Summary: Little Joe Cartwright is surprised to find himself attracted to shy little Laurie Reynolds, the girl next door. Although she isn’t the sort of girl that normally draws his attention, he’s beginning to wonder if she just might be the one true love of his life.
Word Count: 21,500
A hazy sun was moving toward its zenith when Little Joe Cartwright stepped onto the wooden porch of a small frame house. He swept off his braid-trimmed, sand-colored hat and finger-brushed his chestnut curls into casual order. Then he rapped on the front door and stepped back. When the door opened, he smiled dreamily at the girl framed in the doorway, as if admiring a portrait in some famous art museum, like his brother Adam said they had back East. The girl was dressed in a simple shirtwaist of yellow gingham, covered with a crisp, white, pinafore apron with wide ruffles over the shoulders that looked like angels’ wings to Joe. Her shining brown hair was tied loosely with a yellow ribbon. “Hi, Laurie,” he said.
“Hello, Joe,” the girl greeted him brightly. “I was hoping you’d be by today.”
“I said I would if I could,” Little Joe reminded her, “and Pa was all in favor of me helpin’ out. Is your pa in?”
Laurie nodded and whispered, “And irked as can be that he can’t get out and tend to what needs doing.”
“Still down in his back, huh?”
“Yes, but he’s some better. Come in, Joe.” She moved aside so he could enter and then turned to speak to an older man sitting in a well padded chair near the fireless hearth. “Pa, it’s Little Joe Cartwright,” she announced. “Remember, I said he might drop by?”
Seeing Laurie’s father struggle to get out of his chair, Little Joe hurried forward. “Oh, no, sir. Don’t get up just for me.” He thrust out his hand and Mr. Reynolds gripped it in a firm handshake. Leaving them to talk, Laurie slipped into the kitchen.
“Have a seat, boy,” the older man said, his discomfort evident as he settled against the pillows behind his back. “Laurie told me you offered to check my fence line for storm damage, and considerin’ the state I’m in and how short-handed I am, I’m much obliged for the kindness.”
“Just bein’ neighborly.” Joe shrugged before sitting in the straight-backed parlor chair upholstered in rose-print chintz. “Fact is, I’ve already checked your fences this morning, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Thought you might have.” Tom Reynolds leaned forward, wincing. “How bad is it?”
“Pretty bad,” Joe admitted ruefully, “at least on the south. There’s some damage on the east boundary, too, but not as much.” He didn’t mention the north boundary, the one the Reynolds’ ranch shared with the Ponderosa, because he’d already repaired that.
“How many new rails you figure I’ll need?”
Joe told him, adding, “We’ve got, maybe, half that many already cut at the Ponderosa. Pa says you’re welcome to them, and you can pay them back in kind when you’re able. No need for money to cross hands between neighbors.”
“I’ll take your pa up on that offer,” Reynolds said, his broad smile almost touching his bushy brown sideburns, which were flecked with a few stray strands of slate gray.
“And I’d be happy to put ‘em in place for you,” Joe offered.
Reynolds’ lips pursed. “Old Pete Larabee’s the only hand I got on the payroll, just now, and he’s in no better shape than me. Stormy weather does that to old bones, you know.”
“Yes, sir,” Joe said, although he was only taking the man’s word for it, since weather never affected his sturdy young bones. He was surprised that Mr. Reynolds didn’t have more hands than that, with roundup coming on, though this ranch had never been a large and prosperous spread like the Ponderosa. Of course, there’d been a lot of winter kill this year, so maybe the Reynolds’ herd had been hit harder than he’d realized and Mr. Reynolds was planning to let it rebuild, rather than market any steers this year. If so, one old hand might have been enough until the storm hit.
Reynolds stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Work needs doin’ now, that’s for sure. Probably already lost some steers through the gaps.”
“Yes, sir, you have,” Joe said soberly. “I shooed a couple back that were just across your line, but ain’t nothin’ to stop ‘em from headin’ right back where they were . . . and no tellin’ how many are out wanderin’ the territory.” He twirled his hat in his hands. “I’m sure Pa’d be willing for me to help you, but I might have to split my time between here and the Ponderosa. Probably take two to three full days or parts of more.”
“Can’t pay you much,” Reynolds said, feeling obliged to make the offer, although he knew the Cartwrights well enough to guess the response.
Little Joe surprised him, though, when he flashed his infectious grin and said, “I work for sugar cookies.”
Reynolds laughed heartily. “That sounds more like the wages your brother Hoss would ask.”
“Yeah, but he’d want more of ‘em. I’m a better bargain,” Little Joe chuckled. After a pause, he added, “You know I can’t take your money, Mr. Reynolds; my pa would tan my hide if I took pay for helpin’ a neighbor.”
“But you will take dinner with us each day you work here, startin’ right now,” Reynolds said firmly, “and the way my Laurie cooks . . . why, even Hoss might consider it fair pay.”
As Little Joe pulled the buckboard into the Reynolds’ yard near noon the next day, he saw Laurie pumping water. Springing down, he moved to her side and took the pail from her hand. “Here, let me get that.”
Laurie faced him, arms akimbo and scolded gently, “As if you weren’t doing enough already, Little Joe Cartwright.”
“Well, I did quit early,” Little Joe chuckled, “so I guess I’m not too wore out for a mite of chorin’.”
“Neither am I,” Laurie said pointedly, but she couldn’t keep from smiling.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t want to splash water all over that fetching frock, now would you?” Joe gave her a mischievous wink.
“My goodness, no!” Laurie was dressed exactly as she had been the day before, except the apron looked fresh. She shook it, raising a fine white dust. “Splash water over all this flour, and I’ll soon be coated in paste.”
“Looks like you’ve been baking up my daily allotment of sugar cookies,” Joe teased.
“Hot rolls and apple pie, actually,” Laurie said, “although there are still a few cookies left, if that’s what you prefer.”
Joe licked his lips. “Apple pie . . . now, that really is my favorite!” He hefted the pail of water and walked toward the side door to the kitchen, with Laurie falling into step beside him. “I sure hope I’m not putting you to extra trouble, Laurie. You don’t always have to put a feast on the table, like you did yesterday.”
“Oh, yes, I do,” Laurie laughed. “That was one thing Ma taught me: a working man deserves a hearty dinner to fuel his labor.”
“She was a great cook,” Little Joe recalled, climbing the three steps to the door, “and you do her proud.” With his free hand he opened the door and turned to see Laurie standing below him, touching a slender finger to the corner of her eye. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean . . .”
Laurie shook her head to dash the moisture from her eyes. “You needn’t be. It was the thought of making her proud that touched me.”
“You still miss her.”
Laurie nodded. “It’s been almost two years since she and my brother were taken with the fever, so I don’t think of them every day now . . . just when something brings her or Clive to mind.”
“Like a blunder-mouthed friend,” Little Joe said ruefully.
Laurie quickly skittered up the steps and laid her hand on his arm. “Oh, no. What you said meant a great deal to me, Little Joe. I thank you for it.” She moved through the doorway. “Come on in.”
Little Joe followed her inside. “Where would you like the water?”
“Here.” She gestured toward a small table beside the sink.
Joe put the pail down and wiped his beaded brow with the back of his arm. “I’d best get out to that pump and clean up for dinner,” he said, moving toward the door.
Laurie’s bell-like laugh tinkled the air. “You can wash up in here. I’ll even donate a bar of soap.”
“It might take a whole bar,” Joe joked back.
Laurie flicked his shoulder with a flour-sack towel. “Well, now, if it’s a full bath you need, I will be sending you out to the horse trough!”
Before Joe could think of a snappy comeback, another voice called out, “Laurie, someone in there with you?”
“Yes, Pa,” Laurie called back. “It’s Little Joe. He’s just cleaning up for dinner.” She gave him a pixyish smile. “I guess you’ll have to pass on the horse trough this time. Pa’ll want to talk to you about how the work’s going.”
That was, of course, exactly the topic Tom Reynolds brought up when Little Joe went into the parlor. “I started with the worst breaks,” Joe reported, “so I used up rails faster than if I’d just moved from one end to another.”
“Glad you did it that way,” Reynolds said.
Little Joe leaned forward, his forearms resting on his bent knees. “I thought I’d better ask you how you wanted me to manage from here, though. I thought I’d use up what rails I have first, of course, get as many breaks as possible closed. Then I can either try to round up your strays and hope they don’t leak back through the smaller breaks or see about getting more rails and finish the whole line first.”
Reynolds’ set lips skewed first one way and then the other as he chewed on the issue. “Like to get my cattle back on my own land . . . soon as you think they’ll hold. Gonna take time to chop trees and split enough rails to do the whole job, though. ‘Course, if we don’t do that first, you might just end up huntin’ strays twice. Don’t like to abuse your time, boy.”
“I’m not worried about it,” Little Joe said with a shrug. “Pa said I could be over here as much as I’m needed this week, but after that he’ll have more for me to do at home . . . with roundup comin’ up.”
Reynolds nodded his acknowledgement of the needs of a ranch for all hands during roundup. He’d even need to hire an extra man or two himself for that, since neither he nor old Pete were fit to bring a calf down for branding. “Tell you what, son. Patch things as best you can this afternoon, maybe leave off the top rails if you’re runnin’ short, so you can cover more of the line. Then if you have time, scout around some for strays. Tomorrow we’ll see about gettin’ more rails. You don’t mind choppin’ ‘em?”
Little Joe grinned. “Oh, I mind. It’s one of my least favorite chores, ‘cause Pa’s so fond of dolin’ it out as punishment.” He rubbed his chin between his left thumb and index finger in apparently deep contemplation. “Yeah, I’ll have to charge extra sugar cookies to sweeten that job.”
Reynolds threw back his head and laughed. “All you can eat, boy, all you can eat. You stop by here tomorrow morning, and I’ll ride up with you, show you which trees I want cut.”
“There’s no need for that, Mr. Reynolds,” Joe said seriously.
“Now, I’m not so feeble I can’t sit on a buckboard,” Reynolds chided, “and I’m particular about which trees get cut on my land.”
“Yes, sir, I know,” Joe replied. “You and my pa think real similar about conservative cutting, and that’s why you don’t need to risk jarring your back on that buckboard. If I just cut the way I know Pa would want it done on the Ponderosa, I can almost guarantee you’d be satisfied.”
A warm glow filled the older man’s brown eyes. “I reckon it would pay me to remember that I’m dealin’ with one of Ben Cartwright’s boys. All right, young fella, you just cut ‘em the way your pa’s taught you, and I ‘spect I’ll be satisfied. Now, shall we see what Laurie’s got laid out for us today?”
As usual, the sun was still low on the horizon when Adam and Hoss Cartwright descended the stairs the next morning. What was not usual was the sight of both their father and youngest brother already seated at the breakfast table. In apparent need of support after such a shock, Adam grasped the newel of the stair post. “Can it be?” he asked, his other hand groping for the strength of Hoss’ brawny shoulder. “Our beloved baby brother up with the sun?”
Hoss laid a solicitous palm across Adam’s forehead. “Well, you ain’t got a fever, so you cain’t be seein’ things. Only one explanation I can think of.” He cracked a wide grin. “Old Man Sun must have overslept this mornin’.”
Little Joe stretched across the table to grab the platter of bacon. “I was gonna leave you some,” he called, “but if that’s how you’re gonna act, I don’t feel much inclined to generosity.”
Hoss abandoned Adam and hustled across the room to rescue the bacon. Adam hurried after him. While he had no concern whatsoever that Little Joe would gobble down a whole platter of bacon, Hoss was another matter altogether, and it didn’t pay to leave one’s interests unprotected at the Ponderosa table. “Well, well,” Adam said as he spread his checked napkin in his lap, “to what do we owe your rare and stimulating presence at the breakfast table, my boy?”
Little Joe scowled at his eldest brother. “Well, it sure ain’t so’s I can enjoy your aggravatin’ company!”
“Boys,” Ben said in a warning tone.
Adam acknowledged the admonition with a nod, while Joe took his father’s caution to mean that he was supposed to answer his brother’s question in a civil tone this time. “I just wanted to get an early start,” he said. “I’ll be cutting timber for fence rails, and I’d rather do it before the day heats up.”
“Good plan,” Adam said, accepting a small plate of toast from Joe. As he buttered it, he observed in a tone circumspect enough to avoid his father’s censure, “I must say, I’ve been fascinated to see the evolution of your sense of civic responsibility, little brother.”
Joe’s brows knit together as he waded through what he considered unnecessary verbiage. “Just bein’ neighborly,” he said slowly, still not one hundred percent certain he’d deciphered his brother’s comment.
“Yes, but to which neighbor?” There was definite teasing in the smirk Adam turned toward his brother.
Hoss caught on quickly. “I’m guessin’ it’s the gal,” he chuckled.
“I only see her at dinner,” Little Joe argued, and even to him it sounded as ride-worthy as a three-legged horse. “Laurie’s a nice girl,” he added and immediately winced at words that sounded like he’d lopped another leg off that unfortunate pony. Both Hoss and Adam laughed.
“Indeed, she is,” Ben inserted, “and you boys will not make sport of her.”
“Oh, we’re not making sport of her,” Adam assured his father, while twitching a smile at Joe. “We were just wondering when little brother here intended to pop the question.” He expected a snappy retort from Joe and was surprised to see his brother nervously nibble his lower lip as he stared fixedly at his half-full plate. Adam set down his knife and the toast. “Are you planning to ask her to marry you?” he asked seriously.
