Summary: Wedding bells are on the cards for Joe.
Word Count: 15,405
“A toast!” Ben Cartwright called in a loud voice. The hubbub of the party died away slightly as everyone focused on their host and reached for their glasses. Seeing that he had everyone’s attention, Ben went on, “A toast to my son, Joseph, and his bride to be, Dawn.”
“Joseph and Dawn,” murmured the crowd.
“Thank you,” Joe replied for them both. He had one arm around the waist of his beautiful brunette fiancée. He smiled into her velvety brown eyes and raised his glass to her. “To you, my darling.”
Returning the smile, Dawn whispered, “I love you, Joe Cartwright!”
Next moment, they were surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers, each one wanting to pass on personal messages of congratulations to the young couple. Joe’s unique laugh could soon be heard pealing across the great room as the jokes flew.
Standing over by the fireplace, Ben glanced at his other two sons. “She’s a lovely girl,” Ben declared.
Adam and Hoss nodded. “She is indeed,” Adam replied. “Joe’s done well for himself there.”
“Jist think,” Hoss mused, happily, “I could be an uncle by this time next year.”
“And I could be a grandfather – at last!” Ben agreed, clapping his middle son on the shoulder. “It’s about time one of you boys settled down!”
“When’s the wedding to be, Joe?” asked Mitch Devlin, Joe’s long-time friend.
“In about 6 weeks,” Joe replied.
“Why so long?” Mitch answered. “I wouldn’t want to wait, I can tell you!”
Laughing and blushing, Dawn replied, “I have to get a few things, and ask my relatives if they’re going to come out. That all takes time.”
Someone else came up to speak to Dawn, and Joe found himself standing on the outskirts of the group, admiring his bride to be. He still could not believe his good fortune. A hand clapped heavily onto his shoulder and a familiar voice said into his ear, “Close your mouth, Joe, you’re drooling.”
“You’re jealous, Adam,” Joe responded, without looking around.
“Me?” Adam protested. “I don’t think so, little brother.” As Joe turned to look at him, Adam smiled warmly. “But I do want to congratulate you again, Joe. Dawn is everything I could have hoped for in a sister-in-law.”
“Thanks, Adam,” Joe replied. He blinked back moisture in his eyes.
“Did you show Dawn those blueprints?” Adam asked. He had designed a house for Joe and Dawn as his wedding present. They were going to start work on it as soon as Joe and Dawn were married.
Joe’s eyes lit up. “She loved them, Adam,” Joe replied, enthusiastically. “I can hardly wait until we get started on building it!”
“As soon as you’re safely married,” Adam agreed. “We don’t really have time to begin before that.”
“I know,” Joe agreed. “Dawn wants to go to Sacramento to do some shopping first.”
The hint of a frown crossed Adam’s brow. “Are you going with her?” he asked, seeking to keep the disapproval out of his tone. They had round-up starting the next week and could ill-afford to have Joe gallivanting off to Sacramento.
“No,” Joe sighed and looked crest-fallen. “Dawn says it’s a girl thing and she’s going with that crowd she hangs out with.”
Relief flooded through Adam. “Well, did you really think she would take you with her when she was buying her wedding dress?” he asked. “Besides, I can’t see you sitting happily in dress shops all day.”
“I guess not,” Joe replied, his eyes drifting back to Dawn. The band started playing a slow dance. “Excuse me, Adam; I’m going to dance with my fiancée.” He broke through the people gathered around Dawn and held his hand out to her. With a smile, Dawn put her hand in his and followed him out on the floor. Soon they were completely oblivious to everyone else in the room as they danced.
“I’m sorry I’m not going to be here when you get back,” Joe told Dawn as they waited for the Sacramento stage to come in. “It’s going to be weeks before I see you again.”
“You sound just like a little boy when you say that,” Dawn chided him, gently.
“I know,” Joe sighed. “But I’m going to miss you.”
Caressing his cheek with her gloved hand, Dawn sighed, too. “This is the best time for me to be away, since you’re away, too, darling.”
“I know,” Joe agreed. He leant his cheek into her hand. “Have a good time.” He reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a pile of bills. “Here, this should buy you what you need.”
Dawn pulled back and put her hands behind her. “I can’t take your money, Joe.”
“Of course you can,” Joe replied, impatiently, trying to grab one of her hands.
“No, not until after we’re married,” Dawn insisted. “Joe, I have money, you know that.” Her eyes glazed with tears. “Mama left me money for my wedding outfits, and I want to use that. Joe, please.”
“I understand that,” Joe replied, gently. “But, how’s this? You take it, just in case you run out and if you don’t use it, you can give it back to me. What do you say?” He used his ‘puppy dog’ look on her, the one that was so effective on Ben.
It didn’t let him down. “Oh, all right,” she relented.
“That’s my girl,” Joe smiled. He glanced over her shoulder as the stagecoach rattled into sight. The others girls who were going with Dawn rose from where they had been waiting on a bench and gathered up their bags. “I love you,” Joe reminded Dawn. He kissed her briefly on the lips before handing her into the coach and giving her bag to the driver.
Joe gazed after the coach until it was out of sight, then slowly walked across to the store, where he paid for the supplies that were loaded onto the buckboard, waiting for him. Feeling unaccountably lonely, Joe set off for home.
It had been a whirlwind romance for Joe and Dawn. Dawn had arrived in Virginia City just a few short months before, with the five girls who were her friends. They had rented a house together and were soon the talk of the town. The matrons didn’t approve of six young girls living together, unchaperoned by someone more mature. The girls, Julie, Louise, Valerie, Beth and Kate, plus Dawn, didn’t care. They kept their own hours, and would quite often disappear for days on end. They were polite and well-dressed and they all seemed to have money. The mystery was tantalizing the whole town.
About a month after their arrival, Joe and Dawn met at a dance. Joe had been away to San Francisco with his father, and so did not know of the arrival of six very eligible young ladies in town and was instantly attracted to Dawn, who was wearing an eye-catching red velvet dress with gold embroidery at the hem. Joe had gone stag that night, since he had been away for a while and so there was no problem in going over to introduce himself and ask the beautiful young lady to dance.
Dawn was just as attracted to Joe, having seen him the instant he walked into the room. Joe was by far the handsomest man Dawn had ever seen, and her friends were jealous when Joe proceeded to devote the rest of the evening to her. He and Dawn chatted away like old friends and as the dance drew to a close, Joe asked, “Can I see you home?”
“Thank you,” Dawn replied. “I’ll just get my wrap.” She went to get her wrap while Joe shrugged on his green jacket.
“I hope you won’t get into trouble for staying out so late,” Joe commented as they walked slowly down the street. “I never thought to ask if you had to be home by a certain time.”
“I’m my own mistress, Joe,” Dawn replied. “I can please myself. My parents are both dead. My friends already went home, so the house won’t be empty when I go in.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe replied. “I didn’t know.”
“No reason why you should know,” Dawn assured him. She slowed as she reached her home.
“Can I see you again?” Joe asked.
“I’d like that very much,” Dawn replied.
“Tomorrow?” Joe suggested. “I could take you for a picnic by the lake.”
“I’ll bring the picnic,” Dawn insisted. “I’ll see you at two.” With a bewitching smile, she vanished into the house.
That picnic was just the first of many. Joe could hardly bear to be parted from Dawn, and the few times she had to go away for a day or two were torture to him. He was slightly less enchanted to discover that her five friends had gone with her each time, but Dawn explained to him that they were all close and the girls were going with her for support. Although she didn’t say it in so many words, Dawn implied that she was going to visit a relative who was ‘not quite all there’. Joe assumed that there was some kind of mental handicap, and didn’t probe, respecting her devotion to this unknown relation.
Apart from that, Joe got on very well with her friends. Kate had a very deep voice for a girl, and was constantly being teased about it by the others. Julie had long blonde hair that she spent a lot of time coaxing into ringlets. Val had a different boyfriend every week. Louise devoured books at a great rate and Beth was a singer, with a beautiful voice. They were all quite different to each other and all the best of friends.
It didn’t come as any surprise when Joe proposed to Dawn and she accepted. Ben, Adam and Hoss had met Dawn on several occasions, and had all come to like her very much. Joe had been a different person since he had met her. He had matured, and was calmer, less likely to lose his temper. Joe always had a great enthusiasm for life, but it grew after he met Dawn. Joe was cheerful whatever the provocation and didn’t even mind when it was pouring with rain and he was thigh deep in mud. As Adam said, his unrelenting cheerfulness was enough to make your teeth ache!
On the night of the engagement party, after the girls were home, Julie, Louise, Val, Beth and Kate sat down with Dawn for a serious talk. “So what have you decided to do?” Kate asked.
“I’ll have to give it up,” Dawn replied regretfully. “I can’t keep on doing this when I’m married to Joe. He’ll want to come and meet this ‘relative’. I’ll have to tell him that they died.”
“But you’re so good at it,” Beth protested. “You have the best ideas.”
“It was bound to happen to one of us sooner or later,” Dawn sighed. “I was just first.” She wiped away a tear. “I’ll miss it, girls, there’s no getting away from it.”
“One last time, before the big day?” begged Julie. “After all, you need to buy your trousseau, don’t you?”
“Yes, Joe’s going on the cattle drive,” Val chimed in.
“Please,” added Louise.
“All right,” Dawn agreed. “Which bank are we gonna rob, girls?”
