Stop Crying Your Heart Out (by Sue H)

Summary: What Happened Next for the episode “The Truckee Strip”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  5900

Joe stirred as he felt the small weight lightly pressing on his chest and he instinctively placed a protective hand over the sleeping baby that lay sprawled contentedly there. He took a long, deep and satisfying breath, knowing without looking that his wife was next to him…watching him. He slowly opened his eyes to find, just as he’d known he would, the face of his beautiful wife of two years gazing down at him, her expression thoughtful. He smiled sleepily back at her, stretched very carefully so as not to wake his sleeping cargo and placed his free hand lightly on her waist before asking her, “What are you thinking about, sweetheart?”

Kissing him lightly on the tip of his nose Amy pulled back and grinned at him when he wrinkled it. With both his arms occupied, Joe couldn’t touch where it tickled and his face was cutely comical and as usual, utterly irresistible. Amy kidded him, “I shan’t tell you; it’ll just make you big-headed.”

“Mmmm” said Joe grinning very mischievously, “Well, in that case it must’ve been something pretty good.”

Amy smiled but nodded. “Uh-huh, husband, it was something good alright.”

Laughing as quietly as he could without disturbing baby Alice, he effected his most innocent expression, “ ’Bout me?” he ventured further, already knowing the answer.

Marveling at how her husband could look so very naughty one second and as innocent as a choirboy in the blink of an eye, Amy shook her head at him and playfully told him off. “Joe Cartwright, shame on you fishing for compliments that way…it would just serve you right if I said no!”

The pretend hurt look on his face was all it took for her to lean across and steal a light kiss on his lips which, with hardly any encouragement at all quickly intensified into something more. Joe and Amy were every bit as in love as they had been almost from the moment they’d met.

Even now, Joe couldn’t believe how lucky he was, first to have met her and then to have had Amy Bishop fall in love with him. Especially when he considered his what his first words to her had been “Alright, come on out of there…now look I’m gonna count to ten and if you don’t come out, I’m gonna start shootin’.”

Hardly a great start by anyone’s standards, let alone Little Joe Cartwright’s.

He’d followed that line up closely with, “Er…you come here very often?”

It was a standing joke between them, the ‘Joe Cartwright charm’! In truth Amy had found the Joe Cartwright charm totally intriguing even before he’d changed from ‘Cocksure Cartwright’ to sweet and caring when she’d screamed and felt something jump near her foot and brought him instantly to her rescue. A gallant knight in blue armor riding a black and white steed.

Okay so it had only been a frog that had scared her and not a fire breathing dragon or even a snake, but he couldn’t have known that. Concerned green eyes had connected with frightened brown ones and they both knew their worlds had changed forever.

*****

Last night had been a particularly hot and sticky one and their beautiful but restless three-month-old baby daughter had kept them both up for most of it. This time it had mostly been Joe that got up though, giving his wife some much-needed sleep. Once morning had come, Amy had been first to wake and she had taken advantage of the peace and quiet and snuck out of the bedroom to get started on some chores. After they were done, she’d gone into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Joe would be riding out soon to work with his brothers and he’d need a good breakfast first.

When Amy had finished preparing the tray, she’d gone back to the bedroom and paused a while in the doorway unable to get enough of the achingly beautiful picture her husband and baby daughter made. Joe was lying with just a white sheet tucked around his waist, propped up and fast asleep against a pile of cushions. Baby Alice lay there with just her diaper on, her tiny arms spread protectively across her daddy’s chest. His strong hand even in his sleep was holding her; little Alice looked a picture of contentment…now! How she’d screamed in the night, though!

As Amy watched her family sleeping, she had tried not to disturb them; breakfast could wait, but she just couldn’t resist going over and planting a little kiss first on her husband and then on her baby. The smell of her perfume and the feel of her close by had drifted into Joe’s sub-conscious and that’s when he’d woken to his own perfect vision, his beautiful Amy beside him and baby Alice asleep in his arms. He’d smiled as Amy bent to kiss him once more, and as she had gently teased him, he’d wondered if life could get much better than this. He reached his free hand and pulled his wife closer towards him, caressing her neck through her hair as their kiss deepened.

