Home and Heart (Emmie)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,600


 

Little Joe Cartwright reined his horse up to the front of the start line. He always felt a little rush of excitement run through him in these few minutes before the race began. He hadn’t been able to get into town in a few weeks and had missed the chance to race his horse Cochise against some of the other young bucks in town. A race, he might add, that he usually won. His horse Cochise was one of the fastest in the territory and was mighty hard for any of the others to beat, he thought with a tinge of pride. Eyeing his competitors down the line he noticed a new horse and rider, a pair he hadn’t ever seen before.

“Do you think you’re gonna win again, Joe?” the question came from Billy Henderson, on a sorrel to his right.

“Well, Cochise and me, we’re feeling pretty good today,” Joe hinted smugly, patting his horse on the neck.

“But we got a new rider, down yonder,” Billy indicated with his head the new horse and rider Joe had noticed earlier.

Eyeing the pair again, Joe boasted, “That scrawny pair? I don’t think we’ll have any trouble beating those two.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Joe. That little black mustang might be faster than it looks,” Billy countered.

“Are you kidding? He’s no match for Cochise, I can guarantee you that.”

“Hmm. Maybe you’d like to make a little wager on that, Joe? Just for fun, I mean,” Billy asked slyly. “Ten dollars, maybe?”

“You’re on Billy,” Joe accepted. “Although why you’d want to go giving away your money is beyond me.”

“On your marks,” Charlie Rycker called out to the riders, halting further discussion as the riders tooks their places, tension tight in the bodies of both horses and riders. “Get set…..GO!” the blast of a gunshot split the air. Flying down the course full out, Joe was exhilarated. Nothing like riding like the wind to make you feel alive, he thought. Even better if you were riding like the wind and leaving your competitors in the dust. Coming up to the turnaround, he spotted a flash of black out of the corner of his eye. Not believing that anyone could be that close to him, he stole a glance backwards. It was that black mustang, its rider crouched low in the saddle, his head buried along the side of his horse’s neck. Well, if he thought he was going to beat him, he had another thought coming, Joe decided, urging Cochise even faster as they came out of the turn.

The black mustang almost full beside him now, Joe felt his adrenalin rise. It was just the two of them now, the rest of the riders far back. The finish line within view the black mustang suddenly forged ahead, a spurt of energy meant to declare that he’d been holding back all along. Crossing the finish line he was a full two lengths ahead of Joe and his horse, the cheers of the spectators greeting them.

Pulling up at just past the finish, Joe stared with consternation at the black mustang and his rider up ahead who were now accepting congratulations from some of the others on the ground. Billy Henderson pulling up beside him, Joe reluctantly reached inside his jacket pocket for his wallet.

“Well, I didn’t think it was possible,” he confessed, handing Billy ten dollars, a note of disbelief in his voice “that I’d get beat by that young fella on the black mustang.”

“Why don’t you know, Joe?” Billy snickered, accepting the money. “You ain’t been beat by a feller on a mustang. You been beat by a GIRL on a mustang.”

*****

Jenny Talbot dismounted from her horse Lightening at the end of the race, a pleased smile on her face that they’d won. Not that they’d lost a race since their arrival in town three weeks ago but this time the race had been tighter than usual, what with that new rider and his pinto.

Yes sir, she was especially pleased to have beaten that new rider after what she’d overheard him saying about them. Scrawny indeed. Patting Lightening’s neck she thought, we might be scrawny but at least we’re faster than they are.

Pulling off her hat, Jenny shook her blond hair loose. Slapping her hat against her legs, she shook off the dust clinging to her pant legs. Never having worn many dresses in her life, there never seeming to be enough money to buy them and pants suiting her just as well anyway, it wasn’t so surprising that she was often taken for a boy. Well, that is, from a distance anyway. No one looking Jenny Talbot in the face would ever mistake her for a boy. Not with her fine features, smooth creamy skin and soft eyes. No, she was just too beautiful for that. But from a distance the baggy clothes hid all female identifiers from view on her thin small frame.

Turning, Jenny led her horse back to where the young man stood next to his painted pony. Stopping a few feet from him, she looked him up and down and then cast her eye up and down his horse, finally meeting his eyes to console, “You didn’t do too badly,” and pausing a bit for effect, she added, “….for a scrawny pair.”

Openmouthed, Little Joe Cartwright stared after her as she led her horse past him.

*****

Preparing to ride into town a week later, Joe paused to speak to his brothers a moment, his horse by his side. Observing his brother’s wives from a distance as the two women stood talking together next to his brother’s horses, Little Joe couldn’t help teasing, “You know, you two should really have used a little more imagination when you picked your wives.”

“Huh?” Hoss asked, as he and Adam eyed each other, wondering just what Little Joe was up to.

“Your wives,” Joe repeated, as if he were speaking to two slow-wits, gesturing with his head to the two women over by his brother’s horses. Looking over at where he gestured, Adam and Hoss turned back to look at each other wonderingly before turning to Joe, a wary question in their eyes.

“Look at them,” Joe clarified, shaking his head at his brother’s lack of insight. “They both look like your horses.” In a way he was right. As Katherine stood next to Beauty, you could see just how closely her hair matched the colour of Adam’s horse and the same could be said of dark-haired Annie next to Chubb. “Yup, you’d think you could have at least used a little more imagination,” Joe sighed, mock exasperation in his voice.

Not allowing Joe the last word on this one, Adam came over to pat the side of Cochise’s neck. “Well I guess it must be a Cartwright failing, Joe,” he said. Deliberately eyeing the horse’s mottled coat Adam then proclaimed ardently, “And I just can’t wait to see your future bride!” As he then walked casually off, Hoss threw back his head and yowled in laughter at Joe’s stricken look, having once again been bested by his big brother.

*****

As Joe road his horse into town that afternoon, he suddenly had the idea that maybe, just maybe he should have Pete McDougall over at the livery have a look at Cochise’s shoe. Maybe, just maybe, the horse was limping ever so slightly and it just didn’t pay to take any chances. Or, at least that was the story Joe cooked up in his mind as his excuse to head over to the stables.

Pulling up out front and no one answering his call, he peered around curiously. He’d heard that Jenny Talbot’s father was working at the stables now. He’d also heard that it wasn’t uncommon to see Jenny herself lending a hand. His curiousity about the strange girl was getting the better of him, ever since she’d beaten him at the race and dared to say what she had to his face. Little Joe Cartwright certainly wasn’t used to that kind of treatment from a girl, any girl. Why, he was known around town as one of the most eligible bachelors and had had more than one girl falling over him in his time.

Peering into the stables and seeing only signs of equine life, he went outside again and headed around to the back. Coming around the corner he was startled to see a pair of legs dangling out from one of the back windows, their owner apparently stuck midway through a partially closed window. Not sure if any assistance was needed or wanted, Joe moved closer.

“Damn, damn, damn,” the hapless victim was cursing quietly. Deciding that some assistance was in fact needed, Joe grabbed the flailing boots and pulled.

A startled “Whaaa…??” was emitted just before Jenny Talbot popped out of the window opening, her feet hitting the ground as she flew backwards, both her and Joe sprawling to the ground.

“Jenny Talbot,” Joe began, surprise in his voice, “what on earth were you doing in that window?”

Not in any mood to explain herself to anyone, least of all Joe Cartwright, Jenny glared at him angrily. “Why don’t you mind you own business, Joe Cartwright!” she spat at him.

“Look, I was just trying to help,” Joe defended. “Just where did you think you were going to go being stuck like that?”

“If you wanted to help, you could’ve just opened the window a little more!” she shot back, Little Joe having to begrudgingly concede her logic, as she rose to her feet and brushed herself off.

Noticing her appearance for the first time, Joe asked, “Hey, how come you’re all wet?”

Ignoring his question, Jenny was now back at the window, trying to raise it higher, the stubborn panel not budging with her attempts.

“So what happened, Jenny?” Joe persisted.

Why, oh why, didn’t he just go away and leave her alone, Jenny thought. If she didn’t have enough trouble without adding embarrassment to the equation. Thinking that if she appeased his curiousity, he’d leave her alone, she confessed, “I fell in the creek.”

