To Be or Not to Be (by Susan G)

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Summary:  A traveling medicine show arrives in Virginia City.

Word Count:  38,000  Rated:  T

 

To Be or Not to Be

Joe Cartwright heard the shouting and swearing before he ever saw the garishly painted wagon. Riding toward the top of a hill on the short-cut to north pasture, Joe could hear the voices. One was shouting instructions while another seemed to be swearing in frustration at trying to follow the orders. Joe pulled his pinto to a halt at the top of the hill and looked down to see what all the commotion was about.

A box wagon – the kind used by traveling shows – was sitting in the middle of the road to Virginia City. The wagon was painted bright red, with yellow curlicues sprinkled across the crimson. Bright blue letters proclaimed the wagon to belong to “Harris and Company”. The wheels of the wagon were painted bright yellow also. Three of the wheels were in place, but the fourth wheel was missing from the wagon, causing it to tilt severely to one side. Three men stood near the wagon, pointing at the wagon as well as each other. Joe figured the missing wheel was reason for all the commotion.

Chucking his horse forward, Joe started down the hill. He could see the men gesturing and could hear their increasing loud voices. Two of the men seemed to be arguing over how to get the wheel back on the wagon, while the third stood a little ways off, holding the offending wheel. The three men were one of the oddest groups Joe could ever remember seeing. One looked to be about 40, wearing loud tan and brown checked pants and a small bowler hat which was pushed back on his head. A pair of bright red suspenders looped over the man’s white shirt, holding up the pants that were almost as garish as the wagon. The second man was tall, well over six feet, but as thin as the proverbial bean pole. Joe doubted if the man weighed over a hundred pounds. The man holding the wheel was as short as the other man was tall. His head barely cleared the top of the wheel. As Joe rode toward the wagon, he wondered about the strange group.

“Hello,” shouted Joe as he neared the wagon. “Can you fellows use some help?”

The man in the checked pants turned in surprise. He had been so busy shouting orders that he hadn’t noticed Joe’s approach. Now, as he saw the well-built cowboy perched on the pinto, his face broke into a smile. “Ah, a knight, come to rescue us from our peril,” said the man theatrically. “Indeed you can be of help, young man. As you can see, we are temporarily stranded by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Amused by the man’s words, Joe smiled. “I’m not sure about slings and arrows,” Joe replied as he dismounted, “but it looks like you lost a wheel.”

“Yes, we have,” acknowledged the man, agreeing with Joe’s practical assessment of the situation. “Unfortunately, we have found that no combination of the two of us are strong enough to lift the wagon while the third slips the wheel back on. Perhaps you would be good enough to lend us some of your muscles to rectify the situation.”

Smiling at the man’s flowery prose, Joe walked closer to the wagon. He wasn’t surprised that the men were having difficulty. The one in the checked pants looked to have more flab than muscle on his body, and the tall man seemed to have barely enough flesh to cover his bones. The small man was evenly proportioned for his size but his build would have been considered average on even a normal sized individual.

Kneeling by the wagon, Joe inspected the axle. “Doesn’t look like there are any cracks or breaks in the axle,” he commented as he looked under the wagon. “The wheel must have come loose.”

“Yes, yes, it did,” agreed the man in the checked pants. He looked pointedly toward the tall man. “It was supposed to have been tightened before we left Cedar Flats, but somebody forgot to take care of it.” The tall man looked toward the sky, suddenly finding a fascination with the clouds over his head.

“If we can lift the axle and get the wheel back on, you should be in good shape,” Joe advised, standing and brushing the dirt off the knees of his pants. “I don’t suppose you have a wheel jack?”

“Ah, no,” answered the man in the checked pants regretfully.

“Didn’t think so,” Joe replied with a nod. He pulled on the axle a bit, testing the weight of the wagon. He could tell the wagon was heavy, very heavy. “I don’t know if we can lift the wagon even with the three of us,” he said doubtfully. “We might have to unload it.”

“Could we give it a try?” suggested the man in the checked paints. “Unloading the wagon and then loading it back up again will take us all day. I want to try to get to Virginia City by dark.”

“Sure, we can try,” Joe agreed with a shrug. He turned to the small man holding the wheel. “We may not be able to hold up the axle for very long, so as soon as we get it off the ground, you slip the wheel on.” The small man nodded.

“All right,” said Joe turning back to the other two men. “Let’s give it a try.” The three men grabbed the axle, Joe on the left side and the other two on the right. Joe took a firm grip on the middle of the axle as the other two wrapped their hands around the shaft on either side of his. Joe took a deep breath and tightened his grip. “Now, lift!” he ordered.

Three backs strained with efforts as three sets of arms pulled the axle from the ground. The wagon groaned as the axle rose slowly from the dust. Joe turned his head to shout at the small man, but saw the man was already moving the wheel toward the wagon. The axle wasn’t quite high enough off the ground for the man to slip on the wheel. Joe took another deep breath and pulled harder on the wooden shaft in his hands. The axle rose another few inches. Joe could see the wheel coming closer, but the hole in the center was still an inch or two higher the axle. Joe closed his eyes and pulled once more, his face grimacing with the effort. He heard, rather than saw, the wheel snap into place.

Blowing out a puff of air, Joe dropped his hands from the axle, letting his arms dangle for a minute at his side. He bent over a bit and took several deep breaths, bringing his breathing back to normal after the exertion of lifting the wagon. Then he straightened and looked across the wheel.

The tall man was breathing heavily also, his face red and sweaty. The man in the checked pants, however, looked as fresh as when Joe rode up. Joe suspected that he hadn’t done much lifting.

“Looks like you’re all set,” announced Joe with a nod toward the wheel. “Just put the wheel nut on and make sure it’s tight. You should get to Virginia City without any more problems.”

“Thank you, thank you, young man,” said the man in the checked pants. His eyes suddenly darted about nervously. “I, ah, I don’t have anything with which to pay your for your services….”

Joe waved off the payment. “No payment needed. I’m just glad I could help.”

The man seemed relieved. “We appreciate your help, Mr…Mr…

“Cartwright,” supplied Joe. “Joe Cartwright.”

The man’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Cartwright? Any relation to Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa?”

“My father,” acknowledged Joe with a brief nod.

A thoughtful look crossed the man’s face. “We must do something to repay you,” he said forcefully. “A kind gesture shouldn’t go unrewarded.”

“Not necessary,” repeated Joe.

“You must come to our show when we get set up in Virginia City,” urged the man. “Perhaps our small entertainment will amuse you.”

Glancing at the letters on the wagon, Joe asked, “Harris and Company? Are you Harris?”

“Yes, indeed,” replied the man with a bit of a bow. “Bert Harris, at your service.”

“What kind of show do you do?” Joe asked curiously.

“We try to entertain the whole family,” answered Harris. He pointed to the small man. “Bob here does a puppet show which the children and even some adults enjoy.” Cocking his head toward the tall man, Harris continued, “Frank does the comedy – funny dances and silly walks. I do the singing and the patter.”

“The patter?” asked Joe with a bit of a frown. “What’s that?”

“I tell the folks about Harris’ Fine Tonic,” Harris explained. “Guaranteed to cure what ails you. Gives your energy if you’re tied and helps you sleep if you need it. Calms the nerves and brightens the outlook. And all for just fifty cents a bottle.”

Oh,” said Joe, his face clearing as understanding dawned. “A medicine show. Well, thanks anyhow, but I don’t think….”

“You haven’t met the star of our show,” interrupted Harris. He turned and walked around end of the wagon. “Beth! Beth,” called Harris around the back of the wagon. “Come here, girl. We’ve got the wagon fixed.”

Taking a step toward the end of the wagon, Joe looked in the direction at which Harris was shouting. He saw a girl sitting under a tree a short distance away, reading and apparently totally uninterested in the activities on the road.

“Beth!” Harris shouted again. “We’re ready to go!”

This time the girl looked up. She closed the book, marking her place with a finger and slowly got to her feet. Joe watched her rise gracefully, and he wondered what kind of a person would show such a lack of concern for her fellow travelers and their plight. But as the girl walked slowly toward the wagon, Joe’s criticism faded from his mind.

The girl was tall, with thick black hair that hung loosely to her shoulders. She was wearing a long-sleeved white blouse with the collar turned up. The blouse hugged her ample breasts, and was tucked into the waistband of a dark blue skirt which framed her slim waist and hips. The girl moved with grace and ease, almost gliding rather than walking toward the wagon.

As she drew closer, Joe could see her face — a perfect oval with a small nose and thick lips. But it was her eyes that fascinated Joe. Joe had never seen such blue eyes. They were bluer than the water in Lake Tahoe and looked just as deep. Framed by dark lashes, her eyes drew Joe’s gaze like a magnet.

As the girl walked up to the wagon, she gave Joe a look that was full of both curiosity and caution.

“Beth, my dear,” said Harris. “This is Joe Cartwright. He was kind of enough to help us repair the wagon.”

The girl looked boldly at Joe, making a frank assessment of the young cowboy who stood in front of her. Apparently pleased with what she saw, the girl smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” Beth said in a gracious voice.

“Please, call me, Joe,” Joe replied, his eyes never leaving the girls face. Beth bowed her head a bit in acknowledgment.

“Beth is a pretty name,” added Joe. He immediately kicked himself mentally for such an inane comment. Joe was proud of his ability to charm the ladies, but with this girl, he suddenly found himself babbling like an idiot.

“I like it,” noted Beth with an amused smile.

“What do you do in the show?” asked Joe, desperately trying to get his suddenly mushy brain to come up with an intelligent question.

“I dance a bit,” answered Beth vaguely.

“Beth is a fine dancer,” Bert explained. “The star of our show. Dances like an angel, moving with the grace of a deer. She does the dance of Salome, draped in veils and guaranteed to grab your undivided attention.”

“She already has my undivided attention,” Joe admitted, giving Beth his most winning smile.

“Bert exaggerates,” said Beth, smiling back at Joe. “I’m not really that good of a dancer.”

“I guess I’ll just have to come and see for myself,” Joe countered, his smile widening.

“Joe’s father is Ben Cartwright,” said Bert in a sly voice. “Owner of the Ponderosa, the biggest ranch in Nevada.”

“How nice for Joe,” replied Beth, her eyes twinkling as her smile seemed to brighten.

“I suggested we pay him for his help by inviting him to our show,” continued Bert.

“Yes, that would be nice,” Beth agreed with a nod. “I hope you will come. I think I might dance exceptionally well if I knew you were in the audience.”

“When do you open?” asked Joe in an eager voice, his eyes still riveted on Beth’s blue eyes.

“Tomorrow night,” Bert told the young cowboy. “We’ve rented a building on the edge of town. An old freight terminal, I believe. Our show starts at seven.”

“I’ll be there,” promised Joe. He stared at the attractive girl, seemingly unable to pull himself away from her presence. “Could I take you to dinner after the show?” Joe asked Beth in a hopeful voice.

A strange look crossed Beth’s face and she suddenly lowered her eyes. “I don’t know,” she answered in a voice that sounded almost frightened. “I’m not sure that’s a wise idea.”

“I’m sure you’ll be perfectly safe with young Mr. Cartwright,” urged Bert.

“Absolutely,” agreed Joe in a solemn voice. “You can ask anyone in Virginia City. I’m known as a perfect gentleman.”

Looking up at the handsome young man, Beth’s smile returned. “I’m sure I could get an opinion from a number of young ladies in Virginia City,” she teased.

“Well, maybe a few,” Joe admitted with a wry grin. “How about it? Dinner tomorrow night?”

“Perhaps,” said Beth in a reluctant voice. “Come by the wagon after the show. I’ll let you know.”

“Tomorrow night after the show,” acknowledged Joe with a nod. He stared at the girl for a moment longer. “Well, um, I better be getting back to work,” he added.

“Thank you again for your help, young man, “ said Harris, sticking out his hand. Joe took the offered hand and shook it briefly. He turned to take one last look at Beth. Joe put his hand to his hat brim and tugged on it. The girl smiled and cocked her head a bit in reply.

After walking over to his horse, Joe vaulted into the saddle. “See you tomorrow night,” he called as he turned his horse. His words were said to the group, but his eyes were on Beth as he spoke. Joe kicked his horse lightly and started riding toward the north pasture. He didn’t realize he was whistling as he rode.

**********

His stomach was grumbling for food as Joe descended the stairs toward the breakfast table the next morning. He had missed dinner last night, coming home when the sky was practically black. Joe knew it was his own fault that he was late. He had checked the water holes in the north pasture as he was suppose to, but he had done it with a distracted air. Twice he found himself staring into the water with no idea how long he had been sitting on his horse by the small pond. His mind was filled with the image of silky black hair and blue eyes, not the muddy water in front of him.

When he finally reached home, his father and brothers had already finished their evening meal. Joe walked into the house to see Ben Cartwright in his chair by the fire and Adam and Hoss playing chess. His half-hearted apology had been greeted by a brief lecture from his father about being on time. Hop Sing also had scolded him in a spate of Chinese as the cook put a plate of warmed up stew in front of Joe. Joe had barely heard the stern words from both men, and had barely tasted the few bites of stew he had eaten. His thoughts were still on a blue-eyed beauty named Beth.

Making an excuse of being tired, Joe had left his almost untouched dinner and headed straight to bed. Joe had eagerly sought the privacy of his room and his bed so he could go over for what seemed the hundredth time his meeting with Beth. He was sure he slept with a smile on his face as his dreams were filled with her image.

But while images of black hair and blue eyes pleasured Joe’s soul, those images did little for his stomach. Now, as the sun began to rise, thoughts of Beth were nudged to the back of his mind. Joe’s thoughts were on food and easing the hungry growling of his stomach.

“Morning,” said Joe with a nod as he slipped into his chair.

Adam and Hoss nodded their greeting to him. Both were sipping coffee as they waited for Hop Sing to bring breakfast.

“Good morning,” replied Ben briefly as he also began to sip his coffee.

Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen with a platter of scrambled eggs and bacon. He stopped next to Joe’s chair and shoved the platter in front of Joe.

“You eat,” demanded the cook. “You no eat dinner. Not good for you to not eat.”

“Don’t worry, Hop Sing,” said Joe in a soothing voice as he began to scrap some of the eggs onto his plate. “I’m hungry enough to out-eat Hoss this morning.”

“That’ll be the day,” commented Adam wryly.

Standing silent by the table, Hop Sing watched Joe fill his plate with eggs and bacon. He snorted with satisfaction as Joe forked a large piece of the eggs into his mouth.

“Hop Sing, you going to stand there all day holding those eggs or are you going to feed the rest of us?” complained Hoss.

Hop Sing set the platter on the table. “Mr. Hoss like Hop Sing’s cooking,” he said. “Mr. Hoss always eat.” Hop Sing looked pointedly at Joe. “Mr. Hoss never miss dinner.”

“Um, Hop Sing, I won’t be here for dinner tonight,” Joe told the cook almost tentatively.

Immediately, Hop Sing’s nose went into the air. “Little Joe not like Hop Sing’s cooking,” he declared in an insulted voice. “Hop Sing not wanted. I leave.”

“Now calm down, Hop Sing,” said Ben in a reasonable voice. “I’m sure Joe loves your cooking.” Ben looked at his youngest son. “Don’t you?”

“Oh, I love your cooking Hop Sing,” agreed Joe, trying to hide a smile. “I think it’s the best cooking on the Comstock. I wouldn’t miss dinner if it wasn’t something real important, I promise you.”

Looking mollified, Hop Sing nodded. “You eat big breakfast,” he ordered Joe. “Eat good so you not get thin and sick.” With that remark, Hop Sing turned and walked into the kitchen, mumbling in Chinese as left the dinning room.

“Pa, I bet you never figured you were hiring a mother hen as well as a cook when you took on Hop Sing,” said Joe with a chuckled.

Ben didn’t answer. He was watching as Hoss emptied half the platter of eggs onto his plate. “Hoss, would you mind leaving something for the rest of us to eat?” he asked in an aggravated tone of voice.

“What?” replied Hoss. “Oh, yeah, sorry, Pa.” He quickly handed the platter to Ben.

After filling his plate, Ben handed the platter down the table toward Adam. “Now, what’s this about missing dinner tonight?” asked Ben as he began to eat.

“I want to go into Virginia City,” replied Joe as he continued to eat. “I’ll have dinner there.” Joe glanced at his father. “If that’s all right with you.”

“Of course, it’s all right with me,” Ben agreed in an indulgent voice. “If you’ve finished checking the north pasture,” he added in a sterner tone.

“Yep, all done,” Joe answered. “The only water hole that’s low is the small one near Granite Point. We probably should dig that one deeper,”

“What’s so important about going into Virginia City?” asked Adam curiously. “On a Wednesday night, I wouldn’t imagine much is happening.”

“Oh, I just want to see something,” Joe explained vaguely.

“See what, little brother?” asked Hoss.

Joe sighed. He had hoped that he wouldn’t have to explain to his brothers about the medicine show, but he knew they would question and probe until they found out why he was going to town. “There’s a traveling show opening tonight. I thought I’d go in and see it.”

“A show,” said Adam with a frown. “I didn’t see anything about a show opening at the Opera House.”

“Well, it’s not exactly at the Opera House,” Joe admitted.

“What kind of show isn’t presented at the Opera House?” pressed Adam.

“Um, well, it’s kind of a medicine show,” said Joe in a low a voice.

“A medicine show?” exclaimed Hoss. “Why do you want to see a medicine show, Joe?”

Looking down at his plate, Joe didn’t answer. He simply forked another bit of egg into his mouth.

“Oh,” said Adam as realization came to him. “There’s a girl in the show. A pretty one, I’ll bet.” He looked at Joe with a puzzled expression. “But how’d you find out about it? You haven’t been in town for a week?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Joe tried to look unconcerned. “Their wagon broke down on the Virginia City road. I happened across them on the way to the north pasture. I helped them fix the wagon and they invited me to the show.”

“And met a pretty little gal in the process,” added Hoss with a grin. “Joe, how did you manage to find a pretty girl in the middle of nowhere?”

“Just a talent, I guess, “ replied Joe with a grin.

“I’d watch yourself around those people,” Adam warned his brother. “Those medicine shows are filled with con men and hucksters. You better make sure this girl doesn’t pick you pocket before you leave town.”

“She’s not like that!” said Joe defensively.

“Oh?” Adam replied. “And just how do you know that?”

“She’s a nice girl,” Joe stated. But even to his ears, his reply sounded a bit lame. “She dances in the show, that’s all.”

“Dances in the show,” repeated Adam. “And what else?”

“Adam, you’re accusing this girl of something when you don’t even know her,” said Joe heatedly.

“And you’re trusting this girl when you don’t even know her,” replied Adam. “A pretty face and a sweet smile doesn’t mean she’s not a con artist.”

“All right, all right,” interrupted Ben, hoping to forestall an argument. He turned toward his oldest son. “Adam, you know better than to label someone you haven’t even met.” Adam looked down at his plate, chastised by his father’s words. Ben turned back to Joe. “As for you, Joe, I would suggest you get to know this girl before you start her side against your brother.”

“That’s just what I plan to do,” agreed Joe with an impish smile.

“How late do you think you’ll be tonight?” Ben tried to make the question sound as casual as possible.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. “I’m going to see the show and I hope Beth will let me take her to supper.”

“Beth?” asked Ben with a cocked eyebrow.

“That’s the girl,” said Joe. His eyes took on a faraway look as Joe remembered the meeting with Beth yesterday. “She’s got the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen,” added Joe softly.

“Try not to make it too late,” advised Ben, trying to hide a smile at what he considered to be Joe’s latest infatuation. “We have a full day of work tomorrow.” Ben looked around the table and saw the plates in front of his sons were empty. “In fact, we have a full day of work today, also. I suggest we all get busy.”

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

It didn’t take Joe long to find the building on the edge of town where Harris was staging his show. The milling crowd and the squeals of delighted children led him right to the old warehouse. Joe had stabled his horse, betting that he would be in town for quite awhile. Now he walked up the street of Virginia City toward the building where Harris and Company were performing.

As he walked, Joe did a mental check on his appearance. Clean white shirt, polished boots, new tan pants, and brushed green jacket were all ticked off in his mind. He had endured the gentle kidding from Hoss on his “duded up” look before he left the house, as well as the reminder from his father not to stay out too late. Adam hadn’t said a word. His oldest brother had just looked at Joe and shook his head. Joe had felt irritated with all of them. He hated it when his family treated him as if he were 12 instead of 22. But his irritation had been quickly forgotten as he rode to town. A pretty girl with black hair and blue eyes were all that was on Joe’s mind right now.

As he approached the building, Joe could see a small stand surrounded by children. Puppets were performing on the top of the stand, obviously manipulated by the diminutive Bob from behind. Several adults stood on the edge of the circle of children, laughing indulgently as the puppets amused the younger members of the audience. Harris was standing a few feet from the puppets, near a table covered with bottles. As Joe walked up, Harris was just beginning his spiel. Joe heard him begin to extol the wonders of the “medicine” within the bottles.

Standing a few feet away, Joe watched and listened for a minute. Harris was a smooth talker, and he could see several of the adults looking interested. Occasionally, Bob would interrupt Harris, making a comment or a joke in a high squeaky voice that seemed to come from one of the puppets. Both the children and their parents laughed at the jibes. Joe could tell it was a well rehearsed act, designed to keep the audience from getting restless.

Skirting the crowd, Joe walked toward the door of the building. Harris spotted him as he walked by. The pitchman acknowledged Joe with a short nod and a smile, but continued his smooth talk. Joe smiled briefly at Harris and continued toward the building.

A large poster with the drawing of a dancing girl was tacked to the wall near the door of the building. The girl was dressed in an exotic outfit – full red pants, a gold top and a bare midriff in between. A veil covered the girl’s face, showing only a pair of eyes. Her body was twisted in a seductive pose, with hands twined over her head. “The Dance of Salome” was written in bold letters across the top of the poster. The poster was old, worn and crinkled from much used. Nevertheless, Joe stopped and stared at the picture.

He couldn’t see any resemblance to Beth in the girl on the poster. It was either a drawing of someone else or just a representation of a girl dancing. But Joe’s eyes got a gleam in them as he looked at the poster. The dancing girl looked seductive and welcoming. A warm feeling ran through Joe as he pictured Beth in the same pose.

Someone brushed Joe’s arm as they passed him, waking him from his daydream. Joe hurried toward the door of the building.

The tall man, Frank, was standing near the door selling tickets to the show. Frank’s face lighted up with a smile as he saw Joe approaching.

“Well, well, hello there, Mr. Joe,” said Frank in genuine pleasure. His voice had a trace of a cockney accent. “Glad you could make it to our show. I’ll be sure to tell Beth you are here.”

“Hello, Frank,” Joe greeted the man in return. Joe started to dig into his jacket for some coins. “How much?”