A little whimpering sound alerted them that their sleeping infant was stirring and they pulled apart looking down at her and then grinning at each other. Their disappointment at the interruption was tempered by the unconditional love they felt for this tiny girl who had turned their lives around.

Joe smiled at his wife and then planted a gentle and very loving kiss on his baby girl’s head. Her little fists made grabbing motions and he watched her fascinated by her every movement. He laughed when she moved her head a little as if searching and her tiny mouth formed sucking shapes,

 “Uh-oh, I think it’s you she wants, honey,” Joe said and he kissed Alice once more, soaking in her delightful baby scent before carefully handing her over to Amy.

Reaching over for her daughter, Amy pulled an apologetic face at her husband. “I made you coffee, but I’m afraid it will be lukewarm by now.”

For the new parents, this was a common occurrence and he grinned cheerfully as he got up to make some more, before realizing he ought to put his pants on first. Amy couldn’t prevent the thought that at least there were some advantages to these hot nights!

After Joe had fixed fresh coffee for them both and then found the breakfast Amy had prepared for him, he sat in the kitchen looking through the window at the billowing row of white cloths hanging on the line and marveled that his wife had already been up washing them.

He really felt like the luckiest guy in the world. They had a beautiful home; Ben had given them that little piece of land down by the creek, the place where they’d first met when Amy had been so frightened by a little old frog. Joe gave thanks to little old frogs everywhere because without that one he may not have leapt the creek and held Amy, instantly falling head over heels in love with her. Deep down, Joe felt sure he would have met Amy somehow, though; he just couldn’t imagine his life without her in it now, but the frog had helped. One little frog had allowed a Cartwright and a Bishop to really look at each other and completely blow away the prejudices between their families.

One unguarded second and a young man’s impulsive leap to rescue a fair maiden were all it had taken.

Amy’s father Luther, Ben, Adam and Hoss had all helped the newlyweds build their home with pride and Ben and Luther were now proving to be doting grandparents. Without mother figures to guide them, Joe and Amy had been grateful for their wise advice, even if they did have different diaper folding techniques. Although Ben and Luther would occasionally grumble privately one about the other’s grand-parenting prowess, they reached a true friendship amidst their gentle grandfatherly rivalry.

Everyone had been enchanted by Amy, as Joe had known they would be. It was funny; he’d expected to be an uncle long before he was a father, but he had absolutely no regrets.

Little Joe Cartwright — love ‘em and leave ‘em Little Joe Cartwright — had fallen head over heels with a girl with the biggest eyes he’d ever seen and he’d never looked back.

For a long time Joe had had a hard time forgiving himself for crossing his father the way he had on that day during the land dispute with Luther. He’d shocked himself at the strength of his feelings and at his actions and bitterly regretted it, even as he had reached for his gun. He went part way to letting himself off the hook the day that he handed his father his first grandchild to hold.

Now he took a special pride in inviting his father and brothers into their home, Joe had especially enjoyed serving Sunday dinner to them; Joe and Amy’s home was open house to all their friends and family.

Of course as doting Godparents, Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing took every opportunity to spoil baby Alice rotten.

As a christening gift, Adam had managed to obtain a beautiful leather bound copy of the newly published Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and he planned to read it to her often. Joe and Adam had grown much closer since Alice had been born and Joe loved seeing this softer side of his older brother more in evidence. Hoss had already decided just what kind of pony he’d choose for Alice when she was ready to ride — a pretty little pinto just like her pa’s — but he bought her a toy one for now.
And Hop Sing had promised as soon as Alice was old enough he would show her all her daddy’s favorite cookie recipes and his special apple pie one that Amy had already almost perfected, along with his Sunday roast.