The cattle drive went off relatively uneventfully. The steers arrived at market still well fleshed out and Ben received top dollar for them. The money was banked, the drovers paid and Ben and his sons got a well-earned rest in a comfortable hotel.
“Are you all right, Joe?” Ben asked, after they had finished eating. Adam and Hoss had gone for a beer, but Joe had declined, sitting on with his father as Ben had a brandy. Joe played with the untouched glass of brandy in front of him.
“Sure, Pa, why do you ask?” Joe replied.
“You’ve been very quiet, that’s all,” Ben responded. “And you didn’t want to go with your brothers for a beer.”
“I’ve just been thinking,” Joe shrugged. “And I didn’t fancy a beer. I don’t want to flirt with some saloon girl, Pa and I’m not in the mood for playing cards.”
“Feeling the responsibilities of a married man creeping up on you, eh, son?” Ben asked, squeezing Joe’s shoulder.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Joe responded. “I just don’t want to do it tonight. I’d rather get an early night so I’m ready to leave at first light.” He smiled. “I’m missing Dawn.”
“I know,” Ben replied, with a slight sigh, for he did know. He still missed Marie more than he could say. He was glad Joe had found someone to love. “I’m really happy for you, Joe. Dawn is a wonderful girl. As soon as we get back, we’ll start getting organized to build your new house. Are you sure Dawn doesn’t mind living with us in the mean time?”
“Quite sure, Pa,” Joe replied. He smiled suddenly and Ben felt as though the sun had suddenly come out. “I can hardly believe it, Pa. Do you know what I mean? Dawn is gorgeous, and she loves me as much as I love her.”
“I felt the same way about your mother, Joe,” Ben agreed. “She was so beautiful and dainty and I couldn’t believe that she loved me. It was difficult for her, to come into a house where there were two young boys. To begin with, Adam resented her, but he soon grew to love her.” Joe nodded, for this was not a secret. Adam openly admitted that he had resented Marie’s sudden intrusion into their lives, but they had become friends. “In a way, it’ll be difficult for Dawn, too, coming into our family. We are all so close, and she is alone. You’ll need to be patient with her, Joe.”
“I will be, sir,” Joe assured him. “I can hardly wait to be married, Pa and to have a family.”
Cautiously, not wanting to squash Joe’s dreams, he ventured, “What if you can’t have a family?” Ben knew of many people who had no children.
“I have Dawn,” Joe responded. “That’s all that matters.” He smiled. “But I want to give you grandchildren, Pa. I want to be a good father, like you are to us.”
Touched by the unexpected compliment, Ben blinked back tears. “I’m sure you’ll be a wonderful father, Joe,” he replied. “I wish you and Dawn as much happiness together as your mother and I knew, and a long life together.”
“Thank you,” Joe whispered. He suddenly, just for that moment, felt like his father’s equal; a grown up man, with adult responsibilities. Soon, he would have a home and a family of his own. He felt unbearably excited. He flashed his beautiful smile at Ben.
It was a poignant moment for Ben. His last-born son was about to embark upon a new life. For that fleeting instant, Ben felt old and wished that Joe could be a little boy again. But not for long. Joe was an adult now and Ben was intensely proud of him, as he was of all his sons. But their relationship would be changed now, to accommodate another; perhaps several others. He could hardly wait to cradle Joe’s children in his arms, as he had cradled Joe so long ago. He lifted his glass, and Joe lifted his untouched glass of brandy.
“To the Future!”
“To the Future,” Joe agreed and they drank.
“You’re in kinda a hurry ta git goin’ this mornin’, little brother, ain’t cha?” Hoss teased as Joe finished the last bite of his breakfast and pushed his chair back.
“Not really,” Joe denied. “But some of us didn’t come back in the early hours and so were easier to get up this morning.”
“He’s decided to reform, since he’s going to be an old married man,” Adam told Hoss. It wasn’t often Adam had too much to drink, as he hated to lose control of himself. But the previous night, he and Hoss had spent quite a bit of time discussing Joe’s upcoming marriage and both had become rather maudlin and were paying the price that morning.
“Adam sure is jealous that I’m getting married before he is, Pa,” Joe stated.
“No I’m not!” Adam cried, and winced, for his head was thumping and the vehemence of his outcry made it worse.
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” Joe quoted and fled the room before Adam could gather his resources.
“I wish I’d never let him read Hamlet,” Adam muttered, darkly.
“You wanted to introduce him to Shakespeare,” Ben reproved mildly. “You can’t really complain if he’s taken to quoting back at you, after all these years.”
“Maybe not,” Adam retorted, “but I’m going to anyway!” They all laughed.
The trip back went much more quickly than the journey there, as was to be expected. Joe seemed to lead the way the whole time, leading to more teasing from his brothers. But Ben had noticed a change in the way that both boys, but Adam in particular, treated Joe. Adam had often found it difficult to treat Joe as an adult – a problem that Ben could identify with. He had struggled with this problem with all his sons, but had overcome it successfully, for the most part. But suddenly, Adam wasn’t teasing Joe as much and listened more closely to what his youngest brother had to say. In return, Joe was more relaxed in his dealings with his brother and Ben hoped that this was the beginning of a long-lasting peace between his two most stubborn sons.
“It ain’t gonna be the same with Little Joe gettin’ married, is it, Pa?” Hoss asked, as he and Ben rode behind Joe and Adam, who were deep in some discussion about Joe’s new house.
“No,” Ben admitted, with a nostalgic sigh. “Everything will change.”
“But they’ll be good changes,” Hoss insisted, as though Ben was arguing with him. “An’ we’ll git used ta them real quick, so it don’t really seem like there’s bin any changes.” He frowned. “Do that make sense?” he asked.
“I think I know what you mean,” Ben replied, smiling. “Dawn will become a part of our lives quickly and because we like her so much, she won’t seem like a stranger. Joe will still love us and be part of the family, even if he does have a family of his own.”
The frown cleared from Hoss’ brow. “That’s what I meant,” he agreed. “I jist couldn’t say it as good as you, Pa.”
“Well, we’ve all been thinking the same thing, I guess,” Ben told him. “I’m sure Adam has been thinking the same, and Joe, too. It’s a big change in our life, Hoss. But a good one, as you said.”
Hoss suddenly sniffed suspiciously. “Dadburnit, but I wish Ma were here to see this,” he announced huskily.
Tears suddenly filled Ben’s eyes and he had to raise a hand to dash them away. “So do I,” he admitted. “So do I.”
“It feels so right, Adam,” Joe explained as they rode along. “All those other girls – Laura, Amy, Julia Grant and Julia Bulette – I did love them, but not like this.”
“Each love is different, Joe,” Adam reminded him, having heard Ben say this many times. “And you’re older now.”
“Oh, I know I was too young before, especially with Amy, but this is different, Adam. It feels as though Dawn is the other half of me, and I never expected love to feel like this.” Joe sighed as he looked around him. “I can’t wait to get married, to know that she’s waiting at home for me every night. I want to shout my happiness from the hilltops!”
A pang of envy swept through Adam. He had felt the same way about Ruth Halverson, but had lost her. She had gone with the Shoshones, to save his life and he never found a trace of her ever again. Adam had grieved for her for a long time, and although life was sweet again, there were still times when Ruth’s memory crept up on him unexpectedly. They could have had several children by now, he thought, wistfully. He had been older than Joe was now when he found someone to love, and sometimes it seemed to Adam that Joe had everything in life handed to him on a plate. But he brushed the unworthy thought aside. Yes, Joe’s life had been different from Adam’s in many ways, but the most important thing had been the same – the steadfast love of their father.
Reaching across the small space that separated them, Adam squeezed Joe’s shoulder. Joe looked surprised, for Adam was sparing with his caresses. “I’m really happy for you, buddy,” he told Joe, his voice rough with emotion. “I hope you know that.”
Deeply moved, Joe didn’t attempt to blink away the tears that welled in his eyes. “I know,” he replied, simply.
Dawn’s trip to Sacramento had not gone as well as she and the others had hoped. They had been robbing banks for about two years by the time Dawn met Joe. It had started out as a theoretical discussion. One of the girls had seen an article in the newspaper about a gang of bank robbers who had been caught. She challenged the other girls to come up with fool-proof ways to rob a bank. And somehow, the game had become serious. A few weeks after reading the article, the girls, heavily disguised, had robbed that very bank and escaped with almost $10,000.
To begin with, they were horrified at what they had done. All six girls had gone to the same girls’ school in New York State and knew each other well. They all had respectable backgrounds and knew right from wrong. But when they realized that they had got away scot-free, the excitement of planning another robbery soon asserted itself and they carried on.
It seemed safest to the girls to move away from their home. After all, there were only so many banks to rob in New York State, and they couldn’t risk being identified. Dawn’s parents had both died just after the first robbery, and everyone assumed that she had been left money to live on. Some of the other girls still had parents living, and they weren’t too happy at the thought of their daughters leaving for the Wild West alone, but the girls were determined, and so they went.
It had taken them those two years to reach Nevada, robbing banks along the way. The money they had stolen allowed them to live very comfortably indeed, and they had become greedy and over confident. And they paid the price at Sacramento.
Waiting for a lull in the bank traffic, the girls had entered when they thought the bank was deserted. However, they hadn’t realized that there was a customer in with the manager, and he was still there when they burst in. Incensed that these villains were going to take the money he had just withdrawn, the man drew his gun and fired. Beth was hit and went down, bleeding profusely. The other girls fled, leaving her there. By the time the manager was ripping off her mask, Beth was already dead.
