Loss of Innocence (by Rona)

Summary:  After an accident, Joe loses his memory. While the family frantically hunts for him, Joe thinks he has found his home, but all is not as it seems.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   9181


 

“Do you know who’s bought the old Morrow place, Pa?” Adam asked, as he and his father rode home together from town. It was late afternoon, high summer and it was hot.

“No, I didn’t hear it had been sold,” Ben replied. “Who has bought it?”

“Rosie Millard,” Adam answered his tones suddenly dry. He knew how Ben was going to react, and he didn’t blame his father in the slightest.

“Rosie Millard!” Ben exclaimed, disgustedly. “I thought we’d got rid of her for good.”

“Apparently not,” Adam responded. “And now she’s our neighbor.”

A year before, Rosie Millard had come to Virginia City. She was unmarried, attractive, if no longer in the first flush of youth. Speculation was ripe as to why she was in town, but it soon became apparent. Rosie Millard was a call girl. Oh, not the type of girl to work in a saloon. No, Rosie catered for a higher class of client than that, and she wasn’t shy about what she did.

Many of the citizens of Virginia City had tried to get Roy Coffee to chase her out of town, but she wasn’t actually breaking any laws, and there little Roy could do. She ran her ‘business’ from her home, and she employed no other girls. She was very successful. Many of the more respectable men in town had sneaked along there for an evening, as she hosted drinks parties for her clients. Finally, the barrage of comments had become too much for Rosie, and she had put her house up for sale.

What none of them had expected was that she would set up home close to the Ponderosa. Rosie had approached all of the Cartwrights separately, trying to persuade one of them to take her on as his mistress, and pay for her to live. Ben had been her first attempt, but he had sent her off with a flea in his ear.

Her play for Hoss had been a dead loss, for he was so embarrassed to have her talk to him in the street that he had been unable to do much besides mumble an excuse and flee. Thereafter, whenever she met him, Rosie made sure to flutter her eyelashes at Hoss, simply for the joy of seeing a man that big blush like a child.

Next on the list was Adam, and Rosie had thought she was on to a good thing there. Gossip in town suggested that Adam was the most sophisticated of the Cartwrights, and he had gone to college in Boston, so would be more open to what she was going to suggest. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

It was clear that Adam did find her attractive, but he was coldly polite to her every time they met. He treated her, she thought angrily, like his least favorite maiden aunt. He adroitly side-stepped her every attempt to cajole him into a visit to her home, and she quickly got the message.

That left only Joe, and at first, Rosie had scorned him as a child. However, when they met at a dance one night, she soon realized that Joe was not a child. He had a formidable personal charm and was devastatingly attractive, to boot. His eyes had twinkled at her from across the room that night, but they had been prevented from actually meeting by his family, who seemed determined to keep them apart. Their determination only fuelled Rosie’s own, and she vowed that she would have Joe Cartwright.

“What are you thinking?” Adam asked, as Ben was silent for some time.

“I was wondering if we ought to tell Joe,” Ben admitted. “I would hate to see him in her clutches.”

“I don’t think its something we can keep from him,” Adam replied. “It’s going to be all over town by tonight. Joe will hear from someone, even if it isn’t us. I think you should tell him.”

“You’re right,” Ben agreed heavily. He didn’t want Joe to think they were treating him like a child, but he wasn’t looking forward to the telling.

*****

As it happened, Joe took the news much more calmly than Ben had anticipated. “Oh?” he said, uninterestedly, and continued eating.

If there was one thing you could depend on with Joe, Ben thought, it was his sheer unpredictability. He had thought Joe would brighten up and look interested, and then Ben would have to explain – again – why Rosie was not the kind of companion that was suitable for Joe. It was all horribly reminiscent of the Julia Bulette affair, when Ben had feared he would lose Joe forever. However, Joe’s very lack of enthusiasm had taken the wind out of Ben’s sails, and he wasn’t quite sure how to proceed.

Seeing the look on Ben’s face, Joe hid a smile. It wasn’t often he could discommode Ben like that, and he decided to carry on. “I know,” he added, in the same disinterested tone. “You don’t want me to go there.”

“I’m glad you listen to me sometimes,” Ben commented, dryly. “It makes a pleasant change.”

Glancing up from his meal, Joe gave Ben a brilliant smile. “Oh, Pa, you know I always listen to you,” he postulated. “I just don’t always act on what you say.”

Struggling to hide his own grin, as Adam and Hoss coughed unconvincingly, Ben reached out to cuff Joe playfully around the ear. Joe ducked adroitly. “Just be sure you do it this time,” he warned, and Joe nodded.

“I will,” he assured Ben, although he had secretly hoped to visit Rosie Millard at some point. But right now he was too hot and too tired to think of a way to get around Ben’s restriction.

*****

The gossip mongers had a field day over Rosie Millard’s new residence. Anyone seen riding out on that road was instantly the butt of jokes for several days. Rosie herself continued to be seen around town much as she had always been, driving a very smart buggy. A couple of times, she passed the general store, where Joe and Hoss were often to be found loading supplies into the wagon. Each time, Hoss would duck his head, or turn away to avoid making eye contact, but Joe always raised his hand to tip his hat in greeting, smiling cheerfully the whole time.

Truthfully, Joe didn’t see the problem. He knew what Rosie did for a living, and although he knew it was frowned upon, he didn’t see a great difference between what she did and what the saloon girls did. Ben had raised the boys to be polite and respectful to everyone, regardless of race, color or creed, and Joe followed this tenet. He was a little wary of her, thanks to the severe bruising his heart had received when he had fallen in love with Julia Bulette, an older woman, who was ‘no better than she should have been’. But he didn’t really see the harm in some gentle flirting.

