Hate and Fear (by Rona)

Summary: A local man marries an Indian girl, and stirs up a racial backlash, which encompasses the Cartwrights, who offer friendship.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: T
Word Count: 10,500


Smoke writhed under the wooden door, and set the man coughing. He struggled against the ropes that tightly bound him to the supporting pole in the middle of the cabin, but his struggles only seemed to make the knots tighter. He coughed again. From outside, the howling of the mob grew louder and louder, and the man could hardly believe that these people, who he’d known all his life, were intent on burning him to death, all because he had tried to protect the woman who lived here.

He didn’t know where Grace was anymore. He hadn’t seen her since the mob had dragged him away from the corral, beaten him, tied him in the cabin, and then set it on fire. Again, the smoke tickled his throat, causing him to cough. The movement of his ribs set off painful spasms in the bruised, strained muscles of his chest. “Let me out of here!” he yelled, and choked on the smoke. It came to him that he would die there, and the thought of never seeing his family again sent a sharp pain through his heart.

Every breath was torture now, as the door burst into flames. The man felt his head swimming as he was forced to breathe in the smoke, which thickened with every passing second. He knew a last moment of fear, as he slumped unconscious in his bonds.

*********

“Well now,” murmured Adam Cartwright, “that’ll set the cat among the pigeons.” He spoke in the dry tones that often covered his real feelings.

“What will?” asked Joe Cartwright, the youngest of Adam’s brothers. He hitched his pinto pony to the rail in front of the church, and looked at Adam. Following his brother’s gaze, he saw one of their neighbours, Jed Wilkins, driving his buggy along the street. There was a woman sitting beside him. “Is that Jed’s new wife?”

“Yes, that’s her,” Ben Cartwright replied. He patted his buckskin horse. “I wonder what the reaction will be.”

“I’m sure you could guess,” retorted Adam.

“What’s got everyone so fired up?” enquired Hoss, the middle brother, as he saw the undercurrent of disapproval surge around the good folks of Virginia City who were gathered outside the church.

“Yeah,” Joe chimed in. “You’d think Jed had murdered somebody, the way they’re all acting.”

Neither Ben nor Adam replied, because Jed and his wife were now close enough to hear. Jed stopped the buggy beside the Ponderosa horses, and Joe and Hoss could immediately see what had the townsfolk so riled up.

Jed’s new wife was an Indian!

*****

“How do you do, Mrs Wilkins?” Ben said, stepping forward, and ignoring the disapproving stares of the townspeople. “I’m Ben Cartwright. I’m pleased to meet you.”

“Mr Cartwright,” responded the beautiful woman, in perfect, unaccented English. “Jed has told me about you.” She smiled, seeming oblivious to the staring crowd.

“These are my sons,” Ben added, and introduced them one by one. Adam was as calm as ever, touching his hat politely. Hoss blushed, and mumbled something none of them caught. Joe whipped his hat off and smiled his most charming smile, and kissed Mrs Wilkins hand. Ben hid a smile. He could have predicted each of his sons’ reactions exactly.

“Morning, Ben,” said Jed, warmly. He assisted his wife down from the buggy. “Grace, you have to watch Little Joe here,” he said, jokingly. “He likes to flirt with the ladies.”

Turning her large, dark eyes on Joe, she smiled at him. “Why are you called Little Joe?” she asked. “You seem quite tall to me.” She stood barely more than 5 feet tall.

Unabashed, Joe grinned back. “Well, ma’m, you see, its this over sized family I have. I seem quite little in comparison.”

Looking at Joe’s family, Mrs Wilkins began to laugh. “Well, I suppose you’ll just have to call me Tiny Grace, then,” she responded.

The church bell began to toll, and they composed themselves to go into church. Joe couldn’t suppress a sigh, for he found it very difficult to sit still through the long service. He often thought the reverend repeated himself too many times, and could say the important things in half the time. A small hand patted him on the arm, and he found himself getting a sympathetic smile from Grace.

As the Cartwrights and the Wilkins settled themselves in their pews, the muttering grew louder. From where he sat, Joe could see Jed’s neck getting red, and he was angry on their behalf. He and his brothers had been brought up to treat everyone the same, no matter their race, colour or creed. Unfortunately, it was an unusual attitude to find, and the people of Virginia City were acting in the same way that most of the people in America would act. It didn’t excuse them, in Joe’s eyes. He thought Grace was one of the most beautiful women he had ever set eyes on. She was small, and slender, and moved with uncommon grace. Her black hair was straight and shiny and fashionably styled. Her clothes were immaculate, down to the black kid boots, which peeped out below the hem of her silk dress. She had large, almond shaped eyes, a small nose and sensuous mouth. Grace was altogether one of the most exotic women Joe had ever seen.

Noticing Joe’s preoccupation, Ben nudged his youngest son in the ribs. With a start, Joe realised he’d been staring, and hastily looked away. He could feel a flush crawling up his neck. Turning his head, he smiled guiltily at Ben, who nodded reprovingly. Joe didn’t know that Ben was fighting not to laugh at his son’s puppy dog eyes.

The service began. They stood to sing the first hymn, and Joe mouthed the familiar words, while watching the minister, who glared at Grace all the time. Joe was rather shocked. Shouldn’t the minister be above feeling like that? Surely he tended to all God’s creatures, regardless? Joe resolved to ask his father about it after the service was over.

Above Adam’s beautiful baritone voice, Joe heard a new female voice singing, one he hadn’t heard before. It was only when Grace turned to look at Adam and smile that Joe realised it was she who was singing so wonderfully. Joe could sing a bit, but he didn’t have Adam’s talent. It made him appreciate people who did.

The church was warm and stuffy, and as the sermon began, Joe found himself drifting off to sleep. He was jarred awake several times as the reverend thumped the pulpit vigorously to make a point. When this had happened a few times, Joe sat up and began to take more notice. He realised the reverend was talking about heathen savages, and some of their less Christian practices, and was looking directly at Grace all the time.

Furious, Joe wondered what he could do. Ben’s hand suddenly clamped down on Joe’s wrist, and he looked up in surprise. Ben was glaring at Joe and shaking his head. For a moment, Joe resisted, but Ben’s grip didn’t slacken. Swallowing hard, Joe relaxed his tensed muscles, and after a moment, that bruising grip had gone.

When finally the service was over, the Cartwrights moved to join the people leaving the church and shaking the reverend’s hand. Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm. “Just shake the man’s hand and say nothing,” he warned, in his hardest voice. “We don’t want to start any trouble.”