His laughter ringing out behind her, Jenny wheeled around and commanded angrily, “SSHHHHH!! Will you keep quiet!” Her Pa would hear this for sure, she worried.

“Okay, okay,” Joe agreed, adopting her hushed tones, “but why are we whispering?”

“So’s my Pa won’t find me,” Jenny answered, waving down at her soaking clothes. “He…he has a bit of a temper.”

Chuckling at her predicament, Little Joe took delight in telling her, “But Jenny, your Pa’s not around.”

“Huh?” she questioned.

“I’ve just been out to the front and there’s no one there so you’re safe….for the moment,” he teased.

“Ughhh,” Jenny groaned, throwing up her hands as she headed off around the building, Little Joe’s laughter ringing in her ears.

You know, while she’d been stuck in the window, her body soaking wet, she hadn’t thought it could get any worse. But she was wrong.

Having Little Joe Cartwright there to witness it had been much, much worse.

*****

Coming down the stairs of the Ponderosa ranch house, Annie Cartwright smiled at the sight that greeted her eyes. She was minding her niece today for her sister-in-law and she had left the child for a moment in the care of her husband…her husband, who was now down on all fours, all six feet three of him, a giggling eighteen-month-old Beth Cartwright clinging to his back.

“Go, horsey!” Beth squealed in delight.

“Weeee,” Hoss brayed, as he moved, careful not to dislodge the child. “Weeee!”

Moving towards them until she stood directly in front of him, Hoss only just then spotted her arrival, or at least the arrival of her legs. Looking up at her, Hoss smiled a little sheepishly at her serious questioning look, her arms crossed in front. “Just giving Beth a little ride, Annie,” he confessed as the child continued to squeal delightedly. “Go, horsey!” Beth commanded.

“So I see,” Annie observed, hiding her smile. “Well, don’t let me stop you.” Uncrossing her arms, she turned away, her smile returning as she headed off towards the kitchen, thinking, and not for the first time, what a good father Hoss would make.

*****

Pulling up Lightening to a stop near the tree Jenny peered around her wondering what direction to take. Seems like the road was either north or east of here, she wasn’t quite sure. If only she could get a good look ahead she’d know for sure. Suddenly with an idea, she dismounted her horse and tied him to a low-hanging tree branch. Grasping a branch she pulled herself up into the tree and began to climb.

Riding across the ridge a little while later, Little Joe Cartwright noticed a horse off in the distance. This wasn’t a wild horse, he could tell, for although it was riderless, he could clearly see a saddle on its back. Moving closer, he recognized Jenny Talbot’s mustang tied to a tree. Looking around him, Joe felt an uneasiness steal over him. Her horse was here but where was Jenny? Had something happened to her? Pulling Cochise up next to Lightening, he got off his horse and surveyed the landscape.

From her perch up in the tree above, Jenny looked down on Joe with consternation. She’d seen him ride up and now felt a certain embarrassment about her predicament.

“JENNY,” Joe called. Getting no answer, he called again, “JENNY.”

Damn. Where was that girl? Joe thought.

Damn. Why didn’t he just go away? Jenny thought.

“JENNY,” Joe called once more. Worried now that she might be in some sort of trouble, he was about to mount his horse in search of help when he heard a voice.

“I’m here, Joe,” Jenny called down to him, more than a hint of sheepishness in her voice.

“What….?” Joe squeaked, twirling around trying to locate the voice.

“Up here…in the tree,” Jenny clarified.

Finally locating the disembodied voice, Joe stared up at the girl perched high in the tree above him, his hands propped on his hips. “Jenny Talbot, what in the world are you doing up in that tree?” he questioned, his worry now replaced by astonishment.

“Oh, just taking a look around,” she replied nonchalantly, as if this was an everyday occurrence.

“Just taking a looking around!” Joe squeaked. If this wasn’t the most peculiar girl he’d ever encountered.

“Yeah, just came up to get my bearings, you know, to see where the road was from here,” Jenny explained.

“And can you?” Joe asked.

“Can I what?”

“You know….see the road from there?” Joe asked, a little curious himself.

“No, you can’t,” Jenny admitted, feeling all the worse now. She’d kept climbing higher and higher in hopes of spotting the road and now she was too afraid to climb any higher. Trouble was, she was also too afraid to climb back down.

“Well, don’t you think you’d better climb down now?” Joe said.

“Oh, not just yet,” Jenny replied, deceptively casual. “I think I’ll just look around a little more. Don’t let me keep you,” she added, hoping he would leave.

“Well, I’m not leaving till you get out of that tree,” Joe stated.

“Joe Cartwright, don’t you go telling me what to do! I’ll get out of this tree when I’m good and ready,” Jenny replied, not letting a little fear get in the way of her anger.

“Fine, stay up there all day for all I care,” Joe grumbled, reaching for his horse and swinging into the saddle.

Realizing that he was leaving and suddenly finding that possibility more distressing than she had his arrival, Jenny called out, “Joe…Joe…,”

“Yes, Jenny?” he asked, pleased that his ruse of leaving had worked.

“Are you heading into town, Joe?” she asked, adopting a casual air.

“Am I heading into…?” Joe repeated with astonishment, not believing her question. Really the girl was quite daft. Since when did she care where he was headed.

“It’s just…it’s just, if you’re heading into town could you ask Pete McDougall to come by…here, I mean…could you ask Pete McDougall to come by here? I…I’ve got something to ask him,” she added lamely.

No doubt about it now, thought Joe. The girl was positively looney. “You want me to go into town and ask Pete McDougall to ride out here so’s you can ask him something?” he reiterated her instructions.

“Yeah, would you mind?”

“Jenny Talbot, if that ain’t about the craziest thing I ever heard. Now you come on down from there and I mean it this time!” Joe demanded.

“No, Joe,” Annie said, trying to stifle her fear.

Dismounting his horse and moving close to the tree trunk, Joe threatened, “Well, maybe I’ll just shake you out of this tree!” Grabbing a branch he pretended to do just that, the sturdy branch hardly moving.

“Joe, don’t! Don’t, Joe!” Jenny cried, clutching the tree, her fear rising even though his threat was empty.

“Jenny, what’s wrong?” Joe asked, hearing the fear in her voice for the first time.

“I can’t get down, Joe,” Jenny confessed pathetically, her fear all too apparent, all attempts at concealment now abandonned. “I’m stuck.”

Hissing through his teeth at the fine pickle they were now both in, Joe made a sudden decision, the fear he’d heard in her voice bothering him more that he wanted to admit. “It’s okay, Jenny. Don’t worry. I’ll get you down.” Grabbing onto the low branch, he hoisted himself into the tree and ignoring his own fear of heights, he inched his way upwards. Coming within a few feet of her, he coaxed, “It’s okay, Jenny. Come on, you can do it. Just slide a little closer towards me.”

“Joe?” Jenny called out uncertainly as she edged towards him from her place on the tree limb.

“That’s it, Jenny. Come on. You can do it,” he encouraged, reaching his hand out to her.

Nudging closer, she took his offered hand. Joe was mometarily startled by the contact, his mind irrationally noting that this was the first time he had ever touched her, well other than that day he’d tugged on her boots at the window. Feeling the tremors in her hand, he wasn’t surprised to feel them in her body when she moved even closer and they descended down the tree. Jumping from the last branch to the ground, Joe reached his arms up to Jenny to help her down. Safely on the ground, Jenny threw her arms around his neck in relief as Joe stiffened in surprise.

“Thank you, Joe,” Jenny said, and then as if suddenly remembering that they weren’t friends, were even more like enemies, she pulled away from him, her tone brusque. “If you go telling anyone about this, Joe Cartwright, I’ll…I’ll…,” she stammered, not being able to think up a suitable deterrent. “I don’t know what I’ll do but you won’t like it!” she ended. Grabbing her horse’s bridle she swiftly mounted and began to ride quickly away, guessing the right direction.

Taking a minute to regain his senses after the surprise of her hug, Joe swung up onto Cochise’s back and urging him into a run, he followed her back to town, one thought running through his mind.

For a skinny little thing she sure gave good hugs.

