A Long Shadow (by Rona)

Summary:  A What Happened Next for the Episode “Emily”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9180


 

 

“Joe?” Ben said, gently. His son lifted his chin from his chest and blinked tiredly at Ben. “We’re home.” He slid his arm under Joe’s left arm to assist his son from the buggy. On the other side of Joe, Doc Martin offered his assistance, too.

Utterly weary, Joe didn’t object when his brother Hoss came over to help him into the house. Candy, their foreman, went before them, opening the doors. Paul Martin smiled to himself as he followed the small procession. One thing you could rely on with the Cartwrights; they were always there for each other.

“Complete bed rest for two days, Joe,” Paul ordered as Ben and Hoss helped Joe back into bed. “And then I’ll come and see how you are.”

“All right,” Joe nodded, tiredly. He was sore and exhausted and he just wanted to sleep. He was quite grateful to feel a needle slide into his flesh and leave behind some painkiller. He was asleep in moments.

Ben ushered the others out and paused for a moment, looking at his son before he closed the door quietly. It had been an exhausting morning for Joe, emotionally as well as physically. Joe had been shot a couple of days before, and then almost framed for murder. That morning, he had been cleared, but Ben knew it would take Joe some time to get over this. The person who had framed him with her lies had been a woman Joe had once intended to marry. Emily McPhail, nee Anderson, had appeared in Virginia City and encouraged Joe, not telling him that she was married. Nor had the lies stopped there. She had told her husband, a deputy marshal, that Joe had asked her to run away with him to live in South America. This lie was the one that had put Joe in the frame for robbery and murder. Emily had, in the end, admitted her lies, but by then, Joe had been proved innocent by other means. Ben felt a deep, abiding anger for Emily and fervently hoped he would never see her again.

Downstairs, Marshal Calhoun was waiting for Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m glad everything has been cleared up,” he said. “I’ll be heading back to town now.”

“Are you and McPhail staying on in Virginia City?” Ben asked, shaking the marshal’s hand.

“For the time being, yes,” Calhoun answered. “Why?”

“I was just wondering,” Ben replied, evasively. His heart cried out in protest, though. He hoped that McPhail would throw his worthless wife out onto the street, but judging by the scene he had witnessed as they rode away from where Joe had been shot, there wasn’t much hope of that. He knew how hard it would be for Joe to see Emily going about the town as though nothing had happened. “Goodbye, Marshal and thank you.”

Closing the door, Ben turned to look at Candy and Hoss. Hoss’ blue eyes were as troubled as Ben’s. “She ain’t gonna leave, is she, Pa?” he asked.

“No, son, I don’t think she’s gonna leave,” Ben replied, heavily. His gaze drifted to the stairs, as though he could see Joe through the roof.

“It’s gonna be tough on Joe,” Candy observed.

“Mighty tough,” Hoss sighed.

*****

It was far easier than any of them had expected to keep Joe in bed for the next couple of days. Joe had been badly injured, and although the trip to the site of the shooting had been sanctioned and supervised by the doctor, it had been too much for Joe’s first outing. He slept for a good part of the remainder of that day, and was quiet during his two days of bed rest. Ben was deeply worried.

Lying in his bed, Joe’s thoughts were of Emily. He had loved her deeply and the fact that she had omitted to tell him that she was married, and then wanted him to run away with her, hurt him very badly. Joe berated himself for a fool, for having his head turned by a pretty face. He chided himself for falling in love too easily, before he really knew Emily. For Joe could see, only too well, that had he married her, he might have been in Wade McPhail’s shoes, and wondering if his wife was faithful to him.

Marriage was something that Joe didn’t take lightly. He had been engaged a few times and in love more times than he could count. Only once had he actually said the vows to a girl, and he had been quite relieved when she had backed out. Joe hadn’t loved Tess; he had felt sorry for her and guilty because his bullet had ricocheted and blinded her. Joe had been prepared to be her eyes for the rest of her life. He liked Tess a lot, but he hadn’t loved her, although at the time he had convinced himself that he did. Emily’s betrayal had shaken his belief in his instincts and shaken his belief in love. Perhaps the gossips were right; perhaps he did love too easily.

Suspecting Joe’s thoughts, although not knowing them for sure, his family gave Joe space but let him know they were there if he wanted to talk. Joe did want to talk; but he didn’t have a clue what to say. Every thought began and ended the same way; I was a fool. He didn’t think his family needed him to say that. It was patently obvious.

*****

“Ready ta git up, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked cheerfully as he came into Joe’s bedroom. Ben had helped Joe dress a short while before, but Hoss had hoped a few minutes alone might persuade Joe to open up to him.

“I guess so,” Joe replied, and smiled. It lacked his usual sparkle.

“Come on then,” Hoss smiled, pretending he didn’t notice how subdued Joe was. He put his arm under Joe’s left arm and pulled. Joe rose easily to his feet and rested against Hoss for a moment as he tried out his legs. They felt remarkably weak, but he had lost a lot of blood and been confined to bed. “All right?” Hoss asked, checking that Joe’s sling was comfortable on his right arm. “Ya ain’t in any pain, are ya?”

“No, I’m all right,” Joe assured him. “As all right as I can be for now.”

“What do that mean?” Hoss asked, turning towards Joe.

“Oh, nothing,” Joe evaded, but Hoss wasn’t fooled.

“Joe, don’t give me that,” he said in disgust. “I know ya well enough ta know that there’s somethin’ goin’ on in that mind of yers. Whyn’t ya tell me?”

