The Course of True Love (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,239


 

 

The general store was always crowded with sacks and barrels of things everywhere you looked. Today, Joe thought there seemed to be more space for customers to walk about in, and he glanced round, seeing odd gaps here and there. There had been a bad storm the previous day and Joe guessed that the supply wagon had not yet arrived.

At the counter in front of Joe was a woman clutching a baby. Joe looked at the baby incuriously, seeing that it was very young. It was also sound asleep in its mother’s arms. He fished in his pocket for the list of supplies that they needed while the woman finished up her shopping.

“Thank you, Mrs. Smith,” Cameron, the storekeeper, said. “Hi, Joe. What can I do for you?”

“Here’s the list,” Joe replied, handing it over. He glanced at the woman as she fumbled in her reticule, putting away her change. She was much younger than Joe had expected – in fact, he wouldn’t have put her age above 20, if that, which made her younger than he was.

“We’re expecting the supply wagon any minute,” Cameron told Joe, drawing the young man’s attention back. “You’ll have to wait for it before you can get this flour and coffee.”

“No problem,” Joe replied, cheerfully. “I can wait. It would be a tragedy if we didn’t have flour and coffee at the Ponderosa. I’ll come back for it.”

“Sure thing, Joe,” Cameron agreed. “I’ll start gathering the rest of the supplies for you.”

Turning to leave the store, Joe saw that Mrs. Smith was struggling to pick up her shopping and hold her baby. “Can I help you, ma’am?” Joe asked politely, tipping his hat.

“Well, thank you Mr…” She let the sentence trail off and Cameron jumped in before Joe could say anything.

“Mrs. Smith, this is Joe Cartwright of the Ponderosa ranch. Joe, this is Mrs. Smith. She just moved into town.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Joe smiled.

“Likewise,” Mrs. Smith returned. She tilted her head to look at him for the first time and smiled. Joe’s smile widened. Mrs. Smith was one of the most beautiful women had had ever seen. Her eyes were as green as his own and the hair that peeped out from under her fashionable hat was a coppery color. Her skin was fair and her teeth were straight and white. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright; I would welcome your help.”

Reflecting that it was a pity this girl was married, Joe picked up her parcels, grinned at Cameron and followed Mrs. Smith out of the store. It was a warm day, and he saw Mrs. Smith move the baby so that the sun wasn’t shining directly on its face. “Cute baby,” he remarked, more to make conversation than anything else. Joe wasn’t even sure if the child was a girl or a boy.

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” she replied.

“Please, call me Joe,” he asked. “I always think people mean my pa when they call me Mr. Cartwright.” He caught a glimpse of her face. “If you think that’s appropriate,” he added hastily. “If your husband won’t mind.”

“I’m a widow,” she replied. “So my husband won’t mind. Very well, Joe, but you must call me Caitlin.”

“It’ll be my pleasure, Caitlin,” he responded. “I’m so sorry about your husband.” He paused for a moment. “What’s the baby’s name?”

“She’s called Marie,” Caitlin replied, looking down on the sleeping infant. “She’s 8 weeks old tomorrow.”

“My mother’s name was Marie,” Joe told her. They smiled at each other.

“You say ‘was’,” Caitlin ventured.  She wasn’t sure how to go on.

“She died when I was very young,” Joe replied, saving her embarrassment. “I don’t really remember her very clearly.”

“Just like Marie won’t remember her father,” Caitlin sighed. “He died three months before she was born.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe repeated. “That must be very hard for you. Do you have family here?”

“No,” she replied. “My parents are back east. My in-laws are both very elderly. When Simon died, I stayed with them for a while and went home for a while, but after Marie was born, I realized that I had to make a fresh start. Back home, I was Simon Smith’s widow and I wasn’t allowed to just be me, Caitlin. So I made the decision to move here.”

“That was very brave with a new baby,” Joe marveled.

“Foolish, more like,” Caitlin smiled. “But Simon left me money and I can afford to get some help. I’m very lucky, really. I could have been left destitute.” She smiled again, but there was a wistful edge to it now. “There are advantages to marrying a man much older than yourself,” she added. She stopped in front of a small house. “Thank you for your help, Joe,” she repeated.

“Let me take these inside for you,” Joe insisted. The baby was just beginning to stir. Caitlin smiled her thanks. “How much older than you was your husband?”

“I’m 19,” Caitlin replied, matter-of-factly. “And Simon was 45.” She tried to smile brightly, but tears trembled on the edges of her lashes. “It didn’t seem like a big gap.” The tears suddenly broke free and Joe was embarrassed. But after a moment, he found that he had put his arms round her, and Caitlin was leaning on his shoulder, sobbing quietly.

After a couple of moments, Marie woke and began to cry. Caitlin sniffed, and broke away from Joe, horrified at how forward she had been with this young man she had only known about half an hour. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologized, her fair skin staining with color.

“Don’t be,” Joe replied. “You’re alone and I’m your friend. Aren’t I?” he coaxed and she smiled.

“Yes, you are. Thank you. My first friend here in town.”

“But not your last, I’d bet,” Joe assured her and politely tipped his hat before taking his leave.

*****

“Well, nice of you to come home at last,” Ben remarked as Joe pulled the wagon to a halt. “Was there a queue at the saloon?”

“No, there was a wait for the supply wagon to arrive,” Joe replied, jumping down from the seat. “It got held up by yesterday’s storm and it was real late arriving in. Sorry it took so long.” He reached for the top sack of flour.

“I was kidding, son,” Ben chided, gently. “You’re not that late.” He watched Joe carry the sack over to the kitchen door and drop it down. “See anyone you knew?”

“Not really,” Joe answered, picking up the next item. “I met the person who bought O’Leary’s cottage though. A Mrs. Smith, a widow.”

“Well, I hope you didn’t meet her in the saloon,” Ben joked.

“No, the store,” Joe replied, his eyes twinkling furiously. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “She’s a real nice lady, Pa. I carried her shopping home for her.”

“That was kind of you,” Ben approved.

“She couldn’t manage the shopping and the baby,” Joe added, carrying a crate of vegetables over.

“Baby?” Ben queried.

“Uh-huh,” Joe confirmed, still diligently unloading the supplies. He was finding it hard to keep his face schooled to neutrality.

“Which baby is this, Joe?” Ben asked, totally confused.

“Why, her baby, of course,” Joe responded. “Marie her name is, just like Mama. She’s 8 weeks old and as cute as a button.”

“But I thought you said this lady is a widow,” Ben said.

“She is,” agreed Joe, deciding that the teasing had better stop there if he wanted to sit down for his supper that night. “Caitlin’s 19 and she was widowed about 5 months ago. Her husband was much older than she was.”

Pursing his lips, Ben sought to look disapproving. “You rascal!” he scolded. “Winding me up like that!” He shook his head at Joe, but he couldn’t stop a smile breaking out. Joe grinned back. “You seem to know an awful lot about her,” he went on. “Could it be that the young widow is pretty?”

“She’s beautiful,” Joe replied. “And she’s a very nice girl.”

“Joe, just remember that she is newly widowed,” Ben reminded him gently. “Her emotions will be very confused right now.”

“I know that, Pa,” Joe replied, blithely and Ben almost winced aloud. He could see how keen Joe was on his new friend and he hoped that his carefree son wouldn’t get his heart broken.

*****

It was unusual for Joe to be so keen to go to church, Ben thought as they rode in. Yet he hadn’t had to call Joe more than once and there were none of the customary attempts to avoid going. Joe found the sitting still in church a real chore and Ben sometimes wondered if his son would ever get over his fidgets.

As they hitched the horses to the rail outside the church, Ben caught Joe scanning the people who were arriving for the service. Amused, Ben suddenly understood his son’s sudden desire to be in church; he hoped Caitlin Smith would be there. Ben, who had much more experience with babies than Joe, knew that it was unlikely, but he didn’t say anything. If Joe mentioned her name, Ben resolved he would tell him that babies generally didn’t keep very good time.

As they sat down in the pew, Joe suddenly turned to Ben and a brilliant smile lit his face. “There’s Caitlin,” he whispered and pointed discreetly in her direction. She was sitting a couple of rows in front of them on the other side of the aisle.

