The Fourth Wife (by Susan)

Synopsis:  After receiving an invitation to a neighbor’s wedding, Little Joe conspires to find Ben the perfect wife; while the rest of the family holds off an attempted land grab.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  21,300


 

The sun was barely up as the four Cartwrights walked slowly out of the house, ready to start the day’s work. Headed to the barn to saddle their horses before riding off on various tasks, all of them were surprised to see a rider coming into the yard at this early hour. The rider was a man in his fifties, with gray hair, and wearing the clothes of a working cowboy.

“Hello, Ben,” said the rider cheerfully as he halted his horse. “Hi boys!”

“Hello, John,” Ben Cartwright greeted the man pleasantly in return, although his voice was tinged with surprise. “What brings you to the Ponderosa so early in the day?”

“I’m on my way to Virginia City but I wanted to stop by for a minute,” replied John Benson, the rider. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Uh, do you have any plans for the 27th?” he asked in a hesitant voice.

Ben frowned. “The 27th,” he mused. He looked quickly at his sons. Adam, Hoss and Joe shrugged and shook their heads. “I don’t think so,” said Ben, turning back to the rider. “Why?”

“I wanted to invite you to a wedding,” Benson answered, looking a bit embarrassed. Then he grinned. “I’m getting married!” he announced.

“Married!” exclaimed Adam Cartwright. “That’s great, John!”

“I didn’t even know you were courting!” added Ben. His face showed both surprise and pleasure. “Who’s the lucky woman?”

“Mary Wilson,” replied Benson. “We’ve been courting about two months now. We kind of kept quiet about it. But last night, I asked her and she said yes. We’ve settled on the 27th for the wedding and I want all of you to come. It’ll be at my ranch.”

“We’ll be there,” confirmed Hoss Cartwright with a big smile. “We wouldn’t miss it for anything!”

“Great!” said Benson. His face faded into a wistful look. “It’s been kind of lonely at my place since my wife died and my daughters got married. I’ve been rattling around all alone in that big old house for almost two years.” Benson’s face broke into a smile again. “It’s going to be wonderful having Mary there.”

“I’m sure it will be,” agreed Ben. “You’re a lucky man, John.”

“I know it,” Benson stated. “Mary’s a very special woman. Well, I’d better be getting on to Virginia City.” He turned his horse then suddenly pulled his animal to a stop. “Oh, Ben,” he said as if a thought suddenly occurred to him. “Is it true you’re selling off part of the Ponderosa?”

Ben Cartwright looked startled. “Selling off part of the Ponderosa?” he repeated. “No. Where did you get an idea like that?”

“Fellow named Roger Stevens,” answered Benson. “He was in town the other day claiming he was going to buy part of your land so he could harvest the timber. You know how the mines are always looking for timber. He was bragging he was going to make a fortune.”

“Roger Stevens is a liar,” Adam charged heatedly.

“Now, Adam,” Ben said in an admonishing voice to his oldest son. Ben turned back to John Benson. “Stevens came out and made a proposal to buy some land. I turned him down,” explained Ben.

Nodding, Benson responded, “Thought it sounded strange.” Once more a grin broke out on the man’s face. “I’ll see you boys on the 27th,” reminded John. “It’s going to be a humdinger of a wedding and party!”

“We’ll be there,” promised Ben. He waved as Benson turned his horse and rode off.

“Pa, you’re not thinking of selling off any land, are you?” asked Joe Cartwright as he stepped forward.

Ben had a far-away look on his face. He didn’t answer his youngest son.

“Pa?” Joe said again.

Looking startled, Ben suddenly focused on his son’s question. “What?” he said. He quickly shook his head. “No, of course not.”

Hoss frowned as he looked at his father. “Pa, are you all right?” asked Ben’s middle son with concern.

“I’m fine, Hoss,” Ben reassured his son. “I was just thinking.”

“Thinking about what?” asked Adam curiously.

“Oh, just remembering really,” answered Ben in a soft voice. “I was remembering what it’s like when you get married. It’s such a special feeling. There’s nothing quite like it.” He smiled as his eyes misted over. Then, abruptly, he cleared his throat. “Well, we’re not getting any work done standing around here. Let’s get saddled and get started.” Ben walked quickly to the barn.

“Pa had kind of a funny look on his face,” said Hoss as he watched his father walk to the barn.

“Yeah, he did,” Joe agreed. He thought for a minute. “You know, maybe Pa ought to think about getting married again.”

“Married again?” exclaimed Adam. “He’s been married three times. I don’t think he’s interested in another wife.”

“It’s been a long time since my mother died,” Joe said defensively. “Maybe it’s time for him to start thinking about marriage again.”

“I think Pa can make up his own mind about something like that,” replied Adam wryly.

“I don’t know, Adam,” said Hoss. “I kinda agree with Joe. Pa’s been so busy raising us and looking after the ranch, maybe he just hasn’t had time to think about getting married.”

“Remember the 4th of July picnic?” asked Joe. “Pa spent almost the whole day with Mary Wilson. But then we had that cattle drive, and he got busy with the new timber contracts. And now John Benson is marrying her. Maybe Pa’s just been too busy to go courting.”

“Yeah,” added Hoss. “And it’s been a long time. Maybe Pa just don’t remember what it’s like.”

“And I suppose you’re the one to help him,” replied Adam with a snort. “You can’t even look at a girl without turning red.”

“I think Hoss may have something,” Joe said. “Maybe he just needs a push.”

“I think Pa can do his own courting, without any help from you two,” Adam answered, with a shake of his head. “You stay out of Pa’s love life. Now, let’s to work.” Adam walked toward the barn.

“I still think Pa needs a push,” Joe said to Hoss. “We just have to find the right woman.”

“Yeah, but how we gonna do that?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. “It’s going to take some thinking.”

*****

While Ben rode to check on the timber camp and Adam took off to check fences, Joe and Hoss rode toward the herd of cattle grazing in the south pasture. Their task was to check on the herd, and gather any straying cattle back to the pasture. Hoss and Joe spent the morning riding through the hills near the pasture, looking for strays. At noon, they met at the edge of the pasture. Both settled under a shady elm for something to eat.

“How about Mrs. Watkins?” Hoss asked without explanation. He knew Joe had been speculating on possible mates for their father all morning, just as he had been.

“Mrs. Watkins?” Joe replied with surprise. “She’s got to be close to eighty!”

“She’s not that old,” Hoss said defensively. “Besides, she sets a real fine table.”

“She looks eighty,” Joe responded. “And doesn’t make any difference if she can cook. Hop Sing will never let her in the kitchen anyway.”

“Yeah, there’s that,” admitted Hoss.

“No, we have to find someone younger than Pa, someone who can take care of him,” reflected Joe. He sat quietly for a minute, thinking. “What about Mrs. Landers? She’s a widow, but only in her thirties, and she’s really attractive.”

“But, Joe, she’s got those two young’ns,” Hoss protested. “I’m not sure I’m ready to have some youngsters around the place.”

“You’re right,” agreed Joe with a nod of his head. “Pa isn’t as young as he used to be. It might be too much for him raising some young children at his age.”

Silently, Joe and Hoss sat and ate, both running over the names of potential candidates in their minds and rejecting each for a variety of reasons.

“I got it!” Joe exclaimed suddenly, sitting up. “Beth Robinson!”

“Beth Robinson?” repeated Hoss doubtfully.

“Sure, she’s perfect,” said Joe enthusiastically. “She’s about forty, never been married, and she’s real nice.”

“Yeah, but Joe, she’s kind of average looking,” replied Hoss. “Besides, ain’t she seeing that Walsh fellow who runs the hardware store?”

“She isn’t a raving beauty,” Joe admitted. “But she’s not ugly or anything, and she’s fun. Besides there’s much more to a woman than just looks. Some of the most boring women I know are the ones everybody thinks are beautiful. And I don’t think she and Walsh are serious. They’ve been seeing each other for a long time, but only at dances and stuff.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Hoss said thoughtfully. “She seems real nice, and she’s smart, too. I saw her playing chess at the church social. That would give her and Pa something to do at night.”

“I think they could think of a few other things,” Joe suggested wryly. Then he frowned. “Now we’ve got to think of a way to get them together.”

Again, both Hoss and Joe sat silently as they plotted and planned in their minds.

“I know!” Joe said snapping his fingers. “We’ll invite her to dinner on Sunday. And then we’ll get Pa to drive her home.”

“Do you think that would work?” asked Hoss.

“Well, it’s a start,” Joe answered. “Once we get Pa to start thinking about her, we can start nudging him in the right direction.”

“Yeah,” said Hoss with a smile. Then he frowned. “But what’ll we tell Pa? I mean, we can’t just come out and tell him we’re inviting Miss Beth to dinner to get him to start courting her.”

“Of course not,” Joe stated with a trace of disgust in his voice. “We’ll tell Pa she’s coming because she wants to talk about the fund raiser they’re having at the church for the orphans of the miners who were killed. And we’ll tell Beth the same thing. They’re both on the committee. That’ll give them something to talk about it.”

“Little brother, you sure are the smart one,” Hoss said. Then he shook his head. “Do you really think it’ll work?”

“I’m sure of it,” answered Joe confidently.

*****

Joe polished the foot of his boot on the back of his leg as he stood outside the door to Beth Robinson’s house in Virginia City. He and Hoss had spent the last two days discussing their plan. Now it was time to go into action. Hoss had been charged with talking to Hop Sing about cooking a special dinner for Sunday while Joe’s job was to invite Beth Robinson to that dinner. Ben Cartwright hadn’t been surprised when Joe volunteered to go into Virginia City to pick up the mail earlier that day; Joe usually managed to find an excuse to visit the Silver Dollar Saloon after he picked up the mail. But Joe had no intention of visiting the saloon today. He didn’t want to smell of beer and cigar smoke as he called on the woman he hoped would be his future step-mother.

After knocking politely on the door of the house, Joe stepped back to wait. In only a minute, the door opened. A woman in her forties stood in the doorway. She had ash blonde hair, pulled back into a tight bun, and wore a simply gingham dress. The features of her face were ordinary, with perhaps a too large nose set in the middle. However, the woman smiled pleasantly as she saw who was standing on her porch.

“Little Joe Cartwright!” Beth Robinson said in surprise, using a nickname Joe tended to dislike. It made him feel like a kid, rather than the grown-up he considered himself to be.

“Hello, Miss Robinson,” Joe answered, flashing his most charming smile.

“What brings you here?” asked Beth curiously.

“Pa asked me to stop by to invite you to Sunday dinner,” Joe explained.

“Sunday dinner?” replied Beth in surprise.

“Yeah, he, uh, wants to talk about the fund raiser,” Joe clarified quickly. “He thought you and he might discuss some of the details after dinner.”

“Oh, that’s odd,” Beth answered with a frown. “We had a committee meeting last week, and I thought we had worked out everything then.”

“Well, yeah,” said Joe, thinking furiously. He had been unaware of the committee meeting. “Pa, uh, he just wants to go over things again, make sure they’re right.”

Beth shrugged. “Well, all right,” she said. She smiled at Joe. “Sunday dinner with four handsome men sounds pretty nice. Shall I come about four?”

“Why don’t you make it about two?” Joe suggested, flashing his smile again. “You and Pa can talk before dinner, and then after dinner, maybe you two could take a walk or something.”

Beth looked at Joe speculatively. “A walk?” she said. “Did your Pa suggest that?”

“Well, no,” admitted Joe. “But I was just thinking… I mean, well, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Joe finished lamely.

Beth studied Joe for a minute then smiled. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll see you on Sunday.”

As Beth closed the door, Joe let out a sigh of relief. He realized he had come on a little too strong, and hoped he hadn’t spoiled things. As he turned and walked off the porch, Joe had a smug look on his face.

*****

At dinner that evening, Joe wondered how to bring up the invitation for Sunday dinner to his father. He wanted the idea to appeal to his father. Joe toyed with the food on his plate as he thought through the next step in his plan.

“Joseph, are you going to eat or just play with your food?” Ben demanded, breaking into Joe’s thoughts.

Startled, Joe looked up. “Oh, sorry,” he apologized and immediately forked a piece of meat into his mouth. He looked at Hoss. Hoss grinned at his brother.

“Uh, Pa, when I was in town today, I ran into Beth Robinson,” started Joe as casually as possible.

“That Miz Robinson, she’s a real nice lady, ain’t she,” added Hoss with a smile. Hoss’ smile quickly disappeared as Joe glared at his brother.

“Well, yes, yes she is,” answered Ben in a puzzled voice.

“Anyway,” Joe continued, looking firmly at his brother, “she said she needed to talk with you about that fund raiser you’re working on.”

“Oh really?” Ben replied with a frown. “I thought we had worked out all the details at the committee meeting. What else could she need to talk with me about?”

“I don’t know, Pa,” Joe said with a shrug. “She just said she needed to talk with you.”

“All right,” answered Ben with a sigh. “I’ll ride into town tomorrow and see her.”

“No, you don’t have to do that,” Joe said hastily. “I mean, I know how busy you are at the timber camp and all. So I suggested she come out to Sunday dinner. I thought you could talk with her before dinner, and then we could all enjoy a real nice meal.”

