Word Count: 10,322
Once I had a secret love,
That lived within this heart of me,
All too soon my secret love
Became impatient to be free.
So, I told a friendly star
The way that dreamers often do
Just how wonderful you are
And why I’m so in love with you
Now I shout it from the highest hill
Even told the golden daffodils
And now, my heart’s an open door
And my secret love’s no secret anymore*
Joe stumbled through the door, crashing to the floor at his father’s feet as Ben came from the kitchen. Instantly Ben stooped down, gathered his youngest son into his arms and turned his son so that he could see the boy’s face. With one hand, Ben brushed at the wet curls that had plastered themselves to Joe’s brow. His eyes widened in shock when he felt the sticky substance and saw that it was blood that coated the boy’s face.
“Joseph!” he muttered softly.
“ADAM, HOSS GET IN HERE, NOW!” bellowed Ben. “HURRY UP!”
“What’s all the ruckus, Pa?” questioned Hoss as he rushed from the kitchen. “Oh Lordy, what happened to him?” Hoss asked as he kneeled down next to his father.
“Joe?” Hoss said in a whispered voice. “Who dun this to ya, boy?”
“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam called from the top of the stairs, unable to see his youngest brother lying in a heap in the floor behind the settee. He quickened his steps when he realized that his father and Hoss were bent over in the floor.
“Hoss, help me get Joe to the settee, Adam, please, either go, or send one of the men for the doctor. Someone’s beat your brother nearly to death.”
Hoss gathered the younger boy up into his arms and carried him to the settee where he carefully placed Joe. Ben trailed behind shouting for Hop Sing to bring some warm water and a cloth so that he could begin to wipe away the dirt and blood that covered the battered face.
Joe moaned; his left arm crossed his midsection, as he fought against the pain that stabbed at his ribcage. “Pa?”
“I’m here son,” whispered Ben, taking the clean rag and dipping it into the warm, soapy water. Carefully, Ben began dabbing at his son’s battered face, cleaning away the dried blood that had smeared across Joe’s forehead and cheeks.
“Son, who did this to you?” Ben asked while he carefully tended to his son.
Adam burst through the door and hurried to the settee. “I sent one of the men into town for the doctor. How is he?” Adam inquired, moving around the settee and leaning down so that he might get a better look at his brother’s face. Gently, he fingered through the thick mass of dark curls.
“Did he say who beat him?” questioned Adam, glancing at his father’s face.
“I…oh…it hurts…” stammered Joe, groaning a second time.
“Let’s get him upstairs, Hoss help me,” ordered Ben, as he stepped aside to make room for his middle son.
“Here, jest let me carry’em. Take it easy short shanks, I’ll have ya in your own bed real soon like.” Hoss then slipped his arms under his brother’s body and using care so as not to cause the boy any more pain than necessary, lifted Joe into his arms and carried him to his room.
“Pa,” whispered Adam, taking his father’s arm and preventing Ben from following after Hoss. “You don’t think it could have been…”
Ben’s eyes had grown dark with unspoken fury, “He better hope that he didn’t do this, or have if done, for if Baker issued an order to retaliate against me by half killing my son, I will kill the man with my bare hands.”
Ben spun on his heels and marched up the steps, leaving his oldest son to contemplate his words. Adam heard himself groan letting his breath out slowly as he hurried to follow his father up the stairs. He’d seen his father’s reaction the other day, when they had been together in town and had run into the Baker man, and though Adam had no idea as to why, he knew his father and the stranger had once been enemies.
Hoss already had Joe laid on the bed by the time that Ben entered the semi-dark room. Quickly he raised the wick on the lamp bringing more light into the room. Hop Sing was standing on the far side of the bed with the dish of warm water. Hoss was tugging at Joe’s boots, trying to remove them without causing his brother further discomfort.
In spite of the effort on Hoss’ part to prevent any more distress in his brother’s already pain-ridden body, Joe groaned loudly. “Oh…Hoss…please…please…”
Hoss instantly stopped, the second boot nearly removed from Joe’s foot, and watched the wearisome expression on Joe’s face. It pained his heart to watch and he grimaced.
“I’m terrible sorry, Joe, but just one more small yank and then I’ll be finished,” muttered Hoss softly.
Quickly he tugged on the boot and with one last moan from Joe, the foot was freed. Hoss’ eyes sought Joe’s face and he cringed when he saw the tears the trickled down the side of his brother’s face. He hurried to toss the boot aside and moved to the head of the bed, where he bent low over Joe and took the younger boy’s hand into his own, while brushing the hair back from Joe’s brow with his large beefy fingers.
“Hey Punkin, don’t cry…I didn’t mean to hurt ya,” Hoss pleaded.
“I know, Hoss…” Joe used his free hand and wiped away the dampness from his eyes. “It just hurts so dang bad…that’s all.”
“Son, can you tell us who did this to you?” Ben was quick to ask just as soon as he neared the bed and took the bowl of water from Hop Sing and began cleaning away the remainder of dirt from his son’s bruised face.
Joe shook his head. “I don’t know…Pa.” Joe averted his eyes and glanced up at Hoss who was watching him. In the hazel eyes, Hoss could see the silent plea that begged him for understanding.
“Pa, we best get the boy cleaned up, he’s about to fall asleep on us,” Hoss was quick to speak up.
Ben saw the pained expression that Joe wore on his face and agreed with his middle son. “Hoss, lets get these bloody clothes off and then I can see what kind of other damage has been done.”
Together, Hoss and Ben gently removed Joe’s soiled clothing. Ben scrunched up his face and balled his fists when he spied the numerous bruises that covered Joe’s upper body. With as much care as possible, Ben probed gently with his fingers, down the length of his son’s ribcage.
Joe tired his best to keep from crying out, but more than once a soft moan would escape past his lips. “Oh…hmm…” Joe’s body arched slightly as the uncomfortable feelings increased.
“I’m sorry son, but it feels like you may have more than a couple cracked ribs. Try not to move around too much, Paul should be here soon and then we can bind your ribs,” Ben explained.
“No…Pa, please…”groaned Joe, holding his arm across his middle. “I’ll be fine; really, there’s no need to…”
Ben couldn’t help but smile. His youngest son had never been a very good patient, and having had his ribs bound before, Joe was not likely to be any better this time around than any other time.
