Touched By An Angel (by Krystyna)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  28,600


My sister Mary can sniff in ten different moods. Disdainful, disgusted, displeased are the three most commonly used by her with regard to myself. I have heard her sniff with pleasure, delight, dismay, joy, passion, greed, and anger. Had she been able to speak any foreign language, I am sure she would be able to sniff with an accent. Nor was anyone ever offended by Mary when her pretty nose sniffed, whereas when I made such attempts in practice sessions in front of a mirror, I was told to get a handkerchief and to stop being so revolting.

I am the middle child of five. Two brothers ahead of me, and two sisters thereafter. My name is Millicent Hephzibah Cassandra Browne. My brothers, Jack and Simon, are both big handsome lads. My sisters, Anne and Mary, are both petite, dainty little creatures with everything where it should be and just as most men would expect, in fact, perfectly lovely.

I would often think of Mary as The Lady of Shallot, with her beautiful golden hair sprawled about her as she floated in her barge down the stream near our house. Her blue eyes were limpid and long lashed and her lips full and pink. Anne, on the other hand, was lissome and delicate, more like La Reine Margot as Dumas described her in the book of that name.

Well, I am not blessed with the good gifts of my sisters. I actually resemble my brothers far more, although no one would call me a handsome lad. I am not beautiful in any shape or form, and shall never be loved. I am sure that when I was born and my mother was told that I was a girl, she promptly passed out and upon recovering locked her bedroom door and refused to come out and look at me until I was a month old. I cannot recall my mother ever touching me. The only attention I received from her was a cold look of reproof or words of criticism or scolding. Nor would she deign to say she loved me, or cared for me in any way whatsoever. Perhaps I should not blame her, for that as she was most beautiful to look upon and her voice was soft and like music. Such women deserve only to look upon things that are lovely and sweet. To have the likes of myself before their eyes…a constant reminder of how, despite having two eyes, one nose and two lips, symmetry can get it wrong at times.

My father was big and handsome. I have his build, his big feet and his big ugly hands. I have also inherited his big nose. On his face it was a feature that was attractive, whereas on my face it dominates cruelly and make my eyes appear too close. He always treated me with good-humored tolerance. But when he saw his sons, his eyes would light up with pride and pleasure. When he saw his younger daughters, the color would mount in his cheeks with delight. I was more like his pet dog – there to be patted occasionally and because of the rarity of such a gesture, my response would bring him pleasure of a kind.

At school the other children would call me names. No one called me Millie, which I always associated with someone dainty and always busy. But they would say things such as “Come on, Centipede, move those stumps” “Oh, no, NOT centipede; you mean MILLipede”, always accompanied with great guffaws of laughter as they would run ahead of me to play. Eventually I became known as ‘You…”

The teachers referred to me as Miss Browne. Sometimes they would refer to me as Millicent, which would engulf the classroom with laughter and I would hang my head and pretend that I had heard neither my name being called nor the laughter that followed it. I hoped and prayed that a day would come when I would be transformed into a beauty. Sometimes I had noticed with my peers that such could happen. A clumsy lump of a girl suddenly reaches an age where they take notice of their looks and with a little primping and pinching and dieting – lo, something lovely appears.

I remained a clumsy lump of a girl and no primping, pinching and dieting made any difference. I continued to grow up and out. I was the despair of my sisters and the butt of jokes for my brothers.

I found solace in two things – animals and books. Animals would seek me out and nestle in close to me to be loved. I could understand them and comfort them. When their eyes looked into mine, I knew what they were asking of me. It was wonderful. I believe that it was a gift from God and it saved me in a hundred different ways. To be loved is the sole measure of a man or woman. To love in return, a pure pleasure. And I was loved. Humans could rebuff me, insult me and turn away from me in disgust. But a dog that came to lick my hand, or a cat that would nestle close to my neck and purr contentedly into my ear…That love, given so unconditionally, gave me joy beyond compare.

When I discovered the art of reading, I discovered another means to retain myself-worth. How often did I lose my ugly self in the words of an author and thus transform myself for an instant of time into the most beautiful heroine? Oh how many deaths have I languidly died and how many handsome cavaliers’ hearts have I captured? Those oh so wonderful, wonderful words. They became my escape route from reality.

A day came when I knew that I could never survive if I were to stay any longer in my parents’ home. For some reason my mother rose from her bed in an angry and bitter mood. The slighting comments when she saw me were uttered with such extreme bile that even I, used to such over so many years, felt my cheeks redden with shame. Throughout the morning, whenever she looked in my direction. she would utter words of such unkindness that I wondered how a mother could even think of such things. Surely to protect their child is as natural to a mother as the milk with which she feeds it?

“Mother, I am sorry I offend you,” I said when I could stand the jibes and insults no longer but mustered up the courage to speak. “But if you could tell me why or how I have upset you, perhaps I could put the matter right.”

“YOU could never put the matter right, you wretch of a girl.” She spun round, her eyes wide and her features distorted with loathing. “Every morning when I set eyes on you, I find you more repulsive to look at than the morning previous. I wish you out of my sight. I wish you had never been born.”

I stared at her with my heart fluttering in dismay. I stood and stared at her and failed to notice the hand mirror that was flying towards me. It struck my brow with a glancing blow that slit the skin and sent the warm blood gushing down my face. Even then my one thought was to reassure her and I could hear myself saying, over and over again “It’s alright, mama, it’s alright” even as I slid down the wall onto the floor in a crumpled heap.

*****

Doctor Harcourt was holding my hands when I recovered consciousness and his face was very kind as he looked down at me. I could see Mary and Anne hovering just behind him and Mary was saying over and over, “She won’t die, will she?”

“How are you feeling, my dear?” Doctor Harcourt’s voice was soft and gentle and his eyes gray and kindly. He never seemed to mind how any patient looked in appearance, so long as they looked healthy. He smiled now and nodded at me and I mustered up a smile. “That’s better,” he said. “I like to see a bonny smile from you, Millicent. Now then, you’re going to have a headache for a while and it may be a good idea if you stayed in bed for a day or two. That will give you a good chance to fully recover.”

I just stared at him. Surely he was making a mistake telling me to stay in bed. It was not as though I were one of his dainty namby-pamby patients that needed constant cosseting and pampering. This was I, Millicent Hephzibah Charlotte Browne he was talking to and treating like delicate porcelain.

“I’ll be fine,” I said stoutly and tried to sit up, but his firm hand pushed me back down against the pillows.

“I said, you have to stay in bed for a little while.”

I looked at him again and he smiled, but the smile did not reach his eyes this time. Now I understood why I had to stay here in my bed, in my bedroom. Why did not people just say what they meant? Why could he not have said that it was better for me to hide away so that my mother could not see me?

“Doctor Harcourt?”

“Yes, child?”

I blinked. Only Doctor Harcourt could see me at twenty years of age and call me a child in that tone of voice. I swallowed a lump in my throat. Was there anyone less looking like a child than myself ? “Am I a changeling, Doctor Harcourt?”

“Certainly not, Millicent.” Harcourt’s smile widened and his eyes twinkled.

“Then is being ugly the mark of Cain?”

“I don’t understand what you mean by that, my dear.”

“I mean that, does it really mean that being ugly on the outside means that I am evil inside. That looking at me, people can see that I am wicked and evil inside?”

He took hold of both my hands in his and shook his head sadly; his eyes were a little moist as he spoke. “You’re not ugly, Millicent. Being different doesn’t mean that you are ugly, or evil, or wicked.”

“I think my mother would disagree with you, Doctor Harcourt.”

He only sighed at that and touched my cheek with his hand before getting up from the side of the bed and bidding us all farewell. Mary and Anne promptly came and stood there, at my bedside, in silence, staring down at me.

“Do I look very bad?” I asked.

“The lump is huge, and it’s going green and yellow as well as black,” Mary said ghoulishly.

“Doctor Harcourt has put big black stitches in it. They look rather like spiders legs trying to scramble out of a moldy pudding.” Anne smiled and produced from behind her back a small posy of flowers from mother’s garden. Then she kissed my cheek and sighed. “Simon and Jack are calling a meeting this evening. We’ll meet here, as you can’t get out of bed.”

“Will that be all right with you, Millie?” Mary asked, looking sad and big eyed and very beautiful.

I nodded and stared into the full-blown roses that Anne had picked for me. I heard the door close and then, knowing I was alone, I allowed the tears to flow.

*****

We, the children, had always met together for ‘discussions and such’ whenever anything of any importance had occurred in the family. Simon, being the eldest always presided with a great deal of pomp and pomposity. When they trooped into my room that evening, he looked more pompous and more like papa than ever. They pulled up the chairs around the bed and surveyed me thoughtfully.

“How is the old head then, Millie?” Simon demanded.

“Sore.”

They sighed and mumbled and looked at me in sympathy. I don’t suppose I looked like a patient that was fading away or anything like that, so there was not much said other than that as a display of their sorrow for me.

“How is mother?” I thought I should ask, as knowing them so well, I knew they would avoid mentioning her to me.

“She had a fainting spell and saw the Doctor. She’s all right now,” Jack declared.

“She’s getting ready to go to the theater with Papa,” Anne said with a sigh, then blushed and put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, perhaps I should not have said that…. I am sorry, Millie.”

Sorry? For what? For reminding me that neither of my parents had bothered to come into the room to see me? For letting me know that a trip to the theater was more important than a sick daughter of theirs? I looked at them thoughtfully, as though I was seeing them all for the very first time. I don’t mean seeing them by their looks, but deeper than that, like looking into their very being. Jack sat there; he was already bored. He wanted to be out and escorting his young lady somewhere or other. Simon’s pomposity was slipping and being replaced by a determination to

finalize the matter once and for all. Anne was twittering as usual; she had beautiful looks but not a brain in her head. Mary was looking around the room, observing this and that with her usual sharpness. She was lovely to look at and her attention to detail meant that she was going to be a first-rate gossip and greatly in demand in the social circles in which she moved.

“Millie, this sort of thing –“

“What sort of thing, Simon?” I asked quietly.

“Well, the way Mother was this morning. It can’t go on.”

“I agree.” I looked at them all and swallowed hard. “I’ve decided to leave.”

“Leave?” Anne exclaimed. “But where will you go?”

“I don’t know.” I looked at them and frowned as best I could. How like them all, not one of them showed concern, nor attempted to even pretend to try and change my mind. Mary was frowning slightly as she looked around the room once again, and I knew she was doing so in an attempt to think out how it would look with her things in it. Simon and Jack had exchanged a look between them, which spoke volumes. I had obviously spared them the trouble of suggesting just that solution. “I shall leave as soon as I can. You will not know when; then if anyone asks, you can honestly say, you knew nothing about it.”

The four of them, my brothers and sisters, sat there and looked satisfied and smug. Anne leaned forward and took hold of my hand and squeezed it gently. Simon stood up and looked at me and then nodded.

“I think you’re doing the best thing, Millie.”

“Thank you, Simon.”

“Won’t you even leave a letter for us, saying goodbye?” Mary asked quietly.

“I don’t think so,” I replied with a sudden longing to be out of that room, out of that house, that very instant.

“Will you let us know where you go?” Jack enquired, his brow furrowed in thought. Jack wanted to become a lawyer, and was obviously working out any of the implications of an absentee sister.

“I may do.”

They looked at me blankly. Then one by one they kissed me as though all ready saying their goodbyes. At the doorway, Anne turned and gave me a long tender look. She was the only one who bothered to do so. The door closed behind her and I was alone once more. This time I did not cry or weep. I only settled back against the pillows and began to daydream about the adventures I would have in the future, far away from them all.

I heard the large front door of the house closing and the sound of the carriage drawing away from the building. My mother and father were leaving for the theatre. I closed my eyes and forced myself not to think about them. Perhaps, in time, not thinking about them would become easier and easier, until I didn’t think about them at all.

*****

My home is beautiful. I cannot put into words how lovely it is here. It has taken me three years to reach this place and I have lived here for nearly a year. I arrived at the same time as the first winter blizzard. I stumbled my way through the snows with the wind blasting against my head and my ears feeling the agony of extreme cold. When I finally found shelter, I could only lay in a huddle upon the ground, for I was so weak that I had not the strength even to lift a finger. I lay there for nearly a whole day without moving. My eyelids refused to open. They seemed as though glued together.

This state lasted until I slipped into a natural sleep and when I woke up, I found myself inside a small cabin. There was wood on a hearth ready to be used. Rough furniture, which consisted of several chairs, a table and a bed. Oil lamps swayed from the ceiling beams. I forced myself into a sitting position and wondered how on earth I could have reached such a haven.

I was stiff from the cold and getting to my feet in order to move was a matter of stern discipline. I realized the door to the cabin was open, and forced to remain open due to the pile of snow that had blown against it. I had walked into the cabin without even realizing it was there. Somehow, by a miracle, I had walked through the entrance to the cabin and then collapsed on the floor.

That was how I found my home, or perhaps, my home found me. Either way hardly mattered. I have no idea who owns the cabin, nor why they left it. There were no personal items in the cabin at all, except for one book that I had found discarded under the bed. It had fallen, perhaps, and been kicked inadvertently there as the owner prepared to leave. It was a book of poems and the owner, I presumed, had attempted to write some poetry of his or her own, for on the flyleaf had been written:

“I cried when I was born

Tears were my language:

But you taught me other ways to speak

And that one could cry with laughter.”

Apart from the initials “A.C.” in the corner, there was no other indication of ownership. That little book of poems was my close companion throughout the winter storms. It kept company upon the shelf with the few books that I had brought from my home. Just as the cabin had saved my life, so the books saved my sanity.

Gradually winter had passed into spring. The earth came back to life. Every morning I expected the door of the cabin to burst open and the owner to stride in and claim it back. If such a morning were to come, then so be it. But I was in no hurry to see that day arrive for it was in too beautiful a location. The beauty all around me refreshed my soul daily and it would have been no easy task to have to leave it all behind.

The animals about me were my friends. I tended to their needs where possible. Not that many of them had needs that I could help them with, for they know their own ways best. But the lame and injured, the starving and orphaned — those I could help.

I had found an abandoned wolf cub not too far distant from the cabin. Searching around, I was able to find the dead body of a male wolf close by but no sign of its mother or any other cubs. It was half-starved and had injured its back leg. I had made it my morning duty to go and feed the poor creature and check on its injuries.

As I walked to the den where the wolf cub was hidden, I thought over the past three years of my life since leaving my home and my family. It had been three years of discovery, of a finding of myself, although I was still to learn so much more. I found that there were advantages to being ‘homely looking’ as one homesteader called me. Women were unafraid of taking me on board their wagons for any number of days as we shared the journey west together. Why were they unafraid? Because they knew their husbands were quite safe and also their eldest sons. No one would run away with the likes of me, nor would I even consider the thought of playing the temptress. In fact the thought, was laughable.

The men showed me how to split logs and make kindling and how to change an axle and grease a wheel as good as any man. The women showed me other skills like how to dry fruit, and preserve it and how to cut material and sew it. By the time I had wandered into that cabin, I had been re-educated and was self-sufficient.

As I approached the shrubs, which hid the little cub from view, I heard someone talking. A soft voice, a man’s voice. I slowed my pace and crouched down and hid myself and peered through the foliage.

“Did you like thet then? Yeah, you sure did, didn’t ya?” The voice held a warm chuckle within it and I just parted the curtain of leaves very slowly, to see who had found the little cub.

He was a big man. Not just big in being tall, but in every other aspect too. A chest like a barrel, and big muscular arms and legs like slabs of beef. His hands were big, but I noticed that they were beautifully formed as he reached into the den and lifted the cub out and brought it to his chest. The cub looked up at its new savior and the man smiled.

