Love Story (by Rona)

Summary:  Identical twin girls arrive in Virginia City. Joe falls in love with one of them, but her past is fast catching up.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  9,683


 

As the noon stage arrived in Virginia City – late as usual – the young man leaning against the stage office wall straightened up. His green eyes fastened on the stage, and he was rewarded a moment later by the appearance of an older man with grey hair. Tall and well built, the man stepped down from the stage, and turned around to offer his hand to the person just behind him.

By this time, the young man had pushed through the small crowd. “Pa!” he hailed, a dazzling smile on his handsome face.

Half turning, the older man smiled in return. “Joe!” he exclaimed, and there was no mistaking his delight. “How are you, son?”

There was no immediate answer, but the older man, Ben Cartwright, wasn’t surprised. The young woman he was assisting from the stage was enough to take anyone’s breath away, and Ben’s youngest son was no novice with the ladies. Ben curbed the smile that wanted to break free. Joe was in for a shock.

Already, Joe was by his father’s side, smiling that dazzling smile at the young woman, who was responding in kind. “Miss Foster, my I present my son, Joseph. Joseph, this is Miss Katherine Foster.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am,” Joe said, tipping his hat. “Are you staying in Virginia City?”

Ben cleared his throat, and Joe glanced at him. Ben was helping another young lady from the stage, and for a moment, Joe thought his eyes were deceiving him. For the second young lady looked exactly like the first! As Ben smirked, Joe realised his mouth was hanging open. He snapped it shut and bit his tongue.

“Joe,” Ben said, casually, “this is Miss Kelly Foster.”

Regaining his self-possession, Joe found his smile again, and flashed it at the other sister. “Miss Foster,” he said. He glanced back at the first sister, to find her smiling at him still. In fact, both sisters were smiling, and then breaking into laughter.

“Mr Cartwright,” Katherine said, “you were right about the reactions to us.”

“Twins,” Joe said. He could see now that Kelly Foster was wearing a burgundy travelling suit, while Katherine was wearing a dark blue one.

“Identical twins,” Kelly corrected, her blue eyes laughing.

Shaking his head, Joe couldn’t help but smile. He had never met identical twins before, and he couldn’t help comparing them. Both were fairly tall, and had long fairish, curly hair, and blue eyes. They were slender and shapely, and very pretty. They had the fairest skin Joe had ever seen. Kelly’s skin almost seemed transparent.

“I’m very pleased to meet you both,” Joe said, sincerely, and they both smiled at him. “Are you staying in Virginia City?” he asked again.

“We’re staying with our aunt for a while, “ Kelly replied.

Reminded, Katherine began to scan the crowd, and spotted their aunt. She waved, and their aunt pushed through the crowd. Joe recognised her instantly as Mrs Hardy, who owned a rooming house. He stepped aside as the girls greeted their aunt, and he and Ben got the luggage down.

But the girls hadn’t forgotten them, and thanked Ben for his assistance on the journey. Ben made the usual ‘no trouble’ noises. He and Joe lifted the girls’ valises, and carried them to the Hardy’s buggy. As he helped Katherine into the buggy, Joe said, “There’s a dance on Saturday night in the hotel. Would you like to come with me?”

With a smile, Katherine said, “That would be very nice, Mr Cartwright, but I couldn’t go without my sister.”

“Call me Joe,” said Joe, smiling back. “I would be honoured to take your sister, too.”

“Then thank you, we would love to go.”

*****

“How was your trip, Pa?” Joe asked, as he stashed his father’s valise on the back of the buckboard, which was loaded with supplies. Ben had been away visiting a friend in the East, after a bad bout of flu, earlier in the season.

“Fine, Joe, just fine,” Ben assured him, settling onto the seat. “How are things at the ranch?”

“Oh, ticking over just fine,” replied his son, with a mischievous grin. “In fact, we barely noticed you were gone.”

“Oh, thank you for that!” retorted Ben. “You haven’t fallen out with Adam?”

“Not on a permanent basis,” Joe hedged. “He’s still alive, if that’s what’s worrying you.” He shot a laughing glance at his father, and dodged the swipe Ben took at his head. “No, we rubbed along okay, I guess.”

He then set about regaling his father with funny stories of what had happened on the ranch during his absence. The journey home seemed to pass very quickly, and Adam and Hoss were waiting in the yard when they got in. There was much backslapping and laughter as Ben greeted his two older sons, and they all talked at once as they unloaded the buckboard and took everything inside.

Over supper that evening, Joe finally had a chance to tell his brothers about the Foster sisters. He didn’t spare himself in the telling, even down to biting his tongue. Adam and Hoss couldn’t help but laugh. Ben tossed in his impressions of Joe’s reactions to the twins, which made them all laugh.

“So when are you going to ask them little gals out?” Hoss asked Joe.

“When?” echoed Joe. “I already did it, Hoss. You can’t let the grass grow under your feet. I’m taking them to the dance on Saturday.”

“Both of them?” Adam queried.

Trying hard to look complacent, Joe couldn’t hide the smirk that tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Sure, both of them. After all, it wasn’t fair to leave one of those girls out, when they don’t know anybody in town.”

“It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it, eh?” Adam said, sarcastically.

“That’s it,” Joe agreed, nodding sagely.

Leaning back in his chair at the head of the table, Ben thought how much he’d missed these meals and his sons’ banter. He’d needed the rest and had enjoyed his stay with his friend, but it was good to be home.

*****

Saturday night rolled round, and Joe left early for the dance to collect the Fosters. Despite his best efforts, he’d been unable to wangle any time off, and so hadn’t seen the sisters since his father’s return. He was dressed in his best white shirt and black string tie, with carefully pressed pants. He’d spent so long preening in front of his mirror, that Adam and Hoss had both commented on how glad they were that they hadn’t to share it!

Oblivious to his brothers’ teasing, Joe simply gave them a sunlit smile, and headed off to town. He wasn’t renown for good time keeping, but Joe was determined to make a good impression on his first date. The Misses Foster were waiting for him, wearing beautiful dresses of a dark red material. Joe had made one brief stop, and bought them both boxes of candy. After exchanging pleasantries with their aunt and uncle, and receiving due warnings about bringing them home at a reasonable hour, Joe escorted the girls to the buggy.

