Summarys: Joe has met the love of his life. Ben is worried and Adam is suspicious.
Word Count: 10,125
As the girl stepped from the stagecoach she took a moment to dust herself down and tried, without success, to straighten out the many creases in her dress that had been caused by long hours traveling. Her long red hair shone like copper under the hot early morning sun and her bright blue eyes sparkled as she took in her surroundings. Well it wasn’t Boston, but to a girl raised in the East it certainly was exciting. Virginia City had a raw rugged wildness about it that gave her palpations and made her heart race. This is what she had left home for; she needed to get away from the humdrum life she lived, but she also needed to be far enough away that they wouldn’t find her. Well this was it, maybe even the end of the road, only time would tell.
She stood demurely as the driver handed down her bags and pointed her in the direction of the International House Hotel. Excited as she was, she was almost dead on her feet with tiredness, she had been traveling on and off for weeks and, much as she would have liked to look around, first she needed to bathe and rest. Then, and only then, could she start to make plans.
The rooms at the International House were not quite what she was used to, but they were clean and would provide her with a base from which she could come and go as she pleased. That was not to say she would go unnoticed; a young lady of obvious wealth, traveling alone, was even more unusual in the west than it was back home in the east.
Several hours later she had bathed, eaten and managed to have a short nap. Feeling human once more she decided to pay a visit to the store in order to purchase a few necessities. After securing the items she needed she was just about to return to the hotel when the unexpected happened.
Joe Cartwright was just about to enter the mercantile when the shop door opened and he walked straight into this vision of loveliness. Her beauty was like a thunderbolt from the sky it hit him so hard, but when their eyes met lightening struck. Neither of them could look away, the feeling was so intense, and people trying to enter the store were forced to walk around them as they continued to block the doorway.
After what seemed an eternity Joe finally found his voice and coughing to clear his throat he said, “Hi, I’m Joe Cartwright.”
Her eyes finally dropped from his and she responded, “I’m Jessica, Jessica Summers.”
Now that the spell was broken they began to feel a little awkward as to what had transpired between them. People were staring and Joe felt obliged to rescue her. “Miss Summers, would you care to join me for a coffee?”
Jessica couldn’t believe how quickly things were moving; they had only just met after all. Unable to think of a good reason to refuse him, even if she had wanted to, she took his arm and accompanied him to Molly’s Coffee House for refreshments.
Jessica and Joe felt instantly at ease in each other’s company. She informed him she was from the east and had been acting as a companion for her aunt when the old lady had taken ill and died back in San Francisco. They had planned to travel to Virginia City and she had been forced to make the rest of the journey alone. She had written to her father and he was making arrangements to have someone look after his business so that he could travel from Boston to collect her.
Joe was concerned that she was a young woman all alone in a strange city and he offered to be her escort until her father arrived.
Almost an hour had passed before Joe realized the time; he was supposed to be purchasing supplies for Hop Sing before meeting Adam and Hoss at the saloon. Hastily getting to his feet, he took hold of Jessica’s hand and bent forward to kiss her fingers in a foolish effort to appear romantic and gallant. He hadn’t quite reached his target before their eyes met and, much to the shock of the other patrons in the coffee house, they kissed. The kiss was long and lingering and took them both by surprise. When they finally pulled away they smiled shyly at each other.
“Can I see you again?” Joe whispered huskily.
“Tonight” she replied hopefully.
“8 o’clock; I’ll pick you up at the hotel.”
Joe whistled happily as he walked down the street heading back towards the mercantile, his hands pushed deep down in his pockets. He felt so elated he wanted to shout it from the rooftops; now all he had to do was convince his father to let him return to town that evening. It was a Monday and evenings in town during the week were not the norm in the Cartwright household.
The punch that landed on his jaw as he turned the corner came out of the blue. He didn’t even have time to take his hands from his pockets before two sets of burly arms grabbed hold of him and held him in a vice like grip.
“Just hold him, boys,” growled a third person. “When I finish with him, the girls won’t be falling for his pretty boy face anymore.”
It was the Bailey brothers and they were angry, very angry; Joe was left in no doubt that he was the cause of their anger and at the back of his mind he knew why.
Joe struggled but the blows rained down onto his body one after the other until he was barely conscious. They finally released him and he fell helplessly to the ground.
A small boy seeing the encounter ran off towards the sheriff’s office. As he was passing the saloon, he ran straight into the arms of Adam Cartwright.
“Hey, slow down, boy, what’s all the hurry?” Adam asked.
“It’s the Bailey brothers, t-t-they’re killing Little Joe” stammered the boy, pointing back up the street.
Adam and Hoss exchanged a quick glance before running off to retrace the boy’s steps. They arrived just as one of the brothers landed a hefty kick into Joe’s side as he lay motionless. Hoss was furious; he launched himself at two of the men and grabbed a brother in each arm while Adam took hold of the third.
Alerted to the trouble, Sheriff Coffee was quick to arrive on the scene. Pointing his gun at the men before him, he shouted above the din.
“Okay boys, the fun’s over. Now everyone just cool down and tell me what’s going on?”
Hoss couldn’t resist knocking together the heads of the two youngest brothers before releasing them, while Adam shook the eldest Bailey brother by the collar and said through gritted teeth, “I think it’s obvious, Roy; these three gorillas have ganged up on Little Joe and almost beaten him to death by the look of it.”
Adam pushed the man away from him and bent down to attend to his brother. Little Joe was still curled up in a tight ball on the ground in an attempt to try and protect himself from the kicks that had been rendered on his body.
“Right. Start talking, Pete” said Coffee. “How come three grown men are beating up on one defenseless boy?”
