Summary: Joe’s friend Georgia is now a famous singing star. But her return home throws up problems for Joe.
Word Count: 13,821
“Joe!” The vivacious brunette threw herself across the stage to run lightly down the steps into the auditorium and into Joe Cartwright’s arms. She landed a smacking kiss somewhere beneath his right ear as he caught her easily and swung her around in a circle.
“You look terrific!” Joe exclaimed, setting Georgia back on her feet. He held her arms out from her side to look at her more closely.
Smiling, Georgia waved her left hand under Joe’s nose and he took note of the ring sparkling on her ring finger. “You’re engaged?” Joe squeaked. “That’s wonderful! Congratulation! Who’s the lucky guy?”
Giggling, Georgia kept hold of Joe’s hand and tugged him across the room. A man detached himself from a group of people and came over to meet them. “Joe, this is Edward Duras, my manager.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Joe said, shaking hands with the other man. Georgia’s manager was about the same height as Joe, but a good bit older. He was plump, balding, bespectacled and wore a smart three-piece suit with a gold watch chain gleaming against his stomach.
“Edward, this is Joe Cartwright, my friend that I’ve told you about,” Georgia went on. “Joe, this is my fiancé.”
Shock rampaged through Joe. How could the vivacious, lively Georgia that Joe had known all their lives be engaged to a man old enough to be her father? However, his social graces were still active, even if his brain seemed to be frozen. “You’re a lucky man,” Joe heard himself saying and felt a smile on his face. “Georgie’s a lovely girl.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” Edward replied. “Georgia certainly is.” He smiled at his fiancée, having carefully emphasized her name.
Joe had caught the emphasis as well. “I’ve always called her Georgie,” Joe explained. “Old habits die hard.” He grinned at Georgia.
“I’m quite used to it,” she agreed. “That’s how I know I’ve come home; Joe’s here calling me Georgie!” She smiled at Edward. “Darling, is it all right if I go and talk to Joe while the set is put up? You don’t need me right now, do you?”
“Go ahead,” Edward smiled. He watched as the two young people walked towards the door. He had heard about Joe Cartwright a lot of times from Georgia when she was feeling homesick, but what Georgia hadn’t told him was that Joe was probably the handsomest man Edward had ever seen. He felt a pang of envy as he saw the ease that was between them and wondered if Georgia would still love him after spending time with Joe. A rush of hatred for the young cowboy swept over Edward, and he turned away as someone called his name. He would keep an eye on Joe. Georgia was his.
Holding the chair for Georgia, Joe smiled at her, then sat down opposite her. “Coffee?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” Georgia agreed and watched as Joe ordered them. When his attention was on her once more, she smiled. “You haven’t changed a bit, Joe Cartwright.”
“You have,” Joe told her. “You’re even more beautiful than you used to be.” As Georgia blushed at the compliment, Joe took her hand across the table. “So, does the singing still satisfy you? You’ve certainly been making headlines with it.”
“Oh, Joe, it’s wonderful,” Georgia sighed. “I love it so much! I never thought I would become famous. It’s so unreal. But the best bit has been meeting Edward.”
“How long have you known him?” Joe asked. He was still surprised at their attachment, although he had never had any ambitions in that direction himself. He and Georgia had grown up together and were like brother and sister. Georgia had been a tomboy of a girl and had willingly followed Joe into all kinds of mischief. As she reached her teens and grew into a breath-takingly beautiful girl, everyone in Virginia City had waited for Joe to begin courting her, and for the inevitable wedding.
But they were to wait in vain. Georgia had been singing for years – all her life in fact – and decided to seek her fame and fortune on the stage in San Francisco. At 17, she left town alone, and within a year, was making her presence felt on the concert circuit. Then, she got her big break in opera and suddenly the tomboy from Virginia City was the leading lady in San Francisco opera. She hadn’t stopped there. She performed in New York, New Orleans, Washington, anywhere there was a theatre.
And now she was home. It had been five amazing years for Georgia, and here she was, about to make her first performance in her home town. There was a new sophistication to Georgia, but Joe could still see his old friend under the surface glamour.
“I’ve known Edward about three years,” Georgia replied. “I’ve done so well since I met him and falling in love was just the icing on the cake. We just got engaged last month.”
“I’m pleased for you,” Joe told her, honestly. “He seems like a very nice man.”
“He is,” Georgia replied. “I’m sure you’ll like each other!”
Privately, Joe doubted that they would ever become friends; they were just too different for that. But he didn’t want to say anything to upset Georgia. “I’m sure,” he agreed.
The next hour flew by as they exchanged small details of their lives that they hadn’t committed to the letters they sent to each other regularly. They were laughing together when Edward arrived by their side. “Georgia,” he said, with a mildly reproving tone in his voice. “Its time to get back to work, darling.”
The possessiveness of the last endearment wasn’t lost on Joe, who smiled as inoffensively as he knew how and tried to look as interesting as wallpaper. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed, as Joe had much more natural charm than he realized and he couldn’t be in a room without everyone being aware of him, such was the magnetism of his personality. It was what had made him seem such an obvious match for Georgia, who also attracted attention wherever she went. Again, Edward felt the pang of envy.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Georgia replied. She rose, as did Joe. Leaning over, she kissed his cheek. “Why don’t you come to the theatre tomorrow morning, Joe? We can talk then, before rehearsal. How does that fit in with your duties on the ranch?”
“I’ll make it fit,” Joe assured her. “About 10?”
“Sounds good to me,” Georgia assured him. She gave him a kiss as she left, taking Edward’s hand in hers. She paused at the door to wave gaily to Joe, who smiled in return. Edward held the door open for Georgia and as he went through, he gave Joe a look that the youngest Cartwright read all too easily; this woman is mine. Keep your hands off!
Sighing, Joe paid for the coffee and went home.
“Hi, Pa, I’m home,” Joe called as he entered the house. Resounding silence was his only answer, so Joe correctly assumed that Ben wasn’t home. He took off his hat and gun belt and dropped them on the credenza.
In actual fact, the house was completely deserted, and Joe wondered where Hop Sing, the family housekeeper had gone. Probably into town to collect supplies and visit his myriad of cousins while he was at it. Joe put the letters he had collected in town onto Ben’s desk and got himself a cold drink. The summer had taken a while to get going, but now it was truly here, it was proving to be a hot one.
As he put his empty glass into the kitchen sink, he heard the buckboard pull into the yard and so went out to help Hop Sing unload the supplies. As ever, the Chinaman was full of news about his family’s doings and Joe was content to listen, without having to pay too much attention. He still couldn’t get over Georgia’s engagement to Edward. It just seemed all wrong to Joe. Why, Edward was older than Adam, Joe’s oldest brother, and Joe estimated that put Edward over 40.
The unloading complete, Joe went back inside and sat down opposite the empty fireplace. He knew that there were no rules regarding love. If there were, he and Georgia would have been married years ago. And it wasn’t the first time Joe had heard of a younger woman marrying a man old enough to be her father. With a pang, he though of Caitlin, whom he had loved devotedly, and who had been married to a much older man.
With a big sigh, Joe shook his head, throwing the thoughts away. If there was ever a girl who knew her own mind, Georgia was it, Joe knew. But he was troubled by the look Edward had sent his way. How could he convince the man that he wasn’t in love with Georgia? The only way that crossed Joe’s mind was the only way he couldn’t take; he wasn’t prepared to not see Georgia, unless that was what Georgia herself wanted.
“So how is Georgia?” Ben asked, as they ate supper that night.
“She looks great,” Joe replied, enthusiastically. “Hasn’t changed a bit! Well,” the vivid smile on Joe’s face dimmed slightly, “there is one difference. She’s engaged to be married.”
“Engaged?” Hoss echoed, looking at Joe’s face for a clue as to how he felt about this new development. Hoss hadn’t been too sure that Joe wasn’t in love with Georgia himself, despite all the denials. “When did that happen?”
“Who’s she engaged to?” Adam asked. “Anyone we know?” He winked at his father and Hoss. “You’ve been keeping this quiet, Joe.”
“Because it’s not me,” Joe retorted. “She got engaged to her manager, Edward something.” Joe frowned as he tried to bring the unusual name to mind. His brow relaxed as he remembered. “Duras, that’s it! Edward Duras.” The frown returned. “He’s older than you, Adam,” Joe went on, oblivious to the unintended insult he had just dealt his brother. “I’d guess he was about 40 – old enough to be her father, pretty near.”
“And that rankles, does it?” Adam asked, rankling a bit himself. Ben hid a smile behind his napkin. “Were you planning on marrying her?”