Frank held up his hand. “Normally, it’s two bits, but for you, no charge. Bert said you were to get in free anytime you came.”

“Thanks,” replied Joe, with a nod.

“Go right on in,” continued Frank, sweeping his arm toward the door. “Take a seat in the third row center. That’s where you can see best.”

“Thanks again,” said Joe, and he walked into the building.

A small stage had been assembled at the front of the building. Benches were scattered around the stage, six or seven rows deep. About twenty men were seated on the benches in various places. Joe saw only a few women. The poster on the building made it clear what to expect in the show, so very few women had bought tickets. The few that did had their hands firmly around their escorts’ arms.

Joe nodded hello to a few people he recognized as he made his way to the front of the benches. He took Frank’s advice and found a seat on the middle bench in the third row.

As he waited for the show to begin, Joe looked around. The stage was nothing more than a platform, raised a few feet off the ground. A curtain was draped to the side, tied to a rope that hung from the ceiling, and slanting down to a far wall. Joe assumed that the curtain was used to create a “backstage area”. The cloth looked frayed and worn. At one time, it must have been a deep red, but now the color was faded to a dull rust. Small patches were clearly visible throughout the cloth.

Lamps scattered around the platform lit the stage. The lamps were widely spaced, and two or three didn’t seem to be working. The platform was covered with a mottling of light and dark areas from the uneven lighting.

The audience hummed with low talk and a few loud laughs. Joe wondered how long he would to wait for the show to start. He had a feeling that the people around him would get restless very soon. Joe was already getting anxious for the show to start, but his reason wasn’t boredom.

Harris had the timing of a veteran performer. Just as the crowd seemed to have reached the limits of their patience, Harris bounded onto the stage from behind the curtain, greeting the audience with a loud, “Welcome friends!” Every head in the audience immediately turned toward the stage.

Beginning the show, Harris sang a song filled with bawdy lyrics that brought laughter from the crowd. Even Joe felt himself smiling. Harris moved around the platform as he sang, his voice loud and slightly off key. He finished with a flourish, and bowed to the applause.

As Harris exited, Frank came on stage. He had a banjo in his hands, and immediately began playing. He stopped to tell a few jokes, only some of which drew laughter. He played the banjo a bit more, then began to dance. His long legs bent and moved into seemingly impossible steps, causing the crowd to whistle and clap in appreciation. Frank kicked his legs high into the air as he began strumming the banjo again. The crowd cheered as he moved around the stage. He finished with a series of quick, high kicks. Frank strummed the banjo quickly as he bowed to the applause.

Next Harris returned to the stage, this time holding a bottle in his hand. He once again began to talk about his wonderful medicine, and reminding the audience they could purchase a bottle on their way out of the building. Harris was brief; he knew he could only hold the crowd’s attention for a few minutes. He walked to the edge of the stage and handed the bottle to someone behind the curtain. Then showman moved to the middle of the platform.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show,” announced Harris. “The lovely Fatima will dance the dance of Salome. This dance is thousands of years old, and is known by only a few artists in the world. It is said to have so inflamed the passions of King Herod that he promised Salome anything she wanted in the world. You are indeed among the privileged few who will see this dance performed once more. I give you the lovely Fatima!” Harris spread his arms toward the curtain and slowly backed off the stage.

A low, wailing sound came from the side of the stage. Joe, as well as the rest of the audience, hadn’t noticed Frank slipping from behind the curtain and standing to the side of the platform. Now Frank began to play a long, black clarinet. The music was exotic, almost eerie.

Frank had played for only a few seconds when a figure emerged from the curtain, stepping lightly toward the middle of the stage. She was dressed in the red harem pants depicted on the poster. The pants hugged her waist and hips tightly, then flared out around her legs. The bottom of the pants were tied around her ankles. Gold slippers covered the girl’s feet.

As in the poster, the girl’s midriff was bare. But instead of a gold top, the dancer wore a red vest-like covering. The red top had a silky look, and hugged the girl’s breasts tightly. The vest was cut low, meeting in a v just above the breasts. Sleeves of gauzy white material covered the dancer’s arms, billowing as she moved.

The girl’s black hair was braided and coiled around her head. Gold ornaments were stuck in the braids, surrounding the dancer’s head and giving the impression that she was wearing a crown. Thin strands of gold chain hung across her forehead, the ends of the chain evidently attached to the braids. A veil covered the dancer’s face. Only her eyes were visible.

At first, Joe couldn’t believe the girl on stage was the same girl he met on the road. The girl he remembered seemed sweet and pleasant. The dancer seemed exotic and seductive. But then he saw her eyes, her deep blue eyes, peeking over the veil and there was no doubt in Joe’s mind that the dancer was Beth.

As the clarinet wailed, the girl began to move in the middle of the stage. Her arms waved slowly, and her hips began to sway. The movements were in perfect time to the music.

The beat of the music changed, and the wailing turned into a slow melody. The dancer moved across the stage, and began to dance.

Joe watched in fascination as Beth moved across the stage. Her dance was a combination of ballet steps and slow waltz movements. Occasionally, she would stop and move her hips seductively before moving on to the next series of steps. Joe held his breath as he watched her move with grace and ease.

The music began to pick up a faster beat, and Beth moved in quicker steps. Her feet seemed to cross and uncross. Her left foot came up to her right knee as her body turned and her hands bent at the wrists, pointing to something to her side. She kicked out her leg and twirled. As she landed, her left leg bent slightly while her right leg was stretched out behind her. Beth’s arms raised slowly until they were above her head, and she twisted her hands slowly around.

The audience watched in silence as Beth dropped her arms and brought her legs together. She turned slowly to face the audience, dropping her head a bit and coming to the front of the stage in swaying movements. She brought her hands together as if in prayer and bowed, then took several steps back.

Beth stood on the point of her toe in the center of the stage, and began to spin. The movement caused her pants and sleeves to billow out even more. Three quick turns finished the move. She then swayed her hips seductively again as she reached out her arms, as if pleading for something. The music got louder as her pleas seemed to become almost desperate. With a sudden movement, she pulled her arms to her back, an action which thrust her breasts forward. She held the pose for only an instant. Beth twisted her right leg over her left, and with a spinning movement, collapsed to the stage in a heap. Her hands dropped to her side and her chin fell to her chest. Beth stayed in her huddled pose as the music came to an end.

The men in the crowd began to shout and whistle in appreciation as they realized the dance was over. Several jumped to their feet as they clapped and whistled. Joe found himself clapping so hard that his hands and arms hurt.

Uncoiling herself from the middle of the stage, Beth walked slowly forward. She brought her hands together in the prayer pose as she bowed to acknowledge the applause. Her eyes seemed to be searching the crowd as she bowed. Beth’s eyes stopped moving as she saw the handsome face she sought. She bowed again, this time in Joe’s direction. The veil hid the girl’s face so Joe wasn’t sure if she was smiling at him. But the crinkles around her eyes led him to believe she was.

Beth backed slowly from the front of the stage to the center, then turned to glide behind the curtain. The whistles, shouts and applause continued until she had disappeared.

Immediately Harris bounded back onto the stage. The audience greeted him with a chorus of good natured boo’s. Harris smiled, expecting the audience’s unhappiness that he and not the dancer was now center stage. He began to sing again, and this time, his song was a lively tune that praised the benefits of his “medicine”.

Joe watched Harris perform but his attention wasn’t on the stage. He was counting the minutes to himself, trying to figure how long it might take Beth to change out of her costume. About five minutes had passed when Joe decided he couldn’t wait any longer. Harris was still singing as Joe slipped out the row of benches and headed for the door of the building.

Once outside the door, Joe hesitated. He realized he wasn’t sure where Beth might be. He didn’t know if there was a room behind the curtain or if she left the building to return to the wagon. And he didn’t know where the wagon was.

“She’s in the wagon, ‘round the side of the building,” a voice a Joe’s elbow said.

Turning, Joe saw Bob setting up some bottles on a table near the door. Bob cocked his head, indicating the direction that Joe should go. Joe nodded briefly and headed around the building.

The gaudy red wagon was parked toward the back of the building, the traces facing away from the structure. Joe figured the building must have some type of back door so Beth could slip out of it and go directly to the wagon.

As he neared the wagon, Joe saw he wasn’t the only man interested in the garish vehicle. Someone was knocking on the door of the wagon and calling for “Miss Fatima”. Walking closer, Joe recognized the man as Jack Slater, one of the new hands from the Flying M ranch. Slater was about Joe’s age, and from what Joe had heard, the hand was building himself quite a reputation as a “ladies man.”

“Miss Fatima! Miss Fatima!” cried Slater as he pounded harder on the wagon door. “Please open up. I sure would like to meet you.”

“Go away,” came a muffled response from within the wagon.

“But Miss Fatima, you haven’t even seen me,” said Slater with a confidence air. “I’m sure you would like me if you saw me.”

“Go away!” the muffled voice repeated.

Strolling up to the wagon, Joe stopped a few feet behind Slater. “Jack, why don’t you go what the lady asks and leave,” he suggested.

Slater turned in surprise. “Cartwright! I should have figured you’d be here. Well, you’re too late. I got here first. I’m taking the lady out.”

“Seems like the lady doesn’t want to go out with you,” stated Joe in a even voice.

“A gal who dances like that?” Slater declared almost incredulously. “Shoot, she’ll go out with the first fellow who comes calling, and that’s me.”

Joe clenched his fists in anger. “I think you’d better leave, Jack,” said Joe in a menacing tone. “The lady already has plans for the evening, and they don’t include you.”

Surprise followed by anger crossed Slater’s face. “Oh, so that’s how it is,” he sneered. “She’s going to get a piece of the rich boy first. Well, fine. When she’s finished with you, she’ll come looking for a real man. I’ll be around when that time comes.”

Grabbing Slater of the front his shirt, Joe pulled the man away from the wagon. “I asked you to leave,” said Joe in an angry voice.

“Joe, let him go!”

Both Slater and Joe turned toward the voice. Beth was standing in the door of the wagon. She was wearing a simple print dress with a scoop neckline and her hair was hanging loose around her shoulders. There was no evidence of “Fatima” who had danced so seductively only minutes before.

“Joe, please, I don’t want any trouble,” pleaded Beth. “Let him go.”

Releasing his hold on Slater’s shirt, Joe gave the man a shove. “Get out of here, Slater,” growled Joe.

Slater looked to Beth and then to Joe. “I see how things are,” he said in a sullen voice. The cowboy pulled his hat down lower on his forehead. “I’m leaving. But this ain’t over. This ain’t over by no means.” Slater whirled and stalked away from the way.

Joe watched Slater walk away. He took a deep breath, to both cool his anger as well as clear his head. He didn’t want to repeat his performance on the road when he had managed to say such stupid things. Joe turned and flashed a smile at Beth. “Hello, Beth,” he said gently. “How about that dinner.”

“Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry,” replied Beth in dismay as she swung herself down from the wagon. “I’ve caused trouble for you. Now that man is angry with you.”

“Slater? Don’t worry about him,” answered Joe with a careless shrug. “He’s all talk.” Joe moved closer to Beth. “He’s not a man of action, like I am.”

At first, Beth looked almost frightened by Joe’s words. But then she saw the twinkle in his eye and she burst into laughter.

“So, how about it?” asked Joe, when Beth’s laughter subsided. “Dinner?”

“I don’t know, Joe,” replied Beth hesitantly. She looked around, almost as if she expected to see someone.

“Are you expecting someone else?” asked Joe, the disappointment evident in his voice.

“Oh, no,” Beth assured him quickly. “It’s just that, well, I’m not sure if…I’m just not sure.”

“I’m perfectly harmless,” Joe told the girl solemnly. Then a smile crossed his face. “Look, I’m hungry and I’m sure you’re hungry. We both have to eat. Seems silly for us both to eat alone.”

A wry smile crossed Beth’s lips. “I could use a bite,” she admitted. She cocked her head and looked at Joe, her smile widening. “You do look rather harmless. I suppose I could survive having dinner with you.”

“Not exactly the ringing endorsement I had hoped for,” replied Joe with a grin. He held out his arm. “Miss Fatima.”

Beth took his arm. “I really dislike that name,” she said with a shake of her head. “Bert thought it up. He thinks it sounds romantic or something. I think it sounds kind of silly.”

“What is your name?” asked Joe as he walked with Beth toward the front of the building.

“Beth.”

“Yes, but Beth what?” pressed Joe.

“Beth will do for now,” she replied in airy tone.

Sighing, Joe led Beth through the crowd of people who were exiting the building. The show was over, and people were spilling out onto the street. A few stopped to buy a bottle of Harris’ elixir, but not many. No one paid any attention to the girl clinging to Joe’s arm.

“No one recognizes you,” commented Joe as they passed through the crowd.

“That’s just the way I like it,” replied Beth. “That’s why I wear the veil and that outlandish costume. No one would ever know it’s me up on that stage.”

“I knew it was you,” said Joe softly.

Beth looked at Joe in surprise.

“Ah, how about dinner at the hotel?” suggested Joe quickly. “The food is pretty good.”

“The hotel is a bit…public,” said Beth in a hesitant voice. “Couldn’t we go someplace where’s there no so many people around?”

“Sure,” replied Joe in surprise. He thought for a minute. “Polly Morgan has a little café over on A street. It’s small and this time of night, I doubt if there will be more than one or two people in there. Polly’s meals are simple but they taste great.”

“Perfect,” said Beth enthusiastically. She tightened her hand on Joe’s arm and moved a bit closer to him.

The two walked in a comfortable silence toward Polly’s café a block or two away. Beth looked around, as if she was seeing Virginia City for the first time. Joe couldn’t take his eye’s off Beth.

All too soon – at least in Joe’s mind – the couple came to a building with a small sign proclaiming simply “Polly’s Café”. A bell tinkled as Joe pushed the door open for Beth.

The restaurant was small, no more than a half a dozen tables covered with checked tablecloths. All six of the tables were empty.

“Joe Cartwright!” exclaimed a large woman wearing an apron as she came into the dining room from a rear door. The woman was in her forties, and her face was glowing with pleasure. “How nice to see you!”

“Hello, Polly,” replied Joe with a smile. He looked around the empty café. “You still open?”

“I am for you and your lady friend,” Polly declared. Her smile was both indulgent and maternal. “I’m always open for you.” She turned to Beth. “Hello, dear. Please sit down and make yourself at home.”

Beth and Joe seated themselves at a table in the middle of the café as Polly brought over napkins and silverware. As she set the table, Polly smiled. She could see the look of fascination on Joe’s face as he stared at the girl across the table from him. “That girl’s got him hooked already,” she said to herself. She wondered who the girl was. Polly thought she knew just about everyone in Virginia City, but the girl with Joe was a stranger.

“Now, I have some nice ham and green beans I can bring you, “ announced Polly in a brisk voice. “And I’ve just made some biscuits. How does that sound?”

“Fine,” agreed Joe in a distracted voice. He was still looking into Beth’s eyes. He would have agreed to cut glass and sand if Polly had suggested it. Joe had no idea what he was going to be served for dinner.

“That sounds lovely,” replied Beth in a gracious voice. “I hope we’re not putting you out.”

“Not at all, dear,” Polly answered. “You two just make yourselves comfortable while I dish up your dinner. I’ll put on a pot of fresh coffee for you, too.”

“You have the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen,” said Joe as Polly left the room.

Beth blushed a bit. “Thank you,” she replied. She grinned impishly. “You have nice eyes, too.”

With a twinkle in his eyes, Joe continued. “Your hair is so thick and pretty when it’s down like that.”

Beth quickly fell into a teasing mood. “Now that you have your hat off, I can see you have lovely hair also.”

“Your face lights up when you smile,” said Joe grinning.

“You have a wonderful smile,” replied Beth with a grin.

“And you dance so wonderfully,” added Joe, his grin widening.

“You…” Beth suddenly stopped in confusion. “You ride your horse nicely,” she finished lamely.

Both Beth and Joe burst into laughter at the comment and their silly little game. Polly came back into the room carrying two plates, and looked at the two young people who were giggling at the table. “What’s so funny?” she asked as she set the plates in front of them.

“Polly, I can’t begin to explain,” said Joe, still laughing.

Polly shook her head as she headed back to the kitchen. She returned in only a minute with a plate of biscuits, a pot of coffee and two cups. She set everything on the table, then took a step back. “I’ve got some dishes to wash, so if you need anything else, just yell.”

Beth nodded and began to eat. Joe simply looked at the girl across the table and grinned. Polly shook her head and left the table.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” asked Beth as she began to cut the ham slice on her plate into small pieces.

“What?” answered Joe in a startled voice. “Oh, yeah, I’m going to eat.” He also started cutting his ham. “Where did you ever learn to dance like that?”

“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me,” said Beth, mysteriously. “Tell me about your ranch. Bert says your family has the biggest ranch in Nevada.”

For the next hour, Joe talked about the Ponderosa, his family, his life on the ranch, and even his pinto Cochise. Beth asked questions and seemed interested in his answers. But every time, Joe asked Beth a question, she neatly sidestepped it, and brought the conversation back to Joe.

Joe didn’t even realize he had eaten when Polly came back through the door to collect the plates. “Can I get you two some pie,” suggested Polly as she picked up the dishes.

“Not for me,” said Beth with a smile. “But the dinner was excellent. Thank you.”

Studying the girl, Polly asked, “Are you new in town, dear? I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”

“I’m just passing through,” replied Beth vaguely.

“Will you be here long?” asked Polly, her curiosity piqued.

“We’ll be leaving on Monday,” Beth answered.

“Oh, you’re here with your family?” suggested Polly.

Beth gave a small sigh. “No, I’m with the traveling show that’s performing here this week.”

“Oh, I see,” said Polly. Suddenly the image of the poster she had seen flashed into Polly’s mind. “Oh,” she repeated with a frown. “You’re that…dancer.”

“Yes,” admitted Beth in a small voice.

“And she dances wonderfully,” added Joe with a smile.

“Hmm, yes,” said Polly in a tight voice. “I’ll just clear these away.” Polly quickly left the room.

“I’m afraid she doesn’t approve of my dancing,” said Beth in a sad voice.

“She hasn’t seen you dance,” countered Joe. “I have. And I certainly approve.”

Polly bustled back into the room and put a slip of paper on the table. “That’ll be four dollars,” she stated in a tight voice.

Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out a five dollar piece. “Here, Polly,” he said, putting the coin on the table. “Keep the change.”

Both Beth and Joe pushed back their chairs and stood to leave. As Beth walked toward the door, Polly grabbed Joe’s arm. “Joe, do you what kind of girl she is?” hissed Polly in a low voice.

Joe patted Polly’s hand. “I do, Polly,” he said in a soft voice. “She’s a very nice girl.” Joe gently removed Polly’s hand and walked to the door where Beth was waiting. As the couple walked out the door, Polly shook her head and frowned.

“Polly doesn’t approve of me,” said Beth as she stood outside of the door of the café.

Taking Beth’s hand in his, Joe smiled. “Polly doesn’t know you. I do. And I definitely approve of you.” Joe bent his head forward to kiss Beth, but she took a step back, avoiding the kiss.

“It’s getting late,” she said softly.

“All right,” Joe acknowledged with a sigh. “I’ll walk you back to the hotel.”

“I’m not staying at the hotel,” said Beth. “I found a rooming house just down from the hotel.”

“Mrs. O’Brien’s?” said Joe in surprise.

“Yes, that’s the one,” replied Beth.

“That’s not the best place to stay in Virginia City,” Joe advised in a cautious voice.

“Bert finds the living quarters for us, and he can’t afford to get fancy hotel rooms for us. Besides, it’s clean and it’s private. That’s all that matters to me,” Beth answered with a shrug.

“For someone who dances in public, you sure like your privacy,” said Joe with a puzzled expression.

“What I do on stage has nothing to do with my life off stage,” explained Beth. “I don’t like being around a lot of people.”

“I don’t get it,” admitted Joe. “You don’t seem to mind all the people at the show.”

“The people at the show can’t see my face, and they think they are looking at the lovely Fatima,” Beth explained. She shivered a bit. “It’s getting cool.”

Joe took the hint and started down the street, his hand still holding Beth’s. As they walked down the almost deserted street, Beth seemed to be watching and looking for something. Joe noticed her distracted air, but didn’t comment.

The couple stopped in front a large house with a sign in the window announcing “Rooms to Let”. Beth nodded toward the door. “This is where I’m staying.

“I’ll see you to your room,” suggested Joe.

“That won’t be necessary,” said Beth quickly. She smiled. “Thank you for dinner. It was lovely.”

“Can I take you to dinner tomorrow?” asked Joe.

“I don’t think Polly will want to stay open for me tomorrow,” Beth replied with a wry grin.

“There’s other places to eat in Virginia City,” said Joe. His face grew serious. “Please. Let me take you to dinner again tomorrow.”

Beth hesitated, then smiled. “All right.”

Joe bent forward for a kiss. This time, Beth didn’t pull back but she turned her head slightly so that Joe’s lips met her cheek. Joe looked at her with a questioning gaze.

Beth looked back at Joe, her face sad and her eyes bright with tears. “You’re sweet, Joe,” was all she said. She reached up and stroked his cheek gently. Then Beth turned and walked quickly into the house.

For several minutes, Joe just stared at the closed door. He was confused by Beth. She seemed to like him, and enjoy his company. But at the same time, she seemed afraid to let him get too close to her. He realized he didn’t even know her last name.

Taking a deep breath, Joe headed toward the stables. He promised himself that he would find out more about Beth tomorrow. As he thought about seeing Beth again tomorrow, Joe smiled.

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

“How was the show?” asked Ben as his youngest son slid into his chair at the table for breakfast the next morning.

“It was good, Pa,” Joe answered, reaching for the coffee pot. “A lot better than most of the other medicine shows I’ve seen. A lot of singing and dancing, and they even had some puppets for the kids.”

“And your young lady?” Ben deliberately made the question ambiguous.

“Beth and I had a dinner at Polly’s after the show,” replied Joe slowly, not quite sure how to answer his father’s question. He poured himself a cup of coffee. “We had a good time.”

“What does Beth do in the show?” pressed Ben

“She dances,” said Joe. He sipped his coffee and didn’t elaborate.

“Charlie and a couple of the boys from the bunkhouse saw the show last night,” commented Adam. “They told me that there was a girl who did quite a dance in the show. According to them, it was a pretty risqué performance.”

Joe looked at Adam in surprise. “Charlie was at the show?” He didn’t remember seeing the veteran ranch hand at the old warehouse, but then Joe couldn’t have named anyone who had been in the audience with him. He had had eyes only for Beth last night. “Beth did a real nice dance,” Joe added, feigning indifference.

“Nice isn’t exactly the right word for what I heard she did on stage,” said Adam, arching an eyebrow.