Reluctantly, Joe pulled himself from his daydreaming and reminded himself he should soon be joining his brothers rounding up strays; he figured he could spare another ten minutes to say a proper goodbye to his wife and daughter, though. After quickly washing and finishing getting dressed, he popped back into see them, to find that Amy had finished feeding Alice and had just changed her diaper. She was getting ready to burp her when Joe asked, “Can I do that for you?”

“Sure you can, papa,” said Amy and she passed their little daughter across to him. “She brought a little one up but I think there’s more to come.”

“I should hope so too,” laughed Joe. “Can’t have a self-respecting Cartwright doing those iddy biddy burps. What would Uncle Hoss think?”

Because she knew he would forget, Amy placed a piece of cloth on Joe’s shoulder. Then she sat back and watched contentedly as he held his precious little bundle against his shoulder, patting and rubbing her back gently. He talked to her all the time, explaining what daddy was doing today and all about the cows and how Uncle Hoss and Uncle Adam would be helping him. Amy laughed and shook her head when he told Alice that he thought her mama might get cross because he was bound to get stuck waist high in a mud hole and she’d have his dirty clothes to wash. He turned and winked at Amy over Alice’s head while he said it. All of a sudden there was the loudest burping noise you ever heard and Joe looked across at his wife, visibly shocked.

“Did you hear that? That was a whopper; even Hoss never did one that loud. That’s my girl,” Joe laughed proudly.

Amy just raised her eyes skywards.

Gradually Alice began drifting off to sleep against her father’s shoulder and Amy went over to relieve Joe. “I’ll put her in her crib now; she’ll sleep for a while.”

Joe looked back at her pleadingly, “Can’t I just hold her for five more minutes? She’s so peaceful.”

He had that cute beseeching look on his face that Amy just couldn’t resist. “You’re going to spoil her, Joe Cartwright; remember what your pa said, she needs to go to sleep on her own.”

But she made no move to reach for her.

“Thank you, darlin’; just this once won’t hurt. I like spoiling her…and her mama too. ”

Joe had no idea how much he resembled his own father as he’d been with him as a baby. Not only Ben and Marie but his brothers too had felt extra protective of baby Little Joe because he’d burst into the world early and frightened them all by nearly not surviving his first day. They’d all learned quickly, though, that Joseph Francis Cartwright may have been small but he was a born fighter. Despite his wise words now, the fear of losing his precious young son had ensured Ben was every bit the doting father that his son was proving to be now; he’d often been first to calm his noisy infant son and last to place him in his crib. Many a night baby Joseph had been rocked to sleep on his father’s shoulder.

Shaking her head indulgently, Amy knew that it would never be ‘just this once’ for Joe and Alice, but she didn’t mind at all.

Seeing he’d got his own way, Joe eased himself onto the bed and settled contentedly back against the pillows cuddling his little girl off to sleep. He shut his eyes and whispered, “Wake me in five minutes; otherwise Hoss and Adam will be turnin’ up, and once they get fussin’ over Alice we’ll never get any work done!”

Amy smiled and kissed her husband lightly on the forehead before she retreated almost silently out of the room.

*****

He must have fallen fast asleep but in his drowsy torpor Joe thought he could hear his name being called.

“Joseph!” It was getting louder, “Joseph!”

‘That was funny; that sounded like Pa. What’s he doin’ here?’ Joe thought as he tried to ignore it. ‘Not yet please.’ He wanted to stay sleeping just a little while longer; he was so happy just where he was and wasn’t ready to be disturbed just yet.

Ben had already called Joe twice but, as often happened, he had sent his brother Hoss up as a last resort. If they didn’t get on with breakfast, they’d be late getting out to round up the strays. The unwelcome task of waking Joe generally fell to Hoss; it wasn’t a pleasant duty. No one liked rousing the youngest Cartwright but sometimes it just had to be done and Hoss had acquired a knack over the years.

