Legacy from New Orleans (by Susan)

Synopsis:  There’s more than meets the eye when a man named Charles Dumont and his ward appear at the Ponderosa.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western , Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  29,550


 

Hoss Cartwright wearily dismounted from his horse and walked toward the chuckwagon. He was hot, tired and sore; he had been in the saddle from sunup and was happy to take a break. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the cook fire and, with a sigh, sat on a nearby log.

As Hoss began to sip his coffee, his brother Adam rode up. Adam dismounted and walked to where his brother was resting. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. “We still have a lot of cows to round up.”

“Adam,” answered Hoss in a tired voice, “I’ve been working since early this morning. I’ve rounded up all the cattle on the north slope, and checked the creekbed. I’ve been in the saddle for almost six hours. I figure you can spare me for ten minutes while I get a cup of coffee.”

“Sorry,” Adam said with a guilty flush. “I didn’t mean to jump on you. I know you’ve been working hard. It’s just that Pa put me in charge of rounding up and moving the herd, and I want to make sure we get it done right.”

“It’ll get done right, Adam,” promised Hoss. “It always does.”

Adam nodded. He knew what Hoss was saying was true. Rounding up and moving the herd was a regular chore on the Ponderosa. Usually, his father led the roundup but Ben Cartwright was busy with some timber contracts. Adam just wanted to be sure nothing went wrong.

“Where’s Joe?” asked Adam, looking around.

“Don’t know,” answered Hoss. “He was heading over toward the canyon a little while ago. Said something about looking for strays over there.”

As the brothers were talking, a young man on a pinto rode up at a full gallop. Adam sighed. If Joe was riding that fast, something was wrong. What now, Adam thought.

“Adam, I need two men,” yelled Joe Cartwright as he reined his pinto to a halt.

“Two men? What for?” asked Adam

“There’s about 20 head of cattle trapped in the box canyon. I need some men to help me get them out, “ replied Joe.

“Twenty head of cattle? Are you sure?” asked Adam.

“Well, let’s see,” said Joe slowly. “They’re brown, and they’ve got four legs and horns. And they look a lot like the picture of cows that Pa used to show me when I was two. Yeah, I think they’re cattle,” Joe finished with a wry grin.

Hoss roared with laughter. “Adam, maybe you ought to draw Joe a picture, just to be sure.”

Flushed with anger, Adam said heatedly, “I didn’t mean are they cattle. I meant, how did they get trapped in there?”

“It looks likes they wandered in on a narrow trail,” Joe answered. “A rock slide blocked the trail, and they couldn’t get out. I need two men to help me clear the debris and make an opening.”

Adam stood wearily. “I’d better handle this. Joe, you go check on the rest of the herd.”

“I can handle it, Adam,” said Joe, his anger beginning to build. “Just give me the men.”

“Joe, this could be a little tricky. We need to be careful that we don’t start another rock slide,” countered Adam. “Also, I want to be sure the opening is wide enough for the cattle to get out.”

“I know that,” Joe said heatedly. “I’ll take care of it. Just give me the two men!”

Shaking his head, Adam answered, “No, this takes someone with some know-how to handle.” He glared at Joe. “Now, do what I said. Check the herd. I’ll get the cattle from the canyon.” Adam pointedly turned his back to his youngest brother and walked to his horse.

“Doggone it, Hoss!” Joe shouted with anger. “Adam treats me like I was a kid. I know how to get those cattle out. I should have just grabbed two men and handled it myself.”

“Aw, Joe,” said Hoss soothingly. “Adam doesn’t mean nothing. He’s got a lot on his mind. Besides, he IS a lot more experienced than you. He can probably handle it better.”

Pursing his lips in anger, Joe growled, “Thanks a lot.” . He wheeled his horse around and rode toward the herd.

Hoss shook his head. Joe just doesn’t understand, he thought. Hoss took a deep breath and finished his coffee. He stood, hiked his pants and walked to his horse. After he mounted, Hoss sat for a minute. He could see Adam in the distance, riding to the canyon with two men. He turned his head and saw Joe riding around the herd, keeping the cattle bunched tight. He decided he’d better check the brush to the south for more strays, and rode off.

An hour later, Adam and the two hands returned to the herd, pushing twenty or so cows ahead of them. Joe watched the men as they guided the cattle toward the main herd, then rode over to Adam. “See you got them out,” he said with a trace of bitterness.

“Yeah, it took us awhile to clear that path,” Adam replied, nodding. “The rocks and dirt were pretty loose. It’s a good thing you didn’t try it on your own. You might have caused another landslide.”

Joe said nothing. He stared at his brother for a minute, then turned his horse and rode off. Adam watched him with a frown. Wonder what’s bothering him, he thought. With a shrug, he went back to work.

For the rest of the day Joe avoided his brothers as he worked, but Hoss and Adam were so busy that they barely noticed his absence. The herd continued to grow in size as all three Cartwrights plus their crew kept guiding stray cattle into it.

The sun was beginning to set as Adam declared the work for today finished. He left six hands to rotate on night watch, making sure the herd kept bunched and didn’t stray. Joe was silent as Adam praised the crew for a job well done.

As the Cartwright brothers headed for the ranch house, Joe lagged behind Adam and Hoss. Adam looked over his shoulder once or twice, noting Joe’s sullen expression. “You’re not still mad about that canyon, are you?” Adam finally asked.

“I could have handled it,” answered Joe.

“Joe, it’s over and done with. Forget it,” said Hoss.

Clamping his teeth tightly, Joe scowled at this brothers. Adam looked at Hoss with a quizzical expression. Hoss just shook his head.

It was dark by the time the Cartwrights reached the ranch house. They stabled their horses and walked toward the house. Hoss stretched as they walked. “I hope Hop Sing has dinner ready, “ the big man said. “I could eat a whole steer.”

“What’s unusual about that?” kidded Adam. “You can always eat a whole steer.”

“Yeah, but this time, I too hungry to bother to wait for Hop Sing to cook it,” answered Hoss with a grin.

Ben Cartwright was sitting in his leather chair by the fire as his sons walked in the house. He smiled as they began removing their hats and holsters. “Well, it’s about time you boys got here,” he said with a smile. “Dinners almost ready. Get cleaned up.”

Brushing by his brothers, Joe climbed the steps without a word.

Surprised at his youngest son’s actions, Ben watched Joe, then turned to Adam and Hoss. “What’s wrong with Joe?” he asked.

“Aw, Pa, he’s just got his feathers ruffled because Adam wouldn’t let him clear a trail by the box canyon,” said Hoss.

“It was a pretty tricky situation,” explained Adam. “The dirt was loose and I was afraid Joe might start another landslide. I told him I would handle it and he got mad.”

“Couldn’t Joe have cleared the trail?” Ben asked, frowning.

“Maybe,” admitted Adam. “But I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to take the chance. He might not have known how to do it without getting hurt, or making the situation worse.” Adam turned to Hoss. “C’mon, we’d better get cleaned up before you fall over in a faint from hunger.”

Hoss grinned. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I’m getting right puny.”

As he watched Adam and Hoss climb the stairs, Ben’s frown deepened. He didn’t like the idea of his sons having petty fights. It could lead to something more serious.

Dinner was a pretty quiet meal. Adam outlined the day’s accomplishments to his father as they ate. Joe said nothing and Hoss was too busy piling food on his plate to contribute much.

When Adam had finished telling his father about the day, Ben smiled. “Sounds like you boys are doing a good job,” he said. “Do you think you’ll get the herd moved to the new pasture tomorrow?”

“We should be ready to move them tomorrow,” Adam answered. He turned to Hoss. “I want you to go up to Oak Meadows tomorrow morning and check the creek. We need to be sure be sure there’s enough water there for the herd. Remember last year, some beavers had dammed it up.”

Hoss put down his fork. “Doggone it, Adam,” he complained in a cranky tone. “I haven’t got time to ride up there. I got to make sure we finish branding those calves.”

“Well, somebody’s got to do it. I need somebody I can trust. If we send one of the hands, they won’t know if the water level is right or not,” replied Adam.

“Why don’t you do it?” asked Hoss.

“Because I have to count the herd and get them organized to drive,” answered Adam, the patience in his voice wearing thin.

“But, Adam, if I don’t watch the branding, one of those drovers is liable to brand a calf that don’t belong to us,” argued Hoss.

“I can’t very well leave it to one of the hands to count the herd and get them moving,” Adam argued back. “And if we get the herd up to Oak Meadows and there’s not enough water, we have a real problem. I need you to check the creek. It’s important.”

Abruptly, Joe threw his napkin on the table and stood up. “I’m going to the barn,” he announced and walked out.

Both Adam and Hoss watched him leave with a surprise. “What’s wrong with him?” asked Hoss.

Ben had nothing as Adam and Hoss talked. Now he shook his head at Adam’s and Hoss’ surprise at Joe’s reaction to their conversation.

“You boys just told your brother Joe that you didn’t trust him to check a creek, watch the branding, or count the herd,” Ben explained quietly.

“We never said that,” Adam said with a frown.

“Oh yes you did,” answered Ben. “You two sat there and listed all the important things that had to be done, and not once did you think of asking Joe to help. What was he suppose to think?”

“Pa, we didn’t mean we didn’t trust Joe,” said Hoss. “It’s just that, well, he’s just a kid.”

“Hoss is right, Pa,” added Adam. “Joe can take on some of these chores when he’s a little older.”

“A little older?” said Ben. “How old does he have to be? Joe’s not a kid any more. He’s 22; he’s a young man. You two have been thinking of him as a little brother for so long that you haven’t realized that he’s grown up right under your noses.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other. “Maybe Pa’s right,” said Hoss slowly. “You know, Joe handled breaking all those horses and getting them to the Army last month. He did a good job with getting those cattle to the railhead before that.”

“Yeah, but what if he makes a mistake? That could cause us some real problems,” argued Adam.

“I remember you two making some mistakes along the way,” Ben reminded his sons. “You corrected them and you learned. I think you owe it to Joe to be allowed to do the same thing.”

Adam sat thoughtfully. “You’re right,” he admitted finally. “I guess we have been treating him like one of the hands instead of letting him do the important work. Do you think I should go talk to him?”

“No,” said Ben, standing. “I’ll go.”

Ben walked to the barn and opened the door. He look in and saw Joe was rubbing his saddle with half-hearted swipes of a rag. Joe turned to see who came in, then went back to work. “Come to see if I found my way to the barn all right?” he asked angrily.

Standing just inside the barn door, Ben said nothing. He knew Joe wasn’t really angry at him; he was just lashing out at the first person he saw.

Half-heartedly, Joe rubbed the saddle a few more times, then stopped. He turned to his father. “I’m sorry,” he apologized in a contrite voice. “I didn’t mean that.”

“I know,” said Ben quietly. “You’re angry at your brothers, not me.”

“Pa, Adam and Hoss treat me like I’m twelve years old,” Joe complained, his voice filled with frustration. “Every time I try to do something, they ignore me or push me aside. I’m tired of them acting like they know everything and I know nothing.”

Again, Ben stood silently for a minute. Then he took a few steps to a bale of hay and sat down. “Joe, sit down,” he said. Joe hesitated. “Please, sit down,” Ben repeated. Joe dropped the rag and walked to bale of hay. He sat down next to Ben.

Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “I know it’s hard being the youngest,” he said. “Adam and Hoss don’t ignore you on purpose. They just think of you as a little brother. They forget you’re not that boy who used to tag along with them.”

“Pa, I’m not a kid any more,” stated Joe firmly.

“I know that,” answered Ben. “And I don’t think I’ve treated you like one. I’ve given you just as many jobs to do as brothers.”

“It’s not you, Pa,” Joe agreed. “But I get so mad at Adam and Hoss…”

“That doesn’t help the situation,” interrupted Ben. “When you get angry, you make things worse. A man doesn’t get angry over little slights. Only a boy does that.”

Seeing his father’s point, Joe nodded. “You right. I guess I do lose my temper too much. But how can I get Adam and Hoss to take me seriously?”

“By always doing your best, by taking on any job that needs to be done no matter how small a task it is, and by working with them, not against them,” Ben advised. “It was hard for me at first to let you and Adam and Hoss to take over running some things on the ranch. I was sure I could do everything better and faster myself. It took me awhile to realize that my sons were grown men, and that they were able to do things just as well – or even better – than I could. When I finally let you boys take over some things, I found that we could make the Ponderosa an even better ranch. And everyone was happier. A man is always happier when he’s given responsibility, given important work to do. Adam and Hoss will learn that. You just have to be patient with them.”

Joe smiled. “Be patient with them? That’s a switch.”

Laughing, Ben said, “I know. But you have to try.”

“I will, agreed Joe a bit grudgingly. “I’m sorry I lost my temper.”

Ben clapped Joe on the shoulder. “How about telling your brothers that?” he asked. Joe nodded.

When Ben and Joe walked back into the house, Adam and Hoss were standing by the fireplace. Adam immediately turned to his youngest brother.

“Joe, Hoss and I have been talking. I’m sorry,” Adam apologized. “I didn’t realize I was ignoring you. I didn’t mean it.”

“Yeah, we haven’t been treating you right,” added Hoss. “I’m sorry, too.”

“I guess I shouldn’t have lost my temper,” Joe offered. “It was my fault for getting mad so easily.”

“Well, I guess we were all wrong,” said Hoss with a grin.

As he listened to his sons, Ben smiled. He had hoped they would get over their bad feelings quickly. He was happy that they had.

“Tell you what,” Adam said. “Why doesn’t Joe take charge of the branding, I’ll count the herd, and Hoss can check that creek.”

“The branding! That’s the worst job of the three!” Joe protested.

“Little brother, we said we want to give you a job to do,” said Hoss smiling. “We didn’t say we would give you a GOOD job.”

Everyone laughed. Ben sighed with relief as he saw his sons kidding each other again. It was a sign that the bad feelings were forgotten.

“If you boys are going to finish that round up tomorrow, you are going to have to get started early. I think maybe you ought to turn in,” Ben suggested. He noted the frown starting to form on Joe’s face. “Of course, that’s up to you,” added Ben quickly. “You’re all old enough to make your own decisions.”

Joe smiled wryly. “I know Adam and Hoss need their sleep. They aren’t as young as they used to be.”

“I think I can manage to get these old bones up to my room,” said Adam with a smile. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Hoss and Joe decided to join Adam in calling it an early night. As they followed their older brother up the stairs, Ben sank into his leather chair. Raising sons, he decided, was a challenge. He hoped he was up to it.

*****

As he sat at his desk, Ben read the proposed timber contracts and began calculating the lumber he would need. He put down the papers and rubbed his eyes, feeling tired. It was late afternoon and he had been working on the contracts most of the day. Adam, Hoss and Joe had left early in the morning to finish moving the herd. The boys were in a good mood when they left, their squabble forgotten. Ben hoped their good humor would continue. He felt sure that their disagreement was just the result of long hours in the saddle the last few days. He knew how irritable one could be after spending ten or twelve hours a day herding cattle. He also wished he were at the round-up instead of stuck at home with this paperwork. With a sigh, he picked up the papers in front of him and began to read again.

A knock at the door startled Ben. He had been concentrating on the contracts and hadn’t hear anyone ride up. He put the papers on and his desk and walked quickly to the door.

Pulling open the door, Ben saw a gray-haired man standing before him. The man was in his fifties, dressed in an fancy gray suit and carrying a walking stick. Next to the man was a beautiful young woman who looked to be in her early twenties. The woman was wearing a fashionable-cut blue traveling outfit – a short jacket trimmed in black velvet and long skirt. Her thick, black hair was pulled back and pinned into a twist at the back of her head. A small blue hat sat at an angle on her head.

“Yes, can I help you?” asked Ben of the strangers who stood before him.

“Hello, Benjamin,” the man answered, speaking with a French accent. “It is good to see you again.”

Ben stared at the man, then shook his head. “I’m sorry….” he began.

“I’m not surprised you don’t recognize me after all these years,” the man said with a smile. “I’m Charles Dumont.”

“Charles Dumont! Marie’s cousin!” exclaimed Ben in surprise. Several emotions flashed across Ben’s face – astonishment, confusion, and doubt .“I didn’t recognize you. It’s been, what, twenty-five years since I saw you.”

“Something like that,” agreed Charles airily. “May we come in?”

“Of course, of course,” Ben said hastily. He stepped back and opened the door. “Please come in.”

“Thank you,” replied Charles as he entered the house. He paused in the doorway and looked around. “What a fine house. I’m not surprised. Marie always did have a flair for making a house look its best.”

The young woman followed Charles into the house and smiled demurely at Ben; Charles seemed to have forgotten her as he studied the house. Suddenly, he realized she was standing at his side.

“Where are my manners?” apologized Charles. “Ben Cartwright, this is my niece, Denise. Denise, this is Ben Cartwright, the husband of my beloved cousin Marie.”

“Welcome,” Ben greeted the young woman with a smile. He turned to Charles. “Your niece? I didn’t know you had any close family.”

“Well, actually Denise is the daughter of a distant relative. These relationships get so complicated that it is simpler to call her my niece,” replied Charles smoothly.

“I’m the one forgetting my manners now, “ said Ben. He gestured toward the sofa. “Please come in and sit down. Can I offer you some coffee?”

“Thank you, that would be nice,” Charles replied as he strolled across the room. Denise smiled and followed Dumont.

“Hop Sing! Hop Sing!” shouted Ben as he escorted the pair to the couch. Charles and Denise settled themselves comfortably on the couch.

Hop Sing came running from the kitchen. “What you want?” he asked. “Hop Sing making dinner; no time for foolishness.”

“Hop Sing, we have visitors,” Ben explained. “This is Charles Dumont. He is Mrs. Cartwright’s cousin. And this is his niece, Denise.”

“Mrs. Cartwright’s cousin!” exclaimed the Chinese cook with delight. “Ah, very good, very good.”

“Hop Sing, please bring us some coffee,” ordered Ben. Giving a quick nod, Hop Sing ran back to the kitchen.