Little Joe didn’t respond until his father spoke his name questioningly, diminutive included. Then he lifted his head and said, “Of course not. We ain’t even courtin’ . . . yet.”
The last word had been tacked on so softly that it was barely audible, but they all heard it and for a moment could do nothing but stare at one another. Then Adam asked, his voice grave, “Is that what all this eagerness to work over at the Reynolds’ place is about, to make her father feel obligated to let you court his daughter?”
Joe’s head jerked up as if on the receiving end of an uppercut to the jaw. “No!” he cried. “One’s got nothing to do with the other. I’m helping him because he needs help, pure and simple.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Joseph,” Ben said, “but if you do ask Tom Reynolds’ permission to court Miss Laurie, it might be best to make that clear.”
Little Joe shoved his chair back and jumped up. Tossing his napkin onto the table, he barked, “Why do old folks always have to complicate everything?” and stormed out of the house.
Hoss gave a low whistle. Adam’s eyes wandered from his father’s face to that of his brother. “Old folks?” he asked in disbelief.
Face set in angles as sharp and solid as his axe blade, Little Joe slammed the tool into the trunk of the tree, wrenched it free and again attacked the resistant wood. All around him lay the evidence of how earnestly he’d tried to vent his fury on the hated chore, but it only added up to dismal failure. Perspiration poured over his bare torso, for he had allowed himself no rest this morning, and the sweltering sun had shown no mercy. As the tree fell, he paused long enough to wipe the sweat trickling from his forehead into his eyes and finally took a long, slow breath. It was pointless, of course, this punishing himself for what those three maddening older Cartwrights had said. It wouldn’t hinder them from teasing him just as hard at supper as they had at breakfast; it would just leave him too tired to ease off the hair trigger of his temper.
How could they, though? How could they make sport of him and the girl he . . . loved? Did he love Laurie? He’d said as much to Pa the other night, but he’d said it so many times before that he wasn’t sure he could trust his own heart. Maybe that’s what was fueling his family’s doggone humor, too, memories of all those other times he’d professed love for some sweet little gal, only to decide a week later that some other pretty little thing was the true love of his life. Was Laurie that, the true love of his life? He had a strong feeling that she might be, but the feeling needed testing. He knew one thing for certain: he didn’t want to hurt her. She was too special . . . had always been too special . . . to risk hurting.
Knowing that he’d more than earned a break, he wedged the blade of the axe into the stump of the felled tree and dropped to the needle-strewn earth near it. He lifted a pinecone and began absently peeling away its prickly scales. He smiled softly as he remembered the first time he’d taken any particular notice of Laurie. She’d been in school with him from the beginning, but it had been easy to overlook such a shy, quiet girl, especially when he wasn’t interested in girls at all back then. If he’d given her any thought, he’d probably just written her off as a goody-two-shoes, not a lick of mischief flickering in her dreamy eyes.
Then Miss Jones had given them that horrible Valentine’s Day assignment, the one that had landed him smack in the middle of trouble, just because he’d decorated his with a picture of Cochise. Shucks, who did he love better back then? But Miss Jones had acted like he’d committed sacrilege against holy matrimony or something, and, Pa being busy at home, Adam had had to work some of his special magic with words to break him out of Miss Abigail’s jail that day.
It was when he got home and had a chance to open all the valentines from his friends that he’d first thought there was more to Laurie than he’d suspected. The girl could draw! She’d sketched a real nice picture of him and Cochise on her valentine, which also told him that she was a girl with more sense than sentiment. Her admiring the beauty of a horse like Cooch proved it. After that, he’d carried her books home from school a few times, but then he’d started noticing other girls, the kind with long blonde ringlets and eyes as blue as Tahoe, and he’d sort of forgotten about mousy little Laurie with the wavy brown hair. Never once thought of sparking her to a barn dance or a church picnic.
Now, as he tossed aside the peeled pinecone and leaned back on his elbows, he couldn’t think of anything else. There was a box social coming up the end of the week, too. He’d had more than one girl hinting at how her box of goodies would be wrapped, but he hadn’t promised anyone yet that he’d bid for hers. Maybe he should do a little detective work and see what Laurie’s would look like . . . or maybe not. Maybe she’d read it as a commitment to court. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that yet, and he’d sure hate to disappoint her if she thought the evening meant more than it did. Maybe he’d best keep his mouth shut . . . and maybe he’d best get back to chopping trees. He jumped to his feet and reached for the axe.
Little Joe finished his last bite of blackberry pie and leaned back in his chair as his tongue wiped the last drop of sweet juice from his lips. “Miss Laurie, you are plumb spoiling me with these daily feasts.”
Laurie laughed. “I might believe you if I hadn’t seen the spreads Hop Sing lays out.”
“He does a fine job,” Little Joe admitted, “but that’s about the best blackberry pie I’ve ever tasted, his included. You packin’ that in your box for the school social or the apple, like you made yesterday?”
Long lashes veiled the girl’s eyes. “I . . . don’t think I’ll be going, Little Joe.”
Joe’s mouth dropped open. “Why, you gotta.” Embarrassed by the earnestness so evident in the way he’d said those words, he grabbed his napkin and blotted his mouth, mostly to give himself something to hide behind. “I mean, you wouldn’t want to cheat some lucky fellow out of that blackberry pie . . . or apple . . . and it’s in a good cause.” The proceeds of the auction of the box suppers would be used to purchase new desks to replace the sadly worn ones that had been in the schoolroom long before he and Laurie had attended there.
“I know, but . . .” Her voice trailed off as she took a furtive glance at her father.
“It’s a long ride,” Tom Reynolds said, “but if I’m up to taking you by Saturday night, I sure will, darling.”
“I know, Pa,” Laurie said with an understanding smile that communicated her complete confidence in his love, “but I wouldn’t want you to push yourself on my account. There’ll be other socials.”
“Aw, but this one’s special,” Little Joe argued.
She cocked her head at him, a silent invitation to explain why.
Joe scrambled for a reason and couldn’t come up with one. “I mean . . . well . . . that is, I . . . I just hate to see you miss a good time, and having sampled your good cooking this week, I just know your box would bring a high price in the auction.”
Her father chuckled. “If the young fellows knew what we know, you mean?”
“Yes, sir,” Joe said and then flushed as that earnestness crept in again. “And . . . well, if it’s only a ride you’re needing, Laurie, I’d be right proud to give you one. As a neighbor, it’s practically on my way.”
Laurie’s eyes had sparkled for a moment, and then the light faded. “Well, I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I—um—wouldn’t want to interfere with any other plans you’d made.”
Little Joe’s cheeks reddened even more. “I haven’t made any plans . . . except to attend. Please come, Laurie.”
“Well”—she dragged the word out thoughtfully—“I guess we could ride together . . . as neighbors.”
“Yeah . . . as neighbors,” Little Joe chimed in softly.
Tom Reynolds looked from one young person to the other and adopted Little Joe’s device of blotting his lips with his napkin to hide his perceptive smile.
As Little Joe guided the buggy south, he was feeling just a mite perturbed with both his family and himself. His brothers had hooted raucously when he’d trotted out his “being neighborly” explanation for why he needed the buggy for the box social, and even Pa hadn’t kept a straight face as he had assured Joe that, of course, he was welcome to use the family rig to drive their neighbor to the charity event.
“It certainly makes for convenience,” Adam had stated loftily with an exquisitely arched eyebrow.
Little Joe’s brows had drawn together at that, knowing there was always more behind Adam’s words than their simple meaning, especially when they were accompanied by that exasperating eyebrow arch.
Seeing his little brother’s perplexed expression, Adam had spoken more plainly. “Makes it much easier to know which box to bid on when you escort it to the social.”
Hoss had outright guffawed at that. “You’re right, older brother. Ain’t a doubt in my mind but what that’s behind all this neighborliness.”
“It’s not that at all!” Little Joe had protested before storming out with rafter-raising cackles echoing in his wake.
The further he’d gotten from the house, the less upset with the other three Cartwrights and the more disconcerted with himself he’d become. Who was he fooling? Himself, he supposed, if he honestly thought he was giving Laurie a ride for any reason other than wanting her company, but had he said that to her, straight out? Oh, no. He’d skirted all around it with this notion of their going “as neighbors,” and now he felt stuck with it because he didn’t have any idea what Laurie’s true feelings were. Was she hoping that he’d bid on her box or was there some other fellow she’d rather share it with?
Of course, the couples weren’t supposed to pair up until the auction did it “by chance,” but almost everyone made plans ahead of time. Hoss, for instance, knew exactly what Bessie Sue Hightower was packing to tempt his appetite, and Abigail Jones had dropped Adam a hint at church on Sunday as to what her box would look like. That made it easier for him to avoid it like the plague, of course, same as Pa would that of the widow Hawkins, if he could figure out which box supper belonged to her. Joe’d had plenty of hints thrown his way, too, but hadn’t decided exactly whose box he wanted to bid on until today, and now he wasn’t sure that box wasn’t already spoken for. Laurie’d never seemed like the kind of girl who’d have a string of fellows lined up for her attentions, but more than once he’d dallied around, taking some girl for granted, only to learn after he’d made his choice, that she’d given up on him and agreed to let some other man squire her around. Yeah, as close to his vest as he’d played his cards for this social, he was the one likely to end up left out in the cold with the widow Hawkins or, worse, Abigail Jones.
With a shudder at that prospect, he reined up in the Reynolds’ front yard and barely had time to jump out of the buggy before Laurie came down the steps. His heart fluttered for a moment, realizing she must have been watching out the window for him, but then it plummeted. If anything, that was just more proof that she didn’t think of this night as anything special, for if she’d thought he was calling on her, she’d surely have waited for him to knock at the door and collect her like a proper gentleman. No, coming out alone like this was a sure sign that she was trying to be accommodating, not keeping her neighbor waiting even long enough for simple courtesy.
“Is something wrong, Little Joe?” Laurie asked hesitantly as she stood at the bottom of the steps.
Feeling the frown lines that his wrestling thoughts had traced across his forehead, he consciously relaxed them and plastered a smile on his face. “Not a thing,” he assured her. “Just wasn’t expecting you to meet me out here in the yard.”
“I didn’t want to delay you,” she said with a tight smile.
“You’re always so thoughtful,” he said softly.
Her lips relaxed then. “No more than you,” she whispered.
He reached for the box in her hand. “Here, let me take that for you.”
She laughed lightly as she handed it to him. “See what I mean? Thoughtful.”
He made an elaborate show of stowing it carefully beneath the buggy seat, which gave him a good chance to study how it was decorated . . . just in case. Not as fancily fixed up as some girls might have done, but he admired the simplicity of the plain white box, tied with a ribbon matching the one in her hair. Like her hair, the box’s ribbon had a sprig of lilac tucked into it. He was sure he’d spot it, no matter how many fancy boxes tried to outshine it.
He spun around quickly, flushing at the realization that he’d been doing exactly what aggravating Adam had predicted. “Oh, sorry, Laurie. Let me help you up.” He reached for her hand and assisted her into the buggy. “You look beautiful tonight,” he said as she settled her skirts on the seat. So beautiful that she almost took his breath away, in fact, but he couldn’t bring himself to say words that sounded so artificial. She was dressed in her Sunday best, in a ruffled frock of lavender calico. Her hair was curled into a mass of soft brown ringlets, tied back with ribbon, and the fading afternoon sun brought out its golden highlights. “You smell real good, too—the lilac, I mean,” he sputtered hastily, kicking himself for the awkward compliment. “It—it suits you.”
“You’re very kind,” she replied, veiling her violet eyes with long, silky lashes.
“I’m very truthful,” he said with a grin. “My Pa took pains to teach me that.” He gave his backside a slight rub and was delighted to hear her tinkling laughter in response. Walking around the back of the buggy, he climbed in beside her. He clucked at the team to get them moving, turned to her and asked, “So, which is it: blackberry or apple?”
She blushed prettily. “Apple . . . and some sugar cookies.”
His heart started to flutter again. He’d told her apple pie was his favorite, and the addition of the sugar cookies that had come to have special significance for them made it even more likely that she’d packed that box with him in mind. Was it too much to hope? “That’s . . . nice,” he stammered awkwardly. “Uh . . . I mean . . . whoever gets that box will be a lucky man.”
“Thank you,” she said a little stiffly and looked away. “My, isn’t the weather perfect for a picnic this evening?” she commented absently.
“Um, yes . . . yes, it is,” Little Joe responded, feeling suddenly as inept as a kid out with a girl for the first time. If this had been any other girl, any of the dozens he’d squired to parties before, he’d have made some smooth remark about her eyes shaming the sun with their shining, but this evening he just couldn’t seem to make small talk at all. The ride was mostly silent, with only the most innocuous of comments passing between them.
They were still about a quarter mile from Washoe Lake, where the auction and subsequent picnic were to take place, when Laurie said, “You can let me out any time now, Little Joe.”
He frowned across at her. “What?”
Her fingers twisted her calico skirt. “I mean, if you’d rather not have the other girls know that you drove me in, I could walk the rest of the way.”
His frown deepened. “Don’t be silly, Laurie.” Then an awful thought struck him. “Unless you’d rather not have the other fellows thinkin’ that we came as a couple.”
She looked up quickly. “Oh, no. I didn’t mean . . . I mean . . . I was thinking of you.” Her voice faded, and her eyes again fixed on the folds of her skirt.