“That was a good idea, Joseph,” Ben agreed, nodding his head in approval. “I’ll talk to Hop Sing and ask him to fix something special.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that either, Pa,” Hoss chimed in quickly. When Ben looked him with a puzzled expression, Hoss continued, “I mean, I’ll talk with him. I’ll ask him to fix some chicken and dumplings.”

“All right,” said Ben, shaking his head a bit. He had the feeling his sons were up to something but he couldn’t quite figure out what.

Adam had been watching and listening silently. Now he shook his head as he saw Joe and Hoss grinning at each other like a pair of Cheshire cats. He had an idea about what his brothers were doing. He just couldn’t believe they were being so blatant about it.

“Adam, I got another message from the Stevens fellow today,” Ben said, changing the subject. “He’s made another offer. He wants to buy the timber land down by the lake.”

“Down by the lake!” exclaimed Joe in alarm.

“Don’t worry, Joe,” Ben told his son in a soothing voice. “I’m not about to sell him that land.” He turned to Adam. “But he hinted at something that he found that might cause some question about our deed to that land. Do you have any idea what that could be?”

Looking thoughtful, Adam sat quietly for a minute, then shook his head. “No, I don’t,” replied Adam. He saw the growing concern on Joe’s face. “Our ownership of that land is the most solid we have,” he continued. “There’s no way he could call it into question.” He could see Joe looked somewhat mollified, but his brother was still frowning.

“I tend to agree,” said Ben. “I think he’s just bluffing, trying to get us to sell the land. But I want you to check with our lawyers anyway. Also, check with the land office. Make sure there’s nothing we’ve overlooked.”

“I’ll do it first thing in the morning,” Adam promised.

*****

Joe and Hoss spent the rest of the week in nervous anticipation of Sunday’s dinner. They both checked with Hop Sing on the menu so many times that the Chinese cook threatened to serve bread and water if they didn’t leave him alone. Hoss and Joe also tried to clean and straighten the house, although they were careful not to do it when their father was around. By Saturday, both were a nervous wreck.

“Beth Robinson, eh,” Adam said in unconcealed amusement as he watched his brothers dusting. Ben was still at the timber camp, and Joe and Hoss thought it was a good time to give the house one last cleaning. Adam was leaning against the wall by the front door, his arms folded as he watched his brothers with glee. “So she’s the one you’ve chosen for Pa,” continued Adam.

Quickly, Joe looked up from the table behind the sofa. He was dusting the ebony statue of a rearing horse that sat on the table. “What’s wrong with Beth Robinson?” asked Joe with a frown.

“Nothing, nothing,” replied Adam airily. “Beth’s a real nice lady. Too nice, in fact, to be the victim of your twisted plot.”

“It’s no plot,” Hoss protested as he ran a rag over the pair of longhorns hanging over the fireplace. “We’re just giving Pa a little nudge, that’s all.”

“A little nudge?” said Adam. “It’s more like a shove. You’re pushing him right into Beth’s arms.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Joe asked. “We’re just giving Pa a little help. After that, he’s on his own.”

“I told you two before to stay out of Pa’s love life,” replied Adam. “It’s none of your business.”

“A little help from you wouldn’t hurt, you know,” said Hoss. “We want to make this place look real nice.”

Adam held up his hands. “Oh no, you’re not dragging me into this,” he protested. “I want to be sure Pa knows I had absolutely nothing to do with this.” With that, Adam turned and walked out the door.

“Joe, you sure we’re doing the right thing here?” asked Hoss uncertainly. “I mean, maybe Adam’s right. Maybe we’re messing around with something that ain’t none of our business.”

“Hoss, all we’re doing is giving Pa a chance to see what’s right under his nose,” explained Joe patiently. “If he and Beth don’t hit it off, well, that’s the end of it.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Hoss said. He turned back to dusting the horns.

“Besides,” muttered Joe as he dusted the statue. “If this doesn’t work, there’s always Mrs. Landers.”

*****

Beth Robinson arrived a few minutes after 2:00 on Sunday afternoon. It was a good thing she arrived when she did because Ben was quickly losing his patience with his younger sons. Joe and Hoss had been after him all day to take a bath, to put on a clean shirt, and to wear a tie. He couldn’t understand what the fuss was about; He and Beth were just old friends having dinner together. But Joe and Hoss kept insisting it was important that he look his best.

By noon, Ben was so exasperated with Joe and Hoss that he ordered them to their rooms to get cleaned up…and to stay there until Beth arrived. He even glared at Adam, who simply held up his hands and walked meekly up the stairs.

Grudgingly, Ben put on a new white shirt and tie as he got ready to greet his guest. He felt bad about yelling at his sons and thought that this was one way to make it up to them. And he didn’t mind getting a bit dressed up for Beth Robinson, whom he liked and respected. But he was still puzzled by Joe and Hoss’ odd behavior. Hearing the sound of a buckboard driving up, Ben rushed down the stairs and out the door.

Pulling the reins expertly, Beth Robinson halted her buckboard in front of the Ponderosa ranch house. She was dressed neatly, but not particularly fancy. She raised her eyebrows in surprise when she saw Ben was wearing a white shirt and string tie. She had assumed this was an informal dinner. Now she wished she had worn something fancier.

“Hello, Beth,” said Ben heartily as he reached up to help her out of her buckboard.

“Hello, Ben” replied Beth as she climbed down. “Thank you for inviting me to dinner.”

“It was really Joe’s idea,” admitted Ben, “but I’m glad he thought of it.”

“Joe’s idea?” said Beth with a puzzled expression. “I thought sure he said you were the one who asked him to invite me.”

Before Ben could reply, Hoss and Joe came rushing out of the house. Both were wearing newly washed shirts and string ties. “Hello, Miss Robinson,” Joe greeted the woman with a smile. “Welcome to the Ponderosa.”

“Hello, Little Joe,” replied Beth, not noticing Joe’s wince at the term she used. “Hello, Hoss,” Beth added, nodding at the biggest Cartwright.

“Howdy, ma’am,” answered Hoss. “I’ll just see to your horses.”

“Thank you, Hoss,” said Beth graciously. She turned to Ben. “Well, Ben, we’d best discuss whatever questions you had about the fund raiser.”

“My questions?” said Ben, frowning. “I thought….”

“Why don’t you come into the house and have something to drink,” Joe suggested hurriedly, interrupting his father. He held out his arm to Beth, who took it with a smile. As Ben watched the pair enter the house, an uneasy feeling nagged at him. He slowly walked into the house, a slight frown forming on his face.

Entering the house, Ben noted Joe had seated Beth on the sofa. He started to walk to his favorite red leather chair next to the fireplace but suddenly found his way barred by his youngest son. “Why don’t you sit on the sofa?” Joe suggested to his father.

The uneasy feeling Ben had was now growing, and he suspected he finally knew what Hoss and Joe were up to. “I’ll sit in the chair, Joseph,” Ben said firmly, and pushed past his son. He could see Joe’s frustration as he sat several feel from his guest.

“Hello, Beth,” called Adam as he descended the stairs. “Nice to see you again.”

“Hello, Adam,” replied Beth with a smile.

“Um, Adam, could you help me for a minute?” Joe said suddenly. “I need you, uh, I need you to help me with something in the kitchen.”

“In the kitchen?” said Adam in an astonished voice.

“In the kitchen,” repeated Joe firmly.

“Oh, yes, of course,” said Adam slowly. He inclined his head to Beth. “If you’ll excuse me,” he murmured, and walked slowly across the room. Joe put his hand on Adam’s back and hustled him out of the living room.

“They’re fine boys, Ben,” Beth said with a smile as she looked at Joe and Adam’s departing backs.

“You may not think so in a little while,” replied Ben.

“Oh?” said Beth with surprise. “Why not?”

“Well, first, let me ask you,” Ben answered. “Did you have some questions about the fund raiser?”

“No, I didn’t,” said Beth, her surprise growing. “I thought you did.”

Ben nodded his head. “I thought so,” he replied. “Beth, I’m afraid you were invited out here under false pretenses. I think my boys are trying their hand at a little matchmaking.”

“Matchmaking!” exclaimed Beth in surprise. “Ben, please don’t take this the wrong way. I like you. I like you a lot. But not romantically.”

“I’m glad you said that,” Ben replied with a smile. “I feel the same way. But for some reason, those sons of mine feel we’re a match made in heaven.”

“Oh Ben!” laughed Beth. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” apologized Ben. “Both for what my sons tried to do, and for the fact that you and I aren’t going to be a couple. It might have been fun.”

“Yes, it might have been,” agreed Beth with a smile. “But I have an understanding with Sam Walsh. We’re sort of engaged to be engaged.” Beth stood. “Perhaps I’d better go.”

“Don’t feel you have to leave,” said Ben hastily. “Hop Sing has prepared a fine dinner. Please stay and eat with us.”

“No, I think I’d better leave,” Beth stated. “Please give Hop Sing my apologies. And please apologize to your sons for me.”

“Don’t worry,” said Ben, his face darkening. “I plan to have a long talk with those boys of mine.”

Offering his arm, Ben walked Beth to the door and escorted her out. Hoss was surprised to hear his father calling for the buckboard he had just put away. As he turned to retrieve the wagon from the barn, Hoss began to worry that their carefully crafted plan had gone awry.

After Ben had helped Beth into the buckboard which Hoss retrieved, he watched her drive off. Then he turned to his son. “Into the house,” he said angrily.

“But Pa…” Hoss started to say.

“Into the house!” repeated Ben. He turned and walked into the house. Hoss swallowed hard and followed his father slowly.

As Hoss walked into the house, he heard his father yelling for Joe and Adam. Hoss stood by the door, waiting for his brothers; he didn’t want to face his father’s wrath alone. Two more loud shouts finally brought Joe and Adam came rushing from the kitchen. “What’s wrong, Pa?” asked Joe. He looked around room. “Where’s Miss Robinson?” he asked.

“Miss Robinson has gone home,” Ben said, his voice angry. “She didn’t feel like staying around and being subjected to the inept matchmaking attempts of my lame-brained sons.”

Joe paled and swallowed hard. He looked at Hoss, who just shrugged.

“Pa, let me explain,” started Joe in a hesitant voice.

“Oh yes, I’d be happy to hear your explanation,” replied Ben, his anger still showing.

“Pa, we just thought maybe you’d been so busy, you just hadn’t had a chance to go courting,” Joe said. “We’d just thought we’d help you out a bit,” he finished lamely.

“Oh, you thought you’d help me out,” shouted Ben. “How nice of you!”

“Pa, we didn’t mean anything by it,” added Hoss, walking over to join his brothers. “We just thought maybe you needed a nudge to get back into circulation again.”

“Oh, so that’s it,” said Ben at the top of his voice. “You thought the poor old man didn’t know how to spark a woman any more, so you thought you’d do it for him.”

Joe winced at both his father’s tone and words. Suddenly what had seemed like a good idea sounded awfully dumb. “Pa, we didn’t mean it like that,” answered Joe, trying to explain.

Ben looked past Joe at Adam. “What about you?” he demanded of his oldest son.

“Don’t look at me, Pa,” replied Adam. “I didn’t have anything to do with this.”

“But you knew about it, didn’t you?” Ben demanded. When Adam remained silent, Ben continued. “You knew what your addle-headed brothers were doing and you didn’t stop them?”

Flushing guiltily, Adam nodded.

“Now you listen to me, all of you,” Ben stated firmly. “I’m perfectly capable of running my own life. If I want to go courting, I will. I don’t need anyone to do it for me. And I don’t need you to find a wife. I will not stand for any further incidents like this, is that understood?”

Mutely, Adam, Hoss and Joe nodded.

Ben fixed an angry glare on all three of his sons. “The next time you three decide to help me, do me a favor,” continued Ben. “Don’t!” He turned and walked up the stairs to his room, pulling his tie undone as he climbed the stairs.

In the middle of the living room, Adam, Hoss and Joe stood silent, each of their faces downcast. Finally, Adam muttered, “I told you this was a bad idea.”

Quickly, Joe looked up at Adam. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said defensively.

“Joe, I told you not to interfere in something that wasn’t any of your business,” replied Adam evenly.

“Well, yeah, I guess you did,” admitted Joe.

Suddenly, Hoss sniffed the air. “Smells like Hop Sing is still fixing chicken and dumplings for dinner,” he said, licking his lips. He looked at his brothers who were staring at him with astonished looks. “Well, I mean, it would be a shame for all that good food to go to waste,” Hoss added with a shrug. “Pa’s mad, but he’ll get over it.

“Yeah,” agreed Joe sadly. “He’ll get over it, but I have a feeling our life is going to be pretty miserable until he does.”

*****

Breakfast the next morning was eaten in silence. Ben had skipped dinner with his sons, too angry with them to sit at the same table. His anger had cooled by morning, but he decided he was not yet ready to forgive them for what he felt was unwarranted interference. He had greeted his sons coldly at the breakfast table and ate his meal in silence. Joe, Hoss, and Adam ate silently also. None of them wanted to start a conversation and possibly face a repeat of yesterday’s lecture, so they ate silently and quickly.

“Adam, did you check on that land deed, like I asked?” Ben inquired suddenly. He fixed his angry stare on his oldest son.

“Yes, I did,” answered Adam hastily. “Our lawyer couldn’t find anything wrong with the deed, and neither could the land agent.”

“Well, at least one of my sons did something right,” Ben stated. Joe and Hoss flushed, and looked down at their plates.

