Summary: A tragedy forces Joe to face his darkest fears.
Rating: T Word count: 5457
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
With immense thanks to my patient and long-suffering beta jfclover.
Jo directed his glittering smile at the prettiest girl he’d seen in a while and tipped his hat. “Morning Miss Clyde.”
Unintentionally Becky returned it. It was a challenge resisting Joe Cartwright’s smile.
“Morning Mr Cartwright,” she said, copying his mock formality.
Easing his smile wider he pushed himself off the post he was leaning on. “Haven’t seen you in a while, Becky?”
Big blue eyes shone out from under her bonnet. Deep cornflower blue, drawing him in.
Joe’s eyes ran over Becky, wondering at the changes. Her trim figure now curved in all the right places. The round puppy face vanished, replaced with a charming heart shape, filled by those eyes and a pair of rosy, luscious lips. He wondered what kissing those lips would feel like?
Admiration and desire shone in his eyes. Seeing it, Becky’s insides trilled. She was, however, aware that Little Joe Cartwright fell out of interest with girls as quickly as he fell in.
“We’ve been real busy on the ranch all spring. I haven’t gotten to Virginia City for months. Pa let me come today to buy a store-bought dress, from the dress shop.”
He smiled at her excitement and sidled up alongside. Looking at the box tied with string, he plucked at it with curious fingers. “Oh? I bet it’s a pretty dress. Any dress you wore would be.”
Blushing, Becky moved the box out of reach. “It’s a late birthday present. I turned seventeen in January you know.”
“I thought there was something different about my favorite gal.”
“Joe Cartwright, I am nothing of the sort!”
He assumed the appearance of an injured puppy. “But Becky you know you’re my favorite gal. Ain’t I your favorite guy?”
The look and wistful air didn’t fool her.
“Joe Cartwright what a fib. How can I be, when I’ve not seen you in months?”
His hand gracefully hooked hers. Bending, he brushed her fingertips with his lips. As they quivered his smile took on a wolfish slant.
“We can soon set that right,” he murmured. His smile once again sweet.
Becky drew a breath to steady herself. He really was handsome. Attempting to withdraw her hand, he held tight.
“The church social’s in two weeks. Would you allow me to escort you?”
Suddenly hesitant, she considered. Should she accept? This was Joe Cartwright, after all? His pa was one of the wealthiest ranchers in the territory. Would he seriously be interested in her? She had no intention of becoming another in a string of girls. His smile widened sending a shiver through her. Maybe it’d be worth the risk?
Her uncertainty puzzled him. He’d been sure of her interest. What had changed? A qualm flowed through him. Did Julia and Amy make a difference? In his deepest, darkest parts he knew the truth. Did Becky know his secret? Was she wondering if he was worth the risk?
Encouraging, he deepened his smile, and the fingertips trembled. His confidence soared again. He’d caught his prize.
“Very well, I would be delighted.” His glowing look made her stomach flip. “Now I have to go. Pa’s waiting for me in the mercantile.”
Only the tips of her fingers now rested within his. Still not letting go, he teased, “Are you in such a hurry to get away from me?”
“Little Joe! You are incorrigible.”
Smiling devilishly, he began to release her.
An explosion of shots startled him. Two drunken cowboys raced passed swaying in their saddles, guns blazing.
Becky’s fingertips jerked, bringing his eyes back. Horror drenched them. Blood spurted from her neck. As she dropped, Joe fell with her, supporting her in his arms. A desperate hand pressed over the gushing wound, the other wrapped tight around hers. His voice shook with anguish, “Becky, hold on, you’re gonna be all right, just hold on.”
The stark fear in the cornflower blue eyes terrified him. He watched the life leave them. She was gone the vibrant, entrancing creature, had gone. “No, Becky, no, please… ”.
The door flying open Rubin Clyde, followed by others, charged from the mercantile. What they saw stopped them dead. Blood everywhere, Joe cradling Becky in his arms.
Unaware of the screams and shouts for the doctor, Joe’s only focus was the father who dropped to his knees and reached for his daughter. Dragging her to his chest, Rubin sobbed her name in keening wails.
