The Color of Love (by Wrangler)

Summary:  A sequel to Wrangler’s story “Always My Son.”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,379


 

This story is dedicated to Rob, who showed me what love is and that it transcends everything especially the boundaries of color.

 Ben Cartwright watched from his seat in front of the Overland Stage Line in Virginia City the nervous pacing of his youngest son. Joe had asked him every five minutes what time it was. Ben fought to hide his amusement at the young man and his impatience. He knew that Joe was more than excited at the thought of one particular passenger on the stage who would soon be arriving. A very special friend would soon be visiting the Ponderosa for the first time and Joe had insisted on making everything as comfortable as possible for the young woman. Of course despite all the well-set plans, the stage line had decided to throw a slight kink in the preparations.

Rachel Cartier. Ben thought back on the three years since his son had met the girl who would become the boy’s closest friend. Their meeting had come during a rather unpleasant time for all of the Cartwrights. There was a man from Joe’s mother’s past, one Rene Marchant to be exact, and he had put the entire family through pure hell. The evil man had come from New Orleans and taken Joe back to New Orleans with him insistent that he was the seventeen year old Joe’s father. Once in New Orleans, Joe had been both emotionally and physically abused by the sick and twisted Marchant. It was during the two long months of captivity that Joe and Rachel had bonded their forever friendship. The young girl, being the same age and also a prisoner to Marchant, had tried to help set the boy free. She had even risked her life to produce information concerning Marchant to Ben Cartwright to protect them all. It was after the evil Marchant’s death that Joe had finally been able to do something for the young girl who had acted out of love and friendship to the boy who had been so alone in New Orleans.

Joe Cartwright was given heir to all of Rene Marchant’s holdings. The man had a vast amount of personal wealth and all had been left to Joe in the man’s will. The fact that the young Cartwright was not of legal age did not stop Joe from making sure that Rachel, her mother, and her family would be well taken care of. He had appointed a close friend an ally, Avery Bastille, to look over Marchant Enterprises and to see to all of the Cartier family’s needs. The man had done well with his charge over the three years that had passed. Even though a war had waged during that period of time, nothing bad had befallen Rachel or her mother. And now, all the better, they were no longer considered slaves.

Ben again chuckled to himself to see the look of frustration on Joe’s face as he stared off in the distance and once again began to pace on the dusty street in front of his father. Feeling a deep pride at the twenty-one year old son of his at the moment Ben took pity on him and called out. “Why don’t you sit down here and just relax, Joseph? You are going to be all spent before Rachel gets here!”

Joe gave a sheepish grin, unaware that he was so transparent in his impatience. But, he was known to wear his heart and all emotions visibly on his sleeve, so Joe understood why his father knew exactly what he was thinking. Taking a seat next to his father Joe sighed out loud.

“Why in the devil does that blasted stage always have to be late anyway?”

“Why don’t you write the company?” Ben said a bit of sarcasm trickling out in his question but followed by a pat to his son’s back. “She’ll be here shortly. I don’t think I have ever seen you this nervous!”

“It’s just that it took all that I had to convince Rachel to come all the way out here. I want everything to be just right. I haven’t seen her in over a year you know! Back then the war was still going on. We have a whole lot to catch up on.” Joe answered and Ben detected a wistful smile dance across his son’s face.

“Oh–that’s so right–and the last time you saw her you were not the wealthy young man that you are now either. Let’s not forget that.” Ben teased.

“Hey—can I help it if that idiot Marchant made me his heir? I didn’t want it you know? I only agreed to it so I could help Rachel and all.” Joe protested and then felt Ben’s hand squeeze his shoulder to stop his recital.

“Now, Joseph—I was only teasing. I know what you have done with a lot of that money. I also know you have been more than generous to your family as well. I remember the first day you opened your new bank account. As I recall you went out and bought your brothers and myself gifts didn’t you?”

“Yeah–gosh that was fun! I never knew having money could give so much pleasure to folks.” Joe was now grinning thinking back to the several months that had gone by since his twenty-first birthday and all the gifts he had bought others in that time.

“Yes–well you do remember what I told you I hope?”

“Yes—yes sir—I am not throwing it around or anything. But, I do intend to spoil Rachel when she gets here. She deserves it more than anyone else I know.”

“Well, looks like you are about to get your wish. Here’s that stage!” Ben replied and Joe bolted from his seat on the bench.

The stage pulled up and four passengers disembarked leaving Rachel the last one to step out of the coach. Joe reached up and took her hand and helped her out.

“Joe!” Rachel sounded out loudly as Joe swept her into his arms laughing as he swung her around.

“I thought you’d never get here!” Joe said and stopped swinging the young woman long enough to hug her. “I am so sorry the stage was late—you must be so tired!” Joe was quick to apologize.

“Oh hush—it was fine.” Rachel replied and then caught the sight of several people on the sidewalk staring at the two friends who still held on tightly to each other. Joe was totally oblivious to the scene they had created, and to the harsh stares that were directed their way.

Ben had caught on what Rachel had seen and hurried over to her. “Rachel–so wonderful that you came! We have been looking forward to this for a long time.” Ben smiled warmly at the young lady and she grinned back.

“Thank you so much for having me here, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Well–” Ben paused and still could see various Virginia City citizens staring toward them. “We have our carriage right over here. Let’s get you to the Ponderosa so you can catch your breath. Joe—why don’t you grab Rachel’s bag?” Ben tried to distract his son and to give him the subtle hint that he needed to release Rachel from his firm grip.

“Okay—be right there!” Joe responded and turned toward the driver to retrieve the luggage. Ben and Rachel made it over to the buckboard. He helped her up into the back seat of the surrey and Joe was quickly back to them, luggage in hand. Climbing up next to Rachel Joe took her hand and squeezed it affectionately.

“I feel just like a kid again–I am so excited to have you here!” Joe smiled and threw his arm around Rachel’s shoulder as Ben sent the team forward. As they started on their journey towards the ranch, Ben noticed the continuing stares that were cast there way. He knew what the townsfolk were thinking, and the idea of it worried him to the core. The war wasn’t over in many people’s minds, and seeing a white boy escorting a black girl was sure to make tongues start to wag. Ben had not been able to broach the subject with his youngest son prior to Rachel’s arrival. He didn’t have the right words to explain to Joe what prejudice was all about. He knew Joe thought of Rachel as a person and that was all. Ben took pride in the fact that he had raised such a fine young man; however, that did not stop his worry. Prejudice was a disease as far as what Ben had seen in his lifetime. And sometimes it had unfortunate innocent victims. Ben prayed his son wouldn’t be one of those victims to it. He knew Joe Cartwright more than Joe knew himself. Once he cared about someone he would fight to the end to defend them, he had always watched over his friends. Listening to the two young people on the ride out to the ranch, Ben couldn’t help wondering if theirs was just that—a friendship. Or perhaps it had the potential of becoming something more.

*****

Rachel had watched in quiet amazement the beauty of the countryside as the carriage traveled onto the vastness of the Ponderosa. The scenery was so very different from her native New Orleans. The trees were not covered in moss and their heights seemed to touch the sky. She marveled at the expanse of mountain range at the higher altitude. Joe had been carefully studying the young woman’s facial expression and he found joy in his heart to see that she was awestruck by the sights of his homeland.

Pulling up in front of the Ponderosa ranch house, the surrey was greeted by both Hoss and Adam Cartwright. Hoss was first to call out his welcome and to assist Rachel out of the carriage. Grinning his famous Hoss Cartwright smile, he made the young woman feel right at home. A little more subtle a greeting came from the oldest Cartwright brother, Adam. He did smile at Rachel and welcomed her the same as his brother, but there was something different in Adam’s eyes. Rachel had not seen Adam since their first meeting in New Orleans during the custody battle between Rene Marchant and Ben Cartwright over three years previous. She looked at him and could tell there was a difference in his appearance and demeanor than on their first meeting. Joe had filled Rachel in on what had happened to his oldest brother over the years. He had traveled east and had done a brief stint with the Union Army during the war. Adam had seen battle, and had returned somewhat more reserved than he had been before. He had been injured during one of the bloodiest battles and it had left him a bit emotionally wounded as well. Adam’s battle scars had faded from view and had not left a permanent disability. However, the sights and sounds and smells of war still troubled his mind and soul. He had watched as several close friends had been killed before his very eyes. Adam had watched as old friends of his father had lost their homes and had seen beautiful countryside turn into barren wastelands due to deliberate fires set by opposing troops. Seeing all of this had made it all that more difficult for Adam Cartwright to return home and try to be as he had been before. He knew he would never be that person.

“You must be tired, Rachel–” Adam said and offered her his arm to lead her into the ranch house. She cast a glance back towards Joe and saw a nod. The two of them did not need words to exchange what was going on in their heads. Rachel was asking with her eyes if it was all right to take Adam’s arm and Joe had given her the sign that it was okay. She was worried about Adam’s feelings towards her, and was surprised to see him so accepting of her presence.

Ben turned to Joe who was retrieving the luggage. “I know what you both are thinking too. It will be fine–I had a talk with your brother before we left.”

Joe set down Rachel’s bags and stared towards the sight of Rachel, Hoss and Adam walking into the house. “Pa–I hope I haven’t done wrong by asking her to come. She went through an awful lot with the war too. She had ten brothers and now only has two. If this brings up bad memories for either her or Adam then it’s all my fault.”

Ben put his arm around his youngest son’s shoulder and smiled at Joe’s explanation. “I know exactly why you wanted Rachel here, Son. And, who knows? Maybe this will help both her and your brother. You know that Adam believed as strongly as anyone else that slavery needed to be abolished. Seeing Rachel here, free of bondage, may help him to see that all the death and destruction was not all a waste.”

“Hey–what am I doing running my mouth talking? I need to get in there!” Joe shot back with his most brilliant smile. Once again, as was often the case, his father had offered the reassurance that he had needed. He walked with his father into the house to join the others.

*****

Joe watched Rachel as she took in the beauty of the interior of the main room of the house. It was a man’s house, but had a quiet grace to it, which had been inspired by the love and dedication of his own mother prior to her death. Seeing Rachel standing by the fireside, Joe was taken aback by her own quiet beauty. She was slim and petite and had the kind of smile that matched her twinkling brown eyes. Joe had never seen anything in Rachel other than his very best friend, but, today he also saw her as a woman and it stunned him rendering him momentarily speechless. He thought of his mother, though only fleeting memories remained of her now. Joe was so young when she died, that only a very few stolen glimpses into the past with her remained to keep a hold of the love that she had shown him as a child. He did remember one thing, and that was of her scent. He remembered that Marie smelled of vanilla. He had even asked his father about it to be sure it wasn’t his imagination. Ben had confirmed that at times Marie did indeed smell of vanilla but insisted it was because she loved to cook and had often made cookies for the boys that were heavily laced with the extract.

