Soul Mates (by Dodo)

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Summary: A chance remark leads Joe to remember his first love

Rated: T  Word Count:  29197

 

                                                                    Soul Mates

 

Chapter 1:

Prologue

It was another fine summer’s day; bright, warm and the sky brilliant china blue with massive fluffy clouds floating effortlessly high above the horizon. Far below on the sun baked ground, the San Francisco to Virginia City Overland Express stage coach swayed from side to side as each of the six horses pulling it strained in their harnesses, climbing the trail where tall Ponderosa pines grew on either side of the well worn and rutted road.The driver cracked his whip, skilfully weaving his team onward as the three passengers inside dozed fitfully under the glare of a hot mid day sun, when suddenly the bouncing coach, creaking and groaning on its leather straps lurched precariously around a sharp bend, causing one of its occupants to tilt forward and awake with a confused start.Steadying himself on the wooden door frame at his side, Joseph Cartwright pushed himself back in his seat, wiping his hand across a sweated forehead then easing out the crick in his neck as he glanced outside through the small stage window. He’d been away on business for a few weeks and unused to the stresses and strains of long meetings and dealings that had nearly worn him down to the point of mental exhaustion, the rhythmic swaying of the coach had quickly lulled him to sleep shortly after departing at sunrise from the final relay station on the return journey.As he’d slept many miles were covered by the galloping horses, and now noticing the familiar landscape where the snow crested peaks of the Sierra Nevada loomed on the distant horizon, Joe heaved a grateful sigh of relief. After four days travelling he’d soon be able to leave the cramped confines of the dusty and uncomfortable stage, and once again return to the Ponderosa and the comforts of home.

With the sun at its zenith the penetrating heat of day filled the interior of the coach and in the claustrophobic atmosphere Joe could feel globules of sweat running down his back, making his shirt cling to his body uncomfortably. He loosened his string tie and undid the top button of his shirt in an attempt to gain a degree of comfort then sank back onto his seat, stretching out his legs but careful not to disturb his fellow passengers.

Having just turned eighteen years old, this had been Joe’s first solo trip away from the ranch without the watchful eye of an elder Cartwright continually on him; the young man entrusted with securing a contract for the ranch to sell the large herd of Texas Long-Horns that were driven over to the rail yards of Sacramento on the yearly cattle drive.

Too young to be considered in the past, during family discussions on who would be the one to visit San Francisco that year Joe decided it was time he was given the opportunity to go, and so put his name forward as a prime candidate. Over a period of several evenings he argued his case eloquently in an attempt to convince his father he was now old enough and more than capable of negotiating a good deal with the many buyers of prime quality beef, throwing over silent pleading stares as Ben gazed thoughtfully at him.

Finally, after much deliberation and a few sleepless nights, Ben agreed to his youngest son’s request, though Joe couldn’t fail to notice a fleeting look of doubt and unease pass over his father’s face. Adam and Hoss also exchanged sceptical glances with each other but remained silent, leaving Joe more than aware his family inwardly questioned the wisdom of allowing him loose and un-chaperoned in such a big city. However, choosing to ignore the looks Joe beamed over a broad smile of gratitude, promising he would not fail them though the trust and faith placed in him constantly weighed heavy on his young shoulders during his time away.

Picking up his jacket that lay by his side on the bench seat, Joe pulled out a cheque nestling safely next to a contract within an inside pocket and read again the amount written in clear black ink. Much to his surprise and delight all had gone better than he could have ever dreamed possible; his quick wit, pleasant nature yet keen negotiating skills, making him a natural when securing top dollar for the Ponderosa’s cattle. A smile curved the side of his mouth and his eyes flashed happily.

The legally binding agreement with the largest buyer from the Eastern States had been signed and sealed with one day to spare before he was due to return home, and he’d even managed to obtain five dollars more per head than Adam had the year before. He gave a silent chuckle, eager to see the look of astonishment on his eldest brother’s face and the pride in his father’s eyes when told of his success, and giving it a final satisfied glance, Joe returned the cheque once more to his jacket then studied his two fellow travellers who’d joined the stage en route for St. Louis.

They were only around Joe’s age but obviously very much in love and he smiled softly as he gazed upon the tender sight of Molly and Jack Hunter, clinging together and continuing to doze with Molly’s head lying on her husband’s shoulder and his arm enfolding her protectively.

Joe viewed them enviously for a few moments then turned his gaze away, his face darkening slightly as he recalled the previous evening when they’d all sat by a blazing log fire at the relay station, joking together, eating from a large pot of rabbit stew and drinking mugs of dark, strong coffee.

During a lull in the conversation Molly had turned to a smiling and relaxed Joe, asking if he believed it possible to find a true soul mate during ones life time. It was then the happy expression on Joe’s face suddenly froze and his eyes glazed over with sadness, leaving him barely aware of the penetrating stare of the young woman on him as he’d nodded then turned to gaze soberly into the fire.

However Molly was oblivious to the change in Joe’s demeanour as she continued to explain how she and Jack had realised they were soul mates from the day they met and after becoming engaged on her seventeenth birthday, had married a few weeks ago and were now embarking on a new life together in the mid-west.

Neither noticed how Joe’s face had visibly paled as he’d listened to their tale, for though he’d successfully suppressed it over the past few months, Molly and Jack had awakened a deep rooted and unhappy memory which rose once again to the surface as tears welled in his eyes. He’d made his excuses and retired to bed early, leaving the young couple to gaze contentedly together into the fire, Jack holding his wife’s hand and fingering her wedding band absently and both blissfully unaware of the misery they’d unintentionally caused their fellow passenger.

As the stage continued to trundle along at a speedy pace a wheel suddenly dropped into a rut in the road and the coach swayed drunkenly, shaking Joe from his recollections of the previous evening. Tilting his hat down over his face he folded his arms across his chest and closed his eyes with a resigned sigh.

He’d hoped to be spared the heartache but found himself thinking back, unable to stop his mind from wandering as once again he recalled the events that caused so much sadness during a fateful and tragic summer two years before….

***

The early morning sun peeping over the horizon shone through the windows onto the dining table as Ben Cartwright walked down the stairs and looked over at his two eldest sons who were already eating their breakfast.

“Mornin’ Pa,” greeted Hoss, throwing his father a welcoming smile before returning to tuck into his large portion of ham and eggs. Adam poured out a fresh cup of coffee as Ben settled into his chair at the head of the table, and then handed it over to his father.

“That was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks and for once I never heard a sound when you all got up!” Ben admitted, eyeing his eldest son warmly with a grateful nod and enjoying a long swallow of the strong flavoured drink.

“We thought you deserved a lie-in Pa, seeing as you were late getting back last night.”

Smiling his thanks Ben took a few sips then replaced the near empty cup in its saucer, sighing contentedly, his expression softening as he glanced between the two men. “Sure feels good to be home. Much as I enjoy visiting Matt and Lydia in New Mexico, four weeks away from you boys and my own bed is four weeks too long!”

“You sure you’ve got your priorities right Pa?” teased Adam with a grin. “Bet you missed your mattress more than us three!”

With a chuckle Ben shook his head. “Now Adam…surely you don’t expect me to answer that? Guess I’ll just have to plead the Fifth Amendment!”

Adam and Hoss threw each other a smile as Ben helped himself to a portion of the breakfast fare displayed on the table and was about to start eating when he sniffed the air and frowned in puzzlement, looking over at his eldest son.

“Is that your Bay Rum I can smell? Rather early in the day isn’t it?”

Swallowing down his last mouthful of bacon, Adam nodded his head, indicating up the stairs with his fork. “Little Joe asked if he could use some this morning.”

“You mean that smell is coming from Joseph?” asked Ben in astonishment. “He isn’t even shaving yet…is he?”

Pushing back his empty plate Adam shook his head then heaved a heavy sigh. “I shall have to tell him he should be a little more liberal with its use though,” he grumbled as he too smelt the distinctive odour permeate around the room. “He doesn’t seem to realise he only needs to use a small amount….not a hand full!”

Hoss smiled and sat back on his chair, noting the bewildered expression on his father’s face and reached over. “Seems Little Joe is more than keen to make a good impression these days Pa!” he explained, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. .

Pouring out another cup of coffee Ben threw a questioning glance between his two sons. “What’s going on with your brother?” he asked finally. “I left strict instructions he had to behave himself while I was gone or he would suffer the consequences. What’s he been up to this time?”

Adam shook his head and smiled. “Joe’s been as good as gold. He’s done every chore we’ve asked him to do without question.”

“Plus we ain’t had to drag him out of bed every mornin’ to get him to school,” added Hoss as he chewed on a bread roll. “He’s been up an’ dressed and keen to get goin’ as early as possible and even told us he’s been revising hard for end of year exams!”

Ben widened his eyes in surprise and pondered thoughtfully for a moment. “This is our Little Joe you’re talking about?” he asked as his eyes flashed in confused amusement. “The Little Joe who’s hated school his entire life and been given failing grades every year without exception!”

Adam and Hoss smiled and nodded emphatically in unison.

“Well, to say I’m amazed is an understatement! Such a change in attitude is certainly a transformation for the better as far as your brother is concerned, though I wish it had happened years ago,” acknowledged Ben happily as he began to cut up his food into small pieces. “It would seem the threat of my slipper on his backside when I returned has finally shown him the error of his ways!”

“Sorry Pa, but we have a sneaking suspicion that’s not the main reason why he’s behaving out of character these days,” replied Adam mysteriously as he looked over at Hoss who nodded in agreement.

Ben swallowed a mouthful of egg and gave him a puzzled stare. “What else can it be?”

“Not what but who Pa!” answered Hoss beaming a broad smile. “It seems little brother is eyein’ a certain filly in Virginia City!”

Ben frowned as he put down his fork and picked up his coffee cup. “Son, it’s too early in the morning for riddles. What on earth are you talking about? We’ve already told him he can choose a yearling for his birthday from the Paiute herd. Why is he looking at more horses in town?”

“No! You don’t understand!” laughed Hoss as he wiped his plate clean with the last of his bread roll. “This ‘ere filly is the two legged variety! Little Joe’s finally discovered girls…or at least one in particular!”

Ben spluttered out a mouthful of his drink. “Girls? When I left a month ago the only female love of his life was his old pony!” he cried, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “At fifteen years old he’s still far too young to be thinking seriously along those lines!”

“Really?” asked Adam with a grin, winking over towards his brother. “I seem to remember you telling us many tales of when you left home and soon discovered the fairer sex while sailing on the clipper ships all over the world!”

“Of course…but that was different! I was sixteen…..”

As Adam raised his eyebrow questioningly, Ben visibly paled at the memory.

“When you put it like that Adam, I guess Joe is certainly not too young. Oh well, if girls have now come into the equation maybe I should remind him of the ‘necessary’ talk I gave him a while ago.”

“Shucks Pa…he don’t need no remindin’!” protested Hoss with a chuckle. “Little Joe’s been listenin’ in at the bunk house for years, and as far as those birds and bees are concerned, I reckon he knows as much as is healthy for any teenager to know!”

Slightly relieved Ben heaved a grateful sigh at his middle son. “Well, he better continue to remember and behave himself. Just who is this particular filly….erm…young lady your brother has his eye on?”

“Miss Angelina Morgan no less!”

Sitting back in his chair Ben shook his head and frowned questioningly. “Morgan? Is she the daughter of the new lawyer who arrived in town a few weeks ago?”

“That’s right, and from what I’ve heard she’s a pretty little thing and I reckon Joe is really smitten with her!”

“Are you sure Hoss?”

Hoss nodded confidently and helped himself to another couple of slices of ham. “I’m positive, and it sure seems to have made him grow up quick…and I for one am truly grateful. Draggin’ a reluctant, screamin’ and bad tempered baby brother out of bed each morning is not somethin’ I’ve enjoyed over the past few years!”

Suddenly the front door could be heard closing and as Ben and his two sons turned their heads Joe came into view, the fifteen year old walking around the corner with a huge grin on his face. “Morning Pa…brother one…brother two,” he quipped cheekily as he slipped into his chair. “Good to have you back Pa. Sure have missed you.”

“Missed you too son,” Ben replied with a smile and watched Joe help himself to a plate full of scrambled eggs and take a sip from his glass of milk that had always been provided for him at every breakfast meal by their ever faithful cook and housekeeper, Hop Sing, since he was a small child.

“I’ve finished all my chores,” he confirmed, glancing up at his elder brother and as Adam gave a nod of thanks Joe looked back towards Ben and his green eyes flashed happily. “I didn’t hear you get back last night. Did you manage to buy the prize bull from Mr Tate?” he asked through a mouthful of food.

“Yes son. Matt sold him for a very fair price and though I looked in you were fast asleep so I decided not to disturb the sleeping beauty!”

Joe grinned then continued to tuck into his breakfast. “It’s a pity you slept in late this morning Pa. You sure missed a beautiful sunrise.”

Ben raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Is that right son? I shall just have to make sure I get up earlier in future!” he declared with a chuckle. “Erm…you seem in a very good mood young man. You do realise you’re going to school this morning?”

“Of course I do! That’s why I’m up early and I’m always in a good mood these days,” replied Joe, smiling and glancing between his two brothers as if for confirmation of his statement. “It’s the new me!”

Hoss nodded and placed his arm fondly around his brother’s shoulder, noticeably sniffing the air. “This is the new you Joe? Well, I hope he stays around a while. Sure had my belly full of the old grumpy one!”

Laughing good-heartedly Joe continued to demolish his breakfast with gusto.

“I hear you have a new class mate son,” stated Ben finally as Joe pushed back his empty plate and gave a contented sigh. “Is Miss Angelina Morgan the reason for you using your brother’s most expensive cologne?”

The sound of her name brought an immediate change in Joe’s happy manner as he suddenly grew serious and nodded, reddening slightly. “Can you smell it?” he asked cautiously as he wiped his hand over his face and put his fingers to his nose.

“Smell it? The amount you’ve used they’re probably able to sniff it over in Carson City!” murmured Adam sarcastically. Joe narrowed his eyes and immediately reverted back to a child hood habit of sticking out his tongue at his brother, then noticed Ben’s stern look on him.

“Sorry Pa…Adam,” he muttered apologetically, looking sheepishly between them. “Only it’s real important I try to impress Angelina today.”

“Impress her Joseph? Why?”

Joe didn’t answer straight away, keeping his gaze fixed on the table as he coughed nervously. Something was obviously troubling him and he returned to look at his father with a slightly forlorn expression.

“I…”

“I want to ask…” he began again, his voice in a tone so low it was barely audible.

“I just want to ask her if she’ll come to the Founder’s Day picnic with me,” he said in almost a whisper, and bowing down his head sensed his brother’s eyes boring into him. He tensed, waiting for any sign of ridicule from them, but for once there was no hidden laughter in their eyes as Adam and Hoss studied their teenage brother thoughtfully.

“I see,” acknowledged Ben finally, raising an eyebrow. “The social is only a couple of weeks away so you’re leaving it a bit late son. Hasn’t anyone else asked her before now?”

Joe quickly looked up at his father and without taking a breath the words tumbled out from him at break neck speed.

“Well, every boy in the school has offered to take her, but she’s not agreed to go with any one of them…and I didn’t think I’d have a chance so I’ve held back till now…but then when she even turned down Mitch he said I should try as I’ve nothin’ to lose and I’d regret it if I didn’t….but no one really thinks I stand a chance and reckon she must be real stuck up…but I know she isn’t though…she’s just shy and nervous being new and all…and when we’ve sat next to each other in class she’s smiled really sweet at me and…and…!”

Joe took a deep gulp of air then glanced at the faces with mouths agape that stared over at him.

“I really like her…like her a lot. I just hope she likes me enough to let me take her,” he concluded quietly but without much conviction.

Three pairs of sympathetic eyes viewed the youngest Cartwright and then a voice broke through the silence.

“Seems like this young lady may be playing hard to get Joe,” advised Adam, a kindly smile on his face as he drained the last of his coffee. “But good luck anyway….just hope you won’t be too disappointed.”

Joe glanced at his elder brother, appreciating the note of genuine concern in his voice as Adam wiped his mouth on a crisp white napkin then stood up and made his way to the front door.

Nodding in agreement Hoss pushed back his chair to follow. “Just give her that heart meltin’ smile of yours,” he offered by way of advice, lovingly slapping Joe’s back as he passed behind him. “She won’t be able to resist you then.”

Buckling on their gun belts the two brothers reached for their hats and threw over a farewell before disappearing through the door to begin their daily chores, leaving Ben to settle back in his chair and study his youngest as Joe continued to drink down the glass of milk in front of him in one long swallow.

Ben suddenly wondered where the years had gone as he studied his youngest son closely. The baby of the family was certainly maturing into a handsome young man; shoulders broadening and his brown curly hair usually tousled and unruly was slicked and combed down tidily. How his dear Marie would have been so proud of him.

“Pa?” Joe asked finally, putting down the glass and wiping his hand across his mouth, unaware of his father’s thoughtful gaze upon him. “Can I ask you a question…man to man?”

Ben nodded, shaken from his private musings and forcing back a grin as he viewed the serious expression on his son’s face. “Of course you can Joseph. What do you want to know?”

Joe took a nervous swallow. “I’ve never asked a girl out before,” he stated with a slight tremble in his voice. “What do I do?”