Joe stared at the blood. The lifeless eyes. The grief, too raw, too painful. He could take no more and staggered to his feet. A crowd had begun to gather as people rushed over. Barely conscious of them, Joe backed away. His place filled by others joining the commotion, like water flowing around a pebble.
Drifting toward the livery, he didn’t notice or care about the stares.
“I like to know how that rascal slipped away?”
Chuckling, Hoss replied, “You know Lil’l Joe, Pa. Any chance to get out of boring legal business and he’ll jump at it.”
Ben Cartwright harrumphed, tightening the cinch on his saddle.
He’d come into Virginia City to sign some contracts and collect the mail. He’d meant to go alone, but Joe and Hoss had wheedled their way along.
“Well, he better be back soon or… “
Dropping his reins, Hoss ran across the stable. “Joe!”
Alarmed Ben turned to see his youngest, covered with blood.
“Lil’l Joe, what happened boy?”
Frantic hands ran over him, trying to find the injury. They were pushed away by impatient blooded ones.
“It’s not me. The blood’s, not mine. It’s Becky’s, she’s dead.”
“Hoss go see what’s happened. See if you can find Doc Martin too.”
Leading Joe to a hay bale Ben sat him down. Untying his blanket from its bedroll, he draped it around his son’s trembling shoulders. Kneeling, he placed a hand on Joe’s knee. Under his touch, the pants felt wet with blood. “Son, can you tell me what happened?”
Joe a million miles away, Ben had to repeat the question.
“She’s dead Pa. Just died in my arms.” Joe stared at his hands. “I couldn’t stop the blood.”
The pain in his son’s eyes turned like a knife in Ben’s heart.
“It’s my fault. If I’d hadn’t stopped her, she’d have been safe in the mercantile. Oh God, Pa, it’s my fault!”
Ben turned hearing Hoss run up, along with Paul Martin.
“Ran into the Doc on the corner. It’s all over town, a girl’s been shot outside the mercantile.”
“It’s Becky Clyde Ben, two drunken cowboys shooting off their guns accidentally hit her. She’s dead.” Paul lifted Joe’s head. The blank gaze told him all he needed. “He’s in shock Ben. I’m not surprised. He was right there holding her when she died.” Paul shook his head. “It would have been very quick. The bullet hit her in the neck, straight through her carotid artery.”
The three men looked at each other. Pity filled their souls for the young women and the father who’d lost a child.
“Bring him over to my office. We’ll get something hot and sweet into him. Then you can take him home. It’ll pass soon enough.”
They arrived home in time for dinner. Although Joe had grudgingly drunk the coffee offered by Doctor Martin, he wouldn’t allow them to clean him up before they left. Rejecting their offers of help, Ben and Hoss helplessly watched Joe disappear to his room to wash up.
As he struggled to undo the buttons coated in thick, slippery blood, his fingers began to shake. Trying not to think about whose blood it was he filled the basin. Turning red under his hand’s tiny splashes disturbed the water. As his tears fell Joe scrubbed. His breathing became ragged, his thoughts tormenting him. It had happened again.
Joining Ben and Hoss at the table Joe mumbled, “Sorry, have I kept you waitin’?”
His father’s warm smile reassured him. “No, that’s fine. How are you feeling?”
Reaching out to comfort him, Ben started seeing his hands scoured raw and almost bleeding. “Joe,” he lamented.
“Couldn’t get the blood off.”
“Joe, what happened wasn’t your fault.”
“It was Pa you don’t know… “
“Yes, I do. The only people to blame are those men.”
Joe pushed himself up from the table. His jaw clenched tight. “That’s not true, you don’t understand. Anyway, I’m not hungry.”
Flinging away, he careened out the door.
Seeing his father start to get up, Hoss stopped him. “Hold on Pa. Y’know he needs to work through the problem hisself. Best give him a minute.”
Not his fault. Pa was wrong. It was his fault.
First Julia, then Amy and now Becky. Three lives lost because of him. If he hadn’t stopped her, talked to her, she would have been safe. She wouldn’t have been standing there to have that bullet…
Pacing back and forth failed to relieve the growing knot tightening inside him. A flash of temper sent a fist ramming into a post.
Rubbing split knuckles, he hunched a shoulder. “Maybe.”
