Deliverance (by Rona)

Summary:  Is romance in the cards for Joe?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9319


 

 

The winter had been long and hard. The spring had been cold and wet. Summer had seemed to take forever to come and now it seemed to be over too soon. The days, while still warm and sunny for the most part, were shortening. The harvest was safely gathered in. The nights were still muggy, but mist lingered over the land in the early mornings. Fall was on the way.

*****

“The ground’s dry enough for the church picnic,” Joe commented to Adam as they rode home from town late on Friday afternoon. “After all the rain at the start of the week, I thought it might be cancelled.”

“Did you hope it would be cancelled, or were you afraid it would be?” Adam asked, as he cast a searching glance at his youngest brother.

“What do you mean by that?” Joe demanded.

“I wondered if you had a date or were going stag,” Adam replied.

“Ha, ha,” Joe scoffed. For a moment, he debated with himself about not telling Adam anything, but he couldn’t resist. “Actually, I’m taking Martha Booth to the picnic.”

“Who’s Martha Booth?” Adam asked, which kind of took the wind out of Joe’s sails.

“The Booth family moved into town about a month ago,” Joe explained. “Mr. Booth owns the new blacksmith’s place and Mrs. Booth has a sewing notions shop. They have four daughters – Martha, Elizabeth, Mary and Rose.” Joe grinned at his oldest brother – Adam clearly knew who Joe was talking about now. The two older girls were strikingly attractive, with Martha the pick of the pair. “I asked Martha on Sunday if she’d like to come to the picnic with me.”

“That sure didn’t take you long,” Adam commented. He wouldn’t have minded asking Martha out himself. She was a very pretty girl.

“You’ve either got it or you don’t,” Joe replied, in a suitably modest tone. Adam snorted. “I’ll give you a few lessons, big brother,” offered Joe and urged Cochise sideways before the playful swipe his brother aimed at him could find a mark.

“The day I need your help to get a girl, younger brother, I’ll be in my dotage,” Adam replied.

“Won’t be long then,” Joe commented and set his heel to his horse, his high-pitched, unique laughter the only thing he left behind.

It was too warm to race so Adam just let the comment slide. After a bit, Joe pulled up his horse and waited for Adam and the brothers rode home in amity.

*****

The minister gave the blessing and smiled at the crowd of people who had turned out for the picnic. “There are only two rules today,” he told them. “The first is please stay away from the river, because it is running very fast thanks to the rain earlier this week. And the second rule is that everyone must have fun!”

There was a universal laugh and everyone moved off. There were games organized for both the children and the adults. Food was being placed enticingly on various tables or rugs. The sun shone brightly and the air was warm. It was a perfect afternoon for a picnic.

The biggest problem as far as Joe was concerned was getting Martha away from her family. Rose, the youngest of the sisters, was just 10 and had a huge crush on Joe. She blushed to the roots of her hair whenever he spoke to her and watched him through her tangled bangs whenever she thought he wasn’t looking. She had a tendency to latch herself on to Joe and Martha and when Joe suggested that he and Martha take a stroll by themselves, Rose looked all set to have a tantrum.

Luckily, Mrs. Booth was made of stern stuff. She had raised four daughters and although Rose was the spoiled, cherished youngest, she wasn’t going to get away with behaving badly in public and with a few stern words, Mrs. Booth apprised her daughter of that fact. Rose looked set to have a sulk instead of a tantrum, but a look soon quelled that idea!

“You two have a nice walk,” Mrs. Booth told the young couple sweetly. “Rose, run along and play with some of the other children.” Joe was amused to realize that both sentences were commands handed down from on high, but he didn’t quibble.

“I’m sorry about Rose,” Martha sighed as she and Joe finally went off alone. “She really is a little minx.”

“I kind of know how she feels,” Joe admitted. “When I was younger, I used to beg to go with Adam and Hoss and I could get very sulky when I was left behind.”

“Ah, the truth will out!” Martha laughed. “When you’re the oldest, you get used to fending off your siblings’ attempts to go places with you.” She made a rueful face. “Not that I haven’t failed a few times.”

They strolled on, trading stories about their childhoods. Their pace slowed until they were standing talking underneath the shade of the trees. Joe leaned in closer for a kiss, but Martha was suddenly distracted. “Rose!” she scolded, peering over Joe’s shoulder. “Mama told you to go and play with the other children.”

Caught, the little girl looked singularly unabashed. “They weren’t playing anything nice,” she explained. “And I wanted to be with you.” She looked up at them through her thick sable lashes.

This was a tactic that Joe was not averse to using on occasion, too and he watched the child with interest to see how she fared. Not well, was the answer. Martha had had years of practice in getting rid of younger sisters and she wasn’t going to allow this one to interfere with her afternoon’s pleasure.

“Go back to the other children right now,” Martha ordered. “If you don’t, I’ll take you straight back to Mama and you’ll have to go home. And when Papa hears that, he’ll be cross.”

This was a very effective threat, Joe thought, as Rose’s jaw dropped. “He wouldn’t smack me, would he?” Rose demanded, in a tone that implied that this was the worst possible punishment and that it hadn’t been applied to her very often, if at all.

“He might,” Martha replied firmly and was unmoved by the sudden appearance of tears in her sister’s eyes. “Go on, now. Run along.”

Feeling his heartstrings tugged, despite knowing that Rose was deliberately trying to manipulate them, Joe opened his mouth to say something, but Martha spoke before he could.

“No, Joe, don’t plead for her,” she counseled. “Rose was told to do something. If she doesn’t do it, she has to take the consequences.”

