Summary: This story is a sequel or WHN for the wonderful episode ‘Different Pines Same Wind’. As Joe Cartwright helps the old woman Carrie Pickett prepare for winter, the arrival of a beautiful young woman at the Ponderosa spells disaster. Her appearance serves as a catalyst for an unexpected series of events that culminate in a showdown in the Piney Woods in which not only Joe, but Hoss and Ben, must face and overcome Marks deep seated need for revenge .
Rated PG-13 Word Count: 50,528
All known and public characters belong to those who created them. All new characters belong to the author. There is no intent to infringe on copyright and no money is being made – just friends and warm hearts hopefully!
Same Pines Different Wind
Ben Cartwright opened the door of the ranch house and looked out toward the stable.
“Joseph, are you out there?”
When he received no reply, the older man stepped onto the porch. He glanced at the sky, noting that it was clouding over – not unusual for a day in the first week of December. The cold had advanced quickly this year and everyone was expecting an early snow. In fact, the day before while out on the range he had spotted a few flakes drifting to the ground. Yes, the year was winding down and soon there would be time for that book and glass of brandy by the fire that cattle drives, timberlines, and mining operations had so long denied.
That was, if he ever found his son.
“What do you need, Pa?”
The voice came from behind him and not from the stable. He spun to find Joe emerging from the house. His son was dressed as usual in his tan hat, green leather coat, brown shirt and gray pants, and looked like he was ready to travel. He had a saddlebag slung over his shoulder along with a bag from the kitchen containing food that Hop Sing had no doubt prepared.
There was also an apple in his mouth.
“When did you come in?” Ben asked.
Joe finished the bite he was taking, pointed to his mouth while he chewed, and then swallowed so quickly he coughed. “Sorry, Pa. I’ve been in the kitchen with Hop Sing. I came in the side door.”
“Oh.” His son was twenty-eight years old now and had streaks of silver highlighting his once deep brown hair, but he still looked like that little boy with the mound of curls and great green eyes that he would swoop up and out of his mother’s arms. He indicated the saddlebag with a nod. “Are you going somewhere?”
Joe looked immediately guilty. “What? Oh, this?” He winced. “I just thought I’d ride up and check out the timber on the north edge toward Crescent Mountain. It’s been about six months since any of us was up that way to check things out.”
“Hmmm, let’s see.” Ben snapped his fingers. “Now, that wouldn’t be when you went to check up on Carrie Pickett, would it?”
Joe actually blushed. “It might be.”
“Joe, if you wanted time off to go and visit Carrie, all you had to do was ask. What makes you think you have to sneak off?”
“I’m sorry, Pa. It’s just, well, you know, when I went last summer, Hoss never let me hear the end of it.”
He didn’t remember it clearly, but he did remember the fact that Joe had decked his brother for implying that his feelings for the older woman went deeper than friendship. Carrie Pickett was his age, either near or over sixty. The idea that Joe had any sort of romantic connection to her was ridiculous and his brother knew it, of course. But there was something there. The ‘stubborn, cantankerous old woman’, as Joe put it, had definitely won a bit of his young son’s heart – which said a lot about Joe and Carrie.
“You know how Hoss is,” he said t last.
“With me? Yeah, I know.” Joe ran a gloved hand through his ample hair. “I just thought, if I said you had sent me up to the timberline, that Hoss’d just think it was routine.”
“So you lied to your brother? And were going to lie to me?”
Joe’s brown eyebrows met in the middle. “Well, not exactly lied….”
“So what exactly would you call telling your brother that I told you to go when I didn’t, if not a lie?” he asked, folding his arms over his chest.
Joe’s lips pursed and his mouth twitched. “Creative thinking?”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Joseph, whatever am I going to do with you? You’re too old to send to your room and definitely old enough to know better.”
Joe hung his head for a moment. When he looked up, there was an odd light in his eyes. “I can’t explain it, Pa. I feel responsible for that old woman up there. The last time I checked on her she only had enough food in her cupboard for a week. That’s all. When I asked her why, she told me to mind my own business.” Joe snorted. “Actually, she threw a kettle at me and then told me to mind my own business. Pa, Carrie’s just so dang stubborn that she’s liable to get herself into trouble.”
“Well, you are not responsible for her,” Ben replied. As Joe started to protest, he held up a hand. “However, if what you are saying is that you are concerned for a friend and you would like to ask to go and help her out for a few weeks in order to prepare her place for winter, I think that would be acceptable.”
His son’s eyes lit with hope. “Really, Pa. You mean you’ll let me go?”
Ben stepped over to his son and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You’re a grown man, Joseph. You don’t have to get my permission. If I disagree with what you intend to do, it’s still your choice. I reared all of you boys to be independent men. However,” he wagged his finger, “no more lying, young man.”
Joe grinned. “No more lying, Pa.” His son hesitated. “So I guess that means I should tell you that Hop Sing’s packing a wagon with stock from the kitchen for me to take with me to Piney Woods?”
The older man sighed. “It wouldn’t hurt.”
“I’ll pay you back, Pa. I just want to make sure she’s stocked up for winter.” Joe glanced toward the horizon. “It looks like it’s going to be a hard one.”
“Yes, and that makes it even more imperative you go now.” Ben lifted his hand from his son’s shoulder. “Don’t stay too long, Joseph. It’s December, and you know what the snow can be up near Crescent.”
“Sure thing, Pa. It takes a day to get there. I’ll stay five or six and be back in a week. Will that work?”
It was pushing it as far as the weather, but he knew Joe would want to help Carrie out with her own preparations for winter. In the spring he had spent the majority of his time constructing a few small buildings, including a barn and a lean-to for Carrie’s horse connected to the corral. This time there would be wood to lay in, butchering to be done, and much more.
“I don’t suppose you could try to talk her into moving closer to the Ponderosa?” he asked. “A few more years and she’s not going to be able to take care of that place or herself.”
Joe laughed. “You can tell her that, Pa. Not me. I don’t want to have my head blown off with a double-barreled shot gun.”
“I suppose so. Anyhow, son,” Ben held out his hand, “take care of yourself. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Jason Milburn is still active in that area and he has no love lost for you. You defeated a scheme of his that would have made him a very rich man.”
Joe’s eyes lit again, this time with a kind of pride. “He’ll never be as rich as Miss Carrie, Pa. Not in a million years.”
The ride to Piney Woods was an agreeable one. The sun was bright and the air pleasantly brisk. He’d slept the night before in the open air and that always made him feel optimistic. It was going to be a good visit. He’d get there by sundown today and have time to give Carrie her surprise before settling in to sleep.
Cochise was tethered behind the wagon and he had a strong plow horse named Onyx pulling it. She was a Missouri Fox Trotter, black in color and pretty as a thoroughbred. He meant to leave the horse with Carrie so she could use it, along with her other one, to plant her fields in the spring. He’d come back, of course, to help and make sure she had a good crop laid in.
It was hard to explain, even to himself, what Carrie meant to him. She was the orneriest, most cantankerous and argumentative woman he had ever met. The first time they’d come in contact she’d almost shot him. Then she’d lied to him, played tricks on him, and made him just about as mad as he had ever been. And yet…. There was something about her. It wasn’t her looks, though he was sure she had been pretty enough when young. It was her spirit. She was like a proud stallion that had shed all restraints, standing on a mountain top, rearing up into the wind and whinnying for joy, not caring if it lived or died, only that it was free.
It made him wonder just what Amos Pickett had been like. He must have been quite a man to keep that flying filly content.
Joe slapped the reins against the Trotter’s rump, coaxing one final burst of speed from the animal. They were almost there. In a half hour he should see the log cabin Amos Pickett had built for his young wife come into view with its single door, transom, and front window under which Carrie kept a bench just for sitting. There was a porch off the left-hand side where she kept a chair and liked to sit too, and another extension of the other side of the cabin that was her bedroom. The corral was to the right and there was a well nearby. That was the first thing he was going to tackle. The well had gone dry the year before and he hadn’t had time to fix it yet. Carrie needed a well. A woman her age shouldn’t be forced to go down to the lake and haul heavy buckets back every day. For one thing, it just wasn’t safe. He figured a week should be long enough to do it. That, and other things like chopping wood and helping her with the smoked meat. Yes, he’d have Carrie all set for the winter before he left and then he could rest easy.
The sun was setting in the west by the time Joe arrived. It cast long thin shadows along the ground that partially hid Carrie Pickett’s humble home. It wasn’t until he pulled up out front and really looked at it, that he realized something was wrong. The porch on the left-hand side of the house was gone. Reining in the horse, Joe stopped the wagon and jumped out. He walked over to the charred part of the structure to examine what remained.
There had been a fire. A bad one that had burned right through the logs to the inside.
Joe walked straight to the door and banged on it. “Carrie! Carrie! It’s Joe Cartwright. If you’re in there, let me in!” He waited. When there was no reply, he banged again. “Carrie! Open up!”
He only answer was an ominous silence that set his nerves on edge.
Joe swung in a tight circle, looking out toward the lake, and then back to the woods that lay on the southwest portion of Carrie’s quarter section. She could be anywhere – anywhere out there. As stubborn as the old woman was, she could have tried to chop down a tree or burn out a stump or any of a million things that might have left her injured. The wilderness was no place for a woman alone. He was sure her Amos would have agreed with him. He was going to have to find some way to convince her to go back to the Ponderosa with him where she’d be safe. At least for the winter.
Stepping to the edge of the property, Joe cupped his hands around his mouth and called, “Carrie! Carrie, it’s Joe! Carrie, answer me!”
It was then he heard it. A clang and a clamor to the west. Frowning, Joe drew his gun and moved in the direction of the noise, heading to the area behind the cabin and into the trees that flanked it. It was almost dark, so it was hard for him to see. Still, there were stars and the moon was up, so it wasn’t impossible. Joe traveled for several minutes and then paused to listen. He heard it again – a banging sound like Hop Sing made on a day when he took his temper out on one of Pa’s fine copper kettles. Drawing a breath and holding it, he started to move again and was about halfway to the next clump of trees when he saw a flash of something shiny off to his right. Weapon raised, he spun – but he wasn’t fast enough. Something hard made contact with his head.
And he was out.
When Joe woke up he was in Carrie’s cabin, sort of laying in her bed. His feet hadn’t quite made it. He had a splitting headache and was nursing a goose egg the size of, well, a goose egg. He could hear someone bustling around in the room beyond the curtain that separated the bedroom from the rest of the house, rattling dishes, and talking to themselves. Righting himself, he waited for the herd of buffalo to stop thundering through his head, and then rose unsteadily to his feet. Gripping the curtain, he pulled it aside and stepped into the common room of the Pickett house.
Carrie had her back to him. She didn’t hear him apparently, because she didn’t turn around but continued to fuss with something on the stove. He noticed some of the supplies he had brought with him had been carried into the house. Carrie must have found the wagon after she…well…either found him or tried to kill him.
“What you got cooking, Carrie?” he asked softly. “I’m mighty hungry.”
The older woman pivoted on her heel to look at him. Her hands went up in the air. “Joe Cartwright! If you bein’ up and around ain’t a sight to set a woman’s heart singin’. I thought you was dead, boy!”
Joe gingerly touched his head where it had been struck. “I might feel better if I was.”
She took his hand and dragged him toward the table. “Now you sit yourself right down and let me take a look at that there bump you got.”
“I’m okay, Carrie,” he protested as she pulled out a chair and practically shoved him into it. “Really. There’s no need to – ouch!”
Carrie lifted her fingers. “Did that hurt?”
Joe winced as his hand went to his head. “No. I just felt like yelling.”
She looked askance at him. “Now you are joshin’ me.”
“It’s okay, Carrie. I’ll survive. I just have a headache.” He hesitated to ask and then did. “You wouldn’t happen to have any whiskey around, would you?”
“Now what would I be doing with that there Devil water in this here house?” she asked, her tone indicating he had just suggested that she had stolen money from the church plate.
“I just thought…maybe Amos….”
“My Amos weren’t a drinkin’ man, Joe Cartwright, and you should know it.”
“Er, I never met Amos, Carrie, remember?”
She was moving to a cupboard on the opposite of the kitchen from her bed. When she got there, she produced a key from her apron pocket and opened one of its sections. “No, my Amos never drank,” she said, still sounding slightly put out. Then she turned around with a bottle of whiskey in her hand. “But he did keep a supply for medicinal purposes.”
She returned to the table with the bottle and a smile on her lips. Joe took it. He whistled. The handwritten label read: Pure Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey aged 10 years. “Where’d Amos get this?”
She looked a bit chagrined. “Would you believe me if I told you it was a wedding present?”
Joe held the bottle up. It was over half-full. His look was skeptical. “When were you and Amos married?”
She shook her head and let out a sigh. “Nigh onto thirty years ago….”
He turned the bottle around and looked at the label again. Not only was the whiskey aged ten years, the bottle was only eleven years old. “Um, Carrie,” he started.
She batted her eyes that way that she did. It made her look like a fresh-faced school girl. “Well, I have to take medicine too.”
He wondered if she had had the bottle the year before when he’d tried to stake a claim for her in order to keep her land out of Jason Milburn’s hands. She’d been sick with infection then; close to losing her hand to an animal bite. The whiskey would’ve helped with the pain she had to bear before Doc Belden treated her and her fever finally broke.
“I’ll go fetch you a cup,” she said.
Joe watched her cross over to the cupboard again and come back with a fine silver mug. He took it and then asked, “Another wedding gift?”
There was something odd in the way she answered. “Well,” she huffed, “it was a gift anyway.”
He poured himself a glass, sniffed it, and then taking a sip let it roll back on his tongue before he swallowed. “Mm, mm!” he said, making a noise of approval. “Nothing in Pa’s stock can rival that! Your Amos had good taste.” He looked at her, sitting there, watching him, and smiled. “But then I knew that. He picked you.”
“Oh, pshaw, Joe,” Carrie said, blushing like that school girl.
Joe took another sip and let the warmth course through him. It helped a bit with the pain in his head, but not much. The knot on it was throbbing and hot to the touch.
“Say, Carrie, where did you find me, and how did you get me back here?”
She was running a finger over the table, following the grain. “I got hold of that there horse of your’n and used him to drag you here.”
No wonder his head ached! Joe thought a moment. He remembered moving into the woods and hearing a strange noise, like someone banging pans. “Where’d you find me?”
She glanced up. “Layin’ flat on your face in the grass.”
“Did you see anyone around, I mean, did you see who cold-cocked me?” When she said nothing, he went on. “Come on, Carrie. There could be someone out there looking to hurt you. If you didn’t see them, then I need to – ”
“It were me! Oh, Joe, it were me.” She looked crestfallen. “I thought you was one of them boys who’s been givin’ me trouble.”
Somehow he was not surprised. “Boys? What boys?”
She sighed and rose to her feet. “I’m gonna get you somethin’ to eat, Joe Cartwright, and then we can talk.”
He wanted to protest because he really wanted to know. But then again, he really wanted to eat too. He hadn’t had anything since noon and could tell by rising light outside that it was near morning. He thanked Carrie as she placed a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread in front of him.
“You eat, Joe. We’ll talk later,” she said as she went about her business.
As he ate, Joe thought back to the first time he had met Carrie Pickett. He’d come to this land, fifty miles south of Crescent Mountain, and found her living here all alone. She’d been a handful and more when he tried to get her to understand that she had to stake a claim and file it at the land office in order to keep hold of the Piney Woods, as she called them. Jason Milburn, a timber baron and thief, had been willing to do just about anything to get his hands on her piece of land as it was crucial to his lumber business. Milburn wanted the trees and a way to get them out, little caring that he would strip the land bare and destroy twenty ranchers’ livelihoods as well as effecting the watershed. Fortunately, with the aid of Doc Belden – who had actually been working for Milburn at the time – they were able to get Carrie to sign a claim and have the man from the Carson City land office file it. Milburn had ridden off that day with his tale between his legs. He’d wondered at times if Carrie had had any more trouble with him. Obviously if she was out in the woods hunting someone down with a frying pan, she’d had some kind of problems besides the fire.
Joe pushed his empty bowl away. “Sit down, Carrie. Now, tell me why you were out in the woods tonight.”
She sighed as she took the seat next to him. “Well, I was sitting here, minding my own business, when I heard a noise outside. I figured me it was those rascals that set fire to the porch afore and so’s I went after them. I’m out of ammunition, Joe, so the shotgun weren’t any use.”
“So you took a pan? To defend yourself?”
She straightened up. One graying eyebrow arched. “Took you down right quick enough, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” he laughed. “It certainly did.”
Joe’s eyes strayed to the far side of the cabin. He hadn’t noticed it before, but the wall was covered with a flannel blanket. Rising, he walked over to it and pulled it aside, revealing the log wall that was charred black and falling away in places.
He glanced at her. “Boys did this?”
“You know young’uns. They was playing with firecrackers. I heard ‘em. I was sittin’ here readin’ and I heard them.”
Joe looked at the wall again. He didn’t say anything, but it was obvious to him that the damage he was looking at had not been caused by a wayward boy with a sparkler. “What would kids be doing out here?”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “There’s people on every side anymore! Closest neighbors nigh on my doorstep.”
She threw her arms wide. “Barely three miles away!”
“Three miles.” Joe thought a moment, hesitant to mention his fears, but then decided to speak. “Carrie, it wasn’t any boy who did this to your cabin.”
“No. The damage is too thorough.” He paused. “Tell me, have you had anything else happen?”
“Well, there were the corral fence.”
“What happened with the fence?”
“I came out one morning and found more than half of it on the ground! Them animals you brung me was practically in the lake by the time I found them.”
“I see. Anything else?”
“Oh,” she said, “just little things. Missin’ tools. A window broke out.” Carrie paused. “Though it seems as of late it’s gotten worse.”
“What do you mean?” he asked as he dropped the blanket and crossed back over to her.
“Well, like the fire. In the beginnin’ it was just little botherin’ things. That fire happened when I was sleepin’. If’n I hadn’t ‘a smelled smoke, I’d ‘a died!”
Joe sat heavily in the chair. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. A man like Milburn wasn’t the kind to give up easily. Glancing around, he asked, “Where’s my gun, Carrie?” He’d noticed he didn’t have it on when he woke.
She stood, went to a cupboard, and returned with it. “It was lyin’ on the ground beside you….”
“When you found me?”
Carrie nodded. “I didn’t figure you needed it whiles you was in bed.”
Joe took the pearl-handled pistol and anchored it in the holder tied down to his thigh. “Need has nothing to do with it,” he said. “I’m just trying to be prepared.”
The older woman looked horrified. “Now you ain’t gonna go and shoot no little boys. Are you, Joe?”
He walked over to her and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Carrie, I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.” He glanced at the burned wall, once again hidden behind the blanket. “I’m going to take a look around outside and then go to work on that well.”
“What’s little brother thinkin’!” Hoss Cartwright complained as he picked up the last bit of firewood he had taken an ax to and threw it on the growing pile. “Winter ain’t two weeks away and he takes hisself off on a lark to look at some dag-blamed trees!” The big man picked up another piece of wood and put it on the stump he was using as a splitting bench. He brought the ax down again, striking it so hard the pieces flew both directions – one of them almost hitting his pa.
“Whoa!” the white-haired man said, dancing back.
Hoss took his hat off and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. In spite of the cold temperatures, he was sweating. “Sorry ‘bout that, Pa.”
The older man crossed over to where he was working. He nodded, indicating the wood. “You weren’t imagining that was your little brother’s head you were splitting, now were you?”
“Gosh darn it, Pa! I love little Joe as much as a body could, but he’s just plain vexin’ most of the time. What’s he doing going up there near Crescent now?”
His father looked to the Northeast. “I think Joe just needed some time away.”
“Away from his dagburn chores!” Hoss bent and retrieved one half of the piece of firewood he had almost wounded his father with. The big man indicated the sky with a nod. It was steel gray and a whole army of clouds were moving in. “Take a look at that, Pa,” he said. “If we don’t have snow tomorrow – and a lot of it – I’ll eat my hat!”
The older man’s expression surprised him. It was a mixture of exasperation and downright worry.
“What’s wrong, Pa?”
His father turned to meet his stare. “ I’m just concerned about Joseph.”
“Oh, heck, Pa,” Hoss began as he anchored the piece of wood on the stump and sized it up with an eye to the ax, “Joe’ll just turn back if it looks like trouble. Those dang trees ain’t that important!” He swung the ax, this time directing the split away from his father and then looked again at the older man. The worried expression hadn’t changed, only deepened.
Hoss put the ax down and crossed to where his father stood. “Pa, what ain’t you tellin’ me?”
The older man pursed his lips. “It looks like I’m going to have to break a promise I made to your brother.”
“What promise is that?” the big man asked as he wiped the last of the sweat from his brow with a pocket handkerchief.
“Your brother went to help Carrie Pickett get ready for winter.”
For a moment he was confused. Why would Joe ask Pa to lie about a thing like that? Then he remembered the last time his little brother was headed up to see Miss Carrie, he’d had about a week’s worth of fun teasing him about being in love with the old gal.
“Joe didn’t want you to tell me ‘cause of me ribbin’ him the last time, did he?”
His father shrugged. “One wouldn’t think they would have to worry about that kind of thing with two grown men, now would they?”
Hoss blew out a breath. “Sorry, Pa. Sometimes I just forget Joe wears his heart at the end of that daggone green coat sleeve. You’d think I’d a know’d better by now.”
Tight-lipped, his father replied. “One would think.”
“So how come you decided to tell me now?”
The older man indicated the sky to the north. “We’ll give it until tomorrow, but I think – if it becomes clear that snow is coming – I’m going to ride after your brother.”
“Let me do it, Pa. You’ll be needed here what with all we got goin’ on gettin’ ready for winter. The wood and the chores I gotta do can wait. Joe and me can catch ‘em up when he gets home.” He didn’t mention, of course, the fact that it was a sight smarter for a younger man like him to get caught out in a snowstorm if one was to come.
Of course, he knew he wasn’t foolin’ his pa about that.
He watched the older man debate with himself. Finally, his pa nodded. “All right. You’ll go.” The white-haired man looked up again at the sky.
“Let’s just hope we’re wrong.”
It was later that night after midnight that Ben Cartwright heard the sound of wheels rolling across the yard out front of the house. He’d kept himself awake worrying about Joe being caught out in a storm and had come down for a shot of brandy and a moment or two of reading his favorite book by the fire, hoping both would help him to sleep. The fire was blazing, of course, since the weather outside was cold and inclement. Whoever had pulled in might have seen the light it cast through the windows and assumed someone was up.
Which, luck would have it, he was.
Catching his heavy coat from the peg on the wall, Ben tossed it over his robe and opened the front door. The wind that struck him was strong and blowing in from the northeast. It was misting, and what moisture was driven against his exposed skin stung as it struck. He glanced again in the direction Joe had gone and then went out to see what the impending storm had blown in.
A citified looking man of middle years wearing a coat more suitable for fall than winter was climbing out of the carriage. He was talking to someone who was still inside. As Ben approached he saw him release a feminine hand, so the other passenger was a woman.
Ben waited until the man had found his footing and then asked, “Can I help you?”
The man turned toward him. His face was pale. “I’m sorry to bother you so late at night, friend, but we just had a scare and Mrs. Landes is overcome. If you don’t mind, I would like to get her out of the cold and in somewhere safe where she can rest for a while.”
“Certainly,” he replied. “Do you need help?”
“No. She can lean on me and make it.” He turned back to the carriage. “Did you hear me, Nonie? You can walk, can’t you?”
Ben heard a muffled assent. The woman’s hand appeared again, reaching out of the carriage. From the look of it, with its tidy white glove and lace-edged sleeve, the lovely young woman who followed came as no surprise. Her skin was as pale as that of the man who waited for her, but by nature. Her hair was the color of Buckwheat honey, golden and deep as amber. She wore it up, though at the moment several loose curls cascaded in front of her face. As the warm woolen shawl someone had tossed over her shoulders fell away , the white-haired man saw that she was attired as a woman of some wealth in a bustle-back dress cut of a fine changeable silk.
Definitely from the city, he mused quietly to himself.
The young woman’s feet touched ground and she wobbled. As he started forward, she looked up and favored him with a small tight smile. “I’m quite all right. Neville fusses too much.”
“I believe that’s called ‘caring’ in some people’s vocabulary,” Neville said quietly.
The woman glanced at him and then disentangled her hand from his. “I can walk by myself. If it is all right, I will go into the house and sit down, Mister….?”
“Cartwright. Ben Cartwright.”
“Mister…Cartwright,” she said with a nod. “I promise you we won’t bother you for long. We’ll only stay long enough to warm ourselves.”
“It’s no trouble, Mrs. Landes. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need. We have a large home with plenty of extra rooms. Please feel free to remain overnight.”
Her look was wary. It was the look of a woman who took nothing at face value, but sought a deeper, more sinister motive underneath. She must have been hurt deeply sometime in her short life. Nonie Landes looked to be twenty-seven or eight at most.
“That is most kind of you, Mister Cartwright. But….”
“Please. Virginia City is at least five hours away by carriage.” He glanced up. “You wouldn’t want to be caught out in a storm.”
“We’re not headed for Virginia City, Mister Cartwright,” the man named Neville said. “We’re –”
“Neville,” the pretty blonde interrupted, her tone curt. “There’s no need to boor Mister Cartwright with our business.”
The man shut his mouth and looked at his feet.
Ben looked from one to the other. He’d thought at first that, in spite of the way she addressed the older man, Neville and Mrs. Landes were related somehow. Now he wasn’t so sure. Their relationship was more that of a servant and his mistress than kin.
“Well?” he asked at last.
The woman hesitated, but then nodded. “Thank you, Mister Cartwright. We would be most grateful to accept your hospitality for one night. Neville, bring my bags and follow me into the house after you stable the horse.”
With a slow and not too heartfelt, “Yes, ma’am,” Neville headed for the back of the carriage.
Ben stared after the man a moment and then turned to Mrs. Nonie Landes. Holding out a hand, he indicated the front door.
“After you,” he said.
As he followed behind the self-assured young woman, Ben Cartwright wondered just what he was letting himself in for.
Joe Cartwright was fifteen feet down at the bottom of Carrie Pickett’s dry well. He’d tied the long rope he’d brought with him off and descended first thing in the morning to see if he could figure just why it had gone dry. It was well-constructed, made of fine stone, with a cast iron ring at the bottom. When he’d asked Carrie about the ring and how they got it all the way out to the Piney Woods, she said her Amos could beat Vulcan pounding iron in a contest and he’d made it himself.
Joe chuckled. He would really have liked to meet that man.
There were usually two reasons for a dry well. The first was a low water table. He didn’t think that was the case. The second was something cutting off the source of the water. That was why he was at the bottom, to see if there was anything blocking the flow on Carrie’s end. There didn’t seem to be. So the problem was most likely with the water’s source unless, of course, whatever fed it had simply gone dry. He could simply sink it deeper, and that might do the trick, but he’d have to have help as one person was needed at the bottom to dig and the other above to add bricks. Joe rose to his feet and looked up. He was sure Carrie would be more than ready to help, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to have her labor so hard. Last night, she’d looked like the same old Carrie. Today in the light she seemed a little grayer and a little more bent than he remembered. Living up here, alone, would take its toll in a shorter life. The labor to keep up even a small homestead was back-breaking and never ending.
It would kill her in the end.
With a snort and a shake of his head, Joe reached for the rope. As he did, Carrie’s weathered and lined face appeared at the top. “Now, what’re you doin’, Joe Cartwright, at the bottom of my Amos’ well?”
“Not looking for a route to China, I can tell you that,” he laughed as he began to climb. “I’m coming up now.”
She must have stepped back because her face disappeared. Once at the top, he caught the rim of the well and hauled himself up into a seated position on the edge of the wooden frame surrounding it.
“You find out anything?”
“Only that Amos Pickett not only had good taste in women and liked to listen to the trees talk to the wind, but he could build one heck of a well.”
Carrie beamed. “That’d be my Amos,” she said, her voice soft as a feather touching the floor.
Joe grinned. “So what couldn’t he do?”
She had to think hard. Finally she said, “Well, he weren’t much good at dancin’.”
“You mean to tell me Amos didn’t take hold of you and turn you around on that floor in your big room?”
“Once or twice,” she admitted. Then, with a wicked smile, added, “After that I asked him not to.”
“That bad?” he chuckled.
She nodded. “That bad and worse.”
Joe hopped down and went to stand beside her. “Well, you know what you and I are gonna do after supper tonight? We’re gonna push all of your furniture against the wall and take a couple of turns around that floor.”
She eyed him skeptically. “You any good at dancin’, boy?”
“Am I good at dancing?” He reached out and caught her in his arms and spun her around two times.