Clearing his voice, Adam said, “Uh, Pa, our lawyer did suggest we might want to check the records up in Carson City, just to be sure. He said sometimes they have something on file up there that we might not be aware of down here.”

Frowning, Ben stared at Adam for a minute. “Just when were you going to tell me this little bit of news?” he asked coldly.

“Well, it didn’t seem too important,” replied Adam. “And we’ve been kind of busy.” He suddenly realized that it might not be wise to dwell on why they had been so busy. “I’ll go up to Carson City and check on it right away,” he added quickly.

“No, I’ll go,” said Ben. “I want to see the governor anyway about the new legislation he’s proposing on mine safety. I’ve got enough to do to keep me busy for a week or so up there.” Ben looked around the table. “A week away from you three might be just the thing.”

“I’ll drive you into town,” offered Adam hastily as Joe and Hoss continued to look at their plates.

“Good,” said Ben placing his napkin on the table. He stood. “I’ll go and pack. I want to catch the noon stage.” Ben walked away from the table.

“Whew! He sure is mad,” said Hoss.

“Yeah,” agreed Joe. “Maybe getting away from here for a week isn’t such a bad idea.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Adam. “If he comes back and finds out you two have been slacking off on your chores, there really will be hell to pay.”

*****

Adam drove his father to Virginia City in silence. By now, Ben’s anger had completely disappeared and he was beginning to see the humor of the situation. He had even chuckled to himself in his room as he thought about what Joe and Hoss had tried to do. But he decided not to let his sons know how he felt. He thought it would do them good to think he was angry for awhile longer; it would keep them from getting in trouble while he was gone.

Pulling the buckboard to a halt in front of the stage depot, Adam offered quickly, “I’ll get your ticket to Carson City,” Ben just nodded. Scrambling out of the buckboard, Adam walked to the ticket window.

“Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!” a voice shouted. Ben looked around. A well-dressed man in his thirties was walking quickly down the street, waving his hand.

“Mr. Cartwright!” the man said in a breathless voice as he rushed up to the buckboard. “Roger Stevens,” he said, holding out his hand. “Nice to see you again.”

Almost reluctantly, Ben took the man’s hand and shook it briefly. “Mr. Stevens,” he said.

“I was wondering if you had thought any more about my offer?” Stevens asked.

“There’s nothing to think about,” replied Ben. “That land is not for sale.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I don’t think you understand the situation,” pressed Stevens. “The mines in Virginia City need timber for shoring. They can’t get enough of it. If you sell me that land, I will harvest the timber and sell it to the mines. We can both make a tidy profit.”

“The land is not for sale,” repeated Ben.

“But why?” asked Stevens. “It’s not being used now. All it’s doing is sitting there.”

“My reasons are my own,” said Ben. “The land is not for sale.”

Just then, Adam came back to the buckboard. “Here’s your ticket to Carson City,” he said, handing Ben a slip of paper. “The stage leaves in about 30 minutes. I got you a return ticket for next week, too.”

“Mr. Cartwright…” Stevens said.

“Mr. Stevens, this discussion is over,” Ben interrupted firmly. “The land is not for sale.”

A dejected look came over Stevens’ face as he stood next to the buckboard. He was trying to think of something to say, something to do to change Ben Cartwright’s mind.

“Oh Ben,” another voice shouted. Ben looked up and saw John Benson hurrying toward him.

“Hello, John,” Ben greeted his friend. “How’s the bridegroom?”

“Nervous,” Benson admitted. He looked at the suitcase in the buckboard. “Are you leaving town?” he asked.

“Just going up to Carson City for a week or so,” replied Ben. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back in time for your wedding.”

“Good,” Benson said with a nod. Then he chuckled. “I was talking with Beth Robinson a little while ago. She told me about what happened yesterday.” Benson turned and gave Adam an amused looked. “Heard you boys tried your hand at matchmaking.”

Pulling his hat down, Adam lowered his head.

“Yes,” Ben said looking at Adam, trying to keep a straight face. “My sons seem to think I need a wife.”

“Well, I highly recommend getting married,” Benson replied with a smile.

Ben smiled back. “I don’t have anything against marriage,” stated Ben. He looked at Adam again. “I would just like to pick my own wife,” he added meaningfully. Adam looked away.

Moving easily, Ben climbed down from the buckboard. “You know, John, I think I have time to buy you a beer before that stage leaves,” Ben said.

“I’ll drink it,” Benson replied. The two started walking down the street while Adam stood awkwardly by the buckboard. Ben stopped and turned to his oldest son. “Coming, Adam?” he asked. Adam grinned and hurried to join the two men. As the three walked down the street, Roger Stevens watched them, his face deep in thought.

*****

Adam, Hoss, and Joe worked hard while Ben was away. They wanted to be sure their father would have no reason for complaint when he returned home. Adam and Hoss were diligent in finishing their chores, but Joe worked particularly hard. He was breaking horses for sale to the Army, and he went about this job like a man possessed. Twice during the week, he came home so tired that he skipped dinner and went right to bed. Adam and Hoss were concerned that Joe might be over-doing things, but he reassured them that he had the situation under control. He simply wanted to be sure all the horses were ready for sale by the time his father returned home. It was the eighth evening after Ben had left when Adam, Hoss and Joe sat down to the table. Joe sat gingerly, his backside sore after being tossed by so many wild horses. Each filled their plate from the platter Hop Sing had set on the table.

“Got a telegram from Pa today,” Adam said as he began to eat. “He’s coming home tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” exclaimed Joe as he sat up straight.

“Yep, that’s what the wire said,” Adam said. He looked at Joe curiously. “Why? Aren’t you happy to hear he’s coming home?”

“Sure I’m happy,” answered Joe. “It’s just that I’ve got six more horses to break to fill that Army contract. I’m not sure we can get them done by the time he gets home.”

“Aw, Joe, Pa won’t expect you have to all those horses broke by now,” Hoss said. “He’ll be happy you got as many done as you did.”

“I don’t know, Hoss,” Joe replied doubtfully. “He was pretty mad when he left. He’s liable to get mad all over again if I don’t have those horses done.”

“Joe, it’s not like you haven’t been working hard,” said Adam reasonably. “Pa knows how long it takes to break that many horses. Besides, he’ll have cooled off by now.”

“I hope so,” wished Joe fervently.

*****

Hoss dozed in the buckboard as he sat outside the stage depot, waiting for the Carson City stage to arrive. He had drawn the chore of picking up his father. Now that there was much choice. Joe had left the house early, determined to try to break those last six horses before Ben’s returned home. Adam had explained over breakfast how he had to go over the books one more time, making sure he hadn’t forgotten to record anything while their Pa was in Carson City. So Hoss got the job of picking up Ben.

As he heard the stage rumbling down the street, Hoss sat up. He smiled as he saw the coach pull to a halt a few feet away; he was glad his father was coming home. Hoss climbed out of the buckboard and walked over to where the stage was parked. The depot manager had the door of the coach open already, and was helping people out. Hoss waited patiently, and soon the familiar white-haired head of Ben Cartwright emerged from the stage.

“Welcome home, Pa!” Hoss greeted his father in a hearty voice. “Did you have a good trip?”

“Hello, Hoss,” Ben answered with a wide smile. “Yes, you might say I had a very productive trip.” Ben turned to help someone out of the stage. Hoss could see the passenger was a woman in her thirties, with auburn hair. She was fashionably dressed, and when she looked up, Hoss could see she was a real beauty.

“Hoss, I’d like you to meet Nancy Miller,” said Ben, introducing the woman. “Nancy, this is my son, Hoss.”

“How do you do, Hoss,” the woman acknowledged the introduction with a smile. She extended her hand. “Your father has told me a lot about you.”

“Howdy,” said Hoss in amazement. He tipped his hat and took the woman’s small hand into his massive one. He shook her hand briefly, then looked at his father, a question on his face.

“I met Miss Miller in Carson City,” Ben explained. “In fact, we’ve spent most of the last week together. When Nancy, that is, Miss Miller told me she was planning to visit friends in Virginia City, I suggested she might want to travel with me.” Ben smiled at the woman. “I hope she will be gracious enough to visit the Ponderosa while she’s here.”

“You know I will, Ben” agreed Nancy with a smile. “You’ve told me so much about your wonderful sons and your beautiful ranch. I can’t wait to see them.”

“Perhaps you would like to come out for dinner tonight,” suggested Ben. “I mean, that is, if you’re not too tired from traveling.”

“I’d love to come to dinner tonight,” Nancy replied, her eyes shining. “But first, I’d better get settled in the hotel and cleaned up.”

“Ma’am, I’ll be happy to take your bags over to the hotel,” offered Hoss.

“Why, thank you, Hoss,” said Nancy, smiling at him. Hoss found himself grinning back at the woman. “Those two bags there,” Nancy added, pointing to two medium size suitcases which the driver at set by the stage.

“Perhaps I’d better walk you to the hotel,” said Ben. “I know the manager quite well. I can make sure you get a suitable room.”

“Oh, Ben, you are such a treasure,” gushed Nancy, placing her had possessively on Ben’s arm. Ben smiled at the woman and extended his arm. Nancy took Ben’s arm, and the couple walked slowly down the street.

“Hot diggity,” said Hoss, pushing his hat back on his head. “Looks like Pa didn’t need our help after all.”

*****

Joe rode into the yard of the Ponderosa at a fast clip. He knew he was late getting home, but he was pleased with himself. He had broken the last six horses needed to fill the Army contract. He just hoped his father would be happy with him. After stopping and dismounting, Joe led his horse into the barn, sighing with fatigue as he did. He was tired, dirty, and sore; he was looking forward to a quick meal and an early bed. After taking care of his horse, Joe walked slowly across the yard to the house. He had noticed the buckboard was gone, and wondered if something had delayed his father’s return. Hoss was supposed to pick up their father with the buckboard earlier today. As he opened the door of the house and walked in, Joe was surprised to see Hoss and Adam standing by the fireplace, both wearing white shirts and string ties. “You didn’t have to get all dressed up just for me,” Joe said with a grin as he walked into the house.

“There you are, little brother,” Hoss answered with relief. “We were getting worried. Hurry up and get cleaned up. Pa is bringing somebody special to dinner.”

“Somebody special? Who?” asked Joe, curiously.

“Her name is Nancy Miller, and Pa met her in Carson City,” explained Adam.

“Yeah, and she’s real looker,” added Hoss.

Joe’s face broke into a grin. “Yeah? And what’s so special about her?”

“Well, let’s just say Pa thinks she’s special,” stated Adam.

“Oh boy!” said Joe, his grin widening. “I can’t wait to meet her.” He rushed past his brothers and hurried up the stairs to his room. Joe hurriedly washed and changed into clean clothes, putting on his new white shirt, the blue pants from his Sunday suit, and a dark blue string tie. He hummed as he spent time in front of the mirror, carefully combing his hair. Joe still felt fatigued by the hard day’s work, but the news of his father’s new female interest had buoyed his spirits.

Joe was descending the stairs just as Ben was opening the door. Ben stood aside and a lovely woman walked slowly into the room. She was wearing an elegant gown, cut low. Her hair was piled high on her head, held in place by a pin that sparkled in the light. Adam and Hoss stared for a moment, then smiled. Joe stared also, then frowned slightly.

“Boys, I would like you to meet Miss Nancy Miller,” Ben said proudly. He turned to Nancy. “Nancy, these are my sons.” Ben’s second statement was made with equal pride.

As Nancy moved across the room, Ben hurried to her side. Adam stepped forward and Nancy held out her hand. “I’m Adam,” said the oldest Cartwright brother. He took her hand and bowed to briefly caress it with his lips.

“Hello, Adam,” Nancy replied, smiling warmly.

Next Hoss moved forward. “Howdy, Miz Nancy,” He said with a grin.

“Hello, Hoss,” answered Nancy. “It’s nice to see you again.”

Waving slightly, Ben indicated Joe with his hand. “And this is Joe,” he said.

Slowly, Joe walked forward. “Hello,” he said briefly. Joe studied the woman’s face, inclining his head slightly. “Haven’t we met somewhere before?” he asked.

Something flickered in Nancy’s eyes. “I don’t think so,” she said softly. “I would have remembered meeting such a handsome young man.”

Joe frowned slightly at both her look and her words; he felt uncomfortable at both. He tried to think where he might have seen her before. Joe shook his head slightly. He was tired and he couldn’t seem to get any clear images in his head.

Noting a bit of awkwardness between Nancy and his youngest son, Ben cleared his throat. “Nancy, may I offer you something to drink before dinner?” he asked. “Perhaps a glass of sherry?”

“Sherry would be lovely,” replied Nancy, turning a dazzling smile on Ben. As she walked forward, Adam quickly took her hand and escorted her to the sofa. Ben smiled as he watched. He was pleased that Nancy and his sons seemed to be hitting it off.

As Ben turned toward his desk to get the sherry bottle and glasses, he failed to note the frown still fixed on Joe’s face. Nancy chatted easily with Ben, Adam, and Hoss as they sipped their sherry. She and Ben described how they had met at a party at the governor’s house, finishing each other’s sentences as they added details. Nancy discussed books with Adam that both had read. She also listened and encouraged Hoss as he talked about the ranch. All the while, Joe stood by silently. Ben glanced at his youngest son several times during the conversation. He couldn’t figure out why Joe wasn’t joining in.