*****

“Well, you could probably make the trip in three weeks, Hoss,” Ben was saying as the four of them sat at the dinner table.

“No, seems like it’d be more like four weeks, Pa,” Hoss corrected.

Catching only the last part of their words, Annie looked up from her plate, not having heard the earlier part of the conservation, being lost in her own thoughts. “What trip? What trip, Hoss?” she asked, turning to look at him.

“Now, Annie, it’s not for a long while yet. Don’t need to worry jist yet,” he teased, not meaning for her to find out about the cattle drive this soon, just in case she was worried about him being away so long. “It’s not for several months yet. Not till August.”

“August?” Annie questioned. “You’ll be away four weeks in August?”

“Well, now, Annie, Pa thinks it’ll only take three weeks. Ain’t that right, Pa?” Hoss asked, sensing Annie’s sudden uneasiness. He wasn’t looking forward to being away from her for that long himself but, dangit, he had to do his share of the work. Turning to his brother he added, “Joe, you made the trip two years ago. How long do you reckon it took?”

As the men continued to deliberate the exact length of the trip, Annie stared down at her plate, her mind taking in this unexpected implication.

Moving into the great room after supper, the conversation was subdued as Hoss and Ben played a quiet game of checkers before the fire, as Annie pondered her dilemma. Really, it shouldn’t matter if Hoss was here in August. She’d be fine. It’s not like she was alone anymore. She had family now and Katherine was nearby to help. Her self-talk not producing the desired result, Annie got up from her chair, announcing she was going to get some water from the kitchen.

Following her into the kitchen a few minutes later to get his own glass, Little Joe froze at the sight before him. Annie was leaning against the wall, her back to him, quietly crying. Not used to female tears and not quite knowing what to do, he headed back into the great room to stand before Hoss, his voice a little hesitant. “Hey, Hoss…,” he began.

“Just a minute, Joe,” Hoss answered, preoccupied with his checker move. “There Pa! Crown me!” he said, excited at his move.

“Hey, Hoss….” Joe began again.

“What is it, Joe?” Hoss asked, he attention still on the game.

“Did you know Annie is crying?” Joe informed him, waving his hand in the direction of the kitchen.

“WHAT?” Hoss looked up. Seeing that his brother was serious, Hoss bounded out of his chair to head towards the kitchen. Stopping in the door frame and seeing for himself that what Joe had said was true, he called out, “Annie?” surprise and puzzlement in his voice.

Straightening up at his voice, Annie quickly moved to the handpump and began to work the handle, her back to him. “I’ll be in in a minute, Hoss,” she said, hiding her tears from him.

Moving towards her, he put his hands on her shoulder to turn her towards him. Seeing her tears and reading her eyes, he asked in a concerned voice, “Annie…Annie, what are you crying for?”

“Oh, I’m alright, Hoss,” Annie reassured him. “I’m just going to miss you, that’s all,” she said, referring to his trip. “Really, I’m fine,” she said, drying her eyes on her sleeve.

Hoss’s mouth tightened at her words, a sudden decision made. Pulling her from the room behind him, he headed back to the great room.

“Pa,” Hoss began, stopping before his father. “I can’t make that drive. You’ll have to git someone else.”

“Hoss, really….,” Annie protested.

“No, I mean it Pa, I can’t go,” Hoss repeated.

“Why, Hoss, of course you don’t have to go,” Ben reassured him. “If you remember, I never asked you to go, you volunteered.”

“I know Pa,” Hoss replied. “But that was before…before…,” before he knew how much it would upset Annie, Hoss thought. Turning to Annie, Hoss asked, “Are you okay now, Annie?”

Nodding up to him, Annie flung her arms around him. Embarrassed by the show of affection in front of his brother and father, Hoss teased, “Hey, what’s all this about?” pleased that she was happy.

“I know it’s silly, Hoss. It’s jist…it’s jist…I want you here when the baby comes.”

A stunned silence filled the air, before Ben and Joe erupted into congratulations, slapping Hoss on the back. Hardly noticing their presence, Hoss stared down at Annie. As she nodded her head to him and he read the affirmation in her eyes, he let out a yowl of delight and lifted her from the floor to swing her around in his arms.

“Hoss Cartwright, you put me down!” she protested, not really minding. Just seems like that man was always sweeping her off her feet one way or another.

*****

The sound of the gunshot ripped through the air as Little Joe fatally shot the poisonous snake that he’d come across unexpectedly while checking the trap. Twirling around at the motion behind him, he saw his horse bolting at the noise and running towards the bluff. There not being anything he could do to stop him, he called out, “COCHISE!” as his stomach turned at what he knew was about to happen if the horse didn’t stop.

Hearing the shot and then Joe’s cry, Jenny turned in her saddle to see Cochise running riderless towards the bluff’s edge. Instinctively knowing what was happening and that no other rider who might be nearby was fast enough she urged Lightening at full out speed. Hoping to head the frightened horse off by cutting in front of him, she was dismayed when her horse reached the other horse just short. Not giving up, even as she heard her name being called, she turned a fast ninety degrees and followed in hot pursuit. Pulling up next to Cochise, she reached over to grab the reins slapping wildly on the side of his neck. Pulling her horse back with one hand and Joe’s horse with the other, she brought them both to a stop. Looking ahead she saw the edge of the bluff before her not more than fifty yards away. Turning, she led Joe’s horse back.

Watching the unfolding drama before his eyes, Joe’s heart was pounding. He’d seen Jenny try to cut his horse off to save it from running over the bluff’s edge but when he saw her miss and turn to run in the direction of the bluff herself he had called out to her, his worry quickly transferred to her instead. What a crazy thing to do. She could have been killed. At that thought, his heart began to pound anew.

As Jenny approached him, his horse in tow, his worry burst out from him as anger, his tone harsh as he berated, “Jenny, that was a stupid thing to do!”

Bristling at his tone, Jenny defended, “Don’t worry, Joe Cartwright. It’s not like I wanted to do you any favour. I did it for the horse. It’s not his fault he belongs to you.” And with that she dropped the reins into his hands and rode away.

*****

“Jenny, I can’t afford to keep that horse of yours no more.”

Jenny turned at her father’s words, alarm in her eyes, as she led her horse Lightening back to his stall at the livery a few weeks later.

“Pa, what do you mean?” she asked.

“Just what I said, Jenny. I’m selling him to Mr. Sonders.”

“But Pa!” Jenny protested, her alarm rising in her to out and out panic. “It doesn’t cost much to keep him. Why can’t I keep him, Pa?” she implored, desperation in her voice. She knew when her father got like this it was almost impossible to change his mind about anything.

“Now, Jenny. I’ll hear no more about it. After all, it’s just a horse,” her father snorted, disparagingly.

“But Lightening’s not just a horse…..,” Jenny began, trying to explain her deep affection for her horse, the only really constant friend she’d known. And one that was especially important to her now since her mother had died, leaving her without any other family and only her stepfather to call kin.

“Jenny!” her stepfather interrupted her warningly, his anger rising. If that girl wasn’t always a thorn in his side, her and her wild ways and foolish ideas.

Seeing she didn’t have much more time to plead her case before her father dismissed her completely, Jenny reasoned to him, “Pa, Pa, there’s a race tomorrow. There’s prize money this time. Two hundred dollars, Pa. That’d be enough to keep Lightening, wouldn’t it Pa?”

Grumbling at the idea, but intrigued by the money, her father answered, “Well, if’n you won that much Jenny, I reckon we could keep him awhile yet.”

Feeling her relief wash over her, Jenny turned back to pat Lightening’s head. It’d be okay now. They’d win tomorrow and everything would be fine. After all, in all the time they’d been racing they hadn’t lost yet.

*****

Crossing the finish line ahead of Jenny and her mustang, Joe felt a little jolt of satisfaction course through him. This was the first time he’d managed to beat her and that scrawny horse of hers. But if he was truthful he had to admit that having Jenny and Lightening to compete against had only made Cochise a faster horse.

Accepting the congratulations of the spectators on the ground, Joe paused only a moment, heading off instead to seek Jenny out. Pulling up rein in front of her as she sat motionless on her horse, her head bent in disbelief, he gloated, “Well, looks like me and Cochise won this time, Jenny.”