“I’d have thought you already knew,” Joe replied, seriously. “You all know I made a fool of myself with Emily. That night in town, when Wade and I fought, you couldn’t say anything to me when Wade told me Emily was his wife. You were thinking what I fool I’d been, and I can’t blame you for that. I was a fool, Hoss. I was a fool to fall in love with her in Monterey and I was a bigger fool to fall in love with her all over again in the street that morning. That’s what you’ve all been thinking, isn’t it?”

After looking at Joe for a long moment, Hoss sat him back down on the edge of the bed. “Now ya listen ta me, Joe,” he began. “I didn’t say nuthin’ in town that night, cos I know ya well enough ta know ya ain’t gonna go an’ steal another man’s wife! It was as plain as the nose on yer face that ya didn’ know Emily was married! Anyone what says any different don’ know ya! An’ we knew ya wouldn’ run off with another man’s wife! An’ ya certainly wouldn’ rob an’ murder ta do so! The only person as thinks yer a fool is ya!”

Hoss’ declaration of love and trust touched Joe and the tears glittered in his eyes. “But I do still love her, Hoss,” Joe admitted in a low voice. “If that doesn’t make me a fool, what does?”

“Ya cain’t help yer feelin’s,” Hoss told Joe gently. “Don’ cha think I felt the same when you an’ Adam showed me what Helen Layton was really like? I loved her, Joe. An’ I loved Regan the same way. I didn’ stop lovin’ them right off cos I discovered they wasn’t who I thought they was. It took time. Ya can love someone an’ not like them, ya know. Love an’ like ain’t the same thing. Right now, ya still love Emily – but think, Joe. Is the Emily ya love a real person? Or is she someone from yer memory that time has changed ta be better’n she really was?”

This was a new thought for Joe and he gazed at Hoss as he tried to absorb it. Was it absolution come too cheaply? Was Hoss just saying this to make him feel better? “I fall in love too easily,” Joe commented bitterly.

“Maybe ya jist think ya fall in love too easily,” Hoss corrected him gently. “But love ain’t ever a bad thing, Joe, unless ya use it to hurt another, an’ ya ain’t able ta do that. Don’ change none, little brother, cos yer a pretty fine person jist like ya are.”

A great wave of relief and gratitude broke over Joe at his brother’s words. Hoss loved Joe, but he was completely honest and if he thought Joe had been a fool, he’d have said so. All too often, Hoss was over-looked or suffered in comparison to his younger, louder, better-looking brother, but he didn’t grudge Joe the limelight. It wasn’t Hoss’ natural habitat, as it was Joe’s. But Hoss was by no means the simpleton that many people expected by his outer packaging. His was the profound wisdom of a man in tune with nature. “Thank you,” Joe whispered and brushed a sleeve across his eyes.

“Yer welcome,” Hoss replied. “Ya ready ta go downstairs now?”

“I’m ready,” Joe replied and allowed Hoss to help him up once more. This time, he stood more erect and his head was held high. Hoss smiled as he saw the change in posture from a few minutes before. This was the Joe he knew and loved.

“Let’s go then,” Hoss agreed and they walked towards the door.

*****

“So what’s the verdict in town?” Joe asked, as Hoss came to join them at the table for supper a few nights later.

Helping himself from the plates and bowls before him, Hoss sighed. “About what ya’d expect,” he replied. “Emily ain’t bein’ looked on too favorable. Wade seems ta have had a bit more sympathy till everyone realize that he weren’t gonna throw her out.” He applied himself to his food.

“And?” Joe prompted as he scooped up some of his own supper. Ben had cut Joe’s food up for him without being asked, and Joe smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Pa.” He glanced back at Hoss, who seemed to be taking an inordinately long time to chew his first mouthful. “What are they saying about me? You might as well tell me now, Hoss, because I’ll hear as soon as I’m able to go into town.”

Casting a rueful glance at their father, Hoss swallowed unhappily. “Some folks feels bad fer ya, Joe,” he began. “But there’s some – not many – what think ya were plannin’ ta run off with Emily. They think yer a cad, Joe.”

Dropping his head over his plate, Joe told himself that that was exactly what he had expected to hear about himself. It didn’t make the hearing of it any easier. Joe had always been popular in town and his friendly personality and easy, natural charm had won him many friends. But now it sounded as though the few who did not like him were having a field day with his reputation.

A hand squeezed his arm sympathetically and Joe looked up to meet Ben’s worried brown eyes. He smiled, but it wasn’t convincing. “I’m all right,” he asserted.

“It’ll blow over,” Ben predicted. “Tomorrow or the next day there’ll be some new scandal to divert everyone’s attention away from you.”

It would’ve been churlish of Joe to scorn the comfort his father was offering. “Yes, of course,” he agreed. But a small voice inside reminded him that there were a few in Virginia City who loved seeing the Cartwrights brought low and who would be loath to let anyone forget Joe’s part in this, innocent though it had been. And Joe’s love for Emily began to curl up and die with this realization.

*****

It took Joe a few weeks to get his strength back and he was quite willing, for once, to do as the doctor ordered and take things slowly. By the time he was venturing into town to collect supplies with Hoss, over two months had passed since the shooting.

“I don’t want to go, Pa,” Joe pleaded as Ben stood by the wagon.

“Whether you want to or not, young man, you are going!” Ben decreed. His face was stern. “You’ve got to go into town sometime, Joe, and the longer you leave it the harder it’ll be. Hoss can’t manage these supplies alone and you are going in to help him. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied, sulkily. He climbed onto the wagon seat where Hoss was waiting patiently for him, trying to pretend that he hadn’t heard the altercation between father and brother.

“Don’t overdo it!” Ben called after them as the wagon began to move. “Remember you’ve been sick!”

“I can’t win,” Joe grumbled to Hoss. “First he tells me to help you, then he tells me not to overdo it! I wish he’d make up his mind!”

