The Journey (by Sherri)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,200


“Pa, I’m not sure if sending Joe alone is such a good idea,” commented Adam, as he gingerly pulled himself from his seat.

“Adam, we’ve already discussed this. You can’t go anywhere for the next week with that bruised tailbone,” Ben explained, as he watched Adam struggle to stand up from the settee.

“Dang it, Pa. I was looking forward to this trip. Who do you think arranged it in the first place? Me! Now I have to stay, while Joe goes.” Shooting a glare over at his youngest brother, Adam looked over to where Joe sat intensely studying an apple in his hand. “Joe and his shenanigans!”

Joe’s head shot up on mention of his name, defending himself he stoutly replied, “Hey now, if you had been looking where you were going, you would have never stumbled on those marbles!”

Throwing his hands up in the air, Adam spat out in disgust, “And what is a nineteen-year old man doing with marbles out on the floor?”

“I already told you that, Adam,” sighed Joe, as he took another bite of his apple. Laying the apple on the side of the hearth, he strode over to where Adam hovered next to the settee, and offered his arm to assist Adam, but stopped when another glare was darted his way. Holding his hands up in a motion of “okay” Joe moved away. “I found those marbles buried away in Hop Sings kitchen, and the bag was so frayed that when I walked through the living room the bag broke, spilling the marbles everywhere. Then that is when you decided to come barging in through the front door, not even bothering to listen to my warning.”

“What warning?” Adam snarled, whipping his head around to stare at Joe.

“Well,” admitted Joe as a smile stole across his face, “I was about to warn you, but a marble slipped under your foot before I could tell you. Besides, I’ve already apologized.” Leaning against the side of the settee, Joe watched as Adam slowly walked from the settee to the steps, as though he had a saddle tucked between his legs.

“It’s not funny, boy,” Adam growled as he dropped the word boy out of his mouth with distaste. Looking up the stairs, Adam put one foot on the bottom step and in a howl of pain put his foot back down on the floor. “PA!”

Sighing to himself, Ben pulled himself from his comfortable seat and walked over to Adam, helping him back away from the stairs. “What do you need, son?”

Reluctantly accepting Ben’s help, Adam slowly moved away from the stairs and headed back to the settee where he lowered himself back on the cushions. Trying to be extra careful with his backside, he frantically motioned for Joe to push the circling of pillows towards him. Sliding the pillows over, Joe quickly moved out of Adam’s way as his body slowly descended down onto the settee. Settling down, Adam didn’t say anything as he adjusted himself on the pillows. Feeling a little bit better, he let out a big breath of air, finally answering Ben’s question. “I was going to go upstairs and get a book.”

“What book?”

“Dante’s Inferno,” replied Adam, as he leaned his head on the back of the settee.

“Joe, would you go upstairs and get Adam’s book,” Ben instructed, as he moved away from the settee and settled back down into his chair.

Just having sat down on the hearth, Joe couldn’t help but whine. “Why me?”

Throwing a look of impatience his way, Ben requested again, “Just do it. Joe.”

Rolling his eyes, Joe turned away and placed his apple on the side of the table before making it over to the stairs, where he took them two at a time. Returning from Adams room, he was descending the staircase with a book in hand, when Hoss pushed the front door open. Walking over to the side of the settee, Joe watched as Hoss came over to where he stood.

“Pa,” announced Hoss as he looked over at Joe holding a book in hand. His attention redirected, he looked at the book in Joe’s hand, and read it. With a puzzled expression on his face Hoss couldn’t help but ask, “Mary Sue’s Wild Adventure. What’s that about, Joe?”

“Don’t know Hoss,” Joe grinned as handed the book to Adam watching as he turned a deep shade of red, “it’s Adam’s book.”

“Adam?” questioned Ben having already guessed it was reading material out of the ordinary for his eldest.

Stuttering for an answer, Adam would open his mouth and then just as quickly shut it while Joe stood next to him looking as pleased as a cat that ate a canary. Looking up at Hoss, Adam attempted to redirect the conversation away from him. “Say Hoss, do you have the horses ready for town?”

“Yup,” Hoss replied. Then looking at Ben, he remembered what he came inside to say. “I hooked up the buckboard Pa. It’s ready to go whenever you are.”

Nodding, Ben stood up from his chair, deciding to hold off the question about the book until later. Walking over to towards the door, he turned to Joe and asked, “Do you have your bag ready?”

“Yes sir, got it over there by the door.” Throwing a glance over to Adam, he couldn’t help but throw a jab in, “Be careful, though; I’d hate for two of you to be sitting there with a bruised tailbone.”

“Ha ha,” answered Adam from the settee. Grabbing a pillow, Adam uttered a low moan from moving abruptly on the seat as he aimed it at Joe, watching with pleasure Joe’s expression as it landed dead center in his face.

Ready to retaliate, Joe picked up the pillow from the floor and was prepared to throw it when he heard Ben clearing his voice. Looking over at the impatient face of his pa, Joe instead tossed the pillow over to the chair and followed Ben out the door. “See ya in a few weeks, Adam!”

Listening as the door slammed shut as they left the house, Adam muttered under his breath, “Damn kid.”

*****

As the Overland Stage coach pulled up into Virginia City, the occupants in the nearly full stagecoach peered outside to see who else was going to join their cramped quarters. Standing next to the office, three men immediately caught their attention. The tallest of them was a big fellow with a white hat on who was hugging the shortest of the bunch, a young man with a trim yet muscular figure, clothed in a green jacket and tan pants. This same young man then turned and gave the man with salt-and pepper hair a big smile. The older man in turn gave him a quick clasp on the shoulders, before pulling him into a hug. As the older man turned towards the coach, everyone on board could see the bright smile on the older man’s face as he said something to the young man. Almost intrigued with the by-play, they watched the younger man as he turned around, and one could hear the soft gasp from a girl in the coach as she saw the green eyes flashed towards the coach. Trying to get comfortable in her middle seat of the coach, she watched as the same man, reached into the coach and plopped down on the bench across from her.

Settling down in his seat, Joe leaned out the window and waved to his family. “Bye, Pa! I’ll see ya in a few weeks; and Hoss, take good care of my horse, ya hear?” Leaning back, he quickly leaned forward again, “Oh and tell Adam, I’m sorry about the marbles.”

As the stagecoach moved away, Joe could feel someone stab a finger in the side for him to sit back. Turning around, Joe saw that it belonged to a rather large man whose belly seemed to swell over his belt. Looking up into his face, Joe could sense that the man already had a certain dislike directed towards him, even though he had just sat down in the coach. The man’s beady dark eyes matched his dark hair, while his hair looked as thought it was in the process of balding in the back. Glaring at him, Joe leaned back into the coach, and settled as best as he could on the hard seat and began to look around the compartment of the coach. Glancing quickly around the interior of the stagecoach, Joe counted six passengers, with him being the seventh. Out of the three females, it was the youngest one that captured his attention. With light brown hair, he was able to catch a glimpse of reddish highlights in her hair as the sun would drape across it from the windows of the stagecoach. She sat between two other women. The woman on her right had her hair tied tightly above her head in a severe looking bun and was struggling with a squirming child sitting in her lap. The child looked to be about seven years old, and apparently didn’t like her mother giving her a spit bath, washing the dust off of her face. On the other side of the bench, there was a woman who looked in age to be much older than the other two women. Wearing a soft yellow dress, the scowl on her face destroyed any feelings of friendliness that Joe may have directed towards her. Snapping at the youngster sitting next to the big man on Joe’s left, the woman glanced at Joe before directing her attention to the big man next to Joe. Not able to completely see the youngster to his left, Joe guessed that he was about 10 years old.

It wasn’t long before Joe began to feel the pressure from the large man beside him squeezing him into the hard wooden wall of the coach. Trying to squirm in his seat, Joe groaned to himself when he thought of the rest of the trip being in such quarters. Deciding that a little conversation would help pass the time away, he turned to the youngest of the women.

“Afternoon ma’am,” Joe nodded as he flashed a bright smile her way. “My name’s Joe. Joe Cartwright.”

Shyly looking at Joe, the girl fingered the edges of her sleeve as she softly replied, “Afternoon.”

“And,” prompted Joe. “Your name is?”