“But, Pa,” Joe protested.

“No, Joseph, its not our place to start this fight. Its up to Jed and Grace. Don’t say anything!” And the flint edge to Ben’s voice left no doubt in Joe’s mind what would happen if Joe disobeyed him.

“Yes, sir,” Joe muttered, sulkily. He shuffled obediently into the queue, and shook fingertips with the reverend at the door. Not waiting for the rest of his family, he went across to Cochise, his pinto gelding, and began to tighten the cinch. Hoss appeared on the other side of Joe’s mount, and his face was as white and pinched as Joe’s felt. Beyond him, Adam looked almost as calm as ever. Almost.

“Jed, Grace, I was wondering if you’d like to come back to the Ponderosa for some lunch?” Ben said, loudly.

A round of shocked muttering broke out as Ben’s powerful voice carried easily on the balmy air. Several heads turned to look at the Cartwrights. “Indian lover!” muttered one person, safely lost in the crowd. Ben acted as though he hadn’t heard.

“That’s mighty neighbourly of you, Ben,” Jed said, in a falsely bright voice. “But its real short notice. It would be too much trouble.”

“Its no trouble at all,” Ben assured him. “Grace, prevail upon your husband to come.”

“I’d love to go,” Grace said, looking at Jed.

“I guess its settled then,” Jed said, with a laugh. He helped Grace into the buggy.

*****

Lunch was a pleasant affair, with Hop Sing delighted to show off his skills to somebody new. Grace was a witty companion, and soon had them all laughing. Only Joe couldn’t quite shake off the bad taste left in his mouth by the attitude of the so-called Christians that morning. Ben glanced at his youngest son several times during the meal, hoping that Joe wouldn’t say anything inappropriate. However, Joe’s manners were excellent, and he contained his anger.

After they left the table, Joe wandered outside for a breath of fresh air. He stood by the corral, desperately wanting to hit someone or something, anything to ease his frustration. A soft step sounded behind him, and he turned to see Grace following him. “I’ll go if you want to be alone,” she said.

“No, that’s all right. Please stay.” Joe found a smile, but by now Grace had realised that something was troubling the youngest Cartwright, and she didn’t have to look far to find the cause.

“I’m used to it, you know,” she said, pleasantly.

It was like releasing a cork from a bottle. “You shouldn’t have to be used to it!” cried Joe, passionately. “Its wrong! I don’t know why people behave like that!”

“I don’t know either,” Grace admitted, sadly. “But they do, time and again. You and your family are exceptions, you know. Not many people of your father’s standing would ask an Indian girl into their home.”

“What difference does it make if you’re an Indian!” Joe exclaimed. “So what?”

“In an ideal world, it wouldn’t,” Grace said. “But this isn’t an ideal world. Nobody sees that I’m more than just an Indian. In fact, I’m more you than I am like the Indians. I never lived with a tribe. I know a little about my people, but I was raised in New York, and was adopted by kind people, who taught me to love myself. But the colour of my skin, and my breeding puts me apart from others. I’m even shunned by the Indians, because my mother was from one tribe, and my father from a different one, and neither tribe wanted me when my parents died. If it hadn’t been for the preacher who came to the reservation, I would have died.”

“I’m ashamed of the way those people treated you,” Joe said. “I never thought they were like that.”

Grace put her hand on Joe’s arm. “Joe, the important thing is you’re not like that. You aren’t responsible for others’ behaviour.”

“No, I guess not,” agreed Joe, calming down now after his outburst. “But I’m still sorry.”

“Come back inside,” Grace coaxed. “Tell me all about your part in the Ponderosa’s success.”

Gallantly offering his arm, Joe led her back to the house, talking about his beloved horses.

*****

The whole of Virginia City was in an uproar, following that Sunday. Ben’s invitation to the Wilkins had shown the town firmly where he stood, not that it was any real surprise. But many were unhappy about Grace being allowed to live with a ‘civilised’ man, and worse, that she came to the church. There was a growing ground swell of resentment against the Cartwrights. It bubbled and swelled, fuelled amongst the younger men by drink.

Not that anyone would dream of taking on Ben. He was too well respected for them to take their displeasure out on. Adam was much the same. He came to town and drank in the saloon, but he generally kept out of trouble, unless his brothers were involved. He was impossible to goad into a fight. Hoss was simply too big. Nobody in their right mind picked a fight with Hoss Cartwright!

But Joe was a different story all together. Everyone knew how volatile his temper was. He was in town alone more often than anyone apart from Ben, and there wasn’t a person who knew him who’d be surprised if he became involved in a fight. So the young men of the town hatched their plans and waited.

They didn’t have long to wait. On Tuesday morning, Joe rode into town shortly before noon to collect the mail. He had one or two other small tasks to see to, then he headed for the Bucket of Blood for a beer, before setting off for home.

“A beer, Sam, please,” Joe said, tossing a coin onto the bar.

In silence, Sam drew a beer, and placed it in front of Joe. “Thanks,” Joe said, cheerfully, and took a mouthful, pretending not to notice that Sam wasn’t talking to him. Turning to lean against the bar, Joe found he had become a pariah. Everyone he knew avoided his gaze. Joe immediately knew what was going on. He felt angry again, but carried on pretending he hadn’t noticed anything. He drank his beer as slowly as he could, then gave Sam a cheerful farewell, and went outside.

Cochise stood drowsing in the heat of the day, and Joe paused to look up and down the street. Everyone seemed to be avoiding looking at him. Joe squared his shoulders defiantly. If that was how they wanted to be, it was fine with him.

Something hard poked him in the ribs, and he froze, recognising the feel of a gun. “Into the alley, Cartwright,” said a low voice, and Joe glanced round to see one man on each side of him. He felt his gun being lifted from his holster. Joe had no choice, and he went into the alley.

There was quite a crowd by this time. Joe thought about 12 men, most of them the worse for drink. He tried to get some room, but they crowded in around him, and a couple grabbed his arms. Joe struggled uselessly. “We don’t like Injun lovers round here,” said the spokesman, Drew Dunn. “We’re gonna show you what we do to Injun lovers!”

Shaking off one of the men who held him Joe took the initiative, and threw the first punch. He decked the guy he hit, but it was the last person who felt his wrath. The mob, egged on by drink and company, jumped on him and Joe went down under a welter of kicks and blows. When they finally broke and ran, Joe was unconscious.

