The Butterfly (by Susan)

Synopsis:  A new foreman at a neighboring ranch causes trouble on the Ponderosa.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  29,000


 

As he stood in front of the mirror combing his hair, Joe Cartwright’s thoughts were on the dance in Virginia City and the young women who were likely to be there. He was ready for a bit of romance, and hoped he might find it that evening at the town hall. With each stroke of the stiff comb through his curly brown hair, Joe pictured a different girl from town dancing with him, and mentally listed her possibilities.

“Ain’t you ready yet? Adam and I are getting tired of waiting.”

Turning, Joe looked toward his brother Hoss, who was standing in the doorway of the bedroom. “Almost ready,” Joe replied. With a grin, he added, “I want those girls in Virginia City to remember why they missed me.”

“Standing in front of that mirror for the next ten minutes ain’t going to make you any prettier,” grumbled Hoss. “And Adam and I would like to get to the dance before it’s over.”

Looking back at the mirror, Joe checked his appearance. At 22, he was still young enough to be concerned about looking mature, and vain enough to want the girls to swoon over him. He stared hard at the image reflected by the glass. His bright white shirt contrasted nicely with his face that had been tanned bronze by a summer of ranch work. The shirt was just snug enough to outline the muscled shoulders and chest built up by the same summer of work. His brown hair was neatly combed, and long and thick enough to tempt some pretty girl to run her fingers through it. Sniffing a bit, Joe could smell the fresh soap from his bath and the touch of bay rum in his hair. With a satisfied nod, Joe picked up the string tie laying on the top of the bureau.

“We’re lucky Pa is even letting us go to this dance,” said Joe, looping the tie around his neck. “I didn’t think he was going to let us do anything but eat and sleep until the branding was done.”

“Well, I guess he figured after three weeks of rounding up cattle and branding calves, we needed a break,” Hoss answered. “You have to admit we’ve been a bit testy with each other the last day or so.”

“Why, just because I almost branded you instead of that calf yesterday?” joked Joe.

“No, I think it was when I dumped Adam into the lake for suggesting we spend another hour chasing steers that did the trick,” Hoss countered with a grin.

“I wish Pa had given us some advance notice that he was going to let us go to the dance,” complained Joe. “I didn’t have time to ask anyone to be my date.”

“Neither did Adam or me,” Hoss replied, “so quit whining. Now, get a move on or you won’t even have us to go to the dance with.”

Giving the now knotted string tie a final pat, Joe turned toward his brother. “I’m ready; let’s go. Although I have to say, you two are the ugliest dates I have ever taken to a dance.”

*****

Standing by the punch bowl at the back of the town hall, Joe surveyed the crowd of people scattered around the dance floor. He had danced twice, both times with a girl he knew well and whom he considered pleasant and attractive. But neither girl had caused his heart to flutter. Now he was studying the crowd, seeking someone who piqued his interest. Almost all of the women had come with escorts, but Joe knew the unwritten rule that, once a girl had danced with her date, she was free to accept an invitation to join another man on the floor. By now, close to an hour after the dance had begun, virtually all of the women were free to accept Joe’s invitation if they wish to do so. Deciding who he wanted to ask to dance with him was proving no easy task for Joe. Once again, he found himself mentally cataloging the attributes of the young women around the hall.

“Why, Joe Cartwright, you look so serious. I thought a dance was suppose to be fun.”

Whirling around, Joe was already smiling as he recognized the voice behind him. “Sally Randall!” he exclaimed with pleasure. “I didn’t know you were home. It’s good to see you.” He leaned forward to kiss the ash-blonde girl in greeting. Out of the corner of his eye, however, Joe noticed a frown on the face of a cowboy standing next to Sally and turned greeting into a quick hug. “You look great,” said Joe, surveying with approval Sally’s trim figure accented in all the right places by a low cut mauve dress. “When did you get back?”

“About three weeks ago,” answered Sally with a smile. “I looked for you every time I came into town, but no one had seen you. I thought maybe you had moved to Carson City or something.”

“No such luck,” Joe said with a mock sigh of despair. “Pa has had us working so hard at the ranch that I haven’t been in town in almost a month.” A devilish glint suddenly appeared in Joe’s eye. “If I had known you were looking for me, though, I would snuck away and been in town in a flash.”

“Well, I wasn’t looking THAT hard,” demurred Sally with a smile.

“How was New York?” asked Joe with genuine curiosity.

“Wonderful,” Sally answered enthusiastically. “My aunt and uncle took me everywhere – plays, museums, restaurants, everything. We went to some fabulous parties, one of which was hosted by the mayor. I even managed to find time to do some shopping.” Sally pulled out her skirt a bit and flourished it to emphasize her point.

“I’ll bet you did,” said Joe with a tinge of sarcasm. “I’m surprised there are any dresses left in New York after you were unleashed on the city for, what, about two months.”

“Three months,” Sally corrected him. “It was wonderful, Joe. I almost hated to come home.”

“Almost?” asked Joe, raising his eyebrow quizzically.

“Well, all that rich food and fancy parties do tend to get a bit tedious after awhile,” Sally admitted. “I started missing my father and the ranch, as well as some plain cooking.”

“Same old Sally,” said Joe with a laugh. “Never satisfied with what you have.”

A small frown of displeasure crossed Sally’s face, but quickly disappeared. She turned toward the cowboy standing behind her, “Have you met Jed Baker, Joe?

“Don’t think so,” answered Joe pleasantly as he extended his hand. “I’m Joe Cartwright. Nice to meet you, Jed.” Briefly, Joe studied the man – tall, dark haired, and wearing a slightly faded blue shirt, black pants and black string tie. He was, Joe supposed, what the ladies would call good looking, with thick eyebrows perched over deep blue eyes, and a small clef in his chin accenting face. As Baker briefly shook his hand, Joe had a flicker of recognition, a vague feeling of seeing the man before in circumstances that had been less than pleasant. “Been around here long?” he asked, still keeping a smile on his face.

“About six months,” replied Baker briefly. “Been working at the Randall place about four months.”

“Jed’s our foreman now,” added Sally proudly.

“Foreman?” said Joe in surprise. “What happened to Jake? He’s been your foreman for as long as I can remember.”

Sally’s face sobered. “Jake had a terrible accident,” she explained. “He got caught in a landslide. He broke his leg, ribs and I don’t what else. The doctor said he was lucky to be alive. He’s staying with his sister while he recovers, and the doctor thinks it could be as long as six months or more before he’s ready to come back to work.” Sally’s face brightened. “Jed impressed my father with the way he took charge of things right after Jake got hurt, so he made him foreman, at least temporarily.”

“I see,” said Joe in a neutral voice.

“I was just doing my best to help out,” added Baker with a shrug. “I guess Mr. Randall liked what I did.”

Nodding a bit, Joe turned back to Sally. “How about a dance?”

“Sally’s my date,” interjected Baker with a scowl on his face. He edged closer to the girl — a blatantly possessive move — and gave Joe a hard look.

“What Jed means,” said Sally quickly, “is that we just got here and I haven’t even had a chance to dance with him yet. Maybe later?”.

“Sure,” agreed Joe, not offended. He recognized the look on Baker’s face. The cowboy had staked out his claim on Sally and was prepared to fend off all claim jumpers. Silently, Joe wished the man luck. Knowing Sally, the new foreman would be lucky to get two dances before the night was over.

The small band at the front of the hall struck up a waltz and Sally grabbed Baker’s arm. “Come on, Jed, I think this our dance.” A look of relief as well as pride appeared on the cowboy’s face as he lead Sally toward the floor. As the pair walked past Joe, though, Sally peeked over her shoulder and gave him a smile and a wink.

Watching Sally Randall and Jed Baker on the dance floor, Joe shook his head. He hoped that cowboy knew what he had on his hands. Joe was sure he would dance with Sally before the night was over, as would many of the other young men in the building. Baker would be unhappy about it, but Sally would sweet talk him out his displeasure. The new foreman at the Randall ranch may have thought he had claimed his prize, but Joe figured he would find out that holding on to Sally Randall was easier said than done.

*****

The musicians had packed up their instruments and the town hall was almost empty by the time the three Cartwright brothers left the building. Reluctant to end their first break from work in several weeks, the men had lingered in the hall until there was no point in staying any longer.

“Have a good time, little brother?” asked Hoss as he mounted his horse.

“I suppose,” answered Joe, a bit dispiritedly as climbed into his saddle.

“Didn’t you find some pretty little thing to charm?” asked Adam with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice. He kicked his horse forward and started riding slowly out of town, flanked by his two brothers.

“The most interesting girl there was Sally Randall, and I only danced with her once,” complained Joe.

“I think she danced with just about every fellow there,” commented Hoss with a grin. “Even Adam and me got a chance to swing her around the floor.”

“I know,” sighed Joe. “Every time I looked for her, Sally was already on the floor with someone else. Her date didn’t look too happy about that.”

“Look who’s talking!” laughed Adam. “You danced with just about every girl in the building.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t bring a date who spent most of the evening standing by the punch bowl scowling,” answered Joe. “That fellow, Jed Baker, looked like he could chew nails most of the night.”

“Well, at least he didn’t cause any trouble,” Adam commented. “Remember what happened a few months ago in the Silver Dollar? He practically tore that saloon apart.”

Frowning, Joe thought back, and the impression of some unpleasantness associated with Baker that had crossed his mind earlier now blossomed into a memory. As Joe recalled, he had been sipping a beer with Adam and Hoss at the bar, and idly surveying the saloon as he drank. He had seen Baker standing at the back of the saloon, talking with one of the girls. Another man had walked over and casually put a hand on the girl’s arm. Almost instantly, Baker had thrown a punch at the intruder and the fight was on. The two men fought viciously as the rest of the men in the bar watched or urged them on. By the time the sheriff had arrived to break up the melee, several tables had been overturned, a number of glasses smashed to shards and at least two chairs broken at the legs. The last thing Joe had seen of Baker was the cowboy’s back as the sheriff led him off to spend a night in jail.

“Yeah, I remember now,” Joe said, nodding slowly. “That was some fight he had over that saloon girl. I guess he’s calmed down some now that he’s the foreman over at the Randall place.”

“Foreman!” exclaimed Hoss. “What happened to ol’ Jake?”

“Some kind of accident,” explained Joe. “Sally said Jake got busted up in a landslide, and Baker is acting as foreman until Jake gets better.”

“He moves pretty fast,” Adam observed. “He’s only been around a couple of months and already he’s foreman at Randall’s ranch, and dating the boss’ daughter to boot.”

“Well, if he thinks he’s going to put his brand on that filly, he’s going to be disappointed,” remarked Hoss. “Sally don’t stay in one place or with one fellow long enough to let any grass grow under her feet.”

“Yes, she’s like a butterfly, flitting from flower to flower,” Adam agreed. “As soon as she’s had her fill of one person, she moves on to the next one without a backward glance.” He turned to Joe and gave his younger brother a sly smile. “Isn’t that right, Joe?”

“Let’s talk about something else besides Sally Randall,” answered Joe, scowling a bit.

“Why, Joe?” Hoss asked innocently. “Dating Sally Randall a sore point with you?”

“He just doesn’t like to remember the ones that got away,” said Adam with a chuckle.

“Aw, shut up,” snapped Joe. He kicked his horse forward and headed toward the Ponderosa at a lope, leaving his two laughing brothers behind.

*****

Four days of looking for strays distracted Joe from any thoughts of Sally Randall. The majority of the cattle had been rounded up and the calves cut out of the herd for branding. Now Joe and several other hands had the tough job of searching for the remaining cattle while the rest of the crew – including Adam and Hoss – kept the herd together and finished the branding. After long hours in the saddle searching the Ponderosa for stubborn steers, the object of Joe’s desire was a hot bath and a soft bed rather than an ash blonde in a mauve dress. Still, the imagine of Sally Randall lingered in Joe’s mind, and thoughts of the girl would pop up unbidden from time to time.

Carefully guiding his horse toward a box canyon, Joe was surprised to hear the bawling of cattle. The canyon was merely part of the area assigned to Joe, and he hadn’t expected to find any steers so far from the main herd. As he neared the mouth of the canyon, he was even more surprised to see a barrier made of small trees and bushes across the entrance. Behind the crude fence, ten head of cattle were contently grazing on thick grass, or sipping from a small pool formed at the base of the rocks by a steady trickle of water down the side of the canyon.

Joe looked around cautiously, keeping his left hand on his pistol, as he rode up to the mouth of the canyon. No one seemed to be around and he could see no evidence of a fire or a camp. Whoever had fenced in the cattle appeared to have left them alone, at least for now. Nevertheless, Joe remained alert for any unusual sound or movement as he dismounted and began pulling apart the barrier.

After creating an opening in the roughly built fence, Joe remounted and rode toward the cattle. It took him only a few minutes to bunch up the steers and head them toward the opening. As he herded the cattle out of the canyon, Joe inspected the steers. A deep frown crossed his face.

Almost an hour later, Joe’s little bunch of steers was nearing the main herd. Joe stopped the steers and allowed them to start grazing a short distance from the much larger group of cattle. At the edge of the main herd, his father, Ben Cartwright, sat comfortably on his buckskin horse, watching as Hoss flipped a calf onto its side and Adam quickly applied a branding iron to the flank of the bawling animal.

“Hey, Pa,” Joe shouted as he rode up to the three men. “I found ten head up in that box canyon near Snowshoe Ridge.”

Turning a bit in the saddle, Ben nodded approvingly at his youngest son. “Good. Drive them into the main herd. Any calves with that bunch?”

“No calves,” answered Joe as he stopped his horse next to his father, “but there’s something strange about those cattle.”

“They’re not sick, are they?” asked Ben in an alarmed voice.

“You know better than to bring diseased cattle so close to the main herd,” added Adam in disapproving tone as he looked up from the branding fire.

“No, they’re not sick,” Joe replied. “But they are branded with a rocking R. They’re Randall steers, not Ponderosa cattle.”

“Randall steers?” said Hoss in surprise. “Up by Snowshoe Ridge? What were they doing up there?”

“They must have found the Ponderosa grass awfully tempting to wander so far from home,” remarked Adam.

“Well, if they did, then they also built a fence across the canyon to keep themselves there,” Joe stated with a small smile.

“Rustlers?” said Ben, frowning. “Did you see anyone around?”

“No, I didn’t, “ answered Joe. “No camp, no running irons, nothing. I figure whoever took those cattle penned them up in the canyon for now and was planning to come back for them later.”

“Why drive Randall steers all the way over here to the Ponderosa?” asked Hoss. “Why not just take some of our cattle?”

“Probably the rustlers started with Randall’s herd and were planning to add some of our cattle to their collection,” suggested Adam. “They drove the steers over here so it would be easier to keep track of them while they stole some of our cattle. Only we put a crimp their plans by starting the round-up early. Joe found their little cache before they could add to it, or change the brands and sell them.”

“You may be right, Adam,” Ben agreed. He thought for a moment, then continued. “Tell the men to be on the look out for any strangers or anything unusual. If those rustlers are still around, I don’t want any of the hands running across them and getting surprised.”

“What about those Randall steers?” asked Hoss, jerking his head a bit in the direction of the small bunch Joe had left several yards away. “What are we going to do with them?”

“Well, I suppose the best thing to do is take them back,” answered Ben slowly. “Somebody will have to drive them over to the Randall ranch and tell John what happened.”

“I’ll do it,” Joe volunteered quickly.

“Awful eager, ain’t you, little brother,” said Hoss, grinning. “Couldn’t be that you’re hoping to see Sally Randall when you return them steers.”

“Trading in a hard saddle for a soft chair in the Randall’s parlor,” Adam added, also with a wide smile. “Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.”

