How Do I Love Thee? (by Rona)

Summary:   Leigh decides to reclaim Joe as her own.

Rated:  T (9,000 words)

When Love and Hate Collide Series:

When Love and Hate Collide
How do I Love Thee?

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

How Do I Love Thee?

A familiar feeling swept over Joe Cartwright, but he didn’t turn around to confirm it. He just carried on selecting candy for Hoss, pretending that he didn’t know she was in the store, too. He had nothing to say to her and he wanted to hear nothing that she had to say to him. He knew the words would always be the same. “Joe, I love you. We could be married and you could get a job in the bank. We would be happy.” He had heard them too many times and repetition wouldn’t make him change his mind and agree to what she said.

“Joe?” Adam’s voice, cool and slightly concerned, brought his younger brother out of the reverie he had fallen into. Joe continued to choose the candy he knew his middle brother liked best, hoping that his pause had not been of a long enough duration to be noticed by her.

“Yes?” He tried to pretend that Adam wasn’t asking him if he was all right, but that his brother wanted to ask another innocuous question about the shopping they were doing.

Changing his mind about what he was going to say, Adam simply replied, “Are you nearly finished? I’m about ready to go and start loading.”

“I’m ready,” Joe answered and straightened up, trying to pretend that he didn’t see her standing to one side, her eyes fixed on his every move. He put the sweets on the counter. “Add these to the total?” he asked the storekeeper, who grinned.

“I got it, Joe. I allus add candy fer Hoss.” The old man wrote something on the list in front of him. “That’s everythin’, boys.”

“Thanks,” Adam smiled. “We’ll start loading. Come on, Joe.” Adam cast another worried glance at Joe as they took the first of the bags of flour out to the buckboard. “Are you all right?” he asked in an undertone.

“Fine,” Joe replied, tonelessly. He wore his best poker face, but Adam could see the underlying tautness to his brother’s finely chiseled jaw and knew that Joe was holding onto his temper by only the smallest margin.

Slowly following Joe’s ramrod straight back into the store, Adam couldn’t help casting a glance in her direction. He wished he knew what to do for the best; speak to her or pretend, like Joe, that he didn’t notice her.

The woman in question simply stood and watched, oblivious to the storekeeper’s attempts to get her attention. Her name was Leigh Watson and she and Joe had once been an item. Leigh had wanted to marry Joe, but only because he was the first rich young man she had met and she had been taught that you married money. Independently wealthy and alone in the world, Leigh had built up a picture of the life she and Joe would lead – with Joe working in an office or the bank, not on the ranch. Joe didn’t want anything like that and had been unable to make Leigh understand that he didn’t want to change. He liked being a ranch hand.

In the initial period after their break up, Joe had been too ill to go into town and therefore had not seen Leigh for a couple of months. As far as he was concerned, the relationship was over. He wasn’t even sure he liked the woman and he was definite that he wasn’t in love with her.

But for Leigh, the situation was different. She had been raised to choose a husband who was her social equal. Money and looks were the prime consideration and Joe fitted the criteria in that respect. However, he didn’t have one of the jobs that went alone with the looks and the money and ranch hands had not featured in Leigh’s life back home on the east coast. Disregarding Joe’s declaration of loving his life, Leigh decided that he would be happier working in the bank and set about trying to persuade Joe of this fact.

Living alone in her home, apart from her servants, Leigh was very lonely. She had not thought how difficult it would be to move to a new place, all alone, but her pride – and Joe – prevented her from returning to her old home in the east. Leigh had fixed her hopes on Joe and proceeded to weave the facts to fit her fantasies until she became convinced that all she had to do was get Joe alone and she would be able to make him see the error of his ways.

To that end, Leigh began to haunt the stores in town. Every day, she could be found, wandering along the sidewalk, peering in windows disinterestedly, waiting for the chance to see Joe. The only place she would not go were the saloons – she had not sunk that low.

Joe was not sure when he began to realize that wherever he went, Leigh was sure to follow. She sat behind the Cartwrights in church now, so that she could watch Joe all the time. She followed him into stores; lingered outside the livery as he collected horseshoes; waited on the sidewalk when he went into the saloon and stared after him with longing eyes when he rode towards home.

“Is there something wrong, son?” Ben Cartwright asked one evening, when he found Joe standing leaning against the corral fence, his chin resting on his folded arms as he gazed pensively into the distance.

“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted, turning his head slightly to smile wanly at Ben.

“Want to tell me about it?” Ben coaxed. He had noticed Joe picking at his meal that evening and knew that something was up. Joe had a healthy appetite as a general rule – unless he was ill or upset. Ben wanted the problem nipped in the bud before Joe started to lose weight; his youngest son was slender enough as it was. He had no flesh to spare.

Rubbing a hand over his head and rumpling his curls as he did so, Joe sighed. “This is going to sound really dumb,” he began. He hesitated.

“Just tell me,” Ben encouraged.

With another sigh that seemed to come from his boots, Joe began his story. “It’s Leigh,” he announced. “She’s… she’s following me, Pa.”

If Joe had been expecting his father to laugh, he was mightily relieved when Ben did no such thing. “Why do you think that, son?” Ben asked, his dark brown eyes expressing his concern.

