From Ashes (by PSW)
Summary: Healing is hard, and takes its own path. A post-Hoss, post-Alice story.
Rating: K+ Word Count: 23,500
Note: This story takes place alongside Season 14. The events of some episodes (S14 and others) will be referenced, though usually as background. I have attempted to write this so that you should hopefully not need any real knowledge of these episodes in order to follow the story. Since the order of the S14 episodes doesn’t seem to be absolutely essential, I have also moved a few of them around to fit my purposes. Thanks for reading!
Town seemed loud these days. Course, that was probably just him.
Joe set the wagon brake and hopped down outside the Emporium. He hadn’t been in to Virginia City too often lately. Once he’d finally caught up to Alice’s …
Alice. He stopped and took a deep breath, gripping the wagon wheel. She was always there. Still. Right beside Hoss. Was it ever going to get any better?
“Joe Cartwright! Haven’t seen you in ages, boy. How’ve you been?”
Boy. He felt ancient, like the word was so unsuited to him that he should be looking around for Artie Keller’s real target. Instead, he pasted on a smile that was probably closer to a grimace and turned, stripping his gloves for a handshake.
“Artie. Keepin’ busy.”
It was the truth, without offering anything of himself. He’d gotten good at that since he’d moved back into the big house. Of course, that was for entirely different reasons, but it all worked the same.
“Good to see you.” Artie gripped his hand, and Joe could feel it coming. He didn’t try to stop it—usually went faster that way. “Me and the missus was right sorry to hear about your wife. She was a real fine woman, was Mrs. Cartwright.”
“She was.” Joe tugged gently away and edged toward the doors. “Thank you.”
Easy, quick. Nothing to it.
He could do this.
Artie was either finished or took the hint, because he changed the subject as they entered. “You got a list for me?”
“Here you go.” Joe tugged it from his jacket, mumbling a few words he wouldn’t say in front of Pa when it snagged on a threadbare patch. It was an old coat, holes in the pockets shouldn’t come as any surprise. He should probably replace it while he was here, in fact, but he wouldn’t. It was comfortable, he might have protested. Broken in. Really, though, he just couldn’t be bothered to care.
Even the half-hearted cussing had been more automatic than irritated. Couldn’t be irritated when you just didn’t feel anything at all.
“Got all this in stock.” Artie had been scanning the list while Joe’s mind wandered. “Will take me a bit to get it ready—you want the total now or when you pick it up?”
“Now, if you don’t mind. Need to know how much I’ve got left to spend on harness supplies.”
“Of course! Just a minute, then.”
Artie scurried across the store for pen and paper, laying aside the Cartwright list for a moment to total up and accept money from a woman standing at the counter. As he waited Joe wandered to the nearest shelf, picking up a jar of local preserves without any real interest. The last time he’d been to the Emporium Alice had been with him. She had been looking at fabric for new dresses to make as she … as she got bigger, and had been real taken with one pretty blue sprigged pattern in particular. Unbidden, his eyes strayed over the far wall. He was glad not to see it there—Alice must not have been the only lady who liked it, or it had been moved somewhere else. That was good. Joe didn’t think he was ever gonna be able to look at a blue dress again without seeing that fabric.
“My Elsa made those preserves.”
He blinked, refocusing on an older woman in front of him. Just behind her stood a young lady, her face a fiery color that he might once have found amusing.
“Those preserves you’re holding. My Elsa made those. She’s a wonderful cook, and not only that but she puts up a fantastic batch of—”
“Mama!” The young lady—Elsa, apparently—tugged in vain on her mother’s arm. “Mr. Cartwright doesn’t want to hear about my cooking!”
He didn’t recognize them, but that didn’t mean anything. Every time he came to town it was full of new people.
Elsa was right, though. He didn’t want to hear about her cooking.
“Excuse me, Ma’am.” Joe shoved the jar blindly back onto the shelf, stepped around the two women, and crossed to the counter. Artie had finished with his customer, who was off to the side stacking her purchases into two large baskets, and was ready with the Cartwright total. Joe paid and turned to go, anxious to get back outside where he could breathe. A hand on his arm startled him. He looked around to find Gracie Peterson just stepped out of an aisle.
“Joe. It’s so good to see you. How have you been doing?”
He moved his arm, and was a little disconcerted when her hand stayed with it. “Keepin’ busy, Miss Peterson.” They actually knew each enough well enough for a first-name basis, but Joe suddenly felt like it would be best to keep things formal.
She stepped forward, lowering her voice. “You’ll have to excuse Mrs. Schmidt. They haven’t been in town long, she probably didn’t know.”
