Hoss’s Secret (by LizK)

 

Summary:  Hoss is acting very mysterious and it’s driving his brothers nuts.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  6667


 

 

Little Joe bounded down the staircase and into the office area of the great room. He smacked his hands down on the desk. “Payday, Older Brother, how ‘bout it? You headed into town with me?”

Adam looked up tolerantly, and smiled at Joe’s enthusiasm, “Sorry, Joe, I still have this contract to finish.”

Joe turned as his middle brother walked in from the kitchen. “Hoss, how ‘bout you?”

“Sorry, got other plans.”

“Other plans? Like what?” Joe looked at Hoss skeptically.

Hoss smiled at him. “Jus’ other plans.”

This time Adam looked at Hoss surprised. It wasn’t typical for Hoss to be secretive; usually he was as wide open as the Nevada sky. He laid his pen down. “What kind of plans, Hoss?”

Adam noticed the slight blush creep up Hoss’ round face.

“Jus’ plans.” Hoss frowned at his brothers. “Do I gotta tell you guys everythin’,” he grumbled, annoyance in his voice.

Joe and Adam looked at each other; this was getting very interesting. The corners of Adam’s mouth lifted slightly and his eyebrows rose. Joe smirked back at him. Hmmm…

Adam stood slowly and walked around the desk to stand next to Hoss. He laid his arm across Hoss’ shoulder. Joe walked over and stood on Hoss’ other side. Hoss looked at his brothers warily; he knew when Adam smirked so his dimples showed and Joe’s eyes twinkled with mischief, he was in for it. This was exactly what he’d been hoping to avoid.

“Now, Younger Brother, this needs some looking into, wouldn’t you agree?” Adam’s smug tone made Hoss wince.

“Indeed, it does, Older Brother,” Joe replied. “Indeed it does.”

“After all, it’s our bound duty to care for our brother here, and from the sound of things, he could be headed right into a heap of trouble.”

“Sure, sounds that way to me.”

“Oh, come on guys, it don’t got nothing’ to do with you, now leave me alone.” Hoss shrugged off Adam’s arm and turned to face his tormenters. Joe and Adam closed ranks and crossed their arms, still smiling.

“Now, Hoss…” Adam began.

“No, Adam,” Hoss interrupted desperately, “Now I done told you, I got plans and that’s all ya need ta know ‘bout it. Now you fellas just leave me be; I don’t gotta tell ya nothin’.”

Adam and Joe looked at each other in surprise; it wasn’t often Hoss got riled up.

Adam backed off. “All right, Hoss, sorry, we didn’t realize it was so important.”

“Yeah, Hoss, we didn’t mean nothing,” Joe echoed, following Adam’s lead.

“Ah,” Hoss grinned sheepishly, “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to snap at ya. It’s jus’…”

Adam held up his hand and stopped him. “We said it’s fine, Hoss. Have a good time.” He grinned. “Whatever it is.”

“Thanks, Adam, I will.” Hoss brushed past them and hurried up the stairs. Joe and Adam stared after him.

“Well, what do ya know about that?” Little Joe said, shaking his head and grinning.

“Wonders never cease.” Adam clapped Joe on the shoulder and headed back to his contract.

*****

Hoss sighed as he closed the door to his room and started changing. He knew he shouldn’t have let Adam and Joe get under his skin like that; it was just this was kind of personal. He knew his brothers would misunderstand. They’d never believe he was helping Joellen for any altruistic reason, especially when Hoss wasn’t even sure himself that’s all it was.

He’d met her when he was checking the fence out by Ender’s Creek. She’d found herself a little fawn, its dead mammy not too far away. Hoss had helped bring the fawn back to the tiny shack Joellen lived in with her pa. He’d been a little surprised to see it; he hadn’t realized anyone had settled up in that area. Joellen had explained that they hadn’t been there long, and that her pa was a prospector. Hoss doubted they’d find much so far from the Washoe but didn’t say anything to discourage her.

That first meeting had led to others. Hoss had ridden over at first to help her nurse the little fawn, and then later the other critters Joellen was always picking up. Hoss smiled to himself; Joellen was as bad as he was in that respect.