Ben regarded him for a moment. “You really like this young lady, don’t you son.”

Joe’s innocent green eyes flashed wildly. “Oh yes! Since the first time I saw her I knew she was special and I’ve never known anyone so beautiful,” he insisted enthusiastically and then suddenly drew a breath and stared at his father apologetically. “Excepting Ma of course!”

Ben gave a soft smile and pushed his chair back easing himself over to sit by Joe’s side, and placing a finger under his chin raised his head so father and son stared directly into each other’s eyes.

“Well Joe, all I can say is be yourself and she will be bound to see the kind, caring and loving young man that I am proud to call my son. If that isn’t enough for her to accept your invitation, then she doesn’t deserve you,” he stated wisely.

Joe frowned, slightly embarrassed and chewed at his lip. “Thanks Pa. I’ll do my best to show her the real me.”

“I’m sure you will Joseph,” answered Ben encouragingly, giving him a reassuring smile.

Suddenly the clock by the front door began to strike the hour.

“I’d better go. Angelina is always at school early and I want to ask her before everyone else turns up,” Joe explained placing his arms around his father’s neck in a loving embrace. “Love you Pa,” he whispered as Ben reciprocated, holding his son tight and appreciating the closeness between them before Joe released himself and pushed his chair back, the scent of Adam’s expensive after shave still noticeably lingering at the breakfast table.

Hurriedly he walked over to the credenza and picked up his hat and Ben noticed a momentary hesitation as his son stood by the door then taking a deep breath planted his hat firmly on his head in a determined fashion. “Bye Pa,” he cried, giving his father a farewell wave before walking over to the barn to saddle up his pony.

Ben followed, standing by the open door and staring at the disappearing back of his youngest. “Good luck Joseph,” he murmured tenderly as his eyes suddenly watered, and then wiping his eyes he looked over at a photograph of a smiling Marie that stared at him from his desk.

“Oh to be young and in love my darling,” he chuckled quietly as he turned back into the room and closed the door firmly behind him.

*

The journey to school seemed to flash bye in a blur for Joe as he cantered along the road, nervous, deep in thought and his mind in a spin. He tried to think what he should say and how to ask her, but the more he thought the more his brain seemed to become befuddled until it came to a point where he could hardly string two words together coherently, never mind a sentence!

He chided himself. “Come on Joe! After all…she’s only a girl!”

Only a girl! What an understatement he mused as he remembered the first time he’d set eyes on Angelina.

He’d been half asleep, annoyed and fed up at being forced out of his warm bed yet again by Hoss just to attend school. After all, Joe had reasoned, in a matter of a few weeks he would be leaving to begin working full time on the Ponderosa along side his father and brothers, so what use was it to study hard for the final exams coming up? He had no intention of going to college like Adam, so there didn’t seem much point trying to gain higher grades, he’d decided.

Bored and disinterested he’d doodled absently on his slate with a piece of chalk, then looked up through half closed eyes as his teacher entered the room and introduced a new pupil to the class, Miss Angelina Morgan. She was indeed a beautiful girl and a sight to behold with her slim figure, clear pearly white skin, grey eyes that flashed warm and friendly and corn-coloured hair that cascaded over her shoulders.

Her father had worked for a law firm in Tucson Arizona, and continued to bring her up single handed rather than send her to live with her grandparents in New York after the death of her mother at the age of five. Father and daughter had been happy and content for the past ten years but when the opportunity came for him to open up his own law practice in Virginia City, Angelina’s father had decided to uproot them both and start a new life in Nevada.

Angelina had looked around nervously at her new classmates and as her eyes fell on Joe he’d sat up, instinctively smiling over a welcome and unable to tear his gaze from the vision of loveliness as she’d been shown to the spare seat by his side. Easing herself down, Angelina accidentally knocked her bare arm against him and placing her hand on his in apologetic fashion, her warm touch sent a tingle against Joe’s skin, the like of which he’d never known before.

For Joe it was love at first sight as his heart beat faster and faster within his chest and his face blushed with embarrassment. Then for days afterwards the usually vivacious and talkative young man, never known to be shy or flustered became very nervous, clumsy and awkward in her presence, not knowing what to say, stuttering and feeling a complete and utter fool. Other pupils in their class subsequently drew Angelina away from the tongue-tied Joe and he’d kept his distance; his self confidence at an all time low and thinking he was no competition for the other boys who flocked around the pretty teenage girl like flies to a honey pot.

However he still felt himself continually drawn towards her by an unknown force and when she’d confided in him a few days later that she enjoyed arriving at school well before lessons began, Joe made a point of leaving home early so he could be alone with her for a short while before the other students made an appearance. Within a couple of days he’d relaxed and lost his gawkiness, regaining his easy charm and self-esteem as they sat together, chatting and laughing and comfortable in each other’s company.

During one of their first early morning conversations they discovered that coincidentally both their birthdays fell on the same day. It caused much amusement when Angelina worked out Joe was actually six hours younger than her and he’d joked she certainly looked a good deal older. Scolding with feigned anger Angelina swatted him hard on his backside, sending Joe sprawling into a puddle on the ground and he’d sat up, face and hands covered in mud, setting the two of them off giggling uncontrollably.

After that their friendship blossomed even more. Angelina, who was also a clever and eager student, encouraged Joe in his lessons, helping him and pushing him to such a degree his grades soon turned from the lowest to the highest within a few short weeks; much to her delight and his amazement.

Joe knew he had fallen in love with the slim, golden haired girl, whose lively smile and gentle musical laugh was contagious to all who heard it. But he kept his feelings to himself, and even when Angelina declined the many offers to escort her to the up and coming picnic, he couldn’t bear to face her rejection so remained silent and content with the friendly relationship that had developed between them.

Until now!

Joe eventually arrived at school and quickly led his pony to the sheltered lean-to, watering and making her comfortable before making his way over to the open play yard. In a far corner, under the branches of a full leaved oak tree, a figure sat almost motionless, reading intently and occasionally swatting away a fly from her face. Angelina looked up and smiled a welcome as Joe walked over, returning her greeting with a nervous grin.

“Morning Little Joe,” she smiled, marking the page in her book before closing and placing it down on the floor. Feeling a nervous sweat building up within him, Joe took off his hat and eased down as Angelina looked at him directly, her eyes boring into him questioningly.

“You look very serious. Is something the matter?” she asked with a concerned voice. Joe swallowed hard then shook his head, gazing into her grey eyes. “No. I just want to ask you something.” There was a moment’s pause.

“Well?” Angelina prompted; her voice light and friendly. Gulping, Joe tore his gaze away and looked down at his boots, momentarily distracted as he wished for all his worth he had remembered to clean them as he noticed the scuff marks on the leather toes.

“Can…will…may I escort you to the Founder’s Day Picnic?” he stuttered finally, looking up at her as he awaited the inevitable rejection. Angelina however gave an excited cry and smiled happily.

“Oh yes Little Joe. I’d love you to!”

With his green eyes widening in utter surprise Joe took a deep gulp of air. “You do?”

“Of course!”

“But…but you’ve turned down all the other boys who’ve wanted to take you!”

Angelina gave a gentle smile. “That’s because I’ve been waiting for the right boy to ask me…and you certainly took your time!” she laughed, her eyes sparkling with joy. A slow grin appeared on Joe’s face.

“I didn’t think I’d stand a chance…that’s why I’ve taken so long.”

“Oh Little Joe,” Angelina murmured softly through lowered eyelashes. “Surely you must know how much I really like you by now?”

Shaking his head Joe sighed and gave a nervous smile. “Guess I haven’t had much experience…with girls,” he stated hesitatingly, then stared at her incredulously. “You…really like me?” he blurted out, grinning like an idiot as he suddenly realised what she’d said.

Angelina gazed at him shyly. “Please don’t laugh Joe, but the truth is, when I first saw you I knew you were someone special. I’ve always hoped you thought…”

Joe gave a serious nod, his smile now gone. “Yes, it was the same for me,” he interrupted quickly. “I think you’re wonderful.”

Angelina’s eyes flashed happily. “And I think you are too,” she whispered in his ear and then quickly standing picked up her book and put out her arm. Joe gave a bashful smile then tentatively took hold of Angelina’s outstretched hand and allowed her to pull him onto his feet.

As they faced each other Joe squeezed her fingers gently then leant forward, and with the audacity of a nervous adolescent planted an impromptu kiss on her lips causing Angelina to flinch back, surprise showing on her face as she blushed profusely.

“I’m sorry,” Joe apologised quickly, noticing the colour on Angelina’s cheeks and mistaking it for displeasure. “I didn’t mean to act improper. I just thought…well, after what you said…guess I was wrong.”

A slow smile lighted her grey eyes. “Joe?”

Kicking himself for making such a blunder Joe took a nervous swallow. “Yes?”

“You weren’t wrong.”

Joe felt a warmth flood over him and he beamed a smile, a mutual attraction now established between them as they stood happily hand in hand while a familiar sounding bell rang out calling the students to lessons. Reluctantly releasing his grip Joe scooped up his hat from the ground and pushed it down on his head as Angelina slipped her arm through his and together they turned and walked towards the school, unembarrassed and oblivious to the many surprised stares and whispered comments offered by fellow pupils.

However, being two of the most likable and popular students there were no childish taunts thrown their way, and from that day on their lives glowed in continuous sunshine as Joe and Angelina became the centre of each other’s world.

*

Two weeks later the social occasion of the year for the citizens of Virginia City arrived; everyone who was anyone attending the Virginia City Founder’s Day Picnic without fail. The day dawned warm and sunny and Joe rushed through the front door, his chores completed and looking anxiously at the clock by the front door as he took his seat and sipped at his glass of cool milk.

Footsteps could be heard making their way down the stairs and Ben looked over in surprise as he noticed his youngest son already sat at the table and eating his breakfast. “My…you are an early bird,” he commented with a laugh as he pulled out his chair and sat down. “Have you done your chores already?”

Joe nodded emphatically. “I didn’t want to be late Pa,” he stated as he emptied his plate in quick fashion.

“But you have plenty of time yet Joe,” said Ben kindly. “It doesn’t start until after midday!”

Joe looked over, his voice choked with unease and his face serious. “I know…but…I kind of said I’d go over to Angelina’s early…you know…to introduce myself to her father. She thought he’d appreciate the gesture.”

The importance of the day for Joe was not lost on Ben as he heard the quiver in his voice and sensed the nervousness he felt. He studied his son tenderly, well aware of his desire to do everything correctly; for Little Joe the child had seemingly disappeared over the past few weeks to be replaced by a conscientious and caring young man.

“Mr Morgan is going to be very impressed by your good manners and thoughtfulness,” Ben smiled, placing his hand affectionately on his son’s arm. “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine.”

Joe nodded, his father’s words giving him confidence as Adam and Hoss suddenly appeared, yawning loudly as they made their way slowly down the stairs and each squinting and narrowing their eyes from the bright morning light.

“You two look like you could do with an extra hour in bed,” commented Ben, eyeing them with a questioning look. “Late night in Virginia City?”

Both nodded, their pale faces a sure indication of the vast amount of beer they had consumed during their evening at the Founders Day Eve Celebrations at the Silver Dollar saloon. As they sat down Ben poured out two mugs of black coffee and passed them over, looking between his two eldest sons as they drank it gratefully.

“I hope you’re taking note Joseph,” instructed Ben as he shook his head in feigned dismay. “This is what happens when you partake of too much liquor!”

Joe peered at his brothers then sat back and folded his arms, well aware they were suffering from a hangover. “Don’t worry Pa. I ain’t ever gonna get drunk…not if I end up looking as ugly as those two!” he declared as Adam and Hoss glared over bleary eyed. However, as a thought suddenly came to him he turned in his seat and tugged at his big brother’s sleeve.

“You will be coming to the social won’t you?” he asked Hoss anxiously. “I told Angelina I’d introduce you all and she’s really looking forward to it.”

“Don’t you go frettin’ yourself Little Joe, I’ll be there!” confirmed Hoss as he gulped down his coffee then placed a couple of slices of ham on his plate. “Just need somethin’ in my stomach then I’ll be as good as new.”

Joe gave a grateful smile then looked across the table. “What about you Adam?”

Toying with the small portion of scrambled egg he’d just placed on his plate and wondering whether it was wise or not to actually eat anything, Adam put down his fork and stared over at his brother. “Oh, I’ll be there buddy…but don’t expect me to stay around for long. I have a feeling Abigail may be on the prowl so I need to keep myself on the move!”

As he sank back in his chair with a sigh Adam awaited the inevitable laughter and he was not to be disappointed. His father and brothers chortled gleefully, for they all knew the local school mistress, Miss Abigail Jones, had a soft spot for the eldest Cartwright son and took every opportunity to corner him and try to gain his attention, and this fact causing much hilarity within the family.

“Don’t worry Adam,” Joe reassured him as calmness once more settled between them. “Angelina told me last week Miss Jones has agreed to be escorted by her father. Looks like you’re not the flavour of the month this time!”

A bright spark of relief flashed through Adam’s blood shot eyes and then his face darkened. “And you’ve left it till now to tell me?” he demanded, having dreaded the thought of being chased all afternoon by Abigail.

“Oh…guess I forgot all about it,” teased Joe mischievously, feigning a serious expression on his face, though the twinkle in his eyes was unmistakable.

“Little brother…if I thought for one minute you’d ‘forgotten’ on purpose, I’d be round this table and putting you over my knee!” cried Adam sulkily as he once again rubbed his throbbing forehead. “As it is, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt…plus I haven’t got the strength to move fast at the moment!”

Joe stifled a laugh at his elder brother’s delicate state then looked back at his father. “Angelina can’t wait to meet you as well Pa.”

Ben smiled politely and nodded. “I’m looking forward to it son. After hearing you talk about her so much, it’s about time I met the young lady who seems to have put you in a permanent good mood!”

Joe blushed slightly then gave his father a pleading stare. “Please may I take the buggy to pick up Angelina? I’ll drive it real careful. I promise!”

Ben studied him thoughtfully for it was a well known fact Joe had a streak of wild recklessness that threatened at times to keep him in constant trouble of one kind or another. However as he noticed the earnest look on his face Ben smiled softly and gave a slight nod. “Very well Joseph but just make sure you take it easy young man! No showing off!”

“Thanks Pa,” replied Joe excitedly, his voice noticeably rising in volume. “Can I use some of your cologne again Adam?”

His elder brother cringed slightly, closing his eyes as Joe’s voice reverberated around his ears. “Suppose so,” he murmured hoarsely. “But not quite so much this time otherwise you might just attract every wasp and fly in the vicinity!”

Amused at his brother’s continuing fragile state a smiling Joe threw him a whispered thank you before deliberately calling out in a loud voice towards his father. “May I be excused? I need to get changed into my Sunday best.”

As Adam visibly shuddered at the loud decibels thrown towards him, Ben chuckled and nodded and Joe noisily pushed back his chair and made his way towards the stairs.

“Don’t you worry about the buggy Little Joe,” shouted Hoss through a mouthful of bread, now feeling much better and smiling gleefully as he watched his elder brother continue to suffer. “I’ll hitch it up for you. Wouldn’t want you gettin’ dirty before you’ve even set off!”

“Gee…thanks Hoss, that’d be great. At least I’ll be able to create a good first impression with Mr Morgan if I turn up looking neat and tidy,” he called out before disappearing around the corner onto the landing.

Adam slowly opened his eyes and exchanged glances with his father and brother as the sound of Joe’s bedroom door closing echoed from above. “He’s certainly making a big effort for his first date,” he acknowledged, pushing away his untouched breakfast as his stomach continued to churn nauseously from the previous night’s excess, and then poured out another cup of black coffee.

Ben nodded in agreement. “Did you know he even offered to get a haircut?”

Hoss’ jaw dropped and he stared at his father incredulously. “He offered? Ain’t ever thought I’d see the day. Looks like Little Joe’s growing up fast!”

Ben gave a chuckle. “I said he offered Hoss but he hasn’t actually made it through the door of the barber’s shop on his own yet!”

Blue eyes flashed with amusement as Hoss exchanged a smile with his father.
“Well it’s a start Pa!”

“He’s obviously in the throes of his first love…I recognise the signs!” interrupted Adam as he took a sip of his drink. “Maybe I should give him some brotherly advice? After all he’s still only a kid and hasn’t had to go through the trauma of a broken heart yet and won’t know what to expect when it hits him!”

Hoss nodded in agreement as Ben stroked his chin thoughtfully.

“A kid he may still be, but I have the feeling he wouldn’t appreciate us interfering at the moment,” he commented with fatherly concern. “No, he’s just going to have to find out the hard way when the time comes, but I hope for all our sakes it doesn’t end in too many tears.”