Looking in that direction, all Ben could see was the slim figure and the copper-colored hair. The end of a shawl hung down by her hip and Ben guessed that she had brought the baby with her. Marie was clearly asleep and Caitlin had taken a seat where she could make a discreet exit if necessary. Ben couldn’t see her face, but he nodded and smiled at Joe, laughing inwardly when he saw his son settle back contentedly.

It was one of the most peaceful services that Ben could remember with Joe present. How much of the sermon actually took root in Joe’s brain was debatable, but at least he didn’t have to be reminded to sit still about 20 times. He pretended not to notice when Joe leapt from the pew as the congregation began to leave. Sure enough, Joe made a bee-line for Caitlin’s side.

“Hi there,” he called and Caitlin smiled at him.

“Hello, Joe, how nice to see you here.” She shifted the baby’s position. “How are you?”

“I’m absolutely fine,” Joe replied. “How are you? And how’s this little lady?” He leaned over to peek into the shawl.

“Heavy!” Caitlin laughed. “I wasn’t sure if she’d sleep this long, but it was so nice to get out of the house.”

“I’ll take her if you’d like,” Joe offered, although he always felt rather handless when it came to babies. He liked children and children liked him, but he’d had very little to do with babies.

“Are you sure?” Caitlin asked, but she handed Marie over with nary a qualm when Joe nodded.

Together, they walked up the aisle to the door and Ben, who was chatting to the minister, thought that they looked like any young couple with their first child. The thought created a pang through his heart. He wanted his sons to get married and have children and he had been younger than Joe when he had been widowed, but he wasn’t sure that this young woman was the right one for Joe. He knew that he was reacting to the fact that she had been married to an older man, and that he didn’t want Joe to take on a ready-made family, knowing how difficult that could be. Chiding himself mentally for pre-judging the woman, he stepped aside as Joe introduced her to the minister. They spoke briefly before Joe turned to Ben.

“Caitlin, this is my father, Ben Cartwright. Pa, this is Caitlin Smith.” Joe beamed at Ben. “And this little lady is Marie Smith.” He tilted the baby so that Ben could admire her.

“How do you do, Mrs. Smith,” Ben replied, shaking her hand. He could see why Joe was so taken with her.

“I’m so pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright. Joe was such a big help to me the other day. I don’t know how I would have got home without his aid.” Caitlin beamed up at him.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Ben replied. “And what a lovely little lady this is. She looks like you,” he added.

For a moment, a cloud passed over Caitlin’s face. “Thank you,” she responded. “But she actually looks like her late father.” The smile she produced was rather strained, but Ben pretended not to notice.

“Well, she is a beauty,” Ben remarked. He glanced up as Hoss and Adam came over.

“Hey, Joe, you look right purty with a baby in yer arms,” Hoss called as he drew near. He tipped his hat to Caitlin. “Ma’am.”

“This is my brother Hoss,” Joe explained, looking pained. “And that’s my other brother Adam,” he added, as Adam came into view.

“Hello,” Adam said, smiling at her. He moved to peer at the baby, and just at that moment, Marie opened her eyes and realized at once that she was no longer with her mother. Joe’s look of dismay as the baby gave vent to her ire was hilarious.

“I’d better go,” Caitlin said, reaching for the baby. “It was so nice to meet you all. I hope to see you again soon. Goodbye.” She hurried away, clutching the screaming infant to her.

“She seems a very nice girl,” Ben commented as they went back to the horses.

“And you sure looked the part holding that baby,” Adam added in a teasing tone. “Better watch out, Joe; she could be looking for a new father for that baby.”

“That’s uncalled for!” Joe protested. “Caitlin was widowed a few months ago. How could you suggest that she’s looking for another husband already? You don’t know her.”

“I was just joking,” Adam objected. “There’s no need to go off at me like that. You did look nice holding that baby. But if you don’t mind someone with more experience offering a little advice, next time, don’t look so worried. It doesn’t instill confidence in the mother, you know.”

Regaining his sense of humor, Joe retorted, “It wasn’t my face that set her off screaming, big brother! Just remember that when you offer advice.” He put his heel to his horse and rode off in front.

“Ya asked fer that, Adam,” Hoss chortled.

In reply, Adam just rolled his eyes.

*****

A familiar pattern began to emerge over the next few days. Every morning, when Ben gave out their assignments, Joe would listen hopefully to see if there was anything needing doing in town. When there wasn’t, he would ask if the mail needed collecting, or some supplies. When Ben shook his head each and every time, Joe would look disappointed before mooching off to find his horse.

“You do realize that Joe is in love, don’t you?” Adam asked his father one morning before he went out.

“Joe thinks he’s in love,” Ben corrected. “And yes, I recognize the signs. He’s always like this when he has his eye on a new girl. I wonder how long it will take him to ask her out.”

“What do you think of her?” Adam asked.

“She seems a nice girl,” Ben replied. He sipped his coffee thoughtfully. “She’s very young to be left alone with a new baby, that’s for sure. I just hope that loneliness doesn’t get to her and she agrees to marry someone just to have company.”

“By someone, do you mean Joe?” Adam probed. “Because we both know what he’s like; he’s half convinced that he’s in love with Caitlin already. It wouldn’t take much of a push before Joe was convinced that they are made for each other.”

“Not just Joe,” Ben denied. “But it’s a worry. Perhaps as he gets to know her better, he’ll cool off a little.”

“Let’s hope so,” Adam agreed, but his tone indicated that he thought it a forlorn hope.

*****

“I need one of you to go into town this morning,” Ben announced over breakfast the next day. “There’s a crate of horseshoes waiting to be collected from the blacksmith’s shop and we need some more nails. We’re running low and Charlie told me that the fence in the north pasture is down.”

“I’ll go into town,” Adam offered, his disinterested demeanor hiding the mischief that prompted the offer.

“I’ll go,” Hoss suggested. “Ya need someone big an’ strong to carry them horseshoes.”

“Well, that’s true,” Ben hedged, knowing perfectly well that his older sons were intent on tormenting the life out of his youngest son.

“I’m strong!” Joe protested. “I could go.”

“But that wouldn’t be fair,” Adam objected, using one of Joe’s favorite arguments against him. “You went in for the supplies last week. It must be either Hoss’ or my turn.”

Hoss suddenly coughed loudly into his fist to try and hide the laughter that threatened to break out as he saw Joe’s indignant face. Joe shot him a glance and suddenly tumbled that he was being teased. However, this revelation didn’t restore his good humor. He scowled ferociously at his family, all of whom were now laughing at him openly. “Fine!” he snapped. “One of you go into town!” He threw his napkin down on his plate and stormed out.

“That was cruel,” Ben sniggered.

“But it was very funny,” Adam replied. “Did you see his face when I said it wasn’t fair?”

“He sure is in a snit, ain’t he?” Hoss chortled.

“Go and get him and tell him he can go into town, Adam, please,” Ben requested. “I can’t bear a whole day of his bad temper.”

“Sure thing,” Adam agreed and rose.

Outside, he was surprised to find Joe hitching the wagon. “Going somewhere?” he asked.

Flushing, Joe said nothing, continuing to fasten the necessary straps. The horse tossed its head and moved uneasily, sensing the man’s anger.

“You’re a touch sensitive right now, aren’t you?” Adam asked. “We were just teasing you.”

“I know,” Joe snapped. He drew in a deep breath, trying to calm himself down. He knew perfectly well that he hadn’t shown himself in the best light, and he didn’t need Adam rubbing it in.

“Well, Pa says you can go into town if you really want to,” offered Adam, trying to gauge how annoyed his brother was. “But you don’t have to.”

“I’ll go,” Joe replied, sulkily. “I think I can manage a crate of horseshoes and a barrel of nails.” His bad mood was vanishing as though an alchemist had waved a magic wand over him. He backed the other horse into the traces and hitched it up. “I was going to go anyway,” he admitted. Adam rolled his eyes.

As Joe climbed onto the wagon seat, Hoss came out of the house. He handed Adam his hat and gun and watched as Joe released the brake and slapped the reins on the team’s backs. “Say hello ta Mrs. Smith fer me!” Hoss called, as Joe rounded the end of the barn.

Fortunately, Joe’s ribald reply was lost in the rattling of the wagon bed on the axles.