Slowly, Joe told Ben all about it. Ben listened closely, his face betraying the dismay he felt. He had known that Leigh was not the girl for Joe when they had first met and her callous disregard for Joe’s safety had left a very bad taste in his mouth. He had hoped, fervently, that Leigh would decide that Virginia City was not for her, and leave. Sadly, it hadn’t happened and now this…

“The only thing I can suggest is that you ignore her,” Ben offered, wishing he had something more concrete to soothe Joe’s troubled mind. “Avoid being alone with her and talking with her and she’ll soon get tired of it.”

“I hope so,” Joe replied, still sounding depressed. “Because it’s been a month now, Pa and she’s still following me.”

“In that case, why don’t you take one of your brothers with you when you go into town?” Ben suggested. “Or I’ll come.”

“That won’t solve anything,” Joe sighed, straightening up. “I don’t want her to think I’m afraid of her. I just want her to leave me alone.”

“I know.” Ben thrust his hands into his pants’ pockets, something he only did when distressed.

“Besides,” Joe went on, a hint of a grin showing. “Do you really think I want to take my father or brothers along on a date?”

Clapping a hand down on Joe’s shoulder, Ben couldn’t hide a grin. “I think I might see your point there,” he agreed as they strolled back to the house.

************

Now that Joe had pointed it out to Ben, he was surprised that he hadn’t seen Leigh’s behavior for himself. It was certainly pointed enough. Ben wondered if he should try and have a word with her himself, but he refrained, not sure if it would do any good. They could only hope that Leigh would get tired of her vigil and find something else to occupy her life.

But that was the problem; Leigh didn’t have anything else to occupy herself with. Her home was kept tidy and well run by her servants. Although she rode regularly and drove her buggy out, she didn’t do the physical work of tending to her horses – the groom did that. Leigh did not belong to any of the women’s groups in the town, nor did she have any friends in town. She wrote occasional letters back east, regaling her friends with the stories of how well her life was going out in the Wild West, and hinting that there were wedding bells in her future. But Leigh had nothing else to do and so her fixation with Joe did not die. It fed on itself to the point where Leigh’s only purpose in the day was to see Joe.

But after a month, even seeing Joe – something that did not happen every day, or even every other day –was no longer enough. She wanted Joe with her every day. Now, when she took her solitary walks through the middle of town, Leigh’s mind was set on finding a way to make Joe her own.

**************

“Look at her,” Hoss whispered, as he leant against the polished mahogany bar of the Silver Dollar. He could see over the swing doors with ease, but was trying to pretend he wasn’t looking outside.

At his side, Adam straightened casually and turned around, glancing out as he did so. He immediately lowered his gaze to his beer mug and lifted it towards his mouth. “I see her,” he muttered, before taking a swig of his drink. He shot a glance over the top of his mug to where Joe was talking to one of his friends at a table. Luckily, Joe could not see Leigh from where he was.

“What’re we gonna do about her, Adam?” Hoss whispered.

“I don’t know,” Adam replied, turning around to lean his forearms against the bar once more.

“We gotta do somethin’!” Hoss declared, sounding as frustrated as Adam felt. “That little gal’s makin’ Joe’s life a misery. I hate seein’ him like this.”

His genuine concerns were slightly muted when Joe chose that moment to let out a great shout of laughter. Both his brothers turned to see what was so funny and saw Joe’s companion, a young man called Dave, starting to sit up. His chair was lying overturned on the floor. Dave looked very chagrined and one of the new saloon girls, Betsy, was stalking away, outrage oozing from every pore of her very curvaceous body.

“I think I might be sorry I missed seeing that,” Adam commented, but his attention didn’t stay on Joe for long. It drifted back to their more immediate problem. He put down his mug and stood up. “I’m going to talk to her,” he declared and set off before Hoss had realized what he was saying. With a startled oath, Hoss dumped his drink and hurried after his brother.

With her focus solely on Joe, Leigh was rather surprised to find Adam and Hoss almost upon her. She started to turn away, but Adam was too quick for her and caught her by the upper arm. “Just a moment,” he murmured politely. “We’d like a word with you.”

“Let go of me!” Leigh demanded, tugging at her captive arm. “You’re hurting me.”

“Nonsense,” Adam responded, his tone still poisonously courteous. “I want to know why you’re following my youngest brother around.”

“I don’t know what you mean!” Leigh denied. She tugged again. “If you don’t let go, I’ll scream.”

“Feel free,” Adam responded. “I’m sure you’ll love to have more attention drawn to your rather eccentric ways.”

Giving Adam a furious glare, Leigh stopped struggling. “I’m not following Joe,” she replied, but the denial sounded hollow even to her ears.

“Of course not,” agreed Adam. “That’s why you’re standing waiting outside a saloon. Just the thing the fashionable young ladies are doing this year.”

“You know nothing about me!” she hissed. “Why would I be interest in your brother? All he cares about is the stupid ranch and his stupid horses! I offered him so much more; a genteel life and a good, clean, safe job. He turned me down. Why should I be interested in a man who is so obviously stupid?”

“You’re right,” Adam agreed. “I don’t know anything much about you. But I don’t think my brother is the stupid one here; he never pretended to be anything other than what he is. You are the one who couldn’t accept him. Joe works hard and it takes a special talent to be able to train horses as well as Joe does. If you had really loved him, you would have been proud of his accomplishments and encouraged him in them, not sought to change him into something he could never be.”