Turning, Ben moved to in his favorite leather chair next to the fire. “Charles, it’s nice to see you,” he said in a neutral tone. “We lost track of you after Marie and I left New Orleans. I wrote you when Marie died, but never heard back.”

“Ah, my poor Marie,” Charles replied sadly. “I meant to send my condolences, Benjamin. She was such a lovely woman. So sad that she was taken from us so soon.”

“Yes,” said Ben quietly. His eyes drifted off in remembrance for a moment. Ben shook his head quickly. “What brings you to Nevada?” he asked.

“Business,” Charles answered vaguely. “I was traveling in the area. I thought I would spend a few days in Virginia City. I would very much like to meet Marie’s son.”

“Joe?” asked Ben in a cautious voice. “What’s your interest in Joe?”

“Oh, no special interest,” said Charles. “I suppose as one gets older, one gets more sentimental. I thought I should meet and get to know Marie’s son while I had the opportunity.”

The conversation was interrupted by Hop Sing, who entered the room carrying a large tray with a coffee pot and three cups of coffee. Hop Sing set the tray on the low table in the middle of the room.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” said Ben. He reached for the coffee pot and began pouring the coffee.

“Hop Sing best cook in all of Nevada,” bragged the Chinese cook. “You stay for dinner. Hop Sing make fine dinner for Mrs. Cartwright’s cousin.”

Charles looked at Ben inquiringly.

“Of course, you’re welcome to stay for dinner,” offered Ben, passing the coffee cups to Charles and Denise. His voice was polite but not enthusiastic.

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble, we’d be delighted,” Charles replied.

“Very good, very good,” said Hop Sing happily. He raced back to the kitchen.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room after Hop Sing left. Ben was at a loss about what to say. Finally, he asked, “What type of business are you in? The last I heard you were involved with…” Ben hesitated and glanced at Denise. “involved with some gaming enterprises,” he finished awkwardly.

“Yes, I did run a gambling house for many years,” said Charles as he sipped his coffee. “Denise knows all about that. But I’ve given that up. Now I run a small import business. You know, buying items from other parts of the country and selling them in New Orleans.”

Nodding, Ben turned to Denise. “Are you from New Orleans also?” he asked.

“Yes,” answered Denise as she daintily sipped her coffee. “You have a lovely home, Mr. Cartwright,” she added, obviously changing the subject. She also had a trace of a French accent. “I did not expect to find such a house out here in the West.”

“Thank you,” said Ben. “It’s not as elegant as many of the homes in New Orleans, but we like it. We find it very comfortable.”

“Is Joseph around?” asked Charles.

“He and his brothers should be here shortly,” answered Ben. “They’re moving a herd of cattle to some fresh pasture. I expect them back any time now.”

“Ah, yes, I remember,” said Charles with a smile. “You have two other sons. I remember that you said you already had sons when you married Marie. I have heard about you over the years, Ben. You have become a very wealthy man.”

“I’ve been very fortunate,” agreed Ben. “But my true wealth is my sons. They are fine young men.”

The sound of footsteps and voices came drifting in from outside. The front door opened and Adam, Hoss and Joe walked in, an openly curious expression on each of their faces.

Ben, Charles and Denise all rose to greet the young men. “Boys, I’m glad you’re back. We have some visitors,” said Ben.

“We saw the buggy outside,” hinted Hoss, his voice filled with curiosity. “We were wondering who was visiting.”

“This is Charles Dumont, and his niece, Denise. Charles, may I present my sons, “ said Ben, a touch of pride in his voice. “This is Adam, my oldest.” Adam nodded in acknowledgment. “And this big fellow, we call Hoss.” Hoss grinned his hello. “And this is Joseph.” Joe smiled his most charming smile at Denise. “Joe, Charles is your mother’s cousin, visiting from New Orleans,” Ben added.

As he stared with open admiration at Denise’s loveliness, Joe had been barely listening. However, at Ben’s words, his gaze spun to Charles. “My mother’s cousin?” he said in wonder. “I didn’t know any of her family was still alive!”

“We lost touch over the years,” explained Charles. “Joseph, I am very pleased to meet you.”

Walking forward quickly, Joe took Charles’ hand. “You have no idea how happy I am to meet you. Pa’s told me what he could about my mother, but I’d like to hear more. Did you grow up with her? And what’s New Orleans like? Is it as terrific a city as they say?”

Indulgently, Ben smiled at Joe’s enthusiasm. “Slow down, Joe,” he said with a laugh. “Charles and Denise have just arrived. Give them a chance to get their breath.”

Reddening a bit with embarrassment, Joe said, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to throw all those questions at you so suddenly. It’s just that there’s a lot I would like to know.”

Charles smiled at Joe. “I understand,” he replied, “and I will be happy to answer your questions. Your father has been gracious enough to invite us to stay for dinner. If I don’t answer all your questions at dinner, perhaps we can meet later in Virginia City. Denise and I will be staying there for awhile.”

“Virginia City? Why not stay here?” suggested Joe. He turned to Ben. “Is that all right with you, Pa?”

Looking a bit uncomfortable, Ben cleared his throat. “Well, hm, yes, of course,” he agreed. “You are welcome to stay here, if you like. Of course, you may find Virginia City more comfortable.”

“Please stay,” pleaded Joe. “We can make you just as comfortable as that hotel in town. It would give us a chance to really spend some time together.”

“If it’s not an inconvenience….” Charles started. He turned to Denise. “What do you say, my dear?”

Denise smiled directly at Joe. “I think staying here is a wonderful idea. Perhaps you can show me some more of this lovely country.”

The girl’s words directed Joe’s attention back to Denise. His face showed he was once again struck by her beauty. “I would be happy to be your escort,” he offered gallantly. “I can show you some of the better sights on the Ponderosa. I think you’ll be impressed.”

“It’s settled then, “ said Charles decisively. He turned to Adam and Hoss. “Would you mind helping me get our bags from the buggy? I’m sure Denise would like to freshen up before dinner.” Nodding, Adam and Hoss followed Charles out the door.

Taking Denise by the arm, Joe gently guided her back to the settee. As she sat, Joe settled next to her on the small sofa. Returning to his chair, Ben frowned as he saw Joe’s eyes riveted to the lovely girl.

“Have you been traveling long in the West?” Ben asked politely but his eyes showed a keen interest in the girl’s reply.

Denise had been smiling directly at Joe. Now she shifted her attention to Ben. “A few weeks, “ she answered. “I’ve never been in the West before. The scenery is breath-taking.”

“The Ponderosa has some pretty sights,” Joe told the girl. “I’d be happy to show you.”

“Thank you,” said Denise with a dazzling smile.

The front door flew open again, and Charles, Adam and Hoss re-entered the house, each man carrying two bags. “Perhaps you would be kind enough to show me where to put these,” Charles said.

“I’ll show you,” Joe offered hastily. He took Denise’s hand. “Please, come with me,” he said to her. She smiled graciously as he escorted her up the stairs, followed by Charles, Adam and Hoss.

A few minutes later, Adam and Hoss descended the stairs empty-handed. Ben was still sitting in his chair.

“Joe is helping them get settled,” explained Adam.

“Yeah, “ added Hoss, grinning. “He can be down-right helpful when it comes to a pretty young gal like that Miss Denise.”

Nodding, Ben turn to stare into the fire. Adam and Hoss looked at each with a frown. Adam shrugged his shoulders and turned back to Ben.

“So that’s Charles Dumont,” said Adam.

“Why do you say it like that, Adam?” asked Hoss with a puzzled expression on his face.

“As I recall, he had quite an unsavory reputation,” answered Adam.

“Let’s not say anything about that now,” said Ben hastily. “After all, it’s been quite some time since we saw him. He may have changed. Let’s be fair and not judge the man on his past. Besides, I don’t want to spoil this for Joe.”

Shrugging, Adam agreed. “Whatever you say.”

*****

Dinner was a lively affair. Ben asked Charles about people and places he remembered from New Orleans, and Charles told him all the news. Joe, Adam, and Hoss tried to outdo each other with stories of their adventures – and misadventures – on the ranch. In return, Charles told amusing stories about life in New Orleans.

Sitting next to Joe at the dinner table, Denise said little. But she smiled at the youngest Cartwright whenever the opportunity arose. Joe could barely take his eyes off their lovely guest.

Padding quietly across the room, Hop Sing came in to remove the dinner dishes. “Everything all right?” he asked hopefully.

“Hop Sing, that was a wonderful dinner,” Denise said graciously.

“Yes, indeed,” added Charles. “Hop Sing, I believe you’re the best cook outside of New Orleans.”

Beaming with pleasure, Hop Sing removed the plates and other dishes from the table.

“Charles, you just guaranteed yourself meals that will be fit for a king,” said Adam with a smile.

“Oh, why is that?” asked Charles.

“Because from now on, Hop Sing will try to show you that he is a better cook than anyone in New Orleans,” explained Adam. Everyone at the table laughed.

As the Cartwrights and their guests settled back in their chairs and began drinking after-dinner coffee, Joe finally tore his gaze from Denise and turned to Charles.

“Tell me about my mother,” Joe asked in a slightly pleading voice. “Pa and Adam and Hoss have told me what they remember, but there’s so much I don’t know. Did you grow up together?”

Across the room, a look of concern flashed on Ben’s face. He was worried about what Charles would say. He loved Marie and knew she was a fine woman, but he also knew there were things in her past she had wanted forgotten.

“Ah, Marie,” Charles said pensively as he stirred his coffee. “Yes, we spent time together when we were young. Unfortunately, as we grew older, we drifted apart.”

“What was she like?” ask Joe anxiously.

“She was beautiful, intelligent and gracious,” answered Charles. “But she also had a quick temper. She could flare up in a moment when she was angry.”

“Yeah, we know what that’s like,” Hoss said with a grin. “We all know where Joe got his temper.” Joe made a face at his brother, and Hoss laughed.

“I remember once, when she was just a girl, her father refused to let her ride a new horse he had purchased,” Charles continued. “She stood in the yard and stamped her feet in anger. Her father ignored her. So Marie sat down on the front steps and vowed not to move until her father let her ride that horse. She sat there all day and most of the night. The family had to walk around her to get in and out of the house. Her father pleaded with Marie to come into the house, but she refused to move. Finally, her father gave in and gave her permission to ride the horse the next day. As soon as she had his permission, she smiled sweetly and went into the house. And rode the horse first thing the next morning. She could be stubborn when she wanted something.’

“Another trait Joe inherited,” said Adam wryly.

“What was she like as a girl?” asked Joe, ignoring his brother.

“We didn’t see each other that often,” explained Charles. “Holidays, family occasions, that sort of thing. I do remember when she was about eight, she received a music box for Christmas. How she loved that music box! She kept it by her bed and played it constantly. When her parents died and Marie moved to the convent to be raised by the good sisters, it was one of the few things she took with her. I can remember her clutching it in her arms as she walked into the convent.”

Joe looked at Ben, who nodded. “Yes, it’s the same music box,” Ben said, his voice choked with emotion. “She brought it with her to Nevada. I know how much she loved it. She said it was one of the few things she had that reminded her of the good times when she was growing up. When you were fussy as a baby, she used to play that music box while she held you. It always calmed you down and put you to sleep.”

“Such a wonderful girl,” mused Charles. “I am truly sorry we weren’t closer. I’m sorry but there’s little I can tell you about her after she went to live with the sisters.”

Quietly, Ben sighed with relief. Whatever secrets Marie had, he felt they were safe. Charles either didn’t know or didn’t want to reveal them.

Yawning daintily, Denise said with a smile, “You must forgive me. It has been a long day.”

Instantly, Charles stood. “Of course, how insensitive me. Please forgive us, but we would like to have an early evening.”

Politely, the Cartwrights stood as Denise rose and joined Charles. As the pair walked toward the stairs in the living room, Denise stopped and turned toward Joe.

“Will you show me some of the Ponderosa tomorrow, Joe?” she asked. “I mean, if you have time. I don’t want to take you from your work.”

“Don’t worry about that, Miss Denise,” Hoss answered with a grin. “Our little brother is always looking for an excuse to get out of doing work.”

“It just so happens that we’re pretty well caught up,” said Joe. “We’ve moved the herd to the new pasture. Hoss has to check some fences tomorrow and Adam and Pa have to go over those timber contracts. So I guess that leaves me to show Denise the Ponderosa.”

“Timber contracts?” remarked Charles with surprise. “You handle contracts on your own?”

“We have a lawyer in Virginia City who always looks them over, “ Adam explained. “But Pa and I are pretty good at reading the fine print. We’ve seen enough of them over the years to be able to spot when someone is trying to sneak in something that shouldn’t be there.”

“Of course,” agreed Charles. “I should have realized that. I suppose I think of the West as being the wild and unsophisticated place that the newspapers describe.”

“We’re not quite the innocents that some people would believe we are,” said Ben pointedly.

Almost absent mindedly, Charles nodded. “Well, thank you for a pleasant evening,” he said. Charles turned to Denise. “Come, my dear, I’ll escort you to your room.” He took Denise’s hand and led her up the stairs.

For a minute, Joe watched the pair depart, his facing shining with happiness. Then he turned to his father. “Isn’t it great that they came to visit?” he asked, his voice filled with joy.

“Yes,” replied Ben evenly. “I’m happy for your sake that they are here.”

“Well, I’m going to bed,” Joe announced. “I want to be up bright and early tomorrow so I can clean up the buggy. I want to show Denise the Ponderosa in style.” He walked rapidly across the room and bounded up the stairs.

“Think I’ll call it a night, too,” said Hoss. He strolled across the room and climbed the stairs also.

With a pensive look on his face, Ben walked slowly to his favorite chair by the fireplace and sat down. A frown grew on his face as he stared into the fire. Adam sat down on the sofa. “Pa, what’s wrong?” he asked.

Turning a bit, Ben looked at Adam in surprise. “Oh, nothing is wrong, at least nothing that I know about,” he answered.

“Then what’s bothering you?” Adam persisted.

Ben smiled. “I guess I’m easier to read than I thought, “ he said. His face turned serious. “I just can’t help wondering why Charles Dumont showed up at the Ponderosa after all these years.”

“Don’t you think his story about being here on business is true?” asked Adam.

“Perhaps,” answered Ben. “But I know Marie didn’t like him or trust him. She never said why. She just said that he was a man she didn’t care to associate with.”

“What are you going to do?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know, Adam,” admitted Ben. “You saw Joe’s face tonight, how happy he was that Charles was here. I can’t take that away from him, not without good cause.”

“It’s a problem,” Adam agreed. “But there must be something we can do?”

“Just wait and watch, I guess” said Ben. “And I’m going to watch Charles Dumont very carefully.”

The house grew quiet as everyone settled in for the night. Denise was sitting in her dressing gown in front of a mirror, brushing her hair, when she heard a soft knock on the bedroom door. The door opened immediately, and Charles walked in. He closed the door softly behind him.

“You did very well tonight,” he said.

Denise shrugged. “It was not difficult. They are charming and intelligent men. They are not at all the country bumpkins you led me to believe they were.”

“Yes, I know,” said Charles thoughtfully. “I believe I’m going to have to re-think my plan.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Denise as she continued to brush her hair.

“I don’t know,” replied Charles. “I need a little time to make a new plan.”

“What about me?” Denise asked. “What should I do?”

“You, my dear, should continue as we discussed. You shouldn’t find it too difficult. Joseph is a very handsome young man. And, from what I could see, he is already quite taken with you.”

“He seems to be a nice boy,” offered Denise.

“Don’t become too fond of him,” advised Charles. He reached over and took her hand, gently pulling it to him. He softly kissed her fingers. “Just remember who you really are.”

Denise stiffened slightly. “I’ll remember,” she said.

Giving a brief nod of satisfaction, Charles released her hand. “Good night, my dear,” he said softly and left the room.

Putt the brush down, Denise frowned slightly at her image in the mirror. She was lost in thought for a moment. Then she shrugged and her face cleared. She picked up the brush and went back to brushing her hair.

*****

Breakfast the next morning was more subdued than dinner. The men chatted about the ranch and work that needed to be one. Charles seemed interested in what they had to say and asked many questions. Denise sat quietly once again, adding little to the conversation. She was dressed in a riding outfit which – in Joe’s mind, at least – made her look less distant and unattainable. She continued to fix her charming smile on Joe.

“Ben, how many head of cattle do you have?” asked Charles.

“This time of year, about 5,000 head,” answered Ben.

“But where do you sell so many cattle?” Charles asked in astonishment.

“We have a contract with a Chicago firm,” explained Adam. “They buy the cattle and ship the beef to the big cities in the East.”

“You know, you could make a create deal of money by selling directly to restaurants and markets,” Charles said, looking thoughtful. “I know many in New Orleans who would be willing to pay for your beef.”

“We have a contract,” Ben repeated. “Besides it’s more trouble than it’s worth to sell to many, many customers. It’s easier for us to sell to one buyer.”

“Of course, of course,” answered Charles. “I can see with so many cattle why that would be so. But perhaps some of the smaller ranches might be interested in such a proposition.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Ben with an air of dismissal. “Well, we do have a working ranch here. Hoss, you better get to those fences. Adam, we really must go over those contracts. I believe you have other plans, Joseph,”

Joe grinned at his father. “I want to show Denise the Ponderosa. Hop Sing has made us a picnic lunch, so we won’t need to rush back.” He stood and offered his hand to Denise. She smiled at him and took his hand as she stood. The pair walked hand and hand to the front door. As he opened the door for Denise, Joe looked over his shoulder and grinned at his brothers. Then he followed Denise out the door.

Charles watched the couple leave and then turned back to Ben. “Joseph is a fine young man,” he said. “Marie would be proud.”

“Yes, he is,” agreed Ben with affection. He cleared his voice. “Well, Charles, I’m afraid we won’t have much time to show you around today. We do have some work which has to be done.”

“Not to worry, Benjamin,” said Charles. “I must go into Virginia City and take care of some business anyway.”

