How Do You Say Goodbye? (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,178


 

I was only twelve years old when I saw her for the first time.  I was sitting at my desk in school when she walked in with her father.  I wasn’t much interested in girls back then, but there was something about her that made me stare at her.  I just couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her…but then, neither could any of the other boys in class.  Even the girls seemed interested in watching her as she timidly followed her father into the building and slowly made their way up to the teacher’s desk.

As soon as Miss Jones had started talking to the girl’s father, all the boys began whispering; some even made snide remarks about her.  Miss Jones finally looked up and told everyone to be quite and to get back to work.  I tried to keep my mind on what I was suppose to be doing, but I found myself watching her from beneath my thick lashes that I tried to keep lowered.  She seemed a bit nervous as she stood with her father while he talked to the teacher but I noticed that every so often, she’d look around at the class and then quickly look away so that no one would suspect that she was checking all of us out.

After several minutes, her father bid her good-bye and walked away, leaving the girl with Miss Jones.  The teacher smiled at the new student and then stood up, placing her arm around the girl’s shoulder.  Miss Jones cleared her throat.

“Class, we have a new student.  I’d like to introduce you to Miss Cassandra Riggs.  Cassandra is from way back East, Providence, Rhode Island to be exact.  She’s just moved all the way across the country with her parents.  They’re in the process of buying the old Johnston place and turning it into ranch…with lots of hard work.  Why don’t we all say hello to Cassandra and introduce ourselves.  Mattie Stuart, let’s start with you.”

I listened as each student told Cassandra their names, repeating them myself in my mind.  The new girl smiled warmly at each pupil and then suddenly, everyone was quiet.  I had my eyes fixed on the girl’s face and not aware of what was going on around me, I only remember that it was a nice face.  She had a nice smile too, that caused her cheeks to dimple slightly when she grinned, like she was doing now.  Her eyes were large and round and almost as dark brown as my Pa’s eyes…I could see a hint of mischief in them; they were twinkling merrily…she was looking at me.

Suddenly, everyone started laughing.  I was jolted from my thoughts as I looked around to see what was so funny and then I know my face must have turned three shades of red, for the entire class was gawking at me…it was my turn to introduce myself and there I sat like some clown, gaping at Cassandra as if I were a love sick puppy.

I swallowed hard and cleared my throat giving Seth and Mitch the evil eye cause they were sitting closest to me and laughing the loudest.

“My name’s Joseph…ere…Joe Cartwright,” I babbled, feeling like a fool.

Cassandra smiled broadly at me and I remember the warm glow in her eyes.  Her voice, when she spoke was soft and it had a gentle ring to it, almost musical sounding.

“Hello, Joseph…ere…Joe,” she said.

“H…Hi…” I stammered, causing the class to laugh again.

I wanted to run away, but I stood my ground, determined not to let them get to me.

“My friends,” I remember stressing the word friends and then looking at the fellows around me, who suddenly hushed laughing.  “My friends,” I repeated, “call me Little Joe…you can call me Little Joe, too, if’n you like.”

“Why, thank you…Little Joe,” smiled Cassandra and I knew in that instant I was hooked for life.  How she managed to steal my heart in that one moment, I never could figure out, not even eight years later, after we’d become the very best of friends.

But I knew right then that we’d be friends, good friends.  I didn’t feel so foolish anymore and I guess Mitch and Seth must have sensed something too cause they stopped laughing and looked from Cassandra back to me.

When she spoke again, the room was so silent that you could have heard a pin drop.  It was too quiet and I thought for a moment that everyone would hear the loud beating of my heart as I stood up from my seat, grinning like an idiot.

“My friends…back East that is, called me Cassie…you can call me Cassie…Little Joe, if you’d like to?”

It wasn’t a question.  It was more like a command and trust me I was more than willing to follow it. “Sure…Cassie.”

The class erupted into a loud roar of laughter and I felt my face burning again.  I glanced at Cassie but she was only rocking gently on her toes, hands clasped together smiling at me.

“Class…please!” Miss Jones had to shout to get everyone’s attention.  She was reduced to clapping her hands together, which finally brought the laughter under control.

“That will be enough,” the teacher demanded.  “Cassandra…let’s see, where shall you sit…” Miss Jones was looking around the room, but the only vacant desk had been opposite mine and I knew from the look on the schoolteacher’s face that next to me was the last place where she wished to have Cassie sit.

“She can sit here,” Mitch volunteered.

I saw Miss Jones cringe.  The vacant desk was not only opposite me, but was surrounded by all boys.  On the other side was Mitch’s desk, in front where Cassie had made her way to the empty desk was Seth and behind her Carl Lockland, the class bully, sat grinning.

I glanced his way and saw the sneer on his ugly mug as Cassie took her seat.  I was tempted to wipe the nasty grin off his face but I was already treading on thin ice where Miss Jones was concerned and I dared not risk having to stay after school again this week and set my pa into a rage, so I kept quite, hoping that Carl would leave Cassie alone.

I should have known better, right off I saw Carl lean forward and whisper something in Cassie’s ear.  I don’t know what he said, but I saw her eyes turn two shades darker as she spun around and gave the bully a wicked glare.

“How dare you!” she said, none to quietly.

Miss Jones had been writing numbers on the board but I saw her hand freeze in mid-air.  When she turned around, Cassie was facing the front looking very ladylike as she tucked her supplies into her desk just as if nothing had been going on.

I pretended to be busy copying the figures down on my paper, but I saw the teacher scan the room with her sky blue eyes.  I don’t know why…well, maybe I do, but they stopped when she got to me and I thought she never would stop glaring at me.  Why, you would have thought I’d done something…but I hadn’t…at least not yet, but I knew if Carl started to pester Cassie, I’d wind up having to take him down a notch or two.  As I look back now, I realize at the time, I had no clue just how many times Carl and I would end up tangling or how such a smidgen of a girl would wind up having such an impact on my life.  Then, all I could think about was the desire I felt growing deep inside of me for the want of just getting to know her and finding out what she was all about.  From that day to this…I still haven’t figured it out, but I know one fact, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about our relationship, and that includes the bad as well as the good.

By the end of Cassie’s first week at school, I had already gotten into the first of what was to be many fights with Carl.  He just wouldn’t leave the girl alone; he followed her around the schoolyard constantly teasing her and pulling her long blond pigtails.  He even went as far as to steal the pink bows from her hair.  I watched from afar for the first couple of days but by the third day, when I saw Carl grab Cassie by the arm and practically shove her against the outside wall of the building, I dropped my books and went after the big lug.

It wasn’t much of a fight as I recall.  Carl was two years older than me, and a hell of lot bigger.  He whipped my butt all over the schoolyard.  He walked away with a slightly split lip while I lay on the ground moaning like I’d been trampled by a herd of runaway mustangs.  My face was covered in dirt and blood dripped from the gash over my right eye where Carl had hit me with his big balled up fist.  That wasn’t all either; I think he punched me in the gut so many times that my insides had turned to mush.  I hurt from the top of my head to the tip of my toes, so much so that I wanted to cry; I almost did too, until I looked up and saw her running towards me.

When she knelt down and touched my bruised face with her gentle fingers, I almost swooned.  I know that sounds silly, especially for a twelve year old fellow to admit such things, but when she asked me if I was alright, her voice was like sweet music flowing from heaven downward into my ears.  Hell, it was worth the beating I’d taken just to see the concern in her deep brown, expressive eyes.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d see that same look of concern in her eyes many more times before we were grown up enough to go our separate ways, but believe me when I tell you…I didn’t care, she was worth fighting the class bully over.  She was everything I used to imagine my mother to be, beautiful, kind, generous as well as tender and soft-spoken and did I mention how nice she smelled?

I can’t remember a day that we were in school that she ever smelled anything but lovely.  The scent of lavender was always in her hair and in the stylish dresses she wore.  It was hard to fathom that she was the same age as I was…maybe a few months older but not enough to care or count.  Cassie was a petite little thing; her hair looked like golden wheat when she wore it down instead of in braids, which wasn’t often enough for my liking.  Her skin was smooth and milky without any flaws and her cheeks always bore a faint hint of pink, adding brilliance to her shiny and glimmering eyes that lay behind a wealth of thick lashes.  Cassandra Riggs had all the makings of a budding and beautiful woman, much akin to a fine China doll so delicately chiseled where her features.

When I arrived home that day, after the first fight with Carl, I won’t repeat all the things my father said.  But to sum it up, he wasn’t happy with me.  I’d ruined my shirt, it was ripped and torn beyond repair and when Pa saw the cut over my eye, he had Adam ride into town to fetch back Doc Martin.  For the bravery I’d shown earlier to Cassie right after the fight, I cried like a baby when Doc had to take half a dozen stitches to sew up the cut.  I was then given something for the pain and sent off to bed, which worried my father who in turn sat up with me half the night.

