To Steal a Son (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   8910


 

 

“Just the sacks left,” Ben commented to Joe as they put the last of the small packages into the wagon. “Come and give me a hand.”

Tipping his hat back on his head, Joe smiled at his father. “Then let’s get something cool to drink,” he suggested. “It’s broiling out here.”

“I think we can manage that,” Ben agreed. Joe was right; it was indeed very hot that day. Ben could feel the sun baking into the bare skin of his forearms. “We’ll pull the wagon into the shade first, though.”

“You’ve got a deal!” Joe laughed. Together, he and Ben carried the sacks of flour to the wagon, and dusted their hands off when the last one was in.

As Joe moved to the wagon seat and picked up the reins, ready to move the team into the shade, Ben called to him. “Joe, wait! Here’s the stage coming in.”

They both watched the stage draw to a stop and several people got out. Joe shook up the team and moved them into the shade and went back to join Ben. To his surprise, Ben wasn’t where he’d left him and Joe glanced around quickly to try and spot him. It wasn’t difficult, despite the people thronging the street on such a lovely day. Ben was outside the stage office, talking to a couple who were standing there, surrounded by bags.

“Pa?” Joe said, as he approached. He smiled tentatively. He didn’t recognize either of the people Ben was talking to.

“Ah, this is my son, Joseph,” Ben replied expansively. “Joe, come and meet John and Nancy Davidson.” As Joe politely shook hands with them both, Ben explained, “I knew John very briefly on my way west with Adam. John, it must be nearly 30 years!”

“Oh don’t say that!” Davidson scolded. “It makes me feel positively ancient!” He laughed. “You say you have another son, too, Ben? So you re-married?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Actually, I re-married for the first time not long after we met you, John. Inger was a wonderful woman.”

“For the first time?” John echoed. He glanced at Joe. “I’m sorry, Ben, I didn’t mean to pry.”

“You’re not,” Ben assured him. “Inger was killed in an Indian raid on our wagon train. Then, after I came here, I met Joe’s mother, Marie, in New Orleans.” He smiled reminiscently. “She died when Joe was very young.”

“How sad,” John murmured.

“But at least you have your sons,” Nancy said, with a slight emphasis on ‘sons’. It was the first time she had spoken since Joe arrived. John gave Joe another look – an uneasy one this time.

“Yes, I do,” Ben agreed, obliviously. “And I’m very lucky.” He smiled. “John, what are you doing in town? How long are you here for?”

“We’re just passing through,” the other replied. “We’re going to California. I can’t take the cold winters back east. So I sold up and Nancy and I came west.”

“Where are you staying?” Ben wanted to know. Joe began to fidget, wanting to go to the saloon for a cold beer. The heat was quite something as they stood in the full glare of the sun. Nancy was watching him intently, and Joe was feeling very uncomfortable under her unwavering gaze.

“We’ll get a room in the hotel,” John answered. “We’ll stop here for a day or so to let Nancy rest. It’s a tiring trip.”

“Then you come and stay with us,” Ben proposed. “And I won’t take no for an answer!” As John began to protest, Ben swept his objections aside until the man laughingly agreed. “That’s settled then. Joe, go and hire a buggy, please. Bring it back here, then you can take the wagon home. I’ll see you there.”

For an instant, Joe wanted to object. He cherished the time he spent alone with his father and he wasn’t pleased that he was being robbed of that. But the protest died on his lips, because he knew that he was just being selfish. “Sure thing,” he agreed, as cheerfully as possible. At 20, Joe was still trying to prove that he was an adult. He headed off to the livery stable, still feeling Mrs. Davidson’s eyes on him.

*****

While Ben settled the Davidsons into their room, Joe unloaded the supplies and then saddled his horse, hitched it to the back of the hired buggy and headed back to town. For all that the afternoon was waning, the sun wasn’t getting any cooler and this time Joe did stop for a beer in the saloon before he went home again. As he put up Cochise, he saw that his brothers were home and hurried to go inside and wash up before supper.

However, he was already late. Hop Sing was putting the meal on the table and Joe made quick apologies before dashing upstairs to change his clothes, as Ben was dressed for supper. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, as he slipped into his seat at the table. He was sitting next to Nancy Davidson. She patted his hand.

“Don’t worry about it,” she told him. “You were doing something for us.” She gave Joe a decidedly maternal smile and patted his hand again. Joe was sorely tempted to move it, but he resisted, instead helping himself from the dishes his father passed to him.

Conversation through the meal was mostly between Ben, John and Adam. Adam could vaguely remember John and he was keen to test his memories on the other man. When he had finally run out of ‘do you remembers’, the oldest Cartwright son turned to Nancy. “I don’t remember meeting you, Mrs. Davidson,” he said, politely. “I’m sure I would’ve remembered a beautiful woman like you.”

“I wasn’t married to John at the time,” Nancy replied in an icy tone. “We didn’t meet for several years after you were there.”

“Ah well, that would explain it,” Adam replied, slightly taken aback by her reaction. Most women enjoyed getting a compliment, even one as heavy-handed as that.

“Where in California are you headed for?” Joe asked, his initial hunger slaked.

Beaming at Joe, as though he had just asked a wonderfully important question, Nancy replied, “We’re going to San Francisco, Joe.” She patted his hand again. “Have you ever been there?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe replied. “I’ve been there a few times.”

“You must tell me all about it,” Nancy enthused, drawing Joe over to sit beside her on the sofa as Hop Sing brought through coffee.

