If Not for Aura Lee (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis:  What happened after Jean was taken into custody, and Julia’s window went dark.  A what happened next for The Julia Bulette Story.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T (for mild cursing and references to adult themes)
Word Count:  11,940


 

Introduction:

I’ve taken artistic license with the facts from history to create this What Happened Next for the Julia Bulette Story.

 

*****

The Sacramento town hall was resplendent as the guests of Captain and Mrs. Matthew Chastain arrived.  The entire event had been organized to ensure the evening rivaled the finest of galas; from New Orleans all the way up to The Hamptons.  It was a celebration for their only son’s scheduled departure for admission to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and eventually his taking the oath of a commissioned officer.

“Ben!  Ben Cartwright!” Matthew declared from where he sat, he looked up to his wife with a broad smile.  “Olivia, he made it.”

“Was there any doubt?” Olivia lovingly placed a delicate hand on her husband’s shoulder.

“Never, but even you heard the gossip of Virginia City.”

Small and petite, she was just as much a force to be reckoned with as her husband, and gave little pause for those who spread rumors and innuendos.  Her dark blonde hair swept up to frame her tanned face.  Her gown was as elegant as the night promised to be.

“Matt!” Ben greeted in return, taking long strides before extending his hand to his long-time friend.

“Surely, this can’t be Adam,” Matthew declared readjusting his glasses as he looked to the young man following his old friend.

“No sir, I’m not Adam.  I’m Joe.”  He bowed in greeting to their hosts.

“Joseph?  Marie’s boy?” Olivia inquired.

“That’s right ma’am.”

“That can’t be!  Last I remember you were,” her hands indicated a very small child, “and wearing dresses.”

Joe gritted his teeth while smiling, there was nothing he could to do to hide the blush that crept into his cheeks.  Ben had the grace to turn and cough in an effort to cover the humor at his son’s expense.

“Been a long time since little brother’s done that ma’am.  Now he just chases them.”  Hoss arrived to stand behind his brother.

Ben quietly warned, “Hoss,” with a critical eye and voice.

“Eric?” Olivia’s hand raised to her mouth, trying to hide her mirth; her voice contained warmth  realizing this was Ben’s middle son.

“Hoss ma’am, just Hoss.”  He gave her his best gap-toothed grin.

“Captain, Mrs. Chastain,” greeted Adam as he joined his family.

“Adam, where have all the years gone?” Oliva extended both hands, which Adam graciously accepted.  Leaning forward, he kissed the woman’s cheek.

“You look as lovely as you did the last time I saw you in Boston.”

“Liar,” Olivia replied with a blush.

No one took offense when the Captain failed to stand upon their arrival.  Everyone knew it had been a miracle he survived the storm.  Not a man among his crew had been lost when the gale blew for two days and unmercifully battered their ship.  At the height of the storm practically every man wished to be consigned to the watery depths, just to be done with their suffering.  When the skies had finally cleared, the only casualty had been the Captain’s use of his legs.  A man of the sea all his life, he could have turned bitter, but with his wife and his family at his side, they ensured he continued to live his life to the fullest.  Much as Abel Stoddard had done so many years before.

“And speaking of children growing up,” Ben added, “I can’t believe that William is of age for college.”

“He’s put it off for a number of years in order to help the family.  But it’s time he followed his own dreams.  See for yourself Benjamin.  He’s over there by the punch bowl, the blonde with the young red-headed lass resting her hand on his arm,” Matthew answered.

“And what of Constance?” Adam inquired.

“She’s helping the ladies auxiliary keep the tables filled.  She’s just recently returned from Miss Abernathy’s Academy for Young Women in San Francisco.  She has hopes of taking additional studies to become a nurse.  If there was one good thing that came from my condition, it focused my daughter’s desire to help others.  She could very well have become the likes of some of her friends who sit on committees and talk of helping or holding bakes sales and such to raise funds.  No, Constance wants to truly help by taking a job in the medical field.”

*****

Beyond the tables with punch and desserts, sat the musicians; their instruments softly resonated through the hall.  The small group sat within the curve of the grand piano, while the guests mingled and chatted amongst themselves.

The joyous evening progressed to their last musical set.  As one, violins were raised.  A gentle nod of head bore silent instructions before the first bow slid across the strings.  With piano accompaniment, the Viennese Waltz floated through the air, and a pair of dancers took to the floor.

“I thank your boy for asking my permission to dance with my wife.  I know how much she misses dancing, what with me stuck in this rolling chair.”  Matt’s voice was absent of bitterness, only longing that he wished it were he on the floor with his wife.

Ben Cartwright smiled as his eldest son escorted Olivia Chastain around the floor.  Her white satin gown with a brocade bodice offered a contrasting elegance to Adam’s black suit.  So well the two blended together, no one noticed the difference in their ages.

“Adam was raised with good manners, Matt.”

“I wasn’t inferring that.  I know there was no other way your boys could have turned out.  I remember your commanding the cabin boys on Abel’s ships.  No, many a time we come to such events and men treat me as if I’m not here.  It hurts Ben.”

The attention of those within the meeting hall slowly shifted to the couple on the floor.  His left hand held her right hand gently aloft and to the side.  His other hand rested softly on her waist, while her’s held his elbow, with a delicately sculpted fan dangling from a wrist strap.  With grace born of ability they moved in mirror of each other.  Stately steps crossed the floor, changing with ease as the music segued; adding the flourish of a twirl before resuming their gait.

The second stanza inspired another couple to the dance floor, and finally a third.  All three couples appeared oblivious to the attention they drew to themselves, imaginations understood they danced for the sheer joy of their movements.  No one else moved; fearing disruption to the beauty of the moment.

As the strains of the last refrain faded, those watching gently clapped as gracious curtsies were offered in response to the courteous bows of their partner.  It was only between the first couple where a slight kiss was on a gloved hand was proffered, sparking a hint of blush to the woman’s glowing face.  He turned at the hand on his shoulder, nodded and accepted the change of her dance partner.

Mother and son were the only ones to dance during the final song of the evening.  Many kerchiefs dabbed faces as tears fell in sheer joy of the sight.  William returned his mother to his father’s side, leaving the guests haunted while the final notes of Aura Lee still echoed through the night.

*****

“William, I want you to take this with you.”  Olivia pulled a ring off her right hand.  “This belonged to my mother, and someday, when you find your true love – I hope she’ll accept this ring from you.”

The Captain smiled as his son accepted the gift.

“Mother, thank you.”

Silently, one guest turned away from the loving words; his own memories over shadowing the moment.

*****

A quiet Joe Cartwright followed his family up the sweeping grand staircase of the hotel to their rooms.

“Bright and early boys,” Ben stated, unlocking the door to the room which he and Adam would share.

“Shore nuff, Pa,” answered Hoss from across the hall before closing the door behind him and Joe.

~B~O~N~A~N~Z~A~

After finishing breakfast, Adam and Joe had bid goodbye to their family as they separated into pairs.  Plans were for Ben and Hoss to stay in Sacramento to negotiate with representatives from the U.S. Army on a cattle contract.  Adam and Joe were on their way to Grass Valley, California, twenty miles northeast of town, to bid on a new lumber contract with Empire Mining.

*****

“You’ve been mighty quiet since last night Joe.”

The brothers settled for the night, lounging on their bedrolls. They had taken it easy with the horses they had rented from the livery in Sacramento.

“So?” Joe softly responded.

“The way you danced with the young Chastain girl, I just thought you’d do nothing but chat up a storm while we rode.”

Sheepishly he admitted, “I didn’t know who she was at first.  I just saw her gazing out at you and Mrs. Chastain.  I’d seen her working the tables all night and thought she might enjoy a dance.”

The crackling of their fire accompanied the crickets and other animals of the night.

“The Captain said she’d just returned home from one of the finest ladies’ academies.”

