To Love Again (by Rona)

Summary: Joe meets a woman in town, but Ben falls in love with her. The family are delighted – or are they?

Rated: T
Word Count: 9,230


 

“That’s all the supplies on your list, Little Joe,” said the storekeeper, handing the list back to Joe Cartwright. “I’ll order in more coffee for next week, since you seem to go through so much of it up there at the Ponderosa.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied, and tucked the paper into his pocket. He turned, and stepped aside as beautiful woman appeared in the store doorway. He tipped his hat to her, and was delighted to get a smile in return. She was a very striking woman, past the first flush of youth, perhaps, and a stranger to Joe’s eyes. After casting her another appreciative glance, Joe went out to the buckboard, where his brother Hoss was finishing loading the supplies.

Catching hold of one end of a sack of meal, Joe said, “Who was that who just went into the store? She’s lovely.”

“Dunno,” Hoss responded. “Little Joe, I swear you always let me do all the work round here.”

“Now, Hoss, you know someone has to keep an eye on what’s out of stock. ‘Sides, I helped you with the meal, didn’t I?” Joe glanced back into the store, and wondered again who the mysterious beauty was. He grinned at his older brother. “Come on, let’s get this home. We have a dance to get to tonight, remember?”

*****

The ballroom of the hotel was crowded that night. The candlelight reflected off the big mirrors on the walls, making the room seem bigger than it was. Adam and Hoss both had dates, but Joe had recently broken off a romance with Sally-Anne Millar, and was foot-loose and fancy-free. He never suffered from a shortage of dance partners, and whirled his way through a selection of waltzes and reels, before finally heading over to the punch bowl for a drink.

While he was standing there, he noticed the mysterious woman from the store coming in. She had long dark hair, piled up on her head in an elaborate manner, and wore dark red velvet. Long earrings showed off her graceful neck and a matching necklace showcased her pretty shoulders. It was also clear that she was alone.

The temptation was too much for Joe to resist, and he appeared by her side a few moments later, smiling broadly. “Good evening,” he said. “I’m Joe Cartwright, we met very briefly in the store this afternoon. I wondered if you would care to dance?”

Smiling back, for she was a lady of taste, and recognized masculine beauty when she saw it, she said, “I do remember you, Mr. Cartwright. I’m Madeline Ross. Thank you, I’d like to dance.”

“Please, call me Joe,” he said, as he led her out onto the floor. He wasn’t indifferent to the sudden wave of speculation he saw sweeping the crowd, but he pretended he didn’t see it. “When someone says Mr. Cartwright, I look for my Pa.”

As he had hoped, Madeline laughed. “And you must call me Madeline,” she said. “Mrs. Ross sounds so formal.”

The music started, and Joe was glad it was a slow dance, for he could then talk. “Isn’t your husband with you?” he asked.

“I’m a widow,” she replied, and Joe cursed himself silently.

“I’m so sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“Its all right, how were you to know?” she asked. “It’s been some time since he passed on, and he was very ill. So tell me, Joe, what do you do?”

Given an opening like that, Joe couldn’t resist, and so told Madeline about his father, brothers and the ranch they owned. The music ended, and another tune struck up, and still the couple danced. At the end of that dance, Joe began to introduce Madeline around. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. Madeline was an entertaining companion, and it didn’t hurt that she was beautiful. Finally, he introduced her to Adam and Hoss, and then Ben.

It was plain that all the Cartwrights admired her. Joe guessed that she might be a year or so older than Adam, and thought that there was a fair chance that his brother would make a play for her. Not that Joe really minded. He had had his share of affairs with older women, and right now, all he wanted was some fun. Madeline was a lovely person, but she wasn’t what Joe was looking for.

However, by the end of the night, it was clear that the person who was most smitten was Ben. He danced and talked to Madeline most of the evening, and Joe, amused, found himself other partners. As they rode home, Joe couldn’t resist teasing Ben.

“Hey, Pa, how come I started off the evening with Madeline, and you ended it with her? That’s not fair, you know, stealing your own son’s girl!”

“All’s fair in love and war,” Ben said, sagely. He turned up his coat collar to hide his smile. “Madeline obviously has taste, that’s all.”

“Aw, Pa,” Joe groaned. “How do you know that she isn’t the girl for me?”

“It just might be that you aren’t the boy for her,” Adam interjected, the emphasis very much on the ‘boy’. He smiled to take the sting from the words. He really didn’t want Joe going off half-cocked at this time of night. “Besides, I thought I might ask her out, myself.”

“Or me,” Hoss added. “She might like the bigger man.”

“Yep, and you surely are a bigger man,” Joe retorted. “Bigger every meal time!”

“You’re jist jealous because you’re undersized,” Hoss shot back, amiably. “You don’t eat worth a button most days.”

“No, not compared to you,” Joe agreed. “But if you ate less, I’d look like I eat more.”

“Let’s not get into that,” Ben said, seeing the frown forming on Hoss’ face. “Madeline’s a nice girl, whoever she sees!”

With that decree, the discussion was over.

*****

It seemed to Joe that whenever he was in Virginia City, he ran into Madeline. They met at the mail office, they met at the store. Joe teased her that she was waiting for him, just so they could talk. Madeline laughed. “Joe, I know all about you,” she said. “I was warned that you’re quite the ladies man!”

“I’m just looking for the right girl,” Joe protested, his eyes twinkling.

“Keep looking,” she advised him. “I somehow don’t think that I’m the one.”