“You know nothing!” Leigh countered. She tugged her arm free. Adam could see that his words had made not one iota of difference to her thinking. “If I could get Joe away from you, he would be free to say that he wants to work in the bank. I know he would!” Lifting her skirts, Leigh hurried off before either of the stunned Cartwrights could think of the words to refute her claims.

Closing his open mouth with a snap, Adam looked helplessly at Hoss. “That went well,” he commented sarcastically.

“It did?” Hoss puzzled.

Adam sighed.

**************

They were on to her! Leigh fumed as she hurried along the sidewalk towards her house. She knew that it was Ben, Adam and Hoss’ fault that Joe wouldn’t admit to loving her and wouldn’t get a job in the bank. She just knew it! Somehow, she had to get rid of them so that Joe would be free. But how to do it…

Bursting into her house, she threw her hat down on the small table in the hall. It was the servants’ day off – she was quite alone. Going through to the kitchen, a room she was rarely in, Leigh put the kettle on and made herself some tea. She sat down at the kitchen table and sipped the warm liquid, her mind producing and discarding various possibilities. She had to get Joe away from his family so that he would realize that he really loved her.

It was dark, and Leigh had been sitting at the table for hours, but she was unaware of the passage of time. But she thought she might have a way to get Joe all to herself and keep his pesky family far away.

Smiling, Leigh went off to her lonely bed and dreamed of being married to her darling Joe.

*************

The letter addressed to Joe was in a lilac envelope and smelled of an expensive, but subtle, scent. Adam looked at the feminine writing for several long moments, trying to discern if there were any clues to be had. But it seemed not. The writing could have belonged to anyone and it wasn’t entirely unusual for Joe to get letters from girls.

Tucking the mail into the inside pocket of his vest, Adam went along the street to collect the white sugar that Hop Sing wanted for making a cake. No one knew why Hop Sing had had a sudden desire to bake a special cake for desert the following day, but they weren’t complaining. Hop Sing had a light hand with sponge cakes.

There was a woman already in the store and Adam looked around at the crowded shelves while she was attended to. She appeared to be having a party, judging by the quantity of fancy goods she was buying. It was only after he had stood there for a few minutes that Adam recognized Leigh.

He felt suddenly embarrassed, the memory of their last encounter still fresh in his mind. He willed himself not to blush as she turned suddenly and saw him standing there. But the angry, derisive look that he had expected was absent and Leigh actually smiled at him, reminding Adam of what a beautiful young woman she was.

“Adam, I had hoped to meet you,” she trilled gaily and put her hand on his arm. “I wanted to apologize for making such a fool of myself. You were quite right and I’d like to thank you for putting me straight.”

She sounded sincere. Adam was non-plussed. He muttered something non-committal and watched as Leigh gathered her bags and left, almost skipping. It seemed an extraordinary change from the woman he had verbally crossed swords with the previous week and he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it. And yet…

“Quite a change, ain’t it?” laughed the storekeeper. “That girl’s come out of her box and no mistake.”

“Has she?” Adam asked, his gaze still drawn to Leigh’s departing back further down the street. He blinked and forced himself to look at the store keeper. “In what way?”

Always delighted for a chance to pass on choice gossip, the storekeeper leaned closer. “According to my wife, she’s joined the ladies’ social at the church and the sewing bee and the ladies’ aid society. She’s offered to host one of the Sunday lunches for visiting worshipers and is talking about having a church social in her home.”

“Really?” Adam was dumbfounded. That didn’t sound like the Leigh he knew at all. Admittedly, he didn’t know her well, but then, neither did anyone else in town – with the possible exception of Joe.

“Great news, ain’t it?” cackled the man, delighted with the reaction he had got from Adam. “’Bout time she got over that brother of your’n.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Adam responded. He shook his head, feeling faintly uneasy, but not sure why. “I want a pound of white sugar, please…”

**************

Joining the ladies’ societies had been one of the hardest things Leigh had done. She had been rather surprised to have found herself generally welcomed with open arms and had even started to enjoy herself. Leigh had never been a solitary person when she lived back east; her life had been a round of parties and teas and society meetings. It felt rather nice to be with the other young women, poring over the latest edition of Godey’s Ladies Book, oohing and aahing at the new fashions and gorgeous dresses. For a while, Leigh almost forgot that this was just a cover for her other activities.

Entering the house with her purchases, Leigh was glad that she had let her servants have a holiday that week. She abhorred cooking, although she knew how, and loathed cleaning up after herself, but she did it. Emptying out her goods onto the table, Leigh began to plan her menu for the tea she was going to make for Joe.

She hoped he would get her letter soon. Meeting Adam had been quite fortuitous, as she was sure he would go for the mail while he was in town. She knew that the Cartwrights had not been in town since the previous week, apart from to attend church, where her behavior had been as circumspect as she could make it. Yes, she had timed her invitation to perfection and she knew that within 48 hours, Joe would be all hers.

Rolling her sleeves up, Leigh began to work. She mixed ingredients with great care, finally adding the most important one of all – sleeping drops. Humming quietly to herself, Leigh lit the stove, ready for her baking to go in. This would be the best meal she had ever made.

****************

“If you think I’m gonna open this letter with you two leering over my shoulder,” Joe announced mildly, “you’ve got another think coming.” He examined the handwriting on the envelope, knowing that it looked vaguely familiar, but unable to place it.

Looking slightly embarrassed to have been caught lurking, Adam moved from behind the sofa and sat himself down in the blue velvet chair and looked expectantly at Joe. Hoss sat down beside his younger brother and smiled at him. Joe smiled back. He could feel his brothers’ frustration levels climbing. “Was there something else?” he asked.

