A Stranger’s Warning (by Linda J.)

 

Summary:  Joe’s girlfriend is missing.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5656

 


 

Adam awoke from a dream. At first he thought it must be time to get up, but after fumbling with his pocket watch, he realized it was still the middle of the night. Before he could roll over to get comfortable again, he heard a faint noise coming from downstairs. Not sure what it was, he listened intently to see if he would hear it again.

There it was. Someone was definitely downstairs.

Adam got up quietly and used the light of the full moon to find the revolver he had hidden in his bureau. He held the gun tightly as he walked into the hall and approached the stairwell. He knew by the glow on the stairs that someone had lit a lamp in the great room. He crept silently to the stairs and descended the first three to get a view of the room. Peering down, he saw Little Joe stretched out on the settee nursing a bottle of brandy. Relieved, he loosened his grip on the gun.

Adam approached his brother. He frowned as Joe took another swig from the brandy bottle and held it close to his chest.

“Care to join me?” Joe asked, not even trying to be quiet.

“Shh, everyone’s sleeping,” Adam warned. He placed the gun that was still in his hand on the fireplace mantle.

“You’re not sleeping,” Joe corrected. “I’m not sleeping.”

“I was sleeping, until you woke me up,” Adam said. “Haven’t you had enough of that stuff?” Adam pointed to the bottle Joe held close. Joe’s answer was to take another deep drink.

“Nah, not enough yet. I’m still awake,” Joe answered. “When I fall… ‘sleep, that’ll… that’ll be when I had enough.”

“Joe, when are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours and realize what happened with Lucy wasn’t your fault!” Adam reached down and grabbed the bottle from Joe. “And drinking this stuff until you’re unconscious is not going to make things any better!”

Joe jumped up, angry now at his brother’s interference. “It’s not your fault!” he heard Adam say again.

“It’s not my fault,” Joe repeated. “It’s not my fault!” Joe’s voice rose. Now in a full rant which was sure to wake the entire house, Joe continued. “You say it’s not my fault! But it is! It is my fault that she’s dead! It’s MY fault!”

*****

Two months earlier…

Joe pulled the buggy to a stop in front of Lucy’s home. “Joe,” Lucy cooed as she drew closer to her date, “we don’t have to call it night yet. Let’s go for a walk.”

“Now, Lucy, as much as I would love to go for a walk with you, I promised your pa I’d have you home by nine. It’s nearly that now.” He hopped out of the buggy and walked around to Lucy’s side to help her down.

“Well, at least come sit on the swing with me. I’ll go in and get us something to drink.” Her teasing eyes made it impossible to resist. “Go make yourself comfortable. There’s a swing on the porch around back. I’ll be back there in a minute.”

Joe shook his head and smiled. Lucy and her father had moved into the area a few months ago, and she was one of the prettiest girls in town. Even though they had been flirting with each other for weeks, this was their first official date. He walked to the side of the little house, and noticed the swing in the back. He sat down and started rocking gently, noticing the stars and the quietness of the area.

Lucy returned a few minutes later, a glass of wine in each hand. “Hope you like it,” she said, handing him a glass.

Joe looked surprised as he took the glass. “This is perfect,” he said, taking a sip. “And I must say, you look radiant in the moonlight.”

“Oh, Joe, you know all the right things to say to a girl, don’t you.” She smiled and laughed a little. “Thank you,” she added, snuggling close to his side. “I hope we can do this again real soon. I had such a wonderful evening.”

“Me too, and we will. That’s a promise,” Joe replied with a twinkle in his eye. He finished his wine and set the glass gently on a table beside the swing.

“Would you like more?” Lucy asked, placing her half-full glass next to his.

Joe shook his head. “After what I had during dinner and now this, I might not find my way home as it is.” Joe felt the heat rising, whether from the wine or woman, he wasn’t sure, and loosened his tie. Just as he leaned in to kiss Lucy, a gruff voice sounded from the house.