Carrie laughed as her released her. “Where’s the music comin’ from?” she asked, a little winded.
“Well, me, of course. I’ll be singing.”
Again, that look. So challenging and wary it made him want to laugh. “Can you sing? I mean, a man ain’t usually talented in two areas, if you take my meaning.”
He sensed something in her tone. “Was Amos good at singing, Carrie?”
She sighed. “He had the voice of an angel.”
“So you figure I stink at it?”
“Well, I ain’t sayin’ as you stink….”
Joe pursed his lips and shook his head. “I was gonna give you sample, but for that you’re just going to have to wait until tonight.” He looked up and around. He’d noticed the sky changing, darkening with clouds that promised snow. “Looks like we may get snow tonight. I better get started on repairing that burned-out wall. That thin blanket isn’t going to do much to keep you warm this winter.”
She caught his hand and held him back. “How will I ever thank you, Joe?”
He hadn’t broached the subject of her coming back to the Ponderosa to wait out the cold months yet. Somehow, he sensed now was not the time. Maybe tonight after they’d eaten and enjoyed each other’s company for a while.
“Knowing you is thanks enough, Carrie. I’m just glad I can help.”
“When you get back, you tell that Pa of yours that I’m thankful he loaned you to me for a while.”
“I’ll be sure to do that. Now you get inside. It’s cold out here and you’re not dressed for it.”
Her hands went to her hip. “And just what do you think I do, boy, when you’re not here? Run around all December nekkid? If I’ve a mind to put a coat on, I will.”
He’d never really thought of it, but at that moment he wondered if she and Amos had ever had children. Carrie was so different from the mother he remembered and yet, he thought, she would have made a fine ma.
Maybe he’d ask her about that tonight too
Their guests were up early in the morning. Ben filled Hoss in on what had happened as he came down the stairs so his son would be prepared for the two extra settings at the breakfast table. Apparently, while traveling along the part of the road from Virginia City that ran along a steep cliff face, the horses pulling Mrs. Landes’ carriage had ventured too close to the edge, nearly taking the vehicle over. While they hadn’t been hurt, the near fatal incident had so distressed the blonde woman that her man thought she needed to stop and rest and gather strength before the next part of their journey. Ironically, they were headed in the direction Joe had gone, bound for a plot of land near Elko where the woman had relatives.
Mrs. Landes was a widow. She’d married at nineteen years of age and buried her husband seven years later at the tender age of twenty-six. Though her childhood had been spent in the West, not too far from the Ponderosa from what little she said, she had spent the largest part of her life in New York living with an uncle and aunt. That was where she had met and married Robert Landes, a financier, whose short life had been cut off by an inoperable cancer of the brain.
He had been right in that she and Neville Greaves were not related. Neville, it seemed, had worked for the same concern as her husband and after Robert’s death had hired on as her assistant, not only taking care of her late husband’s business affairs but Robert’s wife as well. Ben’s eyes flicked to the middle-aged man. He was nice looking enough, with black hair tending toward gray, a mustache, and a trim figure. Neville was seated to Nonie’s left side and his eyes never left her. While their arrangement seemed to be all business for the young woman, he sensed that Greaves might have other hopes.
The lovely young woman placed her napkin on the table beside her plate and said. “Thank you, Benjamin, for your most gracious invitation to bide overnight and share such a marvelous repast. My compliments to your chef.”
“Hop Sing will be in soon to clear the table. Perhaps you can tell him yourself.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you as well for your offer of provisions for our further journey.”
“I still think you should wait the storm out here.”
Overnight winter had arrived. There was two inches of snow on the ground and more was falling. He had tried to talk to bullheaded young woman into waiting until it stopped to go on, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She had a relative waiting for her at the end of her journey and she was not about to disappoint them by being late. Gently, he’d suggested ‘late’ was better than not getting there at all. Nonie thanked him for his concern and then, in so many words, told him to mind his own business.
“And I am most thankful for your concern, but we’ll be fine. Though Neville may look like he’s never set foot beyond New York’s seventy-seventh and fifth streets, he has wilderness experience and will be able to get us through.”
Ben frowned. The fact that the man had had a lightweight coat on the night before seemed to belie that. Still….
“Well, it’s up to you. All I can do is give you the benefit of my experience – and that pair of horses I mentioned.” He’d offered to trade them two of his rugged, high-terrain trained mounts for the pair of show horses and their carriage. He’d take a loss, but he’d feel better for letting them head out into the storm.
Hoss, who had been quietly finishing his second plate of flap jacks nodded. ‘I got ‘em all saddled up and ready, Pa.”
Ben could see the wheels working in Nonie’s head. She’d argued that the team she had belonged to her uncle and weren’t hers to trade. When he told her he would hold them until her return and then they could make a reverse deal, that had nudged the New Yorker toward accepting.
“Very well,” she said as she pushed her chair back from the table and rose. “I agree. It seems traveling without a carriage would be the wisest thing considering the circumstances.”
Ben smiled. “Yes, it would.” He turned to Hoss as he rose as well. “Son, if you will bring the animals into the yard?”
Hoss tossed his napkin on the table. “Sure thing, Pa. It’ll take fifteen minutes or so to finish up.”
“Just enough time to gather my things,” the young woman said. And with that, she headed up the stairs.
Neville finished his coffee and then rose to follow her.
“That’s quite a young woman you have there,” Ben remarked, partly to see what the other man’s reaction would be.
Neville stiffened. “Nonie can be strong-minded at times, but I find working in her employ rewarding. It is a privilege to help her in her current endeavor. Now, Mister Cartwright, you must excuse me. I have to prepare for the day’s upcoming journey.”
Ben watched the man walk up the stairs and turn toward the end of the house where the room they had given him was. ‘Endeavor.’ That was a word pregnant with possibilities not necessarily good. Again, he wondered what this odd pair were up to.
He guessed he’d never know.
While Carrie made no comment on his singing, she did remark that she’d never met a man lighter on his feet. She’d surprised him by producing a spring winding music box from the cupboard that played several songs. It had been, of course, a gift from Amos. They’d danced and laughed, and laughed some more until their sides and feet hurt equally and the sun was lying low in a bank of clouds. Outside the land was blanketed in snow. It had started in the morning as he worked replacing the burnt-out logs and continued throughout the day, laying down at least four inches. With the wind howling, there were drifts up against the house that were nigh-onto a foot high. As he finished off one last cup of coffee, he’d seen Carrie yawn. Ten minutes later she was asleep sitting up. Joe gently lifted her from the chair – noting how she felt light and fragile as a bird in the hand – and placed her in her bed. The pink shawl Amos had bought her hung above the bed, maybe as a reminder that once she had not occupied it alone. Before he left, he covered her with the quilt that lay at the bottom of the bed and extinguished all but one of the oil lamps in the house.
Joe pulled on one of Amos’ old coats, which was deer hide brown, and stepped outside and looked to the horizon. It was late and the light would be gone soon, but he could work by the moon and a lantern. Since his day had been taken up with repairing the cabin, he’d left other simple chores like fetching water, laying up firewood, and tending to the animals until now. The dancing had invigorated him and he was wide awake, so he figured he had a good two or three hours in him yet. While still on the stoop, he pulled his collar up close and fastened it, and then pulled on the black gloves that were tucked behind his belt. He figured it was in the thirties, which wasn’t bad. Once he got to work, he’d probably be too hot.
As he stepped off of the porch Joe caught hold of the handles of two buckets. With one to each side, he headed for the lake. He’d found an old cistern out back of the house and meant to repair it. If he couldn’t get the well fixed this time, at least Carrie could lay up a good amount of water and not have to make so many trips. As he walked, he looked up. The night was amazing, with stars shining like diamonds in a sky black as ebony cloth. Snow was still falling. The large flakes rode the wind down to the earth like tiny dancers, spiraling and whirling with as much gusto as he and Carrie had danced a short time before. It took only a minute or two to reach the lake. When he did, he knelt beside it and broke a thin layer of ice so he could lower the first bucket into it. After the second was full, he rose and turned to head back to the house.
As he did, Joe heard a sound, something like a man moving through underbrush. It came from the trees to the side of the lake. He squinted his eyes, seeking the source, and took a step forward.
God was with him. That step saved his life.
Joe felt a hot pain in his forehead.
The force of the bullet striking bone turned him around and dropped him where he stood, half-in and half-out of the water.
Nonie Landes was not a happy woman. They’d made it a little more than halfway to Crescent Mountain when the growing strength of the storm forced them to stop. Neville had scouted ahead and found a place for them to weather it out. He said, most likely, it was one of the Cartwright’s line shacks. There had been provisions in it, so they settled in, cooked a meal, and then fell into the stony silence that existed between them now. She knew Neville was in love with her and had used it to her advantage. She had no romantic feelings for him. Though she’d been with Robert only a brief time, she knew there would never be another man for her. Neville was sweet and looked after her well. That was enough for some women, but not for her. Love had to be soul deep. That was one thing she had learned from her mother.
Love was about the one.
Before they left the Ponderosa, she had changed clothes and was attired in a riding outfit replete with trousers and boots. At first it had horrified her to think of wearing men’s pants, but she’d found out soon enough that riding side-saddle through deserts and gorse was not an easy thing to do. So, when they’d reached Stockton and started their journey inland, she gone to one of the finest dressmakers in the bustling city and bought herself some proper western garb.
Of the finest material and workmanship, of course.
With a glance at Neville where he sat brooding by the fire, she headed for the window beside the front door and looked out. There had been a few inches of snow, which seemed to be little to reckon with, but then she had never seen the kind of winds there were here, which seemed to make it magically grow to twice that in depth. Neville had suggested they turn back, but she wouldn’t hear of it. What she had to do had to be done now, before winter set in. Otherwise it would be next year and who knew, everything could be different by then.
Either way, everything would be different.
“There’s some coffee left, Nonie, if you’re feeling the cold,” Neville said as he rose to his feet.
“No, thank you. It keeps me awake. I’ve had enough now to stay up until January.”
“Do you want me to bank the fire then, or do you intend to read?”
“Leave it. I have a letter to complete. Along with the lamp, that should be enough to see by.”
“Suit yourself.” Neville headed for the small room off to the side where they had agreed he would sleep. He’d left her with the cot nearest the fire. “I’ll say goodnight then.”
She nodded and waited until he had disappeared to sit down at the table. Her carpet bag was beside the chair. She reached into it and pulled out her journal, and then opened the journal and began to page through looking for the letter she had tucked there. As the pages flew past a small rectangular piece of metal fell onto the table with a tiny clang. Nonie started. She’d forgotten it was there. Her jaw tight, she took it and flipped it over and stared at the severe blonde woman and the dark-haired man whose likenesses it carried. They were both a little older than she was and the man, a good five years older than the woman. They were dressed in plain cloth and sat side by side, holding hands. The man looked serious, though there was a definite twinkle in his tinted blue eyes and a little crinkle at the edge of his full lips. The woman was supposed to be looking forward. She wasn’t. She was staring at the man with one of the most open loving looks the girl from the city had ever seen.
Nonie drew a breath and closed her eyes, remembering.
Then she picked the quarter plate tintype up, stuck it back in the journal, and continued searching for the letter she had been composing. When she found it, she placed the journal on the table and the letter beside it, and then fished in her bag for ink and pen. Finding both, she prepared the first and then dipped her pen in second and began to write.
“Dear Mister Milburn….”
Carrie Pickett sat on the edge of her bed, thinking. She’d awakened and found she was alone in the cabin. Joe’d told her he was going to work late and she supposed that was what he was doing. Still, the clock had just chimed the hour of one and she was sure he hadn’t meant to be so long. Glancing over her shoulder out the window she saw that the snow was still falling. The wind that carried it was howling like a banshee heralding death. She’d seen these kind of storms come up before where the air grew so thick with the white flakes you couldn’t see nothing. Why, a man could freeze to death ten yards from his front door if he got turned around. Worried, she put her feet on the floor and headed for the table by the door that held her walking-to-the-barn lantern. As she did the wind rattled the transom over the door, working the latch free, and snow blew in, looking for all the world like a great white puff of smoke.
“I told Amos we needed a new latch on that thing afore he died,” she muttered to herself. “He was just like that Joe Cartwright, always somethin’ else to do – dig a well, build a barn, put up a fence. What good’s all of that if you freeze to death!?”
With a sigh, the older woman went to the table to get a chair, which she pushed up alongside the door. “I’ll just have to get up there and fix it –”
A violent banging on the door made her jump.
“Hello! Hello in the house! I need help! There’s been an accident!”
Carrie’s eyes went to her double-barreled shotgun perched on two pegs by the door. Hurrying over to it, she palmed the weapon and pointed it at the door. “You just go away. You ain’t gonna get any help here!”
“Madame, please! It’s a matter of life and death.”
“Whose? You seem right well enough!”
His voice trembled as he explained. “I was out hunting by the moonlight. The snow, it was falling so hard. I took a shot at what I thought was a deer.” There was a pause. “It wasn’t. It was a man.”
The older woman frowned. “What do you mean ‘a man’? You mean you shot a man?”
“Yes. I found him down by the lake. The bullet grazed his head. The wound’s jagged and deep. It’s still bleeding.”
Carrie wasn’t falling for it. She’d been a woman alone in the woods too long. She cocked the gun so’s he could hear it and was about to tell him where to go when she remembered –
She remembered Joe Cartwright was missing.
Her heart pounding, she started asking questions. “Where’d you say you found this man?”
“Down by the lake. It looked like he was gathering water.”
Her stomach tightened at that. “What’s he look like?”
“Ma’am, it’s pitch-black out here. I can’t see color, but he’s wearing a heavy coat and black gloves. He’s young.” The voice paused, as if the man was looking further. “He’s got a lot of hair. Its curly and dark.”
Carrie clutched the gun against her chest. Joe!
Still holding the gun, she lifted the latch and opened the door a crack. The man was standing on the stoop. He was a large man and had the silent form of Joe Cartwright slung over his shoulder. As she stepped back he came in along with a good portion of the storm. The wind rattled the pictures on the walls and blew in a carpet of white.
“You put your rifle right there first,” she ordered. As he complied, she nodded toward the alcove that held her bed. “Put him over there,” she said as she used her back to push the door to and then dropped the latch into place. “And then you come back out here where’s I can see you.”
“He’s going to need attention,” the man said as he laid his burden down.
“I’ll be seein’ to that in a minute. Now you come on out here into the light.”
The man was bundled up. He looked just like Amos had when he’d go out into a blizzard to hunt. He had a thick wool scarf tied around his hat so’s it wouldn’t blow off, and was wearing a thick corduroy coat and strong, mule-eared boots. On his back there was a pair of snowshoes. As he advanced toward her, he lifted his hands in surrender.
“I promise, I mean you no harm.”
“That’s as it may be, but it ain’t no nevermind. Now you just go on back outside.”
His voice was startled. “Ma’am, a body can’t see a foot in front of its nose out there. Besides, I’d rather know the young man is all right before I leave.”
“How’s do I know I can trust you? You could be anyone. You coulda shot Joe on purpose just so’s you could get in here and take all I got!”
For the first time, he frightened her. “I could do that anyway. I seriously doubt you could stop me if I wanted to rob you.”
“I got me the gun,” she shot back.
He snorted. “You have to sleep some time.”
Carrie was torn. She knew Joe needed minding. On top of being shot, she had no idea how long he had laid out by the lake in the cold. Still, she wasn’t quite comfortable with the man standing before her.
“Take off that there hat, so’s I can see your face. Now, no sudden movements, mind you.”
The man reached up and began to unravel the scarf. When he was finished he removed his gloves and then took off his coat. He was simply dressed in a worn flannel shirt and a pair of jeans. His hair was dark brown, like Joe’s, but that was the end of the likeness. She’s met Joe’s brother Hoss. This man was half-again his size.
“Who are ya?” she asked.
“Ballard Peak, ma’am. And you might be?”
“Never you mind that. You just sit yourself down at that table and stay there while I check on Joe.”
The large man did as he was told. “I’ll help if you’ll let me.”
Carrie frowned. “We’ll see about that later. Just don’t you go makin’ any fast moves,” she said as she moved to the bed. Aiming the gun in the man’s general direction, she sat down by Joe and looked at him. The left side of his face, like the collar of Amos’ coat, was covered in blood, some fresh but more dry. She reached out and parted the brown curly locks cascading onto his forehead and found a nasty gash with jagged grooves. So far he hadn’t moved or made a sound.
“You’re going to need both hands if you want to help him. And maybe a third,” Ballard said.
“Just you shush!” she snapped and then turned back to the man on the bed. “Joe? Joe, can you hear me?”
Joe’s long dark eyelashes fluttered against skin gone gray as paste. He moaned and tried to shift his body. One eye opened and then the other and he winced.
“What’d you do? Hit me with another pan?”
“Joe! You’re alive!”
He reached up toward his forehead. “From the pain I’m feeling, I think you’re right.”
“That’s a bad gash,” the man in the chair said. “Dirt’s been driven into it. You need to clean that soon as you can.”
Carrie watched Joe react to the male voice first with surprise and then a wary sort of fear. “Carrie? Who?” He tried to rise but groaned the minute his head was off the pillow and fell back. Panting, he asked, “Who’s here?”
“That’s the man what shot you. Thought you was a deer.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I was following a deer. I saw movement by the lake and took a shot. What with the snow coming down….”
Joe seemed to steel himself. “Carrie, help me up.”
“No, Joe. You need to rest!”
“No, I don’t, I need to get up. Now help me.”
His voice was as firm as Amos’ had been. She didn’t argue any further but slipped her free arm about his waist and helped him to sit up.
What little color was left drained out of his handsome face.
“You’re going to kill yourself, friend,” Ballard said. “I told the woman you have nothing to fear from me, and I meant it.”
“Who are you?” Joe demanded of the stranger.
“His name’s Ballard Peak.” Carrie paused. “Funny kind of name, if you ask me.”
“Seems the folks back in Derbyshire lived near a mountain,” the man said with a wry twist to the words. “Now where Ballard came from, I can’t tell you, other than my mother liked it.”
Joe wiggled his fingers. “Carrie, give me the gun. That way you can get me a dressing to keep the blood from running into my eye.” He blinked as he said it, trying to clear some of it away. As she did what he said, he added, “You said you were hunting. Where’d you come from?”
“My place is about four miles from here as the crow flies. I set off the day before yesterday to lay in some meat for the winter.”
“You have a family?”
“Sure do. Wife, two girls, and a baby boy.”
Carrie had found some bandages and returned to sit by him. As Joe questioned the stranger, she inspected his wound. The man had been right. Dirt and debris had been driven into it, most likely from when Joe fell.
“Joe, we gotta get that there wound cleaned. If you ain’t careful, it’ll be me riding out to fetch Doc Belden this time.”
He nodded, his face stoic. “Get some soap and water. And that bottle of whiskey Amos had.”
As she went to the cupboard, she heard Joe’s feet hit the floor. Haltingly, he walked over to the other man. With a shake of his head, he said, “I don’t know how I can trust you.”
Ballard shrugged. “I don’t know how you can’t. If I wanted to, I could have overpowered the lady there before you woke up. And I could certainly take you now.”
Carrie stopped with the wash basin in her hands.
He was right.
“Joe,” she said, drawing his attention, “the good Lord’s watched over me all these years. I think we’re just gonna hafta trust Him to do that now.”
Joe’s finger was on the trigger. She saw it relax. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess you’re right. I can’t….” He swayed and then headed for the floor.
Ballard caught him before he hit it. The large man picked Joe up like he was a child and returned him to the bed. Once there, he took a seat beside him and then turned and looked at her and held out a hand. “I’ll clean the wound and bandage it, Ma’am, if you’ll warm up some of whatever you have in that cook pot on the stove. I haven’t eaten since noon.”
She studied him. He seemed a good enough man and now that she could see him better, had a right kind face. “The name’s Carrie. Carrie Pickett.”
“Thanks, Carrie Pickett, for your hospitality. Now, let’s see what I can do for your friend.”
“There you are, Pa.”
Hoss Cartwright had been searching for his father. He’d finally found him out in the stable, brushing Buck. He knew the older man was right worried about Little Joe. It had been their plan for him to ride after his baby brother, but the storm had moved in so quickly it hadn’t been possible. From the look of it, it would be another day before he could ride out and then another one at least before he could make contact with Joe.
His father had been bending, working on the area around the Buckskin’s knees. He looked up. “I’m sorry, son. I just felt the need to move.”
“Now, Pa, you know Joe can take care of hisself.”
The older man stood. “It’s not that. I know Joseph is more than capable. It’s just, well, I don’t trust Jason Milburn. I can’t believe he’s given up on Carrie Pickett’s land, or that he has forgotten it was Joe who kept him from getting it.”
“Did Joe say he saw anythin’ funny last spring when he went up?”
“Then – if you don’t mind my sayin’ so, Pa – maybe you’re just borrowin’ trouble.”
He laughed. “Well, I certainly don’t need to do that! I have enough trouble of my own.” His pa shook his white head. “It’s just, well, you know Joe. That boy can find trouble faster than a bee stung stallion. And if he doesn’t find it, it finds him!”
Hoss nodded, thoughtful. He’d tried once on two hands to count all the times his little brother had been beat up or shot, but found he needed all of his toes and Joe’s and his pa’s too. Of course, Joe always came out on top – eventually.
The big man walked to the stable door and looked out. The snow was still coming down and the wind was whipping it up like a woman did cream in a bowl. He could just make out the ranch house and only then because of the light spilling out of the windows.
Up at Crescent it would be even worse.
“I wonder how that Mrs. Landes is doing?” he asked.
“We can only hope they either made their destination in record time or found a place to hole up. She was a most determined young woman.”
“What ‘ya reckon so’s all fired important up that way that it was worth risking her life to do?”
“It’s hard to say, son. Anyhow, it’s not our place to judge or even guess.” The older man walked to a nearby table and laid the brushes down. He shivered then and pulled his coat close about his throat. “It’s getting colder. How about you and I go in and make a pot of coffee and warm up some of that dried apple pie Hop Sing made for supper?”
“You don’t gotta twist my arm, Pa. I’ll put Buck back in his stall and then follow you in.”
As the older man headed for the house, Hoss did just that, putting his father’s horse in the stall and making sure Buck had plenty of straw to bed down in and hay to eat. Then he blew out the lamp on the table and took hold of the lantern beside it and headed for the door. Once there he paused and looked up north, thinking about his baby brother.
“You watch over that little cuss, God, you hear? Bring him home safe.”
With that, Hoss headed into the blinding snow and made his way to the house.
Joe opened his eyes and then closed them. After waiting a moment, he tried again. This time the stars were gone even though the stampeding horses were still there. He lay still, trying to remember what had happened. He and Carrie had been dancing. Then he’d gone out to do some chores. The last thing he remembered was carrying two buckets toward the lake. Then….
His hand flew to his forehead. It was bandaged and in one place, wet with fresh blood.
That’s right. He’d been shot. Someone had shot him. He remembered waking before and thought he had met the man, but it was all a jumble and he wasn’t sure what was real and what might have been a dream. Cautiously Joe rose into a seated position and then stood swaying like a sapling in the wind before finding his feet and moving into the common room of Carrie’s cabin. She was seated in her rocking chair before the fire, sound asleep.
There was no one else in sight.
Moving as silently as he could he went over to check on her. When it was clear she was sleeping peacefully, he turned and headed for the door. He could hear the wind howling and knew the storm had worsened. No one had seen to the few animals Carrie had and he wanted to make certain they were fed and had plenty of straw. Before he headed out, he put Amos’ coat back on and tied one of Miss Carrie’s scarves around his hat and chin. Then he opened the door a crack. After a second he opened it wide enough to step out and then quickly pulled it to behind him. To his surprise, there was a light in the small barn he had built the spring before that housed Carrie’s cow and sheep.
His hand went to his hip and it was then he realized he didn’t have his gun. Carrie must have taken it off of him when she tended his wound. He thought about going back in the house, but then decided against it as he didn’t want to wake her. There were pitchforks and other tools in the barn and he knew how to use them to do more than plant. As Joe approached the barn, he heard an unexpected sound.
Someone was singing.
He caught hold of the door and pulled it back and stepped in.
A large brown-haired man was seated on the floor. He had a lamb in his arms. As he closed the door, the man looked up. “Mister Cartwright, if you don’t mind my saying so, you look like something the cat dragged in.”
Joe frowned. “Ballard, isn’t it?”
The man nodded. “I’m surprised you remembered.”
“Well, it is a little cloudy.”
Ballard winced. “Sorry about your head.”
Joe snorted as he headed for a nearby bundle of hay. “That’s okay. It matches the lump on the other side Miss Carrie gave me,” he said as he sat down.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed.”
“Neither should you, but here we are.”
The other man shrugged. “I saw the animals when I brought you in and knew they needed tending. Once Mrs. Pickett fell asleep, I slipped out. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Nah. I woke up on my own. It’s kind of hard to sleep when you have a herd pounding through your head.”
“Is it bad?”
Joe shook his head. “I’ve had worse.”
“Well, I know you have no reason to believe me, Mister Cartwright, but I’ve never shot a man before – and hope never to again!”
Ballard looked to be about forty. That would put him in his early thirties when the war broke out. “You didn’t see any fighting?”
The brown-haired man was looking down, stroking the lamb’s head. “No. I stayed on the family farm, but both of my younger brothers went off to fight.” He paused. “Both of them died.”
He felt like a louse. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”
Ballard looked at him, a tired smile on his face. “If I don’t talk about them then they never lived.”
“I haven’t lost a brother in that way, but my older one – Adam – he went off to sea about four years ago. I know the ache that’s left.”
The other man nodded and then rose to his feet with the lamb in his arms. “This little one was frightened by the howling wind. I’ve got her calmed down now. I’ll just put her with her mother and then we’d better get you back inside.”
Joe shook his head. “I’m fine.”
Ballard finished and then turned back to look at him. “You may be, but that wound isn’t. It’s bleeding again.”
Joe reached up to touch it and pulled away bloody fingers.
Neville Greaves reined in his horse and looked back the way he had come. When the morning dawned the storm had taken a breather and so Nonie had insisted they start out again. The woman was bound and determined to get them both killed. The snow was knee-high to the horse and it was impossible to tell where the road began and ended. Fortunately, he had some experience in this part of the country – at least enough to keep them from plunging over the edge of the ridge they were climbing. As far as he could tell they were about two-thirds of the way to their destination. On a normal day the remainder of the journey would have been only a few hours. As it was, he doubted they would make it before sundown and that was only if the storm abated and didn’t return.
When he’d taken this job he’d promised Nonie Landes to see her to her people’s land and to bring her, along with whoever she found there, back to civilization. He was doing it for Robert, who had been his business partner and who, when he knew he was going to die, had made him pledge to look out for his young wife. He’d agreed heartily as he’d always had a soft spot for the beautiful blonde even if he believed Robert should have taken her over his knee a few hundred times. She was a spitfire, that one. It was all dressed up in fine silks and fancy manners, but Nonie Landes had a backbone of steel when it came to getting her own way. She’d wrapped Robert around her little finger. He’d given her everything – a fancy house, carriages, trips to Europe. Everything except the one thing she wanted most.
So here they were, slogging up a high rise, taking on a mountain and a storm, just so she could find someone to call her own.
Neville snorted. He, of course, was chopped meat.
It had been several minutes and Nonie still hadn’t caught up. He was just beginning to worry when her horse appeared, rising like a ghost out of the light fall of snow.
“Where have you been?” he asked as she drew alongside him.
“My horse got in too deep. I had to work with him to get free. Mister Cartwright was correct. They are good animals.” She indicated the path before them with a nod. “How far do you think we have to go?”
“Should be about six hours, but with the snow I’d make it ten. I figure we’ll get there about the time the sun goes down barring anything unforeseen.”
Nonie shivered. “I’m ready to be inside. I suppose it was stupid to attempt this before winter.”
“You had your reasons. You couldn’t know the sky would spit out a foot of snow. It’s early this year.”
“I know.” She hesitated and then added, “Thank you for being such a good friend, Neville.”
If his hat hadn’t been tied to his chin, he would have tipped it. “You’re welcome.”
“I know you promised Robert you would take care of me. He told me before he…died.”
“Until you meet some handsome young man and don’t need me anymore.”
She stiffened in the saddle. “I have no intention of looking. There’s no one could measure up to Robert. No one.”
Neville held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Well, then, I guess you’ll just have to put up with me until we’re both old and gray.”
Nonie fixed him with her deep brown eyes and nodded. Then, with a click of her tongue she started her horse moving and took the lead.
Joe winced, both from the tending Carrie was giving his wound and from the tongue lashing he was getting while she did it.
