Plain Jane (by Dodo)

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Summary: Two years have passed since Alice was murdered. Joe remains convinced he will never find happiness again. But fate decides otherwise…..

Rated: T  Word Count:  38983

 

                                                                       Plain Jane

 

Chapter 1:

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Confucius

***

A slender, shapely formed woman in her early thirties pushed herself off the small bench that stood on the busy Virginia City sidewalk outside the Wells Fargo Office; her two small cases that carried her entire belongings by her side.

She wore a slightly faded and obviously well worn long-skirted suit in grey with matching cloak and a dark grey bonnet that was tied tight under her chin. Stray wisps of chestnut coloured hair fell over her cheek and as the late afternoon sun dipped down onto the western horizon she raised her arm, shading her eyes as she stepped forward and gazed expectantly into the distance.

The weekly stage heading east was late and Jane Dryburn sighed heavily having been warned the heavy floods caused by a sudden thaw high in the Sierras may have well caused the stage to be delayed, even postponed. Yet she’d sat patiently for hours, waiting, hoping it would arrive. But as the sun made its way further down, soon hidden by the roof tops of the buildings on the opposite side of the main thoroughfare, Jane finally realised she was going to be disappointed.

Having arrived earlier that day after the long haul from San Francisco with her meagre possessions, she’d expected to only stay for a few hours in Virginia City before catching the connecting stage to St Louis and then on to New York. But the thought it would probably now be a week at least before she’d be able to continue on her journey caused Jane to become concerned at her financial position. For she was on a tight budget and having this unexpected delay possibly bite hard into her savings made her frown with concern. Still, only a week would be acceptable Jane mused as she glanced towards the ticket clerk who popped his head round the door of the office.

Sam Richards gave his only customer a sympathetic smile as he knew she’d been waiting for a considerable amount of time. “Sorry Miss,” he stated apologetically. “I’ve just had a wire from Placerville. The stage will definitely be unable to make it through. The old bridge over the Truckee River has been washed away and it could be weeks before it’s repaired so it looks like you’ll have to make yourself at home in Virginia City for quite a while.”

Jane then sank back onto the seat, her crestfallen expression more than evident to Sam who felt a surge of pity at her situation. “You got anyone you know in these parts who you can stay with?”

Jane shook her head. “No. I’m just passing through.”

Sam gave a nod and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well, I can recommend Widow Hawkins boarding house,” he suggested, wishing to assist as much as he could. “It’s just the right place for a spinster lady such as you to settle into for a few weeks.”

Why would he assume she was a spinster? Jane looked down. Of course! The absence of her wedding ring over the years had allowed the whitened skin to darken and it looked as if she’d never worn a band. “Thank you,” she smiled with gratitude but feeling weary did not bother to correct his mistake. She gave a sad sigh. Today would have been such a special day she reflected then looked back towards Sam. “Which way is the boarding house?”

The clerk pointed to her right. “Just follow the road then turn left at the end,” he instructed as he closed the door to his office behind him and turned a key in the lock; his work finished for the day. “The widow’s got a big sign on the porch. You can’t miss it.”

Jane gave Sam a grateful nod and as he headed towards the nearest saloon for a well earned glass of beer, she tentatively poured out the contents of her purse onto her lap.

She’d counted the number of dollar bills and coins only an hour before, but the hope that maybe she’d made a mistake with her calculations forced Jane to check again. But no. The amount that represented all her wealth was unchanged, and with each dollar accounted for there was certainly not enough left over to keep her in board and lodgings over several weeks if that’s what waiting for the next stage would involve.

Jane could hear her stomach rumble and as she looked across the street she eyed a small café. Having spent the last few hours sitting and waiting, not daring to leave her post in case the stage arrived and she’d miss it, Jane suddenly realised just how hungry and thirsty she was. So deciding she could just about afford to treat herself to a refreshing coffee and snack before finding the suggested accommodation she returned the monies to her purse then picked up her bags and began to make her way to the opposite side of the road.

Even so late in the day it was still alive and busy with wagons and horse-back traffic, and as she walked across, still thinking about her unscheduled delay, Jane’s mind was certainly not on where she was going. Suddenly a wagon pulled by two white faced horses came fast towards her and she seemed to freeze in her tracks, dropping her bags in a panic and making the green jacketed driver swerve and frantically pull up the team in a cloud of dust inches from where she stood.

As the air cleared Jane could see him staring at her, his face like thunder.

“What’s the matter with you?” he yelled, jumping down and standing in front of her with his eyes blazing dark and angrily as he rubbed his upper arm. “Don’t you know to look where you’re going?”

Jane’s eyes widened as she stared over surprised and shocked at the gruff and abrupt tone of the stranger’s voice and at any other time she would have stood her ground and reacted to his un-gentlemanlike manner. But before she had the chance he was gone, just giving her a menacing stare as he turned heel and led his horses and wagon away, muttering under his breath about damn fool females.

Jane hurriedly picked up her bags and rushed over towards the safety of the sidewalk; justifiably relieved she didn’t have to bear the butt of the stranger’s bad temper every day. Then entering the cafe she made her way to an empty table within an alcove at the back and sat down, removing her bonnet and cape and placing them on an empty chair by her side.

A short and stoutly built elderly woman, jolly looking with her grey hair tied tight in a bun came forward and took her order. Then minutes later she returned, placing a cup of coffee and a plate of freshly made sandwiches in front of Jane and leaving her alone to think and ponder.

Jane’s thoughts lingered on the man who’d just shouted at her in such a discourteous manner. It had been a brief and unpleasant encounter but even though his face was hidden under a few days growth of stubble that darkened his jaw she could still feel her heart pounding hard. For there was something about him that had caused tingling sensations to run up and down her spine; sensations she’d only experienced once before and never expected to feel again.

Mr Rude she named the stranger with a silent cynical chuckle as she wondered if he would have been so bad tempered with her if she were more attractive or more appealing to the eye. Maybe then he would have apologised? Offered to carry her bags to the side of the road? Insisted on buying her a coffee?

Jane believed and knew it to be so for she’d long realised she could never be classed as beautiful or even particularly pretty. Her nose was too straight, her eyes too narrow and her mouth too large. And though a smile could transform her ordinary look into one of pleasing delight she accepted she had the type of face that would normally blend into the background; neither striking nor memorable. Only one man had ever convinced her otherwise and in reaction to her thoughts of him a quiet moan of sadness escaped from her lips as she blinked hard to force back wetness behind her eyes.

No she wouldn’t have expected Mr Rude to give her a second glance, Jane mused with a deep sigh as she wiped away a stray tear, accepting she was and would always be just a plain Jane. But she could always dream.

**********

Life at times had been hard for Jane. An only child, she was brought up in San Francisco by her unmarried mother and finally orphaned at the age of 13. Taken in by an unloving and uncaring uncle who looked down on the plain faced illegitimate daughter of his dead sister, Jane was expected to earn her keep by working as an unpaid maid and dogsbody for him and his family. Then when she turned 17 she was informed by her uncle that if she wanted to continue living under his roof she should accept the dollar offered by his drunken friends who sought out female companionship at night; cruelly laughing as he told her these men wouldn’t care what she looked like.

Jane had been horror-struck at what was implied she should become. So without hesitation she immediately ran away from the desperate life that had been suggested to her; eventually finding a position of cook and cleaner within a small boarding house on the edge of the city.

And it was while there Jane was eventually introduced to Thomas Dryburn, a serious natured man in his early twenties who’d lost all his family in a cholera epidemic years before; the same epidemic that had claimed Jane’s mother. From the moment she laid eyes on him a never before felt tingling sensation ran up and down Jane’s back as she felt an instant attraction towards the blond haired handsome young man.

 

And as Tom stared into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen, noticed Jane’s heart-melting smile and her friendly face, splattered with freckles across her nose, Tom felt a mutual feeling of attraction towards Jane. In fact he couldn’t take his eyes off her and within a short while he was also captivated by Jane’s inner qualities; kindness, generosity of spirit and consideration for others and soon realised she was everything he’d ever dreamed of in a woman and so proposed within the week.

“But why would you want to marry me?” Jane had asked in amazement, hardly able to believe what she was hearing from this man who’d stolen her heart.

“Because I love you and you’re the most beautiful woman in the world,” Tom had answered sincerely as he held her in his arms. “And anyone who can’t see it for themselves must be blind.” And as Jane saw adoration and admiration reflected back towards her for the first time ever, she knew in that instant life for her would never be the same again.

So with her miserable past now behind her Jane happily accepted Tom’s hand in marriage; settling down contented in a small rented house close to the California City Bank where Tom worked. He was well educated and books soon cluttered their home as he encouraged his wife to read anything and everything; Jane’s curiosity to find out about the world beyond the city boundaries of San Francisco well matched and encouraged by her husband who would continually tell her one day soon they would make a journey together to the country he’d always dreamed of visiting…Italy!

And so as the year went by they saved what they could and made plans for their dream trip; Tom’s enthusiasm and excitement firing Jane’s imagination as she too yearned to visit and explore. Then she became pregnant.

Jane worried briefly that her husband would become resentful and aggrieved about the unplanned arrival that would thwart his plans to travel. But Tom was both ecstatically overjoyed and beside himself with delight at the news. Their trip would just have to be postponed for a while he told Jane without bitterness, then pampered and lavished all his attention on his wife as her stomach swelled and the baby grew inside her; the glow of impending motherhood shining from her face.

However Jane’s happiness was to be short lived. There was an attempted robbery at the bank and as fate would have it Tom was the only cashier on duty that day and when he refused to hand over the safe keys to the gang of three they shot him, leaving him for dead as they escaped the scene empty handed. Jane had heard the shot and screams as she walked from her home to join her husband for lunch and rushed in only to find Tom lying in a pool of blood, the rattle of death in his lungs. She’d gently rested his head on her lap and stroked his hair as they awaited a doctor to arrive and weakly he’d laid his hand on her stomach and felt his child move within her. But then it was soon apparent there was no life left in his eyes as Tom stared unseeing into Jane’s face while tears streamed down over her cheeks.

Her husband’s funeral was arranged for the next day; the trauma and shock proving too much for Jane as she screamed hysterically; inconsolable and heart-broken. She was seven months into her pregnancy and after going into premature labour was rushed to the local hospital where she was delivered of a beautiful but still-born baby girl; the emotional shock of losing both her husband and child so unexpectedly sending Jane into a deep spiral of mental anguish and depression.

She wouldn’t eat, stared into space just hugging her knees and rocking, back and forth, hour after hour, day after day. Hospital staff despaired of her, fearing she’d eventually harm herself, so sent her on to the local asylum for her own safety. But with no relatives who could support or claim her and thought insane, Jane was soon forgotten in the labyrinth of corridors and single cells and left to endure a gruelling and miserable existence for months.

However she eventually recovered her mind, coming to terms with her loss and never giving up the hope she’d one day be released; refusing to let her miserable surroundings overwhelm her. And so when a newly arrived doctor at the asylum recognised Jane shouldn’t still be held in confinement and declared her sane, she was discharged.

But surviving outside the sheltered walls of the sanatorium was a struggle as Jane was now alone, with no money, no home and no future. She was desperate and to thwart off starvation had to reluctantly sell her wedding ring just to buy enough food to sustain her in those first few days of freedom as she roamed the streets, day and night.

One morning she found herself unhappily drawn to the bank that was the scene of her husband’s murder and stood outside, just looking blankly through the door and it was then lady luck finally smiled on Jane. For as she was about to turn and leave Alfred Tyler, the manager of the bank, arrived for work and recognised the pale, thin and gaunt looking young woman as the wife of the teller who’d sacrificed his life. He asked about her circumstances and was horrified to hear of her ordeal over the past months and feeling guilty as he’d forgotten all about her, on the spur of the moment offered Jane employment as a housekeeper to his elderly retired parents which she accepted gratefully without hesitation.

Jane soon settled down to a hard working though reasonably comfortable existence; forcing out all thoughts of self-pity for her tragic past and leaving the memory of her months amongst the certified mad well behind her. And as the years passed she never found another who stirred in her feelings like those she’d had for Tom, so she concentrated all her efforts instead to the needs of the ageing old couple who’d welcomed her into their home; though still continuing to dream of visiting the distant shores of Europe one day in honour of her husband’s memory.

Then one day to her dismay and sadness Mrs Tyler died of a sudden stroke leaving Mr Tyler distraught. He and his wife had not been apart for a single day in the whole of their 55 years of married bliss, and so it was no great surprise to Jane when he died a few months later of a broken heart.

The attorney was sympathetic but unwavering. The house was to be sold and Jane would have to leave the only home she’d known for the past twelve years. But to her utter surprise she was informed Mr Tyler had left her a small legacy. Not a fortune, but it was at this point Jane reviewed her situation. She had no family and no responsibilities but enough now to get her across to the east coast. Then with her budget allowing her the luxury of second class travel on a passenger clipper ship and enough to get her to Italy and back, she made the decision to fulfil her darling Tom’s life long dream.

But now as she silently reflected on her plans, Jane knew staying so long in Virginia City could prove to be expensive…far too expensive…and she could see her trip evaporating in front of her for the foreseeable future. Without realising it silent tears of disappointment fell over her cheeks and into her untouched and now cold coffee when suddenly a shadow appeared at Jane’s side and another hot and steaming cup was placed in front of her.

She looked up at the wrinkled and friendly face of Martha Boyce, the elderly widowed owner of the café who’d taken her initial order. “You were miles away,” Martha said, giving over a kindly smile. “Your drink has gone cold and you haven’t touched your food.”

Jane wiped away the tears with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry…” she started, taking out her purse and opening it for another coin.

“It’s okay, coffee is on the house,” Martha insisted as she gave her a concerned stare. “But I can see you’re upset. Anything I can do to help?”

“That’s very kind of you,” acknowledged Jane as she indicated to join her on an empty chair by her side. “My name’s Jane… Jane Dryburn. I arrived from San Francisco today on the stage.”

“Martha Boyce,” replied the older woman, quickly checking her other customers before sitting down. “You’re travelling on your own then Jane?” she asked as she noticed the absence of a wedding ring on the young woman’s third finger.

Jane nodded as she took a bite of her sandwich. “I was supposed to catch the connecting stage east but it’s been delayed indefinitely and to be honest I can’t really afford to be stranded in Virginia City for so long.”

Martha shook her head sorrowfully. “I’d heard the old Truckee Bridge was down. I can see your dilemma. So, what are you going to do?”

Jane’s face sagged unhappily as she finished her mouthful of bread and ham then sipped at her coffee. “I’m not sure Martha. I’ll have to book into a boarding house but I need every penny I’ve budgeted for to get me to New York and beyond.”

Martha nodded sympathetically and gave her a thorough glance as Jane continued to eat her way through her tasty snack. She was a keen judge of people and even at first sight Martha liked and trusted this plain faced woman whose calloused hands betrayed the fact she obviously knew the meaning of hard work.

“So how come you’ve ended up going to New York?” Martha asked, her curiosity aroused as Jane wiped her mouth with a serviette and pushed the now empty plate aside.

“I’d been working as a housekeeper for several years to an elderly couple in San Francisco, but they both died a short while ago. I received a small inheritance and decided to travel to Europe. But it looks like the plan may have to go on hold now unless I can increase my finances.”

Suddenly Martha snapped her fingers and shuffled over to the window where a small white card had been secured. “This position has been advertised for over a week and may be just the answer to your problem,” she suggested, passing it over to Jane who looked down and started to read aloud.

WANTED URGENTLY

Housekeeper and cook. Good rate of pay and free board and lodging thrown in. Required to start immediately for a minimum term of two months…may be extended.

Please contact Ben Cartwright…The Ponderosa Ranch

Jane gave an excited nod. “This sounds ideal and would fit in perfectly until I continue on my journey. But do you think Mr Cartwright’s wife would consider a stranger in town taking the position?”

Martha shook her head. “Oh good heavens Jane there isn’t a Mrs Cartwright,” she explained. “Poor Marie died well over thirty years ago. No, there’s just Ben and Little Joe who you’d need to keep house for.”

Jane raised her eyebrows in puzzlement. “Little Joe? There’s a child to look after?”

Martha gave a chuckle. “Not any more though it doesn’t seem possible the years have gone so quickly,” she answered thoughtfully. “Little Joe is Ben’s youngest but is in his thirties now. It was his nickname years ago and he doesn’t mind me calling him it though he doesn’t usually tolerate it from any one else…except his kin,” she reflected with a smile.

Jane then drew a cautious breath. “I don’t mean to sound too inquisitive Martha but could you tell me why Mr Cartwright needs a housekeeper so quickly?”

Settling down Martha gave a soft smile, obviously enjoying the chance to exchange gossip with her new found friend. “Ben’s had Hop Sing as housekeeper for years but he’s not getting any younger and Ben insisted he take a long break. He’s even paid for him to go visit his relatives in China; maybe see them for the last time.”

“That was very generous of him!” Jane exclaimed.

Martha nodded. “That’s Ben all over,” she stated with pride as she went on to describe her old friend. “There isn’t a kinder, fairer or more respected man in the state! Why, from what I’ve heard it was Hop Sing who insisted Ben employ someone while he’s gone as he couldn’t bear to think they wouldn’t be well cared for. Though in truth I reckon he didn’t like the thought of what state the house would be in when he returns if Ben didn’t!”

Jane chuckled. “Makes you wonder who’s in charge. The employer or employee?” she laughed. “But if Mr Cartwright is such a nice man, why hasn’t the position been filled already?”

Martha leaned back in her chair. “When Ben brought the card in he asked me to vet any applicants as we’ve known each other a long time and he trusts my judgement. And there’s been quite a lot of interest. But every one of those who’ve applied have been flighty young women with no sense in their heads and not one I would call suitable or reliable.”

Jane gave a nervous gulp. “Do you think I’d suit?”

Martha gave her a reassuring smile. “I can see you don’t look as though you’re afraid of getting your hands dirty. I think you’ll be the perfect choice.”

“I must admit I’m sorely tempted,” admitted Jane excitedly. “But I have no way of giving Mr Cartwright any references as I don’t know anyone in Virginia City.”

“You do now…me!” replied Martha with a laugh. “Don’t you worry. Ben said he’d call in before he went to the Cattlemen’s Association meeting this evening and I’ll vouch for you then.”

Jane’s eyes flashed with gratitude. “Thank you so much. But do you really think I’d get on with Mr Cartwright?”

Martha gave a slight nod but shuffled a little uneasily in her seat. “You’ll never meet a more considerate employer than Ben Cartwright. He’s a true gentleman and will probably welcome you in more like an honoured guest than his housekeeper. But…” Martha paused and there was silence for a moment.

“But?” Jane queried.

“I’ll be honest with you Jane. There’s…there’s something I need to tell you…about Little Joe.” Martha looked through the window for a moment as if wondering if she should go on before uttering a big sigh. “Heaven knows I love that boy,” she admitted as she continued. “Seen him grow from a baby to a man and I don’t like speaking ill of him. However….” Martha lifted a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her eyes that unexpectedly started to water.

Jane gently placed her hand on Martha’s arm. “Are you okay?”

The older woman nodded. “You may find Joe a touch distant and abrupt with you at times Jane; not at all like his Pa. But don’t take offence. He’s like that with most folk these days. Such a change in personality from the Little Joe of a few years ago. He was different then…so very different.”

Jane widened her eyes. “He was? Then what changed him?”

Martha’s already crumpled face collapsed still further and a single tear began to trickle down over her cheek. “It all started about four years ago. Ben’s middle son Hoss died. Unexpected and sudden…seems his heart gave out on him. Joe and his brother were real close, especially after their elder brother Adam left home years before. It took a long time for Joe and Ben to come to terms with their loss.”

Martha dabbed the tear away then continued. “Both Ben and Joe hoped Adam would come home after they let him know about Hoss, but though he wrote them and was deeply shocked and upset, he never did which worries Ben something awful, though he tries to hide it from Joe.”

Martha paused for a moment as if trying to find the right words. She gave a nervous cough and then continued. “Anyhow, life seemed to get back to a degree of normality and then Joe met Alice Harper. She was a shy, gentle, beautiful young woman and the best thing that could have happened to Joe. They fell in love and were married. It was the wedding of the year in these parts,” Martha added with the faintest of smiles on her face as the memory of that special day was recalled.

“You couldn’t have wished to meet a happier couple and I’ve never seen such an elated or proud man as Little Joe when he came rushing in here a few months later. It was like the 4th of July and Founder’s Day celebrations rolled into one as he swung me round and round, all the time shouting and laughing…I’m gonna be a father Martha! Little Joe’s gonna be a father!”A loud sniff was suddenly heard then Martha blew her nose noisily. Jane gently took hold of her hand and gave her a reassuring squeeze. “Are you sure you want to continue?” she asked quietly.

Martha gave her a watery smile and nodded. “Sorry Jane…but it still breaks my heart to think of it,” she admitted, appreciating the warmth of concern that flooded in Jane’s eyes. “Anyhow, a few weeks later it happened. A gang of men attacked Alice in her own home…she was murdered.”

Jane gave a gasp of horror.

“Not only was she killed, the house was burnt down to a cinder. There was nothing left. Nothing at all…except…” Martha dabbed her eyes again.

“Except?”

“They found her ring in the charred remains…Alice’s wedding ring. It’s all Joe had to cling to that was hers and he’s worn it round his neck on a chain ever since. There’s nothing in the world that means more to him and he vowed he’ll never take it off till the day he dies. Such is the love he had for his wife.”

“How sad,” whispered Jane, feeling a lump in her throat, and then another question came to her. “Did the law manage to find Alice’s killers?”

