Summary: Joe’s in love …
Word Count: 2545
Water was her element. It always had been. He had first seen her in water, and she had seemed a part of it. So long ago — how long had it been? Little Joe’s mind slipped back. They had been not quite fourteen.
There was a reason Little Joe was alone and quiet as he walked toward the lake. He was sulking. His sulk was deep and wrapped around him muffling his usual exuberance. He approached the edge of a small bluff above a tiny inlet. He stretched out on his stomach and stared out across the water. There was a reason for his prone position though it was less physical than a childish mental reaction; he had not had any trouble riding, after all. His pa had ended his temper tantrum with a repeatedly well-placed hand. That was part of the reason for his sulk. He could not even call it a tanning to himself; his pa had spanked him for acting like a little boy. He had lost his temper, but that was Adam’s fault. Pa had not even paused to find out why Joe was angry. Self-pity drew Joe’s chin lower and lower while his eyes fell to study the water below. Then he saw her.
She was pale and shimmering beneath the surface with her hair flowing outward and swirling in the gentle waves. Not moving a muscle, she floated as much a part of the lake as the ripples that lapped the shore.
Joe simply stared studying her as he might have a statue or perhaps a beautiful flower. Then she moved dropping her legs beneath her and treading water. It was only at that moment that Joe became conscious of the fact that she was a girl and a naked girl at that.
He scrabbled backwards away from the edge scattering loose dirt and pebbles.
“Hey!” It was wail elicited by a fall of stone and dirt. It was followed by a different wail as the girl in the water realized she was no longer alone. “Who’s there?”
Little Joe opened his mouth to answer but closed it without speaking. “Pa will kill me! He’ll kill me! I’ll just get away. She won’t know it was me.” Little Joe gained his footing and turned to dart back to the glade where he had left his horse. He took off at a gallop and did not slow until he was halfway back to the house.
Riding full out with the wind rushing against his face had not blown the image of the girl in the water out of Little Joe’s mind. As his mount’s steps slowed, Joe pondered what he had seen. He had never set eyes on an actual naked girl before, and somehow he felt as if he still had not. She had seemed to meld with the lake like. . .his mind paused as it searched for the word, and then he caught it. A nymph. It was like he had watched a nymph. Adam had told him all the Greek myths more than once, so Little Joe knew all about nymphs and centaurs and demigods. When Joe had seen a drawing in one of Adam’s books after he came back from college, his brother had even admitted that nymphs and such were often thought of as wearing little clothing, if any at all. The knot in Little Joe’s stomach had slowly unwound. He had seen a water nymph, and that certainly was not the same as spying on a naked girl. By the time Joe had reached the ranch, his only worry had been how his father would deal with his riding off to the lake without permission.
Shouts came to him muffled by the distance, and Joe stopped walking. He strained to decipher the sounds as his eyes continued to search the river bank. Then the sounds died. Joe stood listening to his own panting and then plodded on. She had never known that he had been the one on the cliff that day. She never knew that he had seen her naked and elemental in shimmering ripples, but she had known that he called her a water nymph.
The second time he found her at the inlet. He knew who she was. He had met her and her family at church services. Her pale hair had hung in neat braids, and her pink calico Sunday dress was primly high-collared. Joe had not blushed when he was introduced to Lulu, the Brandford’s eldest and only daughter, because it was some minutes later as she walked away with her family to find seats for the service that Joe had realized she had been the one in the lake. He heard little of the preacher’s sermon that day — a fact he had regretted when his pa had asked him some questions about it. Joe had instead tried to reconcile little Lulu and his water nymph, but in his mind they had never quit merged. Lulu Bradford was an ordinary gal with a ma and pa, four younger brothers, and a crooked front tooth; his water nymph was special. He saw her only at the inlet. Of course, he never saw her naked again.
Little Joe paused and scanned the river bank, praying silently, only he was not sure he really want his prayer answered, not if the answer was what they all feared. Joe shook his head trying to shake away the thought. It was impossible anyway. She was a water nymph. He had known it unequivocally ever since she had proven that she could out-swim even Little Joe Cartwright that second time at the inlet.
She had been wearing her little brother’s old pants and her chemise. Johnny was only two years younger and already an inch taller, so the pants had fit if a little snuggly. Not being indecent, Lulu had laughed when he had shucked his boots and shirt and started to unbutton his pants. Fortunately, she had laughed before he had dropped those also. She had laughed and called his name as she swam closer to the shore. All he could see of her as she treaded water was her pale face and flowing hair. For him there was no trace of a girl named Lulu. He had waded in to meet a nymph, and when they emerged an hour later, he believed he had.
Joe’s eye’s spotted an irregularity along the water’s edge. He froze for a moment before dashing over. Then he saw that it was simply a tangle of dead plants and some torn sacking that had been caught among the roots of a stunted tree. He breathed again and found himself panting. After a minute, he started walking once more.