Lifting her eyes at him, she whispered, “Carrie.”

“Well Miss Carrie, I’m glad to meet you,” complimented Joe, as he turned to greet the others in the coach. But when his eyes would meet the other women, they would glance away. Giving up on the opportunity to be friendly, Joe continued his conversation with Carrie. “I’m headed to Wells to check out some horses that my brother Adam had heard about. He and I were supposed to be traveling together, but he ain’t going, because, well…” Laughing, Joe stopped for a moment. “Let’s just say, he had an accident and will be unable to sit down comfortably for awhile.”

Watching Joe’s laughing eyes, Carrie couldn’t help but smile. Feeling a little more relaxed, she took a quick glance towards the man beside Joe as though asking permission, before introducing the rest of the coach to Joe. “The gentleman next to you is Mark Simmons, otherwise known as Papa Mark.” Then motioning towards the young boy on the other side of him, she continued, “and that is Mark junior, Sarah’s boy.” Pointing to the older woman next to her, she explained, “This is Sarah, Mark junior’s mother.”

Nodding, Joe listened intently as she continued to introduce him to the other members of the coach. “Next to me, this is Esther, and in her lap is her daughter Dilly.” Looking around her, she nodded in satisfaction of having satisfactorily introduced Joe to the members in her coach. Feeling very relaxed, she and Joe then continued to talk and laugh, never realizing that the man beside Joe sat watching them with a deep scowl on his face.

“Where are you headed?” Joe asked as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a sack of beef jerky.

Answering Joe’s question, she watched as he opened the bag in his hand. “We’re traveling to Utah.”

“Good, then we get to ride together until we get to Wells,” Joe answered as he opened up the bag. “Utah won’t be too far on the other side of Wells. You ever been to Utah?”

Shaking her head in response, Carrie’s attention was diverted when she was offered some beef jerky from Joe’s sack.

”What is this?” she asked, as she sniffed at the object, while the others in the stagecoach ignored Joe’s offer of jerky.

Laughing, Joe explained, “This is beef that has been dried. It is great for when you can’t stop and eat, easy to travel and carry.” Hearing a gasp, Joe turned to see the one named Esther throw her hands up to her mouth.

“We aren’t stopping?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” answered Joe. “After the stop in Virginia City, the stagecoach driver wants to make it to the station house before nightfall so he can rest the horses and give us a place to spend the night.”

Opening her mouth, then shutting it, she tried hushing the cries of her daughter’s plea for food. Turning her eyes towards Joe, she reluctantly asked, “Do you mind if my daughter could have a piece of your jerky?”

“My pleasure, ma’am,” Joe replied as he opened the sack, offering it to the youngster. Watching as her cries slowed down to a whimper, she reached into the bag and pulled out a piece of jerky before climbing back onto her mother’s lap.

“Thank you, sir,” Esther replied, as she cuddled her child, shaking her head when Joe offered her some jerky for herself.

Leaning back in his seat, after finishing off his piece of jerky Joe could feel his eyes getting heavy as he rested his head on the hard surface. Drifting off to sleep, the next thing he could feel was the jerk of the stagecoach as it pulled to a stop. Slowly opening his eyes, he peered out the window and just in front of the stagecoach he could see a corral of horses ready for their next journey on the stage line. Yawning, Joe stretched as best as he could in the cramped space and reached over to open the door. Pushing it open, he stumbled out of the coach and turned back around to help the ladies down. Feeling someone shove him aside, Joe whipped around and saw the large frame of Mark pushing him aside. Protesting, Joe sputtered in indignation then decided it wasn’t fighting for, as long as someone was there to help the ladies down. Moving away from the coach, Joe picked up his bag and bedroll from where the driver had tossed it to the ground, before he turned his attention to the station house. Groaning, he could tell it was a small building, and as he pushed the door open could count two bedrooms off from the main room. Looking out a window, Joe could see a creek off in the distance and decided that fresh water for the evening would be nice. Placing his belongings inside, he looked around both inside and out for a pail, and found one leaning against the building. Grabbing it, Joe walked out just as the women and Mark were entering the building. Moving out of their way, Joe waited until they were inside before walking down to the creek. He was on his way towards the creek when he heard the door swing open and someone call out his name.

“Joe!” Turning around, he saw that Carrie was running towards him, her skirt dancing up dust from beneath her feet. “May I go with you?” she asked, as she caught up with him.

Grinning down at the woman before him — panting slightly from the exertion it took to join him — he turned to look at her, then replied, “I’d be delighted.” Then he took her hand and placed it in his own and led the way down the hill. “Let’s go get that water.”

Talking on the way down to the creeks shore line, Joe found out what Carrie liked and disliked, discovering that she grew up in California while she shared with him many of her dreams for the future, while he shared with her his own family and dreams of his own. Setting the empty bucket down, Joe rested his right foot on it as he looked into Carrie’s face. Her greenish-blue eyes were glowing with excitement as she tilted her face towards his, almost in anticipation to what was to come. Bending down slightly, Joe rested his lips onto the soft full lips of Carrie’s and shared a brief, yet passionate kiss.

Hearing a noise in the distance, Carrie looked over Joe’s shoulder and could see Mark standing in the doorway looking at them with rage. Whispering into Joe’s ear, she pulled away, “I’m sorry, I need to get back inside.”

Pulling her back towards him, Joe couldn’t resist planting another kiss on her lips before releasing her. Watching as she walked back towards the station house, Joe made sure she made it safely inside before turning back towards the water. Dropping to his knees, Joe dipped his hands into the water, splashing some onto his face and neck before sinking the bucket into the water. Standing up Joe stretched, trying to get some of the kinks out of his back. Catching a glimpse of a shadow behind him, he turned to see who it was when he felt a sudden jarring pain on the back of his head, before darkness overtook him.

*****

Groaning, Joe slowly opened his eyes and could feel the rough material of a couch beneath his body. With a moan, he remembered the blow to his head. Moving his body, he grabbed his head as the sudden movement sent a flare of pain through his head. Stifling a groan, Joe couldn’t help but grunt as he tried to sit up and look around the room. Smelling the light smell of daisies flood his senses, Joe could feel the tender touch of someone probing his head. Letting out a yelp at the pressure placed on a swollen spot, Joe reached out and grasped the hand, following it up the body, and looked into the blue eyes of Carrie.

“Carrie,” Joe sighed, as he released his hold on her hand and leaned against the cushions on the couch, “what happened?”

Dipping a cloth in a basin of water, Carrie squeezed out the excess water and gently placed it on his head before answering. “I don’t know, Joe. You were taking so long bringing in the water, and Dilly was begging for water that I went out to see what was holding you up.” Watching as Joe squinted his eyes in pain, she released the hold on the cloth and wiped away the blood from his thick hair, “When I went out there, you were laying down by the water. I tried to wake you up but there was no response, so I found Mark, who told me to get the stationmaster.” Dropping the cloth back into the basin, she was about to go through the process again, when Joe again grabbed her hand.

“Who hit me?”

“We don’t know, Joe,” she replied, concern lacing the edges of her words. “There was no one around, and you were out there for quite some time.” Tilting her head sideways, Carrie looked into Joe’s face, “You are looking a lot better than when I found you outside.”

Pushing her hand away from his head, Joe tried to think beyond the headache that was pulsating through his head. The last thing he remembered seeing was a dark shadow of someone, before he fell unconscious to the ground. Grabbing hold of the cloth, he squeezed the water from it and placed it on his head as he pushed himself from the couch. Walking over to the door, he saw that darkness had already fallen, and any evidence he might have been able to collect this evening would have to wait until morning. Sighing to himself, Joe looked over to where Carrie sat, watching Joe with a puzzled look on her face. Smiling briefly, Joe walked back over to the couch and sat down next to her. Leaning his head back, he let his eyes roam over her face, capturing the look of her kissable mouth as she chewed the inside of it in nervous worry.

“Where’s everyone?” Joe asked, as he looked around the room, noticing for the first time the lack of people.

Waving over towards one of the bedrooms, Carrie explained, “Esther is putting down Dilly and Mark junior for the night, and Sarah is in the bedroom with Mark.”

Nodding, Joe glanced over to the table. “Did you already eat?”