Chapter 2:

Blissfully unaware he’d been the main topic of his family’s conversation at breakfast Joe arrived later that morning on the outskirts of Virginia City, pulling to a halt by the front gate of a pretty whitewashed house surrounded by a picket fence, feeling light headed and his heart fluttering wildly. Was this what it’s like to be in love, he mused excitedly before he stepped down; brushing away a covering of dust from his jacket with his sweated hands then removing his hat and finger-combing his unruly curls into place before checking his boots were still polished and without scuff marks.Taking a deep breath he then walked up to the front door but just as he was about to knock it opened and Angelina stepped through, wearing a dress of pretty pink and her golden hair falling over her shoulders and shining in the sunlight. They exchanged smiles and as the sweet fragrance of lavender toilet water filled the air she reached out and took hold of his hand.“Morning Joe. I was hoping you’d get here early,” she admitted, hardly believing the ungainly boy who’d smiled a welcome on her first day at school was now standing in front of her, a straight-backed and handsome young man in a dark blue suit and black string tie, his face twisted into a grin of pure happiness.Joe squeezed her fingers and gave her a peck on the cheek before taking a deep breath and swallowing nervously. “Well, I’d better get it over with and meet your Pa.”Angelina gave a soft chuckle. “Don’t look so worried. He isn’t an ogre and won’t eat you!”

Feeling slightly relieved at this revelation Joe followed Angelina into the house then placing his hat by his side he sat down on the settee and looked around while Angelina ran upstairs, calling for her father.

Although a frequent visitor to the Morgan home, this was the first time he’d actually been inside and he sat in awe as he stared round at the three sides of the room that were filled with shelves, all heaving under the weight of hundreds of books. He stood up and began to study the varied array of reading material. No wonder Angelina loved to read with so much to choose from, he mused, thinking how his elder brother would be in seventh heaven given the opportunity to look through the vast number of titles.

A comfortable armchair was on one side of the fireplace and above the mantelpiece hung a portrait of a beautiful young woman who seemed to look directly into his eyes as Joe stared at it intently. He guessed it must be Angelina’s mother because the similarities between her and her daughter were unmistakable; the same grey eyes, golden coloured hair, piled high on her head, and a smile that conveyed warmth and tenderness.

Suddenly muffled footsteps could be heard on the carpet and Joe looked around as Lucas Morgan walked down the stairs and entered the room. He was a tall man in his early forties, slightly portly in build but with a handsome clean shaven face. His short brown hair, greying at the temples, was neatly combed and he carried a dark coloured jacket over his arm. Sweating nervously Joe stood up then pushed out a hand and gave a hesitating greeting.

“Good day sir…I’m Joseph Cartwright…It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Looking over horn rimmed spectacles Lucas grunted a mumbled welcome and shook Joe’s hand, seemingly reluctantly, his severe gaze constantly on Joe as he eyed him up and down. “So you’re the young man who’s been trifling with my little girl’s affections,” he growled menacingly. “I wondered whether you’d be brave enough to show up!”

Joe noticeably paled as Angelina walked behind her father and gave him a playful punch on the arm. “Really Pa! Stop teasing Joe and trying to frighten him to death!”

Her father gave a quirky grin and looked over at his daughter as she stood by Joe’s side. “Don’t worry,” she reassured him as she took hold of his hand. “Pa always likes to pretend to be real fierce…but he’s just putting on an act.”

“He is?” squeaked Joe, totally taken in by the performance. With a laugh Lucas stared over with twinkling eyes at the young couple.

“Sorry young fella…but you looked so scared when I came in here, I couldn’t resist it!”

Joe gave a sigh of relief. “That’s all right sir. But you sure had me convinced,” he answered, noticing how father and daughter smiled in the same kind and friendly way. Angelina disappeared into the kitchen as her father eased himself into his chair and indicated for Joe to sit down on the settee.

“I’ve heard The Ponderosa is the largest spread in the territory,” he queried with a friendly smile as he removed his glasses and placed them in his pocket.

Joe settled back onto his seat and nodded. “Yes, it sure is sir,” he admitted, the pride in his voice impossible to miss. “And my Pa and brothers are really lookin’ forward to meeting you at last.”

Lucas nodded appreciatively. “Since arriving in Virginia City I’ve found myself so busy it’s been difficult finding the time to ride out and introduce myself to all the ranch owners.”

“I could escort you around during the picnic,” Joe offered gallantly. “I know just about all the folk around here who’ll be turning up.” Lucas found himself genuinely warming to the young man and gave him a look of thanks.

“That’s very kind of you to offer Joseph but Miss Jones has already volunteered, plus I have a feeling my daughter wouldn’t want me taking up all your time on such a task!”

Joe nodded as Angelina reappeared and placed a tray containing three glasses of lemonade onto a small table, handing over one each then sitting down by Joe’s side. Lucas Morgan took a sip then wiped a hot and sweaty brow and winced slightly with pain and she gave him a worried glance.

“Are you feeling all right Pa? You look a little flushed.”

Her father continued to wipe his face with a handkerchief and nodded over as he rubbed his chest. “I’m fine Angel. Just slight indigestion and feeling the heat I guess.”

Swallowing a mouthful of lemonade Joe put down his glass and gave a smile. “Angel?” he echoed curiously.

“That was my mother’s nickname for me Joe,” Angelina admitted, exchanging a brief glance with her father. “It’s sort of a private family one…I only like my Pa to use it now.”

Suddenly feeling slightly intrusive as he caught the intimate look thrown between them, Joe took a sip of his drink then diplomatically changed the subject.

“You have a fine variety of books Mr Morgan. Ever since my brother Adam returned from college in Boston he’s just been collecting one after the other till his bedroom is crammed with them. He’d sure love looking through all these and that’s a fact!”

Lucas looked around the walls, smiling contentedly. “I’ve always loved the written word, no matter what the subject,” he admitted as he cast his eyes on the various shelves. “If your brother ever wants to come and borrow any, he is more than welcome.”

Joe gave a grateful smile and nodded as Lucas took a deep swallow of his drink then regarded his guest once again with interest. “Both you and Angelina will be graduating in a few weeks. What are you aiming to do then Joseph? Do you want to go to college like your brother?”

Joe shook his head emphatically. “Oh no sir! I haven’t the brains to follow in Adam’s footsteps, that’s for sure!”

“Don’t under sell yourself young man! My daughter tells me you have a very quick mind and that you’ve been working extremely hard over the past weeks with your school work.”

Looking slightly embarrassed Joe gave a nod. “I have Angelina to thank for that. She’s given me a lot of help and encouragement lately. But I still intend to remain around here and work on the Ponderosa, helping Pa and my brothers run the ranch. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Besides….”

Joe shifted uncomfortably on his seat as he glanced at Angelina. “I wouldn’t want to leave…everyone,” he continued and suddenly felt an arm slip through his as Angelina’s fingers tightened and she gave him a tender smile.

Lucas regarded the young couple thoughtfully for a moment, noting the caring relationship that had seemingly developed between them. He gave an inward sigh, knowing he could never confront his daughter with the fact that at nearly sixteen she was still far too young to have intense emotional feelings for someone. After all, his own wife had been only seventeen years old when she’d married him, ten years her senior, the two of them feeling a deep and natural affinity with each other from the day they met.

As Joe exchanged a knowing look with Angelina he then cast a nervous eye towards her father. “I was meaning to ask you sir,” he said as Lucas shook himself from his reverie.

“Yes Joseph?”

Aware of what he was about to request Angelina sat up and took hold of Joe’s hand to give him moral support. “Angelina and I will both be sixteen on the same day next month. Would you allow us to have a joint party…on the Ponderosa? Pa says he’ll be happy to organise it.”

Lucas raised his eyebrows. “What a coincidence to share your birthdays,” he acknowledged with surprise and then gave his daughter a questioning look. “Is this what you want Angel? Don’t you want a party of your own for your 16th Birthday?”

Angelina’s eyes searched her father’s face as she shook her head gently. “No Pa. I’d really like to share it with Joe, more than anything.”

With her chin set and lips tight Lucas could see his daughter’s mind was made up and he’d have no chance of changing it. “Well, if it’s what you want, so be it,” he agreed with a smile. “I’ll accept your offer Joseph, but I insist on contributing to some of the cost.”

Angelina jumped up and rushed over, affectionately placing her arms around her father’s neck and kissing his cheek with gratitude. Then as she straightened Lucas pulled out a small fob watch from his shirt pocket and gave it a cursory glance.

“Well I’m afraid I shall have to leave you two now,” he declared before downing the last of his drink. “I’ve arranged to pick up Miss Jones just after noon, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.”

Angelina gave Joe a smile then picked up the empty glasses and as she walked through to the kitchen Lucas gave him another thoughtful look. “I can see my daughter thinks a lot of you Joseph; I’ve never seen her looking so happy. But take care of her; otherwise you will have me to contend with. You understand what I’m saying?”

The hidden innuendo was not lost on Joe as he looked him straight in the eye, his face sober. “I would never do anything to hurt her Mr Morgan. She means far too much to me.”

Lucas nodded, touched by the genuine sincerity and seriousness of Joe’s manner. “That’s good to hear young man. I can see we’re going to get along just fine.”

Pushing himself out of his chair, Lucas put on his jacket then stretched out his arm again towards Joe. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you. I can understand now why my daughter holds you in such high regard.”

Feeling slightly embarrassed Joe stood up and shook the outstretched hand, glancing at Angelina who’d been standing in the doorway and who hurriedly picked up a clothes brush and began to wipe stray hairs from her father’s shoulders. “We’ll see you at the picnic then Pa. I’ve packed the food already…plenty of your favourites.”

Her father smiled with gratitude and once she’d finished brushing his coat leaned over, gently pressing his lips against her forehead. “Thank you my dear,” he whispered before picking up his hat from a peg on the wall and once more wiping his perspiring face as he opened the front door. “I’ll see you both in a short while,” he cried over, throwing his daughter a broad wink which conveyed a silent message that he both welcomed and approved of her beau, before disappearing from view.

Angelina sighed happily as the door closed and she turned to stand behind Joe, holding him around the waist and appreciating the fragrance of manly cologne as he stared up at the portrait above the mantle. She followed his gaze.

“Pa painted that and gave it to my mother for her 21st Birthday present,” she told him, resting her chin on Joe’s shoulder and giving a soft smile. “Apparently he’d always wanted to be an artist but my grandparents insisted he went to Law School instead.” Joe raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“Your Pa sure has a wonderful talent.”

“He tells me I look more like Mama every day,” Angelina whispered wistfully as Joe took hold of her hands and squeezed them gently.

“She was very beautiful…just like her daughter,” he acknowledged, turning his head to give her a sidelong glance. Angelina smiled shyly then moved over to stand by his side, placing her head on his shoulder as Joe wrapped his arm around her and the couple continued to gaze up at the face that looked down on them.

“Mama was just turned sixteen when she met Pa, but as soon as they set eyes on each other they both knew they were destined to be together,” she told Joe as he tightened his grip around her shoulder.

“Pa used to say that about when he first met my Ma in New Orleans,” Joe admitted, thinking back to the many times he’d asked his father to tell him the story over the years. “She was riding her horse and nearly ran him over on the street, but as soon as he saw her he sensed she was someone special. Then he met her again and after a week they both knew they loved each other. Pa even asked her to marry him within a fortnight! It was a whirlwind romance but they both knew they were meant for each other.”

Angelina sighed softly, appreciating the romantic tale. “Truly soul mates,” she murmured dreamily. “Pa used to tell me how Mama always thought they were soul mates as well.”

Joe’s brow furrowed slightly. “Soul mates? I don’t understand?”

Angelina pulled away from Joe’s embrace and reached over, picking up a book that lay on a small table and handed it over. “I didn’t understand what he meant either until I read this.”

“Greek Mythology? You found what it means in here?” asked Joe quizzically as he opened the book and flicked through the pages. Angelina nodded.

“According to legend all people on earth were originally given four arms and legs, one head yet two faces.”

Joe was about to make a frivolous remark that he was sure he’d seen such creatures coming out of his brother’s bedrooms occasionally, but noticed the serious look on Angelina’s face so remained silent as she continued.

“Anyhow, a God by the name of Zeus feared they’d become too powerful, so he decided to split everybody in two at birth and condemn them to spend their lives searching for their other half.”

“But what’s it got to do with soul mates?” asked Joe, suddenly finding himself riveted by the story as he returned the book to the table.

“Soul mates are those lucky enough to find their other half and make themselves complete and whole again within a lifetime.”

“Oh, I see. Just like our parents,” acknowledged Joe, now understanding its meaning and a thoughtful silence settling between them as Joe gazed at her questioningly. “What about us? Do you think it’s possible we could be soul mates?”

Without hesitation Angelina nodded emphatically. “We were destined to find each other…to fall in love. I just know it!”

Joe stared at her as hope warred with uncertainty within his eyes, hardly daring to believe she could love him as much as he loved her. “Does this mean you…you love me?”

Angelina returned the stare and her mouth curled into a gentle curve, etching an image on Joe’s mind that he knew he would never forget. “Yes I love you,” she answered softly then her expression changed slightly to one of wary unease as the smile faded from her face. “Don’t you feel the same about me?”

“Of course I do! What’s there not to love?” he returned happily, and in an instant Angelina flung herself into his arms, holding him tight as if her life depended on it. Joe stumbled back, looking down at her face as she exchanged a broad smile with him. “May…may I kiss you?” he finally asked a little nervously.

With a similarly nervous expression Angelina nodded and as he slowly pressed his lips on hers momentarily their lack of experience showed as their first real kiss was initially fumbled and hesitant. However within a few heartbeats they gained confidence as it became gentle, soft and lingering, the world outside the room seeming to disappear until eventually and reluctantly they drew apart, surprised yet delighted at the intensity of their feelings for each other.

“Wow!” Joe mumbled in a whispered tone at the first experience of sensual pleasure they’d shared as they took deep breaths and their eyes remained locked; no other words were needed as they both realised the friendship between them had now changed and their relationship had moved on to a more mature, loving and committed level.

Angelina stepped forward again, confidently placing her head on Joe’s chest as he buried his face in her hair. They stood together in an eerie world of their own for several minutes, content to hold each other tight and neither willing to move or speak and so break the magic spell that seemed to weave its way around them. Suddenly a small clock on the mantelpiece chimed the half hour and Joe heaved a deep sigh, reluctantly pulling away from her loving grasp.

“We’d better go. I promised Pa I’d meet up with him as soon as possible.”

Angelina gave a silent nod, wiping away tears of happiness and straightening her hair as she walked into the kitchen and took hold of the picnic basket then returned to stand by Joe’s side. As he retrieved his hat from the settee she took hold of his hand, looking momentarily at the portrait of her mother.

“Joe…you can call me Angel…if you want,” she stated softly, the implication of her statement clear to them both as Joe gave a knowing nod and they traded a private loving smile before making their way outside.

*

By the time they arrived at the venue to the south of Virginia City, seemingly half the population were already enjoying the festivities; taking the opportunity to swap tales and gossip with their friends and neighbours in the warm summer sunshine.

At the edge in a small clearing the highly competitive game of horseshoes was taking place, men and boys alike forming in queues to take part; while down by the narrow creek, races for the younger children were all ready in full swing, the squealing and cheering of young and old filling the air.

Music could be heard from a small brass band, and a delicious smell from the communal roast beef spit wafted over the meadow. There were long trestle tables laid out in rows, all groaning under the weight of home made pies, cakes, biscuits and preserves; the Ladies of the Townswomen’s Guild congregating en-mass as they watched a flustered and uncomfortable Sheriff Coffee as he judged the various produce with some trepidation.

The blue ribbons for first prize were always fiercely fought and contested for by the genteel women of the town and feeling the competitive tension between all the ladies of the Guild growing by the minute, the poor man inwardly prayed for the Bank to be robbed just so he could have a good excuse to be hauled away and leave the judging to some other poor official!

There was a small stall selling candy, already surrounded by wide eyed excited children, each tightly clutching a precious penny. Another table had been cleared for the pie eating contest where two men, the only contestants and both equally as large as each other were sat, staring with watered mouths at the many delicious fruit pies awaiting their consumption. A small crowd encircled them, some taking bets as to who could eat the most at one sitting, and a few yards away more were gathered around a table designated for the arm-wrestling competition.

Joe carefully assisted Angelina down from the buggy and taking hold of the wicker basket looked about the thronging crowd as he held her hand tightly. “It’s going to be hard to see Pa amongst all these folk,” he commented then suddenly grinned. “Over there! I can spot Hoss’ hat a mile away!”

Slowly weaving their way through the mass of people they passed close by to the young men and boys who were engrossed watching the arm-wrestling. Joe yelled over to his friend, Mitch Devlin, who was already proving to be a formidable contestant as he successfully forced another opponent’s hand onto the table to the delight of the cheering crowd.

“Hey Mitch! You the champion yet?” Joe yelled over with a laugh. The smile on Mitch’s face was testament to his success as he nodded and waved a hand in acknowledgement.

“Aren’t you going to try to beat him?” asked Angelina as she saw Joe looking over keenly towards his oldest friend. Joe shook his head.

“No way! I don’t see the need to bust up our friendship just for the sake of winning a contest of arm strength!”

For a minute they stood and shouted encouragement as Mitch once more was triumphant, then they gave him a farewell wave and continued through the throng until finally arriving where the three Cartwrights were ensconced.

A large blanket covered the ground in the shade of a small copse and Adam was laying on it with hands behind his head and his eyes closed; the morning’s hangover now reduced to a slight headache. Hoss and Ben were stood chatting amiably together, their backs resting on a tree, and placing the basket of food down on the ground Joe introduced a slightly nervous Angelina to his father.

“It’s such a delight to meet you at last my dear,” said Ben, gently shaking Angelina’s hand and immediately captivated by the beautiful young lady at his son’s side. “I’m just sorry it’s taken so long.”