“You jist keep your eyes where they belong,” Hoss warned him.

“Ah, stop worryin’,” Joe chided him. “She’s a pretty woman, and I can look without tastin’.”

“Uh-huh,” commented Hoss. “I heard that afore.”

Rolling his eyes, Joe went back to helping Hoss load the wagon.

*****

There were certainly plenty of chances for Joe to look. Everywhere he went that summer he seemed to run into Rosie. She was frequently in town, and they met often on the road. Several times, Joe went a short distance with her, flirting gently, but ever mindful of his promise to Ben.

For her part, Rosie was quite pleased with the way things were going. She had a current lover, but he was much older than she, and she was tired of him. What she wanted was a Cartwright, and her heart was set on Joe. Unfortunately, it seemed as though Joe was determined to keep a distance between them, and she wasn’t quite sure how to get around it. Patience, she counseled herself. Have patience, and everything you want will come to you.

*****

“We’d better split up,” Adam suggested. “Joe, you go down towards the road. Be careful on that track, you know how loose the shale can be at this time of year. Hoss, you go up towards the tree line. I’ll go straight on. Be careful, both of you. That wolf is hungry and desperate.”

“Sure thing, Adam,” Hoss replied. He tightened his grip on his rifle. “You be careful, too, hear?”

“I will,” Adam answered, and the three split up. The wolf they were chasing had been plaguing the herd. That day, they had caught sight of it, and had followed it. When the going became too rough for the horses, they went on foot. They had lost the tracks on hard ground, and Adam decided that the best way to find the tracks again was to split up.

Moving cautiously, they went on. Before too long, they had lost sight of each other. Joe eased his way along the narrow sheep-track that led down to the road. The footing was treacherous at this time of year, and there was a gulley at the bottom of the hill which always had water in it. The water was stagnant and Joe had no desire to fall into it.

There were no sounds from his brothers, but Joe wasn’t about to call to them. He didn’t want to startle the wolf, should it be close by. He moved slowly and quietly, his ears straining for the sound of a shot.

When it came, it was much closer than Joe had expected, and he jumped. The next moment, something hurled itself from the bushes and hit him in the side. A wild snarling filled his ears, and Joe twisted to meet the sudden attack.

It was hard to say who got the bigger fright – Joe or the wolf. The animal’s weight and the suddenness of the attack knocked Joe off his feet and he tumbled down the steep hillside, still locked together with the wolf. They crashed into the ravine below, where the wolf took one bite at Joe before fleeing. It was bleeding heavily and collapsed and died less than half a mile away.

Joe lay unconscious, partially in the water of the ravine, totally hidden by the overhanging bushes.

*****

“Can you see it?” Adam called to Hoss, as they both plunged through the bushes.

“Nope!” Hoss called back. He skidded to an uncertain halt on the stony path and looked around. “Somethin’ went down over there,” he added, pointing. A trail of stones led to the edge of the hillside.

“Come on,” Adam urged. “Joe must’ve gone after it. Hurry up!” He ran along the path until he came to a point where he could vault safely over the ravine. He landed and ran on, following the trail of blood. Hoss followed behind. Neither of them saw Joe lying a few feet away.

*****

“I cain’t understand it,” Hoss said, scratching his head. “Here’s the wolf dead, with only one shot in it, but there ain’t no signs o’ Joe.”

Looking up at Hoss from where he knelt by the side of the dead wolf, Adam looked worried. “He can’t have been that far ahead of us,” he said. “Could he?”

“He must’ve heard the shot,” Hoss muttered, thinking aloud. “You don’t reckon somethin’s happened to him, do ya?”

“I don’t know,” Adam replied, getting to his feet. “But if he saw this wolf, he didn’t get a chance to shoot at it, that’s for sure. We haven’t heard another shot, and I haven’t heard anyone crying out. Have you?”

“Naw.” Hoss normally placid face was set in a worried frown. Adam tried to ease the worry lines between his own eyes without success. Where could Joe have got to?

“We’d better look for him,” Adam stated, as though they were likely to do otherwise.

Leaving the wolf’s carcass where it was, they set off to retrace their steps.

*****

The young man stirred, wincing as pain shot through his head and back. For a few minutes, he simply lay still, unsure if he had broken anything, but finally he forced open his eyes and peered around. He was wet to the waist, his legs and feet lying in water. With a gargantuan effort, he dragged himself out of the water on to the stony side of a road.

He didn’t seem to have hurt himself all that badly, he decided. One ankle throbbed relentlessly, but it had mostly held his weight as he had scrambled free of the ravine, so he didn’t think it was broken. His shoulders and back hurt, but again, he couldn’t detect any serious injury. His head ached, but that was it.

It was then that he realized that he had no idea where he was or who he was. Panic rose in a physical lump in his throat, and he had to force himself to stay calm. “Easy,” he said, aloud. “Just relax and it’ll come back to you.” He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, but when he opened them again a minute later, he was no nearer to remembering who he was.

It was dusk, he noticed, concentrating on the mundane things to control his panic. It was also becoming cool. He shivered in the sharp breeze that rose from the nearby water. “I’ve got to get to shelter,” he muttered. He rose unsteadily to his feet, and looked up and down the road. Each direction seemed to as unfamiliar as the other. Shrugging, he limped off, not knowing that he was heading away from his home.

*****

“He can’t have vanished into thin air,” Adam said, knowing that he was repeating himself, but unable to understand where Joe had gone.