He strode purposefully up the stairs, all prepared to bounce Joe off the bed, only when he opened the door and saw how peaceful his brother looked, he had a change of heart. Instead he went for the gentler approach, going over to the curtains and pulling them back. Immediately Joe mumbled something and screwed up his eyes as the light hit them, all the time he kept a protective arm around the cushion perched on his chest as if he was afraid it might tumble off.

Hoss grinned and his voice softened; what a sight his brother looked, covers all askew, hair at all angles and now looking all confused at the pillow he now saw that he clutched. “Hey Shortshanks. Don’t want ta rush ya, little brother, but breakfast is ready; ya better get downstairs.”

Joe shook his head as if that action alone could change everything back to his dream.

It didn’t; it stayed the same and Joe felt hollow inside. Although the pain was in his heart, he felt physical pain, too, in the pit of his stomach.

 It had been too real.

He had been holding their baby; he’d felt Alice’s sweet breath on his cheek, and when Amy had bent down to kiss him, he’d even smelled her hair as it brushed across his face. He rolled over to look away from his brother, afraid his face would betray him and he attempted to appear grumpy instead of heartbroken. He placed the pillow aside and cleared his throat to test his voice and be sure it wouldn’t let him down. “Er, thanks Hoss…I’ll be right there, just give me a minute, okay?” Relieved that he had control of his voice, Joe grumbled further, “Gee can’t a fellow ever get a lie in these days?”

“Take all the time you need, little brother, only I gotta warn you, Hop Sing’s waffles are disappearing fast.” Hoss handed Joe his clothes before smiling and leaving the room.

Lately Joe had thought he’d been coping well, but the dreams made it impossible and they left him feeling so empty. When he and Amy had talked and fallen in love, thoughts of settling down had been far from their minds; after all, they had all the time in the world, didn’t they? Joe’s first reaction when they’d realized the strength of their feelings had been to tell Amy that,

‘They’d have to tell ‘em,’ meaning their folks. But Amy hadn’t believed it could ever happen, a Bishop and a Cartwright. When they’d seen no end to the feuding, Joe had asked Amy, if their folks wouldn’t let them be together, would she run away with him. The notion was partly fuelled by youthful anger and defiance against older ‘wiser’ opposition. But when Amy had looked at him with those eyes, the biggest eyes he’d ever seen, his heart had melted and it was truly hers. When she replied by asking Joe did if he really wanted to marry her, he’d known for certain that he did.

But everything had turned out okay; Joe should have known that Ben would have understood. After all, he did have the best father in the world. How could he have forgotten that, even for a short while? And it looked like even Luther would allow them to be together.

But then it had happened; Jessup had killed Amy during that awful fight. The only physical reminder left now was a feint scar above Joe’s left eye, made by Jessup with a heavy chain when he’d lashed out at Joe with every weapon within his reach.

While Amy had lay dying, she’d talked about their home together. Joe had known then that it couldn’t happen — the doctor had told him — but he’d allowed himself to believe it for her sake. In her last moments, they’d planned their life together, and for that short time, they lived their dream and built their little house by the creek.

Joe blinked hard and ran his hands through his hair, trying to straighten it up and shake himself back to the present.

There was no point dwelling; Joe had had the dream before. It was some time now since Amy had died; nothing could ever change that. He reached for his clothes and clumsily pulled them on. Next he splashed some water on his face and vigorously rubbed it dry with a small towel. Somewhere between the bed and the door he put his feelings to the back of his mind and headed for the stairs. It would only upset his family to see him still so heartbroken and he didn’t want to do that. Hoss had suffered his own loss earlier that year, and Joe didn’t want to be a reminder and cause the big man more heartache.

“Nice of you to make an appearance, little buddy,” Adam remarked amiably, as Joe appeared half dressed and still struggling with his boots. “Course it would’ve been nicer if you’d bothered to dress,” he grinned.

Giving up with his left boot, Joe smirked and slung it at Adam missing his target by a country mile.

Trying to look disapproving, Ben coughed and Joe smiled back at him innocently, “Sorry Pa… it, um slipped.” He looked sideways at Adam, who had a ‘yeah sure it did little brother’ expression of his own all over his face.