Nancy and the Cartwrights had been sitting for about half an hour when Hop Sing walked into the room. He bowed slightly. “Dinner is ready,” the cook announced with a smile. Nancy smiled back and stood. Ben offered his arm, and she took it possessively. Ben escorted Nancy into the dining room, followed by Adam.

As Joe started forward, Hoss grabbed him by the shoulder. “What’s wrong with you, little brother,” he asked in a low voice.

Startled by Hoss’ question, Joe looked around. He watched the retreating figures of Ben and Nancy for a minute, then turned back to Hoss. “Nothing,” answered Joe. “I’m just tired.” He pushed past Hoss and walked to the table.

The pleasant conversation started over the sherry continued over dinner. Now, however, Joe began to join in. He asked Nancy several questions about places and people he knew in Carson City, thinking that might help him figure out where he might have seen her before. Nancy replied briefly to Joe’s questions, then managed to change the subject each time. As Hop Sing began serving slices of apple pie as dessert, he bowed politely to the woman at the end of the table. Nancy had complimented the cook several times on an excellent meal, and Hop Sing had accepted the compliments with a huge smile. Now, he made sure the dinner guest received a large slice of pie.

“Oh, Hop Sing,” said Nancy in dismay. “I’m not sure I can eat all this.”

“You eat,” Hop Sing insisted. “Hop Sing make best apple pie in Nevada. Make sure you get biggest piece. Even bigger than piece Mr. Hoss will eat later.” Everyone at the table laughed as the cook left the room.

“Who are you visiting with in Virginia City?” Joe asked as everyone began to eat their pie. He was hoping that a mutual friend might help him place where he had met the woman before.

“Oh, just some old friends,” Nancy replied vaguely. She seemed to hesitate a moment before going on. “I also want to check on a business investment I’ve made with Roger Stevens.”

“Roger Stevens!” exclaimed Adam, his voice tinged with both anger and surprise. “You’re not friends with him, are you?”

Nancy looked started at Adam’s reaction. “No,” she said quickly. “We’re merely acquaintances. I met him through some people I know in Carson City. I’ve invested in a timber project he has here in Virginia City.”

“Oh, Nancy, I’m afraid you may have invested unwisely,” advised Ben.

“Why do you say that?” asked Nancy.

“Because Stevens’ project depends on getting some land he wants from Pa,” answered Adam. “And we’re not about to sell it to him.”

Suddenly, Nancy looked distressed. “I can’t afford to lose the money I’ve invested,” she said in alarm. “Mr. Stevens assured me that everything was in order.”

“That Stevens fellow, I’ve heard he‘s a smooth talker,” offered Hoss. “I think he’s probably hornswaggled you, ma’am.”

“Oh, no,” said Nancy, her distress obviously growing. She turned to Ben. “Ben, couldn’t you sell him the land?” she asked.

“I’m afraid not,” answered Ben regretfully.

“But why not?” asked Nancy. “Are you using it for something else?”

“No,” replied Ben. “The land he wants is down by the lake, and that land is not to be touched.”

“That land can never be used,” added Joe, his voice tinged with anger.

The expression on Nancy’s face changed from alarm to puzzlement. “But I don’t understand,” she said. “If the land isn’t being used and Mr. Stevens can make use of it, why not sell it to him? He could make a good profit from it and so could I.” Nancy looked around the table. “What can be so important about that piece of land? Other than the timber, there can’t be anything important on it, can there?”

“Nothing except my mother’s grave,” said Joe in a cold voice. He stood abruptly and walked away from the table. Without a glance backward, he crossed the room and went up the stairs.

Everyone at the table sat in an embarrassed silence for a moment. Finally, Nancy spoke.

“I’m sorry, Ben,” she apologized softly. “I had no idea.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Ben said in a soothing voice. He looked up toward the stairs. “Joe is very defensive about his mother,” Ben explained. “She died when he was very young. He really doesn’t remember her. Over the years, he’s built an image of his in his mind, and he can be pretty fierce about protecting that image from any slights, both real and imagined.

“Oh, Ben, I am sorry,” said Nancy with regret. “I didn’t mean to upset Joe.”

“I know you didn’t,” replied Ben with a smile. He wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Maybe I’d better talk to Joe.” He stood. “If you’ll excuse me,” said Ben to Nancy.

Slowly, Ben walked across the room and up the stairs. He wished he knew what to say to Joe. He wanted so much for his sons to like Nancy and he was afraid if he handled this wrong, he might destroy any future relationship between Nancy and Joe.

At the top of the stairs, Ben walked a few steps and stopped in front of a door. He knocked softly on the door to Joe’s bedroom. “May I come in?” he asked, and heard a muffled “Yes” through the door. Ben turned the door knob and pushed opened the door. Joe was standing by the desk in his room, holding a small portrait of his mother. He continued to stare at the picture as Ben entered the room.

“Joe, Nancy didn’t mean anything by what she said,” Ben told his son. “She didn’t know what was on that land down by the lake.”

For a moment, Joe didn’t say anything; he simply continued to stare at the picture. Finally, he took a deep breath. “I guess you’re right,” Joe said to his father without turning around. “I guess I’m just tired or something. I shouldn’t flown off the handle like that.” Joe put the picture on his desk and turned around. “Pa, where did you meet Nancy?” he asked.

“At the governor’s party,” replied Ben in surprise. “You heard me say that.”

“I know,” Joe said. He shook his head. “I just can’t help thinking I’ve seen her someplace before.”

“Joe, Nancy is a very lovely woman,” Ben stated. “You probably just noticed her on the street somewhere.” Ben smiled as his son. “You do have a habit of looking at pretty women,” he added.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Joe replied, smiling at his father. Then, his face turned serious. “Pa, are you in love with her?” asked Joe.

Ben looked startled. “I don’t know,” he answered slowly. “Would it upset you if I was?”

For a minute, Joe chewed his lip and thought. Adam’s words about not interfering in his father’s love life flashed through Joe’s head. But at the same time, he just didn’t feel right about his father and Nancy. He couldn’t explain why, but he had the feeling something wasn’t quite right. “I don’t know either,” Joe finally admitted.

Affectionately, Ben patted Joe on the shoulder. “Why don’t you come back downstairs?” he asked. “I’m sure Nancy would be happy if you joined us again.”

Once again, Joe hesitated. He felt uncomfortable about seeing Nancy again…for a lot of reasons. Joe shook his head. “No, Pa, I really am tired. I think I’ll just stay up here and get some sleep.”

“All right,” Ben agreed in a disappointed voice. “I’ll make your excuses.”

“Thanks,” Joe said gratefully. As Ben turned to leave the room, Joe called after him. “Pa.” Ben stopped and turned back. “I’m glad you had a good trip to Carson City,” Joe told him with a grin.

Ben grinned back at his son, then cuffed him on the back of the neck. “You get some sleep, you young rascal,” he said with affection.

As Ben turned and left the room. Joe’s smile faded. He laid down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. His thoughts were far from sleep.

*****

Joe woke with a start. Sunlight was streaming through the window. He was sprawled on the bed, still fully dressed. He hadn’t thought he would have been able to sleep much; his mind had been full of thoughts about Nancy, his father, and where he might have seen her before. But sometime during the night, he must have drifted off. Joe rose and quickly changed clothes, discarding his fancy shirt and pants for more suitable work clothes. He splashed some water in his face, and ran a comb through his hair. Then he rushed out of his room and down the stairs. Ben, Adam and Hoss were just finishing breakfast as Joe slid into his chair. “Sorry I’m late,” Joe apologized as he reached for the coffee. “I must have been more tired than I thought.”

“That’s all right,” Ben replied in a gentle voice. “Hoss and Adam have been telling me how hard you’ve been working. You deserved to sleep in a little.”

Joe grinned. Normally, his father would have been mad at him at being so late. If this was the effect Nancy was having on him, maybe Joe should encourage the relationship.

“I’ve finished breaking all those horses for the Army contract,” stated Joe as he sipped his coffee. “They’re a real good string.”

“That’s fine, son,” Ben said in an approving voice. “I know that was a big job. I’m proud of you.”

“Pa was just telling us about his trip to Carson City,” Adam explained. He looked at his father and grinned. “Well, the business parts, at any rate,” added Adam. Ben flushed and suddenly found his plate of food very interesting.

“Did you check on the deed for the land by the lake?” asked Joe.

“Yes,” Ben replied with a nod. “Our claim is solid. There’s no way Stevens can raise any objections to it.”

Sipping his coffee, Joe looked around the table. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said slowly as he put down his cup. “I guess I was tired or something. I didn’t mean what I said to come out that way.”

“It’s all right,” answered Ben in a soothing voice. “I explained things to Nancy. She understood.”

“Are you going to be spending the day with her?” Joe asked, a smile playing on his lips.

“Um, no,” replied Ben. “She’s going to do some visiting and I want to check on things around here. We, er, we’re going to see each other tomorrow.”

Looking over at Adam, Hoss winked at his older brother. “Guess we won’t be seeing much of Pa for awhile,” said Hoss with a grin. Ben flushed again.

Joe sipped his coffee thoughtfully. “Pa, do you mind if I ride into Virginia City?” he asked. “I’d like to apologize to Nancy for last night.”

“No, I don’t mind,” said Ben. “You’ve been working hard, and deserve a day off. Besides, I think apologizing to Nancy would be a good idea.”

“Looks like none of us are going to get any work done while she’s around,” grumbled Adam good-naturedly.

*****

Joe rode into Virginia City at mid-morning. He didn’t want to call on Nancy too early but he did want to visit her before she left the hotel for the day. Joe had no way of knowing Nancy Miller already had a visitor. Nancy answered the knock of her door cautiously. She pulled the door open a crack and looked into the hall. Roger Stevens stood in front of the door, smiling.

“What are you doing?” hissed Nancy. She opened the door wide and pulled Roger into the room. “What if someone had seen you?”

“I was careful that no one saw me,” replied Stevens easily. “Besides, what difference does it make?”

“It makes a difference to my reputation,” said Nancy, still angry. “A proper woman doesn’t invite a strange man into her room.”

“A proper woman, eh?” Stevens seemed to find that remark amusing. Then his face turned serious. “What happened at dinner last night? Is Cartwright going to sell me the land?”

“No,” replied Nancy with a shake of her head. “You might as well forget it. Ben Cartwright will never sell that land. His wife is buried on it.”

Stevens cursed under his breath, then shrugged. “Well, we gave it a shot,” he said philosophically. “We might as well pack up and move on.”

“You can pack up if you want,” Nancy told Stevens with a tight smile. “I’m staying.”

“What!” exclaimed Stevens. “Why on earth would you want to stay here?”

“Because Ben Cartwright is falling in love with me,” answered Nancy smugly. “If I play my cards right, I might get him to marry me.”

“Marry you!” said Stevens in alarm. “But what about us?”

“What about us?” said Nancy evenly.

“I thought you and me….well, I thought we had an understanding,” stammered Stevens.

“Roger, dear, I do love you,” replied Nancy. “But this is a chance I can’t pass up. Ben Cartwright is rich, very rich. Life on the Ponderosa could be pleasant. At least for awhile.”

“For awhile?” commented Stevens, arching his eyebrow.

“Ben Cartwright is a busy man,” said Nancy with a grin. “He has a ranch to run, business deals to oversee. I doubt if he’ll have time to travel with his wife. After a bit, he’ll get used to me being away.”

“I don’t know if Cartwright would like the idea of his wife traveling alone,” remarked Stevens.

“He’ll do it to make me happy,” said Nancy confidently. She looked at Stevens. “Just think what it could be like. You and I meeting in New York, or Europe. Living in the best hotels, eating at the finest restaurants. And all of it paid for by Ben Cartwright.”

“Cartwright doesn’t strike me as the type of man who would stand being cuckolded,” said Stevens wryly.

“Perhaps,” agreed Nancy. “But he’s also the type of man who would avoid a scandal. I’m sure we can work out a very lucrative divorce settlement, if it comes to that.”

“But you can’t just marry the man and then start traveling,” protested Stevens.

“No, of course not,” agreed Nancy. “I figure about six months after the wedding sounds about right.”

“Six months on that rustic ranch?” Stevens said. “How will you ever stand it?”

“It’s not as bad as you think,” answered Nancy. “Hop Sing does all the cooking and cleaning, so I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. And four handsome men to look after me! Ben is very loving and attentive. Adam is so intelligent, and well read. I’m sure he and I will have some interesting conversations. Hoss is so sweet. I’m sure all I’d have to do is crook my finger and he’d do anything for me.”

“And what about Joe?” asked Stevens.

“Joe,” Nancy said, her face softening. “Such a handsome boy,” she murmured. Then her face hardened. “Joe could be a problem. He’s sure he’s seen me someplace before.”

“Has he?” asked Stevens.

“I have no idea,” replied Nancy. “It’s possible.”

Stevens thought for a moment. “What are you going to do?”

“For now, nothing,” said Nancy. “I’ll try to charm him. That won’t be an onerous chore.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” asked Stevens.

“If that doesn’t work, then I may have to call on your particular talents,” answered Nancy. She looked at Stevens. “Would you help me if I asked?”

“Only if you promise me a lobster dinner in New York in six months,” Stevens said. Nancy smiled and walked forward. Her arms went around Roger’s shoulders and she kissed him on the lips.

