A Stake in the Future (by jfclover)

Summary:  Will longtime friendships be severed for one reason or another?  Will an unwarranted land dispute or the sale of a prized Kentucky stallion wreak havoc with the Cartwrights?  One son is injured in a freak accident.  One son is anxious to bring home the prized stallion while the third is away from the ranch and late returning home.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count: 14,600


There are times in a man’s life when he doesn’t recognize a friendship for what it is or what it could be.  Whether the friendship will endure a lifetime or whether the friendship is fleeting, only passing through the night, that little piece of heaven should be honored and treasured.  Friendship is a lifetime gift; it fills the soul with happiness and joy.

*****

My father’s mood had us all on edge.  He was short-tempered and fussed over the most trivial things as he packed his briefcase with maps and receipts and anything else he would need to verify proof of the land in question.  He’d scheduled a meeting in town with a neighboring rancher who, after all these years, was disputing a parcel of land at the northwest corner of the Ponderosa.  His name was Carl Hubert and the land in question held a hundred or more head of Ponderosa cattle.  We’d used that section for years, and Mr. Hubert was suddenly questioning the boundaries of our adjoining ranches.

Pa wasn’t about to give up a parcel of land without a fight, and with Adam in Sacramento and not due back for another two days, I’d promised Pa I’d watch over Hoss while he was in Virginia City.  Besides, Hop Sing would be at my brother’s beck and call too so there was nothing to worry about.

“It’s only a broken arm, Pa.  It’s not life-threatening.  I can handle my brother while you’re gone.”

“If you’re sure, Joseph.  I’ll have no fooling around.  I want you to stay with Hoss the whole time I’m gone.  You understand?”

“Sure I do, Pa.  No need for worry.  Hoss and I’ll be fine.”

“All right.  I’m off then.  I’ll see you boys later.”

*****

From Hoss’s bedroom window, I couldn’t see the front yard and I hadn’t heard Pa ride up after his day spent at the land office, but when he dragged himself through the front door, I knew things hadn’t gone well.  Hoss had slept most of the time Pa was gone and I was bored to tears, but I’d done what Pa asked.  I never left my brother’s room except for a quick trip to the outhouse, which I didn’t think my father would mind.

I had big plans for Friday night and Saturday, and I didn’t want to blow my chances because I’d disobeyed my father.  With Hoss laid up because of a freak accident and Adam working out a lumber contract with Pa’s friend in Sacramento, I had to be on my best behavior and so far, I’d done everything Pa had asked of me over the last two weeks.

I slipped out of my brother’s room, stood at the top of the stairs, and watched my father set his kangaroo briefcase on his desk and slip out of his winter coat.  By the set of his shoulders, I realized the land dispute was far from over.

“Pa?”

He glanced up the stairs.  “Oh, hello, Joseph.  How’s your brother?”

“He’s sleeping.”  I started down the stairs.  “He slept most of the afternoon actually.”

“Good.  I’m sure he needed the rest.”

“You don’t look too happy.”

“That stupid, stupid man.  He insists we move our cattle by this time next week.  Move off our own land, but I won’t give in to his demands.  Mark my words, Joseph.  This dispute is long from over.”

“How about a cup of coffee?”

“I could sure use one.  That northerly wind is like ice out there today.”

But before I could make my way to the kitchen, Hop Sing was carrying a tray toward my father’s desk.

“Looks like someone beat me to it, Pa.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,  Do you have any of those little sugar cookies left?”

“Yessir, Mr. Ben.  Hoss ate first batch, but I bake again today.  I get.”

“Why don’t we take our coffee upstairs.  I’m sure your brother could use some cheering up.”

“He’s really put out with himself, Pa.  He still can’t figure out how that burr got under his saddle.  It’s almost like someone put it there on purpose.”

“Who’d do a thing like that, Joseph?”

“Beats me, but you know Hoss.  He checks everything twice.”

“Well, you’re right about that.  It is strange, isn’t it?”

“You bet it is.”

The two of us marched up the stairs to find Hoss sitting up in bed and adjusting his sling over his casted right arm.

“This dang fool thing doesn’t fit right,” he growled.

I hid my smile when Pa set his cup and saucer on Hoss’ nightstand and helped my oversized brother fix his sling so he’d be comfortable.  Since Hoss rarely had an injury that kept him down for more than a minute, he’d really turned into a sourpuss over this broken arm business.

“Take it easy, son.  Paul said the sling is necessary for the first few days.”

“Never should’ve happened in the first place, Pa.”

“I know, but it did and you need to be patient.”

I’d had so many stupid injuries over the years that I was used to endless days of bed rest, but not Hoss.  He was madder’n a hornet on a summer’s day and nothing Pa said would change his grumpy disposition.

“Want me to help, Pa?”

“I don’t need no more help, little brother, and quit your laughin’.”

“Hoss, you know me better’n that.  You know I’d never laugh at someone who’s confined to bed-rest for two whole days.”

“Tell him to go fix a fence or somethin’, Pa.”

“That’s enough, boys.”

Hop Sing entered my brother’s room carrying a cup a coffee and a plate of fresh-baked sugar cookies that he sat on Hoss’ lap.  It was only seconds before Hoss forgot I was even in the room.  The anger lines softened as soon as he popped that first cookie in his mouth.

*****

Tomorrow was Friday and I had plans I wasn’t about to change because of Hoss’ arm, or Pa’s fight with Carl Hubert, or Adam’s work in Sacramento.  Saturday was the most important day of the year, at least for me, and I planned to spend the night at the International House so I’d already be in Virginia City early on Saturday morning for Ed Skylar’s annual horse auction.

As advertised on his flyer, Skylar was selling mares and geldings and a prize-winning Kentucky stallion.  I wanted that stallion more than anything.  Of course, I would check out the additional stock, but the stallion was my main concern, and I’d boasted to some of my closest friends that no one in the territory of Nevada would own that horse but me.

Pa had warned me to keep my mouth shut although the friends I’d told had either no interest or not enough ready cash to purchase the animal, but I was lucky this year.  Pa told me to use my head.  He’d pay for the stallion if I thought the horse would improve our stock.  How could a prized Kentucky stallion not benefit the Ponderosa?  Though I hadn’t seen the horse, in fact, no one but Ed Skylar knew the stallion’s exact breeding background, I felt sure the animal would be a winner.

Tomorrow afternoon I would ride to Virginia City and book a room at the International House, and I’d be the first in line to judge Skylar’s stock Saturday morning prior to the auction.  Actually, I had an ulterior motive for staying over in town, one Pa didn’t need to know about, and that was spending a few minutes with my best girl, Frankie.

*****

“I’m off, Pa.”

“Have you got everything, Joe?”

“Sure do.”  I patted my jacket pocket.  “Got the money in my wallet, a clean shirt in my saddlebags and my chores are done.  Can’t think of anything else.”

After fastening my gunbelt I reached for my hat.  Pa crossed the room from his desk and reached for my shoulder.  “You be careful, son.  Auctions can be tricky you know.”

“I know, Pa.  I know what I’m doing.”

“Don’t let anyone swindle you out of that thousand dollars, you hear?”

I chuckled.  “No chance of that happening, Pa.  Not unless I get knocked over the head and, if that’s the case, I won’t bother coming home.”

“You just be careful.”

“I will.  See you tomorrow night.”

“And stay out of the saloons.”

“Right, Pa.”

I promised Frankie I’d stop by and say hello when I rode in for the auction.  Surely, Pa wouldn’t object to me saying “hi” to a friend.  So she worked at the Silver Dollar.  It wasn’t like I was going to the saloon to get drunk or get in some stupid barroom brawl. Maybe I’d sneak in one beer, just to settle the dust from the long ride to town.  Anyway, what Pa didn’t know . . .

*****

As my eyelids fluttered open, I questioned my whereabouts, but I was at a loss.  Had I been asleep?  Had I been dreaming?  I tried to lift my head but the intense pounding prompted me to reach for the base of my skull where my fingers slipped through a sticky wetness at the back of my neck.  And when I gazed at the tips of my fingers, there was blood, lots of blood.  But the alley was dark and my mind couldn’t keep up with my thoughts, and what were my thoughts anyway?  I wasn’t sure.  All I knew was that every part of me hurt.  Had I been kicked by a mule and left in some alley to die a slow death? No, there was no mule.  That was the dream I’d had, but I was awake now, and I had to concentrate.  I had to know what the heck had happened.

Like a rushing river, a gust of icy wind barreled down the alleyway, and I shivered.

I pushed myself up from the ground and sat back on the heels of my boots, but I was wobbly and worried I might be sick until I saw who was lying less than a foot away.  My body became rigid and my mind raced when I saw her lying so still.  Her green satin dress—the one she wore when she kissed my cheek—was torn from her shoulder, and her bare arms and legs were exposed to the cold night air.

Her given name was Francis Stapleton though to me she was just Frankie—a nickname I’d given her a long time ago—but Frankie wasn’t moving.  Her pale white arms lay flat on the ground, sprawled is the right word.  She lay sprawled on the ground, and her face—something was different about her face. I shifted my weight closer and called her name.