“I’m just trying to do what’s best,” replied Joe, trying hard to keep an innocent look on his face. “Whoever returns those steers should be able to tell Mr. Randall where we found his cattle.” Then Joe’s face broke into a smile. “Besides, it’s finder’s keepers. I found those cattle and I’m keeping them until they’re home.”

“Sounds like a step away from rustling to me,” grumbled Hoss.

“What about it, Pa?” asked Joe as he turned to his father. “Is it all right if I take those steers back to the Randall place?”

“Go ahead,” answered Ben, smiling indulgently at his youngest son. “But be sure to tell John where you found those steers and about the rustlers. He’ll probably want to put some extra men on his herd.”

“Thanks, Pa.” Joe turned his horse and quickly kicked the pinto into a lope, wanting to be off before his father changed his mind.

“And be home in time for supper,” Ben called toward the back of his retreating son.

Joe waved a hand in acknowledgement as he rode toward the small herd. Whether the wave meant that he would be back in time for supper or merely that Joe had heard his father, no one was sure.

“We’d better warn Hop Sing that Joe might be late,” said Ben with a sigh.

*****

Herding ten steers who were interested in staying in the thick grass was no easy task, but Joe was up to the challenge. He whistled, cajoled and pushed the cattle in the direction of the Randall ranch for close to two hours. Once the steers started to recognize the landscape that surrounded their home pasture, they began to move forward more rapidly, displaying an eagerness to return to familiar territory. But Joe had no intention of letting the cattle merely return to their pasture. He guided them away from the open grass and toward the main house of the Randall ranch. He wanted John Randall to see the cattle he was returning and explain how he found them. The fact that Sally might be around to see him rescuing her father’s property was just an added bonus as far as Joe was concerned.

The Randall ranch house was in view of both Joe and his reluctant charges when a rider came racing toward him. Joe wasn’t surprised to recognize the man as Jed Baker. It was only natural that the foreman would come to check out a lone cowboy herding steers toward the house.

“Cartwright!” exclaimed Baker as he pulled his horse to a stop a few feet from Joe. “What are you doing?” The foreman took a hard look at the steers in front of Joe. “Where’d you get them cattle? They got a Randall brand on them.”

“I know,” Joe answered evenly. “We found them on the Ponderosa.”

A startled look crossed Baker’s face, almost as if he were shocked by Joe’s announcement, but the expression was quickly replaced with a scowl. “Found them? I’ll bet you did. More than likely, somebody from the Ponderosa stole them.”

Joe bristled at the accusation from the foreman, but kept his temper in check. “Baker, you’re new around here, so I’m going to let that pass. I told you we found these steers, and that’s all there is to it. But let me give you a piece of advice. You’d better have some hard evidence before you accuse anyone from the Ponderosa of stealing cattle. Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself with more trouble than you can handle.”

Turning away from Baker, Joe yelled and whistled at the cattle in front of him, spurring them on to a quicker pace. He ignored the man riding a few paces behind him and kept the steers moving toward the ranch house.

In the yard in front of the Randall house, a man was sitting at a grindstone, his feet peddling slowly to move the abrasive rock while his hands held the edge of an ax against the turning stone. John Randall was a tall, wiry man whose weather-beaten face and hands were testament to a lifetime of ranching. Tufts of black hair salted with white stands poked out from beneath a sweat-stained hat, and flecks of dust dotted his blue shirt and dark brown pants. As he spotted the riders and the cattle moving toward the house, Randall dropped the ax to the ground and got up from his seat He waited patiently until the cattle had moved past him and the two riders stopped in front of him.

“Hello, Joe,” Randall greeted the young Cartwright. “What have you got here?”

“Some of your cattle, Mr. Randall,” replied Joe. “We found them on the Ponderosa.” He glanced over his shoulder at Baker. “Your foreman here seems to think maybe we stole them.”

“Stole them!” exclaimed Randall with a laugh. “What a ridiculous idea! The Ponderosa has more cattle than any other spread in Nevada. Why would you want a couple of my steers? And even if you did, why would you return them after you stole them?” The rancher shook his head in disbelief. “Cartwrights stealing cattle? That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw Baker lower his head and press his lips into a tight line as a light flush of red crept up the man’s neck. Satisfied that he had his revenge for the cowboy’s rash accusation, Joe turned his attention back to John Randall.

“Well, he may not be all wrong,” Joe admitted. “I found them in a box canyon up on Snowshoe Ridge. Somebody had put up a rough fence to keep them in the canyon. That’s a long way for your cattle to stray, and they sure didn’t put up that fence.”

“You’re right,” agreed Randall, nodding slowly. “Looks like someone has been helping themselves to my herd. Why do you think they hid them on the Ponderosa? Trying to get you Cartwrights in trouble maybe?”

“Could be,” Joe said. “But Adam figures it’s more likely they stashed the cattle in the canyon until they could change the brands and sell them. Maybe add a few steers from our herd and some others before they moved out. Nobody goes up that way much and the rustlers probably figured the cattle safe in the canyon for awhile. They would have been, too, except Pa started the round-up and branding a month early.”

“You doing round-up already?” asked Randall in surprise. “How come?”

“The Union Pacific offered to buy 200 head to feed the crews building track near Sacramento,” explained Joe. “Since we already have a deal with the cattle broker in Salt Lake City, Pa wanted to be sure we had enough cattle to fill both contracts. That meant rounding up the herd and counting them. And since we’re doing round-up, Pa figured we might as well get the branding out of the way too.”

“You think you got enough cattle?” asked Randall.

“Well, I haven’t seen the tally, but the herd sure seems big enough,” answered Joe. “Pa has us out scouring the countryside, though, making sure we don’t miss any. That’s how I ended up at Snowshoe Ridge.”

“You tell your Pa that if he comes up short, to let me know,” said Randall. “I’ll sell him whatever extra beef he needs at cost.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied Joe. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.”

Suddenly, a figure in a green dress strolled out of the house and gracefully perched on the low fence around the porch, her back resting against the pole supporting the roof. “Hello, Joe,” said Sally in an inviting tone. “Nice of you to come calling.”

“Hi, Sally,” replied Joe, touching the brim of his hat. “I’m afraid this isn’t a social call, though. I was just bring back some cattle.”

“It’s a long ride from the Ponderosa,” Sally observed. “Wouldn’t you like to stay awhile and catch your breath before heading back?” Seeing a frown forming on Baker’s face, she hastily added, “You look like you could use a break, too, Jed.”

“I think Mr. Cartwright has to head back to the Ponderosa right away, “ stated Baker, still frowning.

“I think Mr. Cartwright can answer for himself, “ Joe countered, smiling at Sally. “I guess I could spare a few minutes to visit with an old friend.”

With a shrewd eye, John Randall looked at the inviting smile on his daughter’s face, then turned to observe the grin on Joe’s face as well as the frown on Baker’s. It was obvious to the rancher that some sparks were about to fly, but he wasn’t sure between whom.

“Joe, why don’t you and Jed herd those cattle into the corral by the barn,” Randall suggested almost abruptly. “I want to feed and water them here tonight so I can check the steers before sending them back out to pasture. When you’re done, come on up to the house. I think all of us could use a break.”

“Sure,” agreed Joe, still smiling in Sally’s direction.

“I’ll go in and make up a pitcher of lemonade,” offered Sally. Slowly, she uncoiled her body and stood up straight. Then, walking unhurriedly, she returned to the house, making sure the men behind her could see the slight sway of her hips as she walked.

“I’ll go give Sally a hand,” Randall said. “You boys come on into the house as soon as you get those cattle settled.” The rancher walked quickly to the front door of his house, wanting to have a word with his daughter about playing with fire before the two potential powder kegs joined them.

It took only a few minutes for Joe and Baker to guide the cattle from the front yard into the corral. Neither man looked at each other and the only sound was the low bawling of the cattle, punctuated by an occasional whistle or low shout from their two drovers. As soon as the steers were in the pen, Baker dismounted and closed the gate. He watched as Joe got off his horse and led the pinto toward the side of the corral.

“Um, Cartwright,” Jed started tentatively, “I guess I shouldn’t have said what I did before. It’s just that, well, I guess I was trying to protect Mr. Randall’s property. I don’t like the idea of anyone taking something that don’t belong to him, whether it’s Mr. Randall’s – or mine.”

As he tied the reins of his pinto to the rail of the corral, Joe neither looked at or answered Baker. He understood the implied apology as well as the implied threat in the foreman’s words, and wasn’t sure how he wanted to react to them. He used the brief time it took to finish tying the reins and give his horse an affectionate pat on the neck to decide, and elected to the give the tall cowboy the benefit of the doubt. Walking over to Baker, Joe leaned against the corral and looked the foreman squarely in the eye.

“Like I said, Baker, you’re new around here,” began Joe in an even tone, “ and I’ve known Sally and her father most of my life. So let me tell you a few things. First off, John Randall doesn’t need anyone to fight his battles for him. He built this place from a small cabin and a few head of cattle into one of the finest ranches in Nevada. No one does something like that without being smart and tough, and Mr. Randall is both. He may give his hands a good bit of leeway, but he knows how to run his ranch. You’d be better off remembering who is really in charge of this place.” For the second time in the last hour, Baker looked down and flushed a bit.

“As far as Sally goes,” Joe continued, “I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you. Sally is a nice girl and fun to be with but she….well, let’s just say she’s easily distracted.”

Abruptly, Baker looked up. “What do you mean by that?”

“What I mean is,” answered Joe, struggling to find the right words to explain, “that Sally can be very enthusiastic about something but then someone or something else will suddenly attract her attention. Next thing you know, she’s moved on. My brother called her a butterfly and that’s a pretty good description. She stays in one place long enough to make you think you can catch her, but, then all of a sudden, she’s gone and you’ve got nothing but air.” Seeing the look of disbelief on Baker’s face, Joe continued. “Do you know what she was doing six months ago? Dating this young lawyer in Virginia City. Sally was all excited about the idea of living in town and talking about how this lawyer could be a judge someday soon. Then she got a letter from her aunt, inviting her to come visit her in New York. She started packing right away. The way I heard it, the lawyer begged her to stay and even asked her to marry him, but Sally suddenly wasn’t interested in anything except going to New York. He was so broken up that he left town the day after she took the stage east.”

“You make her sound mean,” Baker protested. “Sally isn’t like that.”

“No, Sally isn’t mean,” agreed Joe. “She just doesn’t know what she wants out of life, but she keeps right on looking for it. Sally was ten when her mother died, and that’s about the time her father started indulging her every whim. Somewhere along the line, Sally decided the whole world would treat her like her father. She really believes that if she wants to do something, she should just go ahead and do it, and never mind the consequences. Sally never intends to hurt anyone, but she honestly believes her feelings are more important than anyone else’s. And she thinks the rest of the world believes that also.”

Baker frowned. “I don’t believe you. You’re just saying all this because you’re interested in Sally for yourself.”

“Me?“ replied Joe with a grim laugh. “I was one of Sally’s early conquests. For three months or so, I thought I was the love of her life. Then there was a rodeo in Virginia City and I lost the bronc riding contest to this big, good-looking cowboy from the Bar B. Next thing I knew, Sally was sitting next to him at the barbeque and I was sitting there nursing my bruises. Suddenly, she didn’t have time for me any more, at least until the day I finally caught up with her in town and she gave me the “let’s be friends” speech. I was pretty mad about the way she treated me, and I didn’t like seeing her with this other fellow. Then one day, she gets invited to go to San Francisco with Donna Burke’s family. Next thing you know, she’s kissing her cowboy good-bye and heading for California. When she got back about six weeks later, Sally barely remembered the guy’s name. That’s when I realized what happened had nothing to do with me. Sally is….just Sally.”

“Well, she may have been like that in the past, but Sally is different now,” said Baker, sounding a bit unsure about the truth of his statement. “She told me she’s home to stay and wants to build a life here.”

“Sally always believes what she’s doing at the time is what she really wants,” Joe answered, shaking his head a bit. “Maybe she has changed. But I wouldn’t count on it if I were you.”

“You seem awfully anxious to spend time with Sally,” commented Baker, the suspicion evident in his voice. “Especially for someone who doesn’t think she’d be interested in him for very long.”

“I like Sally a lot,” admitted Joe. “She’s pretty, interesting and fun. I was hurt when she dropped me, but that was a long time ago, and I understand her now. I don’t have any illusions about Sally, but that doesn’t spot me from wanting to be with her.” He hesitated a moment, and then added honestly, “I think in the back of my mind, I’m like you – hoping that she’s changed and maybe she’s ready to get serious about someone. I guess I’m curious to find out.”

“You had your chance,” Baker stated with a scowl. “I think Sally made it clear you weren’t for her.”

Before Joe could reply to the foreman’s pronouncement, the subject of their conversation appeared on the front porch. “Joe! Jed!” called Sally from the house. “Hurry up! The lemonade’s ready.”

“On our way,” shouted Joe as he straightened up and started toward the house.

Abruptly, Baker grabbed Joe’s arm. “Cartwright, I’m not sure what your game is but understand this. Sally is seeing me now, and I don’t want you hanging around her.”

“I think that’s up to Sally to decide,” answered Joe, pushing Baker’s arm away. He walked with long strides toward the girl waiting on the porch, forming his face into a warm smile as he deliberately left Baker behind.

The next hour was more like a chess match than a refreshing break in the day. Sally maneuvered her willing pawns, smiling sweetly at Jed but casually resting a hand on Joe’s shoulder as she refilled his glass. She made both men feel like she was talking only to him as she chatted about New York as well as asked about the work on their respective ranches. For their part, Joe and Jed tried to checkmate each other as they bragged about their accomplishments. And all the while, John Randall tried to protect his queen from the two knights by dropping strong hints that Sally’s plans for the future didn’t include settling down. By the time Joe reluctantly got up to leave, the competitive atmosphere in the ranch house rivaled any game played by aspiring grand masters.

“You tell your Pa thanks for sending those cattle back, Joe”, Randall said as he walked Joe to the door. “And don’t forget what I said about selling him some steers if he comes up short.”

“I won’t,” Joe promised. He looked past the rancher and smiled Sally. “Thanks for the lemonade and cookies.”

“You’re welcome, Joe,” Sally replied, smiling at the young Cartwright in return. “I hope I’ll see you again soon.”

“Joe’s going to be pretty busy finishing the round-up and branding,” Barker said with a triumphant look on his face. “He probably won’t be getting away from the Ponderosa much. Just like me, he’s going to have stay close to home for awhile.”

“You know, it might not be a bad idea for us to start round-up and branding,” remarked Randall thoughtfully. “The sooner we get it done, the better position I’ll be in to sell some of the herd.”

“Sound like you might be out riding the range for awhile, Jed,” said Joe, returning Baker’s smug look. “Of course, we’re almost finished and I’ll have a lot more free time pretty soon.”

“I’m sure both you young fellows have plenty of work to keep your busy,” Randall stated pointedly. He subtly moved Joe out the door. “Give my regards to your father.”

“I will,” answered Joe. “I’ll be seeing you, Sally,” His smile was directed at the girl, but his eyes were on Baker. “It’s important for old friends to keep in touch, you know,” Joe added pointedly. Turning quickly, Joe left the house and walked across the yard toward his pinto. He whistled a tune softly as he untied the reins of the horse and mounted. The whistling was a bit off-key and hard to identify but any listener would have been able to recognized the sound of a victory march.

*****

Almost another week passed before Ben was satisfied that the whole herd had been rounded up, all the calves branded, and steers accurately counted. Joe was profoundly grateful to hear his father finally announce that the men could stop searching for strays; he felt like he had ridden over very square inch of the Ponderosa looking for steers. The thought not having to spend long days in the saddle for awhile brought a gleam of happiness to Joe’s eye for more than one reason.