Giving a heartfelt smile Angelina immediately found herself warming to the grey haired man, whose weathered features shone with kindness. “Thank you Mr Cartwright and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you so much as well.”

Raising himself slowly to his feet, Adam stood behind Joe as he and Hoss gave Angelina a complimentary stare then he tapped his youngest sibling gently on the shoulder. “Come on little brother. Time you introduced us to your young lady.”

Joe could feel Angelina tremble slightly for she had heard all about the stern and serious natured elder brother from Joe and had been noticeably anxious at the thought of meeting him. He gave her a reassuring smile, the loving looks exchanged between them not missed by Ben or his two eldest sons.

“Adam, Hoss. May I introduce Miss Angelina Morgan, the most beautiful girl in Virginia City,” stated Joe finally as Angelina blushed bright red.

“Really Joe, you’re embarrassing the poor thing,” admonished Adam sternly in a low, deep voice as he took her hand, raising it to his lips. “My pleasure Miss Morgan. Though what a beautiful and intelligent young lady like yourself sees in my little brother I can’t imagine,” he admitted, regarding her gravely.

Angelina took a nervous swallow, uncertain how to take Adam’s greeting, but then a hint of devil humour flitted across his dark brown eyes as they flashed a mischievous yet warm and welcoming greeting at her.

“Nice to meet you Mr Cartwright. Joe has told me so much about you but I didn’t believe it all….honest!” she teased, smiling and now visibly relaxed in the presence of the tall, handsome faced man.

Joe ducked the half-swing his elder brother threw towards him as Adam laughed, appreciating Angelina’s sense of humour. “I’m sure my little brother could spin quite a few tales about me…but please, call me Adam. There’s only one Mr Cartwright,” he acknowledged, still grinning as he indicated towards Ben before stepping back as Hoss put out his hand in a more conventional manner.

“Sure is nice to meet you Miss Morgan and just call me Hoss… too many Cartwrights can be sure confusin’ otherwise.”

Angelina felt his large powerful fingers cover her own as she stared into the gentle blue eyes that shone with honesty and sensitivity. Instantly taking to the towering giant of a man Angelina nodded. “Please, Angelina,” she begged, looking between the two brothers, smiling happily and now at ease in their company.

As they all sat down on the blanket, Angelina turned towards Ben.

“My father is looking forward to meeting you Mr Cartwright. He should be around any time now.”

Adam looked over a little nervously. “He is still escorting Miss Jones for the whole afternoon, isn’t he?”

Angelina gave a nod and as he closed his eyes and sighed deeply with relief, Ben and Hoss gave loud chortles and Joe collapsed into a fit of giggles as a confused Angelina looked questioningly at them all.

“Miss Jones has had her eye on Adam for ages,” explained Joe, trying hard to keep a straight face as he leant over towards her. “Fact is…she scares him half to death!”

Widening her eyes in surprise a grin also appeared on Angelina’s face as she could hardly believe Adam capable of being scared of anything, least of all the local school mistress! Suddenly as if on cue a voice suddenly cried out as Lucas Morgan sounding breathless appeared through the crowd, Miss Abigail hanging grimly onto his arm.

“Angelina…at last! I wondered if we would ever find you!”

Jumping up, daughter and father exchanged a hug of welcome.

“Mr Cartwright, this is my father, Lucas Morgan,” smiled Angelina as she turned towards Ben. “Pa…Mr Ben Cartwright.”

As the Cartwright family rose as one to their feet, Ben removed his hat and acknowledged Miss Jones, then shook hands with Lucas before introducing him to Adam and Hoss.

“I do apologise for taking so long to finally meet you all,” stated Lucas apologetically, taking deep breaths as he threw his gaze between the three men. “I just can’t believe how busy I’ve been since arriving in Virginia City. But it’s terribly remiss on my part, especially not introducing myself to you Mr Cartwright.”

Accepting his apology Ben nodded in response. “I quite understand…but call me Ben. No need to be formal, especially on a day like today.”

“Thank you Ben. In that case, please call me Lucas.”

Although still a little apprehensive Adam greeted the school mistress with a warm smile and shook her hand. “How are you Miss Jones? I hope my little brother isn’t causing too much trouble in school these days?”

Holding tightly onto his hand Abigail stared at Adam’s smiling face, utterly mesmerised, then sensing many eyes on her, reluctantly dropped both her hand and gaze. “Joseph is my most model student at the moment Adam,” she confirmed, throwing Joe a smile. “You should be very proud of his achievements.”

Adam frowned quizzically and was about to pursue the conversation with her when Miss Jones suddenly turned towards her escort. “I shall have to leave you for a short while Mr Morgan. I’ve been asked to start and then adjudicate at the pie eating contest this afternoon but I don’t suppose I shall be gone long! Unfortunately there are only two competitors…such a poor turnout this year.”

Hoss looked over quickly, his eyes widening as he licked his lips with anticipation. “You want another volunteer Miss Jones? I’ve always fancied a try at that there competition.”

“Oh Hoss…would you?”

“No problem Ma’am. Lead the way,” he said, looking hopefully over towards his brothers. “You two gonna come and support me?”

Adam and Joe smiled and nodded. “Sure will big brother,” confirmed Adam, picking up his hat from the floor and gently slapping it against his thigh before putting it on. “But first I’m going to watch the Sweepstake. It’s due to start in a few minutes and I’ve got a few dollars riding on an old friend who bought himself a genuine Kentucky racehorse to ride this year. As soon as it’s finished I’ll come over and cheer you on.”

Hoss nodded then excusing himself followed Abigail to the table where a large crowd were already assembled, eagerly awaiting the start. Angelina looked between her father and Joe excitedly. “Oh…may I go and watch the Sweepstake too? I’ve never seen a real horserace before.”

“I don’t see why not,” agreed Lucas as Joe looked with a slightly woeful expression at his father. “I wanted to take part but Pa wouldn’t let me.”

Ben raised his eyebrow. “We’ve talked about this before Joseph. You’re far too young and will have to wait a few years at least before I let you loose on such a dangerous race.”

“But Pa…you know I’m the best rider in our family, even better than Adam!” he mocked with feigned superiority, giving his elder brother a cautious sideways glance as Adam raised a cynical eyebrow in response before exchanging a smile with his youngest sibling.

“Maybe so Joseph, but you also seem to forget there’s something else missing….like a fast horse!” said Ben with a laugh. “And I can assure you I have no intention of buying a thoroughbred just so it can take on the challenge of the Sweepstake. The Ponderosa has no use for a hay burner and that’s final!”

Joe sighed deeply in disappointment, but accepted his father’s decree in silence.

“So should you ever enter, do you reckon you’d manage to win the race Joseph?” asked Lucas as Joe beamed over a confident smile.

“Without a doubt Mr Morgan…wouldn’t enter if I didn’t think I could.”

Lucas chuckled. “Nothing like a dead certainty!” he acknowledged and Joe reddened slightly but when he caught Angelina’s smiling eyes gazing over he instinctively grinned before a thought came to him and his face grew serious.

“Pa? Mr Morgan?” he started, looking between both men. “Would you allow me to take Angelina for a ride next Sunday? I’d like to show her around the Ponderosa, especially up towards the north meadow.”

Angelina’s eyes widened in surprise and she looked over expectantly at her father.

“What do you think Ben?” asked Lucas, casting him a worried glance. “After all the Ponderosa is such a vast size! Would they be safe?”

Joe stared with a desperate expression though hope burned in his eyes as he waited for his father’s reply. Adam could see how much it meant to his brother and placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Come on Pa…Little Joe knows his way around the ranch like the back of his hand. He can be trusted to stay out of trouble and look after Angelina.”

Joe threw his elder brother a look of gratitude as Ben’s thoughtful expression softened. “I also have the utmost faith in Little Joe,” he stated, throwing over a look of confidence towards his youngest and nodding. “I have no objections!”

The look of thanks conveyed by Joe was unmistakable as Angelina turned to her father. “Oh please say I can go Pa. I haven’t been out of Virginia City since we arrived and I’d love to see more of this beautiful country!”

Shaking his head Lucas smiled in defeat. “Looks like I’m outnumbered,” he replied well naturedly. “Very well…you can go.”

Finding himself nearly knocked over as Angelina threw her arms around his neck, Lucas then steadied himself and took out a handkerchief from his inside pocket.

“Good, if that’s settled, maybe we should make a move and get to the starting line for the race,” said Adam hurriedly, noting Lucas’ flushed face as the lawyer took off his hat and wiped away beads of sweat from his forehead.
Failing to see her father’s momentary discomfort Angelina squealed with glee and took Joe’s hand as they followed Adam who began to move away, all three chatting and laughing together as the two fathers stood and watched them disappear from view into the crowd.
.
“Sure make a handsome pair,” acknowledged Lucas, returning his handkerchief and noting how Joe tenderly held his daughter’s hand. “Angelina and Joseph obviously care a great deal about each other.”

“Yes they do,” replied Ben thoughtfully though a slightly worried expression covered his face. “I thought it was just a simple boy and girl infatuation between them both, but they seem to be taking their relationship quite seriously. Doesn’t it worry you at all that they are so close? After all, they’re still so young.”

Lucas heaved a heartfelt sigh. “I can assure you Ben that thought has crossed my mind many times. But Angelina has always acted older than her years,” he acknowledged as he recalled his own wife’s love and commitment to him when she was only sixteen. The recollection caused a momentary pause before he shook himself from his reverie and gave Ben a convincing smile.

“Angelina and Joseph seem truly devoted to each other Ben, and I for one have no compulsion to make an issue of it for the sake of causing an argument. After all, there is nothing stronger or more wonderful than love…regardless of age.”

“You say that as if you have experienced similar Lucas?”

With a nod Lucas’ eyes glazed over for a moment. “Yes. My late wife was not much older than Angelina when we first met. Within a few days we knew we were meant to be together…and if she hadn’t died in the influenza epidemic of ’46 she’d still be with me now.”

Ben nodded with sympathy, conscious of the fact it was that year his own dear wife Marie, had died.

“I trust my daughter’s judgement and behaviour implicitly,” Lucas went on as the two fathers eyed each other. “And after meeting Joseph today, I know I can rely on him to behave both responsibly and honourably. You have a fine son there Ben…a mighty fine son.”

Deeply moved by his words Ben nodded. “I know Lucas…I have three fine sons. I’m a very lucky man,” he stated quietly as he poured out two glasses of lemonade and passed one over.

Lucas gave a grateful smile as he accepted the welcomed drink. “Ben I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for allowing Angelina to share her birthday celebrations with Joseph. It’s a very generous offer.”

“Oh think nothing of it Lucas,” responded Ben as he took a refreshing swallow. “And judging by the food supplies Hop Sing has already listed for the party I have a feeling it’s going to be one none of us will ever forget!”

“Well, seeing as it’s the Graduation Ceremony the next day, I’d like to invite you and all your sons over for a celebration tea afterwards.”

Ben gave a grateful smile. “Thank you very much Lucas and I accept on behalf of us all.”

Suddenly Miss Jones made her way towards them through the crowd. “It looks like the contest is going to be going on for quite a while,” she cried. “Hoss, Jed and Walter are keeping up with each other…pie for pie! Did you realise just how much your son can eat at one sitting Mr Cartwright?”

Ben chuckled and nodded. “He certainly has a good appetite.”

Lucas peered into the distance then looked at Ben and Miss Jones apologetically. “Would you mind if I took my leave for a few minutes? There is someone I need to have a quick word with and I’ve just seen him playing horseshoes. I shouldn’t be too long.”

“Of course…I’ll entertain Miss Jones,” agreed Ben as Lucas gave a nod of thanks then hurriedly walked away through the milling crowd to eventually stop and shake Doctor Paul Martin’s hand before the two men disappeared from sight, deep in conversation.

Abigail gave a deep sigh. “When Mr Morgan first brought Angelina into school I thought she was going to be quite a distraction for Joseph, especially as in the first few days he seemed to spend most of his time staring at her or into space,” she stated, accepting a glass of cool lemonade from Ben. “I must admit though she proved me wrong and seems to have had a beneficial effect on him after all with regard to his studies. You must be very proud Mr Cartwright.”

“Proud? I don’t understand?” queried Ben with a puzzled frown. “After last years report card when you tried to shed a glimmer of positive light on his academic achievements by telling me ‘he’s quite good at running’, I didn’t hold out much hope of him improving in any of his other subjects at all!”

Abigail raised her eyebrows and gave Ben a look of surprise. “But surely he’s told you?”

Still noting the perplexed look on Ben’s face as he shook his head Abigail gave a broad smile. “I always thought Joseph had a brain…it was just trying to get him to use it,” she said, looking distractedly at the spot where Adam had been standing, sighing deeply and hoping and wishing her ‘knight in shining armour’ would one day reciprocate the feelings she felt for him.

“And?” prompted Ben, noticing the far away look in the woman’s eyes. Miss Jones shook herself from her private thoughts and continued. “As time went on I noticed Angelina helping and encouraging Joseph with his school work…and for once he seems to have listened and it’s paid off!”

“It has?” asked Ben, still eyeing the school mistress with a confused gaze.

Miss Jones nodded emphatically. “It was a very close thing between them, but after last week’s examinations, Joseph and Angelina have both received the highest grades Mr Cartwright. When he graduates he’ll be the joint top student in his class!”

Ben widened his eyes in surprise. “I had no idea! He hasn’t mentioned it to me at all!”

Abigail shook her head in amazement. “Maybe he wanted to surprise you at the Graduation Ceremony? After all, his rise to top honours has been quite a shock to everyone, including Joseph!”

Ben smiled. “Well, I won’t spoil it for him and let on I know,” he said as he shook his head and chuckled. “I can hardly believe he’s only one more week to go in school and then he’ll be working with his brothers full time on the ranch. I don’t know where the time has gone!”

Abigail also gave a soft laugh and nodded, recalling the many failed papers Joe had presented to her over the years, seemingly never bothered or concerned at his lack of achievement. “I hinted he would be well entitled to attend college with the grades he’s now attained, but he doesn’t seem to be in the least interested. Maybe you should encourage him Mr Cartwright? It seems such a pity to waste all his hard work now.”

With a deep sigh Ben shook his head. “Oh! I have a feeling Joseph’s heart is well and truly on the Ponderosa, Miss Jones. He’s never expressed any desire to leave and pursue more qualifications …unlike Adam who always hankered to continue his studies.”

Abigail’s eyes glazed over slightly, her thoughts once more returning to the man whose presence continually made her heart flip a beat. “Such a shame as I’m sure Joseph would have done very well. Still, if all he wants to do is stay on the Ponderosa and be a cowboy…well, so be it.”

“Running the Ponderosa is more than just being a cowboy Miss Jones,” asserted Ben with a touch of annoyance. However, Abigail missed the sound of irritation in his voice as she looked over towards her escort who seemed slightly worried and deep in thought as he walked towards them.

“Sorry Miss Jones…I’ve been very rude leaving you like that,” Lucas apologised, shaking off his dark expression and forcing out a smile.

“Oh that’s all right Mr Morgan. I’ve been well taken care of by Mr Cartwright,” she admitted, giving Ben a look of thanks before putting down her empty glass and wiping her mouth delicately with an embroidered handkerchief. She looked back at Lucas. “Maybe we should take a walk? I need to check on the contest to see if there’s a winner yet, and I can introduce you to more of our citizens.”

Saying their polite farewells, Lucas and Miss Jones left Ben alone as the familiar smell of fried chicken wafted towards him from the picnic basket supplied by Hop Sing. He had been tempted to stroll over and support his middle son, but feeling his stomach suddenly rumble loudly for nourishment settled down on the blanket instead, unable to stop from smiling with pride at Joe’s unexpected rise to academic success.

Then as Ben’s mind wandered, thoughts of the closeness that had evidently developed over a few short weeks between his son and Angelina sent a shiver of unease flooding over the concerned father. Whatever Lucas thought about his daughter and Joe, Ben considered he was far too young to be in such a serious relationship; he would need persuading it was in his best interests to concentrate on other matters for another year at least and then start thinking about romance and love.

He had faith and confidence Joe would understand and see the sense of his father’s argument, for although strong willed at times, his youngest son always obeyed his instructions and orders, though sometimes a little begrudgingly!

However, as he helped himself to a chicken leg Ben mused thoughtfully that the trials and tribulations of being a widowed father was a lonely and difficult hardship at times and with a slight sense of unease began to eat.

*

To say the Founder’s Day celebrations of 1857 were unforgettable for each of the Cartwright boys would be an understatement.

Adam, Joe and Angelina watched with excitement as the Sweepstake took place, then after cheering and urging his old friend Ross Marquette on to win Adam gleefully rubbed his hands together as he collected his $50 winnings.
Completely out of character and on the spur of the moment, he took Angelina by the hand and danced around the street, whirling at a fast tempo, much to the surprise of the young woman and amusement of Joe who was unused to such uncharacteristic and frivolous behaviour from his elder brother.

Onlookers in the vicinity began to clap in rhythm and a dozen or more couples joined in, until a breathless Adam, puffing and panting, handed over his dancing partner to an awaiting Joe who then held Angelina tightly as they too joined in and danced the impromptu hoedown. Eventually, laughing breathlessly together they reluctantly stopped as Adam, who had by then recovered his breath, indicated for them to follow him so they could support and encourage their middle sibling.