As luck would have it, there were several dances that month in town, and the Cartwrights managed to get to every one. Madeline was always there, and the boys had gradually pieced together her story. She had been married to a wealthy businessman. He had died about a year before, and she had moved around various towns until she decided that she wanted to live in Virginia City. She had no money worries, and apparently no children. Joe had estimated her age very well, for she was a year or so older than Adam.

It was clear that Ben was very taken with her, as were several of the town’s younger men. However, it soon became apparent that she was just as taken with Ben as he was with her. By the end of her first month in town, she and Ben were going steady.

As September gave way to October, the main work of the ranch was winding down. The main cattle drive to market was but a memory, and soon the timber cutting would end as the snows came. Joe found himself riding the line shacks, preparing them for winter, checking the supplies and the state of the buildings. He was alone, and had time to think about this new situation.

It wasn’t the first time Ben had been courting. There had been others, but none of them had worked out. Joe hadn’t really minded any of them; in fact, he’d been positively welcoming. But for some reason, he felt a bit differently about Madeline. He liked her, but he was uncomfortable. It was only after he’d been away a couple of days that the answer came to him. If Ben married Madeline, as seemed likely, there was the chance they might have children together. Certainly, Madeline wasn’t past childbearing age.

That was the cause of his discomfort, he realized. How would he feel about someone else usurping his place as cherished youngest? At once, Joe was ashamed of the thought. But he couldn’t imagine Pa dandling a brand new baby. He wondered if he would like any new baby that might come along. It would be very strange having a baby brother or – good gracious! – a sister at his age. With a flash of insight, Joe wondered if this was how Adam had felt when he himself was on the way? And if it felt strange to Joe, how did it feel to Hoss and Adam?

As he rode slowly home, Joe resolved that not by one word or glance would he reveal his thoughts to anyone else. He would just have to square it with his sub-conscious somehow. Surely any new arrival would make him feel differently, he reasoned. He would have time to prepare himself, and no one would ever need to know he’d felt this way. Slightly happier with the decision he’d made, Joe urged Cochise to a faster pace, suddenly keen to get home.

But squaring it with his sub-conscious wasn’t quite as straightforward as he’d thought it would be. As he rode along, Joe frequently found himself distracted by the thought of Madeline living in the house. There would be changes. Madeline would want to re-arrange the furniture, and perhaps buy some new things. She might not like them trampling about the house with dirty boots. She might expect them to dress for dinner every night. Suddenly, a pleasant, abstract possibility became a nightmare-ish probability!

So distracted by his musings that he trusted to Cochise to find the way home, Joe was caught unawares when his horse shied violently. “Easy!” he said, gathering his wandering wits, but he was too late! There was an ominous rattle, and Cochise reared once more before plunging into a headlong gallop. Joe barely kept his seat as he fought to control his horse’s flight.

But Cochise wasn’t interested in Joe’s commands. Instinct told him to run, and that was what he did, oblivious to his master’s pull on the reins. Joe leant forward, ducking to avoid branches that snapped towards his face. In the end, it was the tricky footing of the forest floor that caused the problems. Cochise slipped on loose soil, and couldn’t regain his footing. He crashed to the ground, hurling Joe from the saddle.

For several long moments, Joe lay stunned. When he opened his eyes, he saw Cochise standing a few yards away, head down and still blowing. Sweat lay on the sleek black and white shoulders. Cautiously, Joe moved, and pain assaulted him from all around. He gritted his teeth, and rode it out, and finally, it all settled down. Nothing hurt desperately badly, he decided. No broken bones, or dislocated shoulders. Just a bang on the head. As he tried to rise, he mentally added a sprained ankle. Trying to figure that one out, Joe realized that his foot must have been twisted from the stirrup as Cochise scrambled to regain his feet. He was lucky his ankle wasn’t broken.

“Coochie,” Joe coaxed. “Come on, boy.” He raked in his jacket pocket, and found a few oats. Cochise came quite willingly, and Joe saw with relief that his horse wasn’t lame. Getting a lame man and lame horse home would have proven tricky.

It took Joe a couple of attempts before he finally managed to mount. His head reeled, and he clung to the saddle horn for a few seconds before he was able to pick up the reins and head Cochise towards home. It was a slow journey, and rain set in as the afternoon waned. There was a cold wind blowing, and Joe shivered in this thin blue jacket, but every time he urged Cochise to a faster gait, his head would swim and once he nearly fell from the saddle.

With great relief, he saw the ranch house growing nearer. It was almost dark. He rode Cochise right up to the edge of the porch, and slid from the saddle. He hoped there was someone in the house, for he hated to leave his horse unattended. Slowly and painfully, Joe hopped across to the door.

The door swung open to a seemingly empty room, but Joe could hear voices. The room was warm after the cold rain and wind, and the heat made his head swim again. “Pa,” he said, but his voice barely carried. “Pa!” he tried again, and this time it came out better.

A pause, then the scrape of a chair. Joe clung to the door handle, and lifted his head. He heard footsteps, then Ben came round the corner from the dining room. “Joe!” he exclaimed and hurried towards his son, catching hold of him as Joe’s death grip on the door handle finally gave way. “Adam! Hoss! Help me!”

With a brother on each side, Joe was helped across to the settee, and Ben arranged a cushion under his head. “Get some water!” he ordered, and sat on the edge of the table. “Joe, what happened?”

“A rattler,” Joe explained. “Cochise ran, and then he fell. I think I was knocked out, and my ankle hurts.” He shivered violently. “I wasn’t able to tend to him, Pa,” he added.

“Don’t worry none about your pony, Shortshanks,” Hoss soothed. “I’ll see to him right now. He ain’t lame, is he?”