“Frankie?”

And because I didn’t want her to see any signs of blood, I wiped my hands vigorously against my pant legs to remove any trace that something was amiss.  And when I felt a sickening pain in my shoulder, I eased my left arm tight to my chest and forced myself to breathe slow and steady.  Frankie needed me; this was no time to give into my own weakness.

“Frankie?”

When I reached out and stroked her battered cheek, she leaned into my touch, but just enough to assure me she was still alive.  She tried to form words, but her voice could only mumble things I couldn’t understand except for my name.  She tried her hardest, but her words were too distant to hear.

“I’m right here, darlin’.  Don’t move.  You’re hurt, and I need to go for the doc.”  I leaned in closer.  “Can you hear me, Frankie?”

“Joe . . .”

She knew who I was and I took that as a good sign.  “You’re okay.  You’re gonna be fine.”

Long blonde tendrils had fallen from broken combs she’d used to fashion her hair, but I would buy her pretty, new ones as soon as she was well.  Though combs were the least of our worries, it was the first thing that ran through my mind.  I needed the doc, but with my left arm in such a state, I couldn’t carry her and I couldn’t leave her unguarded and alone.

Frankie was my closest friend.  She was the first real “lady” I’d ever met and together we formed a special bond.  Though we were both young and quite foolish in those early days, we’d shared much more than just our hopes and dreams.  Frankie was my first real love, or should I say lover.  Even before Julia Bulette, Frankie and I had explored each other—body and soul.  Together we’d laughed and cried, and we’d made our way through the difficult years between adolescence and the adults we’d become.

On my seventeenth birthday, my brothers took me to the Silver Dollar Saloon and bought me what they thought was my first beer.  Of course, I let them think that and of course, I let them think I was meeting Frankie for the first time.  I even called her Francis that night in order to keep up the charade.  I also let them think our trip upstairs—the one they paid handsomely for—was my first time but Frankie and I were passed that sort of thing.  We’d become friends, and we’d left our lovemaking behind us a long time ago.  I remembered the words she’d said that night.

“I can’t keep this money, Joe.  Give it back to your brothers,” she’d said, holding the wad of Adam’s money out in front of her.

“Not on your life.”  I leaned in and kissed her cheek.  “You tuck it away for a rainy day.”

That night, we spent our “lovemaking” hour talking about the future, her future, her hopes and dreams of a better life, and I was determined to help her move on from Virginia City and find that new life, but that was two years ago and Frankie was still taking men upstairs at the Silver Dollar Saloon.

And as I looked down at her tear-filled eyes, I saw only pain.  She was badly hurt, and I didn’t know what had happened to either of us.  I couldn’t remember a damn thing, and that’s when I heard footsteps entering the alley.  I reached across my battered left arm and pulled my gun.  I held it as steady as I could with my right hand.

“Who’s there?”  I said.”

“Little Joe?”

“Sheriff?”

Roy Coffee, followed by Bobby—the weekend bartender at the Silver Dollar who was nearly the size of Hoss—scurried through the dark alleyway.  Roy stopped and stood on the opposite side of Frankie and Bobby pointed his finger down at her sprawled body and spoke wildly to the sheriff.

“That’s her,” Bobby said.  “That’s Francis.”

“She’s hurt real bad, Sheriff,” I said, looking up from my crouched position next to her. “She’s been beaten and cut with a knife.”

Roy took a step closer.  He reached down to the ground and picked up a curious item just the other side of Frankie’s body.  “What’s this?” he said.

A bloodstained knife, my knife, the one I carried inside my boot.  “That’s my knife, but I . . . I didn’t do this, Sheriff.  Someone must have . . .”

“Have what, Little Joe?”

“I don’t know.”  I closed my eyes.  I think I even held my breath because I couldn’t remember anything that would make sense to the sheriff.  My mind was blank.  Nothing seemed real until I looked down at Frankie and determined that someone or a bunch of someone’s had it in for the both of us, but why?

“That’s her, Sheriff.  She’s been missing over two hours,” Bobby repeated.

“All right, Bobby.  I can see for myself,” Roy said.  “Go get Doc Martin.  I need him here now.”

“Is she dead?”

“Get the Doctor, Bobby.”

“You gonna arrest him, Sheriff.  You gonna arrest Little Joe Cartwright?”

“Please go.”

As soon as Bobby ran back down the alley, I realized where Frankie and I were and it made no sense.  We were deep in the heart of Chinatown and again, I asked myself why.

“What do you know about this, Little Joe?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know anything, Sheriff.”

“What’s the last thing you do remember?”

“Last thing I remember was a poker game.  I was playing poker at the Silver Dollar.”

“And then what?  You two slip out the back door for a little . . . “

“No, Roy.  Don’t you understand?  Frankie and I are just friends.  We’re not . . . you know.”

“Well, what do you think happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you have a fight with this girl?”

“No!”  I shouted.  “We never fight, Roy.  She’s my friend.”

I held back tears of frustration, and I held my throbbing left arm tighter to my chest.  I’d never felt such pain and I couldn’t make it end.  I remembered just yesterday when I’d laughed at Hoss over his sorry mishap and his broken arm.  What a fool I’d been.

“Sorry, big brother,” I mumbled.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing, Roy.”

*****

“I’ve sent my deputy out to the Ponderosa for your Pa, Little Joe.”

Paul Martin and Bobby carried Frankie on a stretcher to Doc’s office.  With help from Sheriff Coffee, bracing me as we walked, I kept my left arm tucked tight to my chest, and we followed closely behind the stretcher.  Bobby had scowled at me as if I’d caused this whole mess and though I was tempted to give him that same fiendish look, I forced my gaze to the uneven ground as we strode through the back alleys of Chinatown to the lit streets of Virginia City proper.

“What happens now?”  I asked Roy.  Was I under arrest?  According to Bobby, I’d attempted to murder my best friend.

Roy and I sat in the waiting room together while Doc worked on Frankie.  Luckily, Bobbie had left the doc’s office and I wouldn’t have to put up with his scornful looks.  My shoulder was only a minor inconvenience compared to the brutal injuries someone had inflicted on the young, Silver Dollar barmaid.

“We got ourselves two scenarios, Little Joe.  If the girl dies, and seein’ how you was found at the scene plus, there’s blood on your knife, then I got to arrest you for murder.  If the girl lives, I still have to arrest you for attempted murder.”

“It wasn’t me, Roy.”

“Can you prove that?”

“I can’t prove a damn thing, but I’d never hurt Frankie,” I shouted.  “Why don’t you understand that?  Someone else is involved here.”

“You mind your manners, boy.  There’s no reason to scream at me.  You’re Pa wouldn’t take kindly to that and neither do I.”

“Pa’s the least of my worries, Sheriff.  Frankie’s lying in there and she’s all messed up, and I can’t do anything to help her.  She’s my concern right now, and you don’t seem to understand anything I’m saying.”

“I have to ask this, Joe.  Did you use your knife on the girl?”

“You know me better’n that, Roy, and you still have to ask?  I got a good size egg on the back of my head; my shoulder’s on fire and I can barely breathe.  Doesn’t that prove anything to you?”

“Maybe the girl fought back.”

“Maybe she did.  If I could remember, I’d fill in the blanks but rest assured because I’m only saying this one more time.  It wasn’t me.  I’d never hurt Frankie.”

“Well, this don’t look good, Joe.  The woman’s found beaten half to death and you’re my only suspect.”

The sun was just beginning to peek through Doc’s front window.  Had we been in that alley all night?  Bobby said Frankie went missing two hours ago, but if it was already morning . . .

“It’s Saturday, isn’t it, Sheriff?”

“All day long.  Why?”

I rubbed my forehead with my right hand.  “The auction.  I came to town for the auction.”

“Skylar’s auction?”

“I rode in last night so I could get a good look at the stock this morning before the auction started.  I booked a room at the International then I walked down to the Silver Dollar for a beer and . . .”

“And what, Little Joe?  Did you talk to the young lady?”

“Of course, I talked to the lady.  That’s what friends do, Roy.”

“Okay, go on.”

“I sat down to play poker—you know, to kill some time before I went back to the hotel.  Some fancy dude brought a bottle to the table and offered us all drinks, but I skipped the whiskey and only drank beer.  I wanted a clear head to inspect the stock and I . . . God, Roy, why can’t I remember?”

“Tell me more about the girl, Joe.”

“I don’t know . . . I was two or three rounds into the game and Frankie came and stood behind me.  She put her hands on my shoulders.”

“Go on.”

“Everything?”

“Everything you remember.”

“I looked up and winked, and she leaned down and kissed my cheek—you know, for luck.  I won that hand and I told her with a few more of those sweet kisses, she’d make me a rich man, and I’d have enough money to buy all the stock at Skylar’s auction.”

“So everyone at the table knew you had money for the auction.”

