Bullet for a Bride (by Rona)

Summary:  An alternative ending to the episode of the same name.   This picks up at the point where Ben has just seen Tessa primping in the mirror and realizes that she can see.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre: Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8158


 

Stunned, Ben Cartwright stepped back so that he couldn’t be seen and for a moment, berated himself for the thought. Of course he couldn’t be seen! Tessa couldn’t see, thanks to a ricocheting bullet fired by his youngest son. Thanks to the very man that Tessa would shortly be marrying. She had been fussing with her hair simply because that was what girls did, especially ones who were to be married.

Yet… Something in Ben told him that there was something wrong with what he had just seen. He took another silent step backwards as Tessa turned from the mirror and practically skipped up the stairs to her room. Skipped… up… stairs. Ben sagged back against the wall, not sure that his legs were going to support him any longer.

Reaching out blindly, Ben sat abruptly in a chair by the table, and buried his head in his hands. There was no longer any question in his mind. Tessa’s exit from the great room had removed any doubts that he might have had. Tessa could see!

A smile started to grow on Ben’s face. This was good news! Wonderful news! Joe would be so happy to hear it. He had to find Joe and tell him at once! Why, this would make the wedding even more wonderful. Ben put his hands onto the table to push himself upright and heard the front door open.

“Tessa!” Joe’s voice was unmistakable. “Tessa?”

“I’m here, Joe,” Tessa called back and she appeared at the top of the stairs, one hand on the wall and the other out in front of her, the way she had always moved around the house since she and her family had arrived at the ranch. “Am I… am I near the stairs?”

“Just stay there, I’ll come to you,” Joe told her and bounded up the stairs two at a time and thrust a single red rose into her hand. “Smell this!” he commanded, grinning broadly.

Her eyes still fixed on the middle distance, Tessa slowly brought the delicate flower to her nose and sniffed. A smile crossed her face. “That’s beautiful, Joe,” she replied. “I wish I could see it.”

Ben didn’t hear Joe’s reply. He was unaware of Joe escorting Tessa back to her room. He was unaware of everything except the words that now spun in his brain. I wish I could see it. Ben swallowed against the nausea that rose in his throat.

His son – his youngest son – was engaged to marry a young woman who was lying to him!

*****

Getting Joe alone wasn’t easy, but Ben knew he had to speak to him. There was no way he could allow Joe to go into this marriage, knowing that Tessa was lying to him. Perhaps Tessa meant to tell Joe she could see – perhaps she was afraid to tell him; afraid that Joe was marrying her out of pity. Ben still wasn’t entirely convinced that this wasn’t the case, despite Joe’s protestations to the contrary. But whatever the reasoning behind this, Joe had to know the truth.

But it wasn’t going to be easy.

*****

“Joe, I need to speak to you,” Ben said as he appeared in the doorway to the barn. He gave Adam and Hoss looks that told them instantly that they should make themselves scarce. They exchanged a long look and followed the silent directive.

“Sure, Pa, what can I do for you?” Joe was smiling, leading Cochise out of the stall.

It was going to be hard, but Ben knew only one way to tell his son – straight out. “Joe, it’s about Tessa,” he started.

Concern showed on Joe’s face and he dropped Cochise’s rein and made a move to step around Ben. “I knew I shouldn’t have left her alone!” he cried. “Is she all right? Pa…” He looked up at Ben as his father put out a hand to stop him.

“She’s fine,” Ben replied. “Joe, this is important. Tessa…” Ben swallowed and spoke up. “Tessa can see.”

A look of joy transfigured Joe’s face and Ben winced. He knew that what he was going to say was going to hurt Joe immensely and that was the last thing he wanted to do. But his son had the right to know that the girl he intended to marry was lying to him. It wasn’t exactly the basis Ben would pick for a happy union, especially when he still thought that Joe was only marrying Tessa because his bullet had blinded her.

“Pa, that’s great!” Joe exclaimed, tears of joy starting in his eyes. “When did this happen? She was still blind when I saw her this morning – just a few minutes ago. Her sight has come back so suddenly? Why didn’t she come out to tell me herself? Oh, of course, she’s telling her Pa.”

“I don’t know when it came back exactly,” Ben stated quietly. “But I know for a fact that she could see by yesterday afternoon.”

“Yesterday afternoon?” Joe frowned, the joy gone from his face and his anger rising. “Pa, what are you saying? I know that Tessa couldn’t see yesterday. Why, I brought her a rose and she wished that she could see it!”

“I know that’s what she said,” Ben agreed. “But the fact remains that she could already see at that point.”

“What?” Joe whispered. “What?” He glared at Ben. “How do you know that?”

“I saw her primping in front of the mirror,” Ben explained, seeing the impact his words were having on Joe’s heart. “And then she hurried across the room and practically ran upstairs.”

“No!” Joe denied in an anguished whisper. “No!” He was suddenly yelling, his anger overwhelming him in one burning rush. “No, you’re wrong! You’re lying! You’re lying because you don’t want me to marry Tessa. You don’t want a blind daughter-in-law!”