Hoss, consuming more fruit desserts that afternoon than most ate in a life time, finally won the contest to the delight of his cheering brothers who watched with pride as he was presented with his first prize by Miss Jones….half a dozen home made apple pies, supplied by Widow Hawkins!

Taking a long look at them as they were placed directly in front of him Hoss suddenly turned pale and swallowed hard, feeling a nauseous sensation churning in his stomach. Quickly excusing himself he held his hand against his mouth and made his way with haste to one of the communal out-houses dotted on the edge of Virginia City where he disappeared for the next half hour; the sound of Adam and Joe’s laughter ringing in his ears as his over-indulgent discomfort became evident to all!

Still laughing uproariously at Hoss’ plight they returned to the copse where Ben had been rejoined by Lucas and Miss Jones and as they all tucked into the picnic hampers with enthusiastic abandon Hoss eventually emerged to join the happy crowd. Still looking pale his appetite for once deserted him; much to the continued amusement of his unsympathetic brothers as he vowed he would never again enter such a competition.

For Joe the success of the day had been more than he could have ever envisaged or hoped. He and Angelina had declared their love for each other and as the fragrance of sweet lavender still lingered on his jacket the memory of her soft lips on his in the Morgan’s living room brought a smile to his face as he drove back to the ranch in a state of euphoria.

He wondered whether he should confide in his father as most adults would laugh and throw scorn on any fifteen year olds who claimed they’d fallen in love and professed complete devotion at such a tender young age. But Joe was sure he could rely on him not to ridicule or make fun and had faith he’d understand and believe his feelings were true and deeply felt.

However, when he arrived home Joe noticed a pensive expression on his father’s tired face so decided to hold back and not mention it for a while; giving a cheery wave and retiring to bed instead.

Ben also wondered whether he should confront his son about his relationship with Angelina when he returned home. Seeing how happy yet tired he looked, he decided to wait for another more appropriate opportunity and just smiled a good night, looking at Joe thoughtfully as he disappeared up the stairs.


Chapter 3:

The last week of his schooldays passed quickly and though he’d looked forward to it for a very long time, Joe still felt a pang of sadness as he said his farewells on that final Friday afternoon, his usually cheery face sombre and sad. Then as he and Angelina walked hand in hand back to her house, his old pony following behind on a long rein, he soon cheered up as he realised he’d never again need to sit for hours at a desk on a hard wooden bench…or do homework!Lucas Morgan was already home when the young couple arrived, and though he was feeling a little unwell, was eager to hear the plans for the buggy ride in two days time. Excitedly Angelina offered to make up a picnic lunch, while Joe drew an impromptu map on a piece of paper, showing exactly where he would be taking Angelina on the Ponderosa and promising he’d have her home well before dusk.The protective father had nodded, hiding a slight feeling of unease but trusting the young man would be true to his word. Then when Joe made ready to leave, Lucas discretely turned his eyes away while Joe gave his daughter a fleeting peck on the cheek before mounting his old pony. As he gave a final wave of his hand and disappeared back towards the ranch, Lucas couldn’t help but notice how Angelina stared after Joe with such a look of happiness on her face, he could feel his own eyes begin to water at the wonder of it.*Sunday finally dawned; the night sky hardly changing to the crimson of first light before Joe was up, the excited young man completing his chores then feeding and harnessing the old mare that pulled the two seated rig. He looked up anxiously towards the mountains at the cloudless sky above the Sierras and smiled with relief. It was a sure indication it would be another fine sunny day as he placed a clean blanket and cushion over the wooden bench for the comfort of himself and Angelina as they travelled around the Ponderosa.

With the buggy prepared Joe walked back to the house and made his way upstairs, washing then changing quickly into a clean shirt and pants before returning to sit in his chair at the dining table where Hop Sing had already placed a platter of scrambled eggs and his glass of milk. He could hear footsteps on the floorboards above his head and moments later his father made an appearance.

“Morning Pa,” greeted Joe as his father walked down the stairs. “Hope I didn’t wake you when I got up but I tried to be as quiet as possible. I just wanted to get the buggy ready before breakfast.”

Shaking his head Ben pulled his chair towards the table. “I never heard you at all son. There was more noise coming from Hoss’ room though! How that brother of yours can sleep when he’s snoring so loud is beyond me!”

As they ate their breakfast in companionable silence Joe daydreamed happily about the thought of having Angelina sitting by his side for most of the day, and it was only when he’d finished and pushed his empty plate to one side he noticed his father staring at him and gave a hesitant smile, thinking the worst.

“Have I done something wrong?”

Ben shook his head slowly. He’d been tempted to confront his son there and then about Angelina, but decided at the last minute to hold back till later, keen not to spoil his day. “No Joe, you’ve done nothing wrong. I just want you to be aware of the importance of acting sensibly while you’re driving around the Ponderosa.”

“Oh don’t you worry about that Pa. I’ll take it real slow and stick to the main trails all the way,” Joe answered before taking a long swallow and finishing his drink.

Ben gave a nod. “That’s good to hear,” he replied softly, though his voice was still edged a little with concern. “But you’ve never been allowed to go up to the high country on your own before and I just want you to be aware it can be a dangerous place at times.”

“Oh, I know that for sure,” Joe confirmed seriously then a sudden thought came to him. “Maybe you should let me take my gun for protection?” he asked with a sweet smile, conscious of the fact his specially made left handed holster and pearl handled Colt.45 had been secreted away until his father thought it prudent to allow him to wear it.

Ben narrowed his eyes and frowned solemnly then noticed a mischievous twinkle in Joe’s eyes and realised he was only teasing with his request. He gave a soft chuckle. “Nice try son…but I’m still not ready to let you loose with a firearm. You’re going to have to wait a while longer before I allow that to happen!”

Knowing it would be a waste of time arguing the point Joe gave a resigned sigh then looked over at the clock. “Is it okay if I make an early start?”

Ben nodded and as Joe pushed back his chair and walked towards the credenza his father followed, picking up his son’s hat and handing it over. “I hope you have a wonderful day Joseph. But you will be….”

“Careful! Yes, I promise.”

“And you’ll make sure you’re…”

“Home before nightfall…yes, I know Pa,” Joe interrupted with a laugh as he planted his Stetson firmly on his head. “I’ve already promised Mr Morgan to have Angelina back well before sunset.”

Joe opened the door and made his way to the horse and buggy, placing his foot on the iron step pad and swinging himself onto the cushioned seat, and as he looked over towards his father who watched from the doorway, exchanged a wave of farewell.

Flashing him one of his most winning smiles Joe then flicked the reins to urge the horse forward, leaving Ben to heave a slight sigh of unease as he continued to stand and stare as his son disappeared behind the barn in a cloud of dust.

Finally arriving at Angelina’s house Joe found Lucas Morgan seated on the veranda and he exchanged a friendly greeting before Lucas stood up and opened the front door, calling for his daughter who within a minute was rushing out holding a small basket in her hands. After giving her father a farewell peck on the cheek she was assisted onto the rig, and as the young couple departed another father waved a fond, though slightly anxious goodbye.

Angelina held tightly onto Joe’s arm as he guided the buggy slowly along the main Virginia City road and then turned off on to a well used trail in the direction of the highest point on the Ponderosa ranch. It would be a full two hour drive and Joe glanced continually at Angelina who was dressed in blue, the slight breeze colouring her cheeks and whipping up her long blond hair under the matching lace trimmed bonnet that framed her pretty face.

At first the young couple chatted happily, but after a while both settled into a comfortable silence as Angelina appreciated the beauty of Lake Tahoe shimmering far in the distance and looked wonderingly at the myriad of trees covering the mountain side, all the while laying her head contentedly on Joe’s shoulder.

As the sun continued to shine down they rested at midday, eating their picnic before continuing; the young woman totally over awed by the vastness of the Ponderosa as they climbed higher up into the mountains. Then eventually they arrived at their destination; the top north meadow of the Ponderosa ranch nestling under the shadow of the Sierra Nevada.

As he reined to a stop Joe stood up on the seat and slowly looked across the vast plain of luscious grass as if searching for something. Suddenly he jumped down, helping Angelina from the buggy and pointing over to a herd of horses that were gathered in the distance under the protective shade of a large grove of trees. Taking her hand they walked towards them, careful not to disturb the group of about 40 yearlings that eyed with equine curiosity but remained still as they perceived no threat from the approaching humans.

“Joe…they’re so beautiful,” Angelina finally conceded in a whisper as they stopped and studied the various horses that continued to view the visitors with interest. “Do they belong to the Ponderosa?”

Joe shook his head. “No…these belong to the Paiutes but Pa’s let the tribe graze their horses here for years. He’s arranged to exchange one for supplies as a birthday gift for me, but I haven’t been able to make up my mind which to have. That’s why I wanted to bring you here, so you can help me choose.”

Angelina widened her eyes. “Oh Joe…I would love to help but it’s going to be so difficult to pick one out of all these. Are you sure you can’t decide for yourself?”

Joe pondered for a moment then shook his head. “Nope! They’re all prime stock and though Adam brought me up here a few times to check them out, I still can’t make up my mind so I’m gonna leave the decision to you.”

Angelina gave him a tender smile, pleased and honoured to be given such an important task, then seriously studied each horse in turn, her brow furrowed in deep concentration until eventually, after giving them all a second and third look, gave a triumphant sigh and squeezed Joe’s hand.

“Over there,” she indicated, pointing her finger towards one yearling that stood on his own away from the herd, its head thrown up in an arrogant way as he looked through half closed eyes at the couple who stared at him. “That’s the one Joe. I just know he’s going to be right for you.”

Joe followed her gaze and stared over at a pinto that threw back its head and shook itself in front of them; horse and teenager staring at each other as Joe took in every marking on the glistening black and white coat. He gave Angelina a quick nod and whispered for her to stay still, handing her his hat before moving towards the lone horse.

Although the herd had been broken in by the Indians, they still needed to be gentled and shown the ways of the white man with saddle and bridle, so as Joe walked slowly forwards, he talked softly and kindly, not wishing to alarm the skittish animal but only stopping when the distance between them was about six feet. The horse kept his eyes fixed on Joe and never moved; listening to the gentle tone of the human voice as Joe slowly bent down and picked up a handful of grass then outstretched his arm.

As he continued to murmur quietly to the slightly nervous creature, the pinto hesitatingly stepped forward and snatched a mouthful, its ears flicking back and forward as if listening to every word as it chewed on the tasty morsel. Then suddenly remembering an old horse-breaking trick told to him by his brother Hoss, with characteristic impulsiveness Joe slowly raised his hand and stroked the soft warm muzzle before bending his head forward and gently blowing into its nostrils for a few moments; immediately creating a deep affinity and connection with the Indian paint that would bind horse and master together for all time.

Reluctant to leave, but now smiling happily Joe returned to Angelina’s side. “I knew I could rely on you,” he acknowledged as he retrieved his hat from her hand and they made their way back to the buggy. The herd stared after them but the pinto followed for a minute, his ears flicking and neighing loudly as if trying to gain attention. Glancing back Joe shook his head and grinned.

“Looks like he wants to come back with me already,” he laughed, watching the horse that would soon be his as it reared on his hind legs then snickered a farewell before galloping back towards the trees. “He’s definitely the one for me. He’s got spirit and character, just what I want in a horse.”

“What are you going to call him?” Angelina asked, noting the deep look of pure contentment that Joe threw towards the yearling as he dropped his hat on the floor. Shrugging his shoulders Joe shook his head. “I haven’t even thought,” he admitted with a slight frown. “Seeing as you chose him, maybe you should name him.”

There was a moment’s pause. “He needs a proud Indian name to go with his breeding,” Angelina answered, chewing thoughtfully on her bottom lip as they settled down on the grass and rested their backs on the wheel of the buggy. She straightened her skirt before tilting her head on to Joe’s shoulder as her mind wandered back in time.

“When Pa and I travelled up here from Arizona we stayed for a couple of days at a stage station,” she reminisced. “I’ll never forget the kindness of an Apache brave who worked around the station after he was told I’d lost my mother years before. He carved out a little wooden doll and gave it to me as a present. I’d like to name your horse after him.”

Joe nodded. “Sure. Though what the Paiute’s will think of me naming one of their horses after an Apache, I shudder to think!” he laughed. “What was his name?”

“Cochise,” Angelina answered as the two of them stared over towards the herd of horses that had now emerged from the cover of the trees and were cropping at the luscious grass and drinking from a stream that ran the full length of the meadow.

Joe’s eyes focused on the proud head of the black and white horse in the distance. “Cochise. Yes…I like that. Cochise it is.”

As the warmth of the afternoon sun made them both drowsy they continued to sit closely together, chatting about their hopes, their dreams and content to just hold hands; the moments of silence between them comfortable and peaceful as they watched the horses gorging themselves on the sweet meadow grass. Eventually Joe looked up at the sky and noting the position of the sun heaved a reluctant sigh.

“Time’s getting on…we’d better go.”

Angelina nodded in acceptance as Joe stood up and gently pulled her onto her feet. “I’ve had a real good time today; just the two of us,” he smiled softly, his loving gaze once more meeting hers.

“And me Joe. I kept thinking it’s bound to be a dream and I’m going to wake up.”

Joe pressed his lips on her cheek. “It’s definitely not a dream,” he whispered as Angelina shuddered happily at the feel of his touch.

Her Joe; so handsome, her soul mate. “I do love you so. I’m very, very lucky,” she smiled, tenderly brushing away a wayward curl from his forehead.

“And I love you back…but I’m the lucky one.”

Giving her a warm, loving smile, Joe helped Angelina onto the buggy seat. Picking up his hat and pulling himself up by her side Joe then slapped the reins and urged the old mare to walk on at a leisurely pace; the buggy and its occupants soon leaving the tranquillity of the meadow and as they made their way down the mountain side both returned home in a state of contented happiness.

*

The sun was barely thirty minutes from sinking into the darkening sky as Joe drew up into the yard and dismounted from the buckboard, leading the mare into the barn to unhitch the rig and tend to the tired animal.

Inside the house Ben had just poured himself another cup of coffee and carried it over to his desk. As he sat down again to resume his monthly chore of doing the ranch accounts he heard the sound of hoof beats and looked through a small window behind his chair. He could see his son had returned safely and sighed with relief as he took up his pen and for the third time tried to count a long column of figures that refused to add up correctly. Fifteen minutes later Joe entered the house beaming a huge smile.

“Hi Pa,” he cried over as he threw his hat on the credenza and joined his father, sitting on the edge of the desk and swinging his legs in a carefree fashion. Ben gave a welcoming smile, delighted to see him.

“By the look of it you’ve had an enjoyable day out,” he greeted, putting down his pen then sitting back in his chair and gazing warmly at his son. Joe rolled his eyes happily and nodded.

“It was just perfect, and Angelina helped me pick out the yearling you said I could have from the Paiute herd. He’s a beauty and I couldn’t have made a better choice. Can I fetch him before my birthday?”

Ben closed his ledger, the accounts now successfully completed and nodded. “Seeing as you’re working full time now you and Adam can pick up the supplies during the week then go and show Chief Winnemucca which one you’ve chosen.”

“Thanks Pa…I can hardly wait,” Joe answered excitedly as his father stood up and made his way to the armchair by the fire, the young man following and yawning loudly before sinking with a tired yet contented sigh on the settee.

Stretching out his arm Ben took down his pipe from the mantelpiece and struck a match on the brickwork of the hearth. “So what’s your horse like?” he asked as he carefully lit the bowl and tobacco smoke wafted upwards to the ceiling.

“He’s a beautifully marked pinto,” replied Joe, rubbing his eyes and leaning his head back. “I’m gonna call him Cochise.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “Cochise? Where did that name come from?”

Joe’s face visibly glowed with pride. “It was Angelina’s choice! He was an Apache she met in Arizona and it really suits my horse too!” He then looked over questioningly as he noticed only two place settings on the dining table. “Where’s Adam and Hoss?”

“Oh…they went into town this afternoon and it’s my guess the lure of a cool beer or two is going to keep them there until late,” replied Ben, sucking at his pipe as a loud clatter of pans could be heard and the delicious aroma of roast beef floated in from the kitchen; a sure sign Hop Sing’s meal was imminent. “So it’s just the two of us for dinner.”

“Now you mention it, I’m starved Pa,” admitted Joe as he stood up and looked down at his hands. “I’d better go and wash up to get rid of this trail dust.”

As he ran up the stairs and disappearing into his bedroom, Ben was left pondering thoughtfully that it was maybe a good thing his two eldest sons were not around when minutes later Joe returned, sitting down on the settee and feeling marginally refreshed. Ben gave him a wary smile as his eyes narrowed and he sat back, tapping his pipe on the arm of his chair and looking as if he was about to say something, but then seemingly changing his mind. Joe noted his father’s hesitation and gave him a concerned glance.

“Somethin’on your mind Pa?”

Ben placed his pipe down as he regarded his son keenly for a few moments in silence. “Joseph…Seeing as we’re by ourselves I think we ought to have a chat about Angelina.”

Joe’s eyes expressed puzzlement. “Pa?”

“Just how special is she to you son?”

Joe then gave a soft smile, reliving the tender moments when he’d held her in his arms and kissed her. “Oh…she’s very special,” he admitted, reddening slightly as he finally confided in his father. “We’ve fallen in love…”

“You both think you’re in love?” Ben interrupted; an expression of surprised scepticism not lost on his son.