“I’ll hitch up your buggy for you,” offered Hoss as he stood. “I’ve got to get to saddle my horse and get to those fences.” He walked out the door.

“I will plan to see you a dinner,” Charles said, getting to his feet. “I don’t know how long my business in town will keep me.”

Nodding, Ben watched his guest depart. Adam looked at his father, who was staring off into the air.

“Do you think I should go into Virginia City with him?” asked Adam in a quiet voice.

Looking a bit startled by his oldest son’s voice, Ben shook his head. “No,” he said. “Let’s get to those contracts.”

*****

As he drove the buggy slowly, Joe pointed out the sights of the Ponderosa. He talked about the Ponderosa, and how his father had built the ranch through hard work and long hours. He showed Denise the pond where he sometimes fished. A flock of ducks were idly swimming in it and Denise declared her delight as they watched them for a bit.

Next, Joe drove to a meadow from which they could see the large mountains of the Sierras. Denise seemed stuck by the majesty of the snow-capped peaks. She eagerly asked Joe to show her more. Joe was pleased that Denise seemed to be enjoying herself.

Joe drove the buggy to the top of a hill and stopped. “Let’s stretch our legs a bit,” Joe suggested. “There’s something I want to show you.” He got out of the buggy and walked around to the other side. After offering Denise his hand and helping her out, Joe escorted her to the crest of the hill.

Below them was a magnificent sight. Large pine trees filled the hill, coloring it with green and brown. At the bottom of the hill, the dark blue waters of Lake Tahoe stood in contrast to the forest above it.

Denise gasped. “Oh, Joe, it’s beautiful!” she exclaimed.

“Not nearly as beautiful as you,” Joe said gently.

Smiling at Joe, Demise answered demurely, “Thank you.” She reached out and slowly stroked Joe’s cheek with her hand. Joe’s eyes shone with pleasure; he stepped closer and quickly kissed Denise.

Denise stepped back in surprise.

“I’m sorry,” apologized Joe hastily. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Once more, Denise smiled at him. “You’re sweet,” she said softly. “I’m glad you kissed me.” Denise looked around. “Could we sit for a few minutes?” she asked. Joe nodded, not trusting his voice.

Joe led Denise to a log a few feet away. She sat on the log, modestly pulling her skirt down while Joe settled on the ground next to her and stared up at her face. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her.

“Tell me about yourself,” Joe said. “Have you always lived in New Orleans?”

A shadow seemed to fall over Denise’s face. She looked at the lake for a moment, then turned back to Joe with a smile. “Yes,” she answered simply. “Do you know the city?”

“Not really,” said Joe. “Just what Pa has told me about it and what I’ve read. I’ve always wanted to go there. It must be a exciting place.”

“Yes, it can be exciting,” replied Denise. “But also cruel.”

“Cruel?” said Joe in a puzzled voice. “I don’t understand.”

“When one has little money, and no family connections, the people there can difficult. They place great value on one’s place in society. And one’s place is determined by one’s wealth and one’s connections.”

“Doesn’t sound like the city that Pa described,” said Joe.

“Your father is a good man. I’m sure he wouldn’t judge people by the cut of their clothes, or the size of their bank account,” replied Denise. She gazed out at the lake again. “You are fortunate to live in such a clean and simple land.”

“Maybe,” said Joe doubtfully. “But sometimes I wish it was more exciting around here.”

Denise turned back to him. “One makes one’s own excitement,” she commented. She gazed into Joe’s eyes. “Sometimes, all it takes is having the right person to share things with.”

Almost in a daze, Joe returned Denise’s look. He raised his face slowly to hers and Denise bent her head. Their lips met in a long and tender kiss.

When they finally parted, Joe stared longingly at Denise. “I never met anyone like you,” he said softly. Denise smiled back at him. She stroked his cheek again.

“I’ve never met anyone quite like you,” she countered.

Scrambling to his knees, Joe took Denise in his arms. They kissed again, this time more passionately. When they parted again, Joe’s face was filled with wonder. All he could do was looked at the lovely creature in his arms.

Finally, Joe sighed. “Come on,” he said reluctantly. “We probably should get going.” Denise looked surprised, then pleased.

“Yes,” she agreed as she stood. “You’re right. Perhaps you would take me closer to the lake.”

Rising from the log, Joe put his arm around Denise’s shoulders. He guided her slowly back to the buggy and helped her in, then climbed in the other side of the buggy and picked up the reins. Joe turned to Denise and kissed her again quickly. Denise smiled at the gesture. “The lake?” she reminded him.

“Right,” Joe acquiesced with a distracted air. “The lake.” He chucked the reins and the buggy started forward.

With an expert touch on the reins, Joe drove the buggy down a trail toward the lake. As they neared the lake, they passed through a grove of large pine trees.

“The trees are so large,” Denise said in wonder. “They look as if they could touch the clouds.”

“They’re big,” Joe agreed. “It can take hours to cut one down.”

Denise looked surprised. “You cut them down? How sad to spoil such a lovely sight.”

“We only cut a small portion of them,” Joe explained. “It’s really better for the trees that we do. It gives the ones left behind more room to grow. And Pa make sure we plant a new tree for every one we cut down.”

“I feel a bit guilty taking you away from your work,” Denise told Joe. “You must have so much to do, taking care of that large herd of cattle and all these trees.”

“My brothers can manage fine without me,” replied Joe with a trace of bitterness.

“Why do you say it like that?” Denise asked. “You sound angry.”

Joe hesitated. “I shouldn’t, I guess,” he said slowly “It’s just that sometimes Adam and Hoss treat me like a kid. It’s hard being the youngest sometimes. I have to keep reminding them that I’m not a boy any longer.”

Affectionately, Denise laid her hand on Joe’s arm. “I don’t think of you as a boy,” she said softly. Joe grinned in happiness.

The pair rode for several minutes before Joe stopped the buggy at the end of trail, a few feet from the shore of Lake Tahoe. The waves of the lake lapped gently on the sandy shore.

“Oh, Joe, what a wonderful spot!” Denise exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Could we have our luncheon here?”

“Sure,” Joe answered. He climbed out of the buggy and tied the reins to a nearby bush. Then he walked to the back and opened a small box attached to the rear of the buggy. He took out a blanket and a picnic basket. Joe walked to the edge of the sand and spread the blanket. He set the basket on the blanket and walked back to the buggy. “Your luncheon awaits, madam,” he said with a small bow, and helped Denise from the buggy.

As Joe and Denise settled themselves on the blanket, Denise reached in and began pulling food wrapped in napkins from the basket. “Hungry?” she asked Joe.

“Yes,” answered Joe, desire shining in his eyes.

“I meant for food,” chided Denise, a smile dancing in her eyes.

The pair ate and drank from a bottle of wine. As they dined, they talked of small, inconsequential things. Neither paid much attention to the conversation. Both seemed to be waiting for the other to say or do something of more importance.

When they had eaten their fill, Denise repacked the basket and moved it to the edge of the blanket. She moved closer to Joe and began to stroke his hair gently. Joe kissed her softly. “You not like any of the other girls I know,” he said. “You’re more…” Joe stopped, searching for the right word.

“Worldly, perhaps?” Denise suggested. “I’ve probably seen more of the world than most of the girls you know. I grew up in a French society. The French are more open about things, you know.”

“Viva la France,” murmured Joe as he moved closer and kissed her once again.

*****

Sighing, Adam placed a sheaf of papers on the desk and looked at Ben. “I guess that does it,” he said with relief. “We can have the lawyer look these contracts over and, if he agrees, we can sign them next week. I think they are a fair deal for everyone concerned.”

“I agree,” concurred Ben. He frowned as he heard the clock in the other room strike four. “It’s getting late. I wonder where Joe is?”

“I wouldn’t count on seeing Joe soon,” commented Adam. “From the look on his face this morning, I don’t think he’s going to be rushing to get Denise back.”

The sound of a buggy distracted Ben. He stood and looked out the window behind the desk. “Charles is back,” he announced.

A few minutes later, Charles strolled into the house. Ben and Adam walked over to greet him.

“I hope you had a productive day,” said Ben. His voice held a hint of inquiry.

“Yes, very much so,” answered Charles. He looked around the room. “Denise is still out?”

“Yes,” replied Ben. “But I’m sure she’s fine. Joe and Denise probably just lost track of the time.”

“I’m sure you are right,” agreed Charles. “I’m not concerned.”

The faint sound of a buggy pulling up was again heard. A minute later, the door opened and Denise walked in, followed by Joe. Joe had a look of pure happiness on his face.

“Ah, there you are, my dear,” said Charles. “We were just talking about you. Did you have a good time?”

“Yes,” answered Denise with enthusiasm. “Mr. Cartwright, the Ponderosa is really beautiful. You must be so proud of it.”

“Thank you,” said Ben.

Denise turned to Joe and smiled. “Thank you for a lovely day. Perhaps tomorrow you could show me some more of this wonderful country.”

“You can count on it,” answered Joe. His eyes never left Denise’s face.

“Well, Denise, let us freshen up. I’m sure dinner will be ready shortly,” Charles said. He took Denise’s arm and gently guided her up the stairs. Joe stared after them.

“C’mon, Joe,” Adam offered, “I’ll help you put the horses up.” Joe continued to gaze at the top of the stairs. “Joe?” Adam said a little louder. “The horses?”

Joe seemed to shake himself awake. “Um, sure, Adam,” he replied in a distracted voice.

As Joe and Adam went out the front door, Ben watched with concern. He knew what that look on Joe’s face meant. Joe’s attraction to Denise was developing into something more serious. Ben sighed. This was one of the many times he wished Marie was here. She would know what to say to Joe. He didn’t. Hadn’t he just the other day told Joe that he trusted him, that Joe was old enough to make his own decisions? But Ben also knew Joe wore his heart on his sleeve. It wouldn’t take too much encouragement for Joe to fall in love with a charming, beautiful girl like Denise. Ben wondered how Denise felt. He didn’t want to see his youngest son hurt.

In her room, Denise struggling to button a dress in the back. Charles walked in, startling her. She frowned at his boldness.

“Let me help you,” he offered.

“Thank you,” she said primly.

“How did it go today?” he asked as he buttoned the dress.

“Just as you wanted,” Denise answered. “I believe Joe is very attracted to me.”

“Good, good,” commended Charles. He finished with the buttons and stood back to admire the lovely girl. “I can understand his attraction to you.”

“Charles, are you sure you want to do this?” asked Denise with concern. “Joe is a honest, decent young man. I don’t want anything to happen to him.”

“Nothing is going to happen to him,” promised Charles. “I just want to make sure he does what I want.”

Denise nodded. “How was your day?” she asked.

“Very profitable,” answered Charles. “I found that poker is a popular game in Virginia City. I was able to interest several wealthy men in playing with me. And, of course, I won.”

“Of course,” said Denise. “We best go down to dinner.”

Dinner was another lively meal. Charles was even more entertaining than the evening before, telling stories of the excitement of living in New Orleans. Ben watched Joe with increasing concern. He could tell that Joe was becoming fascinated with Charles’ stories. Denise added a few comments to make the stories even livelier. Joe’s fascination with Denise was growing, also. Ben wanted to do something to bring his son down to earth, to see the reality of things. He knew he had to get Joe away from Charles and Denise for a while.

As the conversation lagged, Ben saw his chance. “Joe, I know you had plans with Denise tomorrow, but I need you to take the timber contracts to the lawyer in Virginia City. There’s some things I want you to go over with him,” Ben said.

Joe looked displeased. “Can’t Adam or Hoss do that?” he asked.

“No,” Ben said quickly, before Adam or Hoss could volunteer. “Your brothers have other work to do. This is important. I need someone I can trust.” Ben turned to Denise. “I’m sorry to disrupt your plans.”

Smiling, Denise shrugged. “It’s all right. I know Joe has more important things to do than show me around.”

Joe’s inner conflict showed on his face. He wanted to spend the day with Denise. But he also felt good that his father would trust him with discussing the contracts.

Before Joe could say anything, Charles intervened. “Joe, I believe I have a solution,” he offered. “I need to go to Virginia City again tomorrow. Why don’t Denise and I go with you. You and I can take care of our business while Denise shops. Then the three of us can have lunch.”

Ben frowned as Joe enthusiastically agreed to Charles’ suggestion. This was not what he had hoped would happen. He was trying to separate Joe from Charles and Denise, not have him spend the day with both of them. But Ben knew there was no way he could change the situation now. He sat silently as Joe eagerly made plans for the next day.

*****

The morning was clear and crisp as Joe drove the buckboard to town. Charles and Denise sat in the seats behind him, commenting on the view as they traveled. Joe felt a sense of pride as they praised the Ponderosa. As they traveled toward Virginia City, Charles began to tell Joe more stories about New Orleans and Joe listened with rapt attention as he drove. “New Orleans sounds like a really exciting place,” Joe said enthusiastically. “I wish I could see it.”

“Perhaps you will some day,” answered Charles. “You can come visit with Denise and me. We’ll show the sights, just as you have been showing us your wonderful ranch.”

“Maybe some day,” said Joe with a touch of discouragement. “I don’t think Pa is going to let me go to New Orleans anytime soon.”

“That’s too bad,” Charles sympathized. “I know you would enjoy it. Denise and I would love to show you around, introduce you to the people we know. I feel you would make quite an impression on them.”

“Maybe some day,” Joe said wistfully.

Virginia City was its usual, calm self as they arrived in town. A few people strolled on the sidewalks as Joe drove the buckboard to the mercantile. He helped Denise out of the wagon. “I’m afraid that you won’t find much of interest here,” he apologized. “We’re kind of out of touch with the latest fashions.”

“Don’t worry,” said Denise as she put a hand gently on his shoulder. “I’m sure I can find some things to buy.”

“Shall we meet at the hotel restaurant at noon?” suggested Charles. “I hear the food there is quite acceptable.” They agreed to meet at the hotel, and the three went their separate ways.

Joe spent the next few hours with their lawyer, presenting the contracts and discussing the questions Ben and Adam had raised. Admittedly, he had to refer several times to a paper which Ben had given him, but Joe felt he had handled things well. The lawyer listened carefully, and asked Joe several questions, all of which he answered easily.

When the meeting was finally over, Joe hurried to the hotel. It was past twelve, and he was worried that Denise and Charles would be tired of waiting for him. When he entered the lobby, he saw Denise sitting quietly in a chair, surrounded by packages. Charles was nowhere in sight.

“I see you managed to find a few things,” Joe said with a smile.

“Yes,” Denise replied with a smile. “Your shops are not as bare as you would have led me to believe.”

Joe looked around. “Where’s Charles?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” answered Denise. “I haven’t seen him since this morning.”

Moving quickly, Joe sat on the chair next to Denise and took her hand. “We will just have to amuse ourselves until he gets here,” he said with a grin. Denise smiled back at him. The couple talked, oblivious to the people around them, and the time that was flying by. When the clock in the lobby stuck one o’clock, Joe looked up with a frown. Charles was still nowhere around.

“Maybe I had better go look for him,” suggested Joe. “Something might have happened.”

“Whatever you think is best,” said Denise.

Joe felt a surge of pleasure at her confidence in him. He kissed her hand lightly. “I’ll be back soon,” he promised. Denise nodded and watched him leave.

In quick succession, Joe checked the bank, the telegraph office and the sheriff’s office, but no one had seen Charles. He was becoming increasingly concerned as he stopped in at the mercantile and his quest was unsuccessful there also. As he passed the Silver Dollar saloon, he glanced in, then stopped. Charles was sitting at a table in the saloon, sipping a glass of whiskey; he held several cards in his hand.

Pushing open the doors, Joe walked in. He stopped a few feet from the table and watched, not wanting to interrupt the game. When Charles finally laid down his cards and collected the chips on the table, he walked up.

“Charles, we were worried about you,” he said.

Startled, Charles looked up at Joe over his shoulder. “Joseph, how rude of me,” Charles replied. “I lost track of the time. Let me cash in and we can leave.”

A rough looking miner sitting at the table frowned. “You can’t leave,” growled the man. “You have to give me a chance to win my money back. You have over a hundred dollars of mine.”

“Sorry, another time,” said Charles as he stood. “I have an appointment to keep.”

The miner stood also. “I said, you’re not leaving,” the man shouted angrily. “I want to get my money back. I’ll bet you’ve been cheating!”

“Calm down, friend,” said Joe, trying to pacify him. “No one has been cheating. You’ve just had a run of bad luck.”

“Keep out of this, sonny,” ordered the miner. “This is between him and me.” The miner turned to Charles. “I want my money back, and I’m going to get it now,” he threatened. The man started to reach for the pistol in the holster on his hip. His gun was only half out of the holster when he heard another gun being cocked. He looked up with astonishment to see Joe with a gun in his hand, pointed directly at him.

“I think you’d better leave that right where it is,” said Joe in a commanding voice.

The miner hesitated then slid his gun back into the holster. Joe did the same. “Come on, Charles, let’s get out of here,” suggested Joe. As Charles and Joe turned to leave, the miner took a few steps forward and grabbed Joe’s shoulder. He spun Joe around and punched him on the jaw, knocking Joe to the ground. Joe laid stunned for a moment then quickly scrambled to his feet. He threw two short jabs into the miner’s stomach. As the man bent over, Joe hit him again in the face. The miner reeled backward, falling over a chair, then crashed to the floor. Joe stood over him, fists ready, but the man laid motionless on the floor. Joe watched him for a minute, until he was convinced he would have no more trouble with the miner. Then he turned to Charles.

“Let’s go,” said Joe.

“Are you all right?” asked Charles with concern as they walked out of the saloon and toward the hotel.

Grinning, Joe nodded. “I’m fine. That wasn’t much of a fight. I’ve had worse brawls with my brothers.”

“Thank you for coming to my defense,” said Charles gratefully.

Joe shrugged. “It was nothing,” he replied. “But how did you end up in there? I thought you had business to take care of?”

“Oh, I was curious,” explained Charles. “I stopped in to take a look and started talking with one of the men. Next thing I knew, I was playing poker with them. I had no idea that things would get so out of hand.”