“I’ll keep ma eye on ya,” Hoss assured him placidly. “But Pa’s right, ya know; the longer ya put off goin’ inta town, the harder it’ll be.”

“I had noticed,” Joe muttered and Hoss glanced at his younger brother, seeing his set, white face and the tension that blazed from every pore of his body.

“It’ll be all right,” he predicted, but that didn’t give Joe any comfort at all.

*****

Like many ordeals, the thought was worse than the actual event. There were a few cold stares, but a lot of people came up to Joe, expressing their delight at his recovery. Gradually, Joe began to relax and Hoss hid a smile as he saw his gregarious younger brother chatting to a young lady. However, he made Joe help him with some of the supplies, while making sure Joe didn’t over-tax his healing shoulder. “How about a beer?” he suggested, when the last of the supplies was loaded.

“Why not?” agreed Joe and they went across to the saloon.

There was a momentary hush as the brothers went in, and Joe tensed, but after that moment, conversation started up again and Joe appeared to be forgotten. He relaxed and leant against the bar. Hoss ordered two beers and had taken only one sip of his when he put it down on the bar with a bang. “Dadburnit!” he exclaimed in annoyance. “I done forgot somethin’. Ya stay here, Joe, an’ I’ll be right back.”

“Want me to come with you?” Joe asked, feeling that he ought to volunteer, but not really wanting to do any more lifting that day. The muscles in his shoulder were taking their own sweet time to heal and Joe could feel them aching steadily.

“Na, I think I can mange,” Hoss assured him. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He hurried out of the door. Joe idly wondered if Hoss had forgotten his usual dime’s worth of sweets.

“Better watch out, boys,” said a voice from somewhere behind Joe, rather more loudly than necessary. “Joe Cartwright’s in town. You’d better hurry home ta keep an eye on your wives!”

Gritting his teeth, Joe tried to pretend that he hadn’t heard the voice. He had recognized it immediately; Bert Hastings had once worked for the Cartwrights, but he had been sacked for stealing. Since then, he had done odd jobs here and there and dedicated his time to making Joe’s life a misery. Quite why he had singled Joe out was a mystery that they had never been able to answer. In truth, Hastings was jealous of Joe and took great delight in trying to bring the young cowboy down a peg or two. This situation with Emily was tailor-made for his nefarious needs.

“Leave him alone,” objected Cosmo, the barman. He cast an uneasy glance at Joe’s set face.

“Why should I?” Hastings challenged, and stepped up beside Joe. “He tried to steal the deputy marshal’s wife an’ the money an’ if’n he hadn’t been a Cartwright, he’d a bin hanged like anyone else!”

Gritting his teeth even harder, Joe fought the impulse to bury his fist in Hastings’ face. He knew he was in no fit state to fight anyone, no matter the provocation. He kept his eyes fixed on his beer, hoping that someone he knew would stand up for him. But none of the patrons of the saloon was a particular friend of Joe’s and nobody spoke up in his defense.

“What’re you doin’ here, Cartwright?” Hastings asked. “Ain’t no wives in here for you ta steal.” He laughed uproariously at his own joke and several voices joined in. Joe didn’t reply.

His natural belligerence heightened by the drink and the audience, Hastings wouldn’t give up. He grabbed Joe by the left shoulder and swung him around, hanging on to Joe’s jacket to prevent the other man walking away. “I asked you a question, Cartwright,” he snarled, breathing beery fumes into Joe’s face.

“Back off!” Joe told him. He tried to shrug Hastings’ hand off his jacket, but the other man was as tall as Hoss and although not quite as broad, could easily make two of Joe.

“Back off?” Hastings repeated incredulously. He shook Joe. “D’you hear that, boys? This little wretch had the nerve ta tell me ta back off! I wasn’t the one trying ta steal someone else’s wife, Cartwright.” He shook Joe again for good measure.

By now, Joe’s blood was really up, but he was managing to hang onto his temper only by the thinnest of margins. He wished Hoss would hurry up and come back from wherever it was he had gone. “Get your hands off me,” Joe warned, quietly.

“I don’t think so,” Hastings replied. He turned, pushing Joe between himself and the bar. He shoved Joe hard against the bar. “You ain’t got no call ta tell me what ta do, Cartwright! I ain’t no wife-stealer.” He shoved Joe against the bar again, harder this time. A jolt of pain shot through Joe’s back.

By now, Hastings’ drunken companions were egging him on, and he needed very little encouragement. “We don’t stand for no wife-stealers in this town!” he cried. “I’ll show you what we do ta wife-stealers!” He drew back his fist and crashed it into Joe’s stomach.

There was no chance for Joe to retaliate. He doubled over and received another punch to the jaw, snapping him back upright and forcing him onto his back on the polished surface of the bar. Joe felt pain shoot through his shoulder.

Next moment, Hastings pulled Joe back to the floor and punched him again and again and again. Joe could barely breathe and it seemed to him that there was a lot of noise in the saloon. Another blow sent him spinning across the room and over the top of a table to crash painfully to the floor. At that point, Joe lost consciousness.

*****

“Joe? Can ya hear me, boy?” Hoss wiped the wet rag over Joe’s face again and was rewarded with a groan. “Come on, little brother, wake up,” Hoss coaxed.

Slowly, Joe opened his eyes. He hurt all over, and for a moment, he couldn’t remember why. Hoss’ concerned blue eyes looked down at him and Joe groaned again. “What happened?” he mumbled.

“Jist take it easy,” Hoss advised him. “The doc’ll be here soon. Ya were in a fight, Joe. D’you remember?”

The memory came back all of a sudden and Joe groaned again. “Hastings,” he muttered. He wondered why his words were slurred and gingerly raised his hand to touch his torn, swollen and bleeding lip. “Where is he?”