 

Leaning forward in her chair Martha’s kindly face suddenly hardened. “No Jane…the law didn’t,” she stated slowly and emphatically. “But Little Joe did.”

Jane gave a shudder as Martha eased back and continued. “He used to be so fun loving, happy-go-lucky. His eyes always had a twinkle of mischief lurking in them. But afterwards he took to drink something fierce, and if it wasn’t for Ben I don’t think he’d be with us now. And even after two years he’s still embittered and I don’t believe I’ve seen a genuine smile on his face since. He won’t be the easiest of men to look after.”

Martha paused for a moment. “So Jane, now that you know what you’ll have to deal with, are you still keen?”

Fingering the card in her hand Jane gazed down and re-read the advertisement. Her heart stirred with sympathy and pity for the man who’d lost his wife and child in such tragic circumstances; acknowledging it may be a difficult time keeping house for him. But it was only for a few weeks and then she’d be gone, back on course to complete her odyssey. Taking a deep breath she gave a nod. “Yes, I’m keen Martha. After all, what have I got to lose?”

**********

While waiting for Ben to arrive Martha quickly traced over what Jane would be expected to do on the Ponderosa then as customers entered the cafe she excused herself and went to tend to them, leaving Jane alone again. Rising from her seat she eased out the stiffness in her back as she walked over to the window then instantly made out a recognisable figure on the opposite side of the street.

Unable to tear her gaze away Jane stared over as Mr Rude, still wearing his green jacket but now bare headed loaded supplies onto the back of a wagon. He paused for a moment, running his fingers through his thick wavy brown hair that was flecked with grey and hung long over his collar. Then rubbing his shoulder he winced slightly in obvious discomfort before taking a deep breath and continuing with his task; oblivious to his audience of one as Jane felt once again long forgotten sensations flutter along her spine.

Eventually the wagon was filled to capacity and after picking up his Stetson Mr Rude planted it firmly on his head then disappeared inside the mercantile for a few moments, soon appearing again and making his way down the street. And as her heart continued to pound with a fierce rapid beat Jane followed him with her eyes until he vanished from sight after pushing through the swing doors of a noisy saloon.

Why did this stranger affect her so? Jane frowned perplexed, feeling a rush of pity for his wife who would probably be waiting at home with dinner cooked and spoiling before he returned with too much liquor in his belly. Yes, Jane certainly felt sympathy for her, but for some inexplicable reason, she also felt a sharp stab of envy.

Suddenly the door of the café opened and a tall, broad backed man walked in, smiling widely towards Martha as he took off his hat in a gentlemanly gesture. A wealth of snow coloured hair covered his head and his face was browned and weathered from years of working outdoors. Pushing all thoughts of Mr Rude from her mind, Jane viewed the newcomer with interest for even though he was probably in his late sixties he was still a remarkably handsome man for his age.

“Hello Ben!” greeted Martha warmly as she gave him a friendly hug. “It’s lovely to see you.”

“Hello my dear. Any luck finding us a housekeeper?” Ben asked hopefully and then he began to chuckle. “I’m afraid Joe’s cooking is not something I can stomach for much longer though I haven’t the heart to tell him!”

Martha nodded and pointed over towards Jane who’d returned to her table. “Ben, may I introduce Miss Jane Dryburn. She’s just arrived in Virginia City and needs to find work for several weeks before she moves on. But I can vouch for her and she’s just who you need.”

Ben walked over and Jane happily accepted the firm handshake that was offered towards her. “Miss Dryburn…,” he started, noting that although her features were not striking in appearance, her smile showed sincerity and her blue eyes flashed genuine warmth in her gaze. He glanced down at her hand as he felt her roughened fingers. This was definitely a woman who knew about hard work and wasn’t afraid of it, Ben mused, liking her immediately and it showed in his greeting. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to Virginia City.”

“Thank you Mr Cartwright. But please…call me Jane.”

“Very well Jane. Has Martha told you what you will be required to do on the Ponderosa?”

Jane nodded and her brow furrowed questioningly. “Does this mean you’re giving me the job…just like that?”

Ben looked over towards his old friend. “If Martha thinks you’re just who we need, I accept her judgement without question. I trust you can come out to the ranch tonight? My son is in town and can escort you there.”

Jane pointed down to her cases. “Ready and waiting,” she replied happily, feeling instantly at ease in Ben’s presence as his dark brown eyes gazed over at her.

“Good…then it’s settled. I have to stay in town for dinner and then go on to a meeting but I’ll see you back at the ranch later and you can tell me all about yourself,” he instructed, tipping his hat in farewell. “I’ll go and find Joe and tell him to pick you up from here as soon as possible.”

Jane nodded and sat back down as Ben turned to Martha. “Thank you my dear. I knew I could rely on you.”

 

“My pleasure old friend,” Martha smiled, and as Ben left she winked over towards Jane then turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

Jane sighed with relief, hardly able to believe her change of good fortune in such a short while. And as she watched as customers arrived and departed from the café she once more counted her blessings, feeling slightly intrigued as she awaited the arrival of the infamous Little Joe Cartwright.

**********

Over an hour went by and the café was now closed as dusk settled, but still there was no sign of Jane’s escort. Weary from the long and gruelling day she pushed her chair back into the alcove, resting her head on the wall and closing her eyes. She was sure she’d fall asleep soon where she sat when suddenly the door opened and a man’s voice called out to the kitchen where Martha was washing up.

“Hi Martha. Would have got here sooner but I had a date with a few glasses of beer and couldn’t get away,” the voice slightly slurred.

Jane could hear Martha’s footsteps as she returned. “Hello Little Joe. How are you?” she asked with obvious affection in her voice.

After pecking Martha’s cheek fondly Joe gave a slight grimace. “Apart from my shoulder I’m okay,” he answered dully. “Some damn fool apparition in grey stopped right in front of the wagon this afternoon. I had to pull the team up so sharply I’m sure I’ve pulled a muscle.”

Jane tensed and her eyes flew open as she now appreciated a smooth and rich tone to a familiar voice. Surely not…it couldn’t be? She quietly pushed herself up, peeped around the corner of the alcove and looked towards the two people stood together at the front of the café. Martha was facing her and talking to a man in a green jacket who was flexing his arm. Jane gasped with recognition and her heart raced, for the man standing with Martha was the last one she’d ever expected to see. Sure enough it was Mr Rude!

She drew back quickly out of sight and fought hard to stop trembling as she heard him continue. “Pa tells me you’ve found us a housekeeper; a newcomer to town? I’m sure we could manage without having to employ a sour-faced spinster who’ll probably snoop around and disappear off with the family silver when we’re not looking!”

“Little Joe Cartwright! What a thing to say!” Martha admonished sternly. “Miss Dryburn needs this position for a few weeks and you need her help so stop moaning and behave yourself. Do I make myself clear?”

Jane gulped. Surely Martha couldn’t talk to him like that and get away with it? But the warm and caring relationship between Martha and Joe had been forged over nearly four decades and she heard Joe give a sigh of resignation as he pretended to be hurt by her chastisement. “Yes Martha. I promise Martha. May I have a cookie now?” he pleaded in a child-like tone.

Martha chuckled quietly as she took the cover off a large container and passed one over. “If I had a nickel for every one you’ve begged off me over the years I’d be able to retire tomorrow.”

Joe gave her a nod of thanks as he glanced around and bit into his biscuit. “So where is she? There’s a wagon load of supplies to unload when I get back to the ranch.”

Martha moved forward and took hold of Joe’s arm, spinning him around. “Come along and let me introduce you to Miss Dryburn.”

Joe rolled his eyes and smothered a curse as he wondered if their new housekeeper had heard his conversation with Martha. That’s all he needed…a sour-faced spinster with hurt feelings he sighed as Jane eased up and moved slowly out of the alcove.

“Little Joe…this is Miss Dryburn,” introduced Martha as Jane cautiously gazed towards Joe who still held his half eaten cookie in his hand. A look of recognition immediately flashed in his eyes.

“You!” he hissed, shaking his head. “I might have known!”

Martha looked between the pair. “You’ve met before?”

Jane nodded. “I’m afraid I was the grey apparition Martha,” she admitted as she felt Joe’s eyes studying her and her face began to flush bright red. “And…and I’m truly sorry Mr Ru…Mr Cartwright…for causing your discomfort,” she stuttered nervously, inwardly chiding herself for chattering like an adolescent schoolgirl. “I…I was just distracted for a moment. But I admit it was my entire fault.”

She beamed an apologetic smile, immediately noting that hidden beneath the darkened stubble was a handsome face as a lock of curly hair peeped from under the brim of his hat. Then as she continued to blatantly stare into a pair of flashing hazel eyes, shivers of attraction were once again sent racing up and down the whole length of her spine; only this time stronger and more intense.

And if it had been anyone else at that point Joe would have grudgingly admitted it was his error and taken the blame for the incident that afternoon. He’d been late arriving into town, had galloped the horses too fast and should have been more careful. But continuing to stand without comment all thought of apologising drifted away as Joe stuffed the remainder of the cookie in his mouth and absently began to rub his arm again; his eyes sweeping over Jane as he openly appraised her with a thoughtful gaze.

Since his wife’s death Joe had been convinced he was fated to never experience true happiness again, for all the joy Alice had brought to his life during the months they were together died along with her. And although his father had tried to convince him many times she would never have wanted him to mourn forever and would have made him promise to find someone else one day, Joe had frequently argued that was one promise he could never have kept.

In fact such was his conviction lightning would never strike twice again as far as love was concerned, and even though he’d been introduced to many attractive women over the past two years, never had his eyes wandered further than a passing and dismissive glance. All of them were forgotten in an instant, Joe not desiring their company nor caring what they thought of his surly manner and unfriendly mood. But with her bonnet now removed Joe could see Jane’s face clearly and even though she didn’t have the delicate features or the naive and innocent expression of his beloved Alice, this was certainly no sour-faced spinster Joe conceded.

He was captivated by the blue sparkling eyes that he felt he could drown in, the curving generous mouth that begged to be kissed, and the cute freckles that seemed to form a single path across her nose. A rogue strand of chestnut hair hung down over her forehead and for an instant he longed to brush it away with his fingers.

Feeling an immediate attraction a confusing wave of emotions suddenly flooded throughout Joe’s body as the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. Yet he’d vowed there’d never be another woman for him after Alice, and the thought he’d even contemplated it filled him instantly with remorse. Thank heavens this tantalising vision in grey was only going to be around for a few weeks he mused as he accepted Jane’s apology with a curt nod then tore his gaze away. “We’d better get going,” he told her tersely before staring down incredulously at two small suitcases. “Is this all you have?”

Jane nodded, composed once more and refusing to be put out by his hostile expression and bluntness of manner. “I travel light Mr Cartwright,” she admitted. “But if I’d known there was family silver for the taking, I’d have planned to arrive with a bigger bag!”

Jane’s face remained impassive at her veiled mockery and Joe gave her a quick glance. She had definitely overheard him and in spite of himself his dark look momentarily changed as a flicker of a smile curved his mouth and his eyes flashed with amusement. Then in an instant it was gone and without another word he picked up her belongings, throwing a farewell wave towards Martha and walked out of the café, leaving the two women to exchange glances.

Martha gently took hold of Jane’s arm. “You’ll be fine,” she said with a tender smile. “Any problems just come and see me.”

Jane gave her a grateful hug and nodded; hastily putting on her bonnet and cape then with a slight degree of trepidation picked up her purse and made her way outside where Joe was waiting with the wagon.

As his hands held her around the waist and helped her up onto the bench seat, Joe noted a shapely figure hidden under her cloak and then sat down beside her. Jane took a deep breath, continuing to stare out into the dimness of dusk with her hands held tight together to try and stop herself from shaking; puzzled and confused to be so affected by this man she barely knew.

Joe felt her tense and momentarily cursed himself for his rude behaviour because for some reason he couldn’t fathom or explain, he didn’t want this woman to think too badly of him. “Just to put you straight Miss Dryburn,” he explained finally, trying his best to keep his voice emotionless as he ran his fingers through the reins. “You definitely wouldn’t need a large bag. There isn’t any family silver but we have an interesting collection of dust.”

Jane’s mouth curved into a grin and she nodded without turning her head. “Thank you for telling me Mr Cartwright…saves me the trouble of looking. And I just live for dust!”

Then he continued in a slightly lighter tone. “And please Miss Dryburn. Mr Cartwright is my father. I’m Joe. Just call me Joe.”

Jane turned her head. “In that case please call me Jane,” she smiled then quickly returned to look straight ahead as Joe slapped the reins and the wagon began to slowly move away

**********

The ride back to the Ponderosa was in darkness and with mostly an awkward silence; both Joe and Jane trying to make sense of the attraction that unbeknownst to them they’d felt for each other. Finally Joe turned the wagon around the side of a large barn and stopped. “Well, this is it,” he declared as he jumped down and helped Jane to the ground. “Welcome to the Ponderosa!”

With a few lanterns lighting up the yard Jane could clearly see the impressive rambling ranch house with lace trimmed curtains at the windows and a corral to her right where a few horses were stood, viewing the new arrivals with interest. She loved it on sight and Joe watched for a moment as she gazed around and then indicated for her to follow him inside.

Passing through the front door Jane inwardly nodded with approval at the amply spacious living room. It was tastefully decorated but not pretentious, including comfortable leather chairs and a settee, a huge stone fireplace where a fire burned in the hearth and colourful Indian rugs scattered on the oak plank floor. There was a large dining table that she could imagine being the scene of many happy family meals over the years, and to the left of it she found Joe placing her bags within a downstairs bedroom.

Looking around Jane was pleasantly surprised to find it well furnished yet still cosy. “What a lovely room,” she acknowledged with a smile, running her hand across a finely made bedspread.

Standing in the doorway Joe removed his hat and drew his fingers through his hair. “Kitchen is back there,” he said, pointing around the corner. “I didn’t get chance to clear away the dishes from yesterday, but if you’re hungry there’s a pan of last night’s stew on the stove.”

“Thank you,” Jane replied as she met Joe’s hazel eyed stare. He was held by the blueness of her eyes for a moment then replaced his Stetson on his head.

“I’ll have to go as there’s a wagon to un-load. No rest for the weary,” he joked though his face showed little amusement.

“I thought it was no rest for the wicked?” Jane queried with a chuckle.

“These days I’m just weary,” Joe offered with the barest of grins, then without another word turned heel and left, leaving Jane staring thoughtfully after him as she removed her bonnet and cape then sank down onto the bed.

To think Mr Rude had turned out to be her new employer she reflected with a faint smile as her fingers absently curled around stray wisps of hair that fell across her face. And though she was disappointed the initial attraction wasn’t mutual as it had been when she’d first met Tom, she felt no surprise. For even after withstanding Mr Rude’s penetrating perusal and sharing a glimmer of humour, it was obvious even though two years had passed he still mourned his wife and only saw her as a plain faced hired help and nothing more.

So with a shake of the head Jane attempted to rid herself of her inner turmoil regarding her initial feelings for Mr Rude. After all she had other things to contemplate, forcing her mind instead to concentrate on the day’s events. For though her plans had been changed and her highly anticipated journey had to be delayed for a few weeks, at least there would now be extra monies to enjoy. And so as she unpacked she daydreamed about the distant lands both she and Tom had longed to visit, then with the task completed and feeling her stomach rumble for the second time that day, Jane made her way to the kitchen.

It was a fair size, well maintained with every conceivable utensil, and true enough there were dirty pots in the sink and a large pan sitting on a cold stove. Tentatively removing the lid Jane gazed down suspiciously into a thick, congealed mass. Whatever it was it certainly didn’t look very appetising, but minutes later with the stove lit and the pan bubbling, a surprisingly delicious smell of beef began to permeate.

Eventually with the pots washed and stacked in a corner Jane stirred and tasted a small amount of the stew on a spoon. It wasn’t the tastiest she’d ever sampled so she looked around the various dried ingredients and spices laid out on a shelf, helping herself to a few and adding them until it was to her satisfaction. Then with a pot of coffee also freshly boiled she ate and drank her fill.

With her appetite now satisfied Jane made her way to the large living room, standing in front of the fire place and taking in her surroundings when suddenly the front door opened and Joe and Ben walked in.

Ben, who’d just arrived back from town, was informing Joe of various items of business that had been raised at the meeting that evening. Noticing Jane hovering by the hearth he beamed a smile, cutting short the conversation with his son. “Hello again Jane,” he greeted; genuinely pleased to see her as he and Joe hung up their hats and jackets then unbuckled their gun belts. “Have you settled in? Had something to eat?”

Jane gave a nod and smiled as Ben walked towards her. “Yes thank you Mr Cartwright. My room is delightful and the left-over stew was delicious.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “The stew? You actually enjoyed the stew?” he half whispered with surprise.

Joe feigned a hurt expression as he slumped down onto the settee and yawned loudly. “What do you mean Pa? You said you liked it last night?”

Remembering what he’d told Martha about his son’s culinary skills Jane rescued Ben from the awkward pause that ensued as she smiled cheerily between them both. “I’ve just brewed a fresh pot of coffee. Do you want some?”

Father and son nodded and as Ben settled in his winged armchair Joe momentarily closed his eyes; resting his head on the back of the settee and placing his feet on the coffee table as he gave out a long deep sigh.

Ben stared over with a tender smile playing on his mouth. He was about to admonish Joe about his boots on the table and the fact his hair looked in dire need of a haircut but decided to say nothing as he could see his son was worn out and he felt a pang of guilt. For his ageing body would not allow him to do as much physical work as he’d like so Joe had taken on more and more of the ranch workload; preferring to keep busy so as not to dwell on his torturous past. And though he felt like telling him to go to bed, Ben reluctantly held back. For his son was a grown man now and didn’t take kindly to being talked to as if he were still the Little Joe of years ago. But still at times the concerned and loving father wished he could.

Joe was tired and longed for sleep but something about Jane made him want to stay around for a while. For the first time since Alice’s death he’d felt the first stirrings of desire and so was curious to find out more about this woman who’d appeared in his life only hours before, causing his hormones to react after lying dormant for the past two years. Not that anything could happen between them. After all he’d decided to remain faithful to Alice’s memory forever and there would never be anyone else.

Jane then reappeared with two cups of coffee, placing them on the table and as Joe’s vague whimsy evaporated away he opened his eyes and eased up. His face cracked into a tired smile of thanks as Ben indicated for her to join them, pointing over to a blue coloured, high backed chair. Feeling slightly nervous as she made herself comfortable Jane could see Joe staring over and felt her face flushing under his close scrutiny.

“So Jane,” Ben said as he bent over and picked up his cup. “Tell me a little about yourself. What’s brought you to Virginia City?”

“I was only supposed to stay for a couple of hours and connect to the stage for New York,” Jane explained as she smoothed back a few loose strands of hair that refused to stay in place. “But it looks like I’m stuck here until they rebuild the Truckee Bridge.”

Ben nodded. “From what I heard its going to take several weeks to repair,” he confirmed between sips. “Have you got family in New York who are expecting you?”

Jane shook her head. “No Mr Cartwright. The only reason I’m going there is to board a ship for Europe and then make my way to Italy.”

“Europe? Italy?” Joe’s eyes widened as he cried out in surprise and not without a touch of cynicism. “Why on earth would you want to go all the way there?”

“Why not?” Jane answered back, surprised at his tone. “Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I shouldn’t see the world!”

“I know that! But doesn’t it worry you, travelling alone?”

Jane just shook her head. “I have a philosophy in life Mr Ca…Joe. Que Sera Sera.” A comical look of confusion suddenly covered Joe’s face and Jane smothered a giggle. “It’s Italian…means what will be will be.”

“You can speak Italian?” Ben asked with surprise and Jane gave a slight nod.

“I’ve learned a little and can get by. Seemed the sensible thing to do seeing as I’m going there,” she answered in a matter of fact way. “I’ve even considered living permanently in Italy if I like it enough. The English aristocracy seem to be making it their winter residence these days and I’m sure I could get a position as housekeeper or even a nanny.”

Ben raised his eyebrows in admiration as there weren’t many single women who’d consider making a foreign country their new home. However Joe was not so convinced and reverted back to his usual scant regard for good manners. “All this travelling sounds like a crazy fool idea to me!” he stated as he picked up his cup and began to sip at his coffee.

“Really Joseph!” rebuked Ben sharply, giving his son a distinct look of disapproval.

“It’s all right Mr Cartwright,” said Jane smiling. “I guess some would consider me reckless and foolish for thinking of taking such a voyage by myself.”

“Just don’t take heed of Joe,” Ben said quickly. “He can’t accept there’s another world away from the Ponderosa…unlike his brother Adam. It was always his dream to journey across the oceans and when he finally decided the time was right I couldn’t find it in my heart to try and stop him. He seems to have settled well abroad though as he’s never felt the need to return.”

Jane noticed Joe suddenly open his mouth as if to argue the point but thinking better of it closed it again. Replacing his cup on the table he then gazed into the fire, absently fingering a gold ring that hung from a chain around his neck and tenderly stroking and bringing it up to his lips. Jane watched him, mesmerised and her heart racing. For there was now a softness to Joe; a side not many would ever see as the fiery Mr Rude of a few hours ago was replaced by an obviously sensitive and reflective man, bereft and seeking comfort from his past.

“So Jane, have you always wanted to travel?” asked Ben as he lifted his arm and took hold of his favourite pipe from the mantelpiece.