In between sick critters, he had helped her fix up the shack and other outbuildings. He’d met her pa, a nice enough man, small and wiry, with the faraway look Hoss had seen too often in the eyes of those who followed the mirage, the lure of gold. Hoss felt sorry for him, but knew there wasn’t much he could do to help him. So he spent his effort making things more comfortable for Joellen.

Surprisingly, he’d been able to keep the visits a secret from the rest of the family; a bad section of fence up that way giving him a good excuse for spending a lot of time up there. His brother’s particular aversion to fence mending made sure he didn’t have any unwanted offers of help.

Hoss mentally berated himself for forgetting that today was payday when he’d told Joellen he’d be over to check the bandages on the coon she’d found earlier in the week. If it hadn’t been for that slip, Adam and Joe might never have found out. Now they’d be suspicious and watching every move he made. Dadgummit, sometimes he wished he was an only child!

Well, there was no help for it now. At least he’d managed to keep from telling them everything. He’d been shocked when Adam had backed down; he’d expected a lot more trouble. His brothers could be unmerciful once they got their teeth into something, and they’d had that look that said they smelled something funny. Hoss grinned; maybe it didn’t hurt to lose one’s temper occasionally.

Hoss checked himself in the mirror; he sure wish he’d inherited a bit of those good looks his brothers had in such abundance. He smoothed a lock of hair into place, then he chuckled. Look at him primpin’ in the mirror like Joe. He shook his head, then smiled at himself. Well what if he was, maybe he had reason to. He looked again. And, well, maybe he just wasn’t half bad. He grinned and headed for the door.

Cautiously, Hoss opened the bedroom door and listened carefully; he didn’t hear nothin’. He crept to the top of the stairs – no voices. Hoss felt a surge of hope. That must mean Joe had gone. He realized Adam would probably still be at the desk, but if he was engrossed in that contract of his, he might be able to slip by. On the other hand, he and Joe might have been havin’ second thoughts about lettin’ him go so easy, and be waitin’ for him. Hoss gulped at the thought, then straightened his shoulders. Well, there was no help for it; he’d have to run the gauntlet one way or t’other. Joellen was waiting and he didn’t want ta be late.

Joe sat on the edge of the desk fiddling with the paperweight. Adam sat, apparently deep in concentration over his lumber contract. Joe wasn’t fooled; Adam hadn’t turned a page in the last five minutes.

“Well?” Joe had finally run out of patience.

Adam looked up and raised a single eyebrow. “Well, what?”

“Come on, Adam, you know what! You want to know as much as I do!”

Adam sighed. “Joe, Hoss doesn’t want to talk about it, so that’s that,” he explained patiently.

“Uh, huh.” Joe set the paperweight down and looked his brother straight in the eye. “I suppose that’s why you haven’t seen a word on that paper in the last five minutes. Adam, you can’t fool me; you want to know as bad as I do. Hoss never has ‘plans’. What’s he doing that’s so all fired secret?”

Adam gave up playing uninterested. He bit his lip, as his eyes narrowed. “I don’t know.” He paused for a moment, then gave Joe a calculating look. “But, I think we’d better find out!” He grinned mischievously.

“Now you’re talking!” Joe grinned back. “So what’s the plan?”

Adam’s face grew serious, considering. He twirled the pen in his fingers. “I think our best bet is to follow him, see where he goes.”

“That should be easy enough.”

“Yeah.”

The brothers smiled at each other. There was no way Hoss was going to leave them in the dark for long. Not if they could help it!

*****

Hoss peeked around the hall corner and looked down the stairs. He didn’t see Little Joe and was surprised that the study alcove appeared empty as well. He paused a moment to consider. Had Joe persuaded Adam to join him in town? It didn’t seem likely, since Adam had told him earlier he had an important contract to finish. But if that were the case, where was Adam?

Hoss shrugged; it didn’t really matter because what it meant was that the coast was clear. Hoss felt relief clear down to his toes. Maybe he’d get away with it. Maybe he’d manage to keep his secret another day, anyway. He wasn’t exactly sure why it was so important; he just felt that it was. His friendship with Joellen was still new, still sweet; he didn’t want it spoiled by his brother’s teasing.

