With This Ring (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,459


 

 

“Are you sure he’s the one, sweetheart?” asked the man, holding his daughter tight against him. “You could do better, I’m sure.”

“No, he’s the one, Papa,” the girl replied, looking up at him in the moonlight.  “I’m quite sure. Joe Cartwright is the one I want.”

*****

“Who’s that up at the house?” Adam Cartwright asked his brother Hoss as they sat on the corral rails watching Joe breaking some horses.

Peering in that direction, Hoss screwed up his face against the bright sun. “I dunno,” he admitted. “Ain’t seen ‘em afore.”

“Looks like a pretty girl,” Adam commented, although, at that distance, it was difficult to be sure.

“Don’ you start!” Hoss said, in disgust. “It’s bad enough Shortshanks there chasing’ everything’ in skirts!”

Putting his hands on his hips, Adam eyed Hoss. “Are you comparing me to our younger brother?” he asked. “Hoss, how could you!”

Unperturbed by Adam’s seeming annoyance, Hoss shrugged. “Plumb easy, seems to me,” he replied. “You an’ he’s more alike than either of ya admits ta.”

There was a loud thump and a groan from the watching cowhands as Joe hit the ground in a spectacular cloud of dust once more. The horse, freed from the unwanted burden on its back, bucked its way over to the other side of the corral, where it was cornered by the hands.

“You all right?” Adam called down to Joe, who lay there shaking his hand where the rope had stung it.

“I’m fine,” Joe replied and the rest of his unflattering comment about the horse was lost in a clatter of hooves as the animal was herded back into the chute. “Don’t you two have work to do?” he complained as he hobbled over to the chute once more.

“No, nothin’ as cain’t wait,” Hoss replied, grinning cheerfully. “Why? Ain’t you happy we’s watchin’ ya?”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Joe hastened to assure them. “But I’d sure hate to be you when Pa catches you sitting there doing nothing.”

“He won’t catch us,” Adam said, with calm assurance. He glanced back at the house and saw his father making his way down to the corral with the two visitors who had arrived by buggy a few moments before. “Uh-oh,” he commented to Hoss. “Quick, think of something.”

“Huh?” Hoss grunted, not having noticed their parent’s imminent arrival. “What for?”

“Too late,” Adam told him, through a false smile of welcome. “Hi, Pa.”

“Mr. Webber, these are my sons, Adam and Hoss.” He eyed his two sons as they scrambled down from the rails.  “This is Mr. Webber and his daughter Tiffany.”

There was a round of hand shakes. Adam was right, the girl was pretty, Hoss thought.

“My other son, Joseph, is on that horse there,” Ben went on, peering through the rails as Joe once more called for the horse to be freed, and it took off across the corral bucking for all it was worth.

“Oh my goodness,” Tiffany said, her hand flying to her throat. “That looks very dangerous!”

“Don’t worry,” Adam told her. “Joe won’t come off this time.” For he had seen that the horse was no longer bucking with as much energy, and was in fact coming to a stop. Moments later, the horse came to a standstill and the outriders closed in carefully and took the rope from Joe, who slid tiredly to the ground.

“Joe!” Ben called, and beckoned to him to join them.

Going over, Joe’s interest was piqued when he saw the girl standing there. He took his hat off and smiled at her, the dust on his face and clothes not detracting one bit from his attractiveness. “How d’you do?” he said, politely, his eyes fixed on Tiffany.

She was small – no more than 5 feet tall – with long blonde hair, cornflower blue eyes and a peaches and cream complexion. She was slender, but rounded in all the right places, and her eyes flashed with mischief. Joe realized at once that she was very spoiled, but he was interested none the less. Tiffany was a beauty.

“Mr. Webber and his daughter are interested in buying horses,” Ben explained. He smiled at them. “Joe here is in charge of our horse operation,” he went on. “If you would like to tell Joe what it is you want, I’ll leave you in his capable hands.”

“Mr. Cartwright,” Webber said. “Don’t you think your son is rather young to be dealing with this?” He looked at Joe and smiled patronizingly at him. “I’m not trying to offend you, son.”

Bristling, Joe was about to make a sharp retort, but Ben stepped in before he could. “Mr. Webber, I assure you, Joe might look young, but he has been in charge of the entire horse operation for several years now.  He can find you the best possible horse for your needs.”

There was no one like Ben for putting people down politely.  He nodded to Webber and headed back to the house, Adam and Hoss following. Joe swallowed down his resentment and amusement and gave Webber a polite smile. “What kind of animal are you looking for, sir?” he asked.

*****

As he returned to the house later on, Joe found himself thinking about Tiffany again. She hadn’t said much all afternoon as Joe had shown them the horses he currently had broken and ready for sale, but she had done plenty of looking. Webber had ridden two or three of the horses Joe suggested for him and had taken a big, rangy bay.

A horse for Tiffany had proven rather more difficult. She had set her heart on a black gelding with a vicious temper. Joe had gelded the animal in the hopes that would settle him down, but it hadn’t. Joe was at his wits end with the creature and wasn’t sure what to do with him next. But after the number of cowboys, cattle and horses the brute had savaged, Joe suspected it would be a bullet.

Persuading the young lady that this gorgeous horse was not as nice as it looked took some time. Finally, Joe showed her a lovely pale gold palomino, bred from his father’s stallion. The mare was flashy enough for Tiffany’s vanity, lively enough not to be a boring ride, but mannerly enough to be a ladies horse. That was the one she finally opted for.

Relieved that this wasn’t going to turn into his life’s work, Joe led them back to the main house for a cool drink while he and Webber sorted out the money side of things. Setting Tiffany on the cool porch, Joe and Webber went inside, where Ben was just coming down stairs.

“Well, Mr. Webber,” Ben said, pleasure in his tones. “Did you get what you wanted?”

“Yes indeed, sir,” Webber replied. “It seems your son is quite knowledgeable.” He gave Joe another patronizing smile, which Joe returned to hide his sudden urge to throttle his client.

Joe was quite glad Ben was there when he told Webber the price, for the man bridled at once. “I’m not paying that kind of money!” he exclaimed.

“That isn’t a lot for two well broken horses,” Ben pointed out, before Joe could lose his temper and tell Webber to look elsewhere.

Looking intently at Ben, Webber saw that he wasn’t going to back down and grudgingly nodded. “Very well, if you think the price is a fair one, I’ll say no more. Is a draft acceptable?”

“Is it a Virginia City bank?” Joe asked blandly.

“No, Baltimore, where we live previously,” Webber replied.

“I’m sorry, then it will have to be cash,” Joe told him. “We don’t accept drafts unless guaranteed by a bank in Virginia City.”