Suddenly Jane realised Ben was talking to her and shaken from her private reflection she reluctantly returned her gaze towards him. “No Mr Cartwright,” she answered slowly. “It was Tom who planted the seed of adventure in my veins. That’s why I decided to go when the opportunity arose.”

As he pressed loose tobacco into the bowl of his pipe and lit it, Ben raised his eyebrow questioningly. “Tom?”

“Tom Dryburn. My late husband.”

Joe turned his head sharply as Ben’s eyes widened in surprise. “Husband? But Martha introduced you as Miss Dryburn!”

Jane gave a slight shrug of the shoulders. “I guess with the absence of a ring most would think I’m not married, or been married,” she admitted with a hint of resignation in her voice as she looked down at her bare third finger. “Times were bad for me once, and I had to make the decision to either sell it or starve. After that I never could face wearing another just for the sake of appearance. It wouldn’t be the same not having Tom place it on my finger. So it’s just easier to let folk make the assumption I’m a spinster than try to explain why I don’t wear my wedding band.”

Suddenly with his lips compressed into a thin line Joe stood up and made his way to a large sideboard where he took hold of a bottle of whiskey and poured out a glass full. Then after downing it back in one gulp Joe refilled his glass and Ben’s expression darkened but he said nothing as his son made his way back to the settee. And as he settled down Jane could see Joe seemed blissfully unaware he’d been the cause of the lull in conversation as he sipped his drink; his haunted eyes betraying a hidden grief deep within their depths.

Ben gave a sigh of resignation as if it were a familiar pattern he’d grown to accept from his son then turned his attention back towards Jane. “You were saying my dear…about your late husband? How long have you been widowed?”

Gripping her hands tight in her lap Jane returned to gaze at Ben as he drew on his pipe. “It’s nearly thirteen years since Tom died,” she explained as she felt tears forming. “I was barely married for two years but they were the happiest days of my life.” Pulling out a lace-edged handkerchief Jane gently dabbed the corner of her eyes. “I loved him so much and I still miss him so.”

“I’m sorry my dear. I didn’t mean to pry and upset you,” apologised Ben as he noted her distress.

“Oh don’t mind me,” Jane said quickly, sniffing then replacing her handkerchief in her pocket. “It was a long time ago and I’m not usually this sentimental. It’s just that today would have been our wedding anniversary.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment. “And you’ve never remarried?” Joe suddenly asked, seemingly unbothered by the bluntness of his question.

Jane could see Ben was about to admonish his son again for his bad manners so answered quickly. “I’ve never found another Tom,” she stated, staring directly at Joe who held her gaze for a moment then just gave a nod of understanding before turning back to watch the dancing flames of the fire.

 

“Anyhow Jane, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you going to Italy now after all this time?” asked Ben with genuine interest. “It’s not a journey many ladies would attempt on their own, especially such a long sea voyage. It shows quite a degree of bravado on your part!”

“Oh I don’t know about that,” Jane chuckled softly. “But I’ve just come into a small inheritance and with no ties to keep me back I owe it to my Tom to fulfil our dream. We’d planned to go and made most of the arrangements but then I found I was going to have a baby…”

Joe gaped at her. “Baby?” he interrupted, looking momentarily stunned at her admission. “You’ve had a baby?”

For a moment Jane held his surprised gaze and then gave a slight nod as she noticed questioning looks from both men. “I think it would be better if I start from the beginning,” she said, settling herself comfortably. Then holding nothing back she reminisced about her upbringing, how she’d met Tom, his untimely and violent death and the tragic loss of her new born child.

At this point Joe seemed to tense and gripped the settee arm hard with his hand. For a moment both Ben and Jane watched his anguished expression, thinking he was about to leap up and head for the whiskey again. But he remained seated so Jane took a deep breath then continued to describe her life from the time she was in the asylum up to arriving in Virginia City that morning.

“Anyway, that’s why I’m here,” she said in conclusion with a wistful sigh. “Even after all these years just thinking how Tom dreamed of us making this journey keeps me determined to go. I owe it to him.”

There was a moments silence then Joe placed his empty glass on the table and eased himself up. And as he left the room and closed the front door behind him without another word Jane stared at Ben in confusion. “I’m sorry Jane,” he said, obviously used to and sadly accepting his son’s behaviour as he tapped out the last of the burning tobacco from the pipe bowl into the hearth. “I’m sure Joseph didn’t intend to be so bad mannered, but sometimes the littlest thing brings it all back to him and he needs to be by himself for a while.”

“You mean about Alice? I hope you don’t mind, but Martha told me everything.”

Ben nodded as he replaced his pipe on the mantelpiece. “That’s fine Jane. It’s good that you should know what you were letting yourself in for here.”

“It couldn’t have helped; bringing back the memories as I told you about my wedding ring and the baby I lost. It probably didn’t help Joe at all,” Jane then admitted sadly.

“Don’t go feeling guilty Jane,” replied Ben, his expression suddenly tinged with sorrow. “For the first few months after Alice died I used to walk around Joe like I was on egg shells, not mentioning her name, knowing the slightest thing could send him disconsolate for days on end. Finally I realised I was doing more harm than good. He needed to confront his tragic loss…not hide away from it so I don’t shy away from talking about her now.”

“And what about you Mr Cartwright?”

Ben gave a frown of puzzlement. “What do you mean?”

“It must have been hard for you losing a much loved daughter-in-law. How did you cope?”

For a moment there was silence as Ben studied Jane carefully. “You know Jane; no one has ever thought to ask me that before,” he said slowly, appreciating her perceptive insight into his own grief and realising there was a lot more to this plain faced woman than was apparent.

He eased from his chair and walked over to his desk while Jane followed him with her eyes but remained seated. “I know all to well the pain of losing a wife. I’ve been widowed three times,” he admitted, his face softening as he looked down on three silver framed photographs. “And then there was my son…Hoss….”

A sob came to his throat and Ben’s sense of loss was more than apparent as his shoulders suddenly slumped and he lowered his head as if in silent prayer. Unable to stop them, tears began to run down his cheeks and he quickly took out a kerchief and wiped his moistened eyes then returned it to his pocket.

“I’m sorry my dear,” he apologised, sounding weary as he composed himself and returned to his chair. “You obviously know exactly what I’ve gone through; losing Tom in such terrible circumstances.”

Jane gave a slight nod, the look on her face a true indication she understood all too well his misery as Ben continued, turning to gaze with unseeing eyes towards the hearth. “I really thought over the years I’d had my fair share of heartbreak, but I wasn’t prepared for the pain of losing Alice and my first grandchild together in such a violent way. But I had to be strong for Joe’s sake in spite of the grief that was in my heart. After all, life does go on.”

He paused, returning his attention towards Jane as his sad expression became a little sadder. “But as far as Joe is concerned he seems content to just live in the past with his memories rather than looking to the future. I despair of him sometimes.”

“Everyone has their own way of coping with grief,” said Jane quietly. “And Joe’s continued mourning is a testament to the love he felt for his wife.”

“Oh he loved Alice, of that there is no doubt,” replied Ben with conviction in his voice. “She was such a beautiful, caring young woman. But losing her and his child…well I’d have given anything to spare him that pain. Unfortunately sometimes a father’s love is just not enough.”

Ben’s eyes misted again momentarily. “I keep telling him Alice would have wanted him to turn the page and write a new chapter; give his life meaning and balance again. But my words just seem to fall on deaf ears.”

There was a moment’s pause and Ben looked thoughtful as if reflecting on a painful past altercation with his son, then shaking himself from his reverie he turned to Jane again. “I just hope you’ll excuse Joe’s behaviour if he’s ever ungracious and bad tempered as it’s truly no reflection on you.”

“Martha did warn me he could be a little unpredictable and surly at times,” Jane admitted with a gentle smile curving her mouth as she recalled their first meeting when Mr Rude lived up to his reputation. “But I appreciate exactly what he’s been through. I quite understand.”

Ben nodded. “Thank you Jane,” he said, appreciating her honesty and compassionate tone. “You seem to have weathered the storm of adversity so well. I just wish Joe could do the same,” he added as his eyes stared towards the closed front door.

Jane then gave an embarrassing yawn. “If you’ll excuse me Mr Cartwright, I think I’ll go to bed,” she said apologetically. “It’s been a very long day and I shall need to be up at the crack of dawn or you won’t have any breakfast! Thank you again for making me so welcome in your home.”

“I hope you’ll be as thankful after a few weeks,” Ben said quickly, a friendly grin now on his face as he stood up. Returning the smile Jane made her way past him towards her bedroom then impulsively reached out and touched his arm. “Don’t worry…I’m sure the old Joe will return…one day.”

Ben’s eyes glistened at her compassion and he patted her hand affectionately. “Thank you my dear. I just hope you’re right.”

As she disappeared through her bedroom door Ben sank back down and closed his eyes. He gave a faint and contented sigh as the delicate fragrance of Jane’s lavender water lingered in the air. It felt good to have the presence of a woman on the Ponderosa again, Ben mused as he took a deep breath. Then for a few minutes he appreciated the pleasant smelling odour she’d left behind before slowly hauling his tired legs up the stairs to the comfort and privacy of his own room where he looked through the window.

The light of a single lamp in the yard shone on a shadowy figure, standing by the corral with his arms resting on the top bar. “Oh Joseph,” Ben whispered, longing to rush down and take him in his arms. But there were no more words that the loving father could say…no further gestures he could offer to give comfort. Joe was travelling down a grief laden road of his own making now and for once Ben was at a loss as to how to help his son, so with a deep sigh he closed the curtains and turned up the lamp on his dresser.

Unaware of the concerned brown eyes that had stared down at him, Joe absently stroked the wedding ring he’d placed on his wife’s finger; his mind in turmoil and for once not concentrated on Alice. For there was something about Jane that left his emotions confused; though he was confident the initial blazing fire of attraction he’d felt would soon be extinguished. But what he found more disturbing, knowing the love and devotion Jane still carried for her husband, was the surge of envy that now flooded through his veins.

For some unexplainable reason he found himself deeply jealous of a dead man.


Chapter 2:

Jane immediately settled down into a busy routine as she took on the work and responsibilities of housekeeper on the Ponderosa. She was an excellent cook and her meals were always delicious and filling, the house a credit to her hard work; soon becoming spotless as she washed, scrubbed and polished anything and everything she could see that looked remotely in need of her attention.

Ben was found most days working at his desk on seemingly endless reams of paperwork and when Jane brought him a cup of coffee he would insist she sit and join him; preferring to chat for a while and so take his mind off the boring but necessary tedious chore. A friendly relationship soon developed between them and when Jane told him of her love of the written word Ben had nodded and smiled with a faraway and wistful expression. “Adam loved to read. He collected quite an extensive and varied number of published works over the years. They’re all stored up in the attic as I couldn’t bear to get rid of them and at least they’re here when…just in case he returns. If you’d like you can take a look. Maybe there’d be something to interest you?”

And there was; Dickens, Shakespeare, Scott, Milton and more. A wealth of varied literature that made Jane’s eyes widen with wonder and delight. Then invited by Ben to join them every evening she felt more like one of the family as she’d curl up in the blue armchair and bury her nose into a book, seemingly oblivious to all around her.

However, as for Joe, his initial manner was cool and abrupt towards Jane just as Martha had predicted and warned. After working each day at some far corner of the Ponderosa he would return home, eat his dinner and then just stare thoughtfully into the fire with a glass of whiskey in his hand before easing down onto the settee to doze. Any conversation between them was usually brief and monosyllabic on his part and it was almost as if he were fighting an inner demon over acknowledging Jane’s presence…couldn’t trust himself to be civil.

And it had been during these evenings while Ben read his newspaper and smoked his pipe, Jane would occasionally lower her book and gaze unobtrusively towards the sleeping figure with fascination. For in repose Joe looked years younger as the grief laden lines on his face disappeared and his mouth curved into a soft and gentle smile. And though Jane guessed he was dreaming about his wife when his fingers seemed to automatically curl around Alice’s ring, she found the initial confused attraction she’d felt towards Mr Rude gradually altering. Unable to stop herself and regardless of his coldness towards her, Jane acknowledged she was developing a deep feeling of genuine affection for Joe.

Then much to Jane’s surprise and delight Joe’s distant behaviour changed and a relaxed and companionable friendship developed between them. Jane found herself captivated by Joe as he recounted tales of various hilarious and foolhardy escapades he’d got up to over the years; his animated conversation giving a clear insight into the quick witted, mischievous and fun loving man he really was

But though for a few hours his tragic past and heartache was seemingly forgotten, when Ben and Jane made a move to retire to bed Joe would remain seated on the settee, staring thoughtfully into the flames of the fire and fingering the gold wedding band that hung from the chain around his neck.

And then when Jane finally realised she’d fallen in love with her grieving employer, a deep seated pain settled permanently in the region of her heart. For though she resignedly accepted her feelings would never be reciprocated by him, she was amazed just how much it hurt to see that at every opportunity Joe would return to the place he was so reluctant to leave. His world of Alice.

**********

Weeks passed by and the first Monday in June arrived warm and cloudless. Straight after breakfast Ben and Joe travelled together into town on urgent business at the bank, leaving Jane by herself for the day. She’d welcomed the few hours of solitude and so decided to keep herself busy and her mind occupied by spending time cooking and reorganising the kitchen store cupboard.

Once she’d finished there was still time to spare so she ventured up into the attic and selected a few books from the seemingly endless collection stored there. They were travel books containing illustrations on Italy and other European countries and she brought them downstairs and settled herself on the settee to read. But not for the first time though her eyes took in the words and pictures there was no enthusiasm in Jane’s heart as she turned the pages; the much anticipated trip that she’d planned in her mind for years just not seeming important or exciting any more.

The grandfather clock ticked slowly and loudly and Jane sighed unhappily. Though she knew from the start this was only a temporary position, falling in love with Joe and the realisation she’d eventually have to leave him had left her teary-eyed and distracted at times over the past weeks. So as tears once again welled at the back of her eyes she placed the book down and moved outside.

Settling herself on an old rocking chair that stood on the veranda Jane watched the dipping sun as it began to set below the distant horizon, closing her eyes and within minutes falling into a fitful doze. Haunted by the thought she was being disloyal to Tom’s memory and their shared dream her disturbed slumber only ended when the sound of horses’ hooves and the creaking of a wagon could be heard in the distance and moments later Joe and Ben appeared. Quickly rousing herself Jane made her way to the kitchen to prepare a fresh pot of coffee and as Joe began to un-harness the team Ben walked slowly and a little unsteadily towards the house.

A few days before he’d slipped and banged his head hard on one of the wooden stalls in the barn while Joe had been away checking out the Cartwright timber mill. Jane had found him badly dazed and since then Ben had suffered from vague headaches and today had been no exception. In fact it had been worse than usual, but as he hung his Stetson on a peg behind the door he put on a brave face as Jane appeared around the corner.

“Coffee should be ready in a few minutes Mr Cartwright.”

Ben gave her a weak smile of thanks as the sweet smell of freshly baked bread wafted in from the direction of the kitchen. “I have good news Jane,” he told her as he walked over toward his chair. “The Truckee Bridge is finally repaired and the first stage east is due to leave on Friday. I’ve booked you a seat so you’ll be able to continue your journey at last!”

Jane’s heart suddenly sank as she took in what he said for what she’d been dreading had finally happened. “But I can’t possibly leave you until Hop Sing gets back!”

“That’s exactly what Joe told me,” replied Ben as he eased down. “In fact he was quite angry when I told him I’d arranged for you to leave on Friday but I told him not to be so selfish….we can’t hold you here indefinitely!”

Jane frowned momentarily in surprise at Joe’s reaction. “But…how…how will you both manage?” she then stammered. “What with the cooking, cleaning, washing…”

“Really Jane,” Ben interrupted, a puzzled look covering his face. “Anyone would think you didn’t want to go to Italy any more.”

Jane looked down, slightly embarrassed and wishing to avert her eyes from his questioning stare. “But you’ve been so kind and welcoming I just don’t want to leave you to cope alone.”

Ben gently took hold of her arm and sat her down on the settee. “I’ve grown very fond of you Jane and I’ll be sorry to see you go,” he admitted, smiling tenderly. “But I’ve noticed how you’ve been looking a little preoccupied and weepy at times and I can guess the reason. I know how eager you were to complete the journey both you and Tom dreamed of taking, so as this trip means so much to you I have no intention of delaying you more than is necessary.”

Jane could feel her stomach tighten and she sighed resignedly. “Well…if you’re really sure,” she answered, realising Ben had misinterpreted her heart break over Joe and the thought of leaving him for her desire to visit Italy.

“Yes my dear, I’m sure. And if you leave now you should have plenty of time to get a passage across the Atlantic before the winter storms begin.”

Jane forced out a false smile. “That makes good sense. Very well. I’ll leave on Friday then.”

Ben nodded then suddenly sank back into his chair and closed his eyes as he pressed a hand to his forehead. Jane’s smile vanished as she looked over anxiously at his pale complexion and tiny beads of perspiration that now clung to his face. “Are you feeling all right Mr Cartwright?”

Ben shook his head slightly. “I’ve had another headache all day Jane, but this one’s been even worst than usual and I can’t seem to shake it off.”

“Maybe you should go and have a lay down for a while,” she suggested. “I’ll call you when dinner is ready.”

“That’s a good idea,” Ben agreed, and without argument pushed up from his chair and slowly made his way up the stairs. Jane followed him with her eyes and as he disappeared around the corner onto the landing Joe walked through the front door.

“Where’s Pa?” he asked, tossing his hat onto the credenza and making his way across the room.

“He’s gone upstairs to have a lie down.”

Joe nodded then stood by the arm of the settee. “Did he tell you the Truckee Bridge was reopened and he’d booked you a seat on Friday’s stage?”

Trying to keep her voice even and bright to hide her true misery Jane smiled broadly as she stood up and faced him. “Yes. It was a wonderful surprise. By the end of the week I should be on my way at last.”

Joe bit his lip hard at her enthusiasm then his eyes dropped to focus on the coffee table and the travel books scattered on the brightly polished top. “So you haven’t changed your mind about going to Europe?”

Jane shook her head, still attempting to convey conviction in her voice. “Of course not. It was Tom’s…our dream. I have to go.”

Joe returned his gaze towards her then stepped closer and stared without blinking into her sparkling blue eyes; painfully aware the love Jane still carried for her husband was as passionate as her determined intent to complete her journey in his memory. “Tom was a very lucky man to find such a resolute and loving wife,” he acknowledged quietly.

Jane’s brow furrowed in confusion as her heart pounded loud in her chest. For though Joe had never shown any sign of anything but friendship toward her for one brief wonderful moment she thought he was going to kiss her. But suddenly as if fighting an irresistible urge Joe stiffened and quickly stepped back. “Looks like I’ll be head chef once again,” he smiled, but it was a sad smile as he turned to pick up an apple from a dish on the table.

Then all of a sudden above their heads they heard a crash and a loud thud followed by silence.

 

**********

Doctor Paul Martin who’d been summoned the moment Joe and Jane found Ben collapsed on his bedroom floor checked his patient’s heart with his stethoscope.

“Well Doc? What’s wrong with Pa?” Joe asked, his face twisted with fear and worry as he glanced continually between his unconscious father and the doctor.

“I’m not sure. It could be a number of things. Did he complain of feeling unwell when he got home?”

“He told me he’d had a real bad headache all day,” interrupted Jane who’d been standing in the doorway. “In fact he’s been having them quite often.”

Joe looked over quickly towards her. “He has?” he queried in a surprised tone. “He’s never said anything to me.”

Paul bent low over Ben and began to feel around his head, probing into the thick white hair as Jane chewed at her lip nervously. Suddenly Paul stiffened. “Has he fallen recently?” he asked as his fingers located a large lump on the back of Ben’s head.

Joe shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of,” he answered, plainly puzzled.

Jane’s eyes then widened. “Yes…he fell in the barn a few days ago! In fact he was quite shaken and I had to help him into the house so he could lie down for the afternoon.”

Joe showed surprise again.

“After a couple of hours he seemed to come round and felt fine,” Jane explained. “He then insisted I didn’t mention it to you Joe. Didn’t want to worry you, I guess.”

Joe gave a deep sigh as he looked down at his father, his eyes glistening in the light of the oil lamp.

Paul then opened Ben’s eyelids and looked for a few moments into the unseeing brown eyes that usually flashed with vitality. “Well, I have a good idea what’s wrong with him now,” he told them with the wisdom of years of experience as he straightened up.

Joe looked up quickly. “You have? What?”

“By the looks of it I’d say Ben’s suffered a haematoma…a subdural haematoma.”

Joe’s expression turned to one of deep irritation as a hint of petulant anger crept into his voice. “What on earth is that? This is me you’re talking to Doc…not Adam! I don’t understand your fancy medical terms!”

Ignoring Joe’s rude tone Paul continued. “It can happen with a head injury. After a while there’s such a build up of blood and pressure in a space within the damaged part of the skull it causes loss of consciousness.”

“So how long before Pa comes round?”

Paul shook his head sorrowfully. “I’m sorry Joe, but unless I perform an operation on him pretty soon he may never come round.”

Jane moved towards the end of the bed. “Is it a dangerous operation?” she asked, all the while noting the expression of shock on Joe’s face.

Paul nodded. “It can be. I’ll need to drill a hole where the source of the pressure is, but one false move and it could result in death.”

Joe stared at him in horror. “Have you lost your mind?” he snapped. “You want to drill into Pa’s head?”

Despite the hostile tone directed toward him Paul managed a gentle smile and placed his hand on the younger man’s arm; his calm manner exuding confidence. “It’s a practice that’s been used for hundreds of years Joe. But I’ll have to do it soon or it may be too late.”