Hoss walked cautiously down the stairs, still expecting his brothers to jump out and grab him. He sighed when he made it to the door with still no sign of Little Joe or Adam. He made his way quickly to the barn. He’d have to get a move on if he was going to make it out to Joellen’s and back before supper. He relaxed even more when he noticed that both Sport and Cochise were gone. So Adam had gone into town with Joe. Hoss grinned wide. He was in the clear! He couldn’t believe he’d pulled it off, but he had!

Hoss whistled a merry tune as he trotted out of the ranch yard, Chubb’s hoofbeats keeping time with the happy beat of his heart.

Adam and Joe smiled at each other as they watched Hoss ride out of the yard, whistling. He hadn’t noticed them waiting behind the barn. Cautiously, they followed along a safe distance behind. He wasn’t hard to keep track of as his whistling turned into a happy song. Adam and Joe couldn’t help shaking their heads at each other and grinning as Hoss’ big voice boomed out over the hills. Their big brother sure was happy about something!

Hoss might never have known that his brothers were following him if Chubb hadn’t started favoring his right foreleg. As it was he almost didn’t hear the click of a hoof against rock when he got down to check what the problem was. But he did hear it, and he knew right there and then who was following him. So his brothers hadn’t given up after all! Hoss shook his head; he shoulda known, he just shoulda known. They weren’t likely to give up. They were followin’ him to find out what he was doin’. He shoulda known.

Hoss frowned, and thought for a moment. Then a slow smile spread over his face. So let ’em follow him. Hoss knew exactly what he was going to do. He quickly picked the stone out of Chubb’s hoof and remounted. He felt like laughing. This time he was determined his brothers wouldn’t get the better of him. He continued on his way singing again at the top of his voice.

The two grown men crouched among the bushes couldn’t believe their eyes. They had followed Hoss all the way up to Ender’s Creek, sure that whatever Hoss was up to they’d find it out. Now they watched in dumb surprise as Hoss calmly began work on a section of fence that needed repairing.

“What on earth’s he doin’?” Joe whispered. “Surely this isn’t what he was trying to keep secret; he’s been working on this for the past three weeks.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, what’s so secret about it?” Joe’s voice was almost shrill.

“Shhh,” Adam glared at him. “You want him to hear us?”

“Maybe I don’t care if he does. I’m missing my trip to town, and all he’s doing is fixing fence!”

Adam could tell Joe was losing it. “Will you simmer down?” He watched Hoss through narrowed eyes. “There has to be more to this; there just has to be.” But for the life of him, he didn’t know what. There was no reason Hoss would need to keep his fence fixing activities a secret, and yet here he was fixing fence. Adam chewed his lip, thoughtfully. What could Hoss be up to? He shook his head, it just didn’t add up.

“Well, I’m not stickin’ around here watchin’ him work!” Joe said disgustedly. He started to slither his way back to where Cochise was patiently waiting. Adam watched as Hoss looped another section of wire around a post. He shook his head again, then followed Joe back to the horses.

Hoss was listening carefully; he smiled when he heard the horses leaving. It had worked! He could hardly contain his glee. It had worked! He, Hoss Cartwright, had outwitted those two clever brothers of his! Hoss hadn’t felt so light-hearted in ages. He felt like singing as he put his tools away and mounted Chubb. Wait until he told Joellen; she was gonna love this. Hoss stopped a minute on the trail to look back and double check. Yep, he could see Sport and Cochise, well on their way home. He laughed; he’d done it!

Hoss’ exuberance hadn’t dimmed a bit when he rode into the yard at Joellen’s twenty minutes later. He dismounted and tied Chubb, then bounded across the tiny porch to the door. He started to knock, when the door opened and there she was, Joellen. She sure looked pretty with her smooth brown hair done up and her pretty grey eyes smilin’ at him. Hoss doffed his hat and smiled big at her.

“Howdy, Joellen. I’m sorry I’m late.”

Joellen smiled shyly at him. “That’s all right, Hoss. Won’t you come in?” She stood aside so Hoss could enter. He had to duck to get through the door and his large frame seemed to fill the tiny shack.