He rather reminded me of the cherubs my mother had painted on her ceiling above her bed. A round face, tanned and smooth, with round blue eyes the color of cornflowers. He had a strong aquiline nose and a generous mouth and a gap toothed smile. He was the most wonderful looking man I had ever seen on this earth.

Surely love is not just for the perfect and beautiful. Even women like myself could be blessed by this sweetest of emotions and swayed by the most blessed of passions. As I looked at this man cradling the little cub to his chest, my own heart seemed to vacate it’s usual cavity in my chest and go flying over to entwine around his own. I must have gasped although there was no pain with it, not as though some surgical instrument had separated the organ from its place. But I knew and recognized the change and as a result made some slight sound or movement.

“Who’s there?” He turned to face where I was hidden and his hand hovered to his gun handle. “Show yourself or I shoot.”

I stepped through the shrubs cautiously and watched his face. He looked at me, then seemed to realize I was a woman and visibly relaxed. His face creased into the smile I felt I had known for a thousand years already.

“Shucks, ma’am, whereabouts did you spring from?” He removed his hat with his free hand, exposing a fine head with thinning hair.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. Reality came to the surface and the dream of love floated elsewhere as I realized that this man could be the owner of my home. I licked my lips and opened my eyes wide and struggled to speak.

“Doggone it, I gone done and frightened ya. I never meant to do that, little lady.

Guess I’m jest about the clumsiest fool around here.” He glanced down at the cub in his arms and then smiled at me “I tracked down his marks and found him here. Seems to me someone’s been caring for him?”

“Yes. He was hurt when his father was killed and the rest of the pack moved on.”

“Guess that happens.” He frowned and then smiled once again. “I’m Hoss Cartwright.”

Hoss. Hoss Cartwright. I had heard the name mentioned on the infrequent visits I had made to town. It had always been mentioned with respect and seeing the man for myself I could understand the reason. I extended my hand to take hold of his and gripped his hand tight. “I’m Millicent Browne”

His hand was strong as it gripped my own. Dry and warm, slightly rough skin, as I would have expected a man who worked hard. When he released my own hand, I realized I had been holding my breath. He bent down and put the little cub back into its den and then stood up and looked at me with a slight frown furrowing his brow. “Wal, Miss Browne, whereabouts are you from?”

“Oh, just about anywhere, I suppose.”

“I see. And whereabouts are you living, right now I mean?”

“Right now?” I swallowed the lump in my throat as I envisioned my little cabin taken away from me, my little bolthole, hiding place, call it what you will. I took a deep breath. “I suppose you’re the owner of the cabin a mile back along?”

He narrowed his eyes as though he was thinking out a reply, and then he nodded slowly. “Sure am. Fact is, all this land belongs to me, and my brothers, and my Pa.”

“It does?” I sighed and mentally said farewell to everything I had grown to love over the past months. “Well, I see. I hadn’t realized.”

“This is the Ponderosa. Haven’t you heard about the Ponderosa?”

Hadn’t I heard about the Ponderosa? How could anyone living in the proximity of a hundred miles from the place not know about the Ponderosa, let alone someone camping in one of their cabins on the very place itself! I nodded humbly and bowed my head contritely.

“This is the furthest south that we go, so I guess you must have found our line shack”

“Line shack?” I glanced up at him with puzzlement at the expression.

“Guess you ain’t never heard about a line shack before, huh?” He grinned and stepped closer to me. “We have ‘em built along the borders of our territory so that there’s a place to hole up in when we get to working this area, or for the men to camp out in if they need to do so.”

“And you’re working this area now?”

“Not exactly. I just like riding out to the boundaries once in a while to take in the sights. I don’t like to forget just how lovely the place is. A man can get to take things too much for granted if’n he don’t remind himself of the gifts the Lord provides for him.”

His earnestness and the way he expressed himself made my heart flutter again. He looked, well, he looked such a special kind of man as he stood there, his hat in his hand and his blue eyes looking at me as though he had known me for years and there was nothing at all wrong with talking to a strange woman in the middle of the woods about anything at all.

“I didn’t realize that the cabin belonged to the Ponderosa.” I took haste now to say, “I knew it belonged to someone, of course, and was expecting the owner to return, eventually.” I forced a smile to my lips. “Hopefully later rather than sooner.”

He smiled again; it brought dimples to his cheeks and his blue eyes twinkled and nearly disappeared in the folds of his cheeks. “I kin imagine so; no one would want to leave here in a hurry.”

“No. I suppose you would want me to move on now then?”

He frowned again and twisted his hat round and round in his hands and then looked at me with a narrow eyed expression. “How’s about we have a drink and a chat about that?” he suggested and I wondered then if he was going to produce a bottle of something from his saddlebags (I forgot to mention his lovely black horse, nodding just a little left of his shoulder). “That’s if’n you’ve got any coffee there still. We usually like to keep cabins stocked up with rations, but depending on how long you’ve been there…” His voice trailed off and he looked at me with wide open blue eyes and I relaxed and nodded.

“There’s plenty of coffee, and tea, if you have a wish for it,” I replied and turned to lead the way back to the cabin.

My heart was swelling with pride, with joy, with – oh, I don’t know what nor how to express the feeling. But if it is wrong to say I knew he was the man I would always love, even then, well, I just felt I was not, could not, be wrong in the feelings that I felt at that moment.

This tall, strong man was walking by my side as though I were some kind of wood nymph. He was treating me as though I were a woman as dainty and feminine as my sisters. I had not been given one single look from him that I had received from countless other men. That raking over from head to toe and the look of curiosity and puzzlement that they could not even pretend to hide. He had looked at me, surprised at seeing me there, but that was all.

When we reached the cabin he looked at it and then at me and smiled as he tethered the horse to the ring on the post outside. “Looks to me like you’ve prettied it up some.”

“I did buy some things in town, to make it less bare looking,” I admitted as I led the way through the door.

He stepped inside and paused and looked around and noted the curtains at the windows. He looked at the books on the bookshelves, for I had added another two shelves to the one that had previously existed there. He noted the tablecloth covering the basically built wooden plank table. His lips parted into a smile and he looked at me again. “Seems you really made it a home for yourself.”

“I’m sorry. I guess I was being rather presumptuous.”

“Presumptuous?” Hoss shrugged after repeating the word after me and then turned his attention to the comfortable chair. He pulled it away from the hearth some little distance and sat down and once again allowed himself a good look around the cabin. “This is rather an isolated spot. I’d be a mite worried that summat could happen to you here,” he said suddenly.

“How could anything happen to me here? No one knows the place exists, except you and I.”

“You found it, though.”

“Yes, and I thank God that I did.” I quickly told him all about what had happened and how I had walked through the open door of the cabin during a blizzard. He listened to me attentively whilst watching as I prepared everything for our drink and then as I set out the biscuits and cookies.

“Reckon that was some kind of miracle,” Hoss agreed when I had run out of words at last. He surveyed the ceiling for some moments, while the kettle boiled on the fire and then he looked at me. “What brought you all the way here anyhows? Seems odd to me that a fine looking gal like yourself should be hiding away in a cabin instead of being in town enjoying life.”

My hands were shaking as I put the plate of food down by his chair and I turned away so that he could not see my face as I poured out the coffee. Perhaps he had trouble with his eyesight, I pondered, or may be my face was in shadow as we walked and talked through the woodland.

“Mr. Cartwright, I didn’t feel that I would rightly settle in to the town. And…”

“Are you running away from something?”

“No.”

He looked at me earnestly then. I have never been good at lying, and I had meant my answer, in the negative, to mean that I was not running away from the law or an enraged husband, something of that nature. But I was running away in a sense. How do you explain to anyone that one was running away from oneself? “I’ve not broken any laws, if that’s what you mean.”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”

“You had every right to do so. This is your property. You wouldn’t want to find out some outlaw had taken it over.” I smiled, trying to divert the conversation into a more light-hearted track and he smiled at me and gave a guffaw of a laugh that warmed my heart.

“Shucks, ma’am, you’d be the first outlaw I’d know to fix up a hiding place so purty.”

I could tell that he was good natured, and a man who enjoyed laughter and happiness around him. I could also tell, at the rate the cookies disappeared, that he enjoyed his food. The walk to the cabin had obviously put an edge on his appetite.

“Do you Cartwright’s really own over a thousand square miles of land?” I asked him, sitting on the stool near his feet and gazing up at his face.

“Yep, we shore do, Miss Millicent.”

“But how? How do you get to own so much land here in this far off place?”

“By hard work, sweat, blood, tears.” His face became sober, serious. His eyes took on a deeper look that made the blue of them more intense. “My Pa, Adam and I started building this place up years back, before Little Joe was born.”

“Little Joe?”

“My youngest brother, Joseph. We call him Little Joe because he is the littlest, and youngest.”

“I should think most folk would be little compared to you, Hoss.”

“Shucks, no, miss. My brother Adam isn’t that much shorter than me.” Hoss paused and his brow furrowed. “He ain’t as broad as me, mind.”

“I’ve heard of Adam in town, and of Little Joe. People talk about you Cartwrights a lot.”

“Sure, not always good things either.”

“No, but one can hear the note of envy in their voices so can see where there comments really stem from.”

He looked at me again, as though he liked what he had heard and didn’t mind looking at me for all that. He nodded and then stood up and picked up his hat. “Thanks, Miss Millicent; I sure enjoyed myself this afternoon. D’you mind if I ride on by another time?”

“You mean…..you mean you will let me stay here?”

“Wal, strictly speaking my Pa wouldn’t be too pleased to know we have a squatter living in one of our own line shacks, but if I don’t tell him, and if you don’t tell him…..” He winked and then smiled as he stepped out of the door and took a deep breath of clean woodland air. He looked at me and smiled. “Shucks, Miss Millicent, if’n you ain’t almost as tall as my brother Adam.”

“I – I guess I am kind of lanky.” My heart had sank to my boots, so he had noticed how ugly and clumsy and big and everything else I was, and he didn’t like me after all.

“You don’t know what a relief it is being able to talk to a gal without breaking muh back. All that bending down to git to their level sure makes a man ache all over.” He smiled, slipped his hat back on and walked over to his horse. “Don’t forget, don’t you go telling anyone you’re here?”

“I won’t.” I raised my hand in farewell with my heart swelling with pride and joy. The man I loved had walked into my life, at last.

*****

I spent the next two days in such an anticipation of seeing him again that I could barely sit still. The cabin became suddenly claustrophobic and I found myself constantly walking through the woods to where the little cub was hidden in its den. In the evenings I sat outside and read poetry, even tried to write some, until darkness fell and I was forced to retire to bed. Sleep was as elusive as a will-o’-the-wisp.

I needed to go to Virginia City so I discarded my skirts and femininity and clad myself in my usual working clothes of loose pants and shirt and jacket, and hid my hair under my hat. I had already made two trips to the town and knew that it would take several hours to get there so I left early.

Perhaps, I told myself, I would see him in town. The thought prompted me to think about returning to the cabin and changing back to my skirt and trying to do something with my hair. But it was only a thought that did not occur to me until I was almost half way to town. I continued on my way with thoughts of poetry and Hoss tumbling over and over in my mind.

Once in town I headed straight for the General Store. There were quite a few good stores in the town but I liked this particular place. Miss Sally Cass was always very pleasant and she appeared to like books, as there was a goodly supply of them on some shelves. I tied my horse to the hitching rail and glanced around me, just in case I saw him. There was no sign of him and with a sigh I gave the black and white horse that appeared to be getting friendly with my animal a friendly pat on its sleek neck and went inside.

Miss Cass was packing goods into a box on the counter and glancing every so often over at a couple standing a little way from her. They appeared completely engrossed in each other and although it had never happened to me, I had seen it so often with my sisters and brothers; it was obvious that they were flirting with one another.

I watched them for a few minutes before handing my list of goods to Miss Cass and waiting patiently for her to help me.

There was no denying that the young man was as handsome as a young and virile Greek god. He lounged against the counter with one elbow against it, and waving his hat too and fro with a casual devil-may-care kind of attitude. He had a very mobile and expressive face, beautiful hazel eyes that twinkled up at her, speaking that language no one had ever voiced to me.

The girl was undeniably pretty, with dark hair coiled in what I supposed to pass as the latest style here in Virginia City. Her dark eyes were hidden every so often under heavy eyelids as she coyly giggled at some compliment he paid her.

I sighed and turned my attention to Miss Sally who was talking to me about my order. I must admit talking about coffee and sugar was not as interesting as watching the young couple but it was more necessary.

“I was not expecting to see you again, Miss Browne.”

“I was not expecting to be here for so long, Miss Cass.”

“You must obviously like where you are – is it far from town?”

“Some distance away.”

She was a pretty little thing, and reminded me so much of my sister Mary that I felt a sudden pang of longing to see my family again. I sighed and she smiled. “Are you in a hurry, Miss Browne? I have still to finish Miss Kent’s packages.”

“That will be fine by me, Miss Cass; I have to go to the bank and Mail Depot and will come back in a little while for my order.”

She smiled and I could feel her eyes on my back as I left her; the young man turned to let me pass by him, and I could see him look at me and the light frown on his brow as he tried to puzzle out my gender. Dressed, as I was, I suppose it would have been difficult; I certainly did not come in the guise he was accustomed to, or seemed attracted to at all.

It took very little time to conduct my business at the bank, and I collected several letters from my family and slipped them into my jacket pocket. It had been agreed with Simon and the others that I would always let them know my whereabouts for I allowed myself the indulgence of thinking that they did love me, in their own way.

“You keep your hands of’n her, d’you hear?”

“Who are you to tell me what to do, Judd? You’re not her keeper.”

“And you ain’t walking out with her, neither. D’you hear? If I see you anywhere near Sandra again, I swear I’ll kill you.”

“Judd, Sandra Kent is not walking out with you and has no intention – ouf”

I winced as I saw the fist strike against the young man’s face and when he staggered back, I stepped forward a pace or two as though to catch him. But someone grabbed my arm and I turned to find myself face to face with a tall thin faced man with a thin-lipped smile on his face.

“Mind your own business, boy, and git outa sight.”

I blinked, then realized that he was talking to me. I pulled my arm away and pushed him from me, then turned to see how the young man from the General Store was getting along in what had developed into a slug-it-out fistfight. Several more people had appeared from somewhere and amongst them was the sheriff who elbowed us all away and yelled out to them to break it up. The man who had grabbed at me had disappeared and other men were holding the two combatants back as the sheriff stepped in between them.

I looked at the young man who was going to have a remarkable black eye but seemed to have come out of the fight better than his combatant who was bleeding from the nose and mouth. I decided to leave the scene and get back to my groceries and hope that Hoss Cartwright would stroll into view. He did not.

The black and white horse was still ‘chattering’ to my horse outside the General Store and Miss Kent was strolling down the sidewalk with her parasol protecting her pretty head and obviously unaware of the fight that had taken place in her honor. I pushed open the door and, seeing that there were several other customers there, browsed amongst the books. I selected one, Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ which was a first edition, having only recently become available. No one took any notice of me, and as Miss Cass was busy I collected my goods, paid for them and carried everything out to the wagon. Before I left, I cast another desperate look for Hoss and then, downcast, I clambered aboard my wagon and the horse onwards. The black and white horse, I noticed, had already disappeared.

I drove slowly out of the town looking to the left and right and searching for the sight of him. If I saw a black horse anywhere, my heart missed a beat and I would speculate that he would be in that particular building and perhaps I should go and see and check it out and – oh then I would just flick the reins and drive on until another black horse came into view.