Getting no reponse, he tried again, teasing as he pretended to offer friendly advice, “You know, you might try feeding that scrawny horse of yours little more if you want him to win next time.”

Still not getting any answer, Jenny keeping her head down, Joe tried one final time, thinking it wasn’t fair she wasn’t letting him gloat a little, after all the ribbing he’d suffered through when she’d repeatedly beat him. He expected a little temper out of her, not this silent treatment. Again pretending to offer advice, he sighed, “Well, I guess you could always sell him and get a faster horse.”

Finally getting a response from her as she jerked her head up to look at him, Joe sucked in his breath and sat stunned by what he saw before she quickly turned and rode away. He’d been racing his horse for years and he’d beaten a lot of other riders. But never once in all that time had anyone ever reacted this way when he’d beaten them. No, not once. Never before in all that time had anyone ever….cried.

*****

Driving her buggy over to the livery, Katherine Cartwright waited while they checked the wheel for her. Spotting Jenny Talbot nearby, she greeted her, “Why hello, Jenny.” At Jenny’s silent nod to her, Katherine was a little puzzled. She liked Jenny Talbot, or at least what she’d seen of her the few times she’d come to the stables, admiring her exuberance and spirit. It didn’t seem like her to be so quiet and subdued.

Trying again, she remarked, “What a nice day today, don’t you think?” Another silent nod.

“Jenny, speak when yer spoken to,” her father grumbled at her from nearby.

“Yes, ma’am, a lovely day,” Jenny dutifully replied to Katherine, meeting her eyes.

Seeing something in Jenny’s eyes, eyes that now appeared dull and lifeless, Katherine acted on impluse. “Mr. Talbot….I was wondering….,” she began slowly. “I’ve been looking for someone to help me around the house, to help take care of my little girl. Do you think Jenny would be interested? I could pay her five dollars a week.”

“Jenny?” Mr. Talbot snorted. “Why’d you want ter take a girl like Jenny. She’s more trouble than she’s worth, if you ask me.”

“No, really,” Katherine persisted, determined now. “I’d like for Jenny to come. Would that be alright with you, Jenny?” she addressed the young woman.

Stealing a hesitant look at her father, Jenny answered, “Well, if my Pa doesn’t mind…..”

“Don’t make no matter to me, girl. Do what you want,” was the gruff response.

“Well, it’s settled then,” Katherine pounced. “Jenny, I’m heading home very soon. Maybe you could get your things together and be ready in about a half hour?” she suggested, not wanting to give anyone anytime to change their minds.

Nodding, Jenny turned away to do as she was bidded.

*****

Pulling a dress from the wardrobe closet, Katherine turned to Jenny. “It might be a little big on you, Jenny,” she said, eyeing her small frame, “but it’ll do for now. Here you put this on and I’ll see what else I’ve got.” Handing the dress to Jenny as they stood in the bedroom, Katherine turned back to the closet.

Carefully removing her shirt and pants, Jenny was just pulling the dress over her head when Katherine turned back to her.

“JENNY!” Katherine cried in alarm. She’d turned back just in time to get a glimpse of Jenny’s back reflected in the cheval mirror. “What happened to your back, Jenny?” Coming closer she turned Jenny around to get a good look at her back between the panels of the unbuttoned gown.

“No-nothing,” Jenny stammered.

“Jenny, it’s not nothing!” Katherine was outraged. There were thin welts across Jenny’s back, red ugly welts, at least six of them. “Jenny, who did this to you?” Katherine asked, realizing someone had inflicted these on the girl, they were no accidental injury.

At Jenny’s silence, Katherine prompted warningly, “Jenny…”

“My Pa….,” Jenny stammered. “My Pa hit me.”

Expelling her breath in shock at that piece of information, Katherine continued in disbelief, “But why, Jenny, why would he do such a thing?”

Shrugging a little in response and wincing at the pain as she did so, Jenny didn’t answer. She didn’t really want to relive the event. Her Pa had hit her before but he’d never taken a crop to her. But he’d been really angry this time. She’d put up a fuss about his selling her horse to Mr. Sonders, put up a fuss right in front of the men when they’d come to take her horse. Her Pa had been mighty angry and hadn’t waited long after the men had left before he’d let her know just how angry.

Leaving her pursuit for an answer alone for the moment, Katherine declared, “I’m sending for the doctor.” Heading to the door she was stopped by a pleading voice.

“No!” Jenny cried. “I don’t want anyone to know!”

“But Jenny, you need to have it looked after,” Katherine rebuked gently.

“No!” Jenny was adamant.

Eyeing the young woman’s frightened and adamant stance, Katherine soothed, “It’s okay, Jenny….Look, my sister-in-law, she’d know how to take care of you Jenny. Would it be alright if I sent for her? Just her, Jenny, and no one else, okay?”

At Jenny’s silent nod, Katherine hurried out the door to send one of the hands over to the Ponderosa.

*****

“Thank you for coming, Annie,” Katherine said as she closed the bedroom door behind them. “I can’t believe anyone would do that to their own child,” Katherine was shaking her head. “Thank goodness she’s safe here with us now,” Katherine reflected, remembering belatedly that she still had to tell Adam about their new household situation. “At least her father can’t hurt her if she’s here with us.”

Handing the bottle of ointment to Katherine as they headed down the stairs, Annie instructed, “Now you put a little more of this on her back tonight. If we can keep it clean so’s it heals up nice she won’t scar too bad. I’ll be over again termorrow to check on her.”

Walking her to the door, Katherine opened it to her. “Thanks again, Annie,” she said.

Nodding her head as she went through the door, Annie couldn’t help thinking about the man who had done this to Jenny. You know, she thought, there were some people you didn’t have to actually see to get a real bad feeling about.

*****

Riding up to his brother Adam’s house two days later, Little Joe was startled to find Jenny Talbot sitting under a tree out to the side of the house, rising to her feet at his approach. More startling was the fact that she was wearing a dress. Well, sort of wearing a dress, he guessed. It was obvious that the dress was too big for her, her small body seemingly engulfed in the superfluous material.

“Jenny,” he began, pulling up rein in front of her, “what are you doing here?”

Casting a nervous eye towards the house, Jenny stammered, “I…I’m working for Mrs. Cartwright now.”

“Really?” Joe was surprised at this news. He hadn’t heard anything about this at home.

Nodding, Jenny continued, “I’m helping her with the baby.”

“Well, I guess that’s a better job for a girl than working in the stables,” Joe teased, inexplicably pleased at the turn of events. Why he often came out to his brother’s house. “Is my brother home?” he asked, eyeing the house.

“No, they went on over to the Ponderosa for a bit. They took Beth with them and said they wouldn’t be too long.”

“Well, isn’t that my luck,” Joe mused, “my coming here just when they’ve gone over to the Ponderosa.” Dismounting from his horse, he added, “Well, I may as well just wait for them or I might just miss them again.”

An awkward pause following as Jenny made no move to invite him inside nor he suggesting it, Joe remarked, eyeing her appearance, “You know, Jenny, this is the first time I’ve seen you in a dress. Why you almost look like a real girl.”

“I am a real girl, Joe,” Jenny stated, defensively.

“Yeah? You could’ve fooled me,” he teased.

“Leave me alone, Joe,” Jenny stated bleakly and made to go past him. Pulling on her arm as she headed away, he defended, “Hey, I’m just teasing. Don’t you know that?” Staring down into her eyes, the most peculiar blue-violet eyes he had ever seen, he added softly, “I know you’re a real girl, Jenny.” As if to prove his point he leaned over to lightly brush her lips with his.

Surprised by the action, Jenny froze as he kissed her, a warm pleasant sensation coming over her. Why if that wasn’t about the nicest feeling she’d ever experienced. She didn’t know kissing a boy could be so nice, not having kissed many boys before, well, none to be exact. Not knowing the coy games usually played, Jenny let him kiss her, her reaction to him natural and honest.

