Forever Changed (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis: After concluding a business trip in San Francisco, Joe’s life is forever changed.  This story is AU, diverging from canon and is set near the end of the series’ 14-year run.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T
Word Count:  14,520


 

Chapter One – Present Day

Throwing open the door to Paul Martin’s medical office, Ben roared, “You lied!”

“I beg your pardon?” The doctor turned in his chair, looking up to his long-time friend.

“How dare you… If you weren’t…” Ben raised a crumpled letter in his clinched fist, while unable to finished his flustered sentences.

Pushing back from his desk, Paul stood. “Ben, take a moment and calm down.”

“Calm down?! ‘She’s dying. She’ll be lucky to survive until morning.’ Those were the words you spoke to me, weren’t they?” Indignity and anger poured from Ben.

“Ben, I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Paul pleaded.

“You have no idea.” Disgustedly Ben paced to and from across the office floor, turning he growled, “Her death nearly destroyed my son. The last memory he had of their time together was that to her it was nothing more than a joke!”

“I never had that impression of Alice.”

Ben continued his tirade, “It’s obvious the two of you were in it together. She said she was giving me back my son. We buried her. And now I find out the truth! You kept this from me all these years?!”

“Years?”

“Yes, years. As if you don’t remember.” Standing still for the first time since entering, Ben’s face bore the visible sign of his anger.

“Ben, Joe’s had so many girlfriends or fiancées over the years, maybe you’d care to elaborate which one.”

Ben held out the letter.

Minutes later, after carefully slipping the sheet of paper back inside the envelope, Paul could only answer, “It was what she asked, but I honestly didn’t know about the rest.”

Chapter Two – Two weeks before

Hop Sing set a pot of freshly brewed coffee on the dining room table, hesitating before removing the empty dishes and serving platter.

“It good see Lit’le Joe clean plate.” The Oriental man slightly nodded, indicating respect with his words.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe reached for the coffee pot to fill his cup.

Setting a hand to the man’s shoulder, “Mean, you finally at peace. Able to live forward, only yīpiē (glance) back. Not live back. It good have Lit’le Joe home.”

“Xièxiè.” (Thank you). He took a sip of coffee, and set the cup to the table.

“That goes for me too, son.”

“What, you’re happy I cleaned my plate?” Joe smiled and handed the empty dish to their housekeeper.

“No, I’m happy to have my son back.”

“And here you’re sending me away.”

“That’s business, and you know it.” Ben enjoyed the moment of lightheartedness whenever it appeared.

A sorrowful atmosphere had hung over the Ponderosa for far too long. Family and friends were stunned by Hoss’ sudden death. No one saw it coming, and it happened before anyone could shout a warning. By the time Paul Martin arrived, there was nothing he could do except offer his condolences and share in the family’s grief.

The sun appeared to disperse the shroud of mourning when Alice Harper came into Joe’s life; their courting and marriage, her pregnancy. Just when happiness seemed assured, her brother and his associates devastated Joe’s world.

After the passing of each of his wives, Ben suffered from depression; even to a point of disappearing for several months after Marie’s death. But his despair paled in comparison to Joe’s. Ultimately, Ben’s return to the Ponderosa was motivated by the love for his sons, and the fact all three wives would chastise him for his selfishness.

But this was different due to the manner in which Alice died. And, not only had Joe lost his wife, but he had also been robbed of a future with his unborn child. The only thing that kept him grounded against giving into his grief was a tenuous grasp on vengeance. When there was no one left to seek, and his anger soothed, he was forced to return to his life… as a rancher, a son, a brother, and a widower.

“I know Pa.” He grinned. “It’s about time I got back to business. At least you’ll have Candy and Jamie to boss around.”

“I don’t boss you…” Ben answered, shaking his head as Joe let loose a rare cackling laugh. A smile radiated from the man as he raised a coffee cup to take a drink.

“No, you don’t boss me around. You’ve been what I needed. My father.” Eyes glistened in silent understanding as moments passed between the two. “This new lumber contract, I wish Adam were here to handle the negotiations with Occidental and Oriental.”

Ben recognized Joe’s longing, he felt it too. He had four sons. The fact that only one of his sons by birth remained to share his dream of the Ponderosa had created a hole in his heart. Adam… It had been too many years since they’d received any word from the eldest. Last they’d heard he was heading for Australia. With no further news, they had no idea if he’d settled down or was still traveling the globe. Their only hope was that he was living the life that made him happy.

He thought of his fourth son, and newest member of the family. Once the boy was assured his time as a Cartwright wasn’t going to be ripped out from under him, he began making real contributions to the ranch and the family.  Sure, early on he’d made some mistakes, but didn’t they all when they were learning. The hardest lessons learned and those most remembered, came from difficult times.

“Joe, you’ve handled the negotiations for years. I have faith in you.”

“It’s not that. It’s just… I’m needed here for roundup and branding. There’s that new string of horses for the army.”

“Joe, you just said that I have Candy and Jamie to boss around. They can handle it.”

“I know they can.” Joe wrapped his hands around his half-empty coffee cup.

“Son, you’re coming to a time in your life when you need to realize that, you don’t have to do it all. There are others who are more than capable of handling the job. You’re not as indispensable as you think you are.” Joe affected a pained expression, hands over his heart as if shot. “Besides, you’re due a few days down time, which I expect you to take after you win that contract.”

“I just feel like I’m abandoning you, I’ve not been home that long.” Joe hoped his father understood. “Branding and roundup are always our busiest time.”

“We’ve a full crew this year, and most all of them have the experience. We’ll get along just fine. And if you’re worried… we’ll still miss you.” Ben tilted his head, an eyebrow rose.

‘Thanks’ was spoken with sincerity and a dole-sense of humor.

“Hey Pa!” Jamie hollered; the heavy wooden front door thumped loudly against the sideboard.

“Like a…” Ben ruefully shook his head. How many times had Joe done exactly the same when entering their home?

“…bull in a China shop?” Joe finished.

Nodding, Ben answered, “Over here Jamie.”

“Candy and I’re…”

“Candy and I are,” Joe teasingly corrected.

“Huh? Oh… yeah. Candy and I are ready to head out with the men. Any last words?”

Ben rose from his chair; passing his son, he gave a gentle squeeze to Joe’s shoulder.

“While you’re out there, I best finish packing. Don’t want to miss the stage.” Wiping his mouth one last time, Joe set the napkin to the table before bounding across the floor to the stairs.

“Joe, wish I could go with you,” Candy Canaday called from the doorway.

“Next time,” Joe answered, taking the stairs two at a time.

“San Francisco wouldn’t know what to do with the two of you out on the town,” teased Jamie.

“Joe’s going on business,” Ben clarified, placing an arm around his youngest son’s shoulders, leading the boy outside with Candy close on their heels.

“I know that, but still…” Jamie wistfully answered; wondering when he’d be able to make such trips.

Chapter Three – San Francisco

“Gentlemen, the scope originally laid out in your prospectus was nowhere near this ambitious. And your deadline is too short,” Joe stated as the negotiations entered its second hour.

“We have no choice. Based on the final report from our engineers, we need to completely rebuild the shipping docks and build additional warehouses for this joint venture between our railroads,” Mark Hopkins answered. The man’s average height and appearance did nothing to impress Joe, he could very well be just another face in the crowd.

Cole Huntington sat two chairs away from his partner, and was a stark contrast. The man towered over the others when Joe was first introduced; and a skinnier man Joe had never met.  The smaller of the two accepted long standing business practices; however, Cole was over eager to react to any change in the conversation.

Joe looked between the two men who sat opposite of him and thought of the contrasts between them; tricking him to think of the difference between the brothers, Hoss especially. Forcing down the memories, he returned to the topic at hand and listened to the man’s explanation regarding the change to the scope of the project.

Coming to his conclusion, “If we’re to build this venture to be the best, we have no choice but to follow through with the recommendations made by our engineers. To not, would put countless lives in possible jeopardy. We won’t cut costs when lives matter.”

“I know all about doing what’s right when lives are concerned. The Ponderosa provided the lumber and my brothers helped build the first mining square sets designed by Philp Diedescheimer.”

“So you understand why we we’re forced to increase our requirements.”

Joe nodded. “I understand, but the Ponderosa can’t meet your needs or your deadline.”

“Then we’ll find someone else who can!” Cole Huntington slammed his hands down on the table top, upset at having wasted so much time in discussions.

Hopkins calmly spoke, “Cole, the Ponderosa is the only one who could possibly meet our needs. If they can’t…”

“I don’t know of anyone who can meet your requirements,” Joe honestly admitted.

Huntington huffed back into his seat, crossing his arms over his chest.

The clock on the wall silently ticked off the minutes while all three men contemplated their next move.

Sitting forward, forearms resting on the table and fingers interlaced, “I have an idea. There’s only one way that you’ll get that amount of lumber and in the time you need it.”

“How?” Hopkins eagerly sat forward.

“Let me to see if some of the Ponderosa’s competitors would consider working together to form a partnership. As I said, no one can individually meet your needs, but maybe we can… together.”

“How soon would you be able to let us know?” Huntington eagerly inquired.

“Give me two days to meet with the others.”

*****

They gathered in the Palace Hotel dining room. With half-filled tumblers of bourbon as an after dinner drink; the new partners gathered to celebrate the largest and most comprehensive contract they had ever signed.