“We’re losin’ the light,” Hoss commented. “We cain’t track in the dark.”

“I know,” replied Adam, wearily. “Let’s go home. We’ll tell Pa what happened and start looking for Joe again come morning.”

“Ya reckon Pa’ll be willin’ to wait till mornin’?” Hoss asked, as they turned their horses and headed for home.

“No,” Adam admitted, “but he won’t have a lot of choice, will he? This isn’t the kind of area you can search with lanterns.” He rode on in silence for a few moments before once more saying, “I just don’t understand.”

*****

A light glimmered and twinkled in the darkness and the young man was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. He had been limping towards the light for what seemed like hours but was probably less than a quarter of an hour. He was so exhausted that staying on his feet took a real effort of will, but he was determined to reach that light. Sweat trickled into his eyes again, and he wiped it away with an already sodden sleeve.

Finally, he reached his goal, a small ranch house set back from the road he’d been following. He rapped on the door, not at all certain what his reception would be. He just hoped that the person inside would be willing to help him.

The door opened and a woman looked out at him. “Joe!” she exclaimed and a jolt of relief shot through him. This person knew who he was.

“Please, help me,” he said. The warmth coming from the house made him shiver, and he had to concentrate hard on not passing out. “I think I’ve had an accident. I don’t know who I am…” He couldn’t go on, something in him not letting him say more about his ordeal.

“Darling, I’ve been so worried about you,” Rosie Millard replied, opening the door wider and taking his arm. “I was so worried. Come in, you’re frozen.”

“You…know me?” he asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, of course,” Rosie returned, without hesitation. She helped him to a seat and took a good look at him in the light. There was a gash running along his hairline, and his clothes were soaking. She knew he’d hurt his leg by the fact he was limping, but the lack of memory seemed genuine, and Rosie was not one to turn down gifts from the gods like this. Joe’s memory might be back by morning, but in the meantime, she might get what she wanted from him. “You and I live here together.” She took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “We’re flaunting tradition by not being married, don’t you remember?”

“No,” he replied after a moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember. Who are you? Who am I?”

“Your name is Joe Cartwright,” she said, figuring she’d better tell him some of the truth. Besides, if she invented a name for him, she might forget and call him Joe. “I’m Rosie.” She stroked his face, looking with concern into his eyes. They were a haunting shade that was neither green nor hazel, but somewhere in-between.

“Joe Cartwright,” he repeated, trying it on for size. The name didn’t seem particularly familiar to him, but it didn’t seem immediately alien, either, and he took some heart from that. “And you say I live here with you? Do I have a family?”

“Yes, but they don’t approve of the fact that we’re not married and they don’t talk to us.” She smiled sadly. “But we’re happy, even without them.”

Biting his lip, Joe tried to imagine himself living here with this woman. She was lovely, but… He shivered.

“Darling, what am I thinking?” Rosie cried. “You’re soaked through. You must get out of these wet clothes.” She began to unbutton his jacket. Joe looked shocked for a moment, but when she hesitated and looked at him questioningly he smiled.

“I’m sorry, this doesn’t feel right.”

“Of course it doesn’t. I never thought. Look, you get those things off and I’ll bring your robe.” She rose and went through to the other room. With a smile, she checked to make sure there was nothing belonging to another man in sight, and collected the robe she had for her clients. She could barely keep the smile from her face. She would have Joe Cartwright for as long as his memory was lost. He would be grateful to her for loving him, even though he had lost his memory, and he would love her back, of that she was sure.

Returning to the living room, she was in time to help him off with his soaked boots, and realized as she did so why he was limping. His ankle was badly swollen, and as soon as the boot came off, it blew up rapidly, and it was clear that he wouldn’t be walking very far on it for some time. She went to fetch some bandages and expertly bound up the foot while Joe shrugged into the warm wool robe.

As he ate the food she’d prepared, Joe looked around the house curiously. He had no memory of ever being here before, and he felt the panic rising again. How he wished this felt like home. He wanted just to curl up on someone’s lap and be soothed, told that everything would be all right.

Fed and warm, Joe found himself growing sleepy. Rosie smiled as she saw his head nod. “Come on, let’s go to bed,” she said, gently and saw him flinch with surprise. “You’re tired, and you’ve had a hard day,” she went on soothingly. “You need to sleep.”

There was nothing Joe could say to refute this claim, so he nodded and accepted her help in rising and limping through to the bedroom. His ankle was agony, and he knew that he wouldn’t be going very far for a while. He lay down on the bed after Rosie drew aside the sheets and blankets and his eyes closed as his body relaxed.

He was right on the edge of sleep when the bed jolted and he realized that Rosie had just got in beside him. He lay absolutely rigid, sleep chased away, as she put her arms around him murmuring something that he couldn’t catch. “Joe, relax, darling,” she said. “It’s just me.”

“I was surprised,” he muttered, flushing.

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “Just sleep, Joe.” She let go of him, and a few minutes later, he was sound asleep.

*****

Next morning, Joe woke, and turned his head. For a moment, he couldn’t remember where he was, but then the previous evening came back to him and he shut his eyes again. The bed beside him was empty and for a minute, he wondered if he’d imagined the whole thing. He moved, and his body rebelled against it. He ached all over, with the most pain centering on his ankle, and Joe knew that it had all been real.

The bedroom door opened, and Rosie came in.

“Good morning,” she said, giving him a sultry smile.

“Morning,” he answered, giving her a smile.

“How’s your memory this morning?” she asked, and Joe’s smile slipped off his face.