“No, he’s fine. He brought me home.” Joe looked at Ben. “Sorry, Pa.”

“It was just an accident, Joe,” Ben said. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. It was unfortunate, but that’s all.” Adam brought a bowl with water, and a cloth, and Ben began to wipe the dirt and blood from Joe’s face. He glanced up, away from Joe. “I’m sorry about this, my dear. Please, go on with your meal. The boys and I will sort Joe out.”

“Madeline?” Joe said.

He heard the rustle of silk, then Madeline looked over the back of the settee at him. “Don’t worry, Joe. Your father will join me again in a moment.”

“I think I might be a little longer than that,” Ben said wryly, once more looking at Joe as he moped away at his son’s face. So it was that Joe was the only person looking at Madeline as his father said that, and Joe was the only one who saw the strange look that passed over her face. For an instant, Joe was convinced she looked disgusted and angry. But the moment passed, and he concluded that it was a result of the bang on the head. He shivered once more. “Let’s get him upstairs, Adam,” Ben said. “I’ll be as quick as I can,” Ben said, touching Madeline’s arm.

*****

A good half hour passed before Ben was able to re-join Madeline at the table. “I’m sorry,” he apologized as he sat down again. “Joe’s going to be fine, he’s almost asleep now. Adam’s sitting with him.”

“Hoss has been keeping me entertained with stories about Joe’s escapades,” Madeline said, but there was a little edge to her voice that didn’t escape Ben’s notice. He signaled Hoss with his eyes, and his middle son excused himself and went upstairs to see Joe.

“I’m afraid accidents do happen on ranches,” he said, placatingly. “Joe had taken quite a knock on his head, and his ankle is badly sprained. He was soaking, too. The rain must have come on since you arrived.”

“I didn’t realize it would take all of you to tend to him,” Madeline said. She made the comment sound jokey, but she was angry inside. Angry that Ben thought nothing of leaving her to her own devices while he went off to look after one of his sons, when his other two sons were perfectly capable of doing so. She found Ben’s attachments to his sons rather perplexing.

“Oh, that’s habit, I expect,” Ben said, smiling. “But it did take Adam and I to get his boot off that bad foot. Adam held him down, and I pulled.”

“I’m not very good with sick people,” Madeline said, surprising herself with the comment. She usually tried to keep that from people. Women were supposed to be natural nurses, and she wasn’t. “Ben, it’s getting late. I should be going back to town.”

“Of course,” Ben said. “I really am sorry our evening was spoiled. Do you forgive me?”

“Yes, of course,” she smiled. She would have his undivided attention on the journey to town, and perhaps she could persuade him to join her for dinner, alone, at her home the next night.

*****

The one thing Madeline hadn’t counted on was Joe running a fever the next day. His soaking had given him a chill, and he had spent a restless night, tossing and turning. In the morning, Ben had sent for Doc Martin. “I didn’t want to bother you, Paul, as it seemed a minor accident. It’s probably just a cold, but he’s in some discomfort.”

After examining Joe, Paul gave him something for the pain, and went downstairs with Ben before talking to him. “You’re right, Ben, its not a serious concussion, by any means. He was lucky. That ankle is pretty wrenched about, and he could get pain from it for quite some time. It’ll be weeks before its healed properly. Try to keep him off it as much as possible. Crutches would help for when he gets restless. But he’s got a good going cold in his chest, probably from that soaking. Keep an eye on his breathing, because his chest does sound a little tight. However, I don’t think it’ll turn into pneumonia.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben said, gratefully. “I wonder if you could do something for me? I’m supposed to be having dinner with Madeline Ross tonight. Could you let her know that I won’t make it? I’d better stay here with Joe.”

Rolling his eyes, Paul said, “All right, Ben. But Joe will be all right with Adam and Hoss to look after him, I’m sure.”

“No, Paul, I’ll stay home tonight. I’m sure Madeline will understand.” Ben clapped his friend on the shoulder, and Paul laughed.

“Goodbye, Ben.”

*****

“Thank you,” Madeline said, coolly, and closed the door as Paul Martin walked away. She stood with her back to the door for a second, then her eye fell on a small vase and she snatched it up and hurled it across the room. It didn’t really help, she decided. It wouldn’t make Ben come. She cursed Joe vehemently. Why had she fallen in love with a man who had children? Madeline hated children. When she had conceived during her marriage, she had contacted a woman she knew about who had performed an abortion. The operation had been botched, and Madeline had almost died, but her husband suspected nothing, and thought it was simply a miscarriage. The doctor told Madeline that she could never have any more children, and she was thrilled. Since her husband died, she had avoided relationships with men who had children, but she thought that since Ben’s children were adults, they would be self-sufficient.

For all that, Madeline genuinely loved Ben. She had been rather taken aback to discover that all three sons still lived at the Ponderosa, and she hoped they weren’t planning on living there after she and Ben were married. For she felt sure that Ben loved her as much as she loved him, and she let the warmth of his love chase away the anger from her heart. Somehow, she would find a way to make sure the boys left the nest, so that she and Ben could leave in peace.

*****

“See you later, son,” Ben said. “And stay off that foot!”

“Pa, if you don’t go, you’re gonna be late,” Joe said, sternly. “Go on, I’ll be fine, and I’ll stay off my foot!”

Smiling, Ben picked up his hat and left. He was taking Madeline for a picnic by the lake before the weather turned too cold. They were having a spell of Indian summer, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of it. He climbed into the buggy and flicked the reins. As he rode into town, Ben thought of Madeline. He knew she’d been annoyed the night Joe had his accident, but she had got over it very well. They had had their intimate dinner for two a couple of nights later, and Ben almost proposed to her there and then. However, he felt they needed to get to know each other a little better before he popped the question. But there was no doubt in his mind that he loved her.

