made him angry that Pa didn’t understand why a few punches needed to be exchanged because of those damning words, but if Paul and Charlie were willing to let bygones be bygones, then so was Joe. After all, a man couldn’t have his father running to his defense every time he got in a little scuffle with the neighbors. Joe would be the laughing stock of the territory if Pa kept insisting on treating him like he was five years old.
Joe tuned back in to his family, waiting for the conversation to wind down. From the sounds of things, Adam and Hoss were looking forward to the proposed visit from Uncle Daniel. But then, Adam had met the man years ago, and Hoss had always been interested in family history. Not that Joe wasn’t interested in family history, but he couldn’t see the point in getting too excited over people who’d either been dead for years, or who he’d never met and probably never would. Joe concerned himself with the “here and now” – the people whose lives touched his directly. And currently, that meant Paul and Charlie Dunn, not some uncle who was probably a nice old man who’d come to visit with Pa for a few weeks and stay out of everyone’s way while he was here.
When there was finally a pause in the conversation, Joe took his opportunity to jump in.
“Pa, about that visit you’re plannin’ to make to Mr. Dunn. . .?”
“We’re talking about a visit from your uncle Daniel, Joseph.”
“I know, but I just wanted to say that I don’t think you should go talk to Mr. Dunn. If you’d give it some time, it’ll--”
Pa gave him an indulgent smile. “Little Joe, don’t worry. As I said, I’ve known Jim for many years now. I’ll take care of things.”
“But that’s just it! I don’t want you to. It might blow over quicker if--”
Before Joe could finish his sentence, Adam looked up from the letter he was reading.
“It sounds like the farm turned a good profit for Uncle John last year.”
“Sure does,” Hoss agreed. “I picture that apple orchard he talks about to be real pretty. A peaceful sorta place. Might be something I’d like to do. . .if I wasn’t a rancher, that is.”
Pa’s smile shifted from Joe to Hoss. “It’s as pretty as you imagine it to be, son. That part of Ohio is lush and green. The corn. . .why in a good year it’ll grow taller than you are.”
“No kiddin’, uh?”
“No, I’m not kidding at all. By the time harvest arrives each October the corn. . .”
Joe gave a quiet sigh and let his mind drift from the conversation once again. After all, there was no point in trying to participate if no one was going to pay attention to what he had to say.
Although Ben Cartwright never doubted his youngest son’s word regarding what Joe said happened the previous afternoon between himself and the two eldest Dunn boys, if he’d had doubts, they would have been dispelled the moment he arrived on Dunn property.
As Buck approached the ranch yard, the younger children, who normally ran to greet Ben as if he were a beloved grandfather, scattered like chickens. As though Ben Cartwright was suddenly someone to be afraid of. The children that fell somewhere in the middle – between the ages of eleven and fourteen – threw scowls his way as they silently continued with their chores. None of the children offered to tether Buck, or see that he got a drink of water, or asked Ben if Buck needed some grain, which again, was unheard of when Ben stopped by. As he dismounted the horse, he caught sight of eight-year-old Timothy Dunn peering at him from around the corner of the barn. The boy had long admired Buck, and whenever Ben visited always managed to sweet-talk a ride for himself on the horse’s back, despite his father’s admonishment not to, “bother Mr. Cartwright with that foolishness.”
Ben held the reins toward the tow-headed youngster. “Hey there, Timmy. Would you like to see to Buck while I visit with your pa?”
Timmy appeared reluctant to seize an opportunity he’d never passed up before. Ben saw the child’s eyes flick to his older siblings, and he saw those siblings shake their heads “no.” The boy’s gaze traveled to Ben again. He gave a shake of his own head, then disappeared behind the barn.
Ben raised an eyebrow as he tethered Buck to the hitching post. If the children’s behavior was an indication of how he’d be received by their father, then maybe “talking this out” with Jim would prove more difficult than Ben had assumed.
Once Buck was secured, the man turned and walked toward the house. The Dunn home was probably the only one in Nevada styled after the flat-front two-story New England colonials Ben vividly recalled from the years he’d lived in Boston. Jim’s wife, Rilla, had been born and raised in Philadelphia. When Ben first met Jim, the man was a young bachelor content to live in not much more than a line shack, while staking claims on all the land he could. Then one day Rilla appeared on the scene, and a Virginia City preacher married the pair within an hour of the woman stepping off the stage. Rumor had it that she and Jim were first cousins once removed, or possibly second cousins twice removed, depending on who you talked to. Ben didn’t know if there was an ounce of truth to those rumors, and either way, the notion had never bothered him any.
Ben walked up the three steps that led to the wide porch that ran the length of the house. Unlike past visits, Rilla didn’t open the front door before Ben had a chance to knock. But then, maybe his arrival had gone undetected since the children hadn’t announced it, as was normally their habit.
Ben banged three times with the heavy brass knocker before the door was finally opened. It wasn’t a smiling Rilla who greeted him, but instead, the girl Jim hired from town who helped with the cooking and cleaning. Just like the children’s behavior was out of the ordinary, so was Rilla’s, as Ben couldn’t recall a time when she hadn’t been the one to welcome him into the house.
The girl nodded. “Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben removed his hat. “Good afternoon, Miss Henning. Is Mr. Dunn in?”
“Yes, Sir. He said to tell you he’s in his office.”
So Jim was well aware of his presence, yet had chosen to let his hired girl answer the door. That action alone revealed a lot to Ben.
Nan Henning reached for Ben’s hat. “I can take that for you, Sir.”
The girl hung Ben’s hat on the rack by the door.
“Would you like me to see you to Mr. Dunn’s office?”
Ben smiled. “That won’t be necessary. I know the way.”
“Then I’ll return to my work, unless there’s something I can get for you.”
“No, Miss Henning, nothing. You go ahead and do whatever it is you need to.”
The girl moved off to Ben’s right, returning to the parlor where, judging by the mahogany-smudged rag sticking out from a pocket of her white apron, she’d been polishing furniture.
As Ben walked through the wide foyer that led to Jim’s office at the back of the house, he could hear Rilla’s voice coming from the kitchen. It was the gentle voice a woman uses when talking to small children, and Ben heard her say it was time to roll out the dough. It took him back many years, to when he’d enter the house after a long day of working outside and hear Marie talking to Little Joe in a similar tone as they made sugar cookies. He could picture Rilla doing the same with the youngest Dunn children, a boy and a girl who, by Ben’s best guess, were two and three years old now. He called out, “Hello, Rilla!” his voice echoing through the high-ceilinged dining room to his left, but he received no answer.
By the sudden silence in the kitchen, Ben knew the woman had heard him, but whether she was angry with him over the timber contracts, too, or had been instructed by her husband not to speak to him, Ben didn’t know. It seemed ridiculous that a grown woman felt she had to hide in the kitchen from him with her little ones as though he were here to pillage and plunder. Ben thought of walking through the dining room and going into the kitchen, but then decided against it. It would be of no benefit to put Rilla in an uncomfortable position, or upset the children with his presence.
Ben walked past the wide staircase that descended to the foyer from the upper level. He thought he saw a shadow move on the landing above, and was then certain his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him when he heard a door close softly, as though someone had been spying on him and had retreated to a bedroom.
The man shook his head at all these cockamamie actions on the part of a family – of neighbors – he’d always gotten along well with.
Jim glanced up from his work as his visitor knocked on the open door. He hesitated a moment, then stood from behind his desk.
James Paul Dunn Sr. was shorter than Ben by a couple of inches, but leaner, with a lankiness to his arms and legs that made him appear taller than he really was. Years spent squinting while working under the bright sun had caused fine lines to snake like narrow rivers from his light blue eyes. While Ben’s hair had been gray for years – thanks to Joseph’s many escapades, he often joked – Jim’s pale brown hair was just beginning to gray at the temples.