“Hey! Are you ignoring me?” Rachel called over to her friend. He seemed to be in another world.

“Oh–sorry–guess I was daydreaming.” Joe apologized and joined her in front of the fireplace. “So–what do you think of the place?”

“It’s just as I had imagined it, Joe. From every letter you wrote me, from all you told me, this is how I thought it would be. It’s warm and friendly and gives a stranger a feeling of comfort.”

“Well—it’s not the great Marchant mansion—but we sure like it.” Joe grinned despite the image that had shot in his mind of Rene Marchant and the awful experience of living in his house for months. Joe had seen to it that the mansion was redone to reflect Rachel and her mother’s taste in art. The way the house had been was simply a memory now; a bad one at that.

“How about me showing you to your room so you can get some rest before dinner?” Hoss asked their guest.

“I guess I am a bit tired–that would be kind of you, Mister Hoss.”

“Whoa! Right there, Rachel!” Ben protested. “No mister Hoss, mister Ben or mister Adam around here. It’s Ben, Hoss, Adam—oh and Hop Sing–he is in town but will be back soon and he will be called by his name as well!”

Rachel’s laughter responded to Ben’s kindness and filled the room. “Hard to rid myself of years of this–but I will try to remember, Ben. Thank you all–for your kindness and friendship.”

Joe pushed his way past his huge brother Hoss and reached for the young woman’s hand. “The pleasure is all ours! Oh—I think I will take Rachel upstairs to her room. Thanks just the same, Big Brother!” Joe winked and walked up the staircase with his friend.

As soon as the two young people were out of sight Ben turned to address his other two sons. “Thank you both for the warm welcome for Rachel. It really does mean a whole lot to Joseph.”

“Shucks, Pa–she’s been a good friend to Joe and this family–of course she is welcome here.” Hoss replied and patted his father’s shoulder.

Adam seemed a bit far away as he avoided his father’s eyes and turned suddenly pensive.

“Adam? Worries?” Ben asked nearing him.

Adam looked into his father’s somber brown eyes and answered, “I guess I was just thinking—I hope there won’t be any problems for those two.”

“The war is over, Adam.” Ben said reading why the worry was in his son’s facial expression.

“Is it, Pa? I don’t think so. It’s still very much alive in some people’s hearts and minds. And there are those who would have a big problem with Joe escorting a black woman around.”

“I only hope that you are wrong, Son.” Ben sighed and sat down in his chair.

*****

Rachel walked into her room and her eyes fell on the elegance of the furnishings. Though she had seen many fine things in her life, having lived at Rene Marchant’s exquisitely furnished mansion, this room was different. The picture that was painted in her mind was one of a warm and loving hand that must have decorated the interior. The bedspread was a brilliant rose pattern and the curtains were pastel and dainty, not like one would normally find in a man’s house.

“If there’s anything you need–you just tell me and I will make sure you have it.”

“I will–hey what’s this?” Rachel asked as she lifted up a brightly colored package that was sitting on her nightstand. She turned to Joe and looked up into his eyes, which held a familiar sparkle to them.

“Oh–that–well it’s nothing–just a little welcome present.”

“Now, Joe, you know you don’t have to buy me things. You are gonna spoil me so bad.” Rachel carefully removed the wrapping paper and out came a delicate porcelain music box. She opened the lid and heard the tune it played and smiled brightly.

“I like to spoil you, Rachel! Now don’t ruin my fun.”

“It’s beautiful–just beautiful.”

“And so are you.” Joe replied and kissed her forehead lightly. It was a gesture he often did to show his fondness for his best friend. “Now–you go on and get some rest–dinner will be ready in a couple hours. You just sing out if you need me.” Joe said turning towards the door.

“You are the best friend I have ever had, Joe.” Rachel whispered as the young man closed the door.

*****

Hop Sing had done his best to also welcome the guest. He had prepared a fine roast with all the trimmings and had run the young lady out of his kitchen when she had insisted that she would help with the meal. Hop Sing informed Rachel that he was totally capable of serving the dinner by himself, and that guests were to relax and enjoy themselves when they were with the Cartwright family. The young lady had already won the hearts of the Cartwright men, and Hop Sing was finding himself a victim to her charms as well.

After dinner Joe walked Rachel outside and they stood together looking at the star filled sky. They shared moments from the past and all that had brought them together by fate.

“You remember that root you put on me way back?” Joe teased.

“Yeah–I remember, you put one on me too as I recall.”

“Well, maybe they worked after all. You are here and safe and so am I.”

“That seems like a lifetime ago, Joe. You and I were kids.”

“Hey–I am still a kid!” Joe protested acting hurt by her remark. “Least ways–when you are around you make me feel like one.”

“I’m glad you can still feel that way. After the war and all, I don’t feel young anymore. Matter of fact I feel that I have aged twenty years since then.” Rachel’s remarks came off laced with sadness. Joe could tell that she was thinking about the brothers she had lost in battle.

Turning Rachel’s chin so that their eyes could meet, Joe replied, “I know what you and your family has gone through. That’s one of the reasons I bugged you so much to come on out here. I know I can never make up for all that you have lost–but I want to make you happy, Rachel. Somehow I am gonna try to make you feel like that little girl in pigtails again. To start with we are going on a picnic down by the lake tomorrow. Pa has given me a couple of days off here. We are going to go and have some fun.”

“Oh–so I finally get to see the great Lake Tahoe do I? Well, I have heard you talk about it all these years–I can’t wait to see if it is as wonderful as you have touted!”

“Tomorrow, my friend, I will show you that I did not exaggerate.”

“I’m getting kinda cold, Joe–maybe we should go in?” Rachel pulled her shawl closer and Joe could see she was starting to shiver. He removed his jacket and placed it around her shoulders. “Oh–not just yet. You have to meet Cochise first!” Joe insisted and they started towards the barn.

“Oh–yeah–your wonder horse! You have mentioned that he is half human–let’s go see.”

Joe opened the barn door and the two of them walked to the stall where the pinto waited. Joe threw the lead rope around the horse and brought him around so Rachel could see it better.

Immediately Cochise snorted his approval and lowered his snout in readying for a pat. Rachel laughed as Joe began the introduction. “Cochise–this is Rachel—Rachel this is Cochise.”

“Nice to meet you.” Rachel laughed and stroked the pinto’s snout. “He is gorgeous, Joe.”

“Hear that Cooch? She thinks you are gorgeous!” Joe addressed the horse and gave it a hidden signal that made the animal make a slight bow with its front two legs.

“It is human!” Rachel said amazed to see Cochise respond as he had.

“See–I told you I don’t lie—well maybe I stretch the truth a little–”

“You sometimes stretch it till it breaks, Joe!” Rachel answered giggling.

“I think Pa would agree with you on that one. Okay–enough with Cochise for now.” Joe patted the pinto’s neck and led him back into the stall. “Let’s get you in the house and get you some tea to warm you up.”

Adam stood as Joe and Rachel made their way into the living room. Ben and Hoss came in from the kitchen.

“I’m gonna get Rachel some tea, Pa. You all entertain her for me for a minute.” Joe insisted and hurried to get Rachel something to warm her up on the inside.

Adam sat back down as Rachel moved to sit on the settee herself. Hoss and Ben joined them next to the fire in the two chairs closest to the bright flames that lit the room.

“So, how is your mother, Rachel?” Ben began.

“Oh, she is doing better. Now that Willie and Charles are back with her. She has taken in some of the local widows who didn’t have a place to go after the war. There’s some talk about starting a little school right there on the grounds of the house. Since I am one of the few who has some education they want me to help get it going.”

“That is a good thing, Rachel. I bet your momma sure is proud of you.” Hoss added.

“Being the only girl in the family has its good and bad points I guess. She has been after me to get hitched–they are starting to call me an old maid already.” Rachel’s laughter again filled the room and warmed it far more than the blazing fireplace.

Joe had listened from the doorway to the kitchen all that had been said around the fireplace. He was a little taken aback by Rachel’s mention of her folks wanting her to get married. Joe thought on how that would change their friendship if she were to go off and marry someone in New Orleans. Shaking his head at the thought, he walked back into the kitchen to get the tea.

“Here you go. And Hop Sing showed me how–so don’t say it isn’t good.” Joe grinned and handed the young lady a cup of tea. He turned toward the others and asked, “Care to join us?”

“No–I think the three of us are about ready for bed. How about it?” Ben turned and shot his other two sons a look. They read on his face that he wanted Joe and Rachel to have time alone.

“Yeah–got those dad gum fences to fix tomorrow, Older Brother. You know that no account brother of ours ain’t gonna be helping us around here for a few days.” Hoss said and gave Joe a quick jab to his ribcage.

“You are both right.” Adam announced standing from his position on the settee. The three oldest Cartwrights bid both Rachel and Joe a fond goodnight and headed up the stairs.

“Very good tea.” Rachel broke the sudden silence which had fallen over the room.

Joe sipped his tea and made a face at the weakness of it. “I am not exactly a tea fan–but I am glad you like it.”

“Finish your cup.” Rachel insisted.

“Huh? Why?”

“I want to read your tea leaves at the bottom that’s why.”

Joe downed the liquid and handed over his cup as he moved closer to Rachel to see what she was doing. “Oh so what do you see in my leaves? Go ahead–tell me my fortune Madame Cartier!” He laughed and she slapped his knee playfully.

“Let’s see here.” She started and swirled what remained in the bottom of the teacup. “You are a handsome man. You have many friends.”

“Oh–I like this already!” Joe interrupted.

“You are impulsive and easily angered but have a heart of pure gold.”

“Yep—you got that right. But what about my future?”

“Oh–let’s see you are going to fall madly in love and get married and have nineteen youngins!”

“Nineteen! Wow! Looks like I need a bigger house!” Joe laughed and then he took Rachel’s teacup and looked into it. “Okay–now my turn. You are extraordinarily beautiful. You have the soul of an angel. You also tell stories and put roots on people to get your way!”

“And my future?” Rachel asked going along with Joe’s teasing.

“You are going to fall in love and get married and have nineteen children—all boys too!”

“That makes thirty eight kids between you and me–hey we can start a whole state with that many youngins!” Rachel was now laughing hysterically.

“It also said that you need to go to bed so that you can have a wonderful time with this handsome escort tomorrow.”