Sorrowfully, Ben regarded his youngest son. “Joe, you know I wouldn’t do that,” he reasoned quietly. “I’m sorry, Joe, but I’m telling the truth.”

“No!” Joe turned away, not even noticing when his horse shied slightly at the abrupt movement. He stormed over to the nearest stall and hit the stout post that separated Cochise’s stall from the one next to it. Again and again and again, he hammered his fist against that wood until something grabbed his wrist and stopped him.

Only then did Joe realize that Ben had crossed the barn and was gently restraining him from hurting himself any further. Joe was unaware of any pain apart from the one in his heart as he finally allowed himself to believe Ben’s words. Turning into that warm, comforting embrace, Joe sought the only comfort he could remember. “What am I going to do?” he whispered and hid his face against Ben’s chest.

Standing there, holding onto Joe’s wrist, Ben put his other arm around his son. The only person who could decide what he was going to do was Joe and right now, he was too distraught to make any kind of decision. At the moment, the thing Joe needed more than anything was medical attention. His hand was bruised and bleeding and from the way it was swelling, Ben feared that it might be broken, too.

“Come on, let’s get you to the doctor,” Ben suggested quietly. “Then, we’ll talk about what you’re going to do.”

Pushing Joe onto Cochise, Ben led Buck out of his stall, grateful that someone had thought to saddle him up that morning. Slowly, they rode away from the ranch, neither of them aware that Tessa was watching them from an upstairs window.

*****

The ride to town was essentially silent, with the only words passing between the two men about how Joe’s hand was feeling. “Fine,” was always the short reply, but Joe honestly didn’t know how his hand was feeling. His thoughts were whirling in a chaotic maelstrom, going round and round with no resolution in sight and he felt no pain from his hand. The joyful thought that Tessa could see was tempered by the knowledge that she had been keeping that information from him. Joe didn’t know what to think or believe. Had she wanted to surprise him with this as a wonderful gift on their wedding night? Or was there a more questionable motive at the back of her silence? Joe was instantly uncomfortable with the thought and pushed it away, afraid somehow that Ben would sense his disloyalty to his fiancée

“Joe?” Ben’s voice was soft, his touch gentle. “We’re here,” he coaxed and kept a hand on Joe’s back to steady him as he stepped down from the saddle.

Head down, Joe followed Ben’s dusty boots into the doctor’s outer office and sat wearily in one of the hard chairs. He was vaguely aware of Ben talking to someone, but he didn’t listen. Only when a hand touched his shoulder did Joe look up.

Dr Paul Martin had been the town physician for as long as Joe could remember. He was a rotund man, not very tall, but with a kind twinkle in his eye. Joe often thought he looked slightly drunk, although he knew that Paul was not really a drinking man. He was someone that Joe liked and respected, even if he didn’t like visiting him professionally. “Come into the office,” Paul suggested.

The examination of his hand brought Joe back to reality. It was extremely painful and the gentle probing that Paul did made Joe feel slightly sick. However, the doctor didn’t prolong the agony. “I don’t know if there are bones broken or not,” he sighed. “It’s possible, but if there are, they aren’t displaced. This gash here needs stitches,” he went on, pointing to a long gash down the side of Joe’s hand. “So does this one.” He gestured to another across the base of Joe’s knuckles, stretching the entire breadth of his hand. “So I’ll bandage it up tightly, and that should sort out any bone damage, too.”

Rising to collect his equipment, Paul mused, “I wish someone would invent a machine that would let us see broken bones.”

“I wish someone would invent a machine that would take in the hay without me there,” Ben rejoined. “But I’m not holding my breath!”

Laughing, Paul set to work on Joe’s hand, glancing every now and then at his patient. “Do I want to know how this happened or not?” he asked. Ben had just told him that Joe had hurt his hand.

“I hit something several times,” Joe replied, tonelessly. He kept his eyes averted.

Behind Joe, Ben shook his head and Paul took the hint. “Don’t do it again,” he advised Joe, reaching for the bandage. “No heavy work,” he told Ben, since Joe clearly wasn’t listening. “And keep the bandages dry. I’ll take the stitches out next week and see how his hand looks then.” Glancing down at Joe once more, he added softly, “I’m here if you need me.”

“I’ll let you know,” Ben promised. He touched Joe’s shoulder. “Its time to go home,” he said and a pang of regret shot through him. The last place Joe wanted to be right now was at home, with Tessa there. But they had no choice. The moment could only be deferred; Joe would have to confront her soon. They were due to be married the next day.

Slowly, Joe rose. His face was set and white. “Let’s go,” he replied.

*****

Mr. Caldwell met them in the yard. The older man looked distraught, his hair awry, wringing his hands. “Tessa’s gone!” he cried, before either Joe or Ben could dismount.

“Gone?” Joe echoed sharply. “Gone where?” He realized the irrelevancy of the question at once; if Caldwell knew where Tessa was, he wouldn’t be standing here making a fuss. So Joe asked another question before anyone could comment. “How long has she been gone?”