“Roy’s got him locked up tight down the jail,” Hoss replied, relieved that Joe seemed to remember. His brother’s face was a mass of swelling, and blood trickled persistently from a cut by his left ear. “Cosmo told us Hastings started the trouble.” Hoss’ heart had missed a beat as he came back into the bar in time to see Joe flying across the room and landing, face down and unmoving, on the floor. Luckily for Hastings, Roy Coffee, the sheriff, had come in then, too, or Hoss might well have killed the other man with his bare hands. “Cosmo got Roy.”

“Good,” Joe grunted, knowing that Hoss wanted him to stay awake at least until the doctor arrived. “Thanks.” He just wished Cosmo had managed to fetch Roy a little sooner.

The few minutes that it took Dr Martin to arrive saw Joe’s head clear a good bit. Because of Hoss’ insistence, Joe was still flat on his back on the floor, but his aches had died back to a few specific places, such as his stomach, face and shoulder. He seldom had had reason to be glad of the doctor’s arrival, but he was relieved to see him this time.  Sure enough, it only took the doctor a few more minutes to ascertain that Joe was badly bruised, but had broken nothing.

“But don’t go getting into any more fights,” Paul warned as Hoss helped Joe to his feet. “Your shoulder came out of this one all right, but I can’t guarantee it will again. It needs another month of light work before its back to anywhere near normal, Joe.”

“I didn’t exactly start this one, Doc,” Joe protested. “And I didn’t even throw a punch! But I’ll do my best to accommodate you, I promise.”

“Go home and rest,” Paul smiled.

*****

Ben’s reaction was everything Joe had expected and he let Hoss do most of the talking as he was assisted inside and made to rest on the sofa, as though he was an invalid, Joe thought with amusement. He wouldn’t have admitted under torture that he was hurting, but Ben was adept at reading Joe’s expressions and body language and knew that his son was sore.

As Hoss went off to unload the supplies, Ben sat on the table opposite Joe and looked at him closely. “I’m all right, Pa,” Joe assured him once more.

“I’m glad, son,” Ben replied, truthfully. “But I’m sorry this happened. I didn’t think there would be anything like this.”

Making a face, Joe admitted, “Neither did I. Bert Hastings has always had it in for me, Pa. Maybe it was foolish of us to have gone to the saloon, but there hadn’t been any trouble up until then.”

“Well, you were going to go to the saloon at some point,” Ben replied, philosophically. “I’m just glad it wasn’t any worse than it is, Joe.” He patted Joe’s hand and they smiled at one another. “Did you see…?”

“Emily and Wade?” Joe asked. “No, luckily. I don’t think I could’ve faced either of them. But I suppose we’ll meet up sooner or later.”

“Well, let’s just hope it’s later,” Ben suggested and Joe nodded. The later the better as far as he was concerned and he hoped it might be never.

*****

By the time another month had gone by, Joe felt that he was as fit as ever. His problems with Emily seemed to have blown over, as Ben had predicted. Although Joe had seen Emily in town, he had never been close enough to her to speak to her and he was more than content to keep it that way. He couldn’t understand now how he had ever thought he could love her.

There had been an awkward encounter with Wade in the store one afternoon. The store had, of course, been busy that day and everyone in the store had eavesdropped with impunity as Joe and Wade made stilted conversation as the store keeper took his own sweet time filling Joe’s order for more coffee. It was all hideously embarrassing, and Joe had been pleased to see that Wade looked as awkward as he felt.

One of the witnesses to the meeting had been Bert Hastings, who had looked at Joe malevolently, but had said nothing, obvious feeling constrained by the presence of the deputy marshal. Wade was something of an object of pity in the town, but as time passed, most people were able to see beyond this and realized that he was an able deputy.

But Hastings wasn’t prepared to ‘live and let live’ as far as Joe was concerned. He had spent a few days in jail after his fight with Joe and was warned as to his future conduct. It was another black mark to chalk against Joe’s name and Hastings could hardly wait to pay Joe back for it.

*****

The inevitable meeting with Emily happened at, of all inauspicious places, the church. Joe had fidgeted his way through the service in his usual fashion, causing Ben to wonder if Joe would ever be able to just sit still. As they moved down the aisle to leave, Joe caught a glimpse of Emily and Wade on the other side of the church. Joe deliberately turned his head to avoid catching her eye.

Behind him, Ben stopped to speak to someone and Hoss was already deep in conversation with the parson about something. Candy patted Joe on the arm as he stopped to chat to someone he knew. Not really wanting to talk to anyone, Joe drifted over to where the buggy was hitched. He wondered how long the others would be.

“Hello, Joe,” said a soft voice from behind him and Joe stiffened. Turning slowly, he wasn’t surprised to see it was Emily.

“Emily,” he replied and tipped the edge of his hat to her.

“You’re looking well,” Emily persisted, before Joe could turn away from her, as he had intended to do.

“I am well,” Joe replied, his tone icy and controlled. “Goodbye.”

“Don’t be like that, Joe,” Emily protested. “Why can’t we be friends? I still love you.” She reached out her hand to put it on his sleeve and Joe took a step back.

“No, you don’t,” Joe replied. “You don’t love me and I most certainly don’t love you! Go away, Emily. This is what started the trouble the last time and I almost died because of it. Go away!” This time, he turned his back and took a couple of steps away from her. He discovered that he was trembling. After a moment, he heard the rustle of silk as Emily walked away.

Putting the buggy horses between himself and the spectators, Joe leant against a tree and felt sick. Emily would never change, he realized and didn’t envy Wade in the slightest.

“What’s the matter, Cartwright?” hissed a voice. “Too many people here for ya ta risk kissin’ yer lady-love?”