“You are oh so modest, Joe.” Rachel answered as she stood from the settee. “But, you are right. I guess I am tired. Think I best turn in.”

Joe stood and when he went to give her the customary kiss to her forehead, suddenly, without planning on either of their parts, Rachel moved her face a tad higher and their lips met for the first time.

It was just a brief kiss, but it rendered the two confused young people speechless. It had come out of nowhere and the intensity from its meaning shot all kinds of thoughts through both of their minds. Rachel turned quickly and hurried up the stairs leaving Joe there in stunned confusion. Beating a fast exit as well, Joe decided to go out to the barn. He needed to go and think about it all and what it meant.

*****

Rachel had trouble sleeping. The bed was comfortable and the room warm, but it was her mind that kept her from falling off to sleep. Rachel felt a curious blend of both fear and excitement over what had happened that night between Joe and herself. She tried her best to rationalize it but was losing that battle. It had happened innocently enough, two friends in a moment of joint happiness sharing a kiss. But, it didn’t seem like that was all that it really was. In her heart Rachel heard what it was trying to tell her but she fought against it. Joe was her friend, her best friend plain and simple. He was everything a girl wanted for a friend and protector. He was brave and strong and reliable. But, he was white. That was the problem, and somehow, unknowingly they had both crossed the visible barrier that had kept them just friends

Rachel wondered what Joe was thinking and feeling. Perhaps, he hadn’t thought any more about it than a simple kiss and was not struggling over its other connotations. Rachel wondered if she was making something out of nothing. It had probably happened by mistake and would never happen again. The trouble was, in Rachel’s heart, she now wanted it to happen again.

*****

Joe had just about brushed the very hide off of his horse that night. Mulling over what had happened with Rachel, Joe had sought the serenity of the barn and his pinto friend to try and sort it all out. He felt bad, real bad. Watching Rachel fleeing up the stairs so fast, he was afraid that he had unknowingly upset her by his actions. He cursed his stupidity. Why had he let it happen? Rachel was his best friend in the world, someone he cherished and would not allow anyone to harm. And now he felt that he was the one who had hurt her. Joe wondered what she was thinking about him now. She probably thought of him as a cad, Joe assumed. There was also this strange gnawing at his heart that Joe was fighting. He didn’t want to admit to himself that he was not at all really sorry that it had happened. So what if he was white? So what if she was not? What was so wrong in it all anyway, Joe wondered. They were best friends. Or was there something more to it all, that he had not even recognized or admitted to himself?

*****

Ben was surprised at how subdued both Joe and Rachel had seemed that morning at breakfast. They didn’t speak much and when they would happen to look at each other, immediately they would look back down at their plates. When they had left to go on the picnic, Ben watched when Joe helped Rachel up into the carriage and thought that his son looked a little bashful when he had taken the woman’s hand. Bashful? His Joseph? No, that couldn’t be. Ben shrugged it off as the carriage pulled away from the front yard.

*****

Rachel spread out the blanket at the base of a tree and began to set out the contents of the picnic basket. Joe had not spoken much on their journey to the lake. Rachel was uneasy herself. They both were trying their best to pretend that nothing had happened the night before.

“Joe–the lake is just what you said it would be. It is breathtaking.” Rachel forced a smile and Joe finally made eye contact with her.

“I’m glad you like it—” Joe stammered and sat down at a distance from her on the blanket.

“Hop Sing sure knows how to pack a picnic.” Rachel commented for lack of other words to say. The silence was once again back on the two young people and it hung in the air till it almost suffocated them.

“I just wanted to say–” Both Rachel and Joe spoke the same words at the exact same moment. This sudden outburst reduced them both to laughter, and at last the ice was broken.

“Go on.” Rachel said.

“No–you go ahead.” Joe replied, still fighting for the right words.

“About last night–” Rachel started and then stopped abruptly.

“I know.” Joe interrupted. “It was all my fault and I am so sorry it happened, Rachel. You must think I am a real idiot now.”

“Why would I think that?” She asked and was beginning to think Joe was indeed sorry it had happened. The thought of that hurt her heart.

“I upset you—-and I never wanted to do that.”

“Upset me? You think I am upset?”

“The way you ran up those steps—I was sure that you never wanted to speak to me again. I almost canceled the picnic–heck–I almost ran away from home too! Just so I wouldn’t have to face you.”

Rachel started to laugh and it left Joe not knowing what to think or say now. He couldn’t even begin to imagine why she found this amusing. Rachel saw the confusion in Joe’s eyes and ceased laughing. “Joe—I’m sorry but this is funny isn’t it?”

“I don’t think so.” Joe responded out of hurt.

“Listen—it’s funny that you were thinking the same thing that I was thinking. I thought you would be upset with me for allowing it to happen.”

“Huh? You were thinking that really?”

“Yes—and I didn’t run up to my room because I was upset. I ran up to my room because I thought you didn’t really want to kiss me—and somehow it was my fault.”

Now Joe was laughing at how in tune to each other’s thoughts that they were. “Hey–I was worried you were gonna run and tell my father or something! No kidding I thought I was in big trouble!”

“I can’t believe you thought that! I was worried that you would never want to talk to me again.”

“We are a real pair aren’t we? Why do you suppose this was so –well—scary in a way?”

“I don’t know for sure, Joe. I guess because we have always been such great friends that it never crossed our minds that anything like this would ever happen.”

Joe was quiet for a moment and then got up the nerve to ask, “Well–are you sorry that it happened?”

Rachel stared into the eyes of the friend that she had cared for so many years. “Are you sorry?” She replied, her own eyes trying not to give away her answer.

“No.”

“Then I am not sorry either.” Rachel said and reached over and squeezed Joe’s hand for assurance.

“How did this happen? I mean for years we have confided in each other everything? We have been closer than any two people I know–even when we are hundreds of miles away. Why didn’t we see this was happening?”

“Maybe because we knew it wasn’t supposed to happen. We seemed to have crossed over some kind of line. I have loved you since the first day I met you. But, it was the love of a friend–or so I thought. I knew that no matter what happened–if I needed someone to help me all I had to do was call on you. I never went beyond thinking of you as a friend because I wasn’t supposed to.”

“Maybe it’s because we did start out as friends–maybe that is why this feels so easy–so right.”

“To you and me it does–but to the rest of the world it is going to mean trouble. That’s why I better go before anything else happens.”

“Oh–gonna run away again?” Joe chided and saw her defiant eyes cast their disapproving look.

“I don’t run away from things. Not without good reason at least.”

“Then don’t run now. Because, despite the fact that this wasn’t supposed to happen–it DID happen. And despite the rules of nature or the rules of this world, I happen to love you, Rachel.”

Rachel could tell in Joe’s intense hazel eyes that he had meant every word he had just said. She knew in her mind that the best thing for both of them would be to hop on the next stage east. But, in her heart she could not restrain her feelings for the young man who had found his way there.

“What will your family think?”

“They will think that I am crazy.” Joe laughed and put his arm around Rachel and pulled her so that she could rest her head on his strong shoulder. “But, there’s nothing new to that. I do know that they love me, and they can’t help but to love you as well.”

“It’s not all as simple as you think, Joe. There are people out there who will hate us, hate seeing us together.”

“Rachel—I only know that I am in love with you. I am not making any kind of statement as to the rest of the world or what others should do personally. I do not represent all white men no more than you represent the entire black population. But, no-one is going to tell me who to love and who not to.”

“Are you sure I shouldn’t leave?” Rachel whispered against Joe’s collar.

Joe could smell the fragrance, which seemed so familiar. Rachel smelled of vanilla just as his mother had. To him it was but another sign that they were supposed to be together, despite all odds. “If you leave, I will follow you. Let’s stay here and take it one day at a time. We are two people who are in love, isn’t that enough for right now?”

“Yes, that’s more than enough for me.” Rachel replied and closed her eyes as she listened to Joe’s rhythmic heartbeat. For the moment at least they were both safe, warm, and very much in love.

*****

Ben smiled watching Rachel and Joe step out of the surrey later that afternoon. Despite their behavior when they departed that morning, the two young people were back laughing and kidding each other as they walked over to him on the front porch.

“Well–have fun you two?” Ben asked and already knew the answer just looking at them.

“Oh, Ben the lake is beautiful! And Hop Sing filled that picnic basket with so much food I am so stuffed I could bust.”

“We had a great time, Pa. Adam and Hoss back yet?”

“No–but they should be here before long. So what are your plans now?”

“Well, I myself could use a nap.” Joe laughed and then put his arm around Rachel’s shoulder. “But, I promised Rachel I would let her beat me in a couple of games of checkers first.”

Ben saw that look. It was the Joe Cartwright is in love look. He had seen it before over the years, but never as noticeable as it was at that moment. Looking over at Rachel he could see she had the same look of love on her face. Ben fought to hide his worry now. Perhaps he was reading more into things than were actually there? Maybe his fatherly intuition was wrong this time? Looking again over at Joe he knew his earlier assessment had been dead right. The boy was in love. Thinking they needed to talk, Ben struggled to find an excuse.

“I know I gave you the day off, Son–but if you wouldn’t mind delaying your checker game just a few minutes would you mind helping me for a minute? These wood boxes need filling and Hop Sing needs some wood for the stove too.”

“Sure thing, Pa. Rachel, why don’t you take a short nap to rest up? Then I will let you beat me a couple of times in checkers.”

“A nap does sound good to tell you the truth. I’ll be down in an hour or so.” Rachel smiled and walked into the house.

Joe walked around to the side of the porch and started to pick up the cut wood. Ben was soon over to his son and stopped him.

“I used the wood as an excuse, Joseph. I really just wanted to talk to you.” Ben confessed and Joe set the wood back down.

“What’s wrong?”

“Come here–let’s sit down.” Ben directed his son over to the side steps of the porch. The two sat down and Ben tried to choose his words correctly. “It’s about you and Rachel.”

“What about us?” Joe asked innocently.

“Is there something you have to tell me?” Ben asked forcing his gaze on his son. Joe dropped his head down releasing his eyes from the piercing brown eyes of his father.

“No–not really.”

“Joseph?” Ben asked again and his tone was requesting an honest answer.

“Okay—well—as it turns out–I mean—” Joe struggled with his explanation and Ben broke in again.

“You two are in love.” Ben said flatly and Joe looked up again amazed that his father knew what had happened.

“Does it show that much?”

“Very much.” Ben replied.

“And—you don’t approve–is that what this is about, Pa?”

Ben pulled Joe close and shook his head disturbed at what he had asked. “It is not a matter of disapproving, Joseph. It is a matter of understanding how things are.”