“This isn’t New Orleans,” Joe advised. “People around here are kind of rough. You’d better watch yourself.”

“I will, Joseph,” said Charles. “I will.”

After meeting Denise in the lobby, Joe escorted Charles and Denise into the dinning room. During the meal, Charles told Denise about how Joe rescued him from the miner.

“Oh, Joe, how brave you are!” exclaimed Denise in admiration.

“It was nothing,” answered Joe modestly. “That fellow was just mad. I doubt he would have actually done anything.”

“But he hit you,” said Denise. “And even though you were hurt, you defended and protected Charles. You are truly courageous.”

“It was nothing,” repeated Joe, although Denise’s obvious high regard for him raised his spirits considerably.

“Joseph, I agree with Denise,” added Charles. “Having you around makes me feel very safe and secure. Thank you.”

Embarrassed by the praise, Joe changed the subject as they finished the meal. However, he couldn’t resist taking a peek at Denise from time to time. He pleased with the respect he saw in her face.

After leaving the hotel, Joe loaded Denise’s packages into the buckboard then helped the girl into the wagon while Charles watched almost in amusement. As the trio drove back to the ranch, Joe said, “Maybe you’d better not say anything to Pa about what happened.”

“But why not?” asked Denise. “You are a hero. Your father will be proud.”

“Well, I’m not so sure he will approve of me getting into a bar room fight,” answered Joe.

“You were defending me,” said Charles. “There’s no dishonor in that.”

“Just the same, I think it would be best not to bring it up,” Joe insisted.

“All right,” agreed Charles. “But I must say again, you are quite a young man. I’m sorry I won’t have a chance to introduce you to my friends in New Orleans.”

“Well, maybe some day,” Joe said, dismissing Charles’ comment. Charles looked at him thoughtfully as they rode.

When they returned to the ranch, Charles and Denise went to the house while Joe stabled the horses. Sitting at his desk, Ben looked up as his guests walked in. He noted the packages that Charles was carrying. “Well, it looks like you had a productive day,” Ben said politely.

“Yes, very productive,” answered Charles. “Denise found a few things she needed in town. If you’ll excuse us, I will take them to her room.” Ben nodded as Charles and Denise climbed the stairs.

A moment later, Joe walked into the house and strolled over to the desk where Ben was sitting. “The lawyer said he thought the contracts were okay,” declared Joe.

Seeing a red mark on Joe’s chin that was turning into a bruise, Ben frowned. “What happened to you?” he asked.

Rubbing his chin self-consciously, Joe answered quickly, “Nothing. Just bumped myself.”

Ben had seen the results of too many fights not to recognize the marks of a fist. But Joe obviously didn’t want to tell him what had happened. Ben didn’t like the fact that Joe was keeping something from him. He wondered if Charles had anything to do with Joe getting bruised. He suspected Charles had played some part.

However, Ben simply sighed and didn’t pursue the matter further. “Well, what exactly did the lawyer say,” Ben asked as Joe sat down in the chair next to the desk. The two began discussing the contracts.

Upstairs, Charles had followed Denise into her room. He placed the packages on the bed. “Whatever did you find to buy in this backwater little town?” he asked.

“A few outfits which look better on a ranch than the clothes I brought,” answered Denise. “I thought that Joe might like it if I fit in a little better.”

“Good idea,” said Charles. He turned to leave.

“Charles,” called Denise as he reached the door. “What really happened in town?”

Near the door, Charles stopped. “Nothing much,” he answered. “Some ruffian accused me of cheating and Joe gallantly came to my defense.”

“Were you cheating?” asked Denise.

“I would have, if needed, but it wasn’t necessary, my dear,” answered Charles. “Fortunately, the men in Virginia City are very bad poker players. I won playing an honest game. Quite an experience, really.”

“What if Joe had been hurt?” said Denise with concern. “I mean, that might have caused some difficulties with your plans.”

“No need to worry,” Charles assured the girl. “Joe had the situation perfectly under control.

Besides, if he had needed it, I would have helped him with this.” Charles twisted his arm slightly, and a long, thin knife slide into his hand.

Denise frowned. “Are you still wearing that thing? I hate it. It’s so wicked looking. I wish you would get rid of it.”

“It pays to have protection, especially out here in the West,” replied Charles. “Besides, it’s a handy little item. You never know when you might need it.” Charles slid the knife up his sleeve. “I’ll see you at dinner.” He kissed Denise lightly on the cheek. “I miss you,” he added softly, then left the room. Denise stared at the door as it closed behind him, her face full of confusion.

*****

Dinner was a fairly subdued meal. Charles seemed to have run out of stories to tell and chatted in a disinterested tone. Denise and Joe ignored everyone except each other while Adam and Hoss exchanged amused glances from time to time as they watched their brother. Ben said little. His misgivings about the situation were continuing to grow.

As soon as possible, Joe and Denise left the table for a walk in the moonlight. Charles observed them leave, an amused smile on his face. Then he turned to Ben. “They are quite an attractive couple,” he said. Ben said nothing. “It’s a shame we are going to have to leave soon,” continued Charles. “I believe Denise is going to miss your son.”

“You’re leaving?” said Ben in surprise. “When?”

“In a few days,” answered Charles. “I’ve already stayed longer than I planned. But I’ve had a pleasant time, and I know Denise is enjoying herself. Unfortunately, my business requires me to return to New Orleans soon.”

“We’ve enjoyed having you here,” said Adam politely. He looked pointedly at Ben who simply sipped his coffee.

“Thank you. Well, it’s been a long day,” replied Charles. “I believe I will go up to my room. I know Denise will be safe with Joseph.” Charles stood and nodded his goodnights, then left the table.

“You ought to be pleased, Pa,” said Adam after Charles had left. “Our guests are leaving soon.”

“I suppose so,” observed Ben. “But I can’t help wondering why they are really here. I find it hard to believe that Charles merely wanted to meet Joe. There’s got to be something more to it.”

“But, Pa, he ain’t said or done anything unusual,” said Hoss.

“I know, I know,” agreed Ben. “But I’m still uncomfortable with this situation. I’ll be very glad when they are gone.”

*****

In the moonlight, Joe and Denise walked hand in hand. As they reached the meadow next to the house, Joe pulled Denise gently to the ground. He leaned back against a boulder and Denise laid her head on his shoulder.

“You look lovely tonight,” murmured Joe as he kissed Denise lightly on the forehead.

She smiled up at him. She was wearing one of the dresses she had purchased in Virginia City. “You’re kind,” she said. “This dress is very comfortable. It’s nice not to have to worry about whether one is wearing the correct clothes.”

“Wearing the correct clothes?” asked Joe in puzzlement.

“In New Orleans, one is judged by the clothes one wears,” explained Denise. “Clothes, manners, associates…all this is very important in New Orleans society.”

“Sounds kind of silly,” remarked Joe.

“Yes,” replied Denise. “When you look at it from out here, where life is simpler, it does seem trivial. It is a bit of a relief not to worry so much about the clothes one wears.”

“I would like you if you were wearing no clothes,” Joe said with a grin.

“Oh, Joe, you’re so wicked!” Denise admonished him in mock shock. She smiled at him invitingly. Joe leaned over and kissed her. His hand stroked her hair. He was mildly surprised to feel Denise’s hand running through his hair and pulling him closer. When they separated, Joe looked at her with desire in her eyes. Then, determination crossed his face. “Come on,” he said with a sigh as he stood and helped Denise to her feet. “We’d better go back before we do something we’ll both regret.”

Astonishment filled Denise’s face, and this time, she was not pretending. Her face softened. “Joe,” she said, “You are the most unusual man I’ve ever met.”

Joe smiled. “I hope that’s a good thing.”

“It is a good thing, a very good thing,” Denise assured him earnestly.

*****

Despite Ben’s efforts to keep Joe away from Charles and Denise, Joe spent a lot of time with the pair over the next two days. He finished every job that Ben found for him quickly, and then raced off to be with Denise. He claimed he was showing Denise the countryside, but Ben noticed the horse that pulled the buggy showed little sign of being driven. The more Ben tried to distract Joe, the more Joe was attracted to Denise. Ben was thankful when Charles told him that the pair was leaving in two days. Ben felt sure that once Denise was gone, Joe would come back down to earth.

Ben was reading in his chair by the fire during the afternoon, taking a welcome break from a long day of work. Charles strolled down the stairs, and sat on the sofa near Ben.

“Benjamin, we will be leaving tomorrow,” announced Charles. “I’ve made arrangement to take the stage to San Francisco, and then a ship to New Orleans.”

“Have you told Joe?” asked Ben. “I know he will be sorry to see you leave.”

“I thought I would let Denise tell him,” replied Charles. “I thought perhaps she could ease the disappointment of our leaving better than I could.”

“Hm, well, yes,” said Ben hesitantly. He had a feeling that nothing was going to make this departure easy for Joe.

“I have a feeling that you will not be unhappy to see us leave,” Charles commented pointedly.

Before Ben could reply, Joe came bursting into the house, a look of dismay on his face. “Denise tells me you are leaving tomorrow,” Joe said to Charles.

“Yes, I’m afraid we must go,” answered Charles.

“You can’t go yet,” demanded Joe. “You have to stay longer.”

“I’m sorry, Joseph, but we must get back to New Orleans,” Charles replied. “We have had a pleasant visit, but business demands our return.”

Joe looked to Ben, who had said nothing, and then back to Charles. Joe seemed to be making up his mind about something. Finally, he declared, “I want to ask Denise to marry me.”

“What!” said Ben. “Joe, you barely know her. How can you talk about marrying her?”

“Pa, I love her,” Joe insisted. “I love her more than I can say. I know I can make her happy.”

“Joe…” Ben started to say, but his son interrupted him.

“Pa, my mind is made up. I’m old enough to make my own decisions,” Joe said firmly. “You’ve told me that. I’ve decided to ask Denise to marry me.” Joe turned to Charles. “Do we have your blessing?”

“I’m afraid not,” Charles answered.

Ben raised his eyes in surprise. He was sure that Charles had planned to have Denise marry Joe in order to somehow share in the wealth of the Ponderosa. He was astonished to hear Charles deny Joe’s request.

“We don’t need your blessing,” stated Joe angrily. “Denise and I both are old enough to do what we want. We’ll get married no matter what you say.”

“I’m afraid that Denise won’t marry you without my approval,” said Charles. “She has always been an obedient and thoughtful girl. To marry you without my approval is something she wouldn’t even consider.”

A look of despair clouded Joe’s face. “Please, Charles,” he pleaded. “Let me ask Denise to be my wife.”

“Joseph, you don’t understand,” replied Charles. “I’m not forbidding you to court Denise. But I know how the first flush of love can feel. Everything is wonderful. There are no problems, no barriers which can not be overcome. Only after time does reality set in, and the real obstacles emerge.”

Ben listened with amazement. He would have never guessed Charles would take his side on such a matter.

“You and Denise need time to get to know each other, to let reality set in,” continued Charles. “If you had a few months together, and still felt the same way, I would willingly give my blessing.”

“Charles is right,” said Ben. “You need to give love time to grow.”

“But there is no time,” insisted Joe. “Denise is leaving tomorrow.”

“If you two truly love each other, time and distance won’t diminish your feelings,” Ben assured his son..

“Pa, you don’t understand,” Joe said angrily. “Once she goes back to New Orleans, things won’t be the same. I’ll lose her; I know I will.” Joe turned and stalked out of the house.

Turning to Charles, Ben said, “Thank you. I confess I’m surprised that you agreed with me.”

“I have only Joe and Denise’s best interests at heart,” answered Charles. “However, I must think about this situation. Perhaps there is a solution.” Charles stood and walked to the stairs. He stopped at the bottom and turned to Ben. “Let me talk with Denise. I must take her feelings into account also.” Charles climbed the stairs to his room.

Ben’s face darkened. While he was pleased with the way Charles handled Joe’s outburst, he had a feeling that something more was going to happen. He couldn’t quite figure out what was going to happen, but he knew he wasn’t going to like it.

Up in his room, Charles was laying on the bed in his room when there was a knock on the door. Getting up slowly, he opened the door and saw Denise standing in the hallway. She looked troubled and confused. “Mr. Cartwright said you wanted to talk with me,” she said, entering the room. “Why?”

“My dear, you should be grateful to me,” answered Charles. “I just rescued you from being married to Joseph.”

“Married?” she said in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“Joseph wanted to ask you to marry him. I told him no. I just rescued you from a life of barn dances, church socials and a boring life on this ranch.”

“And a man who loves and respects me,” added Denise wistfully.

“For now, yes. But what will happen when he finds out the truth about you?” asked Charles.

“You would tell him?” asked Denise with alarm.

“No, of course not,” answered Charles. “But the truth would come out somehow. It always does. The love in his eyes would turn to hate, the respect would turn to loathing. I couldn’t let you go through that.”

“I suppose you are right,” agreed Denise, her voice filled with disappointment. “For a moment, I had a picture of a normal, happy life. I should have known it couldn’t happen.”

“Don’t despair, my dear,” said Charles. “Once our task is completed, you and I shall have a happy life. You can have anything you wish. I promise you that.”

Denise sighed. “All right. What happens now?”

“Now I put my plan into action,” Charles told the girl. “All you have to do is agree with me. Whatever I say or do, you will support me.”

*****

At dinner that evening, Joe was the picture of misery. Every time he looked at Denise, his heart seemed to break. Adam and Hoss tried to make conversation but Joe ignored them. Ben felt sympathy for his son, but also felt the decision to block the marriage was a wise one. He only wished he could make Joe understand that.

After an almost silent dinner, the Cartwrights and their guests moved into the living room. An awkward silence filled that room, also. Finally, Charles cleared his throat and stood.

“I have been thinking about our little problem,” he announced, “And I believe I have a solution.”

Joe looked at him in surprise. In his mind, there was no solution to the problem except to let him marry Denise.

“And what is your solution?” asked Ben warily.

“I believe the answer is for Joe to return to New Orleans with Denise and me,” stated Charles.

“What?” shouted Ben. “You can’t be serious.”

“Joe’s part of the Ponderosa,” added Adam. “You can’t take him away from here.”

“Now hear me out,” said Charles hastily. “I have been exploring the possibility of shipping beef directly to outlets in New Orleans. I think it can be a good business. Joe can help me get it organized. He knows cattle, and how the ranching end of it works. I can deal with the restaurants and hotels in New Orleans. Joe can come to New Orleans with me, help me build the business. I would venture that he would eventually run it for me. At the same time, he and Denise can get to know each other better. If their feelings remain unchanged, then I can approve of their marriage.”

Denise was sitting next to Joe on the sofa. She turned to him, and grabbed his arm. “Joe, isn’t this a wonderful idea!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. “I can show you so much of New Orleans. And we will be together.”

Joe sat stunned. He didn’t know what to say. He had never thought about leaving the Ponderosa. Now he was being offered a chance to visit New Orleans, a city he had dreamed about, and with a girl he loved. But at the same time, it meant leaving his home, and his family.

“Charles, this is a ridiculous idea,” said Ben angrily. “I won’t have you breaking up my family. I won’t allow it.”

“I believe Joseph is old enough to make such a decision for himself,” replied Charles, unfazed by Ben’s anger. “And think of how good it would be for him. I can introduce him to the right people in New Orleans, to the society there.” He turned to Joe with an apologetic look. “It would help smooth off some of the rough edges, so to speak. He could become the polished, worldly young man I know he has the potential to be.”

“Joe, you ain’t said anything,” said Hoss with a worried face. “What do you think?”

Still stunned, Joe shook his head. “I don’t know,” he answered slowly. “I hadn’t thought about leaving. I need a little time to sort this out in my mind.”

“Of course, of course,” said Charles. “I know I’ve sprung a rather unsettling idea on you. Denise and I will delay our departure for a day or two while you think it over. But I hope you will accept my offer.”

“Oh, so do I,” added Denise with a dazzling smile. “Joe, it could be so wonderful. Please say you will come.”

“Denise and I will say our goodnights, now,” said Charles before Joe could reply. He offered his hand to the young woman. Denise turned to Joe and kissed him lightly on the cheek, then took Charles’ hand. The pair walked slowly up the stairs.

The Cartwrights sat in stunned silence after Charles and Denise had gone. No one seemed to know what to say.

“Joe, you can’t be seriously considering accepting Charles’ offer,” Adam finally stated.

“I don’t know, Adam,” answered Joe. “I need to think on it for awhile.” He looked at Ben and saw the pain on his father’s face. “Pa, I don’t want to hurt you,” he added. “But I really need to think about this.”

Ben nodded. “I understand, son,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “You…you think on it.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied gratefully. He stood. “Think I’ll take a walk.” Joe turned and walked out the front door.

“Pa, you aren’t going to let Joe go?” said Hoss with concern.

“I don’t see how we can stop him,” answered Ben.

“But, Pa, going to New Orleans? With Charles and Denise? I think it’s a bad idea,” argued Adam.

“I agree,” replied Ben. “But if we tell Joe he can’t go, it will only make him want to go. He has to decide for himself. We can’t force him to do what we want.”

*****

Denise had maintained her calm and happy expression until she and Charles reached her room. At the door, she looked quickly over her shoulder to be sure no one had followed them. Assured that they were alone, she grabbed Charles’ arm and pulled him into her room. Her face showed a look of panic.

“Charles, what are you thinking?” she cried in alarm. “Joe can’t go back to New Orleans with us. As soon as he gets there, he’ll learn the truth about us.”

“Calm down, my dear, calm down,” said Charles reassuringly. “I have no intention of allowing Joe to return to New Orleans with us.”

“Then I don’t understand,” said Denise with a frown. “What was all that talk about downstairs?”

“I need to get Joe away from his family in order to get him to sign that paper,” replied Charles. “Ben and Adam are obviously too sharp to let him sign anything without their reading it first. And if they read the paper, they’ll liable to figure out what it truly means. I can’t take that chance.”

“What do you plan to do?” Denise asked.