There’s an old music hall song that goes “I dillied, I dallied, I lost my way and don’t know where to go,” which just about summed my situation up that afternoon. I was certainly dillying and dallying when several gunshots rang out and aroused me from my apathy.

I stopped the wagon and looked about me. I was at least three hours journey from town now, and quite alone. Was I the target of some robber’s intentions? I thought of the money I had taken from the bank, hardly a king’s ransom, let alone my own. I was a woman, and alone. The gunfire rolled away and faded out of hearing. I still sat there, looking about me, with just a slight tremble to my heart.

After some minutes, I urged the horse onwards. Perhaps it had been some hunters in the hills close by, or cowboys letting off steam. My horse ambled onwards, whilst I kept a close look out for my safety.

We – my horse and I – turned from the track to go towards the woods where my cabin was concealed. My heart missed a beat, however, when I saw the body sprawled in front of me. Although I could not see his face, I recognized the green jacket right away and knew that the young man in the General Store had been the victim of those gunshots.

Poor boy. Poor unfortunate youth. I cradled his head in my arms and wiped the blood away from his face and wanted to cry for him. I wept over injured animals and sobbed when little birds breathed their last, but to see such a handsome youth shot down and dead there in the road as though his life counted for nothing reduced me to tears. When he groaned, I felt such relief, and then panic, as I then worried about what to do with him, and, more to the point, how to help him.

The green jacket was sodden with blood and when I pulled both the jacket and shirt away from his body, I could that there were two bullets in his body, both pumping blood. I hastily did all I could to staunch the blood, knowing that he had all ready lost so much that the possibility of his survival was negligible.

For once my height and strength were an asset, for I was able to pick the young man up and carry him over to the wagon and settle him down upon some of my groceries. Not the most comfortable transport available, but he was out cold and past caring or noticing. The main thing was to get him home where I could treat him to the very best of my limited ability. I had already realized that were I to take him back into town, he would not have survived the journey.

All the way to the cabin, however, my mind was in a foment of indecision. Should I have taken him back to town? What if the doctor had been there and could have operated rightaway and saved his life and I had removed that chance from him? But what if I had taken him there and there was no doctor available, for a person would have had to be stupid not to have appreciated the population was vast in proportion to the one doctor’s abilities to attend to everyone with a gunshot wound! Oh, once again I dithered and didn’t know what to do for the best, but carried on regardless, urging the horse onwards towards the cabin at a faster pace than it had been used to since the day I had bought him two years previously.

I stripped him of his bloodied clothes and examined his wounds carefully. Once the water had boiled, I filled a bowl and carefully washed him clean and placed wads of padding on the wounds. One had an exit hole in his back, which I plugged with clean moss (an Indian had shown me how to do this several years ago…quite fascinating to watch, but I had never expected to have to carry out the procedure for myself).

Now I tore up some sheeting, strips upon strips of it. I took off the padding and looked at the bullet wound that still contained the bullet. I sat there and stared at it and grew frightened as I wondered what to do. I’ve nursed sick animals, tended to birds with broken wings and even patched up my brothers’ injuries in the past, but this was something far beyond anything I had dealt with before. A young man, who could be dying, and I had taken on the responsibility for him.

I paced the floor and was wringing my hands and wasting time — and I knew I was wasting time — but I was too afraid to do anything. I felt so incompetent. I knelt down beside him and took hold of one of his hands and held it between mine. I don’t really know why, perhaps just to make sure that he was real, and still alive and needing me.

“Pa? Pa?”

His lips were trembling but the words were clear and then his eyes opened and he looked down at me. The long lashes were spiked with perspiration that trickled from his pores and beaded his eyebrows and collected in the hollow above his upper lip. Oh, he was so handsome. I don’t think I have ever seen a more perfect specimen of a youth in my life before then, although I felt nothing for him in the way that I felt for my Herculean hero.

“Pa? Is that you?”

The luster of the hazel eyes that I had been so taken with in Sally’s store had gone. Instead he gazed at me with eyes that were dull, and the green in them had disappeared.

“It’s alright. You’re safe,” I whispered.

“I need to get home.”

“You can’t; you’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re wounded badly.”

“How – how did I get here? Where am I?”

“I brought you here.” I put my hand to his mouth and very gently tried to silence him for he was making me more and more indecisive. My mind kept wandering down different avenues, and my lack of confidence in my abilities and in myself was surfacing and threatening to blow common sense out of the water.

He groaned and his lips formed meaningless words beneath my fingers. His hands were trembling and he began to turn his head this way and that, as though the pain were beginning to pulsate through his brain.

I brought the bowl of water to his bed and began to bathe away the sweat, and in doing so, noticed the scars on his shoulder. They were not new scars, for they were pale against the tan of his skin, but they were obviously the claw marks or teeth marks of some animal — I would venture to guess, perhaps, a wolf. Close to the wounds, I noticed the mark where a bullet had once penetrated below his ribs. So, he had sustained injuries that could have killed a less healthy specimen of humanity. I could only pray that he still had such vitality and strength in order to endure what was about to come.

*****

I boiled copious amounts of water, and linen, and knives. Could I do this, I asked myself? What if the knife slipped and I injured him even more? What if the bullet was in too deeply and I caused his death? Should I wait until he was calmer and then ride into town and get the doctor? Oh what was I to do?

“Pa?”

He screamed for his father. No low whisper that aroused sympathy but a scream that jangled my nerves and made me panic even more. I dropped a knife. It clattered upon the floor and I began to shake.

“It’s all right, Hoss, it’s all right; just put the saddle on,” and he laughed, such a merry laugh.

My heart somersaulted. He had mentioned Hoss. Could it be possible that this was Hoss’ brother Adam? Or Little Joe? I tried to remember what I had been told about them, and all I could recall was that one wore black and the other was young and merry and loved life.

“Hoss, I said put the saddle on, oh, well, if you don’t want to, don’t say you ain’t bin warned. If Adam were here, he’d only tell you the same. Oh – Pa, Pa, it hurts so – .”

I took the things to the bedside and set them down and looked at him. So, this was Joseph Cartwright. This was the one who loved life. I wiped sweat from his brow and face and neck and held his hand in mine for some minutes as I prayed for calm and good sense to guide me. His eyes fluttered open and he seemed to look directly at me and smiled.

“Momma, is that you?”

“Joseph, it’s…”

“Don’t die, momma. I don’t ever want you to leave me again, you won’t, will you? You won’t go away, promise me?” Then he groaned, a long drawn out wail of a groan that squeezed my heart dry and brought a sob to my throat.

“Oh God, I don’t know what to do,” I whispered fervently. “I need your help, and I need a steady hand. He needs You now more than any time before and I don’t know if I can do it on my own. Help me, help me.”

“I don’t want to be afraid. I shouldn’t…I’m a man and I should take things – things like a man – momma, hold me close and don’t let me go again.”

His voice was breathless; he was gasping between the words, and punctuating them with groans. I knew there was little time for me to waste now, that bullet had to come out and then the healing process could begin.

His eyelids fluttered open and his eyes rolled in his head and he was mumbling incoherently. I couldn’t touch him with the knife. It was impossible as he threshed and twisted on the bed in pain and clutched at the covers as though they were lifelines to survival. I bit my bottom lip and clenched my fist. Well, I was the size the strength of a man, and my brothers could testify that I had a punch like a man. I swung my fist hard.

Now as I stared down at his still body, I worried that I had punched him too hard and that I had killed him. I put my fingers to his throat and gratefully found the pulse beat there. It was regular and steady, although not as strong as it should have been, but considering the agony he was in that should be of no surprise.

I picked up the knife and took a deep breath.

“This will hurt but it won’t take long,” I told him, although he was beyond hearing, thank goodness. “I’ll try to be as quick as I can. See, the knife is really sharp and will make a clean incision. The bullet…” I paused and could feel the bullet against the blade of the knife. It had not penetrated as deeply as I had feared. That was one of the best things that could have happened and I could have cried with relief.

I was amazed at how steady my hand was now. I extricated the bullet and then cleaned the area well with boiling salted water. I padded the wounds well, making sure, as I bound them up, that there was some pressure against them. Then, as gently as I could, I settled him back down upon the bed.

I was shaking again when I carried everything back to the sink. The bloodied materials reminded me that I had held his life in my hands and I shook, felt sick, and vomited.

An hour passed by and I had managed to drink several cups of strong coffee and even eaten some bread. I sat by his bedside and read aloud from the book of poems that Hoss had said belonged to his brother Adam.

The youth had barely stirred; once he had whispered for some water and I had poured some, drop by drop, into his mouth. His eye where Miss Kent’s admirer in town had hit him was closing up and fulfilling its early promise of being multi-hued and this was now accompanied by the bruising to his face from my punch. I regretted it bitterly, but it had served its purpose and saved him some suffering.

I suppose I had expected him to sit up and demand bacon and eggs within an hour. The worse, I was sure, was over. He would survive because he was strong and healthy and the bullet had been removed. But he did not sit up; he did not regain a healthy bloom of color. He lost even more color, except for the red flush of fever on his cheeks. Perspiration began to roll from his body in profusion. The linen bandages became streaked with his blood. Once again he began to whisper and murmur in delirium.

I washed him. I bathed his brow like heroines in the novels were supposed to do in just such situations. I talked comfortingly to him. I poured water between his lips whether he wanted it or not. I found medication — ground willow bark — and gave him that in the hope that it would ease his suffering. I was a totally inept, incompetent and clumsy nurse and felt so lonely, desperately lonely and helpless.

In the end, I burst into tears and buried my head in my hands and cried. So, with Joseph on the bed groaning and mumbling and heaving himself about, and myself sitting beside him, crying like a fool, it was a wonder we survived the rest of the day between us.

Eventually I was so exhausted that I fell asleep. I had watched the sun set, and the long shadows of evening had become the darkness of night. My whole body had become weak with weariness and I succumbed to my own need for sleep. In the bed, Joseph muttered and mumbled to himself, for I was no longer able to help him in any way at all.

The silence woke me. The room was in darkness, for I had neglected to refill the lamp with oil and had slept through it smoking and spluttering out. The fire had died to ash, although a few glimmers in the embers indicated that there was the possibility of life yet. The youth on the bed was still.

How quiet it all was and how frightening to find it thus. I leaned towards the bed and touched his brow and, although it felt warmer than it should have been and rather clammy, it no longer burned as previously. I touched the vein at his neck and was relieved to feel a steady regular beat…weak though it was, but it was reassuringly steady. I hastened to light candles and tend to the fire while he slept. Soon it would be morning, a new day. Thankfully, Joseph Cartwright was going to live to see it, and enjoy living once again.

*****

“Ma?”

Softly whispered, the word floated over from the bed and I turned to look at him. I was afraid that the fever had returned and with it another day where we would have to fight for his survival. How like a child he looked at this moment, with his hair tousled and unkempt and his features so devoid of expression. Just the blank look of a child.

I sighed and told myself that this young man’s mother would have been some beautiful creature, with a figure like an hour glass and tumbling golden hair. Men

seemed to like that kind of woman more than the kinds like me. I guess no one could have looked more of a contrast to Joseph Cartwright’s mother than I.

“Ma? Are you there?”

I walked to the bedside and placed a cool hand on his brow. He was feverish again, and his lips were trembling between the words he uttered whilst his hands fluttered upon the covers.

“Ma? Did you ever see a sunset like that one, ma? I guess the snow never looked that pink before? You won’t go away again, will you?” He clutched at my hands and held them tightly. “I missed you so much, ma; you’ll never know how much.”

“Joe, listen to me, I’m…”

“It took about forever to get that picture of you on that horse out of my mind. I dreamt about you all the time, ma. Adam said that you were safe but he was wrong, ma, he was wrong. You weren’t safe at all. Pa cried so.”

The hold on my hand tightened and I winced a little. With my free hand, I once again felt his brow, and he shivered.

“Ma? You’ve got the touch of an angel, ma. Am I dead? Is that what this is and you’ve come for me?”

“No, Joseph, you’re not dead. You’re very much alive and you’re going to stay that way. But you’ve got to fight, Joe; you’ve got to fight hard and not give in. D’you hear me, Joe?”

A little furrow of confusion touched his brow then cleared; his features relaxed and he smiled. He had a charming smile, and I was reminded again about Miss Cass and Miss Kent fluttering their eye lashes at him. I could well understand why.

“Sure, ma, whatever you say, sure we’ll fight this together, won’t we?”

He relaxed his hold on my hand, and I took hold of it and placed it gently on the covers. He had drifted back into sleep, which I very much hoped would be a healthy one. I went back to the stove and hurriedly prepared something to eat and a pot of strong coffee. I also checked my medical stock; there was not much there, but there was, hopefully, sufficient for the day.

Whilst he slept, I hurried to do what outside chores there were to be done. I had several injured animals and birds that needed attention and I was more than happy to be able to release one of them back into the wild. I saw to the horse and then went back into the cabin and closed the door behind me.

I breathed a prayer of thanks at seeing my charge still sound asleep and the clammy touch of his skin had at last gone. I leaned down and planted a kiss on his brow. Perhaps, just perhaps, he may have felt it and thought it was from his mama.

I sat and watched and waited and dozed. It was while I slept that any sounds from outside passed me by, and it was not until the door was being hurriedly opened that I awoke from my sleep and struggled to my feet in terror. The man who burst into the cabin was tall, and from his hat to his boots, he was clad in black. In his hand was a gun, and he was pointing it straight at me.

“Who are you?” we both said together.

That confused both of us, and after a momentary pause during which we took the measure of one another, he asked me again, very brusquely, whom I was and what was I doing there? Then, before I could even get my mouth round the words, he was inside and hurrying to the bedside and exclaiming “Joseph, oh Joe, what’s happened, buddy, what happened to you?”

“He was shot – twice.” I volunteered the information gladly, seeing how distressed he was, for he was kneeling by the bedside with Joe’s hands in his own and peering into the young face in a quite emotional way.

I could see the self-control envelope him like a shroud. He composed his face, which I must say here and now was a very handsome, manly, face, and then turned to look at me as though he had only just remembered that I was there. Thankfully he left his gun in its holster. He stood up, and squared his shoulders. His brown eyes with their sooty smudge of eyelashes stared into my own in such a way that I felt the color drain out of me and then rush back again.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”

His voice was cold, very abrupt and deep. So I answered him in the same manner, clipped and brusque. He frowned slightly and looked me up and down again as though he had to look that hard to confirm the fact that I was who I had claimed to be and a woman at that. He sighed, and turned to the youth in the bed, and for a moment I thought he had dismissed me from his mind, for his attention was so absorbed in the boy.

“His horse came home, and there was blood on its saddle. We tracked back to the woods, and then separated. Do you know how this happened?”

“No. I heard the shots as I was on the way home…” I cleared my throat. “…my way back there, and I found him on the track. I didn’t think he would survive the journey back to town in my wagon so brought him here. One bullet passed through without damage, but the other I had to get out.”

He nodded. Well, if I were expecting any praise for my efforts, I certainly did not get any. He leaned down to look at Joe more closely and then glanced over at me.

“Do you know how he got these bruises on his face?”

“Actually yes, I do.”

He raised one eyebrow and stared at me, coldly, as though I was the sole cause of every problem he happened to have on his mind at that time. I felt my knees shake and clasped my hands together. As briefly as I could I told him about the altercation in town and how it had involved Miss Kent and I was about to confess to him that I was responsible for the blow on the jaw, when he turned to look again at Joe and shook his head.

“Do you recall the names of the men?”

“One of them was called Judd.”