Suddenly Joe felt a growing coldness settle in his chest. “You mean he’ll die?”

“Yes Joe…he’ll die.”

Easing down into a chair Joe clutched his father’s clammy hand as his eyes watered. Jane longed to rush forward and put her arms around his shoulders in a comforting gesture, but reluctantly held back. For a moment no one spoke or moved, all eyes resting on the prone figure on the bed, and then taking a deep breath Joe wiped the dampness from his face and looked over towards Paul and nodded.

“Very well…do it!”

**********

While Joe and Paul removed Ben’s clothes and then gently dressed him in his nightshirt Jane boiled the surgical instruments required for the operation, and within half an hour reappeared with them still steaming in a freshly boiled and immaculately clean piece of linen.

For Joe the operation seemed to go on forever; unable to tear his gaze away as Paul drilled with precise accuracy into Ben’s skull and began to slowly draw off the fluid gathered there. Then as he positioned his patient so gravity could take over and quicken the drainage, Jane, white-faced but businesslike, placed clean towels under Ben’s head to collect the excess blood.

Eventually there was an audible sigh of relief from Paul as he stepped away from the bed. He washed his blood covered hands in a bowl on the dresser then looked over with a slight smile towards a pale faced Joe who was standing by the window. “So far so good,” he reassured as he dried his hands. “The next twenty four hours will be crucial though. Until all the pressure has been reduced I can’t risk bandaging up the wound so shall have to leave it open.”

“And then?”

“Then we’d better hope there is no sign of infection Joe,” Paul replied as he looked over at Jane. “Ben’s going to need constant care for quite a while and you’ll need to keep turning him otherwise he may develop bedsores. Will you be able to cope?”

Jane nodded emphatically. “Of course! I’ve nursed before and I know what to do,” she answered with a sudden firmness in her voice that made Joe stare over at her.

“But you’re leaving for New York on Friday!”

For a moment Jane held his stare. She’d dreamed and hoped she’d be able to stay longer on the Ponderosa, yet never would she have wished it to be because of such dire circumstances. However, though she realised she was only prolonging the agony and it was inevitable the time would come to leave Joe behind one day she couldn’t bear to think about it…not now, and her mind was made up in an instant.

“No. I’ll stay and help for as long as is needed,” she stated resolutely, then added, almost as an afterthought. “Europe isn’t going any where.”

Joe remained silent for a moment, the look of gratitude and relief in his eyes unmistakable, and then gave a silent nod of thanks and pulled up a chair and sat down by his father side.

**********

Friday came and though the threat of infection was gone Ben had now unfortunately lapsed into a comatose state. When Paul arrived for his daily visit he found Joe dozing beside his father’s bedside and as he opened his eyes Joe gave the doctor a weak smile of welcome.

“How’s he been?” Paul asked as he held Ben’s wrist and checked his pulse.

“He’s been shifting about a little,” Joe murmured, easing the kinks and cramps from his body then dragging his hand though his tousled hair. “But there’s still no sign of him coming round.”

Heaving a disappointed sigh Paul replaced Ben’s hand onto the bedspread then stared over at Joe. “Have you been to bed at all this week?” he asked as he viewed the sweat stained shirt and bleary, bloodshot eyes with several days’ worth of stubble covering Joe’s chin.

Joe shook his head and gave a wry smile, well aware of his dishevelled appearance. “No. I’ve tried to sleep in the chair, though not with much success,” he admitted as he stretched out his arms and yawned loudly. Shaking his head Paul began to change the dressing around Ben’s head as Joe cleared his throat and pulled thoughtfully at his lower lip. “By the way Doc…”

Paul noticed a momentary hesitation and looked over, raising a questioning eyebrow.

“I never did get round to thanking you for what you did for Pa the other day. I’m sorry I snapped…you didn’t deserve that,” Joe muttered apologetically, his tired eyes expressing deep sorrow.

The older man gave a slight nod. “I understand Joe,” he replied kindly, accepting the apology as he gently rested Ben’s head back onto the pillow. “The swelling has gone down dramatically and there’s no more leakage of blood. But at his age if he doesn’t regain consciousness soon we’ll have plenty more to worry about. There’s a chance he’ll develop pneumonia or his body organs may just start shutting down.”

Panic streaked through Joe as he moved to the edge of the bed. “Is there anything we can do to help him come round?” he asked anxiously, strain and fatigue clearly showing in the tone of his voice.

Paul rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Even though he may not show it Ben could well hear all that’s going on around him, so all I can suggest you do is keep talking to him. Maybe urge him to open his eyes and wake up?”

Joe looked at him quickly with scepticism clearly showing on his face but nodded all the same. “Sure…whatever you say.”

Paul gave an encouraging smile but the sight of the weary face with dark circles beneath his eyes made him shake his head. “Though first I think you should go and lie down in your own bed and get some decent shut eye Joe! You look exhausted! I’m sure Jane wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on Ben for a few hours.”

“I’m sure she will,” Joe said quietly, his expression suddenly softening. “I don’t know what I’d have done without her over the past few days. She’s been amazing.”

“She certainly has,” Paul answered, noting the tender look that flashed over Joe’s face. “Such a shame she’ll be moving on eventually.”

A frown momentarily creased Joe’s brow as his fingers seemed to automatically float towards the chain around his neck and he took hold of the ring hanging there. For a moment Paul watched him, knowing full well the significance of the gold band held tightly in his hand. “Well, I’ll be off now. Unless there’s any drastic change I’ll see you in a couple of days Joe…and try and get some rest!”

Shaken from his silent reverie Joe let go the ring and gave a faint smile of farewell as Paul turned to leave; the doctor pausing for a moment in the doorway to glance back. He could see Joe had pulled his chair closer to the bedside and entwined his fingers around Ben’s hand as he began to talk to his father. Smiling softly Paul then quietly closed the door behind him and made his way down the stairs.

Jane suddenly appeared from the direction of the kitchen with a cup of coffee in her hands. “Would you like a drink Doctor?” she asked. “I’ve just poured this one for Joe but there’s plenty in the pot.”

“Thank you Jane but there’s nothing more I can do for Ben today so I’d better get back to town. You could try and persuade Joe to have a good night’s sleep though….and a bath!”

“I will,” Jane answered with a wry smile. “But I can’t promise. He can be very stubborn at times when he wants to be.”

“I know Jane…I know all too well,” Paul nodded sympathetically. “But do your best. If only Alice were here…she’d have made him….” He broke off then gathered up his hat and coat and left, leaving Jane to heave a deep sigh.

Alice? She would always be here, she reflected sadly as she turned and walked slowly up the stairs.

.

**********

Two more painfully long days passed on the Ponderosa and Ben still showed no sign of waking. Paul walked down the stairs, his throat dry after conversing with his unconscious patient and he glanced back towards Jane who’d followed him with an armful of dirty washing. “I see Joe’s had a shave and a change of clothes. Is this your doing?” he asked as he looked towards the clean shaven and sweeter smelling figure who was fast asleep and lying full-stretched on the settee.

Jane gazed down for a long moment with a loving and caring smile on her face that didn’t go unnoticed by the keen eyed doctor. “Yes. I threatened to pour a bucket of water over him if he didn’t freshen up and for some reason he believed me!” she chuckled softly. “But he still insists on sleeping in the chair in Mr Cartwright’s bedroom every night.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” acknowledged Paul knowingly and as Jane made her way through to the wash house Joe suddenly woke with a start and gave Paul a surprised glance.

“Doc? I didn’t realise you’d arrived,” he admitted groggily and after brushing his hands across his eyes to wake himself up, eased out a crick in his neck. “Have you been here long?”

“A couple of hours,” Paul answered as he sat down. “You were sleeping so soundly we left you while I sat with Ben for a while.”

Jane reappeared with a jug of cold lemonade and placed it on the table then poured out a glass full and offered it over towards the doctor who accepted it gratefully. “You’re still talking to him as much as possible?” Paul asked after swallowing the contents down in one long satisfying gulp.

Both Joe and Jane nodded. “Pa’s probably sick of hearing my voice. I know I am,” Joe said grimly as he stood up and stretched his arms before making his way to stand in front of the hearth.

Paul raised his eyebrow and smiled sympathetically. “I swear I saw his eyes flicker, and I’m sure he is aware of our presence,” he then insisted confidently. “So maybe we should use a different tack to connect with him and get a response by telling him something that would really gain his attention and shock him back to us.”

Joe threw a puzzled glance. “Like what?”

Paul shrugged his shoulders and as Jane made herself comfortable on the settee Joe picked up his father’s pipe from the mantelpiece and lovingly held it in his hand, stroking the bowl.

For a while there was thoughtful silence, a silence so deep it almost deafened each one of them when suddenly Joe made his way to the whiskey bottle and poured out a glass. “There’s one thing we could tell him that might do the trick,” he said, taking a quick sip as if to give him confidence.

Both Paul and Jane looked over questioningly as Joe’s eyes flickered nervously. “We could tell him I’m getting married again!”

There was another sudden silence in the room.

 

“Married? But who on earth would he believe you were marrying?” cried Jane finally in bewilderment, obviously stunned by his suggestion.

“You,” Joe said quietly as his eyes fell on her. “He’d believe I was going to marry you.”

Jane stared over incredulously while Joe walked over towards her with the glass in his hand.

“Please Jane. Hear me out,” he begged as he perched on the coffee table. “I know Pa thinks a lot of you and you’re the only female I’ve been half civil to over the past couple of years. I’m sure we could sound convincing and it could be just what’s needed to induce him to come round. Then I’ll admit it was just a ploy. He may be mad but I’d rather have him angry and alive than…..”

Joe’s voice trailed off as he looked over towards Paul. “What do you think Doc?”

Paul gave a deep sigh. “It’s a bit of an extreme idea Joe but as it’s all we have to go with I suppose it’s worth a try.”

Jane stared over at the two men in astonishment. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this!” she cried incredulously. “It’s just about the most foolish and stupid idea I’ve ever heard! Pretend we’re getting married indeed!”

The fact Jane was not immediately willing to agree to his scheme left Joe in surprised silence for a moment. “But I’ll pay you well for doing it if that’s what’s worrying you.”

 

Clearly annoyed at the suggestion Jane gasped in disbelief. “I don’t care about the money Mr Cartwright!” she answered indignantly as her eyes narrowed and her face reddened. Joe winced at the use of his surname and her steely manner that was alien to him as she continued. “I couldn’t blatantly lie about something like this! It would be dishonest and I like and respect your father far too much!”

Joe suddenly tensed and he gave Jane a cold-eyed stare. “And you think I don’t?” he spat quietly and slowly, his eyes flashing a combination of anger, disappointment and fear as he quickly stood and threw his drink into the hearth. He could see tears suddenly glisten in Jane’s eyes yet as the sound of glass shattering amongst the burnt out cinders echoed in the room he turned heel and stormed up the stairs, leaving Jane stunned at his violent outburst.

She closed her eyes and rested her head in her hands; the vision of Joe’s angry stare breaking her heart. Paul said nothing as he watched Joe disappear from view then he turned his sympathetic gaze onto Jane. He’d rapidly grown to like and admire this quiet unassuming woman and it pained him to see her so upset. He leaned across and took Jane’s hand in his, squeezing it gently. “I’m sure Joe didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” he told her in a kindly tone as Jane looked at him through moistened sad eyes. “And I know he’s clutching at straws with his idea but he’ll try anything if it has even the remotest chance of saving Ben.”

“What are you saying?”

Paul exhaled and sat back. “All I’m saying is Joe is desperate,” he said with a deep sigh. “And I fear for him Jane. If Ben was to die at this moment in time I’d really fear for him.”

Jane’s face suddenly drained white as she frowned in puzzlement.

“Joe is one of the most courageous men I’ve ever known,” Paul explained as he poured himself another glass of lemonade and took a moment to swallow it down. He replaced the glass on the table then looked back at Jane who’d remained in her seat though her eyes continually glanced towards the stairs as if hoping Joe would rejoin them. However her attention returned to Paul as he continued.

“But there’s one thing he’s admitted to me many times that frightens him above anything else…the thought of being alone with no family by his side. He’s lost his Ma, his brothers, his wife…but each time there’s been a constant…Ben. But if he loses his father, so soon after Alice…well, I have a feeling….” Paul hesitated and looked pointedly over towards the whiskey bottle. “I have a feeling Joe won’t be around very long at all.”

Jane followed his gaze, understanding his meaning yet still looked doubtful. “But I don’t know if I can deliberately lie.”

Paul gave a sympathetic smile. “Just think of it as following Doctor’s orders Jane,” he stated softly. “And it wouldn’t be so hard to pretend to like Joe for a short while if it meant saving a man’s life would it?”

Like? What a small insignificant word that didn’t come close to describing her feelings for Joe mused Jane unhappily. But though she knew he was the right man for her she’d accepted weeks before she was the wrong woman for him. Joe’s heart would always belong to Alice. Yet brushing her own misery aside as she stared over towards the brown leather armchair, imagining Ben sat there smiling towards her, she knew she had to so something…anything to help.

In such a short time he’d become a much revered father figure; Jane having never known the man who’d deserted her mother the moment he’d found she was carrying his child. And as thoughts of his kindness and thoughtfulness flooded over her she could feel her eyes stinging. “So you really think I should consider Joe’s idea?” she finally asked in a subdued voice, wiping her face as she returned her gaze towards Paul.

“All I ask is you consider reconsidering,” he said with a gentle smile before disappearing through the front door, leaving Jane sitting thoughtfully on her own.

**********

Upstairs in his father’s bedroom Joe leaned back in his chair with eyes closed. He was exhausted; both physically and emotionally and at the end of his tether. He regretted his outburst at Jane; the sight of her tears made him feel sick to the stomach as she didn’t deserve his wrath but he was desperate.

All his life Joe had seen his father as strong, fearless and as straight backed as one of the Ponderosa Pines after which he’d named his beloved ranch; at times seeming invincible. But as he turned his head and stared over towards the bed Joe now felt scared. For with the after taste of whiskey in his mouth he knew with certainty the inevitable road he’d travel if his father were now to die; the same road he’d so nearly taken after losing Alice and the baby.

The memory caused an unbearable ache in his heart; remembering also the anxiety and worry he’d put his father through during the aftermath of their deaths. There’d been days lost in a blur as he’d consumed bottle after bottle of anything that could erase the memory and send him to oblivion for a few precious hours. Weeks of feeling sick and tired and unable to swallow his grief and climb out of the hole of despair he’d dug into. He’d wanted to die; such was the depth of depression to which he’d sunk. Yet always there had been his father at his side, supporting, comforting and taking care of him. But who would there be to help get over his grief this time? No one, Joe mused with sadness. He’d be alone and there’d be no one. Not even Jane.

The thought made him suck in a deep breath for when Jane had first arrived at the ranch Mr Rude’s loyalty and devotion to his wife’s memory had made him stifle any sign of civility and friendliness towards her. But as his initial attraction refused to disappear and his thoughts continually lingered on her as he’d absently fingered Alice’s ring every evening, it soon became clear to Joe that any passionate feelings for Jane need never diminish the love he’d had for his wife.

So just as his father had married his mother yet still stared with loving eyes on the photographs of Elizabeth and Inger without any feeling of wrongdoing or shame, the tidal wave of guilt and remorse that had originally flooded over Mr Rude slowly ebbed away. And it was as if a great weight was lifted from Joe’s shoulders and Alice’s ghost was finally laid to rest.

His relationship with Jane then changed and blossomed into a warm and friendly one and Joe soon realised he’d met the woman with whom he wanted to share the rest of his life. Again and again words of love for her struggled to break free from his lips. But again and again Joe stopped himself and remained silent. For the confident and impulsive Little Joe of old had now been replaced by a more hesitant and uncertain man; not sure he had anything to offer, lacking confidence and fearing rejection.

But then the day arrived when they heard the Truckee Bridge was finally repaired and his father had insisted Jane should be allowed to continue on her travels once more. The thought of never seeing her again finally convinced Joe to declare his true feelings. But as Jane had stared with unselfish devotion to Tom and his memory clearly shining in her eyes, Joe had resignedly and reluctantly stepped back. For of all the women to fall in love with in the world he’d been fated to choose one who still adored and lived for her dead husband. And even though she was the right woman for him, with a feeling of sadness he accepted he would always be the wrong man for her. Jane’s heart would always belong to Tom.

Joe sighed heavily, but as he buried his own silent thoughts he then found he couldn’t shake off a feeling of doomed inevitability regarding his father that tugged at his mind. Turning his head towards a cooling gentle breeze that blew through the window, tears filled his eyes as he remembered their last conversation; angry words shouted in an attempt to dissuade his father from allowing Jane to leave.

Would these be the last words his father heard from his lips?

Wiping his sleeve across his eyes Joe then rested his head in his hands for a few moments when suddenly the door opened. He looked up and caught Jane’s nervous glance as she walked in and pulled up a chair on the opposite side of the bed. Joe’s look of remorse at his outburst tugged at Jane’s heartstrings and she gave him a forgiving smile then let her eyes drop down to the prone figure.

“Mr Cartwright? Hasn’t Joe told you our news yet?” she then smiled. “He’s asked me to marry him and I’ve said yes!”

**********

Three days later there’d still been no change in Ben’s condition and Joe waved another weary yet thankful farewell to his trusted foreman and ranch hands after setting out their daily tasks.

He closed the front door and looked over towards Jane who was walking down the stairs, stifling a yawn as she made her way through towards the wash house with Ben’s soiled bedding. Clearly she was as exhausted as he was, though it seemed to be a labour of love as she completed any task however unpleasant and without complaint. If his father’s recovery was to be due to some sort of miracle then it would be a miracle and help from a freckled nosed and chestnut haired angel Joe mused as he walked over to the dining table and poured out a cup of coffee. Then taking a deep, calming breath, he returned to Ben’s bedside again.

Making himself comfortable Joe took a few sips of his drink then placed the cup down on the dresser. “You know something Pa? You were right all along, as usual,” he admitted with a gentle chuckle as he began his daily one sided conversation. “Alice wouldn’t have wanted me to go through the rest of my life alone and in mourning…”

He hesitated for a moment as his lips curved in a sad half smile, thinking his words through thoughtfully as he reached over and took hold of his father’s rough skinned hand. “Guess you know what I mean when I say I’ll never forget Alice and she’ll always have a special place in my heart. It must have been the same for you after Elizabeth…and Inger. But I’ve taken your advice and moved on at last and found someone else just like you found Ma. I’ve fallen in love with Jane and want to marry her.”

Joe’s voice cracked with the emotion of his true feelings then to his surprise his gaze caught the faint beginning of a smile on the pale weathered face. Could it be his Pa was responding at last? But to Joe’s dismay the smile quickly faded so heaving a disappointed sigh he continued; hour after hour spilling untruths about his relationship with Jane that were more heartfelt latent wishes.

But still Ben showed no sign of coming round. Maybe he was destined never to awake?

Joe’s stomach churned nauseously with the thought when suddenly without warning he could feel his father’s fingers begin to uncurl and flex within his grasp. Eyelids began to flicker until eventually Ben’s eyes finally opened and he stared around blankly for a few moments, tentatively fingering the bandage on his head. His brow furrowed with alarm and fear and all the time he was aware of a familiar hand curled tightly around his own as if afraid to let go.

“Joe…Joe?”

With his eyes moistening with relief at the sound of his father’s voice Joe squeezed his hand reassuringly. “Yes it’s me Pa. You’ve been unconscious but now you’re gonna be just fine.”

The worried lines seemed to ease slightly and as his vision gradually cleared Ben gave a faint smile towards his son. “How long?” he whispered hoarsely.

 

The depth of worry and emotion was immediately evident in Joe’s voice as he answered. “Nearly two weeks. I thought for a time I was gonna lose you. I’d almost given up hope….”

Lifting his weakened arm Ben reached over and placed his hand around Joe’s neck, drawing him close, sensing his son’s fear and despair. “It’s all right Joseph. I’m back now,” he murmured. Then as Joe felt secure again as the familiar tactile closeness of his father’s hand continued to hold him, Ben once more closed his eyes but this time fell into a healing doze.

**********

After giving his patient a thorough examination Doctor Paul Martin beamed a huge smile as he stepped back from the bed. “I reckon you’ll be around for a few years yet old friend,” he declared with relief and conviction as he pulled his stethoscope from around his neck and affectionately patted Ben’s arm. “It’s good to have you back with us.”

A faint colour of pink was slowly tinting Ben’s cheeks as he nodded. “Joe told me what you had to do Paul,” he finally whispered. “Thank you.”

“Can’t take all the credit Ben,” admitted the doctor. “Without your son and Jane all my work may well have been in vain. They’ve been a great team looking after you over the past couple of weeks.”

Ben turned his head, clearly puzzled. “Jane? She’s still here?”

Joe’s face lit up with a genuine smile. “She stayed on to help out. I couldn’t have managed without her.”

Ben nodded thoughtfully as he tried to make sense of something he faintly remembered. A dream perhaps? But with his mind still lacking clarity within a few moments after yawning loudly he slowly closed his eyes and in an instant was asleep again.

Joe looked anxiously towards the doctor. “Its all right Joe,” Paul reassured as he packed up his bag. “Ben will want to sleep a lot over the next few days, but it’s nothing to worry about. It’s quite normal and just nature’s way of helping the body to recover.”

Sighing with relief Joe made his way out of the bedroom, giving his father a final concerned glance before closing the door and following the Doctor down the stairs. “He’s really gonna be all right Doc?” he asked as they stood together in the living room. “You’re sure?”