His smile was tender as he lifted her chin with two fingers. “Then, don’t be silly,” he said softly. “Let ‘em think what they will.”
Her violet eyes glistened, and her lower lip trembled as she nodded wordlessly. They pulled up next to the line of other buggies and horses lining Washoe Lake, and Little Joe helped her down. “I’ll need my box,” she said when he stood there, holding her by the arms.
“Uh . . . yeah . . . sure.” He reached under the seat and handed it to her. White . . . lavender ribbon . . . sprigs of lilac.
“I’d best get it over to the table,” she said.
“Yeah. I—uh—guess I’ll see you afterwards . . . if you don’t get an invite elsewhere, I mean.” He fumbled with the horses’ harness to hide the crimson creeping over his cheeks.
“And if you give one elsewhere . . . well, don’t worry about me,” she said, eyes fixed on the lilac adorning her box. “I’m sure someone will see me safe home.”
“Well, we’ll see,” he mumbled, exhaling gusty exasperation with himself as soon as she’d walked away. “Boy,” he grunted to the horse, “I sure handled that well, huh?” He secured the animal and then walked toward the southern edge of the lake, where a few poplars and cottonwoods provided shade. Not that it would be needed much longer. Already the sun was shooting rosy rays at the horizon, and soon it would sink and leave the paired couples to picnic under the full moon and the twinkling stars.
He spotted his friends Mitch and Tuck and ambled over to greet them. “Fine spot for the social,” Tuck observed. “Not that the Ponderosa wouldn’t be a prettier one.”
Easing his hands into his back pockets, Joe chuckled. “Tahoe’s a prettier lake, to be sure, but this one’s a sight more convenient for folks from Virginia City, especially for an evening social.”
“And pretty enough in its own right,” Mitch threw in. Washoe Lake couldn’t compare with the majestic beauty of Lake Tahoe, of course; they all knew that. The shoreline offered next-to-nothing to catch the eye, but the waters themselves were a sheet of shimmering sapphire, and the waxy golden buttercups that hid among the tule shoots at the northern end were lovely to look at on a summer night like this one.
“Lake ain’t nothin’, compared to all that prettiness,” Tuck said with a grin as he aimed his chin toward the platform where all the girls were depositing their boxes. “Got your eye on a special one?” he asked his friends.
“Two or three I wouldn’t mind sampling,” Mitch said, grinning back. “Sort of depends on how high the bidding goes.”
“Same here,” Tuck said, “only in my case I’m likely to get outbid for anything I’d really like.”
“If I get fixed up first and got anything left, I’ll loan you some,” Mitch offered. He glanced over at Joe and when he got no response, cleared his throat.
“Huh? Oh . . . yeah, sure,” Joe said absently. “Same here.”
Mitch shook his head. “You’re mighty pensive, Joe. You got your sights set on any particular pretty up there?”
“What?” Joe gave an overly elaborate shrug. “No, ‘course not.” Remembering his remark to Laurie earlier about how his pa had taught him truthfulness, he figured that if he’d been younger, Pa might have well and properly dusted his britches for the whopper he’d just uttered. “That is to say, it’s more a matter of setting my sights away from certain boxes, if you get my meaning.” That one was worthy of nothing less than a full blown “necessary little talk”! But the stratagem worked. All ears, the other two leaned in as Little Joe detailed what he knew about the boxes of Bessie Sue, since no one would want to bid against Hoss, and of Abigail Jones, who none of the three would be caught dead with on a starlit picnic. He mentioned the hints a couple of girls had given him about how their boxes would be dressed, but assured them that he didn’t care if they outbid him for those.
“You sure?” Mitch asked. “I hear tell Becky Saunders bakes a mean pie.”
“Prefer mine sweet,” Joe chuckled. “Uh-oh, we better get over there. Looks like the mayor’s mounting the platform to start the bidding.”
As the auction began, Little Joe craned his neck, trying to spot Laurie’s box and finally gave up. Just like that girl to let other gals push their boxes forward while hers got buried behind all the flashy furbelows and fancy fixings! Well, he’d just have to show some patience and hope hers wasn’t too far down the line.
His eyes widened when the mayor held up the most garishly decorated box on the table. He didn’t know it for a fact, but he’d have bet even odds on that one belonging to Clementine Hawkins, ‘cause it looked like it belonged in a circus. Pa must have figured it out, too, ‘cause he studiously ignored the entire auction for the gaudy thing. No one would know for certain until the auction ended and the couples matched up, but Joe was sure he saw a look of disappointment cross the widow’s face when a bewhiskered old miner nabbed that box.
One by one, the boxes were bid on and bought, some for large prices, some for a pittance. No one but Hoss bid on Bessie Sue’s, either out of respect for him or lack of interest in that big-boned gal, if they guessed the box was hers. He bid high, anyway, to honor her and to support the cause. Pa and Adam didn’t get as free a ride, but both had deep enough pockets to insure that they got the boxes they wanted. Joe could only hope they’d chosen well, since he didn’t have a clue who those particular boxes belonged to.
Abigail Jones’ box came up for auction, and Little Joe groaned when he saw one of their own men, Hank Meyers, come up the winner—or, to his mind, loser—of that one. “Guess you didn’t think to give him the word, huh?” Mitch snickered.
Mouth skewed sourly to one side, Joe shook his head. “Hey, that’s Becky’s box coming up now,” he advised. “I’ll put in a bid, to keep in her good graces, but it’s yours if you want.”
“Thanks, buddy,” Mitch said, and grinned broadly when he was able to snare the box of his choice. He stuck close by, to see if Tuck would need his help, but the shy young man was able to pay his own bill. “Whose is that?” Mitch demanded.
Tuck shrugged. “Don’t know. I’m just takin’ my chances tonight. I sort of liked the way it was dressed.”
“Good a way of choosing as any,” Little Joe said, “if you got no particular leaning one way or the other.”
“Well, either you got no particular leaning any direction or you’re waiting for something special,” Mitch accused. “You ain’t put in nothin’ but token bids all night.”
“Got my eye on one,” Joe admitted, “and I think it’ll be comin’ up soon now.” He’d finally spotted Laurie’s box at the opposite end of the table from where the mayor was picking them. Just his luck, hers would be one of the last to go. If he didn’t get it, he’d have precious little left to bid on. There were more fellows here than girls, too, so he just might end up left out in the cold, eating from the general table supplied by the married folks and those too old to care about mating up. Serve him about right, he figured, to spend the night serving a bunch of toothless grannies. What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. He couldn’t remember what writer had said that, but he felt tangled enough in falsehoods tonight to deserve whatever web he landed in.
Finally, the mayor lifted the white box tied with lavender ribbon. “Sweet and simple,” he said. He leaned over and sniffed. “Smells delightful, young gents, and there aren’t many dinners left. Better bid while you can.”
“Twenty dollars!” Little Joe called out, walking closer to the platform, with Mitch and Tuck trailing in his wake.
“Whose is it?” Tuck asked in a stage whisper that Joe ignored.
“Twenty five!” called another fellow.
“Twenty-seven-fifty,” hollered another, who dropped out of the bidding as soon as Little Joe overbid him with a shout of “Thirty!”
The other man bid thirty-five and Joe countered with forty, scrambling through his pockets to make sure of exactly what he had.
“That fellow bidding against you—his pa owns the Gould and Curry,” Mitch observed.
Little Joe gave a grim nod, his mouth tightening even more when the other man bid fifty dollars What on earth had made a fellow with pockets that deep wait this long to put in a bid? Had he been waiting specifically for Laurie’s box? Had she told him what to look for, like other girls had Joe himself? Well, no sense holding back; either he had enough to outbid that fellow or he didn’t, and it was time to find out. “Fifty-seven dollars and forty-eight cents,” he yelled and winced at the roar of laughter that rose from the crowd. He couldn’t possibly have announced any louder the exact contents of his pockets.
Predictably, the mine owner’s son raised the ante to sixty dollars. Little Joe tried to spot Laurie’s face, to see if she looked pleased or disappointed. Seeing the mayor glance his direction, he started to shake his head; then he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard his brother’s voice say softly, “Bid sixty-five.”
“I don’t have it,” Joe said tersely out the side of his mouth.
“Yes, you do,” Adam said with a chuckle.
“I have sixty dollars; do I hear sixty-five?” the mayor asked, eyes on Little Joe.
“Sixty-five,” Little Joe called back quickly.
The bidding continued, fast and furious, with Little Joe glancing inquiringly at his big brother and getting his nod of approval before each bid he made. The plain white box reached a price of $105 before the other man decided it couldn’t be worth that much and with a shrug let Little Joe take it.
Adam reached into his pocket and counted out the additional amount his younger brother needed.
“Thanks,” Joe said, taking the money as inconspicuously as he could. “It’ll take me a month of Sundays to pay you back.”
Adam chuckled. “More like a year of Sundays, the way you handle money.” He clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I got mine at a bargain and planned to donate more, anyway. Besides, Laurie deserves better than that snivelblot.”
Joe grinned at the phrase his brother had picked up from Annie O’Toole. It seemed suited, in his mind, to that rich mine owner’s pasty-faced son.
Adam gave him a wink and made his way back to his own group of friends.
“That whose box it is, Laurie Reynolds?” Mitch asked.
“Yeah,” Joe said, eyes narrowing. “You got something to say about that?”
Mitch shrugged in the best imitation of nonchalance he could conjure. “Just never figured her for the type of girl you’d favor.”
“Well, she is,” Joe said curtly.
“She’s a real sweet girl,” Tuck put in hastily, “and she sure favors you.”
“What girl don’t?” Mitch snorted. Long ago he and Tuck had accepted the fact that their friend Little Joe Cartwright could have any girl he wanted, but he never made them feel like they were taking his leavings, even when they squired some girl they’d seen drool over him a dozen times.
When all the boxes had been auctioned off, the men paid their bills and collected their boxes. Then the girl who had packed each one joined the man who’d purchased hers. In most cases there was a conspiratorial exchange of smiles; in others, astonished looks of either delight or chagrin.
Little Joe feigned a look of surprise. “Oh, is this yours?”
Laurie gave him a chiding shake of her head. “You know it is.”
Joe laughed. “I should after studying it so hard when I stowed it.”
“I’m glad,” Laurie murmured, long lashes veiling her eyes.
“Me, too,” Joe whispered back. “Let’s get the rig and drive up to the north end of lake, all right? It’s prettier there.”
“I’d like that,” she said as she took his arm.
As they walked toward the line of buggies, they met Seth Pruitt and his partner for the evening, Sara Edwards. “Congratulations on the most valuable box of the evening, Laurie,” Sara said with sincere warmth.
“I never imagined it would go so high,” Laurie said with open-faced wonder, “but I’m glad it did, for the sake of the school.”
“I’m just surprised you had that much on hand, buddy,” Seth chuckled.
“Surprised you had any at all,” Joe jibed back. Jokes about their perennially empty pockets were a time-honored tradition between him and Seth. Joe might be a rich man’s son and Seth an orphan, but they both came from households where they were expected to earn every cent they spent.
With laughing wishes for an enjoyable evening, the two couples separated. Little Joe handed Laurie into the buggy and then climbed up beside her. He gathered the reins in his hand, smiled at her and guided the horse north along the edge of the lake.
“The sky’s so clear tonight,” Laurie said, gazing upward. “You can count every star.”
“I only count two,” Little Joe said, grinning when she turned to him with a puzzled expression. “One in each eye,” he whispered.
“Flatterer,” Laurie chided with a smile.
“No such thing,” he insisted. He fumbled the reins for a moment and added, “Or if it is, it’s honest flattery.”
She blushed prettily and looked away, not knowing how to respond.
They reached the north end of the lake and he helped her down. Then he reached into the buggy and brought out a blanket to spread on the grass. They both dropped onto it, and she started to unpack her box. “It’s just fried chicken, potato salad and watermelon pickles,” Laurie said with a demure smile. “I hope it’s worth that princely price you paid.”
He pursed his lips, trapped in indecision.
“Something wrong, Little Joe?” Laurie asked with concern.
He nodded slowly, soberly. “Look, Laurie, I don’t want to be dishonest with you. You’re too special for that.” He licked his lower lip as he leaned forward. “Your box—to me, it was worth every penny I bid . . . but it wasn’t my money.”
“I know that,” Laurie said quietly. She flushed when he cocked his head inquiringly. “I . . . saw Adam behind you.”
The left side of his mouth lifted in a half-grin. “You were watching?”
“And hoping . . . since we’re being honest,” she whispered, eyes darting away lest they reveal even more than her candid words.
He reached over and stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. “And I was hoping just as hard.”
“Really. I’m through playing games and telling fibs.”
A hint of mischief twitched her lips. “Your pa will be so proud!”
Joe laughed back as he reached for a drumstick. “Won’t he, though? And Miss Jones might be, too, if I could remember who wrote that line about lies building a tangled web.”
“‘What a tangled web we weave’?” She mused for a moment. “I think that’s Sir Walter Scott, Joe.”
“Should have known,” he said as soon as he’d swallowed his first bite of the savory chicken. “Scott always was a favorite of mine.”
“Mine, too,” Laurie said, offering him the potato salad. “Ivanhoe was my favorite.”
“Ah, my fair Lady Rowena,” Little Joe said, flourishing the chicken leg as if it had been a sword to defend medieval womanhood.
She laughed. “I’m afraid I saw myself more as Rebekah.”
Joe looked puzzled. Then his face lightened in sudden assurance. “Oh, you mean because she had dark hair like yours.”