Long enough for the daughter to identify him, anyway. Still, Miss Elsa had probably heard Artie greet him out on the walk. It should have made Joe feel better that the woman so obviously pushing her daughter at him didn’t know about Alice … but it didn’t. He really couldn’t care one way or the other. Vaguely, he wondered if that should worry him, but it didn’t seem worth pursuing. He nodded to Gracie, stepping toward the doors. Her fingers tightened.
“Joe.” He looked back down at her. “I really am so sorry about Alice.”
She was sincere, Joe knew. Everything about Gracie Peterson was sincere. “Thanks, Gracie.”
“If you ever … if you ever need to talk …”
Not on her life. The last thing he needed was more talk. It was all Pa had wanted to do, first after Hoss (though that had been for himself as much as Joe) and then Alice. Now … well, they had reached a precarious balance and Joe planned to keep it that way. He didn’t know if he had the strength, now that the passing months had started to settle this new reality into his bones, to say a few things without saying everything. And he wasn’t going to say everything—not to this female acquaintance, not to Pa, not to Candy or Jamie, not to the preacher, not to anyone. He didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with their attempts to help him.
They meant well, but he couldn’t bring himself to disappoint them on top of all the grief and worry.
They couldn’t bring Hoss back. They couldn’t bring Alice back.
They couldn’t fix him.
They would just have to deal with what he was now … but they didn’t have to know all of it. He could give them that, at least—let them think he was feeling a little better.
“Thanks, Gracie.” Joe thought she would let him go with that, but she kept on. He would have been amazed, if he’d been able to manage anything other than vaguely desperate.
“My sister’s husband died after only a couple of years together.” She bit her lip. “I know how hard it can be, and I really hate to see …” Gracie stopped, suddenly awkward. He wondered if she had realized too late that her sister’s loss didn’t have anything at all to do with him and Alice, or if she just didn’t know how to end her offer. Either way, her fingers burned right through his coat and Joe wished she would let go. He didn’t want to be rude, but she needed to let him go …
A crash and roiling puff of flour sent both of them stumbling back. A gasp and a quick apology tumbled over each other as the other customer, with her two heavy baskets, dropped them both and lunged for the overturned bag of flour.
“I’m so very sorry! I couldn’t see, I walked right into it …”
Gracie brushed ineffectually at her flour-covered skirt. It might have been wishful thinking, but Joe thought she seemed relieved. “No, no, I understand. Things are everywhere here, I never know what I’ll bump into when I turn a corner.”
“Oh, your dress.” The other customer, a Mexican woman nearer to Joe’s age than Gracie’s, brushed dark curls from her forehead with white-dusted fingers. Her eyes were round, her face the very picture of dismay. “I am sorry.”
“It’s really nothing.” Gracie touched the other woman’s shoulder, and Joe knew a moment of distant admiration. Never let it be said that Gracie Peterson didn’t live up to her name. “But I should probably run home and change.” She frowned at the flour strewn across the floor—not as much as might have been, from the size of the bag, but still a good pile. “But first, let’s get—”
“Not at all, Miss.” Artie appeared as if by magic, clutching a broom and pan. “I’ll have this finished up before you could get another broom. You go on now.”
Gracie nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Keller.” She nodded to the other woman, still sitting on the floor, then to Joe. “Joe. It was good to see you.”
“Gracie.” Joe tipped his hat. Hearing what he hadn’t said, she pinked and hurried out the door.
Joe sighed—seemed like he couldn’t help hurting people these days—and turned back as Artie waggled the pan at his former customer. “Lina, since you’re down there anyways …”
She snatched the pan from the storekeeper, dimpling easily. Artie swept up with quick, sure strokes, and was on his way back across the Emporium before Gracie could have reached the end of the boardwalk. Joe wondered just how many spills the man cleaned up per day.
“Artie,” the woman—Lina—called after him, “put this on the hotel’s bill, por favor? Someone will come for the rest of the bag later.”
A wave to show he’d heard, and Artie disappeared through the back door. Joe stepped forward, holding out a hand as Lina began to rise. He might not feel anything, but Pa had raised him to be a gentleman. She accepted it with a nod and a smile, releasing his fingers quickly as she gained her feet. Joe tipped his hat and started to turn away.
“Do not think badly of her, Señor.”
What? He stilled. “I don’t, Miss … ?”
“Marquez.” Lina Marquez brushed at the flour clinging to her arms. “I know Señorita Peterson a little, and I’m sure she had only your interests at heart.”
“I know her, too.”
Seeing that he didn’t plan to disagree, Lina nodded. “I think, though,” she continued slowly, “there is a little girl inside most young ladies, secretly hoping that she will be the one to comfort the grieving prince.” A distant smile flitted across her lips, both warm and wry. Once, Joe might have wondered what lay behind such an expression. Now, he was just exhausted and annoyed.
“I’m no tragic hero.”
“No.” She turned away, righting a few fallen items in her baskets. “But that does not prevent others from seeing you this way.”