“Jealous there older brother?” came the teased response from behind the coffee cup he’d raised to his lips.

“No, actually I was impressed.  Where… How did you learn to dance like that?”

Joe lowered his hands and the cup to his lap, his eyes softened as he looked beyond the fire.

“Lotta.”

“Excuse me?” Adam sat forward having struggled to hear his brother’s response.

“Miss Lotta Crabtree.  You might have thought me a child Adam, and maybe she did too.  But that night, I felt so grown up.  Even though she was hired by Alpheus Troy to kidnap me as a threat to Pa…”

“You knew that and still stayed with her?”

“Sure I knew.  Why else would a woman like her be interested in someone my age?  Wasn’t that what you and Pa were worried about?”

“Yeah, we were, but we didn’t know that you knew.”

“I wasn’t born yesterday.  I know I can act immature at times, but I do have a brain in my head.”

“So you’re proving.”  Adam smiled, hoping his brother would accept the statement as the compliment he intended.

“You know she couldn’t go through with it.”  Joe leaned towards the campfire to refill his coffee cup.  “She kind of let the cat out of the bag earlier in the evening; she pushed me from her room, out the window no less.  Later, I remember, just the two of us… dancing as if we were at a cot… co….”

“Cotillion,” Adam answered to which Joe nodded.

Sipping from his own cup, Adam remembered the night they searched Virginia City for the youngest member of the family; finding themselves always one step behind, while the worry and the anger grew.  Adam also remembered his own moments with Miss Crabtree; especially the last one, after finding Joe and before he rejoined his family for the ride home.

“Sometimes…”

“Sometimes what?” Adam drew back to the present.

“Sometimes, I think I remember dancing with Mama.  I know that’s silly and maybe even childish.”

“No Joe.  I don’t think it’s silly or childish.  Your mother was a beautiful dancer and she loved dancing while holding you.  Why, when she and Pa took to the dance floor, all others stopped to watch.”

“Julia once compared me to Pa.”

Adam sputtered his coffee.  “She what?”

“I didn’t know she knew Pa, but I guess I should have.  She taught me how to feel the music, Adam.  Not just the movements.”  Joe sipped from his coffee cup.  “During the epidemic, there were times we were so tired, yet neither of us could sleep.  The images of those who died wouldn’t leave us alone.”

Unsure what to say, if anything, Adam waited for his brother to continue.

“One night, we hummed and we’d dance; just to forget all the pain and the suffering.  She transported me to another time, another place.  We lived Adam, God we lived.”

“I’m sorry Joe.”

He fought back tears that welled in his eyes, “For what?  Introducing us?  Forget it.  I went into Julia’s Palace on my own.”

“No, I’m sorry she died.  Sometimes it’s hard to understand that age doesn’t always matter when two people fall in love.  I’m sorry that we only saw what we wanted to see.”

“An older woman taking advantage of a boy?”

“Something like that.  But we were also aware that Jean Millain counted her as a possession.”  Wanting to change the conversation, but hoping to learn more about his little brother, “The two of you shocked the Hell out of town.”

“That wasn’t our intention, not in the beginning.  We were comfortable together, and it made me mad when others looked down at her.  She was a wonderful woman…  I loved her.  Wish others understood that.”

“Pa understands,” whispered Adam; keeping to himself the words their father spoke after a miserable Little Joe walked from Julia’s Palace that last night.

‘After Joe proposed, she told me, ‘Having faith in no one carries a special kind of security.’  She said she’d never forgive me for destroying her illusion.  Adam, before Joe came up… she told me she was going to give me back my son.’

“That’s why he organized this little trip?” Joe worked hard to suppress the bitterness from lacing his word.

“No, you’ve known for some time that we had these two contracts to negotiate.”

Sitting up and forward, turning serious, Joe looked at his brother.  “Adam, even though you may not believe it, I do read the Territorial Enterprise.  When I was living at Julia’s, I saw the articles that Dan deQuille wrote for the newspaper.  He knew exactly what he was doing.   What he wrote was meant to stir the pot.  A turn of the word here, a different word there.  What he wrote wasn’t anything like how it really was.  He followed us anywhere he thought he could.  I know money changed hands in the saloon for fodder he could spin into another story.  So much that was printed was never verified as the truth; I can’t believe you of all people couldn’t read between the lines to know he was only doing it to embarrass Pa.  Every week, our friends stood outside the print shop trying to be the first to buy the latest edition so they could wag their tongues and make themselves more than what they were.  So, yes, I understand why Pa scheduled this trip for the four of us.  He wanted to get me out of town in hopes by the time we returned all the gossip would have died.  Died and been forgotten, just like Julia.”

“That’s not true.”

“Isn’t it?  Disgraceful, immoral, indecent…  Those were just some of the words the blue-blooded ladies of Virginia City called us to our faces.  God Adam, when it was just the two of us alone.”  Joe’s memory briefly slipped back to happier times.  “I understand how embarrassing it must have been for the great Ben Cartwright to hear the righteous go on and on about his hotheaded and scandalous son.  How could he ever set foot in church again?

“But then the epidemic struck, and afterwards, Pa got his precious reputation back.  The town hailed him a hero.  Nothing changed, not a damn thing.”  Joe tossed out the last of his coffee.  “If only I hadn’t come home that night.”

Adam recognized the regret in his brother’s voice.

“Joe,” gaining his brother’s attention, “you’re his youngest son.  He was worried for you.  He didn’t want to see you hurt.  He was there when Hoss and I brought you home after that fight.  We all knew Millain’s reputation.  Pa didn’t want to lose you. He begged you to come home because he knew word of your proposal would get back to Millain.  He wanted you to be where we could protect you.”

“So instead, Julia was left without anyone to protect her.  I never should have left her alone.  I should have stayed in town.”

“And if you had, we would probably have buried you too.  You know you had no chance in winning a fight against Millain.”

“So you say.”  Ruefully Joe shook his head.  “Funny, how even in her death, deQuille couldn’t find anything decent to write about her.  And now there won’t even be a murder trial.”

“You know about that?”  The fact his brother knew, surprised Adam.

“Yeah, I know.  How could I not?  What with everyone in town shutting up and staring when I enter a room.  I knew I’d never get the truth from you or Pa, and I didn’t want to push Hoss to go against Pa; so I asked Dan.  He showed me the article he had just finished writing.  Under bold headlines, ‘Millain Extradited to New Orleans’; he quoted Roy on how Millain was being returned to face a murder charge from some years back.  Seems he was involved in the death of one of their more prominent citizens.  Don’t you think that’s a better headline than reading the mundane words about a trial for a murdered whore?”

“Joe, don’t…”

“Why not?  It’s the truth!  That’s what those busy bodies called her.  Not a one of them knew her.  Gossip mongers.”  Weeks of bitter anger welled and came out with heavy sarcasm and tears.  “Fair and factual.  The Enterprise portrays both sides of the story evenly to allow the reader to decide on their own.”  Floundering in his emotions, and like water on a burning match, Joe’s fight vanished.  “Just drop it Adam.  It’s over and done with.  Nothing will bring Julia back.  After everything; turns out it didn’t mean a damn thing.”

“Joe, she made you happy,” Adam offered.

“Forget it,” Joe lay down and pulled the bedroll over his shoulders.  Aura Lea played in his mind alongside images that would never be; his wedding ring slipped upon Julia’s hand.  Tears streamed from closed eyes.

~B~O~N~A~N~Z~A~

Sheriff Brandt nervously waited outside the meeting room; he’d attempted to deliver the dispatch earlier in the morning only to be denied access to any of the attendees by a young army lieutenant.

The heavy wooden double doors opened, allowing the participants to stream from within.  Unsure which man in civilian clothes was his quarry, Brandt shouted to be heard above the discussions, “Ben Cartwright!”