*****

“Hey, Sam,” said, Sheriff Roy Coffee as he entered the saloon. “Is Little Joe Cartwright still here?”

“No, sheriff, he left some time ago,” Sam replied.

“Thanks,” Roy said, mystified. Cochise still stood at the hitching rail, but Joe was nowhere to be seen. Roy had hoped to send a message to Ben saying that he would be coming out to play checkers, as invited, the following evening. Knowing that Joe wouldn’t leave Cochise, Roy had been hunting for him all over town, but hadn’t found him.

A noise from the alley drew Roy’s attention, and he glanced down it to see Joe trying to get up. “Joe!” Roy exclaimed, and rushed to the young man’s side.

He let out an exclamation of horror as he got a close look at Joe. Joe’s face was gashed, swelling and bleeding. His lips were split, his clothing torn. It was obvious that Joe had no idea where he was. He tried to take his weight on his right arm, and it collapsed underneath him, and Joe let out a fearful groan. “Don’t try to move, son,” Roy ordered, and rushed back to the street. “Somebody get the doctor!” he bellowed, and saw a figure run off in response.

A short while later, Joe was in Dr Paul Martin’s office, carried there by willing hands. Paul was horrified by Joe’s condition. He gently cleaned the cuts on Joe’s face, and felt carefully round his ribs, deciding that he’d broken at least one on each side. Joe’s wrist was swelling, but Paul decided it was only a sprain, and bandaged it securely. A whiff of smelling salts had brought Joe round completely, and Paul helped the injured youth to unbutton and removed the rags of his shirt, so he could clean the cuts and bruises on his arms. “Who did this to you, Joe?” Paul asked.

“There were lots of them,” Joe mumbled. “Drew Dunn was one of them. He said they would show me what happens to an Injun lover round here.”

Glancing round at Roy, Paul nodded. “Send someone to get Ben. Joe won’t be able to ride home,” he said, softly. Roy left, the frown on his face boding ill for Drew Dunn when he caught up with him.

*****

The Ponderosa buckboard rattled into town, the team going faster than they had in a long time. Ben and Hoss sat silently on the seat. Adam rode behind on Sport. Clem, Roy’s deputy, had found all the Cartwrights together, finished with the day’s work and eagerly anticipating supper. They were on their feet and out of the door practically before he had stopped speaking.

Leaping down from the buckboard, Ben rushed into Paul’s office. Linda, the young girl who came in to help Paul out sometimes, met him. “Just through there, sir,” she said, and stood back, knowing what they went to face. She had been shocked by Joe’s injuries, and was still concerned for her friend.

Entering the inner office, Ben let out a shocked sound. Joe lay asleep on the couch, aided by a pain powder. He had his ribs taped up, and his arm in a sling. His face was bruised and swollen. All in all, it was a painful sight. Ben didn’t think he’d seen anyone so badly beaten. “Paul?” he said, his eyes fixed on Joe.

“He’ll be all right, Ben,” Paul said. “A concussion, broken ribs, sprained wrist, cuts, bruises and abrasions. Somebody beat him pretty badly.”

“Who did it?” Ben asked, finding himself seated beside his youngest son. He gently stroked Joe’s tangled curls.

“Roy is looking for one of them now,” replied Paul. He glanced at the two older sons, standing together in the doorway, wearing remarkably similar expressions. “Joe gave him a name. Ben, I think you should take Joe home. There’s a lot of bad feeling in town right now.”

“Bad feeling about what?” Adam asked.

“About the friendship you showed to Grace Wilkins on Sunday,” Paul answered, frankly. “There are a lot of people in this town who think you were wrong.”

“Do you mean that Joe ain’t safe here?” demanded Hoss.

“I don’t know, Hoss,” admitted Paul. “But I’d hate anything to happen to him. Anything else,” he added.

“Why is everyone so riled up?” Hoss asked.

“There was some trouble on the road to Carson City a few days ago,” Paul explained. “Some Indians attacked a wagon, and stole the grain. The farmer wasn’t hurt bad, but it scared everybody.”

“But Grace didn’t have nothin’ to do with that,” protested Hoss. “She ain’t but a little bit of a filly anyhows. Just a right nice person.”

“Rationally, I think we all know that,” Adam interjected. “But mobs can stir up feelings really quickly, especially when folks are already scared. And we knew there would be trouble when Jed married Grace. We knew the people here would find it hard to accept. Its just unfortunate that the Indian attack coincided with Grace’s arrival in town.”

Reluctantly, Paul added, “Joe said that he was told by his attackers that this was what happened to Indian lovers round here.”

He saw at once that the message wasn’t lost on his listeners.

*****

With a great deal of care, Joe was loaded onto the buckboard and taken home. He roused when they arrived home, and tried to smile, but his face was too painful to allow the movement. “Pa,” he whispered.

“Take it easy, son,” Ben said, tenderly. “You’re home now.”

“There were so many of them,” Joe went on, and Ben had the distinct impression that he was apologising for being beaten up. “I couldn’t get away.”

“Don’t worry about it, Joe,” soothed Ben. “Just rest and get well.”

Since Joe was awake, Adam and Hoss gently helped him walk to his room, and there they eased off his boots and pants, and Ben tucked him securely into bed, fetching another pillow to cushion the injured wrist. “Pa,” Joe said, again. He clutched his father’s sleeve. “Don’t tell Jed and Grace,” he pleaded. “Its not their fault, and I don’t want them to feel bad.”

“We may not be able to keep this from them,” Ben said, sitting down. “If Roy arrests somebody for this, it’ll be all over town.” He squeezed Joe’s hand. “You’ll have to testify, son. Can you do that?”

For a long moment, Joe didn’t answer. His green eyes were wide, the pupils dilated with fear. “Yes,” he said, in a low voice. “If I don’t, who knows what might happen next.”

“We’ll look after you, Joe,” promised Ben. “No one will hurt you while we’re around.” And he silently vowed to never leave Joe alone until the ill feeling in the town had died away.

*****

Unfortunately, the bad feeling in town didn’t die away. Roy Coffee arrested Drew Dunn, who promptly ratted on his compatriots, until Roy’s jail was filled to overflowing. Although Drew Dunn was lazy and shiftless, and considered good for nothing, the feeling against his arrest was overwhelming. Roy found himself almost under siege at the jailhouse. The circuit judge was due in Virginia City within 48 hours anyway, so Roy battened down the hatches and prepared to ride out the storm.