“Ben,” Jim nodded, while hitching up the trousers that didn’t need any hitching, because they hugged his narrow hips as though a tailor had fashioned them to his exact measurements. “Come in.”
Ben held out his hand, bridging the space across the desk and the open ledgers that sat atop it. “Hello, Jim.”
Jim hesitated again, then took the hand and shook it. When the handshake ended, he nodded to the chair Ben was standing beside.
“Have a seat.”
“Can I have Nan get you something?” Jim asked, surprising Ben with his hospitality. “Coffee? Refreshments of any kind?”
“No,” Ben shook his head. “No, thank you.”
Jim glanced toward the corner liquor cabinet nestled against the far wall.
“Can I pour you something stronger then?”
“No. I’m fine. Thanks.”
Jim sat down. When he didn’t say anything, Ben took the opportunity to study his neighbor. There was no doubt a degree of coolness radiated from the man, yet the offer of a seat, refreshments, and a drink, were in contrast to the way Ben had been greeted – or rather hadn’t been greeted – by the rest of the family. It left Ben confused as to what exactly was going on, and just what Jim had said to his wife and children about the contracts – if anything at all.
“I’m sorry that I don’t have much time to spare for visitors today, Ben. Did you come to see me for a specific reason?”
“I did, though I’m beginning to wonder if I made a wrong assumption.”
“A wrong assumption?”
“Yes,” Ben smiled with chagrin. “I thought there might be trouble brewing between you and I, but instead, I suddenly find myself wondering if the only trouble brewing here is between three head-strong young men.”
“Paul, Charlie, and Little Joe?”
“My boys told me about their run-in with Little Joe. Seems he said a few things that got them riled.”
Although Ben almost replied with, “From what Little Joe tells me, it was Paul and Charlie who did most of the talking,” at the last second he thought better of it. He didn’t by any means think Joe was lying to him, but during the heat of battle, facts were often misconstrued, overlooked, or just plain ignored.
Ben’s response would have made a diplomat proud.
“I’m sure things were said on both sides that shouldn’t have been, and that held little to no truth. You know how boys their ages are – swift to anger sometimes, while also swift to set aside all common sense.”
That got a chuckle out of Jim. “Yes, I well know how boys their ages are. And unlike you, I’m only starting down that road. You’re a lucky man, Ben.”
“You’re in the process of raising your last teenage boy, while I’m in the process of raising my first two, with five more boys coming up the pike.”
Ben’s eyes twinkled. “And I sure don’t envy you that.”
“No man in his right mind should,” Jim laughed.
Cautiously, Ben shifted the subject. “So, about those timber contracts. . .”
“As I explained to Paul and Charlie, business is business. Sometimes a man comes out the winner, and sometimes he doesn’t.”
“No hard feelings then?”
“No, Ben, no hard feelings at all.”
“Well, now, I’m glad to hear that. I don’t want problems between you and me. . . or between our boys, either,” Ben added, hoping he wouldn’t have to come right out and ask Jim to keep Paul and Charlie reined in a bit. Although Joe was no longer a little boy in need of his father’s protection, as Ben had said the previous evening in the kitchen, he wasn’t going to allow Paul and Charlie to jump him whenever the notion struck.
Fortunately, Ben didn’t have to put Joe’s pride at stake by being more specific.
“I’ll talk to Paul and Charlie,” Jim promised. “Until they can calm down some, it might be wise for them to steer clear of Little Joe.”
“And I’ll tell Joseph the same thing,” Ben said, while once again being diplomatic by not reminding Jim that Paul and Charlie were on Cartwright land when they’d had the run-in with Joe. Ben still wasn’t sure if they were just taking a shortcut and encountered Little Joe by chance, or if they’d been on the Ponderosa looking to cause trouble. Overall, it didn’t matter much now that he had Jim’s assurance it wouldn’t happen again.
Jim stood and walked around his desk. He clapped Ben on the arm.
“Come on, have a quick drink with me before you head out.”
“I thought you didn’t have the time for visitors.”
“I don’t, but for an old friend, I should always make time.”
Ben smiled as he walked with Jim to the round table that held a tray with glasses and a liquor decanter.
“I’m glad we were able to clear the air here this afternoon.”
Jim turned and smiled in return. “I’m glad, too, Ben.”
The lanky man had just handed Ben a glass when a child appeared in the doorway.
“Mr. Cartwright, can I please have a ride on Buck before you leave?”
“Timothy. . .” Jim admonished.
Ben laughed. “That’s all right, Jim.” He turned his attention to the boy. “You’re very welcome to have a ride on Buck, Timmy. As a matter of fact, I’m sure Buck would be disappointed if I left here without giving you a ride. Why don’t you go outside and unhitch him for me. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Okay.” Over his shoulder, the boy called, “Thanks, Mr. Cartwright!” as he dashed out of the room.
Ben turned to Jim. “Good news sure travels fast around here.”
“As Rilla often says, little pitchers have big ears.”
“Although I haven’t had any “little pitchers” in a few years now, I well remember how true that is.”
Ben downed his drink and put the empty glass back on the tray.
“I don’t mean to hurry off, but I’d better go give Timmy that ride. I have to get into Virginia City before the telegraph office closes.”
Jim walked with Ben to the front door. “Not expecting bad news, I hope.”
“No, no. Nothing like that. I’m sending a wire to my oldest brother back in Ohio. The boys and I are inviting him to spend the summer on the Ponderosa.”
“Well now, I’m sure he’ll enjoy that.”
“I hope so. I haven’t seen him in twenty-five years. I’m looking forward to his visit. . .if he’ll come, that is.”
“He’d be a fool not to take advantage of a summer on the Ponderosa.”
“Maybe so, but if Daniel’s anything like he was as a young man, he’s pretty set in his ways.”
“Aren’t we all?”
Ben chuckled as he put on his hat. “I guess we are at that.”
As Jim opened the door, Ben said, “You don’t need to see me out. I know I interrupted your work. I’ll take Timmy for a short ride around the ranch yard if that’s okay with you, then be on my way.”
“Fine by me. Take care of yourself, Ben. And I’ll have that talk with Paul and Charlie before the day’s over.”
“And I’ll do the same with Joseph,” Ben promised.
The men bid one another goodbye; then Ben stepped out into a far more cheery atmosphere than the one that had greeted him when he arrived.
Jim watched from the dining room windows until he saw Ben Cartwright ease Timmy from the saddle to the ground. The boy waved goodbye as Ben reined the horse around and headed for Virginia City.
The man looked to his left when he heard boot steps coming down the stairs. He headed for the foyer, meeting his oldest sons just as they arrived on the bottom step.
“Pa?” Charlie questioned. “We heard you and Cartwright laughing. Has something changed?”
Jim scowled. “No, nothing’s changed.”
“So that means. . .?” Paul asked.
“It means you continue to do what I told you to.”
“Make Ben Cartwright sorry that he stole those timber contracts from us?”
“Exactly, Paul,” Jim nodded. “Make Ben realize his mistake so he’s not foolish enough to repeat it come next year.”
Jim’s head turned briefly when he heard his wife walking from the kitchen.
“You boys go on outside now,” he hastily ordered his oldest sons, as though he wanted them busy doing something before Rilla could question why they were in the house in the middle of the afternoon. “There’s plenty of work that needs doin’.”
As the door closed behind Paul and Charlie, Jim turned toward his wife and smiled. She had two-year-old Henry on her right hip, while three-year-old Nora clung to her left hand.
Jim chucked Henry under the chin and ran a hand over Nora’s blond head.
“So, these two little ones are finally letting Mama out of the kitchen, is that it?”
“That’s it,” Rilla agreed. “Our cookies are baked, and now it’s time for naps.”
The man stepped away from the stairs.
“Don’t allow me to stop progress, then.”
“Oh, don’t you worry, progress can’t be stopped where naps are concerned.” The woman paused with a foot on the first stair. “By the way, did I hear you and Ben laughing?”