The drive out to the lake was pleasant, and they walked a little before they sat down to the wonderful picnic Hop Sing had prepared. Madeline had found Hop Sing a little too informal for her tastes when they first met, but she hated to cook if she didn’t have to, and was impressed with his culinary skills. “Its lovely here, Ben,” she said, sincerely. “Its so nice to be alone with you.”

“Yes, it is lovely,” Ben agreed, but he was looking at her, not the view. “I’m so pleased Joe introduced me to you that night at the dance,” he said. “Its not often a son introduces his father to a beautiful woman, especially when that son is Joseph!”

Laughing, Madeline leant towards him. “He’s quite a young man, your Joe,” she said. It seemed a safe comment, covering, as it did, many different meanings.

“I didn’t have grey hair until after he was born,” Ben said. He looked at her. “Did you never want children of your own?”

“I had a miscarriage,” she said, steadily. “Then I couldn’t have any more, so I never thought about it. I don’t know if I’d have made a very good mother, anyway.”

“Of course you would,” Ben assured her. He was slightly puzzled by the look on her face. He thought he was offering her the reassurance she wanted, but it didn’t appear that way. “Did you and your husband never think of adopting?”

“No,” she replied, flatly, and Ben took the hint and changed the subject. He thought the whole thing was too painful for her to speak of, and that she was hiding a deep longing for children. He decided not to bring the subject up again until they were getting married. Then he would tell her they could adopt a baby or a child, whatever she wanted.

They packed up the picnic and drove back to the house. Adam was in the yard, and took the buggy. Madeline smiled at him. She quite liked Adam, who was cool and detached, apart from where Joe was concerned. Hoss came out of the barn and called a greeting, and she found a smile for him, too. If you saw one son, there was almost always another not far away. She wondered where Joe was, and got her answer when she went into the house, for he was asleep on the settee.

Seeing him, Ben smiled, and shook his head. Madeline was amazed at his tolerance. She had forgotten that Joe still had a bad foot, and couldn’t be outside working. She let the door slip from her hand, and it banged closed. Joe started, and roused from his nap. “Pa!” he said, clearly disoriented. He started to sit up, and Madeline clearly saw him blanch. “Did you have a good time?” he asked, gamely trying to ignore the pain in his ankle.

“Yes, very,” Ben said. “Sit down, Madeline. I’ll get some coffee. Or would you prefer tea?” He had discovered that Madeline was a tea drinker, and so had had tea added to the list of supplies.

“Tea would be lovely,” Madeline said, sitting down in the red leather chair. She knew it was Ben’s favorite chair, which was one reason that she chose it, but it was also behind Joe’s head, which was another reason for sitting there. Ben went to the kitchen, and she heard his lovely deep voice talking to Hop Sing.

When he came back, he sat down on the table by Joe’s head, but facing Madeline. She thought she would have to try and break him of the habit of sitting on the table. She’d noticed they all did it, and thought her first act would be to replace it with something less substantial!

“Here, Joe, drink this,” he said, handing Joe a glass with cloudy liquid in it.

“Aw, Pa, it doesn’t hurt that much,” Joe protested, and Madeline frowned.

“Joe, I think it would be best if you did as your father said. After all he does know best.” The words came out before she could stop them, and she blushed crimson. Ben looked at her and laughed.

“See?” he said to Joe. “There’s someone else who thinks I know best! So drink it.” He laughed again. “I’m glad you’re here to back me up, my dear,” he said.

“Out numbered as usual,” Joe said, but he took the medicine, nonetheless. He turned his head to look at Madeline. “The pretty girls are usually on my side,” he joked.

“Not this time, cowboy,” she responded. Ben laughed again, patting Joe on the arm. He rose to take the glass back to the kitchen. Joe turned his head front again, feeling an uneasy shiver run down his spine. There was a hardness in Madeline’s eyes that he didn’t understand.

When the tea came, there was coffee for Joe, too, but he drank it quickly, and reached for his crutches and went upstairs. He sat down in the chair by his window, where he could watch his brothers in the yard. He suddenly felt very lonely. He couldn’t understand why Madeline had suddenly changed towards him. He didn’t think the others would have noticed, but her jokey asides were frequently barbed, and she no longer teased him when they met in town. In fact, she was very formal towards him. Joe didn’t understand it at all. He didn’t mind Pa getting married again, he assured himself, but his assurances rang hollow. He was beginning to mind more and more. Whenever he was there with Madeline and Ben, Madeline made sure that all Ben’s attention was on her.

Raising a hand to wave back to Hoss, Joe wondered if he was just being paranoid and jealous. After all, he expected girls to pay attention to him. But the more he thought about it, the more Joe realized he was right. Madeline had been angry when he interrupted the meal the other night, even though Hoss and Adam had been there. Ben had said she was hurt when he had cancelled their dinner date the next night, because he, Joe, had been running a fever. With a sinking feeling, Joe realized that Madeline no longer liked him. She looked on him as a rival for his father’s love.

*****

The revelation knocked Joe for six. He decided not to go down to dinner that night, pleading that he was tired. Ben, looking at Joe, knew that there was something wrong, but didn’t push it. Perhaps it was just his foot. Joe picked at his meal, feeling totally isolated. He could hear laughter drifting up, and knew what it was to be an outcast. He couldn’t sleep that night, despite the medicine Ben forced on him once more.