“I still can’t remember anything,” Joe replied, softly. It hurt a lot and he felt almost unbearably lonely. The next moment, his head was drawn down onto Rosie’s shoulder and she stroked his hair gently. For a moment, Joe could almost remember someone else making that same gesture, but as he reached for the memory it slid away, leaving a burst of throbbing pain behind. He winced.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Rosie said, contritely. “The bang on the head you got must have been worse than it seemed last night.” Moving Joe’s head, she examined the gash running along his hairline. It wasn’t deep and was nice and clean. She was a bit surprised about that. Joe was definitely showing signs of a concussion. She moved her hands, and by chance felt the bump on the back of his head through the thickness of his hair. Gently, she parted his curls to look.

The lump was big and bloody, but seemed to be clean. Rosie smiled to herself, content that Joe couldn’t see her face. This was perfect. Just what she needed to keep Joe exactly where she wanted him.

“Darling, you’ve got another bump back here,” she explained, and kissed his wan face. “You just stay in bed for the time being, and get better. I’m sure when the bump goes down you’ll get your memory back.”

Lying back down, Joe looked at her sadly. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I don’t mean to be a burden.”

“You aren’t a burden,” Rosie assured him. “I’ll get you some coffee. I put it on a few minutes ago.”

She was back a few minutes later with the coffee, and Joe drank it eagerly. He wasn’t hungry, but he was thirsty, his mouth seeming as dry as the desert. What he didn’t know was that Rosie had put a couple of drops of laudanum in it, to make him more pliable. After downing a second cup, Joe lay back, feeling tired.

“You’re covered in bruises,” Rosie observed, as she lifted the tray to take away.

“Bound to be, after a fall like that,” Joe replied, and her eyes opened wide.

“Joe! Do you remember?” The tone of her voice suggested delight, but it was actually dread.

For an instant, Joe could picture himself falling, then the mists closed down again. “Not really,” he replied, dully. “I can see myself falling…” Joe was panting slightly.

“It’s all right,” Rosie soothed. “You just relax and I’ll be back in a minute.” She rose gracefully and bore the coffee away.

When she came back into the room, Joe was lying with his eyes closed. His body was quite relaxed. She thought how handsome he was, and fervently hoped that nothing would happen to disturb them until after Joe had become used to living with her. She wanted this boy to be hers.

*****

“This doesn’t make sense,” Ben muttered, and Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. Ben was now acting the way they had acted the previous afternoon. The wolf’s carcass was where they had left it, although it had been partially eaten through the night by other scavengers.

“We’ll have to widen the search,” Ben decided. “Go and knock on doors if need be.”

“There aren’t many doors round here to knock on,” Adam objected.

“We’ve got to do something!” Ben all but shouted. He looked contrite immediately. “I’m sorry, son, I didn’t mean to snap,” he apologized.

“I know,” Adam responded, quietly. “We’re worried, too.” He looked around. “The nearest house is Rosie Millard’s place.”

“I ain’t goin’ there,” Hoss said, quickly.

This was normally the kind of opportunity neither Adam nor Joe could let past, but today Adam didn’t even notice. “I’ll go,” he offered. He turned his mount before he could regret the offer, and rode off.

*****

Standing at the kitchen window, Rosie saw the lone horseman coming along the road. She didn’t recognize him as such, but her gut told her it must be a Cartwright. At once, her fertile brain ran over the possibilities of keeping Joe and his family apart. There was only one thing she could do, and she didn’t hesitate. Joe was hers, and she intended to keep it that way.

Hurrying into the bedroom, she saw that Joe was still asleep. She smiled, and bent to retrieve some items from under the bed. Moving quickly, she looped some soft, strong rope round his wrists and gently drew his arms up till she could tie them off to the head of the bed. The laudanum she’d given Joe was enough to keep him gently in slumber for the time being, she thought, but she couldn’t take a chance. She took a silk scarf from the bag and swiftly gagged him.

That brought Joe awake at once, spitting and fighting, horrified to find himself a prisoner. He struggled and kicked at her, until Rosie punched him just once in the belly, and then tied his feet down, injured ankle not withstanding. “Someone’s coming, and I can’t risk you calling out to them,” she whispered, as the knock came at the door.

Panting, nauseated and suddenly scared, Joe listened to Rosie answering the door. “Why hello, Adam,” Rosie said in the seductive tone he was beginning to know. “How nice of you to come calling.”

“This isn’t a social visit,” Adam replied, sounding constrained. “I’m looking for Joe, have you seen him?”

“Joe? Why no, I haven’t seen him for quite some time. Why? What’s wrong?” Rosie knew that she sounded concerned and waited to see what Adam would say.

“He disappeared yesterday, and we’re concerned that he might be injured. We just wondered if you’d seen anyone or anything out of the ordinary.” Adam was trying very hard not to look at anything below Rosie’s neck, as she was still in her robe, and it was gaping open invitingly.

“Sorry, but I can’t help you,” Rosie replied. “Would you like to come in?”

“No, I still have to look for Joe,” Adam answered. “If you do see anything, could you let us know?”

“Of course,” Rosie putted and watched from the open doorway as Adam went back to his horse. She gave him one last seductive smile before closing the door gently. She leant against it, her heart racing. This was exciting. Joe was tied up in the next room and had undoubtedly heard every word. She would have to think fast to come up with a plausible lie to tell him. She unfastened her robe and let it hang open, sure that the sight of her body would distract Joe, as would the drug she’d given him earlier.

He was still struggling against the bonds, and Rosie thought it might not be wise to let him free straight away. She removed the gag looking apologetic

“What are you playing at?” he cried. “That man was looking for me, wasn’t he?” He pulled against the restraints. “Let me go.”

