Summary: Accused of murder, and found to be innocent, Joe discovers that rumours are difficult to quash.
Word Count: 8667
“Who’s that?” Joe asked, as he paused just outside the store.
“Who?” asked Adam, glancing around.
“Over there,” Joe responded, jerking his chin in the direction. He indicated two richly dressed ladies, one older, one younger, standing on the other side of the street outside the dressmaker’s shop. “I haven’t seen them in town before.”
“Neither have I,” Adam agreed, gazing across at them. The richness of their clothes immediately set them apart from the more plainly, practically dressed women in the street. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough,” he added, although his own curiosity had been peaked by their appearance. “Come on, Joe, let’s go home.”
“Can’t we even have one beer?” Joe pleaded, not making a move towards the heavily loaded wagon.
“Not even one,” Adam responded, not looking round and not stopping to argue. “Are you coming, or do you want to walk home?”
Knowing perfectly well that Adam meant every word, Joe heaved an audible sigh and followed meekly. “You’re a spoilsport,” he told Adam as he climbed onto the seat as the wagon began to move.
“Yep,” agreed the older brother, calmly. He shook up the team, which broke into a measured trot. Joe glanced over his shoulder at the two women and wondered how long it would be before he discovered who they were. For an instant, his eyes met those of the young lady, who had glanced in their direction. Joe smiled and tipped his hat and for a moment, she smiled back. Then the wagon swept round a corner and the girl was lost from sight.
Neither Ben nor Hoss was able to shed any light on who the two women were. Joe’s curiosity had to go unsatisfied for the time being, as they were busy on the ranch and trips to town were few and far between.
Church on Sunday morning provided a welcome respite from the hard work during the rest of the week. The Cartwrights arrived in ample time and Hoss carefully hitched the buggy horses to the rail before joining the rest of the family in the church.
Glancing round, Joe saw at once that neither of the two ladies was present. He felt a pang of disappointment, but settled down to wait for the service to start. The little church was very warm and stuffy under the hot summer sun and Joe could feel himself growing sleepy already. He sat up a bit straighter and Ben hid a smile. The service hadn’t begun and Joe was already twitching!
There was a sudden stir at the back of the church and heads turned to see who had come in. Joe, like many others, couldn’t resist looking. “There she is, Pa!” he whispered excitedly.
“Stop staring, Joseph,” Ben chided in a low voice, resisting the urge to turn around to look. He would see the young lady in question at the end of the service.
However, he didn’t have to wait that long, as a middle-aged couple, a young woman and two younger boys paraded to the front of the church and slid into the first pew.
A rustle ran through the congregation and not all the comments were charitable. “Dressed up to the nines,” sniffed one redoubtable matron.
“You’d think they were better’n the rest of us,” agreed another
“Silk dresses,” whispered another young lady enviously. Silk was way beyond her means.
Ben’s mouth tightened in disapproval. Nobody was making any allowance for the newcomers. Ben hated to pre-judge people solely on appearances. He vowed to speak to the new family after church was over. Glancing at his sons, Ben saw that they were all as aware of the comments and undertones as he was. But before any of them could say anything, the minister came in and they rose to sing the first hymn.
The service seemed interminable to Joe, who wanted it over so he could meet the girl who currently sat in the front pew so decorously. Joe could see that she had shining dark brown hair neatly coiled and pinned under her fashionable velvet hat. He wondered what color of eyes she had and entertained himself imagining various colors against her hair. He hoped her eyes were dark.
At last, the service was over and Joe leapt to his feet. Ben hid another smile. Joe was frequently so transparent. “In a hurry, son?” Ben asked, blandly.
“Umm… Its rather hot in here, Pa,” Joe answered, not untruthfully, if rather evasively. “I just need some fresh air.”
“It is rather close,” Ben agreed. He began to move slowly into the aisle, with Joe all but stepping on his heels. He held his son back for a few moments, then stepped aside to let Joe hurry up the aisle and outside.
However, Joe was to be frustrated again. While Ben intercepted the father, the mother hustled the young lady over to an extremely ornate open carriage and her basilisk stare kept even the intrepid Joe at bay. He could only watch as the father separated from Ben, climbed into the carriage and whipped up the horses.
“Well?” Joe demanded, as he climbed into the buggy beside Ben.
“Well what?” Ben replied, infuriatingly.
“What are they called? Where are they from?” Joe was practically bouncing in his seat.
“Their name is Cowdray,” replied Ben, shortly. “And that’s all I can tell you. Mr. Cowdray made it quite clear that he didn’t want anything to do with me, so I didn’t push it.”
Turning around, Adam said, “Clem was telling me that they aren’t well like in town. They’ve been here a couple of weeks, but haven’t made any friends. In fact, Clem says they haven’t attempted to make any friends. Clem thinks they’re from Philadelphia.”
“Well, some people are simply anti-social,” Ben remarked and that was the end of the discussion.
Despite the rumors that filtered back to the ranch via some of the hands, Joe’s curiosity wasn’t abated in the slightest. He still wanted to meet Miss Cowdray and was now spending time debating about what her Christian name was.
His chance to discover came at the end of the month. There was a dance at the hotel and Joe had arranged to take Suzanne Jenkins. He set off in plenty of time to collect her, only to discover upon his arrival that Suzanne had caught the heel of her shoe in the hem of her skirt and fallen downstairs earlier that day. Luckily, her injuries were confined to a sprained ankle and bruised elbow, but she certainly wasn’t going to be attending the dance.
