Word Count: 19,416
The blood oozed slowly from the gapping hole in his right shoulder as Joe slumped forward in the saddle. He could feel his strength dwindling away and knew that if he didn’t find help soon, he would surely die. He pulled back on the reins, bringing Cochise to a standstill. Carefully, Joe opened his blood stained jacket and shirt that covered the wound and glanced down at his injury. As he pried away the makeshift bandage that he had stuffed into the hole, he winced as the pain shot through his fevered body.
“Ah…” moaned Joe softly as he struggled to replace the cloth with another that he pulled from his saddlebags. The blood caked bandage dropped to the ground unnoticed at Cochise’s hooves. Joe’s lips were pressed tightly together and had turned white; his forehead was coated in a thin sheen of perspiration and his hand trembled as he placed the clean rag against the opened wound and pressed tightly in hopes of squelching the continued seeping of blood.
“AH! GOD!” he screamed aloud while adding pressure to the place where his life’s blood dripped slowly down his chest. His head felt light and for a moment Joe thought he might faint. He took several deep breaths and trying to control his breathing, let them out slowly.
When the wooziness passed, he shivered slightly and pulled first his shirt and then his jacket back over the bandage and gently nudged his mount onward. For another mile or two, Cochise trotted along with Joe swaying from side to side in the saddle, gripping tightly with only one hand, to the saddle horn. He had earlier lost his hold on the reins that were now dangling down on either side as Cochise ambled along at his own pace.
The pinto stopped suddenly as his rider’s body weight shifted to one side and then slipped quickly to the ground. The startled horse whinnied and stepped aside to avoid stepping on his fallen rider. Joe hit the ground with a thud, groaning pitifully as his body coiled into a tight knot from the pain that generated to all parts of his body. With one hand, he tried to push himself up, but the nauseous feeling had returned. His head began to spin and weak from loss of blood, Joe cried out one last time before being claimed by the darkened world of obscurity that had shadowed him since the day before, when he had been shot.
The woman pulled her team of horses to a stop and hurried to climb down from the wagon. She swung her dress tail aside and placed a foot onto the wagon wheel.
“You children stay in the wagon,” she ordered as she steadied herself enough to climb down.
Once she had her feet on the ground, the young woman moved gracefully, toward the pinto that eyed her nervously. She slowed her step as she neared the strange horse, speaking in a soft voice as her hand grasped the animal’s reins.
“Easy boy,” the woman murmured lowly so as not to spook the pinto.
She rubbed the end of Cochise’s velvety nose and moved along his side, searching for some clue as to what might have happened to its rider. Suddenly, her fingers touched something sticky and her reaction was to quickly draw back her hand. She touched her thumb to her other fingers and stared at the bright red color.
“Blood,” she whispered to herself as she glanced around, looking in all directions for the man who must surely by now, considering the amount of blood found on his horse, was likely dead.
“Come on fella,” she said to Joe’s horse. Adrienne led the pinto back to her wagon and tied the reins onto the back.
“You two stay right where you are,” she ordered her children.
“What’cha lookin’ for, Ma?” Petey, her eight year old son inquired.
“The man this horse belongs to son, now stay right where you are, you too, Precious,” she smiled at her six-year-old daughter. “Mama won’t be long.”
Adrienne moved away from the wagon, searching all about as she wandered among the trees and bushes and behind the rocks along the trail where Joe had been riding. She glanced once up at the sky. The sun was at its highest and its rays beat down and warmed the earth. A flock of vultures circled overhead, just a short distance from where she stood gazing up at them.
“Oh dear,” she mumbled as she crept along the edge of the rocks. “He’s probably already dead…what ever will I do if he is?”
Her dark eyes searched every inch of the rough terrain until they rested on the still form curled into a tight ball. Her insides quivered in apprehension as she bent down, carefully turning Joe onto his back. Adrienne gasped loudly at the site of the wound and the amount of blood that coated the front of the man’s shirt. Quickly she pulled aside his jacket and then tore the shirt away as well. From the wound site, she used the tips of her fingers, curling her nose up in disgust as she removed the blood soaked rag that Joe had used as a bandage.
Adrienne glanced at Joe’s face and was appalled by the lack of color and quickly pressed her fingertip to the center of Joe’s throat, searching frantically for a pulse. She closed her eyes, to concentrate and then smiled to herself when she had found what she had been silently praying for.
“I don’t know how cowboy, but you’re still alive!” she whispered as she brushed back the sweat-dampened hair from Joe’s brow.
“Petey, bring me the canteen, and get the medical supplies from under the seat,” Adrienne called to her son.
“Yes’um,” the boy shouted and then hurried to do his mother’s bidding.
“Is he dead, mama?”
“No, but he’s only hanging on by a thread, son.”
Adrienne did what she could to ease the flow of blood that had yet to stop seeping from the gapping wound and then led her team and wagon as close to Joe’s lifeless body as she could.
She was a petite woman, and as she stood over Joe, she wondered, how in the world would she be able to lift his body into the bed of her wagon. She shuddered to think of the pain that she would inflict upon the stranger when she tried to lift him.
It took Adrienne more than half an hour just to get Joe into the back of her wagon. Petey, her son, held the horses steady while Adrienne worked at making her patient comfortable. Joe, though not a big man, was dead weight for the young woman and by the time that she was finally ready to start home, she was drained physically and emotionally. Joe had cried out several times while being moved, and each time that he did, Adrienne suffered along with him. It was not in her nature to cause suffering of any kind, to another being, whether man or beast, and with each whimper she found her own eyes thick with unshed tears.
Another hour and the trio finally arrived home with their patient. Joe’s brow was covered in sweat, yet his fevered body shivered and when Adrienne pressed the back of her hand to his brow, she cringed at the heat that radiated into her hand.
“Petey, you and Sarah Beth go inside and get the bed ready, he’ll have to stay in your room…”
“But Mama, where will I sleep?” the boy asked, wide-eyed.
Adrienne smiled, “You can have Sarah Beth’s room; her bed is too small for the stranger. She can sleep in with me, now hurry son, I need to tend to his wound. The man’s hurt real bad.”
“Okay, Mama, come on Sarah, you can help me.” Petey took his little sister’s hand and went inside.
Adrienne climbed back into the wagon bed after helping her daughter down so that she could go with her brother.
“This is gonna hurt you Mister, but I gotta do it.” She grasped Joe from behind and gently pushed him up into a sitting position. Instantly Joe let out a howl of pain and pushed back against the kind hands that were attempting to hold him.
“Easy Mister,” Adrienne whispered as she forced Joe more up right. Joe continued to cry out as the young woman inched his body to the end of the wagon and then hopped down. His eyelids parted slightly and he tried to focus on the person that was speaking to him.
“Come on, try to stand up, you can lean on me,” she grunted as Joe’s feet touched the ground and his legs almost gave way beneath him.
“Pa?” he muttered weakly.
Adrienne, her arm around Joe’s mid-section and one hand clinging tightly to his left hand staggered slightly as she held Joe upright.
“No, I ain’t ya Pa, now try to walk.” Adrienne forced Joe into taking a couple of stumbling steps towards the house. His step faltered after two more and Adrienne changed positions with her hands and took a few more steps.
“Hurts…” whined Joe.
“I know, I know…come on…walk…I can’t do this by myself, darn it,” swore Adrienne, who was beginning to wonder if the handsome stranger was worth all the effort it had taken her to get him this far.
“Sorry…don’t mean…you…no trouble…ma’am,” muttered Joe.
It was Adrienne’s turn to stop and stare at the man she carried. She hadn’t expected him to have manners as well as good looks and it was for sure that she hadn’t expected any remorse from him. She scolded herself for her thoughtlessness.
“You ain’t no trouble, Mister…we’re almost there,” she said when she had Joe standing beside the bed.
Carefully she eased him around and turned him until she was able to sit him on the side of the bed. When she let go, Joe flopped over, crying out once again as the pain consumed his body.
Adrienne hurried to pull Joe’s boots from his feet and turn his legs around until he was finally lying in the bed. As quickly as she could, she set a pan of water to boil on the stove eye and hurried out to the wagon for the medical supplies that she carried with her wherever she went. By the time that she returned, Joe had started to moan, trashing about on the bed.
As soon as the water was ready, she poured some into a basin and bringing soap and towels with her to his bedside, she removed the jacket and stripped away the remainder of Joe’s shirt and began by bathing his feverish body. Joe, in his delirious state of mind, fought against the hands that so tenderly cared for him. By the time that she had finished with his bath, Joe was deep into a restless sleep and no longer was a match for Adrienne’s gentle hands.
Looking at the opened wound, Adrienne almost gagged. The flesh had been ripped and torn by the force of the bullet that had struck the man. With as much care as possible, Adrienne cleaned the open wound as best she could and then, much to her displeasure, applied large amounts of alcohol to the reddened areas. Joe screamed in agony as the alcohol cleansed his flesh.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” the young woman cried as she bathed Joe’s face with a cool rag.
When Joe settled down, Adrienne returned to her kitchen and put one knife into the fire that still blazed within her stove. There was no other way to do it, she would have to probe and dig for the bullet, for if not removed soon, all her efforts would be in vain. She turned to her children who had sat quietly at the table, eating their supper.
“Children,” she said with more assurance than she felt, “I want you to go outside and play for a little while…”
“But Mama,” began Petey, “it’s gonna be dark soon and ya know I don’t like the dark, ‘specially when I gotta go outside alone.”
Adrienne ran her slender fingers through her son’s blond curls and smiled down at him.
“But son, you won’t be alone; Sarah Beth will be with you. I won’t be long, Petey, but I have to take the bullet out of that man’s shoulder, you understand?”
“Yes ma’am…it’s gonna hurt’em and ya don’t want me and Sarah to hear him crying’, do ya?” Petey’s wide blue eyes watched his mother’s face.
Adrienne bit her lip. “That’s right son, its going to hurt him something fierce.”
Petey pushed back his chair and walked over to the bed to stare down at Joe. “Is he gonna die, Mama?” he asked in a quite voice.
When he turned around, his mother could see the shine of unshed tears in his eyes. She hurried to her son’s side and knelt down, placing one hand on the boy’s shoulder. She smiled and cupped his chin with her other hand.
“Let’s hope not, Petey. Why don’t you whisper a little prayer for him when you go outside?” she said in a motherly fashion.
“Don’t know what good it’ll do. God ain’t answered my other prayer yet,” Petey said crossly. He turned away from his mother and started to the door. “Come on Sarah, hurry up.”
“Petey,” Adrienne stopped her son before he reached the door. “What did you ask God for?” she was curious to know, for whatever it had been, Petey was not happy with God’s answer.
“I asked God to bring my Papa home, and he ain’t done it.”
“Oh, son…your Papa will be home, soon,” Adrienne rushed to assure her little boy.
“No he ain’t, he’s dead…just like that stranger’s going to be dead. I ain’t prayin’ for him, why should I, I don’t even know his name!” growled Petey, looking over to where Joe lay. Joe had begun to moan.
Adrienne’s eyes filled with worry as she followed her son’s gaze. “Petey, I wish you would say a prayer. If not for the man, then for me…so that I might be able to get the bullet out of his shoulder.” The mother looked pleadingly at her young son. “Please?”