“Lucy! It’s time to come inside!”

Lucy rolled her eyes. “Okay, Pa,” she yelled. She jumped up and grabbed Joe’s hand, pulling him into the back yard, out of the moonlight. “I don’t want you to go,” she whispered.

Unable to resist her signals any longer, Joe took her into a full embrace and kissed her longingly. “God, you’re beautiful,” he said huskily.

Lucy reluctantly pulled away from the embrace. “I better go in before Pa comes looking for me. Thanks for a wonderful evening, Joe. Will I see you at church tomorrow?”

“Save me a seat,” Joe said. He turned and walked to the buggy, smiling all the way. He climbed into the seat and clicked his tongue as he got the horses started. He’d been riding along for about five minutes when he decided to go back into town and see what was happening at the Silver Dollar. I’ve got time to get in a quick poker game before calling it a night…

*****

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Joe said with a smile as he gathered his winnings from the game.

“Cartwright, how do you get so lucky?” one of the losers asked.

“Just born that way, I guess,” Joe laughed as he stood to leave. He noticed a stranger heading toward their table.

“You Joe Cartwright?” the stranger asked.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Joe answered. “Do I know you?”

The man shook his head. “No, and I’m only going to say this once. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll listen. Stay away from Lucy Clark.”

Before Joe had a chance to reply, the man turned around and started to walk out. “Now just wait a minute!” Joe called out but the man kept walking.

Joe started after him, but was held back by Sam, the bartender. “Ah, let him go, Joe. He’s just trying to make trouble.”

“You know him, Sam?” Joe asked.

“He’s been around for a couple of weeks. Says he’s working on a land deal or some such. Been in here just about every night nursing a bottle of whiskey and making smart remarks. I wouldn’t pay any heed to him.” Sam saw the uncertain look on Joe’s face. “Here, have another beer before you go, on the house.”

Joe frowned as he took the beer and sat down. “Why do you think he told me to stay away from Lucy?” Joe asked. “Do you think he knows her?”

“I see men like him come and go all the time. Just because he knew her name doesn’t mean he knows her. He knew your name too, didn’t he?”

Joe nodded and sipped his beer uneasily. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Joe replied. I wonder if I should mention this to Lucy tomorrow. Nah, she’d probably get upset, and her pa might not let me see her anymore. He leaned back in the chair pondering the warning, but decided Sam was right, and that he should not worry about it, at least with so little to go on. He was not going to let some random stranger tell him what to do. He downed the last of the beer. “Thanks, Sam,” he said as he left the saloon.

*****

 Nearly two months later in the early hours of a Saturday morning, the four Cartwright men were gathered around the breakfast table. Hoss was enjoying his second serving of eggs, Adam was asking Hop Sing for more bacon, and Ben was pouring himself another cup of coffee. Ben enjoyed time around the table with his boys, and was thankful they were all home. He noticed Joe looked tired. “Joe, have you been sleeping alright?”

“It’s that new gal of his, Pa,” Hoss offered between bites. “She’s keeping him real busy.”

“That ain’t the half of it,” Joe sighed, pouring another cup of coffee.

“Care to explain, little brother?” Adam queried.

Joe shook his head and sighed. “I dunno, Adam. Ever since our first date, she won’t let me out of her sight. I can’t even go into town for the mail without her knowing about it. I’ve taken her out two times this week alone.”

“I guess that means you’re taking her to the dance tonight,” Adam said.

“Yeah,” Joe sighed. Lucy had been a little wilder than he had imagined when he first met her. She had a rebellious spirit which he was certain was going to get him into trouble if he wasn’t careful. He didn’t want to be on the receiving end of her father’s shotgun.

“Well, Little Joe, older brother and I will both be at the dance tonight, so if you need some help with that little gal, you just say the word,” Hoss said with a grin.