“Joseph,” Ben cooed softly, “it has to be done, there’s no sense in trying to say that you will be fine. I’m sure you will be, but none the less, these ribs are getting bound.” Ben stated firmly.
Joe pushed the back of his head deeper into the soft pillow and pinched his eyes together tightly, fighting hard not to let his father see for real just how badly he hurt.
“Well, it was worth a try,” he muttered and then opened one eye and peeked from beneath long lashes at his father.
“Joseph…what am I going to do with you?” smiled Ben as he moved the water bowl out of the way and pulled the covers up to Joe’s chin. At least the boy hadn’t lost his sense of humor, Ben thought.
Joe gave his father a teeny smile and then closed his eyes. “I guess it wouldn’t do any good to beg, would it?”
“I didn’t think so,” whispered Joe as he drifted off.
It was much later that Paul Martin, the long time family friend and Virginia City’s only doctor, slipped into the youngest Cartwright’s bedroom. The wick on the lamp had been lowered enough that only a soft glow lit the room. Ben sat in the old comfortable chair that he had placed near the side of the bed where he could be close, should his son cry out for him. Ben dozed, but when Paul placed his hand on the patriarch’s shoulder, Ben woke instantly.
“Paul,” he whispered and then glanced down at Joe who was just beginning to toss about in the bed. He stood to his feet and moved so that Paul could have complete access to the bed and his patient.
“I’m sorry it took me so long Ben, but Liza Williams delivered her baby this afternoon and…well…you remember what a horrible time she had with the last baby. This one was almost as bad, I just couldn’t leave her until I was sure that both she and the child was all right,” explained Paul.
“How is she?” Ben asked softly.
Paul smiled broadly; “She and the baby both are fine.” Paul snickered, “from the looks of your youngest, I’d say Liza had a much easier afternoon than Joe. Who in the world did this to him, Ben?”
While he talked, Paul made his examination, agreeing with Ben that the boy’s ribs would need binding.
“I don’t know, Paul. Joe wasn’t in much shape to say a lot. I have an idea, but unless Joe can confirm my suspicions, there isn’t anything I can do about it right now,” explained Ben as he sat on the far side of the bed, across from the physician.
Paul’s eyes moved to Ben’s face and he watched, with concern, the expressions that crossed his friend’s brow.
“Ben,” whispered Paul, glancing down to see that Joe was still sleeping. “You don’t think that Austin Baker did this, or had anything to do with it, do you?”
“I hope not Paul. You and I both have known Austin since before Little Joe was born. I’d hate to think that just because of a misunderstanding years ago, he’d show up here in town and take his spite out on my son,” muttered Ben.
“But Ben,” Paul said, still whispering, “Austin wouldn’t have known that Joe was your son.”
“It wouldn’t be hard for the man to find that out, Paul. Anyone might have mentioned to him that I had a younger son. All Austin had to do was to ask about me or mention Adam and Hoss and anyone could have told him that I have three sons, not just two,” Ben explained to his friend.
“Ben, time changes people; surely you don’t think that after nearly twenty years, Austin is here, in Virginia City to make good a threat he made in a moment of anger and grief, do you?”
Ben sighed deeply and glanced at the bed where his youngest son, lay, beaten and dazed. “I hope not, Paul.”
“I’m here son. The doctor’s here now and we need to bind your ribs. Think you can sit up for us?” Ben inquired.
Joe opened both eyes, and seeing the doctor standing over him, groaned softly.
“Hey, what kind of greeting is that?” teased the doctor. “I’m glad all my patients don’t react to me like that,” he laughed.
Joe folded his arm across his mid-section and tried not to giggle. “I’m sorry Doc; it’s just that you never come just for a social visit anymore.”
Paul placed both hands on his hips and frowned. “And is that my fault, young man?”
Joe smiled weakly and shook his head. “No, I reckon not.”
“Probably if you would stay out of trouble, Paul might get a chance to do a little socializing, but you seem to have a monopoly on his time lately,” chided Ben gently.
Joe started to giggle and then moaned. “Pa…please, don’t make me laugh, it hurts.”
“Okay young man. That’s enough foolishness, let’s get this over with. Let your father help you sit up now. You just lean on him while I wrap you up and then I’ll give you something to help you rest,” instructed Paul.
By the time that the doctor had finished with his work, Joe was visibly exhausted. Ben helped him back down against the pile of pillows and covered him up. It was only minutes later that he had fallen to sleep.
“He should sleep most of the night, Ben,” Paul announced as he began packing his instruments into his black medical bag. “Those cuts and scrapes should heal just fine, it might take the bruises several days to start fading, but other than a couple of busted ribs, he should be fine in a few days. I want him to stay in the bed though, for at least a week.”
Ben glanced back at his sleeping son. “I’ll make sure he does.”
“Good, I’ll see myself out, Ben; you sit with him for awhile. I need to get back into town; Lord only knows who else might need my service before the night is over. Send me word, should you need me,” bid the physician as he closed the door behind him.
“Thanks for coming, Paul,” called Ben in a whispered voice.
When Ben was alone with his son, he pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. The only color on Joe’s face was the shades of black and blue from the bruises that he had suffered from the beating. His lips were pressed tightly together and even in his sleep the boy moaned softly when he took a deep breath. The busted ribs were quite painful and Ben knew that it would be several days before Joe would get sufficient relief from the pain. Sadly, Ben shook his head; his hand reached out to the bed and took Joe’s into his.
“I hope you aren’t suffering because of me, son,” Ben whispered sorrowfully.
He was unaware that his two older sons had slipped silently into the room and stood behind him. The brother’s exchanged puzzled looks.
“Why do you say that, Pa?” Adam whispered in a low voice so as not to disturb his brother.
Ben quickly moved back from the edge of the bed and looked up at his sons. On his face was a look of unease.
“Let’s go downstairs, I don’t want to wake Joe.”
Ben stood to his feet and led the way to the door. Once downstairs, he motioned for his sons to have a seat. Ben took his usual place in the red chair and sat down, waiting for his sons to make themselves comfortable.
When Adam had settled himself in the blue chair and Hoss stood, foot propped on the stone hearth, Ben took a deep breath and glanced from one son to the other.
“It’s a long story,” Ben stated.