“I suppose you might have.”
With a tentative note, Rilla asked, “Then. . . then everything’s okay between the two of you?”
Jim leaned forward and kissed his wife on the forehead, playfully brushing a dusting of flour from her nose. “Everything’s fine between us. That skirmish yesterday was just a misunderstanding where the boys were concerned.”
“Paul, Charlie, and Little Joe?”
“Oh. Well, misunderstandings aren’t all that uncommon with young men their ages, now are they.”
“No, they’re not.”
The woman smiled. “I’m glad you and Ben were able to set things right. He’s been a good neighbor for so many years. I don’t like the thought of animosity existing between us and the Cartwrights over those timber contracts.”
“Neither do I.” Jim gave his youngest son a gentle tickle around his ribs, and his youngest daughter a kiss on the top of her head. “Go on now, get these two down for their naps, and you rest right along with them.”
“I don’t have time to rest. I need to bring the wash in from the line, and then start supper.”
“Nan can do that. That’s what we pay her for. You rest for a while. You look tired.”
“The mother of eleven children is always tired.”
“All the more reason for you to take a nap when the chance comes your way.”
“Then I suppose all the more reason for me not to refuse the offer, is that it?”
“That’s exactly it,” Jim agreed.
He watched with a fond smile as his wife ascended the stairs with the little ones, then turned toward his office when he could tell her footsteps had reached the nursery.
Rilla would never approve of the havoc he’d instructed Paul and Charlie to create, which was why Jim was determined that she never find out about it. Granted, she knew he’d been upset over the lost contracts, and he’d said some harsh things about Ben to Paul and Charlie at the dinner table on several occasions that Rilla and the younger children had heard – and that Rilla hadn’t approved of, though she hadn’t voiced her displeasure because she knew her place as his wife. Just like she hadn’t invited Ben into the kitchen today because she knew, without being told, that she was expected to support her husband, regardless of whether she agreed with him or not.
But all of that aside, it was better this way. Better if Rilla and the younger children thought that he’d patched things up with Ben. There was less of a chance of anyone – like Sheriff Coffee – finding out what Paul and Charlie were up to. And besides, Jim had told the boys not to hurt anyone. . .or at least not too badly. . .it was just mischief. The kind of mischief that young men are good at causing, and would leave Ben thinking that he had a cloud of bad luck hanging over his head where those timber deadlines were concerned. Maybe when next year rolled round, old Ben would realize that the contracts were better left to the Dunn Ranch.
Jim smiled as he glanced out his office window. Paul and Charlie were by the smokehouse with their heads together, no doubt coming up with some devilment directed at the Cartwrights that they didn’t want their siblings to overhear. Though his sons didn’t see him watching them, Jim nodded his approval.
Once Paul and Charlie are done having their fun, I have a feeling Ben won’t be so eager to steal those contracts from me again come next year.
As his sons bent over with laughter they could barely contain while slapping one another on the back, Jim chuckled quietly.
Nope, I don’t think Ben will want to so much as see another timber contract by the time the boys’ mischief has run its course.
The man sat down behind his desk and returned to working on his ledgers, making himself willfully ignorant to any schemes his sons might have in mind.
~ ~ ~
Nan Henning made sure the foyer was empty before passing through it. She’d been sitting on the floor in a far corner of the parlor, polishing Mrs. Dunn’s petite secretary’s desk, unable to be seen by anyone who didn’t enter the room – and especially not able to be seen by those who only lingered outside of it – including Mr. Dunn, Paul, and Charlie.
Although Mr. Dunn and his boys hadn’t exchanged any details, Nan wasn’t stupid. She knew Paul and Charlie had their father’s permission to cause whatever trouble they pleased for the Cartwrights. That was the thing about Mr. Dunn – he was sneaky. It was funny in a way, because that’s exactly what Nan heard Mr. Dunn accuse Mr. Cartwright of being one night while she was serving the family dinner. While Nan didn’t know if that accusation was true or not where Ben Cartwright was concerned, she did know it was true where James Dunn was concerned.
Nan had been employed by the man long enough now to have overheard things – and witnessed a few firsthand – that caused her to know he wasn’t always the honest, church-going Christian everyone thought him to be. And aside from that, when Mrs. Dunn wasn’t around he liked to pretend he’d accidentally bumped into Nan, and then take advantage of that “accident” to touch her in places he shouldn’t. Fortunately, Mrs. Dunn didn’t leave the ranch very often. If she did, Nan wouldn’t still be working here. But ever since her father was hurt in the mine and could no longer earn an income other than what little he made doing odd jobs around Virginia City, Nan had to help out in whatever way she could. As Ma said, a family of eight doesn’t survive on handouts. Ma worked too, at Mrs. Mason’s dress shop. Just last week, Mrs. Mason had promised Nan a job the next time she needed additional help. Nan hoped that opportunity would come soon so she could leave the employ of the Dunn ranch. Not only was Mr. Dunn inappropriate with Nan, but so was Charlie. She’d learned many ways to disappear when either of them was approaching, but her methods weren’t always foolproof.
After she’d put away the furniture polish and rag and started peeling potatoes for supper, Nan contemplated paying a visit to the Cartwright ranch. She didn’t know the Cartwrights very well, but she had attended school with Little Joe. She was two years younger than him, and like a lot of girls in Virginia City, Nan was sweet on him for a time, but had never told anyone of her feelings. Despite the fact that the Hennings were no match for the Cartwrights where social status was concerned, Little Joe had always been nice to her. She’d even liked it when he used to pull her pigtails at recess and call her Nanny Goat. He never pulled them too hard, and besides, you could tell he was just teasing her in a nice way, and not in a way that was cruel or mean.
Regardless of what Nan had felt for Joe Cartwright when she was a blushing schoolgirl, Ma always said it was best to stay out of the business of rich men. As Nan went about putting the potatoes on the stove to boil, then setting the table, and then hurrying out to the line to get the wash, she reminded herself that Ma was likely right. It wasn’t her place to get involved in Mr. Dunn’s feud with Mr. Cartwright. And besides, if Nan wanted to keep her job, she’d better go on pretending she hadn’t heard what Mr. Dunn said.
The girl wiped sweat off her brow as she faced five rows of clothes that needed to be taken down, put in baskets, hauled into the house, and then folded and put away. Her eyes slid sideways, where Charlie stood leaning against one side of the smokehouse leering at her with his arms crossed over his chest as though he was proud of himself for some reason.
Lordy, how she’d rejoice when the day came that Mrs. Mason offered her a job.
Heavy boot steps trudging up the stairs announced her father’s impending arrival. Ruth Cartwright bustled around the kitchen, hurrying to get supper on the table. Her father had always been a demanding man, and had become even more demanding since her mother’s death in February. Or maybe it was just that with her mother gone now, Ruth’s father had no one else to bark his commands at but his oldest daughter.
I shouldn’t be so ungrateful, Ruth reminded herself as she ladled vegetable soup into the tureen. Children, honor thy parents sayeth the Lord.
Ruth had heard that so many times over the years that, like this evening, she often silently recited it without conscious thought. As she’d grown older, she’d come to realize she recited it the most when she was aggravated with her father.
It certainly hadn’t been Ruth’s plan to be the spinster daughter of Daniel and Clara Cartwright. She’d set her sights on marriage once – when she was younger, and thinner, and prettier, and still of childbearing age. But Papa had run her beau off, saying he didn’t approve of Jack Stevens. Exactly what Papa didn’t approve of regarding Jack, Ruth never knew. Papa claimed he didn’t have to explain these things to “a daughter.” Ruth hated it when he said that. It made her sound like. . .like. . .like some milk cow that was too dumb to know who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
And maybe she was dumb. After all, if she’d had Anna’s wits about her, she’d have moved far away long ago and lived her life out of the range of her father’s ever-watchful eye. And if she’d possessed Esther’s courage, she would have told Papa he had no right to run Jack off, and then gone after Jack and married him without her father’s blessing. Or if she’d at least had Miriam’s common sense, she would have figured out how to get her way with Papa, and make it seem like it was his idea. But she wasn’t one of her sisters. Instead, she was Ruth, the dutiful eldest daughter who’d never married, and now, at forty-eight years old, was destined to work in her father’s store, clean his house, wash his clothes, and cook his meals, until the day he died. It was a dreadful existence, really. As dreadful as the black dresses he insisted she wear because a “pious” woman shouldn’t be seen in bright colors. She wondered sometimes how her mother had lived this same existence for fifty years.