Joe just shook his head and continued to sip on his coffee. He was thinking of how to get away after the dance without hurting Lucy’s feelings. As much as he enjoyed their recent romps, the thought of getting caught by her father was not appealing. Besides, he had the feeling that this was not just a casual romance for her. No, he needed to put a stop to things before they went any further.

*****

The next morning, the Cartwrights were getting ready for church. Ben and Joe were still upstairs, and Adam and Hoss were on their way downstairs when they heard a loud knocking on the door.

“I’ll get it,” Hoss said. Adam followed close behind. It was Alan Clark, Lucy’s father, and Roy Coffee, Virginia City’s sheriff.

“Hoss, Adam,” Roy stated formally. “Sorry to bother you so early on a Sunday morning.”

“Come in, gentlemen. What can we do for you?” Adam asked.

“We’re looking for Little Joe. Is he here?” Mr. Clark asked.

Hoss and Adam exchanged looks. “I’ll get him,” Hoss said softly to Adam.

Adam swallowed nervously. “Is Joe in some sort of trouble?” he questioned.

“That all depends,” Mr. Clark answered harshly.

“Depends on what?” Joe asked as he came down the stairs. He was surprised to see Lucy’s father and had no idea what brought him their way.

“What have you done with my daughter, Cartwright?!” Clark lunged toward Little Joe, but was held back by Roy.

Joe paled. The time he spent with Lucy last evening wasn’t entirely innocent. Was that why Mr. Clark was here? But then why would he have brought the sheriff? Why didn’t he bring his shotgun and a minister? No, this must be about something else.

“What do you mean?” Joe forced himself to ask.

“Where is Lucy?” Mr. Clark demanded. “Is she with you?”

Joe blinked in surprise. Lucy was missing? “No sir. I haven’t seen her since I brought her home last night after the dance.”

“What time was that?” Roy asked.

“It was close to ten o’clock,” Joe answered. I walked her to the door, kissed her good night and left.”

Clark glared at him, looking like a cougar ready to pounce on its prey. “Her friends said she left the dance about nine o’clock. No one has seen her since and she never came home.”

Joe swallowed hard. “Now look here, Mr. Clark, I brought Lucy home, safe and sound.”

“We live right on the edge of town, boy. If you left the dance at nine, and didn’t get her home until ten, where were you for an hour?”

Joe looked down at his boots and thought carefully before answering. “We rode out to the lake.”

“Alone?”

Joe wasn’t sure who asked the question. He was getting annoyed and worried at the same time.

“Yes, alone.” His voice gave his growing frustration away. “We were there for about thirty minutes and I brought her home… walked her to the door, and kissed her goodnight.”

“Joe, you said you walked Lucy to the door. Did you see her go inside?” Adam asked this time.

Joe thought for a moment. “No, she was on the porch. She watched me drive off, and we waved to each other. I never saw her go in the house.” A sick feeling suddenly overwhelmed him.

“I don’t believe him,” Clark bellowed. “What have you done with my Lucy!”

“What’s all this commotion?” Ben called out from the top of the stairs. Seeing the visitors, he made his way down quickly. “Alan, Roy, care to explain what all this is about?”

“Look, Mr. Clark,” Joe said, glancing from the man to his father, “I have no idea where Lucy is. I’m as concerned as you are. You said she never came home at all last night? Didn’t you hear us when I brought her home? Why would she not have gone in the house?”

“Joe, did you say or do anything that would have upset Lucy last night?” Roy asked.

Joe felt every eye on him. He knew his brothers were aware that he had been wanting to cool things off with Lucy, but the fact-of-the-matter was that he had done nothing of the sort. When it came right to it, he just couldn’t bring himself to letting her down. And besides, he couldn’t stand the thought of not having her in his life. She had gotten to him.

Joe shook his head. “No. We had a good time last night. A great time, in fact. We were both happy when I left.” He looked up at his brothers and father. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. We’ve got to find her.”