“C’mon, you can’t blame yerself fer this. It weren’t yer fault. You were jest standing there.”
Joe turned. The torment in his face shocked Hoss.
“That’s just it, I was there. If I hadn’t of been, she’d still be alive… “
“You don’t know that… “
“Yes, I do!” Joe flung away from Hoss. “It’s my fault she was there. I kept her talking – me, for my selfish reasons.”
He stood hand of hips, hunched shoulders, head ducked; Hoss knew those signs.
“Did you know those yahoos were gonna come firing their guns like idiots? Well did ya? Coz unless you did, I can’t see how you were to blame.”
He risked dropping a hand on Joe’s shoulder, feeling the tension under it.
Joe shook him off. “I hav’ta go somewhere.”
By the time the Clyde ranch came into view, his nerves were raw. Part of him didn’t know why he’d come; another knew precisely why.
Rubin came onto the porch as he rode up.
“Mr Clyde, I came, I came… ”
“You’re welcome son, step down and come in.”
Hovering at the door, Joe waited. Rubin picked up the coffee pot from the stove.
“Sit down lad, have a cup of coffee.”
Seeing Joe’s eyes drift around the room he said, “Ma is… sitting with the child in her room. You’ll excuse her if she don’t come out.”
Joe swallowed. Sliding into the seat offered he glanced at the doors to the bedrooms wondering which one held her coffin.
Pouring the coffee, Rubin told him, “Funeral’s tomorrow.”
“Sir, I wanted to tell you how sorry I am.”
“Thank you, son. I’m grateful you were with her when she passed. It’s comfortin’ to know she had someone she knew by her side.”
Shaking hands gripped the cup for something solid to hang on to. The gratitude from this father he’d betrayed made him feel sick. Unable to contain his guilt, he poured out his confession. “I’m so sorry. I kept her out there with me. If I hadn’t… if I’d only let her go straight away. If I hadn’t kept her talkin’. She wouldn’t have been there. She’d had gone into the mercantile to you… “
A fist slammed the table, Joe jumped, breath catching at Rubin’s face contorted with rage.
“You’ve come here to tell me that if it weren’t fer you, my little girl would be alive now?”
“I’m truly sorry sir… “
“Get out Cartwright! Get out of my house before I forget you’re a guest an’ put a bullet in you! Do you hear me? Get out!”
The crescendo of words slapped him in the face. Stumbling backwards he grabbed the doorframe. Desperate to make amends he offered, “If I could change places with Becky, I would.”
Rubin clutched the sides of the table, knuckles white. “But ya can’t, can ya! Get out now, d’ya hear me? Get out!”
Scrambling to his horse Joe galloped away as if distance could wipe out the words.
What had he expected? For the old man to forgive him? Why should he do that? What right had he even to expect it?
He made no mention to anyone of where he’d been or what had happened. His shame crushed him, keeping him silent.
Ben watched his youngest drift through supper and then slip off to his room with a heavy heart. He’d received a message about the funeral earlier. He prayed it would help Joe find solace.
Arriving at the Clyde’s, they joined the large turnout from the community. Ben wasn’t surprised at the crowd. Rubin was respected, and Becky had been well liked.
The family plot set beyond the house behind a grove of pine trees was a pretty spot. Rubin had arrived in the Washoe with his parents and set down roots around the same time as Ben. His parents were buried in that soil now, along with his first-born son.
The family gathered at the grave site. Ben, Hoss and Joe joined the throng of people.
Supported by her son Mark, Mary Clyde wept throughout the service. When it ended, people moved forward to present their condolences.
On spotting Joe, Rubin’s stoic front dissolved. Breaking away from his family his rigid frame pointed an accusing finger. “What’s he doin’ here? Get him outta here. That boy’s got no right at her funeral. It’s his fault my lil’l girls lying there cold in the dirt.”
“Rubin, please… “
“Your boy’s a jinx Cartwright. Ya, hear that? I’m lettin’ all you fathers out there know! Keep yer girls away from Joe Cartwright iffin you want them to stay alive!”
“That’s enough Rubin! This wasn’t Little Joe’s doing.”