“How can you say that, Adam?” demanded Joe heatedly. “You weren’t even there.”

“No, I wasn’t. But I heard Charlie describe it,” replied Adam.

“Charlie would think a dancer was shocking if she showed her ankles,” said Joe with a disgust. “You can’t judge anything by what he says.”

“What are you getting all hot and bothered about, little brother?” asked Hoss in a puzzled tone. “You saw her dance and you had dinner with her. A couple of days, she’ll be gone. I don’t see what difference it makes what Charlie said.”

Looking down at his plate, Joe didn’t reply. He couldn’t explain why it was important to him what people thought of Beth. He only knew that it was. “I’m taking Beth to dinner again tonight,” said Joe in a low voice.

Ben looked at Joe in surprise. He had thought that Joe would spend an evening with the girl and that would be the end of it. But now he had the uneasy feeling that there was something more brewing between his youngest son and the girl from the medicine show. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of this budding romance. “You’re having dinner with her again tonight?” he asked, trying not to sound critical.

Joe looked up at Ben. “Yes, I am,” he answered in a voice that almost dared his father to object. “Is there any reason why I shouldn’t?”

Sipping his coffee, Ben chose his words carefully. “No, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. It’s just that we have a lot of work to do getting that north pasture ready for the herd. I need a full day’s work out of you.”

“You’ll get it,” declared Joe, his voice rising in anger. “I do my share around here, you know.”

“Don’t use that voice with me, young man,” said Ben sharply. He felt his temper starting to rise and took a deep breath to calm himself. “I just meant that I don’t want you spreading yourself too thin,” he continued in a more reasonable voice. “Working all day and going to Virginia City in the evening — that’s burning the candle at both ends. Something is going to suffer. I just don’t want it to be the Ponderosa.”

Pursing his lips, Joe looked down at this plate again. Right now, a raven haired girl with blue eyes was much more important to him than the north pasture. But Joe knew better than to say that to his father.

Joe took a bite of toast and chewed it slowly. “Don’t worry, Pa,” he said in what he hoped was a normal voice. “I’ll get my work done.” He looked up again at Ben, and this time his expression was almost pleading. “But I promised Beth I’d take her to dinner tonight. I have to go to town. I can’t just not show up.”

Looking at the earnest expression on Joe’s face, Ben felt himself relenting. “If you told her you would be there, I suppose you have to go. But,” Ben’s voice grew stern. “I think it would be wise if you didn’t make any plans for tomorrow night.”

Sipping his coffee, Joe didn’t answer. He had every intention of seeing Beth tomorrow night. However, he didn’t think it was wise to tell his father that just yet.

Adam and Hoss glanced at each other, both trying to figure out what to say. Finally, Hoss’ face showed a wry smile.

“Joe, if you’re going to have dinner in town, will you do me one favor?” asked Hoss.

Looking up in surprise, Joe said, “Sure. What?”

“Will you wait until the rest of us are out of the house before you tell Hop Sing you won’t be here again for dinner?” said Hoss with a grin.

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

It was well past seven when Joe rode into Virginia City. He had been kept busy working in the north pasture all day, and by the time he cleaned up, he knew he would miss the beginning of the show. Not that Joe really cared. There was only one act in the medicine show that Joe was interested in seeing again.

As he turned over the reins of his horse to the stableman, Joe flexed the muscles in his shoulders. He was stiff from cutting weeds and thistles in the pasture all day. Joe suspected that his father had given him the worse job in cleaning up the pasture, hoping that Joe would be too tired at the end of the day to go to Virginia City. What his father didn’t understand was that Joe would have gone to Virginia City if he had to crawl on his hands and knees.

Bob, the small puppeteer, was standing by the door to the old warehouse as Joe walked up. He was setting up the table for the medicine bottles and selling tickets to any late arrivals. He smiled and gave a small wave as Joe approached him. “Go on in, Joe,” said Bob pointing toward the door. “No charge, of course.”

Standing in the back of the building, Joe saw that Frank was just finishing his act. He waited impatiently for Beth to arrive on stage. Joe wondered a bit what he would think of Beth’s dance when he saw it again. Adam’s comments from breakfast nagged at him .

When Beth finally arrived on stage, Joe tried to watch her dance with a critical eye. He didn’t see anything particularly scandalous about the way the girl moved on stage. Joe decided that anyone who thought her moves were suggestive was looking for something to criticize. He didn’t admit to himself, though, that his judgment might be colored by his feelings for the dancer.

As soon as Beth finished her dance and bowed, Joe slipped out of the building and headed toward the wagon. After finding Slater at the wagon last night, Joe wanted to be sure he discouraged any other would-be suitors. He didn’t want to take the chance that Beth might find someone else a more attractive dinner partner.

As he turned the corner of the building, Joe had a brief glimpse of a red costume climbing into the wagon before the door shut. He took his time walking to the wagon, figuring Beth would need a little time to change. He was surprised when he knocked on the door to announce his arrival that Beth called out, “Be there in a minute, Joe. I’m almost ready.” He was even more surprised when the door opened only a few minutes later, and Beth stepped out, dressed in a white blouse and dark skirt.

“You know, you’re amazing,” said Joe with a smile as Beth climbed out of the wagon.

“Thank you,” she replied with a smile. “Any particular aspect of me you find particularly amazing?”

“I find all of you amazing,” Joe declared, his face softening. Then he grinned. “But the fact that you can change clothes in under five minutes is truly astounding. You must be the only woman on earth who can do that.”

“A trick I learned at school,” explained Beth with a wide smile. “I love to sleep late, and getting dressed in record time was the only thing that kept me from being late for class.”

“At school?” said Joe in surprise. “Where did you go to school?”

A frightened look crossed Beth’s face. “It’s not important,” she replied quickly. “Forget I mentioned it.” She grabbed Joe’s arm and gave him a smile that seemed falsely bright. “Now, where are you going to take me to dinner tonight.”

Once more, Joe was struck by the fact that Beth seemed not to want to talk about herself. He wondered why briefly, but his curiosity quickly faded as he looked into the blue eyes that were gazing up at him. “Have you ever eaten Chinese food?” he asked. “Hop Sing, our cook, has a cousin that runs a small restaurant over on E Street. It’s nice and private, just like you prefer, and the food is pretty good.”

“Chinese food?” said Beth a bit doubtfully. Then she smiled. “Well, I’m willing to try anything once.”

In Joe’s mind, the dinner was a rousing success. The restaurant was empty, just like Polly’s café, at that late hour. Hop Sing’s cousin made a special effort to ensure Joe and Beth enjoyed their dinner. He refused to show them a menu, and promised to bring them a dinner they would enjoy. Beth and Joe agreed that man was as good as his word as they savored the chicken with special sauce, rice and egg rolls.

Joe couldn’t remember when he enjoyed a meal more. He and Beth both laughed heartily at her attempts to eat with chopsticks before giving in to using a fork. They told each other silly stories. Beth talked of all the funny things that had happened to “Harris and Company” in their travels, and of the practical jokes she had played on Frank and Bob. Joe told of some the rather ridiculous situations he and his brothers had found themselves, many of which Joe had instigated. Both laughed at each other’s stories and declared the other to be the most outrageous person they knew.

Looking at Beth across the table, Joe couldn’t help but wonder about her. He couldn’t take his eyes off Beth, and Joe knew his feelings were growing stronger for a girl about whom he knew absolutely nothing.

“Beth,” said Joe with a shake of his head, “how did a girl like you end up in a medicine show?”

“You mean how did a nice girl like me end up in a place like this?” replied Beth in a teasing tone. “Joe, that’s the oldest line in the book!”

Joe’s expression grew serious. “No, I really mean it. How did you hook up with Harris? And why a medicine show? I would think you would be a teacher or a dressmaker or something like that.”

Looking away, Beth bit her lip and didn’t answer. She seemed to be thinking about what to say. “It’s a long story, Joe. I won’t bore you with it.”

“I won’t be bored, I promise,” said Joe.

Beth sat silently, then shook her head. “No, not tonight,” she finally replied. “I don’t want to spoil a wonderful evening.”

“All right,” agreed Joe with a sigh. He smiled suddenly. “You know, I don’t even know your last name. Will you at least tell me that?”

“It’s…Johnson,” said Beth in a hesitant voice. Then she grinned. “But you can call me Fatima if you’d like.”

Joe knew Johnson wasn’t Beth’s last name and that she was trying to distract him from talking about her. Once again, he wondered what secrets she was keeping. “Beth…”

“Joe, it’s getting late,” Beth interrupted. “We best be going.” She started to push back her chair.

Grabbing her hand, Joe stopped Beth. “Beth, you can trust me. If there’s something wrong, tell me about it. Maybe I can help.”

“No one can help,” said Beth with a catch in her voice. She looked at Joe almost sadly. “I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but it’s best if you don’t get involved.” Beth pulled her hand away from Joe, and pushed back her chair. “I should be getting back to the rooming house.” She stood and walked quickly to the door.

Throwing some bills on the table, Joe hurried after Beth. He caught up with her as she stood outside the restaurant. She seemed to be scanning the street, her head turning as she checked the area around her.

“Beth…” Joe tried again.

“Joe, let it go. Please. Just walk me home,” said Beth in an insistent voice.

The two walked down the nearly deserted main street of Virginia City without speaking. Their silence was awkward, an invisible wall that separated them as they walked. The street was dark, lit only in small patches where lights shone through a window. Few people were on the street, and the only sound that could be heard was the distant tinkle of a piano from the saloon.

“I’m sorry I ruined your evening,” Beth said, making the first dent in the wall after several long minutes of silence.

“You couldn’t ruin my evening,” replied Joe. He reached over and took her hand, his grasp tentative. He was afraid she would pull away from him again. But Beth’s hand tightened around his. “You might make me a little crazy sometimes,” he added with a smile, trying to lighten the mood, “but how could I not enjoy an evening with the beautiful Fatima.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls who dance in medicine shows,” teased Beth, her mood beginning to match Joe’s.

“Only those who are brave enough to eat Chinese food with me,” professed Joe solemnly.

Beth laughed, and the frosty air that had surrounded the couple melted.

Putting his hand lightly around Beth’s waist, Joe pulled her closer. Beth didn’t object.

“What do you do all day?” asked Joe curiously as the walked slowly toward the rooming house.

“Do?” said Beth in a puzzled voice.

“I mean, what do you do when you’re not dancing?” clarified Joe. “Do you spend time with Bert or Frank? Or what?”

“Bert and the others are just…the people I travel with,” said Beth slowly. “When we’re in a town, I usually don’t see them except when it’s time for the show.” Beth was silent for a moment. “I really don’t do much during the day. I usually stay in my room and read most of the time.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” commented Joe.

Beth shrugged. “I love books, Joe, especially the classics. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hawthorne…they’re wonderful.”

“Remind me to keep you away from my older brother Adam,” said Joe, not entirely joking. “You two would get started on comparing books and I’d never see you again.”

“Don’t worry,” Beth replied with a smile. “I think I prefer having dinner with the youngest Cartwright to talking about books.”

Grinning a bit smugly, Joe tightened his grip around Beth’s waist. He felt a warm glow as her hand came up and rested on his back.

The faint clop of an approaching horse broke the stillness of the night. Joe glanced up, barely noticing the rider coming toward the couple at a slow walk. If someone had asked him, all Joe could have described was a dark figure on a dark horse. To him, it was just another cowboy heading for home.

But the rider evidently meant something to Beth. Joe could feel her body stiffen and hear the sharp intake of her breath. She practically dragged him a foot or so into the shadows of a narrow alley. Joe started to protest, but Beth silenced him by throwing her arms around his neck and placing her lips firmly against him.

Circling Beth’s body with his arms, Joe began to kiss her back. But instead of soft, yielding lips, Joe felt a taut mouth pressed against his. Joe expected her soft body to melt into his, but Beth remained stiff and rigid in his arms. He pulled her closer and pressed his lips harder against hers. Beth remained tense and unyielding.

Pulling his head back, Joe looked at the girl with a frown. “Not that I minded the kiss,” he said in a puzzled voice, “but what was that all about/”

Beth looked over Joe’s shoulder, her eyes wide with fright, before answering. “I’m sorry,” she answred softly. “I…I thought the rider was someone I knew.”

“Who?” asked Joe, his frown deepening.

“I don’t know his name,” admitted Beth, her eyes still searching the street behind Joe. “I just know he’s looking for me.”

Grabbing Beth around the shoulders, Joe forced her to look at him. “Who is he?” repeated Joe. “Why is he looking for you? Beth, what’s going on?”

“Did it look like he was coming from the rooming house?” asked Beth, ignoring Joe’s questions.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. He gave me a small smile. “I had my mind on other things.”

But Beth wasn’t about to be distracted by his gentle jibes this time. “He must have been coming from the rooming house,” she said in a voice full of panic. “I’ve got to move out of there right away. I’ve got to find someplace else to stay.” Her eyes started to fill with tears. “I don’t know where to go. I don’t know where I can go so he can’t find me.”

Bursting into tears, Beth buried her head in Joe’s shoulder. “Why?” she sobbed. “Why did he have to show up now? I’ve been so happy the last few days. Why did he have to come?”

Stroking Beth’s soft hair, Joe felt a number of emotions running through him. His heart soared with joy as Beth spoke of her happiness, but he was also moved by her tears and concerned at her obvious fright. “It’ll be all right,” crooned Joe softly, as he stroked her head. “We’ll figure something out. Everything will be fine.”

Taking a deep breath, Beth pulled back from Joe. She rubbed a finger under each eye, trying to dry her tears. “I’m sorry, Joe,” she said with a sniff. “I didn’t mean to go to pieces like that.” Beth swallowed hard and squared her shoulders. “I’ve got to get to the rooming house. I’ve got to find someplace else to stay.” She bit her lip. “Joe, tell me where I can go. I don’t know where to go.”

“Why don’t you just come out and stay at the ranch?” suggested Joe. “We’ve got plenty of room.”

“No,” said Beth quickly. “I can’t do that, Joe. I can’t put you and your family at risk. I won’t do that to you.”

“At risk?” repeated Joe. “Beth, just what is going on?”

Shaking her head, Beth said, “Joe, I can’t explain now. Please, just trust me. Help me find someplace in town to stay. Please help me.”

“All right, all right,” agreed Joe in a soothing voice. He thought for a moment. “Why don’t you just move into the hotel?”

Beth shook her head again. “That’s no good. He’d find me as soon as he took a look at the registration book. Besides, I can’t afford it.”

“He wouldn’t find you if I signed the registration and paid for the room,” said Joe.

“I can’t ask you to do that,” Beth replied, lowering her eyes.

“You’re not asking me,” Joe stated firmly. “I’m offering. It’s the best place for you. Besides, there’s not another decent place for you to stay in Virginia City.”

“I…I don’t know,” said Beth hesitantly.

Joe placed his finger under her chin and lightly lifted her head. “Well, I do know,” he declared with a small smile. “Let’s go down to the rooming house and get your things. I’m moving you into the hotel.”

It took only a few minutes for Joe and Beth to walk rapidly to the rooming house. Joe waited by the door as Beth explained to an astonished Mrs. O’Brien that she was moving out immediately. Her explanation of why was deliberately vague.

As Beth rushed up the stairs to back her things, Mrs. O’Brien turned to look at Joe standing by the door. She frowned and her eyes narrowed.

Crushing his hat in his hands, Joe shifted her weight back and forth as he stood. He felt awkward and uncomfortable under Mrs. O’Brien’s icy glare. “Um, nice weather we’re having,” said Joe trying to make small talk.

Mrs. O’Brien didn’t answer. She continued to stare him with a look of suspicion on her face.

“It’s really warm for this time of year,” continued Joe nervously. He played with the hat in his hands, and his feet shuffled a bit.

Mrs. O’Brien simply crossed her arms and scowled at Joe.

Joe fidgeted by the door for what seemed a lifetime before Beth hurried down the stairs. She had a small valise in her left hand, and her right arm was holding several books.

“Thank you for everything, Mrs. O’Brien,” Beth said in a rush as she hurried toward the door. “I know Bert paid for the room through Monday. Please, just keep the money. It’s the least I can offer you for your trouble.”

“You won’t be needing the money to pay for another room?” asked Mrs. O’Brien, her scowl deepening.

“No, no, I won’t,” Beth answered in a distracted voice as she handed her valise to Joe. “Come on, Joe. Let’s go.”

As Beth pulled open the door and walked out, Joe suddenly realized what Mrs. O’Brien must be thinking. He opened his mouth to explain, but couldn’t think of anything to say without revealing where Beth was going and why. And anything he said to Mrs. O’Brien might be repeated and endanger Beth. Finally, Joe just shrugged and mumbled, “Good night” as he hurried out the door after Beth.

Beth was already half-way up the street as Joe came out of the rooming house. He ran to catch up with her. “Beth,” he said as reached her, “about Mrs. O’Brien…”

“What about her?” replied Beth in a breathless voice as she turned to Joe. Even in the dim light of the street, Joe could see the fright in her eyes.

“Nothing,” said Joe, putting his arm around Beth. “Let’s get to the hotel.”

As they neared the hotel, Beth suddenly stopped. “I don’t know if this is a good idea, Joe,” she said in a doubtful tone. “Walking through a crowded lobby everyday isn’t exactly the way to stay out of sight.”

“Don’t worry,” Joe assured her. “There’s a back staircase. I’ll get you a room near that. And I’ll make sure the hotel sends breakfast up to your room every morning.” Joe smiled. “I’ll see that you get dinner every night.”

The tension seemed to drain from Beth as she let out a sigh and her shoulders sagged a bit. “Thank you, Joe,” she said softly. “Thank you for everything.”

Joe pulled Beth toward him and hugged her tight. He kissed her lightly on the forehead as he released her. “Come on. Let’s get you settled.”

The hotel lobby was deserted as Beth and Joe entered. Even the desk clerk was gone. “Wait here by the door,” said Joe, dropping Beth’s valise by her feet. Joe walked over to the desk and slapped a bell with his palm. The bell tinkled, making a seemingly loud noise in the quiet of the lobby.

A door opened on the other side of the lobby and a man hurried out. He quickly crossed the lobby and walked behind the desk. “Hello, Joe,” said the man. “How can I help you?”

“Vince, I need a room,” replied Joe.

“Sure,” replied Vince, his eyebrows rising in surprise. “Just for the night?”

“No, I need it until Monday,” explained Joe. “Is that suite near the back stairs available?”

Vince suddenly noticed Beth standing by the door. He looked at her and then back to Joe. “Um, yes,” answered Vince in a hesitant voice as he continued to glance at the girl a few feet away.

“Good,” said Joe. He picked up the pen and the signed the registration book, then reached into his jacket. Joe slapped a $5 piece on the desk. It was all the money he had with him. “I also want you to take breakfast up to the room every morning, too. This

should cover the first day. I’ll pay for the rest tomorrow.”

“Joe, breakfast shouldn’t be too early,” suggested Beth from the door.

“Yeah, that’s right,” agreed Joe, remembering that Beth would be returning to the hotel late each evening. He turned to Vince. “Can you have breakfast sent up late – maybe 9:30 or 10:00?”

“Um, eh, sure,” agreed Vince. He glanced at the girl. “Breakfast for….how many?”

“Just one,” said Joe. He gave the desk clerk a hard stare. Vince looked down at the register and nodded his understanding. “And Vince, don’t say anything to anyone about this,” added Joe.

“No, no, of course, not,” agreed Vince. He bit his lip nervously. “Joe, are you sure you want to do this?”

“I’m sure,” Joe answered in a firm voice. “Just hand me the key.”

Vince nodded, and turned to a shelf filled with pigeon holes behind him. He pulled a key out of one, and handed it to Joe. “Number 11,” he said. “Top of the stairs and all the way to the end of the hall.”

“I know where it is,” Joe replied. He walked across the lobby to Beth, and picked up the valise. “Come on,” he said to her.

As Joe escorted Beth up the stairs, Vince called after them. “Joe, what should I tell your Pa if he asks about this?”

“Don’t say anything to anyone,” repeated Joe. “Especially my Pa and brothers.”

Vince frowned at Joe’s reply.

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

Sprawled comfortably in the sofa in the sitting room of the suite, Joe waited for Beth to finish unpacking her things. Joe had told her that he wanted to wait until she was settled, to make sure everything was all right, before he left. That was only partially true. Joe was determined to get an explanation from Beth. He wasn’t going to leave without one.

A door opened to Joe’s left. He looked over and smiled as Beth walked out of the bedroom. She smiled back at him, and walked over to the sofa. Beth lowered herself onto the sofa and settled her head comfortably on Joe’s shoulder.

“This is the nicest room I’ve had since…well, since I’ve been traveling with Bert,” said Beth in a contented voice. She looked up at Joe. “Thank you,” she said softly. “Thank you so much.” She kissed Joe lightly on the cheek.

“I like the way you say thank you,” murmured Joe. He bent down and kissed Beth on the lips. This time, her mouth was soft and yielding. Joe’s kiss was long and passionate.

“You’d better go, Joe,” Beth suggested when the two finally parted. “It’s getting late.”

“No,” said Joe shaking his head. “I’m not leaving until you tell me what’s going on. Beth, I want to help you. But I can’t help you unless I know what you’re afraid of.”

“Nobody can help me,” replied Beth with a sigh.

“Try me,” urged Joe.

Beth got up and walked a few steps from the sofa. She stood with her back to Joe. He waited patiently while she decided what to say.

“I suppose you deserve an explanation,” acknowledged Beth without turning around. “It’s the least I can do to repay you.”

“I don’t want you to tell me because you feel you owe me something,” said Joe earnestly as he sat forward on the sofa. “I think we have something special between us. I hope you’ll tell me because, well, because you feel the same way.”

Turning, Beth studied Joe for a minute. Then she gave him a tentative smile. “Joe, I’m not sure what my feelings are. I haven’t allowed myself to feel anything for a long time. But I know being with you makes me feel safe and warm.” A sad expression crossed Beth’s face. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything more than that, at least right now.”

It wasn’t exactly the answer Joe had hoped for, but he was willing to accept it. He smiled encouragingly at the girl across the room.

Beth took a deep breath. “It’s hard to know where to begin.” She walked back to the sofa and sat down, this time on the end of the sofa where she could look at Joe. “A year ago at this time, I was attending school at a Ladies’ Academy back East. Besides the usual academic subjects, they also taught ballet, ballroom dancing, and what they called ‘free dance’.”

“So that’s where you learned to dance,” commented Joe.

Beth nodded. A wry smile crossed her face. “My teachers at the Academy would be shocked if they saw how I’m using all the steps and moves they taught me.”

“How did you end up in the medicine show?’ asked Joe.