Ruth glanced up as the door opened and her father entered. They lived above the store, and had ever since her father purchased it some four decades ago. Before that, Papa worked in a general store over in Clancy that was owned by Ruth’s maternal grandfather. They’d lived in a tiny two-room house then, a few blocks from Grandfather Tucker’s store. Ruth wasn’t exactly sure what precipitated the move to Reedsville, but she did have strong memories of her father and grandfather arguing in loud voices, so she assumed that Papa’s “honor thy parents” command didn’t, in his opinion, extend to his in-laws.
Ruth’s father rolled his shirtsleeves up to his elbows and washed his hands in the bowl of fresh water on the washstand, and then dried off on the clean muslin towel folded neatly beside the bowl. He never voiced a word of appreciation for these conveniences Ruth, and her mother before her, always had ready for him. As though he thought that while Ruth worked a ten-hour day beside him in the store, elves, or fairies, or leprechauns, or some other magical woodland creatures, kept his household running in the orderly fashion he demanded.
As he sat at the table, he didn’t make a comment about the meal in front of him, but then he never did other than to complain about something lacking, like he did this evening.
“I don’t see any bread, Daughter.”
Ruth took a deep silent breath to keep from screaming. She hated being referred to in that manner. Sometimes she wanted to ask her father if he even knew her name.
“I haven’t gotten it on the table yet, Papa.”
“Can’t eat my soup without bread.”
“No, Papa,” was Ruth’s dutiful reply as she retrieved the breadbasket from the sideboard, all the while stifling the urge to say, “If you want bread with your soup, then walk to the sideboard and get it for yourself.”
While Papa bowed his head and said grace, Ruth bowed her head too, and silently asked God to forgive her for her spitefulness. She shouldn’t think such thoughts about Papa. After all, he provided her with a place to live, as well as with a job and an hourly wage. Of course, if he hadn’t run Jack off all those years ago she wouldn’t be dependant on her father, but there was no use dwelling on possibilities that had long since passed her by. Jack had likely married some other woman, and probably had a dozen children by now. Maybe even a few grandchildren, too.
When Papa said a grave and respectful, “Amen,” Ruth echoed it and raised her head. She waited while her father buttered his bread and filled his soup bowl from the tureen now sitting in the center of the table; then took her turn at filling her own bowl and taking a slice of bread from the basket.
The first half of the meal was eaten in silence. When Papa reached the point that his hunger was somewhat sated, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked at Ruth.
“I received a telegram from your uncle Benjamin today.”
“A telegram? I surely pray nothing’s wrong.”
“No. Nothing’s wrong. He’s invited me to spend the summer on that place of his. That ranch. What’s he call it? The. . .the. . .”
“Ponderosa,” Ruth supplied.
“That’s it. The Ponderosa. Well anyway, Benjamin invited me to spend the summer, but of course I’ll have to tell him no. Don’t understand what he was thinking in the first place. He knows I have a business to run.”
“I can run the business, Papa.”
There wasn’t even a startled “What!” issued from Ruth’s father. Instead, he simply raised an eyebrow and cast a doubtful glance at her.
“I can, Papa. I can run the store while you’re gone.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, but you should. You really should. You haven’t seen Uncle Ben in so many years now. Adam was what? Just a little boy of five or six when they stayed with us that summer.”
“Don’t remember how old he was.”
“He’s three years younger than Miriam if I recall correctly, so that means he must be about thirty now.”
“I suppose,” her father answered with disinterest as he reached for another piece of bread. “Can’t keep track of this one’s age or that one’s age. Just too many of ‘em.”
Ruth didn’t know if her father meant that he had too many nieces and nephews to keep track of, or too many children and grandchildren, or if it was a combination of both. Regardless, despite the years that had passed, she remembered Uncle Ben and Adam quite well.
Adam was a handsome, polite little boy, who seemed excited over the prospect of attending the local schoolhouse. Uncle Ben had enrolled him, and planned to wait out the winter right here, in his brother’s living quarters above the store. Ruth was a young woman at the time, and already employed by her father. Uncle Ben was a hard worker, as well as being friendly and gregarious with the customers. Ruth enjoyed working beside him. He made her laugh, something her father never attempted to do, and always seemed to disapprove of. Through Uncle Ben’s stories about his seafaring journeys, Ruth got a glimpse of the world beyond Reedsville. A world she longed to explore and be a part of. When he spoke of traveling west, a light came to his eyes that made Ruth envious of all the hope and unknown adventures that lay ahead of him. Granted, he was a widower who would be traveling with a young child, and the trip would be difficult and dangerous, but sometimes Ruth even daydreamed about what it would be like to go with him. She could take care of Adam on the journey, and do the cooking and washing, and see things and places she’d only heard of, and. . .and maybe even run across Jack Stevens somewhere between Ohio and wherever it was Uncle Ben decided to call home.
But that’s where her dream ended, because one day when Ruth was questioning Uncle Ben about his trip, Papa scolded in a stern voice, “Benjamin, can’t you see that you’re filling the girl’s head with foolish notions when you talk about this trip of yours? Instead of risking your life and your son’s life on some journey that will only bring you more heartache, you should praise the Lord for the opportunities He’s granted you and remain right here in Reedsville.”
Uncle Ben hadn’t looked very happy when Papa said that, and for just a moment, Ruth thought he might lose his temper with Papa, but then he gave a small smile and nodded.
“I won’t talk about my plans any further, Daniel. I appreciate the job you’ve given me, and the place here you’ve provided for Adam and me to stay.”
It wasn’t long afterwards that Uncle Ben moved on before Adam even got a chance to attend so much as one day of school. They certainly didn’t stay through the winter, as were Uncle Ben’s original plans. But exactly what made him decide to head west so abruptly, Ruth never knew. Maybe he didn’t like working for Papa any better than she did. Or maybe he just didn’t like being a shopkeeper. After all, he’d been a sailor, and was now a rancher. So maybe he liked being outdoors, rather than cooped up in a dimly lit stuffy store that smelled of molasses, tobacco, yard goods, kerosene and penny candy.
“And Hoss and Joseph,” Ruth said now, in an effort to further entice her father into traveling to Nevada. “You’ve never met them.”
“Hoss,” the man snorted between mouthfuls of soup. “What kind of a Christian name is that? I don’t know what Benjamin was thinking when that boy was born.”
“Oh, Papa, you know it’s just a nickname. His real name is Eric.”
“As if naming the boy for a Viking is any better. The Vikings worshiped false gods, you know.”
Ruth resisted the urge to shake her head at her father and his sanctimonious ways.
“At least Benjamin gave that third boy of his a good Christian name. Not to mention remembering to honor our father.”
“All the more reason for you to visit Uncle Ben.”
“Why would that be?”
“To meet Joseph. The young man named for Grandfather Cartwright.”
When her father didn’t reply, Ruth kept her peace. She knew if she were too enthusiastic about this potential visit, he’d grow suspicious as to the reasons why she was so eager to see him off.