Disappointed, Joe put on a brave face and prepared to spend the evening at Suzanne’s home, but her mother soon disabused him of that notion, since Suzanne needed to rest her ankle and she certainly wasn’t going to have Joe eyeing up her daughter’s ankle, chaperone or no chaperone! Within a short time, Joe was headed to the dance alone.
“Where’s Suzanne?” Adam asked, coming up behind Joe as he poured himself some punch.
Glumly, Joe explained. Adam patted him briefly on the shoulder. “Too bad,” he commiserated and moved on. Joe watched him go. On the far side of the room, Hoss had been cornered by Bessie Sue Hightower. Sighing, Joe started to work the room, but his heart wasn’t really in it.
Quite a few of the girls in town had suddenly become engaged or married during the summer and the numbers available to flirt harmlessly with had dropped. Joe was rather surprised by the sudden drop in numbers.
There was movement over by the entrance and Joe, alone once more, glanced over. It was the elusive Miss Cowdray and she was alone. At once, Joe went over. “Good evening, Miss Cowdray. I’m Joe Cartwright. May I have this dance?”
Blinking, Miss Cowdray eyed Joe appreciatively. “I’d like that,” she replied, in a low rich, throaty voice.
As they danced, Joe studied his partner more closely. She was quite tall, her eyes almost on the same level as Joe’s. Those eyes were a gold-flecked hazel, lighter than Joe had imagined, and they sparkled with vivacious life. Her features were even and she would have been classed as beautiful by anyone. She danced with a natural grace and rhythm.
“How did you know my name?” she asked as Joe led her over to a seat afterwards.
“I only know your surname,” Joe admitted candidly. “My father introduced himself to yours a few weeks ago after church.”
“I’m Emma,” she replied and smiled.
“Emma,” Joe echoed. “What a lovely name.” Coming from almost anyone else, the compliment would have sounded jaded and trite. But Joe meant it quite sincerely and his considerable personal charm lent it an added attraction. Emma Cowdray decided that she liked Joe Cartwright. She smiled. He was the handsomest man she had ever met and she liked him a lot.
By the end of the evening, Joe knew quite a lot about Emma Cowdray. She had come from Philadelphia with her parents and two younger brothers, George and Percy. Her father had been a businessman, but had now retired. They had decided to come out and live in the West as the East was becoming too crowded. (Joe privately thought this rubbish, but politely pretended to believe it.)
“It’s not really quite what we expected,” Emma admitted. “Things are not as sophisticated as they are back East.” Her eyes traveled around the room and there was no question that her velvet and chiffon gown was much more sophisticated than the ones the other girls wore.
“No, I suppose we are a bit rough and ready,” Joe agreed.
“Have you been back East?” Emma asked, eagerly.
“No,” Joe replied. “Although I would like to go at some point. My oldest brother, Adam, was at college back East.” He felt a slight pang when he said this; would Emma find Adam more to her taste?
“Philadelphia is wonderful!” Emma gushed. Joe listened, as she waxed lyrical about the delights of the East.
Suddenly, a man appeared beside them and it was only when Emma jumped to her feet that Joe realized that this irate stranger was her parent!
“Emma!” he growled. “I told you that you weren’t to come! You will come home at once!” He grasped her arm in a bruising grip.
“Papa, please!” Emma begged. “Don’t make such a scene, please! Papa! You’re hurting me!”
Not sure what to say, but unwilling to stand by and see Emma hurt, Joe took half a step forward. But before he could speak, Mr. Cowdray rounded on him. “I don’t know who you are, young man, but I’ll thank you to stay away from my daughter in future!” His eyes raked Joe up and down and clearly found him wanting. “How dare you entice her to come here?”
“I didn’t!” Joe protested, trying to keep a firm hold on his temper.
“Silence, pup!” Cowdray barked and punched Joe in the mouth.
The blow was completely unexpected and Joe stumbled backwards, hit the chair behind him and fell to the floor. He could only sit there, dazed, as Cowdray began to drag Emma away.
In seconds, both Joe’s brothers were there, Hoss bending anxiously over Joe and Adam intercepting Cowdray. “Sir, is there a problem?” Adam asked, smoothly.
“Mind your own business!” Cowdray snapped.
“This is my business,” Adam responded. “That’s my brother you just punched, and with no provocation that I could see.”
Drawing himself up to his full height, Cowdray glared at Adam, who was unmoved by the show of anger. Their eyes were on a level. “Your brother was with my daughter without my permission,” he hissed. By now, they had the full attention of the whole room. “If I catch them together again, your brother had better watch out, because I won’t be as nice a second time!” He turned away, dragging Emma from the room.
Not quite sure what to say, Adam watched them go and finally turned to Joe. Hoss had helped their younger brother to his feet and was mopping the blood coming from Joe’s nose. “Are you all right?” he asked Joe.
“Yes,” Joe replied. He looked towards the entrance, but the Cowdrays had gone. “Just confused.”
Later that night, alone in his room, Joe pondered the mystery of Emma Cowdray. He couldn’t understand the father’s reaction. Yes, all right, it seemed that Emma had sneaked out without permission, although Joe had no idea how you accomplished that wearing a dress. He could clearly envisage climbing out of the window, but he didn’t see how you could do that in a dress. Yet, as Joe’s thoughts turned serious again, he wondered why Cowdray had over-reacted so badly. He could see why Cowdray would be angry, but it seemed to Joe that his anger was inappropriate. He gingerly felt his split lip; Cowdray wasn’t someone to mess with.