The hallway quieted with everyone’s attention focusing on the lawman.

Offering his apology to a colonel, Ben made his way through the sea of uniforms, followed by his son.

“I’m Ben Cartwright.”

“I’ve a telegram for you.”

Ben exchanged a perplexed look with his Hoss, both knowing it highly unusual for a law officer to deliver a telegram.  He opened the envelope and pulled out the slip of paper.

 

Ben Cartwright
c/o The Palace Hotel
Sacramento, California

Jean Millain escaped deputies. /stop
Little Joe in danger.                        /stop
Knows you’re in Sacramento.    /stop

Roy Coffee
Sheriff, Virginia City

 

“And you’re just now bringing this to me?” demanded the angry father having seen the time received noted in the upper right hand corner.

“I tried to deliver it shortly after it arrived; however, them young pups with stripes barred my way.”

“Yer a lawman, ya shoulda pushed past them,” retorted Hoss.

“Not with them pointing their rifles at me.”

“Trouble Ben?” Colonel George Asbury overheard part of the conversation.

“Yes, an escaped murdered has threatened my youngest son and your junior officers prevented the sheriff from delivering this message.”  Ben pulled a watch from his vest pocket; over nine hours had lapsed.

“Ben, our negotiations are all but concluded.  You do what you need.  Don’t worry, the Ponderosa has earned the contract.”

“Thank you, George.”

Without looking back, Ben and Hoss forgot all about the evening’s celebratory dinner.

“We ain’t gonna get very far Pa,” Hoss stated as they stopped in the hallway for Ben to unlock the door to the room they now shared.  “Be dark in an hour or so.”

“I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

“We can send a wire to Adam and make all the necessary arrangements tonight.  We can leave first thin’ in the mornin’.”

~B~O~N~A~N~Z~A~

Adam woke to the smell of coffee, surprised his youngest brother had woke before him.  “Morning Joe.”

“Kid’s still asleep.”

Fluidly a revolver appeared from a holster beside the upturned saddle, aimed in the general direction of the voice by the camp fire.

“Whoa… Easy there.”  William Chastain stopped mid-rise with coffee pot and cup in hand, his arms slightly out to his side.  He looked over his shoulder as a second weapon cocked.

“It’s okay Joe.  You can go back to sleep.”  Adam ruefully shook his head, uncocking his weapon and returning it to his holster.

“Kind of hard to do with my heart pounding,” Joe answered mid-yawn, slipping his gun to its leather sheath beside his bedroll.

“Your heart pounding?  You’re not the one with two weapons being pointed at you.”  William sat heavily and exhaled deeply, coffee pot and cup set back to the rocks.

“Next time, announce yourself,” Adam suggested.

“You two were sound asleep.”

“What are you doing out here?” Joe asked, having crawled to the fire and helped himself to the coffee pot; handing one filled cup to his brother before filling one for himself.

“Wanted one last adventure before heading off to Annapolis.”

“You could have said something before we left your party the other night.”  No one missed the agitation in Adam’s voice.

“I guess I should have, but it was a spur of the moment decision.”

“What’s so adventurous about heading out to negotiate a lumber contract?” Joe asked.

“Not having to deal with my mother crying because I’m going to be on the other side of the country.  She’s scheduling every minute of my life lately.  I love my mother, but she’s smothering me.”

“We didn’t plan on their being three of us,” Adam pulled out fixing for breakfast.  “Breakfast might be a little on the slim side.”

“Just be thankful you came with Joe.  If you’d been traveling with Hoss, I’d of had to bring a packhorse.”  William walked to where his horse was tethered and removed a burlap sack tied to his saddle horn.  “Breakfast, gentlemen.”

*****

An hour later, with their campsite cleared, the three riders continued on to Grass Valley.

*****

The three sat in the saloon; the conclusion of the lumber negotiations set the tone for a night of revelry.  Two of the ladies in the saloon sauntered over, trying to entice them upstairs.

“Ghosts and spooks, Joe.  It’s just your imagination,” William teased, while holding a half drank mug of beer up as if in toast, his other arm wrapped around the waist of the pretty redhead who decided to stay.

Rolling his eyes, “I tell you something’s not right.”  Joe sat forward, both hands surrounded the still full glass in front of him.

“What it is then?” Adam set an empty mug back to the tabletop.

“I don’t know.  Feels like someone’s walking over my grave.”  Joe looked around the room before involuntarily shivering.

“Now you’re sounding like Hoss, only he’d be complaining about his corns.”

“You just had to go a ruin the moment by bringing up his stinky feet.”  Joe waved his hand, side to side, in front of his face.

“Seriously Joe, what’s wrong?” Adam inquired.

Before Joe could answer, the three turned their attention to the two men entering the room, one being the Sheriff.

“That’s him, over there with them two others.  Claimed he was Adam Cartwright.”

The man who pointed stood smaller than Joe.  His close cropped hair didn’t lessen the deep auburn color that matched the red freckles sprinkled across his face.  The lawman impressively stood close to six foot, three with long, wavy brown hair and a handlebar mustache more popular in Texas than California.  The two men made their way to the Cartwrights’ table.

Sitting back, Joe watched Adam stand and greet the lawman.

“I’m Adam Cartwright.  What seems to be the trouble, Sheriff?”

Speaking to the gal on William’s lap, “Louisa, would you mind stepping to the bar?”  He waited until the lady was away before answering. “I’m Sheriff Bridgier.  You got anything to back that up?”

“I can.  He’s my brother.”  Joe stood, eyes focused on the smaller man.

“I have credentials.”

“Take a good look at ‘em sheriff, they’re probably forged.”

“Fred, would ya let me do my job.”  Turning back to Adam, “I’m sorry, but Fred here said you were the second person claiming to be Adam Cartwright today.”

“I’m not claiming, I am.”

Fred rudely stated, “So said the other gent.”

“What other gent?”  Adam turned his attention from the lawman to the smaller man standing to his side, finally recognizing him as the telegrapher from earlier in the day.

“The man who came for the wire earlier this morning.”

“What wire?” insisted Joe.

“That’s confidential information.”

“If you gave…” Joe insolently stated.

“Joe, let me handle this, please.”  Adam pulled his credentials from the pocket of his jacket hanging from the back of the chair from where he had previously sat.  “If you require additional proof of my identity, I suggest you speak with Gordon McKinley and Horace Goodall, we just finished concluding a lumber contract this afternoon.”

“You mean,” gulped the telegrapher.

“I Am Adam Cartwright.”  Adam cocked his head and crossed his arms.

“Sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but I had to investigate Fred’s complaint,” the sheriff answered.  “Fred I suggest you return to your office and send Mr. Cartwright’s wire.”

“You refrained from sending my wire?”

“Well… I couldn’t in good conscious…”

“No, you couldn’t,” with obvious sarcasm.  “But you gave a wire specifically addressed to me to a stranger.  What did it say?”

“I don’t exactly know.  It came in last night and was already in the envelope when I came on duty this morning.  Then you showed up asking… I mean, another fella showed up asking for…”

“And how much proof did you request from him before handing over the telegram?”

“Adam, it was probably your father wishing you good luck with the negotiations,” offered William.

“Maybe, but I’m going to follow Fred back to his office to ensure he sends the wire for which I already paid.”  Tossing a few coins to the table, “I’ll be back in a little while.  You two finish your beers.”

“It’s late Adam, I think I’ll head back to the hotel,” commented Joe while trying to stifle a yawn.

“You sure you’re okay?” Adam asked.

“Yeah, just tired.  That nag I rode to get here and riding a chair for the past two days makes me appreciate Cochise all the more.”

“I think I’m going to stay here a little longer and enjoy being out from under the watchful eyes of my parents.”  William nodded to the red head who waited at the bar.