Throwing Martha a black look of enmity, Rose turned round and stalked off, clearly in high dudgeon. Joe couldn’t help but smile as he noticed the outrage oozing from every pore of Rose’s body. “That was deftly done,” he complemented his date.

“Years of experience,” Martha demurred. “Now, where were we?” A smile played on her lips and Joe leaned in to finish what he had been about to start when they were so rudely interrupted.

*****

Rose was not happy. She hadn’t really settled into Virginia City yet and didn’t really know the other children. When she went over to them, they were already deep into a game and there didn’t seem to be a place for her. That was when she had decided to go and spy on Joe and Martha. She couldn’t see what Joe saw in Martha. Martha was just another dumb grown-up, but she, Rose, knew that she was a pretty girl, because people were always telling her so and she was sure she’d be better fun. After all, Martha would never climb a tree because her stupid skirts would get in the way. Martha rode side-saddle and although that was the way Rose had been taught to ride, she was sure she could ride astride without any problem and then she’d be able to race Joe on that lovely horse of his. Why, she was much more the kind of girl that Joe would like!

Still smarting from Martha’s threats, Rose wandered slowly back to the other kids. The game they had been playing had drifted to a stop and they were all edging closer to the water. Rose frowned. They weren’t supposed to play by the water – the river was flowing too fast. Her mother had reminded her of that. But feeling rebellious, Rose followed the others closer and watched as the boys began to dare each other to get closer and closer to the edge of the bank.

Tiring of daring one another, Jeff Jones, the school bully, started daring the girls. “Ya don’t dare go near, do ya!” he jeered. “Too scared o’ getting’ yer prissy dresses wet.” He grabbed a handful of mud from the river’s edge and threw it at the girls. It splattered onto Alice Miller’s dress. She started to cry.

Rose was spoiled, but her saving grace was that she hated to see anyone unhappy. Alice was a nice little girl and Rose would have been quite happy to be friends with Alice. “Leave her alone!” she cried, stepping forward and putting herself between Alice and Jeff.

“Ya can jist shut up!” Jeff sneered. “Ya ain’t nobody! Ya cain’t tell me what ta do!” He scooped up a handful of mud and threw it at Rose.

The splatter of wet mud on the dainty white apron that covered the front her of pink lawn skirt infuriated Rose, but even as she opened her mouth to shout something at Jeff, she saw his feet slip. For a moment, he teetered on the edge of the riverbank and then his balance deserted him and he began to go over backwards.

Instinctively, Rose made a grab for him. Jeff clutched desperately onto this frail lifeline, but he was several inches taller and many pounds heavier than the slight girl and Rose let out a shriek of dismay as she realized that they were both going to fall in.

*****

Reluctantly, Joe broke apart from Martha. He knew that they didn’t dare stay alone any longer, or tongues would wag and the last thing Joe wanted was Martha getting a bad reputation. He could sense that the girl’s disappointment was as deep as his own and his pulse quickened again. Perhaps this was a relationship that had a future.

But Joe’s musings were rudely interrupted by a scream. Looking up, Joe was in time to see a splash of water jump the bank and soak a group of children who stood there. Something about the youngsters’ faces alerted Joe to the fact that something was seriously wrong. Joe reacted at once.

“Get help!” he ordered Martha as he tore off his jacket and hat as he raced towards the river. “Hurry! There’s someone in the water!”

As he drew nearer to the river, Joe spotted the two heads break the surface momentarily. He had no idea who the children were, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was trying to get them out safely. Joe made a shallow dive into the water, gasping as he came to the surface, for the water was frigid, despite the heat from the sun.

But there was no time to worry about the temperature. Joe began to swim downstream as fast as he could, searching frantically for the kids who had fallen in. He spied a head a little bit away from him and reached out frantically, snagging a sleeve and grasping the fabric firmly. He dragged the child closer and was able to get a proper grip. He didn’t look to see who the child was – all that mattered was getting him out of the water, for he was unconscious.

“Joe!”

Glancing up at the sound of his name, Joe saw someone – he couldn’t see who – on the bank. With a superhuman effort, Joe heaved the unconscious child at the person, who by some miracle, managed to catch him. Joe, seeing that his first victim was safe, immediately plunged back into the water.

The river was faster there and Joe could feel his legs bashing off unseen rocks below the surface. The water was muddy and full of debris. Joe choked as another splash hit him in the face. He didn’t know how much of the foul water he had swallowed, but it was far more than he had wanted to. Coughing, Joe dragged in a lungful of air and dived once more.

Time was running out as Joe dived again. He knew that both he and the other victim must be fast approaching the rapids. If they once got to the stony part of the river, the child could be seriously injured. Joe knew that if he hadn’t found the child by the time he reached the rapids, the child would die and probably so would he.

Another splash of water hit Joe in the face and he inhaled it involuntarily. Choking, he sank for a moment beneath the water. Desperate for air, Joe forced himself to the surface and gasped frantically. He breathed in water again, but as he sank, something brushed against him and Joe made a grab for whatever it was.

By some miracle, it was Rose. Joe bore the child to the surface, hoping against hope that she was still alive. He couldn’t tell, for it was taking him all his time to keep his own breathing going. Joe shook his water-sodden curls off his face and looked around for help. Several figures were on the bank, although Joe couldn’t tell who they were.

“Joe! Catch the rope!”

Rope? Joe couldn’t see any rope, but a sudden splash close by him alerted him to the fact that one had been thrown to him. He reached out for it, but the rushing current dragged it away from him too fast. With a groan of despair and exhaustion, Joe resumed swimming towards the bank.

“Joe! Again!”