“I don’t know,” Caldwell admitted. “I thought she was resting in her room, but when I went to call her for afternoon tea, she was gone.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand. How far could a blind girl go?”

“Blind?” Joe repeated, sarcasm dripping from the syllable.

At once, Caldwell blushed, the color mounting in his neck and face, staining his ears with betraying color. Joe felt his world crash in around him. He had known that Tessa was only marrying him because she was blind – he wasn’t stupid and knew she didn’t really love him. But he hadn’t really believed that she had meant to mislead him over regaining her sight. But her father’s reaction told Joe that he had known all along that Tessa could see again and was intent on pushing her into a ‘good’ marriage. That Caldwell was shiftless and ne’er-do-well was not a secret to the Cartwrights and Joe was suddenly sure, without having any proof that Caldwell had intended to continue living with the Cartwrights, to save himself the bother of getting a job.

Stepping forward, Lon Caldwell, Tessa’s useless, lazy, brother, gave his father a contemptuous look. “You know Tessa’s blind,” he asserted, glaring at Joe and addressing him. “What did you say to make her run away?”

“Tessa’s not blind,” Ben stated with quiet anger. He glared at Caldwell, who seemed to shrink into himself. “I don’t know how long you’ve known that and right now I don’t care. Blind or not, Tessa doesn’t know this area and isn’t equipped to survive. We’ve got to look for her.”

“Well, we know she didn’t follow the main road to town,” Joe remembered, looking at Ben. He had instantly dismissed his in-laws-to-be and was now focusing on the problem in hand. He could deal with Tessa’s deceitfulness when he found her. “I’ll scout around and see if I can find any tracks.”

Left alone with the Caldwells, Ben bit back the recriminations he could feel rising to his lips. Now was not the time to get into the rights and wrongs of the situation; a young woman was missing and they had to find her. “Are any of her things gone?” Ben asked and ushered the bewildered man up the stairs to look.

*****

Sinking down onto the grass – for there was nowhere else to sit – Tessa wiped her eyes and looked around. She had to admit it; she was hopelessly lost and had been for quite some time. She had thought it would be easy to follow the main road into town, traveling parallel to the road so that she wasn’t seen. However, somewhere along the line, she had gone wrong and now she had absolutely no idea where she was. Tears continued to slip down her cheeks. She was exhausted, hungry and it looked as though night was coming on. Tessa reveled in the beauty of the landscape around her. She had thought she would never see again.

Sniffling, Tessa pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and blew her nose. It was impossible to try and retrace her steps, as the grass didn’t show any signs of her passing. She had to face it; she was lost! Tessa shook her head. She didn’t know this part of the country at all; she would have been lost even if she hadn’t strayed from the road.

“Well, I can’t stay here,” she declared aloud and pushed herself to her feet, picking up her valise. Quite why she had felt the need to tote the suitcase with her, she wasn’t entirely sure now. It had seemed a good idea at the time, even if she hadn’t packed all her clothing. But the valise was awkward to carry and although it had seemed light-weight at first, it now felt as though someone had been stuffing rocks into it. But Tessa couldn’t bring herself to just abandon it. She would need it if by some miracle she found Virginia City and caught the stage. She had barely any money anyway – little enough to get her to San Francisco, never mind replenish her wardrobe. “I’ll need some shelter if I’m stuck here for the night.”

Walking again, Tessa found her mind drifting back to the scene she had witnessed from the window that morning. She was pretty sure this was why she had got lost – her mind was not on what she was doing. Somehow, Tessa had known, as Ben and Joe emerged from the barn that her secret was out. Quite how they had discovered that she could see again didn’t matter to Tessa, nor did she wonder at how she knew they knew. She only knew that she couldn’t stay any longer.

When her eyesight had returned, Tessa had naturally run straight to her father to tell him the good news. Now, he could stop pretending that her life had been ruined and they could continue on to San Francisco. The imaginary fiancé would vanish and they could start afresh, as they had intended all along. But when Caldwell had told Tessa that she ought to pretend to be blind, she had protested, only to be talked around.

Her conscience had not given her much rest since then, though. Tessa genuinely liked Joe. He was funny, smart, handsome and caring. She possibly even loved him a little. But it seemed wrong to her that she should pretend something simply to get a wealthy husband. Whenever she had tried to tell her father that, he had brushed her concerns aside, pointing out that Joe was infatuated with her and genuinely wanted to marry her. Tessa had not known how to tell her father she didn’t want to do this.

Lon was no help. Tessa didn’t really get along with Lon that well. He agreed with their father that Tessa should marry Joe, pointing out that if she didn’t, Joe would get away scot-free with what he had done. Neither of them seemed to believe that it was a genuine accident. Lon was more than willing to spend his life as Joe’s pensioner.