Joe stood pale and silent letting the verbal assault hit him and sink deep. All his fears were being confirmed. But they had to know he was sorry. Straightening up, he stepped past his father’s protective frame.
“Please, Sir I need to tell you… “
Spittle hitting his face cut him off. Large hands wrenched him back behind Ben. Others moved between Rubin and the Cartwrights.
Paul Martin was at Ben’s side. “He’s upset Ben, still grieving. Best take Little Joe home. Give him time to calm down.”
Breaking his burning gaze from Rubin, Ben flung an arm around Joe and jerked his head at Hoss, “C’mon we’re going home.”
“That’s right Cartwright take that jinx away!”
Ben wiped the spit off Joe’s face before putting him on his horse. Joe hadn’t resisted that or being led away.
Concerned at Joe’s reaction, or lack of it, Ben pulled Buck up alongside Cochise. “Rubin was just lashing out. He didn’t mean it.”
“Didn’t he?” His reins trembled under their fierce grip. “I need to be alone.” Peeling Cochise away, Joe set him to a gallop.
Hoss’s shoulder’s slumped watching him ride away. “At least we know where he’s goin’.”
Ben sighed turning Buck towards home. He hoped his son would find the comfort he needed at his mother’s grave.
It wasn’t until late into the night when Joe returned that Ben finally turned down his lamp.
“Joseph this has to stop! You can’t keep blaming yourself for what happened.”
Joe kept his head down. This latest explosion was due to his refusal to accompany Pa to town. Since the funeral, Virginia City had become an uncomfortable place.
Rubin Clyde’s words had spread like wildfire around the burgeoning town. Any gossip was welcome, but any about the wealthy Cartwrights was eaten up by those who had reason to dislike them or were just plain jealous. It was eagerly repeated by the spiteful; happy to pander it as truth. Conversations stopped when Joe walked into rooms. Whispering went on behind his back. Seeing him coming, Mothers steered their daughters across the street. Worse, was the avoidance by people he’d looked on as friends.
Pa just didn’t understand.
“You know that Roy is doing his best to identify those men.” Ben knew Joe was hurting, but he couldn’t let this foolish self-blame continue. “You’re not to blame, and you’re not a jinx. It’s time you stopped wallowing in this guilt… “
In silence, Joe put down his fork, dropped the napkin gripped in his hand and getting up walked to the door.
Incredulous eyes followed him. “Joseph get back here!”
Ben heard the door slam and began to rise.
“Let him go, Pa.”
Ben thumped the table. “Hoss, this has to stop.”
“It’s been harder for him than y’know. People have been talkin’, an’ he asked some gals to the dance and got turned down flat.” Hoss scrunched his napkin and tossed it down. “Not that he told me, I had to find out from Mitch.”
“Because of what Rubin said?”
“Yeah, an’ I reckon some of the hands are needling ‘im.”
“I won’t allow that.”
“Neither will I Pa, ifin’ I catch ‘em. But like I said, Lil’l Joe ain’t talkin’.”
“I can’t believe this jinx rubbish is continuing.”
Hoss pursed his lips, “Well you know folks. Ain’t nothin’ better for ‘em than to find pleasure in the misery of others.”
Ben stared at his plate and drew a breath. He hadn’t noticed anything different when he’d been to Virginia City, but then people may have been a might more careful around him. “Tell me, how bad is it?”
Hoss wasn’t surprised to find his brother already out at the branding pens by the time he got there.
Tying Chubb off he strolled toward the firepit.
In the thick of it, Joe was dragging a roped calf to the fire. Fighting him the whole way, the calf twist and turned. Suddenly the rope snapped. Free of restraint, it careened toward the men knocking one over and scattering the others. Hoss broke into a run when the man fell into the fire and rolled out of it, howling.
Hoss dropped to his knee. “Ya okay, Tex?”
“Yeah, no thanks to Jinx! Knew it weren’t safe t’be around him!”
Joe, who’d dismounted and rushed up to help, stopped short.
Hoss stiffened. “Wha’ did ya say?”
“Him – he’s a darn jinx. I tell ya we shouldn’t hav’ta work with him.”
“You shut yer mouth y’hear.”
Tex smirked, looking right at Joe, “You fightin’ Jinx’s battles fer him?”