“Yes Joe. I’m sure,” Paul confirmed as Jane suddenly appeared from the direction of the kitchen. “Please try and get some nourishment down Ben as soon as you can Jane,” instructed Paul as he looked over at her. “His weakened muscles need building up.”

“Of course doctor,” replied Jane but something in the way she suddenly looked nervously up the stairs caught Joe’s attention and he intuitively sensed what was wrong.

He moved forward and gently laid a hand on her arm, a warm smile curving his mouth as he gazed into her worried eyes. “It’s okay. Pa hasn’t mentioned our supposed marriage plans so I don’t think he heard what we’ve been talking to him about over the past few days.”

Jane held his gaze. “So we won’t have to spin any more untruths?”

Joe continued to smile amiably, noting her anxious expression. “No. Him coming round now must have been just a lucky coincidence after all,” he answered finally, looking over towards Paul as if for confirmation.

However the doctor remained silent for a moment as he looked between them both and the wildest of ideas filtered into his brain. “Actually Joe, with Ben still feeling groggy there’s a good chance he may yet recall what you were talking about once his mind clears,” he eventually stated. “So if that is the case I would rather you and Jane keep up this pretence until I tell you otherwise. Ben needs something to focus his mind and give him the motivation he needs to recover.”

Jane looked at him dubiously. “You really think it would make such a big difference if he thinks we’re to marry?”

Noting her scepticism the Doctor nodded grimly as he walked towards the credenza and picked up his hat. “Yes Jane, I think it would make all the difference in the world,” he answered, throwing them both a solemn stare. “The human brain and heart can be fickle things at times and I don’t want to risk any unnecessary upset before Ben’s had time to get his strength back.”

Paul threw a farewell wave and closed the front door behind him as Joe drew a deep breath and sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Jane turned her head and raised her eyebrow questioningly. “For what?”

With his tired eyes reflecting true regret Joe gave a wan look towards her. “For getting you involved in one of my hair-brain schemes. I know if we have to keep lying to Pa it won’t sit easy on your conscience.”

Jane beamed a reassuring smile as she stared into the handsome face now etched with sadness. “I must admit I don’t like the idea of having to deceive your father, especially about something like this. But the most important thing is his health so if we have to continue with our pretense then so be it. I intend to do anything and everything I possibly can if it means he’ll recover as quickly as possible.”

As quickly as possible? Joe understood only too well what Jane was implying for once his father was well she would be able to continue the journey she’d temporarily postponed. If only he had the courage to say now what his heart felt, but all Joe did was give a tight smile of thanks and return up the stairs to his father’s side.

As quickly as possible? Jane’s smile faded as she watched Joe walk away. For with Ben recovered she’d have no reason or excuse to remain on the Ponderosa. If only she had the courage to say now what her heart felt, but instead she just sighed an unhappy sigh and walked slowly back towards the kitchen.


Chapter 3:

After Paul’s departure Ben continued to sleep soundly with his son keeping vigil at his side. Joe was happy…elated…knowing his father was now on the road to recovery yet even so he stared moodily through the bedroom window into the darkness; a blue eyed beauty who could never be his also on his mind.

Downstairs the grandfather clock could be heard chiming 8pm as Joe picked up a cup of coffee and quickly drank it back before realising it had been standing far too long. He spluttered and grimaced, letting out a quiet expletive as Jane appeared in the door way. “It wasn’t that bad was it?” she grinned.

Her smile was contagious and Joe couldn’t help but grin back with embarrassment at his coarse language. “Sorry. Just cold,” he explained then all of a sudden a quiet moan from the bed captured their attention as Ben finally began to stir again.

As he opened his eyes he smiled with recognition. “Jane,” he whispered, stretching out his hand. “I’ve been told I have a lot to thank you for. How can I ever repay you?”

“Just get better,” Jane replied as she felt his fingers curl around her own, and then she leaned forward and affectionately kissed his cheek. “Do you think you could manage something to eat? Doctor Martin says I’ve got to start feeding you right away.”

Suddenly realising just how hungry he was Ben nodded, and minutes later as Jane returned from the kitchen carrying a small bowl Joe eased his father up and slipped another pillow under his head. Jane then began to spoon broth into Ben’s mouth until eventually with the bowl emptied and returned onto the dresser Ben gave a satisfied sigh as Jane eased down onto a chair by the window. He looked thoughtfully at her for a few moments. “I wasn’t dreaming was I?” he asked eventually in a hopeful whisper. “Are you two really getting married?”

A look of apprehension fleetingly covered Jane’s face as she glanced over towards Joe who flashed a resigned smile. It was now apparent Ben had heard them and with the doctor’s words ringing in their ears both realised they would need to play out their necessary ruse after all. Taking a deep breath Jane stood up and walked over to Joe, slipping her arm through his and gripping it tightly to steady her nerves.

“No, it wasn’t a dream,” she confirmed as Ben watched them keenly. “Everything’s happened so quickly I can hardly believe the news myself!”

“But…what…what about the trip you’d planned for such a long time Jane?” Ben then asked hesitatingly. “You seemed so determined to go for Tom’s sake.”

Joe felt Jane’s fingers tighten. “I’m sure Tom would understand and just want me to be happy. I love Joe now and there’s nothing I’d rather do than stay on the Ponderosa with him,” she answered truthfully. “But there’ll be no date fixed until you’re completely well again. I want my wedding day to be perfect and that includes you walking me down the aisle and giving me away!”

Joe’s eyes flashed with surprise, momentarily taken aback by Jane’s totally believable performance before quickly composing himself and playing his part in their charade. “That’s right Pa. Jane’s insisting she won’t make an honest man of me until you’re fit again,” he smiled then did something he’d yearned to do for a long time. He kissed Jane. In fact he kissed her with such a passionate intensity for a few ecstatic and pleasurable moments Ben and the world outside the room seemed to disappear for them both until eventually he pulled away.

Clearly unrepentant at his impulsiveness Joe looked down with a lopsided grin and as his smile lingered Jane stared at him in wide eyed confusion. For although they’d only acted out for Ben’s benefit, never in her wildest dreams had she anticipated or imagined Joe would want to kiss her; especially like that. And it was almost as if he’d really enjoyed himself. She certainly had!

 

But as they both glanced down towards the figure on the bed, it didn’t take them long to realise Ben had missed their moment of passion and was asleep again. Though this time the corners of his mouth were curved into a contented and peaceful smile.

**********

It was late afternoon as Jane walked slowly down the stairs after sitting with Ben. He was now asleep again having lost the battle with his eyes to keep them open, and as she reached the bottom step she paused and stared over towards Joe.

Sitting at the desk, a cup of coffee in one hand and a pencil in the other, he was gazing down intently at a leather bound ledger. Jane’s heart flipped a beat as she watched him, then sensing her presence Joe looked up, his eyes flashing with concern. “Pa okay?

“He’s fine. Just having another nap,” Jane answered quickly, composing herself and giving a reassuring smile as she walked over.

“Has he asked you anything about…?”

Jane shook her head. “He seems to have happily accepted what we told him last night though I don’t know what I’d have done if he’d looked me in the eye and started to ask questions. I’ve never been a very good liar.”

“But you sure were convincing last night!” Joe chuckled.

Jane looked down for a moment. “And so were you,” she countered as her cheeks tinted red at the wonderful memory of their kiss. “Hopefully we won’t have to continue for too long and I just hope he’ll find it in his heart to forgive me.”

Joe drank back the dregs of his coffee. “Don’t you worry Jane,” he sighed resignedly, placing the empty cup down on the desk. “As soon as Doc says the word I’ll admit to Pa what’s been going on and make sure he understands I coerced you into playing out my little plan. He’s used to me leading folk astray after all these years. There’ll be no blame laid on you.”

“But I hate the thought of Mr Cartwright just being mad at you Joe. It doesn’t seem fair,” Jane then stated, shaking her head stubbornly. “No. When the time comes I’ll admit my part and we’ll face him together.”

Jane turned towards the kitchen as a glint of admiration flashed in Joe’s eyes. “Well, if you insist. I just hope you’re prepared for the necessary talking to with Pa’s slipper!” he teased with a laugh, lowering his gaze to look down at the pages in front of him again. A few moments passed then he suddenly heaved a frustrated sigh and threw the pencil down in disgust. It clattered on the wooden floor and Jane looked around in alarm.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, returning to stand by the desk and noticing Joe’s disheartened expression.

“I’ve tried to add up these columns three times and managed to get a different answer every time. If this ledger doesn’t tally soon I may just end up throwing it through the window!”

Joe pushed back in his chair and stretched out his arms, linking his hands behind his head. “Adam was always the one Pa relied on to do these accounts,” he confessed grudgingly and with a slightly venomous edge as he stared up at the ceiling. “He was the mathematical genius of the family! Not me!”

Jane sat down in front of the desk and as Joe looked over he noticed a sympathetic stare coming his way. “Sorry. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than hear me moaning and groaning.”

Jane gave him a warm and forgiving smile and Joe felt his body’s temperature rise. How he longed to take her in his arms again and confess his true feelings. The confident and impetuous Little Joe of old wouldn’t have thought twice about jumping over the desk and admitting how much he loved her, there and then. Nor would he have stepped meekly aside for another man, especially not a dead one. But then the impulsive Little Joe of old would have done a lot of things differently, Joe mused sadly.

Jane watched him in silence, his mind seemingly miles away, and then taking a deep breath she decided to settle something that had bothered her for a while. “I realise I may be speaking out of turn, but I was wondering…?”

Joe shook his thoughts away and raised his eyebrow questioningly.

“Will you ever forgive him?”

Joe stared at her for a long moment and a puzzled look flashed in his eyes. “Forgive him? Forgive who?”

“Adam.”

Her question caught Joe off balance and he sat forward in his chair, his face tightening into a frown. “Adam? What for?”

“For leaving you all and making another life for himself away from the Ponderosa.”

Joe’s glare suddenly lightened and he gave a soft chuckle. “I can hardly begrudge elder brother following his dream and he certainly didn’t need my forgiveness for wanting to see the world.”

“But you hardly ever mention his name or talk about him. I just wondered if there was a reason.”

Joe regarded her for a moment. “Yeah…there is. It’s for Pa’s benefit,” he finally confirmed. “He’s tried to hide it from me but I know he’s worried sick about him. So the less I mention Adam’s name, the more chance Pa won’t be reminded we’ve not heard from him for nearly two years.”

Jane looked at him shrewdly. “But there’s something else,” she said with perceptive intuitiveness. “I noticed you seemed resentful when your father was telling me about Adam moving to Europe. It was almost as if you were angry at him for going away.”

Suddenly Joe’s eyes narrowed towards her and Jane gave an anxious gulp, wondering if perhaps she’d dared to say too much. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to speak out of turn,” she told him, hoping she wasn’t about to suffer the same wrath she’d first encountered from Mr Rude, all those weeks ago.

But instead Joe’s expression took on a look of resignation. “Its okay Jane,” he replied finally, sighing heavily as he tore his eyes from her and looked for a few moments towards the map of the Ponderosa hung on the wall behind his head. “I’m not angry at Adam for going away,” he admitted with a slight tremor in his voice as he returned his gaze towards her. “But I am angry at me.”

Noting the sad and forlorn look now clearly showing on his face, Jane’s own expression changed to one of gentle questioning. “But why?”

Joe eased out of his chair and looked through a small window. “I’ve never told anyone this before,” he confessed as he raked his fingers through his hair. “Not even Pa.” Silently considering for a few moments he turned and sat back down.

“A few weeks before Adam was due to leave we had a blazing row. Or should I say I did the shouting….” Joe paused and stared pointedly towards the blue backed chair for a moment, his eyes flashing with regret. “Adam just sat there without saying a word and listened to me ranting and raving, raising his eyebrow up like he always did when he indulged his little brother’s tantrums!” Joe gave a sad smile at the memory.

“You argued because you thought he should stay on the Ponderosa?”

The smile faded and Joe shook his head. “No far from it. I wanted Adam to let me go with him…but he refused.”

Jane widened her eyes with surprise. “You wanted to leave as well?”

Joe gave a reluctant nod. “It was soon after Clay left I got to thinking maybe I should make a move away from the ranch; do something different with my life. I never told anyone. Just hoped one day the chance would…”

“Clay?” Jane interrupted with a frown. She’d never heard Joe mention the name before. So much she didn’t know about this man…so much she wanted to know…so much she’d never know.

“Long story Jane,” Joe answered as he gave her a tight smile. “Clay was my brother. My mother’s first born before she met and married Pa. He only stayed around a few months during ‘62 and I’ve never heard from him since.” A mix of both sorrow and bitterness showed clearly on Joe’s face then he continued.

“Anyhow, with Adam leaving I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to travel with him and make a fresh start somewhere else. But when I told him my plan he refused point blank to let me go with him and insisted I stayed on the Ponderosa. So I said a lot of things I’m not proud of; including good riddance and don’t bother coming back at one point!”

“You were pretty angry then?”

Joe nodded sadly. “At the time yes though I wasn’t serious about what I said. But I’ve never been one for thinking things through before I open my mouth, as you’ve no doubt noticed! Anyway, we finally agreed to a truce and kept our argument between ourselves for Pa and Hoss’ sake. They were upset enough having to say goodbye to him.”

Jane furrowed her brow questioningly. “But if you wanted to leave so much, why didn’t you just go off on your own?”

Joe paused for a moment and gave a wry smile. “Guess the truth is I never did like the thought of being by myself. And as it worked out Adam was right. He obviously knew me better than I knew myself and could see my heart belonged here on the ranch, and I’d never settle anywhere else. But by the time I’d realised it he’d long gone and I never got the chance to let him know how right he’d been and how sorry I was. Blamed myself for the fact he’s never returned ever since.”

For a moment there was silence then Jane gave a reassuring smile. “Don’t be too hard on yourself Joe,” she pleaded. “I’m sure Adam realised you didn’t mean what you said to him.”

“I’ve always hoped so,” Joe replied sadly.

“You really miss him, don’t you?”

It was more a statement than a question and Joe looked over sharply at Jane as if to deny it but suddenly found himself nodding. “Yeah. I miss him a lot. You’d have got on well with him though Jane. He was definitely your type of man.”

Jane raised her eyebrows. “Type? And just what type would that be?”

Joe looked down at his hands that were now clenched tight in front of him. “From what you’ve described everything your Tom was that I ain’t,” he answered dejectedly. “Intelligent, cultured, well read and a spirit of adventure in his veins. Yep, I reckon you and elder brother would have got along just fine.”

“Maybe…maybe not,” Jane sighed quietly, and giving Joe a quick glance she noted his miserable expression and mistook it for his lack of book-keeping skills.

“Tell you what. I’ll go and make us both a coffee and then we’ll try and make sense of these accounts together,” she smiled as she bent over and picked up the pencil from the floor and handed it back. “Though I’m sure you’re just as capable as Adam if you set your mind to it.”

Joe shook his head. “After all this time I doubt if….” Suddenly a quizzical look appeared on his face as something at the top of the ledger caught his eye. “Well, I’ll be…” he half whispered to himself.

Jane followed his gaze. “What?”

“I’ve just noticed the date. With all that’s been going on lately I hadn’t even realised. Today’s my birthday!” Joe’s shoulders slumped and a faint, weary expression covered his face as he stared over at the photograph of his mother. “Some way to celebrate, eh Ma? Doing the ranch accounts!”

Jane studied him for a moment, then with a determined air stood up, grabbing the pencil from his hand and closing the ledger with a resounding thud. “No more book-keeping for today,” she stated with a grin, smiling at Joe’s expression of surprise.

“What’d you do that for?”

“All work and no play make Joe a dull boy!” she joked with a smile. “And seeing as you haven’t left the ranch for weeks I think you should go to town tonight and have a few drinks to celebrate your birthday. Let off some steam and go and enjoy yourself.”

Joe shook his head. “It’s not possible Jane. What about Pa? I can’t leave him alone.”

“Your father is over the worst so you don’t need to worry. I’ll sit with him and keep him company.”

Joe continued to look unconvinced. “But I should be figuring out these books. Pa always has them finished by the last day of the month.”

“You have four days left. That’s plenty of time.”

Still Joe hesitated but licked his lips, rubbing his chin thoughtfully and clearly tempted at the prospect of a few cold beers, a game of poker and a chat with his old friends. “I don’t know…”

Jane rolled her eyes at him. “For heavens sake Joe Cartwright!” she cried in good humoured exasperation. “What are you a man or a mouse? Don’t just sit there dithering! Get washed up and go!”

Her firmness of tone gave Joe all the incentive he needed. “Yes Ma’am!” he replied as he pushed back his chair and moved around the desk. He smiled and holding her by the shoulders impetuously planted a feather light kiss on her mouth. “Thanks. I don’t deserve you,” he admitted softly, all the while holding her blue-eyed gaze. “I won’t be late back.”

Then as Joe bounded up the stairs two at a time and disappeared from sight Jane stared after him with her heart pounding hard. His gesture and the look on his face had left her momentarily reeling. Had she noticed a glimmer of affection even love in his eyes? But as ever Jane would not allow her optimism to run amok and as it seemed so ridiculous a thought she dismissed it from her mind immediately.

Still she couldn’t hide a lingering smile as she gently placed her fingers on her mouth where Joe’s lips had rested. Sniffing away a tear that threatened to escape from her eyes Jane blinked hard. “Happy Birthday Joe,” she whispered before picking up the empty coffee cup from the desk and making her way into the kitchen.

**********

True to her word Jane stayed by Ben’s side until gone 9pm as she read out snippets of news from the Virginia City Territorial Express. Still weak he seemed content to just lay with his eyes closed, listening to her voice and much to Jane’s relief not querying her relationship with Joe; just accepting it without question.

Then when he finally succumbed to sleep once more Jane gazed affectionately at him for a long moment. Her emotions were divided; relieved Ben was going to be all right yet despairing to think once he’d fully recovered there’d be no reason for her to stay. A sad ache of resigned inevitability settled in her chest and with a sigh she moved over to a chair by the window to read by the light of a lamp and occasionally glance out of the window onto the yard below

 

But even though another hour went by as Jane kept up her lonely vigil there was still no sign of Joe. With a tired yawn she rose up and noting how Ben was comfortable and probably settled for the night quietly closed his bedroom door and made her way downstairs. She was tempted to go to bed herself but decided to stay up for a while. So after putting on her nightdress and unpinning her hair, she wrapped her dressing gown around her and made her way to the kitchen to prepare a small pan of warm milk.

Making herself cosy in the leather armchair beside the fireplace where the dying embers still provided adequate warmth, Jane began to read another of Adam’s books; a well-worn, dog-eared and obviously favourite edition of A Christmas Carol. Sipping at her drink she soon became engrossed until with a start she heard the clock strike midnight. Forcing herself not to think of a worst-case scenario that could have delayed Joe, she was just about to start a fresh chapter when suddenly the front door opened and he appeared, walking in a little unsteadily before slowly and deliberately undoing his gun belt.

Placing the book down on the coffee table Jane stood up and cleared her throat, and visibly startled the holster fell from Joe’s hands and slithered to the floor in a crumpled heap.

“Whoops!” he chuckled; his inebriated state more than obvious as his hat fell from the back of his head, and as he tried to take off his coat he moved sideways, ending up with a crash against his father’s desk. Eventually, after a few moments tussle with the jacket it laid discarded and Joe grinned over triumphantly to a surprised looking Jane while holding on grimly to a chair to keep his balance.

“Can’t you stand up by yourself?” she queried.

“Course I can!” Joe affirmed instantly with drunken bravado, letting go his grip and standing up straight. Then lazily and as if in slow motion, he toppled and landed with a resounding thud on the floor.

Lying on his back Joe let out a child-like giggle as Jane hurried over. “Quiet Joe,” she ordered, trying to keep a straight face as she looked down at him and hardly able to believe he was the surly Mr Rude she’d first met. “I don’t want you to wake your father up at this hour!”

Joe looked up with wide eyed innocence. “Pa’s ‘sleep already?”

“Of course….its gone midnight!”

“Didn’t realise it was so late!” Joe whispered; his eyes glazed over from the alcohol he’d consumed. “Couldn’t get away…everyone wishing me happy birthday…buying me drinks…lots and lots of drinks….”

Jane took hold of his arm. “Here…let me help you up,” she offered, pulling him to a sitting position. But then Joe stubbornly refused to move as he stared hard at her for a moment. Having never seen Jane with her hair cascading loose around her shoulders before, he brushed it with his fingertips. “Have I ever told you how beautiful you are?”

Jane’s heart momentarily jumped a beat then she pulled at his arm again. “No Joe, you haven’t,” she sighed, choosing to ignore his drunken compliment because he obviously didn’t know what he was saying. “Now come on. Let’s get you up to bed.”

This time Joe made it onto his feet, and as he swayed Jane kept him upright, holding him tight as they walked slowly towards the stairs. “I’m not really drunk,” he muttered as he gripped the banister rail and tripped over the first step.

“Of course you’re not,” Jane chuckled soothingly as Joe regained his footing.

“All the saloon gals gave me a birthday kiss…then another…and another!” he then admitted with a yawn as they made their way up the stairs reasonably quietly and without further incident. Then once in his room with a final gargantuan effort Jane pushed Joe onto his bed; exhaustion immediately evident as he closed his eyes and seemed to fall instantly asleep.