“That’s the trick they use, darling, when they are trying to get you to come home, don’t you remember?” she asked, pouting prettily. She leaned down to kiss him. “I’m sorry, darling; I guess I just panicked when I saw him coming. But this is your home, and I want you to stay here with me. I love you.”

“Let me go!” he demanded again.

“All right,” Rosie chided. “Joe, you don’t have to shout at me. I said I was sorry.”

“I am too,” he responded. Her explanation didn’t really make sense to him. He didn’t understand why he felt so tired and put it down to the bumps on his head and the memory loss. The only thing he could say was that his head didn’t hurt right then. It didn’t occur to him to wonder why. He was asleep in moments.

*****

“Well, Ben, I’ll surely keep my eyes open for Little Joe, but he ain’t bin seen in town in several days,” Roy Coffee, the sheriff of Virginia City said. “There ain’t anybody around that I can’t account fer, and I ain’t seen anyone who might want to hurt Joe.”

“Thank you, Roy,” Ben replied, frustrated with the way this search was going. There was no sign that Joe had ever been on the hillside, apart from the marks where, presumably, he and the wolf had fallen over the edge of the track. Ben was beside himself with worry.

“Wish there was somethin’ more I could tell ya, Ben,” Roy muttered. “This is downright peculiar, that it is. I hope ya find Little Joe soon.”

Outside the sheriff’s office, Ben stopped. He had no idea what to do next. They had looked everywhere for Joe, and had hands still out scouring the countryside. Was he expected to go tamely home and wait to see if Joe reappeared? A glance at the darkening sky, where thunderhead clouds pushed and jostled for position told him that this was exactly what he ought to do. His heart cried out against the idea. What if Joe was out in the storm somewhere? But once more, Ben was forced to admit that he had no idea where Joe was, and he mounted and rode home.

*****

The storm broke in spectacular fashion. Snug in Rosie’s bed, Joe gazed out of the window, watching the lightning lighting up the sky. He felt very peculiar, and was trying to puzzle out what was wrong with him. His body felt light, yet when he moved his limbs were dead weights. His sore ankle barely hurt, and his head hurt not at all. He couldn’t focus his thoughts for very long, and his mind felt kind of fuzzy.

He had slept on and off all afternoon, although Rosie had roused him to eat a meal she had made for him. His coffee afterwards had been liberally laced with laudanum once more. Joe had gone straight back to sleep until he was woken by the storm.

“My name is Joe Cartwright,” he said, aloud, but the name still didn’t sound familiar. His memory was still lost. Strangely, this didn’t seem to worry him as much as it had the previous day, but he put that down to the fact that he was getting used to the idea. It didn’t occur to him that this was something you would never get used to.

The door opened and Rosie came in and when she saw he was awake, she smiled at him. “How do you feel?”

“Tired,” he answered, which was the truth.

“You’ll feel better in time,” she assured him, “and your memory will come back and then we’ll be as happy as we were before, won’t we?”

Unable to bring himself to agree, Joe gave a tremulous smile. As the storm died down, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. It seemed the easiest thing to do.

Beside him, Rosie lay awake and plotted her course. By the time Joe regained his memory, if he ever did, he would be hers completely.

*****

“Well, I don’t care how ridiculous it sounds!” Ben shouted at Adam. “We’re going to retrace our steps and find Joe!”

“We’ve looked everywhere,” Adam shouted back. “For all we know, he’s run off somewhere. He’s done it before”

“Not on foot,” Hoss interjected, quietly. “He ain’t never run off an’ left his pony behind.”

His quiet intervention in the argument brought his father and older brother up short, as he’d hoped it would do. Hoss was quite used to being peacemaker in the family, but usually between Adam and Joe, not Adam and Ben. Hoss was no less worried about Joe’s disappearance than the rest of the family, but it wasn’t his way to shout a lot. He glanced from face to face, until he was convinced he’d got his message through.

“I dunno where Joe has gone,” he went on when he had their full attention. “But I think he’d hurt an’ needs us bad. Pa is right, Adam; we gotta keep on lookin’ for him.”

“I know,” Adam replied, quietly, his momentary anger gone. “I’m sorry I shouted at you, Pa.”

“I know you are, boy,” Ben agreed, softly. “And so am I. I guess we’re both worried about him.”

“I guess,” the oldest son nodded. He forced a smile. “When aren’t we worried about him?” he added wryly.

*****

It was about 9 o’clock when Rosie woke. She stretched luxuriously and turned to admire Joe. He was still sound asleep and a little paler than usual. She smiled and got up to go and make his morning coffee, complete with his next dose of laudanum.

Once more at the kitchen window, Rosie saw Ben Cartwright coming to her door. A jolt of panic shot through her. Ben was going to arrive much more quickly than Adam had when she had seen him coming, and she panicked.

Running back to the bedroom, she snatched up the rope she’d used previously, and began to wind it round Joe’s hands. Her movements were rough and panicky and Joe startled awake. His head throbbed miserably and he felt slightly sick. “What are you doing?” he gasped.

“Shut up!” she hissed at him, tightening the rope viciously. “Just shut up!” She hadn’t thought the Cartwrights would be back and she knew Ben would be a great deal less easy to convince that Adam had been.

Her panic infected Joe, although he had no idea what was wrong. He just knew that he did not want to be tied up, whatever kind of games Rosie had in mind. “Let me go!” he yelled, struggling harder. But his hands were securely bound.