The remark almost brought a smile to Hoss’s lips but he said nothing. Joe was almost twenty and hardly a defenseless boy and if any one of the Bailey brothers had tackled him on their own, Hoss had no doubt which of the two would be left standing.
Pete was mad and almost spat on Joe as he looked at Adam and said, “Keep that kid away from my sister. If I see him near her again, I’ll kill him.”
Adam was perplexed. The Bailey brothers’ little sister had been out with Little Joe on a few occasions but he had not thought the relationship serious. “What’s Joe done? Surely whatever it is he didn’t deserve this.”
“What’s he done? He disrespected her, that’s what he’s done. He’s been walking out with my sister and then he has the effrontery to kiss another girl in broad daylight in the middle of town, for everyone to see. Well, I’m telling you and I’m telling him, he’d better keep away from Sissy from now on if he knows what’s good for him.”
The Bailey brothers’ picked up their hats and with a nod from Roy they made their way over to their horses and prepared to ride out of town.
Roy couldn’t see the point in making a big thing over it; fights happened in Virginia City all the time, you couldn’t lock everyone up, and maybe just maybe on this occasion Little Joe had it coming. That boy had too much charm for his own good, but unfortunately it didn’t work on everyone.
By this time Hoss and Adam had Joe on his feet and were inspecting his wounds. Blood still dripped from his nose and mouth and there was a cut oozing blood just behind his ear. Joe held his ribs and moaned as his brothers’ poked and prodded him.
“Better get the doc to check him out and make sure nothing’s broken,” Adam said with a resigned sigh. Joe had a penchant for trouble, especially where women were concerned, and he couldn’t have picked three worse enemies. The Bailey brothers were renowned for getting into fights and were overly protective when it came to their sisters. On reflection, Adam couldn’t blame them; the Bailey sisters were two of the prettiest girls in town.
Joe protested all the way to Doctor Martin’s surgery.
“I know, Joe; you’re fine. You’re always fine. If you had a bullet hole in your chest, you’d still say you’re fine. So just shut up and try not to bleed all over my jacket. I don’t want to have to deal with Hop Sing if he has to try and clean it,” Adam admonished. Once he had assured himself that his brother was not badly hurt he tried to make light of the situation.
As was usual, Doc Martin did the necessary ‘poking and prodding’ but at the end of it he declared that there were no bones broken and Joe’s ribs were bruised but intact. He cleaned up the cuts on Joe’s face and applied ointment to his bruises, but other than that there was nothing more he could do.
The return journey to the Ponderosa was not a comfortable one for Joe. With a brother on either side of him, just in case he tumbled from his horse, there was very little conversation as Joe concentrated on staying upright. His bruised lips began to swell and his left eye became no more than a red slit from which he painfully peered.
It was several hours later before they finally rode into the yard and Hoss helped Joe dismount. Supporting his little brother into the house, he left Adam with no choice but to see to the horses.
On seeing his youngest enter the room battered and bloody Ben rushed forward to help him onto the settee.
“What happened?” asked Ben, full of concern, “Has there been a fight?”
“Twern’t much of a fight, Pa, at least not from Joe’s side anyways. The three Bailey brothers knocked him about a bit before Adam and I arrived.”
“The Bailey boys? Why would they beat up on Joe?” Ben asked of Hoss, but then looking down at Joe and seeing the obvious discomfort his son was in he decided to leave the questions until later.
Joe groaned loudly and his father was filled with concern, but little did he know that it was not his injuries that Joe was moaning about. How on earth was he going to keep his date with Jessica now?
Later that day when Joe finally opened his eyes he was alone in the great room. The sun had gone down and the room was in semidarkness with only a couple of the lamps having been lit. He could hear the clatter of pans coming from the kitchen but he wasn’t sure whether Hop Sing was preparing supper or whether the family had already eaten. The thought of food made his stomach churn, his ribs hurt and he didn’t think he could possibly open his mouth wide enough in order to drink let alone eat.
Just as he was attempting to sit up the door opened and his father and brothers entered the house.
“Welcome back young man, how are you feeling?” Ben said, walking over to the settee and placing a hand on his son’s brow. Whenever Joe was injured his father always worried about infection, and a sure sign of that would be a fever, so he was relieved when he found his son to be quite cool to the touch.
Joe flinched, the slightest movement sent pains shooting through his body.
“Well now you’re awake, how about telling us what this is all about?” asked Adam.
Joe glanced behind his Pa to see Adam standing in front of the fire, arms folded across his chest, legs spread wide with one eyebrow raised in question. Turning on his best ‘puppy dog’ look, which was very hard to do with one eye closed and lips swollen to twice their normal size, Joe looked pleadingly as his father for a reprieve.
Seeing his father’s face soften, Joe smiled inwardly and cast a smug look in Adam’s direction.
“Not now, Adam; the boy’s hardly up to an inquisition. I think we had better try and get a little soup into him and then I think bed is the best place for him.”
Joe almost heaved at the thought of food but under the circumstances, he though he had better make an effort. He knew that the inevitable could only be put off until the morning; because come the rising of the sun, Joe knew that his father would want answers and Joe wasn’t quite sure how much to tell him. Kissing a girl in open view of the town’s people was not considered appropriate behavior, but passionately kissing a girl he had only met less than an hour before would take some explaining.
The rest of the family was already seated at the breakfast table when Joe struggled to take his seat the next morning. His face was still quite swollen and the bruising under each eye was already starting to look quite spectacular. Anyone meeting him for the first time would have difficulty imagining the handsome young man he had been only yesterday; a quick glance in the mirror that morning had reflected a stranger looking back at him and not one that he liked the look of.
