Summary: Can Joe overcome the loss of his love?
Word Count: 4568
A cold draft creeping around his legs alerted Ben to the fact that Joe was once more standing at the open door, gazing out into the snow. Precious heat was now leeching away, the frigid air easily over-powering the log fire that roared in the stone fireplace. Sighing, for the cold was as bad for Joe right now as it was for the house, Ben rose and walked slowly towards his son.
As he expected, Joe was leaning heavily on his crutch, gazing out across the snow-covered yard, but his eyes were not seeing the scene in front of him. Ben stifled another sigh and put his hand gently on Joe’s shoulder, trying not to startle the young man. Joe flinched nevertheless.
“Come on, Joe,” Ben coaxed. “Close the door and come inside. It’s cold out.” He urged Joe gently out of the way as he swung the door closed. He had learned that Joe would not move unless someone else shut the door.
Head down, Joe limped back to the sofa and sat down. Ben followed behind him and helped Joe ease his injured leg up onto the sofa, tucking a pillow in at Joe’s back to make him more comfortable. Seeing that Joe was shivering, he picked up the blanket that had been left for this purpose on the pier table and draped it over his son. “Is that better?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Joe replied. His tone was devoid of any expression.
Troubled, Ben continued to stand there, but Joe avoided meeting his father’s eyes by the simple expedient of closing his own. Those emerald orbs held a depth of sadness that Ben hated to see. He wished that there was something he could do to help Joe.
It only took a few minutes for Joe’s injured body to slide into the sleep it still needed for healing. Ben walked back over to the desk, but his attention wasn’t on his books. He was thinking once more of the events that had led them to this place.
It hadn’t taken anyone with eyes very long to see that Joe was madly in love with Joanie Westmore. That his feelings were reciprocated in full measure wasn’t a secret either. They were probably the handsomest couple in Virginia City that autumn. With her gleaming ash-blonde hair and eyes as green as Joe’s own, Joanie was a beauty, vivacious and full of life. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the two would marry in the spring.
There was doubt in one person’s mind. One person was determined the wedding would not happen, for he had given his heart to the beautiful young women, despite the fact that she was young enough to be his daughter.
Jim Johnston, one of the Cartwrights’ neighbors, had recently returned to his ranch after spending several years in prison for rioting and attempted murder of Ben and Joe. During his time away, Johnston had grown to hate the Cartwrights; Joe in particular. Jim had been horrified to learn that the young woman he had been so friendly with during several meetings in the store was Joe’s steady girlfriend. But by then it was too late, for Jim, a long-time widower, had lost his heart to her.
Joanie knew nothing of Jim’s devotion. He was simply an older man to whom convention dictated she should be polite. In truth, Jim scared her. He had never been handsome, but the years in prison had aged him cruelly. He was thin to the point of being emaciated, his eyes sunk deep into their sockets and his hair – what was left of it – was iron grey. His skin looked grey all the time, giving the impression that he seldom washed. All in all, he was a most unappetizing person. Joanie never thought of him from one meeting to the next. That knowledge was bitter as gall for Jim.
The first snowfalls were enchanted for Joe and Joanie. So far, they hadn’t formalized their relationship, but Joe was planning to ask Joanie’s father for her hand just before Christmas so that he could surprise her with an engagement ring as her Christmas gift.
November was more than half done and Thanksgiving was swiftly approaching when Joe took Joanie out in the sleigh one afternoon. The air was crisp and frosty, but the sun was shining and neither of them felt the cold. As they approached town again, Joe pulled the team to a halt. “Joanie, I was wondering…” Joe seemed uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
“What, Joe?” she asked, a little thrill of fear racing through her belly.
“I want to marry you, Joanie,” Joe blurted. “Will you marry me? I love you!”
Joanie’s eyes filled with tears and Joe wanted to retract his words, but couldn’t. He meant every syllable of them, even if he had sounded like a complete idiot while he said them.
“Yes,” Joanie whispered. “Oh yes!” She threw her arms around Joe’s neck, not caring if anyone saw them in such an inappropriate pose.
As chance had it, the only person who saw them was probably the only person who shouldn’t have seen them. Jim Johnston was returning from town when he saw the sleigh sitting at the side of the road. Fury and hatred flamed in his heart as he saw Joe with his arms around Joanie. He knew that the innocent young woman would never have behaved in such a brazen manner. Cartwright was leading her astray! Ben Cartwright should have beaten the badness out of that boy years ago!