“I don’t think so, Roy.  I didn’t yell it across the table; I whispered to my best . . . to Frankie.”

“Do you remember anything else, son?”

“Yeah, I remember going out back—you know, to the outhouse, and Frankie was standing just outside the door having a smoke.  I stopped and we talked for a minute before I went back inside.  She mentioned something about the big city dude sitting at my table—the one who’d offered the whiskey—and that he’d been bothering her.  He’d just come to town, and she said he’d been flashing handfuls of paper money around the saloon.  He’d been propositioning her and Margie all night long, and she said his comments were vulgar and that he gave her and Margie the creeps.”

“His name’s O’Hara, Little Joe.  Met him when he got off the stage around noontime today.  Said he was here for the auction, but let’s get back to Miss Francis.”

“Okay.”  I thought for a minute.  “I’m not sure I saw her after that.  I sat back down at the poker game but for some reason, I didn’t feel well.  My head started pounding and my stomach was upset and . . . and I ended up back outside at the outhouse.”

My mind was blank, and I closed my eyes.  I tried to retrace my steps, and that’s when Doc’s front door flew open, and an icy gust of wind made my already cold body shiver.  I tightened my grip on my injured arm before looking up at my father.  He didn’t look pleased.  With everything else that was going on this week, I really couldn’t blame him.

“Take a seat, Ben.  I’ll see if Paul has an extra blanket for Joe.  He spent the night—” Roy hesitated.  “I’ll let the boy explain.”

Just the other day, Pa had mentioned that the old timers were predicting one more heavy snowstorm, and I was beginning to think they were right.  Even though it was late April, I was shivering, like I’d fallen into an icy pool, and I’d never be warm again.

“Maybe I’ll make some coffee, too,” Roy said.  “I’ll get you that blanket first, Little Joe.”

“I’m gonna need more’n blankets, Roy.”

Paul stepped out of his surgery.  He glanced at Pa and then looked straight at me.  “She’ll live,” he said softly, “though I’m afraid she’ll be looking for a new line of work.  Her days as a pretty barmaid are over.”

“What do you mean . . . over?”

“We’ll talk about that later, son.  First, let’s see what’s happened to that arm.”

When I stood from my chair, my father stood from his.  There was no doubt he wanted the entire story, and there was no doubt he wasn’t leaving my side until he could get his mind around all the facts.

“What’s this all about, Joe?”

“It’s a long story,” I said.

“It always is, Joseph, but let’s have Paul take a look at that arm first.”

*****

I couldn’t tell if Pa was upset with me or if he was trying to lighten the mood.  I’d done nothing wrong, but I felt my own father was accusing me of something I didn’t do.  I climbed up on Doc’s surgery table, and he handed me a glass of cloudy water.  He told me to drink.

“Drink it all, Joe.  I assure you this will help ease the pain in that shoulder.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Then can I see Frankie?”

“We’ll see.”

“I didn’t hurt Frankie, Pa.”

“Later, Joseph.  We’ll talk this out later.”

“You have to believe me, Pa.  The sheriff thinks I tried to kill her and—“

“I believe you, son.”

“Do you?”

“Of course, I do.”

“That’s good . . . good.”

The effects of the laudanum had slurred my speech, but before Doc could work on my shoulder, my jacket and shirt were removed and set aside.  And while I could still think, I pointed at my jacket.

“My wallet,” I said to Pa.  “The money.  The . . . the auction money.”  I was struggling to form the right words but, on top of everything else, I didn’t want Pa’s thousand dollars misplaced.  Get . . . get the money, Pa.  My jacket.”

“Let’s not worry about money right now, Joseph.  Doc’s ready to set your shoulder.”

“Money . . . money’s safe, Pa.”

“Okay, son.  That’s good, but you need to relax.”

“Kay . . .”

The sudden jerk, the violent force the two men used to pop my shoulder back in place sent me reeling through a dark and chilling chasm of hell.  And when the agony didn’t subside, my sudden cry turned to a muted whimper as I tried to move away from the hands forcing me back down on the surgical bed.  I closed my eyes to the pain, and gulped in so much air, I thought I might pass out, but that wasn’t the case.  I was wide-awake, and I reached for Pa’s vest, thinking if I could grip something tangible, it might serve to ease the pain.

“We’re finished, Joe,” Doc said.

With pleading eyes, I stared up at Pa, at his tight-lipped smile and the lone tear slipping down his cheek; my father was hurting too.  And when he reached for my good hand—my right hand—his grip was strong and I held tight, and my breathing began to slow.

“You did fine, son,” Pa said.  “You did real good.”

“We’ll need to let him rest a minute, Ben, and then I’ll tend the gash on the back of his head.  Let’s see if the laudanum will take hold again before I start anything else.”

“My son isn’t guilty of any crime, Paul.  Not in the condition he’s in.  Joe must be telling the truth.”

“I’m not sure if it will help, but I’ll speak to Roy myself.  The boy’s eyes were glazed over when Roy brought him in.  It’s possible he’d been drugged, but I can’t be certain.  He was cold and so was the girl.  I don’t know how long they were in that alley, but lying there most of the night didn’t do either of them any good.  You’ll have to keep a close eye on Joe after you take him home.”

I couldn’t keep my eyes open; voices faded into a murky sea of background noises, and I wasn’t allowed entrance.  Like a darkened cave, walls tightened around me, hugging me snuggly to a pillow of warmth with a faint scent of Bay Rum.  I breathed in and out as I floated into a comfortable sleep.

“Hold him tight, Ben.  He’s bound to feel this first stitch.”

I tried to move out of the cave but the walls were solid rock tightening around my body like steel talons.  Tears filled my eyes and the smell of Bay Rum became stronger.

“He’s fighting me, Paul.”

“Hum something, Ben.  It will take his mind in a different direction.”

The tune sounded familiar, a lullaby maybe.  An old song from a long time ago and it resonated in my ear, and I held my breath so I could listen more clearly to the elegance and the calming bliss of the simple tune.  I wanted to smile, to stop and remember a distant past that no longer existed.  My mind gave way to the comforting melody of my youth and gently eased me into a world far away from the striking onset of pain.

*****

I wasn’t allowed to see Frankie before we left town.  Lying face up in the back of a rented wagon with Buck and Cochise tethered behind the rig, my peaceful world of laudanum was wearing thin.  A storm was moving in and rather than lock me inside a frigid cell, Roy conceded to Pa’s wishes and let him bring me home to recuperate.

Even though Pa tried his best, the ride was rough, and I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs from the constant pulsating throb that spilled fire over my shoulder. Everything else, even my head didn’t cause as much torment and I should have been glad, but I couldn’t get past the driving pain on my left side.  Maybe it hadn’t been a dream after all.  Maybe I had been kicked by a mule before I was dumped in the alley and left for dead—well, maybe I wasn’t left for dead, but there was a part of me that knew death would be my only relief.

Hoss heard us pull up in the yard and from the corner of my eye, I saw him run toward the wagon and stare down at me, but he’d be no use to either of us with his arm in a sling.

“I’ll get Joseph inside if you’ll take the team to the barn,” Pa said.

“Sure, Pa.”

“Just pull them inside and I’ll deal with their harnesses later.”

“I’m sorry, Pa.”

“Not your fault, Hoss.  Just get them inside before the snow gets any heavier.”

“Yessir.”

Not until we stopped in front of the house did I notice it was snowing, lightly right now, but if the old-timers were right, we were in for a good one.  With each simple movement, I trembled and my teeth began to chatter when Pa moved the blankets so he could sit me up in the wagon.  I tried to be useful; I tried to scoot forward and help him as much as possible, but I was still half out of it and Pa worked hard to get me inside.

I headed toward the settee but without being given a choice, Pa had different plans and I was up the stairs and lying on top of my bed before I could even think to object.  My father undressed me down to my long johns and had the covers pulled up to my chin in no time.  And, as soon as Hoss had moved the horses to the barn, he came upstairs and started a fire in my room.  That much he could do one-handed.

Though I tried to keep my eyes open, I didn’t last but a minute before I was sound asleep but when I woke, I had company.  Pa.  He’d pulled a chair next to the bed and he had a book open on his lap.

“Hi,” I said softly.

“Hi yourself.  Feel any better?”

“Some, I guess.”

“Think you can eat?”

“No, but I could use a glass of water.”

Pa stood from the chair and poured water from the pitcher.  “Hop Sing just filled this so it should be nice and cold.”

My throat was dry and the water felt good going down.  “Thanks,” I said.

Hoss must have heard us talking and it wasn’t long before he was walking through my bedroom door and standing at the foot of my bed.  “You okay?”

“I will be.”

“Ain’t we a sight, little brother?  You’re left and my right.  What are the odds?”

“Crazy, isn’t it?”

“I sure wish Adam was home,” Pa said.

“It’s snowin’ harder, Pa.  Don’t know if he’ll be able to make it here or not.”

“I know.  I just wish I knew where he was or if he was all right.”