“Ain’t cha gonna open it?” Hoss demanded. “Who’s it from?”

“I won’t know who it’s from until I open it,” Joe replied, knowing that he was infuriating Hoss. “But I’m not going to open it in front of you two.” He beamed at his brothers and rose. “So if you’ll excuse me…” He strode towards the stairs and walked up them at a very sedate pace, still holding the unopened envelope in his hand.

“Dadburnit!” Hoss swore. “That boy gets trickier with every day that passes.”

Chuckling, Adam replied, “I suppose it is his letter. He has every right to keep the contents to himself.”

“Maybe,” Hoss allowed. “But it ain’t as much fun when he does!”

“What’s that?” Ben asked, having come in only on the last few words of the conversation. “What have I missed?”

“Nothing much,” Adam grinned. “Just Hoss trying to find out what was in Joe’s letter. He was terribly subtle about it, Pa.”

Ben frowned at Hoss. “Really, Hoss, its Joe’s letter.” He shook his head then glanced at Adam. “So who was it from?”

Quizzically, Adam looked at Hoss, who looked at Adam and then they both looked at Ben before Adam could control his laughter no longer. Ben looked at both of his sons and wondered if they had gone mad. “I only asked,” he muttered, before heading towards the kitchen to find out when supper would be ready.

*************

Alone in his room, Joe slit the envelope and drew out the single sheet of paper inside.

Dear Joe,

I wanted to apologize for my behavior towards you over the past while. I have been unimaginably rude to you and your family and I beg you to allow me to apologize to you properly. If it would suit, could you come to my home for light refreshments on Thursday at 4pm? I will, of course, understand if you feel this is inappropriate, but I do not feel that I can convey my remorse adequately on paper. Please, Joe, I would like us to be friends.

Your humble servant,

Leigh Watson

Sliding the paper back into the envelope, Joe bit his lip. He felt rather shell-shocked, for the last person he had expected to be writing to him was Leigh. He dropped the letter onto his bed and rose to pace restlessly around the room.

“I don’t like her,” Joe muttered to himself. “Why should I go? She’s apologized – I don’t need more than that.” Joe paced some more. He knew himself too well; he knew that curiosity would take him to Leigh’s house the following afternoon at the appointed time. He could swear up hill and down dale that it would be otherwise, but he knew that, come the right time, he would be riding into town to have ‘light refreshments’ with Leigh.

“Joe! Supper!”

“Coming!” Joe called back and sighed. He knew that he would have to tell his family about the contents of the letter and his decision.

He had the creeping sensation that it was not going to be popular.

**************

“Are you out of your mind?” Adam asked, coldly, all the amusement gone from his face.

“I knew you’d react like this!” Joe snapped back, his own misgivings fuelling his temper. “What I do is my business. I only told you as a courtesy.”

“Only told us so we can bail you out of trouble again!” Adam retorted.

“Adam!” Ben reproved.

“Well, its true, Pa!” Adam claimed. “Joe’s going into a situation that could turn quite awkward and so what does he do? He makes sure he’s got back-up, in the form of you, me and Hoss.”

“Adam, she’s only a girl,” Hoss protested.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Adam was on a roll now and he refused to be silenced, despite the dark looks he got from both father and youngest brother. “Joe’s got into plenty of trouble that involved someone who was ‘just a girl’ before! Look at Lucy…” He broke off and stared at Joe. “Wasn’t her last name Watson, too? Perhaps Leigh is related to her.”

“That’s quite enough!” Ben bellowed, seeing the color draining out of Joe’s face. “The past has no place in this conversation, Adam. Your brother has told us what he plans to do and there is no more to be said. However, I will be in town tomorrow afternoon anyway, so I will be around, should Joe need anything.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied, strangely relieved at knowing his father would be around. He had told the family mostly to stop them worrying about his absence, but also, as Adam had acknowledged so sarcastically, in case something went wrong.

“But, Pa…” Adam began but Ben cut him off.

“No more. This is Joe’s decision, Adam, not yours and not mine. Your brother is an adult, who can make up his own mind about things. We might not agree with it, but that’s neither here nor there.” He jabbed his knife towards the food growing cold in the middle of the table. “Let’s eat.”

As Joe forced lumps of food down his throat, which seemed oddly tight, he could feel the waves of disapproval emanating from his oldest brother. Somehow, Joe knew that it was going to be a long evening and tomorrow was going to have a long morning.

**************

Quite why he was feeling so nervous, Joe didn’t know. After all, he knew Leigh and he didn’t really think that she was going to try anything. But still, some small voice deep inside told him to be careful. He shook his head to rid himself of the troublesome voice and had to grab his hat before it flew off.

Glancing across at Joe, Ben could see his son’s nervousness and was reassured by it. He hadn’t wanted to say too much to Joe about this decision to see Leigh again, but he wasn’t too happy about it. He had never entirely forgiven Leigh for riding off and leaving Joe alone after he had been savaged by a wild stallion. Leigh’s blithe assumption that Joe would be fine still rankled with Ben.

“I’ll meet you at 5.30 in the hotel dining room,” Ben reminded Joe. “Any later than that, and I’ll be breaking down her front door.”

Smiling, Joe nodded. “All right,” he agreed.

