Summary: An unknown marksman targets Joe’s family and friends. Who is behind all these attacks? And will Joe survive finding out the killer’s identity?
Word Count: 10,890
“How’d you manage that?” Hoss asked, admiringly. “They ain’t bin in town but a couple a weeks.”
“Natural charm, big brother,” Joe Cartwright responded, with false modesty. “Just my natural charm and good looks.” He stuffed a forkful of food into his mouth and chewed innocently, avoiding his brother’s eyes.
“You mean you were the first one to ask,” Adam, the oldest son responded, dryly.
“That too, perhaps,” Joe agreed, after swallowing. “But Lucy’s the prettiest girl, ain’t she?”
“Who are we talking about here?” Ben asked, perplexed. “I don’t believe I know this family.”
“The Watsons, Pa,” Adam said, snaffling the last chop from under Hoss’ fork. He gave his brother a smile. “They moved into Peterson’s old place a few weeks ago. He’s got something to do with one of the mines, I forget which one.”
“How did you meet them, Joe?” Ben asked. He did recall hearing about their arrival.
“Lucy and her mother were in the store when I went in last week,” Joe said. “Mr. Cameron, the storekeeper, introduced us. I met Lucy again when I was in yesterday and asked if she’d like to go to the dance tomorrow night. She said yes, and when her mother came in, her mother agreed, too.”
“Just goes to show that your reputation hadn’t preceded you for a change,” Adam remarked, hiding a smile as his younger brother spluttered into indignant denials. “Mrs. Watson would never have let you near Lucy otherwise.”
“Adam,” Ben said, in gentle reproof, but he couldn’t help smiling. “So, are there more children?”
“Not that I’ve seen,” Joe said, shooting Adam a dark glance that promised vengeance at some future date. “But I’ve only met her twice, Pa.”
“You’re slipping, younger brother,” Adam said, rising to his feet. “I bet you don’t know how old the young lady is.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, older brother,” Joe rejoined. “She’s 19, as it happens.” He grinned. “I always get the pertinent facts.”
“Well, get these pertinent facts,” Ben said. “Time and chores wait for no man.”
Taking the hint, they all went back to work.
Next evening, Joe carefully dressed in his best and bore his brothers’ teasing with equanimity. The buggy was already hitched and he set off in plenty of time, wanting to impress his date’s parents. He knew the house they lived in well, as it had previously belonged to the family of one of Joe’s schoolmates.
He knocked on the door and was delighted when Lucy opened it herself. Joe allowed himself a moment to savor her beauty before he said, “Lucy, you look wonderful!”
“Thank you, Joe,” she responded. “Won’t you come in while I get my wrap.”
Following her inside, Joe cast a quick look round, noticing the changes in the house since he had last been there. It also allowed him the chance to drink in Lucy’s beauty again. She was small, her head barely clearing his shoulder, and slender, with long red hair and green eyes. Her skin was fair and she projected an air of extreme fragility that Joe found enchanting.
“Ah, you must be young Cartwright,” said a voice from behind Joe, and he turned to see an older man standing there. “How d’you do, young man.”
“Fine, thank you, sir,” Joe replied, shaking hands. He could see at once that Lucy bore a strong resemblance to her father, and from him she got her green eyes and red hair. Mr. Watson’s coloring was fading, but his hair still had a reddish tinge to it. “Thank you for allowing me to take Lucy to the dance. I promise to get her back at a decent hour.”
“By 11.30,” Watson said, genially. “Lucy isn’t so delicate that she’ll wilt if she stays out late.” He smiled and so did Joe, instinctively liking this man. “Have a good time, young man. I’ve heard a lot about you and your family, and I’m told Lucy is in safe hands.”
“Thank you,” Joe said. He crooked his arm towards Lucy, who had reappeared with a dark purple wrap over her lilac dress. “11.30,” he said. “Good night, sir.”
“Have a good time, Lucy,” Watson said, kissing his daughter’s cheek. He watched them go, and then turned to his wife. “I like that young man,” he said. “I hope it all works out.”
After a few moments initial shyness, Lucy soon thawed to Joe’s charm and by the time they reached the hotel, they were fast friends. By then, Joe had discovered that she was an only child, although an older brother had died in infancy. Her father was part owner of many mines around the country, not just in Virginia City, but he had decided they would move there to help her mother’s chronic bronchitis.
Once inside the hotel, Lucy’s shyness returned for a few minutes, until Joe began to introduce her around. The young men Joe’s age were smitten with her at once, and many of them tried to persuade her to abandon Joe for a dance, but she resolutely refused them all. Joe was flattered.
Finally, he spied his family arriving, and took Lucy over to meet them. “Pa, Adam, Hoss, this is Lucy Watson. Lucy, my father and brothers.” Joe beamed with pride as he saw Ben’s eyes open a bit wider.
“How d you do?” Ben said, taking her hand and smiling gently at her. As the boys had said, Lucy was a beauty. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Lucy said, eyeing Adam and Hoss askance as Joe joked with them about their late arrival. “Joe has mentioned you to me.” Lucy smiled at Adam as he took his turn bowing over her hand, and Hoss blushed as he muttered something that she didn’t catch.
“Yeah, yeah, all right, family, this is my date, hands off,” Joe said, jokingly, and Lucy gave him her best smile. “We’re going to dance. See you folks later.”
“Your family seems nice,” Lucy said, as they headed back to the dance floor.
“Yeah, they are I guess,” Joe agreed. “Pa is the best, and so is Hoss. Adam and I don’t always see eye to eye, but he’s always there for me. Guess we’re pretty lucky that we get on so well, working together an’ everything.” Joe smiled at her. “But I don’t want to talk about my family tonight. Tonight, I want to talk about you.”
Smiling, Lucy instantly felt more secure. She had had a moment of panic when his family appeared, but she was reassured by his interest in her. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” she said, coyly, and was delighted when Joe laughed.
“Not Lucy again,” Adam said, as Joe came downstairs after supper in clean clothes. “Have you run out of other girlfriends, or is this serious?”
“You’re jealous, big brother,” Joe said, cheerfully, as he buckled on his gun belt. “You weren’t quick enough off the mark, and you hate to admit it!”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Adam responded, rising and joining his brother by the credenza. “I would say that it’s you who wasn’t quick enough off the mark this time. I think the young lady has set her hat at you, and you’ll be the next Mr. Lucy Watson in no time at all.”
“Ha-ha, very funny,” Joe responded. “She’s a nice girl, and I like being with her, but it’s not love for either of us. We’re just having fun.”
Tapping Joe on the shoulder with the book he was holding Adam warned, “Just be sure Lucy knows that, all right?”
“Adam, trust me,” Joe said, grinning. “Just because you have problems handling women doesn’t mean that I do. Lucy and I are just friends.”