“Did you have trouble getting across the creek?” Joellen asked, motioning him to a chair and sitting down across from him.

“No, it weren’t nothing like that.” Hoss took the seat she indicated. “More like brother trouble.” Hoss grinned.

“Brother trouble?”

“Yeah, those brothers of mine are too nosy for my own good; they were poking into business that wasn’t theirs,” he said with a wink.

“Oh, I see,” she said softly, an odd look on her face. Her smile wavered, then fell.

Hoss knew he’d said something wrong but wasn’t quite sure what it was. “Well, you see, they wanted to know what I was up to today. But I didn’t feel like tellin’ them. So then they followed me, but I gave ’em the slip; you don’t have to worry none about that.” Hoss grinned again expecting Joellen to join in his fun at having outwitted his brothers. He frowned, when she looked even more hurt than before.

“Joellen?”

Joellen took a deep breath then looked up at him and smiled. “I’m glad you escaped them, Hoss,” she said brightly and then jumped to her feet. “I suppose we’d better go out and see Chuckles. He’s coming along real nice.” She turned at the door and waited for him, still smiling. Hoss wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he was glad that whatever it was, it seemed to have passed.

“Sure, I’d best get to changin’ those bandages iff’n I’m gonna get home before supper. Don’t want those brothers of mine more suspicious than they are already.” Hoss grinned at her.

Joellen’s smile wavered again, but this time she managed to keep it in place, hoping Hoss hadn’t noticed. “No, I don’t suppose you do.”

******

Over the next few weeks, Adam and Joe tried everything they could think of to find out what was going on with Hoss. They knew something was up just by the way he walked around smiling and singing all day long. Their intuition told them it had to be a girl. What they couldn’t figure out was, who and when. Hoss spent almost all of his time out at Ender’s Creek, especially after Ben decided that, since he was up that way anyway, he might as well fence in another large section of meadow.

They knew of no families in that area; there wasn’t anyone up there at all, as far as they knew, it being so isolated. They had trailed him up there several times, and found him hard at work every time. Little Joe had even spent half a day watching him, but all he got for his pains was a sore back and a lecture from Pa on neglecting his duties.

Questioning him outright gained them little beyond a shrug and an infuriating grin. Attempts to trick him into betraying himself failed as well. Hoss was on his guard and was having way too much fun to allow either brother to gain the upper hand. It wasn’t often he had his brothers so completely baffled and he was enjoying every minute of it.

Even better than outwitting his brothers was retelling their attempts and lack of success to Joellen. His hearty laugh would ring out over the rocks and trees, as he told her of his brothers’ increasing curiosity, and their dismay at their inability to discover his secret.

Joellen would smile at his delight, savoring the twinkle in his eyes and the wide grin that set her heart beating faster. He was so unlike the other men she had known, so big hearted and simple in his wants and pleasures, much as she, herself, was. He was so quick to give of himself in anyway he could, and his unfailing cheerfulness had made his visits the highlight of her day. It was only when he started talking about his family that, for her, any drop of bitterness marred their time together. Hoss was unaware of this; he failed to notice the tightness of her smile and the increasing sadness in her eyes as she listened to Adam and Joe’s latest attempts at solving the mystery. She hid the dismay in her own heart as well as she could, but couldn’t help asking herself, why, exactly, did he feel the need to hide her from them?

*****

It was early fall and the days had started to turn cold, bringing speculation of an early winter. Hoss was up at Ender’s Creek working with an intense determination to have the fence finished before the first snow flew. Only his daily visits to Joellen interfered with his purpose.

Adam was supposed to be working on the ranch ledgers, but other thoughts kept intruding and he found himself checking the same columns over and over again. Suddenly, Adam threw his pen down on the desk in disgust. He settled back in the chair, with lips pursed and long fingers steepled against his chin. He pondered for a moment, then with quick decision stood and walked to the credenza beside the door.

Little Joe, lying on the settee after a hard morning trying to conquer a bronc that had no intention of being conquered, raised himself up on his elbows, and watched as Adam quickly drew on his coat and buckled on his gun belt.