While searching the all the nooks and crannies of the Ponderosa for missing cattle, Joe had spent time sorting out his feelings about Sally. He was honest enough to admit that part of his desire to attract the young girl had to do with Baker. He disliked the man, thought the Randall foreman was arrogant and opportunistic. Joe would like nothing better than to win Sally’s affection away from Jed Baker.

At the same time, Joe wasn’t sure that he really wanted to get involved with Sally again. Despite his pronouncement to Baker about understanding the girl, Joe knew he could find himself falling into the old trap of thinking he really was the true object of Sally’s affections this time, only to be rebuffed by the girl when some other man caught her eye. He had been hurt by Sally once, and he sure didn’t want to put himself through that pain again. And he wasn’t even sure how Sally felt about him. Sally had flirted with him at the Randall ranch, but then, Sally flirted with everyone. She had encouraged Baker as much as she had encouraged Joe. After one dance with him at the town hall, she had moved on to other partners without a backwards glance.

After days of riding and thinking, Joe was no closer to sorting out his relationship with Sally than when he had left the Randall ranch. He did, however, have a strategy. He would find an opportunity to talk with Sally and see if he could ascertain her feelings toward him. His encounter with her would be casual — a “chance meeting” rather than a formal date like a picnic — to avoid the risk of putting both of them in an awkward situation. He would be an old friend, simply catching up on news, talking about mutual acquaintances, and reviving shared memories. Joe felt sure he would be able to tell if there were a strong attraction between Sally and him if he could only spend a little time alone with her.

The trick, Joe decided, was going to be finding time to be alone with Sally. With two separate herds to move, Joe was sure to be tied up on a cattle drive for awhile. He tried to decide which drive to volunteer for. The Union Pacific herd needed to be driven to Sacramento right away. That meant about two weeks away from home, herding cattle over a rough mountain trail. Two weeks was a long time to give Baker a clear field.

On the other hand, the cattle drive to the railhead in Ogden wouldn’t be leaving for two or three weeks. The downside to being on that drive, though, was that this herd was a large one and Ogden was a good distance away. That meant being away from home for close to four weeks, not to mention the time needed beforehand to prepare for such a large drive. If Joe volunteered for that drive, he’d probably have a chance to “run into” Sally. But then, Joe would be gone for almost a month – long enough for Sally to change her mind about him, or have Baker do it for her.

The long days chasing strays gave Joe a chance to think but brought him no closer to any answers about Sally, the cattle drives, or much else. By the time his Pa had declared the herd was all rounded up, Joe decided that cattle were much easier to deal with than people.

Once he and Hoss had set the rotation of hands to watch the herd and keep the steers from straying again, Joe rode hard to the Ponderosa ranch house. He wanted to be in the house when his father and older brother finished checking the tally of the herd and completed their calculations of what was needed to fill the contracts. He had told Ben of John Randall’s offer to provide extra cattle, but Joe wanted to be near to remind his father of the offer if necessary, as well as volunteer to ride over to the Randall ranch to talk to John Randall….and perhaps Sally.

“Hey, Pa!” called Joe as he entered the house, slamming the door behind him. “Did you finish the tally?”

“Joseph, couldn’t you just once walk into this house without trying to wake the dead?” Ben complained in a loud voice from behind his desk in the den.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe apologized as he hurried toward the alcove where his father and brother sat. Adam was perched in a chair next to his father’s desk, studying a piece of paper in his hand. “What’s the tally?” Joe asked again.

“We’re in good shape,” answered Adam. “Even taking into the consideration that we miscounted by a few head, we have more than enough to fill both contracts and still have a good size herd left.”

“That’s…good new,” Joe said slowly. He was disappointed but not surprised at Adam’s announcement. His practiced eye had estimated the size of the herd was going to be sufficient to meet their needs.

“Yes, it was a good summer,” agreed Ben, nodding. “The herd grew nice and fat.” He turned to Adam. “When you send the telegram to the Union Pacific confirming the contract, tell them they can send their drovers to pick up the cattle whenever they want.”

“Pick up the cattle?” said Joe, taken aback. “You mean we aren’t going to drive them to Sacramento?”

“No, the contract says the railroad will pick up the cattle,” replied Ben. He raised his eyebrows a bit. “It was your idea, remember?”

“As I recall, your exact comment was that if the railroad wanted those steers so much, they should come get them and save us the trouble of driving them over the mountains to Sacramento,” Adam added in a dry tone.

Almost at once, Joe recalled the remark he had made when a four Cartwrights were discussing the possible contract with the Union Pacific Railroad a month or so ago. At the time, he had been voicing a complaint rather than making a serious suggestion, but if it would avoid having to drive a herd of steers over the rugged trail to California, Joe was all for the idea. “Of course, I remember saying it,” Joe told his brother. “I just didn’t think anyone was listening.”

“We always listen,” Adam said wryly, “in the off chance that you might actually come up with an intelligent idea. It just doesn’t happen that often.”

“Adam,” Ben admonished his oldest son, “Joe’s idea was a good one. You said so yourself.”

“Yeah, I guess I did,” admitted Adam with a shrug.

“When did the railroad agree to pick up the cattle?” asked Joe. “I don’t remember you telling us about it.”

“I mentioned it the night you came back from delivering those steers to Randall’s place, “ answered Ben, looking a bit puzzled.

“I guess I had other things on my mind that night,” Joe said a bit sheepishly. “So the railroad really went for the deal?”

“It’s a good deal for both sides,” explained Ben. “With the railroad sending their own drovers, we can save the cost and trouble of hiring an extra crew. We reduced the price of the cattle a bit to reflect that savings. Since the Union Pacific keeps their drovers on salary, it doesn’t cost them extra to send drovers and they get the cattle at a cheaper price. We’ll be able to concentrate on getting ready to drive the rest of the herd to the railhead at Ogden. And the railroad will be able to deliver the steers to their camps faster since they won’t have to wait on our herd to show up in Sacramento. Everyone is happy.”

“Except maybe the drovers who were counting on a few days in Sacramento, waiting for us to deliver the cows to them,” said Joe with a grin.

“Adam, why don’t you plan to go to Virginia City tomorrow to send that telegram,” suggested Ben.

Suddenly, Sally’s comment at the dance about looking for him in town crossed Joe’s mind. “Hey, Pa, how about letting me send that telegram? After all, it was my idea.”

“Well, I suppose that would be all right,” Ben answered slowly. “Adam, do you see any reason why Joe couldn’t make the trip to town tomorrow?”

“Other than he might get sidetracked in town?” Adam said with a grin. “No, I don’t see why not. Anyone can send a telegram. I’ll write it out tonight.”

It occurred to Joe that the next day was Friday, the day when most of the women from the ranches came into town to do their shopping for the week. The ladies liked to avoid Saturday when the town was filled with cowboys hung over from their Friday night drinking or arriving early to start their Saturday revelry. If Sally was in town the next day, she would almost certainly come to the General Store eventually.

“You know, Pa, while I’m in town, it might not be a bad idea for me to stop by the General Store and let Mr. Greevey know what we’re going to need for the drive to Ogden in a few weeks,” Joe offered. “That way, he can make sure he has everything and we’ll save time when we’re ready to pick up the supplies.” He didn’t add that such a list would give him a good excuse to hang around the General Store for awhile.

“Wow, two good ideas in one month!” exclaimed Adam, opening his eyes wide. “That’s got to be a record.”

“Adam.” Ben warned his oldest son once more with the tone of his voice. Looking at Joe, he nodded approvingly. “That is a good idea. Why don’t you work out a rough list tonight to give to Greevey. It doesn’t need to be exact, just close enough to make sure he has the supplies on hand when we need them.”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe agreed readily. In the back of his mind, he was already working out a plan to “bump into” Sally in Virginia City and invite her to coffee at the hotel.

“You know, Joe,” said Adam in a serious tone, “you are starting to come up with some pretty good ideas. I would have never thought it of you, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Adam,” replied Joe, giving his brother a cheeky gin, “you’d be amazed at the ideas I can come up with.”

*****

After almost two hours in Virginia City, Joe’s confidence in his plan was beginning to ebb. When he arrived in town, Joe had tied his horse to the hitching post near the hotel and strolled toward the General Store. He had appeared to be walking casually; only the most alert observer would have noticed his eyes moving rapidly as they searched the streets and sidewalks for a familiar figure. At the General Store, Joe had stood by the door and looked inside. Four women were busy with their shopping, but none of the four were Sally.

A bit disappointed but not discouraged, Joe had left the General Store and walked slowly to the telegraph office. He made the clerk read the telegraph to him before the man sent it, and then insisted on waiting for a confirmation of the wire’s receipt. While neither his Pa or Adam had mentioned the confirmation, Joe figured they would be pleased that he had thought to ask for it. Besides, it gave Joe an excuse to hang around the telegraph office for awhile.

Tucking the piece of paper with the confirmation into his jacket, Joe had taken a leisurely walk toward the General Store once again. He figured at least thirty minutes – maybe more – had passed since his first visit. As before, Joe had stopped outside the door and looked into the shop. This time, there were six women in the store, four of them different from the earlier shoppers, but none of them had been Sally.

Feeling more than a hint of frustration, Joe had turned and walked away from the store once more. He had headed to the Post Office to pick up the mail, a last minute chore his father had imposed on him before he left the ranch. Joe had made this job take as long as possible — chatting with the clerk, inspecting each letter in the stack that had been handed to him, and strolling slowly back to where his horse was tied next to the hotel. He had carefully placed the mail in his saddlebags, taking the time to tie the leather tongs of the bag tightly. Patting his horse affectionately on the rump, Joe had searched the street and sidewalks again with his eyes. Then he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and once more headed toward the General Store.

Now, as he stood a few feet from the door of the General Store, Joe wondered what he should do next if Sally wasn’t in the store. The saloon held little appeal for him. He had no desire to chat with Sally with the smell of beer on his breath and the stench of stale cigar smoke on his clothes. He supposed he could wander down to the sheriff’s office and mention finding the Randall cattle on the Ponderosa to Roy Coffee but since the cattle had been returned, the sheriff would probably find the conversation of little interest.

Crossing his fingers a bit, Joe walked to the door of the General Store and looked in. A large grin broke out on his face as he saw the back of an ash-blonde girl standing near the counter in the store.

“…one pound of sugar, and three pounds of flour,” Sally was saying to a balding, middle-aged man behind the counter as Joe walked up next to her.

“Hi, Sally,” Joe greeted the young woman, trying to sound as if he were surprised to find her in the store.

Turning a bit, Sally smiled at Joe. “Why, hello, Joe. How nice to see you.”

“Ordering supplies for the ranch?” asked Joe, then cursed himself silently. What else would Sally be doing in the store?

“Yes,” Sally replied. “Wah Ming seems to run out of things regularly, although I guess that’s expected with having to feed me, my father and ten hands three meals a day.” Wah Ming was the long-time cook and general housekeeper at the Randall ranch, filling a role similar to Hop Sing’s at the Ponderosa.

“Miss Sally, it’s going to take me a bit of time to pull this order together,” said Greevey from behind the counter. “There’s two ladies who put their orders in ahead of you.”

Joe could have blessed the man for his comment.

Turning to Joe, Greevey added, “What can I get for you, Joe? I’ll put your order together right after I finish Ms. Sally’s order.”

Reaching quickly into the pocket of his jacket, Joe pulled out two papers – one, the confirmation telegram and the other, his carefully crafted list of supplies. Fumbling with the papers a bit, Joe finally got the right one in his hand. He noticed an amused smile on Sally’s face as he handed the small white sheet to the storekeeper. “We don’t need anything right away.” Joe explained. “This is the list of supplies we’re going to need in two weeks for the cattle drive. Pa wanted to be sure you had enough on hand when we come in to pick it up.”

“Well, that’s right thoughtful of your Pa,” Greevey said, taking the paper from Joe. The storekeeper studied the writing for a moment. He had long practice at reading Joe’s scrawl and deciphered the words with no trouble. “I don’t see anything that should cause a problem. I’m getting a little low on coffee but I’ll send in a double order next week to make sure I have enough when you come in.”

“Thanks,” replied Joe.

“You’re leaving on a cattle drive in a few weeks?” Sally asked.

Joe tried to tell if there was a hint of disappointment in her voice. “Yeah, driving the herd to the railhead at Ogden,” he said. He hesitated a moment, then added, “Hey, Sally, since it’s going to take Mr. Greevey awhile to fill your order, how about you and me having a cup of coffee over at the hotel? We really haven’t had a chance to catch up since you’ve been back.” Joe attempted to sound as if the idea had just occurred to him.

“Why, that would be nice, Joe,” answered Sally. “Thank you.” She turned back to the storekeeper. “I’ll be back in a little while to pick up my order.”

“It’ll be waiting for you, Ms. Sally,” Greevey assured the young woman. He quickly brought his hand to his mouth to hide the smile that had formed there. Joe Cartwright looked as pleased as a peacock with himself, and Sally Randall was smiling warmly at the young man as she slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. Some things never change, the storekeeper thought to himself.

*****

“…and I heard Mary Dawes is marrying Brett Jones,” said Sally, pausing for a moment to catch her breathe and take a sip of coffee. She was seated across from Joe at a small table in the practically deserted dining room of the International House hotel. The only other people in the dining room were a middle-aged man finishing a late lunch, and two older women who were sampling a slice of the hotel’s famous apple pie. All of them were much more interested in their food than the young couple sitting at the small table in the back. Even the waitress, who came by periodically to refill the cups sitting on the starched white table cloth in front of Joe and Sally, showed only polite interest in the pair.

“I didn’t see Mary and Brett at the dance,” Sally added, “so I’m not sure if it’s true.”

“They got engaged at the Spring Harvest Dance,” Joe confirmed. “They weren’t at the dance last week because Brett is on a cattle buying trip with Mary’s father.“

“Well, I’m sorry I missed them,” stated Sally. “I would have liked to offer my congratulations, as well as see Mary’s ring.” Suddenly, she grinned widely. “It’s about time they got married. Mary has been making cow-eyes at Brett since we were in school. And Brett told me over a year ago that he fancied Mary but was too shy to ask her out. I had to practically push him in her direction at the church picnic last summer.”

Leaning back in his chair, Joe smiled. For the past twenty minutes or so, he and Sally had been chatting about mutual friends and local events. The conversation was pleasant as well as entertaining, and Joe was enjoying himself. But, so far, the discussion had been about rather impersonal topics and Joe was no closer to picking up any clues to Sally’s feelings about him. He decided it was time to nudge their exchange into a new direction.

“What about you?” asked Joe, trying to sound casual. “Are you making cow-eyes at anyone special?”

Me?” answered Sally, raising her eyebrows. She stirred her coffee and silently contemplated Joe’s question for a moment. “No, I guess not. No one is making my heart beat a little faster right now.”

Feeling a tug of disappointment, Joe pressed the issue. “At the ranch the other day, I thought….well, it kind of seemed like old times. I remember when I was always stopping by your place for a cup of coffee and ending up spending the afternoon with you.”

“And my father was hovering around like a mother hen, just like he did back then,” added Sally with a laugh. Suddenly, her face sobered as she seemed to realize what Joe was hinting at. “Joe,” she said in a serious voice, “I consider us as friends, good friends. I hope we will always be that. But, that’s all we’ll ever be – friends.”

Joe looked down at his half-filled coffee cup and, for several moments, said nothing. Then, raising his eyes, he said slowly, “I guess, deep down, I knew that. It’s just that when I was at the ranch, you seemed – I don’t know – interested in being more than just friends.”

“I’m sorry, Joe; that was my fault,” admitted Sally. She looked away for a moment, then turned back to Joe. “When I was in New York, I had a long talk with my aunt about what love really means, what it’s like to truly give your heart to someone. I suppose that it was the kind of talk that most girls have with their mothers at some point, but I never had that chance. My aunt helped me realize that what I always considered love was really infatuation. Her thinking was that I always find an excuse to break things off when someone seems to be getting too serious because, somewhere inside, I know it’s not true love, that it’s not going to really work out.” Sally shrugged. “I guess maybe she’s right.”