Beth’s face grew grim. “My father was a very wealthy and powerful man,” she said slowly. “He started out with a small shop many years ago. But he also grubstaked a number of miners. A couple of those mines hit paydirt. He used those profits to expand his business and acquire several companies. By the time I left for school, he was the head of a large corporation. But he also was one of the kindest and most loving men in the world.”

“Was?” asked Joe.

Nodding, Beth continued. “While I was at school, I got a telegram from my mother. My father was killed in an accident. I was devastated. I think I cried for two days. I knew I couldn’t get home in time for the funeral, so I decided to take a little time to recover. I also knew once I left school, I wouldn’t be coming back. So I wired my mother, and followed up with a long letter. I waited almost two months to go home.” Beth shook her head. “It was the biggest mistake I ever made,” she added bitterly.

“Why?”

“Because by the time I got home, I found my mother had married my uncle, my father’s brother,” explained Beth grimly. “And because he married my mother, my uncle took over running my father’s businesses.”

“Your father left everything to your mother?” asked Joe.

“Half of his shares went to my mother,” amended Beth. “The other half went in trust to me, to be given to me on my 21st birthday. I’m sure my father thought we would sell our shares and use that as our inheritance.” Her voice turned bitter again. “I know he never thought my mother would marry his brother and that his brother would take over the business.”

“Why not?” asked Joe. “I mean, I know it happened fast, but if he’s your uncle…”

“My uncle is just the opposite of my father,” insisted Beth. “He’s hard, and power-hungry. I’m sure he married my mother just to get control of my father’s businesses. My father never trusted his brother, and he never let him get too close to either his family or his business.”

Joe shook his head. As much as he argued with his brothers, he never distrusted them. He knew it happened, but he always found it difficult to understand how brothers ended up hating each other. “I still don’t understand,” said Joe. “How does this all relate to your ending up in a medicine show?”

“When I first returned home, I was too grief-stricken and upset to pay much attention to what was going on,” explained Beth. “But then I started to hear comments. Things like maybe my father’s death wasn’t an accident, and that my uncle was hiding profits from the company. I started asking questions, and the more I found out, the more suspicious I became of my uncle. I couldn’t find any hard evidence to prove my father’s death wasn’t an accident, or that my uncle was cheating me. So I decided to try another tactic. I confronted my uncle and told him what I suspected. I also told him that since that as soon as I turned 21, I was going to exercise my rights as a shareholder to get involved in running the company.”

“That probably wasn’t a wise decision,” said Joe slowly.

“You’re right,” agreed Beth, nodding. “But I was naïve. I thought if he knew I was on to him, he would be frightened. But instead, he just laughed at me. At least, at first he laughed. Then he got angry.”

“Angry? Why?”

“Because I started telling people what I suspected,” answered Beth. “I started telling people I suspected that my uncle had arranged for my father’s death, and had married my mother so that he could take control of the company and cheat me.”

“I can see why he might be unhappy about that,” said Joe with a wry smile.

“My uncle was furious with me,” continued Beth. “He swore he would get me ‘out of the way’.

“So he sent someone to kill you,” suggested Joe.

“No, Joe,” Beth replied with a shake of her head. “He did something worse. He found a judge he could buy, and he had that judge declare me insane.”

“Insane?” said Joe in surprise. “Why would he do that?”

“I suppose he thought another death would look really suspicious,” said Beth with a shrug. “Even my uncle would find it difficult to buy his way out of murder charge. But if I was declared insane, he could have me put away. My shares of the company would revert to my mother and ultimately to him, because I wouldn’t be judged competent to own those shares.”

“What about your mother?” asked Joe. “Didn’t she object to all this?”

“My mother is a sweet and wonderful person,” answered Beth. “But she simply doesn’t know how to deal with something like this. My father adored her, took care of her. He protected her from anything difficult or ugly, and I suppose I did the same thing. I’m sure she married my uncle because she simply didn’t know what else to do when my father died. She kept telling me not to cause trouble, to try to get along with my uncle. When I told her what I suspected my uncle had done, she just stood there, wringing her hands and telling me I was wrong.”

“But that still doesn’t explain how you ended up in Virginia City, “ said Joe.

“One of my father’s friends told me about the insanity decree and what my uncle planned to do,” replied Beth. She closed her eyes and shuddered. “Joe, I just couldn’t face the thought of being forced into one of those awful asylums. I wouldn’t be able to stand it. I really would go crazy. So I decided to run away.”

“And you ran away to a medicine show,” Joe said with a nod.

“Bert was doing his show in town when I decided to run away,” Beth replied. “I hid in his wagon. I was sure my uncle and his men would never look for me there, and I was right. Bert didn’t discover me in the wagon until he was a day away from the town. I convinced Bert to help me. He had an old poster from a dancer who used to be in his show, and part of a costume. We worked out an act, and I became the mysterious Fatima. It was the perfect way to hide. No one would dream that I would be dancing in a medicine show. When I’m on stage, the veil hides my face. When I’m not performing, I stay out of sight. I didn’t think my uncle’s men would ever find me.”

“But they have,” said Joe.

Beth nodded. “I’m sure the man I saw in the street is one of my uncle’s men. I’ve seen him before, both at home and once in another town. The show left town the day he showed up, so I thought I had escaped him. But I was wrong.”

“But why is your uncle after you?” asked Joe in a puzzled voice. “If you’re gone, you can’t cause him trouble.”

“Before I left, I met with my father’s lawyer, the man who is holding my shares in trust,” explained Beth. “We agreed on how he should vote my shares. He’s a good man, and an honest one. I’m sure he is making my uncle’s life miserable, questioning every decision and asking for audits. My uncle needs to find me so he can have me formally declared insane and put away. Until he finds me, the judge’s order can’t be put into effect.”

“But, Beth, you can’t hide from him forever,” said Joe.

“I don’t have to,” Beth replied. “I only have to stay hidden for a few more months. Then I’ll turn 21 and have control of the shares.”

“What good does that do?” asked Joe. “He can still have you declared insane, can’t he?”

“He can, but once I’m 21, I can decide what to do with my shares,” explained Beth. “The day I get those shares, I’m going to sell them to my father’s friends, people I trust. My uncle will never be able to control these men. They’ll find out what he’s been doing, and force him out of the company, maybe even have him jailed.” Beth turned to Joe with an earnest expression. “You can see why I’m so afraid, Joe. My uncle must be getting desperate. Time is running out for him. I turn 21 in four months. If he doesn’t find me before then, he’ll be ruined.”

Joe whistled softly. “You sure have yourself a heap of trouble,” said Joe sympathetically. “Does Bert know all this?”

Beth stood and walked a few feet from the sofa, seeming unsure how to answer Joe’s question. “He knows most of the story, but not all,” she answere slowly. “He knows someone is after me, and that I need to stay hidden. But he doesn’t know who or why. Frankly, Bert doesn’t want to know. But he’s been a good friend. He arranges messages for me to my lawyer from various places. He knows how to get the messages sent so they don’t get traced back to me.”

“Messages?”

“Just a brief phrase I send every month to reassure my lawyer that I’m alive and all right,” explained Beth. “That way my uncle can’t declare me dead.”

“Beth, what’s your uncle’s name?” asked Joe.

“Why do you want to know that?’ asked Beth, almost in fright.

“My Pa has lots of influential friends,” replied Joe. “He knows people. He knows how to get things done. Maybe he can do something to help.”

Walking back to the sofa, Beth sat down and took Joe’s hand. “Thank you, Joe,” she said softly. Her eyes filled with tears. “But there’s nothing he can do to help. No one can help me.” Beth put her face in her hands and began to cry.

Putting his arm around her, Joe pulled Beth closer to him. He kissed her forehead softly. Beth lowered her hands and turned her face to Joe. Joe lowered his head and kissed her lips.

Her lips eagerly sought his. Their kiss was deep and passionate. Her hands stroked his neck and moved to stroke his head. Joe’s lips moved to her soft, white neck.

Beth pulled herself away slowly. “It’s getting late, Joe,” she said softly. “You should go.”

“I don’t want to go,” murmured Joe, his eye shining.

Beth pulled herself from Joe’s grasp and stood. “Go home, Joe,” she said firmly, take a few steps away from Joe.

Sighing, Joe stood. “I’ll go,” he agreed reluctantly. He walked next to Beth. “Will you be all right?”

Beth nodded. “Yes, I’ll be fine. I’ll stay in the room until I need to be at the show, and I’ll use the back stairs.”

“I’ll come and walk you to the show,” offered Joe.

“No, you don’t have to do that,” said Beth quickly. “You’ve done so much for me already. You’ve got your ranch to take care of. I can’t keep taking you away from that. I’m used to making myself invisible. I’ll manage.”

“I’ll be at the wagon after the show,” promised Joe. “I’ll walk you back here and we can have dinner in the suite.”

“I’d like that,” agreed Beth with a warm smile.

Joe bent down and kissed her lightly again. Beth returned the kiss, then pushed him gently away. “Go home, Joe,” she said softly.

Nodding, Joe walked to the door and pulled it open. He turned to kiss her again, but Beth pushed him out the door with a laugh. “Go!”

With a grin, Joe stepped out into the hall. “Lock the door,” he ordered. Beth nodded and closed the door. Joe waited in the hall until he heard the lock click. He stood staring at the door for a minute, reluctant to leave Beth alone – for a number of reasons. He wanted to be with her, to protect her, to hold her. He wanted to hear her laugh and comfort her when she cried.

A seed of doubt nagged at Joe, though. He knew how he felt about Beth, but he didn’t know for sure how she felt about him. She had seemed eager to send him home.

Sighing, Joe turned and walked slowly toward the stairs.

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

After the third time Hoss pounded on his bedroom door and yelled for Joe to get up, Joe reluctantly crawled from his bed. He felt tired, and leaving the soft mattress was a difficult task. His body was tired from the hard work in the pasture yesterday and from lack of sleep. He had gotten home very late, and once he had climbed into bed, he had laid awake for a long time, thinking about Beth.

Joe felt drained in many ways. His emotions had been on a roller coaster ride as he had reviewed his evening with Beth. He was elated as he thought about their dinner, their tender kisses, and their holding each other in their arms. But he also felt discouraged as he remembered how quickly Beth seemed to push him away. He had thought about the story Beth told him, and felt frustrated at her unwillingness to let him help her more. Joe’s thoughts were still in turmoil when he finally drifted off to sleep.

As he dressed, Joe felt dull and listless. The last thing he wanted to do was join his family for breakfast. But he knew that Hoss would be back again if he didn’t show up at the table soon.

Ben, Adam and Hoss had already finished their breakfast when Joe finally arrived downstairs. Three pairs of eyes watched Joe when he finally slid slowly into his chair at the table.

“Nice of you to join us this morning,” remarked Adam dryly. Joe ignored him and poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Little brother, you look like something the cat dragged in,” added Hoss.

“I’m just tired,” answered Joe as he began to drink his coffee.

“You got home pretty late last night,” commented Ben.

Joe nodded dully and sipped his coffee.

“Joe, I don’t mind you seeing this girl,” continued Ben. “But remember what I said about burning the candle at both ends?”

To tired to argue, Joe simply looked at his father. “I remember,” he said.

“I think it would be best if you stayed home tonight,” suggested Ben.

“I can’t do that, Pa,” replied Joe with a shake of his head. “I have to be there to walk Beth home after her show.”

Frowning, Ben said, “Joe, I don’t think….

“Pa, you don’t understand,” interrupted Joe. “I have to be there. Beth is in danger. I have to be there to protect her.”

“In danger? How?” asked Ben in surprise.

Biting his lip, Joe wondered what to say. Beth hadn’t told him not to repeat her story, but he knew she assumed he would keep it to himself. As Joe looked at the three men around the table who were watching him with expectant looks, he wondered if he should tell him what Beth said.

Could he trust his father and brothers? Joe didn’t even have to think about the answer.

“Beth is hiding from her uncle,” Joe began. He told them the whole story: what Beth had told him, what he had done to help her, and why he needed to go to town that night He told them everything except how he felt about Beth. He wasn’t sure he could have put those feelings into words.

“Poor little gal,” said Hoss in sympathy as Joe finished talking. “She sure has a load of troubles.”

“I can see why you feel you need to go to town, Joe,” agreed Ben in a cautious tone.

“Well, at least she’s a well-read little con woman,” Adam added, shaking his head.

“What do you mean by that, Adam?” snapped Joe angrily.

“That story she told, Joe, didn’t you recognize it?” Adam asked. “She put a bit of a spin on it, but basically, she told you the story of ‘Hamlet’.”

“Hamlet?” said Joe with a frown.

“She comes home from school to find her father dead, her mother re-married to her uncle, and her uncle basically usurping the throne,” continued Adam. “That’s the plot of Hamlet. She even threw in the insanity angle and the strolling players for good measure. I’m surprised she did tell you the ghost of her father talked to her.”

Looking down into his coffee cup, Joe’s frown deepened. Now that Adam had pointed it out, he could see the parallels to Shakespeare’s story. “Just because it sounds a bit like Hamlet doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” said Joe slowly.

“Oh, come on, Joe, wake up,” Adam’s voice held a trace of disgust. “Did she tell you anything you use to verify her story? The name of her uncle? The town? Even her real name? Did she tell described this so-called henchman of her uncle that’s chasing her?”

“She said she didn’t want me to get involved,” answered Joe a bit too defensively.

“She didn’t want you to get involved because there’s nothing for you to be involved in,” stated Adam. “She’s running a con, Joe. She’s already got you to pay for a suite at the hotel for her. It’s only a question of time before she asks you for more money to send to her lawyer or maybe to help her escape from this mythical man who is chasing her. Or maybe she’s going to ask you to buy some of those non-existent stocks of hers.”

“That’s not true, Adam,” Joe replied heatedly. “Beth’s not like that. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Joe, she dances in a medicine show,” said Adam in a patient tone of voice. “She’s not an heiress or hiding from her uncle. She’s a con artist.”

“You’re wrong, Adam, you’re dead wrong about her,” declared Joe angrily. “Beth is sweet, and funny, and wonderful. She’s only dancing in that medicine show because she’s afraid of her uncle. As soon as turns 21, she’ll leave that show.”

“Joe, you’re getting all hot and bothered about a girl you’ve only known a couple of days,” commented Hoss. “Maybe you ought to slow down and take a hard look at things.”

“I don’t need your advice,” snapped Joe as he glared at Hoss.

“Calm down, all of you,” boomed Ben. He could see that Joe wasn’t about to be persuaded that the girl might be anything other than what he thought — or wanted – her to me. Continuing the discussion now would serve no purpose except to make Joe dig his heels in deeper.

“Whether the girl’s story is true or not is of no concern to us,” said Ben in a firm voice. He looked at his youngest son. “Joe offered her help and she refused. That’s the end of it. There’s no need for any of us to get involved further. We have a ranch to run. As soon as Joe has finished eating, Hoss, I want you and he to finish getting that north pasture ready. Adam, you get the men started on rounding up the herd. I want to move those cattle next week.”

Draining his coffee cup, Joe stood. “I’m not hungry,” he said in an abrupt tone. “I’ll go saddle my horse.” Joe took a few steps from the table, then stopped and turned back to Ben. “It’s not over, Pa,” he said in a determined voice. Joe stared at his father for a moment, then added, “Tell Hop Sing I’ll be having dinner in town tonight.” Joe turned and walked away.

Three men sat in stunned silence for a moment as they heard the front door slam.

“I’ll go after him, Pa,” offered Hoss, pushing himself away from the table. Ben nodded distractedly as Hoss left the room.

Adam and Ben sat in silence for several minutes, both lost in their thoughts. Finally, Adam said, “Pa, you know that story she told Joe is just a bunch of baloney. She’s going to keep him on the string until she gets what she wants from him. And then she’ll disappear faster than a jack rabbit.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” replied Ben, but his voice was full of doubt. “If her story is true, Joe could find himself in the middle something that he can’t handle. Her uncle sounds like a man who could be dangerous.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” said Adam. “I think the only danger Joe is facing is losing all his money.” Adam looked speculatively at his father. “What are we going to do about the girl?”

Ben sat in silence for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do, Adam. We can’t lock Joe in his room and refuse to let him go to town. He’s not a schoolboy any longer. He’s a young man, old enough to make his own decisions.”

“And his own mistakes,” added Adam. “Pa, Joe may not be a schoolboy any longer, but I have a feeling that girl is going to give him quite an education.”

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

The streets of Virginia City were crowded as Ben guided his horse into town late that morning. He had told himself that the mail really did need to be picked up and that the feed order had to get in today. But Ben knew he was lying to himself. Any of his sons, or even one of the hands, could have easily handled these small chores. Ben knew he was in Virginia City to find out more about the girl.

He stopped his horse outside the warehouse that was being used for the show. The place was deserted at this time of day. Nothing except signs announcing the show each evening at 7:00, and the poster of the dancing girl gave any indication that the building was in used. Ben studied the poster for a minute. It told him nothing about the girl, and very little about the show.

After taking care of his business at the feed store and picking up the mail, Ben stood near his horse in the street, unsure exactly what to do next. He knew he couldn’t barge into the girl’s room at the hotel and demand to know her intentions toward his son. He wondered where he could find out more about the girl. When Sheriff Roy Coffee walked up the street and greeted him, Ben felt as if heaven were sending an answer to a prayer.

“Roy,” said Ben, his voice tinged with relief. “I’m glad to see you. I wanted to talk with you for a few minutes.”

“What’s up, Ben?” asked Roy cautiously. “Trouble on the Ponderosa?”

“No, nothing like that,” Ben assured his old friend. “I just wanted to get some information.”

Nodding his head, Roy suggested, “I’m heading over to Polly’s for a cup of coffee. Want to join me?”

Two of the tables in Polly’s Café were occupied when Ben and Roy entered. When Polly saw the two men come in and sit down, she hurried over to the table.

“Ben, I’m sure happy to see you,” said Polly. “I suppose you know what Joe is doing?”

Frowning, Ben shook his head. “No, Polly. What is Joe doing?”

“He’s keeping company with that dancer from the medicine show,” declared Polly, her voice filled with righteous indignation. “He’s been seen all over town with her. And Mrs. O’Brien told me he moved her out of his rooming house.”

“I know he’s had dinner with the girl,” said Ben cautiously. “And he did help her move her things.”

“And you don’t object?” asked Polly incredulously . “Ben, you and I both know what kind of girls dance in those shows. Joe shouldn’t be seeing a girl like that.”

“Joe says she’s a very nice girl,” Ben replied patiently. “He tells me she’s only dancing in the show because of…circumstances beyond her control.”

“I’m sure that’s HER story,” said Polly with a sniff. “Ben, if I were you, I’d put a stop to it right now. She’ll lead that boy astray, mark my words.”

“Polly, why don’t you bring Roy and me some coffee,” suggested Ben pointedly.

“Ben, Polly’s just saying what I’ve been hearing all over town, “ said Roy as Polly walked away. “The gossips are having a field day speculating about what’s going on between Joe and that girl.”

“People should learn to mind their own business,” snapped Ben. He immediately gave Roy an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Roy. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

“No need to apologize,” answered Roy. His eyes twinkled as he added, “Not that I blame Joe. I’ve seen that dance she does. If I was a younger man, I’d be standing outside her wagon right along side Joe.”

Ben smiled briefly at his friend, then asked, “Roy, what do you know about the people in this medicine show?”

Roy didn’t answer immediately. He waited while Polly put the coffee cups on the table, and spooned some sugar into his cup before speaking. “Ben, I’ll be honest,” said Roy. “I don’t know anything about them.”

“Nothing?” pressed Ben. “Nothing at all?”

“No a thing,” repeated Roy with a shake of his head. “I had Doc Martin check out that medicine they’re selling, and he told me that it’s just herbs and such. Probably won’t help anyone but it sure won’t hurt them. I checked to see if there were any wanted posters on them, but there’s not. Other than that, I don’t know anything about them.”

“Have you talked with them?” asked Ben, looking for any tidbit of information.

“I met that Harris fellow when he came into town,” admitted Roy. “Warned him that I wouldn’t stand for anything shady. He assured me that all they were doing was putting on a show. And I believe him. I haven’t heard about them doing anything except entertaining folks and selling that patent medicine of theirs.”

Sitting back in his chair, Ben let out a sigh of frustration. He had hoped Roy could tell him something that would give him an idea of what the girl might be up to. “What have they been up to since they’ve been in town?” asked Ben. “I mean what do they do when they’re not performing?”

“I don’t know,” replied Roy with a shrug. “I’ve seen that Harris fellow playing poker over at the Silver Dollar a couple of times. As far as I can tell, he plays an honest game. The tall one spends most of his time over at the pool hall.”

“What about the girl?” asked Ben.

“I haven’t seen her at all, except on the stage,” answered Roy with a shake of his head.

“A couple people told me that saw Joe with her after the show, but that’s it.”

Rubbing his finger across his chin, Ben wondered what to tell Roy. “The girl told Joe that she’s in some kind of trouble,” said Ben slowly. “That’s she hiding from someone. Have you heard anyone asking about her?”

Frowning, Roy shook his head. “No, I haven’t. What kind of trouble is she in? Trouble with the law?”

“No, nothing like that as far as I can tell,” admitted Ben. “She claims she’s run away from her family, and is hiding so they don’t take her back.”

“If that’s the case, it’s not a matter for the law,” said Roy with a shrug.

“What if she doesn’t want to go back?” asked Ben. “Can’t you prevent it?”

“It’s not kidnapping if her family forces her to go home, if that’s what you’re asking,” explained Roy. “Unless she files some kind of legal complaint, there’s nothing I could do.”

Stirring his coffee, Ben asked in a cautious voice, “What if the girl isn’t what she claims she is?”

“A pretty girl lying to a man isn’t against the law,” said Roy dryly. “If it was, my jail would be full. Now if she lies to get some money out of Joe, that’s a different story. You have any proof she’s done that?”

“No, she hasn’t done anything like that,” admitted Ben. “In fact, she’s refused help from Joe. It’s just that I can’t quite believe the story she told him, or that she’s what she claims to be.”

“You sure you’re not just being a father?” asked Roy with arched eyes. “She’s not exactly the kind of girl I suspect you’d want Joe to be courting.”

“Roy, I don’t know what I think,” acknowledged Ben, shaking his head. “All I know is that I have a feeling that I need to protect Joe. I just don’t know what I’m trying to protect him from.”

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

Hoss and Joe had ridden out to the north pasture in silence. Joe was lost in thought, trying to sort out his feelings for Beth, her feelings for him and the suspicions that Adam had planted his mind. Hoss, for his part, was waiting patiently for Joe to use him as a sounding board. Hoss knew that Joe would talk with him when Joe was ready.

As the two worked to fix a fence designed to keep cattle from straying into a gully, Joe continued to be deep in thought. He knew when he was with Beth, everything seemed so right. She made him feel happy, protective and strong. But at the same time, he knew Beth kept him at arm’s length, never letting him get close enough to penetrate the protective shell she seemed to have built around herself. What Joe didn’t know was whether she had built that shell because she was afraid, or because she was hiding something from him.