Jane smiled indulgently as she pulled off Joe’s boots and brought the bedspread up towards his chest. She stared down at him; her emotions running riot. How she loved this man…needed this man….wanted this man. But it would never be. Impulsively she bent forward and planted a loving kiss on his forehead. But when she tried to straighten Jane found strands of her hair tangled in the chain around Joe’s neck and as she went to pull herself free a pair of glazed hazel eyes suddenly blinked rapidly at her.

With their faces inches apart a far from sober Joe stared through blurry eyes that flashed mischievously. “Time for my birthday kiss,” he slurred with a smile, wrapping his arms around her and seeking out her mouth.

Surprised and caught completely unawares Jane expected his drunken caress to be over in an instant. But to her amazement it lingered and deepened with obvious desire and she was soon left in no doubt as to what would happen if she didn’t immediately push away from Joe’s passionate embrace. However by now long forgotten feelings had stirred within her and a delicious wave of suppressed longing for him was rushing through her veins. So not stopping to think or even care of the consequences, Jane laced her arms around Joe’s neck and began to kiss him back with an equal fervour and intensity. And as their bodies moulded together and Joe’s strong hands gently coaxed, a willing and unresisting Jane succumbed to his tender and loving demands.

Their frantic need and longing for each other seemed insatiable and never ending until eventually with their joint hunger satisfied and spent their exhaustive lovemaking ceased. But the loving didn’t stop as Jane remained within Joe’s comforting hold with her head on his chest; Joe combing his fingers through her hair and neither wishing to move and thus break the magic spell that seemed to bind them together.

“I love you,” Joe finally whispered in a soft tender drawl before slowly releasing his hold and drifting off into the drunken heavy rhythm of deep sleep. And as Jane’s blue eyes brimmed with happiness she smiled with contentment. He loved her! Joe loved her! But with her heart pounding hard Jane couldn’t help but notice how Joe’s hand once more instinctively closed tightly around the gold ring and a familiar looking smile played on the corner of his mouth.

Immediately she went cold inside. Joe was dreaming again….about Alice! All the time they were making love he must have imagined she was his wife! Sadness overwhelmed her as Jane accepted she’d been a delusional and stupid fool to think she could ever replace Alice in Joe’s heart. So with her humiliation acute she hastily dressed and quickly returned to her own room where she slumped down dejectedly onto the bed.

But as she sobbed seemingly endless tears Jane was oblivious that upstairs dreams of a most wonderful and passionate lovemaking filtered through Joe’s brain; endearments murmured in sleep for the blue eyed and chestnut haired Jane going unheard and unappreciated as he lay alone in his room.

**********

Between bouts of tears Jane didn’t sleep a wink for the rest of that night. Eventually dawn arrived and seating herself at the dining table she picked at her breakfast with her fork, but after one mouthful she slowly pushed her plate away; her appetite non-existent.

Her tired eyes betrayed sorrow and she trembled with shame, chiding herself for allowing things to get so completely out of control and knowing Joe hadn’t made love to her at all. It had been nothing more than lust on his part; only using her body as a drunken release for his own frustrations; a substitute for his wife.

What would he think of her now? Jane wiped a tear from her cheek at the thought of the embarrassing and hurtful confrontation that would soon take place between them when suddenly her heart gave an uncomfortable lurch as a familiar figure appeared at the top of the stairs.

Barefooted, his wavy hair still tousled from sleep and his shirt unfastened, Joe slowly made his way down, practically falling onto the settee where he seemed to struggle for a few moments to put on his boots that he’d carried from his room. Then he looked over, failing to notice through his bleary eyes that Jane’s were puffy and slightly red rimmed as he made his way to the table and pulled up a chair next to her.

There was a tense silence for a few moments and Jane took a deep breath and trembled slightly as she found her gaze drawn towards the glistening ring that rested provocatively on Joe’s bared chest as if taunting her; strands of her chestnut hair still captured on the chain.

Oblivious to her nervous stare Joe slowly opened his mouth but no words came out as he suddenly drew his hand across his forehead and groaned loudly. “Oh…my …head,” he slowly murmured as he peered through squinted eyes. “Serves me right for mixing beer and whiskey and a few other drinks I didn’t even know existed! Hope I didn’t disturb you when I got back from town.”

Jane looked over quickly, unprepared for the civility of his query. “Don’t you remember anything?” she asked with forced casualness.

Struggling to clear his thoughts the wrinkles around his eyes deepened as Joe scratched his head in bewilderment for a moment. There was a vague, indefinable image; a dream…a wonderful fantasy about Jane that seemed to linger then it suddenly disappeared completely. He heaved a sad sigh and shook his head pitifully. “I don’t even remember leaving the Silver Dollar,” he groaned. “Good job my horse knows his way home but how I managed to find my own bed sure is a mystery!”

Giving a self-conscious gulp as he suddenly became aware of his improper state of dress Joe began to button up his shirt with his fumbling fingers. “I didn’t do anything stupid did I?” he asked, watching nervously for her response.

Jane swallowed hard as her hand tightly gripped around her cup. “Like what?”

Shrugging his shoulders Joe squinted around the room through bloodshot eyes as if seeking out breakages then looked limply back at her. “Knowing me anything is possible. But if I did…I’m real sorry.”

Shakily replacing her cup into its saucer Jane shook her head and forced out a smile. “No Joe. You didn’t do anything stupid as far as I know,” she answered and made to stand up. “Will you want any breakfast?”

Looking down at the cold contents on Jane’s plate Joe felt a bout of nausea slowly begin to creep up from the pit of his stomach. Scraping back his chair he shook his head. “No thanks…no breakfast…just coffee…lots of black coffee,” he murmured as his face visibly paled and he hurriedly made his way towards the outhouse.

Jane watched him disappear from sight then allowed herself the luxury of a moment’s sad reflection; not knowing whether to laugh with relief or cry at the absurdity of the surreal situation.

Joe had obviously no recollection of anything when he’d returned home and for him it would always be just a drunken night out that had ended with an unpleasant and unforgiving hangover. Regardless of who he thought she was their lovemaking was now forgotten as though it was of no consequence and had never happened.

And maybe that was the way it was meant to be Jane sighed then buried her head in her hands and silently wept.

**********

Ben walked from the kitchen holding a fresh cup of coffee and relaxed into his beloved thick cushioned leather chair, appreciating the sound of silence; alone today for the first time in a long time.

Several weeks had passed since he’d regained consciousness and though Joe had been leaving well before dawn for over a month to supervise and work in the Cartwright’s silver mine located high on the northern ridge of the Ponderosa, Jane had been ever present and Ben’s constant companion.

However, after being examined by the doctor the previous day and declared fully fit, Ben had been asked by Jane at breakfast that morning if she could visit Virginia City on the supply wagon. It was a request Ben had been more than willing to grant as her face looked pale and tired of late and a sure indication she’d been working far too hard while taking care of him.

With the house silent except for the ticking of the clock Ben took a long swallow of his drink and gave a satisfying sigh before putting his cup aside on the coffee table and settling down in reflective mood; recalling his time spent while in a comatose sleep.

He’d been vaguely aware of movement around him; caring hands bathing his body, changing his soiled bedding, gently stroking his sweated face. And he’d wanted to respond. But every time he tried to return to the world he knew so well he seemed to be pulled back to a place of peace and serenity where he felt no pain.

And then there were the voices; familiar loving voices that penetrated into his dream like state, talking to him, constantly urging him to return to them. But still he couldn’t find the strength or desire to leave his silent world until something important and surprising enough to stir him from his self induced slumber was repeated over and over again and everything changed.

Yet as he continued to reflect about the weeks that followed, Ben’s brow furrowed in puzzlement as something about Joe and Jane’s relationship just didn’t sit right for the acutely perceptive man. They both seemed happy enough he acknowledged; especially as he remembered the passionate kiss they’d shared in his presence that first evening. And he’d seen for himself the unmistakable look of love flashing in his son’s eyes as he’d looked Jane’s way; equally matched by Jane whose face always softened with relief and tenderness each evening when Joe arrived back after being away all day.

But something strange was definitely going on, especially Jane’s behaviour after he’d told her how proud and thankful he was to have her as a future daughter in law. It was then her usually cheery expression froze to be replaced by a look of absolute misery and dismay as she’d burst into tears and rushed out of the room, leaving Ben shaking his head in bafflement; pondering women could be such unpredictable and unfathomable creatures at times.

And there also seemed to be an underlying tension when they were all together; it was almost as if Joe and Jane were acting parts in a play, improvising as they went along. Ben then gave a chuckle at the absurdity of his notion. Maybe he was over-reacting; making mountains out of mole hills, he mused as he stretched out his hand and pulled down his pipe from the mantelpiece.

Reaching for his tobacco tin he noticed it was nearly empty. Pity he hadn’t realised earlier he thought, and made a mental note to ask Joe to pick him up a fresh batch the next time he was in town. Then appreciating the solitude he lit his pipe and eased back into his chair to enjoy precious minutes of peace and tranquillity; contented with the knowledge his youngest son had seemingly found his hearts desire and had turned the corner of grief and despair over Alice at last.

**********

Jane closed the Wells Fargo office door and for the first time in a long time she felt a sense of loneliness as she stood alone on the sidewalk; a myriad of thoughts tumbling around her mind.

She watched from a distance as one of the Ponderosa ranch hands continued to slowly load the wagon with supplies from the mercantile. He was obviously not in a hurry as he’d been joined by a pretty young woman who was openly flirting with him; her light laughter easily caught by Jane’s keen ear. She gave a sigh. For even though her business in Virginia City was now completed and she longed to return to the ranch as quickly as possible it was obvious the love-struck cowboy would not be ready nor willing to leave for another hour at least.

As Jane swallowed queasiness away and a thumping pain started in her head her eyes strayed towards Martha’s café that had been a welcomed haven during her occasional visits to Virginia City over the past months. It had not been her intention to visit that day, but with the sudden need to sit down and her desire of a friend to talk to she made her way across the street.

Entering Jane sighed with relief at the absence of customers; threading her way past the empty tables and chairs until reaching her favourite spot in the alcove. Removing her bonnet she gratefully sank down on a chair as Martha walked through from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “Jane! I didn’t expect to see you today,” she greeted with genuine warmth as she pulled up a chair by her side. “What a lovely surprise.”

Jane forced out a smile as her head continued to pound. “The Doctor called yesterday and declared Mr Cartwright fully recovered,” she explained. “So as he can now be left on his own and I had some business in town I took advantage of the supply wagon coming in.”

Martha gave a short shriek of delight. “That’s wonderful news about Ben,” she exclaimed then as Jane wearily rested her elbows on the table and held her head in her hands she gazed at her sympathetically. “Are you feeling unwell my dear?”

“It’s just a headache. I’m sure it will soon pass.”

“Would you like a coffee?”

Jane raised her head and gave a faint smile of refusal. “No thank you Martha. Don’t seem to have the taste for it these days,” she admitted, colouring slightly before looking down into her lap with a pensive expression on her face.

Watching her closely Martha touched her shoulder. “Is something wrong?”

Pausing for a moment Jane gave out a sigh and nodded. “One of the reasons I came into town was to confront Doctor Martin,” she told her. “I mean its obvious Mr Cartwright is now physically and mentally strong enough to be told the truth about this engagement farce.”

Martha nodded, privy to the seemingly strange course of action encouraged by the doctor to aid his patient’s recovery.

Jane took a breath. “Anyway he’s finally admitted we could have told Mr Cartwright the truth from the first and it would have made no difference to his recovery. He’d only made us continue with the deception because he thought Joe and I had feelings for each other and hoped romance could blossom between us. It was his idea of match making I guess; if we pretended to be engaged for long enough we might have just done it for real.”

Martha’s eyes widened with astonishment then she chuckled. “I never realised Paul could be such a wily old fox,” she smiled then noticed Jane’s miserable expression. “Surely you can see the funny side?”

“The funny side?” Jane stared at her in disbelief, finding no humour in the situation as her voice rose an octave. “It was bad enough having to blatantly lie over the past weeks for the best of reasons but to then find out it was completely unnecessary! I’ve felt like an impostor all the time and I hated it when Mr Cartwright looked at me so trustingly, believing every word Joe and I told him. At one point I just burst into tears. Heaven knows what he thought was going on!”

Martha’s smile faded as she nodded sympathetically. “I hope you gave Paul a piece of your mind for making you go through such an ordeal unnecessarily!”

Jane’s face flushed slightly with a combination of guilt and embarrassment. “I couldn’t Martha,” she admitted softly, even managing a gentle smile. “You see this mess was probably all down to me in the first place anyway.”

Martha arched her eyebrow questioningly. “What do you mean?”

Jane took in a deep breath. “I do have feelings for Joe,” she admitted with a nervous edge to her voice. “I’ve been in love with him for a long time and I’m guessing the doctor sensed something from me and that’s why he came up with his idea of trying to get us together.”

Openly surprised a smile slowly creased Martha’s wrinkled face as a lump formed in her throat. “You love Little Joe?”

“I can’t describe just how much I do love him.”

Martha reached over and clutched Jane’s hand. “That’s wonderful news. I couldn’t be happier. And he feels the same way?” she asked hopefully.

Jane shook her head sadly. “I truly wish he did Martha but Joe has no interest in me. No interest at all.”

There was a pause as Jane felt the burn of tears forming and hurriedly wiped her hand across her eyes. “Joe loves Alice. It will always be Alice,” she declared with surprising clarity and conviction. “He still mourns for her and there hasn’t been a day gone by when he doesn’t take hold of her wedding ring and thinks about her, longs for her, and no matter how much I love him I just can’t compete with a ghost.”

Martha gave Jane’s hand a sympathetic pat. “I’m so sorry my dear. I wish things had turned out differently for you both.”

A stray tear spilled over her cheek as Jane smiled sadly. “So do I.”

There was a moment’s reflective silence between the two women then Martha leaned forward. “Have you decided what you’re going to do next?”

Jane cleared her throat. “I’ll talk to Joe about telling his father the truth like we’d agreed then…then I’ll make plans to leave the Ponderosa,” she answered sadly in a trembling voice. “In fact I’ve already booked a seat on Friday’s stage for New York as there’s no point hanging around any longer. Hop Sing is due back at the end of the month and Mr Cartwright doesn’t require a nurse anymore so I’m sure both he and Joe will manage until then.”

“Friday?” Martha gasped then stared at her in surprise as she realised it was only two days away. “Why so soon?”

Jane looked up nervously. “I don’t want to go…believe me I love it on the Ponderosa. But I can’t stay around now. Especially when Mr Cartwright knows Joe isn’t going to have the happy ever after he’d longed for him.”

“But Jane, you were only trying to help by doing what Paul asked you to do,” offered Martha by way of trying to ease her conscience and change her mind. “No matter how upset he is I’m sure Ben will be forgiving, knowing you only had his well being at heart!”

However Jane still shook her head resolutely. “No Martha. I have to go.”

“But there’s no need to rush Jane. Even if you don’t feel you can stay on the Ponderosa you could always live here with me until the spring and then make your plans for Europe. And you never know; given time Little Joe may even….”

“I’m afraid time is something I haven’t got spare,” Jane quietly interrupted then without warning and to her utter horror hot tears once more filled her eyes, only this time they poured down over her cheeks uncontrollably.

Visibly surprised and concerned Martha hurriedly locked the café door to avoid any interruptions then waited patiently at Jane’s side until the tears ceased, offering over a clean napkin which Jane gratefully accepted. “I’m s-orry,” she cried on a sobbing breath as she wiped her reddened eyes. “I didn’t mean that to happen. You must think me a complete fool.”

“Of course I don’t,” smiled Martha reassuringly. “But it’s obvious something pretty serious is bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?”

Jane sighed with resignation and gave a slight nod. “I didn’t intend anyone knowing,” she whispered, forcing her eyes back to take in the anxious look that now covered Martha’s face. “But you see….I’m expecting a baby.”

There was a sudden intake of breath then a moment’s silence as Martha instinctively glanced to Jane’s stomach. “You’re having a…a baby?” Her voice faltered with utter surprise and bewilderment as her eyes flashed a question only Jane could answer.

“It’s Joe. Joe’s the father.”

Martha shook her head in obvious disbelief. “But…but…you just said a moment ago he doesn’t love you and that he still loves Alice! Yet you and he have…?”

Jane nodded with acute self-consciousness and turned her eyes from Martha’s accusing glare. “Only once. He’d been celebrating his birthday in town and came home drunk so I’d helped him up to his room then….then it happened.”

All of a sudden a combined look of shock and horror covered Martha’s face. “Little Joe was drunk? Did he force himself on you?”

To Martha’s relief Jane shook her head vehemently, knowing full well the implication made. “Oh no Martha! There was no force, believe me,” she cried as her eyes suddenly glazed over with the memory of the intimacy they’d shared. “I was more than willing and he was so gentle…so tender.”

Reliving his passion and her response to it Jane continued to stare silently through the window for a moment, then realising Martha’s gaze was still on her she gave a weak smile of embarrassment for giving such a surprisingly candid confession.

“But…are…are you really sure you’re expecting? Couldn’t you be mistaken?”

 

Patting her hand gently on her stomach as if sending a message of love to the life within her, Jane gave a slight shake of the head. “No Martha, I’m sure. I’ve been sick every morning for quite a while and I can’t stand the taste of coffee any more,” she admitted softly as a tender smile of remembrance touched her lips. “It was the same before…when I was carrying Tom’s child…our daughter.”

“And…and Little Joe?” asked Martha hesitatingly. “What does he have to say about it all?”

As the smile faded Jane lowered her head. “Joe doesn’t remember what happened between us that night. By the next day he couldn’t even recall leaving the saloon, never mind anything else. And I hope he never will.”

With her eyes widening with incredulity Martha reached over and grabbed Jane’s arm. “What do you mean never will? Surely you’re going to tell him about the baby?”

Jane shook her head resolutely. “No Martha. Afterwards, when he held Alice’s ring so tightly, it was obvious he’d imagined I was her all the time we were….” She paused for a moment, nervously searching Martha’s face for understanding. “I don’t want to hurt him and that’s why I need to leave town…before…before he realises my condition and finds out the truth about what he’s done. I couldn’t bear to have him staring at me, full of remorse for being unfaithful to Alice’s memory.”

“But Jane, Little Joe’s an honourable man,” Martha pleaded. “He’s not one to walk away from his responsibilities. Once you tell him he’s going to be a father he’s bound to want to do the right thing and ask you to marry him.”

“And that’s why I can’t tell him,” Jane explained. “I don’t want him marrying me out of a sense of moral duty. What kind of life would that be? Trapped in a relationship for the sake of decency with someone he didn’t even love; having to spend a life time of misery for the sake of one drunken night. It would break his heart and I love him too much to let it happen.”

Martha’s mouth trembled at the sincerity of Jane’s admission. Then her face saddened and anxiety welled within her, well aware of the cruel names used to describe a woman in her predicament. “But how will you manage to bring up a child on your own? It’s not going to be easy, especially without a husband around. There’ll be talk and gossip; whispers behind your back.”

 

“I know. My mother had to suffer the same,” Jane replied with a sudden determination in her voice as she straightened in her chair. “But I really want Joe’s child and everything will work out fine Martha. I’ll use the monies I’ve saved for my trip to Europe to find somewhere to live once I get to New York, and I should have enough left to keep me going for quite a while after the baby is born. And then….well, I’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

Martha nodded, impressed at her fortitude. “But don’t you think it’s cruel to deny Little Joe the chance of ever knowing he’s a father?”

For a moment fresh tears welled in Jane’s eyes. “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind,” she replied after a moment’s reflection. “I’ll soon be forgotten and one day he may get over Alice and find someone he can love enough to take her place; give him the family he truly deserves. All I want for him is to be happy.”

“Just promise me you’ll write. Tell me how you get on. You will do that, won’t you?”

Jane hesitated; unable to look Martha in the eye then drew a deep breath and nodded. Yet though Martha gave a smile of thanks in her heart she had a feeling once Jane left on Friday’s stage, she’d never see or hear from her again.


Chapter 4:

The evening was growing late as Ben studied his newspaper and Joe stood with one hand resting on the mantelpiece, stoking the unlit hearth absently with his thoughts lingering on Jane. In fact though he’d had a busy and exhausting few weeks she’d never been far from his thoughts. Though he’d noticed a marked change in her lately; more withdrawn and tense when they were alone together and indefinably more solemn.

Was her gloominess because she continually thought of Tom and her trip to Europe that she’d had to postpone? Joe hoped not but heaved a deep sigh of resignation; painfully aware Jane had her dreams to fulfil and they clearly didn’t include him.

Ben suddenly glanced over at the clock and noting the lateness of the hour meticulously folded his newspaper before laying it down on the coffee table. “Well I think I’ll turn in,” he declared, unaware of his son’s inner turmoil as he rose up. “By the way Joe, would you collect some more tobacco when you next go to town?” He picked up the empty container that lay on the mantle and offered it over. “I would have asked Jane this morning but it went clear out of my head till after she’d gone.”

Quickly shaken from his private miserable musings Joe returned the iron bar back in its stand. “Jane’s been to town?” he queried as he walked towards the front door and placed the tin within his jackets’ inside pocket.

Ben nodded. “Yes. She went on the supply wagon. Didn’t she tell you?”

Joe shook his head as he eased back down onto the settee. “She probably didn’t want to interrupt seeing as I sort of monopolised the conversation over dinner about the new seam of silver we’ve finally located,” he admitted, forcing out a smile of enthusiasm towards his father. “I’ll check the quality at the assayers tomorrow but it looks pretty good to me.”

Ben nodded but sighed disconsolately. “And to think I nearly stopped Adam when he first planned that mine. Just wish he could see how successful his idea has turned out.”