“That must have been some conversation,” said Joe, giving Sally a small smile.

“Well, it was really several conversations,” Sally said, returning Joe’s smile. Then she grew serious again. “I’m not sure what true love really is, but I know I haven’t found it yet. “

“Then what was going on at the ranch the other day?” asked Joe, more curious than upset. “You acted like you were trying to rekindle the flames.”

“Old habits die hard, Joe,” replied Sally. “When I’m around someone I like, I want to make sure they like me back. I get carried away, I guess.” She reached across the table and covered Joe’s right hand with hers. “I am sorry, Joe. Truly. I didn’t mean to mislead you like that.”

Reaching out his left hand, Joe patted the top of Sally’s hand. “You know, I told Jed Baker the other day that I understood you,” said Joe. “I guess I was wrong.” He frowned a bit as a thought crossed his mind. “What about Jed? You seemed interested in him too.”

“Jed?” answered Sally, a bit surprised. “He’s nice. I enjoy his company. But I’m not serious about Jed. He’s just someone I like being with.

“Until someone better comes along,” Joe finished for her. “You know, Sally, I’m not sure Jed understands how you feel about him. He seemed to think there was something more going on between you.”

Before Sally could answer, Baker entered the dining room and walked with long, deliberate strides toward the small table in the back of the room. His face formed into a frown as he noted Joe and Sally holding hands.

“Hello, Sally,” Baker said, pointedly ignoring Joe. “I thought you said you’d be at the store.”

Quickly, Sally slipped her hand away from Joe’s. “Hello, Jed. I was at the store, but since Mr. Greevey was going to need some time to fill my order, Joe and I thought we’d visit for awhile. You know Joe, of course.”

Forced to acknowledge the other man’s presence, Baker turned to Joe. “Cartwright, I thought you’d be out doing your round-up instead of wasting time in town,” Baker said curtly.

“We finished the round-up. What’s your excuse?” replied Joe, equally as brusque as the foreman standing over him.

“Thought I’d take your advice,” replied Baker almost smugly. “Mr. Randall is running things out on the range and didn’t really need me. We got a stream blocked by a landslide so I offered to come into town and pick up some dynamite to blow it free. Since Sally said she needed some things too, we came together.” He emphasized the last word before turning back to the girl at the table. “You ready to go, Sally?”

“In a few minutes, Jed,” answered Sally firmly, but she softened her reply with a warm smile. “Why don’t you see if Mr. Greevey has my order ready yet.”

“It’s already loaded in the buckboard,” stated Baker. “I parked it right in front of the General Store.”

“Well, then, I’ll meet you at the buckboard,” said Sally. “In a few minutes,” she added pointedly.

For a minute it seemed if Baker was going to make some kind of comment, but he quickly bit off any reply he had in mind. He merely nodded at Sally, then turned on his heels and walked out of the dining room, throwing a scowl at Joe as he departed.

“Sally, you’d better be careful with Jed,” warned Joe. “Like I said, I think he figures there’s more between you two than there really is. And he seems the kind of man who likes to get his own way.”

“You’re making too much of it, Joe,” Sally replied, unconcerned. “I went to the dance with Jed, and he’s been in the house a couple of times for coffee with me, but it’s not like we’re dating.”

“I don’t know if Jed sees it that way,” Joe said. “It might not be a bad idea to clear the air with him.”

“I suppose,” Sally answered with a shrug. She pushed back her chair and rose gracefully. “I really do have to be going. Thank you for the coffee, Joe. And again, I’m sorry about…everything.”

Getting to his feet, Joe smiled at the girl. “Still friends?”

“Always,” replied Sally, returning Joe’s smile.

As Sally walked across the dining room, Joe sat back down and stared into his coffee cup. Things hadn’t turned out the way he hoped, but perhaps they had turned out the way he knew inside of him that they would. The scowl on Baker’s face suddenly flickered into his mind. He hoped Sally would take his advice and make her intentions – or rather lack of intentions – clear to the man. Joe had a feeling that Jed Baker was not a man to be trifled with.

*****

Sally and Baker rode in the buckboard in companionable silence along the road to the Randall ranch, each lost in their own thoughts. Several times in the last mile, however, Baker glanced to his right at Sally. Finally, he took a deep breath and voiced his thoughts.

“Sally, I was surprised to see you with Cartwright today,” said Baker. “I heard that you two were once a couple, but that things were over between you a long time ago.”

Looking surprised as Jed’s comment, Sally answered, “That’s true, Jed. I did see Joe for awhile, but things didn’t work out, at least not romantically. But Joe is a very old, very dear friend.”

“Looked like more than friendship to me,” muttered Jed under his breath.

“I’ve been gone for awhile, “ Sally added. “Joe and I were just talking about what has been happening while I was away.”

“You needed to hold hands to do that?” Jed’s comment was audible to Sally this time.

“I was apologizing to Joe…for something,” replied Sally carefully. “But, Jed, really, it’s none of your business.”

“Anything that has to do with you is my business, Sally,” stated Jed. Seeing the startled look on the girl’s face, he added quickly, “Your Pa would want me to look out for you.”

“I can take care of myself just fine,” said Sally primly.

The two rode along in a silence that was not as companionable as before. Sally’s thoughts were on Joe’s comments about Baker’s feelings toward her, while the foreman mused about what to say next. He decided now was as good a time as ever to make sure the girl understood his plans.

“Uh, Sally,” started Baker cautiously, “I was thinking. I’ve been saving some money for a place of my own. It’s not much right now, but it’s a start. Once this round-up is over, maybe you and I could take a ride around and look at some places. You know, get an idea of what’s available and how much it would cost to buy a little spread.”

The look on Sally’s face was closer to shock than anything else as she listened to Baker. She understood very well what the foreman was hinting at.

“You’d have a better idea of the kind of place you’d want than I would,” Sally said slowly. “I don’t think I’d be of much help to you in picking out a ranch.”

“I know about how to look at things like land and water and barns,” agreed Baker. “But I don’t know much about how to judge a house. I’ve lived in bunkhouses or on the trail most of my life. I don’t know what a woman wants or needs in a house.”

“Maybe it would be better to wait until you find someone who was willing to share the house with before you decide on a place,” Sally replied, hoping Baker would understand the meaning behind her words.

But Sally’s subtlety was lost on the foreman. “Oh, I’ve already found her,” Baker stated, smiling broadly at the girl next to him on the seat of the buckboard. “I know I don’t have much now, Sally, but it won’t take me long to get enough money to buy my own spread and start building it up. Then you and me, we can be together.”

With a sigh, Sally realized that her gentle hints were not working and a more direct approach was necessary. “Jed, I like you,” she said. “You’re sweet, and you’re kind and you’re patient. I enjoy being with you. But, I’m not in love with you.”

“Not yet,” replied Baker confidently. “But give it time, Sally. The better you get to know me, the more you’ll see I’m just the kind of guy you need.”

“No, Jed,” said Sally, firmly. “I don’t want you building up your hopes. I like you, but I know myself well enough to know that I’m not in love with, and never will be.”

“How can you say that?” exploded Baker angrily. “How can you know you won’t ever love me.”

“I just know,” Sally answered. She struggled to find the words to explain her feelings but failed. “I just know,” she repeated.

Frowning, Baker took a deep breath, trying to bring his emotions under control. “I don’t understand, Sally,” he said, sounding confused. “You went to the dance with me, and you keep inviting me up to the house. What kind of game are you playing?”

“This really is my day for apologizing,” replied Sally with a sigh. “I’m sorry if I misled you, Jed. I didn’t mean to; truly, I didn’t. I like you, and I enjoy your company, but that’s all there is to it. If I implied there was something more, I’m sorry.” She laid her hand lightly on Jed’s arm. “I really am sorry.”

With a quick move, Jed shrugged off Sally’s hand. “It’s that Cartwright, isn’t it,” he said bitterly. “Him with his fancy house and big ranch. I should have known you wouldn’t be interested in a poor cowboy like me when you could have the likes of him. Cartwright tried to warn me that I didn’t have a chance with you, and now I know why. He wants you for himself.”

“No, Joe has nothing to do with this,” protested Sally. “We’re old friends and that’s all. This misunderstanding between you and me is all my fault. I know I can be a terrible flirt, and I guess I just let things get out of hand. I should have realized that you might misinterpret things, but I didn’t. It’s all my fault and I’m sorry.”

“So there isn’t anything between you and Cartwright?” asked Jed suspiciously.

“Nothing but friendship,” Sally asserted. She gave Jed a warm smile. “Just like I hope you and I will continue to be friends.”

“Yeah, friends,” replied Jed bitterly. “Just what I need. Another friend.”

The pair rode once more in silence toward the Randall ranch, but now, there was an awkwardness between them. Neither looked at other, and both their minds were filled with unhappy thoughts.

*****

Droning meaningless words in a low voice, Joe slowly guided his pinto around the perimeter of the herd. Being the son of the boss did not exempted him from his turn at watching over the cattle the Cartwrights had gathered, and he had spent the day after his return from Virginia City keeping steers from wandering away from the pasture. Now, as day was turning to dusk, Joe spoke in a continuous monotone to the steers, trying to lull them into a stupor and settle them down for the night. Glancing across the sea of cattle, he saw his brother Hoss imitating his actions on the other side of the herd. Two men were following Hoss at spaced intervals, also riding slowly and speaking in low tones. Joe knew that there were two other hands were behind him doing the same.

Glancing up at the darkening sky, Joe wondered how much longer it would be before he could turn the herd over to the night hawkers, the men who would guard the cattle until morning. The thought of a relaxed evening at home and a good sleep in a soft bed was appealing to him. Joe studied the herd as he rode, and was glad to see that the animals seemed ready for a quiet night.

Suddenly, Joe heard a shout from behind him, followed by several gunshots. The cattle next to him sprang to their feet, confused and upset by the loud noise and trying to decide what to do. Another yell and two more gunshots decided the issue for the cattle. As a large number of the steers started to move forward in a panic, Joe kicked his horse into a gallop. By the time the cattle started running, the youngest Cartwright was already racing toward the front of the herd.

For a minute, Joe’s horse and the panicking cattle ran side by side, a dead heat between the pinto and the lead steers. Then Joe started yelling and waving his arm wildly.

It was a tricky move to try to turn a stampeding herd, especially in front. Joe had to get close enough to get the attention of the lead steers, but stay far enough away to avoid getting himself or his horse gored by the sharp horns on the cattle. Joe had seen too many men who got it wrong and ended up paying for their error with blood. He judged the distance between him and the running cattle, and prayed he had it right. Then Joe moved his horse a bit closer to the herd, and yelled at the top of his voice.

Startled, the steers nearest to the young cowboy moved away from him, bumping and slowing the animals next to them. Joe rode quickly to the front of the herd, and steered his pinto across the path of the leaders. The cattle in front slowed down, surprised to see the rider cutting in front of them. Yelling and waving his arm again, Joe turned the front steers back toward the rest of the herd. Some of cattle tried to follow the front steers, and found themselves running into each other. Steers from the other side of the herd began moving inward also as Hoss and his men turned the steers away from them. As the cattle began bumping and jostling each other, they slowed down, trying to avoid the horns and hooves around them. It took only a few more minutes to bring the herd to a walk and then to stop them.

“You all right, little brother?” asked Hoss as he rode up to Joe.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Joe assured his brother. “For a minute there, though, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to turn them. It’s a good thing you got them moving in from your side.”

“We were behind the leaders,” replied Hoss. “What we did wouldn’t have made much difference if you hadn’t got them front steers turned. You did a good job, Joe.”

Shrugging off his brother’s praise, Joe looked around. “Anybody see what happened?” he asked in a loud voice. “Who started the stampede?”

One of the hands rode up to Joe and Hoss. “I turned and looked when I heard the first yell,” said the cowboy. “Saw this fellow shooting into the air. He shot a couple of more times and then just rode off.”

“Did you see who he was?” asked Hoss.

“Nope,” replied the cowboy, shaking his head. “He was too far away. But he sure was trying to get them cows running.”

“Why would somebody want to stampede the herd?” Hoss said with a frown. “Ain’t no place for them to go except Ponderosa land. All we’d have to do is round them up again, and we’ve got plenty of time to do that before the trail drive.”

“Maybe it was the fellow that rustled those Randall cows,” suggested Joe. “He probably figured he could pick up a few strays while we were busy with the main herd.”

“Could be,” agreed Hoss. He looked around. “How many steers do you figure wandered off in all the excitement?”

“I don’t know,” replied Joe with a sigh. “But I do know Pa will have us out looking for them tomorrow.”

“They couldn’t have gone too far,” Hoss said in a hopeful voice. “Maybe it won’t take too long to find them.”

“Maybe,” answered Joe, but there was a tone of resignation in his voice. “But I have a feeling that I’m going to end up on Snowshoe Ridge again tomorrow.”

*****

Joe was only half-right in his assessment of his father’s plans. After hearing about the stampede, Ben did order his sons and several other hands to look for strays. But Joe was given the area west of the pasture to check while Hoss got the job of riding to Snowshoe Ridge to see if rustlers had herded any the Ponderosa strays into the box canyon. Both Hoss and Joe accepted their assignments without comment, but Joe couldn’t help grinning at the unhappy look on his brother’s face when Ben ordered Hoss to ride up to the steep ridge.

After spending a fruitless morning riding through brush and across wide meadows, Joe was about ready to call it quits and return home. He hadn’t seen a single steer all morning. Any cattle who had strayed from the herd during the stampede evidently hadn’t headed west. Joe decided to check the small canyon near the border of the Ponderosa boundary, and if there were no cattle there, he would head back to the ranch house.

The canyon wasn’t very big, more of a deep ravine than anything else. The walls grew about thirty feet from the uneven floor that was dotted with boulders and patches of grass. The grass was thick near the narrow entrance, covering a small knoll and the ground around it, but the blades petered on the rough ground of interior of the canyon. Joe rode easily through the narrow mouth – an area less than five feet wide – and into the canyon. He didn’t expect to find any cattle since there was no water and little grazing, but he checked behind the large rocks anyway. The inspection took just a few minutes and Joe was at the back of the short canyon in almost no time. He wheeled his horse around and started out of the ravine, intending to head for home.

Just as he was leaving the mouth of the canyon, Joe heard his name being called. Surprised, he looked around, and saw the petite figure of Sally Randall perched on a palomino horse coming toward him. Clad in a white blouse and split riding skirt, the girl was urging her horse forward at a slow gallop. Waving a hand in acknowledgement, Joe halted his horse and waited patiently.

“Joe, I’m so glad I saw you,” said Sally in a breathless voice as she stopped her mount next to Joe’s. “I was headed over to the Ponderosa to see if I could find you.”

“Why?” asked Joe curiously. “I thought we cleared things up the other day.”

Biting her lip, Sally hesitated before answering. “Joe, I need your advice.” She looked around, and then added. “Could we sit down someplace and talk?”

“Sure,” agreed Joe. He thought for a moment. “Let’s leave the horses in those trees and walk to the canyon. There’s a grassy knoll right inside the canyon that should be comfortable enough to sit on.”

As Joe and Sally dismounted and led their horses toward a small grove of trees, Hoss watched them from high above, on the trail to Snowshoe Ridge. “Ain’t that just like that little cuss,” Hoss muttered, shaking his head. “He goes out looking for strays and ends up finding a pretty gal.” He sighed and headed his horse up the trail, determined to prove that at least one member of the Cartwright family could keep them mind on business.