“What about that little gal you were with at the dance?” Joe squeaked out.  He saw the red head whisper to the brunette who had been watching the proceedings as well.

“A friend of the family who wanted more than anything to be more than a friend.”  Tossing a few coins to where Adam’s coins had landed, he stated, “I’ll see you two in the morning.”

~B~O~N~A~N~Z~A~

“Mr. Cartwright, you’ll need your room key,” called the front desk clerk, halting an aggravated Adam on the second step of the staircase.

“That’s okay.  Joe should be upstairs already, I’ll just knock.”

“I’m afraid your brother hasn’t returned to the hotel yet.”

“He…”  Adam exhaled heavily; on top of the telegrapher not being able to reproduce the wire, now he had to track down his errant brother.  “William probably convinced him… No, I’m sure the brunette had something to do with his staying at the saloon.”  Pulling on his jacket, Adam turned and exited the building.

~B~O~N~A~N~Z~A~

Returning from a full day spent searching for Joe, they left their mounts in the livery.  On their way to the hotel, Adam pulled William into the entryway of the millinary store.  “Joe was right.”

“Right about what?”  He tried to follow the direction in which Adam looked.

“He had a right to feel unsettled last night.  He’s supposed to be under arrest.”

“Who?  What?” William voiced his confusion.

“That’s Jean Millain.  Hoss and I were on the posse that brought him in.  He’s supposed to be on his way to New Orleans to stand trial.”

“Then what’s he doing here?”

“Nothing good.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence he’s here and Joe’s disappeared.  Listen, I want you to go to the telegraph office and send a wire to Roy Coffee in Virginia City.”

“No problem, but…”

“You’ll also need to stop by and let Sheriff Bridgier know.”

“Tell him what?”

“I told you, Millain’s supposed to be under arrest for murder.”

“Murder?” William squeaked out.

“Get going.  I’m going to follow him.”

For fifteen minutes Adam waited in the shadows for Millain to exit the saloon.  And when he did, he began to follow.

Millain slipped into an alley not two minutes later, leaving Adam to wonder if he’d given away his presence.  His concern was short lived upon spying the man leading two horses towards the livery.  There was only one man he knew who wore that style of hat and was that large.

Hurriedly, Adam crossed to the other side of the street, keeping to the shadows until he reached his middle brother.

*****

Slipping into the livery unobserved, Adam called out in a loud whisper, “Hoss, about time you got here.”

Hoss jumped at hearing his brother’s voice so close behind, “Adam, don’t scare me like that?  What do you mean it’s about time I got here?”

“Didn’t you get my wire?” a perplexed Adam asked, “I watched Fred send the wire myself.”

“Pa and I sent a wire tellin’ you we was on our way.”

“I didn’t receive your wire.  Hoss, let’s get these horses taken care of.  We need to get back to Pa.”

*****

Ten minutes after arriving in their father’s hotel room, Adam finished explaining everything he knew since Joe disappeared.

“Millain has to have him,” Ben voiced.  “But why?”

“Pa, don’tcha remember he was the one…  Miss Julia and all.  He pounded Joe but good that time.”

“I know that.  What I want to know is why he came after Joe?  Why didn’t he head to Mexico or San Francisco?  He could easily have disappeared or caught a ship to Europe.”

“Pa, he might have kidnapped Joe hoping to ransom him back so he’d have money enough to escape the law.”

“Adam might be right Pa.  We did find all Miss Julia’s diamonds and emeralds when the posse caught up with him.  He didn’t have a lot of money, if I remember.”

“If that were the case, where’s the demand?  Joe’s been missing for over twenty-four hours.  Hop Sing would have had one of the hands take anything like that to Roy.  And there’s been no note left for Adam.”

A knock on the door interrupted any response.  William and the sheriff stood the other side of the doorway.

*****

Sheriff Bridgier knew the night would be short upon leaving the lobby of the hotel.  It was well after midnight.

Stopping in front of the telegraph office, he pounded on the door.  “FRED!  WAKE UP!”

An hour later, he’d read the responses to the wires he’d sent and asked, ‘Why my town?’

~B~O~N~A~N~Z~A~

He never fully understood why that little voice kept whispering, persisting that he look over his shoulder, but he did.  Automatically his hand went to his holster as his revolver slipped from its sheath.

“Thought I was on my way to New Orleans, eh kid?”

“Millain.” Joe faced the man,  having been pulled into the recesses of an alley.

Cocking the weapon’s hammer into position, Jean pointed it at his rival.

“You’re coming with me.”

“And if I don’t?”

“I can always shoot you, right here and now.”

“I don’t think you’re that stupid.  But then you beat up a defenseless woman in her own living quarters.”

“True.  Only, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as the beating I gave you.”

Joe stiffened at the mention of that encounter.

“Have to give it to you kid, you sure are a stubborn cuss.”

“You haven’t begun to see how stubborn I can be.”

“You think you’re man enough to take me on, again.”

Joe refrained from answering; his eyes glanced around, hoping to see Adam come from the telegraph office.

“I don’t think that brother of yours will be coming to your rescue, this time.  So, do you want to get even with me for what I did to that bitch?”

Anger flared, Joe’s left fist clinched, and came up swinging.  The barrel of his own weapon pressed hard against the flesh under his jaw froze his movement instantly.

“You’ll get your time.  But not now.  Move.”

Joe turned, and with the revolver jammed into his back, he proceeded to walk where directed.

*****

They had avoided heading to the livery to collect his rented horse.  Instead, Jean forced Joe to the back side of a warehouse where his own horse was tethered.  With the gun still on his opponent, he pulled the coiled rope from the saddle horn.

“Hope those boots are made for walking.”  Slipping Joe’s revolver into his waistband, “Don’t think of taking a swing on me.  I bested you once and I have no doubt I can do it again.”

Deftly, he looped the rope around Joe’s torso before binding his hands together in front of him.  Snaking out the rest of the lariat, he mounted and dallied the other end to the saddle.

“Let’s go, kid.”

With the horse encouraged to trot, Joe felt the quick tug that propelled him to run to keep up.

*****

Winded and exhausted, Joe was thankful when Millain reined his horse to a walk.  His chest heaved, trying hard to draw in enough breath to satisfy his burning lungs.  They continued on into the night for another two hours.

Clouds drifted in front of the moon, darkening the landscape and obscuring clumps of dried grass or large rocks from the one on foot.  He tried his best to keep up and not let the man know his strength was failing.  Millain felt the tug of dead weight and looked back; for the next one hundred yards his horse pulled his prey.  Exasperated, he halted and dismounted.  In disgust, he loosed a kick flipping his victim over.

“Thought you westerners were tougher than this,” he teased while squatting down.

“See… how you… man…age…”

“Oh, I’ll manage just fine.”

Standing once more, Millain looked around.  A copse of trees and a pooling brook looked promising to make camp until the sun rose.

“Get up.”

Jerked to his feet, Joe walked like a drunken sailor.  Having collapsed to the ground once more, Millain securely tied him to a tree.

“Don’t go anywhere while I sleep.”  He laughed.  “Sleep tight.”

“Yeah,” Joe mumbled, keeping to himself, ‘Like I can go anywhere trussed up like one of Hop Sing’s turkeys.’

Finding it impossible to sleep with the bark pressing into his back and the discomfort of his arms; Joe worked the rope, hoping to break free.  Across his shoulders and above his biceps burned in consequence to his repetitive actions as he worked the rope up and down, and from side to side.  In a way he was glad to be bound by rope, he’d heard tales of men bound by rawhide and the damage inflicted as it shriveled.  The twisted fibers gave the rope its strength, yet it was the cords that offered its weakness; eventually it would snap apart, once each strand was frayed enough.

A tinge of pink painted the eastern sky when Joe felt the first strand give way.  Encouraged to work harder, he ignored the aches and pains as he strove to free himself from the tarred hemp.