So, as she watched Joe and Ben ride away from the barn, Joe with his injured hand cradled against his side, she knew then that she had to get away. Perhaps Joe would be heart-broken that she had left. Perhaps he would be relieved, no longer expected to marry the poor little girl that he had blinded. Tessa suspected that the latter would be the case. She knew that he would be angry with her for lying to him and how could she blame him for that? Tessa’s self-esteem shriveled up.

Moving quietly through the house, Tessa hastily packed a few of her belongings and then took some money from her father’s room. She crept out of the house, avoiding the industrious Hop Sing who was hanging out bed sheets, and not seeing either her father or Lon, who were off fishing somewhere.

Initially, walking parallel to the road hadn’t been difficult, but then Tessa’s mind had wandered and she found that she was lost. She hadn’t brought any food or water with her and she was starving. The afternoon was growing old and she was facing the night, alone, without any kind of protection. Fear swelled with every step she took.

At last, as twilight turned the cloudless sky a delicate shade of purple, Tessa found a sheltered spot by some trees. The bushes provided a comforting screen at her back and the trees overhead gave the false promise of shelter, should it rain.

But rain was not going to be Tessa’s problem that night. The skies continued to clear and the temperature dropped precipitously. Frost crept over the land, reaching icy fingers into every nook and cranny.

Exhausted from her long walk, Tessa fell asleep before darkness had fallen. She did not realize the peril she was in.

*****

It was a tense group that met around the dinner table that night. Darkness had fallen, bringing a frost with it. There had been no signs of Tessa in the immediate area and now it was too dark to search further. Hop Sing had once more produced a wonderful meal, but nobody had much of an appetite.

“How long has Tessa had her sight back?” Ben asked, into the frozen silence.

Glancing uncomfortably at his host, Caldwell mumbled something. It didn’t matter than no one caught what he said – the implication was enough. More than just a few hours, it was plain. A great bitterness welled in Joe’s heart.

“Just exactly when were you going to tell me this great news?” he demanded. “I am her fiancé. I had a right to be told.”

“Oh drop the righteous act, Cartwright,” Lon sneered. “We all know you were marrying Tessa out of pity. Why do you think we told her not to say anything?”

“Lon!” Caldwell scolded, the dismay in his tones not just because Lon was being so rude. Now that he had blurted out their plan, he could guarantee that Ben would not permit Joe to marry Tessa, regardless of what the young man himself might want.

“What difference does it make now?” Lon shouted. “They’re bound to have guessed that something was fishy about the whole business.”

The Caldwells erupted into an ill-mannered squabbling match. Joe sat silently, not really listening to the bitter recriminations that father and son flung at one another. He didn’t hear Ben shouting them down, or Hoss trying to throw oil on troubled waters. He was listening intently to an argument that raged internally, one voice protesting that he did love Tessa, while his other self insisted that he didn’t really.

Joe was nothing if not honest. He knew which voice was telling him the truth. “I don’t love her,” he said, quietly.

“What?” The only person who had heard him was Adam. “What did you say, Joe?”

Everyone turned to look at him, the Caldwells pausing in mid-shout to gawp at him. “I said, I don’t love Tessa,” Joe repeated. He felt a blush crawl up his neck. “I thought I did. I honestly thought I wanted to marry her because I love her. I do, in a way, but I’m not in love with her.” He met the gazes of everyone, seeing the different emotions his declaration had engendered. “I’m sorry, but I can’t marry her.”

At once, Lon took the offensive. “See? I told you he was only marrying her out of pity!” he bellowed. “Tessa isn’t good enough for the high and mighty Cartwrights.”

The person who reacted most swiftly to that provocation was not the person Lon expected. Adam suddenly had him in a painfully tight hold and the oldest son’s voice was low and deadly. “I suggest that you retract that remark right now,” Adam commented. “Or else your sister won’t be the only one out in the cold right now.” He held Lon’s gaze until the younger man looked away. Satisfied, Adam let go of him. “It seems that Tessa’s plight doesn’t mean much to you, Mr. Caldwell,” he went on. “Nor her well being. I can understand your desire for her to marry well, but surely now that she can see again, her fiancé in San Francisco will welcome her with open arms.” Adam’s tone made it quite clear that he didn’t believe a word about the fiancé.

Embarrassed at being caught in another lie, Caldwell blushed furiously. “He wouldn’t want her now,” he muttered lamely and hoped that no one would ask why not.

“I don’t expect he really loved her then,” Adam commented, enjoying rubbing it in. “But I still don’t see why you didn’t tell Joe that Tessa could see again. Were you afraid that he would admit that he didn’t love her?” Adam shook his head. “You don’t know Joe very well.”

“Adam…” Joe began, but his oldest brother shook his head again.

“Joe, if Tessa had come to you a few minutes before the wedding and told you the truth, you would still have married her, wouldn’t you?” he asked.

“Yes,” Joe admitted, wondering why that answer felt wrong.

“If Tessa had come to you yesterday and told you the same thing, would you have still married her?” Adam went on.

“Yes,” Joe nodded, confused now.

“And if she had told you this morning, before Pa had the chance, you’d have still married her.”