“We’re friends,” Joe replied, impatiently. “But if you met him, you’d see what I mean. He’s a bit fat and balding and just doesn’t seem like Georgie’s type at all!”
“’Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, Joe,” Ben reminded him.
“’Handsome is as handsome does’,” Adam quoted, completing the quotations from the Book of Proverbs.
“Beauty is only skin deep,” Hoss pointed out. He was delighted to have made a contribution to the quotations, since usually Adam won that hands down.
“I know all that,” Joe replied, nettled. “I just said that he doesn’t seem like Georgie’s type!”
“So you’re not jealous,” Adam stated, although it sounded rather like a question.
“No, I’m not!” Joe sighed.
“I gather you’ve met this man?” Ben enquired. He shot a glance at Adam that told his older son to back off. Joe was beginning to chase his food around his plate and not eat it; a sure sign he was getting upset.
“Yes, and he didn’t seem too pleased to meet me, either,” Joe replied, despondently. “When he came to collect Georgie for rehearsal, he all but told me to stay away.” He shrugged. “Not in words, but the meaning was plain enough.”
“What are you going to do?” Ben asked.
“Meet Georgie at the theatre in the morning at 10,” Joe replied, blithely. “She asked me, and we’ll have more time to talk before she has to start rehearsing.”
“So you’d like the morning off, is that it?” Ben smiled. “All right, son. You see your friend. But remember, you might have to be a bit more discreet around her fiancé.”
“I’ll remember, Pa,” Joe assured him.
“Why don’t you ask Georgia and Edward out here for supper?” Ben suggested. “Whenever it suits them. How many performances does Georgia have?”
“Five,” Adam replied. “She’s due to start in three days, on Monday.”
“Well, what about tomorrow night?” Ben suggested. “Or Sunday. Whichever is suitable.”
“Thanks, Pa, I’ll ask them,” Joe replied. He returned to attacking his food with gusto and Ben heaved a silent sigh of relief. He could see Adam looking at him down the table and assumed that his oldest son would have something to say about Joe taking time off, but at least he had the sense not to say anything when Joe was around to get upset.
“Morning, Joe,” Mr. Mason, the manager of the theatre, said as Joe let himself in the next morning.
“Morning,” Joe replied.
“The tickets are almost sold out for all of Georgia’s concerts,” Mason went on. “I hope you and your family have got your tickets already.”
“Long ago,” Joe assured him. “As soon as Georgie confirmed her dates!” He smiled at the manager and went into the theatre.
As Joe expected, Georgie was sitting at the piano on the stage, picking out a note here and there. It seemed to Joe that he couldn’t remember a time when his friend wasn’t singing, and they had spent many happy hours at the piano when they were children. “Joe!” Georgie waved when she saw him. “Come and join me.” She slid over the piano stool to make room for him.
It was quite like old times. They talked and laughed and played silly little duets together on the piano. Joe couldn’t play a note otherwise, but the old routines from childhood drifted back as though he had last played them yesterday. After a time, Georgie coaxed Joe into singing some of the songs they had known and loved as children, and Joe willingly sang with her.
“You’re a better singer than you realize,” Georgie told Joe, as the notes died away.
“Adam’s the singer in our family,” Joe protested. “And Pa.”
“You’re just saying that because that’s what you’ve been told all your life,” Georgia corrected him. “Sure, you sing differently from Adam, but he’s had singing lessons and your voice is natural. And you don’t sing enough, Joe! You ought to come onto the stage and do a duet with me this week! That would show Adam!” Georgia’s eyes sparkled. She had often felt the weight of Adam’s anger when he had come across her and Joe in mischief.
“I don’t think so!” Joe looked alarmed. “Its one thing singing here with you, but quite another getting up in front of everyone!”
“Chicken!” Georgia teased.
“I’ll chicken you!” Joe retorted and tickled her.
When they broke apart, both laughing and out of breath, Joe suddenly became aware of how intimately he had been touching Georgia. The thought had never occurred to him before, but he could easily see how their intimacy could be misconstrued by a jealous lover. But he didn’t want anything to change between them, not yet. It would be different when she was married, but now, Joe didn’t even want to think about that.
“Listen to this,” Georgie said, and picked up some music that was lying on the piano. “I’m going to be singing this when I go back to San Francisco. It’s not the right season; it should be sung at Easter, but it’s so lovely, I couldn’t resist.”
Quietly, she began to sing ‘God so Loved The World.’ It was clearly meant for a choir to sing, but even with just one voice and the piano accompaniment, it was beautiful. Remembering back to the previous Easter, Joe could associate with the words completely, as he had found a new understanding through the ordeal he had endured. Tears were standing in his eyes when Georgia had finished singing.
“That was beautiful,” he whispered, after a few seconds of silence.
“Thank you,” Georgia replied, for Joe had given her the biggest compliment he could – enraptured silence when she had stopped singing. “It’s by a man called John Stainer from a piece called The Crucifixion.”
“John 3:16,” Joe murmured. “It means a lot to me.”
“It means a lot to me, too,” Georgia told him. “Because of what happened to you. That’s why I want to sing it, Joe. Because of what it means to us both.”
Moved beyond speech, Joe threw his arms round Georgia, who hugged him back. They both had tears in their eyes. They were still sitting like that when Edward entered the auditorium a few minutes later.
Once more, envy shot through him. How he wished they had never come to Virginia City! How he wished he had never set eyes on Joe Cartwright! “Georgia!” he called, a hint of imperiousness in his voice.
“Edward!” Georgie disentangled herself from Joe and wiped her eyes unselfconsciously. “I was just letting Joe hear that anthem from the new work.”
“Good morning,” Joe offered, civilly, although he thought Edward’s timing was deplorable. “How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you,” Edward replied. “Georgia, rehearsal will start in a few minutes.”
Joe was not stupid, and he could take a hint as well as the next man, but he hated to be chased away. Standing his ground, despite the unfriendly look Edward sent him when Georgia wasn’t looking, Joe remembered the invitation to supper. “Pa wonders if you could both come to supper either tomorrow night, or Sunday, which ever suits you best. He’s looking forward to meeting you, sir.”
“Oh that would be wonderful!” Georgia cried and whirled round to grab Edward’s arm. “We could, Edward, couldn’t we? Tomorrow night? Oh please say yes. You haven’t got anything arranged for tomorrow, have you?”
Smiling fondly at his bride-to-be, Edward capitulated. “Of course, dear, if that’s what you’d like. Thank you, Joe.” He patted her arm. “Run along, Georgia, and get ready.”
“See you later,” Georgia smiled and kissed Joe soundly on the cheek before whirling and racing off into the wings. Joe watched her go with a bemused smile on his face. He could never remember a time when Georgia had gone anywhere at anything slower than a run.
When she was out of sight, Joe turned to go, but Edward put his hand out to catch Joe’s arm. “Wait a moment, Cartwright.” His tone was peremptory.
Joe looked down at the hand on his arm, but Edward didn’t take the hint and withdraw it. If anything, he tightened his grip. “Let’s get one thing quite clear here,” he hissed. “Georgia is my fiancée and you are not going to take her from me, do you understand?”
Coldly, Joe shook Edward’s hand from his arm. “Georgia doesn’t love me the way she loves you,” Joe retorted. “And if you don’t know that, then you’re a fool! See you tomorrow.” Joe started to walk away.
Turning, Joe looked back at Edward. The older man was puce with rage. “What?”
“If you don’t leave Georgia alone, I’ll kill you!”
It was all too clear that Edward meant those words. Joe didn’t know if the other man had the knowledge or skills to put his threat into practice. “The choice is Georgia’s,” Joe replied, evenly. “If she doesn’t want to see me any more, that’s fine. But until she tells me – of her own free will, Edward – that she doesn’t want to see me any more, I’ll continue to see her. Supper is at 6.30.”
Turning on his heel, Joe walked calmly out of the theatre, even managing to smile goodbye to the manager without showing that anything was wrong. Pausing by Cochise, Joe took a deep breath before mounting, but he couldn’t contain his anger. By the time he reached the outskirts of the town, Joe had his horse at a gallop as he tried to ride out his rage.
By the time he got home, Joe had almost mastered his rage. He cooled Cochise out on the last part of the journey, not wanting his horse to return to the barn lathered. That would be a sure giveaway that there was something wrong, and Joe wanted desperately to pretend that nothing was wrong.
Luckily, he was able to attend to his horse and go into the house via the kitchen, which allowed him a little more time to school his face to neutrality. He told Hop Sing that they were having guests for supper the next night, and went into the great room.