“It’s a girl!” the manager exclaimed, looking up in disbelief at his staff.
“I shot her,” his customer stuttered. “I didn’t know it was a girl.”
Later, as he repeated this to the sheriff, the sheriff replied, “It doesn’t make any difference that it was a girl. She was robbing the bank and deserved everything she got!”
It didn’t take long for the news to hit the papers and the sensation of the year was soon headline news from coast to coast.
“How can she be dead?” Julie demanded. The remaining five girls had locked themselves in their room in the hotel and the initial shock was beginning to wear off.
“We’ve just got to be more determined in future,” Kate asserted. “We have to learn to shoot first!”
“In future?” Val gasped. “You mean, you want to go on?”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Kate replied. “We can’t give up!” She gestured to Dawn. “Dawn needs the money to pay for her wedding dress and clothes.”
“Right!” asserted Louise. “But we can’t stay here. Let’s go home and rob the bank there.”
“In Virginia City?” Dawn protested. “We can’t do that! I’ve got to live there for the rest of my life!”
“You don’t have to,” Kate told her. “Marrying Joe is your choice.”
Gazing at Kate, Dawn snapped, “Yes, it is my choice! All right, we’ll rob the Virginia City bank.”
“Then let’s go buy your dress and get the next stage home,” Louise suggested. “After all, we can’t go back empty handed, can we?”
“Well, we could,” retorted Val. “But since we’re here…” She grinned at the others.
As they pinned on their hats, it didn’t occur to any of the girls that they were acting like the hardened criminals they had become.
“Hi, honey!” Joe cried as Dawn opened the door for him. The grin ran away from his face as he observed Dawn’s red eyes. “What’s wrong?” he demanded, anxiously. “What’s happened?”
“Its Beth,” Dawn answered, her mouth trembling. “She went missing when we were in Sacramento.” She gulped. “She’s dead.”
“I’m so sorry,” Joe muttered. He followed Dawn inside and shut the door behind him. “How…?”
“We don’t know,” Dawn replied. “We don’t want to know.”
They had reported Beth missing when they were leaving Sacramento, telling the sheriff there that she had been meeting her boyfriend and hadn’t come back for the stage. The sheriff, realizing that the description of Beth fitted his bank robber, had just told the girls she was dead.
“I see,” Joe mumbled. He assumed from Dawn’s statement that Beth had been raped and murdered. He reached out and pulled Dawn to him, wrapping his arms tightly around her. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
Snuggling into Joe’s shoulder, Dawn sighed. “So am I,” she replied. “Her body was sent back east and the funeral was today.” It had been much harder for them to come back to the house than they had expected, but they had all had a good cry and were feeling better. “How did your trip go?”
“Very well,” Joe replied, feeling the grin creeping back. “We got a good price for the herd and we didn’t lose a single one on the way!”
“I’m pleased for you, Joe,” Dawn assured him. She looked closely at her fiancé for the first time and saw the dark shadows under his eyes, and the slightly thinner cheeks. “You look tired, Joe.”
“I am, a bit,” Joe admitted. “Sleeping on the ground for weeks on end is tiring.”
“Why don’t you go home and get some rest?” Dawn suggested. “This isn’t a good time for you to be here, as it happens. We’re doing girly things for the wedding.”
“I can take a hint,” Joe smiled. He bent his head to kiss her. “See you later.”
“I love you,” Dawn called, as Joe mounted up.
“I love you, too,” he called back and waved as he trotted away.
“About time, too,” Kate said, tartly as Dawn went back into the living room. “This dress will never be ready if you spend all your time mooning over Joe Cartwright.”
“I didn’ expect ya back so quick, Shortshanks,” Hoss noted, as Joe led Cochise into the barn. “I thought you an’ Dawn would be whisperin’ sweet nuthins in each other’s ears all night.”
Joe laughed. “I had planned on doing that very thing, big brother,” he agreed. “But Dawn and the others were doing ‘girly stuff’ for the wedding and I can take a hint as well as the next man!”
“She’s gettin’ ya real well trained already, seems ta me,” Hoss teased him. He clapped Joe on the shoulder and almost knocked him over. However, Joe was used to such buffeting and didn’t say anything.
“Trained,” Joe scoffed. “Sure; right; uh-huh.” He carried on unsaddling his horse. “Did you hear that, Coochie? He thinks Dawn is getting me trained.” He shot an amused glance over his shoulder at his big brother and best friend.
“Serious, Joe,” Hoss ventured. “I’m real glad you an’ Dawn is gettin’ hitched. She’s a real nice girl.”
“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied, touched.
“Its gonna seem some strange,” Hoss went on. “Havin’ a gal livin’ with us. But we’ll git used ta it real quick. An’ soon ya’ll have a home o’ yer own, an’ that’ll seem strange at first, too.” Joe had stopped moving by now and was gazing at Hoss intently as his brother struggled his way through what he had to say. “Adam an’ me, we’re real happy fer ya, Joe. Ya’ll make a great pa some day, too, I jist know ya will.” Running out of words, Hoss decided to show Joe how he felt instead. He reached out and pulled his younger brother into a bear hug.
They never knew how long they stood there like that, but when they finally did break apart, Joe wasn’t the only one with wet eyes. “Thanks,” Joe croaked. “I love you, Hoss.”
“Watchin’ ya standin’ up there at the altar,” Hoss said, “will be the proudest day of my life!”
“Mine, too,” Joe agreed. “Mine, too, big brother.”
Time moved on inexorably towards the wedding date. Joe’s new suit was finished and hanging in his wardrobe. He was spending the evenings breaking in his new pair of boots so that they would be comfortable for dancing after the wedding ceremony. He endured a few jibes from his family, but they didn’t last long; they were all soon engaged on the same activity!
Everything seemed sharper to Joe during this time. He relished being alone with his family, knowing that soon the family dynamic would be changing. It was bittersweet, because Joe was longing to get married and have Dawn sitting with him at the breakfast table, yet he would miss the times when it was just he and his family. Every moment seemed more precious.
Ben finally cornered Joe alone by the corral one evening. He had been trying to have some time alone with Joe for a few days, but the boys’ excitement over the wedding had prevented Ben from managing this. However, a discreet word with Adam and Hoss had finally netted the result he wanted.
Turning, Joe smiled at his father as he stopped petting Cochise. The horse pushed him with his nose, and Joe automatically began stroking his horse again, although his attention was on Ben. “Hi, Pa.”
“I’m not interrupting, am I?” Ben asked.
“No, of course not,” Joe replied. “I was just daydreaming.”
“Oh, I wonder what about?” Ben teased. Joe laughed. “I wanted a word with you, Joe.”
In the past, those words would have made Joe tense up and demand to know what he’d done wrong. Not this time. Joe’s smile was still on his face and he nodded. “Go on.”
Now that the time had come to start, Ben wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. “Joe, I just want you to know how happy I am for you. I never thought you would be the first of my sons to marry, but I’m delighted. I like Dawn very much.” He paused for a moment. “And I think your mother would have liked her, too.”
Tears suddenly sprang into Joe’s eyes. “Do you really think so?” he whispered. “I’ve wondered.”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t think so,” Ben told him. He moved to drape his arm around Joe’s shoulders. He felt a lump in his throat. “Joe, I so wish your mother was here to see you getting married. I’m sure she’s giving you her blessing from heaven, but it’s not the same as her being here. I know I’ll feel the same when the time comes for Adam and Hoss to get married.” He had to pause to get his voice under control. “But I know your mother would be as proud of you as I am, Joe. You’ve grown into a fine man.”
For a moment, Ben thought Joe wasn’t going to speak. But then Joe cleared his throat. “That’s the only thing missing,” he whispered. “Mama. I can barely remember her face without her picture in my hand, and mostly I can’t remember her voice, or her perfume. But over the last few weeks, it’s as though I saw her just the other day. I can almost feel her with me. Does that make sense, Pa?”
“Yes, it makes sense to me,” Ben agreed. “Your mother has seemed closer to all of us lately. I’m not sure why. But we were only a complete family – all of us together – when your mother was alive. Don’t get me wrong, Joe, I’m not saying that you, me and your brothers aren’t a complete family, because we are. Adam never knew his mother, and Hoss never knew his. The only mother that all three of you knew was yours. That gives her a special bond to us all. Right now, its not Elizabeth or Inger that Adam and Hoss are missing; it’s Marie.”
The tears that had been in Joe’s eyes now spilled down his cheeks. “I didn’t want to admit how much I wanted Mama to be here,” he croaked. “I didn’t want it to seem that I wasn’t totally happy. I am, Pa. But I want Mama here, too.” He looked at Ben. “Will I always feel like this when something special happens?”
“Yes, I think you will,” Ben nodded. “But this feeling won’t dampen your happiness. You’ll think of your mother at special times, and that’s only right. Don’t let the memory of your loss spoil your joy in what’s happening now. You’ve moved on from her death, as we all have. But at times like this, when something momentous happens, it’s natural to think of her. But remember, son; she wanted you to be happy. She’ll be watching over you during the ceremony, I’m sure.” Tears sparkled in his eyes, too. He missed Marie more fiercely at this time than he had done for many years.
“I love you, Pa,” Joe said, and threw his arms around his father.
Closing his arms around his son, Ben rested his cheek against that curly head and a wealth of memories flooded over him. The pang of loss was never totally overcome, but Ben was glad he had had a chance to talk to Joe. He was ready, now, to let his son move on.