“And, Joe?” Ben added, as Joe prepared to turn his horse towards Leigh’s house. Joe drew rein and looked expectantly at Ben.

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t come back and say you’re going to marry this girl,” Ben suggested, his tone wry, but a real warning there none the less. He alone knew how close Joe had come to falling in love with her, which was partly why he had not made any real objection to Joe coming to see her.

“No fear!” Joe retorted. “Give me credit for some taste, Pa!”

“I would,” Ben murmured, fighting the smile that wanted to break free. “But then I remember Tirza…”

Groaning, Joe rolled his eyes. “I’ll never live that down, will I?” he complained, although at the time, he had been convinced that she was the girl for him. Of course, he scolded himself, he had been driven by something other than his mind. He blushed slightly, then looked over at Ben. “So remind me why you said she was a fine girl?” he jibed back and Ben had to laugh.

“You were besotted,” Ben defended himself. “If I’d told you not to see her, you’d have moved heaven and earth to marry the creature. I nearly choked on my coffee when I said that, you know!” He snorted. “I was never so relieved as when she decided a fish and a tree had no life together.”

“A tree,” Joe sniggered, although at the time, he had lapped it all up, even if he didn’t understand what she was talking about. He felt much older now. “See you later, Pa.” He rode off, feeling much happier, thanks to Ben’s timely intervention.

His misgivings returned as he hitched Cochise to the fence rail. He wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to do this, but having come this far, it was too late to back out. Squaring his shoulders, Joe walked up the path and knocked on the door.

Expecting the rude butler to answer, Joe was surprised when Leigh herself answered the door. She beamed when she saw him although her smile faltered when she realized that he hadn’t got dressed up to come and visit her – not even a string tie with his usual tan shirt and pants. That was his family’s influence, she decided, as she opened the door wider. “Come in, Joe.”

Taking off his hat once he was inside, Joe realized that this was going to be even more awkward than he had anticipated. “Where’s your butler?” he asked.

“Oh, the servants are all on holiday right now,” Leigh replied, laughing prettily. “Let me take your hat and coat, Joe.”

If Joe had known that the servants weren’t going to be around, he wouldn’t have come. Being alone with Leigh had all sorts of possible connotations that Joe wasn’t happy with. “I don’t think I should stay…” he tried, but Leigh was having none of it.

“Its very sweet of you to worry about my reputation, Joe,” she simpered. “But everyone knows we’re just friends.”

Unable to say anything about the other possibility that had crossed his mind – Leigh could easily accuse him of rape – Joe surrendered his hat and jacket. With a sinking heart, he followed her into the small sitting room and took a seat.

Obviously, Leigh had everything prepared for his arrival, for it took her only minutes to arrive with a trolley laden with cakes, scones and a teapot. “I’ll just bring the coffee,” she smiled. “I know you prefer coffee.”

“Don’t go to any trouble,” Joe protested, but Leigh just smiled again. Her smile was beginning to set Joe’s teeth on edge.

“Its no trouble,” she assured him. “It’s all ready.” She whisked out of the room again.

Once the coffee was poured and Joe had a scone and a piece of cake on his plate, the conversation seemed to lag. Even Leigh didn’t seem to know what to say. To hide his embarrassment, Joe took a bite of the scone. Leigh smiled. He smiled back. “Your scones are lovely,” he praised. “Did you make them?”

“Yes, I’ve always been good at scones. Thank you.” She colored prettily. She watched as he ate the end of it, took a sip of coffee and then began on the cake. “Joe, I just wanted to apologize for being such a fool.” Leigh had rehearsed her apology until she was nearly word perfect, but now that she was saying it, she hesitated and stumbled over some words, reluctant to cast herself in the role of a silly girl. Little did she realize but her very hesitation made her words sound more genuine.

“It’s all right,” Joe mumbled. “Please, don’t worry about it. It’s all forgotten.”

“That’s very kind of you to say so,” Leigh responded. “But I want to make it up to you, Joe. How can I do that?”

“You don’t need to make anything up to me,” Joe objected. He was beginning to feel a bit sleepy and frantically gulped at the coffee, hoping that would wake him up. “I told you, it’s forgotten.”

“But I can’t forget I’ve been an idiot,” Leigh went on and Joe frowned. Waves of sleep were sweeping over him and he was beginning to feel rather unwell, too. He was sweating and the room seemed to be spinning. But even in his incapacitated state, he felt that Leigh was laying it on rather thick.

“Leigh, drop it,” he warned her. The cup suddenly slipped from his fingers to shatter on the floor, but Leigh didn’t appear to notice.

Alarmed, Joe pushed himself to his feet. Perhaps if he got some air, he would feel better. He couldn’t think what was wrong. “I gotta go…” he mumbled.

“I don’t think so,” Leigh told him and something in the change of tone made Joe’s head come up sharply. For a moment, he was able to fight off the lassitude claiming him and what he saw made him shudder. Then, his legs refused to support him and he crashed to the floor, already out cold before he hit the ground.

Leigh laughed.

******************

Originally, Leigh had intended to keep Joe prisoner in one of her bedrooms, but she had re-thought the idea when she remembered that she would be alone and although Joe was slight, he was taller than she was and would be a dead weight. So she opted for the slightly easier option of taking him down to the basement.