Finding it thankfully empty, for the second day in a row, Joe slumped down on the settee to gather his thoughts. He had known from almost the first moment he met Edward the day before that the older man was jealous of him. Was it just that he feared the old childhood bond between Georgia and Joe? Or was it more than that? Joe didn’t know the answer, but he was disquieted by the thought that he had made an enemy out of the man. Assuming that all went to plan and Georgia married Edward, how could Joe then have any kind of relationship with her?
He remembered Susie, the saloon girl he had befriended and loved many years ago. Although he stood as godfather to Susie’s baby and he had patched up a friendship with Susie’s husband, the friendship had withered and died, although not for lack of trying on Joe’s part. Susie had just suddenly stopped writing, and when Joe had next been in San Francisco, he had gone to her house, only to find that she had moved on. She had left no forwarding address and her husband’s business was gone. Joe didn’t want that to happen with Georgia.
But the thing that concerned Joe most was the forthcoming supper. How was he going to be able to pretend that he was friendly with Edward? Being polite was almost beyond Joe at that moment. He couldn’t allow Georgia to see that he and Edward didn’t get on and if Pa ever found out…! Joe heaved a sigh. Well, he would just have to dissemble the best he could. He didn’t want to give Adam any more ammunition for teasing comments about jealousy, either.
Hearing hooves in the yard, Joe rose and went upstairs to wash. He didn’t want to face his family right then. He needed more time to gear himself up for the part he had to play.
It was going to be a long evening.
As the buggy drew to a halt in the yard, Joe went forward to help Georgia down from it. “Hello,” he smiled and Georgia smiled broadly in return. “Welcome to the Ponderosa,” Joe added to Edward, feeling the muscles in his shoulders tense up as he looked at the man.
“Thank you,” Edward, replied, neutrally.
“Uncle Ben!” Georgia threw herself across the yard into Ben’s waiting arms. “Adam! Hoss!” She kissed each of them with the same abandon as she had greeted Joe. “You look great!”
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” Adam replied. “Not quite the hoyden I remember, though.”
“Surface gloss,” Georgia assured him, laughing.
Quickly, Joe made the necessary introductions and was grateful to be able to step back and allow Ben to carry the conversation, which he did gracefully, not being aware of Joe’s churning feelings. Adam shot Joe a quick look, but Joe just gave him a bland smile back, while fielding teasing comments from Georgia.
Thanks to the presence of the rest of his family, supper wasn’t the ordeal Joe had expected, although he frequently found Edward’s eyes on him. Georgia sat with Edward, opposite Joe and it was plain to them all that she was besotted with her unlikely bridegroom. Joe did his best to avoid making eye contact with Edward, but it was impossible to avoid it completely without seeming rude. And the last thing Joe wanted was to seem to be rude to Edward. He didn’t want his family thinking that there was anything wrong between them.
“When is the wedding to be?” Ben asked, as they sat down to coffee in front of the fire.
“You’ll get an invitation, Uncle Ben, don’t worry,” Georgia laughed.
“I wasn’t hinting, young lady,” laughed Ben in response. “I just wanted to know.” He shook his head. “Now I remember why I used to want to turn you over my knee when you were younger!”
“I haven’t changed,” Georgia agreed. “The wedding will take place after my next engagement in San Francisco,” she went on. “In about a month’s time.” She took Joe’s hand. “You will come to see that performance, won’t you, Joe?”
“I’ll come,” Joe promised. “After the preview I got this morning, I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Their eyes met and they shared again the moment when Georgia had stopped singing and they both understood how much the music had meant to them.
“Could I persuade you to join me in a duet tonight?” Adam asked, and Joe rolled his eyes.
With the memory of the emotion she and Joe had felt that morning fresh in her mind, Georgia knew she wasn’t in the mood to sing with Adam. “Not tonight, Adam, if you dont mind,” she replied. “But another time, I’d love to.”
“I don’t mind,” Adam assured her. “We’ll see you in concert at the end of the week anyway.” He smiled. “We all thought you were crazy to go off to seek your fame and fortune,” he confided. “Just goes to show what we know, doesn’t it?”
“Not everyone thought I was crazy,” Georgia replied. She grinned at Joe, who had supported her whole-heartedly, against everyone’s opposition.
From his position next to Georgia on the settee, Edward wished with all his heart that the evening was over. He hated being among these people who had a prior claim on Georgia’s affections. Joe was bad enough, but all the Cartwrights together were overwhelming. He liked Adam and Ben; they seemed to be well educated and interesting, but he found Hoss to be completely boring, not being able to see beyond Hoss’ size and shyness. And with every minute that passed and every glance and memory that Joe and Georgia shared, Edward found himself hating Joe even more.
Finally, Edward put down his brandy glass and said, “Well, Georgia, its getting late and I think we should be heading back to town.” He rose and everyone rose with him. “Thank you so much for this evening, Mr. Cartwright. It’s been a pleasure.”
“The pleasure has been all ours,” Ben told him, warmly. “It’s been so lovely to meet you, and I wish you all the very best in your marriage to Georgia. You must come back again.”
“Thank you,” Edward replied. He couldn’t think of anything worse.
As Joe helped Georgia into the buggy, she took his hand. “Joe, you will be there on opening night, won’t you?” she whispered, anxiously. The only other person who heard her was Edward.
“Yes, I will,” Joe assured her, in a low voice. “I promised you that all those years ago, Georgie, and I haven’t forgotten. I won’t let you down.”
“I knew you wouldn’t,” she exulted and gave him a hug.
“Good bye,” Edward said, and shook up the horses. He shot Joe a venomous glance that he hoped no one else noticed and they drove back towards town.
With a feeling of relief, the Cartwrights all untied their string ties and opened the top buttons of their shirts. Joe stretched, feeling the tension draining from his muscles and leaving him suddenly tired.
“Edward seems very pleasant,” Ben commented as they strolled back inside.
“Yes, he does,” agreed Adam. “And what a beauty Georgia’s grown into! Joe, you missed your chance there, good and proper! Fancy letting a gorgeous girl like that slip through your fingers. D’you think he’s losing his touch, Hoss?”
“I reckon so,” Hoss agreed. He hadn’t been as keen on Edward as the others, but didn’t want to say anything to spoil the evening.
“Give it a rest,” Joe sighed. “Georgia’s always been beautiful.”
“I think he’s regretting what might have been,” Adam went on teasing, not seeing the warning glint in Joe’s green eyes.
“Oh grow up!” Joe snapped. “Those jokes wore out years ago, Adam! I think the person who’s jealous here is you!” He stalked off into the house.
“Joe!” Adam called, taken aback by his brother’s sudden show of temper. “I was just joking.”
Sighing, Ben went into the house, but Joe had already mounted the stairs and all Ben heard was the slamming of Joe’s bedroom door. He did wish Adam could time his teasing better. Anyone with eyes could see that there was tension between Joe and Edward. It was only natural, Ben knew. There was an ease and intimacy between Joe and Georgia that would disquiet any man.
“I was teasing,” Adam protested to Hoss.
“I know,” Hoss replied. “But Joe don’t like that fellar, Adam, an’ he weren’t in the mood fer teasin’ after spendin’ an’ evenin’ with him.”
“I know,” Adam sighed. “I hoped that I might be able to cheer him up a bit.”
“I think,” Hoss replied, wisely, that we should jist leave Joe alone.”
“Guess you’re right,” Adam sighed. “But I’ll go and apologize to him. I don’t want him mad at me tomorrow morning.” A moment or two later, he knocked on Joe’s door before poking his head around it. “Can I come in?” he asked, warily.
Joe was sitting on the bed, his shirt off. “Sure,” he agreed, listlessly.
“I came to apologize,” Adam told him. “I was just joking.”
“I know,” Joe responded. “I’m sorry for sounding off like that. Don’t worry about it, Adam.” He rose and began to unbutton his pants. “Goodnight.”
“Night,” Adam replied. He left the room feeling frustrated. He’d hoped that Joe might unburden himself to him, but it was clear that Joe didn’t want to talk about it.
The next day, Sunday, the Cartwrights headed into church as usual. Joe had not slept well the night before and consequently, they were cutting it rather fine with their arrival. As they slid into their pew, Joe spotted Georgia and Edward sitting further down the church, in the pew where Georgia’s family had always sat. It had been a couple of years now since Georgia’s parents had gone back east to visit a relative and the train they had been traveling on had crashed. Although Joe knew that Georgia had come to terms with the loss of her parents, there must be a poignancy for her being back here for the first time.