“Yes, but I saved you a bowl of stew,” Carrie said, as she stood up. “Hardy, that is our stagecoach driver, is sleeping out in the barn and he has already eaten. And Pete, the stationmaster is out there also.” Fumbling around at the table, she found a clean spoon and napkin and laid it aside as she uncovered the bowl of stew for Joe. Watching as Joe made an attempt to stand up, she waved him to sit down. “Just stay there; I’ll bring the food over to you.”

Enjoying this attention, Joe didn’t need to be told twice. Plus, the sudden movement to stand up had caused him to get a bit dizzy for the moment. Sinking back down into the couch, Joe watched as she puttered around the kitchen before returning to where he sat.

“Here’s your spoon,” offered Carrie as she handed the utensil to Joe. Watching as he positioned himself on the couch, Carrie handed him the bowl of stew before moving back into the kitchen. Feeling the eyes of Joe on her as she worked, she had to admit to herself that she was enjoying the attention of this young man. It was making her feel so feminine once again, like a woman instead of a little girl in dress up. Smiling to herself, she thought back on the kiss that they had shared down at the creek that is until she saw Mark standing by the house glaring at them. That old pompous fool, she thought; why can’t he leave her alone! With the thoughts going through her mind, she faintly could hear the sound of a spoon clattering into an empty bowl. Turning around, she saw that Joe had just finished his soup, and was in the process of trying to get up from the low couch.

“Oh no you don’t!” Carrie protested as she quickly moved to him and swiped the empty bowl from his hands, placing it on the table next to him. With the other hand, she gently pushed him back on to the couch watching as he grabbed her waist, bringing her down next to him. Feeling safe in his arms, Carrie felt so relaxed she could have sworn she could have easily sat there for the rest of her life.

As he felt Carrie’s weight rest against him, Joe was having trouble fighting the sleep that threatened to take over as he leaned his head on the back of the couch. Muttering more to himself than her, he said, “You are so soft and smell so good.” Placing her hand into his, Joe rubbed her fingers but soon that stopped as he drifted off to sleep, his relaxed head falling from the back of the couch before it slipped onto Carrie’s shoulder. Joe was in such a deep sleep that he never heard the door creak open from Mark’s room, nor did he see the dark look of anger on his face when he looked over and saw the comfortable position that Carrie was in.

Hearing a growl from across the room, Carrie opened her eyes, and could feel a shudder run through her body as she saw Mark peering at her. Squirming away from Joe, she pulled her hands from his and carefully laid his head on the couch, while she quickly moved away from the couch. Trying to whisper to Mark, the words got stuck in her mouth as she watched his hand swing down and clamp down onto her shoulders.

“Get into that room with Esther and git to bed!” he roared, not caring who was asleep in the house. Looking over at the sleeping form at Joe, Mark uttered a low oath as he stormed back into his room. Watching as Carrie rubbed her sore shoulder, he made sure that she was in her room with the door closed, before he slammed his own door shut.

Hearing the sudden noise, Joe jerked awake and looked around him. Blinking his eyes, he sat up abruptly, disoriented. There was no one around and all the doors were shut. Shrugging his shoulders, Joe reached over, grabbing the wet cloth and placed it on the back of his neck. With the headache from earlier intensifying, he walked over to his bag and bedroll, and shook loose the bedroll before carrying it back over to the couch. Not even thinking that perhaps he should sleep in the barn, he quickly stretched and rolled his shoulders before sitting back down on the couch. Letting the damp cloth fall to the floor, he loosely wrapped the blanket around his body as he pulled his legs up on the couch and lay down. Within minutes he was asleep.

It didn’t seem like but minutes later when Joe could feel something bouncing up and down on his legs. Groaning, he struggled to open his eyes as he tried to capture whatever it was that was pulling him awake. Opening his eyes to a sliver, he saw the slight frame of a young girl crying out, “Ride the horsey!” as she bounced on his legs.

Feeling the bones in his knee’s jammed together in succession, Joe couldn’t help but complain, “Ouch!” Leaning up and opening his eyes fully, he was able to recognize the young girl as Dilly, Esther’s daughter. Not completely awake, and cranky from this unusual wakeup call, Joe waved for the girl to get off his legs. “Not now, Dilly,” he requested, as he tried to clearing his voice, gritty from the lack of use.

“That’s right Dilly,” bellowed Mark, “let the little boy get his sleep.”

Feeling the hair on the back of his neck bristle from being called a boy, Joe sat up and glared at the man across the room. Sitting at the table with the women bustling in the kitchen, Mark was sitting there barking out directions as to how to cook his food, not bothering to help in any way. Getting up from the couch, Joe was pleased to note that the pain in his head had subsided to a point that he could hardly tell it was there. Running his fingers through his hair, he snatched his bedroll from the couch, then reached down and picked up his bag from the floor before pulling the door open and walking outside to take care of his needs. After he finished, he glanced down towards the water, when he remembered that he had planned on looking around for footprints. Stacking his bag and bedroll against the side of the house, Joe went down the hill and stopped next to the shore of the creek. Not seeing anything out of the ordinary, Joe leaned down onto his haunches to try and get a closer look of where the prints should have been. Strange, he thought, I don’t see any footprints. Standing up, Joe looked around him when he thought back to what Carrie had told him. She had come down to the water to get him, and tried to revive him. Unable to do so, she went and got Pete, the stationmaster to bring him in. If that was the case, then where were their footprints? In fact, where were his? The more he stared the more frustrated he became as he realized that whoever it was had wiped clean all the footprints. The only person Joe could think of who would have any thing against him would be Mark, but why? Puzzled, Joe sat there a little bit longer until he heard the driver calling out for everyone to load back into the coach. Standing back up, Joe stretched then walked back up the hill and retrieved his belongings. Scratching the back of his head, he looked once more towards the creek before he shrugged his shoulders, realizing that he wouldn’t find out now who it was at this point.

As he looked inside the cabin, Joe could tell that all the food preparation was cleaned up and put away. Seeing an apple inadvertently left on the table, he walked over and grabbed it, stealing a bite from its crunchy body as he heard the call from Hardy to load up. As Joe approached the stagecoach, he watched as Mark stood to the side, not bothering to help the ladies into the coach, rather barking orders out behind them to hurry up and get in. Shrugging his shoulders, Joe waited until everyone was loaded before he tossed up his belongings to Hardy and climbed into the coach.

“Morning, Carrie, ladies,” Joe greeted as he found himself once again on the other side of the big man. Rolling his eyes to the cramped quarters, he was tempted to suggest riding up on top, when he caught a glimpse of Carrie. This morning, she had taken time to brush her hair up from her face, allowing tendrils of curls to frame her delicate face. Smiling, Joe pushed aside any thoughts of leaving the coach and decided that sitting next to Mark was worth the discomfort.

With her eyes flickering over to Mark, Carrie bit the bottom of her lip as though trying to decide if she should say something. Finally, she opted to speak, “How are you doing this morning, Joe? How is your head?”

“Much better, thanks to your good nursing skills,” Joe replied, flirting with her as he reached his hand to the sore spot on his head. “My headache is gone.”

Lowering her eyes as she felt the intense glare from Mark, Carrie shut her mouth tightly, while Joe watched her with puzzlement on his face. “Are you okay?”

Nodding, she didn’t dare look into his eyes, knowing that his mesmerizing green eyes would pull her back into conversation. Hearing him laugh, she couldn’t help but look up. Trying to stifle a grin, her grin broke free as it became a smile while she watched Joe try to get Dilly to pull her thumb from her mouth. Watching his antics, she broke in laughter. Looking up at Carrie, Dilly pulled out her thumb and giggled, while pointing at Joe’s faces.

Relieved that the mood in the coach had lightened somewhat, Joe still could feel the strange mood in the coach and felt a little reluctant to start a conversation. Looking out the window, he let his mind wander as he watched the sights outdoors. Watching the trees as they flew by, Joe, already exhausted from the previous day’s journey and from the hard knock on his head, didn’t fight the sleep that threatened to overtake him. Resting his head on the hard side of the coach, he couldn’t help but wish for the soft shoulder of Carrie to lean his head on. With a smile on his mouth, he drifted off to sleep.