That was … probably true. He knew he shouldn’t have come into town.
“Most ladies?” Joe didn’t try to keep the bite out of his voice. “But not you.”
“Ah, no.” Her voice was muffled. “I gave up fairy tales some time ago.”
“And this is … ?”
Lina wasn’t giving him advice, or asking him for anything. He wasn’t being fair to her. Still, Joe couldn’t shake the conviction that this woman, too, wanted something. They all wanted something.
They wanted him to be happy. They wanted him to feel well. They wanted him to talk. They wanted him to listen. They wanted him to move on. They wanted him to be all right. They wanted …
They wanted him to be the old Joe.
Lina didn’t know the old Joe, though, and he wasn’t being fair.
“This,” Lina whirled back around in a flurry of dark curls and impish smirk, “is a well-timed bag of flour to help everyone out of an awkward situation.” Joe gaped, and she giggled. The woman giggled. “Go buy your harness supplies, Señor Cartwright. Safe travels back to your ranch.” Lina looped one heavy basket over one arm, and the other basket over the other arm, then moved past him and out the door.
He really was a beef-headed idiot.
“Miss … uh, Señorita Marquez.” Joe caught up with her only a few feet down the boardwalk. “Look, I … I apologize. I haven’t—”
“Señor Cartwright, you have no need.” Lina’s smile was easy—nothing at all hidden behind it. Somehow, he hadn’t offended her. “It was I who set upon you, not the other way around.”
He smiled briefly, an automatic response. “I don’t think I’d call it that.”
“I would!” Lina laughed again, and Joe wished he could join her. He saw the sorrow creep into her eyes, and couldn’t let it.
“My Pa tried to raise up gentlemen.” Why had he said that, of all things? More gentlemen than him meant Hoss, and Adam, and … Jamie. There was still Jamie. Joe fixed that fuzzy red head in his mind and anchored onto it. “Why don’t you let me carry these wherever you’re headed?” He tugged gently at one of the baskets. “One of the hotels, you said?”
Lina eyed him for just too long, then nodded. “Very well.” He had expected an argument, and was glad she didn’t force one. He didn’t have the energy. Joe took the baskets, hefted them experimentally, and nodded down at her. “The Continental.” Lina directed him toward the next major intersection, and then fell in alongside. “This is just as well, truly. I had promised my cousin Maria that I would pass along her love should I happen to speak to you here, Little Joe Cartwright.”
Another grin met his baffled stare. Joe stopped in his tracks, frowning. ‘Little Joe’ wasn’t something he heard very much anymore, and he couldn’t begin to think who—
Wait. Maria …
Joe studied Lina carefully, and the barest hint of a resemblance took him back to a young, pretty face in a dusty tavern just this side of hell, where the beer wasn’t cold and his Pa had almost died.
“Los Robles?” he asked.
“The same.” Lina dimpled. “Maria would be pleased that you remember.” She started again toward the hotel. “She speaks of you in such terms, I was amazed to see that you are not ten feet tall and shining as the sun.”
Another automatic smile, but this one at least had the force of memory behind it. “Besides her and the padre, there wasn’t much worth rememberin’ in that town.” Joe offered an apologetic grimace, but she only nodded agreement.
“No. Things are … better since you and your father came, but still it is not a place to call home.”
He was sorry to hear it. They had hoped that things would be better with the Walkers gone, but sometimes it took a while for that kind of vacuum to fill. “How is she? Maria?”
Lina’s face lit. “Maria is very happy. She has been married this past year, and he has taken her away from the town and the tavern.”
It was the first time in a very long time that anyone had spoken to him of a recent marriage without eyeing him cautiously. Joe doubted that Lina had spoken unawares—she didn’t seem the type—and he … appreciated it. People didn’t just talk to him anymore, not like this. Pa was always trying to help, Jamie was always worried, Candy was always too hearty, Hop Sing was always trying to feed him something. The hands stopped talking at all when he arrived. When he did make it into town, people were sympathetic. So sympathetic, all the time. Joe wished more of them could manage to be just … normal, and he asked another question about Maria for no other reason than to keep the meaningless patter of everyday conversation flowing.
Lina obliged as if she knew exactly what he needed. She spoke of Maria’s new husband, and Maria’s new home, and Maria’s new employer, and Maria’s new puppy, and by the time they reached the rear door of the Continental Hotel Joe had heard more in ten short minutes about the new Señora Maria Vega than he would ever possibly remember (or care to). It felt so good, though, to let the meaningless words just wash over him—to have someone both talk to him and leave him be.
It was enough to make him almost glad he had come to town.