As the evening wore on, Joe realized that Nancy was monopolizing him, and ignoring both Adam and Hoss. Neither one seemed to mind, but it did seem rather unfair to Joe that no one rescued him. However, a yawn that he couldn’t control betrayed his tiredness and Nancy was immediately apologetic. “Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry. You must be exhausted after such a long day, and with another trip to town, too. It must be past your bedtime.”

Catching site of his father’s face, Joe bit back a comment about being rather old to have a set bedtime, and simply nodded. “I am tired, ma’am. If you’ll excuse me?” He rose, and bid the rest of his family and John goodnight and climbed the stairs.

He had his shirt and boots off when there was a knock on the door and Adam came in. “She sure took a fancy to you, didn’t she, buddy?” Adam commented.

“Tell me about it!” Joe agreed. “And none of you tried to help me out, either!” He sighed.

“There’s something odd going on between Nancy and John, don’t you think?” Adam asked. He knew that Joe was particularly sensitive to moods.

“I noticed that too,” Joe replied. “She’s sort of… I don’t know. Mothering me?” He glanced at Adam for confirmation of his feelings. “And John keeps looking at me as though I make him uneasy. But I haven’t done anything to make him uneasy. I don’t know what’s going on, Adam.”

“Me either,” Adam agreed. Joe had just confirmed his own thinking. “But perhaps you should try and give Nancy a wide berth while she’s here.”

“Makes sense to me,” Joe replied and yawned once more. “Night, Adam.”

“I can take a hint!” Adam laughed. He ruffled Joe’s hair. “Night, Joe.”

*****

Avoiding Nancy proved easier said than done. She came down to breakfast as Joe was finishing his the next morning and before Joe could make good his escape for the day, she had suggested to Ben that perhaps Joe could take her out in the buggy and show her the ranch while Ben and John reminisced about old times. “After all, I wasn’t there when you knew each other, and it’s not fair to expect you to stop and explain who every person was, and not fair for me to expect you to.” She pouted prettily and Ben thought again how pretty she was.

“Of course, if that’s what you’d like,” Ben replied. “Joe, go and hitch the buggy and wait for Mrs. Davidson.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe murmured and saw Ben’s eyes shoot towards him as he rose from the table. “Come out whenever you’re ready, Ma’am,” he told their guest.

“He’s such a lovely boy, Ben,” Nancy gushed, as Joe left the house. “So handsome and kind. You must be very proud of him.”

“I’m proud of all my boys,” Ben replied. “Oh, I know none of them are boys now; they’re all men grown, but a father still thinks of his sons as boys.”

“Oh, Joe’s still a boy, surely,” Nancy insisted. “He’s no more than about 17, is he?”

“Joe’s 20,” Ben replied. “He’s grown up so fast, Nancy. It hardly seems any time since he was a small boy on Marie’s lap.” He sighed, thinking back to those last days with Marie, and so missed the scowl that crossed his guest’s face at the mention of Marie’s name.

“It must have been so hard for Joe to grow up without a mother,” Nancy muttered. “Did you never think of marrying again to give him a mother?”

“I never found anyone else to love,” Ben muttered, suddenly uncomfortable with the situation. “And the boys and I have got by, as we always did.”

“It wouldn’t matter with Adam and Hoss,” Nancy replied. “But Joe needs a mother yet.”

Rather taken aback by this implied criticism, Ben wasn’t sure what to say. But he was saved from replying by John’s arrival downstairs. John kissed his wife’s cheek and she smiled at him. “I’m just going for a buggy ride round the ranch, John, darling. You and Ben can talk till the cows come home.” She put her hand to her mouth and giggled girlishly. “I didn’t really mean that.”

“Off you go, my dear,” John laughed. “Enjoy your ride.” He watched fondly as she left the house. “It was nice of you to get one of your men to take Nancy out today, Ben,” he remarked as he sat down.

“Joe is taking her, actually,” Ben replied. He noticed John’s face fall. “John? Is this a problem?” He quickly thought around the situation and wondered if he thought Joe was the type of man to chase another man’s wife. He dismissed the thought at once. “She’ll be quite safe,” he went on, trying to reassure his friend.

“I’m sure she will be,” John replied and smiled. But as he began to eat, he wondered if Joe would be quite safe.

*****

As he took Nancy around the Ponderosa, Joe became more and more uncomfortable. It wasn’t that Nancy was sitting inappropriately close, or constantly touching him or making other overtly flirtatious moves; in fact, Joe didn’t know why he was so uncomfortable with her. At first, he thought it was because she was talking down to him, but he’d been patronized before by other people and although he didn’t like it, he could tolerate it politely.

As ever when he was troubled, Joe found himself heading towards the lake. It was a glorious day, although there was more air than there had been the previous day. A cool, refreshing breeze sprang up from the lake and Nancy sighed as Joe drew rein.

“This is perfect, Joe dear,” Nancy smiled and patted his arm. Joe resisted the urge to pull his arm away.

“It’s my favorite spot,” he told her, glancing towards the glade of trees. “I often come here.”

“Oh how lovely of you to share it with me!” Nancy exclaimed. “It is beautiful. What draws you here?”

“It was my mother’s favorite place,” Joe explained. “I think I remember her most clearly here.” He studied his companion’s scowling face and wondered why she had gone from happy to mad in a few short seconds. Desperately, he ploughed on. “My mother is buried just over there.”

“Your mother?” Nancy echoed and there was something in her voice that made Joe almost – afraid. He shook off the feeling. Surely he was mistaken. “Well, I’ve seen enough,” Nancy continued brusquely. “Take me back, please.” And although she phrased it in the form of a request, it was definitely an order.