The next morning, as I was getting ready for school, Pa came into my room and ordered me back to bed.  It was my turned to be appalled.  If I didn’t show my face at school, Carl-the-class-bully would think I had turned yellow.  I talked myself blue in the face, trying to convince my father why I had to go to school that day, but he’d hear none of it.  I was doomed and I remember feeling once more like I wanted to cry.  I don’t why that was, I wasn’t a crybaby, but it seemed like I spent half my time crying over one thing or another that really didn’t add up to a hill of beans.  Anyway, back to what I was saying, I was so upset about not being allowed to go to school that day and struggling to hold back the tears that I thought for sure I’d bust.  Then Adam came into the room and I saw him wink at me.  I was a little surprised that he took an interest in me.  Adam had been gone for nearly four years…back east to Boston where he’d gone to college and he hadn’t been home very long. So when he appeared in my doorway fighting my cause with me…well, it sort of made me feel ashamed of myself for I’d been a bit mad at him for the last several years, you know, for going away when I needed him to stay home with me so badly and then being gone so long, only to show up again and trying to pick up where we’d left off.  It took him and me awhile to readjust to one another, him being so much older and wiser than me at the time, but little by little brother Adam and I began putting the pieces back together again, so there he was right when I needed him, bargaining on my behalf.

Adam began explaining to Pa why he’d let me go back to school if I were his son.  That made Pa angry and he starting shouting at Adam about how he wasn’t my father but only my brother and that HE, Ben Cartwright, was my father and how HE thought HE knew how to raise a boy better’n Adam knew cause Adam knew nothing about raising boys and HE knew everything cause HE’D already raised two stubborn-headed boys without any help from him!

But Adam didn’t back down nor give up and in the end I went to school.  I made a point that evening as soon as I got home…without incidence, mind you…of thanking Adam for taking my side.  I did all his barn chores that night and the next.  By Friday though, I was in trouble again.  Yep…this time Carl-the-class-bully tried to force himself on Cassie and when she yelled for help, I responded to her distress cries. I couldn’t stand watching him try to kiss her…

This time, I only got a black eye and a split lip and sent to my room…restricted for the entire weekend!  Pa didn’t notice the small rip in my shirt, but Adam did so as soon as he could sneak away with it, he slipped down the back stairs and asked Hop Sing in private if he’d sew it up for me without mentioning it to Pa.  Hop Sing did, but it cost me two nights of washing dishes to keep him quite about it!  Pa never did find out about the torn shirt.

My life after Cassie came to school, as the new girl didn’t improve to any degree worth mentioning. I found rather to my disgust that I was to suffer many more indignities before Carl-the-class-bully finally graduated and left school for good.  That day seemed like it would never arrive, at least to me.  It was only early fall and Carl’s graduation wasn’t until spring…that was months away and it seemed like an entire lifetime to me and I’m sure Cassie as well.  I kept telling myself that things would improve once the bully was gone, little did I know at that time that things between Carl and I and Cassie would not change for several years yet.

I suppose by the time I got to school that morning and saw Cassie with her head together with several other girls I somehow knew that this day would be different from all the rest although by the end of it, I’d find myself wishing it hadn’t been.  I’d have gladly taken another pounding by the class bully than to learn the secret that Cassie was right then sharing with her girlfriends.  I remember that particular day as if it were yesterday; it was the day that Cassie dropped the bombshell and changed my life forever.

*****

The morning had started off just right, everything was in perfect accord and I felt like a new man.  That new-man feeling might have been caused from all the rest I’d gotten that week-end, being restricted for the entire time, to my room mind you…didn’t give a growing lad much chance to do anything else but rest.  I remember lying on my bed reading a lot or just staring up at the ceiling wondering why I put myself through such agony, I should have learned over the last couple of years since Cassie’s been here that nothing concerning Carl would ever change.  From the very first day, he deemed it his right to harass and pester the poor girl.  Now, there we were at the ripe old age of fourteen… and nothing had been settled.

I knew of the upcoming barn dance but wasn’t sure just who I might ask to go.  The friendship I had with Cassie was special but it had turned out to more akin to a brother and sister type relationship.  She felt as I did about that so I knew it wasn’t likely that we’d be going to the dance together.  We were both too young to really date but even if we’d been old enough I’m not sure I’d ask Cassie.  But this dance was different, it wasn’t just for us kids, everyone in town would be going; Adam and Hoss already had dates, why even Pa was going, though he hadn’t asked any of his lady friends.  He must have figured if he asked one, the others would have their feelings hurt and knowing my pa as I do, I’m sure Pa didn’t want any of the ladies to harbor hurt feelings on his account.  He told me when I asked him which one he was taking that he wasn’t taking anyone, that he much preferred to go alone and enjoy the company of all the ladies and dance with each one of them.  Secretly, I think Pa was afraid to ask one of the single ladies…it was common knowledge that Pa would have been good catch for a husband if he could be caught, but Pa was careful about such things.  He admitted that he’d allowed himself to be caught three times and that was enough for any man.  But none of that helped me out; I was still without my own little gal to dance with.

I know Sarah Hamilton, the banker’s daughter was a real knock out and I’d given serious thought about asking her to be my partner for the upcoming event.  My only problem was that my Pa told me I couldn’t go if I got into a single fight this week…I felt doomed.  How on earth could I go a whole week without getting into a fight with Carl-the-class-bully?  So I was sorta stuck between a rock and hard place…do I ask Sarah or not.  If I do and I end up in a rumble with Carl, I couldn’t take her and then she’d be mad at me and probably never speak to me again.  On the other hand, if I didn’t ask her…waiting of course until Friday to assure myself that I would be going to the dance…someone else might ask her in the meantime and then I’d be left with nobody to take to the dance.  I’d wind up the only boy there without a partner and I sure didn’t want that to happen.

I was still giving it some deep thought as I crossed the schoolyard.  My mind wasn’t on what I was doing or where I was going and I wasn’t aware that I was walking into the path of…guess who.

“Hey Cartwright!”

I was stopped in my tracks by the moving wall.  Over the last couple of years, Carl had taken a growing spurt and now towered over me.  His massive frame swallowed up my much smaller, slimmer frame until I looked more like his shadow than his shadow did.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you,” I muttered, only half-heartedly making my excuses.

I started around the bully, but he stopped me by grabbing my upper bicep.  His long, strong fingers tightened about my arm, surprising me with their strength.  I felt myself draw up but I refused to cry out, even though it hurt like hell and I knew I’d be sporting more bruises when he finally chose to let go.

“Why don’t ya watch where you’re goin’?” he shouted into my face.

I remember swallowing hard and I suppose the pain he was causing in my arm must have showed in my eyes ’cause Carl laughed.

“I said I was sorry,” I said with gritted teeth.

I wrenched my arm free.  I was surprised that the big ape didn’t take a swing at me, but for whatever reasons he chose not too, I was glad.  It was only Monday and I remember thinking, I can’t go home today with another note from Miss Jones telling Pa I’d been fighting again!

Carl moved away as I stood rubbing my bicep.  I was only keenly aware that Seth and Mitch, my two best friends, came and stood on either side of me.

“Are ya ever goin’ to be able to whip his butt, Joe?” Seth asked.

“I don’t know,” I recall saying.  “Probably when he does something so horrid that it makes me pert-near angry enough to kill the bastard.”

I walked away, leaving my friends standing with their mouths opened.

For the entire morning, I tried to ignore Carl; he was pushing me I knew.  He was constantly doing little things to Cassie.  I watched him finger her long curls while he was supposed to be doing his class work.  I felt like gagging when I saw him lean way forward in his seat and sniff her hair, especially when he looked up and saw me watching him.  He smiled at me…it was almost a nice smile…one that I’d never seen him do before, but then he realized whom he was smiling at and then made a face at me.  Damn, I hated that guy…

I knew what he was thinking…and I’d like to take him on just for thinking about it.  I knew what Cassie’s hair smelt like; I’d gotten a whiff of it plenty of times.  It almost drove me wild at times.  She was so pretty, just about the prettiest girl around and what made her so special was that she had the personality to go with the looks.  She was sweet and soft spoken, not loud and goofy like most of the girls.  Cassie never put on airs either; she was the same everyday…to everybody, even Carl-the-class-bully.

By lunch break I’d work myself into a stupor.  I’d grown weary of watching how Carl was acting.  I knew if I didn’t get out of there soon, I’d find myself in heaps of trouble because I was just about ready to lean over and bunch him in the face!

As soon as Miss Jones excused the class, I grabbed my lunch bag and raced outside where I found a shady spot under the old oak tree.  I watched as the others filed out of the building and soon several other boys, who immediately started talking about who they were going to ask to the dance, joined me.  I heard Sarah Hamilton’s name mentioned in the same breath that Cassie’s name was brought up.  Looked to me as if half the fellows old enough to take a girl to the dance had plans on asking either Sarah or Cassie.

I glanced toward the small gathering of girls who were bunched together on the opposite side of the schoolyard.  Cassie was sitting on a log next to Sarah.  They made a pretty picture, the two of them, what with Cassie’s golden curls blowing gently in the breeze and Sarah’s long black hair being mused by the same breeze.  I watched a minute more and decided then that I’d better ask Sarah to the dance before someone beat me to it.