“Just here, on the table.” Joe set the baskets down and eyed the place. It wasn’t a full kitchen—wasn’t large enough, for one thing—but held two ovens, a fireplace, and an abundance of shelving filled with a variety of breads and pastries and other sweets. Lina saw him looking and smiled. “The bakery here is separated from the kitchen. Señor Hirschel wished to add a counter to sell fresh baked goods in the lobby, and for that he needed more baked goods.” She shrugged. “He believed it would set him apart from the other hotels.”
It really had been a long time since he’d been to town. “And has it?”
Lina turned, snatching a tray from one of the shelves. “See for yourself!” Joe smiled politely and accepted one of the offered treats. It was light and airy and stuffed with apple and spices, and he snagged another shamelessly before Lina could return the tray to its shelf. She grinned, and he motioned with the first half-eaten pastry.
“Well, if they’re all like this then I guess so.”
“They are not.” He raised a startled brow, and Lina grinned. “But they are all just as good. When next you are in town, Señor Cartwright, knock again on my door and you will see.”
He stuffed down the last bite. “I might take you up on that.”
Her voice was suddenly different, in just two words, and Joe felt … betrayed. Angry. Ambushed. He didn’t want grief or sorrow from her. He didn’t want understanding. Joe touched his hat abruptly and turned to go, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste.
“Joselito.” The shock of the memories stilled his feet, rather than any desire to stay. Another little town, this one full of laughing señoritas and crazy laws and an exasperated big brother … Hoss. His stomach cramped. “I know what it is to need so badly to speak, and yet to stay silent for fear of causing pain to those who love me.” Joe pulled in a long, shuddering breath. “My own hurts rest in the heart of an old washer woman I met only the once, who likely thinks me half mad to this day.” Lina’s laugh was breathy, humorless. “But it helped me to say them, even so.” Her footfalls were soft, and she stopped on the far side of the table, well before reaching him. “If you wish, I—”
“Most of the time I feel like I burned with them, and the rest of the time I wish I had.”
The admission burst forth with startling ferocity, the words loud and ugly after so long locked inside—denied, pushed down so they didn’t get out.
She deserved it, though. This woman deserved it, after taking his easy afternoon from him.
Lina pressed a hand gently to her heart.
Joe released his pent-up breath, turned, and walked out the door.
The crisp morning air bit into his lungs, clearing some of the fog from his brain. Joe drew in a deep breath as he entered the barn, tasting the warm sweet scent of horse and hay. He greeted Buck and Chubby, rubbed Cooch’s soft nose. Cochise nosed hopefully for a treat he hadn’t brought, and Joe wondered with a little flush of guilt how long it had been since he’d remembered an apple or lump of sugar in the morning. He’d just … let that slide.
Along with a lot of other things.
“Sorry Cooch,” he murmured, offering another pat instead. “Later.”
Joe seized the pitchfork and went to toss hay into the stalls, the work coming somehow easier than it had in a while. Breathing seemed like less work too, and the heavy pain in his chest was … lighter. The physical aches, the apathy still clung to him, slowing every thought and movement as though he were living in molasses instead of air—but the sharp pressure of keeping it all inside, hidden, had eased.
He’d said it out loud, and not to just empty space.
It … did feel better. A little.
She’d been right. It would have irked him, if he could be bothered.
Joe finished his morning chores without any thought—it was all routine. Water the horses, feed the cats, feed the dog, feed the chickens, feed the goat. Jamie was the one shoveling stalls this week, and Candy was chopping wood and filling the box. Hop Sing would get the eggs, as the little cook didn’t trust anyone else not to break the lot of them (with some justification, unfortunately). Joe’s own part was done quickly, and he was back out in the yard.
Cool air, filling his lungs. It was … good. Sharp and fresh. Clean.
The smell of his home. He loved this land.
Pa was on the front porch, puffing at his pipe. He could have been looking at anything or nothing, but Joe knew that Ben was watching him.
His pa had been worried. They had all been worried.
He wasn’t giving them any reason not to be, but he also couldn’t seem to do anything different.
Fresh air. Easy breathing.
When was the last time he’d actually started a conversation with his pa? With anyone? He’d been just responding more than conversing lately …
Joe stepped onto the porch, scrambling for something to say. “Pa. Nice morning.” He wanted more, but his mind skittered away from the effort.
He didn’t force it. Couldn’t bother.
Ben blinked, eyeing him cautiously. Hopefully. “Fine morning, Joe.” He hesitated, but when Joe didn’t offer anything else Ben didn’t push. He only slid a hand onto Joe’s shoulder, squeezing gently. The heavy warmth was … comforting, rather than confining. In a flash of insight Joe noticed that his pa had aged—the fingers that gripped him were thinner, bony even, although the callouses were still rough enough to catch and snag on the fabric of his work shirt.
It had been a tough couple of years for everyone.
Joe stayed there on the porch with his pa for nearly thirty seconds, drinking in the spicy pipe smoke and the crisp Nevada morning, before he pulled gently away and ducked into the house.