“All right, if that’s what you want,” Joe replied, and shook up the buggy horse. He was puzzled. What had made Nancy so angry? He couldn’t think of a single thing he had said that was rude or out of place.

There was no conversation on the way back and when they arrived in the yard, Nancy spurned Joe’s offer of a hand down. Joe watched as she disappeared into the house. What had made her so mad?

*****

For the rest of the day, Joe kept himself busy and out of the way. He was dreading supper, sure that Nancy would have complained to Ben about him, although he still couldn’t figure out why she had become suddenly angry. However, when he appeared, he found Nancy smiling and fawning over him again.

Completely perplexed by her erratic behavior, Joe decided that he’d misunderstood Nancy earlier that day and she had simply been tired, not angry. But now, John appeared to be angry with him and Joe didn’t know why. He withdrew into himself and only spoke if directly addressed and after supper was over, he went straight to his room.

This time, it was Hoss who knocked on his door and went in. “Ya all right, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked kindly.  “Ya left right suddenly. Ya ain’t feelin’ ill are ya?”

“No, I’m all right, thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied, with a wan smile.

“If yer sure,” Hoss agreed doubtfully. Something about Joe’s demeanor bothered him. He suddenly thought of something that would cheer Joe up. “Ain’t it good news that Pa’s persuaded John an’ Nancy ta stay fer a few more days?”

A feeling of dread swept over Joe and he could barely force out a smile. “Yes, good news,” he agreed, although he thought he couldn’t have sounded less convincing if he’d tried.

Nodding, Hoss left again. Joe sat on his bed and gazed blankly into the future. They were staying for a few more days. Joe didn’t know why this news should upset him so much, but he wasn’t sure how to bear it.

*****

Luckily for Joe, the next morning brought a wire from the Army, telling the Cartwrights that they would be passing through the neighborhood of the Ponderosa several days earlier than originally expected and they would like to look at the horses the Cartwrights had for sale. Joe had been working on a string for possible sale to the Army, but with other work cropping up, he had left the horses for later. Now, he set to work to get them all broken in time. Clearly, the horses wouldn’t be as well schooled as the Army was accustomed to from the Cartwrights, but since they themselves were bringing forward the date for viewing the horses, they wouldn’t expect the same amount of polish. It was a tailor-made legitimate excuse for Joe to avoid John and Nancy.

Working with the horses did Joe the world of good. He was exercising his body and skills and relished the challenge. By the time he arrived home for supper that night, dusty, dirty and sweating, he was in a much better mood.

Nancy pounced on him almost the moment he walked through the door. “Joe! Where have you been all day? I missed my boy to keep me company.” Then she took in the state he was in and her face grew grim. “Joseph, what have you been doing? You’re filthy and your shirt is ripped!”

Rather taken aback by the pre-emptive tone, Joe stuttered, “I-I’ve been working!”

“Working?” Nancy echoed, disapproval in her tone. “What kind of working involves getting so dirty?”

“Horse breaking!” Joe snapped back. “A lot of ranch work involves getting dirty, you know!” He pushed past her, not caring if he was rude and almost ran to his room.

Downstairs, Ben gaped at Joe’s departing figure with an open mouth. “I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed. “Nancy, I do apologize. I don’t know what got into Joe. He isn’t usually rude like that. I’ll have a word with him!”

“He seems quite over-wrought,” Nancy remarked. “Perhaps he’s working too hard, Ben?”

“Perhaps,” Ben muttered, not liking the implied criticism in Nancy’s tone. “Excuse me.” He went up stairs in Joe’s wake.

*****

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said, the instant the door opened. “I know I shouldn’t have been so rude to her, but did you hear the way she was going on at me? Who does she think she is – my mother?”

And as suddenly as that, the world seemed to stop and everything seemed to fall into place for Joe. For that was how Nancy was behaving – as though she was Joe’s mother. As soon as he realized that, Joe understood why Nancy had become angry at the lake; Joe had mentioned his real mother.

Blinking, Joe suddenly realized that Ben was talking to him and his tone was not pleasant. Joe bit his lip to stop himself interrupting, but he wasn’t really listening to what Ben was saying – a fact of which his father was only too aware. Finally, he stopped talking and just glared at his youngest son.

“Pa, I am sorry I’m rude, but listen to me, please,” Joe begged. Talking quickly, and keeping his eyes on his father’s face throughout, Joe related the last day or so with Nancy and explained what he thought. Ben listened impatiently at first, but with more attention as Joe’s hypothesis began to make sense to him, too.

“I can see what you’re saying, Joe, and I think you might be right,” Ben agreed, when Joe was quiet. “Nancy did say something to me about you needing a mother when she got here.”

“But why?” Joe burst out, not able to understand. “What difference does it make to her?”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “But John told me they haven’t been able to have children.” He frowned thoughtfully as he wondered why Joe had triggered Nancy’s maternal instincts. “I’m sorry, Joe, but you’ll just have to make the best of it while they are here. The next stage for San Francisco isn’t for a few days. However, you’ll be busy with the horses, so you won’t see too much of Nancy. And in the meantime, you’ll get changed and come downstairs and apologize.”

“But…” Joe began, but he recognized the look in his father’s eye at once and wisely decided to say no more. “Yes, sir,” he agreed, meekly. He began to strip off his torn, dirty shirt as his father left. Only when the door was safely shut and Joe thought Ben was out of hearing range did he add, “It’s not fair!”