*****

Joe stopped at the desk in the lobby of the hotel to ask about Nancy. After the clerk told him the room number and assured him Nancy was in her room, Joe climbed the steps to where the rooms were located. As he was coming around the corner at the top of the steps, Joe heard a door open. He slowed and saw Roger Stevens coming out of the second door, the door Joe knew led to Nancy Miller’s room. Joe stepped back, and stood at the corner where the hall and the top of the stairs met. As he watched, Stevens left the room. Suddenly, Nancy appeared at the door and Stevens turned back to her. “Don’t forget your promise,” Nancy said to Stevens, putting her hand on his arm.

“I won’t,” Stevens promised, smiling. He bowed slightly and turned to walk down the hall in the opposite direction from Joe, toward the back stairs. Nancy stood watching for a moment, then re-entered her room. Joe turned and walked back down the stairs.

*****

Joe rode into the yard outside the ranch house, his face still thoughtful. He had been trying to decide all the way from town what to tell his father about what he had seen. Hoss and Adam were in the yard as Joe rode up.

“Hey, Joe, what’s wrong with you?” asked Hoss as he looked at Joe’s face. “You look like you’ve been kicked by a mule?”

“Aw, he always looks that way, Hoss,” kidded Adam.

When Joe didn’t respond with an answering jibe, Hoss and Adam looked at each other. They walked to the hitching post where Joe was tying up his horse.

“Joe, is there something wrong?” asked Adam.

“I don’t know, Adam,” Joe admitted.

“Did you see Miz Nancy in town?” asked Hoss.

“Yeah, I saw her,” replied Joe bitterly. When Adam and Hoss looked at him with a frown, Joe explained, “I went to the hotel and got there just as Roger Stevens was leaving her room.”

Hoss and Adam looked at each other again. “What did Nancy say when you asked her about it?” asked Adam.

“I didn’t,” replied Joe shortly. “I just turned and walked away.”

“Well, then, how do you know something was going on?” asked Adam patiently.

“I don’t,” admitted Joe. “But I’ve had this bad feeling about her. And now with this….”

“With what?” snorted Adam. “You saw Roger Stevens leaving her room. Did he kiss or anything?”

“No,” replied Joe. “He just walked out and walked away. But why would he be in her room?”

“You heard her say at dinner last night she had some business with him,” said Hoss. “Maybe they were just discussing that.”

“In her room?” Joe said ironically.

“Stevens doesn’t have an office as far as I know. Maybe she just felt it was better for him to come to her than for her to go to his room,” suggested Adam.

“They could have met some place more public,” said Joe. “Like a restaurant or something.”

“All right, maybe she showed poor judgment,” Adam agreed. “But that’s still no reason to suspect something is going on.”

“Adam, you didn’t see them,” Joe struggled to explain. “It’s nothing I can explain. Just a feeling that I had that their meeting wasn’t exactly business.”

“Little brother, you’ve had a burr under your saddle about Miz Nancy since you met her,” said Hoss with a frown. “I think you’re making too much out of this.”

“I think I should tell Pa about it,” Joe insisted.

“Sure, go ahead and tell him,” said Adam. “He’ll want to know why you didn’t apologize to Nancy. Just don’t go painting him a picture that doesn’t exist.”

Joe frowned. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, just tell Pa you didn’t apologize to Nancy because she was meeting with Stevens,” counseled Adam. “You don’t have to elaborate beyond that.”

“Why not?” asked Joe.

“Because you don’t have any evidence that there was something beyond that!” Adam answered heatedly.

“Adam, don’t you think I should tell him that the woman he is courting might not be all she’s cracked up to be?” said Joe, his voice also rising.

“No, I don’t!” replied Adam angrily.

“Calm down, both of you,” said Hoss. “This ain’t any of our business.”

For a moment, Adam looked startled, then he slowly nodded his head. “Hoss is right,” agreed Adam. “After that little stunt you two pulled, Pa made it pretty clear he wants us to stay out of his love life.” Adam looked at Joe. “I know you don’t like Nancy, but you barely know her. Why don’t you give her a chance? You might find out you were wrong about her.”

“All right, Adam,” said Joe with a sigh. “I’ll do what you suggest. But I still have a feeling that there’s something not right here.”

*****

Ben spent almost all of the next week with Nancy, and anyone could see he was blissfully happy. Joe had told Ben about Nancy’s meeting with Stevens, but he had only told him the bare facts, as Adam suggested. Ben asked Nancy about it, and her explanation was that it was a business meeting. Ben accepted the explanation without question.

For his part, Joe did his best to try to like Nancy, but he just couldn’t do it. Whenever he was around her, Nancy seemed to pay special attention to Joe, and he had enough experience to know when a woman was trying to charm him. Normally, he wouldn’t have minded it; in fact, he usually enjoyed it. But it made Joe uncomfortable when the woman was someone his father was courting. There was also something about Nancy, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Joe was convinced she was not who or what she pretended to be.

The fourth day of Nancy Miller’s visit to Virginia City was a perfect day – warm, but not hot, and a clear blue Nevada sky hung over the land. Joe was chopping wood in the yard, and Adam was sitting on the porch trying to fix a broken rein. Hoss led the buggy from the barn to the front of the house.

“Pa going out again?” Joe asked, taking a break and walking over toward his brothers.

“Yeah. This buggy is sure getting a work-out,” remarked Hoss, grinning.

Adam noticed Joe’s frown. “Joe, I know you don’t like Nancy much,” he said, “but I hope you’ll have the good sense to keep your mouth shut about her.”

“I haven’t said anything, have I,” replied Joe angrily.

“No, and I think you should keep it that way,” instructed Adam.

Before Joe could say another word, Ben walked out of the house. He was dressed in a white shirt with a string tie, and carrying a picnic basket. He smiled when he saw the buggy. “Thank you, Hoss,” said Ben, with an approving nod, then looked around. “I may be gone most of the day,” said Ben apologetically. “I’m sorry to leave you boys with so much of the work.”

“Don’t worry about it, Pa,” answered Adam with a grin. “We’ll let you know if something comes up that we can’t handle.”

With a distracted air, Ben nodded. He seemed to want to say something but didn’t know how to bring it up. “I hope you boys don’t mind Nancy being around so much,” Ben said in a hesitant voice.

“Mind?” said Adam with a grin. “We’re delighted.”

“Yeah, Pa,” added Hoss. “She’s real special.”

Joe said nothing but Ben didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m glad you think she’s special,” said Ben. He shifted his feet uncomfortably. “I think that too,” he added. “I’m hoping maybe, well, someday she might be around a lot more. You boys wouldn’t mind that, would you?”

Adam turned and fixed a hard look on Joe. “No, Pa,” said Adam as he continued to look at Joe. “We wouldn’t mind it at all.”

“That’s good,” Ben said with relief as he climbed into the buggy. “Don’t wait up for me,” he added as he drove off.

“Don’t wait up?” Hoss said with a frown. “Adam, you don’t think…”

“Hoss, what Pa does is none of our business,” stated Adam firmly.

“Yeah, I know but, Adam, Pa’s not a young man any more,” said Hoss with concern. “I mean, he could hurt himself or something.”

“The only one who’s going to get hurt is you if you say that to Pa,” snorted Adam. “Now let’s get back to work.” Adam returned to working on the reins, and Hoss walked back to the barn. Joe stood watching the buggy drive off. Then he turned back to the wood pile. He began chopping wood again, but it seemed as if the ax descended with more forced than needed to split the wood.

*****

The four Cartwrights were sitting around the breakfast table. Breakfast was just about the only meal Ben ate with his sons these days. Adam and Hoss had continued to assure Ben that everything on the ranch was under control, and that he could take off whatever time he need. Joe tended to say nothing during the discussions. He did his work, and kept quiet, all the time wondering if he was doing the right thing.

Nervously, Ben cleared his throat nervously as he ate breakfast. “Um, boys, I thought we might have a little party Saturday night,” he said. “Give Nancy a chance to meet some of our friends and neighbors.”

Hoss and Adam looked at each other and grinned. “I think that’s a good idea,” Hoss agreed, trying to keep a straight face. “I mean, Miz Nancy hasn’t had much time to do any visiting since she’s been here.”

Flushing, Ben shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, yes, I guess I have been keeping her pretty busy,” he said. “Any way, I thought we might try to make this a special occasion. So I’d appreciate your helping Hop Sing anyway you can.”

“How long is she planning to stay in Virginia City?” asked Joe abruptly.

Ben frowned. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Why?”

Joe shrugged. “No reason,” he said. “Just curious.” He went back to eating his breakfast.

Suddenly, Ben looked thoughtful. “You know, Joe, you’re right,” he said slowly. “Nancy must be planning to leave soon. That is, unless she’s given a reason to stay longer.”

Joe looked up, startled while Adam and Hoss looked at each other and winked.

“Saturday night, with all our friends around, might be a good time to make any kind of announcement,” speculated Adam with a twinkle in his eye. Joe frowned.

“Yes, yes, it might,” Ben agreed in a distracted tone of voice. “Well, I’ve got to get to town,” he added, standing up. “You boys have anything you need to talk with me about?”

“Not a thing, Pa,” Adam said, waving his hand. “Go and have a good time.”

Nodding, Ben turned and walked out of the room, whistling softly as he went.

“Hot diggity!” exclaimed Hoss as soon as their father was gone. “Pa’s going to get married again!”

“I think there’s a pretty good chance,” agreed Adam with a smile.

“Great,” said Joe sourly. “Just great.”

Frowning, Adam looked at Joe. “Look, Joe, I know you don’t like the idea of Pa getting married again…” he started.

“That’s not true,” protested Joe. “I think it would be great if he got married. I just don’t think Nancy Miller is the right woman for him.”

“Are you sure?” asked Adam.

“Sure I want him to get married again,” Joe said firmly. He grinned. “Did I go to all the trouble to try to find him a wife?”

“I wouldn’t bring that up again if I were you, Joe,” cautioned Hoss.

“Joe, are you sure you don’t resent him getting married?” pressed Adam. “I mean, the woman you, um, picked out, Beth Robinson, she was, well, safe. If Pa had started courting her, it might take a long time for them to get married.”

“Adam, what are you talking about?” Joe asked with a frown.

“I’m talking about you growing up with just us, and Pa, and Hop Sing,” explained Adam. “I’m talking about you maybe resenting having a woman in the house. Hoss and I know what it’s like. You don’t.”

“Adam, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said Joe angrily.

“Is it?” asked Adam.

“Yes, it is,” Joe answered. “I don’t mind Pa getting married. I don’t. I just don’t think Nancy Miller is the right woman for him.”

“Well, it ain’t exactly your decision, little brother,” said Hoss.

“That’s right,” stated Adam. “It’s up to Pa who he marries. I happen to think Nancy is a very charming and intelligent woman.”

“She’s real nice, Joe,” added Hoss.

“Well, she sure has you two convinced,” Joe said wryly.

Adam sighed. “I can see we’re not going to change your mind,” he said. He fixed a stern look on his youngest brother. “Joe, you listen to me. You keep whatever you think about Nancy to yourself, do you understand. I won’t have you messing this up for Pa. You do, and you’ll have me to deal with.”

“And me,” added Hoss.

Cautiously, Joe looked back and forth between his two brothers. “All right,” he agreed. “I won’t say anything. I just hope you two are around to pick up the pieces when she’s finished with Pa.”

*****

The preparations for the party moved ahead rapidly. Adam and Hoss made the rounds, inviting all their friends and neighbors. The smile and wink they gave with the invitation left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the party was going to be an engagement party. Hop Sing cleaned and dusted until the ranch house was spotless. Anyone tracking even the smallest speck of dust into the house was immediately berated and made to clean up the floor. Even Ben was ordered to wipe his feet carefully by the cook. Ben grumbled about being ordered about in his own house, but the look on his face showed he really didn’t mind.

By Saturday morning, Hop Sing had turned into a tyrant. He was up before dawn, starting to cook and bake. He ordered Hoss out to the meadow to look for fresh flowers, and insisted Adam start moving furniture to clear a dance floor. He even told Ben to order the hands to clean up the yard in front of the house. The only one he didn’t give orders to was Joe. Joe had managed to make himself scarce.

Joe was hiding out in the barn, supposedly grooming his horse. But the truth was, Joe had no enthusiasm for the party. He had kept his promise about not saying anything to Ben about his feelings about Nancy, but Joe still didn’t like the idea of her joining the family. He was combing his pinto when Adam and Hoss walked into the barn. “There you are, little brother,” said Hoss in exasperation. “We’ve been looking all over for you. Hop Sing has a list of chores a mile long for you to do.”

Saying nothing, Joe kept grooming his horse.

“Joe, you’re not going to do anything to spoil this party, are you?” asked Adam.

Abruptly, Joe looked up. “No, I won’t spoil the party,” he said shortly. He took a few more swipes with the curry brush, then looked up again. “But I am going to have a talk with Pa,” he added. “I have to let him know how I feel.”

“Joe, what do you have against Miz Nancy?” asked Hoss.

“I told you, Hoss,” said Joe. “I saw her that day with Stevens. I don’t think she’s in love with Pa.”

“Because of a brief meeting at the hotel?” asked Adam in astonishment. “Joe, that’s crazy!”

“You didn’t see them,” insisted Joe. “And it’s not just that. I can tell when a woman is in love. Nancy isn’t.”

“Oh, you’ve had so much experience,” commented Adam wryly.