“Good to see you, Mr. Cartwright.”
“And you, Mr. Weems.”
Joe gripped the bank manager’s proffered hand, then tucked the packet of paperwork under one arm and slid his hat into place. He shouldn’t have been surprised to be back in Virginia City again so soon, all things considered. After his successful supply run last week—the way Pa had looked him over when he got home, Joe had felt a like a kid coming in from his first solo ride to school—Ben had apparently decided enough was enough, at least where town was concerned. The Cartwrights had contracts waiting to be signed, payments waiting to be made, and Ben was not inclined these days to make a ride of that length with any regularity. Joe’s signature was the only other (active) one on the bank account, and it was time for him to start facing the world again.
Probably, Pa thought it would be good for him on other fronts too.
“Was right sorry to hear about Mrs. Cartwright, Joe. I didn’t know her, but my Ida says she was a good woman.”
“She was, Mr. Weems. Thank you.”
Might have been good for him, too, if people would just quit reminding him. Every conversation didn’t have to be about his dead wife, did it? (Not about the baby, at least. Joe thanked the good Lord he and Alice hadn’t told many people outside the family yet about their baby, then knew a flash of hot guilt before realizing he had almost tripped down the bank’s front steps in his distraction.) Wasn’t it remotely possible that something else of interest was happening in a town the size of Virginia City?
Joe stopped on the sidewalk and let the crowds flow past, taking it all in with an indifference that would have shocked the seventeen-year-old him. Back then when it all started, a few huts, a few tents, a dozen makeshift saloons, and a roper sellin’ Paiute antelope out of a half-built storefront had seemed the height of excitement. Now … well, Little Joe Cartwright’s mind would have boggled.
Too bad Little Joe Cartwright wasn’t here instead of … whoever he was now.
A ruckus from across the way rose over the general din, and a couple of cowboys erupted through the batwings of the Old Bucket saloon, poundin’ each other like their lives depended on the win. A crowd followed, yellin’ and cheerin’ and probably takin’ bets. Joe recognized a couple of the men—Tom Harris and Rowdy Davisson—and ducked into the shadow of the bank before either one noticed him. Was a time not too long ago when he’da been over there too, through those doors as soon as his business at the bank was done. He’d had a hard time after Hoss, though—wasn’t the same drinkin’ with friends when he knew he’d never be drinkin’ with his brother again—and now the thought of them all talkin’ at once, asking questions, just made him vaguely sick.
He wasn’t ready to go home either, though. His pa, who had spent a good chunk of Joe’s life scolding him for getting lost in a saloon or at a poker table, would no doubt look worried and wish his boy had stopped for a drink.
Seemed sometimes like a man just couldn’t win.
Anyway, Joe had a different reason for sticking around town. He’d thought … well, he thought he might try out visiting for a spell.
He hadn’t really meant to go back, despite her invitation. He sure didn’t plan to spill any more of his guts to the woman—once was bad enough. But, Joe craved the easy interaction Lina Marquez had offered with an intensity that was startling in his otherwise featureless existence. He was still a social man, despite the rest of it all.
He didn’t want to shut himself off. He just couldn’t seem to handle anything else.
If he just made it clear from the outset he hadn’t come to talk …
As Joe approached the door to Lina’s little bakery at the rear of the Continental Hotel, though, he paused. Was that … yes. Laughter. Which meant she wasn’t alone. Well, there went that plan. The disappointment was stronger than he had expected, and Joe couldn’t resist a peek through the little window to see who had beat him there.
She actually was alone, as far as he could tell—except for a letter clutched against her blouse. That looked to be the source of her amusement, for even as he watched Lina snuck a peek at the pages then burst into a fresh round of giggles. The unfettered merriment was … soothing. Joe leaned his head against the door for a moment and closed his eyes, soaking in the sound.
No one at home laughed like this anymore. Especially not him.
A tap on the window against his face made Joe jump. Lina smirked through the tiny panes, then came the quick scrape of a lock sliding back. (She locked the door? Didn’t it get hot in there?) “Joselito!” She flung open the door and turned back into the room, leaving Joe to close it. (He left the lock unlatched, in case this was a bad idea and he needed a quick getaway.) By the time he joined her, Lina had thumped a coffee cup onto the counter and was pouring into it from a battered little pot. “I am so happy to see you—I’ve had such a letter!”
The lame protest Joe had been forming against the possibility of serious discussion faded, replaced by a vague curiosity. “Yeah?” He took a sip, nodding his thanks.
It had been a long time since anybody had shared news just because it was funny.
“Maria …” Lina’s breath hitched, and the giggles kept on as she placed a several cookie-looking things (churros and polvorones, she would later tell him, but for now they were just treats covered in cinnamon and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that) on a clean towel beside him. “Three pages …” Another burst, and she waved the flour-covered missive. “About their goat …” Lina collapsed against the counter, and followed with something he couldn’t even make out.