*****

The first stop was the blacksmith’s shop, where Joe found the crate of horseshoes ready and waiting for him. He loaded them onto the wagon, enduring the jibes about the smallest Cartwright being asked to do the heaviest jobs and paid the smith.

His next port of call was the hardware store, where he bought the required keg of nails and passed some minutes in conversation with the owner. Jackson Jones was renowned throughout the town for the amount of talking he did. It didn’t even matter when one customer left and he was serving another – he just kept on talking as though the person he was addressing was the same. In fact, it was widely rumored that when he didn’t have customers, he talked to himself, although this had never been substantiated.

But today, Joe was too impatient to spend too long talking to Jones, and he made his excuses and left the first time Jones paused for breath. Securing the keg in the wagon, Joe thought about what he was going to do next.

Stopping briefly at the mercantile, Joe headed the wagon out to Caitlin’s house. Taking a deep breath, he jumped down from the seat and knocked on the door. After a moment, Jenny Kendrick opened the door and grinned at Joe. He had known her in school. “Hi, Joe!” she exclaimed.

“Hi, Jenny,” Joe replied, feeling his heart sink. It would be all over Virginia City by that evening that he was calling on the Widow Smith. He smiled back. Well, it was too late to back out now. “Is Mrs. Smith in?” he asked.

“Sure thing,” Jenny responded. “Hold on and I’ll tell her you’re here.” She beckoned Joe into the small front hall and disappeared upstairs. Joe heard the murmur of voices and then Jenny reappeared. “Mrs. Smith says to have a seat and would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Thanks, that would be great,” Joe replied, for he had left the house that morning with his coffee only half drunk and Joe always felt he couldn’t get started in the morning without his coffee.

He hadn’t drunk more than a couple of mouthfuls, sitting at the kitchen table, when Caitlin came into the room. She looked tired and her hair was hanging in a loose plait down her back. He rose to his feet when she entered. “Joe!” she exclaimed. “How nice to see you.”

“I was in town, so I thought I’d pop by and see you, but if it’s a bad time…” Joe didn’t get the chance to finish.

“No, come in to the sitting room. Jenny, can you bring me a cup of coffee, too, please?” Caitlin asked and Joe obediently picked up his cup and followed her through to the front room. “Marie’s asleep just now,” Caitlin explained. “It’s so good to see you. I was feeling a bit lonely, but I was up a lot of last night. I just couldn’t get Marie to sleep at all.” She sighed.

“I brought you a gift,” Joe remembered and delved in his jacket pocket. “And I brought one for Marie, too.”

“You didn’t have to do that!” Caitlin scolded, but she looked excited. “May I open them now?”

“If you’d like,” Joe replied, smiling at her enthusiasm.

With child-like delight, Caitlin felt both gifts thoroughly before first opening the one for Marie. In it was a simple, but elegant, ivory teething ring. Joe looked embarrassed as Caitlin exclaimed over it. “Cameron at the store said that babies can get teeth quite soon and that those are really good,” he explained.

“Thank you,” Caitlin replied, her eyes glowing. “That’s wonderful!” She turned to her own gift, opening it slowly. She looked at the gift for a moment before drawing it out of the wrappings. It was a small china bud vase, with a pale pink rose painted onto the white surface. “Joe, that’s lovely! Thank you!”

“Think of it as a house-warming present,” Joe told her, relieved that she had liked his offerings and flattered by her obvious delight.

“How kind of you!” To Joe’s horror, Caitlin was blinking away tears.

“Caitlin? I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You haven’t, Joe,” she assured him. “I’m sorry. I cry so easily nowadays. Its beautiful and I’m really touched.” She composed herself as Jenny came in with her coffee.

There was a slight hiatus as Caitlin took a sip of her coffee, but before long, she and Joe were chatting away like old friends. Caitlin was funny and clever and Joe was enchanted with her. Finally, a clock somewhere struck noon and Joe realized he should have been home long ago.

“Oh my goodness, I’m going to be late!” he exclaimed. “Thank you for the coffee.”

“No, it is I who should thank you,” Caitlin insisted. “Jenny is a great comfort to me and we get on very well, but it’s nice to have a change of company. And thank you for those gifts.”

“Caitlin, I’d like to see more of you,” Joe ventured. “I’ll understand if it’s too soon for romance, but I’d like to see you as a friend. Perhaps we could go for a picnic on Saturday? We could take Marie along and I’ll show you some of the Ponderosa.”

“I’d like that very much,” Caitlin replied. “As friends.”

“As friends,” Joe agreed. He kissed her cheek lightly and left.

*****

“Where have you been, young man?” Ben demanded as Joe came into the house. He knew perfectly well where Joe had been, but he wanted to see exactly what Joe would say.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Pa,” Joe replied. “I went to see Caitlin and I forgot the time.”

“Hop Sing isn’t too happy with you,” Ben warned him. “You missed lunch.”  He eyed Joe assessingly. “How is Caitlin?”

“She looked kinda tired,” Joe admitted, his movements slowing as he thought about the girl. “She said Marie had her up a lot of the night. I guess babies do that, huh?”

“I’m afraid they do,” Ben agreed, going over to the table. Joe followed him. “I remember pacing the floor down here with you a night or two,” he mused. “Your poor mother was worn out and I walked about with you howling in my ear until exhaustion finally sent you to sleep.”

“Caitlin has Jenny Kendrick working for her,” Joe told him. “But I guess Jenny isn’t there at night, so Caitlin hasn’t anyone to help with the baby through the night.”

“Its tiring,” Ben sympathized, “but it’s worth it.” He smiled ruefully. “I have to admit that sometimes it doesn’t seem like its going to be worth it, when it’s the middle of the night and the baby won’t go to sleep and there’s no one to help you.”

“I don’t know how you managed, Pa,” Joe said, quietly. He knew that Ben was thinking of the years he spent traveling west with Adam and Hoss, alone for the most part.

“Neither do I,” Ben admitted. “But you do what you have to do and get on with it.” He smiled at Hop Sing who had come silently from the kitchen and put a plate down in front of Joe. “You eat your lunch, son and then perhaps you can go and help your brothers mend that fence.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied and started to eat hungrily.

*****

“How was Mrs. Smith?” Hoss asked, as Joe arrived.

“Fine, thanks,” Joe replied, determined not to be drawn into losing his temper. He shucked his jacket and prepared to lend a hand.

“How’s the baby?” was the next attempt from Hoss.

“Fine,” Joe answered, picking up hammer.

Eyeing Joe speculatively, Adam leant against Hoss’ beefy shoulder. “Do I sense a rejection here, brother?”

“Could be,” agreed Hoss, leaning against Adam, who almost fell over, unprepared for Hoss’ weight. “I reckon his heart’s broke, don’ ya, Adam?”

“Looks like it to me,” nodded Adam, having regained his balance before he crashed to the ground with Hoss on top of him. They’d never have lived that one down, he reflected, waiting for the explosion from Joe.

“Don’t put money on it,” Joe advised. “I’m seeing Caitlin again on Saturday. As friends,” he added pointedly.

“Oh, as friends,” Adam echoed. “Is that what they call it now?”

“I thought it was called courtin’,” Hoss admitted.

“Great oaks from little acorns grow,” Joe quoted cheerfully. He looked at his brothers. “Are we going to mend this fence or not?”

*****

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and Joe hurried through his morning chores so he could get ready to collect Caitlin. Adam obligingly hitched the buggy for Joe and he drove off in plenty of time. Jenny once more admitted him when he arrived at Caitlin’s house, and he sat down to wait patiently for Caitlin to be ready.

After a while, he rose to his feet and looked around the room. He paused to study a photo of a distinguished looking man with light colored hair. He guessed at once that this was Simon, for as Caitlin had said, Marie did indeed resemble him.

“That’s Simon,” Caitlin said from behind him. Turning, Joe saw that she had on a light pink dress and looked very young and fresh. Marie was gurgling in her mother’s arms.

“I guessed,” Joe replied, unexpectedly depressed by Caitlin’s continuing devotion to her lost husband. Yet he knew that Caitlin wasn’t ready to move on, and wondered why he should feel like that. “Marie is like him, isn’t she?”

“Very,” agreed Caitlin. She looked at the baby and smiled as the infant smiled at her. “It’s a comfort, Joe. To know that when I look at Marie I’ll always be able to see Simon.”