The shout warned Joe that the rope was once more on its way to him. He blinked the water out of his stinging eyes and saw the person on the bank throw the rope once more. The aim was true – the rope struck Joe hard across the face, opening up a gash by his eye and causing him to lose his grip on Rose.

There was a collective cry of despair as the people on the bank saw Joe go under yet again. But somehow, the youngest Cartwright managed to drag both himself and Rose to the surface again, but they were perilously close to the rapids.

“Once more!” Hoss shouted, and threw the rope, praying that somehow, his younger brother would manage to catch it.

The prayer worked, for this time, Joe managed to get hold of the rope, slipping the noose over Rose and winding the slack round his wrist several times. He winced as it tightened painfully, but he was now moving towards to the bank far faster than he had been managing under his own power and a little pain seemed a small price to pay for deliverance. Joe slowly began to relax and felt his body shivering as the cold suddenly registered in his brain. His eyes started to droop closed.

An incoherent shout from the bank snapped his eyes open again. Joe couldn’t make out any words, as everyone seemed to be yelling at once. Shivering violently, Joe squinted to make out the figures on the bank and realized that they were all pointing up river. Joe fervently hoped that no one else had fallen in, as he didn’t think he had the strength left to go after them. But as he slowly turned his head, he saw what had got everyone excited.

A large branch was floating down the river. Joe and Rose were directly in its path and it was gaining on them! Instinctively, Joe threw up his arm to deflect it, but the only arm he could use for that was the one he had wrapped the rope around. And at the same moment that Joe reacted, Hoss threw more weight behind his attempts to pull Joe and Rose from the river. Joe’s wrist snapped.

A strangled scream of pain escaped Joe just seconds before the branch hit. The sound choked off as Joe was submerged once again. Hoss hauled on the rope as hard as he could. Joe popped back to the surface a moment later, but his eyes were now closed and his body was lax.

By now, Adam and Mr. Booth were in the shallows, reaching out to complete the rescue, both hoping that they were in time. Rose was still and silent, her lips slightly blue. The anxious father scooped her into his arms and fled up the bank, heading towards where the doctor was working on Jeff. Adam pulled Joe onto the bank, nodding his thanks as Ben came to join him.

Joe was ominously still.

*****

“Can one of you get Doctor Lee?” Paul Martin asked, as he glanced up at the crowd hovering uselessly around him.

“He’s Chinese!” exclaimed one woman in disgust.

“I’m quite well aware of that!” Paul snapped. “But right now, I need another doctor and he’s the only one around!” Paul frequently found himself impatient with the prejudice that abounded in the town towards the Chinese community. People were willing to let them work for them, but not willing to believe that a Chinese doctor might just have some medical knowledge that was useful. Paul often wondered if the ignorant townsfolk thought there was an American doctor in China somewhere, treating the Chinese people.

“I ain’t havin’ no yeller treatin’ my boy!” Jeff Jones’ father snapped.

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes only with great difficulty, Paul decided that there was nothing more he could do right there and then. Nobody was willing to get the Chinese doctor and with three possible drownings on his hands, Paul didn’t have time to argue with anyone. He turned his attention back to the young boy he was treating and was gratified to see that his eyes were open. Hunting for his stethoscope, Paul fitted the unwieldy tubes into his ears and listened to the boy’s chest. It sounded clear.

“Take him home and put him to bed,” Paul told Jones. “Keep him warm and well fed. If he takes a turn for the worse, send for me. Otherwise, keep him in bed for a day or two and he should be fine.”

As the Jones family walked away, father carrying Jeff, Booth rushed up with Rose in his arms. A cry of alarm arose from the watching crowd and Paul wished they would all go away and leave him alone to work. But the women and girls pushing to the front could be excused since Rose was their daughter and sister.

At once, Paul realized that Rose wasn’t breathing. He didn’t know how long she had been like that, but he started resuscitation at once. Paul didn’t hold out much hope for the child’s chances – artificial respiration generally failed, but he had to give it a try.

There was silence as Paul began to work the child’s arms. Most people had no idea what he was trying to accomplish with those odd movements and one or two even muttered that he should be doing something worthwhile – like giving the child some medicine. Paul ignored them all, as he ignored the sweat beginning to bead his brow. Under his fingers, he could feel Rose’s pulse fluttering and while he could feel it, he wouldn’t stop what he was doing.

With an unexpected suddenness, Rose drew in a breath and coughed. Paul hastily turned her onto her side as she began to gag and a huge quantity of dirty water gushed from her mouth. There were cries of relief and horror, but as Rose opened her eyes and began to cry, a ragged cheer went up.

“Will she be all right, doctor?” asked Mrs. Booth, as she knelt by Rose, drawing the little girl into her embrace, heedless of the soaking clothes.

“I think so,” Paul replied. “I’d like you to take her down to my office and my nurse will keep an eye on her until I can get down there and examine her more closely. I’d like her to spend the night there, too, just to be safe.”

“Of course, anything you like,” Mrs. Booth agreed.

Mr. Booth picked Rose up again and Martha helped her mother to her feet. As the family began to walk away, Martha hesitated and looked around. “Where’s Joe?” she asked.

Not knowing the answer to that, Paul kept quiet. He hoped that Joe would be along any moment. In fact, he was counting on it, because if Joe didn’t appear very soon, Paul would be forced to face the disquieting fact that Joe had not survived his dip in the river, and Paul was sure that that was something he never wanted to face.

“Here come the Cartwrights!” cried a voice and relief broke on Martha’s face. She hurried after her family and Paul was relieved that he didn’t have to tell her that Joe might be in the same condition as her sister had been, and the chances of him surviving were even slimmer than Rose’s had been.

Taking a deep breath, Paul braced himself for what he might have to face.