“Just remember to invite me to the wedding,” Adam said, as Joe sailed out of the door. Little did he know that his words would come back to haunt him.
The summer evening was scented by the many fragrant flowers growing in the Watson’s garden. Joe didn’t know the names of most of them, but he didn’t care. He gave his attention to Lucy, not the blooms that surrounded them as they sat by a little table and sipped lemonade. Joe was a little surprised that Lucy didn’t have more friends, as they had been living in Virginia City for more than a month now. But she never mentioned any of the town girls her own age, and when Joe brought the subject up, she answered curtly and started talking about something else.
The one thing that seemed to endlessly fascinate her was Joe’s life at the ranch. She wanted to know all the details of his days, and asked questions so she could understand more clearly what it was he did. Joe was flattered. Now, Lucy said, “What are you doing tomorrow, Joe?”
“It’s my day off,” Joe answered, grinning. “Mitch and I are going fishing.”
“Mitch?” Lucy said, sharply. “Who’s Mitch?”
Somewhat surprised at her tone Joe said, “He’s my best friend. We were at school together. He works on another ranch, and we made arrangements to go fishing on his next day off. That’s tomorrow.”
“I see,” Lucy said, coolly. Joe looked at her. This was something he had seen periodically over the last couple of weeks, and he had put it down to the fact she didn’t know many people and found it difficult to picture the people he mentioned. Now, he wasn’t so sure. She gave Joe a smile, which he returned. “So what’s he like, this Mitch?”
As he described his friend, Joe wondered about Lucy’s change of attitude. To begin with, she had wanted to know everything about the people he knew, but as she realized how wide Joe’s circle of friends was, she had stopped asking. Joe wondered if she was jealous, but it wasn’t something he felt he could ask her yet. “We’re meeting near my mother’s grave,” Joe said, having already shown Lucy the grave.
“I hope you have a nice day,” she said, but her tone wasn’t convincing.
“What are you doing?” Joe asked.
“Visiting with the minister’s wife, I believe,” Lucy answered. She laughed. “I’d rather go fishing with you.”
“My next day off, I might just take you up on that offer,” Joe said, teasingly. “Or we could go on Sunday after church?”
Before Lucy could say anything, Mrs. Watson appeared. Joe recognized this for the signal that it was time he went home. He rose politely as Mrs. Watson joined them. “It’s growing late, Joseph,” she said, reprovingly, as she had developed the habit of doing. “You won’t be able to get up for work tomorrow.”
“No, ma’am,” Joe said. “Thank you for your hospitality. Good night, Lucy. I’ll see you soon, I hope.”
As he wove through the garden to where he had left Cochise, Joe could feel the women’s eyes on him all the way. He wondered if they talked about him after he had gone. Mounting, he grinned into the growing darkness. Adam would chide him for having a big head, and Joe wondered if in this case, his older brother might not just be right. Joe patted the black and white neck in front of him. “Well, let’s not tell him, huh, Cooch?” he said.
The pinto snorted in agreement.
There wasn’t much fishing going on the next day. Joe and Mitch were more in the mood for just relaxing. They each had their poles with them, and they were dangling in the water, but very little attention was paid to them.
“I heard about the new girl you’re seein’,” Mitch said. “I hear she’s a beauty.”
“You got that,” Joe said. “She sure is. Little bit of a girl, slim as a wand, and gorgeous. Her folks are nice, too.” Joe then amended that. “Well, her Pa is. He likes me real well.”
“Hasn’t he heard about you, Joe?” Mitch teased. “You belong to the girl of the week club!”
“I’m not that bad,” Joe returned, lazily, then shot Mitch a sideways look. They both burst out laughing. “You’re just jealous, Mitch. The girls all prefer a good-looker, like me!”
Making an outraged noise, Mitch jumped on Joe and they wrestled for a few minutes before both breaking off and laughing again. Joe thumped Mitch affectionately on the back. “Come in to the next dance and I’ll introduce you.”
“I might take you up on that,” Mitch replied. He rose to tuck his shirt back in, and there was a sudden singing in the air. Before either of them could react, an arrow struck Mitch in the back, knocking him off his feet.
In an instant, Joe was covering his helpless friend, his gun drawn, peering warily around. There was no movement, and no one to be seen. For several minutes, Joe crouched there, waiting for the next arrow to come his way, but when nothing happened, he gradually relaxed and turned his attention to getting help for Mitch.
“There was no way I could leave Mitch to try and find who shot him,” Joe concluded. He looked tired and worried. Paul Martin said Mitch would be all right, that the wound wasn’t too serious, but Joe had had a worrying few hours as he got his injured friend to help.
Sheriff Roy Coffee nodded. “Course not, Joe,” he agreed. “You couldn’t leave Mitch. We all understand that. You go an’ get some rest. We’ll have a look around, but I don’t think we’ll find anythin’.”
Wearily, Joe rose and headed back out to his horse. Ben, who had come into town to be with Joe, followed closely behind, his hand resting on his son’s shoulder, giving him support. Outside in the street, Joe paused and looked at Ben. “I don’t understand this, Pa,” he said. “Who would want to shoot Mitch? Why?”
“I don’t know,” Ben answered, troubled. His unspoken fear was that the arrow was actually intended for Joe, not Mitch. But he couldn’t add to his son’s burden. He pulled Joe towards him and cradled that curly head on his shoulder for a moment. He could feel Joe lean into his warmth and start to relax. After a moment, Joe straightened up and smiled at Ben.
“Thanks, Pa,” he said, and Ben nodded.
“Let’s go home,” he said. Together, they mounted up and headed back towards the ranch.
From the shadows, Lucy watched, her mouth tight with anger.
Over the next few days, Joe was very subdued. He performed all his chores, but his mind clearly wasn’t on them. Every night, he rode over to visit Mitch, who was at home and on the long road to recovery. Both young men spent hours puzzling over who had shot at Mitch and came up with no answers. But it was Mitch who finally voiced Ben’s fears. “What if they weren’t shooting at me?” he asked.
“I can’t think of anyone who’d be shooting at me,” Joe returned. The thought had crossed his mind a few days earlier, although he hadn’t said anything to anyone. “I haven’t fallen out with anyone recently.”
“It can’t even be a jealous lover,” Mitch said, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “Because the only person Lucy has gone out with is you!”
“Guess I’d better be getting back,” Joe said, glancing out of the window and seeing that it was getting dark. “Take care.”
“You, too, Joe,” Mitch said, and his voice was deadly serious. For the first time, Joe realized how vulnerable he was, riding home alone in the growing darkness.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, more to convince Mitch than himself. “I’ll see you soon.”