Although he had been a lazy scholar, Joe wasn’t stupid. He knew that there was no way he could say he had a problem with Madeline. It would instantly make him look like a spoiled child. But he knew that if Madeline came to live at the Ponderosa, it wouldn’t be long before he was no longer welcome.

All night, the thoughts chased each other through his head. He couldn’t see any way out of the dilemma. He couldn’t tell anyone, for they would all think he was jealous. Nothing that Madeline had said could be seen as deliberately nasty or vicious. They were all disguised as jokes. As dawn broke, with Joe never having closed his eyes, he knew that he would just have to tough it out, and pretend he didn’t notice.

*****

The problem with that, of course, was that Joe’s face was a mirror for his soul, and he was very flat. Ben had been concerned by his appearance at breakfast the next morning, white faced, with dark circles under his eyes. His shirt wasn’t tucked in, a sure sign of a troubled mind, and he seemed to be having trouble with his crutches all of a sudden. However, Joe just said that he hadn’t been able to sleep, and put it down to his enforced inactivity, and the nap he’d had the previous afternoon.

None of his family was convinced. Joe had never been able to hide his lies from his family. They held a conference in the barn, but none of them was able to give a reason for Joe suddenly being depressed. Ben shrugged. “We’ll just have to watch him. Hope that he opens up to one of us.”

But as the days passed, and Madeline came to the ranch more and more frequently, Joe just became more depressed. When Ben pressed him, he said, it was because he was bored. Adam tried to get him to open up, and so did Hoss, but he told them the same story. They weren’t convinced either.

After a month, Joe’s ankle was healed enough for him to start riding again, and the difference in his attitude almost convinced his family that he had just been bored. Almost. For Joe’s demeanor changed whenever he walked into the house. At work, in the open air, Joe could forget that he was likely to get a stepmother. As soon as he came in and saw Madeline, for she was at the ranch every day now, he remembered, and it was like a ton weight crashing down on him.

Finally, the day that he had been dreading came. The first snow was dusting the ground as the Cartwright boys stamped their way into the warm house. They were flushed from the cold and Joe had managed to scrape together enough of the powdery snow to make a tiny snowball, which he had accurately lobbed down Adam’s collar. Too pleased with this show of high spirits to be truly angry, Adam had made a dive for Joe, which only ended as the younger man reached the safety of the house.

Ben was standing by the fireplace, wearing a tie, and holding a glass of wine in his hand. He smiled at his sons, and Madeline turned her head and smiled at them too. Joe, with a sinking feeling, knew at once what Ben was going to say. He swallowed hard, and met Madeline’s triumphant gaze.

“Boys,” Ben said. “We have something to tell you. Madeline and I are going to be married.”

The world began to expand and contract in Joe’s vision. All he could see was Madeline’s cool smile as she graciously accepted the congratulations that were being showered on her. Vaguely, Joe could hear his own voice saying appropriate things, but he wasn’t in control of his tongue. He even felt a counterfeit smile stretching his lips, before he mounted the stairs to get changed for the celebration dinner.

Joe barely managed to shut his bedroom door before he rushed over to the basin on the stand and was mightily sick. Again and again he retched, until there was nothing left in his stomach. Miserably, he wiped his mouth, and wondered how on earth he was going to be able to sit at a table with the happy couple, feeling as he did.

“Joe?” said a voice, and Joe lifted a sweaty, pasty face to see Hoss looking at him with concern. “Are you all right, Shortshanks? I thought I heard you bein’ sick?”

“It must’ve been that jerky at lunch,” Joe replied, smiling wanly. “I told you I thought it tasted bad.”

“You can’t be sick tonight,” Hoss said, with notable lack of concern for his younger brother. “It would make Pa and Miss Madeline feel real bad.”

“I know,” Joe replied, miserably. “Don’t worry, Hoss. I’ll be there.” He gave his middle brother another smile, and Hoss left. After a time, Joe roused himself to empty the basin, and then washed up and changed.

He was the last at the table. Hop Sing had made an extra effort, and the food was wonderful. Joe choked down a few mouthfuls and smiled when it seemed appropriate, but he spoke not a single word throughout the meal. Madeline looked radiant, and stunningly beautiful. She was wearing the same crimson velvet frock she had worn to that first dance.

“When is the big day?” Adam asked, after another toast.

“We thought Christmas Eve,” Ben replied. He covered Madeline’s hand with his, and she gave him a glowing smile. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that they were deeply in love with each other.

“Dadburnit, that’s real good news,” Hoss said. His genial face shone with pleasure.

“We’re going to invite everyone,” Ben said. “I just hope the weather stays mild.”

“As long as you and the preacher are there, that’s all I need,” Madeline answered, and a pang shot straight to Joe’s heart.

“And the boys,” finished Ben, as though she had simply forgotten to add that bit.

“And the boys,” she repeated. She had deliberately not mentioned them, but Ben couldn’t ever forget them, it seemed. However, once she was Mrs. Benjamin Cartwright, she would begin to make the changes she wanted. First to go would be Joe. She was sure he knew that she didn’t like him.

As soon as he decently could, Joe excused himself and went upstairs. He ripped his tie off and threw it on the floor. Christmas Eve was a scant three weeks away. Joe loved Christmas. He knew that after his own mother had died, Christmas had lost its magic for a few years. But it was, once again, a special time for the Cartwrights. They moved heaven and earth to be together at this precious time of year. Joe suddenly felt as though it had been violated. He wanted to scream aloud in protest, and throw things and generally behave as though he was three years old. But he did none of those things. He undressed and slid into bed. He lay rigid under the covers until he heard Ben’s footsteps outside his room. Unable to face lying once more, Joe turned onto his side and feigned sleep. Ben touched his head lovingly, and whispered goodnight before tiptoeing out and closing the door. Joe lay there, feeling the scalding tears seep from beneath his lashes, but he refused to let himself surrender to the tears. It was another long night for Joe.