“Here! Here!” chorused the men, raising their glasses in toast.

“After all these years of outbidding and undercutting, leave it to Joe Cartwright to bring us all together for a profit!”

“Who would have imagined this?!”

“To Joe Cartwright!”

“Gentlemen, let’s say it’s been a pleasure. Once I wire my father, I’ve a few days of rest and relaxation coming to me.”

“Ben Cartwright giving you time off?” one of the men asked in jest.

“It helps to have pull with the boss,” teased Joe. “Seriously, here’s to a successful and prosperous year to come.” Joe bid goodnight to his new partners. “Just remember, we meet in six weeks at the Ponderosa to coordinate our schedules and the logistics of moving the lumber.”

“Send your father my regards,” “Same here,” and “Likewise,” were echoed as Joe left the dining hall.

*****

Gasping for breath and grabbing to hold on tight, the horse bucked and twisted; jarring his insides, only to throwing him high into the air before slamming to the ground. Opening his eyes, Joe found himself on the floor of his hotel room. All around him, the building continued to buck and the ceiling began to crumble. Grabbing his clothes and holster, he scrambled for the doorway.

Other guests crowding the hallway briefly stopped him; women screaming and men shouting, all attempting to make their way to the staircase to exit before the building totally disintegrated.

Once safely in the street, the land stopped rolling. Sounds escalated as buildings collapsed and people screamed.

*****

Having concluded his business for the Ponderosa, Joe had previously checked out of The Palace Hotel in the heart of downtown San Francisco. His father had given him a few days to spend on his own, in hopes that the added time would help heal his heart. For that reason, he had decided to stay in a smaller hotel on the far north side of the city, closer to open land where he had planned to meet up with a potential new supplier, he’d heard of a vintner who lived in the area with a reputation of producing excellent wines. He had hopes of procuring several cases for his father, as a thank you present.

*****

Looking around, his mind numbed in shock. Too many buildings were nothing more than broken timbers and fallen walls. Wailing and shouts for help permeated the air, as well as dust kicked up as a result of the earthquake.

With modesty all but forgotten, he pulled on his trousers before divesting himself of his nightshirt, and within moments was fully dressed with boots on his feet, his gun holster around his hips, and his hat on his head. Less than ten minutes after being rudely awakened; Joe set out to help.

*****

With his heart jumping, Ben slumped against the hitching rail in front of the telegraph office where he had come to pick up the week’s mail. Sheriff Clem Foster had handed him the Territorial Enterprise; in large, bold-faced type the headline read, EARTHQUAKE STRIKES SAN FRANCISCO.

“Joe’s there.”

“I know.”

“When… when did it happen?” Ben’s voice shook.

“Yesterday. Early; maybe two thirty in the morning. Dispatch riders sent the first word asking for help, and once news was received by telegraph operators, it spread like wildfire.”

“I have to go.”

“Mr. Cartwright.” Clem reached out for the man. “If Joe survived, you have no idea where to find him.”

“He’s my son!”

“And you’ve another son at home who’s going to be just as worried about his brother. What’s he supposed to think if you go gallivanting off?”

“Clem…”

“Ben, for Jamie’s sake. Go home.”

Chapter Four

‘Some down time, Pa said. Relax. Take it easy. It’ll do you good.’ Joe laughed.

Rescuers and volunteers had spent two days searching every building in hopes of finding survivors. The carnage was so overwhelming that at times Joe had to force thoughts of what he had seen from his mind and numbly go about doing what needed done. It was during these times when memories of the Virginia City cave-in came back to haunt him; the hours he worked to rescue his father and the others from the basement of the collapsed Virginia City Courthouse.

“At least I know Pa’s safe.’

“Hey Mister!”

Joe looked up to see a policeman, his uniform dust covered and torn at the knees and elbows, beckoning to him.

“We could use your help. We need another man to help transport a couple of victims to a makeshift hospital that’s set up a couple of blocks away.”

“Sure.” Pulling black gloves from his pocket, Joe followed the officer.

*****

“Couple of blocks?” the man helping to carry the first litter complained. “Feels like we’ve already walked a mile.”

“Only three more buildings to go,” the officer spoke aloud so those with the second litter could hear.

During their journey, Joe noted the buildings in this area were in far better shape that those closer to where he had stayed. Shutters hanging precariously next to broken windows and cracked porch roof support posts appeared to be the worst damage suffered.

Finally stopping, the sign over the entryway piqued Joe’s curiosity.

“I ain’t going in there,” the tiny man at the other end of the litter declared. “My wife’d skin me alive.”

“Move it mister. This man needs help, and if that’s where help is, you’re going inside.” Joe gave the litter a shove, propelling the man to step forward.

“This way,” announced the young girl who opened the door. “We’ve room for a few more in back.”

Once the victims were transferred to cots, Joe turned to look for the little girl, hoping to inquired about water to drink.

“Thanks for your help,” the officer stated, taking the empty litter from Joe.

“You’re welcome. You need me anymore?”

“Nah, why don’t you see if they could use your help here, or maybe you could grab some shuteye; looks like you could use some.”

“Have you looked in the mirror lately?”

“Don’t need to, I feel as bad as you look.”

“That bad?”

The officer grinned and waved off.

*****

Without wasting time to ask what needed done, Joe began tending to the people nearest to him. Offering a comforting hand on a shoulder or stopping to help a person move into a more comfortable position on a cot. He found the kitchen and filled a pitcher with water; grabbing glasses, he returned to the other rooms. The sight before him was proof the doctor had been extremely busy, setting broken bones or administering stitches, and worse.

Images from a time long ago fleetingly entered his thoughts. Sick people being tended to, some dying; the long hours and hard work trying to save lives and offer hope.

Too many times he quietly followed another gentleman to a bed bearing a sheet covered occupant. Death, then, like now; he became overly-familiar with the route to the make-shift morgue set up only a block away.

*****

“Looks like you could use some water.”

Joe refocused from looking out into the night time sky to see the young girl from earlier in the day. He’d seen her move from room to room, carrying water pitchers and towels or blankets as needed. Below her tiredness, he could see the strain the past few days had put on her. Weren’t they all exhausted? But for a child who couldn’t be more than possibly twelve, this must be even harder.

“Yeah, I could.”

“Here.”

Slowly sipping from the glass the girl handed to him, Joe noticed her eyes and her tear-stained face.

“Thank you. Looks like you could use some water too.”

“Won’t do no good. I’d just cry it out.”

“You look tired. When was the last time you slept?” Joe asked as the girl plopped down on the front porch step beside him; her shoulders slumped.

“Got a few hours this morning.” Shaking her head she said, “There’s just so much work to do.”

“Well, seems like if we’re going to working together, we should introduce ourselves. I’m Joe.”

“I’m Aurie.”

“Laurie?”

“No… Aurie, no L.”

“Don’t know that I’ve heard that name before. What’s it short for?”

“It’s from a song my momma used to sing. She said my real name’s too long to be calling me it all the time.”

Hoping to brighten the girl, “I know all about that. Yours can’t be any worse than mine.”

“Uh, huh. Can too,” she pouted.

Holding out his hand, “Joseph Frances, at your service.”

Giggling, she answered, “Josephine Marie.”

Joe’s eyebrows rose.

Aurie stood, “I guess I need to get back to work.”

“Does your Momma know you’re here?” Joe stood.

She nodded. Taking a shuddering breath, she reached for Joe. Tears fell in earnest down her face. Joe wrapped his arms around the girl in hopes of offering comfort.

“Why don’t you let me take you home? I’m sure your momma’s worried sick about you.”

Looking up, she whispered, “I live here. Momma’s upstairs. She’s hurting bad. Mrs. Chambers won’t let me see her.”

“What if I ask Mrs. Chambers if she’ll let you see your momma?”

“Would you?”

Joe nodded and followed Aurie back into the Silver Bullet.

*****

“She don’t need to be disturbed by that child,” Mrs. Chambers hissed.

“The child in question is her own daughter. If the worse happens, the child needs to be able to tell her mother that she loves her, while she’s still alive. How can you deny the child or her mother?”

“Because of what they are. That child should be in an orphanage.”

“Her mother’s still alive.”

“Doesn’t matter.” The woman defiantly set her hands to her hips.

“Listen, you can’t stand guard on that door all night.”

From the other side of the door, they both heard the woman’s name painfully called.

“You stay right here! Don’t you move!” the woman warned.

Beyond the briefly opened door, Joe caught a glimpse of what might have been an opulently decorated bedroom. Again he wondered about the name over the entryway downstairs.

The door reopened and Mrs. Chambers stepped into the hallway.

“Your name Joe?”

Perplexed, Joe nodded.

“She wants to see you.”

“Me? What about her daughter?”

“Best you know, the doctor don’t hold out much hope for her.” Mrs. Chambers turned to leave.

Grabbing her arm to prevent her from passing, “Why are you here? It’s obvious you don’t care about them.”

“I’m here because my husband is the doctor downstairs and this is the only facility large enough that would take in all the injured.”

“Your husband is tending to the less fortunate without any qualms, how can you talk down about…”

“Less fortunate are those downstairs. But she ain’t. She owns this place. I despise every moment I have to be near that whore.” Pulling her arm away, she bolted as quickly down the hall as possible.

