Word Count: 13,993
“Joe! Just the man I wanted. Come here, will ya?”
Sighing, Joe smiled as he turned to face the excitable storekeeper, Mr. Mulvaney. The man had a heart of gold, but sometimes shopping in his store could be quite an adventure. He followed the little man to the other side of the shop. It was something of a squeeze to get past all the different barrels and boxes that he had stacked all over the floor. It was very nearly impossible to see from one side of the shop to the other.
“Now this here is Joe Cartwright, who I was tellin’ ya about,” Mulvaney was telling someone as Joe stepped into view. “His horses are the best in the area. Ask anyone! Ya want a horse, ya can’t do better than git one from ol’ Joe here.”
Smothering a smile at birth at the notion of suddenly being ‘old Joe’ when he still hadn’t shaken off the tag of ‘Little Joe’, Joe turned to look at the person who was the recipient of this sage advice. A beautiful woman stood there. She had rich auburn hair coiled at the nape of her neck and her coat and velvet hat were a rich plum purple. She had an aura of wealth about her; her clothes were very well cut and her white kid gloves immaculate.
Joe took an instant dislike to her as she turned and looked him up and down as though he had just been scraped off the bottom of her shoe. “Him?” The woman looked back at Mulvaney. “You must be joking, surely.”
“No, no, I ain’t,” Mulvaney assured her, practically jumping up and down on the spot. “Joe’s right good with horses. Why, that pinto o’ his would…would…wash the dishes if he told it to!”
It was impossible to keep a straight face at that and Joe burst out laughing. He realized that the woman, to her credit, was laughing, too. Mulvaney must have put the mental picture with his words and sniggered. “Wal, maybe not quite,” he admitted.
“I’m not usually quite as dirty as this,” Joe admitted, smiling, “but sometimes it’s impossible to keep clean working on a ranch. My name is Joe Cartwright, as Mr. Mulvaney already told you, and I do sell horses. Can I help you…?” He paused as he realized that he didn’t know this lady’s name.
“Leigh Watson, Mr. Cartwright.” Joe tipped his hat to her. “I’m new to Virginia City and I would like a lady’s riding horse and possibly a matched team for pulling a buggy.”
“I’m sure I can accommodate you,” Joe replied. “When can you come out to the Ponderosa to look at some horses?”
“The Ponderosa?” she repeated. “What’s that?”
“My father’s ranch,” Joe explained. “I live and work there.”
“Would tomorrow morning suit?” Leigh asked. “I could rent a buggy and come out.”
“That would be fine,” Joe nodded. “Just ask at the livery for directions; everyone knows the Ponderosa.”
“Until tomorrow, then,” Leigh replied and favored both Joe and Mulvaney with a frosty smile. As she swept out, Joe remembered his chore.
“I need a keg of nails,” he began.
“I’ll be down to join you as soon as I can, Pa,” Joe reminded Ben as he held Buck’s bridle while his father mounted. “I hope I won’t be too long with Miss Watson.”
“Take as long as you need, Joe,” Ben replied. “If she’s going to buy three horses from us, you can take all day.”
“And if she doesn’t?” Joe asked, his eyes twinkling merrily.
“Then you’d better get down to the south pasture like greased lightning, young man!” Ben replied and they both laughed.
“Good enough,” Joe agreed. He let go of Buck and lifted a hand to wave to his father and brothers as they rode out of the yard.
Left alone, Joe pottered around the yard, doing a few chores. He was just considering cleaning the tack when he heard a buggy approach and he went out into the yard to greet Miss Watson. “Good morning,” he called, crossing the yard to help her from the buggy.
“Good morning,” Leigh replied, eyeing Joe up and down. He was dressed in essentially the same clothing as the day before, but this set was clean. His tan shirt and pants were neatly pressed and his curls were brushed into a semblance of order. Having found out about the Cartwrights the previous day, Leigh was now attuned to see the indications of wealth; the well-cut clothes, the expensive, if plain, gun belt.
“I guess the instructions were clear, since you’re here,” he smiled, liking the riding habit that she was wearing. It was dark plum, a color she seemed to favor, and fitted like a second skin. “I’ll show you the riding horses we have here in this corral and then we can go down to the main corral afterwards, if that suits you.”
“Yes, that will be fine,” Leigh replied.
The horses in the corral were sturdy cow ponies for the most part. Joe had bred and broken almost all of them and there was quite a smattering of pintos amongst them. He had separated Cochise and his mount was saddled and waiting patiently. Joe carefully caught each horse and told Leigh about them, but the disappointed silence told its own story.
“You want to look at the others,” Joe stated. He saw the surprise on Leigh’s face. “I was pretty sure that you didn’t want one like this, but I wanted you to see all the horses we have.”
“I rather like this one,” Leigh replied, putting a hand out to Cochise.
“He’s not for sale,” Joe smiled. Cochise, having submitted to having his nose patted, moved slightly so he could nuzzle Joe’s arm. “These horses are the ones we generally use as second horses when we need to, which is why they are here at the house. I’ll take you down to the main corral now.”
The journey down to the main corral was essentially silent. Joe thought how much he didn’t like Leigh Watson. She was still treating him like a servant and Joe didn’t like that one little bit. However, he was wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself. He didn’t have to like someone to sell them a horse.
“Why do you have so many pintos?” Leigh asked, as they stood looking at the mass of horses in the corral.
“One of our stud horses is a pinto,” Joe explained. “He lives wild out on the range and I round up his foals. They make excellent cow ponies and very good riding horses.”
One of the horses, a tall skewbald, trotted over to the fence and insinuated his muzzle into Joe’s hand. Joe smiled and stroked the silky ears, whispering to the horse. After a moment, he beckoned to one of the hands. “Looks like Wanderer is sound again,” he said. “Could you take him back to the house corral? I’ll bring him back into work.”
“Why is that one going back?” Leigh asked. The brown and white horse was a very good looking individual.
“He’s been lame. Now that he’s sound again, I’ll take him back as my second horse.” Crossing to the fence, he pointed to one of the horses, and a hand separated it and brought it over. “I think perhaps this is the type of horse you’re looking for?”
“Oh, yes.” Leigh nodded and Joe asked the hand to bring the horse out of the corral. She walked around it, looking at the horse with knowledgeable eyes. The horse was a dark bay with a white star and one white sock on his near side foreleg.
“This is Dusk; he’s eight, a gelding. He’s broken to saddle, but hasn’t carried a side-saddle before.” Joe looked at Leigh with questioning eyes.
“I prefer a side-saddle,” she replied, coolly, as though Joe was particularly stupid to ask such a question. “But I can ride astride. Will that be a problem?”
“Not at all,” Joe replied, equally coolly. “Would you like to try him?”
“Certainly.” Leigh watched with interest as Joe quickly saddled the horse, noting the way the horse reacted, seeing that it didn’t try and nip as the cinch was tightened and admiring the way Joe handled the animal. She scorned Joe’s offer of help to mount and swung into the saddle, settling herself, although she deigned to accept help in shortening the stirrups on the big Western saddle. She rode Dusk around the breaking corral in a walk, then a trot.
“What do you think?” Joe asked, as she brought the horse to a halt beside where he sat on the corral rails.
“He seems very nice,” Leigh answered, “but I would like to try him out in the open.”
“All right,” Joe agreed. He jumped down and opened the gate. Leigh waited while Joe swung effortlessly into the saddle and they set out.
Joe led the way to a meadow where he preferred to gallop his horses when breaking them. There was enough of an uphill slope on it to make stopping the horses easier if they ran away with him and the slope also helped make them fit and develop muscle. Both Dusk and Cochise knew where they were at once, and they fidgeted restlessly, but neither one refused to be quieted. Joe deliberately kept Cochise to a walk for several steps, then looked at Leigh. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied and touched her heel to the horse, loosening the reins as she did so. The power of the horse caught her by surprise, but she was an experienced horsewoman and was soon enjoying the exhilarating gallop. “That was wonderful!” she exclaimed, as Dusk came to a dancing stop at the top of the hill.
Smiling, Joe thought that Leigh suddenly seemed like a nicer person. “It was pretty good,” he agreed. He turned Cochise and led the way back down. When they reached the bottom, he put Cochise into a lope and Dusk followed suit. They soon arrived back at the corral and Joe moved to help Leigh dismount.
“I’ll take him,” Leigh announced, before Joe could say anything. “But I would like to ride him side-saddle.”
“It won’t take more than a few days to get him used to it,” Joe replied, pleased. “Would you like to look at buggy horses now or wait for another time?”