Petey took a long deep breath and blew it out. “Okay Mama, for you, but not for him,” he pointed his finger in Joe’s direction.
Adrienne drew the boy to her and hugged him, kissing the top of his curly head. “Out with you now…I’ll call for you when you can come back in…you mind Sarah Beth now and don’t let her play in the watering trough!”
As Petey and his sister went through the door, Adrienne lovingly swatted the boy’s backside. For just a moment, she watched as her children scurried across the yard to play. The insistent moaning from the far corner of the room drew her attention away from her children.
Adrienne quickly grabbed the knife that she had sterilized on the stove, more bandages and filling her lungs to capacity, moved to Joe’s bedside. Carefully she spread her medical supplies out on a clean cloth and then turned to Joe. He had stopped his thrashing about which was a big relief to Adrienne. Quickly she tore long thins strips of material and tied Joe’s left wrist to the bedpost. She did the same with each ankle; the right arm, where the bullet had entered his shoulder, Adrienne left free. The wound and the amount of pain that Joe was experiencing earlier in that shoulder, indicated to the woman who was about to perform her first surgery, totally useless to the young man as it were. The light restraints would prevent the man from moving about on the bed at the wrong time. Later, after she finished and the man was resting better, she would remove the ties so that he could be more comfortable.
From the nightstand where she had placed her needed items, Adrienne picked up the whiskey bottle, studied its contents for a moment, and then she placed the bottle to her lips and took a quick drink. She scrunched up her nose in distaste and as she poured a small amount over the knife. The swig helped to steady her trembling hands and give her a sense of strength for what she was about to attempt.
The young woman glanced once at Joe’s face and then went to work on the bullet wound. At first her hand trembled as she began cutting away the infected tissue that hampered her search. Fresh blood appeared immediately and she quickly dabbed it dry with the clean cloths. Constantly, Adrienne would look down at Joe’s face, and each time she saw only slight facial expressions. She was relieved that Joe had sunk so far into the world of oblivion that he was feeling very little if any pain that her probing might be causing him.
With a long sigh of relief, Adrienne at last located the bullet. Gently, she removed the knife and with tongs from her kitchen, eased them into the wound until her skilled hands touched the tiny shot from the bullet. As she began backing out of the bloody hole, Joe moaned loudly and tossed his head from side to side. A sense of urgency quickened her fingers and a minute later the round pellet dinged as it was dropped into the tin basin.
“Ah…ah…” Joe moaned softly.
Adrienne hurried to clean the wound, watching how the young man twisted up his face in pain at her tender ministrations. Once the wound was cleaned as well as could be the self-proclaimed surgeon sewed up the opening in Joe’s shoulder and then covered it with bandages. The hardest part was wrapping the lengths of cloth around the shoulder, and when all was finished, Adrienne wondered to herself how she had accomplished all that she had in a matter of such a short time.
She gathered her tools and took them to the kitchen. As she stood at the window, she glanced out, checking to see her children playing happily with the new kittens. Adrienne went to the door and called them inside, smiling at each.
A quick bath and a quicker snack and her children were rushed off to bed. It would be a long night, as she would stay by the stranger’s bedside in case he awoke and needed something. The man’s fever was still high and Adrienne would keep his brow bathed with cool water…anything she thought, to keep her mind from wondering about her husband and his whereabouts.
As Adrienne sat alone in the soft glow of the lamplight, her thoughts nonetheless ventured to her husband. Josh had been gone for over a month now, much longer than necessary. He had gone to Salt Lake City to purchase much needed supplies that would carry them through the long winter months. Yet, Josh had failed to return when he said he would. All types of images appeared in Adrienne’s dreams, fears that she had refused to voice aloud pertaining to what might be delaying the man that she loved, from returning to her. Her mind conjured up reflections of his body lying at the bottom of some gully from his wagon having careened over the edge, or his face looming in front of her eyes, hairless from having been scalped by a band of local savages. The dreams lasted only seconds, but each portrayal sent fear racing into her young, lonely heart.
The sudden outburst startled Adrienne from her pondering as she straightened herself in her chair.
“Don’t shoot!” Joe cried in his delirium.
His face was coated with sweat and he’d begun tossing about and pulling on his restraints. His right arm was carefully wrapped within the binding that covered his wounded shoulder and would provide no threat to his thrashing about.
Adrienne soaked the cloth in cool water and sat on the very edge of the bed. As she wiped away the wetness, she spoke in a soft soothing tone, hoping to reach into the befuddled mind of her patient.
“Take it easy, Mister…no one’s going to hurt you…you’re safe here with me,” she whispered.
As she continued to care for Joe, she noticed for the first time, the handsome features that lay beneath the bruises that dotted his face. It was obvious that the man had been in a fight, and that he had just as obviously gotten the worst end of the argument. He was handsome, concluded Adrienne and his appearance only served to rouse questions as to who he was, where he came from and why had he been shot.
Rising slowly, Adrienne reached for Joe’s jacket and fingered through the pockets, hoping to find something that would give her a clue to his identity. Certainly he had family, hadn’t she heard him calling for his pa and what about a wife…and maybe children? There was nothing in the pockets of his jacket. Adrienne went through his pants pockets as well and that search proved to be for naught.
When she returned to Joe’s bedside and sat down, she studied his face again. He looked like a man of means…not the everyday type that wandered around seeking handouts from the local residents. He was clean shaven, his clothes, what there were left of them, had been store bought and were of good material. For sure his horse was as fine, as any she had ever seen, and his gear was of the most expensive assortment around. Even his holster was of the most premium leather made…yet she wondered about the missing pistol. Had he lost it while ambling about, or had it been taken from him, by the man or men who had shot him?
A new thought struck her and she shuddered, was this handsome stranger wanted for some horrid crime? Had he murdered a man, robbed a bank, or stage…had some unknowing female, such as herself, been a victim of his…had she been stricken by his overpowering good looks and smooth talking? Adrienne shook her head slowly; she wouldn’t allow such pessimism to warp her logical thinking. Any man who called out for his father could not be as bad as her imagination was allowing her to contemplate.
For the rest of the night, Adrienne stayed by Joe’s side. More than once, he awoke, studied her face through clouded and tear-filled eyes, and mumbled something about having been shot. Adrienne smiled kindly each time, for such was her nature. She whispered soft words of comfort that seemed to have a calming affect on him. His hot, sweat drenched body Adrienne kept bathed and cooled in spite of the temper that struggled for control. She had removed all his clothing except for his long johns bottom. Those she allowed him to keep for she had no such notion of disrobing the man entirely unless necessity demanded.
By daylight, her children were up and demanding their breakfast. Sleep had been long in coming for the nurse turned surgeon, and she had only been able to claim the last two or three hours before the rising of the sun. But she smiled in satisfaction when she peeled back the bandages that protected Joe’s injury and saw where the pinkness of his flesh, that promised infection, had faded to a lighter color.
She hurried to fix her children their breakfast, least the stranger wake and demand her attention. He had been asleep now for hours and was sure to rouse about soon and most likely he’d be hungry, Adrienne concluded. As soon as the children were fed, she sent Petey to the chicken house to gather what eggs he could find. Those she would use later when she did her baking. As for the stranger, he would have to settle for some broth, for she doubted that his stomach could handle much more than that at the moment.
An hour later, Adrienne had killed one of her chickens, plucked it clean of its feathers and had the bird in the stewing pot. The broth would last for a couple of days and would give the stranger much needed nourishment for his ailing body. For herself and her children, Adrienne would use what she could spare of the broth and make dumplings…a filling meal and one of her children’s favorites.
“Pa…Pa…help me!” cried Joe from his corner bedroom.
Adrienne set her spoon off to the side of the stove and hurried in to check on her patient. Joe’s brow had beaded once more with tiny droplets of perspiration. Quickly, Adrienne dampened a cloth and began wiping away the moisture.
Joe continued with his moaning. His restraints had been removed during the night and when Joe, in his confused state, felt the tender hands that cared for him, he reached out with his good hand and clasped Adrienne’s within his own.
Adrienne stilled her movements, unsure as to what the stranger might do. Joe’s eyelids fluttered and then opened. Within the hazel depths, Adrienne could see the confusion and the pain that flickered.
“Didn’t want…to…kill…him,” Joe murmured as he tried to focus his eyes on the face that loomed over him. “No…choice…” he stammered.
“Shh…don’t try to talk, save your strength,” soothed Adrienne as she freed her hand from his and placed Joe’s hand across his chest.
“I know, and I’m sorry…but I have nothing for the pain, other than whiskey…wouldn’t want…”
Joe slowly shook his head, “no…hungry…”
“Oh, now that I can give you. I’ll be right back; I already have a good chicken broth simmering on the stove.” Adrienne stood to her feet but stopped when Joe reached out and took her arm.
As she gazed into his face, the pain that he suffered was written into every fine line of his features. Her heart broke for the stranger and she wished that she could do something to alleviate the suffering he was most certainly having to endure.
She leaned down, smiling. “What is it?” She saw Joe swallow and was surprised at the sudden rush of tears that filled his eyes.
“Thank…you,” he muttered in a voice that was laden with the agony that he was feeling.
Adrienne felt her own throat constrict and she smiled, patted his hand and then slipped quietly into the kitchen. At the stove, she paused, drawing in a deep breath. His sudden expression of gratitude had caught her unprepared, for she had not expected the stranger to be such a gentleman. As Adrienne spooned the broth into a bowl, a sense of longing filled her senses. Her thoughts turned suddenly to her own husband and she could not help but pray that if Josh had met a fate such as this stranger, her prayer would be that he had found the same kindness as she gave to the man in the other room.
“Just one more bite,” Adrienne requested of her patient.
Joe shook his head no and then closed his eyes. Minutes later he was asleep. Adrienne set the bowl aside and gently pulled the covers up around Joe’s shoulders. His brow still showed signs of beading and Adrienne could tell by the flushed look that Joe wore, that he was still hot with fever.
She wished there was a doctor close by, the stranger really did need one, but the nearest was better than fifty miles away. Any hopes of getting the man the medical help that he so desperately needed was totally out of the question. She couldn’t run the gamble of moving him; the ride in the back of her wagon would most likely kill him, if the pain didn’t do it before they reached the physician’s office. And then there was always the chance that the doctor would be out on a call and might not return for days. No, she would just have to do what she could for the man; she was his only hope.
By afternoon, Joe’s temper had risen even higher and Adrienne feared that the heat of the midday sun, the warmth in her small cabin and the heat from Joe’s fever would be more than her patient could endure. Constantly, she bathed Joe. She had even gone as far as removing his long johns so that she could bath his legs as well as his upper body. Adrienne had closed her eyes when she had pulled the last of Joe’s under clothes from his lower body and had quickly moved the blanket to the proper place to hide her embarrassment.
It wasn’t as if she had never seen a naked man; after all she told herself, she was a married woman. And, having grown up in a household full of brothers, she was accustomed to having to care for the needs of an ailing man. But with this stranger, it was different; she wished not to embarrass him. She laughed softly to herself; she could almost convince herself of her own modesty.