Joe was surprised by Jenny’s response to his lighthearted kiss. He’d expected her to push him away, like other girls did when he flirted with them and tried to steal a kiss. Moving his hands to her arms he pulled her a little closer, surprised at his reaction to the nearness of her body. Deepening the kiss he was flooded by feelings that seemed new to him, feelings he couldn’t quite place. Stealing his arms around her back, he began to tighten his embrace.

Feeling his arms steal across her back, Jenny ignored the pain she felt as his arms pressed on her sensitive back through the thin material of her dress. The kiss was just too nice to worry about a little pain, she thought, as she kissed him back, her hands touching his sides. As Joe tightened his arms, she stiffened a little in response, the pain increasing. Oblivious to the pain he was causing, Joe continued to kiss her, his mouth raking across hers as she kissed him back, her fire now matching his own. A groan escaping from his throat, he locked his arms into a vice and pulled her tightly to him.

“Ahhhh!” Jenny cried out in reaction to his move, the pain suddenly sharp, as she pulled away, tears springing to her eyes.

“Jenny? Jenny?” Joe prompted in surprise.

“I have to go in now,” Jenny cried, turning away from him and running into the house.

Watching her go, Joe cursed himself. What had he just done anyway? He’d frightened her, no doubt. The way he’d kissed her like that. Hell, what was he thinking? He just hadn’t been able to control himself, the touch of her soft mouth to his making him lose all rational thought. Removing his hat, he raked his shaking hand through his hair. Settling his hat back on his head, he mounted his horse and taking a last look towards the house, he turned and rode away.

*****

Riding over to Mack Sonders place a few weeks later, his Pa wanting him to check on some new cattle stock Mack had gotten in, Little Joe Cartwright pulled up to the corral of horses next to one of the ranch hands.

“Hey, Little Joe,” the hand greeted him. “What you doing out this way?”

“My Pa sent me to see that new stock Mack’s got in. Is he around?”

“Yeah, I think he’s just up at the house. I can fetch him fer ya.”

“Naw, don’t bother,” Joe declined. “I’ll find him myself.” And turning to go, he stopped at the familiar streak of black he spotted out the side of his eye. Turning for a better look, a little whistle coming involuntarily to his lips, he asked, “Hey, isn’t that Jenny Talbot’s mustang over there?”

“Not more more, it ain’t,” the hand informed him. “Belongs to Mr. Sonders now, ‘tho I expect he’ll be shipping him over to Carson City with the other working stock real soon.”

“Jenny sold her horse to Mr. Sonders?” Joe asked in disbelief. Why Jenny loved that horse, loved him as much as he loved Cochise.

“Well I don’t reckon she had much say ’bout it,” the hand reflected. “I hear tell it was her Pa that done the selling. Yeah, sold him right after she lost that race coupla weeks ago. Hey, Joe,” the hand remarked, the remembrance just coming to him, “weren’t it you who won that time?”

Suddenly piecing together a few facts, Joe’s mouth turned grim as he turned away quickly and headed towards the ranch house.

“Hey, what’s your hurry?” the hand called out after Joe, puzzled at his sudden departure.

But Joe wasn’t listening. He had a little business to conduct with Mack Sonders, only it wasn’t the business his Pa had sent him on.

*****

As Jenny looked out the front window of the house, she suddenly let out a yell and rushed to the door, flinging it wide and racing out. Adam and Katherine, eyeing each other in alarm, followed quickly behind her.

Coming up to his brother’s house, trailing Jenny’s horse Lightening behind him, Little Joe saw Jenny on the porch, frozen, her eyes wide in surprise. Stopping in front of her, he turned in his saddle to pull Lightening from behind him to his side. Turning back to Jenny, he saw disbelief written on her face. Suddenly she bolted from the porch to run to Lightening’s side to hug the horse’s neck, her face buried in its mane.

After a moment, she pulled back a little to look up at Little Joe, a question in her eyes. In answer, he reached the hand that held the reins out to her, offering them to her. Seeing the gesture, Jenny hesitated a moment, her eyes on his hand, before she finally reached slowly out to take the reins from him, clutching them close to her body. Looking up, she met his eyes. They stared at each other for a long while, neither of them speaking. Finally a small slow smile came to Jenny’s lips, softening her face and lighting her eyes. Holding Joe’s gaze and ignoring the gentle nudges her horse was giving her, she waited. Looking down on her face, Joe replied with a smile of his own, a tender smile that barely touched the corners of his mouth and eyes. Widening her smile at his reply, Jenny suddenly turned quickly to swing up onto her horse. Riding bareback, oblivious that she was wearing a dress and baring her stockinged calves, she turned away, racing out towards the pasture, her blond hair streaming wildly behind her.

Joe watched her a minute or two with something like longing in his eyes and then backing his horse away, he turned and left.

Adam and Katherine, having watched the silent exchange nearby from the porch, looked at one another with astonishment. “Adam, I think we’ve got a bit of a situation here,” Katherine observed mildly, before Adam answered.

“Katherine, you do have a gift for understatement.”

*****

Dismounting from his horse several weeks later and tying him to the post, Little Joe headed to the front door of his brother’s house and knocked. No one answering his knock, he cupped his hands to his face to peer into the window.

“Your brother’s not home, Joe,” one of the ranch hands called out to him from behind. Joe turned to him as the hand continued, “They went on in ter town. Took their young’un with ’em.”

“Oh,” replied Joe, disappointed that no one was home. Heading back to his horse he reached out to untie him.

“But I think Miss Jenny’s out back. That is, if you care,” the hand added slyly. It hadn’t escaped his notice or any of the other ranch hands just how often Little Joe Cartwright came to visit his brother.

“Thank you, Zeke,” Joe replied, nonchalantly, waiting for him to leave before turning to go around the house, just not wanting to be too obvious about it.

Just to the side of the house, Joe stopped, a sound reaching his ears. Someone was singing. A sweet song in a clear and true voice. Drawing closer, he peered around the corner, sucking in his breath at the sight before him. Jenny Talbot, her body in profile to him was hanging wash on the line, singing as she worked. Her hair, loose and untied, swirled around her head as the wind picked up tendrils and deposited them at random, as she absently brushed the wayward strands away from her face, only to have the wind begin its game anew. She wore a rose coloured gown, one that fit her small frame, outlining the gentle swell of her bosom and trim waist. Joe watched her for a moment, listening as she sang:

I have seen a summer day

that slowly opens like a rose

along a quiet road that wanders by

and I have smiled and wondered where it goes

 

I have stumbled through the night

alone as anyone can be

then found a silent canyon full of stars

and in my heart I heard them telling me

I was home

Finally approaching her, Joe called out to her gently, “Jenny.”

Giving a little start, Jenny turned and seeing Joe she smiled. “Oh, Joe, I didn’t hear you ride up,” she said, blushing a little.

“Jenny, you didn’t tell me you could sing. That was real nice,” Joe complimented.

“Oh, uhm,” Jenny faltered, not used to compliments, as her blush deepened and she bent to pull the last towel from the washbasket.

Watching her pin the towel to the line, Joe began, casually, “Say, Jenny, I was wondering if you maybe wanted to going riding, or…something, you know, with me.” Joe winced at his own awkwardness at the question. This just wasn’t like him, he thought. He always prided himself on his smoothness with girls, but somehow that all changed when he was around Jenny.

“Well, Joe,” Jenny replied slowly, disappointment in her voice, “I don’t know that I can. Your sister-in-law’ll be expecting me to mind Beth when she gets back.”

“Oh,” Joe replied, disappointed.

“But I could walk down to the creek with you if you want….?” Jenny suggested.

“Okay, Jenny,” Joe agreed, his disappointment vanishing.

A mischievous twinkle suddenly appearing in Jenny’s eye, she challenged, “Or I could race ya there?”

An answering twinkle appeared in Joe’s eye just as Jenny turned, ducking under the washline and picking up her skirts as she bolted away. “Hey, Jenny, wait up!” he called after her.

“Ladies first, Joe!” she taunted over her shoulder.

“Why you little…..,” Joe cursed laughingly under his breath, ducking and bolting after her, a delighted grin on his face.

*****

Walking back to the house a half hour later, Joe turned to Jenny and said reluctantly, “Well, I’d best be getting along, Jenny.”