“No!” Laurie laughed aloud. Then the sound suddenly faded and she said quietly, “No, it was because she could never have the man of her dreams, and neither . . . I thought . . . could I.” She fixed her gaze on her lap.
Little Joe reached for her hand. “Me?” he asked softly.
Her eyes glistened. “This is a night for honesty, isn’t it?”
“Every night a night for honesty, between us,” he promised. “I will, if you will.”
Tossing her ringlets, she gazed forthrightly into his eyes. “All right, then. Yes, Little Joe Cartwright, from the time we went to school together, I dreamed of . . . nights like this.”
“I didn’t,” he admitted frankly. When he saw her face fall, he gently reached over to raise her dipping chin. “I was a fool,” he murmured, “not to see you before, but I’m seeing you clear now, girl, and I’d like to see you more.”
“As neighbors?” she couldn’t resist teasing. “Maybe I could arrange to knock some more fencing down.”
“No,” he moaned with exasperation, more at himself than at her. He scooted closer to her. “No, Miss Laurie Reynolds, not as neighbors—and definitely not to mend more fences! I’m asking if I can come calling . . . serious like, I can’t say for sure yet that what I feel for you is the kind of love that ought to be between man and wife, but I want to find out. That’s what courting’s about, isn’t it?”
Shaken beyond words, she could only nod at first, but finally said, “You’ll have to ask Pa’s permission. He’s old-fashioned that way.”
“I will—soon as I get back from roundup,” Joe said. He grasped her hand, and the hundred-dollar dinner sat forgotten between them. They feasted, instead, on the hopes and dreams gleaming in each other’s eyes.
“Boy, where is your head?” Adam demanded with totally justifiable curtness. This was, after all, the third time this afternoon he’d had to call his young brother’s attention back to the task at hand, namely pushing the herd the final few miles into Sacramento.
“I don’t know,” Little Joe mumbled. Despite his new propensity for honesty, he could scarcely tell his older brother that his head was in the parlor of a certain ranch house just south of the Ponderosa. “Sorry, Adam.”
“You’ll think sorry if this herd starts to run,” Adam growled through gritted teeth. “We’re getting close to town now, and you know what that means . . . or should!”
Joe nodded brusquely. Being close to town increased the odds of some sudden sight or sound spooking the cattle. Every man needed to be on his toes, and he had to admit he hadn’t been. For most of the drive, in fact, he’d been acting like a green kid on his first trail assignment, instead of the top hand he’d been considered for the last couple of years. Adam had every right to be irked with him, but Joe knew it was more than just annoyance; Adam was worried that someone might get hurt—especially worried that that someone might be his empty-headed baby brother. Joe sat straighter in his saddle and looked steadily into his brother’s brooding eyes. “I’ll do better, Adam. Thanks for the warning,” he said.
Adam’s brows knitted together into a straight, perplexed line. Accepting a rebuke this meekly was totally out of character for his little brother, but Joe looked sincere. “All right, then; see that you do,” he said and wheeled his horse around.
A satisfied grin lifted one corner of Joe’s mouth. Leaving his big brother at a loss for words was a rare pleasure. That—and staying alive—made it worthwhile to take his mind off Laurie Reynolds for another hour or so.
Two sets of boot heels, one discernibly heavier than the other, clicked along the boards lining J Street, the main business district in Sacramento. The lighter pair halted abruptly, and its owner stared into the nearest shop window.
“Have you plumb lost your mind, Joe?” his companion asked.
“I’m looking for something,” Little Joe muttered.
Hoss snagged his brother’s elbow and dragged him a few feet down the walkway. “Little brother, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d been drinkin’. There ain’t nothin’ in that store you got need of.”
“Not for me,” Joe scoffed. “It’s for a present.”
Hoss’ mouth scrunched in contemplation. “For Laurie?” Seeing his little brother’s eyes go all dreamy, the way they had all along this trail drive, Hoss took firmer hold of Joe’s biceps. “Joe, you can’t buy her a dress; it ain’t proper.”
“I know that,” Joe snapped, “but they sell other things in there, don’t they?”
“None you oughta be thinkin’ about,” Hoss snorted, pulling his brother further down the street. “You’d do better in the general store—get her a nice hair ribbon or something.”
“Hair ribbon!” Joe shouted. “Good lands, Hoss; she can get that for herself in any store back home.”
Hoss stopped and looked at his brother, mouth scrunching up again. “Gotta be something special, huh?”
“Oh, yeah,” Joe sighed, eyes all dreamy again.
Hoss shook his brother’s arm to bring his attention back. “So, what did you have in mind?”
Joe shrugged awkwardly. “I don’t know. That’s where you got to help me.”
“Me!” Hoss screeched.
“Yeah, you,” Joe squawked back, oblivious to the heads turning their direction. “You’re older.”
Hoss dragged his brother into a nearby alley. “Older, maybe,” he said, “but you got more experience with gals than me.”
“Aw, come on, Hoss,” Joe pleaded. “You’ve bought presents for Bessie Sue, ain’t you?”
Hoss snorted. “Bessie Sue’s sensible: she was always satisfied with a hair ribbon or such like. If you’re aimin’ higher than that, I ain’t the Cartwright you ought to be consultin’: you need Adam.”
Joe winced in obvious pain. “I ain’t exactly in Adam’s good graces right now.”
Hoss squeezed his brother’s shoulder between iron fingers. “Yeah and with good reason. I ain’t never seen you act so feather-brained around cattle, little brother.”
Joe gave him a sour smile. “Yeah, I know. Which is why I can’t ask Adam.”
Hoss chuckled. “Which is why you gotta ask Adam. Ain’t nothin’ gonna sweeten his attitude toward you like you lookin’ up to him. Ole Adam kinda thrives on that sort of thing.”
“Yeah,” Joe mused, one side of his mouth lifting in almost crafty remembrance of the times Adam had saved his hide with either Pa or Miss Jones. Oh, how older brother had relished the hero worship that generally followed such rescues! “Hoss, you’re right!” he declared, with a slap to the big man’s back. “Soon as Adam gets back from finalizing that cattle sale, I’ll hit him up for his help.”
“Fine,” Hoss agreed, beaming with satisfaction that his advice had been accepted. “Now, how about that beer we started out for, huh?”
Joe grinned. “I’ll even buy.”
Lips puckered out, Hoss slowly nodded. With success like this, maybe he’d just consider going into the advice-givin’ business.
“What’s the occasion?” Adam asked over dinner at the Orleans Hotel, where they were staying. As Hoss had predicted, he had been flattered into complete forgiveness by Little Joe’s request for help and, typically, was analyzing the question from all sides before expressing his opinion.
“Occasion?” Little Joe stared back at him with glazed eyes.
Adam exhaled with gusty exasperation. It helped to understand why his kid brother had been so distracted on this trip, but it was still wearisome to deal with. “Yes, Joe, the occasion, the purpose of the gift,” he explained with strained patience. “Is it her birthday, for instance?” He shook his head almost immediately. “No, that’s in the spring, isn’t it? Well, then, is it to thank her for all the meals you took at her house recently . . . or something more special?”
“Oh, more special,” Little Joe affirmed at once with a quick bob of his head. “It’s—it’s—well . . . don’t laugh, okay?” He fumbled with his fork, dropping it atop his apple pie.
“I am the soul of seriousness,” Adam vowed, propping his elbows on the table and resting his chin on his curled fingers.
Little Joe cut a glance at Hoss, who adopted such a sober demeanor that it ended up looking comical, instead. That was normal for Hoss, though, so Joe took a deep breath and said, “When we get home, I’m gonna ask her pa if I can court her, and I wanted to have something to give her to—well—to—”
“To mark the beginning of your courtship?” Adam queried.
“Yeah,” Joe said, relieved to have it put into just the right words.
Adam nodded, considered briefly and then said laconically, “Jewelry.”
“What kind of jewelry?” Joe pressed. “I mean, is there some special kind for sayin’ . . . what I want to say?”
“No special stone or type, if that’s what you mean.” Adam stroked his chin thoughtfully. “It needs to be something simple,” he advised, adding with a wicked grin, “which, given your present penuriousness, is about all you could handle, anyway. I know the contents of your pockets, almost to the penny.”
“Who don’t, after that box social?” Hoss cackled, making heads turn in the restaurant.
Joe shrugged in sheepish acknowledgement of that remark’s validity. “I got wages comin’ from the drive, don’t I?”
“And a fair-sized bonus,” Adam added.
Joe shook his head. “I didn’t earn one.”
“Probably true,” Adam conceded, “but it’s yours nonetheless, same as all the other hands. You can’t spend it all, though.”
“Why not?” Joe demanded. “It’s my money.”
Adam stared at his brother with pursed lips. “For two very good reasons,” he said finally. “First, because you’ll want to have some funds left over to squire her around, at least enough to take her to dinner sometime.”
“Oh . . . yeah.”
“And more importantly,” Adam continued didactically, “because you want the gift to convey affection, but not complete commitment. Save the expensive jewelry for your engagement . . . if this goes that far.”
“You’re right,” Joe said, sitting up straighter. “So, will you come with me, help me pick something nice?”
“Certainly,” Adam said, “but could we please finish our desserts first?”
“Doggone right we’re gonna finish dessert!” Hoss declared in tones that left no doubt that, with him, picking some doodad for a gal definitely took second place to a well-baked pie. Laughter and some time-honored jibes about his appetite even managed to take Little Joe’s mind off Laurie for a quarter of an hour.
Little Joe’s knuckles hung poised before the door to the Reynolds’ ranch house as he made a conscious effort to slow his rapid breathing and his pounding heart. No need to be nervous, he told himself. It’s just a simple question, and the worst he can do is say no. Trouble was, he didn’t think he could handle no, not when his whole future with Laurie depended on her pa saying yes to what he was about to ask. His breathing seemed more regular, and he figured there wasn’t much hope for his heart until this was over, so he rapped on the door and then fidgeted while he waited for someone to answer.
He had expected it to be Laurie, but for some reason, maybe the darkness outside, it was Tom Reynolds who opened the door. “Good evening, sir,” Little Joe managed to squeak out. “I hope it isn’t too late for a visit.”
“Why, no, son,” the older man said, opening the door wide. “You know you’re always welcome here. Back from roundup, are you?”
“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said as he entered and removed his hat. “Just in this afternoon.” Rather late in the afternoon, too. In fact, he’d barely had time to take a bath before suppertime, and hadn’t been able to break free of the family until that was over, regardless of the fact that he’d barely touched his own plate.
“Laurie,” the older man called as he showed Joe to a chair near the fire, “we’ve got company.”
Wiping her hands on her apron, Laurie appeared in the doorway from the kitchen. “Hi, Little Joe,” she said. “Good to see you.”
“Get us some coffee, would you, girl?” her father asked.
“Oh, no. Don’t go to any trouble for me,” Little Joe urged.
“No trouble,” Laurie said with a smile. “There’s coffee left from supper . . . and sugar cookies.”
The twinkle in her eyes was matched, momentarily, by one reflected in Joe’s; then he remembered why he was here, and his breath caught in his throat again. “I—uh—guess you’re wondering what I’m doing here, this time of the night,” he stammered, turning his gaze back to Mr. Reynolds.
Reynolds took a slow draw on his pipe, which served to hide the slight upward twitch of the left corner of his mouth. “Figured you were just bein’ . . . neighborly,” he drawled with a straight face.
Little Joe flushed at the reminder of his previous excuses for coming here. “No, sir. I-I mean, yes, sir; of course, I always want to be neighborly . . . ‘cause you are such a good neighbor and—and well, I’d like to be a better one.”
“Don’t rightly see as how you could,” Reynolds declared with studied dullness. “You Cartwrights have always been all I could ask for in neighbors, and the help you gave me awhile back was more than I would have asked, even from neighbors.”
“I was happy to do it,” Little Joe said earnestly. He saw Laurie come back in, carrying a tray, and rose to take it from her.
“Thank you,” she said. Then, blushing prettily, she added, “If you will excuse me, I need to finish up the supper dishes.”
“Oh, sure,” Little Joe agreed readily. If there was one thing he didn’t need for this conversation, it was a witness, especially one as involved in its outcome as Laurie. As he set the tray down on the table between him and Mr. Reynolds, his eyes moistened at the sight of the sugar cookies. Laurie’d known when he expected to be back from roundup, of course, but she couldn’t have known for sure that he’d show up here the night he got back. The cookies were her sign that she’d been looking forward to this night as much as he had, and that bolstered his courage. He waited until the girl disappeared back into the next room and then said, “About that help I gave you awhile back, Mr. Reynolds . . . I just wanted you to know that it’s got nothing to do with why I’m here tonight.”
“Oh?” Reynolds asked with apparent guilelessness as he reached for one of the two cups of coffee on the tray. “Well, I never actually thought it did, son. Now, you were sayin’ something about bein’ a better neighbor?”
“Yeah,” Joe said, trying desperately to remember what he’d said earlier. “Well, not a better neighbor, exactly. More—more than just a neighbor, I mean.”
“Help yourself,” Reynolds said, gesturing toward the tray.
“Uh—no; I mean, thank you, but not just yet.” Joe edged forward in his chair. “You know what I mean, about bein’ more than a neighbor?”
Tom Reynolds had a good idea, but also possessed an ornery streak just wide enough to enjoy seeing the young man squirm. “Why, no, son. I haven’t a clue.” Taking a sip of coffee, he cast a covert glance at Little Joe over the upturned cup.