“We don’t think…we know!” Joe reiterated, though there was now a slight edge of irritation to his voice.

Ben digested the revelation in thoughtful silence for a few moments then sighed deeply. “I’m not sure this relationship is really for the best son.”

This was not the reaction Joe expected from his father and he suddenly felt his stomach tighten with unease and foreboding. “What do you mean? You do like her, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. She’s enchanting, a delightful young lady,” Ben admitted as a cautious expression covered Joe’s teenage face.

“So? What’s the problem?”

“Joseph….I just feel at your age you shouldn’t be thinking about falling in love. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you and will have plenty of time when you’re a little older to be romantically involved with any number of young ladies!”

There was a stony silence for a moment and as father stared at son it was as if an invisible wall of tension suddenly seemed to build between them. A look of deep disappointment covered Joe’s face as he shook his head in disbelief. “I thought I could rely on you of all people to understand how I feel.”

“Of course I understand,” Ben replied, patting his son’s knee in a comforting gesture as he stared deep into the green eyes that locked upon his own. “But Joe…you’re barely sixteen,” he chided finally. “That’s far too young to be totally committed to one individual, albeit one as lovely as Angelina! Maybe you should start thinking of just being friends and nothing more for another year at least.”

It was then something seemed to finally snap inside the young man as Joe violently shrugged off his father’s hand and his eyes flashed with fury.

“Don’t talk down to me like I’m still a little kid Pa!” he cried, his father’s condescending tone forcing his temper to erupt with a vengeance never before seen or heard. “I’m old enough to leave school and start work on the Ponderosa; accepted as a man, expected to do my fair share of a man’s work! So don’t try and tell me just ‘cause I’m not yet sixteen I ain’t capable or allowed to fall in love for real!”

Fuming, Joe jumped up from the settee, never before having directed such a verbal outburst at anyone least of all his father. For a moment Ben was stunned into silence, visibly shocked and surprised at the intensity of raw emotion thrown at him. Then as his own face suddenly grew dark he grabbed hold of his son’s arm, pulling Joe back down onto his seat.

“Don’t raise your voice at me boy!” he ordered quietly yet commanding respect as Joe glared back, and for the first time in his life out-staring his father as he clenched his fists tightly at his sides.

“I just want to try and convince you it would make sense to step back for a while before things turn too complicated,” Ben continued, inwardly shaking at the unexpected and unprecedented verbal confrontation with his youngest son. “It won’t be the end of the world. After all, you’ve barely known each other for but a few weeks…that’s hardly long enough for anyone to develop such deep feelings of love!”

“Sometimes that’s all it takes!” Joe yelled back angrily, the defiance in his eyes refusing to diminish. “It was long enough for you to know you loved my Ma! Or was that just a made up story for my benefit?”

Ben winced, stung by his son’s accusation and swallowed back an angry response as Joe continued, still irate, his eyes flashing with a passion never before shown.

“Angelina and I love each other and know we’re meant to be together, so you’d better get used to the fact ‘cause I don’t aim to give her up…not now or ever…and nothing you do or say will make me!”

Ben was left speechless; Joe sounding so much older than his fifteen years as his jaw remained stubbornly set and his green eyes refused to waver, looking the image of his mother while a brief taut silence ensued.

“Oh Joseph,” Ben sighed eventually, placing his hand on his son’s knee again though this time Joe made no effort to remove it while he continued to hold his father’s gaze without flinching. “I’m sorry son. I can now see your feelings for Angelina evidently go far deeper than I ever realised or thought possible.”

Joe slowly dropped his challenging stare though still looked over cautiously. “You do?”

Ben nodded and sank back into his chair, heaving a heavy sigh. His son’s look of intense devotion and the unshakeable firmness of belief and determined conviction in his voice identical to the strong willed and passionate Marie.

“I never realised you were so much like your mother until now. That expression of commitment and love in your eyes that she used to flash at me, even though it’s been such a long time since…” Ben’s voice faltered, hesitating as the memory rushed through his mind.

For a few moments Joe didn’t say a word, not wishing to intrude as he noticed the thoughtful and reflective expression on his father’s face. “Does this mean you believe we really love each other and you’re happy for me to keep seeing Angelina?” he asked eventually, his tone now growing more conciliatory.

Ben gave him a warm smile and nodded. “Yes, I believe you son, and judging by what you’ve just declared I don’t think I’d be able to stop you if I wanted to,” he admitted with genuine sincerity. “Just as I could never stop your mother when she was determined and set her mind to do something.”

Ben sat forward, gently placing his hand around Joe’s neck and squeezing it affectionately. “All I want from life is for my sons to be happy, and if Angelina means so much to you, I won’t come between you both. You have my word Joseph.”

Joe nodded then swallowed hard, biting his lip.

“I’m real sorry for losing my temper and shouting at you,” he admitted nervously as the adrenaline rush of the past few minutes slowly ebbed away. “It won’t happen again Pa. I promise.”

Shaking his head Ben gave a slight chuckle. “Joseph, much as I would like to think that was possible, knowing now just how similar you are in temperament and character to your mother, I have the distinct feeling that’s one promise you’re never going to be able to keep!”

*

With Ben and his son once more at peace with each other the next few days passed without incident or further altercation as Joe was introduced to the tiring world of working full time on the Ponderosa.

His birthday finally arrived and as he woke up that morning the realisation he was sixteen at last created a wide smile on his face; for like his brothers before him he was now on the first rung of manhood and the thought filled him with pleasurable anticipation and excitement.

He jumped out of bed and looked through the half opened window, taking in a deep breath of fresh air as he anxiously scanned the heavens for any sign of rain clouds. Sighing with relief that here were none he washed and dressed quickly, keen to complete his early morning chores before the rest of the family awoke. But as he walked down the stairs in high spirits and humming happily to himself stopped short when he noticed his father and brothers were already eating their breakfast.

“Happy Birthday,” three voices cried in unison, while a surprised Joe pulled out his chair then sat down, his face reddening as he threw over a wide smile of thanks. He looked nervously over towards his father.

“Guess I must have slept in Pa. Sorry.”

Ben slipped an arm affectionately round his son’s shoulders. “Don’t worry Joseph,” he said, smiling tenderly. “We decided to let you have a lie-in, seeing as it’s your special day.”

“And I’ve done your chores as well, little brother,” added Hoss, gently ruffling Joe’s hair. “So you can have yourself a real relaxing start to your birthday.”

Joe sighed happily then Hop Sing hovered momentarily in the kitchen doorway and moments later and much to Joe’s amazement, handed over a parcel covered in brown paper. “Me not forget special present for Little Joe,” he said, smiling fondly while Joe threw him a surprised glance as he sat back in his chair with the parcel on his lap.

Joe quickly removed the wrapping then his eyes widened with delight. Neatly folded was a brand new waist length jacket made of the finest thick grey corduroy material; the latest fashion for a young man in Virginia City and the exact one he’d stared longingly at through the window of the Men’s Fashion Emporium weeks before while helping to collect the supplies with their cook.

Joe smiled broadly at Hop Sing, standing up and bowing in true Chinese fashion before rushing over and hugging him tight and thanking him without thinking in immaculate Cantonese, much to his father and brother’s surprised amusement.

Under everyone’s watchful gaze Joe then put the jacket on. It fitted perfectly and Ben nodded with admiration at his grown up appearance; reflecting it would seem his youngest had truly shaken off the mantle of childhood and the jacket now signified a new and distinctive era of dress for his son.

Joe returned to sit at the table, hanging the jacket around the back of his chair as Hop Sing reappeared with a plate of freshly made scrambled eggs. Placing them in front of him, he exchanged an affectionate gaze with the youngest Cartwright as he proceeded to pour out a fresh cup of coffee and handed it over to the young man.

“Coffee?” queried a puzzled Joe, never before having been served the hot drink at breakfast. Hop Sing nodded, his inscrutable expression giving nothing away.

“Milk only for children,” he answered, winking over and the inference of his statement clear to all at the table as Joe smiled at him and proceeded to eat his breakfast; grateful that the connection with his childhood was now abandoned forever.

The birthday breakfast continued in a light hearted and jovial fashion; the main discussion being the preparations for the up and coming party that night as duties were delegated and agreed between each of them.

“Pa?” Joe mumbled finally after the last piece of egg soaked bread was consumed and he sat back in his chair. “Seeing as Hoss has done my chores, may I take Cochise out for a run? I haven’t had chance since he was broke in.”

Ben nodded with an indulgent smile and Joe finished the last dregs of coffee then took hold of his new jacket and put it back on. Moving towards the front door he’d just picked up his black Stetson and pushed it down on his head when Adam gave a loud cough.

“Erm…Joe? Would these be helpful?” he asked, smiling over as Hoss suddenly emerged from the kitchen, a gleaming brand new saddle and bridle carried in his hands.

“Happy Birthday little brother,” Hoss cried gleefully as he walked towards him and handed them over. Genuine tears of joy and gratitude filled Joe’s eyes as he gently stroked the smooth and shining leather reverently. “Thanks…these are just perfect!” he smiled as Ben rose from the table and inspected the new tack.

“Sure is finest quality,” he agreed with an impressed nod, looking over at his youngest. “I have a feeling you’re now going to have yourself the smartest looking horse on the Ponderosa Joseph!”

Shaking his head emphatically Joe returned the look. “No Pa! I’m gonna have the smartest looking horse in Nevada!”

Half an hour later a proud and excited Joe led Cochise out of the barn, tentatively placing his foot in the stirrup and easing himself onto his back for the first time. He could feel the horse shudder, sense the power ready to spring at his command; such a far cry from the slow old pony he’d ridden over the past few years.

Pushing his hat down firmly again before gathering up the reins, he slowly walked around the yard under the watchful and keen gaze of his father and brothers. Then, conveniently failing to hear his father’s instructions to take it easy, waved his hand and disappeared out of sight behind the barn, and with an air of excited anticipation let out a yell of pure joy before urging the paint on to a gallop.

Within seconds he was a speck in the distance as the grey jacketed rider raced across the flat grass and meadowlands of the Ponderosa with the reckless abandon that from that day on would be synonymous with the name Joe Cartwright. The combined feeling of delight and elation continued as both horse and rider moved as one in perfect harmony until eventually he reigned up a lathered and sweating Cochise, both man and beast blowing hard from the thrilling exertion.

Never before had Joe felt so alive…so happy…so lucky…or so loved and with a sigh of utter contentment reflected life just couldn’t get much better than this as he reached down, lovingly patting the pinto’s neck before turning his horse around and making his way back home to prepare for the birthday celebrations.

*

It was early evening and Joe looked at himself in the mirror, straightening his black string tie around the collar of his pristine white shirt then pulling a hairbrush through his thick locks.

He whistled softly as he readied himself for the party and picking up a bottle from his dresser undid the top before sniffing the contents and smiling happily. The scent of Bay Rum filled his bedroom as he carefully splashed a small amount onto his hands and wiped it over his chin; the cologne a welcomed extra birthday present from his brother Adam.

Joe exhaled deeply, trembling slightly with excitement as he looked out of his bedroom window down onto the yard where a large banner was strung across and its message clear to all.

‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANGELINA AND JOSEPH’

He smiled to himself as he envisioned Angelina’s reaction when she arrived to see the trouble his family had taken to make this a wonderful evening for them both and their many guests.

The furniture had been cleared from the large living room so that everyone could dance to the music of a small band and there was a vast array of food; one large birthday cake and the most appetising and tempting buffet ever seen on the Ponderosa and all prepared happily by Hop Sing. Paper streamers were draped from every corner of the room and there were large glass bowls containing home made punch, lemonade and numerous bottles of wine and spirits.

As Joe continued to look down he suddenly heard a clatter of hooves and a steady flow of guests appeared in the yard; all laughing and looking forward to the evening’s festivities. He immediately recognised Doc Martin and Sheriff Coffee who were greeted warmly by Ben and escorted towards the front door, closely followed by Mitch Devlin and his family and various other old school friends and neighbours.

Minutes later Joe was downstairs, acknowledging the birthday greetings thrown at him, shaking hands with all who’d arrived and standing close to the open front door as he chatted but kept one eye continually on the corner of the barn, awaiting Angelina and her father. Eventually they came into view, the last to arrive, and Joe ran towards the buggy as it stopped and smiled a polite welcome at Lucas who then dismounted and made his way into the house, leaving the young birthday couple alone for a few minutes.

Taking hold of Angelina by the waist Joe gently lifted her down and basked at the sight of her as she stood before him; no longer a mere school girl but a very attractive young woman in a low-cut, close fitting dress of shining grey silk, the colour reflected in her bright eyes that shone with excitement and her golden hair pinned back in such a way to emphasise her loveliness.

“You look so beautiful,” he acknowledged, hardly able to tear his gaze away and squeezing her hand tightly. “Happy Birthday Angel.”

“Happy Birthday Joe,” she replied, exchanging loving looks as her face glowed and then she noticed the banner above their heads and the many coloured lanterns hanging throughout the yard. “I never thought it would be as wonderful as this!” she gasped in delighted awe as they walked hand in hand towards the mass of family, friends and neighbours who were patiently awaiting their arrival and as they entered together all heads turned and a loud cheer greeted the young birthday couple as they stood in the doorway.

The joint birthday party was a resounding success.

Never before had everyone danced so much or so long, young and old alike joining in on the makeshift dance floor to the accompaniment of the small band of musicians and then everyone eventually stopped for breath to take refreshing swigs from the home made punch and sample Hop Sing’s scrumptious cuisine.

Angelina and Joe happily blew out the candles on their shared birthday cake together and then the band played Happy Birthday and a chorus of male and female voices joined in, much to the combined embarrassment and amusement of the sixteen year olds and with Joe’s arm thrown affectionately around Angelina’s shoulder, to all the gathering they truly looked like they were made for each other.

Miss Jones then coerced a reluctant Adam into accompanying her on the guitar while she gave a loud and very flat rendition of one of the popular songs of the day. Much to her delight the impromptu performance received a standing ovation from the smiling crowd and though she heard stifled titters of laugher was blissfully unaware they were directed at her dire and terrible singing voice.

It was only when she offered to continue her recital Ben quickly stepped forward and diplomatically called Roy Coffee over, asking him to recite one of his hilarious monologues which he did without a second prompting, well aware of their fate if he’d declined! Once he’d completed his long speech on the escapades over the years of a certain Little Joe Cartwright, which brought tears of laughter to everyone in the room, Joe included, the band suitably refreshed took up their instruments and resumed their playing and the dancing continued.

Eventually the merrymaking had to come to an end, and as the grandfather clock struck 11pm everybody reluctantly made their way outside into the yard. Joe and Angelina thanked and waved goodbye to the long line of guests, and as the last buggy disappeared behind the barn they stood together by the corral as a distant rumble of thunder echoed across the sky.

“Oh Joe, that was the most wonderful birthday party ever,” Angelina conceded happily as they stood hand in hand and watched flashes of lightning far on the horizon.

Joe nodded in agreement as the sound of laughter could be heard from inside the house where Ben, Adam, Hoss and Lucas were drinking from a newly opened bottle of whiskey.

“Sounds like my Pa’s still having a real good time,” Angelina concluded happily as she recognised her father’s laugh. “He hasn’t been feeling well lately.”

Joe raised his eyebrow. “Really? What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure,” Angelina answered, shaking her head. “I know he’s been seeing the doctor over the past few weeks but when I ask he just says he’s going to be fine and I’m not to worry.”

“Well whatever’s wrong it doesn’t seem to have stopped him from enjoying himself tonight,” Joe acknowledged with a grin. “I never would have thought he could dance so well or for so long! And he told me he’s really lookin’ forward to seeing us graduate together tomorrow.”

Angelina nodded and smiled excitedly. “Just think Joe…both of us delivering the Valedictorian! I bet your father can hardly believe it!”

Joe shook his head. “I’ve not told Pa or my brothers yet. They’ve no idea I’ve done so well.”

“Oh Joe…you’re terrible,” Angelina chuckled with delight. “It’s going to be such a wonderful surprise. Your Pa will be so proud of you…I just know it.”

Suddenly she put her hand to her mouth. “Oh…I forgot to give you your present,” she cried apologetically, rushing over to the lone buggy that stood in the yard and from behind the seat she pulled out a large parcel and handed it over. “Happy Birthday,” she smiled as Joe quickly pulled off the wrapping then stared at the portrait that faced him within a thick wooden frame. He looked over quizzically.

“Who is it?” he asked as he looked down at the proud face of an Indian brave who looked sternly back at him.

“It’s Cochise Joe,” Angelina answered. “I asked my Pa to paint it from memory and it’s a real good likeness. You do like it don’t you?”

Joe smiled over with gratitude and nodded. “I know just the spot to hang this in my bedroom,” he said brightly before suddenly looking down with a crestfallen expression. “Angelina…I’m so sorry. I’ve been so busy working over the past week, I forgot all about your gift.”

Angelina grinned happily. “It doesn’t matter Joe…just having our joint party is enough for me.”

Still continuing to look unhappily between the portrait and the beautiful face that stared at him, Joe shook his head sorrowfully. “I’ll never forgive myself. But seeing as you’re here, do you want to come and see my Cochise?” he asked, indicating towards the barn. “I went with Adam to collect him a couple of days ago from the Paiutes.”