He stood for a moment on the porch, gathering his courage to ride home. Joe much preferred to face danger head on. He hated this kind of insidious threat. Joe’s way was to have a confrontation, deal with the problem and accept the consequences. Taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders Joe walked to his horse, mounted and rode home with his head held high, defying the mysterious shooter to do their worst.
He arrived home unmolested.
“How’s your friend, Joe?” Mr. Watson enquired, when Joe came to collect Lucy for the dance on Saturday night. Although Joe had seen Lucy mid-week, Mr. Watson hadn’t been at home.
“He’s getting better, thank you,” Joe replied. Mitch was now allowed out of bed, and seemed to be recovering quickly.
“It’s a terrible thing,” Watson said, shaking his head. “Has the sheriff any idea who is behind this?”
“No, sir,” Joe admitted. “All we know is that it wasn’t an Indian.”
“How do you know that?” Watson asked, interestedly.
“The arrow was made by a firm who specialize in archery equipment,” Joe said. Beside him, Lucy caught her breath. “They are quite common, I’m told. Manufactured by the hundreds.” He sighed. “That doesn’t help us.”
“No, I can see that,” Watson said. The tall case clock began to chime and he started. “Well, I mustn’t keep you young people from your fun. See you later.” He gave Lucy his customary kiss on the cheek and they left.
“It was nice of your Pa to ask after Mitch,” Joe said, as he handed Lucy into the buggy.
“I suppose,” Lucy said, ungraciously and Joe frowned.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“All I seem to hear about these days is Mitch!” Lucy burst out petulantly. “Everyone is talking about it!”
Taken aback, Joe struggled to find words. “Well, it’s worrying,” he said, finally, thinking that perhaps she was reacting like this because she was scared. “But it seems to be a one off incident. Please don’t worry, Lucy, I won’t let anyone harm you.”
“I know you wouldn’t, Joe,” Lucy said, and smiled softly at him.
Their evening passed pleasantly, although Mitch’s name was mentioned more often than either Lucy or Joe liked. However, the young couple did their best to forget and enjoy themselves, and they mostly succeeded.
When the time came for Joe to take Lucy home, she was rather taken aback to find Ben, Adam and Hoss waiting for them by the buggy. She slowed suspiciously, and shot a questioning glance at Joe. Before he could say anything, Ben spoke up. “Good evening again, Lucy. I hope you don’t mind us joining you, but I’m sure you understand that we’re a little concerned for Joe’s safety right now, and we thought we’d accompany him.”
“I would think Joe’s perfectly safe in the town,” Lucy said, haughtily, and Ben made a deprecating face.
“It’s not a chance I’m willing to take,” he said. “But don’t worry; we won’t cramp your style.”
“I’ve heard that one before, Pa,” Joe said, and Ben laughed.
“But aren’t you safe in town?” Lucy demanded as they drove home. True to his word, Ben and the others kept a discreet distance behind.
“I don’t know,” Joe answered. “But you can’t blame Pa for being worried, I guess. It would be worse if he wasn’t worried about me.” He made a face. “You gotta remember that he does all the worrying alone. My Mama died when I was small, and we’re real close.”
“You can take care of yourself, Joe,” Lucy said.
“Yes, I can, when I can see the trouble coming,” Joe agreed. “But something like this – well, all I can hope is that one of them sees the arrow coming and sings out in time for me to duck.” He laughed. “I’d rather they weren’t playing gooseberry, too, but I’d sooner that than an arrow between my shoulders!”
Stopping the buggy at her door, Joe assisted her down. She tilted her face up to him. “You may kiss me if you’d like,” she said, softly.
Smiling at the innocence of the remark, Joe bent his head and gave her a chaste kiss on the lips; a kiss of friendship. He liked Lucy, but he wasn’t in love with her, nor did he think he would ever be. They were friends, nothing more and he thought Lucy felt the same way. She had never led him to believe otherwise.
That kiss told Lucy many things too, and she glared back at the shadowy figure of Ben and his other two sons. It was their presence that was inhibiting Joe. She knew it was. Somehow, she had to make sure that she and Joe were alone in future. “Good night,” she whispered, and slipped in the door.
“Come on, Pa, I’m a big boy,” Joe said, impatiently. “You can’t keep following me around. There hasn’t been anyone else shot, and we can’t still assume that whoever it was is still around. I need to get back to normal.”
“I know that, son,” Ben replied. “I just find it hard not to worry.”
“Pa, I know that. But what are you going to do? Follow me around for the rest of my life?” Joe smiled at Ben. “I know you’re worried, but we can’t go on like this.”
“All right, Joe, you win,” Ben capitulated and watched as Joe went out to mount his horse and ride into town alone. He was still uneasy about Joe’s safety. Just because there hadn’t been another attempt simply meant, to Ben, that his surveillance was working. But it wasn’t fair to Joe, and he knew it wasn’t fair to the girl Joe was seeing. Lucy had made it quite plain that she didn’t approve of one or another of Joe’s family following him about all the time.
“Did you let Joe go on his own?” Hoss said, as Ben came back into the house.
“Yes,” Ben said, dryly. “He has a point. I can’t follow him about for the rest of his life. Joe’s an adult; he can take care of himself.” He went over to his desk and drew out a letter he had to answer, but his mind wasn’t on the closely written pages in front of him. He was thinking of Joe, riding off alone. He abruptly came to a decision. “Hoss, I’ve got to go into town. I’ll be back in time for supper.”
“But, Pa…” Hoss protested. He was too late, Ben was already out of the door and gone.
“Now this is more like it,” Lucy teased, as she walked arm in arm with Joe along the main street.
“What do you mean?” Joe asked, looking down at her. After almost a month of seeing her, Joe was seriously thinking of breaking off the relationship. He felt that he knew Lucy no better than he had that first date, and he didn’t want to lead her on.
“No chaperone,” she said, gesturing behind them. “What happened? How did you persuade them to leave you alone?”
“Pa isn’t unreasonable,” Joe said, “and he knew he couldn’t follow me around for the rest of my life.”
“I thought he was going to though,” Lucy said, tartly, and Joe frowned.
“Lucy, he’s my father. He’s worried about me, and I can’t blame him. We never have found out who shot at Mitch.” Joe couldn’t understand Lucy’s unreasonable attitude towards his family. He supposed it was a natural reaction to having them close by all the time. He decided a change of subject was in order. “What have you been doing with yourself since I saw you last?” he asked.
“Oh, not much,” she replied evasively. Joe was frustrated. She never told him what she liked to do, or who her friends were. As though sensing this, she said, “I have been practicing my pianoforte more recently. Mama thinks I might be good enough to play for some of the Sunday services in time.”
“I didn’t know you played,” Joe said, delighted that she’d finally opened up and told him something about herself.
“Do you play?” she asked.
“No,” Joe replied, laughing. “Adam’s the musical one in our family. He plays the guitar.”