Shocked at the woman’s words, he let her go. Forgetting about the bitter woman, he gently knocked on the door and pushed it open at hearing, “Come in.”

In the dimly lit room, he briefly looked around until he saw the bed, and the woman lying there. Even though her hair was lightly streaked with gray and her face held laugh lines around her pain-filled eyes, Joe recognized her immediately.

“Hello Joe.”

Chapter Five

Unaware of time passing, Joe looked at the woman who he believed had died so many years before.

“Julia.”

*****

Standing next to Cochise, he glanced up and saw the darkening of her window. Wanting to race back upstairs to stop her from dying, yet he knew his actions would be futile. Doc Martin would not have fully extinguished the light unless she was already gone. Slowly, he lifted his foot to the stirrup and pulled himself into the saddle. Numbly, he signaled Cochise to take him home.

*****

Come morning, Joe pulled the covers over his shoulder after closing the curtains that Hop Sing had recently opened after Hoss left his room. With his eyes closed he imagined what was happening downstairs. His father sitting at the breakfast table and shaking his head in response to Hoss’ slow steps down the staircase. His big brother’s glum expression was answer enough to the unasked question, ‘Was Joe coming down?’

“After you’re through eating, you two head on out to help Charlie with that line of fencing that needs repaired before we move the herd next week.”

“What about Joe?” Adam asked, spooning scrambled eggs to his plate.

“Not today. Probably not until after her funeral.”

“When’s that gonna be Pa?”

“Tomorrow I surmise.  I’m sure the good citizens of Virginia City will want her buried as soon as possible.”

*****

A matching set of black geldings pulled the hearse carrying Julia’s coffin. The undertaker took pride in his profession and figured with business booming in the mining town, it would be one last perk for the recently departed. And so only a month prior, he had purchased the glass-encased hearse and team.

Very few of the good citizens followed behind in the procession. Most were those who worked for her, and the volunteer fire department; one of their helmets rested on top of her coffin. The majority of the town’s people stood on the boardwalk gawking and whispering behind raised hands. The hushed voices rattled on over the audacity of the family to be seen there and how embarrassed Ben Cartwright must be after the scandalous actions of his youngest son.

Looking straight ahead, Joe Cartwright appeared oblivious to his father riding along beside him and his brothers who followed. His family was well aware of the stares directed their way.

*****

The funeral had concluded and those who attended had left to return to their homes or their work, all but for one family. Ben, Adam, and Hoss waited by their mounts while Joe stood like a statute, hat in hand, tears streaming down his face. Even though his family spoke quietly, their voices carried.

“How long Pa?” Hoss asked.

“You two go back home. I’ll wait for Joseph.”

“You’ll tell him we’re sorry.”

“I will Adam, Don’t worry, he knows.”

Ben waited, hoping his son would snap out of his grief and come to him.

Slowly Ben approached, “Son, it’s time to go.” Without receiving an answer, the worried father slipped his hand around his son’s upper arm; gently he tugged. Joe turned.

“I loved her, Pa.” He looked over his shoulder to the hole where the coffin had been lowered.

“It’s time to go home. Time to live for yourself.”

“And if I don’t want to live?” Joe looked to his hands still holding his hat.

Ben pleaded. “If you can’t live for you, would you consider living for me?”

“How?”

“One day at a time. It will get better. I promise.”

*****

“Pa, how much longer?!”

“Adam, it’s only been a week.” Hoss stood in front of the fireplace, pushing his hands deep into his pockets. “He loved that little gal.”

“That little gal, as you call her, was old enough to be his mother. He had no business…”

“Adam, that’s enough,” warned Ben, sitting in his leather chair.

“He needs to get over her. He has obligations to this family, and this ranch!”

“You know as well as anyone else, we all handle our grief differently.”

“That’s the problem, he’s not handling it. He needs to get back to living and that means working!” Adam stormed to the foot of the staircase, pointing up. “We shouldn’t have to be…” Adam’s words died on his lips. Joe stood at the top of the stairs.

“And you shouldn’t have had to clear out the creek, right brother?” Joe coldly answered coming down the stairs, walked across the floor, gathering his gun belt and hat before exiting the front door.

“Joseph,” called Ben.

“Just great, older brother,” hissed Hoss.

“How was I supposed to know?” Looking from father to brother, Adam crossed the floor, collected his own hat and holster, “I’ve got work to do.”

*****

Riding through town, Joe ignored the shopkeepers who hesitated in their routines before hurriedly continuing. Apparently, a few felt guilty for taking pleasure in another person’s grief.

He left Cochise tethered outside the cemetery with his hat hanging from the saddle horn. Solemnly he walked to the mound of fresh turned earth.

“Hello, Julia.” Crossing his legs, he sat on the sun warmed ground. “I wish you were here. Life’s not what it used to be.” Reaching for a blade of grass, “I think Pa’s is trying to be patient. Adam’s mad, as usual, and Hoss, well… he’s just Hoss.”

Joe continued talking to Julia, telling her about the sign that hung in the window; her Palace had been offered for sale. He spoke of overhearing Roy talking to his family about Jean Millain’s escape from jail, killing a deputy, and his subsequent death during the shootout. Hours passed as he talked of anything and everything. Looking up at hearing a snort from Cochise, he noted how much time has lapsed, and stood.

“Adam is right; I do need to get on with living; need to get back to pulling my weight on the Ponderosa. Don’t know why I got so mad at what he said, he only spoke the truth.” Reaching for her tombstone, “I stopped by to let you know I won’t be coming around that much, but I’ll still be thinking of you. Maybe… you’re up there with Momma, and when I look for her star, you’ll be right there next to her.” Hesitating in turning away, “Take care, Julia.”

*****

“How?” Joe’s mouth finally began to work.

Julia patted the side of her bed, “Come.”

“We, we buried you.” Joe slowly crossed the floor.

“I know. At the time, I thought it was for the best.”

“I don’t understand.” Joe sat with his left hip on the edge of the bed, his right foot on the floor.

The mattress dipped, causing Julia to wince. “You grew up.” She reached up, running her long fingers through his greying hair.

“This isn’t about me Julia…”

Coughing, “No, I don’t suppose it is. All I can say is, I’m sorry.” She lowered her hand to her lap.

“Sorry? Why? Why’d you fake your death?”

Wringing her hands, “I was scared.”

“Scared? Of Jean? I would have protected you. I loved you.”

Julia raised her eyes and hand to Joe, placed her fingertips to his lips.

“I was scared of what you represented. You shattered my ideals of not having to believe in people. I learned my lesson early; everyone would eventually disappoint me. When it was just me… I was fine with that.” She grunted to clear her throat. “You made me believe in you; then I began to doubt everything else in my life.”

Joe retrieved and handed her a glass of water.

“I knew we couldn’t have a life together. Your father had come to me before, tried to reason with me. It took Jean beating me to make me undersand what Ben was trying to say. You were too good of a kid. I knew I’d only bring you down.” She took another sip of water. Looking away, she took a deep breath. “Jean said he’d kill you before he’d give me up.”

“Then why’d he knife you?”

“I fought him. I fought him for you. After Doctor Martin patched me up, and while we waited for the sheriff to get word to you and Ben, we talked. He agreed to help fake my death. I knew I could never ask you to leave the Ponderosa with me, and I didn’t want to see you hurt by Jean.”

“You were so callous… You weren’t the Julia I knew; talking about sticking it to the blue noses.”

“Joe, I loved you. But it just couldn’t be. I didn’t want to ruin your life. I thought, if our time together didn’t really mean anything to me, I thought you’d find yourself a nice girl.” She coughed, “And you did.”

Joe kept focused on the past, “What about Millain?”

“What about him?”  Julia raised a handkerchief to her face and coughed.

“The posse captured him. He could have been tried and convicted of your murder.”

“He wasn’t.” Julia’s hand reached for his knee.

Her touch alleviated some of his anger. “What if he had? Would you have let an innocent man die so you could fake your death?!” Past and present toyed with Joe’s emotions; his chest tightened.

“He stole my jewels and my furs, beat me. He killed a deputy during his escape attempt. Does that sound like an innocent man?”

“No, I guess not.” Needing to change the subject away from the past, Joe asked, “Why here, why the Silver Bullet?”

“I thought it was perfect. The previous owner died…” She coughed. “A gentleman’s club with a play on my name. Bulette, Bullet.”

Joe’s mind’s eye returned to Aurie; ever-changing green eyes, curly chestnut hair. He felt an air of familiarity with the young girl.

“Julia, Would I be correct in asking… if our daughter would like to see her mother?”

Hesitating, Julia minutely nodded.

Joe stood, walked to the small round table, poured a measure of bourbon into a glass and drank.

“I’m sorry, Joe.” A stronger coughing fit struck.

Joe returned to her side. “Does Aurie know about me?”

“Only that her father was a cowboy riding a pinto horse instead of a knight in shining armor on a white horse. His crest of honor was a pine tree, and he carried a revolver instead of a sword. Dreams, I know… But sometimes that’s all we have left.”

“Mrs. Chamber said…”

“This time, it’s true. I am dying.” Joe turned away from the memories. “Not because of the earthquake, but from cancer.”

Taking a moment to organize his jumbled thoughts, “Julia, does Aurie know you’re…”

“She’s more perceptive than I give her credit.” Sipping from the glass of water.