I tossed the remainder of my sandwich into the sack and started across the yard.  Just as I neared the two girls, Carl Lockland appeared from behind some trees.  He’d seen me coming, wasn’t that my luck?

I figured Carl would stand in my way, but he turned to Cassie, who by that time had stood up.  I didn’t know what Carl said to her, but she smiled at him.  It was the first time that I’d ever seen her do that, and to be honest, I was stunned.  What shocked me even more was when he turned to go, Cassie put her hand on Carl’s arm and walked away with him.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing…Cassie had the strangest look on her face.  Minutes ticked by.  I was unable to move from the spot where I stood.  I think my feet must have taken root.

Behind me, some more for the fellows walked toward the girls who where giggling and whispering.  I knew that the guys were talking to the girls, but it never registered with me what was being said.  Minutes later, Miss Jones rang the bell, signaling that lunch was over.  Most the kids headed back toward the schoolhouse, but I just stood there, watching Cassie and Carl slowly make their way back.

It was only when they walked passed me, never noticing me because they were too busy whispering to one another that I realized that I was the last one standing there…alone.  Everyone else had gone inside.  I suddenly felt sick inside, I don’t remember why, but I did.

The teacher was about to shut the door so I shook my head to clear the jumbled thoughts and took off running.  I barely made it in time before Miss Jones shut me out of class.  I slipped into my seat, glanced at Cassie, noting the happy sparkle to her eyes and the faint touch of pink to her cheeks.

When I stole a quick look back at Carl, he gave me a ‘go to hell’ look and shook his fist at me. “She’s goin’ with me!”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but before I could give it much thought, I was called upon to go to the board and work a math problem for the class.  I stumbled forward in a daze but I somehow managed to get the problem worked and even surprised myself at getting it right.  I guess all that extra time I had studying finally paid off.

It was during the next break that day that I was finally able to approach Sarah and ask her to the dance.  Boy, was I surprised to hear that she’d already agreed to go to the dance with Seth Pruett, one of my best friends.

I was disappointed to say the least, now I’d be the only one without a partner for the dance.  I glanced around at the girls…there was no one else I wanted to ask…except maybe Cassie.  Yeah…I’ll ask Cassie, she’ll go with me…or so I thought.

I waited until I could catch her alone and then went up to her.  I remember how sweetly she smiled at me, and the merry ring to her voice.

“Hi, Little Joe.”

“Hi, Cassie…say, I wanted to ask you something…”

“What?”

I remember feeling a bit tongue-tied.  That had never happened to me before when I was with Cassie.  I looked into her eyes as she waited for me to ask my question.  The breeze lifted the scent of lavender from her hair and sent it floating through the air, straight to my nose.  My senses were reeling and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what in the world was wrong with me.

“Little Joe…”

“Heh?”

Cassie laughed; it was soft and seemed to be suspended in the air. “You wanted to ask me something?”

“What…oh, yeah…I was wondering…would you…hmm…go…to the…barn dance…with me?”

There, I’d finally managed to get the words out.  Whew, I felt better…but it didn’t last long.  Cassie’s smiled faded and she suddenly looked a bit pale…and I remember thinking that she might faint.  Surely I didn’t have that affect on her…I mean, I knew I wasn’t bad to look at…and I was nice…most of the time, but I’d never had a girl faint just because I’d asked her to an old barn dance.

“Oh Joe…”

It was the first time she’d ever said my name without adding my nickname to it.  I recall studying her beautiful face.

“What?”

“I’m…sorry…but…I…can’t…go…with…you.”

Why was she stammering?  Can’t go with me…hey, wait a minute…just a second ago she was practically overcome with…

“Why not?” I blurted out.

“Because I’ve already accepted another invite…”

“What?”

I couldn’t believe my ears…when had a boy asked her…more so…WHO had asked her?

“Cassie…who…asked you to the dance?”

It seemed like a lifetime before she looked up at me.  For a moment I thought she was going to start crying.  She fiddled with the handkerchief she held in her hands.  I watched her swallow and struggle to find the words to tell me who had asked her to the upcoming dance.

“Cassie!”

 I almost shouted her name.  I realized how loud I’d gotten so I took a deep breath to calm myself and then looked around the yard.  Everybody was busy doing other things except…Carl…and he was headed straight toward us.

It hit me like a rock; I knew then who had asked Cassie to the dance before she ever told me.  I spun around and stared in shock at her.  She stood up but still didn’t say anything; I think she was afraid to tell me.

“Cassie,” I said her name softly, it almost slipped off the end of my tongue.  “Tell me it wasn’t who I think it was,” I almost pleaded.

“I’m sorry, Little Joe…but…Carl asked me first…”

I was beyond myself.  After all the beatings I’d taken from Carl for trying to defend her…Cassie up and agreed to go to the first dance held since she came to Virginia City with none other than Carl Lockland, the class bully.  I felt like a broken man.  I could say nothing more.

When Carl got to us, I suddenly didn’t care if I ever got to go to another dance, I didn’t care if I ever got out of my room…I doubled up my fist and spun around, hitting Carl square on the jaw.  He staggered backwards tripping over the log that Cassie had been sitting on earlier.

I’m not sure what happened after that, but I remember being carried into the shade just seconds before I passed out.  When I awoke, I remembered my head was pounding something fierce and my father’s angry, dark eyes glaring down into my face.

“Pa?”

“How are you feeling, Joseph?”

Pa’s voice was filled with concern but I knew beneath the surface lay an anger that was about to bubble over.  I was going to be the recipient of that anger, and inside my aching gut, I felt my stomach tremble.  I need only look into Pa’s eyes to know just how much trouble I was in.

“I’m alright,” I muttered as I tried to get to my feet.

Pa helped me to my feet, though I swayed a bit.  He wrapped his arm about my shoulder and let me lean against him.  When I looked up, the first face I saw was Cassie’s.  She’d been crying ’cause I saw the streaks down her face and her eyes were slightly red.  Carl stood beside her, his arm about her shoulders.  My stomach began doing flips.

“I’m sorry, Cassie…” I heard my voice but wasn’t consciously aware of what I was saying.

“Oh…Little Joe…how could you!” she dared me.

I felt like crying.  The look on her face was so pitiful.  She turned without saying another word to me and ran off.  I felt my tears sting my eyes.  Carl glared at me but didn’t dare utter a word, not with my pa and my brothers standing there next to me.  He left me there with them to face my fate and took off running after Cassie.  I watched, knowing that the tears were rolling silently down my cheeks.  She stopped when Carl called her name and I must have groaned when she took his hand and they walked away together cause Pa’s arm about my shoulder tightened somewhat.

I looked up at him.  Most of the anger had dissipated but I knew I wasn’t out of the woods yet.  I was thankful he didn’t say anything, I felt like such a jerk…and he must have sensed it ’cause he pulled me closer to him and led me over to the horses.

Miss Jones was talking to Adam, who was backing up and still trying to be polite.  Hoss had walked with Doc Martin to his buggy so that left me alone with Pa.

“Think you can ride, son?”

“I…”

“Never mind,” Pa said as he turned toward his horse.  “You ride up front with me, that way you can lean back and rest your head.”

Before I could protest, I was hoisted up into Pa’s wide leather saddle.  He mounted up behind me and seconds later, I was on my head home.  I was glad that Pa let me ride with him, ’cause every part of my body where Carl had hit me hurt something fierce.  I know I moaned several times without meaning to and I did finally end up with my head resting against Pa’s broad chest.  By the time we got home, I’d fallen asleep and never really knew when Pa lifted me down and carried me inside and laid me on my bed.  It was pitch dark when I woke up.  I was surprised to find myself dressed in my nightshirt and tucked safely under the covers.  I glanced around the room, glad that I was alone.

I pressed my head against the pillow and shut my eyes, trying hard to wipe the image of Cassie’s unhappy expression from my mind.  Suddenly I felt my chest swell with tightness and although I tried hard not too, I started to cry and once I did, I couldn’t stop.

For two years nearly I had been fighting the beast.  I’d taken more lickings and more poundings than any other fellow around.  My face sported more bruises and black eyes than half the town’s men on a drunken Saturday night.  And for what…just so Cassandra Riggs could go to her very first dance with the bully.  I was sickened by the thought.  I was appalled.  I was hurt…disappointed…it was then that I suddenly realized what was happening. I was…jealous!!

I couldn’t believe this.  I had wanted to ask Sarah to the dance, not Cassie.  Cassie was…like a sister to me…so why was I feeling so…foolish…so…used?

The next afternoon, Pa made me stay home from school on Tuesday…he said I’d taken too hard of a beating this time and was too sore to ride all the way into town for school, so he kept me home.  We had a long talk that afternoon out on the side porch.  Hoss and Adam had suddenly found that they had some fencing to mend down in the south pasture but I think Pa really hinted to them that he wanted to talk to me alone, so they left.