“I understand,” Joe murmured, because he did. Ben had often commented that he was able to see each of his wives in the sons they had left him and mentioned the solace this had brought him.

“Well, what can I bring for the picnic?” Caitlin asked, making an effort to shake off the somber mood.

“Just yourself,” Joe assured her, smiling. “Everything else is organized.”

“Are you sure?” Caitlin protested uncomfortably.

“Absolutely,” Joe said firmly. “Come along, madam.” He pretended to crook his arm for the baby and Caitlin laughed aloud. She got her revenge by handing him the baby, but Joe didn’t mind in the least, as Marie beamed at him cheerfully.

They were soon in the buggy, driving sedately towards Lake Tahoe.

*****

The picnic that Hop Sing had packed for Joe was delicious and he and Caitlin sat on a rug near the lake and talked and laughed while Marie slept. Several times, Joe was tempted to kiss Caitlin, but he quelled the desire, knowing that she was still in love with her late husband.

They shared their childhoods with each other, Joe explaining about his brothers and his father’s three marriages, which answered Caitlin’s burning, but unspoken, desire to know why none of the Cartwright brothers looked alike. He told her about living on the Ponderosa.

In return, Caitlin told him about her upbringing as an only child of older parents. She had gone to an all-girls school and shortly after graduating had gone to work for Simon. She had fallen for him at once, and was surprised and delighted to learn that he had fallen in love with her, too. They had married a few months later and Caitlin had become pregnant at once, much to their mutual delight.

“There was only one thing that spoiled our happiness before Simon died,” Caitlin told him. “One of his partners came to the house one evening to talk to Simon about something. Simon left the room to find some papers and Geoffrey, his partner, tried to kiss me.” Caitlin looked at Joe. “I didn’t do anything to encourage him, Joe.”

“I believe you,” Joe assured her, for he could see that she had been, and still was, head over heels in love with Simon.

“Simon was furious,” Caitlin went on. “He threw Geoffrey out, and we had a row. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Joe, Simon did trust me, but he was suddenly frightened that I had married him because of his money, not because I loved him. I believe I convinced him, Joe, but I was very unhappy for a while. But then, things settled down again, as they do, and I began to plan for the baby coming.” She paused and looked out over the lake. At that moment, the sun went behind a cloud. “And then Simon died,” he concluded. “Marie was born a month early, and I decided to move out here, to get away from the memories.”

“Has it worked?” Joe asked.

“Some,” Caitlin replied. “I never want to forget Simon; what we had was so special. But I have to move on with my life, too.”

“Yes, you do,” agreed Joe and he leant in and kissed her gently.

For a moment, no more, Caitlin returned the pressure on her lips, and then she drew back, flustered and blushing. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, and tears danced on her lashes. “It’s too soon.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Joe apologized. “I shouldn’t have done that. Please, forgive me?”

Studying Joe as though for the first time, Caitlin thought again what a spectacularly handsome man Joe was. She had no doubt that she would be as captivated by him as he seemed to be by her, if only her heart didn’t belong to another. When would she believe that Simon was dead? Sometimes it seemed to her that he was still alive somewhere, and would walk in one day. Shaking that thought off, she smiled at Joe. It was simply that she hadn’t been allowed to see Simon’s body, since it had been unrecognizable because of the fire in which he had died. “Of course I forgive you,” she replied, trying to rid her mind of the sad thoughts. “But I’m not ready for anything more than friendship, Joe.”

“I know,” Joe assured her. He glanced up at the sky, for the sunshine had gone and it looked as though it might come to rain. “It looks like the weather has changed,” he commented.

“Yes,” Caitlin answered, hoping that didn’t mean that Joe would not want to see her as a friend again. She was lonely and needed all the friends she could get. “And I need to get home before Marie wakens and needs a feed.”

Suddenly realizing what Caitlin meant, Joe blushed to the roots of his hair. “Oh yes, I see,” he stuttered and began to pack up the picnic. “Perhaps next time, you could come out for dinner at the Ponderosa,” he suggested. “And if Marie needed feeding, you could use one of the guest rooms.”

“That would be very nice,” Caitlin agreed.

“I’ll arrange it with Pa and let you know,” Joe smiled, relieved that he hadn’t ruined their friendship with that one rash kiss.

*****

The rain obligingly stayed off until Caitlin and Marie were safely home and Joe promised to send word about Caitlin coming to dinner. He got into the buggy and set off for home, cursing that the rain was now coming down in stair rods and there would likely be some thunder and lightning, too.

Sure enough, the thunder started rumbling when he was about half way home. The buggy horse broke into an uneasy lope, but the condition of the road was too slick for Joe to be happy with that pace, so he pulled it back to a trot. He was soaked to the skin and shivered slightly.

There was a flash of lightning and a moment later, the horse half reared and broke into a gallop. The wet leather slipped through Joe’s hands, and it was a minute before he got the reins gathered up again. By then, they were racing along the road at high speed. “Whoa, fellow,” he called, soothingly, but the horse wasn’t to be soothed.

Abruptly, Joe realized that the horse was hopping lame on one hind leg, and he dashed the rain from his eyes to peer more closely. There was blood on the horse’s haunch. Joe was perplexed. Where had the blood come from? The lightning hadn’t struck the horse, or even anywhere close by. He tightened the reins again, but the horse was running from the pain and wasn’t going to stop!

There was little Joe could do but hang on, knowing that the horse would tire eventually and come to a halt. But the road was increasingly stony there and as the wheel hit a rock, Joe found himself airborne, the reins still clutched tightly in his hand. He landed with a thump on his back, feeling the reins torn from his hand before something struck his head and he passed out.

*****

“I thought Joe would have been home by now,” Ben commented as he, Adam and Hoss sat down to supper. “He said he’d be back in time for supper.”

“I thought he’d be back by now, too,” Adam agreed, helping himself to potatoes. “Hoss and I saw him leaving Caitlin’s house as we rode out of town. I don’t think Joe saw us, though.”

Ben frowned. “If he left at the same time as you, he should have been back ages ago.” As if to add emphasis to his words, the thunder boomed right overhead.

Laying down his fork, his meal untouched, Hoss asked, “Do you think we should go look for him?”

Unwilling to admit how worried he was about Joe, Ben hesitated. But when he looked at his sons, he could see they were as concerned as he was. “Yes, I think we should,” he admitted.

They rose as one and headed out into the storm.

*****

The cold rain pouring onto his face roused Joe and he tried to roll over to avoid it. His body refused to respond at first, but feeling came back and Joe rolled onto his side. His head throbbed and he touched gentle fingers to the worst place and gaped at them in surprise as they came away bloody.

Memory returned with a rush and Joe pushed himself to his feet, wincing as his bruised back set up a chorus of disapproval. Peering through the rain, Joe saw the buggy lying a short distance away, with the horse struggling in the traces. Joe limped towards it, becoming aware that more than one place on his body hurt. He didn’t think anything was broken, but he had had quite a battering.

Dropping to his knees beside the horse, and trying to pretend that it wasn’t a relief to be sitting down again, Joe soothed the animal, calming its struggles so that he could check it over for injuries. It only took him seconds to see that the horse had snapped its leg just above the fetlock. Regretfully, Joe took his gun from his holster and put the animal out of its misery.

Joe was now faced with a long walk home through the pouring rain with a multitude of minor injuries. He took a few more minutes to allow his system to settle, but the various aches and pains that he had refused to go away. The few minutes grew into several minutes and then into half an hour. Each time Joe got up, his head whirled and walking was clearly going to be difficult.

Just as he had convinced himself that he had to begin walking and had gained his feet, Joe heard the sound of horses coming towards him. He steadied himself as best he could and waited for help to arrive. He wasn’t at all surprised to see his family, although how they knew he needed help was a mystery to him.

“Joe!” Ben exclaimed, jumping down from Buck. He hurried over to Joe, and put out his hand to steady his son, for Joe was swaying like a drunk in a high wind. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Joe assured Ben, unaware of the fact that blood caked the right hand side of his face. “Just a bit sore.”

Behind Ben, Adam and Hoss had dismounted and were now checking out the buggy and horse. Adam suddenly let out an exclamation of surprise. “Look at this!” he called. He pointed to the horse and Ben and Hoss crowded closer to see. Joe just closed his eyes and tried to kid himself that he couldn’t feel the world spinning. “This horse was shot!”