“What things? You mean the fact that we are not the same color? I understand that all too well. Unfortunately my heart does not know colors, it just knows feelings.” Joe was now on the defensive.

“You know how fond of Rachel I am—and it should go without saying how I feel about you. I am just worried about what this will cost the two of you.”

“And the family? Are you worried about the family reputation?”

“I think you should know the answer to that. You never should have to ask me that. My sons and their happiness is all I ever cared about. I am not your enemy—I just need to warn you about what might happen.”

“Pa—this was not a well thought out plan–in fact there wasn’t even a plan at all. I didn’t just decide I was going to fall in love with Rachel–no more than she decided that she was going to fall in love with me. I hate the inconvenience this will cause the rest of the world–but I only care about Rachel’s happiness now.”

“Before things get too serious–maybe it would be wise if–” Ben trailed off and Joe stood up angrily.

“If Rachel would just leave? Is that what you were gonna say?” Joe spouted harshly.

Ben stood and grabbed Joe’s arm to take hold of him and the situation. “Just a minute there, Young Man. I am not firing off at you and I expect the same courtesy from you!”

Joe looked down at the ground and sighed. He felt bad now. He had not meant to yell at his father. “I’m sorry, Pa. This has gotten to me. I mean I can’t let go of it. You know what I mean?”

Ben now broke into a smile despite himself. “I know you think that I am ancient and can’t possibly remember what it feels like to be in love. I assure you I remember it very well. I just wish that things could be different for you, Joseph. You can’t blame me for being worried about your future–I am your father—-and I will always worry about you.”

“I know that, Pa.” Joe returned his father’s smile and patted his arm. “And no–I do not think of you as being ancient either! That’s why I thought you’d know what I am feeling because I know how much you loved my mother. I feel that same way towards Rachel, in spite of our color difference, in spite of our different backgrounds, in spite of what the world may or may not do to us. I love her.”

Ben shook his head in defeat. He wondered now why he had even broached the subject with his youngest son. He was of course, the child who had to learn everything in life the hard way. He was the child who thought with his heart and not his brain.

“Take it slow–that’s all I am asking right now. And, if it just so happens that you decide that the two of you have to be together—well–no matter what, you will have my blessings. Now–go get that blasted wood will you?”

Joe hugged his father to thank him for the vote of support and to show him how much he appreciated his concern and love. “Yes, Sir!” Joe made a half-hearted salute, which was followed by a string of laughter. Ben stood on the porch shaking his head at the boy who was so much like mercury that it almost scared him.

*****

After dinner, both Joe and Rachel had decided to turn in early. They had plans to venture into Virginia City the next day and wanted to get an early start. Ben sat by the fireplace half-heartedly reading a book. Hoss had also turned in for the evening leaving Ben and Adam alone in the living room.

“You want to talk about it?” Adam asked his father and handed him a brandy.

Ben looked up surprised at the sudden question and what it meant.

“Talk about what, Son?” Ben asked sipping the brandy slowly.

“Joe and Rachel.” Adam commented flatly.

“You know?”

“Only someone who was blind wouldn’t see what was going on between the two of them at dinner. They couldn’t keep their eyes off each other. They are in love.”

“Yes–I am afraid that is the case.”

“Well—you going to put a stop to it or what?”

“Do you really think I could? You know your little brother once he is dead set on something. There is nothing I could ever do to break the two of them up. If I tried it would send him off with her and I would never see him again. I am not willing to take that chance.”

Adam neared his father and looked down at him. “Pa, no matter what our personal views on slavery, no matter what great ideals you implanted in us as boys, this is going to destroy this family. And I think you know that.”

Ben stood and faced Adam head on. “What would you have me do, Adam? Send the two of them packing?”

“This world–hell–even this country will persecute them relentlessly! Slavery was not abolished in men’s hearts no matter what Mr. Lincoln’s intentions were. I don’t think prejudice will ever be abolished. I saw the worst of the worst during the war—and still the hatred persists!”

Ben softened his expression. He could tell that everything that Adam had said was said out of love and worry for Joe and Rachel as well. He could also tell that the war still was being fought, and it was on the battleground that existed in his son’s mind. “We have to let them have their chance, Son. It is a million to one, but we have to let them try. If not they will forever wonder if it would have worked. All we can do is offer our support and love.”

Adam settled back down into his chair and thought for a moment. “They are going into town tomorrow–you know that don’t you?”

“Yes—I know.” Ben answered solemnly.

“Hoss and I are going too–just in case.”

“They can’t always have bodyguards you know.” Ben warned.

“They can for the time being.” Adam remarked and it showed his intentions. Both he and Hoss would make sure that no harm came to their brother nor the woman he loved.

*****

The next day Joe and Rachel went out in the surrey again. They did not see his two brothers as they mounted up earlier and also headed into Virginia City. The pair would remain in the background just in case they were needed.

Joe pulled his rig up at the livery stable and helped Rachel down. One of the livery stable workers came out to greet them. It was a friend of the Cartwright family named Jeb Taylor. He was a black man in his later forties who had worked as both livery stable employee and also blacksmith when needed.

“Jeb–this here is Rachel. Rachel, this is Jeb Taylor.” Joe started the introductions.

“Nice to meet you.” Rachel nodded.

“Pleasure, Miss Rachel. What brings you to our little town?”

“Visiting Joe right now.” She replied.

Jeb watched the looks that passed between Joe and Rachel and he felt an anger start to arise in his chest. He wondered if Joe was serious in his feelings toward the young lady. He watched as she grabbed for Joe’s hand and he accepted it. Jeb knew what he was seeing and still could not believe it.

“Will you stable the horses for me, Jeb? We are going to be shopping for awhile.”

“Livery is full—best go elsewhere.” Jeb said indignantly and turned away from the couple. Joe didn’t catch on right away to what was happening. Unfortunately Rachel was well aware of the feelings the black man had displayed.

“Hamm what got into him?” Joe asked himself and then looked at Rachel. “Don’t worry—we can stable them down at the end of town.” Joe helped Rachel back into the surrey and they drove to the other livery. Once there, Joe left the horses and walked Rachel around the town.

Rachel looked in the display window and saw a beautiful gown at the town’s dress shop. Joe saw how she looked at it and knew that he had to get it for her. “C’mon—let’s go inside for a second.” He said and dragged her inside before Rachel could protest.

“Mrs. Lindstrom.” Joe nodded toward the owner of the shop. “My friend Rachel here was admiring the dress in the window. Do you have anything like that in her size?”

The owner looked at the petite black girl and then over to some patrons who stood with their mouths wide open. Mrs. Lindstrom did not want to do anything that would make her lose the business of her regular clientele.

“I am afraid we have nothing like that. Good day.” The owner said coolly to the couple.

Joe spied a rack of clothes off to the side and there was the identical dress. He held it up and said, “This looks about right doesn’t it?”

Mrs. Lindstrom walked closer to Joe and whispered in his ear, “We do not attend colored girls in this establishment.”

Joe set the dress back on the rack and took Rachel by the arm and walked out of the shop. He almost ran right into his two brothers who were standing outside waiting.

“Hey—you almost bowled us over, Little Brother.” Hoss said and then read the look on Joe’s face and knew there had been trouble.

“Rachel—stay here with Hoss for a minute. Hey–Adam–I need to talk with you.” Joe said and he walked off into the alley with his older brother.

“I take it you had some trouble in the dress shop?” Adam said and Joe nodded.

“Yeah—is that why the two of you showed up?”

“Well—we just thought—” Adam started but Joe cut in again.

“It’s okay–I am not mad–in fact I need you two to do me a big favor. I have to go to the bank for a couple of minutes. Will you take Rachel over to see Roy and introduce her? I am sure she will have no problem with him.”

“And exactly what do you plan to do at the bank?” Adam pried knowing that expression on his brother’s face. The face said he was going after revenge, pure and simple.

“I’ll tell you when I get back, okay?”

“Sure–you go ahead–I am looking forward to seeing what you have up your sleeve anyway.” Adam grinned and patted his brother’s back.

*****

Joe sat in the back office of the bank manager. He had already spoken to the man and was very clear in his intentions. Joe demanded immediate assistance, and was catered to since he now was one of the largest depositors. It took almost an hour, but Joe waited patiently for the man to perform his duties. When the bank manager returned he had in his possession the lien to Mrs. Lindstrom’s dress shop.

“You hold the lien now, Joe. What in the world made you decide to take over a dress shop anyway?”

Joe grinned and shook the man’s outstretched hand. “Oh—I just thought it was about time that I diversified a little with my holdings. Thanks for taking care of this for me.”

“Anytime, Joe–anytime.”

The next stop was Mrs. Lindstrom’s dress shop. Joe walked in and motioned the woman over to him.

“I am going to bring my friend back in here and you are going to treat her as well as you treat any other client in here. I now hold the lien to your shop. Need I say more?” Joe asked, his eyes still full of rage at how Rachel had been treated earlier.

Mrs. Lindstrom looked at the lien papers that Joe held in his hands and frowned. She couldn’t afford to take any chances. She was already two months behind on her note.

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright. You bring the young lady in and I will be happy to make her feel comfortable.”

“I thought so.” Joe nodded and turned to leave.

*****

Rachel stood outside of the dressing room and modeled her new dress for Joe.

“What do you think?” She asked turning around so he could get a total view.

“I think it is almost as beautiful as you are.” Joe replied smiling. He noticed how several other patrons walked out of the dress shop rather abruptly. Mrs. Lindstrom stood off to the side trying her best to hide her ire at the situation before her. “We’ll take it.” Joe said to the store owner.

“Fine–I’ll ring you up now.” She replied hastily.

“Not just yet. Rachel, Darling–choose another dress—there is a dance Saturday and I want you to find one that will show off your beauty.”

“But–Joe—” Rachel stammered–she had seen how the others in the shop had fled due to her appearance in the store.

Joe reached for a bright blue satin dress and brought it over to Rachel. “This looks about your size. How about trying it on–for me?”

Rachel shook her head amused at Joe’s persistence. “Okay–just one more.”

Adam and Hoss watched from a distance as Joe and Rachel left the dress shop carrying the two packages. “You got to give it to the kid—he knows how to get to people, doesn’t he?” Adam smiled over at his brother Hoss.

“Yeah–he is a defiant cuss! Looks like they are heading down to the International House now. Let’s follow.” Hoss answered and they still followed their brother at a good distance.

*****

“Well–now what do we have here?” Mitch Devlin asked walking out of the saloon and addressing his old friend Joe and his girlfriend,

“Hey–Mitch! This is Rachel–I’ve been telling you about her for years. Rachel this is my old pal Mitch.” Joe introduced the two.