“Now will be fine,” she agreed. The camaraderie from the ride seemed to be wearing off and the cool, superior tone was reasserting itself. Joe felt a pang of dismay. “I think I’ll take just one buggy horse. I like the way this rented buggy handles, so I think I’ll choose one about the same size.” She gave Joe a superior smile. “And I don’t want a pinto for it, either.”
Biting back the retort that rose to his lips, Joe simply smiled. He went into the corral and located the horse he had in mind and led it over to the fence. The horse was a bright chestnut with a blond mane and tail. He was taller than Dusk and slightly heavier built. Leigh nodded and watched as Joe harnessed the horse to the buggy and she got in to try it.
Much as she didn’t want to admit it, Leigh was impressed with the quality of the horses that Joe had shown her. She didn’t like the pintos, thinking that they were too flashy and too much like Indian ponies, but the other horses had been very nice. Somehow, she hadn’t thought she would find anything worth while from a working ranch.
“All right, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll take them both, assuming the price is agreeable.” Leigh slid down from the buggy and Joe took the horse’s rein.
“$200,” Joe told her.
“$100 a piece?” Leigh shook her head. “I wouldn’t pay $100 for a driving horse.”
“No, nor would I,” Joe agreed. “And you aren’t. Dusk’s price is $120. This one is $80. But if that’s too much…” He began to unhitch the chestnut.
“Are you implying that I can’t afford your horses?” Leigh demanded, her eyes flashing fire.
“Not at all,” Joe responded coolly. “I was merely saying that if the price is too high, perhaps you would like time to consider your options.”
“I don’t have to buy my horses from you!” Leigh cried, irritated. Joe Cartwright was only a cowboy – how dare he haggle with her?
“No, that’s right, you don’t,” Joe agreed. “The choice is entirely yours.” He stripped the harness from the chestnut and returned it to the corral. He then hitched the rented horse to the buggy and looked at Leigh. He wished she would just go away. At that point, he didn’t care if she didn’t buy either horse. In fact, he hoped she wouldn’t.
“All right, $200,” she capitulated ungratefully. “I’ll pay you on delivery.”
“Fine,” Joe replied. “I’ll bring the horses into town for you in a few days, Miss Watson. I’ll bring a receipt with me. May I escort you back to the house? Perhaps you would like something cold to drink?”
“No, thank you. But I would appreciate you showing me the way to the road back to town.” Leigh climbed into the buggy and settled her skirts, which were now dusty.
“Of course,” Joe agreed. He went over to Cochise and noticed that Wanderer, his other horse, was still in the corral. He quickly haltered the horse and led him out. The hand who should have taken the horse back waved to Joe.
“I’ll take him up in a bit, Joe.”
“Doesn’t matter, Fred,” Joe called. “I’m going home anyway.” He mounted and went over beside the buggy. “Ready?” he asked. When Leigh nodded, Joe touched his heel to his horse and they set out. They didn’t exchange a single word on the way. Joe drew rein and pointed to the road. “That’s your way, Miss Watson.”
“Thank you,” she answered, equally coolly. “You’ll bring the horses in a few days?” She mentioned where she lived and Joe nodded. “I’ll see you then.” She drove off without saying goodbye.
“Know what, Cooch?” Joe asked, when she was out of earshot. “I hope I don’t meet her regularly.” The horse snorted, as though agreeing and Joe laughed. He continued on to the house.
“How did it go?” Ben asked, as Joe arrived at the south pasture.
Sliding down from Cochise, Joe tethered him in the shade. “She bought two horses,” he replied. “I’ve to school Dusk in a side-saddle for her, then take them over.”
“I don’t know how you can bear to sit in one of those saddles,” Adam commented as he came up. “I wouldn’t do it.”
“That’s probably why the horses have done better with me running that side of things,” Joe shot back. “I don’t mind doing what’s necessary to sell them.”
“Now, boys,” Ben warned.
“Oh come on, Pa, you know that’s the truth,” Joe flared. “We’re getting a lot more eastern ladies coming out here and they want to ride side-saddle because that what they’re used to.” Joe’s sudden bad temper evaporated. “Besides, it’s quite comfortable and a lot safer than riding astride.” He shot Adam a glance full of mischief. “You might find it helps your back, big brother.”
“No, that’s all right,” Adam assured him. “I’ll stick to my big comfortable Western saddle, thank you all the same.” He eyed Joe speculatively. “So Miss Watson wasn’t to your taste then?”
“You can say that again!” Joe agreed. “She’s the Ice Maiden and no mistake.”
“I might have to take a look at her myself,” Adam mused.
“You’re welcome to her,” Joe replied and headed off to help with the branding.
The next two days, Joe spent his time working Dusk in a side-saddle. Joe had felt like a complete idiot the first time he had tried one, but he soon grew used to it. It was a move that paid off, too, as quite a number of the more well-off eastern ladies who arrived in the area wanted a riding horse that was trained to carry a side-saddle. Joe had become used to the jibes from the hands while he did the work.
Three days later, Joe set off into town with the two horses and the receipt. He found Leigh’s house easily enough and hitched all the horses to the fence as he went to the door.
To say Joe was taken aback when it was opened by a butler was something of an understatement. “Err, I’ve brought the horses for Miss Watson,” he stuttered.
The butler looked Joe up and down from the tips of his dusty tan boots to the top of his tan hat, via his tan pants and green jacket. It was clear that he found Joe lacking in gentility. Without a word, he shut the door in Joe’s face. Blinking, Joe wondered what he ought to do. He was about to knock again when the door opened and Leigh stood there. “Mr. Cartwright.”
“Miss Watson.” Taking a deep breath to keep his temper under control, Joe gestured to the fence. “Your horses.”
“Excellent.” Leigh beckoned into the house. “I’ll just get the groom.”
The groom? Joe hoped his face didn’t give away his feelings on this matter. He felt as though he had strayed into a romance novel set in England. He reached into his jacket pocket for the receipt. “Here’s the receipt,” he offered.
“Oh, of course, the money. Wait there a moment, please.” Once again, the door shut in his face. Joe was beginning to be seriously ticked off. He clenched his jaw and drew in another deep breath.
It was only a minute before the door opened again and Leigh offered Joe two $100 bills. Joe took them and handed over the receipt. He put the money into his jacket and tipped his hat. “Good day, Miss Watson.”
“Goodbye.” Leigh followed him down the path and Joe allowed her to precede him out of the gate, where she fondled Dusk’s nose. As Joe mounted Cochise, he saw a skinny kid – who’s name he couldn’t remember – come from the back of the house. Joe turned his back without a second look. He was glad that his business with Miss Leigh Watson was finished.
“You really mean you aren’t going to see her again?” Adam asked over supper that night.
“I already said it a hundred times,” Joe replied, wearily. “When are you going to start believing me? I’m not going to see her again.”
“In that case, I might pay her a call,” Adam smiled.
“Feel free.” Joe took a bite of his meal. “But when you do call, make sure you’re wearing a fancy suit and have your Boston manners with you. Or else you won’t get past the butler.”
“Butler?” Adam echoed, raising an eyebrow. “The lady does have class.” He winked at Ben down the table. “Why don’t we have a butler, Pa?”
“You have me,” Joe replied around a mouthful of food. “I always seem to answer the door.” There was a slight edge to his voice.
Unerringly hearing it, Ben decided to stop the ribbing before Joe lost his temper. “Well, despite her class, at least Miss Watson seems to be satisfied with her horses. Well done, Joe.”
“Thanks, Pa.” Under his father’s praise, Joe began to relax. He didn’t have to see Miss Watson again, and that suited him just fine.
“Who is that?” Adam asked. The Cartwright boys had gone stag to the dance, having been too busy over the preceding weeks with branding and haying to find partners. Now, they were standing by the punch bowl, watching the other young men dancing with the few available young women.
“Who?” Joe asked glancing up. He followed Adam’s gaze and winced. “That is Miss Watson,” he told them.
“Quite a beauty,” Adam commented appreciatively. “I think I might have to dance with her.”
Before he could even take a single step, Leigh spotted Joe across the room. It was a relief for her, as on her previous foray into Virginia City society, she hadn’t known anyone and had had a miserable evening. She smiled and crossed the room, thinking that Joe brushed up rather well. She had been more than aware of how handsome he was, but in his crisp white shirt and dress pants, he was even more attractive.
“Mr. Cartwright! How lovely to see you again.”
“Miss Watson. May I introduce my brothers, Adam and Hoss?” Joe fervently hoped that she and Adam would take to each other at once, but he was to be disappointed. Leigh thought that Adam was good looking, but too old for her and Hoss was far too tall, towering over her by more than a foot.