“I just did that,” Joe mumbled, shivering. “It broke its leg.”

“No, this horse was shot in the haunch, Joe,” Adam explained.

“What?” Joe asked, stupidly. “That can’t be.” But then he remembered seeing blood on the horse’s quarters. “How?”

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “Didn’t you hear a shot?”

“All I heard was thunder,” Joe replied. He staggered suddenly as a gust of wind hit him and Hoss caught him before he could fall.

“Never mind that for now,” Ben chided Adam. “Let’s get Joe home.” He took Joe’s arm and led him over to Buck. “You’d better ride with me,” he suggested. “We didn’t bring an extra horse, and you look like you’re ready to fall over any minute.”

“Gee, Pa, you sure know how to chirk a guy up,” Joe complained, but he didn’t baulk at riding double. He doubted if he could have sat a horse alone.

******

A good night’s sleep had Joe back on his feet the next day, but he was badly bruised and the gash on his hairline hurt. The night before, Ben had wanted to send for the doctor, but Joe had dissuaded him, saying that all he wanted was a warm bath and his bed. He even managed to eat a few mouthfuls of supper before falling into a deep sleep.

“Morning, Pa,” Joe called as he came down the stairs. He glanced at the clock, seeing that it was almost 9 am, but he’d known that he’d been allowed to sleep late. He guessed that they weren’t going to church that morning.

“Morning,” Ben replied, getting to his feet and going over to join Joe at the table. “How are you feeling this morning?”

“A bit stiff and sore, but all right,” Joe answered. “Thanks, Hop Sing,” he added, as the Chinese cook put the coffee pot on the table. Joe could smell his breakfast cooking and his stomach growled. “I’m starving!”

That, and the enthusiastic way Joe attacked his food, convinced Ben that his son was all right. He watched Joe eat as he drank another cup of coffee. “Where are Adam and Hoss?” Joe asked, around a mouthful of bacon.

“They went out to see if they could salvage the buggy,” Ben replied.

“Do you think it can be saved?” Joe asked, frowning. “I’m sorry I crashed it.”

“It looked all right last night,” Ben answered, “but we weren’t really looking at it, to be honest. We were more concerned with you.” He patted Joe’s arm. “Don’t worry about it, son. I’d sooner lose a buggy than lose you!”

Smiling, Joe applied himself to his plate once more. Ben often wondered where his slender son put so much food, for Joe could sometimes rival Hoss in the portions he put away, although his appetite was the first thing to suffer when he was upset.

As Joe finished eating, Adam and Hoss returned. “Well, look who’s up!” Hoss exclaimed as he came in. “Sleepin’ Beauty!”

“And good morning to you, too,” Joe responded, good-naturedly.

“How’re you feeling?” Adam asked.

“If his appetite’s anything to go by, he’s feeling in the pink,” Ben responded, dryly. Joe grinned at him. Ben smiled back. “Was the buggy salvageable?” Ben asked.

“Yes, it was,” Adam replied. “It’ll need a little fixing up here and there, but there’s no great damage.” He glanced at Joe. “We had a closer look at the horse,” he told his brother. “And look what we found.” He held up a piece of flattened lead and Joe took it to look more closely. Ben leant closer to see, too.

“It’s a rifle bullet!” Joe declared, flatly. He looked up at Ben, his face troubled. “So someone did shoot at me! But who? Why?”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. He glanced at his older sons, both of whom were frowning.

“That’s what we wondered, too,” Adam nodded.

“It could’ve bin a accident,” Hoss offered. “Someone out huntin’.”

“It was pouring,” Joe objected. “Who in their right mind would go huntin’ in a downpour like that?” Hoss shrugged miserably.

“Want me to go into town and mention it to Roy?” Adam asked his father.

“No, I don’t think so,” Ben replied. “What would he find? After that rain last night, there won’t be any tracks left.” Glancing at Joe, Ben saw that he had stopped eating at last. “I think you should stay in the house today, son,” he suggested, “and let those aches and pains settle down.”

“Aw, Pa, I’m fine!” Joe protested, before realizing that he’d probably done himself out of a day off work. His agile mind tried to think up a reason for him to go to town, but before he could say anything, Adam stepped in.

“We have to finish that north pasture fence,” he suggested, “and Joe could come along, help us, but we’ll make sure that he doesn’t over do it.  That’ll help get rid of his stiffness.” For Joe had been edging carefully out of his seat, trying not to wince. He paused long enough to glare at Adam, who intercepted the look quite calmly.

“I don’t think fence mending is quite the right treatment after a fall like that,” Ben objected and Joe threw Adam a triumphant look. “No, Joe is going to stay around the house today and he can go over the branding records with me.”

Now it was Adam’s turn to look triumphant as Joe gave Ben a weak smile. After a moment, Ben grinned back. “Relax, Joe its Sunday.” As he rose from the table, and seeing Joe’s relieved expression, he couldn’t help but add, “You can help me with the branding records tomorrow.”

*****

After a couple of days of taking it easy, Joe was easing back into the work of running a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. Adam and Hoss had finished mending the fences, so Joe was spared that, but there seemed to be an inordinate amount of barn chores needing done and Joe couldn’t figure out why Hop Sing needed so much wood all of a sudden. However, he didn’t complain, hoping that Ben would soon relent and allow him to go back to work properly.

“I’d like you to go to town for the supplies, Joe,” Ben said at breakfast a few days later. Joe beamed at him. Although collecting the supplies was a chore that Ben often gave the boys after they had been off work, Joe didn’t mind. It would allow him the chance to see Caitlin.

“Sure thing, Pa,” he agreed and bent his head over his plate, stuffing the remains of his breakfast into his mouth as fast as he could, so he would be ready to leave sooner.

“Do you think Joe should go alone?” Adam asked.

Shooting his older brother a dirty look, Joe protested, “I can look after myself!” He had completely missed the concern coloring his brother’s tone.

“You can’t look after yourself against a gunman’s bullet!” Adam snapped.

“And you think that if you come along with me, you can stop that bullet?” Joe asked, sarcastically.

“Well, I’m hardly likely to catch it between my teeth,” Adam retorted, “but my presence might stop someone shooting at you in the first place.”

Just as it looked as though a full-scale row was about to erupt, there was a knock at the door. Still glaring at Adam, Joe got up to answer it, knowing full well that everyone expected him to. The head logger of the timber crew, Tim Fox, stood there. “Tim!” Joe exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

Hearing the name, Adam rose from the table and hurried over. “Tim?” Ben and Hoss followed more slowly.

“There’s a problem up at the timber camp, Adam,” Tim explained, tipping his hat to Ben. “I really need you to come up.”

“What kind of a problem?” Adam asked, sharply, reaching for his gun belt. “An accident?”

“Not the way you mean,” Tim replied. “Nobody’s been hurt, but we’ve broken a blade on the mill and there are a couple of other things I’d like your advice about.”

“I’ll be right there,” Adam assured him. He glanced at Ben. “Well, that ends the argument, doesn’t it?” he asked. “I can’t go into town with Joe.”

“I’ll be fine,” Joe protested.

“I hope so,” Adam replied and went out to saddle his horse.

*****

“I’m not happy about you going into town alone,” Ben repeated as Joe hitched the horses. “I wish Hoss didn’t have to go and check that sick cow Charlie found. I could send a message to Mr. Comford that I’ll show him the herd another time.”

“You can’t do that!” Joe protested. “He might buy from us!”

“I guess you’re right,” Ben agreed. “But I can’t help worrying.”

“You’re all fussing over nothing,” Joe assured him. “I’ll be fine, Pa.” He hopped onto the wagon seat and gave Ben a loving smile. “I’ll be back later. I might stop in and see Caitlin.”

“Might?” Ben echoes. “Are you sick, son?”

Laughing, Joe set the team in motion. Ben stood and watched him go, overcome by sudden unease. Who was gunning for his son and why?

*****

The trip into town was totally uneventful, although Joe could have sworn that he could feel someone watching him. He glanced around sharply several times, but there was never anyone in sight and he finally put it down to the jitters that his father and brothers had expressed.