“I’ll pick up the mail,” Joe said over breakfast a few days later. “I have a few things to do in town anyway.”
“All right,” Ben agreed.
“What do you have to do?” Adam asked, curiously.
A smile broke over Joe’s face. “I have to collect the wedding ring,” he replied. “And I want to put a down payment on that stove for the house.”
“Good thinking,” Adam approved, as though he had final say on Joe’s activities. “It would be good if the stove got here about the time the house is finished.”
“Yeah, I thought so, too,” Joe agreed. “How’s the timber cutting coming along?” The timber operation was Adam’s concern, but Joe was eager to know how long it would be before his house could be started.
“Don’t worry, Joe,” Adam replied, with a patronizing tone in his voice. “The timber for your house will be cut in time. We’ll get started building after the wedding, like I promised!”
“Glad to hear it,” Joe retorted. He pushed his chair back. “Anything else you need in town, Pa?”
“No, son, nothing,” Ben replied. “Off you go.” As Joe rose, he asked, “Have you got enough money?”
“Sure, Pa,” Joe replied. “I’ve got it saved up. I just have to go to the bank and draw it out.”
“Are you sure?” Ben asked.
Grinning, Joe nodded. “Quite sure, Pa,” he replied, patiently. “I’m a big boy now.”
“Get out of here!” Ben scolded.
“See you later,” Joe called as he grabbed his jacket and gun belt and popped his hat on.
“I wish Joe would learn not to bang the door,” Ben commented, as the front door slammed resoundingly behind his youngest.
“I think you might have to admit defeat on that one, Pa,” Adam commented ruefully. “Or else leave it to Dawn!”
“Ah,” Hoss interjected, “but will she be able to make him keep his feet off the table?”
They all laughed. “Somehow, I have my doubts,” Ben commented.
The ride into town passed in a welter of excited thoughts for Joe. One week from today, he thought, and we’ll have been married for 24 hours! A grin began to spread over his face and he wondered if he would have time to pop in and visit Dawn. He hadn’t seen as much of her since he came home as he would have liked, thanks to the pressure of work on the ranch.
Arriving in town, Joe hitched Cochise outside the bank, and headed up to the goldsmith’s shop first. The wedding ring had been paid for when Joe bought Dawn her engagement ring and it only required to be collected. The goldsmith greeted him pleasantly and brought out the ring for Joe to admire. Although the ring was just a plain band of gold, Joe had had the smith engrave their initials and the date of their wedding on the inside of the ring. Joe was pleased with it and tucked the little jeweler’s box securely into his inside jacket pocket before he went back into the street. He didn’t want to lose it!
Joe’s next stop was to collect the mail and he spent some time chatting to Rudi, the clerk, who always knew all the town gossip and never hesitated to pass it on. But Joe’s attention wasn’t on the stories of who was seeing who and who had dumped who. He was impatient to get on with his business, and with a final smile at Rudi, he made his escape.
His next stop was the bank, where he was going to withdraw the money to put a down payment on the stove that he and Dawn wanted from a company back east. Joe just hoped that they would be able to get the one that they wanted. They had seen it in a catalogue and it was the latest design and, according to Cameron at the store, was selling like hotcakes back east.
There were several other horses hitched beside Cochise at the bank, but Joe didn’t think anything of it. The bank was usually quite busy. He patted his jacket pocket, where the mail now resided next to the ring, and smiled when he felt the slight bulge there. Whistling cheerfully, Joe opened the bank door and went in.
He froze, half way into the bank as a masked man turned a rifle on him. Someone gave him a shove and Joe stumbled forward a step and heard the door close behind him. The manager and cashiers were huddled against the far wall, while two other men kept them covered and a fifth man emptied the safe. There were no other customers in the bank. Joe slowly raised his hands and felt his gun being lifted from his holster.
No one spoke. Joe looked around, sensing something odd about the situation. Frowning, he glanced at the man in front of him, and realized how small he was. Suddenly it dawned on Joe; these were kids robbing the bank! That explained why they were all so small and thin. They were just kids.
Looking at them with this in mind, Joe guessed that they might well be more dangerous than older, more experienced bank robbers would be. “Tie him up,” instructed a youth with a half-broken voice that Joe found somehow familiar.
The youth with the rifle put it aside and drew a length of rawhide from his pocket. He went over to Joe and motioned for him to put his hands together. Reluctantly, Joe complied, reflecting that the youth didn’t want to speak so that he didn’t betray himself. But for all that the boy was young, he knew about knots as he tightened the rawhide around Joe’s wrists. Joe tried not to wince aloud and hoped that the boys would soon be through robbing the bank so that someone could untie him.
With Joe’s hands securely bound, the youth picked up his rifle again. “Come on,” growled the one with the half-broken voice. “Hurry up and let’s get out of here.”
Frowning, Joe knew that he knew that voice. Where had he heard the speaker before? It would be an important clue for Roy when it came to hunting these youths down. He was still wracking his brains when the youth who had been rifling the safe straightened up.
“Let’s go,” growled the leader and they all began to back towards the door, keeping the bank staff and Joe covered.
Looking at them all once, more trying to memorize their general appearances, Joe made eye contact with the youth who had been rifling the safe. He gasped audibly and took a step towards them. He would know those velvety brown eyes anywhere.
“Dawn!” he gasped.
Instantly, the youth with the rough voice cocked his gun and Joe suddenly realized where he had heard that voice before and knew that he knew the identity of all five bank robbers. He took another step forward, and Kate grabbed his arm, putting the gun against his temple.
“Gag him!” she ordered and Joe looked at Dawn with horrified disbelief as she dragged the bandanna from Joe’s own pocket and gagged him tightly, avoiding his eyes all the time. “We’re taking Joe with us,” Kate told the bank staff. “Anyone makes a move to come after us and he’s a goner, got it?”
“We’ve got it,” the manager replied in disgust.
The girls dragged a stunned Joe outside, where there was a sudden outcry as people in the street realized what was going on. They surged forward, only to fall back as Kate once more brandished her gun alongside Joe’s head.
“We’re taking you with us,” Kate told Joe. “Get onto your horse!” She helped him on, used one rein to quickly tie his hands to the saddle horn, then mounted her own horse, grabbing Joe’s remaining rein and leading him after them as they galloped out of the town.
The door to the bank burst open and the manager hurried out. “Get the sheriff!” he yelled. “They robbed the bank and have taken Joe Cartwright hostage!”
The galloping hooves told Ben that Joe had arrived home and he smiled as he continued writing his letter. Any moment now, the front door would be thrown open and Joe would breeze into the room, calling out his greeting.
So the urgent thumping on the front door came as a complete surprise and Ben rose quickly to answer, wondering what on earth was going on. “Clem?” he frowned, gazing at the deputy in surprise.
“Ben, thank goodness I’ve got you.” Clem was panting and Ben glanced over his shoulder at the lathered horse that was standing in the yard with its head down at its knees.
“What is it?” Ben demanded. “What’s happened?”
Drawing in a huge breath, Clem told his unwanted news. “There was a robbery at the bank. Joe’s been taken hostage by the robbers.”
The color drained from Ben’s face as he grabbed Clem’s arm. “Is he hurt?” he demanded. “Clem…”
“No, as far as I know, Joe’s not hurt,” Clem assured him. “Roy wants you to come into town.”
“I must tell Adam and Hoss,” Ben stuttered, as he reached for his gun and hat.
“I sent Jim after them,” Clem told him. Jim was another deputy that Roy called on when there was need.
It was clear that Clem’s horse wasn’t up to a fast ride back to town and Clem pulled it away from the water trough before it could founder. Fred, one of the hands, swiftly saddled a horse for the deputy as Ben threw his own tack onto Buck. Fred began to tend to the lathered horse as Ben and Clem rode off.
Bound and gagged, Joe rode along with the gang of bank robbers in a state of shock. It wasn’t entirely because he had been taken hostage; it was more who had taken him hostage that was causing the problem. For the young woman that Joe was due to marry in less than a week was one of the gang who had taken him along with them, so they could escape with the bank’s money. Joe could not take his eyes off Dawn’s slim back as she rode along in front of him.
After a time, the panting horses were pulled to a stop and the girls tore off the big coats, hats and bandannas they wore. “Now what are we going to do?” asked Val. “I didn’t count on taking him along with us!” She gestured angrily at Joe.
“None of us did,” Kate returned, equally angrily. “But we could hardly leave him behind, could we? He recognized us! And he shouted out Dawn’s name. We can’t go home, either, like we had intended.”
“Well, we aren’t going to sort anything out by shouting at each other,” Louise soothed. “We have to find somewhere to hole up and then we can decide what to do.” She glanced at Dawn. “Have you got any ideas?”
“If we keep going in this direction, we should come to one of the line shacks belonging to the Cartwrights,” Dawn suggested. “We can get supplies there, stop for the night, or we can take the supplies and move on.” She glanced at Joe, and color immediately rose in her face as she saw that he was still looking at her.
“All right,” grumbled Val. “Let’s go. There’ll be a posse out looking for us.”
Allowing Dawn to take the lead, they moved off. After a few minutes, Dawn glanced back at Joe, who immediately dropped his gaze. He knew what she wanted. She wanted him to indicate to her that they were going in the right direction to find a line shack. Joe had no intention of helping her. His heart was breaking as the realization of what he had just witnessed sank in.