Adam crossed his legs, eyeing his father and seeing the troubled expression that shadowed his dark eyes.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning, Pa?” suggested Adam.
“Yeah, I suppose I should. It’s not anything that I’ve ever spoken about before, especially in front of your younger brother,” Ben said, glancing from one to the other.
“I’d just as soon keep it that way, if you wouldn’t mind,” he added.
Hoss glanced over in Adam’s direction and saw Adam looking at him. Adam raised his dark brows and then faced his father.
“If that’s what you would prefer, it’s up to you, Pa. We’ll not say anything to Joe about this, if it’s meant for him to know, we’ll let you tell him,” agreed Adam.
“Yeah Pa, if’n it’s likely to upset the boy, then maybe he shouldn’t know,” Hoss added.
“Thanks boys; I’d just as soon Joe not know, unless it comes down to it,” Ben said solemnly.
“Why’s that, Pa?” asked Hoss.
“As I said Hoss, it’s a long story and I doubt that Joe would relish the idea that there might have been another woman in my life after your mother and before his. Let me start by telling both of you, that some of the things I’m about to tell you, is not very pleasant a lot happened during that time…so many years ago.
“What things? Does it have anything to do with that Baker fellow you saw in town the other day?” Adam inquired.
Adam watched as his father turned his head and stared into the blazing fire. It seemed as if Ben’s eyes took on a far distant look about him, transporting him back into another time. Adam glanced at Hoss and then back at his father; Ben had his elbow propped up on the arm of his chair, his chin rested on his folded fist and he sighed deeply.
Suddenly he snapped to attention, turning to see two pairs of eyes watching him. Ben smiled.
“It was several years ago, before Little Joe was born, before I met and married his mother to be exact. I met Austin and Emily Baker a couple of years after settling here,” Ben began, turning to smile at Hoss. Ben had not heard Adam’s question; his thoughts had taken him on an entirely different course.
“You were just a baby Hoss, about three and Adam, you were barely nine years old at the time. I was working in the barn that morning, so naturally when I heard a wagon drive into the yard, I stepped outside to see who was coming for a visit. Those few steps from the barn to the yard, changed my life forever,” said Ben, the far away look coming back into his eyes. “She was so lovely…I’ll never forget that smile, or the color of her hair when the morning sun touched it. It was like golden wheat, blowing in a gentle breeze.”
Hoss cleared his throat and caught Adam’s attention and then smiled. Adam’s eyes opened wide as he returned the knowing look.
“When she spoke my name, it was as if my heart had been pierced by Cupid’s arrow, I remember opening my mouth and trying to speak, but just forming the words seemed impossible, and then she laughed and said…………..”
“Excuse me, but are you okay?” Emily said, jabbing Austin in the ribs and pointing to the man who had come from the barn and who had suddenly looked as if he were strangling.
“Austin, please, help the gentleman,” Emily had ordered in a gentle voice that spoke of quality.
Ben suddenly snapped back from where ever his senses had taken him. He felt the fiery blaze of embarrassment burning his face as he stepped up to the wagon and greeted the newcomers who had stopped by.
“I’m sorry, I…well…I…ere…” muttered Ben, looking again up into the woman’s sparkling blue eyes.
“It’s okay, mister, most all men react the same way when they see my wife for the first time,” the man said with a touch of rudeness.
“Name’s Austin Baker, and this here is my wife, Emily,” Austin said, climbing down from the wagon and offering Ben his hand.
Ben took the pro-offered hand and the two exchanged handshakes. Ben glanced up at the beautiful young woman who was now standing, waiting for her husband to help her down. Ben glanced from one to the other and when Austin made no move to offer his help, Ben stepped up to the wagon and stretched out his arms. Emily bent downward, placing her hands on either side of Ben’s shoulders lowering her body into his waiting arms and allowed Ben to help her down.
Ben’s fingers clutched Emily’s tiny waist; unexpectedly his senses soared, for just the fragrance of her perfume left Ben feeling as if the flame of desire had been rekindled. It has been so long, his heart cried without warning as Ben eased Emily down to the ground. Her feet firmly planted on the hard soil, his fingers lingered a second longer than necessary. Emily was staring up at him and Ben felt as if he were drowning in the depths of twin oceans as his eyes locked with hers.
Austin cleared his throat. Ben snapped back to the present, Emily fumbled with smoothing her dress and turned her head around as the sound of babyish laughter caught her attention.
Emily smiled at the raven hair little boy who came strolling across the yard, a cotton top, blue eyed little boy holding tightly to his hand. In the other chubby little fist, the younger of the two was carrying a half-eaten cookie.
Ben smiled at his sons as they approached and then watched as Emily squatted down to greet them. “Well, hello there,” she smiled. “And what’s your name?”
“My name is Adam, and this here is my baby brother, Hoss,” said Adam, looking to his father and smiling shyly.
“Horse?” Emily said, turning to Ben with unasked questions in her eyes.
Ben laughed lightly and picked Hoss up in his arms.
“No ma’am, not horse, it’s Hoss, that’s H-o-s-s, his real name is Eric, but we call him Hoss, it means ‘a big, friendly man’,” he explained. “Oh, I’m sorry, my name is Ben Cartwright, and this here fella you already met, is my right hand man, Adam, my oldest son,” smiled Ben, slipping his arm around Adam who had moved to stand next to his father.
“Mr. Baker, what can I do for you?” Ben asked as he forced his attention from the smile that the beautiful woman was sharing with his sons.
“I was told to come see you about a piece of property you have for sale.” Austin pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and unfolded it, handing it to Ben.
“It says right here that you are holding one hundred acres, a house and barn, for a Winston Campbell, to be sold for him, by you. That’s what we are here to talk to you about, if you have the time,” Austin explained.
Ben pulled Hoss’ pudgy fingers from his shirt pocket where the toddler was digging, and set the toddler on the ground. “Adam, please take your brother back to the house and have Hop Sing wash him off, please.”
“But Papa, supper’s ready,” Adam whispered, shielding his mouth with his hand so that the strange man and the beautiful lady could not see what he was saying. “Hop Sing said either you come now, or he’s going back to China.”
Ben held the paper in his hand reading the contents of the document. He glanced down at his oldest son, frowning slightly.