Unwilling to see her beloved more uncomfortable than was really necessary, Leigh had set up a cot down there, with feather pillows and a warm down comforter. It also came equipped with leg irons, handcuffs and a stout length of chain affixed to a strong iron ring in the wall. Leigh had no idea what the ring had originally been used for; it had been there when she bought the house and seeing it had inspired her to make use of it.

It was a hard struggle for Leigh to move Joe at all and by the time she reached the door to the basement, she was sweating hard and her hair was falling down. She teetered on the top of the steps for several moments while trying to get into a good position for descending the steps. Stumbling over the edge of her skirt, Leigh lost her grip and Joe tumbled down the steps to land on the dirt floor with a thud.

For a moment, exhaustion won out over anxiety, but as soon as she had caught her breath, Leigh flew down the steps to kneel by Joe’s side. She tentatively reached out to touch him, not really sure how to tell if he was still alive or not. But his skin was warm under her fingers and she could hear his breathing. It seemed steady enough, although slightly slower than she expected.

Reassured that he hadn’t suffered any injury from his fall, Leigh girded her loins to drag his limp body the last few feet to the cot, where she struggled for quite some time to get him onto it. Once more, she had to rest and was annoyed with herself for feeling teary. But finally, she was able to snap the handcuffs around his wrists and lock the leg irons in place. She clicked shut the padlock and smiled. Leaning over her slumbering swain, she brushed the dusty curls back off his forehead. “I love you, Joe,” she whispered and kissed his lips. “And we’ll be very happy together.”

She left him alone then, for she had to tidy herself up, ready for their loving reunion. She hadn’t noticed the scrape and bruise forming on Joe’s cheekbone, where his head had struck one of the steps. It didn’t occur to her that Joe wakening to find himself a prisoner might not be the best way to win back his heart. All Leigh could see was the future she had planned out for them both.

*****************

Five thirty arrived and departed. Ben sat and fidgeted at the table he had reserved for himself and Joe. At five forty five, Adam and Hoss appeared in the room and the darkening frown on Adam’s face told Ben that his oldest son’s concern was as deep as his own.

It was Hoss who spoke for them both. “He ain’t come back, has he?”

“No,” Ben replied. He rose. “Let’s get Roy Coffee and go to her house. We daren’t delay any longer.”

However, Ben’s need for immediate action was frustrated, as Roy insisted that he needed a warrant to enter Leigh’s house. Since Virginia City didn’t have a full time judge, this might have been very difficult to procure, but luckily, the circuit judge was in town on his usual rotation. All the same, another hour passed before Roy returned with the desired piece of paper.

It was growing dark as they neared Leigh’s house. A single light burned in a downstairs room and the blinds were drawn. Cochise stood patiently by the fence where Joe had left him. Hoss immediately went to the horse and put a hand on his muzzle to stop the gelding neighing. They didn’t want to tip Leigh off that they were coming.

When Roy’s peremptory knock on the door went unanswered, he tried the handle. The door was unlocked – a not uncommon occurrence – and they entered, peering around them in the dim lighting.

There was no movement, no sound to give them a clue as to Leigh’s whereabouts. “Let’s split up and search the place,” Roy suggested, his voice barely audible. At once, Hoss moved to go upstairs, his footsteps muffled in the thick carpeting. Ben headed towards the back of the house, while Roy and Adam took the rooms on either side of the front door.

The room that Adam was checking out was clearly a formal drawing room. It was slightly dusty and the chairs all lined up in a very regimented way. It was also empty of human life. Adam did, however, spot a spider in one corner, but he was pretty sure that the spider was innocent of any part of Joe’s disappearance. He smiled briefly to himself over this fancy.

Going back into the hall, Adam hesitated, not sure where else to start searching. It wasn’t a very big house and he was sure that Hoss could cover the bedrooms and any attic by himself. Then he remembered that Leigh had a barn out back and he turned towards the back of the house, thinking that he would search the barn. Better to be safe than sorry, after all. As he walked past the side of the staircase, he noticed a door under the stairs. He reached for the handle.

A pool of light illuminated the scene in the basement. Leigh sat on the edge of the cot where Joe lay, stroking his hair, kissing him and talking to him. Adam didn’t wait to hear what she was saying. All that mattered to Adam was that he had found his brother and it was immediately obvious to Adam that there was something seriously wrong with Joe.

“Pa! He’s here!” he shouted and bounded down the steps as Leigh leapt to her feet and gave out a piercing scream. Joe didn’t move a muscle.

“Get out of here!” Leigh yelled, throwing herself at Adam and beating on his chest with her fists. “You have no right to come into my house! Get out, or I’ll get the law on you!”

“The law is already here,” Adam snapped back, trying to put the girl aside without hurting her. It was proving rather more difficult than he cared for and he was glad to hear the others hurrying into the basement. He thrust Leigh at the first set of hands that he saw and covered the last few feet to Joe’s side.

What he saw appalled him. Joe was wearing chains, which was bad enough. But the healthy golden glow that Joe had had when he left the ranch that afternoon was gone. Joe was grey, his cheeks sunken, dark circles were under his eyes and he gasped for breath.

“Where are the keys?” Adam demanded, whirling on the crying Leigh, who stood within Roy Coffee’s clutches. “Quickly, where are the keys?”

“You can’t take him away!” Leigh sobbed. “It’s because of you that he doesn’t love me!”

Alarmed at Adam’s words, Ben pushed past his oldest son and stopped short, color draining from his face as he beheld Joe’s condition. Roy craned his neck to see, and then shook Leigh. “The keys, girl!” he rasped. “Give me the keys!”