Next morning at church, Joe waited expectantly for the Cowdray family to appear. He had resolved that he would talk to Mr. Cowdray and apologize, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. Joe knew that offering an apology was often the way to catch the other party wrong-footed and thereby blunt their anger. But he wasn’t to get that chance. The Cowdrays never appeared.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of mention of them. As soon as the Cartwrights entered the building, Joe could hear his name. His ignominious exit the night before had given the gossips plenty of fuel. One glance at his father’s face showed Joe that Ben had heard, too and there was nothing that Ben hated more than his family as the subject of town gossip. Joe ducked his head and slid meekly into the pew.
“Ignore them, son,” Ben whispered, as he bent his head in supposed prayer. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied, his heart warming within him. Joe knew that Ben had believed that he had nothing to do with Emma being at the dance the previous night, even without the corroborating evidence supplied by his brothers. He sat a bit straighter and met everyone’s eyes.
“We’ll need another keg of nails,” Ben said, watching as Adam wrote down the list of hardware supplies. “And there’s a crate of horseshoes to collect from the blacksmith’s, too.” Although Hoss was more than capable of making horseshoes, it was quicker to buy them from the blacksmith and have Hoss convert them to fit the horses on the ranch as was required.
“Better get some more wire,” Adam mentioned. “The roll we have is pretty skinny now.”
“Good idea,” Ben agreed. “Anything else?”
“Don’t think so,” Adam replied, blotting the list. “Who’s going for it?”
“It had better be Joe,” Ben decided. “He’s had ants in his pants since he finished the last of those horses.” He smiled. “I think we could all use the break, Joe included.”
“Sounds good,” Adam agreed. He hated to be the one to collect rolls of wire as, no matter how careful you were, the barbs always managed to scratch you. “When are you planning on us starting the fencing?”
“In a week or so,” Ben replied. He glanced at the cloudless blue sky. “Let’s get haying over first. It’s a shame to miss the weather.” Spying his youngest son, Ben beckoned to him. “Joe! Here’s the list of supplies I need from town.”
Looking down the list, Joe nodded. “All right, Pa. Guess it’s my turn then?”
“Could you collect the mail, too?” Ben nodded.
“Sure,” Joe agreed. “See you at supper.” He headed off to harness the team to the buckboard.
The drive into town was just what Joe needed. He had been restless since he broke the last of the horses and he felt vaguely dissatisfied that summer, although he wasn’t entirely sure why. The change of scene helped a bit. Joe was feeling more cheerful when he arrived in town.
Bit by bit, Joe got the hardware they were needing, effortlessly hefting the keg of nails onto the buckboard, and accepting help to load the roll of barbed wire. Then he drove down to the blacksmiths and helped load the horseshoes. That done, he left the buckboard there and strolled down the street to collect the mail at the mail office.
As he wandered back, leafing through the letters, Joe almost walked into someone. He automatically put his hand out to steady the other person and saw that it was Emma. “Hello,” he smiled.
“Joe!” Emma replied, clearly flustered. She glanced all around and relaxed when she saw no one she knew. Joe, who had glanced around, too, couldn’t say the same. There were plenty of people on the street that he knew. “I’m glad I bumped into you. I wanted to apologize for the other night. My father is a trifle hot tempered, and he shouldn’t have hit you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Joe assured her.
“Oh, but it is,” Emma replied. “If I hadn’t disobeyed him, it would never have happened.”
Shrugging, Joe said, “It’s in the past and forgotten.” He allowed a grin to surface. “But I did wonder how you managed to sneak out wearing a dress. I’ve climbed out of the window a few times myself, but I can’t imagine that you did that!”
Laughing at the image Joe had conjured up, Emma blushed prettily. “No, I didn’t try that! I just left through the back door while Papa and Mama were having dinner. I was supposed to be conning the Bible passage Papa had set me.”
“Would you like an ice, or a cup of coffee?” Joe asked. “The hotel is right across the road.”
“I’d love that, but Mama is going to come and join me in the dressmaker’s shop in a few minutes,” Emma replied. “She – wouldn’t be happy to see me with you.”
“Why not?” Joe asked. “All right, I’m a cowboy, but I’m a Cartwright, too. Doesn’t your father think we’re good enough for you?”
“Probably not,” Emma answered sadly. “Since we came out here, he doesn’t think anyone is good enough for me. I have no friends and I’m so bored.” A sob almost broke free of her control and Joe tactfully observed the street while Emma regained her composure. “I’m sorry, Joe, I shouldn’t burden you with this.”
“You mean you don’t think of me as your friend?” Joe asked in a hurt tone. Emma cast him a horrified glance before she caught the mischievous sparkle in his eye.
“Thank you, Joe. You’re my first friend.” She glanced over her shoulder once more. “Oh, Mama’s coming! I’d better go.”
“I’ll see you soon,” Joe told her, as she hurried away.
He deliberately stayed where he was, watching Mrs. Cowdray draw closer. He hadn’t really seen the lady close to before and he noticed Emma’s resemblance to her mother at once. But his main impression of Mrs. Cowdray was of a woman who was extremely frightened. Joe didn’t know what she was frightened of, but she hesitated as she drew closer to Joe, before walking on with a determined step. He smiled at her and tipped his hat. The lady nodded warily and went past. Joe headed back to the buckboard.