The inevitable inquisition had finally arrived.
“Well Joseph, would you care to tell us who the young lady is that you were kissing in town yesterday?” were the first words out of Ben’s mouth. He often worried about his youngest son where women were concerned. The boy’s natural charm made it too easy for him with girls and he sometimes worried that the attention it afforded him might on occasions make him a little too bold for his own good.
“Her name is Jessica,” replied Joe, looking down at his empty plate.
Ben waited but when no more was forthcoming he continued, “Jessica. I’ve never heard you mention a young lady by that name. When did you meet her?”
This was the question Joe had been dreading. “Hmm, well, we met yesterday morning, Pa.”
Hoss and Adam exchanged a quick glance across the table before taking an inordinate amount of interest in the food on their plates. As they envisaged, Ben was not amused with Joe’s answer.
“You mean to tell me, Joseph,” Ben began, his voice so low Joe would normally be biting on his bottom lip by now if his lips had not been so swollen, “that you were kissing a girl in front of the whole town, a girl you only met yesterday?”
“It wasn’t the whole town, Pa; there were only a couple of people around.” The words were out of Joe’s mouth before he had time to stop them.
Adam closed his eyes and shook his head. “When would the kid learn just to keep his mouth shut? His tongue always worked quicker than his brain.”
The tirade that followed was one of the worst that Joe had had to endure in a long time. When it came to taking the moral high ground, his Pa would not accept excuses, and as far as he was concerned, Joe’s behavior had fallen well short of acceptable.
“And what of Sissy Bailey?” Ben continued. “I think you owe her an apology and an explanation. From what I’m hearing, those boys saved me the job of thrashing you myself.”
Joe wriggled in his seat, anxious to escape, but there was nowhere to run; he had to face the music.
“There’s nothing between me and Sissy Pa. I just took her to a couple of dances, that’s all.”
Ben tried to take control of his temper. Looking at his son’s battered face, he regretted some of the remarks he had made. Joe certainly did not deserve the beating he had taken, but at the same time he must learn to exert better self-control where a girl’s reputation, as well as his own, was at stake. Only a few short years ago Ben would have felt more in control of the situation, but Joe was almost twenty and he was a man in every sense of the word. On occasions Ben struggled to come to terms with that fact and still sought to protect his youngest son when he thought the necessity arose.
“I suggest, Joseph, that in your present condition you would be as well keeping close to home for the next few days. You can start by taking over the books from me; I could certainly do with a break from them. That way you can consider your actions and reflect on how you can change them in the future.”
Joe was devastated. He could not have predicted his father’s punishment but he wasn’t surprised. Under his father’s watchful eye, he had little chance of slipping away into town to see Jessica. What was he to do?
The next few days went slowly for Joe; sitting at his father’s desk trying to get his head round the figures that swirled in front of his eyes was not his idea of fun, but then again his father had not meant it to be. It was hard to believe that one kiss could cause him so much trouble.
When Friday finally came around, and Ben could not come up with a good enough reason to keep Joe at the ranch, Joe finally donned his best suit and headed to town. His face was almost back to normal and only a few minor bruises remained to indicate that anything had been amiss. As Joe presented himself at the International House Hotel and made his way to the room of Jessica Summers, he was unsure how he was going to explain failing to turn up for their previous engagement. Joe need not have worried. When Jessica opened the door, they were once again mesmerized; the mutual attraction was unmistakable and words failed them both.
Jessica was more than willing to accept his explanation, his bruised face adding weight to his story. In the week that followed, Joe and Jessica spent every spare moment together. It was not a busy time at the Ponderosa and as it became obvious to Ben how smitten Joe was with his new girl, the indulgent father allowed himself to be talked into giving Joe a couple of afternoons off during the week.
By the following Saturday, Joe had decided it was time to introduce Jessica to his family and for once, he was very nervous about the whole affair. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t brought a girl home for dinner before, but he so wanted them to like her and for her to like them. He need not have worried.
Jessica was absolutely charming to his father from the outset. She flirted with Ben in a very subtle way, and by the end of the evening, he was completely captivated by her.
When she was talking to Hoss, Joe almost laughed at the grin that was plastered on his brother’s face. Hoss didn’t have a bad bone in his body and everyone, young and old, male or female, were drawn to him like a magnet. Jessica was no exception. Joe smiled to himself. “Hey Hoss,” he said, “hope you’re not making a play for my girl.”
Jessica linked arms with Hoss and adopting a very straight face she said, “And who said I was your girl, Joseph Cartwright?”
Jessica giggled and hid behind Hoss’s bulk as Joe tried to catch hold of her.
Ben smiled in remembrance; it was so long since he had heard a woman’s tinkering laughter echo through the house. He crossed his fingers behind his back. There was something about this girl that felt so right; he just hoped it would work out for the best.
Later that evening as they sat in front of the fire drinking coffee, only Adam had reservations. He had not made it obvious but he had been observing Jessica for most of the evening. There was just something about her that didn’t stack up. Just as that thought was running through his head, he witnessed, when she thought no one was looking, Jessica slide her hand up Joe’s leg in a very provocative way. Joe could hardly contain himself and although he was obviously enjoying the attention, he moved slightly away from her in order to regain his composure.
Adam noted the way she looked at Joe; it was so seductive it actually made the boy blush. There was a sensuality about this girl that could only have come from experience; Adam was sure that Joe was playing with fire and usually when that happened, someone would end up getting burned.
Finally Joe left to return Jessica to the hotel and Hoss made his way to the barn to see to the horses for the night. Adam poured himself and his father a brandy nightcap.