“You know Adam, Pa,” Hoss said.  “He won’t do nothin’ stupid.  He probably stopped for a meal or somewhere that’s nice and warm, don’t you think?”

“He was due back yesterday, son.  You can understand my concerns, can’t you?”

“Sure, Pa, but I wouldn’t worry too much about big brother.  He knows how to take care of hisself.”

*****

“What’s this all about, Little Joe?”

It was Sunday morning, and all I could think of was that I’d missed the auction.  I eased myself up taller against the backboard of my bed and looked up at my brother.

“I wish I knew, Hoss.”

“Pa filled me in some after you fell asleep last night, but nothing makes much sense, does it?”

“No, you’re right.  Nothing makes any sense at all.”

I fiddled with the strips of cloth that strapped my left arm tight to my chest.  The whole bandage thing was uncomfortable but more than that, it was annoying to have only one hand available.  But then I looked up at Hoss.  He wasn’t complaining so I let it go.  What was the use when we were both in the same situation?

“Too bad about the thousand dollars,” he said.

“What?”

“The auction money you lost.  Didn’t Pa say anything to you?”

“My wallet?  It’s gone?”

“Yep.”

My emotions were all over the place.  I hurt, I couldn’t quit thinking about Frankie, and now this.  Why hadn’t Pa told me about the missing money?

“I’ll get it back, Hoss.”

“How ya gonna do that?  Do you even know where it is or who took it?  Sure hope you didn’t lose it in that poker game you was playin’.”

“Is that what Pa thinks?  That I lost it playing poker?”

Hoss moved to the side of my bed and sat down next to me.  “You listen up, little brother.”  He scooted a little bit closer.  “Pa’s got more to worry about than the thousand dollars you lost.  Adam ain’t home from Sacramento yet and you were beaten half to death.  I ain’t much help around here either so don’t you go and tell him you’re running off to find the money.  At least not anytime soon, you hear?”

“I didn’t say I’d find it today, but I didn’t lose it in a poker game either.  Make sure Pa knows that, okay?”

“Just keep it under your hat for now.  I don’t wanna upset Pa more’n he already is.”

“So where’s Adam?”

“Have you looked outside?  There’s nearly a foot of snow on the ground and there’s no way Adam could ride home even if he wanted to.”

“So he might be in town, right?”

“Could be, but you know how Pa is.  If we ain’t all under one roof, he’s gonna fret like an ol’ mama bear until we’re all accounted for.”

“What’s going on in here?”  Pa entered my room.  “A tea party?”

“That’s right, Pa.  Joe and me’s havin’ a tea party, ain’t that right, Joseph?”

I looked at my father.  Should I say something about the money?  I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t know what I should say.

“How do you feel, son?”

“I’m fine, Pa.”

“Good, then maybe I’ll bring you a steaming hot pot of Hop Sing’s tea and you two can continue your little party.”

“I’d rather have a coffee party.”

Pa chuckled and I smiled back.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Let me, Pa,” Hoss said.  “Why don’t you sit down here with Joe, and I’ll go find Hop Sing.”

It wasn’t hard to notice the deep-set lines in Pa’s forehead and realize the last couple of days had taken a hard toll on my father.  He looked beat.  He hadn’t slept but this time, I wasn’t the only reason.  Hoss and I had both been injured, Adam was missing, the money was gone, and Mr. Hubert wanted our land.  I wondered what might come next in this little string of mishaps.

“You’re worried about Adam, aren’t you, Pa?”

Pa gave my bedroom window a lingering look before he answered.  “Heaven’s no, son. Adam’s a big boy.  He’s more than capable of taking care of himself.”

“And I’m not?  Is that why you haven’t gone looking for him?”

“Your injuries have nothing to do with my staying or leaving, Joseph, but last night’s snow tells me that leaving the house right now might be a bad idea.”

“You can take the sleigh.”

“I could, and I might consider doing just that if the situation warrants.”

“But not until I’m up and around, right?”

“Let’s just concentrate on getting you well.  We’ll worry about everything else later.  Understood?”

“Yessir.”

*****

The following morning, I climbed out of bed and slipped on my pants.  None of my shirts would fit with my arm tied to my chest so I made it down to Pa’s room and pulled a shirt from his wardrobe.  It would have to do.  I wasn’t lying in bed for another whole day and, in order to sit at the breakfast table, I had to be dressed in something other than a nightshirt.

I heard Pa and Hoss talking, but their voices stopped suddenly when they saw me starting down the stairs.  I’d made it to the first landing when Pa pushed his chair back and moved across the room like the house was on fire.

“What’s this all about, Joseph?”

“I got hungry,” I said.

“I was just going to bring you a tray so march yourself back upstairs and—“

“I’m fine.  My legs ain’t broke, Pa.  I can walk to the table just fine.”

“You’re not dizzy, lightheaded?  You’re sure you feel up to this?”

“I’m sure.”

“Come on then.”

Like a child taking his first steps, Pa didn’t leave my side.  We walked to the table; he pulled out my chair and waited until I sat down before he called to Hop Sing for another place setting.  I winked at Hoss, and his half-hidden smile told me he knew exactly what I was thinking.  Hoss and I understood each other; we’d always been able to communicate without uttering a single word.

“Adam’s not home yet?”

“No, and I’m about ready to saddle Chubby and go lookin’ myself.”

“Oh, no you’re not,” Pa said from the kitchen doorway.  “No one’s leaving this house, not on a day like this: besides, I want to talk to you, Joseph.”

“Me?”

Hop Sing sat a plateful of scrambled eggs, bacon, and two biscuits in front of me.  He poured me a cup of coffee and when Pa sat back down, Hop Sing poured him a fresh cup too.  I looked down at my plate; my stomach turned on me.  How was I ever going to eat? I forked some eggs just before Pa began to speak.

“You probably don’t remember, Joseph, but before we left Paul’s office, he suggested you might have been drugged.”

“Drugged?  Come on, Pa.  Don’t you think I’d remember something like that?”

“No, Joseph.  Just sit quietly and listen . . . please.”  Pa said.  “When he saw you in the waiting room, Paul said your eyes were glazed, which could have been a sign, but he wasn’t a hundred percent sure.”

“Then why bring it up now?”

“Because we’re looking for answers, son, and there’s no reason to be sharp with me unless you want to spend time in the territorial prison for something you didn’t do.  You need to calm down and we’ll talk this out.”

“Who’d do such a thing?”  Hoss asked.  “Who’d wanna drug Joe?”

After a couple bites of my breakfast, I realized my stomach wasn’t ready for real food just yet, and we all moved in front of the fire.  Hoss and I sat on the settee.  I leaned forward with my elbow perched on my knee and held my head in my right hand. Drugged.  When and how?  I racked my brain and came up with zilch so what could I say?  How could I add to the conversation when I couldn’t remember a darn thing?

Pa was also worried about the northwest section of the Ponderosa, but he didn’t have time to dwell on Carl Hubert and his denial that he’d made a mistake and that the land in question was definitely Ponderosa land.  Our cattle still remained on that section of the property and even if there’d been a court order to move them, there was no way Hoss and I could accomplish the task in the shape we were currently in.

My father looked tired and for good reason.  Hoss had been hurt and now this thing with me had turned our lives upside down.  Adam should have arrived home two nights ago, and though I’m sure Pa’s concern was unnecessary, that’s what our pa did best.  He worried.

“The auction,” I mumbled.

“What’s that, Joseph?”

“The auction.  Maybe someone didn’t want me at Skylar’s auction.”

“Enough to frame you for nearly killin’ that little gal?”  Hoss said.  “That just don’t seem right, Joe.”

“I know it don’t seem right, but what else is could it be?”

Pa sat up straighter in his chair, but he let Hoss do all the talking.

“Did you go up to her room last night?  I mean, did you see Frankie anywhere besides at the poker table?”

I wished Pa had fallen asleep rather than perked up when Hoss started asking me personal questions.  Now I’d have more to explain than was necessary.  I let my brother’s comment slide and I tried to change the subject.

“Hoss, I’ve told the story a hundred times.  I said hello to Frankie when I walked into the saloon.  She kissed me on the cheek for luck, and I saw her when I went to the outhouse. End of story.”

“Tell me if I’m hearing this right, Joseph.  You’ve been upstairs with this girl before?”

My heart thudded hard when Pa dove right in without hesitation.  “Does it matter?”  I met my father’s eyes, but I caved when his intense look softened.  He’d asked a simple question and since I’d never been a very good liar, I answered truthfully.  “Yessir.”

“So you were more than just friends.”

“I guess so.”

“Joseph, how many times have I told you boys that this kind of behavior only leads to—“

“Pa,” Hoss cut in.  “Little Joe’s special activities have nothing to do with the predicament he’s in now.”

“Special activities?  Is that what you boys call it?”

“You know what I mean, Pa.  A man, ‘specially a young man like Joseph, can’t be accused of wrongdoing just because he goes upstairs with a pretty little gal on special occasions, can he?”