He took a deep breath then released it and nodded as though in confirmation of what he had suspected. He scratched his nose and then with a frown, took off his hat and turned towards me again. I stepped back, unsure of what was going to happen next.

“I’m sorry to have been so abrupt just now. My name’s Adam Cartwright.” He struck out his hand which I took, rather gingerly, and shook. “When I saw Joe, I was scared that I may have got here too late. Thank you for taking such good care of him for us, Miss Browne.”

“Well…” I paused; I could hardly say it was a pleasure for that would have been a downright lie. I looked at him and saw his eyes twinkling at me and a smile softening the lines of his mouth. “Well, I was glad to have been of help. I was frightened at first that I may have done the wrong thing, and should have tried to reach the doctor in town, but then had I done that…”

“No doubt about it, he would have died.”

“Yes, he would have done. Would you like some coffee?” It was all blurted out in a rush, and I hurried over to the coffee pot and began to get out another cup. He stayed by the bedside and then, after feeling Joe’s brow and the pulse at his neck, he came and stood close beside me.

He watched as I poured out the coffee and handed it to him. He pulled out a chair, sat down, and cradled the cup in his hands for a while, during which time he looked around the cabin. Then, once again, those sooty smudged brown eyes were fixed upon me. He put his head to one side as though looking at me forced him to have to think. He frowned slightly and then turned away, bringing the cup to his lips and drinking a little of the coffee.

“So, what are you doing here, Miss Browne? I hardly recognized the place as one of our line shacks you’ve – er – made such homely alterations.” It was impossible not to notice the sarcasm in his voice and his eyes twinkled good-humoredly as he continued to glance around.

I sat down at the table and faced him. I told him how I had stumbled upon the cabin and how it had saved my life. I had not intended to trespass on their property, had always expected the real owner to arrive back and throw me out, in fact, and apologized for having taken it upon myself to make such homely alterations as he put it.

“Well, it looks better for it. Not exactly what it was designed for, though.” He raised the cup to his lips again and looked at me over the rim of the cup. “Any of our men come upon this place again, they’d never want to leave to do any work.”

“I’ll leave and take my things with me as soon as Joe is better.”

“I didn’t say that you had to leave, Miss Browne. Now, did I say that?” His voice was teasing now, and his smile was warm and genuine and the eyes had mischief in them, “If you had not been here, my brother would have died. We owe you a lot.”

“You mean, I can say here a bit longer?”

“Well, I won’t mention it to my pa,” Adam Cartwright chuckled, as though it were all a great joke. Then the laughter stopped and he looked over at the bed; he stood up, walked to the bedside and stared down at Joe. “Judd Scott reckons he’s engaged to marry Sandra Kent. He’s a mean and bad-tempered young man and would not think twice about beating Joe to death, with the help of his brother, Gregory.”

“There was another man there; he seemed more than willing to see your brother hurt.”

“Greg Scott hasn’t long got out of jail for shooting a man down in cold blood. We had to testify against him in court at his trial. It would be the nature of the man to wait in ambush for Joe and shoot him down.”

“Well, I didn’t see who did it, Mr. Cartwright, and I wouldn’t like to say it was either of the Scott brothers.”

He darted a quick look in my direction and frowned, then he sighed and looked at Joe. “Poor Joe. Sandra always had a soft spot for him; there was a time we thought he was going to spark her but Judd came along and put an end to all that, that’s for sure.” He took hold of Joe’s hand and smiled softly as the younger man’s eyes fluttered open. “Joe? It’s me, Adam?”

Joe smiled weakly and looked at his brother’s face, then looked around and stared at me. He looked back at Adam and the smile faltered. “I thought I was talking to ma,” he whispered, “I thought it was really her.”

“How do you feel, Little Joe? Do you want something to eat or drink yet?”

“Sure could do with something long and cool to drink,” Joe whispered.

“Can you remember what happened? Did you see who did this to you?”

“No. There was a scuffle with Judd Scott in town, but I can’t say who shot me.”

“Did the shots come close together? Did it seem as though they came from the same gun, the same direction?”

“I don’t know, I can’t remember.” Joe closed his eyes and with a soft sigh slipped back into a deep sleep.

“I’ll prepare something for him to eat and drink for when he regains consciousness,” I said quietly and Adam nodded, still staring down at his brother.

“Miss Browne?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Would you be able to look after Joe for a while longer? I don’t think he should be moved yet awhile. I want to go into town and see Miss Kent about a few things, and get the doctor to come and see him. “

I nodded. He picked up his hat and, after another quick look at Joe, and then at me, he opened the door, and closed it swiftly behind him.

*****

At mid-day Joe opened his eyes and I could see some of the green twinkling amongst the hazel and knew that he had at last turned the corner. I hurried over to help him by putting some thing behind him to prop him up but hesitated when he looked at me and gave me rather a cool scowl.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Millicent Browne. I found you and brought you here.”

“You put me to bed?”

“Yes.” I looked at him with my chin up, and decided that this was one Cartwright who would not intimidate me. “And I took the bullet out of you as well.” And having said that, I bustled about being very officious and got some cushions behind him.

“So, where exactly am I?”

“In one of your father’s line shacks or whatever they’re called.”

“Phew, I can’t see Pa being over pleased about that…” He looked around him and shook his head, then looked at me again. “I’m sorry I was so rude just then; you caught me a little by surprise.”

“I did? I wonder why?” I replied rather sarcastically.

“I got a kind of picture in my mind of whom I would see here.” His face reddened and he lowered his eyes and looked out of the window.

“Mmm, no doubt pretty, petite and golden haired, I mumbled under my breath.

“I kept thinking of my ma; your voice sounded like I remember hers. I know I was just a kid when she died, but I shall never forget her voice. And you have a light touch – like hers; when I was sick, she would put her hand on my forehead and I used to think it was like an angel’s.”

His voice trailed away and he kept staring out of the window, and I realized that, being so weak, he was also very emotional. I turned away to let him get over his disappointment and poured some broth into a bowl. I carried it over to him very carefully and set it down on the stool by his bedside.

“You should eat something, try and build your strength up,” and I placed a spoon in his hand and was pleased to see the smile of thanks drift over his face.

“Did you see what happened to me?”

“No, I heard some gunshots, but whoever shot you had left before I arrived on the scene. I found you and brought you here.”

He frowned and looked at me. “You must be pretty strong, for a woman.”

“Not really; you’re just very light, for a man.”

He grinned and the green in his eyes danced mischievously. I sat down and began to feed him the broth; it was slow going, as he seemed to be lacking in appetite, which was not really surprising. After a while, he closed his eyes and sank back into the pillows. He took a deep breath before re-opening them to look once more around the cabin.

“Pa won’t be too happy when he sees how you’ve changed one of his line shacks into home from home.”

“That’s what your brother said.”

“Which one?”

“Well, both of them I suppose.”

“They’ve been here?” His voice took on a note of eagerness and his face lit up with pleasure.

“Adam tracked you down to here.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s gone into town to arrange for the doctor to check you out and to find out who did this to you.”

“What? But he can’t do that!” He sat upright, winced painfully, but still attempted to pull back the covers. “The Scotts will kill him.”

I pushed him back, gently but very firmly. He fell back against the bed like a butterfly pinned to a board and looked up at me with his hazel eyes wide with appeal.

“There’s no point looking at me like that, Joseph Cartwright. How far do you think you would get? You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re ill. Do you think I’m going to let you go racing around the country after all the hard work I’ve gone through to keep you alive?”

His mouth opened and then closed and he frowned and then nodded. “I’ve not thanked you yet either. I’m sorry; I should have been more considerate. Thank you, Miss Browne.”

“Call me Millie.” I took his hand and shook it, and we shared a smile. I sat down and checked his bandages because I felt a little embarrassed at being alone with him. Odd to think that considering the hours of quite intimate care I had provided during the past number of hours. Now that he was lucid, I was even more fingers and thumbs than ever.

“The Scott brothers won’t like Adam prying into their business.” Joe frowned and winced a little as I touched upon a sensitive area. There was no fresh bleeding and I felt relief wash over me and sat down to listen to him.

“Adam did mention that one of them had just come out of prison for shooting a man in cold blood. Did he really do that?”

“Who? Oh, you mean Gregory Scott. Sure, he did that a few years ago. I was surprised that he got away with just a prison sentence, but then Mrs. Scott has a lot of influence in town.”

“You mean, she rigged the jury?”

“Who knows?” He shrugged and chewed on his thumbnail for a moment. “I wish Sandra had kept well clear of them.”

“That’s Miss Kent? The lady in the stores you were talking to when I was there?”

“You were there? I never saw you. Shucks, Miss Browne, I do apologies for being so rude; I didn’t notice another lady there.”

I smiled and shrugged, and decided to say nothing. It was pleasant being referred to as a lady though, and I didn’t want to spoil his illusions. In my old gear, most thought of me as a boy, and I remembered that the man in the crowd had pulled me back and referred to me as a boy.

“Tell me about your mother, Joseph. Was she very pretty?”

“Oh sure she was, ma’am.” His face relaxed and became quite dreamy. He sighed and looked up and out of the small window to the woodland outside as his mouth slid into a gentle smile “She was the prettiest thing you ever did see. My Pa said that he fell in love with her the moment he saw her, she was so dainty and sweet looking. He soon found out that she was one tough lady, though, and she didn’t waste time being mealy-mouthed about anything. But she had beautiful golden hair and the biggest eyes in this world.” He paused then, and was silent for a little while, as though wanting to dwell upon the memories of her. “She was from New Orleans. Her life had been pretty tough up to when she met my Pa. You know, she could fence with an epee better than most men. I’ve got her fencing foils at home, and…”

“- and you miss her?”

“I guess.”

“Were you very young when she died?”

“I was five. She came riding up to the house, too fast. Came off her horse. I remember her there, crumpled in a heap. Pa went to her and Adam came and held me tight.”

“I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean for you to think on sad memories.”

He looked at me and shook his head, then put out a hand and held mine. I could feel the warmth of his hand trickling up my arm and touch my heart. I was about to speak when he began to talk about her again, and being a good listener, I listened to what he wanted to say.

“She used to sing to me in the evenings. I used to go up to bed, maybe on Adam’s shoulders, or Pa’s, and then she would come in and sit down and we would just talk a little and she would put her hand on my brow, just like you did when I was ill.” He narrowed his eyes a little as though attempting to capture those moments again and keep hold of them, as we all do when time permits. “I think that was the hardest thing to handle, that time of the evening when she would come and sit with me. For a while Adam would come and spend time with me but then he left.”

“Where did he go?”

“Oh, he went back East to college. He was there three years. I could barely recognize him when he got back; he was so quiet and always so busy.”

“Children change a lot from five to eight years of age, Joseph.”

“I guess so, ma’am.”

“But you’ve a lot of happy memories to call back to mind, haven’t you?”

“I guess.”

His eyes closed and he took a deep breath; a small smile played about his lips before he slipped once again into sleep.

*****

I was wondering, as I sat by the window daydreaming, whether or not I would ever see Hoss again. Joseph slept like an innocent and even I with my limited medical abilities could tell that he was improving in health. I was walking to the little bookshelf when I heard the sound of a buggy and my heart leapt. Perhaps this would be Hoss, at last.

The man who knocked and then entered the cabin was a thickset man with steel gray hair and heavy features. He carried a black bag in one hand and his hat in the other and gave me a warm smile.

“Miss Browne?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Doctor Martin. I believe you have a patient here for me to attend?”

I stepped to one side so that he could see the bed and the patient for himself. He smiled again, and nodded, as though trips to this particular patient’s bedside were quite a common feature in his life. He smiled at me again. “Adam told me what had happened. I believe this young rapscallion has you to thank for saving his life?”

“I wasn’t sure if I were doing the right thing at first,” I said hastily. “I wondered whether I should have brought him into town, but he was losing so much blood.”

“You did precisely the right thing.”

His voice was reassuring. I watched as he examined Joe, who was conscious again and had greeted the doctor with a surprised exclamation, which Doctor Martin ignored.

“Good thing you aren’t one of those dainty little girls who faint at the sight of blood,” Doctor Martin said with some degree of pleasure in his voice. “And whoever taught you to extract bullets did an excellent job.”

I swallowed a lump in my throat. No point in telling him, or anyone else, that I would have loved to have been one of those dainty little girls, and that had the bullet not been so near the surface of the skin, I would have collapsed in a heap and Joseph would have died. I smiled and nodded and listened and sighed. Joseph looked over at me and winked, looking so pleased with himself that I could have hit him.

“Here’s the medication he’ll need to keep the fever down and minimize any risk of infection. Keep him rested; I wouldn’t recommend him leaving here for at least another week. You’ve done very well, Miss Browne. I’m sure Ben will be very grateful to you.”

He shook my hand as he turned to leave by the door, and then paused and looked at me in such a scrutinizing manner that I could have squirmed with embarrassment if I were not so determined to pretend that nothing could hurt me. “Do I know you from somewhere?” he asked.

“I doubt it. I rarely go into town.”

“I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Perhaps I’ve met one of your relatives?”

“I doubt it. I don’t resemble any of my relatives, and none of them live anywhere near here anyway.”

He nodded, and departed the cabin, leaving me feeling rather disconcerted. I shook my head as I closed the door, feeling only sympathy for whomever he had mistaken me. I wouldn’t have wished that fate on anyone!

“Why are you looking so pleased with yourself?” I grumbled at Joe, who was sitting upright in bed now, with his hands clasped in his lap and a smile on his face. I have to admit he looked like a cherub, and almost as innocent.

“I was remembering that I was due to go on a cattle roundup in a few days time,” he grinned. “Looks like Adam and Hoss will have to go without me.”

“Go without you?” I frowned, “How long do these round ups last for then?”

“This particular one, if all went well, probably two weeks.” Joseph leaned back in the bed with his hands folded behind his head and surveyed the ceiling.

“I take it you don’t like these roundups?”

“A necessary evil and not my favorite past time,” he mused. “Hoss and Adam will make out just fine.”

Two weeks without seeing Hoss. My chances of ever seeing him seemed to be vanishing into thin air. I bowed my head and stared at the pattern on the rug to stop from crying. I wished with all my heart that I had not these strong feelings for Hoss, but they were there, churning away constantly.

“By my reckoning, I should be well enough to go to the next social,” Joe continued, still gazing up at the ceiling. “It’s a pity that Sandra Kent has got herself involved with Judd; she’s a good dancer. Do you dance at all, Miss Browne?”

“Of course,” I replied stiffly and left the cabin, and my patient.

I really needed to check on my other sick and infirm, all of who were in the compound I had built by the cabin. I also needed to think over the situation I had found myself in, and the way I felt for this total stranger, Hoss Cartwright.

I was so immersed in my own feelings that I was totally unaware of the horse trotting through the woodlands to the cabin. Of course, the damp duff on the ground dulled the sound of its feet and it was not until someone very loudly ‘hemmed’ close beside me that I realized I was not alone. I turned quickly and the duck in my arms nearly had a very sudden demise as its neck got twisted under my arm.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, that’s right. You got a good memory for names, miss.”

He pulled off his hat, and clasped it against his broad chest with a smile on his face and his eyes twinkling. “I checked on the cub on the way here; seems he’s taken himself off to his pack.”

“I guess so.” I struggled to breathe. He stood so close to me that I could smell the sweat on him; he had obviously ridden hard.

“I passed Doc Martin on the way here. He tells me my l’il brother is going to be jest fine. Said Joe had a good nurse caring for him.” Hoss rolled his blue eyes at me and winked.