“Joe Cartwright, if you aren’t the most bullheaded man I ever seen! What was you thinkin’ gettin’ out of bed and goin’ outside? You think I cain’t take care of my own animals? Why I been doin’ it for four years now since I lost my Amos!”
“Carrie. Ouch! Carrie!” He put a hand up to stop her. She was pulling the bandage away where the blood had plastered it to his hair.
She smacked his shoulder. “You want me to go get my wool scissors? We’ll see what those pretty girls think when you come home sheared!”
“No, I don’t want scissors, but can’t you…” He batted her hand away. “Let me do it!”
“And here I thought you was a man’s man,” she said, hands on hips and a wry smile twisting her thin lips. “Can’t take a little pain.”
“It ain’t a little!” Thrusting out his hand and indicating the table beside the bed, he said, “Give me that mirror. I’ll get it out myself.”
As Carrie handed it to him the door opened. It was late in the day and Ballard had gone out to fetch more firewood. After applying a fresh dressing to his wound upon his return to the cabin, Joe’d slept for about five hours and then he and the other man had labored as long as there was light to patch the burned out section of the cabin wall. For the first part of the day the snow had relented. Now, near sundown, the wind was rising again and a new batch of white flakes had begun to fall. By the look of the sky this round could be even worse than the first.
“Now, give me that wet cloth,” he said.
As she did, she huffed. “If’n you’d stayed put you wouldn’t have broken that open again. You mind me, Joe Cartwright, you’re gonna make yourself sick!”
He lowered the mirror to the bed and began to pull the wet cloth through his hair to loosen it from the bandage. Every tug hurt, but he wasn’t going to let her know that. “Carrie, I didn’t come here to sit and trade stories with you. Winter’s coming and you ain’t ready!”
“I been ready every other year,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest and raising her chin.
“Well, you ain’t this year. Your barn needs mending. Snow’s blowing in through the chinks in the logs. You haven’t got enough firewood, and the only reason you have enough food is because I brought it!”
“I don’t need your food. You can just go, Joe Cartwright, and take your food with you.”
Tossing the bloody rag on top of the mirror, he rose to his feet and looked down at her, careful to hide the fact that he wanted to topple back into the bed. “I would do that if there wasn’t a storm the size of the state of Texas brewing out there. As it is, I’m stuck here with you and your constant badgering!”
The sound of laughter made them both turn. Ballard Peak was seated at the table, his fingers wrapped around a steaming mug. When he saw them looking, he sobered and then asked, “Has anyone ever told you two that you sound like an old married couple?”
Carrie snickered first. Then he did. Then they both started laughing.
A second later Joe put a hand to his head. “Ooh.”
“Joe, I’m sorry,” the older woman said. “You just sit yourself down and I’ll be real gentle and get that there bandage off.”
“Carrie, I can do it – ” Joe stopped. He looked at her and smiled. “All right.”
When she pulled the bandage free a short time later, he heard her suck in air. “It’s lookin’ right angry, Joe. How are you feelin’?”
“A little tired, but then I should be after all the work Ballard and I did.” He looked at the other man. “We were sure lucky you came along. I don’t know if I could have gotten everything done for Miss Carrie before I have to go back to the Ponderosa without you.”
“Lucky?” the other man snorted. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you.”
Carrie caught his attention. “I gotta swab it with some whiskey, Joe. You ready?”
He winced and nodded and then held his breath as the touch of the liquor ignited every nerve in his body. A second later relief came in the form of a folded up cloth dipped in cold water. The older woman held it in place for a minute and then removed it and began to wind a new bandage around his head. When she was done, he rose to his feet and headed for the door.
“Now just where in Tarnation do you think you’re goin’, Joe Cartwright?”
He had pulled his coat on and had his hand on the latch. “Out to check the stock.”
“Let me do that,” Ballard said rising.
“No. No.” Joe raised a hand and his eyebrows as well. “I need to give Carrie something else to badger me about.”
“I’ll come with you then,” the other man said as he rose and reached for his own coat that had been tossed over the back of a chair.
“All right. It shouldn’t take too long with the two of us,” Joe said as he opened the door. When he looked out, he was surprised to find a man standing on the stoop. He was covered in snow from head to toe.
Reaching out, the man caught his arm. “You have to help me. Nonie’s out there.”
Ballard came up beside him. “Nonie?”
The man nodded. “Her horse threw her, back about a half mile. Her leg’s hurt. She couldn’t walk.” He was breathing hard and obviously distressed. “We’ve got to go get her!”
Joe turned and looked at the older woman. “Carrie, get the fire stoked and warm some blankets. Looks like you won’t get to sleep in your bed tonight after all.”
Within minutes the three of them – Ballard, him, and Neville – were headed back to the place where the stranger had left the woman named Nonie. They said very little as they worked their way through the blinding snow, each one concentrating on keeping himself alive. At one point Neville nearly tumbled off an unseen edge. Ballard seemed very accustomed to the weather and navigated it as well as he did – or as well as he would have if his head hadn’t been howling in tune with the wind. As he trudged through the near knee-high banks of white, Joe kept up a steady conversation with himself.
There isn’t any infection. There can’t be any infection. You’re not gonna be sick. –
Maybe if he said it often enough it would be true.
The situation had grown even more tenuous with the arrival of Neville and his Nonie. Already there was an unknown digit. Ballard Peak seemed nice enough and appeared to offer no threat, but then Joe’d lived long enough to know that ‘seeming’ and ‘appearing’ were not necessarily truth. He was taking Peak at face value now, but always with an eye to the fact that, at any minute, Ballard might turn.
And then there were these two newcomers. Neville was obviously a city feller. He wasn’t dressed right for the weather. His polished boots were for street walking and not slogging through snow. His coat was right for a cool October night, but was probably doing very little to keep the stiff winter wind out. Most likely he’d be dealing with frostbite if this took too long. He was afraid, if Nonie was as poorly prepared as Neville for the weather, that they might find a frozen corpse instead of a live woman at the end of the line. He had to wonder what in God’s green earth the pair were doing, traveling up this way at the beginning of December. It was sheer foolishness to chance the weather this time of year. Joe looked about and snorted.
So, that made him a fool too, he guessed.
“There!” Neville had lowered his scarf and was calling out from just in front of him. “There! That’s where I left her!”
Joe looked. “Where?”
“There’s a depression in the rock wall, almost a cave. I built a small fire at the back out of the wind and left her there bundled as well as I could.”
Ballard exchanged a glance with him as Neville moved forward. No light was coming from within the crevice, so the fire had gone out.
It all depended on how long ago.
When they got there, they found Neville kneeling on the ground. He had pulled the woman forward and was holding her tightly, partly to lend her body warmth and partly, it seemed, out of fear. The face the older man turned toward them was decorated with partially frozen tears. “I can’t tell!” he shouted over the wind. “I can’t tell if she’s breathing or not!”
Joe squatted down beside them. He pulled a knife out of his pocket and reached for the woman’s blouse.
“What are you doing?”
With the knife Joe sliced through the thin fabric. He pocketed the knife, pulled one glove off and then, in a very ungentlemanly fashion pressed his palm to the woman’s bare chest. After a second he nodded.
“Heart’s beating, but slow.”
“Thank God!” Neville breathed.
Joe continued to examine the woman. It was hard to tell in the moonlight, but her skin seemed to show the typical signs: it was blue-white and was beginning to go rubbery so it felt stiff to the touch. He looked at Ballard. “I think it’s frost nip, but it’s going to be more soon. We need to get her back to the cabin.” He paused, hesitant to project that he was feeling any weakness.
“Let me carry her,” Ballard offered, saving him from doing so. “I’m bigger than you and you’re still dealing with the effects of that head wound.”
Joe nodded and backed out of the way. As he did, he caught Neville’s arm and drew him upward. “Come on, Neville, let Ballard in. If you want to help your friend, you need to get out of the way.”
He watched Ballard wrap the woman in the blankets that lay around her and then rise easy as if he was carrying a child, and turn around. With a nod, the large brown-haired man began to move back toward Carrie’s cabin – back toward light and warmth.
Joe followed with Neville. The older man was moving slowly, as if he had spent the last bit of his strength long before he got to them and had been living on sheer will power ever since. About halfway back, he stumbled and almost fell. Joe caught him and lifted him up and, placing an arm around his waist, half-carried the man back to Carrie’s cabin.
Hoss shook his head. He was seated at the supper table and had just watched his pa walk to the front door and open it and look out for the umpteenth time. Every time he did, a shower of snowflakes came in with the wind. With the coming in of the wind the fire in the hearth flickered and spit and nearly went out, and then Hop Sing would shout that the house was going to be ‘velly velly cold’ if someone didn’t stop opening the door.
It would have been funny if all of them hadn’t been so dang worried about Joe.
“Leave it to little brother,” he muttered to no one in particular, “to pick the one week when a blizzard comes in to go visitin’!”
“Did you say something, Hoss?” his father asked as he fought against the wind to close the door.
“Just talkin’ to myself, Pa.” The big man put his napkin down and rose and left the table. “What’s it like out there?”
His father shrugged. “The snow’s let up, but the wind is still gusting. Let’s hope that by morning both have stopped.”
He crossed over to his father’s side. “You still thinkin’ about tryin’ to go up and see how it is with Little Joe?”
The older man pursed his lips and then nodded his head. “I’m thinking that, even if everything is okay, with this turn in the weather Joe is going to need help getting Carrie Pickett ready for winter.”
Hoss shook his head. “It ain’t gonna be a pretty trip, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, I don’t know…invigorating air, the crisp clean scent of pine, a million stars above in a clear blue sky and a white carpet beneath. There are worse –”
“What is it, Pa?”
“Listen. Do you hear that?”
“I ain’t hearin’ nothin’, Pa. No, wait… There, I got it too.” He looked at the older man. “Danged if that ain’t someone ridin’ in?”
“You think it could be your brother?”
“I don’t know, Pa,” he replied, reaching for his coat. “Let’s go see.”
After his father had donned his coat, he opened the door again, only this time they both stepped out onto the porch. To their amazement someone was tethering their horse to the rail. Hoss glanced at his pa and knew he was thinking the same thing.
Whoever it was, they was nuts!
The man finished with his horse and then turned into the wind, nearly losing his hat as he approached. As he came closer and Hoss realized who it was, his amazement turned to apprehension.
The lawman was bundled up so most nothing much showed but his face. When Roy Coffee tipped his hat, it caused a snowfall. “Evening, Ben. Hoss.”
His father stepped forward and took him by the arm. “Roy! For goodness sake, come inside!”
“Much obliged, Ben,” Roy said as he followed behind the older man.
Hoss brought up the rear and closed the door.
“Hop Sing!” his father bellowed. As their Chinese cook appeared near the dining table, he added, “Get Roy some hot coffee and warm up a couple of cloths for his feet and hands.”
“Now, Ben, there’s no need to fuss. I been out in worse.” The lawman was peeling away layers. “These young people nowadays don’t know nothin’ about how a feller keeps warm. Nothing nipped on me but my nose and that’s a’cause it’s too long!”
Hop Sing came into the room carrying a tray with three mugs on it, plus a pot. The cloths were draped over his arm. “Men sit down,” he said, “Hop Sing serve.”
“Thank you, Hop Sing,” his father said, accepting the hot cloths and laying them aside before taking the pot. “I can pour.”
“Okay, Mister Cartwright. You make sure Sheriff Roy puts cloth on feet and not coffee!”
Hoss watched until their cook had disappeared into the kitchen area. He turned back just as his father asked, “Roy, what brings you out in weather like this?”
The sheriff was flexing his fingers, belying the fact that he wasn’t feeling the cold. He stopped and reached into his pocket and produced a telegram. “This here wire came today. I mused over it for an hour or two and then thought I’d better bring it out, no matter what the weather.” He looked around. “Say, where’s Joe? Is that boy crazy enough to be workin’ outside?”
“Joe’s not here, Roy. He headed northeast toward Crescent about two days ago.”
“Crescent? What’s he doin’ up there.” Roy frowned and then snapped his fingers. “He didn’t go up there to visit that old woman, did he? What was her name? Pickett?”
When Joe had been called on to testify against Jason Milburn and his hired thug, Jacob Marks, Roy had gone with him to the meet with the circuit judge. Milburn had been slippery than a snake, of course, and nothing had stuck. Marks had gone to jail, not only for what he did that day at Carrie Pickett’s house, but for other crimes including battery and theft. He’d gotten two years in prison.
“Yes, he went to see Carrie. Why?”
Roy was shaking his head. “Now I know why I felt I had to bring this out to you. I’m just sorry it’s too late to stop Joe.”
He and his father exchanged glances. Then the older man accepted the telegram. “It’s from Jenks,” he said.
Richard Jenks had been the agent at the Carson City Land Office who had helped them to get Carrie Pickett’s claim filed, thus beating Milburn out of the land.
“Go ahead. Read it, Pa.”
The older man cleared his throat. “To Roy Coffee, Virginia City, Sheriff’s office. Important news to convey to Ben Cartwright. Someone checking into Mrs. Pickett’s land claim. Think Milburn involved though all appears legal. Warn Joe. Marks released early.”
“Marks?” Hoss thought a moment. “Say, Pa, ain’t that the man what tried to beat Joe to death?”
His father nodded. “Milburn’s henchman. If we hadn’t gotten there when we did, he would have broken Joe’s ribs or worse.” He folded over the telegram and placed it in his pocket. “Any idea why Marks was released?”
“I don’t know about Marks in specific, Ben, but Jason Milburn’s a mighty powerful man with a lot of money. Ain’t hard to guess what happened.”
“He paid someone off.” His father rose and began to pace. “I knew Milburn wouldn’t let it go. That track of land was too important to him. All that stands between him now and everything he wanted is one feisty old woman.” He turned to Roy. “And my son.”
Roy looked from his pa to him. “You ain’t thinkin’ of goin’ after him? In this weather?” The sheriff rose to his feet. “Ben, there’s no proof Milburn is up to anythin’, or that Marks and him are anywhere around Carrie Pickett’s place. The odds that they were up there before the snow hit are mighty small.”
“Small or not, Roy, Joe’s all alone with Carrie and that’s trouble no matter how you look at it.” At Roy’s look, he went on. “If Joe was by himself, it would be one thing. He’s a grown man and capable of looking out for himself. But he’s not alone. He’s with a woman, and not only a woman but an older, independent one with a mind of her own. Carrie will be his first priority, not watching out for himself.”
Roy’s smile was wry and affectionate. “He’s a ladies’ man, that youngest of yours, no matter how you look at it.”
Hoss rose too. “You lookin’ at takin’ off in the mornin’, Pa?”
“Yes. As early as we can. With this weather travel will be slow. It’s going to take us two days at the very least to get up there.” The older man turned toward the window. Outside the snow was falling and the wind was even stronger than before.
“And two days is a very long time.”
Carrie Pickett stared out of the window for a moment longer and then turned and went to her chair by the fire. She’d spent the last three winters of her life alone in the Piney Woods and it had never scared her.
Till now, that was.
Maybe it was having a man around again – it made her feel like she needed looking after. When Amos had been alive, he’d treated her like a lady and had insisted on doing all the hard, heavy work himself. ‘Course she usually paid him no nevermind and had helped to put the cabin up with her own hands. But in the winter, he was quietly insistent and had always made her stay close to the hearth where she was safe and warm.
She sure missed Amos.
Carrie rose from the chair. She was restless as the howling wind outside. The men had been gone for near an hour and she was worried. Most of all, she was worried about Joe. She didn’t know the others fellers well as she knew him. Oh, she would’ve been sad if they died, but sad in a proper expected sort of way. If something happened to that young, handsome Joe Cartwright, well, it would break her heart. He was the sweetest, gentlest, most bull-headed and strong-minded man she’d met since Amos had passed. Why, Joe even looked a little bit like Amos. Mostly around the eyes. Amos. She hadn’t seen him in more than three years.
‘Course, that was because she hadn’t looked in more than three years.
Turning, she looked to the left of the alcove that held her bed. There was a hole there, near the kitchen and under the floor. It was the same one she’d hid the contents of her larder in when she’d tried to keep Joe from riding away the year before. It was empty now with the exception of one item – a wooden box. A memory box.
A box of sadness and joy.
Carrie pursed her lips and blew out a snort. Hands on hips she fought with herself and then, deciding she was a foolish, weak and silly old woman, she marched over to the spot and bent and lifted the floorboards. Gently, like it was a child, she took hold of the box and lifted it out and carried it to her bed. Sitting down, she placed her hands on it and then, slowly, opened the lid.
There weren’t much inside. Just a few oddments. A ribbon she had worn in her hair the day she got married. Some pressed flowers from her bouquet. A broken piece of a pretty plate she’d picked up after the first time she’d thrown one at Amos and he’d ducked so’s it hit the wall instead of him. Their anger had gone and they’d laughed and laughed after it flew into a thousand pieces. She kept it to remember never to get so angry at him again. Under the china were a number of papers. The one on top was her marriage license. Miss Carrie Bell, daughter of Lucius and Caroline Bell, marrying Amos Job Pickett. Groom, twenty-one years old, and his bride, sixteen. Barely more than children either of them.
Carrie’s fingers shook as she lifted the contents out of the box right down to the marriage certificate. Under it all were two more things – two precious things preserved for eternity. Two of them there photographs with the funny name, fur or ferro-something. They were made of metal and were still in good shape all these years later.
All these long years.
Drawing a breath and holding it, she turned the top one over. It was one of her and Amos on their wedding day. Looking at the brash young man with pride beaming out of his eyes, she hardly knew him. The Amos she knew had whiskers and thinning hair, more gray than brown. His eyes had been narrowed by hard years of determination, doubt, and even despair. But that smile was still there. Even as an older man it ran along his lips and rode right on up into his eyes, like Joe Cartwright’s did. And when Amos laughed, well, there weren’t no one who didn’t laugh with him.
She missed laughing.
Carrie ran a finger over the face she had loved and lost and then sat that likeness aside. Her hand trembled as she lifted the next one. She was in it. She was a good bit older, somewhere between forty and forty-five. She couldn’t remember exactly. Nor could she remember the age of the little girl standing beside her. Or the sound of her voice. Or her touch.
All she remembered was that day Eleazar came to take her away. She and Amos had talked it over. His brother’s offer was generous. Anne would have things with him and his wife she could never have here in the Piney Woods – an education, a fine home, prospects for a future and a better life. They weren’t enough food for a young’un. They were too old, too like too die….
Twelve years, that’s how long they’d had her, twelve years.
And that was more almost fifteen years ago.
As Carrie sat looking at the likeness of her girl, wondering where she was and what had become of her, she heard voices beyond the door. Almost instantly there came a strong knock.
“Carrie! Carrie, it’s Joe! Open up!”
Carrie hurried and replaced the items in the box and then put it in the floor and drew the rug over it. Then, as Joe called again, she lifted the bar and the latch and let him and the others in. Joe came first and the man named Neville after him. Ballard Peak was last and he wasn’t alone. He was carrying a bundle with a lady’s feet sticking out – fine, tiny feet shod in dyed leather boots that had been hand-tooled.
“Put her on the bed,” Joe ordered as he began to peel off the layers of clothes he had donned before they left. First came Amos’ coat and then his own, and then he began to unwind the scarf that had kept his hat on his head.
Carrie looked at it as he flung it aside. “Joe!” she said “You’re bleedin’ again.”
He stared at her as if he had no idea what she was talking about, and then reached up and touched his forehead. The bandage had come away with the scarf. What was left was an angry red jagged line oozing blood.
“I’ll deal with it later, Carrie. Did you warm the blankets like I asked?”
She went to her chair. There were several laying on the hearth beside it. “Got ‘em right here.”
He strode over to her and took them. As he approached the bed, Joe said, “Neville, I know you’re worried about Nonie, but you need to get out of the way.”
As the city man backed up, Joe sat on the bed beside the woman and began to pull the warm blankets over her slight form. “This is Nonie Landes, Carrie. She’s frost-nipped, but I think she’s going to be all right.”
Carrie went to his side and looked down. Her hand went to her chest. She didn’t know how she knew, but she did know.
It wasn’t Nonie.
It was Anne.
Joe awoke early, stiff and sore. Unlike when he had arrived, Carrie had a full house and he had opted to sleep on the floor. Ballard and Neville had decided to work a few hours and make the small barn a fit place for living. They’d asked him to go with them, but the look out of Carrie’s eyes told him she didn’t want to be alone any more than he wanted her to be alone.
For a lonely cabin way up on the side of a mountain in the middle of a big wild wood, an awful lot of things were happening.
Too many things were happening.
He’d tried to talk to Carrie about it before turning in, but she’d been strangely distracted and just plain not herself. He’d asked her if she was sick. That was the one time she did seem normal. She’d snapped and told him to look in a mirror. He had, by accident, as he washed his hands and face at her washstand. The trail the bullet had left was ugly. The edges were a deep red, almost black, and the wound was hot to the touch. He’d had enough bullet wounds to know that foreign matter must have been driven into it when he fell. He was by the water and the ground had all kinds of dead and dying plant matter around it, plus dung from the animals who drank there. He’d meant to wash the gash out with soap and water and dose it with alcohol again. Before doing so, he had sat down to rest and that had been the end of that.
At the moment all he had was a persistent headache, though he knew it could get worse. What worried him was that a growing infection would rob him of that ‘edge’ a man needed to survive in the West. The wilderness was an unforgiving mistress. One mistake. Just one. That’s all it took and a man was dead.
A man or those he loved.
Carrie was asleep beside the fire. He walked over to her and tugged the blanket that covered her up to her chin. The older woman shifted but didn’t wake up. Next, he went to check on the woman they had all risked their necks for the night before, the one called Nonie Landes. Joe sat on the bed beside her. He reached out and touched her face with his fingers. The skin was soft and elastic now. All signs of the frost nip were gone. She was breathing normally and seemed to be sleeping naturally as well. She’d be groggy and weak for a day or so from the exposure, but after that should return to normal.
Whatever ‘normal’ was for Nonie Landes.
As he made a motion to rise, Nonie stirred. She shifted and moaned and then her eyes opened. They were clouded with pain. There was a reason for that. When Ballard had placed her in the bed and unwrapped her and they had checked her over, they found that Neville had been right. Her left leg was badly twisted. He couldn’t find any broken bones, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Joe cupped her face in his hand and waited until her eyes focused on him. “Hey, there, Mrs. Landes,” he soothed, “you’re safe. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Her eyes opened and closed languidly. “Who…?” It came out as a dry whisper.
Joe reached over to the bedside table. They’d pulled it over and put a pitcher of water on it the night before, just in case she woke and asked for it. He picked up the cup, filled it, and then gently lifted her head and fed the cool liquid to her.
When he let her down, he asked, “Better?”
She nodded. A second later, she tried again, “Who…are you?”
He smiled. “Name’s Joe Cartwright. But don’t you worry about who I am, you need to rest.”
“Joe…Cartwright?” She said it in a funny way, almost like she knew it.
Her eyes roamed about the space she was in and then moved to the cabin’s interior. “Where…”
“Like I said, you’re safe. Now, you need to get some sleep. You’ll feel better later and then I can answer your questions.”
“I feel…fine…now,” she said, her voice gaining strength. “Stop…treating me like…I’m a child. Tell me…where…I am!”
Joe’s brown eyebrows did a little dance. He pursed his lips and pulled a hand over them. Then he said, “In the middle of a snowstorm, in a bed in a cabin in the middle of a million trees, arguing with the man who just risked his life to save you.”
She blinked and looked right at him. “Cartwright?”
Again, he sensed it wasn’t new to her. “Yeah. Something wrong with that?”
Her eyes flicked to the bandage on his head. “What…happened?”
“Oh, this?” He touched it. “Someone mistook me for a deer. I bet you can see the resemblance.” His brows peaked. “No?”
She sighed and turned her head into the pillow. “You’re…an…idiot….”
A second later, she was asleep.
It wasn’t exactly the first encounter he’d hoped for.
Rising to his feet, Joe pulled the covers up again and then stood there looking at Nonie Landes. Her hair was amber as a stone set around a lady’s neck and glinted like its golden housing. The waves curled naturally like his. She had a pale complexion that the color was just returning to. Her face was heart-shaped with rose petal lips and long black lashes, and the eyes they hid – that had looked at him with something like disdain – were brown as his pa’s.
Whoever he was, Mister Landes was a lucky man.
Turning, he looked out the window by the door. The sun was up. It was time to go to work. He’d already used up four out of the seven or eight days he had told his pa it would take to help Carrie prepare for the winter. From the look of it the snow had fallen off and the wind died down, so hopefully between them – him, Neville, and Ballard – they could make up for the time he’d lost. There was still time enough to get the wall finished, to lay in hay and straw for the animals, to strengthen the barn, and make sure Carrie had enough food to carry her through. He was sorry he hadn’t been able to get the well fixed before the snow flew. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed to him that there was simply nothing wrong with it. That, maybe, it had been tampered with.
Who knew what Jason Milburn was capable of?
Joe crossed to the table and caught the coat Carrie had loaned him off the back of the chair. He pulled it on and then wound the scarf around his throat and put his hat on his bandaged head. There was nothing but to get to it.
Hard work never hurt anyone, after all.
When he got to the barn, Joe found Neville was alone. The city slicker was trying to block the chinks in the log wall with split wood chips and failing miserably. There was plenty of dung on the floor in the stalls. He’d have to show him how to use it.
“Neville,” Joe said in greeting. “Where’s Ballard?”
The older man glanced at him as the wood chips fell through to the outside. “Hunting.”
Joe winced. “A real deer this time, I hope.”
“I heard about that. How’s your head?”
“Hard as ever,” Joe replied with a smile. “It’s good to see you hard at work.”’
The city slicker scowled. “It keeps my mind off…other things.”
“Like Mrs. Landes?” Joe gauged Neville’s reaction. It was something less than paternal. If he had to guess, he’d say the man was in love with the woman in his charge. “I talked to her a bit.”
Neville dropped the chips. “You what? I have to see her!”
As he brushed past Joe caught his arm. “She’s sleeping. Let her be for a bit. The next time she wakes up she’ll know who you are.” He paused. “Am I making something out of nothing, or is she a bit of a spitfire?”
“Mrs. Landes? Why, she comes from one of the finest New York families.”
“She’s been to the finest finishing schools and is heir to a great estate.”
Joe grinned. “Still waiting.”
“And…yes, she’s a hell of a spitfire. I’ve never met a woman more headstrong and determined.”
“Well, I have,” Joe said as he moved into the barn. “She’s sitting in there by the fire.”
“The old woman?”
“Miss Carrie ain’t old,” he said with a smile, “she’s well-seasoned and don’t you forget it.”
Neville straightened his gloves. “Is she a relation of yours?”
“Carrie? No. We’re just friends.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, it seems an…odd pairing.”
He laughed. “No, I don’t mind you saying so. Actually, I have to agree. There’s just something about that old woman. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
Neville glanced in the direction of the house. “Well, there might be one more….”
Joe grabbed the tool he needed from the bench located on the right side of the barn. As he passed Neville, he slapped his arm.
Neville stuttered. “W…where?”
“To fix the wall in that stubborn old woman’s cabin so she won’t scare the snow away when it comes to call.”
Neville looked up as they stepped out of the barn. It had almost stopped snowing.
He made a face.
“Maybe it knows Nonie is here.”
Hoss found his pa in the barn early the next morning saddling Buck.
“I was gonna do that, Pa. How come you’re up so dad-burned early?”
The older man pulled on his saddle strap. “I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about Jason Milburn. I know his kind. How could I have thought he would give up so easily?”
“You think he’s the one lookin’ into Miss Carrie’s affairs?”
“Jenks seemed to think so,” he said as he fastened the buckle.
“What you suppose he’s tryin’ to do, Pa? That old woman ain’t ever gonna sell that land of hers.”
“No, so he will have to find some way to drive her off it, or make her want to leave it. Or….”
“You think he’d hurt her?”
The older man rested his hands on the saddle and looked at him. “I don’t know what I think, son, other than we need to get there to help Joe as quickly as we can. Jason Milburn doesn’t care who he hurts just so long as he gets what he wants.”’
“You think he’d hurt Joe, I mean, really hurt him? He’s got to know that he’s the first one the sheriff would go after.”
“That’s why he’ll be subtle. He has Marks back and that man knows how to do things so they don’t show.”
“What do you mean?”
“Marks is clever as Doc Belden said. A cabin burns in the middle of the night. The people inside are killed.” His pa mounted Buck and turned his nose toward the road. “Who’s to say whether it was murder or an accident?”
Hoss nodded. “Sure thing, Pa. But you gotta count on little brother. He’s right smart. I’m sure he’d thought of the same thing.”