Their entrance to the dance was everything Joe had hoped it would be. Virginia City was accustomed to Joe making an entrance with one pretty girl or another, but to see him arrive with two pretty girls, who happened to look exactly alike – well, it was the sensation of the month!

Satisfied with their entrance, Joe began to introduce the girls around. He finally led them across to his family. Adam was looking at the girls with a smile, which Joe knew from past experience the ladies found irresistible. His own smile faded slightly as he saw Katherine and Kelly respond to it, but it came back to full wattage as Katherine kept her arm tucked into Joe’s.

The girls had no shortage of dance partners that night, but they tended to stick with the Cartwrights. Kelly seemed taken with Adam, and Katherine stayed by Joe’s side. The evening flew by, and Joe reluctantly realised that he was overdue taking them back.

Separating Kelly from Adam, Joe took the girls to the buggy, and then back to their aunt’s. He walked them to the door, and Kelly said good night and went straight in. Katherine lingered, her hand still in Joe’s. “Thank you for a wonderful evening,” she said.

“I’d like to see you again,” Joe said, squeezing her fingers. “Would you like to see the Ponderosa?”

“I’d love to, Joe,” she replied, with flattering enthusiasm.

“I’ll call to collect you both tomorrow afternoon, if that suits,” Joe said. “We usually come into town to church, unless there’s a crisis.”

Smiling, Katherine nodded. “I’ll see you in church, then, unless there’s a crisis.” She looked at him for a moment, and Joe wondered if he ought to kiss her, but the moment passed, and she went inside.

*****

The church service passed in a daze for Joe. Ben, wondering at how still his son was sitting, followed Joe’s gaze, and found it pinned on the back of the Misses Foster. He realised that Joe clearly wasn’t listening to a word the minister said, but on reflection, he left Joe alone. It was a pleasant change to have Joe sit still through a sermon. Closing his eyes, Ben put up a brief prayer that this relationship would work out the way Joe wanted.

After church, Joe crossed to Katherine’s side. Even after only a few hours in their company, he was noticing the small differences between the girls. Kelly was paler than her sister, and her eyes laughed less. Katherine had a few freckles scattered over her nose. To Joe, they were now quite different, although he wasn’t sure exactly how he knew them apart when they had their backs turned.

“Kelly won’t be coming with us after lunch,” Katherine said, as Joe greeted them all. “She isn’t feeling all that well.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” Joe said, turning to her. “I hope you feel better soon.”

To his surprise, Kelly gave him the ghost of a wink, and said, with a totally straight face, “I’m sure I shall, thank you.” She gave a small smile. “But please don’t let it stop you taking Katherine out for the afternoon.”

“I won’t, ma’am,” assured Joe. “I do hope you feel better soon.” Joe sketched a bow to Mr and Mrs Hardy, and tucked Katherine’s hand into the crook of his arm.

*****

It was a glorious afternoon, and Katherine saw the Ponderosa at its best. She had delighted Joe by asking him if she could have a horse to ride, and they galloped in harmony across the broad acres. They stopped by the lake, where Joe unpacked the small picnic Hop Sing had put together for them. “This is a beautiful place, Joe,” Katherine said, lifting her face to the sun.

“It sure is,” Joe agreed. He smiled at the girl. “I was born here,” he continued, and gave her a brief history of the Cartwrights. Katherine listened attentively, and asked a few questions. When Joe had finished, he leaned back on one elbow. “Your turn,” he invited.

Smiling, Katherine began “I’m 19 years old, and I’m older than Kelly by about 10 minutes. Our mother died 7 years ago, and we’ve moved about quite a bit since then. Our father has a lot of business interests in Chicago, and he doesn’t really have the time to spend with us. We’ve always gone to boarding school, but we finished school last year, and we’ve been travelling ever since. I love the outdoors life, and I love to ride like we have this afternoon. Kelly prefers to be genteel and ladylike. She’d sooner ride in a buggy than on a horse. I do have some ladylike pursuits, though,” she added. “I like to sew, too.”

“What a relief,” Joe joked. “I was worried about that!”

Katherine laughed. “I can cook, too, but I’m not very good!” She drew a deep breath as she looked around again. “We’re going to be in Virginia City for several months. My uncle said my father sent some money, asking him to buy a horse for me.”

“I could help you there,” Joe said, sitting up. “I run the horse side of the Ponderosa, and I’m about to break this black mare. She’s real gentle, and would suit you fine.”

“Really?” Katherine said, looking at Joe with shining eyes. “That would be marvellous.”

“I begin breaking in the morning,” Joe said, speaking faster in his excitement. “Perhaps your uncle could bring you out, and you can see the mare?”

As they grinned at each other, Katherine nodded. “I’ll ask. Oh, Joe! I’m so glad we met.”

“Me, too,” Joe agreed, and leaned forward to give her the kiss he hadn’t the night before.

*****

Breaking horses is a matter of perseverance and courage. Joe was ideally suited, as he was stubborn, brave, and not too tall. Although Adam often broke horses, too, it had become Joe’s field of expertise, as he’d grown older. This day, as on many others, he was engaged in breaking horses for use round the ranch. Most of the horses were destined to end up as working teams for ploughing, or timber operations or pulling the buckboard. But the little black mare Joe had told Katherine about was different. She was delicate, with small neat hooves, and Joe knew she would never have the bulk to work in harness. She was definitely saddle stock, but not tall enough for most cowboys.

By the time Katherine appeared, Joe had broken two horses, and was about to start on the mare. He was having a much-needed drink when the buggy appeared, and he went to greet his guests. He got a pleasant surprise, for Katherine had brought Kelly, not her uncle. He greeted them both with a smile, and wiped his sweaty hand on his pants leg before gallantly kissing both sisters’ hands.