*****

“He’s so cold,” Ben muttered anxiously as he and Adam carried Joe slung between them. His youngest son was breathing heavily, his eyes still closed. Joe had vomited up rather a lot of muddy water immediately after being pulled from the river and had not stirred since.

“That water was cold,” Adam panted, feelingly. His legs felt numb after only a few moments of immersion. He saw with relief that they were nearing the crowd of people that stood huddled round the doctor. He knelt and carefully laid Joe’s head on the ground.

It was with relief that Paul saw that Joe was breathing. He quickly examined Joe, seeing the torn pants and myriad grazes on the young man’s legs. Joe’s right wrist was swollen and misshapen. “Let’s get him to my office,” Paul suggested. He would do a more thorough examination there, but for the moment, Joe was stable.

*****

The doctor’s office was pandemonium. The Booth family was there in their entirety and Rose was no awake and sobbing piteously. Various female voices soothed her while Mr. Booth was striding around anxiously, muttering to himself. Paul’s nurse, Mrs. Robbins, was trying to persuade the Booth daughters to leave the small treatment room, but so far was having no effect.

Sighing, for he was already feeling strained, Paul wondered how on earth he was going to get rid of the families while he treated the injured. He knew that Ben would refuse to leave and quite likely so would several of the Booths. But there simply wasn’t enough room for everyone in the treatment room and Paul didn’t have the spare energy to deal with everyone.

“Ben and Mrs. Booth can stay,” he announced, in tones that brooked no argument. “Everyone else will have to either go home or wait outside.” He gestured to a broad couch against the wall. “Put Joe there, please.” He turned an expectant gaze on everyone and they bowed to the inevitable and shuffled outside, casting anxious glances over their shoulders as they did so. Paul shut the door firmly behind them.

All the way up to his office, Paul had been wondering which patient should get his attention first. Rose had not been breathing, but appeared to be having no difficulty in that respect at the moment. She was young and a girl and Paul’s chivalrous nature suggested to him that she should be seen first. Yet Joe was injured and had yet to regain consciousness. Not for the first time, Paul wished there was another doctor in town that he could call upon.

In the end, after what seemed like hours of internal debate to Paul, but which in fact was mere seconds, he opted to examine Rose first. After all, she was awake and Joe might require quite some time spent on him.

Now that the cluster of semi-hysterical sisters had been removed, Rose was calming down. With Mrs. Booth’s help, Paul soon got her calmed down enough that he could listen to her chest and take her pulse. The pulse was still fast, but that didn’t worry Paul. Rose’s lungs sounded congested and Paul feared that she had inhaled a lot of water.

“Mrs. Booth, we’re going to put Rose to bed upstairs,” Paul explained. “Mrs. Robbins is going to keep an eye on her and I’ll be up to see her again a bit later on, all right? Try to keep her quiet. I’ll give her something to help her sleep.”

“Rose is going to be all right, isn’t she, Doctor?” Mrs. Booth begged.

“I hope so,” Paul replied. “She wasn’t breathing when she came out of the water and I’m afraid that she probably inhaled some water and there’s a chance that she’ll develop pneumonia. But hopefully, we’ll be able to prevent that.” Paul patted the distraught woman’s hand. “She’s young and strong. Thanks to Joe, Rose has a chance.”

Reminded of the young man who had saved her daughter’s life, Mrs. Booth looked across the room to where Ben knelt by the couch and held Joe’s uninjured hand. “Is he going to be all right?” she asked, quietly.

“I haven’t really had a chance to examine him yet,” Paul replied evasively. “Now, let’s get this medicine into Rose. I’m afraid it isn’t very nice tasting.”

*****

It wasn’t long after that before Joe was stripped of his wet clothes and warmly wrapped in blankets. Paul carefully set his broken wrist and cleaned up the many cuts and grazes Joe had. The young man had regained consciousness before Paul started working on him, which was a relief for Ben. He had feared that Joe would never wake up. However, Joe was unresponsive and his teeth chattered convulsively.

“How’s he doing?” Ben asked in a low voice, as Paul joined him on the other side of the room.

“Not good,” Paul responded. “He’s having trouble breathing and I had the nasty feeling he breathed in some of that water.” He met Ben’s gaze. “It was pretty muddy and you know what dirty water can mean, Ben.”

“Please no,” Ben whispered. Cholera was a dreadful disease. Ben didn’t think he could face the prospect of Joe contracting cholera.

“I hope it won’t come to that,” Paul confessed. “I have no way to predict it. But I am pretty sure Joe is developing pneumonia. His lungs are very congested and he’s wheezing quite audibly.”

Ben turned tortured eyes upon his youngest son. He would gladly have changed places with Joe in that instant to save his son the suffering he knew was coming. “Will he survive?” Ben asked.

“I hope so,” Paul replied, as steadily as he could. “I’ll do everything I can, Ben. And Joe is young and strong.” He placed a hand comfortingly on his friend’s shoulder. “The odds are in his favor.”

*****

It was a busy night for Paul. He divided his time between Rose and Joe, keeping a close eye on them both, listening anxiously to their chests for sounds of pneumonia. By morning, he knew that Rose had somehow managed to escape it, although he had no idea why. Rose had come very close to drowning and Paul was grateful that he had been able to save her at all. He was thankful to be able to send her home the next day, seemingly no worse for wear.

Joe was a different matter. His breathing continued to worsen during the night and as he warmed up, his temperature began to climb. The grazes on his body started to look red and inflamed, his eye, where it had been hit by the rope, turned some very ugly colors and Paul knew that he had picked up a generalized infection as well as the pneumonia. He dosed Joe with everything he could think of, and washed the grazes again in case any small particle of dirt had been missed the first time. And still Joe’s temperature climbed.