“Please…” groaned the stranger.
Adrienne who had been out hoeing in what remained of her vegetable garden, and who had just come inside, hurried to set aside the few vegetables she had picked as she rushed to Joe’s bedside. She was surprised to see that he had opened his eyes, and that the cloudiness had begun to leave. Adrienne smiled and placed her hand to his forehead.
“You’ve cooled off a little,” she explained.
“Water…please?” begged Joe as he moved his body. The twisted expression on his face showed his pain.
“Here,” Adrienne said as he helped Joe raise his head. He was still too weak to hold the glass, so Adrienne held it to his lips. When he had satisfied his thirst, she gently lowered his head back down on the pillows.
“Thanks,” he muttered, watching his nurse as she pulled her chair over to the bed.
Adrienne smiled. “How do you feel?”
“Hurts…badly,” he answered honestly. “How’d I…get here?”
“I found you, out on the road. You’d been shot…and you had lost a lot of blood. I couldn’t just leave you there to die…so I brought you here,” she explained.
“Yes, I live here, with my children…and my husband, when he’s home.”
“You’re alone? Where’s…your husband?” Joe winced and clutched his shoulder.
“Josh…my husband, went to Salt Lake City for our winter supplies. Please,” she said, taking Joe’s hand and removing it from the wounded shoulder. “Lie still. I don’t want that wound to reopen and start bleeding again.”
“Sorry,” Joe forced a smile. “What’s your name?”
“Adrienne…and yours? I went through your pockets…oh…not to be noisy, but I was hoping to find something that would tell me who you were…I mean who you are…just in case,” she stumbled over her words. His intense hazel eyes seemed to be mesmerizing and she found herself falling deeply into their depths.
Joe laughed softly, bringing her back to her senses. “It’s alright…no need to…apologize. Joe…Joe Cartwright…that’s my name.” Again he tried to move to a more comfortable position and once more he cried out in pain.
“Please, Mr. Cartwright, stop thrashing about like a fish out of water!” she scolded gently.
She leaned down and fluffed Joe’s pillow, and then sat back in her chair. “Men!” she groaned. “I haven’t found one yet that made a good patient!” she grumbled and then when she heard the sound of his infamous giggle, she smiled down at him.
“And you won’t find one in me either…” he grinned.
“I’m sorry Mr. Cartwright but…”
“Joe…name’s Joe…and my friends…call me Little Joe,” he smiled.
“Alright, Little Joe, I apologize for my rudeness…”
Joe held up his hand to silence her. “No need,” he said.
His eyelids suddenly became heavy as they folded over his eyes. He yawned and when he opened his eyes again, Adrienne had moved. Joe turned his head slightly and found the young woman bending down, speaking in a low voice. It was only when she moved that Joe was able to see the boy and girl to whom she had been speaking. Joe saw the girl look his way, and from his bed with the door partially opened, he could see the wee child smile at him. Joe tried to return the gesture, but he could no longer keep his eyes opened. Within minutes, he was sleeping.
Adrienne spent the rest of the afternoon preparing supper for her children, and while Joe slept, she tended to her washing. By late afternoon, the house had filled with the aroma of fresh baked bread and apple pie. The chicken and dumplings were on the stove stewing and Joe’s broth was beginning to bubble slowly.
“That’s the last of the dried apples,” she told Petey as she removed the dessert from the oven and placed it on the window ledge to cool.
“When’s Papa comin’ home, Mama?” the little boy asked.
Adrienne saw the sad expression on her son’s face and wished that she could give him a definite answer, but even she had no idea. Josh was over a month late in returning as it was.
“Petey, I don’t know son…but it should be soon,” she tried to assure the boy.
“What’ll we do, if’n he don’t get home before it snows?” he asked. “I was down in the root cellar yesterday, and we’re about out of potatoes and carrots. All we got bunches of are onions and dried peppers, and only one ham, Mama,” Petey scrunched up his nose in disgust at the thoughts of the peppers and onions.
Adrienne’s eyes ventured to the open window and she stared off into the distance. There was nothing on the horizon but mountains and trees, no sign of her husband. She then turned to the stranger that was resting peacefully, another mouth to feed she thought and then scolded herself. It wasn’t right to blame the man for being here, she thought; only herself for being so noble as not to leave him for the buzzards.
“He’ll be here, son; your father will be here/ He’s just been held up…maybe he’s waiting for a shipment to arrive at the mercantile.”
“But Mama, Pa said that…”
“Petey hush!” she scolded. “I know what your pa said, but things happen sometimes to change our plans.” When she glanced down at her son, she could see the tears that had swelled in his eyes and instantly she regretted being so short tempered towards the boy.
“Come here, Petey,” she said as she gathered him into her arms. “Your Pa will be home just as soon as he can…you just wait and see,” she smiled at him.
“I’m sorry Mama…it’s just that I miss him so much.” The tears rolled over the edge of the boy’s eyes and careened down his chubby little face.
“I know you do sweetie, but, so do I…we just have to keep praying…”
“I will, I promise…guess I’d better get the cow in…” Petey gave his mother a smile, relieving her fear somewhat.
It was a long time after the children had gone to bed before Joe woke. His temperature was down slightly and when he opened his eyes, he could at least focus them better than earlier in the day.
“Well, sleepy head…I see you’re awake,” Adrienne smiled at Joe. “Do you think you could eat something?”
Joe nodded his head. “I’ll try,” he said, his voice sounding weak.
Adrienne hurried to get Joe some broth and decided to add a few dumplings as well. When she returned, Joe had wiggled himself upward on the bed and had propped against his pillows. His lips were white, as were the knuckles on his left hand, which he had folded up into a tight fist.
He smiled sheepishly at his hostess. “Guess I should have waited…boy does that hurt.”
“Serves you right,” she said, but her tone was light.
Joe’s eyes sought the young woman’s and he smiled. “Touché!” he smirked and then smiled.
Adrienne could not help herself’ he looked much younger, more like a boy when he screwed up his face, and in spite of herself, she laughed. Joe’s eyes brightened and he giggled, but only briefly.
“Are you going to sit there laughing and let me starve to death?” he said, sobering.
Adrienne’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, of course not, I’m sorry,” she said.
For several minutes, neither spoke as Adrienne spooned the broth and the dumplings into Joe’s mouth. When he dribbled a speck onto his chin, she offered him the napkin. Joe’s fingers touched her hand and for a brief moment, each sat still, staring at their hands. Adrienne jerked her hand back as if touched by fire and lowered her head. Joe watched the woman’s face and for the first time, noticed how truly lovely the young mother was.
Her long brown hair was coiled at the back of her head and tiny, wild sprigs had gotten free of the pins and dangled about her face. The golden highlights glimmered in the soft glow and the sudden, odd expression that had come into play on her face when his hand had touched hers, caused him to tremble slightly, for he had been as much caught off guard by the sensation as the lovely woman had.
Adrienne however, was finding it hard to breathe. She had not been prepared for the unexpected rush of emotions that surged through her when his hand had touched hers. She glanced up, afraid that he had seen her blush and had been able to read her thoughts.
Joe smiled, and handed the rose colored napkin back to her. “Thank you,” he said in a thick voice. Adrienne had seen him swallow and had seen when Joe had tried to mask his own feelings. She was startled to find her self attracted to him…she was married…and she loved her husband deeply…but…but…
“Ma’am?” Joe called a second time.
“Oh…I’m sorry,” she muttered.
Joe smiled as she stood up, “Adrienne, do me a favor…would you please stopping saying I’m sorry?”
Adrienne, embarrassed, laughed softly, “Joe, I don’t mean to keep saying it…really…it’s just a habit…I’m sor…”
“Oh, goodness…” she turned and rushed from the room, his gentle giggles following her to her kitchen.
Adrienne set the bowl in the dishwater and leaned heavily against the table. She was breathing hard and suddenly felt so foolish. ‘I’m acting like a silly school girl,’ she thought. She glanced over her shoulder into the room where Joe lay. He had turned onto his left side and seeing the slow rise and fall of his breathing, she determined that he had quickly fallen to sleep. Probably exhausted, she concluded.
When the dishes were wiped clean, Adrienne stepped out into the night. The sky was clear and the trillions of stars twinkled brightly over head. She felt a mellowing of her spirit as she gazed upward and witnessed God’s handiwork. Without warning, her eyes filled with tears that ran slowly down her face.
“Oh Josh…please…won’t you hurry home? I miss you so,” she whispered lowly into the night wind. “I love you so much, my darling, and I do need you so.”
“Why do we gotta have beans and potatoes again!” stormed Petey. “I’m sick of beans and potatoes…potatoes and beans!”
“Petey!” snapped Adrienne, who glanced, toward the room where Joe was still confined to the bed. “That will be enough…”
“But Mama…I want meat…and you said that Sarah Beth needed meat too…”
“Shh…I said stop it, Petey! I’m doing the best I can with what I have!” Adrienne was fighting back the tears that came into her deep dark eyes. She was almost out of everything…her children were hungry…and still Josh had not returned.
“It’s his fault!” shouted Petey, as he pointed toward the door that hid Joe from the argument going on in the kitchen. “If’n ya’d left him out there, then we could have…”
“PETEY!” Adrienne could not believe what was happening, her little boy was sounding so uncaring toward another human being. “Go to your room…NOW!”
Petey, his eyes wide with tears, turned and ran into the other room. Seconds later Adrienne heard the slamming of the door. She pulled the chair out from the table and sat down, burying her face in her hands. The soft sounds of her crying tugged at the heart of the young man standing precariously against the frame of the door.
Joe, wrapped in his blanket, staggered slightly as he crept slowly toward the sobbing woman. “Ma’am?” he said softly, catching Adrienne by surprise.
She spun her head around and seeing Joe clinging tightly to the back of her chair, she rose to her feet. Quickly, she rounded the chair and slipped her arms about Joe’s body to steady him.
“What in the world are you doing out of bed?” she scolded. “Let’s get you back where you belong!” Gently, Adrienne began ushering Joe back toward his room.
“No…wait…the boy,” began Joe.
“Never you mind the boy…you need to be in bed!” Adrienne said with a groan.
Joe was leaning heavily against Adrienne’s soft alluring body. He glanced at her, surprised at himself that in his present condition, he found himself so attracted to her. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the scent of her hair. It smelt like spring rain, and it was soft when he allowed himself the freedom to touch it with his fingers. He heard her sudden intake of wind and smiled down at her when she looked into his eyes.
“You are so beautiful,” Joe murmured softly.
They had reached his bed and Adrienne helped Joe turn around so that he could sit down. She ignored his remark. She could feel the heat emitting from his body and knew that his fever was up again. Getting out of bed and stumbling around like he had, had done nothing to help his recovery, even if the distance from the bedroom to the kitchen had been but a few short steps.
“Lay down, Little Joe,” she said softly as she arranged the pillow under his head.
“Hush…” she whispered, but then ceased moving as he raised his hand and entwined his fingers into her hair.
Joe tenderly fingered the lose strains of golden brown locks and Adrienne could see the desire in his eyes that he was unable to disguise. She took his hand in hers to remove it from her hair. Joe clung tightly to her smaller hand and drew it to his lips, where he held it. His eyes had fixed on her expression and he seemed to loose himself in her dark eyes.