The hysteria that gripped Virginia City continued unabated. Most of the people had been shocked when they heard of Joe’s beating, but a good many of them thought he deserved it. The strong bullied the weak into denouncing the Cartwrights and Jed, until anti-Indian fever was rife. It was indeed fortunate that Joe was at the Ponderosa. There were a few citizens who felt like taking revenge on Joe. Chief amongst them was Drew Dunn’s father.

*****

On the morning of the trial, Joe was escorted into town by his family, Clem and several of the ranch hands. Roy had become increasingly embattled, and was seriously worried that his one and only eyewitness wouldn’t make the courthouse alive.

As the buckboard came into sight along Main Street, jeers and boos from the crowd greeted them. There was a slight drawing in of breath when the crowd saw the extent of Joe’s injuries, but the heckling continued unabated.

Inside the courthouse, only the prisoners’ families were present. The judge had wisely decided to close the court. The noise level from outside was almost deafening. Joe was asked to take the stand, and gave his testimony in a low, clear voice. Paul Martin testified that Joe had been severely beaten by a number of people. In short order, Drew Dunn and his compatriots were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison each. There was stunned silence from the families, but before long, the news leaked outside, and the catcalls, boos and jeers became louder. The judge commended Joe for his courage, and he was free to go home.

Tired and pale, Joe joined his family to walk to the buckboard. Some of the men sentenced today had been schoolmates of his. Joe wondered if they had all been influenced by the talk and the drink, or if they had all believed that Grace had no place in a town like this. He wondered how many people were too scared to speak up in Grace’s defence, because of what had happened to him. Above all, he wondered how a town of basically decent people could all suddenly turn into monsters.

Despite his armed escort, Joe was jostled on the way to the buckboard, and settled back on the blanket in the back with a sigh of relief. He ached all over from the beating, and the jostling hadn’t helped. For once, Joe wouldn’t object to being sent straight to bed! He was troubled by the bad feeling directed towards him. He’d usually been popular in the town, and it was unsettling to be an outcast.

*****

Jed and Grace were waiting for them back at the house. Jed had heard the story of Joe’s beating from the owner of the general store when he’d gone in for supplies. Mr Richmond hadn’t made any secret of the cause of Joe’s grief. Jed had found himself shunned by many of the town folks, but being by nature a solitary man, he wasn’t overly concerned. He had known when he married Grace that there would be ill feeling. What he hadn’t expected was that the ill feeling would be taken out on someone else.

“Oh, Joe!” Grace exclaimed in sorrowful tones, as Joe was helped from the buckboard. “This is all my fault!”

“I didn’t see you in the crowd who did this,” Joe joked, weakly. He was exhausted from his trip to court. The bruises were at their worst, and the jolting of the buckboard hadn’t helped his aches and pains. Joe was glad of Hoss’ supporting hand under his elbow.

Tears shone in Grace’s large dark eyes. “I’m so sorry, Ben,” she said. “I would never have come here if I’d thought this would happen.”

“This is not your fault,” Ben insisted. “Joe somehow got on the wrong side of a group of drunken thugs, who are now paying for their crime.”

“But Jed said,” Grace started, but Ben interrupted her.

“Grace, the town will get used to your presence, and the worst trouble makers are gone. The boys and I value your friendship. Friends look out for each other – at least real friends do.” Ben patted her hand in a fatherly manner. “Joe is going to be fine. We’ll all just have to be a little careful until this blows over, that’s all.” He smiled. “Come in and have some coffee.”

“Good idea,” Joe chimed in, desperate to get inside and sit down. His legs were trembling beneath him. Hoss took the cue immediately, and began to walk Joe slowly over to the house. Adam moved quietly to Joe’s other side, prepared, should he need more help.

The coffee revived Joe for a while, but by the time Jed and Grace took their leave, he was ready to drop. Adam helped him upstairs, and into bed. “Adam,” Joe said, in a low voice, as Adam was preparing to leave. “Do you think the bad feeling will blow over as easy as Pa said?”

Pausing, Adam gave Joe a penetrating stare. “Do you?” he asked.

“No,” Joe admitted. “It worries me, some.”

At that oblique admission, Adam went back to Joe’s bedside. “Do you think someone will come after you again?”

“Me, or Jed or Grace,” murmured Joe. “Or you, Pa and Hoss. We’re all at risk, aren’t we?”

“Probably,” admitted Adam. “But it will blow over eventually. It just might take some time. But folks will get used to Grace.” He looked at the thoughtful young man in the bed. “Joe, we’ll keep you safe, I promise.”

“I know, Adam. Thanks.” His lashes swept down, hiding his thoughts. “I just needed to know. To be prepared.”

“Get some rest, buddy,” Adam said. “Everything will work out, somehow.”

*****

The bad feeling in the town never did die away completely that summer, but time muted it slightly. Jed and the Cartwrights made sure never to go to town alone. Joe recovered his strength gradually, and allowed himself to be babied much longer than he usually would, sensing the worry that Ben tried to hide even from himself.

It was a relief to get back into the rhythm of ranch life at last, and Joe found himself busy once more with the round up and branding. Haying was next, and Adam joked that at least this year, Joe was fit enough to help. They worked from sun up to sundown. About the only time they saw Jed and Grace was in church, and for Sunday lunch, which had become a ritual. There were still mutterings as Grace appeared at church every Sunday, and although the Cartwrights made an effort to point out that Grace had been raised as a Christian, nobody seemed to believe them.

Haying was finished when Grace came across to tell them some happy news. She and Jed were expecting their first child in the spring. It was glad news, received with joy, and buoyed everyone up after their summer of hard work.

The only dark cloud on the horizon was the cattle drive to the sales in Sacramento. Jed was taking his cattle there too, and Grace would be left alone. Jed was unhappy about it. He’d had problems keeping reliable hands since his marriage. He finally admitted to the Cartwrights that there had been a number of small incidents over the summer. Someone had scrawled ‘Indian lover’ on the wall of their cabin one night. The night watchman claimed to have seen nothing. A fence that Jed had spent all day building was scattered asunder the next morning. Small, mean tricks, but enough to make Jed desperately concerned. He had kept as much of it from Grace as he could.

“I tell you, Ben, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Jed admitted, sitting heavily on the settee in the Ponderosa ranch house. “I’ve had to so many things over again, that I haven’t even got started on breaking those ponies I brought back from New York. I need to sell these cattle, or I won’t have enough to get through the winter.”

