"Mama, will you make sure Little Joe behaves himself in school tomorrow?" Emma Cartwright asked her step-mother. Ben Cartwright exchanged amused glances with his wife across the table. Adam hid a snicker while Little Joe protested.
"I be good. I promise. I wanta go school."
"You're only going cause Mama is bringing brownies for Hoss' and my birthday," Emma teased her brother. "It's only for a little while."
"So?" Joe tossed back.
"Joseph, mind your manners," Marie chided, leaning over and planting a kiss on his forehead. "And eat your beans."
"Yuck," Little Joe answered pushing the green vegetable around his plate. The five year old was very good at not eating anything but what he wanted. Marie rolled her eyes.
"He's always making a fuss like he is now," Emma sulked from her seat. "The girls will tease me if he whines and complains tomorrow."
"I can think of a way to remedy that," Ben told his daughter. Emma looked up at the man she adored and realized by the look on his face she was in trouble.
"What's that, Pa?" Hoss asked sending his twin a glare. Hoss adored Little Joe a connection Emma couldn't help being jealous of sometimes though in truth she protected Little Joe as much as her brothers did. Emma knew her twin was kind hearted and gentle while she often gave into little tempers and moods of her own. She was more like her father than even Ben realized.
"Marie can stay home with Joe and then his presence won't be a problem at all."
"Oh, Pa!" Emma sighed. Ben's stern countenance did not abate as his chocolate eyes met his daughter's blue ones.
"Apologize to your brother, Emma." Emma sighed. Joe wasn't too upset as he scooped some mashed potatoes into his mouth, then played with his beans. Everyone else at the table waited until Emma mumbled an apology.
"I didn't hear you!" Ben thundered. Little Joe still fiddled with his food. Emma's pretty face, appearing much like her mother, Inger's forced an apology.
"I'm sorry, Little Joe. I didn't mean anything."
"S'okay, Emma," Little Joe answered happily. Impulsively Emma hurried over to the other side of the table hugging her little brother. Joe hugged her back.
"Read me a story, Emmie," he begged a little while later. Marie and Ben watched as Emma led the tyke upstairs. Her braided sandy colored hair hung down her slender back, her dark blue dress covered by a white pinafore. Hoss followed his sister and brother upstairs. Adam came in from the barn where he had been bedding down the horses.
"Adam, it's getting a mite cold out there, isn't it?" Ben asked as Marie took her darning and the myriad pile of socks that needed to be mended and sat down in front of the fireplace.
"It's snowing, Pa. Could be quite a bit by morning."
"Oh, no, Ben," Marie protested. "The children will be so disappointed if they can't go to school tomorrow."
"We can have our own little party here," Ben assured her.
"Well I'm off to read a good book," Adam told his parents. "Pa, I wondered about Emma. She's been getting more and more impatient with Little Joe."
"I gathered that, Adam. Marie and I will discuss it."
"I guess I should apologize. I've gotten impatient with Little Joe myself. Sometimes I forget he's only five years old. He gets into everything. Somehow I don't remember the twins doing that." Ben slapped his son on the shoulder.
"Hoss and Emma amused each other, Adam. And you were born thirty years old." Adam chuckled followed by Marie's smile.
"I'll try and be more patient with Little Joe," Adam promised. "You and Marie deserve that, Pa and so do the children."
"Thank-you, Adam," Marie put in. "I worry about Emma and Little Joe too. Emma fights with Little Joe so easily. She is growing up in a houseful of men and learning to be a woman at the same time."
"A woman!" Ben exclaimed. "Marie, she's a little girl. She's only eleven years old."
"Ben," Marie laughed, her beautiful eyes sparkling with knowledge and joy. "Emma is beginning to become a woman. It is hard for her when her brothers and father don't understand." Adam cleared his throat. He bent over and kissed Marie on the cheek.
"I'll defer to your expertise, Marie. Let me know what I can do for my little sister and I'll do my best." The young man's shoulders were shaking with silent amusement as he disappeared up the stairs. Ben shook his head. Taking his coffee he sat down on the settee next to his wife.
"You've done wonders with Adam, you know," he complimented. "I think you've bewitched him." Marie put down her needle and the basket of socks found the floor as she gave up her sewing and snuggled next to her husband. This was the best time of day. She cherished her quiet times with Ben.
"I wish I could do the same with Emma," she concurred.
"Emma is Emma," Ben said.
"Ben!" Marie laughed. "You see things so black and white sometimes. Emma is not Little Joe or Adam or Hoss. She is a little girl who needs to know that no matter what happens in her life you will recognize that fact."
"In other words I treat her too much like Hoss or Adam?"
"Well, she knows how to mend fences and ride horses faster than her brothers," Marie commented. "And she fits into Adam's old clothes perfectly."
"She likes to help on the ranch."
"Of course she does and there is nothing wrong with that," Marie agreed. "But perhaps we should let her know that being a little girl is not a bad thing either."
"As usual, you are right, My Love," Ben answered. "Do you think she'll like the dress you made her for her birthday?"
"I hope so, Ben. Ben…Emma is the only daughter we have. She is special, just like Little Joe, Adam and Hoss. Thank-you for them."
"Thank-you for being their mother," Ben replied. "Now, could we concentrate on something other than the children?"
"Ummm," Marie sighed snuggling closer to Ben. "Such as Mon Ami?"
"Maybe creating another daughter or son?" Ben suggested. Marie's laughter rang through the house as her husband's kisses gave her the love and joy she had craved for so many years, and her children went about their lives upstairs, not knowing that this was the last night their parents would ever enjoy together.
In the morning, fresh snow continued to fall. Ben and Marie were up early. Marie got up a sleepy Little Joe while Ben woke Adam and the entire family met in the twins' room. Marie's green eyes glimmered with excitement as she handed over Little Joe to Ben and then tickled the children awake.
"Happy Birthday, Hoss and Emma," the family chorused, sans Little Joe who stuck his finger in his mouth and leaned his head against his papa's shoulder. The twins giggled together and ran to give their parents' hugs.
"Pa, can we open our presents, huh?" Hoss begged.
"Hoss, yer supposed to wait till after breakfast," Emma scolded.
"Well, we'll tell you what," Marie laughed. "We have a surprise you can both see right now. Come with us." Emma and Hoss followed their parents and Adam down to the room next to Adam's. Marie opened the bedroom door and Emma walked into a room that held a double bed, a dresser and an ewer and pitcher. The twins looked confused.
"Pa?" Emma asked. "Mama?"
"What's this Pa?" Hoss wondered.
"This is going to be your room, Emma. Your papa and I agree," Marie informed her.
"But it's so plain," Emma protested.
"That's all right, Mon Petite," Marie exclaimed. "I thought of decorating it for you, but then I thought, maybe we could go through magazines and find out how you would like to decorate it. Hoss can do the same for his room."
"Aw, the room's fine now," Hoss answered in his placid way. Ben's strong hands clasped Hoss's shoulders.
"Son, at the least you need a bigger bed. You're growing so fast, you'll be bigger than me, soon."
"Aw, Pa," Hoss repeated again. Emma gave a screech that woke Little Joe and garnered grins from Adam and Ben as Emma threw herself into Marie's arms.
"Thank-you, Mama. Thank-you, Pa. Oh it will be so much fun, but…" the little girl's eyes met her twin's. "I've never had a room all to myself. I'm used to Hoss."
"Shucks, Sis. Ya can sleep in my room any time," Hoss grinned.
"And you won't have to listen to his snoring so much," Adam teased. Hoss slugged his brother on the arm and Adam gave a yelp that elicited more laughter. Emma's eyes shone bright with delight.
"Okay," Emma acquiesced. She sat down on the bed. Marie sat with her, hugging the little girl.
"A girl needs her own space, Emma. This is your space somewhere to come when you need time to just be you, because remember you are very special, just like your brothers and your papa." Marie's kindness enveloped the child. She hugged Marie back.
"Can we git breakfast now?" Hoss wondered. "I smell bacon and sausage both! Hop Sing musta made something special."
"Oh, you," Emma exclaimed. "Yer always hungry."
"I'm growing just like Pa says, Sis."
"Hoss is growing," Little Joe repeated. "Big boy!" Everyone laughed, their joy making the little boy giggle.
"Little Joe hungry." Ben lifted the boy in the air, his happiness infective.
"Well if you're hungry, Son, I suggest we all get dressed and meet downstairs for breakfast."
"Come on, Emma, Hoss," Marie encouraged. The children hurried off. In their room, Emma went behind the curtain that separated her bed from Hoss' when she was getting dressed.
"Hoss, ya aint mad are ya?"
"Course I aint mad, Sis."
"I think Mama knows just what I want. How does she do that." Hoss chuckled.
"She's a mama I guess."
"But we never had a mama till she came. How'd she know?"
"I dunno, Sis. I aint her," Hoss giggled again. Emma finished dressing. She pulled on her pinafore and ran after her brother down to the breakfast table, the children laughing and teasing each other on the way down.
Downstairs, just as Hoss suspected, Hop Sing had made a special breakfast with all of Hoss' and Emma's favorites. Hoss dug in while Emma stared at all the food. She stole a look at Adam, showing her sensitivity to the stories her brother had told her over the years about traveling with the wagon train.
"Adam, that's a lot of food. When Pa met Ma, you only had milk and bread. Now we got all this. Don't seem right." Ben and Adam both gave Emma their attention.
"Honey, that was a long time ago," Ben told her.
"I know, but it still don't seem right." Ben's eyes went to Adam. Adam went to his sister.
"Emma, you can't worry about what Pa and yer Ma and I didn't have all those years ago. Pa was still trying to come west. Now we have the Ponderosa and Little Joe and you and Hoss and Marie. Don't you think your Ma would want you to be happy about that and all this instead of feeling guilty?" Hoss had stopped eating. Marie was helping Little Joe, her attention half on her young son and half on Emma whose observation surprised her. Emma wasn't a retrospective child, but she could come up with the most amazing thoughts.
"I wish I knew my ma," Emma said. Before anyone could say more, she pulled out a chair and sat down. "But I guess Adam's right. She'd be glad we all have each other, even Little Joe." Ben's eyes twinkled as he sat down.
"I know Inger would be very happy for all of us, Emma. Now let's hold hands and say Grace." Emma's hands were held tight by Hoss already with sticky syrup on them, and Marie's gentle touch as Ben's paternal voice said Grace. Marie's heart swelled with pride for the family she and Ben were raising.
"Mama, Papa and Adam forgot their lunch," Emma told her mother an hour later. Ben and Adam had gone to check on some cows in the north pasture. The snow was falling in thick white flakes. Marie's eyes flashed to the tin bucket on the dining room table that contained her husband and Adam's lunch.
"Mama?" Emma went on standing nearby.
"Maybe I can take it to him."
"I can take it," Hoss offered eagerly from the great room where he was playing soldiers with Little Joe.
"Non, Mon Petite," Marie denied. "You stay here where it is warm with Emma and Little Joe. I'll go after them. They can't be far." Marie went over to where they kept their winter coats and boots. She took down her coat and boots and hat and scarf.
"Dress up warm, Mama," Hoss fussed. With Little Joe tagging behind him, he came to stand by his step-mother. Emma suddenly threw herself against Marie.
"Don't go, Mama! Pa will come back to get him and Adam's lunch. You'll see."
"But then they will miss work, Mon Petite. It is all right. You know it is. Now what is this all about?" Marie knelt down to Emma's height while Joe reached to his sister.
"Don't cry, Emmie," he pleaded. "Mama don't go." Now Little Joe lunged at Marie.
"Look, Emma, now ya upset Little Joe," Hoss chided. Marie comforted the children.
"Little Joe fusses at everything," Emma pouted.
"No, Mon Petite," Marie reminded the girl. "You forget Emma what it was like to be four years old. And when you were four you had Hoss."
"But we didn't have a mama." Marie sighed. She leaned over kissing Emma on the forehead.
"But you all have a mama now. I love you, Emma as much as Little Joe. You must never doubt that. Remember, it is not how much love a person receives in life, but how much love a person can give. Now I must go or your papa and Adam will get too far ahead of me to find them. The snow should show me easily which way they went." Marie's words seemed to give the child pause for thought.
"I'll remember, Mama." Then she took Little Joe's hand.
"Come on, Little Joe, let's play soldiers with Hoss. I bet we can beat him."
"Wanta go with Mama," Little Joe insisted tugging back at Emma's hand.
"Hurry up, Mama or he'll scream," Hoss advised as Emma distracted the child. Marie nodded. Taking the bucket, and pulling a scarf over her face beneath her hood, she went outside into the snow leaving the children behind, never knowing that they would forever remember her last words as she left.
"I love you. You be good children," she called back.
"Hurry back, Mama," Hoss called out, then shut the door behind her and returned his attention to his sister and brother.