She always seemed to be laughing when at the inlet, and she had played the game along with him for reasons of her own. No, game was not the right word — well, perhaps for her but not for him — yet he had no better one to use. Away from the inlet, they had been not very close neighbor folk. Lulu had been the only comely female of proper age that Little Joe Cartwright had never shown an interest in sparking. When they were together at the inlet, she had been ethereal and shimmering as much a part of the lake as the shore birds or flashing fish. He had even called her by the name of one of the nymphs in Adam’s book, Cyrene. She had smiled that first time, declaring she had always hated her name and kissed his cheek in thanks for her new christening. That was the first of two times when she had kissed him. In actually, they had seldom touched at all. They had frolicked in the water of the inlet and on its shore and told each other things neither would have admitted to anyone who was a real part of their lives. She had told him the third time they were there about someone watching her from the bluff before she had started wearing her brother’s pants. They were young enough then that she had not even blushed at sharing the memory and only giggled when the color rose in his own cheeks. He had thought that she would read his guilt in his face, but she had turned away too quickly and returned to the water. He had followed, and the lake had washed the shame from his cheeks. He had not blushed with her again until the day she changed her swimming costume, and he realized why her wet chemise had become too revealing. That summer she had started wearing an old shirt with the sleeves and tail cut off above her brother’s pants. Joe could hear her telling him that he must be near blind to look at her in wet pants and a raggedy plaid shirt and still see a nymph. She had teased him that his presence kept her from swimming as a nymph should. He grinned and told her not to let him stop her.
“My pa would be after you with a horsewhip.”
“Nymphs don’t have pas with horsewhips, Cyrene!”
“Don’t suppose they do!”
Her giggle had floated to him as she glided away. It was not the thought of Mr. Brandford with a horsewhip that caused a shudder to run through his body. They were fifteen that summer, and Joe knew full well what would be landing on his backside if his pa ever found out he was swimming at the lake with Lulu Brandford or any other like-aged gal. His pa never gained that knowledge, although Little Joe had felt his father’s wrath several times when he had arrived at home far too late or should not have been at the lake at all. Joe was sure his father knew nothing of his trysts — that was one of Adam’s words, and Joe was not even sure if it was the right one to use for his lakeside times — and that none of the Brandfords had an inkling that when Lulu went swimming, he was sometimes there. Little Joe was not so certain about his brothers, though. A few times, a look in Adam’s eyes or a glance between him and Hoss had made Joe wonder if they had at least a suspicion, but then, he could not believe they would know and not speak of it to him, especially Adam. Joe was sure Adam would have done more than just talk if he had known.
Little Joe startled when he heard his name called, stopped, and listened to the sounds of someone approaching through the trees. He did not turn. That one syllable had told him far too much.
The last time at the lake, she had told him that she was in love — not only in love but engaged. He had not truly been surprised; he had heard talk, after all ,that Brandford’s daughter was being sparked by some fellow from over Carson City way, and girls in the territory often married young. She had told him that her pa was not happy about it with her being only sixteen and had made her promise to wait until after her birthday before saying ‘I do”, but her ma had only been seventeen when her pa had taken her to wife, so there was little more he could say. The banns would be read the next April, and at the end of May she would wed. She had kissed him good-bye that day, a soft brush of her lips against his cheek. Then she said softly, “Married ladies can’t run-off and play at being nymphs, Joe,” and was gone. Something had ended, and for the next few days Ben Cartwright wondered what made his youngest so melancholy, but Little Joe had seen Lulu Brandford at church that Sunday, noticed that she glowed as beautifully as Cyrene, and was happy for her. Just two months ago, he had kissed the bride and danced at Lulu’s wedding.
“Joe.” He knew Adam stood behind him, but still Joe did not turn. “Joe, they found her.”
“She’s?” He knew what the answer would be, but still he had to ask the question.
“It would have been too late even if we had found her yesterday.” Adam reached out and placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. When they had joined the searchers, Adam had sent Joe in the least likely direction not wanting his baby brother to find the girl’s body. “We can go home now,” he urged softly.
Little Joe turned and strode passed his brother without speaking. Walking back the way his brother had come, he had no need ask where to go. He followed the sounds of men and horses. Joe quickened his speed and was nearly running when an arm caught him around the waist and pulled him to a stop.
“Joe,” Hoss’ voice filled his ear.
“Let me go! Hoss, let me go!”
“No!” Adam had arrived.
“Now, Joe, there ain’t no need for ya to go up there!” Hoss made his voice a soothing croon.
“I’m going! Let me go!” Joe’s hands pushed at the arm around his waist, and he struggled against his brother’s hold.
“No!” Adam repeated more forcefully. “Hold him, Hoss!”
Hoss simply stood firm, and Joe struggled in vain. A string of curses erupted from the seventeen-year-old, and then he suddenly slumped against the strength of his middle brother’s chest. “You just don’t understand.”
Adam came to stand before the boy effectively blocking his view of what was happening at the water’s edge. He spoke softly, “She wouldn’t want you to see her that way, Joe. There’s men holding Jeb back too, and one of them is her brother.”
Adam exchanged a glance with Hoss. Jacob Branford had knocked two men out cold to get to his child.
“He’ll be with her all the way home.”
Hoss turned with his brother in his arms and started him walking away from the river. Neither of his brothers asked Joe about the depth of his obvious grief; Joe would tell one of his family in his own time why Lulu Branford was not just another soul who had died far too young. Instead they walked beside him in silence. When they reached the horses, Joe turned to look back, but they were now far from the site where the searcher’s labored, and there was nothing to see.
Joe mounted Cochise and began the ride home.
He sat on the bluff and looked out over the lake.
How many times had they met at the inlet? He was surprised that he could count them. Not quite three dozen over the course of four summers.
He stared down at the shimmering water. He could not believe that she had drowned, died yes but not drowned. Water was her element. It always had been. She was a water nymph, so how could she drown? Joe shook his head, tossed down a stone, and watched the ripples spread. Yes, she had been a water nymph, but she had been a nymph of the lake, and perhaps the river had been jealous.