Leigh didn’t answer, but the shaking Roy had given her told them the answer and Adam extracted the keys from the pocket of her skirt. He fumbled with them for a moment before finding the correct ones to fit each lock. The heavy chains fell away and still Joe didn’t move.

At once, Hoss bent and hoisted Joe into his arms. He hurried across to the steps, Adam and Ben following on his heels, Joe’s head bobbing on the end of his neck lifelessly. Roy grabbed Leigh’s arm and dragged her in their wake. Whatever had happened to Joe, the only person who could tell them was Leigh.

*****************

There were lights on at Doc Martin’s surgery. Hoss burst in through the door, and eased Joe down onto the examination table, with Ben guiding his youngest son’s head, so that it didn’t get bumped. Paul Martin, who was bandaging a patient’s sprained ankle, looked astonished. “What…?” he gasped and then his medical training cut in and he dropped the end of the bandage roll to hurry to Joe’s side. “How long has he been like this?” he demanded.

“We don’t know,” Ben replied, worry putting an edge on his voice that wasn’t normally there.

While Paul took Joe’s pulse and listened to his heart and chest, Adam efficiently finished bandaging the injured ankle and ushered the bemused patient – one of the town drunks – out of the door. He turned back to the main action, waiting anxiously for Paul’s diagnosis.

“I need to know what happened,” Paul insisted as he straightened. “Joe’s in a bad way, but if I don’t know what happened, I can’t treat him.”

“Ask Leigh,” Ben snarled, gesturing to the trembling girl that Roy still had in a tight grip.

“What did you give him?” Paul asked.

The five men crowded around her, Hoss especially using his height and weight to intimidate her. It wasn’t hard. Leigh was already shaken to the core by the way the Cartwrights had broken into her home – she had been shown the warrant, but hadn’t absorbed the information – she was more than ready to tell them what they wanted to know if it meant they would leave her alone. “I put a sleeping draught in his food,” she shouted. “And some in his coffee, too. I just wanted Joe to stay!”

“Where did you get it?” Paul asked, grabbing her arm. He shook her too. Leigh had never been man-handled, however mildly, in her whole life.

“I bought it from Aunt Bethia Potter,” she sobbed.

Paul made a face and turned away. He strode across his office and yanked open a glass-fronted cabinet as Roy sobbed the distraught girl into a chair. Aunt Bethia Potter was notorious for selling evil nostrums to silly young girls and had poisoned a few people. Roy had warned her about it, but it wasn’t against the law and he couldn’t stop her. Hesitating, Paul put his hand out to a wooden case, bit his lip and then drew it out.

Peering down at the tangle of tubes and delicately carved ivory and ebony shapes, Ben asked, “What are you going to do?”

Sighing heavily, Paul replied, “I’m going to pump his stomach.”

********************

There was a shocked silence. “I know, I know,” Paul sighed. “But there’s nothing else I can do now. I don’t know if this will work, but I don’t know what else to do. We’ll never find out what was in that potion and every minute means that Joe’s system is absorbing more of whatever it was. You can see how he is – it might still kill him. This might be his only chance.”

“Then do it,” Ben agreed, his voice so low that Paul barely caught it.

“You might want to leave,” Paul suggested. “This isn’t pretty.”

“I’m staying,” Ben insisted, his chin jutting in a manner eerily reminiscent of Joe.

“I’ll take her to the jail,” Roy decided. He didn’t have the strongest of stomachs for this sort of thing and he didn’t want the young lady fainting on him. He dragged her out of the room with a guilty sense of relief.

Working quickly, Paul prepared the things he would need. He strapped Joe down to the table, although he doubted that the young man would rouse during the unpleasant experience. “Adam, be ready to unfasten those buckles and turn Joe onto his left side when I say so,” he ordered, assuming, rightly, that all the Cartwrights would stay.

He positioned Joe’s head just so and then fitted the ebony mouth gag. He avoided Ben’s eyes, for he knew what a heart breaking sight this was. Picking up the tubing, he slid it into position and then worked to get it down Joe’s throat. Inserting a stomach tube was always a tricky proposition. It was only too easy to miss the esophageal tube and hit the lungs instead. Usually by the time this mistake was discovered, the lungs were damaged, or the victim had aspirated. Paul didn’t want that to happen to Joe and so it was with great relief that he heard stomach sounds coming from the tube.

Taking a large pitcher of salted water from the table, he held the tube up and started to pour the water in. A pail stood ready on the floor for the after effects. Paul kept switching his gaze from the water to Joe until he saw the first signs. “Now, Adam!” he cried and pulled the tube from Joe’s mouth. Adam freed the straps and rolled Joe over, with Hoss’ help.

Everything that Joe had eaten at Leigh’s came back up on one horrid rush. Joe heaved again and again until there was nothing left but bile. When Paul was convinced he was through vomiting – the danger of aspirating was almost greater at that moment than any other – Paul wiped Joe’s pale, sweaty face and rolled him onto his back again. Joe was still unconscious.

“Now what?” Ben asked, shakily.

“Now we wait,” Paul replied. He removed the gag from Joe’s mouth, noticing that despite his care, there was a little bleeding from the gums. He hated using this equipment; it was so invasive and so unkind to the sufferer, but sometimes there was no other option.

This had been one of those times.