“I mean . . . well . . . can I court your daughter?” Little Joe winced, and his shoulders tightened. “That didn’t come out right,” he muttered with self-exasperation. He’d gone over how to present his case all the way home, earning a few moderate rebukes from Adam for his dreamy-headedness, but every word he’d memorized so carefully had flown out of his head the minute he knocked on the door.
Reynolds chuckled. “It came out clear . . . better than all the pussy-footin’ around you were doin’ before.”
Little Joe gave him a sheepish half-grin. “I’ll come straight out with it, then: I came to ask your permission to court your daughter, Mr. Reynolds.”
Reynolds set the coffee down, leaned back in his chair and folded his callused hands in his lap. “Courting’s a serious matter, young man. You know that?”
“Yes, sir, and I am serious about it,” Little Joe assured him.
The left corner of Reynolds’ mouth twitched again. “You’ve been serious a few other times in your young life . . . or so I’ve heard.”
Little Joe’s cheeks flamed crimson. “I—I’ve thought so a few times, but this is . . . different.”
Reynolds leaned forward, hands dropping between his knees. “How?”
Little Joe took a deep breath. “It just feels . . . different . . . more solid . . . like it might lead to something lasting.” He raked edgy fingers through his dark hair. “I guess I’m not putting this too well.”
“You tellin’ me your intentions are honorable?” Reynolds pressed.
Little Joe nodded slowly. “I’m telling you that I have strong feelings for your daughter. I don’t know, for sure, that they’re strong enough for marriage, but I want to find out. I want to know Laurie better, sir, and have her know me better, and if, after that, we both feel the same as we seem to now, then I figure I’ll be coming to you to ask for her hand. Is that what you mean by honorable?”
Reynolds finally smiled broadly. “That’s what I mean.” He sobered then. “She’s the light of my life, you know that?”
“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said. He wanted to add that she was the light of his, as well, but sensed that the words might sound hollow, even false, in the face of a father’s love for his child, the same sort of undying love he knew his own father felt for him.
“You’re a fine boy, Little Joe,” the older man continued. “I’ve always thought so, and I don’t object to a young fellow sowing some wild oats. Sowed some in my time, too . . . but I don’t want you sowing them in my girl’s heart. That’s tender ground, fallow ground. Plant the right seed in it, and you’ll harvest a bumper crop of the best any woman could offer.” His eyes narrowed. “But be careful how you plow it. You hurt my little girl, and I’m likely to tear you limb from limb.”
Little Joe gazed directly into Reynolds’ eyes. “I won’t hurt her,” he promised. “I won’t lead her on, and if it’s not going to work out between us . . . well, I think we’ll both know it, sir, and I’m sure we’ll both be honest . . . but gentle . . . with one another.”
“Then you have my permission to court my daughter,” Mr. Reynolds said formally. Then he grinned. “Now, will you have that coffee?”
“Just a cookie,” Little Joe said, grinning back with relief. “And may I see Laurie for a few minutes? Alone, I mean.”
“Laurie,” Reynolds called. “That all right with you?”
Her head slipped around the corner so quickly that she had to have been listening to, at least, the latter part of the conversation. “Yes, Pa,” she said.
“Then why don’t you take Little Joe out to see that new filly?” her father suggested.
Little Joe sprang to his feet. “Oh, yeah. Nothing I like better than seeing a new filly.”
“Nothing?” Reynolds asked wryly with a sly wink. “Or maybe we’re talking about two different fillies.”
“Pa,” Laurie scolded, wagging a finger at him. She reached for the hand of her blushing beau. “Come on, Little Joe,” she laughed, pulling him toward the door.
As soon as they were outside, Little Joe exhaled audibly.
Laurie tittered as she continued to pull him out into the yard. “Was it that dreadful?” she asked.
“Harder than any bronc I ever broke,” Little Joe panted. “Hey, the barn’s that way,” he protested as she led him toward the open meadow.
Laurie stopped. “Did you really want to see the filly? She’s pretty, but . . .”
Joe grinned, finally. “Well, sometime, but I guess it is a different filly I have my eye on tonight.”
She gazed up into his face, and it was as if all the stars in the heavens were reflected in her eyes. “It’s a colt I’d rather see, anyway.”
“Not a stallion?” he asked, his head bending toward hers.
“Well . . . sometime,” she whispered as he pulled her into his arms. “Oh, Joe!”
His lips brushed hers, tenderly at first and then with the yearning he’d felt all along the trail home. He sighed in satisfaction as he savored the honey of her lips. He glanced back at the house, which still seemed all too close. “You think it’d be all right to walk out a ways?”
In answer, she took his hand in her right one as her left slipped into her pocket and drew out a sugar cookie. “You didn’t taste the ones I set out for you,” she chided.
Little Joe took the cookie, biting into it as they walked further into the meadow. “You were eavesdropping,” he accused with a twinkle in his eye.
She giggled. “And thought you’d never get down to business. ‘Bein’ a better neighbor,’ indeed! I’m afraid Miss Jones would declare that the strangest metaphor for love she ever heard!”
“She thought all my metaphors were pretty strange,” Little Joe chuckled.
“Ah, but you’re getting better at it, my little colt,” she said, reaching up to stroke his freshly shaven cheek. “My stallion to be,” she added in a whisper.
Ripples of desire running up his spine, Little Joe again took her in his arms. “But not as good as you, my little filly . . . my . . .” Again his lips sought hers, this time in a long, lingering kiss. They finally broke apart, and his hand slipped into his pocket. He drew out a small white box, tied with two lavender ribbons. “Hoss said I should give you hair ribbons,” he said, pointing to the bow, “but I wanted something more for my girl.”
Carefully, she untied the bow and separated the ribbons. “I’ll wear them with pride,” she said. Then, breath held, she lifted the lid from the box and gasped at what lay inside. “Oh . . . Joe,” she murmured dreamily.
“You like it?” he asked.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, and then asked shyly, “Put it on?”
“Um-hmm.” He drew the pendant from the box and stepped behind her to latch it around her neck. “There. Let’s see how it looks.” With gentle hands on her shoulders, he turned her to face him. “Perfect,” he said in answer to the question in her eyes. It wasn’t quite the simple locket that Adam had advised. The heart-shaped outline with a single, tear-drop pearl dangling from its apex had cost a little more than those, but Joe had known the minute he saw it that it was the perfect gift to commemorate this moment. He playfully tapped the tip of her nose. “You’re branded now, my little filly. That’s to tell everyone you’re my girl.”
My girl. She’d heard those words before, but only in her dreams. Hearing them now, in the idyllic setting of a slow walk through a flower-dappled meadow under a starlit sky, they still seemed unreal. She felt herself smiling and nodding at every word he said, though scarcely aware of what they were. Something about a dance Saturday night, though it wasn’t until she was alone in her bed that night that she realized that he’d asked and she’d accepted. As she drifted to sleep, she wondered what the town would think of this drab little filly and that dazzling young colt frolicking around the dance floor together.
Laurie couldn’t miss the looks of absolute shock when she walked into the dancing hall on the arm of Little Joe Cartwright. She didn’t blame the other girls for looking at them with envy, of course. There was no occasion more coveted than a fireman’s ball, and to be escorted to one by the most handsome man in the territory was the substance of many a young girl’s dreams. Laurie had held that dream close to her own heart for many years, without any hope of its fulfillment. She’d never been asked to such a prestigious dance by anyone, so to be here at all was thrilling; to be here with Little Joe, ecstasy beyond words.
She stood spellbound at the entrance to what looked like a formal garden. All around the perimeter were walkways lined with what must surely have been every cut flower and potted plant in Virginia City. At the far end stood a trio of vine-covered trellises with benches beneath them. On the stage just beyond sat the musicians, playing softly. “Oh, Joe,” she breathed in wonder. “It’s beautiful.”
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered in her ear, “but this is nice, too.” He drew her toward a table set to one side of the hall. “You’ll need a dance card, my lady.”
Smiling, she picked one up and glanced down the list of dances. “Which shall I put you down for, good sir?”
“All of them?” he asked with a naughty twinkle in his eyes. Then he laughed at her dumbstruck expression. “No, I know I can’t be that selfish. First and last for me, for sure, and sprinkle a couple more in wherever you like.”
Laurie nodded, secretly wishing she could write his name in for every dance. It wasn’t the way things were done, of course, but she couldn’t help wondering if anyone else would ask her. She’d never exactly been a wallflower, but neither had she been one of the most popular partners at any local dance. She’d usually found herself tongue-tied, unable to make the witty conversation and cast the coy glances that more vivacious girls used to keep men dangling in attendance. Such behavior seemed false to her; she’d always hoped to be loved for her real self and not some more flamboyant imitation.
She gazed gratefully at the man who seemed to accept her just as she was and showed him the lines on which she’d written his name, five altogether.
“Perfect,” he said, pleased with the addition of one more than he’d requested. Taking her arm, he asked, “Would you care to stroll through the garden until the music begins for that first waltz?”
“I would be delighted,” she said. As they walked among the flowers, she enthusiastically pointed out her favorites, bending occasionally to savor their scent.
“I never knew you were such an expert,” Little Joe remarked.
Laurie laughed. “I’m not, really, especially not compared to my mother. She loved flowers, knew them all by name and planted every kind she thought would grow out here.”
“I remember that,” Joe recalled. “There were always flowers on the table when we came to dinner, some I’d never seen anywhere else.” They had reached the end of the hall, and as they passed one of the trellises, he spotted Mitch Devlin, sitting on the bench with Becky Saunders.
“Hey there, Little Joe,” Becky called, cocking her coifed curls at a coquettish tilt. “You’re weren’t going to pass by without saying hello, now were you?”
“Of course not, Becky,” Little Joe said smoothly. “You know Laurie, of course.”
Becky barely gave the other girl a glance. “Of course.” She whipped out her dance card and put on her most alluring smile. Then she dropped her eyes demurely. “Dear me, I’m afraid I was presuming.”
Joe caught the roll of his friend Mitch’s eyes, but kept a straight face. “Not at all,” he said. “I’d love to dance with you, if you have an opening.”
“One or two,” she giggled. “Hmm. How about the galop? You need a lively girl for that.” She sent a significant side glance at Laurie, whose cheeks flamed crimson at the obvious intimation.
Little Joe stiffened, but only for a moment. Then he turned to Laurie and asked, eyes wide and innocent. “Is that one of ours, darling?”
Darling! Nothing could have lifted her spirits like that one sweet endearment. “I . . . don’t think so,” she murmured.
“Check your card, dear,” Little Joe urged. “I wouldn’t want to miss one with you.” He stroked her hair with an affectionate hand.
Her eyes glistened as she made a slow perusal of her dance card, even though she knew by heart exactly which dances she’d assigned to him. “Why, no, Joe, I don’t have you down for the galop.”
“Oh, good!” Becky declared with a flounce of her curls.
With unaccustomed boldness Laurie spoke up, “I suppose that means you’re free for the galop, Mitch?”
“It appears I am, Miss Laurie,” Mitch replied gallantly, “and I’d be pleased to have you as a partner, unless you’re already taken.”
“Not for the galop,” Laurie said. “I’ll just put your name down.” She looked at Joe and, seeing his encouraging smile, added, “And we can be in the same set. Won’t that be fun?”
“Won’t it?” Little Joe said, giving her a surreptitious wink as he extended his arm. “Shall we finish our tour of the garden, dear?”
“Of course, dear.” She dipped her chin prettily to the other couple. “We’ll see you at the galop.” Once they were several paces away, she giggled. “Oh, Joe, were we terrible?”
“Not nearly as much as someone else I could mention,” he said with a scowl, wondering now what he’d ever seen in Becky Saunders. “I’m glad you’re not like that,” he added, “throwing yourself at other men.”
“Well, I did rather throw myself at Mitch,” she tittered, “but he looked so abandoned that I forgot myself.”
“That’s what I love about you,” he whispered. “You’re always forgetting yourself for someone else’s sake.”
“I’m afraid I might have been wanting to spite Becky as much as to help Mitch,” she admitted with a rueful smile.
“Oh, yeah,” he drawled with an impish grin, “and I enjoyed that every bit as much as you did!”
They continued their circuit of the room, stopping to chat with other couples they knew, including Joe’s brothers and their ladies for the evening, and arranging exchanges of partners for various dances. By the time they made their way back to the entrance of the hall, Laurie’s card was almost full, but when Ben Cartwright walked up to her and asked if she had room for him, she was pleased to say that she did. No sooner had she written his name on her card than the first dance was announced, and Little Joe proudly escorted her to the center of the dance floor.
“Enjoying yourself?” he asked softly as they waltzed close to the flowers.
“So much, Little Joe,” she said, and the stars in her eyes verified the words.
“Me, too,” he murmured and said no more until the dance ended. Then, with his left index finger he traced the outline of the heart-shaped pendant around her neck. “Remember, you’re branded,” he whispered. “I may have to let you dance with some of these other fellows, but you’re mine, little filly.”
“And pleased to be so, my handsome colt,” she replied.
They moved from partner to partner, often smiling at each other across the room when they weren’t dancing together. The galop came early in the program, and Little Joe took pride in how “lively” a dancer his frisky little filly proved to be. Apparently, other men noticed, too; for soon after that, she was surrounded by several requesting a dance. She accommodated them all, handsome and homely, suave and clumsy, until her dance card was filled. Handsome and suave definitely described Joe’s brother Adam as he spun her around in the schottische, but she was pleasantly surprised to see what a fine dancer their other brother was. “I never realized you were so light on your feet, Hoss,” she said.