*****

Dismounting stiffly from the latest mustang he had broken, Joe became aware of movement beyond the corral rails and winced as he saw Nancy there. He had got through supper the previous evening without volunteering anything, and Nancy hadn’t been up when he had breakfast that morning. He had hoped that he wouldn’t see her at all that day until supper. As he handed the horse over to one of the hands, Nancy beckoned to him and called imperiously. “Joe! Come here!”

Stifling a sigh, Joe found a smile as he trekked across the corral. “Morning, Nancy,” he replied. “Did you sleep well?”

His attempts to deflect her were for naught. “You didn’t say goodbye to me this morning,” Nancy chided him.  “I wanted to talk to you as well. It’s important, Joe. John and I want you to come to San Francisco with us.”

“Why?” Joe blurted, without thinking. He realized a moment later, and hastily tried to make amends. “I mean, thank you, that’s very kind, but I can’t leave the ranch right now.”

“I don’t mean for a trip,” Nancy went on. One hand reached out and even though Joe was on the other side of the corral rails, she managed to briefly caress his cheek before Joe stepped back. “I mean to live with us, so we can pay for your education and introduce you to society. You need a mother, Joe and you shouldn’t be stuck here in this backwater. You’d be my son, Joe.”

“I can’t do that,” Joe replied, retreating another step. “I thank you for the offer, but this is my home. I’ve had all the formal education I want, thank you. And you’re not my mother, Nancy. My mother died many years ago, and Pa has done everything for me since then. I can’t leave.” Joe could feel color burning in his face; he didn’t think he had ever had to go through such an embarrassing interview with anyone. “If you’ll excuse me?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned away across the corral, shouting, “Get the next one ready.”

Standing by the fence, Nancy was stunned. She was sure Joe would jump at the chance to escape his dull life on the ranch. She walked away as Joe climbed onto the next mustang. For a moment, she paused to watch as the animal bucked its way across the corral and finally dumped Joe. Nancy’s breath caught, but Joe scrambled to his feet and waved to the hands to get the horse back in the chute for another attempt.

By the time she had reached the ranch house again, Nancy had convinced herself that Joe would change his mind about her offer. It had simply taken him by surprise and he would allow himself to be talked around. After all, the boy needed a mother and there was no chance, as far as she could see, of Ben ever finding a suitable wife in Virginia City. No, she knew Joe would want to go with her.

*****

As Joe dismounted from Cochise in the yard that evening, he could hear the murmur of voices coming from the open door of the house. It was incredibly warm that evening and Joe wanted nothing more than a good wash, some food and his bed. Breaking mustangs was hot, hard work, and doing it in hot weather made it even more punishing for man and beast.

The barn was dim and musty, with dust motes dancing in the hot air. Joe saw Buck slumbering in his stall, but neither Chubb nor Sport was yet there, so Joe knew his brothers were not back. He led Cochise into his stall and a voice spoke from behind Joe.

“I wanted to speak to you again, Joe,” Nancy said, coming towards him from behind the door. “I’m sure you’ve had time to re-think our earlier conversation and your hasty response.”

Biting back a groan, for Nancy couldn’t have timed her ambush any better, Joe fought to remain polite. “I’m sorry if I was rude earlier,” he replied. He saw the start of a smile on Nancy’s face and hurried on. “But I haven’t changed my mind and I’m not going to change it. I don’t want to go and live in San Francisco with you and John, although it is a very kind offer. My home is here on the ranch. This is where I want to be; this is what I want to do. I’m sorry if it disappoints you, but the answer is no.”

“You don’t need to pretend with me, Joe,” Nancy told him earnestly, leaning closer to put her hand on his arm. Joe took a step back, no longer caring if that was rude. “I know you really want to be my son. Your father won’t mind, I know. In fact, I’m sure he’ll be glad to get you off his hands.”

Up until that moment, Joe had been automatically taking care of his horse, stripping off the saddle and bridle and brushing the glossy black and white coat, completely unaware of his actions. But now, all movement ceased as Joe gazed in disbelief at Nancy. “That’s not true!” he protested. “My Pa has never thought I was a burden! He’s never thought that of any of us!”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t say it in so many words,” Nancy agreed, “but he must find it very difficult to have three sons at home, reducing his chances of finding another wife. And you need a mother, Joe. I could be your mother.”

“I don’t need a mother!” Joe cried. “I had a wonderful mother! I have Pa now and that’s all I need. You’ll never be my mother, and I’ll never leave the ranch to live with you!” Joe started towards Nancy, intending to leave the barn, but she was between him and the entrance to the stall. He hesitated. The last thing he wanted to do was touch her, but he steeled himself to do it and push past her. But then he heard hooves in the yard and knew that Adam and Hoss were home.

“You think on it some more,” Nancy told Joe, not noticeably perturbed by his hysterical refusal. “You don’t have to decide today. But think, you could be quite a gentleman of society under my tutelage.” She turned and left, calling out a greeting to Adam and Hoss.

For a long instant, Joe stood frozen, feeling tears burning at the back of his eyes. Then Cochise nudged his master and Joe automatically fondled the mole-soft nose and began to brush his horse again. For a moment, his feelings overwhelmed him and he buried his face in Cochise’s coarse mane.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss called as he came into the barn. “Sure is hot, ain’t it?”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed, his voice thin. He lifted his face from the comfort of his horse and began brushing again.

“Are you all right?” Adam asked. “You don’t sound too good.”