“I’m sure Joe has too. And I’m sure he would stop it if he saw it coming. Marks is a snake. He’ll hide in the grass and strike when your brother least suspects it.”
The big man sighed. “You’re sure those bad men are there, aren’t you?”
“Call it parents’ intuition or the whisper of God. Call it what you will, son, it’s shouting at me that time is running out.” His pa nodded toward his horse. “Get your things, Hoss. I want to ride as soon as you’re ready.”
The big man nodded. “All I needs my gear, Pa. I’ll be back out in five.”
True to his word, Hoss was back in under five minutes. As he mounted his horse, he looked at the older man beside him. Every muscle in his pa’s frame was aimed forward, toward Crescent Mountain.
Aimed toward Little Joe.
Nonie Landes awakened to the scent of coffee and cereal cooking in a pot. She lay there, her eyes closed, breathing it in and remembering. She’d been here before – long before. It was hard to believe it now, she’d spent so many years in New York. She’d come to call her father’s brother ‘Pa’, and Aunt Ruth, ‘Ma’ before the formal life they led changed it as she grew into ‘Honored Father’ and ‘Dear Mother’. She had very few memories of her natural parents. Through a little girl’s eyes her pa had been handsome and strong, with a wry smile and a way of handling her ma that made the stern woman with the dark blonde hair crumple with laughter and love. As a child she remembered running wild in the woods with some kind of a well-muscled pup trailing after her. She’d spent a lot of time with her pa since her ma was always working, and had her mother tell her often enough that she needed to stop being a Tom Boy and learn to be a lady. That last day, when she left, her ma had bid her goodbye and then turned away, going back to her chores; back to her back-breaking labor. She hadn’t even returned her wave as she rode off in the carriage with the representative of her wealthy uncle, headed for Virginia City where they would catch the coach to New York. She should hate her, but she didn’t.
Carrie Pickett was why she was here, and why she had done…what she had done.
She’d written her ma over the years. In the beginning a letter or two would come back every month or so. When she went away to college, the letters ceased and there had been none in the last ten years. She’d thought the older woman was dead. Finally, a private investigator she hired had found a reference to Carrie Pickett. It had to do with a land claim. Neville confirmed that it was not an old claim, but freshly made within the last year. She’d contacted the Carson City Land Office and exchanged telegrams with a man named Jenks. He explained that another man – Jason Milburn – had tried to buy the claim and there had been some kind of trouble involving a man named Cartwright.
She, of course, had sought out Mister Milburn and he had filled her in on everything. Though he put a bad spin on the young man who had been with her mother at the time the claim was filed – saying he was violent and not to be trusted – she’d figured out quickly enough that Cartwright and Milburn were business ‘enemies’. Spending time at the Ponderosa had confirmed it. Joe Cartwright’s pa was a wealthy man with the largest spread in Nevada. They’d wanted the land too. but her mother had won.
She’d met Jason Milburn in New York about half a year back. He’d been in the city to conduct some international business. He was a nice enough man, if a bit fawning, and had been excited when she made her proposal to him. He wanted the land. She hinted that she would sell it to him once it was hers – if he could convince her mother to leave the Piney Woods and return to New York City with her. She had her own home now and it was so empty since Robert had died. She wanted her mother with her.
She gave Milburn permission to do whatever it would take so long as no one was hurt.
He’d sent her a few reports with minimal details of the campaign that had started at the end of the summer. Milburn said he had begun to harass her mother in little ways – removing tools, opening the corral and letting the animals out; making sure her dry well would never see water. He said he was slowly wearing her down and that soon the older woman would be relieved to turn the land over to her. Milburn was an avaricious opportunist. She would have had nothing to do with him had it not been for her need. She’d considered contacting the Cartwrights but from what she found out about them, she knew they would be no part of her tricking her mother off the land her father had worked. No, she’d needed a crook and a crook was what she got.
Which was why she had decided to come out West.
She’d always planned to come, after college ended she thought, but then she had met Robert and they had married and his business was in New York and it simply never happened. Then, Robert took ill and died. She was like her mother now, widowed, alone, and in need of family.
Carrie Pickett was her family.
Nonie heard the door open and cracked an eye to see who it was. Her breath caught at the sight. The older, no, old woman who came in the door was bent with age and the weight of the large piece of firewood she was carrying. Her thinning hair, which was a mixture of gray and a dirty blond, was pulled back tightly around her face and wrapped in a bun. She wore simple clothing – homespun, no doubt – that consisted of a rust-colored petticoat with a heavy long-waisted forest green shirt over the top. It was held in place by a cream colored apron that had seen many years of service. Her once pretty face had a faraway look on it as she labored across the room and carefully laid the wood beside the fire.
Nonie drew a deep breath. She opened her eyes and said, “I’m awake. Mother.”
The old woman stiffened. A shaking hand went to her breast. She didn’t turn but said, “I rightly thought that was you.”
Nonie shifted. Her left leg complained, but the pain wasn’t anything she couldn’t take. Tossing the coverlet aside, she sat up in the bed and noticed that her blouse had been changed. As she wondered why, her eyes took in the cabin where she had been born, noting how tiny it seemed compared to the one in her memory.
“Are we alone?” she asked.
The old woman started bustling about, stoking the fire and laying on the new log. “All the men folk are out workin’.”
Nonie hesitated, making an effort to curb the anger that was rising in her. What had she expected – open arms and a warm kiss on the cheek? That would have ill-suited the severe woman from her memory.
Swinging her legs over the bed, she rose to a seated position. “I hoped you would be happy to see me.”
Her mother stopped. Then she wilted like a flower in summer heat. “Sorry to say, child, I ain’t.”
That was like a slap across the face. “Oh?”
The older woman pivoted sharply on her heel. She took a step and rested one hand on the back of a chair. “Whatever are you doin’ here, child? This ain’t no place for the likes of you. Look at you! You’re a lady.” Both her look and her voice softened. “Just like I always dreamed you was.”
Her jaw tightened. “What about my dreams?”
A frown made the wrinkles even deeper on her mother’s forehead. “Your dreams?”
Nonie stepped down. She tried her leg and found it wasn’t too bad, so she took a few steps forward. “Yes, my dreams. When you and Pa sent me off to live with Uncle Eleazar, did you ever consider I had dreams of my own about my future?”
“You was a child,” she said, dismissing her and her dreams with a gesture of her aged hand. “What would you a knowed?”
“I knew this place,” she said, her voice hushed with memory. “The tall pines, the wind talking to them; the days of sunshine and shadow. And I knew what I wanted, to be here with you and pa, not in New York.”
“Weren’t no future for you here.”
“Since when does finding some hard-working local boy and settling down to homestead mean a woman doesn’t have a future?” Her voice and her temper were rising. “It’s what you did!”
“And look at what I got! My Amos gone. Nothing but hard labor and years of loneliness to come. Look at these hands!” Her mother approached her, holding her hands out. “Look at the calluses and scars. My fingers are so bent with age it’s hard to ‘do’, and ‘do’ is what I have to if I want to stay alive.” The older woman reached out and caught one of her hands in her own. The touch was electric. “Now, look at your’n. They’re soft and white. The hands of a lady.”
“And a widow,” she said, her tone short, “looking at years of loneliness, only in a town full of strangers.”
“W-widow?” her mother echoed.
She drew a little breath and nodded. “Last year. His name was Robert.” She squeezed the hand that held hers. “I wish you could have known him.”
“No little ones?”
The anger knocked at the door of her heart again. “No. I won’t have any. I will never have any!”
Her mother released her. She walked, haltingly, wearily over to the chair in front of the fire and sat down. “Did I hurt you so much?”
She couldn’t resist the urge to drive the knife in deeper. “Yes.”
The older woman was looking at the fire. “We talked about it right here, your pa and me. Right before this here fire. Eleazar and his wife couldn’t have children, and we couldn’t provide for you. We knew he’d take care of you, give you a home, food, an education….” She paused. “It near broke your pa’s heart.”
She walked to her mother’s side and looked down. “Well, it did break mine.”
Nonie drew a breath. Then she knelt before her mother and took her hand. “I know you meant well. From the world’s perspective, you did right. But not from the perspective of a little girl who wanted nothing but to remain in the Piney Woods. So, you see, I understand why you are still here. But, mother, it’s time to go.”
Her mother’s eyes flicked to her face. “What are you talkin’ about? I ain’t never leavin’ here. I’m gonna be buried by my Amos down by the lake grove.”
“Mother, I’ve come to take you back to New York with me.”
She could see the anger rising in the older woman, painting her mother’s cheeks a rosy red and putting the fire in her eyes.
“It’s no different from what you wanted for me. There’s no one to provide for you here. I know you have to struggle for food and to survive. Look at those hands you showed me! They’re bent and arthritic. Soon you won’t be able to hold a shotgun or carry a pail. Who will bring you water? Who will chase the wolves away, Mother, who?!”
“I got friends.”
“Like Joe Cartwright?”
“Now don’t you go sayin’ nothin’ bad about that boy,” she warned.
“I learned about the Cartwrights, Mother. Joe’s father has hundreds of thousands of acres of land. His sons work it with him. Joe doesn’t have time to take care of you. How many times have you seen him in the last year?”
“Twice,” the old woman muttered.
“Two times, for maybe seven days. That’s two weeks out of fifty-two in a year. He’s not here in the spring when the floods come. He’s not here through the winter. He’s not here for planting and harvesting. Mother, you are only one woman and you simply can’t do this alone!”
“I can do anythin’ I rightly put my mind to, and don’t you go sayin’ different, girl!”
She released her hand and rose to her feet. “Mother, no, you can’t. Not anymore. You’re going to come back to New York with me!”
“Now you listen here, child – ”
“I am not a child! And I will not listen to you. Why should I? You gave up any right to tell me what to do when you sold me to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Eleazar!”
“Well, what else would you call it? They couldn’t have a child. You had one you didn’t want.” She was shaking with rage. “I’m sure it was a very profitable deal.”
She didn’t see it coming. Her mother slapped her.
At that moment the door opened and, along with a cold wind, Joe Cartwright blew in. His gaze went to Carrie first, and then to her. There was a fierce protective light in them.
A second later he tipped his hat and said, “Mrs. Landes. Good to see you up and moving, Ma’am.”
It sounded funny coming from him. Mrs. Landes. Joe might be a year or two older than her, but then again that could be the rancher’s life he led. He could be younger.
“Mister Cartwright,” she returned.
He grinned. If she had to admit it, a charming grin. He tossed his hat on the table and then removed his black gloves and did the same with them. “Call me Joe. You make me feel like my father.”
“Joe.” She hesitated, concerned that such a permission would make him too familiar too quickly, but finally she said, “And you may called me Nonie.”
“Nonie. Is that a nickname or what your parents named you?”
She stiffened. “Neither. I chose it myself.”
“Oh.” His expression showed he knew he had stepped on toes. “Well, it sure is a pretty one. And how are you Miss Carrie,” he asked as he rounded the table and planted a kiss on the older woman’s head. “Feisty as ever, I hope.”
The older woman didn’t look up. She was staring at her hands. “I ain’t feelin’ so well, Joe,” her mother said, her voice small.
He touched her forehead. “No fever.” Joe paused and then asked, “That hand isn’t bothering you again, is it?”
“What’s wrong with her hand?” Nonie asked.
Joe looked at her, but before he could answer her mother spoke. “Now, don’t you go tellin’ her nothin’, Joe Cartwright. It ain’t none of her business!”
Joe frowned as he scratched back of his head. “Why do I get the feeling you two know each other?”
He mother was shaking her head. “No, Joe. No. We don’t rightly know each other at all.”
“Now, Miss Carrie, you’ve been known to tell tales now and then.” The handsome young man turned and looked her. “Is that true? You don’t know each other?”
Nonie’s jaw was set. Her eyes flint striking steel.
“Not anymore.” She reached for her coat where it lay at the end of the bed. “I’m going to go find Neville.”
Joe watched the stranger go and then dropped to his knees in front of Carrie. He could see she was in pain. The older woman’s hands were locked around her midriff and her slender shoulders shook with stifled sobs.
Placing his hand over hers, he asked, “Carrie, what’s wrong?”
“Everythin’, Joe,” she wailed. “Everythin’.”
“So you’re not sick?”
She shook her head.
He looked toward the door. “Does it have something to do with Nonie Landes?”
She moaned again and tears began to flow. He was at a loss as to what to do, so he just pulled her close and held her while she cried. It took a few minutes, but finally she stopped and straightened up and looked at him.
Joe reached out to chase one last tear from her cheek. “Now, will you tell me what this is about?”
Her voice was small. “I don’t know as I can, Joe.”
“Well, then, let me guess. Nonie’s related to you somehow. Maybe a niece?”
A little of the old Carrie surfaced in the wary look on her face. “How’d you figure that?”
“There’s no missing the resemblance. So, she’s not a niece.” He paused, thinking about the high-spirited woman who had just walked out the door. And then, he made an intuitive leap. “She’s not your daughter. Is she?” When she said nothing, he went on, astonished. “Carrie, you never said you had any other family. This is wonderful!”
“No, it ain’t, Joe. No. It ain’t! She’s come here to take me away from my Piney Woods!”
“To live with her?”
“She wants me to go to that there New York and live in one of them big cities full of noise and smoke and strangers. There ain’t no pines there, Joe. No a sight or scent of them. Why, I’d just curl up and die!” The older woman shot to her feet. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere! I’m dyin’ here and bein’ buried next to my Amos!”
Joe knew the older woman wouldn’t listen to reason, but he had to try anyway. “Carrie, listen to me. I was going to ask you to come back to the Ponderosa with me,” he held up a finger to silence her, “just for the winter. Maybe you could go with her, just to try it out.”
“You was gonna take me from my Piney Woods?” she asked, disbelieving. “You, Joe?”
“No, Carrie, I was going to ask you to visit, just until the weather broke. You’d be safe –”
With each question she poked him in the chest to emphasize her point. “Where was you when Amos died and I weathered my first winter? Where was you, boy, when I labored over that sick cow day and night and brought her through? Where was you when the well went dry and I had’ta make it through a hot summer haulin’ water all the day and night long?”
The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her feelings. “Carrie, you’re strong, I know that, and so long as nothing goes wrong, you can handle just about anything. But look at what happened when we first met. If I hadn’t come along, you would have died from that infected bite.”
She turned away from him and crossed her arms. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“If Nonie came all the way out here from New York, she must love you a lot. Can’t you do it for her?”
She shot him a look. He would’ve been dead if the barrel had been loaded. “She don’t love me. She’s just here to get my Piney Woods.”
He threw his hands up in the air. “Not this again!”
“Yes, ‘this’ again. That there young’un will get me off this land and then find a way to sell it. You mark my words. Her pa layin’ there in the ground don’t mean nothin’ to her.” Carrie’s shoulders sank and her voice fell to nothing. “I don’t mean nothin’ to her. And why should I? I sent her away.”
“You what?” Joe couldn’t believe what he heard. “Sent her away? Why?”
“Look around, Joe. There ain’t nothin’ here. Truth be told, my Amos failed at everythin’ he tried ‘cept bein’ a mountain man. What hope did the child have of growin’ up to be anythin’ other than a barefoot savage?” The older woman drew a deep breath. “Amos’ brother had money and his wife had no child.”
Joe couldn’t imagine. If he understood the depth of love a parent had for a child at all from his pa’s example, he just couldn’t imagine the sacrifice Carrie had made to give hers a chance at a better life.
He walked over to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Nonie doesn’t understand, does she?”
A fresh tear trailed down the older woman’s face.
“That ain’t her name. It’s Anne. She don’t use her name, Joe. Like she don’t want nothin’ to do with what she was.”
“Carrie Pickett, you look at me.” He waited until she did. “Anne’s here. She’s asking you to go with her. She loves you.” He stopped her protest with a look. “And don’t you go saying that she’s only here to take your land. You know how well that worked the last time when you tried it with me. Carrie, I think what you have to understand is that by refusing to go with her, you are saying this land is more important to you than she is.”
She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “It ain’t that, Joe. It ain’t that.”
“What is it then?”
She looked toward the door. “Anne’s a lady. What would she do with an old mountain woman like me? I cain’t talk right. I don’t know the first thing about proper manners. I’d just shame her.” She looked up at him, more unspent tears in her eyes. “No, the best thing I can do for Anne is stay right here with my Amos and let her go.”
When Carrie walked away, she looked like she had aged a good ten years. Her shoulders were bent with the burden of the choice she had made so long ago, and the choice she was making today. Joe didn’t know if it was right or wrong, but he did know one thing.
He needed to talk to Anne.
He and Hoss had traveled from sunup to sundown. Normally they would have been near Crescent Mountain by now. As it was, they had just arrived in Elko, which was a little more than halfway there. Though the snowstorm had abated, snow was still falling and the paths through the mountainous country were treacherous. They had stopped to sleep in a warm hotel for the night and could only hope the next day that the sun would come out and the snow would begin to melt.
In the years since his children’s births, Ben Cartwright had developed a finely tuned sense where his boys were concerned. There was something that tied him to them that was hard to explain. The thread to Adam was stretched too thin now. He couldn’t ‘feel’ him anymore. The place where his eldest had been was a hole in his soul that would never be filled until his wandering child returned – if Adam ever did. But the ties to Hoss and Joe were there and they were strong and vibrant. He could always sense when they were in danger.
He had that sense about Joe now.
The older man reached into his pocket and removed the telegram Roy Coffee had delivered. Unfolding it, he read it again. There were five words that jumped off the page. Five little words that stabbed the heart of a father separated by such impossible circumstances from his son.
‘Warn Joe. Marks released early.’
“Our table’s ready,” Hoss said as he approached. When he saw the telegram and the look on his face, his middle son shook his head. “Now, Pa, ain’t nothin’ say Marks is anywhere near Little Joe.”
“You’re wrong, Hoss.” Ben tapped his chest. “Something in here says that he is.”
“Why don’t you come get somethin’ to eat, Pa? Worryin’ ain’t gonna change it one way or the other.”
Ben replaced the wired letter in his pocket. “I just wish we didn’t have to delay. That we could go on now.”
The big man shook his head. “We could, but it ain’t wise, Pa. Between the snow and the terrain there just ain’t no sense in travelin’ after nightfall.”
“I know.” The older man drew a deep steadying breath and tried to release the worry. “So, where’s this table?”
“It’s in the corner, tucked out of the way.” His son removed his hat and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I don’t know about you, Pa, but I am plumb tuckered out.”
“The Good Lord knew a man would push himself until he dropped unless something stopped him. Hunger’s one way He does it, being ‘plumb tuckered out’ is another,” he agreed with a small smile.
A shout stout man with graying black hair, a mustache, and a white cook’s apron walked up to them as they sat down. “Evening, Gents. Name’s Mulligan.” He gestured toward a blackboard that hung on the other side of the room. “Menu’s on the wall. What can I rustle up for you?”
After they ordered, Ben caught the man’s attention and asked him, “Did you see a young fellow come through a few days back? Green eyes, curly brown hair, later twenties; wearing a tan hat and a green jacket?”
He thought a moment. “Can’t say as I have, but then I’m usually in the back. Once the supper trade ends, the owner goes home. You could check with him tomorrow.”
Ben shook his head. “No. It’s all right. I was just hoping for word.”
The man’s eyes flicked to Hoss. “Another son?”
“Yes. Joseph. He came up this way a few days back to help out a friend name of Carrie Pickett. She lives up on Crescent Mountain.”
“Pickett? Well, now, that’s a coincidence,” the man said. “You know I heard that name, must have been day before yesterday.”
Ben was instantly alert. “Where?”
“Seems to me I was a the telegraph office.” Mulligan thought a moment. “Yeah, that’s right. I was at the telegraph office and a man there was dictating a wire to be sent. He mentioned someone named Pickett.”
“What did the man look like?” he asked.
“Well, I wasn’t really paying attention. Medium height and build. Stocky. Medium-dark brown hair and a surly look. Had a swagger when he walked.”
Ben saw the truth dawn in Hoss’ eyes. “That sounds like Marks,” his son said.
“Someone you know?” the cook asked.
Ben looked directly at him. “If it’s the man we think, he tried to kill my son a year ago. Do you know where this man is now?”
As the cook shook his head, the bartender moved to join them. “I wasn’t really eavesdropping, fellers. It’s a small inn. I saw that same man. He stayed here and headed out last night. Had another man with him. He was of a good size.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to tangle with either of them in a dark alley.”
“Looks like you were right, Pa,” Hoss said. “Marks was here and most like, he’s gone lookin’ for Little Joe.”
“Or gone to try to drive Carrie Pickett off her land, which comes to the same thing since Joe is with her.”
“You say he left last night ?” As the barkeep nodded, he turned to his son. “Hoss?”
The big man agreed. “I say we try it, Pa. Marks is already a full day ahead of us. Joe may need our help.”
A full day, and there was no way they could shorten the time it would take them to reach Carrie Pickett’s home. Even if they left tonight, they would only gain a few hours as the going would be so slow.
“Let’s eat first, son. That way we can travel straight through tomorrow and get there as quickly as possible.” As Hoss nodded, Ben had a thought. “Say…” He motioned to the cook and called him over to the table. “Do you remember anything that Marks sent in that telegram? Anything he said?”
Mulligan thought a moment. “Seems to me there was mention of a young woman. Someone come from back East that this man was upset about. And, of course, the name Pickett. Other than that I can’t remember….” He snapped his fingers. “No, wait, there was one more thing. Something like, ‘will do what has to be done’. Does that make any sense?”
Oh, yes, it made sense. It meant that Jason Milburn had hired Marks once again to drive Carrie Pickett off her land and had given his henchman permission to do whatever it took to make it happen.
Joe found Nonie Landes outside. He had checked the barn first – upsetting Neville when he did – and then followed the young woman’s tracks through the snow. Neville had wanted to come with him, but he had talked him out of it. He needed to talk to Carrie’s daughter alone. He had to make her understand her mother. It had taken him a while to get past all the barbed wire the old woman laid out to keep others away and to protect herself, but once he had, he had found a strong caring woman who loved her husband with a passion deeper than that she felt for the land that was her home.
She could have loved her daughter no less.
The tracks led him into a natural bower of pine branches that resembled the arched ceiling of one of the cathedrals in Europe his pa had shown him pictures of. The stars were brilliant, piercing a near black sky. The moon was up and its silver light lit the snow-covered branches. It glittered like silver tinsel on a Christmas tree. Nonie stood in the middle of all of it, her arms wrapped tightly about her chest and her head tilted up. She was still dressed in her riding outfit, but had tossed a thick cloak over the top. The hood hid most of her amber-colored hair, though a few long curls escaped to trail on the breeze. Carrie’s daughter was standing completely still and was oblivious of his approach until he was within three yards.
“Oh!” she said, jumping a bit and turning toward him. “Mister Cartwright, I didn’t hear you coming.”
He smiled. “It’s Joe, remember?”
She nodded. “Joe.”
He wasn’t sure how to broach the subject so he did what his Pa would have done and just came out with it. “Carrie tells me you’re her daughter.”
It startled her, but she regained her composure with the ease of a debutant brushing off an unwanted beau. “That’s right.”
She wasn’t about to give him anything. “I’d like to talk to you about your mother, if that’s all right with you.”
“I don’t see that my relationship with my mother is any concern of yours.”
Joe drew a breath. “It is, because Carrie is my friend and I don’t want to see her hurt.”
“Oh, and you think I am going to hurt her?” Nonie turned into the light. It highlighted her face, which was beautiful but hard. “It’s good to know that you are so judgmental that you have made up your mind about me when we have exchanged no more than ten words. I’ll know to be wary in the future.”
“Hey. That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what exactly did you mean – Joe?”
He could feel his temper rising. He wrassled it down like a wayward steer. “When I first met Carrie she was, well, about the orneriest, most stubborn and cantankerous old woman I’d ever met. It took some time, but I came to see that it was her fear talking – fear that she’d lose her home and be taken from the land she loved.” He paused, searching for words. “She’s really a remarkable woman.”
Nonie was silent a moment. “Sorry to say, I can’t agree.”
“As far back as I can remember my mother was a stern woman. Once she made up her mind, there was no moving her.” She paused, and he thought he heard a little scoff. “Oh, Pa could get around her when he had a mind to, but most of the time it was my mother who wore the pants in this family. All I can remember is her looking down on me with disapproval. That’s why she sent me away.”
“What’s ‘why’?” he asked.
“She never loved me.”
He knew Carrie and he knew what he had witnessed not an hour before. “That’s not true.”
“Oh, so you know? Were you here when I was a child? Did you know her as a strong, willful-minded woman in her thirties? Did you stand there and hear your mother tell you that you were being handed over to your father’s brother because there wasn’t enough food for her and you!” Nonie’s jaw was tight. “Don’t get me wrong, Joe, I love my mother. But that doesn’t mean I have to like her.”
“I do,” he shrugged.
“Well, that would matter if I liked you.” Her tone was curt. “I don’t. I don’t even know you. And, if the truth be known, I’m not sure I want to.” She looked straight at him. “If it was up to me, I would ask you to leave.”
He shook his head. “Well, it’s a good thing then that it’s not up to you. Things have been happening here. Someone is trying to drive your mother off her land again.”
“The fire that burned the cabin wall, the dry well – the animals released from their pens. Someone is trying to make it so hard for Carrie to stay that she’ll give up and go.” He paused. “About a year ago there was this man – ”
It was his turn to be startled. “Yes. How did you know?”
She hesitated as if considering her answer. Finally she said, “Mister Milburn sought me out and contacted me about mother and the land.”
“He wanted me to declare her mentally unfit. I refused.”
“Is that why you’re here? To take Carrie off her land so Milburn can have it?”
She glared at him. “Not that I think it is any of your business, but yes, I have come to take mother back East with me. This is no life for an older woman alone.”
“I have…. I implied I would sell the land to him. I meant to.” She turned and looked at the bower of leaves, the starlight, the snow. “Now that I have returned home, I’m not sure I can let it go.”
“Do you know what Milburn wants to do with this land?”
Nonie frowned. “He told me it had something to do with logging.”
Joe snorted. “Milburn wants to strip it bare. He only cares about making a profit. Nonie, at least twenty ranchers will lose their spreads and the watershed will be compromised if not destroyed.”
She blinked. “And I would care because?”
His temper flared again. He was less successful in corralling it this time. “You know, if I had to guess what Carrie Pickett’s daughter would be like, I would have expected a headstrong woman with a stubborn streak longer than the Ruby Mountain Range. Maybe even a temper so quick that she’d say things she regretted. But you, I wouldn’t have expected you.”
“And by that you are implying?”
“That you are a sullen, selfish, spoiled brat that should be taken over someone’s knee!”
“How dare you!” She came toward him, with her hands extended and fire in her eyes. “How dare you!”
He caught her wrists and held them firmly as she fought against him. “I dare because I care about Carrie and, I promise you, daughter or not I am not going to let you hurt her!”
“You have no right!”
“I have every right. Nonie – Anne – you made your mind up before you came here what you would find. You were looking for a stern uncaring selfish woman and you know what, you found her – just look in a mirror!”
She kicked at him with her feet. “I hate you! Let me go!”
Joe held her a moment more and then released her so quickly the momentum of her tantrum threw her face-down in the snow. He was just about to reach down and help her up when he heard someone shouting. Turning back toward the cabin he realized two things. Ballard Peak was calling him – and something was on fire.
“Dear Lord!” he breathed and with no further thought for Anne Pickett Landes began to run.
To Joe’s relief he found when he arrived that it was not the cabin that was on fire, but the barn. A smoke and soot covered Ballard Peaks stood nearby with Carrie’s cow in hand. The few other animals she had were running around the barn yard while the chickens squawked and clucked. The barn he had labored the spring before to build – and where Neville and Ballard had been sleeping – was engulfed in flames. With the wind as brisk as it was, there was a chance the cabin would catch as well and he saw that Carrie was already hauling buckets of water up from the lake to douse it with. Neville Greaves looked stunned.
Joe caught him the elbow and shook him. “Greaves! Neville, get hold of yourself. Carrie needs you! Help her bring water up from the lake!”
For a second the older man said nothing. Then, “We could have been inside. We might have died.”
“But you didn’t! Say a quick thanks and get moving! We can save the cabin if we get it wet enough.” He put pressure on the other man’s arm and then shoved. “Neville, get moving!”
Ballard had tied the cow to a nearby rail. He hastened over and asked, “What do you want me to do? Try to put out the barn or work toward saving the cabin?”
Joe looked at the barn. Most likely, it was going to be a total loss. “Help Carrie with the cabin. I don’t think there’s anything can be done with the barn, but I’ll look. Are all the animals out?”
“So far as we could tell.”
He nodded. “Neville?”