Thoughts returning to his daughter, “She brought me water. We even joked about our names.”

Julia smiled.

“Joe, I’d like to see Aurie… please?”

“Are you going to tell her I’m her father?”

“I’d like to, but that’s not my call. You’re married…”

“No, I’m a widower. Alice, and our unborn child were murdered.”

Julia shook her head from side to side, tears slipped past her closed eyes. “I can’t ask you…”

“Julia, I’ll marry you right now. I want my daughter to have my name.”

Reaching up, Julia hugged Joe as fiercely as her strength allowed.

Pushing away, and wiping her eyes, “It’s too late for that, but I have a favor to ask.”

“Name it.”

“You weren’t supposed to find out until after my death. Everything is documented and witnessed in my Will.” She coughed. “I want you to finish raising our daughter, see that she becomes a respectable lady. If you acknowledge her as your daughter, everything you need is there. Father O’Reilly baptized her with your last name, but she’s always used mine.”

Joe quietly listened to Julia.

“Could you please bring Aurie to me?”

Chapter Six

The night had finally quieted while Joe sat at the desk in a downstairs parlor. Faded memories resurfaced of the days from so long ago.

Five days had passed since Joe said his last goodbye to Julia; tired and dirty, Joe rode Cochise quietly into the barn, taking extra time tending to his mount. When satisfied with his work, he stepped from the barn to hear several ranch hands snickering.

“Ya shoulda been here. Too bad you were stuck on night herd. Anyway, you couldn’t amissed hearing him. There was Adam spouting off about Miss Julia being old enough to be the brat’s momma.” Barney Coltrain muttered, handing the liquor bottle to his buddy.

“Guess he really was a momma’s boy after all,” Kit Versailles answered, taking the bottle and drawing a long pull. Both laughing at the images their statements invoked.

Retrieving the bottle, “Here he was strutting all over town like a cock rooster; mannin’ up and all. I can see it now, Miss Julia pretendin’ ta be his momma and him hangin’ off her teat.”

“Wonder if’n she changed his drawers.” Kit laughed, snatching the bottle from the other’s lips. “Hey, maybe she had ta treat him for diaper rash.”

Both closed their eyes, laughing boorishly. Kit felt the shove throwing him to the ground. Barney sputtered and opened his eyes at the silence; he had no time to react to the furious left cross that laid him out flat. Scrambling to his feet, Kit cocked a fist, drawing his arm back and lunging forward. His black-shirted opponent whirled to face him. The click of the revolver stopped Kit mid-stride. Faster than his brain could comprehend, a fully loaded weapon was pointed straight at his chest. Green eyes turned black looked down the barrel.

“Give me an excuse.” The cold voice slipped through clenched teeth.

“What’s going on here?!” Adam called, riding in from the far side of the barn.

Raising his hand to his jaw, Barney roused and sat up.

“I’m firing two men,” Joe answered, gun deadly still.

“You cain’t do that!” Kit argued.

“Joe, put your gun away.” Adam stepped down from Sport, dropping his reins.

“Not until they’re on their way.”

“They’re not going anywhere Joe.”

“I fired them…”

“Why don’t you tell me why you want to fire them.”

“I don’t want to fire them.” Joe holstered his revolver before he turned to stare at his brother. “They’re fired. Pay them, and get them off the Ponderosa.”

“Not until you tell me why.” Adam rested both hands on his hips.

While Kit assisted Barney to his feet, Joe walked away, calling “Drinking on the job,” over his shoulder.

From inside Hop Sing’s domain, he stood at the open window and watched.

*****

Waiting until he heard the side door to the kitchen slam shut, “That true?”

“Sort a. Yeah.” Barney nodded.

“What do you have to say?” Adam crossed his arms, waiting.

“He had no right to pull a gun on me!” Kit argued.

“Well, he didn’t pull the trigger now, did he?” Hoping to diffuse the situation. “Barney admitted to drinking. What about you?”

“Yeah, I was drinking. Only I done my work,” he added, trying to justify why.

“You know the rules. Follow me and I’ll pay you off.”

“Just because we’s funin’ about…”

“Shut up Kit!” hissed Barney.

*****

Supper was a strained affair for the family, even though Hop Sing had set an immaculate table of roast pork, potatoes, and rolls.

“Adam said you fired two men today,” Ben mentioned.

“I did.”

“Care to tell me why?”

Looking pointedly to his oldest brother, “Adam didn’t tell you?”

“I’d like to hear it from you.”

“They broke the rules.” Joe reached for his coffee cup.

“Yes, I do forbid drinking on the job.”

“But if’n their work was finished…” Hoss offered.

“They’d finished what they were assigned to do, but others were still out working and not twenty minutes later Abe reported problems with the north herd,” Joe answered in a monotone voice. “Work is done, when work is done. Not just jobs assigned.”

“There had to be more’n that little brother. Barney’s been with us a while,” pleaded Hoss.

“I’d also like to know why you felt compelled to draw your weapon on them.”

Deliberately Joe set his cup aside, cold eyes turned to his oldest brother as he answered their father, “To get my point across.”

“That’s not good enough Joe,” Adam answered.

“Two to one and one getting ready to sucker punch me… That’s all you need to know.” Joe stood and left the table with Ben calling after him.

“Barney said Joe was the first to throw a punch.”

“Why? I just don’t understand that boy.”

“Joe don’t throw first unless he’s pushed to,” Hoss offered before lifting a heaping fork of mashed potatoes to his mouth.

“Kit did try to say they were only funning…” Adam admitted.

“That had ta be it then. The other day, Charlie told me he skedaddled Barney away from the deck. You don’t think he heard you goin’ on about Miss Julia.”

“That’s all I need, the men to overhear our petty squabbles.” Disgustedly Ben slammed down his fork. “When will it ever end?”

Father and sons looked up at hearing the pounding of hoof beats echoing away from the ranch house.

“Just when I get him home,” Ben bemoaned.

*****

Hoss and Adam had bid goodnight an hour before Joe returned to the house. The fire was banked, and a solitary figure sat, waiting while his youngest quietly closed the massive door.

“Joseph.”

“Pa.” Joe hesitated mid-stride before coming to stand in the middle of the room.

“We need to talk.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. I’m part owner in this ranch, and if my word isn’t good enough to fire those two…”

“This has nothing to do…”

“Doesn’t it?!” Joe turned indignantly. “They broke the rules! I’ve been pulling more than my weight around here lately! Isn’t that what you and Adam wanted?! I think I’ve done more than enough to earn your respect as well as that of the hands.”

“Joseph, you don’t have to earn my respect. You have that unconditionally.”

“Yeah, well…”

Ben stood, approaching his youngest. “It really wasn’t about their drinking was it?”

“Part of it.”

“Since they were drinking, I can guess the rest of it, considering recent events.”

“I’m sorry I sullied your good name.” With that, Joe took the stairs two at a time.

Stopping the other side of the wall at the top of the stairs, he heard Ben’s plea, “Joe, what am I going to do with you? Marie, how can I get him past his loss of that woman?”

*****

Looking back, it wasn’t the loss of Julia that drove him, it was the disappointment he saw in his father’s face when someone made mention of her. No one remembered the good she did during the epidemic; all they focused on was what turned out to be their torrid affair.

In time, they did forget, but not Joe. He continued to throw himself in to working the ranch as much to get away from the pain as to prove to his family that he was worthy of the Cartwright name.

*****

So far, he’d managed to address the letter to his father and state that he was okay. He’d wrote of dreaming he was riding a bronc only to be rudely awakened by the earthquake, and for the next two days had helped out as best he could.

As he thought what next to write, he remembered how just a few hours before, he heard the word he had dreamed would never be after the death of Alice and their unborn baby.

Julia had encouraged Aurie to sit next to her on the bed. She recounted her description of the girl’s father, the cowboy version of a knight in shining armor, and introduced Joe.

“Daddy?!”

“Yes,” Joe whispered, enfolding the child in his arms as she wrapped herself around Joe’s waist.

*****

With pen in hand, Joe continued to write.

Pa, I need to stay in San Francisco for a few more weeks. Something personal has come up. I know you trust me to do what is right, only this time, doing what’s right is no longer an option. So I’m doing the next best thing.

It’s difficult to write what I need to say, and there’s no other way than to say it. I found Julia. Julia Bulette is alive. Paul has a lot of explaining to do, as do you.

Joe finished writing his letter, there would be disappointment is his father’s heart when he read the news. However, Joe knew it would be better to forewarn his father than to step off the stage and introduce him to his granddaughter.

With the envelope addressed, he blew out the lantern. Knowing the night would be too short, he curled up on one of the long, chaise lounges in the room.

*****

A young boy wearing baggy clothes, the one who had been running errands for the doctor, and now Joe, waited for the man to see him.

“The tailor said he’d be here later today. But in the meantime,” the boy held out a package wrapped in brown paper, “he sent some clothes he thought might fit so you could change.”

“Guess it would be best for me to shower and shave. I must look a sight.”

“I’ve seen worse mister.”

*****

Julia woke, blinking her eyes, it hadn’t been a dream; there he sat in a chair next to her bed. A properly cleaned and dressed Joe greeted, “Good Morning sleepy head.”

“You’re not a dream…”

“No, I’m real.”

“Have you been there all night?”

“No, I slept for a while downstairs.”