The lithe figure of his younger brother flew passed punching Tex on the jaw. Startled, Hoss grabbed him, hauling him back.
“Joe, stop it! Don’t take no notice, he’s jest a loud mouth.”
Wrenching free Joe swung onto Cochise. Watching the flash of black of white ride away, Hoss turned back to confront Tex.
Mashing his fist into the man’s shirt, he brought him face to face. “You talk about my brother like that again an’ you’ll answer to me, got that?”
Hoss meant business, Tex backed down, “Sure Hoss, sure.”
Releasing him, Hoss retrieved Joe’s abandoned rope running a finger over the frayed material. Looking up, he faced a group of silent, apprehensive, grim-faced men. They really did believe in this jinx stuff. He held up the broken end.
“The rope jest wore through that’s all. Could’ve happened to any of us.”
Hoss knew he should keep working, but his worry for Joe won out. Leaving the men to carry on he mounted Chubb.
Behind him, Tex spat on the ground. His bravado returned at Hoss’ departure,
“Still say the kids a jinx an’ we shouldn’t hav’ta work with him. I’m headin’ fer town, who’s with me?”
Hoss found his brother at the lake sitting on a large boulder tossing stones into the deep blue water.
“Y’gonna sit here all day?” he asked, lowering himself next to him.
“Thought I might get some peace and quiet here.”
Cutting a sideways look at the snarky tone, Hoss chose to ignore it. “The rope had frayed, it would have busted soon enough.”
Joe fiddled with a stone letting this information sink in. Sending it spinning out over the lake he snapped, “I should’ve checked it.”
Pushing up he turned to climb down. Hoss snagged his arm.
“It were jest an accident. Could’ve happened to any of us.”
“But it didn’t, did it? It was my rope. I didn’t check it. You would’ve checked yours, Adam would’ve. It was me who didn’t.”
Shaking off his brother Joe jumped down, heading back towards Cochise. Hoss followed. He wasn’t about to let Joe walk away.
Spinning him around Hoss gave him a shake. “Y’know Pa’s right. This wallowin’ has gotta stop. You should’ve checked the rope. Is that what you wanna hear? But ya didn’t, you made a mistake. You gonna let that rule the rest of yer life too? Becky dying is terrible, I know that. But you ain’t got no call to keep blamin’ yerself.”
“Haven’t I?” Hoss heard the break in the voice. “What about the others? Julia, Amy and now Becky. They’re right, I am a jinx.”
Hoss pulled up short, frowning at his brother’s words. “Joe, what are you talkin’ about? You weren’t to blame for Julia or Amy.” Hoss bent so he could see Joe’s averted face. The bleakness there frightened him. “You can’t carry that kind of weight around on yer shoulders boy.”
“She died right there in my arms. I felt her blood drain away. I saw her eyes… “
Hoss’ beefy hand encircled his brother’s neck, hooking him into his chest. Tears pricked the big man’s eyes at his brother’s suffering.
“There ain’t no meaning to it an’ sometimes it’s hard to understand, but it weren’t yer fault. That’s all you gotta remember, it weren’t yer fault.”
Climbing off the stage the man dressed in black stretched to unkink his back. Stagecoach travel was his least favorite mode of transportation. Catching his bag, he decided to wash the dirt from his throat before hiring a horse and heading home.
He wasn’t hopeful of finding any of his family in town. His business having concluded early, he’d arrived back two days before he was expected.
Reaching the batwing doors of the saloon, he halted at the words that hit him.
“Little Joe Cartwright? Nah, the only nickname that kid should have is JINX Cartwright!”
Laughter followed, and the loud voice continued, “I tell ya he’s that biggest jinx that ever was. Never mind the gals ain’t safe around him, an’ we all know that’s a fact. He’s risky fer anyone to be around. I can vouch fer that!”
The laughter petered out at the man in black’s entrance. Seeing the men around him move away Tex turned and looked into Adam Cartwright’s cold eyes.
Adam leaned on the bar. “Go on Tex, you were sayin’.”
Tex swallowed. Adam this nonchalant was dangerous.
“It were jest a joke, Adam.”
“I don’t care for jokes like that, especially about my brothers.”