Adrienne’s heart beat rose in tempo as Joe kissed her fingers. She knew she should pull back and scold him for his audacity, but the longing within her and the need to be loved, discouraged her logical thinking.
Adrienne was snapped to her senses by the sound of the wee voice calling out to her. Quickly she freed her hand from Joe’s and then placed his under the blanket, covering him to his chin.
“Mama…I’m hungry,” Sarah Beth cried from the doorway.
Adrienne glanced up at her daughter and then quickly back down at her patient. Joe had closed his eyes and appeared to be sleeping. The concerned mother hurried to gather her daughter into her arms and carried her from the room. Once in the kitchen, she placed the little girl in one of the chairs and fixed Sarah Beth a snack.
“You finish your bread and butter, sweetheart, and then I’ll tuck you into bed,” smiled Adrienne. She glanced back at Joe, whom she could see through the opened door. He appeared to be resting comfortably.
Half an hour later, Sarah Beth was back in bed and sleeping, unlike Adrienne’s guest. Joe had begun to mumble and was once again trying to get up.
“Oh no you don’t!” Adrienne stopped Joe by gently pushing him back down against the pillows and mattress.
Joe, his eyes wide, and his thoughts muddled by confusion grabbed Adrienne’s arms. “No!” he blared, as he tried to shove her away. “Don’t make me shoot you!” he growled.
Adrienne lost her footing as Joe’s moment of strength almost succeeded in pushing her backwards. She steadied herself and using her own strength, was able to force the quickly tiring Joe back into the bed. Joe moaned as Adrienne pressed him back against the pillows.
“Be still, Joe,” she said with one hand on his good shoulder. “You’re burning up, again, and look what you’ve gone and done!” she groaned.
His bandage was showing red and Adrienne knew that all Joe’s foolishness had reopened the wound and it had started to seep blood. She pressed her hand to the bandage, causing Joe to cry out.
“Oh…hurts,” he whispered as he shrank back against the mattress. He stopped his moving about and lay perfectly still. With clouded, pain filled eyes, he looked up at Adrienne.
“The boy…I have…money…for food,” Joe forced his words out.
Adrienne had begun to remove the bandage to see just how much damage had been done. She kept a constant watch on Joe’s face, noting each flinch and grimace of pain that he made. He groaned as she peeled away the last bit of the bandage.
“Easy, I don’t mean to hurt you, but I have to clean this up and put on a new bandage,” she explained. As the last strip of bandage was lifted, Adrienne sighed in relief; so far there was no sign of infection.
Joe nodded his head; his eyes were pinched shut to ward of the pain. From the corners, tiny droplets of water seeped free and rolled ever so slowly down the sides of his face. Adrienne worked with skilled fingers, trained by tending to the many injuries of her brothers and father over a number of years. She noted the tears and the little beads of water that were surfacing on his brow as well.
“Almost finished Joe, and then you can rest,” she said softly.
She loved living on the open range. She always had, with Josh and then later with the children, it had always been like paradise to her. Until recently that is, things had gone poorly for them, half of their cattle had died when the watering hole had gone bad. Afterwards, things seemed to go from bad to worse, they suffered a month long drought and had lost most of their crops, and the well had practically gone dry. They had only enough money to buy food and supplies to last them through the winter, so Josh had bid them all good-bye, with the promise that he would return soon with a wagonload of goods to last them the winter. When he had left and she was alone with just the children and herself, she had suddenly become frightened and lonely for the first time since settling there.
When she had found Joe, bleeding and so near death, the frightened feeling returned. They were so far from any town, there was nothing between them and Salt Lake City but a small trading post, and any hopes of having a doctor were unheard of, for the nearest physician was better than fifty miles away. So one learned quickly how to tend to injuries, illnesses and basic discomfort.
She glanced again at Joe’s expression and her heart felt such sorrow for the poor man. She’d done all she could to ease his pain and suffering, but now it was up to him. He was young, about twenty or twenty-one perhaps, Adrienne figured, not much younger than herself and he was certainly healthy. By the way his muscles rippled along his chest and arms, his stomach and even in his legs, the boy had known hard work in his lifetime. What Joe needed now was plenty of rest and good nourishing food.
At the thought of food, Adrienne’s thoughts turned to her children. She dampened the cloth that covered Joe’s brow and replaced it. Slowly she moved to the kitchen, and began going through her cupboards; they were practically empty. Adrienne made a mental note of her stock, and then sighed wearily.
“Oh Josh, won’t you please hurry…”
Joe’s fever continued to linger far into the next evening. By the time he awoke, Adrienne had put her children to bed and was sitting cross-legged in an old worn but comfortable chair next to his bed. Her head was bent low, her eyes closed tightly and by the rise and fall of her chest, Joe knew that the lovely young woman was sleeping.
His senses picked up the faint aroma of fresh baked bread and he couldn’t help refraining from sniffing the air. At that moment, his stomach rumbled, reminding him that it had been hours since he had last had anything to eat. He thought about slipping carefully from his bed and helping himself, but shucked that idea. He was much too weak; he had found that out the first time he had attempted to make his way to the kitchen. Why had he gotten out of bed? His mind seemed boggled and the reasoning so far fetched. Joe leaned his head back into the pillow and closed his eyes, trying to dredge the memory from his brain.
Hungry…that was it, he realized as his eyes popped opened and he quickly turned to Adrienne. Her children were hungry…but why? Hadn’t she enough food to feed them…and if not…how was she managing? An unpleasant thought jolted him wider awake and he felt his stomach churn once more, but not from hunger, more so from what he realized that his being there was costing the woman and her children.
“Adrienne,” he said in a soft voice as he touched her arm with his hand. “Adrienne?” he whispered a second time.
Adrienne’s head snapped up and moving quickly, she unfolded her legs and moved closer to the bed. “Joe? What’s wrong?” she asked in a worried voice. “Are you in pain?”
Joe saw the anxious look on her face and he hurried to reassure her. “No…at least, not too much…I’m fine…really,” he lied, for he was hurting, far more than he cared to admit to this gracious young woman.
“What then…are you hungry? I have some broth…”
“No…Adrienne…” Joe paused. “I need to know something…and please, be honest with me,” Joe stated.
He watched how quickly she averted her eyes so that she would not have to stare into his. Joe reached out and took her hand in his and gave her a quick smile. The feel of her hand in his caused him to shudder. Joe took a deep breath and proceeded.
“Your little boy…he was upset with you…because of me…”
“No,” she hurried to say.
“Why? And he said that your food supply was almost gone…I want to know if that’s true,” Joe asked.
“Joe…” paused Adrienne and then looked up, into his face. He was watching her intently and she knew he would never stop questioning her until he knew the truth. “Yes…he was angry at me…and yes it was because of you…but Joe…he’s only a little boy and he doesn’t understand and…”
“I know that Adrienne, and I don’t fault him for that…it’s okay. But what about your food supply? How low are you?” Joe inquired. His fingers gently caressed the back of her hand as they talked.
“We’ve almost out…there’s just a few onions and peppers, and even less potatoes and beans…I killed the last rooster the day after I found you…and I’ve only flour and meal enough for two more loaves of bread and maybe a skillet of cornbread…and…and…”
Adrienne pulled back her hand and when she had lowered her head, she covered her face with both hands and began to weep.
“Josh should have been back by now,” she sobbed. “He’s never taken this long before…he was bringing back enough supplies to last us through the winter and then he was going to get a loan at the bank in Salt Lake City and then….” Her words became muddled and Joe could not understand what she was saying.
Her crying tore at his heart and he was at a loss as to how to comfort Adrienne.
“Please…stop crying…it can’t be as bad as you think. Surely your husband will be back any time now, unless…”
Adrienne’s head darted up and she ceased crying, staring oddly into Joe’s eyes. “Unless what?” she demanded.
Joe, realizing too late his mistake, gulped. “I only meant that perhaps he was detained for some reason…I didn’t mean to worry you…”
“Oh…yes,” she said, standing to her feet. She turned and walked away from the bed, stopping to peer out the window. When she turned, she was smiling. “Oh course, Joe, my husband was just delayed, he’ll be here soon….”
“Adrienne, I have a little money…”
“Oh Joe…no, I couldn’t…Besides, once Josh gets back, everything will be just fine, you wait and see,” she rushed to explain.
“But until then, you could use it, go into town and buy what you need…for the children,” Joe told her.
“Town?” Adrienne almost laughed. “Joe…the nearest town is a day’s ride from here…on horse back…and then it’s only a trading post. They don’t even have a doctor; they don’t have a mercantile, no dress shops, nothing…not even a sheriff’s office.”
“Nothing?” stammered Joe, realizing for the first time, just how far from civilization they actually were. “I take it they don’t have a telegraph office either?”
“I need to wire my family in Virginia City…my father must be worried sick about me…your husband isn’t the only one long over due,” smiled Joe.
“I’m sorry Joe…I wish I could do something about that, but I can’t,” she returned his smile. “I suppose, until Josh comes back and your shoulder heals, we’re stuck with each other.”
The smile on Joe’s face faded momentarily. That’s not the worse thing that could happen to me, he thought and then quickly shook the thought away.
“You ought to be glad it was me you found and not my brother Hoss,” smiled Joe.
“And why is that?” Adrienne asked in a light tone. God, he was so handsome, her heart told her mind as she stood over his bed, smiling down into his eyes that seemed to suddenly come alive with amusement.
“‘Cause my brother weighs almost three hundred pounds and eats like a horse…now me on the other hand, I eat practically nothing at all…” Joe stopped suddenly.
“Adrienne…you have to take the money…and you have to ride to the trading post and get some supplies…just enough to last us a few days, until Josh gets home,” he added quickly before she could interrupt him and refuse the offer. “For the children…please?”
She seemed to be considering the offer. She did have her two children to think of…she glanced at Joe with doubt still showing on her face.
“Josh took the riding horse and mule, Joe…there’s no way that I could get there except in the wagon, and that would take forever…the team isn’t broke to saddle, Joe.”
“You can ride Cochise…my horse. You did find him, didn’t you?” Joe hadn’t thought about his mount until just then and the idea that his pinto might still be on the loose sent a new fear into his heart…without a saddle horse between them…
“Yes, I found him before I found you. He’s in the barn…Petey’s been caring for him.”
“Can you ride?” Joe asked.
Adrienne surprised Joe with her light laughter. “Of course I can ride…I was born in the saddle,” she scolded him softly.
“Good, then take all the money out of my saddlebags and the first thing in the morning…you ride for that trading post and get just the essentials…”
“But the children?” she asked as her laughter died.
“They can stay with me…”
“You? Joe, you can’t keep an eye on those two…you’re hardly in any shape to…”
“Don’t you worry about me, or the kids, we’ll be just fine,” he said, hoping to squelch her fears. He wasn’t too sure of what he himself had suggested, but it was for sure that unless Adrienne rode to the trading post and bought a few things, the likelihood that they would all starve was very real.
Adrienne moved to the edge of the bed and sat down. Her expression was a mixture of hopefulness and doubtfulness. “Are you sure, Joe…really sure? It could take me two days, even if I left at sunrise and then headed straight back.”