“It’s simple. We must persuade Joe to accompany us back to New Orleans. Along the way, I’ll find an excuse to have him sign the paper. Once the paper is signed, we no longer need him. We can get rid of him.”

“Get rid of him?” exclaimed Denise in alarm. “What do you mean by that? You aren’t going to hurt him?”

“Of course not,” Charles answered quickly. “I simply meant we would find a reason to send him home. A lover’s quarrel, perhaps. But I’m counting on you to persuade him to accompany us. Denise, it is very important to our future that you succeed.”

Denise stared at Charles, then slowly nodded. “All right,” she agreed. “As long you promise me that nothing will happen to Joe.”

“I believe you are growing fond of the boy,” Charles remarked.

“He’s a fine, decent young man,” said Denise. “I feel bad enough about what we are doing. I want your word, Charles. Promise me you will not harm Joe.”

Charles sighed. “I promise you….nothing will happen to Joe.”

*****

It was late when Joe returned to the house. He had spent a long time walking and thinking about Charles’ suggestion. The thought of going to New Orleans and his growing love for Denise made Charles’ plan very attractive. But every time he thought of leaving the Ponderosa and his family, he felt a great sadness. He had pondered the problem for a long time, but was no closer to a decision. Finally, he decided to sleep on it. Perhaps things would be clearer in the morning.

The house was dark and quiet when Joe walked in the front door. However, Joe was surprised to see his father still up. Ben was standing near the fireplace, staring into the flames.

“Pa, I thought you’d be in bed by now,” said Joe.

Ben turned to Joe. “I wanted to talked with you,” he answered solemnly.

Joe sighed. “Pa, I know what you are going to say….” Joe started.

“No, I don’t think you do,” interrupted Ben. Joe looked at him in surprise. Ben walked to his favorite chair and sat down. “Joe, sit down for a minute.”

Joe hesitated then walked over to the sofa and sat down. He waited with a wary look on his face to hear what Ben had to say. Joe guessed his father was going to try to persuade him to stay.

“Joe, I know that Charles’ plan about going to New Orleans sounds very attractive,” Ben stated. “But I want you to think about it very carefully before you decide anything. The Ponderosa is your home. Your future is here. Your family is here. Do you really want to leave all this to go off to a unknown place with people who are virtual strangers?”

“Pa, you left home to come out West and start a new life,” replied Joe. “You had a dream to build the Ponderosa, and you succeeded. Why shouldn’t I have the same chance?”

“That was different,” countered Ben. “After Adam’s mother died, there was nothing for me in New England. I wanted to go some place where I could start over, some place where I could build something to give my son. There’s no reason for you to leave. You have something here already to build on, to leave to your children when the time comes.”

“But, Pa, what if I want to strike out on my own?” asked Joe. “What if I want to see if I can build something from nothing like you did. Charles is offering me a chance to do that.”

“Joe, I can understand your wanting to do something on your own,” answered Ben. “But I just don’t think that this is the right way to do it.”

Joe sighed. “I knew you would disapprove,” he said. “You still think of me as just a boy, not a grown man like Adam or Hoss. If they wanted to leave, you wouldn’t stop them.”

“You’re wrong, Joe,” Ben told his son. “On both counts. I know you’re a man. And I’m not going to try and stop you, if this is what you really want. The decision is up to you. All I’m asking is you think about it very carefully before you decide anything. “

Joe looked at his father in surprise. “You mean it?” he asked. “If I decide to go, you won’t stop me?”

“I won’t stop you,” agreed Ben. “But I would miss you. Adam and Hoss would miss you. And I think you would miss us and the Ponderosa. But, as I said, the decision is yours.”

“It’s a hard decision, Pa,” Joe said, shaking his head. “I love Denise and I don’t want to lose her. Going to New Orleans would give me the chance to get her to agree to marry me. And I could show her how I can do something on my own. But you’re right. I would miss you and Adam and Hoss. I just don’t know what to do.”

Gently, Ben laid a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I know, Joe,” he acknowledged in an understanding voice. “Just do what I ask and think about it long and hard before you decide anything.”

“I will, I promise,” Joe said, nodding his head. He smiled. “I think I’ll go up to bed. Are you coming?”

“No, I think I’ll stay down here awhile,” answered Ben. He watched as Joe climbed the stairs to his room. Ben sighed. He hoped he had said the right things. He knew if he had argued with Joe, Joe’s stubborn steak would have come out, and his youngest son would have gone to New Orleans no matter what he said. And Ben had meant what he said. He had to let Joe decide this for himself. He only hoped Joe’s decision – whatever it was – would turn out to be the right one for his youngest son.

*****

Breakfast the next morning was a quiet meal. Charles had skipped breakfast, leaving a note saying that he was going to Virginia City to make the changes in his travel arrangements. Ben suspected that Charles knew that facing him in the morning would be unpleasant, and had avoided a potentially ugly confrontation. Nevertheless, Ben still intended to have a private talk with Charles.

During the meal, Adam and Hoss seemed at a loss for words. Both looked at Joe for some sign of what he was thinking, but all they could see was confusion on their younger brother’s face. Neither knew how to bring up the subject of Joe’s leaving, particularly with Denise sitting at the table next to Joe.

Denise also said little during breakfast, although she frequently smiled encouragingly at Joe. Joe returned her smiles with a distracted air.

As the meal was completed, Denise turned to Joe and said with a smile, “Would you take me for a walk? Our remaining time here is so short. I want to see the Ponderosa again so I will be sure to remember it when I leave.”

Ben, Adam and Hoss frowned at Denise’s suggestion. All three were sure she was going to try to pressure Joe to accept Charles’ invitation. However, before anyone could say anything, Joe nodded and stood.

“Sure,” Joe answered in a distracted voice. “A walk is a good idea.” He took Denise’s hand and led her from the table.

“Doggone it, Pa”, said Hoss after the pair left. “Are you just going to sit there and let that gal talk Joe into leaving?”

“Hoss, what do you want me to do?” asked Ben. “Hog-tie Joe and keep him in his room until Denise leaves?”

“That ain’t a bad idea,” muttered Hoss.

“Pa’s right,” stated Adam. “We can’t keep Denise from talking with Joe. Besides, I think we should let her have her say. Once she’s done, maybe we can talk with him. We should be able to point out a few facts of life to our youngest brother.”

“Now, Adam, I don’t want you two arguing with Joe,” said Ben, his voice filled with warning. “I told Joe it’s his decision and I meant it.”

“I know, Pa,” replied Adam. “But he should know how Hoss and I feel before he makes up his mind. This is too important to let him decide without knowing what we think.”

“All right,” agreed Ben. “You can tell him what you think. But don’t pressure Joe. This is hard enough on him.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” said Adam in a reassuring voice. “We’re just going to let him know we want him to stay.”

“Yeah,” added Hoss. “We’re just going to talk. But we’re going to make sure our little brother listens.”

*****

In the crisp Nevada air, Joe and Denise walked for awhile in silence. Joe’s was still turning over Charles’ proposal in his mind. He kept thinking about the pro’s and cons of going to New Orleans. Joe wasn’t any closer to a decision.

“Cheri, what’s wrong?” asked Denise in a soft voice.

Joe smiled at her. “When I’m with you, nothing is wrong,” he answered gallantly. Then Joe grew serious. “But I’m just not sure what to do. I want to be with you. I can’t imagine being without you. But it’s also hard to think about leaving the Ponderosa.”

“I know,” sympathized Denise. She stopped and looked at Joe; her face was full of understanding. She softly stroked Joe’s cheek. “I want to be with you. But I can’t stay here without Charles’ blessing. I just can’t.”

“I guess I understand that,” Joe said. “He’s family. And family is important. Pa must have told me that a thousand times. That’s what makes the thought of leaving here so hard.”

Denise nodded understandingly. “I wish I could help you. It must be a difficult decision. But, Joe, think about us. We could be together. New Orleans is a wonderful city, and you would enjoy it so much. WE would enjoy it so much. Remember what I said about how wonderful anything can be if you share it with the right person? I want to share New Orleans with you.”

“I know you do,” said Joe. “And that doesn’t make things any easier.”

Slowly, Denise ran her fingers through Joe’s hair. “Maybe this will help you decide,” she murmured and kissed him. Her kiss was full of passion and surprised Joe. She pulled him closer to her and kissed him even more passionately. She began to nuzzle his neck with her mouth and tongue, and her hands stroked his back lightly. Joe kissed her shoulder and neck in return as he held her tightly. Suddenly, Joe pushed Denise away. She stared at him in astonishment. “What’s wrong,” she asked.

“Nothing,” Joe said, his voice full of emotion. “I want you more than I’ve wanted anything in my life. But not this way. It’s not right.”

For a moment, Denise gazed at Joe in amazement. Then her face suddenly softened. “You’re right, of course. I’m afraid I got carried away,” she said. “It’s just the thought of never seeing you again….”

“Don’t say that,” pleaded Joe. “We’ll be together, I swear. I’ll convince Charles somehow.”

“Joe, you must come with us,” Denise insisted. “That’s the only way you’ll convince Charles to let me marry you.”

“I don’t know,” Joe said miserably. “When I’m with you, I can’t think straight. All I can think of is you.” Joe’s face was full of confusion. “I need some time alone.” He turned his back to Denise and walked off.

As she watched Joe walked away, Denise felt a sense of shame about what she was doing. She wished Charles was here to tell her again why she must do this. She was beginning to hate Charles and his plan. Denise watched Joe for a few more moments, then turned and walked back toward the house.

*****

Joe was sitting under a tree, idly picking at the grass, when Hoss walked up. He turned in surprise when he saw his big brother’s big shadow. He hadn’t heard Hoss approaching.

“Miss Denise told me you were out here. Can I talk to you for a minute, little brother,” said Hoss sitting down next to Joe.

“Sure,” agreed Joe.

Now that he had found Joe, Hoss didn’t seem to know how to begin. The two sat is silence for several minutes staring at the scenery in front of them. They were sitting on the edge of a green meadow. A small brook ran through the meadow, and the water flowed lazily over the rocks in the brook. Yellow and white wild flowers poked through the meadow’s grass. In the distance, the outline of the mountains, their snow-capped peaks barely visible, filled the horizon.

“This sure is a pretty spot,” Hoss said finally. Joe nodded in agreement.

“You won’t see anything like this in a city like New Orleans,” Hoss continued.

“I guess I won’t,” Joe agreed.

“Joe, why the heck are you thinking about leaving?” asked Hoss. “I mean, what could you possibly want that you can’t find here on the Ponderosa?”

“It’s complicated, Hoss,” answered Joe. “I don’t think you would understand.”

“Try me,” suggested Hoss.

Joe sighed. “I’m not sure I can explain it. If I go to New Orleans, I’ll have to chance to be my own man.”

“You can be your own man right here,” asserted Hoss.

“Maybe,” said Joe. “But it’s not easy with you, and Adam and Pa always around. Here, I’m always just one of the Cartwrights, and the youngest one at that. I’m not Joe Cartwright. I’m just the little brother who gets to help out from time to time.”

“Joe, I thought we sorted that all out,” replied Hoss. “Adam and I apologized for what we done.”

“I know you did,” Joe assured his brother. “And I know you meant it at the time. But how long will it be before you forget again? And how long will I have to wait until I’m taken seriously around here.”

“We take you serious,” protested Hoss.

“No, you don’t, not really,” answered Joe. He sat up and turned to Hoss. “Don’t you see, if I go to New Orleans, I can help Charles build his business. He wants my advice and he’ll listen to me. And I won’t be just one of the Cartwrights. People will get to know me, Joe Cartwright. They won’t be looking to see if Pa or Adam or you are standing behind me.”

“Joe, are you sure this ain’t just about Miss Denise?” asked Hoss. “I know you got strong feelings for her. But if she really loved you, she wouldn’t be making you decide between her and us.”

“I don’t know, Hoss,” admitted Joe. “She’s part of it, sure. And I do love her. But if she stayed here, she would have to give up her world for mine. I don’t know if I can ask her to do that. Not without really knowing what I’m asking her to give up.”

Hoss looked at his brother in surprise. “I thought you were thinking about leaving just because of a pretty face. But it’s more than that, isn’t it,” Hoss said.

Joe nodded. “Yes, it’s more than that.”

“Pa’s right,” said Hoss. “You’re the one who’s got to decide what to do. None of us can decide for you. I don’t want you to leave, but you got decide that. Just remember, Joe, you’ll always be my brother, no matter where you are or what you do. That’ll never change. Ol’ Hoss will always be there for you if you need me.”

The hint of tears showed in Joe’s eyes. “Thanks,” he answered, his voice strained with emotion.

Hoss patted his brother on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you to your thinking,” he said. Hoss stood and walked slowly away.

Joe turned back to look at the meadow. He shook his head. The decision wasn’t getting any easier to make.

*****

Ben sat at his desk, shuffling papers but not really reading them. He kept thinking of Joe. He wished his youngest son was not faced with this dilemma. He wished even more than Joe would decide to stay.

Sighing, Ben stacked the papers in front of him. He tried to work, but he couldn’t concentrate. He heard a buggy pull up to the house and stood to look out the window. A grim expression emerged on his face as he saw Charles leave the buggy and walk toward the house. Charles entered the house and walked toward the stairs. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Ben called to him.

“Charles,” called Ben in an angry voice. “I want to talk with you.”

A flicker of concern crossed Charles’ face, then he smiled. “Of course,” said Charles. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I want to know what game you are playing with my son,” demanded Ben.

“Game? I don’t know what you are talking about,” replied Charles.

“Oh, I think you do,” said Ben. “You show up here after 25 years and want to spend time with your cousin Marie’s son. What brought on this sudden concern? And why are you trying to lure him to New Orleans?”

“Ben, I assure you that everything I’ve said or done is just as it seems,” Charles answered firmly. “I had to be out here on business. I decided that it would be an opportunity to visit, that’s all. I had no idea that something would blossom between Joe and Denise. My suggestion that he return with us is the only possible solution to a potential problem.”

“You’re trying to break up my family,” shouted Ben. “I won’t have it. Whatever you trying to do, I want you to call it off. Now.”

“As I said, there’s nothing to call off. I have give Joe a chance to come to New Orleans with me. He can either come or not. The decision is his,” said Charles. He bowed slightly. “Now if you will excuse me….” He turned and walked rapidly up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, out of Ben’s sight, Charles stopped. He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead. The confrontation with Ben disturbed him; in fact, if he was forced to admit it, it frightened him a bit. Charles was determined to leave as soon as possible.

As he walked to his room, he glanced into Denise’s room then stopped. He was surprised to see Denise sitting at the dressing table in her room.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “I thought you would be with Joe, convincing him to come with us.”

“I was with him,” Denise replied. “But he wanted to be alone to think.”

“I’m disappointed in you, my dear,” said Charles. “I thought by now you would have him in the palm of your hand. A hot-blooded young man like Joe and a beautiful young woman like you, well, a little seduction should be no problem.”

Denise bit her lip. “I did try to seduce him,” she admitted. “But Joe has a very strong sense of right and honor. He refused to give in to his feelings for me.”

Lifting an eyebrow in surprise, Charles said, “He refused you? He’s quite a remarkable young man. I’m almost tempted to allow him to come to New Orleans with us. Marie, his mother, always snubbed me, always let me know she disapproved of me. It would be amusing to lead her son into the low life she so disdained. I’m sure I could do it. A few months, and even Ben Cartwright would be disgusted with his son.”

“Charles! No!” cried Denise. “Joe’s a good man. You can’t do that. You can’t make him into…”

“Into me?” finished Charles with a smile. “Don’t worry, my dear. I was just amusing myself. The plan will remain unchanged. Joe will never get to New Orleans.”

“Charles, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about this,” said Denise in a hesitant voice. “I think we should forget the whole idea.”

“Forget it?” replied Charles in an angry voice. “After all I’ve had to do to get this far. You know what is at stake. You know the rewards that you will share if we get what we came after. How can you even think of not continuing?”

“I know what’s at stake,” Denise said. “But that was before I knew Joe, before I knew the Cartwrights. They are good, decent people. I hate what we are doing.”

“Hate it all you want,” snarled Charles. “But do what I tell you. If you don’t, I can assure you the consequences will be quite unpleasant. Quite unpleasant,” Charles finished in a threatening voice.

Denise looked frightened. She knew Charles was capable of almost anything. “All right,” she agreed in a quaking voice. “I’ll do what you want.”

“Good, good,” said Charles in a soothing voice. “Don’t worry, my dear. Everything will turn out as we planned. And then we can lead the life you and I talked about. Now, get into your prettiest gown. We’re going to tell Joe that we are leaving tomorrow. He must make up his mind now. The longer we delay, the less likely he will agree to accompany us.”

*****

Joe spent most of the day riding around the Ponderosa. As he rode, he tried to sort out in his mind what he really wanted. The problem was that the more he thought about it, the more he was unsure about what to do. The hours in the saddle brought him no answers.

It was mid-afternoon when Joe finally returned to the ranch house. He dismounted and led his horse into the barn. He took his time unsaddling and brushing his horse. He was reluctant to go into the house. He knew everyone was waiting for his decision. And he didn’t have one yet.

As Joe worked, Adam walked into the barn. He came over to the stall where Joe was brushing his pinto. “Joe, got a minute?” he asked.

Joe looked up. “What do you want, Adam?” he asked warily.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind but Hoss and I have been talking about what you told him,” Adam said. “I have to admit I was surprised. I didn’t think you realized all the implications of the situation.”

Joe smiled ironically. “You mean, you thought I was just some kid who would act without thinking.”

“I guess I did,” admitted Adam. “But now I know you’re looking at this from all sides. And that’s good. I’m hoping you decide not to leave the Ponderosa.”

“You did,” said Joe. “You left for four years when you went to college back East.”

“And I came back,” responded Adam. “That should tell you something.”

“I don’t know, Adam,” said Joe. “You got to see a lot places, meet a lot of new people. You can back a lot wiser – not just smarter but a lot wiser. I’ve never lived anywhere but on the Ponderosa. Maybe it’s time I saw some new places and people.”