Meanwhile, Sally and Joe had walked from the trees to the small hill covered with thick grass. After climbing up a foot or so up the knoll, Sally sat down and stretched her legs out in front of her. “Ah, that feels good,” she said with a smile of relief. “I guess I’m out of practice riding horseback.”

“All that fancy living in New York will do that,” replied Joe with a grin as he sat down next to the young woman. Then his face grew serious. “What did you want to talk about?”

Once again, Sally hesitated. She looked down and nervously picked a few blades of grass while Joe waited patiently. Finally, she turned to look at the man next to her. “Joe, I had a talk with Jed Baker. I told him that I thought of him as a friend, but there was nothing more than that between us.”

“Oh,” said Joe, nodding his understanding. “I take it things didn’t go well.”

“No, they didn’t,” agreed Sally. “He got angry and upset. I thought he’d get over it, though. But instead, he’s been acting, well, strange.”

“Strange?” asked Joe, frowning. “Like how?”

“He’s been watching me,” explained Sally. “Every time I turn around, there he is. I went to the barn yesterday and he popped out of the shadows. It nearly scared me to death. Last night, after dark, I went out on the porch to get a breath of air, and there he was, sitting in the rocker on the porch like he was waiting for me. Then this morning, he came to the house saying he needed some coffee to take out to the round-up camp. While Wah Ming was getting it, he just stood there and looked at me. It gave me the creeps.”

“Did he say anything?” Joe asked.

“No, he just stands there and looks at me,” replied Sally. “But the expression on his face is…I don’t know…odd is the best way to describe it, I guess. He scares me, Joe. I don’t know what he’s thinking or what he might be planning to do.

“Why don’t you just tell your father to fire him,” suggested Joe.

“He hasn’t done anything,” Sally answered. “At least, nothing my father would think was a reason to fire him. Besides, I’m the one who started things. If I hadn’t flirted with him and made him think I wanted him to court me, none of this would be happening. It doesn’t seem fair that he should lose his job over something I started. And if Jed was fired, it might make him angry and there’s no telling what he might do. I don’t want him hanging around me, but I don’t know how to get rid of him.” Suddenly, Sally put her face in her hands and started crying. “Oh, Joe, I’ve made such a mess of things. What should I do?”

Joe put his arm around Sally’s shoulders and pulled her close to him. “It’s all right,” said Joe in a soothing voice. “We’ll figure out something. It’s going to be all right.”

A shadow unexpectedly engulfed the huddled couple, and a low voice growled out of the dark shade. “Now ain’t this a pretty picture. I thought you and Cartwright were just friends, Sally. Is this how you act around all your friends?”

“Jed!” exclaimed Sally, looking up. “What are you doing here?”

Sitting on his horse at the base of the small hill, Jed Baker was staring down at the pair on the grass and his expression made it clear he was not happy with what he saw.

“I was going out to blow that landslide when I saw you heading in this direction,” replied Baker with a scowl on his face. “Only place you could have been going was the Ponderosa. I got curious why you’d be heading there so I followed behind.”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business where Sally goes,” Joe said bluntly to the foreman.

“I’m making it my business,” snapped Baker. He turned his attention to the frightened girl on the grass. “You shouldn’t have lied to me, Sally. I don’t like people who lie to me.”

“I didn’t lie to you, Jed,” Sally said in a trembling voice. “Joe and I are just friends. I was upset about…something and I came over here to ask his advice. Joe was just trying to help me.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet he was,” replied Baker dryly.

“Baker, I think you’d better leave,” Joe said firmly. “This is Ponderosa land, and I’m ordering you off. Turn that horse around and get out of here.”

“Cartwright, I’ve had just about enough of you,” answered Baker in disgust. With a quick motion, he pulled his gun from his holster and pointed it at Joe. “You take that pistol out of your gunbelt real slow and throw it over here.” When Joe hesitated, Baker cocked his gun. “Now!” ordered the foreman.

“Jed, what are you doing?” cried Sally as Joe slowly complied with Baker’s orders

“I don’t like people giving me orders and sneaking around behind my back,” said Baker angrily. “I thought after that little fracas you had last night, you’d be too busy to try and see Sally, but I guess I was wrong.”

“You started that stampede,” Joe stated with sudden understanding.

“Yeah,” admitted Baker with a nasty grin. “Thought it would keep you busy and away from Sally. Besides, all kinds of things can happen when there’s a stampede. Sometimes people get hurt. Sometimes they even get killed.”

“Jed, listen to me,” Sally said in a desperate voice. “Joe’s just a friend, really. Maybe I was too hasty the other day. If you put down that gun, we can talk. Just let Joe go, and you and I can ride home together.”

“Too late,” replied Baker. “Cartwright has got to pay for what he did to me. He stole my cattle, and he stole my girl. I told him once that I don’t take kindly to people who steal my property.”

“Stole your cattle?” said Joe in a puzzled voice. He frowned for a minute, and then his face cleared. “Those steers I found up on Snowshoe Ridge. You took those, didn’t you? You rustled cattle from your own boss.”

“I wasn’t really rustling them,” answered Baker defensively. “I figured Sally and I were going to get married, and they’d be part of the family herd anyway. I just needed a little money to help me get set up, so I could show her father I could take of her. I didn’t think he’d miss a few steers. Those cattle were going to be half mine anyway,” The scowl returned to the foreman’s face. “But you spoiled everything, Cartwright. Took my cattle so I’d have nothing to offer Sally, and then took Sally away from me.”

“Sally was never yours,” Joe said flatly. “You just built up this fantasy in your mind. Marry the boss’ daughter, start a little spread, maybe inherit the Randall ranch. It was a nice dream. Only none of it was real. You took what was just a little flirting and turned it into something you wanted it to be. And now you don’t want to face the truth.”

“Jed, my father doesn’t have to know how took the cattle, and since they were returned, there’s no harm done,” added Sally. “I’m sure Joe will forget about you starting the stampede. You’re not in any trouble, not really. If you ride away now, nothing will happen.” She smiled at the foreman, giving him her warmest and sincerest look. “I would hate to see anything happen to you. Please, just ride away. If not for your sake, do it for me.”

For a minute, Baker just looked at the girl and said nothing. Then an expression of disgust came over his face. “You…you Jezebel! You’re as bad as Cartwright here. Pretending and lying to me. You two deserve each other.” He moved his gun to point it at Sally. “You two want each other, fine. You can have each other. For all of eternity.”

“No!” shrieked Sally. She turned her head and hid her face in Joe’s shoulder.

“Don’t do it, Baker!” shouted Joe. “You’ll never get away with it. They’ll find you and hang you. You’ll die for killing us!”

Joe’s words seemed to startle Baker, as if he hadn’t thought about the consequences of killing the two people in front of him. Looking unsure, he lowered his gun and frowned.

“Baker, you don’t want to hang,” said Joe in a calmer voice. “Why don’t you just ride away and we’ll forget all about this.”

Pursing his lips, Baker appeared to be thinking. Joe and Sally sat quietly, not wanting to say or do anything that might push the foreman back into his rage. Joe let out a sigh of relief when Baker slowly put the hammer back down on his gun and stuck the pistol in his holster.

Twisting in the saddle, Baker reached behind him and pulled something out of his saddlebag. At first, Joe couldn’t figure out what the foreman had dug out of the leather bag, but his eyes opened wide when he recognized the familiar red wrapping around two sticks of dynamite that were tied together.

“What are you going to do with that?” Joe demanded in a voice that he hoped sounded calmer than he felt.

“Well, I figure no one can be blamed if you two are killed in a landslide,” replied Baker with a nasty grin. “These accidents happen. I’m real good a making landslides. Jake found that out.”

“That landslide that hurt Jake!” exclaimed Sally. “You caused that.”

“Let’s just say I wanted to be foreman,” answered Baker almost indifferently. “And Jake stood in my way.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a match. “Any last words?” Lighting the match with the flick of his thumbnail, Baker moved the fuse jutting out of the dynamite toward the flame.

Narrowing his eyes, Joe calculated the odds of jumping Baker before he could light the dynamite. The distance was more than five feet, and Baker had the advantage of being on a horse. Even if Joe managed to knock the dynamite from the foreman’s hands before he lit it, there was a good chance Baker would simply pull out his gun and shoot him. Going toward the man on the horse offered little hope, so there was only one other way to go.

Jumping to his feet, Joe jerked Sally up with him. “Run, Sally!” he shouted. “Head toward the back of the canyon.” Pulling on the girl’s arm, Joe raced toward the end of the canyon, hoping to get as far away from the dynamite blast as possible.

Surprisingly, Baker seemed not to care that Sally and Joe had run from him. Instead, he simply tossed the dynamite toward the side of the canyon, then turned his horse and rode swiftly away.

Joe figured he and Sally had covered maybe twenty feet when he heard the explosion behind him. Without thinking, he stopped and pushed Sally behind a large boulder, then dropped his body on top of hers. Almost instantly, rocks, dirt and other debris started raining down on them. Joe covered his head with his hands as he felt the hard matter pelting his back and legs. It seemed liked an eternity to Joe before the deadly shower stopped, even though he knew it had lasted only a short time. When he was sure nothing else was going to fall from the sky, Joe got up slowly and brushed himself off. He was dusty and bruised but all in one piece.

“Sally, are you all right?” Joe asked anxiously.

Lying sprawled on the ground, Sally began to push herself up. Her clothes were also covered with dust, but the coating was much lighter than Joe’s. All of a sudden, Sally winced and gave a small whimper of pain. “My shoulder,” she moaned. “My left shoulder hurts.”

“Let me take a look,” said Joe, kneeling next to the girl. Gently, he put his hands on Sally’s shoulder and started to press it. Once more, she moaned softly.

“it’s not broken,” advised Joe. “Feels like maybe it’s separated, and it’s probably bruised.” He gave Sally an apologetic look. “I probably did it when I pushed you down and fell on top of you.”

“I suppose it’s a small price to pay for you saving my life,” replied Sally , giving Joe a weak smile. She winced again, then added, “Help me up.”

Putting his hands under Sally’s right elbow, Joe gently pulled the girl up. Once on her feet, Sally swayed a bit and winced in pain. Her left arm dangled awkwardly at her side. She closed her eyes and seemed to grit her teeth, then opened her eyes to look at Joe. “I’m…I’m all right,” she said in a shaky voice.

“Sure you are,” Joe answered in a soothing tone as he continued to support the girl’s elbow. “Think you can walk?” Sally nodded a bit, and Joe helped her take a few steps forward.

The pair turned toward the mouth of the canyon and stopped dead in their tracks. Where once had been the entrance to the box canyon, there now stood a wall of rock and dirt.

Where by design or pure luck, Baker had thrown the dynamite in precisely the right place to cause the part of the side of the canyon to crumble. The landslide had filled the mouth of the deep ravine, leaving a gouge in the still standing side wall.

“Joe!” cried Sally in a panicky voice. “We’re trapped!”

“You stay here,” answered Joe. “Let me take a closer look.” He walked in long strides toward the wall of debris.

Stopping in front of the newly formed barrier, Joe studied it. The wall of rock and other rubble was about eight feet high, lower than the sides of the canyon but still well above his head. While he couldn’t tell for sure, Joe estimated the blockage was about two or three feet deep. Large pieces of stone were balanced precariously on top of each other, while dirt and small rocks filled in the gaps.

“Joe, what are we going to do?” asked a trembling voice behind him. Joe turned to see Sally standing a foot or so from him, looking at the wall with a frightened expression.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. “We can’t dig our way out. We don’t have the tools, and even if we tried to, that wall looks like it would collapse on top of us.”

Nodding her understanding, Sally looked around almost desperately. Without warning, she started yelling. “Help! Someone help us! We’re trapped! Help!”

Joe grabbed the girl by the arms and shook her a bit. He instantly regretted the action when Sally let out a small cry of pain. Nevertheless, he held her arms tightly. “Stop it,” Joe ordered. “That’s not going to do any good. There’s no one around to hear you, and even if there was, these walls just absorb the sound. So save your breath.”

At once, Sally grew quiet, but her eyes started filling with tears. Joe wasn’t sure if the tears were caused by pain or despair, but he suspected both contributed to the girl’s misery.

“We’re going to die,” sobbed Sally. “We’re trapped in this canyon forever. No one will ever find us. We’re going to die.”

“We’re not going to die,” said Joe sharply. “Do you understand me? We’re not going to die.”

“Yes, we are,” replied Sally, still crying. “We’re going to die in this miserable place. Jed’s left us here to die. I’m never going to see my father or my home again. I wish I had never met Jet Baker.”

“Sally, stop it!” Joe ordered in a harsh voice. Despite the pain he knew it would cause her, he gave the hysterical girl a small shake. She gave out a small cry and her body trembled, but her sobs withered away.

“Sally, I’ll figure out something,” Joe said in a much gentler tone. “Let’s go back by the rock and get you comfortable. I’ll see what I can do about your shoulder.”

“All right,” agreed Sally in a quivering voice. She allowed Joe to guide her back to the boulder that had protected them, and when they reached the large stone, eased herself to the ground so she could rest her back against it.

Stripping off his jacket, Joe stretched out the arms of the green cloth, then knelt next to the girl. “This will have to do a sling for now, “ he said tying the sleeves in a tight knot. He slipped the make-shift sling over Sally’s head, then slowly lifted her left arm and slid it into the cloth cradle. “That should help a little.”

“It does,” answered Sally gratefully. She gave a small smile of relief as the pain in her shoulder was reduced to a dull ache. “What do we do now? Wait for someone to find us?”

Looking back toward the wall, Joe frowned and thought hard. He knew simply waiting for help wasn’t a good idea. No one knew where they were, and even if they did, it would be evening at least before anyone realized they were in trouble. There was some grass in the canyon but no water and very little wood. Thirst and exposure would take their toll by morning, and there was no guarantee they would be found even then. It could take days for a rescue party to reach them, and by then, it would be too late.

“We can’t pull down that wall,” said Joe pensively, “but I might be able to climb over the top and get out.” He turned to Sally. “If I do, I’ll have to leave you here alone while I go get help. It could take a couple of hours. Do you think you could stand being here by yourself for that long?’

For a moment, a look of terror crossed Sally’s face, and her eyes opened wide. Then, she swallowed hard. “I could do it. I could wait if I knew for sure you were coming back.”

“I’ll come back,” Joe assured her with a smile. He stood and unbuckled his gunbelt, letting the leather holster drop to the ground. He whipped his tan hat off his head and dropped that also, then unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt. As he rolled his sleeves up a bit, Joe gave Sally a confident smile. “You just sit here and rest. I’ll be back soon.”

Walking with quick strides, Joe reached the base of the wall and then stopped to study it again. He mentally calculated a route to the top, picking out rocks he could use as handholds and footholds. Once he had the route in his mind, Joe stepped onto a rock a few inches off the ground and grabbed another about six inches above his head. He pulled himself up to stand on the first rock, then lifted his left leg and placed it on another stone about a foot above the base rock. Pressing his weight on his left foot, Joe pulled on the rock above his head.

Without warning, the rock in Joe’s hand slid downward, pulling out of the wall and causing dirt and other fragments to tumble after it. The large stone on which Joe was standing tilted down, staying in the wall but rocking loosely in it’s niche. Joe lost his balance and fell to the ground amid a shower of dirt and debris.

*****

“Mr. Randall! Mr. Randall!” Jed Baker shouted loudly as he rode his horse toward a group of men sitting around a small fire at the round-up camp. Most of the men were sipping coffee from tin cups, and all looked up sharply at the foreman’s call. A short distance away, a small Chinese man was loading a large pot into the back of a buckboard, setting it beside some tin plates and the other remnants of a mid-day meal. The cook also turned when he heard the shout, and his eyes widened in alarm as he realized Baker’s left arm was stretched out behind him, pulling on the reins of a palomino horse.

“Mr. Randall!” shouted Baker again as he stopped his horse near the camp. “I found Sally’s horse just grazing by the road!”