As Joe lifted fence posts and pounded nails, he reviewed every conversation he had had with Beth, searching for something that would prove to him without a shadow of a doubt that Adam’s allegations were wrong. The problem was he couldn’t find anything. Looked at in the cold light of day, everything Beth had told him could be true – or could be interpreted as a fantastic story. Joe had no way of know which was right.

Joe finally broke his silence as he and Hoss sat under a tree to each lunch. After a whole morning of virtual silence, Hoss was trying to figure out how to bring up the subject that he knew was on Joe’s mind. He was relieved when Joe made the first overture.

“Hoss, how do you tell whether someone is being honest with you?” asked Joe somewhat abruptly as the two relaxed in the shade.

Hoss scrunched up his face in thought before answering. “I don’t know that there’s any way to tell that for sure,” he admitted. “With some people, you can see it in their eyes when they’re telling you a story. They kind of shift around, you know, not really looking at you. But other people, well, they can look at you straight in the eye and lie their heads off, and you’d never know it.”

“You’re a big help,” said Joe with a sigh.

“You’re still thinking about that gal, ain’t you,” suggested Hoss in a sympathetic voice.

“Hoss, I can’t stop thinking about her,” admitted Joe. “She’s so pretty – her eyes are the bluest I’ve ever seen. When we’re together, we talk and laugh like we’ve known each other all our lives. I just want to be with her all the time.”

“That’s how it should be,” agreed Hoss cautiously. “If you’ve got some feelings for this girl, you should want to be with her. If she feels the same way about you, I reckon she’ll let you know it.”

“That’s just it, Hoss,” said Joe, shaking his head. “I don’t know what she feels. She keeps everything, including her feelings, to herself. When we’re together, she seems to want to be with me. But at the same time, she doesn’t seem to want me around too much. She keeps saying that she doesn’t want me to get involved in her troubles. I keep hoping that she’ll say or do something that let will let know inside that wall she’s built around her. But I don’t know if she will.”

“You know what I think, little brother?” offered Hoss. “I think you’re over-thinking this. You getting to be just like Adam, trying to figure out what’s coming around the next bend. Why don’t you just wait and see what happens. Maybe she just needs some time. She ain’t known you but a couple of days. I always figure these things work themselves out.

If it’s meant to be, it’ll feel right to both of you.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Joe, rubbing his forehead. He blew out a breath of air. “Maybe I am over-thinking this.” Joe gave his brother a tired smile. “I just wish things weren’t so complicated.”

“You look beat,” commented Hoss, noting the lines of fatigue around Joe’s eyes.

Stifling a yawn, Joe nodded. “Yeah, I am. I didn’t get much sleep last night.” Joe rubbed his eyes and added, “I’m not sure what tires me out more – doing all the work Pa’s given us or trying to figure out what’s going with Beth.”

“Why don’t you take a nap?” suggest Hoss.

Grinning, Joe said, “You know, big brother, that’s the smartest thing you’ve said yet.” Joe leaned back against the tree and pulled his hat down over his face. “Wake me in an hour.”

Joe drifted off almost immediately, but his sleep was a troubled one. He dreamt of a dark-haired girl with blue eyes who kept rushing toward him only to turn and run away as he reached out for her. Dark, sinister figures seemed to be standing near him, watching as he tried to reach the girl. They seemed to be preventing him from getting to the girl, but Joe wasn’t exactly sure how they were doing it. Finally, the figures approached him and started to shake him.

“Joe! Joe, wake up!”

Sitting up with a start, Joe realized Hoss was shaking him. He shook his head, trying to clear away both the sleep and his troubled dream. “Has it been a hour already?” he asked sleepily.

“More like a couple hours,” answered Hoss.

“What?” exclaimed Joe. He scrambled to his feet and looked toward the fence. The rails were all nailed to the posts, and the fence stood ready. “You finished the fence, “ said Joe in surprise.

Shrugging, Hoss answered, “There wasn’t that much left to do, and you were all tuckered out. I figured it was better to let you sleep.”

“Thanks,” said Joe gratefully.

“Don’t worry, little brother,” Hoss replied with a grin. “I’ll think of a way for you to make it up to me.” His face turned serious. “Joe, do me a favor, will you? Don’t do anything without talking to Pa or Adam first.”

“What do you mean?” asked Joe with a frown.

“I don’t know if Adam is right about this girl or not,” explained Hoss. “But I do know you can go off half-cocked sometimes. Promise me you’ll talk to Pa or Adam before you do something you might regret. They can be right useful in helping a fellow sort out things.”

“I’m not going to do anything foolish,” said Joe firmly.

“That’s what you say now,” Hoss replied. “But I’ve seen the look you get on your face every time you talk about that gal. I got a feeling you might not be thinking too clearly when you’re with her.”

“You’ve got a point there,” agreed Joe with a grin. His face sobered when he saw the serious expression Hoss’ face. “I promise,” he added solemnly. “I won’t do anything without talking to Pa first.”

Hoss studied Joe for a minute, then nodded. “Good,” he said, his voice tinged with relief.

“I’m going to hold you to that promise, little brother.”

“I told you I would,” Joe declared a bit heatedly. He immediately regretted his tone. Joe knew Hoss was just trying to help. He took a deep breath, then smiled. “Don’t worry, Hoss. I won’t forget. It’s least I can offer in exchange for you finishing that fence.” Joe looked up at the sun. “Come on, it’s getting late. I want to get back to the house and get cleaned up. I’ve got to get to town.”

“You know, I had a feeling you’d say something like that,” said Hoss with a sigh.

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

The clock above the bank showed the time as a little after six as Joe rode into Virginia City. He hadn’t taken much time back at the house — just enough time to wash, put on a clean shirt and fill his wallet with money from the pouch he kept with his socks. The pouch held money he kept aside for something really important. Joe considered Beth to be that something.

Joe had left the house quickly because he wanted to get to town in time to walk Beth over to the warehouse. But that wasn’t his only reason. He also wanted to avoid his father and his brother Adam. He wasn’t in the mood for their disapproving looks and dire warnings.

After stabling his horse, Joe hurried to the hotel. The lobby again was empty. Joe wasn’t surprised. At this time of day, most people were eating dinner. Joe walked up to the desk where Vince stood watching him. Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. He counted out some bills and put them on the desk.

“Vince, this is to cover the room and meals I arranged last night,” said Joe. Even though the lobby was empty, Joe was cautious with his words.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Vince told the youngest Cartwright. “Your father has an account here. I can just bill everything to that.”

“I don’t want this on my father’s account,” replied Joe.

“Oh, I see,” said Vince with a frown. He picked up the bills. “This should be more than adequate,” he added, his voice formal and somewhat distant. “Do you wish to have a receipt?”

“No, that’s not necessary,” said Joe with a wave. “But I do want to arrange for dinner for two in the room tonight. About 8:30 should be the right time.”

“For two?” replied Vince, the disapproval evident in his voice. “Very well. I’ll arrange it. Will chicken be all right?”

“That’s fine. Whatever you choose will be fine, I’m sure,” agreed Joe with a nod. “And Vince, make sure it includes a nice bottle of wine.”

Vince’s frown deepened. “Of course,” he said briefly.

Joe started toward the stairs, aware of Vince’s disapproval but not really caring. His mind was filled with the happy thought of seeing Beth.

“The young lady is not in her room,” Vince called to Joe.

Stopping, Joe turned to Vince. “Where is she?” he asked with a frown.

“She left a little while ago,” replied Vince. “I saw her come down the stairs.”

“She came through the lobby?” said Joe in alarm. “Alone?”

“No, she wasn’t alone,” said Vince, with a hint of a gleeful smile on his face. “A fellow was with her.”

“What did the guy look like?” asked Joe, his alarm growing.

“Tall, very tall, and thin as a rail,” answered Vince.

“Oh,” said Joe with obvious relief. “It’s all right then. Did they say where they were going?”

“I don’t poke my nose into my guest’s business,” stated Vince, his back stiffening a bit. “All I do is rent the rooms. What people do when they’re not in their rooms is none of my business.” He looked pointedly at Joe. “What they do in their rooms is none of my business either.”

Joe ignored Vince’s remark, his mind too busy to catch the implication. He was thinking of Beth. Frank obviously had come by to get her. He probably was walking her over to the warehouse. Joe was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to escort Beth, but he was glad that someone from the show had made sure she got there safely. He thought briefly about walking over to the warehouse, but knew Beth and the others would be busy getting ready for their performance. He’d rather see Beth when she wasn’t distracted by the preparations – and when he could have her all to himself.

A rumble from Joe’s stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten much today — no breakfast and a sandwich for lunch. And he knew he wouldn’t have dinner with Beth for several hours. Maybe some men could live on love alone, Joe told himself, but he need

a bit more to tide him over until dinner. He headed for the hotel bar to get a sandwich and a beer.

Leaning against the wood bar, Joe was popping the last bit of sandwich into his mouth when Jack Slater walked into the bar. Joe ignored the cowboy as he washed down the sandwich with a drink from the beer mug in his hand. Slater, however, had stopped and stared at Joe when he entered the bar. The expression on Slater’s face wasn’t pleasant as he walked up to Joe.

“Hello, Cartwright,” said Slater. “I’m surprised to find you here.”

“Hello, Slater,” Joe replied in a neutral tone.

“I thought you’d be holed up someplace with that Fatima girl,” continued Slater. “It’s all over town how you’ve got her hidden away in some love nest. What’s the matter? She get tired of you?”

Joe tried to keep his rising anger in check. His father was unhappy enough with him without adding a barroom brawl to the situation. “You’d better watch what you say,” snarled Joe, his voice dangerously low. “Somebody might actually think you know what you’re talking about.” Joe turned his back on Slater.

“I knew you wouldn’t be man enough for her,” sneered Slater. “You tell your little ‘soiled dove’ to come see me if she wants a real man.”

Whirling to face Slater, Joe’s eyes blazed in anger. “You shut your filthy mouth,” snapped Joe. “Or I’ll shut it for you.”

“What are you getting so hot about?” said Slater with a nasty laugh. “We all know what kind of girls dance in those shows. I’ll bet she’s had a man in every town between here

and Denver. You’re just the latest scalp on her belt.”

In a rage, Joe swung and punched Slater in the jaw. The cowboy staggered back a step. Joe swung again, hitting Slater in the mouth and knocking him to the floor. Joe stood over the cowboy, fists balled and breathing hard. “You keep your mouth shut about Beth,” demanded Joe angrily. “She just dances in the show, nothing more. I hear you saying anything different, I’m going to make you regret it.” Joe turned and stalked out of the bar.

“Regret it, uh?” said Slater to Joe’ retreating back. He rubbed his face with his hand. “You’re the one who’s going to regret this, Cartwright. You and that girl both.”

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

The medicine show was over by the time Joe knocked on the door of the wagon. Most of the crowd had left. Joe hoped Beth had waited for him.

After the heated confrontation with Slater, Joe had spent a long time just walking. He walked to cool his anger but he also walked to help him think. He knew Beth wasn’t the kind of girl that Slater had claimed. She wouldn’t have kept him at arm’s length like she did if she was just looking for a man. But Slater’s comments added another doubt in his mind. Joe knew he liked Beth a lot, maybe even was falling in love with her. But she was a mystery to him. All he knew about her was the story she had told him. And even then, she hadn’t been specific. He wanted to defend her, to tell people she wasn’t what they thought. But what could he tell them about Beth? That she was sweet, and funny, and beautiful? And what if her story was just that – a story?

By the time Joe had made his way to the warehouse, he had resolved in his mind that he was going to find out the truth about Beth. And he was going to do it tonight.

Joe knocked again on the wagon door, and this time it opened. Beth was wearing a plain white blouse and dark skirt, similar to the outfit she had worn when Joe first saw her. She looked like any other girl in Virginia City. She certainly didn’t look like someone who danced in a medicine show.

“Hello, Joe,” she welcomed him with a warm smile. “I was wondering where you were.”

“Sorry, I’m late,” replied Joe, his smile matching hers in warmth. Just looking at Beth made Joe feel good. “Ready to go?”

“Not quite,” she replied, stepping down from the wagon. “I need to see Bert.”

As if she had called him, Harris came walking around the side of the wagon. “Here you are, my dear,” he said handing her an envelope. “Your portion of the profits from our stay so far in Virginia City.”

Opening the envelope, Beth pulled out three bills. “Fifteen dollars?” she said in dismay. “Is that all?”

“I’m afraid so,” answered Harris, shaking his head.

“Seems like you’ve been getting pretty good crowds,” commented Joe, looking at Harris through narrowed eyes.

“Average, my boy, just average,” replied Harris. “Don’t forget we have expenses. I have to pay the rent on the warehouse as well as lodging for me, Bob and Frank as well as…well, I paid Mrs. O’Brien for the week. And I have to divide what’s left four ways. Fifteen dollars is all there is.”

“I was hoping for at least twenty-five,” said Beth sadly.

“Well, there’s still tomorrow,” suggested Harris cocking his head. “Saturday night crowds are usually our largest. I might be able to come up with another five if we do a good business tomorrow.”

“All right,” agreed Beth, her voice filled with resignation. She turned to hand the envelope to Joe. “I’ll pay you the rest as soon as I can.”

“What’s this for?” said Joe in surprise, looking at the envelope in Beth’s outstretched hand.

“For the hotel room and meals,” answered Beth.

“You don’t have to pay me for that,” said Joe, shaking his head. “I want to do that for you.”

“No, Joe,” Beth declared firmly. “I’m not the kind of girl who takes money from men. I know what people say about someone who dances in a medicine show. There’s nothing I can do about that, and frankly, I don’t care what most people think of me. But I do care what you think, Joe. And I won’t have you thinking that I’m that kind of girl. Now take the money.”

“I don’t want your money,” insisted Joe.

“You have to take it,” replied Beth equally as insistent. “If you don’t, I don’t think we can keep seeing each other. I won’t have you thinking you bought my affection.”

“I don’t think that,” protested Joe. “It never even crossed my mind.”

“Take the money, Joe,” Beth said again, her voice even more insistent. “Take it or leave.”

“You’d better take, my boy,” Harris advised with a hint of a smile. “She’s as stubborn as mule when she’s made up her mind.”

“All right,” said Joe with a sigh. He took the envelope and stuck it inside his jacket. “But I’m only taking it because you threatened me with a fate worse than death.” He saw Beth’s quizzical look. “Not seeing you again is just about the worse thing that could happen to me,” he explained with a smile.

Smiling back, Beth hooked her arm around Joe’s. “I’m glad you took the money,” she said softly. “I would hate not seeing you again, too.”

Whatever doubts Joe may have had about Beth quickly melted away. He saw her eyes smiling up at him, open and trusting. He felt the envelope of money inside his jacket. How could he have thought that she was other than what she said she was, Joe wondered.

“Did you dance good tonight?” asked Joe as he and Beth walked toward the hotel.

“I suppose,” she replied indifferently. She smiled up at Joe. “I dance better when you’re there.”

“How did you know I wasn’t there?” teased Joe.

“Because I looked, silly,” answered Beth. She snuggled closer to Joe. “I always look for you.”

The warm glow inside Joe burned with new intensity.

“I’d thought we’d eat in the suite tonight,” said Joe. “I ordered dinner to be brought up.”

“Oh, all right,” agreed Beth. She sounded disappointed.

“Don’t you want to eat there?” asked Joe solicitously.

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Beth quickly.

“I thought it might be safer,” added Joe.

Stiffening, Beth quickly looked around the streets. “For a little while there,” she said slowly. “I forgot all about my uncle’s thug.” She sighed. “It was nice to be happy if only for a little while.”

“I’m sorry, Beth,” apologized Joe, his voice filled with regret. “I didn’t mean to…”

“No, Joe, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Beth interrupted him. “I’m sorry we can’t act like normal people.” She gave Joe a shaky smile. “Although, I guess I’ve never been accused of being normal.”

Joe took a step back and studied Beth with mock seriousness. “I think I like you just the way you are,” he observed with a smile. He put his arm around Beth’s shoulder and hugged her close. She rested her head on his shoulder.

Joe’s arm was still around Beth when the two walked into the lobby of the hotel. They walked past the disapproving looks of Vince as well as several other people sitting in the lobby who knew Joe. The disapproving looks turned to frowns and whispers as Joe led up the stairs to the suite.

As soon as they were in the suite, Joe kissed Beth. His kiss with deep and full of feeling. Beth eagerly returned Joe’s kiss. The two were still locked in a passionate embrace when there was a loud knock on the door. Beth pulled back, her face suddenly filled with fright. “Who’s that?” she asked in a wavering voice.

“Just dinner,” Joe reassured her. He bent his head and gave her a quick kiss. “Their timing is pretty lousy.”

Despite Joe’s assurances, Beth crossed the suite and stood near the bedroom as Joe opened the door. She stayed near the bedroom as the waiter rolled in a cart with covered dishes and plates. The waiter rolled the cart near the sofa and began to set up the dinner. Beth seemed nervous as the waiter uncovered the dishes and opened the wine. Joe noted her edgy movements. He quickly tipped the waiter and dismissed him. Beth waited until the man had left the room to come back across the suite.

“I hope you like chicken,” said Joe, deciding not to comment on Beth’s nervousness. He peeled off his jacket, and unbuckled his gunbelt. Both went onto a table next to the sofa with his hat. Joe sat on the sofa and took an exaggerated sniff. “Smells good.”

Giving Joe a grateful smile, Beth walked across the room and sat down on the sofa next to Joe. “I like chicken,” she acknowledged.

If someone had asked Joe later what was discussed over dinner, he couldn’t have told them. All he knew is that he talked and laughed with Beth, and that he enjoyed himself thoroughly. Beth ate everything on her plate, while Joe simply picked at his food.

“Oh dear,” said Beth with a laugh as she suddenly noticed the differences between the plates. “My teachers at the academy would be appalled. They always taught us that ladies were suppose to eat lightly and leave something on their plate. And here I am, cleaning my plate.”

“I like a girl with a good appetite,” Joe told the young woman.

“You didn’t eat much,” chided Beth.

“I’m not very hungry…for food,” replied Joe, his eyes shining. He moved closer to Beth on the sofa, and put his arm around her shoulders. She seemed to melt into his body. Joe kissed her, tenderly at first, and then with more meaning. Beth put her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. A loud knock once again interrupted them. “Now what?” said Joe with a frustrated sigh as the knock came again.

“Are you expecting someone?” ask Beth. Her voice reflected her fear.

“No,” Joe replied. He reached over and pulled his gun from his holster. “Who is it?” he called in a loud voice.

“It’s me, Bert,” came the somewhat muffled reply through the door.

“Were you expecting Bert?” Joe asked Beth. She shook her head.

Joe walked over to the door, his gun still in his hand, and opened the door cautiously. He relaxed when he saw Harris on the other side.

“Sorry to interrupt,” said Harris as he edged his way into the suite. “I just need to see Beth for a minute.”

“What is Bert?” asked Beth from the sofa, her displeasure evident in her voice.

“I forgot to tell you that I’m riding over to Gold Hill tomorrow,” Harris explained. “Going to put up some posters for next week’s show. I just wondered if you want me to…to send a message.”

“From Gold Hill?” said Beth. “That wouldn’t be wise.”

“No, of course not from Gold Hill,” answered Harris. “I’ll arrange to have it sent from someplace else. I always do.”

“I’m sorry, Bert,” apologized Beth. “I know you do. Yes, please send the message.”

“Same wording as always?” asked Harris. Beth nodded.

“Well then, I’ll go,” said Harris. He nodded to Joe. “Sorry to have interrupted your evening.” Harris put his hand on the door to open it, then stopped. He turned back to Beth. “You know, I still think it would be better for you if you went back East where you could be safe.”

“Don’t, Bert,” said Beth in a warning tone.

Ignoring the warning, Harris turned to Joe. “You know if she had the money, she’d be able to leave this heathen land. She’s got a place to go where nobody could ever find her. Except she can’t afford to get there.”

“Bert, I’m warning you,” Beth said, her voice full of anger.

“How much would it take to get her there,” asked Joe warily.

“Three hundred, maybe four hundred dollars,” replied Harris. He shook his head. “There’s no way for us to raise that kind of money with our little show. You’ve seen how we live hand to mouth.”

“That’s enough, Bert!” yelled Beth, jumping to her feet. She rushed across the room and opened the door. “Goodnight, Bert,” she said in a voice cold as ice.

“I was only trying to help,” said Harris with a shrug.

 

“Goodnight, Bert,” repeated Beth, her eyes blazing with anger.

Harris studied Beth’s face for a moment, then casually walked out the door. As he stepped over the threshold, he turned back to Beth. “Do you still want me to send the message?”

The life seemed suddenly to drain from Beth. Her shoulders sagged, and her face seemed to pale. “Yes,” said Beth in a discouraged voice. “Yes, Bert, send the message.” She closed the door in Harris’ face.

Leaning her back against the closed door, Beth closed her eyes. To Joe, she seemed to have suddenly turned to stone.

“Is it true what Harris said?” asked Joe in a quiet voice. “Is there someplace you could be safe if you could get there.”

“I don’t know, Joe,” replied Beth, her eyes still closed. “I don’t know if there’s anyplace where I could be really safe.”

“But this place Harris mentioned,” pressed Joe. “You think you may be safe there?”

Beth opened her eyes and looked at Joe. “Let’s not talk about it.” She walked across the room and sat on the sofa.

“No, Beth,” said Joe. “Not this time.” He walked over and sat next to her on the sofa. “You’re not going to put me off this time. I want to know what’s going on. I’m not leaving until you tell me.”

“I told you,” Beth answered, her voice sounding tired.

“You told me,” agreed Joe. “But you didn’t tell me everything. Why won’t you give me your uncle’s name? Or even your real name? Don’t you trust me?”

Beth’s eyes widened. “Oh, Joe, I do trust you,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I trust you more than anyone I know. But if I tell you everything, then you’ll want to get involved. And that means nothing but trouble for you. I don’t want you involved in my troubles.”

Frustrated, Joe pounded his fist into his knee. “Beth, I want to help you, don’t you understand that?”

“I understand that, and I love you for it,” replied Beth. “But there’s nothing you can do to help.”

Springing to his feet, Joe walked around the room. He could feel his frustration building. “All right,” he said, turning to Beth. “What about this safe place? Where is it?”

Beth looked away, then turned back to Joe. “It’s a convent, Joe,” she replied softly. “A convent in Boston. The mother superior is a friend of my mother’s. She’s offered to help me, to hide me there. But I can’t afford the fare to Boston.”

“What if I paid your fare for you?” said Joe.