Outside, Marie went to the barn to saddle her horse. The wind was more harsh than she believed it would be. It was with a sigh of relief she entered the barn, wondering if it was wise to go out in the snow. Shaking off her trepidation, she saddled Whisperer, her mare. Placing the bucket over the saddle's pommel, she put a bed roll on the back just in case she got cold. She was dressed warmly in her winter coat which had a hood with a scarf about her neck, warm gloves and boots. Her blond tendrils of hair peaked out as she exited the barn. Whisperer threaded her way across the yard. The snow blew over the windows blocking her view of the children inside. Tree branches whipped around. Marie worked to keep Whisperer under control. When several branches fell, Whisperer reared up. At first Marie thought they would be all right until her heart went to her mouth as the horse fell over backward, unseating her.
"Mon Dieu!" she screamed. "BEN!" Marie's slight body was helpless against gravity, the seconds ticking as slow as an hour as she was suspended between the horse and the ground. Her side hit the fence, bringing it down with her as she slammed into the ground despite the snow, then rolled to her back only to watch in suspended horror as the full weight of her horse landed upon her. Her scream was silenced by her inability to get air into her lungs. The horse was up in a second. Stunned Marie lay gasping for air her mind benumbed with a fiery agony radiating from broken bones and crushed organs. Minutes went by. Despite the blood that came from her mouth, she tried to get up. With a sickening gut wrenching jolt, she realized she could not feel her legs. Moving was not an option for the mother who wanted only to get back to her children. Lying in the snow Marie's eyes blinked against the wet flakes that landed upon them, her chest impossible to move, her heart and lungs slowly ceasing to function. Marie fought the idea of death for only a moment, raging against her fate, her last thoughts for her family.
"Ben…Oh, Ben, I don't want to leave you!" she thought as death whispered in her ear. "Our babies…take care of our babies." Her hand brushed her abdomen where her unborn child rested. Looking up at the darkening sky overhead, she lifted her hand towards an image of Ben's face, her lips parting slightly with one last soft gasp before the gloved fingers fell back into the snow and the gentle spirit that had graced the Ponderosa for such a short while allowed the angels to take her through heaven's gates to live forevermore.
"Pa, I sure am glad you decided we should come in for lunch," Adam called to his father as the men neared the house. "The weather is turning right nasty as Hoss would say."
"It sure is, Son. It'll be nice to spend the afternoon with Marie and the children."
"Pa, ya ever think how lucky we are ta have the family the way Emma says, compared to how it was before we met Inger?"
"All the time, Son," Ben answered. The men turned into the yard and froze at the sight of Whisperer standing out in the cold and the wind.
"What in the world?" Ben asked out loud. "Adam, let's get that horse. He must have got out somehow." Ben jumped down off Buck. He hurried over to the animal. Whisperer didn't fight him. Adam held Buck's reins. Despite Whisperer's presence, there was no sign of Marie and the children. It was getting dark and the storm was getting worse.
"Let's get these animals inside, Adam." Ben was about to turn back to his son when his eyes fell upon the fence, partially collapsed and covered over with snow.
"Adam! See this?"
"Yeah, Pa. What does it mean?"
"I don't know," Ben mused. Adam dismounted now taking all of the horses' reins. Ben knelt into the snow examining the fence.
"What in the world is going on here?" he went on. He couldn't see how the fence had been broken. Suddenly he stood, shouting as loud as he could.
"Marie! Marie! Where are you?"
"Pa?" Adam shouted back. "Pa, what is it?" Ben's stricken face turned to Adam, the words sending a chill through the boy's heart.
"Marie! She has to be here. Look at the fence, Son."
"Maybe she's in the house, Pa. Let's go see."
"You go." Ben started digging at the snow with his bare hands. Adam quickly took the horses and put them in the barn. While Ben searched for his wife, the young man raced into the house, throwing open the front door, scaring Hoss and Emma who jumped up. Little Joe grabbed Emma's leg and Hop Sing came running.
"Mistah Adam, what you doing? You dripping all over Hop Sing floor. You git dirty. You clean up." Adam ignored the Chinaman's ranting, his attention given to the room filled only with his younger siblings, his stepmother no where in sight.
"Hoss! Quick. Is Marie in here?" Hoss and Emma exchanged glances. "Hoss!"
"She went ta bring you and Pa lunch. She left a few hours ago," Hoss told him.
"Oh my God. Hoss get your coat. We need your help. Emma stay with Little Joe." A distant agonized scream from outside took Adam back out into the storm. Adam raced back to his father's side. Ben was kneeling in the snow staring at something the boy couldn't quite identify until he knelt beside his father. Sickened by the sight, the boy swallowed the bile that rose in his throat.
"Pa?" he choked out. He didn't need to ask more. Marie's eyes were flecked with snow, wide open, unseeing. Her hair lay in frozen tendrils partially covered in white, her hood lying beneath her. That she had been there for a period of time was obvious. Ben seemed to be in shock. Hoss came running dressed in his coat and boots.
"Pa! Adam! Didja find Ma?" he asked.
"Hoss go back to the house," Adam ordered from where he knelt, not even feeling the icy cold snow beneath him. "Do it now. Take Joe and Emma up to your room and stay there. Don't come out till Pa or I say so, okay? Do it Little Brother please." Hoss looked down. Whether he saw Marie or not, Adam didn't know. The boy ran to do as he was told without a word. Adam turned his attention to his distraught parent.
"Pa? Pa, we have to get her inside. Pa!" Ben wasn't apparently hearing his son. He leaned forward, touching the frosted hair, then attempting to shut the unseeing eyes. To his horror, the lashes came off and he screamed again his hands flailing in the air at nothing.
"Marie! Marie! Don't leave us! We need you! Marie."
"Pa!" Adam hollered through his father's grief. "Pa, the children! They'll hear you. Pa, let's take her inside. Come on, Pa. Please. Pa, for the love of God, listen to me." Several more seconds passed. Adam was about to lean over and pick up his stepmother's inert body himself when Ben leaned over carefully lifting Marie's frozen form. In silence he pulled her up against his chest. She was as stiff as a board. Adam knew he'd never forget the grief on his father's face as Ben stood. For a brief instant father and son gazed at each other.
"Pa," Adam tried. Ben opened his mouth and then shut it. Adam followed him into the house. Hop Sing was waiting for them. For once the Chinaman didn't say a word. Adam opened the downstairs bedroom and Ben disappeared inside. He gently placed Marie on the waiting bed. His tormented chocolate eyes never left Marie's white face.
"Leave us alone, Adam," he finally managed.
"Pa, the children," Adam tried. Ben's voice escalated.
"Get out, Adam! Get out!" Adam shut the door behind him. Standing in the hall, he looked around the Great room, numb, unable to believe what he had seen.
"#1 Son know what to do? Missy Marie hurt?"
"She's…She's dead, Hop Sing," Adam blurted, not sure how his mind was allowing him to say the words. "When did she leave?"
"Long time. She want to bring lunch to you and Mistah Cartlight." Adam looked up the stairs. Finally he looked back to the houseman who was also the family's friend.
"What are we going to do, Hop Sing? Pa's locked himself in with Marie. The snow is too heavy to send for Doctor Martin and someone's got to tell Hoss and Emma and Little Joe." Adam sank down into the sofa putting his head in his hands, giving way to the grief he felt. It had taken him so long to let himself trust that Marie wouldn't leave them the way his mother and Hoss and Emma's had. Now it had happened again. What would this do to his brothers and sister?
"#1 Son haveta tell brothers and sister. Hop Sing take care of honorable father." Adam nodded. He couldn't make himself stand up. When Hop Sing handed him a glass, he looked at it in confusion.
"You drink. Then go talk to brothers and sister," Hop Sing instructed. Adam drank down the burning liquid without really thinking about it. Not a sound came from the bedroom behind him. For a second Adam gazed into the roaring fire seeing Marie's face. He almost smiled feeling her strength. For the first time he realized how much courage it must have taken for her to follow his father back to the Ponderosa and take care of a family that she strove to make her own. Grief stricken for losing what he fought for so long, the young man threw the glass into the fire. Finding his feet, he walked up the stairs to the second floor one step at a time. Halting outside Hoss' room, Adam hesitated. Shouldn't his father tell the children? Shouldn't he wait? He almost turned to go and ask his father what to do.
"Pa! I need you," he whispered. The young man remembered when Inger died. His father had reacted in much the same manner. If it hadn't been for the women in the wagon train, he wasn't sure how the twins would have survived. He'd watched out for them, but they had been babes in arms. It wasn't until one of the families offered to take Emma with them on to California that Ben came out of his grief and resumed his parental responsibilities. Would his father survive Marie's loss? Adam lifted his hand, knocking on the bedroom door, and opening it without waiting for an answer. His young brothers and sister were on Hoss' bed with Emma reading to them. Hoss' face told Adam the boy suspected what he had to tell them. Hoss must have seen his step-mother in the snow, and still managed to take care of Emma and Little Joe. A new respect for Hoss' courage and strength came to Adam until the youngest of them called out.
"Adam!" Little Joe cried. "Where's Papa? Papa and Mama home?" Adam shut the door behind him. He joined the children on the bed. Taking Joe into his lap, he hugged the little boy. Joe moved restlessly.
"I want to go down and see Mama," he begged. "Lemmie go, Adam."
"No, Little Joe," Adam replied. "Papa and Mama need some time alone right now."
"I want to see them," Joe wailed.
"Joe, stop it," Adam ordered. "Stop it right now." For once Hoss didn't chide Adam for being hard on the boy. Emma's blue eyes went from one brother to the other. Adam knew his sister couldn't miss the silent messages going between him and Hoss. God, what wouldn't he give to not cause her the pain he was about to?
"Adam?" Emma pleaded. "What is it? Where are Pa and Mama?"
"They're downstairs, Emma."
"Why did Hoss go outside? He wouldn't tell us." Emma trembled, her fear obvious. Adam wanted to take her into his arms and hug her. Instead he tried to calm Little Joe and say what he had to, hoping Emma's strength would see her through this nightmare.
"Hoss, Emma. There's no easy way to say this. Little Joe, sit still." Little Joe wiggled trying to get out of Adam's grasp. Hoss took the little boy from his older brother.
"Sit still, Punkin," he ordered. Somehow Little Joe listened to Hoss, and laid his head on Hoss' shoulder. Emma spoke up again.
"Tell us, Adam. What is it?"
"Emma, Marie had an accident. It looks like she fell off Whisperer. She hit the fence. She…she's been outside a long time. Pa brought her in and he's with her…"
"Adam, was she hurt? Does she need the doctor? Why didn't you go for him? I can help Pa take care of her. I want to see her." Emma blurted. Hoss put his hand on his sister's leg. He shook his head at her. Emma's mouth opened. She put her hand to her mouth covering it with a gasp of horror. Adam gave her a silent message not to make a fuss for Little Joe's sake. Little Joe lifted his head, not truly understanding what had just transpired.
"Emma take care of Mama," Little Joe said. "I help." Adam turned his attention to the little boy with his bright green eyes and beguiling face. Again he pulled the boy close, brushing the soft curls with his hand. Little Joe sat still for the first time, his serious green eyes on his brother, finally beginning to comprehend, perhaps from his sister's tears and Hoss who was also crying softly. Emma moved, the twins embracing each other in their grief.
"Little Joe," Adam said. "Your mama is sleeping. She's sleeping with the angels now. She's not going to wake up." For a few seconds all that could be heard was the twins comforting each other. Joe stared up at his brother, fat tears falling down the thin cheeks.
"Mama always wakes up for me. Let me see, Mama, Adam. Pleassssssssse, let me see Mama."
"No, Little Joe. Your mama's gone. She…went to heaven."
"Mama? What's heaven, Adam? Pleasssssssse. I be good. I be good. Let me see Mama." Joe's wails could be heard almost through the storm. Adam clutched Joe to him, unable to keep from crying any longer. Still he whispered to Little Joe, trying to calm him down to no avail. Ben didn't come though he couldn't have been oblivious to Joe's screams. Joe tried to get away from Adam, but the young man could not let him go. Emma and Hoss joined Adam in caring for Little Joe till he fell into an exhausted sleep against his oldest brother. They stayed together, the three brothers and sister all through the afternoon and evening. Ben never came.
Two weeks later
"Adam, where did Papa go?" Little Joe asked. Fear stood in the little boy's eyes. "Papa promised he wouldn't go way." Hoss and Emma were silent at the breakfast table letting their oldest brother handle Little Joe's question. Ben had been gone from the ranch for a week. No one knew where he was.
"Adam, I want Mama and Papa," Joe went on.
"Joe, come here," Adam invited.
"No, I want Mama and Papa."
"Joe, Papa misses Marie," Adam told his little brother. "He just went on a little vacation."
"What's a vaca…ca…what is that?"
"It's like Pa needed to take a rest, cause he was sad missing Mama," Hoss offered.
"I want Papa," Joe went on. "I can go find him." Adam walked over to his little brother and took him in his arms. Hoss and Emma watched his every move. Emma had been withdrawn since Marie's death and even more so since Ben left. After Little Joe, she seemed to take Marie's death the hardest of the children. Hoss and Adam were concerned by her lack of appetite and listlessness. Adam was helpless, trying to cajole his sister to eat while Hoss tried to cheer up his brothers and sister, burying his own grief in the process. Adam walked over to the settee by the fireplace. Sitting down, he hugged Little Joe to him. Seventeen years old, he thought and I have to be a father. Hoss sat by the fireplace. Emma sat next to him.