“Well, I don’t know about that.” I put the duck down and watched it scurry off, protesting volubly about its rough treatment to its fellow inmates. I sighed and turned to Hoss, wiping my hands on my apron. “Did you want to see him, Hoss?”

“The cub? Oh, you mean Joe? Sure, if it’s all right with you?”

I smiled at him, and felt the blush mounting my cheeks as he looked at me. As I took the lead to the cabin, I kept reminding myself that no one in their right minds would look at me twice, except, as Simon once said, to see if I was really as bad as they first thought. He’s come to see Joe, nothing else. A man like Hoss would have his pick of girls, and would certainly not be interested in the likes of me. These arguments I kept waging with myself even as I pushed the door open.

Hoss stepped inside and observed his brother thoughtfully, then he looked at me, and smiled rather shyly. “Seems like he was plumb tuckered out and gone to sleep.”

“The doctor did give him some medication. He lost a lot of blood, Mr. Cartwright.” I walked over to Joe and, as carefully as I could, I lowered him into the bed and pulled the covers over his bandaged body. “Joe told me that you would be going on a cattle drive soon?”

“Yeah, probably, unless I can get Adam to take someone else with him.”

“How long will you be away?”

“Oh probably two weeks, if’n I go.”

“You’ll miss the dance then?”

“The dance? Oh shucks, I’d not thought of that at all, and Bessie Sue Hightower will be expecting me to take her agin.” Hoss’ brow furrowed thoughtfully. “P’raps I’d best go to the cattle drive after all.”

“This Bessie Sue? Don’t you like her?” I put the coffee pot onto the stove and glanced at him thoughtfully; so he had a girl after all. My wishful thinking was just that, wishful thinking! Thank goodness I had not made a complete fool of myself.

“Sure I like Bessie Sue; she’s a real great gal.”

Now, I told myself, was the time to stop asking questions, the answers to which would only prick at my heart so that I would torture myself by going over and over them later, when he had gone. I poured boiling water onto the coffee grounds and swallowed the lump in my throat. “So? What is she like?”

“Who?” He had been gazing down at his brother with a fond expression on his face, and I could divine from that alone how closely bound they were in familial love and affection. I had never seen such a look directed at myself, but could recognize it for what it was nonetheless.

“Miss Hightower.”

“Oh, her.” Hoss drew a deep breath and regarded the ceiling, and then looked at me and shrugged. “She’s a real great gal.”

I observed him thoughtfully. The same descriptive cliché surely meant something? Didn’t it?

“Is she pretty, Hoss? What color are her eyes? Is she tall or short, dainty, pretty, all that kind of thing?” I nudged him onwards, hastening the pain.

“Bessie Sue?” He wrinkled his nose and glanced at Joe and shrugged, “Wal, Joe’s scared stiff of her, kinda goes pale whenever I mention her by name. And Adam gets so his eyes blank off and he gits a faraway look in his eyes whenever I talk about her and he rubs his chest as though it pains him.” Hoss frowned and looked at me. “I guess she’s as tall as you, Miss Browne, and she’s got golden red hair.”

“Does she dance well?”

“Wal.” He bit on his thumb in thought; it was obvious she had made some kind of impression on him but I was not too sure what kind it was any longer. “My feet kinda ache after a few dances with her. She’s probably the only gal I know who I can’t swing right off her feet during the Boston Two Step.”

“And is she pretty, Hoss?” I didn’t look at him; instead I concentrated on pouring the coffee into the cups.

“Shucks, she thinks she is. Guess she reckons on being jest about the most popular gal in the territory, come to that; it’s jest that no one else seems to agree.”

I looked at him and frowned, and he grinned, his cheeks dimpled. I could have hugged him there and then, but just put the cup down demurely and smiled.

“Hey, Miss Browne, I jest had me an idea.”

“What’s that, Hoss – I mean – Mr. Cartwright?”

“Aw, doggone it, Miss Browne, you should call me Hoss; jest about everyone else here around does. Anyhows, I was thinkin’, how about me takin’ you to the dance instead of Bessie Sue?”

He was looking right into my face with his eyes wide and his whole expression one of undeniable pleasure. He looked like a little boy who had just been given the biggest box of candy in town and when I smiled, his lips parted in a big grin and the dimples came back into his cheeks and his blue eyes twinkled.

“Oh, Hoss, that would be wonderful. I have not been to a dance in such a long time.”

“Wal, I’ll ask Adam to take Walter with him instead. That ways I kin git to do several things that need attendin’ to, and kin take you to the dance as well.”

I looked at him and smiled and could feel so much excitement welling up in me that I could have burst either into hysterical laughter or into floods of tears. I was about to speak when Joe groaned from the bed and began to mutter which sent both of us rushing to his side.

Hoss placed a large but gentle, well formed, hand upon his brother’s brow and his blue eyes looked over at me in concern. “He’s got a mighty high fever.”

“I’ve his medication here.” I measured it out carefully. “Lift his head, Hoss.” I poured it into the youth’s mouth and watched as he swallowed it down and then nodded over at my companion, who gently set him back down against the pillow. “He’ll be all right soon. He’s gone through a lot, Hoss.”

“If it hadn’t been for you, he’d be dead.” Hoss reached out a took hold of my hands and then, very gently, raised one to his lips and kissed it. “Thank you, ma’am.”

No one had ever, ever kissed me like that and the wellsprings of my heart broke, and the tears flooded up and spilled over. I drew my hand away and grabbed for my apron and raised it to my face and wept and he jumped up, all concerned.

“Miss? Miss Browne? What did I do wrong? Shucks, ma’am, I’m that sorry, but – jest tell me what I did or said?”

“Oh nothing, nothing, Hoss.” I mumbled through the apron, “Nothing at all.”

“But – shucks – you’re crying?”

“I’m just being stupid. I – I guess I’m tired.”

He stood up in a dignified manner and approached me. Putting a hand on my shoulder and very gently removing the apron, he looked into my blotched red eyed face and nodded,

“Shucks, miss, of course you are. I should have realized that myself and taken care of it.” His brow furrowed and he pursed his lips in thought and looked around the cabin. It consisted of only one room, as it was just a line shack after all; consequently it had only the one bed, occupied by Joe.

“It’s all right, Hoss. I’ve slept in the chair, but…”

“But nuthin’. You need to git some rest and you need to have some kind of bed to sleep on. Thing is, the Ponderosa is so far from here and Joe can’t be moved for a while yet.”

“It’s all right, really it is.”

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll go right now with your wagon into town, and git some bedding stuff. Should be back before dark.”

I looked at him and blinked, and wiped tears from my cheeks. Quickly finished his drink, he picked up his hat and slapped it haphazardly upon his head. Then after a quick look at Joe and then at me, he left the cabin.

I sunk back onto the chair and stared at the closed door. I felt as though I had been lifted up and was floating on clouds. My feet were no longer touching the floor but already dancing in tune to the music that drifted through my mind. He had touched my hand the way I had read cavaliers touched the hands of their ladies, and he had promised to take me to the dance. I had not seen a look of repugnance upon his face once, or a glimmer of pity. I allowed myself the luxury of floating upon clouds to castles in the air where Hoss stood at the door to take my hand and lead me inside.

*****

A hand on my shoulder shook me awake with a firm, but gentle touch. I may have murmured Hoss’ name but when I opened my eyes, I was face to face with his brother Adam. He smiled, and then stood straight and stepped back.

“I’m sorry; I thought you would prefer to wake up now, or you would have had the most painful crick in the neck.”

“I fell asleep?” I jumped up; immediately his hand came and pushed me back down onto the chair. “What about Joe?”

“Joe’s sleeping like a baby, and the best thing too.” Adam Cartwright regarded me with a thoughtful gaze and then smiled again. “Just stay put, and rest awhile. I would not have woken you had it not been that I’ve been here an hour already, and thought you would regret having slept in that chair for so long.”

“An hour? I’ve been asleep a whole hour?”

He shrugged. “Maybe more; I’ve been here an hour and you’ve slept right through.”

“I feel so stupid. Joe could have been taken ill again, and…”

“You needed to sleep. If Joe had needed anything, I would have got it for him. Anyhow, I’ve made some coffee. It’s strong – do you want some?”

I nodded and rubbed my face to get some life into it, trying not to look too bleary eyed. It was not quite dark, just that pleasant soft time of the evening where moon and sun disputed which would shine upon the earth for the next twelve hours.

“I was looking through your bookshelf,” Adam said, looking at the books as he spoke. He poured out coffee. “I found one of my own there – where did you find that?”

“It was here, in the cabin on the floor,” I mumbled. “I didn’t know it belonged to you in particular.” I took the coffee he handed me and had to admit it was just about the strongest I’ve ever seen; I think a spoon could have stood upright in it. “Did you write the dedication on the fly-leaf?”

“Yes.”

“Was it for anyone in particular?”

He looked over the rim of the cup at me; the brown of his eyes disappeared into black, and the smudge of eyelashes reminded me of a small creature in pain. Then he lowered his eyes, drank his coffee and set the cup down. He stared at it for a while, and I wondered whether he was thinking more about the strength of the coffee than the question I had asked him, when he nodded, as though to himself.

“It was Inger’s book initially.”

“Who was Inger?”

“My stepmother, Hoss’ ma.”

“She liked poetry?”

“Yes, she did.”

I looked at him again, wondering whether this conversation was going to lead anywhere. Then I noticed how soft his features had become. Hs eyes had half closed as though he were making some attempt to peek back into the past, a past that obviously had brought him some pleasure.

“She was Swedish. I was getting on for five when we met her. Like many emigrants before her, she developed a love for the English language and particularly for the beauty of poetry. She bought the book with her first wages. I think she knew every poem there by heart, so she gave me the book. When she read those poems she…” he took a deep breath and sighed, “she wove a kind of magic into them. It’s because of Inger that I love poetry so much myself.”

“”I cried when I was born, tears were my language.” I looked at him; he looked down and picked up his cup. Realizing it was empty, he put it back down again.

“My mother died when I was born. Not a very prestigious start to life really.”

“And then you met Inger and realized that there was laughter after all, even for you?”

“Yes.” He looked at me oddly and then grinned. “Yes, even for me.”

“Was she pretty?”

“Who?”

“Inger?”

He gave me a long hard look, as though looking actually at me and seeing me for the very first time. I forced myself not to look away, and held his eyes and did not back down. He stood up and walked to the bookshelf and took down a book. It was my copy of the Bible. He brought it over to the table and sat down, opened it and then looked up at me again.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t that right?” he asked me, with a gentle tone to his voice.

“I suppose so, although I would not know from personal experience.” I sounded edgy, and thought that it was bound to happen at some time with this family. They were honest and kindly, but not blind nor stupid.

“And some people would say Inger was beautiful; others would disagree.”

“What about you?”

“I was a child and she was the first mother I knew, the first woman to love me.” He narrowed his eyes a little and then looked down at the page he had opened before him. “I always look for this kind of beauty in a woman. It’s written by the Apostle Peter in his first letter, chapter 3: ‘do not let your adornment be that of the external braiding of the hair and the putting on of gold ornaments or the wearing of outer garments, but let it be the secret person of the heart in the incorruptible apparel of the quiet and mild spirit’.”

I said nothing for a moment and then looked at him thoughtfully. It is a strange thing, I thought, being so close in such a short space of time with these three brothers. In this closeness I could sense the essence of their being. In Hoss, I could almost taste the gentle core of his being, and his gentleness was his strength, although most would assume by his build that it was his physique alone that gave him that quality. They were wrong.

And this man, this Adam Cartwright, who talks to me about the bible and poetry and women who were beautiful inside. I could smell the animal smell of him, the masculinity that must always be a challenge to any woman who saw a man and wanted to conquer them. Yet within him was this love of… what did he say? The quiet and mild spirit?

“And was that how you think of Inger? This quiet and mild person?” I asked looking at him. He sighed and closed the bible. Leaning back in the chair, he stared at it.

“She was a strong woman; she had to be to live the life she had. But she was all that it says there – not for her the frivolities of life, but to love. And she did; she loved people, animals, and they loved her. She was that kind of woman.”

“And you loved her?”

“I loved her with all my heart.”

We were both quiet for a moment and I thought of Inger and of Hoss, and about this strange, almost extraordinary family.

“How did she die?”

“She was killed in an Indian raid not long after Hoss was born.”

“Did you see her die?”

“Yes.”

Again we were quiet for a while. I shivered and thought of the motherless children, the widowed man and the vast empire they had created between them and shivered again.

“Are you all right?” Adam asked, “Another cup of coffee?”

“No. No, thank you.”

I stood up and walked over to look down at Joseph. Stroking back the dark hair from the less feverish brow, I smiled with relief and looked up at Adam, who was walking over to join me. “He’s much better.”

“Doc Martin got here then?” He smiled down at me, and put his hand on my shoulder. “Thank you, Millicent; you’ve saved Joe’s life, you do know that, don’t you?”

“I’m glad I could help, Mr. Cartwright, I’m just glad I could help.”

I looked down at Joe and smiled. It was impossible not to smile at Joe; he looked such a sweet innocent. “I bet his mother was beautiful?”

“Yes, Marie was very pretty, very vivacious, and Joe takes after her a lot.”

“He called out to her a lot while he was ill; he still misses her.”

He nodded and looked down at his brother sadly. The brown eyes gentled a little, and he looked at me. “And what about you, Miss Millicent Browne? What kind of family are you running away from?”

“Who said I was running away?” I replied defensively. He opened his mouth to reply when Joe began to speak.

“Adam? I thought I heard your voice. When did you get here?” Joe put out his hand, which Adam grasped tightly in his own. They shared a warm, brotherly smile that excluded me completely.

“Oh, about an hour, two hours maybe. You look much better, buddy.”

“I feel much better. Thanks to my angel here.” Joe looked over at me and smiled, before looking again at his brother. “Did you find out what happened?”

Adam chewed on his bottom lip and then shrugged and shook his head. “I went into town and checked out what happened there between you and Judd and Gregory Scott, which they acknowledged happened just as Millicent said. But when I asked about their whereabouts at the time that you would have been shot, they claimed to have been at Sandra Kent’s home.”

“And then?” Joe winced, and I don’t think it was because he was in pain, just that it involved Sandra, and he anticipated the worse.

“She said they had both been there all afternoon. There were things that they had to discuss about their engagement. She didn’t seem very happy to be talking to me, Joe.”

“No, I guess not.”

“Don’t worry, though, Joe; we’ll find out what happened, and whoever it was who did this to you will answer for it — trust me.”

I looked at Joe and saw the complete confidence in his face as he looked at his brother. I glanced over at Adam and could see why he inspired such a look, for he was a man who could inspire people. Some men are born to lead, and he is such a one.

There was a shuffling at the door and we all turned to look as it was forced open. We all smiled; the tension drifted away like smoke. Hoss strode into the cabin with enough bedding in his arms to equip a hotel full of bedrooms. He dropped it all in a corner and turned to look at us and beamed a smile. We were still smiling as he was, for the generous warmth of him flooded into the room and it was as though an angel had touched us.

“Thought we’d all stay over so I brought enough bedding so that Miss Millie here can get a good night’s sleep and Adam and I can take turns to look over our little brother.” Hoss winked at me, as though I were in some conspiratorial secret with him, and then he looked at Adam as though he thought his brother was about to object but had better think twice about it. But Adam only smiled and nodded. “And to make life even easier for us all, I brung me some supplies,” added Hoss.

Adam’s smile became broader as Hoss turned and left the cabin. Rrom his bed, Joe chuckled and winced and groaned but the smile was still on his face when his brother returned, carrying two large bags of supplies.