After a short conversation, Joe returned to the corral, where the hands had got the mare saddled. Joe jammed his hat further onto his unruly, sweat-dampened curls, and climbed into the chute. “Let her go,” he ordered, quietly.

The mare set off across the corral, bucking for all she was worth. However, Joe’s weight soon had her calming down, and within a short time, he was guiding her around the corral with the neck rein. Mindful that she was now intended for a lady’s ride, he called to one of the hands for a bridle. While the mare was still tired from her fight with the rider, they bridled her, and Joe set about teaching her more manners than he might usually have done on a first lesson.

It wasn’t a long lesson, because Joe knew the horse was tired. He dismounted, and patted the horse’s neck, and led her over to the bars of the corral. “Katherine,” he called. “Want to meet her?”

With no hesitation at all, Katherine was soon petting the horse through the bars. There seemed to be some chemistry between girl and mare, but Joe was watchful that the mare didn’t try to bite. After a few minutes, he called to Jeb, one of the hands, to take the mare. As Jeb walked away, one of the other hands dropped a bucket with a loud clang. The black mare let out a startled snort, and kicked out with one leg.

Letting out a cry, Katherine tried to warn Joe, but wasn’t quick enough. The mare’s hoof caught Joe on his right arm as he half turned to watch her walk away. There was an audible crack as the mare’s hoof connected, and Joe let out a cry of pain.

The hands crowded round their injured boss, as Joe, white faced, breathed through clenched teeth. Both Jeb and the hand who’d dropped the bucket apologised profusely, but it was simply an accident. Joe assured everyone he was fine, but his assurances were mostly aimed at Katherine and Kelly, who were very nearly as pale as Joe.

Knowing that he would have to go home, and no doubt see the doctor, Joe reluctantly agreed to Walt bringing Cochise over for him to mount. Katherine was looking at him with a concerned frown. “Joe, will you be all right? Oh dear, I feel so responsible, because she will be my mare, after all.”

Swallowing against the pain, Joe said, “Don’t worry, Kathy. It was purely an accident. Your little mare isn’t vicious or anything. She was just startled. And I’ll be fine getting home.”

Swinging himself into the saddle, Joe missed the look the twins shared, but a smile was on both their lips when he looked at them again. “What?” he asked, fighting the nausea that mounting had caused.

“The only person who’s ever called me Kathy is…” Katherine started.

“Me,” finished Kelly.

“Well, what do you know?” Joe said, blankly. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” Katherine whispered.

*****

The twins insisted on escorting Joe home, following him in the buggy. Joe was glad of the company, which helped keep his mind off his throbbing arm. It was obvious to both girls that the journey was a nightmare experience for Joe, who kept Cochise at a walk the whole way.

The only person at home was Hop Sing, who started clucking in Chinese, as he guided ‘number three son’ to the settee in front of the fireplace. He organised Katherine and Kelly into seats, and provided them all with coffee, even as he sent a hand to get Ben, and another to get the doctor. This miraculous sleight-of-hand was commonplace to the Cartwrights, but was a wonder to the twins. Even more miraculous to them were the few words of Chinese Joe spoke to the irate housekeeper, who was furious with Joe for not being more careful.

The arrival of Ben and the doctor, at virtually the same moment, seemed to provide the cue for the twins to leave, but Ben was graciousness itself, and insisted they stay for lunch. Hop Sing was delighted to have two new faces to show off for, and so they allowed themselves to be persuaded, as Joe was helped upstairs.

Joe didn’t reappear until later in the afternoon. By then, Hoss and Adam had both come home, and were entertaining the twins. Joe was still as white as a sheet. His arm was in a cast, and a sling, but he made an effort to appear normal. Katherine sat beside him on the settee, and the rest of the Cartwright family exchanged speaking glances. “Honestly, I’m fine,” protested Joe, as the twins asked how he felt.

“Pooh,” snorted Kelly, throwing her hands into the air. “Fine! We can all see how fine you are! You remind me of someone I know!”

The blush staining Katherine’s face and neck was a dead giveaway. Joe looked at her with even more interest, while she made unconvincing denials. Adam rolled his eyes, as he caught his father’s gaze. Ben was trying hard not to laugh, and Hoss just sat beaming at both girls.

Seeing that Joe was tired, and still in some pain, the twins soon insisted it was time to take their leave. While Joe had been with the doctor, Katherine had paid Ben for the mare, and it was agreed that the hands would finish schooling her for Katherine. She had chosen the name Ebony.

Escorting the twins to their buggy used up the last of Joe’s energy, and he watched from the porch rocker as Adam rode off with the girls. After a few moments, Joe became aware that his father was standing beside him, talking. “I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe admitted. “I didn’t hear what you said.”

“I said,” Ben repeated, mock sternly, “that its time you were in bed! Paul said you shouldn’t get up again, after having your wrist set.”

“I couldn’t stay upstairs when Katherine was here,” Joe protested, as Ben helped him up. “That would have been rude.”

“I’m sure she would have understood, Joe,” Ben reproved, gently. “You really like her, don’t you?”

“She’s great, Pa,” Joe replied, trying hard not to lean on his father’s arm, but failing. “She’s just great.”

*****

Joe soon became accustomed to the cast on his wrist, and he began riding every day. Quite often, Katherine would join him, and she rode Ebony for the first few times out at the ranch. It wasn’t long before the mare was ready for longer rides, and Katherine and Joe would mount up and go off together.

Watching Joe and Katherine, Ben could see his son was in love. Joe had seldom been this calm for so long a spell. Sure, he had the odd tantrum, but then this beatific calm would re-assert itself, and he would be serene again. It was a source of joy to Ben, seeing this mercurial being, who was his youngest son, so happy. Joe wasn’t even fighting with Adam any more, and, Ben smiled at the thought, it seemed Adam was missing this habitual conflict.

The only snag was that Joe and Katherine were unchaparoned on their daily rides. Ben knew that Joe could be trusted, but his trust didn’t stop evil gossip, and Ben had visited the Hardys to assure them of Joe’s intentions. Mr Hardy was a taciturn fellow, but seemed pleasant enough. Mrs Hardy was all warmth and chatter, and made up for her husband’s silence. Neither had any objection to their niece riding out with Joe, even if they were alone.