The older man stumbled and then looked at him.
“Go with Ballard,” Joe ordered.
As the two men headed for the water, he headed for Carrie. “Can you manage?”
Her hair was flying wild and she was covered with soot, but Carrie Pickett was as determined as ever. “Joe Cartwright, what are you even doin’ askin’? ‘Course, I can manage. Now you get yourself over there and see if any of this water can save my barn!”
He caught her shoulder. “Don’t take any chances.”
She covered his hand with her own. “You too, Joe. I don’t know what I’d do if anythin’ happened to you.”
Joe nodded and then turned and ran toward the barn.
In the end there was nothing he could do. The barn was a total loss. An hour later he was at the ruin, kicking through the ash-blackened snow, searching for a sign of what had happened. The fire had been bright and hot and the building had been consumed in a matter of minutes. That suggested someone had used something like Kerosene or lamp oil to accelerate it. He was looking for some piece of evidence to prove his theory when a tired and disheveled Neville Greaves stepped out of the cabin and walked to his side.
Rising, Joe turned toward him. When he saw the city slicker was distressed, he asked, “What is it, Neville?”
The man looked uncomfortable. “Have you seen Nonie?”
He hadn’t even thought about it. “I was talking to her when I saw the flames . You mean she’s not in the cabin?”
“She’s not anywhere, Cartwright. No one has seen her since before the fire started other than you. What were you talking about? Did you upset her?”
“No. Well…maybe. I tried to get her to see that she wasn’t giving Carrie a chance.” Joe paused. “Maybe I said one or two things I shouldn’t have.”
The older man paled. “Oh, God. She’s run away.”
He frowned. “Why would you think that?”
Neville shook his head. “Mister Cartwright, I have known Nonie since she was a child. She is incapable of facing things that go contrary to what she believes – at least at first. One time when she and Robert had a fight, it took him two days to find her.”
Joe looked at the surrounding countryside, at the fields of snow and the ice dangling from the tree branches. “You think she went off into – that?”
The brown-haired man drew in a breath and let it out slowly and noisily. “You stay with Carrie. I know the territory and am used to navigating in the snow. I’ll go look for her.”
“I’ll come with you, Joe.” It was Ballard, freshly returned from housing the cow on the other side of the house.
He nodded his thanks. “Tell Carrie not to worry. We’ll find Nonie and bring her back.”
Neville caught his arm. “Safe.”
Joe agreed. “Safe.”
As Neville moved toward the cabin, Ballard asked, “Where do we start?”
Joe pointed toward the bower of pines. “Where I left her. There, on the edge of the lake.”
She had run as far as fast as she could, moving along the edge of the lake, headed nowhere, until her heart felt like it would burst out of her chest. Nonie paused to catch her breath, breathing in the cold crisp air that burnt her nose and lungs, and then she took off again. She didn’t know where she was running to, she only knew why – she had to escape. She had to escape both the memories that had driven her for nearly fifteen years and the reality they had driven her toward. She didn’t know what to do. She loved her mother and wanted her with her. She hated the old woman and wanted nothing more than to get as far away from her as she could. This land was part and parcel of her heart, but she hated it too because it had been more important to her mother and her father than her desire to stay with them. She wanted to sell it as quickly as she could – to be rid of it and everything it represented – and she wanted to stay on it forever. Nonie lifted her gloved hands and placed them against her head to stop it from spinning off.
Most of all, she hated Joe Cartwright for making her face herself, warts and all.
But she thought – maybe – she loved him a little bit too, and that frightened her.
Her life in New York had trained her to be a lady and to bed a man who mattered. As her aunt and uncle’s sole heir, she stood to inherit hundreds of thousands of dollars and they wanted to make sure the man she married was the right kind of man. Robert had barely passed muster. He was a businessman and, as such, showed potential, but he was not landed or set up in a lucrative concern or any such thing. She had met him at a social gathering staged by the mayor of the great city and had been drawn to his quiet steady personality and his devotion to his work. When they married, all thought of going home – back to where she had been born – faded away. But when Robert died something had been awakened in her and she had felt the need of family. So she had hired the private detective and found out that her mother was alive and decided to come out to the Piney Woods…. Well, she wasn’t sure what for. She told herself it was to bring her mother back to New York, to give her a better life.
Joe Cartwright’s words shamed her. ‘Just look in a mirror,’ he’d said. Wasn’t she, by making this choice for her mother, doing exactly what she accused the older woman of doing to her? If she took Carrie Pickett off of her mountain and away from the grave of her beloved Amos for her own good, how was that any different than her mother sending her away for hers?
Nonie stopped. She leaned her head back against the bole of a tree and looked at the sky. The wide open spaces, the brilliant stars and the silver moon made her feel small and insignificant. Joe was right, she was a spoiled brat. She’d been gone several hours. No doubt the others were hunting her. She had risked her life and put theirs in jeopardy by her childish prank and it was time to go back to the cabin. She shivered and then straightened up and turned in a tight circle. Unfortunately, she had no idea which direction the cabin lay in.
She was completely lost.
Joe pushed through the snow and the trees, following the tracks of Nonie Landes’ boots. They were unmistakable with their narrow shanks and tiny precise heels. The woman from New York wasn’t dressed for the weather and had to be cold and even more likely, miserable. He had gone to the cabin and found an extra coat and carried it with him. The last thing he needed was for her to develop frostbite. Added to the aftereffects of the frost nip from the day before, it could leave her with permanent damage.
Joe halted and bent to examine the tracks. The snow was blowing and drifting and doing its best to erase any sign of her passage. It looked like Nonie had continued to follow the edge of the lake. Rising, Joe did the same, pressing into the wind even as it rose and began to howl again heralding, regrettably, a return of the storm.
Before he moved on, he cupped his gloved hands around his mouth and called, “Nonie! Nonie, it’s Joe Cartwright! If you can hear me, answer me! Nonie!”
He and Ballard had split about a half mile back, Ballard moving deeper into the trees. He wondered if the other man realized yet that he was on the wrong track and if he had turned back. If he returned, the two of them could walk apace twenty feet or so apart and cover the ground more quickly. Another hour or two’s exposure wouldn’t do any of them any good. The temperature was dropping as the night deepened. It would soon be cold enough to freeze any exposed skin. Nonie, in her fashionable riding jacket and pants would stand little chance.
Joe moved another hundred feet or so forward and called again, knowing that the howling wind might have eclipsed his voice before.
This time he got a reply. “Joe?”
Adrenaline pushed him forward. In places the snow was piled knee-deep. “Nonie?”
“Joe,” her voice was weak. “Over here….”
“Keep talking. Nonie, come on, say something!”
“I’m over here, by the bent over tree.”
He stopped and looked in all directions, and then he thought he spotted it. A tall tree, partially destroyed by lightning, with the dead half bending down like an old man picking up sticks.
“I see it! Stay where you are. I’m coming!”
When Joe reached the tree, he found her sitting under it, half-buried by blowing snow. Nonie’s teeth were chattering and she was shaking like a leaf in a strong October wind. Kneeling beside her, he lifted her to her feet and wrapped her in the heavy coat he had carried with him. Then he removed her gloves and began to chafe her hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he did. “I shouldn’t have said those things to you.”
“No, you were right. I am selfish and spoiled and –”
“Hurting. Just like your mother.” Joe frowned as he looked at her fingertips. The lightweight gloves she had been wearing did little to protect them. Reaching down, he opened his jacket and then took hold of her hands and shoved them inside.
“What are you doing?” she asked, going stiff.
“Body heat,” he grinned. “Nothing like it. If you want to keep the tips of those pretty fingers, don’t complain.”
She nodded and then, a moment later, rested her head on his chest. The words were quiet when they came. “Joe, tell me what to do.”
“Everything,” she sighed. “Mother. Jason Milburn. The Piney Woods.”
He lifted one hand and cupped it around her head. “You know what to do, Nonie.”
“No. No, I don’t.”
Joe added his other hand. He forced her head up so she had to meet his eyes. “Yes, you do. Do what’s right by you – and your mother.”
Her arms shifted inward, reaching around his back, drawing him in closer. She looked up with tears in her eyes. “I’m tired of making decisions. It’s all I’ve done since Robert died. Joe, you make it for me.”
“I can’t do that,” he said, stroking her hair, struck by the way its amber color turned a deep teal in the moonlight. “My Pa taught me that we shape our own lives and that the choices we make in the end are our own responsibility. Nonie, I….”
Her face was close to his. Her lips, open and inviting. Her fingers spread wide, encompassing his back as she pulled him into the embrace. Even as he bent to kiss her, he asked himself why – she was cantankerous and stubborn, had nearly bit his head off, and could have gotten him killed.
‘Joe Cartwright, if I had me twenty years….’
That was why.
“What’ a you think, Pa?”
They’d traveled for several hours by the moon and had reached a pass where the snow was piled up to their horse’s forearms. The going was tough. Ben knew they should stop, but something pressed him on. He hoped, when they got to Carrie Pickett’s, that he would be proven wrong and that he would walk in the cabin and find his son sitting with the old woman enjoying a hot meal. Joe would look at him, laughter crinkling the edges of those green eyes, not angry but understanding. His youngest boy had mellowed over the years. Joe knew he thought him a man now, and so Joe also knew that any time he followed him, or tracked him down, it was not out of the fear that he could not take care of himself, but out of a need of his own.
Pulling back on the reins, he walked Buck out of the drift he had pushed into. “I think we should let the horses rest, maybe get an hour or two of shut-eye, and then move on. Dawn can’t be too far away.”
Hoss indicated the north with a nod. “I don’t like the look of that there sky, Pa. It’s angry as a bear nosed out of its honey.”
“I see it. The storm looks to be a few hours away. “Hopefully we’ll make it to Joe before it hits.”
“Right.” The big man swung out of the saddle. “I’ll get a fire goin’.”
“Put on some coffee, son.”
“What’re you gonna do, Pa, stick your feet and fingers in it?”
Ben glanced at his son and smiled.
“I just might.”
A noise made Joe pull back from the embrace. Nonie turned with him toward the source. A moment later Ballard Peak appeared, stepping out from between two snow-covered pines, his rifle in his hand.
“I see you found her!” he called as he waved.
Joe looked down and then gently disengaged her hands. He smiled as he gave her gloves back. “You better put those on.”
She nodded and did what he said. A moment later, looking at Ballard she apologized. “I’m sorry for dragging you out here. I was very foolish.”
“Well, we found you and we’re all alive, so no harm done.” The large man nodded toward the area of the cabin. “I say we get in before that storm hits.”
“I agree,” Joe said. He looked at Nonie. She had taken a step forward and then stopped. “Are you going to be okay?”
She was frowning. “My feet hurt.”
He looked again at her boots. They were definitely not made for snow. Joe glanced at Ballard and then said softly, “It could be frostbite. We need to get you back. Can you walk?”
Putting on a brave front, she said, “Of course, I can walk. What kind of question is that?”
The normal fire just wasn’t there.
Moving quickly, and before she could stop him, Joe caught her in his arms and lifted her up. He expected her to protest more and when she didn’t, knew she was in trouble.
“Come on, Ballard, let’s get her back to where its warm.”
“I’ll take the rear,” the other man said, hefting his rifle. “Let me know if you need me to take her.”
Joe nodded his thanks and they began to walk.
It took them nearly an hour to get back. By the time they reached Carrie’s cabin he was exhausted. Nonie had grown very quiet and he had carried her the entire way, stopping only a few times to catch his breath. When he’d left the Ponderosa four days before he couldn’t have guessed what this visit to the old woman would bring – an early snowstorm, the threats to Carrie and her land, Ballard Peak accidentally shooting him, Nonie and Neville, the fire, and the walk through the snow. He believed in the hand of God. His father had told him before how many times he had seen things line up so God’s purpose would be fulfilled. He wondered now if this was one of those times – if his being here was the pivot that events were turning on.
He just wondered what outcome the Almighty had in mind.
“I see it, Joe,” Ballard remarked as the cabin itself came into view. “Why don’t you let me take her?”
He halted and stood there, holding her. Nonie had been with him so long, it almost felt like he was surrendering a part of himself. She was not much of a burden – probably only a little over one hundred pounds – but his head wound was throbbing and he had begun to shake, so he knew he was near exhausted himself.
When he nodded, Ballard strapped his gun on and reached out. He took Nonie in his arms and then turned and headed for the cabin. There was a light burning in the window. Hard as it was to be the one who was missing, Joe knew from experience it was even harder to be the one waiting for news. As he watched, the door opened and Carrie appeared, followed closely by Neville. They stood aside as Ballard entered, bearing Nonie in his arms. Neville followed.
Carrie remained behind, waiting for him.
Concern radiated out of her eyes when she looked at him. “Joe. How are you, boy?”
“Tired,” he had to admit. Then with a snort he added, “Really tired.”
“You need to come on in and get yourself some rest.”
“I will, after I check the animals.”
Her hands went to her hips. “Does your pa drive you as hard as you drive yourself?”
“I had to learn it somewhere,” he replied with a half-smile. After a pause Joe said, “You haven’t asked about your daughter.”
She looked away. “You would ‘a told me if somethin’ was wrong.”
“She may have frostbite.” When she turned toward him, he added, “You’re going to have to watch her fingers and toes. I kept her as warm as I could, but Nonie – Anne – was out there and in city clothes for a long time.”
“You might as well call her Nonie, Joe. I think my Anne is dead.”
He laid a hand on her shoulder. “She’s only dead if you want her to be, Carrie. Anne’s a lot like you. She’s stubborn and quick-tempered and a little bit selfish.” He waited for her to bristle and then smiled. “Because she is also quick to be hurt and cares so deeply that she has to protect herself.” He leaned over and planted a kiss on her hair. “In other words, Carrie Pickett, your daughter is just like you.”
She smacked him. “You go get those chores done, boy, or you won’t get any supper.”
Joe saluted. “Yes, Ma’am. I won’t be long.”
As he rounded the left side of the cabin to check on the cow, Joe fished in his pocket for treats. He’d make his rounds, finishing up at the corral. He’d built a kind of lean-to there the spring before and all of their horses were stabled in it. He wanted to make sure Cochise was okay. The Paint wasn’t used to being out in the cold.
It took him about fifteen minutes. Some of the chickens had escaped their temporary housing. If it hadn’t been so cold, he would have left them to forage on their own. With the snow on the ground their pickings were going to be slim and so he chased them down, feeling for all the world like a little boy again sent out by pa to do a simple chore. When the last of the independent fowl were back in their shelter, he headed for the corral and the horses. As he drew near he heard Cochise snort. At first he thought it was because the Paint was happy to catch his scent but, as he drew closer, Joe saw the shadow of a man moving among the animals.
He watched a moment and then shouted, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
The shadow halted and then turned his way. He sensed almost more than saw the movement of their hand toward their belt. Quicker than lightning Joe dropped just as a bullet cut through the air where he had been standing. He lay in the snow, panting. There was no way of knowing what kind of gun the man had. It probably had at least six shots. Joe looked around. The closest shelter was the well. He hesitated a second and then scrambled for it. Another bullet struck the snow just past his boots. With the second one, a shout went up from the house and a moment later Ballard appeared in the door with his gun drawn.
“Joe, you okay?”
“Someone’s in the corral!”
Even as he shouted it Joe heard what he had feared – the corral gate opened, the gun went off again and, skittish and scared, the horses ran out into the cold, snow-blown night.
The morning dawned brilliant, crisp and clear. The threatened storm of the night before failed to materialize and it looked like the early snow might be over. Ben Cartwright shifted in his saddle. He was waiting for Hoss to return from a trip to the trees. Luck or God was with them because the trail ahead, leading to Carrie Pickett’s land, was fairly clear. It all depended on the direction of the wind and the snow. The horses still had to pick their way through ankle-deep piles and the going was almost unbearably slow, but there were no more knee or elbow-high drifts to work their way through.
Ben looked up at the sun. It was a little past noon. They’d traveled as hard and as fast as their own and their animal’s strength would allow. He figured they were about four hours out, maybe less if the path before them remained clear. Four hours. A lot could happen in four hours if it hadn’t happened already. Jason Milburn’s henchman, Marks, would have arrived at the cabin the night before and that was plenty of time for a man like him to work mischief.
Hoss was taking his seat on Chubb. “Ready, Pa,” his son said as he settled into the saddle. “Let’s go find Little Joe.”
Ben nodded as he pressed his heels into Buck’s side.
Yes, indeed, four hours was a long time.
The sleeping arrangements had been interesting to say the least. With the barn gone, all of them were confined in Carrie’s cabin. Nonie, who was recovering nicely, occupied Carrie’s bed, while the older woman slept in the chair by the fire. Neville had positioned himself on the floor beside the bed, as if seeking to protect the young woman it was obvious he loved. Ballard had pulled a chair over to the door and sat in it, keeping watch, while Joe had crawled into the corner on the opposite side of the cabin, near the blanket that still covered the portion of the burnt-out wall he had not had time to replace, and fallen asleep even before he could remove his hat.
When Joe awoke, half the day was gone.
It was the scent of coffee and cooking that did it. He pried his eyelids open and looked and found Carrie serving the midday meal to Ballard and Neville. Nonie was awake, but still in bed. When he stirred, the older woman put the dishes down on the table and crossed over to him.
As he started to rise, she said, “Now you just sit yourself back down, Joe Cartwright, and let me look at that wound.”
“I’m fine, Carrie.”
A hand on his shoulder held him down. “You let me be the judge of that, boy.” She parted his hair with her fingers and shoved the portion that dangled on his forehead back. A second later she pressed a finger to the gash.
He said ‘Ouch!” before she had time to ask if it hurt.
Carried made a clucking noise with her tongue. “You need a doctor to be lookin’ at that, Joe. It’s angry.”
He pushed her hand away. “I’m all right.”
She looked at him and softly chided, “Now look who’s bein’ stubborn.”
Joe laughed as he rose. “I promise you, Carrie, the minute I’m no longer needed on my feet, I’ll get off of them and rest. But right now, I need to get outside and see if I can accomplish at least one task I came here to do before I have to head back to the Ponderosa.”
She shook her head. “I’m gonna hate to see you go, Joe.”
“The offer still stands, Carrie. You can come with me and spend the winter at the ranch house with us. We’d love to have you.”
“Now what would you men do with a disagreeable old woman like me?”
He touched her cheek. “Make you feel like one of the family. Although, you’d have to stay out of the kitchen,” he added as removed his hand. “Hop Sing would skin me alive if I brought anyone home to do the cooking. You’d just have to make your mind up that you could stand being treated like a queen.”
“A queen,” she sighed. Then she looked toward the bed. “If’n I were a queen, my Anne wouldn’t be ashamed of me.”
“Now, Carrie Pickett, you listen to me. Anne is not ashamed of you. She’s scared, just like you are. And if one of you doesn’t back down, you’re gonna miss what time you could have left together.” He touched her nose with his finger. “Now just you think about that, old woman!”
A hand went to her hip. “You lookin’ to be smacked again, boy?”
He raised his hands in surrender. “Not me. I’ll just go out and get kicked by the cow or something. It will hurt less.”
As he crossed the room, he noticed Nonie raise a hand. It took a second, but he realized she was beckoning him. When he got there, he perched on the side of the bed.
“What can I do for you?”
She looked at her hands and then up at him. “I wanted to…thank you for what you said last night.”
“And what was that?”
“That I was doing the same thing my mother did to me – making a choice for her without consulting her because I thought it was for the best.”
He smiled. “See. I knew Carrie Pickett’s child would be right smart.”
She returned it, weakly. “I’ve decided…. Well, I told Neville this morning while you were sleeping that I can’t go through with it. The moment I get back to civilization, I’ll wire Mister Milburn and tell him the deal of off.”
Joe’s smile turned into a puzzled frown. He knew Nonie had been communicating with Milburn – but a deal? “And what deal is that?” he asked, wary. “Does this have to do with what you told me about ‘implying’ you would sell him the land?”
She drew a breath and let it out slowly. “I…. I gave Mister Milburn permission to have his men harass my mother, so she would decide she could no longer live here alone and would come with me when I asked her too.” Her face pinched. “You know how she is. I knew she wouldn’t go with me voluntarily.”
He kept his voice level. “And then he could have the land.”
“Like I said, it wasn’t a part of the deal, still, I all but promised him he could.” She shrugged. “What was I going to do with it, living in New York?”
It all started to fall in place. The dry well that couldn’t be fixed, the fire that burned one side of the house, the animals let out of their pens, and the fire of the night before. There was someone, owing to or owned by Jason Millburn, who was here on Carrie’s property causing ‘accidents’.
He shook his head. “Nonie, I think it’s already too late.”
She frowned. “What do you mean, Joe?’
“I think – no, I know someone working for Milburn is here, right now. There’s no other explanation for the burning of the barn last night.”
“It could have started by accident.”
“No. It burned too quickly. That fire was set.”
“Joe, no! I told him I didn’t want anyone hurt.”
He took hold of her hand. “Jason Milburn wants this land and he doesn’t care what it takes to get it. He threatened personally to kill me last year to get another man to do what he wanted, and then he sicked his dog of a henchman on me and would have let Marks beat me to death if my pa hadn’t arrived.” Joe squeezed her fingers. “Nonie, these are evil men.”
Her voice was small. “Oh God, what have I done?”
Joe thought furiously. “We’ll just have to hold on. If I’m not back day after tomorrow, my pa will start worrying and be on his way. It takes a day from the Ponderosa to here.” He frowned. “Maybe two with this weather.”
“You’re sure he’ll come?”
“Pa’s got this inner sense when it comes to me and my brothers. It’s like he’s sitting on coals.” He laughed. “Trust me, he’ll come.”
Nonie looked out into the room. Neville was rising from the table and Ballard was by the washstand tossing water on his face and chasing it with a towel. “Should we tell the others?”
“Not Neville. He’s frightened enough.” Joe looked toward the door. “I’ll take Ballard outside and fill him in. Between the two of us, we ought to be able to keep watch.”
As he rose, she caught his hand. “Be careful, Joe.”
Again, he squeezed her fingers. “Always.” Then he turned and called “Hey, Ballard!”
“What is it, Joe?” the other man replied.
“I’m going to see what I can do about finishing up this wall. You want to come help?”
“Sure. Let me get my coat.”
Joe hadn’t really paid attention to the time of day he had awakened, though he thought it was around noon. He was surprised to find that the sun was already heading for the horizon and the temperature had moderated enough he was too hot in Amos’ heavy coat. He pulled it off and placed it on a peg next to the traps hanging by Carrie’s door and then followed Ballard around the house to the burned-out side. All around them the snow glinted and glistened. The top layer of it was melting and water dripped from the sod roof of the cabin. It felt good. Though wild wintry days had their charm, there was nothing like sunshine and fresh air to make a body feel refreshed and ready for whatever was to come.
Or so he thought.
As he came around the corner, Joe heard a rifle hammer cock. It took him a moment to realize that it was Ballard and he had his gun up and ready and pointed in his direction.
Joe looked behind. “You see something?”
Ballard waited until he turned back. “Yeah. You.”
It took him a split second too long to clue into what was happening. By the time Joe thought to move, the other man had the barrel of the rifle pointed at his midsection where a bullet would do the most damage. His next thought was to shout, but he realized he couldn’t do that – it would bring Carrie and maybe Nonie out. He couldn’t put the women in jeopardy, and from he had seen of Neville, the man would be more trouble than help.
“Back there when you first shot me, that wasn’t an accident, was it?” he asked softly.
Ballard shrugged. “It was an accident that I missed.”
“So why didn’t you kill me sooner?”
The other man sneered. “Who says I want to kill you?”
Joe frowned. “I suppose you’re working for Jason Milburn.”
“You’d suppose wrong, Cartwright. He’s working for me,” a new voice said.
He didn’t have to turn around. He knew who it was.
Several options flew through Joe’s mind as he turned toward Milburn’s henchman. He could rush him, but then Ballard was behind him with an already primed and loaded gun. He could goad Ballard into shooting and hope he could get out of the way fast enough that the bullet would take Marks instead of him. He could make a frontal attack on Ballard, taking out the rifle and then run as fast as he could for cover. But then that presupposed that Marks didn’t also have a weapon primed and loaded. He would have a clear shot. He could wait, talk to them, buy time until someone came out of the cabin. That, of course, put whoever came out in peril of their lives.
Or, he could try to get Marks to turn on Jason Milburn.
“I don’t understand, Marks. Why are you working for Milburn again?” he asked, his hands still raised. “He didn’t care enough to keep you out of jail. What do you care whether he gets this land or not? I bet he’s not cutting you in on the profits from the sale of the timber.”
Marks came closer. Joe remembered the man’s face. His eyes were cold and the only lines around his mouth were ones formed by cruel laughter. The henchman swaggered up to him and held his gaze. “Oh, Milburn’s payin’ me right enough, Cartwright. He’s payin’ me well. And Jason promised me a bonus for getting the old woman off her land. You want to know what it is?”
There was liquor on the man’s breath. That made him even more dangerous.
“Okay,” Joe said, buying time, “what bonus did Milburn promise you?”
Marks reached out and took him by the throat.
“That I get to kill you real slow.”
Nonie Picket Landes had crossed over to where her mother was working and stood behind her. The older woman was concentrating on what she was doing and didn’t know she was there. It amazed her to find that she was taller than her mother and had to look down. She remembered looking up at the stern blond woman before and thinking she’d never grow so tall. The older woman’s shoulders were stooped with age and her skin – that pale perfect skin she remembered – was spotty and so thin the veins showed through. Her hair was no longer blond but an odd combination of straw yellow, white and gray.
So many years had gone by.
Her hand reached out to touch her, but she hesitated, unsure of the reception she would receive. Instead she said quietly, “Mother…. Mama, I think we need to talk.”
She watched her stiffen. “We ain’t got nothin’ to talk about,” the old woman replied, her voice slightly sulky.
Nonie drew a breath. She had decided that she had to be the adult in this. Her mother was trying to drive her away and to avoid talking by being intractable.
She should know, she’d employed the same tool often enough.
“Let me put it another way. I need you to listen to me. I would like to apologize.”
Her mother halted what she was doing for a second as if surprised. As she started to stir whatever she was cooking again, she asked, “What you got to apologize for?”
The woman with the amber-colored hair paused. This was hard. “For trying to make a choice for you without considering your feelings or your wishes.”
The older woman’s eyes flicked to her face and then back to the food. “What choice?”
She wasn’t going to make this easy. “To go back East with me. I….” Again, a breath. “I thought I wanted you with me – and I do – but I realize now that I wanted to take you away from this place even more, because I always believed that it meant more to you than I did. I wanted to…hurt you like you and Papa hurt me by sending me away.”
Her mother swung about to look at her. She looked tired and very old. There were tears in her eyes. “That weren’t it, child. That weren’t it. Your pa and me, we wanted…more for you. More than we could give you.” The older woman smiled. “Look at you. You’re a lady, all clean and gussied up in fancy clothes. You talk right good and don’t smell like a month of Sundays spent with the hogs.” She paused. “We couldn’t give you nothin’.”
Nonie’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Nothing but love. Mama, Uncle Eleazar and Aunt Ruth gave me money, but…they never gave me love. They never let me forget I was the poor relation taken in as charity, or that I had to repay them by marrying well. By marrying into society. They…grudgingly approved of Robert, but they never made him feel like a son.”
“That be your husband? Robert?”
She reached out and took hold of the older woman’s hand. “Was, Mama. Was. Remember, Robert’s dead.”
“Oh, child, how could I forget….”
“We were only married a few years. It was a cancer,” she said, choking back tears. “The thing is, I didn’t realize I had my own cancer eating away at me, slowly destroying me from within.” She drew in a breath that turned into a sob. “I wanted so to be with you, but all I could see was this land, this Piney Wood and the house Papa built. And all I could think was that they had both been more important than me.”
The older woman just stared at her – and opened her arms.
Nonie fell into them. “Oh, mama….”
“Hush, child. Hush. There’s no harm done. I’m here and I ain’t goin’ nowheres. You let it out.”
She did. She cried until her body was wracked with sobs, and then cried more until they fell off to simple tears. Pulling back at last, she used her sleeve to wipe her eyes and nose and then smiled like a little girl who felt very, very foolish.
The older woman took her hands. “Let me look at you. If you don’t have your Pa’s eyes.”
“How long ago…how long ago did he die?”
Her mother’s face grew wistful. “It’s been three years and more my Amos left me. He took ill and weren’t no doctor to look after him. I…tried my best….”
“I’m sure you did all you could, Mama. I’m sure Papa knew that.”
She nodded. “It seems you and me got sorrow in common, child.”
“Nonie?” a tentative voice called.
She turned, still holding her mother’s hands. “Yes, Neville?”