“Miss Millie, seeing how well you bin carin’ for our brother, I thought it was time you had a break from all that. So you jest rest yourself easy thar, and I’ll fix up some supper for us all.”

“Oh no!” Adam stood up and protested, but laughed when Hoss turned a withering eye upon him.

I sat back and watched them, allowing my imagination to wander back over the years to when they would have been boys. It was not too difficult to picture as they stood together joking with one another as Hoss brought out item after item of things to eat, none of which needed any preparation at all, apart from the coffee.

What would it have been like, I pondered, for two small boys to be wandering the wilderness with only their father to guide and teach them. They must have been good friends, even then. Adam the older, and witness to the death of Hoss’ mother, would have felt the burden of responsibility slip onto his shoulders at an early age. Even now, one could sense that burden still; it was so part of his character that if the two brothers were not there, he would cast around to find others to care for and protect.

What kind of boy would Hoss have been? I smiled at the picture of a golden haired, blue-eyed child straying off where he should not have gone because he had seen some creature that needed nurturing, and I do mean the four-legged variety, of course. How Adam would have fretted, and how Hoss would have good-naturedly laughed at his concern. They were a great team; the bonds had been forged stronger than steel over many years.

So unlike my own family, I thought, so unlike my brothers and sisters who would trample over one another to reach whatever goal they sought, were it so necessary. What protection had they given me over the years of my infancy? Oh, to have had the loving protection of a brother like Adam, and the loving warmth and kindness of one like Hoss.

I looked now at Joe, who was drifting back to sleep. He would need careful tending now; I was worried that I had not been careful enough and he had been overtaxed by the events of the day. What a blessing for him to have had such brothers, and parents who loved him. I sighed; his mother had loved him so much and died so young. I envied him her love and, sad to say, her death. What had my mother ever given to me? A cold heart, and nothing but rejection and loathing.

“Won’t your father wonder where you both are this evening?” I asked them as I watched their rummaging through the pots and pans and crocks.

“He’s away,” Hoss said, trying to disguise the fact that he had half a doughnut in his mouth.

“…for a few more days yet,” Adam concluded, a frown on his brow as he concentrated on making the coffee. A cup skittered across the table and he laughed. Hoss laughed.

It was strange how infectious laughter can be; we were chuckling and giggling like children. Joe, nearly asleep, smiled and opened his eyes, then drifted back to slumber.

“If Hop Sing were here, he’d cook you up a real treat,” Hoss mumbled, with the rest of the doughnut crammed into his mouth, “But as he ain’t, we had better enjoy what we have here.”

It was an evening such as I had never enjoyed before then. A party-like atmosphere where nothing was said of importance, nothing was done that was outstanding, and yet the warmth of feeling and the friendship that enveloped us warmed my heart like the sun thawing the earth. I loved Hoss more every minute. I sat there and watched as his face crinkled in laughter, or his eyes widened and then narrowed forming little creases down his cheeks. It was pure joy.

I heard them talking together in muted tones until I fell asleep. The blankets, the food, and the companionship warmed me. The responsibility of Joe’s care had been taken from off my shoulders. There was nothing to disturb my slumber and so I slept well.

The sun was streaming through the window when I woke up. Hoss was preparing something to eat, but of Adam there was no sign. Hoss threw me a smile and nodded at me, then asked me how I liked my eggs.

“Sunny side up. Is Joe all right?” I scrambled from under the blankets, only too aware that first thing in the morning was not the best of times to see me, and embarrassed into wondering what he would think of me.

“Joe’s fine. Woke up once or twice but he seems to be getting stronger. He’s eaten and Adam gave him some medicine the doctor left for him. He’s sleeping now. Best thing for him.”

I rubbed my eyes and, yawning, looked bleary eyed around the cabin. Hoss smiled and pointed to the table, indicating that the food was ready for me to eat.

“Where’s Adam?” I asked.

“He had to go. When Pa ain’t around, then Adam’s the man in charge, and there’s a lot to do with a ranch the size of our’n.”

I sat down at the table and looked at him quickly. He was concentrating on making his own meal, a slight frown on his brow and the shadow of stubble along his jaw and chin. I wished more than ever that his breakfast companion were someone beautiful and lissome, instead of – well – instead of me. I was aware of my hair sticking up in all directions and that I was clumsy and big and ugly. I kept my head lowered and began to eat.

“Miss Millie?”

I felt the table move as he inched his way onto the chair opposite. I looked up at him and saw him looking at me rather thoughtfully, so I put the fork down and cleared my throat and nodded, trying to look bright eyed and attentive.

“Miss Millie, I sure hope you won’t mind my sayin’ this, but Adam and I were talkin’ during the night and we reckon that your stayin’ here ain’t right.”

I felt my heart shrink. This was it, my eviction notice. I suppose I should have expected it; I looked at him again and nodded. I picked up my fork and tried to rouse up an appetite.

“Thing is, Judd and Greg Scott are a mean pair of skunks and won’t think nothin’ bout causin’ you trouble jest because you’re a woman. If’n they know Joe is here and still alive, then they’re come here and git him.”

“But you don’t know for sure it was them.” I looked at him again, feeling more relaxed; I was not being evicted, but protected. That was good. I felt warm inside and shoveled some ham and eggs into my mouth.

“Yeah, well, Adam said summat about Miss Kent protesting too much, meaning that she was lying her head off. The Scotts are jest about the only folk in town who would be cowardly enough to hang about in ambush to shoot Joe. They ain’t got the guts to fight face to face.”

“So what have you both decided to do?”

“Wal –” Hoss took a deep breath and looked straight at me and I waited for the recoil, the distaste that I usually would see in a man’s eyes. His blue gaze showed only concern. “Doctor Martin will be here later on today, and if he thinks Joe is well enough to travel, we thought we would put the bedding in the wagon and take him home where he can be kept safe. Reckon you should come along too, Miss Millie, and get some of Hop Sings food inside of ya, seein’ as how you’re plumb fading away to nuthin’.”

I stared at him and could feel the blush hot all over my body. Me? Fading away to nothing? Did this man I love need spectacles? Another feeling swept over me as I recalled someone once saying that love was blind. Was that it? Could it be that this wonderful man actually DID love me? And, if he did so, could he see within me all the lovely things I felt were there within me?

“I can’t come; I have my animals to care for and some of them need regular attention.”

“Miss Millie, if the Scotts knew you were here and helping Joe, I don’t know what they would do, and I don’t want you to be hurt jest because you saved Joe’s life.”

“How many folk know you have a line shack here in the woods? They’d never find me here, nor Joe either. He’s probably safer here than on your ranch.”

“I don’t think so, Miss Millie.”

“Will you please stop calling me Miss Millie. You make me sound as though I were your school teacher or something.”

“Shucks, dadburn it, Miss…Browne.”

“Millicent. My name is Millicent. You can call me Millie if you prefer, but NOT Miss Millie.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Hoss looked at me thoughtfully, and with a sigh, began to eat his food.

We ate in silence. I could see that he was confused now, and didn’t know how to address me nor how to suggest a way of getting me to leave the cabin. He kept darting quick little looks up at me every so often to see whether or not I had become rational enough for him to speak to again.

“Anyhows, Joe needs to be cared for at home. You can’t keep nursing him here on his own like you were; you’ll wear away to a shadow and git sick yourself. You could come back with us and help look after him at home, if’n you’ve a mind to.”

I thought about that and after finishing my food and drinking my coffee, I looked at him and nodded. “Look, Hoss, if you have to take Joe back, then do so. But I can’t leave my animals. Surely you understand that?”

He said nothing but picked up his mug of coffee; cradling it in his hands, he nodded. “Sure, Miss – er – sure I understand, but I sure would have liked having you stay with us back at the Ponderosa.” He smiled slowly. “Can you ride a horse?”

“Of course I can ride a horse.”

“I’ve got the perfect little filly for you. I could take you to see my favorite part of the Ponderosa, and the Lake.”

“I thought this was your favorite place?”

“It’s just one of them.” Hoss sighed and moved away from the table, to the bedside where he looked down at his brother.

“I’m sorry, Hoss. I didn’t mean to sound so bad tempered. I just thought that you wanted me to leave the cabin and…”

“I do, Millicent; I do want you to leave the cabin. But only because I’m concerned that something could happen to you here. You’re too unprotected and don’t realize just how the Scott brothers could hurt you.”

“Don’t you think I’m big enough to handle them, Hoss?”

He grinned, and his blue eyes twinkled at me. He reached out a hand and placed it gently over my own. The warmth of his touch as his fingers curled around my hand made me feel dizzy. No man had ever touched me with such gentleness; no man other than my father and brothers had touched me like that at all.

“Shucks, Millicent, it ain’t got nothin’ to do with size. It has more to do with downright cunning and sneakiness, that’s what it has to do with.”

I was about to speak when there was a tap on the door, and it was pushed open by the Doctor, who took off his hat as he entered and smiled

apologetically. For a second or two we just looked at him, then Hoss withdrew his hand rather quickly and stood up.

“Shucks, doc, you’re early this morning?”

“I was close by; Mrs. Fuller had her baby safely, thank goodness. I thought I would come and check on Joe.”

I stood to one side to let the good man pass me by, and smiled at him. He looked at me searchingly, and I remembered that he had said previously that he was sure he knew me. I just kept the smile fixed on my face until he turned to look back at Joe.

“Hi, Doc.” Joe’s voice contained a note of mischief that appeared to be a good sign, for Dr Martin and Hoss exchanged a glance of relief between themselves. “You’re early? Or am I late?”

“You’d be late for your own – mmmm –” Hoss paused, as though remembering that the comment was too close for comfort. He shrugged and grinned tehn stood back to allow the doctor to examine Joe more fully and to check the bandages and dressings.

“I had a real weird dream last night, Hoss. I dreamt I was in a forest with light streaming down through the branches and I could hear singing.” Joe leaned forward obediently whilst the doctor examined his back and then his front. The doctor peered into his eyes and ears and did various other things that seemed important to medical men but unnecessary to us who are always so impatient for immediate cures.

“Sure it wasn’t Adam’s singing?” Hoss asked, keeping his voice low as though it would distract the doctor if he raised it a tone or two.

“I said singing!” Joe exclaimed. His hazel eyes twinkled momentarily and then he resigned himself to Doctor Martin’s ministrations with considerable patience. “How am I doing? Will I survive?”

“If you do, it’s all thanks to this young lady here,” Dr Martin said, glancing over at Joe, and then looking at me as though he considered me neither young nor a lady. “She saved your life several times over, young man.”

“I am grateful.” Joe winced as the doctor began to unwind the soiled bandages. There was still some sepsis and blood leaking, and during movement in bed, the wound had reopened slightly. The bandages now were sticking to the wound and even though Dr Martin was gentle in unbinding them, there was still a degree of pain and discomfort to the patient.

“I want you to start eating and building your strength up, Joseph,” the doctor ordered. “If your father returns home to find you like this, he’ll have my scalp.”

“Can’t I go home?” Joe asked hopefully.

“Not yet. I wouldn’t want you to leave here for awhile; the wound isn’t closed sufficiently for my liking.”

I watched as the doctor secured clean bandages around Joe’s body. I had been wrong in thinking Joe was improving rapidly. He had obviously been putting on a show of strength to us all, trying to prove that he was no weakling. Instead he should have just slept the fever out and built up his strength slowly. I looked at Hoss, who was studying his brother’s pale face anxiously.

Once again I wondered at the bonds of brotherhood there existed between the three men. They were bonds of such depths that it was easy to forget that they were half brothers. Unlike my own brothers and sisters…full blood kin, and no bond of love to speak of at all.

“I’ve some medication in town that you should have here.”

Dr Martin was speaking to me, and I roused myself to concentrate on what he was saying. He was looking at me with a smile, although his eyes were concerned. “I’ve several more calls to go on this morning, and yet Joe needs the medication as soon as possible. Nothing will cure that sepsis quicker, and if it doesn’t heal soon, he is going to be an extremely sick young man. If I write out a prescription sheet, would one of you go into town and fetch it for him?”

“I’ll go.” I stepped forward and put out my hand, then looked at Hoss. “If you don’t mind spending time to keep your brother company?”

Hoss was about to open his mouth when the door opened and a merry face peered into the cabin, with sloe black eyes crinkling into slits and a wide smile dimpling in round cheeks.

“Mistah Adam say come to cabin, bling plenty doughnut for Mistah Hoss and for sick boy. Bling nice cookies for lady also.”

“Hop Sing, you couldn’t have come at a better time than this,” Hoss exclaimed with a smacking of his lips. “I’ve just bin manhandled into agreeing to baby-sit my little brother and was wondering how I’d git through the day without a doughnut.”

“Doughnuts I bling, and cookies too. Sick boy must stay in bed and sleep long time.” Hop Sing nodded at us all cheerfully.

Dr Martin unrolled his sleeves and then pulled on his jacket which he had discarded to examine Joe. He looked at me, and then began to write out the prescription. This he put into my hands.

“I’d suggest you get this as soon as possible.”

“I’ll leave right away, Doctor.”

I picked out a jacket to pull on and then looked at the young man now sinking back, gratefully, upon the pillows. Hoss was pulling the blankets to his brother’s chin and saying something that brought a wistful smile to the boy’s face. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Hoss looked back and stood up. Like a lot of big-built men, he could walk across a floor with amazing lightness of foot. He was soon by my side and had taken hold of my hand again, and smiled. It was thanks enough. I would have swum the ocean for such a smile; breathlessly I turned away and hurried out of the cabin.

“Miss Browne?”

I turned as the doctor, halfway to his own buggy, called my name. I waited until he had walked over to me and once again I could feel his dark eyes studying my face carefully. An instant ago Hoss Cartwright had held my hand and made me feel like a real woman, forgetful of my own looks. Now I was suddenly plunged back to reality and admission that I was plain and unattractive. Doctor Martin nodded and smiled. “You don’t feel comfortable with me looking at you like this, do you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.” I bit my bottom lip and frowned. “Perhaps it’s because I can’t pretend to be anything other than what I am when you look at me like that.”

“I see. And why is that, Miss Browne?”

“I don’t know.”

I stared down at the ground as though looking for answers there, but in all honesty, I just wanted him to go away and leave me alone. He put a firm hand on my arm.

“Miss Browne, does the name Lazarus Rousseau mean anything to you at all?”

I hurriedly searched through my memory and then shook my head.

He frowned and looked at me once again. “You do come from Philadelphia, do you not? And your mother is – or rather was – Miss Jennifer Hutchinson?”

“You knew my mother?”

“Oh yes, I knew Miss Jennifer many years ago. I knew your father also.”

“They never mentioned you.”

“They had no reason to do so.” Dr Martin smiled again, and then nodded and squeezed my hand gently. “My dear, I must not delay you any longer with this careless gossip of mine. Joseph needs that medication urgently, so I shall let you go.” He half turned, and then paused again. “Perhaps we can talk a little bit more, at another time.”

Nodding, I hurried over to my wagon and hastily pushed the prescription sheet into my pocket.

*****

“How is Joseph?”

Sally Cass’ bright eyes looked straight into my own. I had collected the prescription that was safe in my pocket. Passing by the General Store, I had seen Miss Kent entering and for some reason best known to Providence, I decided to follow her inside and collect some necessities at the same time.

Miss Kent and Miss Cass were chattering together with the closeness of old friends. When I closed the door and the little tinkling bell had ceased ringing, I found myself the scrutiny of two pairs of eyes. Miss Cass was obviously trying to remember who I was, for I had never appeared in town dressed so neatly and femininely before, but when she did realize who I was, she gave me a sincerely warm smile.