“You see, Mr Cartwright,” Mrs Hardy explained, earnestly, “Katherine and Kelly have had a hard life in a lot of ways. Their dear mother died a while back, and their father don’t seem to have much time for them. They’re moved around from pillar to post all the time. Katherine knows how to take care of herself, and I trust Joe. He’s a nice, polite young fella. I know they won’t get up to anything they shouldn’t.”

*****

By the time Paul Martin took the cast off Joe’s wrist, he and Katherine were an established couple in Virginia City. They went to all the dances together, and Katherine proved her boast about being able to sew by making all her and Kelly’s dresses. Kelly, although not shy by any means, wasn’t as outgoing as her twin. She preferred sewing and reading to riding. Joe had an intense fondness for Kelly, which was just as well, as Katherine had already confided to Joe that they had never been parted. Joe was thinking about marriage, and he knew that Katherine wouldn’t stay if Kelly were unhappy.

However, with the cast off, Joe was back to full time work, and he saw less of Katherine as a result. They both missed their daily rides, but Katherine understood that Joe was a worker by nature. It made their time together even more special.

*****

One Sunday afternoon, Joe and Katherine double dated with Adam and Kelly, and took the twins for a picnic by Lake Tahoe. Kelly and Adam had been seeing one another on and off, but everyone knew it was just friendship they shared, not a grand passion. Adam began to tell Kelly about a new book of poetry he’d received, and Joe pulled Katherine to her feet. “Come on, Kathy,” he said. “Plato is just getting started. Be back shortly, you two.”

Laughing at Joe’s reference to his brother as ‘Plato’, Katherine followed Joe along the waterside for a bit. They stopped beneath the shade of a tree, and Joe kissed her. “Katherine,” he said, hoarsely, “will you marry me?”

Joy leapt into the girl’s eyes, and she began to smile. And then, like a cloud passing over the sun, the joy went from her eyes, and tears formed. Joe had begun to smile in anticipation, but his smile died. “Oh, Joe,” she whispered. “I can’t.”

Blinking furiously, Joe tried to hide his hurt. He’d been sure Katherine felt the same way that he did. “I’m sorry,” he said, stiffly. He started to turn away, unsure what to do or say, but Katherine caught his arm.

“Listen!” she cried, and the tears began to fall. Joe’s heart twisted painfully. “Its not that I don’t love you, Joe. I do! I would be honoured to be your bride, but…”

“But what?” demanded Joe. “Please, Kathy, be honest with me.”

“Our father has forbidden either of us to get married until we are 21.” Katherine looked out from wet lashes, and more tears spilled down her face. “I’m not 21 for nearly two years!” It came out as a wail of anguish.

To her surprise, Joe gave a teary laugh. “Oh my darling, is that all? Well, we’ll just wait then. I would wait for you forever, don’t you know that?”

Sniffling, Katherine nodded her head, then shook it, and finally laughed. They hugged each other, and wiped away the other’s tears, and hugged again, laughing in the delight of being young and in love. They sat together, and began to plan for the future. “We’ll choose a spot and build a house,” Joe proposed. “We’ll make sure its got enough room for Kelly, too.”

The look Katherine gave Joe was one of pure thankfulness. “Oh, Joe, do you really mean it?”

Serious for a moment, Joe nodded. “I know you and Kelly don’t want to be parted. She and I get on fine, so its no problem, honest.”

“I do so love you, Joe Cartwright!” Katherine flung her arms around his neck, and Joe thought of the two years stretching ahead of them, and knew that he could wait for this girl until the end of time.

*****

As they approached the lake again, Kelly was sitting watching them intently. Joe smiled at Adam. “Finished reading that book already?” he enquired, innocently.

“Joe,” commented his older brother dryly, “I didn’t read her the book. I simply lent it to her. If that’s what you do on your dates, I’m surprised any girl goes out with you.”

The twins were ignoring this by-play. Kelly had risen, and was looking at Katherine. “Its happened,” she said, and the joy in her voice caused everyone to smile. Joe and Adam exchanged a look, not knowing what she meant.

“Yes,” Katherine said, and hugged her twin. She shot a glance at Joe, who nodded. “Joe asked me to marry him and I said yes!”

The girls clutched each other again, and tears fell. Kelly reached out to hug her future brother-in-law. Adam climbed slowly to his feet, and took Katherine’s hand in his. “Welcome to the family,” he said. He thumped Joe on the shoulder. “Congratulations, little brother,” he said, and smiled.

Once they had their emotions under control again, Adam said, “Kelly, what did you mean, ‘its happened’?”

The twins exchanged a smile. “I knew something good had happened to Katherine. I felt it,” she explained. “We often feel it if the other is frightened or hurt, or especially happy.”

“I’ve heard of that,” commented Adam, “but I never believed it was true.”

“Oh boy, that’s a scary thought,” Joe interjected, jokingly. “I’d better not get you riled up, darling!”

They all laughed at the thought.

*****

Joe escorted the girls home, and asked formal permission of the girls’ uncle to become engaged to Katherine. Since he was acting in loco parentis, he agreed, but there was an uneasy look on his face, which Joe couldn’t understand. However, nothing could quash his mood. The journey back to the ranch passed in a haze of bliss.

At the supper table, Joe made his announcement. Adam hadn’t said anything, knowing that the news wasn’t his to impart. Ben was silent for a moment, but his smile of pride and joy spoke for him. “Joe, I can’t tell you how delighted I am,” he said, as Hoss thumped Joe affectionately on the back, nearly knocking down his more slightly built brother. “So when is the big day?”

“Ah,” said Joe. “Well, you see, Katherine and Kelly have been forbidden to marry until they are 21. Katherine thinks her father is abroad right now, so isn’t able to cable him to ask for permission to marry any sooner. So I’m afraid we have to wait.”