“How do you do.” Her greeting was absolutely polite and told them both exactly where they stood. Adam hid a smirk as Leigh calmly organized Joe into dancing with her.
“I can see why Joe don’ like her none,” Hoss commented.
“Me, too,” Adam agreed, his pride slightly hurt that she didn’t recognize his superior social qualities. “I guess Joe is stuck with her though!”
“Sure enough,” Hoss nodded. “I didn’ think o’ that!” He wandered over to the buffet to have a snack to keep up his strength as he watched the dancing.
Much to his surprise, Joe found he was enjoying Leigh’s company. Never having made an issue of how much money a person had, or where they came from, it hadn’t occurred to Joe that Leigh thought that way either. Leigh had known for some time that the Cartwrights were wealthy, but this was the first real sign that she had seen.
Having been born and brought up in Boston, the only child of wealthy parents, Leigh had never wanted for anything in her life. Her mother had died when Leigh was 15 and she had taken on running the house while her father set about working himself into an early grave. He died when Leigh was 20.
Although well known in Boston society, Leigh had a hankering to travel, so she sold the house and set off to spend six months in Europe. She had thoroughly enjoyed herself, but when she returned, she found that all her old friends had moved on and got married. Many of them were about to become mothers for the first time and Leigh felt left out. In a fit of pique, she decided to start afresh somewhere else, not realizing how hard that would be.
Virginia City sounded like an adventure to her; a place where she could discover who she was and perhaps find a husband. If it was too rough a place, she could always move on to San Francisco. There were always options for an independently wealthy young woman.
Making friends had been harder than she had expected and the only person she really knew was Joe. It was such a relief to find someone she knew at the dance that she let down her guard and Joe began to enjoy himself. By the end of the evening, he wanted to see Leigh again.
“Would you like to come for a ride with me tomorrow?” Joe asked, as he escorted her home.
“I would like that very much,” Leigh replied. As she went into her house, populated only with the servants she hired, Leigh allowed herself to imagine Joe, dressed in a smart suit, living there with her. The image pleased her very much.
It was something of a disappointment when Joe arrived the next afternoon in his usual tan pants and green jacket combination. Just for a change, he was riding Wanderer, the skewbald pinto he had collected from the corral the day she had bought Dusk and Red. However, Leigh was keen to get out and have some company that she didn’t have to pay for.
They went to the lake. Joe helped Leigh down from Dusk and tethered both horses. “Why aren’t you riding your usual horse?” Leigh asked.
“I thought I’d give Cochise the day off,” Joe replied, lazily. “And Wanderer needed the exercise.”
“Wanderer is an odd name,” Leigh probed.
“There’s a long story behind it.” Joe smiled as Leigh pressed him to tell her. “When he was just a two year old, my brothers and I were working with the colts. We were leading Wanderer and two others along a narrow path when a storm hit. I fell off the edge of the path and was pretty banged up. Wanderer ran off and appeared at the ranch a few weeks later, hence his name. He’s very like Satan, his sire and for a while, I debated about keeping him for a stallion, but I decided against it in the long run. So I gelded him and broke him to saddle. Now, he’s my usual second horse.”
“Quite a story,” Leigh smiled. “How much of it is true?”
A frown crossed Joe’s face. “All of it!” he insisted. “I don’t lie, Leigh. I broke my arm and leg, some ribs and had a serious concussion.” He shuddered slightly as the memory of those first days after the accident came back to him. “I nearly died.”
“Sorry,” Leigh responded. “Tell me about Satan.”
Relaxing slightly again, Joe told her about his attempts to break Satan, and his decision to let him go, and how later on, Satan had saved his life. Then he told her about War Bonnet, the Medicine Hat horse he had bred from Satan and what had happened to him. Leigh listened quietly.
“You’re pretty accident prone, aren’t you?”
“I suppose I am,” Joe agreed. “The family always says that I’m an accident waiting to happen.”
“You don’t sound too worried about that,” Leigh observed.
Shrugging, Joe replied, “I’m not.” He smiled at her. “Tell me about you.”
“Oh, I haven’t led an interesting life like you have,” she denied. Quickly, she sketched in her background. Joe listened with obvious interest, which flattered Leigh. “Virginia City is not quite what I expected,” she concluded.
“I suppose things seldom are,” Joe commented. “But I hope you’re going to give us a chance to make you feel at home.”
“Of course.” Leigh jumped to her feet. “Can we ride some more?”
“All right.” Joe rose and helped her to mount before swinging effortlessly into the saddle in his usual manner.
For a while, they raced each other, reveling in the feel of the wind, the power of the horses and the joy of being young. But Joe was more attuned to his horse’s needs and he pulled Wanderer up before Leigh was ready to stop. “What’s wrong? Why have you stopped?” she demanded.
“The horses are getting tired,” Joe commented mildly. “I’ve got a long ride home later and I want my horse in good condition when I get there. They are pretty hot and need a chance to cool off.”
The sulky set to Leigh’s mouth told Joe that he had said something that she didn’t like and he stifled an impatient sigh. Instead, he turned Wanderer towards the town and was irritated when Leigh led the way at a faster pace than he thought was appropriate. She grudgingly slowed down when she realized that Joe wasn’t keeping up with her, but there was no conversation between them as they rode back to town.
Eddie, the kid she had hired as a groom, came to collect Dusk as she slid from the saddle before Joe could help her. “Thank you for the ride,” she said, stiffly. Without waiting for a reply, she went into the house. Joe simply gazed after her. He had been right, he thought. He really didn’t like Leigh Watson at all.
“Hey, Joe, ain’t that yer lady love?” Hoss called.
On the other side of the herd, Joe squinted through the dust to see where Hoss was pointing. “Looks like it,” he called back.
“Thought you weren’t going to see her again?” Adam queried, coming up beside Joe.
“You and me both,” Joe agreed. “I’d better see what she wants.” He pulled Cochise around and detoured around the herd before riding over to where Leigh was sitting. “Hello.”
“Hi,” Leigh smiled. “How have you been?” It might not have been two weeks since they had last seen each other.
“Busy,” Joe responded, wryly.
“I was wondering if you would be good enough to escort me to the ball on Saturday?” For a minute, Leigh looked young and vulnerable and Joe’s heart went out to her.
“I’d like that,” he agreed. “I’ll come and pick you up, shall I?”
“That would be wonderful.” Smiling shyly, Leigh tried to overlook Joe’s dusty condition. “Do you always work for your father?” she asked.
“Yes,” Joe nodded. He glanced around, clearly proud of his home. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
“Did you ever go to college?” she asked.
“Me? No, that’s Adam, my older brother that you’re thinking of there.” Joe laughed. “No thank you, I prefer to be out in the open air, not stuck in a classroom.”
“Oh, I see.” The comment was oddly neutral and Joe glanced back at her.
“Oh, no reason. I was just wondering why you worked here on the ranch, not in a bank or an office.”
Reminded once again of their differing backgrounds, Joe made an effort to be patient. “I never wanted to do anything different than I am now,” he shrugged. “I couldn’t bear to be stuck in an office.”
“I never knew a cowboy before,” Leigh murmured.
Laughing, Joe replied, “Well, you’ll meet plenty of cowboys around here, that’s for sure!” He patted Cochise’s neck, for his mount was growing restive. “I’ll collect you at 7.30 on Saturday, if that’s all right?”
“Yes, thank you.” Turning away, Leigh drew rein for a minute, watching Joe riding back to his job. He was so handsome and graceful. She knew she was very attracted to Joe. Could she bear to live in such a rough place forever, she wondered, not even realizing what she was doing. Joe was the first good-looking and wealthy young man she had met in Virginia City. She didn’t know how she felt about him, but he fitted the criteria that she had been taught to judge young men by. Love had not come into her education at all.
“Sure you’re not smitten?” Adam asked as Joe tied his string tie neatly.
“Who knows?” Joe responded. “I’m sorry for her, Adam. I think Leigh is lonely. But I’ll introduce you to her again if you like. You’re more her type than I am. I don’t work in a bank or an office.”
“Neither do I.” Adam picked up a bottle from the top of Joe’s dresser and examined it closely, as though he had never seen anything like it before. “So why are you taking her to the dance?”
“Because I think she might be quite nice if I can get through her prickly defenses,” Joe replied, taking the bottle from Adam and setting it down. “Its only one night. If it’s a disaster, I’ll take her home early.” He looked at Adam. “Why are you so interested anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “Perhaps I think you’re in deeper than you expect.” He patted Joe briefly on the shoulder. “I don’t want to see you hurt.”