Instantly, John Randall jumped to his feet. “Where did you find it?” he asked in anxious voice. “Did you see Sally?”

“No sir,” lied Baker. “I looked all around but there wasn’t any trace of her. The horse must have thrown her and wandered off.”

“Where did you find it?” Randall asked again with a greater sense of urgency than before.

“Near the road to Virginia City,” answered Baker. He took a deep breath as if he were trying to collect his thoughts. “I went to blow that landslide at the creek and realized I was going to need more dynamite. So I headed toward Virginia City to pick up some. I saw this horse just grazing by the road and when I went over to look, I realized it was Sally’s. I rode around for awhile, looking and shouting her name but I couldn’t find anything. So I thought I’d better come back here and get a search party.” Baker shook his head sadly. “Sally must be somewhere between here and Virginia City, but I don’t know where.”

“No!” said a determined voice. The men turned to look at the small Chinese cook who now stood behind John Randall. “Miss Sally not go to Virginia City,” Wah Ming stated firmly. “She go Ponderosa, go see Joe Cartwright.”

Silently, Baker cursed the cook. He hadn’t counted on anyone knowing where Sally was going when she left the ranch. His plan was to send the search party to the north, while Joe and Sally stayed trapped in the canyon to the east. He figured by the time anyone thought to look in the direction, it would be too late to save the pair from the effects of thirst, hunger and exposure. He had even considered making himself a hero by finding their bodies…but not for at least a week.

“Maybe Sally changed her mind,” Baker suggested. “She might have decided to go to Virginia City instead.”

“No,” insisted Wah Ming, shaking his head vigorously. “I see her ride off. She go east, go to the Ponderosa.”

“Then why was her horse on the road to Virginia City?” Baker said, trying to look as puzzled as possible.

“The important thing is where Sally is now,” Randall said, his worry evident. “We have to find her.” He frowned a bit as his thoughts raced. “Jed, you take the men to where you found Sally’s horse and start searching the whole area. I’ll ride over to the Ponderosa and see if anyone there was seen her. Maybe Ben or one of his boys can tell us something about her. Even if they can’t, I’m sure they’ll help with the search. We can cover both areas that way.”

Baker didn’t like the idea of his boss searching the Ponderosa while he was busy looking for nonexistent clues far to the north. But he couldn’t think of a reason to disagree with Randall or ride to the Ponderosa with him. “All right, Mr. Randall,” he said, trying to sound enthusiastic about the idea. “Boys, get your horses.” As Randall and the other men hurried toward a picket line where their horses were tied, Baker grew thoughtful. He’d have to find a way to leave the search party and get to the Ponderosa so he could steer those searchers away from the canyon. Suddenly, he felt someone looking at him, and turned to his right. Wah Ming was staring at him and the expression on the Chinese cook’s face was full of suspicion.

*****

“Joe! Joe, are you all right?”

Stunned by the fall and the shower of debris which had pelted him, Joe lay on the ground, trying to catch his breath. He heard Sally’s anxious voice and knew he should answer, but at the moment, all he could do was try to suck air into his lungs.

“Joe, answer me!”

Hearing the rising note of hysteria in Sally’s voice, Joe took a deep breath. He inhaled a lungful of the dusty air and immediately started coughing. When he had expelled the dust, Joe took another breath, this time a slow, shallow one.

“Joe, please! Are you all right? Answer me.”

Two more shallow breaths gave Joe enough air to begin breathing normally again. He pushed himself up from the ground to a sitting position, and looked at the terrified face leaning toward him. “I’m all right, Sally. I just got the wind knocked out of me.” Joe slowly moved his arms and legs to confirm to himself that he was telling the truth. He could feel a few more bruises forming, but the rest of his body seemed to be in one piece. “I’m all right,” Joe said again.

“Thank goodness,” answered Sally in relief. “When I saw you fall, I thought sure you were hurt or…or worse. I thought sure I was going to die here alone.” A stricken look suddenly crossed the girl’s face. “I mean, I was worried about you, Joe. I didn’t want to see you hurt.”

“I know you were worried,” Joe said, leaving it unclear whether or not he believed Sally’s first concern was about him. In his heart, though, Joe knew what the girl had been thinking. Every event was judged first in Sally’s mind on how it impacted on her.

As if to confirm Joe’s thoughts, Sally looked at the barrier of rock. “Do you think you’ll be able to climb out? Do you think you can go get help?”

“Not over that mess,” answered Joe, getting to his feet. “It’s too unstable. There’s no telling what might hold my weight and what might slide down. Next time, I might not be so lucky.”

“Oh, Joe,” wailed Sally, “what are we going to do? We’re trapped!”

“First thing is we’re going to get away from this wall,” stated Joe. “If something else decides to slide down, I don’t want to be in its way.” Immediately, Sally moved back and positioned herself behind the youngest Cartwright.

“Let’s go back by the boulder,” suggested Joe. He turned and took Sally’s arm, gently urging her forward. The girl didn’t need much encouragement to walk away from the pile of debris.

When they returned to the boulder, Joe helped Sally ease herself to the ground, and then sat next to her. He studied the wall again, as well as the sides of the canyon, looking for a way out.

“Joe, I’m getting thirsty,” complained Sally. “Is there any water around?”

“No,” replied Joe, shaking his head. “I rode through the whole canyon a little while ago, looking for strays. There’s no water here.” He wished the girl hadn’t mentioned being thirsty because Joe became aware of the dry, gritty feeling in his own mouth. He also could feel the heat of the afternoon sun raising the temperature.

“Try sucking on a pebble,” Joe suggested. “That might help.” Once again, he turned his attention to the canyon walls and started frowning in concentration. He knew if he was going to find a way out, it would have to be soon, before heat and thirst began sapping his strength. His eyes searched the rocky sides of the ravine, then stopped and fixed on one area on the left side of the canyon.

“Sally, I’m going to try again to climb out,” said Joe, almost abruptly.

“I thought you said that was too unstable.”

“It is,” replied Joe. “But see that groove in the wall over there? Looks like there was some kind of landslide awhile ago. There’s rocks sticking out and a couple of holes in the side. I bet I could climb that to the top of the canyon.”

“I don’t know,” said Sally doubtfully as she looked at the area where Joe was pointing. “It looks awful steep, and it’s a long climb to the top. It might be loose, too.”

“It’s an old slide. By now that dirt has been baked solid by the sun,” Joe explained. “Besides, we haven’t got much choice. I don’t see any other way out.”

Without waiting for any further comments from Sally, Joe pulled himself from the ground and walked over to the cut in the hill. He inspected groove, noting the number of rocks and small holes he could use for climbing. The gouge was about three feet wide, easily enough room for Joe to maneuver in. Having learned his lesson from trying to scale the wall of debris, he pulled on a rock or two, assuring himself that they were firmly embedded into the hard earth. After a satisfied nod to himself, Joe turned and called over his shoulder to Sally. “I think this is going to work.”

“Be careful, Joe,” shouted Sally in reply.

Giving a quick wave, Joe lifted his left foot and placed it on a small rock a few inches from the ground. As in his previous climb, he reached above his head to firmly grasp a larger rock. Gingerly, he began shifting his weight to his left foot and lifted his right foot off the ground, placing it on a wide rock. This time, all the stones stayed in place. With a small sigh of relief, Joe pulled himself up and shifted his weight to his right foot. Then he began searching for a new handhold.

A small hole in the side of the gashed dirt was just big enough for Joe’s right hand. He pulled himself up a bit further and started searching with his left foot for a stone or hole on which to stand. His foot found a piece of stone no more that three or four inches wide, but it was solid enough to support his weight if he balanced carefully.

Joe’s climb up the canyon wall was agonizingly slow. After pulling himself up a few inches, he would stop and spend several minutes searching for the next handhold and support for his foot. But Joe knew he was making progress, and that was what counted. He was determined to reach the top of the canyon, even if it took him all day to do it.

*****

As he pulled his horse to a stop at the edge of the yard in front of the Ponderosa ranch house, John Randall was surprised to see the flurry of activity going on in the area in front of him. Three men were saddling horses, while another was bringing ropes from the barn. Adam Cartwright was talking to two men standing by their already saddled horses, and Ben Cartwright was walking toward his buckskin, shouting for the men to hurry.

Randall had no idea what was causing all the commotion, and he really didn’t care. He urged his horse forward. “Ben!” he called as he approached the group of men. “Have you see Sally?”

Wheeling around, Ben was startled to see his neighbor riding into the yard. It took him a moment to absorb Randall’s question and reply. “Sally? No, I haven’t seen her in awhile, not since before she left for New York. Why?”

Ignoring Ben, Randall stopped his horse and leaned forward in his saddle. “Have any of you men seen my daughter?” he asked in a loud voice. “She’s twenty, blonde, and was riding a palomino mare.” The men in the yard looked at each other, waiting to see if someone would reply. The silence that met Randall’s question told him the answer was no.

“John, why are you looking for Sally over here?” Ben asked.

“She’s missing,” Randall explained quickly. “My foreman, Jed Baker, found her horse grazing near the Virginia City road. But Wah Ming, my cook, told me Sally was headed to the Ponderosa when she left the ranch. I’ve got men searching the Virginia City road, but I was hoping she might be here.”

“She didn’t show up here,” stated Adam, coming to stand next to his father. “I’ve been at the house all day, and I would have seen her if she did.”

“It was just a hope,” Randall admitted. “When Wah Ming said she was riding out to find Joe, I thought maybe she was here.” He shook his head quickly, as if to clear it. “Ben, I need your help. Can you organize a search party to look for Sally?”

“Sally was looking for Joe?” Ben said slowly.

“Yes,” Randall answered, a bit puzzled by Ben’s reaction. “Is Joe around? Has he seen her?”

“We were just getting ready to go out and look for Joe,” said Ben. “Adam found his pinto grazing behind the barn a little while ago. I’m afraid Joe is missing also.”

“What!” exclaimed Randall. He looked around in confusion. “What’s going on, Ben?”

“I don’t know,” replied Ben, “but I think it’s more than a coincidence that Sally was riding over to see Joe and now both of them are missing.”

“Maybe she found Joe,” suggested Randall, with a trace of hope in his voice. “Maybe they were together and their horses were spooked by a bear or something. “

“I hardly think that’s likely,” Adam said. “Horses are herd animals. If a bear spooked them, they’d stay together. Joe’s horse came home. And you said Sally’s horse was found on the Virginia City road. That’s a good twenty miles apart.”

“What happened isn’t important,” Ben stated. “The important thing is to find those kids. You said you already have a search party looking by the road?” Randall nodded. “Good,” Ben continued. “We can search the Ponderosa. Joe was suppose to be looking for strays near the west boundary of the ranch. Let’s start there, and see if we can pick up any tracks.”

“Get mounted!” Adam shouted to the men behind him. Instantly, six cowboys climbed on their horses as Adam and his father did the same.

Ben was just about to lead the group out of the yard when Hoss road in. The big Cartwright looked at the men in the yard and frowned. “What’s going on?” asked Hoss. “If you’re organizing a posse to go after them rustlers, you’re wasting your time. I didn’t find anything up on Snowshoe Ridge.”

“Joe and Sally Randall are both missing,” explained Ben quickly. “Adam found Joe’s horse behind the barn, and John says Sally’s horse was found near the Virginia City road. We’re heading out to look for tracks.”

“Joe and Sally?” said Hoss. “I saw both of them late this morning. They were together. They were leading their horses and talking to each other.”

“Are you sure?” asked Randall anxiously. “Are you sure it was Sally?”

“I’m sure,” Hoss replied firmly. “I was up on the trail to Snowshoe Ridge, but I could see both of them clearly. It was Joe and Sally.”

“Where were they?” Adam asked his brother.

For a minute, Hoss’ face puckered as he tried to think of how best to describe the area in which he had seen the two young people. “It was near a little canyon close to the west line.” He suddenly shook his head. “It’ll be easier for me to show you than tell you.”

“Then show us,” Ben ordered his son.

With a quick nod, Hoss turned his horse and rode away from the yard. Nine riders – including two very anxious fathers – followed close behind him.

*****

Panting with exertion, Joe kept his hands wrapped around the pointed stone just over his head and pulled his body upward. He dragged his left foot to rest next to his right one so that he was standing firmly on a small rock ledge. Once he was sure of his balance and firm grip on the stone, Joe let his body sag against the hard dirt of the canyon wall while he tried to catch his breath and rest a bit. His eyes were half closed, both from fatigue as well as to keep from looking down. He had enough problems without taking the risk of triggering the fear of heights that sometimes came over him.

Looking up, Joe saw the rim of the canyon looming nine or ten feet above him, and wondered if he had enough strength to make it to the top. He figured he had been climbing for over two hours, and it would take about another hour to reach the rim. The last part of the climb would be the toughest. Joe knew he was going to have to find a way to force himself to scale those last feet of the canyon wall.

Joe took a deep breath and tried to find the energy he needed for the final ascent. For the past two hours, the hot afternoon sun had shone down on him relentlessly; he knew he was beyond hot and thirsty and probably skirting the edges of dehydration. His body hurt in what seemed like a thousand places. His muscles ached in protest of the straining and pulling that his climb had required, and the bruises from the barrage of debris were beginning to join in with their own brand of pain. But it was his hands that were causing Joe the worst misery.

Without gloves to protect them, Joe’s hands had been nicked, cut and bruised by the sharp rocks and hard dirt. He had clung so hard and for so long to the makeshift handholds that his fingers were beginning to cramp. He could feel the sharp sting as salty sweat ran into the open cuts on his palms and fingers. Just holding on to the rock that kept him from falling caused his hands to throb and ache.

“Joe! Joe! Are you all right?”

Hearing the question that Sally called from below, Joe wanted to answer honestly. He wanted to say that, no, he wasn’t all right; he was hot, tired, thirst and sore. He wanted to tell Sally that it would take a Herculean effort for him to make it to the top. But Joe knew an honest answer would accomplish nothing except to cause more anxiety and distress to the girl below.

“I’m all right, Sally,” Joe shouted without even trying to look downward in the girl’s direction. His voice sounded tired and strained, even to his own ears. He coughed a bit and tried to clear his dried throat. “I’m just resting a bit,” he added in a voice that was marginally stronger.

“It’s getting late, Joe,” yelled Sally. “It will start getting dark in a few hours.” To an unknowing listener, Sally’s comment might have sounded like a warning to Joe.

But Joe knew better. Sally was urging him onward because she didn’t want to spend the night alone in the canyon. He couldn’t blame her. Anyone would find that prospect unnerving, but to a hurt, thirsty girl who had been protected all her life, the idea must be terrifying.

“I know,” Joe called back. “I’m going on up.” He looked at the rim of the canyon above him. “I’m going on up,” he repeated but this time there was a firm note of determination in his voice.

*****

As Hoss led the riders behind him to the area where he had seen Joe and Sally, he rode at a deliberate pace. He wanted to get to the spot where he had seen the pair, but if Joe and Sally were on foot and trying to walk out of the area, Hoss didn’t want to miss them. The two fathers who followed him understood why Hoss was riding relatively slowly, but that fact didn’t keep them from chaffing to get to the canyon.

When he finally got to the meadow that was spread out in front of the mountainous region, Hoss held up his hand and halted the riders. “Everybody keep your eyes peeled,” he ordered. “I saw Joe and Sally leading their horses to the little stand of trees up ahead. If they’re on foot, they could be around here anywhere.” Without waiting to see the heads nodding in agreement behind him, Hoss urged his horse forward toward the mouth of the canyon. He stopped his mount again a few feet from the entrance to the narrow ravine, but this time, Hoss was too surprised to speak.

“Looks like a landslide has blocked the canyon,” speculated Ben as he rode up next to his middle son.