“Goodbye, Joe, I’ll tell your brother you came by….ahhh!!” she ended her sentence on an exclamation and bolted into the house.

Startled by the move, Joe followed close on her heels, coming up behind her suddenly as she froze at the kitchen doorway.

Suddenly remembering the pot of boiling cherries she had left on the stove more than a half hour ago, Jenny surveyed the mess before her with dismay. The pot had boiled over spilling its contents all over Mrs. Cartwright’s kitchen floor. Ducking in beside her, Joe quickly headed over to the stove and grabbing a cloth towel he pulled the still spewing pot from the stove, pulling his hand away quickly as the the scalding liquid touched his hand. Turning back he saw Jenny’s stricken face.

“Where’s the mop, Jenny?” he asked.

Retrieving it for him as she manoevered her way over the minefield of cherries, she got out the broom and began to sweep up the mess, Joe mopping behind her.

Sometime later when most of the mess was cleaned up, Jenny peered down at one stray cherry almost hidden under the sink. “Joe, can you reach that one?” she asked.

Bending down Joe reached towards the wayward fruit and not quite making it he laid down on the floor to reach all the way in the back. Peering down at his prone form, a giggle rose to Jenny’s throat. Sinking down to the floor beside him, her back to the counter, she began to laugh.

Hearing her laughter, Joe pulled back to sit up, the cherry still unretrieved, succumbing to his own fit of laughter. He hadn’t wanted to laugh before, seeing how upset she seemed to be.

“Can you believe this?!” Jenny cried laughingly, waving her hand at the now-clean floor.

“No!” Joe laughed, “but you should have seen your face when you first saw it!”

Peels of laughter ringing out, Jenny asked, helplessly, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, “What am I gonna tell your sister-in-law about what happened to all her cherries? Do you think she’d believe me if I said you ate them all?”

“No!” Joe shot back, clutching his stomach as he tried to speak past his laughter, “but if you said it was my brother Hoss, she would!!”

More peels of laughter. Getting to his feet, Joe reached out his hands to pull Jenny to her feet. Suddenly subdued as they faced each other, the laughter dying on their lips, Joe stared down into her eyes. Looking up at him, Jenny wondered if he would kiss her, remembering how much she liked his kisses. The apple of his throat working up and down as he fought for control, Joe pulled away from her, reaching for his hat nearby.

“I guess I’d better go now, Jenny,” he said.

“Goodbye, Joe,” she called to him as he left.

*****

“Come on, Annie, push!” Hoss encouraged his wife, in the throws of her labour.

“I am pushing, Hoss!” Annie angrily shot back at him, her pain making her cross.

“I know, Annie,” Hoss soothed. “Yer doing just fine…come on, just another one….yer almost there.”

“AHHHHH!!” Annie cried, as she pushed, the baby finally emerging into the world.

“There Annie! You did it, Annie!” Hoss cried, his hands working over the child.

“Hoss? Hoss?” Annie cried with concern at the silence.

A fine mewl reaching her ears, Hoss reassured her, “Everything’s jist fine, Annie. Don’t you worry. I’m just cleaning your son up a little first before he meets his mama.”

“A boy?” Annie asked, relief in her voice that everything was okay. “It’s a boy, Hoss?”

“Shore is, Annie,” he replied, bringing the child to her bundled in a small blanket. “A fine boy, Annie.”

“Ohhhh,” Annie breathed as Hoss laid the child into the crook of her arm, “look at him Hoss. Isn’t he beautiful, Hoss? Isn’t he the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen?”

“Yes, Annie, the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen,” Hoss agreed, meeting her eyes, as they stared silently at each other a moment, before turning back to look at the child.

“What’ll we call him, Annie?” Hoss asked.

“Could we call him Eric, Hoss? Like yer Ma picked out? It never did git used much on you. I’d like…I’d like to use it fer him, Hoss.”

“Why shore, Annie, if that’s what you want,” Hoss agreed, not about to argue with a woman who’d just gone through hours of painful labour. “Now jist let me finish up taking care of things and we’ll let him meet the others, okay Annie?”

Annie nodded as she continued to gaze on her child.

*****

Ben and Little Joe entered the room later that night after the doctor had been and gone, approaching the bed where Annie lay, the child still resting in the crook of her arm, asleep now.

“Pa, Joe,” Hoss began, “come on in and see my son,” obvious pride in his voice.

“His name’s Eric,” Annie added, her pride matching her husband’s.

“Eric…?” Little Joe began, surprised and amused, as Hoss shot him a look to silence him.

“Annie picked it out, Joe,” Hoss informed him, a slight warning in his voice.

Joe nodded his head, smiling but keeping his comments to himself.

Moving closer to peer at his new grandson, Ben spoke, “It’s a fine boy, Hoss. A fine boy, Annie,” he added, turning to look at his daughter-in-law, a slight smile on his lips. “You know, Annie, I always thought you were a lot like Hoss’ mother and now I know it’s true.”

“What?” Annie asked, surprised. “I thought Hoss’s Ma was tall and blond…?”

“No, Annie,” Ben clarified. “I don’t mean the way you look. I mean the way you are inside…in your heart, Annie…you’re a lot like her.”

Accepting his words with a pleased smile, Annie turned to meet Hoss’s eyes, her smile radiant.

*****

“Pa, I’m heading over to Adam’s for a while,” Joe called over his shoulder as he headed to the door.

“Just a minute, Joe,” Ben halted him, deciding it was time for a little talk.

“Yeah, Pa?” Joe asked, heading back into the room to stand before his father, his hands casually on his hips.

“I’d like to have a little talk with you first, Joe,” Ben stated, ushering Joe to sit down.

“What about, Pa?” Joe asked, sitting before his father on the wooden table. “Did I do something wrong?” he asked, racking his brain for possible infringements and not coming up with anything to his thinking.

“No, no, Joe, that’s not it,” Ben reassured him. “It’s just…you’ve been spending a lot of time at Adam’s lately,” Ben observed, eyeing Joe pointedly.

“Oh.” Joe acknowledged his father’s meaning.

“Yeah, oh.” Ben confirmed.

“I guess you’re kind of wondering….,” Joe began.

“I’m wondering, Joe,” Ben confirmed.

At Joe’s awkward silence, Ben probed, “Jenny Talbot seems like a very nice girl, Joe.”

“She is, Pa,” Joe nodded in agreement.

“And…?” Ben fished.

Deciding not to deny it any longer, Joe finished, “And I’m in love with her, Pa. I have been for a long time.”

Absorbing that news, Ben nodded his head. “I see,” he said. “And is she in love with you?”

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

“She’s very young yet, Joe,” Ben counselled. “She’ll need time, Joe.”

“I know, Pa. I mean to give her all the time she needs. I can wait…I can wait as long as she needs, Pa,” Joe’s voice was sincere.

Seeing something in his son he hadn’t seen before, maybe a new maturity, Ben nodded his head. “Well, alright, Joe, don’t let me keep you then,” he said, turning back to his book, his approval tacit.

Watching his father move to open his book, Joe paused a second and then reached his hand out to squeeze his father’s forearm, halting him. Ben looked over at his son, meeting his eyes.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said, swallowing hard, before getting up to leave.

*****

“How’s my boy? How’s my boy Buck,” Hoss cooed to his four month old son.

“Hoss Cartwright! What did you call that child?” Annie froze upon entering the room.

Turning guiltily towards her, Hoss placated, “Now, Annie, it’s just a little nickname, that’s all.” Turning back to address the child he cooed, “Ain’t that right, Buck?”

“You will not call my son Buck!” Annie protested, vehemently. “His name is Eric!”

“Now, Annie, Buck’s just a little name I call him sometimes. ‘Course I know his name is Eric,” Hoss defended. “Besides, no one else calls him Buck, just me. Ain’t that right, Buck?” Hoss again cooingly addressed the child.

“Buck…Buck…,” Annie pondered. “Seems to me I’ve heard that afore….hey, ain’t that the name of yer Pa’s horse?” she asked, accusingly.

“Now, Annie, it ain’t got nothing to do with my Pa’s horse. It’s just when you was carrying him….you recollect how you said he kicked like a bucking bronc? That’s all it is, Annie. Just a little nickname.”