Joe’s hand caressed Adrienne’s cheek, and again he felt the warming of his flesh as his fingers touched her face. “I’m sure,” he muttered in a thick voice.
Adrienne placed her hand over Joe’s and brought the work worn fingers to her lips. Tenderly, as if she were in love for the very first time, she kissed the palm of his hand. Tears sprang into her eyes as she watched his grow dark with undeniable desire. Quickly, her body tingling, she lowered Joe’s hand and stood up. She had to stop this nonsense, she chided herself…she was a married woman…and in love with no man, other than her husband. Her eyes studied Joe’s face, but this man stirred within her an unsatisfied need…Adrienne turned from Joe, unable to continue meeting his gaze.
“I’ll get you some broth, and a slice or two of bread. And then I need to get some sleep, if I’m to leave early in the morning.” She walked from the room, miniature beads of water dotted her brow and her breathing had become labored as she leaned over the kitchen table. ‘Dear God,’ she stammered silently, ‘what’s come over me?’
“Now Petey, you do everything that Mr. Cartwright tells you, and you and Sarah Beth stay inside this house, do you hear me?” Adrienne issued her orders as she stood in the doorway. “And you make sure that Joe stands in that bed…Joe…do you understand?”
Joe giggled, smiling broadly, “Yes ma’am…don’t you worry, we’ll be fine,” he called from his bed where he sat propped against the pillows. He was grinning from cheek to cheek and the angelic look on his face, caused Adrienne to return the smile.
“I’ll be back tomorrow night,” she promised. “You have everything you need, and when you get hungry, Petey can fix you some soup. I hope you don’t mind…it’s just stewed carrots, onions and potatoes…”
“That’s plenty,” assured Joe.
His hand had slipped beneath the blanket and rested on the pistol that he had Adrienne bring to him earlier. One could never be too careful, he had told her. He had no notion of being caught off guard, should something unexpected spring up. She had agreed to his suggestion and also that the children be made to play inside. She had already fed what stock was in the barn and had milked the cow long before daylight, gathered the eggs and had even pulled up a fresh bucket of water from the well.
“Be careful, Adrienne,” Joe cautioned as she kissed her children good-bye. “Cochise tends to be high spirited at times, keep a tight rein on him…he’ll get you there and back,” smiled Joe.
“Thank you Joe…for everything,” she smiled.
“No…it’s I that should thank you…but we’ll argue the point when you get back, you best ride!”
With a smile and a wave of her hand that carried to her children, sweet kisses, Adrienne mounted up and rode away.
“But I gotta, Mr. Cartwright! The cow’s gotta get milked,” grumbled Petey.
Joe wrinkled up his face. “Yes, I know she does, but you can’t do it…not alone,” argued Joe.
Sarah Beth had taken right up with Joe and had spent most of the day sitting in his room keeping him company. Joe had read to both children until he had fallen to sleep…and when he had finally woke a couple of hours later, Petey had fed his little sister some bread and jam, poured her some milk and put the soup on the stove to begin warming.
Everything had gone well, until Petey got it in his head that it was time for milking the cow.
“Oh yes I can…I do it everyday all by myself…ain’t nothing to it!”
Petey stood along side Joe’s bed with his little hands folded across his chest. Joe could not keep from grinning, for the little boy looked much like a miniature man standing as he was, one overall strap falling off his shoulders, a pout on his lips and a determined set to his jaw.
“Perhaps so, but tonight, the cow will just have to go without milking…you are not going out of this house until your ma comes back,” Joe said in a tone that was equal to Ben Cartwright’s. “Besides, it’s already dark and I heard you tell your mother that you didn’t like to go out after dark.”
“I ain’t scared of the dark!” barked Petey.
“Uh hum…you is too ‘fraid,” Sarah Beth contradicted.
Petey glared at his sister, “Am not!”
“AM NOT!” shouted Petey.
“You is too ascared…” Sarah turned to smile up a Joe. Before he could ask the little girl to stop teasing her brother, Petey moved next his sister and began shaking his fist under her nose.
“I ain’t afraid of the dark,” he shouted.
Joe noted the tiny tears that had filled the little boy’s eyes. “Sarah, why don’t you go play with your dolly. I’d like to have a word with your brother,” smiled Joe.
“Otay Mr. Cartwhite,” Sarah beamed as she scampered from the room.
When Sarah had gone, Joe patted the side of his bed and waited until Petey had inched closer. The little boy refused to sit down next to Joe and stood along side the bed, his head bent down low.
“Am I in trouble, sir?” he asked Joe in a low voice.
“Of course you’re not,” he said quickly. I just wanted to share something with you.”
“You do?” Petey seemed surprised and he moved just a bit closer. “What?”
Joe smiled; the boy was trying so hard not to cry. “You know Petey, it’s alright to be afraid, sometimes a man just can’t help it…”
“But I ain’t afraid of the dark,” the boy stammered, trying hard to sound convincing.
“Of course you’re not…but when I was your age, I sure was,” Joe explained. His eyes watched the boy and when Petey met his gaze, his eyes were wide in wonder.
“You were?” he questioned.
“Yep, sure was…and at night, I had to have the lamp burning on low, so I could see if I happened to wake up,” confessed Joe.
“Wow…even I don’t gotta have a light at night,” muttered Petey. He moved an inch or so closer to Joe. “Was ya ever scared when you got to be big…like ya are now?”
Joe pinched his lips tightly, and gave thought to his answer. The boy was warming to him, and anything less than the truth right now would destroy what little ground he had gained in earning the boy’s friendship.
“I was scared after I got shot. I knew I was hurt pretty bad, and I was afraid I might die. I had to find help, and I didn’t know what to do,” Joe admitted honestly.
“Gosh,” muttered Petey. “I’d be scared to if’n I got shot. My Pa would have helped ya, if’n he’d been the one to find ya, instead of Mama,” smiled Petey.
“I’m sure he would have son,” Joe returned the smile. “But your mama helped me, and you and Sarah Beth…I might have died if you hadn’t come along when you did. I want to thank you,” Joe was sincere.
Petey sat down on the edge of Joe’s bed. The boy had lowered his head. “I didn’t pray for ya, like Mama asked me too,” Petey said in a wee voice. “I didn’t want ya to live…I just wanted ya to go away,” he said, looking at last into Joe’s face. “I’m sorry…”
When he looked up at Joe, his eyes had filled with tears. Joe pulled the little boy to him and held him tightly. “That’s okay Petey…I know you really didn’t mean it.”
“Yes I did, honest Mr. Cartwright,” Petey pulled back and looked up at Joe. “I was afraid that when ya got better, ya might take my Mama away…’cause she’s so purty…you know. And I didn’t want my pa to come home and us not be here.”
Joe felt his throat constrict.
“I don’t like my Pa to go away,” Petey batted his long lashes, causing another tear to roll gently down his cheek. “I’m always scared that he won’t come home.” Petey sniffed his nose and ran his long sleeve under it to wipe off the dampness. “Know what I mean, Joe?”
Joe had to swallow several times to clear away the thickness. He knew all too well how the little boy felt. When he could find his voice, he smiled.
“I sure do Petey. My ma died when I was real little, younger than Sarah Beth and I missed her something terrible. I still do at times. After she died, I was always frightened when my Pa had to go away on business. I lived everyday that he was gone with the fear that he might not ever come back. It was several years later before I understood that my mama died and didn’t just go away and leave me. Pa told me that she hadn’t wanted to leave me, but that sometimes bad things happen to good people.” Joe ruffled the top of the boy’s head and pulled him into a hug for the second time.
“My pa ain’t never comin’ home, Joe,” Petey said sadly.
“You don’t know that,” Joe was surprised by the boy’s statement.
“Yes I do…he told me that the only way he’d never come back, was if something bad happened to him. He ain’t never lied to me, Joe…so’s I just figured something bad must’va happened to him…and he can’t come home. Sorta like ya mama did.”
Petey pushed Joe’s arm away and stood up. “I really gotta milk that cow, Little Joe,” smiled Petey. “She bawlin’, cain’t ya hear her? And ‘sides, I’m the man of the house now and I gotta see to the chores.”
Joe let out a long sigh. “I suppose you’re right, Petey, but I don’t like the idea of you going out there alone.”
“I’ll be fine…honest…please? We need the milk for in the morning,” the boy pleaded.
“Alright, but I’m only giving you half an hour…don’t make me come out there after you!” ordered Joe, smiling.
Petey giggled, “Ya heard what Mama said, ya better not get outta that bed…she keeps a switch hangin’ on the wall,” Petey pointed to the wall, and sure enough there was the switch.
Joe’s face broke opened as he giggled. “I bet your ma really knows how to use that switch, too,” laughed Joe. “You best get to the milking son.”
“Yessir,” smiled Petey. The boy turned to leave but stopped and turned back around. “Thanks Little Joe…and ya don’t gotta worry none…I promise not to tell anyone about ya being scared and all.”
“Thank you Petey,” Joe nodded. “I appreciate that.”
Petey returned the smile and stopped at the door. “Little Joe?” he said in a wee voice.
“So’s ya’ll know…I really am afraid of the dark.”
Before Joe could say another word, Petey had turned and fled the room. A moment later, Joe heard the door slam as the boy hurried out to the barn to milk the cow.
Joe glanced at the clock that hung on the wall in the living room that could easily be seen through his opened door. It had only been a few minutes, but he could not stop worrying about the young boy. Had he made a mistake by letting Petey go to the barn alone? What if something happened to him, or what if the old milk cow should happen to spook and kick the boy? Joe was becoming nervous over his decision about letting Petey out of the house. He turned to the window, it had grown dark quickly and the boy’s words about being afraid of the dark had added more doubt to his stress.
Carefully he tossed back the blankets that covered him and using extreme caution, slowly swung his legs around until he was sitting on the side of the bed. Joe was thankful that he had been allowed to put back on his longjohns as he didn’t think that with just one good hand, he would have been able to manage alone.
He smiled at the memory. It had been about this time of day when he had demanded to have his clothes. Adrienne had brought him his long john bottoms and after several attempts of putting on his own pants, he had to ask the young woman to help him. Adrienne had turned beet red and when she tried to explain why she shouldn’t Joe had only laughed at her. Finally, after much pleading, Adrienne had extinguished the lamp so that they would be in total blackness. She had held the waistband opened, and allowed Joe to step into them, and then carefully she had helped him pull the bottoms up, until she got as far as his knees, and then she removed her hands and turned her back to him. Once Joe had them on, he was so exhausted that he had practically fallen into the bed. When Adrienne heard him moan softly, she was instantly by his side. Her worry for his welfare shone in her eyes.
Joe closed his eyes for just a moment, recalling his next move. When Adrienne bent down to check on him, he had slipped his arm about her neck and quickly, yet with all the tenderness he felt for her, pulled her down to him. When their eyes locked, it had seemed to Joe that his world has ceased spinning. He raised his head and gently pressed his lips to hers. The kiss was soft at first and then became more demanding as she yielded herself over to him.