“I’m going to see if Ballard and Mister Cartwright need any help.”
“All right. Oh, Neville?”
He turned back. “Yes.”
“Tell Joe ‘thank you’ for me. He’ll know what it’s for.”
When she turned back, her mother was eyeing her strangely. “You like that boy, don’t you?”
She blinked. “Who?”
“That Joe Cartwright.”
“He’s been…kind to me.” Nonie paused and then laughed. “No, he hasn’t. He told me I was a spoiled brat who needed spanking!”
“Joe said that?”
“He was right too. Oh, maybe not about the spanking part – I don’t think he was serious about that – but he opened my eyes to just how childish I was being, clinging to a past and an idea of why it happened that had nothing to do with reality.”
“He’s a keeper, that boy. I ain’t met anyone like him since you Pa.”
Nonie looked toward the door. The late afternoon sun was streaming in the window. It must be about four o’clock. “Haven’t Joe and Mister Ballard been gone a long time?”
“You know men folk. They’ll drive themselves into the dirt to prove a job can be done. I imagine they’ll be gettin’ hungry soon and we’ll see ‘em then.” Her mother paused. “There. Hear that? That’s one of ‘em comin’ now.
A second later the door flew open. Neville Greaves ran inside and slammed it and dropped the bar into place.
Nonie moved toward him. “Neville, what is it?”
He was breathing hard. “Ballard…and another man…they have Mister Cartwright.”
‘Ballard? What do you mean?”
“Mrs. Pickett!” a voice called from without the cabin. “Mrs. Pickett, can you hear me?”
Nonie exchanged a glance with her mother and then followed the older woman over to the window beside the door. Her mother shifted the curtain aside. She couldn’t see anything.
“I’m here!” the older woman called back. “What do you scum want?”
“I don’t want anything, Mrs. Pickett, but your friend Joe Cartwright might. He might want you to open that door, otherwise he’s going to lose his brains to a bullet.”
As Nonie watched Ballard Peak and then another dark-haired man moved into view. A man dangled between them, obviously unconscious. The second man pointed his gun at their victim’s curly brown head.
She gripped her mother’s arm. “It’s Joe!”
“I’m not a patient man, Mrs. Pickett. I’m going to give you to a count of five. One….”
“Mama, you have to open the door!”
“No!” Neville shook his head. “They’ll kill all of us!”
“They’ll kill Joe, Mama! You can’t let them do that!”
Her mother stared Neville down and went to the door and opened it even as the man outside shouted, “Five!”
“It’s open, you scoundrel. Now you let that boy alone!”
Nonie crowded into the doorway beside her. Joe’s head was hanging down, his chin resting on his chest. She couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. Glancing at her mother she said, “Mama, I have go to him!”
“You stay put, child. Those rascals are comin’ our way.”
Her mother was right. Ballard and the other man were advancing toward them, dragging Joe through the fallen snow. The two of them fell back as the men entered the cabin. The man with Ballard released his grip and the big man – the man whom she had thought of as a friend – pitched Joe into the cabin like a sack of potatoes. Joe’s body hit with a thud and he lay still.
Her mother moved to stand between him and the pair. “You didn’t have to hurt the boy!”
“Oh, I’m going to do far more than hurt him,” Ballard’s companion promised. “I’m just going to do it slowly and enjoy every minute of it.”
“I know you, don’t I?” the older woman asked. “You’re Marks, that scum Jason Milburn hired last year to throw me off of my land!”
He tipped his hat. “Victor Marks, at your service, Miss Carrie. And yours, Miss Landes. I understand my salary is coming from you.”
Her mother rounded on her, astonished. “Say it ain’t so, Anne.”
Nonie’s jaw tightened. “I made a mistake. I told Mister Milburn to do what he had to do to get you off of your land. But I made him promise no one would be hurt!”
Nonie walked up to the villain. “Mister Marks, whatever Jason Milburn is paying you, I will pay you twice as much if you will leave now and give my mother no more trouble.”
He considered it and then shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Ma’am.”
“Why not?” she snapped. “I understood that with men like you money was everything.”
“Almost everything.” Marks shoved his hat back on his head. “I may be ‘scum’ but I have a reputation to maintain. Now, if I was to take your money and go, I doubt you’d let me finish off young Cartwright here.”
“What’s Joe done to you?” she demanded.
The look out of his eyes truly frightened her. “Made me lose. And I don’t like to lose.”
“Leave him alone and I will give you three times as much.”
Marks sneered. “A man can only spend so much money. You keep it and buy Cartwright here a fancy stone for his grave.” Turning then, he ordered, “Ballard, get him up!”
“No!” she shouted as she ran to stop him.
Ballard Peak, a foot taller and five times as strong, back-handed her, knocking her out of the way.
Neville had been standing by, watching everything unfold. Nonie hadn’t given him much thought, knowing he wasn’t the type to intervene.
She was wrong.
“You leave her alone, you brigand!” Neville shouted as he rushed the villain by the door.
There was a shot. Neville crumpled to the floor.
Nonie forgot to breathe.
The barrel of Marks’ gun swung from her mother to her and back. “Now, are either of you ladies going to try anything foolish?” He waited. “Very wise.” Turning slightly, Milburn’s henchman said, “Drag Cartwright outside, Ballard, and then come back here and take over. He and I have some unfinished business that’s going to be finished now!”
Joe fought to keep quiet. Marks had worked him over, punching him hard in the stomach several times while Ballard held him. He had actually winked out for a few minutes, but had come to as they dragged him toward the cabin and was only pretending to be unconscious. It had been all he could do not to react when Ballard struck Nonie and drove her to the ground, but he knew – he knew he had to remain on the defensive if he intended to keep on living.
Marks meant to kill him.
From under lidded eyes he’d watched Neville Greaves first charge Ballard and then fall with a bullet from Marks’ gun in his belly. The older man had gurgled once or twice and fallen silent. Joe had no doubt he was dead. That left him and two defenseless women against Marks and Ballard and who knew how many more men they might have outside.
He had to keep his wits about him or they would all end up dead.
Nonie had begun to cry. Marks had forced her and her mother over to the bed where they sat huddled together. Nonie leaned her head on Carrie’s shoulder. At least, if he died, he had lived to see that. Carrie would be okay. Her Anne would take care of her.
He could rest in peace.
Joe felt Ballard catch hold of his ankles. A second later the man began to drag him to the door. He’d have to wait until they were outside to make a move. If one man remained in the cabin, they could use the women as a hostage. He needed to think of some way to get them both outside.
Ballard had reached the door. Joe’s head thunked against the wooden threshold as the tall man dragged him over it. The action caused it to throb with pain and made it difficult to think. What could he do? Marks intended to change places with Ballard once the big man had him in the yard. If he ran, they’d kill the women. If he tried to fight back, it would be the same thing.
Joe had a flash of playing chess with Adam.
“Pa, how close do you think we are?”
Ben looked at the horizon. The sun was beginning to set. The path had grown more treacherous the higher they climbed, and they were running several hours behind when he thought they would arrive. “I’d say maybe a half to a whole hour out. It’s hard to say in this weather.” Their horses were growing weary just as he and his son were. Still, he had a sense there was no time to waste – no time to rest. They had to press on.
“You’re right sure somethin’s wrong, ain’t you, Pa?”
He nodded. He could feel it in his bones.
“Well, then, what’re we waitin’ for? Let’s go get Little Joe.”
As his son and his mount pressed past him, Ben lifted his head up and looked to Heaven.
“Keep Joe until we get there, Lord. Keep him safe.”
Joe reeled from a blow to the head that set his teeth to rattling. Ballard Peak stood halfway in and halfway out the door, keeping an eye to the women but enjoying the beating he was taking at Marks’ hands. He couldn’t understand how he’d been so wrong about Ballard. He’d seemed a trustworthy sort. But then again, he’d learned the lesson years ago that people were often something other than they seemed.
Though it appeared he had not learned it well enough.
Another blow, this time to the back with a thick branch drove him face forward into the snow. He’d tried to fight back but found – at the last minute and the worst time – that his strength was ebbing. The night in the open carrying Nonie had taken a lot out of him. Coupled with the head wound and a lack of food, he found it was nearly impossible to fight off Marks’ relentless attack. There were also the women to think about. One time, when it seemed he might get the upper hand, Marks had sent Ballard into the house and he had returned with Nonie. Ballard had waited until he looked and then placed a gun against her head before taking her back inside.
The threat was clear.
And so, there was nothing he could do but take it – take the blows to the head, to his side, to his back and legs, the unending, unrelenting brutal blows that were withering. He was on his knees now, fighting to stand, to continue to fight, to be a man. In his mind he knew he was. In his mind he could fight forever.
Unfortunately, the spirit was stronger than the flesh.
Joe lay flat out in the snow, the blood pouring from his reopened head wound running free and staining it. He lay there, spent, unmoving, unable to respond when Marks took his foot and turned him over and placed the barrel of his gun against his head.
The villain sneered. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Cartwright? Clean and quick. Well, you ain’t gonna get it.” Marks leaned in and lifted his head by his hair and whispered, “I got other plans for you.”
Joe grunted and knew no more.
Nonie had pressed her hands against her ears to shut out the sound of hands, of feet, of wood striking flesh. Near the end Joe had cried out and she’d run to the open door, only to be caught by Ballard Peaks and restrained. She’d seen him fall. Seen the blood running away from his head wound, coloring the snow. Seen Marks kneel and press the barrel of his pistol into that curly brown hair.
Marks said something and then rose and looked at her. “She wants to see him so bad, let her come, Ballard. Let them both come.”
Her mother spoke a word of caution, but Nonie ignored it. She ran out of the house and straight to Joe’s side. He lay silent and still as the snow that surrounded him. Touching his back, she felt the beat of life, though it was slow and the thread that tied him to Earth was stretched thin.
“Bastard!” she snarled.
“Well, well, Miss Carrie. It seems your little girl has gone and found herself a new man. Too bad this one’s gonna die just like the last one.”
“You let Joe go, you vermin!” her mother shouted.
Marks’ gaze went to Ballard.
“Shut the old woman up.”
Nonie turned just in time to see her mother backhanded into the cabin. Torn, she waited only a moment, and then sprang to her feet and ran toward her. Ballard caught her easily in one arm and held her with her feet off the ground.
“What should I do with this one?” he asked.
Marks walked over to her. “You offered me three times what Jason Milburn was paying me, Mrs. Landes. You know, I just think we’ll take it all. I bet that rich uncle of yours would pay anything to get you back.”
Nonie struggled in the large man’s arms. “You let me go!”
“Tie her up, Ballard. And stop that mouth!”
As the man she had thought was her friend bound her hands and then tore a strip off the edge of her blouse to gag her with, Nonie watched Victor Marks grab Joe by the collar and haul him over to the dry well. While Joe was laying on the ground, Marks wrapped the well rope around him and then lifted him up and balanced the semi-unconscious man on the edge of the wooden surround.
“Have a good trip, Cartwright,” he sneered as he put a hand to his chest and shoved.
Nonie stared in horror as the rope played out and then jerked to a halt. Marks raised his gun and shot clean through it and then tossed the frayed end in after Joe.
“See you in Hell!”
“You hear that, Pa?”
Ben stiffened in the saddle. “It sounded like a shot.”
They were nearing Carrie’s place. They were maybe twenty minutes away. “It sure did.”
“Could be someone huntin’,” Hoss suggested.
He nodded. “Could be. Or it could be your brother, fighting for his life. Come on, Hoss. Let’s go!”
Joe swam in and out of consciousness. He was aware that he was in a cold dark place and that his right arm was bent unnaturally beneath him. There was something around his chest, constricting his breathing, and his mouth was full of the taste of blood.
Images swam before his eyes – his pa, worried, bending over him and telling him he had his ‘gift’. Adam, leaning over him too, apologizing, ‘Joe, I didn’t mean it. Joe.’ Hoss calling ‘little brother!’ looking for him, worried that he might be dead – all mixed with pictures from his past, visions of another time and a small boy with curly brown hair who was walking hand in hand with his ma.
‘It’s pretty here, Ma,’ the little boy said.
She looked down at him, her beautiful face glowing like the sun and surrounded by a halo of golden hair that billowed gently in the wind. Her fingers reached out and touched his face. ‘Petit Joseph, has your Maman told you lately how much she loves you?’
‘You’ve been away, Ma. I missed you so much.’
She knelt before him and took his shoulders in her hands. ‘Joseph, I have missed you too, more than you can know, but you must go back. Your Papa needs you.’
‘Pa’s got Adam and Hoss. He doesn’t need me.’ Joe lifted one gloved hand, reaching for this woman he had known so briefly and loved so much. When he spoke again, it was with the voice of a man. ‘It’s so peaceful here, Ma. Let me stay with you.’
Her hand moved to his cheek. The whisper of her kiss followed. “Your task is not done. You must return and cling to life. Never forget I love you, Joseph. Never forget, your Papa does too and he needs you – you, not Adam, not Hoss. You.’ His mother stood and took a step back, her hand still extended. ‘One day, Joseph, we will meet again….’
Joe struggled to catch hold of her hand. He felt her slipping away. ‘Ma. Ma…’
“Ma!” Joe gasped as he came back to a world of pain.
He was laying somewhere damp, his back pressed up against cold hard stone. He could feel the warmth being leeched from him as surely as if he was buried in ice. His arm felt like it was broken and his teeth were chattering. Shock was setting in. It wouldn’t be long – not long at all until he returned to his mother’s arms.
As he lost consciousness again, he had a thought.
He hoped she wouldn’t be cross.
Hoss reined his horse in and looked at his pa. They had just arrived at Carrie Pickett’s place. The door to the cabin was open and behind the cabin lay the smoldering wreck of what must have been a barn. There were chickens running loose in the yard and a cow bawling somewhere out of sight. His father returned his look, only the one out of the older man’s eyes was colored with fear.
“Check the cabin,” he ordered. “I’m going to check out what’s left of the barn.”
Hoss nodded as he dismounted and headed for the open door. Halfway there he stopped. “Pa.”
His father turned to look at him.
“Blood, Pa. A lot of it.”
The older man was at his side in seconds. He knelt and ran his fingers through the red snow. “Good Lord!” his pa breathed and then stood up abruptly. “Joe! Joseph! If you can hear me, answer! Joe!”
They remained where they were, listening. His father was about to call again, but Hoss caught his arm. “Pa, hush. Listen!”
The older man heard it too. A weak reply. It came from inside the cabin.
“Joe!” his father cried and ran.
Hoss followed close on his heels. He was just as shocked by what they found inside as the older man. A man’s body lay just beyond the threshold. The big man knelt and turned him over and saw that it was the stranger who had come visitin’ at the Ponderosa. There was a hole in Neville Greave’s middle and he was stone cold dead.
Thank God, it wasn’t Joe!
To one side, near the hearth, lay Carrie Pickett.
His father bent and rolled the older woman over. To his relief, she moaned as he did. “Hoss, get me some water!” he ordered. “Carrie. Carrie, can you hear me?”
She feebly lifted a hand. “Joe…?”
“No, Carrie, it’s Joe’s father, Ben. Where is Joe? Can you tell me?”
Tears streamed down her aged cheeks. “They took him.”
His father glanced at him. “They? Carrie, can you tell me who?”
“Ballard,” she said, “and…Marks.”
Hoss watched his father war with himself, caught between the need to find out what happened to Joe and pushing a weak, wounded older woman who needed most to rest to talk.
“Here’s the water, Pa,” he said as he handed him a cup.
His father shifted so he could lift Carrie up. He touched the cup to her lips and then helped her to drink. After a moment, she nodded her head.
“Carrie, can you answer a few more questions?” the older man asked.
She nodded again.
“Where? Where did they take Joe?”
This time her head shook. “…don’t know. They beat him. They beat him somethin’ awful….”
They both knew what that meant. Joe had humiliated Victor Marks the year before when he failed to muscle the land away from Carrie for Jason Milburn. Marks had meant to kill Joe.
He’d come back now to finish what he started then.
“Carrie, we didn’t find him anywhere outside,” his father said. “Did they take Joe somewhere?”
“They took Anne….” she wailed.
They looked at each other. “Anne, Miss Carrie?” Hoss asked. “Who’s Anne?”
“Just found the…girl again…. Now she’s lost….”
His father looked up at him. “She’s unconscious. Help me get her to the bed and fetch me some more water so I can clean the wound. Someone struck her hard. Her skin’s fragile and there’s a nasty gash.”
Hoss nodded and went back to the table where he’d found the pitcher with water in it. He found a basin and poured what was left of it in the bowl. It couldn’t have been more than a cup. “Ain’t much water here, Pa. Is this enough?”
“What about the wash stand?”
He went to look. “There’s plenty there, but it ain’t clean.”
His father had been sitting beside Carrie on the bed. He stood up and walked over to his side. “I saw a well out there. With the sun today, you might be able to break the ice and get something out of it.”
He shook his head. “Joe said the well’s dry. Has been since before he met Carrie.”
His father frowned. “Maybe some snow, then? We can melt it.”
“Sure thing, Pa.” He turned and looked at the dead man lying in the middle of the floor. “Pa!”
He pivoted. “Yes, son?
“Did you see, Pa? It’s that man what came to the house. Name of Neville.”
Ben walked over and looked.
“You’re right son, So maybe this Nonie and Anne are one and the same. I think Nonie is a nickname.” His pa frowned as he contemplated the meaning of it all. “Take Neville out. Bury him deep in a drift. It will keep his body until we can find time to give him a proper burial. Then bring back a pail of snow.” The white-haired man moved to the bed. “I’ll try to make Mrs. Pickett as comfortable as possible.”
“She gonna be okay, Pa?”
“I think so.”
Hoss returned to the dead man. Taking him by the heels, he pulled Neville out of the cabin and up into a deeply drifted snowbank. In spite of the cold, he was sweating by the time he was done. Moving back into the yard, the big man stopped to remove his hat and run a handkerchief over his forehead. As he did, his eyes fell on Miss Carrie’s dry well. Last spring Joe had said something about wanting to fix it for the old woman. He said everything was in place, it just didn’t have no water. Hoss frowned as he concentrated on the wooden structure surrounding the stone circle. Something wasn’t right. Walking over to it, he stood and looked at the well for a moment before he had it. The bucket was missing and the rope that held it was frayed and burned black. He fingered it and then looked at the wooden surround. There was no sign of a fire there, but there was something…something that looked like….
The big man drew a sharp breath and looked into the well.
Ben’s head came up. He had heard that kind of cry only a few times in his life – at the scene of an accident, on the battlefield. It held not only fear and horror, but the sure promise of loss.
Springing up from the bed, he ran to the door and threw it open. It took a moment, but he located Hoss. His middle son was at Carrie Pickett’s well. Hoss was leaning over, his large form precariously perched on the wooden edge of the surround. He could hear him talking, but couldn’t make out the words.
“Hoss?” he called, even as he headed his way.
The big man straightened up. He was white as the snow. “Pa,” he said, “it’s Joe. He’s…. He’s at the bottom of the well.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. “At the…bottom?”
“Some done throwed him in, Pa.”
Ben hesitated. “Is he…moving?”
His son’s head shook. “I ain’t seen anythin’, Pa.”
Paralyzing fear was something he had experienced only once or twice in his life. When Joe’s mother fell – and her horse fell on top of her – there had been that moment of disbelief when he had been unable to move.
He felt it now.
Hoss’ hand caught his arm. “Pa?”
He swallowed hard. “Get a rope. I’m going down.”
“Pa, you better let me….”
“You’re too heavy, son. I’d never be able to hold you.”
The big man’s jaw was tight. “Dag-blast it, Pa, it’s Joe.”
“I know, son. Now get a rope. I’ll stay here and see if I can get your brother to respond.”
As Hoss walked away, Ben forced his feet to move. They carried him over to the well surround. On his way, he noticed the trail of blood and then found it on the wooden edge too. Steeling himself, he looked in. Though the sun was still up, what its slanted beams did most was cast shadows into the long narrow channel that had been worked into the earth. He could see a form lying at the bottom – a man, wearing light gray pants with a mop of curly dark hair. The hand the light touched was wearing a dark glove. Ben shifted so he could see better. The well looked like it was about fifteen feet deep. Joe had said he hoped to make it deeper – hoped to return water to Carrie’s land so the older woman didn’t have to walk to the lake anymore.
Ben closed his eyes and said a quick prayer and then called, “Joe. Joe, it’s your Pa. Answer if you can hear me!”
His voice echoed down the channel but nothing came up.
“Joseph!” he tried again, using the stern tone that demanded an answer. “Joseph Francis Cartwright, answer me!”
Then he heard it, the most blessed thing he had ever heard.
Ben looked to the sky. “Thanks,” he breathed. Turning back to his son, he called again, “Joe, are you hurt bad, boy? Can you tell me?”
Again, there was no reply.
“My arm’s…broke,” came the pitiful reply.
That meant, most likely, he was in shock.
Ben turned, scanning the yard for his other son. “Hoss! Where are you? I need to get down to Joe!”
“Comin’, Pa!” Hoss was huffing. “I couldn’t find a rope long enough. I had to check with Miss Carrie. She told me where to find the one Joe brung.”
“So, she’s holding her own?”
“She’s a tough old bird, Pa.”
“She is that.” He nodded toward the rope. “Get that anchored. We need to get your brother out of the cold.”
“Did he talk to you, Pa?”
He forgot Hoss didn’t know. Ben placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Yes. Joe’s alive, but I think he’s badly hurt.”
“I’m gonna kill that Marks and whoever else done this to him!”
“There will be time for that later, son. First, we have to rescue Joe.”
Hoss looked around. “I’ll anchor it on that there tree, Pa. It’ll be just a minute.”
It was more like five and every one of them was agony. At last the rope and Hoss were in place. Ben looped it around his waist and fastened it and sat on the edge of the well.
A moment later he slipped in.
“Marks! Marks, what are you doing?”
Ballard Peak shook his head. He’d been left in charge of the Landes woman while Victor went off into the woods. She was trussed up in the back of a wagon, so he had moved a little ways into the trees to see what the hell the other man was up to. He knew it wasn’t taking a leak as he’d done that shortly before.
“I thought I told you to watch the girl,” Victor snapped as he appeared from out of the shadows.
“She isn’t going anywhere.”
Marks eyed him. Then he nodded. “I suppose not. Turns out I could use your help anyway.”
“I’m gonna give Joe Cartwright a present and put him out his misery.”’
Ballard snorted. “And how are you going to do that?”
Marks sneered. “By unstopping the water supply that feeds the old woman’s well. That was the first thing Milburn tried. It was over a year back. He thought if she didn’t have water, she’d give up and leave.”
“Apparently, he had never met Mrs. Pickett.”
“Anyhow, the cap’s frozen shut. I can’t move it. Maybe we can together.” Marks sneered. “I’m sure Joe Cartwright could use a bath to wash off all of that blood.”
Ben carefully worked his way down the icy interior of the well. One slip and he would be on top of Joseph. Not knowing the extent of his son’s injuries, such a thing might well prove fatal, shattering already fractured bones or worse, pushing broken ones into vital organs. He had to land in the small open space beside him. Carrie’s well was slightly larger than the standard, with a nearly four foot diameter. As he approached the bottom he could see his son, laying in a foot of snow, curled up against one side of it. The boy looked like a discarded rag doll. Joe had a rope around his chest, which suggested he had been lowered and not thrown in. That was a small blessing. If he had fallen the full fifteen feet his body might have been broken so badly it couldn’t mend.
“Hang on, Joe. I’m almost there. Joe?”
Again, there was no reply. He must be going in and out of consciousness.
“You there yet, Pa?” Hoss’s concerned voice followed him down.
“Almost! Give it a little more slack!”
Ben felt his feet touch bottom. “I’m down! You can let go.”
A moment later Hoss’s concerned face appeared at the top of the shaft. “How is he, Pa?”
“Give me a minute.” Ben drew a breath and then knelt at his boy’s side. The light was low, but even so, he could see how badly swollen Joe’s face was. The blood crusted on it made it black. Reaching out, he gently touched his son’s thigh, figuring that was a safe place. “Joe? Can you hear me, boy? It’s your, Pa. I’m here. Joe, I’m here.”
Joe stirred, ever so slightly. His eyes opened, looked about without focus, and then closed again.
It took effort, but his youngest climbed up out of wherever pain had taken him. Joe’s eyes opened and looked for him. “Pa?” His son’s hand reached out. “Is it…you?”
He caught his gloved hand and squeezed it. “It’s me, son.”
“Nonie, Pa, you…gotta go…after Anne.” Joe shifted and his face lit with pain. “Marks…has her,” he said between gasps.
Ben started. So Carrie’s Anne was the young lady who had been at the house! Marks must have taken her since she was an obvious woman of wealth – maybe for ransom. “We’ll get Nonie, Joe, but first we have to get you out of here.” He removed his glove and reached out and touched his son’s forehead. Joe’s skin was like ice. “Hoss,” he called.
“Get a blanket. Toss it down here. Your brother’s freezing.”
“On my way,” he said as he disappeared.
His eyes were shut again. They opened and attempted to focus on him. “Pa….”
“I’m going to have to check you for injuries. We need to tie a rope around you in order to get you out. I have to find out if there is anything we need to avoid.” He looked at Joe again and knew that, beneath his clothing, there had to be more injuries. He had obviously been beaten savagely and could have cracked ribs or worse. “I’m afraid this is going to hurt.”
Joe’s nod was feeble. “Go ahead….”
“That’s my boy,” Ben soothed. Then, with his right hand, he reached under Joe’s coat and began to probe along his upper torso. His son shifted as if it made him uncomfortable, but didn’t cry out until he took hold of his right shoulder and moved his arm.
Joe was right. It was broken.
“Pa! Head’s up. Blanket comin’ down!”
Ben stood and looked upward. He caught the covering as it fell. It was warm. Bending, he placed it over Joe and tucked it in, staving off the chill.
“How’s he doing, Pa?”
“Your brother has a broken arm among other injuries.” He looked at his son. “Getting him out is going to be very painful.”
“I’ll be careful as I can pullin’ him up.”
“I know you will.” Ben knelt and touched his son’s face. “Joe, boy, this is going to hurt.”
“Do what you…have to…Pa….”
Ben eased the rope off of his waist and lifted it over his head. He laid it aside and then reached for Joe. Placing an arm around his son’s good shoulder, he lifted him up as carefully as he could. Joe cried out, but cut it short by planting his teeth in his lip.
“That’s good, son. Just a little more.” Taking hold of the rope, he began to thread it under Joe’s arms. It went well until he actually had to lift the broken one. Joe gasped, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he was out.
Which was probably for the best.
Ben finished tying off the rope and then pulled on the knot to make sure it was secure. With a whispered prayer on his lips, he rose and called up to his other son. “Joe’s ready, Hoss! Pull him up!”
As Hoss took up the slack, Joe’s quiet form began to rise. Catching his son about the waist, Ben lifted him, trying to ease the pressure on his injured shoulder and arm as long as he could. Still, in the end, he had to let him go and stand by helplessly as Joe rose into the darkness and vanished.
“Got him, Pa!” Hoss called a moment later.
“Take him inside. You can come back for me.”
“I ain’t gonna leave you in there. I brought more blankets. I’ll get Joe wrapped up all nice and tidy and then have you out of there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
Ben looked around the well shaft. It was cold and dark and like a tomb.
He wasn’t going to argue.
The older man leaned back against the stones and looked up. A moment later, he frowned. The stones were…vibrating.
He appeared above him. “Yes, sir?”
“Something’s happening. I think you better get me out of here.”
A second later the rope began to snake down. “Let me know when you got it tied.”
Ben took hold of the line as it reached him and wrapped it around his waist. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he had heard the sound before, deep in a mine shaft.
Just before it flooded.
“Hoss, now! Start pulling now!”
Immediately the slack was taken up. Ben braced his legs against the side of the shaft and began to climb even as his son pulled. He was about halfway to the surface when there was a sputter and a spurt below and water began to pour into the well.
“Pull, Hoss! Now! Pull!”
It took another thirty seconds. By the time Ben reached the top and hefted himself onto the edge, the water was a bare foot below his boots.
Hoss caught his arm and helped him out. He thanked his son with a nod and then moved to Joe’s side. In the light of the waning day, he could see just how brutal Marks’ attack had been.
“How bad off is he?” Hoss asked as he came alongside.
“It’s bad, son,” he said as he gently probed Joe’s unconscious form. “But it looks to me like the Good Lord was watching over him. It seems to me Marks didn’t want to kill him quickly. Most of the blows were mean to inflict the maximum pain, but not prove fatal.”
Hoss had walked over to the now full well. “Looks to me like he meant to drown him.” The big man remained silent for a moment. “Killin’s too good for Marks.”