“Nice to meet you, Mitch.” Rachel nodded toward the man.

“Pleasure is all mine, Rachel. Gee–Joe–you weren’t fooling when you said how pretty she was!”

“Joe—did you really tell him that?” Rachel asked amused at the thought that Joe had bragged about her to his friends.

“No–actually I told him you were gorgeous!” Joe laughed.

“Hey–you two coming to the dance this Saturday?”

“Sure are! We just got Rachel a dress for it–she will be the prettiest girl there too!” Joe replied and took her hand into his.

Two other men stepped out of the saloon and looked over at Joe holding the young black girl’s hand. Instantly they started in on the couple.

“Joe Cartwright! What the hell is wrong with your vision, boy? That there is a slave girl!” One of the men shouted loudly and a small gathering started due to the commotion.

“Let’s go, Joe.” Rachel insisted, wanting to break the tension of the situation.

Joe would hear nothing of it; he walked closer to both men. “Are you done loud mouth?”

“Hey–Jim here was just warning you, Cartwright. No reason to get mad and all. Those slaves have a place in the world–but it ain’t around white folks!” The other man laughed.

Joe lit into both men and Mitch moved Rachel away from the fight. Hoss and Adam charged down the sidewalk and were thrust into the middle of the event. Joe knocked one man off the walkway and into the street. Hoss took care of the other man with a left hook to the jaw. Joe still was relentless with his fists. In his mind he wasn’t just fighting the man or his ill remarks; Joe felt he was fighting prejudice itself.

Coughing out blood, the man on the street begged to be let go.

“Now you apologize or I will finish you off!” Joe shouted.

“Okay–okay—I am sorry for saying what I did.”

“Not good enough!” Joe shouted and threw another punch.

“I’m sorry for calling her a slave!” He yelled again.

“C’mon, Joe, let him go.” Adam said grabbing his brother’s left hand before it could send another blow to the man’s face. Joe tried to gain his composure. He stood and turned to see Rachel. She looked so frightened and so sad. Joe then saw the people who stood staring at the spectacle that the men had all made.

“This goes for all of you!” Joe shouted towards the crowd. “This lady—Rachel Cartier–is my friend–no not just friend–” Joe paused and walked up to the sidewalk and put his arm around Rachel’s shivering shoulder. “She is my girlfriend. And anyone who has a problem with that can come and see me! Let’s go.” Joe turned Rachel in the other direction and walked off. He could still see the looks of the other people. They appeared to be in shock.

Mitch caught up with his friend and handed Joe the packages that he had inadvertently left in front of the saloon. “Sorry about that, Rachel. Not all of us here are total idiots. I hope you will give us a chance to redeem ourselves and our town.”

Rachel looked from Mitch to Joe and back again. She broke into the most beautiful saintly smile and it melted both men’s hearts to see it. “Thank you, Mitch, Joe said you were a real friend–you have proved that today. There will always be people like those two down the street. I consider it very fortunate that there will always be folks like you as well.”

Mitch smiled at the young woman’s statement and put his arm around both Rachel and Joe. “Okay–I expect a dance out of this deal then, Old Buddy–that is if you can let Rachel out of your arms for a minute on Saturday.”

“You got it.” Joe winked and patted his friend on the back. “Thanks, Mitch–for taking care of Rachel while I was taking care of that loud mouth.”

“Hey—what are friends for? You just sing out if anyone else starts something–I’ll be right there! See you two Saturday!” Mitch winked and walked off.

Joe pulled Rachel closer. “Please forgive the way things went today–it won’t always be like this –I promise.”

Rachel looked at Joe’s bruised left hand; she brought it up to her face and kissed it. “Thank you for being my protector.”

“Always.” Joe whispered and brought her chin up and kissed her. This time it was no mistake. It wasn’t a quick kiss either. It sealed the love he felt in his heart for Rachel.

Rachel looked into his eyes when the kiss was broken. “I am not running off this time.”

Joe laughed and pulled her close again. “I’ll never let you run off again.” He whispered.

The two lovebirds heard someone cough and looking around they saw it was Adam and Hoss standing there. “If you two are done–” Adam grinned.

“For now–” Joe winked.

“If’n you think you have caused enough stir to this here town–how about we go home? I know you were going to the restaurant–but I have a taste for real food. And there ain’t nobody cooks better than Hop Sing.”

“Yes–let’s go home.” Rachel nodded.

“Home.” Joe repeated feeling very happy that she felt that way about the ranch now.

“Thank you both for watching out for us today.” Rachel said and hugged both Hoss and Adam.

“Vanilla!” Hoss said loudly. “That’s what I’ve been smelling. You have the scent of vanilla, Rachel.”

Rachel blushed and then giggled. “You folks are gonna laugh–but that is exactly what kind of perfume I use–it’s vanilla extract. I love the fragrance. Not too cultured am I?”

Adam hugged the young woman and fought back tears. He, too, remembered Marie Cartwright—a woman he had loved like his very own mother. “Marie—your fragrance reminds me of Joe’s mother.”

Joe was surprised to see Adam so touched by the memory of his mother. Maybe it wasn’t just that either. Joe felt that having helped to protect Rachel that Adam was starting to feel like his old self; pre-war days. That thought eased Joe’s heart and made a moment of pure peace. He saw how his brothers had accepted the woman that he loved and it made it so much easier on the two young lovers.

“I happen to be partial to vanilla myself.” Joe grinned.

“Me too—reminds me of cookies! Dadburn it–you three are making me even hungrier! Let’s get home!” Hoss laughed and they walked off to get the surrey and the two horses.

*****

Ben couldn’t help noticing the fact that all three of his sons looked a might tousled upon their return home late that afternoon. He also detected the bruised cheek and left hand that Joe sported. Knowing that there had been trouble, Ben waited to address it. The family ate their dinner and all talk was light and cheerful. They spoke of many things, none of which was what had happened in Virginia City that day.

When Rachel had announced that she was ready for bed, Joe walked her to her room.

“Sorry that this day didn’t exactly come off as I had planned it.” Joe apologized again.

Rachel touched the bruises on Joe’s face and smiled. “Oh you just wanted to show off that’s all!” She teased.

“I was rather charming wasn’t I? I sure knocked the wind out of that jerk’s sail!”

“Modesty—one of the things I love about you.” Rachel laughed.

“Really—I am sorry.” Joe turned serious again.

“You don’t have to be sorry, Joe. I told you that there would be trouble with all of this. You didn’t notice the man at the livery stable but I did. That man obviously hated the thought of us just as much as some of the white folks did. Prejudice is on both sides of the color issue you know.”

“That’s their problem.” Joe said turning defiant once more. “All I care about is you. I love you so much.” Joe bent down and kissed Rachel. They embraced and held tightly to one another.

“I wish we could make our own world, Joe. But, unfortunately we are stuck in this one. I wish everyone all of a sudden would go blind. Imagine that for a minute! No-one would know who to hate!”

“Oh–there would always be something to hate, Rachel. If not color, then it would be someone’s religion, or someone’s status in life. I remember Pa saying that the only place that doesn’t allow hate is Heaven.”

“When we are alone–just the two of us–I feel like I am in heaven already.”

Joe kissed her again and then pulled away. “I could stand here all night–but you better get some rest. You and I will go off on our own tomorrow–no-one to bother us.”

“I don’t want to keep you from your work.”

“Hey–I have one more day off, let me enjoy it will you? Then it will be back to the same old grind. Just because I’m now independently wealthy doesn’t mean that Pa won’t work my hide off!” Joe laughed.

“I’ll look forward to tomorrow, Joe. Goodnight.” Rachel said pulling open her door.

“Goodnight—I love you.” Joe whispered.

“I love you too.” Rachel replied and then walked into her room.

By the time Joe had made it down the stairs he could tell that his brothers had filled his father in on everything that had happened in town that day. He braced himself for what was to come.

“Well, congratulations, Joseph–I hear you now own a dress shop!” Ben called over to the boy, a bit of sarcasm bleeding out in his statement.

“Yeah, Pa—always wanted one you know!” Joe teased and sat down on the settee next to Hoss for back-up.

“About the little incident–” Ben began and Joe broke in.

“It wasn’t much—nothing to get all up in arms about.” Joe protested.

“Well, maybe not this time. But, what about next time?” Ben replied trying to get his son to take off the blinders and face facts.

“One day at a time, Pa. Aren’t you always telling me that?”

“Yes–I do remember saying that many times.” Ben broke into a smile at his words coming back to haunt him. “I just want you and Rachel to be careful—that’s all I was getting at.”

“Well–thanks to my two bodyguards here—no harm was done really. And, I will try to keep from fighting if that’s what is bothering you.”

“Look at your face and tell me I shouldn’t be bothered.” Ben retorted and saw his son slink down on the settee in response.

“They just got to get use to the idea–those townsfolk–that’s all, Pa.” Hoss jumped to Joe’s defense.

“It’s gonna take some time for them to do that, Hoss. That is if they ever really will get use to it.” Adam chimed in.

“I don’t personally give a damn if they like it or not!” Joe said hotly.

“Joseph!” Ben shot him a look to watch his tongue.

“I’m sorry but it’s how I feel. It’s my life and not theirs. If they don’t like it they can go elsewhere.”

Ben sighed in frustration and sat back down. He decided to change the subject. “I have to go over to see Mr. Hawkins tomorrow to sign the papers on that new tract of land up by north shore. You all try and stay out of trouble will you?”

“Trouble? Us?” The three brothers said in unison and Ben had to laugh at the innocent looks they were giving him.

“My little angels–why would I suggest that you would be in any trouble?” Ben replied and it broke up the room. The family was together, and they were trying their best to tackle a most formidable foe; prejudice and the hatred which caused it. The Cartwrights would close ranks and try to fend even the evil of hatred off if need be to protect one of their own.

*****

The next day turned out beautiful. Joe and Rachel had gone out to see the many sights around the ranch. They enjoyed their time alone and it only fueled their love for one another. Rachel had said it the night before; when they were alone in their own world it was like being in heaven.

Stopping briefly to pester his two brothers, Joe and Rachel stopped by the branding corral and then made their way off to another site to relax and enjoy another picnic. They wished that the day would never end, but it was starting to get dark and the wind had picked up by the lake. Joe worried about Rachel catching cold and had decided it was time to head back to the house. Rachel went right to her room to change into warmer clothes and Joe walked over to where his family was discussing something over in Ben’s study.

“What’s up?” He asked sitting down on the corner of the desk.

Ben looked up and Joe could tell there had been some kind of trouble. His father’s face was as easy to read as his own.