“Joseph?” I stammered, wondering how she knew that I had any knowledge of a Joseph.

“Joseph Cartwright? Doctor Martin told my father that you had saved his life the other day and were caring for him in your cabin.”

Miss Kent looked a little pinker in the face and turned her eyes aside, to study more carefully the merits of a porcelain shepherdess on a shelf nearby. I remembered her close links to the Scott brothers, and her denial of any knowledge of their guilt to Adam, and felt my anger begin to simmer.

“He’s ill. Very ill.” I said this gravely, and heaved a deep sigh at the same time. I had the satisfaction of seeing Miss Kent go another shade darker. Pink was not her color!

Sally opened her eyes wide and shook her head, then looked miserably at Miss Kent who had picked up the shepherdess and was examining it with a more minute interest than it truly warranted. “Did you hear that? Joe is very ill, Sandra.”

“So I heard.” Sandra looked at me and frowned. I could see the same look of disapproval in her luminous eyes that I had seen countless times before, ever since I was old enough to realize that people looked at me differently to how they looked at my sisters. “Are you caring for him then?”

“With Dr Martin’s help, and Hoss Cartwright’s, of course.”

“Who mentioned Hoss Cartwright?”

A woman’s voice, but deep and loud, came from behind a shelf and a tall buxom young woman appeared before us and glared at me. She was not altogether unattractive, and her eyes were pretty and her hair an attractive reddish blonde. She was just as tall as myself but well formed. I think the word would be – statuesque.

“Oh, Bessie Sue Hightower, this is – Miss Millicent Browne.” Sally did the introductions pleasantly enough but Miss Hightower and I were like duelists, instinctively aware of one another as rivals and disinclined to be friends.

“What did you say about Hoss?” Miss Hightower demanded yet again.

“I was telling Miss Cass that Hoss was helping me with Joe, his brother.”

“Helping you with Joe? Why? What’s wrong with the shrimp?”

“He was shot in the back. Then he was left to die on the road by bleeding to death. I found him and took him to my cabin, and Hoss has been helping me in caring for him.”

She narrowed her eyes at me, and then shrugged. “So that’s why he ain’t bin around lately. And me thinkin’ he’d gone off my cookin’.” Bessie Sue threw out her chest (excuse the expression) and gave a bellow of laughter, “Guess he’ll soon be back once the little whipper snapper is back on his feet. Tell him I’ll be waiting for him to call agin, will ya?”

She strode past me, even brushing my shoulder as she went by and making me step back a pace or two. The door banged shut and the bell tinkled furiously for some seconds. Sally looked at me and smiled and shook her head. “Bessie Sue thinks she and Hoss are an item.”

“So I gathered.” I put down my list of groceries and glanced to where Miss Kent had been, but of her there was no sign.

*****

“Miss Browne?”

I turned in the act of putting the bags of groceries in my wagon. Miss Kent was walking quickly towards me, and behind her were two men. They were tall and good-looking men, with broad shoulders and narrow hips upon which their gun belts set quite neatly. When Sandra Kent stopped to talk to me, one of the men placed a hand on her elbow, as though reminding her that he was nearby. Her eyes looked up at me and I could see the sincerity of her feelings as she spoke,

“Miss Browne, is Joe really as ill as you indicated earlier?”

“I don’t tell lies, Miss Kent.”

“I mean…” She looked down and tried to disengage her elbow from his hand. I could see her fingers fumbling with her purse before she glanced back up at me. “I mean, is he dying?”

“It’s possible.”

I knew then, without any possibility of a doubt, that the Scott brothers were responsible for Joe’s injuries. There had been a mere fleeting glance between them. In that moment of time I saw the smug look on one face, and upon the other, a curl of the lip, a smile, swift in passing, but cruel and triumphant.

“It’s also possible that he could live,” I said with a satisfaction that came from the desire of wanting to hit below the belt at the two would-be killers.

“Is it? Are you sure? Oh, I do hope so,” Miss Kent exclaimed. Then remembering who she was with, her feature froze into a mask of horror. She nodded, as though trying to convince them that it was only a trivial thing, this asking after the health of another young man, and she forced a smile to her lips. “You must call by sometime, Miss Browne, and let me know how he is getting along.”

“If I am in town, perhaps I shall.”

She nodded again and excusing herself politely, walked away. The two men followed her, but the one who was not gripping her elbow turned back and looked at me closely. Whereabouts are you staying, lady?”

“That’s for me to know …” I replied tartly.

He said nothing in reply to that, only looked me up and down as though I were nothing significant to him, and then walked away.

I continued with my task of loading groceries into the wagon whilst inside I was shaking with a mixture of emotions.

The wagon was not heavily loaded and my horse was a loyal old thing, but even so, it seemed to be struggling up the hills from town, and laboring along the trail home. I knew it was my own impatience that made it seem as though the journey were twice as long as usual, and tried to think things out to a neat solution in my mind in order to speed the time along.

As it was, I found my mind returning more and more to Miss Hightower and Hoss. Rather than worrying about Joe and the Scott brothers, I was worrying about how involved Hoss could be with Bessie Sue. Were they in love? Was he proposing to marry her? She certainly seemed determined to let me know in no uncertain terms how she felt about Hoss.

After I passed the spot where I had found Joe and had turned into the woodland, I was experiencing all manner of angst as to the situation between Hoss and Miss Hightower. So deep in thought had I become that I was not even aware of the first gunshot. It was the way the horse pulled suddenly at the reins and jerked at my arms that I could see there was any danger at all. Several more gunshots rang out and the wagon sped on as my poor horse strained at the reins to remove us from the danger.

I felt a thud to my back and inwardly cursed (I know, my mother would have despaired of me), but urged the horse onwards along our familiar track home. It was an experience that I had never known before, driving along like that but unaware of anything other than the sensation of urgency and the power of the horse coming through the reins to my hands. It seemed the only important thing was to get the wagon safely through to the cabin, to Joe – and to Hoss.

I saw the cabin through a blur, and wondered why everything was so misty. My hands were weakening and I wondered why that was happening when I could drive a team of horses better than most men. I pulled the horse up and clambered down, stumbling halfway to the door. Wretched skirts, wretched wretched life being a woman, weak and stupid and tripping over skirts….my mind was a maelstrom of jangled thoughts as I pushed open the door and made my way into the cabin.

“Did you get the prescription?”

I heard Hoss’ voice ask the question and I heard myself say that I had; it was safe in my pocket. Then everything spun round and round and I heard myself laugh. I thought I was drunk. I tripped and saw the floor rushing up towards me. Before I hit the floor, however, I felt the strength of his hands holding me and I laughed again.

*****

Hop Sing looked into my face and I could see the concern in his dark eyes. I could even see the tiny reflection of myself peering back. I heard the sound of gunfire and turning to look about me, attempted to stand up. My feet seemed detached from my legs and my legs had no strength in them at all. I looked again at Hop Sing. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Miss got shot in back.”

I frowned. That was stupid, getting shot. I shook my head and looked over at Joe, who was now struggling to get out of the bed. I raised a hand that seemed to flap about like a flagpole in the wind. “Get back into bed, Joe,” I scolded. Suddenly the pain seared across my back and shoulders; I tried to stifle a groan and squeezed my eyes shut tightly in an effort to drive the pain away.

“Git back into that bed, Joe,” Hoss bellowed and sent off another shot into the direction of our ambusher.

“Are you crazy? How am I going to be able to help if I’m in bed? Don’t talk stupid, Hoss Cartwright.”

“If’n you don’t…” Another shot and then a shot winged and whistled back; one of my favorite jugs shattered upon its shelf.

Suddenly there seemed to be shots coming from all directions. Even in my semi-conscious state I was aware of shots from outside that were not directed towards the cabin. Shots being fired towards us were fewer, and then gradually trickled away. A few shots outside and then silence.

Hoss stood up and reloaded his rifle then waited. I could see his body relax and the smile slip across his face as the door opened and a tall man clad in black stepped into the cabin. Then I passed out.

*****

Adam Cartwright had hold of one of my hands and was looking intently into my face. As I opened my eyes and saw him, his features relaxed into a smile and the dark eyes twinkled. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to stop them from hurting you, Millie.”

“Who hurt me?” I asked, trying to recollect my thoughts. Then I remembered the horse pulling away, and the wagon jolting over tree stumps and avoiding trees without any seeming help from me. I sighed and nodded. “I remember now. Did I get shot?”

“It was a clean wound. In and out. Nothing to worry about.” Adam smiled, one of those grins that exposed his teeth. It occurred to me then that I would hate to have been a man about to confront him in a duel – there was the look of a wolf about those teeth and it made me shiver at the thought.

“Was it the Scott brothers?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Did you catch them?”

“No.”

I looked at him, my eyes widening in horror. He merely smiled and glanced over his shoulder at his brother who was standing close behind him. Hoss was looking at me thoughtfully and it came into my head that he should have been the one holding my hand, not Adam.

“I saw Miss Kent and she told me that the Scotts had not been at her place the day and time Joe got shot,” explained Adam. “She said that they had forced her to give them an alibi, and she had gone along with it because she believed them. She cared about one of them enough to want to believe them.”

“So why did she change her mind and tell you this?”

“A woman scorned.” Adam’s brown eyes darkened a little and he crooked a dark eyebrow, “Sadly, Judd couldn’t stop from straying. It’s the old story, but for us, the timing was right. She said she would go and tell Roy everything that she knew, even though it was not much. She promised to go as soon as I had left her. On the way here, I heard gunshots and rode up to help. They didn’t hang around, but I doubt if the welcome they get back in town will be quite to their liking.”

I nodded and leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. I felt weak and tired. I was also disappointed that it was not Hoss who was holding my hand at such a time as this one.

It may have been, as Adam said, just an in and out wound, but it made me extremely ill. For two whole days I seemed to be drifting in and out of some kind of strange unreal universe. Sometimes I seemed to be floating on the ceiling, looking down at myself and everyone else in the room, and sometimes I was only aware of pain, being too hot or too cold and shivering and shaking and trying to drink through lips that seemed as dry and parched as a handful of sand.

Finally I was able to open my eyes and everything was where it should have been. Nothing floated away or developed strange curves that sent them drifting into the distance and into mist. I called out a name involuntarily and to my intense delight, Hoss Cartwright came and leaned over me.

“How are you feeling, Miss Millie?”

His voice was barely a whisper in my ear but it sounded like the voice of a heavenly choir. Looking up at him, I could only stare at the blue eyes and anxious furrow in his brow and feel relief. I could feel his hand holding mine now, and I felt a tear trickle down my face which he wiped away with such gentleness that it only made me cry all the harder.

“Shucks, Miss Millie, there ain’t no need for all that now. You’re fine; you’re going to be as fit as a flea in no time at all.”

Nodding, I pressed my head further into his shoulder and felt his arm around my shoulders. This was where I was meant to be; held tight and secure in Hoss’ arms. I felt like a puppy that had found the comfort of its mother and curled contentedly within that womblike fold.

He stroked my hair gently, rather like calming some horse, but then Hoss had that gift and it did calm me. I stopped crying and peeked over his shoulder. I saw Joe and Adam in the far corner of the cabin, talking quietly together, occasionally glancing over in our direction.

“I’m sorry, Hoss. I feel stupid crying like that,” I mumbled into his shoulder, not wanting to leave the warmth of his body and the touch of his hand upon my hair.

“You’ve bin ill, not surprisin’, not really.”

“Is Joe better now?”

“Yes, Miss Millie, he’s doin’ jest fine. Doctor Martin reckons he can git back home now, if’n he goes in the wagon on a mattress.”

“Oh, that’s good, isn’t it?” I closed my eyes and tried to think of what that all meant. Somehow I tried to remember that there was a cattle round up due, and someone was to go away and Mr. Cartwright had not returned. It all seemed so confusing; I sighed heavily and tried not to think about anything at all.

“Time to go,” Adam said quietly, his deep voice very gentle.

“Sure,” Hoss replied and withdrew from me, very carefully, as though I were some fragile piece of china.

I did not open my eyes as the door opened and then closed. It did occur to me that they could not possibly leave a sick woman on her own in a cabin, but I felt too tired to open my eyes to find out who had stayed or who had gone.

*****

“Shucks, Miss Millie, you’re too good at this game.”

Hoss laughed, a loud boom of laughter that made me smile, and he swept the board clean and stared to set out the checkers again. His blue eyes twinkled up at me and he looked happy and comfortable and content. I could imagine him looking exactly that way ten years in the future with a wife and children about him as a fire roaring up the chimney.

A week had passed by since Joe had left the cabin. Hop Sing and Hoss tended to me and I was now strong enough to walk about unaided. I had met Mr. Cartwright, who had ridden out to thank me for caring for Joe and had then insisted that I had all the help I needed. He arranged for a woman from town to come and care for me, but it was Hoss and Hop Sing who really nursed me back to health.

The door stood open; I could see the blue sky peeking through the branches and leaves of the trees that stood around the cabin. All my little injured pets had been healed and released back into the wild — another little chore for Hoss, who had cared for them as diligently as he had cared for me. It was a lovely day. I had been able to walk out to pick wild flowers and they were in a jug, drooping close by, their shades of color vibrant in the room now bathed in sunlight.

“Hoss, have you seen Miss Hightower lately?”

“Nope.”

“Do you intend to?”

“Nope.”

“She likes you a lot, you know?”

“Shucks, don’t put me off this game, Miss Millie.”

“But why don’t you like her?”

“I like her well enough, but not enough for her to git all fussed up about nuthin’.”

“She thinks you like her a lot more than you say.”

“Mebbe.”

He frowned and looked at me thoughtfully, as though he couldn’t understand why I was asking such tomfool questions. The checkers were all set out neatly on the board and he smiled. “Your move, Miss Millie.”

“Why do you keep calling me Miss Millie?”

“Wal, ain’t polite to call you anything else, is it?”

“But why can’t you call me Millie, like your brothers do.”

He looked at me seriously, then sighing, picked up a checker and put it down on a black square. “Guess it’s because I don’t feel about you like my brothers feel, and I feel better calling you Miss Millie.”

“Don’t you like me then?”

He looked at me as though I had asked the most stupid question in the world. Had he not shown how he liked me by giving me day and night attention for all these past days? He shook his head and indicated that it was my move. “If I didn’t like you, Miss Millie, I would have hightailed it outa here long ago.”

“I don’t know why you stayed really.” I picked up a checker and placed it down, a clumsy move; I had left myself vulnerable to his checker at the next move. “I’m not as pretty as Miss Bessie Sue.”

He said nothing, but jumped my checker and put it to one side. He frowned slightly and concentrated on the board.

“And I’m fat and ugly,” I added.

“No, you ain’t nuthin’ of the sort. Jest different, that’s all.”

“Different? How?”

He gave me a look of exasperation that I had seen on the faces of countless men cornered by womenfolk asking stupid questions. He shrugged. “Wal, different. Like I’m different, I guess.”

“But you’re not ugly, and you’re not fat, Hoss.” I put my checker down and looked at him earnestly, wishing that he would look at me and sweep me into his arms and tell me I was beautiful and that he loved me. That was what I wanted him to do, but he did nothing like that at all. He looked at me and shook his head,

“Some folks wouldn’t agree with you thar, Miss Millie.”

I opened my mouth to speak and was prevented by the door opening. I had not heard a knock, but when Doctor Martin peered around the door to look into the room, I smiled a welcome and stood up to greet him. Another man followed him. The door closed behind the stranger and he turned to look at me. I looked at him, and felt my heart soar into my throat and beat there wildly for a few pulsating seconds.