“Hmmm,” Annie grumbled discontentedly, still not liking the idea. Turning to head back to the kitchen, she stopped as the door opened and Adam Cartwright came in.

“Hey, Adam,” Hoss began, “what you doing out this way? I thought you were headed over to Carson City terday?”

“Yeah, I am,” Adam confirmed. “Just came by to get that bank draft first. Hey….,” he added, coming closer to look at his nephew, “that Buck sure is growing fast. He’ll be as big as you in no time, Hoss.”

“Ah, ah….,” Hoss faltered, as he met Annie’s furious glare from across the room. “Well, now, ERIC here is shore a big feller, ain’t he?” Hoss said, trying to smooth over Adam’s blunder.

Hearing the conversation as he bounded down the stairs, Little Joe moved to join his two brothers, chiming in, “Hey, Hoss, I bet it won’t be long before Buck eats as much as you do!”

“Now, ah, Joe,” Hoss hemmed nervously, sensing that things were getting seriously out of hand.

“ERIC! HIS NAME IS ERIC!” Annie shouted from across the room at the three men. “AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!” Turning away, she stormed from the room, the men eyeing her departure.

“Hey, Hoss, what’s the matter with Annie?” Little Joe enquired innocently.

“I got no idea, Joe,” Hoss fibbed, shaking his head.

*****

Laying her son on the bed to dry him off after his bath that night, Annie playfully tugged on his toes as she cooed to him, “How’s my little boy? How’s my baby? How’s my baby Eric?” The child not reacting much to her playful coos, she tried again, “Is my little Eric a big boy? Yes, he is.” The child continuing to stare disinterestedly at her, Annie looked down at him, mildly perplexed. A sudden suspicion forming, she tried cooing to him again, this time using a different name. Peels of gurgly laughter greeting her efforts this time, Annie stared in disbelief at the child before her, the realization sinking in.

Heaven help her….

Her son’s name was Buck.

*****

“Well, there’s a sight I didn’t think I’d ever see,” Katherine Cartwright began to her husband as they sat on the porch of their home, gesturing out to her brother-in-law Little Joe off in the pasture with Jenny and Beth, picking wildflowers.

At her comment, Adam observed dryly, “Yeah, well, it’s amazing what strange things we men in love will do.”

Raising her eyebrow as she met his gaze, Katherine replied, a smile in her voice, “Oh yeah?…Remind me later to ask you to tell me more about those strange things.”

Chuckling under his breath, Adam was startled by Katherine’s sudden shriek, “Adam!!” as she looked out to the pasture, bolting from her chair.

Looking up from her spot in the field, Jenny saw the runaway horse bearing down towards Beth just as shouts of warning reached her ears. Instinctively, Jenny raced to the child, sweeping her away from the path of the frightened horse. Rolling with the child to the ground, they landed in a patch of mud, Jenny’s body flung protectively over the child, just as the horse galloped by them, dangerously close, splashing mud and water over them as he raced away.

Jenny pulled herself off the child just as Little Joe reached her side. “Jenny? Jenny?” he cried, his heart in his throat. He’d tried to reach the child himself but had been too far away.

“We’re okay, Joe,” Jenny reassured him, pulling Beth to her feet. The child was bawling, frightened by the sudden motion of her rescue and the dunking into the mud she’d received.

Reaching his daughter only seconds before his wife, Adam knelt in the mud to survey the child, relief washing over him.

“Beth! Beth!” Katherine raced to her child, the child reaching out to her mother for comfort. Pulling her into her arms, Katherine consoled, “There. There. You’re alright now.” Looking up, Katherine met Jenny’s eyes, her gratitude too enormous to speak.

“I’m sorry I was so rough with her,” Jenny apologized, eyeing the still-crying child.

“Jenny…Jenny…,” Katherine tried to speak her gratitude. “Thank you, Jenny,” she tried, the words too inadequate. Meeting her husband’s eyes, Katherine and Adam shared a look of mutual awareness, awareness of just how close they’d come to losing something so precious to them. Reaching out, Adam touched his wife and child, nodding reassurance to Katherine. Moving to stand with the child in her arms, Katherine reached her hand out to Jenny, to pull her up and along with them back to the house, releasing her hand after a moment to reposition the child in her arms.

Standing, Little Joe and Adam watched in silence as the three headed back to the house, mud covering all of them now. Breaking the silence, Adam spoke, gratitude in his heart, respect in his voice.

“She’s a brave girl, Joe. She’s a brave girl, your Jenny.”

*****

“You don’t want to marry me, Joe,” Jenny turned down Joe’s proposal as they stood together out by the creek.

“Jenny…Jenny…,” Joe said, perplexed at her strange statement.

“I mean it, Joe. You’re beautiful, Joe. You don’t want to marry me.”

What in the world was she talking about? Joe thought, ignoring the fact that she’d called him beautiful, a strange compliment to make to a man. “Jenny…Jenny…I love you. I want to marry you.”

“No, Joe,” Jenny shook her head.

“But why?” he persisted. At her silence, he made his own supposition. “You don’t love me,” he stated, his voice flat.

“No, Joe! That’s not it,” Jenny denied, not wanting to hurt him that way. “It’s just…it’s just…,” she faltered. He had a right to know, a right to know before she could agree. “Turn around Joe…I…I’ve got something to show you.”

Puzzled at her request, Little Joe turned his back to her. Quickly undoing the buttons at the back of her gown, Jenny pulled the dress off her arms, clasping the material to her bosom at the front. Turning her back to his and drawing her hair over her shoulder, she instructed, “You can turn around now Joe.”

Joe turned and sucked in his breath at what he saw. Thin scars crisscrossed on Jenny’s back. A sudden fury at whoever had done this overtook him as he continued to stare.

At Joe’s sudden inhalation and then silence, Jenny consoled, “It’s okay, Joe. I know it’s not pretty. I’ll understand…I’ll understand if you don’t want to….,” her voice cracked with emotion as she began to cry.

Understanding that she didn’t need his questions right now, Joe approached her. When he was just a breath away, he shrugged out of his jacket, wrapping it tenderly around her shoulders.

“Joe?…Joe?…” Jenny called out his name at his touch, as tears poured down her cheeks.

“Shhh,” he comforted her, turning her around to face him. “Shhh, Jenny. Don’t cry, Jenny. I love you,” he spoke softly, laying his hands along the sides of her face and into her hair, as he pressed kisses to her face, the taste of her tears on his lips.

“Joe?…Joe?..” Jenny cried, unbelieving.

“I love you, Jenny….my sweet Jenny….who rides like the wind and sings like an angel. Please marry me,” he implored, his voice a tender whisper.

Crying harder, she nodded to him, hardly able to speak. “I love you, Joe,” she managed between sobs. “I love you,” she repeated, as his lips touched hers.

*****

“Jenny and I are getting married,” Joe announced to Ben, Hoss and Annie when he arrived home that night.

“Joe!” Ben and Hoss cried in unison as they patted him on the back, and Annie gave him a congratulatory hug.

“Well, I must say you certainly took your time courting that little gal, Joe,” Hoss teased. “I was beginning to think you’d never ask her.”

“Well,” confessed Joe, “Jenny’s not the kind of girl you want to rush, Hoss.” Joe met his father’s eyes in a silent communication.

*****

“Something worrying you, Joe?” Hoss asked of his brother after their father had gone to bed. “You seem a little…a little…something worrying you, Joe?” Hoss repeated.

Alone now with his brother and sister-in-law, Joe confided, “It’s Jenny, Hoss.”

“What about Jenny, Joe?”

“Someone whipped her, whipped her back. She has scars on her back.” There was pain in Joe’s voice.

Quickly glancing up to meet Annie’s eyes, Hoss turned back to Joe to ask, “How’d you find out about the scars, Joe?”

“I saw them,” Joe answered, as Annie and Hoss eyed each other in alarm.

“Well, now, Joe,” Hoss hemmed, not realizing things has progressed that far between Joe and Jenny.

“No, Hoss,” Joe clarified, reading his discomfort, “I mean she showed them to me. Showed them to me before she’d agree to marry to me.” And then realizing that Hoss wasn’t at all surprised at what he’d told him, he added, “You knew about the scars, didn’t you, Hoss?”