As they began singing the first hymn, Georgia glanced over her shoulder as she heard Adam’s voice and winked at Joe. Instantly he felt his spirits lift, but only until Edward looked to see what Georgia was looking at. He nodded politely to the family, but Joe felt deflated. The service seemed to drag for him, and he wasn’t able to snatch any time to talk to Georgia afterwards.
But over the course of the afternoon, he began to brighten up as he looked forward to the opening night of Georgia’s concert the next night. By the next morning, he was back to his usual blithe self, much to the relief of his family. Joe might think he was keeping his woes to himself, but it was seldom the case.
Dressed and ready, Joe bid his family goodbye as they sat down to supper. He had grabbed something to eat earlier and had hopes of taking Georgia out for a late supper, provided Edward hadn’t made plans already.
Taking Cochise to the livery stable on his arrival in town, Joe went to collect the flowers he had ordered. With those in hand, he went round to the stage door and dropped in the single red rose. He didn’t try to see Georgia, knowing that she would be getting ready and didn’t need the distraction of seeing him. Carefully holding the other red rose he planned to throw onto the stage, Joe started up the alley towards the front of the theatre.
He never knew what hit him. There was sudden movement in the corner of his eye and as Joe turned towards it, something hard crashed down on his head and Joe fell to the ground, not quite out. A dark shadow moved about him and there was a second blow to his head. This time, Joe tumbled helplessly into the darkness.
Looking at the crowds of smartly dress people making their way to the theatre, Roy Coffee smiled. Like almost everyone else in the town, he had a soft spot for Georgia and it was good to see one of their own do well. Nodding greetings to a number of people, Roy continued on back towards his office. As he passed the alley that ran up the side of the theatre, he glanced, out of habit, up it. Frowning, he paused while he peered more closely into the gloom. Realizing that he could see a body lying there, Roy hurried over.
The blue suit wasn’t very familiar, but the tan hat and the bloodstained curly chestnut hair were. “Joe!” he cried, kneeling beside the youth and shaking his shoulder. “Joe, can you hear me, boy?”
There was no response. Worriedly, Roy glanced around, wondering what would be best to do. He didn’t want a crowd rubber-necking at Joe, but he didn’t want to leave him alone, either, while he went for the doctor. Still undecided, Roy thought he would have one last try at rousing Joe and this time was rewarded with a groan. A few minutes later, Joe finally opened his eyes.
“What happened to ya, Joe?” Roy asked anxiously.
“I…don’t know,” Joe replied. He sat up slowly, his hand going up to his head. He touched the bloody lump there and winced. “Where am I?” He glanced around, trying to orient himself. “Oh, yes, I was handing in flowers to Georgie.” Joe saw the other red rose lying on the ground, crushed by his body weight. “Georgie! I’ll be late!” Joe tried to scramble to his feet, but his body wasn’t yet ready for him to rise and he would have sprawled flat on his face if Roy hadn’t caught him.
“Slow down there, boy!” Roy ordered. “Ya ain’t goin’ anywhere ‘ceptin’ the doc’s. Ya’ve had a nasty blow to the head.”
“I can’t do that!” Joe protested. “I promised Georgie that I’d be there for the first night.” He shrugged off Roy’s hands and made his feet. Sighing in exasperation, Roy picked up Joe’s hat and handed it to him.
“Well, ya’d better wash the blood off yer neck afore ya go in,” he suggested. “Come on, I’ll help ya ta the door.” He slid his hand under Joe’s elbow and Joe gratefully leant on the older man. His head throbbed painfully and he felt sick and dizzy. As they stopped by the main door, Roy looked at Joe again. He wasn’t happy with what he saw. “Joe…”
“I’ll be fine, Roy,” Joe insisted. “Thanks.” Joe staggered inside and went to the men’s room to wash the blood off his neck. Then, taking a deep breath, he made his way to the box at the side of the stage. He flopped gratefully into the seat just as the curtain went up.
Sure enough, Georgie looked straight to him first, as he had known she would. From somewhere, he found a brilliant smile for her and Georgie looked back at her audience and the first notes of the music sounded.
Relieved that he had kept his promise, Joe leaned back. The music washed over him without leaving much impression, but he kept his eyes on Georgie, even when he could barely focus because of the pain in his head, and he kept the smile on his face. And at the end of the night, he rose to his feet to join the rest of the audience in a standing ovation.
When Georgia left the stage for the final time, Joe slumped back in his seat. He could barely hold his head up any more and the headache he had was getting worse. He had no idea how he was going to get to the livery stable to collect his horse, never mind ride home. Everything seemed to be such an effort.
Vaguely, Joe heard the door to his box opening and he turned his head slowly and gaped with astonishment as his father came in. “Pa? he gasped. “What are you doing here?”
“Roy sent Clem out to the ranch to say that you’d been hurt. He was concerned about you, son, and I’m not surprised.” Ben took in Joe’s pale face and thanked Roy in absentia. “Come on, Joe, let’s get you over to the doc. You don’t look too good.”
“I don’t feel too good, either,” Joe admitted as he gained his feet. He swayed for a moment and Ben took his arm. “Someone hit me, Pa.”
“So Roy said,” Ben agreed. “Did you see who it was, Joe?” He kept his hand under Joe’s arm as his son stumbled negotiating the steps to the street.
“No,” Joe admitted. “Just movement.” Joe could feel sweat breaking out on his face. “Pa, I need to stop for a moment.” Joe leant against his father and drew in great draughts of air. Ben slid an arm round Joe’s waist, too. “All right, I’m ready,” Joe told him, sensing that his father wanted to get him to the doctor as soon as possible. Joe wasn’t in the least ready to move on, but for once, he wanted to get to the doctor’s as well, so he could lie down and go to sleep.
“I’ve been expecting you,” said a familiar voice and Joe glanced up to find that they had arrived at the surgery. He stumbled once more going up the steps, and then he was allowed to lie down. His eyes began to drift shut almost at once. “Not so fast, young man,” the voice insisted and Joe forced his eyes open to look at Doctor Paul Martin. “I want to look into your eyes and ask a few questions.”
After a while, satisfied that Joe was going to be all right, Paul allowed him to drift off to sleep. “He’s got a mild concussion, Ben, but he did the right thing staying awake, even if his reasoning wasn’t all it ought to be! Why don’t you leave him here and come and collect him in the morning?”
Looking down on his sleeping son, Ben’s hand drifted out to stroke Joe’s hair. “I’ll get a room in the hotel,” he replied. “If he needs me…”
“You’ll be the first to know,” Paul assured him. “Go on, Ben. He’ll be just fine.” Paul ushered Ben out of the door before he went and tucked a blanket around Joe. Joe didn’t stir. Paul smiled at him, and wondered who had attacked him.
Come morning, Joe felt a bit better and managed to keep down some food. Roy came over with Ben to question him once more about what had happened the previous evening, but Joe wasn’t able to shed any more light on the matter. He hadn’t seen anyone.
“Can I take him home now?” Ben asked Paul after Roy left.
“Yes, but keep him quiet for a couple of days,” Paul suggested. “Plenty of fluids and regular meals. In a few days, if there are no further complications, he can go back to work.”
“Come on, Joe,” Ben smiled, and helped his son to his feet, for Joe was still shaky.
As they left the doctor’s office, and Ben helped Joe down the steps, they heard a voice crying, “Joe!”
“Georgie!” Joe exclaimed and squinted up the street. Sure enough, there was Georgia and Edward hurrying towards them. Well, Georgia was hurrying. Edward wasn’t hurrying his steps at all. “You were great last night,” Joe praised her, although he honestly couldn’t remember much about it.
“I just met Sheriff Coffee,” Georgia informed him, ignoring Joe’s praise. “He told me you were attacked last night before the concert.” She took in Ben’s supporting hand under Joe’s arm. “Oh, Joe, are you badly hurt?”
“No, I’m fine,” Joe assured her. He felt Ben’s hand stir on his arm in silent protest, but ignored it. “Just a bump on the head. You know me, Georgie; I’ve got a hard head.”
The problem was, Joe reflected as Georgia looked at him doubtfully, she did indeed know him too well. “Truly?” she asked, and Joe nodded, biting back the wince that the movement evoked.
“Truly,” he echoed.
Exchanging a glance with Ben, Georgia sighed. “You be careful!” she chided Joe. “What would I do without you and Edward?”
“I have no idea,” Joe replied, truthfully, and with a touch of his usual cheek.
“Oh, go home, Joe,” Georgia scolded. She tucked her hand through Edward’s arm. He had spoken not a word throughout the whole exchange. “I’ll come out and see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Joe assured her and found a polite smile for Edward. It was returned, although the look in Edward’s eye sent a shiver down Joe’s spine.