My face was burning after Hoss’ innocent explanation.  He’d only made things worse, and when Pa stood and grabbed the poker, I wanted to sneak out of the room, but I knew better than to walk out in the middle of a conversation.  He prodded the burning logs with such force that the fire crackled and blazed, just like my personal life, which had just been put up for display so Pa could take potshots and point out my weakness for beautiful women.

“There’s this fella name O’Hara, Pa,” I said.  I had to get my father’s mind out of the gutter and back on track.  “Roy said he came in on the stage just for the auction.  Maybe he poisoned my drink when I was outside.  Maybe he didn’t want me at the auction, and maybe . . . I don’t know.  Frankie and Margie thought he was real creepy, but that’s all I know.”

“Who’s this Margie?”  Pa asked.

“She’s just another girl at the Silver Dollar.”

“Is she one of your special friends too, Joseph?”

I glared at my father.  He had no right.  “I’m done here.  I’m going back to bed.”

“Not yet, young man.”

“We’re not getting anywhere, Pa.  You keep getting off track and it’s not helping.”

“It’s you that’s off track, Joseph.  All this gallivanting with every young lady in Virginia City has led to an attempted murder charge.  And anyone who has any interest in your casual dalliances with young women has taken advantage of that particular bit of insight.”

“My dalliances, as you call it, have nothing to do with the fact that Frankie was beaten half to death, Pa.  Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I didn’t fare well either.”

“I know that, son, and I’m sorry, but it still doesn’t dismiss the fact that you live life carelessly.  If you’d gone straight to the hotel and stayed there like you were supposed to, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all, would we?”

“Is that all?”

“Is what all?”

“I’m tired, Pa.  I’d like to go to bed.”

“Go on then.”

Just as I stood up from the settee, my stomach gave way.  I raced out the front door and ran smack into my eldest brother who grabbed my arms so I couldn’t go any farther.  I should’ve never eaten those eggs.  I knew better than to take that first bite and now I was paying the price for thinking I was up to a normal meal with the family.

“Let me go,” I cried just before my legs gave way and I slumped to the ground and retched uncontrollably all over my brother’s black boots.  Adam kneeled down beside me and I heard him call for Pa, but I was too sick to care and too sick to hold back or to push his hands away.

Pa camped out in my room most of the day.  Since my arm was wrapped to my chest, I had no choice but to lie flat on my back and try to keep the room from spinning.  Pa pulled a chair up close, but I didn’t get much sleep.  I was sick off and on all day long.  I’d turn my head toward Pa and he’d hold the china bowl under my chin.  My stomach pains were unforgiving.  I was hot then I was cold.  No sooner had Pa covered me with blankets that I was wrestling to kick them back off.

Paul Martin had sent powders home with my father, but I was afraid to take anything that might make my stomach revolt more than it had already, but I gave into Hop Sing’s tea when he said it would calm a stomach that flip-flopped.  I was totally spent, too tired to argue and I drank the Chinese concoction without protesting at all.

*****

When I heard my bedroom door squeak, I opened my eyes.  The sun shone across my bed from a brightly lit cloudless sky but from my vantage point, I couldn’t tell much else.

“Hey, Little Joe.”

“Hi, Hoss.”

As soon as he heard our voices, Pa woke and sat up taller in his chair.  He smiled up and Hoss before he reached out and touched my good arm.

“How do you feel, son?”

“Better.”

“Would you like more of Hop Sing’s tea?”

“No.  Nothing right now.”

I’d never tasted anything so vile in my life, and I feared that anything else I ate or drank might wreak havoc with my stomach and start the ball rolling again.  I wasn’t about to take that chance.  I looked up again to see Adam moving silently across the room.  He stood next to Hoss at the foot of my bed.

“Hoss filled me in,” he said.

“And?”

“And what?

“You gonna lecture me too?”

“I hadn’t planned on it,” he said.  “Should I?”

“Save it for later, okay?”

“Will do.”

“Hey,” I said, looking closer at my eldest brother.  “What’s that scratch on your head?”

“Nothing to worry about.”

I chuckled.  “Someone take a potshot at you, brother?”

“As a matter of fact  . . .”

“What!”  I pushed myself up on the bed and leaned back against my headboard.  Pa stuffed pillows behind me and I nodded my thanks.  “Seriously, someone shot at you?”

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“Let’s worry about that later,” Pa said.

“No, I wanna know why someone’s shootin’ at my brother.  You know who did it?”

“No, but I have a guess.”

Pa’s look at Adam said we shouldn’t be having this conversation.  “We have no proof, son.”

“I think we do.”

“Come on,” I said.  “Spill it.”  Everything hurt, but I needed to know what Adam was thinking and why Pa was holding back.  “Who?  What?  Tell me.”

“Doesn’t it seem odd to you that all three of us are injured at the same time?  First Hoss, who’d never saddle a horse without checking for burrs, then you’re found beaten half to death in some alley, and the next day someone takes a potshot at me.  Not to kill, which means he’s a damn good shot with a rifle, but to cause enough of an injury that it upsets the entire household.”

I glanced at Pa until Hoss spoke up and had me thinking in a new direction.

“Kind of blows your theory about O’Hara, don’t it, Joe.”

“Sure does, Hoss.”

“What theory?”

“I’ll explain later,” Hoss said.

“No,” Adam replied.  “Tell me now.  Let’s get this all out in the open.”

“I thought a man named O’Hara was after me because of Skylar’s auction.  I thought maybe he wanted me out of the way so he could buy the stallion.”

“That wouldn’t explain Hoss and me, would it?”

“No, but who?  Who’d be after all three of us?”

“I can think of someone,” Adam said.

“Adam . . .” Pa cautioned.

“Hubert?”  I said.  “Carl Hubert.”

Adam grinned.  Hoss did the same.  I looked back at Pa.  “You don’t think so?”

“I don’t know what to think, Joseph.  We’ve been neighbors for more than ten years.  I staked Carl when he and his wife, Glenna, and their two young daughters first drove their broken-down wagon into Virginia City.”

“You staked him?  Did you know him?”  I shrugged my good shoulder.  I’d never heard that story before.

“No, but they needed help.  They were flat broke and out of provisions.  Their mules were skin and bones, and I sectioned off that far corner of the Ponderosa and, with a gentleman’s handshake, I offered them the land.  I said if they made improvements the first year, the land was theirs, and I’d deed it over for the sum of one dollar.

“They started out in a small soddie, made improvements, and then built the house they live in now.  Adam and I rode up first that summer and took them a milk cow for the children, which is why I can’t believe Carl would do something so drastic over a piece of land he knows doesn’t belong to him in any shape or form.”

“If it’s not Mr. Hubert, does that mean you have someone else in mind?”  I asked.

“No, but I need proof,” Pa said, glaring at Adam, “before I’ll accuse a normally decent man of harming all three of my sons.”

“Just the other day, you called him a stupid man.  Have you forgotten that, Pa?”

“No I haven’t, Joseph, but I was . . . I was upset.”

“And you’re not upset now?”

Pa stood from his chair.  “I need some air.”

When Hoss and Adam started to leave my room, I called out to my eldest brother. “Adam?  Can I talk to you?”

“Sure.”  He turned at looked at Hoss.  “I’ll be down in a minute.  You go on.”  Adam sat down in Pa’s chair.  He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together.

“Does it hurt?  The scratch?”

“That’s what you wanted to talk about?”

“No.  Not really.  What I need is a favor.”

“Go on.”  Adam leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs.

“I need you to ride to town.  I need to know if Frankie’s still alive.”

Adam blew out a breath then chewed on his bottom lip before he answered.  “Right now?”

“Soon as you can,” I said.  “Pa won’t let me out of this bed, not after I threw up all over your boots and—well, you know.  She’s my friend, Adam.  She’s a close friend and I . . . I need to know if she’s all right.  I’d go myself if I could.  Maybe you could bring her here . . . to the Ponderosa.  She could stay in the guest room and—“

“Hey, slow down, little brother.  Have you talked to Pa about this?”

“No, but she needs somewhere to go where she’s not alone.  Besides, someone out there wanted her dead and no one seems to know who that someone is.”

“She means that much to you?”

“She means everything to me.  She’s my best friend, Adam.  Can you make Pa understand that she’s more than just a—that’s she’s a real nice girl and not just a—you know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean, Joe, but you’re asking for the moon.”

“A real pretty moon don’t you think?  Please, brother?”

“I’ll talk to Pa, but don’t get your hopes up.  He’s got a lot on his mind right now.”

“I know he does, but I know you can make him understand what’s important.  She needs a stake, Adam, just like Mr. Hubert needed one when he had no place else to go.”

*****

By that evening, I hoped to have answers.  I’d slept off and on most of the day only to wake up and discover Adam hadn’t done my bidding.  He hadn’t made the trip, but he’d promised he would first thing in the morning.

He’d had a long discussion with Pa on my behalf using the same analogy I’d used on him, that the girl needed a stake, that she was worth something in this world.  Nothing permanent, of course, but she could stay at the Ponderosa until she’d recovered fully.  I blamed myself.  Who else could I blame?  Wrong place wrong time, I guess, but I’d gotten her into this mess, and I wanted to see things through to the end.  I owed her that much, maybe I even owed her my life.  If only I could remember everything that happened.