As she stood to gather the dishes for washing, Ruth thought of how wonderful it would be to live alone for several months. To have the entire living quarters to herself. Something she’d never experienced in all her forty-eight years. To cook what and when she wanted to, or not to cook at all, in favor of buying her supper at the café down the street. Oh, how scandalous Papa would find that! A woman eating alone in a café. And black – Ruth would wear anything but black during the time Papa was away. And if she didn’t want to fill the washbowl with fresh water, and set a clean towel beside it three times a day, then she wouldn’t. She’d wash with the same water and use the same towel all day long. And if she didn’t take the notion to cook, and didn’t want to walk to the café, she’d just open a can of beans down in the store, and for desert, she’d have some licorice sticks and chocolate drops. She and Danny had done that when Papa and Mama spent a fortnight at Anna’s. They’d laughed and laughed as they sat on the store’s floor after closing, eating beans straight from the can, and then all the sweets their stomachs could hold.
Ruth swiped at her eyes as she thought of her fun-loving brother. She missed him so – more than she missed Mama, and probably more than she’d miss any of her sisters if they passed on before her. Oh, what a good time she and Danny would have had if Papa and Mama had gone away for an entire summer to visit Uncle Ben. It made Ruth’s heart swell with grief to think of all the good times she and Danny could have had, and it made her feel guilty too, because she hadn’t been brave enough to run off with him to New York City like he’d wanted her to. Maybe if she’d taken him up on his proposal – gotten him out of their father’s house – he’d still be alive.
Ruth’s thoughts turned to dark things as she glanced at her father. He was seated in his favorite chair, his feet propped up on the ottoman, while he read the Bible by the light that still spilled in through the window now that it was spring and the days were getting longer.
She was evil. She was pure evil for harboring the thoughts she did of a God-fearing man like her father. Satan must dwell within her. That must be the source of the suspicions she’d had ever since her father arrived home that horrible day last August and said Danny was dead.
Ruth turned back to her dishes, promising herself that she’d get down on her knees tonight and ask the Lord to forgive her for not honoring her father in the way the Bible commanded. Nonetheless, Ruth had a feeling that no amount of prayer would ever fully wipe away the doubts she harbored over the cause of Danny’s death.
Daylight hung on longer now that spring had arrived, as though it, too, was just as happy as Joe Cartwright to see another long cold winter pass in favor of the coming summer months.
You might not be so welcoming of summer the first day the temperature hits a hundred degrees and you’re unloading a wagon full of feed sacks, or sweating your life away filling the mow with hay.
Joe chuckled at his thoughts as he rode toward the house in the gently fading light. When he was a kid, he loved summer. Mainly because he didn’t have school, and despite his chores on the ranch, could get some fishing in with Hoss or Mitch, and make trips to his favorite swimming hole with Tuck. Now that he was older and done with school for good, getting a day off to fish or swim was harder to come by. It wasn’t that he didn’t still manage to enjoy all the past times summer brought. It was just that his ability to do so was now limited by his responsibilities to the ranch and his family – responsibilities that had come when his father allowed him to quit attending school at the end of the spring session three years ago.
Joe wouldn’t have traded staying in school for unloading a wagon under the sweltering sun on any day, though admittedly, he still snuck off to take a quick dip in the swimming hole every now and again, just like he still got in some fishing with Hoss. Even Adam joined them on occasion, and it didn’t usually take too much persuading to get Pa to accompany his sons fishing on a hot Sunday afternoon that was just made for dangling a cane pole – and your bare feet – in a cold creek.
The sweet smells of wild lilac and the blooming white flowers of the plant called Mountain Misery because of the way it grew low to the ground in tangled vines of sticky leaves, washed over Joe as Cochise carefully made his way down a rocky slope. They weren’t far from Virginia City Road. Once they arrived there, the remainder of the trip home would pass quickly. Which was good, because Joe’s stomach growled with hunger. It had been hours since he’d eaten the lunch Hop Sing packed for him. Joe had left the house right after breakfast, and spent the day tracking a wolf pack that was raiding the young stock pastured on the banks of Kettle Creek. It was mid-afternoon before he’d finally found the wolves’ den. He hadn’t been foolish enough to enter it, but now that he’d located it, Joe and his brothers could determine the best way to put an end to the animals’ plundering assaults.
Dusky pink and gray light was all that was left of the late April sunshine that had warmed Joe’s back to the point he’d removed his blue jacket earlier in the afternoon, put it in one of his saddlebags, and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt. Because of the fading light, Joe didn’t see the peril that lay ahead of him, nor did Cochise until the animal stumbled over the thin strand of wire strung low to the ground and secured around a couple of immature Bristlecone Pines.
The trees, though young, were nonetheless strong enough to keep the wire taunt, which was exactly the intention of those who put it there. Fortunately for Joe, the rough terrain meant Cochise wasn’t traveling beyond the speed of a slow and careful walk. That didn’t prevent Joe from tumbling over the horse’s neck, however. He landed hard on his right side, his hand automatically thrusting out to break his fall.
The only sound Joe made was a pain-filled, “Umph!” as he landed hard on the rocky ground. Without paying any heed to his own injuries, the young man immediately jumped to his feet, more concerned for his horse than for himself.
Joe cradled his wrist as he hurried to the animal. Cuts and scrapes from jagged rocks stung and burned Joe’s right hand and forearm, but he ignored the pain. He rubbed Cochise’s neck with his left hand, calming the startled animal.
“You’re okay, boy. It’s all right.” The young man bent down and inspected his horse’s front legs. “Just let me check you over for a minute.”
Joe bit his lip against the pain of what he suspected was a sprained wrist as he ran both hands up and down Cochise’s front legs, then his hind legs. When Joe was satisfied his mount had suffered no injury, he looked around for the source of the animal’s unsteady footing.
It took him a few seconds to see the wire neither he nor Cochise had spotted earlier. Joe took out his pocketknife and sliced the wire in half, then sliced each end from the trees. Wires, unlike Mountain Misery, didn’t just grow randomly on rocky slopes. Someone had put the wire here, though for what purpose, Joe didn’t know. He supposed this could be a man’s idea of a practical joke on some unsuspecting traveler, but from Joe’s experience as a practical joker, it wasn’t much fun to pull a stunt on a person and not be nearby to see the end result. Plus, this was the kind of stunt that could have left Joe or his horse seriously injured, so short of it being a careless schoolboy prank, Joe couldn’t imagine who would do such a thing.
Might be a wire someone rigged up for another reason and forgot to take down when he left the area, was Joe’s next thought. Maybe it was part of an animal snare or something. Maybe someone else is tryin’ to catch a few of those wolves.
Before Joe’s mind could travel to any other logical explanations for the wire left in his path, he heard laughter. The sound wasn’t close, or easy to pinpoint or identify, but instead, was distant and came from somewhere high above Joe’s head. The young man listened hard, finally concluding that the laughter was that of two men. Joe squinted, looking up into the rocks, brush, and pine trees that covered the area, but he didn’t see anyone. But then, he didn’t have to.
Paul and Charlie! It’s Paul and Charlie Dunn.
There was no point in Joe giving chase, because just as quickly as he heard the laughter it ended. Given the trap that had already been set for him, Joe wasn’t going to risk tracking Paul and Charlie in the growing darkness. Besides, by the time he caught up with them they’d likely be home sitting at the dining room table with their family, the picture of innocence as they ate supper. Which would only make Joe look like a fool when he pounded on the door and demanded they come out and settle things with him.
Dang it all anyway. I told Pa not to talk to Mr. Dunn. I told him it would only make things worse.
Joe folded up the wire and shoved it in a saddlebag. He winced as he climbed back on Cochise, the movement sending waves of pain shooting through his swollen wrist.
The young man kept an alert lookout for more traps. He didn’t relax his guard until he arrived at Virginia City Road. He then urged Cochise into a gallop, eager to get home to a warm meal for his hungry stomach, and a cold wrap-cloth for his throbbing wrist.
Joe rode Cochise past his brothers, a scowl darkening his features beneath his black cowboy hat. Adam and Hoss looked up from the wheel they’d just mounted on a wagon, Adam calling into the barn, “You find those wolves?”