What was Mrs. Cowdray afraid of?
It became Joe’s mission in life to find out about the Cowdrays. He went into town every chance he got, even on evenings when he was really tired and an early bed was more appealing. He listened to every scrap of gossip in the saloons – and there was plenty going around.
The family had only been in town a couple of months. Money seemed to be no object to them at all. Not only did they have the open carriage Joe had seen them riding in at church, but they also had a small buggy and a horse for each family member. The two young boys had been going to the Virginia City school, but it had been decided that it was too rough for such well-bred young men and a private tutor had been hired instead. Emma, although 19 or 20 and of an age when most young women were looking to find a husband, was chaperoned within an inch of her life. A number of young men had made approaches to Emma, but her father had seen them all off. It seemed Joe was not the only one who wasn’t good enough for his daughter.
Mostly because of Cowdray’s arrogant manner, the family was universally disliked. Some people felt sorry for Emma and the boys especially, as they had no chance to live a normal life. Still others thought that the whole family should be scooped up and deposited back where they came from. The storekeepers hoped they would stay, as they lived lavishly and were prompt payers of their bills. The dressmaker had never had such business. But no one actually liked the family at all.
Thoroughly intrigued, Joe took to going home past the Cowdrays’ place, even though it was completely out of his way. He seemed to be the only person in town who had had a conversation with any of the Cowdrays and he had liked Emma. She had been spoiled, Joe could see, but a little spoiling wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. And as seemed almost fated to happen, on one of his rides home, Joe saw Emma.
She was standing by the barn door and it looked to Joe as though she had been crying. Knowing it was none of his business, but hating to see Emma distressed, Joe stopped Cochise and jumped off. “Emma?” he ventured. “Are you all right?”
Startling, Emma almost jumped her own height in the air. “Joe!” she exclaimed, putting her hand onto her breast. “You scared me!”
“I didn’t mean to,” Joe apologized. “Are you all right?”
“Not really,” Emma admitted, and moved until she was standing close by Joe. “I’ve had a bit of a fright.”
“What happened?” Joe asked. He wanted to put his arm around her, but he wasn’t sure how the girl would take the move, so kept his arm by his side.
“I came out to see Starlight, my horse. Someone came into the barn while I was there, and I thought it was the groom.” Emma drew in a deep breath, trying to keep her breathing calm. “But it wasn’t. It was a stranger, and he…he threatened me.”
“What did he say?” Joe demanded, glancing all around, although he knew that Emma’s assailant must be long gone.
“He told me to tell Papa that they had found him and that he knew what would happen.” Emma sniffed loudly as she fought back the tears. “He twisted my arm, Joe, and I was afraid.”
“Do you need to see the doctor?” Joe asked, this time putting his arm around her. Emma needed the comfort and support right now.
“No, I’m all right,” Emma assured him. “But what am I going to do, Joe?”
“You must tell your father,” Joe replied. “Whatever this man wants, he has to know.” He felt Emma shudder and wondered if she was afraid of her father, too. “I’ll come with you,” he offered.
“You can’t do that!” Emma gasped. “He’ll be furious that I talked to you.”
“I don’t see why,” Joe remarked. “But you must tell him, Emma. This sounds serious. Do you know who he meant by ‘they’?”
“No, I don’t,” Emma admitted. “But since we came here, Joe, Papa has changed. He never used to hate the young men who called on me, and he used to let me go out more often. The boys, too. Since we came to Virginia City, we aren’t allowed to have friends. It’s horrid.”
“You’ve got a friend,” Joe reminded her. “Me.” He was intensely curious about the cryptic message that Emma had been given, and the change in Cowdray’s attitude since they had arrived in town, but he could sense that Emma was as confused by it all as he was. He smiled at her gently. “Now, do you want me to come with you while you tell your father?”
“Thank you, but no,” Emma replied. She straightened up, away from Joe’s protective arm. “I’ll tell him…”
“Tell him what?” asked a cold voice and Emma flinched violently again.
“Tell me what, Emma. That you and this young man have been seeing each other behind my back?” Cowdray came forward and glared at Joe. “I told you to stay away from my daughter, Cartwright. I meant what I said.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen Emma since the dance,” Joe replied, trying to remain calm. He knew that losing his temper would be the worst thing to do. “I was passing and saw her. She looked upset, so I stopped to make sure she was all right.” He glanced at the girl and saw her eyes were wide, the pupils dilated with fear. “She’s had rather a fright, Mr. Cowdray.”
“A fright, eh?” Cowdray drawled. “Rejected your advances is more like the truth!”
“No, Papa!” Emma cried, coming to life again. “A strange man came into the barn and told me to tell you that they had found you and that you know what will happen.”
The color leached out of Cowdray’s face at an astonishing rate. Joe wondered if the man would pass out cold at his feet. “Are you all right, sir?” he asked, taking a step towards him.
Recovering, Cowdray drew back. “Of course I’m all right,” he hissed. “This is all your fault, Cartwright! You’ve had your final warning! Stay away from Emma, if you know what’s good for you!” He gave Joe a vicious shove in the chest and once again, Joe was caught off guard and stumbled backwards, landing on his butt on the ground.
Scrambling to his feet, Joe saw that once again, Emma was being dragged off by her father. This was becoming too familiar a scenario. Joe stepped forward and grasped Cowdray’s shoulder and whirled the man around. “I don’t know why you think this has anything to do with me,” Joe ground out, holding onto the tatters of his temper with difficulty. “But I’m not your enemy, Mr. Cowdray. I want to be Emma’s friend.”