“Adam!” he muttered.
“It’s alright, Mr. Cartwright,” Austin said, “if ya don’t have time now, we can come back later.”
“No…please, now is just fine,” Ben stated, smiling at the couple.
He turned his attention to Adam, who was trying to keep his baby brother from picking up a clump of dirt and putting it in his mouth.
Emily giggled and then hushed the minute she caught her husband’s glaring sneer. The gesture did not go unnoticed by Ben.
“Adam, go inside and ask Hop Sing to set two more places. We’re going to be having guest for dinner.”
Ben watched as his son eyed the pair and then glanced back at his father.
“Okay Papa, but Hop Sing sure is gonna be unhappy about ya not tellin’ him sooner. Come on Hoss, let’s go,” grumbled the dark eyed little boy as he pulled Hoss along with him.
“You will stay, won’t you?” Ben asked the couple.
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright…we really shouldn’t,” Emily said, a touch of remorse sounding in her voice.
“Please do, it’s so rare that we have company, what with living all the way out here and so few neighbors, please, won’t you stay?”
Emily glanced at Austin and waited for him to decide. It took him several moments, and in those moments, he took in everything that encompassed the yard and house of the family’s homestead.
“Sure, we’d be delighted to stay. Thank you Mr. Cartwright,” smiled Austin.
He had seen the hidden wealth that was just beginning to show itself in the things that Ben Cartwright had achieved since settling in this remote corner of the Nevada Territory. Austin had done some research and had found that Ben was a budding rancher, dealing mainly in cattle and horses and some small lumber sales, both of which were on the brink of making him a rich man. He needed that hundred acres that bordered this beautiful land surrounding this man’s homestead; he needed Ben Cartwright’s help and if he played his cards right, he could even earn this man’s trust and friendship.
“Good, then come to the house, Hop Sing, my cook, doesn’t like to be kept waiting once dinner is ready to serve,” Ben explained, pointing in the direction of the house.
“May I?” he asked Emily as he offered his arm to her.
Emily glanced quickly at her husband and when Ben followed her gaze, Austin was smiling. Ben had no idea that something might have been amiss between the man and wife and so in the fashion of a true gentleman, led Mrs. Baker and her husband into his home.
Supper had been most enjoyable. Ben was pleased that even his two young sons had been on their best behavior. After supper Ben and Austin had retired to Ben’s office alcove off the main room of the open room downstairs and spent over an hour discussing the sale of Mr. Campbell’s property. Occasionally Ben would look up from his papers and watch how baby Hoss responded to the woman’s gentle touch. When Hoss giggled, Ben smiled. He saw that as the evening proceeded, Adam had begun to respond to Emily’s friendly manner. It was obvious that she had begun to draw Adam out of his shell enough so that the young boy was sitting on the hearth with her and listening intently as Emily read to them from one of Adam’s books.
“My mama used to read to me,” Adam said in a small voice.
Ben glanced upward, watching. Austin was speaking but Ben’s attention was focused on his son, for it was rare that Adam spoke of his mother, Inger, Hoss’ mother by birth.
“How wonderful, Adam,” Emily smiled. “I suppose you’re old enough to read some of these stories by yourself now, aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am, but I still like to have them read to me. Some times I read them to Hoss, but he doesn’t understand all the words. And sometimes, Papa reads them to me, after Hoss has gone to bed,” Adam explained, smiling shyly.
Emily glanced up meeting Ben’s dark expressive eyes and then averting hers back to Adam.
“And does your mama still read to you, I mean, when she’s home?”
Adam dropped his head, refusing to look up at the lady next to him. After a short time, he shook his head.
“No ma’am, she’s dead,” the boy whispered.
Emily’s eyes instantly misted but she willed away the tears, for the boy’s sake for it was plain to see how just saying the words ripped away at the walls of his young heart.
“I’m sorry, Adam, I didn’t realize…”
Adam glanced up; the well of tears gone. “That’s okay ma’am, me and Hoss…I mean…Hoss and I, we still have Papa, and he’s the best,” Adam smiled at last.
Emily tenderly fingered the raven hair and smiled sweetly. “I’m sure he is, darling,” she murmured in a low, soft voice.
“Inger was her name, and she had blond hair like you, and her eyes were blue like yours too,” Adam told Emily. “She was Hoss’ mama really, but she loved me too.”
A look of puzzlement crossed Emily’s face. “I don’t understand, Adam, I thought that you said your mama died.”
“She did die, my real mama I mean. Her name was Elizabeth and when I got borned, she died. Later, after Papa and me started traveling, we met Inger, and then they got married. She went with us, Papa and me, in the wagon and one day while we were stopped, Hoss got borned,” Adam went on.
From across the room, both Austin and Ben had stopped chatting, and were now listening to Ben’s son telling the story of his father’s two wives. Austin glanced at Ben and saw that Ben was watching his son and Emily and the way in which Emily was gently caressing the boy’s face. He had seen that same look in the eyes of many men when they had looked at Emily, but Austin had hoped that here, in this back country, that things would be different for he and his wife. He hated the way that his wife was always drawn to men with children; having yearned for a child of her own the years of their marriage and then finding out that she could never have one of her own, had changed things between them. Austin cursed himself for ever telling his wife that he was the one who could not produce a child, not she, and since that dreadful day, it had appeared to Austin that Emily had seemed to lose interest in their relationship.
Ben rose, without a word to his guest and moved slowly across the room to the hearth and to Emily. Austin watched as Emily responded to the older man’s smile and when Ben spoke, Emily laughed lightly along with Ben. Austin felt the knots that tightened in his stomach and he growled deep within himself quietly, silently and then stood to his feet and joined his beautiful wife and his host in front of the fireplace.
“It was nearly three years ago,” Ben said, explaining to his guest about when and how his second wife had died.
Hop Sing slipped into the room and bowed graciously to his employer. “If Mr. Cartlight wish, Hop Sing put young boy and baby Hoss to bed now,” muttered Hop Sing, taking Hoss from his father’s arms.
“Yes, thank you Hop Sing,” smiled Ben, surrendering Hoss to Hop Sing’s waiting arms.
“You go night-night little one,” cooed Ben, giving Hoss a kiss on his chubby little cheek.