“No!” answered Beth angrily. She stood and walked over to Joe. “You think I’d take the money from you?” she demanded. “Four hundred dollars? Never. I wouldn’t take four dollars from you, Joe Cartwright.” Beth turned her back on Joe.

Confused, Joe stood staring at Beth’s back. The small doubts that had melted away earlier came back. It seemed too coincidental that Harris had mentioned Beth needing a large sum of money just as “Harris and Company” were getting ready to leave town. Beth had seemed genuinely angry and upset about his offer. But that could be part of the act. She would reject taking the money and he would keep insisting. And finally she would take it. And a convent? That was straight out of Hamlet again. The line “Get thee to a nunnery” was one of the few from the play that he remembered.

The sound of Beth weeping softly changed Joe’s mind once more. His heart was probably ruling his head, he knew, but he didn’t care. If she was lying to him, Joe didn’t want to know. Joe put his hands on Beth’s shoulders. “Beth, I don’t want us to fight,” he said softly.

Turning, Beth looked up at Joe. Her eyes were red and her cheeks were streaked with tears. “I don’t want us to fight, either.”

Joe kissed the tears from her cheeks. “The offer for the money is on the table, and it will stay there,” he continued. He could feel Beth’s body stiffening. “It’s up to you if you want to take advantage of it,” Joe added quickly. “I just don’t want you to feel trapped. I want you to feel like you have a choice.”

“Thank you, Joe,” replied Beth, her eyes filling with tears again. “But I won’t be accepting the offer.” She turned and walked away from Joe. “I’m sorry, Joe. I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you. I know you were only trying to help. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Beth looked to the ceiling and sighed. “Maybe all this running and hiding is starting to get to me.”

“You know what’s wrong with you?” suggested Joe walking over to her. “You’re just stuck in this room too much. You need to get out and get some fresh air. What you need is a buggy ride with a handsome cowboy.”

“And just where would I find this handsome cowboy?” teased Beth with a smile.

“Oh, I think if you looked around hard enough you might find one around,” offered Joe dryly.

Laughing, Beth said, “You know what I would really like, Joe? I want to go riding. Not in a buggy. On horseback. I used to do it all the time with my father. I miss it.”

“All right,” agreed Joe. “On horseback. I’ll be here at noon to pick you up. I’ll show you some of the prettiest country you’ve ever seen.”

“I have to be back by six to get ready for the show,” warned Beth. “Can we see it in six hours?”

“We don’t have that much pretty country,” replied Joe with a smile.

Beth laughed and threw her arms around Joe. “I do like having you around, Joe Cartwright.”

“I like being around,” replied Joe as he kissed her.

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

Two hours later, Joe was walking past the Silver Dollar Saloon on the way to the stable. He had wanted to stay longer with Beth. If truth be known, he had wanted to stay all night. But Beth had sweetly but firmly showed him to the door when the clocked chimed eleven, claiming she needed her beauty sleep. When Joe had protested she didn’t need any more beauty, Beth had laughed and swore she turned into a pumpkin at midnight. Joe was still trying to think of an argument to counter that comment when Beth had handed him his hat and shown him out the door.

Now Joe walked down the street whistling softly, his mind filled with images of Beth. He was surprised when the saloon doors opened in front of him and Harris lurched out onto the sidewalk.

“Hello there, Bert,” said Joe, catching Harris as he staggered a bit. It was obvious Harris had had more than his share of drinks.

Harris peered at Joe through bloodshot eyes, as if trying to remember who he was. “Ah, yes, our young knight,” acknowledged Harris finally recognizing Joe. “Come to rescue me as you have our damsel in distress, have you?”

“I wasn’t looking for you,” said Joe with an amused smile. “But you do look like you could use some rescuing. Come on, I’ll help you home.”

“Thank you, lad, thank you,” replied Harris, patting Joe on the arm. Harris looked around the street. “I wonder where home is?”

“Where are you staying?” Joe asked, doing his best to keep Harris steady.

“Don’t know, lad,” Harris said almost cheerfully. “All these towns look the same to me. Can’t tell one from another.” Harris frowned in concentration, then shook his head. “I haven’t any idea of the name of the place I’m staying.”

“How about I take you back to the wagon?” suggested Joe. “You can sleep it off there.”

“Good idea, good idea,” Harris agreed. He looked around the street once more, then turned to Joe. “You wouldn’t have any idea where the wagon might be, would you?” he asked.

“I’ll take you there,” said Joe with a smile.

Leading the tottering Harris by the arm, Joe turned and began walking toward the warehouse.

“You’re a good lad,” said Harris with an approving nod as the two walked down the street. “Beth thinks highly of you, and she’s got a good eye. She don’t let any riffraff near her.”

“Has Beth seen many men,” Joe asked tentatively as he helped Harris down the street.

“A few,” admitted Harris. “She don’t let many get close to her. And nothing like you. A few late suppers here and there, that’s all. And mostly just once. She don’t seem to want them fellows hanging around her. Not like you. She can’t stop talking about you.”

Smiling to himself, Joe felt a sense of relief. He had been afraid Harris would paint a different picture of Beth with his tongue loosened by drink.

Harris pulled himself to a stop suddenly. “Got to do something,” he said with a frown. “I’m suppose to do something but I can’t remember what.”

“Go to Gold Hill in the morning,” suggested Joe.

“Ah,” said Harris in a relieved voice. He started walking again. “That’s right. I’ve got to go to Gold Hill. Put up posters and arrange for the message.” Harris shook his head. “Strange message she sends.”

“What does it say?” asked Joe curiously.

“Just two words,” replied Harris. “ ‘Ophelia lives’. That’s all there is to it.”

“Ophelia?” said Joe, suddenly disturbed. “Like in Hamlet?”

“An educated lad!” exclaimed Harris. “What a rare find. Yes, like in Hamlet. It’s some sort of code. Let’s that lawyer fellow know she’s alive and well.”

“Does she ever get an answer?” asked Joe.

“None that I’ve ever known about,” admitted Harris. Harris looked up and spotted the wagon parked near the warehouse. “Ah, home sweet home.” He turned to Joe. “I can make it from here, lad. Thank you for your help.”

“Are you sure?” asked Joe doubtfully.

“I’m sure,” said Harris. “You go home and have yourself sweet dreams of our fair Ophelia. Or Fatima. Or Beth. Or whatever.” Harris seemed to be confused as to what name to use. He shrugged. “You go home and have yourself some sweet dreams.”

Joe stood and watched as Harris tottered toward the wagon. He waited until the man had opened the door and stumbled inside. Then he turned to walk back to the stable, more confused and disturbed than ever. He wondered why everything Beth said seemed to come straight from Shakespeare’s play. Was it a bizarre coincidence? Or was Beth playing some kind of game with him? Was she genuinely frightened of some mysterious man or was that simply a ploy to eventually get money from him? When Joe was with Beth, he had no doubts. She seemed so genuine and honest to him. Harris had confirmed that he sent the messages she had told him about. But why did the doubts keep creeping back as soon as he was away from Beth?

Joe shook his head. He had a feeling he wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight, and if he did, his dreams were going to be anything but sweet.

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

Beth riding across the meadow was about the prettiest picture Joe had ever seen. He sat on his horse and watched as she kicked her horse into a gallop. Her hair streamed back from her head as her body moved in easy motion with the horse. Her white blouse

waved in the air as she rode, and black trousers she wore seemed almost to blend into the dark of the saddle. But it was the expression on Beth’s face that made Joe smile. On her face was a look of pure joy.

“Come on!” Beth shouted over her shoulder to Joe. He nodded and kicked his pinto into a gallop. His horse easily caught up with hers and soon the two were racing across the field, the wind blowing into their faces. They rode their horses for several hundred yards, both enjoying the speed of their ride. As the horses neared the river, Beth pulled her mount to a trot and then a walk. Joe did the same.

“Joe, that was wonderful,” enthused Beth. “I can’t remember when I’ve had such a feeling of freedom.” She patted her horse on the neck. “He’s a terrific horse.” She smiled at Joe. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am,” replied Joe with exaggerated politeness. He smiled at Beth’s happiness. “I’m glad you’re having a good time.”

“This is the best day I’ve had in years,” said Beth, her voice filled with excitement. “The scenery is lovely. I can’t believe how blue the lake is, or how green the trees are. And it’s so wonderful to be riding again. I’ve missed it. There’s not a single thing about this day I would change.”

“Even the company?” prompted Joe.

“Especially the company,” Beth said with a smile.

The warm feeling inside Joe had nothing to do with the heat of the day. He looked at Beth, glowing with happiness, and his heart skipped a beat. Joe wanted to keep that look of happiness on her face forever.

Looking around, Joe spotted a clump of trees growing on the river bank. “We’d better give the horses a rest,” he said. “Why don’t we head toward those trees? We can let the horses rest in the shade and stretch our legs a bit.”

As the two walked their horses toward the trees, the questions that Joe had been wrestling with last night came back to him. Now that he was with Beth, the questions seemed a bit ridiculous. Joe wondered if he should ask Beth about some of the things which, at least right now, seemed to be odd coincidences.

Stopping their horses under the trees, both riders dismounted. Three tall, thin birches grew close together, forming a rough half circle. Joe took the reins of both horses. “I’ll tie them up and loosen the cinches a bit,” he offered.

“Thanks,” said Beth, stretching a bit. She looked around. “I’m going to walk over by the river.”

“Be careful,” warned Joe. “That bank is slippery, and the current is pretty swift. If you fell in, the river would probably carry you all the way to Reno.”

“I’ll be careful,” promised Beth.

It took Joe only a few minutes to tie each rein around a tree low enough so the horses could crop the lush grass, and to loosen the cinches on both saddles. When he finished with the horses, Joe looked for Beth. He saw her sitting on a large rock by the river, staring into the water. Joe watched her for a few minutes, struck once more by the fact

that just looking at Beth made him feel good. Then he walked slowly toward her.

As Joe waked up to Beth, he could see the expression on her face was pensive, almost sad. “What are you thinking about?” asked Joe as he lowered himself to join her on the rock.

“How happy I am,” answered Beth without looking at him. “How I’m going to miss this place.” She turned to look at Joe. “And you.”

Sliding his arm around Beth’s shoulder, Joe said, “Beth, I don’t want you to leave.”

“I have to leave, Joe,” she replied. “You know that.”

“Beth, don’t go,” pleaded Joe. “Stay in Virginia City.”

“And do what?” said Beth, arching her eyebrows. “Work in a dress shop? Or maybe wait tables at Polly’s? Joe, I’m a girl who dances in a medicine show. No one in Virginia City would give me a job, except maybe in the saloon. And despite what people think, I wouldn’t work in a place like that.”

“You could stay at the ranch,” suggested Joe.

“Oh, really?” said Beth. She shook her head. “I’ve seen the looks and heard the whispers, Joe. Half the people in Virginia City already think we’re lovers. If I moved out to the ranch, they’d be sure of it.”

“Well, if half the people in Virginia City already think we’re lovers….,” said Joe with a suggestive grin, pulling her closer.

Beth slapped Joe’s hand lightly. “Behave yourself,” she ordered with a smile. Then her face sobered. “Even if I wanted to stay, I couldn’t. If I stayed in Virginia City, my uncle’s men would find me within a week. I don’t want you around me if they do. I can’t bear the thought that something might happen to you because of me.” Beth pulled herself from Joe’s grasp and stood. She turned to stare into the river.

“Why don’t you give it up?” said Joe quietly.

Turning back to Joe, she looked at him with surprise. “Give up what?”

“Give up this…this quest of yours to get control of your father’s company, and to punish your uncle,” answered Joe. “It’s not worth what you’re doing to yourself.”

Turning back to look at the river, Beth didn’t answer. She stared at the rushing water for several minutes. “I’ve thought about it,” she admitted without looking at Joe. “There have been a lot of times when I’ve been tempted to just send a message to my lawyer, telling him to make a deal with my uncle so he can have my shares. But I can’t do that, Joe. My father spent his life building up that company. He would hate what my uncle is doing. My father would want me to fight it. Sometimes, late at night, it almost seems as if my father’s ghost is almost talking to me, telling me I have to do this.”

“There you go again!” said Joe in an exasperated voice. “My brother Adam said it would be a matter of time until you brought up your father’s ghost.”

Beth turned to Joe with a puzzled expression. “What are you talking about?”

“Beth, have you ever listened to yourself? Listened to that story you tell?” said Joe, his aggravation evident. “Your father dies, and your uncle marries your mother in order to take over. There’s threats of insanity, a traveling show and your father’s ghost. It’s the story of Hamlet, isn’t it. There’s no uncle, is there? No company to be saved, no mysterious stranger. For some reason, you’re trying to string me along by telling me the story of Hamlet!”

Beth stared at Joe, her mouth agape.

“Beth, you don’t have to make up a story to keep my attention,” continued Joe. “I don’t care that you dance in a medicine show. I don’t care what you’ve done before you came to Virginia City. All I care about is you.”

Beth continued to stare a Joe, the surprise evident on her face. “I never saw it,” she said slowly. “I never saw the parallel.”

Seeing the look on Beth’s face, Joe felt bad about his outburst. “Beth, I’m sorry,” he apologized, his voice full of regret. “I didn’t mean to imply…”

“No,” interrupted Beth, her face still full of wonder. “It’s all right, Joe. Really, it is. Now that I think about it, I can see why you must have thought I was making up a story. It’s almost eerie, isn’t it. My life has turned into a Shakespearean tragedy. My life has become Hamlet.”

“I would prefer Romeo and Juliet,” said Joe with a tentative smile, trying to make amends.

“I don’t think I care for the part about the lovers dying at the end,” replied Beth with a distracted look. She shook her head. “I can’t get over it, Joe. What you said is so true. I’m just amazed I didn’t see it.”

“What about the message you send?” asked Joe. “ ‘Ophelia lives’. That’s pure Hamlet.”

“Yes, yes, it is, isn’t it,” agreed Beth, her voice full of amazement. She shook her head. “I thought I was picking that phrase simply because it would be unique. But maybe deep down somewhere, I realized the similarities.” Beth looked at Joe. “There’s no way I can prove to you what I’ve said is true. It is, Joe, it really is. But I understand if you don’t believe me.”

“Beth, I believe you,” said Joe earnestly. “But I think it’s time you stopped keeping things from me.”

“I’ve told you everything, Joe,” declared Beth. She hesitated. “Well, almost everything.”

“Why won’t you tell me your real name, where you’re from, your uncle’s name?” asked Joe. “What difference does it make?”

“It doesn’t make any difference,” said Beth sadly. “That’s the problem.”

“What do you mean?” asked Joe, puzzled.

“What I mean is, knowing who I am won’t make any difference,” replied Beth. “I still have to go. I have go on being Fatima, the girl who dances in the medicine show.”

Walking up to Beth, Joe took her in his arms. “Don’t go,” he begged her. “Please don’t go. I want you to stay. I think I’m in love with you.”

Looking up at Joe, Beth shook her head. “Don’t be in love with me, Joe,” she said sadly.

“Why not?” he asked

“Because I can’t love you back,” she answered. “Not the way you deserved to be loved.”

“And how’s that?” Joe said with a frown.

“You deserved to be loved by someone who can come to you with open arms, with no conditions,” Beth replied. “I can’t do that. What did you call it, a quest? I can’t love you the way you deserve while I’m on this quest.”

“Then give it up,” said Joe.

“I can’t do that,” answered Beth with a shake of her head. “If I did, I’d feel like I’m betraying my father. And that would always be between us. Every time I looked at you, I would think about how I chose you over my father. Making that choice would chip away at my soul; I know it would. We couldn’t be happy, not really happy, with that hanging over our heads.”

Sighing, Joe hugged Beth to him. “What happens now?” he asked almost in despair.

Laying her head on Joe’s chest, Beth said softly, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have to go, Joe. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I have to do it. All I want is that you remember me. Don’t forget me, Joe. I need to know that you won’t forget me.”

“I’ll never forget you,” he promised. Joe kissed her lightly on the forehead.

“Maybe some day I’ll feel like I can come back to you,” said Beth. But her voice reflected the doubt she felt about that happening. “Who knows? Maybe some day, you’ll look up and there I’ll be. Until then, just remember the girl who danced in the medicine show.”

“You’re more to me than just the girl who danced in the medicine show,” replied Joe sadly. “I’ll always remember Beth, the girl with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. The girl who made me laugh and who made me fall in love with her.” Joe bent his head and kissed Beth on the lips, a passionate kiss which she returned wholeheartedly. Both of them knew it was a goodbye kiss.

When they finally parted, Joe looked at Beth and saw his tears mirrored in her eyes. He swallowed hard and released her. “I’ll go get the horses,” he said, his voice choked with emotion.

As Joe walked back toward the trees, his mind was on the girl standing on the riverbank. He didn’t see the dark figure behind the tree, or see it move as he approached. Joe did hear Beth scream his name in terror and warning. He heard her scream just before he felt the jagged bolt of pain in the back of his head. Then everything around Joe turned black.

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

Awareness came back to Joe bit by bit, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle being fitted together. The first thing Joe knew was that he had a throbbing pain in the back of his head, an ache so fierce that it made his stomach queasy. Joe laid still, with his eyes closed, as he tried to think through the pain. His brain felt sluggish, as if it were working at one-quarter speed.

Feeling the grit of the sandy soil against the side of his face, Joe became aware of the face that he was laying on his side on the ground, but not on the soft grass of the meadow. The sand gave Joe the key clue. He figured he must be laying on the ground near the bank of the river. He wasn’t sure how he got to the riverbank, and he wasn’t sure he really cared.

Moving his arms a bit, Joe found them pulled unnaturally behind him and restricted. The chafe of the rope against his wrists told Joe that someone had tied his hands together behind his back. The next piece of the puzzle fell easily into place as he tried to move his legs. His ankles were also tied tightly together.

Joe’s aching brain finally figured out the sounds he heard were voices. He couldn’t quite understand the words, only that he was hearing a shrill voice being answered by a low, deep-throated one. He listened carefully, trying to force his brain to form the sound into words. After a few minutes of concentrated effort, his aching head finally began to make sense of the sounds.

“I’m telling you for the tenth time that you have me mixed up with someone else,” insisted the shrill voice.

“Don’t try that on me, honey,” replied the deep voice. “I know who you are.”

“You’re wrong, mister,” said the shrill voice. “I don’t know who you think I am, but you’ve got the wrong person.”

“Save your breath,” answered the deep voice, dismissing the comment.

Opening his eyes slowly, Joe tried to lift his head to see who was talking. He immediately regretted that move. A stab of pain streaked through his head like a bolt of lightning. Joe grunted and eased his head back down to the ground.

“Looks like Sleeping Beauty is starting to wake up,” a new, third voice commented.

“Joe! Joe, are you all right?” asked the shrill voice in concern.

It took Joe’s foggy brain a minute to identify the shrill voice as belonging to Beth. The thought of Beth filled Joe with a sense of urgency to find the last pieces of the puzzle.

Despite the pain that it caused, Joe lifted his head to look around.

The vague image of two people sitting a few feet away was the first thing Joe saw. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to clear both his vision and his thinking. The images came into focus.

One was a man about 40 dressed in a black shirt, black pants and black hat. Joe had no idea who the man was, but he knew the man wasn’t a friend. The man in black was sitting on a log with a gun in his hand, and the gun was pointed in his direction.

The second man was easily identified. Jack Slater sat with his knees up and his back against the log. He also had a gun in his hand, although his was held loosely and seemed pointed in no particular direction.

Looking for Beth, Joe turned onto his back. He swiveled his head until he saw her sitting a few feet away. Beth was looking a Joe, her face showing a mixture of fright and concern. He could see her hands also were tied behind her back, and her legs also were bound.

“What’s going on?” asked Joe in a thick voice.

“Joe, are you all right?” asked Beth in a frightened voice.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe, blinking his eyes again. “My head hurts.”

“You’ll live,” sneered Slater with a laugh. “I didn’t hit you that hard. Besides, you Cartwrights all have heads like rocks.”

Shaking his head a bit, Joe asked again. “What’s going on?”

“These men seem to think I’m someone important,” replied Beth. She glanced in their direction almost disdainfully. “They want to kidnap me for some reason.”

“We’re not kidnapping you,” explained the man in black patiently. “We’re simply escorting you back to your family.”

“I don’t have a family,” said Beth in a defiant voice. “You have the wrong girl.”

“Don’t start that again,” stated the man, shaking his head. “Your uncle wants you back and I’m going to see that you get there.”

“Do you think I’d be dancing in a medicine show if I was this…this heiress you’re after,” said Beth.

“I have to admit that I didn’t figure out that’s what you were doing,” acknowledged the man in black ruefully. “I kept finding people who had spotted you in different towns, but I thought you were just keeping on the move. I wouldn’t have put it together about the medicine show unless Slater here had told me.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Beth with a frown.

“Well, now, Miss Fatima or Miss Beth or whatever your name is, I wouldn’t have figured it out either,” sneered Slater. “Except Cartwright here called you Beth in the saloon the other day. Then I heard Anderson here asking about a girl named Elizabeth or Beth who kept moving from town to town. Things just kind of clicked into place when he described your blue eyes. You do have the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.”

Listening to Slater, Joe cursed himself. He had lost his temper in the saloon and given away Beth’s identify to the one man who was willing to use that information against her.

“That reminds me, Anderson,” continued Slater. “When do I get paid?”

“I told you,” replied Anderson in an irritated voice. “Soon as we get to Reno and I get the girl on the stage, I’ll pay you. I want to make sure you stick around until then.”

“Don’t you think people will think it’s a little strange that you’re taking a girl tied hand and foot on the stage?” asked Beth. “They’ll liable to ask questions.”

“You won’t be tied up on the stage,” promised Anderson. “Once I show the sheriff and the doc the judge’s paper saying you’re crazy, they’ll be more than happy to agree to pumping you full of something to keep you quiet. Don’t want to upset the other passengers, you know. You’ll have a nice trip home, although you won’t be able to enjoy the scenery much seeing how you’ll be all doped up.”

Beth’s shoulders sagged in despair.

The pain in Joe’s head had eased to a dull throb. He was no longer dazed and confused, just mad. “Tell me, Slater,” asked Joe angrily. “What’s the going rate for selling an innocent girl to a lowlife like this.”

“A hundred dollars,” replied Slater with a nasty grin. “And she ain’t so innocent. I think we both know that.”

“Slater, you’re scum, you know that,” said Joe in a disgusted voice.

Ignoring Joe, Slater turned to Anderson. “That reminds me. What are we going to do with him?”

“Once I get the girl on the stage, I don’t care what you do with him,” replied Anderson with a shrug. “I want to him keep around until we get to Reno. If his father is an important as you say, he could be real useful as a hostage if we run into somebody who objects to our little trip. Once we get to Reno, you can do whatever you want with him.”