“Around women, yes,” said Joe. He smiled slyly. “Maybe more than you two.”

Adam shook his head. “Joe, you’re acting like a spoiled child. You’re not getting your own way, so you’re pouting.”

Turning away from his brothers, Joe pursed his lips. He threw down the brush and turned to pull a blanket and saddle off the wall of the stall. He quickly began saddling his horse.

“Now just where do you think you’re going?” asked Adam.

“I’ve got some things to do,” Joe said shortly.

“But, Joe, what about the party?” asked Hoss with alarm.

“I don’t think I’d be much help getting things ready for tonight,” replied Joe as he slipped his bridle on his pinto. He glared at Adam. “I might just say or do the wrong thing.”

“But you’ll be back in time for the party, won’t you?” Hoss said in a worried voice.

“Yeah, I’ll be back,” Joe answered as he backed his horse out of the stall. “Tell Pa, I promise I’ll be home for the party.”

*****

Joe really didn’t have any place to go or anything to do; he just felt a need to get away from the ranch for awhile. He rode to Virginia City because he couldn’t think of any place else to go. Joe stopped his horse in front of the Silver Dollar saloon. It was only about noon, but he felt the need of a beer. Joe pushed open the doors of the saloon and walked in. This early in the day, the Silver Dollar was almost empty. Three men sat at a corner table playing cards but Joe didn’t know any of them, so he decided not to join the game. He strolled over to a table a few feet from the bar and sat down.

“Hello, Joe,” said a blonde girl in a low cut dress with a short skirt as she approached the table. “Buy me a beer?”

Looking up, Joe smiled at the girl. “Hello, Lily. Sure.”

“Two cold beers, Bruno,” Lily called to the bartender. She walked over to the bar and picked up two filled beer mugs and brought them back to the table.

“I’m surprised to see you in town,” said Lily as she sat down at the table with Joe. “I hear there’s some big doings up at your place tonight.”

“You hear everything, don’t you, Lily?” Joe replied with a smile as he sipped his beer.

“I don’t miss much,” admitted Lily. She took a sip of your beer. “Is it true your Pa is going to marry that lady?”

“I think so,” said Joe with a frown.

“Hmm,” Lily comment noncommittally as she took another drink.

Joe looked at the girl. “Why the hmmm?” he asked.

“Oh nothing,” answered Lily. “I’ve seen the lady around town. She looks real nice. In fact, I thought at first maybe I knew her, but that couldn’t be.”

Almost abruptly, Joe sat up straight. “Knew her?” he asked. “Where from?”

“I thought she was somebody who used to work at a place called The Golden Palace in Sacramento,” said Lily. “They called it a supper club, but it was really just a fancy saloon.” Lily sipped her beer. “I was working at a dive called the Trail’s End, but I used to see this lady around Sacramento. They called her the Duchess. She talked real good, and read a lot of books and stuff. She was supposed to keep the rich old guys who went to the Palace entertained while they were there.”

“Are you sure it isn’t her?” Joe asked, thinking hard. He had been to the Golden Palace once or twice. He was trying to remember if he had seen Nancy Miller there.

“Well, it couldn’t be, could it?” replied Lily. “I mean, your Pa wouldn’t be marrying somebody like that. A fancy saloon girl? I hardly think so.”

For a moment, Joe sat silently, sipping his beer and trying to think back. He tried to picture the Golden Palace. Suddenly, the image of Nancy flashed into his mind. She was wearing a low cut dress, and her hair was piled on her head, held in place by a sparkling pin. Just like the first time Joe had seen her at the Ponderosa. Only this time, in Joe’s mind, he saw her sitting at a table with three well-dressed men. She was drinking wine and running her hand casually down the arm of one of the men. Joe remembered looking at her and admiring her when he was at the Palace. But he had not spoken with Nancy Miller when he was there. At least, he thought it was Nancy Miller. Joe took a deep drink from his beer and threw some money down on the table. “Thanks, Lily,” he said gratefully, as he stood.

“For what?” she asked puzzled. But Joe didn’t answer. He was already walking out the door of the saloon. Lily shrugged and continued to sip her beer.

Standing outside the saloon, Joe tried to decide what to do. Suddenly, he saw a carriage leaving from in front of the hotel down the street, a carriage driven by Nancy Miller. Joe walked quickly to his horse and untied the animal from the hitching post. He vaulted on the animal’s back and kicked the pinto lightly in the side as he turned the horse’s head.

Joe followed the carriage from a distance, curious to see where Nancy was heading. He knew she wasn’t due at the Ponderosa until evening, but that’s the direction in which she was heading. But Nancy didn’t follow the road to the house. She turned off the main road and drove the carriage down a smaller road toward the lake. Joe followed and saw Nancy pull the carriage to a halt a few yards from the lake. He halted his horse also. As Nancy climbed out of the carriage, she seemed to be looking for someone. Joe guided his horse to some trees and dismounted, tying the reins to a branch. He walked through the trees, wanting to get closer to Nancy but still keeping out of sight. As he watched Nancy impatiently pacing back and forth next to the carriage, Joe stood and waited, concealed in the trees. When he heard another horse approaching, Joe pulled back farther into the shadows and watched as a rider came up the trail. Joe recognized him as Roger Stevens.

Stopping his horse a few feet from the carriage, Stevens dismounted. Nancy walked forward and Stevens threw his arms around her. He kissed her, a long passionate kiss. “Ah, Duchess,” sighed Stevens. “I’m going to miss this.”

“It’s only for six months or so,” Nancy reminded him. “Once I’m married to Ben Cartwright, I’ll have all the money I need. Convincing him to let me travel to New York while he’s running the ranch back here shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“Cartwright’s a crafty old bird,” advised Stevens. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Nancy shrugged. “Like I said, if it doesn’t work, I’ll get him to pay me off. I’m sure he’d much rather pay me enough money to go away quietly than to be publicly humiliated as a man who couldn’t keep his wife happy.”

“You’ve come a long way from the Golden Palace,” remarked Stevens.

“That’s where I learned about cheating spouses and quiet divorces,” said Nancy with a smile. “It was quite an education. Now kiss me one last time.”

As Joe watched and listened, his stomach churned with disgust. He could feel the anger building in him also. He told himself to stay still, to think; he needed to make sure his next move was the right one. He considered pulling his gun, forcing the pair in front of him to confess to his father at gun point. But the picture of Ben listening to Nancy confessing while Joe held a gun on her didn’t seem right. Nancy could always say she lied because she was afraid for her life. Besides, the one thing Joe could count on was that his father trusted him. Joe would tell his father the truth about his intended. He was confident that his Pa would believe him.

Moving quietly, Joe started to slip away in the shadows. He wanted to get back to the ranch as quickly as possible. Joe never knew what alerted the two lovers to his presence. Maybe in his anger and haste, he was careless and made a noise. Maybe they saw the movement in the shadows. Whatever it was, Joe was only about halfway back to his horse when he heard Nancy scream, “There he is. Shoot him!”

At once, Joe tried to turn, to pull his own gun, but he was too late. He felt something slam into his back. The impact pitched him forward onto the ground. For an instant, he didn’t feel anything. Then a searing pain tore through him, a pain so strong it took his breath away. Joe tried to push himself up, but it was a feeble attempt and he collapsed back to the ground. Joe thought he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He struggled again to get up, but each movement caused another searing pain to radiate through him. Joe’s last conscious thought was he had to find some way to tell his father the truth about Nancy. Then a black cloud seemed to descend around him, and Joe had no more thoughts.

*****

The party at the Ponderosa seemed to a be roaring success. The guests danced happily, and they ate and drank with gusto. Ben introduced Nancy to his closet friends – Dr. Paul Martin, Sheriff Roy Coffee, and others whom he had known for years. When he introduced Nancy to Beth Robinson, Beth had winked and smiled approvingly at Ben. The men told Ben that they thought Nancy was beautiful, and the women told him she was charming. Almost all hinted that they were looking forward to some sort of announcement later. Ben responded to their comments with a distracted air. He frequently glanced at the clock, and found himself staring at the front door each time it opened. Ben was disappointed that Joe had chosen not to come home in time for the party. He kept hoping his youngest son would change his mind.

Noticing his worried glances, Nancy tried to distract Ben. She pulled him on to the makeshift dance floor in front of the fireplace, and they waltzed to the slow music of a mournful violin. Nancy insisted he try some of Hop Sing’s wonderful cooking and Ben did his best to eat something. He talked and chatted with his guests. He did everything except enjoy himself.

Seeing Hoss standing near the front door watching the dancing, Adam walked over to his brother. “Any sign of Joe?” Adam asked in a low voice.

“No,” replied Hoss, shaking his head. “Dagnabit, Adam, he promised he’d be here. When our little brother gets home, I’m going to skin him alive.”

“Not if I get my hands on him first,” promised Adam grimly.

Smiling happily, Nancy walked over to where Ben was standing near the punch bowl. Her color was high, her face flushed with excitement. She felt a surge of triumph. On the way from Virginia City to the ranch for the party, Ben had pulled the carriage to a halt near a field filled with wildflowers. Under the glorious blue sky, with the scent of flowers drifting in, Ben had proposed to Nancy. And she had accepted immediately.

The couple had decided not to tell anyone about the engagement until Ben could tell his sons. They had told Adam and Hoss as soon as they arrived at the ranch house. Hoss had whooped with joy, while Adam had shook hands with both of them, offering heartfelt congratulations. Ben and Nancy had waited for Joe to arrive so they could tell him the news. But the guests started to arrive, and the music began before Joe came home. Ben waited at first patiently, and then impatiently for his youngest son. But now the evening was growing late, and there was still no sign of Joe.

“Ben, dear,” said Nancy in a low voice. “I know you wanted to tell Joe before making the announcement. But it looks like he’s not coming. It’s getting late. Our guests will be leaving soon. If you’re going to make the announcement, you should do it soon.”

“I know,” Ben agreed. “I wanted to tell my sons, all my sons, before I made the announcement. But it doesn’t look like that will be possible.” Sighing, he looked toward the door once more.

“Ben, it will work out with Joe,” Nancy promised. “Joe won’t object to our marriage.”

“I wish I could be so sure,” Ben said sadly.

A strange look crossed Nancy’s face. “I can promise you Joe won’t object to our marriage,” she told Ben. He smiled sadly and squeezed her hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ben announced at the top of his voice. “Please everyone get a glass and then gather around the fireplace. I have announcement, and I would like you all to join me in a toast.”

A buzz went through the crowd. Several people rushed to the punch bowl to fill their glasses. One man went to the front door and called to the people standing outside to come in. All the guests hurried to assemble in front of the fireplace.

Outside in the dark, a pinto pony walked slowly toward the yard in front of the house. The rider was slumped over the neck of the horse, barely conscious. Joe wasn’t sure how long he had been unconscious down by the lake. Stevens and Nancy had left him there, either to die or assuming he was already dead. All Joe knew was that it was dark when he woke up. He had tried to get to his feet, but the pain in his back was excruciating. He finally had begun to crawl toward the horse that was still tied to a tree nearby. Crawling had been difficult because his left arm was useless. Every time he tried to move his left arm, a stab of pain shot through his back. Joe was so weak and in so much pain that it had taken him almost an hour to pull himself across the ground to his horse. It had been maybe twenty yards; it had seemed like twenty miles to Joe. Once he had reached the horse, Joe had slowly and painfully pulled himself up until he could reach the reins and untie them from the tree. The act of mounting his horse, which normally Joe accomplished with a single leap, had felt like climbing a mountain. Somehow he had managed to get onto the horse. Joe remembered giving his horse a light kick to get him started, and then had passed out. Luckily, the pinto knew his way back to the barn. The horse had walked slowly, confused by the lack of direction from the rider on his back. The animal felt no kicks, nothing to urge him to hurry so the horse walked back toward its stall at a leisurely pace. Joe had drifted in and out of consciousness as he sat on the horse. He could feel the pain in his back. Blood oozed down his left shoulder and arm which was dangling uselessly. Joe felt hot and thirsty, and knew he was probably feverish. But he didn’t have the strength to do anything but hold on to the saddle horn with his right hand and hope he could stay on the horse.

Now the pinto carried the helpless man into the yard in front of the house. Wagons and horses were tied throughout the yard, but no one was around. Everyone was in the house, awaiting the announcement and toast. The pinto stopped in the middle of the yard, confused as to what to do; the unfamiliar horses and carriages blocked the animal from its stall. So the horse simply stopped and waited. Joe lifted his head. He was amazed to see the house in front of him. He was sure he would have fallen off the horse before he reached home. Now he slid down the saddle, falling to the ground with a thud. He groaned in pain as he hit the ground, and laid in the dirt, unmoving, for several minutes. Finally, Joe slowly and painfully pulled himself to his feet, and started staggering across the yard.

Inside the brightly lit house, Ben Cartwright and Nancy Miller were standing in front of the fireplace. Ben was formally introducing Nancy again to his neighbors, and she smiled graciously at the round of applause that greeted the introduction.

“And now, I want to share something else with you…” Ben began. He stopped as he heard the front door open. Ben looked toward the door, and his face reflected both horror and surprise. Hoss and Adam, who were standing at the back of the crowd, turned to look also.