Touched, Joe ducked his head. “Thanks. But I’ll be fine. I’m not involved with her.”
“All right.” But Adam looked anything but convinced as he followed Joe from the room.
Both Joe and Leigh had a good time that evening. Leigh was working hard to project herself in a way she seldom did and Joe thought he was making strides with his charm offensive. He began to wonder if Adam perhaps was on to something. It was usually Joe who was thought of as the intuitive son. At the end of the evening, Joe thought he would rather like to get to know Leigh better.
But as they made their way to the buggy, a drunken cowboy staggered across the street and bumped solidly into Leigh. “Shorry,” he slurred, and grinned into Leigh’s face. “Yer a pretty lil gal. Wanna come home wi’ me?”
Literally drawing aside her skirts, Leigh pushed the man away. Joe caught his arm and sent him off in another direction with a joke. He turned back to Leigh and was surprised by the look on her face. She looked furious. “I want him arrested!” she declared.
“Leigh, he didn’t mean anything by it,” Joe soothed. “Dusty often gets a bit worse for wear on a Saturday night.”
“You know him?” Leigh asked.
“He works for us,” Joe replied, trying to hand her into the buggy.
Whirling, Leigh glared at him. “You’re condoning his drunkenness?” she cried. “Joseph, really!”
“He’s harmless,” Joe replied, holding tight to his temper. “Look, nothing happened. Come on, I’ll take you home.”
“I don’t know if I want to be taken home by someone who associates with drunks.” She gathered her shawl tighter around her slender shoulders.
“I can’t leave you alone in the street,” Joe objected, although he was once more fast coming to the conclusion that he didn’t want to see Leigh Watson ever again. “Get in the buggy, Leigh and let me take you home.”
Sulking, Leigh decided that she didn’t really want to take the risk of meeting another drunk and allowed Joe to help her into the buggy. They rode in silence. “Goodbye,” Leigh said, as Joe handed her down.
Deciding to make one last effort and not have the night spoiled by this memory, Joe said, “Leigh, Dusty didn’t mean anything. And you are a pretty lil gal.”
“I suppose you think that is a compliment?” Leigh snarled and snatched her hand rudely out of Joe’s and marched towards the house, head held high.
“Yes, I did actually,” Joe called after her. She didn’t look back and as the door closed with a bang, Joe shrugged. That was it! He definitely didn’t want to see Leigh Watson again.
Turning, Joe saw Leigh Watson hurrying across the street. He drew in a deep breath, but managed not to grimace, which had been his first reaction. “Leigh.” He kept his voice non-committal.
“Joe, I wanted to apologize.” Leigh paused to catch her breath, then went on in a more composed manner. “I was wrong to make such a fuss over nothing. I’m sorry.”
Always prepared to meet a person half way, Joe was pleasantly surprised. “I did mean what I said,” he offered. “I do think you’re a ‘pretty lil gal’.”
Forcing a smile, Leigh curtseyed. “Thank you, sir.” She still didn’t think it was much of a compliment. “Am I forgiven, Joe?”
“Yes, of course,” Joe agreed. He started to turn away to go into the store, but Leigh stopped him.
“I hope you don’t think I’m too forward…” She stopped and drew a deep breath. “But would you take me riding again?” She saw the hesitation on his face. “I need to talk to you.”
“All right,” Joe said, slowly. He couldn’t imagine what it was Leigh wanted to say, but he could see from her face that it was something she didn’t want to discuss in town. He thought quickly around what they were doing on the ranch. “The day after tomorrow, in the afternoon?” he suggested.
“Yes, fine.” Leigh smiled nervously and left. Joe stood staring after her. What was it she wanted?
They had been riding for some time before Leigh indicated that she was ready to talk. Joe helped her down and tethered the horses. Even so, it was a few minutes before Leigh summoned up the courage to start. “I don’t know how to say this,” she began, looking up at Joe from under her lashes.
“Just say it,” Joe advised her. “I usually find that’s best.”
“So forthright,” Leigh murmured. “All right. Joe, I’m… very taken with you. In fact, I think… I’m in love with you.” Before Joe could say anything in reply, Leigh leaned forward and kissed him.
Her kiss told Joe a lot. It was the kiss of an innocent, someone who had not yet felt the pull of sexual arousal. He kissed her back gently, then, when she didn’t pull away, more firmly. Leigh leaned in to him, sighing unawares. Joe moved closer, twining his hand into her hair and his tongue requested entrance to her mouth. After a momentary hesitation, she allowed him and her timid tongue flickerings showed that she was a quick study.
Sitting up, Joe watched Leigh’s reaction. She licked her lips unconsciously and her hand went to her hair, patting it to make sure it was in place. “That was your first kiss, wasn’t it?” he asked.
Flushing, Leigh glanced at him obliquely. “Was it that obvious?”
“Only to me.” Joe reached out and caressed her cheek. “You’re not sure, are you?”
“No,” she breathed. “I really like you, Joe.”
“And I like you,” Joe replied. “But let’s take this slowly. I don’t think you’re sure if you love me or not.”
“I do…” Leigh started then stopped. Joe was right. She had no idea what love really was. Joe put his fingers on her lips.
“We’ll take it slow,” he repeated. He kissed her again.
Feeling agitated as Joe drew away, Leigh cast about for something to do. “Can you show me your horse, Satan?”
“I would love to, but I don’t know exactly where to find him,” Joe replied. “He’s not tame and living in a corral and the Ponderosa is a big place. But some day, I promise.” And with that she had to be content.
They saw each other regularly once a week. Joe began to wonder if he was in love with Leigh. She could be so thoughtful and charming and they fought like cat and dog. When he was away from her, Joe could see that they didn’t get along, but when they were together, her soft kisses would chase away the doubt.
“Why do you never wear a suit when you’re coming to see me?” Leigh complained one evening.
“I didn’t know it was a requirement,” Joe shot back. “I’m clean, presentable. What more do you want?”
“I want you to wear a suit,” Leigh snapped back. “Surely it’s not too much to ask.”
“I don’t have a lot of time between finishing work and coming here to see you as it is,” Joe replied, his temper rising. “Wasting time to put on a suit would cut down the time we have to spend together. What difference does it make what clothes I’m wearing?”
“You look like a ranch hand.”
“I am a ranch hand.” Rising, Joe jammed his hat back on top of his unruly curls. “Good night, Leigh.” He turned and walked away.
“Don’t forget the dance on Saturday!” Leigh called after him.
“As if I could!” Joe shot back.
On the way home, he wondered if he wanted to take her to the dance.
The dance ended in a fight, too. Leigh was jealous because Joe had asked another young lady to dance. They bickered all the way home and Joe didn’t come to take her riding the next day. In fact, he avoided her all week, until she turned up at the ranch late one afternoon and Ben was forced into the embarrassing duty of entertaining her until Joe appeared home. Leigh was taken aback by his appearance, for Joe had spent the afternoon clearing out a waterhole and was filthy from the waist down.
Irritated by her sudden appearance, Joe agreed to see her the next afternoon just to get rid of her. He had gone to get a bath, not knowing that Leigh had ridden home trying to convince herself that the Cartwrights must have other servants apart from Hop Sing, who was too familiar with his employers for her taste.
They went riding the next afternoon, but neither of them had much to say. Leigh stopped Dusk under a shady grove of trees and frowned as her usually well behaved mount refused to stand, circling around anxiously. “What’s wrong with him?” Leigh asked.
“I’m not sure,” Joe replied, for Wanderer, too, was playing up. Cochise was having a well-earned day off. “Come out from under the trees. It might be a big cat.” Leigh gasped. “Its probably not,” Joe assured her, “but better be safe than sorry.”
Leading the way, Joe took them well away from the trees and it was only when they stopped that they discovered the reason for their horses’ unease. Satan and his band were grazing in the meadow and Satan had come to investigate the new horses.
Normally, Joe had few problems with Satan. The stallion was used to Joe and usually left him alone, provided Joe didn’t try to touch him. He generally ignored Cochise, but Wanderer was different. It didn’t matter to Satan that both the strange horses were geldings. He just wanted to get them away from his mares. And then his attention focused on Wanderer.
Later, Joe was never sure if Satan recognized himself in the younger horse. Certainly, Wanderer was physically the mirror image of his sire. Perhaps it was just his smell; perhaps it was something more elemental. But either way, Satan was determined to get rid of both horses, starting with Wanderer.
Realizing the danger at once, Joe slid down from Wanderer’s back. It was rare nowadays that he could make Satan listen to him, but he had to try. Even if all he did was scare the stallion away, it would be worth it. Joe threw his rein to Leigh and walked slowly towards Satan, who reared.