"Joe, it's very cold outside. You can't go without me or Hoss or Emma, do you understand me? Pa will come home when he can." Little Joe buried his face in Adam's chest, sobbing again. He was just too little to understand. To Adam's surprise, Emma stood up. Sitting next to Joe, she pulled the little boy into her arms.
"We love you, Little Joe. Pa loves ya. He'll come home. He has to. He just has to." Emma brushed the child's dark curls, her anguish as palpable as Little Joe's. A knock at the door caught Adam unaware.
"I'll get it," Hoss said. He ran to the door. Outside, Sheriff Roy Coffee took off his hat. He stepped into the hall shaking off the snow on his boots before entering.
"Mr. Coffee!" Adam called. "What are you doing here? It's a long ride from town today."
"I came to see how you boys were doing," the sheriff answered. "And I've got a telegram from your pa."
"Pa!" Hoss, Emma and Joe cried rushing to Adam's side. Adam took the telegram. He read it out loud.
"To Adam Cartwright. Stop Virginia City Nevada. Stop
Adam. In San Francisco. Stop. Will be home when I can. Stop. Pa. All Stop."
"What's he doing in San Francisco, Adam?" Hoss asked. Emma put her arms protectively around Little Joe.
"I don't know, Little Brother."
"Where's Papa?" Little Joe asked. Emma took him back to the fireplace and distracted her brother with his soldiers.
"Hoss, if Pa's in San Francisco, it's going to be a long time before he gets home," Adam said.
"That could pose a problem, Adam," the sheriff said.
"Why's that?" Adam asked.
"You children are here unattended."
"We're not unattended. I'm almost eighteen, Sheriff and Pa isn't dead. He'll be back."
"True, but it's not usually in the town board's interest to leave children alone." Adam's brown eyes so much like his father's burned fire, his face stone as he spoke.
"This family is not going to be separated. No one can take care of Hoss, Emma or Little Joe better than me, Sheriff."
"Ya caint take us from the ranch or Adam or each other," Hoss added. "We won't let ya." Roy Coffee stepped back. He knew when he was beaten.
"All right. I know Ben trusts you, Adam."
"Obviously he does or he wouldn't have sent the telegram," Adam snapped back. When the sheriff nodded his acquiescence, he started to leave.
"No, Roy," Adam stopped him. "Stay and have some coffee. Warm up before you go back to town. It's the least we can do. We just finished lunch. I'm sure Hop Sing can offer you a sandwich." The sheriff smiled.
"Sounds like a plan. It is a long ride back. I gotta leave in a few hours though. I did bring some supplies out."
"You did?" Adam asked in surprise.
"Well I just asked Sam Redwood at the mercantile if ya had come in lately. When he said ya hadn't, I asked him what Ben usually got each week, and doubled the supply. He put it on your bill." Adam smiled in relief. He'd been meaning to go to town as they running low on everything according to Hop Sing, flour, sugar, and other things. There was always meat in the smokehouse and canned vegetables and fruit, but the supplies Sheriff Coffee brought would save Adam a trip to town which he could ill afford right now. His brothers and sister could barely let him out of their sight, most especially Emma and Joe. Adam gave the sheriff a grateful look as he replied.
"Pa left some money. Tell me how much the bill was and I can send the money back with ya. Hoss, get your coat and mittens and boots. We'll bring the supplies in." Hoss, eager to get out of the house went with Adam. The boys worked silently to bring the supplies into the kitchen for Hop Sing, putting the heavy flour bags in the pantry and helping to put other supplies away as Hop Sing directed them. It was something to do. Adam thought of his father. In going back to the sheriff, he had a request of the sheriff.
"Sheriff, I'd like to send a telegram back to my pa." He spoke softly so Emma and Joe playing by the fireplace didn't hear.
"Whatcha gonna send him, Adam?" Hoss asked.
"Sh, Hoss, not now. Sheriff, will you send it for me? Obviously I can't leave the family."
"Course, Adam. No problem." Adam went over to his father's desk and took out paper and pencil. He started to write a quick note.
"To Ben Cartwright San Francisco
Pa…." Adam looked over to Hoss and Emma and Little Joe. What those children…what he was feeling right now wasn't something you could put on paper. He couldn't tell his father his concerns about Emma or Joe in a telegram. On top of that, he knew his father had to remember his children needed him sometime. No. Words were not going to bring the man home. He crumbled the paper. There were no words to send the his father. None. Anger surged through the teen.
"Never mind, Sheriff," he told Roy Coffee. Roy didn't argue, just gave Adam a sympathetic look. Adam didn't want his pity. After a cup of hot coffee, a sandwich and an apple and after he'd warmed himself by the fire, the sheriff left. Adam was alone again.
Several days passed. Hoss grew more concerned for his sister. He and Adam talked about it, but Emma refused to say how she felt. The child barely spoke isolating herself for hours on end in the empty bedroom Marie planned to decorate with her, or else caring for Little Joe. She eat less and was growing weak. Ten days after the telegram came, Emma fainted. She revived quickly enough, angrily telling her brothers to mind their own business, and then going upstairs to hide again. Adam and Hoss decided to send for the doctor the next morning. Hoss hugged Adam tight showing Adam how vulnerable the boy was, and afraid for his sister.
During the night, Joe's screams woke Emma out of a dream where her father and step-mother and Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe were safe and warm in the house. Emma had been pounding on the front door forever, snow falling all around her. She was cold and wet but no one would let her in no matter how hard she pounded. Sitting straight up in bed, sweat covering her fevered brow, the little girl put her uncovered feet on the freezing floor. Her small fingers were clasping the handle when Hoss' voice reached her.
"Emma where ya going?"
"To check on Little Joe."
"Emmie, Adam will take care a baby Brother. He told us that."
"Yeah." Emma stood on the cold floor shivering. Hoss could barely see his sister.
"Emmie, come and rest with me," the little boy invited. Hoss didn't need to ask twice. Emma moved across the floor climbing into bed with her brother. She snuggled close, a soft presence against Hoss' large frame.
"Emma, won't ya talk ta me?" Hoss pleaded. "Ya done always talked ta me afore."
"I'm okay, Hoss."
"Nah yer not. Ya aint eaten more'n Little Joe practically and yer way too quiet."
"I miss Pa and Mama," Emma answered. "I'm tired, Hoss. Night." Laying her head against Hoss' broad chest, she closed her eyes shutting Hoss out. Hoss lay awake a while longer. Joe was quiet now. The little fella needed their pa and ma, he thought. But then so did he and Emma and Adam. Tears cascaded down the boy's face as he cried himself back to sleep. The world was upside down and no matter what Hoss Cartwright did, he could not make it right.
Morning came quickly. Emma groaned when Hoss pestered her awake.
"Come on, Emmie, we gotta git up. Cow needs ta be milked and Hop Sing needs help in the kitchen."
Emma moaned in reply. Hoss sat up. Emma might complain about getting up but she was never as difficult to rouse as Little Joe who used to be able to sleep through Marie tickling him or a thunderstorm. Leaving his sister in bed, Hoss got up and placed the blankets back over her. Feeling her forehead, Hoss felt a nagging worry in his stomach. Emma was burning up, her legs pulled to her chest. Her cheeks were flushed and there was sweat on her brow. Dressing fast while shivering in the cold, he ran down the hall to get Adam. Adam's room was empty. Hoss looked in on Little Joe who lay with his covers half thrown off, his thumb in his mouth and Adam lying next to him. Both of them were sound asleep. Hoss shut the door. Downstairs, he went to his father's desk and took out some paper.
"Adam. Emmie is sick. I am going to get the doctor. Will be back right soon." Hoss had ridden into town every day practically since he was six years old, except for winter days like this where the snow kept them inside. It was a month till Christmas. Thanksgiving…well that was in a week. Hoss hadn't thought of that. At that moment it did not matter. He pulled on his heaviest coat, his boots, mittens and hat, and took one of the scarves to put over his hat. Outside he took a deep breath of cold air. In the barn, he saddled Buck, knowing Buck was the sturdiest of the horses and would do best in the snow.
"You can do this, Hoss," he told himself.
"You're not supposed to go into town without Adam or Pa when the snows are bad, ya know," Emma's voice told him. Hoss shook his head. He had no choice. His sister needed the doctor and Adam needed to watch Emma and Little Joe. Leading Buck out of the barn, the young boy lifted himself into the saddle. Leaving the yard, he hoped he'd be home soon.
Riding down towards the Virginia City Road, Hoss pulled his coat tightly around him. Cold didn't begin to describe how the wind slapped him in the face, and whipped particles of snow around him. Fortunately the sun was up and there was no sign of a storm. Keeping good control of Buck, Hoss was pleased with the progress he was making. To keep him self occupied he thought of the days right after Marie died. Pa refused to leave Marie's side, even to talk to the children or comfort them. To Hoss he seemed to be a complete stranger. He shuddered remembering when the children had gone into see Marie for the last time. His pa barely noticed the children coming into say goodbye to their mother at the behest of Dr. Martin who arrived the day after Marie's fall, when one of the ranch hands went to get him. Marie lay in bed, appearing as if she were sleeping, her face pale, but still beautiful. She wore her white nightgown, and had a blanket pulled up to her chest.
"Mama!" Little Joe cried. He pushed himself out of Adam's arms and climbed up on to the bed. Adam grabbed the little boy, pulling him back.
"Little Joe, no." Adam had all he could do to hold the struggling boy.
"MAMA! MAMA!" Little Joe's screams didn't seem to phase Ben at first. Hoss felt Emma's hand sneak into his, holding it tight.
"Mama," she whispered. Ben suddenly stood and yelled staring at his son.
"Get them out, Adam. Get them out right now. Go!"
"Pa, they need to say goodbye."
"Come on, Hoss, Emma. Little Joe, it's all right, Little Buddy." Little Joe's screams echoed in the house and had many times since. Hoss was grateful Hop Sing stayed home with Little Joe for the funeral. Hoss and Emma huddled with Adam, Emma sobbing quietly, Ben far from the children. Hoss thought his father must hate them for he had been unable to even look at the children. All Ben's attention was on the casket and the open grave. Later, at home, Pa shut himself up in the bedroom he and Marie shared. Then one morning Adam opened the bedroom door to find their father gone. He'd just disappeared in the night. Adam talked to Hoss about going after him. Hoss begged him not to. Emma wasn't talking much and Little Joe was either sucking his thumb or screaming for his mama or Pa. Hoss couldn't handle his brother and sister alone. So Adam had stayed. They knew now where Pa was. Hoss knew when he got to town it wasn't just the doctor he had to talk to but the sheriff too.
When Hoss reached town, he felt a sense of relief. He found the doctor first, bursting into the physician's office with snow blowing around him and pulling his scarf and hat off.
"Doc Martin! Doc Martin!" the boy cried. It was still early but Dr. Martin was already working. He came from the back of the office, running at Hoss' urgency.
"Hoss? Boy whatcha doing in town at this hour? Nothing wrong at the house is there?"
"Emma!" Hoss said. "She…she's got a fever and she wouldn't wake when I woke her this morning. I came for ya straight away. Then I gotta send a telegram ta my pa. I gotta git him home for Emma. She's been pining for Mama and Pa."
"Small wonder. Poor child. I'll get my bag, Hoss."
"Ya kin start out ta the ranch. I gotta stop at the sheriff and ask him if he knows where ta send a telegraph ta Pa."
"You do that, Son. I'll wait for you."
"No, Sir. Please go. Emmie's real sick. I'm worried about her something bad."
"All right, Hoss. All right. You should sit down here and get warm for a while."
"I'm fine, Sir. Pa always told me I was stronger n a ox and I bet I am."
"You're more than that, Hoss. Much more," Dr. Martin told the boy. Hoss nodded. He rode Buck to the sheriff's office. Roy Coffee was just sitting down at his desk with a cup of coffee. Hoss didn't waste time. After telling the sheriff what was happening at the ranch, Roy promised to send a telegram to Ben. Hoss rode out of town hoping he'd done everything he could for his family. His connection with Emma was very real and he knew she was very sick. He rode so fast he caught up with Dr. Martin. The two reached the ranch in record time with Adam rushing outside in a coat grabbing Hoss in a hug, then stepping back to make sure his little brother was all right.
"Hoss, are you crazy?" Adam chided. "You could have been hurt out there." Hoss took the reins for Dr. Martin's horse and Buck giving Adam a defiant look.
"Don't yell, Adam. I had to get the doc. Is Emmie all right?" Adam's own worry was written across his face giving Hoss no comfort at all.
"She's got a good fever going. And we kept the curtains closed. Seems like the light hurts her eyes. She says she's got a headache too. Otherwise she won't talk. Doc, I might not approve of my brother's methods, but I'm glad you're here. Hop Sing and I have been trying to keep her fever down."