“Now just a minute, Little Joe,” Roy Coffee said. “You’re not going anywhere. As far as the law is concerned, you’re a suspect here. I’m getting a posse together, but you’ll be staying right here.”

“You can’t be serious, Roy, A suspect? For what?” Ben said. “Can you prove a crime has been committed?”

“Look, right now we have a missing girl, and Joe was the last person to see her. Now, Joe, you have a choice of stayin’ here at the house for the time bein’ or I’ll have to lock you up. Until we have some answers, there’s nothing else you can do.”

“I’ll make certain he stays put,” Ben said. “Adam, Hoss, you go with Roy and help him search.”

Adam and Hoss nodded and put on their gun belts.

“Joe, is there anything the two of you talked about or anything Lucy might have said? Was she planning on running away or anything?” Adam asked.

Joe shook his head. “No. There was nothing. It was just a normal evening.” Joe’s jaw was set in frustration and worry. He said nothing more as Hoss and Adam left with the sheriff and Mr. Clark. He was still rooted in the same spot minutes later.

“Joe, let’s have some coffee,” Ben said as he led the way to the table. “Let’s talk about this some more.”

Joe followed Ben’s lead and joined him at the table. “I feel like I need to be out there looking too,” Joe said, his frustration still evident.

“I know, son. But maybe talking about everything that happened last night will help us come up with something that might be useful. Did you and Lucy dance together the whole night?”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, Pa. We danced every dance together and had a great time. We went to the lake for a little while, then I brought her home.” Joe shook his head. “She was standing in front of the door to her home when I left. I assumed she went right in, but something must have happened as soon as I rode off.”

Ben thought for a moment. “Joe, was there anyone unusual at the dance last night? Anyone you didn’t know?”

Joe shook his head. He hadn’t really paid much attention to the others at the dance. The punch had been heavily spiked and he and Lucy enjoyed a fair share of it. “No, I can’t think of anything,” Joe said.

“What about other dates with Lucy?” Ben continued questioning. “Has anything ever happened out of the ordinary?”

Joe shook his head. “She had to be home pretty early every night I’ve taken her out, and I always had her there on time. I can’t think of anything…” Joe suddenly stopped talking and stood up. “Wait, I do remember something.”

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“A while back, when we first started dating, some stranger in the Silver Dollar told me to stay away from Lucy.” He looked at his father’s expression of concern and continued his story. “It was late, the man had been drinking. I was about to leave when he asked if I was Joe Cartwright, then he told me to stay away from Lucy. I started to go after him but Sam stopped me.” Joe sighed and shook his head. “Sam said the guy was just trying to start trouble, and I believed him. I hadn’t thought any more about that until just now.”

“Do you remember what the man looks like?” Ben asked.

Joe shrugged. “Not really. I only spoke with him for a minute. Sam might remember him, though.” Joe walked toward the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ben asked.

“To see Sam,” Joe replied. “I heard what Roy said about staying here, but I’ve got to do what I can to find Lucy.”

Ben frowned. “I don’t suppose it would do any good to remind you that Roy said he’d lock you up if you don’t stay here.”

 Joe shook his head. “Pa, I have to help find her.” He buckled on his gun belt and pulled the weapon out for a quick inspection.

 “I’m coming with you then,” Ben said.

*****

Later that afternoon, Ben and Joe slowly made their way back to the Ponderosa. They’d had no luck in Virginia City because they were unable to locate Sam. They had stayed there several hours in hopes of seeing the man that had threatened Joe. Before it got dark, they began the journey home. Neither man spoke during the long ride. As they approached the house, Ben broke the silence. “If the posse doesn’t find anything today, we’ll find Sam and question him tomorrow.”

Joe said nothing as he dismounted his steed, Cochise, and led him into the barn. He had just unsaddled the horse when he heard his father calling, “Joe! Adam and Hoss are back!” Joe left the barn quickly and saw his brothers talking to Ben.

“What? What happened?” Joe asked frantically.