“Adam, you go along too son, I’ll be up shortly to tuck you in and listen to your prayers,” smiled Ben, tousling the dark hair.
“Yes Papa. Good night ma’am,” smiled Adam, “sir,” he said and slipped away silently following behind Hop Sing.
“Night-night!” jabbered Hoss, looking over Hop Sing’s shoulder and waving his hand bye-bye.
“Good night, precious,” laughed Emily, waving back at the little boy.
“Good night son,” called Ben, his eyes following his sons up the stairs.
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright, that Hoss is a charming little boy, and Adam, why I do declare, he is such a little gentleman, and so handsome too,” smiled Emily, her eyes shining brightly as she sat down in the red chair.
“Why thank you, Mrs. Baker. It hasn’t been easy, trying to run this ranch and care for two little boys. If I hadn’t found Hop Sing when I did, there’s no telling how I would have gotten by,” admitted Ben.
It was odd, he thought, to be able to speak so openly with this woman. For so long he had kept things bottled up inside of him, feeling at times, like he was paddling up stream against a swift current and never getting where he needed to be. But suddenly, out of nowhere, this woman appears and it’s as if he had known her all of his life, so easy was she to talk with.
“I’m sure that it has been hard, I’m sorry about all your misfortune, Mr. Cartwright, but all in all, you seem to be doing an excellent job raising your sons. Wouldn’t you agree Austin?” Emily said, smiling warmly at her husband.
“Yes, it would appear to be so,” Austin said agreeably and then changed the subject. He had no desire to talk about children; none of which he dared to hope would ever be fathered by himself.
“Now, Mr. Cartwright,” smiled Austin, “about the Campbell place, is it a deal?”
Ben nodded his head. “I don’t see why not Austin, I think what you’ve offered is a fair price, and I have no doubts that Winston will have any objections. A deal it is,” smiled Ben extending his hand to Austin.
Austin’s face broke into a wide smile and took Ben’s hand into his. “Thank you Ben, you have no idea how pleased I am.”
Emily stood to her feet and moved to stand beside her husband. Austin smiled warmly at his wife and with his free hand, slipped his arm about her waist.
“Well, my dear, it seems that we are soon to become ranchers,” he laughed.
“Oh Austin, I’m so pleased,” she muttered to her husband. She turned to Ben and smiled. “And just think, Mr. Cartwright and his two darling sons, will be our nearest neighbors!”
“So, that’s how you met them. I had almost forgotten about them, Pa,” Adam said, leaning forward in his chair. He turned to Hoss; “she seemed to stop by often to see us, Hoss. I can remember one day, she came by and she’d been crying,” Adam paused, trying to drudge the memory of that day to the surface. He turned to his father.
“Didn’t she say something about being hit?” he asked Ben.
Ben nodded his head. “You have a great memory, son. But to answer your question, yes, on that particular day, she rode over, on her horse. She was alone and yes, she’d been crying. I remember the haunted look in her eyes, the sadness that seemed to have engulfed her whole being. And I can still remember the way she…..”
Emily slid from the saddle, and turned quickly, dropping to her knees and burying her face in the palms of her hands, sobbing.
Ben rushed from the side porch where he had been doing some paper work, to the young woman.
“Emily…Emily,” Ben called, taking the sobbing woman into his arms and pulling her to her feet. “What’s wrong? Has something happened?”
Ben tenderly raised the quivering chin. The air expelled from his lungs as he stared in horror of the bruises that covered her lovely features. Unable to speak, he pulled her face to his breast, his hand gently pressed to the side of her face.
“Dear God,” whispered Ben, “what has he done to you this time?”
“Oh Ben,” sobbed Emily, “he’s gone mad, he thinks that you and I…I mean…that we…” she stammered and then stopped.
Ben gently pulled Emily’s head upward so that he might look into her face. “That we…what?” he said, his voice low and thick with emotion that he fought to keep within.
“Are…in love with…each other,” she whispered.
Ben swallowed the knot that had suddenly risen in the back of his throat and looked deeply into the tearful eyes. He took a deep breath, it was true, his heart whispered, he was in love with her, but she belonged to another man, she was his friend’s wife and he’d never do anything to come between a man and his wife.
“Emily, please, let’s go inside. The baby is sleeping and Adam is…” Suddenly Ben remembered his oldest son who had been sitting with him at the table. When Ben turned, he was surprised to see his son standing behind him, wide-eyed and frightened.
When Adam saw his father turn and look at him, Adam took a step nearer. “Papa,” he said in a wee voice, “did you make Miss Emily cry?” the boy asked as tears began to fill his dark eyes.
Ben released his arm from around Emily and quickly stooped, pulling Adam into a tight hug. “No…of course not, son. It’s nothing for you to worry about, Emily is just upset, but everything’s going to be fine. Now, why don’t you go inside and ask Hop Sing to fix you some milk and cookies? I think it’s just about time for Hoss to wake up from his nap. Okay, precious?”
Adam nodded his head, glanced up at Emily, who had wiped away her tears and then glanced back at his father. “Papa…”
“Adam, its okay son, you run along now, please?” smiled Ben.
“Okay Papa…but is Miss Emily gonna live here with us?” Adam asked softly. “Cause if she is…its okay with me…and I know Hoss won’t mind.”
Ben pinched his eyes tightly shut and then opened them, not fully believing what his son had just whispered to him, but knowing how his own heart was wishing the same thing.
“No Adam, Emily isn’t going to be living with us…she already has a husband, remember?” Ben said, forcing a smile.
“But that man is mean, you even said so, and he makes her cry, you said th….”
“ADAM! That will be enough, now go to the house,” stammered Ben, embarrassed at his son’s words, be it that they were truthfully spoken.
Ben placed both hands on his son’s slender shoulders and spun the boy around. Giving a gentle nudge to his backside, Ben left no doubt to the raven hair boy that his conversation with his father had ended.
“Yessir,” the boy muttered but when he glanced over his shoulder, his father had already returned his attention to his company.
“Oh Ben, I’m so sorry, I should have had better sense than to say such things in front of the boy,” Emily apologized, wiping her eyes with her handkerchief.
Ben slipped his arms about her trembling shoulders and guided her to the side porch. There he pulled out a chair and helped her to sit down. As he took his own seat, he slowly raised his head, meeting her eyes. He saw her struggling to regain control of her emotions.