“Yes,” Joe agreed. “Adam, where are you going with this?”

“Joe, deep down, you knew all along that you weren’t in love with Tessa, didn’t you?” Adam asked, gently.

Sighing, Joe ducked his head and nodded. “Yes,” he replied, almost inaudibly.

“But if you had been caught up in the joyful celebrations surrounding Tessa’s remarkably recovery, you wouldn’t have had the time to think that you have had today. And, too late, you’d have discovered the truth once you were safely caught. It’s only because of the circumstances today that you have realized that your feelings are not what you thought they were.” Adam searched his brother’s face. “If Tessa herself had told you the truth, you and she might have had a chance together. Because you found out about her deceit, it made you think – and the truth will out, as the saying goes.”

There was a long silence, as no one could think of anything to say. At last, Ben stirred. “I think we should get an early night and be away from here by first light,” he suggested. “I just hope Tessa is all right, wherever she is.”

As they rose to go upstairs, Caldwell paused for a moment to look out of the door. It was bitterly cold and he felt a pang of remorse that his actions had caused his daughter to run away and be lost somewhere on that cold, dark night.

As he went up to lie sleeplessly on his bed, Caldwell wondered if he would ever be able to make it up to Tessa.

*****

Although exhausted, cold and hunger woke Tessa a few hours later. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself to try and keep warm. Tessa had never really been cold before. She had lived a fairly sheltered, cosseted life and on bitterly cold, snowy days, had not been encouraged to go outside. Tessa had erroneously assumed that the outfit she was wearing would keep her warm even during the coldest weather, but she had never experienced cold like this and even her tweed suit – fashionable, but impractical – could keep it out.

At last, she remembered that she had other clothing with her and fumbled with the clasp of her valise. Dragging out almost everything she owned, she put on another couple of pairs of stockings over her shoes, wishing that they were woolen, and tugged on blouses and sweaters. The bulky layers of clothes were uncomfortable, but she did feel warmer.

“I wish I knew how to build a fire,” Tessa muttered aloud and thought how lonely her voice sounded. At once, she wanted to cry.

Despite her determination not to weep and wail, Tessa couldn’t help crying over her situation. That she had got herself into this mess didn’t help. Drying her tears at length, Tessa forced herself to think about what she had done, agreeing to fool Joe simply to marry him.

The more she thought about it, the more ashamed Tessa became. She wasn’t by nature a deceitful girl, but all her life she had been taught that it was her place to do as she was told, first by her father, then by Lon and finally by the man she married. Tessa had tried very hard to do that and outright rebellion was alien to her nature. But she was also honest and had found it repugnant to lie to everyone. Tessa knew that if she hadn’t run away, she would have probably told Joe the truth by now. No matter how dreadful the repercussions were, she would be glad to have the weight of the lie off her conscience.

Frightened, alone, remorseful and cold, sleep didn’t come easily to Tessa Caldwell that night. Bleakly, she wondered if this was Purgatory.

*****

It was no problem to have everyone ready to leave at first light. No one had got much sleep. Bundled into warm jackets and carrying extra blankets, they mounted up in the chilly pre-dawn light and rode slowly from the yard. It had been agreed that they would split into three search parties; Ben and Mr. Caldwell, Hoss and Lon and Adam and Joe.

There was no talk as they went their separate ways. None of them knew what they would find – if they found Tessa at all. The dangers she had faced alone all night were very real and very obvious to the Cartwrights at least.

“This is all my fault, isn’t it, Adam?” Joe asked, once they were out of sight of the others.

“No its not!” Adam returned sharply. “How could it be your fault that Tessa ran away?”

“Everything is my fault,” Joe objected. “It was my bullet that blinded her. This is all because of that, so it’s my fault.”

“Joe, it was an accident,” Adam reminded him. “Your bullet ricocheted. You didn’t mean to shoot her, did you?”

“No, of course not! I was aiming for the mountain lion!” Joe hunched deeply into his coat. “And even then it got away.”

“And if you hadn’t fired at it, what would have happened?” Adam persisted.

After a moment of thought, Joe offered, “It would have landed on the Caldwells’ wagon.”

“Would that have been any better?” Adam asked.

“No.”

“What happened to Tessa was bad, Joe, but at least she escaped with her life. Now, she can see again. Keep things in perspective. This was an unfortunate chain of events caused by an accident, and don’t you forget that!” Adam reached over and squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “You’ve got nothing to blame yourself for, Joe.”

The sincerity in those dark eyes went a long way to lightening the burden of guilt that Joe had been carrying around all night. He smiled. “Thanks, Adam.”

Working on the premise that Tessa would have wanted to go somewhere where she could find transport, Adam and Joe opted to head towards town. The fact that Joe and Ben had not seen Tessa as they returned home the previous afternoon suggested that she hadn’t used the road, and so they each chose one side of the road and set to searching.