“Adam,” she repeated, wishing that Joe didn’t keep mentioning his family. “Joe, I promised Mama that I wouldn’t stay out very long, as I have to practice some more. Mama wants me to play for some ladies who are coming round tomorrow.”
“All right,” Joe agreed, and Lucy wished he hadn’t agreed so quickly.
However, she did want to practice, but it wasn’t the pianoforte. Lucy was an expert marksman with rifle, pistol and arrows. She had been honing her skills for many years, as her father taught her all the things he would have taught a son. For a long time, she couldn’t see any use for her skills, but when she fell in love with Joe, they were suddenly the most useful things she had. True, her shot at Mitch hadn’t killed him as she had intended, but he was still off work, and Joe hadn’t been seeing as much of him as before.
As they neared Lucy’s home, they were both surprised by a voice hailing, “Joe!”
Turning, Joe said, “What are you doing here, Pa?”
“Oh, something came up I needed to deal with. I just thought I’d see if you were about ready to head for home, that’s all.” Ben smiled to cover his true feelings. “Hello, Lucy. How are you?”
“Fine, thank you,” Lucy answered, shortly. “Goodbye, Joe.” She left him without a backward glance, and when Joe called her name, she didn’t look back.
Retrieving Cochise, Joe wondered what to say to Ben. He had seen through his father’s lie at once, and clearly so had Lucy. “Were you just worried about me, or do you want me to stop seeing Lucy?” he asked, sourly as they cleared the city limits.
“Joe…” Ben began.
“It’s all right, Pa, I know the answer,” Joe said. “But I thought we’d agreed that I’m old enough to take care of myself?” He spurred Cochise to a gallop, leaving Ben behind ruing his impulsive decision to follow Joe.
All that evening, Joe was sulky, despite Ben’s apology. However, Joe knew that his father meant well, and came out of the sulks as he went to bed. By morning, Joe had decided that if his father’s interference had brought his relationship with Lucy to a close, he wouldn’t complain too much. Joe hated to end relationships, and he sensed that Lucy would be very upset. However, when he went in for supplies a couple of days later, Lucy was at the store and she greeted him just the same as always.
“No escort?” she asked, and Joe overlooked the snide tone of voice.
“No, I’m all alone,” he replied.
“Goin’ to the dance, Saturday, Little Joe?” asked the storekeeper. “Takin’ this little lady, if I’m not mistaken.”
Turning her green eyes up to him, Lucy was smiling slightly in anticipation. Joe cursed Cameron’s interference, for he hadn’t planned to ask anyone to the dance, preferring to let it be seen that he was finished with Lucy, and ready to start a new relationship. Now, he had little choice but to ask Lucy. She accepted with alacrity.
As Joe packed the last of the supplies onto the wagon, Cameron said, “Will I be seein’ your father at the Cattleman’s Association Meetin’ tonight, Little Joe?”
“Yes, sir,” Joe responded. “Pa said he’d be there. Starts at 7, don’t it?”
“Tell him not to be late,” Cameron said, jokingly. “I want an early night tonight!”
“I’ll tell him,” Joe assured him with a grin.
“See you on Saturday, Joe,” Lucy said, before walking away. Joe watched her go, and sighed. Well, he would finish it with her on Saturday. She was obviously expecting it too, even though she didn’t want it to happen. Joe wondered if Cameron had been primed to ask him about the dance. Sighing again, he shook up the team and headed for home.
“Isn’t it time you were thinking of going to bed, Joe?” Adam asked.
“Pa isn’t home yet,” Joe responded, not taking his eyes from the checkers board in front of him. “It can’t be that late. Besides, Adam, I’m a big boy now, I can please myself what time I go to bed.”
“Its nigh on midnight,” Adam commented, and the three sons suddenly looked at each other, concern writ large on their faces. “Pa shouldn’t be this late,” Adam said, tightly.
An inexplicable fear rose in Joe’s throat and choked off his breath. He swallowed frantically, and with relief was able to gasp in a lungful of air. “Oh no,” he whispered.
“It might be nothing, Joe,” Adam said, crossing to crouch beside Joe. “Don’t go borrowing trouble.” He shot a glance at Hoss.
“Adam’s right, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, but his voice was less than convincing.
“We’ve got to look for him,” Joe whispered. His breath was still coming in short, panicky gasps. “We’ve got to.”
Troubled, Adam rose to his feet, and they all heard the hooves galloping into the yard. As one, they went to the door, and opened it to find Clem Foster, the deputy, there. Joe sagged the moment he saw Clem’s face and Adam caught him before he fell. “What’s happened?” Adam asked.
“Your Pa was shot by a mystery gunman as he left town tonight,” Clem said, his face grave. “He’s with the doc right now, but he’s been hurt bad. Hurry.”
The ride into town was agonizing for the brothers. Joe was so pale that Adam feared he wouldn’t be able to keep his seat, but they arrived in Virginia City without Joe fainting. They dismounted in front of the doctor’s office, and Joe hesitated. Adam noticed at once. He’d been keeping an eye on his younger brother. “Joe? What is it?”
“How can I face Pa?” Joe whispered. “This is all my fault. What if he’s…?” Joe couldn’t bring himself to say the word ‘dead’.
“This isn’t your fault,” Adam said, roughly. “How can it be, Joe?”
The face that turned to look into Adam’s was strained and white. “Mitch got shot, and now Pa. The only connection they have is me. Adam, don’t you see? This is my fault. This person is trying to get at me through them.”
“You don’t know that at all,” Adam chided, but he secretly thought Joe’s reasoning was spot on. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want his baby brother dead, but that was what it seemed like at the moment. “Come on, we’ve got to see how Pa is.” He put his arm round Joe’s shoulders and compelled the younger man inside.
The waiting room was dimly lit, but the lights blazed in the inner room. Adam and Joe went through to join Hoss, their hearts in their mouths.
Ben Cartwright lay on the bed, his face pale. Paul Martin, the town doctor was listening to his heart as the boys went in. He nodded, seemingly satisfied, and took the earpieces out of his ears. “Adam, Joe, Hoss. Well, he’s stable, which is more than I hoped for when he was brought in here.”
“Clem said he was shot,” Adam said. He sounded totally calm, but Joe could feel his brother’s arm trembling.
“He was hit in the back,” Paul said. “Your Pa was lucky. The bullet missed all his vital organs and his spinal cord. But I won’t lie to you. He’s lost a lot of blood, and I can’t guarantee that I didn’t do any damage when I was digging the bullet out. He’ll be here for the next week, at least, till I see how he’s doing.”
“Thanks, Paul,” Adam responded, although he was horrified. “Has Roy been here?” Joe slipped away from the support offered by Adam and went to sit by Ben’s bed. He took hold of his father’s hand.