“There’s no danger of you ever being Emma’s friend!” Cowdray hissed. “You’re not good enough for her, understand? Your father is some jumped-up parvenu from nowhere and if you don’t leave my family alone, he’ll find that his money and good name aren’t worth a damn in this town anymore!”
Joe wasn’t exactly sure what a parvenu was, but he didn’t like the sound of it. “Mr. Cowdray, my family has done nothing to you but offer friendship, despite several slaps in the face. I wasn’t trying to hurt Emma and I never would try. I resent you saying otherwise!”
“Get out of here, you insolent young pup!” Cowdray barked. He lifted the gold-topped Malacca cane he carried and struck Joe heavily across the shoulders with it. “Let that be a warning! The next time you come near Emma will be the last!”
“Don’t count on it!” Joe shot back. “Emma, I’ll see you real soon!” He turned and walked away before he did something he would regret later. He could hear Emma crying behind him.
As he rode home, Joe wondered once more what was going on with that family. He liked Emma and was determined to see her again, despite her father’s wishes.
The bruise that developed across Joe’s shoulders was multi-colored and stiff. He had told Ben about his encounter with Emma and her father, but he hadn’t given Ben the promise that his father had tried to extract from him; he couldn’t promise never to try and see Emma again, for that was exactly what he intended to do.
So for the next few nights, Joe made it his business to be in the vicinity of the Cowdrays’ barn when Emma came out to pay her evening visit to her grey gelding, Starlight. Emma had looked startled and slight afraid the first time Joe came into the barn, but as soon as she saw who it was, she smiled in welcome.
“Joe! What are you doing here?”
“I came to make sure you’re all right,” Joe replied. “What happened last night?”
“Papa was furious,” Emma admitted. “He told me I was confined to my room for the night and set me an extra Bible passage to learn. I heard him talking to Mama, and she sounded scared, Joe.”
“Have you seen anyone hanging around your house?” Joe asked.
“No,” Emma replied. “I don’t know what’s going on, Joe.”
“I’ll meet you here every night,” Joe promised. “I’ll see if I can find out anything, and you do the same. Maybe we can sort out this mystery and your father will start to like me.” He saw the doubtful look on Emma’s face. “A guy can dream, can’t he?” he pleaded, smiling.
“All right,” Emma agreed, feeling daring.
So that was what they started to do. Every night for the rest of that week, Joe met with Emma, but neither of them had found out anything about her father’s secret and Emma hadn’t seen anyone hanging around the house. The one good thing that had come out of the clandestine meetings was that Emma had a friend at last, and Joe saw her become more relaxed. He liked Emma, although he didn’t think there was going to be a future together for them. It was really too early to tell.
On Sunday evening, Joe had some news for Emma; news he knew she wouldn’t want to hear. “I’m not going to be able to see you for about a week,” he told her, seeing her downcast face. “I’ve got to go and do some fencing and it’s too far away for me to even go home at night. I leave first thing in the morning, but if all goes well, I’ll see you on Saturday.”
“I’ll miss you,” Emma admitted.
“I’ll miss you, too,” Joe replied. “You be careful.” He gave her a quick hug before he took his leave.
The wagon was piled high with fence posts, wire, hammers and nails. Joe dropped his saddlebags with food and a change of clothes onto the seat beside him and picked up the reins. “See you at the end of the week, Pa!” he called as he shook the team up.
“You be careful, Joe!” Ben called. “You’ll be up there alone until Adam and Hoss can join you.”
“I’ll be careful,” Joe called back. He waved jauntily as he drove out of sight. Joe was going to be about as far away from the house as it was possible to be and still be on the Ponderosa. It was a four-hour trip by wagon and Joe whiled away the time singing to himself and dreaming about all the pretty girls he knew. The sun was hot on his back and Joe was actually looking forward to a little solitude.
But by the end of the week, Joe was more than looking forward to getting home – he was desperate to get back! He had mended the fence for miles, and bore all the evidence of his hard work; scratched hands, bruises and sore muscles. So it was with a burst of joy that he saw his brothers arriving about noon on Friday. He had missed them.
“Hey, brothers!” he hailed them, throwing down his hammer and dragging his forearm across his sweaty forehead. Joe’s shirt was tossed on the wagon seat, along with his hat and gun belt. He reached for the canteen that hung there and drank from it deeply, before pouring some of the water over his head. He shook the wet curls back out of his face and went over to greet his brothers. It was only as they dismounted that Joe realized they weren’t smiling.
Fear spiked his gut. “What’s wrong?” he asked, anxiously. “Its not Pa, is it?”
“No, Pa’s all right,” Adam replied, reassuringly.
“So what’s wrong?” Joe demanded. His brothers’ demeanor was really worrying him now. “Something’s happened. Its not Cooch, is it?”
“It’s Emma,” Hoss replied, unhappily. He glanced at Joe’s face, then hurriedly glanced away again.
“Emma?” Joe echoed, blankly. “What’s happened to Emma?”
His brothers exchanged glances, then Adam stepped forward and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe looked down at that brown hand and knew that whatever was coming was bad. Adam was sparing with his caresses. He looked up into his brother’s face. “Joe, Emma’s dead,” Adam told him, knowing of no way to soften the blow.