I tried to explain to my father about how I felt towards Carl Lockland but he just confirmed what I’d been feeling and that was to tell me that I was acting out of jealously towards Carl and that in all probability, Carl was sweet on Cassie…

I remember jumping up and stomping my foot, which almost made Pa laugh but he didn’t ‘cause he remembered right then that this was suppose to be a serious conversation.

“Joseph, sit back down!”

I did, but I wasn’t happy about it.  The idea that Carl might be sweet on Cassie was about the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard my father say and I told him so, which didn’t set to well with him, mind you!

By the end of our little talk, I’d promised Pa that no matter what Carl said or did from then one, I wouldn’t fight with him.  I thought it was pretty silly having to make such a promise cause I knew deep down inside that Carl and I weren’t finished yet.  But I was so mad at Cassie…perhaps I didn’t really realize I was until the next day when I saw her walking into class with her arm laced through Carl’s.  She smiled at me but I turned my head so I wouldn’t have to look at either of them.  I heard Carl snicker and that sent my temper to rising but I didn’t say anything…nor did I do anything.  By Friday, I hadn’t even spoken the first word to Cassie, even though she tried to talk to me I just ignored her.  I told myself that it didn’t matter, not anymore, if she wanted to go to the dang dance with Carl Lockland, the class bully, then so be it, I could care less.

But I knew I did care.  I wasn’t in love with her…or at least that’s what I told myself.  In fact, I said it so often to myself that by the time I was sitting alone on the front porch watching my family ride off into the night heading for the barn dance in town, I believed it to be true.

I spent some time in the barn talking to my horse and cleaning up the tact room a bit.  Pa hadn’t asked me to do it, but I was bored and my thoughts kept slipping back to Cassie and the dance.  I wondered if she were having a good time.  In my mind, I could see her dancing with the big lug and each time I saw the mental picture, my stomach would start to churn and I’d start feeling sick.

At one point I got so mad ’cause I couldn’t get the image of them out of my mind that I picked up a bucket and threw it across the barn.  It banged against the wall, scaring the horses that were stabled inside and I had to hurry to calm them down.  I was so busy with the horses that I failed to hear her come in until I turned around and saw her standing there.

“Hi, Little Joe.”

I was almost speechless; she was like a vision standing in the opened doorway with the moonlight gently caressing her golden hair.  I didn’t know it then, but it would be one of my favorite memories of her that would come back to haunt me years later.

I wanted to run to her, to…I’m not sure what I wanted to do, but I forced myself not to do anything except to turn my back on her.  I went about my business, ignoring her.  What I was really doing was trying to hide both the hurt she caused me, and the joy I was suddenly feeling at seeing her here with me…without Carl-the-class-bully.

Without realizing what I was doing and with no thought what I was saying, I spun around and glared at her.

“Where’s your lover-boy?” I snapped at her.

Even in the soft light burning within the barn, I saw her flinch.  I even noticed the tiny tears that welled up in her eyes, but right at the moment, I didn’t care.

“Well…why aren’t you at the dance with him?” I growled.

Cassie lowered her head and I heard her sniffling.  My anger abated some and I took a step closer.  I suddenly felt like a cad…I was making Cassie cry! “Cassie?”

She raised her head a bit and it was then that I saw the hurt shining in her eyes…there was something else too, but I wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to see it for what it was.  Cassie was feeling like a fool… “What did Carl do…”

“He stood me up…”

“The bastard…” I muttered under my breath.  “What happened?” I asked, taking her hand and leading her over to a bale of hay and gently forcing her to sit down.

“I should have known better, Little Joe.  He was just funning with my emotions…I don’t think he really had any intentions of taking me to the dance,” she explained with a touch of remorse in her voice.

“Then why did you ever tell him you would go with him?” I couldn’t understand why a girl like Cassie would ever want to go anywhere with a jerk like Carl.

“I don’t know, Joe…”

I sat down next to her; my head was low as I tried to figure out her actions, which of course I couldn’t not if she didn’t know the why’s of it herself.

I remember she turned and looked at me.  Tears were streaming down her cheeks and why I did what I did right then I’ll never understand.  But I used my fingers and brushed the tears from her face and then I leaned over and gently placed my lips against hers.

Cassie didn’t move.  She didn’t react either.  We just sat there for a fraction of a second with my lips pressed against hers.  It was not really a kiss…or not like what I thought a first kiss might be like.  I was disappointed in a way; I guess I expected something different than what I got…which was really nothing.

When I raised my head and looked into her eyes, the tears had stopped and she was smiling at me.  I must have smiled back…why, I don’t know.

“That was nice, Little Joe,” Cassie whispered to me.

I was shocked; I hadn’t thought it was so nice.

“Really?” I remember asking.

“Sure,” she smiled.

“Oh.”  I know it was a dumb thing to say.  Cassie must have thought so too ’cause we both started laughing.  We laughed so hard for several moments that both of us had fresh tears in our eyes before we finally could get ourselves under control.

“Say, Cassie…do you still want to go to that dance?”

“Sure I do…but I thought you weren’t allowed?  What about your father…won’t he be furious?”

“Yeah…but I’m willing to risk it if you are,” I told her.  “Besides, it will be worth it, just to see Carl’s face when you walk in on MY arm instead of his.”

So, that’s what we did.  I saddled my horse and Cassie and I rode off into the night.

The first person I saw when Cassie and I walked into the barn was my father.  He turned around about the same time as we entered and…I shall never forget the look on his face.  It bordered on shock and anger mixed altogether.  I remember seeing him glance over at Adam who looked about as surprised as Pa, but what really got me, was the look on Carl Lockland’s face when he saw Cassie and I walk into the center of the ring and start dancing together.

I think everybody in the barn were holding their breath a minute later when Carl strolled over to the two of us and grabbed my arm from around Cassie’s waist and spun me around so that we were facing one another.

“Just what the blazes do you think you’re doing, Cartwright…dancing with my girl?” Carl shouted.

“She isn’t your girl!” I shouted back.  “At least not any more…she’s…mine!”

I remember, right before Carl put his massive fist into my face and causing me more pain than ever before, glancing at Cassie, hoping that she’d confirm my statement.

“That’s right, Carl!”

That was all I remember her saying, which was enough for the time being.  From that second on, Carl and I tangled like two wild cats over a recent kill.  I think I might have gotten in a punch or two and I might have finally whipped Carl’s butt that time had my father and brothers not stepped in and pulled us apart.

I remember Pa holding me back so I couldn’t hit Carl again which caused me to struggle that much more.  But when I heard his deep blaring voice shouting at me through the fog that had unexpectedly clouded my head, I stopped struggling.

I hurt everywhere.  I felt my body go weak all over and I just remember sagging, almost falling to the floor before Pa caught me up in his arms and carried me off.  When I woke up, I was lying on a cot in the doctor’s office.  Pa was there, standing over me, looking worried once more.  Cassie and my brothers were there too and I recall seeing the uncertainty in all their eyes and their expressions.

“I thought I ordered you to stay home?” growled Pa in a loud voice.

I must have made a painful expression ’cause his tone softened some.

“Are you alright, son?”

“I’m sorry, Pa…honest,” I muttered.

I felt like crying, but with Cassie standing right there, I knew I couldn’t.

“But he stood her up…I couldn’t let him get away with making a fool out of her…or me either for that matter,” I tried to explain.

I saw something of a grin spread across my father’s face but he didn’t say anything else except three little words that told me without him having to say it aloud, that he understood. “I suppose not.”

*****

Things were different after that.  Carl graduated from school and for the next year we didn’t get into to many more fights.  I was growing by leaps and pounds according to Pa, but I still was never able to get the best of old Carl.  He did still find little ways to torment Cassie and me but I took my punches like a man and we went about our business as best we could.  We weren’t really what some would call sweethearts, but we were the best of friends.  We’d do just about everything together…we even went to a few more dances but we’d end up dancing with different ones.  All the young men were beginning to see just what a good looker Cassie was blossoming into and I couldn’t help but notice some of the girls that I’d known for years were blossoming too.  It wasn’t for another two years that I’d see Cassie for the beautiful young woman she’d later become and learn of her appeal to a certain long-term jerk who suddenly, once again took a strong liking to Cassandra Riggs.

*****

We were both eighteen by then and had pretty much gone our separate ways.  Cassie was helping her aunt in the dress shop that she had opened up the year before, after coming to settle in Virginia City at the insistence of Cassie’s mother. I was working hard everyday on the ranch with my father and brothers.  So we didn’t get to see one another very often, but we hadn’t lost touch completely either.

I knew Cassie was dating off and on when she had free time, but I wasn’t aware of whom she was seeing.  By that time, I was seeing different girls myself, Cassie and I having come to terms with the fact that we didn’t mean anything more to one another than being very special friends and about as close to being brother and sister than what either of us would ever have.  We liked our relationship and it continued to grow as the years slipped by so I was totally taken off guard by her news when Cassie stopped by the ranch late one afternoon to pay me a visit.