Joe stood carefully to his feet, shaking his head to rid himself of the vision. He knew he had been wrong in kissing the lovely Adrienne, but he had not been able to stop himself, and when she had returned the kiss so willingly, he had lost sense of everything except for the woman whom he held in his arm.
Joe groaned. For days now, he had been trying to tell himself that he didn’t love her, that he couldn’t…she was a married woman, but in truth, he knew that he was just fooling only himself. He did love her, he desired her and she wanted him as well…her ardent, burning kiss had told him that much.
Joe’s thoughts were shattered by the blood-curdling scream that rang loudly through the darkness. Joe froze in his tracks, not fully comprehending what he had just heard until the second ear-piercing scream shattered any doubt he might have had.
“PETEY!” shouted Joe aloud.
He made a grab for the pistol that he had moved to the table near his bed and started toward the door in a rush. Unexpectedly, the door burst opened and a terrified Petey flew into Joe’s arm, catching him off guard. Both man and boy staggered backwards. The wound in Joe’s shoulder sent spasms of pain shooting throughout his weakened body. Joe bit down on his lip, drawing blood, to keep from screaming out in pain.
Quickly gathering his thoughts, he grabbed the sobbing child by one shoulder. “Petey…Petey…stop crying and tell me what’s wrong!”
Petey sobbed on, pointing out the door. Joe could feel the boy’s little body trembling in fear. When he glanced at Sarah, she stood in the doorway of her room; her eyes wide with fright as well.
“Petey…calm down…tell me, what frightened you?” Joe said as he clenched his teeth to the throbbing in his right shoulder.
“Wild dogs…they’re at the barn. When I came…with the milk, I saw them, Joe…they scared me and I ran for the house,” cried Petey.
Joe felt the terror wash over him as he held the boy pressed to him. “I dropped the milk bucket,” sobbed the child.
“Shh…don’t cry, Petey, it’s okay; we’ll have more milk in the morning,” Joe explained.
“But the cow…the dogs…they’re trying to get mama’s milk cow, Joe…do somethin’!” sobbed Petey.
Joe scanned the room with his eyes. He glanced at the old pistol he held in his hand. He needed more than a six gun to scatter the dogs. Joe had no idea how many there were, but one wild dog, possibly starving was one wild dog too many.
“Petey, listen to me…STOP CRYING!” snapped Joe, giving the boy a firm shake. “That’s better; does your papa have a rifle around here?”
Petey, sniffing, pointed to his mother’s room. “In there, on the wall…it’s a shotgun,” Petey told Joe.
Joe made his way into Adrienne’s room as fast as he could. He found the shotgun and removed it from the wall. He checked to see if the gun was loaded and when he found it empty, he glanced around the room. In what appeared to be a man’s chest, he pulled opened the top drawer, and rummaged around inside until he found the box of shells. Instantly he loaded the weapon and then put several of the cartridges into the pocket of his jacket that he had slipped on just minutes before Petey had let out the spine-chilling scream.
Joe turned toward the door and carefully picked his way around the furniture. His hand was bracing his body on the edge of the dresser. As he started passed, his eyes fell on a photograph. It was Adrienne; Sarah Beth was much smaller and was sitting on her mother’s lap, Petey stood to her right. It was the face of the man with them that drew his attention, and he lifted the photograph up until he could see the face of the man more clearly.
His breath expelled from his lungs and he felt his body sway and quite unexpectedly, Joe felt very weak. Breathing had become next to impossible and Joe feared that he might pass out. His hand trembled as he placed the picture back onto the dresser. His eyes shut tightly against the image.
“No…no…it can’t be,” he whispered silently.
“JOE!” shouted Petey. “HURRY!”
Joe’s head snapped up and he looked into the main room. Petey stood at the front door and was pointing into the darkness. When he looked up at Joe, his eyes were wide with fright.
“They’re back, Joe and one’s almost in the barn! The cow…ya gotta save mama’s milk cow!” wept Petey.
Joe made it to the door, and paused, placing his hand on the top of the boy’s curly hair. He smiled, “when I go out, you shut this door, Petey, and make sure you don’t open it again, until I call out to you, understand?”
Petey nodded his head. Joe glanced over his shoulder at Sarah who was crying. “It will be all right, sweetheart. You just stay here with Petey. Petey, take care of your sister,” ordered Joe as he slipped out into the darkness and shut the door tightly behind him.
For several moments, Joe stood in the darkness, giving his eyes time to adjust to the dense blackness. He could hear the dogs running around the barn and could hear them yelping at the door. His ears picked up the faint sound of scratching and knew that the dogs were trying to dig under the door.
Carefully, being sure to stay up wind of the animals, Joe crept slowly through the night until he came to the well. He lowered himself behind the small well house and peeked over the top. So far the dogs had not picked up his scent, and Joe prayerfully begged the Almighty not to give them that chance. He counted four dogs in all. They were big dogs, shepherds of mixed sizes he concluded, probably mixed with timber wolf, making the dogs extremely dangerous.
Joe checked his rifle and slowly raised it to his left shoulder and fired. The sudden noise startled the dogs, but they refused to run off. Instead, they turned their attention on the one who had fired the gun. A large black dog growled, the sound coming from deep down in the animal’s throat. The growl was meant as a warning to the dog’s predator. Joe raised up slightly so that he could see over the top of the well house. A second dog hunkered down as if to pounce and the third and fourth dogs, standing slightly behind the first two, began barking loudly.
Joe was unsure what his next move might be. He kept his eye on the black dog, obviously the leader of the pack. The dog encouraged by Joe’s silence, crept forward, followed by the others. The wind had shifted and now the dogs were picking up on Joe’s scent as they advanced.
The pain in Joe’s shoulder had momentarily been forgotten when he had spied the photograph of Adrienne and her family, but now had returned. Joe shivered, the night air was nippy and when he peeked again at the dogs, there was only three. Joe’s eyes roamed the yard for the big black dog, but being so dark, Joe was unable to find the animal.
The dogs had shortened the distance between themselves and his hideout to about half. When the dogs were less than half way, Joe pointed his rifle and fired the second shell. The loud yelping of one dog pierced the quite solitude of the night. Rushing to slip two more shells into the barrels of his shotgun, Joe watched as two of the dogs ran off, into the thickets that lay to the opposite side of the barn. The third dog approached cautiously, growling as it slithered along on the ground toward him.
Not wanting to waste any more of the precious shells, Joe stood to his feet and began shouting, waving his one good arm into the air. The dog, not sure what was after him, tucked his tail between his legs and darted off into the darkness to seek refuge with his two friends.
“Whew…” Joe sighed, glad that the dogs had left so willingly.
His eyes searched the darkness for the big black dog, but it was impossible to see him. The cow had begun bawling loudly as Joe slipped to the door. His ankle twisted slightly and he winced at the sharp pain that shot up his leg. He looked down to see what had caused him to turn his ankle and could barely make out the hole that had been dug beneath the barn door.
The cow and the team of harness horses could be heard moving around nervously inside. Something had the animals spooked decided Joe as he eased opened the door. His rifle was cocked and ready to fire as he slipped into the barn. Joe paused, getting his bearings before going any further. He had never been in the barn and the layout was something that he was unfamiliar with. Joe had no idea how long he stood in the shadows, but at last he heard the low growl that came from deep within the throat of the big dog. Joe was at a disadvantage, having only one free arm and hand in which to use the gun. He braced his arm and the rifle on the half wall that he leaned against. He would have to make the shot count if he wished to rid the barn of the unwanted predator.
Joe took a deep breath and held it. The animals shuffled around, obviously frightened by the scent of impending danger that they had picked up on. The cow bellowed loudly, a bucket was tipped over and then the cow startled the barn’s occupants, including Joe, when she kicked her hoof out behind her. Instantly Joe heard the dog begin to yap and knew that the old milk cow had scored the first point in her favor.
Through the darkness, Joe could see the outline of the dog as it inched its way back toward the cow. By this time, the cow had begun it’s bellowing once more and moved frantically from side to side of her stall, trying to free herself.
The dog moved quickly as he slithered along on his belly. Joe sighted the animal and just as the big black dog sprung into the air, Joe fired the rifle. The echo of the shot seemed to ring in the young man’s ears. Joe watched as the dog dropped to the ground and lay motionless. Moments later, Joe left his hiding place and stepped over to the dog. He leaned over the dog and felt several of the places where the pellets from the shell had entered the dog’s body. The leader of the pack was dead and Joe knew that at least for now, the stock would be safe, for the others would not return until they had another leader. Joe propped the gun against the wall and dragged the dog from the barn. It would have to wait to be disposed of, for Joe was unable to do it in his present condition. After checking and calming the stock, Joe made his way back to the house. He was drained, exhausted beyond going as he pushed himself to get to the house.
By the time that Joe had reached the door, it was all he could do to stand on his own two feet. He leaned against the railing on the porch, and drew a deep breath.
“PETEY!” he called weakly.
The door opened immediately and the young boy ran to Joe, wrapping his arms about Joe’s waist. Joe staggered slightly at the force in which Petey collided into him. The pain in his shoulder caused him to clench his jaw tightly to keep from crying out. He gripped the back of the young boy’s head and held it against his mid-section.
“You’re alright!” cried Petey. He hugged Joe tighter and then looked up.
“Is the cow…”
“She’s fine, son. Help me inside, please,” Joe insisted as he stumbled through the door. “The bed…I have to lay down,” he moaned.
Petey guided Joe into the room and helped him as best he could to lie down. Joe was breathing heavily and he tried to hide his pain from the boy.
“Where’s Sarah?” Joe said in a whispered voice.
“She’s right here,” Petey said as he pointed to his little sister that had been hiding behind her brother.
Joe raised his head from the pillow and offered the little girl a weak smile. “It’s okay, Sarah; the doggies are gone now…they won’t be coming…back.” Joe’s head fell back against the pillow; his eyes closed.
Petey stood next to the bed, watching and waiting expectantly for Joe to open his eyes. After several moments, Joe’s eyelids fluttered and then opened. Petey’s frightened face loomed over him and Joe could see the fear written in the expression on the boy’s face.
“Ya gonna be alright, Little Joe?” Petey said in a whisper.
“I’m fine, son. There’s no need for you to worry, I’m just very, very tired.” Joe patted Petey’s shoulder. “Why don’t you and Sarah go on to bed; it’s past your bedtime now?”
“Ya sure, Little Joe? I can stay here…with ya…just in case ya might need me?”
Joe gave the boy a warm smile…somehow it appeared that he had finally won the boy over. “I think your mama would have my hide if she knew I let you stay up half the night…just go on to bed, son…I won’t need anything before in the morning.”
Joe saw the boy’s chin drop. “I’ll need you then, Petey, so you need to get all the rest you can…Okay?”
Petey smiled suddenly and nodded his head. “Oh boy Little Joe…there’s lots of things I can do for ya! Pa let’s me help him all the time! Night!”
Joe waited until Petey and his sister went into their rooms before allowing himself the comfort of closing his eyes once more. When he woke to the pain in his shoulder, it was several hours later. He glanced toward the living area and noted that Petey had left a lamp burning low. The thought of the boy using a match that might have caused him to be burnt caused Joe to tremble. He’d have to remember to speak with Petey and ask if his mother allowed him to do such grown-up things.