“That’s a pity,” Ben commented, “but if that’s what her father has decided, well, she must do as he says.” He smiled again. “We must have a toast. Adam, get the glasses.” Once they all had a glass, Hop Sing, too, Ben raised his high. “To Joseph and Katherine. May life bring them much joy together.”

“Joe and Katherine,” the others echoed.

Drinking from his glass, Joe couldn’t imagine being much happier than he was at that moment.

*****

When next Joe saw Katherine, he has a surprise for her. Engagement rings weren’t common, as most people couldn’t afford them. But Joe had picked out a simple band of gold with garnets set in it. He knew red was Katherine’s favourite colour, which had influenced his choice.

Handing her the box, he watched her face as she opened it. She was silent, her mouth open in wonder. Finally, she lifted her gaze from the ring, and Joe saw tears in her eyes. “Oh, Joe, it’s the most beautiful ring I ever saw!”

“Try it on,” urged Joe, his voice husky. It was a perfect fit. For a moment, Katherine held her hand up, to let the sunlight play on the richly coloured stones, then she threw her arms round Joe’s neck, giving him a most inappropriate hug, scandalising a passing matron. Joe was enchanted with her delight, and found himself planning on buying her as much jewellery as he could afford.

Kelly soon joined them on the porch, and admired the ring. She had already made it clear to Joe how delighted she was with her sister’s match. Joe had been grateful. Normally, he was the possessive type – things belonged to him alone – but he didn’t feel that way with Kelly and Katherine. He felt a genuine affection for his betrothed’s twin, and knew that she felt the same for him.

“Pa would like you both to come out for supper on Sunday,” Joe said. “And your aunt and uncle, too.”

Kelly went to consult, and came back to say they would be pleased to come for supper. After that, Joe had to get back to work, and he and Katherine stole a kiss before he left.

*****

 

It was a pleasant supper. Mr Hardy spoke enough not to be rude, and Mrs Hardy said everything else. Joe and Katherine sat together, and were more interested in each other than in the food. Kelly sat beside Adam, and they talked about books and plays.

Over coffee, Ben dropped what would turn out to be a bombshell. “I took the liberty of wiring to Chicago, and enquiring about your father,” he said, casually, pouring coffee into a cup. “I thought that perhaps I could talk him into allowing you two lovebirds to get married a little sooner.”

“That’s great, Pa,” Joe exclaimed. He glanced at his bride-to-be, and it seemed as if she had turned to stone. Her face was pale, and her hand shook. Alarmed, Joe looked at Kelly and the Hardys, and found them to be in similar conditions. “What’s wrong?”

In the end, it was Mr Hardy who spoke. “Katherine and Kelly’s father isn’t abroad, Mr Cartwright. That was a fiction, I’m afraid. But, well, we didn’t want you to know the truth. Alan Foster is in jail.”

“Jail?” echoed Joe, clutching Katherine’s hand. “Why?”

“He was jailed for murdering the head of another criminal gang in Chicago. The girls were in school, and therefore safe. But after they left school, their lives were in danger.” Hardy eased his tight collar. “You see, the son of the murdered man, Thorpe, swore to take revenge on Alan, and is after the girls. We told no one where they were. Alan had provided us with money for their keep a few years ago, just in case they needed to come here to us. We were told never to wire him, but to wire to an associate in New York, if we wanted anything.” He looked at Ben straight for the first time since starting his story. “You may have inadvertently told Thorpe where the girls are.”

The stunned silence was broken by hysterical crying from Katherine, who rose and fled the house. Kelly got to her feet, her eyes damp, too, but Joe stopped her. “I’ll get her,” he said, and an unspoken message passed between he and Kelly.

Outside, Joe walked over to where Katherine stood, leaning on the corral fence. “Kathy,” he said, and there was so much love in his voice that she winced. Joe put his hand on her shoulder and turned her towards him. “Kathy,” he repeated, making her look at him. “This changes nothing between us. I still love you as much as ever.”

Leaning into him, Katherine’s sobs increased. “I’m so sorry I lied to you, Joe,” she sobbed. “I didn’t want to, but we were always told not to mention Pa. Our mother was embarrassed by his activities, and when he was jailed, she went to pieces. She died shortly after.”

“Kathy, none of this is your fault,” soothed Joe. “Your father is paying for his crime, but that doesn’t change the way I feel about you. I still want to marry you.”

Dashing away the tears, Katherine said, “But Joe, what if Thorpe comes looking for us?”

“You’ll be safe with me,” Joe promised. “I’ll take care of you. It’ll be all right. Just be honest with me.”

They stood together by the corral, and each wondered if Joe could keep his promise.

*****

Weeks passed, and as nothing happened, the nervous families began to relax. Ben had offered to have the girls come and stay at the Ponderosa, but the Hardys had refused. They felt that they could better keep an eye on the girls in town.

Ben received an answer to his wire about a week later. It gave details of Alan Foster’s criminal activities. He had made a fortune out of crime, but the money appeared to have vanished. It told Ben which prison he was in, but Ben decided against writing direct to the prison. He didn’t want to put the girls at any more risk than he had already done. He was sorry that Katherine and Kelly’s parent wasn’t more respectable, but it never once crossed his mind to try and dissuade Joe from marrying into the family. He thought of his beloved Inger’s brother, who had a rather shady life. It didn’t stop him from loving Inger.

The Joe that his family knew best – temperamental and high strung – returned for a while, but as everyone’s nerves settled, he re-discovered his new found serenity. He continued to work hard, and spend as much free time as he could with Katherine. It was difficult. The autumn round up had begun, and the whole family was out every day rounding up the herd, and preparing them for the move to winter pastures. There was some timber cutting to be done, and Joe had successfully bid on an army contract to supply remounts.

Katherine spent as much time at the ranch as she could, but she wasn’t able or willing to coma and go alone. Ebony was moved to the ranch, so that Joe and Katherine could ride out whenever she was there. Sunday was about the only day they could see each other.

*****

Snow fell, and still there had been no sign of Thorpe. Ben was making plans for a large Christmas gathering at the ranch. He had persuaded the Hardys to stay with them for a few days, and everyone was looking forward to it. Hop Sing was complaining loudly about extra work, but none of the Cartwrights took him seriously.