When Adam didn’t get an answer, he raised an eyebrow at Hoss.
“Someone came home in a bad mood.”
“Appears ta’ be the case,” Hoss agreed.
“Guess that means he didn’t locate the den.”
“Which juz goes to show ya’ that ya’ can’t send a boy ta’ do a man’s job.”
Joe shot out of the barn. Forgetting about his injured wrist, he grabbed a hunk of Hoss’s brown vest and drew his left hand back in balled up fist.
“Who’re you callin’ a boy?”
“Aw now dadburn it, Joe. I was only funnin’. Don’t go gettin’ yerself all riled up.”
Adam watched the pair with carefully concealed amusement. Hoss could snap Little Joe in half with one hand tied behind his back if he took a mind to. Not that he ever would take a mind to doing something like that to their younger brother. The Lord must have known what he was doing when he made Hoss so even-tempered and gentle, because otherwise Joe would have been knocked senseless at least three dozen times over the years.
“I’ve got every right to be riled when you call me a boy.” Joe turned toward Adam. “And when you assume things that aren’t true.”
“That means you found the den.”
Joe nodded. “That’s what it means.”
He grimaced as he released Hoss. He walked over to the horse trough and dunked his hand in the cold water.
“Now there’s a new way to cool off your hot head if I ever saw one.”
Joe glared at Adam but didn’t say anything.
Hoss walked toward the trough. “What’s wrong with that hand?”
The big man wouldn’t take “Nothin’” for an answer. He grabbed Joe’s arm and lifted it from the water, Joe crying out with pain at the sudden movement.
“Sorry ‘bout that. It’s pretty swollen.”
“I know it’s swollen.” Joe jerked his arm from Hoss’s grasp. “It’s sprained.”
“Let me check and make sure it’s not broken.”
“It’s not broken.”
“Let me check,” Hoss insisted, advancing on his brother once more.
“I already told you it’s not broken!”
“Joseph!” came the shout from the front porch. “Let Hoss check that wrist.”
Joe glowered at his brother before complying with his father’s order. Ben crossed the ranch yard, arriving at Joe’s side just as Hoss said, “It’s only a sprain.”
“Gee, is there an echo around here? Seems to me I told you that not thirty seconds ago.”
Ben took his turn at inspecting his son’s swollen wrist and raw arm. “How’d this happen, Little Joe?”
“Cochise tripped in a gopher hole.”
“You must have been riding pretty fast for a gopher hole to send you sailing over his neck,” Adam commented.
“I didn’t sail,” Joe growled. “And I wasn’t riding fast. I lost my balance and fell.”
Knowing Joe’s penchant for speed when he was on Cochise, and remembering how Marie died, tempted Ben to warn his youngest son once again about not riding recklessly. But something in Joe’s face made Ben decide words of caution and rebuke could wait until morning. The boy had just arrived home after a long day. He needed to have his arm cleaned, his wrist wrapped, and then he needed to sit down to a hot supper. They all needed to sit down to a hot supper, as a matter of fact.
“Come on, son. I’ll help you get this arm cleaned and wrapped while your brothers see to Cochise.”
Joe twisted from his father’s grasp. “I can take care of it myself.”
“Joe! Joseph, wait! I’ll help--”
“I can take care of it myself, Pa! I don’t need your help.” Under his breath Joe mumbled, “You’ve already ‘helped’ enough by not listening to me in the first place when it came to the Dunns.”
Joe stomped across the ranch yard and entered the house. Adam could have predicted the slam of the front door that followed.
“Well, I’d say someone got up on the wrong side of the bed, except he was fine this morning.”
Ben turned to face his older sons. “He’s entitled to have a bad day now and again, just like any of the rest of us are. Evidently, that’s what this was.”
“Evidently,” Adam agreed dryly, knowing better than to argue with his father where Joe’s often-unpredictable moods were concerned. Pa would just defend the kid, and since it was getting late and they were all hungry, it was best not to get into a debate over Joe’s temper.
By the time Adam and Hoss entered the house, Joe’s arm had been cleaned and bandaged. Based on how professional the wrap-cloth looked, along with the smell of an herb poultice emanating from it, Adam suspected Joe accepted help from Hop Sing, but he didn’t ask and Joe didn’t offer.
Joe was quiet through dinner, his family unaware that anything was bothering him beyond a bad day that ended with Cochise stumbling in a gopher hole. He seemed to brighten up a bit after dessert, and in way of apologizing to Hoss for his earlier behavior, offered to play a game of checkers that turned into three games before they called it a night – Joe even letting his middle brother best him by making some careless moves that were so obvious Adam wondered how Hoss didn’t notice. But then again, maybe he did, and this was Hoss’s way of accepting Joe’s apology.
An hour later, the house was bathed in silence. Adam fell asleep while reading, his open book slipping from his hand and onto the mattress beside him. Hoss fell asleep wondering what Hop Sing would cook for breakfast the next morning. Ben fell asleep wondering when he’d get a response to the telegram he’d sent Daniel four days earlier, and Little Joe. . .well, Little Joe was awake until midnight, tossing and turning while wondering if this whole thing between himself, Paul and Charlie would have blown over quietly if only Pa hadn’t paid a visit to Mr. Dunn.
“Daughter, I’ve prayed upon it quite heavily, and though it comes as a surprise to me, the Lord has commanded that I visit Benjamin.”
Ruth turned from the stove where she stood frying eggs, side pork, and potatoes for breakfast. She couldn’t have been more shocked had her father announced he was shedding his clothes and running naked down Main Street.
“Uncle Ben? You’re going to visit Uncle Ben?”
Daniel pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat down. “I believe that’s what I just said.”
Ruth fought to keep the glee from her voice. “When, Papa? When will you be leaving?”
“I’ll send a telegram to Benjamin today. After I receive his reply, I’ll make the travel arrangements.”
Ruth knew “travel arrangements,” meant Esther and her husband Burton would have to take Papa by buggy to the train station in Cincinnati. That would be a four-day journey, with stops at rooming houses along the way. From there, Papa would ride a train west to St. Joseph, Missouri. He’d likely have to change trains several times before reaching St. Joe, and once there he’d board a stagecoach for the last leg of his trip, which would be the lengthiest and most arduous part of his expedition.
A good daughter would try and keep him from taking this trip. After all, he was an old man now of sixty-seven. Although he’d always been hardy and hale, rarely catching so much as even a cold, let alone being felled by maladies common to men his age, he shouldn’t be traveling so far alone. Goodness knew what might happen. He could board the wrong train, or a wheel could fall off the stagecoach while it was traveling over the mountains, or Indians could raid, or outlaws could attack, or there were dozens of other tragedies that could befall her father during his travels that would encompass the many miles that separated Reedsville, Ohio from Virginia City, Nevada. But despite reminding herself of all this, Ruth didn’t care. She truly didn’t care, which meant she was either the worst daughter in the world, and the most unchristian-like woman who’d ever been born, or it meant that after all these years of living underneath the heavy oppression of her father’s rules, she was looking forward to breaking a few of those rules, and having the best summer she’d ever known in all of her forty-eight years.
If only Danny were here to share it with her.
As she’d done five days earlier when her father first mentioned Uncle Ben’s invitation, Ruth kept her excitement hidden as she finished cooking breakfast and then carried the platters of food to the table. After her father had said grace, Ruth didn’t even mind when he looked at her and grumbled, “Don’t see any biscuits, Daughter. I need biscuits with my breakfast.”
“Yes, Papa. I’m sorry. They’re still in the warmer. I’ll get them right away.”
And for a change, it didn’t bother her to jump up and retrieve the biscuits her father could have just as easily gotten for himself.
Ruth’s father shot her a stern look as she placed the plate of sourdough biscuits in front of him and sat back down.