“I see,” Webber said, coldly, giving Joe a haughty look down his nose. If he thought to intimidate Joe, he was wasting his time. Joe didn’t back down, and although Ben said nothing, it was clear he supported Joe 100%. Webber took out his wallet and counted out the money. Joe took it, thanked him and handed over a receipt.

Escorting Webber and his daughter back to their hired buggy, Joe ensured that their new horses were secured to the back. He tipped his hat to Tiffany and smiled at her. “Miss Webber, it would give me great pleasure if you could come to the dance on Saturday night with me,” he suggested politely.

“I’d love to, Mr. Cartwright,” Tiffany declared. “Papa, may I go?”

“I suppose so,” Webber allowed, ungraciously.

“Thank you,” Joe responded, smiling. “I’ll collect you at 7.30, Miss Webber.”

“Goodbye,” she called as the buggy drove away. She twisted round to look back at Joe once more. She was right, she thought gleefully. He was the handsomest of the brothers, and he was obviously taken with her. Looking up at her father she gave him a big smile.

*****

“Did she say yes?” Ben asked when Joe came back into the house.

Startled, Joe flushed. “How did you know I’d asked her?” he demanded.

“You, a pretty girl and a dance coming up? Joe, you’d have had to been ill not to have asked her, seeing as how you didn’t have a date already,” Ben teased. He laughed at the look of mock outrage on Joe’s face.

“She said yes,” Joe told him, unable to keep up the pretence. “She’s spoiled, but I think I like her.” He made a moue. “I wish I could say the same for her father. Honestly, Pa, he really didn’t think I could do my job there. It was so hard to be polite to him!”

“There are always people like that in the world, Joe, and you know it,” Ben reminded him gently. “People who judge you by the color of your skin, or by your looks.  You look young, Joe, but time will solve that problem for you. In a few years, you’ll be complaining because someone will think you’re too old for something!”

“I know you’re right,” Joe sighed. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with though, does it?”

“You’re right there,” Ben agreed. “It doesn’t get easier.” He ruffled Joe’s hair. “You’ll just have to get used to it, I guess.” They smiled at each other. “Why don’t you go and get cleaned up?” he suggested. “It’ll be supper time soon, and the rest of those horses can wait until tomorrow.”

“I think I will,” Joe agreed. He headed over to the stairs. Pausing with his foot on the first step, he commented, “It was a good sale, Pa.”

“It was indeed, Joe,” Ben agreed.

*****

Promptly at 7.30, Joe pulled up the rig outside the house the Webbers were staying in. At first, seeing the address, Joe had thought that the Webbers had bought the house, but an ear for choice gossip in the general store a day or so before had told Joe that they were only renting. The house was big, but Joe was surprised at how little furniture there was inside when he was admitted.

Webber hadn’t softened his attitude to Joe in the intervening days. He greeted him with the condescending smile Joe had learned to hate even on such short acquaintance. Swallowing his resentment, Joe smiled back politely. “Good evening, sir,” he offered.

“Tiffany will be ready in a moment,” Webber allowed. “I hope you understand that I will not tolerate her arriving back here any later than 11 pm, young man.”

“Of course, sir,” Joe agreed. He wondered briefly if Webber thought this was an unusual requirement.

“And I won’t tolerate any disrespect, either,” Webber went on, forbiddingly. He gave Joe a significant glance.

“I wouldn’t even think of such a thing!” Joe protested. He was offended, and might well have said more, thereby ruining his chances of taking Tiffany anywhere, except the lady herself appeared. Joe swallowed his anger as best he could and smiled at her. “Hello,” he said.

“Hello, Joe,” she smiled. “Bye, Papa.”

“Goodbye, my dear,” Webber replied, in a softer tone and gave Joe another hard look as the young man left.

Outside, Tiffany looked at him. “Was Papa being over protective? I’m sorry, but I suppose he can’t help it. It’s just us; Mama died a few years ago.”

“That’s all right,” Joe assured her. He helped her into the buggy, and got in beside her, all the time aware of Webber watching them from the window. “How long have you been in Virginia City?” Joe asked, as he shook the horse up.

“Just over two weeks,” Tiffany answered. She was casting little glances at Joe as they drove, admiring him. “Our furniture hasn’t caught up with us yet,” she went on, “so we’re roughing it.” She laughed.

Over the course of the evening, Joe learned more about Tiffany, including the fact that she was a ruthless flirt. He wasn’t accustomed to girls going to dances with him and then flirting with every boy in the place and he was a bit put out by it. The only men she didn’t flirt with were his brothers, Joe noticed.

“You won’t tie that one down, Joe,” Adam advised him as they met at the punch bowl. “She’ll always have her eye on something else.”

“Perhaps,” Joe agreed. “I wouldn’t want to end up related to her father anyway. He had the cheek to warn me not to…” he blushed and trailed off. Adam correctly interpreted his brother’s embarrassment, and nodded.

“As if you would,” Adam denied. Joe wasn’t averse to trying out his charms on pretty girls, but he was a gentleman.

“Well, thanks for that,” Joe said, surprised. He’d half expected Adam to say something about his reputation preceding him.

“I’m not going to let anyone slander you, Joe,” Adam told him. “Everyone knows you can be trusted.” The fact that Joe knew more about the facts of life than Ben really approved of was neither here nor there. Joe could be trusted with a girl’s reputation. “But if that’s what he’s insinuating, just be careful. Don’t give him the chance to suggest anything more.”

“I will be,” Joe promised, and went off to reclaim his date from one of his friends.

*****

“Home on time,” Joe said, regretfully as he stopped the buggy outside Tiffany’s home. Webber appeared on the doorstep, and Joe bid them both good night before driving off.

“I’ve made up my mind,” Tiffany said, snuggling into her father’s side.

“Are you sure he’s the one, sweetheart?” asked the man, holding his daughter tight against him. “You could do better, I’m sure.”

“No, he’s the one, Papa,” the girl replied, looking up at him in the moonlight.  “I’m quite sure. Joe Cartwright is the one I want.”

“All right,” Webber replied. They went inside together.

*****

Despite Joe’s prompt return with Tiffany that night, Webber didn’t seem any keener on Joe than he had at first, and Joe was a little perplexed at this. However, he was seeing Tiffany regularly and Webber didn’t object. As Joe learned more about Tiffany, he came to see that he was quite right – she was very spoiled. To begin with, he found it amusing, but it soon became wearing.

Matters came to a head one afternoon when Joe saw Tiffany as he collected the mail. They were very busy at the ranch, and Joe was tired. He and Hoss had been up all night with a foaling mare, which had been having a hard time. In the end, they had lost both the mare and the foal, and as a consequence, Joe was tired and short tempered.