Joe had managed to stagger across the yard. Now he pushed opened the front door, and leaned against the door frame. His left arm and shoulder were covered with blood. His face was beaded with sweat from both exertion and fever; his eyes had a glazed, unfocused look. Joe lifted his right hand slightly. “Pa, help,” he managed to say before he collapsed to the floor.

Immediately, Adam and Hoss rushed to their brother’s side. Ben dropped the glass in his hand, not even noticing that it smashed against the floor. He ran across the room, pushing people aside with Dr. Paul Martin following after him. Everyone else in the room seemed frozen in shock. Nancy Miller’s face reflected shock and horror more deeply than anyone’s.

Ben knelt on the floor next to Joe. Adam was cradling his brother’s head in his hands, and Hoss was pulling open the torn and bloody cloth that covered Joe’s back. As Ben knelt next to his youngest son, Hoss looked up. “He’s been shot in the back, Pa,” Hoss said grimly. “And it’s bad, real bad.”

“I’ll get my bag from the buggy,” called Dr. Martin, and he rushed out the door.

As Ben stroked Joe’s cheek lightly with his hand, Joe’s eyes fluttered opened. He blinked, as if trying to focus. “Pa,” said Joe in a barely audible voice.

“Easy, Joe, take it easy,” answered Ben in a soothing voice. “Joe, who did this? Who shot you?”

Joe didn’t seem to hear his father’s question. He simply stared up at his father. “Pa,” Joe whispered. “I made it home.” Joe coughed and winced at the pain, then looked up at Ben again. “I made it home like I promised,” Joe murmured. Then his body went limp.

*****

Adam and Hoss sat on the sofa, staring at the top of the stairs. It had been almost two hours since they had carried Joe to his room, followed by Ben and the doctor. Dr. Martin had ordered them out of the room as soon as they had gently place Joe on his bed. Hop Sing had made regular trips to the room with hot water and fresh bandages, but had nothing to report on Joe’s condition. More to give them something to do than anything else, Hoss and Adam had cleaned up the remnants of the hastily ended party. The guests had left almost immediately. They had all lived in the West long enough to know there was little they could do but get in the way. Most had simply left. A few had expressed their sympathy to Nancy and asked her to tell Ben. Nancy had mutely nodded in answer, her face pale with shock and worry. One man who had stayed was Sheriff Roy Coffee. He had helped Hoss and Adam re-arrange the furniture, and carried plates and glasses to the kitchen. The sheriff wanted to talk to Joe, but he knew he would have to wait, just like Joe’s brothers. Now the group sat is the living room. Adam and Hoss were on the sofa. Nancy sat in the red chair by the fireplace. Roy Coffee stood by the fireplace, facing Adam and Hoss.

“Are you sure you don’t know where Joe went today?” the sheriff asked.

“I told you, Roy,” replied Adam with a sigh. “He simply rode off. He said he had some things to do, but he didn’t say what.”

“Seems strange he wouldn’t stay around and help get things ready for the party,” commented Coffee.

Hoss glanced at Nancy before answering. “Joe wasn’t too happy about the party,” said Hoss, answering slowly. “That’s why we didn’t think anything was wrong when he didn’t show up.”

The sheriff nodded, understanding the implication of Hoss’ words. “And you can’t think of any reason why someone would take a shot at him?” asked Coffee. “Nobody he’s had a fight with? Nobody mad at him?”

“Nobody,” replied Adam.

“Maybe I should go upstairs and see if I can help,” Nancy said. She had suggested this before. She was desperately afraid of what Joe might be saying, and she wanted to be in the room if he was talking.

“Nancy, I’ve told you there’s nothing you can do,” answered Adam. “Doc Martin and Pa would let us know if they needed anything. You’d just be in the way.”

Nancy nodded, then rubbed the bridge of her nose. She looked tired and scared. Adam and Hoss watched her sympathetically.

The sound of footsteps snapped everyone’s attention to the stairs. Ben and Doctor Martin were walking slowly down the stairs.

“He’s still alive,” said the doctor without any preamble. “Just barely, but he’s alive.”

“How bad is it?” asked Adam fearfully.

“Looks like he was shot maybe six or seven hours ago,” replied the doctor. “He’s lost a lot of blood, and there’s some infection. He’s got a very high fever. He was lucky in one sense, though. The bullet hit off his shoulder blade. It chipped and splintered the bone, and tore up a lot of muscle, but the bullet didn’t go in straight. If it had gone straight, he’d have died instantly.”

“Lucky,” murmured Nancy softly.

“Doc, when can I talk with him?” asked Roy Coffee. “I need to find out what happened.”

Doctor Martin shook his head. “It’s going to be awhile,” said the doctor. “Two or three days at least, if he makes it. He’s still unconscious, probably will be for awhile. Even when he wakes up – if he does – he’ll probably be too weak to say much. I can’t imagine how he managed to get home in his condition. Sheer will power, I’d say.”

“Did he say anything about who did this to him?” asked Hoss in an angry voice.

With a shake of his head, Ben answered, “No. ”He mumbled a few things, but nothing that made any sense. He’s delirious from the fever.”

“When I find the no good rat who did this, I’m going to kill him with my bare hands,” Hoss promised angrily. Nancy paled even more.

“Now, Hoss, this is a matter for the law,” said Coffee in the firm voice. “Believe me, I’ll find out who did this, and I’ll make sure they get put away for a long time. And if Joe should die….”

“Don’t say that,” Adam interjected angrily. Nancy put her face in her hands.

Ben and Doctor Martin looked at each other with grim faces; they both knew how serious Joe’s condition was. “I’m going to get a cup of coffee then I’ll go back upstairs,” said the doctor. Ben nodded and without a word, he turned and climbed back up the stairs. He hadn’t even looked at Nancy.

Huddled in her chair, Nancy tried to pull herself together. Getting away from the Ponderosa was the foremost thought in her mind. “Sheriff,” she said in a shaky voice. “Would you mind driving me back to town?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’d be happy to,” answered Coffee with a little bow.

Noting Nancy’s distress, Adam thought she was upset by his father ignoring her as well as all that had happened. He walked over to Nancy. “I’m sorry this happened,” he said sincerely. Adam glanced over his shoulder to the top of the stairs. “Pa’s worried sick. We are all. If Joe doesn’t make it…” Adam’s voice trailed off. He didn’t quite know how to explain the emotions that he and the other Cartwrights were feeling right now.

“I’m sorry, too,” Nancy said hastily. “I know Joe doesn’t like me but I would never wish anything bad to happen to him. And I know Ben has other things on his mind right now.”

Adam nodded, grateful that she seemed to understand why Ben had forgotten about her.

“Sheriff, would you take me to town?” Nancy asked again, her voice tinged with panic. Coffee nodded. She quickly stood and walked to the door.

Adam watched Nancy leave, then he turned to Hoss. “I’m going upstairs,” he announced, not needing to elaborate on which room. “Why don’t you come up in a few hours and relieve us.” Hoss nodded. Adam climbed the stairs and walked to Joe’s room. He opened the door slowly, and looked in.

Standing in the doorway, Adam stared at Joe, who was laying on his right side on the bed. Even though the blankets had been pulled up to Joe’s shoulder, Adam could see parts of the bandage which covered his brother’s back and left shoulder. Joe’s eyes were closed and his skin was unnaturally pale. The tell-tale red spot of fever stood out on Joe’s cheek in stark contrast to the paleness of his brother’s face. Ben was wiping beads of sweat from Joe’s face and back with a cloth.

“Pa?” Adam said softly as entered the room. Ben looked up. “Do you need anything?”

“No, nothing except maybe a miracle,” Ben answered sadly as he looked at Joe.

Standing silently, Adam watched his father gently daub Joe’s face with the cloth. He could think of no words of comfort that wouldn’t seem false. Finally, he simply said, “Roy Coffee is going to take Nancy back to town.”

Startled, Ben looked at his oldest son. He had forgotten all about Nancy. In fact, in the last few hours, his fiancée hadn’t even crossed his mind. The party, the announcement, everything had been forgotten almost the instant he saw his youngest son’s bloody body on the floor. Ben shook his head slowly. He wasn’t sure why but suddenly Ben felt his relationship with Nancy wasn’t quite what he thought it might be.

“Pa, do you want me to sit with Joe for awhile?” asked Adam. He could see Ben was troubled, and not just about his brother’s serious injury.

Slowly, Ben turned back to Joe. His thoughts about Nancy could wait. “No,” Ben said softly. “I’ll stay with Joe.”

Adam watched his father for a moment, then silently left the room.

*****

Nancy had changed from her party dress to a traveling outfit as soon as she entered her room at the hotel. She had quickly packed her things, but she left the bags in the room as she rushed out of the hotel. She walked down the dark streets of Virginia City at a rapid pace, ignoring the curious looks she got from the few people on the street at that late hour. Nancy rushed into a small, cheap hotel at the end of town, ignoring the clerk at the desk and practically running up the stairs. She stopped in front of a door and began knocking on it with loud raps. In a minute, the door opened. Roger Stevens stood in the doorway, his eyes puffy with sleep, and his hair disheveled. He wore a pair of dark pants, and he was hastily pulling on a shirt. “Duchess?” said Stevens in surprise.

Nancy pushed past the half-awake man and rushed into the room. Stevens closed the door behind her. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

Nancy whirled to face him. “What’s wrong?” she answered in a hysterical voice. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong. Joe Cartwright is alive.”

“Alive?” said Stevens. He shook his head. “You must be mistaken. I took a look at that kid down by the lake. He was a goner for sure.”

“Well, you were wrong,” Nancy cried, her voice rising even higher. “Somehow he managed to get home. He walked in, all bloody, right as Ben Cartwright was going to announce our engagement.”

“How did he manage to get to the Ponderosa?” asked Stevens in a shocked voice. Then he waved his hand. “Never mind, that’s not important. What did he say? What did he tell old man Cartwright?”

Nancy calmed down a bit. “Nothing yet,” she admitted. “Evidently, he’s hurt too bad to say anything. The doctor is not even sure he’s going to live.” Nancy’s voice got shrill again. “But if he does, you and I will go to prison for attempted murder!”

“Calm down, calm down,” advised Stevens. “Nobody’s going to prison.” He thought for a moment. “Does Cartwright have any idea who shot his kid?”

“No,” said Nancy. “I heard Adam Cartwright tell the sheriff they had no idea who could have done it.”

“That’s good,” Stevens said thoughtfully. “Maybe we can still pull this off.” He thought for a moment. Then he looked up at Nancy. “You’re going to have to go back to the Ponderosa, and you’re going to have to make sure Joe Cartwright never talks.”

“Me?” Nancy put her hand to her throat. “I can’t do that!”

“You can if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in prison,” Stevens told her grimly.

“No, Roger, I can’t!” protested Nancy. She rushed to stand in front of Stevens. “Let’s just leave, right now, tonight. We can get far away. Ben Cartwright will never find us.”

“Ben Cartwright will find us,” said Stevens. “If that kid tells his old man who shot him, Ben Cartwright will turn over every rock until he finds us. There’s no place we can go that he won’t find us.”

Nancy stood still. She knew Stevens was right. She had spent the past few weeks with Ben Cartwright, and she knew how he felt about his sons. Nancy frowned, then looked at Stevens. “All right,” she said. “I’ll go back to the Ponderosa. Maybe I won’t have to do anything. The doctor wasn’t sure Joe was going to live. But, one way or the other, I’ll make sure he doesn’t talk.”

“Good,” stated Stevens with satisfaction. He walked Nancy to the door. “Just keep thinking about all that lovely Cartwright money,” he advised. “You take care of Joe, and we can go on just as we planned.” Nancy nodded. As Stevens opened the door, he said to Nancy, “By the way, congratulations on your engagement.”

*****

Ben walked wearily down the stairs to the living room. He had spent the night with Joe, worrying about his son. But he had also spent the night thinking. Now, as the dawn was beginning to break, Ben realized he had made a decision. Once Joe was better – and Ben was convinced he would be better – he was going to end his engagement with Nancy Miller. Ben wasn’t surprised to see Adam sprawled on the couch and Hoss asleep in the chair. Hoss and Adam had taken turns trying to relieve him during the night but Ben had refused to leave Joe’s side. Now, he was taking a brief break to get some coffee while Dr. Martin continued to treat his patient.

“How’s Joe?” asked Adam sleepily as he sat up on the couch. Ben’s footsteps had awakened him. “Any change?”

“Not much,” admitted Ben. “He came to a little while ago, but he was in a lot of pain. The doctor gave him something for the pain, and he went back to sleep almost immediately.”

“Did he say who shot him?” asked Hoss, who was also now awake.

“No,” answered Ben, shaking his head. “He’s still delirious. He just keeps mumbling things that don’t make any sense.” Ben sat wearily in the worn blue chair near the bottom of the stairs. “None of this makes any sense. Who would want to kill him?”

Exchanging glances, Adam and Hoss said nothing. They had spent the night talking and trying to answer that question without success. Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. “I’ve done some thinking about something else,” Ben said slowly. “I’m not going to marry Nancy Miller.”

This time, Adam and Hoss looked at each other in surprise. “But why, Pa?” asked Adam. “I thought you were in love with her.”

“So did I,” answered Ben. “But tonight I realized I was in love with the idea of being in love with Nancy Miller.” He looked at his sons. “I’ve been lucky enough to be in love, really in love, three times in my life. Most men are fortunate if that happens to them once. I started thinking about how I felt when I was with Joe’s mother, with your mother, Hoss, and with yours, Adam. I’m fond of Nancy, but it’s not the same feeling.”