“Dead?” Joe gulped. “How?”
For a moment, Adam couldn’t speak, but Joe’s green eyes were locked on his brown ones and there was no way to put off the telling of it. “You’re wanted for her murder, Joe.”
The memory of his brother’s stunned face would stay with him for years.
“Emma was murdered yesterday afternoon,” Adam explained. Joe was sitting against a fence post where his brother had pushed him, convinced that Joe was going to faint. However, Joe was made of sterner stuff than that and despite the shock, demanded to know the details. “She was found about 5pm by her father. Doc Martin thinks she’d been dead about two hours.”
“But what’s that got to do with me?” Joe asked. “I’ve been up here since Monday and you know that!”
“Yes, we know that and Pa told Roy that. But Cowdray insisted that it had to be you, as you were the only person in town that Emma knew. He told us about the quarrel you two had last week.” Adam searched Joe’s face. “We know you didn’t do it, Joe, but you haven’t got an alibi. Nobody has seen you up here at all.”
“That’s where you’re wrong!” Joe exclaimed and he suddenly looked a lot better. “Because I was seen and on Wednesday, too! Old Jim Briar came past on Wednesday afternoon. We talked and I gave him some food, because he was even thinner than usual. He can give me an alibi.”
“Well, that’s good,” Adam replied. He didn’t sound very enthusiastic though and both his younger brothers cocked an eye at him. “But its finding Jim that’s the problem,” he reminded them. “He wanders about wherever the mood takes him.” Jim Briar was an old man who had once worked the silver mines of the Comstock. He had made enough money for himself to live off and spent his life wandering here and there. He had become progressively more ragged over the last few years and the Cartwrights suspected that his money was fast running out.
“We gotta find him, Adam!” Hoss declared, fiercely.
“We will,” Adam promised. “But right now, we’ve got to take Joe home, because Roy Coffee will be waiting to speak to him.”
Reminded, Joe got to his feet and shrugged on his shirt. Together, the boys fixed up the last bit of fencing and loaded up the wagon. They worked in silence, but the only one whose thoughts could not be read on his face was Adam. As ever, he kept his face schooled to neutrality as he thought about how to find their elusive eyewitness to Joe’s innocence. That Joe was innocent he didn’t doubt.
But proving it was another matter.
The evening was well advanced when the three boys clattered wearily into the yard. Adam immediately called for some of the men to take their horses and the team, for Roy Coffee’s horse was standing patiently at the hitching post, and Joe, who had been abnormally quiet, had become very still when he saw it.
“Come on, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, kindly, wrapping his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Best git it over with, I reckon.”
Squaring his slim shoulders, Joe walked unhurriedly across the yard and into the house, Adam and Hoss on his heels. Ben and Roy were drinking coffee in front of the fire and Ben glanced round as the door opened. His smile of welcome was automatic, but not as wide as it normally would have been. “Boys, you’re home! Come and have something to eat.” He turned his head. “Hop Sing! The boys are home.”
Allowing himself to be ushered to the table, Joe glanced at Roy’s face. He could see that the lawman was uncomfortable and Joe couldn’t blame him. He was a personal friend of the family and this must be very difficult for him. Joe looked at the plate of food that was put before him and wondered if he was meant to eat any of it. He wasn’t even sure he recognized it.
“Are you going to arrest me?” he asked and everyone jumped.
“I gotta take ya in Little Joe,” Roy replied. “At least until I’ve sorted this out. I’m real sorry, but there is a warrant out fer yer arrest.”
“Let’s go then,” Joe replied standing up.
“You haven’t eaten anything!” Ben protested.
“I’m not hungry,” Joe replied.
“Ya have yer supper first, Joe,” Roy ordered. “I can wait another half hour.”
Slowly, Joe sat and began to eat mechanically, but he couldn’t taste the food and he had no idea what he had eaten. “Joe’s got an eyewitness who can prove that he wasn’t in town on Wednesday,” Adam said.
The relief that crossed Ben’s face caused Joe to wince and turn his head away. “Who is it?” Ben demanded.
“Jim Briar,” Joe replied, and saw his father’s face fall as he realized the enormity of the task that faced them. Finding Jim Briar was akin to hunting for a needle in a haystack.
“We’ll find him!” Ben vowed.
“What time did he see ya?” Roy wanted to know.
Shrugging, Joe replied, “I don’t know exactly; I didn’t look at my watch. But mid-afternoon, I’d think.”
“If’n Jim can confirm that, then ya’re off the hook,” Roy agreed. He heard the in-drawn breath as Ben began to protest and held up a hand to ward off the torrent. “I know, Ben, I know! A man’s innocent until proven guilty an’ I know that Joe don’t lie. But ya know as well as I do that Jim ain’t the most reliable witness around. ‘Specially if’n he’s had a drink.”
“Let’s go,” Joe suggested, standing. His plate was empty, although he had no idea how that came about. “Let’s get this over with.”
“I’ll come in tomorrow, Joe,” Ben murmured, going over to stand close to his son. Tension oozed from every pore of Joe’s body and Ben lifted a hand to rub the back of his son’s neck. “I’ll make sure you get out tomorrow. But there’s nothing I can do tonight.”
“I know that, Pa,” Joe replied, meeting his father’s eyes for the first time that night. “I didn’t do it.”
“I believe you, son,” Ben said, simply and felt a little of the tension drift away. “I know you didn’t do it.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe whispered and went outside with Roy.