It must have been drawing on towards mid-morning, although still cold where Joe was searching, as the sun had not yet cleared the top of the mountains, when he spotted something out of the ordinary. Pausing for a moment, Joe stroked Cochise’s neck, for the gelding seemed unusually restive all of a sudden. Taking the horse’s unease as a signal to be wary, Joe rode towards the odd colored heap he could see and as he drew nearer, he realized that it was Tessa!

Flinging himself from Cochise’s back, Joe knelt by his fiancée and felt for a pulse. It was there, but slow and she felt very cold to the touch. Rising, Joe grabbed a blanket from his saddle and let go of his horse to spread it tenderly over Tessa. Cochise turned and bolted.

Stunned, Joe glanced all around, but couldn’t see anything out of place. He fumbled with his gun, cursing his still-sore hand, cocked it and fired the first of three shots.

The next moment, something large, warm and smelly hit him sideways on. Joe felt a moment of agonizing pain as his gun fired again and again as his finger convulsed with the pain. On his back, Joe forced open his eyes and saw a tawny shape retreating at high speed. Mountain lion! Joe knew he had to get up, had to see that Tessa was still all right, had to finish signaling Adam. But he did none of those things. His weapon slipped from his fingers as darkness claimed his vision.

*****

The three shots were exactly the signal Adam had been waiting for. Yet there was something… odd about them. As he rode towards the place where he thought they had originated, Adam mused over the sounds and realized that there had been a pause between the first and second shots, instead of the usual, smooth three-in-a-row. Smiling, Adam remembered Joe’s sore hand and thought perhaps his brother was cursing the bandage.

So it was something of a shock when he spotted Cochise high-tailing it away in the direction of home. Putting his heel to Sport, Adam blessed the gelding’s turn of speed as his long stride ate up the distance between himself and his brother.

“Joe!” Adam flung himself from Sport, noticing subliminally that his horse was not spooked by anything in the area and taking some comfort from that.

Joe was lying on his stomach, a great, bleeding set of gashes running down the right side of his back. Blood soaked into the green jacket. It was obvious to Adam, experienced woodman that he was, that Joe had tangled with a mountain lion – quite likely the one they had been hunting when this whole nightmare began.

Gingerly turning Joe partly onto his left side, Adam was relieved to see that there was no blood on Joe’s chest. Drawing his gun, he fired three shots, then another three. Someone would surely hear him?

“Adam?” The voice was so quiet that he barely heard it. Turning his head, Adam saw that Tessa had her eyes open.

“Are you hurt?” he demanded, his anxiety increasing. He didn’t know how he was going to manage to get Joe back to the ranch, never mind Tessa, too.

“What?” she muttered.

Leaving Joe for a moment, Adam crossed to her side. Tessa seemed uninjured, but she was definitely out of it. Touching her, Adam realized that she was cold, very cold. The blanket Joe had put over her had raised her temperature very slightly, enough to bring her back to consciousness, but she was very confused. “Just lie still,” Adam urged her. She obediently closed her eyes.

Rising, Adam took a blanket from Sport’s back and took it to Joe. He pressed its folded length against his brother’s torn and bleeding flesh, hoping to stem the bleeding. “Joe?” Adam bent over his brother. “Joe, can you hear me?”

At first there was no response, but after a few minutes, Joe moaned slightly and moved his head. Adam continued to coax him to wake up, casting an occasional glance at Tessa, who appeared to be asleep. Adam didn’t know if it was his imagination or not, but she seemed to have a trace of color in her face.

It took several minutes for Joe to come round properly. He gazed blearily at Adam, wincing from the pain in his back. “Cat,” he whispered. “Big cat.”

“It’s all right, Joe,” Adam soothed. “The cat’s long gone.” The only basis Adam had for that was Sport’s continued calmness, but Adam knew horses well enough to know that no horse would stand still when there was a big cat in the vicinity.

For a time, that seemed to calm Joe and he lay still enough, breathing heavily through his mouth, his eyes mostly closed. Then, suddenly, he made a galvanic movement and attempted to rise. Adam thwarted him easily enough, but not before there was some fresh bleeding from the wounds on his back. “Tessa!” Joe panted. “Tessa.” He craned to see around Adam.

“She’s fine, Joe,” Adam promised, although he had no idea if what he said was true or not. “She’s resting, just like you should be doing.” He looked around anxiously. Over half an hour had passed since he fired the shots. How much longer should he wait before firing again?

As if on cue, Adam heard three shots splinter the quietness of the morning. He sighed in relief and answered them. At last, help was coming. “Help’s on the way, Joe,” he smiled.

*****

Even with the arrival of much-needed help, it still took longer than anyone liked to get the two young people to safety. Caldwell and Lon proved to be utterly useless in a crisis and in the end, Adam took Tessa home slowly in front of him, with Caldwell and Lon riding along side, while Hoss galloped into town to fetch the doctor. Ben stayed with Joe, swaddling his son in the remaining spare blankets, for the ground was cold and the sun still had not reached the secluded area where they were. Once back at the ranch, Adam was going to send out a wagon and some hands to help Ben bring Joe home.