When Rosie grabbed his feet, Joe cried out with pain, and kicked at her. The laudanum was wearing off and Joe’s natural tendency to take action was reasserting itself. As Rosie staggered back, shaken but unhurt, Joe rolled across the bed to get up. He couldn’t stay there any longer. His memory hadn’t returned, but he knew he had to get out of there.

The thunderous knock on the door froze them both into immobility. Joe was more startled than he cared to admit. Rosie was simply horrified. She dived at Joe, snatching up the silk scarf she had gagged him with previously and tried to force it into his mouth.

Using his bound hands, Joe fought her off. “No!” he cried, twisting away and diving to the floor. He knew that his ankle was too sore to walk on so he began to crawl away. Rosie jumped on him, driving him to the floor with her weight, and tried, once more, to gag him. Joe fought furiously, crying out angrily, but not sure of what he was saying.

He heard the knocking on the door once more, and a deep voice calling his name. “Joe? Is that you? Joe!”

“Help me, whoever you are!” Joe cried, and Rosie heard the sudden thudding as Ben started to break down her front door.

“You fool!” she shrieked at Joe. “You’d have been happy with me! Now look what you’ve done!” She abandoned her attempts to subdue him and ran across the room to pull open the top drawer of her bureau.

The door gave way and Ben catapulted into the house. He saw Joe lying on the floor, his hands bound in front of him. Rosie stood behind him, a six-gun in her hand. It was aimed at Joe, and it appeared that she knew how to use it. “No!” he cried. “Rosie, don’t!”

She never hesitated. She pulled the trigger as Joe gazed at her, mesmerized by exhaustion. The bullet bit into his flesh, and he cried out as the searing pain radiated throughout his body. As he lost consciousness, he heard another shot being fired.

*****

“Oh no! Pa!” Hoss cried and he and Adam spurred their horses towards the wooden house just along the road. They flung themselves from their mounts’ back and raced up the path, their guns drawn.

Ben was standing there, his back to them. “Pa! Are you all right?” Adam demanded. Then he glanced into the room beyond and saw his younger brother’s body lying bleeding on the floor. “Joe!”

As though his son’s voice had been the catalyst he’d needed to break the spell, Ben moved and ran to Joe’s side. He knelt by the bleeding youth and gently untied his hands. “Hand me that blanket!” he ordered, harshly and Hoss hurried to obey, while Adam went cautiously over to check on Rosie. She was dead.

“What happened?” Adam asked. “Is Joe…?” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.

“Alive,” Ben replied. “Get the doctor. We’ve got to get Joe home. We can’t leave him here.”

“All right,” Adam agreed, although he thought privately that moving Joe might be the worst thing they could do to him. He’d been shot from close range and the bullet was still in his side. However, he could see why Ben wouldn’t want Joe to remain here, where he had come so close to death, and where another dead body lay – that of the woman who had tried to keep Joe to herself, for whatever reason. “Come on, Hoss,” he urged. “We’ll hitch Rosie’s buggy and Pa can take Joe home in that and I’ll get the doctor.”

“Right,” Hoss answered, relieved to have something to do. Joe lay so still, Hoss feared he was dying.

*****

There was an anxious wait for the family while Paul Martin removed the bullet from Joe’s left side. The trip home had done Joe no favors, as Adam had feared, but he said nothing, knowing that Ben was more than worried enough.

“What was he doing there?” Ben fretted. “How long do you think he’d been there?”

“I think he must have been there all along,” Adam answered. “When I went there, Rosie must have been hiding him. Perhaps he was unconscious, or she had him tied up. Until Joe tells us, we won’t know.

“Why would she do that?” Ben cried. “Why?”

“She wanted a Cartwright,” Adam replied. “You know how we’d joked about her trying to hook one of us. It may be that she saw what she thought was her chance and took it.”

“Dadburnit, what’s takin’ so long?” Hoss growled. He sat slumped on the edge of the fireplace, his face a picture of misery.

His word might have been a cue, for they heard Paul’s footsteps on the landing and their friend appeared round the corner of the stairs. He hesitated momentarily before starting down. “He’s going to be all right,” Paul said, and for such a cheerful statement, his voice sounded as flat as though he had told them Joe’s life was in grave danger.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked, picking up on his tone straight away.

Sighing, Paul wondered if there was an easy way to break this to them but decided that there wasn’t. “Ben, Joe has lost his memory. He can’t remember any of you, or me either.”

“What?” Ben gasped. “How… when…?” He didn’t quite know what to ask.

“Joe thinks he fell. He can’t quite remember where he was, or why, but he remembers falling. He’s covered with bruises, Ben, and there are a couple of bumps on his head. Either would be sufficient to give him a concussion.”

“I saw the gash on his hairline,” Ben muttered.

“There’s another on the back of his head,” Paul went on. “Apart from the bruises and abrasions the only other injury I can find is the sprained ankle. Joe says he walked on it to get to Rosie’s house.” Paul saw the whole family wince as one. “I don’t know when he’ll get his memory back, Ben. Time is the only cure that I know of.” Paul rose. “Keep him quiet for at least a week. I don’t think he’ll want to get up much, but discourage him as best you can.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied, his tone distracted. He saw the doctor out and then headed to the stairs. He started to climb, then paused to look back at his other 2 sons. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked.

“Joe might feel rather overwhelmed,” Adam answered.

“But he needs to know who you are,” Ben responded. “Just come and say hello. You never know, that might be enough to trigger his memory.”

Nodding doubtfully, Adam and Hoss followed Ben upstairs. He knocked briskly on Joe’s door and went in without waiting for a response. Exchanging concerned looks, Adam and Hoss again followed.