"All right, Adam. You and Hoss stay downstairs. I'll go check on Emma. We need to make sure what she's got isn't catching. Could just be the flu." Hoss was able to hand the horses off to a cowhand who came running from the bunkhouse, one of the two men the family kept through the winter to help out on the ranch. The family had gone into the house together. Hoss took off his coat and boots. Adam spoke up.
"Doc, I have to be with my sister. She's scared and alone."
"Adam, if you get sick too," Dr. Martin protested. "What will the children do?"
"Doc, I don't plan to get sick," Adam answered. He turned to Hoss. "Little Brother, just stay down here for me, all right?" Hoss nodded in benumbed confusion. He watched the doctor and his older brother go upstairs. Sitting down near the roaring fire, he shivered trying to get warm. He didn't even think of eating. All he could think of was his twin, trying to send her his strength and pray that his father would get the telegram to come home. Finally he raised his eyes heavenward.
"Please Mama, maybe you and my ma and Adam's ma kin talk ta God and tell im that we need Emmie. She's part a me. I need her, and Adam does and Little Joe and Pa. Please help us. Oh please!" For the first time since Marie's death, the boy put his head in his hands and sobbed. He just didn't know how much more he could take.
Ben Cartwright rode into the yard surprised to find Dr. Martin's buggy there. Drifts of snow lay everywhere and the wind was cold. He'd expected the children to be out playing. There was a definite lack of activity in the normally busy yard even in the winter. Dismounting the horse he'd rented from the livery in town, he stood next to the horse, wondering if he could face the children he let down after his wife's death. Ben could scarcely remember those days. They were a fog in his mind. At the same time he remembered Little Joe calling for him, and Emma knocking on his bedroom door telling him she was sorry for being bad. He let them down, badly. The father wondered if he could ever make it up to them or if they would ever trust him again. He took the horse into the barn, settling him for the night, making sure he was brushed and had grain. Coming outside he made his way back to the house, wondering why the stalls weren't cleaned. His alarm grew. Something was wrong. The barn had never looked so bad.
Throwing open the front door, the man called out to his family.
"Adam! Hoss! Emma! Joseph! Hop Sing!" Ben was almost up the stairs before he found himself falling back on the stairs as his normally placid son, Hoss attacked him.
"Damn you!" Hoss hollered, pushing Ben back on the stairs. Ben would have fallen if he hadn't grabbed a rail. After recovering the father's natural instinct was to pull Hoss into his arms. Hoss kept on beating him on the back. Ben saw Adam at the top of the stairs. Emma and Little Joe were missing.
"Yer a coward, a stinking coward," Hoss yelled. Ben had never seen his son so upset. "Where were you? Where? Where? We needed you!"
"Hoss, Hoss! I'm sorry, Son. I'm sorry. I was a coward. You're right. Now tell me, where are your brother and sister?" Hoss was sobbing. Adam leaned against the wall.
"Little Joe's sleeping. Emma…Doc is with her," Adam ground out. "If you give a damn." Ben closed his eyes for a split second. Then he looked up at Hoss who barred his way.
"Hoss, I have to see your sister. Will you come with me?"
"Doc won't let him in," Adam told him in a stone cold voice. "Emma's got Meningitis." Ben's face turned white. Hoss moved seeing his father's reaction. Ben raced up the stairs to Hoss and Emma's room. Throwing open the door, he saw Dr. Martin sitting on the side of the child's bed. At first he could barely make out Emma's form on the bed. Dr. Martin looked up.
"Ben. Thank God. How did you get here so quickly? Hoss only sent the telegram five days ago."
"I left San Francisco the same day I sent that damned telegram to Adam," Ben replied. He sat down on Emma's bed, tentatively touching the child's forehead which burned hot beneath his palm. "Emmie? Emmie, Sweetheart. Papa's here." Emma didn't respond. She didn't resemble the child Ben had seen last, at least in his mind. Limp hair was spread out on her pillow, the emaciated face shallow with an unhealthy flush in the normally pink cheeks. Ben's heart ran cold at the sight of his only daughter.
"Dear God in heaven, what have I done?" he muttered. "Paul?" Dr. Martin spoke, his own voice heavy, imparting grave news to his old friend.
"She's very sick, Ben. Adam and Hoss tell me she's been pining away…not eating, not talking much. She's lost weight and was weak to begin with. She's got all the signs and symptoms of brain fever. The fancy term for it is Meningitis."
"How did she get that?" Ben demanded.
"I've had a few cases in town. Emma's been weakening each day. Ben…you must be prepared. Emma has slipped into a coma. I just told Hoss and Adam they might want to say goodbye to her. She just doesn't have the strength to fight the disease." Each word was a dagger in Ben's heart. If Emma died, he knew he would have been instrumental in her death by his own selfish acts. He thought of how Inger had cherished the baby, both babies, then of the years in between where Emma strove to keep up with Hoss. The twins were always together. When Hoss learned farm chores, Emma was right beside him. When he learned to ride, so did she. She loved to help Hop Sing in the kitchen and when Little Joe was born, she was a good little mother except when her jealousy came out. Sometimes she couldn't understand that Ben and Marie didn't love the little boy more than her, but she always got over it. Ben couldn't find any words for the devastation or guilt he felt. Unable to resist, the father pulled his little girl into his arms, hugging her close. Her body was completely limp and terribly hot. Ben closed his eyes for a moment pretending Emma was merely asleep until he had to face reality once again.
"Emma! Emma, Baby," Ben tried in vain. His eyes met the physician in a paternal fear.
"Please Emma. Please wake up for Papa," Ben pleaded. Dr. Martin's expression showed his compassion for the grieving father. Ben hugged his daughter again, silently praying until the doctor opened the bedroom door and looked back.
"Ben…I'm real sorry. You know Emma stole my heart from the first time I saw her."
"Isn't there anything?" Ben begged. "For God's sake, Paul. She's my baby." Ben clutched the blanket that covered Emma with his hand, his eyes narrowed, his face screwed up in agony. Paul shook his head.
"Ben, meningitis is almost always fatal. Her fever's been high. All we can do is keep it down with cool water. If it goes any higher, we could try some ice. That's all I know to do. There is nothing else."
"Then we'll try the ice," Ben decided. "Adam and Hoss can get it from the icehouse."
"One thing, Ben. When the boys come in to say good bye to Emma…well I am concerned that they might get Meningitis from her."
"They have to see her," Ben answered. "I won't put them through what I did with Marie. I forgot what she taught us. We're a family. If Emma lives or …dies the boys will be here if they want to be." Ben felt the doctor's hand on his shoulder again.
"I'll get them, Ben. I'll come back in the morning. God speed my friend." The physician left the room. Ben took off his boots and coat which he had neglected to do when he came home. With a heavy heart he saw that Emma's gown was soaked. He thought again of Marie's words. Emma was becoming a young woman. Of course she was, but she was till his baby. He heard the boys come into the room. Without looking up, he spoke.
"Adam, get me some clean sheets will you? Hoss, I need some clean water. Where is Hop Sing?"
"He's sitting with Little Joe," Hoss shot at his father with anger. "Poor little tyke cried himself to sleep because you weren't here and he couldn't see Emma or his mama." Ben closed his eyes, hearing Hoss' bitterness. He'd never heard that tone from Hoss before and he didn't like hearing it now.
"Hoss, please do as I say," Ben ordered softly. "And stop in Little Joe's room to tell Hop Sing I am home. Don't tell Little Joe yet. I need to stay with your sister and he shouldn't come in here."
"Ya let us in here," Hoss reminded him as Adam stood by.
"Yes, I did, Hoss. Don't make me regret it," Ben snapped. "Now go." Hoss turned on his heels. Adam sat on the bed touching Emma's wet hair, hair dampened by fever. Gradually he let his eyes meet his father's. Adam couldn't miss the regret, and grief in his father's eyes. His anger was still there but his voice was a little warmer than it had been.
"Hoss was just stating a fact, Pa," Adam defended his brother. Ben didn't answer. He had no answer because he understood his sons' anger. When Hoss came back with soap, hot water and cloths, they washed Emma down and changed her sheets. Ben stood near the bed, holding his angel, now dry and covered with a clean gown, her hair cleanly damp in his arms, gazing into her flushed face, and seeing the pallor within. Her face was soft and innocent. Eleven years old, Ben thought and I've put her through hell. Dear God forgive me.
"Emma, Emma," he whispered.
"Bed's ready, Pa," Adam told him. Ben turned to his sons. Hoss' face remained stormy, his blue eyes blazing with his own torment. Adam was unreadable, much like his father could be. Ben recognized both the expressions in his sons and knew that whether Emma lived or died, his relationship with his sons had been irrevocably altered. He got into the bed, leaning against the headboard.
"Pa, whatcha doing?" Hoss asked with a bit of resentment.
"Hoss, I may have been away, but I'm home now. I won't leave your sister and I won't leave you again. I promise."
"Yeah, right," Hoss scuffed. Ben didn't bother to defend himself. Instead he held Emma in his lap.
"Hoss, I need you and Adam to get some ice from the ice house right now. I want to use the ice to bring down Emma's fever. Dr. Martin said it might help."
"Doc says she's dying," Hoss fought back. Ben's chocolate colored eyes met Hoss' blue ones, Emma's eyes. The twins both had sandy colored hair, and shared those eyes, their mother's eyes.
"Hoss, I'm going to do everything possible for your sister. I'm not giving up on her. Are you?" Hoss leaned over in answer, kissing his sister's hot brow, the cool bath no longer having an effect on the fever.
"We'll go, Pa," Adam promised. Together the boys left the room. Ben clutched his daughter to him feeling as if he closed his eyes, she'd disappear as quickly as Marie had. Thoughts of Emma's laughter and her mischievous impishness came back to him. Hoss was so quiet and placid usually. Emma on the other hand often got her brother in trouble. She liked to play in the hay, sliding down the haystacks until they had to be restacked which often infuriated Ben and Adam. She'd jump from the hayloft just for the fun of it, even breaking her arm when she was six years old. She loved to walk or ride on the ranch, enjoy solitary time which Marie said was perfectly normal for a growing girl like Emma. Ben had to admit, he never understood his complex daughter. Before Marie came there was little time to spend with Emma for they had cattle to buy and raise and sell at Market. They had built first a small house and after Marie arrived, this one. Emma had proved time and again she was her father's child, hot with his temper, caring with animals, and adoring of her papa and her brothers, all except Little Joe whom she had a love/hate relationship with. All Ben wanted was his daughter back and his family as whole as it could be given the circumstances. Ben couldn't bear the thought of losing his little daughter not now, not ever.
"Please, God," he prayed. "Please save my baby." His arms never rested, only holding the child as close as possible and praying all the while for her to wake and the fever to break. Emma continued to suffer and Ben continued his own self-inflicted guilt.
"Pa, we got the ice," Adam said an hour later, lugging in a bucket of ice with Hoss behind him. "We've got more in the kitchen. We brought a slicker. We figured if we put it on the bed, and put ice around Emma, when it melted, it'd be easier to clean up." Ben nodded in silence. Standing, he held his daughter while Hoss and Adam got the bed ready.
"We'll keep her gown on so the ice doesn't hurt her skin," Ben told them. She was hot, so hot. Ben was relieved in a way that she couldn't feel what was happening. It was hard for him to put the child back on the bed. With his sons he put the ice around her and on top of her small self. Hoss brought another bucket of ice to complete the job. Emma was so tiny under the ice, so helpless, Ben thought his heart would break. Hoss pulled a chair close to his sister, shunning his father. Ben took Hoss' actions to heart, but managed to hold his own as he looked to Adam. Adam could not meet his father's eyes.
"Adam, could you check on Little Joe?"
"He's in the kitchen with Hop Sing. He knows Emma is sick and he can't come up here. I didn't tell him you were home yet if that's what you're worried about." Adam's bitterness hung in the air. Hoss sent his father the same stinging look. Ben sighed.
"Boys, I owe you a huge apology. I don't blame you for being angry. I guess I have no idea what's been going on here since…since Marie died."
"Ya sure don't!" Hoss chided.
"I came home, Hoss because I missed you children. I'm not even sure when or how I left. When I got to San Francisco, I sent that telegram. As soon as I sent it, I knew I belonged at home. It was as if each one of you was calling me, asking me where I was, and I realized that all I was doing was running away. I couldn't face Marie being gone so I couldn't face being in the house or seeing you. There's no excuse." Ben's eyes went to Emma whose laborious breaths cut him to the quick. "I promise I'll never leave you again."
"Tell that ta her," Hoss went on. "Or Baby Brother. He's one confused little fella and if Emmie don't…iffn…" Hoss couldn't get out the words. Ben's hand touched the boy's shoulder. Hoss shook him off.
"Don't touch me," he ordered. He leaned over the bed, kissing Emma's cheek and talking to her in his gentle way. Ben waited for his oldest son's reply. Adam avoided acknowledging the apology, a tact that usually worked for him.
"I'll check downstairs with Hop Sing. Then I'm going to come and sit with Emma," he told his father.
"We'll all sit with Emma," Ben answered. "For as long as it takes." Adam closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he spoke with distant manners to his father.