Spontaneously he cried out as the last strand broke and his arms swung forward; he stared towards his captor praying for him not to have heard.  With dawn’s early light, he grimaced at the bloody mess of his wrists.  The sleeves covering his forearms were tattered and threadbare from his efforts.

Cautiously he knelt, looking again to where Millain slept, hoping beyond hope to get to the horse and away.  Before moving, he formulated a plan; the horse was still bridled and tied to a tree branch.  Crouched low, he jogged across the ground; foregoing the saddle, he left it where it lie.  His plan hinged on saving time in order to make his escape.

Focused and so close to his goal, Joe didn’t realize he wasn’t going to make it.  Before he could reach for the reins, pain and darkness, crumpled him to the ground.

“Told you not to go anywhere.”  The grapefruit-sized object in his hand bore testament to the severity of the blow.  Millain tossed the blood-stained rock to the ground before kneeling.  “Hey kid.”  He jostled Joe’s shoulder.  No sound or movement answered.  Rolling his victim onto his back, he watched for any rise and fall of the boy’s chest.

“So long kid.  One down, one more to go.”

*****

An explosion of lights obscured his vision as Joe woke.  Shafts of pain lanced through his head letting him know that sitting up was not a good idea.  In vain, he gave up what little effort he had made in his attempt.  Images of an earlier, not so painful display of lights played in his mind.

“What’s that?” six-year old Little Joe asked, looking at the object Hop Sing held in his hands.

“This firework.  Chinese celebrate Lunar New Year.  Lit’le Joe stand back.  Hop Sing do this.”

“Why cain’t I help ya?”

“Because honorable fatha be mad if you get hurt.  You promise stay there?”

“I promise.”

Bundled against the February weather, Joe watched Hop Sing walk into the middle of the yard between the house and barn.  Moments later, the Oriental man carefully ran through the snow to where his charge waited.  As he turned, the projectile flew high.  Joe jumped at the loud bang.  With childlike delight he raced around as white sparkles illuminated the black sky, popping and fizzling before darkness reclaimed the night.

Joe’s world once again turned as dark as that night.

~B~O~N~A~N~Z~A~

“What’s the matter, Pa?” Hoss entered the room.

“I thought your brother was coming around.”

“Shortshanks is wakin’ up?”

“I don’t know.”  Ben relaxed back into the chair where he had sat vigil for the past twenty four hours.

“I’m gonna go see if I can help Father Anthony with anythin’.  You gonna come Adam?”

The eldest Cartwright son shook his head and continued to sit the other side of the bed from his father.

*****

An hour later, the mission priest brought fresh water.  Acknowledging the worried family, he checked on his patient before leaving the room.  Ben followed the cleric.

“We’re very thankful for all you’ve done, Father Anthony.”  Ben closed the door to the room in which Adam kept watch over an unconscious Little Joe.  The worried father had failed to realize how long it had been since night had fallen as he watched their host retrieve a lantern from one of the hallway tables.

Their pace was slow and deliberate; as such, the man’s sandaled feet avoided tripping over the uneven flagstone tiles that lined the hallway.

“It was the children.  They were the ones who found your son.”

“But you were the one who brought him to the mission and took care of him, and sent word to us.”

“What is one more lost lamb?” Father Anthony pointed to the table in the middle of the kitchen, and prepared two cups of coffee.

“I’m curious…  How did you know to send for us?”

“When we brought young Joseph here, I did not know if what he spoke were words of a lucid man or the ramblings of a man tormented by demons.  His eyes, they pleaded for me to do as he asked.  He said that only his brother, Adam, was to be told.”

“But why?”

“He did not say.  I wanted to inform Sheriff Bridgier of the assault, but your son objected before losing consciousness once more.”

“You didn’t think this was an accident?” Ben worried.

“No.  Your other sons, Adam and the one called Hoss, they saw the area where the children found Joseph.  The bloody rock was too far away from where he laid, and there was no evidence that he crawled.  I think we can all be in agreement that it is a miracle that he is still alive.”  The man crossed himself, raised his eyes, and kissed the crucifix he wore.

“Yes, small miracles indeed.”

One of the staff silently entered the kitchen.  Stopping at the table she said, “Sheriff Bridgier is here and wishes to speak to you.”

****

After hearing the lawman’s news, Father Anthony informed him the family was at the mission, and escorted him to the kitchen.

“I’m glad I stopped by here to leave word with Father Anthony about your missing boy, and the fact it’s been a while since your family returned to town.  I had hoped that he or his workers had news of you.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t send word that Joe was safe.”

“I’ll pass the word to the others who are out looking for him.”

“Sheriff, I’d rather you not,” Ben stated.

Curiously, the Sheriff waited for an explanation.

“Please have a seat, it’s quite the tale.”

Once they were settled, Ben proceeded, “You already know about Jean Millain and Joseph.”  Bridgier nodded.  “Until we know who kidnapped and assaulted my son, I’m willing to pay each man on the posse to continue the charade that my son is still missing, but they can’t know the truth.”

“Don’t see the harm, the men will appreciate being paid.”

“As for anyone who asks about me or my family, you can say that we’re camping out while looking for Joseph.”

“You really think Millain did this.”

“I’m not sure, but circumstantial evidence can’t be ignored.  If Millain were to find out Joe is alive, he might try again.”

“I guess, if’n he were my boy, I’d be thinking the same thing.”  Rubbing his chin, “All right.  I’ll keep groups going out daily until I hear otherwise.  I’ll also tell them two dollars a day for their efforts.”

“That’s the least I can offer to keep my son safe.”

*****

Morning came early.

“Benjamin, William Chastain has returned,” Father Anthony announced as the children entered the room bearing trays with breakfast for the Cartwrights.

“I’ll keep watch on Shortshanks.  You two go see what William has to say.”

*****

“Mr. Cartwright, Adam,” William greeted.  “Just thought I’d let you know Millain is still in town.  He’s hanging out at the saloon as well as the livery when the posse returns.”

“I don’t understand why he’s just hanging around,” groused Adam; flustered that his father was keeping him from going after the man they all knew had grievously injured Joe.

“We don’t know for sure that it was him.”  Ben softly glared at his oldest.

“Ah, come on Pa!”

“Adam!  All we have is circumstantial evidence. Until I hear it from Joe, the man is innocent until proven guilty.”

“And what if Joe dies?  Then what?!”  In anger, Adam punched the wall for lack of anything else to hit.  He immediately regretted his action.  “The blow to the back of his head was enough to kill him!”

“Pa?!  Come quick,” Hoss hollered from the hallway, standing outside of Joe’s room.

*****

“You’re lucky to be alive young man,” Ben stated an hour later, helping his youngest sit up by placing several pillows behind his back. From the bureau, he retrieved the tray with a bowl of broth.

Grimacing, he touched the sore spot on the back of his head.  Joe asked, “Where are we?”

“At a little mission outside of Grass Valley.”  Ben set the tray on Joe’s lap.  “Think you can feed yourself?”

“Yeah, this,” Joe raised his bandaged left wrist, “doesn’t hurt nearly as much as my head.”

Ben sat, pleased his son was willing to eat and appeared to be okay; but still he worried about complications from the severity of the blow that kept his son unconscious for the better of two days.  Adam had been right, the blow Joseph suffered very well could have ended his life.  The white bandage around his youngest son’s head proved the priest’s efficiency in doctoring, it remained pristine and clean.  The wounds to Joe’s wrists were angry and raw from his son’s attempts to free himself, but would heal in time.

Setting the empty bowl back to the tray, Joe slightly scrunched his face. “What are you doing here?”

“Where else am I supposed to be when one of my sons lies injured?”

“I don’t mean that.  You and Hoss were supposed to be back in Sacramento, the cattle contract.”