Seeing Tiffany cheered him slightly and he grinned at her. “Hi there,” he offered.

“Hi, Joe,” she replied. “I didn’t know you were coming to town this afternoon.” She patted Cochise. “But when I saw this fellow, I knew it couldn’t be anyone except you.”

“Pa asked me to collect the mail,” Joe explained, leaning on the hitching rail. “And what are you doing?”

“Killing time,” Tiffany replied, truthfully. “I’m bored.” She pouted prettily. “Maybe you could take me for a picnic tomorrow, Joe? I wouldn’t be bored then.”

“I wish I could, but I can’t,” Joe told her, wistfully. He could have done with an afternoon off. “But we’re hock-deep in foaling right now, and I can’t leave it all to Hoss. We pulled an all-nighter last night, and I’m planning on turning in early.” The simple thought of bed made Joe yawn. “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to make it another time.”

“But I want to go tomorrow,” she said. “Take me tomorrow, Joe. Forget those silly horses.”

“I can’t,” Joe responded, shortly. “I just told you why. I’m in charge of the horses and I have to be there.”

“And I want to go for a picnic!” she shouted petulantly.

“Go for a picnic, then” Joe retorted angrily. “But I can’t be there! I have responsibilities, and I can’t just ignore them when it suits you!”

“Fine!” she snapped back. “I’m sure I can find another man in this town who’ll be willing to take me for a picnic!”

“Suit yourself!” Joe told her. “Goodbye.” He jumped onto Cochise and rode off, leaving Tiffany standing there with her mouth open.

*****

Over supper, Joe was quiet, but Ben put it down to tiredness. He knew there was a chance Joe might be roused again that night, and suggested his youngest son get an early night. Nodding listlessly, Joe dragged himself upstairs. Hoss followed along soon after, leaving Ben and Adam alone.

“Joe sure is tired tonight,” Ben commented, glancing at the stairs. “You don’t think he’s sickening for something do you?”

“No,” Adam replied, glancing up from his book. “I wonder if he’s just dropped Tiffany.”

“A good thing if he has,” Ben commented. “She’s a little minx, and her father is the most peculiar man I ever met.”

“How so?” Adam asked, interestedly, putting his book aside.

“Well,” Ben began, frowning, “when he meets me in the street, he always tries to pretend I’m not there. And when we’ve met in the stores, he plain ignores me. Yet he gushes over the storekeepers and can be terribly obsequious.  Joe tells me that Webber doesn’t like him at all.”

“He warned Joe that first night not to step over the line with Tiffany,” Adam told him, and saw that this was the first Ben had heard of this. “Joe was naturally offended by the notion.”

“As I said, funny family,” Ben commented. “I’ve heard one or two of the merchants saying that he’s very slow in paying his bills. He’d paid with one of those bank drafts at the feed merchant’s, and there wasn’t enough money to pay it.”

“Oh?” Adam replied. “Does he work? Or has he a private income?”

“He doesn’t work,” Ben assured his son. “And he tells everyone he is a gentleman, so I would assume there’s some sort of private income. But someone else – oh, Milly Parkins – told me that when she called and offered to take Tiffany to the Ladies Aid, the house had almost no furniture in it.”

“Trust Milly to know that!” Adam commented, wryly. Milly Parkins was one of the nosiest women in the town. “Did Tiffany go to the Ladies Aid?”

“No,” Ben chortled. “Told Milly only old women went to Ladies Aid and she wasn’t nearly old enough.”

Laughing, Adam and Ben shared a moment of amusement as they both tried to picture Milly’s face when she’d heard that statement! However, after that moment, the amusement faded as they realized how very rude that had been. “What did Webber say to that?” asked Adam.

“Nothing,” Ben reported, his face grim. “He just showed Milly the door and told her to keep away in future.”

“Not very pleasant,” agreed Adam. “Well, let’s just hope this split between Joe and Tiffany is permanent.”

*****

At first it seemed like it was. Joe saw no more of Tiffany as foaling progressed. He shrugged off the quarrel as best he could and assured himself that he had no time to waste on someone as spoiled as her. Yet, when he was alone in his room at night, Joe couldn’t help thinking how nice Tiffany was when she was just herself and not trying to impress anyone. He had wanted to help her become like that all the time.

“Joe,” Ben called, coming out to the yard one afternoon a few weeks later. “Could you come here please?”

“Must be serious this time,” Adam jibed as Joe turned away from the corral, where he and his brothers were studying the horses, deciding which of them ought to visit the stallion one more time. “Pa said please.”

Hoss laughed. Joe ignored them both and went over to the house. “What is it, Pa?” he asked.

“I just thought, you’ve been working so hard these last few weeks, you deserve a break. Why don’t you go into town for the afternoon?” Ben smiled at the look of delight that passed over Joe’s face. “Adam and Hoss have to go in for supplies tomorrow, and they can have some time then. Go on, son, have a good time and don’t be out too late.”

“No, sir, I won’t,” Joe agreed. “Thanks, Pa!” He headed off towards the door with more of a spring in his step. Ben nodded to himself. Giving Joe the afternoon off was just the tonic the lad needed. He’d been working far too hard of late.

*****

The first person Joe saw when he walked into the saloon was Webber. Tiffany’s father was leaning against the bar and it was clear that he was extremely drunk. For a moment, Joe thought about going to another saloon, but this was the one he preferred to drink in, and so he shrugged and entered.

“Hi, Joe,” Sam, the barman called, as he came over. “What can I get ya?”

“A beer, Sam, please,” Joe replied. He glanced around the room while he waited for his beer. He avoided Webber’s eyes.

“You ain’t bin in here much lately,” Sam commented as he put the dripping glass down in front of Joe. “Bin busy?”

“Foaling,” Joe explained, nodding. “And the herd’s been calving, too. We’ll be into branding next! I don’t know where the time goes these days.”

“You’re gettin’ old,” Sam laughed. “Folks say things like that when they get old, Joe!”

“You’ve got me mixed up with Adam!” Joe protested, jokingly. “Adam’s the old Cartwright son, not me!”

“Just let him hear you say that an’ you’ll be sorry,” Sam warned him, grinning.

“No respect for your elders and betters,” Webber commented from along the bar, loud enough for Joe to hear.

Joe pretended not to hear. Sam looked uncomfortable. “You know him?” he asked, in an undertone, cocking his head at Webber.

“Yes, unfortunately I do,” Joe agreed. “I used to go out with his daughter.”