“I guess I’m just tired,” Joe replied, still sounding strained. “I think I’ll just go to bed.” He patted Cochise, checked that his horse had food and water (when had he done that, he wondered) and went into the house. Luckily, there was no one in the great room and he was able to go straight upstairs without encountering anyone. He threw himself down on the bed and contemplated the ceiling with burning eyes.

*****

“Joe?” Ben opened the bedroom door and went in. There was no light on in the room and for an instant, Ben thought Joe was asleep. However, his son stirred and sat up, showing no signs of having been asleep. “Are you all right?” he asked. “I was worried when your brothers said you didn’t want any supper.”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe replied, expressionlessly.

“You don’t sound fine,” Ben remarked, sitting down beside Joe. The room was close, despite the open window, and Joe was shirtless and his bare feet stuck out from beneath his pants. Ben put his hand on Joe’s forehead, but there was no fever present.

“I’m just tired,” Joe answered, but his stomach gave him away by giving a loud growl.

“There’s more wrong than just that,” Ben replied. “Come on, Joe, out with it!”

“There isn’t,” Joe insisted. “I am a bit hungry now, but I wasn’t before.” It was the truth. Joe had been so miserable, he hadn’t felt any hunger.

Looking at Joe closely, Ben knew that this wasn’t the truth. Ben could read Joe like a book and his lies were always apparent to his parent at once. Ben thought back to other things that had been troubling Joe and said, “Its Nancy, isn’t, son?” At the look of surprise on Joe’s face, he smiled. “It wasn’t hard to work out.”

Slowly, Joe repeated the two conversations he had had with the woman that day. “I don’t understand why she won’t take no for an answer, Pa,” he concluded.

“I don’t either,” Ben replied. “But rest assured, Joe, you’ve never been a burden to me! And you and your brothers have never hindered me in finding a new wife! I haven’t looked particularly, as you know. Oh, yes, there have been women, but no one special. That has nothing to do with you boys. I don’t want you to go unless that’s what you want to do, Joe.”

“I want to stay here!” Joe cried. “I don’t want to be a society gent!”

“Then stay,” Ben told him, lovingly. “That’s what I always hoped; that my sons would want to carry on my dream and stay here on the Ponderosa.”

“That’s what I want, Pa,” Joe replied. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Ben drew Joe to him in a rough hug. “Then stay,” he smiled. “And come downstairs and get the supper Hop Sing has made for you. Working those horses all day usually gives you quite an appetite, young man.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied and the animation in his face and voice told Ben that the crisis had passed for now.

But as he followed Joe downstairs, Ben realized that it wasn’t over for him. He would have to talk to John tomorrow and tell him that his wife was trying to steal a son.

*****

“I’m sorry, Ben,” John said wretchedly. “We’ll leave in the morning.”

“There’s no need for that,” Ben protested. “But I just thought you ought to know. Nancy has Joe very worried.”

Raising his head, John met Ben’s eyes for the first time. “This isn’t the first time it’s happened,” he admitted. “About a year after we were married, Nancy gave birth to a son. He lived for only a few hours, Ben, and Nancy has never got over his death. Quite often, about the time his birthday would have been, Nancy finds a boy of the right age, and tries to persuade him to come and live with us. She hasn’t done it for a few years, but we’ve never been able to have more family. The baby messed up Nancy’s insides and she’s grieved for him, and the babies she couldn’t have, ever since. I’m sorry she picked on Joe. I’ll talk to her, I promise.”

“I’m so sorry,” Ben replied. “But thank you for speaking to her. And I insist you stay here.” He patted John on the shoulder, not sorry the difficult interview was past.

Outside, he caught Joe as the young man was about to leave for the breaking corrals. “I’ve spoken to John,” he muttered, not wanting the others to overhear. “He’s going to talk to Nancy. Joe, if she does say anything, be gentle with her. She’s had a difficult time after losing a baby, all right?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Joe replied, his face expressing his relief. “See you later.”

“Be careful,” Ben warned.

“I always am!” Joe called back as he rode away.

*****

“You told him!” Nancy screamed. “John how could you! That had nothing to do with him!”

“Nancy, you were doing it again,” John replied, impatiently. “You were trying to steal Joe away from him. Can’t you see the boy is happy here? Joe isn’t our son, Nancy, and wishing won’t make him so!”

“I wasn’t trying to steal him away!” Nancy shouted. “I just wanted to be nice to him, that’s all!”

“Nancy, I’ve made excuses for you all these years,” John told her. “I’m as devastated as you are that we can’t have children, but you can’t go on grieving for the rest of your life! It’s been 20 years! When are you going to accept that we aren’t going to have children? I love you, Nancy, but I can’t keep apologizing to parents who have been offended by the overtures you’ve made to their sons. This has got to stop now, and I expect you to apologize to Joe and Ben before we leave here.” Turning on his heel, John stalked out of the room and slammed the door.

Thwarted in her desire to justify herself, Nancy threw herself down on the bed and began to cry.

*****

In mid-afternoon, Joe took the fall that finished him for the day. Joe was thrown over the mustang’s head and to add injury to insult, the horse stepped on him on the way past. Joe let out a strangled scream as the hoof crashed down on his arm and lay there, feeling pulped, as the wranglers rode the horse down and cornered it.

“You all right, Joe?” Jeb asked, leaning over his young boss.

“Yeah,” Joe agreed, shakily, not sounding convinced. He allowed Jeb to help him to his feet and knew at once that his arm was likely broken.  He cradled it against him protectively. “I guess I’d better go home,” he admitted through white lips and a pinched face.