Putting down his coffee cup, Ben looked thoughtful. “It’s a problem,” he admitted. “Look, Jed, why don’t you drive the cattle over to us, and we’ll take them to Sacramento and sell them for you. That way, you can stay home with Grace, and get to work on those ponies.”

“That would be very good of you, Ben,” Jed said. “It’s a lot of work for you.”

“No, its not,” Ben said. “We’re going anyway. Its no problem.”

“And I could give you a head start on those ponies,” Joe offered. “While you bring the herd across here, I could start breaking the ponies for you.”

“Good idea, Joe,” Ben said, quickly, before Adam could make a sarcastic comment about Joe avoiding work again. Joe had been restless all summer, confined to the ranch because of the bad feeling in town. He needed something to release the tension, or he would fly apart. Ben shot Adam a look that promised to explain his decision when they didn’t have company. Adam, as he had expected, subsided. “Shall we say the start of the week?”

It was agreed, and Jed went off home. Joe and Hoss went back out to tidy up some things in the barn, and Adam looked at Ben. “Why isn’t Joe going to be helping with the round up?” he asked.

“You know as well as I do that Joe needs something different to do. Something physical that will give him enough excitement, that he might manage to stay calm.” Ben sighed as he looked out of the open door to where his younger sons were laughing at something. “Its been hard on all of us, never being alone, but its especially hard for Joe. At least breaking the ponies gives him a little excitement.”

“I thought the bad feeling in town would have died down by now,” Adam said, after a pause, tacitly admitting he understood his father’s reasoning.

“It might have done, if there hadn’t been all those Indian attacks. The tribes are starving. They’re being driven from their hunting grounds. Its bad luck that it started happening about the time Grace came to town. Otherwise, she’d have been a seven-day wonder, and it would be all forgotten by now. I even heard some idiot saying that Grace was stirring up the Indians.” Ben shook his head. “Its hard to believe that reasonable people can believe nonsense like that.”

“I think its been worrying Little Joe, too,” Adam mentioned casually. “He was pretty wound up about it after the court case.”

“I know,” Ben admitted. “He’s being having nightmares again. Who can blame him? From what Paul said at the trial, Joe was lucky not to be kicked to death. We can protect him for a while, but after a time, he’s not going to be willing to have an armed escort all the time. What happens then?”

“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” Adam quoted, not having any answer to give his father.

“Amen,” Ben added.

*****

Monday morning saw Joe up at only his second calling, and eating a reasonable amount of breakfast. Joe’s appetite, never wonderful, had been suffering lately from the stresses in his life. But the previous night, he had slept without nightmares, and felt pretty good about life. He joked with the rest of his family, and they enjoyed hearing his laugh again, realising that it had been missing for far too long.

It was only an hour’s ride to Jed’s spread, and Joe was greeted by both Jed and Grace. Jed was mounted up, ready to start moving his herd. Joe’s armed escort was heading back with Jed, leaving Joe under the watchful eye of Jed’s foreman, who was charged with seeing to the safety of the ranch. Joe had a cup of coffee with Grace before heading out to the corral to start breaking the ponies.

Standing watching for a few minutes, Grace wondered how Joe could be so enthusiastic about bronco busting. It was very hard, physically punishing work, yet Joe seemed to relish every moment. She went off back into the house to complete her daily chores. Jed was working hard to enlarge the cabin for the expected new arrival, and Grace had been teasing him about the large pole he had planted in the middle of the room, in preparation for extending the roof. She didn’t really mind it, but sometimes found it a little annoying to have to detour round, when she wasn’t used to it being there.

At noon, Grace called Joe in to eat. He quickly washed up and joined her at the table. After saying grace, they began eating. Joe and Grace had become fast friends over the past few months. Joe kept her entertained with stories about his family. Grace in return told Joe about her upbringing in New York. The dinner hour went by all too quickly, and Joe stretched as he left the table. “Thanks, Grace, that was wonderful,” he said. “I’d better get back to work.”

“You be careful out there,” Grace warned him, lightly. “I don’t want any harm coming to those ponies!”

“Well, thanks a bunch,” Joe laughed, his whole face lit up with his breath-taking smile. Grace looked at him, and wondered why some young lady hadn’t snapped him up by now. “Don’t worry about me, will you?”

“Aren’t you the one who told me he could take care of himself?” she teased.

“Maybe I did at that,” agreed Joe, and shoved his hat back on as he left the cabin.

Joe hadn’t been gone very long when the foreman came panting to the door of the house. “Mrs Wilkins, look! Smoke!” He pointed to the wooded ridge north of the house. Part of the land was theirs, part belonged to the Ponderosa.

“Tell Little Joe,” Grace said, “and then get Jed and the Cartwrights! Quickly!” Even though she had only been in the West a short time, Grace knew all about the dangers of forest fires. She rang the loud dinner bell over and over, summoning the hands that were still around the homestead.

They came at a run, and with a few short words, Grace directed them to check out the fire. Joe appeared as they left, his face tight with worry. “I’ve seen it,” he said, forestalling her remark. “I’d better stay here with you.”

“I’ll be all right,” she protested. “Joe, you’ve got to help fight that fire!”

“I can’t leave you here alone,” he insisted. “This might be a ruse to get us away from our homes. The Ponderosa is all right, because Hop Sing is there. But I won’t leave you alone here. Besides, if the fire spreads this way, you’ll need help getting your stock away.”

“Very well,” capitulated Grace, but she was secretly quite relieved that Joe was staying. He’d seen fires before; he would know when to move the stock, if the need arose.

Moving quickly, Joe filled buckets of water from the well, and began to soak the outside of the cabin. He knew that if the fire came through, it wouldn’t save the building, but it might gain them an extra few minutes. Once that was done, he filled every bucket he could find, and stationed them strategically round the yard, especially close to the new haystacks. After that, all Joe could do was watch the smoke anxiously

*****

“Can I smell smoke?” Hoss asked himself. He pulled Chubb to a halt, and sniffed, but the only scent reaching his nostrils was cow. Still, Hoss was uneasy, and moved Chubb away from the herd, and sniffed again. Adam, spotting Hoss’ odd movement, rode across.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I don’t rightly know,” Hoss replied, still sniffing. He lifted his tall white hat and scratched his head. “But my scalp is sure pricklin’ and that means trouble.”

The Cartwrights had great faith in Hoss’ scalp. It had never been proved wrong yet. Adam began to sniff the air, too, his eyes scanning the horizon. “What am I smelling for?” Adam asked, realising how mad he must look.