“How do you feel, Joe?” Ben asked, going over to lean on the head of the bed.

“Who are you?” Joe asked. His eyes were shadowed with sleep. He remembered seeing this man before, but he had no idea who he was.

“I’m your father,” Ben answered, trying to hide his distress at the question.

At once, Joe’s eyes filled with tears, and he closed them so that this man wouldn’t see him crying. He had so wanted to find his family, thinking that when he did, he would remember them. But it hadn’t happened. This was his father, and he didn’t know him.

A warm hand stroked his head, and for an instant, Joe felt an echo of a memory, of feeling loved and cared for. But as he tried to grasp it, it dissolved, leaving him bereft. “Easy, son,” crooned his father’s voice. “You’re home and you’re safe here with me and your brothers.”

Gaining control over his emotions, Joe opened his eyes. “Is my name really Joe?” he asked.

“Yes, it is,” Ben answered. “These are your brothers, Hoss and Adam.”

Embarrassed, Hoss muttered something that Joe didn’t catch. “Hi, buddy,” Adam said, softly.

“You were at the house,” Joe said. “You said… I don’t quite remember. Something about looking for me.”

“That’s right,” Adam agreed.

“We’ve been looking for you for a few days,” Ben assured him. “We love you very much.”

“Why didn’t you let me know you were there?” Adam asked, ignoring his father’s hard look. “Why didn’t you call out? I know you have no idea who I am, but I thought you might have called out to me.”

“I couldn’t,” Joe muttered. He looked away, a flush crawling up his neck as he remembered Rosie and what she had done to him.

“Why not, Joe?” Hoss asked, gently. Joe looked up at him. The man seemed huge, looming over the bed like that, but Joe didn’t feel afraid of him. In fact, he reflected, slightly surprised, he didn’t feel afraid of any of them, even though they were strangers.

“I was tied up,” he murmured. “I couldn’t.” He lifted his head and looked at Adam. “Rosie said you did that whenever you wanted to try and get me to come home.”

“What did she mean by that?” Ben asked, determinedly keeping his voice gentle.

Again the flush stained Joe’s neck. “She said we were living together without being married and you didn’t approve of us.”

Aghast, Ben just stared at Joe. “That isn’t true, son,” he finally managed, still gently. “You weren’t living with Rosie at all. You were out with your brothers hunting a wolf when you disappeared.”

Abruptly, Joe remembered falling again, and it seemed to him this time that there was someone or something else with him. The impression was blurred, but it made him more inclined to believe what he had been told. “I sort of remember falling,” he essayed tentatively.

“We think you fell from a path into a ravine filled with water,” Adam added.

“I remember that,” he said, wonderingly. “I remember wakening in a ravine, and being wet through.” A huge yawn suddenly shook him.

“That’s enough for tonight,” Ben admonished. “You get some sleep, Joe, and if you need me, don’t hesitate to call.”

“What should I call you?” Joe wondered, and Ben looked shocked.

“You always called me ‘Pa’ before,” he suggested. “But whatever you’re comfortable with, Joe.” He hesitated before leaning close and brushing a kiss over his son’s brow. “Good night, son,” he whispered.

“G’night, Pa,” Joe replied, drowsily. Ben was startled, but realized that Joe hadn’t been aware of what he said. It was habit, what he said every night. Ben’s heart ached within him, but he had a shred of hope, too that Joe’s memory would come back in time.

*****

It was surprisingly easy to keep Joe in bed for the prescribed week. He slept a good deal to begin with, as he made up the blood loss. It was clearly very difficult for him to accept help from strangers, even loving strangers. He had quickly become familiar with the interior of his room, and was most reluctant to venture out of it into territory unknown. However, the arrival of Roy Coffee, with questions for him about his time with Rosie prompted his first view of his home.

With help from Ben, for he was still weak, Joe dressed and took a deep breath before venturing out into the hallway. He instinctively turned in the right direction to reach the stairs, and looked startled. Ben was encouraged. Joe’s memory might be lost to him at the moment, but it clearly wasn’t gone for good.

On the landing, Joe stopped and had a good look round. The great room seemed huge to Joe and he was interested to see that it was really three rooms in one. Ben stood patiently behind him, waiting for him to take it all in. When he had seen enough for the time being, and desperately needing to sit down, Joe continued his slow, carefully journey down the stairs and made straight for the settee, where he habitually sat.

Roy was standing by the fire, warming his hands. The weather had suddenly turned cold and wet, and he was feeling chilly, even thought it was July. “How are ya, Little Joe?” Roy asked, and a strange frisson ran down Joe’s spine. It was a sensation he was all too familiar with. It had had it many times since coming here, and he felt it was connected to a memory he couldn’t quite retrieve.

“Joe, this is Roy Coffee, the sheriff of Virginia City,” Ben explained. “He wants to ask you some questions abut the time you spent with Rosie. Do you want me to go or stay? The choice is yours.”

“Could you stay, please?” Joe asked, looking at Ben.

“Of course,” Ben replied and waved Roy to a seat before sitting down himself beside Joe.

“Joe, you know your pa here shot Rosie. Can you tell me what happened just before that?”

“I’m not really too sure,” Joe began. He thought back and shuddered. “I woke suddenly and she was trying to tie me up. She’d done it before, but I didn’t want that, and I fought her. But I couldn’t stop her tying my hands. Then there was a knock at the door and I heard my name called.” He glanced at Ben. “It was you, wasn’t it?” He had yet to call Ben by any name at all.

“Yes, it was me,” Ben replied.