Pushed too far, Joe turned and bumped solidly into Hoss, who had materialized out of nowhere and interposed himself between Joe and Hastings. “I think ya ought ta watch yer mouth, Hastings,” Hoss warned, keeping his voice low. “One o’ these days its gonna git ya inta trouble.”

“It seems to me,” Candy drawled, “that it got him into trouble before, an’ he ain’t learned anything from it.” The ranch foreman was leaning on the other side of the tree, polishing his gun barrel idly on his shirt sleeve.

Out-numbered, Hastings discovered that discretion was the better part of valor and made an ignominious exit. Joe discovered that his fists were clenched and his breath was panting raggedly in his chest. “Thanks,” he muttered, although he could remember a time when Hoss’ intervention in this kind of situation would have sent him into a furious temper.

“We didn’ want ya causin’ a scene outside the church,” Hoss replied.

“What did Emily want?” Candy asked, the inflection he put on her name showing his extreme dislike of the woman.

Taking a deep breath, Joe glanced around to make sure no one else could overhear him. “She told me she still loves me,” he replied, almost inaudibly.

“Dadburnit,” Hoss muttered unhappily while Candy groaned eloquently. “Ya better make sure ya stay away from her, Shortshanks, ya hear?” Hoss ordered.

“Don’t worry, big brother,” Joe assured him. “I have no intention of going anywhere near her ever again!”

Looking over the backs of the horses, Joe saw Emily was looking right at him and a shudder of foreboding ran down his spine. Would he ever be free of her?

*****

It seemed to Joe that every time he went into town he ran into Emily and Bert Hastings. He hoped that it was just paranoia that suggested to him that they were keeping watch for him. He began to do everything he could to avoid going to town, and if he had to go, he wouldn’t linger and avoided the saloons at all costs.

But the strain was beginning to tell on Joe. His temper grew short and the dark circles under his eyes told their own tales of the sleepless nights that he was suffering. Joe’s appetite fell away and Ben began to measure every mouthful of food that Joe ate with anxious eyes.

“He’s gonna fret hisself away to a frazzle,” Hoss commented to Ben one morning when Joe had been particularly prickly over breakfast and had finally stormed outside, leaving the better part of his meal on the plate. “Ain’t there anythin’ we can do, Pa?”

“I’m open to suggestions,” Ben replied, wearily. Father and son exchanged glances. “There’s a horse sale in town tomorrow,” Ben suggested. “Tell Joe to go and see if there are any we might like to buy. That should take his mind off Emily.”

“That’s a good idea,” Hoss agreed, knowing Joe’s love of horses. “That should cheer him up some.” He hurried after his brother to tell him.

The idea wasn’t quite the resounding success that Ben and Hoss had hoped for. Joe had made an effort to seem enthusiastic about the sale, but it was a visible effort, which took the shine off the idea for Joe’s family. Joe, for his part, saw the reaction and immediately felt terrible for hurting them, which in turn led to him being even snappier than he had been previously. By the time they left for the sale, everyone felt out of sorts.

*****

The horse sale had attracted a lot of sellers and buyers. People milled about, assessing the potential of the yearlings and weanling foals, peering at the horses’ teeth and checking out their feet. Despite himself, Joe felt his spirits rise. Emily was unlikely to be at the sale and surrounded by his family, Hastings was unlikely to bother Joe. It was an immense relief.

There weren’t many horses of sufficient quality for Joe and the Ponderosa to be interested in, but he and Ben checked out a few of the likelier candidates and together decided which ones they would bid for. Ben decided that he would do the actual bidding, and Joe was content to let him.

The bidding was underway when a small boy appeared at Joe’s side and tugged on his sleeve. Bending over, Joe smiled at the youngster. “Mister, a big man in a tall white hat told me ta tell ya that he’ll meet ya at the Silver Dollar an’ you’re buyin’.”

Smiling Joe ruffled the boy’s hair and hunted in his pocket for a coin for the child. “Thanks,” he replied. He hadn’t seen Hoss since just after they arrived, and now that Ben and Candy were over at the main pen doing the bidding, Joe was at a slightly loose end. He turned away from the horse pens and headed down an alley towards the middle of town and the Silver Dollar saloon.

*****

The knock at the door was unexpected. Emily went over warily. She hadn’t made any friends in the town at all. Everyone shunned her for her part in framing Joe for the attempted bullion robbery. None of the other matrons of the town was willing to be seen with the hussy that had tried to cheat on her husband with another man.

The small boy that stood there smiled up at her, and proffered a note. “A man in a green jacket told me ta give ya this,” he informed Emily and thrust the note into her hand before scurrying off. He had made more money that afternoon than he had ever seen before and his conscience was not moved by the lies he had told either Joe or Emily.

Her heart suddenly pounding, Emily opened the note. Emily, meet me in the alley by the Silver Dollar saloon. Come at once. Joe.

A bubble of joy burst in Emily’s heart. Joe did love her! She threw the note into the kitchen fire and rushed out of the house. Wade was working and Emily knew she wouldn’t be missed for some time to come.

*****

The alley didn’t seem the most likely of trysting places as Emily drew closer to it. She hesitated momentarily, then remembered that it was Joe who was waiting for her. Joe would never suggest meeting somewhere that wasn’t safe. Boldly, she stepped into the alley and away from the deserted main street.

At first, she thought Joe wasn’t there, but as she walked further up the alley, she saw a man with his back to her. “Joe!” she called, then realized, too late, that this wasn’t Joe. She turned to leave, but two other men had appeared silently behind her.

Frantically, she turned to flee the other way, but the third man was now very close to her and she was trapped. “What’s the matter, darlin’?” drawled the man. “Don’t cha wanna kiss me like ya did Joe Cartwright?” Hastings laughed crudely.