Several hours later, Joe was slowly waking up when he felt the stagecoach slow down. Yawning, he looked out the window and saw in the distance the frame of an old house, with a rickety old well barely standing in the front yard. Feeling the stagecoach pull to a stop, Joe stretched his arms forward before pushing the door open and putting his foot out. Before he could take another step out, he could feel a hand press against his back and shove him out of the coach. Sprawling to the ground, Joe’s temper was raised when he saw the big body of Mark towering over him. Picking himself from the ground, Joe stood before him and demanded an answer, “Why did you push me?”

Barely even looking at him, Mark answered, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then he turned his back to Joe and helped the ladies and children from the coach.

Clutching his hands in a fist, Joe was ready to punch him. He knew he was lying, but Joe had to admit that was without proof; he didn’t want to start a fight, especially with ladies in their presence. Wiping off the dust from his pants, Joe stalked off and went towards the well. While he threw down the bucket, he felt the presence of Carrie standing next to him as he began to draw up the bucket from the well.

“Joe, are you okay?”

Putting the bucket on the side of the well, Joe tossed some water on his face and neck before turning to answer her. Feeling his body and temper cool off some, he turned to face Carrie. Just by looking into her calm blue eyes helped to soothe his raw nerves. “Yeah. I guess I just didn’t like the idea of being bullied.”

As they leaned against the well talking a few more minutes, Joe looked up and could see Mark sitting down on an upturned bucket, staring at Joe and Carrie. Keeping his eyes on Mark as he stood up, Joe turned to Carrie and asked, “What is the deal with that man? He is either always glaring or provoking me. I know he doesn’t like me, but I can’t figure out what the deal is.”

Touching Joe on the shoulder, Carrie began to speak, “I may know why, Joe. He…” Suddenly her eyes widened at the sight of Mark coming towards the two of them. Feeling his strong hands dig into her shoulder, she watched with shock as his big, flabby hand went flying through the air and slapped her fully in the face. Shocked, Carrie could feel the tears welling up in her eyes as she reached her hand up to her face and felt the stinging sensation on her cheek. Turning her eyes towards Joe, she watched in horror as he flung himself at Mark, swinging his fist at the large beefy man.

As Joe swung his fist into Mark’s face, he was fighting with the anger of a man who didn’t like to see a woman hit. The size of Mark didn’t concern him; it was the principle of the matter. Feeling his hand connect to the man’s jaw, Joe threw another punch into his stomach while Mark was caught off guard. Unfortunately, those punches were the only ones that made an impact on the big man. Pushing Joe from him, Mark stood to his full height and with a roar rushed towards Joe. Tripping over a bucket on the ground, Joe fell to the ground just as Mark’s massive frame followed him to the ground. Placing well-planned hits to his face, side and stomach, Joe was soon gasping for breath while trying to block the flurry of blows. Finally, the one sided-fight was over, leaving Joe on the ground writhing in pain. Rolling over to his side, he grunted out as he watched Mark grab hold of Carrie. Dragging her over to where Joe lay on the ground, he shook her as he yelled, “You stay away from my wife, you hear!” Then lifting his foot, he kicked Joe in his side as he shouted to Carrie, “You mess with him again, and I’ll give you the same medicine I’m giving him.”

Feeling the pulsating pain reverberate through his body Joe couldn’t help but be stunned by the words tossed to him while he lay sprawled on the ground. Stay away from my wife? What the heck? The thoughts swirled in his head, as he tried pushing himself from the ground. Groaning in pain, he could taste blood in his mouth. Spitting out onto the ground, Joe spit out onto the ground saliva and blood as he checked with his tongue to make sure all his teeth were intact. Man, Joe thought as he worked his mouth into a grimace, that guy has a powerful fist. Reaching up with his left hand, he could feel the tenderness on his jaw and the split lip that was sending the blood into his mouth. Shaking his head, he moaned again at the pain that seemed to saturate every pore in his body. Wrapping his arm around his chest, Joe slowly sat up and looked around the area. Nothing had changed, yet it seemed like it should have with such a revelation. Barely standing on his two feet, Joe began to notice the two children who were looking up at him with a slight look of pity on their faces.

Watching as Joe began dabbing at the cuts on his body, the young girl, Dilly spoke up. “Mister Joe, my papa don’t like you none messing with Aunt Carrie.”

Puzzled, Joe just stared at her, while the word papa swirled in his head. Rubbing his forehead, he tried to make sense of what the little girl was telling him. “Who is your mama?”

“Esther, and Carrie is my auntie, and Sarah is my auntie also.”

“Wait a second,” Joe panted. The pain in his side was killing him, but he was equally determined to figure out what was going on. “Who is your pa?”

“Why Papa Mark!” she answered, while stomping her foot on the ground with indignation. Pointing to the older boy, she tried to explain, “That is my cousin Mark, and Papa Mark is his pa to.”

“But who is his mama?”

“It’s Sarah.”

Total confusion seemed to be the name of the game within Joe’s head. It was bad enough that the pain from the fight was hampering his senses, but it seemed like things should be clicking better. Looking at the two faces in front of him, Joe could distinctly pick out the characteristics of Mark in each of them, and it was then that everything made sense. The candle inside his head was lit, when he recalled an earlier conversation with Carrie about them going to Salt Lake City. The Mormon’s had founded the city, and although there were some marriages that were plural, not all practiced the idea. At one point there was a push for plural marriages, something he recalled about getting them saved. However, Joe personally had never come upon a family quite like this. Standing there with his eyes on the children in front of him, Joe couldn’t help but shake his head. Here he was flirting with a married woman. A third wife but married none-the-less. But even so, Joe didn’t regret the fight because in his mind, no woman deserved to be hit or treated roughly by a man. Pushing himself from the well, Joe slowly limped towards the house while feeling the stares of the children on him. Hearing the voice of a child behind him, Joe lurched to a stop and turned to face Dilly.

“Are you going to be our Aunt Carrie’s second uncle?”

Staring at the young child, Joe couldn’t say a word other than to shake his head. Saddened by the thought that a child at such a young age had to experience this life, he moved away and headed towards the house. Not hearing any noises coming from the house, Joe slowly pushed the door open and looked across the room to see Carrie sitting at the kitchen table, her face turned away from him. Limping over to the table, he caught his breath a moment as he lowered himself into the chair next to her. Breathing heavily for a moment, his chest began to ache as he leaned over to speak, “Carrie, I’m sorry for bringing this on to you, and for kissing you. I didn’t realize you were married.” Even though she still had her face hidden from him, Joe couldn’t help but see the tremors coursing through her body as he spoke, “Carrie, please look at me.”

With a sob, Carrie shook her head, refusing to turn around. Grabbing hold of her shoulder, Joe immediately let go when he heard her cry out in pain. Not even thinking of hiding, she turned around to grab hold of her sore shoulder, allowing Joe to see her face. Gasping out, Joe could see that her left eye was swollen, and within hours he made a pretty good guess that it was going to be black and blue. He also noticed that she had a knot developing on her forehead, along with a split lip. Empathy immediately went out to her as he dug into his pocket for his handkerchief. Pushing away from the table, Joe groaned slightly as he stood up and walked over to the kitchen counter. Finding some stale water in a cup on the counter, Joe brought the cup back over to the table. Stifling any noise from his mouth, Joe gingerly sat down at the table and dipped his handkerchief into the water. Wringing it out, he began to dab at her lip before she pulled her head away.

“Don’t do that, please,” Carrie gasped, as she felt the pain radiating across her face.

“Carrie,” Joe asked, as he looked into her eyes, still grasping the wet cloth, “did he do this to you?”

“Joe, just leave me alone,” Carrie begged, as she tried to move away from him. “I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve made. You were beat up because of me.”

Gently pulling on her arm, Joe was just as determined to be heard, “Carrie, you did nothing wrong out there for you to be deserved to be hit like that. No woman deserves to be hit by a man.”

As Carrie turned away from Joe, he could barely hear her answer as she carefully dabbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her dress, “I got you hurt. You weren’t supposed to get hurt; I just enjoyed the attention you were giving me.”

“Carrie, please don’t apologize for what happened out there. Has he done this type of thing before to you?”

“It doesn’t matter, Joe. Please let it go.”