“I was fighting her off,” Joe went on. “Then I heard sounds of the door being broken down, and Rosie ran over to the chest and took a gun out of the drawer. She aimed it at me. She shot me.” He stopped, unsure if there was anything else to say.

“Then I shot her,” Ben admitted, although Roy already knew this. Joe, however, didn’t.

“You shot her to save me?” he asked, amazed.

“You’re my son,” Ben repeated, gently. “I would give my life for you.”

There was a pause. Finally, Roy shifted slightly and cleared his throat. Joe’s gaze went back to him. “You told Adam she had tied you up before. Can you tell me about it?”

Slowly, reluctantly, Joe told the story. “I was really tired,” he muttered. “But I woke up when she was trying to gag me. My hands and feet were already tied to the bed. I couldn’t fight her off. She said, she couldn’t trust me not to cry out.” He swallowed. “I heard Adam’s voice. I didn’t know it was Adam then. She spoke to him and he went away. Then she came back and took the gag out, and said that this was a tick they often pulled, trying to see if I was there so they could trick me into coming home.”

“I see,” Roy said, slowly. He shot a glance at Ben, too, but couldn’t read his expression. “Joe, there won’t be any charges against your father. Rosie is dead, but she would’ve been charged with kidnapping you. However, none of this need go any further. I hope you get better real soon, boy.” Fetching his hat, Roy bid them both goodbye and left. But he would have dearly loved to have been a fly on the wall to hear what was said after his departure.

“Are you angry?” Joe ventured.

“Not with you, son,” Ben assured him. “But I am angry with Rosie.” So angry, in fact, that he didn’t know what to say. “I’m very angry with her.”

“I don’t understand this,” Joe cried. “Why did she do that?”

“Rosie was a whore,” Ben said, wearily. “She wanted one of us Cartwrights to keep her as a mistress, and after we all rebuffed her, it seemed she set her sights on you. It was chance that delivered you into her hands, but she clearly took full advantage of it. None of this is your fault, Joe and I don’t want you blaming yourself.”

The headache was back, throbbing away. Joe desperately wanted to cry; he desperately wanted to remember his family, so he could hold this man, his father, and confess his confusion to him. Joe was innocent, but not inexperienced with women and he knew that what Rosie had done was wrong. So why hadn’t he fought any harder?

“Why didn’t I resist?” he cried, anguished.

“Paul thinks she might have been drugging you,” Ben replied, listlessly. He so wanted to hold Joe, but knew his son was not ready for that yet. “He said there were some symptoms, but he didn’t tell me what they were.” He shook his head. “That, combined with the knock on the head, probably was enough to make you more passive.”

Suddenly, it all seemed to come crashing down on Joe. He had been a prisoner in her house and she had taken advantage of him in the worst way. He was physically unharmed, luckily, and mentally, he had come out of it quite sane, thanks to the combination of drugs and concussion. But the thought that someone could do something so despicable to a person made vulnerable by injury was more than Joe could take at that moment.

With an incoherent cry, Joe shoved himself to his feet and ran towards the stairs. Ben made a move to grab him, but Joe evaded him easily. “Joe!” Ben cried.

“Leave me alone!” Joe yelled, and made the landing. But there his luck ran out. His ankle was a good deal better, but certainly not up to Joe running on it. He had been unable to get boots on, and so had only on socks. He couldn’t maintain his footing as he lunged up the longer flight of stairs. His feet shot out from under him and Joe crashed to the stairs, sliding down and banging his head off every step.

In an instant, Ben was at his side. Joe was out cold, a trace of blood on his lips where he had bitten them. “Joe!” Ben exclaimed. “Hop Sing!” he shouted. “Quick, get help. Joe’s hurt!”

*****

Joe was unconscious for a long time. Paul Martin was summoned and examined Joe thoroughly. “He’s damaged that ankle again, worse than ever,” Paul said, binding up the injury gently. “It’ll be weeks before he can walk properly. I’ll send out some crutches from town for him.”

“Why is he still out?” Ben demanded.

“I don’t know,” Paul admitted. “I’ll wait here, if I can, to examine him when he wakes.”

*****

As dusk fell, cloaking the yard in soft hues, Joe stirred and woke. He opened his eyes and looked around his room. Ben and Paul were standing by the window and hadn’t notice him wakening. Joe smiled. Whenever he woke, Ben was never very far away.

“Pa,” he said, softly and as Ben turned, an incredulous look on his face, Joe realized what he had said. “Pa,” he repeated, and it suddenly occurred to him that he had thought that this was his room, as opposed to the room, as he had thought for the last week. “I remember,” he cried. “I remember!”

“Everything?” Paul questioned, coming over to look at Joe closely.

“Yes, everything,” Joe assured him, his eyes swimming with tears.

“He’s going to be all right, Ben,” Paul said, straightening. “Just keep him in bed until I can get those crutches out to him.”

“Oh, not more bed rest!” Joe protested, and at that moment, Ben knew that he had his son back, himself once more, and the tears broke free.

“Oh, Joe!” he cried and gathered his son into his arms.

This was what he had been longing for, all those dark days when he couldn’t remember who he was, Joe thought. He buried his head in his father’s shoulder and sobbed with relief. He felt safe and secure, the loss of his innocence unimportant in the strength and security of his father’s love.

They were still sitting like that when Hoss and Adam came in, alerted by Paul that their brother had recovered.

Smiling at them, still secure in Ben’s embrace, Joe thought how lucky he was to have a family like this. He pitied Rosie intensely, but he no longer hated her memory. It had no power to hurt him, as long as he had love like this to sustain him.

***End***

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