“I’ll come with ya,” Jeb insisted. “Hey, Pete, best ride inta town fer the doctor!”

“Jeb, I’m fine,” Joe protested, but the older man just gave him a skeptical look and nodded to the hand, who mounted his horse and rode off towards town.

“Come on,” Jeb said, with rough sympathy. “I’ll git ya home, then git yer pa.” He helped Joe onto Cochise and, as they headed for home, rode close by. Joe was grateful; he felt dreadful and his arm throbbed mercilessly.

“Can you manage?” Jeb asked as he helped Joe dismount. “I’ll put Cochise away an’ git yer pa.”

“I’ll be fine,” Joe replied. “Thanks, Jeb. Hop Sing should be in the house.” He walked carefully across the yard and discovered when he got into the house that Hop Sing wasn’t there. The house seemed to be deserted. Joe got himself some water from the kitchen pump and took a drink; his mouth seemed to be as dry as a desert.

Walking across the great room, Joe decided against lying on the sofa. It wasn’t really that comfortable for long periods and he was fairly sure that Doc Martin would want him in his bed, should his arm be broken and needing set. He mounted the stairs slowly wondering, not for the first time, why an injury to one part of the body seemed to drain the strength from the rest of it.

His room was close, despite the open window. Joe felt sweat break out on his upper lip. He looked at his bed, but decided against lying down at once. He’d slip his shirt and boots off and sit down in the chair by the window and make the most of the breeze while he waited for Ben to come. Joe hoped his Pa wouldn’t be long, as he was beginning to wonder if he was going to be sick. The pain in his arm was intensifying.

His arm looked horrific, Joe noted as he managed to get his shirt off. He fought with his queasy stomach as he looked at the swollen, blackened limb. He bit his lip as another wave of pain swept over him.

Behind Joe, the door to his room opened and Joe looked around, a wan smile coming to his lips as he turned to greet his father. But it wasn’t Ben. “Nancy,” Joe muttered, surprised. He hadn’t realized that she was in the house.

“What have you done?” Nancy demanded and hurried over to Joe. She took hold of his arm and gasped as she saw the injury. Joe winced and tried to pull his injured limb away, but Nancy held on, oblivious to the hurt she was causing. “This is not good enough!” she scolded him. “I’ve made up my mind; you’re coming with us, Joe and that is the end of it. Your so-called father can’t take care of you and we can! We’re leaving in the morning.”

Finally pulling free, Joe cradled his arm. “My father does take care of me!” Joe denied. “How can you say he doesn’t? I’m a man, and I do a man’s job. Sometimes that involves getting hurt. I’m not going anywhere with you and that’s final!” He backed away. “I’m not your son, and I never will be! Now, please, leave me alone!” He turned away, fighting to control the tears he could feel pricking his eyes.

Enraged, and not sure she could believe her ears, Nancy gasped. How could her wonderful son claim that she wasn’t his mother? What had living here done to his mind? “Joe, you will come with me!” she ordered and Joe didn’t even bother to turn around.

“No, I won’t,” he replied, firmly.

It was the last straw. Nancy grabbed Joe’s shoulder and swung him around to face her. “You’re my son!” she cried and slapped him hard.

Joe’s hand shot up to his face. “No I’m not!” he cried, no longer caring about her feelings. “I’m Joe Cartwright, and that’s who I’ll always be!”

“You’re mine!” Nancy cried as she tried to embrace Joe. All she succeeded in doing was driving him further away. “If you can’t be mine, you can’t be anyone’s!”

“Leave me alone!” Joe cried. He was beginning to feel genuinely afraid of this wild-eyed, hysterical woman. Joe could feel his knees shaking and the pain from his arm was getting worse. He started to turn away, hoping Nancy would just leave. But she didn’t.

 She snatched up the first thing that came to hand – the lamp on Joe’s bedside table. She crashed it down on his curly head and Joe groaned as he tumbled to the floor, out cold.

“If you aren’t going to be my son, then you aren’t going to be anyone’s son!” she vowed as she took a pillow from the bed and began to press it down on Joe’s face.

*****

Riding in to the yard, Ben left Jeb to tend to his horse and he hurried in to see Joe. His heart had skipped a beat when Jeb had told him that Joe had had a nasty fall from a horse and had probably broken his arm. However, he regained his usual poise after a moment and asked if the doctor had been sent for. He was reassured to learn that Pete had gone to town and he just hoped Paul Martin would be easily found.

The great room was empty. “Joe?” Ben called, but got no answer. He went across to the stairs and hurried up. “Joe?” he called again when he reached the top, but again there was no answer.

By now, Ben was deeply worried. It was entirely possible that Joe had not heard him when he had called downstairs. But it was impossible for Joe not to hear him from the top of the stairs and Ben was suddenly frightened that Joe had been more badly injured than Jeb had realized and had perhaps passed out.

All but running along the hallway, Ben threw open Joe’s door and gaped in horrified disbelief at the scene before him. Joe was stretched out on the floor, clearly unconscious, and Nancy was kneeling beside him, pressing a pillow firmly against his face. The shattered remains of the lamp lay on the floor and oil was pooling on the rug by Joe’s head.

Racing across the room, Ben grabbed Nancy by the arm and tried to drag her away. She resisted, screaming in primeval passion at Ben, who was astounded by her strength. But he had to succeed. Ben hauled on her arm and she clawed at his face for a moment, before resuming pressing down on the pillow with all her might.