“She’s a fine girl, don’t you think, Adam?” Ben stated as Adam handed the glass to him
Adam was guarded in his answer; he had nothing to base his negative feelings on and he thought it best if he did not pass judgment at this time. “She’s certainly a very beautiful woman, Pa.”
Unaware of his son’s misgivings, Ben said goodnight and made his way to bed, leaving Adam to ponder what to do next. If he tried to talk to Joe, he would no doubt have his words thrown back in his face. What could he say anyway? Adam was thirty-two years old and had a lot of experience with women and his gut feeling told him this one was trouble with a capital T. Just as he was pondering on his dilemma, Hoss came in from outside and walked over to the fire to warm his hands.
“That Joe’s one lucky fellow, ain’t he, Adam; Jessica is just the sweetest gal and so pretty. Wouldn’t surprise me if little brother ain’t the first Cartwright brother down the aisle; no, wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
Adam shuddered at the thought, but smiled at his brother and said goodnight.
The following day Joe arranged to show Jessica the Ponderosa, and rather than take a buggy which would restrict them from going certain places, they took off on horseback. They had only been away from the ranch for a couple of hours when an unexpected storm arrived. Joe kicked himself for being taken unawares. He had lived in this wilderness all his life he should have seen the signs. As the rain got heavier and heavier, Joe decided they needed to take shelter as quickly as possible. There was a line shack not far away and they rode as fast as they dared as the ground under them became more and more treacherous as the rain turned the dry earth into mud.
As soon as the shack was in sight, they spurred on their horses and on arrival, both of them almost fell over each other in their effort to get inside and dry off. Slamming the door behind them, they turned to face each other and immediately dissolved into hysterical laughter at the sight before them. They were soaked to the skin and water dripped off their noses as their hair hung lank and dripping against their faces.
Joe immediately set about lighting a fire as Jessica looked around the shack for blankets to wrap themselves in. Within a short space of time, Joe had the fire burning warmly and they began to divest themselves of the wet clothing that was forming puddles where they stood.
To protect her modesty, Joe turned his back on Jessica and told her to inform him when she was undressed and wrapped in the blanket. After a few minutes Jessica said, “I’m ready” and Joe turned slowly round.
The breath was sucked from his body. Jessica stood before him naked and he couldn’t take his eyes away. She was so beautiful; her red hair hung loose over her shoulders and when he looked into her eyes, he saw his own passion reflected back at him.
Words were not needed; they both knew what they wanted. Joe took the blankets and laid them on the floor in front of the fire and then silently stripped his own wet clothing away. Taking her into his arms he kissed her softly at first, but as their own fire was ignited they sank to the floor and the sound of their lovemaking filled the room.
Joe could not believe the intensity of his feelings. He was not an innocent; he had had liaisons with girls in the saloons since he was seventeen years old, but this was different. What he was feeling wasn’t lust; it was much, much more. Love, that’s what it was; he was completely, one hundred per cent, absolutely in love. This love was not the same love that he had felt for Amy Bishop when he was only seventeen. That love had been just as real, but it was innocent and naïve and reflected their tender years. This love was a mature love; a meeting of mind, body and soul and he was more than happy to succumb as they became one.
Later, much later, he lay on the floor half asleep with Jessica’s head on his chest and his arm protectively wrapped around her. Even though he knew his father would not approve of their actions, he had no regrets. This was not wrong; there was nothing sordid or dirty about what had taken place between them. They were young and in love and everything just felt so right.
“Jessica,” he whispered.
“Jessica, will you marry me?”
Jessica sat up instantly and looked at him in the fading light; the flickering flames from the fire casting shadows across his face. “You don’t have to say that, Joe.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wanted you just as much as you wanted me. You don’t have to ask me to marry you to protect my honor.”
Joe smiled seductively. “This has nothing to do with protecting your honor, Miss Summers. I want to marry you because I love you; I love you with every bone of my body and I never ever want to spend another moment without you.”
Then with a mischievous glint in his eye he pulled her down towards him and said, “And as for protecting your honor, Miss Summers, that is the last thing on my mind.”
Unknown to Joe, Adam was also out riding that morning. It was Adam’s turn to restock the line shacks with necessary supplies and he had headed out shortly after Joe and Jessica had left for their ride. When the weather had turned bad, Adam had also been taken by surprise, and although it had been his intention to ride to the line shack furthest away first, he quickly changed his mind and headed for the nearest one. As he approached he saw the two horses tethered outside and knew that Joe and Jessica had obviously been caught in the storm as well. He just hoped that his little brother had got a fire going; even wearing his slicker, he was soaked through and ready for a warmth and a cup of coffee – at least he had plenty supplies.
Adam dismounted and rushed towards the shack. He didn’t know what made him stop but just as he was about to turn the handle on the door he thought better of it. Feeling like a peeping tom, Adam glanced through the window and quickly turned away. There was nothing else for it; he would have to continue to the next shack or head for home.
That evening Adam sat up and waited for Joe to come home long after his father and Hoss had gone to bed. Adam was nervous; he needed to speak to Joe about what was on his mind, but was unsure how to approach him. He knew without thinking that things would not go well.
When Joe finally walked into the house, he was stopped in his tracks for a second when he saw Adam sitting in his blue chair reading. Instantly on his guard, he walked towards the stairs, calling over his shoulder, “Night, Adam.”
“Hang on a second, Joe; I’d like a word, if you don’t mind.”
Joe turned to face his brother. Adam looked at him and knew he was wasting his time; Joe had on his most stubborn look and when he looked like that, there would be no reasoning with him.
“What is it, Adam?”
Adam decided to be up front from the beginning, no point beating about the bush. “I was at the line shack today, Joe; I saw you.”