Taking Joe aside, Ben told him that when he and Katherine had found a place for their home, he could have the land. Adam volunteered to help him design the house, if Joe wanted, and Hoss offered help in the building process. To Joe, it was the best present he could get.

The following Sunday, he and Katherine rode out, despite the covering of snow, to see if they could find the perfect spot. The sun was shining, although the air was quite cold, but neither noticed their surroundings, so caught up were they in talk of their future.

After a couple of hours, they pulled up, and sat looking at the Lake. “You know,” Katherine said, thoughtfully, “I really think I’d like to build quite close to the main house. That way, there would be company around when we wanted it, but we’d also be alone together. What do you think?”

“I think I’d like that,” Joe agreed. As far as he was concerned, Katherine could have had a house built on Eagle’s Rock, and he’d still have approved. “If that’s what you really want,” he added.

Giving Joe a radiant smile, Katherine said, “I do.” She watched as Joe slid from Cochise’s back, and ducked under his nose to come to her side. He stood looking up at her, stroking Ebony’s neck. Katherine gave a coy smile.

At that moment, Cochise nickered. Joe, half turning, felt something hard poking into the small of his back, and froze. “Don’t move,” warned a deep voice.

Looking at Katherine’s pale face, Joe realised that some sort of trouble had found them. They had all but forgotten their peril, and Joe had let down his guard. It was, he supposed remotely, quite natural. The Ponderosa was his home; why wouldn’t he feel safe there? He snagged Katherine’s gaze, and carefully mouthed ‘run when you get the chance.’ She nodded slightly.

“Turn around, and don’t try anything,” ordered the voice.

Keeping his hands where they could be seen, Joe slowly turned round. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but Thorpe wasn’t it. He was tall and well built, with sandy, thinning hair. He was dressed in a business suit, and had a .38 in his hand. “What do you want?” Joe asked.

“Her,” was the short reply. “One of the Foster twins. I’ll get the other one, too, but this one was easiest.”

The smallest spark was all that was required to light Joe’s temper. Thorpe’s casual attitude provided that spark. All rational thought left Joe’s head, and his only intent was to save Katherine’s life. In a swift, deadly movement, Joe reached for his gun.

It was part way out of the holster when Thorpe fired. Despite the close range, Thorpe’s aim was poor, and the bullet only grazed Joe’s arm. He never even felt it. He drew his own gun and fired back, but Thorpe was already moving, and Joe missed cleanly. He dropped his gun.

It didn’t deter him however. He dived at Thorpe, intent on beating the man’s brains out. “Run, Kathy!” he screamed. “Get help!” He swung a punch at Thorpe, and heard hoofs as Katherine did as she was told, and rode for help.

Trading blows with Thorpe, Joe realised that this man was stronger than he was, and his only hope was to use his greater agility. Joe dived to where his gun lay in the snow beside Thorpe’s. It was a futile gesture, allowing Thorpe to jump on top of Joe.

With a super human effort, Joe threw his assailant off, but he was feeling the effects of the beating he was taking, and, although he hadn’t felt his bullet wound, it was bleeding steadily, sapping his strength. Joe tried desperately to block the blows that were coming to his face, his stomach and his face again.

Falling, Joe saw that Cochise hadn’t strayed all that far away. There was no sign of another horse, and Joe suddenly feared that Thorpe might try and get on Cochise, and chase Katherine down. Changing tack, he lunged for the pinto, yelling like a banshee. Startled by his master’s odd behaviour, Cochise turned tail and fled.

One danger removed, Joe lunged with renewed energy at the other man. Thorpe was marked by the fight too, but his greater weight was telling in his favour. His punches did more damage when they landed than Joe’s did. Realising this, Thorpe decided to use his weight against Joe, and threw himself to meet the smaller man.

They knocked each other off their feet, and rolled over and over, until Thorpe’s weight won out, and he ended up sitting on Joe’s abdomen. Joe struggled and heaved to rid himself of his opponent, but failed. Thorpe’s blows were getting through Joe’s guard more and more often. Joe could taste blood in his mouth, and his ribs ached unmercifully.

Bringing his knees up sharply, in a last ditch effort, Joe managed to catch Thorpe by surprise, and knock him off. Rolling away, Joe didn’t think he could stand up. Even as he thought that, Thorpe regained his feet and kicked Joe hard in the stomach. Joe crashed back to the ground, gasping for air. Thorpe didn’t stop there. He continued kicking his helpless victim, taking out on Joe his frustration at Katherine’s escape.

Barely conscious, Joe reached out and caught Thorpe’s foot – more by accident than design. Thorpe crashed to the ground, momentarily winded. Joe crawled desperately towards his gun, knowing it was too far away for him to reach.

Before he could reach it, Thorpe dashed past him, and scooped up both guns. He cocked the hammers, and Joe collapsed on the cold, wet ground. He was measuring his life in heartbeats now, and his greatest regret was that he hadn’t been able to say goodbye to any of his family.

A gun fired, and Joe was surprised at how far away it sounded. Then the air was full of gunfire, and bullets bit into Joe. He cried aloud at the pain, but it was too much for his beaten, bruised, body, and he sank into unconsciousness.

*****

Straightening up, Adam said, “He’s dead, Pa.”

Bending over his youngest son, Ben didn’t spare Thorpe a single glance. “We’ve got to get Joe home, Adam, “ Ben said. “He’s bleeding badly. Dear God, please let him survive.” It was a plea from the heart, straight to the Father of all.

Wrapping Joe in Adam’s thick leather coat, Ben mounted Buck, and Adam passed Joe’s unconscious form up to him. They rode home as swiftly as possible, knowing that every moment counted. Neither one had ever seen anyone as badly hurt as Joe was. There didn’t seem to be a single, unmarked inch of skin on his face.

At the house, Paul Martin was already waiting, having been summoned earlier. Ben passed Joe to Hoss, who carried him upstairs. Paul went straight to Joe’s side, and began to cut away the blood stained clothing. He spared only a single glance at Ben. “I’m going to have to operate at once,” he said. “Send Hop Sing to help.”