“Did Mrs. Chambers see you come in?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m planning to speak with her husband a little later. I don’t want her to bother you again.”

“Joe, don’t. It’s not the first time someone’s looked down on me. I’ve lived my whole life with it.”

“But not as the mother of my daughter.”

“Yes, even then.”

“Then I’ll put a stop to it.”

“Joe, don’t tell them you’re her father.”

“Why? Why should I hide the fact that she’s my daughter?”

“I don’t want them to take their pettiness out on you.”

“You don’t think they’ll be able to see the truth? The only reason we’re not husband and wife…”

Both looked to the door at hearing a knock.

“Come in,” Julia called.

A colored, matronly woman entered the room, “Oh, Miss Julia!”

“Cecelia, you’re alright?”

“Ma’am, don’t go frettin’ about me.” She walked across the floor, stopping at the foot of the bed. “It’s you whose needed cared for. I’s just sorry I couldn’t get here any sooner.” She eyed the man standing beside the bed, noticing Julia held fast to his hand. “Mr. Joe?”

The smile on Julia’s face was the only answer she really needed.

Chapter seven

“Pleased ta meet ya, Mr. Joe. Now young man, you best leave me to helpin’ the Misses with her morning. I do think that Missy Aurie might like to see you. She’s frettin’ over a number of them good folk downstairs who be ailin’.”

*****

Once downstairs, he was distracted when Doctor Chambers called out, requesting his help.

Mrs. Chambers scowled, seeing him step from the staircase and approached. “She’s your problem now. Don’t want nuthin’ to do with the likes of her.”

“Which suits me just fine. And if I hear you say one more word to denigrate Miss Bulette or her daughter, you will have me to deal with.”

Worried eyes flashed in indignation. “Are you threatening me?”

“No, I don’t threaten women.” Joe walked away.

*****

Over an hour had passed before he checked the parlors and located Aurie fluffing the pillow behind a woman whose head bore a blood stained bandage.

“Mrs. Lancaster, I hope you’ll be more comfortable now.”

“I’ll be more comfortable when I can get out of this God…”

“Mrs. Lancaster,” Doc Chambers took umbrage as he moved past him standing in the doorway. “Be thankful Miss Bulette opened her doors to take in those in need.”

“Still…”

“Aurie, why don’t you see if the gentleman at the door would like a cup of coffee? I think you’re due a break.” The doctor genuinely smiled at the young girl.

“Yes doctor.”

*****

Joe turned and stepped back, allowing Aurie to step into the hallway. Innocent eyes looked up to him, searching. Slowly the young girl took his hand to lead him to the kitchen. As they walked, something awoke, flooding him with feelings of regret and love.

‘Did Adam feel something like this when he returned home from college? All he missed in seeing me grow up?’

Sitting at the table, Joe watched his daughter pour a cup of coffee and a glass of milk before sitting down in the chair to the right of him.

“Looks like you got about as much sleep as I did,” she commented after taking a drink.

“Probably.”

“Did you love momma?”

“I did, and I still do. Aurie, if I knew…”

“Don’t. Momma said you didn’t know about me. Doesn’t do any good to wonder what if.” Aurie played with the glass. She couldn’t look at the man who was her father. It had been different in her mother’s bedroom, the idea that she really did have a father and that he was there with them had thrilled her, and ‘daddy’ eagerly came out. But she’d had time to think; ‘What’s going to happen after momma dies?’, “Are you going to leave me?”

“No. You’ll be coming home with me.”

“Why?”

“Because your mother asked me to finish raising you, see that you became a proper lady.”

“That the only reason?”

“No.” Joe hesitated. “I love your mother, and though we’ve only known each other for a few hours… Last night you called me daddy.” Joe reached out to Aurie, lifting her quivering chin. “My heart opened and my love for you blossomed. You’re a part of me, and your mother. I think we need each other.”

Slipping from her chair, with tears trailing down angel-like cheeks, Aurie wrapped her arms around Joe.

Cecelia entered the kitchen and smiled at the scene, ‘fairy tales do come true,’ and began humming.

“Why don’t you dry your eyes and help Miss Cecelia fix Momma’s breakfast, and I think you should spend the morning with your mother.”

*****

Seeing a man with his arms stuck in a sink, washing dishes, amused Cecelia when she returned to the kitchen carrying the tray bearing what was left from the lunches for the mother and daughter.

“Missy Aurie’s curled up with her. They’s sleepin’.”

“You care about her,” Joe answered, taking the burden from the woman, he followed her back to the sink.

“Them both. And I do. If it weren’t for the Misses, Lord knows where I’d be.” Using the apron to wipe her hands, she turned. “Why’d you come?”

“I didn’t know. It’s purely by chance that I’m here.”

Looking him straight in the eye, she asked, “You gonna do right by her?”

“I already asked, she said it was too late.”

“She’s a proud woman.”

“That she is.”

Titling her head to the side, she took a strong moment to evaluate the man who stood before her. She knew that he’d been a young man, not yet having reached his majority when the two had fallen in love. The grey in his hair belied his age, as did the yearning and pain she saw in his eyes.

“You wanna know what happened after she done left?”

Joe nodded, “I do.”

“I know the Misses won’t tell ya.”

Mrs. Chambers entered the room and made her distaste known, “There’s a man in the foyer to see Mr. Cartwright.” She emphasized the title in front of his name.

“We’ll talk later. When there’s not ears listenin’.”

Joe left the kitchen to greet the tailor. The two entered a private room that had been set aside for the doctor to use when not treating his patients. An hour later, with measurements taken, the man promised to be back the following morning with clothes to suit his client.

*****

Ben had worried for days, waiting for any news. When he heard Jamison call out from across the street, he didn’t know what to feel when told that there was a letter waiting for him from San Francisco. Taking the envelope, he immediately he recognized his son’s distinctive handwriting. Ripping it open, a huge burden lifted from his shoulders when he learned that Joe was safe and uninjured.

With the letter crumpled in his hand, Ben strode directly to Paul Martin’s medical clinic.

*****

Minutes later, after carefully slipping the sheet of paper back inside the envelope, Paul could only answer, “It was what she asked, but I honestly didn’t know about the rest.”

Paul pulled two glasses from a lower desk drawer, as well as a bottle of brandy. He poured, handing one to Ben.

“Ben, it’s a miracle she survived the surgery after Millain’s attack. You must know that I wouldn’t have agreed to help fake her death, if I’d known Julia was pregnant.”

Ben spoke, having swallowed half his drink, “Pregnant? What are you talking about?”

“Julia gave birth to a daughter.” Paul held it out to Ben, “You didn’t read the entire letter?”

Taking the page, Ben scanned until he came to the part he hadn’t read.

Regardless of what happened in the past, I feel I need to be here. Julia is dying of cancer. I’ve agreed to stay until . . .  She’s asked me to be the executor of her estate.

Pa, before I return home, I need to ask Hop Sing to ready one of the guest rooms upstairs for a little girl. Please use the room next mine. Her name is Josephine Marie, but she goes by Aurie. Short for Aura Lee.

She’s thirteen with bright, expressive green eyes and curly brown hair. What little time I’ve spent with her, I get the feeling she’s going to be a mischief maker, just like her father.

The tearstains on the page didn’t go unnoticed, and Ben feared what was coming next.

“She’s my daughter, Pa.”

“Oh, Joseph.” Ben sat heavily into a chair.

“It appears Julia gave birth to Joe’s child.”

“So it’s true?” Ben looked to his friend.

“Joe must believe her.”

“And you didn’t know?”

“No, I didn’t now she was pregnant. There was no indication.”

“But she entertained men… Who’s to say she was faithful to Joe. There was Millain.”

“There is always that.”

“Maybe Joe’s reacting to still losing Alice and the baby?”

Standing, he walked over and stood in front of his friend, “Ben, Joe’s a grown man.”

Ben inhaled deeply, “You’re right. Joe is a grown man.”

Chapter Eight

Night had settled; it had been days since anyone had been found alive, or dead.

“It’s time,” Cecelia stated, setting aside her apron.

Joe carried the tray with two glasses and a pitcher of lemonade, following the woman out to the backyard. They took seats on the bench swing hanging from an old oak tree. Pale moonlight filtered through the branches that reached for the sky.

*****

After satiating their thirsts, Cecelia started, “I met Julia in San Francisco, she’d come see the doctor about an injury and illness…

“Ma’am, your wound is healing nicely. Whoever the physician was who operated did a remarkable job. I’d say in a few more weeks you won’t have any more discomfort. Just a scar.”   He washed his hands at the sink along the far wall. “You can get dressed now,” spoke the elderly doctor who had finished removing the stitches from the woman’s side. “But I do want to see you back in two weeks, just to make sure.” He smiled warmly. “You’re pretty lucky to be alive, that wound could have killed you, and I’m surprised that your bout with pneumonia didn’t.”

“How much do I owe you?”

“We’ll settle up when you’re completely back on your feet.”

“Thank you.” She buttoned her blouse.

*****

Julia Bulette prepared to exit the examination office and nodded to the matronly looking colored woman  cleaning up after the doctor.

“Doc Troup take good care of ya, ma’am?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I knows you been sick, and Doc done a good job a seein’ ya through. I kept an eye on ya when yous really sick and the doctor had to leave to see other patients.”

“Yes, he’s done a fine job taking care of me.”