“Where you off to?” Joe asked as Adam tugged on his hat. “I thought you had to get those ledgers done?”

Adam looked at him from under the edge of the hat brim. “I intend to find out what that brother of ours is up to, once and for all,” he said, determination in his voice.

Joe sat all the way up. “How ya gonna do that? We’ve tried everything already!”

“Not everything, He’s spending all his time up at Ender’s Creek, right?

“Yeah.”

“All right, then Ender’s Creek has to be where the answers are. There isn’t any other logical explanation.”

“But, Adam, we’ve been up there time and time again, All he’s doin’ is buildin’ fence.”

“So it would appear.” Adam’s face grew calculating. “But I think it’s time we did a little scouting around. I just have a hunch that there’s more luring our brother up there than just fences.” He opened the door and started out.

“Hey, wait for me!” Joe shouted and leapt over the back of the settee. He grabbed his own hat and coat and followed Adam out the door.

An hour later, Adam and Joe reined their horses in at the top of the ridge overlooking the meadow where Hoss was hard at work. Joe watched Adam, as Adam contemplated the distant figure of his brother. The fencing looked almost complete and there was no doubt that Hoss had spent a lot of time on it. Joe looked down at Hoss then back at Adam. Adam seemed lost in thought, his dark eyes narrowed, a frown between them. He leaned forward and crossed his arms on the pommel of his saddle. He sat watching Hoss for some time, chewing the corners of his mouth. Joe could almost see the wheels turning in his older brother’s clever brain, but he didn’t get any clue as to how Adam was figuring on solving this mystery.

Without a word or glance at Joe, Adam suddenly straightened and turned Sport. He continued on along the ridge and down the other side. Joe followed along silently for a ways, then trotted up next to him

“Well?” Joe broke the silence.

Adam looked at him “Well, now for a little scouting,” he reminded Joe, almost impatiently.

“Scouting for what? There’s nothing out here,” Joe reminded Adam right back.

“Yes, well, maybe I’m not as sure about that as you are, Joe. Remember what I said. Hoss is spending all his time up here, which means whatever it is he’s been hiding all summer has to be up here, too.”

Joe could see the logic in what Adam said, but didn’t see the proof of it. That is, until there, not fifteen minutes from where Hoss was working, sat a little shack nestled into the opening of the canyon out of which Ender’s Creek bubbled its way towards the Ponderosa. Sitting on the front porch was a young woman shelling peas.

Joe looked over at Adam, his admiration for his brother clear on his face. “Well, well, well, what do ya know. It would appear you were right, Older Brother.”

“It would appear so.”

Joe saw Adam’s mouth quirk slightly; he could tell Adam was pleased and trying not to show it. His hunch had been dead on. Now it was just a matter of confirming that this lovely young lady was indeed the reason Hoss had been so secretive and exuberant all summer.

Adam gestured toward the shack. “Shall we?” He raised an eyebrow at Little Joe.

“After you, genius.” Joe gave a mock bow.

Adam chuckled quietly, and they both rode down to introduce themselves to the woman on the porch.

Joellen saw the two riders approaching and stood. She waited quietly as they dismounted. Adam spoke first, removing his hat as he did so, and smiled his most charming smile.

“Good afternoon, Miss.”

She smiled and tipped her head towards him. “Good afternoon.”

“Uh, I’m Adam Cartwright, and this is my brother, Little Joe.” He gestured toward Joe.

Joe acknowledged the introduction by removing his hat and giving a nod of his own. “Please to meet you, Miss.”

“We were in the area,” Adam continued, “and saw your home. We decided to stop and introduce ourselves seeing as how we’re your nearest neighbors.”

“Neighbors?” Joellen questioned.

“The Ponderosa, Miss, just over that ridge,” Joe explained, pointing with his hat.

“Oh, I see. I’m pleased to meet you both.” She hesitated a moment before adding. “I’m Joellen Kendall; would you care to step inside?” She tried to calm her racing heart as she realized that these two men must be the infamous brothers Hoss was always telling her about.