“Pa, you’re tired and upset,” suggested Hoss. “Maybe this ain’t the right time to think about something like this.”

“No, Hoss,” said Ben. “This is the right time. I realized tonight that I hadn’t thought about Nancy in hours. Once I saw Joe, it never even crossed my mind to talk to Nancy, to include her in what was happening. That was never the case with your mothers. I couldn’t have not included them in any crisis in my life.”

A tired smile appeared on Ben’s lips. “It’s really Joe’s fault,” continued Ben. “When he and Hoss tried that little matchmaking stunt, well, it just got me thinking about getting married again. Then I met Nancy, and the idea of getting married just seemed to grow stronger. I began courting Nancy because I wanted to get married again, not the other way around. And that’s not right.”

“Joe will be pleased to hear the news,” said Adam. “He didn’t think making Nancy Miller the fourth Mrs. Ben Cartwright was such a good idea.”

A shadow crossed Ben’s face. “I hope I get a chance to tell him,” he said in a sad voice.

“You will, Pa,” Hoss told his father with more confidence than he felt. “You know Joe. He’s a stubborn little cuss. He’ll pull through.”

A knock on the door startled the Cartwrights. “Who could that be, at this hour?” asked Ben. He stood and walked to the door. Ben’s face showed both surprise and consternation when he pulled open the door and saw Nancy standing there. “Nancy!” exclaimed Ben. “What are you doing here?”

“Hello, darling,” Nancy greeted Ben. She was dressed in a simple skirt and blouse, her hair hanging loosely to her shoulders. In Nancy’s mind, this was the outfit that a caring stepmother would wear when nursing her injured stepson. Only in Nancy’s case, nursing Joe back to health was the farthest thing from her mind.

“How’s Joe?” Nancy asked with concern as she walked into the house. “I just couldn’t sleep thinking and worrying about him. I thought I’d come out and see what I could do to help.”

“He’s about the same,” answered Ben. “He still hasn’t been able to tell us what happened.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Nancy, hoping her relief didn’t show.

For a moment, Ben seemed at a loss at what to do. He hesitated then stepped forward. “Nancy, this may not be the time…” he began.

Suddenly, Doctor Martin appeared at the top of the stairs. “Ben, can you get up here?” he shouted. “Joe’s awake and I need your help.”

Quickly, Ben turned toward the stairs, Nancy once more forgotten. He rushed up the stairs, with Adam and Hoss on his heels. Nancy followed the Cartwrights slowly.

As Ben rushed into Joe’s room, he could see his son was moving restlessly on the bed, in obvious pain. Joe was breathing hard, and his face was covered with sweat. “Pa?” Joe mumbled. “Pa?”

“He keeps asking for you,” said the doctor to Ben. “His fever is still very high, and I’m not sure he knows what he’s saying, but I thought I ought to get you.”

Nodding, Ben pushed past the doctor. He knelt by the bed so his face with level with Joe. “Joe?” he said softly. “I’m here, son. Your Pa’s here.”

Joe’s eyes had a glazed look. He seemed to be having trouble understanding the words that were said and recognizing the face in front of him. Then he focused on Ben. “Pa,” Joe said in a whisper. “Got to tell you.” He winced in pain and coughed.

“Got to tell me what?” Ben asked as he stroked Joe’s head. “Joe, who shot you?”

Joe ignored Ben’s question. “Got to tell you,” he repeated in a breathless whisper. “Nancy. Don’t. Nancy.” Joe winced again. His strength seemed to be fading. “Golden Palace.” Joe mumbled. “Duchess. Nancy.” Joe winced once more, the pain seeming to get worse.

This time it was Doctor Martin who pushed Ben aside. “I’ve got to give him something for the pain,” the doctor said. “The pain is draining what little strength he has.” The doctor lifted Joe’s head and held a glass with a milky liquid to Joe’s lips. He forced Joe to drink the liquid, then laid Joe’s head gently on the bed. Joe seemed exhausted. His eyes closed, and his breathing became more even.

“I’ve given him a strong dose of laudanum,” said the doctor, as he straightened. “That should help the pain for awhile.”

“Then what?” asked Ben. “He’s really hurting. Can’t we give him some laudanum more often so he won’t suffer so much?”

“We have to be very careful,” answered the doctor. “We can’t give him another dose for several hours. It would kill him if we gave him another strong dose like this too soon.”

Standing at the end of Joe’s bed, Adam and Hoss’ attention was focused on their brother. Neither noticed Nancy standing in the doorway to the room. No one had noticed her growing pale as Joe rambled. Now, no one noticed how her eyes narrowed as she listened to the doctor’s words.

“Pa, what do you think Joe was trying to say?” asked Adam.

“I don’t know,” answered Ben with a shake of his head. “I don’t think Joe knows what he was saying. I think he was just rambling.”

“Ben dear,” Nancy said walking forward. “Why don’t you and the doctor, and Adam and Hoss, get some coffee and breakfast. You all must be exhausted. I’ll sit with Joe for awhile.”

“Nancy, you don’t have to do this,” Ben said.

“I know I don’t,” Nancy replied smoothly. “I want to.” She turned to the doctor. “Is there anything that needs to be done?” she asked.

“Not right now,” admitted the doctor. “I’ve changed his bandages, and dosed him with every possible medicine. All we can do is wait.”

Nodding, Nancy turned to Ben. “You see,” she said. “There’s nothing to do but watch him. I can do that as well as any one of you. You’ve all had a long night. You need some food.”

“She has a point, Ben,” advised the doctor. He looked around the room at the tired faces of the Cartwrights. “You all look like you could use some food and rest. You’re not going to help Joe by making yourselves sick. And I don’t need any more patients.”

Briefly, Ben smiled at the doctor’s words. “All right,” he said. “I guess a cup of coffee would be a good idea.” He turned to Nancy. “You call us if there’s any change,” he instructed her. “Any change at all.”

“Of course, Ben,” said Nancy. “I’ll call you the minute anything happens.”

Giving a quick nod, Ben turned and put his hands on Adam’s and Hoss’ shoulders. “Come on, boys,” he urged them. “Let’s get some food in you.”

Hoss seemed reluctant to leave. “Pa, maybe I ought to stay here. Joe might need something.”

“I’ll call you if he needs you,” Nancy said quickly. “I promise. Now, go get something to eat. You must be starved.”

Sighing, Hoss looked down at his brother sleeping on the bed. “All right,” he said, the reluctance still obvious in his voice.

As Ben, Adam and Hoss left the room, Doctor Martin pulled a chair up next to the bed for Nancy. She nodded her thanks and sat down. “I’ll be right downstairs if you need me,” said the doctor. Nancy nodded again, and the doctor left the room.

For several minutes, Nancy sat quietly by Joe’s bed. She wanted to be sure no one was going to come back into the room. She looked at Joe lying on the bed. Even with the pain and fever reflected on his face, she thought he was a handsome boy. “It’s too bad,” Nancy said softly. “You could have made things so much more attractive around here.”

Moving slowly, Nancy stood and walked to the table by the bed. Several bottles were on the table. She picked up a familiar blue one, and read the label, just to be sure. She poured a quantity of the liquid from the bottle into a glass, then mixed a little water from the pitcher on the table into the glass. She swirled the mixture in the glass, and the contents took on a milky look. Nancy knelt by Joe’s bed, lifted Joe’s head as she had seen the doctor do it, and put the glass with the deadly potion to Joe’s lips.

“Nancy, I wanted to talk with you…” a voice suddenly said behind her. Nancy spun around. Ben was standing in the door, a startled look on his face. “What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Nothing,” replied Nancy, quickly putting the glass on the table. “I…I just was trying to give Joe some water.” She let Joe’s head drop back to the pillows.

Frowning, Ben walked to the table. He picked up the glass Nancy had put down and sniffed it. He held up the glass and saw the milky look of the liquid. “This isn’t water,” said Ben in a voice cold as steel. “What were you trying to do?”

In a panic, Nancy stood and quickly backed away from Ben. “Nothing,” she insisted. “He seemed restless, and I was just trying to….” Nancy’s voice faded as she saw the disbelieving look on Ben’s face. “Ben, darling. Surely you don’t think I’d do anything to hurt Joe?”

“I don’t know, Nancy,” replied Ben, his voice still cold. “Whenever I ask Joe who shot him, he says your name. I thought he was just delirious. Now I’m not so sure.”

“Ben, what are you saying?” asked Nancy in alarm.

“I think you’d better leave this room,” Ben said. “In fact, I think you’d better leave this house.”

“But Ben…” started Nancy.

“Nancy, I came up here because I wanted to tell you that I couldn’t marry you, that our engagement was off,” said Ben. “Now I think you’d better leave before I do something that I might regret.”

“What?” exclaimed Nancy. Her face twisted in anger. “You’re calling off our marriage! After all I’ve done! How could you do that?”

“And just what have you done?” asked Ben in a cold voice.

Suddenly, Nancy realized what she had said. She put her hand to her throat as she saw the look on Ben Cartwright’s face. She had never seen such a hard, threatening look. A stab of fear ran through her. Nancy looked around the room for a moment, then turned and ran down the stairs.

As he bent over the bed, Ben could hear Joe’s labored breathing. He laid his hand on Joe’s forehead, and felt the heat of the fever. Ben shook his head. Joe was still fighting for his life, and Ben was determined that this was a fight Joe would win. He stroked Joe’s head lightly. Then Ben heard the front door slam shut. He knew Nancy was leaving, as he had ordered her to do. Ben frowned, and looked again at the glass Nancy had had in her hand. He suddenly realized the woman had tried to harm Joe, maybe kill him, and he had let her leave. He turned and walked rapidly out of the room, yelling, “Adam, Hoss, come here quick,” as he left the bedroom.

*****

It was three days later when Joe finally opened his eyes and looked around. He winced as he felt a stab of pain in his back. He felt tired and weak; his vision seemed a bit blurry. Joe blinked several times and suddenly, things started to come into focus. Three anxious faces were staring down at him.

“Well, you’re finally awake,” said Ben in a voice that sounded too hearty.

“Pa?” asked Joe weakly. He winced again at the pain.

“Take it easy, Joe,” answered Ben in a much more soothing voice. “The doctor says you’re going to be all right but you have to lie still.”

“You had us all worried there for awhile, little brother,” added Hoss. His smile reflected both relief and affection. “You sure do know how to get attention, don’t you?”

Nodding slightly, Joe closed his eyes for a moment, gathering some strength. He knew what he had to tell his father, and he hated the thought of doing it. Joe opened his eyes and looked up. “Pa, it was Nancy and Stevens….” he began.

“We know,” Ben said, interrupting him. “You told us.”

“I did?” said Joe in a confused voice. He didn’t remember telling anyone anything.

“Well, you told us enough that we figured it out…finally,” Adam remarked.

“Yeah, little brother, you’ve been rambling on and on for the past two days about Nancy, the Duchess, and the Golden Palace,” added Hoss.

Joe shook his head. The last thing he remembered was coming through the front door of the house on the night of the party. He looked around the room. “Did you get them?”

“We got them,” replied Ben grimly. “They’re both sitting in the Virginia City jail. Charged with attempted murder, fraud, and anything else we can think of.” Ben pursed his lips. “I’m going to make sure they spend a long time in prison.”

“Hoss and I caught up with Nancy – or should I say, the Duchess – in Stevens’ room in Virginia City,” explained Adam. “Once they realized we were on to them, they turned on each other. Both started accusing the other of all kinds of things.” Adam shook his head. “It didn’t take long for us to piece the whole sordid story together.”

With a sad expression on his face, Joe looked down at the bed. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said softly. “I know how much you loved Nancy.”

“I didn’t love her as much as I thought I did,” replied Ben. He glanced at Adam and Hoss, then turned to look at Joe. “And I certainly didn’t love her more than my sons.”

Nodding, Joe was relieved that Ben wasn’t devastated by Nancy’s betrayal. Suddenly, he felt tired, and his eyes grew heavy.

Ben saw Joe’s eyes closing. “Come on,” he said softly to Adam and Hoss. “Let’s let Joe get some rest.”

Suddenly, Joe’s eyes opened a bit and a weak grin broke out on his face. “Pa,” he called. “I think I did a better job than you at picking out a wife for you.”

Grinning, Ben turned back to Joe. “Yes, I guess you did,” he admitted. “But I think all of our “wife hunting days” are ended, at least for me. The next Mrs. Cartwright who shows up at the Ponderosa is going to be married to one of my sons, not me.”

“Don’t be too sure, Pa,” said Adam with a smile. “Once Joe gets back on his feet, there’s no telling what he might cook up.”

“That’s right, Pa,” added Hoss with a grin. “He’s real good at matchmaking.”

“And I’m telling all three of you, right now, that I am not interested in getting married again,” stated Ben firmly. “Is that understood?” He looked around the room at his sons. Adam and Hoss nodded. Joe’s head moved slightly, and Ben took it as a sign of agreement. Ben’s face softened. “Now let’s get out of here so Joe can rest,” he said in a quiet voice.

Closing his eyes, Joe settled comfortably on the bed. A ghost of a smile made his lips twitch as he began to drift off. I wonder if Beth Robinson is engaged yet, thought Joe as he began to fall asleep.

*****End*****

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