*******************

The vigil wore on. Joe’s color was slightly better, but he showed no signs of waking up. Ben coaxed him into taking sips of water regularly, for Joe was showing signs of dehydration. Adam and Hoss dozed uncomfortably on the hard chairs in Paul’s office. Ben watched over Joe as his eyes grew grainy and yawns stretched his jaw. And still his youngest son did not wake up.

In the morning, Paul made all of the Cartwrights go to have something to eat. He didn’t know if Joe would waken up again or not, but it would do the others no good to be on the verge of collapse when Joe did waken. Paul took the opportunity to have a wash and shave himself and then sat down to a hastily prepared breakfast.

The morning wore on into afternoon. The afternoon slipped away into evening. Once again, Paul chased the Cartwrights out, insisting that they have a good meal. He intended suggesting that they get a hotel room for the night, for the dark circles under Ben’s eyes worried him, but he knew it would be an uphill struggle. Not that Paul blamed Ben for wanting to be at Joe’s side until there was some sort of conclusion – if his son hovered on the brink of life or death, he would want to be there, too.

Sighing, something he had unconsciously been doing all day, Paul went over to take Joe’s pulse once more. As his cold hand touched Joe’s warm skin, Joe flinched. It was the first movement Joe had made since coming into the office the pervious evening. “Joe?” Paul called, but there was no further reaction. Still, Paul hoped that this might be a good sign – that Joe was merely sleeping off the remnants of the potion, but decided to watch for more signs before he said anything to Ben. He didn’t want to raise Ben’s hopes and then for Joe to take a turn for the worse and perhaps die.

When Ben came back in, Paul just smiled and watched his old friend resume his seat by Joe’s side. It was raining and a drip of water landed on the young man’s face from the edge of Ben’s hat. Joe flinched again and turned his face away.

“He moved!” Ben’s voice was awed. “Paul, he moved.”

Now, Paul didn’t hold back his news. “He moved while you were out, too,” he agreed. “Ben, don’t get your hopes up too high, but I think he might be waking up.”

“That’s good news, surely?” Adam questioned.

“Yes,” Paul admitted, and the ‘but’ was clear in his voice. “However, until Joe is fully awake, we can’t be sure if this stuff has caused any damage.”

“What kind of damage?” Hoss demanded.

“Brain damage,” Adam told him, his voice bleak.

*********************

During the night, Joe drew perceptibly nearer to the surface, mumbling occasionally and rolling his head. Near dawn, he turned over onto his right side, snuggling into the warmth of the blankets that covered him. By now, Ben and Adam were sleeping and it was Hoss’ turn to sit by his brother’s bed and whisper the odd word of encouragement to him.

It was frustrating that Joe didn’t just waken up, Hoss thought. Frustrating and worrying. Adam and Ben had almost come to blows over their evening meal the previous night when Ben had said he didn’t know what to do about Leigh. Adam had vented his frustrations on Ben, demanding to know if Ben was going to let her off scot-free, when Joe could be dying. Ben had snapped back and it had taken Hoss all his time to cool them both down.

“Ya gotta wake up, Joe,” Hoss whispered. “Things jist ain’t right without ya.” He didn’t know how many times he had said something along those lines when the hand he was holding twitched. “Joe?

“Hoss,” Joe muttered.

“Joe!” Hoss cried, delighted, as one bleary green eye squinted at him. “Pa! Adam! Doc! Joe’s awake!”

At once, the sleeping men roused and jumped to their feet. Paul had a slight problem getting in beside Joe, but he quickly examined him. Joe was frowning at the sudden influx of people. “Joe, how do you feel?” Paul asked.

“Doc, could ya tell Hoss ta shut up?” Joe begged. “I’ve got a terrible headache.”

He was rather perturbed when his audience laughed. Closing his eyes, Joe went back to sleep.

******************

It was several days before Joe was back to anything like normal. He was still rather shaky, but his sleep patterns had sorted themselves out at last and the ‘hangover’ headache that he had awakened with had eventually gone. Paul had run a number of tests designed to check out Joe’s brain activity, and he had been delighted to conclude that no brain damage had occurred. On the third day after wakening, Joe was allowed to go home.

There was still the thorny question of what to do with Leigh. She could be tried for kidnapping and attempted murder, but there was the chance that she could hang for those offences and Ben did not want to be even partially responsible for that outcome. Yet the alternatives – having her locked up in an insane asylum or letting her go – were equally reprehensible. What she had done was wrong and Leigh had to face the consequences. Finally, Ben was persuaded to have her charged to face trial. It was unlikely that she would face hanging and although the women’s jail was a squalid place, it was better than the asylum.

The trial was over with quickly, since the judge was still in town and as there were four impeccable witnesses, Joe was not required to testify, which was fortunate, as he had no real memory of what had happened to him. Leigh was sentenced to five years imprisonment.

“I don’t know that we done her any favors,” Roy commented to Ben and Adam later on. “All the time she were here, she read jist one thing from that books of poems she asked fer.”

“What book?” Ben asked, apprehension growing in his breast.

“Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” Roy replied. He wrinkled his brow as he sought to get the title right. “’The Sonnets from the Portuguese’,” he quoted.

“Oh no,” Ben whispered. Marie had had a fancy for Elizabeth Barrett Browning after seeing one of her poems in a magazine about the time Joe was born. He met Roy’s eyes. Adam solemnly began to quote,

“How do I love thee?”

*****End*****

 

 

 

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