Joe studied Ben’s sad expression. “Don’t worry Pa,” he reassured with a tenderness solely reserved for his father. “One day he’ll come waltzing in through that door as if he’d never been away. Just you wait and see.”

Ben gripped Joe’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. How different he was these days. More like the optimistic Little Joe of old and no doubt due to Jane’s calming and loving influence. “I hope so Joseph. I hope so,” he replied, appreciating his words of confidence. “Say good night to Jane for me.”

Joe threw him a sincere smile. “I will Pa…goodnight,” he offered and for a moment watched as his father made his way up the stairs. Then as he was about to stand up Jane suddenly appeared after intentionally busying herself in the kitchen, looking around as she made her way towards him.

“Has your father gone to bed?” she asked hopefully.

Joe nodded as he stretched out his arms and yawned. “He said goodnight and I think I’ll have to follow pretty soon. Sure has been an exhausting few weeks though it looks like the hard work has been worth it!”

Jane gave a sigh of relief then seated herself in Ben’s chair. “Please Joe. Could you stay a moment? I’ve been waiting for your father to go as I need to tell you something.”

As Joe absently took hold of Alice’s ring and fingered it gently, Jane glanced over, painfully noticing his action. She took a deep, calming breath. “When I went into town today I visited Doctor Martin,” she finally announced then proceeded to tell him in a few concise sentences of the conversation she’d had.

Once she’d finished there was an uncomfortable silence. Joe furrowed his brow as he tried to make sense of what Jane had told him. Had the Doc realised his feelings for Jane? Had this enforced engagement deception been due to him all the time? Momentarily guilt flooded over him.

“Please don’t be annoyed at the doctor Joe,” Jane then pleaded, noticing his dark expression. “He was only trying to help and there was no malice involved. He has promised to make amends with your father the next time he sees him.”

Joe forced out a grin. “Don’t worry; I’m not mad,” he told her. “I just never realised how devious the doc could be!”

Jane’s face visibly relaxed then she nervously twisted her fingers together in her lap. “I’d like to tell your father the truth as soon as possible,” she requested. “I don’t want to have to lie to him any longer than is necessary.”

Joe swallowed hard, hiding an inner pain as he realised her time as his supposed loving fiancée was coming to an end and after that she’d have no reason to continue to stay. “Sure. I’m going to town first thing in the morning so we’ll tell him as soon as I get back.”

With the decision now made Jane gave a despondent sigh. “I just feel so sorry for Mr Cartwright. The thought of you finally settling down again really raised his spirits over the past weeks. I’m sure that’s the reason he’s recovered so quickly.”

Joe nodded in agreement. “I guess that part of the Doc’s plan worked well. But I reckon Pa’s gonna be disappointed when he realises there’s no chance we’re going to give him a grandchild,” he offered over mischievously, hoping to lighten her gloomy expression.

But the look of horror that immediately passed over Jane’s face was enough to convince Joe he’d said the wrong thing. “Sorry…bad joke,” he apologised then leaned his head back on the settee and closed his eyes to hide the hurt he felt at the expression on her face. Was the thought of producing a child with him so repellent?

Jane continued to stare at Joe in wide eyed confusion as a fresh chilled wave of guilt and misery passed through her. Not only was she denying Joe the truth, she hadn’t even considered Ben and the fact he’d never know he was a grandfather. Could she be so heartless to such a wonderful and kind man?

With her mind in a spin she wandered over towards the desk and looked at the map of the Ponderosa, staring at it intently with her head tilted to one side. What should she do? Could she deny her child its birthright? Would it be worth all the shame and heartache to divulge her secret and suffer the consequences?

Joe opened his eyes and turned his head, noting Jane’s intense concentration and his heart quickened. Was she reconsidering staying around permanently? Had these past weeks convinced her that a life in Europe wasn’t what she really wanted after all? Hope stirred in Joe’s veins as he continued to watch in silence, then Jane wheeled round.

“I’ll be leaving on Friday Joe,” she announced in a determined tone, her mind made up as she returned his gaze and walked back to the settee.

As all hope drained away Joe was left dry mouthed and sick to the stomach. His nightmare was coming true. “Leaving?”

Jane nodded. “As soon as I’d spoken to Doctor Martin I reserved a seat on the east-bound stage,” she said in as calm a voice as she could as she took out a piece of paper from her apron pocket and passed it over. Though her hand trembled Joe was too stunned to notice. “I’ve worked out what I’m owed in wages, so if you could get me a bank draft made out for this amount as soon as possible I’d be grateful. You’re welcome to check it if you want.”

 

Joe took hold of the paper and stared down, the numbers a blur as his eyes faintly misted. “I’m sure it’s correct,” he replied in a daze. “But Friday? You’re really going so soon?”

Wiping her sweated palms on the side of her dress Jane gave a faint nod and forced out an air of indifference. “Once we tell your father the truth there’s no need for me to stay. After all I only agreed to postpone my trip to Europe until I wasn’t needed any more. I’m sure you’ll manage.”

Now realising her love for Tom and her desire to travel was just as strong as it had ever been Joe pulled himself up and forced back the sadness and heartache from his eyes as he cleared his throat. “Well if you’re sure that’s what you want to do. Thanks for everything you’ve done for us, but if you ever get sick of Italy feel free to come back and visit any time…any time at all,” he muttered finally, not knowing what else to say.

Though inwardly weeping Jane forced out a smile then moved towards him and gently took hold of his arm. “You’re a good man Joe,” she stated softly, restraining a quiver in her voice as she lifted her face and tenderly kissed his cheek. “I just hope one day you’ll find the happiness you truly deserve.” She then gave a final watery smile and turned; fleeing to the privacy of her bedroom without a backward glance and falling onto the bed with her heart breaking.

And as she buried her face into the pillow to smother the sound of her tears Joe sank back onto the settee dejectedly in a state of shock. Without Jane around in his future there’d be no chance of happiness now he mused as his fingers touched his cheek where her lips had rested. He slowly gazed over towards the closed bedroom door and could feel a chill in the air as he became aware of the emptiness of the room. He shivered suddenly and as his fingers once more absently sought the comfort of the gold ring around his neck he stared despairingly towards the unlit hearth.

Just like his life again, Joe reflected miserably. Cold and empty!

**********

The next day Joe stood for a moment on the busy Virginia City sidewalk, looking down at the bank draft in his hands. It was made out in Jane’s name and along with her owed wages Joe had unselfishly added a more than generous amount. He shook his head wryly. To think he was funding the exact journey he’d hoped she’d never make!

Pursing his lips Joe drew in a breath as he roused himself from his moroseness then quickly folded up the draft and placed it in his inside pocket. It was then as he felt the empty tobacco tin he suddenly remembered the errand for his father. “Damn!” he quietly mouthed, having promised himself a few beers of private consolation before heading off home. So instead of turning left towards the Silver Dollar he pulled down his hat and hurriedly made his way towards the mercantile where he failed to notice a shadowy figure about to leave the store as he pushed open the door with a hard shove.

There was a sharp cry of alarm and pain and as Joe entered he could see an elderly silver-haired woman lying on the floor in a heap. Immediately recognising her Joe bent down. “Martha! I’m so sorry!” he cried as he helped her to her feet. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve felt better!” Martha admitted a little shakily, momentarily taken aback at seeing him. “I think I’ve bruised my foot. Really Little Joe! You should be more careful!”

Joe gave an apologetic smile as he took hold of her arm. “Let me help you across the street.”

Martha shook her head. “I’ll manage perfectly well on my own,” she said in a harsher tone than she’d intended as she brushed his hand away. Joe gave her a dark stare, confused by her uncharacteristic brusqueness, but as she went to walk out in obvious discomfort she stumbled clumsily and fell heavily against him.

Refusing to be put off by her strange behaviour Joe then stubbornly took hold of her arm again. “Come on Martha,” he directed with firmness of voice. “Lean on me.” And though Martha momentarily resisted she could see Joe wouldn’t take no for an answer so resignedly allowed him to support her, and with the gentlest of care he escorted her back to the café.

Once inside he drew out a chair from under the nearest table. “Here. Take a seat,” he instructed, and as Martha eased down Joe noted her pale pallor. “Shall I go fetch the doctor?”

Martha shook her head reassuringly. “I’ll be all right in a few minutes,” she told him. “Just need to get my breath back. There’s no need to worry.”

Joe eyed her closely for a moment then with relief noted the colour returning to her cheeks and affectionately placed his arm around her, giving a loving squeeze. It was a simple familiar gesture that over the years had made Martha love him all the more and she could feel a prickly sensation welling behind her eyes.

“You’re looking better already. Why don’t I make us both a drink?” Joe then asked, masking disappointment that his visit to the saloon would now have to be abandoned for the day. Martha nodded and after watching him disappear into the kitchen she absently rubbed her sore ankle while taking a moment to gather her thoughts.

She regretted being so abrupt in the mercantile but she’d been unable to stop herself. For after wrestling all night with her conscience, trying to decide whether she should divulge Jane’s secret and its shattering implications, she’d been left exhausted with no decision made; surprise and shock at seeing Joe so unexpectedly throwing her into momentary confusion.

Since the day she’d helped Doctor Martin bring him into the world Joe had held a special place in Martha’s heart and sadness gripped her as she fleetingly recounted the many tragedies life had thrown at him over the years. He’d had more than his fair share of pain and anguish; maybe it would be for the best to keep silent. So with her mind now made up and happy at her decision Martha’s mood was considerably lighter when Joe appeared moments later.

“I was so pleased to hear the good news about Ben. Such a relief he’s fully recovered at last,” Martha stated with genuine sincerity as she accepted the cup of coffee offered towards her.

Joe nodded as he pulled up a chair then placed his Stetson by his side. “I’m guessing Jane told you?”

“Yes. I saw her yesterday and she also told me about Paul’s matchmaking scheme. Have you told your father yet?”

Joe shook his head, disguising a fresh wave of guilt flooding through him as he quickly picked up his cup and sipped his drink. “No. We’re going to tell him as soon as I get back,” he replied as he replaced the cup in its saucer then stared over thoughtfully towards the alcove at the back of the café. His fingers drifted towards the ring around his neck as a vision of Jane beaming happily with a wisp of hair falling over her face rose before him. His mouth twitched involuntarily.

Martha watched him. He was thinking of Alice again, she reflected with a sigh. Just as Jane had told her. It would always be Alice in his heart.

“So what are you doing in town today Little Joe?” she then asked in an attempt to take his mind off his dead wife.

Martha’s question brought Joe back to reality as he straightened in his chair. “Had business at the bank,” he said, then pulled out a small silver nugget. “And I’ve also had this sample assayed. It’s from a new seam we’ve just opened and apparently it’s the best quality that’s been found around these parts in years.”

He stared down at it for a moment then passed it over to Martha who looked at it curiously before returning her gaze to Joe. Over time she’d grown to read every emotion in those hazel eyes and she could see immediately he seemed indefinably sadder than he’d been for a long while. “Well for someone who’s discovered a mother lode you don’t look too happy!” she stated, noting his continued down hearted expression as she passed it back.

“To be honest Martha I’d give it all up tomorrow if only….” Joe’s voice trailed off unhappily as he replaced the nugget in his pocket, leaving Martha viewing him quizzically.

“No doubt Jane told you she’s leaving tomorrow?” he then asked, taking hold of his hat and staring at it intently before flicking off imaginary dust. “Seems she can’t get away from the Ponderosa fast enough now Pa’s well!” He gave a short sardonic snort of laughter though his expression remained miserable as he continued to brush his fingers absently across the brim of his Stetson and once again heaved a deep sigh.

Martha’s wrinkled old eyes gave him a piercing stare. “Little Joe? You look like you’ve got a load full of worries on your mind today. What’s wrong?”

He had plenty on his mind Joe mused as his eyes glazed at the miserable knowledge that in 24 hours he would be saying goodbye to the woman he loved and he was helpless to stop her leaving. “Nothing’s wrong Martha. Everything’s fine,” he lied as he placed his hat on the floor and sank back in his chair.

A protracted silence followed then Martha slammed her hand down hard on the table causing the cups to clatter and shake in their saucers. “Joseph Francis Cartwright! I may be nearer three score years and ten than I care to admit but I’m not senile yet!” she cried in exasperation. “I’ve known you since you first drew breath so don’t tell me everything’s fine when it’s clear to anyone with half a brain it most certainly is not!”

Joe bit his lip hard; Martha’s use of his full name a sure indication he was in trouble….again! His fingers once more drifted towards the gold band. “Should have realised I’d never fool you,” he admitted as his lips curved in a sad half smile and he felt a flush of embarrassment steal onto his cheeks. “If you must know its Jane.”

“Jane? What about her?”

“Remember a few months after Alice died when I told you I never aimed to get involved with another woman again.”

Martha smiled ruefully. “I seem to recall your exact words were there wasn’t a damn female alive on God’s earth who could ever take her place!”

Joe drew a deep breath. “Well I was wrong. I just hadn’t met her yet.”

Puzzlement covered Martha’s face for a moment then realisation hit her. “You mean…Jane? You’re in love with Jane?”

With a slight smile now on his lips Joe nodded. “Never thought it would be possible to love someone again as much as I’d loved Alice,” he stated wistfully. “But thankfully I was wrong. I love Jane just as much. Loved her from just about the first time I saw her.”

“Then why haven’t you told her?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders. “I wanted…tried too many times,” he admitted sadly. “But it’s clear I could never take Tom’s place in her heart and I can’t compete with a ghost. Besides this trip to Europe means everything to her and nothing I say or do would stop her from going.”

Martha’s wrinkled face stared at him incredulously, hardly believing she’d heard the self same line from Jane the day before. “But you’re wrong Little Joe. Jane has no intention of going to Europe. In fact she’d like nothing better than to stay here because…”

 

Suddenly Martha froze as she realised with horror she’d just been about to betray Jane’s confidence. But by now a look of both surprise and bewilderment had covered Joe’s face and he eyed her quizzically as she began to push back her chair. With his curiosity aroused he gently took hold of her arm, preventing her from rising. “Martha? Please?” he pleaded, knowing there was something she was holding back. “If there’s the slightest chance I could get Jane to stay…you have to tell me!”

Martha’s mind raced frantically. It pained her greatly to betray a trust, but now aware of Joe’s true feelings she realised what she had to do. “Jane would want to stay because….because she’s in love with you,” she murmured softly.

Joe was silent for a moment then shook his head. “Martha you’ve got it all wrong,” he suggested in a kindly tone as if correcting a young child. “She doesn’t love me. It’s Tom she still loves.”

Martha reached over and took hold of his arm. “Jane loves you Little Joe,” she stated confidently. “She admitted it to me yesterday. She’s been in love with you for a long while. Having to leave you is just about breaking her heart.”

Several seconds passed as a confused Joe digested her words. “But why didn’t she say…do something…anything?”

“The same reason you haven’t said or done anything because of Tom! She thinks you have no room in your heart for anyone else but Alice!”

Totally perplexed Joe ran a raking hand through his hair. “Why on earth would she think that?”

Martha pointed to the chain around his neck. “Because whenever you hold that wedding ring it’s like a dagger turning in Jane’s heart; a sure indication to her your thoughts are constantly on Alice and you intended to spend the rest of your life grieving and mourning her.”

Joe stared down at his fingers that were entwined around the golden band. He swallowed hard and quickly pulled his hand away. “I didn’t realise what I’ve been doing. Holding it is just a habit these days,” he admitted with a shake of the head. “Jane’s the one who’s been on my mind constantly for months. It’s only been Jane.”

Looking up sharply Joe then grimaced questioningly. “But I still don’t understand. If Jane loves me and doesn’t intend to go to Europe any more why is she intent on leaving the Ponderosa so quickly?”

Martha sighed sadly. “You remember your last birthday celebrations Little Joe?” she finally asked as Joe frowned at her change of subject.

“My birthday? Sure…well some of it.”

“Do you remember what happened when you got home?”

Joe shook his head. “Can’t remember a thing from my last game of poker to waking up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life,” he answered with a fleetingly wry smile at the memory. “Why?”

Martha leaned over and took hold of his hand, squeezing it gently in a comforting gesture. “Jane was still up when you got home and helped you to your room.”

Joe gave a vague smile. “So that’s how I got there! Did wonder!” Then his eyes narrowed uneasily. “And…?”

Martha studied his anxious face for a moment. “I’m too old in the tooth to mince my words Little Joe,” she answered resolutely, un-phased by the delicacy of the situation that would have left most women red faced and stuttering with embarrassment. “The fact is…you then made love to Jane.”

For a moment Joe was left speechless as her words sank in. “What!” he exclaimed finally. “That’s ridiculous! I’d hardly forget something like that!”

“It’s the truth Little Joe,” Martha confirmed tightening her grip around his hand. “Jane wouldn’t lie about something like this. You made love to her.”

Before she’d drawn a breath Martha could see Joe’s face turn ashen before her as he pulled his hand from her grasp. “You mean…” he whispered hesitatingly, barely able to find his voice as he felt his heart cracking in two. “I…I raped her?”

Martha quickly took in the look of horror that passed over his face. “Oh good lord Little Joe…of course you didn’t,” she cried reassuringly. “Jane wanted you as much as you seemed to want her.”

Briefly relief flooded over him then for a moment Joe closed his eyes as he silently cursed his memory lapse. “But she never said…she never told me. Why?”

Martha took hold of his arm. “Afterwards you fell asleep with that ring in your hand and Jane assumed you’d thought she was Alice all the time. She didn’t want you feeling guilty for what you’d done and after all she has her pride as well. Thinking you’d only used her as a replacement for Alice left her feeling humiliated and degraded.”

Suddenly Joe pushed back his chair abruptly and staggered towards the window, staring blindly out as his mind whirled frantically and he tried to remember the passion they must have shared. But there was nothing…just a black empty void of nothingness. Then his shoulders sagged with misery as he realised the reason Jane had stared at him over the past weeks with such a pained and hurt expression etched on her face.

“Jane thinks I imagined she was Alice while seducing her and I can’t remember a single thing about it!” he cried. “Yet she continued with our fake engagement for the sake of Pa’s health. It’s no wonder she can’t wait to get away from here. How she must hate me.”

Martha looked at him pityingly. “Jane doesn’t hate you…she could never hate you. She loves you so much she’d do anything to save you being hurt. That’s why she feels she’s got to go.”

Joe shook his head sorrowfully. “She still loves me after all I’ve put her through? Then why does she insist on leaving so quickly? None of this makes sense.”

Martha pondered thoughtfully for a moment. “It may not make sense to you, but it does to Jane,” she sighed watching as Joe stared bleakly through the window. “How long since it was your birthday Little Joe?”

Joe shot a quizzical look then furrowed his brow. “Six…seven weeks. Why?”

“Do the math Little Joe,” Martha told him softly. “I think you should then be able to figure out why Jane has decided to go now.”

Joe stared at her then his head began to spin, recalling the day Alice had smiled shyly at him and he’d realised he was going to be a father. For a moment his heart pounded delirious with joy. A baby? Jane was having his baby?

Then in an instant the feeling was gone leaving him aching with anger. His fists clenched tight and he banged them hard against the window frame. “Jane’s pregnant?” he asked not waiting for a reply. “Yet she’s leaving and she wasn’t going to tell me? How could she?”

“Listen to me Little Joe,” cried Martha, her own voice rising to match his own. “Jane didn’t want you feeling beholden to do the right thing and marry her out of a sense of duty.”

Turning around Joe looked down wildly. “But I love her!” he cried, his voice filled with emotion. “Marrying her wouldn’t be a sense of duty!”

“I know that…but Jane doesn’t!” Martha answered quickly. “If you want to persuade her you really love her, it’s going to take more than three little words this time. She’s got it in her head you still adore and love Alice so you’re going to have to come up with something pretty convincing and special to make her think otherwise!”

**********

Once he arrived back at the ranch Joe stopped by the side of the corral and dismounted; his initial anger and shock having dissipated during the ride home to be replaced by a sweat of apprehensive fear.

He tied up his horse then slumped despondently by the hitching rail, knowing he’d have to come up with something pretty quick to prove just how much Jane and their unborn child meant to him. Otherwise tomorrow she’d be gone …disappearing from his life forever. Yet if she was certain his heart was only for Alice what could he do or say to convince her otherwise? Martha was right…it would take more than a whispered ‘I love you’.Gone were the days when he could persuade any woman black was white with just a winning smile or the flash of his eyes.

Joe kicked out at the dirt floor in frustration. What was the matter with him? The Little Joe of old would have had no trouble coming up with an idea….a plan….a scheme. Come on Cartwright…think think! He continued to stare down at the gold wedding ring hanging from his neck, unsure what he should do. Then slowly, almost without even realising it, a small smile curved his mouth and taking a deep breath he turned and walked purposefully in the direction of the barn.

Minutes later Ben was seated at his desk sipping a coffee when the front door burst open and Joe strode in, looking around the room. He gave the leather bound ledger his father was studying a cursory glance then threw a questioning stare. “Where’s Jane Pa?”

Ben smiled a welcome as he replaced his cup in its saucer. “She’s in her room,” he replied, about to ask his son about the assayed silver and if he’d remembered his tobacco. But before he had the chance Joe turned without a word and moved quickly towards the downstairs bedroom, leaving Ben’s smile fading as he stared after him with a frown settling on his brow.

Joe tapped the door with a sense of urgency and when it eventually opened and Jane appeared her complexion was unnaturally pale and her face tired looking after suffering from a worst than usual bout of morning sickness since dawn. Combined with the thought of the imminent painful confrontation with Ben that afternoon and tomorrow’s unhappy farewell she’d been left feeling emotionally drained and tearful all day.