The journey back to the ranch tired Joe and he went willingly to rest when they arrived home. Ben sat down at his desk, but he didn’t open any ledgers or read any letters. He was trying to figure out who had attacked Joe the night before.
It was a mystery. Joe hadn’t been carrying all that much money, and it was all still in his wallet. His gun had not been taken from his gun belt. Unless someone had been hiding in the alley for some reason and had thought Joe had seen them, Ben couldn’t think of a single motive for the attack. Except one. Again the disquieting thought came to haunt Ben, as it had during the long watches of the night. Did someone have a grudge against Joe? Enough of a grudge to take the risk of killing him? If so, who and why? Ben couldn’t begin to hazard a guess.
Later Adam and Hoss came in for lunch, anxious to hear the news about Joe. Ben assured them that their brother was all right. He wasn’t going to mention his worries, but they had occurred to Adam and Hoss, too.
“Who would do this?” Adam asked. They had talked all around it, but had found no answers.
“I don’t know,” Ben repeated for the umpteenth time.
There was a noise from the stairs and Ben glanced up to see Joe coming down. His shirt was untucked and buttoned only by one button. His bare feet poked out from under his pants and his hair was tousled. “Hi, brothers,” he said, cheerfully enough. Ben could see that Joe looked better; he had more color in his face.
“How are you feeling?” Adam asked.
“I’m all right,” Joe replied, shrugging. He grinned at Hoss across the table. “You left me any lunch, Hoss?”
“Nah,” Hoss responded, dismissively. “I reckoned ya weren’t up ta eatin’ after last night. So I ate your share for ya.”
“Gee, thanks,” Joe muttered. “Such concern for me.” He struggled to keep a straight face.
“I didn’ want it ta go off,” Hoss explained, earnestly.
They were never to know how long this little scenario would have lasted before either Joe or Hoss lost it and laughed, because Hop Sing came through at that moment and put a plate down on the table in front of Joe without a word.
“Oh, there it is,” Joe said, sounding slightly surprised. “Seems Hop Sing managed to keep this from you, Hoss. You must be slipping.”
Impatient with the teasing, Adam asked, “Joe, can you remember anything more about what happened last night?”
“No,” Joe replied, picking up his cutlery. “I just remember the movement and being hit on the head.” Forking some pork chop into his mouth, Joe chewed meditatively. He suddenly looked at Ben, his eyes going wide. “I was hit twice!” he exclaimed, through his food. Seeing Ben’s frown, he swallowed hastily and repeated his statement. “I was hit again when I was on the ground.”
“Are you sure?” Ben asked.
“Sure,” agreed Joe. He thought back, but the images were blurred. “I still didn’t see anyone, though.”
“Joe, I want you to promise me you’ll be very careful,” Ben begged his son, deeply troubled by this latest revelation.
“I promise, Pa,” Joe agreed, without hesitation. He had no desire for a repeat of the previous night. His head was still throbbing, although not as badly as when he had arrived home.
Glancing at his older sons, Ben collected slight nods from them both. They would keep a sharp eye on Joe for the next while, until they found out who had attacked Joe, and – more importantly – why they had attacked him.
When Georgia arrived the next afternoon, Joe was feeling much better. He went to greet Georgia and saw with dismay that Edward had come with her. Still Joe smiled in greeting and pretended that he was as pleased to see Edward as he was to see Georgia.
They passed a few minutes in offering and refusing refreshment, and then Georgia asked to see the horses. Always willing to look at his beloved horses, Joe led them down to the corral where he had the latest batch of horses that he was going to sell. Ben was there already, talking to the hands, and came over.
After a few minutes, Georgia maneuvered things so that Ben took Edward off to show him some of the herd which was grazing near by, leaving Joe alone with Georgia. It was obvious that she wanted to speak to Joe alone, but the only person who suspected her motives was Edward. He was consumed with hatred for Joe and fervently wished him ill. It was quite an effort to speak politely to Ben, but such was his public mask that Ben didn’t suspect a thing.
“Now we’re alone, you can tell me how you really feel,” Georgia told Joe.
Smiling, Joe replied, “A lot better than yesterday. I’ve got a bit of a headache, but apart from that I’m fine, honestly. Now, why did you want to see me alone?”
“I want to give Edward a horse as a wedding gift,” Georgia explained. “And who else would I go to apart from you?”
“All right,” Joe agreed, although he didn’t want one of his horses in Edward’s hands. However, he thought he had just the mount, as it happened. One of the horses was a smart black cob, up to carrying weight, but forward going and with a deceptive turn of speed. “What about this one?” He led Georgia around the corral until they were standing opposite the horse in question. Joe slid into the corral and caught the horse, leading it over so Georgia could have a closer look.
“Perfect!” Georgia declared. “Is there any way you can get him delivered to San Francisco? I don’t want Edward to know about this yet.”
“I would think so,” agreed Joe. “We can work it out.”
“I want a horse for myself, too,” Georgia added with a smile. “I’m not letting Edward ride around town on such a good-looking horse without me there, too! I don’t want some woman taking a fancy to him!”
“You sound utterly besotted,” Joe teased her, although he couldn’t understand her attachment to him.
“I am,” Georgia agreed softly, her eyes glowing. “I love him very much, Joe.”
“He’s a lucky man,” Joe told her, equally softly. “Right,” he went on briskly. “A horse for you. Let me see.” Joe vanished in among the horses before coming back with a palomino gelding that he had bred from his father’s stallion. One look at Georgia’s face told him he’d made the right choice.
They bickered good-naturedly over the price, and finally came to an agreement, although Georgia protested that the price was too low and Joe insisted it was too high. They walked down to meet Ben and Edward, who were returning and Joe saw, with growing dismay that Edward at once perceived that Georgia had a secret from him, and judging by the looks he sent Joe whenever he thought no one else was looking, he thought that Joe was trying to steal Georgia away from him.
After coffee, Edward rose. “Thank you for a pleasant afternoon, Mr. Cartwright, but we must get back to town. Georgia has a concert to give.”
“I’ll get your buggy,” Joe told them.
“I’ll help you,” Edward suggested, with a false smile. He put one hand onto Joe’s shoulder in a gesture of friendship. Joe was hard put not to shrug it off.
Outside in the yard, as Joe hitched the horse, Edward leant in close to him. “Let’s get one thing straight, Cartwright,” he hissed. “Georgia is mine, and I’ll kill you before I allow you to steal her from me.”
“I know Georgia is yours,” Joe retorted. “Any fool can see she loves you. But she’s my friend – and I’m not going to stop seeing her unless that’s what she wants! Now, back off!”
“Monday night was just a reminder,” Edward warned. “I’ll kill you!” He straightened as Georgia and Ben came into the yard.
Joe fastened the last buckles on auto-pilot and schooled his face to a pleasant expression. But he wasn’t entirely successful, as when Edward and Georgia had driven out of sight, Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze. “You look tired, Joe,” he commented.
“I’m fine,” Joe replied. “And Georgia has bought two horses from us.”
“I thought it might be something like that she was up to,” Ben laughed. “Edward was fretting about it a bit.”
“What did you say?” Joe asked.
“I told him you two had always been as thick as thieves, and he would have to get used to it!” Ben laughed. “And its true, isn’t it?” Joe nodded, but Ben had just made everything worse, as far as Joe was concerned. Edward would never now believe that there was nothing more than friendship between him and Georgia. “So, which horses did she buy? That palomino, by chance?”
Glad he’d diverted his father away from questions about his health, and a need to lie any more, Joe answered the questions eagerly.
The next day, Joe went down to the corral and separated the two horses Georgia had bought and began to do some more work with them. Both horses were well broken, but Joe wanted to school them a bit more before he sent them off to California. With that in mind, he spent the morning putting them through their paces. Satisfied with what he had done, he went off to join Adam and Hoss in moving the herd to fresh pasture.
“Are you feeling all right, Joe?” Adam asked, as they surveyed the cattle settling into the new meadow. “You’re very quiet. You haven’t been over doing it, have you?”
“No, I’m fine,” Joe replied.
“He’s jist got Georgia on his mind,” Hoss offered. “He’s thinkin’ that it’s good we’ve got tickets fer Friday’s performance, seein’ as how he didn’ really hear much o’ Monday’s!”
Smiling, Joe let his brothers’ teasing comments pass over his head without listening. Georgia was indeed on his mind, but no way could he tell his brothers about the threats Edward had made to him. He couldn’t tell anyone without hurting Georgia completely. Did Edward’s remark about the attack on Monday mean that he had done it? Or was he just making use of it. It was common knowledge that Joe had been knocked out.