*****

As the hours ticked by, the strain began to tell on the Cartwright family. They moved about or sat stiffly in chairs, each pretending to be busy. But the coffee left on the table grew cold without anyone ever touching it, and the books and checkers were soon abandoned. Ben sat with his eyes shut, praying for his youngest son’s life. When Paul finally came wearily down stairs, they all seemed to have aged several years.

“Well?” Ben demanded. They had all jumped to their feet at Paul’s appearance, as if they could better bear the news standing.

“I removed 6 bullets from Joe,” Paul reported, flatly. “He’s got several broken ribs and a broken nose. I’ve taken some stitches in his face. It’ll be months before he’ll get over this.” He swallowed. “I expect him to live, as long as infection doesn’t set in. I don’t think there’s any brain damage, but he’s not conscious yet, so I can’t tell for sure. If you hadn’t arrived when you did, Joe would be dead.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, and began to go up stairs.

“Ben?” Paul said. As his friend looked round, he went on, “I’m only sorry I couldn’t save the girl, too.”

*****

 

It was the following day before Joe regained consciousness. He was unable to see, because of the swelling round both his eyes, and his nose. He had bandages all over. Paul had dug bullets out of both legs, one hand, his shoulder and arm. When Joe did waken, he was already running a fever. “Pa?” he whispered.

“Take it easy, Joe,” Ben soothed, running his hand gently through Joe’s hair. “You’re home, boy. Pa’s going to take care of you. Just rest.”

“Katherine,” Joe persisted, panting.

“Don’t worry, she’s safe,” lied Ben. “You must rest, Joe.” It broke Ben’s heart to have to lie to his son, but Paul had insisted that Joe was too weak to accept the news. He needed all his strength to recover.

For a while, it seemed like Joe might not recover. Infection set in, and then pneumonia. Joe’s breathing became more and more strained, and nothing they did seemed to help him. Paul all but lived at the ranch. He gave Joe powders to help clear his chest, and other powders to help him sleep, for Joe’s delirium kept him from resting. Once or twice, Paul forced a sleeping powder on Ben, who aged visibly every day.

Everyone at the ranch was exhausted. Adam and Hoss dealt with the day-to-day business of the ranch, and then took turns sitting with Joe every night, while Ben snatched what little sleep he could. Joe’s temperature continued to rage upwards, consuming his body with heat. Even ice packs seemed to have little effect, and Ben began to think the unthinkable – that his son would die. Once the thought had crossed his mind, it haunted Ben, and he increased his efforts to help Joe, as though by doing that, he could deny fearing the worst.

Finally, a week later, Joe’s fever broke with a drenching sweat. Within moments, he was shivering with cold, but he wakened briefly, and although he could barely speak, he recognised his family. Joe had turned the corner, and taken his first steps on the long road to recovery.

The improvement was barely noticeable at first. Joe was cooler, but still slept the clock round. He had screaming nightmares, which seemed very little different to his delirious dreams. To his waiting family, it seemed as though his life still hung by a thread.

It was several days after that that Joe woke, and stayed awake for more than a few seconds. Ben spooned broth into the boy, but after only a few mouthfuls, Joe was exhausted. Lying back on the pillows, Joe tried his first smile. It was a pitiful effort, but gave Ben great hope. “Pa,” he whispered, his voice paper-thin. “Katherine?”

The moment Ben had dreaded had come, and he still wasn’t sure Joe was up to receiving this piece of news. But Paul had told him that Joe would ask when he felt able to deal with things, and Ben could only be guided by his friend’s advice.

Alarmed by his father’s silence, Joe began to look agitated. “Kathy!” he called, in a voice so thin and worn that Ben nearly wept at the sound of it. “Kathy!”

“Joe. Son.” Ben took Joe’s uninjured hand in his. Joe’s eyes caught in his father’s warm brown gaze, and he knew what Ben was going to tell him. “ I’m sorry. Katherine died.”

The scream of anguish pierced Ben to the heart. He gathered Joe into his arms, heedless of his son’s injuries. The injury to his heart needed more treatment than his physical injuries at that moment. “No! No! It can’t be!” Joe protested, until his voice went altogether.

As Joe’s paroxysm of grief ran its course, Ben gently laid him back onto the bed. Still clutching Joe’s hand firmly, he told his son what had happened. “Katherine found Adam and I not far from where you two were. She told us what was going on, and I told her to ride back to the house, and send for the sheriff and the doctor. It was only as we were leaving that we saw the blood where her horse had been standing.”

Stopping to swallow back his own grief, Ben raised his eyes. Joe’s green eyes contained such pain, that Ben wished he didn’t have to tell him this. “When she reached the house, Hoss was here. He realised that Katherine was ill, and brought her into the house. Katherine told him that Thorpe had shot at you. The bullet had creased your arm,” he gently touched the bandage on Joe’s right bicep, “ and it ricocheted into her side.” He drew a deep breath. “Paul operated as soon as he got here, but Katherine had lost too much blood. She died about 10 minutes before we got you back here.”

Tears ran unheeded down Joe’s battered face, and drowned the green eyes. His grief was no less intense for being mute. If anything, it made it more poignant. Ben gently got a damp cloth, and wiped Joe’s face with it. “I’m so sorry, son,” he repeated. “So sorry.”

Exhaustion and grief soon lulled Joe back to sleep, and Ben rose stiffly from the chair. He felt battered by the emotions swirling round the room, and slowly made his way down stairs. Adam and Hoss were both dozing by the fire, but wakened at the sound of his steps. They only needed one look at his face to know that he’d told Joe about Katherine. “How is he, Pa?” Hoss asked, sounding subdued.

“I don’t know,” Ben answered, honestly. “Too worn out to deal with it properly. We’ll just have to take each day as it comes.”

Crossing to his father’s side, Adam put an affectionate hand on his shoulder. “Get some rest, Pa,” he urged. “Hoss and I will sit with Joe. It’ll all work out somehow.”