It was all but dark when Joe and Roy arrived in town. Joe was exhausted and was glad to reach his destination, even if it was the jail. He dismounted wearily and hitched his horse to the rail. He knew that Roy or Clem, the deputy, would see that it was stabled and taken care of. He mounted the steps, thankful that Roy was being so tactful about the situation.
They were both completely unprepared for Cowdray to step out of the shadows and give Joe a violent push, knocking the young man backwards off the steps. Joe landed with a thud in the street, reflecting that Cowdray was rather too fond of pushing him around. Roy quickly stepped between Cowdray and Joe, preventing the older man from following up with his Malacca cane.
“That’s enough!” he chided. “Joe? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Joe replied, getting to his feet. He brushed the dirt off his clothes as best he could and warily mounted the steps once more. “Mr. Cowdray, I’m so sorry about Emma,” he offered. “But I didn’t kill her. Please believe me; I was Emma’s friend!”
“Liar!” Cowdray spat. “You’ll hang for this, boy, mark my words! I’ll get you for this!”
“Git outa here!” Roy ordered. “If’n ya don’t leave Joe alone, I’ll have ta arrest ya, too! Go on with ya!” He glared after the man as he left. “Come on, Joe let’s git ya inside.”
Sighing, Joe attempted to smile at Roy as he resumed his walk into the jail. He wondered what else could go wrong that day and got his answer a few moments later. “Look!” cried a voice from the darkness. “It’s Cartwright the killer!” This remark was followed up by a chorus of drunken laughter, then the chanting began. “Cartwright’s a killer! Cartwright’s a killer!”
Ducking his head, Joe went meekly inside and into the cell. He stood looking at the cot for a moment before resolutely lying down on it. But he knew sleep would be a long time coming.
And out in the street, the chanting continued. “Cartwright’s a killer! Cartwright’s a killer!”
“You’re free to go, Joe,” Roy told him, as he unlocked the cell door.
“Free for just now?” Joe asked, warily, picking up his hat and jacket form the cot where they lay. It had been a long night and day for Joe. He had barely slept and the cell, which had been icy cold at night, was now like an oven.
“Free,” Roy repeated. He ushered Joe through to his office where Ben, Adam and Hoss were waiting. With them was Jim Briar, wearing a grin like the Cheshire Cat. Joe stopped in his tracks and looked at Roy. “Free to go. Jim confirmed yer whereabouts,” Roy nodded.
“Thanks,” Joe whispered. He headed straight over to Jim and shook his hand. “Thank, you, Jim.”
“Glad I could help ya, Little Joe. You an’ yer family’s bin good ta me over the years.” Jim shook Joe’s hand once more and then left, back to his lonely life of walking the land.
For a moment, Joe just looked at his family. He wanted to say so much to them, but couldn’t find the words. Ben knew how he felt. He stepped forward and drew his son into a hug. The spell was broken and Hoss and Adam moved in close, patting their brother on the back, the relief that they all felt was palpable.
Finally, Ben broke away. “Let’s go home,” he suggested. “It’s all over.”
“Sounds good to me, Pa,” Joe agreed.
There was an immediate outcry at the news of Joe’s release, led by Cowdray. For the first time since coming to Virginia City, he spoke directly to its citizens, decrying Joe as a murderer and implying that it was solely the Cartwright’s money that had allowed Joe his freedom. It wasn’t the first time that this sort of implication had been made, but it didn’t make it any easier for Ben and the boys to hear. Joe’s initial euphoria at being proved innocent wore off rapidly.
Part of it was the death of Emma. He had missed her funeral while he was coming home with Adam and Hoss and he was saddened to learn that there had only been family there. And on Sunday morning before church began, Joe slipped into the graveyard to pay his respects.
The last person he had hoped to meet was Cowdray. The older man glared at Joe, who hesitated warily. Three times he had met the man and three times he had ended the encounter on his butt. Joe was in no hurry to add a fourth occasion. “Mr. Cowdray,” he nodded.
“Go away, boy!” Cowdray ordered tonelessly. “She’s dead and it’s all your fault.”
“Her death had nothing to do with me,” Joe denied. He could sense someone behind him and knew, without looking, that it was Ben. “I’m so sorry she died.” Joe had a sudden thought, but he didn’t get the chance to say anything as the bereaved father pushed rudely past Joe and left. Joe watched him go before turning to Ben. “I just thought of something I didn’t tell Roy,” he declared. “Pa, please excuse me from church, but this is important.”
“What is it, Joe?” Ben asked.
“The night I had words with Mr. Cowdray, Emma told me that some man had come into the barn and scared her, remember? I told you about it.” Ben nodded. “I didn’t tell Roy about that, Pa. I forgot! I don’t know if Cowdray did, but I get the feeling he didn’t. This could be important, Pa.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Ben agreed. “You go on and I’ll tell your brothers.”
The animation suddenly died out of Joe’s face. “I just need to…” he started, then gestured towards the grave.
“Go on,” Ben urged gently. “We’ll meet you at the jail.” He hurried off.
As Ben explained to Adam and Hoss, he became aware of the looks that were being directed at him, and the murmurs that stopped whenever he looked round. He glanced back at his sons and saw that they were well aware of what was going on.
“Joe’s been tried and convicted, even though he’s innocent,” Adam commented, bitterly. “Cowdray’s been spreading his poison far and wide.”
“I didn’t think people would believe it,” Ben replied.