“Son,” he said, rising and walking to his side, “we have to be grateful that Joe’s alive. Justice will have to come later.”
Hoss looked down. “I know that, Pa.”
He clapped a hand on his shoulder. “The best thing you can do for your brother now is get him out of the cold and into that cabin. We need to get him stabilized. Then, you need to ride to town for Doc Belden.”
“You gonna be okay alone here, Pa?” Hoss asked as he bent to pick his brother up. “Even when he recovers, Joe ain’t gonna be much help, and all you got otherwise is one hurtin’ old woman. What if Marks is still around?”
“I don’t think he is, son. He thinks Joe is dead, and he has that young woman, the one who came to the Ponderosa. I imagine he’s on his way to where the money is.”
Hoss had his brother in his arms. He turned a pained face to him. His voice was hushed with worry. “Joe feels like he’s all broken, Pa.”
“Get him inside. We need to undress him and get him warm, and then we’ll see what damage has been done.”
The big man lowered his baby brother to the bed and then turned to look at his Pa. He was talking low to Carrie Pickett where she sat in a chair by the fire. The older woman had awakened while they were occupied with Joe and had taken care of her own head wound by treating it and then wrapping a cloth around her wrinkled brow. She was pale and weak, but was sitting up under her own power. As the pair continued to talk, he began to remove his little brother’s clothes. He started to unbutton Joe’s shirt, but quickly realized trying to save it wasn’t worth it. Rising, he went to the kitchen and located a knife, and then returned to Joe’s side and used it to slice through the cloth. Then he took hold of both sides and pulled the ruined fabric back, careful to do so gently on the side of his brother’s injured arm.
Joe’s body was a battlefield of bruises and it looked like the other side nearly won.
As gently as he would have with a baby bird in his hand, Hoss began to run his fingers along Joe’s ribs. There were two times when the path wasn’t smooth.
“Joe’s got a couple of busted ribs, Pa,” he called. Next he turned his attention to Joe’s right arm. It looked like it was bent wrong and seemed to be a half-inch shorter than the other one. The skin was bruised and the arm already swelling. The good news was, there were no bones through the skin.
“How’s the arm?” his father asked as he joined him.
“It’s broke about halfway down the forearm, Pa.” The big man winced as he looked up. “We’re gonna hafta set it.”
The older man nodded, understanding his reluctance to do so. “I’ll do that. You need to go get the doctor for both Joe and Carrie.”
He looked at the older woman. She was leaning her head back and had her eyes closed. “How is she?”
“She’s holding her own physically. It’s mentally that I’m worried about. Carrie is blaming herself for what happened to Joe and Nonie. Hoss,” he waited until he had looked up. “Nonie, or Anne, is Carrie’s daughter.”
“Apparently they’ve been estranged for years. She was partially unconscious when the abduction occurred. Carrie thinks Marks double-crossed Milburn and took Nonie to demand ransom from her aunt and uncle back in New York. They are the ones who raised her.”
“That Victor Marks, Pa, he’s just about the meanest snake in the grass I think I ever come across.”
“You remember, son, your focus is Joe and getting that doctor out here. So long as the girl is worth money to him, Marks won’t do anything to her. Don’t get distracted. We can hunt down Marks later.”
Hoss nodded. He didn’t like it, but he understood.
Ben stood in the doorway and watched until Hoss disappeared and then turned back to his wounded son. Sitting at the edge of the bed Joe occupied, he reached out and lifted his injured arm. As he did Joe shifted and moaned. Gently running his hand along Joe’s forearm, he determined it was a simple fracture and wouldn’t take too much exertion to set it.
Fortunately, with three rough and ready sons, he had experience.
It only took a minute. Joe came to once from the pain, but then blessedly slipped back into unconsciousness. He was in bad shape. Regrettably, it was nearly impossible to tell just how bad. Until the doctor came, there was no way of knowing what was broken or damaged inside.
“How’s Joe doin’?” a worried voice asked. Ben turned to find Carrie Pickett standing behind him, using the back of a chair to prop herself up.
He rose. “You should be resting, Mrs. Pickett.”
“Pshaw! This ain’t nothin’. I’ve had worse when I been on my lonesome and had no worryin’ man to tell me what to do.” She haltingly moved forward. “How’s Joe?”
Ben considered how much to tell her. “Hurting. I’m hoping there’s no permanent damage.”
“If that’s the case. it’s as close to a miracle as you’re ever gonna see, Ben Cartwright.” She closed her eyes briefly, as if trying to deny the horror of what she’d witnessed. When she opened them, they were lit with the same protective anger that fueled Hoss’ desire for revenge. “It were a thousand times worse than last year. I thought that there vermin, Marks, beat Joe right to death.”
Ben placed his hand over his son’s. “Joe’s strong, Carrie. But then you know that.”
She nodded, and then added with a tremble in her voice, “I sure hope Anne’s good and strong too.”
“That’s your daughter. Anne. She goes by Nonie too?”
“It were the name she chose when she went off to live with Amos’ brother and his wife.”
Carrie had told him a little bit about it when they talked, before he came over to Joe. “That was quite a sacrifice you made.”
Her eyes grew wide. “You mean, you don’t think what I done was wrong?”
He rose and crossed over to the table. “I try not to judge, Carrie. No matter how well we know someone, we can’t really know what is in their heart. I’m sure whatever you did was for the welfare and betterment of your child. As a parent, it’s what we do.”
“I see now Joe comes naturally by that gentleness,” she said with a smile. “That other one, the big fellow, Joe’s brother?”
“That all you got? Just the two of them?”
Ben grew wistful. “No. My oldest boy left Nevada several years back. I was a sailor once, and it was in Adam’s blood to sail the seas and visit distant lands.”
“You miss him.”
“It’s like…like a part of me is gone.” He looked at Joe. “Thank God, this one is still with me.” As he turned back to the older woman, he added, “I know you understand.”
“It’s been an ache in my heart for nigh on fifteen years. And to see Anne, to have her now, and then to have that scum cart her away….” Her voice was shaking. “I’ve half a mind to find that missin’ horse of mine and ride after them!”
And he knew she would. “Carrie, I need you to help me look after Joe. He shouldn’t be left alone.”
“Well, what’re you plannin’ on doin’?” she demanded as if she thought he was going to ride back to Ponderosa and sit by the fire with a brandy and a pipe.
“Since my son Joseph committed to help you prepare for winter, I think it would be only right that I pitch in and help to get a few things done around here. Hoss will be almost a day getting the doctor. Joe will need to be watched carefully for that long, if not longer. I hope the crisis is past, but….” Ben hesitated, knowing well Carrie’s greatest task might be keeping Joe in bed once he awakened. “If Joseph recovers quickly, you may have to sit on him to get him to stay put.”
The older woman was shaking her head. “What’d I tell Joe? Just like my Amos.” She made a shooing motion with her hands. “You go get those chickens back where they belong and I’ll rustle us up some grub. I got me a hunk of beef. Think I’ll make me some stew. The boy will need somethin’ to stick to his sides and mend them bones.”
“Do you need any help?”
She threw her hands up in the air. “Since when is any man good with cookin’!”
As the older woman moved away – with the thought of Hop Sing and his reaction to her last statement uppermost in his mind – Ben crossed back over to his son. He sat on the edge of the bed again and reached out to brush Joe’s matted and bloody hair away from his forehead and was surprised to have the boy open his eyes.
Laying his other hand on top of his son’s, he said, “Joseph. Joseph, it’s Pa.”
Joe winced and moaned. He licked his lips. “Water….”
Hoss had fetched it from the well. There was a bucket by the bed, and cloths so he could begin to clean Joe up. Ben caught a cup from the table, filled it, and then lifted Joe’s head and helped him to drink.
“Easy, son, easy. Just a little bit.”
Joe nodded, grateful as he eased him back. His long black eyelashes fluttered and he seemed to slip away again.
Seemed, but not quite.
As Ben hesitated, considering whether to call him back to full wakefulness, Joe roused and looked past him. Puzzled, he asked, “Where’s Ma?”
The question disturbed him – on several levels. “Joseph, your mother isn’t here. She’s been gone a long time.”
The frown deepened. “But…I just…talked to her….”
Ben laid his hand on the boy’s forehead, full flat this time. There was fever there, licking at the edges. Though the beating had been carefully calculated not to kill, coupled with Joe’s other injury and the fact that he had been left outside in a cold damp well and half-buried in snow, the cumulative effect of everything he had suffered had driven him close to dying.
He squeezed his son’s hand and leaned in. “Joe, listen to me. This is Pa. You’re here with me. Stay with me, boy, stay with me. I need you.”
A slow smile spread across Joe’s lips. “That’s funny,” his son murmured as he drifted off again. “That’s just…what Ma…said….”
As Ben sat there, contemplating his son’s words, he felt a presence behind him. It was followed by the touch of a hand on his shoulder and an impression of words.
It isn’t over. Protect our petit one.
When Ben looked, of course, no one was there.
Jason Milburn sat at a table in the back of the tavern, a day old newspaper in his hands. He held it high to mask his face due to the fact that this was the same tavern he had met Victor Marks in a year ago, before the disaster that had led to that old woman Carrie Pickett claiming the most important quarter piece of land on Crescent Mountain. He had lost millions due to the fact that he didn’t own it and couldn’t get his timber out quickly. That determined young man – Ben Cartwright’s son, Joseph – was the cause of all his woes. If it hadn’t been for him, the old woman wouldn’t have known any better and he could have bought the land out from under her and shipped her off somewhere to die.
Milburn snorted. And here he was, waiting to hear that Joe Cartwright was dead.
What went around, came around.
Milburn snapped the paper and turned to the next page. He was engaged in reading the futures when a cold wind rattled the sheet and made him look toward the door. It had opened on the new day and a big man had entered. It took a second, but – with a shock – he recognized him. He had been the strong silent figure standing behind Ben Cartwright last year, pointing a rifle at his belly while Cartwright knelt in the dust to tend his son whom Marks had beaten. There was little familial resemblance, but at the time he had supposed it was another son.
What was he doing here?
Milburn shifted down in his seat and listened.
“I need to know where Doc Belden is and I need to know now!” the big man demanded, slapping a hand on the counter and making the beer mugs jump.
“Mister, I’m tellin’ you all I know,” the barkeep protested. “The Doc headed out late last night toward the Henry place. Mrs. Henry cut her leg a while back and it got infected. He’s been tryin’ to save it.”
“Last night, you say? Did the Doc say when he’d be back?”
The evident worry in the big man’s tone made Milburn listen even more closely.
“It’s about an hour ride. Probably depends on whether he headed back or spent the night there.” The barkeep put down the glass he had been polishing and hung the towel around his neck. “Did you check his house?”
“Goldarnit! Why didn’t I think of that? Which way’s his house?”
A man who was walking toward the door halted. “I live right by him, mister. I can show you the way.”
The big man tipped his hat. “That’s right kindly of you, friend. I can’t thank you enough.”
“What do you need the doc for?” the man asked. “Someone sick?”
Cartwright’s son shook his head. “Someone near beat my little brother to death and left him in the cold to die. We got him up at Carrie Pickett’s place. He’s real bad off. He needs the Doc real bad.”
Jason Milburn’s fingers tightened on the paper. ‘Near beat?’
Marks had failed again.
As Ben Cartwright’s son hustled out the door, the timber baron dropped the newspaper on the table. Apparently Victor’s penchant for torture had gotten in the way of the clean, quick kill he had ordered. Marks was a handy man to have around due to his complete lack of moral character, but his penchant for inflicting pain and glorying in the lengthy death of his victims had grown not only tedious, but dangerous. Yes, Victor’s usefulness was about done. After this job, he’d find a new man to do his…delicate…work. Maybe this new man, Ballard. He was a cool customer and, so far at least, had no interest in the ‘art’ of killing.
Ballard just wanted to get the job done and get the money.
Jason had started to rise when the door opened again and both Ballard and Marks walked in.
Talk about timing.
Marks walked straight over to the table. “Wasn’t that –”
“Ben Cartwright’s other son? Yes.”
Marks exchanged looks with Ballard and then the two of them sat down. “What’s he doing here?”
Jason shrugged. “Visiting Carrie Pickett, it seems.”
“If he came lookin’ for his brother,” the vile man scoffed, “I hoped he checked the well.”
“Is that what you did? Dumped young Cartwright down Miss Pickett’s dry well?”
Marks snorted. “It ain’t dry no more.”
“Victor pulled the plug,” Ballard said, “with Cartwright at the bottom.”
“So you think the other Cartwright boy was here asking urgently for an undertaker?” Milburn’s voice was even, unruffled – seemingly unperturbed.
The first look of doubt entered Victor Marks’ eyes.
Ballard sat up. “Vic, that doesn’t seem right.”
“No, it doesn’t does it?” the timber baron asked. “I’ll tell you why Ben Cartwright’s son was here. He was looking for a doctor. Now why would someone be in such a hurry to find a doctor if the person they were seeking them for was dead?” Milburn’s hand came down on the table hard. “I should take you out and dump you down that well, Marks! Joe Cartwright is alive!”
Marks was shaking his head. “It’s not possible.”
“You couldn’t just kill Cartwright – shoot him in the head or back – you have to do it in such a way that he will linger and you can feed on the power of death like some despicable creature of the darkness.” Milburn was shaking. “A ‘clean, quick kill’ that’s what I paid you for, Marks, because that’s what I wanted!”
Ballard looked sideways at him. “I told you, Marks. You should have let me take him out that first time.”
“What ‘first time’?”
The big man turned toward him. “I had Cartwright in my sights, before he even knew we were there. Marks said to wing him.”
Milburn looked at the surly dark-haired man. “Wing him?”
“Well, Victor,” the timber baron said, “if you want what you are owed then you need to go back to Carrie Pickett’s land and finish what you began. I want Joe Cartwright dead.”
“His pa’s probably there,” Marks said. “What do I do about Ben Cartwright?”
Jason Milburn stood. He moved around the table, toward the door. “I would imagine that the old man was overcome with grief when his son died in his arms. No one would question him taking the easy way out.”
Victor Marks sneered.
“No art this time, Marks. Just get it done.”
Ben Cartwright placed a hand against his aching back. He’d spent the greater part of the day working on Carrie’s place, adding more timber to the lean-to porch so it could serve as a barn for her animals until the spring when they could return and build her a proper new one. He’d hunted down the missing horses as well. In a grove, not too far away, he found Cochise. His son’s beloved horse had scratches and bruises and had lost weight, but he thought he would be okay. The Paint, like his rider, was going to need time to heal. Not too far from Cochise he found several other horses including the two he had loaned Nonie Landes. The pair were in worse shape than Joe’s mount, but he thought they too would survive. The last horse was the one Joe had just brought to Carrie. The animals were corralled again within the fenced off area beside the well where his youngest son had almost lost his life.
When he’d worked out the kink, he turned once again to Joe. He’d come in every few hours to check on him. The boy’d not regained consciousness and Joe’s fever was slightly higher. He was worried about him. That’s why he’d been standing by the window looking out, his eyes searching the road outside, looking for a sign of Hoss.
“Nothin’ yet?” Carrie asked, coming toward him.
“No. I imagine Doc Belden was out on a call. Hoss probably had to fetch him.”
She walked over to Joe’s side and looked down at him. “I’d bet my Piney Woods that he was a beautiful child,” she said, her voice soft.
Ben closed his eyes. Yes, Joe was a beautiful as his mother. His hair had been dark at birth, like it was now, but as a toddler it had gone golden blond just like Marie’s. Even then, the boy had had mounds of it, and all of it curls. He saw that little face and then he thought of what Joe looked like now. There was barely a place on his son’s body that was not bruised, and the bruises indicated there could be more going on inside. If one of the broken ribs had punctured something underneath….
He turned and went to her side quickly.
Joe’s eyes were open and he was frowning. “Pa? What are…you…doing here?”
His son seemed lucid, which was good sign. He sat beside him and touched his face. “Do you know what happened to you, Joseph?”
The frown deepened. It took a moment. “…Marks.”
“That’s right, Joe. Victor Marks beat you and then left you to die.”
He licked his lips. “In the well….”
Ben fought to contain his excitement. While it was a good sign that the boy was speaking and making sense, it didn’t mean he was out of the woods.
“That’s right, Joe.”
His son looked pained. “What…about Nonie…?”
His eyes flicked to Carrie. She shook her head ever so slightly.
Ben hesitated. He didn’t believe in lying to his son. “She’s not here, son. She’s…gone away.”
Joe’s eyes opened and closed. He seemed to accept that, which told him more than anything else that his son was unwell. “What…about Hoss? Is…Adam here too?”
So much for being lucid. He squeezed his fingers. “No, son. Adam isn’t here. Hoss has gone for Doc Belden. He should be back any minute.”
Joe smiled. “Good old…Doc…Belden.”
He was asleep again.
Ben rose and walked to the door and looked out. Seconds later he felt Carrie Pickett’s hand on his shoulder. “You have to let the boy, rest, Ben. If Joe knew Anne was missin’, he’d be fightin’ us and the doctor.”
He nodded. It was amazing how a woman who had spent less than three weeks total time with his son could know him so well.
At that moment, the older man heard the strike of horse’s hooves in the yard. He had left his rifle loaded by the door. Picking it up, Ben opened it and stepped out.
It was Hoss and the Doc.
Standing behind his pa, hovering with him over the Doc as he examined Joe, Hoss was thrown back to the time John C. Reagan had near beat his little brother to death in an alley while he was in the saloon tossing back a beer. He’d talked to the tall, mean-lookin’ former prizefighter – even guessed he was agin the Cartwrights – and still he’d stood there, ordering one last beer before he went to look for Joe. The big man ran a hand across his face. He’d never forget what he found. His baby brother, laying there in the dark all alone, unconscious, his face bloody as a side of beef. If guilt was a weight, he would have been ten miles underground.
That time they thought Joe might have been blinded. This time, they were afraid he would die.
“Well, Doc?” his pa pressed.
“A moment, Mister Cartwright. I’m almost done with my examination.” He turned on them with a sympathetic look. “I need a little space to complete it.”
Hoss caught his father by the shoulder. “Come on, Pa. Why don’t you and me take a walk while the Doc finishes up.”
“I’ll come get you when the Doc Belden’s done,” Carried promised.
His father looked at him, challenging the wisdom of his suggestion. His eyes returned to Joe and then he sighed. “We can check out the horses. I’m a little worried about Cochise,” he said. Catching his coat off of the back of a chair, the older man headed for the door.
Hoss caught the old woman’s eye. “Thank you, Miss Carrie.”
She smiled and went to sit by Joe.
The big man donned his coat and followed his father out the door. He found him standing by the well, looking down into it.
“Joe’s gonna make it, Pa. Don’t you worry. If little brother is anythin’, he’s a scrapper.”
His father nodded but said nothing.
The older man drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Your brother said he saw his mother.”
Hoss wasn’t sure he’d heard him right. “What? Joe said he saw Marie?”
“Pa, he was just out of his head. You know how it is. Little brother’s got a fever.”
“I know.” His father turned and looked out over the snow-covered land, past the corral toward Heaven. “It’s just that I…well…I felt her presence too. Marie had something to tell me.”
He could tell his father was serious. “What was that, Pa?”
The white-haired man turned and looked at him.
“It’s not over, son.”
“What are we gonna do with her?”
Victor Marks turned to face Ballard Peak. They were in one of Jason Milburn’s line shacks on the land that bordered the Pickett property, two, maybe three miles away. Nonie Landes was there too, bound and gagged and laying on the bunk. He’d kept it from Milburn, of course, that he had her. He’d as soon see Jason Milburn dead as have him profit from the New York woman’s money. He was done with Milburn. Done with the man’s cowardice and conniving. Done with his superiority and his stupid orders. The money Milburn owed him meant nothing. If it wasn’t for Joe Cartwright, he’d take the girl and go.
Cartwright was like a sliver of wood underneath a fingernail – an irritation that wouldn’t go away until it was taken out.
“We’ll leave her here,” he replied as he strapped on his gun. “We check her and make sure the ropes are tight, and then we go. She can’t get herself loose, and no one’s gonna come here.”
“Are you sure of that, Marks? What about Milburn’s workers?”
“Ain’t none out here this time of year. Everything’s shut down on this piece of land until the spring when things thaw.”
Peak blew out a breath. “Vic, why don’t you let it go? If we take the girl and ride out now we can be out of the state in a week and on our way East.”
He shook his head. “Not ‘til Cartwright’s dead.”
“Explain it to me, Marks. Explain to me why seeing Joe Cartwright dead is worth risking being caught. You know that other son has got the doctor out there by now. And Cartwright’s old man is there. That’s two guns, maybe three, to two.”
“You want out, Ballard.? You can go now. Only there won’t be any money, now or later – and you like money, don’t you?”
“Sure I like money, as much as the next man. Only you can’t spend money if you’re dead.”
Marks approached the other man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Think about it. All we gotta do is get close to the cabin and block up the chimney. They’ll come pouring out and we can pick them off one by one.”
“What about Joe Cartwright?”
Marks sneered. “If the smoke doesn’t kill him – I’ll do it with my bare hands.”
Nonie Pickett Landes had lain very still while the men argued. She hoped they would think she was asleep. She listened with horror as Victor Marks buckled on his gun and planned the deaths of everyone in her mother’s cabin as casually as if he was arranging a dinner party. It was her fault. It was all her fault.
Everyone was going to die because she was a self-serving little brat.
The two men had left the shack a few minutes before. She’d heard the sound of their horses hooves thundering out of the yard. Ballard Peaks had checked the ropes that bound her hands before they left, but he had neglected to check her feet. They were under the cover. She’d been working on the ropes there, stretching them bit by bit, until she could wriggle her left ankle around. She thought if she could just slip off her shoe that she might be able to free her foot and then – with that done – hobble over to the cupboard and find something to cut through the ropes that bound her wrists together. She had to get free – had to find a way to warn her mother and the others inside the cabin that their lives were in peril. There had been a number of horses outside. She was hoping Marks and Peak had left at least one of them behind.
She wasn’t much of a horsewoman, but she was the only hope the people she cared about had and she would damn well break her neck trying to get to them if that was what it took!
Nonie shifted into a sitting position and then wiggled out of the blanket. As it fell to the floor she looked at her feet. The problem was that her shoes were laced part way up. She’d been troubling the knot on the laces of the left one for some time with the toe of the right, hoping maybe that the lace would break. She tried again, pushing the toe of her other foot against her ankle, pulling down, pulling…down.
Her smile was triumphant. There! Step number one accomplished.
Using the toe of her right shoe, Nonie caught the left one’s heel and began to push. She was shaking and sweating by the time it happened, but finally the shoe popped off and fell to the floor. It only took a second to wriggle her bare foot through the ropes. She was free!
Well, her feet were free.
Rising, she hobbled across the wood floor of the shack, headed for a shelf that held several kitchen tools. There was a knife there, but it only took her a moment to realize that she couldn’t hold it and saw through the ropes at the same time. Looking about, desperate, she spotted a coal scuttle with a sharp edge. Making her way to it, Nonie knelt and placed her bound hands over the edge and began to saw. It took another fifteen minutes of constant motion going back and forth, but finally the ropes binding her wrists broke and the major portion of them fell away.
She was breathing hard. Her hair was sweat-soaked and hanging in her eyes and there was a thin line of blood on her wrists where the sharp metal had sliced through her skin. She didn’t care. It didn’t matter.
All that mattered was mounting that horse and riding and reaching her mother’s cabin in time to warn everyone what the villain was about.
Doc Belden was at the washstand washing his hands when the two of them reentered the cabin. Carrie had called them a minute before. Ben glanced at his son and then went to the physician’s side.
“How is he?”
Belden, a short man with thinning dark hair combed to the side, glanced at him. “Lucky.”
The physician straightened up. “By all rights, he should be dead. You’ve got a strong one there, Ben.” Belden smiled. “But then we both knew that.”
“So, Joe will be all right?”
“Granted he doesn’t get it in his head to climb out of that bed and go looking for a fight? Yes. In time.”
“What are his injuries?”
“Several broken ribs. One pressed in perilously close to a vital organ.” Belden winced and glanced at Joe. “I set it. He’s going to be out for some time.” He hung the cloth he had been using to dry his hands on the side of the stand. “Fortunately, the beating was calculated to inflict maximum pain but minimum fatal damage. Still, coupled with the head wound and the exposure to the cold. Well, it was almost more than he could take.”
Ben looked toward the door. He still had that feeling – something was coming. “So he can’t be moved.”
Belden shook his head. “I wouldn’t advise it. Not for at least two to three days. Why do you ask?”
He exchanged a glance with Hoss. “Doc, I have a feeling we’re going to be under siege soon.”
They’d told him who had done this to Joe. “Marks? I thought you said he had taken Carrie’s daughter and was planning on asking for a ransom. Why would he come back here?”
The older man indicated his sleeping son with a nod. “Joe. My son has thwarted Marks’ plans not once now, but twice. I know that kind of man. He’s driven by something deep inside that needs to hurt and to know the hurting’s done. No, Marks won’t let it go. He’ll come back, if for nothing else, to make sure he finished what he began with Joe.”
“Won’t he think Joe is dead?”
Ben hesitated. It was hard to explain. “Doc,” he began, “do you believe in intuition?”
“As a result of multiple incidences and experience, yes.”
“Well, my intuition is telling me that Marks is on his way back here right now.” He put a hand on the Doc’s shoulder. “And that we better be prepared.”
The other man shook his head. “Well, pardon me, Mister Cartwright, if I hope you end up looking like a fool.”
“Doc,” he agreed with a sigh, “I’d like nothing better.”
Nonie stood back and looked at the horse she had saddled. It was a powerful animal and was stamping and snorting to get started. The horse was a behemoth compared to the sleek and compact thoroughbred she had at home, but then she wasn’t running a race on a track – she was running one for her and everyone else’s life. She looked too at the gun she had strapped on her hip. It was one she found in the line shack. There had only been a few bullets, but then that was all right. The only shooting she had ever done was when, as a little girl, her pa took her hunting with him. She thought she’d remembered how to lock and load, but then again, the whole thing might just blow up in her face.
Her boot was back on her left foot and she put it in the stirrup and raised her body up. Tossing one leg over the saddle, the city woman settled in Western style. Not very ladylike, but definitely a better seat for riding hell-bent over rough terrain. The day had been bright and above freezing and the path to her mother’s house was mostly clear of deeper snow, but she knew underneath was where the danger lay, with water that was turning to ice.
She nudged the horse forward toward the road. Above her head the stars were emerging from a bank of clouds. Coupled with the moon, they lit the path before her. Nonie leaned down and patted the horse’s withers, speaking a few encouraging words to it, and then she dug her heels in and let it fly.
The sun had set about an hour before and they’d extinguished all light in the house except the fire that was needed to keep Joe warm, so’s anyone approaching would think they’d all bedded down for the night. Hoss sat by the cabin door, gun in hand, fighting nodding off. It had been a long day – what with finding his baby brother at the bottom of a well and thinking Joe might die – and he’d finally convinced his pa to grab at least an hour or two of shut-eye. The older man had taken a chair and placed it by Joe’s bed. He was sitting there now, with his head back, snoring quietly. Carrie was in her chair and Doc Belden was laying close beside her on a soft matt made of several thick woolen blankets. The Doc told them he would stay at least twenty-four hours, until he was sure Joe was out of danger, and then he needed to return to the Henry’s place to tend Jed Henry’s ailing wife.
That meant one less gun.
As he sat there, watching for a sign of movement, Hoss thought about what his pa had said earlier – about feeling Marie was near. He’d went to church his whole life and heard about Heaven. He believed in it, but well, it seemed so far away. His ma was there, and Adam’s too. He wondered if they was watching over them like some kind of guardian angels the way it seemed Joe’s was over him. He sure did miss his Ma, even though all he had to miss a picture and someone else’s memory. Sometimes she got kind of mixed up with Marie in his mind, since Joe’s Ma was the only one he had ever known – live, at least.
“Do you see anything, son?” his pa’s voice asked, startling him.
He looked at the chair – it was empty – and then at his father. “How come you ain’t asleep, Pa?”
“I managed an hour or so. Hard to take more. Too much on my mind.”
Hoss nodded. He looked back out the window. “Ain’t seen hide nor hair yet.”
His father stretched and then ran a hand along his neck. “Of course, they could come in from the rear. It’s too bad Carrie doesn’t have a window looking that way.” He yawned. “I’m going to splash some water on my face and then see about knocking out some of the chink between the logs to make a watch hole out the back.”
“Sounds like a good idea, Pa.” Hoss paused. “Pa? Lookee there.”
His father bent beside him and peered out the window. “Did you see something?”