He parked the wagon by the store, gave the storekeeper his list and told him he would be back. With a jaunty air, he strode off down the boardwalk, humming to himself. Once again, he felt someone watching him, but the street was busy and he couldn’t see anyone gazing at him in particular.

As he drew closer to Caitlin’s house, he could see her coming towards it from the opposite direction, pushing a pram. She waved and Joe stopped to wait for her. “Hello,” Caitlin said as she reached him. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see Marie, of course!” Joe chided her. “What; did you think I’d come to see you?” He leant over the pram and the baby gave him a gummy smile.

“My pram finally arrived yesterday, so Marie and I thought we would give it a try,” Caitlin explained. She suddenly glanced round, the smile leaving her face.

“What’s wrong?” Joe asked, although he could feel the same sensation she could; they were being watched.

Caitlin shivered. “For the last few days, I’ve had the feeling that someone was watching me.”

“Let’s go inside,” Joe suggested. He glanced over his shoulder.

“Do you feel it too?” Caitlin asked, wheeling the pram to the foot of the steps.

“Yes,” Joe nodded. He shielded Caitlin with his own body as she gathered the baby into her arms. As soon as they were safely inside Joe went on,” Someone shot at me on the way home from your house on Saturday.”

The green eyes were wide in Caitlin’s white face. “Are you all right?” she asked. Marie gave a wail if discontent and Caitlin realized she was holding the infant very tightly. She led the way into the kitchen, where she laid the baby in a basket.

“I’m fine,” Joe assured her. “Just a few bruises.”

“It was Sunday that I first felt these feelings,” Caitlin whispered. “I wondered why you weren’t at church, but I remember you telling me that it depended on what was happening around the ranch.”

“Well, I happened on Sunday,” Joe joked. Caitlin smiled slightly. “But I don’t understand,” he went on. “Why would anyone be watching us?”

“I don’t know,” Caitlin replied. “It doesn’t make sense.” She swallowed nervously. “Joe, I’m scared.”

“It’s all right,” Joe soothed. “I’ll look after you both.” He stepped forward and put his hands on her shoulders. “Maybe you should come out to the ranch for a while, until we find out what’s going on.” He glanced around. “Where’s Jenny today?”

“It’s her day off,” Caitlin replied. She took a step towards Joe. “Perhaps I should come to the ranch, but what would your father say?”

“He’d be…” Joe got no further, for the kitchen door suddenly opened and Joe looked over Caitlin’s head to see the man from her photograph.

Whirling, Caitlin just gaped at him for a moment. Then, tears suddenly streaking her face, she let out a cry. “Simon!” She threw herself across the room at him. “Simon! Oh, Simon!” She wrapped her arms around him, oblivious of the fact that he only slowly returned the gesture. “I was told you were dead!”

“It was a mistake,” he replied, hoarsely, his eyes still fixed on Joe, who stood frozen to the spot.

“What happened to your voice?” Caitlin asked, looking up.

“I was hurt in that fire, and couldn’t talk. I don’t know why they told you I was dead, because they knew who I was.” Simon brushed that aside. “I traced you here, but I find you practically in another man’s arms!” He glared at Joe. “Who are you?”

“This is Joe Cartwright,” Caitlin explained. “He’s a friend of mine.”

“A friend, eh?” Simon scoffed. “So that’s why you’ve been seen around town with him, is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re implying here, Mr. Smith,” Joe interjected flatly, “but Caitlin has done nothing wrong. I am just her friend.”

“You took her for a picnic last Saturday,” Simon accused him, “and you kissed her.”

“How do you know about that?” Caitlin asked, her face pale. She pulled herself away from Simon.

“I was watching!” Simon roared.

At the sudden noise, Marie let out a wail and Caitlin reached for her automatically. She hugged the child, and the crying began to abate.

“If you were watching,” Joe returned, “you’d have seen Caitlin draw back from me.” He glared at Simon. “She told me that she was still in love with you and only liked me as a friend. After 6 months, your wife is still in love with you and how do you repay her? You wait nearly a week before you come to her!” Joe shook his head.

“I think you’d better leave,” Simon ordered, stiffly.

To his intense annoyance, Joe looked at Caitlin. “What do you want me to do?” he asked her.

“You’d better go, Joe,” Caitlin replied, nervously. “Simon and I have a lot to talk about.”

“I’ll be at the store for a while if you need me,” he told her. Sending another cold look Simon’s way, Joe picked up his hat from the table. “I’ll show myself out.”

Slowly, Joe made his way to the front of the house and opened the door. For an instant, he hesitated, not sure if he should go or stay, but then he heard Caitlin’s voice and realized that this was no place for him. Head down, he went out and pulled the door closed behind him.

Something hard struck him on the back of the head and Joe tumbled down into darkness.

*****

As Joe left, Simon and Caitlin stood looking at each other. “Simon, I’ve missed you,” Caitlin whispered. She vaguely heard the front door shut. She held the baby out. “This is your daughter. I called her Marie, like we planned.”

Simon stepped closer and looked down at the child’s face. She was sleepy and yawned widely before pursing her rosebud mouth and blowing a few bubbles. “She looks like you,” Simon ventured.

Smiling, Caitlin shook her head. “No, she looks like you,” she corrected. “Simon…” Caitlin hesitated. “You don’t really think that I was cheating on you, do you?”

“No,” Simon responded, sitting down heavily. “But when I saw you with that young man, him so good looking and you so obviously pleased to see him, I wasn’t sure what to think. Geoffrey told me that you thought you were a widow.”

“Geoffrey?” Caitlin echoed in dismay. “How does he come into this?”

“He found me,” Simon reported. “I had been ill for months, and unable to talk. He explained that it was near time for you to give birth and that the shock of knowing I was alive would be too much for you. So I left it a little while before going looking for you. But by then, you had moved out here, and I had to explain to Mama and Papa where I had been. It was a shock for them, too.”

“I can imagine,” Caitlin murmured.

“Geoffrey offered to come out here with me, and we decided to watch you, to see when would be the best time to tell you I was still alive. It was so difficult not to come to you.” Simon sighed and wiped his brow with a shaky hand. “The journey here wore me out and I spent the first few days resting.” He frowned. “I’ve been very tired since we got here and I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel like this at home.”

A nasty suspicion crept into Caitlin’s mind. “Geoffrey could have been drugging you!” she cried. “Was it him who told you that Joe and I kissed? That I didn’t resist? I thought so! He’s still trying to manipulate you, Simon. He’s determined to get revenge for you throwing him out of the house!”

“What?” Simon gasped. “Do you think so?” He shook his head. “I know he’s been watching that young man and he told me that he wouldn’t be coming around here again, but I didn’t ask why he was so sure. And then, when I saw you both today, I just couldn’t wait any longer. Caitlin, I love you!”

“And I love you,” Caitlin replied and threw herself into his arms once more. She raised her head to him and they kissed deeply.

*****

“Hey, Pa, where’re ya goin’?” Hoss called, as he saw his father riding towards town.

Drawing rein, Ben waited while Hoss came alongside him. “Mr. Comford didn’t stay as long as I thought, so I decided to go into town to meet up with Joe. Want to come?”

“Sure thing,” Hoss agreed and they set off at a ground-covering lope. As they rode in, Hoss told his father that the sick cow seemed better and Ben told Hoss that Comford would buy a small herd from them. The small-talk didn’t hide the fact that they were both worried about Joe.

As they rode down the main street, Ben saw his wagon still parked outside the store. The supplies were all loaded. He pulled Buck up and tethered him to the rail and went in, expecting to see Joe passing the time of day with Cameron. “Hi, Mr. Cartwright,” Cameron called from his perch half-way up a ladder. “The supplies are all loaded and ready for Little Joe to take home.”

“I thought Joe might be here,” Ben explained.

“Nope, I ain’t seen him in at least a couple of hours.”

“Thanks,” Ben replied and went out. “He’s not been there for a couple of hours,” he reported to Hoss and mounted again.

They both headed towards Caitlin’s house. Again, Ben dismounted and went over to knock on the door. A few moments later, Caitlin opened it. “Hello, Mr. Cartwright, how lovely to see you!” she exclaimed. Ben thought she looked radiant.

“Hello, Mrs. Smith,” he replied, tipping his hat. “Is Joe here?”