“Glad ta see ya lookin’ so much better. There for a while I wasn’t too sure yous gonna pull through. I hope ya don’t mind, but I said a few prayers for ya, ma’am.”

“Thank you. It’s been a long time since anyone has done that for me.”

*****

Four weeks had passed since her last visit to Doctor Troup.

“Now Miss Julia, you were very sickly when you first arrived. I can’t blame you for still feeling weak and nauseous. You suffered a grave trauma, it’s a miracle you survived the attack. And pneumonia isn’t a trifling matter.”

*****

Exiting the examination room, the daily bout returned.

“I’m so sorry, Cecelia.” Julia looked embarrassed at not being able to prevent her stomach’s upheaval there on the recently cleaned floor.

“Ma’am, how long you been feelin’ this pee-ked?”

“Longer than I should, if the doctor is right that my wound healed properly.”

“That’s been healed up a long time. If I had anythin’ to say, I believe your sickness ain’t got nothin’ to do with that. My eyes tell me yous the kind a woman who enjoyed her man.”

“That was a long time ago,” Julia whispered.

“Not too long ago, ya’s only barely showing… maybe four months along.” Watching the woman closely, “You ain’t got no idea, do ya. Misses, yous carryin’ yer husband’s child.”

Julia’s hands strayed to her stomach.

*****

“You thought she was married?” Joe interrupted. “I wondered why you called her misses all the time.”

“She never said she wasn’t. It wasn’t until later she told me the truth. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a good woman.”

Joe nodded. “How’d you figure out she was pregnant if the doctor couldn’t?”

“Back in New Orleans, my mammy and auntie were mid-wives. I learned from them. Helped deliver many babes, some alive, some dead. Old Gabe, I mean Doc Troup, he was a good man, but he didn’t know much about women, if ya understand. If a woman weren’t married, it couldn’t happen. Back home, he’d a died ages ago, if he knew all I’d seen. The masters and their friends…” Shaking her head, “That’s a different story.”

“You were a slave?” Joe asked meekly.

Pshawing with her hand, “Lordy, that’s ancient history, and you’d not be too keen in hearin’ all that. Mr. Lincoln set us free a long time ago. Let me tell you more about Miss Julia.

“We formed a close friendship… had too. Doc Troup passed in his sleep a few weeks later. She’d already purchased the Silver Bullet afore she knew she had a life inside ‘er. I had a good laugh when she asked me to come work for her.” Mirth shown in the woman’s eyes as she recounted those early days together. “I’s long past the time when I could pleasure a man.” She watched and smiled at the rose color in Joe’s cheeks. “Turns out she wanted someone to help with her girls. Make sure they received proper care, someone ta help mother ‘em. Better me than some of the doctors, now Doc Chambers, he different. He don’t care what a woman do, he live those hippocradic words.”

“I’ve seen good and bad doctors, and it has nothing to do with the patient’s profession.”

“Even so, Mrs. Chambers ain’t too keen on him being here. Wish he’d been here in the beginning. Did ya know I helped birth Missy Aurie.”

“I’m sure Julia was happy to have your help. Ceclia, when is Aurie’s birthday?”

“Middle of June, the 18th.”

Joe did the calculations.

“She the most perfect baby I’d ever helped inta this world. Still is.”

Cecelia paused in telling their story to refill Joe’s glass. She looked long and hard at her new friend, trying to determine if she should continue. “Guess you want to know about her and the Silver Bullet.”

Joe nodded.

”When the babe was old enough ta be weaned, she’d leave Missy Aurie with me to take the more important men upstairs. They’d come down later, all puffed up and smilin’. But not the Misses…”

“What’s wrong Ma’am?” Cecelia inquired after retrieving Julia’s gown that had just been tossed over the room divider standing in the corner.

“Nothing,” Julia walked out from behind, tying the sash of the loosely closed robe around her waist.

“I knows that ain’t quite the truth. You thinkin’ of your lost man? Your husband? What he be thinkin’ about you takin’ them to your bed?”

Taking a seat on an overstuffed bench seat in front of her dressing table, Julia picked up the brush and looked into the mirror, “I guess you should know the truth. We weren’t married. Oh, he did propose.” She began stroking her long hair.

“He made love ta ya, and left ya afore ya could see the preacher?”

“I never gave him an answer. He went home. Hours later, a former lover came.”

“His?” Cecelia’s eyes widened.

“No, mine.” Julia lowered her hands to her lap and closed her eyes. “I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Joe made me see something in myself. Even though we gave them blue noses Hell, I realized I wasn’t good enough for him.”

“What happened?” With the dress still in her arms, Cecelia sat on the edge of the settee along the near wall.

“Jean threatened to kill Joe if I didn’t leave with him. I knew regardless of what I did, he’d kill Joe, just because of me. So I fought him.”

“Him’s the one who caused that wound?”

Julia nodded. “Jean ran. While waiting for the doctor, I realized, I had to leave. If I stayed, Joe would constantly be in danger. Even if they did catch Jean.”

“Did they?”

“Yes. He escaped later, or at least tried to; he was killed during the firefight.”

“What about Joe?”

“Joe’s family needed him more.”

“Family? He already had a family?”

“Not the way you’re thinking. Joe still lived with his father and two older brothers. He wasn’t even eighteen years old.” Julia’s eyes glazed over, “He wasn’t worldly, but he learned to please me more than any man before. Made me feel something that I thought had died years before.”

“And that’s what’s ailin’ ya now?”

“I know I’m not supposed to get attached to my customers, but he was more than that. I’ve never met anyone like him, before or after…”

“Then don’t do it.   Don’t look for love where it ain’t.”

“That’s what I told her. And I tells you, the only one she loves more ‘an she loved you is that little girl ya gave her. And now that I sees ya with my own eyes, there’s no one else coulda be that little girl’s papa. She’s the splittin’ image a ya.”

“Why didn’t she sell out and come back to Virginia City?”

“She had her girls ta think about. This place became somethin’ because a Miss Julia. Them girls look up to her. And I guess she liked toyin’ with the likes of Mrs. Chambers and all them other blue noses.”

They both sipped from their glasses. Joe looked up in time to see a shooting star streaking across the night-time sky.

“Miss Julia say yer family needed ya more ‘an she did. Deep down, that’s why she left.”

“But I needed her.” With the glass held in both hands, Joe leaned forward resting his elbows on his knees.

“No ya didn’t. Ya done fine without her.” Cecelia petted Joe on the shoulder, “I can see what kind of a man ya grew ta be, ya done good.”

The two quietly sat under the oak tree, Joe sat up, gently pushing the swing back and forth.

“Mr. Joe…” She recognized his guilt and knew she needed to say more. “If’n ya’d know about Missy Aurie, you’d a come?”

“I would have.”

“Can ya understand why she didn’t write ya, tell ya she was alive?”

“No. That’s what hurts the most. I loved her. I would have given her the world.”

“But ya couldn’t have. Not really. You was still a child yerself. Mr. Joe, I may be speakin’ outa line, but if you look deep inside, ya know ya weren’t ready to take on a wife, even if ya didn’t know about the child. Maybe love woulda been enough, maybe not.” Turning sideways on the bench seat to face Joe, “Joe, you’s here now, and maybe now is when the Good Lord figures yous finally ready to take care of Miss Julia and Missy Aurie.”

“Take care of Julia? She’s dying.” Joe wiped at an errant tear. “How long has Julia been sick?”

“For some time. Doc says she’s been sick inside longer than she knowed. Doc Chambers don’t figure she’s much longer ta live.”

“I should have been here all along.” Joe’s fist clinched open and closed.

Cecelia reached for his hand. “But yous here now. When it really matters. She’s gonna pass with the man she loves by her side. Just bein’ here is comfortin’ to her.”

Letting go of Joe’s hand, Cecelia gave him time to think. She sat beside him, humming a song that many a soldier sang of an evening as they thought on the girl they left behind; the battle for the day over.

“You know that’s the song Julia chose to give Aurie her nickname.”

“She told me. In a way it’s a sad song for such a lively child.”

“Lost loves.” Joe continued to push the swing back and forth. “I’ve never been a father.”

“From what I seen, you’re doin’ fine.” Cecelia patted his knee again.

“I wish I could be as confident as you sound.” Joe turned to face the woman. “Cecelia, when I head back home, why don’t you come back to Virginia City with me? To help with Aurie?”

“Mercy, ain’t you somethin’. I can see why the Misses loves ya. Nah, I cain’t go with ya, I’m too set in my ways. ‘Sides, I’m needed here; the misses’ girls and this place need someone to take care of them, now that Miss Julia won’t be here. Joe, don’t use me as a crutch. You need time with Aurie to learn about her, and her about you.”

Chapter Nine

Joe eased Julia back to her pillows after tossing the blood covered handkerchief into the chamber pot beside the bed. Joining her on the bed, he sat with his back to the headboard and an arm around Julia’s shoulders, “Have you decided on a… a place to be buried?”

“Like any church would have me.”

“What of Father O’Reilly. Wouldn’t his parish?”

“He passed away five years ago. And the new priest was anything but cordial.”

Waiting for another coughing attack to ease, “Julia, you have a real fancy headstone in Virginia City.”

“You?” she managed to ask.

“Yeah. And some of the members of the fire department.”

She shook her head from side to side in disbelief. She hadn’t heard that part of her past.