“Smoke,” Hoss said, darkly. His blue eyes widened suddenly. “Look, Adam! There!” He pointed, and Adam followed his brother’s finger, until he too saw the faint plume of smoke.

“Come on!” Adam said, urgently. He rode swiftly towards Ben. “Pa! Fire!”

Within moments, all the hands were looking at the smoke, which was growing thicker. Ben made several quick decisions. “Charlie, Dave, stay with the herd. Adam, you and Jed get over to his place to help Joe. Hoss, you come with me. Come on, men,” he called, and pointed to the burning ridge.

The hands needed no further urging. They all knew the drill. They abandoned the herd to Charlie and Dave, and galloped after Ben towards the fire. Adam and Jed set off in the other direction.

*****

It was Grace who first noticed the movement on the road to the homestead. Joe was saddling a horse for her, just in case they had to abandon the homestead. “Joe!” she called. “It looks like help is arriving!”

Coming out of the barn, leading Grace’s sorrel filly, Joe looked along the road. The riders were coming at a lope, not the flat out gallop he might have expected, but it still took several moments for Joe to recognise any of the riders. When he did, his heart leaped into his mouth. “Grace!” he shouted, dragging the filly to the door. “Get on and ride away, quickly! Get to the Ponderosa, you’ll be safe there!”

“What? I don’t understand,” Grace protested, even as Joe bundled her onto the horse. “Joe! I can’t go without you!”

“Just do as you’re told and go!” Joe yelled. “That’s Bert Dunn there! He’s coming to get revenge for Drew going to jail! Now ride!” He slapped the sorrel on the rump, urging her away.

Grasping the urgency, Grace drove her heel into the filly’s side. Joe dashed across to Cochise, grabbed his rifle and pistol, unhitched the gelding, and slapped his rump, not wanting his beloved pony to be anywhere near the gun battle he was sure would follow.

Turning, he realised it was too late to fire the warning shot he’d planned. Dunn was almost on top of him. Joe dodged onto the porch and spotted a couple of riders chasing after Grace. Furious, Joe raised his rifle and fired at them. He was too far away to hit them, and his shots went wide. Then Dunn leapt from his pony onto Joe, and drove him to the ground.

A desperate struggle began. Joe knew with a chilling certainty that Dunn wanted him dead. He fought like a tiger, and managed to throw Dunn off. Scrambling to his feet, Joe straightened into a right hook from one of the other men, and before he could rally his defences, he was being pummelled from all sides. It was an all too familiar scene to Joe, one that had haunted his dreams since the attack in Virginia City. Here was a mob, intent on beating him to death, and he was alone. His last coherent thought as he fell to the ground, was that Grace had escaped.

*****

A bucketful of cold water splashed onto Joe’s face, and he revived, coughing and spluttering. Rolling onto his side, he coughed out the water he had inhaled. Every part of his body ached. Cruel hands jerked him to his feet, and his hands were roughly forced behind his back and tied there. Someone grabbed a handful of curly hair, and yanked Joe’s head back. Joe looked at Bert Dunn, and felt fear curl in his belly.

“We’ve got you now, Cartwright,” Dunn hissed. “Thought you’d escaped, didn’t you? Well, you were wrong. You sent my boy to jail, and you’re going to pay for it! You and that Injun pretending to be a white.”

Glancing round as best he could, Joe realised that everyone who was there was the father of one of the young men sent to jail. From the corner of his eye, he saw movement, and with sinking horror, realised that they had caught Grace. She was being dragged along the ground, and for an instant, Joe hoped she was already dead, to spare her any more pain.

“Here’s the squaw now,” Dunn laughed. Joe could smell the cheap whiskey on his breath.

“Leave her alone,” he panted, and regretted it instantly as Dunn swung a meaty fist into his stomach. Joe tried instinctively to curl over, but the grip on his hair stopped him. “Grace!” he cried, and Dunn struck him again.

As Joe regained his breath, Grace was dragged onto the porch beside him. Her dress was ripped, exposing her breasts, but Grace held her head high, as though nothing had happened to her. Her eyes flickered to Joe, sending him a message of strength and hope, before returning once more to Dunn.

Fearing what Dunn was going to do, Joe renewed his struggles against the men who held him, but he got nowhere. Dunn laughed, and reached out to paw one of Grace’s breasts. “You’re right pretty, ain’t ya, squaw?” he said

Two men held Grace in a bruising grip, but she wasn’t struggling. “I’m not a squaw,” she said, quietly. “I was raised a Christian, which is more than can be said for you.”

To say Dunn was annoyed by that was an understatement. He slapped Grace hard across the face, and when Joe let out a shout of protest, he turned and backhanded Joe savagely, twice. “Injun lover,” he cursed. “You Cartwrights are all the same. Think you’re so high and mighty, yet you’re crawling into bed with an Injun!”

“I’d sooner stand with her than you any day!” Joe retorted, truthfully, but unwisely. He groaned as Dunn hit him again. He heard Grace make a sound of protest, but knew it was useless. Unless a miracle occurred, they were both going to die.

With a last effort, Joe wrenched himself free, and threw himself on one of the men holding Grace. Caught by surprise, the man let go and went down. “Run!” Joe cried, and Grace took the chance offered to her, and ran.

Somehow, Joe evaded the hands grabbing for him, and fled towards the corral. He had no plan in mind, he simply wanted to divert attention from Grace, in the hope she might manage to escape. But he was out of luck. Both he and Grace were recaptured, and Joe subjected to another beating. He was barely conscious as they dragged him to his feet and pushed him across the yard to the house. There, he was dropped beside the new supporting post and bound to it. They left, and a few minutes later, the smoke began to curl menacingly under the door. Joe struggled frantically against the knots, but they only seemed to get tighter. Outside, the mob yelled and cheered with delight, and when Joe heard Grace’s screams, he knew what was happening to her. He fought harder against the ropes, but only succeeded in tearing the skin on his wrists. The smoke increased, and Joe knew for a certainty that he was going to die there, murdered by people he had known all his life. He coughed painfully, and slid into unconsciousness.

*****

The fire on the ridge was hardly worthy of the name. A pile of wood had been set alight, but was too green to burn. Ben eyed it as his hands began to dismount. He was uneasy. “Frank!” he called, suddenly making a decision. “You and Johnny see to that fire. The rest of you, come with me!” Ben turned his horse and headed towards Jed’s place.