Adam generously leaned over and retrieved the offending boot before handing it to his youngest brother, who accepted it gratefully. “Sorry, Adam, I’ll be more careful it don’t slip like that…next time I’m putting it on.”

The banter continued while they all reseated themselves and went about serving the delicious breakfast Hop Sing had prepared.

“Mmmm, I do declare,” sighed Hoss, “There ain’t a finer smell in this whole world than Hop Sing frying some delicious fatback.”

That brought a snort of laughter from Adam. “Well, it sure beats one of little brother’s boots assaulting your nostrils first thing in the morning.” And they all joined him laughing at Joe’s expense.

Pulling a face but joining in the laughter, Joe had a reply ready. “Ha, ha, big brother, ‘ceptin’ my boot went nowhere near your nostrils, so it must’ve been yer own boots that smelled so bad since they’d have been closest!”

“Touché,” little brother,” smirked Adam, wiping his mouth with his napkin and Joe grinned easily back at him.

As it happened, Joe was lucky, they’d saved him some waffles and scrambled egg, and while he served himself some, Ben outlined the day for them all.

“Well boys, I have to go into Virginia City this morning and I will call in on Roy. I’d like to check if there have been any new reports of that gang of cattle rustlers that have been causing trouble. I’d like you to all look out for any signs that they might have been this way.”

“Just look, mark you,” Ben continued. “It seems as though they’ve moved on, but it won’t hurt to remain vigilant. Adam, I was hoping you could work over towards the north ridge.” He wiped his mouth and glanced over in Adam’s direction for his agreement. He got a nod in response as Adam swallowed another piece of delicious bacon.

“That’s fine, Pa. Do you want me to take that new man, Parker, with me?”

“Yes Adam, that’s a good idea; you can let me know how he works out.”

As he took another forkful of eggs, Adam answered with just a nod.

Next Ben looked over to his youngest son. “Joe, I was hoping you could look around the south pasture today and check we got the last of those strays in.”

Joe was about to nod his agreement too but was busy scooping up a forkful of scrambled eggs and Hoss got in first.

“Pa, I was around there yesterday and I noticed some broken fencing. Do you mind if I head over with Joe and we can maybe get two jobs done in one go?”

Hoss was giving Ben a look that Ben knew meant he wanted his Pa’s answer in the affirmative and nothing less would do, Adam noticed it too but didn’t question it.

Although he was surprised, Ben nevertheless agreed, mentally changing the plans he had for Hoss, “Um, yes Hoss, in that case, that sounds like a good plan. That okay with you, Joe?”

Still concentrating on scooping up the egg, Joe heard his name and looked up. “Yeah, sorry Pa, that’s fine.” He’d been trying to keep up with the conversation but his mind had wandered so he thought he’d better double-check to make sure. He wiped his mouth, deciding to give the rest of his breakfast a miss since he had no real appetite for it anyhow, and he rose from the table as he answered his father. “Me and Hoss collect the strays and fix the broken fencing. That’s fine, Pa. I guess I’ll see ya later. Say ‘Hi’ to Roy for me.” Joe smiled at his brothers and father as he headed over to the credenza, while telling Hoss, “Hey Hoss, I’ll saddle Chubb for you if you want to take a while longer over Hop Sing’s bacon.” He grinned as he grabbed his gunbelt and hat and reached for the door handle.

Hoss shouted after him, “Why, thank you, Little Joe, that’s mighty kind of you. I think I might just do that too.” He smiled, anticipating some more of Hop Sing’s fine breakfast.

Casually placing his hat on his head and tipping it in Hoss’ direction as he walked backwards through the open doorway, Joe answered, “No problem; see ya outside big brother.”