Taking her hand, “Julia, I loved you. I still do. I thought it was the least you deserved.”

*****

Into the darkest part of the night, Joe sat beside the mother of his daughter, holding her hand. Beside the bed, Cecelia stood with her arms protectively wrapped around Aurie’s shoulders. They all waited for Doctor Chambers to speak.

Pulling his stethoscope from his ears, the man nodded, “I’m sorry. But she’s finally at peace.”

*****

Cecelia and the doctor watched Joe climb from the bed and approach his daughter; the two left the room with tear-streaked faces.

“What’s that young man going to do now?” the doctor asked.

“He’s gonna take his wife and his daughter home.”

“So they were married?”

“Yes. It’s a shame too. Them thinkin’ the other dead all this time.”

“Don’t know why she never told no one.” Closing his black case, “Well, I’ll have Joshua from the funeral parlor stop by. He’ll be able to prepare her body for transport.”

*****

The driver of the coach left the occupants to their privacy, he’d heard the news of Miss Julia’s failing health and of her long-lost husband’s return. In the aftermath of the earthquake he’d helped with the search and rescue, and grieved once the rescue effort was concluded. If anything good could have come from the earthquake, he thanked providence for the lovers being reunited before it was too late.

Urging the horses to pick up their tempo, he moved beyond the blocks of wreckage located in the far northern section of San Francisco. He signaled the team to halt in front of The Palace Hotel. The young man exited the coach, gently guiding his sleepy daughter.

“I’ll follow with your luggage and will see that your daughter’s trunk is placed in storage until you’re ready to head home Mr. Cartwright.”

“Thank you,” Joe nodded.

*****

That night, after a quiet supper the two sat next to each other and stared into the fireplace in the sitting room of the suite Joe reserved; his arm wrapped across his daughter’s shoulders.

It was long past any normal time for bed before Joe lifted the covers, encouraging Aurie to slip between the sheets of the single bed in the smaller room. At thirteen he thought she might be too old for dolls, but said nothing when she pulled a China doll from her traveling bag and cuddled it closely.

“Who’s this?”

“Miss Aubrey.”

“She’s beautiful.” Joe tucked in the covers. Sweeping bangs from her forehead with one hand, he wiped away tears with the other. “Just like you.”

“Momma was prettier.” Aurie sniffled.

“And I’m sure you’ll grow up to be just as pretty.”

Aurie snuggled into the warmth of the bed. “Daddy, what’s…home like?”

“Pa always described it as heaven on Earth.”

“Your Pa?”

“Your grandfather. Our ranch is called the Ponderosa. If there’s a more beautiful place in the world, I’ve never been there.” Joe took time to describe the land and the animals.

“Do I have any brothers or sisters? Momma told me you were married.”

“I was, but she died.” Joe couldn’t bring himself to tell the whole truth, at least not how Alice died.

“I’m sorry.”

Joe struggled, two lost loves. How much like his father was his life mirroring. “As for family, you’ve a grandfather, and two uncles, and then there’s Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing?”

“He helped raise me after my momma died. He’s our cook, housekeeper, and an accepted member of our family. As for your Uncle Jamie, Pa adopted him. He’s about ready to finish school. He’s your only uncle who lives at the ranch with us.”

“Oh.”

“It’s been a long time since Adam left home.”

“But if it was heaven, why’d he leave?”

“I asked myself that many times. I’ve asked myself why I stayed.”

Joe realized he’d spoken the last aloud when Aurie asked, “You wanted to leave.”

“I could have left, set out to follow my own dream, like your Uncle Adam, but the Ponderosa was my life. Not too long ago, I hated it and everything about it.”

“Why?” Her innocent eyes expressed her confusion.

“You had another uncle, Hoss. He was my middle brother. He died. It was a stupid accident. It shouldn’t have happened. And then I lost Alice.” Tears he thought under control slipped from his eyes.

“But you stayed?”

“Yeah, I stayed, for Pa and Jamie.”

“Are you sorry you stayed?”

Pausing before answering, there were so many more good times than bad. For the first time that day a smile broached his face, “No, sweetheart. I think if I had left like Adam, I never would have found you.”

*****

Sitting in front of the fireplace, Joe absent-mindedly swirled the brandy in the glass, his hand holding the tumbler dangled off the end of the armchair.

Just like he thought she had been all those years ago; Julia would be laid to rest in Virginia City. Arrangements had already been made to transport her coffin. There had been no funeral the day before, just a time of visitation for those friends and employees to say goodbye. The breadth of people who showed up didn’t surprise Joe, Julia had been beautiful and a successful businesswoman.

The gown Cecelia had chosen would have matched her eyes perfectly. Her hair, showing distinguished streaks of gray, cascaded past her shoulders. Her hands lightly crossed over her abdomen, holding an embroidered handkerchief.

He didn’t see Cecelia bite her lip while watching him slip a gold band on Julia’s left ring finger. He leaned over and gently kissed her lips.

“Goodbye my love. Thank you for Aurie.”

During the whole afternoon, Joe never corrected Cecelia’s telling of how husband and wife each thought the other dead and the miracle of their reunion. He knew she accepted theirs as a marriage of hearts.

There were some who might have disputed the telling, but people have to search to see the truth, and for most, gossip was loose and fast, who cared if it was factual. Tomorrow there would be someone or something else for their fodder. Just like in Virginia City, Julia Bulette would be forgotten except for the tombstone. And now, the cemetery back home would truly be the final resting place for one Julia Bulette sans Cartwright.

Chapter Ten

Two businessmen stepped aside, allowing the father to assist his child up into the stage coach for the long trip. At first the group chatted about where they had been and their destinations. As their journey progressed, Joe quieted allowing Aurie to rest, lying on the bench seat with her head on Joe’s thigh.

The stage stopped at the final weigh station before Virginia City, and while the others ate a mid-afternoon meal, Joe walked outside trying to organize his thoughts. He turned to find Aurie approaching.

“Did you finish eating?”

“Yes sir.”

Aurie walked beside him, Joe shortened his stride.

“Are you worried about going home?” she asked taking his hand.

“Some.”

“Will grandfather be mad at you?”

“I honestly don’t know.” Joe stopped, turned and sat on the lip of the water trough. Taking his daughter’s hands in his, “If Pa is mad, it’s at me, not you. He’ll bluster for a while over what I did a long time ago.”

“Because of you and Momma?”

“Because of how I behaved. Pa has expectations of his sons, and I let him down.”

Aurie turned Joe’s words over in her mind. “What will he expect of me?”

“Oh, I think he’ll look for you to become a proper young lady. But with me as your father, I’m sure he’ll also expect a certain amount of mischief.”

*****

The stage rolled across the land bringing Virginia City into sight, yet Joe Cartwright wished he was back in San Francisco. His mind’s eye focused on the disappointment he expected when he finally faced his father.

*****

Three weeks had passed since Ben had received Joe’s letter, and one day since receiving his wire. Beneath the usual address and headings was a simple message.

Home tomorrow, late stage  /stop/
Love, Joe and Aurie               /stop/

*****

Ben and Jamie stood on the boardwalk waiting for the late afternoon stage. From the boardwalk, Sheriff Clem Foster had watched the small procession arrive in town earlier; Jamie driving Ben in the surrey while Candy followed behind with the buckboard.

Standing at his office window, Paul watched in amusement as Ben repeatedly pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. “They’ll get here when they get here Ben. They call the stage ‘late’ for a reason,” Paul spoke out loud to no one.

Moments later, the clatter of hooves and billowing dust announced the arrival of the stage.

*****

The businessmen were first to disembark. Smiling, they touched the brims of their hats in acknowledgement, before turning to take their luggage from the shotgun rider up top.

Ben stepped to the edge of the boardwalk.

“Pa,” Joe wearily climbed out. Taking his father’s hand, he pulled him into a hug and whispered, “I’m sorry Pa. I’m so sorry.”

Returning the hug in earnest, “We can talk tonight.” His hand patted his son’s back while he spoke.

Relief flooded Joe at the phrasing of their future discussion; it wasn’t the serious, ‘We’ll talk later,’ he’d thought of during their trip.

Joe turned and reached inside, offering Aurie his hand. Ben gasped. The young girl who stepped into the sunlight wore a green traveling skirt and jacket, a tan blouse with black gloves and a matching cowboy hat. With his thoughts to himself, Ben swore she could have been Joe’s twin at that age. Now he understood how Joe could accept Julia’s word without question.

Standing behind his daughter, with both hands on her shoulders, Joe spoke, “Pa, Jamie, I’d like you to meet Josephine Marie Cartwright.”

Aurie looked up to the man standing behind her and squealed, “Daddy!”

“But she prefers to be called Aurie. Aurie, I’d like you to meet your Uncle Jamie, and your Grandfather.”

“Howdy,” Jamie offered before finally remembering to remove his hat.

“Aurie, you can call me Grandpa Ben.” Reaching out, he enveloped the young teen in his arms.

“Pleased to meet you both,” she answered and curtsied once set to her feet.

“And this here is Mr. Canaday. He’s our foreman.” Joe pulled his friend away from claiming their luggage and trunk from the coach.

“Miss Aurie.” Candy tipped his hat.

“Mr. Canaday.”

From the corner of his eye, Joe saw Paul step from his office and walk towards them.