“You want to watch him, Joe,” Sam began, but at that moment, another patron of the saloon came to the bar and Sam went off to serve him. The Silver Dollar became busy after that, and Joe had no further chance to ask Sam what he meant. But the encounter with Webber had taken the shine off the afternoon for him and he left earlier than he had meant to.

Leaving the town behind, Joe put his heel to his horse and the pinto lengthened his stride. From behind came the sound of a galloping horse and Joe glanced back, suddenly wary. Coming up behind him was Tiffany, riding the horse Joe had sold to her. He urged Cochise on, sure the pinto could outrun the palomino any day.

He was right, Cochise streaked ahead, and he heard Tiffany cry, “Joe, wait!” Reluctantly slowing, Joe brought his horse to a stop and waited for her. Thwarted in his desire to run, Cochise champed at the bit and half-reared, but Joe was not to be persuaded into running again right then, and curbed the animal.

Catching up to him, Tiffany stopped her horse. “Joe, I’ve been looking for you,” she said.

“Well, now you’ve found me,” Joe returned, coldly. “What do you want?”

Dismay colored the girl’s tones. “I wanted to… I wanted to apologies to you for the last time we met. I had no right to speak to you like that.” She swallowed and offered the difficult word. “I’m sorry.”

Knowing how hard it was to offer an apology like that, Joe softened towards her at once. “I should apologies, too,” he replied. “I was real tired that day, and I shouldn’t have shouted at you.”

Smiling, Tiffany gestured to the ground and asked, “Could we get down and talk? Please?”

“All right,” Joe agreed and slid down from Cochise’s back and went to help Tiffany dismount. He tethered the horses so they could graze and sat down beside Tiffany under a tree. He picked up a grass stem and twirled it aimlessly between his fingers, waiting for her to start.

“I’ve missed you, Joe,” she ventured, glancing up at his through her lashes. “Have you missed me?”

“Yes,” Joe admitted, for he had thought about her quite a bit, and had missed her company.

“I’m glad,” Tiffany breathed, leaning in closer to him. “I was afraid…” She didn’t elaborate her fears, simply leaned in closer and kissed him. After a startled second, Joe kissed her back, his hand going up to twine in her hair. As they broke apart, she whispered, “I love you, Joe.”

Leaning close, Joe didn’t reply, he simply captured her mouth with his once more. He was sure he didn’t love Tiffany, and he knew he shouldn’t encourage her, but for the moment, he was powerless to do anything else.

Finally breaking away from her, Joe glanced around and saw that dusk was falling softly. “I should take you home,” he said, huskily. “Your reputation won’t be worth anything if I don’t.”

“All right,” she agreed, and allowed Joe to help her to her feet and then onto her horse. They rode back silently, Tiffany eyeing Joe from beneath her lashes again. When they stopped outside her house, Webber appeared on the porch and looked at them questioningly. “Won’t you come in Joe?” Tiffany asked.

Hesitating, Joe was surprised when Webber said, “Please do.” He seemed to have sobered up considerably since Joe had seen him that afternoon, and he agreed. “Put the horses into the stable, Joe,” Webber went on, “and come inside.”

Wondering about the man’s change of attitude, Joe did as he was bid, loosening Cochise’s cinch and giving him some hay to keep him occupied while he was inside. He didn’t intend to stay long. As he emerged from the barn, he saw Tiffany standing at the back door of the house. She waved and beckoned to him and disappeared from sight, leaving the door standing open. Joe walked across the neglected yard and went inside.

He had the blurred impression of a large kitchen with a big stove and many cupboards, but he had no chance to look more closely. Something struck him forcibly on the back of the head and Joe tumbled to the floor out for the count.

Shutting the door, Webber looked down on his unconscious victim and then smiled at Tiffany. “Got him,” he stated.

*****

“Well, you didn’t really expect him back early did you?” Ben asked Adam jocularly as they headed up to bed. “I’ll be surprised if Joe’s home this side of midnight!”

“I’d have thought that the chance of an early, unbroken night would have held more appeal than the saloon, given how tired Joe’s been,” Adam commented. “I wonder who he met.”

“Could be anyone,” Ben replied. “You know Joe – he’s friends with everyone!”

Smiling, Adam paused outside his bedroom door. “Good night, Pa,” he said.

“Good night, son, sleep well,” Ben responded and went on to his own room. He lay awake for a while, in case Joe came home, but sleep claimed him soon after.

*****

“His bed ain’t bin slept in,” Hoss reported, a frown on his genial face.

“What kind of trouble has he got into this time?” Adam wondered aloud. “You don’t suppose he got arrested, do you?”

“I don’t know,” Ben responded grimly. “But I intend to find out!” He shook his head. “We’re going into town to look for your brother as soon as we’ve had breakfast.”

Exchanging glances, Adam and Hoss both thought how glad they were that they weren’t in Joe’s shoes right that moment, and wondering what excuse the kid would come up with to try and get out of trouble.

*****

Painfully, Joe stirred back to consciousness. His head throbbed and his mouth was dry. As he tried to persuade his limbs to move, he realized that he was bound hand and foot and tightly gagged. As full awareness returned, Joe realized that he was in a vehicle of some kind as he was bouncing around uncomfortably. Cracking his eyes open and peering around, Joe decided it was a covered wagon.

This didn’t make any sense, and he shook his head to try and prod his memory. The shaking was a mistake; nausea rose in his throat, but his memory came back with a rush. He remembered the kitchen and then something hitting him. What he couldn’t figure out was why. He began to struggle against his bonds, but they had been expertly tied and he soon discovered that he wasn’t going to get free.

How long the journey lasted, Joe never knew. But he dozed intermittently, and although twice they stopped, nobody came near him. By the time the wagon trundled to a final stop many hours later, Joe was aching all over from his confined position.

It was dark outside by now, and Joe had to assume that they had been traveling all day. He could hear voices outside the wagon, but the canvas sides absorbed the words, only letting the sound through. Then the back of the wagon was pulled open and Joe squinted in the lamplight.

He wasn’t surprised to see Tiffany and Webber. Beyond Webber stood another man. He was young, tall and well built. Joe peered more closely, but the man refused to meet his eyes. Joe didn’t understand this at all. What had Webber said to explain his presence, tied up like that?

“Help me,” Webber ordered the man. Together, they took Joe from the wagon and carried him into a house. Joe struggled mightily, but he still wasn’t able to break free. They dropped him roughly on the floor of the living room and Tiffany crouched by his side to remove the gag.

“What are you doing?” Joe croaked. “Untie me!”

Tiffany stroked his face. “Oh, no, darling,” she murmured seductively. “You aren’t going anywhere.”