During the morning, Adam and Hoss came back to the surgery. Paul had gone to lie down and get some much needed sleep and Adam finally bullied Ben into going to the hotel to get some rest himself. Ben was exhausted and Adam didn’t want him to become sick either. Hoss went with Ben to ensure that he had something to eat and Adam sat by Joe’s bed.

“You’ve got to fight, little brother,” he coaxed. “You can’t let this beat you.” He took the now-warm cloth from Joe’s head and changed it for a wet, cool one. “You and Martha have a lot to talk about. She’s a really nice girl, Joe.”

On the bed, Joe stirred restlessly. He flailed his injured arm around and gasped loudly. Adam wondered if he was reliving the rescue. He gently caught the limb and tucked it back under the blanket. “It’s all right, Joe,” he soothed. “Jeff and Rose are just fine. And you’re going to be just fine, too. Rest and you’ll soon feel better.” An incoherent moan was his only reply.

Nothing changed as the day wore on. Joe had brief periods of deeper sleep, where his body was still and he got some much needed rest, but generally he was restless, fretting away his strength in useless movements. His fever didn’t climb, but it didn’t decrease, either. He developed a wet, hacking cough which left him gasping for breath after each bout. His eyes opened frequently, but they were glazed and unseeing. It was very unnerving.

It was early evening before Ben returned. He had, much to his own surprise, slept deeply for several hours. Now, he was ready to resume his vigil and hurried to sit by Joe again. “How is he?” he asked.

“Ain’t doin’ too good,” Hoss replied gloomily. “We jist cain’t git his fever broke no how.” Hoss sounded depressed, which was unusual for him. He was normally the one with the unshakeable faith in Joe’s ability to shake off whichever disaster had laid his younger brother low.

“He’s no worse,” Adam added, feeling that Ben didn’t need more bad news. He gave Hoss a sharp look that went unnoticed by the big man.

“You two go and get something to eat and some sleep,” Ben ordered. “You need it, just like I did. I’ll sit with Joe now.” He reached out to change the cloth on Joe’s head and brushed back the damp curls as he did so. It was a gesture he had made all Joe’s life and it spoke to Adam of love and caring. He placed his hand briefly on Ben’s shoulder before he went to the door. Perhaps Joe would be better in the morning.

*****

The lamps were lit and cast a soft, warm glow over the room. Paul Martin had been called out to an emergency and Ben was on his own with Joe. Mrs. Robbins had gone home earlier. Ben didn’t know what time it was; time was irrelevant.

So he was surprised to hear a soft knock on the door to the surgery about 10pm. Rising stiffly, Ben went to answer it, reminding himself that he had to get up and stretch his legs regularly. Opening the door, he was surprised to see Mr. Booth standing there.

“Hello,” he said, warmly. “Paul isn’t here, I’m afraid. He went out to Milt Jennings’ place. Milt had a bad fall. I don’t think he’ll be long. Is Rose all right?” This last was added with a touch of growing anxiety. Had Rose had a relapse?

“Rose is fine,” Booth replied. “I came to see how your son is.” He swallowed. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, of course I don’t mind,” Ben smiled. “Come in.” He closed the door behind his visitor. “Joe is still quite sick,” he went on. “But he hasn’t gotten any worse, so we’re hoping he’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I wanted to thank him for what he did for Rose,” Booth explained, looking down at Joe. It was the first time he had really looked closely at Joe and although Joe was pale and drawn with his illness, Booth could see what attracted Martha to him. Joe was an exceptionally good-looking boy.

“You’re welcome,” Ben replied. “It would have been tragic if anything had happened to Rose.”

“Yes, it would.” Booth suddenly seemed ill at ease and Ben watched as he took a few short steps away from the bed and then turned back. “Mr. Cartwright, I hope you don’t think badly of me that I bring up this subject now, but…” Booth hesitated for an instant and then plunged on. “I was wondering if you would consider a match between my Martha and your son.”

“A match?” Ben echoed. “I don’t think I quite understand.”

“A match – a wedding,” Booth explained. “I have four daughters to provide for and so I don’t have much in the way of a dowry, but I think they would be an excellent match. They already have a taking for each other.”

Taken aback, Ben floundered to find the right words. “Mr. Booth, I really can’t say anything about this,” he stuttered finally. “Its entirely up to Joe to find the girl that he wants to marry and I couldn’t, in all conscience, tell him that I’ve found someone for him.”

Booth straightened to his full height. “Is Martha not good enough for you?” he asked.

“Booth, it’s got nothing to do with that,” Ben replied. “Joe must make his own choice of wife. I won’t do it for him. If he decides that Martha is the one, I’ll be delighted, for she is a lovely girl. But I don’t make that kind of choice for my sons. They must make that choice with the girl in question.”

“I… see.” Booth blushed. “Mr. Cartwright, you must think me a fool.”

“No, not at all,” Ben denied. “Just a loving father. “But why don’t we let Joe and Martha decide this for themselves?”

“Yes, of course. Good evening, sir. I hope Joe is better tomorrow.” Booth excused himself, going outside to lean unsteadily against the wall of the surgery. He hadn’t given up hope of making a match between Joe and Martha. He would just have to take the girl aside and explain that it was her duty to marry Joe. He’d always wanted a rich husband for his daughters. Ben Cartwright’s objections would be swept aside, Booth was sure.

*****

Gradually, over the course of the night, Joe’s natural vitality overcame the pneumonia and by morning, his fever had broken. Joe then fell into a very deep sleep and proceeded to sleep for almost 24 hours straight. When he did awaken, it was to find that Ben was by his side and he had lost two days of his life. He was naturally very weak and hungry and was disgusted when all he was offered to eat was clear broth!