Angelina nodded enthusiastically as Joe propped his present against the corral rail, and taking her hand walked into the barn where a black and white head suddenly looked over, neighing a welcome to his master in the shadows of the single lamp that hung from a wooden beam above their heads. “I didn’t realise he was such a beautiful horse!” Angelina cried, stroking the soft muzzle with her outstretched hand and giving a laugh as the animal nuzzled into her neck.

“Cooch likes you,” acknowledged Joe with a chuckle as he leaned against the wooden wall of the stall and watched as Angelina giggled at the feel of tickling whiskers on her bare skin.

“What’s this?” she suddenly asked, noticing a small velvet bag tied tightly on the black and white mane. Joe peered over and after fingering the soft material undid the tight knot.

“We’d better look at what’s inside,” he instructed and emptied the pouch onto her palm. Angelina gave a short gasp as a golden locket and chain fell out, the precious metal glinting brightly in the lamp light. Furrowing her brow in puzzlement she looked up then enlightenment dawned as she noticed Joe was smiling mischievously at her.

“But you just said you didn’t have time to buy me anything?” she chided with a tender smile.

“I know…but this is from Cochise,” Joe teased before his face grew serious. “Happy Birthday Angel,” he whispered as Angelina opened up the hinged case and noticed an exquisitely engraved inscription inside.

‘A & J Soul Mates’

She gasped, the sentimental dedication causing tears to well up in her eyes.

“Would you mind?” she asked in a trembling voice as she handed over the locket and left Joe to open the delicate clasp and fasten the chain around her neck. Once done she turned and nestled herself within Joe’s outstretched arms. “Oh thank you so much. It’s the most wonderful present I’ve ever had. I love it!”

“Not as much as you love me I hope,” answered Joe as they continued to cling together and his hand gently stroked her hair. Slowly she raised her face.

“Oh, I could never love anything as much as I love you,” Angelina declared softly and as their eyes met a powerful surge of unstoppable emotion flooded over them both and as one they stepped back into the shadows of an empty stall. Slowly and deliberately they kissed, tentatively at first but then suddenly it wasn’t just kissing but touching as their bodies ached for each other with a passion that threatened to overwhelm them as hesitatingly hands began to explore.

Fully aware of what they were doing, it scared them both for they knew it was wrong; not there, not now, but the desire was far too strong to call a halt and incapable of rational thought they pressed closer together, becoming more intimate and unable to stop and think or care about the consequences.

It was only when the sound of laughter could be heard in the yard they came to their senses, pulling apart, straightening their clothing and their heightened feelings for each other in turmoil; both aware of what so easily could have just taken place had they not been disturbed.

“I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have…I didn’t mean…” Joe trembled, well aware of the moral code of respectability instilled and expected of him, and feeling ashamed at his lack of restraint he reddened with embarrassment and regret.

Angelina’s heart melted at the sorrowful expression on his face. “Oh Joe…you don’t need to apologise,” she smiled as she placed her hand on his face and tenderly stroked his flushed cheek. “Believe me, I wanted to as well.” The words were simple and honest, her soft smile and loving eyes locking on his own in the flickering shadows of the oil lamp.

For a long moment there was silence then Joe took hold of her hand. “One day I’m gonna ask you to marry me,” he promised solemnly and as her mouth gently curved Angelina nodded and her eyes shone with contentment. “And one day I’ll say yes.”

Wrapping their arms around each other, both had never felt happier as they enjoyed the private intimacy between them, until suddenly the magic moment was lost as two darkened figures appeared in the barn doorway and Ben and Lucas looked towards them in the dimmed light.

“Time to go home Angelina,” called her father as they turned their heads in his direction. “Looks like there’s a storm brewing and we need to get home before the rains start.”

As the two men walked away a soft smile touched Joe’s mouth and he looked down, his expression of continued desire reflected in Angelina’s pale grey eyes. “I love you so much.”

A rush of pure joy flooded over her and Angelina returned the loving gaze. “I know,” she replied and fleetingly their lips touched before they finally drew apart, Joe placing his arm around her shoulder and the couple making their way slowly outside.

When drawing level with Ben, Angelina threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. “Mr Cartwright, it’s been such a wonderful party. Thank you so much.”

“No thanks are needed my dear,” Ben replied happily and as Angelina moved towards the buggy Joe took her by the arm and helped her onto the seat next to her father.

“I’ll see you tomorrow at the Graduation,” he said quietly as Angelina nodded with a soft smile on her face.

“Tomorrow,” she whispered back, fingering her locket as Lucas took up the reins and waved a farewell, leaving father and son to stand in silence as Angelina turned in her seat, staring back at Joe and silently mouthing ‘I love you’ as the buggy disappeared behind the barn into the darkness.

Ben gazed over in the gloom, instinctively sensing something was different about his youngest but not quite able to put his finger on it. Was it his stance? He certainly seemed to stand taller than Ben ever remembered. Was it the look he’d traded with Angelina as they’d parted? Whatever it was, Joe now seemed to emit an air of inner confidence and maturity, totally belying his sixteen years.

Moving over to stand by his side Ben placed his arm around his shoulder, squeezing it affectionately.

“Happy son?”

Loosening his black tie and running his fingers through his hair Joe sighed deeply and nodded. “You’ll never know how much Pa,” he murmured, throwing him a smile as he picked up the canvas backed portrait and headed into the house.


Chapter 4:

The next day blue skies were sadly missing to be replaced by grey clouds stretching across the horizon and a cold wind blowing over the Ponderosa landscape; rain having come and gone in the night. It was now late morning, and smartly dressed for the occasion Ben and his sons mounted their horses and made their way towards Virginia City for the Class of ‘57’s Graduation.Cantering alongside his father and wearing his new jacket with the collar turned up to take away some of the chill, Joe certainly didn’t show the nervousness he inwardly felt at having to deliver a joint farewell address and speech at school that day. But just having Angelina at his side would give him the strength needed he mused confidently as he glanced over his shoulder towards Adam and Hoss who were following behind.What a surprise it was going to be for them…thinking their under achieving little brother was just graduating by the skin of his teeth! He couldn’t wait to see their reaction when they found out the truth, and he fought hard to keep himself from laughing out loud at the look of astonishment they’d no doubt have on their faces.Eventually they arrived on the outskirts of town and turning towards the schoolhouse expected to see the area filled to capacity with horses, carriages and excited townsfolk, eager to watch the yearly ceremony. Surprisingly however the place was deserted except for a single buggy and two figures by the front door, and as they drew closer they noticed Abigail Jones was standing next to Roy Coffee and dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief.“Roy? What’s going on?” Ben asked as he dismounted and the distressed face of the school teacher looked towards him. Before the sheriff could answer Abigail rushed over, practically falling into Ben’s arms. “Oh…Mr Cartwright,” she wailed, tears streaming down over her cheeks. “There’ll be no graduation today. It’s just too awful…such a tragedy.”

As Ben attempted to comfort the distraught woman by allowing her to cry into his shoulder Roy shook his head woefully. “It’s a mighty sad day Ben,” he admitted, then looked over at the three Cartwright brothers and walked towards them.

“I’ve got some bad news,” he said as he stood by Joe’s side and looked up at him. “There’s been an accident.”

“Accident?” Joe queried, gazing down in puzzlement.

Abigail gave another loud sob and blew her nose noisily into her handkerchief, still enjoying Ben’s comforting hold as suddenly Joe understood what the Sheriff was trying to tell him. “Angelina? Something’s happened to her?”

Roy nodded slowly. “Maybe you’d better get yourself over to Doc Martin’s office. He’ll explain…” His sentence unfinished, Roy rapidly stepped back out of the way as Joe pulled his reins in sharply and kicked Cochise into a standing gallop, leaving his father and brothers staring after him in confused bewilderment.

*

As he rushed into the office Joe immediately noticed the inner door was open and as he moved forward Paul Martin appeared, looking over towards him. “Joseph…I’m so sorry,” the doctor said, quietly closing the door behind him then taking Joe by the arm and moving over towards his desk.

“Angelina? She’s not…?” Joe asked; his face twisted in misery as he removed his hat and threw it down onto a chair. Paul shook his head, pity and compassion for the young man showing on his weary face.

“No…but I’ll be honest with you son…she’s in a bad way.”

Joe felt himself visibly shake and he gripped the side of the desk tightly. “What happened?”

“Lucas and Angelina were found laying in a ditch a couple of miles out of town at first light,” Paul offered by way of an explanation. “Angelina was unconscious and trapped underneath the buggy.”

“And her father? What about him?”

“He’s dead Joe.”

Swallowing hard the young man’s face visibly paled, hardly able to comprehend the tragic event as Paul sighed deeply before continuing. “From what she’s managed to tell me they were rushing back home when her father seemed to suddenly collapse then lost control of the rig. I suspect he’d suffered a heart attack.”

Joe’s eyes widened in confusion. “But he was fine last night. There seemed to be nothing wrong with him!”

“I know. I was talking to him myself and he seemed in good spirits,” Paul sighed sadly. “But I’d been treating Lucas for a heart condition ever since he arrived in town and it seems the most logical reason.”

Offering a sorrowful sigh and visibly shaken at the news Joe’s thoughts then returned to Angelina. “How bad is she hurt?” he asked in barely a whisper, looking towards the connecting door as the Doctor followed the direction of his eyes. Placing a sympathetic hand on Joe’s shoulder Paul just shook his head.

“I’ve given her something for the pain but there’s nothing more I can do,” he admitted soberly. “Believe me if there was anything….”

Joe bit at his lip, his eyes filling with tears.

“She’s been asking for you,” Paul said gently as he gazed at the distraught expression on the young man’s face. “I’ve haven’t told her about Lucas. If she asks, I think it would be better coming from you.”

“No!” Joe cried with a strangled sob, distress and fear more than evident on the sixteen year old face. “I can’t…”

Paul’s voice tightened. “She has no one else Joe…you’re the closest thing to family she’s got now.” Looking over wildly, a cold sweat formed on Joe’s face and he wiped his sleeve across his eyes. Paul paused, well aware of the young man’s distress.

“You okay?”

Joe stared over mutely as his whole body began to shake uncontrollably, and with thirty years worth of experience Paul gave a knowing nod and reaching down to a bottom drawer in his desk, pulling out a glass and bottle then pouring out a large measure of brandy.

“Here, drink this,” he ordered, placing the glass in Joe’s trembling hand. Noticing the young man’s hesitation Paul gave him a reassuring smile. “Purely medicinal. Don’t worry about your Pa…he’d understand.”

Joe steeled himself and gulped down the unfamiliar tasting liquid in one long swallow; grimacing and giving a cough as a warm, burning sensation trickled down his throat. “Thanks Doc,” he said, appreciating the warming and soothing effect on him as he handed back the empty glass and blinked back his tears.

“Just be strong for her son,” Paul asked as Joe regained his composure. “Do your best.”

Pursing his lips tightly Joe gave a slight nod, now knowing what he had to do but dreading it all the same as he turned and walked slowly towards the door, giving the doctor a final glance before disappearing into the inner office.

Paul sat down disconsolately at his desk, placing his head in his hands until minutes later Ben entered, quickly followed by Adam and Hoss. He looked up and gave a tired nod of acknowledgement to his old friends. “Joe’s in there,” he indicated with his hand towards a back room as Ben took a tentative step towards it. “Better leave them…she doesn’t have long.”

Torn between his fatherly desire to be by his son’s side yet allow him some privacy Ben hesitated momentarily then picked up a familiar Stetson, sinking down in a chair and absently stroking the black material.

“Roy told us what happened Paul,” Ben said in a low voice, feeling his voice croak with emotion. “Is there’s really no hope for Angelina?”

The doctor shook his head sadly. “I keep thinking how happy she was last night…how happy Joe was…”

Adam and Hoss nodded in agreement and Ben sighed deeply then leaned his head back, thinking of his youngest son as his anguished eyes stared over towards the closed connecting door.

*

When Joe entered the room he stood still for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dull light flooding in from a small window through which snow capped mountains were visible on the far horizon.

Angelina was lying with eyes closed on a narrow bed; her body covered with a blanket and her pale face looking strangely at peace though her breathing was shallow and laboured. Golden coloured hair was splayed across the pillow, mud splattered and with streaks of red, and as Joe moved closer her eyes flickered and slowly opened, looking dazed and confused until she recognised the figure before her and they flashed with relief.

“Joe,” she whispered, slowly raising her arm and in an instant he rushed over, pulling over a chair and sitting by her side as he took hold of her hand. A small trickle of blood ran down her face from a deep cut on the side of her head and Joe reached over for a damp cloth that lay on a table and wiped it clean.

Angelina gave a grateful sigh then looked into his eyes with a desperate urgency. “Tell me Joe…what’s happened to me?”

“You had a bad accident…the buggy overturned. Don’t you remember?”

Angelina shook her head slightly, still unable to think clearly. “Everything’s jumbled up in my head…can’t seem to think straight,” she answered slowly then she gave a gasp as a memory flashed up within her brain. “My Pa! He fell….where is he?”

Joe’s sad expression became even sadder as he took a deep gulp of air.
“He’s with your Mama now Angel,” he told her simply and as Angelina’s dulled eyes suddenly widened with understanding tears began to roll down her cheeks and she turned her head and sobbed into the pillow. Joe stroked her hair lovingly for a minute or more; the rhythmic gesture soothing and comforting the distraught girl until eventually she became quiet and turned her head back to gaze at him.

“I’ll…I’ll take care of you now,” he said as he wiped her wet cheeks dry.

Despite her misery Angelina gave a soft smile then tried to ease herself up but fell back, the laudanum now having no effect as she sucked in a painful breath and an acute spasm sent a wave of pain flooding throughout her body. She clenched her teeth, closing her eyes momentarily.

“Please…I’d like to sit up,” she finally pleaded, and as Joe’s hand supported her back he raised her to a sitting position until she could lean against a padded pillow. Once settled she gave a soft sigh and turned her head to look out of the window and gaze over towards the mountains, dark with Ponderosa Pines. “Poor Pa. He called it our Utopia when we arrived here,” she murmured quietly. “He was right…it’s so beautiful.”

There was a moments silence as she stared out with her private thoughts then returned to gaze on Joe’s face; his only desire to comfort and tell her everything was going to be all right but his anxious and fearful expression speaking silent volumes.

“Is something else wrong?” she suddenly asked as beads of sweat glistened on her face. Without answering Joe continued to stroke her delicate fingers and unable to make eye contact stared down at the floor; fighting hard to disguise his misery.

“No, nothing’s wrong,” he lied quickly…too quickly…and in an attempt to hide his deception he gave a feeble laugh. “Miss Jones is already reorganising the graduation for her two star pupils.”

Angelina gave a slight shake of the head, intuitively knowing Joe was not being completely honest with her. “Please, tell me true,” she begged, her voice now stronger and more intense, intuitively sensing her fate as her grey eyes stared at him intently. “Am I going to die?”

Joe visibly tensed then forced himself to meet her gaze, heaving a deep sigh and unable to keep up the pretence. “Yes,” he said; the word choking in his throat. “There’s nothin’ else the Doc can do for you.”

A sharp intake of breath then a stifled cry came from the bed as another flicker of pain shot across Angelina’s face and she gave a loud moan. “Oh Joe…I’m scared,” she gasped, her voice faltering again and her long lashed eyes fearful and wide open. “You will stay with me…till the end?”

“I’ll never leave you Angel,” he assured her, his words loaded with emotion as he gently stroked her sweated face with the cool, damp cloth then leaned over and pressed his lips on her cheek.

The briefest of smiles touched Angelina’s mouth then she hesitatingly took hold of the locket that still hung around her neck and tightened her fingers around it, giving Joe a thoughtful look. “Promise me…”

“Anything.”

Angelina continued to stare at him, her eyes boring into his as her voice grew weaker. “I don’t want you mourning for too long. Be happy and live your life…for my sake”

Joe fought hard to keep his tears hidden, not sure what to say as a dull throbbing ache formed in his heart, then with a slight nod of the head he answered, his voice hesitating and whispered as he stared back up at her.

“I…I understand.”

Angelina gave a gentle nod then suddenly cried out again in pain as the last vestige of strength ebbed away within her.

“My Joe,” she murmured softly, the words said slowly and almost inaudible as Joe continued to stare at the beautiful young woman, and as she gave him a final loving smile closed her eyes for the last time.

At first she looked as though she’d just fallen asleep but as the realisation slowly hit him Joe shivered with shock and slumped down in his chair, for even though he’d seen his fair share of violence and death in his sixteen years the distressing effect on his emotions of seeing Angelina’s lifeless body created a sort of detached, numb feeling throughout his body. He remained frozen, unable to tear his gaze away, knowing he’d never again see those loving grey eyes, hear that infectious laugh, feel her soft and tender touch.
He’d expected his tears to flow now, but there was nothing as he bent forward and stroked her hair as if soothing a sleeping baby, remaining expressionless though inwardly an inner pain twisted at his heart.

Minutes passed then muffled familiar voices could be heard in the adjacent room and Joe gave a deep sigh, knowing the time had come to take his leave and he eased up, releasing his grip on Angelina’s hand before stooping over and gently kissing her forehead.