"Pa, do you want some coffee, something to eat. Hop Sing made chicken for dinner."
"Coffee will be fine," Ben answered. "Bring some milk and something easy for Hoss, and make sure you eat something. We won't do your sister much good if we don't eat." Adam nodded quickly carrying out his father's orders. Ben touched Emma's forehead. It seemed a little cooler. He dared to hope.
"Emmie," Hoss' pleaded, talking more than he ever had before. Ben hated hearing his son's pain. Believing he had caused much of the boy's anguish, the father in Ben wished he could soothe Hoss. Always before Hoss responded to Ben's support and love. Now the boy didn't trust him. Ben watched his children, Hoss holding his sister's hand and Emma's pale face unresponsive, sleeping like a fairy princess, just waiting to be awakened.
"Hoss, let's get the ice off her. It's melting now and she's been under it long enough," Ben decided after checking his daughter again. She did feel cooler. Ben prayed her temperature would stay down. Hoss didn't answer. He simply pulled off as much of the ice as he could and then lifted Emma in his strong arms. Although only eleven, he was big, and carrying Emma was no problem. Ben finished taking the ice off the bed and changed the sheets again. Next they changed Emma's gown and then put her back to bed. Hoss kept talking to his sister, refusing to give up on her. Adam came back with the food, including coffee and milk. Hoss refused nourishment.
"Hoss, you have to eat," Ben chided.
"Naw I don't. I don't need nuthin ceptin Emma," Hoss retorted.
"Hoss, I won't tell you again. Drink that milk and take the biscuits. I know you're angry with me, but that's no reason to hurt yourself. You can't help Emma if you get sick." Hoss shot his father an angry look. Ben's compassion and love for his son was reflected in his brown eyes. Hoss picked up the glass of milk.
"Pa," Adam said. "Little Joe is still asking for you and Marie. Maybe you could go down and see him? I can stay with Emma and Hoss." Ben was torn. He knew his baby did need him, but so did his baby girl.
"Pa, we'll take care of Emma," Adam went on. Ben stood. Taking a few steps, he leaned down and kissed his little girl's forehead. She remained unresponsive. Adam and Hoss watched his every move. Ben placed his hand on Hoss' shoulder with a strong clasp. Hoss didn't pull away, but met Ben's gaze defensively so unlike the boy that Ben cringed inside while showing his paternal empathy on the outside.
"I'll leave your sister to you, Hoss and Adam, but I'll just be downstairs. As soon as I talk to Joseph, I'll come back up. If her fever starts to rise, come and get me."
"Ya hurt that little fella and I'll give ya what fer," Hoss threatened.
"Hoss," Ben chided, his tone firm. "You know I would never intentionally hurt your brother or you or Adam and Emma."
"Yeah?" Hoss challenged, again so unlike himself, Ben was shocked as he spoke. "Prove it!" Ben moved to his son. Taking him by the arm, he swatted Hoss's backside. Then he pulled his son close hugging him tightly. Hoss stiffened, not at all hurt by the swat, tears again coming to his eyes just the same.
"I love you, Hoss. I love you," Ben assured him. Hoss couldn't help returning his father's hug. Ben spoke words from his heart that he hoped Hoss could not ignore.
"I know I hurt you, Hoss. I was very sad and confused. I promise I'll never hurt you like that again. I promise, Son." Hoss pulled away. His gaze met his father's with complete vulnerability.
"I thought ya was never coming back. I thought ya didn't care."
"I was wrong, Hoss. I made a huge mistake giving into how sad I felt losing Marie. I should never have left, and I'll spend the rest of my life proving that to you." Hoss looked to Emma lying as still as death in her bed.
"How will ya prove to her iffn…iffn…" Hoss threw himself against his father and sobbed. Ben comforted his son, his eyes going to Adam who gave his father a more empathetic look, perhaps able to put aside his own anger understanding the pain his father was feeling. Ben stepped away from his boy and put his hands on Hoss' strong shoulders.
"Emma is going to wake up soon, Hoss. You keep talking to her, Son. You're the one that always gets through to her. Keep talking to her. The rest is up to God." Hoss took his sister's hand again, stroking it gently, his blue eyes going to his father, his words cutting through Ben's soul as the boy's passion was given loud and clear.
"Emmie's my twin, Pa. She's hurting and I'm hurting with her." Adam stepped forward. He slung an easy arm around Hoss' back.
"Go on, Pa. Hoss and I will take care of Emma."
"I could only leave her with her brothers," Ben told his sons. Leaving the room, the father took one last look at Adam comforting his brother as the two sat down, Hoss on Emma's bed and Adam sitting near by in the lamplight. Night had come. Ben shut the door behind him, his last vision of Emma, her small chest rising and falling and prayed that when he came back she might wake to know her father had finally come home and he would have a second chance with all his children.
Downstairs Ben stepped into the Great Room, his mind stumbling against the memories that assaulted him. MARIE! His silent scream did nothing to assuage his emotions. At the bottom of the stairs, he could almost smell her perfume. If he closed his eyes, he could see her sitting on the settee with Joseph in her arms when he was a baby. Hoss and Emma would be on the floor playing cards or another game. He and Adam might be at the desk working on numbers or Ben might be sitting next to her while Adam sat by the fire reading a story. They had been so happy. How could this have happened? How could Marie have left them so suddenly, so quickly? MARIE! He screamed again, only this time the word came out softly.
"Marie." Stepping down into the room, Ben's eyes widened at the sight of Hop Sing coming out of the kitchen with a wiggling Little Joe in his arms.
"#3 son eat supper," Hop Sing was saying. "Hop Sing get supper."
"No," Little Joe objected. "Me see Hoss and Emma and Adam. Where are they?" Hop Sing didn't answer. Instead the Chinaman's Cantonese eyes met his boss'. At the same time Little Joe wiggled down. He ran towards the stairs, stopping short of his father. Ben felt time freeze. Seconds ticked by in an amazing tableau. Finally Little Joe rubbed his eyes, apparently not sure he was really seeing his father or so Ben thought.
"Joseph," he breathed. The curly haired little boy with unusually sad green eyes peeping out stepped back a few feet. Ben knelt in front of the child.
"Joseph? It's me, Papa. Your papa is home." Hop Sing came to stand behind the child.
"Lil Joe, Father home," Hop Sing urged the child. "You ask for father and here he is." Little Joe looked back at Hop Sing then at Ben his confusion evident. Ben's heart broke, knowing his betrayal of his own responsibilities was complete. Joseph had lost his mother in the blink of an eye and in that moment, his father had left him. Ben prayed he could make amends with all his children, but most especially this precious little boy that was all he had left of Marie.
"Joseph, Papa loves you." More seconds passed. Ben held back the urge to scoop the tot into his arms. Patiently he waited until at long last Little Joe walked to him.
"Papa?" he asked. "Papa? You went away. You and Mama went away. Where's Mama? Where is she? Where is she?" Little Joe threw himself at Ben sobbing and wailing. In relief, thanking God, Ben scooped Little Joe up, hugging him close.
"Oh, Papa! Papa! Tell me ya won't never go way no more. Tell me Papa. Pleasssse, Papa. Please. I want Mama. I want Mama." Ben brushed the curly hair, nodding to Hop Sing who made a discrete retreat. Sitting down on the leather chair near the roaring fire, he spoke soothingly to the hysterical child until at last he fell asleep. Ben was further relieved not to have to explain about Marie. Obviously Little Joe still didn't understand about his mother. Ben wasn't surprised. Hop Sing came out of the kitchen again.
"I take #3 son," he offered. "I put him to bed. Missy Emma need you, Mistah Cartlight."
"Thank-you, Hop Sing, but I'll take him up. He can sleep in my bed."
"Good boy. He good boy. Miss papa and mama velly much. So do sons and daughter." Hop Sing's words were quickly taken to heart. Ben nodded again and then took Little Joe up to bed. Ben knew his little boy would sleep through the night. The child was exhausted. What he didn't know as he placed the child in his bed, in the bed he had shared with Marie, were the night terrors that haunted the house. Those he would learn about soon enough. Ben undressed the little boy, leaving him in his t-shirt and underpants, then pulled the warm quilts over his boy. His hand ruffled the soft curly hair again. How he had missed this boy. How he had missed all his children. He bent down kissing the little boy just as Hoss' scream raced through the house.
"Emma! Emmie! Emmie, No! Pa! PA!"
In Hoss and Emma's room, Hoss had been wiping his sister's forehead with a cool cloth. He looked towards the door, hearing his father's voice and footsteps. Adam opened the door a crack, then turned with a smile to Hoss.
"Pa's going into his and Marie…his room with Little Joe. I think Little Joe was sleeping. His head was resting on Pa's shoulder." Adam shut the door. He sat on the other side of the bed. Hoss held his sister's hand after changing the cloth on her forehead.
"At least the little fella aint screaming no more," Hoss mumbled. "Think he's glad Pa came home?" Adam sighed.
"If he wasn't he probably wouldn't have fallen asleep. He'd still be screaming. You know Joe."
"Yeah. He's so little. You and Emma don't always git that, Adam. Ya think he should have more sense n he does."
"Hoss, you're too young to understand."
"I am not," Hoss objected. "But I don't want ta argue. I just want Emmie ta wake up."
"So do I, Hoss."
"Adam…I need her. I caint lose her. I know how ya feel bout her, but ya know what I'm saying." Adam nodded.
"I know, Hoss. I've known since you and Emma were babies. You two never could stand to be separated. For awhile on the wagon, train after Inger died, a family took Emma for Pa and me. We couldn't take care of both of you. You cried all the time. I told Pa you were crying for her. You didn't stop crying till she came back. Hoss, I've never seen you upset since then, until now."
"Adam, I caint explain about Emma and me. Even when she's moody, I know I kin reach her. She caint hide nuthin from me, anymore than I kin hide something from you I reckon. But there's something else, something inside that keeps us…closelike. Without her, I aint sure I know just who I am sometimes."
"Hoss, without you and Emma and Little Joe, this family wouldn't be a family. We'll get through this, Little Brother. We will."
"Mama's gone, Adam. And now Emma."
"Hoss, don't borrow trouble. Answer me another question. You're pretty mad at Pa, aren't you?" Hoss changed the cloth on Emma's forehead, rinsing the cloth in the cool water basin. He was just a little boy doing a man's job.
"Emma was pining for him," Hoss admitted. "Iffn she hadn't she might not be sick. Pa should have been here." Adam's brown eyes reflected his emotions for Hoss.
"Little Brother, I'm not going to make excuses for Pa. I wasn't too happy he left either. I remember though after Inger died how hard Pa took it. Pa's a man who loves fiercely. If the accident happened to one of us, he'd have reacted the same I think." Hoss gazed over at his brother, an unspoken question resting between them. If their sister died, how would their Pa react? Hoss' gaze went back to his sister.
"Do ya reckon he'll run off again iffn Emma…if…?" Hoss couldn't go on. Tears hid behind his blue orbs just waiting to be released for the little boy who was so terribly frightened.
"No, Hoss. I think Pa's learned running away won't solve his problems."
"Think it's a lesson he outta learned a long time ago," Hoss chided.
Adam chuckled just as Emma gave a soft moan, alerting both brothers to her. They watched the little girl gasp a laborious breath and then it seemed as if she stopped breathing altogether. Adam took his sister's hand searching frantically for a pulse while Hoss lifted the little girl hugging her to him, and screaming in agony.
"Emma! Emmie! Emmie, No! Pa! PA!"
Ben burst into his children's room. Hoss was sobbing, holding his twin to him while Adam threw his father a despairing look. Shock riveted through the man.
"Adam?" he choked out.
"She…she's gone, Pa." Adam barely got the words out. He moved over to the other side of the bed, putting his arms around Hoss.
"NO!" Ben screamed. Moving in front of Hoss, he tried to take his daughter back from his son. Hoss was strong. Ben couldn't take his daughter from Hoss without Hoss' say so.
"Leave her alone," Hoss ordered in a tormented cry.
"Hoss, let me be sure, please, Son. Hoss, please!" Ben's voice reflected his grief. He begged for his son to listen. Gently, Hoss released his sister to his father.
"Pa, I couldn't find a pulse," Adam told him. "She just stopped breathing." Ben leaned down, listening to Emma's chest, then placed his hand on her neck searching for a pulse. For a few seconds he thought Adam was right. His mind protested. No! No! Emma! Again Ben searched for a pulse, then listened to Emma's chest. She breathed, her chest moving softly. She was alive! Ben thanked God then turned to his sons letting them know their sister was still with them.
"Emma is breathing. Her fever's broken. That's why you thought she stopped breathing."
"But I couldn't find a pulse," Adam insisted.
"Sometimes when you're excited, Son, that happens. That's not unusual. Emma's better. I hope…I think she's going to be all right." Hoss sat in stunned silence as a smile appeared on both Ben and Adam's faces.
"I thought…" Hoss whispered. "I thought…Oh, Pa." Hoss fell into Ben's arms releasing his pent up worry and grief. Ben's heart swelled with joy while Hoss's strong arms encircled his father. The boy was quick to recover. After a few minutes, Ben let his son go. The two faced each other.