“We found her, Joe,” Adam said. Joe looked at the three men and knew the news was bad. Hoss was staring at the ground.

“She’s dead, son,” Ben supplied, saving Adam from retelling the sad news.

Joe felt his breath beginning to come in short gasps and he looked at his family, unbelieving. “What? How?” was all he managed to say.

“We found her over by Washoe Lake. There was a man with her. He killed her and then killed himself. He left a note in his saddle bag.” Adam didn’t want to get into the details. He was tired. Finding the bodies, examining the crime scene, and bringing them to town had been grim work.

“Roy said to tell you you’ve been cleared of any wrong doing,” Hoss supplied.

“Let’s go inside,” Ben said. Adam and Hoss began walking to the house, but Joe stood still. “Joe? You coming?”

“I… I need to be alone,” Joe said.

Ben nodded in sympathy. Lucy had been a major part of Joe’s life, and this loss would be difficult for him. He wanted to say something, anything, to help ease Joe’s shock and grief–but he was still struggling to believe the news himself. He followed Adam and Hoss into the house.

*****

Two days later, Joe stood with his and Lucy’s family and friends around her grave.

“Amen,” the gathered crowd said in unison when the prayer was finished. Joe bowed his head and allowed the tears to fall from his eyes unchecked, not caring who was watching. Concerned for his son, Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulder, giving him his support. Despair overwhelmed Joe at his father’s touch, and he pulled away.

“I’d like to be alone for a little while,” Joe said as he wiped the tears from his face. He swallowed hard. “I just need to be alone.”

“We’re all grieving right now, Joseph,” Ben assured him. He hated seeing his son in this much pain.

“I know that, Pa. Just give me a little time,” Joe said. Keeping his head down, he walked slowing toward his horse and away from the gravesite.

“Let him be, Pa,” Hoss said to his father. “Might do him some good to be alone for a while.”

Nodding a slight acknowledgement to Hoss, it was all Ben could do to not stop his youngest son from riding away.

Only Joe didn’t ride away. Pausing as he reached his horse, Joe stood still. Quelling the urge to mount up and ride off, he kept his feet firmly planted. Running away wouldn’t make things any easier, Joe decided. Steeling himself to face his family once more, he remained where he was.

“This wasn’t your fault, you know,” words he’d heard countless times over the last day were once again being voiced, this time from Adam. “Ultimately, you’re going to have to accept that.”

Joe could hear the sincerity in his words, but he wasn’t ready to accept it. “I should have paid more attention – should have told someone about that man in the saloon,” Joe said. “I should have waited until she was inside the house that night.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Joe,” Adam said. “Alan Clark even said he doesn’t blame you, that there was nothing you could have done. The maniac that did this thing had been stalking her for sometime. That’s why they moved here… to get away from him.”

“I know, I heard all that,” Joe snapped. “That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have done things differently.”

“Joe, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Don’t you see that?” Adam watched as Joe shook his head. He knew it would be difficult getting through to him, but he had to try. “Look, Hoss and Pa are ready; let’s join them and go home.”

Joe nodded. “Thanks, Adam,” he said before mounting Cochise.

*****

Late that night, Adam awoke from a dream. At first he thought it must be time to get up, but after fumbling with his pocket watch he realized it was still the middle of the night. Before he could roll over to get comfortable again, he heard a faint noise coming from downstairs. Not sure what it was, he listened intently to see if he would hear it again.

There it was. Someone was definitely downstairs.

Adam got up quietly and used the light of the full moon to find the revolver he had hidden in his bureau. He held the gun tightly as he walked into the hall and approached the stairwell. He knew by the glow on the stairs that someone had lit a lamp in the great room. He crept silently to the stairs and descended the first three to get a view of the room. Peering down, he saw Little Joe stretched out on the settee nursing a bottle of brandy. Relieved, he loosened his grip on the revolver.

Adam approached his brother. He frowned as Joe took another swig from the brandy bottle and held it close to his chest.