Both men nodded their thanks, and she turned to lead them into the house. Adam grinned at Joe, and Joe gave a wink, as they followed Joellen into the shack.

Joellen offered her guests a seat. She carefully wiped two glasses and filled them with cool water before handing them to the men. She tried to appear calm, but her mind was whirling. She knew that Hoss didn’t want his family to know about her, he’d told her that often enough. Up to now she could only guess as to why, but after seeing Hoss’ brothers, it was becoming clearer.

Hoss’ older brother, Adam, was tall and handsome, carrying himself with the ease of a man confident in himself and his place in the world. Hoss had told her about Adam, of course, that he was smart and educated, but she hadn’t expected someone who was so obviously a gentleman.

And then there was Little Joe, as handsome as his brother, in a boyish way. Hoss had described his younger brother as light-hearted and fun loving. He hadn’t told her he was also polished, smooth, and very sure of himself.

Both men were dressed well. The horses outside and their well-made tack were plainly of the best quality. Joellen had heard of the Ponderosa; she knew the Cartwrights were among the wealthiest and most influential people in the territory, but Hoss was so modest, so simple, so without conceit, that she hadn’t given it much thought, until the reality was brought home to her by the presence of these two handsome, self-assured men, Hoss’ brothers. Not that they seemed snobbish or anything, Joellen chided herself, quite the contrary in fact, as their pleasant greeting and the easy way they accepted her hospitality showed. It was just plain that they were used to much better things.

She sat down across from them with a plate of fresh baked cookies. She was starting to understand very well, Hoss’ hesitancy in telling them about her. She looked around her tiny shack, and sighed inwardly. Well, regardless, if Hoss didn’t want his family knowing about her, that was his choice, and she’d try her best not to divulge his secret, though it did make her wonder about their relationship and where it could be headed.

Unaware of her struggle, Adam smiled pleasantly at her and took a cookie from the plate she offered him. “We were a little surprised to find someone settled up here. Have you been here long?” He asked politely.

Joellen offered the cookies to Joe before replying. “About five months, maybe a little longer.” She caught a look passing between the two brothers that made her suspicious of why they were here. Was it possible they had come on purpose? Had they found out about her and come to check up on her? She pondered this while finishing her answer to Adam’s question. “We arrived around the end of April. My father is prospecting up in the canyon.”

“Has he found anything?” Adam asked.

“No,” Joellen laughed a little, “but it doesn’t keep him from trying.” She shrugged. “Pa is sure he’ll find something sometime, and it makes him happy.” Joellen took a deep breath and decided to take the initiative into her own hands, if they were here to pry into her relationship with Hoss, she’d have to thwart them somehow. “I’ve heard quite a bit about the Ponderosa. There are three of you brothers are there not?” She asked as innocently as she could.

She saw another look pass between Adam and Joe, a bit of uncertainty, she thought and prayed it wasn’t just wishful thinking. She noticed Little Joe sit back as if willing to let Adam take the lead.

“Uh, yes, we have another brother, Hoss.” Adam gave her what could only be described as a calculating look and continued. “He’s been working up this way lately, so perhaps you’ve already met him.” He smiled guilelessly.

Joellen met Adam’s gaze with what she hoped was a calm one of her own. Hoss’ words about his clever brother haunted her. She knew this wasn’t going to be easy. “Hmm, is you’re brother a rather large man, who rides a black horse, with a white blaze and stockings?”

Joe grinned at her, “Yep, that’s him. You’ve met him?”

Joellen laughed, hoping it didn’t sound as hysterical as it felt. “Oh, he’s seemed far too busy for that. I’ve noticed him working away on that fence several times when I’ve been out that way, but I’ve never talked to him while he’s working.”

Joellen could feel her stomach tighten, as she tried desperately to keep from telling an outright lie, while still hiding the truth. Though what she said was perfectly true – she never had talked to him while he was working – she knew she was walking perilously close to the line between truth and falsehood.