Hoss pursed his lips and wagged his head. “I ain’t sure, Pa. I thought I did. Out there near the corral.”
The older man turned back into the cabin. “I wonder if I should wake the others.”
“Ah, Pa, I don’t know. It coulda just been a trick of the light.” He rose to his feet. “I think I should go out and take a look.”
His father caught him by the arm. “No, son. It’s an old army trick. Show yourself, draw out the watch and then pick them off. You stay put. I’m going to get started on that hole in the back wall.”
Hoss nodded. Instead of sitting back down where he had been, he shifted to the other side of the window and looked out. The moon was high and bright. It struck the white snow turning it to a sort of blue silver. There were stars twinkling over head and he could hear the wind rushing through the pines.
He wondered what it would blow in.
It didn’t take him long to find out. Hoss heard someone cough and turned to see that it was Joe. His brother was moving in the bed, shifting from side to side. The big man went to Joe and checked him. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. A second later he smelled it too. Like the canaries they took down into the mines, his ailing baby brother had smelled it before the rest of them – even before Carrie Pickett who sat close by the fire – unless, of course, she’d already been overcome.
The older man turned toward him, a puzzled look on his face. “Hoss, what….”
“Smoke, Pa! They done stopped up the chimney!”
“Good Lord!” the older man breathed as both Carrie Pickett and the Doc awoke to the danger. “Get a wet cloth, Hoss! Place it over Joe’s mouth and nose,” the older man yelled as he headed for the older woman. “And then toss one here.”
“I’ll get it, Ben!” Doc Belden called as he headed for the washstand.
Hoss wet the one he had in the basin by Joe and held it over his brother’s face. Joe’s hands came up in a panic, fighting him.
“Joe. Joe! It’s Hoss. Leave it there, boy. It’s for your own good!”
Doc Belden had taken a cloth to Carrie. She was sitting up holding it under her own power. He had one over his own face as well. Lowering it, the Doc said, “I’ll take over here. You’re father wants you.” As he pulled away the physician caught his arm. “We need to get your brother out of here. In his compromised condition, this could kill him!”
Hoss nodded and headed for his father who was standing by the door. He had flung it wide to let some of the smoke out and surprisingly no one had taken a shot. The older man’s face was covered in soot and tears ran down his cheeks. “Whoever it is, they’re waiting for us to come out.”
“So’s they can pick us off.”
He nodded. “One of us is going to have to lay down a covering fire while the other one slips through. We have to unplug that chimney!”
“Let me go, Pa.”
“And risk another son?”
“Sorry to say, Pa, but climbing up on a roof ain’t no work for a man of your years. Besides, I can move faster.”
The Doc came up beside them. His look said more than he did. “Your brother is unconscious. I’ll add my gun to that fire.”
“And I ain’t helpless myself,” Carrie Pickett declared between coughs. From somewhere the older woman had produced an ancient flintlock rifle. She cocked the hammer back and said, “This belonged to my Amos and I knows how to use it. He taught me how to fire three times a minute.”
Ben shook his head. “You never fail to surprise me, Carrie.”
“Well then, let me shows you another surprise.” She marched to the back of the house and reached up and pulled out an eight by two inch piece of the log. “Amos always said a cabin ain’t no good if it’s got a blind side.”
Hoss saw the older man look at the chimney. Smoke was still rolling out but it was rolling slowly, like the plug was not completely air tight. That might buy them a few minutes.
His father patted her arm. “Good for Amos! Hoss?”
The big man nodded. Before he got into place, he pulled on his dark coat so his white shirt wouldn’t make him more of a target.
The older man looked at Doc Belden who nodded, and then signaled Carrie. He raised his gun and stepped into the door way and shouted, “Now!”
Nonie reined her borrowed mount in. She was getting close. Above the trees she could see the smoke rising from the chimney of her mother’s cabin. Only it looked funny. It was all dispersed instead of rising in a tidy stream. The blond woman thought about what Marks and Ballard had said and feared she knew what that meant. Pressing her knees into the horse’s side, she nudged him forward. She’d followed the path down to where it took off flat before her, rounding the lake and leading to her mother’s front door, when both she and the horse were startled by the sound of a gunshot. The horse shied and snorted and almost threw her. She managed to get it under control just as another shot came. And another. And another.
Soon it was apparent that someone was laying down a volley of shots, probably to protect someone else who was on the move. She remembered that as well from being a child, one time when her father had to help a neighbor escape from a mountain lion. He’d kept the animal busy while the other man ran.
The cabin must be under attack!
Nonie dismounted and tied the animal off to a tree and then approached the house on foot. She had the gun in her hand and had it primed and loaded. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it – whether or not she could really shoot a man – but she held it at the ready and would, as her New York uncle liked to say, let the chips fall where they may.
As she came up to the cabin she saw that it was almost completely dark. Smoke was billowing out of the door. There was a figure in the doorway firing time after time after time and another man moving close to the house and quickly through the dark.
On the rood there was another figure, standing close by the chimney. He raised a hand and waved. Nonie looked in the direction he was signaling and saw yet another man. The moonlight glinted off the gun in his hand.
If she’s been a better shot, she might have been able to hit him. As it was, at this range, she’d be lucky to hit the side of the cabin.
Drawing a deep breath, Nonie steeled herself and crept closer.
Hoss Cartwright rose up out of the bank of snow located on the north end of Carrie Pickett’s cabin. He had dived into it as he rounded the house amidst the barrage of gunfire laid down by his pa. There seemed to be only one gunman out front, which was encouraging. If it was just Ballard and Marks they might stand a chance.
The first thing he had to do, though, was get that chimney unplugged.
The gunfire had fallen off to a give and take, with shots coming every so many minutes. They had ammunition with them, but it would run out quickly at the rate his pa was firing. He carried his gun, but so far had kept from using it, hoping to keep it in reserve. There was no telling if those two were really the only ones around. Marks could have ordered others to lay in wait. They could be planning on joining the attack any minute.
The big man waited for the next exchange to dash around the back of the cabin. As he rounded it he nearly bowled over the man who was jumping off the roof. Whoever it was, was bigger than him. From Carrie’s description, he thought it might be the man with the unusual name of Ballard Peak. The large man stumbled back a few paces and then dropped into a crouched position and charged, taking him full in the stomach.
From there on out it was full-fledged war.
Ben Cartwright stood just to the side of the open door of Carrie’s cabin. At the moment he was at a stalemate with the man shooting outside. Doc Belden had gone over to be with Joe and concern for his son’s condition was a constant drain on his attention and energy. Opening the door had drawn some of the smoke out of the cabin and before taking up her position at the back, Carrie had managed to damp the fire so the amount rolling into the room was diminishing. Still, ash and soot clung to the cabin walls and everything in it including their hair and clothes. His eyes were watering so hard it was difficult to see and coughing racked his tired frame every so many minutes. He’d seen the Doc change out the cloth covering Joe’s face several times, which was a relief.
Unfortunately, he had had no time to worry about one for himself and, if he’d cared to admit it, his chest was feeling constricted.
So he just didn’t admit it.
From his position, he shouted, “How’s Joe?”
The doctor turned a soot-covered face toward him. “Holding his own, but we need to get him into the fresh air as quickly as possible.”
Ben scowled. The only way to do that was to eliminate the man shooting at them. The white-haired man glanced out the door. He looked back at his son and came to a decision.
“Doc, let Carrie watch Joe. I need you.”
As the two exchanged places, the physician came to his side. “What do you want me to do?”
“I’ve got to take out that shooter and I’ve got to get closer to do it. I need you to cover me while I try.”
Belden looked out the door. “It’s bright as day out there. You won’t stand a chance.”
He looked at Joe. “And if I don’t try, my boy won’t stand a chance.”
The other man shook his head. “I’m not very good with a gun, Ben. In fact, I stink.”
“Joe’s father, you let me do it,” Carrie said as she joined them. “My Amos taught me how to protect myself.” She gripped the barrel of her flintlock with one hand. “I can shoot the eye out of a hawk with this.”
The doc snorted. “That is definitely better than I can do.”
Ben didn’t hesitate. “All right. Carrie you get in place. Doc, go back to Joe.” Ben filled his pockets with bullets before holstering his pistol and palming his rifle. “Are you ready, Carrie?”
She lifted the flintlock and sighted along it. “As I’ll ever be.”
Ben drew a breath. “Okay. Now!”
Hoss was breathing hard as a race horse that had crossed the finish line. Ballard Peak was as mean a cuss and as dirty a fighter as he’d ever tackled. They were just about equal in strength and had the same injuries – split lips, skinned faces, and bloodied brows. He ran a hand across his forehead, wiping blood from above his eyes.
“What’s…say…you and me…come to an…agreement,” he panted.
“What…agreement would that…be?”
“That I’m meaner…and stronger…then you are…and I’m gonna…win.”
Peak snorted. “You’re…dreaming, Cartwright.”
“Okay, how about…this? That’s my little brother…in there…and I’ll be damned…if I’m gonna let him…die.” Hoss wiped away more blood, this time from above his nose. “If’n you’re bigger…I’m more determined.”
The other man sneered. “You don’t know…how determined I am… to get that money, Cartwright.”
Hoss frowned. “So’s money’s…more important than…a man’s life?”
Ballard nodded. “I don’t owe…you or your brother…anything. I could care less…if both of you die….”
“Well, then…that settles it,” Hoss said, planting his feet firmly and preparing to launch a new attack.
“Now you…really made me mad!”
Nonie stood within a tree line a half-dozen yards from the two men, her pistol raised. She recognized Hoss Cartwright from her time at the Ponderosa. He was nearly as big as Ballard Peak and was obviously good at fighting. Still, she could see him weakening. His movements were growing slower. It wouldn’t be long until Ballard had the upper hand She supposed it might have something to do with the smoke and soot that covered the big man’s clothing and skin. She could see now that the chimney of the cabin had been plugged. Smoke and soot had to have filled the interior. Nonie shivered and pulled her coat close about her neck. Whoever was inside might have been overcome. They might be dead. Her mother might be dead.
Joe Cartwright might be dead.
Nonie remained where she was for several heartbeats. The men were moving so quickly and were so intertwined she didn’t think she could get a clear shot. At the moment it appeared that the most important thing she could do was clear the chimney. Holstering the gun again, she clung to the shadows that covered the back of the house and, using them for cover, made her way to the log wall and began to climb.
Ben ducked as another bullet whizzed past. He had made it to the well and was using it for cover. The man who was shooting had moved. The bullets were coming from slightly to the left of the cabin now. He was going to have to move too if he was going to have a clear shot. Glancing back, he made certain Carrie was still in the doorway and had her husband’s ancient firearm primed and aimed, and then he rolled and ran for the closest cover he could find, which was the lean-to that held the horses. They were jumpy and scattered as far as their tethers would allow them as he entered the corral. He ducked behind one and then came up on the left side of Cochise. Moving between the animals, reluctantly using them for cover, he made his way forward until he had a clear view of the last place he had seen the moonlight glint off of his attacker’s barrel.
Unfortunately, the man wasn’t there anymore. Ben frowned and glanced from side to side. He’d lost him. Where –
There was a crack. Ben felt a hot pain in his shoulder. Then he fell into the snow.
From her perch on the roof Nonie watched the two men continue to circle each other and then butt heads like angry bulls. She had worked a jacket and a horse blanket out of the chimney and freed it so clean air could flow in. After doing so, she lay flat on the roof and snaked forward to see what was happening. Both men were staggering. Nonie reached into her pocket and reloaded her gun. It took her a full minute or more since she was so long out of practice. By the time she turned back, to her relief, she saw that Hoss Cartwright was still on his feet and Ballard Peak was on the ground. She must have moved, because Joe’s older brother looked up at her. A smile curled the end of one lip.
And then Hoss pitched forward onto the ground.
Startled, she slipped off the roof and went to his side where she knelt and placed a hand on his chest. His heart was beating solidly. Apparently, he’d just given out. As she sat there contemplating what to do next, she saw a man moving near the corral. He ducked behind the well and then began to work his way toward the cabin. With the moon overhead it was like day, so she could see him clearly.
It was Victor Marks.
Pistol in hand and, clinging to the shadows, Nonie began to make her way to the door.
Carrie Pickett was reloading. Like she told Ben, her Amos had taught her how to do it three times a minute, but her once young hands were bent and knotted with arthritis now and it had slowed her down to what felt like a baby’s crawl. She had the ramrod back in place and the pan had been primed with fine powder. All she had to do was lower the flash pan and sight along the barrel and – someone took hold of the gun and jerked the weapon out of her hands. A second later the barrel of a Colt was pointed between her eyes.
Victor Marks was holding it.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Doc Belden go for his gun.
“You do that, Doc, and Mrs. Pickett is dead,” the villain threatened.
The Doc halted. He turned toward Marks and then deliberately placed himself between the piece of vermin threatening her and the bed where Joe Cartwright lay.
Jason Milburn’s thug moved so quickly she didn’t see it coming. The side of his gun took her along the left side of her face.
And she saw no more.
Nonie’s breath caught in her throat. Through the chink in the door she saw Marks pistol whip her mother and watched as the older woman fell, sprawling on the floor. The air in the cabin was still smoky, but she could see another man standing by the bed where she had lain not too long before. She thought there was someone in the bed, but she couldn’t see clearly.
Marks was advancing on whoever it was that was in front of the bed.
“This is murder!” the man said as he fell back.
“No, it ain’t Doc. I’m just followin’ Jason Milburn’s orders. He said to make sure Cartwright was dead and that’s what I aim to do.”
So it was Joe in the bed!
“Think, man! The last time you went to prison it was for extortion and giving the young man a beating. If you kill him, you’ll hang!”
“Only if there’s someone left alive to tell them that I was the one who did it.”
The threat was palpable.
“You and me, Doc. We used to be friends.” Marks moved closer. “What say you get out of the way and I won’t shoot you.”
“I won’t let you kill the young man. I won’t!”
Nonie was shaking. The gun was heavy in her hand. When her pa had taken her hunting, she hadn’t been able to pull the trigger. She’d looked at the deer and seen life looking her back in the eye and she simply couldn’t do it.
Could she kill a man?
“Now, Doc. Think about it. What’s Cartwright to you? You ain’t seen him more than three times in your life – is that worth losing it for?”
Doc Belden pulled himself up straighter. “What Joe Cartwright did for me in those few days gave me my life back so, yes, it is. Give it up, Marks. You’ll swing.”
They were face to face now with Doctor Belden backed up against the bed. Victor Marks was nearly on top of him. Marks shook his head. “You know, Doc, I like you. You got backbone.” Marks’ fist shot out and took the doctor in the stomach. Then he used the gun butt to hit him over the head. “Sorry if I just broke it.”
Marks took his foot and shoved the doctor’s body out of the way. He placed his gun on the bedside table and then reached out and pulled the pillow from under Joe’s head and pressed it against his face.
“I’ve waited a long time for this Cartwright….”
Milburn’s hireling turned to look at her. She was standing in the doorway, holding the pistol with both hands to control the shaking. “You get away from him!” she ordered.
Marks dropped the pillow and took a step toward her. “Well, what do we have here? The city girl, holding a gun? I bet you ain’t never shot one of those things –”
The gun went off. Marks dropped to the ground.
Nonie dropped the smoking gun on the floor.
“You’d lose the bet.”
Ben Cartwright had made it to his feet when he saw the young woman head into the cabin. He was walking toward it, blood dripping through his fingers from a shoulder wound, when the shot went off, lighting the interior of the wooden structure. As he neared it, he was relieved to see Hoss rounding the cabin, running. He began to run too, unsure of who had triumphed; unsure of whether it was over or about to begin again. Before either of them could reach the door, Doc Belden stumbled out. He had a cloth on his head. It was stained with his blood.
“Everyone’s alive,” he said as they reached him and then stepped aside so they could see the body on the floor. “Well, everyone but Marks, that is, thanks to Mrs. Landes.”
As they stepped into the cabin’s interior the white-haired man nodded toward the bed. “Hoss, check your brother.” Then, even though his heart tugged him in the same direction he went to where Nonie Landes was sitting on the floor, cradling her mother’s head in her lap.
Ben knelt beside her. “How is she?”
Nonie looked up through dangling golden curls and with tear-streaked eyes. “The doctor says she should be all right.” Her eyes flicked to the dead man on the floor. “Mister Cartwright, how can a man be so evil?”
He reached out and touched the older woman’s face and looked at the damage Marks had inflicted. She was battle-scarred but beautiful. “I don’t think any of us know, Nonie.”
Her hand went to her mother’s cheek and then she looked up at him. “Call me Anne.”
Ben turned. Hoss was by Joe’s bed. Rising, he went to join him. “How’s your brother?”
“The Doc says he’ll make it.” He turned to look at Joe and frowned. “He’s awful weak, Pa. Marks tried to snuff the life out of him.”
He turned to look again at the young woman from New York. She and Doc Belden were helping her mother to rise. “And would have, if it hadn’t been for Anne.”
“She’s somethin’, ain’t she, Pa?”
He nodded. “Yes, just like her mother.”
After Doc Belden had cleaned his wound and set his arm in a sling, Ben pitched in as best he could along with the Doc, Anne, and her mother, to free the cabin of smoke and soot. They took out all of the cloth and shook it, but left what had settled on the floor for fear of stirring it into the air and weakening Joe further. Carrie had blankets and a few braided rugs and they used those to cover what they could. He watched as Carrie unwrapped Joe and removed the ash-stained linens that covered him, replacing them with some she had had in a chest that remained free of soot. While they worked Hoss took Victor Marks body outside and buried it along with Neville Greaves’ in the snow. He’d left Ballard Peak trussed up behind the cabin, so he fetched him and put him on a horse and together the two of them rode into the town to fetch the sheriff.
It was late now. The sun was setting beyond the trees, casting golden-red rays across the virgin snow. Carrie and Anne were both asleep, laying on the pallet they had prepared sometime before for the doctor. Anne had her hand on her mother’s shoulder, renewing a link long denied. While they had been busy the doctor had seen to Joe, but he was gone now. He’d left to take care of Jed Henry’s wife. Ben reached out and placed a hand on his sleeping son’s arm. The Doc told them they’d have to watch Joe closely for a few days since he’d taken in smoke and had his breathing even more restricted by Marks attempt to suffocate him.
‘How can a man be so evil?’ Anne had asked him. He wished he knew the answer. He’d lived more than half a century and had seen his share of immoral men. Victor Marks was among the worst. It was as if something inside the man just went wrong. He’d been born a helpless babe like all others, had been someone’s child once upon a time – must have loved and maybe lost. What made one man kind, and another, give in to hate and greed?
He guessed he’d never know.
Ben leaned his head back and closed his eyes. God, he was tired!
He’d been sitting there, resting, for about a minute when he felt fingers brush his own. When he looked down, he couldn’t help but smile.
“How are you, Joseph?”
His son smiled too, weakly. When he spoke, his voice was rough. “I’ve been…better.” The sentence was followed by a cough.
“Shh.” He touched Joe’s face. “Don’t try to talk. You breathed in a lot of smoke.”
Joe swallowed and winced. “Can I…have some water?”
He reached for it as he nodded. Lifting Joe up carefully, he let him take a few sips and then laid him and the cup down. “You should rest.”
Joe’s fingers pressed into his sleeve. “I…will.” He coughed again, deeper this time. “Anne…?” he asked.
That was Joe. Sick as he was, he was worried about someone else.
“She’s fine. She’s with her mother.”
His son’s eyes lit. “They’re together?”
“Yes, son. Together.”
Some of the tension went out of his boy’s body. He doubted it would be long before he slept again. “Sorry…if I…frightened you….”
Ben frowned. “How?”
He’d almost forgotten. “You were out of your head, Joseph.”
Joe was almost asleep. “No….”
Ben rose as his son’s hand went limp on his arm. He took it and put it under the clean cover and then drew the blanket up to Joe’s chin. After that he walked to the door, opened it, and stepped out.
The air was crisp. It had been a sunny day and had left an icy sheen on the snow that made it glisten like diamonds. Beyond it more diamonds sparkled, created by the star’s light reflecting on the lake. As he stood there, thinking about it, the older man was struck by a sudden memory. He saw himself and Joe’s mother, standing by Lake Tahoe, looking out over the water on a night just like this. It had been cold and he had argued with her about coming. She’d been with child. Marie, being Marie, had insisted and won and they had taken a sturdy buckboard and traveled along the snow-covered road, arriving at the lake just as the moon took possession of the sky. Hand in hand they walked to the water’s edge. It was then she’d told him he would have another son. He’d laughed, of course. There was no way she could know. She’d taken his hand then and placed it, along with her own, on her swollen belly.
‘We will name him Joseph,” she said, ‘after your father.’ Then she had leaned down and whispered, close to both their hands. ‘Do you hear that, ma petit Joseph? Your maman and your papa are here. We will care for you always.’
Ben didn’t strike the tears away. He let them fall.
Marie had been true to her word.
Joe coughed as he breathed in the crisp winter air. His strength was nearly back to normal thanks to Hop Sing’s cooking and Anne and Carrie’s attention, even though his chest remained weak. He’d talked his pa into letting him saddle up the buggy and take a ride though the air was chill and there were a few flakes coming down. It was near the end of January and the temperature was climbing toward forty and he’d been in so long he thought he’d go plain crazy if he didn’t see something other than the walls of the ranch house. He’d just finished hitching the horses up when the door opened and Anne Pickett Landes stepped out.
She was coming with him.
Joe looked at her, shook his head, and said, “Mm-mm, if you aren’t the prettiest thing this side of the Mississippi.”
It had only been in the last week or two that they had really come to know one another. He had no memory of the journey back to the Ponderosa. He remembered being lifted out of Carrie Pickett’s bed and being carried to a wagon where he was smothered in blankets, but the time they spent traveling after that was a blur. Hoss told him he sickened on the road and they’d feared once again for his life. His pa, even though he was wounded, had ridden ahead and gone to Virginia City to fetch Doc Martin. The two men had been waiting for them when they arrived. The Doc had stayed at the house for most of the next week until this last and final crisis had passed. Paul had actually spent Christmas at the ranch house.
Joe smiled. That was the first thing he remembered. Waking up to find Hoss standing in his room holding a small Christmas tree.
After that it had been a long road uphill to get to where he was today. Near four more weeks.
He looked at Anne as she approached. There had been two bright spots amidst the pain and eventual boredom of recovery. One was the fact that Carrie Pickett accepted his father’s invitation to come to the Ponderosa to ride out the winter.
The other was that Anne came with her.
It was Anne he had awakened to find sitting with him in the middle of the night. Anne, who had read to him until his eyes closed. And Anne who had been there in the morning opening his window and bringing him the tray of food Hop Sing had prepared.
She halted beside him and they looked at one another. Neither of them said a thing. The feelings were new but they were deep.
The trouble was, neither one of them was clear exactly what it was they felt.
His Pa had come to his room late one night a few days before and sat on the edge of his bed. They’d spoken about what happened, ending with Anne’s bravery when she took Victor Marks down.
‘We all feel grateful, Joseph,’ he said. “No one more than I…unless it’s you.’
He’d heard something in his father’s voice.
‘Anne’s a wonderful girl, but be careful, son, that you are not mistaking gratitude for love.’ The older man had risen then, but paused by the door. ‘And be certain Anne isn’t doing the same thing.’
That’s what this ride was about. They needed to talk – somewhere away from prying ears and eyes. His pa knew that. It’s why he had agreed to let him go.
“Are you sure you feel well enough for a ride?” Anne asked as he reached for her hand.
“I’m fine,” he said, dismissing her fears.
The beautiful woman with hair the color of Buckwheat honey cocked her head and arched one amber brow. “I think you’re forgetting who it is you’re talking to.” She reached out and brushed an errant curl from his forehead. “Joe, you almost died…and all because of me.”
He caught her hand and squeezed it. “We’ve been over this before. It’s not your fault.”
She drew a sharp breath. “That’s sweet of you to say – and your father too – but Joe, none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been so selfish.”
“Jason Milburn would have found another way. He wanted that land.” Milburn was in jail now awaiting trial along with Ballard Peak, who had turned states’ evidence to get a lighter sentence. “If you hadn’t come he would have sent Marks anyway and both Carrie and I could have died.”
She touched his face. “You almost did.”
This was the other thing his pa had warned him about. ‘Joseph,’ he said, ‘that girl is carrying a heavy load of guilt. That’s no way for a man and woman to start a life together.’
Yes, he’d told his pa he wanted to marry Anne. He’d told her too.
She hadn’t given him an answer.
Joe squeezed her fingers again. “Let me help you into the buggy.”
Ben Cartwright had been watching from behind the window. He let the curtain drop and stepped outside as the buggy carrying Joe and Anne drove away. They were headed for the lake. It was a longer drive than he had wanted Joseph to make, but he knew – as a man – that Joe had to push the limits of his strength if he was going to come back to what and where he had been.
It had been close. On the road home Joe’s fever had spiked. The journey had been a long and arduous one and by the time he met them at the ranch with Doc Martin in hand, his son had been out of his head. The long weeks leading up to Christmas had been hard ones. Joe was a grown man now and to see him laid low and helpless as a child had been painful. As his recovery began, it became apparent that Joe brightened whenever Anne was around and so he had stepped aside and let her, in a way, take his place. Anne was a beautiful, bright, intelligent and strong-willed woman. Like her mother, she had a charm about her that made you smile at the same time you wanted to scream. Ben laughed. He remembered Joe’s first description of Carrie Pickett. It had been the same.
That was another fear of his. That his son saw Carrie in her daughter and was attracted to her because, in a way, Hoss had not been wrong. His brother was in love with Carrie Pickett. It was a deep kind of love that had little of attraction in it. Such as a son had for his mother.
Anne wasn’t Joe’s mother any more than she was her own. She was her own unique creation. If Joseph was going to love her, it had to be for that.
Ben heard a noise behind him and turned to find Carrie Pickett stepping out of the house. She was a new woman. For Christmas, he and Anne had gone to town and picked out several simply gowns for her, along with everything else she needed for the trip they planned to New York. At first Carrie had been frightened by the idea, but of late it had turned into a kind of nervous excitement. Anne had promised her they would never sell the Piney Woods and that they would return each year to the place where her Amos lay to pass the summer.
Anne had placed it in their stewardship.
The older woman was dressed today in a simple linen dress of dark green, the color of her beloved trees. Her hair was washed and combed now and fastened in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She wore the pink shawl with the embroidered roses that her husband had given her on their wedding day.
“Carrie,” he said, turning toward her, “it’s chilly out here. Should I go in and get your coat?”
The older woman shook her head. “Ain’t I…. Haven’t I told you a thousand times Ben Cartwright that I don’t need a man to tell me when to come in out of the cold?”
He hid his smile. Anne had been working on her mother’s grammar. “Why, yes, you have.”
She came to stand beside him. “I see the buggy’s gone.”
“Joseph and Anne took off about five minutes ago. They’ll be back mid-afternoon.”
Carrie was silent a moment. “There’s nothing I’d like better than to see them two children together. I ain’t… I haven’t met the likes of that boy since my Amos.”
He heard it in her voice. “But?”
She shook her head. “It’s gotta be for the right reasons, ‘cause they love each other. Love’s the only thing that gets you through the hard times.”
Ben was silent a moment. “I feel the same way. Anne, well, in a way she reminds me of Joe’s mother. Her coloring is very much the same, but there’s more – it’s Anne’s spirit.”
“You loved her dearly, didn’t you? Joe’s ma?”
He put his arm around the older woman’s shoulders. “Just as much as you loved your Amos.”
“Now, come on. Let’s go inside.”
In the end, they decided to wait.
Joe looked down at Anne. She sat beside him on the buggy seat. A single blanket covered them. She was leaning her head against his chest.
She was crying.
He was sure he loved her, but she wasn’t sure he did. She said she was afraid that it was gratitude and thought it best that they spend some time apart. That way, when she returned in the spring – if their feelings were the same – then she’d know it was true and she’d say ‘yes’.
He understood. He knew as well that if their feelings were true, time wouldn’t change them. He’d have plenty to do to keep him busy until she came back. The spring would come and there would be new baby lambs and calves to care for, fresh horses to break, and a thousand acres of timber to see to.
Giving her shoulders a little squeeze, Joe gently said her name. “Anne….”
She looked up with those bright dark eyes she had, deep as the night and bright as the sun. “Yes, Joe, what is it?”
He took her chin in his fingers and lifted her face and kissed her long and hard.
Other Stories by this Author
- What the Wind Blew In (by McFair)
- Bittersweet (mcfair_58)
- A Tale Told by an Idiot (by mcfair)
- The Curse of Bodie (by mcfair)
- An Unspeakable Dawn (by mcfair_58)