All I’d had to eat all day was tea and toast and I was starving.  I threw on the clothes that lay at the foot of my bed and headed downstairs to the living room where I found the family sitting in front of the fire.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Hoss called out.  “Decide to join the living?”

“Yeah.  Think I’ve got bedsores from lying up there all day.”

Pa met me at the bottom of the stairs.  He wasn’t taking any chances, but that was Pa and over the years, we’d all learned not to complain . . . too much.

“Sit down here next to Hoss,” he said.  He guided me across the room and lowered me onto the settee.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

“Feeling better?”

“Yeah.  Hungry, though.”

“I’ll have Hop Sing make some tea.”

“Pa—” I whined like a five-year-old.  “Anything but tea, okay?”

“Okay,” Pa chuckled.  “Milk and cookies?”

“Perfect.”

*****

I was up before dawn the next morning.  The house was still sleeping and I slipped downstairs and saw Hop Sing adding large lengths of wood into the fireplace.  When I hit the squeaky stair about halfway down, he turned his head.

“Why you up before sun, Little Joe?  Not like you come awake this early.”

“I guess not, but I wanted to talk to Adam before he rode to town.”

“You bring Missy here to Ponderosa?”

Hop Sing never missed a beat.  He was all-knowing.  “I hope so.”  I plopped down in Pa’s leather chair.

“You good boy, Little Joe.  Hop Sing have room spic and span for Missy Francis.”

“I knew I could count on you.  I just hope Adam can convince her to come out here and spend a few days.”

Hop Sing wiped his hands on his apron and moved toward Pa’s chair.  He sat down in front of me on the wooden table.

“Little Joe not hurt Missy.  Hop Sing know for fact.  Not in Little Joe nature to harm friend.  Sheriff not use brain in head when he accuse Little Joe.  I go with Mr. Adam.  I talk to elders in Chinatown.  Hop Sing get whole story what happen in alley.  Eyes always watching.   No one ever alone in Chinatown.  Someone know truth and Hop Sing find.  Hop Sing clear Little Joe name.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, gave Hop Sing a tight-lipped smile, and nodded my head in appreciation.  “Thanks,” was all I could choke out.  Appreciating Hop Sing was a given, but when he went over and above his assigned duties, I’ll admit I was proud to call such an honorable man my friend.

By the time we all sat down to breakfast, I’d had three cups of coffee and I was rarin’ to go except I had nowhere to go but back to the settee for the rest of the day.  Adam had hitched up the sleigh and Pa informed Hoss and me he’d be joining Adam and our cook.  He would talk to Roy, tell him what had happened to Adam on his ride home, and then run Adam’s theory past him.  Hop Sing would head straight to Chinatown and Adam would make his way to Paul Martin’s.

“You’ll have to do some convincing, Adam.  She won’t want to come but don’t give her a choice.  Tell her . . . tell her whatever you have to, charm her, Adam, and drag her out here.  Whether she likes it or not, she needs a place to stay.  She needs to be safe from the monster that cut her face.”

“I’ll do what I can, Joe, but I won’t promise anything.”

“You can do it, brother.  You’ve wrangled me all my life.  Frankie’s just a little girl.  Just use those persuasive talents of yours and you’ll be fine.”

“Right.  I’ll do my best,” he said.  “Pa?  You ready to go?”

Adam might pretend he’s all business, but I knew I could count on him to get Frankie out here where she belonged.  If he could convince our father to let her come and stay till she was well then convincing a nineteen-year-old girl wouldn’t be a problem at all.

*****

“Ain’t you even a little bit worried?”

“It’s slow going by sleigh, Joe.”

“But it’s four o’clock.  They should have been back two hours ago.”

“I can see the clock; I know what time it is, and they’ll get here when they get here; besides, you’re startin’ to sound like Pa so settle down.”

Even though Doc wrapped my arm tight to my chest, I still cradled it, still held it protectively, but it was a constant reminder of the alley and the way Frankie looked at me, the way she pleaded for help, and the way I’d let her down when she needed me most.

The scene played repeatedly in my head, and I paced the room, waiting, hoping, staring at the grandfather clock, and taking out my frustration on Hoss.  We’d played a hundred games of checkers, we drank a hundred cups of coffee, and I was done sitting around.  I pulled the front door open for at least the tenth time this afternoon . . . and saw nothing, nothing but snow falling gently, enough to cause even more delays.

“They’re on their way home, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure they are so sit down and quit openin’ the front door.  I can barely keep the house warm as it is.”

I decided to take Hoss’ advice, and I started for the settee when I heard a noise.

“Bells!  Do you hear bells?”

“Sure do, Santa Claus.”

“Real funny, Hoss.”

I ran to the front door, pulled it open, and saw my brother helping Frankie down from the sleigh.  I raced out to greet her and welcome her to our home, and the first thing I noticed was the veil covering her face, but that was okay.  We’d worry about that later.  She was here and that’s all that mattered.

“You must be freezing,” I said.  “Come inside where it’s warm.”  I grabbed Frankie’s arm and pulled her along with me.  “I’m so glad you came.”  We crossed the room and I stood her in front of the roaring fire.  “Here.  You’ll warm up now.”

“Howdy, Miss Francis.”  Hoss stood from the settee and smiled at our guest.  “Can I take your wrap?”

“Maybe in a minute, but I’ll keep it on for now, Hoss.  Frankie held her hands out to the fire.  “It’s chilly out there, Joe.  Your Pa had plenty of blankets but for a girl born and raised in Arkansas, I may never get used to weather like this.”

I wrapped my right arm around her shoulder and whispered close to her ear, “You’re safe now, Frankie.  My pa and my brothers—we’ll all protect you here.”

“And I’m grateful, Joe . . . for everything.”

“How ‘bout a cup of coffee?”

“I’d rather have a cup of tea if it’s not too much trouble?”

“Of course not.  This is your home for as long as you want to stay.  Anything you want or need you just sing out and it’s yours, okay?”

“Any particular tune?”

I chuckled softly.  “I love you, Frankie.”

“Don’t let your father hear you talk like that.”

“Once Pa gets to know you he’ll love you too.  No question about that.”

The blast of cold air signaled that Pa and Adam were finished putting up the team, and as soon as they’d thrown their hats and gunbelts on the credenza, they both headed straight toward the fire to warm themselves too.

“Boy—” Pa said.  “I’m getting too old for sleigh rides.”

“You’re kidding, right Pa?”

“No, I ‘m not kidding.  These old bones—well, it doesn’t matter now.  Did you start a fire in Miss Stapleton’s room?”

“I was just gonna do that, Pa.  Will you excuse me, Frankie.”

“Sure.  Go ahead, Joe.”

“I’ll be back in two shakes.”

There was so much to talk about, but I wanted to talk to Hop Sing first and see exactly what he found out in Chinatown.  Pa’s theory about Carl Hubert could wait.  Roy’d have to think on that anyway, but if someone saw something, then mystery solved and my name could be cleared.

I hurried to light the fire and make sure things were in place for Frankie.  Hop Sing had everything done up right.  The room smelled fresh and clean, perfect for our guest. When I was satisfied the fire had caught and would warm the room, I hurried back downstairs to find everyone had removed their coats and wraps and were sitting comfortably in front of the fireplace.

“I’ll be right back,” I said as I passed quickly through the living room toward the kitchen.

“Hold on, Joseph,” Pa said.  Come and sit down.”

“Hang on, Pa.  I just need to talk to—“

“Come sit down, Joseph.”

“Yessir.”

“I have something to say,” Pa said, “but we’ll wait for Hop Sing.  He’s part of this family too and today he played an invaluable role, and I want him to sit here and be a part of this conversation.”

“Tea and cookie for Missy Francis,” Hop Sing said.  “I go get coffee for Cartwrights, but you keep eye on Mr. Hoss.  He steal all cookies before you even get one.”

“Aw, Hop Sing,” Hoss growled.  “I’d never steal nothin’ from a lady.”

When we each had a cup of coffee sitting in front of us, Pa asked Hop Sing to sit down and join us.  “You tell your side of the story first, Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing glad to tell story.  It happy story for some and sad story for others.”

“Come on, Hop Sing,” I said eagerly.  “What’d you find out?”

“You keep mouth from running all time, and I tell story.”

“Sorry, Hop Sing.”

“Always eyes in Chinatown.  Chinese not ignore what in plain sight is why Hop Sing know he can help Little Joe.  You not hurt Missy.  Big man hurt you first then Missy.  You sick.  Too weak to fight.  Battle over before it begin.  Big man take broken body and dump in alley far from saloon.  He come back late same night with Missy.  Carry over shoulder like sack of grain.  He dump on ground alongside first body.  That what eyes see.”

“Was it O’Hara?  He’s at least your size, Pa.  I knew it was him all along.”