“But it does matter, Carrie!” Joe insisted, as he reached for Carrie. Feeling his ribs cry out in pain, Joe cursed his injury as he bent over in a gasp of pain from his side. He could still feel the powerful strength of Mark’s fist pounding into his chest, stomach and face. He didn’t even want to imagine how it must have felt for Carrie to experience his fist. Joe was a man and was able to fight back, but with Carrie it was a different matter all together. Pulling himself back into an upright position, Joe reached over and gently touched her on the cheek, as he continued, “He has no right to hit you like he did. Please, let me help you.”

Trembling from the touch of Joe’s hand on her cheek, Carrie looked up into the dark expressive green eyes of Joe’s and stammered out a reply, “But I can’t Joe. I’ll belong to him and become his property.”

Cursing, Joe couldn’t help but want to shake his finger at the brainwashed girl sitting across from him. “Confound it girl! You are no one’s property! What happened to the strong girl who I’ve been speaking to these past few days; you deserve better than this! You can fight back.” Frustrated with Carrie’s apparent lack of interest to fight back, Joe began to say something else when he felt his shoulder caught in a crushing squeeze by a powerful hand. Feeling tears run to his eyes from the pain being inflicted upon him, Joe tried to squirm out of the stronghold.

“Leave my wife alone, boy! Told you once, and I ain’t telling you again!” Digging his nails farther down into Joe’s shoulder, Mark released his grip on Joe when he went over to where Carrie sat and pulled her from her seat. Making a move towards Carrie, Joe could see the pleading eyes from Carrie as she begged him not to do anything.

“I’m fine, Joe. Really I am.” Forcing a smile on her face, she reached up and began to caress Mark’s arm as she followed him into a back room. The door slammed with the sight of Carrie’s white face looking up into Mark’s face.

Staring at the door, Joe dropped his gaze. Feeling the pain in his shoulder throb where Mark’s hand had been, Joe clutched his side while he used his free arm to push away from the table. Seeing Esther and Sarah knitting in the far corner, he made his way over to where they sat. Trying to start a conversation, he noticed that anything he said was ignored, or they would just look away. Giving up, Joe limped over to the kitchen and went fumbling through the shelves, until he found what he was looking for — a first aid kit. Carrying it with him over to the kitchen table, he carefully lowered himself into the chair and opened the box up. Rifling through it, he located some ointment and bandages. Treating himself, he was just checking out his ribs, and was letting out a sigh of relief at the knowledge that he had no broken bones, when he heard a noise coming from the bedroom. Puzzled, he looked over towards Sarah and Esther, both of whom had strange looks on their faces. The noise in the room became louder, with the sounds of a woman crying intermitted with a moan. Standing up, Joe made a motion to go into the room, when Esther cried out.

“Don’t go in there!”

Stopping in his steps, Joe took another glance towards the door before turning to face the women, “Why not?”

“Because she’s getting what she needs.”

“You mean, he’s hitting her again?” Joe asked, as he began clinching his fists.

“No, she’s getting what she needs, I said. She’s getting hers now, but it’ll be our turn again when he’s finished with her.”

Standing next to the closed door, Joe could hear the sounds coming from within the room and suddenly realized what they were talking about. Feeling a deep blush spread across his face, Joe stepped away from the door and walked over to the front door. Pulling the door open, he heard Carrie cry out once again as though she was in pain, but in light of what he had just heard, he walked outside, closing the door none to gently behind him.

*****

Sitting with his back leaning against the well, Joe sat chewing on a weed while tossing loose pebbles into the pail of water. By not moving around much, he could barely feel the spots where bruises were sure to develop. Hearing the cry of laughter from the children behind him, Joe thought back to his trip. From the moment he met and talked with Carrie, she had never made an indication that she was married. Disgusted with the fact that he even kissed the woman, he had to admit he had no regrets for his fight with Mark. The man had no right to hit any woman. Feeling the sun move from its hiding place from behind the well, it pushed Joe into a state of relaxation. Just as he was nodding off, he could hear the call of the stagecoach driver.

“Come on everyone! Time’s getting’ late and if want to get to Wells before nightfall, we gotta get a move on now.”

Pushing himself from the ground, Joe stretched out his legs feeling the pull of his muscles as he walked towards the coach. Hearing the door to the house creak open, he turned to see Esther and Sarah calling out to the children, followed by Mark. Next to the big man stumbled Carrie, her hair hastily pushed down around her face as she struggled to straighten up her skirt. Limping slightly, she walked over to the stagecoach and settled down onto the seat, ignoring everything around her. Waiting for the ladies to climb in, Joe nodded as they went past him, helping the youngest child to reach the step just out of her reach. Seeing that Mark had already pushed himself into the coach, Joe groaned to himself when he saw the small spot next to the wall left for him. Squeezing into the spot, it felt like to Joe the air from his body was being squeezed out, as the fat around Mark’s body seemed to settle onto Joe. Clutching his side, Joe moved as close to the wall as possible; when he looked up, he noticed that Carrie sat directly across from him. Smiling at her, he realized with a sigh that she hadn’t even acknowledged that he was in the vehicle. Not even paying attention when the stagecoach driver slammed the door, Joe could barely hear as the driver settled into position on top of the rig and started the horses forward.

Feeling the repetitious movement of the stagecoach, Joe could tell that the movement was affecting Carrie pretty hard. Watching as she grimaced at each bump, Joe couldn’t help but ask. “Carrie, are you okay?”

Biting her lip at one particular hard bounce, she nodded as she replied in a stiff voice, “Yes. Thank you for your concern, but I am well.”

Not very satisfied with the answer, Joe again asked the question just as a particularly hard bump threw Mark against him. It felt as though the man was throwing all his weight against him, which in turn was squeezing him tightly against the wooden walls of the coach. Already bruised up, Joe couldn’t help but let out an “OOPF!” as another bounce sent Mark plowing Joe into the wall. Realizing that if this kept up, he would end up with bruises all over his upper body, and at the moment he wasn’t sure if his bruised ribs could handle much more. Just as the stagecoach went over another particularly bouncy spot, Joe was ready, and with both arms clutched around his ribs, he leaned forward just as Mark went sideways, pounding himself into the wall of the coach without Joe there to ram into. Sitting there with a slight grin of satisfaction, Joe looked up into Carrie’s face and was able to catch a shadow of a smile across her lips, before it flitted away.

After riding like this for several miles, all the occupants in the coach sighed with relief when they heard the stagecoach driver holler out, “Wells three miles ahead!” Suddenly a violent sound of wood breaking echoed throughout the cabin. Without further warning, they felt it as the stagecoach shuddered along the road, before it tumbled to its side, sending the passengers inside topsy-turvy and flung out the open doors and windows. Rolling twice from the speed it was traveling, it came to rest upside down with all its wheels gone, except for one, spinning out of control.

Having been tumbled numerous times within the coach, Joe slowly moved his arms and legs, relieved to find them still attached — sore, but unbroken. Unfortunately, as he crawled from the coach, he discovered the same couldn’t be said about his ribs. Apparently, his fight with Mark earlier in the day hadn’t bruised his ribs but rather cracked them, and then this tumble in the stagecoach had succeeded in doing what Mark had been unable to do — break them. Gasping for breath, Joe leaned against the coach and fought the dizziness and pain that seemed to swirl around him. How he ended up being the only one kept from being tossed from the coach, he didn’t know. Looking around him, he could see debris from the stagecoach littering the ground, and scattered from the road to where he stood.

Hearing a sound in the distance, he could just make out the staggering shape of Hardy, the driver, moving towards him. “Yoo-hoo!”

“Over here!” Joe called out as he reached his hand up to wave. Realizing the stupidity of that, he had to pause to pace the pain out of his breath. Pressing his hand against his chest, he slowly walked over towards Hardy, meeting up with him near a boulder where Joe leaned against it listening as Hardy wheezed out the story.

“We wus going so fast that I never saw that damn log across the road. The horses made it across, but we cracked an axle. Saw them horses racing for town, so’s I expect someone should be along soon to help us.” Shaking his head, the driver surveyed the damage across the area. “This is my first wreck with this stagecoach line, and I damn well hope it will be the last.” Looking over at Joe, he peered into his face, “How ya doing?”

Grimacing slightly, Joe replied, “Busted ribs, and a bit banged up, but otherwise fine.”