“Good night my Angel,” he whispered tenderly as he gave a final lingering stare before pulling the blanket over her serene and pain free face. Suddenly he felt bone weary and as his head began to spin he grabbed hold of the chair back to prevent from falling and closed his eyes, taking deep breaths then straightening up and slowly making his way to the outer office, his eyes glazed over from the emotional trauma.

Four men rose to their feet as he entered but as Ben stepped forward he stopped in his tracks. It had been easy when his son was a child to cuddle and make it all better when he’d scuffed his knees or scraped his elbows, but viewing the dazed expression on Joe’s grief stricken face Ben gave a silent nod, for he immediately realised there was nothing he could say this time to ease his son’s pain, no gesture to give him solace.

“I’m so sorry son,” he murmured quietly, willing him to move forwards and to take comfort in his arms.

But Joe remained unblinking and still, as if rooted to the spot as he fleetingly glanced at the anxious faces of his two brothers before moving forward, saying nothing as he retrieved his hat from his father’s hand. Then without a backward glance he opened the door and went outside, grabbing hold of Cochises’ reins and agilely swing mounted onto his horse before quickly disappearing out of sight; leaving his father and brothers silently looking after him and each inwardly crying silent tears of sympathy and pity.

*

There was a sombre atmosphere in the living room of the Ponderosa as the sun slowly sank under the western horizon and darkness covered the land.

Ben looked through the front door for the umpteenth time then closed it and walked over to his chair where he sank down with a deep sigh. “Where on earth can Joe be after all this time?” he asked in a low voice, the question directed to no one in particular, not really requiring an answer.

Adam gave a quick glance to the clock by the front door then eased up from his chair and walked over to the sideboard. “I keep thinking we shouldn’t have let him go off on his own after all,” he admitted as he proceeded to pour out three glasses of brandy from a decanter and handed one towards his father. “But judging by the look on his face when he left, I don’t think we could have stopped him even if we’d tried.”

Ben accepted his drink with a grateful nod. “There are some times in a man’s life when you just want to be alone for a while,” he declared wistfully, remembering the heart ache he felt when each of his three wives died.

“But Pa, Little Joe’s only a boy still,” cried Hoss as Adam handed him a glass. “I hate the thought of him being on his own.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Joe’s had to grow up fast today son,” he replied slowly, looking absently into the fire as he sipped at his brandy. “And after what he’s been through I don’t think he can ever be thought of as a boy again.”

Concerned for his little brother Hoss heaved a deep sigh, swallowed down his drink in one long gulp. “Did you notice Adam? Seemed to look straight through us when he left the Doc’s office,” he remarked. “And no tears! That just ain’t natural…not for Little Joe.”

His elder brother gave a nod. “Doc said he could be suffering from shock.”

Ben gave a worried shudder as Adam sank down in his chair and sipped at his drink, eying his father as Ben continued to finger his brandy glass with an anxious look on his face. Suddenly he looked old and frail as the stress of the day and the concern for his youngest son became evident on his gaunt face. “Do you want us to go and look for him Pa?”

Ben blinked hard as a vision of Joe standing so happily with his arm around Angelina suddenly disappeared from his mind. “Sorry Adam? What did you say?”

“I was asking…do you want me and Hoss to go and look for Joe?”

Sighing deeply Ben reluctantly shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “Where would you start son?”

“There’s always his Mama’s grave,” interrupted Hoss. “He usually goes there when somethin’ troubles him serious like.”

Ben looked up and nodded as fleetingly hope flashed in his eyes. “I suppose it wouldn’t harm…just to check there,” he admitted but still looked doubtful as he downed his drink and placed his empty glass on the coffee table. Stretching out his arms he began to ease himself up in his chair.

“No Pa,” ordered Hoss, for once the son commanding his father as he too noticed Ben’s weakened state. “You wait here in case Joe turns up.”

Momentarily about to argue the point Ben could see the determined expression on his son’s face and acquiesced gratefully, nodding his head and sinking back down. The two brothers walked towards the credenza but as they picked up their hats hoof beats could be heard entering the yard, and Hoss rushed over to the small window behind his father’s desk and looked out.

“He’s back!” he yelled with relief as he watched Joe slowly dismount and lead Cochise into the barn. Ben closed his eyes momentarily, silent words of thanks forming on his lips while Adam nodded over to Hoss. “Let’s go give him a hand with his horse.”

“No! I’ll go,” Ben quickly offered; his voice louder than he intended as he pushed himself up from his seat and threw his sons a grateful glance as they looked back at him. Hoss gave a silent nod and Adam smiled tenderly, both aware of their father’s desire to seek a few minutes of privacy with his youngest son.

An unsaddled Cochise gratefully munched at his feed as Ben entered the barn and under the glow of the single oil lamp he could plainly see a dejected grey jacketed figure sat on a large bale of hay, his hat by his side and his bare head lowered, hugging his knees close to his chest.

Instinctively aware who was walking towards him Joe remained still and silent as Ben gently placed a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s late son. We’ve been worried about you.”

Slowly raising himself Joe straightened out and leaned back onto the wall of the barn, looking up into the familiar, loving gaze of his father, his own eyes still dry and without tears. “I rode down to the lake…sat there a while thinking about…”

Joe’s voice trailed to nothing as his body began to shake from a combination of the night chill and fatigue. Ben placed the black Stetson on the floor then eased down, throwing his arm around the quivering shoulder. “You’re pretty cold son. Would you like to go inside?”

Joe’s reply was quiet but insistent. “No Pa…not yet…not yet,” he begged and as Ben willed his body heat to seep through and warm his son, Joe laid his head on the broad chest and listened to the deep thudding of his father’s heart. .

“I loved her so much,” Joe gasped eventually, the misery in his voice impossible to miss. “I loved her…as much as any man could love a woman. You do believe me, don’t you?”

“Yes, I believe you son.”

Joe trembled, a deep wrenching pain tugging at his heart and feeling a permanent wave of nausea pass over him. “Was it like this for you…when Ma died? Did you hurt real bad inside?”

Ben sighed deeply and bent his head down, gently brushing his lips against Joe’s curly hair. “Yes son…it hurt after Elizabeth, Inger and your Ma…hurt real bad.”

Joe raised his eyes, searching his father’s face. “Didn’t you just want to curl up and die?”

Ben stared mutely in front of him for a moment and gave a sad sigh. “Yes son… I did,” he confessed as he inwardly remembered back over the years.

Joe returned his head to rest on Ben’s chest. “That’s how I feel Pa…right now life without Angelina just doesn’t seem worth living any more ‘cause I’m never gonna love again; Angelina was so special there’ll never be anyone else for me.”

Ben sighed sympathetically then gave a nervous smile. “Son…I’m going to tell you something now that I’ve never admitted to another living soul…even your brother Adam.”

Joe looked up, perplexed, throwing his father a baffled stare as his eyes rested on the unfamiliar look of pained reflection covering his father’s face.

“This will be our secret…just between us, man to man,” Ben added and swallowing hard Joe nodded, his own misery momentarily forgotten.

“When Adam’s mother passed away I was so overcome with grief I didn’t feel like I could live out another day,” reminisced Ben sadly. “We’d had so little time together and I felt bitter…angry that she’d been taken from me in such a cruel way. I ended up walking over to the harbour front in Boston and looking down into the dark waters for hours, drinking whiskey, cursing the Lord for dealing me such a cruel hand. The more drunken I became, the more I was tempted to just throw myself in…leave this world and join my darling Elizabeth in the next.”

Joe stared in disbelief, unable to believe his father capable of such thoughts. “You did?”

Ben nodded. “I didn’t care about anything, anybody and it seemed so easy, the solution to all my misery. I remember teetering on the edge of the jetty, willing myself to make that final step into those cold, murky depths. But then I suddenly remembered my baby son. I’d forgotten all about the most precious gift Elizabeth had given me who was now motherless and who would also be fatherless if I behaved in such a selfish way. I felt so guilty and that’s when I knew I had to keep going for Adam’s sake though I vowed on Elizabeth’s grave I’d never love again. I convinced myself there would never be another woman for me. She had been my first true love and could never be replaced.”

Joe’s dulled eyes widened in surprise at his father’s disclosure. “So you really know how I’m feeling Pa?”

Ben nodded slowly. “Oh yes son…I know it all too well.” He gave a half smile, his thoughts moving on to the fair haired woman who’d captured his heart on the long trail west.

“But then I met Inger. Finding love again with Hoss’ mother was such an unexpected revelation I could hardly believe myself so lucky or blessed,” Ben admitted. “She helped me…gave me the will to open up my heart again. And even when she died, the thought that maybe I could find another love like her helped me to carry on.”

“So you didn’t feel guilty about your vow to Elizabeth when you fell in love with Inger and then my Ma?”

Ben shook his head. “I came to realise I didn’t love Elizabeth any the less just because I’d fallen in love again. And thank heavens I did, otherwise there would have been no Hoss and definitely no you!”

“But what’s kept you going after all the grief you’ve had in your life?”

Ben drew in a deep breath then exhaled heavily. “Oh…I’ve had three very good reasons,” he replied softly, gently drawing his fingers through Joe’s hair. “I won’t pretend son. It’s going to be hard, and may take a while, but one day I promise you this, you’ll get on with your life and be happy again.”

Joe gave a sad, slow nod. “That’s what Angelina told me…just before….”

Ben’s brown eyes stared over, glistening in the lamp light. “Then she must have loved you very much Joseph,” he stated softly, raising his arm and gently stroking the back of his son’s neck. “Her last thoughts were obviously with you.”

“Oh yes Pa…she really loved me,” Joe murmured as he closed his eyes and allowed himself to fall back within the strong yet gentle arms, appreciating the comforting feel of his father’s hand as it gripped his shoulder.

Joe felt himself shake again, though this time it was not the cold or exhaustion but a hollow feeling of desperate, aching loneliness as finally the realisation his dreams of a happy ever after life with Angelina had crumbled away.

Ben could sense his distress and instinctively drew him closer. “Are you ready to go in yet son?”

Joe gave a slight shake of the head. “Can we stay here for a while longer?”

Ben gave a reassuring squeeze as he felt Joe shudder and tremble. “We’ll stay as long as you want,” he agreed as Joe buried his face again into his father’s chest and there was silence between them for a while.

“Paul told us you agreed to tell Angelina about her father,” Ben said eventually. “I’m proud of you son.”

“I had to do it Pa,” Joe replied, giving a deep sigh. “She had no one else. But she was so brave even through all the pain…”

Joe wiped his hand across his moistening eyes, clenching his fists tight and reluctant to show any emotional vulnerability. Ben noticed the movement and gave a slight frown as moments later Joe pulled himself up and hung his head down low.

“I don’t want you to be ashamed of me Pa,” he admitted in a low voice. “But right now I just want to bawl like a scared little kid.”

For a moment Ben couldn’t answer, puzzled by the unexpected admission. “Joseph! I’d never feel shame at you showing your emotions!” he eventually cried as Joe looked up in surprise.

“But I’m supposed to be a man now Pa!”

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s arm and squeezed it affectionately. “You’re no less of a man for weeping at a time like this son,” he admitted as their eyes locked. “Crying is the first step to recovery…otherwise the grieving pain just festers inside us to return, again and again.”

Joe regarded his father, swallowing deeply. “So it’s alright…you won’t think any less of me?”

Ben’s eyes softened and he smiled gently, his voice now reassuring. “Oh Joseph! All it shows is the kind of man you are and will always be; warm, caring and sensitive. And I certainly would never think any less of you; in fact it would make you a bigger and wiser man in my eyes.”

Joe’s eyes rested on his father’s loving expression and it was suddenly as if a dam was breached as he broke through his self-imposed state of emotionless shock and the pent up grief finally burst through.

“That’s right Joseph…cry it out,” Ben whispered as the sound of a broken hearted sixteen year old echoed in the barn and he drew him close to his chest, his own eyes moistening and his arms remaining tight and protective around his son. He buried his face in Joe’s hair and felt the warmth of the salty tears soaking into his shirt as Joe sobbed for what seemed an age until eventually there was silence as he fell into a deep and exhausted slumber.

Minutes later two concerned faces peered around the barn door and viewed the tender scene of their father cradling his youngest son in his arms. “Pa?” Adam whispered, keen not to awaken his little brother as they stood over them both. “Is Joe okay?”

Ben gave a hesitant nod. “He will be son,” he answered quietly, tenderly gazing down and reluctant to move and disturb the sleeping figure, though he now shivered with the cold and had pins and needles in his arms.

“Let me take him Pa,” requested Hoss, noticing his father’s discomfort, and as he gently lifted him from his father’s arms with effortless ease Joe gave a child like whimper. “Its okay little brother,” murmured Hoss in a soothing tone. “We’re gonna take care of you.”

The reassuring voice seemed to settle him and Joe snuggled his head, remaining sound asleep as he was carried into the house, and for a few hours his living nightmare faded away to be replaced by dreams of walking with a golden haired girl, holding hands and laughing in the sunshine.

*

In the days that followed Joe’s life passed in an unhappy blur, long and bleak as he forced one foot in front of the other; depressed and his grief unrelenting with Angelina the first thing on him mind when he awoke and the last thing he remembered at night.

He was hardly ever seen with a smile on his face but whenever he felt at his lowest or when the tears began to flow, there always seemed to be a friendly and loving arm around his shoulder, a welcomed chest on which to cry his tears as his father and brothers constantly watched over him with anxious and concerned eyes.

Then slowly and gradually as the weeks then months passed bye the young man’s sorrow lessened, and though there was still a blank void in his life and within his heart, he finally managed to shake off the cloak of misery and pushed his despair at losing Angelina into the far corners of his mind, much to the combined relief of Ben, Adam and Hoss.

However during the days leading up to the anniversary of Angelina’s death Joe became noticeably quiet and reflective and his father and brothers watched closely for any signs of him falling back into his former state of depression and despair.

He neither requested nor desired a party to celebrate his birthday, asking instead for a few days on his own while he camped out at the north meadow. Ben had queried the request with concern but agreed without argument, and as the first flush of dawn appeared in the sky on his seventeenth birthday Joe rode out on Cochise, the worried brown eyes of his father following him as he disappeared behind the barn.

When he arrived at the meadow that brought back such poignant memories of Angelina he spent his waking hours over the next two days unashamedly crying, tears blurring his vision as the realisation of what he’d lost once more flooded over him. Then eventually on the third day his tears dried. It was a good feeling to have let it all out again, but his anguish was now replaced by a feeling of profound loneliness which flooded over him and it was then he realised that all he wanted was nothing more than his families loving company again.

He quickly saddled Cochise and made his way back down the trail, smiling softly to himself. He’d arrived at the meadow with his heart feeling dark and empty, but now as he left and neared the Ponderosa he suddenly felt better, even happy. He’d finally turned the corner, and when he returned home and was presented with his birthday gift of his very own Colt.45 and holster by his father, his family watched him keenly, looking for signs of continuing sorrow and despair.

But when Joe beamed happily towards them as he fingered the fancy pearl handle and fastened the holster excitedly around his hips for the very first time they collectively sighed with relief. Their Joe was back and he’d moved on at last.

***

Epilogue

Joe eased up in his seat and as he tipped his hat on the back of his head he gazed over towards his travelling companions who were now awake, holding hands and exchanging affectionate, loving looks. However there was no envy or sadness within Joe’s heart this time as he viewed the tender scene.

Reliving the past two years in his mind seemed to have lifted Joe’s spirits and Molly and Jack’s undeniable love for each other reminded him of a love he had once had and how fortunate he’d been. Not everyone was lucky enough to find their soul mate and Angelina’s memory was now forever cherished and locked away within a special and privileged place in his heart. But just as his father had predicted, life does go on he mused as he straightened his tie and the jagged outline of Virginia City came into view.

He fixed his gaze on a solitary white-washed house surrounded by a picket fence and gave a soft smile. Once the sight would have caused a deep melancholy within him, but now as he stared over there was no painful twisting of his heart as he gazed upon it; instead fondly recalling the happy hours spent sipping lemonade on the veranda, his first hesitant kiss in the living room, a grey eyed girl holding his hand.

Turning his eyes away and with his mouth feeling dry and parched, Joe ran his tongue over his lips, yearning for the cooling effect of a cold beer to quench his thirst as he recalled a conversation with the stage driver during the trip home.

He’d told him of a brand new fancy saloon that had been opened in Virginia City during Joe’s absence. In a very short period of time Julia’s Palace, owned and run by a beautiful and infamous woman by the name of Julia Bulette, had become the most popular drinking and gambling saloon in the territory, and as he expected Adam and Hoss to greet him Joe decided to make it his first port of call with them before they hit the trail for home.

Taking hold of his jacket as the coach eventually trundled down the main street Joe could see the familiar looking shape of Hoss’ hat in the distance.

He’d been tempted to wave the contract and cheque upon his arrival as he was justifiably proud of his accomplishment, but as the coach came to a halt Joe decided against it. There’d be plenty of time to rub it under their noses at a later date he mused with a silent laugh.He didn’t know whether he could or would be lucky enough to find love again, but with his soul mate’s last words echoing in his head and knowing she’d approve Joe just decided to get on with life in the best possible way he could, and as he stepped out of the coach took a deep breath, beamed a broad happy smile and fell into the loving arms of his brothers.
The End

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