“Joe?” Caitlin replied. “Why, no, he left, oh, I’m not sure.” She partially turned away. “Simon, how long ago did Joe leave?”

A tall man with graying fair hair came into view. “At least an hour,” he replied.

“An hour?” Ben repeated, worry coloring his tones. “Well, perhaps he’s gone to the saloon.”

“Mr. Cartwright, may I introduce you to my husband?” Caitlin asked and did so proudly, explaining the awful mix-up that had led to her thinking her husband was dead.

But there was one fact that Ben grasped at once. “You say your partner assured you that Joe wouldn’t be round again?” he asked, urgently. “What did he mean by that?”

“Well, I don’t know, exactly,” Simon replied. “I assumed he’d had words with him. Explained the situation.”

“When was this, exactly?” Ben demanded.

“Late Saturday afternoon, after the rain came on,” Simon replied, clearly perplexed, but on his best behavior. “He was soaked through.”

“It must have been him who shot at Joe,” Ben murmured.

Caitlin’s eyes were open wide. “Oh no, I never thought!” she cried. “Simon did mention that and I never thought!”

“It’s all right,” Ben soothed her, although every nerve ending was screaming at him to find Joe, quickly! “What does your partner look like?” he asked.

“He’s about your height and very broadly built,” Simon replied. “He’s got dark hair and a moustache.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied, turning to leave.

“Mr. Cartwright, do you think Joe’s all right?” Caitlin asked, anxiously.

“I hope so,” Ben replied. He hurried over to his horse and mounted up. He and Hoss rode quickly away.

*****

Before long, there was a crowd out looking for Joe. Men combed the saloons, the livery stable and the boarding houses. People checked out each alley, in case he was lying there injured. But it was as though Joe had vanished into thin air. There was no trace of him. Until one of the men found Joe’s hat on the road leading out of town to the south.

There were a number of tracks, but Hoss soon picked out the one that looked as though the horse was carrying extra weight. “He coulda come from Caitlin’s house real easy without bein’ seen,” Hoss pointed out. “I reckon we gotta follow them, Pa. Joe’s in trouble.”

“You’re right,” Ben agreed. He thanked the men who had helped them search, but said that they would go on alone.

“Is that wise, Ben?” Roy asked.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “I don’t know what manner of man has my son.”

“You men go back,” Roy instructed. “I’ll come with ya, Ben.”

“Thanks, Roy.” They set off following Hoss, who led them confidently along the tracks.

*****

Consciousness slowly tricked back. Joe’s head ached violently and he couldn’t get his thoughts to coalesce. When he tried to move, his limbs refused to cooperate, and it took him several minutes to figure out that he was bound hand and foot.

But gradually, his grip on the world improved and Joe tentatively opened his eyes. The light blinded him for a moment, but he slit his eyes and squinted until he grew used to the glare. Glancing around, he saw that he was outside, lying beneath a tree. His hands were bound behind his back and his ankles were tied together.

“So you’re awake.”

Cautiously turning his head, Joe saw a strange man sitting near him. To his knowledge, Joe had never seen him before. “Who are you?” he asked, hoarsely.

“My name is Geoffrey Howard,” he replied, coldly, coming to stand over Joe. “My partner is Simon Smith and I’m going to get rid of you so that my path to Caitlin Smith is wide open.”

That didn’t make sense. For a moment, Joe wondered if the pounding in his head had affected his hearing. “But Simon is alive,” he protested.

“Not for long,” hissed Geoffrey malevolently. “After I’ve killed you, I’m going to arrange an accident for him!”

“It was you who shot at me on Saturday!” Joe accused. He began to struggle against his bonds, his heart pounding in rhythm with his head. “Why?”

“Because you’re in love with her!” Geoffrey shouted. “And I can’t have her looking at any man but me!” He reached down for Joe, who rolled away, but he wasn’t quick enough.

Yanking Joe to his feet, Geoffrey punched Joe twice in the stomach and allowed the younger man to fall to the ground again. He went over to his horse and took down some rope. Kneeling by Joe, he tied it around Joe’s waist. That done, he began to untie Joe’s feet.

Instantly, Joe kicked out at him, and Geoffrey barely missed a kick in the face. Snarling, he rounded on Joe and punched him several times in the face until Joe slumped down, clinging to consciousness by a thin thread. Satisfied that his prisoner wasn’t going to attack him any more, Geoffrey returned to his task.

As Joe groggily raised his head again, Geoffrey rose to his feet. He had re-tied Joe’s feet so that there was a length of rope between his ankles. He attached the end of the rope around Joe’s waist to his saddle horn and pulled the young man to his feet.

“The Indians like to do this,” Geoffrey whispered. “We can learn so much from our red brothers.” He jumped onto his horse and urged it into a trot.

Fear spiked through Joe’s gut. He knew what was coming and he knew he wouldn’t survive it. Geoffrey would drag him behind his horse until he was dead. The hobbles around Joe’s ankles would simply ensure that he tripped and fell all the sooner.

At that instant, the rope round his waist tightened, and Joe managed one stumbling step before he fell.

*****

The next minute or so took on nightmare proportions for Joe. The ground rushed past his face, and he couldn’t bite back cries of pain as his body bumped over rocks and through bushes. His clothes ripped within moments, and Joe could feel the skin being flayed from his body. It seemed to him that the horse’s hoof beats were amplified through the ground until it sounded like there were several horses pulling him to his death. He thought he heard shooting, but the pain was too much for him and he passed out.

******

“There!” Hoss cried and slapped his heels into Chubb’s side. The big black gelding sprang forward and Ben and Roy followed.

As they neared, they could see that the rider was dragging someone along the ground and it didn’t take much to work out who the someone was. Roy shouted for Geoffrey to stop, but the man spurred his horse to greater speed. Roy drew his gun and shot at him.

Although the shot went wide, Geoffrey was unseated and his horse pulled up to an uncertain standstill, sidling about nervously, uncomfortable with the weight on the end of the rope tied to its saddle.

Leaving Geoffrey to Roy, Ben and Hoss hauled their horses to a standstill and leapt off to kneel beside Joe’s unconscious figure. “Joe?” Ben whispered, as Hoss caught his breath in horror.

“How is he?” Roy asked, dragging a handcuffed Geoffrey behind him.

“He’s in a bad way, Roy,” Ben replied. He looked up at Geoffrey, who flinched from the anger in that gaze. “Hoss, get into town and bring a wagon out here, quickly. Alert Paul that we’re going to need him.” As Hoss jumped into the saddle, Ben rose briefly to retrieve his canteen.

As Roy hauled his prisoner away, Ben cut through the ropes binding his child’s body and trickled a little water into Joe’s mouth. His son mumbled, but didn’t regain consciousness. Ben ripped off his neckerchief and soaked it in the water. He began to wipe Joe’s face very gently. He didn’t dare look at his son’s broken body. One horrified glance at the raw, bleeding, skin had been enough.

“You’re going to be all right, son,” he soothed, although he knew Joe couldn’t hear him. “I’m here now.”

*****

Joe was still unconscious when they arrived back in Virginia City. Ben and Hoss carried him gently in to the doctor’s office, where Paul Martin took one horrified look and ordered them out into the waiting room. His nurse was already there and together, they cut the ragged remains of Joe’s clothes from his body.

It was an anxious wait. Roy had sent a man out to the ranch to tell Adam what was going on and he arrived in town about half an hour after Joe had been brought in. Ben quickly brought him up-to-date, tears standing in his eyes as he related a little of Joe’s injuries. Numb with horror, Adam sank into a seat.

A little while later, Roy joined them. Geoffrey had been locked up. Roy had searched his hotel room and had discovered a large quantity of laudanum in his belongings. There had also been diaries, and when Roy had glanced through them, they were full of Geoffrey’s plans to get rid of Simon so he could have Caitlin for himself. One of the most recent entries concerned Geoffrey’s attempt to kill Joe and his vow that he would somehow get another chance to get rid of his ‘rival’. There was no doubt that Geoffrey would be found guilty of at least attempted murder. If Joe should die, the charge would be murder and Geoffrey would hang.

At long last, the door to the surgery opened and Paul came out. He looked grim and a new burst of fear gripped Ben’s heart. Surely Joe hadn’t died? He didn’t know how he could survive if that was the case. “Paul?” he whispered.