“But I’m hungry!” he protested in a weak voice. “I want real food.”

“This is real food,” Paul retorted in disgust. Joe had a reputation for being an awkward patient when he was on the mend, but Paul hadn’t expected the awkwardness to begin so soon! “If you can manage this, then we’ll see about getting you something more solid for lunch.”

Still looking put out, but recognizing an immovable object when he met it, Joe set about eating the broth. It actually took more out of him than he expected and he was struggling to feed himself by the time he had finished. Feeling triumphant, Joe decided that it would be nice to spend the morning catching up on the news with his family and was horrified to awaken a couple of hours later, not having heard more than the first few words of the conversation.

“You needed the sleep,” Ben assured Joe when he stuttered out an apology. “Don’t worry about it.” Ben smiled. “And you woke up just in time for lunch.”

Smiling back, Joe was anticipating a steak with all the trimmings. He was disappointed once more to find that he had scrambled eggs. However, one look at Ben’s face told him that complaining was not going to change things. He ate it without a word and was loathe to admit that he had enjoyed it.

Martha appeared during the afternoon. Joe was dozing lightly, but woke when he heard her voice. He greeted her with a smile, which Martha returned, but she was obviously ill at ease throughout the short visit. Joe did his best to make her feel comfortable, but he assumed that being at the bedside of a young man was not something she had had much experience with. Even though Ben lingered at the back of the room to chaperone them, Martha was clearly unhappy. When she left, Joe was puzzled.

“I don’t know why she was so…” Joe paused, not quite sure what the word was.

“This is probably not quite how she imagined the situation to be,” Ben pointed out to him. “Her ideas of a sickroom are most probably confined to what she has read in a novel or experienced with her family. And there really isn’t much romantic about sitting at someone’s bedside and seeing that there’s a basin nearby in case the person is going to throw up.”

Laughing, Joe murmured, “You have such a way with words, Pa.”

Grinning back, Ben was glad his explanation had soothed Joe’s instinctive worries for the moment.

It was just a pity that it had not soothed his own worries.

*****

Joe was moved home the next day and continued to improve, although more slowly than Joe wanted. He tired easily and was disgusted to find that after a week, he was still spending most of each day on the sofa. However, the plus side was that his family had stopped hovering over him all the time and so it happened that he was completely alone in the house when Martha next came to call.

The knock on the door came as a surprise and Joe put down his book and went to answer it. He grinned broadly when he saw Martha standing there, as he had not seen her since the visit at the doctor’s. “Martha! Come on in!” Joe stood back to let her in, his smile dimming as he noticed that she seemed ill at ease.

“How are you feeling, Joe?” Martha asked. She couldn’t meet his eyes and her hands twisted nervously in her lap.

“I’m a lot better,” Joe responded. He frowned slightly. “Martha, is something wrong?”

“No,” Martha replied wretchedly. “Its just – Joe, you could have died saving Rose. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Joe assured her. Somehow, he sensed that that was not what Martha had been going to say. “Is she all right? Pa said he met your mother in town and she said Rose was fine.”

“Oh yes, she’s just fine,” Martha gushed and spent several minutes telling Joe all about Rose’s week.

As the monologue drew to a close, Joe rose from where he was sitting and sat down beside Martha on the sofa. He knew that he shouldn’t sit so close when they had no chaperone, but he had to find out what was wrong. “Martha, something is bothering you,” he coaxed, his voice warm and low. “Tell me about it, please?”

Gulping, Martha looked into Joe’s green eyes and shivered slightly as she saw the concern there for her. Until the previous week, Martha had been completely innocent, not understanding her sexual desires. But a candid talk with her father had left her in no doubt what she had to do, but she wasn’t ready. But her father had told her what he expected her to do and Martha braced herself to do it.

“I… I want you, Joe,” she stuttered and unbuttoned her blouse, her fingers fumbling with a task that she normally performed without thought. Joe sat, frozen. Martha kept her eyes averted as she pulled back the fabric to reveal her creamy underwear. Joe still hadn’t moved. Blushing in shame, Martha remembered her father’s teaching and reached for Joe’s hand, guiding it until it was on her breast.

Only then did Joe react. He jerked his hand back as though he had been burned and Martha began to cry. “What are you doing?” he cried, leaping to his feet. “Martha, do you know what you’re doing?”

“Yes,” she sobbed. She glanced up at him, sitting there with her blouse unbuttoned, not realizing the effect she was having on Joe. “Papa told me I had to do this.”

“Your father…” Joe’s voice trailed off. He couldn’t believe it. “Why?” he cried. “Why?”

Sobbing harder, Martha stumbled through her explanation. “Papa says you’re a perfect match for me. He tried to arrange our marriage with your father last week, but your father said it was up to you to choose. But Papa said I had to make you want to marry me. That I had to get you to… to…” Martha couldn’t go on. It was beyond her to say those words. “And when I knew I was carrying your baby, you would have to marry me.”

“Close your blouse,” Joe commanded, coldly. He was shaken rigid by the news that her father had sought to entrap him into marriage. He could have made love to Martha – could have done so quite easily, for she was a beautiful girl and he was no novice with women. But Joe had been well taught and knew the boundaries – making love to Martha before they were even betrothed was something he could not have done.

“I think you’d better go,” he added, when he saw that Martha was decently covered again. “I don’t think we should see each other again. I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t be right.” He led her to the door. Martha was calmer, but the odd sob still shook her slender frame. “Goodbye.”