“Nobody else has been found for Emma’s murder,” Adam pointed out. “So people haven’t got anyone else to blame.”
“Well, if Joe is right, perhaps we’ll be able to stop the rumors,” Ben declared. “I’ll go down and meet Joe at the jail.”
“We’re comin’, too, Pa,” Hoss insisted and Ben realized that it wouldn’t do any good to protest. The Cartwrights always stuck together when the going got tough.
“All right, let’s go.”
They could hear Joe’s agitated voice before they got inside. “Uh-oh,” Adam commented as Ben hurried his step and threw open the jail door.
Joe stood leaning on the desk, glaring at Roy, who gazed placidly back. Sitting in a chair before the desk was Cowdray, looking suspiciously pleased with himself. “What’s going on?” Ben asked.
“I told Roy what Emma said to me, Pa and he doesn’t believe me!” Joe cried, obviously furious.
“Now that ain’t what I said, Little Joe,” Roy interrupted. “I jist said that Mr. Cowdray here had been tellin’ me the same thin’, an’ how Emma was inclined to make up these little stories. I’m sure you believe what ya told me was true, but Mr. Cowdray knew Emma better’n ya, an’ I have ta believe him.”
“So you’re not even going to try and find out if there was another man?” Joe demanded and Roy just looked at him. “Fine!” Joe snapped. “I’ll find him myself!”
“Ya’ll do nothing of the kind!” Roy snapped. “Ya’ve been told there ain’t anyone, so why are ya persistin’ in this behavior?”
Seeing that Joe’s temper was at erupting point, Ben hurried over and took his son’s arm. Joe turned his head and looked into Ben’s dark eyes. After a moment, he drew in a deep breath, and Ben knew that Joe had mastered his temper – for the moment. But Joe was still angry. “Because I saw Emma that night!” he replied. “I know she was scared.” He shot a glance at Cowdray. “And when Emma told you about it, you went so white I thought you were going to faint. And when I asked you if you were all right, you pushed me over and hit me with your cane.” He swung back to face Roy. “Now you tell me, Roy. Does that sound like a made-up story to you?” He started to turn away, but paused to shake Ben loose. “It’s all right, Pa, you can let go of me now.” He stalked out of the door, looking neither left nor right.
For a moment, nobody moved, then Cowdray broke the spell by rising languidly to his feet. “Really, Cartwright, I’d have thought you’d have kept better control of your boy than that. With such a temper, I can quite see how he could have killed my daughter.”
“Joe was proved innocent,” Ben snarled.
“Yes, by a friend of yours, whom you found in a saloon,” Cowdray returned, coldly. “Hardly the most reliable witness, was he?”
“I don’t care for your insinuations,” Ben replied, stepping a bit closer.
“Let it go, Pa,” Adam interjected, moving between the two men. “Joe’s been proven innocent; there’s nothing more Cowdray can do.”
“That’s right, Ben,” Roy agreed.
Ben didn’t move. Cowdray smiled and stepped around Ben. It was a small, petty victory, Ben knew, but he didn’t care. There was something about the feline quality of Cowdray’s smile that he didn’t like one little bit. He knew that although Joe had been proven innocent in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of the townspeople, he had been tried and found guilty.
“I’m sorry I caused such a scene,” Joe apologized after they had returned home.
“It’s all right,” Ben replied. He still hadn’t quite regained his temper, and Joe gave his father a troubled look, but let the subject drop.
But it didn’t go away. The rumor and innuendo got worse day by day. Cowdray had made sure he repeated Joe’s story to everyone, always adding that Emma had been an incurable liar and that Joe was a gullible fool to believe her. Those people who were jealous of the Cartwrights took great joy in spreading the rumor far and wide until it was even being repeated by the hands on the Ponderosa.
Sitting down at the dinner table, Ben sighed heavily. “More trouble with the hands?” Adam asked, sympathetically. Joe was hovering by the credenza, taking an inordinate amount of time to take off his gun belt and hat.
“Yes,” Ben replied. “I had to sack two more who challenged Joe.”
“I would’ve taken care of it,” Joe protested as he sat down.
“Fighting isn’t the way to deal with that sort of thing,” Ben disagreed. He sighed once more as Joe looked blankly down at the empty plate in front of him. “I’m so tired of this. How I wish…” He said no more and Joe was quick to supply the rest of the sentence in his head.
“How I wish Joe had never said anything about Emma. How I wish he had never met her.”
Ducking his head, Joe tried to eat a few mouthfuls of his supper, knowing that Ben would be on his back if he didn’t. But his heart was rebelling within him. Why doesn’t someone believe in me? he asked silently.
After supper, he excused himself and went to his room. None of his family objected. Joe threw himself down on the bed and lay there.
It grew dark and he heard first Hoss, then Adam and finally Ben coming up to bed. Ben opened the door and looked in, but Joe stayed still and quiet and he heard a sigh. “Good night, son,” Ben whispered and Joe felt tears welling in his eyes.
The house grew still and Joe rose, threw a few clothes into his saddlebags and looked around his room once more. He knew what he had to do, and no one was going to stop him. Blinking back tears, he climbed carefully out of the window and eased down the roof, moving with silent ease. It had been a long time since he had had to climb out of the window to get away unseen, but the skills, though rusty, were still there.
Saddling Cochise, Joe silently mounted, then walked his horse out of the yard.
He didn’t look back.
(This story is continued in Rona’s story “Faith to Believe”)