“If you can’t even remember to put biscuits on the table, I have concerns about your ability to run the store while I’m gone. Perhaps I should reconsider--”
Gravely, Ruth said, “Oh, Papa, I don’t believe you should reconsider if the Lord Himself has commanded you to visit Uncle Ben.”
“Well. . .no. No, I can’t in good faith go against what the Lord has commanded.”
“No, you can’t. And you don’t need to worry about the store. Joshua will be here to assist me. We’ll get along fine.”
“You’ll have to do all the ordering.”
“I know, Papa. I’ve been doing it for years.”
“And you’ll have to negotiate prices for the fruits and vegetables George Taylor brings in each day.”
“I know. I’ve negotiated prices with Mr. Taylor many times.”
“And for the eggs the Widow Johnson sells us. Make certain they’re fresh.”
“I always do.”
“And you’ll have to keep the shelves dusted and stocked, and the floor swept, and the windows washed – I won’t be accused of having a dirty store, Daughter. And the sugar and flour bins must be kept full, and. . .”
Listening to her father go on and on with instructions between bites of his eggs as though she’d never been in the store before, instead of acknowledging that she’d worked there for thirty-two years, would have normally vexed Ruth. But today he could prattle on all he wanted to, telling her what she should and shouldn’t do, and she’d pretend to listen and take it all very seriously. She’d pretend to listen right up until the day he climbed in Esther’s buggy and she waved goodbye, if pretending to listen meant he’d ultimately be gone until autumn. Of course, thinking of Papa being gone meant also having to realize he’d eventually return, and with that return, all the freedom Ruth planned to enjoy during his absence would disappear as quickly as it had come. The thought of that caused a shroud of gray despair to settle over her like a thick fog she couldn’t fight her way out of. But then she saw Danny’s face in her mind, and he flashed an impish grin.
“Ruthie, you’re already fretting about Papa’s return? Gosh sakes alive but are you a crazy goose. Don’t worry about when he’s comin’ back. Do a jig because he’s leaving, and keep right on jigging for the both of us all summer long.”
Ruth fought not to laugh at the image of her and Danny dancing a jig because Papa was leaving. She could just imagine Danny doing that very thing the moment Papa was out of sight. If he were alive, he’d grab Ruth by the hands and twirl her ‘round and ‘round, his feet keeping a skilled rhythm that always made Ruth wonder how he could dance so well, given that Daniel Cartwright’s children had never been allowed to dance. Dancing went against what the Bible taught, according to Papa, and led to imbibing in alcohol, and carousing late at night with the wrong people, and all kinds of other sinful activities that would send a soul straight to the burning fires of hell.
About the time Daniel finished his eggs was also about the time that he appeared to run out of things to remind Ruth of when it came to taking charge of the store. He stood and headed for the door, going downstairs thirty minutes before opening like he’d been doing every day except Sunday for over forty years.
Ruth washed and dried the dishes, setting the tub of wash water on the sideboard when she was finished. She’d take it downstairs before the store opened and throw the dirty water out the back door. Danny used to do this job for Ruth or her mother each day, even though Papa would scowl and mumble, “Woman’s work,” as though no man should be so kind as to carry a heavy, awkward tub for his mother and sister.
Sometimes Ruth wondered where her father came by his ways. Uncle John was nothing like Papa, and neither was Uncle Ben from what she could recall. She remembered Aunt Dorcas as being full of fun and good-natured mischief, and as far as her father’s other sisters went, Ruth didn’t think any of them were very much like Papa, either. Unfortunately, in more recent years, she had seen her aunts Ellen, Lilly, and Addie only on rare occasions. Uncle John was the sole Cartwright relative that lived nearby who made an effort to have regular contact with Papa. Sometimes Ruth thought this was simply because Papa was some years older than his siblings, and seemed to hold himself apart from them – almost as though he’d been born into a completely different family, and had never bonded with the younger six who’d been “thick as thieves” during their childhood, as Uncle John was fond of saying. But despite Uncle John’s words about the friendship the younger children had shared that Papa hadn’t been a part of, sometimes Ruth wondered if Papa’s sisters found him just as disagreeable and judgmental as she did, and didn’t come calling for that reason.
Ruth went to her bedroom to remove her apron and tighten the pins that held her hair up. The living quarters above the store included one large room that served as kitchen, dining area, and parlor, and then four other rooms hidden away behind closed doors. A bedroom that her parents shared before Mama’s death, a water closet, a bedroom that Ruth shared with her sisters until one by one, they’d left home and she became the room’s only occupant, and the tiny bedroom – not much larger than a storage closet, really – that had belonged to Danny.
When she looked at herself in the mirror, all Ruth saw was a middle-aged woman of average height and build, with dull brown hair and a face that wouldn’t make a person passing her on the street take notice. Miriam had always been the pretty one, while Esther was the smart one, and Anna, with her beautiful singing voice and ability to play any song on the piano after hearing it only once, the talented one. Ruth – well, Ruth had always just been plain old Ruth. Not particularly talented, unless being an astute businesswoman counted, which in Papa’s opinion it didn’t. And she wasn’t pretty, and no one ever said she was smart, though deep down inside she thought she was because she knew she could run the store just as well as Papa did, if not better.
As she slipped some stray strands of hair back into their pins, she realized that the last time she’d felt attractive was when Jack Stevens came courting. Sometimes Ruth wondered if Papa had purposefully put an end to that courtship, not because he truly had anything against Jack, but because he was determined to have at least one of his daughters remain at home to take care of him and Mama in their old age. Possibly he saw that of all of his girls, Ruth’s spirit would be the easiest for him to break and then control. It made Ruth burn hot with anger when she thought that might be why Jack was run off, but too many years had passed for her to do anything about it now. When Danny was alive, his presence helped her get through times like this. Times when she wondered what her life would have been like if she’d left Papa’s home with Jack when she was nineteen.
Danny’s indomitable spirit couldn’t be broken by Papa, that was for certain, though Papa had tried to squash the boy’s infectious liveliness from the time Danny was a toddler. Sometimes Ruth thought that if Danny hadn’t been born, this house would never have known laughter. Her mother tried to keep Danny’s spirits at bay, too, though Ruth could always tell Mama’s heart wasn’t in her rebukes, and if she’d had her way, Danny would have been free to be the boy he was, instead of the boy Papa wanted him to be.
Ruth walked to her wardrobe, where she opened a drawer, shifted some undergarments aside, and pulled out a piece of folded parchment paper that had been secreted beneath her clothing. She smiled with fond memories as she read the title of the play on the paper’s front. It was the only play she’d ever attended. Like so many things that brought a person entertainment, Papa didn’t approve of plays, or those who acted in them, either.
The woman slowly let the paper fall open, seeing her brother’s name listed inside as the actor portraying the lead character. Oh, if Papa had ever found out about this he would have tanned Danny until the young man couldn’t sit down for a week. But despite Ruth’s warning about Papa’s ire, Danny couldn’t be detoured when the opportunity to act in the play came his way. He’d been forced to make up a lot of stories and do a lot of sneaking around in order to be at the rehearsals in Evanston, but an eighteen-year-old boy’s determination and desire can’t be easily thwarted. Or so Ruth learned as she, too, risked her father’s ire by backing up anything Danny said about where he was going and what he was doing.
The night of the play, Ruth and Danny said they were attending a revival held by a traveling preacher at a church in Evanston. Ruth held her breath, praying that Papa wouldn’t insist that he and Mama attend also. It was to Danny’s benefit that their mother’s health was failing by then, and a trip outside of Reedsville, even to a nearby town, was difficult for her. Papa elected to remain at home, telling Danny and Ruth he expected to hear what the preacher had to say word-for-word when they returned.
Ruth couldn’t remember when she’d had that much fun. She was so proud of Danny as he performed on stage in front of rows and rows of people. And afterwards, he treated her to dinner at a restaurant. That’s when he told Ruth he wanted to go to New York City and be an actor.