Disgusted, jealous, Johnston didn’t stop to think, he simply acted.
Unaware of anyone else in the vicinity, Joe was more than startled when a large hand grasped his upper arm and dragged him away from Joanie. He made some sort of startled protest that was cut short by the large fist that punched him right in the face. Joe went down, dazed.
Terrified, Joanie screamed, her shrill cry carrying on the cold, still air. Johnston turned on her. “Shut up, girl!” he bellowed, further terrifying her. “I’m doing it for you.” He reached for her, but Joanie recoiled in revulsion, another scream escaping her throat.
The scream roused Joe and he scrambled to his feet, ignoring the blood that dripped from both nose and mouth. He flung himself on their attacker, catching Johnston off guard. “Run, Joanie!” he cried. “Run!”
Panicked, seeing Joe getting the worst of the fight, Joanie struggled to free herself from the confining buffalo robes that were tucked securely around her legs. She could barely fight her way free and it didn’t occur to her to simply catch up the reins and whip the team up.
“Leave her alone!” Joe shouted and threw another punch. It didn’t do much except enrage Johnston, who had never liked Joe. He rounded on the younger man and started to beat him in earnest.
Johnston had always been free with his fists, but prison had taught him a lot of new ways to use them and he forgot that Joe was not an inmate intent on stealing his food/clothes/blankets. Joe was, quite simply, someone who was in his way. By the time his rage died away, Joe was lying bleeding on the cold ground. Johnston blinked, surprised; had he hit Joe that hard?
Fighting down the guilt that surged into his throat, Johnston turned to look for Joanie. She was still sitting in the sleigh, her horrified eyes riveted to Joe’s unconscious body. Slowly, her eyes rose to look Johnston in the face and the expression she wore – compounded of revulsion and fear – enraged him even further. How dare she presume to judge him? She was a child – a stupid child who had had the poor sense to fall for Joe Cartwright. How could she do that when he loved her? He would show her what real love was, he thought, and dragged Joanie from the sleigh.
The terrified scream Joanie gave roused Joe momentarily, but a single kick sent him spiraling down into unconsciousness once more. He didn’t hear Joanie crying his name before her voice was silenced forever.
It was one of the Cartwrights’ more distant neighbors that found Joe and Joanie lying in the snow. He rushed to fetch Roy Coffee, the sheriff and Doc Martin. All of them were sickened by the blood at the scene and Roy wondered how on earth he was going to tell the Westmores that Joanie was dead. That fact was bad enough – the circumstances surrounding her death were truly horrific.
Joe was in bad shape. His lips and nail beds were tinged a dusky blue color and he was icy cold to the touch. His blood had frozen on his face and that eerie fact gave Roy Coffee pause. He had never seen anything like that. Joe was carefully lifted into a wagon and blankets were snugged around him. He was taken slowly into town, where someone was dispatched to fetch Ben Cartwright and Roy went to talk to Joanie’s family. He could only hope that when Ben reached town, he did not face the same news that the Westmores did.
“How is he?” Ben cried, as he all but fell into the surgery. Hoss was only a few steps behind him, his round, genial face displaying an anxious expression.
“Holding his own,” Paul Martin, the doctor, replied. “He’s a little warmer and I’m hoping he’ll come around soon.”
Ben barely heard his friend. He was leaning over his son, gasping as he saw the injuries. “Joe?” he whispered.
There was no response. Ben lifted his head and looked at Paul. “What’s wrong with him? What happened? Who did this?”
“I don’t know what happened, exactly,” Paul replied. “Joe and… and Joanie were found on the road leading into town.” Paul didn’t want to elaborate further about Joanie, for fear that Joe would hear them. Time enough to tell Joe about Joanie when he was a little better. “Joe has been badly beaten. He has multiple bruises and cuts. His right wrist is broken and so is his right leg, just below the knee. I think he might have a concussion, too.”
Aghast, Ben could only look at Paul. It was Hoss who voiced the question Ben wanted to ask. “An’ is he gonna be all right?”
The hesitation before he answered was enough to send Ben’s already spiraling anxiety out of sight. “Paul?” he pleaded.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Paul apologized. He eased Ben into a seat. “Yes, I think Joe will be all right, but the longer he is unconscious, the less I like it.” He gathered his thoughts. “Joe has hypothermia, which is why he is still out. I don’t know how long they lay in the road before they were found. I hope it wasn’t too long, but going by Joe’s condition when he was brought in, it could have been as long as an hour.”