*****

At breakfast the next morning, Ben discussed his weeding plans with his sons. “Adam, I’d like you to stand up with me as best man,” he said.

“I’d be honored to, Pa,” Adam responded, and he looked as though he meant it.

“There’s no question that this is still your home, too, boys,” he went on. “There will be some changes, I don’t doubt.”

“The patter of tiny feet?” Adam suggested, with a grin.

“No,” Ben said slowly. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and gave his sons a serious look. “This is to go no further, and I forbid you to mention it to Madeline, but she can’t have children. Once we’re married, we might look into adopting, but that’s for the future.”

“We understand, Pa,” Hoss said. “That’s sure a shame for her, ain’t it?”

“So you’ll still be the baby of the family, Joe,” joked Adam.

“I’m not a baby!” Joe snapped, and pushed his chair back from the table. He was gone so quickly that Ben barely had time to say his name before the front door slammed resoundingly.

“I’ll get him, Pa,” Adam said. “I should know better.”

“No, its all right,” Ben said. “I wanted to speak to Joe anyway.” He rose from the table, noticing that Joe had eaten hardly any breakfast. He went swiftly outside, and met Joe in the barn doorway. ”Joe? Are you all right, son?”

“I’m fine,” Joe said, but his voice was tight. “Sorry about slamming out like that.” He didn’t sound sorry.

“What’s troubling you, Joseph? You haven’t been yourself for weeks now.” Ben put a hand on his son’s shoulder, and looked into the green eyes. Joe had dark circles under his eyes, and his face looked thin. With a start, Ben realized that the shoulder under his hand was thinner, too. “Are you ill?”

“No, I’m fine, honestly.” Joe summoned up an unconvincing smile. He saw at once that Ben didn’t believe him, so hastily sought for an excuse. “I guess this all takes a bit of getting used to,” he said. “I’m happy for you, Pa, truly I am. Its just odd to think that I’ll have a stepmother soon.”

“I suppose it is,” Ben said, his eyes softening. “Your brothers felt the same way when I brought your mother back with me. And they didn’t have any warning. I didn’t think I would get the chance to love again, Joe. It’s a rare gift. And don’t worry, Madeline loves you all, too.”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe agreed, knowing that Madeline didn’t, and never would, love him. “See you tonight.” He swung up onto Cochise, and rode away, swallowing over the huge lump that had risen in his throat.

*****

The first big snowfall of the winter happened a few week later. Wedding preparations were in full swing, and Joe was finding it more and more difficult to keep up a cheerful façade. Adam and Hoss were blind to their brother’s misery. Neither had noticed Madeline’s little comments to Joe, except as a sort of running joke between the two of them. Ben knew that Joe was still worried about his new stepmother, but figured that things would settle down as soon as they all got used to each other.

There was more snow about a week after that. It wasn’t too deep, but Ben decided that they had better get more hay out to the herd, just in case. The boys loaded up a big sleigh wagon, and toted the hay out, and spread it around. It was hard, hot work. However, the snow in the meadows provided plenty of ammunition for a snowball fight afterwards, and the shadows were beginning to lengthen as they headed back towards home. Joe was elected to drive, and Adam and Hoss made themselves comfortable in the back of the wagon.

They were nearing the ranch when they saw the light sleigh coming towards them. Joe had stopped the big wagon, and was clearing the horses’ feet of snow. A moment later, Ben pulled up alongside. He and Madeline were flushed form the cold and there were little bits of snow glittering on the hood of Madeline’s cloak. “Well, boys,” Ben said. “Get all the hay out?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Joe answered. Without being asked, he checked the sleigh horse’s feet, too. They were fine. Picking up the reins, he fiddled nervously with them, and the team, picking up on his feelings, tossed their heads.

“The snowball fight was good, too,” Hoss threw in, and they all laughed, except Joe. “Little Joe lost,” the middle son added. “Me and Adam ganged up on him.”

“As usual,” Joe retorted. He tightened his grip further, and the team began to prance. “Better get going,” he said. He reached for the seat, and had one foot on the running board when the team broke into a canter. Joe sprawled across the seat, losing his grip on the reins entirely. They slid off the side, and moments later got caught in the runner.

It only took seconds for disaster to strike. The rein tightened and the offside horse jerked round. The nearside horse kept pulling straight on, and the traces snapped. The sleigh swung round and shot off along the snow like a cannonball. Joe was flung from the seat, and Ben let out a cry of horror as he saw one of the runners hit him. The impact was enough to bounce the sleigh up and into the air. Adam and Hoss were thrown out.

“No!” Ben exclaimed. He was out of the sleigh and running to his sons without realizing he was doing it. Madeline’s mouth hung open. She had never seen anything like this before. Ben knelt by Joe, and gently felt for a pulse. He was breathing, but blood ran from a gash along his head, and Ben feared that he might have internal injuries. He looked wildly round for Adam and Hoss, and saw them further away. Adam was trying to rise, but Hoss was out cold. Ben looked round. “Madeline, go to the ranch, and get the hands to send out a wagon and send someone for the doctor!”

Gathering up the reins, Madeline cast her fiancé one last glance before she sped off to get help.