“Easy now, big fella,” Joe crooned. “You don’t want to hurt me, do you? Come on, calm down. Easy there.”
For a moment, the big skewbald pawed the ground, snorting, clearly uncertain. Then, in a movement so swift it was blurred, he lunged at the geldings, knocking Joe to the ground with his shoulder. Leigh screamed. Joe scrambled to his feet at once, unhurt.
Wanderer tore his rein from Leigh’s hand. Dusk whirled around and half reared.
“Get out of here and get help!” Joe cried. “Leigh! Get help!” Joe sensed rather than saw Leigh giving Dusk his head and the bay gelding raced away.
But Wanderer had turned and was preparing to meet the challenge that Satan had thrown down. With a groan, Joe knew he had to stop the fight. Wanderer may have been a stallion for several years, but he was no longer and stood no chance against his sire. Satan was the veteran of many a fight and although one day his crown would be taken from him by a younger horse – possibly one of his own colts – today was not going to be that day. The horses rose on their hind legs to meet each other and Joe heard the thud as their bodies collided.
He moved without thinking, running at the horses, screaming at the top of his lungs. For a long instant, he thought his effort was wasted, but Wanderer, already bleeding from various bites and kicks, turned tail and fled and Joe suddenly found himself Satan’s target.
There was no doubt that the stallion could kill a man. One blow from a hoof on Joe’s unprotected head could easily cave in his skull. Joe dodged a vicious swipe from a foreleg and reached for his gun. He would fire a shot into the air and if that didn’t work, if he was forced to, he would shoot the horse. Joe’s heart contracted at the thought, for he loved Satan.
As he brought the gun up, he partially dodged a bite, which ripped the shoulder out of his jacket and shirt, and took a chunk of flesh with it too. Joe dropped the gun and gasped for air. On the periphery of his vision, he saw the stallion coming for him again and dodged, but not in time. A hoof crashed down on Joe’s arm and he felt it shatter. A scream was ripped from his throat.
Again, the big body brushed past, knocking Joe to the ground. This time, he didn’t get up. He tried to reach for his gun, but Satan was between him and it. There was nothing Joe could do to protect himself. Satan had a killing rage running through his veins and Joe was the only target he had left. Satan charged at him and Joe did the only thing he could. He curled up tight.
The move confused the stallion, which ran right over the top of Joe. Normally, a horse would do anything possible to avoid standing on a living creature. Satan was too intent on killing Joe to swerve and although his raking teeth missed, his hooves did not.
Running right over the top of Joe, Satan skidded to a halt before stopping to look behind him. His quarry was down, but the stallion was confused. His nostrils had caught Joe’s scent and memories were invading the horse’s brain. He snorted uncertainly before walking slowly over to Joe and putting his head down to snuff softly at the unmoving man on the ground.
Snorting, Satan backed away. The familiar smell of Joe was mixed with the sharp tang of blood. Satan snorted and backed off. When the human didn’t get up, the horse turned and walked a few feet back towards his mares before swinging around again. Still, Joe did not move, so Satan, with the equine equivalent of a shrug, headed off back to his family at a smart trot.
Joe did not stir.
“When do you expect Joe back?” Adam asked as they sat down to supper. Joe’s seat was empty.
“I had thought he would be back by now,” Ben replied. “He told me he wasn’t going to be long.” He caught the glance that his older sons shared. “What does that mean?” he asked. “What don’t I know?”
“Nuthin’ really,” Hoss denied. “We don’ know anythin’ that ya don’ know, but…”
“But what?” Ben asked, when nothing more was forthcoming. “Do I have to drag it out of you?”
Another glance was traded across the table and Adam took up the challenge this time. “But we wonder if perhaps Joe isn’t going to come home with some news for us.”
“News?” Ben looked perplexed. “What kind of news?”
“Depending on how you look at it, it could be termed ‘good news’,” Adam replied. When Ben continued to look blank, he elaborated. “Joe might be getting married.”
“What?” Shaking his head Ben started to laugh. “Adam, I don’t know where you got that idea from, but Joe isn’t going to marry Leigh. Trust me on this. If he was, he’d have told me about it.”
“I know Joe thinks he isn’t going to marry Leigh,” Adam agreed. Ben frowned at him. “But I think Joe has more feeling for her than he realizes. I think Joe is in love with her.”
“Rubbish!” Ben turned his attention to his meal, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Adam’s idea. As Joe’s absence stretched into the evening, Ben began to fear that Adam was right. Joe was hours late – surely he wouldn’t come home, announce to them that he was getting married and then escape to bed? No, Joe would never do a thing like that, he consoled himself. Would he?
When at last they heard hooves in the yard, Ben practically leapt out of his seat. He was going to chew Joe out good and proper for not coming home for supper. He had Ben worried. But more than that, Ben hoped that he would be able to see from Joe’s face if there was news to be shared – good or bad.
So it took a few seconds for the reality of what he was seeing to penetrate Ben’s preoccupied state. It was Joe’s horse, but it wasn’t the same horse that had left there that afternoon bearing his youngest son. That horse had been young, dancing with the urge to run. This horse was dragging a leg, bleeding from bites, with its head down near its knees in exhaustion.
A great fear rose in Ben’s heart as he went to catch Wanderer. He could see at once that the young gelding had been in a fight with a stallion. “Easy, fella,” Ben crooned, catching the reins. Wanderer was too exhausted to try and avoid being caught. “Adam, Hoss, quick.”
“What happened to him?” Adam gasped. Hoss at once went to the horse and gently stroked its head, avoiding touching the torn ear.
“A stallion,” Hoss replied, grimly. “Better git him bedded down an’ tend them bites.” He took the rein from Ben and then it registered. “Where’s Joe?” he asked.
For another long second, they all stood there, then Adam hurried to the barn to hitch a team to the wagon while Hoss led the injured horse inside. He stripped off the saddle and bridle, gave the poor creature some hay and shouted for a hand to come and tend it further. Wanderer would have to recover without Hoss’ tender care, for the time being at least.
While his sons did that, Ben hurried into the house and gathered up blankets, water and lanterns. The summer nights stretched long, but it would still be dark when they found Joe – if they found Joe.
They had no idea where to look for him.
There was pain all over. Joe tried to move, but his body refused to obey his mind. Breathing shallowly through his mouth, Joe tried to sort out which bits of him hurt most, but it was difficult to tell. He was lying on his right side, his face buried in the lush grass. His left arm lay at an odd angle on the ground beside him. Joe blinked as he remembered Satan turning on Wanderer. He could remember falling to the ground, but nothing after that. From the way he hurt, Joe thought perhaps that might be a bonus.
Moving very slowly, Joe freed his right hand from under his body and gently probed his ribs. It hurt to breathe, but Joe didn’t think any ribs were broken. He tried to sit up, but a blinding pain shot through his head and he flopped back down, his head spinning. He retched a couple of times, but nothing came up. Raising a tentative hand, Joe felt the gash on his forehead and guessed that perhaps a hoof had caught him a glancing blow.
Deciding that sitting up was not an option, Joe continued on his exploration of his injured body. His back hurt like the very devil, especially around his kidneys and when Joe moved his legs, he guessed that his right leg was broken either just below the knee or at the ankle. It was difficult to tell for the pain was all encompassing.
Catching his breath again, Joe lay quietly until the worst of the pain died back. It was clear that he wasn’t going to get out of this by himself, but Joe was fresh out of ideas for helping others to find him. Biting back a groan of pain and despair, Joe closed his eyes for a moment.
Later, he realized that he must have either fallen asleep or passed out again, for when he woke, the sun had moved around and something was glinting in the grass a short distance away.
It was his gun!
His gun couldn’t have been lying more than five feet away, but from Joe’s perspective, it was as far away as the moon. But once his attention was on it, Joe couldn’t think of anything else. Surely he could move five short feet? He stretched ineffectually, knowing that he couldn’t reach from where he was lying and only a warning stab from his back, ribs and arm told him that he was over-doing it.
Come on, Joe think! he chided himself. You’ve got to work out how to get there. One small bit at a time. He moved his good left leg into a position where he could use it to push with and stretched out his right arm. Bracing himself as best he could, Joe pulled and pushed himself a few inches along the ground.
The pain was appalling. Joe was forced to rest, dragging in great draughts of air, trying not to be sick. The thought of moving another few inches was daunting. Joe didn’t know how long he rested before he found the courage and physical resources to move another few precious inches.