“Good,” said Slater. He turned to Joe. Pulling a hunting knife out of a sheath tied to the side of his belt, Slater showed the knife to Joe. “I’m going to have some fun with you, Cartwright. By the time I get done with you, your face ain’t going to be so pretty. That family of yours may not even recognize you.”

Swallowing the lump of fear that was forming in his throat, Joe gave Slater a defiant look. “I should have beaten the daylights out of you when I had the chance.”

“Well, you missed your chance,” sneered Anderson. “Now it’s my turn.”

“Please, don’t hurt him,” begged Beth in a frightened voice. She looked at Anderson. “If I promise to go with you quietly, will you let him go?”

“And have him running to the law?” laughed Anderson. “Not on your life. We’ll all going to stay here, one little happy group until morning. Then we’re going to ride into Reno. And if you give me any trouble, missy, I’m going to let Slater have his fun early. I don’t think you’ll like what he’ll do to your boyfriend here.”

“Why do we have to stay here?” complained Slater. “Why don’t we just ride into Reno now?”

“Because,” said Anderson in a patient voice, “I don’t want to spend any more time in Reno than I have to. Somebody might ask some questions. We leave in the morning, we’ll get there just before the stage leaves. I don’t want to spend more than an hour in that town. That’ll give me just enough time to see the sheriff and the doc, before I have to put the poor little crazy girl on the stage.”

“I don’t like the idea of staying here until morning,” grumbled Slater.

“I don’t care what you like,” said Anderson in a heated voice. “Now gather some wood and get a fire started. I’m getting hungry.”

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

The clock by the front door of the ranch house was chiming eleven o’clock. Ben looked up from the book he was pretending to read and glanced anxiously toward the door. He hadn’t seen Joe since breakfast, and he wanted to talk to his son when he returned from Virginia City. Ben was hoping he could convince Joe to at least consider carefully about his relationship with the girl in the medicine show. He had spent the whole day thinking about what to say to Joe and how to say it. Ben wasn’t sure he could convince Joe that the girl wasn’t right for him. But he knew he had to try. He couldn’t just stand by and let Joe be hurt. And Ben was sure that Joe’s relationship with the dancer was going to end painfully for his son, one way or the other.

“Pa, Joe hasn’t been home before midnight for the last few days,” said Adam, looking up from the chessboard. He and Hoss had been moving pieces around on the board for the last hour, neither one of them paying much attention to the actual game.

“That’s right, Pa,” agreed Hoss. “You can’t be expecting him yet. It’s liable to be awhile before he gets home.”

“I know,” said Ben with a sigh. “I was just hoping….” He looked at Adam and Hoss. “It’s getting late. Aren’t you fellows ready to turn in?”

“Uh, soon as we finish this game,” replied Adam, looking down quickly at the chessboard. Neither Adam or Hoss were willing to let their father sit and worry about Joe all by himself. They weren’t sure what to do to help him, but both knew by just being with him, they eased Ben’s concern a bit.

The sound of footsteps on the porch pulled all three men’s attention toward the door. They watched the door expectantly, anticipating that Joe would throw it open and walk in. All three were surprised when there was a knock on the door.

“Who could that be at this hour?” asked Ben with a frown.

“I don’t know, Pa,” said Adam, rising from the blue chair he had pulled close to the table. Adam walked over to the door and pulled it open.

“Mr. Ben Cartwright?” asked a heavy-set man in a checked suit from the porch.

“No, I’m Adam Cartwright,” replied Adam. “Can I help you?”

“My name is Bert Harris,” explained Harris. “I’m looking for Joe Cartwright. Or rather, I’m looking for a young girl who left town with Joe early this afternoon.”

“Maybe you’d better come in,” said Adam, pulling the door wide.

“Thank you,” replied Harris, stepping into the house. He looked around briefly, admiring the furnishings, then turned to the two men on the other side of the room who were watching him anxiously. Harris guessed immediately that the older, gray-haired man was Joe’s father.

“Mr. Cartwright,” said Harris walking to where Ben was sitting. “My name is Bert Harris. I run the show that’s in Virginia City. Beth, or rather Fatima as she’s known in the show, left town with Joe earlier today. She didn’t show up for the show tonight. I wanted to talk to Joe, to see if he knew where she was.”

“My son hasn’t come home yet,” replied Ben, his anxiety growing. “I haven’t seen him since this morning.”

Harris frowned. “You don’t know where he is?”

“No,” answered Ben with a shake of his head. “He said he was going riding with the girl, and left a little before noon.”

“Does she do this often?” asked Adam. “I mean, does she not show up when she’s spending time with a man?”

Harris’ frown deepened. “Beth’s a good girl,” he said indignantly. “She usually doesn’t spend time with the fellows. In the six months or so she’s been traveling with us, this is the first time I’ve known her to have more than one dinner with someone. And she never misses a show.”

“Do you think something’s wrong?” asked Ben in a worried voice.

“I don’t know what to think,” admitted Harris with a sigh. “Beth never misses a show, but I also haven’t ever seen her so taken with a fellow. She talks about Joe all the time. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was in love with him.”

“Is there some reason why she couldn’t be in love with him?” asked Adam, raising an eyebrow.

“Beth has some…difficulties in her life,” said Harris carefully. “She doesn’t let anyone get close to her. Beth is afraid that her difficulties might put others at risk. If she cares about Joe, she wouldn’t want to risk him getting caught up her troubles.”

“Mr. Harris, Joe told us the story about those fellows looking for the girl. Is that true?” Hoss asked.

“Oh, it’s true all right,” answered Harris. “We’ve dodged a fellow looking for her a couple of times. I don’t know all the reasons, but I do know she’s hiding from someone.”

“So you think that maybe this someone caught up with Beth and Joe?” asked Ben in alarm.

“Maybe,” Harris replied, cocking his head. “Or maybe Beth finally broke down and let someone into her life. Could be the two of them have run off together.”

“Joe wouldn’t do that,” stated Hoss in a positive voice.

“You don’t know that,” said Harris. “Beth is a pretty girl, and if Joe has some strong feelings about her…”

“Joe does have feelings for her,” agreed Hoss. “But he also promised he wouldn’t do anything about them without talking to us first.”

“Hoss, Joe may have forgotten what he promised,” said Adam. “If he got caught up in some emotional situation, he may not have thought about talking it over with us.” Adam cocked his head a bit. “We haven’t exactly been supportive,” he acknowledged.

“No, it wouldn’t happen that way,” said Hoss firmly, shaking his head. “Joe made a promise to me and he wouldn’t break it.” Hoss turned to Ben. “Something’s wrong, Pa. I know it is. Joe’s in trouble and he needs our help. We’ve got to go find him.”

Staring into the fire, Ben didn’t answer for several minutes. He thought about how fiercely Joe had defend the girl to him and to Adam and Hoss. Ben momentarily conceded to himself that it was possible than Joe and the girl had gone off somewhere together. Given Joe’s feelings for the girl and the obvious disapproval of his family over his spending time with her, it wasn’t impossible that Joe had decided to turn an afternoon’s ride into a longer, more amorous event. It may have even been the girl’s idea. Didn’t Polly say something about her leading Joe astray?

But almost as soon has these thoughts came to Ben, he dismissed them. Ben believed he knew his son. Despite Joe’s reputation with the ladies, Ben felt sure Joe would never simply run off with the girl. For one thing, Joe had made a promise to Hoss, and he would honor that promise. And even if he had forgotten his promise, Joe wouldn’t do something that would dishonor the girl or his family, no matter how much she encouraged him to do so.

With a sudden start, Ben realized he had never even met the girl. He had been as bad as the gossips in Virginia City, assuming that the only danger Joe faced was having his heart bruised. Because she danced in a medicine show, Ben had given little credence to her story. With a sinking feeling, Ben realized that he made have terribly misjudged the whole situation.

Ben turned to the three men who were watching him expectantly. “As soon as it’s light,” he said, “we’ll go looking for Joe and the girl.” He swallowed hard. “I just hope we’re not too late.”

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

A few feet from the dying fire, Beth snuggled as close to Joe as possible. Anderson and Slater had given little thought to the comfort of their prisoners. Anderson had untied Beth long enough to allow her eat a plate of burned beans and drink a cup of bitter coffee. Before untying Beth, he had yanked her boots from her feet, a precaution against her running away. While Beth choked down the food, Anderson had stood over a Joe with a gun, threatening to shoot if Beth made any attempt to escape. When Beth had discovered with dismay there was nothing left in the bean pot for Joe, Anderson had shrugged indifferently. He had grudging allowed her to hold a cup of coffee to Joe’s mouth so he could drink some of the bitter brew. Then he had roughly tied her up again, not giving her a chance to put her boots on again.

Too far from the fire to feel its warmth and without a blanket to ward off the night chill,

Joe shivered a bit. He assumed Beth was trying to get close to him for warmth as well as comfort, although he had little of both to offer. He was surprised when she suddenly whispered in his ear.

“Joe, can you swim?” Beth asked in as soft a voice as possible.

“What!” exclaimed Joe. He looked quickly toward the fire. Anderson was asleep near the flames. Slater was suppose to be keeping watch but the cowboy was dozing, unconcerned that the pair who were bound hand and foot would cause any trouble. Joe’s shocked comment hadn’t disturbed either one.

“Can you swim?” Beth repeated in a whisper.

“Yes,” replied Joe softly. “But why do you want to know that?”

“Because I think I’ve figured out a way to get us loose,” Beth answered in a voice that Joe could barely hear. “But once we’re loose, we’ve got to get away. We’d never make it to the horses, and they’d catch us if we tried to run. The river is our only chance.”

Shaking his head, Joe whispered, “We’d never make it across the river. The current is too swift. We’d be carried downstream as soon as we hit the water.”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” replied Beth. Seeing Joe’s surprised look, she continued. “The river will carry us away from here. They could never keep us on foot and by the time they got their horses, we’d be a mile away.”

“And probably drowned,” said Joe. “No, it’s no good, Beth.”

“Do you have a better idea?” she hissed almost angrily. Her whisper turned into a pleading one. “Joe, we’ve got to try. It’s a chance, our only chance. And I’d rather be dead than carried off to an asylum.” She shuddered a bit and Joe knew the shudder wasn’t caused by the cold.

Thinking hard, Joe had to admit to himself he didn’t have a better plan. Beth was right about the horses or trying to escape on foot. Joe doubted if he could take two armed men down by himself without a weapon. But diving into the river seemed sheer madness.

“Bert knows you missed the show,” whispered Joe. “My family knows I didn’t come home last night. They’ll come looking for us. Maybe the best thing is to wait for some help.”

“What if they don’t?” Beth asked in a soft voice. “They might not think we need help. And even if they do come looking, they might not find us in time. Joe, the river is our only hope.”

Looking away, Joe didn’t want to agree with Beth. But he knew she was right. He had an idea what people would think when they discovered he and Beth were both missing. He hoped his father would have enough confidence in his integrity not to think he and Beth had simply run off together. But even if he did, how would his father ever find them?

“Let’s just get loose,” Joe finally whispered to Beth. “Then we’ll figure out what to do.”

Nodding, Beth whispered, “Keep an eye on them.”

Looking back toward the fire, Joe saw that Anderson and Slater were both still asleep.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Beth begin to twist her body. He turned to watch her.

Arching her back, Beth pushed her hands to the ground. Joe watched as she moved her hands under her body. Months of dancing had made Beth’s muscles both limber and strong. Glancing occasionally toward the two men near the fire, Joe watched in fascination as she moved her tied hands under body, and then under her legs. She lifted her feet as she continued to slide her hands forward. In less time than Joe would have guessed, her hands slid over her feet.

Her tied hands now in front of her, Beth reached into her left pants pocket and pulled out the smallest pocket knife Joe had ever seen. It looked no longer than her finger. The knife was attached to a small brass ring. Joe guess it was a key ring, although nothing was attached to it except the knife. Putting the pocket knife to her mouth, Beth pulled it open with her teeth.

“This was my father’s,” explained Beth when she saw Joe’s questioning look. “Kind of good luck piece. It’s not very sharp, but it does have an edge. Lean forward so I can work on your hands.”

Joe scooted forward a bit, both to give Beth a better angle with which to work on the rope around his wrists as well as to try to block what she was doing from view. The two men sleeping by the fire seemed not to be concerned about their prisoners, but Joe didn’t want to take any chances.

“This is going to take awhile,” Beth whispered in Joe’s ear.

Beth sawed on the rope that bound Joe’s hands for what seemed to Joe a very long time. He kept an anxious eye on the sleeping men a few yards away as Beth worked. Joe’s anxiety increased as he saw the sky begin to lighten with the dawn. “Hurry, Beth,” he urged. “They won’t sleep much longer.”

Not bothering to answer, Beth sawed and pressed harder on the rope. Joe pulled his hands apart, trying to weaken the rope even more. A minute later, Joe heard a satisfying snap and his hands were free.

Flexing his fingers to restore the circulation, Joe bent forward and untied the rope around his ankles. He quickly turned and untied Beth. Both stood, making as little noise as possible. “The river! Let’s go!,” said Beth urgently.

Beth’s voice woke Slater. He saw the prisoners – and his hundred dollars – getting ready to disappear. “Hey!” yelled Slater, still half asleep. They’re getting away!” He pulled his gun up and prepared to shoot.

Joe ran forward and dove into Slater, knocking his gun from his hand. The two began to wrestle on the ground, both throwing punches which seemed to have little impact on the other man. Joe finally landed a fist on Slater’s jaw, which stunned the cowboy for a moment. Seeing a small advantage, Joe followed up with two quick jabs to Slater’s mouth. He pulled back his fist and landed a knockout punch on Slater’s chin.

Breathing hard, Joe rolled off Slater. He was still trying to catch his breath when he heard Beth’s screams.

In the dim light of the dawn, Joe could see Beth struggling against Anderson on the riverbank. Anderson had his hands on Beth’s arms and was trying to pull her back toward the camp. Beth, for her part, was kicking and clawing at the man as she screamed for help. The more Anderson pulled at Beth, the more frantic her kicks and screams became.

Searching the ground, Joe saw the gun that Slater had dropped. He crawled a foot or two across the ground and picked up the gun. He aimed the pistol at the struggling pair. “Let her go, Anderson,” shouted Joe. “Let her go or I’ll shoot!”

Turning to the camp, Anderson froze when he saw the gun in Joe’s hand. He seemed unsure what to do.

“Let her go!” shouted Joe again. He knew he wouldn’t shoot. Beth was too close to Anderson and he couldn’t take the chance that he might hit her. He prayed Anderson wouldn’t realize that.

But Beth didn’t seem to realize the fact that Joe wouldn’t shoot, either. “No!” she screamed. “Don’t, Joe!” She yanked her hands from Anderson’s grasp in a panic.

In the dim light, it was hard for Joe to see exactly what happened next. In her frantic attempt to escape, he wasn’t sure if Beth fell or jumped into the river. All he knew for sure was one minute she was running along the river bank, and the next minute she was gone.

“Beth!” yelled Joe. He started to scramble to his feet, but stopped as he saw Anderson reach for the holster on his hip. Joe turned the gun toward the man in black. “Don’t,” he warned. Anderson ignored the warning and drew his gun quickly. Both men fired their weapons. Anderson’s bullet went wide, missing Joe by several yards. Joe’s bullet hit Anderson in the middle of the chest. Anderson crumpled to the ground.

Stunned by Beth’s sudden disappearance, Joe got to his feet slowly. He began walking toward the river. Joe had taken only a few steps when he heard his name called out in a roar of anger. Joe whirled just as Slater jumped him with the knife in his hand.

Slater plunged the knife into Joe’s left shoulder as he knocked Joe to the ground. The agonizing pain numbed Joe’s arm, and the gun fell his hand. The pain seemed to double as Slater pulled the knife from Joe’s shoulder.

Through the haze of pain, Joe saw Slater kneeling over him. The knife, already dripping with Joe’s blood, was in Slater’s hand. Slater raised his hand high, as if preparing to plunge the knife into Joe’s chest.

Joe kicked out his leg, hitting Slater hard in the hip. Slater lost his balance and fell to the side but the knife continued its downward journey, albeit with much less force than had been originally intended. The knife sliced across Joe’s chest and ribs as Slater fell away from him.

Rolling on his side, Joe frantically searched for the gun with his right hand. He felt the hard metal in the grass and grabbed the pistol. He rolled again, landing on his back.

Slater was almost on top of Joe when Joe fired the gun. The barrel was only inches from

Slater’s midsection when Joe pulled the trigger. Slater clutched at stomach, then fell forward, the knife still firmly grasped in his hand. Joe saw the knife coming toward him and managed to raise his left hand to try to ward it off. As he died, Jack Slater inflicted one last injury, slicing Joe’s hand to the bone.

Laying on his back with the weight of Slater’s body across his, Joe felt the burning pain of the knife wounds. His shoulder and hand throbbed with agonizing waves of pain, and the cut across his chest and ribs burned. He could feel the blood running down his arm and body. Each beat of his heart seemed to send more pain and more blood through the wounds.

Using almost the last of his strength, Joe pushed Slater’s body off of him. He turned his head and saw four horses tied to the trees a few yards away, waiting patiently for a rider.

Joe knew he had to get help, for his sake and for Beth’s.

Rolling once more, Joe pushed himself onto his stomach. He groaned at the new pain this move caused. Joe laid on his stomach for a moment, trying to gather enough strength to get to the horses. Pushing himself to his knees with his right hand, Joe began to crawl toward the horses.

Joe managed to crawl four or five feet before the dizziness hit him. The ground seemed to be spinning around him, and the trees and horses appeared to be moving in some kind of drunken dance. Joe’s arm buckled and he fell forward. He tried to push himself up again, but this time his arm had no strength. Joe lay in the grass, too weak and sick with pain to move. He could feel his life’s blood ebbing out of his body. Beth had said no one would find them in time, thought Joe, and she was right. It was too late for both of them. The thought of Beth caused another pain to course through Joe, this one worse than anything caused by his physical hurts. As the curtain of darkness descended on Joe, he whispered, “I’m sorry, Beth.” Then Joe allowed himself to be pulled into the dark land where he could feel no more pain.

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

Senses alert for any sign, Ben guided his buckskin through the tall grass of Truckee Meadow. He tried to ride slow so he wouldn’t miss even the smallest indication that Joe had come this way. But riding slow was difficult when he felt such a sense of urgency.

The Cartwrights had spent the night working out a search pattern, or rather Adam had. In his typical methodical way, Adam had taken a map and marked out 14 grids, one of each of the Cartwrights and the 11 hands in the bunkhouse who would join in the search. Each man was to spend two hours searching his grid, and then meet up with the others at the lake. If someone found some sign of Joe in their area, they were to stay where they were. When the men came together, if someone was missing, the others would head for the missing man’s area.

Ben wasn’t sure why he had asked for the meadow. Maybe it was because he felt that’s where Joe would take a pretty girl for a ride. Or maybe because he wanted to search an area which he could cover quickly and then return to the lake. Ben only knew that he had felt pulled to the meadow.

Harris had returned to town, to see if Beth showed up at the wagon and to notify Sheriff Coffee of the missing couple. Ben knew there was little Coffee could do to help except organize more men to search. That would take time, and Ben wasn’t willing to wait.

The original plan had been to start out at first light, but after spending hours pacing the floor in front of the fireplace, Ben had decided not to wait. Two hours before dawn, he had wakened Adam and Hoss, telling Adam to rouse the men in the bunkhouse and telling Hoss to saddle the horses. An hour later, with torches and lanterns lighting the night, the search party had left the ranch.

Stopping at the edge of the meadow, Ben blew out his lantern and looked around. In the light of early morning, the meadow looked idyllic. The grass was wet with dew, and the wildflowers sprinkled through the grass made a colorful pattern. A few birds chirped a welcome. Ben cupped his hand to his mouth and yelled as loud as possible. “Joe! Joe!

Joe!” The only answer was the chirping of the birds.

Ben kicked his horse forward slowly. The meadow was large, covering several acres, and Ben was on the edge of it. He knew it had been foolish to expect to find Joe right away, or even to find him here at all. But he had hoped.

Riding slowly, Ben searched with his eyes, with his ears, and with his heart. He was looking for some sign, some feeling that his son was near. More foolishness, Ben told himself. But that didn’t keep him from searching his heart as he searched the meadow.

Stopping, Ben once more cupped his mouth and yelled his son’s name. At first, only silence answered his call. Then Ben heard the faint whinny of a horse.

“Joe!” shouted Ben again. Once more, the whinny of a horse answered him. Ben thought the sound came from the far end of the meadow. Joe had been riding Cochise, and the pinto knew Ben’s voice. It could be any horse answering his call, but in Ben’s heart, he knew it wasn’t.

Kicking his horse forward at gallop, Ben rode toward the end of the meadow. As he neared the river, he saw the trees with horses tied to them. Four horses, thought Ben with a frown as he neared the trees. He slowed his horse and pulled his gun from the holster on his hip.

Walking his horse toward the trees, Ben couldn’t see anything wrong. There was no sign of anyone moving around. As he got closer, he could see the remains of a camp near the bank of the river. Ben’s eyes grew wide with fear as he saw a crumpled body on the riverbank.

Pulling his horse to a stop, Ben dismounted and walked slowly toward the camp, gun at the ready. He walked first toward the body on the riverbank, his heart in his throat. He let out a sigh of relief as he neared the body and could tell it wasn’t Joe. Ben flipped the body onto it’s back. He didn’t recognize the man, but he recognized the manner of his death. A gunshot wound in the chest had ended the man’s life.

Ben turned back to the camp, and his heart leaped into his throat again. From the riverbank, he could see what he hadn’t been able to see from the trees. Two bodies were sprawled in the grass. One was wearing a familiar green jacket.

“Joe!” cried Ben in alarm as he ran from the riverbank. He barely glanced at the other body; the hole in the man’s midsection told Ben in a instant that the man was dead. As Ben neared Joe, his fear increased. He could see the ground around his son was soaked with blood.

“Joe!” said Ben again as he knelt next to his son. Joe laid face down in the grass, unmoving. Ben could see the left sleeve of his son’s jacket was soaked with blood. Ben felt Joe’s neck, and gave a brief prayer of thanks as he felt the faint pulse in his son’s neck. He turned Joe over as gently as possible.

Joe’s face was white as a sheet, as if all the blood had drained from his face. Considering the amount of blood that covered the rest of his body, Ben could almost believed it had. The front of Joe’s shirt was smeared with blood, and Ben could see the jagged cut across Joe’s chest and ribs through the rip in the cloth. Blood also was seeping slowly from the cut on Joe’s hand. But it was the wound in Joe’s shoulder that scared Ben the most. Blood was flowing from that wound freely.