Joe was glad Hoss was coming with him today. He wasn’t sure why but he felt different today. Up until now, he’d wanted to keep his feelings to himself, but he could feel a deep and growing need to talk; he felt like a dam about ready to burst. Just a little nudge and he knew it might come pouring out. Not just the sadness but also the deep love and the sheer happiness Amy had given him, something he was beginning to understand would now always be a part of him. He wasn’t sure if he could, but maybe he should talk to his brother, maybe he’d been wrong not to. Deep down, he’d known how much Hoss wanted him to talk but Joe had just been too afraid to look too closely into that kind face and release his feelings. He didn’t know for sure, but maybe now he was ready.

Adam joined Joe outside before taking his leave to go and fetch Parker, and soon after, Hoss finished up and got up to go and join his youngest brother getting ready to ride out.

As Hoss went to follow him, Ben called him back. “Hoss,” he began tentatively, “any particular reason you wanted to work with Little Joe today?”

Looking a little unsure about how much he wanted to say, Hoss eventually ventured, “Yeah Pa, actually there was. When I was waking Little Joe this morning, well, it’s just I think he was dreamin’ about Amy; he said her name and I guess he thought she was there with him. The look on his face when he realized she wasn’t, well it near enough broke my heart, Pa. He’s still gotta be hurtin’ something awful but you saw him when he came down to breakfast. He’s puttin’ a brave face on it, but he’s never been right good at keepin’ his feelings from showin’, has he? I think partly it’s for my sake too, Pa, and I’m just hopin’ that maybe, if he’ll let me, I can help him.”

They had an empathy, Hoss and Joe, and Joe hadn’t fooled his big-hearted brother for a second. Hoss explained to his father, “You and I both know, Pa, if he can help it, he ain’t gonna say anything, but I guess I just figured maybe he’d like some company today. He don’t need to talk about it iffen he don’t want to, Pa, but I aim to be around just in case he does and if I think he needs a little encouragement…well, like I say, I aim to be there.”

Ben smiled warmly. He knew all his sons were good men but they still never ceased to fill his heart with pride. They’d all been heartbroken for Joe when Amy had died, and they had all in their way given him their love and support, and when necessary, space to grieve alone. But true to his nature, when Joe was really hurting, he’d bottled his feelings up inside. They could all see it but they had to wait for him to be ready to open up. Just like they had for Hoss.

Hoss had fallen in love with Emily Pennington earlier in the year and he had been so happy. But that happiness had been cruelly cut short when he was given the devastating news that Emily was dying of consumption. Ben remembered when they’d first got that news how Joe had wanted to go after his hurt and angry brother. His father had held him back and told him that Hoss needed some time alone first. Yes, Ben thought, Hoss probably was the best person to be with Joe today. “And the broken fences. Were there any?”

Hoss looked sheepish, “Well, Pa, I reckon there might be a few that could do with fixin’ by the time I get there. Might do Joe a lotta good to bash in a few fence posts before we get to them strays.”

Hoss had used the same therapy himself when he’d had nothing else to vent his anger on. He also remembered his family’s love and patience while he’d come to terms with his loss. He remembered a loving hand on his shoulder when he’d ridden back to join his family that first day and he’d known instinctively that it was his little brother’s. They hadn’t needed to say anything, and just working with his family had helped Hoss more than he could tell them.

His little brother had stayed close by and fetched him a canteen or a wet cloth when he’d been parched. Little actions to show how much he cared and wanted to help, and it had helped Hoss. Joe’s desire to help his big brother had been tangible but so was his obvious feeling of helplessness to change anything for him. ‘Giving it time’ wasn’t any easy concept for Little Joe but, following Ben and Adam’s example, he had known that was what Hoss had needed then. When Hoss had received the letter saying that Emily had died very soon after, his heart had broken.

Little Joe had hovered…a lot, but never pushed. Time and the loving support of his family were what Hoss needed and he understood it; he just found it hard feeling so helpless.