“Mr. Hawkins canceled the sale of that tract of land.” Adam announced.

“Why would he do that? I thought it was a done deal?” Joe asked confused.

“It doesn’t matter. I can get along without it.” Ben stated with ire still in his tone.

“But you wanted it to move the herd on this winter!” Joe protested and then sensed that they were all keeping something from him. “Okay, what’s the real reason for this?”

Ben cleared his throat and carefully chose his words. “It seems that Mr. Hawkins doesn’t like our choice of houseguest.”

Joe looked back and forth between his family members exasperated. “What does Rachel have to do with this?”

“He is a most prejudice man, Joseph. He heard about you and Rachel. It seems that what happened in town yesterday was just what the town gossips were waiting for. Once he found out about it he canceled the deal.”

Joe’s fist clenched at the idea of what had happened. “You know I would have thought more of Virginia City than that. I guess I was wrong. I’m sorry, Pa. Maybe Rachel and I should find somewhere else to live.”

Ben stood and put his arm around his youngest son’s shoulder. “You were not raised to run away from a problem now were you?” He asked quietly.

“No, Sir. But, I’m not going to stick around and let my being in love with Rachel effect this ranch.”

“Oh–and your leaving wouldn’t effect this ranch?” Ben asked ironically.

“Pa’s right, Joe,” Hoss interjected. “This ranch is the four of us. And anyone else who becomes a Cartwright. We have fought off others who have tried to tear us apart. This is no different.”

Joe wiped the tears that had now drifted from his eyes. He looked upon the faces of his brothers and his father and their expressions were nothing but love for him. “Thanks—you are about the best family anyone could ever ask for.”

“So–” Ben coughed again to clear his throat. He, too, was a bit emotionally affected by the warmth in the room. “Let’s figure out what we are gonna do about this.”

“I’m gonna go to the dance with Rachel tomorrow–you all know that right?”

“We know. And we will be there as well. Maybe if they see how we are as a family, they will know how serious we are about this prejudice nonsense.”

“If anything happens—I just want you all to watch out for Rachel for me.”

“We will watch out for BOTH of you.” Ben replied and gave Joe a pat on his back.

“My–you all look like the Indians are fixin to attack!” Rachel called from the staircase.

The four Cartwrights turned to the young lady and Ben called out.

“As a matter of fact, we were talking about something very serious, Young Lady!” Ben gave Joe a quick wink to let him know everything would be kept from Rachel to protect her feelings. Ben made it to the bottom of the stairs and shot out his elbow for her to take. She placed her tiny hand around the massive arm and smiled.

“What is so serious?” She asked a little alarmed.

“Well, that son of mine was not going to let us have a dance with you tomorrow night. But, after some severe threatening he has at last caved in to our demands!”

Adam and Hoss moved over to Rachel. “Yeah, and I got me first dibs too!” Hoss grinned.

“No, Hoss.” Adam started. “We are going by age–so I will be first.”

“Not so fast there you whippersnapper!” Ben laughed. “As patriarch of this wild bunch, I will get the first dance.”

Joe wiped the remaining tears from his eyes and hurried over to the stairs. “Wrong! I get the first dance as the youngest member and the one who happens to be madly in love with the young lady.” Joe protested.

“Oh–all right–but then we go in line from oldest to youngest.” Ben laughed and handed Rachel over to Joe’s waiting arms.

“I have never been this popular in my life!” Rachel giggled and Joe hugged her tightly.

“You will be the belle of the ball tomorrow, my love, just remember who you are going home with.” Joe answered.

“Yeah—all four of us!” Hoss laughed and saw Rachel’s eyes light up from all the love that was in the room.

“I can’t wait for tomorrow.” Rachel said looking at the four men in front of her who had accepted her for herself despite any color difference.

*****

The town hall in Virginia City was decked out in her finest the next evening and already there was a full room of guests. Rachel paused on the steps and turned toward her escort, a look of fear on her face.

“Joe—maybe this isn’t such a good idea. I haven’t seen one woman of color here so far.”

Joe took her hand and stared at her beauty. She wore the bright satin blue gown that he had chosen for her to wear. A matching bright blue ribbon adorned her hair that was secured on top of her head making her look even more stunning than usual. Staring into the troubled eyes, Joe’s heart broke for her. He hated that she would feel this uncomfortable in his own home town.

“Now listen here, Rachel, you are the most beautiful woman Virginia City has ever seen. So any stares that you might get will be stares of pure envy. You have more than anyone here. You are beautiful on the inside as well as on the outside. Now, I won’t know about the others in there, ’cause I am only going to be looking at you. I’m here with you and I won’t let anything happen to you. Neither will my family. You said it yourself–didn’t you–that some people will always hate the fact that we are in love? But, don’t let that stop you from the ones who will come to accept us. We can’t hide from this town.”

“You look so handsome,” she said in reply. Joe was dressed in his dark blue suit with a blue string tie and the two young people were stunning, despite their difference in skin tone.

“Why thank you.” Joe smiled and bowed at the waist. “Now–you ready?”

Rachel took Joe’s elbow and nodded. The two of them walked into the room followed closely by the other Cartwrights. The music was loud and the room packed with people, but still the stares began. Joe escorted Rachel across the room to where Mitch stood with his girlfriend.

“Joe! Rachel!” Mitch called out as they approached.

“Hi, Mitch.” Joe smiled and nodded over to his friend’s date.

“Rachel–this here is Bonnie–Bonnie this is Joe’s girlfriend Rachel.”

“Nice to meet you, Rachel.” Bonnie smiled. She had already been told about Joe’s new girlfriend, and being of the same nature as Mitch, she accepted the young woman.

“Very nice to meet you too, Bonnie.” Rachel smiled.

“The old place sure is packed.” Joe commented and looked around the room. He could see that his family members were mingling with the guests, but also keeping an eye out for trouble.

“Yeah—how about we impress these girls with our dancing abilities?” Mitch asked.

“Would you give me the great honor of this dance?” Joe asked Rachel and she grinned.

“My pleasure, kind sir.” She replied.

Joe and Mitch escorted their ladies out to the dance floor where a waltz was just starting to play.

“I may be a little rusty,” Joe whispered in Rachel’s ear as the dance started.

“I have strong toes–don’t worry about me.” Rachel laughed and Joe whirled her around the dance floor. They were in another world, one of their own. Never noticing the other dancers as they started departing from the dancing and made their way over to the sidelines. Soon it was just Joe and Rachel and Mitch and Bonnie dancing to the waltz.

The other Cartwrights had witnessed what was happening and they each grabbed a partner and joined Joe and Rachel to make the departing dancers look totally foolish. Ben watched as he danced with the widow Thompson, he could see the spell that his son was under and it almost made him wish he were that young and in love again. When the song was over Joe brought Rachel over for some refreshments. He poured her a glass of punch and handed it to her.

“Some people!” A woman by the punch bowl directed over to the young couple as an insult and walked away in a huff. Joe and Rachel just laughed in response.

“Another song is about to begin.” Ben announced approaching Joe. “I believe it is at last my turn to dance with the lovely Miss Rachel.”

“Okay—I guess we owe you this one.” Joe smiled and winked at his father.

“May I?” Ben asked taking Rachel’s hand.

“My great pleasure.” Rachel nodded and Ben escorted her out to the dance floor. Joe watched his father as he danced with the young woman. It heartened him to see how Ben had accepted the woman he planned to make his bride and the first Cartwright daughter-in law.

“I haven’t had much time to talk to you alone, my dear.” Ben whispered as the two of them danced.

“Thank you for sharing Joe with me, Ben. I hope I haven’t upset your life too much.”

“Not at all, Rachel. You know I guess I have known all along how Joseph felt about you. I could see it in his eyes a long time ago. I think you are a wonderful young lady. And if it’s your decision and Joseph’s I would gladly accept you as a daughter.”

Rachel brushed the tears from her eyes and held on a little more tightly to Ben’s hands. “You have no idea how much that means to me–how much it means to Joe.”

“Now don’t you go getting all weepy on me or that hotheaded son of mine might pick a fight with his old man.” Ben teased and handed her his handkerchief.

“I know why Joe is the way he is—and it is because of the way you raised him. For that I will forever be in your debt.”

“I just want what’s best for him–and for you. And if that is each other than so be it. But, you know it won’t be easy with the way of things.”

“I know. I wish everyone had a family like yours–then maybe the world would be more accepting of this.”

“No more sad talk. Our dance is ending and I want to see you smile.”

Rachel looked up into Ben’s soft brown eyes and did as instructed; she smiled. The sight melted Ben’s heart and helped to make him realize exactly what his son had seen in the young woman.

As Ben walked Rachel back over to Joe he heard a scuffle going on over at the far end of the room. He hurriedly handed the girl back over to her date and then went off to see what was happening.

“I said the war is over!” Adam shouted and threw another man up against the wall.

“Just because your side won–don’t make it okay for you to bring your slaves into here to dance with!” The man called back.

“Do you know how many men died because of idiots like you?” Adam said shaking the man by his collar. “Too bad that people like you survived when a whole lot of good men are dead and buried!”

Ben moved quickly over to Adam’s side. He could read the intensity on his son’s face and knew what he was thinking. He was again reliving the loss of his friends in battle and that was tearing him up on the inside.

“Enough!” Ben shouted and pushed Adam’s hand away from the man’s throat. “You need to leave before someone kills you.” Ben warned the man.

“Fine by me!” The man shouted and reached down to retrieve his hat. “I’d no sooner stay with you slave lovers than I would pigs in a sty!”

Ben sent a fist flying with the remark the man made. It would have turned into a full-scale battle but Roy Coffee had made his way over to the three of them before Ben could land another punch.

“Okay—Pete—seems you’ve had a bit too much of the joy juice. You go on and get out of here.” Roy warned the man.

“Another slave lover!” Pete shouted and turned and stormed out the door.

There was a sudden quiet in the room. The band had stopped playing and the gossips had started to whisper about what had happened.

“Fire up that band!” Roy yelled. “This here is a dance not a funeral!”

And with the sheriff’s statement the room was once again filled with music and dancing. Adam walked over to Joe who was taking everything internally.

“I believe it is my turn now?” He said and Joe grinned at his brother.

“Can you stand another Cartwright?” Joe asked Rachel.

“I am having the time of my life!” She replied and accepted Adam’s outstretched arm, leaving Joe once more.

The dance went on for hours, and once the initial shock of Joe’s choice for a date had died down, things had gone more smoothly. There was time for several more dances and Joe took advantage of the opportunity to hold Rachel in his arms for each one of them. Finally, it was time for Hoss’ turn with the young lady and Joe reluctantly turned her over to him.