With their belongings securely tied to the buckboard, Candy took the reins and headed the team to the Ponderosa.

Cautiously, Paul approached the Cartwrights.

“Paul,” Joe greeted and helped Aurie to her seat in the surrey.

“Joe.”

“Paul!” Ben greeted with enthusiasm. “I’d like you to meet my granddaughter, Aurie.”

Chapter Eleven

Father and grandfather had tucked Aurie into bed and bid the child goodnight before returning downstairs. Ben filled two glasses with brandy from the decanter that sat on the round table by the bookcase. Handing one to Joe, he said, “Have a seat son. I’m ready to listen.”

Joe followed his father’s bidding. After taking a brief sip, he rolled the glass between his hands, elbows on his knees. The glow of the fire reflected on tears streaming down his face.

Patiently, Ben waited. He knew this son of his well, and realized Joe was probably beating himself up over the past. His own words would weigh on what his son said.

“Did you know?”

“Not until I received your letter. It wasn’t a pleasant scene when I confronted Paul.”

“I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. All of a sudden I was seventeen years old again. There was Julia. There was no Alice. All my hopes and dreams of a future were right there. For that split second, Adam was harping on me for being such a fool, and telling me that I was no competition for Jean Millain. And Hoss…” Joe’s voice quieted, “Hoss was alive.”

“It must have been quite a shock.”

“Probably about as bad as reading my letter.”

Ben nodded.

“She didn’t know she was pregnant until long after she left town.” Joe took another sip. “Did you know she did it for you? You convinced her, you convinced her that you weren’t through helping me grow up.”

“I’m sorry if my words implied that you were still a child.”

“No, she never thought that.” Good naturedly Joe gave a brief huff, and remembered their first night together. The first time he stood in front of a woman truly wearing nothing more than what God had given him. There had been trysts with saloon girls before, but those excursions never equaled what he had with Julia from the very first night.

Together they eyed each other, Joe tentatively stepped forward. Moments later their bodies entwined. Everything about her overwhelmed him; her soft skin, the scent of her hair, the touch of her fingers as they traveled his flesh. Her whispered words encouraged him to discover what it really meant to be with a woman; fulfillment for both parties, not lust.

His memories were as vivid as if it had only happened the day before, not almost fourteen years. Praying his father wouldn’t realize where his thoughts were, “She felt you needed me more than she did. You weren’t finished being my father.”

“I’ll never finish being your father. Just like I’ll never stop being Adam’s or Jamie’s, or even Hoss.”

“I know. You were the best, especially after I lost Alice and the baby.

“What would have happened to Aurie, had you not made this trip?”

“It was in her Will, I was to be informed. It was all up to me.” He drank half the contents in the glass.

“Why didn’t she write to tell you once she knew?”

“Because we thought her dead.”

“And what of Aurie?” Ben cautiously inquired.

“She’s a Cartwright.” Joe’s eyes flared, he gripped the tumbler tighter.

“People will talk.”

Joe raised his hand and finished his drink; the burn inside translated into his words, “Let them. I’m done living my life to please those blue noses.”

“Joe,” Ben’s voice warned, but his eyes said otherwise. Years had mellowed the man. Having lost three wives and a son to death, and another son somewhere out there exploring the world; he could finally admit to understanding what really drove this son so long ago. Live for today, because you’re not promised a tomorrow.

Jumping to his feet, “I won’t apologize. I know things happened for a reason. But I won’t send my daughter away. If our friends can’t understand that, then let he who is without sin be the first to cast stone. She has my name, and I won’t deny her.”

“I’m not asking that.”

Taking a seat on the low table to face his father, his words were passionately spoken, “Pa, I missed so much of her growing up. I wasn’t there to hold her when she was minutes old, her first words, her first steps. Pa, you experienced all of those with us.”

Smiling, Ben nodded and inquired, “What of Paul?”

“Paul?” The change of subject caught Joe off guard.

“Doctor Martin. Can you find it within yourself to forgive him for the part he played in this?”

“I’ve had time to think. I may not like it, but there’s nothing I can do about the past.”

Ben took a sip of his brandy, leaving Joe to continue.

“Pa, even if I hadn’t lost Alice and the baby, Aurie would still be my daughter, to take into my home, and my heart.” Reaching for Ben’s hand, “And I would have still apologized to you for my actions from so long ago. I know you expected better of us.”

“Joe, you’ve grown into a man that any father would be proud to call son. We’ve all made mistakes, and learned from them.”

“Are you saying Aurie is a mistake?” Joe pulled away from Ben, walked around the low table to stare into the fire.  His tension was palpable, clinched jaw, clipped breath, left hand opening and closing into a fist where it rested against the mantle, foot raised to the hearthstones.

Smoldering eyes had warned Ben to proceed with caution. “No, a child created in love is never a mistake. But the mistake I was referring to was my own. I’ve come to understand a lot more about you since I received your letter. Maybe if I’d learned my lessons sooner, I could have understood what drove you.” Ben’s voice quavered, “Joe, I need to ask, can you forgive me?”

“You were only doing what you thought right.”

Resting a hand on Joe’s shoulder, Ben stood behind his son, “But my actions robbed you of knowing Aurie.”

“I know.” The tension dissolved leaving tearful emotions. “But it wasn’t just you.”

So many levels of grief shrouded Joe. Ben slipped away, crossing the floor to his desk. From the center drawer he extracted an envelope that showed signs of being crumpled and returned to where Joe stood.

For three weeks he’d kept the envelope, unable to throw it away after having read it all in Paul Martin’s office. Absentmindedly it had been shoved into his vest pocket, intent on destroying it at home; horrors if anyone in town were to find it and read. Plans changed.

“You hear news from Lit’le Joe?” Hop Sing inquired as Ben slowly removed his holster and hat.

“He’s safe.”

“When he come home?”

“I don’t know.”

“What keep Lit’lt Joe away? No good not come home.”

“Hop Sing, Joe wrote to ask if you would prepare the guest room next to his for a young girl.”

“Young girl? Mister Joe too told for young girl. Not right,” the faithful employee chattered.

“It’s for his daughter.”

“Daughter. How he have daughter?”

“It’s all in his letter.” Ben pulled the crumpled envelope from his vest.

“He write like Missy Marie?”

Trust Hop Sing to remember how Marie had informed Ben that they were expecting a child. A note placed in Ben’s saddle bags with his lunch announced that she had a new love. So long ago he’d read the first sentence, anger and tears warred that his young bride had decided to leave him.

Ben,

No longer can I love you as my husband. From the moment we held to each other after Darius died, your love has been given unconditionally, and my love for you has been given with the same heart. But you know as well as I, that our love was incomplete.

I have asked Hop Sing to prepare a spare room next to our bedroom for the new love in my life. Ben, I hope you will find it in your heart to love me as more than just your wife. With all my heart, I will be pledge to love you as the father of my child… our child.

Hurry home my love.

Marie

*****

“Why all crumpled.”

“I lost my temper.”

“You mad at Lit’le Joe?”

“I don’t know who I’m mad at, Hop Sing. I wish I’d never read this.”

“It important to son to write, it important you read.”

On a rare occasion, Hop Sing touched his employer in a comforting gesture. “Hop Sing, not know how numba three son have daughter. But important he tell fatha.”

“I want to burn this.” Ben raised the letter.

“No burn. You talk with Lit’le Joe when he come home.”

*****

Memories returned to the present, with Joe’s letter in hand he wondered why he had not burned it as he originally planned. There was so much more bitterness and heartbreak within than what Marie had written so many years ago; how could he even compare the two?

“You implied that I was partly at fault. I’ll ask again, can you forgive me?”

“You’re my father.” Joe looked to Ben and what he held in his hand.

“Can we put aside all the hurt? Can we become the family that Aurie needs?”

“We are family.” A smile and nod conveyed his forgiveness. “I’m probably going to make mistakes.”

“As will I.”

Ben dropped the envelope. Taking hold, the fire brightened. The paper charred black before crumbling to ash.

 

~The End

Thank you to jfclover for beta’ing and pushing this story to be more than originally envisioned.  Thank you to Belle for inspiring a scene or two.

 

Author’s Notes: This story was inspired after submitting my Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament story, If not for Aura Lee; but is not a part of that story. One evening, my muse asked, ‘What if Julia hadn’t died?’ Historically, Jean Millain was captured and subsequently hanged for her brutal murder. He claimed innocence stating he only helped steal her jewels.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Bulette

Please forgive me for not including that this story is WHI follow-up to The Julia Bulette Story and a WHN for Forever in the summary; I didn’t want to give away the twist of the story. I’ve also referred to memories from the episodes listed below. Thank you to their respective writers.

A Home for Jamie, written by:  David Dortort, Jean Holloway
Five Candles:  written by: David Dortort, Ken Trevey
Marie, My Love:  Written by Anthony Lawrence, Anne Howard Bailey, David Dortort
The Grand Swing:  David Dortort, John Hawkins, Fred Hamilton, Ward Hawkins, Willim Woenig
The Mill:  written by:  Halsted Welles
The Phillip Diedesheimer story:  Written by: Thomas Thompson
The Julia Bulette Story: written by: Al C. Ward
Forever: written by Michael Landon, David Dortort

Translation by Google Translate. My apologies for any mistakes.

Return to Author’s Bonanza Stories Page

Return to WWB Bonanza Library

 

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