Dawn was not who he had thought she was.
“What?” Ben breathed, disbelievingly. He sat down heavily in the seat Roy had pointed him at. “Are you saying… that Dawn… was one of the bank robbers?” He shook his head, trying to understand. “Roy, that’s not possible.”
“I’m afraid it is, Ben,” Roy Coffee, the sheriff, replied. “Dan Coutts heard Joe say her name. He says Joe looked as though he couldn’t believe his eyes. Much the way you’re lookin’ now, I dare say.”
“Couldn’t it be a different Dawn?” Hoss asked, hopelessly.
“Do you know anyone else called Dawn?” Adam asked. The name was extremely unusual. Hoss shook his head sadly.
“What was Dawn doing with that gang?” Ben wondered. “Was she a hostage of some kind?”
“I don’t think so,” Roy replied. “Ben, we’ve bin round to the house where them girls live an’ there ain’t nobody home.”
Frowning, Ben shook his head. “I don’t understand what you’re getting at, Roy.”
Sighing, Roy perched his hip on the edge of his desk. “Ben, we think that maybe the girls make up the gang.”
“The girls?” Ben echoed, disbelievingly. “But… why?”
“Well, it started us thinkin’, Ben,” Roy explained. “Ya know that one o’ the girls was killed in Sacramento last month?” When Ben nodded, Roy continued. “I wired the sheriff there, an’ he said she was killed robbin’ the bank!”
“What?” Ben felt as though the world was moving sideways around him. “Are you talking about Beth?” When Roy nodded, Ben continued, “But Joe told me Beth had been murdered.”
“Well, I dunno who told Joe that,” Roy replied, “but it ain’t true. Beth was shot durin’ a robbery. The five other people with her could all pass for young boys – or they could be girls. Only one person spoke, an’ the banker thought it was a boy whose voice hadn’t broken right.”
“Kate,” Adam said, through numb lip. “Kate has a voice like that.”
“Mr. Coutts said the same thing,” Clem added. “That the person sounded like their voice hadn’t broken.”
“But how did Joe know it was Dawn?” Hoss asked. “If’n she wore a mask an’ all.”
“He’d know,” Ben replied, softly, his voice sad. “He’d know just by looking at her eyes.” He would have known Marie anywhere, even if all he could see were her eyes. He would have known her from behind, across a crowded room. “Joe would know,” he sighed.
“Well, why are we still sitting here?” Adam asked, shaking off the shock.
With a flash of asperity, Roy replied, “We’re sittin’ here so’s I could explain what I was thinkin’.”
“What are we going to do?” Adam asked, chastened.
“You ain’t gonna do nothin’,” Roy said, firmly. “You’re all gonna stay right here!” He gestured to Clem. “Clem an’ me is gonna lead a posse after them.”
“We’re not waiting here!” Ben declared, getting to his feet. “That’s my son out there, Roy and I’m going after him!” As the lawman opened his mouth to protest, Ben over-rode him. “The only way you’ll make me stay behind is if you lock me in one of those cells!”
For an instant, Roy was tempted to do that very thing! “Simmer down, Ben!” he retorted. “All right, ya can come with us, but ya gotta do what I tell ya, unnerstand? I’m in charge, here, an’ if’n ya don’t do what I tell ya, I’ll git Clem ta bring ya back here to occupy that cell!” He exchanged a glance with his deputy. “Let’s go.”
The Cartwrights looked at one another and Ben nodded. “All right, Roy,” he agreed. “We’ll do it your way.”
All through the heat of the afternoon, the girls and Joe rode towards a line shack. Joe noticed that their pace was getting slower, but he wouldn’t have told them, even if he could. Not by a single glance did he offer any help, and tempers were very frayed by the time they finally spotted one of the shacks in the distance.
The girls dismounted and Joe could see the weariness in the way they stood. He kept his head down, waiting for his chance to come. As soon as the rein was untied from around his hands, Joe planned to take action. Cochise was much fitter than the hired horses the girls were riding, and he was fairly sure that he could get away.
However, his hopes were dashed as Kate drew her .45 and aimed it at him. “Don’t try anything, Joe,” she warned him. “I won’t hesitate to use this, you know.” She nodded to Val, who came over and struggled with the rein for a moment before getting the knots undone. “Get off, Joe.”
Slowly, Joe did as he was told. Kate gave him a shove in the back to tell him to get moving and gestured to the shack. After a moment’s eye contact, Joe did as he was bid. Behind him, Louise and Julie began to lead the horses round to the lean-to behind the shack. Joe desperately wanted to tell them not to give Cochise too much cold water while he was warm, but one look at Kate’s face warned him that hauling the gag out of his mouth wouldn’t be a good idea. He sent up a prayer that at least one of the girls knew something about the care of horses. He might need Cochise to get out of there.
The inside of the shack was slightly stuffy from the heat of the sun, but fall would soon be upon them and Joe knew it would get cold that night. There were only two beds and two chairs. Joe wondered, cynically, how long it would be before there was a fight over who slept where.
“Sit down,” Kate ordered Joe. She still had her .45 aimed at him and Joe wondered how good a shot she was. She certainly handled the gun like she knew how to use it. He walked over to the table and sat down. “Val, tie his hands to the arm of the chair, and tie his feet, too,” Kate went on. “You could probably take the gag out now.”
Meekly, Joe submitted to being tied to the chair. His mind was racing as he thought of how he could get out of this mess. His best bet, he thought, wryly, was to tell them he needed to pee. They wouldn’t be too keen to keep watch on him then!
As Val rose from tying his feet, Kate put away her gun and Louise and Julie came in from outside. They all carried canteens and drank thirstily. Joe’s mouth was parched, but he wouldn’t ask for a drink. However, Dawn held her canteen out. “Do you want a drink, Joe?” she asked, and the tone made him want to weep, for it was the same loving tone that she always used when talking to him.
“Yes, thank you,” he replied, making his tone as neutral as he could. Dawn hesitated for a moment, but she had offered the drink and nobody else was making a move to give Joe one. She went over and tilted the canteen to his mouth.
The water was more than welcome, but Joe was distracted by her hand on the back of his head, and the smell of her perfume. He gulped some water down, then pulled back. “Thanks,” he offered.
“What are we going to do now?” Julie asked.
“We’ll get a fire going and make something to eat,” Kate decided. She was the leader. “Then we’ll talk about it.”
It didn’t take long for them to get a fire going in the stove and they began to sift through the supplies to see what there was to work with. Dawn left the others to it and drifted over to where Joe sat. “Nothing’s changed, Joe,” she told him. “I still love you and we can still get married.”
Stiffening, Joe blinked in disbelief. “How can you say nothing’s changed?” he demanded. “Dawn, everything has changed. There’ll be a posse out looking for you! When you get caught, you’ll go to prison. You’re not the girl I thought I knew! How can I marry you?”
“But we’ll let you go free,” Dawn insisted, as though this was what Joe was worrying about. “We won’t hurt you.”
“No?” Joe asked, skeptically. He moved his hands as far as he could. “What do you think this is, if you aren’t hurting me?” His hands were numb from the tightness of the rawhide. His fingers were beginning to go white and bloodless. “Do you think this is painless?”
“Joe, I love you,” Dawn implored him.
“That doesn’t make any difference,” Joe told her. “Do you really think I could marry you? Do you really think that Roy doesn’t know who you are? How many banks have you robbed, Dawn?”
“A lot,” replied Dawn, defiantly. “We’ve been doing it for years, and we’ve never been caught.”
“I don’t think that’s something I’d boast about,” Joe retorted. And then a thought hit him. “What happened to Beth?” he asked. “You said she’d died, but how did she die?” When Dawn just looked at him, Joe felt a violent urge to throttle her. He was glad, at that moment, that his hands were tied. “Dawn? Was she killed robbing that bank in Sacramento? Was she the girl that was in the paper?”
“Yes,” Dawn whispered.
Disgusted, Joe looked away. “And you let me think she’d been murdered. You’ve played me for a fool, Dawn. You must have really enjoyed having such a sucker for a boyfriend.” He swallowed. “I suppose there isn’t a relative that you have to visit every so often, either? I assume you were robbing banks then, too?”
“That’s right,” Dawn replied. She rose, and Joe could see that she was angry. “But if you think about it, Joe, you’ll see we can be married. I’m giving it all up for you, Joe. This was my last bank job.”
“You’re right,” Joe agreed. “This was your last bank job. Because you’re going to prison, all of you!”
Without speaking, Dawn walked away and went outside. Joe’s face was grim as he met the eyes of the other four girls. His dreams lay in tatters before him.
As darkness began to fall, the posse made camp a little way from the trail they had been following. It was clear that the gang had been traveling quite fast, and had no apparent destination in mind, for the trail led all over the place. They were, by now, on Ponderosa land and Adam and Hoss had been speculating as to their likely destination.
“I reckon they might a got ta that line shack about four-five miles from here,” Hoss insisted. “If’n we push on, we could get there tonight.”
“Its no good trying to come on a place in the dark,” Adam argued. “Too many people could be killed. We need to make an early start in the morning and hope that we get to the shack before they leave.” He touched Hoss’ shoulder sympathetically. “I want to find Joe, too, Hoss.”
Hoss’ face crumpled. “Dadburnit, Adam, but I feel bad fer him! How must he be feelin’ right now?”
“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “But we’ll find him, Hoss, I promise.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed, glumly.