“Ben,” she said slowly, looking up and into his dark eyes. “It is true…what Austin said.”
“Emily, please,” whispered Ben, placing his hand over hers. “There’s no need to say anything…there’s nothing we can do to…”
“But I am in love with you,” she blurted out, rising and turning her back to Ben. “I’ve known it for a long time, since that first day I met you…I’ve known.” Emily turned back to face Ben. “And if you would be honest with yourself…you would admit that you are in love with me, as well…”
“No,” whispered Ben, getting to his feet and coming around the table to stand in front of Emily. “No…I…don’t…”
Emily surprised Ben by suddenly flinging her arms about his neck and covering his lips with her own. She kissed Ben deeply, his reserve weakened as he felt his body respond to her passion. His arms slipped slowly around her sensuous body until he held her firmly pressed against his own body. He loved her, he needed her and he wanted her; he could no longer deny his feelings.
Ben’s head reeled and suddenly his hands moved to her arms, wrenching them free from around his neck and gently forcing her to back away from him. It was wrong, and he would never compromise her or himself, let alone his family.
“No Emily,” he all but shouted as he turned from her. “You are another man’s wife, and I will not be a party to such behavior.” Ben spun back around, noting the tears that had filled Emily’s eyes.
“I have my sons to think about…” his voice sounded strained, even to his own ears. He stepped close to Emily, who had lowered her head. Tenderly he raised her chin so that he might look into her eyes.
“Perhaps had it been another time, another place…another lifetime…but Emily…what we feel for each other is wrong and it can never go any further than simple friendship. Do you understand?” Ben whispered.
Emily pulled free of Ben’s large gentle hands. “I know that Ben. I knew that even before I came here…but that doesn’t stop the way I feel about you…or the boys…I love you, Ben Cartwright and, I love Adam and Hoss as well.”
“And Austin, Emily? What about your husband, don’t you love him?” Ben questioned.
“Look at my face, Ben? What do you think? Does this look like he loves me?” she shouted. “Ben, he’s not the man I fell in love with, he’s changed, he’s cold and…he’s cruel…Oh Ben…I’m going to have a baby!” she screamed. “And when I told him, he beat me…want to know why? Because he believes it’s your baby, Ben!” Emily covered her face with her hands and began weeping again.
Ben, too stunned for words, made the sobbing woman sit back down. He quickly poured her a glass of lemonade and made her take a drink.
“Emily…you’re going to have a baby? Why…that’s wonderful,” Ben said, hoping to stop the weeping.
Emily peered from beneath lowered lashes and shook her head. “You don’t understand Ben…Austin can’t…I mean…a doctor in Philadelphia told him that he could never father a child.”
Shock registered on Ben’s face and in his eyes. “Then who…”
Emily’s eyes turned dark with anger, “What do you mean, who,” she stammered. “Of course it’s his baby…I wish it was anybody’s baby but his, but it IS his,” shouted Emily, standing to her feet once again. “I’ve never been unfaithful to my husband, never…even if I don’t love him anymore!”
“But he believes it is impossible for him to father a child. So he assumes that this baby is yours, because he knows how I feel about you, and…though you try to hide it,” she smiled slightly, “you really don’t do a good job Ben, Austin knows that you are in love with me,” she finished.
“And that’s why he beat you like this?” Ben said, his voice softening as he brushed the back of his hand down the side of Emily’s face.
Emily nodded her head. As she raised her head to look at Ben, she smiled, but the light in her beautiful eyes remained unlit. “Oh Ben,” she murmured, “how I wish with all of my heart that this child I carry inside of me, was yours.”
Ben gently took Emily into his arms, holding her close and leaning his head down he kissed the top of her golden curls. “So do I, but it isn’t and we have to find some way to convince your husband of that,” muttered Ben.
“How Ben, how do we do that?”
“I don’t know Emily, I don’t know,” Ben whispered, closing his eyes to the world around him and letting himself drift away with the scent of her perfume.
“How did you ever convince him, Pa?” Hoss asked, glancing at Adam to see if he had noticed that their father had seemed to get lost in the long ago era of his life.
“Pa?” Hoss said a mite louder.
“Hmm?” Ben uttered, forcing himself back to the present.
“I asked ya, how’d ya ever convince Mr. Baker that the baby was his, and not yours?” Hoss repeated the question.
Ben paused and looked first at Hoss and then at Adam. “I’m not sure that we ever did. You see, after that day, I never saw Emily again. I mean, I caught glimpses of her in town, or at church, social events, things such at that, but alone…never again. I suppose that was good, I know it took some of the strain off me, but I still worried about her, and what might be happening to her.”
“And, you still loved her, didn’t you Pa?” Adam said softly.
Ben paused, as if remembering. The pain that he had felt back then, returning to fill his eyes again, as though time had never past between the ‘then and the now’.
“Yes, I suppose I did love her.” Ben pinched his lips tightly together. “Funny, this is the first time that I ever voiced those words aloud. I did love her, but I knew I could never have her, she belonged to another man, a man that had once been my friend.”
“What happened when the baby was born? Was it a boy or girl?” questioned Hoss.
“I remember that night well. Paul Martin had just come to town the week before to start practicing medicine, and Emily was his first patient. He came by here, after Emily gave birth, to tell me about what had happened,” Ben explained.
“Paul, come in,” Ben greeted the doctor whom he had just met the week before.
The two had bumped into one another in town and had started conversing. From that short conversation, a friendship, born of loneliness and need of companionship, had been born. It was a friendship that would last a lifetime and one that would eventually entwine itself into both of their lives in ways that would later surprise them both.
“What brings you out this way?” Ben smiled, stepping aside and allowing the young doctor to enter.
“Thanks Ben, I was on a call and thought I’d stop by.” Paul’s voice sounded serious. “Mind if we talk a spell?” he said as he entered into the room.
“No, of course not, is something wrong, Paul?” Ben said, pointing to a chair and waiting while the physician made himself comfortable.
“I thought perhaps you would like to know,” Paul began.
“Emily…had her baby tonight Ben. It was a girl,” Paul explained.
Ben stood to his feet and turned toward the massive fireplace. He swallowed deeply and fought with his emotions. When he turned, he felt confident that he had masked his feelings from the doctor.