“I like dancin’ a lot, Miss Laurie,” he said.
“And you’re good at it,” she insisted. “I hope Bessie Sue isn’t unwell.”
“No, ma’am,” he said, spinning her under his arm. “I just ain’t partial to havin’ my toes trod on, so I asked Miss Ellen, instead. She’s lighter on her feet.”
“Ah. So who will win your heart?” she teased. “The good cook or the dainty dancer.”
Hoss grinned. “I like ‘em both, but I’m still just a boy, sowing my oats.”
She laughed. “Then you’ll never lack for oatmeal.”
Hoss guffawed so hard he missed a step, but quickly adjusted and swept her into the correct position. “Miss Laurie, there’s a lot more vinegar to you than I ever figured. Sort of helps me understand what you see in my ornery little brother.”
Laurie gave him a chiding shake of her head, but she smiled as she did. She knew perfectly well how close all the Cartwright brothers were and that Hoss fairly doted on his younger brother, so she didn’t take the label seriously. But for Hoss to banter with her like this, the way Clive always had when he was alive, made her feel like family and dream of the day—if it were ever to be—that she might call him brother.
That warm feeling of acceptance was magnified when Ben Cartwright claimed his dance, the next-to-last of the evening. “You’re looking very pretty tonight, Laurie,” he complimented smoothly, but sincerely. “I hope that young rapscallion of mine has been treating you well.”
“He’s been a perfect gentleman,” Laurie said, adding, “as always.”
Ben laughed. “Really? That was never my experience with that young man.”
“How could he be otherwise, with you as a father?” Laurie offered with a saucy jut of her chin.
“Flatterer,” Ben chuckled. “You do know how to warm a father’s heart.”
“With the truth?” she said, smiling. “For that’s what I told. He’s a fine young man, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, bowing as the music ended. “I agree, but don’t tell him I said so. I see he’s coming to claim you for the final dance.”
“It’ll be our little secret,” she assured him, leaning close.
Little Joe waved to his father as the older man moved away and then took Laurie’s hand. “What were the two of you having such a whispered conference about?” he asked.
“Oh, secrets,” she replied with a beguiling smile.
“Secrets, huh?” His forehead came to rest against hers. “Pa’s a great man, but much too old for you,” he advised softly.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered back, adding as she touched the pendant around her neck, “I know whose filly I am.”
Little Joe laughed in delight as he took her in his arms for the waltz. When the music ended, he took her arm. “Ready to go in to dinner? I hear the firemen have outdone themselves for this year’s spread—everything from oysters on the half-shell to strawberries and ice cream.”
“And I’m hungry enough to eat everything from oysters to strawberries,” she giggled.
“In that case, we’d better beat Hoss to the table,” he jibed, and she wagged her finger at him in rebuke.
Over the next few weeks the territory became increasingly aware that Little Joe Cartwright and Laurie Reynolds were a steady couple. The young man who had previously been known to escort a different girl to each community event was now seen only in her company. The eligible young women of Nevada did not greet the news with jubilation. Some offered only silent envy, sighing for opportunities lost; others loudly wondered what he saw in “that little nothing.” Such words were, of course, uttered where Laurie might be expected to overhear them, but they didn’t sting as they once would have. She had long since overcome her latent feelings of insignificance, and whatever small vestiges remained vanished whenever she remembered that the young man who could have had any woman in the territory of Nevada had chosen her.
Little Joe took a lot of good-natured ribbing from his brothers, but they seemed to gradually accept the notion that their fickle little brother meant business this time, while Ben noticed, with satisfaction, that his youngest son seemed steadier in every way. He’d always been a good worker . . . when he chose to work. Now, however, he didn’t need prodding, but did all that was asked of him, as well as occasionally helping out at the Reynolds’ place. Other than an occasional night out with his brothers or his male friends, he spent all his spare time with Laurie, generally on quiet picnics for two or church socials or, as summer passed into autumn, at high-stepping harvest shindigs.
He was saving his money, too, not squandering it in late-night poker games. Building a nest egg? Ben hoped so. Not that he wasn’t willing to set the young couple up in housekeeping, of course; he’d long since promised each of his boys a piece of land, when the time came, and that would extend to a house with all the pots and pans needed. Still, it showed maturity and strength of intention if Joseph were making preparations of his own. Ben had secretly laughed that night, months back, when his youngest had come in from repairing their fence line to declare, “Pa, I think I’m in love.” Having heard those words so often before, he hadn’t taken them seriously, but now he fully believed them and couldn’t wait for the day he welcomed his first daughter into the family.
He thought the moment for that announcement had come one autumn afternoon when Little Joe returned from Sunday dinner at the Reynolds. At first the boy had nonchalantly asked, “Hoss upstairs snoozin’?”
Ben had chuckled and nodded. Unless work was pressing, Sunday afternoons were times of rest at the Ponderosa, and Hoss frequently took his rest literally, with an old-fashioned nap, unless his younger brother trapped him into a checkers match. Adam typically lost himself between the pages of a book, while Ben preferred a quiet smoke as he turned the pages of his Bible.
That question answered, Little Joe had moved to his father’s side and asked, “Could I talk to you, Pa . . . private-like?”
Adam’s head rose, and his eyes met a significant look in his direction. “Meaning I should read in my room, I presume?”
“If you don’t mind,” Little Joe said.
Sensing that his younger brother was serious, Adam immediately closed the book, his finger holding the place. “I don’t mind.” He grinned as he stood up. “Just don’t forget to call me for supper.”
Joe grinned back. “It won’t take that long . . . unless Pa’s been takin’ lessons in long-winded from the preacher.”
“He never needed lessons in that,” Adam observed and at his father’s half-hearted scowl took the stairs at a trot.
Once Adam had rounded the upstairs corner, Little Joe, hands tucked in his back pockets, faced his father. “How’d you know, Pa?” he asked softly.
Ben arched an inquisitive eyebrow, and Little Joe uttered a short laugh at himself. “That you were in love, I mean.” Ben gestured toward the settee with his head, and Joe sat down, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees.
“It’s not much of an answer, son,” he said with a smile, “but the truth is that no one else can tell you that. When it’s right, you’ll feel it in your heart.”
Little Joe pursed his lips thoughtfully and then said, “I like Laurie, Pa; I like her a lot, but she’s sure different from other girls I’ve sparked.”
Ben’s eyebrows twitched as he recalled some of the girls his youngest had sparked over the last few years. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he observed. He paused and added with a chuckle, “So long as you like the differences.”
Joe grinned then. “I like them.” His brow furrowed. “I guess it’s just that I hear the things other folks say—girls, mostly—about her not being right for me . . . not as full of enough spice and sparkle as . . .”
“As them?” Ben supplied with an amused quirk of one side of his mouth.
Joe laughed. “Yeah. Yeah, I know that’s jealousy talkin’, but I guess it makes me doubt whether I know my own heart . . . especially when I remember all the girls I once thought I loved . . . maybe still think I loved.”
“Loved?” Ben queried. “Past tense?”
“She’s gone,” Little Joe murmured, his voice laced with pain.
Ben’s heart wrenched, and he knew instantly the girl in his son’s thoughts. “Amy,” he said with certainty.
Joe nodded mutely.
“Are you still grieving for her, son?” Ben asked gently.
Joe shook his head as his loosely laced fingers dropped between his knees. “No, I’m past that . . . as much as a person ever gets past losing someone he cared about. I just find myself wondering whether that was real love . . . or whether this is.”
“And you think it has to be one or the other?” his father asked, head cocked to one side.
Joe looked up. “Doesn’t it?”
Ben’s right eyebrow arched involuntarily, but it effectively communicated his amusement. “You’re asking that of a man who married three times?”
Little Joe laughed. “I didn’t think of that! Maybe because I always think of my mother as the love of your life.”
“As she was,” Ben agreed, “and Inger before her and Elizabeth before her.” He leaned forward to rest a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Joe,” he said earnestly. “There isn’t necessarily only one love in a man’s life . . . although it’s important that there be only one at a time!” he chuckled and then grew serious again. “I could have happily spent my entire life with any one of them, but that evidently wasn’t God’s plan. I didn’t love the others less . . . or more. Just differently.” He settled back in his armchair. “So, do you love Laurie less than Amy . . . or more . . . or just differently?”
Joe was silent for a minute and then shook his head. “I don’t know. They’re not that different, come to think of it.”
Ben nodded reflectively. “Both sweet, quiet girls . . . with just enough spice and sparkle to catch your eye . . . and maybe hold your heart.”
“You don’t think I’m just using Laurie to take Amy’s place, do you, instead of loving her for herself?” Joe said. “I wouldn’t ever want to do that to her.”
“The only way I know to find the answer is to continue courting her,” Ben advised. “Until you can answer that question, you’re not ready to think about marriage, son, because that is for life . . . or as long as God gives you together.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said, standing. “Yeah, I’ll give it some more time.” He chuckled. “I guess I’d better tell Adam he’s welcome back downstairs.”
Ben nodded. “You might want to roust Hoss out of bed, too; it’s not long ‘til supper.”
Joe laughed. “Now, there’s a change! Me rousting him out of bed!” He moved toward the stairs and took them two at time, hoping that rousting Hoss out might require a splash of cold water in the face. Such rare opportunities were not to be missed, and after all, turn about was fair play.
Hoss leaned his forearms on the top rail of the corral fence, next to the spot where his younger brother perched on it. “You reckon Adam’s got anyone special he’ll be cozyin’ up to tomorrow evening?”
Little Joe chuckled. “For the barn dance? I think older brother leans more toward city gals, Hoss. He’ll probably either ride into town or go home with Pa after he shames us all with his barn raisin’ abilities. Why? Ain’t you got enough girls on the string with Bessie Sue and Ellen without chasin’ after one of his?”
“Ain’t got them,” Hoss grumbled. “Once Bessie Sue found out I took Ellen to the fireman’s ball, she threw a hissy fit and said she wouldn’t have me on a plate.”
“Aw, she’ll settle down,” Little Joe said. “She always does.”
“Not by tomorrow,” Hoss moped.
Little Joe shrugged. “So take Ellen.”
Hoss heaved a heavier sigh. “Can’t. I ran into her pa out by the east line yesterday and he said she’s ailin’, so I was just tryin’ to figure out who might be left for me to shine up to.” He gave his younger brother a lop-sided grin. “I’m supposin’ Laurie’s spoke for.”
“Doggone right!” Little Joe laughed. “But you can have a dance or two with her . . . and there’s always old lady Brewster.”
“Thanks a heap,” Hoss grunted. The widow Brewster was seventy-five, if she was a day, and had two left feet to boot.
“Hey, here he comes,” Joe announced as a rider shot out of the chute on an unbroken bronc. “Ride ‘im, Adam!” he shouted exuberantly.
“Ride ‘im!” Hoss echoed the encouragement and leaned in to watch his older brother master the rambunctious horseflesh. The way Adam—Joe, too, for that matter—handled a horse always seemed like pure poetry to Hoss and a heap more pleasurable to read than the kind that came in books. He broke horses himself from time to time, of course, but mostly he left it to his brothers He’d never had the gift for it that either Adam or Joe did, but then, he thought with a grin, they didn’t have his gift with animals in other ways. It evened out.
The horse bucked and reared, but Adam stayed with him, his body in synchronized motion with the animal until it slowed and he swung a leg over and dropped to the ground as the wranglers grabbed the horse’s reins and led it away.
“Beautiful!” Hoss called.
Halfway to them, Adam halted long enough to make a sweeping bow and kept walking toward the fence. “Your turn, bronc buster,” he called.
“What . . . again?” Little Joe feigned shock. “Which one’s up next?”
“The bay stallion,” Adam said. “Be careful,” he added with a sober look.
“Always am,” Joe returned with a cocky grin that belied the words.
“Yeah,” Adam muttered.
“Better mind what he says, Joe,” Hoss put in. “That one’s got ways.”
Little Joe touched his hat in acknowledgement of the warning and walked toward the chute. He eased into the saddle on the stallion, wrapped the reins around his hand and told the wranglers to let him go. They did, the chute gate opened, and the bay charged into the open corral. From one side to the other, the big horse raced, bucking and rearing to rid himself of the man attached to his back, but Joe’s lithe body rose and fell with each movement.
“Pure poetry,” Hoss whispered to Adam.
“Umm,” Adam acknowledged and then called out to Joe, “Ride him! Stay with him, boy!”
“Think he’ll ride him to a standstill?” Hoss asked.
Adam shook his head. “Not that one . . . and he’d better not try.”
Little Joe, of course, was not noted for his exercise of great caution, but he had too much respect for an animal like this to bring him on too quickly. When he’d taken the stallion as far as he deemed wise for a single ride, he nodded to the wranglers, who came alongside, holding the horse steady while Joe sprang off. Just when he seemed clear, however, one of the hands lost his grip on the animal, and it sidestepped toward Joe.
Joe yelped as the stallion’s hoof slammed down on his boot, and he stumbled away, losing his balance and falling to the ground. Adam leaped the fence and ran forward, and while Hoss climbed over more slowly, he was only seconds behind his older brother as he knelt at Joe’s side. “Joe! You hurt?” the big man asked.
“Get him out of here,” Adam ordered crisply, nodding his approval of the quick way the hands had gotten control of the stallion and led him away.