“Roy has been and gone,” Paul nodded. “He went to see what he could find.” Paul’s eyes fell on Joe and he inclined his head slightly. Adam shrugged and made a face. He thought Joe was coping all right so far. But he had no idea how Joe would cope if Ben died. For that matter, he had no idea how he would cope. He joined his brothers by the bed.
“You want me to go to the dance?” Joe said, disbelievingly. He stared at Adam as though his brother had lost his mind. “Pa’s lying in a bed at the doctor’s and you want me to go out dancing? How shallow do you think I am?”
“I don’t think you’re shallow at all, Joe,” Adam answered, impatiently. “But it’ll do you good to have a break. Pa told you to go, too, so what’s the problem?”
“I just don’t want to,” Joe muttered. He felt a curious reluctance to spend time with Lucy right now. He could appreciate that he needed a break from sitting by Ben’s bedside, but he didn’t think taking a girl dancing was the answer.
“I already told her you were coming,” Adam said. “It’ll do you good, Joe. Trust me.”
“All right,” Joe said, but the rebellious set to his mouth told Adam that Joe was heading for a temper flare-up of mammoth proportions. “But next time, let me set up my own date, all right?”
“All right, I’m sorry,” Adam said, hoping that if he backed down Joe would calm down. “I won’t interfere in your love life again.”
It seemed incredibly unreal to Joe that he was standing in the hotel, dressed in his best, while his father lay seriously ill a few streets away. Ben was doing better than anyone could have hoped for, but he was still not quite out of the woods yet. He was very weak, and the three boys spent hours each day by his bedside, encouraging him to get better. Ben had urged Joe to go to the dance, but Joe felt completely detached from his surroundings and wished he were at home.
“What’s the matter, Joe?” Lucy asked, as he stumbled once more as they danced.
“I’m sorry,” Joe apologized. “I just don’t feel like I should be here.”
“Oh, Joe, why not?” Lucy asked, sounding hurt.
“It just seems wrong, with Pa so ill, that’s all,” he said. Lucy’s attentions seemed very cloying tonight, and Joe knew he couldn’t go on seeing her much longer.
“Is that all?” Lucy scoffed, and Joe could feel the heat rising in his face. He took a desperate hold of his temper.
At that moment, the music stopped, and Joe led Lucy outside and along the balcony a bit. “Don’t you understand?” he said. “My Pa was shot! My best friend was shot! It could be me next!”
Shaking her head Lucy said, “I know, Joe. But don’t you realize? I love you, and I know you love me. My love will keep you safe.”
Taking a step back, Joe knew this had to end here. “Lucy, I’m sorry, but I don’t love you. I think it’s best if we don’t see each other again. Shall I see you home?”
“You can’t make this kind of decision now,” Lucy said, aghast. “Your emotions are in a turmoil; you don’t know what you feel.”
“I do, and I’m sorry if you are hurt, but I don’t love you. Shall I see you home?” Joe wanted nothing more than to get out of there.
“No, don’t bother!” she snarled. “But you’ll see, Joe Cartwright, that you belong with me! You’ll see!” She stormed off along the balcony and Joe let her go. He was drained and shaken by her venom. A promising friendship had been ruined because he hadn’t had the sense to end the relationship before Lucy got hurt.
Later, Joe wasn’t sure how long he sat perched on the balcony rail. Finally, he stood up and made his way to where his horse was, and rode home. More than ever, he wished he hadn’t gone.
Answering the knock on the door, Lucy was surprised to find Adam Cartwright standing there. He had his hat in his hand and he smiled. “Lucy. I wondered if I might have a word with you?”
“What do you want?” Lucy asked, coldly.
“I wanted to apologies,” Adam said. “I persuaded Joe to go to the dance last night, and I really should have left him alone. I understand that things didn’t go too well, and I feel responsible.”
“So you should!” Lucy said, venomously. “Joe can make up his own mind, and he was in love with me! You pushed him into coming when he wasn’t feeling like it, and now he thinks that he doesn’t love me! Well, it’s not true, I know its not! When he’s feeling less wound up, he’ll realize that it’s me he wants, not you!”
“I hope Joe does feel as you think, for your sake,” Adam replied, quietly. “But Joe will always need his family, just as we’ll always need him. Just as you need your family.”
“Joe is my family now,” Lucy said, and shut the door in Adam’s face.
Wishing that he’d never come, and let well enough alone, Adam walked away.
That afternoon, as the boys all rode home together, several shots were fired at them from the trees by the road. They scattered, taking cover where they could and shooting back, but the marksman proved elusive, and escaped. They were all shaken, but Joe especially. Until now, he had more or less kept the worry for his brothers’ safety at bay. Now, it seemed his brothers were at risk and he knew that somehow it was all his fault.
“I don’t understand,” Joe said. “Who is trying to kill me? Is everyone I talk to at risk?” He looked at Adam, unshed tears in his eyes. “How are we going to be able to bring Pa home with this hanging over us?”
“We’ll figure something out, kid,” Adam said, giving him a rough hug.
“Yes, but what?” Joe demanded. “And don’t tell me Roy will find whoever’s behind this, because we both know he won’t! For some reason everyone I know is in danger.” Joe’s eyes suddenly widened and he lost color.
“What is it?” Adam asked, suddenly afraid that Joe had been injured in the shooting and was just feeling the effects of the wound now. Hoss joined Adam at Joe’s side, and they both gazed at their younger brother with undisguised worry.
“What about Lucy?” Joe breathed. “I know I’ve broken off with her, but she’s the other person I’ve been seen with most often.”
“Lucy is probably the most protected of us all,” Adam said, soothingly. “She’s hardly likely to be wandering the streets after dark, or to go out riding alone. You can’t go back into town, now, Joe and you certainly wouldn’t going alone. Lucy will be all right, I’m sure.”
“Adam’s right, Punkin,” Hoss agreed. “You’re plumb tuckered out, an’ need a good night’s sleep. Lucy’s folks will keep her safe, you can be sure o’ that.”
Realizing that they were right, Joe subsided. He was exhausted, and went off to bed shortly after supper. But his sleep was anything but restful, for his dreams were peopled with dark shadows and a profound sense of unease. When morning came, Joe felt like he had barely slept at all.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that the brothers set off to ride into town that day. By unspoken agreement, Adam and Hoss kept Joe between them, but they arrived in town unscathed. First stop was Roy Coffee’s office, where they reported the shooting. As Joe had said, there really wasn’t anything that Roy could do. Even when he’d been able to be at the scene of the crime almost immediately, he had found nothing. There was little chance he would find anything 12 hours on.
After that, they went to visit Ben, and found him looking much better. Paul was pleased with his progress, too. “You can take him home tomorrow, boys,” Paul announced.