It was a nerve-wracking time for Ben, for he knew that Joe desperately needed a warm bed and a physician’s care, right now, not at some indeterminable time in the future. But nevertheless, when Joe spoke to him, Ben strove to keep his voice calm and soothing, forbidding any hint of his worry to show. Joe didn’t need to know how worried Ben was. He just needed to rest and husband his strength for the journey home.

There wasn’t much in the way of talking. The bleeding had stopped, but it was obvious by the blood-soaked blanket that lay directly on Joe’s back that he had lost more than enough. Most of the time, he slept, or drifted in a twilight place that Ben couldn’t go. Occasionally, a moan would slip out from between clenched teeth and Ben would sooth him back into slumber.

Although it seemed that he waited forever for help to arrive, barely more than an hour passed before the wagon hove into view, driven – to Ben’s surprise – by Adam.

“Its not that I’m not glad to see you, son,” he greeted his eldest. “But I thought you would be back at the house helping out.”

“I was left in no doubt that my presence was not required,” Adam responded dryly.

“Hop Sing?” Ben guessed with a smile.

“The very same,” Adam agreed. “He would make a wonderful sergeant major.”

“Don’t tell him that!” Ben scolded. “He might want to leave and then where would we be?”

“Hmm, good point,” Adam acknowledged and knelt by Joe. “How’s he been?”

“The same,” Ben admitted. “Let’s get him home.” He glanced into the bed of the wagon and saw that someone had spread straw deeply around to help cushion the journey as much as possible.

Working together, Ben hoisted Joe into his arms with Adam’s help. Adam then climbed into the back of the wagon and took Joe from their father, settling him as best he could into the straw while Ben hitched Buck to the back of the wagon and climbed in beside Joe. Adam then took the reins and guided the horses gently home.

*****

“Why did you run away, Tessa?” Ben asked gently.

“I… I…” Tessa’s eyes filled with tears.

This was really the last place Ben wanted to be, but Paul Martin had thrown him out of Joe’s room while he stitched up the claw marks down Joe’s back, and Caldwell had collared him to tell him Tessa was awake. After asking how she felt, and being told she felt much better, Ben had asked his question.

“It’s my fault, Cartwright,” Caldwell declared. “I told Tessa to pretend to be blind so that she could marry Joe. I just wanted her to be secure and have a good husband. That boy of yours is a good sort.”

Taking that as the oblique apology that it was, Ben looked at Tessa. “You can tell me,” he coaxed. “I don’t bite.”

That brought a smile, as well as a freshet of tears. “Oh Mr. Cartwright, I’ve been so stupid!” Tessa declared. “I saw you and Joe coming out of the barn yesterday morning. Joe looked so… so… desolate that I knew he must know that I could see. And I knew it was too late to pretend my sight had just suddenly come back and I was so ashamed of myself that I didn’t think I could face any of you again.” Delicate color stained Tessa’s pale cheeks and Ben thought it was a good sign that she could blush. She had been dangerously cold when brought home. “I’m still ashamed of myself,” she went on in a low voice. “I was wrong to do what I did and I… I… understand if Joe… hates me.”

“Where did you mean to go?” Ben asked. He didn’t assure her that Joe wouldn’t hate her; that was Joe’s job to do. Tessa would believe it when Joe told her.

“I was going to catch the stage,” Tessa confessed. “I started out following alongside the road, but then, I got lost, I don’t know how. And then I couldn’t find my way back and I kept walking until it got dark.”

With tears in his eyes, Caldwell gathered Tessa to his breast. “I thought we’d lost you,” he whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Tessa repeated. She looked at Ben. “How’s Joe? Is he all right?”

“He’s going to be fine,” Ben told her optimistically. He didn’t mention the very real danger of infection that always came with an injury from a big cat; there was no point in upsetting the girl further at this stage. “I’ve got to get back to him.” He smiled at Tessa and left the room.

Caldwell followed him out into the hall. “Cartwright, how is the boy really?” he asked.

Somehow, it annoyed Ben to have Caldwell constantly refer to Joe as ‘the boy’, even though he tended to think of his sons collectively as ‘the boys’. Joe was in his mid-twenties and a man grown by anyone’s standards. Coolly, Ben replied, “As I said, he’s going to be fine.”

The message wasn’t lost on Caldwell. “I just wanted to tell you that we’ll be leaving as soon as Tessa is well enough,” he said, stiffly. “I don’t imagine that they’ll want to get married now.”

Shaking his head at the man’s gall, Ben answered, “No I don’t suppose they will. Lies are hardly the basis for a successful marriage, are they?” He turned away and entered Joe’s room.

Leaning back against the closed door, Ben regretted his harsh words of a few moments before. But they were spoken now and couldn’t be recalled. Ben understood Caldwell’s worry – what man wouldn’t fear having an invalid daughter on his hands? And yet, Ben couldn’t help but think of the good life Tessa could have led as a blind person. He had heard of the Institute for the Blind in San Francisco and had been impressed by its aims. But to many people, blindness was a stigma that they didn’t want to acknowledge and too often, the blind person was shut up in a house, deprived of companionship and the pleasures that made up a normal life.