The eyes never wavered, boring into him, challenging, daring him even. Tex felt the sweat break out on his brow.
“Didn’t mean nothin’.”
“Good. Now shouldn’t you get back to the ranch?”
Relieved to still have a job Tex grabbed his hat and scurried out the door. Followed by the other members of the Ponderosa crew.
Adam scanned the room seeing men hastily turn their backs. What’d been going on while he was away?
“You’re saying everyone thinks Little Joe’s a jinx?”
“Yeah, an’ he seems to believe it too. Got it into his head that coz Julia and Amy died, he’s to blame for them an’ Becky.”
The look on Adam’s face told Ben and Hoss his opinion on that kind of thinking.
Ben couldn’t resist rising to Joe’s defense. “I know it’s foolish, but we have to remember Little Joe’s only just eighteen. This sort of thing is harder for him to deal with. He’s still got a lot of growing to do.”
“I think he grew up quite enough thanks to Julia.”
Ben flashed his eldest a dark look. “We need to remember what happened to Julia and then Amy so soon after – well, it’s hard enough to lose someone you love, but to lose two and at his age.”
Adam and Hoss held their peace seeing their father’s eyes wander to his desk and the portraits sitting there. Three wives all loved, all lost. He understood that kind of pain.
Ben dragged his mind back to their discussion. “Then Becky is killed when he’s talking with her. No wonder he’s feeling shaken.”
Adam crossed his arms. “Well, Joe’s a tough kid he’ll get over it. What I don’t understand is why anyone else believes it?”
“They don’t, not really. It’s vindictive gossip. It’ll be forgotten soon enough.” Ben thoughts turned to the father who’d lost so much. “Rubin was upset and angry, looking for someone to blame. Little Joe gave him an easy target. I know he’ll come around.”
Adam gave Hoss his trust little brother look, before asking. “What about Tex?”
“He can pack his things. I won’t have a hand spreading that poison.”
“Wait a minute Pa. It might be best to let that go. We don’t wanna give him a reason to continue spreading that stuff around town. ‘Sides, long as he’s here I’ll keep him so busy he won’t have the energy to talk.”
The two men smiled at Hoss’ determined face.
“All right, he can stay, only keep him away from Little Joe. It’s going to take time, but I think you’re right Adam, he will get over this. With our help.”
Ben draped the coat around Joe’s shoulders. “Nights are still pretty chilly, you don’t wanna be sitting out here in just your shirt for too long.”
Encouraged by the gleam of the smile he caught in the half-light, Ben sank down on the porch step. “I think I owe you an apology.”
“For not taking your loss of Julia and Amy more seriously. I’m afraid I fell into the trap of thinking that being young, you’d get over the loss quicker. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.” Joe shifted under his coat but stayed silent. Ben took that as his cue. “Joe, you can’t torture yourself like this. Losing people is one thing but blaming yourself for their loss is another.”
“If I hadn’t been with Julia, Millain wouldn’t have felt jilted. He wouldn’t have killed her. It’s the same with Amy. If I’d just got her out of the barn, seen she was safe instead of fightin’ Jessup.”
Strong hands rubbed comforting circles on his son’s back.
“Joe, sometimes things happen that we have no control over. When I met Inger, I could have stayed with her in Illinois. We could have been happy there. But I wanted to continue west, to find my dream. If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have met those Indians, and she wouldn’t have been killed. Am I to blame for that?”
Ben’s hand gripped Joe’s shoulder, holding him still and silent. “And your mother, when she asked me for that thoroughbred. Oh Joe, how she wanted that animal. Your mother was a fine horsewoman, but that horse was so powerful. Still, I let her have it, and she loved riding him.”
“I remember. Ma riding the horse and me in front.”
“You do? You were so young, I’m surprised… yes, she took you up but only to trot around the yard. It would’ve been far too dangerous for her to take you out riding.”
Joe shifted to look at his father. He didn’t know.
Joe hadn’t many memories of his mother being so young when she died. But his most vivid were on that horse. He recalled how he urged her on, “Faster mama, faster!”. He felt like he was flying as they raced along. He loved it; the power, the speed. His squeals of delight mingling with the music of her laugh.