Seeing that they weren’t going to get a rise out of Joe that afternoon, Adam and Hoss stopped teasing him, but Joe didn’t notice. His pre-occupied silence lasted well into supper, where Ben finally asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing,” Joe replied. “I was just thinking of the best route to get those horses to San Francisco before Georgie and Edward get there. I guess I was riding the different routes in my mind.”
“Well, stop riding them and tell me if you are finished with the horses. I’ve asked you twice,” Ben told him.
“Sorry, sir,” Joe replied, dragging his mind back to the table. “I’ll ride them both out tomorrow, but I’m sure I don’t need to do any more work with them.”
“All right, you can do that after lunch,” Ben agreed. “I’d like you to go into town for supplies in the morning.”
“All right, Pa,” Joe agreed.
“Its warm today, Joe,” commented, Cameron, the storekeeper.
“Sure is,” Joe agreed. He was loading sacks of flour into the buckboard. “Looks like summer’s finally here.”
“What are you up to today?” Cameron asked. He passed Joe another sack. “Lazy day, is it? Picnic by the lake with Georgia?”
“I wish!” Joe retorted, good-humouredly. “I’ve got a couple of horses to work this afternoon. It’s a bit hot for running them too much, but I might be able to catch a breeze while I’m out.”
“So you will be going down by the lake, then?” persisted Cameron, knowing that the one place you could guarantee a breeze was near Lake Tahoe.
“Yep,” Joe nodded. “There’s a lovely flat meadow there that’s just right for running the horses on. We used to have races there when I was a kid.”
“Have fun,” Cameron told him, as he turned to go back into the shop. “Oh, good morning, Mr. Duras. How are you today?”
Starting, Joe turned and saw Edward standing there. His heart gave a disquieting leap. “Edward,” he nodded.
“Joe,” Edward repeated, in exactly the same tone. He didn’t stop, just walked into the store. Joe watched him go and repressed a shudder that wanted to run down his spine. Getting onto the seat, Joe snapped the reins and got the team moving.
Saddling the big black cob, Joe wiped away the sweat forming on his head again. The temperature was climbing with a vengeance, and he wished it was a bit cooler, since he would be unable to run the horses as much as he would have liked. However, there was nothing he could do about the weather, so he mounted up and rode off at a walk.
For the first time for a few days, Joe was able to get his thoughts away from Georgia and Edward. He allowed the horse to walk on a loose rein, until they neared the meadow where Joe planned to run it. He shortened his reins, warning the horse to pay attention and touched it with his heel. The well-trained animal moved smoothly into a trot. Joe smiled unconsciously. The horse had a gait like silk. Again, he touched it with his heel and the horse moved into a lope.
Pain suddenly exploded through Joe’s thigh and he heard the shot a moment later. The bullet gouged a deep groove along Joe’s thigh and carried on, straight into the jugular vein of the horse. Within a few seconds, the horse bled to death. It toppled forward onto its nose before somersaulting to crash land on its back before finally coming to rest on its side. Joe, already reeling from the injury he had sustained, was catapulted into the air over the horse’s head and the bulk of the horse barely missed him as it landed on the ground.
Joe didn’t notice. He was already unconscious.
Straightening from his position amongst the trees, Edward calmly unloaded his rife. He smiled maliciously as he saw Joe’s still form on the grass. “I warned you, Cartwright,” he reminded his fallen rival. “Georgia is mine.”
Turning, he made his way back to his rented buggy and went back to town.
Joe didn’t know how much time had passed before he roused. Lifting his head, he peered blearily around at the meadow, bathed in golden sunshine. Birds sang in the nearby trees and he could hear a bee buzzing away somewhere close at hand. It was a perfect afternoon.
Yet something was very wrong. Why was he lying face down in the grass? Why was his horse on its side a few feet away? Why was the grass under the horse a funny color? Joe tried to move and pain shot through his body, forcing him to lie still. He couldn’t contain a groan.
After a time, when the pain had died back a bit, Joe decided to try each part of his body to see what hurt. Both his arms seemed to be working, even if his left hand fingers were tingling from having the weight of his body lying on them for some time. Joe’s head throbbed even more than it had done at the start of the week.
But it was when he moved his right leg that the world lost color as pain exploded in his thigh, causing him to cry out. For a time, he hovered between waking and unconsciousness, not aware of his surroundings at all. Finally, the world settled down, and Joe cautiously turned his head and looked at his leg.
His pants were soaked in blood. Joe reached down tentative fingers and felt the torn fabric, bracing himself to feel the torn flesh beneath. At his first, feather-light touch, the pain threatened to overwhelm him, but he drew in deep draughts of air, fighting to keep from regurgitating the contents of his stomach. At last, he was able to feel along the furrow that ran diagonally across his thigh. The wound was straight and deep and still bleeding.
Desperately nauseated, and light-headed, Joe knew that he hadn’t severed the femoral artery or else he would already be dead. But he also knew that if he didn’t stop the bleeding soon, he could still bleed to death. It was obvious that his horse was dead; Joe knew there was no easy way out of this situation for him. There was no one coming to help him for hours yet. He had to help himself.
Slowly, he struggled out of his shirt – he wore no jacket because of the heat – ripped the sleeve out of it and bound it around his leg. Then he draped the rest of his shirt over his back, knowing all too well the dangers of heatstroke and sunburn.
After that, there was nothing Joe could do but lie there, suffer, and wait for help to arrive.
It was late in the evening before Ben became really worried about Joe’s continued absence. Joe had left the house immediately after lunch, and it was now several hours after supper. Making a decision, Ben rose to his feet and went purposefully towards the door.
“Getting some air?” Adam enquired over the top of his book.
“I’m going to find what’s keeping your youngest brother down at the horse pens!” Ben replied.
“Eh, Pa, Joe’s been a bit out of sorts lately,” Adam noted. “Perhaps we should give him some time alone to think?”
“He’s had time alone to think,” Ben retorted. “And frankly, I’m worried. He was attacked a couple of nights ago, or had you forgotten? I’m going to look for him.”
“Then we’re comin’, too,” Hoss insisted. He had been eyeing both Adam and Ben all evening, trying to decide when would be the best time to voice his worry. Like Adam, he thought Joe needed time alone to think, but like Ben, he knew that Joe had had that time, and should be home. Middle child, he mused, an’ I’m still stuck in the middle, seein’ both points o’ view!
Adam tossed his book onto the table. He had been turning pages regularly, but had no idea what he’d read. “We’ll get the wagon, just in case,” he offered.
They were ready to go in a very short time. The evening light lingered, turning the shadows purple and the still air was heavy with the smell of night-scented stock and lavender from Hop Sing’s garden. Quite where he found the energy or time to tend to the small garden of flowers no one knew, but on evenings like this, everyone enjoyed the benefits.
Down at the corral, they found Cochise and the palomino still in the stalls. There was no sign of Joe or the black cob. Without speaking, the Cartwrights headed towards the lake. They all knew where Joe preferred to run his horses, and there was always the chance he had gone to his mother’s grave, which was also beside the lake.
Dusk was falling softly across the land as they reached the meadow by the lake. This was their first choice, and they all hoped they would find Joe there, miraculously unharmed, although none of them could imagine what he could have been doing for all those hours.
There were two dark shapes on the grass and as Ben spurred Buck towards them, his heart rose to choke him. Disaster had struck his youngest son again, and he had waited hours before heeding that small voice in his mind that told him Joe needed him.
Ignoring the obviously dead horse, Ben slid from Buck’s back to kneel by Joe. His son was feverish and unconscious. Ben saw, without seeing, the blood-stained sleeves from his son’s shirt tied around his leg. “Joe,” he begged his son. “Wake up, Joe, please!”
There was no movement, no answering groan. Joe was deeply unconscious, his color poor even in the dim light. “Oh, Pa,” Hoss whispered, and it was only then that Ben came out of his stupor.
“Get the doctor, Hoss!” he cried. “Adam, help me get Joe in the wagon. Mind his leg!” Dimly, Ben heard hoof beats as Hoss galloped off to fetch Paul Martin.
The journey back to the ranch was never more than a jumble of images for Ben in later times. Joe remained deeply unconscious throughout, and Ben did not attempt to undo the make-shift bandages on Joe’s leg. He managed to get a little water into Joe, but not nearly enough. Despite Joe’s best efforts with the tattered remains of his shirt, he had been badly sunburned and his temperature continued to climb.