Despite everything, her utter lack of control made him want to join in. “What?”
“Suspenders!” She gasped. “Manuel’s suspenders, and his … his …” Manuel. The husband? Joe wondered if Lina might actually hurt herself trying to get this out. “Two whole days …” she managed.
A faint grin curved his lips. “Might take me that long to figure out what you’re talkin’ about, woman.”
Lina bent almost double, an unladylike snort echoing in the little space, and Joe was suddenly very glad he had come.
He was … brittle. On edge. Everywhere Joe had turned since he’d rode into Virginia City this morning had been couples—old couples, young couples, married couples, courting couples—and where there were no couples there were pregnant women. Seemed like the entire town was either expecting or out for a romantic stroll. (Except for you.) He tried to ignore it, but … it just wasn’t a good day.
It didn’t help when Lina informed him that his snack was called wedding cookies.
Of course they were. Why wouldn’t they be?
Joe ate in silence, unwilling to let on just how out of sorts he was (though she probably already knew). It wasn’t a good day, he should just leave while he was ahead. If he opened his mouth, he was likely to say something he’d regret.
Despite their name, the cookies were good.
He snagged another, and drank his coffee, and let his mind wander. Lina worked silently on her next batch (she definitely knew his mood), and let him just sit. Be. Eat. Rest. She was a perceptive woman, was Lina Marquez—he’d learned quickly that she had a sense about these things. Alice had been a good listener too. His wife was a quiet woman, and Joe had often found himself telling her things he hadn’t intended just to fill up the space. He’d rarely regretted it afterward, and usually ended up wondering why he hadn’t just told her from the beginning.
“Alice would have liked these.”
Joe’s gut dropped like a stone. Why had he said that?
It wasn’t a good day.
Lina smiled. “Alice Cartwright was a discerning woman, it seems.”
He couldn’t miss the double meaning, but he also couldn’t accept it.
Alice had trusted him.
She had trusted him. She had given herself to him, into his care, and he had failed her. It didn’t even matter that …
Joe stood abruptly, shoving the battered chair back into the wall. “I need to be gettin’ back.”
Lina blinked, startled for maybe the first time since he had met her. Joe felt a moment of regret for his rudeness—and he was, no question—but he needed the ride back home to clear his head. Lina, bless her, recovered quickly. “I am happy you came.”
Every time. She was always happy to see him, no matter what kind of mood came with him. It was … reassuring. And it made him feel worse. Joe tipped his hat and started for the door, but the memories had already caught up, rushing in like a flood in a dry gulch. He stopped abruptly. He had let his guard down, and it was too late to beat them back.
“I know it’s not my fault.” He didn’t turn, but he knew she was listening. Lina always listened. “Everybody say it’s not. Alice would say it’s not. And it’s not as if I could be with her every minute of the day, that would have been … crazy. We would have hated each other in a month.” Joe clenched his fingers around his black gloves. “But it still … feels like it’s my fault.”
She didn’t respond, and he was glad.
The silence wrapped around him, warm and heavy, and Joe finally looked back. Lina held his eyes, and nodded. Joe returned a grimace that was meant to be a smile, then ducked out the door.
“I think Pa is worried about Jamie.”
The soft slap of kneading dough continued without pause.
“For what reason?”
“He … Well, I don’t know for sure. Pa hasn’t been tellin’ me too much lately—probably thinks it’ll make things worse.” Joe managed a wry twist of the lips. “But I think it’s because he’s bein’ so good.”
“Ha. And ‘good’ is a problem?”
Joe took a long drink of coffee, trying to put some order to his scattered thoughts. He hadn’t even noticed the way Ben was watching Jamie until just a few days ago—but thinking back, he realized it had been going on for a while now. “You gotta know Jamie. He is a good kid. But … he pushes back. If he doesn’t like something he’s not afraid to argue, and he doesn’t always know when to stop. He and Pa have been fightin’ about school, for instance, pretty much since we met him.”
“Now he doesn’t argue about anything.” The cake, whatever it was, was good (like everything she baked—he wasn’t at all surprised by the steady stream of non-guests in the Continental’s lobby). Heavy and moist. He chewed thoughtfully. “He gets up on time, gets his chores done on time, leaves for school on time, does his homework without being told. Brings home better marks than ever. He’s always … cheerful. Too cheerful … but he’s also real quiet.” It had taken him only a couple of days to see it, once he had started looking.
“Ah.” She flipped the dough. A puff of flour hung for a moment in the warm, fragrant air. “You think this is his way of … trying to help?”
“Should your father be worried?”
That was the thing. He hadn’t paid enough real attention to his little brother lately to know.
A vague, uncomfortable guilt gnawed at him. He hadn’t paid attention to a lot of things lately. What else had been slipping past that he should have noticed?