“What do you mean?” cried Joe, trying to back away from her, but hampered by the ropes.

Smiling vindictively, Webber said, “You’re going to be married to Tiffany tomorrow, boy. Tonight, you’re staying right there.”

*****

Stunned, shooting a glance at the silent man, Joe could hardly believe his ears. “I’m not marrying anyone,” he denied. “You can’t make me!”

“You’re wrong there, boy!” Webber told him gleefully. “You will be married tomorrow.”

“I don’t think so,” Joe responded, furiously. “I won’t do it, and you can hardly drag me in front of the judge or minister tied up like this!”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Webber gloated, as Tiffany kept stroking Joe’s face. He gestured to the young man behind him. “This is the minister, and he will perform the ceremony, even if you are tied up!”

Joe shot another look at the man, who once more refused to meet his eyes. “You can’t make me!” he cried once more.

“Darling, I can,” Tiffany assured him. “You’ll be with me forever more, and we’ll be happy together. You’ll learn to love me, and then you won’t need to be tied up. Your family can send us the money we need to live on, and we’ll be happy.”

Trapped, but still not seeing why the minister would agree to perform the marriage, and unable to see how they could make him cooperate, Joe just looked at her. Tiffany smiled. “Joe, just say yes. Because one way or the other, you will marry me.”

“Don’t count on it,” he told her.

*****

There was no sign of Joe anywhere in Virginia City. Nobody had seen him since he had left the Silver Dollar the previous afternoon. The Cartwrights tried everywhere they thought he might be, and came up with nothing.

Seriously worried now, they began a systematic search of the area surrounding the road home, afraid that Joe had had an accident and was lying somewhere, badly injured. Once more, they found nothing.

“I don’t know what to think,” Ben admitted, as they finally turned for home. “Where can he be?”

“I dunno,” Hoss muttered. “This ain’t like Joe.”

“I know this seems incredibly unlikely,” Adam ventured, hesitantly, “but you don’t suppose this has something to do with the Webbers? When I was asking about Joe earlier, Pete at the livery stable told me that the Webbers hired a wagon late last night.”

“I don’t see how that can be tied to Joe’s disappearance,” Ben commented, frowning thoughtfully.

“Nor do I,” Adam admitted. “It’s just a feeling I have.” He pulled Sport to a stop. “I’m just going to go back into town to check on one or two things,” he said.

“Want us to come with you?” Ben asked.

“No, you go on home in case Joe turns up,” Adam suggested. “I won’t be long.” Seeing the worry darkening his father’s eyes, Adam tried a reassuring smile. “And I’ll be careful, Pa.”

“All right,” Ben agreed and watched Adam ride off back towards town.

*****

“You cheeky young pup!” Webber snarled and kicked Joe heavily in the ribs. Joe curled up involuntarily, gasping for breath. Another heavy kick followed the first one.

“No, Papa!” Tiffany cried. “You mustn’t beat him up too much!” She pushed against her father’s chest and Webber seemed to come to his senses.

Grabbing the front of Joe’s jacket, Webber pulled him up so that their faces were only inches apart. “If my daughter wasn’t so set on marrying you, sonny, I’d kill you now!” He glared at Joe for a moment, then dropped him to the floor. Joe winced as the fall set off a chorus of protests from his sore ribs. “After you are married, you will write a letter to your family, demanding some money.”

“I won’t marry Tiffany and I won’t write to my family!” Joe stated, firmly. “He can’t perform the marriage when one partner isn’t willing!”

“He’ll do what I say, won’t you, Colin?” Webber asked, smiling evilly at the minister.

“Yes, sir,” Colin replied, still avoiding Joe’s eyes.

Gaping at the man, Joe wasn’t aware how nakedly the question appeared on his face until Webber said, “Colin will do whatever he is told to, or I will expose his crimes to the world.” He glanced at Colin, who flushed. Seemingly satisfied, Webber went on, “Come along, Tiffany, you need to get a good night’s sleep.” As Tiffany rose, Webber leaned down and checked Joe’s bonds. Satisfied that they were still tight, he left the room, followed by Colin.

Tiffany paused for a moment. “With this ring, I thee wed,” she said, clearly. Laughing, she left. The door shut behind them and Joe heard the lock click. He was left alone in the dark.

******

Back in Virginia City, Adam went straight to the telegraph office and persuaded Rudi, the clerk, to stay open for a little bit longer to let him send and receive some wires. The first place Adam sent was Baltimore, where he enquired in a general way about Webber’s finances. He sent to some other places that he had heard of Webber mentioning and waited. The replies came back almost at once.

All over the eastern seaboard of America, Webber was wanted for fraud. He had been passing forged bank drafts all over the place, never staying longer in one town than he had to. He passed a few drafts and then would leave again. In several places, it was reported that his daughter had become engaged to a son of the wealthiest family around, and the family had frequently given them money to end the relationship. There was also a mention of violence. By the time the last answers were coming through, Adam was convinced that Joe was with the Webbers, where ever they had gone.

The big question was – where had they taken Joe? Adam bit his lip thoughtfully. “Thanks, Rudi,” he called, as he put on his hat, ready to leave for home.

“Hey, hold on, Adam, there’s another wire comin’ in,” Rudi called, and Adam paused. “It’s from a sheriff in near Baltimore. Says they’re lookin’ for a minister in connection with Webber.” Rudi scribbled down the wire and passed it over for Adam to read.

“Thanks, Rudi,” Adam said, fervently. He hurried out of the door and mounted his horse, spurring it towards home.

*****

It was fully dark when Adam got home. He brought Cochise with him, having been to Webber’s house on the way home and found the pinto in the barn. He showed Ben the wire and told his father that he’d up-dated Roy on the situation. They were just sitting down to supper when they heard a horse in the yard and Roy Coffee appeared. He accepted a cup of coffee and urged the Cartwrights to continue their supper as he told them what he had found out.

“Webber was boardin’ this young minister, a lad by the name of Colin Johnstone. He’s some distant relation to Webber. We ain’t too sure how Webber persuaded him to become involved, but Johnstone passed some bad drafts in Webber’s name. Apparently he has a bad temper, too. Seems when the law got involved, he panicked, an’ ran off. He’s been seen a few times, but nobody’s ever caught up with him. Last I could find, he’d been seen in Placerville.”

“Well, that gives us somewhere to start tomorrow,” Adam suggested. Ben nodded grimly.

“I issued a warrant fer Webber’s arrest,” Roy continued. “I wish I could do more, Ben, I surely do.”

“Thank you for your help, Roy,” Ben said, but his mind was clearly far away. Roy shook Ben’s hand and let himself out. “Why do you think they have Joe?” Ben asked, dazed.