“He ain’t got frost bit, has he, doc?” Hoss asked. Frost bite could be a killer – the loss of fingers and toes often led to the loss of life.
That was something that hadn’t yet occurred to Ben and he lost even more color.
“No, there’s no sign of frost bite,” Paul soothed. He didn’t tell them of the anxious moments he had had before making certain of that fact. “All we can do right now is keep Joe warm and wait for him to wake up.”
Gradually, Joe became more and more aware of his surroundings. He could vaguely hear voices talking far, far away, but they were nothing to do with him and he didn’t bother listening. Once in a great while, he heard his name and that sparked a little bit of interest. Why was someone talking about him? But it seemed like too much effort to open his eyes and find out.
But as his awareness increased, Joe’s body began to make its misery known to him and he felt really ill. Moving sent stabs of pure agony through his ribs and leg and his head was pounding. Then he began shivering and that brought all his aches and pains to life. And to cap it all, Joe thought he was going to be sick.
It was that thought that brought Joe back to full consciousness and he sat up abruptly, leaning over desperately so that he wouldn’t vomit all over himself. He was barely aware of the people in the room with him. He was only thankful that someone had been quick enough to place a basin for him. He retched uncontrollably, even though it hurt abominably. Dimly, he was aware of someone supporting his head and a soothing voice murmuring something.
Finally, it was over and Joe sagged within the strong arms that he now recognized as belonging to his father. “I feel awful,” he croaked.
“I’m not surprised, after all that,” Ben sympathized. He helped Joe to lie down. “You’ve been hurt, Joe,” he explained. “So don’t try to move about too much.”
“Hurt?” Joe frowned, although even doing that hurt. He wracked his memory, trying to recall what had happened to him. Something flickered, but refused to come into focus. “How?”
“We’re not entirely sure,” Ben hedged. He was grateful when Paul Martin came over to peer into Joe’s eyes and ask a few questions.
However, once Paul was finished, Joe fixed his father with a slightly glassy stare. “I was with Joanie,” he declared. “Wasn’t I?” he added, less certainly.
This time, Ben’s rescuer was Hoss, who had been out getting some food for Ben, who refused to leave Joe’s side. “Joe!” he exclaimed joyfully. “Yer awake!”
“Hi, Hoss,” Joe mumbled. He was struggling now to keep his eyes open. His head was pounding and his body was aching and all in all, Joe couldn’t remember a time when he felt worse. But Joe was nothing if not persistent. “Pa, what happened?” he demanded.
“Why don’t you get some rest, and then we’ll talk about it,” Ben evaded.
Perhaps it was something in Ben’s tone; perhaps it was the stricken look on Hoss’ face; perhaps it was a combination of both things, but suddenly Joe remembered. “Joanie!” he cried, sitting up and looking around. “Joanie!”
“Joe, please,” Ben begged, trying to calm his son.
“Where is she?” Joe cried. “Was she hurt? Johnston didn’t hurt her, did he?”
There was no avoiding the issue any more and Ben knew that he had to tell Joe. Yet the words stuck in his throat. However, there was no need for words. Joe knew instantly by the look Ben was wearing, that Joanie was dead. The little color he had regained drained from his face and his emerald eyes filled with tears which overflowed silently down his cheeks.
In a way, this silent grief was harder to bear than the ranting and raving they had expected. Completely at a loss, Ben turned to Paul, who had been prepared for any eventuality. He smoothly shot a sedative into Joe’s hip and it began to take effect within minutes. Joe’s tears slowly stopped, then his eyes drooped shut and his body relaxed. Ben eased him back down onto the bed.
For the next few days, Joe remained quiet, sleeping a lot as his body began to heal and as an escape from the grief. Roy Coffee, the sheriff, had spoken to Joe the day after the attack. Joe was, if anything, even sorer than he had been the previous day and every movement elicited a grunt of pain. However, Joe was able to confirm that he had been talking about Jim Johnston the previous day. He told Roy everything he could and Roy went off to find Johnston. Joe was moved home and continued to sleep as much as he could.
But his body was healing and Joe’s desire to sleep was often thwarted. He remained withdrawn and taciturn and Ben and Hoss were soon at the end of their tether with him. Not for the first time, Ben wished Adam hadn’t left home. Sometimes, Adam was the only person who could get through to Joe.