It was almost midnight before they reached the ranch. Paul Martin had reached there just a short time before, but thanks to the efficiency of Hop Sing, he had everything he needed ready and waiting for him. His face was grim as he watched Ben and Adam carry Joe up to his bedroom. There was so much blood on Joe’s pants leg that it looked as though their original color might have been red. Moving quickly, Paul removed the make-shift bandages and cut away Joe’s pants so he could see the injury clearly.
The wound was deep and long and was seeping blood again as Paul removed the bandages. Glimmers of bone showed here and there and the muscles were in a bit of a mess. Reaching for his bag, Paul dropped his suturing equipment into the boiling water Hop Sing brought him and prepared to stitch Joe’s leg back together.
“That’s a nasty head injury he has, Ben,” Paul commented, as he put the last stitch in Joe’s leg. “Have you any idea what happened? I know he was shot, but apart from that?”
“No,” Ben replied, his voice hollow. “The horse he’d been riding was dead. It had been shot in the neck. I’d guess, from their relative positions, that Joe was riding the horse when it happened. He must have been thrown clear.”
“He was lucky, then,” Paul commented, having held death vigils over too many people who had had horses fall on them.
“Will he be all right?” Ben demanded.
“Ben, I just don’t know,” Paul replied. “He’s lost a lot of blood and he’s very weak. The fever isn’t helping and that’s a nasty case of sunburn he’s got on his back. If we can keep him quiet, give him lots of fluids, and provided infection doesn’t set in, he might make it. I’m sorry, I just don’t know.”
Tears filled Ben’s eyes and his hand went once more to Joe’s head. Paul rose and bandaged the gash that ran along Joe’s hairline. “Please, Lord, let him live,” Ben pleaded. He didn’t care that his friend heard him begging the Almighty for Joe’s life. He would do whatever was necessary for Joe to live.
And so the vigil began. Joe remained unconscious while his family bathed him with cool cloths and lifted his head every few minutes to trickle a little sugar water down his throat. Paul Martin was staying to keep an eye on Joe. His leg had swollen to twice its usual size, and Paul was keeping an eye on the stitches he had put in. There was no sign of infection, and Paul put the amount of swelling down to the trauma Joe’s leg had suffered.
The sunburn on Joe’s back had formed into blisters, and they had to prop him on his side so he could rest semi-comfortably. Hop Sing had appeared with some green pulpy substance that he insisted would help ease the sunburn. It smelt good, and reluctantly, Paul agreed. Joe lay still while it was gently patted onto his back. “What did you say this was called?” Paul asked, rubbing some of it between his fingers.
“Aloe vera,” Hop Sing replied. “Very good.” He left the room, offering nothing more. Paul shrugged. He had seen some of Hop Sing’s medicines do more than his more modern drugs.
Gradually, Joe’s temperature came down, thanks to the cool compresses and the quinine Paul administered. And as he cooled, he came nearer to consciousness until he was groaning steadily as the dawn broke.
“Can’t you give him something for the pain now?” Ben pleaded. “He’s hurting, Paul.”
“I know,” Paul replied, quietly. Adam and Hoss had long gone to bed at Ben’s urging, but Paul was sure they would be up again very soon. “But I’m not willing to give him anything until he’s awake, Ben. He’s been unconscious a long time, and with that head injury and the blood loss, I could easily give him too much, and kill him.” Paul wasn’t usually as blunt as that, but he knew anything less wouldn’t convince Ben.
At long last, about an hour after dawn, Joe opened his eyes. He had no idea why he felt so awful, but he couldn’t remember ever feeling worse. He was lying on his left side, and was desperately uncomfortable. But when he tried to move, a wave of pain swept through his body, making him cry out.
Instantly, Ben was by his side. “Easy, Joe,” he soothed. “Don’t try to move.”
“But…” Joe protested, weakly. “Pa… hurts.” Tears sprang to his eyes. He couldn’t articulate his misery.
“I’ll give you something for the pain in a minute, Joe,” Paul assured him. “Just let me look at you.” He shone a light in Joe’s eyes, relieved to see that the pupils were equal and reactive. He asked Joe several questions, and Joe was able to assure him that he knew who he was, and where he was. By then, he could remember what had happened to him, but Paul didn’t let him go into details. He helped Joe to drink a glass of water, then offered him a very weak painkiller, which was the most he could dare give the severely injured young man. “You have to stay awake for a while, Joe,” Paul told him. “Ben, talk to him. But don’t press him, all right? There’s time enough for questions later.”
Sitting down on the bed, Ben smiled at his son. Joe smiled back, but it was more of a grimace. “What time is it?” Joe asked.
“Oh, about seven, I’d think,” Ben replied. “Seven in the morning that is. We brought you home about midnight.”
Again, Joe tried to ease his position and winced miserably. “I want to lie down,” he whispered, his voice thin and frail.
“Your back is sunburned,” Ben told him. “It would hurt you, Joe.”
Again the tears welled in Joe’s eyes. He was exhausted and sore and he just wanted to sleep. “Please!” he begged.
“Let him,” Paul advised. “He’s too weak to waste energy fretting. We can always turn him again if we need to.” Together, the men worked to move the pillows they had used to prop Joe up. Then they gently eased him down, and after the first moment of initial agony, Joe relaxed as the aloe vera soothed his skin.
“Can I sleep now?” Joe asked, plaintively. His eyes were already drooping closed.
“Not yet!” Paul cried.
“Why not?” Joe whined, not caring that he sounded like a child.
“Because you have to say hello to your brothers and assure them that you’ll be fine,” Paul replied. “I’ll go and get them and you talk to your Pa.” He left the room, having heard Adam and Hoss heading downstairs a few minutes earlier.
“The horse is dead, isn’t it?” Joe asked, dully.
“I’m afraid so,” Ben replied. “But don’t worry about that right now. We have to get you feeling better so that when Roy comes out to talk to you later, you can answer his questions.”
“I didn’t see anyone,” Joe whispered. “I just remember the pain. And falling…” He closed his eyes briefly. Ben took his hand to offer his support.
“Don’t worry about it now,” Ben soothed. “Joe, open your eyes. You mustn’t sleep yet.”
Dragging open his eyes, Joe focused with difficulty on his father. “Why not?” he asked. “I’m so tired, Pa.” The hopelessness of Joe’s voice pierced Ben’s heart with remorse, but he knew he couldn’t afford to let Joe sleep yet.
“You were unconscious for a long, long, time, Joe,” Ben explained. “You banged your head badly. Paul has to be careful.”
Joe sighed. “All right,” he agreed, almost inaudibly. Ben smothered a matching sigh of his own. Joe’s green eyes were dulled with pain and fever and Ben hated to see him like this.
The bedroom door opened at that point and Adam and Hoss hurried in. Joe looked round at them and summoned a small smile.
“Hey, Shortshanks, its good ta see ya awake,” Hoss beamed.
“You gave us quite a scare,” Adam told him, smiling warmly. There were many times that he and Joe didn’t see eye to eye, but Adam hated when his brother was ill.
“Sorry,” Joe replied, and Adam cursed himself for saying the wrong thing. He hadn’t meant Joe to feel guilty.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” he told his brother. “You did nothing wrong. It wasn’t your fault that you were shot.”
Lifting his eyes, Joe met Adam’s dark brown gaze and Adam had the sudden, disquieting feeling that Joe knew who had shot him and why, and that he felt it was indeed his fault. Frowning, Adam opened his mouth to question Joe further, but Paul Martin intervened.
“That’s enough for now. I think we can let Joe go back to sleep.” He felt Joe’s head in a professional manner and nodded. “The fever is coming down nicely. You should feel a lot better when you wake, Joe.”
“Good,” Joe muttered, his voice slurring. His eyes were already closed and a few moments later, his even breathing indicated to them that he was sleeping.
Guiding the family away from the bed so that Joe wasn’t disturbed – although Paul privately thought Joe would sleep through anything right then – Paul suggested, “Ben, you need to get some sleep. Joe’s going to be fine, given time. There’s no sign of infection, so I’m going to go home and try and get some sleep myself. Have something to eat, Ben. The boys can sit with Joe.”
Seeing that Ben was about to protest, Adam quickly took charge. “Hoss, you sit with Joe while I make sure Pa eats something,” he suggested. “Come on, Pa. We’ll wake you if Joe needs you, you know that.” He ushered Ben downstairs and Paul Martin took his leave.
While Ben ate, Adam sat beside him and nursed a cup of coffee. “Come on, Adam, out with it, whatever it is,” Ben said, as he put down his knife and fork.