“How is she, and the baby?” he asked in a voice that he hoped showed none of his inner turmoil.
“Ben,” Paul stood and studied his new friend’s face. “She’s dead,” he stated firmly.
Ben felt as if the wind had been knocked from his lungs. He gasped deeply and sought for his chair in order to sit down, before falling.
“Wh…wh…” he sputtered. “What…happened?”
Paul moved to Ben’s side and knelt down, placing his hand on Ben’s knee.
“It was an extremely difficult birth Ben. The baby was breach, Emily was so tiny and the baby was too large. There was a lot of bleeding, and I couldn’t stop it in time.”
Paul saw the dark chocolate eyes brim with tears.
“She lived a very short time after the baby was finally born. She managed to tell Austin that you were not the father, but in truth, he was. I don’t know anything about what she was referring too, I didn’t ask, God knows it was none of my business. But since I was there when she told her husband, I thought I would pass the information on to you.”
Ben nodded his head. The tiny beads of water slipped slowly down the sides of his face. “Thank you, Paul.”
“You need not worry, this will go no further than this room,” promised the kind hearted doctor, “and as far as I’m concerned, we need never speak of this again.”
“I’m in your debt, thank you,” Ben said. “But there is nothing to talk about. There was nothing between Emily and I other than friendship, except in the mind of her husband. She was a kind, caring and loving woman. She was a saint to my sons, and they will miss her terribly.”
“What about her baby, how is she?” Ben asked with compassion.
“The baby is fine, Ben. I have sent a wet-nurse out to help Austin care for the child.”
“How is Austin?”
“Not good, I’m afraid. He’s angry Ben, he didn’t believe his wife when she told him that the child was his. He still believes that the baby is yours and…he…” the physician began to stammer.
Paul looked up, knowing in his heart that he had to tell Ben, so that his friend could be prepared for whatever Austin might try to do.
“He blames you for his wife’s death and he’s vowed to get even with you,” Paul informed his friend.
“That’s ridiculous,” Ben shouted. “I’ve already told you, there was nothing between Emily and I…and there is no way that the baby could have been mine. Why we’ve never so much as…” Ben stopped suddenly, remembering the last time that he had seen Emily and the kiss that had forever sealed its memory into his heart. Oh dear God, Ben’s heart silently cried out, will I ever be able to love again?
“Ben, I just thought you should know, just in case.” Paul pulled himself to his feet. “I’d best be on my way.”
Ben also stood to his feet and grabbed Paul’s hand. “Thank you Paul, for coming all the way out here just to tell me. I appreciate it.”
“No problem Ben. And don’t worry, anything I hear from one of my patients is confidential, so you need not fear that I repeat things,” Paul assured Ben.
“I’m not worried; talk is cheap, that’s what I think. And if Austin wants to talk, then let him, but it is his name that he’ll be smearing, not mine,” Ben declared, handing the doctor his hat.
“I hope he doesn’t do that though. Emily seemed like a lovely woman.”
“She was, Paul; she was a very special person.”
Ben had grown quiet once more and both Hoss and Adam waited, giving their father time to collect his thoughts.
“After Emily was buried, Austin sold the ranch and moved away. Much later, I learned that he went back east, to Philadelphia. I haven’t heard anything about him or from him since then, until the other day when you and I saw him in town.” Ben told his sons at last.
“Then he never made good his threats?” Adam inquired.
“No, thank goodness. But now, since he’s back, I can only wonder about his motives.”
“What do ya mean? Do ya think he had anything to do with Little Joe getting busted up? Cause I’ll pound him for ya if’n he touched the boy,” Hoss promised, slamming one fist into this opened hand to stress his point.
“No, you’ll do no such a thing, young man,” began Ben but was stopped by a knocking at the door.
“Wonder who that could be at this hour?” Ben chimed, rising and heading for the door.
He unlatched the lock and pulled opened the thick oak door. He stood, unmoving and silent as he stared at the trio in front of him.
Adam and Hoss, aware of their father’s sudden silence sprang to their feet and rushed to Ben’s side. Adam glanced out the door at the two men and the young lady and then at his father.
“Pa?” Adam said softly, touching his father’s arm.
Ben seemed to snap back to reality. “I’m sorry. Austin, won’t you please…come in?” Ben offered, stepping aside and allowing his guest to enter.
“Thank you Ben. I’m sorry for stopping by so late, but I needed to talk with you,” Austin said, removing his hat and checking the younger man to be sure that he had remembered his manners.
“No need to apologize,” smiled Ben. “Come in, please, won’t you have a seat?” Ben offered, leading the way to the settee and the chairs placed around the fireplace and pointing at each.
“Thank you,” Austin smiled hesitantly as his eyes swept the room. “Still looks much as I remember seeing it for the very first time,” Austin said, turning to Ben and smiling.
“It hasn’t changed much; we’ve added a few new pieces of furniture.”
“Ben, I’m sorry, I’m forgetting my manners; this is my daughter, Suzanne.” Austin paused, waiting for Ben’s reaction.
Ben’s mouth had dropped open. There had been no reason to explain to him who the girl was, for Suzanne was the spitting image of her mother. Austin’s laughter brought Ben out of his stance.
Ben clamped his mouth shut and looked at Austin, surprised to see him smiling. “Looks just like her mother, doesn’t she, Ben?”
“Yes…yes she does,” he stammered.
“Causes as much of a stir as Emily always did, too,” Austin laughed lightly. “This is my son, Shawn,” said Austin, nudging the boy. “Shake hands, young man!” ordered Austin.
Shawn extended his arm and when Ben took his hand into his own, they shook. Ben’s
observant eyes noted the number of bruises that the boy sported and the split lip, the small cut over one eye that had been stitched, and the boy’s left arm was hidden in a sling. Ben wondered at the boy’s injuries, but kept his thoughts to himself for the lad appeared in almost as bad shape as his own son, who even now was recuperating in the upstairs bedroom.
“Nice to meet ya, sir,” Shawn said.
“Shawn,” greeted Ben who then turned to Austin.
Austin rushed on to explain Ben’s unasked questions he knew Ben must surely wonder about.