“Leave me alone!” Emily warned. She backed towards a wall, trying to protect herself as best she could.

Laughing, Hastings made a lunge for Emily and caught her wrist. He reeled her in towards him and one of his pals made a grab for her breast. Emily screamed.

*****

Almost at the entrance to the alley at the other end, Joe stiffened when he heard the woman scream, then barreled through the alley, determined to help whoever it was. He saw the three men and the blonde hair. He charged up, but he didn’t catch the would-be rapist by surprise. Hastings turned and met Joe’s heedless charge with a well-timed punch.

Undeterred, Joe caught his balance as he reeled away, and came back at Hastings. He managed to knock Hastings away from him, against the building on the opposite side of the alley, and dived at one of the other men holding Emily. Joe knew he had no chance against three of them, but he had to try. He threw the other man to the ground and dived on the remaining one. By then, Hastings had regained his feet and was closing in on Joe with a look of murderous glee on his face. “Run, Emily!” Joe cried.

Sobbing, her clothing torn, Emily ran from the alley towards the main street. Hastings grabbed Joe from behind and his accomplice went after Emily again. Joe fought furiously, but there were now two of them pounding on him and at a shout from Hastings, the third man came back, too.

There was no one on the street as Emily rushed screaming from the alley. But she wasn’t totally alone in town. In the Silver Dollar, where he had gone to escape the crowds at the horse sale, Hoss heard the screaming. “Come on, fellars, someone’s in trouble.”

The realization that it was Emily in trouble gave Hoss a momentary pause, but he thrust aside the twinge of doubt and hurried up to her. “Emily, what’s wrong?”

“Up there!” she cried. “They’ve got Joe! They’re killing him!” She crumpled to the ground, sobbing bitterly, and trying to cover herself with the rags of her clothing.

Hoss didn’t wait to hear any more. He turned and ran up the alley.

*****

The fists and boots had been flying and Joe was barely conscious. He became aware that the pounding had stopped and forced his eyes to open, determined not to give Hastings any more satisfaction than he already had. Hastings’ face was only inches from Joe’s and he held Joe upright by his fist twisted in the front of Joe’s jacket. His gun was resting on Joe’s cheek.

“I got ya good this time, Cartwright,” Hastings sneered. “I’m gonna have a bit of yer lady-friend, too. But first, I’m gonna put ya out o’ yer misery!” He cocked his gun.

“You’ll…hang…for…this,” Joe panted. Breathing seemed to be an enormous effort and his body hurt so much in so many places that he could no longer catalogue them all.

“Hold it!” cried a voice and Joe recognized it as Hoss. He started to turn his head, but Hastings suddenly swung Joe around, so he had the injured man in a choke hold, and placed the gun at Joe’s temple.

“Back off, Cartwright!” he snarled.

Frozen in place, Hoss looked at Joe’s battered and bleeding face and wondered that his brother was still conscious. “Let him go,” he warned Hastings.

“No, I don’t think so. Me an’ my friends here is gonna leave now, an’ we’re takin’ Joe with us.” He gestured with his gun. “Ya git in the way, an’ I’ll blow his brains out.”

Reluctantly, Hoss gave ground, backing slowly down the alley as Hastings and his pals dragged Joe with them. Hoss could see that Joe was in a great deal of pain. His younger brother’s legs were barely able to support him. Hoss clenched his fists and vowed that he would make Hastings pay!

As they reached the entrance to the alley, Joe stumbled and fell, dragging Hastings down with him. Cursing, Hastings regained his feet and hauled Joe upright. He quickly grabbed Joe’s left arm and twisted it up his back. Joe groaned.

From behind Hoss, Emily suddenly cried out. “Joe!” She pushed past Hoss, no longer caring that her clothes were torn, and threw herself at Hastings.

The distraction proved to be exactly what Joe needed. He drove his right elbow hard into Hastings’ gut, grunting with the pain that shot up his arm, and tried to slither out of the hold. Hastings held on and Joe felt a surge of pain scream through his arm. He thought it was broken. Joe hurt all over, but he couldn’t let Emily fight Hastings. He forced himself to his feet and grabbed the fist that Hastings was about to drive into Emily’s face. “Run, Emily!” Joe cried. “Run!”

She did just as he said, and ran away from the fight, across the street, aiming for her home. Joe swung an ineffectual punch, and got it returned with interest. He collapsed to the ground as he heard what sounded like an enraged grizzly bear charging towards him. Joe rolled away as Hoss grabbed Hastings.

By now, the street was full of people as the sounds of the fight and the screaming had attracted their attention. As Joe staggered to his feet, he could hear the tenor of the sounds from the spectators changing tone and he squinted to see what was causing the excitement.

In the middle of the street, Emily had tripped over the torn edge of her skirt and had fallen. And charging down on her was the afternoon stage to Sacramento. “Emily!” Joe staggered out into the street, intent on reaching Emily and bearing her to safety before the stage could reach her.

But he had no chance. As the screaming began, Hoss whirled and saw Joe running headlong to his death. “Joe!” he cried.

*****

The town was subdued. Darkness had fallen hours ago, but the saloons were almost deserted and the streets were empty of people. Leaving the undertaker’s office, Sheriff Roy Coffee stood for a moment on the sidewalk, breathing in the cool night air. He hoped he would never have to see such a scene again. Roy was no stranger to death and had seen it in many guises. But this was different. He swallowed hard to stop himself regurgitating the contents of his stomach. What he had seen was something he would never forget.

Wearily, he made his way over to the doctor’s office. Hastings and his friends were locked up and likely to go to jail, if not hang. Roy wouldn’t be sorry whatever happened to them. He had felt very much the same way as Hoss Cartwright, who had almost killed Hastings with his bare hands. Yet the law must take its course and Roy was averse to lynchings.