“I spoke to the Widow Hawkins on Tuesday. It seems she saw you in town last week.”
He couldn’t keep the caution out of his tone. Clementine Hawkins was a good woman and meant well … but her interest was usually a double-edged sword.
Lina’s smirk wasn’t helping things.
“Indeed. She spoke of you, the ‘poor boy’.”
Joe thumped his head back against the wall. “I bet she did.”
She giggled softly. “I heard much about a stolen gemstone and a broken window and—”
“Is she still tellin’ that story?”
“Oh, at great length.” Lina grinned. “And you weren’t the only Cartwright she spoke of.”
A hint of old amusement stirred. “She still after Pa?”
“To hear her tell it, theirs is a star-crossed love.”
“Star-crossed?” Oh, he had no doubt.
The empanadas were right out of the oven, still so warm that he had to take slow, careful bites.
Her smile grew distant, dimmed. “My grandmother had a few books at home, which she used to teach me to read English. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was a great favorite of hers.”
“Sounds like my brother Adam.”
He didn’t know why he had brought Adam up—it wasn’t as if he needed that ball of anger and worry on top of everything else.
“He enjoys ‘Romeo and Juliet’?”
“He enjoys Shakespeare.” Unless Adam really was dead these past couple of years, and not just falling down on letter-writing. Big brother had been downright meticulous about his letters, though, until just after … Hoss. Hoss. Why stop right when they needed him? Joe welcomed the surge of annoyance, held onto it. It was easier to believe the second and be angry than to accept the first and grieve another brother. “Don’t know about ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in particular.” Suddenly, the Widow Hawkins seemed like a positively safe topic. “The widow’s always had a soft spot for Pa. I think they could be friends if her interest wasn’t so … obvious.”
“She was so very kind to me when I first arrived in town.” Lina slid another tray into the oven. “She is the reason I have this job, truly.”
“Mrs. Hawkins?” He couldn’t seem to make the two fit together.
“Indeed. I came to Virginia City alone, and of course needed work. I went first to the general stores, the Emporium, such places.” Lina shrugged, an oddly self-conscious gesture. “I knew that I would likely end up serving in some tavern, but I … wanted to at least try.”
She moved on quickly, too quickly for Joe to do anything more than register that Lina had truly believed she had no other options.
Probably not. It wasn’t fair, but it was … the way things were.
He felt a sudden rush of unexpected affection for Clementine Hawkins.
“She was in the Emporium while I spoke to Señor Keller. She overheard—”
Joe snorted softly. “I bet she did.”
Lina flapped a towel at him, both reproving and amused. “She overheard when I listed baking among my skills. When Señor Keller said that he could not hire me, she approached and told me of Señor Hirschel’s wish to begin a bakery here.” Because of course the Widow Hawkins knew about that. She knew everything, no matter how Virginia City grew. It was impressive, no question. “The next morning she brought me here.” Lina shook her head, amazement still clear after so many months. “She didn’t know me. She had never tasted a thing I baked, yet she brought me here herself to ask Señor Hirschel for a chance at this position.”
“Well.” Joe wasn’t surprised. The widow had her quirks, but she was also a good woman with a kind, fearless heart. “Clementine Hawkins is a discerning woman, too.”
Lina dimpled and returned to her dough. Joe took another careful bite.
Somehow, the little reference to Alice didn’t hurt like it used to. Anyway, she would have been pleased to share the title. His wife, for reasons never fully explained, had adored the Widow Hawkins.
He had almost forgotten that.
He had never seen Lina so agitated.
She unlocked the door for him, at least. No greeting, though, and no coffee. No smile or description of whatever cake or cookie or unknown pastry she was concocting this time. Lina only slapped a couple of sugar cookies onto his usual spot (he had never seen her treat any baked good so carelessly) and went back to her dough.
Joe edged cautiously inside, giving himself time to think.
It took time, these days—though at least his ability to focus for longer than about a minute seemed to be slowly coming back to him.
He sat in his corner, stretched his legs, and kept his mouth shut. Lina pounded away with her rolling pin, more like she was killin’ a spider than rollin’ out cookies. Finally, Joe ventured, “You got somethin’ against sugar cookies?”
Dumb question, yeah, but it might at least tell him whether—
She snatched up the half-formed dough and hurled it into a corner. Joe gaped. The rolling pin clattered onto the wooden floor. Lina turned her back and leaned heavily against the far counter, gripping its edge hard enough that her knuckles turned white.
“My late husband,” her voice came out muffled, “required a daily batch. Always, and heaven help …” Lina cut off, and shook her head. “I never wish to make another sugar cookie.”
For an instant, his brain seized.
Her late husband.
And heaven help …
Disbelief and a cold trickle of anger cleared his thoughts.