“About time, too,” Ben growled, but he was smiling. At last, he felt as though he would survive Paul’s’ treatment, as much as the bullet wound. He looked at his sons. “Now, why doesn’t this news fill you boys with joy? What have you done to the ranch that you don’t want me coming home?” Ben frowned. “Tell me,” he ordered.
“We were shot at on the way home last night,” Adam replied, reluctantly. “Don’t worry, we’re all okay, but we’re just a little concerned about your safety on the journey home.”
“This is somehow my fault,” Joe said, miserably. He sat down beside his father’s bed.
“Son, it’s not your fault that some maniac is gunning for you,” Ben assured him, grasping Joe’s shoulder. “But I’m sure Adam can come up with an idea to keep me safe on the way home, can’t you, Adam?”
“I’m sure I can, Pa,” Adam answered. He had given the problem a lot of thought, and had a glimmer of an idea, but he wasn’t going to mention it until he had it all worked out. “Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll get you home safe.”
Rising, Joe said, “I’d better go and warn Lucy, assuming she’ll talk to me.”
“Be careful,” the others chorused, and Joe cracked a grim smile.
“I’ll be back soon,” he said.
For a moment, Joe thought that there was no one at home, but just as he was about to turn away, the door cracked open and Lucy looked out. “Joe,” she said, flatly. “What do you want?”
“I need to talk to you, Lucy,” he said. “Can I come in?”
“All right,” Lucy said, ungraciously and opened the door wider. She led him into the sitting room, and gestured to him to take a seat. Joe resisted, and stood, playing nervously with the brim of his hat. “What do you want to talk about?”
“I came to warn you,” Joe said. “Someone is after me, and my friends and family. I came to tell you to be careful, in case whoever it is comes after you, too.”
“So you do care for me after all,” Lucy said, brightening. “I knew you did. Oh, Joe, I love you!” She threw herself into his arms.
“You’re my friend, Lucy,” Joe said, dismayed. “But I’m sorry; I don’t care for you in that way. I came to warn you, because I’d hate to see anything happen to you.” Joe glanced round. “Are your parents in? I’d better tell them, too.”
“No, I’m here alone,” Lucy said, stepping back. “And don’t worry, Joe, I’m quite capable of taking care of myself.”
“I’d better go,” Joe said, realizing the implications for her reputation if he didn’t leave. He turned to let himself out and was completely unprepared for her next move. Lucy snatched up the vase that stood by the door and smashed it down on Joe’s unprotected head.
Caught by surprise, Joe crumpled, dazed. He felt a hand on his gun and made a grab for it, but he was too slow. Clutching his head, which seemed to be bleeding, Joe turned and glanced up. Lucy had his gun in her hand, and there was no doubt that she knew exactly how to use it. “Get up, Joe, and do exactly as I say,” she told him. She clicked the safety catch off.
Warily, Joe did as he was told.
“Now, walk slowly upstairs and don’t try anything. I won’t hesitate to use this and I’m a good shot.” She laughed. “You should know that by now, darling. I shot Mitch and I shot your father. Yesterday, I tried to kill your brothers.”
“You?” Joe gasped.
“Upstairs,” Lucy repeated and Joe did as he was urged.
Once into the attic, Lucy smiled at Joe. He stood looking at her in disbelief. “I can’t believe it, Lucy,” he said. “Why?”
“Because you’ve got to be mine, Joe. I love you. You can’t give your love to anyone but me.” She smiled and Joe could suddenly see the madness in her eyes. “Now, carefully, put down your hat and take off your jacket. Don’t try anything, because I wouldn’t like to shoot you by accident.”
Trying to repress a shudder, Joe did as he was told, although his every instinct told him to fight. Lucy smiled at him throughout. She moved round, still keeping him covered, until she was beside a small table with a box on it. Without looking away, she opened the box and withdrew a pair of handcuffs. They were open and ready for use. “Turn round and put your hands behind you,” she instructed.
“Don’t do this,” Joe pleaded. “Please, Lucy, for your sake, don’t do it.”
“I told you you loved me, Joe,” she whispered, and this time he couldn’t repress the shudder. Wordlessly, he did as he was told.
The cold steel bit into his wrists as she closed the handcuffs. Then she clicked the safety back on his gun and laid it aside. Joe looked round, trying to figure out how he would get out of there. Lucy was between him and the door, and Joe wasn’t sure he could hit a woman, even to save his own life. He had once struck a woman, and he had felt very bad, although she had been trying to kill him at the time.
“Alone at last,” Lucy purred and began to unbutton Joe’s shirt. Repulsed, Joe pulled away. Lucy punched him.
Shaking his head, for the punch had been a good one, Joe tried to back off and put some space between them. Lucy simply smiled. As well as marksmanship, Lucy’s father had taught her to fight when she was a little girl. It wasn’t something she’d ever had to use, but she still remembered her lessons. She pursued Joe relentlessly.
“Don’t resist, darling,” she said. “You love me, and me alone, and we’ll have such a wonderful life, just the two of us. You’ll be so happy with just me to love.”
“I don’t love you, Lucy,” Joe said, ducking aside. He dodged towards the door, but Lucy was there again.
“Don’t deny it, Joe. You don’t need to lie to me,” she said. She grabbed his shirtfront again, and tried to kiss him.
Jerking his head back, Joe threw his weight against her, and made a run for the door. He fumbled with the handle as she regained her balance and came for him again. She snatched up his gun, and Joe abandoned his attempt to open the door and ran towards the small window. He had no idea what he hoped to accomplish, but he never reached there. Screaming her fury, Lucy crashed the gun down on Joe’s head and he toppled to the floor, out cold.
Panting, Lucy stood looking at him for a minute. “Oh, Joe, you foolish boy,” she whispered. “But if this is how you want to play the game, I can do that.” She went back across to the box on the table and took from it some rope and a gag. It didn’t take her long to tie Joe’s feet and gag him. Then she left and locked the door behind her.
“Why, Adam, I don’t know what to tell you,” Lucy said, looking up at him, wide-eyed. “Joe was here earlier, but he left some time ago. Oh dear, I do hope nothing has happened to him.”
“I’m sure he’s all right,” Adam said, but his eyes were worried. “I just need to talk to him, that’s all. Sorry to trouble you.”
“No trouble,” Lucy assured him and closed the door. Snatching up her skirts she raced upstairs and burst into the attic. Joe flinched at the sudden movement and winced as his head began to throb anew. “Your brother is looking for you,” Lucy hissed as she snatched up her bow from the corner of the room. “The only person you can love is me, Joe.” She opened the window and leaned out. She aimed and fired in one smooth movement. There was a cry from outside and Lucy swung the window shut, and turned to Joe with a triumphant smile. “Got him!”