“Okay—good thing I haven’t got more than two brothers or you would be plum worn out!” Joe said to Rachel and saw Hoss grin. “I am going over to get the surrey–I will be back in a couple of minutes. You keep an eye on her for me, Hoss.”

“An eye on her and an arm around her.” Hoss winked at his brother as he headed out to the dance floor.

If Joe hadn’t been so exhausted from the night’s events, he would have noticed that something was a bit amiss in the livery stable as he walked inside. But, his mind was on getting the surrey and hurrying back to Rachel.

“Jeb? You here?” Joe called as he moved inside and over to the back room of the stable.

It was then that the doors closed and Joe spun around. There was a dimly lit lantern sitting on the table by the door giving just enough light to see the three men who stood by the doors. Joe recognized them to be the two men from the day of his fight in front of the saloon. The third man was the one who his brother Adam had thrown out of the dance.

“What are you doing?” Joe asked as they moved closer. “Look I don’t want any trouble.” Joe warned.

“Then you shouldn’t go to mixing with no slaves. It’s time you were taught about life and the way it should be.” The man named Pete said nearing Joe.

Joe dove towards the oncoming assault. His fists met several targets before his arms were pinned behind him and he started to feel the blows inflicted by all three men. Joe doubled over due to the attack. When they dropped him on the stable floor they began to kick him in the ribs and Joe gasped for air. He tried his hardest to make it to a fetal position to shield himself from the sharp assault of the three men’s boots but it was no use. Over and over again they pummeled and kicked him. He tasted the blood that seeped from a gash above his right eye and fought off the need to vomit.

“Go get it, Pete.” One of the other men said and Joe saw through blurry vision the man walking to the back of the stable. He was back with something in his hands but Joe couldn’t tell what it was. It was only when he felt the leather of the whip that he realized what was happening. Joe felt his suitcoat being ripped away and his shirt being torn by the strips of leather of a bullwhip. Screaming in pain, Joe prayed for someone to find him, but no one came. Lying on the dirty floor of the livery stable Joe fought back tears of pain. He thought the torment was over when the whip stopped its attack. It was then that he smelled the pungent odor of axle grease.

“You like ‘em so much—let’s make you one of them.” Pete laughed and he poured the thick black grease all over Joe’s face and exposed body. It was then that he lost consciousness.

“Mr. Cartwright!” came a voice from just beyond the outside door to the town hall. Ben heard the call and walked outside. He saw Jeb Taylor standing there.

“What is it, Jeb?” Ben asked.

“I don’t like your boy taking him a black girlfriend—I don’t think it’s proper.” Jeb started.

“Jeb–this really isn’t the time for this discussion.” Ben replied angrily and started to turn away but the man grabbed his arm.

“I don’t like it none–but still you all’s been real good to me—so I gotta tell you that Joe is in trouble!”

“What!” Ben exploded as he stared into the other man’s eyes.

“I seen three men go into the stable right after Joe walked in. I was just coming back from shoeing a horse. Figured there was something bad going on in there.”

“Hoss!” Ben called through the crowd. “Stay with Rachel! Adam, come with me!”

People inside the dance wondered why Ben Cartwright sounded so agitated. Hoss kept a hold of Rachel as Adam hurried over to his father.

Ben and Adam raced to the livery stable. By the time they arrived there was only one person inside. Joe. Ben rushed to his side and almost immediately felt he would be physically ill looking at the damage that had been done to him. Adam handed his father his handkerchief and kneeled down next to them both.

“Joseph–oh Joseph—what have they done to you, Boy?” Ben cried as he wiped the axle grease off of his son’s face.

Joe only came around for a brief moment. He stared up into his father’s tear filled eyes. “Pa—don’t let them hurt Rachel.” Joe mumbled and fell back off into the unconscious world where there was no pain.

Ben turned and looked over at Adam. “I want you to get Hoss to take Rachel home. It will kill her to see what they have done to Joe. I’m taking Joe over to Doctor Martin’s.” Ben reached over and scooped Joe up into his arms.

“What am I gonna tell Rachel–what am I gonna tell Hoss?” Adam asked as he followed his father outside.

“Tell them Joe had a little accident. They will hear the real story soon enough. Meet me over at the doctor’s office as soon as Hoss and Rachel are safely away.” Ben said and then strode briskly across the street. All that mattered to him now was his youngest son and the damage that had been done to the boy. Ben knew hate very well, but not the kind of hate that could have done this to his son. He vowed to get whoever had done this, just as soon as he knew Joe would survive his injuries.

*****

Doctor Martin was just hanging up his coat when he saw the door burst open. He was shocked to see Ben and the battered boy who was in his arms. Having just himself returned from the dance, the doctor could not fathom how Joe could have been injured. He had just spoken to Rachel and Joe just an hour previous.

“Set the boy over on the examining table, Ben.” Paul instructed and rolled up his sleeves.

Ben tried to gingerly lay his son down but even though unconscious Joe moaned in pain from the movement.

“Help me peel these clothes off of him. Be careful with what is left of his shirt.” Paul said seeing that parts of the material were now deeply imbedded in Joe’s skin on his back. Slowly the two men stripped Joe to his underclothing and the doctor began prodding to see what was broken. Looking over at Ben, who was his long time friend, Paul could sense the anger that was ready to boil over in the man. “Who in the world would do this to Joe?” Paul asked as he dabbed rubbing alcohol on a towel and tried to clean the numerous wounds.

“I don’t know but I can assure you I will find out.” Ben replied and grimaced as the doctor turned Joe over on his side and he got the first good look at his son’s back. “Just wait until I get my hands on the man who whipped my boy!” Ben threatened.

“Calm down, Ben. We’ve got far too much to do to fix Joe—and I’m gonna need a level head here to do it.” Paul reprimanded his friend and then walked over to his table and drew up some medicine in a syringe. “He’s gonna need something to keep him out while we do all this,” Paul said and injected Joe with a strong sedative. “Let’s start with his head and work our way down. Looks like that gash on his forehead is going to need some sutures. We need to get all this grease off of him to prevent infection.” Paul cleaned Joe’s face thoroughly and Ben kept handing him what he needed. Then came the ten stitches to sew his forehead injury. Ben bit at his bottom lip as he watched the doctor pull the thread threw his son’s pale skin.

“That’s done. Now we have to wash the rest of him down good with alcohol and soap and water before we can tend the rest of his injuries. Wish I could get him into a bathtub—but that is out of the question. You keep wringing the towels and hand them to me. First the ones with alcohol then the soap and water.”

Ben nodded at the instructions and slowly and meticulously the two men cleaned every inch of Joe’s battered body. The grease was everywhere, and Ben knew why his son had been coated with the liquid and it made his stomach churn at the thought of it all.

“Now let’s tend his back. I have some ointment that should help prevent infection.”

“Will it scar?”

“I am not sure this time, Ben. Those are some pretty deep lacerations.” Paul shook his head; this was about as bad as he had ever seen Joe Cartwright. And he had seen the young man through just about every kind of illness and injury known to man.

Once the back was tended the doctor, aided by Ben, taped up Joe’s broken ribs. They tightened the binding and then the doctor looked at the boy’s left arm. “Broken—in two places. Gonna have to set this and cast it. Looks like somebody tromped him good.” Paul again shook his head, his own anger was now mounting. He thought of Joe Cartwright like the son he had never had.

The two men set Joe’s broken arm and went about applying the plaster cast. Then the doctor positioned the boy so that he was on his side and off his battered back. Rolling back down his sleeves, Paul finally made eye contact with the worried father.

“That’s all for now, Ben. He will sleep for awhile. It won’t be until tomorrow that you can take him home. I suggest you get a mattress in the back of the buckboard for the long drive home, too. It’s going to be a hard trip for him I am afraid. After seeing what happened here in this town, I am sending him back to the Ponderosa for his own protection instead of suggesting the hotel.”

Ben let out a deep breath and stroked the matted hair off his son’s forehead. It was then he heard commotion in the outer room. Both he and Doctor Martin went out into the waiting room to see what was going on.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I couldn’t keep either of them from coming over here.” Adam apologized and Hoss and Rachel neared him.

“What happened to Joe?” Hoss demanded followed by Rachel.

“Sit down–the both of you!” Paul commanded. “I’ve got a very injured patient in there and he doesn’t need to hear any of this!”

Reluctantly Hoss and Rachel took seats and looked up at Ben for an answer.

“Someone jumped Joe when he went to get the surrey.” Ben began.

“Is he going to be okay?” Rachel asked blotting tears with her handkerchief.

Ben put his hand on her shoulder. “He’s going to pull through, Rachel–he’s just been beaten pretty badly.” Ben replied hoping to hide the whole truth from the girl for her sake.

“Why? Why would someone do this?” Hoss asked shaking his head in grief.

“It’s because of me–it’s all my fault. They hate me and they took it out on Joe.” Rachel now was consumed with sadness. Adam pulled her into his arms and felt her tears fall onto his neck.

“Joe is a big boy. No one tells him what to do—heck no one ever told the kid what to do. He knew the danger was there, but it was worth it to him. Because you are worth it to him. Joe’s a tough kid, he will be fine.” Adam pulled her chin up to look into her eyes.

“You promise? You promise he’s gonna be okay?”

“Let’s go take a look.” Adam said and saw Ben’s eyes protesting the move.

“Maybe not just yet—” Ben started.

“I’m a big girl—I don’t care how bad he looks. I will never get to sleep until I see him with my own eyes.”

“Very well–for a minute.” Ben caved in to her requests and brought Rachel in to the back room. Both Adam and Hoss followed the two.

“Oh—Joe—” Rachel sobbed as she put her hand on his forehead. She saw the stitches and the cast on his arm.

“He will be back to the ranch tomorrow. We have him heavily sedated right now. The best thing you can do for him now is to take care of yourself. He only came to briefly and he made me promise to see that you were okay.” Ben whispered.

Rachel bent down and kissed Joe’s forehead. She looked up through tear filled eyes at Ben. “You are telling me the truth—he will get better?”

Ben smiled and put his hand on her trembling shoulder. “Trust me–injuries are nothing new–you do remember Joseph’s grand dive onto the pavement in New Orleans don’t you? He survived a fractured skull and brain surgery. This is nothing compared to all that.” Ben tried to speak light of his son’s newest injuries even though he did not feel that way about it. He wondered how the boy endured such a brutal beating and survived. “Now, you let Hoss and Adam take you home. I am going to stay the night and tomorrow I’ll bring Joe home to you. And knowing Joseph he won’t like the tears in your eyes–so be sure and have a smile ready for him.”