"I love you, Son," he said heartfully. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Hoss nodded. Ben kissed Hoss' forehead then resumed his care for Emma. Adam put his hands on Hoss' shoulder giving the boy silent support.
Ben gently checked his daughter over. She didn't respond to his moving her small body. Ben sighed realizing she was soaked in sweat and she had wet the bed. He turned to his oldest son.
"Adam," he started. Adam held his hands up in mock surrender causing Ben and Hoss to smile.
"I know, Pa. Clean sheets, and a new gown. I think we'll have to use one of Hoss' gowns. We've gone through Emma's. Thank goodness for Hop Sing. Otherwise we'd be out of sheets too." Adam leaned over planting a kiss on Emma's cheek. "But you're definitely worth it Little Sister." Adam hurried away. Hoss sat on the bed watching his father cuddle Emma close. When their eyes met, Hoss looked down.
"Reckon I'll git some sleep if, iffn ya can take care a Sis."
"She's safe, Hoss. I think she'll be just fine."
"Yeah?" Hoss didn't sound convinced, nor did he give Ben a hug as he usually did before going to bed. Ben observed his son, apologizing to him and Inger for his neglect till Adam came back with the linens they needed to care for Emma. After Emma had been cleaned and the bed made yet again, Ben sat in bed, holding his daughter. Adam left his father and sister alone without a word to get some much needed sleep. It was hours later that Ben was startled awake by Little Joe's screams. Ben was torn between staying with Emma and going to Joe. In a minute, Adam opened the door a crack.
"I'll get him, Pa. This is pretty normal for him."
"When he's settled a little bring him in here, Adam. He can sleep with Emma and me." Adam flashed his father a grateful smile. In a short time Adam returned with a very sleepy Little Joe. Placing his little brother next to Ben, Little Joe moved his small arm over Ben's chest resting his head in the crock of Ben's arm. Adam stood nearby for several minutes.
"Looks good, Pa," Adam complimented. Ben's rough fingers went through Joe's soft curl, his kiss on Emma's forehead mute testimony to his love for his children as he spoke from the depths of his heart.
"All the way from San Francisco I could feel how wrong it was that I wasn't here. I owe you more than I can say, Adam. You stepped in and cared for your brothers and Emma. What would they have done without you? God Forgive me." Tears fell down Ben's cheeks. Adam slipped from the room. There were no words for the emotions either he or his father felt at that moment, and while Adam felt sorry for his father, he wasn't quite sure if he was ready to forgive and trust him again. Ben watched the bedroom door close then held his children close and prayed that what he had torn asunder, somehow he could put back together again.
Adam opened Hoss' bedroom door, sneaking a peak at his father and brothers and sister. Little Joe had pushed off his blankets, his little head resting on Ben's chest, his thumb in his mouth. Emma rested in the crock of her father's arm and Ben's chocolate colored eyes moved to his oldest son.
"Morning, Pa," Adam greeted. "How's Emma."
"She slept through the night," Ben answered. "So did your brother."
"I can take him, Pa. Didja sleep?"
"Enough. It's enough being here with them. Adam…"
"Don't Pa," the young man answered. "We can talk later. I'm not saying I'm not hurt or angry. But I know you were hurting. Probably understand better than the little ones. I love you, Pa."
"I love you too, Son." Adam scooped up a sleeping Little Joe. After he left, Ben saw that Hoss too was awake.
"Pa? Wow, the sun's up. Emmie? Emmie, are ya awake?" Hoss was out of bed quickly, padding over the cold floor to sit on the bed.
"Sh, Hoss. She still needs her sleep," Ben chided.
"But the fever's over with, Pa. Ya said so. Won't she wake up soon?" As if in answer to her brother's question, Emma's blue eyes flickered open. She didn't move from Ben's embrace, only opened her eyes.
"Hey, Sis," the boy cried. "Ya are awake. Ya gotta git up. Little Joe wants ya ta read ta him."
"Hoss!" Ben chuckled. "Go on downstairs and get some breakfast. I'm sure Hop Sing is ready for you and we don't want him going back to China do we."
"Sure don't, Pa," Hoss leaned across the bed, kissing Emma's cheek. She blinked her eyes as if in recognition. Hoss' blue eyes rested on his father again.
"Pa, ya won't go away again, will ya? I mean, well, it were right awful ta have you gone and Ma too." Ben's hand ruffled through Hoss' sandy colored hair.
"No, Son. I won't go away again. We'll have a talk when Emma's better. And whatever you want to say to me, you can. I promise."
"Okay, Pa." Hoss' placid emotions took over. He patted Emma's arm. Then he whispered in her ear bringing another smile to the child's face.
"I love ya, Emmie!" Ben almost laughed at how quickly Hoss rushed out of the room to get his breakfast. Yesterday was a distant nightmare compared to how happy he felt at that moment. Looking down he saw Emma was asleep again. Her breathing was quiet, even. She'd barely been awake a few minutes, but was obviously on the road to recovery, Ben thought.
"Oh, Inger, I'm sorry," he apologized closing his eyes and picturing Emma's mother. "Emma could have died because of my selfishness." Ben rested his head against the headboard. Memories of Inger floated through his mind, Inger climbing onto the wagon he and Adam were using to travel to find Ben's dreams, Inger giving birth to first Hoss and then in surprise, a much smaller baby, the baby girl who grew to be protective and moody and filled his heart with her determination to keep up with her brothers. He could hear Inger's voice, her Swedish accent singing as she spoke to Adam who climbed into the wagon to see his brother and sister for the first time. Inger had Hoss in her arms. Ben was holding Emma. Adam was six years old and finally a big brother.
"Adam, come and see," Inger invited softly. "You have a brother and a sister."
"A baby brother and sister?" Adam repeated in awe.
"One of each," Ben laughed. He placed Emma in the little boy's arms. Like her brother she had a head of sandy colored hair, her features delicately feminine.
"She has blue eyes, Pa," Adam said. "Will they turn brown like mine and yours?" Ben chuckled. Inger smiled.
"I think Eric and Emma's eyes will be blue, like mine, Adam. Is that all right?"
"Sure it is, Ma," Adam answered. Emma curled her tiny finger around Adam's. In that second Adam was lost to the little sister who easily wrapped her big brother around her little finger.
"Pa, she's got a strong grip," Adam exclaimed. "Ya think she'll be as big as me someday?"
"Of course, Son. She's a girl though. Girls are smaller than boys. Look and see how much bigger her brother is." Ben took Emma back. Adam moved across the wagon, sitting next to Inger. Inger's blond hair lay around her shoulders, her nightgown covering her, and Eric held against her breast. She gently pulled back the white blanket that covered him.
"See, Adam, how much bigger Eric is. He's going to be every bit as big as your Uncle Gunnar," Inger said proudly. Adam's own chocolate colored eyes grew wide. His Uncle Gunnar was the biggest man he'd ever seen, even bigger than his father.
"Ya think so, Ma? He is big! He's as big as a horse almost." Adam laughed, a little boy's laugh that had seldom been heard by Ben until Inger became the child's mother in his heart and soul. Adam adored Inger. He reached over letting Eric grasp his finger as Emma had. Again Adam's face lit up.
"He is stronger than Emma. That's her name, Pa? Emma, and my brother is Eric?"
"You like the names, Adam?" Inger queried.
"As big as a horse," Ben chuckled. "Remember what the men in town called Gunnar, Inger?"
"Hoss!" Adam cried. "They called him Hoss."
"They sure did, Son. Hoss. What do you think, Eric. Does Hoss suit you better?" Hoss' gurgle sealed the deal and Hoss he became. The family hugged each other and laughed together. Ben would never forget the joy he felt. His wife and babies were his life…and they always would be.
"Pa? Pa?" Adam's voice filtered through Ben's mind, waking him out of his pleasant dream.
"Adam? Oh, I must have dropped off."
"You looked happy," Adam observed. Ben touched Emma's soft hair, kissing her forehead.
"I was dreaming of the day the twins were born and we decided to call Eric, Hoss." Adam smiled.
"I remember," he agreed. "We were so happy then." Ben brushed away the tears that came, tears for Inger, and now for Marie. Adam sat on the bed. He too touched Emma's soft hair, hair he had washed the night before before putting her to bed. Young chocolate colored eyes locked on Ben's wiser brown orbs.
"Pa, do you think we'll ever be that happy again? We were with Marie." Ben's throat constricted. Forcing himself to answer, he made Adam a promise.
"One way or another, Adam, we will," He answered. "We have to be happy. It's what your mother and Inger and Marie would want. We can't let them down, can we?" Adam brushed away a tear that came to his own eye.
"No, Pa. We don't want to let them down, but it's hard. It's real hard."
"I know, Son. I know." Ben kissed Emma's head again, his hand reaching out to touch Adam's. There were no more words to say. Emma slept while her father and brothers cared for her. And Marie lay in a cold grave by Lake Tahoe while her family carried on.
In the next few days, Emma's recovery was slow. At first the child slept a great deal. Dr. Martin assured Ben that was normal. But when Emma refused to eat, and had difficulty moving her arms and legs, fear came again to live with the father. Dr. Martin was called again. After he'd examined Emma, he turned sorrowfully to Ben, his own worry evident.
"What is it, Paul?" Ben asked. "What's wrong with her." Emma lay in bed, her blue eyes watching her father. It was hard for Ben to tell how much she understood. She cried when he left the room, and responded to her brothers but hadn't spoken since her fever had broken three days before.
"I'm not sure what's wrong, Ben. Emma is still very weak. Her reflexes are slow. She's not responding the way she should. Ben, I suspect the fever was too much for her. She's not in a coma, but she seems to have suffered brain damage from the fever."
"Dear God," Ben breathed. Emma didn't move. Ben's hope and dreams for his child were dashed in that instant.
"Ben, you have to be patient," was all the physician could say. Ben looked down into Emma's eyes.
"I want my daughter back, Paul," the father finally managed. "How do we do that? How do we get her to eat?"
"Give her broth and soft foods. That's the best you can do for now. Ben, there is hope. Let the boys in. The more stimulation she gets, the better. You might want to move her downstairs so the boys can spend more time with her and you and Hop Sing don't have to go up and down the stairs all the time."
"Whatever you say, Paul."
"She's going to need round the clock care, Ben. You could really use a nurse out here."
"I'll take care of my own child," Ben insisted coldly.
"Ben, you have a ranch to run, and three other children who need your attention."
"Adam and Hop Sing will help."
"If this was one of the boys I wouldn't argue," Dr. Martin said. "But think of Emma. Don't you think that as she grows more aware, she'll be more comfortable having a woman care for her instead of her father? She's a young lady, Ben, whether you think so or not." Ben thought of Marie. He knew she would agree with Paul. Unable to argue he nodded his consent.
"Good Man, Ben. I know this is difficult. I know Marie would take good care of her if she were here."
"If Marie were here this never would have happened," Ben sighed. "I would never have left Emma or her brothers. Oh God, forgive me." Paul's strong hand clasped Ben's shoulder, not knowing that Hoss, and Adam were standing in the doorway.
"Ben, no one reacts to grief the same way. You'd already lost Elizabeth and Inger. Losing Marie was the straw that broke the camel's back. You're only a man, Ben, not a saint."
"I'M A FATHER!" Ben shouted startling Adam and Hoss. The two boys looked at each other, then made a quiet retreat. "I'm a father." Dr. Martin sighed. Emma squirmed a little in Ben's arms. Ben immediately calmed down sensing his daughter's reaction. His voice was controlled when he spoke.
"Who do you think could help us, Paul?" he asked.
"Jenny Sims comes to mind. She's often taken care of folks hereabouts. All her education comes from reading my medical books and her own instincts but she makes a good nurse." Ben nodded his agreement.
"She knows the children and they like her. Emma especially. It's a good idea. If she wants to stay here, we can set up a bed downstairs with Emma. Otherwise Adam and I can take her to and from town."
"I'll ask her, Ben. You can count on her to come out right away if she isn't working for someone else. Otherwise I'll see who else I can find."
"Thank-you, Paul." Dr. Martin gave Ben a smile and final pat on the shoulder.
"You're a good father, Ben no matter what you think of yourself right now. The first to tell you would be Inger and Marie." Ben didn't reply. Paul left him sitting with Emma. Ben hugged Emma to him, her small form resting against him, her head on his chest as he whispered to her.
"You're going to be all right, Emma. Papa is here and you're going to be all right. Papa's going to do everything he can so you get better and when you're well I'll get you that pony you wanted." He knew she could hear him. When Ben laid the little girl down she blinked at him. Suddenly Ben had an idea.
"Emma! Emma, can you hear me?" When there was no response, Ben went on. "Baby, blink once for yes and twice for no. Can you hear me?" Ben held his breath. Emma's sky blue eyes remained open. He felt disappointment rising up in him when suddenly Emma blinked once. Ben had to be sure. He asked his little girl a question he knew the answer to.