“No,” Pa said, glancing at Frankie.  “It was Bobby Adler, Joe.”

“What?  The bartender?  What’s he got against me or . . . or you?”  I turned toward Frankie.

Pa cleared his throat.  “Bobby Adler was paid to injure all three of you.  First Hoss.  He planted the burr under your brother’s saddle while Hoss collected the mail.  He was also the one who took the potshot at your brother, but he had a personal vendetta against you.”

“Me?  Why?”

“Because Bobby’s in love with me,” Frankie said.  “He saw you as a threat, Joe.  He saw you as a young handsome ladies man that he would never be.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe so, but it’s the truth, Joe, and that’s why he took money from Mr. Hubert.”

“Money?”

“Seems Adam was right all along,” Pa said.  “Carl Hubert offered Bobby a substantial sum of money if he would injure—but not kill—all of my sons.  That way, I wouldn’t have the time or the energy to argue in a court of law.  He knew I’d be too involved with my own personal problems at home to worry about that section of land he wanted.”

“I don’t understand,” I said to Frankie.  “If Bobby was in love with you why would he hurt you?  Surely that wasn’t part of Hubert’s plan.”

“No, it wasn’t, Joe.  When I saw you go out the back door a second time, I was concerned. I thought maybe you were sick, and that’s when I saw Bobby throwing you over his shoulder.  I hollered at him to stop.  I asked what he was doing and he said you were sick, and he was taking you down to Doc’s.

“I didn’t think much more about it.  I knew you’d be okay once you got to Paul Martin’s, so I . . . I let it go.  I never thought he’d do such a thing, but when I came back to the saloon later that night, he seemed different somehow.  He asked me to join him outside for a cigarette, and I . . . I said okay.”

“What happened, Frankie?”

“Bobby began saying things he’d never said before.  He . . . he told me how good we’d be together, that we were the same kind of people, that you were cut from a different cloth and that . . . I don’t remember much else, except I tried to go back inside the saloon and he grabbed my arm.  He forced me down the back stairs.”

She glanced at my father, then Hoss, and then Adam.

“He pulled a knife; he held it under my chin.  Even his voice was hard—you know, menacing when he talked.  He said he’d found the knife inside your boot, that he was going to hurt you if I didn’t . . . if I didn’t run away with him.  I didn’t think he was serious, Joe.  I laughed in his face but then I realized my mistake.

“He was very serious.  Said he had a plan that would send you away for a long, long time, but I didn’t know what he meant.  I couldn’t imagine what was running through his mind.  Where could he send you when this was your home?  I wasn’t thinking straight.  I didn’t’ realize . . .”

“Don’t cry, please don’t cry, Frankie.  It’s not your fault.  None of this is your fault.”

I pulled her toward me and even with my arm strapped up tight; I held her head against my chest.  Her face was hidden.  She hadn’t removed her hat and veil and I couldn’t begin to see her beautiful, blue eyes, but that had been her choice.  I certainly didn’t want her to feel more uncomfortable in front of me or my family.

“I’m sorry, Joe.  The next thing I remember was when you called out my name.”

“Please don’t blame yourself.  If anything, it was my fault you were hurt.”

“No, son.  Hubert and Bobby were at fault, not either of you.  Bobby’s the one who took things even farther.”

I shook my head.  “You’re wrong, Pa.  Frankie was hurt because of me.  You even said so the other day.”

“I what?  Son, I never said—“

“Yes, you did, Pa.  You took me to task and now I understand why.”

“I never meant you were to blame for—“

“But I am, Pa.  This whole time, Bobby’s been watching the two of us but in his greedy, warped mind; he saw Frankie and me as a couple of lovebirds.  I wasn’t just another customer who came in the saloon and flirted with Francis Stapleton; plus, I’d gone a step further.  I’d nicknamed her Frankie.  Everyone else knew her as Frances.  It’s true, we have a history and Bobby knows that, and he was jealous.  Hell, I’m surprised we’re not both dead.”

*****

“Joe?  Will you show me my room?”

“Sure, I’ll take you up.  Just let me get your bag.”

Pa stood from his chair, as did my brothers.  “Supper will be served shortly, you two.”

We climbed the stairs together and since I was still one-handed, I sat the bag down to open the guestroom door.  Frankie stepped inside.

“This is lovely,” she said.  “So fresh and clean.”

“You’ll have to thank Hop Sing.  He’s the one responsible.”  I sat her carpetbag on the foot of the bed and picked up the empty pitcher.  “I’ll fill this with warm water and be right back.”

I’d just turned to leave when she called my name.  “Joe?”

“Yeah?”

After loosening the narrow, blue ribbon under her chin, she removed her bonnet and set it on the bed, but she kept her back to me.  Frankie had spared my family from the bruising and knife cuts on her face.  I understood she was embarrassed, and I wanted to say the right thing, but she spoke before I could gather the right words together.

“Could you have Hop Sing bring a tray to my room.  I’m not quite up to public viewing just yet.”

“Frankie, I’m sorry.  If there’s anything I can do . . .”

“I think it’s best if I stay here for now.”

“If that’s what you really want.”

“I do.”

“Okay, I’ll fill the pitcher.”

*****

After Hop Sing took a tray upstairs, the rest of us sat down at the table but piling food on my plate had been a mistake.  I couldn’t eat when Frankie was hiding from the world, hiding from me.  I thought she’d feel comfortable here.  I thought warm sun and mountain air would help her heal, but I misjudged the situation.

“You’ve got to let it go, son.  Carrying guilt over Miss Stapleton will ruin your life.”

“It’s not easy, Pa.”

“I know it’s not easy but if it’s any consolation, Bobby and Carl Hubert will be punished for what they’ve done.”

“How’s that help Frankie?  Her face is ruined and—?”

“In time, Joseph . . .”

“She’ll never be the same.  She was beautiful, Pa.  Wasn’t she, Hoss?”

“She sure was.”

“Upstairs,” I said, “she took off her hat, but she wouldn’t let me see her face.  She kept her back to me.”

“That’s only natural, Joe.  She’s embarrassed, but Paul said the scars will fade in time.  Right now, they’re very pronounced.”

“I want to help her, Pa.”  I looked directly at my father.  “She’s always wanted to leave Virginia City.  She’s always wanted to make a new life, and I want to make sure she doesn’t have to go back to that saloon.  She deserves better.”

Pa reached forward and gripped my shoulder.  “Then we’ll help her all we can, son.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh—” Pa said.  “I forgot to mention this earlier.”

“What’s that?”

“When Roy arrested Bobby Adler, he also arrested him for robbery.  The fool had your wallet tucked into the back pocket of his dungarees.  Every bit of the auction money was still there.”

“That louse.  That’s probably double what Hubert paid him in the first place.  He sure hit the jackpot when he hit me.”

“It helps our case also, Joe, when we go to court.  Not only did Bobby beat you and the young lady and leave you for dead, he robbed you of a thousand dollars.”

“Pa?”

“What, Joseph?”

“I was thinkin’.”

“That’s always good, son.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“I know you are,” Pa said, smiling.  “Go on.”

“Since we thought that money was lost forever—I mean, maybe we could put it to good use and . . . and help someone in need.”

Without going into detail, Pa knew what I meant and so did my brothers and the decision was unanimous.

“Of course, we can, son.  If it will help her make a new start, she’s welcome to every penny.”

I smiled at my father.  “You’re the best.”

That’s the kind of man my father was.  A man who’d lived through his own hardships and was willing to help others who were down on their luck.  I picked up a piece of fried chicken and took a big healthy bite.  Suddenly, my appetite was back.

*****

On the fifth day after her arrival, Frankie came out of her room and presented herself without the veiled bonnet.  She must have heard everyone else, including Hop Sing, leave the ranch to appear at the inquest.  I stood from the settee as she made her way down the stairs.

“Hi,” I said.

“I had to show myself some time, Joe.”

“I’m glad you did.  Besides, I have something to talk to you about and now’s just as good a time as ever.”

There were several cuts on Frankie’s face and neck.  Some were still scabbed over, but some were beginning to heal.  “The doc was right,” I said.  “You’re face looks much better.  You’ll be your old self in no time.”

Frankie smiled but it was a sad smile, and I wasn’t sure what else I could say.  Maybe she didn’t realize I’d seen her face that night in the alley, but I didn’t want to bring that up.  I pulled her with me toward the settee.  “Want some tea?”

“Not right now.”

“I have a surprise for you.”

She turned to face me.  She held her hands in her lap.  “I love surprises, Joe.”

“Good, ‘cause I think you’ll like this one a lot.”  I took her hands in mine.  “I’ve talked to my father and . . . and you always said you wanted to make a new start, anywhere but Virginia City, am I right?”

“Yes, but what’s this all about, Joe?”

“Well, Pa, my brothers, and I are gonna make that happen.  After Bobby beat me up, he stole my wallet with the money I’d brought with me for Skylar’s auction.  We thought the money was gone forever; in fact, Pa marked it off in the books as a loss, but we have it back now and . . . and it’s yours, Frankie.  Pa and I want you to have it.”