The meal the girls had produced was good, given the limited supplies they had. Joe had endured being fed by Louise, simply because he had no choice. The coffee afterwards was more than welcome, for Joe’s mouth was dry. He smiled grimly as each girl in turn made a trip outside, and as they began to discuss who was sleeping where, he glanced at Kate and said, “It’s my turn.”
“What do you mean by that?” Kate asked, sharply.
Heaving a sigh, Joe gestured as best he could to the door. “You’ve all gone and now I need to go,” he told her, trying to be as discreet as he could.
The crimson blush that stained Kate’s neck betrayed her understanding. “Oh, I see,” she replied. “Dawn, you take Joe outside.”
“What?” Dawn frowned. “Why do I have to take him outside?”
“He needs to go,” Kate hissed and Joe felt an enormous desire to laugh as the color mounted in Dawn’s face. However, he schooled his face to impassivity. Kate handed over the .45 and began to untie his hands from the arm of the chair.
“You could loosen the rawhide a bit, too, please,” Joe suggested. “My hands have no feeling in them.”
“Don’t try anything!” Kate warned and loosened the knots a bit. Joe’s hands were still securely tied, but he could feel his fingers tingling as the blood rushed back into them.
“Thanks,” Joe told her. He rose stiffly to his feet and preceded Dawn out of the shack.
The whole situation was horrible embarrassing for both Joe and Dawn. She did her best to watch him as she had been told to, but being a gently-bred girl, even if she had turned to crime, this was not something that she could deal with easily. She turned her head away and blushed hopelessly throughout.
For Joe, he found that his conscience was pricking him. Yes, he had definitely needed to go, but it seemed kind of low to use it to his advantage. Then common sense kicked in. Dawn and her friends were holding him hostage, and he didn’t know what they intended to do with him. He didn’t think they knew what they were going to do either. He had to try and escape.
Straightening, Joe took one step sideways, gathering himself to run. But Dawn knew him, despite any denials Joe might make to himself. She sensed the sudden purpose in Joe and reacted instantly, sticking her leg out, and tripping Joe up. He crashed to the ground and Dawn leapt on him.
There was no way Dawn’s slight weight was going to keep Joe down for long, but he had no intention of hurting her. He grabbed her wrist and threw her to one side. Dawn landed with a bump and a cry as Joe scrambled to his feet.
“Hold it!” Dawn cried, and cocked the gun.
Casting her one look, Joe started to run. Dawn fired.
The bullet bit into the ground by Joe’s foot and he swerved instinctively. But he was up and running now and he wasn’t going to stop. This was his home and he knew every bush and tree. But Joe hadn’t been prepared for Kate’s quick reflexes.
She dived out of the cabin, snatched the gun from Dawn and fired at Joe. It was a superb shot under the circumstances. The bullet struck Joe on the outside of his right knee and knocked him off his feet, without actually penetrating too far into his leg. Joe crashed to the ground. Kate and Dawn raced over to where he was lying and looked down at him.
Blood was soaking into the leg of Joe’s pants. He clutched the limb above the knee, trying to ease the pain. “You were supposed to be watching him,” Kate chided Dawn.
“You do it next time,” Dawn snapped.
“Help me get him up,” Kate ordered, realizing that she had asked Dawn to do something very difficult. “We’ll know next time.”
Between them, they pulled Joe to his feet and supported him as best they could as he limped slowly back to the shack. Once inside, Joe’s hands were tied to the chair once more, and Julie split the leg of Joe’s pants to look at the injury. It didn’t look too serious, although with it being on the joint, Joe’s leg felt incredibly weak. Julie found the first aid supplies and bandaged the knee firmly. The bleeding stopped at last and Joe slumped back in his seat. His knee was throbbing fiercely and he knew it would make it harder to escape next time.
But there would be a next time.
The posse was up and moving before the sun was up. Ben had slept fitfully, wondering if Joe was all right. Then shortly before everyone began stirring, a thought occurred to Ben that robbed him of any chance of further sleep.
As soon as he saw Roy was awake, Ben went over to him. “Roy, listen, I’ve just thought of something.”
“Go on,” Roy grunted.
“We all assumed that Joe meant Dawn, his fiancée. But what if he didn’t? What if he meant Don, as in a man’s name? He’s very familiar with Don Douglas, that scamp of a boy who sometimes works at the livery stable.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Roy admitted, slowly. “Because of what Dan Coutts, the bank manager said, I just assumed it was Joe’s fiancée.”
“It wasn’t Don Douglas,” Clem stated firmly. As both Ben and Roy looked at him, he got slowly to his feet and went over to them. “I saw Don Douglas in the livery when I went to get my horse to come out to you, Ben. Old Pete, the owner, was complaining that Don had had a bad case of the slows all morning, and that he had had to stand over him all morning to make sure the work was done.”
“Well, that don’t mean it weren’t another Don,” Roy pointed out.
“I don’t know anyone else called Don that fits the general description,” Clem noted, sourly.
“Nor me,” Ben agreed, defeat in his voice. He had hoped that perhaps it wasn’t Dawn, although the prospect of Joe being the hostage of someone else, who might hurt him, had frightened him.
“So we’re back where we started,” Roy concluded. “Let’s get moving.”
It had been a long, cold night for Joe. The girls had all huddled together on the two beds, although how much sleep they had had was anyone’s guess. Joe’s uncomfortable position, plus the throbbing from his injured knee had effectively robbed him of sleep. He shivered as the first of the morning light crept into the shack.
Accustomed to being an early, if reluctant, riser, Joe was surprised when the girls all slumbered on. He shifted uneasily, trying to ease his cramped limbs, but the knots on his bonds remained as tight as ever. He flexed his knee slightly and caught his breath at the pain that flared up his leg. He bit his lip until the pain died back to the familiar throbbing. How was he going to run away with his leg in this condition? Joe shook the thought away. He would do what he had to, to get away. Pa and the posse would be following along and the longer the girls slept, the more chance they had of finding him quickly.
Little by little, the girls began to wake and soon the fire was built up, providing much-needed warmth for Joe, and the coffee was on. Joe was surprised that none of the girls seemed to feel any urgency to move on, but he reasoned that they had never been in this kind of situation, where they were being hunted and probably thought they were safe.
But over breakfast, Kate brought the subject up. “Where are we going to go now?” she asked. “We can’t stay here.”
“What are we going to do with Joe?” asked Val. “I don’t want to drag him along with us. He’ll just slow us down.”
“He’s a useful hostage,” Louise commented. She glanced at Dawn. “Sorry, but it’s true.”
“I know that,” Dawn agreed. She looked at Joe, who met her gaze impassively. “But we can’t take him with us forever. His family will come looking for him.”
“Let’s at least get into California,” suggested Julie. “Then we can turn Joe loose and he can get back to his family then.”
“He’ll slow us down,” Val repeated. “He’s hurt!”
“Why don’t we just leave him here?” Kate asked. “We’ll travel faster without him, and he’ll get free eventually.”
Silently listening, Joe was amazed that the girls didn’t seem to think that the posse would be tracking them. The frost the previous night would have preserved their tracks perfectly. Joe glanced at the window. If his family was with the posse, there was a fair chance that they were already drawing close to the shack. Joe decided that it might be an idea if he took a hand in the proceedings.
“Much as I find this discussion about my future riveting, ladies,” he began, “nature calls and I would like to answer.”
As the meaning of Joe’s words sank in, each girl blushed and turned to look at Dawn. She flushed, but with anger rather than embarrassment. “Come on then,” she replied, ungraciously and picked up the .45 while Kate untied Joe’s hands from the chair.
When he rose, Joe was horrified to discover that his leg would barely support his weight. He grabbed the edge of the table for support and took a small, hopping step, then another, while the girls all watched him interestedly.
“You’re not going to manage to get out there without help,” Kate observed and stepped forward to help Joe. “Dawn, don’t let your guard down. This could all be a ploy so we relax our guard.”
“Believe me,” Joe panted, as Kate took his arm. “This is no ploy.” He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead, and realized that running away could no longer form part of his escape plan. Desperately, he tried to think of another plan, but nothing came to mind.
Nature’s call answered, he rested for a minute, leaning against the side of the shack. His leg was now trembling beneath him and the pain when he walked took his breath away. “Ready?” Kate asked, drawing Joe away from his musings over how he was going to get away.
“Ready,” he replied, dispiritedly. He allowed more of his weight to rest on the girl, and felt the momentary hesitation before she accepted it. Perhaps, he thought, he could use that. He didn’t know how, but something might turn up. “Wait, I must rest,” he puffed, after only a few steps. They were now at the front of the shack.
A man suddenly burst from the trees nearby. “Hold it!” he cried, aiming a rifle at them. Joe recognized Adam.
Other men appeared from the cover round about, each one armed.
“Dawn!” Kate cried. “Shoot him!”
As Dawn whirled, Joe raised his bound hands and smacked them off Kate’s chin. The girl tumbled to the ground, out cold. Joe caught his balance, and looked at Dawn. The gun was pointing right at him and at that distance, Dawn wasn’t going to miss!
The posse froze.
“There’s smoke coming from the shack,” Clem confirmed. “There’s plenty of cover, so I think we ought to go on on foot.”
“Are they still there?” Ben asked, anxiously.
“Yes, I’ve seen movement from inside,” Clem nodded. “I ain’t seen Joe, but Cochise is in the lean-to out back with the other horses.”