“Cassie!” I greeted her with a big smile.  It had been weeks since I’d seen her and as always, I was pleased when she found time to pay me a visit.

“Hi Joe,” she returned the smile.

She stopped using my nickname sometime ago and had begun referring to me as just Joe.

“I’m glad to see you,” I said.

Cassie smiled but didn’t say anything more as she stood by and waited for me to tie the horse’s reins to the hitching post.  When I turned around, I instantly saw the worry in her eyes.

“What’s wrong, Cassie?”

I immediately went to her and put my hands on her shoulders.  I could feel how her body was trembling and I her make a soft crying sound deep in her throat.  Gently, I raised her head, seeing the tears that filled her eyes.  I pulled her into my arms and held her while she cried.

When she finally stopped, Cassie pulled away, turning her back to me and walking slowly away.  I followed behind until we were standing by the corral fence.  She turned then and looked up at me.

“Joe…” she began.  “I have something to tell you…”

I was puzzled, fearing the worst.

“What?” I tried to say, but it came out as a whisper.  My heart was pounding in my chest.

Cassie swallowed. “I’ve been seeing someone…someone special…but my father doesn’t like him and wants me to stop seeing him.”

I let out a long sigh of relief.  Was that all?  Thank goodness…I feared something horrible was wrong and it was just a love dispute!

“Then stop seeing him.”

Cassie looked hurt as she puckered up her lips. “I can’t do that, Joe!”

“Why not?”

“Because…you don’t understand!”

“No…I don’t understand.  Your pa is a good judge of character and if he thinks you shouldn’t be seeing this fella…then you shouldn’t…who did you say it was?”

“I didn’t say…but I don’t want to stop seeing him.”  She was persistent to say the least.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because…I…I…love him, Joe…”

For a long moment I couldn’t say anything.  I was surprised that Cassie, my life-long friend might have actually fallen in love with someone.

“Oh.”

“Oh…is that all you have to say?”

I felt like an idiot. What was I to say? “What do you want me to say, Cassie?”

“I want you to tell me what to do…I love him Joe…but my father doesn’t understand…”

“Have you talked to your Pa?”

“I’ve tried…but he won’t listen.”

“What about…this…man…has he tried to talk to your father…who did you say he was?”

“I didn’t say…and…well, he tried, but Papa ran him off, said he wasn’t welcomed at our place.  Oh, Joe…what am I going to do…we love each other…and he’s not a bad person…honest.  He’s sweet and kind and gentle and we…love each other and we want to be married…”

“MARRIED!”  Now I was in shock.  “Cassie…you can’t be serious…who is he?”

“It…doesn’t matter, Little Joe…”

I noticed Cassie slipped up by using my nickname.  I was more than a little curious not.

“Who is he?” I asked in a demanding tone.  “And why doesn’t your pa like him…what’s he done?

“Oh Joe, for heaven’s sake, he hasn’t done anything…and Papa wouldn’t like anyone he thought I might want to marry…”

“He likes me,” I said teasingly, smiling at her.

“But I don’t want to marry you!” she shouted back at me.

I put on a hurt expression and looked at her beneath my lowered lashes. “Gee thanks.”

Cassie suddenly giggled, causing me to laugh as well. “I’m sorry, Joe…I do love you, you know that…”

“But not enough to marry me?”

“No…and you don’t love me any more than if I were your sister.”

“Well…that’s true.  But please, tell me…who is the lucky man?”

“I…I can’t tell you, Joe…”

“Why not, we’ve always told each other our deepest, darkest secrets…”

“You wouldn’t approve…just like my father…”

“Awe…Cassie…come on…what’s so wrong with the guy that you can’t tell me?”

Cassie turned and walked a short distance from me.  I waited until she stopped walking and then moved close behind her, placing my hands on her shoulders and turning her around so that I could see her face. “Cassie?”

“Promise you won’t hate me, Little Joe?”

“Hate you…I could never hate you,” I whispered.

A faint hint of lavender from her hair floated up into my nostrils, bringing with it a lifetime of memories.

“I’m…I’m…carrying his child, Joe…”

I hadn’t been hit so hard by anything in a long time, not since the last time my old archenemy, Carl-the-class-bully and I had tangled at that long ago barn dance.  I was stunned, shocked beyond words, crushed, disappointed, hurt…filled with desperation for Cassie and her situation.

“My God, I can’t believe this…” I muttered, releasing her shoulders and turning away to hide my expression from her and the tears I felt suddenly stinging my eyes.

“I knew you would hate me…”

I spun around, anger showing in my eyes.  I saw Cassie draw back in fear.  It was the first time she’d ever seen me so out and out angry.  It was the first time I’d felt so much anger at her. “I don’t hate you…I told you, I’d could never hate you…”

“But you’re mad…”

“NOT AT YOU!” I knew I was shouting, but all I could think of right then was getting my hands on the bastard who had….done this to her. “Cassie…I want you to tell me who this bastard is…if he won’t marry you…then by God…I’ll marry you…no one ever know that the baby wasn’t really mine…”

“NO!” she shouted back at me.

She came to me then and touched my cheek with her hand.  I grabbed it, holding it tightly in mine and kissing her fingertips.  Something inside of me knew she’d never agree to marry me, to let me be the baby’s father…

“I told you…I LOVE him, Joe…do you hear me…and he LOVES me…we want to be married!”

I couldn’t say anything…I didn’t know what to say.

“You don’t understand, Joe…we didn’t mean for this to happen…it just did.  But I’m not sorry…and if Papa won’t let us get married…then…we’ll just run away and get married.”

I saw the fear, the hurt, and the near panic in her eyes. “Cassie, does your father know about the…baby?”

She shook her head no.  “I’m afraid to tell him…he hates…him.”

Cassie moved over to my side.  I was leaning against the railing, watching the horses in the corral, thinking…

“He’s a kind, gentle man, Joe.  He hasn’t always been, but I know why he was always acting like a big bully…he told me why…”

I looked down into her eyes, seeing the all the love she felt for this man shining in their expression.

“He’s loved me forever…since the first day I came to school…so many years ago…”

My mind was racing…bully…school…kind, gentle…the four words didn’t mix…they couldn’t possibly mean who I feared it might…but it had to be…NO!

I grabbed her shoulders again, this time digging my fingers into her flesh. “CARL!  Dear God in heaven, Cassie…please, tell me I’m wrong…it can’t be CARL!!”

She didn’t have to say anything, all I had to do was to look deeply into her eyes, see the look on her face, feel the sudden trembling of her shoulders beneath my fingers and I had my answer.

I jerked my hands from her shoulders as if they’d been burnt and turned away, unable to face her.  I didn’t want to face her…I didn’t want to look at her…I…hated her.  I felt betrayed for all the years I’d stood by her, fighting for her, taking a beating for her, suffering the pain and indignation I’d endured from years of standing up for her.  At that moment, she’d done me more wrong than Carl Lockland had ever done to me and I was more devastated than I’d ever thought I could be.

I never looked back; I just went into the barn and saddled my horse.  When I rode out of the barn, I didn’t even bother to look at her, but I was keenly aware that she was still there.  My father had come outside and he was standing next to her.  I knew she was crying, but I didn’t give a damn…let her cry…she deserved to cry…I hoped she was miserable, just as miserable as I had been since laying eyes on her so long ago.

I kicked Cochise hard in the sides…and rode off in a huff, as if the devil himself was chasing me.  I wasn’t set on going any particular place, but I ended up in town, at the Bucket of Blood Saloon.

I ordered myself a beer and sat sulking at a table in the back corner of the room. A couple of my old friends had tried to start a conversation, but I let them know right off that I didn’t want to be bothered, so they left me alone.  I must have spent a couple of hours sitting there alone, drinking…though in that time, I’d only had two beers and I was just about ready to leave when I saw Carl come into the bar.

I watched as he ordered himself a beer and started to take a sip.  As he turned his mug up, he saw me sitting in the back of the room and tipped his mug at me.  I downed the rest of my beer and pushed back my chair and stood up.  I hadn’t intended to start anything with him, after all, why should I…I didn’t care anymore what happened to Cassie and I even cared less about the jerk at the bar.  But as it was, when I walked by him, Carl had the gumption to say hello to me.  It was all the incentive I needed.  All the anger, all the hurt, all the humiliation I’d endured over that past six years came rising to the surface and I lashed out at him.

I hit Carl Lockland so damn hard that his entire body went reeling across the room, tumbling over two tables before being slammed against the far wall.  For a moment he lay dazed in the floor.  I rubbed my sore fist and turned to go, that’s when I felt his body slam into mine.  We went crashing to the floor in a heap. I could hear the men shouting but I was too busy beating my fist into Carl’s face to notice who any of them might be and besides, I didn’t care, I had a lifetime of pent up anger to rid myself of.

By the time the fight was over, we were out in the street and Carl was lying flat on his back, blood dripping from his mouth and nose.  It was the first time I’d ever won a fight with him!  I stood over him, just looking down at him as he wiped the blood from his lip and tried to get up.  As he pushed himself into a sitting position, he looked up at me and surprised me by grinning at me.