“And from there, Ruthie, I wanna travel all over! I wanna go to every big city and little town this country has to offer. I’ll tour with whatever troupe will accept me. And Europe and Asia, too. I wanna see them. Maybe even live in England for a few years. And you’ll travel right along with me.”
“Danny. . .Danny, Papa--”
“Forget about Papa for a change.”
“But he wants you to run the store. That’s what he’s always wanted.”
“And that’s never, for even one minute, been something I wanted. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Papa was dead--”
“Danny! Don’t say something like that.”
“Well it’s true. And don’t sit there and act like I’ve just committed a bad sin, because you feel the same way.”
“Even if I do, I wouldn’t voice it. Honor thy parents sayeth--”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve heard it plenty a’ times. Look, Ruth, if Papa wasn’t around, and if it was just you and me, then sure, maybe running the store wouldn’t be so bad. But I can’t work for him. Besides, I want my own life, not the life that Daniel Cartwright’s had planned for me since before I was born.”
“He was happy when you were born, Danny.”
“Maybe so, but that must have been the last day he showed it, ‘cause I don’t ever remember Papa being happy.”
Ruth couldn’t argue that point with her brother. And that’s when he told her that he wanted her to come with him to New York. And that’s when Ruth was too afraid to defy their father by running off with her baby brother. It was a decision Ruth would never forgive herself for, because she couldn’t help but feel that Danny would still be alive if only he’d left home when he’d wanted to, instead of waiting around for her to find the courage to accompany him.
The woman hastily shoved the playbill beneath her undergarments when she heard a shout from the bottom of the stairs.
“Daughter! Daughter, come along! It’s time to open the store!”
“Yes, Papa!” Ruth shut the top drawer of the wardrobe, and then took off her apron and hastily hung it on a hook mounted to the back of her bedroom door. “I’m coming!”
As she held up the hem of her dress and raced down the stairs, Ruth heard her father mutter, “Don’t know how I’m going to leave you in charge of things all summer long if I can’t even trust you to open the store on time.”
Ruth didn’t bother to assure her father that she’d have the store open exactly at nine a.m. every Monday through Saturday, because it would do her no good. He’d just claim she had some other business sense lacking that he’d need to fret over while he was at Uncle Ben’s. Therefore, Ruth ignored the man’s mutterings, pasted a smile on her face that hid all she felt inside, and welcomed their first customer of the day with a cheery, “Good morning, Mrs. Donaldson. What may I get for you today?”
Although Ruth scolded herself for it, she couldn’t help but sing a silent ditty of joy when, early that afternoon, her father walked down the street to the telegraph office and sent the wire to Uncle Ben that said he’d accept the invitation of a summer-long visit to the Ponderosa.
Daniel’s body swayed side to side in perfect – and bumpy – rhythm with the traveling stagecoach. They were crossing the Great Basin Desert, headed northwest toward Virginia City. Daniel was the only passenger on this barren part of the trip. At nightfall, there’d be a layover at a station, and then tomorrow morning Daniel would board a new stage with fresh horses. If all went as planned, he’d arrive in Virginia City at noon on Friday. He’d be able to wire Benjamin of his pending arrival on Thursday evening, when the stage stopped in Carson City and Daniel took a room at a hotel. He wasn’t certain how that telegram would get out to Benjamin’s ranch given that it wouldn’t reach the Virginia City telegraph office until after dark, but the stage driver had told him not to fret. He seemed to know Benjamin, and said, “Mr. Cartwright’s got hisself a big operation. Him, or one a’ his boys, or one a’ their hands will likely as not be in town when the telegraph arrives.”
“After dark?” Daniel said, as though he couldn’t imagine what decent men would be doing in town once night fell.
The driver chuckled as he stood leaning against the stage while giving the horses a short rest.
“There’s plenty ta’ do in Virginia City after dark. Between the miners and the cowboys, it’s a town that don’t see much sleep.” The driver winked at him. “She’s got herself lots a’ places that do a mighty good business once the sun goes down, if you git my meanin’.”
Daniel did get the driver’s meaning, and didn’t approve of the picture it left in his mind. Reedsville was a small, quiet town that didn’t cotton to nightlife. Or at least not a nightlife that didn’t require deceit and sneaking about like Danny had done in order to engage in it.
The man’s thoughts were heavily burdened by his deceased son as the coach traveled across the vast expanse of desert with its low-growing shrubbery that stretched for miles in some places. The names of the foliage were unfamiliar to Daniel – Big Sagebrush, Blackbrush, Shadscale, and Mormon-tea. For the most part, it all looked the same to him, though he supposed if a person lived in this part of the country as long as Benjamin had, identification of the various types of desert brush was second nature.
“So much promise,” Daniel muttered as he gazed out a window, recalling how he felt the day Danny was born. After the births of four daughters, as well as five babies of unknown sex Clara hadn’t been able to carry beyond the early weeks of pregnancy, Daniel had thought the boy was truly a blessing from the Lord, in the same way the Lord blessed Abraham and Sarah with a son in their old age.
In a few short years, though, Daniel began to think that Danny wasn’t a blessing after all, but instead a child who’d been sent by God to test his faith. The test of faith went as far back as to when the boy was no more than two or three, and couldn’t seem to sit still or behave himself in church. Clara defended Danny by saying little boys were different from little girls – filled with liveliness and curiosity they couldn’t contain. Well, as Danny found out, that liveliness and curiosity could be contained at least to some degree with a razor strap.
The test of Daniel’s faith continued when Danny was six and seven, and came home from school crying because the other boys teased him for being a “sissy.” Well, he was a sissy, and Daniel saw it as plain as the nose on his face. Danny was always daydreaming, reciting prose, and dressing up in castoff clothes he called “costumes,” while play-acting scenes from the pretend world he seemed to enjoy dwelling in. If he couldn’t get his hands on some piece of fiction to read and memorize, then he made up stories and performed them for Esther’s children until Daniel caught him at it one too many times and put a stop to that activity. No son of his was going to indulge in such foolishness – dressing up in costumes and prancing around on a stage he’d fashioned from milk crates he’d turned upside down and lined up in a row. If Danny wanted to memorize something, then he’d do well to memorize the Bible. Or so Daniel told him as the razor strap bit the boy’s backside.
By the time Danny was eleven, the teasing had stopped, replaced by the other boys laying in wait for him on his way to and from school. Danny would invariably arrive home with a black eye or bloody nose on those days. By the time the boy was twelve, Daniel pulled him out of the local schoolhouse and let Clara finish educating him at home. It was the best solution anyway, because it allowed the boy to work in the store on more than just Saturdays. The business was to be his one day. That had always been Daniel’s plan, despite the fact that Ruth was the child who seemed to have a natural inclination for running the store. Nonetheless, owning a business wasn’t meant for women, unless it was a dress shop or some such thing, and even then, no doubt a man was behind her providing the cash flow and common sense it took to make a store profitable.
Daniel’s mind drifted from his own son to his brother’s sons. He’d never met Eric or Joseph, and Adam had been a young boy the last time he’d seen him. Regardless, Adam was the kind of boy Daniel wanted. Quiet, intelligent, well behaved, and looked up to and respected by the other boys he’d made friends with during the short time he and Benjamin stayed in Reedsville. After his troubles with Danny, the man was curious to see how Benjamin’s boys had turned out. Perhaps this was why God commanded him to make this trip – to see if Benjamin was doing right by the Lord. To see if he was doing good works with the gifts God had granted him, including the greatest gifts of all – three sons. Gifts Daniel would have envied his brother had envy not been a sin.
As the sun began to set, Daniel spotted the layover station as a brown dot in the distance. He bowed his head right there in the stagecoach, thanking the Lord for another day of safety, and asking for the wisdom to guide Benjamin in any way his youngest brother might need him to.