Totally against his will, Joe continued to progress, although he would be off work for quite some time to come. Christmas was just around the corner, but Joe could find no reason to be joyful this yuletide season. The girl he had intended to marry was dead – and by now, Joe knew all the horrific details. Johnston was still at large, which was very disquieting for the Cartwrights.
Quite why Joe took to gazing out of the open door was beyond Ben. Joanie was not coming back – it was not as if she had left and Joe was looking out for her return. Joe himself was not sure why he was so constantly drawn to look outside. He allowed Ben to resettle him on the sofa without a protest and closed his eyes to avoid conversation. He was asleep within moments.
It was Hoss’ arrival home that woke Joe. As always now, he felt the stab of grief like a knife to his heart as he remembered what had happened. Forcing his mind not to picture Joanie’s beautiful face – and failing – he made himself listen to what Hoss was saying.
“I met the Westmores in town,” Hoss ventured, for he was not at all sure how Joe would take this news. He wasn’t sure if his brother’s impassive face was encouraging or not, but he ploughed on regardless. “They send their best wishes, Joe.”
“For all that wishes may be worth,” Joe murmured. He didn’t mean to be rude, but he didn’t know what good people thought wishes did. They wouldn’t bring back Joanie.
“Joe!” Ben reproved, but his heart wasn’t in his scolding.
“Sorry,” Joe muttered, sullenly. He turned his face away and gazed with interest at the fire. However, Hoss’ voice once more penetrated his preoccupation when he heard the name of the man he hated above all others; Johnston.
“Roy says he ain’t seen hide nor hair o’ Johnston, Pa,” Hoss reported. “Roy reckons he’s run away an’ won’ be back.” He glanced uneasily at Joe once more. “Roy’s callin’ off the posse.”
“Roy’s lettin’ him get away with it?” Joe cried. He tried to leap to his feet to express better the outrage he felt, but his body couldn’t obey him and if it hadn’t been for Ben’s fast reflexes, Joe would have tumbled ignominiously to the floor.
“That’s enough!” Ben snapped, truly angry this time. “Roy is the sheriff. He has more to do than just look for one man, murderer though that man be! There hasn’t been a sign of Johnston since this happened and it’s been weeks, Joseph! Weeks! You can’t expect Roy to keep the posse out any longer. I won’t have you saying such things, is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Joe muttered. He managed to get himself to his feet and moved towards the stairs. “May I be excused?” he asked sarcastically and for a moment, Ben wished Joe was small enough to turn over his knee. Not that he believed in beating children, but the odd smack didn’t go astray.
“With that attitude, you can remain excused,” Ben snapped sarcastically and instantly regretted that his temper had got the better of him. But it was too late, Joe was stomping upstairs, his face like thunder. Ben knew that they both had to calm down before they could mend this fight.
“Oh, Hoss, I don’t know what to say to make him feel better,” Ben confessed after Joe’s bedroom door banged loudly.
“None o’ us do, Pa,” Hoss comforted him. “Joe’ll come round; he jist needs time.”
“Yes, time,” Ben echoed. “Time is a great healer.”
But somehow, neither of them believed it.
Joe was still sullen and uncommunicative the next morning. He spoke when spoken to, but contributed nothing to the breakfast conversation. Ben counted himself fortunate that Joe had actually risen in time for breakfast.
With the advent of the bad weather, life on the ranch had slowed down. The herd was in a sheltered meadow near the house and the hands went out daily to make sure that all was well and to provide extra food. One or other of the Cartwrights would go out to check, too. That morning, Hoss was going.
The house was silent, with Ben over at his desk, writing some letters and Joe gazing aimlessly into the fire. A shout was heard from the barn and Ben started up in alarm, for it was Hoss’ voice. He flashed a glance at Joe and saw that it hadn’t been his imagination, for Joe was looking more alert than Ben had seen him in weeks.
“What do you think is wrong?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know,” Ben replied and hurried over to throw open the door.
It was hard to say who got the bigger shock – Ben or Johnston. But Johnston recovered first and threw himself at Ben, knocking the other man over.
The weeks on the run had not been kind to Johnston. He was emaciated, dirty and smelly. The reality of what he had done to the girl he loved had broken his mind until all he could really think was that Joe Cartwright was to blame for Joanie’s death. Johnston had been watching the Ponderosa ranch house and when the sheriff hadn’t arrived to arrest Joe for Joanie’s death, Johnston decided he had better take matters into his own hands.