“I guess I deserved that, Cartwright,” he muttered, spitting the blood from his mouth.  “And I guess I know why…you won today…but Joe…something ya should know,”

I wanted to walk away, but there was something in the tone of his voice the prevented me from doing so…something sincere.

“I love her, Joe…honest…I always have, but I was always afraid…of you…”

“Me?” I heard myself saying.

“Yeah…I was always afraid that she’d love you instead of me…I…hated you, Little Joe…maybe I still do…I don’t know.  But it’s important to me that you know how I feel about her…I do love her…and I am going to marry her…”

I realized then that it was true…I couldn’t understand how or when it happened, but it was a fact, Cassie and Carl had somehow, at sometime fallen in love.

I pointed my finger at him and every bit of the hate and anger I felt was in my voice.  It even trembled; it was that hard for me to speak… “Carl…if you ever hurt her…if you ever make her cry or cause her one minute of unhappiness…I swear to you on my mother’s grave, you’ll answer to me for it…I’ll come looking for you, you won’t be able to hide cause I’ll find you no matter where you run, I’ll hunt you down and I’ll…kill you with my bare hands!”

I felt I had little pride left.  Everyone it seemed, that knew me and Carl and the years of anger and hate that lay between us was there that night and it took every ounce of courage I was bequeathed with to keep from killing him right then.  But I didn’t…I turned and walked away, leaving Carl to face to the mob that lingered and whom had been witness to his dethroning.  That was the last time that I saw Carl.

A week later, I was helping Hoss with a wagon wheel when Mr. Riggs drove his buggy into the yard.  I saw the man glance at me as he jumped down from the seat and slowly make his way over to us.  He was looking a bit wane, as if he’d been a long time worrying about something.  I hadn’t seen Cassie since the day she came by and told me about her and Carl so I wondered if Mr. Riggs’ visit had anything to do with his daughter and her lover.

“Howdy, Mr. Riggs,” Hoss greeted our neighbor.

“Hoss,” Mr. Riggs said, but he turned then and looked at me.

It was hard to look him in the face; I didn’t know just how much he knew that I knew.

“Little Joe…”

“Hello, sir.”

“Could I have a word with you…alone?” he asked, glancing sideways at Hoss.

“If’n ya’ll excuse me,” Hoss said politely, “I got something I gotta tend to, in the barn,” he said, smiling and then slipped away.

“Little Joe…I been aiming on coming over to see you, before now…but I…well, in honesty, I reckon I couldn’t face you…”

“Couldn’t face me…come on Mr. Riggs, we’re better friends than that…”

“I know, Joe…but…well, I know how close you and Cassie always were…and she told me how you…took the news…about her and Carl, I mean…”

I couldn’t help but wonder if he knew about the baby.

“She asked me to come by and tell you how sorry she was…for hurting you…and disappointing you…she ran off, Joe…”

“I’m not surprised, Mr. Riggs…they really did love each other…and…they wanted to be married…”

I couldn’t believe I was standing there defending Cassie to her own father, but I suppose when you’ve been friends with someone for so long, it just came natural, no matter how badly you feel they mistreated you…and she hadn’t really…she couldn’t help it if she had fallen in love with Carl…no more than Carl could help himself for falling in love with Cassie.

“I know…I told her I understood and I begged her to stay here and let me give her a proper wedding…but she didn’t want that…she said she and Carl wanted to go away anyway so they’d go and get married in San Francisco.  He wants to start a freighting business there with a friend of his from back east so I suppose it was for the better…I couldn’t refuse her.  Joe…I know about the baby…”

“You do?” I asked, stunned that he knew, for I really thought that Cassie might just go away without telling her folks and then one day eight months later write them a letter and tell them she had a baby…but I guess I didn’t know her quite as well as I thought I did.

*****

Cassie had been gone for about two weeks when I found myself feeling a bit gloomy about it all and wishing that I’d taken time to apologize to Cassie for all the horrible things I said the last time we spoke and to tell her that I really did wish the best for her.

Pa found me one evening standing alone at the corral in the exact place where she and I had stood.  He must have sensed my unhappiness for he slipped his arm about my shoulders.  When I looked up at him, he smiled at me. “You miss her, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir…but…” My voice had started to tremble and I couldn’t go on.  I had to swallow.

“But what, son?”

“I didn’t even tell her goodbye…or that I was sorry…or that I…loved her.”

I felt Pa’s fingers tighten some on my shoulder and it gave me a little comfort, knowing that he understood how I was feeling.

“Joe…I think she knows.  She loved you as well, I’m sure of it…and I think she knows that you didn’t mean most of what you said…”

“I suppose…but…I still didn’t tell her goodbye…”

“Well…goodbye can be so final sometimes, son…and I honestly don’t think you’ve seen or heard that last from Cassie.  She’ll be back some day, you’ll see.”

I looked deeply into my father’s eyes, believing what he said.  Pa was wise about such things and I suppose had I said goodbye, I might not have ever seen my dear friend again, so I chose to trust what Pa said.

I smiled back, feeling much better. “I’m sure I will too, Pa.”

And I did…but not for almost two years.

*****

For the next year and a half, I received a letter every month from Cassie…and Carl…always filled with the exciting things that apparently were making them happy. I got the chance to tell her I was sorry…it was easy, writing it in a letter and really not having to face her.  I also wished both she and Carl the best and said that I hoped they lived happily ever after…I meant it too, I wanted the best for Cassie and if Carl was the one to give it to her, then so be it.

The baby had arrived a bit earlier than expected and had been small at birth but apparently healthy enough according to the doctor who delivered him.  Cassie informed me that she had decided to name the baby after the two loves in her life, Carl and I…

Carl Joseph Lockland would have a hard road to travel if he grew up anything like his father and his namesake I decided early on.  I had been both shocked and proud at the same time that my lifelong friend had honored me by naming her baby after me but I couldn’t help but wonder what old Carl thought about that.  I still didn’t like him, probably never would…and I’m sure he’d never take a liking to me, but it didn’t matter, Cassie was happy and if she had found something good about the jerk, then I was happy for her.

The letters stopped coming after about eighteen months and I spent the next couple of months wondering what had happened.  I ran into Mr. Riggs in town one day and stopped him to inquire about Cassie and her little family.  I was informed that he hadn’t received a letter from his daughter in about two months himself and so he was planning on taking a trip to San Francisco to visit her and to assure himself that everything was as it should be.  I made him promise me that he’d let me know the minute he found out something and he agreed that he would.

Two days later, Mr. Riggs came out to the ranch for a visit.  I was surprised to see him because I thought he had already left for the city, but he was beaming with happiness when he jumped down from his wagon.  He was waving whatever he held in his hand, in the air. “Joe…Little Joe…looky…she’s coming home…my baby is coming home…and she’s bringing Little Carl, my grandson!”

I felt Adam’s hand slap my back just before I ran to greet the elderly man who was hurrying toward us.

“Mr. Riggs, that’s wonderful news!  When…when will Cassie be here?”

I couldn’t believe it.  The news made me just about as happy as Mr. Riggs.  I was anxious to see my old friend…and her little boy…I wasn’t too sure about seeing Carl again after all this time, I wondered what he was like.  Probably hadn’t changed much, but I kept the thoughts to myself.

“End of the week, Little Joe…Friday…this Friday…!”

“That’s great!”

Pa stepped up then, resting his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s throw Cassie and Carl…he’s coming too, isn’t he Bill?”

Bill Riggs nodded his head yes.

“Then let’s have a coming home party…what do you say?”

Pa looked around at me and I agreed instantly.  Mr. Riggs nodded in agreement as well, so it was decided, we’d have the party on Saturday, the day after Cassie and her family arrived.  That would give them time to spend with Cassie’s parents as well as Carl’s before the party.

*****

I wanted to meet the stage to welcome Cassie home, but decided against it.  I didn’t want to push myself in on her parents or Carl’s for that matter, so I had to be content to wait until Saturday night to see her.  I tried to keep my mind off her coming home by helping around the yard with the party preparations, but everybody complained that I was getting in the way, so I decided to take a little ride and leave the getting ready to Hop Sing.

I wasn’t meaning to end up at the Riggs’ place, but I did.  I didn’t go in, but I was able to watch from the small rise that rose west of the house.  I saw Cassie and Carl in the buggy with her parents as they arrived home.  Carl was holding the little boy and passed him to his grandfather when he turned to help Cassie down from the buggy.

Even from the distance I watched, I could see her finely chiseled features and I could almost smell the faint scent of lavender that she always wore in her hair.  As I watched, I began to notice that Cassie didn’t seem as spry as she once had.  Carl had helped her down and now had his arm encircled about her waist, holding her carefully.  I wondered why.  He walked rather slowly as he guided her into the house and I found myself wondering what had happened to make her appear so frail.  Had she had an accident…was she ill?  Maybe she was with child again and the trip home hadn’t set to well with her.  I was dying to find out, but I knew it would have to wait, it just wouldn’t be right for me to ride down there and burst in on their homecoming.  And Cassie obviously needed her rest and would want to look her best when she greeted old friends, of that I was sure. Saturday night seemed like forever!