*****

Thundering down the road, Adam and Jed saw the mob gathered by the corral. “Oh my God,” Jed breathed, and Adam heard both fear and entreaty in the words. He understood both sentiments. His own heart had leapt into his mouth at the sight. He had no idea how the two of them were going to deal with all those men, but he knew they had to do something.

From further over the valley, he saw horses, and realised that Ben, Hoss and the hands were coming direct from the ridge to help them out. Hope swelled in his heart, and he spurred Sport to greater effort.

By now, the mob had seen the riders coming, and were fleeing for their horses. Adam drew his gun and fired at them, knowing it was a wasted effort while at speed. The mob’s horses began panicking as shots filled the air, and other horses thundered in their direction. Before very much longer, the yard was full of fighting men, as the hands began to subdue the mob.

Jed ran to the corral, where Grace lay motionless beside the railings. Ben followed a few paces behind, terrified of what he would find. As he hesitated, Jed let out a wail of anguish, and Ben knew that what he had feared had come to pass. Grace was dead. Ben clasped Jed’s shoulder in empathy, but his mind was whirling. Where was Joe?

The cabin was burning, though still sluggishly, thanks to the soaking Joe had given it a short time earlier. Ben looked at it vaguely, then glanced round for his sons. They were looking round, too. The fights were beginning to die down, and Ben saw Adam grab the collar of the nearest man. As clearly as if he stood right next to him, Ben saw him say “Where’s my brother?”

The glance at the burning cabin was all the answer they needed, but it almost stopped Ben’s heart. Without hesitating, Hoss and Adam ran to the burning structure, and Hoss kicked the door in. They plunged into the reeking interior. Ben waited outside, all his senses straining towards the building, which contained the most important things in his life.

All around, the men were standing silently, realising what was going on. One man, (Ben later realised it was Fred) said, “I’ll get the doctor and the sheriff, Boss,” and mounted up without waiting for a reply. The others simply stood and waited, fearing the worst, but hoping for the best.

Suddenly, there was movement at the door, and Hoss backed out, closely followed by Adam, and between them was slung the bound, unconscious form of their youngest brother. Relief almost drove Ben to his knees, so he stood still, unable to move for a moment, while Adam and Hoss carried their precious burden a good distance away from the flames.

Both of the older Cartwright boys were coughing violently, and their faces were smudged with soot. Both wore remarkably similar grave expressions. Adam unshipped his knife, and sliced through Joe’s bonds. Ben knelt by them, and looked anxiously at both of his older boys, before turning his attention to his youngest. A ragged gasp escaped his lips.

If Joe had been badly beaten before, it was nothing to the condition he was in now. His face was almost unrecognisable. His nose was obviously broken, his lips were split and there were gashes and bruises all over his face. The raw skin on his wrists gave mute testament to his struggle to free himself.

“Somebody get a blanket,” Ben shouted, and the hands burst into life. Soon, Joe was warmly swaddled in blankets, and Grace’s poor broken body was decently shrouded. Adam and Hoss hovered over Joe, as Ben sat cradling him. He was almost as concerned with his other sons’ health as he was with Joe. Adam and Hoss coughed steadily, and spat up sooty muck from the depths of their lungs.

*****

A couple of hours passed before Paul and Roy arrived, and another few hours went by before all three Cartwright sons were securely in their own beds. Joe had remained unconscious throughout, but his frequent mumblings and groans of pain assured them all that he wasn’t in a coma. Paul worked on Joe, while Ben persuaded Adam and Hoss into bed. They both had distinct rattles in their chests, but were no longer coughing up soot. Hop Sing arrived with some warm tea, and Ben left his sons to their housekeeper’s capable hands.

Returning to Joe’s bedside, Ben watched with concern as Paul carefully set Joe’s broken nose, packed it with cotton, and taped it across his cheeks. Paul had already bound up the broken ribs, and bandaged Joe’s wrists. A huge bruise was spreading over his abdomen, and Paul was concerned there might be some internal bleeding. The last thing he wanted to do, while Joe was still so weak, was operate on him.

“I’ve done all I can for him, Ben,” Paul said, straightening up. “Its up to Joe now. I want to keep an eye on that bruise, and keep him as upright as possible. As he wakens up, he’ll start to cough, I hope.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Ben asked.

“If he doesn’t, he might not survive,” Paul said, bluntly. “He must get the soot out of his lungs. Get a brazier up here and keep a kettle boiling all the time. The steam should help loosen his chest. I’ll stay here to be close at hand.”

It was a long night for Ben. He mostly sat by Joe, but every now and then went to check on Adam and Hoss. Both had fallen asleep, and their coughs had subsided. Ben was thankful for that.

Joe was finding breathing difficult. He had finally opened his eyes about 2 am, and looked at Ben without saying anything. With his awakening, came the start of the coughing, and Joe was in torment. He couldn’t breathe though his nose at all, and by the end of a spasm of coughing, was often blue around the lips as he struggled to get enough oxygen in. The cough tormented his broken ribs, and Ben was fearful that a rib would spring free and maybe puncture a lung.

As the night wore on, Joe’s eyes became glazed with exhaustion, but he drank the water his father offered. Paul, roused by Joe’s coughing, raided the kitchen and fed Joe sips of honey, which gave him some nourishment, and also soothed his raw throat. One boiling kettle soon became two, and it felt to Ben like he and Paul were working in a Turkish bath. However, Joe’s breathing seemed easier, and gradually the coughing slowed.

Dawn broke in glorious colour that morning, and Ben, glancing out of the window, spared a thought for Jed. He felt very bad that he’d had to leave his friend alone, but for his hands, the previous day. Grace’s death shocked and saddened Ben. He wondered how the town would be reacting to the arrests of the mob. He was sure there would be a few hangings. He would never understand why people reacted so badly to other people who were different. It was something he had no patience for, and he had taught his sons the same, and was immensely proud of their tolerant attitude.

“Pa,” said a breathy, painful whisper, and Ben turned from his musings to see Joe looking at him.

“How do you feel, son?” Ben asked, sitting by Joe and taking his hand gently.

“Grace,” Joe said, ignoring the question completely. “Is Grace…?”

“Don’t try to talk any more, Joe,” Paul warned. “Your throat will be pretty sore for a few days, and you don’t want to strain it. Understand?”

Mutely, Joe nodded, but his pleading green eyes were fixed on Ben, and for the first time, Ben wondered if Joe knew what had happened to Grace. “Grace died, son,” he said, and saw the tears drowning those expressive orbs; saw the anguish there, and knew that Joe had been aware of the torments Grace had been subjected to before she died. He gathered Joe into a comforting embrace.