“Hold on, Joe,” urged Ben as if his unconscious son could hear him. Ben holstered his gun and almost ripped the kerchief from around his neck. He balled the cloth and pressed it hard against Joe’s shoulder. As he pressed down on his son’s wound, Ben looked around, searching with his eyes for anything that he could use as bandages. He saw a blanket laying near the remains of the fire. Pressing hard on the wound, Ben released the cloth in his hand and hurried toward the blanket.

As he rushed across the grass, Ben’s foot kicked a knife on the ground. Ben bent to pick it up. He shuddered as he saw it was covered with blood. A look of revulsion crossed Ben’s face as he stared at the loathsome object. He steeled himself not think about whose blood had stained the knife. He told himself the knife was simply an object, and one that he could use. He tried not to think of the injuries the knife had caused.

Ben took the knife over to the fire and picked up the blanket. He quickly began slicing the blanket into strips. The blade was sharp, and it took little time for Ben to finish his task. As soon as he was done, however, Ben flung the knife away from him, as if it were a deadly snake.

Carrying the strips of cloth, Ben hurried back to Joe. As he knelt by his son, he saw the cloth on Joe’s shoulder was already becoming soaked with blood. Ben pressed the cloth into Joe’s shoulder and quickly tied one of the strips around the cloth to hold it in place. He tied the strip as tightly as possible.

Another strip of blanket was wrapped tightly around Joe’s hand and tied as tightly as possible by Ben. He pulled Joe’s shirt open, looking for more wounds. He was both relieved and a bit puzzled when the only one he found was the cut across Joe’s chest. He wondered briefly where the other blood, smeared lower on Joe’s shirt, had come from. The question was quickly forgotten as Ben began to wrap the strips of blanket around Joe’s well-muscled chest and ribs.

As soon as he had Joe’s wounds tightly bandaged, Ben hurried to his horse to get his canteen. He knew Joe was still bleeding. His efforts had only slowed the process a bit. Ben knew it was important to get Joe to drink, to replace some of the lost fluids. Ben prayed he could rouse his son enough to swallow from the canteen.

Snatching the canteen from his saddle, Ben started back to Joe, then stopped. He tried to think how close someone else from the search party might be, but he couldn’t remember. Nevertheless, Ben pulled his gun and fired two shots into the air. Then he hurried back to Joe.

Raising Joe’s head gently, Ben poured a trickle of water over his son’s face. At first, Joe had no reaction to the water. But as Ben continued to pour the water, Joe began to stir. His head moved slowly, and a soft grunt of pain escaped from his lips. Ben quickly put the canteen to Joe’s lips and forced some water into Joe’s mouth. He watched carefully to make sure Joe swallowed the liquid.

Joe’s eyes fluttered open as Ben pulled the canteen back from Joe’s mouth. The hazel eyes that Ben knew so well stared at him dully, as if they weren’t registering the image in front of them. Joe blinked twice, then said in an almost inaudible voice, “Pa?”

“Easy, Joe,” crooned Ben in a soothing voice. “Don’t try to talk. Drink some more.” Ben put the canteen to Joe’s lips and forced more water into Joe’s mouth.

As Ben pulled the canteen away again, Joe struggled to talk. “Pa,” he said weakly. “Help…help…Beth.”

Frowning, Ben looked around. He had forgotten about the girl. He saw no sign of her in the meadow. Turning back to Joe, he asked, “Where is she, Joe?”

It took Joe a minute to answer. Ben wasn’t sure if he was trying to remember or gathering his strength. Maybe both, he thought.

“In…river,” replied Joe, his voice so soft that Ben could barely hear the words.

Looking toward the river, Ben shook his head. He could hear the water splashing and knew how swift the current was. If the girl had fallen in the river, there was nothing Ben could do for her.

“Help…Beth,” insisted Joe again, his voice stronger and filled with urgency. Joe reached up with his right hand and grabbed Ben’s shirt. “Help….her,” he pleaded.

“All right, all right,” said Ben in a soothing voice. “I’ll go look. Drink some more water, and then I’ll look.”

Seeming relieved by Ben’s promise, Joe eagerly drank from the canteen Ben put to his lips. As Ben once again pulled away the canteen, Joe looked up at his father. His expression was both expectant and pleading.

“All right, I’ll look,” sighed Ben. He lowered Joe’s head to the ground, and put the canteen down. Ben rose and hurried to the riverbank.

As he expected, Ben could see nothing in the river except water, rocks, and a few logs floating by. If the girl had gone into the water, the current had carried her away.

Turning, Ben hurried back to Joe. “Joe,” he started, then stopped. Joe’s eyes were closed, and his barely moving chest rose and fell evenly. Joe was unconscious again.

Thoughts of the girl fled from Ben’s mind as he saw the streaks of red soaking through the heavy woolen cloth of the makeshift bandages. Ben had slowed the bleeding, but he hadn’t stopped it.

Ben knew if he waited, the rest of the search party would eventually find him. But Ben also knew by the time the others showed up, it would be too late for Joe. His son was literally bleeding to death in front of him.

If there was a decision to be made, Ben wasn’t aware of it. He reached down and scooped Joe into his arms. Carrying his son as he had done when Joe was a baby, Ben walked grimly toward his horse.

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

Hoss paced in front of the fireplace, just as Ben had done hours earlier. He kept glancing toward the stairs, wanting the doctor to come down and tell him that his little brother was going to be fine. Hoss knew it was too soon for the doctor to come down. He had been upstairs barely twenty minutes, and the extent of Joe’s injuries were such that it would take some time for Doctor Martin to patch up Joe.

A new fear struck Hoss. What if the doctor did come down the stairs now? He knew that an appearance by the doctor now would mean the worst possible news. Hoss suddenly found himself praying that the doctor would stay upstairs.

Turning to stare into the fire, Hoss replayed the events of the past few hours in his mind.

When Adam, Hoss and the rest of the search party had seen Ben riding toward them holding Joe in the saddle in front of him, most of the men thought Ben was carrying a dead man. Joe’s arms and legs hung limply at his side, and his head was bent forward, bobbing slightly at every step his father’s horse took. He was covered with blood, and the parts of his body that could be seen had no color. Hoss had felt tears welling up in his eyes.

But the tears disappeared as Ben began shouting at Adam to get the doctor and Hoss to get a wagon. Ben Cartwright had shouted that his son was still alive, and the tone of his voice told everyone that he meant to keep him that way.

In his mind, Hoss could see Adam turning his horse and kicking it into a gallop as he headed for town. He remember how he had raced back to the ranch house, two of the hands following him, and how he had harnessed two horses to a wagon in record time while the hands threw blankets and mattresses into the back, along with the medical kit and bandages. Hoss had sped from the yard in front of the house and back to his father. As he thought about it now, Hoss shook his head. It was a small miracle that he hadn’t crashed the wagon, as fast he had been driving it.

The one picture Hoss couldn’t shake was the sight of his Pa, hands and shirt splattered with Joe’s blood, carrying his little brother to the wagon. The image was burned into Hoss’ brain, and it was a picture he hated.

“Any news?” said a voice behind Hoss.

“It’s too soon, Adam,” replied Hoss without looking around. He glanced up at the stairs again. “It’s way too soon for the doc to come down.”

“I talked with Roy Coffee after I sent the doctor from town,” said Adam. “Roy’s going up to the meadow later to pick up the bodies. He’ll to try to piece together what happened.”

“Joe will tell us what happened,” declared Hoss in a stubborn voice. “All we have to do is wait a while, and he’ll tell us.”

“I hope so,” said Adam softly.

“I know so,” stated Hoss with a conviction he didn’t feel.

The two brothers sat for another hour staring into the fire, both of them silent the whole time. There were no words to express what they were feeling. They both sprang to their feet at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

“I’m just coming down for a cup of coffee,” said Doctor Martin, forestalling questions as he descended the stairs. “We don’t know anything for sure yet.”

“What are his chances?” asked Adam.

The doctor took a deep breath before answering. “I don’t know, Adam,” he admitted. “Joe’s lost a lot of blood. He’s very weak. And there’s already signs of infection. Right now things could go either way.”

“Doc, you’ve got to pulling him through,” said Hoss in an insistent voice. “You’ve got to.”

“You know I’ll do everything possible, Hoss,” advised Doctor Martin gently. He started toward the kitchen, then stopped. “By the way, who’s Beth?”

“Why do you want to know?” asked Adam cautiously.

“No real reason,” answered the doctor. “Joe keeps calling for her. I just wondered who she was.”

“Beth is the name of the girl Joe was with,” explained Adam. His expression grew grim. “She dances in a medicine show.”

“In a medicine show?” said Doctor Martin with raised eyebrows. His expression suddenly changed. “Oh, yes. I heard some talk about Joe and that dancer in Virginia City.” He looked at Adam curiously. “What happened to her?”

“I don’t know, doc,” replied Adam, his voice growing bitter. “And right now, I don’t care.”

“Adam, don’t say that,” said Hoss with a frown.

“Why not?” asked Adam. “That girl’s been nothing but trouble for Joe ever since he met her. And now this. I don’t care if she’s ever found.”

“You know what I think, Adam,” said Hoss slowly. “I don’t think that girl caused Joe any grief. We were the ones who did that. You, me, Pa, those people in Virginia City, we’re the ones who told Joe that she was lying to him. We’re the ones who kept telling Joe that she was something other than she said she was. Well, turns out we were wrong.” Hoss turned and looked toward the stairs. “Maybe if we had spent less time making judgments and more time trying to help, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“You’re not saying this is our fault?” asked Adam in astonishment.

“No,” replied Hoss shaking his head. “Of course not. What I’m say is don’t blame the girl, Adam. This ain’t her fault either.”

“She shouldn’t have dragged Joe into her troubles,” insisted Adam.

“From what I can tell, she tried her best not to,” said Hoss. “Joe made the decision to get involved. Because he cared about her. That’s the whole point, Adam. Nobody else cared about the girl. Not one of us gave two thoughts to how she felt or what might happen to her. Nobody cares about her except Joe. And that ain’t right.”

Adam stood quietly for a minute, thinking about what Hoss had said. “I’ll send Charlie over to the meadow,” Adam replied at last. “Maybe he and some of hands can find some sign of what happened to the girl.”

“Good idea,” said Hoss, nodding his approval. Hoss turned toward Doctor Martin. “Come on, doc, I’ll get you that coffee.”

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

For three days, Ben sat by Joe’s bed, watching the battle that his son was fighting within himself.

Ben helped changed the bandages on Joe’s arm, hand, and chest, and he wiped the sweat of fever away from Joe’s face and neck. Ben dosed his son with medicine, and helped him to drink the broth that Hop Sing brought to the room. But for the most part, all Ben could do was watch and wait.

Sometimes, it appeared as if Joe were winning. Joe would open his eyes and look at his father. The eyes were bright with fever, but Joe seemed to recognize Ben. That’s when Ben said the soothing words of encouragement, and felt his heart soar with hope.

Other times, it seemed the infection was winning. Joe would become delirious, thrashing about the bed and calling out for Beth, for his Pa, for help. That’s when Ben had to restrain his son, holding Joe tightly so he wouldn’t break open the stitches. Those were the times Ben thought his heart would break.

Ben had grabbed snatches of sleep, and he remembered having a bite to eat here and there. But those times when he wasn’t with Joe seemed unreal. For three days, Ben’s world, his reality, was centered around his son’s battle to live.

“Pa?”

The sound woke Ben with a start on the fourth morning. He hadn’t even realized he had dozed off.

“Pa?”

Ben looked down into the bed. Joe’s eyes were open and he was watching Ben. It took a minute for Ben to realize there was something different about Joe’s eyes. He suddenly realized that his son’s eyes no longer looked unnaturally bright. Ben reached over and put his hand on Joe’s forehead. He closed his eyes and his shoulders sagged in relief as he felt the cool skin. Joe’s fever had broken.

“Joe, you gave us quite a scare,” said Ben, stroking his son’s head gently. “But you’re going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right now.”

“I feel kind of shaky,” admitted Joe.

“I’m not surprised,” said Ben with a smile. “You’ve been a pretty sick boy.”

Joe looked away for a minute, then turned back to Ben. “Pa, did you find Beth?” asked Joe. Something in Joe’s voice told Ben that his son wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Ben sat back in his chair, thinking about his answer. Joe’s fever had just broken, and his son was weak and vulnerable. He had no desire to hinder Joe’s recovery by telling him upsetting news. At the same time, Ben wouldn’t lie to Joe.

“No we didn’t,” replied Ben slowly. “We don’t know what happened to her.”

Joe didn’t look surprised at Ben’s answer. He merely turned his head to stare at the ceiling. “It was true, you know,” said Joe. “Beth’s story, the one Adam thought was a lie? It was all true.”

“I know,” acknowledged Ben, his voice filled with understanding.

“I tried to help her, Pa,” continued Joe, his voice choked with emotion. “Why wouldn’t she let me help her?”

“I don’t know, Joe,” answered Ben. He could tell Joe was tiring. This wasn’t the time for a weighty discussion. “You rest, Joe. We’ll talk about it later.”

“Why wouldn’t she let me help her?” said Joe again as his eyes began to close.

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

It took two weeks for Joe to convince his father and the doctor to let him out of bed. He had wanted to leave his bed the first day, to go back to the meadow to look for Beth. Only a promise from Hoss and Adam to search the riverbanks once more had prevent Joe from dragging himself out from under the covers. Joe had waited with increasing agitation for his brothers to return. Doctor Martin was threatening Joe with a sedative by the time Adam and Hoss got back. When they told Joe that they found no sign of Beth, Joe wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed.

When Sheriff Coffee came out to the ranch to take Joe’s formal statement about what happen in the meadow, he told Joe that “Harris and Company” had left Virginia City the day after Joe had been injured. Joe wasn’t surprised. There was no reason for Bert and the others to stay. But Joe regretted their leaving. They were his last link to Beth.

Joe had been out of bed only three days when he disappeared from the house.

“Hop Sing!” roared Ben when he discovered Joe was gone.

The cook came padding out of the kitchen. “What you want?” he demanded.

“Where’s Joe?” asked Ben, his voice reflecting his anger and his concern. “Where did he go?”

“Little Joe very sad,” replied Hop Sing in a sympathetic voice.

“I know he’s sad,” said Ben. “But he’s also far from well. Where did he go?”

“Little Joe go to say goodbye,” answered Hop Sing, his face impassive.

Ben frowned at the cook’s answer. His face cleared as suddenly understood where Joe was. Ben headed for the front door. “Tell Adam and Hoss I’ll be back in a little while.”

Riding to the meadow, Ben half expected to find Joe fallen to the ground along the way. Joe was barely well enough to be out of bed, much less making a long ride on horseback. What was that boy thinking? Ben asked himself in exasperation as he kicked his horse onward. Ben knew the answer, but knowing didn’t cool his anger or his worry.

Ben found Joe where he knew his son would be – sitting on the rock by the riverbank. His anger evaporated as soon as he saw Joe. His son looked so forlorn as he sat on the rock, just staring into the water. Joe’s left arm was resting in a sling, his heavily bandaged hand peeking out the edge of the cloth. Ben saw a bunch of wildflowers in Joe’s right hand.

Dismounting, Ben tied the reins of his buckskin horse next to his son’s pinto in the trio of trees. He walked slowly to the riverbank, deliberately ignoring the patch of grass that still looked rusty from dried blood. As Ben approached the rock on which his son was sitting, he saw Joe throw the flowers into the river. Ben didn’t say a word. He simply sat on the rock next to Joe and put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. The two sat in silence, watching the river flow.

“I loved her, Pa,” said Joe abruptly.

“I know, Joe,” replied Ben in an understanding voice. “I only wished she would have loved you back.”

Joe looked at Ben in surprise. “How do you know she didn’t?”

“She couldn’t have loved you, Joe,” said Ben. “She kept too many things from you, kept too many secrets. If she had truly cared for you, she would have told you everything.”

“She was just trying to protect me,” insisted Joe. “She didn’t want me to get involved in her troubles.”

“That’s an aspect of love,” Ben agreed slowly. “Wanting to protect someone. But there has to be more than that. Love means trusting the other person and helping each other through the bad times. Love means wanting to stay together, no matter what happens. Beth wouldn’t let you help her. She wouldn’t even tell you her real name. In the end, she chose to leave you. Beth may have been very fond of you, Joe, but she didn’t love you.”

Staring into the water, Joe sat silent for several minutes. Then he turned to Ben. “She said she couldn’t love me. I don’t think I believed her. Not really. I thought I could love her enough for both of us.”

Turning back to the river, Joe watched as branches and leaves floated by. “I wonder if she’s still alive,” mused Joe suddenly.

“Joe…” said Ben, shaking his head.

“She could be, Pa,” interrupted Joe quickly. “It’s not impossible. She could have found a way out of the river. Maybe grabbed a log or something. There’s lots of ranches and farms nearby. She could have gotten help.”

“Then why hasn’t she let us know she’s alive?” asked Ben. “Why stay hidden?”

“Beth doesn’t know Anderson is dead,” replied Joe. “And even if she does know, her uncle could send someone else after her. She knows she’s safer if everyone thinks she’s dead.”

“But you said if she was declared dead, her uncle would get her shares of the company,” said Ben. “That defeats her whole purpose.”

“Maybe she only wants us to think she’s dead,” suggested Joe stubbornly. “She knows Harris’ route. She could find him and have him send a message to her lawyer. She could even go back to being Fatima again. With Anderson and Slater dead, there’s no reason why she couldn’t be Fatima again.”

“Joe, you’re grasping at straws,” said Ben softly.

Sighing, Joe agreed. “I know. I just don’t want her to be dead.”

The two sat in silence on the rock as the river flowed by. Joe was wrapped up in his thoughts of Beth. Ben was struggling with finding the right words to comfort his son.

“Joe, what if she wasn’t dead?” asked Ben. “What if you found out she were still alive? What would you do?”

“I don’t know,” Joe answered slowly. He thought about it for a minute. “Nothing, I guess. Beth made it pretty clear that she wanted to go on without me. She told me that the only thing she wanted me to do was remember her.”

“Then that’s what you should do,” said Ben. “Remember her. Don’t spend the rest of your life looking for her. She didn’t want that.”

“I suppose,” Joe replied. He shook his head. “I just want her to be happy, Pa. All I ever wanted was for her to be happy. Even if I wasn’t around to share it with her.”

“That’s a good thought, son,” said Ben. “Maybe she is. Wherever she is, maybe she is happy.”

“I hope so,” wished Joe. He shook his head. “If I could only know for sure, then I’d be satisfied.”

“Joe, there’s no way you can know that,” said Ben.

“I know,” Joe agreed sadly. “But I can wish, can’t I.” He turned to stare into the water once more.

A cool breeze blew across the river. Joe shivered as he felt the cool air across his skin. Ben jumped to his feet, immediately concerned about his son. “Joe, I’m taking you home,” he said in a firm voice. “I’m taking you home and you’re going to straight to bed. No argument.” Ben helped Joe to his feet and started to lead him toward the horses.

Joe didn’t fight his father’s decision. The truth was he felt tired, drained. Joe stopped and turned, taking one last look at the river. Then he allowed his father to help him toward his horse.

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

“Hey, Joe, how you feeling?” asked Hoss as he came into the house with a handful of envelopes. Two weeks had passed since Ben and Joe had talked by the river. With each passing day, Joe had grown stronger and more like himself. His family had watched with relief as Joe had seemed to find a way to deal with what had happened.

Looking up from the book he was reading, Joe grinned. “I’m feeling fine. Another few days, and I’ll be back to work.”

“Joseph!” Ben called in a warning voice from his desk in the den. “You have at least another week before you go back to work.”

“All right, a week,” agreed Joe. He winked at Hoss. “That is, unless I drive Pa crazy first. Another few days of me hanging around the house, and he might just boot me out the door.”

“Good,” said Hoss, grinning. “Because me and Adam are sure getting tired of doing your work.”

“Someone mentioned my name?” asked Adam as he walked from the kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Only in terms of doing my work, older brother,” said Joe with a smile.

“If that’s the case, I think I may just have to leave again,” replied Adam as he sipped his coffee. He looked toward Ben in the den. “Pa, did you find out who owns that land we want to buy near the south fence line? I want to get an idea of how much they’re going to want for that property.”

“I don’t know for sure yet,” answered Ben with a shake of his head. “I’m waiting for confirmation from the land office. I’m pretty sure it’s Ralph Wilson we’re going to have to deal with, though.”

“Wilson?” said Adam in dismay. “That man will try to con us like a medicine show barker.” Adam suddenly stopped as he realized what he had. He turned to Joe with a guilty look. “Sorry, Joe,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right, Adam,” said Joe. “Most of the medicine shows are filled with con artists. We both know that.”

“Most, but not all,” conceded Adam.

“No,” agreed Joe, “not all of them.” He looked down, suddenly finding the page of his book to be fascinating reading.

Clearing his throat, Hoss said, “Here’s the mail, Pa.” He walked over and handed the envelopes to Ben.

Sorting through the envelopes, Ben suddenly frowned. He pulled a small envelope from the rest and turned it over in his hand. “Joe,” Ben called across the room. “There’s something here for you.”

“For me?” said Joe in surprise, getting up from his chair.

“That’s what it says,” answered Ben. “ ‘Joe Cartwright, Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia City’. Only there’s no stamp or postmark on it.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Hoss. “Stan at the stage depot gave that to me. He said some fellow got off the stage, handed the envelope to Stan, and then got back on the stage. Just dropping it off as a favor is what Stan figured.”

Walking over to the desk, Joe took the envelope from Ben. He slit the envelope open with his finger, then pulled a folded piece of paper out of it. Joe’s eyes widen in surprise as he read the paper.

“What is it, Joe?” asked Ben as he saw the look on Joe’s face. “What’s wrong?”

Joe stared at the paper in his hand for a long time before answering. “Nothing is wrong, Pa, “ he said slowly. Joe’s face split into a grin. “Nothing is wrong at all.” Joe looked down at the paper and read the brief message again.

The paper contained only two words: Ophelia lives.

*****End*****

 

Other Stories by this Author

Author: SusanG

The Bonanza universe lost an ardent fan when Susan Grote passed away unexpectedly on March 2, 2017.   The news caught her family, friends, and fellow writers and readers by surprise as she had not been ill. Susan was a fierce supporter of Bonanza fan fiction, helping many to take their first literary steps.  She never failed to offer support and encouragement to all writers, regardless of fandom. Her family has graciously granted Brand permission to post her stories in our Library so that readers may continue to enjoy them.

3 thoughts on “To Be or Not to Be (by Susan G)

  1. It was amazing love story ended tragically!!But care for Joe from the family is so obvious I would not blame them !!SJS oh so heart touching!!!knife injuries scare me more than bullet injury!But Joe always recovered it !thanks God!JPM lovely!

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