*****

I was waiting anxiously on the side porch when she finally arrived.  Most all the guest were there already and were milling around talking to one another, waiting.  They all stopped what they were doing in order to gather around the carriage when it finally rolled into the yard.  I stood up so that I could get a better look.  It was hard to see her, what with the crowd that swallowed her up once she had stepped down.

I felt Hoss gently urge me forward and I remember turning to glare at him but he was smiling and seeing his shiny blue eyes watching me and knowing that my insides were churning, I had to return the smile.

“Go ahead boy,” he whispered softly.  “Ain’t ya waited long enough?”

I nodded my head and started walking towards the buggy.  It seemed everyone in my way must have seen me ’cause they parted and stepped aside so that no one stood between Cassie and me.  Most were long time friends and had known both of us since we were kids and most all of them knew about the special friendship that Cassie and I shared and they also knew of the rivalry between her husband, Carl, and myself.

Cassie was laughing softly at something the baby, whom Carl was proudly holding in his arms, was doing, but she turned suddenly when she saw me.  I stopped in my tracks, my eyes must have surely been playing tricks on me for the once beautiful young girl that had captured my heart and soul so very long ago, no longer existed.  In her place stood an aged old woman who in no way resembled the beautiful Cassie Riggs of my youth. I know my mouth must have been hanging wide opened.  This person could not be the same girl, this person was at least ten years older than the Cassie I knew…and sickly… my Cassie had been young and beautiful and glowing with health.

I stood in shock as if time had stood still, until she smiled at me and I looked into her eyes.  They were the same, so was the smile…I’d know them anywhere.

“Joe…are you just going to stand there and stare at me?”

I shook off the fear that caused my heart to race and gathered Cassie into my arms.  I was horrified to feel her thinness and how frail she felt in my embrace.  It was almost as if she might break in two if I squeezed too tightly.

She leaned up and kissed my cheek, whispering as she did so. “I’ve missed you…you handsome devil, you!”

I couldn’t help but giggle and when she pulled back, she was grinning from ear to ear.  Happiness shown in the depths of her eyes and I felt a little comforted by it.

“Joe…this is Little Carl…”

Little Carl…I thought…what a joke…and the joke was on me and the boy’s father.  I tickled the little one under the chin, surprised to hear him start to giggle…what a strange sound he made.  I looked up at the boy’s father, finding the elder Carl watching me closely.

“Hello, Joe,” he said, offering me his hand.

I looked at it only briefly and then clasped it in mine.

“Hello, Carl…welcome home…” I meant it too…

*****

We chatted and laughed the night away.  Cassie explained that she hadn’t been feeling well and needed to take things a bit slow, so I didn’t ask her to dance…though I would have given my right arm to have danced with her.  Carl mostly tended to the boy…who was an absolute replica of his father and I sensed that there would be some hard days ahead for the boy, once he began school.

I mentioned my fears to Cassie and it made her laugh out loud.  I could envision him now…beating up on my own son, if I had one.  I told Cassie I’d teach my son how to defend himself against bullies and not be left to learn the hard way like I had.  That made her laugh too.

Later, when I had gone over to get us some punch, Adam came over to me and nudged me.

“You better stop hogging all the lady’s time, Little Brother…her husband hasn’t taken his eyes off you since they got here.”

I glanced around looking for Carl and sure enough, he was watching me even then.  His eyes were dark and narrow and reminded me of the many times in the past I’d seen him glaring at me.  It was a silent warning.

“Don’t worry Adam…I can handle Carl Lockland…” I recall smiling at Adam and then taking Cassie her punch, leaving Adam with a strange look on his face.  I was sure he’d heard about the last fight Carl and I had, back before he and Cassie had run off and gotten married.

*****

“Joe…will you come see me tomorrow…I’d like to talk to you about something,” Cassie asked as she and her family were preparing to leave.

“Sure…is there anything wrong?”

“Not really, but I’d like to talk to you…about two then?”

I smiled.

“I’ll be there.”

*****

I was there on time.  It took several moments for Cassie to answer the knock on the door, ’cause it seemed like I had waited a long time before she responded.  I had almost given up, thinking that perhaps she had forgotten that she asked me to stop by and gone into town instead.  Everyone else seemed to be gone.  I was about ready to leave when I heard her inside.  I peeked in the window and saw her making her way across the room toward the door.  When she opened it, I gasped, Cassie looked as if she were about to faint.  Quickly, I reached for her, letting her lean the weight of her body against mine as I eased her over to the settee.

“Cassie, what’s wrong?”  I was scared…she looked so…different.  “Where’s Carl…or your parents?”

Cassie put her hand on my arm and smiled.  “I’m alright, Joe…no need to worry…”

“But…you look like you’re…”

“I know…” she smiled tenderly at me and squeezed her fingers.  “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.  The others…Carl and my parents…they’re gone…I…wanted to talk to you alone…I asked them to take Little Carl and go into town for awhile.”

I sat down on the ottoman so that I could be near the couch and closer to Cassie.  I was getting more scared by the minute; my mind was imagining the worst and I was almost afraid to know what it was that Cassie said was so important.

“Joe…first…I want to tell you how much I love you…I always have…”

I smiled…she had always made me smile…even when I was angry.

“But not enough to marry me, heh?” I teased.

“Like a brother…” she teased back.

I made a funny face and puckered up my brow.  Cassie giggled.

“You have always…always, Joe…been my very best friend.  We’ve shared so many secrets…and I’ve told you things about myself that no other person living knows about me…”

“Even Carl?” I dared to question her.

“Even Carl,” she replied.  “And I’ve always cherished all the wonderful times we’ve spent growing up together…”

It was my turn to laugh, causing Cassie to stop talking and look up at me.

“Why are you laughing?” she asked.

“Well, you must be remembering things I’ve long forgotten, cause most of what I remember is getting my butt stomped for defending you…”

“Oh Joe…” giggled Cassie, “How can you sit there and be so mean to me?”

“Well, it’s the truth…Carl would do something to you and make you cry and I’d end up getting into a free-for-all with him and I never came out the winner…”

“You did once…” she said softly in a knowing manner.

I stopped laughing and looked into her eyes trying to read what I was seeing in them. “I had good cause…I was driven.  Did he do as I suggested that he do, Cassie?”

“By that you mean…make me happy?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, Joe…Carl and I have been wonderfully happy.”

She must have seen the doubt in my eyes because she hurried on to reassure me. “I’m telling you the truth, old friend, Carl is a wonderful man.  He’s kind and gentle and so very compassionate.  And he’s a good father and a good provider…”

I still harbored some doubts, though she looked happy… “If you say so.”

“I do say so…”

“Alright then, I believe you…but you didn’t ask me here to talk about Carl…”

I didn’t really want to listen to Cassie ramble on about all Carl’s virtues, I had formed my own opinion of him several years ago and it would take a hundred years to change my mind about him…

“Joe…I’ve not been well…I guess you and everybody else has noticed…”

“Naw…not me…” I was lying and she knew it, but she didn’t say as much.  “You’re still as beautiful as you always were…”

“And you’re still the same liar that you always were!”

I guess I said the wrong thing…hahaha.

“I’m…dying, Little Joe…”

I felt as if I’d been hit in the face with an iron skillet.  I couldn’t say anything, my tongue suddenly felt swollen as if it were too large for my mouth and I couldn’t swallow.  Surely I’d heard wrong.

“The doctors in San Francisco said it didn’t have a name, but it is a disease that…slowly eats away at my insides…there’s nothing they can do for me…”

Why…that was the silliest thing I’d ever heard…a disease that ate away at a person’s insides…that must be…painful.  I looked over at Cassie through my tears…I was unaware that I was crying…and I saw her…really saw her for the first time.  She was in pain…though she tried to hide it from me.

“Cassie….” I was muttering her name over and over as the truth began to sink in.  “I…don’t know what…to say…”

She rose up into a sitting position and asked me to sit next to her.  I did.

“Don’t say anything, Joe…please…just hold me…”

I put my arms around her and drew her close.  She didn’t cry, but I did and it ended up her holding and comforting me instead of the other way around.

“Shh…don’t cry, Joe…it’s alright.  I’ve accepted it…so has Carl…”

“I don’t want you to die, Cassie…isn’t there something…anything…that can be done?”

“No…but I’m not afraid…not anymore.  At least of dying I’m not…but I’m worried, Joe…about Carl and the baby and what’s going to happen to them when I’m gone.”

I pulled free and turned to face her.  She had a strange glow about her face and head…almost like she was wearing a halo.  Her features had softened and she was almost…beautiful again…and young and healthy.

“Will you promise me something, Joe?”

“Anything…just name it.”

“Will you promise me that you will help Carl take care of the baby?  Will you see to it that Little Carl grows up to be as fine of a man as both you and Carl are?”