Horrified, Joe frantically fought his bonds. Lucy watched him closely, and laughed. She crossed over to his side and stood looking down on him. “Joe, darling, don’t you understand yet? This is what you wanted. You want to have only me to love.” She knelt by his side and Joe’s struggles subsided as he watched her warily. She ran her hand down his cheek, then tugged the gag from his mouth.
“You shot Adam!” he gasped. “How can you think I’d love you when you’ve shot and maybe killed my brother?”
“Darling, you don’t have to pretend with me,” Lucy assured him, and reached down to capture his mouth with hers. The kiss was deep and showed an experience that Joe hadn’t expected from her. But he didn’t accept it passively, or enjoy it. He fought as best he could, until Lucy abruptly tired of his struggles. She let him go and swung an angry punch at his face. Joe was knocked back a bit by it.
Rising, Lucy fought the urge to hurt him some more, but she lost. She kicked him viciously in the stomach four or five times before jamming the gag back in his mouth. “You love me,” she said, and it sounded like a warning.
She left, and locked the door behind her again.
The pain made it difficult to think, but all he had to do was concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Not far now, and he’d reach help, he told himself. Not far now. He put his hand on the door and as it opened, he fell into the room, unable to stay upright any more.
Coming from the inner room, Paul Martin gaped in disbelief at Adam’s still form lying on the floor and at the arrow that protruded out of his back. “Adam?” Paul rushed over to kneel by his side and was relieved to find a steady pulse.
“What is it, doc?” Hoss asked, coming out. He hurried over to Adam, too.
“Help me,” Paul ordered, and they carried Adam into the other room. Ben started up in horror, only to be told, “Stay there!”
Quickly examining Adam, Paul breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s not too serious,” he said. “The arrow isn’t in too deeply. I’ll get it out before he comes around.”
Paul was as good as his word, and when Adam opened his eyes a short time later, the arrow had been removed and he was firmly bandaged up. “Adam?” Hoss leaned in close. “Who did this to ya, Adam?”
Licking his dry lips, Adam said, “Don’t know. Someone shot me as I left Lucy’s. She said Joe was gone, but…” he stopped and swallowed. Hoss gave him some water. “I think Joe is in there, and they are both in trouble.” Adam grasped Hoss’ arm weakly. “Don’t go alone, Hoss. Get help.”
“I will,” Hoss assured him his face grim. He clasped his hand over Adam’s for a moment before turning to leave. Ben put out a hand to stop him.
“Be careful, son,” he said.
“I will, Pa,” Hoss said. “An’ I’ll bring Joe home.”
It seemed to Joe that Lucy couldn’t keep away from him. He had barely recovered from the kicking she’d given him when she was back, gloating about having shot Adam. Misery permeated Joe’s being as he thought about his brother. They often didn’t see eye to eye, but Joe certainly never wanted him dead!
“You are a sweet boy, Joe,” she said, stroking his cheek gently. “So handsome. No wonder I love you.”
Jerking his head away, Joe could hear his own ragged breathing. He was helpless, and had no idea what to do next. “Joe, stop playing the game,” Lucy chided. “I know you want me, just me. And I promise I will get rid of the last of your family for you. We’ll be happy living here, I promise.” Once more her hand caressed his cheek. Again, Joe jerked his head away.
“I’m beginning to believe that you enjoy teasing me too much,” she said, sounding angry, and raked her nails down his cheek, digging her fingers in. Joe felt fire running down his cheek and Lucy’s nails were red with blood. “You mustn’t tease me, Joe. I don’t like it.” She planted a kiss on his brow. “I don’t want to have to punish you again, but I will.” She tapped her bloodstained finger against her lip, leaving a mark there. Joe shuddered. “Should I blindfold you as well? Would that be punishment enough?”
Unsure if she was just being sadistic, Joe stayed absolutely still. He swallowed against the dryness of his mouth. Lucy smiled. “Oh, you don’t like that idea? Oh, my love, you should behave yourself then. Promise you you’ll behave and I’ll take the nasty gag away.”
Warily, Joe nodded, and Lucy removed the gag. Joe licked his lips, trying to get some moisture back into his parched mouth. “Why are you doing this?” he said, his voice scratchy.
“Darling, I love you, but you were distracted by all those other people who wanted your attention. You can only love one person at a time, you know.” Lucy smiled at him. “Once you agree to love only me, I’ll let you go. But you have to learn, darling. You love only me.”
“I can’t love only you,” Joe said, rashly. “I need my family, too. I can’t choose between you!”” A pang shot through his gut as he thought of Adam. “You shot them!”
“Oh, darling, don’t let that worry you,” Lucy said, with a light laugh. “I shot my parents, too, so we could be alone. There’s no one here but us, and we’ll be together forever.”
For a moment, Joe thought he was going to throw up all over her. Horror and shock raced through his brain. Instinctively, he tried to back away. The movement wasn’t lost on Lucy.
“You’re never going to love just me, are you?” she cried. “I can’t share you with anyone, don’t you understand? You love only me. And if you can’t love only me, you have to die!” She jumped to her feet, and snatched up Joe’s gun, aiming at him, and cocking it. “Love just me, or die!”
Frozen in place, Joe could make no move. He just stared at her in horror. “Don’t,” he whispered as fear thumped through his gut. “Lucy, no!” he shouted.
It made no difference. Lucy pulled the trigger.
“Hurry, Roy,” Hoss urged, as they headed over to the Watson’s place. He was terrified for Joe’s safety, and worried that Lucy was in danger, too.
“Hoss, you can’t go chargin’ in there like a bull in a china shop,” Roy chided. He glanced at Clem. “We gotta make sure we ain’t seen!”
They approached the Watson’s place quietly. It was dusk and the growing gloom helped to hide them in the shadows. Roy signaled to Hoss to try the front door. He went round to the back, and Clem went to try his luck with the cellar. The front door was open and Hoss eased inside quietly. The house was still and quiet, but there was an expectant air about it.
Drawing his gun, Hoss glanced into each of the downstairs rooms. There was no one to be seen. A shadow came from the back of the house, and Hoss raised his gun. To his relief, it was Roy and Clem, but they both looked sick. Hoss raised an enquiring eyebrow and Roy leant in close to whisper, “Clem found the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Watson in the basement. They’ve been dead a few days. Shot at close range.” Hoss swallowed the bile he felt rising in his throat.
“Nothing down here,” Hoss whispered, and Roy gestured to the stairs. They slowly began to climb, each fearing what they would find.
The shout startled them, but Hoss recognized Joe’s voice instantly and raced upwards, casting caution aside. He was almost at the attic when the shot fired. Heedless of his own safety, Hoss barreled through the door. He dodged as the slim figure standing there swung around to fire at him. The bullet sang over his shoulder and out into the hall, where it narrowly missed Roy Coffee.
By then, Hoss had thrown himself on Lucy, and wrestled the gun from her hand. Lucy was screaming at Hoss. “He’s mine, and I have to kill him! He’ll only be faithful to me if he’s dead!”