“I married shortly after Emily died. When I went back to Philadelphia, I remarried and when my wife became pregnant, I went to see another doctor…I had to know for sure Ben, you understand,” Austin said, sadly. “Emily was telling the truth. I was a fool, a big fool and that’s why I’m here. I want to apologize to you for everything that happened all those years ago.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for Austin. I knew the truth, and so did Emily,” Ben stated.
“I suppose, that deep down in my heart, I knew the truth too. I just couldn’t make myself believe it, that I did actually father a child, until Mary Beth told me she was having a baby. And by then, it was too late to tell Emily how very sorry I was, but I promised myself that if I ever got back to Nevada, I would look you up and extend my apologizes to you, in person. Lord only knows how many letters I’ve written to you that never got mailed.”
“Thank you Austin, I’m glad that you finally learned the truth. Now, how about if we share a brandy…it’s some of the finest in the country?” smiled Ben.
“I’ll get it for you, Pa,” Adam hurried to offer.
“That can’t be Adam? And you must be Hoss?” Austin laughed, turning to observe both of Ben’s sons.
“Yessir, I’m Hoss and that’s sure ‘nough my oldest brother, Adam,” smiled Hoss broadly. “We’ve got another brother, but he’s laid up right now, his name’s Joe, but we call him Little Joe,” Hoss informed their guest.
“Papa?” Suzanne cooed, stepping up next to her father and slipping her arm around his waist.
“Mr. Cartwright,” smiled Suzanne, taking the breath out of the older Cartwright with the sound of her voice that reminded him of Emily’s voice.
“Yes, my dear?” Ben said at last.
“My father is here to apologize for something else…well…in a way…we all are, aren’t we father?” Suzanne stated firmly, her voice commanding in tone.
Ben looked puzzled as he glanced around at Adam and Hoss who had come to stand behind their father.
“Um…Ben…while we were in town earlier, Suzanne sort of started a fight…”
“I did not start anything, Father. You know perfectly well that it was Shawn; he’s always so overly protective of me every time a man comes near me!” scolded Suzanne.
“Now daughter,” Austin tried to reprimand.
Suzanne turned her crystal blue eyes on her father and began shaking her finger at him.
“Oh Daddy, don’t you ‘now daughter’ me. You know perfectly well how bossy Shawn can be at times. Now you make Shawn tell Mr. Cartwright that he’s sorry for busting up that nice young man.”
“What in blazes are you talking about?” Ben asked, confused by the conversation.
“I think she’s talking about me.”
All eyes turned upward at the sound of the young man standing at the head of the stairs, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
“Joseph, what are you doing out of bed, young man?” Ben snapped as he hurried to meet his youngest son as Joe moved slowly down the stairs.
Adam looked at Hoss and rolled his eyes. “Might have known, if there was a pretty girl around, Joe would be involved,” he whispered, causing Hoss to snicker.
“Maybe I’d better explain,” Joe said, letting his father help him to the settee where he sat down.
“I think someone should explain,” Ben said, sitting next to Joe.
“You see, when I was in town this afternoon, I sort of ran into Miss Baker. I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going.” Joe stifled another giggled. “Literally. Then, when I tried to tell her I was sorry, well…you know me, Pa…I ain’t never been one to control my temper too well. Miss Baker jumped in her buggy and headed off, out of town and naturally I chased after her. I didn’t know that her brother and her father were following me. When they caught up to me, well…I guess the rest is history. You can tell what happened just by looking at the two of us,” laughed Joe. “By the time that Shawn and I here were finished, it was a toss up as to which one of us had the most bruises.” Joe laughed again, looking toward Shawn.
“I guess that Shawn thought I was going to cause trouble or something, but then when he told me his name, I thought…oh great, she’s married and before I could ask, we were hitting each other. I didn’t know he was her brother…until after we’d nearly killed one another.
“I had to separate the boys, Ben. Once I got those two hot heads to simmer down, and found out that his name was Cartwright…well…I couldn’t remember ya having a boy that young, so I figured ya must’ve married again. When I asked, Joe here told me that his ma had passed away,” Austin told the group. “I’m sorry Ben, to hear that. I wanted to bring the boy home myself, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Sure is a stubborn cuss,” Austin muttered, catching the look that Joe gave him.
Ben smiled thinking that Austin had summed up his son’s personality in one word.
“Thank you Austin, but, Marie died a long time ago,” Ben said, “and time does heal all wounds, am I right?”
“Yes, Ben, it does. Time and love…I learned that the hard way.” Austin stood to his feet and looked over at Ben who had also gotten to his. “I hope that time will mend our wounds as well, Ben. I’ve wasted too many years being angry, feeling sorry for myself, and just being a plain old fool. Time was awasting, and I aim to change that. Thank you for letting me have that chance, I know it’s what Emily would have wanted.”
“Emily? Who’s she?” asked Joe, looking to his father for his answer.
“Emily was a very special lady, son. You would have liked her,” Ben smiled, slipping his arm around his son’s shoulder.
“If she looked anything like Miss Baker here, I’d say ya was right, Pa!” laughed Joe, sweeping the young woman’s body with his eyes.
“I’m sorry ma’am, for being so forward,” Joe nodded his head at Suzanne. “Shawn, sorry about the fight.”
“Aw…that’s alright Cartwright, ya still ended up with more bruises than me!” Shawn snickered. “I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions. Pa always said to think before leaping, guess I haven’t learned that too well yet.”
“Don’t worry, son,” smiled Austin, “it took me a half my life to learn not to jump to conclusions and the other half to learn how to say I’m sorry. I’m still working on how to forgive myself for being such a fool.”
“It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong, but I think we’ve all learned something about ourselves tonight,” laughed Ben.
“Sure have,” laughed Joe, rubbing his jaw. “I’ve learned to duck faster.”
“Maybe you should just learn to leave the women to the men. You’re still a mite young to be chasing around after a pretty face. Why you wouldn’t even know what to….”
“Hey, stop that!” shouted Adam grabbing the pillow that Joe had flung at him and tossing it back at him.
“BOYS!” shouted Ben, just as the pillow shimmied across the top of his head.
The windows in the house rattled with the roar of laughter that filled the room. “Boys will be boys!” whispered Suzanne, taking Hoss’ arm that he offered her and following him through the door and out into the bright moonlight.
*Song: Secret Love, by Freddy Fender…no infringement intended.