Hoss scooped Little Joe up into his arms and moved toward the fence. Adam ran ahead and vaulted over the rails in time to take Joe from Hoss. He eased the boy to the ground and said, “We need to get that boot off before the foot swells . . . unless you’d rather I cut it off. Might hurt less.”
“Just pull it,” Joe grunted.
Adam didn’t waste time arguing. As gently as he could, he pulled the boot off his brother’s foot. “Hurt bad?” he asked, seeing Joe wince.
“Hurts some,” Joe said.
“Let’s get you up to the house and take a closer look,” Adam said, motioning to Hoss.
“I can walk,” Joe protested, although feebly.
“Might as well do it the easy way,” Hoss chuckled, and Little Joe made no further argument. Not a good sign, as both older brothers knew from experience. Hoss hurried his steps toward the house.
Adam ran ahead to open the door. Hoss came through and took his younger brother directly to the settee. Having heard the commotion, Ben rose from his desk and moved toward his sons. “What happened?” he demanded, fearing the worst, since with Joe, the worst was so often what he got.
“Hoss stomped my foot a mite,” Joe jibed and then grinned, adding with a nod at his brother. “Not this one, the one with two left feet.”
Adam having just peeled off Joe’s sock, Ben sat on the table and took the boy’s foot in hand, running probing fingers up and down its length. Joe grunted a time or two as Ben increased the pressure of his fingers.
Ben lowered the foot onto the pillow Hoss had conveniently provided. “I don’t think it’s broken, son,” he said, “but it’s going to be painful for a few days. Already starting to swell.”
“A few days,” Joe moaned. “I’ve only got ‘til tomorrow.”
Ben laughed. “You won’t be dancing on that foot, my boy.”
“No, nor helping with the barn raising, either,” Adam observed.
“Not fair to Laurie,” Joe muttered.
“Laurie will understand, if she’s half the girl I think she is,” his father said firmly. “You will be sitting right here tomorrow night with your foot soaking in a pan of Epsom salts, young man, and I’ll have no argument.”
Little Joe opened his mouth, thought better of it and then sighed, “Yeah.” Then he brightened. “Well, at least it solves your problem, Hoss,” he remarked.
Hoss stared at him without comprehension. “Huh?”
“Your partner for the dance,” Little Joe explained. “You’ll see to it Laurie has a good time, won’t you?”
“Well . . . sure,” Hoss said, “if’n that’s what you want. But you dead sure didn’t have to go to these lengths to get me a partner, little brother. I could have managed on my own.”
“I know it,” Joe said, smiling at last. “Just you remember, though: that little filly’s branded.”
“With the pine tree brand?” Adam inquired suggestively.
“Not quite yet,” Little Joe said, knowing what his oldest brother meant, “but branded nonetheless.”
“There’s no rush,” Ben assured him with a pointed glance at his eldest son. “It’s a lifelong decision, so take your time and be sure, son.”
“Yeah, but don’t dilly dally too long, little brother,” Hoss teased, “or some other Cartwright just might slap a pine tree on your ‘little filly.’”
“I ain’t worried,” Little Joe jibed right back. “She ain’t Adam’s type.”
“Doggone it! I meant”—but Hoss never finished his sentence because the room erupted in laughter, and even if it was at his expense, Hoss couldn’t resist joining in.
The following evening Little Joe sat in his father’s well-cushioned chair, foot soaking in a warm solution of Epsom salts, and stared into the fire with a petulant, and seemingly permanent, pout on his lips. Sulking, his father might have called it, but having seen quite enough of that expression throughout the day, Ben kept his nose buried in a book by Dickens. His youngest was a notoriously poor patient and, if anything, had gone to extra lengths to prove it today. He’d insisted, for instance, that he was quite fit enough to nail a few boards on the Peters’ barn, and when Ben had firmly said no to that, he’d been outraged to learn that his father intended to stay home with him. “Well, I can scarcely trust you to stay put, can I?” Ben had teased before pointing out that since Hop Sing was slated to help with feeding the workers at the barn raising, Joe would have been completely alone if his father went, too.
“I can take care of myself,” Joe had grunted.
“Not to my satisfaction,” Ben had retorted with a look that said the discussion was ended. Sulking and pouting had ensued for the rest of an increasingly long day.
Both men looked up, startled, when the front door opened. Only family did that without knocking, and both Adam and Hoss had left that morning for the barn raising and dance to follow. Hoss’ big frame filled the doorway, but as he stepped aside a vision in lavender silk swept past him and rushed to Little Joe’s side. Laurie dropped to her knees beside the pan of water. “Oh, Joe,” she murmured, looking at his foot.
Little Joe cringed for a moment, for this was not the picture of himself he wanted his girl to carry with her. “Wh-what are you doing here?” he asked. He turned accusing eyes on his older brother. “You’re supposed to be dancing.”
“We danced a couple of times,” Laurie assured him, laying a gentle hand on his knee. “Knowing how he loves it, I couldn’t let Hoss give it all up for me, but I’d rather be here, Joe, so please don’t scold. Does it hurt much, darling?”
Suddenly, Little Joe’s countenance fell, and the boy who wouldn’t, on pain of torture, have admitted the slightest discomfort to his father or brother, gazed at Laurie with drooping puppy eyes and nodded in mute misery. “Oh, you poor thing,” she soothed. “May I see?”
Again, to the amazement of both Ben and Hoss, Little Joe nodded meekly and let her lift his foot from the water and begin to stroke it with skillful fingers. “That doesn’t hurt too much, does it?” she asked as she continued the massage.
“No, it feels . . . better,” he said, “but I’m dripping all over your lovely silk.”
She smiled. “It’s just cloth,” she said. “It’ll wash.”
“There’s a towel,” Ben said, gesturing toward the table.
“Oh, yes,” Laurie said. “I see you’ve thought of everything, Mr. Cartwright.”
Not quite, Ben might have said, for he hadn’t foreseen the girl’s appearance. Something about it, though, seemed so right. He sat back, reminiscing, for the scene of domestic tranquility took him back to fireside moments with each of his wives. Simple moments like this were what marriage was for, though he was sure younger men probably thought that what went on in the bedroom was the sole substance and purpose of marriage. The physical bond was important, to be sure, but the communion of soul with soul that was happening before his eyes surpassed even that, and he rejoiced to see it happening for his son.
“Hey, how ‘bout I pop us some corn?” Hoss suggested.
“That sounds lovely, Hoss,” Laurie said. She smiled up at her sweetheart. “And if you’re feeling up to it, Little Joe, maybe we could have a game of checkers.”
Halfway to the kitchen, Hoss halted. “Best watch out for that scoundrel, Miss Laurie,” he warned. “He cheats.”
Laurie looked lovingly into Joe’s face. “He won’t cheat me.”
“Never,” Joe promised, and it was obvious to everyone in the room that he wasn’t talking about checkers.
Though not seriously injured, Little Joe’s foot continued to plague him for the next couple of weeks, so his courtship with Laurie took a quiet turn. In the first days she visited him at the Ponderosa, and as the soreness began to wane, he’d ride over to the Reynolds’ place for supper. Consequently, they weren’t alone much, but these were opportunities to grow better acquainted with each other’s families. Laurie began to loosen up, and the ease she’d felt immediately with Hoss soon extended to the more formidable Ben and Adam, as well, while Little Joe developed a genuine appreciation for Tom Reynolds, a man of character as strong as his own father’s.
Chores, including breaking the horses for an Army contract, had piled up, but Joe worked hard to get caught up, mostly schooling the horses his older brother had already broken. Still, it was mid-November before he felt that he could request a few days off. “I need to ride over to Sacramento,” he told his family as they gathered around the massive fireplace one evening after supper.
Hoss had hooted, while Ben and Adam stared in incredulity. Finally, Adam cleared his throat. “Surely, the date on the calendar has not escaped you,” he suggested pointedly.
“No, I know it’s late,” Joe said.
“Too late,” Hoss grunted.
“He’s right, son,” Ben said. “You don’t want to risk being trapped on the wrong side of the Sierras.”
“I’ll be fine,” Little Joe insisted, “and it’s important.”
“What’s that important?” Hoss demanded.
“Christmas presents,” his younger brother said bluntly. “You want something nice, don’t you?”
“I’d a sight rather have you here, safe and sound, than anything you could buy me,” Hoss snorted.
“It’s not us he’s thinking of,” Adam suggested astutely.
Ben arched an eyebrow, knowing instantly that his eldest son had pegged it right. “I’m sure Laurie will be quite content with whatever the merchants of Virginia City can supply.”
“But I wouldn’t be,” Little Joe pressed, squatting beside his father. “I—I have something special in mind, something I saw last time we were in Sacramento.”
“The necklace?” Adam inquired with a sly smile.
“Yeah,” Joe grunted, head swinging toward his older brother. “I know you said it was inappropriate…”
“Then,” Adam interrupted with emphatic emphasis on the word. “It was too early in your relationship for such an expensive gift.”
“But not now,” Little Joe challenged.
Adam gave him a barely perceptible nod. “Not now . . . but you don’t need to go to Sacramento.”
Joe’s nostrils flared. “Mind your own business, Adam.”
Adam laughed abruptly. “That’s precisely what I am doing.”
Little Joe’s brow wrinkled. Sometimes there was just no understanding his book-dazed older brother. Maybe he only meant that his younger brother’s safety was his business . . . in which case, it really wasn’t . . . but what was funny about that, anyway? With a dismissive shake of his head, Joe turned back to his father. “Pa, I promise. I’ll ride straight there, make my purchase at the jeweler’s and head right back home.”
Adam cleared his throat loudly. “That would be pointless.” He paused only a moment before adding, “It isn’t there.”
Joe’s head did a slow swivel. “How can you know that?” he asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion.
Adam chuckled. “Because I bought it.”
Little Joe leaped to his feet. “You bought it! Knowing I wanted it? I come to you for advice and you discourage me and then buy it out from under me?”
“Not precisely,” Adam said with a sharp arch of his eyebrow. His lips pursed into a half-smile, half-smirk as he waited for the light to dawn on his volatile little brother.
It did, slowly. “You bought it . . . for me?” Little Joe asked hesitantly.
Adam nodded. “Took a chance that your fancy wasn’t fickle this time, so, as you see, this particular purchase is my business . . . since you’ll be making it from me.”
Hoss was the first to break out laughing, followed by Ben and finally Adam himself. Little Joe smiled sheepishly and thanked his older brother for saving him a long, cold and ultimately fruitless ride to Sacramento.
“You sure you wouldn’t rather handle this by yourself?” Little Joe asked as he helped Laurie down from the wagon seat.
She planted a palm on each hip. “Little Joe Cartwright, you’re not backing out on me now!”
Little Joe flicked a nervous glance at the austere building before them. “I wouldn’t want to scare the kids, when they’re used to just you.”
“Scare the kids,” she scoffed. “You’re the one who’s scared. I never took you for a coward, Little Joe.”
“I’m not,” he protested. “I just ain’t so sure I’m cut out for this sort of thing.” His face brightened suddenly. “You know who would be great, though? My brother Hoss; he’s got a real knack for managin’ kids, and he’d be glad to do it, too. Let’s—”
“You’re here, and he’s not,” Laurie interrupted stubbornly. “That makes you the man for the job.” She pointed at the orphanage. “Now, git!”
No one in Virginia City would have believed that quiet little Laurie Reynolds could cow any man, much less a Cartwright, into submission, but Little Joe meekly moved toward the stone steps.
“Wait,” she called, laughing as she added, “You forgot the box of goodies, my little Santa.”
Little Joe groaned as he moved to the back of the wagon. “You ain’t talkin’ me into sportin’ red underwear for that job!”
“Certainly not,” she said, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “Hoss really would be the man for that.”
He looked up in expectant hope of reprieve, but seeing her shake her head, he scowled and hefted the box from the wagon. “Lead on,” he said with a sigh of resignation.
“Hiding behind a girl’s skirts, are you?” she teased.
“All the way,” he grinned back.
They entered and made their way to the dining hall, which was decorated with paper chains and holiday shapes cut from colored paper. A tall tree stood at one end, its boughs garlanded with popcorn and gilded nuts from a local merchant. “Now what?” Little Joe demanded as he set the box down on a table near the tree.
“Use the ribbon and tie the horns and whistles to the branches,” Laurie ordered. “I’ll tie on the dollies . . . unless you’d rather.” She wagged a pocket-sized doll in front of his nose.
“Horns and whistles suit me fine,” he said. He touched the little doll with admiration. “You did a nice job.” While the boys’ toys were donations from another merchant, he knew that Laurie had made most of the dolls herself, from inexpensive handkerchiefs, yet her artistic flair made them lovely, almost angelic little creations.
She blushed at the praise. “Just see to it you do a nice job,” she ordered lightly.
He lifted his hand in salute. “Yes, ma’am!”
They worked side by side, alternating boys’ and girls’ gifts until they were all on the tree. “Perfect,” she declared when they’d finished. “See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“That ain’t the part I was bothered by,” he grunted. “It’s what to do when all the little rowdies come runnin’ in.”
She laughed heartily. “Oh, my goodness, Joe! You act like you’d never been around a child before.”
“I’m the youngest,” he muttered. “I was the one givin’ out all the experience in that department.”
“I’m sure you did!” she declared. Then she laid an encouraging hand on his shoulder. “You know perfectly well that the Ponderosa hosts a party for the orphans every year at Christmas Eve. You must have…”
“Left all that to the older folks,” he finished morosely.