"Emma, do you want me to bring you some squash?" Emma hated squash. To Ben's relief, Emma blinked twice. Ben's whoop of joy didn't seem to frighten the child as he pulled her into his arms again. This time Hoss and Adam came running through the door with Adam holding Little Joe.
"Pa, what is it?" Adam asked.
"She can hear us!" Ben exclaimed.
"I never thought she couldn't," Hoss protested.
"Well I wasn't sure, Son, but she can. Come on in here. I'm going to tell you what Dr. Martin said. Your sister needs help to get better, and we're going to help her." So Adam, Hoss and even Little Joe sat on their sister's bed while Ben outlined how they were going to bring Emma back to them. One way or another they were going to save the little girl trapped in a body she had to learn to control again. Ben would do anything it took for Emma's life to be saved, a life she could live, healthy and happy with the brothers and father she loved.
Jenny Sims came out to the house the next day. She was a few years older than Adam. Her father ran the livery in town and she lived with him. She and Adam were friends and she always treated Hoss, Emma and Little Joe as if they were her friends as well. When Adam opened the door for her the next day she gave him a bright smile and stepped inside to the house she had visited for parties and fun occasions.
"Hello, Jenny. Come on in," Adam invited. "We're just finishing breakfast."
"It's Jenny!" Little Joe cried leaving the breakfast table before Ben could stop him. Jenny caught the small boy up in her arms.
"Hey, Little Joe," she greeted. "Hoss." Stepping into the great room, she smiled shyly at Ben and Hoss. "Mr. Cartwright, it's nice to see you. I…I'm real sorry about Mrs. Cartwright."
"Thank-you, Jenny," Ben answered, still having difficulty accepting condolences.
"I'm sorry about Emma too, but Dr. Martin told me she can get well and I think he's right. I, er, brought my carpet bag. My father brought me out in the sleigh. We figured it was too snowy to be going back and forth every day."
"Quite right but why didn't he come in?" Ben asked.
"Oh you know Pa. He's got work ta do at the livery. He's not much for visiting anyway."
"I'll get your bag, Jenny," Hoss offered eagerly. Jenny looked around as Hoss rushed outside without coat or boots. Ben rolled his eyes. Jenny went on.
"I can get started with Emma right away, Mr. Cartwright. Where is she?"
"In the bedroom resting. Won't you have some breakfast, Jenny?"
"No, Sir. I already ate. Poor Pa," she laughed. "He's going ta have ta eat his own cooking for the next few weeks."
"We eat right fine here, Jenny. Ya know how good Hop Sing cooks," Hoss boasted coming inside with Jenny's bag.
"I can help Hop Sing, Mr. Cartwright. I'm a good cook." Ben looked to his sons and they all laughed except Little Joe.
"Jenny, that's something you'll have to take up with Hop Sing. It's his kitchen." Jenny smiled.
"Maybe I better concentrate on Emma," she agreed. Ben nodded.
"Probably a good idea. We live for the day when Emma can sit up and walk and talk again."
"Mr. Cartwright, Dr. Martin said he doesn't know how well Emma will do," Jenny reminded him. "Each day we just have to see."
"We know, Jenny," Adam answered for his father. "But we already know Emma is aware of what's going on. She's there, Jenny, and we want to help her. Can you?"
"Of course I can, Adam," Jenny bristled. "Don't take your frustrations about Emma on me, all right? We'll get along a lot better that way." Jenny went into Emma's bedroom. Hoss glared at Adam.
"Ya didn't have no cause ta make her mad, Adam. We need her help, or do ya know what ta do for Emma?" Hoss didn't wait for an answer before following Jenny. Adam shook his head. Little Joe followed Hoss which he did naturally. Adam shook his head looking to his father.
"I didn't mean anything, Pa," he apologized.
"I know, Son. Don't worry about it. Emma's being sick is hard on all of us."
"You're telling me." Adam sighed. "Well maybe we should get ready for the rest of the day. Can't get any worse."
"An auspicious beginning," Ben chuckled to himself. "Hope it gets better."
"It will, Pa…someday," Adam answered patting his father on the shoulder. Ben and Adam returned to the breakfast table where Hoss joined them sulkily a short time later. The boy was still having difficulty with Ben and Ben hated the mistrust he saw in Hoss' eyes at times. As he told the boys what chores needed to be done that day, his eyes rested on Hoss who finished his breakfast unusually quiet and knew that Emma wasn't the only one who needed healing.
Emma's recovery was a slow process just as Dr. Martin and Jenny predicted. Thanksgiving came, followed quickly by Christmas. The birthday of Jesus was celebrated only for Little Joe's sake. Not even Hoss could summon up enough pleasure to open his presents without his sister sitting beside him by the tree. Little Joe opened his presents alone. The rest, Hoss' gifts, Adam's and Ben's were put away for a time when Emma could share the significance of the day. Jenny went home for Christmas and Emma was as fussy as a newborn babe. It was clear she was aware of her brothers and father trying to take care of her and she didn't like it, crying when Ben gave her a bed bath and washed her thick hair. Ben talked to her but Emma simply turned her head away, refusing to look at him. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Jenny came back. For the first time in his life, Ben Cartwright was completely out of his element. He had no idea how to meet Emma's needs, not without her being embarrassed and upset. Jenny was a Godsend and Ben often told the girl so.
January and February passed slowly. Emma cried often, frustrated by her inability just to do simple things such as sitting up or feeding herself. Jenny was infinitely patient and very proud of the day when she lifted Emma and put her in a wheelchair for the very first time.
"You look great, Emma," she told the little girl. "All those exercises we did are paying off." Emma managed a smile, but said nothing. "You want to go into the great room. The boys are working but it will be lunch time soon. You can eat at the table for a change, and Little Joe is playing soldiers in the other room." Emma gave no indication as to what she really wanted. Jenny sighed. "Emma, someday you are going to get out of this chair and race Hoss across the yard, and you'll win cause he's not as fast as you." Jenny sighed again and turned away only to spin around when she heard a giggle. Emma was smiling and her giggle continued for a few more seconds.
"EMMA!" She called out. In a second Little Joe came running into the room with Hop Sing behind him.
"Emma?" he asked. "Emma's in the chair!"
"She sure is Little Joe. She giggled! She laughed!" Well she hadn't really laughed but Little Joe didn't know the difference.
"Emmie giggles good," Little Joe said when Emma giggled again. "What did she giggle at?"
"I told her she could out run Hoss."
"Out run? What's that mean?"
"She can run faster than Hoss can."
"Yep. Emmie runs fast. She can ride good too. I wish I could ride as good as Emmie. Emmie,ya gonna ride, huh? Can I go riding with ya?" Hop Sing picked up Joe who squirmed in his arms.
"Lemmie down, Hop Sing. I wanta Emmie ta talk ta me. She giggled. She can talk to me."
"Soon, Little Joe, soon," Jenny promised. Hop Sing carried the little boy out of the room. Jenny gave her attention to her charge. Once again she was surprised by Emma's expression, one of deep sadness as tears fell silently down her cheeks. In the past few months, Emma had either been quiet, crying or sleeping. There hadn't really been an in between. Jenny took a handkerchief from the dresser, drying the little girl's tears.
"Emma, you're going to get better. I promise. I wasn't sure for a while but I am now. You know how I know?" To Jenny's delight, Emma shook her head. "Because you know what you want and you want to ride and run again don't you? You want to help Hoss and Adam and your pa with the chores on the ranch and take care of Little Joe." Emma nodded. "Then that's what we'll keep working for. Come on. We'll go in the great room and I'll read you and Joe a story. Okay?" Emma didn't respond that time, but Jenny wasn't discouraged. It was the most they'd gotten out of the child since Jenny came to the ranch. Physically Emma had improved but they had been starting to despair she would ever be the Emma they had known before. Now Emma's family had hope and so did Jenny.
At lunch, Ben, Adam and Hoss stomped into the house. They were so busy taking off their coats and talking it took them a minute to settle down. Little Joe came running from the kitchen as Ben put his coat on the hook by the door.
"Papa! Papa!" he called. "Papa, lookit. Lookit." Little Joe was so excited he could barely get out what he was trying to say. Ben threw his little son up in the air and hugged him close.
"What is it, Joseph. You need to settle down, Son."
"But Papa, lookit, Emmie." Ben's eyes focused on his lovely daughter sitting in her wheeled chair by the fireplace with Jenny reading to her. Hoss was already across the room, kneeling in front of his sister. Emma's eyes followed her brother while Ben and Adam walked over to her in amazement.
"Emma! Yer up!" Hoss announced. "Ya sure do look great outta that bed. We can go outside and go for walks and play now."
"Not yet, Hoss," Jenny denied. "Emma has to get a little stronger and it would be nice if it was a little warmer outside before she left the house."
"Aw, Jenny. The fresh air will be good for her. Emma hates being in the house."
"He's right, Jenny," Adam supported. "If Emma can sit up in a chair, she'd improve faster if she could go outside."
"Tell you what," Ben suggested. "When Dr. Martin comes out on Friday, we'll ask him. Is that a good idea, Jenny?"
"Yes, Sir," Jenny agreed with relief. "Emma's ready for lunch if you are."
"I'm right hungry," Hoss exclaimed. "Come on, Emma." Hoss wheeled his sister to the table. They removed a chair so she could get up to the table as much as possible. Jenny still had to feed her charge but Emma was at the table and Ben's heart sang. His little girl was coming back to them. The family worked harder to stimulate Emma, reading to her, sitting her on the floor using a special sofa rest that Ben made for her to lean on. Then she could help Joseph play with his soldiers. She used her fingers and gradually was able to grasp silverware and pens and pencils. Spring came. Emma spent hours every morning with Jenny and Little Joe. She giggled at Hoss and Adam's teasing. Her blue eyes lit up when she was happy and she cried less and less. Still she did not speak. Nor did she appear to want to spend time with Ben. If he was with her brothers, she didn't seem to mind, but every time he sat with her outside or tried to talk to her, she avoided him. Ben was devastated. Emma might be stuck in a body she couldn't control the way she wanted to but it was obvious her memory was intact. Where she had originally refused to let Ben out of her sight, now she would have nothing to do with him. Her anger brought out Hoss' anger as well and the boy was increasingly disrespectful and short with Ben, something he normally would not tolerate, except that he still felt so very guilty for abandoning his children.
Adam Cartwright was torn between his brother and sister's anger at Ben and his own disappointment in his father. Over the past several months he had come to understand why his father left, though it was still difficult to believe his father wouldn't leave again if another tragedy occurred in the family. He'd tried to talk to Hoss to encourage him to give Ben a chance. Hoss only admitted he couldn't help how he felt. That was all he would say on the subject. Adam was helpless to rein either his brother or sister in and the tension in the house was building. Adam couldn't imagine how it would come to a head. He only knew it would.
"NO!" Emma exclaimed when Ben lifted her from the chair to her bed. Jenny had taken the weekend off to go to a dance with a beau. Adam was at the same dance so it was up to Hoss and Ben to put Emma to bed. Ben almost dropped his daughter on the bed, instead of gently lying her down as he always did. It was the first word Emma had said in months.
"Emma? What do you want?" Ben asked carefully. Emma pointed to her nightgown lying neatly in a chair by her bed and then pointed to herself.
"We can help ya, Emmie," Hoss offered.
"No, Hoss," Ben answered. He got the nightgown and put it on the bed. Emma moved herself to the edge of the bed, now sitting on it the way she normally would. Looking at Hoss, she pointed to her back where the buttons were. Hoss didn't need telling twice. He unbuttoned the dress.
"Emmie?" he asked. Emma put her hands in her lap and waited.
"Emma, do you want help?" Ben asked.
"NO!" Emma exclaimed again.
"Ya can't do it alone, Emmie," Hoss told her. "Come on. Let me help ya and when yer down ta your chemise, ya can do the rest yourself. Emma, ya aint never done it afore." Emma glared at her brother. Hoss rolled his eyes.
"Come on, Hoss. Let's leave your sister alone. Jenny's been working with her. If Emma thinks she can do this, I'm proud of her. We have to give her a chance."
"She caint!" Hoss insisted.
"Can too!" Emma shouted back. She really yelled, making Ben and Hoss jump.
"Emma!" Ben cried. "You can talk. Sweetheart, Baby." He sat down on the bed, pulling his daughter into his arms. As always the little girl stiffened when he held her. Ben sat back, gazing into his daughter's fierce blue eyes. She truly was coming home to them.
"Emma, Sweetheart. We love you. We're so proud of you. Hoss and I will let you get undressed yourself. Mama would be proud of you too." Emma looked away. Ben started out of the room while Hoss stood clenching his fists.
"Come on, Hoss," Ben ordered. Hoss' defensive attitude melted as he stood in front of his sister.
"Emmie, if you need help, ya promise ya'll call me? Just yell whatever ya can and I'll come." Emma nodded. Hoss followed his father out of the room, leaving the door halfway open so they could hear her if she called. He sank down into a chair. Ben sat on the settee.
"Hoss, I want to talk to you," Ben told his son. Hoss got up and went over to the fire. He picked up a stick and played with the fire ignoring his father.