Crying when your nose is packed is an unpleasant business, and Joe choked and spluttered several times before he could get his grief under control. “I… tried… to… protect….her,” he whispered. Paul made a ‘tutting’ noise, but Joe ignored him. “I…. heard…. them… hurt…. her.”

“You did everything you could, Joe,” Ben soothed. “How could you hold off so many men alone? You expected too much of yourself, Joe. You were lucky to get out alive.”

Opening his mouth, Joe suddenly cast a look at the scowling face of Paul Martin and closed it again. He turned back to his father, the question he wanted to ask there in his eyes, those expressive eyes that showed so much of his soul. Ben smiled. “Adam and Hoss saved you,” he explained.

At those words, Joe’s eyes swivelled to the door, and riveted there. His pupils were wide and dilated. “Joe, they’re both fine,” Paul said. “Just sleeping, which is what you should be doing!” He held a glass of doctored water to Joe’s mouth and he had the choice of drink or drown. He drank, and a short while later, he slipped into a deep sleep.

“I think he’s going to be fine,” Paul said, quietly. “There are no indications of internal bleeding. He’s been lucky. Its now a case of keeping him quiet, and letting nature take its course.”

“Thank you, Paul,” responded Ben. He shut his eyes to say a brief, heartfelt, prayer of thanks.

“Get some rest,” Paul ordered. “And eat something! Doctor’s orders!”

*****

Although it was soon clear that Joe’s physical recovery was well under way, his mental recovery was a different matter. Joe sank into a deep depression, barely talking or eating. He lost weight, and there were dark circles permanently under his eyes. Every night, his screams woke his family. Ben had never heard the expression ‘survivor guilt’, but if he had, he would have recognised it immediately. Joe was feeling guilty for living when Grace had died.

Rational thought told Joe that he had no reason to feel guilty. He had done everything in his power to save Grace, and it was inconceivable that he would have prevailed over 12 men. But Joe persisted in blaming himself. Even a visit from Jed didn’t change his mind. Jed had sold his homestead, and was leaving Nevada. The memories were more than he could handle, and he was moving on.

The trial of the mob came and went, and Joe had once again given damning testimony, but this time, instead of fanning the flames of ill feeling in the town, his obvious distress and suffering turned the townsfolk against the mob who had taken unspeakable revenge against a pregnant woman. Joe found himself a hero, which made him feel even guiltier. Neither Adam nor Hoss had been able to get past the barrier of guilt Joe hid behind. In fact, he had barely spoken to his brothers in weeks.

A few weeks later, Ben found Joe by his mother’s grave, his habitual retreat when the world became too much for him. The young man’s troubled mind was only too obvious to his father, and Ben decided he had to say something to Joe, to see if he could finally calm his son’s troubled spirit.

“Joe,” Ben said, and looked down at the grave between them.

“Pa,” Joe acknowledged. He rose to his feet, and started to walk away, but Ben put out his hand to stop him.

“Joe, when are you going to stop blaming yourself for being alive?” Ben asked, his tone conversational.

Visibly jolted, Joe just looked at his father. “I think I can understand a little of how you feel,” Ben went on. “What has happened to you over the last few months has had some far reaching consequences, and its difficult to know why these things happened.”

“Grace didn’t deserve to die like that!” Joe exclaimed, violently. “She was a good person, but nobody stopped to find that out!”

“No, you’re right,” Ben agreed. “Nobody deserves to die like that. It was dreadful and tragic. But you know, Joe, I think maybe a little good has come from it.”

“Do you?” Joe said, rudely. He started to walk away, but Ben caught his arm.

“You haven’t been into town since the trial,” he went on, pretending not to notice how Joe struggled to free himself from the grip on his arm. “So you don’t know that there has been a change of attitude towards Grace. Its too late for her to get the benefit, but who knows? There may be other young Indian women who might find a warmer welcome here than they expect.”

“You’re right, Pa,” Joe said. “It is too late for Grace. Far too late! I suppose you’ll say better late than never?”

“Perhaps,” allowed Ben. “But you’ve got to remember something, Joe. The attitude of the people in town is more common than you think. Oh, most folks are basically decent, but they have been brought up to hate and fear the Indians. How many times have you heard it said that the only good Indian is a dead Indian? Too many times. I brought you boys up to give respect to everyone, regardless of race, colour or creed. But we are the exceptions. Maybe one day, others will think like us. But we have to live in the here and now. And in the here and now, Grace’s death has shown the people of Virginia City that they were wrong about her. Perhaps, as I said, some other Indian woman, or man, may benefit from it.”

Joe was silent, his head ducked so that Ben couldn’t see his face below the brim of his hat. “But why am I alive, and she’s not?” Joe cried, anguish in his tones.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Ben replied. “But perhaps you had to live, to show these people that Grace was a human being, just like them. Joe,” he added, forcing his son to meet his eyes, “nobody, least of all Grace, would blame you for what happened to her. You did your best, and no one can ask for more than that. You may have lived to share your philosophy that individuals are deserving of respect, even if their customs and culture are different from your own. I don’t know. All I do know is that I am eternally grateful to God that you survived.” There were tears in Ben’s voice. He drew his son to him in an enveloping hug, and after a moment, Joe hugged him back. As though a dam had been breached, Joe began to sob, and the tears washed away the weeks of bitter self-reproach.

As his son’s sobs subsided, Ben spoke again. “Joe, life is a gift, and we should never waste it. Your brothers and I are so grateful that you are still here with us. It would make us all happier than I can say if you felt happy about being alive, too. These last few weeks have been hard on all of us, especially you, I know. But its time to put the past to rest, and remember Grace as she would have wanted – a beautiful young woman.”

Wiping his face, Joe nodded. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, Pa,” he said, and Ben noticed the lighter tone in his son’s voice. “Let’s go home. I haven’t thanked Adam and Hoss for saving my life.”

With a big smile of relief, Ben draped his arm round his son’s shoulders, and they walked back to their horses in a companionable silence that neither of them had felt for too long. As they mounted, Ben glanced back at the grave. “Thank you, Marie my love,” he whispered, “for helping me find the right words to reach our son.”

They turned their horses towards home, and Joe smiled his brilliant, loving smile at Ben. He responded with a grin of his own, and together they urged their horses into a light-hearted race.

*****End*****

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