Anger flashed across Joe’s face. “Spying on me now, are you, big brother?”
“No, I wasn’t spying on you, Joe; I had intended dropping off supplies. I was caught in the storm the same as you.”
“Well what’s on your mind then, Adam?”
Adam considered how best to answer, but he couldn’t come up with the right words.
“Don’t you think you are playing with fire, Joe? If Pa had any inkling what you were up to today, he would skin you alive.”
“Quite frankly it’s none of your business, Adam, and in future I would appreciate it if you kept your nose out of my affairs. As for playing with fire, I’ve asked Jessica to marry me.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit hasty, Joe? You’ve only known the girl a little over a week; you don’t know the first thing about her.”
“I know all I need to know and when the time is right, I will tell Pa. And believe it or not, Adam, I’m a grown man and I don’t need your advice or your approval.”
With that Joe turned his back on his brother and went to bed.
Adam berated himself. He had handled it all wrong. If there was one thing that would spur his brother on it was his own disapproval.
In the weeks that followed, Joe and Jessica made all the plans for their forthcoming wedding in secret. Jessica wanted to marry as soon as possible and without any fuss. When Joe had suggested waiting for her father to arrive, she had pleaded with him not to do so.
“I don’t think my Pa will agree to the wedding, Joe. He wouldn’t want me to stay in the West and he will do everything he can to force me to return to Boston. He’s a very powerful man, Joe, and I’m a little afraid of what he will do if we wait. If we are married already, he will just have to accept it.”
Jessica suggested that they go off and marry without telling anyone at all, but Joe could not do that to his family.
“I’m sorry, Jessica, I couldn’t do that to my Pa. I’ll tell him tonight and don’t worry, he’ll be delighted.”
Joe was quite sure his father would be delighted that he and Jessica were to marry, but he was worried as to what his father would think about the haste of the wedding and why it had been planned in secret.
That evening after supper Joe asked if he could have a private word with his father. Adam and Hoss obligingly went out to do the final chores of the evening.
Ben sat in his chair with a very nervous Joe sitting opposite him on the settee. The experienced father was quite sure he knew what Joe was going to tell him and he was quite amused at how anxious Joe appeared to be. “Well what is it, son?”
“Pa I’ve asked Jessica to marry me and she’s said yes.”
Ben smiled and, shaking, Joe’s hand said, “I’m delighted for you both. Well I can’t say it has come as a surprise. I guess we have a lot of arrangements to make. When is Jessica’s father arriving? Do you intend to get married in the spring, or maybe it’s best to wait until the summer?” Ben thumped his palm against his brow. “What am I saying? The girl probably wants to get married at home with her mother and family around her. This is going to take some planning if we are all going to be away from the Ponderosa for any considerable time.”
Joe’s head was swirling. This was what he had been worried about. Holding up his hand to quiet, his father he said, “Pa, Jessica and I don’t want any fuss. We have made all the arrangements and we intend to marry next week.”
Ben was stunned and immediately suspicious. “Are you in trouble, boy?”
“No, Pa,” Joe hastily replied, but a blush crept over his face as he thought he could be without knowing.
Seeing the guilty look on Joe’s face, Ben persisted. “Are you sure you’re not in trouble, Joe?”
“I don’t think so, Pa,” Joe replied truthfully.
Ben picked up on the meaning of the words immediately. “What do you mean ‘you don’t think so’? I don’t have to explain the birds and bees to you at this age Joe; you’re either in trouble or you’re not. Which one is it?”
Once again the words left Joe’s mouth before he had thought about it. “Well, what I mean is, we’ve been real careful, Pa.”
The silence that followed was deafening. Joe was now a man and Ben didn’t expect him to be an innocent; a young man needed to sow a few wild oats but this was different. Ben could have accepted that the youngsters had got carried away and made a mistake, but Joe’s words spoke of premeditation and not just once. He couldn’t trust himself to be rational with the boy at this point, and so without another word, he walked out of the house and into the yard.
Joe cursed himself for his stupidity. He would get over his father being disappointed in him; he knew he would come around eventually. But he didn’t want his father to think any the less of Jessica; she didn’t deserve it, and he didn’t want them to start off on the wrong foot.
Ben crossed the yard and made his way over to the corral. His thoughts were in turmoil. How could a son of his have behaved in such a way? It was bad enough to risk his own reputation, but to take advantage of a sweet young girl such as Jessica was unforgivable. The girl was extremely young and vulnerable and far from home, without a parent’s guidance. Joe behavior was inexcusable.
As these thoughts were going through his head, Adam appeared by his side and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Ben looked at his eldest son and with troubled eyes said, “Joe and Jessica intend to marry.”
“Yes, I know.”
Ben was perplexed. “You knew already? When did Joe tell you?”
“Oh a couple of weeks ago, but he said he wanted to keep it a secret, so it wasn’t my place to tell you. Are you disappointed?”
Ben thought about Adam’s words. “No, I’m not disappointed. I think Jessica is a lovely girl and I’m sure they’ll be very happy, but I am disappointed in certain aspects of Joe’s behavior.”
Adam nodded; he could guess at what aspects Ben was referring to and felt it necessary to come to Joe’s defense.
“Pa, I don’t think it’s all Joe’s fault. To be honest, there’s something about that girl that I’m not happy about. I’ve watched them together and from what I have seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was not the one that instigated things and not Joe.”
Ben didn’t know what to think. Did Adam see something in the girl that he didn’t? To Ben, she was not much more than a child, a child that needed looking after in the absence of her father.
“Don’t you think Joe’s a little immature to be getting married, Pa? He’s not even twenty and we know nothing about this girl.”