“I think they’re going to try and marry Joe off to Tiffany,” Adam explained, “and then ask for money from us.”

“Joe wouldn’t agree to that!” Hoss protested. “He weren’t in love with that little gal!”

“No,” Adam agreed. “But if they have a tame minister, who’s to say what might happen.” He sighed. “I don’t think Webber would scruple at forcing some sort of sham wedding, or of holding Joe prisoner afterwards so he couldn’t protest the marriage.”

“Let’s get an early night, so we can get an early start in the morning,” Ben suggested. “I just hope we’re not too late.”

*****

Despite the headache, sore ribs and his cramped, uncomfortable position, Joe fell asleep. He was jerked from slumber when the lock clicked once more and the door opened. Squinting blearily, Joe could only make out a dark shadow. He started to speak, but a large hand clamped down over his mouth.

“Be silent,” he was told and recognized Colin’s voice.

Hope sprang into being in Joe’s heart. He expected the minister to untie him, but Colin didn’t. Instead, he jammed the gag back into Joe’s mouth and left the room again. Confused and angry, Joe renewed his hopeless struggles against the ropes that held him prisoner. Before long, the shadowy figure was back and he untied Joe’s feet.

At once, Joe kicked out at him, but Colin was prepared for it, and easily sidestepped the blow. “I am trying to help you,” he whispered. “If you resist, I will leave you here to face your fate. Which will it be?”

Reluctantly, Joe realized that he had no choice if he wanted to escape. He allowed Colin to help him to his feet and lead him out of the house.

It was no less dark outside. Colin helped Joe mount a horse, then swung up behind him. Joe was perplexed. Colin was helping him escape, yet he was still a prisoner, with his hands tied and the gag in his mouth. There were a thousand questions Joe wanted to ask, but he couldn’t. Colin said no more, as they rode slowly off into the darkness.

 They rode for quite some time in the darkness. As the light slowly grew, Joe recognized his surroundings as the road that ran between Placerville and Virginia City. He’d ridden it more times than he could remember. He moved uncomfortably, but Colin still stayed silent.

When it was fully light, Colin turned the horse off the road and pulled it to a stop behind some bushes. He dismounted, then helped Joe down. Pushing the youngest Cartwright to the ground, he pulled the rope from his pocket and re-tied Joe’s feet. Joe, seeing what was coming, struggled furiously, but to no avail. Colin soon had him helpless once more.

“I’m going to give you some water,” Colin told him, his voice strangely flat. “There’s no point in yelling; there’s no one around to hear you.” He took off the gag and put the canteen to Joe’s mouth. Eagerly, Joe drank. He hadn’t had water in longer than he cared to remember.

“Thank you,” he offered, once he had drunk his fill. “But I don’t understand why you’re doing this. You’ve helped me escape, but you haven’t freed me. Why?”

“I’m a wanted man,” Colin told him. “I had to help Webber, but I couldn’t bring myself to perform a marriage like the one Tiffany and her father wanted. So I helped you escape. But the price of your freedom is your family’s help in seeing that I get a fair trial.”

This cock-eyed logic made Joe blink in surprise. “If you turn yourself in anywhere, you’ll get a fair trial,” he said, earnestly. “You don’t need my family to help with that.”

“I’ve done things,” Colin muttered, his voice hollow. Joe felt a pang of fear in his gut. “I’ve done things to men like you when they wouldn’t do as Webber wanted.” His gaze met Joe’s. “I can’t control myself, sometimes. I get angry, and things happen.”

Swallowing, Joe realized that he had escaped one predicament to land straight into another, just as dangerous. “Go to the sheriff and explain,” Joe advised him, cautiously. “I’ll come with you…”

“You don’t understand!” Colin shouted and Joe flinched. “I can’t do that! You’ll tell them I was in on it! If your family help me, I’ll tell them where to find you. You’ll be all right.”

“You can’t leave me here tied up and alone!” Joe protested. He looked around wildly, hoping against hope that someone might be passing by at this early hour.

“I have no choice!” Colin cried.

“Yes you have!” insisted Joe. “Colin, I gave you a choice! I said I’ll come with you and I will!”

“You won’t!” Colin denied. “I know your kind!”

“Colin, please, think!” Joe urged him. “I’m not your enemy. I was Webber’s prisoner, too. I’m on your side.”

“You’re staying here!” Colin shouted. He reached for the gag and Joe knew that he had to try and make a fight of this. If Colin managed to gag him, he would ride off and Joe would probably die from thirst and exposure. Frantically, he kicked out.

For once, Joe caught Colin by surprise. He kicked again and again, managing to daze the other man when his boot heels caught the side of his head. As Colin sagged to the ground, Joe began to drag himself away, scrabbling in the dust with his arms and legs, moving painfully slowly, but moving. Joe knew that it was a forlorn hope, but he had to try and get away somehow.

He had gone less than 100 yards when Colin roused. He glanced around, and looked surprised to see how far Joe had traveled in those few moments. Lunging to his feet, Colin set off after Joe, catching him in a few strides, and throwing himself on top of the bound man. “What are you doing?” Colin choked. He slapped Joe hard across the face. “You can’t get away!”

Without hesitating, Joe head-butted Colin. The other man let go of his collar and fell away, clutching his face. Joe scrabbled away again, making desperately towards the road. Colin let his hands drop from his face and gazed at Joe. Blood dripped from his nose. With a roar, he threw himself at Joe once more, and Joe was sure that this time, Colin would do him severe amounts of harm.

The beating wasn’t as bad as Joe had anticipated. He ached from each blow, but Colin didn’t lose control totally. He pulled away from his helpless captive and punched the nearest tree very hard. Joe lay on the ground, gasping for breath, watching him as Colin regained control of his temper.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he told Joe as he retrieved the gag from the ground where he had dropped it and came back over with it. He knelt down to force the gag into Joe’s mouth, and Joe, too tired to do anything else to resist, bit him.

With a yelp, Colin dropped the gag and cradled his injured hand to his chest. He glared at Joe. Moving very deliberately, he struck Joe across the cheek. Joe’s head snapped round and he tasted blood in his mouth where he had bitten his tongue.

Once more Colin brought the gag up and he raised his hand to strike Joe once more. “No!” Joe yelled. “No, don’t!”

The gag was jammed into Joe’s mouth and he struggled against it, grunting with the pain each movement elicited, but unwilling to submit. Colin hit him again. Reeling, Joe’s senses started to spin, and he was only vaguely aware of shouting from round about.