Joe’s throat was dry and he needed a drink of water in the worst way. Carefully he swung his legs over the side of the bed and pushed himself up, onto his feet. With his only usable hand, Joe braced himself on the table next to the bed and slowly managed to make it to the pitcher on the wash stand. It was emptied; Joe groaned and started to pick it up but decided against it. Instead, he slowly worked his way into the kitchen where he pumped water from the pump at the sink. The water was cool and seemed to relieve most of the dryness in his mouth. He pumped the handle one more time until the water ran freely and then splashed some onto his face. The water was refreshing and seemed to clear some of the cobwebs from Joe’s head.
Joe wiped dry his face with a towel he’d found and began the trek back to his room. He’d almost reached the door when he stopped. Glancing into Adrienne’s room, and seeing Petey curled up in a tight ball, Joe walked into the room and covered the sleeping child with the blanket. Petey moaned softly and turned onto his side, sleeping soundly as he did so.
Joe started out, but the photograph he’d seen earlier caught his eye for the second time that night. Silently he picked up the framed picture and carried it with him to the light. As he sat down in the chair at the table, Joe held the picture under the lamplight to get a better look. He studied the image of the man, very much aware of the knots that began tightening in his stomach. He wasn’t surprised to see the hand that clutched tightly to the photograph, begin to shake.
“It can’t be…” Joe murmured to himself. “Dear God, it just can’t be!” he whispered loudly and he sat the picture face down on the table so that he would not have to look at the smiles on the faces of the happy family.
Joe pushed back his chair and walked to the door, opening it. He stepped cautiously out onto the porch, leaning against the post to support the weight of his body. His thoughts turned to the lovely young woman who had saved his life. Adrienne was the essence of true beauty, decided Joe. She was kind, caring, full of compassion and pleasant to look at. Joe glanced up at the stars and wondered just how long she and her husband, Josh, had been married. How had they met, and what was it about the man, that had attracted her to him.
Joe swiped his hand across his mouth. The memory of their kiss burned his lips, giving him the freedom to wonder what it might be like to make love to her. She had responded to his kiss, he had seen the hunger in her eyes and he had sensed that she had wanted him as much as he had desired her.
Joe suddenly shook his head to free the fantasy from his head. It was silly, he told himself, to permit such thoughts. His father would be shocked to know that his youngest son was lusting after another man’s wife. He wondered what his father would say, if he knew, and Joe frowned…it wouldn’t be pleasant. For Ben Cartwright was a man of high morals and those same morals that Ben lived by, he had tried to teach to his sons. Joe knew his father would be disappointed in him if he had any inkling that his youngest son was harboring such notions.
The far distant howl of a lone coyote snapped Joe back to the present. He shivered for the late night air had grown cool. Joe returned to the kitchen, picked up the photograph and carried it back to Adrienne’s room where he placed it where he had found it. He lingered momentarily, staring at the likeness of the small family. Taking a deep breath, Joe wiped the unexpected dampness from his face and made his way back to his bed where he lay staring up at the ceiling until the sun’s rays had herald in the beginning of a new day.
It hadn’t been easy using just one hand, but Joe had managed to get the old milk cow to give him half a bucket of milk. By that time, Joe was wondering if he had overdone himself, milking the cow, gathering what few eggs the chickens had lain, and he had even forced himself to make breakfast for the two children who now sat at the table waiting to be served. It had drained his strength, for he still very much needed to be in the bed. Adrienne would be furious with him when she returned and found out all that he had been doing.
His eyes sought the switch hanging on the wall and he couldn’t help but smile. The smile however, soon died. The pain in his shoulder had grown worse and he felt weak and sick to his stomach. His thoughts kept returning to the photograph he had found the night before and he could only wonder about the man in the picture with the lovely young woman.
Sleep had abandoned Joe the night before, his thoughts had been focused on this family…mostly Adrienne and the children…the man’s face haunted him. The one time he had closed his eyes, the face had towered over him, sending cold chills running up and down his spine. Joe had awoken with his body covered in a layer of sweat and from then until sunup, Joe had not slept. For the remainder of the night, Joe had repeatedly told himself that he did not love her. But by daybreak, alone in his room and with tears that rolled gently down his face, he had at last admitted to himself that he had indeed fallen in love with the dark hair beauty. But it was only a magical love woven of gossamer dreams, enchantingly real, that people in love are privileged to feel…an exquisite ecstasy that captures the heart. In the end, Joe admitted that it was a love that could never be; a love that was destined to die before it bloomed. The laughter that they had shared would turn to teardrops, the bad would, for once, over rule the good and in the end, Adrienne and her children would end up hating him. The truth of the matter left him feeling more drained than his injury, it left his heart with an empty, hollow feeling…and he faced the new day with a sudden dread, for the man’s face still lingered in his thoughts. It was because of that man in the picture, that Adrienne and her children would turn against him before the morning sky turned to night, and their hatred of him would be justified, reasoned Joe.
“You kids eat your breakfast,” Joe ordered angrily. “I’m going to lie down for just a few minutes,” he explained as he slowly crossed the kitchen to his room. “Stay inside…there’s nothing you have to tend to outside…Petey…are you listening?”
Joe had stopped at his room and turned toward the child, waiting for an answer to his question. “Well?”
“Yessir. I’ll make sure Sarah don’t get into nuthin’ too,” said the little boy with a quivering chin. His eyes filled with tears, yet he refused to brush them away. “What’ca yellin’ at me for? I didn’t do nuthin’, did I Joe?”
“Yelling?” Joe asked surprised. “Come here Petey,” he said in a tender voice.
Petey did as requested and stopped in front of Joe. Joe cupped the boy’s trembling chin and tilted his head upward.
“I’m sorry little buddy, I didn’t mean to be cross…it’s just that…right now my shoulder isn’t feeling too good, and I have a lot on my mind,” smiled Joe.
“Its mama, ain’t it, Joe? You’re worried about her, huh?” Petey asked.
Joe nodded his head and gave the boy a smile. “That’s right Petey, I am worried about your mother…I…”
“You like my mama, don’t ya?” Petey said in a wee voice.
The statement caught Joe off guard. He glanced quickly down at the boy and tried to find his voice. He cleared his throat.
“Of course I like your mama, but I like you too, and Sarah Beth…I like all of you,” stammered Joe.
Petey opened his eyes wide and then surprised Joe again by winking at him. “Yeah, I know…but you like mama best, I can tell,” Petey grinned.
“Oh, you can, can you…how?” Joe dared to ask.
“Cause I seen ya and mama…the other day,” Petey taunted with a grin.
Joe swallowed, wondering what it was that Petey might have seen, for they had done nothing that could be counted as improper…unless one could consider the kiss that…
“I seen ya kiss Mama…and then I seen the way ya looked at her and the way she looked at you. I ain’t never seen mama look at no body like that ‘ceptin’ my pa…and that’s only ’cause she loves him…Joe, do you love my mama too?” Petey suddenly asked.
Joe was unable to look the boy in the eye and was forced to turn away. He took a deep breath…God forgive me, his heart whispered, but yes, I love your mama.
“Petey,” Joe said at last, “I suppose I do love your mama…but not like your pa loves her…and your mama loves your father…not me,” Joe explained.
“Then why’d she kiss ya?” Petey was confused and it showed on his face.
“Petey, listen…sometimes…when two people, a man and a woman, like each other, they…well…sometimes they kiss…it just happens,” Joe was grasping at straws. “But that doesn’t always mean that they are in love…just friends…and…well…someday, son, you’ll understand…okay?”
“Oh all right,” Petey huffed as he wrinkled his nose. “Ya best get back in bed for mama gets home and finds out that ya didn’t mind her…she might switch ya if’n ya still up when she gets here,” ordered Petey.
Joe laughed softly. “You’re probably right buddy, she might at that. Now, you remember what I said, you and Sarah play right here in this room. You know where I’ll be if you need me…and don’t go outside; those dogs might come back and I don’t want anything to happen to either of you…understand?”
Joe was still sleeping when Adrienne slid from the back of his horse. She looped the reins around the hitching post and grabbed the sacks that were stretched across the horse’s back. It was late in the day, and the house was quiet. She felt a twinge of disappointment for she had half expected her children to burst forth from the house and greet her with open arms. When she stepped up on the porch, her disappointment instantly vanished for the front door was jerked opened and both children, squealing with pleasure at seeing her, flung themselves into her arms. Adrienne was forced to drop the sacks as each child wrapped themselves about her body.
“Mama!” cried Sarah Beth. “Ya shouldof been here…the wild doggies twied to get the cow, but Mr. Cartwhite shooted’em and they wunned away and Petey was out in the barn all alone and…”
“Whoa,” laughed Adrienne, “What’s this about wild dogs? And Petey,” Adrienne turned to her son, “what does Sarah mean you were out in the barn? I thought I told you not to go outside unless…”
“Maybe I’d better explain,” Joe said from the doorway; the children’s high-pitched giggles had awakened him. He was surprised at himself for the rush of relief he felt when he had heard her voice and knew that she had made it home safely. He grinned at her while watching her untangle her children’s arms from about her waist.
“Perhaps you’d better,” she returned the smile. Her eyes swept his body, pleased to see him on his feet and looking a might stronger than when she had left. “From the sounds of this, I have a notion that none of you did as I ordered!”
“I did…I did, mama!” Sarah Beth gleamed brightly. “But Petey and Mr. Cartwhite…they been bad boys, Mama!”
Adrienne and Joe swapped glances and both burst into laughter. Petey, not sure what had made his mama and Little Joe so happy, joined in the merriment.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Joe,” Adrienne said in a low voice.
They had put the children to bed and were sitting at the table, sipping coffee.
“And, I’m glad you had a safe trip,” Joe returned the smile.
“I’m glad to be home, honestly, the people at that trading post are despicable!” Adrienne groaned and then smiled when Joe laughed at her. “Well, they are! Oh,” she said, suddenly remembering the news that had sent tentacles of fear surging throughout her body. The smile on her face disappeared and she became serious.
“I asked about my husband. Josh always made a point of stopping there on his way back from Salt Lake City. They said he had been there, about four or five days ago,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the children…they would have been so disappointed. And I’m not sure those people were telling me the truth.”
Adrienne got up and walked around the table and stopped at the door. When she turned around, there were tears in her eyes.
“He’s not coming home, Joe…ever,” Adrienne cried.
Joe felt the sudden surge to his heart and quickly stood to his feet, unsure of what to say, or how to comfort her. “Adrienne…”
She held her hand up to stop his words. “Something’s happened to him, Joe…I just know it has, otherwise, he’d been here days ago.”
Joe crossed the room to where she stood and placed his free hand on her shoulder. Her tear filled eyes sought his. Joe pulled Adrienne close to him and held her while she cried.
“No, Joe…there’s nothing you can say…nothing that will stop this empty feeling I have…Josh is dead, Joe…dead,” sobbed Adrienne.
Joe swallowed and took a deep breath. “I know, Adrienne,” he whispered softly.
“Oh Joe…I wish I knew what happened to…” She pulled back from Joe’s chest and stared opened-mouth at him.