“I saw a lot, that’s true,” agreed Adam. “I saw a lot of the so-called polite society like they have in New Orleans. And, I’ll tell you, Joe, I’d rather face a bunch of Piautes on the warpath than those society people. You can’t imagine what they are like. If you don’t conform, if you don’t do what they think is the ‘right’ thing, they can make your life miserable.”

“Denise has told me a little about that,” Joe admitted. “But she and Charles would help me, show me what to do.”

Adam shook his head. “Charles,” he said with a hint of disgust. “Pa didn’t want to say anything, not without proof. You know how fair he always tries to be. But Charles may not be all that he’s led you to believe.”

“What do you mean?” asked Joe with a frown. “What do you know?”

“I don’t know anything,” admitted Adam. “But I remember as a kid hearing about Marie’s cousin Charles. She didn’t like him. I heard her tell Pa once that he was not a man to be trusted.”

“A casual remark made over twenty years ago?” said Joe. “Come on, Adam, you can do better than that.”

“I’m not saying that we have any concrete proof that Charles isn’t what he says he is,” Adam stated. “All I’m saying is that you had better think about the man who you seem willing to let influence your life for awhile.”

Joe sighed. “You’re not making this any easier, Adam.”

“I know,” Adam replied. “I wish I could. I know this trip to New Orleans sounds exciting. But I’m not sure it’s all that it’s cracked up to be. I hope you will think about it real hard before you make a decision.”

Joe nodded thoughtfully. “I will, Adam, I promise,” he said. An idea was beginning to form in Joe’s mind. “Tell Pa I’ll be in soon. I want to think about something.”

An hour later, Joe walked into the house. He had spent the time in the barn, thinking about what to do. He finally was sure he had the right answer. At least, he hoped it was the right answer.

As Joe walked into the house, a room full people turned expectantly toward him. Adam and Hoss were standing near the fireplace, Ben was sitting in his favorite chair and Denise and Charles were sitting on the sofa. From the look on everyone’s faces, the conversation Joe was interrupting had not been a pleasant one. Joe suspected he was the main topic.

Walking to the fireplace, Joe faced the group. No one said a word. He could tell they were waiting eagerly for him to say something.

“I’ve made a decision,” announced Joe. “I’m going to New Orleans.”

“Oh no,” groaned Ben in dismay.

“I’m delighted, my boy” said Charles.

“Yes, it’s wonderful,” echoed Denise. Her voice seem stained.

Neither Adam or Hoss said anything. Both simply looked horrified at Joe’s announcement.

“Let me finish,” said Joe firmly. “I’m going to New Orleans but only for six months. I’m going to help Charles get his business started. I’ll also get a chance to know the city.” Joe looked at Denise with a smile. “I hope I’ll get a chance to know you better.” Joe turned to Ben. “It’s only a month or two until winter sets in, Pa. You can manage without me during the winter. I promise I’ll be back in time for spring round-up.” Joe hesitated. “And maybe when I come back, Denise will come with me.” Joe couldn’t bring himself to look at her. He was afraid he would be disappointed with what he saw.

“An admirable idea, Joe,” commented Charles, with enthusiasm. “I think you have found the perfect solution.”

“Joe, are you sure? Is this what you really want to do?” Ben asked anxiously.

“Pa, I’m sure,” Joe stated. “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life. Don’t you see, I’m not abandoning you or the Ponderosa. I’m just leaving for awhile, but I’ll be back.”

Rising, Charles lightly slapped Joe on the back. “Now that this is settled, I’m eager to be on our way,” he said. “We should take the morning stage to Carson City. We can catch the stage to San Francisco from there, and then go by boat to New Orleans. In six weeks or less, you’ll be strolling down Bourbon Street.”

“The morning stage? Ain’t that a little quick?” asked Hoss.

“I’ve already stayed longer than I planned,” answered Charles. “Joe has made up his mind. There’s no reason to linger.”

Joe looked doubtful. “I guess you’re right,” he agreed slowly. “I hadn’t thought about leaving so soon, but I guess it’s better than dragging things out.”

“Yes,” Denise added. “It is better to do these things quickly.” She had a strange expression on her face.

“Well, if I’m leaving in the morning, I’d better get moving,” Joe said. “I’ve got a lot of things to do before I go.”

*****

The morning sun shone brightly through the window in Joe’s room as he stuffed some shirts into a saddlebag. He looked around the room to see if he had forgotten anything. His gaze settled on a small picture of his mother on the wall. On an impulse, he grabbed the picture off the wall and stuffed it into the saddlebag.

There was a soft knock on the door. Joe turned as Ben opened the door and entered the room.

“Just about ready?” Ben asked.

“Yes,” answered Joe. He turned back to the saddlebags and began to buckle them close.

Ben noted the saddlebags and a small suitcase on the bed. “Traveling kind of light, aren’t you?” he said with a frown.

“Charles suggested I buy most of the things I need in New Orleans,” answered Joe. “We talked about it last night after dinner. He thinks that I’ll fit in better if I buy clothes and things there.”

“I suppose he’s right,” Ben said with a sigh. He thought about dinner last night. Even though Hop Sing made all of Joe’s favorite foods for the meal, it was hardly a festive occasion. Joe and Charles talked eagerly of their trip and their plans for their new venture while the Cartwrights listened glumly. Even Denise seemed subdued, hardly saying a word. After dinner, everyone except Joe and Charles made an excuse to go to their rooms.

Ben looked hard at Joe. “Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?” he asked.

“I’m sure,” replied Joe with a confident smile. He hit Ben lightly on the arm. “Come on, Pa, don’t take it so hard. I’m only going away for a little while. I’ll be back in the spring. I promise.”

But Ben’s face continued to be troubled. “Joe, I told you the decision was yours. And I meant it,” he said. “I just wish you hadn’t decided to go.”

“I know, Pa,” Joe replied. “But I can’t pass up this chance.”

Ben sighed. “I hope it’s the chance you think it is,” he told his son.

“I know it is,” said Joe eagerly.

“Joe, I want you to promise me that you’ll send word if you need us,” Ben stated. “For any reason. And you can come home anytime you want. I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay in New Orleans to prove something.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” Joe assured his father. “It’ll work out. And if it doesn’t, I’ll come home.” He grabbed the bag from the bed and threw the saddlebags over his shoulder. “We’d better get going or we’ll miss that stage.” Joe walked rapidly from the room; Ben followed him at a much slower pace..

Eager to be on his way, Joe bounded down the stairs. Adam and Hoss were waiting for him at the bottom of the staircase.

“Denise and Charles are waiting outside in the buggy,” said Adam. “Looks like you’re all set.” Joe nodded.

“Well, I guess this is it, little brother,” Hoss added sadly. “Are you sure you don’t want us to come into Virginia City to see you off?”

“No, let’s just say our good-byes here,” answered Joe. “I don’t want a big scene in Virginia City.”

Adam reached out his hand. “You take care, Joe,” he said. “Don’t let those society folks change you too much.”

“Don’t worry, Adam” Joe replied, shaking his brother’s hand. “I’ll be fine. I’m just worried about how you two will run the ranch without me.”

“It’ll be tough but we’ll manage somehow,” Adam joked with a smile.

Turning to Hoss, Joe said, “You take care of my horse for me. I don’t want to come back and find Cochise all fat and lazy.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him,” promised Hoss. He put his hands on Joe’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “You come home safe, you hear,” he said softly. Joe nodded.

Finally, Joe turned to Ben who was standing behind him on the stairs. Joe’s face was filled with emotion. He started to say something, but suddenly his voice wouldn’t work. Ben looked at him for a minute, then reached out and hugged his youngest son. He held Joe tight for a moment. “Take care of yourself, Joseph,” Ben said as he released his son.

Swallowing hard, Joe nodded. He turned and walked to the door. Suddenly, he stopped and looked back at his father and brothers. They seemed rooted to the spots in which they were standing. “See you in the spring,” Joe called, giving a jaunty wave. Then he pulled open the door and left.

*****

The ride on the stage to Carson City with Charles and Denise took Joe’s mind off his family. Charles was his same amusing self, telling stories and eagerly making plans for when they got to New Orleans. Denise looked pale and seemed unusually quiet.

“Denise, is anything wrong?” Joe asked with concern as the stage lurched ahead.

She smiled at him. “No, of course not,” Denise answered. “The dust and this bouncing coach are upsetting me a bit, that’s all.”

“It’s not the smoothest ride, I’ll agree,” said Joe. “But we’ll be in Carson City soon. You can rest there for awhile.”

Denise looked out the window. “Yes, Carson City,” she murmured. “I can’t wait to get there.”

“We’ll be there soon,” repeated Joe.

By the time the stage reached Carson City, it was late afternoon. Joe helped Denise from the stage while Charles collected their baggage. The trio walked to the hotel while the driver and the stage depot manager followed them with the bags.

The Carson City Manor was a large, elegant hotel. The lobby was lavishly decorated with paintings and plants that accented highly polished chairs scattered around it. Charles paused in the lobby, nodding his approval at the rich furnishings. Then he walked briskly to the front desk as Joe and Denise followed him. The driver and stage depot manager deposited their luggage by the door and left.

“Good afternoon, sir. May I help you?” asked the clerk at the desk.

“Charles Dumont,” announced Charles with an aristocratic air. “You have a suite reserved for me.”

“Yes, we do, Mr. Dumont,” replied the clerk as he leafed through some papers. He pulled out a sheet. “Here it is. Our best suite, with three bedrooms, as you requested.”

“Thank you,” said Charles. He pulled a pen from the holder on the desk and signed the registry.

“If you folks have any valuables with you, I suggest you lock them in the hotel safe,” offered the clerk.

“Why’s that?” asked Joe who was standing a short distance behind Charles.

“We had a robbery here yesterday. Fellow got knifed and all his money was stolen. The sheriff is looking for the thief, but hasn’t found him yet. The thief is probably long gone by now, but just in case, we’re warning our guests to keep their valuables in the hotel safe.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” responded Charles. “We have little of value and we are leaving on the stage to San Francisco tomorrow evening.”

“Suit yourself,” said the clerk. “We can’t be responsible for any valuable left in your room.”

Charles merely nodded as the clerk signaled to a boy in the lobby to help with the bags.

Charles turned to Denise and Joe. “We can rest for a while, and then have a refreshing dinner. Tomorrow, you can show Denise the town before we have to leave.” Joe nodded as Denise raised her eyes at Charles, as if asking him a question. But Charles ignored her and followed the hotel boy up the stairs to their room.

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss spent the day working silently around the ranch. None of them seemed to have much interest in their work. Each man knew they all missed Joe already, but none of them wanted to bring up his name. None of them could think of any other topic of conversation, however, so it was easier simply not to talk.

In the early afternoon, Hoss rode into Virginia City to pick up the mail. He also wanted to check to be sure Joe, Charles and Denise got on the stage to Carson City all right, but he didn’t mention that fact to Ben and Adam.

By the time Hoss returned, it was late in the day. He had checked at the stage depot and was both happy and sad to learn that Joe, Charles and Denise had left as planned. After picking up the mail, Hoss had lingered in town. He knew there would be an empty chair at dinner that evening, and he wanted to put off facing that chair as long as he could.

When Hoss walked into the house, he saw Ben was sitting in his chair by the fire and Adam was sitting on the sofa. They were silent, lost in their own thoughts. Hoss knew how they felt. He didn’t feel much like talking about Joe either, even though that was all he was thinking about.

“Here’s the mail, Pa,” Hoss said, handing Ben several envelopes. Ben nodded his thanks and began to sort through the envelopes with a distinct lack of interest. Suddenly, he frowned and pulled a thick envelope from the stack. He quickly tore it open and began to read the pages inside. His frown deepened as he read.

Hoss walked back toward the front door, removing his gunbelt and hat when he got there. After placing them on a bureau by the door, he returned to the sofa and sat down next to Adam. Hoss noted the expression on Ben’s face.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss asked. He could tell whatever his father was reading was disturbing him.

Ben spent another minute to finish reading the letter, then looked up. “This is a letter from my old friend, Judge Wilson, in New Orleans,” he answered.

“From New Orleans?” remarked Adam. “That quite a coincidence.” He saw the look on Ben’s face. “It is a coincidence, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” said Ben gravely. “The letter from Sam Wilson is to warn us about Charles Dumont.”

“Warn us!” exclaimed Hoss. “Pa, what does it say?”

“According to Judge Wilson, Charles came out here specifically to get Joe to sign away some land he inherited from Marie,” answered Ben.

“Land? I don’t understand, “ said Adam with a puzzled look. “Joe doesn’t own any land.”

“It’s complicated,” replied Ben. “Jacque, Marie’s first husband, bought some land in Colorado. I guess he had some wild scheme about living there. Jacque was always doing things impulsively and then not following through. Evidently, he didn’t tell anyone about it. Anyway, when Jacque died, the land became Marie’s. And when she died, Joe inherited it.”

“Are you sure?” asked Adam. “I mean, does it automatically become Joe’s? Somehow, it doesn’t seem like that’s the way it would happen.”

“When Joe was born, I had the lawyer come out to change my will,” explained Ben. “Marie decided she wanted a will also. It was more of a gesture than anything. But she wanted to earmark some things specifically for you and Hoss to have if anything should happen to her. You know, that shiny pendant that Hoss liked to play with, and that ring she left for you, Adam. I told her it wasn’t necessary, but she insisted. She wanted to be sure you knew how much she cared for you two if anything should happen.”

“Yeah,” said Hoss. “I remember. I thought that pendant was the prettiest thing I ever saw. When she died, I was really sad. Then you gave me that pendant and told me how much she loved us. It really made me feel better.”

“Yes,” Adam added. “I still have the ring. Every time I look at it, I remember Marie and her kindness toward me.”

“I’m glad you boys feel that way. I know that’s what she wanted,” Ben said sadly. He sniffed, then cleared his throat. “Anyway, the lawyer added one of those catch-all clauses at the end, saying any remaining personal belongings would go to Joe. We didn’t know about the land Jacque had bought. But that’s how it ended up in Joe’s name. Judge Wilson knows about the will because I sent him a copy years ago, just in case there was anything in New Orleans that belonged to Marie.”

“What’s so valuable about the land now?” asked Adam. “I mean, it’s been Joe’s for twenty years or more, and nobody has even asked about it.”

“It seems that the land is a key piece in the Union Pacific’s plan to build a railroad,” answered Ben. “Charles found out about it, and told the Union Pacific that he was the owner. He told them that he would sell it to them only if they paid him a small fortune and gave him a seat on their Board. A seat on the Board of the Union Pacific would be worth a lot of money.”

“But surely the Union Pacific would find out that Charles doesn’t own it,” Adam stated. “They’re a pretty smart and tough outfit.”

Ben referred back to the letter, reading the second page again. “According to this,” he said, “the man the Union Pacific sent to New Orleans to find the owner owes Charles a lot of money in gambling debts. Judge Wilson suspects that the man is supporting Charles’ claim in exchange for being let out of the money he owes. Union Pacific, on the other hand, is demanding some proof that Charles owns the land.”

“So Charles came out here to get the land from Joe,” mused Adam. “It seems odd that he would come when he was pressing his claim to the Union Pacific.”

“Everything is tied up in the courts,” explained Ben. “That’s how Judge Wilson heard about it. He said it could be another few months before the legal end is sorted out. That gave Charles the time he needed to come out here and get Joe to give him the land.”

“He came here to swindle Joe,” said Hoss in outrage. “Pa, we’ve got to let Joe know.”

“I think it’s more serious than that,” Ben replied anxiously. He referred to the letter again and started reading. “ ‘Ben, I want to warn you about Dumont. He’s a dangerous man. His gambling house is considered a den of evil, the worst in New Orleans. I can’t tell you how many lives he has ruined. He’s also suspected of murder, although nothing has ever been proven. He has no regard for human life. Given the potential millions of dollars involved, I think Dumont would do anything to get that land, including murder. You should be very careful around him.’” Ben looked up. “Joe’s in real danger,” he added in a worried voice. “If Dumont gets him to sign over that land, he could kill Joe to prevent him from disputing the ownership.”

“What about Miss Denise?” asked Hoss. “She doesn’t seem like the kind of gal who would go along with something like this.”

Ben scanned the letter again and then read, “ ‘Dumont is traveling with a young woman who is a hostess in his club. I’m not sure how Dumont presents her, but it’s common knowledge in New Orleans that she is his mistress. She would do whatever Dumont tells her, so keep an eye on her also.’ “

Hoss leapt to his feet. “Pa, we’ve got to go after them two. There’s no telling what they would do to Joe.”

“I agree, but we need to think about this,” said Ben. “Somehow we have to warn Joe to be careful until we can get to him.”

“We can send a telegram to him in Carson City,” suggested Adam. “They should be there by now, and the stage for San Francisco doesn’t leave until tomorrow. If we ride hard, we can be in Carson City before the stage leaves.”

Ben nodded. “That’s a good idea, but we’ll have to word the telegram carefully. If Dumont sees it and realizes we know about him, there’s no telling what he may do.”

“That’s going to tricky,” admitted Adam.

“I know,” said Ben. He stood up. “You boys get the horses saddled and ready to go. I’m going to write out the telegram. We’ll stop in Virginia City and have it sent to Joe right away. Then we’ll go the Carson City. I’m going to make sure that Charles Dumont never sees Joe again.”

*****

Joe spent the next morning showing Denise the shops and sights of Carson City. She seemed disinterested, however, and Joe began to worry that she was beginning to lose her enthusiasm for the West. He began to see things through her eyes, and noticed how simple and unsophisticated the town seemed to be. He was concerned that Denise would not want to return to the Ponderosa with him

Escorting Denise around the town, Joe tried hard to make the morning pleasant, but his efforts had little success. Denise seemed distracted and paid scant attention. Joe became even more concerned about the future.

The couple finally decided to have lunch at the hotel. Over lunch, Joe decided that a frank discussion was in order. If Denise was losing interest in him, now was the time to find out. After all, she was a big part of the reason he was going to New Orleans.