She sounded as if she were pleading with me.

“I promise, Cassie, don’t you worry any about the little fellow…I won’t let him become known as Carl-the-class-bully!”

In spite of how miserable she was feeling, Cassie snickered and then sobered. “Will you make me one more promise, please?”

I wondered what else she would ask of me…but it didn’t matter, I’d do anything to make her happy, it was nothing less than what I’d expected of old Carl. “I promise, Cassie…”

“Promise me that you’ll always be a friend to Carl…he likes you Joe…really, he admires your courage…and he respects you for always having the guts to stand up to him,” she added sensing my doubt.  “He’s admitted as much…though he’s always been afraid of you…”

“I doubt that…”

“No, really, he’s always known how much you’ve meant to me and I think Carl was always expecting you to show up one day and steal me away from him…not that you could,” she smiled.

“Promise me, Joe…that you’ll be his friend…he’s going to need someone soon, and I’d like to leave this world knowing that the two men I’ve loved most in my life were honestly friends.”

I was getting choked up by that time and couldn’t really speak.  How could she ask that of me…knowing that for more years than I’d care to admit…I’ve hated the man?  But she asked and I had already promised so I could do no less than to keep that promise.

I took Cassie’s hands in mine, brought them to my lips and kissed them.  Her flesh felt cold and the sensation caused me to tremble.  My gut growled and I felt my stomach do a flip.  Swallowing was hard. “I promise, Cassie to try my best…to be a friend to…Carl…”

She smiled up at me and she was beautiful. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.  Thank you my darling…I love you, Little Joe…my knight-to-the-rescue in shining armor!”

I leaned forward kiss her goodbye, but she stopped me and placed her hand against my cheek.  Her voice had grown weak and it trembled just a bit when she spoke to me.

“May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back.  May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain, fall softly on your fields.  And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”

I finished the kiss, this time she returned it and her lips were warm against mine, sending a shiver down the back of my spine.

*****

I left that afternoon knowing that I’d never see her again and feeling drained of all emotion.  I felt as if I was lost, wandering through unknown territory.  She left me once before…but she came back…this time there would be no homecoming…no party…only a vast emptiness, a lifetime of loneliness and a well full of grief.

I took the long rode home that day stopping off at the lake to pay my mother a visit.  I sat for what seemed like hours; I cried a little and then a lot, recalling old times.  It was growing late and I knew I should go home, but I didn’t want to leave, I wasn’t ready to face anyone; I wanted to keep my memories fresh in my mind, but as the hour grew later I knew I’d best go before Pa started to worry, so I mounted up and headed back towards the ranch.  It was almost dark by the time I reached the barn and stabled my horse.  As I neared the front door, it suddenly opened and there was Pa looking as if he’d lost his best friend.

“Joe…where have you been, son, we’ve looked everywhere for you?”

“Out riding…I needed to be alone, Pa…I went over to see Cassie…and she told me…”

I couldn’t say the words, but Pa must have heard the news from someone, for when I looked again at his face, I noted the would-be tears that swelled in his eyes.  I didn’t quite understand, until he told me.

“She’s gone, son…”

*****

Cassie was laid to rest the very next afternoon.  I stood next to Carl and for the first time in our lives I think we really understood each other.  Mrs. Riggs cradled Little Carl to her bosom and Cassie’s father stood with a protective hand around each of them.

Carl seemed to be alone, lost in his own world of grief and I found myself feeling much sympathy towards him.  I had sunk deeply into a state of disbelief and I was sadder than I’d ever remembered being.  I hurt inside, my chest hurt…I suppose that happens when a man’s heart breaks.

I glanced up at Carl…he still towered over me…even when he was slumping, like now.  I sensed his loss, his pain…even his aching heart.  He really had loved her…I could see it in his eyes.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, Cassie had said as much…that Carl loved her and she had loved him.  I hope he knew just how much she had…

The preacher had finished with his sermon so I stepped back and gave everyone there a chance to say their goodbyes and then shake Carl’s hand.  My father and brothers were last to do so and Pa paused in front of me.

“Joe…let’s go home, son.”

“Not just yet, Pa…please…I’d like to stay and talk to Carl…”

“Alright, son…don’t be long.”

“I won’t sir…I just want to tell him something…”

Pa and Adam and Hoss went on their way.  I didn’t know they stood at the family buggy talking to some of the men.  Pa had been worried about me and it was his way of keeping an eye on me.

Carl was standing alone, over the grave.  He seemed to be in a stupor, unable to move.  I moved closer, but he never acknowledged that I was there.

“Carl,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder.

“She’s gone…Joe…”

I saw his Adam’s apple go up and down as he swallowed.

“I know,” I muttered and gently squeezed his shoulder with my fingers.

“I did what you wanted me to…”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by what he said.  He glanced over at me; I saw the tears rolling gently down the front of his face.

“I made her happy, Joe…I never gave her cause to cry…I loved her, Joe…just like I promised you I would.”

I understood then that he was referring to the last fight we’d had, two years ago when I first learned that Cassie was carrying his baby and I’d beaten the fire out of him at the Bucket of Blood Saloon.  He hadn’t forgotten my threat…

I saw his chin begin to quiver, as he looked me in the eye.

“She told me what you said…that if I didn’t marry her, you would…and take my child to raise as your own.  You loved her that much…didn’t you?  You’d have sacrificed your own happiness to make her happy…wouldn’t you?”

My own chin was quivering now and I couldn’t stop the tears from welling in my eyes.  I couldn’t even speak…but it was the truth…I had loved her that much…more than just like a sister…I’d given my life for her had I been asked to.  I nodded my head.

Carl lost all control then as did I and we fell into each other’s arms and wept over our loss.  We remained as such for several moments, pulling our grief together into one for the woman that we had both loved and lost.  In that instance, we were friends…real friends…just like Cassie had always wanted us to be.  Carl and I understood each other, we shared a common loss…we shared an uncommon love for the same person…his wife, my friend.

******

I heard the front door open and close.  When I looked up, Pa was there.

******

“Why don’t you come inside, son, it’s getting colder out here and you’ll catch cold without your jacket,” Ben said as he moved nearer to his son.

He had watched for several weeks now, the grief that seemed never to leave his youngest son.  He had been worried, Joe was troubled and Ben was concerned, he was at a loss as to how to help the boy overcome his heartache.

Joe glanced up at the sky. “It looks like snow, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, I’m afraid it does.”

“Pa,” Joe said suddenly, “can I ask you something?”

Ben moved even closer.  It was the first time in weeks that Joe had seemed to want to talk to anyone and he wasn’t about to pass up the chance to hopefully help his boy. “You know you can ask me anything, son.  What’s on your mind?”

Ben noticed that Joe’s eyes took on a faraway look. “Or should I say, who is on your mind?”

Joe turned to look at his father.  His eyes showed his great sadness, his expression betrayed his confusion.

“Need you ask?” Joe said grimly.  “She’s always on my mind…Pa, I can’t seem to get over her death.”

Ben slipped his arms about his son’s shoulders. “Joe, it takes time…”

“I know that,” the boy replied, looking sadly at his father.  “But…” Joe took a deep breath and willed away the tears that threatened to overflow.  “It’s more than just her dying, Pa…”

“What then, Joe…what’s bothering you?”

Joe looked off into the night, unable to meet his father’s questioning eyes. “I…didn’t tell her…goodbye…or at least not like I wanted to.  I didn’t really want to say anything…just saying goodbye is so…final.”

Ben heard the sob caught in his son’s throat.

“I…didn’t know how to say goodbye properly…but she did…she didn’t actually say goodbye…but what she whispered to me was beautiful…I couldn’t find the right words and then…it was…too late…” Joe’s tears spilled over the eye’s rims and he turned to look at his father. “I don’t think I like ‘goodbyes’,” he said softly.

Ben placed one hand on Joe’s shoulder and used the other to tilt the boy’s head upward so that he could look Joe directly in the eyes. “Son, I’ve always told you that dying is part of living…that in order to die, one must live, isn’t that so?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then you need to understand something else.  Don’t be dismayed at goodbyes, a farewell is necessary before you can meet again and meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.  Death isn’t the end, it’s the beginning and saying goodbye to someone you love…isn’t final…it’s a promise that someday, you’ll meet that person again.  Didn’t I tell you once that you’d see Cassie again…and wasn’t I right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, son, I’m saying it again.  It is true…you will meet her again, it’s God promise to us…”

Joe wiped away his tears and smiled for the first time in weeks. “Cassie believed it too, Pa…she knew it was true…she said to me… ‘until we meet again’.”

“Then believe it, Joe.”

Joe nodded his head…he did believe because he knew it to be true, they would meet again…but it would be more than half a lifetime away before the big reunion.  Until then, he would be busy keeping his promise.  Joe’s assumptions about Little Carl would prove to be true.  Both he and Carl would have their hands full for many years to come, Carl-the-class-bully would rein again…opening the eyes of his father to see in his son, something he had missed years before…and that something was a close likeness of his former self.

***End***

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