“Care to join me?” Joe asked, not even trying to be quiet.

“Shh, everyone’s sleeping,” Adam warned. He placed the gun that was still in his hand on the fireplace mantle.

“You’re not sleeping,” Joe corrected. “I’m not sleeping.”

“I was sleeping, until you woke me up,” Adam said. “Haven’t you had enough of that stuff?” Adam pointed to the bottle Joe held close. Joe’s answer was to take another deep drink.

“Nah, not enough yet. I’m still awake,” Joe answered. “When I fall… ‘sleep, that’ll… that’ll be when I had enough.”

“Joe, when are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours and realize what happened with Lucy was not your fault!” Adam reached down and grabbed the bottle from Joe. “And drinking this stuff until you’re unconscious is not going to make things any better!”

Joe jumped up, angry now at his brother’s interference. “It’s not your fault!” he heard Adam say again.

“It’s not my fault,” Joe repeated. “It’s not my fault!” Joe’s voice rose. Now in a full rant which was sure to wake the entire house, Joe continued. “You say it’s not my fault! But it is! It is my fault that she’s dead! It’s MY fault!”

By this time, Ben and Hoss had made their way downstairs. “Joseph, what’s going on here?” Ben asked.

“I was just talkin’ to A- Adam, Pa,” Joe stammered. “Sorry I woke you all up. Everything’s fine… go back to bed.”

Hoss could feel the tension in the room and it saddened him. “Little Joe, why don’t we all go back to bed,” he said.

Joe looked at his father and brothers and felt nothing but sadness. He was making things difficult for them, which only increased his self-loathing. Wordlessly, he walked unsteadily past them and climbed the stairs.

*****

One week later…

Ben, Adam, and Hoss were eating breakfast and discussing who was going to get Joe out of bed. He had a rough week and they were all growing tired of his dark mood. Finally, Hoss made the trip upstairs and returned shortly, alone.

“It don’t look like Joe ever made it home last night,” Hoss said, worried about his father’s reaction. He saw his Ben take a deep breath, as anger and frustration began to show on his face. Before Hoss could sit back down and try to diffuse the situation, the front door opened.

Little Joe walked in, head down. He placed his gunbelt on the table near the door, and sat in his usual place at the dining table. “’Mornin’, he said with a forced smile as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

Adam looked from Little Joe, to Hoss, to Ben. “Um, Hoss, let’s go get the horses ready,” he said, excusing them from the lecture they knew was coming.

“Right, Adam,” Hoss replied, looking at Little Joe with both sympathy and concern. As he passed his younger brother, he stopped and eyed him more carefully. His green jacket was torn, his lip was swollen, and the smell of stale whiskey lingered on his clothing. He’s definitely hung over.

“Joseph, I know this has been a difficult time for you, son, but you need to get back to work. Get your mind off of everything that’s happened. Now, I want you to go get cleaned up and get some breakfast. Then you can start working on the fence in the north pasture.” Ben hoped that getting Joe back to work would help things get back to normal for him.

Joe squeezed the bridge of his nose with his right hand. “I can’t do any fence work today, Pa. I’m sorry.”

“Joseph, I don’t have a man to spare to work on that fence today. I need you to do it,” Ben said, eyeing his son carefully. “You can’t get out of ranch duties just because you were foolish last night.”

“I know, Pa. And I would if I would if I could…” Not knowing what else to say, Joe slowly raised his left hand and placed it on the table. It was swollen and bruised. “I think it’s broken.”

Ben looked at his son with frustration. He looked closely at the injured hand and didn’t like what he saw. Without saying a word, he got up from the table and went out to where Adam and Hoss were hitching the supply wagon.

“Little Joe comin’?” Hoss asked.

“No, he’s staying here. I need to you stop in at Doc Martin’s and see if he can ride out here today. It seems that brother of yours has more than just a hang over to deal with.”

“Is he alright?” Hoss asked, tempted to run back in the house and see for himself.