“Don’t worry about the contract, we were all but finished when we received word.”  Ben worried if he should say why he was there, but decided it might be the opening to ask his son what happened.  “Roy wired us about Millain’s escape.”

Bolting up straight.  “Pa, he’s the one.”  Joe’s vision swirled.  “Argh.”  Dropping the spoon, he grabbed for his head, falling back to the pillows.  Curling onto his side, Joe cried.

“Easy Joe, breathe deep, breathe slow.”  Ben shifted from the chair to sit on the edge of the bed, and rubbed circles across his son’s back; a motion that always had a calming effect.

With the pain barely diminished, Joe cringed, “Jean was here.  He forced me to go with him.  He struck me.”

“Don’t worry about him.  The law will take care of him…”

“But Pa…  He… ”

“Just sleep son.  You need to focus on getting well.”

Joe tried to speak through the pain, “Gotta watch…” Eyes slipping closed, his breath evened out.  Joe was asleep before he could complete his sentence.

“Chalk another one up for the Cartwright hard head,” jested Ben, relief washed over him as he brushed his son’s bangs from his face.

Adam entered the room to hear his father’s comment, “And he calls me a Yankee granite head.”

*****

“How much longer will you keep up the charade that your son is still missing?” Father Anthony inquired as he cleared away the dirty dishes from which they’d eaten their lunch.

“I think we need to do something as soon as possible,” Hoss quietly announced his presence upon re-entering the room bearing the tray with Joe’s partially eaten lunch.

“Joe can’t travel.”

“Pa, Jean’s still hanging around town,” Adam stated, having followed his brother into the kitchen.  “I think we need to take Joe’s body…”

“Your brother is still alive!” huffed Ben.

“I know he is, but we can make it appear that we found him.”  Turning to the cleric, “May we borrow your wagon and a horse?”

“Why of course.  But why?”

“I think we can make it believable enough to convince the man,” Adam looked directly at his father, indicating he knew it was Millain, “who did this that he succeeded in killing Joe.”

“But for what reason, Adam?” Father Anthony asked.

“Jean has to be hanging around for a reason.  Earlier, you told Hoss young Davey’s been keeping an eye on the area where Joe was found.  That stranger Davey told us about, I’m sure it was Millain.  At this point, Jean has to know that Joe didn’t die immediately.  He’s hanging around until he finds out one way or another.”

“Maybe the one who hurt your brother has left town?  No?”

“No, William said he’s still there.” Adam set his empty coffee cup to the table top.

“Pa, you said that Joe admitted Jean struck him.  By returning to town with his body, I think we’ll draw Jean out into the open, on our terms.”

“And make ‘em pay for what he done to Joe,” added Hoss.

“I’ll not have either of you go against the law.  If you find him, you will take him straight to the sheriff.”  Ben pointed from one son to the other.  “Neither of you will become a vigilante!”

Both nodded and accepted their father’s admonition.

Standing to the side of the hearth, William watched the proceedings, wondering how it might have been had his father retired from the sea long before he lost the use of his legs.  Would they too have founded their own cattle empire?  Would they have been as strong a family as the Cartwrights?

William chastised himself.  His family was strong, how else would they have thrived to see him shortly off to Annapolis.

*****

That evening, the Cartwrights prepared to return to Grass Valley with William Chastain pretending to be the deceased Joe Cartwright.

“So what happens after we get to town?” William inquired.

Adam was first to speak, “You’ll need to wrap yourself up in one of the blankets before we reach the edge of town.”

“After you are resurrected as William Chastain, you,” Ben poked him in the chest for emphasis, “will go home on the next stage to Sacramento.  You’ve had enough of an adventure.” Ben’s tone of voice sounded as if he were speaking to one of his own sons.

“But what if…”

“Cartwrights take care of our own,” Hoss announced, placing a hefty hand upon their friend’s shoulder and giving William the same look he would have given his little brother had he tried to voice the same objection.

“Once we have the Joe declared dead, we’ll transport his coffin home in order to bury him,” Adam added.  “So there’s really no reason for you not to return home.  Spend some time with your family before you depart for the Academy.”

Ben walked over to where Father Anthony stood the other side of the wagon.  “I really don’t like the idea of leaving Joe here, alone.”

“I can stay with him?” William hopefully suggested.

Ben shook his head.

“Your son will not be alone, though I understand you do not wish him to be here without family.  But if your plan is to work… with young Joseph dead, what reason would you have to stay in Grass Valley?  And you William, I’m sure Millain knows you’ve spent time with the Cartwrights, if he is keeping an eye on things.”

“Pa, we figure Millain’s only hangin’ around here until he knows Joe’s dead.  With Joe dead, we don’t have a reason to say here, and neither will Millain.

Walking over and placing a hand on his father’s shoulder, Adam added, “Pa, it’s best for Little Joe.  Get Millain as far away from him as possible.”

Ben looked between his two oldest sons.

“Pa, if we’re to pull this off and capture Millain, we have to make sure Joe is safe.  And that means leaving him here.  Father Anthony can send word to us once Joe is well enough to travel.”

*****

The citizen of Grass Valley watched the wagon and three riders proceed to the undertakers.  After tying their horses to the hitching rail, the men solemnly walked to the back of the wagon and gently carried the blanket draped body inside; closely followed by the clergyman.

Sheriff Bridgier watch the procession as he made his way along the boardwalk.  He’d actually thought the boy would make it; at least based on what Ben Cartwright had told him when he stopped by the mission.  Holding open the door, Bridgier removed his hat as the family passed through and went straight to the room Johann Greggson directed them to enter.

“I’m sorry Mr. Cartwright.  He sure was a spitfire,” Bridgier stated as Adam and Hoss laid the body on one of the tables in the room.

Bridgier jumped when the form under the blanket began moving.

“It’s okay,” Ben announced.  “Joe’s safe at the mission.”

“But why the charade?”

“To draw Millain out, on our terms.”  Adam said as he helped William hop down from the table.

“What about Mr. Greggson?  Can he be trusted?”

The sheriff explained the situation to the undertaker.

“As long as I’m paid for services rendered, if anyone asks, I’ll tell them the family is taking the body of Joseph Cartwright home for burial.”

“Thank you,” Ben offered.

*****

The sun had long set before Ben allowed William to leave via the back door.  He’d hoped with their performance that Millain would not be watching them as closely, giving William the opportunity to leave unobserved.

“You’ll head straight to the hotel, and tomorrow you’ll get on the stage to go home.”

“I can’t see paying to ride the stage when I have my own horse.”

Adam and Hoss looked to each other, attempting to contain their mirth at how much William sounded like Little Joe.

“Very well.  First thing tomorrow morning, we’ll provision you for your ride home.”

“Mr. Cartwright, please.  Let me stay, I can help,” begged William.

“No.”

“He seems almost as eager as Joe when it comes to ropin’ someone into one of his hair-brained schemes,” grinned Hoss.

“Know what you mean, the only thing William is missing is Joe’s puppy-dog eyes.”

The brothers continued to enjoy the levity.

“William, I’ll not have your parents worry any longer about you.  As a father, I know what they’re experiencing.  If this were only a matter of negotiating a contract, I’m sure the boys would welcome your presence.  I won’t allow you to put yourself in any further danger for the sake of my family.”

Knowing he’d met an unmovable force, “Yes sir.”

*****

Three days had lapsed since the funeral of Joe Cartwright; buried next to his mother on the Ponderosa.  Words of warning against visiting the Ponderosa floated through Virginia City; the aggrieved father had taken the death of his youngest son hard and had turned bitter towards anyone trying to offer words of condolence.

“Best get on back to town Roy.  Pa ain’t up ta seein’ no one,” Hoss offered before escorting the lawman and long-time family friend out the door.