Meeting Hoss in the barn had been unfortunate, but the stout piece of wood that kept the barn door closed had laid the big man out with only one blow. It wasn’t too good that Ben had opened the door, but he wasn’t armed and Johnston was determined that nobody was going to stop him getting justice for Joanie.
Shaken rigid by the appearance of Johnston, and suffering flashbacks of the attack, Joe froze in place. He could hear Joanie’s scream again and shook his head to rid himself of the cry. Joe blinked and looked round, seeing clearly that his father was coming off second best.
Adrenalin flooded Joe’s body and he got to his feet with more ease than he had done for weeks. Barely aware of the awkwardness of his cast, he hurried to Ben’s defense. He felt more alive than he had for weeks – since Joanie had died. His father was in danger and there didn’t seem to be anyone else around to help out. Joe plunged across the room and raised the only weapon he had – his crutch.
The blow caught Johnston completely unaware, but on his shoulder, not his head. It didn’t knock him out, although it did knock him off Ben. Joe lost his grip on the crutch and tumbled to the floor. Johnston fixed his mad gaze on Joe and lunged at him, ignoring Ben in favor of his original prey. Joe went down, his head striking the floor, dazing him.
Equally dazed, Ben sat up, fighting off the dizziness that plagued him. He could hear sounds of a struggle, but it took several seconds before he was able to process the information enough to do something about it. He dived on Johnston’s back and dragged him off Joe.
From somewhere, Johnston had a knife. Joe was bleeding profusely from a gash down his arm. Ben was enraged. How could anyone hurt Joe, who was already injured? It was beyond belief, but Ben could waste no more time trying to figure the man’s motives out. He had to disarm him and get him down before he was able to use the knife again.
Johnston’s lack of food and shelter was now starting to tell against him. Ben managed to knock the knife out of his hand without getting cut, and after that, it was the matter of only a few blows before the emaciated man slumped to the floor unconscious.
It seemed to the exhausted Ben that the fight had lasted for hours, but in reality, it was only a few short minutes. Hop Sing came from the kitchen, having heard the commotion and realized the need for instant action. “Mistah Ben sit down,” he ordered. “Where Mistah Hoss?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, sitting ungracefully. His legs simply refused to hold him any more. He crawled over to Joe’s side. “Joe! Are you all right, son?”
“I’ll be okay, Pa,” Joe assured his father, although the blood was seeping through the fabric of his shirt at high speed. Because of the cast on his other hand, Joe could not hold the injury, so Ben did it, putting pressure on the bleeding cut, causing Joe to hiss with pain.
Knowing that he would need some help, Hop Sing ran outside and rang the bell, summoning help to the house. He then went to check on Hoss, finding the big man just stirring, with blood running down his face. By then, hands were arriving from the bunkhouse and they helped Hoss to his feet. Hop Sing sent someone for the doctor and sheriff before hurrying back inside to do what he could for his family.
Both Joe and Hoss received a few stitches – Joe a few more than Hoss – and Ben drank a stiff brandy to counteract the shock. Johnston was hustled off to jail, but Roy felt sure that he would end up in an asylum somewhere, rather than go back to prison. His mind had completely snapped. It was a tragic end.
But every cloud has a silver lining. Joe had suddenly realized that he had come very close to losing his family that morning and it had had the effect of – not lessening his grief – but tempering it. Joe would mourn Joanie, but he no longer allowed it to govern all his moments. There were times when he smiled when he really wanted to cry, but as time went on, he found that Joanie’s memories brought comfort, not pain.
When Christmas came, Joe was able to celebrate the day with some degree of pleasure. Oh the pain was still there – like the pain of missing Adam now that he was off somewhere traveling the world. But it was pain that Joe knew he could learn to live with.
Watching Joe, Ben thought back to the day he and Joe had fallen out. Joe hadn’t thought wishes to be worth anything, but for Ben, they were priceless. He had wished and prayed for something to help his son deal with his grief. He hadn’t expected the answer to his prayer to be so drastic, but it had been the catalyst that had allowed Joe to begin to heal emotionally.
Ben smiled as his sons got into a mock fight about who had the most stitches. It was so normal an action that it brought him untold comfort. Joe and Joanie’s love story would undoubtedly become a story to be told around the fire on a cold winter’s night. For them, it would become a memory to add to the tapestry that made up their family history.
“Merry Christmas,” he toasted, holding up his glass of wine.
Joe and Hoss were quick to follow suit.
“Merry Christmas,” they chorused.