Ben had no choice. He bunched his fist and punched her right on the chin. Nancy let out a scream as she toppled backwards, and Ben took a precious second to snatch the pillow from Joe’s face. But he had no chance to tend to his son, for Nancy was coming back at him again. “He’s mine!” she screamed. “Mine! You’re not getting him!”

Ducking another wild swipe at his face from her nails, Ben grabbed Nancy’s wrists and held her at arms’ length. “Jeb!” he shouted, hoping the hand had come into the house, or would hear him through the open window. “Jeb!”

Miraculously, fortunately, Jeb had indeed followed his employer inside. He wanted to see how Joe was doing and he ran up the stairs, following the sound of Ben’s voice. He took in the scene at a glance and raced over to pinion Nancy’s arms to her side. Nancy fought him, the sounds coming from her mouth no longer having a meaning. “Get her out of here!” Ben ordered and knelt hastily by Joe’s side.

Joe’s face was waxen. Ben laid his head on his son’s chest. Joe’s heart was beating, although the rhythm seemed a bit slow to Ben. He sat up, relieved that his son was still breathing, although Joe’s lips looked slightly blue. Ben didn’t want to move him; he had no idea how badly Nancy had hurt Joe so he contented himself to sit and wait for his son to rouse.

It took a few minutes before Joe began to stir. Ben had checked Joe over and had seen the cut along the side of Joe’s head, just above his ear. It bled profusely and Ben, even though he knew a little blood goes a long way, was worried that Joe was bleeding to death. He quickly took Joe’s wash cloth to staunch the flow of blood and the pressure on the wound brought Joe back to consciousness.

“Joe, can you hear me? It’s Pa.” Ben bent over Joe, seeking reassurance that his son was all right.

“Pa?” Joe muttered. His eyes flickered open. “What…? Where…?” He groaned. “My face hurts,” he whispered.

“Don’t try to move,” Ben warned him. “Just stay still. The doctor should be here soon. Do you remember what happened?”

“The horse…stood on me,” Joe replied, slowly. Then his eyes opened wide. “Nancy!” he exclaimed. “Pa… Nancy…” Joe was unable to articulate what had happened.

“It’s all right,” Ben soothed. “You’ve got a nasty cut on your head, Joe, but I think you’ll be all right. Just stay still till the doctor comes.”

“My nose…is really sore,” Joe complained. He started to lift his hand to feel it, but Ben stopped him. Judging from the way Joe’s eyes were beginning to bruise, and the swelling around his nose, Ben thought Joe’s nose was broken. He shuddered as he thought of what would have happened to Joe if he had been just a minute longer in coming home. Joe would have died.

Ben wished he had never invited Nancy into his home.

*****

Both Ben and Joe were thoroughly fed up of being on the floor when Paul Martin finally arrived. Joe was sore from his fall and lying on the floor had allowed everything to stiffen up. His litany of complaints had become longer and louder as the hours passed and Ben had tried to keep his son soothed, not pointing out that his own legs were cramping from kneeling by Joe’s side.

“What have we here?” Paul cried cheerfully as he came into the room. “I was told you’d fallen off a horse, Joe, not fallen out of bed!” He came over and saw at once from Ben’s face that his joke had mis-fired. “What happened?” he asked.

Slowly, Ben explained, keeping a tight grip on Joe’s hand as he told of Nancy trying to smother Joe.  Joe’s eyes widened as far as they could, allowing for the swelling and bruising. Ben had managed to keep that from him while they waited for Paul to arrive.

“I see,” Paul nodded grimly. He felt all round Joe’s head and neck, before finally saying, “All right, let’s get him onto the bed. Joe, you just lie there and let us do the work, all right?” Joe nodded. Between them, Ben and Paul lifted Joe and he sighed with relief as the soft mattress cradled his aching body.

With Joe off the floor, Paul’s examination went more quickly. Ben hovered anxiously. “All right,” Paul finally said, straightening. “Joe, as you know, your right forearm is broken and I’m going to set it and plaster it in a minute. Your nose is broken too, I’m afraid, so I’ll have to set it as well. I’m going to put a stitch in the gash by your ear, and I expect you’ll have a headache for a day or two. But apart from that, you seem to be perfectly fine.”

“Thank goodness,” Ben breathed and smiled at Joe, blinking back tears of relief.

“Did…she…break my nose when she tried to…kill…me?” Joe asked.

“Yes,” Paul replied, calmly, as he took out the things he would need. He smoothly shot a dose of morphine into Joe’s thigh. “You were lucky, Joe. From the sounds of things, if your Pa had been another minute longer getting here, you’d have died.”

Blinking as the painkiller began to sweep through his system, Joe reached for his father. “Pa…” he muttered, sleepily.

“Hush, Joe,” Ben replied. “You don’t need to say anything.”

“I love you,” Joe breathed and he slipped into a drugged sleep.

*****

Setting the bones was an unpleasant business, but Paul did it as quickly as he could. Soon, Joe’s right arm rested in a cast and sling. His nose was packed with cotton, and Paul had made a small cast for it, too. Joe was such a handsome boy; he didn’t want anything to mar his looks even slightly.

After his work on Joe was finished, Paul looked at Ben and the two men silently acknowledged that they now had to deal with Nancy. Ben bent over the still-sleeping Joe and caressed his head briefly before following Paul out of Joe’s room.

They found Nancy and John in the downstairs bedroom. Hoss and Adam were sitting in front of the fire. Both leapt to their feet when Ben came down, but apart from telling them that their brother would be all right, he said nothing more. “Go and sit with Joe, both of you,” Ben asked, but it sounded like an order. Reluctantly, they obeyed.