She felt a glimmer of relief as Joe gave Adam a puzzled look. She prayed Adam hadn’t caught the subtle wording she had used. She couldn’t tell from his face, and her heart sank when he pressed her a little more directly. “So Hoss has never been here?”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’d be surprised if he had time for social calls; that’s an awful lot of fence he’s been putting up. He does seem a hard worker, though. Funny I’ve never seen you gentlemen out here before, or is your brother, Hoss, the official fence builder?” she replied lightly, hoping to deflect Adam onto safer ground.

Joe squirmed a little uncomfortably, but Adam just smiled. “We all build fence at times, but I have to admit Hoss is best at it and the most dedicated.” He gave her another shrewd look. She could sense him gathering himself for another try. She spoke quickly in order to head him off.

“Well, if the appearance of what he’s done this summer is any indication, I’d have to agree with you.” Joellen stood; it was time to bring this visit to an end. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold out. “I am sorry, gentlemen, it’s been so nice speaking to you, but I’m afraid if I don’t get started on supper, Pa will be berating me as a slacker.” She hoped the smile she offered them would take the rudeness out of her words.

Adam and Little Joe had no choice but to stand also. Joe stepped toward the door, but Adam held his place. His eyes bore into hers and he appeared ready to speak again. Joellen lifted her chin and looked him in the eye, challenging him. They stood motionless a moment until Joe shuffled uncomfortably.

“Adam.” Joe touched Adam’s arm.

Adam glanced at Joe and Joellen felt the release from his gaze. His eyes darkened and narrowed, and his mouth tightened. He seemed unwilling to let the matter go, and Joellen braced herself. To her surprise, he sighed then stepped to the door beside Little Joe. The two men paused on the threshold to replace their hats and offer their rather forced goodbyes. They stepped outside and walked to the patiently waiting horses. Joellen stood in the doorway watching them.

They mounted, tipping their hats to her. Joe was the only one who smiled at her before they rode out of the yard. Joellen had never been so relieved to see anyone go in her life. She returned into the house and sat down at the table. She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. It was no use; wretchedly she laid her arms and head down on the table and cried.

Adam and Joe took the short route home. Joe opened his mouth once or twice to comment on their visit, but a glimpse of the black look on Adam’s face, made him close it again without speaking. They rode home in silence.

*****

It was late afternoon, when Hoss rode up to the little shack, a huge smile on his face. He just about had that fence completed and he was on his way to visit with the purtiest gal this side of… Well as far as he was concerned she was just plain the purtiest gal! Hoss chuckled to himself. He had come to enjoy these afternoons with Joellen; it was the highlight of his day, and if he was honest with himself, he’d have to admit that Joellen had become the highlight of his life. Hoss blushed at the thought. Best not to be going down that road too quickly, he chided himself. He whoa’d to Chubb and dismounted.

“Joellen!” He called as he tied Chubb to the porch railing. He bounded across the porch and knocked swiftly, three knocks. He looked around as he waited, then turned with a smile as Joellen opened the door. Her bright smile answered his own, and he felt his heart lift.

“Hoss! Won’t you come in? Pa’ll be back soon, but I’ve got a little time.” Joellen felt all her worry and frustration melt away as she looked into his wonderful, honest, open face.

“Well, it’s a nice afternoon, maybe you’d like to take a walk,” Hoss suggested.

“Lovely idea, I’ll get my shawl.” Joellen replied. She fetched her shawl and the two sauntered off the porch, headed towards their favorite spot. They walked in comfortable silence, simply enjoying each other’s presence.

They stopped next to the creek. A little bend here had caused a small oasis with grass, flowers and several small trees. Joellen had showed it to Hoss soon after he started visiting, and it had become their own special place. They settled themselves, Joellen sitting with her arms around her knees and Hoss stretched out and propped on one arm, so he’d have a good view of Joellen. He began telling her about his day, making her laugh with his description of the pine squirrel that had tried to steal his lunch, then scolded him vehemently when Hoss had taken it back.

“So what have you been up to today?” He asked her in turn.

Joellen had been dreading this moment. She still hadn’t decided whether to tell him about his brothers’ visit, and she was loath to spoil the pleasantness of the moment. She laid her chin on her knees, and stared into the creek.

Hoss noticed the change in her mood and sat up. “Joellen, is somethin’ wrong?”