“Don’t be silly, Joe.  Hospitality is one thing but I can’t take your hard earned money too.”

“Yes, you can.  And you will.  I want you to make that new start.  I don’t want you to go back to that saloon.  I want you to make new memories.  Are you listening?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes.  Say you’ll take the money.”

“All right.  I’ll take your money, but I’ll pay it all back.  Understood?”

“I love you, Frankie.”

“I love you too, Joe.”

*****

Life was good.  Doc drove out to check Hoss’ arm, check my arm, and see how Frankie was faring.  Adam’s “scratch” was pretty much healed and with a wave of his hand, he brushed the doctor off.  Since the snow had all but melted, ranch life was back to normal. Time to catch up on chores, business, as usual, sort of.  Hoss and I were still on the mend so I was excused from certain chores, and I would take Frankie for buggy rides most afternoons.

We talked about our futures, hers mainly.  Where she would go and what she would do when she got there, but her plans for a new life were uncertain.  I told her to write as soon as she was settled and I’d come to visit the first chance I got.  That brought a smile to her face.  We had days of laughter, memories of the past, and new memories we would make, even though we’d be separated from each other.

“You’ll write me, won’t you?  Tell me where you’ve settled and how everything’s working out?”

“How else could you visit me, silly?”

“You have a point.”   I cupped her nearly healed face and kissed my best friend until she kissed me back, and that’s when I realized it was the only real kiss we’d shared in over two years.  “I’ll miss you.  More than you’ll ever know.”

She didn’t respond.  We didn’t always need words between us, but Frankie had been overly quiet the last couple of days.  Something had changed although I couldn’t put my finger on it or even explain why I felt that somehow we were growing apart.

Our relationship had changed rather suddenly.  I could feel it in my bones, a distance between us, a flood of emotions that couldn’t be explained, but they were separating the two of us without our knowledge.

*****

I woke the next morning and hurried down to breakfast.  Frankie had joined us for meals over the last two days, and I was anxious to wish her a good morning, but I was surprised to find only Pa and Hoss sitting at the dining room table.

“Where is everyone?”  I asked.  “Where’s Adam?  Where’s Frankie?”

Pa waited for me to sit down.  “Miss Stapleton is gone, son.”

“Gone?  Gone where?”

“She asked Adam drive her to Virginia City this morning.”

I looked up at Hoss before I turned my attention back to Pa.

“Why?  Why didn’t she wait for me?  I would have driven her in though I’m surprised she’d want to go.  Why so early—I mean, what’s the rush?”

“She’s catching the morning stage, son.”

“The stage?”

Had I heard Pa right?  As though I was suspended in time, I fell into a world of darkness where I felt guilt and loss and suddenly, I knew I’d never see Frankie again.  My throat tightened, it swelled twice its size and I could barely swallow.  Hoss and Pa stared at me with caring looks as I digested the information, but I didn’t need glaring looks, I needed answers.

I looked toward the staircase hoping Frankie would somehow appear and tell me Pa was wrong and that we’d be together forever, that friends never really separated, that she’d changed her mind and would stay in Virginia City, and we’d never really be apart.  I looked back at Pa.

“Without a goodbye?”

He reached out his hand but I shook my head.  I didn’t need comforting; I wasn’t a baby boy.  I needed answers, but there were none.  What could Pa possibly know that would make the situation bearable?  Nothing.  I was at a loss, but I couldn’t speak.  I didn’t want to speak and I stood from my chair.  I needed time to think.

“She mentioned a letter, Joseph.  Upstairs in her room.  She said you’d understand.”

“Did you give her the money?”

“I tried, but she refused to take it.”

I’d never felt so empty.  I was hollow inside, confused and not ready to accept what this whole ridiculous morning meant.  I lost my best friend and she didn’t have the courage to tell me she was leaving.  Had she played me all these years?  Had there ever a friendship, or was it just an act, a way to keep Bobby Adler at bay?  Had she used me and I was too stupid to realize what a fool I’d been?

“Excuse me, Pa.”

A stupid letter.  That’s all she’d left me.  That’s all I meant to her.  Maybe I’d just tear it up and be done with Francis Stapleton.  I didn’t much care anymore.  Why should I?  Obviously, she didn’t give a hoot about me, and if I didn’t have my arm in a damn sling, I ride out of here so fast, no one could catch me and try to tell me any different.

I stood outside her bedroom door.  The letter lay on the bed, and I walked in and picked up the envelope.  I was ready to tear it in half when a part of me said no.  Read it first.  Give her the benefit of the doubt.  Innocent until proven guilty, right?

My name was plain to see.  Joe.  I sat down on the edge of the bed and peeled the envelope open.  It read:

Dearest Joe,

Please don’t hate me.  You and I both know it’s better this way.

You were my first love, my first lover, my first of many things I never knew were possible. I’ve never had a friend like you and I will treasure that friendship always.  You’re a special kind of man, Joe.  You’re kind and you’re generous to a fault, and I’ll always be grateful for everything you offered a girl like me.

You taught me so much that I know I’ll forget to list all the qualities that make you the man you are.  You taught me how to hold my head high, how to own a room full of people and not shy away from anything or anyone when I knew I was right.  You made me see what the world had to offer.  You gave me confidence when I had none.  You believed in me and taught me that I could actually be somebody someday.  You made me see my real self, to know myself inside and out, and for that, I will love you forever.

I’ll miss you, and you’ll miss me, but we’ll always have each other in our hearts.  Keep me in yours, my sweet Joe.  You’ll always hold a special place in mine.

Always, Frankie

I curled up on the bed where Frankie had spent the last week.  A hint of rose water, the scent she always wore still lingered on her pillows.  No forwarding address.  No way to trace her steps if I ever wanted to see her again.  Vanished like a cool breeze on a summer’s day, and no promise to ever write again.

Was this really for the best?  No, not in my book, but leaving had been her choice and I had to let her go.  If we’d both led a different life, if she’d been a banker’s daughter or a rancher’s daughter, would I have thought of her differently?  Would I have asked her to be my wife?

My thoughts took me to places that didn’t matter now that she was gone.  Soon there’d be a trial.  Hubert and Adler would pay for their actions and I’d testify on my own behalf, but what then?  Frankie was gone from my life.  My best friend in the whole world was climbing aboard a stage in Virginia City.  Eastbound?  Westbound?  I didn’t even know that much, but it didn’t matter now.  She’d severed all ties.  She thought it was for the best, but I’ll miss my friend.

“Son?”  From the doorway, Pa called my name.  He wanted to talk.  My father always wanted to talk.

“Not now, Pa.”

I clutched the letter and folded both arms across my chest.  I faced away from the door.  I didn’t want company.  I didn’t want to talk.

“I might be able to help.”

“I don’t think so.”  I sighed when I heard Pa cross the room and sit down on the edge of the bed in front of me.

“Francis and I talked late last night.  She came downstairs after you’d already gone to bed.”

I turned my head; I looked up at Pa.  “She talked to you and not me?”

“Yes.”

“Fine.”  I returned to my previous position and pulled my arms in even tighter.

“She’s a very brave young lady, Joseph.  That girl’s got more guts than you and your brothers combined, and I admire her for that.”

Although I listened, I didn’t respond.

“All the money, the generous little extras you’d given her over the years, she’d saved.  She called it her traveling money and because of you, she said she had all the money she needed to make a new start, which is why she wouldn’t accept the recovered auction money.

“She also said you were the one who convinced her she could be anyone she wanted to be.  You filled that young woman with confidence, and that’s more than anyone can ask of another person.  I’m proud of you, Joe.  You’re a fine young man, and I’m honored to call you my son.”

Slowly, I sat up; I rolled my legs over the edge of the bed.

“I’ll miss her.”

“I know you will, and she’ll miss you.  You and Frankie had something special, something that binds two people together forever.  You may not feel it right now but in time, your world will set straight again.”

“I never had a chance to buy new combs.”

“What’s that?”

“Bobby broke the combs Frankie used in her hair.  I planned to buy her new ones as soon as I could ride to town.”

“I’m sure she’ll write when she gets settled.  You can send them to her then.”

“No, she won’t write.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“I’m sure.  This part of her life is over, Pa.  She wants a fresh start, and I’m part of the life she wants to forget.”

“You’re right about one thing, son.  This life is over and she’ll begin a new life somewhere else, but she’ll never forget the young man who made it all possible.  That, I guarantee.”

“I hope so.”

“Well, I know so.”

I chuckled softly.

“Now,” Pa said.  “Your brother is still one handed and he’s trying to clean the barn.  Think you could give him a hand?”

“I can give him one, but that’s all I’ve got to give, remember?  Hey, you trying to get rid of me, Pa?”

“I am, but don’t forget what I said, Joseph.  You gave of yourself to that young woman and she’ll always be grateful.  You’re not an easy person to forget.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

“Now, young man, there’s work to be done so get up and get moving!”

***The End***

2015

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