A hand touched his arm, and Joe flinched. “Easy, son,” a familiar voice murmured and Joe felt someone sit him up and then hands were hacking at his bonds until he was free.

Water trickled into his mouth and Joe was finally able to open his eyes. He was being supported by Ben, and Adam and Hoss were watching him anxiously. “How did you find me?” Joe whispered. He tried to smile, but his face was stiff and sore, his lips split and blood trickling from a cut by his ear.

“A little detective work and a lot of luck,” Adam admitted, relieved that Joe was talking. He glanced over his shoulder at the man they had dragged off Joe. “Who is he?” he asked, indicating the unconscious man.

“His name’s Colin,” Joe replied. “He’s got something to do with Webber. Says he’s wanted by the law.”

“They both are,” Ben told his son, his eyes drinking him in. He wanted nothing more than to just sit there and hold Joe, but he knew that Joe needed to be home, and have a doctor look at him. The rope burns on Joe’s wrists had been bleeding, and he had been beaten up. “Can you ride, Joe?”

“Yes,” Joe replied, uncertainly. He sat up with Ben’s help, and allowed Adam and Hoss to help him to his feet. Hoss took charge of the prisoner, and with Joe mounted in front of Ben, they headed back to town.

*****

Later, Joe went home with Ben. His ribs were cracked and the rope burns needed treatment, but apart from that, he had suffered only bruising. He was tired from the lack of sleep and mild concussion he’d suffered, but the relief at being home again was over whelming. After fending off Hop Sing’s enthusiastic welcome, Joe went up to bed to catch up on his sleep.

In Placerville, the sheriff had been alerted, and tracked Webber and Tiffany to the road out of town, heading to California. He had arrested them for kidnapping and brought them back to Placerville. He would transfer them to Virginia City the next day.

Adam and Hoss returned later. By then, Joe was up again and eager to hear their side of the story. As they ate supper, he told them what had happened to him, from meeting Webber in the saloon, to the time they rescued him at the roadside.

“It’s a good thing we left as early as we did,” Ben commented. “If not, we might have missed you all together, Joe.” He filled in the things they’d discovered the previous day.

“What’s going to happen to them?” Joe asked. He was feeling tired again, and his bruises throbbed.

“There’ll be a trial,” Adam said, softly. “Webber and Tiffany will be charged with kidnapping. Johnstone will be charged with kidnap and assault.”

“I’ll have to testify,” Joe muttered, almost inaudibly. Ben shot him an anxious look. After a moment, Joe laid down his fork. “I think I’ll go to bed,” he told them, smiling unconvincingly. “I’m tired.”

They watched in silence as Joe went upstairs. “I’d hoped he wouldn’t ask,” Adam commented.

“I wish he didn’t have to testify,” Ben added.

*****

Lying on his bed, gazing at the ceiling, Joe felt his eyes burn with tiredness and unshed tears. He hadn’t thought of what would happen to the Webbers until Adam told him of their arrests. Joe couldn’t figure out why. He knew that what they did to him was against the law, and from what Adam said, Webber was wanted all over the country. So why was he so shaken at the thought of testifying?

There was no answer that Joe could come up with and he fell asleep, still trying to puzzle it out. His sleep was restless, his dreams filled with doom-laden images and he woke next morning feeling as though he hadn’t slept at all. He dressed slowly, not keen to go down and face the concerned, inquisitive faces of his family.

The only person at the table was Ben, who was reading the previous day’s Territorial Enterprise. “Good morning, Joe,” he said, cheerfully. “How are you this morning?”

“Fine, I guess,” Joe replied, sitting down and looking at the food on the table in front of him. He wasn’t sure if he was all that hungry, but knew that if he didn’t eat, Ben would be on his back, worrying about him even more than he already was. Joe hadn’t been fooled by Ben’s breezy greeting. He forked some bacon onto his plate and began to eat.

“I’m going into town this morning to get the mail,” Ben offered, after there had been silence for a time. “Would you like to come?”

“Yes,” Joe replied, not because he had a burning desire to go into town, but because he knew he’d get bored sitting around the house.

“Good,” Ben answered, sounding pleased. “Take your time, son. I won’t be ready to go for about an hour at least.” He folded the paper carefully and laid it aside. He rose and disappeared into the kitchen.

Idly, Joe reached out his hand for the paper and discovered his name on the front page. ‘MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF JOE CARTWRIGHT’ read the banner headline half way down. Shocked, Joe read the story, which basically said that he had disappeared, no one knew where he had gone and that his family was out looking for him. Joe thought the paper must have been short of news to print that! It wasn’t even a story. Shaking his head, he dropped the paper again and finished his meal.

*****

They set off an hour later, traveling in the buckboard, so Ben could collect some supplies, too. They didn’t hurry and arrived in town just before noon. Joe looked around as they drove up the main street. “I wonder what’s been going on?” he mused. “Everyone seems really agitated.”

“So they do,” Ben agreed, pulling the team to a halt by the general store. He set the brake and climbed down from the buckboard, covertly watching Joe to make sure he didn’t need any help. But Joe was a good deal less stiff than he had been the previous day and managed the jump down quite neatly.

“Ben! Joe!” a voice hailed and they turned to see Clem Foster, the deputy, hurrying down the street towards them. They waited for him, exchanging puzzled glances. By now, they were aware of the looks they were attracting from the people in the street, too.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Clem panted as he reached them. “I was goin’ to send someone out to the ranch.”

“Why?” Ben asked. “What’s the matter?”

Glancing around, Clem saw that they were attracting a crowd. “Let’s go down to the jail so I can tell you there,” he suggested and Ben and Joe followed him back to the jail.

The door of the jail was pocked with gunshot marks. Clem offered no explanation until they were inside and the door closed behind them. The inside of the jail was a disaster area, with the desk over-turned and papers scattered everywhere. “What happened?” Ben asked, looking around.

“That man, Johnstone,” Clem began and Joe blanched. “He went berserk last night as Roy was taking him his supper. Beat Roy up pretty badly, and fought his way out of here. He shot at him, as you can see, but he missed.”

“What of the Webbers?” Ben wanted to know, peering into the cell area, and seeing that it was empty.

“Johnstone stole the keys and opened their cell. Old man Webber was killed as he tried to escape, but the girl got away with Johnstone.” Clem looked tired. “Roy’s over at Doc Martin’s. Doc says he’s gonna be all right. But right now, I gotta get a posse together an’ go look for Johnstone an’ the girl. You comin’ into town saves me sendin’ someone out to tell you. You be careful goin’ home. Johnstone seems to have become unhinged, an’ who knows what he might do.”