“You sure?” Hardy questioned, as he eyed a cut just above Joe’s eyebrow. “Ya gotta nasty cut on your head.” Looking around, he suggested, “I’m gonna go look and see who made it besides us.”

Nodding, Joe reached up with his hand and dabbed at the cut on his forehead before bringing his hand down to eye level. Surprised to see blood on his fingers, he still didn’t feel the pain associated with it. Shrugging his shoulders, Joe pushed off from the boulder and tried to help out with the search of the area. Off to the left of the coach, Joe could see Hardy helping up Esther and two of the children from the ground, although it was apparent that the boy had a broken arm from the way he was clutching at it. Dilly, crying heart out, sobbed for her mama as her mother sank back to the ground in a faint. Knowing that Hardy had it handled; Joe followed the path back up to the road, and as he turned back around, could see the shape of a body hidden beneath the luggage near the stagecoach. Slipping down the hill towards the stagecoach, Joe cried out in pain as he tried to ignore all the areas of pain that ran throughout his body. Stumbling over to the coach, Joe slowed and he looked down at the body hidden beneath a mound of luggage. Half-fearful of what he was going to find, Joe moved aside some luggage and let out his breath, as he peered into the hateful eyes of Mark. Snarling and cursing, Mark was struggling to push aside the luggage that was pinning his legs down.

“My legs are pinned! Move the damned luggage away!”

Glancing down to the luggage, Joe saw that there was nothing trapping Mark. The luggage was not there. Looking back towards the man, Joe struggled to find the words to tell the man. “There is no luggage; there is nothing holding you down.”

As he continued to struggle in his captive state, Mark finally calmed down enough to look down and with surprise saw that what Joe said was true. Shooting a glare at Joe, all the man’s pent up anger exploded. Pounding his fist towards the sky, he began to curse and cry out. “Why am I being punished for the sins of the young!” Dropping his hand down, the big man turned his attention towards Joe. Pointing his finger at Joe, he spit out his anger, “YOU! It is your fault! You tried to steal my wife, you God-forsaken son of a b….”

Hearing a cry behind him, Joe turned away from Mark’s litany and saw the stagecoach driver bringing Carrie towards them. Cuts slashed across her face, but after the beating earlier that day, it was hard to tell what was from the accident and what was not. Watching as she cradled her wrist in her arms, Joe could tell that she also had not escaped without injury. Meeting up with Hardy and Carrie next to the stagecoach, Joe pulled her from the stagecoach driver’s hands and wrapped his arms around her shoulders as he asked, “Carrie, are you okay?”

Nodding, she looked into Joe’s emerald eyes as she replied, “I’m fine, Joe. My arm hurts, but how are you?”

Giving her a crooked smile, he groaned as he moved. “My ribs are a bit sore, but other than a few scrapes and bruises, I think I’ll live.” Grinning down at her, his eye’s saddened briefly when he remembered all the events that had happened that day.

Touching Joe on the arm, she smiled as she looked into his face. “Joe, I want to thank you for your help earlier.” Carrie began, as she wiped a tear away, “I’ve decided a few things from our talk that I want to share with you when we get to town.”

“Why don’t you tell me now?”

Answering with a tinkling of laughter in her voice, she replied, “I would, but I would rather wait until we are some place a little more comfortable.”

From his position on the ground, Mark fumbled around in the luggage as he watched with a growing dissatisfaction the behavior of the youngsters before him, primarily Joe who he knew was stealing Carrie away from him. Finding the luggage, he was searching for, he threw open the latch and reached in as far as he could go for the hard object buried deep within. Pulling it out, he cocked the trigger on the small pistol and aimed it directly at Joe.

Looking over her shoulder, Carrie caught a glimpse of the glare of metal from Mark’s pistol as the sunshine shined upon it. Watching as he aimed the pistol towards Joe, Carrie cried out as she grabbed hold of Joe and flung herself in front of him, staring into Joe’s eyes. With a gasp of pain, she felt the bullet as it traveled through her body, until it rammed into her heart. After that she felt nothing more as her body slumped lifelessly in Joe’s arms.

Puzzled at the cry of alarm coming from Carrie’s mouth, Joe looked up and over Carrie’s shoulder as he looked towards Mark in horror, recognizing the sound of a pistol firing. It was then that he realized that Carrie had thrust herself in front of him. Feeling the sting of pain, as the bullet lodged itself into his shoulder, he stared into the lifeless blue eyes of Carrie as he felt himself sag against the stagecoach in pain before sliding to the ground, releasing his grip on the girl. Lost in a world of pain, Joe could hear the distant report of gunfire as he looked at Carrie, lying still in front of him. Joe watched in a daze as the blood oozed from the wound on the left side of her chest, before being soaked up by the fabric of her dress. Vaguely hearing noises around him, in a fog he lifted his head and saw several men on horseback looking down at him. Feeling the hands of someone lifting him up, he couldn’t help but cry out in pain the jarring of his ribs and the bullet in his shoulder. Listlessly he watched the trees pass by him as men carried him by his arms and legs to the buckboard. Feeling his head being laid on the floor, he watched with no words in his mind as someone laid a blanket over him and spoke to him. Not recognizing what was being said, Joe could feel his head spinning from the torture his body had been put through. Someone brought one of the children into the buckboard, and as they sat down, they jarred his right shoulder causing him to give one more cry out in pain, before he fainted dead away.

*****

“Pa!” Joe cried out as he stretched. Having just woken up, he was surprised to see the figure of his pa on the edge of his bed. “What are you doing here?”

Wiping his nose in a hidden motion of a scratch, Ben shifted his position on the edge of Joe’s bed. “We received a telegram from the sheriff here in Well’s about the accident and shooting. I came as soon as I could.”

“You certainly got here fast.”

“Fast?” Puzzled, Ben looked down at his son. Putting his hand on Joe’s forehead, he noted that his fever was nearly gone, although by his shifting on his bed he was still obviously in pain with his ribs. “You’ve been ill for over a week. I didn’t get here until two days after the accident.”

Incredulously Joe asked, “A week?”

Nodding his head, Ben placed his hands on his knees as he stood up, “Yup. In fact, that has given Adam more than enough time to get healed and join us here in Wells. He’ll take over now, and see about those horses.”

“But, Pa…”

Holding his hand up, Ben expected a response, “No. My mind is up, there will be no discussion regarding this.” Reaching down, he straightened up the covers on Joe’s bed as he moved away from the bed, prepared to leave the room, “You need to get some rest now. I’ll be back in later.”

Shifting on his bed, Joe could feel the pressure from the bandages on his chest digging into his skin. Rolling his shoulders, he was quickly reminded of the gunshot wound as pain swept through his shoulder. “Pa, wait a second,” Joe asked. “What happened to the others in the stagecoach?”

Turning around from the door, Ben paused. “What do you know son?”

Grunting as he turned his head towards Ben, a grimace crossed his face as he bit his lip to keep the pain in. “I know that Carrie was shot…” pausing briefly, he continued, “after she stood in front of a bullet that was meant for me.” Looking down at his hands, Joe could still see the blank look on Carrie’s face just after she was shot an image that haunted him even in his dreams. “It killed her instantly, Pa; I don’t think she felt any pain.”

Nodding, Ben took a few steps back to Joe’s bed, laying a comforting hand on his arm. “The men who came upon the horses on the road immediately came to the scene of the accident. From what they reported, they fired at a man by the name of Mark a second too late. But, even so, the gunshot they fired killed him instantly.”

Still shaken up by the visions in his head, Joe could see the image of Carrie as the bullet had entered her body. One minute her eyes were a vivid blue and full of life, and then the next, empty. Gone. Trying to shake the image from his head, he asked, “What about Esther, Sarah and the children?”

“They are doing well. Mark junior had a broken wrist and a banged up ankle, while Esther had a few internal injuries, but she is expected to live also.” Looking down at Joe, Ben became concerned at the sweat that had developed on his upper lip. Grabbing a rag from the table, he blotted Joe’s face as he continued, “Sarah had a badly broken arm and fractured her leg, but the youngest child Dilly escaped with no broken bones, just bruises and scrapes.”

Taking it all in, Joe fiddled with his covers before turning his head up to look into Ben’s face. “You know, we all lived initially from the crash. If Mark hadn’t been filled with so much rage, everyone would have lived.”