Straightening, Ben shook those thoughts off. Tessa had regained her sight, for which they were all very thankful. He walked towards the bed. Perhaps Tessa and Joe might have had a happy life together – perhaps they still might. He glanced at Paul, wondering what would happen. Would Joe still want to marry Tessa? Did she still want to marry Joe? He guessed that someone had remembered to tell the preacher that the wedding was not going to happen that day. “How is he?”

“I’ve cleaned the wounds out as best I can, Ben, but we’ll need to keep a close eye on them for infection, as you know,” Paul replied. He was squinting slightly and Ben wondered if Paul was just tired, or if he needed spectacles. “He should be waking up soon and then I want to get some nourishment into him.”

Crossing to the bed, Ben sat down. Joe was lying on his back, his eyes closed, thick bandages wrapped around his torso. His face was pale but peaceful. Ben took one of Joe’s hands in his own. “That dratted cat,” he muttered, afraid he was going to be overwhelmed by his emotions.

“It’s a nuisance,” Paul agreed, washing and drying his hands. “So, tell me, Ben; is this related to the hand injury I dealt with yesterday?”

Nodding, Ben sketched in the outlines of what had happened. Paul clucked and tutted and then headed off to check out Tessa’s eyes. He was scandalized that Caldwell had planned to shove his daughter into the first marriage that came along. Yes, it happened – arranged marriages were not a thing of the past – but out here, marriages were generally based on love.

Alone with Joe, Ben waited patiently for his son to waken and was rewarded a short time later by Joe moving about. Then his green eyes opened and peered blearily at Ben. “Pa,” he whispered.

“Hello there,” Ben smiled.

Joe looked around the room and found an answering smile. “Last thing I remember… I was outside,” he commented hoarsely. He shivered, although he didn’t feel cold to Ben.

“Well, since then, you’ve been put back together again,” Ben teased. “And I would appreciate it if you would stop giving me frights like that!”

“Sorry,” Joe breathed. He missed the teasing altogether. “How’s Tessa?”

“She’s fine,” Ben replied. “Paul is just checking her eyes, but she can see.”

“That’s good,” Joe allowed. He sighed deeply and winced. “But I haven’t changed my mind; I can’t marry her.”

“I know,” Ben agreed. “We all understand.” He shrugged. “After all that’s happened, I don’t think Tessa wants to marry you, either, Joe. I don’t think she ever really did.”

“I know she didn’t,” Joe replied. His eyes were still a bit glassy from the ether, but Joe was quite lucid otherwise. His voice took on a cynical tone. “I guess it’s not often a blind girl has to be forced to marry a well-off man.”

“Tessa might not love you in the way that you hoped, but she is very fond of you,” Ben reminded him. “And let’s be honest here, Joe, you’re the one who said that you didn’t love her.”

“I know.” Joe sighed again. He was beginning to sound tired. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”

Patting Joe’s arm, Ben asked, “Do you think you can stay awake long enough to eat something?”

“I’ll try,” Joe agreed and soon found himself with some of Hop Sing’s chicken soup in front of him. He managed to eat enough to satisfy Ben and then fell asleep again.

*****

The Caldwells’ leave-taking was not a prolonged affair. With Joe still requiring a lot of bed rest while his body made up the blood loss, he couldn’t go to the door to see them off. Tessa had gone to his bedroom to say goodbye and had stood looking at him for a moment. It didn’t seem real to her that if things had gone differently, they would have been married by now. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Tessa didn’t know if she could have gone through with it in the end. She wanted to marry for love, not pity.

“We’re leaving soon, Joe,” she said softly. “I came to say goodbye and… I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Joe agreed. “Sorry that my bullet hit you, sorry that I didn’t love you enough to make you love me and sorry things have ended this way.”

“You’re so nice,” Tessa sobbed. “Why couldn’t I have loved you?”

“I don’t know,” Joe replied, moved by her tears. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips. “Be happy, Tessa,” he told her.

Barely able to see for the tears she was shedding, Tessa nodded. “You, too,” she sniffled and fled the room.

Lying in his bed, listening to the retreating sound of horses’ hooves, Joe wondered what his life would have been like if he had married Tessa. When would the realization have hit that he didn’t love her? Would their life together have been blighted by that in time?

Drifting pleasantly between sleep and wakefulness, waiting for Ben to come back, Joe found himself dreaming of marrying a woman who loved him beyond measure and whom he loved devotedly in return. He roused from his daydream as Ben came in and a shiver raced down his spine. Just for a moment, he thought that something bad had happened in his dream; something he couldn’t quite see or remember…

Shaking off the feeling, Joe smiled at Ben. “I’m fine,” he told him.

Smiling back, Ben nodded. They were fine. Joe was recovering well; the Caldwells had gone and there was no bitterness left between the two families. Given how badly everything could have turned out, they were lucky. But Joe was right.

He was fine.

***End***

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