It was fully dark before he reached his goal. Slumping down, Joe tried to still the shaking in his body, but couldn’t. He was growing cold as the dew settled onto the grass, yet he was sweating from exertion and pain. The sky was clear, the stars beginning to twinkle as the twilight purple hue gave way to velvet blue.
Reaching out, Joe took his gun into an unfamiliar grip, closing his right hand around the pearl handle. He closed his eyes for a moment. The gun felt surprisingly heavy, attesting to his own tiredness and the damage that had been done to his muscles. Clicking off the safety, Joe fired three shots in the air.
There were tracks everywhere and Hoss had no idea which ones were the newest. He scouted around, hunting for the ones that would show a horse dragging a leg, and eventually found them. By then, Ben’s patience was shredding fast. The tracks wavered around all over the place, but Hoss was soon following them confidently. When it grew to dark to see, Hoss dismounted and followed the tracks on foot, holding a lantern close to the ground to aid his search. None of them spoke.
The shots, when they came, startled them all and they froze in place. “D-did you hear that?” Ben stuttered.
“Yes,” Adam replied. “They came from that direction.”
Shaking up the team, Ben urged, “Answer him, Adam. Let him know we’re coming.” Nodding, his eldest son did just that.
The answering shots came as a complete shock to Joe. He hadn’t dared to hope that there was anyone close by – not at this time of night. Hope leant him strength and he scrabbled to pick up his gun once more and fired off the last three rounds he had. Again, the answering shots came and they sounded nearer.
Squinting, Joe peered into the darkness, but it was quite some time before his weary eyes picked out a light coming his way.
“Here!” Joe winced as the shout pulled at his sore ribs. “I’m here!” He couldn’t even wave at them, although it wasn’t until later that Joe realized that they wouldn’t have seen him waving in the dark anyway!
But at last they were there right beside him and Ben was jumping down from the wagon seat, looking anxious. “Joe! Oh my goodness! What happened?” He knelt by Joe. “What hurts?”
“What doesn’t?” Joe replied, smiling, although he could feel tears of relief standing in his eyes.
“We’ll get you home, son,” Ben assured him. “Adam, pass me a blanket!”
“My arm’s broken,” Joe panted. He suddenly felt light-headed and clutched at Ben, not realizing that it was relief that was causing it. “And my leg or ankle. I’m not sure.” Joe’s head flopped to the ground and he could hear his words were slurred. He blinked furiously, but to no effect. He fainted.
Shaken by his son’s sudden descent into unconsciousness, Ben groped frantically for a pulse and was relieved to find it throbbing away erratically under his fingers. “He’s just fainted,” he reported. “Let’s take the chance to get him into the wagon. Be careful, now.”
Together, they lifted Joe and carried him to the wagon. Ben wrapped a blanket securely around him and placed another on top of him. Adam used his knife to cut away Joe’s boot and they surveyed the damaged ankle as best they could from the light of the lantern.
“I’ll drive,” Adam offered, as though anything on earth could have separated Ben from Joe at that point. Ben was settled in the back of the wagon, with Joe’s head cradled on his lap.
“Soon as we hit the road, I’ll go an’ git the doc,” Hoss stated. He mounted and they began to retrace their steps.
It took them almost three hours to get Joe home. The jolting of the wagon sent rivers of pain through his broken limbs and although he tried to keep his pain to himself, a couple of cries escaped his control at particularly rough bits. Throughout, Ben soothed Joe and tried to make him as comfortable as possible, offering him regular sips of water and not pressing him to talk. Joe clutched Ben’s hand with his good hand and kept his eyes shut a good deal of the time.
Joe fainted again as he was lifted from the wagon and he didn’t rouse until he was on his bed. Sweat beaded his brow and Ben gently wiped it away. “It hurts,” Joe breathed.
“I know. The doctor won’t be long,” Ben crooned. He offered Joe a drink, but Joe shook his head.
“Pa, I need to pee,” he whispered, flushing crimson with embarrassment.
“All right,” Ben replied, steadily, and got the pot out. However, neither of them were prepared for the blood-stained urine and Joe paled dramatically.
“What does that mean?” he gasped. The pain while he had been urinating had been awful. He was already dreading the time when he would need to go again.
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, troubled. “The doctor will be here soon.” He realized how useless those words were, but it was all he could offer. He pushed the chamber pot under the bed, out of sight. He knew the doctor would have to see it, but he wasn’t sure if he could bear to continue looking at it.
They didn’t have long to wait for Dr Paul Martin, who made his appearance within the next half hour. Ben had managed to get Joe’s clothes off by the simple expedient of using a pair of scissors and cutting them off and Joe was resting as easily as he could under the circumstances.
“Can you tell me what happened, Joe?” Paul asked, as he sat down on the edge of the bed and looked closely at the young man.
“Leigh and I were out riding. She wanted to talk, but the horses were nervous. Then Satan appeared and he turned on the horses. I sent Leigh for help while I tried to distract Satan. He and Wanderer were fighting. Wanderer ran off and Satan turned on me. He bit me and broke my arm…” Joe swallowed and Ben wiped his face. “I fell over and I don’t remember anything after that.”
“I think it’s pretty safe to say that Satan ran over you,” Paul commented, spying one of many hoof-shaped bruises. He felt carefully around Joe’s ribs, but like Joe himself, concluded that they were just bruised, not broken.
“I feel pretty pulped,” Joe agreed, catching his breath as Paul gently probed under his back. “Don’t,” he begged before he could stop himself.
“I’m sorry, Joe, I’ve got to look. Ben, help me turn him over.” Paul eased Joe onto his right side and looked impassively at the massive amount of bruising over both kidneys. There was no way for Paul to tell if either kidney was ruptured. Only time would reveal that. “You’re very badly bruised back here, Joe, that’s why it’s so sore,” Paul told him, helping him lie down again gently. “I don’t suppose…”
“Yes,” Ben interrupted. He drew Paul aside and pointed to the pot. Paul looked at it, but it gave him as much relief as it had given Ben and Joe worries.
“I think you’ve been lucky, Joe,” Paul told him, seeing the grimace at the word ‘lucky’. “Your kidneys are badly bruised, as I said, but they don’t appear to have ruptured. I know its frightening seeing all that blood, but it should go away fairly soon.”
“That’s a relief,” Ben sighed. He had feared that it somehow signified that Joe was dying.
Setting Joe’s badly broken arm and ankle was the next order of business and Paul soon had Joe slumbering. Ben watched as Paul began to manipulate the bones and glanced away. “It’s a good thing Leigh went for help,” he commented, trying to keep his tone conversational. “Otherwise, you might have taken longer to get here.”
Pausing, Paul looked over at Ben. “I never saw Leigh,” he said slowly. “I met Hoss on the road. I had just popped out to see old Mr. Rawlings because I was quiet this evening. His place isn’t far outside of town, and I was just leaving there when I met Hoss. So I guess I was a few miles closer than usual. But I never saw Leigh.”
“Strange,” Ben mused. “Joe was meeting her quite early this afternoon. I was expecting him back for supper. And from what Joe said, they didn’t have the chance to talk. But that would mean that Joe was lying out there…” His voice trailed off in horror.
“…for hours,” Paul concluded and they looked at each other in disbelief.
“What’s wrong?” Adam asked, as they came downstairs later, grim faced. “Is it Joe?”
“Not in the way you mean,” Ben replied. He sat down wearily and Hoss went to fetch them both a cup of coffee. “Joe’s sleeping.”
“Then what is it?” Adam looked suspiciously from Ben to Paul and back again.
“Let’s wait for Hoss,” Ben suggested. Adam’s frown deepened.
“Tell us,” Adam demanded, as soon as Hoss set down the tray with cups and coffee on it. He accepted a cup of coffee without being aware of it and his impatience was emblazoned on his face for all the world to see. “What about Joe? He is going to be all right, isn’t he?”
“Yes, given time, Joe will be fine,” Paul replied.
“We discovered that Joe had his run-in with Satan earlier this afternoon,” Ben explained. “Joe says Leigh was with him at the time and he sent her to get help.” It was clear from the blank expressions on his sons’ faces that neither of them saw the significance of this. “I thought that was why Paul was found so quickly.”
“Nah, that ain’t it,” Hoss corrected him. “I met Doc Martin…” The penny dropped and Hoss looked utterly appalled. “Ya mean Leigh didn’ send Doc Martin?”
“No,” Paul replied. “I had a quiet day today and so I went out to see old Mr. Rawlings. I had just come from his house when I met you, Hoss.”
“Dadburnit,” Hoss muttered sadly.
“It seems to me that we’re all jumping to conclusions here,” Adam observed angrily. “None of us know for sure that Leigh made it home safely.”