Hurrying into the attic, Clem and Roy took charge, subduing Lucy. Hoss spared her no more than a glance. Joe lay on the floor, bound and bleeding, his eyes closed. “Joe!” Hoss exclaimed in anguish, throwing himself down beside him.
After a second, Joe’s eyes opened. He said nothing, but the look of relief that passed over his face did much to reassure Hoss that his brother would live.
“He’s mine!” Lucy sobbed, as Roy and Clem hustled her away.
The Cartwrights went home to the Ponderosa from Paul Martin’s office in penny numbers. Ben was first to leave, much against his will, as he wanted nothing more than to stay with Joe. Adam was next, and Joe went last, two days after he’d been shot.
Not that Paul was keen to let the youngest Cartwright travel that soon, but Joe missed his family, and Paul knew he’d get better quicker at home. Joe had been remarkably lucky. The bullet wound he’d sustained in his left side had been comparatively minor, and they could only speculate that Lucy had intended to shoot him more than once. However, Joe also had a couple of broken ribs, plus a concussion and several nasty scratches on his cheek.
Both Ben and Adam were up to a little light exercise and both were waiting for Joe when he came home. Joe was delighted to see them, but he was exhausted and depressed. His sleep over the last few nights had been badly disturbed by nightmares and he was reluctant to use the sleeping powders that Paul forced on him. They always left him feeling hungover the next morning.
“Joe!” Ben said, coming slowly out to greet him. “How are you, son?”
Blinking back the tears that welled in his eyes, Joe said, “Fine, Pa. How are you?”
“On the mend, almost as good as new.” Ben smiled, not seeing how uncomfortable Joe was. “Let’s go inside. Adam’s waiting for you.”
The meeting with Adam was as difficult as the one with Ben. Joe didn’t know what to say to them. His guilt over the shootings inhibited their normal warm communication. Finally, Joe said, “I’m tired, Pa. I think I’ll go up to bed.”
“All right, Joe,” Ben said. “Do you need any help?” For it was apparent that Joe was in some discomfort.
“I can manage, thanks,” Joe said, although he wasn’t sure if that was quite true. However, he had no intention of asking for help. He felt his family had enough to deal with without his adding to their burdens. He mounted the stairs slowly and carefully and shut his room door with relief.
When Ben looked in later, Joe was sound asleep.
The nightmares returned that night. Joe was lying helplessly on the floor as Lucy shot his family in front of him, one by one. Joe pleaded, screamed and begged her not to, but each time she ignored him. Finally she turned the gun on him, as he crawled over to his dead family. Adam opened his dead eyes and said, “Too much love will kill you.”
“No!” Joe was sitting bolt upright in bed, his body throbbing with pain, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He shook his head, trying to dispel the images from his mind.
“Joe?” Ben came in the door, belting his robe around him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. It was just a bad dream,” Joe said, avoiding Ben’s eyes.
Frowning, Ben lit the lamp on Joe’s dresser. “Paul said you’d been having nightmares, Joe. Do you want a powder to help you sleep?”
“No,” Joe said, disgust in his voice. “They don’t help. I’m all right, Pa.” To his horror, Joe found he was on the verge of tears. He had shed many bitter tears over the last few days. He blinked furiously but he was too late, Ben had noticed and put a warm hand on the back of Joe’s neck. It was too much for Joe, that his father should still be as loving and concerned as he’d always been although it was Joe’s fault that he’d nearly been killed. The tears broke free and he began to sob in earnest.
Not sure what was wrong, Ben just cradled the curly head on his shoulder and let the tears come. “It’s all right, Joe,” he crooned. “It’s all right, son. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it together.”
“How can it be all right, Pa?” Joe cried, lifting his head. His eyes were luminous in the lamplight. “Because of me, you and Adam nearly died! How can that be all right? How can we face it together? I’ve got to face this alone.”
“No, Joe,” Ben denied, preventing his son breaking free of his loving hold. “You’ve been facing this alone for far too long. It’s not your fault that Lucy tried to kill us.” Joe shook his head, denying Ben’s words. “Joe!” Ben shook the curly head gently. “Did you want us to die?”
“No, Pa!” The anguished denial cut through the silent house like a knife. “No!” The tears overflowed again.
“Then how is it your fault?” Ben demanded. “You weren’t responsible for Lucy’s mania. You are as much her victim as we are.”
“That’s easy to say,” Joe muttered.
“It’s easy to say because it’s true,” Ben said, and Joe looked him in the eye for the first time. “Tell me about the dream, son,” he coaxed.
Slowly, Joe told him the details, shuddering, for they were still vivid. Ben sat silently, never taking his hand away from Joe, squeezing his neck gently as he told the last horrid bit about Adam.
“Too much love will kill you,” he repeated, thoughtfully. “Maybe, Joe. But I think you should qualify it. Too much of the wrong kind of love will kill you. But there’s no such thing as too much of the right kind of love.”
That seemed to be absolution come too cheaply for Joe. “I should have read the signs better,” he said, bitterly. “Then I would’ve seen this coming.”
“Joe, hindsight is always 20-20 vision,” Ben chided him gently. “None of us saw this coming. Even when Adam was shot, he thought both you and Lucy were victims of a crazy man who had you held as hostages. How could we know that a slip of a girl like that was a crazy killer? She even murdered her own parents. Let’s get one thing straight, young man.” Ben’s tone was stern. “You aren’t to blame for this. The only person to blame is Lucy.”
Feeling the warmth of his father’s hand on his head, Joe finally began to let go of his guilt. “Oh, Pa,” he said, and that was all Ben needed to know that Joe was on the road to recovery at last.
“We all love you, Joe,” Ben said. “Do you know that the first thing Adam did when he wakened at Paul’s? He insisted Hoss get help and rescue you. Does that seem to you like he’s blaming you? And wasn’t he pleased to see you this afternoon when you got home?”
“I guess,” Joe responded, thinking back. At the time, he’d been too preoccupied to notice, but as he reflected, he saw that Ben was right. Adam had been smiling and pleased to see him, teasing him gently about being a crock, as Joe had eased himself into a seat. A yawn suddenly shook Joe, and he looked surprised.
“Get some sleep, son,” Ben said, and settled Joe once more. “You’re home, and we’re all safe.”
Safe. The word resonated in Joe’s brain as the right kind of love permeated itself into every fiber of his being. He slid into the first dreamless sleep he’d had since the whole thing began.
Next morning, Joe took his first steps to full recovery, surrounded by the love of his family.
The inspiration for this story came from the Queen song of the same name. Many thanks to Brian May, Frank Musker and Elizabeth Lamers for writing it, and to Freddie and the boys for making it such a memorable and inspirational song.