Interlude (by Rona)

Summary:  A “missing” scene from the episode “A Far, Far Better Thing.”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  2180


 

Walking away from Indian’s Grief, Joe couldn’t help looking back. The place was more than just a symbol of a Paiute legend now; it was a tangible reminder of the life and death battle had had just fought there. His childhood friend lay dead back there and Joe had killed him.

Panting, Joe stumbled on. He was exhausted and faced with the long walk back to the ranch; he deliberately kept his mind on putting one foot in front of the other. His feet hurt. Joe’s boots weren’t made for running and although he hadn’t noticed the blisters at the time, now, they were hurting. He raised his hand to wipe sweat and blood from his face.

Crossing a clearing, Joe hesitated as he heard horses. He was too tired to run, and he was too tired to fight any more. So it was with overwhelming relief that he saw it was his father, with Martin Meldine, Lucy and Tuck.

“Joe!” Ben exclaimed and urged his horse towards Joe. Jumping down, he put his arms out to his son, who all but fell into his embrace. “Are you all right, son?” Ben asked, anxiously, seeing the blood on Joe’s face. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe panted, as Ben lifted his hand to caress his cheek. Suddenly mindful of their audience, he halted the gesture and patted Joe’s shoulder instead. “I had to…had to kill Sharp Tongue,” Joe told him. “The rest of his braves rode off towards the reservation.”

“Well, with Sharp Tongue dead, they have no leader, no purpose,” Ben reminded him. He patted Joe again. “Well, let’s get you home,” he said, briskly, trying to hide his relief, and failing.

“Joe,” Martin Meldine said. “I just wanted to thank you, son.” His eyes cut towards his daughter Lucy significantly. “Thank you very much.”

“Me, too,” Tuck added. It didn’t seem nearly enough to Tuck, but he didn’t know what else to say. Joe had offered his life in Tuck’s place and saying thanks didn’t seem adequate.

Nodding, Joe stepped towards his horse, which he saw Tuck was leading. Last Joe had seen of his pinto, the Indians had claimed him, and Joe had thought he would never see his favorite mount again.

“Little Joe,” Lucy said. He face was still tear-stained. “I’m sorry my foolish, romantic curiosity almost got you killed. But,” and here she added her highest praise, “you were as noble as Sidney Carlton.”

Looking at her soberly, Joe replied, “I just hope you know the difference between real life and story books.”

“I do,” she told him earnestly, but Joe wasn’t convinced.

Ben watched Joe closely as his son mounted his horse, and gauged his exhaustion by the fact he mounted conventionally, not by the swing mount he usually used. Joe nodded to his father once he was mounted and waited for Ben to mount too before he swung his horse round and headed for home.

*****

By the time they got back to the ranch, Joe’s day had caught up with him big time. He’d spent the morning delivering supplies to his brothers, who were branding. He’d returned from there to find Lucy gone, and he and Tuck had gone off looking for her, galloping to Indian’s Grief. Then there had been the short fight with the Indians, and then ‘the game’, where the Indians chased him until he either escaped or died, in which he had taken Tuck’s place. Then the final fight with Sharp Tongue, and the ride home. Joe was reeling in the saddle when they arrived back.

“Joe.” At the sound of his name, Joe glanced up and saw Ben standing beside his horse. “Let me help you, son.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied, wearily, for he wasn’t at all sure that his legs would support him. Joe was fit and an excellent runner, but he rode more than he ran. His legs ached and his blistered feet throbbed. He slid carefully from the saddle, and saw that Lucy was trying not to watch.

With Ben supporting him, Joe limped across the yard and into the house. Hop Sing met them and took in Joe’s condition at once. “I heat water for bath,” he told them, and disappeared back into the kitchen. Ben eased Joe down onto the couch and took a close look at him for the first time.

Joe’s lower lip was swollen, and there were several small bloody marks round his mouth. One eye was turning black and his body was obviously sore in a few places. Gently, Ben put his hand to Joe’s face. “What else hurts, son?” he asked, tenderly.

“Just my feet,” Joe replied. He winced as Ben eased his boots and socks off. As he had suspected, several of the blisters on his feet had burst and there were one or two raw places were the skin hadn’t blistered, just rubbed away.

“Tuck told me what you did,” Ben reported. “Joe, I’m so proud of you.”

“I couldn’t let Tuck do it, Pa,” Joe explained. “With his sore leg, he couldn’t run. Sharp Tongue knew that. That was why he let me swap places; so no one could accuse him of being a woman.”

“I’m sorry about Sharp Tongue,” Ben murmured. “What happened?”

Slowly, Joe told him about the fight within the confines of Indian’s Grief, where the spirit of the Great Manitou had conquered Sharp Tongue, despite the spirit shirt he wore. Joe’s pain at having had to kill anyone, especially someone he once considered a friend, was evident for Ben to see.

“I’m sorry you had to do that,” Ben told him, when Joe finished his account. “And I’m sorry Sharp Tongue is dead. But you know that there were moves afoot to do something about the renegade Paiutes.” Joe nodded, his eyes on Ben’s face. “Perhaps, Joe, the other Paiutes have learned a lesson, and won’t have to regret more than Sharp Tongue’s death and whatever is on their consciences. But you did what you had to do, son; don’t dwell on it.”

“No, sir,” Joe agreed, and Ben could see that his words had hit home and Joe was more at peace.

******

The next day, Joe was stiff and sore. He shuffled downstairs and spent the day with his feet up on the settee. His eye had darkened to spectacular colors, and he was grateful that his shirt hid the worst of the bruises on his body.