“No, we don’t,” Ben agreed. “What chance have we had to find out? Paul and I only realized when Joe was already under the anesthetic.”
“One of us needs to go to town then,” Adam replied. He rose.
“No, you stay here, Adam.” Paul rose as well. “I do have to go back to town, and I’ll check in with Roy as soon as I get there. You stay here, just in case your Pa needs you. After all, he has to sleep sometime.”
With bad grace, Adam agreed to stay on the ranch. They saw the doctor out, then Ben shut the door and leant against it for a moment. “Why are you so angry?” he asked Adam.
“You assumed Leigh had left Joe there and didn’t get help,” Adam retorted. “Why?”
“We didn’t assume anything of the kind,” Ben replied sharply. “Yes, we might have thought that initially, as we got used to the idea of your brother lying out there, alone and badly injured, for several hours. It seems to me that you’re angrier on Leigh’s behalf than on Joe’s.”
With a sigh, Adam deflated. “It’s not that, Pa,” he said, wretchedly. “I suppose I was just trying to protect her in case Joe does want to marry her.” He shrugged. “Stupid, I know. I am angry for Joe, though.” He sighed again. “I’m sorry for sounding off at you, Pa.”
“Worry does strange things to us all, son,” Ben forgave him. “I’d better go and sit with Joe.”
“I’ll come and relieve you in a few hours,” Adam offered.
“An’ I’ll relieve ya few hours after that,” Hoss concluded.
“Well, no, it never occurred to me that Joe really meant for me to get help,” Leigh told Roy Coffee, the sheriff, earnestly. It was still quite early and she was wearing a dark green dressing gown, her hair in a loose knot. “After all, he works with horses all the time. He knew what he was doing, surely and he could handle the stallion. It’s his horse, isn’t it?”
Unable to decide if Leigh was actually stupid or just incredibly naive, Roy shook his head. “With a wild stallion, ya can never tell what might happen,” Roy replied. “Joe was hurt right bad, Miss Watson, an’ not found till after dark.”
“Oh dear!” Leigh exclaimed, her hand going to her mouth. “Is he all right?”
“I think he will be, in time,” Roy answered. “I ain’t seen him myself.” Roy didn’t want to say too much in case he frightened Leigh.
“I’d better go out and see him,” Leigh murmured. “We didn’t get a chance to talk yesterday. We need to talk.”
Frowning, but not sure what else to say to her, Roy allowed himself to be ushered out of her house.
“Easy,” Ben coaxed as he helped Joe lie down on the bed again. He looked worriedly at Joe’s white face. “That bad, huh?”
Nodding, Joe grimaced. “Pa, it’s like… like… like peeing broken glass,” Joe explained. He was past embarrassment now, just relieved that it was over for another few hours. He wiped the sweat from his head with a shaking hand.
“Take this,” Ben urged, offering Joe the painkiller that had been left behind for him. Joe hated the painkillers, but he willingly downed this one and then obediently drank the water Ben gave him.
“Drinking so much is only making everything worse,” Joe complained.
“You heard the doctor.” Ben tucked the covers around Joe again. “You’ve got to drink plenty of water to help flush all this through your kidneys.” He patted Joe’s arm. “It’ll be better soon, I promise.”
“I hope so,” Joe sighed, worn out by the pain. He put his head down on the pillows that were propping him up.
“Pa?” Adam stuck his head around the door. “Joe’s got a visitor.”
“A visitor?” Ben echoed, glancing at Joe, who looked as surprised as he felt. “Who?”
“Leigh,” Adam replied.
“Let her in,” Joe nodded. Ben and Adam shared another glance. They had not yet told Joe their suspicions about Leigh. They couldn’t, until they found out what had happened to her.
The door opened again and Adam stepped back to let Leigh go past him. She looked around Joe’s room with obvious interest, noticing the furnishings and the pictures on the wall, although she didn’t like the portrait of the Indian, which she thought had scary eyes.
“I’ll wait in the hall, Joe,” Ben told him. “Call me if you need me.” He joined Adam outside and shut the door firmly behind him.
“Can’t we eavesdrop?” Adam asked, only half in jest.
“No!” Ben replied, firmly and dragged Adam a few feet down the hall.
“Hello, Joe,” Leigh offered. She didn’t rush to his side; instead, she continued her assessing look around his room. “This is a nice room.”
Ignoring this, Joe smiled. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes, fine.” Leigh finally sat in the chair by the bed. She seemed surprised by the splints on Joe’s arm and the covers placed over the fireguard to keep their weight off the broken ankle. “The sheriff said you had been hurt.” She frowned. “What exactly happened?”
“Satan trampled me, when I got his attention off Wanderer.” Joe frowned, for Hoss had told him the horse wasn’t doing so well.
Dismissing this, Leigh turned her attention to the reason she had called. “Joe, I wanted to talk to you yesterday,” she began. Joe blinked at the sudden change of subject. “I know this is forward of me,” she colored prettily, “but I was thinking that we should get married and you could come to live in my house and get a job more suited to your standing in town.”
“What?” Joe wondered if the mild concussion he had sustained had suddenly affected his hearing.
“Oh, I know the man should do the asking, but I love you, Joe. We’d be so happy living together in town, with you working in the bank maybe.” Leigh had their future all planned out in her head.
At that moment, Joe realized that although he could allow himself to fall in love with Leigh, they had no future together. She could be utterly charming, but they didn’t get along for more than a few minutes at a time. Joe didn’t actually like Leigh and he couldn’t live the life she envisioned for him. She wanted him, but she wanted him to fit the image she had. There was no way they could be together if she wanted to change him. “Leigh…” he started, but she wasn’t listening.
“We could see your family regularly, Joe. They could come to dinner once a month. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? And we’d have a large family. I’ve always wanted a lot of children.” In fact, Leigh wasn’t sure she wanted children at all, but she had been told by various people in town that Joe was very good with children and was sure he would want some of his own.
“Leigh!” Joe reached out and put his fingers to her mouth. The position hurt his bruised ribs, but he had to silence her. It wasn’t fair to allow her to carry on. “Leigh, I can’t marry you,” he said, more gently. “I’m sorry, but it would never work.”
“Why not?” Leigh demanded. She was too shaken to cry. “I’m rich, you’re rich. You just need to let me teach you how to live more genteelly and then everything will be fine.”
“No, it won’t,” Joe replied. “I’m never going to give up working on the ranch. Face it, Leigh, I’m a ranch hand and that’s that. I would die if I was shut up in an office somewhere. Leigh, I’m sorry, but we’re finished.”
“But you’re not stupid!” Leigh protested. “You can do the books here, so why not work in a bank?”
“Because I’m not a banker,” Joe told her. “I’m a ranch hand. I work with horses and cows and I come home tired and dirty and smelly. This is my life and I love it. We are not going to get married. I’m sorry.”
Silence fell. Leigh looked at Joe, tears standing in her eyes but not falling. A lady didn’t cry in public. “Is this because I didn’t get help yesterday?” she asked at last.
“What?” Joe had no idea what she was talking about.
“Yesterday,” she repeated, as though Joe was an idiot. “I didn’t get help, because I didn’t really think you needed it. Is that why you’re saying this?”
Something inside Joe curled up and turned over. He felt sick and desperately tired. “No,” he replied. “I think you should go, Leigh. Goodbye.” He swallowed and turned away, hoping that she couldn’t see his face.
Uncertainly, Leigh rose and walked over to the door. She glanced back, but Joe had his face turned away. “I won’t be leaving town,” she ventured. “So perhaps I’ll see you around.”
She waited in vain for an answer.
His curiosity was consuming him, but Ben didn’t let it show as he saw Leigh coming out of Joe’s room. “Miss Watson?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Cartwright,” Leigh replied composedly.
Taken aback, Ben hurried after her to show her out. Adam was downstairs, but it seemed the height of bad manners to let Leigh make her own way through the house, so Ben escorted her, not speaking. He searched her face for some clue as to how she was feeling, thinking that would give him a clue as to how Joe would be when he went back into his room. But there was nothing. Leigh’s face was as expressionless as ever.
Rising to his feet as Leigh came downstairs, Adam glanced at her, then Ben, who shook his head. Still in silence, Leigh walked over to the front door and waited while it was opened for her. Adam went out to help her onto her horse, for which assistance she thanked him politely and then Leigh rode away without a backward glance.
“What do you think happened?” Adam asked.
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. He turned back to the house and Adam hurried after him. Ben glanced at him as he started to climb the stairs. “Adam, I don’t think you should come with me,” Ben suggested. “Let me find out what happened first.”