Opening the door to the doctor’s office he saw that Hoss and Candy were still in the waiting room. Candy sported a bandage around his head where he had been struck a glancing blow from the hoof of one of the stage horses. The young cowboy had been very lucky indeed. “Any change?” Roy asked.

“No,” Hoss grunted. “Pa’s still with the doc in there.” He gestured to the surgery. Roy sighed, bit his lip and then sat down to wait, too.

They sat there about an hour before the surgery door opened and Ben came out. He looked haggard and worn, with dark circles under his eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in days. Roy knew those circles would get worse before they got better. “Ben?” he questioned.

“Joe’s awake,” Ben replied and at those words everyone smiled. They were the words they had been hoping to hear, yet had feared would never be uttered. “He’s going to be all right.”

There was an unseemly scrum at the door as Hoss, Candy and Roy all tried to get through it together. Hoss won mainly because he was so much broader than the other two. He hurried across to the examination table where Joe lay, covered by a sheet.

Joe’s face was badly bruised, his eyes black and his lips split and swollen. Like Candy, he wore a bandage around his head where he, too, had been struck by a flying hoof. Joe’s left shoulder was heavily bandaged and in a sling and more bandages peeped out over the blanket that was drawn up to his chest.

“How is he?” Hoss asked.

“Alive,” Joe croaked and Hoss beamed. Joe’s eyes opened a bit – all the swelling would allow – and tried to smile. “Thanks… to Candy,” he whispered.

“It was nothing,” Candy muttered, embarrassed.

“It was a lot more than nothing,” Ben replied. He had heard the story as he was hurried to Doc Martin’s office once it was all over.

As Joe had made his suicidal attempt to save Emily, Hoss had started to run after him, knowing that he was already too late. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Candy had appeared and dived at Joe, catching him around the waist and bearing him to the ground. The stage had gone past, barely missing the two young men. Emily had stood no chance, even though the driver tried to swerve to miss her. The stage had over-turned, which is when Candy and Joe had been struck by flying hooves.

By then, Hoss had arrived and he dragged his brother and friend away from the danger. The people of the town had rallied around, fetching the doctor, rescuing the unfortunate passengers from the stage and making sure Hastings and his cronies didn’t escape. Ben had been summoned from the horse sale and hurried to Joe’s side at the doctor’s.

Initially, Paul Martin had feared that Joe had punctured a lung, seeing how tight his breathing was. But although Joe had broken ribs, his breathing eased as Paul assessed his condition. Joe’s left shoulder was dislocated and as Paul got it manipulated back into place, Joe’s breathing had eased enough that Paul stopped worrying about a punctured lung.

There was enough else to worry about. Along with the dislocated shoulder and broken ribs had been the head injury. Paul had been deeply concerned about it, because Joe was unconscious for such a long time. The beating that Joe had taken had been horrendous and Paul knew he would be sore for a long time to come. There was enough bruising round his kidneys to make Paul wonder about damage there, but over the next few days, although Joe peed blood, no other damage appeared to have been done. It had been a great relief to Ben and Paul when Joe had roused and knew where he was.

“Well,” declared Paul Martin briskly. “Now that you’ve all seen he is alive, you can all go away and get some sleep. You especially, Candy! Your concussion isn’t going to get better if you don’t rest.”

“I’m staying!” Ben stated and Paul smiled.

“How did I know you were going to say that?” he asked.

“You’re a…mind reader?” Joe guessed, which made them all smile.

Soon, it was only Ben, Joe and Paul alone in the surgery. “Pa, what happened to Emily?” Joe asked. He had very little memory of anything that happened after Candy stopped him running to Emily.

Behind Joe, Paul nodded silently and Ben swallowed. “She died, son,” he replied, softly. He had not seen her remains and he hoped she would be decently buried before Joe could think of asking to see her.

What little color there was in Joe’s face drained away, leaving the bruising standing out in stark relief against his pale skin. Ben had always known that Joe had a lively imagination, but he could wish at that moment that it wasn’t so, for Joe was all too clearly imagining what had happened to Emily – and what had so nearly happened to himself. “I sent her…to her death,” Joe muttered, brokenly.

“No, Joe!” Ben denied.

“Yes, I did,” Joe insisted. “I told her to run.”

“And did you tell her to run into the middle of the street?” Ben asked. “Did you know that the stage was coming?”

“No!” Joe cried. “Of course not!” Tears stood in his eyes.

“Then how can you say you send her to her death?” Ben asked, his voice softer now. “She had only to take a few steps back and she would have been safe. Joe, this is not your fault.” He stroked the hair back off Joe’s head. “You saved her from being raped, Joe. You saved her from being beaten. Were you going to follow her around for the rest of her life to make sure she was all right?”

“No,” Joe admitted. He blinked away the tears. “I’m all right now,” he assured Ben. “I guess I just wasn’t thinking straight.”

“That’s what being knocked out does for you,” Paul agreed. “I think you could sleep now, Joe. But I’m afraid I’ll have to keep wakening you during the night.”

“Just be gentle,” Joe reminded him and closed his eyes. He fell asleep in seconds.

*****

“Where were you going when you went into the alley?” Marshal Calhoun asked Joe the next day. Joe was at home, sitting up in bed, resting his sore, weary body against a pile of pillows. It was a scene eerily reminiscent of a few months before, when Calhoun thought Joe had been trying to steal the bullion.

“I was going to meet Hoss in the saloon,” Joe replied.

“How’d ya know I was in the saloon?” Hoss asked.

Frowning, Joe replied, “Because of the message you sent me.”

“What message?” Calhoun asked, at the same time as Hoss exclaimed,

“I didn’t send ya no message!”