Watching as Joe licked his lips, Ben reached over to the desk next to Joe, and poured a small quantity of water into a glass. Sliding his hands behind Joe’s head, he carefully held him as he set the glass against his son’s lips and watched as he drained the glass. Hearing Joe whisper his thanks, Ben knew that his son needed his rest. “Sleep well, son, and I’ll be by later this afternoon.”

Not even hearing the sound of his pa leaving, Joe drifted off to sleep.

Closing the door behind him, Ben leaned against the door in a sigh of relief. From all that he had heard of this trip, he was relieved that Joe had escaped with his life. Looking up from his musings, he saw Adam leaning against the pole just outside the doctor’s office. Opening the door Ben went out and joined his eldest son. “Adam, how’s your…?”

“Don’t even start with that one, Pa,” Adam asked as he pulled away from the post. Watching as Ben opened his mouth again, Adam continued, “Yes I saw the doctor and he said I was fine. Can we drop the subject now?”

Smiling, Ben wrapped his arm around Adam’s shoulder and went towards the hotel to meet Hoss for lunch. Seeing his middle son down the street, he saw that he had a small child with him. As they walked closer, Ben greeted him while asking, “Hoss, who is this pretty young girl?”

“Pa, Adam, I’d like you to meet Dilly Simmons. She was on the stagecoach that crashed with Joe and the others inside.” Bending down to Dilly’s height, he pointed up to the men standing in front of the young girl. “Dilly, this man here is my pa.” Then pointing to Adam, he introduced them, “And this man in black is my brother Adam.”

Watching as the men tipped their hats to her, the little girl giggled. “You as funny as Joey.”

Laughing, the men couldn’t help but smile at the sound of Joe’s name coming from the mouth of this young child. Ruffling the top of her hair, Ben had to ask, “Would you like to see Joe, and your mama perhaps?” Seeing the tears well up in her eyes, Ben couldn’t resist bending down to hug her. Looking up at Hoss, he asked, “Where did you find her?”

“She was hiding out behind the stable. I heard what sounded like an animal crying, and went around to check and ended up finding her.”

Reaching his hand out towards her, Ben offered, “Why don’t we take her to lunch with us, then we can head back to the doctor’s office so she can be with her family.”

Picking the little girl up in his strong arms, Hoss carried her to the hotel’s dining room and chatted with her as the rest of his family ordered the food. During the course of the meals, they found what happened in the days that Joe was gone. Suddenly eager to speak with his son, Ben pushed away from the table and held his hand out to Dilly. “Miss Dilly, would you like to go with me to see Joe and your mama?”

With a big grin widening across her face, she eagerly slid down from her chair and went around the table, grasping hold of Ben’s hand. “Oh yes sir, please can we please do that!”

Smiling, Ben nodded at the men still eating at the table. “I’ll see you fellows later. Adam, why don’t you take Hoss out with you to see about those horses?” Then glancing down, he made sure his hand was clasped with Dilly’s as he led the way out of the dining room.

All too soon, Ben stood in front of the doctor’s office, and through the window he could see that the doctor was at his desk. Pushing the door open, Ben led Dilly into the room and greeted the doctor. “Evening, doctor.”

“Evening, Mr. Cartwright,” the doctor replied, looking up from his paperwork. Seeing the young child with Ben, he turned his attention to her. “And how are you doing, Dilly? Do you feel okay?”

Plugging a thumb in her mouth, Dilly just nodded at the doctor’s questions. Seeing that he wasn’t going to get any replies from her, the doctor stood up to face Ben. “Her mother is doing well, and has already been up and walking. Sleeping now, but should be rested enough to see her daughter in awhile.”

Nodding, Ben listened, as he pulled the doctor aside. “I was wondering, doctor, if I could take Dilly in to see Joe. There are some things that she told my sons at lunch that I that would like to clear up for Joe.”

Briefly nodding, the doctor led the way into Joe’s room. Seeing his patient’s eyes open, the doctor moved to the side of the bed and sat down on the bed next to him. “And how is my patient doing this afternoon?”

Tossing a glance towards Ben, Joe replied, “I’m great. When do you think I can leave this place?”

Smiling, the doctor answered his question with a chuckle. “I’ll tell you what. Let me check you over and then I’ll give you the answer to that.” Pulling the covers down from Joe’s chest, he arranged them so that he could have full access to his upper body. Probing Joe’s ribs, he could tell that the bones were setting correctly even though the pain was still there, watching as Joe tried to hide a grimace. Once his ribs checked out fine, the doctor guided his hands towards the gunshot wound and after a few grunts at the progress of it, he turned and put his hand on Joe’s forehead.

Standing up from the bed, he switched his glances between both Joe and Ben as he answered the question on their faces. “I expect him to be in bed at least another week or two, preferably two, before he can even expect to get up. If I need to find the biggest and toughest man from the saloon to do that, I will hire him.” Turning to Joe, he explained, “I don’t want any of those ribs puncturing your lungs or spleen before you are ready to get up. Besides,” he continued with a smile on his face, “all my beds are taken up. I need a place to sleep!” Then turning to Ben’s little guest, he guided Dilly over to Joe’s bed. “You have a visitor here.”

Thanking the doctor, Ben turned his face back to Joe, watching as the mixed emotions from seeing this child spread across his face.

Reaching down to her, Joe patted her on the head. “Hi there, Dilly.”

“Hi, Mister Joe,” she whispered as she looked up into Joe’s face. “My auntie Carrie was telling the truth when she said you had pretty green eyes.”

Attempting to smile, Joe couldn’t help but gasp at the sudden movement on his bed jarring his ribs, caused by Dilly crawling up. Feeling her soft body snuggle next to his legs, he listened as she continued to talk. “I was telling the nice man there,” pointing to Ben, Dilly continued, “about Carrie supposed to be my auntie, but she won’t be anymore because she is asleep forever.”

Looking over at Ben, Joe mouthed the words, “supposed to?” over Dilly’s head. Looking at Dilly laying against Joe’s legs, he nodded and explained what she was talking about. “Dilly here told us an interesting story at lunch. Carrie…”

Before he could finish, he heard a noise at the door. Turning his head, Ben saw a slender woman leaning against the doorframe. Gasping out in pleasure. her eyes rested on the small child sitting on the bed.

“Dilly my darling child!”

“Mama!!!”

Watching as the woman and child embraced, Ben stood aside and waited until the hugs and kisses were over with before assisting the woman over to a chair next to Joe’s bedside. Helping her as she sat down, he reached down and placed Dilly into her lap, before moving over to sit on Joe’s bed.

Kissing on the top of Dilly’s head, the woman looked over at Ben, “My name is Esther, and I was on the stagecoach with Joe.” Looking down at Dilly she smiled as she continued, “My child has a tendency to talk about things that don’t actually concern her. But,” looking over at Joe she smiled, “I have a feeling this is something you need to hear anyway.”

“Carrie’s family had arranged with Mark Simmons to marry her, never knowing that he was already married. Carrie’s folks were Mormon’s also, but didn’t see the purpose of plural marriages and raised Carrie up the same way. Unfortunately,” Esther explained as she brushed a hair from her face, “Mark never told them. By the time that Carrie found out, it was too late. She was far from home, and when she protested, Mark had a way of hitting her so that she wouldn’t rebel. Everything was fine until Joe came on board. We were going to Salt Lake City for her marriage ceremony and for the blessings from the elders, and then we were going to settle in southern Utah and raise a big family.”

Shifting Dilly in her lap, Esther turned to face Joe. He could see the glistening of tears in her eyes as she finished her tale. “I want to apologize to you, Joe. Actually, I know that Sarah feels the same way. Carrie and Mark were not married, and he had no right to claim her as his. We should have stood up for Carrie, but we were scared. We were scared of what Mark would do to us.” Her voice fading, she looked up into Joe’s face. “Can you please forgive me?”

Shocked from what he heard, Joe had to ask, “So that afternoon at the cabin, after Mark had beat me up, they were not married? You mean I could have saved her from him even then?”

Nodding, Esther reached up and wiped her nose. “Joe, there’s something more I need to tell you, but not if you are going to look at me like that,” she replied, watching as Joe’s hands clinched on the sheets on top of him. Just watching him, she could see the flash of emotions cross his face, as he tried to understand. The look on his face scared her.