Ben had to smile at Adam’s words. “I wasn’t that much older than Joe when I married your mother.”
“Yes but how long had you known my mother before you married her?”
Ben could see what Adam was getting at. He himself had married young, but he had known Elizabeth for years. Their love had had time to grow and mature until they were absolutely positive they were right for each other. Joe had only known this girl a matter of weeks.
“Maybe you’re right, Adam, but then again, I had only known Joe’s mother a matter of weeks before we married. The attraction was instantaneous; we knew within minutes of meeting each other that it was right.”
“Yes, but you were a lot older then, Pa,” Adam persisted, but he knew his argument didn’t hold up. Joe was going to marry this girl and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.
By the next morning Ben had come to terms with what Joe had told him. He decided there was no point in continuing his anger towards him; if Jessica and he were to marry within the week, there were arrangements to be made.
Hoss was delighted for his brother and couldn’t understand Adam’s reluctance to join in the celebrations. Putting it down to Adam’s overbearing fatherly attitude towards Joe and the fact that he still thought of Joe as a boy, Hoss decided to ignore Adam’s pessimism.
There was only three days to go before the wedding and Jessica had moved out to the Ponderosa in preparation. At Ben’s insistence, the ceremony was to take place at the ranch with only a few friends and neighbors in attendance.
Jessica had lied to Ben and said that her mother was too ill to travel and her father was already far away from home and had too many other commitments to change his plans at such short notice, but they had all sent their best wishes. Joe had not been comfortable with the lie, but knew his father would have objected to Jessica marrying without her family’s approval.
On a trip into town, Ben had called at the International House to collect a few of Jessica’s belongings when he came across an elderly gentleman in the lobby. The clerk behind the desk welcomed Ben and, turning to the man, said, “This is the gentleman I’ve been telling you about. It’s his son that is to marry your daughter.”
Realizing in an instant that this must be Jessica’s father at long last, Ben took hold of the man’s hand and shook it warmly. “How wonderful! Jessica is going to be delighted; she really thought you would be unable to make it.” Taking hold of the man’s bag, Ben added, “You must come back to the Ponderosa and stay.”
As the man raised his hand in protest, Ben persisted. “No I insist. Why didn’t you let Jessica know you were arriving? I would have met you off the stage myself. There again, I suppose you wouldn’t know she was staying at the Ponderosa.” Remembering his manners, Ben added, “My name is Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, but I suppose Jessica has written to you all about us.”
The man simply introduced himself as Anthony but did not add any further information. Ben’s enthusiasm kept the conversation going and the man in fact said very little, but he allowed Ben to load his belongings onto the buckboard and head for the ranch.
When they arrived back at the house, Ben passed the buckboard to one of the ranch hands and escorted Anthony into the house.
Just at that moment, Adam was coming down the stairs and Hoss was making a quick exit from the kitchen closely followed by Hop Sing.
“Mr. Hoss stay out of Hop Sing’s kitchen,” shouted the little man. “Steal cookies, spoil appetite, not eat dinner.”
Ben smiled. “I don’t think there’s much chance of Hoss spoiling his appetite, Hop Sing.” Then, as he saw the fury about to erupt once more from the Chinaman, he added, “But he will keep out of your kitchen, won’t you, Hoss?”
“Yes sir,” said Hoss sheepishly; as soon as the cook disappeared, he popped another hidden cookie into his mouth.
Ben smiled indulgently, then turning to his guest, he introduced him to his two elder sons.
“Where’s Joseph and Jessica?” Ben asked.
“They went into town, Pa; surprised you didn’t see them when you were there. They didn’t know how long they were going to be and may even stay in town for dinner, so we may as well start supper without them.”
Conversation round the dinner table that evening was stilted. Ben and Hoss kept saying what a wonderful girl Jessica was and they brought her father up to date with the wedding arrangements and the plans for the cottage Joe intended to build near the lake.
Later, they moved into the lounge and sat in front of the fire drinking wine when the door burst open and Joe and Jessica arrived.
“Sorry we’re late, Pa,” called Joe “but you know women. Jessica couldn’t decide what dress to buy and I was left waiting for nearly an hour before she decided to buy the first dress she tried on.”
Taking Jessica’s cape, he hung it up before grabbing hold of her hand and pulling her into the room. The laughter died on her lips as she faced the stranger who had now stood up to face her.
Joe looked from the man to Jessica and was surprised when the stranger said, “Hello, Mary.”
Jessica struggled to maintain her composure, the color had drained from her face and she had the look of a startled rabbit. “W-w-what are you doing here?” she asked.
Joe looked on at the scene in front of him in total confusion. The man had called her Mary and she obviously knew who he was. Struggling to find his voice, but in many ways not wanting to, because something told him he would not like what he heard, Joe turned to the stranger and said, “Who are you?”
“I’m Mary’s father” the man replied quietly. Then tearing his eyes from the girl he looked at Joe and then back at her before saying, “How could you, Mary? He’s little more than a boy.”
Jessica sneered at her father’s words. “Joe’s not a boy, father; in fact, in most ways, he’s more of a man than James could ever be.”
In other circumstances, Joe would have been affronted to be called a ‘boy’, but there was something in the way the man said it that wasn’t meant to be derisive; he was just stating a fact as he saw it.
Joe’s head was beginning to ache; he tried to remember what had been said, who was this James and why did the stranger keep calling her Mary?
Adam was the first one to find his voice. “Would someone care to explain what is going on?”
Ben motioned for Joe and Jessica to sit down. Handing them each a glass of wine and replenishing the other glasses, he tried to bring some normality to the situation. He could see the fear reflected behind Joe’s eyes and already his heart went out to his youngest; this night would surely end in tears.