“Let’s go,” Roy ordered. He drew his pistol, and the others copied him, drawing pistols or cradling rifles. Clem led the way, and the men kept silent.
Soon, the shack was in sight and they used the good cover to get closer. They all shrank back into the undergrowth as the shack door opened and Joe came out, with Dawn and Kate. Joe’s hands were tied and he was limping badly and leaning on Kate. Dawn carried a .45 and looked like she knew how to use it. Roy waved them all to wait.
It was only as the trio returned to the shack that Dawn allowed the gun to drop in her hand, her vigilance relaxed. Roy nodded and Adam burst from the trees. “Hold it!” he cried.
“Give me the gun, Dawn,” Joe said, evenly.
“Stay back!” Dawn cried. “Or I’ll shoot!”
Inside the shack, Joe could hear the other girls calling to one another, but he ignored it. His attention was on Dawn and the round, dark, barrel that pointed in his direction. “Dawn, please, give me the gun,” he coaxed, his voice warm and caressing. Joe took a step towards her. He lifted his bound hands. “Dawn…”
For an instant, Joe thought she was going to capitulate. Then the shack door opened and one of the other girls shouted, “Dawn, behind you!”
Joe’s eyes opened wide and he took another step. Dawn brought the gun up and shot Joe, even as Adam pulled the trigger on the rifle. The bullet bit into Dawn’s back and she arched backwards, emptying the gun at the sky. Joe collapsed to the ground.
Adam’s action released the posse from its immobility and they surged forward. A couple of shots were exchanged, but with Dawn shot down and Kate unconscious, the girls in the shack had had enough. Within moments, they had thrown their guns out and were surrendering to Roy, Clem and the others.
The Cartwrights left them to it, all three crowding around Joe. Ben put his hand to his unconscious son’s head, murmuring his name over and over. Hoss took out his knife and sliced through the rawhide around Joe’s wrists. Adam simply looked at Joe, knowing that he had almost certainly killed the girl that Joe loved, but hadn’t done so in time to prevent his youngest brother being badly hurt.
As Joe groaned and stirred back towards consciousness, Ben’s inertia left him. “Adam, get into the shack and get the medical supplies,” he urged. “Joe’s bleeding badly. Hoss, help me carry him inside.”
“What…?” Joe muttered, disoriented. He tried to move, but let out a groan as the pain hit him. Forcing his eyes open as he felt himself being lifted, Joe peered blearily at Ben. “Pa? Is…that…you?”
“It’s me, son,” Ben soothed. “You’ll be all right, Joe. Just stay still.” However, Ben was talking to himself, as Joe had slipped off into unconsciousness.
Inside the shack, Ben gently laid Joe on a cot and took off his jacket and shirt. Dawn’s bullet had hit Joe in the right chest, slicing through the skin between his ribs and lodging in his right arm. Both wounds were bleeding profusely. “We’ve got to get this bleeding stopped,” Ben cried.
Grabbing Joe’s bloodstained shirt, Ben ripped it into pieces and wadded one bit against Joe’s ribs. Adam reached over and put his hand on it, pressing down to stem the blood flow. Joe groaned and tried to twist away from the pressure. “Hold him, Hoss,” Ben ordered, as he wound another piece around Joe’s arm and tied it off.
That done, Ben rinsed his bloodstained hands in a bucket of water and fetched a canteen. Lifting Joe’s head, he trickled the liquid into Joe’s mouth and Joe swallowed, his eyes fluttering open again. “Pa?” he whispered. “It hurts.”
“Just take it easy, son,” Ben soothed. “We’ll get you home. Lie still now.” He offered Joe some more water and Joe accepted eagerly. When Joe had finished, Ben put the canteen aside, and took a closer look at Joe’s leg. He didn’t undo the bandage around his son’s knee, but he could see the fresh blood that spotted the white linen.
“Ben, how’s Joe doin’?” Roy asked, coming in.
Rising, Ben went over to speak to the lawman out of Joe’s immediate hearing. Both men instinctively kept their voices low. “He’s bleeding badly and we need to get him home.”
“Clem an’ the men are riggin’ a travois,” Roy told him. “We figgered that Joe wouldn’ be up ta ridin’.” Roy looked uncomfortable and lowered his voice even further. “Dawn’s dead, Ben. Them other girls tol’ us that they robbed the bank sure enough. The money ain’t bin touched an’ is safe in them saddlebags. I’m real sorry, Ben.”
“It’s not your fault, Roy,” Ben assured him. But he couldn’t help wondering how Joe would take this news. He had loved Dawn and her death, combined with what she had done, would make it very hard for Joe to get over it. “Thank the others for us. We’re very grateful for your help.”
“It ain’t nuthin’,” Roy protested, but he was sure Ben didn’t hear him. Ben’s attention was once more on his injured son.
With Joe’s bleeding stopped at last, Ben wrapped him in Adam’s custard-colored coat, at Adam’s insistence, and they placed him carefully on the travois, covered in blankets. Roy, Clem and the other members of the posse took the four remaining girls back to town. Clem rode on ahead to send the doctor out to the ranch. Ben just hoped that Paul Martin was in town. Joe’s temperature was beginning to rise and the bullet was still in his arm.
It took them almost two and a half hours, traveling at a steady pace, to reach the house. To Ben, it seemed an eternity since he had left the previous day. With Hoss and Adam’s help, they got Joe into the house. Hoss went to put away the horses and Adam stayed to help Ben ease Joe out of his clothes.
“You’re very quiet, Adam,” Ben observed. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Adam replied, almost inaudibly. Ben glanced at him, not in the least convinced by his answer. When their eyes met, Adam jerked his head almost imperceptibly at Joe, who was conscious and Ben understood that whatever was troubling Adam was not going to be discussed in front of Joe. That alone gave Ben the clue he needed. Adam was upset that he had had to shoot Dawn, but had still not prevented Joe being injured.
Looking down at Joe, Ben knew that Adam’s worries would have to wait for just now. His priority had to be Joe. “How are you doing, son?” he asked.
“All right,” Joe lied. Sweat beaded on his brow and matted his hair to his head. “Can I… get a drink?”
“Of course you can,” Ben replied and lifted Joe’s head so that his son could drink. “Adam, could you get me some cold water and cloths?” Ben asked, knowing that it was better to keep Adam busy. However, Hop Sing had pre-empted Ben’s request and brought the necessary items into the room. Ben gave Adam an apologetic smile and shrugged.
“I’m all right,” Adam told Ben. “How about I bring you some coffee?”
“Bring yourself and Hoss some, too,” Ben suggested. “I think we could use it.” He dropped a couple of cloths into the water. Wringing one out, he laid it on Joe’s head, and taking the other, he began to wipe Joe’ hot face and chest. “How does that feel?” he asked.
“Mm,” nodded Joe, unable to find words. The pain from his injuries was sapping his strength rapidly. Joe wanted to move away from the pain, but knew that he couldn’t. His eyes sought his father’s and found there the reassurance that he needed.
“Paul will be here soon,” Ben told Joe. “You’ll feel better after he’s looked at you.” Ben wondered how long it would take Paul to arrive. Even another minute was too long for Joe to have to wait.
Although the wait seemed interminable to the Cartwrights, it lasted only another half hour. Hop Sing let Paul into the house, and he made his way to Joe’s bedroom, quite familiar with the house after the many years he had been family physician. He examined Joe quickly, then looked at the others.
“I’ve seen worse,” he told them. “Obviously, the bullet has to come out and I have quite a bit of stitching to do. Joe’s knee is a bit of a mess. Lucky that bullet didn’t hit any straighter, or it would have shattered the kneecap and Joe wouldn’t be walking again. Off you go, and have something to eat. I can manage this alone.”
Left alone, Paul gave Joe something for pain and brought out the chloroform. Joe had been drifting in and out of a restless sleep and slid under quite easily, allowing Paul to get on with his work. Compared to some of the surgeries that he had performed on Joe, this one was quite simple and straight forward. He removed the bullet from Joe’s arm and stitched it. He stitched Joe’s side, noting that the muscles were badly torn, and splinted Joe’s knee. When the wound was healing cleanly, with no sign of infection, he planned to put Joe’s knee into a cast, because the bullet had chipped the edge of the kneecap and Paul was worried about it. Then he cleaned up Joe’s wrists and bandaged them. That done, he waited for his patient to rouse.
“What is Joe going to think?” Adam asked, his voice beginning to rise as his temper got the better of him. “I shot Dawn and she’s dead!”
“You were trying to save Joe’s life,” Ben repeated, trying to keep calm. “He’ll understand, Adam. How do you think he feels about Dawn now?” With a pang of anguish, Ben remembered how happy Joe had been; how happy they all had been.
“He can’t stop loving her, just like that,” Adam argued. “Who knows? He might have been able to forgive her and they might have been married anyway.”
“Do you really know your brother as little as that?” Ben asked quietly and a flush stained Adam’s face and neck. “I have no doubt that Joe still loves her, and will for some time, but do you think he could forgive her for the way he was treated? Or for lying to him?”
“I couldn’t,” Adam cried, “but I’m not Joe! He loved her, Pa! Perhaps enough to forgive her anything!”
Sighing, Ben groped for the words to make Adam understand. “Joe loved Dawn very much,” Ben agreed. “He has been so happy for the last few months. We all liked her, too.” Hoss nodded. “But she deceived us. She deceived Joe. We may never know why she robbed banks, and to be truthful, I don’t care. But she lied to Joe about how Beth died. She betrayed Joe’s love by not telling him the truth.”