Rachel stroked Joe’s cheek and nodded. “Bring him home as soon as you can.”

“I will. Now you all go home and get some rest.”

“But what about you?” Rachel asked and Joe’s brothers both laughed at the question.

“Rachel you obviously don’t know our father’s mission in life–” Adam started, “It is to sit by Joe’s side every time he gets hurt and worry and fuss over him. And he’s had plenty of practice doing it–so Joe is in good hands.”

To that statement Rachel finally gave off a quick smile. She touched Ben’s arm and said, “Take care of him for me.”

“I promise you I will.” Ben nodded and watched as the three of them left the room.

“I’ll go drag out that cot you like so much,” Paul teased. He knew there would be no sleep that night for either of them as they checked Joe every other minute.

*****

The weak voice called out his father’s name into the darkness and Ben was quickly over to his side. It was almost dawn and Joe had been totally out of it for hours.

“I’m right here, Joseph.” Ben whispered as he grabbed his son’s right hand.

“Where am I?” Joe asked confused.

“Your little home away from home.” Ben grinned at his son.

“Docs?” Joe replied.

“Yes. You have been knocked out for quite awhile. I guess I don’t have to ask you how you are feeling, do I?”

“No—you don’t.” Joe said grimacing in pain. “Rachel–is she okay?”

“Yes, Son–she is fine. She’s at home with your brothers. Wish I could say the same thing for you. You took some beating there.”

“Those two guys from the other day—and that guy that Adam fought with at the dance they did it.”

“Did they tell you why, Joseph?” Ben asked but knew the answer in his heart.

“They said I was a slave lover. The bastards.” Joe said and then moaned as he tried to turn on the table. “They whipped me pretty good. I didn’t have a chance–I was outnumbered three to one.”

“You just lay still. We will get them–you don’t have to worry. All you have to do is get well. I’ve been so worried about you.”

“Does Rachel know–I mean know what they did to me?”

“She knows some of it–not all–I didn’t want her to worry.”

“Thanks, Pa.” Joe said squeezing his father’s hand as another sharp pain ripped through his body.

“If you want to thank me you will lay still. You have a whole lot of mending to do, Young Man.”

“I want to go home.” Joe protested being away from Rachel.

“Later today–if you follow orders that is.” Ben warned and saw that Joe was starting to drift back off. “That’s it–you close those eyes and rest. You will be home soon enough.”

“I’m sorry for all of this, Pa—sorry that you had to go through this.” Joe whispered as tears stung at his eyes.

“Hush now—there’s nothing for you to be sorry about. You just sleep now, Joseph.” Ben said stroking Joe’s arm to help ease him back into slumber and away from the pain.

*****

The trip back to the Ponderosa that day was a long one for Joe, just as the doctor had said it would be. He ached with every rut in the road that they hit. Ben tried his best to steer clear of as many jolts as he could, hoping to prevent his son further pain. Roy Coffee had been quick in his determination to catch and arrest the perpetrators and all three men were now locked up securely in the Virginia City jail.

Having been settled in his room, and also fussed over by each member of his family and Rachel, Joe succumbed to exhaustion and was quickly asleep. Rachel sat at his side all afternoon and evening. Ben had peeked in on his son off and on but decided to let Rachel have the first watch to ease her mind.

It was almost midnight and Joe stirred in bed and slowly opened his eyes. He saw Rachel staring over at him and his father walking into his room.

“Finally decided to come back to us did you?” Ben smiled and walked around to the other side of the bed. He felt of Joe’s forehead and was glad not to detect a fever.

“Looks like the two of you need some sleep now.” Joe stated looking at the two careworn faces.

“We aren’t the ones with the injuries. How do you feel, Joe?” Rachel asked holding his right hand.

“Oh–me–I’m fine. Guess you had to see me lose a fight eventually.” He smiled to reassure them both.

“I never ever want to see you hurt again.” Rachel replied.

“You better tell her, Pa. Tell her that this is how I spend my spare time–recuperating from injuries.” Joe teased.

“Well, he’s not lying there, Rachel.” Ben nodded.

“I do have something that I would like to do–but can’t quite manage it right now.” Joe remarked and they both looked at him.

“What?” Rachel asked.

“Well, I’d like to get down on one knee and propose to you. But, since that isn’t going to happen for awhile–think I’ll just ask you right here and now and save the knee stuff for later. So, if you will have this battered man—I would like you to be my wife. I want to spend my life with you.” Joe said looking directly into her eyes.

“Joe—” Rachel stammered not knowing what to say.

“I know I don’t look like the best catch right now–but once I heal–and I do heal quickly I will be the best husband you could ask for. I will spend my life proving that to you.”

“I think I will leave the two of you alone to discuss this,” Ben said and turned toward the door. He paused briefly and called over to them both. “If the answer is yes—you both have my blessings.”

Joe smiled as Ben closed the door. “Don’t keep me in suspense. What do you say?”

“Joe–I love you–I love you with all of my heart and you know that. But–”

“But–what? I know of no better reason to get hitched do you?”

“Joe, I have been doing a whole lot of thinking since last night. I want you to listen to me. This world just isn’t ready for us. Maybe next century–maybe then we won’t be judged by what color our skin happens to be–but by what we have inside our hearts.”

“Who cares about the rest of the world—as long as we are together.” Joe protested.

“I care—and I almost lost you last night because of it. I am never going to let that happen again.”

“Rachel–that’s not fair! I have been in so many fights in my life—this is ridiculous!”

“They almost killed you because of your love for me. I would have died if you had been killed. And what if we did get married? What then? What about our children, Joe? I would want to give you many children. But, they would be subject to this same kind of prejudice–or even worse since they would be a blending of both the white world and the black world. They would be hated by both sides. Would you want that?”

“Then we won’t have children—it doesn’t matter as long as we have each other.”

“Oh, Joe, you just don’t get it do you? We have to contend with the whites who hate us as well as the blacks who hate us. It’s all too much. It would destroy us. And I love you far too much to see that happen.”

Joe let his tears roll down his face, he didn’t care. His heart was breaking. What Rachel had said would have been easier to take if it hadn’t been the God-awful truth, but Joe knew it was.

“Some folks believe in reincarnation–have you ever heard of it?” Rachel asked stroking Joe’s cheeks and pushing aside the tears.

“What about it?”

“Maybe–in the next life time–maybe then we can be together.”

“Yeah–I can just see it–I will be born a white woman and you will be a black man and it will be the same thing. We still won’t be together.”

“We will be together—someday—not in this little world we created–not in our own heaven–but in the real thing.”

“I don’t want to go on without you.”

“You will never be without me. And I will never be without you. You are so deeply embedded in my heart–and will be there until the day I die.”

“Kiss me, Rachel.” Joe insisted and she reached across the bed and kissed him on the lips. Her tears fell onto his face. It was still there, the magic that they had when they shared their first kiss. “Please don’t leave me.” Joe begged hugging her to his chest.

“I have to go back home–back to my world. Thanks to your generosity there is a school opening up–I told you about it the other day, remember? Maybe by teaching others not to hate–I can make a difference so that someone in the future doesn’t have to feel the pain we feel right now.”

“I’ll love you forever.” Joe whispered.

“I’ll love you more,” she said and straightened up to standing. “Adam will take me into town tomorrow. I don’t want you to see me off. I’ll write to you often.”

“It will never be the same.”

“No—but it will be something. I have to go and get packed now. Never forget that I love you.”

“I could never forget that—you will always be in my heart.”

Rachel turned and hurried out of the room. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and then knocked on Ben’s bedroom door.

“What is it, Rachel–why are you crying?” Ben asked putting his arm around her.

“I have to leave, Ben. I love Joe more than anyone I have ever loved. But, you know as well as I do that it won’t work. We would be hated—and so would our children. If I don’t leave now–I never will have the courage to. I’m going to ask Adam to drive me into town tomorrow to catch the stage. Please take care of Joe for me.”

Ben hugged the young woman and his heart broke for both his son and Rachel. “I hate to see you go, my dear. You have touched all of our lives. I wish things could be different–for you both.”

“Someday—not in this lifetime–maybe in another. Please go to him now–he needs you.”

Ben kissed Rachel’s forehead as he released her from his embrace. “I’ll take care of him.” Ben whispered and Rachel hurried to her room.

Ben entered his son’s room; even from outside the door he had heard the muffled sobs. His heart ached for his youngest son and for a life that could never be. Ben didn’t have the words to say. He wasn’t really sure if there were any. Walking over to the chair by the bed he reached for Joe’s right hand and squeezed it to let him know he was there.

“Some kind of world isn’t it, Pa? Some kind of world that won’t allow two people who love each other to be together.” Joe cried.

“Someday, Joseph—perhaps in your lifetime—surely not mine–things will be different. Some day the color of someone’s skin won’t be used as a hate tool. I only wish for you and Rachel that someday was now.”

“I love her, Pa. I don’t think I can bear this.”

“It took great love and great strength for her to let you go. You need to do the same for her sake, Joseph.”

“I’m not that strong, Pa.”

Ben lifted his son’s chin and stared into his eyes and replied, “Yes you are.”

Joe fell off into an exhausted sleep due to the emotions that ate at his heart. It was just before daybreak that Rachel stole into the room with a pair of scissors. Quietly she carefully snipped a lock of Joe’s hair. She needed something of him to take with her. And she would cherish that lock of hair, that remembrance of the love of her life forever.

*****

Epilogue:

Rachel Cartier went back to her life in New Orleans. She became a teacher and taught children how to read and spell and also how to love each other. She kept in contact with Joe throughout the years, though they never again laid eyes on each other. They couldn’t. The love as well as the pain remained in the two of their hearts forever.

Rachel went on to marry and have thirteen children. She lived to see the turn of the century. She lived to see blacks get the right to vote. But, she did not outlive prejudice. It was still live and kicking when she died at the ripe old age of one hundred and three. Rachel was laid to rest with but one possession. As requested in her final breath, a locket was made to remain on her neck when she was put into the casket. Inside that locket was the lock of hair from the man who was her first and only real love.

*****End*****

Note from the author: This story was a fictional account of the love between Joe and Rachel. However, the prejudice that was addressed in this story is not fictional. It is still out there in the world even into this new century. As long as people are judged by skin color and not by the content of their character there will always be people like Joe and Rachel who have to give up on true love to appease the racists who hate them. There is really only one race of people on this planet–the human race. Maybe some day we will all accept and understand that. Like Joe and Rachel in this story, I also hope I will see it in my lifetime.

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