*****

Left alone with his sons, Ben wasn’t sure who to tend to first. He persuaded Adam to stay sitting down, and checked him over for any obvious injuries. He wondered about broken ribs, but that was all. Hoss roused, and he had a head injury, but nothing major. He and Adam had had their fall cushioned by a snowdrift.

Going back to Joe, Ben stripped off his coat and covered his youngest son. Joe’s face was deathly pale, and Ben hoped help would arrive soon. Lying in the cold wouldn’t help Joe at all. After a few minutes, Adam and Hoss supported each other over to where Ben knelt by Joe. Nobody said anything.

*****

The wagon arrived quickly, but it didn’t seem so to the waiting men. Joe hadn’t moved or made a single sound. They loaded him carefully onto the wagon, and drove slowly back to the ranch. Ben enlisted some of the hands to move Joe, and ordered Adam and Hoss to get into bed. They were all soaking and shivering.

Inside, Hop Sing had fires burning in each bedroom, and had bandages laid out ready. Madeline sat by the fire. Ben didn’t have more than a glance to spare for her as he supervised his sons going to their rooms. Joe, despite the rough handling, still hadn’t moved. Ben thanked the men, and started to strip off Joe’s wet clothes. Moments later, Paul Martin came in, Madeline at his side.

Quickly, Ben detailed what had happened. Paul’s face was grave. He bent over Joe at once.

“Come on, Ben,” Madeline said. “Now the doctor’s here, you can get changed and come and sit down. He’ll take care of the boys for you. You need to rest.”

“I’ll get changed, then I’ll be back,” Ben agreed.

“Doctor Martin can manage without you, you know,” Madeline said, sharply. “He doesn’t need your help. Come down, and we’ll go over our plans for next week. The boys will be just fine.”

Looking at her as though she had suddenly grown horns, Ben shook her hand off his arm. “Joe could be mortally injured, Madeline. He needs me. I must check on Adam and Hoss.”

Unable to contain her anger any longer, Madeline said, “They’re grown up, Ben. Adults! They don’t need you to hold their hands any longer! Joe will be just fine. How many times has he been hurt before? Lots. You told me so yourself. He’s not a child!”

“He’s my child!” Ben said, coldly. “They are all my children, despite being grown up. And they need me. I will always be there for them when they need me.”

“They won’t always be living here,” she spat back. “Are you going to rush to their sides when they live in their own homes?”

“If they need me,” Ben repeated. He glanced at Paul. “This isn’t the time for this. Will you check on Adam and Hoss while I get changed?”

“No,” Madeline answered, and saw something change in Ben’s eyes. She held her head up. “I’m going to be your wife, Ben. You have to forget about your sons. They are grown up, and don’t matter to us. Leave the doctor to tend to them. Its his job after all.”

Without another word, Ben turned and left the room. Paul was still working on Joe, but he knew he had just heard Madeline end her chances of marrying Ben. He said nothing, concentrating on his young patient. Joe had broken several ribs, and his left arm and collarbone, too. A vast bruise was spreading over his abdomen and hip, but after an anxious time, Paul decided that it wasn’t internal bleeding. Joe was still pale, but his color was improving now that he was warming up. Going on with the examination, Paul discovered that Joe’s left leg was broken, too. The sleigh had hit his left side. He was bruised all over.

By the time Ben came back, Paul had bound up Joe’s ribs, and was setting the broken arm. Wordlessly, Ben steadied Joe while Paul set all the broken limbs. Joe was groaning steadily as Paul finished with his leg, and a few minutes later, he opened his eyes. “Pa?” he muttered.

“I’m here, son,” Ben said, stroking his hair. Don’t try to move. You’ve been badly hurt.”

“Adam?” Joe said. “Hoss?”

“They’ll be all right,” Ben soothed. “They landed in a snowdrift.” He said it in a joking tone, and Joe tried to smile.

“Here, Joe, drink this,” Paul said, and gave him something for the pain. A few minutes later, Joe’s eyes closed again, and he slept. Paul settled his broken arm more comfortable into the sling. “I’ll go and check on your other sons,” he said.

For a few moments, Ben sat by Joe’s side. His heart was heavy. Finally he stood up and went downstairs. Madeline was sitting gazing into the fire. She looked up as Ben paused for a second. He sat down on the table by her side. “We must talk,” he said.

“I thought you’d say that,” she responded. “Ben, your sons are nice enough, but I have no interest in them. You’re the one I love. I don’t want them living here after we’re married.”

“I love you,” Ben said, slowly. “I wanted you to be a part of this family. I was going to suggest that we could adopt a child to be ours, yours, mind and the boys’.” She looked horrified. “But we want different things, Madeline. I want the boys to live here with us for as long as they want. Its their home.”

“The boys are your past,” Madeline said. “I want us to have a future, just you and I. I don’t want children, Ben. I didn’t want children of my own, ever. I don’t want the boys living here once we’re married. I don’t want them dropping in unless they’re invited. Why can’t you forget about them?”

Rising, Ben looked down at her sadly. “My sons are not a part of my past, and I could never forget them,” he said. “I do love you, Madeline, but I’m sorry, I can’t marry you. I’ll get one of the hands to drive you into town. Goodbye.”

Tears broke free, and streamed down Madeline’s face. “Don’t do this, Ben!” she pleaded. “We can work something out. The boys can come visit, if that’s what it takes. Please!”

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “It won’t work. Its over, Madeline.” He went to the door and called for one of the hands. Then he lift Madeline’s cloak and held it open for her. “Goodbye.”

Looking at him, Madeline saw that he meant it. “I love you, Ben,” she said. She left without looking back.