Lips held in a taut line, she shook her head. “Then it’s high time you did your part.” With calm authority, she took his arm. “Don’t worry: I’ll protect you.”
“You’d better,” he said, looking completely serious. When the “little rowdies” did come rushing in, he flinched in wild-eyed terror, but Laurie hurried forward to meet the children, kneeling in the floor and letting them throw their arms around her and chatter their news since her last visit. Little Joe swallowed the boulder in his throat and stepped cautiously forward. Laurie smiled at him and suggested that he tell the boys about the time he’d won the Founders’ Day footrace against so many older and bigger boys. The boys, especially the youngest and smallest, hung on Joe’s every word, and the older boy soon forgot his own insecurity in the face of their open acceptance.
“You were wonderful with them, Little Joe,” Laurie praised as they walked back to the wagon later that afternoon. “You’ll make a fine father someday.”
“That what this was? A test of my potential as a father?” he asked, trying to keep his voice playful.
“Oh, of course not,” she scolded, grabbing and shaking the lapels of his green jacket. “I always knew you’d make a wonderful father.”
“Always?” he asked softly, bending over so his lips hovered close to her own.
“Always,” she said, smiling as she stepped back, for she didn’t intend to put on a kissing performance for the young faces pressed to the windows inside the building. “At least, since I first met your father. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say.”
“I’ll never live up to that,” Little Joe said seriously. “Pa’s the best there is.”
“Mine, too . . . and Mama,” Laurie said, “but as long as we aim for heights like that, I think we’ll do all right.”
“Yeah,” Little Joe murmured. “I think we just might.”
Noise filtered through the front door of the Ponderosa, as furniture was pushed back to open the floor for the dancing to follow, but it couldn’t compete with the racket out in the yard. There, the children from the orphanage were piling into hay-filled wagons for the long drive back to town. Most of them would be asleep before they crossed the Ponderosa boundary, but they’d been treated to a fine Christmas Eve celebration with the best food they’d eaten—well, since the same party last year. They each clutched a paper horn filled with candy, and each claimed a hug or kiss from Laurie and Little Joe before they’d consent to mount their wagon, the bigger boys demanding a handshake, to preserve their manly dignity.
The process took a long time, so when the young couple finally stood alone beneath the stars, music had already started to drift through the door left ajar for their return. “The dancing’s started,” Laurie whispered with a fond look toward the house.
“Let’s not go in just yet,” Little Joe said softly.
She laughed lightly. “It’s cold out here, Little Joe.”
“Then let’s go into the barn,” he suggested and then laughed at her surprised expression. “I promise to be a perfect gentleman,” he said with a smile.
“I trust you,” she said, stepping into the crook of his arm.
“We won’t stay long.”
“I could stay forever,” she said, laying her head on his shoulder, “but I suppose . . . for propriety’s sake . . .”
His cheek caressed the top of her silky head. “Umm . . . I suppose.”
They entered the barn, and he lighted a lantern; then he stood admiring her in the soft light. “Beautiful,” he whispered.
She gave her lavender skirt a rustling swish. “Is this the dress you meant?” she asked, referring to his whispered direction at church the previous Sunday to “wear something purple” to the party.
“Anything that color,” he replied with a mysterious smile. “I wanted it to match this.” Slowly, he drew from his pocket a small box and presented it to her. “Early Christmas present.”
“Not much early,” she laughed, referring to the lateness of the hour. She took the box in her hand, looking somewhat abashed. “I slipped yours under the tree.”
“I know,” he said, “but I wanted you to have this tonight . . . for the dancing.”
“Oh, it’s a fresh dance card,” she teased, knowing full well that no such formality would be practiced tonight. “Is it already filled out with your name on every line?”
“Open it,” he whispered.
She untied the ribbon and lifted the lid of the small white box. “Oh, Joe,” she gasped as she lifted the silver chain and let the necklace dangle from her fingers. “It’s beautiful . . . so delicate.” Amethysts formed a cluster of tiny grapes, topped by a curling silver vine with a couple of tiny emeralds, suggesting leaves.
“Like you,” Little Joe said. “I wanted it for you the minute I saw it. Just had to wait awhile before I could.”
In recognition of the costliness of the gift, sparkling eyes gazed lovingly into his own. “I should say you shouldn’t have,” she murmured, “but I’m so glad you did. I love it, Little Joe. Help me with it?”
He took the necklace and, stepping behind her, fastened it around her neck. “I love you,” he whispered, lips brushing her neck. Turning her toward him, he pressed his lips against hers.
“Joe,” she sighed, sinking into his embrace. For a moment . . . an eternity, they rested in each other’s arms, drinking nectar from each other’s lips, and then, still in disbelief that this long-cherished dream could be coming true, she drew back slowly. “We should go back in, if I’m to show off this beautiful treasure.”
“We should,” he agreed, although he looked as reluctant as she. Then he added with a laugh, “Before your pa comes after me with a buggy whip.” He slipped his arm around her and led her from the barn. Stars seemed to twinkle in approval in the clear sky above, reflected in the eyes of the young couple moving toward the warmth and music of the house.
Little Joe’s mouth gaped open as Laurie removed her woolen cape and handed it to him. “That’s new,” he babbled. She’d already had the cape on when she’d walked into her parlor earlier, so he hadn’t seen the dress until now, and it was stunning, far and away the richest fabric he’d ever seen her wear.
Laurie touched the cluster of amethyst grapes at her throat. “I wanted something worthy of this,” she murmured, eyes dipping shyly for just a moment and then rising frankly to gauge his reaction. “It matches better, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yeah,” Joe said dreamily. He was no great hand at matching colors, but even he could see that this deeper shade of violet suited the necklace better than the lighter lavender silk she’d worn a week before. “It’s . . . elegant. Matches your eyes, too.”
Laurie laughed. “Isn’t that why you chose amethysts, to match my eyes?”
“Maybe,” Little Joe said with a wry smile. “I just thought they looked like you, so . . . yeah, maybe that’s what was tickling the back of my mind.”
She cupped his face between her hands. “You are such a man,” she chided playfully.
“And you are such a woman,” he leaned close to her ear to whisper. “I love this on you,” he said, touching the necklace, “but I sort of miss my brand.”
“Ride over any day of the week, and you’ll see it,” she said. Her finger touched his, which still rested on the cluster of grapes. “This is special . . . for parties, but I love wearing your brand . . . every day.”
He almost asked her, there and then, to wear his brand, the name of Cartwright, every day for the rest of her life, but a public dance floor was not the setting he wanted for that conversation. Suddenly subdued, he asked, “Shall we dance, my love?”
Color rose in her cheeks, for he’d never used that particular endearment for her before. Somehow, it seemed more intimate than his usual “sweetheart” or “darling,” or “my filly,” his favorite designation. Had she known that Little Joe had always heard his father address his mother as “my love,” the term would have carried even greater significance. As it was, she was still so overcome by emotion that she could only whisper yes, but as he led her to the dance floor, he didn’t seem to notice the unaccustomed apprehension that flickered in her adoring eyes. It was only there for a moment, however, and they spent the night dancing in each other’s arms, with him surrendering her to other partners only as often as propriety dictated.
Neither had much appetite when the New Year’s Eve ball ended, so they barely touched the refreshments and left early. “Tired?” Little Joe asked as the buggy entered the foothills after crossing the valley from town.
She shook her head. “I wish this night could never end.”
He smiled at her. “Ah, but then how could the new year begin?”
“Even so,” she whispered and fell silent, as she had been for much of the drive toward home.
He moistened his suddenly dry lips. “I only asked because I was wondering if you’d mind swinging by the lake. It’s . . . beautiful in the moonlight.”
“I’d like that,” she said, though he had to lean close to hear it.
They traveled up into the hills, again in silence. “You’re very quiet tonight,” he said.
“I’ve always been quiet,” she said, looking at the surrounding trees as if they were the most fascinating scenery she’d seen in her entire life.
Not this quiet, he might have said, but that wasn’t the conversation he wanted to have. He decided to follow her example and save his words until they reached the lake. When they arrived, he helped her down and they walked along the shore for a few minutes, savoring the soft lapping of waves on the sand and the moonlight reflected on the water rippling toward them. Finally, he stopped and turned to face her. “I’ve been thinking about the new year,” he began.
She smiled. “Making resolutions?”
“Something like that.” He took her hand. “I want this year to include the day I make you mine. I’m asking you to be my wife, Laurie.”
Her free hand flew to her lips. Suddenly pale, she stepped back. “Oh, Joe, I . . . I should have known, should have seen this coming, but I didn’t think . . . I hoped . . . it wouldn’t be . . . quite . . . so soon.”
He looked dumbstruck for a moment. In all the months they’d spent together, he thought he’d learned to read her heart, but this had taken him completely by surprise. “You need more time to think about it?” he asked slowly.
Tears filled her eyes as she shook her head. “I can’t marry you, Little Joe. Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Being turned down by any girl was something he’d never experienced; to be turned down by this one, something he’d never expected. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I thought you loved me.”
“I do,” she sobbed, “with all my heart.”
“But you don’t want to marry me?” He shook his head in confusion.
“Of course, I want to marry you!” she cried. Her next words were barely audible, because she’d buried her face in her hands, but he heard them. “But I can’t.”
He pulled her hands away. “Is it your pa?” he asked.
She gasped, amazed that he’d so quickly discerned the problem, and nodded in silent misery.
“You don’t think he’d give his consent?” Little Joe asked anxiously. “Has he said so? ‘Cause I thought him and me were gettin’ along just fine.”
No, he hadn’t discerned anything, after all, Laurie realized. Her eyes sought the heavens, seeking help in explaining what she was feeling. “I’m sure he’d consent,” she said. “He thinks the world of you, Little Joe.”
He exhaled in frustration. “Laurie, try making sense,” he said bluntly.
“I’m not sure I can,” she admitted. “My feelings are all twisted inside, torn two directions at once.”
“Well, let’s sort them out together then,” he said gently, reaching out to stroke her hair with a soothing hand. “Just tell me what you’re feeling. What two directions are you talking about?”
She calmed down a bit, though tears still shimmered in her eyes. “I love you; I want nothing more than to marry you, to make a home for you, to bear your children, to grow old together, but . . . I don’t think I can be that selfish.”
“Because . . . of . . . your pa?” He was trying to piece together what she’d said, but so far nothing made much sense.
She nodded miserably. “He’d be all alone, Little Joe, all alone in that house.”
He closed his eyes in pain. “How long have you been feeling this way?”
Tears streamed down her face now. “Just this week. I was so—so blinded by love before that I didn’t think of anything but my own happiness. It was something he said Christmas Day, about this probably being our last Christmas together, that set me thinking, but it really wasn’t until you asked me just now that I knew I couldn’t do that to him.”
“Aw, Laurie, we’d see him every Christmas,” Little Joe said. “We wouldn’t let him spend that day alone.”
“I’m sure of that,” she said, “but it’s not just the holidays.” Her eyes pleaded for understanding. “Don’t you see? With Mama and Clive gone, he’d be alone, every day, once I left.”
He stepped closer and took her hand. “Laurie, do you honestly think your father expects . . . or even wants . . . for you to give up your own happiness, just to stay home and take care of him? ‘ Cause that sure isn’t the man I’ve come to know.”
She shook her head. “Of course, he wouldn’t. But he’s given so much to me, my whole life, and it’s selfish of me to put my happiness above his need. I just don’t think I can.” Each word of the final sentence came more slowly than the one before.
Little Joe rolled his eyes in frustration. “Laurie Reynolds, you are the most pigheadedly unselfish person I’ve ever known.”
“Joe,” she protested.
“No, you listen to me now,” he insisted. “It’s a problem, I grant you, but if we marry—and I do know that, for you, it’s ‘if’ right now—we’re gonna face all kinds of problems. Every young couple does, but they solve them—together—and so can we.”
For a moment hope sparked in her eyes, but then she dropped her gaze to the ground. “I don’t see any solution,” she whispered.
Little Joe pressed her hands tightly. “Me, either, right now, but we’ll find one. I promise we will.” When she still kept her veiled gaze downward, he reached out and lifted her chin. “Laurie, do you trust me?” he asked tenderly.
“Of course, Little Joe . . . with my life!” she cried.
The left side of his mouth quirked up in a quizzical half-smile. “Just not with your father’s?”
Her response was the one he least expected: she laughed. “Oh, Joe, when you put it like that . . . I am being foolish, aren’t I?” Laughing again, this time in relief, she flung herself into his arms. “Of course, I trust you! With my life . . . with the lives of our children to come . . .and with my father’s.”
“That’s my girl,” he said, holding her close. “Look, I know I don’t feel the kind of love for your father that I feel for my own . . . yet . . . but I do care about him. I wouldn’t want to see him hurt and alone any more than I’d want that for Pa. We’ll work it out—and it’s not like we’re movin’ off to San Francisco or some such place.”
She drew back, holding his hands and smiling up at him. “I believe you.”
He pulled her a step closer and gazed earnestly into her upturned face. “So, will you wear the Cartwright brand . . . ‘til death do us part, little filly?”
“Your brand’s been on my heart a long time,” she said, “and I’ll be proud to wear it where the whole world can see . . . from now until forever.”
He took her in his arms again and pressed his lips to hers with the fervent heat of branding iron against sizzling flesh, while waves splashed at their feet and the cool moon above bathed them in a glow almost as radiant as that which shone in their eyes.