“Thanks, son,” Ben replied, and took Adam’s advice.

*****

In the days that followed, Joe retreated further and further into himself. He didn’t speak as one or another of his family sat with him, and helped him to eat. He kept his head turned away, and often his eyes were shut, too. He ate everything he was told to, but with no enthusiasm. He never complained, and that was the most frightening thing of all.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ben asked Paul, after his friend had examined Joe. “He won’t talk to us.”

“He’s depressed,” Paul answered. “I think its quite likely that Joe blames himself for Katherine’s death. After all, the bullet that killed her had ricocheted off Joe. He had sent her for help. Knowing Joe, he probably thought he should have protected her from all harm, and been the one to get help, too! Keep talking to him, Ben. In some ways, a nature like Joe’s isn’t a blessing. He feels things very deeply. But it could mean that he bounces back more quickly in the end. We just have to wait and see.”

So Ben persevered. He chatted away to Joe about the mundane things of the ranch. He talked about Cochise, who looked for Joe each time someone entered the barn. He talked about the snowfall. He passed on the gossip from town. He felt like he would more response from the wall.

“Where’s Katherine?” Joe asked, one day. He had been silent for about a week. His voice was weak from lack of use. “How’s Kelly?”

“Katherine was buried in the cemetery in town,” Ben said, rejoicing that his son was coming back to life. “I haven’t seen Kelly since the funeral.”

“I want to see her,” Joe insisted. His eyes, which had been blank, were now full of pain, and something else Ben had feared he would never see again: Joe’s mule-headed determination.

“Soon,” Ben agreed. “You need to get stronger, first. We’ll see how you get on.”

“Pa, I need to see her,” he persisted. “Today.”

Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Ben helped Joe into a more comfortable position. Joe’s muscles were weak, and he could barely shift around his bed. “Its too late to ask Kelly to come here today,” he said, firmly. “Its been snowing, and it’ll be dark soon. But, if the weather is better tomorrow, I’ll get Adam to go to town. And I mean if, Joseph.”

Recognising the tone, Joe subsided. Ben sat there for a moment longer, then started to rise. Joe reached out and caught his father’s wrist. “Pa, please stay,” he whispered. Pleased, Ben settled himself. Joe looked at his father, and tears came to drown his eyes again. “I miss her so much,” he admitted in an anguished whisper. “How can I go on living without her?”

Tears were in Ben’s eyes, too. He knew the question. He had asked it himself each time he had lost a wife. The answer was – you had to go on. In his case, he’d had sons who’d needed him. In Joe’s case, he had a family who loved him. It didn’t make it any easier to bear. “God let you live for a purpose, Joe,” he said. “We may not know yet what that purpose is, but we have to trust God. Katherine was a wonderful girl, and our lives are richer for having known her. Time is a great healer, and although we never forget the person we lost, their memory stops bringing pain and brings comfort instead.”

It was apparent that Joe was listening hard. “Each day, you have to make an effort. It seems that the smile on your face is so false that no one could believe it. But each day, it gets a little easier to smile, and then one day, the smile doesn’t feel false.”

“How can I smile?” Joe asked, misery in every line of his body.

“Do you think Katherine would be pleased that you were starving yourself to death, or that you were determined to be unhappy for the rest of your life?” Ben demanded. “I didn’t know her as well as you, Joe, but I do know that she wouldn’t have wanted that. Katherine told me that she fell in love with your smile on that very first day you two met. How do you think she would feel if she knew you were never going to smile again?”

After a moment, Joe gave a tiny strained smile. “She’d probably come back to haunt me,” he said, and Ben gave a small laugh.

He knew then that he’d got through to Joe, and that his son would now recover from his loss. That night, as Ben retired to bed, he said a special prayer of thanks.

*****

The meeting between Joe and Kelly was laden with emotion. Joe had recovered enough to recognise other people’s grief, and he was willing to share it. But he hadn’t really thought how it had been for Kelly. Not only had she lost her sister, but she had lost a sister who was closer to her than most siblings. Kelly had experience Katherine’s pain and had known the exact moment of her death.

When Kelly finished relating this to Joe, he couldn’t think of anything to say. He had lost his soul mate, but Kelly had lost so much more. Joe had been holding Kelly’s hand since her arrival in his room, and he squeezed it sympathetically. “I didn’t know,” he said.

“No one but you knows,” Kelly said, wiping her tears. “I didn’t dare tell anyone else. But I can feel Katherine’s presence, and she wants us both to be happy. She’s watching over us both, like a guardian angel. But I think, that once we’ve both recovered, she’ll gradually let us go.” Kelly gently extracted her hand from Joe’s. “I have a gift for you,” she said. “It was to be your wedding gift.” She lifted a small package, and opened it. In it was a photo of the twins. “I’m leaving Virginia City, Joe. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I doubt if we’ll see each other again. Take care, and be happy.”

“Kelly, wait,” Joe protested, trying to rise up.

“No, Joe,” she said. “My mind is made up. I can’t stay here. I will think of you often. Goodbye.”

“Write and let us know where you are,” Joe begged. “Please! Even just a note.”

“All right. I’ll write sometimes. But don’t hang onto me, Joe. I’m not Kathy.” Kelly paused at the door to his room. “Look after yourself.”

*****

Joe was quieter over the next few days, but as he began to really recover his strength, his spirits lifted, too. Christmas was a more muted affair than had originally been planned, and there were several poignant moments. Hoss had carried Joe downstairs, so that he could be with his family. He had eaten his Christmas meal with something approaching a normal appetite, and the others had rejoiced. After the meal, Ben read the Christmas Story from the family bible, something he usually did on Christmas Eve, but postponed this year until Joe could be with them.

Looking at his family, Ben gave thanks once again that they were together, even if a little the worse for wear. He knew that there would still be hard times ahead for Joe, for grief can creep up on you unexpectedly. But Joe had begun to make his peace with Katherine’s death, and was remembering the good times. Thinking of the three women who had been so dear to him, Ben remembered only the good times.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, softly.

*****End*****

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