Many times Joe had accompanied Hoss fishing over the following weeks, Hoss sitting for hours lost in thought with Joe his silent companion. When Hoss had first been able to look outside his grief, he’d been quietly amused to see his usually so active little brother seemingly concentrating hard on his fishing but all the time casting what he thought were surreptitious glances across at his big brother. It had been the first thing that had made Hoss smile and not just for other people’s sake.

The sight of little Joe hunched over his fishing rod and then, as soon as he thought Hoss wasn’t watching, shooting concerned glances in his brother’s direction had been pretty funny. Hoss had even started timing the glances to see how long Joe could leave it before he looked again, but he forgot to look away one time and the brothers had locked eyes. Before Hoss even realized it, he’d laughed and the words had come pouring out of him. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to talk about Emily. To lose her had been awful but to forget her would have been worse.

Hoss had then found great comfort in regaling his brother with stories of his short time with Emily and his little brother had listened for hours, re-living each memory right along with him. Joe had grinned with Hoss each time he’d described Emily’s face and how it had lit up when he’d told her about the goldback ferns that grew in the canyon and how when you press them on the back of your hand, the gold comes right off. Hoss had described it to Emily, saying it was like stardust right out from the sky. Just a simple fern but each time Hoss saw one now, or even pictured one, he could relive those moments with Emily and remember her wonderful smile. And each time Hoss had told him about it, Joe listened like it was the first time he’d heard him tell it.

If it were possible, Hoss loved his little brother even more for that. He wished with all his heart Joe hadn’t found out so soon after just how much he’d been hurting. All he could do was be there for him now. Even though he hadn’t known Amy, Hoss knew she must have been special. He hoped that Joe would soon feel ready to open up about how he’d felt about her and to share her with him and his family. He’d like to know more about Amy Bishop.

Hoss was almost out of the door when Ben shouted after him, “Hoss…”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Thanks, son.”

Hoss nodded his understanding and went through the door. Ben hovered at the doorway to watch them go and heard Hoss shouting across to Joe.

“I hope you ain’t been loafin’ around out there, Shortshanks, and ya got that horse a’ mine all saddled and ready ta go, ‘cos I’m bustin’ at the bit ta get ta them strays.”

Joe came out of the barn leading Chubb and Cochise, seemingly lost in thought, but he looked up at his brother’s shouts and grinned patiently at him. “Well of course I have, big brother, and all you gotta worry about is that you ain’t had so much of Hop Sing’s bacon that you founder the poor animal.”

“Why you cheeky…just for that, big shorty, I’m gonna pound yer good… Founder my horse? I ain’t that fat…it’s just seems like it ‘cos you’re that scrawny, pal…”

Ben listened to them as they prepared to ride off, bickering and laughing all the time. He shook his head and smiled as he walked back towards the house. He knew they’d have tough days, but he also knew that, with time, they’d both be able to remember their lost loves without the overwhelming sadness that accompanied each memory now. In time, they’d smile again and remember the laughs and the happiness too and the love, and they’d be glad that Amy and Emily had been part of their lives. It would take time but they’d both get there…with a little help; Ben knew that they would.

Ben strained to hear as his two youngests’ shouts faded as they rounded the barn and began to canter away. It was Hoss he heard first.

“Hey slow down, Shortshanks. Founder my horse, indeed. You just gimme a fair chance ta catch up with yer. Hey, what have you done to my horse anyhow, Joe? He’s goin’ so slow I cain’t catch up so’s I can tan your ‘ornery hide.”

Ben laughed as he heard Joe’s cheeky response.

“Nuthin, Hoss, honest; I just talked to him is all. I just told ol’ Chubb to take it easy with you … oh and I told him not to bounce you around too much else you might split him right down the middle!”

“Why you!! Joe, when I get my hands on you…now hold on there just a minute…gimme a chance to catch up, you varmint…”

A loud shout of “Not on your life, Hoss” accompanied by Joe’s infectious laugh was the last Ben heard as they galloped away, and he laughed too as he headed back inside.

He never caught the rest as Hoss and Joe no doubt chased each other all the way to the meadows in the south pasture.

***The End***

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