Nancy was stretched out on the bed, her eyes open and fixed on the ceiling. John was holding her hand, but it seemed plain to Ben that Nancy wasn’t even aware of her husband’s presence. “John, this is Doctor Martin,” Ben explained. He stepped aside to let Paul go closer. Ben felt that he couldn’t even look at Nancy.

The examination didn’t take long. “She seems to be cataleptic right now,” Paul stated. He saw the confused looks on his listeners’ faces and explained. “That means she’s in a trance-like state. Right now, I can’t say more than that. Unless Nancy talks to me, there’s no way to assess if she’s had a complete mental breakdown or not. But I would suspect, from what Ben and Joe have told me, that is what has happened.” He patted John’s shoulder sympathetically. “I’m sorry, but I think you’ll have to put her into an asylum.”

“No!” John cried. Tears stood in his eyes. “Those places are horrible!”

“Yes, I know,” Paul agreed quietly. “But it’s the best place for her. Ben says that she has done something like this before?”

Slowly, the whole tale came out once more. “But she didn’t really want to steal those boys, doctor,” John told him, his eyes pleading for understanding. “She just wanted to offer them a good life.”

“I’m sure she did,” Paul replied. “But now, Nancy has gone too far. She tried to kill Joe. Mr. Davidson, I’m sorry, but if you don’t have Nancy committed to an asylum, she’ll have to stand trial for attempted murder.”

For a long moment, John Davidson just stared at Paul, then tears began to trickle down his face. “Whatever you think best,” he whispered, finally admitting that his wife was not sane. He glanced briefly at Ben. “I’m so sorry,” he added.

Compassion gripped Ben and put his hand on John’s shoulder. He couldn’t imagine how hard it must be for his friend. “It’s not your fault, John,” he replied, his own voice breaking as he remembered how close he had come to losing Joe. He squeezed John’s shoulder for a moment before he left the room, unable to stay a moment longer.

*****

“So what’s going to happen now?” Joe asked. He was ostensibly eating his breakfast, but since he was unable to breathe through his nose, he had decided to give up on it for the moment.

“Paul has found a place for Nancy,” Ben replied, tapping Joe’s plate as an indication that he wanted his son to eat some more. Reluctantly, Joe forked some eggs into his mouth, taking a deep breath before he did so.

“What’s John going to do?” Adam asked, regarding Joe with an amused smile on his face.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, trying to signal to Adam that Joe was self-conscious enough about gasping his way through this meal without his oldest brother showing his amusement. “He isn’t sure if he ought to stay here and hope that Nancy recovers, or move on and leave her behind.”

“Is there a chance Nancy can recover?” Adam asked, forgetting all about Joe. “If she does recover, she’ll stand trial, surely?”

“I would think so,” Ben agreed, noticing that Joe was trying a little bit of bacon, now that he wasn’t under scrutiny. “Paul thinks it’s unlikely she will recover. He thinks that, perhaps, she has been going downhill for several years. She was obsessed by the death of her baby and never got over it. Grief began to take over her mind until she completely lost her grip on reality.”

“It’s very sad,” Hoss commented. “Joe, ya want a hand ta cut up that bacon?”

“Yes, please, Hoss,” Joe nodded, and passed his plate across. “Just don’t eat any of it!”

“Ya was makin’ such a meal o’ it, I thought ya weren’t gonna eat it,” Hoss joked and Joe stuck his tongue out at his brother.

“I’ll break your nose, and you see how you like it, you big galoot!” Joe retorted.

“You can’t reach that far!” Adam teased.

Sitting back and watching as his sons verbally sparred over the end of the meal, Ben thought about John and Nancy. Even if John decided to stay in Virginia City, Ben knew that their friendship was over. John had been so embarrassed that he had moved out of the Ponderosa immediately, accompanying Paul Martin to the asylum, and then moving into a boarding house. Ben had done his best to persuade him to come back to the ranch, but John refused. The next day, Ben had tried again, but this time John flat refused to see him. Ben took the hint, although his heart was heavy. He did not blame John for any of this. It was no one’s fault, yet he could see why his friend felt so bad. Perhaps in time, John would come round, if he stayed. Privately, Ben thought that John would move elsewhere.

“Its time we were getting to work,” he announced, breaking into the teasing. Adam and Hoss both took the hint at once, rising and leaving the table. Ben looked at Joe. “How are you, son?” he asked.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe replied. “Except…” His voice trailed off and Ben’s heart sank. What on earth was Joe going to say? He thought that Joe was doing well accepting that Nancy hadn’t known what she was doing. Had he been wrong? Was Joe really not coping?

“What?” Ben asked, apprehensively.

“When does this packing come out of my nose?” Joe complained. “It’s been two days, Pa, and I’m really fed up of not being able to breathe!”

Smiling, Ben patted his son’s arm. “Patience, Joe,” he counseled. “Patience!” He rose and left the table. Joe sat there with his mouth open. “Close your mouth, Joe,” he added and was delighted to see his son splutter indignantly.

“Pa!” he cried, as Ben made a hasty exit. “That’s not fair!” Joe exclaimed, as he watched the door shut. “When I can’t help chewing with my mouth open, I get into trouble for it!”

“Life not fair,” Hop Sing advised the youth as he cleared the table.

“It’s still not fair!” Joe muttered as he went over to pick up his book. Then he frowned, remembering that he hadn’t quite finished eating. He turned to the table and saw that his plate was gone.

Joe slumped onto the sofa. “It’s not fair!”

***End***

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