In the middle of the morning, Martin Meldine, his father’s friend and Lucy’s father, sought him out. They were alone in the great room. “Joe,” Meldine said, sitting down next to him. “I wanted to thank you again for what you did for Lucy yesterday. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you saved Lucy’s life.”

“I couldn’t leave her there,” Joe protested. “I had to do something.”

“I had a long talk with Lucy last night,” Meldine went on. “This experience has taught her some necessary lessons about life; lessons she wouldn’t be alive to appreciate if it hadn’t been for you, Joe.” Emotion overcame him, and he put his hand on Joe’s wrist and squeezed. “Thank you!”

Blinking back the corresponding moisture from his own eyes, Joe whispered, “I’m just glad I was able to help her.”

Wordlessly, Meldine rose, nodding to Joe once more.

*****

After lunch, which was slightly strained, Joe drifted off to sleep on the settee. His blistered feet had been carefully daubed with Hop Sing’s salve the night before and tightly bandaged up. They still stung, but the diminutive Chinese cook assured Joe that they would heal much more quickly with the salve than without, but the constant pain was tiring.

When he roused, he found Lucy sitting in Adam’s blue chair watching him. Pushing himself up slightly and blushing, Joe glanced around. Once more the room was empty apart from Lucy and himself. Vaguely, Joe wondered if this had been fixed, for Ben was seldom far from his sons’ sides when they weren’t well and this was twice today Joe had been alone for someone to talk to him.

“Little Joe,” Lucy began in her breathless voice, “I just wanted to thank you again for what you did yesterday for Tuck and me. It was very brave of you to stand up to Sharp Tongue like that. I felt sure he would kill you.” Lucy remembered her terror when she was caught, sure she was going to face a hideous death at their hands. “I especially thank you for saving Tuck.” She met his eyes, her gaze very earnest as she sought to convince him that she spoke the truth. “Joe, I do love Tuck, even though we have nothing in common. I love him more than life itself.”

“Are you sure, Lucy?” Joe asked.

“I’m sure,” she asserted. “Joe, I can’t imagine what my life would be without him. When you told me what they meant to do in the game, I was sure he was going to die! And it was all my fault!” Distraught at the thought, Lucy burst into tears. “You’re right, Joe,” she sobbed. “Life isn’t a story book. People get hurt and killed. I’m sorry, Joe!”

“Lucy, it’s over,” Joe told her gently. He was exhausted by her emotions. “Just don’t hurt Tuck, please.”

“I won’t,” she assured him. “I won’t.”

*****

The next person to turn up was Tuck. By this time, Joe was no longer surprised that everyone in the house suddenly had to go outside for a breath of fresh air after supper and Tuck just happened to arrive at that point. Even Adam and Hoss, who had just arrived back from the branding, having heard about the incident at Indian’s Grief, seemed to be in on the plan.

“I just wanted to thank you again, Joe,” Tuck said, awkwardly. “What I said yesterday wasn’t near enough. It weren’t just my life you saved; it was Lucy’s, too.” He glanced all round, then leant in close, as though they would be overheard. “Joe, I love her.”

“I know,” Joe told him. “Anyone can see that.”

“What am I gonna do?” Tuck blurted, as though this was a huge problem to him.

“Ask her to marry you?” Joe suggested, smiling.

Gazing at his friend as though he’d just suggested that he cut off his own foot, Tuck said, doubtfully, “D’you think she’d accept?”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Joe informed him. “Ask her.”

Beaming at Joe, Tuck nodded. “I will! I’ll go and do it right now!” He rose and grabbed Joe’s shoulder awkwardly. “Thanks, for everything, Joe.”

“Good luck!” Joe called after him, as Tuck exited the house, narrowly missing tripping over his own feet.

*****

It was late before Joe descended the stairs the next morning. The breakfast table seemed unusually crowded, for there was Meldine and Lucy, Adam, Hoss, Ben and Tuck. “Morning,” Joe greeted everyone as he shuffled over to his usual seat. He was a lot less stiff that day, and his feet didn’t ache so much.

“Good morning,” Ben replied, eyeing Joe carefully. “We were waiting for you, son.”

“Whatever happened, it wasn’t me,” Joe denied, and there was a small ripple of laughter. “We don’t often see you here for breakfast, Tuck,” he teased. “Mama’s Boy taken over the whole ranch now?” This was the horse Tuck had been trying to break for several days.

“We wanted to give you the news,” Tuck said, and reached out to take Lucy’s hand. “Lucy has consented to be ma wife.”

“Tuck, that’s wonderful!” Joe exclaimed. “Congratulations, Lucy!”

“It’s all thanks to you, Joe,” Lucy told him, but he put his hands up.

 “Oh no!” he cried. “Leave me out of this!” He grinned at them both. “When is the wedding?”

“As soon as you’re fit,” Tuck told him. “We want you to be best man.”

“Thank you,” Joe said, moved. “I accept.”

******

As the stagecoach disappeared in a cloud of dust, Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe? What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Oh, nuthin’, I guess,” Joe replied, still looking perplexed. “You know, he’s started thinking like her and she’s started thinking like him!”

“Compromise is the secret of a happy marriage,” Ben told him.

“But they’ve only just got married!” Joe protested. “In a year, she’ll be out busting broncs and he’ll be reading romantic books!”

Having no idea what Joe was talking about, Ben simply laughed and a moment later, Joe joined in. Ben turned and led Joe back up the street to where Lucy’s father was waiting. Further up, Adam and Hoss stood beside the buggy.

“How many lives ya reckon Joe lost this time, Adam?” Hoss wanted to know.

“I don’t know,” Adam replied. He nodded at the younger man, who was grinning broadly. “But don’t mention it to him, Hoss; he doesn’t know he lost any!”

***End***

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