“Well, Joe,” Hoss answered guiltily, “Annie told me, Joe. She’s the one who tended Jenny after her Pa…after he….,” Hoss stopped.

“Her Pa did this to her?” Joe was incredulous. “When, Hoss? When did her Pa do this?”

“I guess it was just before she come to live at Adam’s place, Joe,” Hoss answered.

An anguished cry was torn from Joe as he remembered that first day he’d seen her at Adam’s place. That day he’d seen her and what he’d done. As if to torture himself further, he asked, “She’d have been in pain, wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t she, Annie?” he turned to Annie now. “It would have hurt if someone…if someone…..” Not waiting for an answer, Joe bolted from his spot and headed to the door.

“Joe, Joe,” Hoss called after him. “Where’re you going, Joe?”

“To see her Pa,” Joe ground out, suppressed rage in his voice.

“Don’t do it, Joe, Joe, listen to me,” Hoss cautioned, moving to stand before his brother. “You can’t do it, Joe.”

Breathing hard now with his fury, Joe flung back to his brother, “Why not, Hoss? After what he did to her!”

“Joe, stop and think. What are you gonna do? Fight him? Call him out? Maybe kill him? He’s her Pa, Joe. No matter what he done. It’d always come between ya, Joe. You can’t kill her Pa,” Hoss tried to reason with him.

Dropping his head at Hoss’ words, Joe stood dejectedly before his brother. Reaching a hand to Joe’s shoulder, Hoss’ voice was tender, “Now go on up ter bed, Joe. Go on up ter bed and we’ll talk some more termorrow.”

Joe nodded his head and turned away, heading to the stairs.

*****

Later that night as they talked together quietly before the fire, Hoss asked, “Do you reckon they’ll do alright together, Annie? Them both being so…so…,” Hoss’ voice trailed off, wondering about the fact that Joe and Jenny were both so spirited.

“Oh, they’ll git by fine, Hoss,” Annie predicted, reassuringly, understanding his meaning. “I got a good feeling about them,” she confessed shyly, just beginning to feel comfortable letting her husband know about her strange intuitions about things. “It seems to me they’ll be having a lot of fun together.”

Reassured by her words, Hoss looked over at Annie, a glint in his eye as he teased, “Well, come on over here a little closer, Annie. My little brother ain’t the only one who knows how to have a little fun!”

Annie smiled as she went to do his bidding.

*****

Jenny watched with an uneasy feeling as her father approached the ranch house on a horse. The whole Cartwright family was here and she didn’t want to face what she knew would be an unpleasant situation in front of them. If she were truthful, she’d have to admit she hadn’t even given her father much thought at all these last few months and now he was seeking her out for who knows what reason. Meeting Joe’s eyes, Jenny signalled to him to let her handle this as she moved forward into her father’s path.

“Why Jenny,” her father began as he reined in, bitterness in his voice. “You didn’t tell me the good news,” he added sarcastically as he glanced over at the Cartwright family, standing behind her.

“What do you want, Pa?” Jenny asked.

“What do you mean, ‘what do I want’?” her father shot back. “You get engaged to one of them Cartwrights and you don’t even tell me? I have to hear it from folks in town? Now that’s not a very nice way to treat yer Pa, is it Jenny?” he spat at her contemptuously.

Not liking what was taking place, Joe moved forward to Jenny’s side. “Jenny doesn’t owe you anything. I think you’d better just leave,” Joe said, a note of warning in his voice.

Ignoring the warning, Jenny’s father dismounted his horse. “I’ll leave when I’m ready and not afore. And yer wrong. Jenny owes me. I say she owes me plenty,” he countered, his tone menancing as took a threatening step towards Little Joe.

Moving quickly in front of Joe, her arms out to her sides, Jenny pleaded, “Pa…Pa…please…just go away. I don’t want you here.”

Staring dumbfounded down at Jenny as she braced herself in front of him, Little Joe was frozen, surprise and disbelief at her actions on his face. Why she was actually trying to protect him! To protect him from her father.

“I say you owe me, Jenny,” her father repeated. “After all, you know I didn’t have to keep yer after yer Ma died, me just being yer stepfather and you not being my blood and all. Why you ain’t got no other kin in the whole world and I kept you Jenny, even though I weren’t yer real Pa. I done right by you Jenny and it’s time you paid me back.”

Coming out of his shock at the way Jenny was protecting him, Little Joe moved to push Jenny out of his way but she steadfastly held her position.

“But Pa…,” Jenny cried. “I don’t have anything to give you!” she wailed, wishing that she could end the confrontation and he would just leave them alone.

Finally pushing Jenny aside, Joe drew his gun. “I told you to leave and I’m not going to tell you again,” he threatened, his tone menacing, as the others watched in alarm.

“Joe, don’t!” Jenny cried, her feelings mixed. After all, he was the only father she’d ever known. But she knew too that you didn’t beat someone you loved, beat someone the way her father had beat her. You didn’t try to beat their spirit out of them. At least, she’d come to realize that when she saw how the Cartwrights treated Joe, the way they treasured his spirit and fire.

Listening to the exchange as all the Cartwrights were and seeing that all Jenny really wanted was for her father to leave, Katherine Cartwright suddenly moved to the front. “You’re wrong, Mr. Talbot,” Katherine spoke up, her voice a challenge. “Jenny has family. She’s my sister now,” Katherine declared, unclasping the jewelled bracelet she wore on her wrist. Throwing it down on the ground in front of him, she declared, “There. Take it. Take it and leave. Consider it payment. Payment from my sister.” Stunned silence greeted her proclamation, both Jenny and her father frozen in disbelief at her actions. “I mean it,” Katherine continued, trying to force him to action. “Just take it and leave and never come back!” she spat at him, contempt in her voice, fire in her eyes.

At Earl Talbot’s continued hesitation, Joe’s gun still on him, Annie moved quickly to Katherine’s side, pulling the chain from around her neck. Throwing it to the ground beside Katherine’s bracelet, she, too, declared, “There. Payment. From my sister. Now leave!” the two women standing united, as Jenny and her father continued to stare at them dumbfounded.

Seeing what his wife and sister-in-law were trying to do, Adam moved to his wife’s side, reaching into his shirt to pull out his money clip. Down it went onto the ground. “Payment. From my sister,” he declared, fiercely, contemptuously. Almost immediately and before anyone could react to Adam’s declaration, Hoss moved to his wife’s side, throwing his money clip to the ground as well. “From my little sister,” Hoss elaborated, his voice deceptively calm.

Quickly removing the money bag from his horse’s saddle, Ben moved to the front, throwing the bag to the ground. “From my daughter!” he boomed, his eyes fierce upon Jenny’s father, challenging him to deny the claim.

Little Joe, never prouder of his family than at this moment as he watched them unite to protect Jenny, withdrew his gun, placing it back into his holster. Reaching inside his jacket he too removed his wallet and threw it to the ground.

“From my wife!” he challenged. “Now leave!”

Eyeing the Cartwright family now cloistered close about him, Earl Talbot quickly bent to scoop up the loot cast at his feet, looking up furtively now and then to make sure it wasn’t a trick. Eyeing the family like they were all crazy he quickly mounted his horse and rode away. Turning from the sight, the others headed away.

“Joe? Joe?” Jenny looked to him, not fully understanding.

“It’s okay, Jenny,” Joe soothed, taking her in his arms. “You’re home now.”

*****

“Joe, I just don’t think a girl should get married until she’s at least nineteen,” Jenny was saying, shaking her head. “You’ll just have to wait, Joe,” she added.

“I can wait, Jenny….I can wait as long as you want,” replied Joe, his puppy-dog eyes on her. “So, Jenny….,” he cautiously asked, “just when do you turn nineteen?”

A mischievous twinkle in her eyes as a smile touched her lips, Jenny answered.

“In two weeks, Joe.”

***The End***

Author’s note: The song that Jenny sings in the story is from An American Hymn (East of Eden) by Lee Holdridge. It is a contemporary song but it fit best what I was trying to convey.

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