“Joe,” she uttered barely above a whisper. “What do you mean, you know? How could you possibly know?” she said a little louder.
She watched his face and saw how he momentarily closed his eyes. When his eyes opened, they had filled with tears and when she placed her hand on his arm, Joe moved away. Her touch was like a hot branding iron and Joe wondered if he would ever be able to tell her what he had come to realize.
“Answer me, Joe. You’re keeping something from me! I want to know what it is!” she said in a high pitched voice that bordered on hysteria.
“He’s dead.” Joe said.
“WHAT?” shouted Adrienne, tears slipping down her face. “How…how Joe…how do you know this?”
Joe turned around and faced Adrienne. The broken hearted look on her face tore his heart in two. “I didn’t know that he was your husband…honest Adrienne, I didn’t. Not until last night, when I found the picture in your room…I was looking for the shot gun to run the dogs off…and I saw it on your dresser, and…”
Adrienne’s nostrils fared in anger. She had stopped crying. “What are you saying…surely you aren’t implying that you…Oh God, Joe…you couldn’t have…not you!”
Her head dropped low until her chin was practically resting on her chest. Joe could see the trembling shoulders and hear the sound of her sobs as they wracked her body.
“Tell me!” she said between gritted teeth as she raised her head to look into his face, seeking the truth from him.
“I didn’t want to do it, Adrienne, but he left me no other choice. I had just made camp, a good day’s ride from here, and he came into my camp late that night. He was friendly at first, I didn’t think much about him, cause I’d seen him in Salt Lake City, in a saloon…he was playing poker and…”
“WHAT! He wouldn’t…he couldn’t have been…he didn’t have any money, except the cash for the sup…Oh God…NO!” she shouted. “He gambled away our savings…”
“That’s what I figured…”
“As I said, he came into camp and acted all friendly like. I invited him to stay the night…I didn’t think there was anything to worry about…until later. I woke up and found him going through my saddlebags. We got into a fight, and he pulled his gun on me…Adrienne,” Joe reached out for her but she pulled back. It was just as he had known it would be; already the hatred was burning into her eyes.
“You’re a liar!” she growled as she jerked her arm back out of his reach. “Josh would never steal…no matter how much he needed the money…you’re making this up…or…or…you were trying to rob him!
“You know better than that,” he argued. “He tried to kill me…he shot at me, but missed because I rolled away. I was able to get to my gun, but when I looked back at him, he had his pistol in his hand. I called out to him, not to shoot, but he pointed his gun at me and fired…I had no other choice Adrienne…it was either kill or be killed!” His tone was urgent; he had to make her understand that it had not been his wish to kill anyone…only to protect himself. “Adrienne, please…”
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” she screamed at Joe. “I don’t believe you…not one word…Josh would never do those things. He was good and decent and I loved him…”
Joe flinched when she raised her hand and brought it up to slap his face. “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!” she shouted. The tears rolled freely down the front of her face as she glared at him. “GET OUT! DO YOU HEAR ME…I SAID TO GET OUT!”
Adrienne stepped up to Joe and began beating his chest with her balled up fists. At that instant, Joe hated himself for the sorrow and pain that he had brought to this family. He made no attempt to stop her, even when his shirt showed stains of bright red where her fists hammered into the barely healed bullet wound in his shoulder.
Joe’s own eyes had filled with tears and when he blinked, they rolled slowly down from the corners of his eyes.
“I wish I’d left you out on the desert to die…God, I wish it were you instead of Josh who is dead…” sobbed Adrienne.
She had cried herself out and turned from him, leaving Joe standing with his good arm tangling down to his side. His brow was covered in sweat, his lips pressed tightly together and he had shut his eyes so as not to have to look into hers and see the disgust that she so obviously felt for him.
Adrienne straightened her back and turned to face Joe. She had ceased her crying but the remnants of tears lingered on her cheeks. The glow was gone from her face and when she spoke, her lips curled upward in distaste.
“I want you out of here before daylight. I don’t care what happens to you…I hope you keel over dead from that shoulder wound…I hope you bleed to death and the buzzards pick your eyeballs out of your head…”
Joe turned his head to look at Adrienne, he could understand her resentment of him, but her words cut him to the very core.
“I wish I’d never found you, Joe Cartwright…I wish to God…I’d never found you!”
She ran from the room, leaving Joe standing alone in the semi-darkness. His chest swelled with the deep breath he drew and he felt as if his entire world had just finished crashing down on top of his head. His heart was shattered.
Joe turned to go, but stopped suddenly, surprised to see Petey standing in the doorway. Joe noted immediately that the young boy had been crying and the thoughts that he had been the cause of the boy’s unhappiness added one more heartache to the growing pile that plagued the youngest Cartwright.
“Petey,” Joe said softly.
He took one step toward the boy and stopped. The same repulsion that had sparked his mother’s hatred, had ignited a fire in the blue eyes that had, just hours ago, looked so trustingly into his own.
“You killed my Papa…,” Petey said. It was more of a statement than a question.
Joe’s head dropped, looking at the young boy was the hardest thing that he had ever done. He couldn’t do it and for several long agonizing moments, he didn’t.
“I’m so sorry…” Joe whispered.
“I hate you, Joe.”
The tears dripped from Joe’s chin, he still could not bring himself to look into the eyes, knowing that they had filled with tears and more contempt than he had ever encountered before.
“I know,” muttered Joe in a cracked voice. Joe looked at his hand unaware that it trembled.
“Someday…when I’m all grown up…and you’re old…I’m going to kill you.”
Only then did Joe raised his head and look at the boy. He stared in disbelief at the eight-year old lad. He was stunned at the boy’s words and left speechless.
“Do what my mama says and get out of here.” The malice in Petey’s voice was undeniable and it made Joe’s blood run cold.
“Petey…you can’t mean what you said…about wanting to kill me?” stammered Joe.
Petey’s body shook as he stood before Joe with all the hate that he harbored for the man in front of him, showing in his eyes and etched onto his little brow. He looked nothing like an eight-year old boy, standing, as he was, unafraid of the man who had admitted to killing his father. Joe looked down into the miniature face and felt himself flinch. The boy had every right to hate him…and to want to kill him for what he believed Joe had done purposely. For that, Joe could not fault the boy, only himself.
“Yes I do…someday…I’m gonna kill ya!” screamed Petey.
“PETEY!” shouted Adrienne from her bedroom doorway.
Petey’s courage dissipated at the sound of his mother’s voice and he flew into her arms, weeping. Without a word or glance at Joe, Adrienne gathered the child into her arms and carried him into the room with her and shut the door. Once more, Joe was left standing alone with nothing to keep him company but his shattered heart.
Joe felt numb all over. So much had happened in the last half-hour, that none of it seemed real. He moved about, as if in a trance, gathering what few articles of clothing he had and stuffing them into his saddlebags. He gave one last glance around the room to be sure he had not left anything and then slowly made his way to the front door. He paused, undecided as to whether or not he should take a few things with him, but decided against it. Adrienne and her family needed the supplies that she had ridden so far to obtain, it wasn’t right to take food from her children. He had already taken far too much, and not just the food from their mouths, but their father from their lives.
Joe brushed his hand down the front of his face to wipe dry the moisture that had begun to seep from his eyes. How would they fare, once their food was gone? Where would they go? The unanswered questions followed him to the barn.
Joe tossed his things down on the pile of hay next to the stall where Cochise was stabled. It was far too late and much too dark to travel at night, decided Joe. He’d just have to wait until daybreak to ride out, but, he promised himself, he would do as Adrienne had asked, and be gone long before the family woke.
The night dragged on, it seemed endless to Joe, who stood in the open doorway of the barn and gazed longingly toward the house. He could see a light burning in Adrienne’s window and as she paced back and forth in her room he could easily make out her silhouette against the darkness outside. Joe longed to go to her, to comfort her, to hold her in his arms, but he knew that should he try, Adrienne would only turn him away. And, he could not bear to hear her proclaim again, the hate that she felt for him, or to see the sadness on her face, or the grief in her dark eyes. The entire situation ripped him to pieces and he hurt, inside, deep down in his heart like he’d never hurt before. In that instant Joe almost wished he had died out there, on the desert. It could not have hurt any more than what he was feeling at that minute.
Joe turned from the darkness and pulled the barn door tightly shut. The lonesome cry of coyotes could be heard filtering across the blackness and giving the night an eerie feel. It was a desolate sound that rendered one speechless and wondering…much like the heartbroken cry coming from the tiny framed house where Adrienne Deavers lay upon her bed weeping for what she had lost.
Joe was many miles away by the time that Adrienne crawled from her bed. The house was quiet; her children lay sleeping as she slipped into the morning air. She wore the same clothes that she had worn the day before. Her shoes, she had kicked off and her feet were bare as she hurried to the barn. When she pulled opened the door and stuck her head inside, she wasn’t sure what she was feeling. A mixture of relief and disappointment cornered her heart as she sighed deeply. His horse was gone, a testament to his leaving. Adrienne walked to the pile of loose hay and stared at the impression that his body had make where he had spent the night. She silently cursed him for what he had done to her and her children. She had not wanted to believe the story that he had told her…Josh had been a good husband, an even better father. The details of her husband’s death had destroyed something within her and left her feeling as if she had never really known her own husband.
On the other hand, she knew that Joe had not lied, yet she blamed him for Josh’s death, she cursed him for her broken heart and for her children’s unhappiness. She had said things to him, mean, hurtful things that she had never said to another human being before. She had snarled at him, and slapped him, beat him with her fists, yet Joe had stood without moving, tears running down his handsome face and had let her unleash her hurt onto him.
Joe was in love with her, she knew it, she had known for several days. She had seen the way in which he looked at her, watched her as she moved about doing her work. She felt it when he touched her arm, or held her hand, she felt the heat of his passion the day he had pulled her to him and kissed her deeply…yet she hated him. For everything…all of it, his being hurt, her finding him and bringing him home to nurse, for falling in love with her and for making her children like him, she blamed him. She even blamed him for making her question her devotion to her husband, for causing her to question whether or not what she once thought was love, could be love at all, or something else. Adrienne ran her fingers through her long dark hair; she even blamed him for making her want him as much as he wanted her.
Adrienne let out a long sigh and let herself out of the barn. What she felt now didn’t matter anymore, he was gone, and Josh was dead. She had no one, other than her children and they needed her more now than ever before. Adrienne shielded her eyes against the bright morning rays and stared off into the horizon. She’d never see him again. The thought troubled her some, but she pushed it to the back of her mind. What did it matter, she could never bring herself to love the man who killed her husband, no matter what reason…she just couldn’t do it.
Adrienne walked slowly to the house; she had plans to make, there were things that needed to be seen to. She would return to Philadelphia where she could make a fresh start for herself and the children. She could bury herself in work and try to forget what happened here, in the middle of the desert, where love had budded and had died before it bloomed. Where love was nothing more than gossamer dreams woven as a fine film of cobwebs floating in the air; gentle love, sweet love, a never to be love.
The pain in her heart would diminish over time; but would the memory of the man, who had stirred the seed of passion within her soul, haunt her dreams for years to come? Who could say?