Doctor Martin made the introductions. “Miss Millicent Browne, this is Doctor Lazarus Rousseau. Doctor Rousseau, this is Miss Millicent Browne, the daughter of Miss Jennifer Hutchinson.”

Doctor Rousseau was a tall man, big and angular. It was hard to believe that such big clumsy looking hands could be as gentle as a doctors needed to be at times. He had hair that sprung from his head like a bush, and his face was not handsome at all. It was, quite bluntly, an ugly face with a big squashed nose. His eyes were too close set together and his mouth too full. Yet it was a face I knew. It was a face I looked at regularly in the mirror, except that his was the masculine version of my own features. He stared at me and smiled as though he recognized in me what I had also seen in him. But I said nothing, merely stared and refused to believe or accept what my eyes told me was so obviously the truth.

“Doctor Rousseau is a surgeon, a very skilled and very important surgeon in San Francisco,” explained Doctor Martin. “When I told him that I had met Jennifer’s daughter, he was very interested in meeting you, Miss Browne.”

“Why?” I forced the words through my lips. I continued to stand, staring at him and too frightened to want the conversation to go any further.

“Perhaps…” Dr. Rousseau stepped forward and smiled again, a kindly gentle smile. “Perhaps Miss Millicent and I should have a little stroll outside. It is lovely out there, under the trees. I think we have a lot to discuss. Don’t you agree, Miss Millicent?”

I wanted to shake my head and tell him to go away. I had never seen him before; he was a complete stranger to me. I glanced at Hoss who just inclined his head and widened his eyes as though urging me to agree.

Dr. Rousseau walked beside me with a slow gait, in a kind awareness of my recent injury and subsequent frailty. When we were some small distance from the cabin, he indicated the trunk of a fallen tree upon which we could sit. For a few seconds we sat there and said nothing.

“You have your mother’s eyes.”

I looked at him in astonishment. No one had ever acknowledged that I bore any similarity to my mother whatsoever. I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, but you do. You also have her gentle way of speaking, and the tilt of your head when you look up at a person.”

“No one has ever remarked on it before, sir.”

“No, I don’t suppose they would have done. But it was what Paul, Doctor Martin, first remarked about you when he saw you.”

“He knew my mother well, did he?”

“Paul and I were medical students together and knew your mother’s family very well. We were close friends of your mother and her brother for some years, you know?”

“No, I did not know anything about Doctor Martin, nor yourself.”

He sighed, a heavy, tired kind of sigh, and his hand hovered over mine, as though he would wish to have taken hold of it, but did not dare to do so. It dropped back to his knee. “Tell me about yourself, Millicent.”

“What is there to tell?”

“Your name, about your family, about yourself?”

I shrugged off handedly, “I’m sure there is not much to tell you that you do not know already, Doctor.”

“I think we have got off to a bad start, which is sad. I have been clumsy and awkward, I am sorry.”

I looked at him, and then turned away. “My name is Millicent Hephzibah Cassandra Browne. I have two brothers and two sisters. My father is a very eminent Banker in Philadelphia and my mother is – well – she is just very beautiful and the most popular hostess in the city. I left home three years ago.”

“Why?”

I looked at him and could feel the tears welling up in my eyes; I turned away. “I couldn’t bear the loathing anymore. My mother could not longer disguise how she felt for me, and my father hated me, and I just could not bear to be there any longer. I needed to be my own person before their hatred destroyed me.” I swallowed the tears noisily, in a big gulp.

Now he did cover my hand with his own, and I did not pull away, for it was oddly comforting. “Millicent, poor Millicent. I am so sorry that you have had to endure so much because of me.”

“You? Why? What do you mean, sir?”

He looked at me, his brows furrowed a little and then he sighed. “Millicent, when you first saw me, what was your impression? Did you not think we were, perhaps, a little alike?”

“Yes, I admit that; I thought we were related.”

“We are, my dear, very closely.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and stared at him, then forced a smile, a false one. “I always wondered who I took after in my family,” I quipped, although I could feel the color draining out of me.

“I always loved your mother. I knew her when I was a medical student and later I had the privilege to become her personal physician. That was years later though, after she had married Browne. He was a cold fish, and I had to stand by and watch her change from being the most beautiful and happy girl to becoming cold and reticent. It seemed the only times she reverted to her old self was when we were alone together. “

“Did she love you?”

“I thought that she did.”

“Did she leave my father?”

“No, we discussed it and that was the reason we parted. She did not love me enough to handle the disgrace of a divorce and the subsequent scandal. I would have lost my standing in the medical profession. But, I would have risked that had she loved me enough. Even when she found out that she was expecting a baby…“

“And are you then, my father?” I cried with a pain in my heart that twisted as sharply as any knife ever could have done.

His eyes looked into mine. I saw myself staring back as surely as he must have seen his own reflection in my eyes. He nodded slowly, gravely. I withdrew my hand and stood up. Turning away from him, I burst into tears. So, no wonder I did not belong to that family. Such a simple reason really. My brothers and sisters were my half brothers and sisters. Had they known? Was that why they could not love me? Yet, I had seen that love between half brothers could exist and forge deep bonds. I had seen that only recently with my own eyes. It could have been possible for them to love me, surely?

“If Jennifer could not show you love, it was not because she would have not loved you, but because she hated herself for what she had done. In a moment of weakness, she had nearly lost everything and everyone she loved. She and I, well, we sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.” Dr. Rousseau paused then. His brow crinkled and his eyes became slightly moist, then he sighed, “I have to give Browne due credit, for he could have cast her off, irregardless of any decision we had come to ourselves. He loved her immensely, and forgave her freely. I was more than relieved about that, for she needed the strength of a forgiving love.”

“Perhaps, had she been less beautiful it would not have been so easy to have forgiven her.” I could taste the spite in my own mouth, but after twenty years of her guilt being borne upon my shoulders, it was the very least I could offer in retaliation.

He said nothing to that, only sighed again and stared at the ground as though the rocks there would offer us both some mitigation for our shared losses. I thought of my family, my half sisters and brothers, and felt at a loss to explain to myself their lack of kindness to me. I was, after all, merely an innocent victim of my mother’s weaknesses, so why then had I been cursed with so much unkind disdain. A voice inside my head told me why. It was because I was ugly, or, as Hoss would say, different.

“Please, Doctor Rousseau, I don’t want to hear you making excuses for her. She never showed me any love from the day I was born. I was not made in her image and had I been, perhaps life would have been more bearable. I was always something detestable to her, and to her husband, and to the rest of the family. There was never any love in her heart for me.”

He stood there dumbly. I wondered, for a moment, what it must have been like for him. He was not a handsome man, so how was it possible for him to claim that my mother had loved him? I did not doubt that he would have loved her, most men did so.

He reached out and touched my arm. “Perhaps, then, she grew to hate me too much and sadly, dear, you were to be the innocent reminder of her guilt for the rest of her life.” Doctor Rousseau bowed his head as he thought back to the woman he had loved. I said nothing but only because I was still trying so hard to come to terms with what he had told me. “Come home with me, Millicent. Let me make up for those lost years without love. Let me at least try?”

*****

I loved Hoss Cartwright. When Mr. Cartwright invited me to stay at the Ponderosa, I felt as though I were in seventh heaven, if such a place ever existed. The Ponderosa was like its owners – expansive, generous and beautiful. I loved it passionately and I loved being part of the family there, even though for only a short time.

I wanted Hoss to love me. I wanted him to love me the way a man loves a woman so that they become man and wife. I allowed myself the luxury of thinking that he loved me that way, and, as a result, clung to that straw over the days that followed Doctor Rousseau’s declaration of being my father.

The stables and the barn were a place that I would often visit in the early hours. The horses always seemed so friendly as they nodded over their feedbags, lazily munching at their oats and looking gravely at me with sleep heavy eyes. Their velvet noses were warm and inviting, and they would nuzzle at my sleeves as I passed them by.

One morning, just before breakfast, I was sitting in a corner of one of the stalls reading a book. Sun motes danced and highlighted specks of dust and grain that floated in the golden light. I was content to sit there until breakfast came. It was a private moment and an enjoyable one. Usually I was always alone, but this particular morning I was disturbed by the door opening and Hoss’ voice, in low tones, murmuring some words, which, at first, I thought, were addressed to his horse, Chubb.

“I don’t agree.” Adam’s deep voice, clipped and confident and in answer to his brother’s comment. I had been about to make an appearance, to let them know I was there, but now I was curious, wondering with what Adam disagreed. Hoss sighed and I could hear the jangle of a bit and bridle being taken from a hook.

“Fact is, Adam, I don’t know what to do for the best,” Hoss said quietly, the concern in his voice quite apparent.

“Then, if you don’t know, the best thing is to leave the matter alone.”

“But I don’t want to hurt her feelings none.”

My heart fluttered. Was this Miss Hightower or myself about whom Hoss spoke? I dreaded it being myself. I shivered and waited for a further revelation.

“Look, Hoss, do you love her?”

“Shucks, I dunno.”

“Why don’t you know?” Joe spoke up now. His voice was light and impatient. Of course, love with Joseph was no stranger. He fell in and out of love as often as most men changed their socks. But with Hoss it would be different. When Hoss fell in love, it would be deeply, sincerely.

“Not everyone loves the same,” Adam said diffidently. “Some love with a passion that affects them physically as well as emotionally, and it’s easier to tell with that kind of love. Isn’t it, Joseph?” His voice was teasing and the three of them shared a laugh together.

I peeked around the post of the stall in which I was hidden, and saw them there. Hoss was leaning against a post, polishing the brass. Adam was seated next to his leather saddle on its stand, a duster in one hand and a tin of polish in the other. He polished the leather dreamily, perhaps thinking of loves he had won and lost. Joe was sitting, straddled on a railing of Cochise’s stall. He was fiddling with some straw, chewing it, twisting it, knotting it around his fingers.

Hoss frowned. “What other kind of love is there then, apart from the kind that’s so clear it hits you between the eyes?”

“Well, there’s a slow growing kind of love. Starts with friendship and then suddenly, you realize you can’t live without one another.” Adam paused in his polishing and stared at nothing in particular, and then he sighed, “So I’m told!”

“But not experienced?” Joseph laughed.

“Not yet.” Adam grinned and winked over at him, and began to polish the saddle once again, slowly and rhythmically.

“She loves you though, Hoss,” Joe said with a slight frown on his brow. “And she’s a gentle hearted girl too. You’ve a lot in common.”

“Yeah, I know that,” Hoss said and he creased his face into a scowl.

“She’s not the most beautiful looking gal in the world though, is she?” Joe said thoughtlessly. With a sigh, he tossed the stalks of straw aside and leaned his chin onto the palms of his hands, staring over at his brothers.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Adam quoted, “Inger wasn’t beautiful in the way of looks, but she was beautiful in her own ways, which made every man who knew her fall in love with her.”

Hoss smiled over at Adam then, and I could sense the feeling of pride and love he felt for this long-dead woman whom he had never really known.

“Yeah, but she wasn’t down and out ugly, was she?” Joe said bluntly, looking over now at Hoss who raised his eyebrows thoughtfully and shook his head.

“No, Inger could never have been ugly,” Adam replied quietly. I think Inger must have been the first woman he had ever fallen in love with, and perhaps, measured every woman to her standard thereafter.

“Hoss, you have to accept the fact that Millie isn’t the least ways pretty,” insisted Joe.

“Wal, I ain’t the leastways handsome,” Hoss replied, his blue eyes opening wide as he looked admonishingly at his brother.

“She isn’t as big now as she was when we first knew her,” Joe admitted, “In fact, she’s got some curves now.”

“Don’t get so personal,” Adam scolded, looking remarkably prim. Joe gave a shout of laughter, which nearly sent him toppling over the bar of the stall.

“I should know if I love her though, shouldn’t I? Shucks, I don’t want to be the cause of her getting hurt all over agin,” lamented Hoss.

“Look, Hoss, no one can make the decision for you,” Adam said in a gentle voice. “If you marry her and you don’t love her, then she’ll know. Some day as true as I’m sitting here, it will dawn on her that you don’t love her and the pain will be worse than anything she’s ever going to experience in her life. She may suspect it, guess at it, wonder at it, but she’ll try and tell herself that it isn’t true because you’ve told her you love her and because she wants to believe it, she will. Then one day, when she least expects it, she’ll learn the truth, and you’ll break her heart.”

“Yeah, but what if I do love her?”

“Aw, for Pete’s sake, if you do, then marry her and be done with it.” Joseph sighed impatiently; he vaulted down from the stall and brushed the straw from his pants. “I’m heading in for breakfast.”

His two brothers watched him go and Hoss shook his head. “Seems he’s got his appetite back all right.”

“Yeah, ain’t that fact?”

They shared a smile and got on with their tasks for a few more minutes in an amicable silence. I was reminded, yet again, of the fact that their early years must have created bonds that cut deep.

“Adam, I know…”

“Look, Hoss, you’ve been worrying at this matter like a dog with a bone. Millicent loves you, that’s a fact. If you don’t love her, then you have to let her know soon, so that she can go and make a life for herself and be happy for once.”

“How come?”

“Well, Doctor Rousseau is still in town. He wants to take her back home with him, and give her everything that she’s missed out on in her life. It would be a darn sight fairer to her if you give her the chance of being really loved now.”

Hoss said nothing but held the bit and bridle in his hands and stared at them, deep in thought. Adam cast down the duster and stood up and slapped Hoss on the shoulder. “Come on, breakfast is ready, and I’m starving even if you ain’t.”

They walked off together; Hoss draped an arm over his brother’s shoulders as they hit the sunlight of the new day. I sat alone in the shadows and wept.

*****

“Are you sure?” Hoss said, looking earnestly into my face as though he would be able to see there whether or not I was telling the biggest lie of my life.

“I’m positive, Hoss.”

I forced myself to look at him with clear eyes. Women can be immensely strong at times. With my background of having to conceal a myriad hurts, I was a first-class actress by now. I even smiled and took hold of his hands gently in my own. “Hoss, I do care for you very much, but I think I need this time to get to know my father. I’ve never been loved by anyone in the way that your father and brothers have loved you. I’ve only ever known what it is to be shunted to one side and treated as though I were a curse. Now I know why, but I also know that I do not have to live with that for the rest of my life. I have this wonderful opportunity of finding out what being loved is all about, and being loved will help me to love in return.”

He thought about it, slowly. I could see him working it out for himself, as though he were struggling to see the whole picture. I wanted to take his face between my hands and kiss him over and over again, but I restrained myself with difficulty.

“Millie, if you ever get to thinking that you could love me…” He paused, and shook his head. “Wal, I’ll be here.”

I smiled a bright and sunny smile. Then I turned to the four men standing close to the buggy. Mr. Cartwright kissed my cheek and shook my hand and wished me well. Adam kissed both my cheeks and wished me a happy life. Joseph allowed me to kiss his cheek and then kissed mine and thanked me for all I had done for him, his eyes twinkling mischievously as he said so. My father looked at me, proudly. I had never seen that kind of look in a man’s face before and it made my heart swell with pleasure.

I looked back at Hoss. He had that kind of questioning look on his face as though knowing that whatever he had said would have been the wrong thing, but not sure as to why. It was odd. I loved him more than anyone else in the world but I knew I could leave him now.

It didn’t hurt half as much as I had thought. As we drove out of the yard, I looked behind me and waved. I felt no pain at all. I slipped my arm through that of the man at my side and smiled at him. I saw no ugliness in his face at all. He was, after all, my father. I knew he saw no ugliness in me. After all, I was his daughter.

Life was good.

***The End***

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