“I’m not sure I know what it is myself, Pa,” Adam admitted. “But up there, I got the feeling that Joe knows who shot him.”
“But he told me he didn’t see anyone,” Ben replied, frowning. “And I’m sure he wasn’t lying.”
“Judging by the angle of the wound, and the fact that the same bullet appears to have killed the horse, too, I’d say he is telling the truth,” Adam agreed. “But, Pa, I’m still sure he knows and feels that it’s somehow his fault.”
“But how could it be Joe’s fault?” Ben argued. “Adam, that doesn’t make sense. Who would want to shoot Joe?”
“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “But it was just a feeling I got.” He sighed. “Look, Pa, I’m going to ride into town and talk to Georgia. We won’t be going to the concert tonight, and I’d like to tell her why.”
“All right,” Ben agreed. “But tell her gently.”
“I will,” Adam responded. “And you get some sleep.”
“Believe me,” Ben replied as he got to his feet, “I’m going to, son!”
The first person Adam met when he arrived in town was Roy Coffee, the sheriff. “Adam! How’s little Joe?”
“He’ll be all right, Roy,” Adam replied. “He’s pretty weak, and Paul says it’ll take some time.”
“Glad ta hear it,” Roy replied, his relief genuine. “I’ll be out later ta talk ta him.”
Nodding, Adam went over to the theatre. Georgia was there, with Edward as they listened to the pianist playing a piece. Georgia was singing along quietly. Her voice had a richness and depth that Adam had seldom heard before. He stood listening, not willing to interrupt.
When she had finished singing, Adam went forward. Edward was the first person to see him. “Hello, Adam,” he declared. “What a surprise! I didn’t expect to see you until this evening.”
“Hello,” Adam replied. “No, I didn’t expect to either, but something’s happened and I needed to talk to you both about it.”
“What’s wrong?” Georgia asked, her eyes wide. “Is it Joe? He’s all right, isn’t he?”
“Let’s sit down,” Adam suggested. He sat down next to Georgia and took her hand. With her other hand, Georgia reached for Edward. “Joe was shot yesterday afternoon. He’s going to be all right, given time, but he’s quite ill at the moment.”
“Oh no!” Georgia cried. “Where was he hit? Adam, tell me the truth! He will be all right?” Tears began to run down her face.
“He was hit in the thigh,” Adam told her, marking the path of the bullet along his own leg. “He lay there for a long time before we found him, and he’s lost a lot of blood. But Dr Martin tells us he’ll be fine, in time.” Glancing past Georgia to see Edward’s reaction, Adam surprised an odd look on the man’s face. He would almost have said it was – satisfaction.
Realizing that Adam had seen it, Edward made no effort to change his expression. “Do you know who did it?” he asked.
“No,” Adam replied, slowly, trying to make sense of this. Perhaps Edward was just unsure of what to say, he reasoned, although some instinct was telling him this wasn’t the case. “Joe didn’t see anyone. It seems the shot came from behind him.”
“Can I come and see him?” Georgia asked. She freed her hand from Adam’s, Edward noticed with a rush of pleasure. She wiped away the tears.
“Not today,” Adam replied. “He’s too weak, but maybe a short visit tomorrow. And I’m sorry, but we’re not going to make the concert tonight. And I’m even more disappointed after hearing you singing when I came in.”
“I was going to sing that one just for Joe,” Georgia told him. “But Adam, we’re leaving town on the noon stage tomorrow. There won’t be time for us to come out to the ranch before that.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” Adam replied. “Well, in that case, you may come this afternoon. Or even come back with me now?”
“Edward, could you get a buggy?” Georgia asked.
“Of course, my dear,” Edward assured her. “Wait here and I’ll come for you.” He gave her a hug.
“Oh, Edward, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Georgia sighed. Edward smiled and went off, leaving Adam and Georgia alone.
“The horse that Joe was riding was killed, too, Georgia,” Adam told her. “It was the horse you’d bought for Edward. If you trust me to, I’ll choose another horse for him and send them on as Joe intended.”
“Yes, thank you, that would be fine, Adam,” Georgia nodded. Adam would have taken bets that she didn’t really hear what he had said.
To say Ben was surprised by Georgia and Edward’s arrival was an understatement. He wasn’t long up and had looked in on Joe, who was still deeply asleep. He did his best to make them welcome, but it wasn’t until Adam explained that they had to leave the next day that he realized why Adam had brought them.
Seeing Georgia’s white face, Ben insisted that she have something warm to drink first and he went up to see if Joe was awake. He was, and his face was a picture of misery. However, Ben relieved Hoss of his duties and assisted Joe in using the chamber pot before settling him comfortably again. Because of the sunburn on Joe’s back, which seemed to be a bit less hot, he wasn’t wearing a nightshirt, and Ben wondered about the suitability of a young woman visiting his son’s sick room. But since the visit would do them both good, and they would be chaperoned, Ben decided it would do no harm. He removed the chamber pot and went to fetch Georgia.
Despite the warnings she had received, Georgia wasn’t prepared to see Joe so pale and ill. He smiled brilliantly at her, but it wasn’t his usual smile and the little scar near his mouth seemed to be more visible than it normally was. “Hi,” he offered, weakly.
“Oh, Joe,” Georgia moaned and sat down beside him, looking like she might burst into tears any moment. Ben fervently hoped she wouldn’t as Joe was liable to join her.
“I’ll be all right,” Joe insisted. “Did Adam tell you about the horse?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, we’ve sorted it out. You just concentrate on getting better.” Georgia glanced round as the door opened again and Adam showed Edward in. Georgia colored prettily, but didn’t rise from her seat on the bed. “I know it’s not lady-like, but I don’t care,” she said, defiantly, although no one had said a word.
Adam had been looking at his brother as he showed Edward in, looking for signs of improvement. He knew it was too soon for Joe to look better, but that didn’t stop Adam hoping. And so he saw Joe’s face when Edward appeared and the unmistakable look of fear. And suddenly Adam was convinced that Edward had been the cause of Joe’s accident.
Because of Joe’s obvious exhaustion, the visit was kept to a few minutes, and then Joe was glad to receive his painkiller and slip back into sleep.
When Roy Coffee arrived, Ben took some broth up to Joe as he went to rouse him, and Adam entertained Roy to coffee while they waited for Ben to tell them Joe was ready to see him. “Roy, I don’t have any proof, but I think that perhaps Edward Duras shot Joe.”
“What makes ya say that?” Roy asked, giving Adam a keen look.
Slowly, Adam explained, knowing all the while that it sounded weak. He concluded with the look on Joe’s face, and waited for the lawman to speak.
“I’ll look inta it, Adam,” Roy promised. “But since Joe already told ya he didn’ see who done it, there ain’t much I can do ta prove it.”
“That’s what I thought,” Adam replied, frustrated.
There was no surprise that Joe couldn’t identify his attacker, as Roy had already viewed the dead horse, and the scene of the crime. There was nothing really to see. Roy promised that he would ask around, but there was little more he could do.
“It is very sad,” Edward agreed with Roy Coffee as they chatted before the evening performance. Roy had made the excuse of finding out how Georgia was, which allowed him to talk to Edward. “What kind of gun was it, do you know?”
“A rifle,” Roy replied. “Had ta be from that distance.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Edward replied. “I know nothing about guns.”
“Hello, Sheriff Coffee,” Georgia said, coming out of her dressing room.
“Hello, Georgia,” Roy replied and bussed her cheek. “I came ta see how ya were, an’ ta say goodbye. I might not see ya in the mornin’ afore ya leave.” He hugged her, wished her luck for the performance and left.
Standing by the stage door, Roy thought about Edward. He had sent out enquiries about him, but everything that had come back assured Roy that Edward was a fine, upstanding citizen. Yet Adam’s suspicions stayed in his mind, and Roy knew why. There was something about Edward that made Roy uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure what it was, but his instinct for people up to no good was coming to the fore and something told him that Edward wasn’t as innocent as he appeared. But there was nothing he could do.
The next morning, Georgia and Edward left for San Francisco. A month later, their wedding pictures graced many of the papers. Joe, still on crutches, looked at it solemnly. He knew that nothing would ever be the same again between he and Georgia. She had married the man who had tried to kill him.
Nothing had been said to Joe in so many words, but Adam had let Joe know that he, too, shared his brother’s suspicions. Adam had told Ben and Hoss what he and Joe thought and all they could do was offer Joe their belief. Roy had regretfully reported to Ben that he could find no one with a grudge against Joe, and no further clues ever appeared.
But Joe knew, and he wondered how long it would be before there was another confrontation between he and Edward.