"Eric Cartwright, I'm talking to you!" Ben snapped. He was at the end of his rope. Hoss stood, his blue eyes as intense as his sister's and still filled with anger.
"So what?" he asked. Ben did what he had the night Emma was sick. He came over to Hoss and swatted him on his butt. He'd done this several times in the last months along with grounding Hoss to his room, giving him extra chores and restricting his riding. Hoss didn't seem to care. Tonight was no exception. Ben sighed, his frustration evident. He sat down on the settee, keeping his eyes on his son.
"Hoss, I need your help. You've worked hard to help your sister get well and pretty soon I think she's going to be up and around again."
"Yeah?" Hoss inquired. "So?"
"So, all this anger and hurt isn't good for you or her. Hoss, I need to know from you what I can do to convince you and Emma how sorry I am about what happened after Marie died. I know I broke your trust. I've always taught you trust is earned. I keep trying to earn it back, but you won't let me."
"I can't trust ya, Pa. Ya left us."
"Yes I did. I've admitted that."
"Emma coulda died and you wouldn't have cared."
"Hoss," Ben sighed, a deep sorrow reflecting on his face. "Hoss, you know better than that."
"How, Pa? How am I supposed ta know? You didn't watch Emma pine away fer ya. She was a withering away and ya weren't here."
"I can't take back what I did, Hoss. I love you children. Each one of you is a precious gift your mothers left me. Men make mistakes, even fathers. I made the biggest mistake of my life when Marie died. I just couldn't face losing her." Hoss looked uncomfortable. His father had told him this before, but Hoss hadn't listened. He was too hurt by Marie's death and too angry with his father for running away and he was afraid Emma would never get well. Ben went on. "I'm not perfect, Hoss. I was wrong. All I can do is what I've been doing, trying to take care of you and Emma and Adam and Little Joe."
"Adam took care of us," Hoss shouted. "Adam did. You didn't, and Emma almost died. Lookit all she has ta go through just ta do what she used to so easy. It aint fair. It aint fair. It aint…" Hoss burst into tears. Ben couldn't help himself. He pulled Hoss into his arms. For the first time in months, Hoss let his father comfort him.
"I'm sorry, Pa. I just couldn't believe Emma would die and then all this time and I wasn't sure if she'd be all right. I knew she was mad so I was mad too. I knew I was wrong. I just couldn't help it. I need her, Pa. I need her."
"We all need her, Hoss. Do you understand me, Son? We all need your sister. We love her, just as we love you and each other." There were no more words. Ben held his son close. The boy was so tall, his head reached almost to Ben's. Still he rested his head on Ben's shoulder and the two cried together until a miraculous sound came from the bedroom.
"HOSS," Emma called. "HOSS." Hoss stepped back from his father with a real grin and then ran into his sister's bedroom. There Emma sat, her underclothes and dress lying on the bed next to her, rather crumpled but there and Emma had her nightgown on. Hoss sat on the bed hugging his sister.
"Ya done it, Emma! Ya done it! Tomorrow ya can muck out the stalls in the barn, right?" Ben burst out laughing. Emma giggled. She didn't look at Ben but gave Hoss an adoring look. Lying her head on his shoulder, she hugged him in return.
"Hoss," she whispered. "Love Hoss." Ben turned away, unable to stop the tears that came. When he turned back, Hoss was helping Emma to lie down in bed. Hoss was whispering something to Emma. Emma shook her head.
"Come on, Emma, please," Hoss begged. Emma shook her head again. Ben knew without asking what Hoss had said. He'd asked Emma to forgive Ben and Emma refused. Ben and Hoss exchanged places. Ben kissed his daughter's forehead just as he did every night. She turned away as she always did. Ben's eyes met Hoss. Hoss shrugged.
"She's hurting, Pa," was all he could say. Ben turned back to Emma. Sitting on the bed, he spoke softly to her.
"I love you, Emma Rose. I love you very much," Ben told her. "Someday you'll know how much. I'll be here in the morning and every morning after that. I promise."
"I'll get ready for bed and sleep on the cot down here, Pa," Hoss said. Ben nodded. "Be right back, Sis." Emma smiled.
"Hoss," she said. She closed her eyes with a smile on her face. Ben had to be satisfied with that smile…and continue to pray that soon the family that had been torn asunder, not so much by Marie's death as his own actions, might soon be whole again.
"Lookit you, Emma," Hoss cried a few weeks later. "You're walking! Pa, Adam! Emmie's walking." Ben and Adam flew out of the house shocked to see Emma standing a few feet from her wheelchair. Hoss was practically jumping up and down in his excitement. Little Joe joined the family, wrapping his arms around Emma's legs.
"Emmie, don't fall," the little boy cried. He'd witnessed several falls his sister had taken when just he and Hoss and Emma were home as Emma learned to walk again. Jenny was only coming out to the house three times a week now to help Emma bathe and take care of necessary things that only Jenny could help her with. Emma smiled down at Little Joe, her feet steady and sure.
"I won't fall, Little Joe…promise. Hoss…won't let me… this time."
"Emma," Ben exclaimed. As usual Emma ignored her father, walking towards Hoss, Joe letting her go when Ben picked him up. Adam moved slowly behind his sister while Hoss backed up towards the barn. Emma's legs did start to tremble, but she didn't give up till she reached the barn fence when she leaned on it and turned around.
"I knew ya were…there, Adam."
"You did, huh?"
"Yeah." Emma's eyes went from her brother to her father. "Knew ya would…be…there." Emma looked down unable to look at her father. Adam scooped the child up in his arms.
"I'll always be there for you, Emma, and Hoss and Little Joe. You know that."
"Yeah." Emma leaned her head on Adam's strong shoulder. "Adam…"
"Yes, Little Sister."
"Now I can…walk…can we…go see…Mama?" Adam froze. Looking over to Ben he let him answer the question despite Emma's reticence with their father.
"I think that's a good idea, Emma," Ben answered.
"Can we, Pa?" Little Joe asked. "Can we go see Mama? I can pick some flowers for her. Mama likes flowers."
"Joe, we won't see Mama. You know that. Emma wants to see where Mama is sleeping." Ben kissed the little boy's forehead, hugging him close.
"I know," Little Joe answered, a bit of the twinkle going out of his mischievous face. "Mama's sleeping with the angels. She comes to visit me at night." Ben stared at his son, then looked to the other three children who appeared as dumbfounded as he was. Adam carried Emma back to her chair and sat her in it. Hoss followed Adam and Ben with the wheelchair up to the porch, using the ramp he and Adam had made for the wheeled chair ordered from Sacramento when it became evident Emma would need it for awhile. Ben sank down on one of the wicker chairs on the porch. Adam took the other. Hoss leaned on the wheelchair. For once Emma's attention was rapt on her father and Little Joe.
"Joseph, what do you mean?" Ben asked.
"Mama visits," Joe answered in simple childlike innocence. "She helps me when I miss her. Cause I miss her a lot. I missed Emma too till she got better. I asked Mama why she can't come back like Emma did." Again Ben's eyes went to his older children. He hugged Joe close, his body trembling, his heart thumping madly.
"What did she say, Joseph?" Ben inquired very carefully, hoping not to frighten his little boy with the intense emotions he felt. Joe looked around at his siblings then his father.
"Papa, you're crying," he observed wiping a tear away with his little fingers. "You miss Mama too?"
"Every day, Joseph. Every day."
"All the time," Hoss agreed.
"She's definitely an angel, Joe. What else did she say?" Adam tried.
"Tell us, Little Joe," Emma encouraged. Joe's eyes locked on his sister. He smiled a sad little smile for such a small child. He leaned his head against Ben's shoulder, still looking at Emma.
"She said she had to stay in heaven, but she would always be there to hold me if I needed her. She told me that me and Hoss and Emma and Adam all had lots and lots to do. That's why Emma got well." Emma's blue eyes grew wide. She burst into tears burying her face in her hands. Ben moved quickly, unable to bear seeing his daughter cry. He handed Little Joe to Adam who clutched the little boy to him, then picked up Emma, sitting back down in the wicker chair with her. Emma turned on her father, hitting out with her small fists, barely hurting his chest but venting her rage.
"Let me go!" she screamed and hiccoughed. "Let…me…go."
"No, Emma. No," Ben told her. "I love you, Emma. I love you." Emma shook her head in denial. "Yes, Emma. I love you. Pa loves you. No matter what you think. I love you." Ben grabbed the small hands holding them in his own strong ones. It was the first time he had held her since her illness almost six months before.
"No…No…No…" was all Emma could sob. "I…want…Mama."
"I know, Emma, I know," Ben consoled. Emma suddenly sat back away from Ben, her blue eyes blazing with a mixture of the moods Ben recognized in his little girl, confusion, anger, hurt and vulnerability. That was Emma, as mercurial and moody as Joe.
"I wanted…you! I…wanted…you, Pa. You didn't come. YOU…DIDN'T…COME!" She burst into tears again. This time Ben was allowed to rub Emma's back, her sobs wetting his shirt. He didn't care. All he wanted was for Emma to feel safe with him, and loved by him again. She was his baby. Emma's sobs gradually decreased. Little Joe squirmed out of Adam's arms running to throw himself at Ben and Emma.
"Emmie, don't cry," he pleaded. "Pa, why's she crying?" Hoss put his strong hands on Little Joe's small shoulders.
"She's just crying like you do, Short shanks, when ya miss Ma."
"Yeah, I guess," Little Joe agreed. "But Emma, we're going to go and see Mama. You can help me pick flowers." Emma looked up at her father.
"Your brother wants to pick flowers, Emma. Do you want to go and pick flowers? Then we can go and see your mama."
"She wasn't…really my mama…was she?" Emma stammered. "She wasn't…here…long enough."
"Sure she was, Emma," Adam told her. "I'm older than you and Marie was my mother too, and Hoss' and Little Joe's. She'll always be our mother."
"Always and always," Hoss concurred. Emma rested against Ben. Ben couldn't resist kissing Emma's head, her soft hair whispering against his face. He spoke with gentle assurance and certainty.
"Emma, Marie loved being your mama. You must never question that."
"She…she said…It's not how much…love…" Emma took a deep breath to continue, her speech still difficult. "a person…receives…but how much…they give."
"Yes, that's how Marie felt," Ben agreed, his voice choking. "She loved all four of you and me, very much." Emma was exhausted. She fell asleep in her father's arms. Ben didn't move, cherishing the moment. Adam distracted Little Joe by taking him to the barn, the visit to Marie momentarily forgotten. Hoss hugged Ben impulsively.
"Thanks, Pa," was all he said before running after his brothers. Ben closed his eyes enfolding his little girl with all the love and compassion he could. She was so fragile and yet so strong. She was a Cartwright through and through and Ben knew that soon she was going to be just fine.
"Emma, slow down," Ben shouted after the girl two months later. Riding the new pony Ben had promised her across the grass with Hoss in hot pursuit, the child appeared just as impetuous and beautiful as she had been the last time Marie saw her. Ben smiled, holding Little Joe in front of him on the saddle while the child prattled about going to see his mama and Adam raced after the twins to make sure they didn't get hurt. When Ben pulled Buck up, his children were already gathered around Marie's grave. Ben held Joe down to Adam and then joined his sons and daughter. Emma was kneeling placing fresh flowers on the grave. She took one and gave it to Joe.
"Here, Joe," she said. "You put your flower there too. Mama would like that." Joe leaned against his sister while Hoss and Adam and Ben watched.
"Emmie?" Joe asked.
"Yeah, Little Joe?"
"Do ya think Mama is taking care of us?" Emma sat back on the grass, pulling Joe into her lap. The little girl had grown up quite a bit in the last month. She was often able to calm Joe when her brothers couldn't and he often turned to her for a hug or kiss when he hadn't before though he was still the trusting little boy he'd always been. Ben wondered how much Marie's death and Emma's illness had affected him. Emma tickled Joe whose giggle infectiously caused his father and brothers and sister to laugh.
"Stop, Emmie," Joe chortled. Hoss swept down, rescuing his brother. The twins tussled with their baby brother for a minute before coming up for air. Little Joe repeated his question.
"What do ya think, Emma? Huh?" Emma and Hoss exchanged a silent twin moment as Marie used to call it, the two exchanging silent thoughts while Joe went on. "Tell me, tell me." Emma hugged her brother and let him lean against her while her gaze went from the grave to her father who knelt near by. Ben's own expression of paternal love and pride told her all she need to know when she answered Joe's question.
"Mama will always care for us, Little Joe, but she has to do it from heaven."
"While she's sleeping with the angels," Joe mumbled.
"But Pa is here, and Adam, and Hoss and they'll take care of us forever," Emma answered with a smile at her father.
"But Hoss is only a little boy," Joe protested. Emma's smile grew and Ben felt his world finally come into focus again as his little girl repeated the words Marie used to say when Emma needed extra love and attention.
"We're family, Little Joe…and family takes care a their own. Don't cha forget it now." Little Joe leaned over putting his flower next to Emma's. Ben sat with Adam and Hoss and the family that had been nearly torn asunder came together again while Marie smiled down upon them and enfolded them in a love that would live forevermore.