Joe’s gaze locked on her pallor and slightly red rimmed eyes immediately and his heart lurched with concern, desperate to move closer and gather her into his arms. But reluctantly he fought the urge and instead braced a hand on the doorframe beside her head and cleared his throat. “I…um…would like you to come out with me for a ride.”

 

Surprised by his request Jane then gave a nervous gulp. For there was something unnerving in the way Joe was staring at her as he never had before. Was it her imagination or was he on edge? However as she cast a surreptitious glance toward the desk she shook the feeling quickly aside and raised her eyebrow questioningly. “But what about your father Joe?” she asked as her voice noticeably lowered. “Don’t you remember we agreed to talk to him as soon as you got back from town?”

Joe dropped his arm and stepped back, turning his head so he could see Ben who’d returned to study his paperwork. “It’ll keep until later,” he replied quietly as his gaze floated back towards her. “Please Jane. I’ve hitched the buggy up ready.”

His impatience was clear and Jane swallowed hard as a familiar nauseas feeling suddenly settled in her stomach. Surely she wasn’t going to be sick again? She’d successfully hidden the tell-tale sign of her pregnancy over the past weeks and she drew in a deep breath, willing the sensation to disappear. Dare she go out now and risk giving herself away? But the thought this would probably be the last opportunity she’d have to share treasured moments alone with Joe finally decided her. “Very well, let me get my shawl,” she said, disappearing back into her room then reappearing moments later with it draped around her shoulders.

As they made their way outside Joe momentarily paused by the credenza and gave his father a quick glance. “I’m taking Jane out for a ride Pa. Don’t know how long we’ll be.”

Ben looked up from the column of figures he was attempting to add up and nodded, sensing immediately a tension in his son’s voice as Joe closed the door behind him. Easing back in his chair he rubbed his chin thoughtfully before pushing himself up and looking through the small window into the yard.

He was inwardly relieved Jane was going out for a while, for ever since Joe had left for Virginia City that morning she’d wandered around the house, agitated and distracted and giving him furtive looks when she thought he wasn’t looking. She’d even declined his offer to join him for a cup of coffee and a chat; seemingly unwilling to keep him company for once and preferring to stay in her room.

Such uncharacteristic behaviour had left Ben slightly perturbed but as he watched his son help Jane onto the two-seater buggy then swing up by her side he could see something was obviously wrong between them; Joe’s unsmiling and serious expression matching Jane’s exactly as he slapped the reins and the old sorrel mare took off at a steady pace.

Ben followed them with the eyes of a worried and concerned father until they disappeared from sight behind the barn. What was going on? Had they had a lover’s tiff? A minor quarrel? Or was it more than that? Had something serious happened to drive them both apart? He heaved a heavy sigh of despair and slid back down onto his chair; hopeful a ride around the Ponderosa would do the pair of them the world of good and bring them to their senses.

But with Joe and Jane now at the forefront of his thoughts as Ben rubbed his eyes and tried to concentrate once more on the monthly accounts, the columns of figures seemed to merge together in a confusing blur and he knew it was a lost cause. Resignedly he closed the ledger then glanced down at the cup of cooling coffee in front of him. But unable to stop a feeling of helplessness that flooded over him Ben suddenly felt the need for something stronger. So making his way to the sideboard he poured out a large glass of his favourite brandy and forced it down in one long anxious gulp.

**********

After a couple of miles to Jane’s surprise Joe turned their carriage away from the main Virginia City road onto an obviously hardly used narrow track that was visibly overgrown and winded its way steeply upwards through a forest thick with ponderosa pines.

Joe was noticeably thoughtful as their journey continued in a strained silence and Jane’s gaze flittered nervously on the unfamiliar terrain as she fought hard to disguise her feeling of nausea; though relishing the closeness of Joe’s body and the faint odour of his manly cologne. It was a precious memory that would have to last her a lifetime she mused sadly as the air grew colder and a freshening breeze swirled around the rough and rugged landscape. She shivered involuntarily and drew the shawl more closely around her shoulders.

For the first time since they’d left the ranch Joe turned and subjected her pale face to a long lingering look. “Are you okay?” he finally asked, breaking the silence.

Jane gave a quick nod. “I’m fine,” she assured him, choosing to ignore the familiar persistent sickly feeling in her stomach as Joe returned his stony gaze to the tree-studded trail. Once again silence stretched between them as the buggy swayed unsteadily from side to side on the uneven track until eventually Joe pulled the tired sorrel to a halt at the edge of a small and secluded clearing.

They were now at one of the highest points on the Ponderosa, looking over from the rim of a vertical cliff onto a myriad of trees that clawed their way silently for miles along the base of the Truckee Valley towards the snow capped upper reaches of the Sierra Nevada. There was hardly a sound to be heard and low lying clouds floated by at a fast pace above their heads; so close they seemed to be almost within lassoing distance. While way in the distance the unmistakable and awesome sight of Lake Tahoe shimmered azure blue under an afternoon sun, reflecting on its surface the tree laden land and sky above.

It was a spectacular sight and after Joe helped her down Jane widened her eyes with awe as she appreciated the breathtaking wonder of Mother Nature at her finest; her worries and nausea momentarily forgotten as the strong smelling odour of pine filled the air. “I’ve never seen anywhere more beautiful or peaceful.”

Joe followed her gaze as he leaned on a nearby tree trunk and nodded in silent agreement. “Adam and Hoss brought me here for the first time just after my mother died,” he explained wistfully. “I can still remember Hoss lifting me onto Adam’s shoulders and him pointing to the clouds, telling me we were so close to heaven up here that if I ever wanted to talk to my Ma, she’d be bound to hear me. For a grieving five year old that sure was a reassuring and comforting thought.”

He smiled softly at his recollection before continuing. “It became a special place for all three of us after that and over the years we’d often come up here together, enjoying the view and each other’s company. But after Adam left…then Hoss died…well I decided I couldn’t face coming up here again unless I’d have a reason…a damn good reason.”

Jane raised her eyebrow questioningly. “So why today?”

Joe remained motionless for a few seconds. “Guess today I have my good reason,” he answered vaguely, and then pushing away from the tree trunk took out a piece of folded paper from his inside pocket and offered it over. Jane stared down at the bank draft made out in her name and gasped in amazement.

“This can’t be right Joe,” she muttered as she shook her head and looked towards him. “It’s not what I worked out. It’s far too much!”

“Just call it a thankful bonus,” Joe replied with a faint smile. “You deserve it for putting up with me over the past months.”

Feeling her eyes begin to mist over Jane gave a faint nod of thanks then without further comment stuffed the draft into her dress pocket and returned her moistened gaze to absorb the magnificent scenery. Silence once more settled and as her queasiness slowly abated Jane took in a few deep breaths of the fresh crisp air. “Thank you for showing me this wonderful view Joe,” she said finally as she turned towards him. “I’ll remember it always.”

Joe narrowed his eyes beneath the brim of his Stetson. “I didn’t bring you all the way up here just to show you the view,” he admitted dryly as he met her gaze. “We need to talk.”

Jane frowned questioningly. He was serious now, unsmiling, and suddenly a startling realisation hit her and hot colour flooded her cheeks. “Oh my God…you know, don’t you,” she accused in a whisper. “I can see it on your face. You’ve spoken to Martha and she’s told you….”

Her voice faded and there was a tension filled pause then Joe nodded as his eyes continued to bore into her. “Yes. Martha told me a few interesting facts…including I’m going to be a father.”

Now aware he must know of her feelings toward him and the intimacy they’d shared a look of embarrassment and panic quickly fluttered across Jane’s face. But falsely imagining a hint of sarcasm in Joe’s voice she instinctively clasped her hands tight over her stomach and then pretended nonchalance she didn’t feel. “Guess it was too much to expect Martha to keep my secret, but you’ll be relieved to know I accept the consequences of our liaison totally. After all I was the sober one!”

She gave a hollow, nervous laugh and as Joe noticeably winced an irrational thought suddenly gripped her. “Is that why the bank draft is made out for so much?” she asked defensively. “Is it really a bribe to keep quiet about my condition for the sake of the Cartwright’s good name?”

For a moment Joe’s gaze was unreadable. “You really think I’d try to pay you off?”

“Isn’t that what most men in your position would do?” Jane blurted out. But the moment the words flew out of her mouth she regretted her accusation, blinking back tears as Joe stared at her as if she’d struck him.

“I’m not most men Jane,” he replied, clenching his fists tight and with a sudden edge to his voice…an undertone of hurt and anger combined. “I thought you knew me better than that.”

Jane hunted for a handkerchief in her pocket then wiped her eyes and nodded apologetically. “Please forgive me Joe,” she murmured with a deep sigh. “Just forget what I said. I didn’t mean it and I don’t want us to fall out….not now. I’d like us to stay friends.”

An awkward silence settled for a few moments as the tension in Joe’s body slowly eased. “Friends?” he then repeated and his mouth curved as he looked pointedly towards her stomach. “I think it’s safe to assume on one occasion we’ve been more than friends…a lot more!”

Feeling her cheeks blush Jane lowered her eyes as Joe stepped closer. “Martha said you thought you were doing what was best for me,” he said gently. “But you should have told me what happened between us….and about the baby. I deserved to know.”

Returning her gaze Jane gave him a sad stare. “We spent one night together Joe; one night you don’t even remember. I didn’t want to burden you with the knowledge of what we’d done and its repercussions, especially knowing how you still continue to mourn for Alice and treasure her memory so.”

For a moment Joe studied her in silence, aware of the anguish she must have suffered keeping her secret from him over the past weeks. Then he took a deep steadying breath. “I stopped grieving over Alice the first day you came into my life. It’s you that I love now Jane.…” He paused and glanced once more towards her stomach and gave a tender smile. “I love you both and want to marry you…if you’ll have me.”

Jane stared mutely in surprised shock. It was the one thing she’d dreamed and wished she’d hear Joe say and he sounded…looked so convincing. However the seeds of doubt and disbelief were firmly planted. “Martha said you’d want to face your responsibilities if you found out I was pregnant, but I don’t expect or want you to feel obligated to do the right thing for the sake of decency.”

“But…”

Joe was now only a step away as Jane silenced him with a shake of the head. “Don’t worry Joe. I’ll take good care of the baby and I want nothing from you…nothing at all. After I leave tomorrow you’ll never hear from me again, I promise. Your good name will remain unsullied and free from scandal. You have my word.”

 

Joe clenched his jaw and could feel his eyes sting. “You think all I’m worried about is the family name or people talking? I couldn’t care less about the gossip! You’re carrying our child…my flesh and blood and I don’t want you to go anywhere…ever! I love you!”

Jane felt an almost physical pain at his earnest expression. But with a resigned sigh she pointed at the ring hanging from the chain around his neck; the evidence and proof of another woman, a beautiful woman, tragically taken, who continued to place her claim on his heart.

“We both know there’s only room in your life for one love…and it’s not me. It could never be me,” she stated simply as she brushed away a tear. “I love you so much but I can’t live out my life with you when you can’t love me back the same way, and I have no intention of filling the void in your life by just being a convenient substitute for Alice.”

Joe threw up his hands in exasperation and frustration. “Jane, you’ve got it all wrong. I don’t want you to be a replacement for Alice! I want you because I love you! Why can’t you believe me?” he begged in a voice thick with emotion.

A heavy and uncomfortable silence settled again as Jane shrugged, unable to answer and bowing her head. She wanted to believe…longed to believe. But for some reason his words were just not enough.

As if sensing her thoughts Joe moved even closer and gently forced up her chin with his finger; searching her face and still reading uncertainty in her expression. “I love you Jane,” he whispered slowly and softly and brushed away a stray strand of hair from her cheek; just as he’d longed to do on the first day they’d met. Then after holding her gaze for a moment longer he turned away and moved towards the buggy.

With her legs feeling like they’d turned to jelly Jane gaped with surprise as Joe pulled out a long handled spade from underneath the seat, and still unable to find her voice she stared over with wide eyed apprehension. Joe smiled reassuringly, giving a wry chuckle of explanation. “A wise old woman told me actions would have to speak louder than words to convince the most beautiful, stubborn and obstinate female in the State of Nevada! So I’ve come prepared.”

With her heart thundering loud Jane furrowed her brow in puzzled silence as Joe threw his hat onto the buggy seat then began to dig into the hard soil. Minutes passed until eventually the hole he made was seemingly deep enough and to his satisfaction and after dropping the spade to the floor Joe drew out his father’s empty tobacco tin from his jacket pocket.

Taking hold of the chain from around his neck Joe pulled it over his head, pausing for a moment to gaze at Alice’s wedding ring before dropping it and the chain into the tin and securing the lid firmly. Then with a touching reverence he carefully placed it within the hole, shovelled the earth back in and finally covering the disturbed soil with handfuls of smooth pine needles that were scattered around his feet.

“Should have done that a long time ago,” he said as Jane gave a stunned gasp, knowing full well the sentimental importance and significance of the gold band and how he’d vowed to never remove it till the day he died. And as Joe noted her shocked expression he was made more aware than ever that this was the last chance he’d have to convince Jane as he took hold of her hands and looked her straight in the eye.

“It’s time to bury my past because I want you more than anything in the world to be my future. Not for the sake of the Cartwright’s good name or doing the decent thing but because I love you and can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with anyone else but you. And if you have any doubts about my feelings I promise to spend the rest of my life proving just how much I do love you. Now will you believe me?”

Time seemed to stand still and emotion blocked Jane’s throat as a pair of hazel eyes glistened with sincerity and reflected admiration and adoration towards her for the second time in her life. At last the veil of scepticism and disbelief lifted away and as a flood of unparalleled happiness filled her heart Jane beamed a smile that lit her face; a truly believing smile.

For the rest of his life Joe would remember Jane at that moment…an inner glow of impending motherhood now freely shining from her face and love for him flashing in her eyes. He wrapped both his arms around her and drew her into a warm and tender embrace. “Please say you’ll marry me Jane,” he begged in a husky whisper as he held her close. “Make me the happiest and luckiest man in the world.”

Joy seared through her and now letting her own actions speak louder than words Jane placed her arms around Joe’s neck and leaned into his embrace. Then as Joe lowered his face Plain Jane kissed him with all the love she had in her heart and gave Mr Rude the answer he desired and craved for with her passionate response.

 

EPILOGUE

***

The wind changed direction and blew down from the north indicating winter was about to make a dramatic and unscheduled appearance as Jane manoeuvred the one-horse buggy away from Virginia City.

Though Joe had tried to dissuade her she’d stubbornly insisted on driving herself into town that morning to visit Martha who was recovering from a serious bout of flu. And after staying longer than she’d intended and with her back now aching from the uncomfortable ride Jane acknowledged it may have been a foolish decision as she nervously eyed the threatening snow filled sky. But as she slapped the reins the old sorrel mare seemed as keen as her to get back to the warmth and safety of the ranch and it quickened its gait happily without any further need of encouragement.

Way in the distance Jane could just make out the weekly east-bound stage as it disappeared from view towards the Truckee River. And as she continued along the familiar well rutted road she wondered how different her life would have been if the Truckee Bridge hadn’t been swept away and she’d continued on her journey that day. But luckily fate had intervened for once in a most fortuitous way and with no feeling of regret she fleetingly rested a hand on the top of her swelling stomach and felt the baby moving within her. She sighed with contentment and for a moment her mind floated back as she smiled softly with remembrance and recalled the day she’d given birth to Joe’s first child.

It had been a long labour but once safely delivered a relieved Joe had held his newly born son in his arms and gazed down with tears of pride and happiness falling unashamedly over his cheeks. Ben, with his own eyes moistened and glistening had looked with wonder at the pink faced baby, wrapped in a blanket and fast asleep in his youngest son’s arms. “So…what do I call my Grandson?” he’d eventually asked with an emotional trembling in his voice that he couldn’t disguise as he’d turned his gaze towards his beloved daughter in law.

With no name thought of at that point and feeling weak and tired Jane had smiled over at her husband. “You decide Joe. Whatever you choose will be fine with me.”

Taking a moment Joe had considered as a tiny hand tightly gripped his finger. Then he’d stared over at the woman he loved more than life itself, holding her weary blue eyed gaze. “Pa…may I introduce Thomas Benjamin Cartwright.”

Jane wiped her watering eyes with her gloved hand at the memory of her husband’s unselfish gesture, and then her thoughts turned to her son, now two and half years old and according to Ben a perfect miniature of Joe at that age in every respect.

Hazel eyed with curly brown hair, Tom was full of energy and totally without fear; just like his father! And though blessed with an angelic face he already had a way-too-familiar looking grin of mischief and could wrap anyone around his finger with the most endearing of smiles; just like his father! Heaven help the females of Nevada in another few years, Jane mused as she reflected life couldn’t get much better than this; a loving husband, who treasured, cherished and adored her, a wonderful, beautiful, healthy son and another baby on the way.

 

It was only mid afternoon but already getting dark as Jane turned off from the main road and headed towards the ranch house that lay only a few miles ahead. And it was then as she steered the buggy around a bend Jane suddenly noticed a man at the side of the road, standing by his horse and rubbing its raised foreleg gently and soothingly.

Hearing the sound of buggy wheels rattling on the near-frozen ground he straightened, immediately noticing the heavily pregnant condition of the woman who pulled to a halt alongside him. He politely raised his hat, and though feeling slightly apprehensive Jane gave him a friendly smile; aware her husband would be horrified at her stopping in the middle of nowhere to talk to a complete stranger. “Has something happened to your horse?”

 

The man nodded. “I’m afraid so ma’am. He put his foot in a hole and it looks like he’s strained his leg pretty badly,” he replied, returning his gaze to the injured animal and giving it a compassionate pat. “I can’t ride him now until he’s rested so it looks like we’re both going to have to walk from here.”

Jane nodded sympathetically. “Have you travelled far today?”

“No…not far,” he replied, returning a brown-eyed gaze as the first flurries of snow began to fall upon them. “I arrived in town this morning and hired my horse from the livery intending to visit my family. They’ve been living around these parts for many years but it’s the first time I’ve been back in a long time…a very long time.” His regret was clear and Jane viewed the middle aged man with new interest as she noted a well-tanned face hidden under a neatly trimmed beard. He was a stranger yet there was something about him….something familiar.

Suddenly the wind increased in strength and it was obvious the landscape would soon be covered and transformed into an unrecognisable and unforgiving world of white. Jane shivered against the bitter cold that penetrated through her winter coat, keen to get moving, but her kind heart would not allow her to ignore another’s plight as she noticed the man pull his hat down tight and stamp his feet that were growing numb.

“You can’t possible walk anywhere now,” she insisted. “Would you like to come back to my house until the weather improves and your horse has a chance to rest? We have plenty of room and you’ll be made very welcome.”

The man looked over, appreciating her generosity. “That’s very kind of you to offer but I haven’t got far to go. I’ll be fine.”

Jane nodded though still eyed him dubiously. “Well if you’re sure. I’ll have to go before this storm takes hold and my husband sends out a search party! It was nice meeting you.”

The man backed away a step and smiled as he raised his arm in a farewell wave. But as Jane gathered up the reins he could see her face suddenly grimace and he moved forward again. “Is something wrong?”

Jane took a few deep slow breaths as a sharp pain continued to stab her back. “Oh my…it looks like this baby wishes to make an early appearance,” she said with a sense of unease as she instinctively began to rub her stomach. “I’m sure everything will be fine but I need to get back to the ranch and my husband…quickly.”

The man’s expression changed immediately as a jolt of shock at what she’d implied shot through him. This was not the time or place to give birth and without hesitation he hurriedly tied his horse to the back of the buggy then after brushing away the snow from the vacant seat he eased up beside Jane and took the reins from her grasp. “Don’t worry. I’ll drive you over to the Ponderosa then we’ll send for your husband from there. Trust me… you and your baby are going to be just fine,” he reassured, his voice calm but his expression clearly showing anxious concern as he slapped the reins with a sense of urgency and the buggy began to move.

Jane furrowed her brow. “The Ponderosa?” she queried.

The man nodded and though another dull ache of discomfort spread across her stomach, through her pain Jane gave the stranger a curious stare. Then as her heart quickened she felt herself trembling; but not with the cold as a joyous realisation hit her. She’d thought life couldn’t get much better than this but it suddenly had as her mouth quivered and she reached over and laid a hand on the top of his for a moment. “I can’t wait for you to meet my husband,” she smiled. “I’m Jane by the way.”

The man returned her smile then concentrated once more on the snow covered trail. “I apologise for my bad manners; I should have introduced myself earlier. I’m…”

Jane interrupted. “Oh I know who you are,” she said, leaning against him and resting her head without embarrassment on the crook of his shoulder. “Come on Uncle Adam…take us all home!”

 

The End

 

 

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Author: Dodo

Bonanza loving UK Grandma who wishes she were still 18! Loved Little Joe since the age of 12 and that's going back a whole load of years!

5 thoughts on “Plain Jane (by Dodo)

  1. I haven’t read this story in ages, Dodo, and I’d forgotten so much, it was like reading a new Dodo story! Nicely done, my friend.

    1. You’re too kind, Joesgal. Thank you. Must admit I found the greatest satisfaction writing this story. It’s my favourite and the one I’m most proud of.

    1. Thank you JoeC. I never expected anyone to still be reading Plain Jane, but I’m glad to hear you like it. It will always be my favourite story – so much emotion and at least a happy ever after ending. The kind I like.

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