When they were all seated, the stranger turned to his daughter. “I think the Cartwright’s deserve an explanation, Mary. Would you care to explain or shall I?”
“Carry on, father; you seem determined to spoil everything, just as you always do. Why spoil a habit of a lifetime?”
Ignoring her scathing words, the man continued. “This young lady is my daughter. Her name is not Jessica; it is Mary and I have been trying to find her since she disappeared from home several months ago.”
Joe found his voice at last. Hardly daring to look at Jessica’s face for fear of what he might see reflected back at him, he asked the question he dreaded the most, “Who is James?”
Jessica could not hold his gaze, allowing her eyelids to close she took a deep breath before saying, “James is my husband.”
The moan that escaped from Joe’s lips pierced the hearts of his family and Ben reached forward to place a comforting hand on his leg.
Jessica ran forward and dropped onto her knees in front of Joe. Taking his hands in hers she said, “Joe, I love you. Please believe me. I married too young; I should never have got married when I did. I just couldn’t stay any longer. I was being slowly suffocated.” The sob caught in her throat as she added, “You have no idea what it’s like to live with someone you don’t love.”
Looking at her pleading eyes, Joe could not turn her away. “Why did you leave, Jessica? Was he cruel to you? Did he beat you?” he asked, looking for anything that would give him an excuse to keep on loving her.
Jessica began to cry. “No, he’s a kind man; I just don’t love him. I guess I never loved him.” Looking back at Joe with tears running freely down her face, she sobbed, “But I love you, Joe; you have to believe me. The minute I saw you, I knew you were the only one for me and I know you felt that way too.”
Biting his bottom lip and struggling not to cry himself, Joe’s heart told him he could not give her up without a fight. Looking at his family, he silently pleaded with them for understanding; this could not be wrong, they loved each other too much.
Taking hold of her chin he tilted her face upwards and said in almost a whisper, “We’ll work it out, Jessica; I don’t know how, but somehow we’ll find a way to be together.”
Her father stood up at this point and looking down on his daughter he asked, “And what of Julie?”
Panic showed in Jessica’s eyes and she did not reply.
“Don’t you care what happens to her?” her father persisted.
Light was beginning to dawn in Joe’s eyes; he held onto Jessica’s chin and in a sad wistful voice asked, “Tell me about Julie.”
In that moment, Jessica knew she had lost him. The man she loved most in the world was too good and decent to want her now. “Julie is my daughter.”
Joe closed his eyes to shield himself from the pain reflected in Jessica’s face. Much as he loved her he could not, and would not, come between a mother and child. “Tell me everything.”
As Jessica began to speak, Joe could not believe what he was hearing. He wanted to put his hands over his ears and blank out the words that were destroying the dreams they had both planned over the last few weeks.
Not only was Jessica’s name not Jessica but Mary, but also she had been married to James for almost seven years. She was not an innocent twenty year old as she had led Joe to believer on their first meeting, but was in fact twenty-six years old. Her daughter Julie was five and Jessica’s own mother had been left to pick up the pieces and look after a very distraught little girl when Jessica had left without warning. So many lies.
Joe’s hands trembled and the forgotten glass of red wine he was holding began to slip from his fingers. As it tilted towards him, it slowly trickled from the glass and soaked onto his white shirt. Joe sat transfixed as the red stain spread across his chest and he smiled sadly. Somehow it seemed to be symbolic of the way he felt inside; it could well have been his very lifeblood flowing from him as his bleeding heart began to split in two.
Hop Sing appeared with a cloth and began to dab at Joe’s shirt. Joe pushed him away. It was all too much for him; he knew he had to get out of the house. As he rose to leave, Jessica flung herself into his arms and cried, “Please Joe, we can work it out. I can divorce James and we can still be married. Afterwards we can send for Julie and she can come here and live with us.”
Joe could not bear to look at her. “I’m sorry Jessica, but the girl I fell in love with does not exist.” With that, he pried her fingers from around his neck, disengaged himself from her embrace and walked out of the door.
Jessica made to follow him but her father took her arm. “Mary, I think we should leave; we have done enough damage to this family for one day.” Turning to Ben he added, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Cartwright. Mary came to us late in life and I’m afraid her mother and I may have indulged her too much. She’s not really a bad girl, just a dreamer. In many ways she’s like a child, always looking for excitement, always thinking the grass is greener on the other side. I can only express my regret that your son has become involved in our family troubles.”
Putting his arm round his daughter’s shoulder, he said, “Come Mary, it’s time to go home.”
Later that night, after Jessica and her father returned to Virginia City, Hoss went in search of his little brother. He made his way over to the barn to saddle Chubb, expecting that Joe would have gone to the lake. Hoss was surprised to see that Cochise was still in his stall and he stood perplexed for a moment wondering where to look. It was then that Hoss heard the muffled, gut-wrenching sobs above him. Joe was in the hayloft and Hoss choked back his own tears as he prepared to climb the ladder and console his younger sibling.
Over the years, Joe had often made his way into the hayloft to hide from his family. Sometimes it had been to bide his time until tempers had cooled when he had pushed his luck a bit too far, especially with his eldest brother, but at other times he had climbed into the loft to lick his wounds in seclusion after he had received one of his Pa’s ‘necessary talks’. On those occasions, Pa and Adam had been unaware of his whereabouts, but Hoss had always known where he would be. Hoss had kept his secret and many, many times he had joined Joe in the loft and held his little brother close and allowed him to cry out his pain in the safety and comfort of his arms.