“He’s fine. Hurt his hand, but he’ll be fine.” Ben put his hands in his pockets. “You two go on and do your work today. I’m going to stay here and see if I can get Joe to talk to me. He can’t keep going on like this.”

Hoss and Adam both nodded and watched their father return to the house. They finished getting the horses ready and rode off to their respective assignments for the day.

*****

Joe was sitting on the settee, wincing as Dr. Martin probed his injured hand.

“You were right, Joe. You’ve broken at least one bone in your hand,” Dr. Martin said. “There’s a lot of swelling, so it’s difficult to tell if there are any more broken. We’ll get it set and splinted, and then you’re looking at about six weeks recovery time.” Dr. Martin began pulling items from his medical bag. “How did it happen?” he asked. The doctor knew the injury was the result of a fight. He also knew, from speaking to Ben, that Joe was still blaming himself for his girlfriend’s recent death. He had asked Ben to give him some time with Joe alone.

“I just got a little carried away in town last night,” Joe replied. “Ow!”

“Sorry, Joe, but this is going to hurt.”

“Let’s get it over with,” Joe said.

The doctor made quick work of it. He had a piece of wood lined with cotton which he placed under the hand, and then wrapped it tightly in place. “That should do it,” Doc Martin commented while examining his handy work. “I’m going to give you something for pain if you need it. It’ll help you sleep, as well. Go ahead and take one now.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Joe said. He dutifully took the medicine as requested, and leaned heavily into the sofa.

“Joe, did you hear that Alan Clark is leaving town?” the doctor asked.

Joe shook his head and looked down. “No… I haven’t seen him since the funeral. Where is he going?”

“He’s going to California to be near his sister. They didn’t have any other family here. He gave me a letter to give to you.” Dr. Martin handed an envelope to Joe, but soon took it back to open it for him. “You’re going to be struggling one-handed,” he commented. “I’m going to leave now. Keep the hand elevated and take it real easy for the next couple of days.”

“Okay, Doc. Thanks.” Joe waited for the doctor to leave to read the letter. When he finished reading, he closed his eyes, feeling more relaxed than he had in a week. He had just started to doze off when Ben entered the room.

The sound of the door made him come out of his near sleep state. “Hey, Pa,” Joe said. “I was right – it’s broken.”

Ben sat next to Joe, looking at the splinted hand. “You’ll do anything to avoid fixing fences.”

Joe smiled. “I think fixing fences would be better than dealing with this,” he winced. “I’m sorry, Pa. I really messed things up.”

“What are you talking about?” Ben asked.

“I mean, I haven’t been handling things well, and now I’m going to be useless around here for a few weeks.”

“Well, it sounds like you’re beginning to handle things better now. And as far as being useless, I’m sure there are plenty of chores we can find for you to do one handed.”

“Yeah, I have no doubt you’ll find something I can do.” Joe said, ending in a big yawn. “Sorry, must be the medicine the doc gave me.”

Ben noticed the letter in Joe’s good hand. “Paul told me he had a letter for you. Is that it?”

Joe nodded. “It’s from Mr. Clark. Did you know he’s leaving town?”

“Yes, Paul told me a little while ago.”

Joe raised the letter up slightly. “He told me it wasn’t my fault. He said he’s sorry for not telling me about the problem they had with this man. He thought they had it all behind them. He said that Lucy…” Joe’s voice faltered, his emotions started to get the better of him. “He said that Lucy loved me, and that she would not want me to feel any guilt over what happened.”

Ben felt himself fighting tears. “How do you feel about what he said?”

“I’m ready to let it go, Pa,” Joe answered. Then, with his voice hitched high from the emotion, he said again, “I’m ready to let it go.”

***The End***

Author’s Notes: Special thanks to my beta reader, Rose. Any mistakes are my own. This story was composed of deleted scenes from another story I’ve been trying to write for months! Hope you enjoyed it!

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