Joellen could feel the tears sting the back of her eyes; her crying spell earlier hadn’t gotten nearly all of them out. She felt that one way or another she had to know. She had to know the truth about Hoss’ reluctance to tell his family about her.

“Hoss?” she said softly, “why haven’t you told your family about me?”

Hoss looked surprised. “Why, I done told ya that.”

“Have you?”

“Why, sure. ‘Cause it ain’t any of their business!”

Joellen took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. She lifted her head and turned to Hoss. She could feel the tears welling in her eyes. “Is it because you’re ashamed of me?”

“Ashamed of ya!” Hoss’ blue eyes widened in shock. “Ashamed of ya! Joellen that’s the farthest from the reason you could ever git!”

“Then why…”

Hoss didn’t let her finish. “Joellen” he gazed intently into the sweet grey eyes that were swimming with tears, and called himself ten times a fool. “Joellen, I ain’t ashamed of ya; I don’t know how ya could ever think such a thing.”

“But you…” Joellen tried to answer.

Hoss held up his hand. “I know, I’ve been thinkin’ myself mighty clever keepin’ this from my brothers, but it weren’t ’cause I was ashamed of ya. Don’t ya see, it was just the opposite. It was ’cause you were too fine, and sweet and…and our friendship was just too precious to me to let those brothers of mine spoil it with their jokin’ and teasin’.” He looked at her, willing her to understand; asking her to accept the truth of what he was saying.

Joellen searched his face, this face that had become so dear to her and she wanted to believe him, but…

He saw the struggle in her eyes and tried again. “Joellen, believe me it wasn’t because I was ashamed of ya, It never was, it never will be, ’cause I know that when it comes time for my family to meet ya, they’re goin’ ta love ya almost as much…” He paused a moment considering the seriousness of what he was about to say, then took a deep breath, “they’re goin’ ta love ya almost as much as I do.” He waited barely breathing, as he saw the realization of what he had just said dawn in her eyes. He smiled at her and held out his hands.

“Oh, Hoss…” she breathed. She placed her hands in his and the answering smile on her face told him all he needed to know.

 **********

Ben Cartwright paced back and forth in front of the fire. Hoss was late for supper and Ben wasn’t too pleased about it. Adam sat in his favorite chair, supposedly reading a book, but his eyes followed his father’s restless pacing. Joe sat in the chair opposite, oiling his boots, pleased that it was Hoss on the receiving end of his father’s displeasure for once. Hop Sing, the cook, had just checked for the eighth time, to see if the wayward son had returned.

“If he isn’t here in ten minutes, we’re eating without him,” Ben growled as he paused to lean on the mantle and look into the fire. He stood for only a moment, then began pacing again, his hands in his pockets. He stopped next to Adam. “What do you suppose is keeping the boy?”

Adam lowered his book. “Joe and I saw him earlier today working on that fence at Ender’s Creek. He was almost finished. He probably just decided to get it done before heading home.” Adam had already explained this to his father several times, but he knew Ben was worried, and so patiently explained it again. He was feeling rather sheepish over his reaction to Miss Kendall and her evasiveness about Hoss, and being patient with his father was his way of atoning for his lack of manners.

Ben shook his head, “That may be, but he should know better than to….” The sound of horses’ hooves in the yard stopped him. A look of alarm swept over his face; He glanced at Adam and Joe. He could see the same concern in their eyes that he felt. Hoss should be alone, but there were at least two horses approaching the house. All three men hurried to the door, Ben in the lead. Outside they stopped in surprise, as Hoss stood helping a young woman from her horse.

Ben stood puzzled, but Joe looked at Adam with a wide grin. Adam just shook his head, and sighed. He’d known it!

Ben stepped forward, as Hoss gently led his companion towards him. He looked into the clear grey eyes of the woman beside his son and liked what he saw; he liked it a lot. His face softened and he raised an eyebrow at Hoss.

Hoss pushed Joellen forward a little and placed an arm around her. He held one of her hands in his and smiled at his pa. “Pa.” Hoss’ face shone with pride and he spoke as if he were introducing the Queen, herself. “Pa, this is Joellen.”

***The End***

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