There was a pause while everyone eyed everyone else. “Who gave you the message, Joe?” Calhoun asked.

“A little boy,” Joe replied. “He was about – I dunno – 9 or so. Blond hair, blue eyes. He was a really cute little guy. I gave him some money and he ran off.”

“I see.” Calhoun looked thoughtful. “I’ll go and see if I can find him and find out who did give him that message to deliver.”

“Have you discovered what Emily was doing in the alley?” Joe asked. “Was she just attacked walking along the street?” Emily’s funeral had been held earlier that afternoon. Ben had deliberately timed Joe’s journey home to coincide with the funeral. A surprising number of people had turned up at Emily’s funeral, but sadly, most of them were there out of morbid curiosity, not respect or liking for the dead woman. That was something Ben intended to keep from Joe for as long as he could.

“I don’t know,” Calhoun answered. “But as soon as I know, you’ll know.” He nodded to them. “Bye, folks.”

“I think you should rest, Joe,” Ben suggested as the marshal left. “Candy, you look tired, too.”

“I guess I am,” Candy admitted. He rose and smiled at Joe. “See ya later, pal.”

“See ya,” Joe responded. He looked thoughtful, too, but Ben didn’t want Joe tormenting himself with speculation. He handed Joe a pain powder he had mixed up earlier and Joe reluctantly drank it down.

It wasn’t long before it worked and Joe was soon slumbering away. Candy went to lie down and Hoss and Ben went back downstairs. Ben might not have wanted Joe to speculate, but that didn’t stop he and Hoss doing so. But they didn’t reach any conclusions and so had to content themselves to wait for the marshal.

*****

It was a couple of days before Calhoun came back. By then, Joe was creeping slowly about the house. He had, thankfully, stopped peeing blood by then and his aches had died down slightly, although the bruising was at its height. His head was free of its bandage, but he still bore the sling and his ribs would be bandaged for the foreseeable future. Candy was back at work, his persistent headache gradually losing its hold.

When Calhoun arrived, Joe was sitting in Ben’s chair, reading a book. Ben himself was ostensibly doing the books, but in actual fact was keeping a discreet eye on Joe while pretending to tot up figures. Hoss had been in the barn with Candy and they had both come over to the house to hear what the marshal had to say.

“I found the little boy,” Calhoun began, after enquiring about Joe’s health. “Nice little fella. Cute, like you said, Joe. He had delivered a message to you and a note to Emily. Hastings paid him a couple of dollars to do it. The kid ain’t never seen so much money. His family is dirt poor, so he wasn’t going to turn it down.”

“I don’t suppose he could read what the note said,” Joe mused.

“No,” agreed Calhoun. “But I think we could all guess what the note said.”

“She thought it was from me,” Joe sighed. “Poor Emily.”

“Hastings thought he would get Wade after he knocked out both you and Emily and err… well… I’m sure you can guess what he had in mind for Emily.” Calhoun looked embarrassed. The Cartwrights and Candy all nodded. “Of course, Wade was out of town that afternoon, running an errand for me. But Hoss’ arrival changed the plans. Hastings has admitted he was planning to kill Joe then. He’s admitted everything. The boy identified him, too. I’ll be pretty surprised if he escapes a hanging.” Calhoun rose. “You’ll be needed to testify, Joe.”

“Of course,” Joe replied. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

*****

The trial the following week was quite straight forward and relatively painless. Hastings admitted everything in the hopes that he might escape hanging, but that was the sentence in the end. His two sidekicks got 20 years each.

“You’re very quiet,” Ben remarked as he helped Joe remove his shirt from his injured shoulder that evening. “You aren’t brooding, are you?”

Smiling, Joe shook his head. “I’m tired,” he admitted. “But I was thinking about Emily, Pa.”

“I thought you might be,” Ben replied, sitting down to help Joe with his boots. “Want to tell me about it?”

“I loved her, Pa,” Joe replied. “When I met her in Monterey, I loved her. I don’t know if she behaved like she did with Wade then or not, but I’m beginning to think maybe she did.”

“Mmm,” Ben murmured, non-committally.

“But I’ve been thinking for months now that I had a lucky escape. I don’t know how I would have reacted to having a wife like that.” Joe obligingly put up his uninjured arm for Ben to slide the nightshirt over his head. The weather was turning cooler now. “And I pity Emily, Pa. She didn’t have the good sense to make the best of what she had. She continually hankered after more.” Joe looked up at Ben. “And I’m sorry about the way she died.” He shuddered. “When I think of those final few seconds…”

“Don’t!” Ben ordered hastily, putting his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Don’t ever think of those last seconds, Joe. You’ll go mad if you do. You can’t live with those thoughts. Thanks to Candy, you have your life to live and I know that somewhere out there, there is a girl who is made for you.”

“Do you really think so?” Joe asked.

“I know so,” Ben replied. “Joe, the girl who catches your heart will be a very lucky young lady.”

Smiling and touched, Joe slid under the covers. “You’re just prejudiced, Pa,” he teased.

“Never,” Ben teased back, but as he left, he thought that any young lady who captured his sons’ hearts would be equally as special as his sons were. Emily had never been right for Joe and Ben was thankful that they had never married and that Joe was not now trailing around the town looking like his own ghost, as Wade was.

Emily cast a long shadow and Ben knew it would be some time before it was behind them. But he was sure it was behind them. On an impulse, he opened Joe’s door again. The sleepy green eyes turned his way.

“I knew you’d realize that you’d forgotten to say goodnight,” Joe muttered and smiled lovingly at his father.

At that moment, Ben knew they were already all right.  Joe was not lying brooding about Emily.  She was gone.

“Good night, Joe.”

***End***

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