“But she couldn’ tell him the truth,” Hoss muttered. “How could she tell Joe she was robbin’ banks?”
“I understand that,” Ben assured Hoss. “Of course she couldn’t tell Joe. But you saw her out there today, Hoss, holding that gun on Joe. However much she loved him, that didn’t stop her shooting him when she thought her life was endangered. We don’t know what the girls planned to do with Joe. But they all knew who he was, and according to Dan Coutts at the bank, Dawn didn’t protest against taking Joe hostage.”
“Maybe she were pressured inta doin’ it,” Hoss mumbled, uncomfortable at being cast as Dawn’s defender, but feeling she needed someone to stand up for her.
“Maybe,” Ben allowed. “But I don’t think so. After a time, your way of life becomes a habit.” Hoss nodded. “Habits are hard to break, as we all know. Dawn and the others weren’t novices at robbing banks; that much is clear. When you life a certain way, it changes the way you think. The instinct of a criminal is to shoot to free themselves. We all know that. That’s what Dawn did. And the fact that she loved Joe didn’t make her hesitate at all. Not only is Joe going to have to learn to live with the knowledge that the girl he loved was a bank robber, had lied to him and has died, he has to learn to live with the fact that she was willing to sacrifice him to save herself and her friends. Knowing that, do you really think, Adam, that Joe would have forgiven her?”
“No,” Adam agreed. “I guess not.”
“Just remember one thing, though,” Ben cautioned his sons. “Joe will have to mourn Dawn to get over her and move on. Make allowances for him?”
“Course we will, Pa,” Hoss agreed. He glanced at the stairs. “What’s takin’ so dadburned long?”
“If only I’d fired sooner,” Adam fretted.
“You can’t change what happened, son,” Ben reminded him. “You did your best, and no one can ask for more. Joe’s alive; that’s the main thing!”
“You’re right,” Adam agreed and sat down. Ben saw that he looked a bit more relaxed and was glad that his words had hit home.
Where was that doctor?
They didn’t have much longer to wait. Paul Martin sat down and took the cup of coffee Ben offered him. “Joe’s doing fine,” Paul assured them. “There isn’t too much infection and Joe was cooling down nicely when I left. He’s sound asleep, by the way, so you don’t need to rush up to sit with him for a few minutes.” He twinkled roguishly at Ben, who smiled. “One thing to watch out for, through. The muscles in Joe’s side were badly damaged. Keep him as straight as you can, because we don’t want those muscles to heal contracted up. If that happens, Joe won’t be able to stand up straight. It’ll take a bit of effort on his behalf to begin with, but once the healing starts, it should be all right.” Paul yawned. “Sorry. Right, his knee. Keep him off it at all costs. I’m sure there’s a bit of bone chipped off the kneecap. I’ll put a cast on when the wound is healed. I don’t really expect there to be a problem, as long as Joe keeps off it for a few weeks. Once the cast is on, he can have crutches, but he must keep walking to a minimum. Downstairs in the morning, sitting with his leg up, and then back at night is his absolute limit! Give him a couple of months, and he’ll be fine!” Downing the rest of his cup in a oner, Paul rose. “I’ll be back out tomorrow, Ben. And don’t let Joe use that arm!”
“I won’t,” Ben replied, smiling. “Thanks, Paul.”
Over the next few days, Joe slept a lot, replacing the blood loss. Ben was quite glad, because the scandal had spread beyond Virginia City and there were daily reports of unsolved robberies that could have been perpetrated by the girls. As each new crime was reported to Roy, he questioned his four prisoners and they admitted to quite a number of them. It seemed more than likely that the girls would go to prison for a very long time.
But at last, the day that Ben had been dreading arrived. Joe had been alone all morning while Ben, Adam and Hoss sorted out a few problems that had arisen. When Ben came back to see how Joe was doing, he found his youngest son sunk into deep misery.
“What’s wrong, Joe?” he asked, catching sight of Joe’s face as he entered the room. “Are you in pain?”
“Not really,” Joe replied, for he was always in pain of some kind, mostly from his side, as he was careful to keep the muscles stretched as far as he could. “Pa, is…” Joe hesitated and tears sprang into his eyes. “Is Dawn dead?”
Even before Ben spoke, Joe knew the answer. “Yes, son, I’m afraid she is,” Ben replied, heavily. “I’m sorry.”
Tears were now streaking Joe’s face as his loss hit him and he reached up to try and wipe them away. “Do you know what she did, Pa?” he whispered.
“Yes, I know,” Ben answered, steadily. “She and the others were robbing banks.”
“They admitted it?” Joe asked. “I knew they’d robbed the bank in Sacramento when they were there shopping for the …” Joe couldn’t finish the sentence, but Ben knew what he was thinking; the wedding dress. “That’s how Beth was killed. When Dawn told me about it, she implied that Beth had been murdered.”
“I know,” soothed Ben.
“The others – where are they?” Joe asked.
“In jail, waiting for the circuit judge to come,” Ben informed him. “They’ll all be going to jail, Joe. It seems that they have been robbing banks for a few years now, and are wanted in a number of states and territories.”
“I don’t understand this,” Joe admitted. His tears had dried for the moment. “Dawn admitted to me that she robbed banks, and I was disgusted and angry, Pa. I loved her! Yet she shot me.” Joe’s voice was rising and Ben tried to calm him, but Joe was too worked up. “She tried to kill me and yet I’m grieving for her! I don’t understand!” He was practically shouting at Ben, the tears spilling out once more. “Why am I grieving for her?”
“You’re grieving because you’ve lost something, Joe. Dawn is dead, and you loved her very much. You were going to marry her. Not only have you lost her physically, but you lost the person you thought she was. It’s quite natural to grieve for that person, Joe. There’s nothing wrong with doing that.” Ben took Joe’s hand and made his son look at him. “Joe, there’s nothing you did, or could have done, that would have changed Dawn. She was who she was, and we’re all grieving, too.”
“You are?” Joe asked, his eyes rather wild as he struggled to come to terms with this.
“Yes,” Ben replied and allowed his sorrow to show. “We all liked her very much, Joe, and were looking forward to her becoming part of the family. You aren’t the only one who has been hurt by all this; you’re the person who is hurt most, but we’ve been affected, too. Adam most of all.”
“Why Adam?” Joe wanted to know.
Hesitating, Ben eyed Joe thoughtfully before he replied. Joe seemed to be calming down a bit and he judged it safe to carry on. “Because Adam shot her, Joe.”
Joe looked astonished. His memory of the shooting was patchy at best. “Adam? Shot Dawn?” Joe echoed. “Why?”
“To save your life,” Ben replied. “Dawn was going to kill you, Joe and at that range, she wouldn’t have missed. Even with her aim spoiled by Adam’s bullet, she still shot you, Joe. Adam saved your life, but he feels wretched, because he had to shoot the woman you loved.”
For a few moments, Joe just gazed, open-mouthed, at Ben, while he assimilated this news. “But he didn’t mean to kill her, did he?” Joe asked. “Not Adam!”
“No, he didn’t mean to kill her,” Ben assured him. “And he feels worse because he had to shoot her in the back. Adam isn’t sure he can face you, knowing that you loved Dawn. He isn’t sure that you weren’t going to marry her, anyway.”
“He thought…?” Joe couldn’t continue.
“Joe, he didn’t know what to think,” Ben hurried on before Joe could jump to any conclusion. “He was terrified that you would blame him for what happened. You must understand, we didn’t know what Dawn had told you, or exactly what happened. As far as we knew, you might have thought Dawn was innocent in all this.” He smiled slightly. “And you are fiercely protective of your friendships, Joe, protecting them against all comers.”
“Until I get the facts,” Joe responded. “Pa, where is Adam now? I need to talk to him.” He produced a tremulous little smile. “And then I think I’ll want to do more grieving.”
“Adam’s outside,” Ben replied. “I’ll get him.”
Ben never knew what Joe and Adam said to each other that day, but both were easier to live with. Joe was soon on the mend and impatient to get out of bed. He had days when he was very quiet and sad, and everyone gave him space if he needed it, or company if that’s what he wanted. Ben found himself grieving, too, for what might have been. He missed Marie more than ever and found that so did his sons.
“Marie was the only mother we all had in common,” Adam explained. “Her presence at the wedding would have been so wonderful. I guess its natural that we think of her at times like this.”
“I guess it is,” Ben agreed. He felt a warm glow in his heart as he realized how much his older sons had loved the mother who had come to them when they were well grown. Marie had been such a special person.
Joe was soon hopping about on his crutch and driving them all crazy with his complaining about the cast on his leg. His family took this as an encouraging sign that he was recovering both physically and emotionally. Adam and Hoss soon stopped treating him like he was made of glass and began teasing him as they had always done. Joe took it in good part, and handed it back every chance he got. Ben took heart from it.
But the day after the trial was over, Ben found Joe reading the account of it in the paper. “I’m glad it’s over, Pa,” Joe told him, when Ben asked if he was all right. “But I think it’ll be a long time before I trust anyone with my heart again.”
Ben didn’t know at the time how true this would be. Although Joe declared himself in love several times over the coming years, it was a long time before he found true love with Alice. Dawn had left her mark on Joe, in more ways than one. The scar on his arm and side was a constant reminder of the betrothed, turned betrayer, to her betrayed one.
Title quoted from Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Betrothed.
Quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet act 3 scene 2.
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