On reaching the top of the ladder, Hoss did not have to look far for his brother. The sounds that were coming from behind the hay bails were the most heartbreaking that Hoss had ever heard. Joe was curled up in the hay with his knees drawn to his chest, his arms were wrapped round his head and his body shook as he tried to stifle the sobs that threatened to choke him. Hoss sat on the floor and pulled Joe to him as if he was no more than a child. There was nothing he could say to him to ease his pain but just by being there he could share his sorrow and hold him so that he was not alone.
Joe hardly left his room over the next week and his family tried to give him the privacy he needed to come to terms with his loss. Each of them was still in total disbelief at the turn of events.
Adam had suspected there was more to Jessica that what was presented, but even he could not have guessed at the secret she had been keeping from them. He felt no satisfaction in having been proven right; if anything, he wished he could wave a magic wand and make everything right for Joe. But that was not to be; there was no fairy godmother to come to the rescue, and unlike in fairy stories, there would be no happy ending.
When Hoss returned from town that afternoon, he was in a dilemma; there was a note for Joe from Jessica and he was unsure what to do. After handing the mail to his father he said, “You’re not going to give it to him, are you, Pa? He actually managed to eat something today; this will only set him back again.”
Ben would have loved to have thrown the letter in the fire, but he couldn’t. Joe was not a child; he was a grown man and had to make his own decisions as to what he would do about it.
The following morning Joe was up and dressed and joined his family for breakfast for the first time in a week. As Joe sat with his head down, picking at the scant morsels on his plate, the others exchanged worried glances.
“What have you got planned for today, Joe?” his father asked, trying not to appear overly concerned.
Joe knew his family was worried and he put down his fork, no longer making any attempt to look as if he was eating. “Jessica is leaving on the stage this morning, Pa. She’s asked me if I will go into Virginia City to see her before she goes.” Seeing the alarm register in his father’s face, he added, “Don’t worry, Pa. I’m only going to say goodbye.”
As Joe moved over to the credenza to don his hat and gunbelt, Adam moved to his side. Putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder he began, “Joe I just wanted to say…”
Before he could finish Joe turned on him and said, “What, Adam? You just wanted to say ‘I told you so’?”
Adam did not take offence; he knew his brother was hurting. “No Joe, I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
Joe looked contrite, it wasn’t right for him to take out his misery on his brother. “Thanks, Adam,” he replied, and he meant it.
Adam offered to ride into Virginia City with him and Joe didn’t argue. He wasn’t ready to talk just yet, but he didn’t feel like being alone either. They rode in companionable silence, and with every mile covered, Joe tried to still his racing heart at the thought of seeing her again.
They were riding up ‘C’ Street when Joe caught his first glimpse of her. Her blue dress was billowing in the strong wind and she was fighting a losing battle trying to keep her long red hair under control. Could he go through with this? How could he stand there and tell her to leave when every fiber of his being would be begging her to stay?
As he dismounted, Jessica turned towards him and waited for him to approach. Adam made himself scarce and her father walked a short distance away out of earshot. They stood awkwardly for a few minutes before Jessica began, “I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye, Joe.”
Joe just nodded. His eyes were clouding; this was harder than he thought. He couldn’t look at her for fear he would be lost under her spell once more. Struggling to gain control, Joe had to ask one question, he needed to know; he couldn’t let her leave without knowing the answer. “Was it all lies, Jessica? Was any of it real?” Even now he couldn’t call her Mary.
“Oh Joe, you know you don’t need to ask that. I have never loved anyone the way I love you.”
“What about James?”
“I know it may sound unforgivable, but I think I married James to escape the boring life I was living at home with my parents. I thought at first I loved him, but I didn’t know what love was. What we have is love, Joe.”
Joe flinched. He didn’t want to hear her say that. Or maybe he did! He wanted to hold her and beg her to stay. In his dreams, they would run away together, go somewhere that no one would find them and live happily ever after. But in his dreams there was not a little girl called Julie.
“How could you leave her?” Joe asked.
Jessica did not have to ask to whom he was referring to. “I had to, Joe. Don’t you understand? She is only five years old? How could I drag her halfway across the country, never knowing where I was going to be from one day to the next? It was best I left her with my mother; I did it for her.”
With her words, something died in Joe “When you were growing up, Jessica, did you always have your mother?”
“Yes,” she replied, puzzled by his question.
“Did you love her?”
“Of course I loved her; she was my mother.”
“Then you have never had to experience the pain of losing your mother at five years old. That is something that stays with you all of your life.”
“Joe, I don’t understand.”
“I know, Jessica, and I guess you never will. Goodbye.”
And with that, Joe turned and walked away. Shortly afterwards, the stage arrived and Jessica and her father were gone from his life forever.
On the journey home, Adam did not ask any questions. His brother was pale and wan but he was in control of his feelings and there was an acceptance about him. As they were nearing the ranch, Joe pulled Cochise to a halt. Adam did not have to ask; he knew where his brother was going. With just a nod, he said goodbye and Joe turned his horse in the direction of the lake.
On the way to the graveside, Joe stopped for a moment to collect as many wild flowers as he could carry. As a child, Joe had found great comfort in showering his mother’s grave with the wild flowers she had loved when alive.
Sitting down near the lake, Joe carefully placed the delicate flowers around the headstone. When the tears started, Joe did nothing to try and hide them. This time, he wasn’t crying for himself; he still grieved, but had come to terms with what could never be. No, his tears were shed for a little five year old girl back in Boston whose mother did not love her enough to want to stay, and also for the beautiful young mother who fifteen years ago had loved her five year old more than life itself, but through no fault of her own, had been forced to leave. Life just seemed so unfair.