“Pa, that landslide wasn’t there this morning!” answered Hoss, regaining his voice. “That must have happened in the last few hours.”

“Do you think Joe and Sally might have been near when it happened?” asked Randall in a worried voice.

“I don’t know,” Hoss said, shaking his head. “They were heading away from the canyon when I saw them, but that don’t mean they couldn’t have headed back in.”

“Pa! Hoss! Look!” exclaimed Adam, pointing to a spot high on the canyon wall. “It looks like someone is trying to climb out!”

Despite the fact that the figure was far away and partially hidden by the groove in the canyon wall, Ben instantly recognized the climber. “My God! That’s Joe!”

“He must have been trapped in the canyon when the landslide hit,” said Hoss.

“We’ve got to help him!” cried Ben. He looked around. “Where’s the trail to the top of the canyon?”

“Back about half a mile,” Hoss answered. “The trail winds around and then goes up to the rim.”

Kicking his horse forward, Ben rode up to the wall of debris that blocked the entrance to the canyon. “Joe!” he shouted as loudly as possible. “Joe, stay where you are! We’re going to the top of the canyon. We’re going to help you.” He waited a minute to see if the figure high above him acknowledged his call. Ben thought he saw a small wave, but he couldn’t be sure. “Hold on, Joe!” he yelled. “We’re coming!”

*****

Clinging precariously to the rocks on the canyon wall, Joe hadn’t been sure he had really heard his father’s voice. He was so tired and so thirsty that he thought he might be hallucinating. Nevertheless, he turned his head and risked a look to the ground below. Despite his fatigue, a smile broke out on Joe’s face when he recognized the hat and vest of the rider sitting on a familiar buckskin.

Joe looked up and noted that the top of the canyon was about eight feet above him. Part of his brain urged him to keep going, to finish the arduous climb he had started hours ago. Another part of him told him not to be foolish, to wait patiently for help to arrive. The practical part of Joe’s brain easily won the argument.

Holding on tightly to the stone jutting out of the side of the cut in the wall, Joe rested and waited. He tried to figure out how long it would take his father to get to the rim above him. He thought ten or fifteen minutes seem about right. Joe tightened his grip on the rock, and steadied his feet on small ledge of hard earth. He could hold on for another fifteen minutes, he told himself; he had made it this far and help was on the way. All he had to do was wait.

The wait, however, seem to last forever. Joe’s sore and bleeding hands ached as he clutched the rock, and the muscles in his legs were starting to twitch from fatigue and strain. Joe tried counting the minutes but his tired brain seemed to lose track of the count each time he reached 100. Closing his eyes, Joe thought of nothing but holding on to the rock.

After what seemed an eternity to Joe, he finally heard a voice calling to him from the top of the canyon.

“Joe!” shouted Ben. “Joe, we’re here!”

“Pa!” Joe tried to yell in return. The sound came out like more of a croak from his dry throat.

“Sally!,” another voice shouted from above. “Sally, are you all right?”

Joe heard the response from the canyon floor.

“Daddy! I’m thirsty .”

For a minute, all was quiet, as if the men gathered at the top of the canyon were talking among themselves. Joe tried to be patient, but the anxious part of his mind was silently urging the men to hurry

“Sally, I’m throwing down a canteen. Drink the water slowly,” a voice yelled, and almost immediately an object hurtled past Joe on its journey to the ground below him. Once more, Joe silently exhorted the men above to turn their attention to him. His mute plea was quickly rewarded.

“Joe, we’re going to throw down a rope. Can you grab it?” Ben asked.

“I’ll try,” replied Joe in a tired voice.

A hemp rope tumbled from the rim of the canyon and dangled a foot or so from Joe. He reached for the rope, and pulled it toward him. But his sore and bleeding right hand couldn’t grip the rough cord tightly, and without a firm hold, he risked slipping down the rope until he fell to the floor of the canyon. Joe knew he didn’t dare let go of the rock to which he was clinging with left hand in order to try to tie the rope around him.

“I can’t…I can’t hold the rope,” called Joe, his exhaustion evident in his voice.

Once more, the men above were quiet for several minutes, and then Ben’s voice called again to his son. “Joe, Adam is coming down. Just hang on. He’ll tie the rope around you and we’ll pull you up. Hang on, Joe!”

Joe nodded his agreement, but the movement was so slight, he wasn’t sure if anyone saw it. He knew it didn’t matter. Adam would be coming down to help him regardless of whether he indicated his understanding or not; besides, there was nothing else Joe could do but wait.

Hearing the scrape of boots against hard dirt, Joe looked up. He watched with an almost detached interested as Adam, with a second rope tied around his waist, came down the side of the canyon in a series of quick hops. It took only a minute for his oldest brother to position himself next to Joe.

“Well, you certainly got yourself in a pickle this time,” commented Adam as he braced his feet against side of the canyon. Without waiting for a reply, Adam maneuvered himself to the left until his body was directly behind Joe’s. “Give me the rope. I’ll tie it around you.”

With a tired but grateful smile on his face, Joe handed the rope he had be holding to Adam. His oldest brother quickly tied the cord around Joe’s waist, tugging on the knot twice to make sure it would not unravel.

“Do you think you can push off from the wall by yourself, or do you want me to help you up?” asked Adam.

A wry smile formed on Joe’s face. “Who’s holding my rope?” he asked.

“Hoss and three ranch hands,” answered Adam, a bit puzzled by the question. “I’ve got Pa, John Randall, and three other hands.

“Then you go ahead and climb up,” said Joe. “Because there’s no way you’re going to be able keep up with me if Hoss is pulling on my rope.”

“You’re right,” agreed Adam with a grin .“You’ll probably beat me to the top.” He patted Joe lightly on the shoulder, then slid his body a foot or so to the right. He braced his feet against the hard dirt so that he could literally walk up the side of the canyon with the help of the rope. “Pull me up!” Adam called to the men above. Almost immediately, he began to ascend toward the rim.

Joe watched Adam rise above him for a moment, then took a deep breath. He wrapped his damaged hands around the rope as tightly as he could, ignoring the stinging pain caused by the raw skin grasping the rough hemp. Then he leaned back a bit and braced his feet against the wall as Adam had done. “I’m ready. Pull me up!” Joe shouted and immediately, he felt a tug on the rope wrapped around him.

While his ascent wasn’t nearly as graceful as Adam’s, as Joe predicted, it was faster than his brother’s. Even though his tired legs didn’t offer much help, Joe still found himself being pulled up rapidly to the top of the canyon. As he approached the rim, Joe reached out his right arm. His father’s hands grabbed the arm at the wrist and just above the elbow with a vise-like grip. Joe felt a strong tug on both his arm and the rope around him as he was pulled up and out of the canyon.

“Thanks,” said Joe in a soft voice. He took two steps before his legs gave out and he crumpled to the ground.

“Give me the canteen,” Ben ordered as he knelt and braced his youngest son against his body. One of the ranch hands thrust an open canteen at Ben, who snatched it from the man’s hands. He put the container to Joe’s mouth and tilted it a bit.

Swallowing the water in rapid gulps, Joe thought the tepid liquid was the best thing he had ever tasted. He gingerly put his hands around the canteen and lifted it upward, trying to force more water into his mouth. But the canteen was suddenly pulled away from him.

“Not too much, Joe,” advised Ben. “You’ll make yourself sick. You can have more in a minute.”

Nodding, Joe closed his eyes and leaned back against his father, letting his body relax for the first time in hours. He felt someone untie the rope from around his waist, but didn’t bother to see who was doing that deed. He simply laid his head against his father’s shoulder and sucked in air with deep breaths, letting the men around him do whatever they wanted.

“Let’s get him out of the sun,” Ben said. “Help me carry him over by that big oak tree.”

Joe wanted to protest that he could walk, but he didn’t have the strength to talk, much less move. He felt himself being lifted from the ground and carried, then gently set on the soft grass with his back against the rough bark of a tree. The hot sun which had seemed to bake him all afternoon was replaced by a cool shade. Joe felt the canteen placed against his lips and began drinking again. He decided that, with the cover of tree and constant sips of water, there was a chance that he might actually feel human again sometime soon.

Forcing his half-closed eyes to open, Joe looked into the worried face of his father who crouched next to him. “I’ll be all right,” he said in little more than a whisper and managed a weak smile.

For a minute, Ben merely stared at his son, and then gave him an answering smile. “I believe you will be. Do you want some more water?”

“Yeah,” answered Joe. He reached forward to take the canteen.

But instead of handing Joe the canteen, Ben grasped Joe’s wrist and gently turned it over. “Let me take a look at your hands,” he said.

A small frown formed on Ben’s face as he inspected his son’s hand. A score of cuts – some small, a few deep and long – ran across Joe’s palm and fingers in an uneven pattern. In between the jagged lines of the cuts, the flesh was scraped to a dull red. What skin that was intact was dotted with bruises as well as streaked with dirt and dried blood. Cramped muscles curled Joe’s fingers inward.

As his father examined first his left hand and then his right, Joe watched almost as if he didn’t recognize the flesh at the end of his arm. He hadn’t looked at his palms and fingers much during his ascent, and had endured the stinging pain of the cuts and raw skin during his climb by merely accepting it as something he had to live with if he wanted to survive. Joe found it odd now to see the sources of his misery displayed in front of him.

“Joe, we need to clean out those hands,” Ben said in a soft voice.

“Give me a drink first,” Joe answered. “I need that more.” He reached forward again and this time, his father handed him the canteen. Holding the canteen with his fingertips, Joe tilted it upward and poured a stream of water into his mouth, then moved the container upward a bit to allow the liquid to splash into his face. A look of relief came over Joe as he lowered the canteen and handed it back to Ben. “Thanks.”

“You’re start to look a mite better, little brother, “ declared Hoss, who was standing behind Ben.

Adam walked into Joe’s view and stood next to Hoss. “How’s he doing?”

“Better,” Hoss said, repeating a part of his statement.

“Pa, Randall’s getting anxious about his daughter,” Adam told Ben. “I’m going to take the hands and get started on punching a hole in that wall of debris so we can get to her. Randall is going to stay here, up on the rim, where Sally can see him.”

“Careful,” said Joe in a tired voice. “That wall is pretty loose. I tried to climb it and the whole almost came down on top of me.”

“I’ll be careful,” Adam assured his brother, then turned and walked away.

With a quick motion, Ben untied the bandanna from around his neck and wet the cloth from the canteen. As he began to gently daub the cuts on Joe’s left hand, he asked, “What were you and Sally doing in that canyon? How did you get trapped by that landslide?”

“It wasn’t a landslide,” Joe explained. “Jed Baker, Randall’s foreman, tried to kill Sally and me. He blew up the side of the canyon with some dynamite, and when that didn’t get us, he left us trapped in the canyon. He left us to die.”

“Did I hear you right?” Randall asked incredulously from a few feet away. “Did you say Jed Baker did this? That he tried to kill Sally and you? Why?”

Turning his head toward Randall, Joe answered, “Sally and I were just sitting there talking and Baker rode up. He started saying all kinds of crazy things – that Sally was cheating on him, and I was trying to steal his girl. He wanted to kill us because he thought Sally wanted me instead of him.”

“That doesn’t makes any sense,” Randall said, shaking his head. “Sally wasn’t interested in him, not seriously. She told me that.”

“She told him that, too, but Baker wouldn’t listen,” stated Joe. “Like I said, he was acting crazy.”

“Do you know where Baker is now?” Hoss asked with a look of anger on his face. “I’d sure like to get my hands on him.”

“He’s leading the search party to the north,” Randall replied. His eyes widened as if something just occurred to him. “Baker was trying to lead us away from here,” he added almost in amazement. “He was trying to make sure to make sure we wouldn’t find Sally and Joe.”

“It’s just lucky Hoss saw them from the trail,” said Ben. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have found them.”

“There was a hand of Divine Providence involved,” agreed Randall.

As the men talked, Ben had continued to dab and clean Joe’s hands. He picked up the canteen to wet the cloth again, but only a bit of water trickled out of the container. “Hoss,” Ben said, “Go get another canteen; this one is empty.”

“There’s a full one on my horse,” declared Hoss. “I’ll go get it. Be back in a minute.”

“I can’t believe Jed Baker did this,” Randall stated, shaking his head. “He’s been doing a good job as my foreman.”

“He told Sally and me that he started the landslide where Jake got hurt,” Joe told Randall. “He wanted to be foreman and he had to get Jake out of the way. He also said he stole those cattle I found up on Snowshoe Ridge. He thought he and Sally were going to get married so he figured it wasn’t really rustling. He called it ‘borrowing some steers from the family herd’ so he could get some extra money.”

“The man must be insane,” Ben stated.

Turning to his father, Joe nodded his agreement. “Yeah, he was crazy enough to stampede our herd last night. He did it to try to keep me busy and away from Sally. But he also didn’t care if someone got hurt. He’s crazy as a loco steer and just as mean.”

“I’ve been called worse,” a voice said.

Ben, Joe and John Randall all snapped their heads to look a Jed Baker emerging from some bushes nearby. His gun was already drawn and pointed toward the three men. ”Don’t anyone move,” Baker ordered, stepping closer. “I’m not afraid to use this.”

“What are you doing here, Baker,” demanded Randall.

“Well, Boss, I was going to help you with the search,” replied Baker almost casually. “ Saw you riding in this direction, and kind of thought I’d suggest you look north of here. But now that Cartwright here has blabbed everything, I guess I’m here to get rid of some witnesses.” He waved his pistol menacingly. You two, take your guns out of your holsters and throw them over here.” Both Ben and Randall hesitated. “Do it!” ordered Baker harshly. “You give me any trouble, Joe here will be the first one to get it.”

“You are crazy, Baker,” Ben said as he and Randall threw their pistols aside. “You can’t get all three of us. And even if you did, it wouldn’t do you any good. Sally will tell the sheriff what happened. Right now, you’re only looking at jail time. You pull that trigger and you’ll hang.”

“No, you’ve got it wrong,” answered Baker. A strange look came over his face. “Sally is in love with me. Once I get rid of all of you, I’ll go get her. She’ll come away with me and we’ll start a new life together. She won’t tell the sheriff. She loves me too much.”

“She doesn’t love you, Baker,” said Joe. “She’s scared of you.”

“Don’t say that!” shouted the foreman. He pointed the gun at Joe. “You’re the one who confused her. You’re the one who caused all this trouble. It’s all your fault, Cartwright.”

“You think Sally’s just going to overlook the fact that you tried to kill her? That you left her to die in that canyon?” asked Joe.

“That was a mistake,” Baker said. “I got mad and wasn’t thinking straight. I’ll explain that to her. She’ll understand.”

“Sure she will,” Joe said in a voice dripping with irony. “Just like she’ll overlook the fact that you’re going to shoot her father. “ He shook his head. “Give it up, Baker.”

A wild look came into Baker’s eyes. “Shut up, Cartwright! You hear me? Just shut up! I should have shot you when I had the chance.”

“Baker, you don’t want to kill anyone,” said Ben in a reasonable tone. “Up until now, you’ve done everything to avoid killing someone. So drop the gun. We’ll work something out.”

A look of uncertainty crossed Baker’s face. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” he admitted slowly. Then his gaze shifted to Joe. “But I have to. Without Cartwright around, Sally will be mine.”

“Sally will never be yours,” Joe said firmly.

“You’re wrong!” shouted Baker. The wild look returned to his eyes. “I’m going to show you! I’m going to kill you so Sally will love me!” He turned the gun to point it directly at Joe’s head.

Ben moved forward and put his body in front of Joe, trying to protect his son. “Don’t do it, Baker!” he shouted.

“I’m going to kill all you Cartwrights!” Baker screamed. But before he could pull the trigger, a massive hand grabbed his arm and pulled it into the air.