Looking up, Joe tried to erase the memory of that fateful day, before the accident, before the episode inside the cabin. Thinking back, he remembered, ever so faintly remembered, a conversation outside by the well. There she had been about to tell him something, and in light of this conversation, he had an idea as to what it was. Knowing that Esther and Sarah weren’t completely to blame, he sighed. Turning to look at Esther, he pushed himself up from the bed, grimacing when the broken ribs ground together. Resting his left arm on his ribs, he rubbed his chest as he reached over with his right hand and touched Esther on her arm. “Esther, I forgive you.”

With a sigh of relief, Esther could feel the tears running unbidden down her cheeks. Patting his hand with her own, she reached up and wiped her tears away. Clearing her voice, she spoke, this time softly, “Sarah and I were discussing whether or not to tell you, but I said there was no reason not to share it with you.” Pausing a moment, she straightened the hair on Dilly’s head, before looking up at Ben. Glancing back over to Joe, she sighed, “Carrie had whispered to me that morning of the accident that she was planning on leaving Mark as soon as we made it to Salt Lake City. She knew that neither Sarah nor I really wanted Mark to take on a third wife, and she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of being wife number three. Then she met you,” Esther said, as she looked into Joe’s eyes. “She was falling in love with you, and knew that if she married Mark, she would never have a chance with you. She spoke of your eyes, of how they seemed to speak to her. She also shared of how you believed in her, and the strength that she held within.”

Hearing all this, Joe had to know what happened at the cabin, “Why then did she go with him into that back room then?”

“She knew that Mark had already beaten you up, and she felt enormous guilt for that. Having already been thrown around the inside of the cabin, she was afraid of what would happen if she refused.”

Setting Dilly down on the ground, she picked up the little girl’s hand and placed it in her own and stood up. Moving towards the door, she had one last thing to say. “I know that when she stepped in front of that bullet that was aimed for you, she did it out of love. She also did it to prove to herself and to Mark that she was no longer going to be bullied and stand aside to let other get hurt because of her.” Opening the door, she pushed Dilly out the door before she offered one last suggestion, “Take care, Joe, and please get better.”

Watching as the door closed, Joe continued to stare at the door long after the footsteps on the other side faded away. Lost in his thoughts and memories, he sat speechless. What could he say? Carrie had experienced so much in her short lifetime, yet had made such a mature choice. A priceless gift, her life. Feeling the overwhelming sense of loss, Joe turned his eyes towards his pa. Ben, as though sensing the sorrow that lay just beneath the surface, gently touched Joe on his arm. Looking up at him, Joe wordlessly shook his head and watched as Ben enveloped him into a hug, allowing the emotions that were welled up inside of him to break free from the dam.

*****

Sitting outside of the hotel, Joe leaned back in the chair and waited for someone from his family to bring the buckboard around. After three weeks in recovery, Joe was itching to go home. He’d rather ride his horse home, but the dag-gum doctor was just as insistent that he not ride a horse for a few more days. Thus, given the choice of staying in Wells for a few more days or taking a buckboard home, he chose the buckboard. Looking off towards a stagecoach that was just pulling into town, he thought back to when the Simmons’s family had left. Dilly was a little nervous about getting back into the stagecoach, but with Mark junior helping her onboard, she soon forgot her fears. Wishing them luck, he had waved farewell to them earlier in the week while they continued their journey to Salt Lake City, to report of the events that had happened in Nevada, and hopefully start a new life in the city.

Hearing the sound of hoof beats and the jangle of a harness in front of him, Joe pulled himself from his musings.

“Hey little brother,” hollered Hoss. “What do ya think of them horses that Adam and I picked out?”

Grinning, Joe let the front two legs of the chair plunk back to the ground as he pulled himself from the chair. Leaning against the pole outside of the hotel, he looked and saw the string of horses that were being led behind the wagon. Nodding, he answered, “Looks like a great bunch of horses there.” Looking around for his other brother, he asked, “Where’s Adam?”

“Oh, well…” Hoss stuttered, “there was a slight problem with one of the horses.”

“Hoss?” questioned Joe, as he sensed a really good story coming on. “Where’s Adam?”

“Dang it, Joe!” cursed Hoss, as he stepped from the buckboard to the sidewalk, “I promised Adam I wouldn’t say a word.”

Pushing Joe aside, Hoss was determined not to break his promise, as determined Joe was to pry the information from his brother. Hearing Joe’s pleas behind him, Hoss walked into the mercantile next to the hotel and looked around the premises. Not seeing what he wanted, he waited until the shopkeeper had finished with his customer before speaking. “Yes sir, I need…” Taking a look at Joe standing next to him, his face taunt from his effort to hear, Hoss shrugged his shoulders. “I need some pillows. Soft ones preferably.” Looking down at Joe’s grinning face, he warned him, “I didn’t say a word to you, and don’t ya dare say a word to Adam neither.”

Not able to stop the giggle that was erupting from within, Joe moved away from the counter and peeked out the doorway. There he could see his brother gingerly walking towards the buckboard, with Ben helping him along the way. He could also see from the way Adam kept looking around that he was looking for his little brother. Laughing, Joe popped out of the doorway just as Adam and Ben approached the buckboard. “Hey Adam!” chirped Joe, as he jumped from the step to the ground. Groaning a moment, he made a face when he was reminded of his injury. Quickly hiding it, he was briefly pleased that his pa hadn’t noticed his error in leaping.

Unfortunately for Adam, he was too lost in his misery to even notice that someone else was recovering from an injury. Seeing Joe in front of him was more than enough to make him decide he’d rather stay in Wells. “Pa, I think I should just stay here for awhile.”

Firmly holding onto Adam’s shoulders, Ben gently pushed him to the wagon. “You heard what the doctor said. You’ll have no problems traveling, as long as you have pillows around you.” Looking up to see Joe standing there doing nothing, Ben waved him towards the mercantile. “Go get Hoss; I need his help.”

Carefully stepping up onto the sidewalk, Joe ran into Hoss carrying an armload of pillows. Relieving him of some of them, Joe pointed to the buckboard and relayed the message. Watching as Hoss tossed the rest of the pillows into the buckboard, Joe did the same and stood aside as both Ben and Hoss maneuvered Adam into the buckboard. Looking down on the action in the buckboard, Joe waited until Adam was comfortable before asking the question that was burning within him. “So, who is going to tell me what happened?”

“Fool horse,” Adam muttered, as he fumbled with the pillows.

Looking over at Hoss, Joe waited as he tapped his foot for an answer, before stepping down off the sidewalk.

Looking at Adam, Hoss shrugged his shoulders. “I guess, being as Adam is here, I can tell ya. There’s an ornery horse back there at Fuller’s ranch that seemed to have the mind of its own. Adam here was standing up, straddling the fence.” Laughing a moment, Hoss stopped when a glare was cast towards him. Swallowing hard, he continued, “Anyway, as he straddled the fence, that ornery horse came over and nudged him. Apparently he wasn’t ready for it, because Adam here fell back onto the fence rather hard, and ended on falling on a bunch of fence poles lying by the coral. And well,” Hoss continued as he looked at Joe with a twinkle in his eye, “he busted that same tailbone again.”

“He what?” yelled Joe, as he burst out in laughing. Laughing so hard, he was having trouble catching his breath. Gasping, he leaned against the buckboard while he tried to ignore the look of worry that crossed Ben’s face.

“Joe, get up into that buckboard.”

“But Pa…”

“Do you need Hoss and me to help you into that buckboard?”

Clearing his throat, Joe recognized that the look on Ben’s face and knew that nothing would stand in his way of going through with his threat. Shaking his head, Joe sighed as he moved to the edge, then slipped his bottom over and pushed his way over to where Adam lay. Finding a place more comfortable than the others, Joe pushed some pillows under his chest as he leaned over on his elbows. Sitting there looking at Adam, he just couldn’t resist asking, “Say, Adam.”

Grunting, Adam replied, “What?”

“Did you bring your book?”

“What book?”

“Mary Sue’s Wild Adventure.”

Vaguely hearing the howl of pain coming from Adam, Joe more than felt the swat that landed on his backside.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Joe answered as he felt the wagon move towards home.

***The End***

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