“Denise, what’s wrong?” Joe asked anxiously.

Denise look surprised. “Why nothing, cheri,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that, ever since we’ve left the Ponderosa, things have been different,” said Joe. “On the Ponderosa, you seemed so happy. Now, you seem…I don’t know…kind of worried. If there’s something bothering you, you know you can talk to me about it.”

Denise smiled at him. “I’m sorry, Joe,” she replied. “I suppose I have been a little distant. It’s just thinking about going home, and what waits for us there. I’m anxious to get back to New Orleans.”

“I’m anxious, too,” said Joe. “But it’s going to be a long trip. I thought we could take advantage of the time together. But you don’t seem happy about the idea.”

Denise paused before answering. She had no idea what Charles had in mind; however, she remembered his warning. She decided that she had better keep Joe interested and charmed until she knew exactly what Charles wanted her to do. Besides, she hated to see Joe looking so worried. “Joe,” she murmured in her softest voice. “I love being with you. I’m sorry if I haven’t shown that. I promise I will make it up to you.”

Joe grinned. “Don’t worry, you will,” he said suggestively.

Denise laughed. “You are a wicked man, Joe Cartwright,” she teased..

The pair finished their meal in a much happier mood than when it started. They talked about San Francisco, and the voyage to New Orleans. They made plans about the future. Joe felt that whatever was bothering Denise didn’t involve her feelings for him. And that made him happy.

As they left the dining room to return to their suite, the clerk at the desk called to them.

“Mr. Cartwright, there’s a telegram for you.”

Joe walked over to the desk. “A telegram?” he said in surprise. He couldn’t imagine who would be sending him a telegram.

“Yes, it came in yesterday, but the night clerk misplaced it,” answered the clerk. “I just found it. I’m sorry. I hope it isn’t anything important.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” said Joe. He ripped open the envelope. A puzzled expression crossed his face as he read.

“Is anything wrong?” asked Denise as she watched him.

“I don’t know,” replied Joe. “It’s from Pa. He says he needs to talk with me right away, and I’m to wait in Carson City until he gets here. It also says not to do anything until he arrives. I wonder what he means by that?”

Denise frowned. Ben Cartwright’s coming to Carson City seemed to be an ominous sign. “Maybe we should talk to Charles about this,” she suggested.

“Good idea,” Joe agreed with a nod. “Maybe he will have an idea about what Pa means.”

In the suite, Charles was lounging in a chair reading a newspaper, when Joe and Denise walked in. He smiled at the handsome couple.

“Did you have a good time?” he asked.

“Yes, it was fine,” answered Joe. “But I got this strange telegram from Pa. What do you think it means?” He handed the telegram to Charles.

Charles read the telegram with alarm, although he tried not to show it. Somehow, he thought, Ben Cartwright must have figured out his plan. Charles handed the paper back to Joe.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Charles said in a soothing voice. “But I’m concerned that your father wants you to wait here for him. We must make that stage to San Francisco.”

“I know,” agreed Joe. “But if Pa asked me to wait, I should wait. You two can go on ahead if he doesn’t get here in time. I can catch up with you.”

“No, no,” said Charles quickly. “We’ll stay together.” The last thing Charles Dumont wanted was to have Ben Cartwright alone with Joe. Charles thought for a moment, then turned to Denise. “My dear, why don’t you rest for a bit. We have a long journey ahead of us. Besides, I want to talk with Joe about something.” He looked meaningfully at Denise.

“Of course,” she answered. She turned and smiled at Joe. “Thank you for a pleasant day.”

”Always a pleasure,” said Joe gallantly.

She stroked his cheek lightly and then walked to her room. Joe’s eyes followed her. Charles noted the action with satisfaction. He hoped this would make his task easier.

After Denise went into her room, Joe sighed. He took off his jacket, and began rolling up his sleeves, making himself more comfortable. He turned to Charles. “What did you want to talk about?” he asked.

“I’ve been thinking, Joe, that we should formalize our partnership,” said Charles.

“Formalize? What do you mean?” asked Joe.

“I think we should sign a formal partnership agreement, “ answered Charles. “I took the liberty of having a lawyer draw up the proper paper.”

“But why?” asked Joe. “I mean, we really haven’t started up our business yet. It seems a little soon to be calling it a partnership.”

“When we get to New Orleans, we will want to start working on our business right away,” explained Charles. “Things will be easier if we have a formal partnership. Besides, it’s really for Denise. If anything should happen to me, you would get ownership of my business. I know I could rely on you to take care of Denise.”

Joe thought about it for a moment. “That makes sense, I guess,” he agreed.

“Of course it does,” said Charles. He reached into pocket of his coat and pulled out a paper. “As I said, I have the paper ready. All you have to do is sign it.”

Walking over to Charles, Joe took the paper from his hand. He sat down at the small desk in the middle of the room and started to read it. He frowned as he read it.

“This says you would get ownership of any of my businesses or properties if anything should happen to me,” said Joe. “That doesn’t seem fair. I don’t have anything.”

“It’s just a formality, Joe,” replied Charles.

“But you understand I don’t own any of the Ponderosa,” Joe insisted. “Everything is in Pa’s name.”

“Of course,” acknowledged Charles. “And I wouldn’t dream of trying to get any of the Ponderosa. The paper says specifically only any businesses or properties you own at the time the paper is signed is involved, plus any businesses or properties we choose to buy in the future. It’s a very normal partnership agreement.”

“I don’t know,” said Joe reluctantly. “Maybe I should wait until Pa gets here to sign this. He’s better at contracts and things than I am. Besides, his wire said specifically not to do anything until he arrives.”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean this,” Charles countered. “It’s just a simple partnership agreement. It’s just a formality. What harm can it do for you to sign it? After all, as you said, you really don’t have anything.”

Joe wavered. For some reason, he felt uncomfortable about signing the paper. But Charles was right; it was really a formality. What harm could it do? He could show it to Pa later, and if there was something wrong with it, he was sure Charles would agree to tear it up. Joe read the paper again. He couldn’t see anything in the agreement that seemed unusual and he didn’t want Charles to think he didn’t trust him. Joe picked up a pen that was laying on the desk. He dipped it in a small inkpot and signed his name to the agreement.

“Excellent, excellent,” commented Charles as he watched Joe sign the paper. Charles bent over the desk and picked up the pen. He signed his name also. Then Charles picked the paper and checked the signatures. A smile of satisfaction slowly crossed his face.

“I’d like to show this to my Pa,” said Joe reaching for the paper.

For a moment, Charles looked startled but his demeanor quickly changed to bland look. “Of course,” he agreed, handing the paper back.

Turning back to the desk, Joe started reading the paper again.

Charles’ eyes narrowed as he stared at Joe’s back. He twisted his arm slightly, and the knife slid down his sleeve and into his hand. He raised the knife, ready to plunge it into Joe.

Suddenly, the room to Denise’s door opened. She saw the knife in Charles’ hand and Joe’s unguarded back. “No, Charles!” she screamed.

The sound of Denise’s scream caused Joe to turn in the chair. He saw a flash of metal in the corner of his eye then felt a searing pain in his back. He twisted away from the pain, and felt something tearing his flesh. Joe fell forward to the floor, and felt the object being pulled from his back. He tried to stand, but the pain was excruciating. He collapsed in agony into a heap on the floor.

Standing over Joe with a bloody knife in his hand, Charles raised the knife as if to plunge it again into the helpless body on the floor. Denise rushed forward and grabbed his arm.

“No, Charles!” she shouted again. “Don’t! Please don’t!” She struggled with Charles, trying to wrestle the knife from his hand.

The door of the suite opened as Denise and Charles struggled. As Charles pushed Denise away from him, Ben Cartwright walked into the room.

In an instant, Ben took in the scene before him. Joe was laying on the floor, blood spilling from his back, and Charles stood over his son with a knife poised to strike again. Pulling his gun quickly from his holster, Ben fired at Charles, hitting him in the chest. Charles dropped the knife and clutched at his chest. He staggered for a step or two then fell to the floor.

With Adam and Hoss at his heels, Ben rushed into the room. He knelt over Joe and turned his son over gently. He lifted Joe’s head into his arms. “Joe,” said Ben urgently.

Joe’s eyes were closed, his face creased in pain. The sound of Ben’s voice seemed to rouse him, though. Joe’s eyes fluttered opened and he stared up at his father. “Why?” he asked in strained voice. Joe grimaced again. Then his body went limp as he passed out.

Ben felt Joe’s neck and was relieved to feel a pulse. He turned to Adam and shouted, “Get a doctor, quick.”

Nodding, Adam pushed through a small crowd of people who were gathering at the door. “I’ll get the sheriff, “called a voice in the crowd.

Denise had been sitting in a heap on the floor. Now she scrambled to her feet and rushed to Ben’s side. “Is he alive?” she asked anxiously.

“Yes, but he’s hurt bad,” answered Ben. Ben looked around the room until he spotted Hoss a few feet away. “Hoss, help me get him into a bed.”

“This way,” said Denise as Ben and Hoss lifted Joe. She led them to a doorway and watched as they gently placed Joe face-down on the bed. Ben turned Joe’s head to the side on the pillow. A growing bloodstain covered the upper left side of Joe’s shirt.

“I’ll get some towels,” offered Denise.

Ripping open Joe’s shirt, Ben was appalled at the ugly slash in Joe’s back. The wound was several inches long, running at an angle from his shoulder to his side. Blood seemed to be pouring out of the wound.

With a swish of her skirt, Denise rushed back into the room with a handful of towels. She stopped and paled as she saw Joe’s wound. Ben grabbed a towel from her hand and put it over the wound. He pressed on it hard, trying to stop the bleeding. As he looked up, Ben saw Denise begin to sway as if she would faint. “Hoss, get her out of here,” Ben ordered. “And find Adam and that doctor! Joe needs help fast!”

*****

Hoss was pacing the outside the bedroom. The doctor had been inside, working on Joe, for almost two hours. The longer it took, the more worried Hoss began. “Adam, what’s taking so long?” Hoss demanded.

Sitting at the desk, Adam was playing idly with a pen. He shook his head. “You know as much as I do.” He saw the worry on Hoss’ face. “I’m sure Pa or the doctor will tell us something soon,” added Adam in a comforting voice. Hoss nodded but continued to pace.

Denise sat in a chair by the wall, pale and shaky. She stared at the bloodstains on the floor, almost in shock. Charles was dead. His body had been removed from the suite. Joe might be dying behind that bedroom door. She couldn’t think, couldn’t imagine how this violence had erupted from a simple plan to get Joe to sign a piece of paper.

A knock on the door drew everyone’s attention. Adam walked to the door and opened it. A heavy-set man wearing a sheriff’s badge stood in the door. Adam opened the door wide and the sheriff walked in.

“How’s the boy?” asked the sheriff.

“We don’t know yet,” answered Hoss in a worried voice.

The sheriff sat down in a chair near the desk as Adam returned to the chair by the desk. “You fellows need to tell me exactly what’s going on here,” demanded the sheriff. “All I know is I have a man who was shot dead, and some wild story about him trying to knife that fellow.”

“The dead man is named Charles Dumont,” explained Adam. “He was trying to swindle my brother out of some land by having him sign a partnership agreement. Once Joe signed the paper, Dumont tried to kill him.”

“He’d already stabbed Joe once when we got here,” added Hoss. “If Pa hadn’t shot him, he would have killed Joe. Pa had to shoot.”

The sheriff nodded. “I guess the shooting was justified. But how did Dumont figure he was going to get away with it?” the sheriff asked. “It should would have raised some suspicion that your brother was killed right after he signed that paper.”

“My guess is that he would have made it look like Joe was killed in the midst of a robbery,” answered Adam. “He probably wouldn’t have produced the partnership agreement until he got back to New Orleans. If anyone from New Orleans bothered to check, you probably would have said Joe was killed during a robbery.”

“Makes sense,” agreed the sheriff. “We had a fellow knifed in a robbery the other day. I probably would have believed the same thing happened here.” The sheriff inclined his head toward Denise. “What about her?” he asked. “She involved in this?”

“She was struggling with Dumont when we got here,” said Adam quickly. “She was trying to stop him.”

The sheriff nodded again, satisfied with Adam’s explanation.

Suddenly, the door of the bedroom opened and the doctor walked out. Everyone turned to him with an anxious look.

“He’ll make it,” the doctor announced curtly. Adam, Hoss, and Denise breathed a sigh of relief. “He was lucky,” continued the doctor. “The knife tore up a lot of tissue and muscle, but it missed his vital organs. It’s a deep cut. He must have twisted at the last minute. If that knife had gone in straight, it would have killed him.”

“Can I talk with him?” asked the sheriff.

The doctor shook his head. “Not for awhile. He lost a lot of blood. He’s pretty weak. And I gave him a strong sedative to help the pain. I doubt if he’ll be in any shape to talk until sometime tomorrow.”

Sighing, the sheriff said, “Well, I guess I don’t really need him. I think I have everything I need.” He turned to Adam. “You let me know if he has anything to add.” Adam nodded.

The doctor walked toward the door and then stopped. He turned to Adam and Hoss. “Mr. Cartwright is sitting with him for now, but I want somebody with him all the time. If his fever goes up or he starts to bleed again, you send for me right away,” the doctor ordered.

“Don’t worry, doc, we’ll watch him close,” promised Hoss.

The doctor nodded in satisfaction. “I’ll be back tomorrow to check on him,” he said. With another nod, the doctor walked out.

The sheriff stood and walked toward the door also. “I’d better get back to my office,” he stated. “Sorry you folks had this trouble. I’m glad the boy is going to be all right.” He followed the doctor out the door.

Adam, Hoss and Denise sat in silence, each of them relieved that Joe was going to be all right. After a few minutes, Denise seemed to rouse herself out of her stupor. She stood and walked over to Adam.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

“I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true,” Adam replied.

“I truly didn’t know what Charles had planned. He promised me he would not harm Joe. And I believed him,” Denise said in a trembling voice. “I would never do anything to hurt Joe.”

“I believe you,” replied Adam. “But I think it would be better if you were gone by the time Joe wakes up.”

Denise nodded. “Yes. I’ll go pack.” She walked to her room.

“Adam, do you really believe she didn’t know what Charles planned,” asked Hoss.

“I believe she tried to stop Charles from killing Joe,” Adam answered. “Besides, what good would it be to have her arrested? If there was a trial, Joe would have to testify against her. I don’t want Joe to have to go through that.”

“Yeah,” agreed Hoss. “You’re right. It’s going to be tough enough on Joe without that.”

It took some doing, but Hoss and Adam convinced a reluctant Ben to leave Joe for awhile and get something to eat. As they took turns sitting with Joe over the next few hours, Hoss and Adam said little. Joe slept quietly the whole time, heavily sedated. In the early evening, Ben returned to his son’s room, prepared to spend the night with Joe. Adam and Hoss urged him to rest, to let them relieve him again later that night, but Ben ignored their pleas. All he could think about was watching over his youngest son.

It was close to midnight as Ben sat in the dimly light bedroom, watching Joe sleep. Joe’s back was heavily bandaged – strips of white cloth ran diagonally across Joe’s chest and around his waist, holding the bandages in place. His face looked pale and slightly feverish. Ben periodically wiped Joe’s face with a damp cloth, trying to make his son more comfortable. The fever was not very high, and Joe seemed to be resting easy. Ben watched his son carefully, but felt sure Joe’s condition was not deteriorating. The fever was a normal reaction to the injury.

Sitting in a chair on the right side of his son’s bed, quietly watching Joe, Ben was sure everyone else in the suite was asleep. He was surprised to hear a soft knock on the door and even more surprised to see Denise walk in. She was dressed as if she was ready to travel.

“Is he still asleep?” asked Denise softly, looking at Joe.

Ben nodded. “The sedative the doctor gave him really knocked him out. I doubt if he’ll wake up until morning.”

“But he will be all right?” Denise persisted.

“Yes, he’ll be all right,” answered Ben evenly.

Denise looked straight at Ben. “I am truly sorry about what happened,” she said sadly. “I never wanted anything to happen to Joe. I honestly believed Charles when he told me that all he wanted was Joe to sign that paper, that he would send him home after it was signed.”

Ben nodded but said nothing.

“Your son is a decent, honorable man,” Denise continued. “I’ve known very few men like him.”

“How did you ever end up with a man like Dumont?” asked Ben.

“I was young, poor and ambitious,” explained Denise. “I wanted the fine clothes and the exciting life that the women in society seemed to have. Charles hired me to work in his club, taught me how to act and bought me fine clothes. Our relationship grew into…into something else. By the time I realized the price I was paying for the life I wanted, it was too late to change things.”

Ben nodded again.

“Adam told me about the letter you received,” Denise said. “Will you tell Joe the truth about me?”

“I’ll have to,” answered Ben. “He’ll ask about you and I won’t lie to my son.”

“I’m leaving shortly,” said Denise. “I promised Adam I would be gone before Joe woke up.”

“I think that would be wise,” agreed Ben quietly. “Where will you go?”

“Back to New Orleans,” replied Denise.

Ben raised an eyebrow. “Back to the same life?” he asked.

“No,” said Denise. “With Charles dead, I’m free. I have friends, good friends, who will help me start over. And that’s what I want. To start over and build a new life.”

Denise walked to the bed and looked down on Joe. “I really do care for him, you know,” she said softly. “Perhaps not in the way that you and he would want, but I do care.” She bent over and kissed Joe softly on the forehead. “Goodbye, cheri.” Then she turned and walked out of the room.

Ben sat back in his chair, his forehead furrowed in thought.

The morning sun was streaming through the window when Joe began to stir. Ben had been dozing in his chair, but sat up instantly as he heard Joe groan. He watched anxiously as Joe slowly moved on the bed. Joe winced in pain, then opened his eyes.

“Good morning,” said Ben with a smile. “How do you feel?”

Joe blinked his eyes slowly as if trying to wake himself. He looked at Ben. “I’m pretty sore,” he said in a weak voice.