“All right,” Adam agreed, although he was disappointed. He really wanted to hear first hand what had happened. Resolving to wait with whatever patience he could muster, Adam went over to look at the books.
But it wasn’t long before he was sitting there, watching the stairs, the books forgotten.
“Joe? Ben hesitated as he went in the door. Joe’s face was turned away.
Slowly, Joe turned round to look at Ben, who winced at the pain on Joe’s face. “I thought I might be falling in love with her,” Joe whispered.
Without being aware of how he got there, Ben found himself sitting on the bed, clutching Joe’s hand. He didn’t say anything, but his silence coaxed Joe into continuing.
“I wasn’t, not really,” Joe went on, his voice a bit stronger as he mastered his emotions for the moment. “I was attracted to her, but that was all. I was just convincing myself that I was falling in love.” Joe drew in a deep breath. “You know the worst thing, Pa?” Ben shook his head mutely. “I don’t even like her.” Joe bit his lip. “How could I think that I loved her if I didn’t like her?”
“Love and like are not the same thing,” Ben reminded him. “I love you boys devotedly, but I don’t always like the way you behave.”
“Leigh claims she loves me,” Joe went on, having absorbed that bit of fatherly wisdom. “But she doesn’t love me as I am. She loves what she wants me to become,” he added bitterly. “She wants me to get a job in a bank or something, and wear a suit all the time.” Joe laughed but there was no mirth in the sound. In fact, he sounded close to tears. “Can you imagine that, Pa?”
“No,” Ben admitted. Although Joe enjoyed dressing up when the occasion required it, he was at his happiest in his usual tan shirt and pants, mounted on a horse and galloping across the Ponderosa’s wide acres. Leigh had wanted to tame the wildness out of Joe, not understanding that the wildness was as much a part of Joe as his green eyes and curly chestnut hair. He was suddenly intensely sorry for the girl who thought that she had to change the man to suit some internal picture she carried.
Silence fell, broken only by Joe’s ragged breathing as he tried to control his tears. He was too tired to face this, but it had been thrust upon him and he had to deal with it. “She didn’t send for help, you know,” he whispered. “She didn’t think I needed help.” His voice was bitter again. “She seemed surprised to see me like this, Pa. Roy had told her I was injured, but I don’t think she had believed him. She didn’t even ask how I was.”
It was probably fortunate for Leigh that she had gone, as Ben had the sudden urge to throttle her. Why had she not thought to send word to someone? Did she realize that Joe could have died out there? Did she even care, for all her protestations of love?
“I wish I’d never met her!” Joe cried. He felt an intense burst of hatred, which died away when it collided with the memory of his near love for Leigh, leaving him exhausted. He would never be able to forgive Leigh for what she had done, but he no longer felt anything stronger than dislike for her. His eyes closed and within a little while, Joe was asleep.
Ben rose and quietly left the room. He felt battered by too much emotion. He desperately wanted to give Leigh a good solid talking to. He would set her straight on a few things, he vowed. But then he shook his head. There was no way he could say anything to Leigh, but he could perhaps relieve his feelings by thinking them!
Walking slowly downstairs, Ben wasn’t really surprised to see both Adam and Hoss sitting in the great room. They looked up, their faces full of tension and Ben sighed. They would have to be told. He moved slowly to his chair and sat down heavily. He watched, almost dispassionately, the play of emotions across his sons’ faces as he told them what Leigh had – and hadn’t – done.
“Didn’t she realize Joe could have died out there?” Adam objected, surprised to find himself pacing the floor.
“Keep your voice down,” Ben chided. “Joe’s asleep.”
“Isn’t there… I mean… Can’t Roy do something about this?” Adam asked, not altogether sure what he meant. He felt that someone, somewhere, ought to take Leigh to task for not getting the help Joe had asked for, but he suddenly wondered if he was being foolish. Was there any law that covered a situation like this?
“What do you suggest?” Ben replied, wearily. “She didn’t set out to kill Joe, and she didn’t ask someone else to kill him. She was just ignorant. You can’t legislate against ignorance, son.”
“Pity,” Adam remarked, darkly.
“You’re very quiet, Hoss,” Ben noted.
“I dunno what ta say,” Hoss admitted. He raised troubled blue eyes. “Pa, is Leigh gonna move away?”
“I don’t know,” Ben replied, softly.
“How’re you feeling?” Ben asked, after Joe had had time to come to himself after wakening.
Sighing, Joe knew his father wasn’t asking about his physical condition. He thought around the subject for a minute or so, his eyes glazing over slightly as he probed his feelings. “Relieved,” he replied at last. “And a bit foolish, too. How could I possibly have thought that I might love Leigh?”
“Everyone gets fooled by their emotions sometimes, Joe.” Ben helped Joe settle his broken arm more comfortably on the pillow that was there to support it.
“Did I tell you she doesn’t intend to leave town?” Joe asked.
“No, you hadn’t. But that doesn’t mean that you will see her, Joe,” Ben reminded him. “After all, how many times did you run into her before this?”
“A couple,” Joe admitted. “I allowed my head to be turned by a pretty girl, Pa.”
“You’re not the first that happened to, son and I doubt if you’ll be the last.” Ben was getting worried about where this conversation was going.
“Well.” Joe drew in a deep breath and winced. “I’m not going to worry about her, Pa. She’s not worth it. I’ve been stupid and I’ve paid the price and I’m not going to waste any more time on her, Pa.” He made an effort to smile. “Sorry, no daughter-in-law this time, either.”
Smiling back, Ben replied, “You’ll find the right girl one day, Joe. Now, how about something to eat?”
“Sure,” Joe agreed. “I’m starved.” He kept the smile on his face until Ben was out of the room. “I only wish it was that easy to forget her and what she did to me,” he admitted aloud.
“I heard that,” Adam declared, coming in. “Who said it would be easy?”
“No one, I guess,” Joe stammered, blushing at being caught talking to himself.
“It’ll take as long as it takes,” Hoss added in his usual matter of fact manner. “Ya cain’t hurry things.”
“No,” Joe agreed, feeling rather pressurized.
But having given Joe their support, neither brother seemed inclined to push the issue and Joe was relieved that there was nothing further said. “How’s Wanderer?”
“Comin’ around real good,” Hoss beamed. He had feared for the young horse’s life the night before, but somewhere along the line, Wanderer had turned the corner. “I reckon he’s gonna be jist fine.”
“He’ll probably be better before you are,” Adam commented, in that heartless way that only brothers can. “He at least knew better than to take a stallion on.”
“He started it!” Joe objected. “And left me to finish it.”
“Seems ta me like Satan finished it,” Hoss mused. “I know ya reckon yer part horse, but that part don’t include the things ya need ta fight a big stallion like that.”
“Still,” Adam went on, ignoring the spluttering noises Joe was making, “Joe could have bitten Satan back. Isn’t he the one who bit a horse one time when it bit him on the butt?”
“Sure,” nodded Hoss. “I remember him tellin’ us that was a sure fire way ta git them ta stop nippin’. Wonder why he didn’ do it?”
“I can’t imagine,” Adam replied, blandly and grinned at Joe, who had stopped trying to protest and was just drumming his fingers on his bed.
“Sure, kick a man when he’s down,” Joe complained. A mischievous grin crossed his face. “Of course, it’s the only time you two slow-pokes can catch me.”
There was a wordless shout from his brothers as Ben opened the door and came in. He thought for a moment that Adam and Hoss were trying to kill Joe, but realized that they were just playing – but carefully, because of Joe’s injuries.
“Would you like to pretend that you three are grown up?” he asked, but none of them were taken in by his tone; they knew he was just kidding.
“You’re just jealous because you weren’t here,” Adam accused him.
“Pa, they’re ganging up on me again,” Joe whined, but a grin tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Smiling as Hoss started to add his two pence worth to the discussion, Ben thought that Joe would be all right. It would take him time to get over both his injuries and Leigh, but he would do it. Leigh would eventually move on, Ben thought, and Joe would forget her entirely. Things would be back to normal.
For a second, Joe looked pensive and Ben knew those moments would come, but less and less frequently. Then the smile came back and although Joe was still bruised and battered, he looked happy.
As Ben settled Joe for the night a bit later, Joe had another of those pensive moments. “All right?” Ben asked.
Fathomless green eyes looked at Ben. “What if Leigh doesn’t accept that it’s over?” he asked.
A sense of foreboding swept over Ben, but he pushed it away. “Don’t borrow trouble,” Ben advised him. “Of course she’ll accept it.”
But neither of them was convinced.