“Now listen here Hoss Cartwright.  I’m the law…  If you’re after Millain…”

Forcing the man to his horse, “Millain ain’t your concern if he’s on the Ponderosa.  He’s done harmed one Cartwright, we ain’t givin’ him no chance to harm no one else.

“Joe was like my own son…  You can’t take the law into your own hands.”

“We ain’t takin’ the law into our hands.”

Mounted, “If you ain’t as stubborn as Little…”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.  Now git out a here Roy, afore Pa finds ya.”

“Hoss, I’m really sorry about Joe.”

“Bye Roy.”

After waiting to make sure the lawman had left, Hoss scampered to the barn where an already saddled Chubbs waited.

Racing from the yard, Hoss bemoaned, “Dad-blame-it.  Please God, just let Adam be by hisself.”

*****

“Surprised you’re out here alone, Cartwright.”  Adam bolted around at the sound of the nearby voice, yet not surprised to see Jean Millain walking across the clearing, a rifle pointed right at him.

“Millain.”

Using the stock of the rifle, Millain struck Adam, catching him off guard.  The force of the blow sent him headfirst into a boulder where he slumped to the ground.  Spitting out the blood pooling in his mouth, Adam struggled to see his attacker.  His vision swiftly changed between blurred and clear, only to blur again.  Stalling to gain his bearings, he looked to where he knew Sport should be tied.  Next, he hoped he was looking in the direction of where he’d set his rifle just before freeing a calf from the brambles.  Gaining his feet and fighting against the dizziness, “You so sure I’m alone?”

“Saw that ox of a brother of yours greeting the sheriff this morning.  And your old man’s been going to his little boy’s grave each day.  Yeah, you’re alone.”  Jean walked around the camp and watched his prey intently as Adam tried to follow his movement.  Returning to his horse he returned his rifle to the scabbard on his saddle before pulling a revolver from his saddle bag.  “Recognize this?”

“Should I?” Adam stood taller and affected a devil-may-care stance.

“You bluff well.  And yes, you should recognize your baby brother’s revolver.  Such a pristine pearl handled revolver, kid probably never fired it on another human being.  It will be so sweet to pull the trigger and have your brother’s weapon kill you.  How does it feel to know that you’ll shortly be joining him?”  With the thrill of the chase nearing its end, Jean’s accent dripped heavy in his voice.

“Why?  You killed Julia… and Joe.  Why did you follow us back to the Ponderosa?”

Tisking, “Ever since I saw you haul Joseph back home, I wondered what it would have been like had it been you who Julia fell in love with.  What a match we would have made, dueling over the love of a woman.  It should have been you, not that wet-nosed little boy.

“Puissent-ils être ensemble dans leur repos éternel.”
(May they be together in their eternal rest.)

“Mon frère ne peut pas avoir atteint sa majorité, mais il a été plus d’un homme que vous.
(My brother may have not have reached his majority, but he was more of a man than you.)

“Vous ne savez pas de qui vous parlez.  Il était, mais un enfant.”
(You know not of which you speak.  He was but a child.)

“Je sais que mon frère.  Il était un garçon, un garçon qui vous ne pourriez pas garder Julia de tomber en amour avec.”
(I know my brother.  He was a boy, a boy who you could not keep Julia from falling in love with.)

“It no longer matters.”  Jean raised Joe’s revolver and pointed it towards Adam.  “They’re both dead, just like you will be.”

“Why?”

“You got lucky on the posse.  No one has ever bested Jean Millain.”

The click of a hammer alerted both that they were not alone.  “Think again, Jean.”  An involuntary shiver coursed through Jean’s body.  The cold steel barrel nudged into his ear mirrored the coldness of the voice that spoke, a voice he recognized.

“There’s always someone better.  Hand me my gun.  Easy.”

A visually impaired Adam called out, “Joe?”

“My gun.  Or would you rather I pull the trigger?  Save New Orleans the expense of a trial and a firing squad.”  Holding his own gun once more, Joe stepped around to the front of Millan, taking a moment to tuck his replacement gun into his belt.

Collapsing in relief that he was no longer alone, Adam breathed out, “Joe?  Is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me.  Hey brother, you up to holding a gun on him?”

“I can’t see clearly, and he knows it.”  Guiltily Adam added, “I didn’t know he was holding your revolver.”

‘Damn,’ Joe hissed, worrying how he’d keep a weapon pointed at the man and still be able to restrain him.  ‘May God forgive me,’ Joe whispered; he readied to knock the man unconscious.

A rage-filled growl was the only warning of a force plowing into Jean, knocking him into Joe.  A weapon discharged.

“JOE?!” Adam called out.  “What’s going on?”

Gaining his feet, Hoss drew his own weapon, keeping it pointed on the tangle of bodies. Walking to where Adam was struggling to stand, he took a moment to look at his brother.

“Joe?” Adam pleaded.

Hoss noticed the glassiness in Adam’s eyes, acknowledging his brother probably had a serious concussion.  “You’re safe Adam, it’s me, Hoss.  Millain and his buddy are down.”

“Joe’s here.  Where’s Joe?”

“Joe…  I ain’t… ”  Hoss holstered his weapon and ran to where the two bodies lay.

Lifting the larger man and tossing him aside like a rag doll, tears welled in the big man’s eyes at the red stain across his brother’s shirt.  Sinking to his knees, Hoss cradled his little brother in his arms.

“Awww Joe.  I didn’t know it was you.”  Looking up at a hand on his shoulder, he watched Adam fumble to kneel.  “I didn’t know it was Joe.  He’s all grumbly lookin’ and he ain’t wearing his own clothes.  Adam, I didn’t know.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“What happened?” Hoss inquired as Adam placed his fingers on the pulse point, and exhaled in relief.

Adam told Hoss of his vision impairment.  “My Yankee granite head lost the battle with that boulder, courtesy of Millain.”

“And you tell me to keep my elbows in,” whispered Joe.

“Joe?  Joe?!  You’re alive!”  Hoss squeezed his brother tight.  “Dad gum your ornery hide.  How come yer a playin’ possum?”

Raising a hand to the back of his head, Joe replied, “I wasn’t playing possum.  Ow… that smarts.”  Pulling his hand away he saw red on the tip of his fingers.  “Not again.”

“You sure took your sweet time getting here!” Adam indignantly accused his middle brother.

“Roy came to the house.”

“Yeah, Millain told me he stopped by.”

Hoss’ voice angered, “And when I got here, I saw this here varmint with Millain.  What do you think yer a doin’ here?  Yer supposed to be back at the mission waitin’ for us to come git ya.”

“I ain’t no varmint.”

“No?!”  Hoss pushed Joe away.  “Then what are you?”

Sheepishly he answered, “I think I’m gonna be Doc’s patient.”

“Fine kettle of fish we are.  How’m I gonna get you two home?”

Rising shakily to his feet, Joe walked towards the brambles and boulders to where Millain’s horse waited.

“Whatcha doin’?”

“Getting some rope to tie Millain’s body across his horse.  The man who couldn’t be bested is going to be hauled into Virginia City face down over his saddle.”

“You ain’t got no business doin’ no such thing.  Why you cain’t even walk straight.  How’d you get here anyhow?”

“That would be my fault.”  William answered, slowly walking into the clearing.

“You best sit down before ya fall down.  Yer lookin’ mighty green around the gills.”  Hoss offered a supporting hand to the young man.

“I’ve never seen a man shot before, least not that close.”  William collapse to the ground.

“Put your head between your knees and breathe deep,” offered Hoss.

“Hoss, you’d better hide what rope we don’t use on Millain,” teased Adam.

“How come?” Hoss looked sideways to his older brother, holding out a hand to help him up.

“I think Pa’s gonna be fit to be tied.  He might just hogtie our little brother to his bed, and he may wrap the other one up and ship him back home.”