“I’m not surprised,” answered Ben. “That’s a pretty deep cut you have. But the doctor said you’re going to be all right.”

Frowning, Joe tried to remember what happened. “Why did he do it?” he asked. “Why did Charles try to kill me?”

“It’s a long story, Joe,” Ben said in a soothing voice. “But basically, that paper you signed gave Charles a partnership in some land he wanted. That was his plan all along, to get you to sign that paper. Once you signed it, he wanted you dead so he could have the land all to himself.”

Joe looked puzzled. “I don’t own any land.”

“Yes, you do,” replied Ben. “You just didn’t know it. You inherited it from your mother.”

“Then all that talk about starting a business in New Orleans….it was just a lie, wasn’t it.”

“I’m afraid so,” said Ben. “He just wanted to get you alone so he could convince you to sign the partnership agreement. He never had any intention of letting you get to New Orleans.”

Joe closed his eyes, then opened them slowly. “And Denise?” Joe asked hesitantly. “Was she a part of it?”

“I’m sorry, Joe, but yes,” Ben replied sympathetically. “Her role was to make sure you would want to come to New Orleans with Charles.”

Joe turned his head away from Ben. “She’s not really his niece, is she,” Joe said softly.

“No,” replied Ben.

“Who is she?” asked Joe.

Ben hesitated. He hated having to tell Joe the truth, but knew it couldn’t be avoided. He sighed. “Denise was Charles’ mistress,” Ben said finally.

As Joe winced, Ben knew the pain his son was feeling wasn’t physical. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, son,” Ben added.

Joe buried face into the pillow. Ben could see a slight tremor running through Joe’s body. Ben was sure Joe was hiding some tears from him.

“Take me home, Pa,” Joe said in a muffled voice. “I want to go home.”

“I will, Joe,” promised Ben as he slowly stroked Joe’s shoulder. “Soon as you’re well enough to travel, I’ll take you home.”

Continuing to hide his face in the pillow, Joe let out a muffled sob. Ben wished there was something he could say or do to help Joe. He knew how much his son must be hurting, both physically and otherwise. Ben felt helpless. All he could do was try to offer his sympathy.

When he finally turned his head back to look at Ben, Joe’s eyes were red. He stared at his father for a minute, then looked up at the ceiling.

Getting to his feet, Ben said, “You rest for awhile, Joe. I’ll rustle up some breakfast for you.”

“I’m not hungry,” replied Joe in a disinterested voice.

“Joe, you have to eat, you have to get your strength back,” Ben ordered in a stern voice.

Say nothing, Joe continued to look away from Ben, continued to stare at ceiling.

“I’ll get you some food,” repeated Ben. Ben looked at his son anxiously, then left the room.

Adam and Hoss were sitting by the desk as Ben emerged from the bedroom. They looked expectantly at their father.

“Joe’s awake,” Ben announced.

“How’s he doing?” asked Hoss.

“All right, I suppose,” Ben answered. “He asked about Charles and Denise. He took it pretty hard when I told him the truth about them.”

Adam looked concerned. “Is there anything we can do?” he asked.

Ben shook his head. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied. “I think the best thing to do is let Joe sort it out for himself.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Hoss, but his voice sounded doubtful.

“I’m going to get Joe something to eat,” Ben told his sons. “How about you fellows? Have you had breakfast?”

“We ate a little while ago,” said Adam.

“Yeah, but maybe I’ll go down with you, Pa,” offered Hoss. “I didn’t have much of an appetite before. I’m hungry as a bear now.”

“You’re always hungry as a bear,” said Adam disdainfully.

Ben smiled. If Hoss was hungry and Adam was teasing him, things were on their way to being back to normal.

Ben brought a tray of breakfast into Joe. He helped his son sit up in bed, aware that the movement was causing Joe some pain. He silently cursed Charles Dumont for each wince of pain he saw on Joe’s face.

Over breakfast, Ben told Joe the whole story: of the land in Colorado, and how he had inherited it; of Charles’ plan and the letter he had received from Judge Wilson; and finally, of Charles’ death and Denise’s departure.

As he listened, Joe ate little. His face showed no emotion. Only when Ben repeated what Denise had said in his room late last night did Joe react. A look of surprise, then misery crossed Joe’s face.

Ben noticed how Joe picked at the food in front of him. “Come on, Joe, you have to eat,” urged Ben. “You need to get well and strong so we can get you home.”

Putting down his fork, Joe laid back against the pillows. “I’m tired, Pa,” he said. “I’ll eat something later.”

Reluctantly, Ben took the tray. As he left the room, he looked back at Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed, but Ben could tell he was not trying to sleep. Ben shook his head and left the room.

*****

The clock was striking noon as Ben came out of Joe’s room the next day. He was surprised to see Adam and Hoss waiting for him. He thought his two older sons were busy in town.

“What are you two doing here?” Ben asked.

“Well, first we came to check on Joe,” said Hoss. “How is he today?”

Ben shook his head sadly. “About the same. I took some lunch into him but I doubt if he’ll eat much.”

“The doctor has checked him a couple of times, hasn’t he?” asked Adam. “What did he say?”

“Joe’s back is healing fine. No sign of infection or permanent damage,” answered Ben. “Joe’s worst wounds aren’t physical.”

“Did you try talking to him?” Adam asked.

“I tried but I don’t think Joe listened,” replied Ben. “Every time I try to talk with him, he says he’s tired and wants to sleep. But I know he’s really not sleeping, just avoiding talking to me. I can’t seem to get through to him. I don’t know what to do.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances, then Adam cleared his throat. “The second reason we came back is that Len Davis has some stallions for sale,” said Adam. “I think they would be good breeding stock. I’d like you to take a look at them.”

“I don’t know, Adam,” replied Ben with a frown. “Maybe now isn’t a good time.”

“Pa, you haven’t been out of this room in two days,” Adam said. “You need a break. It won’t take long. Come look at the horses.”

“You two go on,” Hoss added quickly. “I’ll stay here in case Joe needs something.”

“All right,” agreed Ben reluctantly. He picked up his hat from a chair and headed to the door. Adam followed him, stopping to take a quick look over his shoulder at Hoss. Hoss nodded. Without a word, Adam urged his father out the door.

Hoss waited a few minutes until he was sure Ben and Adam were gone. The he walked into Joe’s room.

Joe was sitting up in bed. A tray of food was sitting untouched on the table next to him. Joe barely glanced at Hoss as he entered the room.

“Joe, it’s a shame to see all this good food go to waste,” said Hoss as he sat in the chair next to the bed. “Don’t you want to eat something?”

“I’m not hungry,” Joe replied listlessly. “Help yourself.”

Hoss looked at the tray. “No, I’m full up,” he said. The two brothers sat in silence for a few moments. Finally, Hoss asked, “Joe, what’s bothering you?”

“Nothing,” answered Joe in a dull voice.

“Well, it’s an awful lot of nothing you got bottled up inside you,” said Hoss. “You gonna keep it there forever? Because if you do, it’s going to fester like a sore that won’t heal. And that ain’t a pretty sight.”

Joe looked his brother in surprise. Biting his lip a bit, Joe seemed to be trying to decide what to say. Finally, he shook his head. “Hoss, I’ve been such a fool,” Joe blurted out.

“Aw, Joe, you ain’t the first fellow whose head was turned by a pretty face,” said Hoss. “And you sure ain’t gonna be the last.”

“It’s not just that,” explained Joe. “Sure, I feel bad about what happened with Denise. But there’s more to it. I was all set to go to New Orleans and become a big man. Pa and Adam and you all tried to warn me about Charles. But I wouldn’t listen. I thought I knew it all. I was going to come back and show you how smart I was. Well, I showed you all right,” Joe finished bitterly.

“Joe, we all make mistakes,” advised Hoss.

“Not like this,” answered Joe. “You never made such a big mistake.”

“Don’t be too sure,” said Hoss. “Me and Adam and Pa, we’ve made some doozies. But remember what Pa always says. You have to learn from your mistakes and move on.”

“I wanted to show you all that I was grown up, that I knew what I was doing. All I showed you was that I was a fool,” stated Joe.

“That ain’t true,” Hoss said. “You got taken in. It happens. We don’t think any the less of you for it.”

“You don’t understand,” countered Joe, shaking his head. “You just don’t understand.”

“I think I do,” said Hoss. “You’re feeling low because of what happened, and you don’t know what to do about it. Well, the way I see it, you got two choices. You can lay here in this bed and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can show us what you’re really made of. You can show us how a man handles a bad time by getting on with his life. The choice is up to you. You think about it.”

Joe looked startled as Hoss stood up to leave. Hoss took a few steps then stopped at the end of the bed.

“Let me tell you one thing me and Adam and Pa learned,” Hoss said. “When we thought you were leaving, and maybe never coming back, we learned how much we missed you. We ain’t never gonna take you for granted again. I can promise you that.” Hoss turned and walked out of the room without looking back.

When Adam and Ben returned to the suite a short time later, Hoss was sitting in the chair by the desk, reading a newspaper.

“How’s Joe?” Adam asked. His question seemed to have an added significance.

“I don’t know,” Hoss admitted. “I haven’t heard a peep out of him for almost an hour.”

“Maybe I’d better check on him,” said Ben, walking toward the bedroom. Adam looked pointedly at Hoss. Hoss merely shrugged his shoulders.

Ben returned in a minute, carrying a tray. “Joe’s asleep,” he announced excitedly. “I mean, really asleep, not that pretend sleep that he’s been using to avoid me. And look, he ate almost all his lunch. I think he’s turned the corner. I think he’s going to be all right now.”

“I knew it, Pa. I just knew it,” said Hoss, a grin breaking out on his face. “That kid’s got more grit in him than any of us give him credit for.”

*****

Joe seemed like his old self after Hoss’ visit. He began to recover rapidly and was allowed to go home after two more days in bed. Joe sat gingerly in the rented buggy that Ben drove back to the Ponderosa, but he teased and joked with Adam and Hoss as they rode their horses beside the buggy. Even though Joe’s banter seem forced, Ben felt an enormous sense of relief. While Joe still didn’t seem to want to talk about what happened, Ben sensed Joe had put it behind him.

After two more weeks of taking it easy, Joe was declared fit to go back to work by the doctor in Virginia City. Ben watched with satisfaction and pride as his three sons left each morning to take care of the Ponderosa.

Winter was approaching. The air had a cool nip in it in the morning, and the temperature seemed to stay low all day. Ben told his sons it was time to round up the herd and move it to the southern-most pasture on the Ponderosa. He wanted the cattle moved before the snow fell.

The Cartwrights and ten of their hands worked for two days on the roundup. The days were long and the work was hard. Ben watched anxiously for the signs of trouble between his sons that had popped up during the last round-up. So far, all he had seen was the normal bickering and teasing.

Ben, Adam and Hoss were standing watch over the herd when Joe galloped up on his pinto.

“Pa, there’s five or six head of cattle stuck in the mud down by the creek,” shouted Joe as he reined his horse to a stop. “I need a couple of men to help me get them out.”

“Hoss, maybe you ought to..…” Adam began.

“Joe can handle it,” said Hoss firmly. “I got my own work to do.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Hoss,” Adam agreed. He turned to Joe. “Get Shorty and Hank. They’re over by the chuckwagon. They can help you. And be sure to show them what to do. I don’t want them losing any cattle for us.”

“Right,” said Joe with a grin. He turned his horse and galloped off.

Ben nodded in approval. “You boys handled that just right.”

“Shucks, Pa,” said Hoss in embarrassment. “We didn’t do nothing. Joe knows how get some cattle out of the mud.”

“Besides, now he’s the one who will get wet and dirty, not us,” Adam added with a smile.

“Just the same, I glad you did what you did,” said Ben. “Well, it seems like you boys have everything under control. I’m going to head back to the ranch. Hop Sing should be back from town with the mail by now. I want to see if there’s a payment for the timber delivery.” He gave his buckskin horse a small kick and rode off.

It was dark by the time Joe, Adam and Hoss returned to the ranch. Joe’s boots and the bottom of his pants were covered with mud. Splatters of mud dotted his shirt and jacket, also. Adam and Hoss didn’t say anything as the three of them stabled their horses. But laughter twinkled in their eyes every time one of them looked at Joe.

Ben was sitting in his chair, reading a letter when the trio entered the house. He frowned when he saw Joe. “What happened to you?” Ben asked.

“Aw, Pa, Joe just loved playing in the mud today,” answered Hoss with a laugh.

“You’d think at his age he’d be past wanting to make mud pies,” added Adam with a grin.

Joe smiled wryly. “One of those cows wouldn’t come out of the mud. I had to get down and push him out. While these two were sitting all comfy by the herd, I was doing all the dirty work.”

“Ain’t that what little brothers are for?” said Hoss.

“I got them all out and back to the herd, didn’t I?” said Joe with a touch of pride.

“You sure did,” agreed Hoss.

“You did a good job today, Joe,” Adam added.

Ben nodded and smiled. “Go get cleaned up,” he said. “I don’t want you tracking mud through the house.”

“You mean you don’t think a little mud would add something to the decor?” asked Joe innocently.

“I mean, if you get any mud on the furniture, I’ll skin you,” Ben said sternly.

“Yes sir,” Joe answered with a grin. He turned to Adam and Hoss. “You heard, Pa. Get cleaned up,” Joe commanded. He danced a few steps away as Hoss took a swipe at him. Joe laughed and walked rapidly up the stairs.

“Adam, Hoss, wait a minute, will you?” Ben said in a serious voice after Joe had left.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other in surprise, then walked over to where Ben was sitting.

“Anything wrong?” asked Adam.

“No, nothing’s wrong,” replied Ben. “Not really. I’m just not sure what to do.” He waved the paper in his hand. “This is a letter from Judge Wilson in New Orleans.”

“Does he say anything about Denise?” asked Adam.

“A little. And he has some news about that land in Colorado,” said Ben. “I know I should probably tell Joe. But I hate to bring it up. He seems to have gotten over what happened. But he still hasn’t talked about it. I don’t know if opening an old wound is the best thing to do.”

“Pa, you can’t avoid the subject forever,” advised Adam.

“Adam’s right,” said Hoss. “Besides, I think you’ll find Joe is a whole lot tougher than you think.”

“I suppose you’re both right,” Ben agreed with a sigh. “At least, let’s wait until after dinner to discuss it. Don’t say anything about the letter until then.” Adam and Hoss nodded in agreement.

Joe didn’t seem to notice anything unusual at dinner, although both Hoss and Adam thought Ben was more thoughtful than usual. The boys talked about plans for moving the herd. Adam speculated on what other dirty jobs they could give to Joe the next day. Hoss agreed, as he continued to pile food on his plate, that they could think of some really nasty jobs. Joe feigned sickness and told his brothers that he thought he ought to spend the next day in bed. Ben smiled briefly at their horseplay. He hoped the discussion he was planning wouldn’t put too much of a damper on it.

After finishing dinner, the Cartwrights moved to the living room. Ben settled himself in his favorite chair as Joe and Hoss collapsed on the sofa. Adam sat in a blue chair near the staircase.

“Whew, I’m about as tired as I can get,” announced Joe. “I think I’m going to call it an early night.”

“Before you go to your room, there’s something I want to talk to you about,” said Ben. He pulled a sheaf of papers from the pocket in his shirt.

Joe noted the serious tone of Ben’s voice. “What’s up?” he asked curiously.

“I received a letter from Judge Wilson in New Orleans today,” replied Ben. He watched carefully for Joe’s reaction to the news.

Joe’s face hardened. “I’m not much interested in any news from New Orleans,” he said bitterly.

“You should be,” suggested Ben. “It concerns you, or rather that land in Colorado that you own.”

“That land is more trouble than it’s worth,” Joe replied grimly.

“Still, I think you should hear what Judge Wilson has to say,” insisted Ben.

Joe took a deep breath. “All right. What does he say.”

“Well, it seems that all the wrangling in court was just a delaying tactic by the Union Pacific,” explained Ben. “They’ve mapped out a new route and acquired the land they need. That parcel in Colorado is no longer of interest to them.”

“So it’s worthless,” said Joe. He shook his head. “All that, and the land is worthless.”

“I’m afraid so,” replied Ben. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” said Joe. “I never wanted it in the first place. I would have let Charles have it if he had asked.”

“Charles Dumont was a greedy man, Joe,” commented Ben. “He thought all men were as greedy as he was. He would have never believed you if you told him he could have had the land for the asking.”

Joe nodded. Then he swallowed hard. “Does Judge Wilson say anything about…does he say anything else?” Joe asked hesitantly. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but he couldn’t stop himself from asking.

“He’s said Dumont’s gambling house is closed, gone out of business,” replied Ben. “According to his letter, Judge Wilson feels no one in New Orleans will miss it.” Ben stopped and looked at Joe. He knew what Joe wanted to know. He only wished he could soften what he had to say next. “He also says that Denise is married.”

“Married?” Joe exclaimed. “To who?”

“Evidently, to a man who knew all about her past, but wanted to marry her anyway,” said Ben. “They’ve left New Orleans. No one knows where they’ve gone.”

A look of pain flashed across Joe’s face. “If Denise had been honest with me….” he muttered. Joe stopped and shook his head. “I hope she’s happy. She deserves some happiness.”

“Joe, would you have married her if you knew the truth?” asked Hoss in surprise.

“I don’t know, Hoss,” admitted Joe. “I loved her and I thought she loved me. I don’t think her past would have mattered to me.”

Ben let out a silent sigh of relief. He had wondered about Joe’s reaction if someday he found out some unpleasant facts about his mother’s past. Now, he felt that wasn’t something he needed to worry about any longer.

Getting to his feet, Joe stretched. “I think I’ll head up to bed.”

“Joe, I’m sorry you’re not going to get rich from that land in Colorado,” said Adam.

“Adam, I’m already rich,” answered Joe. He looked meaningfully at Adam, then at Hoss, and then at Ben. “I’m the richest man I know.”

*****End*****

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