Startled, Baker turned his head and looked into the face of Hoss Cartwright. The glimpse the foreman got of the face was a brief one. The next thing he saw was Hoss’ large fist coming toward his face.

The gun fell from Baker’s hand as he staggered back a step. The foreman threw a punch at Hoss, but the blow hardly fazed the big man who held his arm. Hoss jabbed Baker hard in the face twice, then punched him in the stomach. As Baker doubled over, Hoss dropped his grip on the man’s arm and sent an upper cut straight to the foreman’s jaw, sending Baker to the ground in a heap. Hoss pulled the man up by his shirt collar and was ready to hit him again.

“Hold it, Hoss,” yelled Randall, walking forward in deliberate strides. He stopped in front of his foreman, who was dangling almost helplessly in Hoss’ grip. “This is for Jake,” said Randall as he punched Baker the midsection. The foreman bent forward and gasped for air. “And this is for Sally,” added Randall, throwing a punch at Baker’s jaw. The foreman’s head snapped to the side as Hoss released him from his hold. Once more, Jed Baker crumpled to the ground — this time unconscious and bleeding –and Hoss let him lay there.

Picking up the gun Baker had dropped, Hoss walked toward his father and brother. “You two all right?” he asked.

“Thanks to you,” replied Ben in relief.

“You sure do come in handy, older brother,” added Joe with a smile.

“Well, someone has to watch out for you,” retorted Hoss. “You ain’t doing such a good job of watching out for yourself lately.”

Suddenly, there was a shout from inside the canyon. Randall rushed to the edge and looked down. “Adam has broken through,” he said in a voice that mingled both relief and happiness. “He’s got Sally.”

“Hoss, go to town and get the sheriff and the doctor,” Ben told his middle son.

“Bring them to my place,” Randall added walking back to the Cartwrights. He looked at Ben. “My ranch is closer than the Ponderosa ranch house. We can take care of Joe there.” He saw the hesitant look on Ben’s face. “Ben, Joe needs to get some rest, and the sooner we get him in a bed, the better.” Randall grinned. “Besides, it will keep us from fighting over which of our kids the doctor will visit first.”

Smiling, Ben agreed. “Thank you, John. I appreciate it.”

“No, Ben,” said Randall. “I’m the one who should say thanks. Joe almost got himself killed himself trying to get help Sally. If he hadn’t been around, there’s no telling what might have happened.”

*****

Two hours later, Ben sat beside the bed in the spare room of the Randall house, waiting for the doctor and watching his youngest son sleep. Joe had slept almost all of the way from the canyon to the Randall ranch, sitting in the saddle of Ben’s horse, and leaning his back against Ben’s body.

He would have never said anything to Joe about it, but Ben had been thankful to be able to hold his son on the ride to the Randall ranch. Not only did it reassure him that Joe was all right, but it gave him an opportunity to be physically close to Joe for awhile. Now that his sons were grown, Ben seldom did more than shake their hands or pat them on the shoulder. He missed the days when his sons were small and he could hold them tight without embarrassing them. Holding Joe in his arms during the ride to ranch gave Ben not only a feeling of nostalgia but also one of contentment. He wondered if John Randall had felt the same way as he held his daughter in his arms on the ride home. He suspected Randall had; fathers everywhere felt pretty much the same about their children.

Joe stirred a bit on the bed, turning onto his side so his back was to his father, then laid still. His clothes had been removed, whisked away by Wah Ming who promised they would be washed and ready for him in the morning. His hands were wrapped in white cloth, temporary bandages to protect them until the doctor arrived. One bandaged hand laid across his bare chest, partially hiding some of the bruises sprinkled across it, while the other hand was propped up on the pillow, near his head. Most of Joe’s bruises were on his back, but he didn’t seem to mind any of them. He looked comfortable and peaceful in his sleep.

Reaching over, Ben placed his hand lightly on Joe’s forehead, assuring himself again that his son wasn’t feverish. He knew Joe was exhausted more than anything else, but he couldn’t help but worry about infection and other ill effects of his son’s ordeal. In Ben’s mind, that’s what fathers did. Worry and watch out for their children.

The door to the room opened, and Ben turned to see John Randall walk in, with Doctor Martin behind him. The doctor brushed past Randall and moved to the side of the bed, his black bag held firmly in his hand.

“Any sign of fever, Ben?” Doctor Martin asked as he put the bag on the edge of the bed and opened it.

“No, he’s been sleeping quietly,” Ben answered. “How’s Sally?”

After pulling a pair of scissors from his bag, the doctor lifted Joe’s hand from the pillow and began cutting the cloth that surrounded it. “Dislocated shoulder and some bruises,” answered Doctor Martin as he worked. “She’s also tired, thirsty, and hungry. But she’ll be as good as new in no time.”

A slight frown crossed the doctor’s face as he inspected Joe’s hand. “He tore this one up pretty badly. Does the other one look the same?”

“Yes,” said Ben. “I did my best to clean them up.”

“Well, there’s no sign of any infection, and none of these cuts are deep enough to need stitches,” replied Doctor Martin. “But he won’t be using these hands much for a few weeks.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a jar and a roll of bandages. “This cream will help, but there’s really not anything to do but let them heal.”

After spreading some of the cream from the jar on Joe’s hand, the doctor expertly bandaged the hand again. He repeated the procedure on Joe’s other hand, occasionally glancing at his patient as he worked. Joe slept through the whole process.

With efficient motions, Doctor Martin checked the bruises on Joe’s chest, and then pulled Joe toward him to look at the discolored areas on his back. Joe stirred a bit but never really woke. As the doctor eased Joe to his original position, he put a hand on the young man’s forehead, confirming Ben’s statement about the lack of fever. Doctor Martin also put his fingers around Joe’s wrist and silently counted his pulse.

“He’ll be fine,” declared the doctor as he put the bandages and jar of cream in his bag and snapped it shut. “He’ll be sore for awhile, but there’s no real damage. Nothing to do but let those cuts and bruises heal. Just let him sleep, and when he does wake up, get some solid food into him. I doubt if he’ll wake up until morning, though. He’s pretty exhausted.”

“Thank you for coming,” said Ben gratefully.

“I’m just glad I wasn’t really needed,” replied Doctor Martin with a smile. He nodded at Randall and walked out of the room.

Looking thoughtful, Randall took a few steps forward and stood at the end of the bed. He watched Joe for a minute then turned to Ben. “If you want to stay here with Joe, you can, Ben. I understand.” Randall shook his head ruefully. “Believe me, I understand. But you don’t have to. You can go home and get some rest. I promise I’ll watch over Joe like he was my own.”

For a moment, Ben said nothing. Then he looked up at Randall. “Where’s Hoss and Adam?” he asked.

“Hoss is guarding Baker. He’s got him tied up in the bunkhouse until the sheriff arrives,” Randall replied. Then he smiled. “Adam is taking charge of things downstairs. He sent one of your hands out to find my men who were searching the Virginia City road, and tell them what happened. Then he sent two of your men to feed the stock. The rest he sent home.” Randall chuckled. “That boy is a born organizer.”

“He is that,” agreed Ben with a smile. He turned and looked at his youngest son, still sleeping. The uncertainty was evident on Ben’s face.

“Ben, go home and get some rest,” Randall urged. “Joe will be fine, I promise. I’ll look after him. You come back in the morning with a wagon and take him home then.”

Suddenly, the body on the bed stirred. Joe turn his head a bit and opened his eyes just enough to see his father. “Go home, Pa,” he mumbled, then turned over and went back to sleep.

*****

It was almost 9 am when Ben drove the buckboard into the yard in front of the Randall house the next morning, followed by Adam and Hoss on horseback. Ben had wanted to leave the Ponderosa at first light, but had been persuaded by his sons to wait long enough to insure Joe would be awake when they arrived. Logically, he knew Adam and Hoss were right, but Ben had chaffed at waiting to leave to pick up Joe. He paced in front of the fireplace for half an hour before Adam finally rolled his eyes in resignation and told Hoss to hitch up the buckboard.

Pulling the wagon to a stop, Ben didn’t wait for Adam and Hoss, but rather jumped out of the driver’s seat and walked quickly to the porch of the Randall house. His two quick raps on the wooden door were answered almost instantly.

“Morning, Ben,” said Randall with a pleasant smile as he opened the door. “Come on in. Joe’s just finishing breakfast.”

Ben hurried into the house, walking quickly through the living room to the doorway of the dinning room. He stopped and smiled at the scene in front of him.

Sitting back in a chair, Joe was chuckling softly at something Sally was telling him. A plate with the remnants of a breakfast of bacon and eggs sat in front of Joe, as well as a half-filled coffee cup. A platter with a few strips of bacon and a plate piled with four biscuits on it were sitting in the middle of the table. If it hadn’t been for the bandages around Joe’s hands, and the dark sling in which Sally’s arm was resting, no one would have been able to tell that the two young people who were enjoying themselves had faced a dire situation only yesterday.

“Hi, Pa,” Joe greeted his father when he saw him in the doorway.

“Well, you’re looking much better,” Ben answered with a grin.

“I’m feeling much better,” Joe confirmed. “A good night’s sleep and Wah Ming’s breakfast was all I needed.”

“That and a ride home, you mean,” said Adam as he walked into the dining room. He was followed into the room by Hoss and John Randall. Randall walked to the table and sat down on an empty chair next to his daughter.

“Sally is feeling better, too,” Randall said, smiling indulgently at the girl.

“Yes, I’m fine,” agreed Sally. She shifted her arm a bit in the sling. “This is going to be awkward for awhile, but I’ll manage.”

“Do you fellows want some coffee or something to eat?” asked Randall.

“No, we’re fine,” replied Ben. “We just want to pick up our stray here and get on home.”

“Well, maybe I’ll have one of those biscuits,” said Hoss. He reached over and grabbed a biscuit from the plate on the table and stuck it into his mouth.

“You’re unbelievable,” Joe stated, shaking his head. “Don’t you ever stop eating?”

“Got to keep up my strength, little brother,” Hoss told him as he chewed vigorously. “We got a cattle drive coming up, and I’m going to need all my energy for that.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think I’m going to be on that cattle drive,” said Joe, looking at the bandages on his hands.

“No, you won’t,” Ben confirmed. “The doctor said it would take a few weeks for your hands to heal.”

“Gee, no cattle drive and probably no chores for a couple of weeks,” said Adam in a wry voice. “That’s a real shame, Joe.”

“Yeah, you’re going to be really suffering,” added Hoss. “Doing nothing but sitting around the house while we’re doing all the work.”

“Now, stop being mean to Joe,” Sally ordered. “He’s a hero. He saved me.”

“A hero?” said Adam, the disbelief evident in his voice. “All he did was climb half-way up that canyon wall and get stuck there. If we hadn’t come along, he’d probably still be hanging there.”

“I would have made it to the top,” Joe stated defensively. “I was almost there.”

“Yeah, and what were you planning to do then, little brother?” asked Hoss. “You were too tired to stand much less walk.”

“I was going to rest up and then go get my horse,” Joe explained. “I didn’t know Baker had run Cochise off.”

“Be glad he did,” said Ben. “Otherwise, we would have never known to go looking for you.”

“That was some plan,” offered Adam dryly. “If you didn’t kill yourself trying to climb up that canyon wall, you would have finished yourself off by walking over that rough country to find help. Brilliant.”

“Well, it was better than just sitting there,” Joe replied. Then he shrugged. “I’ll admit it wasn’t the greatest idea I ever had, but I had to do something.”

“It took a lot courage to climb out of that canyon,” Randall said. “I’m not sure I would have been willing to try. You’re a brave man, Joe.”

Looking down, Joe tried to hide his embarrassment at Randall’s praise. “Well, there wasn’t much choice,” he answered in a low voice.

Turning his head, Ben spotted Joe’s green jacket hanging on a coat rack in the corner of the room. He walked over to the rack and pulled the jacket off of the wooden limb. “Come on, hero, it’s time to go home.”

Pushing back from the table, Joe stood and headed toward his father. He stopped, though, when he passed Adam, as a thought seemed to occur to him. “Did you remember to bring my hat and gunbelt out of the canyon?”

“Yeah, I got them,” Adam replied. “They’re at the house.”

“Good,” said Joe. “I wouldn’t want to lose them.”

“You came pretty close to losing more than a gunbelt and a hat,” stated Adam seriously. “They’d be easier to replace than you. Next time, just wait, all right?”

“Yeah, Joe, you should have known we’d come looking for you,” Hoss said with a smile. “We don’t like doing your chores.”

“If I have to wait on you two to find me, I’d never get home,” Joe retorted. “Besides, there was a nice view from up there. I didn’t want to miss seeing it.”

Shaking his head, Ben tried to hide a smile. If Joe was trading barbs with Adam and Hoss, things were back to normal. “Come on, boys. Let’s go.”

“I’ll walk you out, Ben,” Randall said, getting up from the table.

As the men walked toward the front of the house, Sally suddenly got up and grabbed Joe’s arm. He stopped and turned to look at her.

“Thank you, Joe,” Sally said quietly. She kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.”

Then she lowered her eyes and added coyly. “Maybe when your hands are better, you could come over and have dinner with us.”

“Sally,” Joe said in an exasperated voice, “we’re just friends, remember? Let’s just leave it at that.”

“Of course,” agreed Sally. She looked away for a minute, then turned back to Joe. “I heard Betty Williams’ brother is coming home next week. Do you know anything about that?”

“No, I don’t,” replied Joe firmly.

“Well, maybe I’ll send a message to Betty and see if she wants to come visit me,” Sally said. “I’m sure she’ll want to hear all about what happened.”

“I’m sure she will,” Joe replied, already feeling sorry for Betty’s brother. “I have to go.”

As he walked out the door and onto the porch, Joe saw his father, brothers, and John Randall waiting for him. Randall patted Joe on the shoulder, nodded at Ben, and returned to the house. As the front door closed behind him, Joe stood on the porch with a bemused look on his face while his father and brothers walked toward the buckboard.

“Joe? You ready to go?” asked Ben, stopping and turning back to the porch.

“What? Oh, yeah, sure,” Joe answered, startled out of his reverie. He hurried to join his family.

“What’s bothering you, Joe?” Adam asked with concern.

“Nothing,” replied Joe with a shrug. Then he blurted out, “I just don’t understand women.”

“Well, there’s something I never thought I’d hear you say,” hooted Hoss. “I thought you were the expert on the subject.”

“Is it women in general or Sally Randall in particular?” asked Ben, with a smile.

“Sally, I guess,” admitted Joe. He shook his head. “She told me in Virginia City that she realized she hadn’t been fair with the men she dated and she knew that was wrong. She also knows that her flirting with Baker almost got her killed. And yet, she’s already planning her next conquest.”

“I don’t know why that surprises you,” Adam said. “Sally has never been able to stay focused on anyone or anything for very long. She changes her mind as often as most women change their dresses.”

“Yeah, but you’d think she would have learned something from all this,” Joe stated. He sighed. “I just don’t understand what she’s thinking.

Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Son, men have been trying to figure out how women think since time began. And failing at the task. You’re no different than the rest of us.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Joe said. He climbed onto the seat of the buckboard, positioning his hands carefully as he did. “Let’s go home. Right now, the most complicated female I want to face is that mare in the barn.”

As he waited for Ben to climb up next to him on the seat, Joe looked back toward the Randall house. He remembered Adam’s description of Sally as a butterfly and wondered briefly if the girl would ever stay with someone permanently. Then Joe smiled ruefully. He had been the one that made the decision to pursue Sally when she returned home, despite the fact that he had known in his heart that a relationship with her would never last. He had been attracted by her bright personality and encouraging words. He should have known better. A butterfly is a pretty thing to watch, but one should never try to capture it. The best thing to do with a butterfly is to let it flit away, out of your life forever.

*****END*****

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