“Hey, Father Anthony gave me his blessings,” Joe proclaimed.

“That’s not exactly true,” William offered, sitting as Hoss had suggested.  “He said when you were well enough to go home, he’d give you his blessings.”

“You were supposed to be on your way home.  And you were supposed to stay at the mission until we came for you,” argued Adam.

Gathering the reins to Millain’s horse, Joe led the animal to where Millain lie.  “Other than this newest goose egg, compliments of big brother here… I’m fine.”

Ruefully shaking his head, Hoss spoke, “If we’re gonna take Millain’s body to town, Doc Martin’s gonna check you both over before we head home to Pa.”

“Hey, where’s Pa anyway?” Joe inquired.

“Right behind you, son.  Sorry I’m late.  Millain followed me out to the promontory and tied me up.”  Looking from one son to the next, he added, “And Hoss is right.  Paul will thoroughly check both of you over before we head home.”

Adam and Joe knew they had no choice now that their father was present.

“As for you, William Chastain.  Just what in the Sam Hill are you doing here?”

Still looking just as green, “Making sure Joe got home safely.  After you left, I…”

“Disobeyed my orders.”

“Yes sir,” he answered sheepishly.

“Well, let’s get everyone to town,” Ben admonished.

“I can’t wait to finally bathe and shave,” Joe added.

“Yeah, shave that peach fuzz off your face,” teased Hoss.  “What’d you do anyhow?  How’d yah get yer fuzz so dark?”

“One of the kids at the mission suggested the soot from one of the kettles.”

“Well, I’m sure Doc Martin or Hop Sing will have a salve of some kind to sooth the rash on your baby smooth cheeks.”  Adam patted Joe’s face as he walked by.

“Rash?” Joe began scratching.

Epilogue:

“Is that a letter from Captain Chastain?” Adam watched his father’s changing expressions as he read.

“Yes, he wrote to tell us that William did make it home, with only two days to spare before departing for Annapolis.”

“That all?” Hoss asked.

“No, he also wrote that, had William been any younger, he would have had a very long and necessary discussion, if they’d had a barn to do it in.”  Ben laughed.

Seeing Joe slump down further onto the settee, “Say, little brother.  Since you and older brother are all healed up, are you goin’ to the dance this Saturday?”

“I think Roy might even be missing us by now,” Adam offered.  “He’s probably forgotten all about Millain.”

“Na.  Not this time.” Joe reached up to touch the bald patch on his scalp where Paul Martin had removed the five stitches earlier in the day.

“Sampson losing his touch with women?” Hoss teased, reaching for Joe’s head.

Avoiding the gesture, “Something like that.”

His family watched him rise from the settee and walk outside.

“Guess I shouldn’t a teased him about his hair.”  After the door closed, a pained expression crossed Hoss’ face.  “You don’t think he thought I was teasin’ him about him losin’ Miss Julia.”

“Hoss, Joe knows you’re not that cruel.”  Adam offered.  “Besides, I don’t think you’re the reason why he’s upset.”

“Adam, you read the story deQuille wrote.” Ben looked to his eldest.  Not expecting an answer, he followed the child of his heart outside.

Adam nodded.  “Makes him out to be a bigger than life character.”

“Who, Joe?” Hoss asked.

“No, Millain.  Read for yourself.”  Adam tossed the paper over.

*****

“Joe?” Ben called into the darkened barn.

“Up here.”

Carefully climbing the ladder to the hay loft Ben asked, “You don’t mind if I join you, do you?”

“Right now, no.”

The answer surprised him, “Care to talk?”  He sat down next to his son, leaning back against the stack of hay.

“No much to talk about.  Things are pretty much back to normal,” Joe stated.

“Honestly?”

Joe shook his head.

“Pa, how did you get over losing three wives?”

“I never did son.  I mourn their loss every day, yet I thank God for bringing each one of them into my life.  And more than that, I’m thankful for you and your brothers.”

“I’m sorry for all the grief I caused you.”

“That doesn’t lessen the pain, does it?”

“No sir.”  Looking past the edge of the loft, “Since we have a barn… are you out here to give me a necessary talk?”

“No, I think you’re beyond the age where it would be effective.”  Ben took his time before continuing, “Son, I know you loved Julia.  But all I could see was an older woman stealing away my baby…”

“I’m not…”

Patting Joe on the knee, “No, you’re not a baby.  It’s been a long time since you were.  But Virginia City is still raw and untamed.  I guess I thought this was another way for someone to get their hands on the Ponderosa, a way to weaken our family.  Like Alpheus Troy and Lotta Crabtree.”

“It wasn’t anything like that.”

“I know that, now.  I’m sorry I couldn’t see it before.”

“I would have married her.”

“Joe,” Ben sat forward on the hay bale, elbows on knees, looking directly at his interlaced fingers.  “This is difficult for me to say.”

Joe looked to his father.

“I wish I had tried to get to know her better, and then maybe, just maybe I could understand why.  Why you were drawn to her.  Why you wanted to marry her.  I know you felt you could give her the chance to hold her head proudly and rise above those who spurned her.  What I don’t really understand is why….”

“How she could fall in love with me?”

“I don’t know that she really loved you as a wife should love her husband.”  Ben struggled with his words, he didn’t want to alienate his son, yet he wanted so desperately to convey the love he held for the man his boy was becoming.  “Joe, before she died, she told me she was going to send you home to your family.”

“That night, when I went to her room…  she tried to make light of what we had.”

Ben waited.

“I knew she was hurting and trying to hide it from me.”  Tears pooled in Joe’s eyes.  “If I didn’t know her better, I would have thought it was all just a game.”

“Son, I think she loved the fact that you could love her.  I think, in a way, you made her feel safe, safer than she had in a long time.  Your innocence and trusting ways; yet standing up for the underdog.  In your eyes, everyone gets an equal chance at the brass ring; but real life isn’t always that way.  In the end, she didn’t want you to waste your life grieving for her.  She wanted you to find someone who you could truly love and be loved in return.”

“I miss her.”  Tears from his eyes slipped down his face.

Ben sat back, wrapping an arm around his son’s shoulders.

“And you will, but each day will get a little better.”

Understanding his son’s grief, he waited as Joe settled into his shoulder and hummed the refrain from Aura Lea.

 

~The End

 

NOTES:

2015 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament cards:  rope, newspaper, explosion, dance, mission

Translations provided by Google Translate.  My apologies for any errors.

~~~~~

Episodes Referenced:  A Rose for Lotta:  Directed by Edward Ludwig, Written by David Dortort

The Julia Bulette Story:  Directed by Christian Nyby, Written by Al C. Ward

 

~~~~~

Most know the melody from Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender; originally it was the melody for the Civil War ballad, Aura Lea.

When the blackbird in the Spring,
On the willow tree,
Sat and rocked, I heard him sing,
Singing Aura Lea.

 

Chorus:

Aura Lea, Aura Lea,
Maid with golden hair;
Sunshine came along with thee,
And swallows in the air.

 

In thy blush the rose was born,
Music, when you spake,
Through thine azure eye the morn,
Sparkling seemed to break.

Aura Lea, Aura Lea,
Birds of crimson wing,
Never song have sung to me,
As in that sweet spring.

(Chorus)

Aura Lea! the bird may flee,
The willow’s golden hair
Swing through winter fitfully,
On the stormy air.

Yet if thy blue eyes I see,
Gloom will soon depart;
For to me, sweet Aura Lea
Is sunshine through the heart.

(Chorus)

When the mistletoe was green,
Midst the winter’s snows,
Sunshine in thy face was seen,
Kissing lips of rose.

Aura Lea, Aura Lea,
Take my golden ring;
Love and light return with thee,
And swallows with the spring.

(Chorus)

 

Return to Author’s Bonanza Stories Page

Return to WWB Bonanza Library

 

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