Well, if Pa didn’t know, he’d keep his mother’s secret.
“Should I have let her have that horse? If I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have fallen, and she wouldn’t have died. Should I do what you’re doing and blame myself?”
“No Pa, of course not!” Joe snapped his mouth shut on his anger. Taking a breath, he steadied his thoughts. “I guess you may be right. At least for Julia and Amy, but it’s different with Becky. I kept her outside Pa, no one else.”
“Did you know the window of the mercantile was shot out? Some of the bullets went into the store too. There’s no way of knowing that if Becky had been inside, she might still have been hit.”
“You mean it?”
The childish hope in the voice moved Ben closer encircling his son with his arm.
“I wouldn’t lie to you.”
They sat still and silent for a few moments. Then Joe leaned into Ben resting his head on his shoulder.
Ben smiled in the dark and tightened his hug.
“Lookee here boys here comes Jinx, look out.”
“Shut up Tex, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with Lil’l Joe an’ we’re all getting’ sick of yer big mouth.”
Joe pulled Cochise to a stop. “Everythin’ okay here Bill?”
“Yeah Little Joe, we’ve jest got a few more to finish off an’ then we’re done.”
Joe’s eyes flicked over the men. Seeing the sullen Tex, he asked, “No problems?”
Bill glanced across at Tex and confirmed, “No problems.”
He rode off, a smile spreading across his face. No one on the ranch had mentioned he was a jinx in days, and he had a feeling that no one would.
For himself, the knot in his chest had eased. He’d let go of his guilt. There were still times when a wave of doubt hit him, but he’d remember Pas words and ride it out. “Dealing with guilt, whether real or imagined, is part of life. A hard part, but still a part.”
His trips to Virginia City had got easier. The whispering had died away. Church on Sunday had been the hardest. Seeing the Clydes without Becky was a raw wound and Rubin had ignored them all. It hurt Joe more for his family’s sake than himself. But he had to accept there was nothing he could do about it.
The mirror reflected a person Joe didn’t recognize. He’d hadn’t been this nervous attending a dance since he’d escorted his first girl at fourteen. Breathing deep to steady his jittery heart he fumbled with his string tie, exasperated to find himself all fingers and thumbs.
“Need a lil’l help there?”
Joe rolled his eyes, the last thing he needed was his older brothers teasing him. Still, he turned to Hoss allowing him access to the offending article.
Hoss neatly tied the bow and then surprised him by saying, “Don’t cha worry none, it’ll be fine.”
Joe’s smile held a hint of sheepishness for thinking the worst. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, after all, we can’t have a Cartwright turnin’ up at the dance looking like a regular ragamuffin, can we?”
Joe laughed, Hoss looked pleased. They’d all noticed Joe becoming edgier as the dance approached. For once, the family weren’t being made to suffer for his tetchiness; which worried Hoss. His laughter calmed them both.
Everything was going well except, Ben noticed, Little Joe hadn’t asked one young lady to dance. He’d spent the evening with either his family or his male friends. When diminutive Florence Wallace stomped over and demanded in her high-pitched voice, “Little Joe, if you don’t ask me to dance right now, I swear I’m gonna burst.” He could have kissed her.
Laughter braking the ice Joe was soon enjoying himself with the young ladies. If the ugly word that had plagued him was muttered by anyone, no one heard it.
Refilling his punch glass, Joe turned and came face to face with Mark Clyde, Hoss at his side. Mark and Hoss had been friends until… Joe swallowed.
“I jest wanted to tell ya, I don’t hold nothin’ ‘gainst yer fer what happened.”
Stunned, Joe took the hand stuck out to him. Overwhelmed, he choked, “Thanks.”
In church the next day he risked a glance over at the Clydes. Catching his eye Mary gave him a smile. Heart lurching, he fought back the tears.
Life was hard. Pain didn’t end quickly. Sometimes it called for patience. No act of bravado could mend it in an instant. The hurt needed time to flow over it, erasing it, like a river wearing down a stone.
An impulsive nature made this a hard lesson for Joe to accept. But when he felt the warm embrace of his father or the playful punches of his brothers, he knew he could. Their strength was his strength. He would be fine.
***** End *****