“Thanks, Clem,” Ben replied. He shot a glance at Joe, but apart from the paleness of his face, Joe seemed to be completely calm. They left the jail together and Ben glanced at Joe once more. “Joe, you get the supplies, and I’ll get the mail,” he suggested and saw Joe nod remotely. He handed over the list if things Hop Sing wanted and watched for a moment as Joe headed for the store. He was concerned that Joe hadn’t said a word, and was suddenly anxious to get home.

*****

“Done?” Ben asked, as he saw the storekeeper loading the last sack of flour onto the buckboard.

“Done,” Joe confirmed, as he climbed onto the seat. From habit, he lifted the reins, but they hadn’t reached the outskirts of town before he handed them over to Ben. At his father’s questioning look, Joe explained, “It still hurts a bit.”

Nodding his understanding, Ben took over the driving. He wondered if he should ask Joe how he felt, but pushing Joe into confidences before he was ready was a recipe for disaster. Joe would tell him his thoughts in his own good time, but it was difficult and frustrating for Ben to have to wait.

As they drove under some trees, someone dropped onto the buckboard from above. Ben began to pull on the reins but Joe cried, “Keep going, Pa!” as he turned to meet their attacker.

Not at all to his surprise, he saw it was Colin Johnstone. Scrambling to his feet, Joe met the man as he lunged at him, and they tumbled from the buckboard to the ground. Ben hauled on the reins to halt the team, turning back to look at Joe, and go to his aid.

A shot rang out and splintered the wood by Ben’s feet. He dived for cover, unshipping his gun and firing back all in the same movement. He knew that he had no chance of hitting the marksman, but hoped he would buy himself a few more seconds. Another shot bit into the wood where Ben was crouching, and this time he saw the muzzle flash. He fired back. A third shot was fired, and this time the marksman didn’t miss. The bullet burned across the top of Ben’s left shoulder with enough force to knock him over. He struggled to sit up and return fire.

As he made it to a sitting position, he saw a figure in the trees, carrying a gun. Taking the chance offered him, Ben shot at the person, who went down and did not move again. Relieved, Ben slumped back, eyes closed, for a moment. Then he looked to see how Joe was.

The force of the fall knocked the wind from Joe’s lungs and he was gasping for breath as he traded punches with Johnstone. The man was very strong, and Joe knew that he was in serious trouble. He could hear shots being fired and hoped that Ben was all right, but he had no time to glance at his father; all his attention was fixed on the madman he was fighting.

For Johnstone surely was mad. His eyes gleamed in a positively demonic way and he was talking to himself under his breath all the time. Joe realized with horror that the words were “Kill you, Cartwright,” over and over again.

Somehow, they scrambled to their feet, where they traded blow after blow. Johnstone got in under Joe’s guard and hit him several times on the face, and followed up with a hard blow to the solar plexus. Joe bent double and Johnstone brought his clasped hands down hard on the back of Joe’s neck. Joe went down.

Before Ben could react, Johnstone snatched up a big stone that lay nearby and lifted it above Joe’s head. It was clear what he intended to do. Ben shouted an incoherent warning. He was bleeding heavily and didn’t realize that he was on the verge of losing consciousness. As Johnstone glanced at him, Ben saw the intent written on the man’s face. When he had killed Joe, he was going to kill Ben. Raising his gun, Ben shot him dead.

Trying to get to his feet to reach Joe, Ben made it as far as his knees before the blood loss and shock hit him. He toppled to the ground out cold.

******

When Joe roused, he felt pulped. For a minute, he just lay there, feeling the various aches and pains voice their complaints. This was the second time he’d been beaten up in a couple of days, and he really didn’t feel at all well.

Raising his head cautiously, Joe saw Johnstone lying dead beside him, a huge stone clutched in his hands. Beyond him, Ben lay motionless.

Galvanized by the sight, Joe struggled to his feet and staggered over to collapse by Ben. Frantic with worry, Joe felt for a pulse and found it, strong and steady. Joe soon found the wound and, stripping off his jacket, used it to press down on the wound and staunch the bleeding.

He was still kneeling there a few minutes later, with Ben mumbling back to consciousness when the posse found them. Clem slid from his horse and checked the two corpses. The marksman in the trees had been Tiffany, and she was dead.

Going over to the Cartwrights, Clem questioned them as to what had happened, although it was fairly obvious. Ben was bleeding from a gunshot wound to his shoulder. Joe had been beaten up once more and was bleeding from various scrapes and cuts on his face and hands.

Sending one man into the town for the doctor, Clem organized the others to take the corpses back and he himself helped Joe and Ben onto the buckboard and took them back to the ranch. He guessed they were as well going there as back to town.

*****

It was evening. Ben was in bed, asleep, his shoulder bandaged up and with a stiff warning to take things easy for a few days. Joe was resting on the settee in front of the fire, his feet up along its length. There were no bandages visible on him, but his ribs had been bound up tightly again after the doctor had checked that there was no further damage to them. Adam was in his usual seat, ostensibly reading a book, and Hoss was perched on the fireside.

“You sure you ain’t ready for bed?” Hoss asked Joe for the hundredth time.

“Soon,” Joe responded. He was gazing absently into the flames with the one eye that was open.

“Something on your mind?” Adam enquired, coolly. “Want to talk about it?”

“I was just thinking,” Joe mused. “I didn’t want to have to testify. Pa didn’t want me to either. And now I won’t have to. Isn’t it odd?”

“I guess it is,” Adam replied, after a moment. He went back to his book.

After a moment, Hoss said, “I reckon that God knew you didn’ want to testify, Joe. I reckon that what happened today was God sayin’ ‘well, all right, testifyin’s hard, but its better than this, ain’t it?’”

Adam looked at Hoss, a frown on his face. Joe’s green eyes met Hoss’ blue ones and held. “Yes,” he said, sitting up slightly and wincing as he did so. “Yes, I think that’s it, Hoss. He was saying to us that hard things happen in life. We didn’t want me to testify, and now I don’t have to, but I had to go through something hard in its place. A reminder that there are worse things in life. Pa could’ve been killed out there!”

“So could you,” Adam pointed out, but Joe dismissed his own danger.

“Ain’t there a sayin’?” Hoss asked. “Be careful what ya wish for, in case ya get it?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Joe agreed. “Sometimes prayers are answered in a way that you don’t expect.”

They fell silent again for a time. “I’m going to bed,” Joe said, at last. He got carefully to his feet, waving away Hoss’ offer of assistance.

“Prayers ain’t answered the way you expects ‘em to be sometimes,” Hoss noted, ruffling Joe’s hair. He glanced significantly upstairs. “But they’s always answered.”

“Amen,” Joe added, softly.

***End***

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