Shutting the door, Ben leant against it wearily. Then he resolutely straightened and went up to tend to his sons.

*****

It was several days before the boys realized that Madeline was no longer coming around, or even mentioned. Adam tentatively broached the subject at breakfast, three days after the accident. “I haven’t seen Madeline around,” ho observed. “Is she busy making preparations for the wedding?”

“There won’t be a wedding,” Ben said.

Exchanging a perplexed glance with Adam, Hoss said, “There won’t? How come?”

“We discovered that we had a major disagreement on a very important subject, and there was no way we could resolve it. There will be no wedding, and I don’t want to hear any more about it.” So saying, Ben got up and went over to his desk.

There really wasn’t much they could say with Ben just across the room, so the rest of the meal was finished in silence. After, they went up to see Joe, who was confined to his bed for the foreseeable future. He knew at once from his brother’s faces that something had happened. “What is it?” he asked, anxiously.

“The wedding’s off,” Hoss said, subsiding heavily onto a chair.

“Off?” Joe said, blankly. “Why?” He tried to pretend that he didn’t feel a surge of joy at the thought.

“Pa said they disagreed about something important, and couldn’t resolve it,” Adam answered. “But he wouldn’t say what it was.” He looked at Joe, who looked as though he had been struck by some kind of revelation. “Joe? Do you know what it was about?”

“Not for sure,” Joe admitted. “But Madeline didn’t like us, me especially.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hoss spluttered. “Why, you introduced her to Pa!”

“I know, but she changed. She kept making comments.” Joe reminded his brothers of the little comments, and they gradually saw what he meant.

“I thought she was just joking,” Adam said. “I guess I only saw what I wanted to. No wonder you were so depressed, Joe.”

“Well, what could I say?” Joe demanded. He tried to move, but failed. He felt like he was pinned to the bed by the weight of his broken limbs. He was black and blue down his left side from his hairline to his toes. Adam helped him sit up slightly. “If I’d said anything, you’d have all assumed that I was jealous, and behaving like a spoiled kid.”

Hoss started to protest at that, but Adam silenced him with a glance. “Joe’s right,” he said. “We would have thought that.”

“Guess we would,” Hoss muttered. “Sorry, Shortshanks.”

“Its okay,” Joe assured him. There was silence for a moment. Joe rested his aching head on the pillows. “How’s Pa?” he asked.

“Bleeding,” Adam said, succinctly. “He loved her.”

“I love you more,” said a voice from the doorway. Ben came into the room. He’d followed his sons upstairs and had been listening. “Joe, you guessed right. Madeline didn’t want any of you living here with us, or even visiting unless invited. She thought I should just forget about you all.” Crossing to the bed, Ben gently caressed Joe’s head, then touched Adam on the shoulder, and patted Hoss on the back. “I couldn’t forget my sons. This is your home as much as it is mine.”

“Pa,” Joe started, but Ben interrupted him.

“No, Joe. I should have guessed, because Madeline made sure she didn’t come in contact with you boys any more than was necessary. And that last time you got hurt, she was angry that I spent time with you, and not with her. I compounded my sin by canceling our dinner date the next night, because you still weren’t well.”

“Its my fault,” Joe said.

“No, Joe, its not your fault. Madeline has a hatred of children, even adult ones. She resented any time I spent with you boys. How could I marry someone who didn’t like you? No, not even for the chance to love again could I do that. This is not anyone’s fault. Madeline can’t help her nature.” His voice became husky suddenly, and he coughed unconvincingly. “Just get well, Joe. That’s all I need. You boys here with me.” Turning abruptly, he left before the tears overwhelmed him.

He wasn’t the only one with tears in his eyes. Adam blinked furiously. Hoss dashed his hand across his eyes, and Joe let the tears come. He was too tired, sore and emotionally over-wrought to control them. Grief for his father’s sorrow battled with his relief that Madeline wasn’t going to become part of the family. Exhaustion finally won, and he slipped into sleep, the first natural, deep sleep he had had in weeks.

Slipping out of the room, Adam and Hoss went downstairs. Ben was reading the paper as though nothing had happened. He looked up. “Are you boys going to collect the tree today?” he asked. “Because I’ll get the decorations out if you are. It’ll cheer Joe up. We can bring him down when its decorated. What do you say?”

“Sure thing,” Hoss agreed. Adam nodded.

“Joe’s asleep right now,” he said. “We’ll get one.”

Together, they headed for the door, knowing that Ben would be all right. He would grieve for Madeline, but he would get over it. Meantime, they had Christmas to celebrate, and give thanks that all three of them had lived through an horrific accident. Who knew, perhaps one day, Ben would find love again.

Watching his sons leave, Ben felt a pang of pity for the woman he loved. She would never know what she was missing. There was no way he could tell her. He gazed for a moment into the fire, and then stood up to go and look for the Christmas tree ornaments. This would be a special Christmas after all. No wedding, but rejoicing that he had three wonderful sons, none of whom were going to be permanently marked by that dreadful accident, the one which had opened his eyes to Madeline’s true nature.

Going upstairs, Ben opened Joe’s door, and looked on his son. He felt deeply that Joe had known all along that Madeline didn’t like them, and had kept it all to himself. No wonder the boy had been depressed. But, despite the bruises and bandages, Ben thought Joe looked better, and realized that he had peace of mind again.

Closing the door, Ben discovered that he had peace of mind over his decision. No longer would it worry him. Joe’s peace of mind had shown him that his decision had been right. “Sleep well, Joe,” he whispered.

*****End*****

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