“He’s pretty sick, Ben,” Paul replied and momentary relief swept over Ben. His son was still alive. “He’s lost a lot of blood. He has a bad head injury.” Paul sighed and sat down. “Joe has broken his left arm in three places, and his right shoulder was dislocated and the wrist broken. He has broken both ankles and his left foot. He has lost a lot of skin from the front of both legs and on his chest and stomach. There is a distinct chance that this will become infected. Right now, he’s holding on and I’ve done everything I can for him.”

A hand gripped Ben’s arm and he looked up into blue eyes drowned in tears. His own eyes filled with a corresponding moisture and he put his hand over Hoss’. A moment later, Adam’s hand was on top of his and they stayed there for a moment, giving and receiving comfort.

“Joe’s still unconscious from the ether,” Paul added,” but you can go and sit with him.”

“Thank you,” Ben whispered and hurried into the surgery with his other sons on his heels.

Joe lay on the examination table. He had a bandage around his head and the top of his chest was swathed in bandages where it peeked out over the blanket. His left arm was in plaster from his fingertips to his shoulder and his right arm had a cast on the wrist and was in a sling. His plastered feet peeked out from under the blanket. Moving closer, Ben could see the bruises marring Joe’s cheek and when he looked, he saw that all Joe’s toes were bruised, too. “Joe?” he breathed, leaning over to stroke his son’s head.

There was no response.

*****

Over the next 24 hours, Ben could not be persuaded to leave Joe’s side for more than a few minutes at a time. Joe drifted in and out of a drugged sleep, not aware of his family waiting for him to wake. He ran a high temperature for a time, but it finally settled. Paul kept an anxious eye on all the raw places on Joe’s body, but miraculously, infection didn’t set it. Gradually, Paul began to lessen the amount of morphine that Joe was receiving and he was soon nearing consciousness. Finally, on the second day, he opened his eyes and looked at Ben.

“Hello there,” Ben smiled.

“You… look… tired,” Joe whispered. He swallowed and tried to move, but his body rebelled. A groan of pain escaped his lips. “What… happened?”

“You were hurt,” Ben explained. Paul had warned him not to mention what had happened unless Joe mentioned it first. His memory of events might be shaky because of the head injury.

That seemed to satisfy Joe for the moment, and he closed his eyes again. When he next awoke, it was Adam who was sitting by his side and a lamp was burning low on a table near the seat. “Adam?” he breathed.

“Look who’s awake!” Adam commented, smiling at his brother. “Would you like a drink?”

“Mm,” Joe agreed and when Adam brought the glass over, he tried to reach for it. The look of surprise on his face when his arm wouldn’t cooperate was almost comical. “What…?”

“Take it easy,” Adam soothed. “You’ve broken your arm and it’s in plaster.”

Accepting that for the moment, Joe took a few sips of the water. He lay back down and sighed deeply. Although his body was grindingly sore, his mind was much clearer. And suddenly, Joe remembered. “Caitlin and Simon!” he gasped, making an attempt to get up.

Restraining him gently, Adam assured him, “Don’t worry, they’re safe. Relax, Joe. I promise that they’re all right. Caitlin was in to see you yesterday, but you slept all the time she was here.”

“But Geoffrey!” Joe protested. “He… he…” He struggled to get the words out. “He hit me,” Joe panted, as the memories washed over him. “I was tied up and couldn’t get away.” The green eyes were wide with fear as Joe remembered. Adam put his hand on Joe’s shoulder to give him support. “He dragged me behind his horse…” Joe’s voice ran out and he panted for breath.

“Geoffrey is safely in jail,” Adam assured him. “You’re safe now, Joe.”

Slow tears seeped out between Joe’s closed lashes and ran down the sides of his face into his hair. Adam gently wiped them away. Eventually, Joe slept again. Adam watched him sleep, while heaping curses on the head of the man who had done this to his beloved brother. At that moment, Adam would have gladly gunned Geoffrey down. The only thing that stopped him was that he was responsible for looking after his brother and he couldn’t abdicate that responsibility.

*****

The next day saw Joe ready to learn how badly injured he was. He listened in silence and growing dismay to the seemingly endless list. Although he had had no choice but to accept his family’s help while unconscious, Joe had hoped to be able to at least pee in privacy, but he soon saw that that was out of the question and would be for some time. He was horribly embarrassed the first time he moved his bowels and had to accept Ben cleaning him up afterwards. This was the way it would have to be for some time, as Joe could do nothing at all for himself.

By the fifth day after he had been injured, Joe was begging to go home. His pain was now manageable as the broken bones began to knit and the new skin started growing. Joe was fed up of not being at home and he could see the toll it was taking on his family as they commuted to and from the ranch each day so that he wouldn’t be alone. Ben stayed all the time, but Joe knew that he would soon have to go back and help Adam and Hoss. And so Paul agreed he could go home.

*****

As he waited for his brothers to arrive with the wagon, Joe was told he had visitors. He was sitting up in a chair, his plastered legs stretched out in front of him. The only clothing he could get on was one of Ben’s shirts and a pair of his pants with the legs split up the seams. Joe fervently wished that he looked more presentable, but he did at least have clothes on. Ben had threatened to just make him wear a robe home, but Joe had vetoed that idea before realizing that he was being teased. “Send them in,” he told Paul glancing at Ben, who shrugged.

It was Caitlin, Simon and Marie. Joe gazed at Caitlin for a moment, overwhelmed with relief that she really was all right. “Caitlin!” he cried and she hurried across the room to kiss his cheek.

“How are you, Joe?” she asked, examining him closely. “I’m so sorry about this.”

Frowning, Joe replied, “Caitlin, unless there’s been a horrendous mistake, Roy Coffee has already locked up the person who did this. So I don’t see how it’s your fault.”

“But it’s because of me that Geoffrey did this!” Caitlin protested. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Joe assured her. He desperately wanted to reach out and touch her hand, but he couldn’t move either arm. “Please, believe me.”

“Are you sure?” Caitlin asked.

Smiling, Joe nodded. His head was finally free of the bandage that day and had at last stopped its relentless throbbing. “Of course I’m sure,” he scolded. He looked up at Simon, who was holding the baby. “How’s Marie?” he asked.

Taking the hint, Simon came closer and held the child out so Joe could see her. She was awake, as Joe had already guessed from the odd gurgles she had been emitting. Now, she rewarded him with a charming smile and a small burp. “Oh, how lady-like,” Joe teased.

“Joe, we’ve come to say goodbye,” Caitlin murmured. “Simon and I are going back east on the train.”

“I see,” Joe replied, his face suddenly still. “That’s a surprise.”

“I had hoped you would be well enough for us to say goodbye to in person,” Caitlin told him tears standing in her eyes. “I wanted to thank you for being my friend.”

“I’ll always be your friend,” Joe assured her, his voice hoarse. He raised his face as Caitlin leaned in to kiss his cheek.

“Thank you for helping her,” Simon said, patting Joe’s shoulder in lieu of shaking his hand. “Goodbye.” He ushered Caitlin out.

“Goodbye,” Joe croaked, after the door was closed.

Standing by the window, Ben watched as the couple walked away down the street. His heart ached for his son. He turned away and went over to Joe. He was gazing blindly at the door, tears running down his face, which was a picture of misery. Silently, Ben sat down and put his arm round Joe’s shoulders. Joe leant into his father’s warmth. “I love her, Pa,” he whispered. “I love her.”

“I know,” Ben crooned. He gently wiped away the tears, reflecting that the course of true love never did run smooth. Caitlin was everything he had hoped for in a daughter-in-law and Joe, as he had feared, had given his heart to her, when she wasn’t free to love him back, firstly because she thought her husband was dead and then because she discovered that he wasn’t. None of this was Caitlin’s fault and Ben, who had met her in the street, knew that she was well aware of Joe’s love for her and of how much this would hurt him.

But Joe was strong and had his family around him to lend him support through this difficult time. Joe would recover from his injuries and his broken heart would mend. One day, Joe would love again.

They were still sitting like that when Adam and Hoss came in. Joe’s tears had dried and he was feeling tired. “Is everything all right?” Adam asked, sensing that something had happened.

“Yes, everything’s all right,” Joe replied. He turned his head and looked at Ben. “Let’s go home.”

***End***

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