“I’m sorry,” Martha whispered and ran across to her buggy. She left the yard at a spanking trot, her face burning with shame. But once she was out of sight, she slowed the horse. She dreaded going home.

*****

“You did the right thing, Joe,” Ben assured him, as he listened to the tale Joe had to tell him. “I can’t understand that man, Booth. I know that arranged marriages are still quite common, especially back east, but they don’t tend to happen out here. I want you boys to have what I had – a marriage based on mutual love and respect.”

“The thing is, Pa,” Joe sighed, looking up to meet his parent’s eyes, “I could easily have fallen in love with Martha. We got on so well. But now, there’s no way I could go back to seeing her.” He shook his head. “Did he really ask you to arrange a marriage?”

“Yes, he did,” Ben responded. “When I said I couldn’t, he grew quite huffy and demanded to know if his daughter wasn’t good enough for you!” It was Ben’s turn to shake his head. “I just don’t understand the man.”

“Neither do I!” Joe agreed, feelingly. “I wish someone else had been here, though.” He had no idea how prophetic his words would turn out to be.

*****

“Hello, Roy, you’re up early,” Ben cried jovially, as he beheld the sheriff of Virginia City on the doorstep. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m lookin’ fer Little Joe,” Roy replied.

“He’s not up yet,” Ben told him, allowing the other man into the house. “What’s wrong? Why do you need to see Joe?”

“Ben, there ain’t no easy way ta tell ya,” Roy sighed. “Martha Booth’s father come ta me last night an’ accused Joe o’ beatin’ and rapin’ Martha.”

“I might have known!” Ben muttered savagely.

“Joe wouldn’ do that!” Hoss insisted.

“No, we know he wouldn’t,” Adam agreed. “But we also know that Martha was out here yesterday afternoon and there was no chaperone. It’s her word against Joe’s and if she was beaten…” Adam let his sentence trail off as a gasp sounded from the stairs.

“I didn’t do it,” Joe declared. He walked unsteadily downstairs. His shirt was neither buttoned nor tucked in and his hair had only received a cursory brush.

“Joe, I gotta take ya in,” Roy reminded him.

“I’m coming too!” Ben gave Roy a hard look. “Let Joe have his breakfast first. He’s been ill.”

“I’ll wait,” Roy said, and sat down while Joe choked down a few mouthfuls of breakfast while Adam and Hoss saddled the horses.

*****

There was no question that Martha had been beaten. Ben looked down at the girl as she lay in the same bed Joe had been in the previous week and mourned the loss of her beauty. Martha’s nose had been badly broken and although Paul had set it carefully, Ben didn’t think it would ever be the same again. And in the meantime, she had two terrible black eyes and numerous cuts and abrasions.

“Has she regained consciousness at all?” Ben asked. His dispassionate tone didn’t reveal the anger that lurked in his soul.

“Briefly,” Paul replied. “But she couldn’t say anything coherent.”

“Was she raped?” Ben asked.

“No,” Paul answered. “There was no sign of anything like that.”

“Can you tell for sure?” Ben enquired, not sure he really wanted to know the ins and outs of this subject, but knowing that everything he could learn would aid him in fighting to prove Joe’s innocence.

“You can tell,” Paul replied briefly. He looked at Ben and saw the signs of strain on his friend’s face. “Ben, I know Joe didn’t do this.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben replied.

“No, you don’t understand,” Paul persisted. “Ben, listen to me, this is important. The bruising shows two quite distinct fist and hand marks. Look.” He moved to Martha’s side and pulled back the blankets covering her arm. “Look.” Paul showed Ben two bruises, very similar in shape and color. “This is the left fist,” Paul explained, bunching his own fist and letting it hover over the outline. “And this is the right.”

“I can see that,” Ben agreed politely. He had no idea where Paul was going with this, but if it was going to help Joe, then he would listen.

“Ben!” Paul was exasperated. “Joe couldn’t have done this! Whoever did this had huge hands – look, much bigger than mine and probably bigger than yours. And far too big for Joe! And besides – Joe’s right wrist is in plaster. He couldn’t make a fist like that because of the plaster over his palm. I deliberately made it big so that Joe wouldn’t be tempted to ride. If he can’t close his fingers, he can’t ride.”

“He used his left hand this morning,” Ben responded, but the grim look was going from his face. “But you’re right, Paul! Have you told Roy?”

“I was on my way there when you arrived,” Paul grinned. “Let’s go.”

*****

They walked right into the middle of a row. Joe was sitting in a cell, still looking pale and tired from the ride in. Adam, Hoss and Roy were all standing outside the cell, their backs to it, as they struggled to keep Booth at bay. Booth was practically foaming at the mouth and every now and then, he would break past one of Joe’s ‘guards’ – usually Roy – and shake the bars. Nobody was left in any doubt that he wanted to shake Joe in the same manner.

“What’s going on here?” Ben demanded and saw the look of relief that crossed Joe’s face.

“Your boy hurt my girl!” Booth shouted, rounding on Ben, who refused to allow himself to be intimidated.

“No he didn’t,” Ben retorted. “Dr Martin can prove that it wasn’t Joe who hurt Martha.”

For a moment, Booth faltered, then his brows drew down again. “He’s saying that because he’s your friend,” Booth accused. “Your son took everything from my daughter. She’ll bear his bastard child! I won’t have her shamed! He’d better do the decent thing and marry her.”

Disgusted, Ben turned away from the irate father. “Roy, Paul can prove that Joe is innocent,” he told the sheriff. “Please open the cell and let Joseph go.”

Quickly, Paul outlined what he had found, explaining it clearly. “Joe, show Roy your hand,” Paul instructed and Joe came over, his fingers curled very slightly over the thick edge of the cast. It was obvious that he could not make a fist with his right hand. “Whoever hit Martha had bigger hands than I do,” Paul went on. He gently took Joe’s left hand and drew it through the bars. “Look; Joe’s hand is smaller than mine.”

“Will ya testify ta that?” Roy demanded.

“Of course,” Paul agreed. “But it won’t come to that, surely?”

“I gotta see the evidence fer maself,” Roy reminded the doctor. “I’ll tell ya once I’ve seen it.” He turned around and fumbled with his keys. “Joe, ya can go ta the hotel till I seen Martha, all right?”

“All right,” Joe agreed, greatly relieved. He had been in this kind of position once before and had almost been found guilty on mostly circumstantial evidence. His greatest fear had been that this would happen again. He took a step towards the open door of the cell.

Smiling at one another, Ben, Adam and Hoss all moved towards the inner office. The sudden movement behind them caught them all by surprise. Booth lunged at Joe, knocking aside Roy Coffee as though he were a child. Paul Martin lunged for Booth, but the blacksmith shook him off as though he were no more than a fly. Joe reeled back across the cell and crashed off the back wall. Booth’s huge hands closed around his throat.

Had Hoss not been there, there might well have been a different outcome. But Hoss was as tall as Booth. He was probably broader across the shoulders, too and his enraged strength would have put a team of oxen to shame. Hoss was not going to stand by and let anyone hurt his little brother. He grabbed Booth by the collar and within moments, they were wrestling each other around the narrow confines of the cell.

Torn between his sons, Ben stood frozen, not sure who to go to first. Joe was lying on the floor, gasping for breath, his throat bearing ugly red marks that would soon turn dark with bruising. Hoss was fighting for Joe’s life and possibly his own.

The sound of a gunshot, ringing as it did in the enclosed space, almost deafened them all. Booth stopped suddenly and then slumped to the floor. Hoss let go of the man and watched him drop at his feet. The tableau remained frozen for several long seconds, then Hoss broke the spell. He took a step, staggered and then went down on one knee by Joe. “Ya all right, Shortshanks?” he gasped.

Unable to speak, Joe just nodded. He hurt all across his back where he had hit the wall and his broken wrist was throbbing away, but he was alive and for a few seconds, he had been sure that he was going to die. Joe longed to ask Hoss if he was all right, but the words refused to leave his swollen, aching throat.

“Booth’s dead.” Paul did not sound upset. He left the blacksmith and moved to join the Cartwrights. Ben was slightly surprised to find himself kneeling between Joe and Hoss, with Adam hovering at his shoulder. When had they moved? “Hoss, are you all right?”

“Don’ worry ‘bout me, doc,” Hoss panted. “I’s jist winded.” He nodded towards Joe. “Jist look after ma little brother.”

It didn’t take long to determine that Joe was just bruised. Only then did Paul admit that he was rather shaken. Roy Coffee, who had fired the fatal shot, wouldn’t even admit that much. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “Now, doc, show me your evidence.”

Leaving Joe to rest for a short while longer on the bunk in the cell with Adam looking after him, Ben, Hoss, Roy and Paul went across to see Martha. The young woman was conscious and Paul gently examined her again, talking reassuringly to her. And at last, they got the story straight.

“Papa beat me because I couldn’t get Joe to… to…” Martha paused to swallow. “To treat me like his wife,” she finally concluded and this, along with what Joe had told them, convinced Roy that Joe was innocent. “He said that he would make Joe marry me one way or another and then… then he beat me!” Martha broke down into frightened, heart-broken sobs.

“Best get Mrs. Booth,” Ben suggested to Roy in an undertone. “She’ll need to know what happened, but nobody else does.”

“I don’ think we’ll be able ta keep this a secret,” Roy remarked, and he was proved right. The news leaked out despite everything Roy could do to prevent it. “Ben, take yer boy home.”

Ben was glad to oblige.

*****

Booth’s death was the seven day wonder in town. Joe was quite glad that he wasn’t well enough to ride in. His journey to town, the ordeal in the jail and then the journey home had depleted his strength and he was back to spending most of his days on the sofa.

As evening fell as few days later, Ben came upon Joe standing outside by the corral. He and Cochise had obviously been visiting, as the pinto gelding was only a few steps away from Joe. Joe was looking down at his right hand, something he had been doing a lot over the last few days. Ben didn’t say anything. He just leaned his arms against the top rail of the corral and petted Cochise when the horse came over.

“Why couldn’t he just let nature run its course?” Joe asked at length.

“I don’t really know,” Ben replied. “Roy told me that Mrs. Booth had been made to marry her husband, and offered no choice in the matter. She was lucky and the match worked out. Booth seemed to assume that that was the best way to ensure his daughters married well. You seemed the most suitable ‘catch’. Martha had raved about how good looking you are and Booth saw that we have money and decided that Martha should marry you.”

“He might have got his wish if he hadn’t interfered,” Joe remarked. Ben made a moue with his mouth. He had known that Joe was fond of Martha, but this was the second time he had alluded to his feelings being strong.

“It’s not too late if that’s what you want,” he ventured.

Sighing, Joe shrugged. “I don’t know if it is, Pa,” he admitted. “But I really liked her.” There was silence between them again. Then Joe shook himself. “It’s in the past,” he declared. “And that’s where it’s going to remain. There’s too much history between Martha and I for it ever to work. Better to leave things as they are.”

“I think that’s wise, son,” Ben agreed. He put his arm round Joe’s shoulders and drew him back to the house.

“Besides,” Joe added, feeling that they had been solemn long enough, “there’s plenty more fish in the sea.”

***End***

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