‘My own hurts rest in the heart of an old washer woman …’
A shaky breath brought him back into the room, to Lina’s hunched shoulders and the sugar cookie dough lying like a dead thing in the corner. Joe rose. He picked up the rolling pin and placed it safely on the counter, then drifted closer until he stood behind her. Lina sighed and wiped at her eyes.
“He was … not my choice.”
She had never even hinted at a marriage before.
Seemed like she had reason.
He wasn’t sure what to say to her—what to do. Lina was a woman who valued attentive silence, but he couldn’t just leave this.
“Why are you makin’ them, then?”
A teary sniff greeted that question. “People like sugar cookies.” Lina waved one hand, cutting off any response. “I am sorry, I am … not good company today.”
In other words, go.
Joe hesitated, then gripped her shoulders gently. “People don’t need sugar cookies, Lina.” He squeezed once, then released her and ducked out into the alley, leaving his cookies uneaten.
He wasn’t used to finding other visitors in the little bakery—and especially not this one.
“Hop Sing very grateful. Will get much use from these.”
Joe hovered in the open doorway, gawking like an idiot as his friend offered Lina a bow. He didn’t know these two had even met.
Lina beamed as Hop Sing tucked the paper away. “De nada, Señor. And please, do come at any time—I am so excited to learn your sachima and almond cookies.”
“Happy to teach. I come next week, maybe.”
They both noticed Joe as Hop Sing turned toward the exit. Lina offered a cheery wave, but Hop Sing scowled like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. So to speak.
“Number three son like Mexican baking much these days.” Well … he had brought a few things home from the Continental lobby over the past weeks, yes. “Hop Sing get recipes and tips. Good to try new things.”
He would always be ‘Little Joe’ to Hop Sing. That was okay.
“And Hop Sing will show me Chinese desserts as well.” Lina gave a satisfied little bounce.
They both looked so pleased with themselves that Joe couldn’t help a grin. “Well, sounds good for everybody, I guess.”
“What good for Hop Sing is to get home.” The little cook nodded back at Lina. “Miss Catalina.”
How did he not know that?
Hop Sing pushed past, patting Joe’s elbow on the way through. When Joe turned back, Lina—Catalina—was tossing ingredients into a mixing bowl with her customary abandon.
She looked up, lifting an eyebrow. “So?”
“Which ones did you give him?”
“Ha.” Lina smirked. “You will just have to wait and see.”
“Ah!” Hop Sing called from behind him as Joe started out the kitchen door. Joe waited, slapping his black gloves restlessly against his leg. One thing after another had kept coming up all morning—he and Candy were more than an hour late getting out. The little cook scurried over. “Little Joe tell Miss Catalina that Hop Sing be by on Thursday. We make more sachima.” Hop Sing nodded firmly. “Miss Catalina sachima very tasty—be good as Hop Sing someday.”
Joe lifted an eyebrow. “But not yet?”
“Little Joe think she make as good as Hop Sing in two tries?” The cook scowled, shooing Joe out of the kitchen. “Not want any dessert tonight, hmm?”
“Now wait, I didn’t say that!” Joe held up two placating hands. Hop Sing waved a finger in the younger man’s face before turning away, not quickly enough to hide his smirk. Joe leaned against the door frame. “She sure enjoys you comin’ by—told me so the other day.”
Hop Sing nodded. “Miss Catalina good girl. Laugh like springtime.” He patted his chest. “Good for old man’s heart.”
“You ain’t old, Hop Sing.”
“Hmph.” The little man rolled his eyes. “Number Three son have eyes checked in town today, maybe.”
Joe snorted a chuckle.
It wasn’t much, but it was real.
By the table, Hop Sing nodded. “Miss Catalina good for Little Joe, too.”
Joe grimaced. “I don’t know what you’re thinkin’, Hop Sing, but—”
“Hop Sing think it good for Number Three son to have friend who laugh.” One thin shoulder shrugged. “No laughing here for too long. Not good for Little Joe. Not help him.” Hop Sing shook his head, then turned his attention back to the half-chopped carrots on the table. “Not good for anybody, but nobody here listen to Hop Sing.”
Now that was the most ridiculous thing Joe had heard in a long time. He didn’t bother with an argument—Hop Sing liked nothing better than for someone to rise to his bait, and if Joe stopped to bicker he and Candy would never make it into Virginia City.
He’d come back later and stir the pot again. Since … Hoss (he missed Hoss), he appreciated the little cook’s argumentative tendencies all the more.
No one squabbled like his big brother, but bickering with Hop Sing was something, at least.
Joe stood for a minute, watching his old friend with an affectionate eye, then thumped the door frame and headed out to meet Candy. It really might be dark by the time they made it back. He found Ben waiting at the buckboard, too—at least, his pa was standing by the team, detailing at length exactly where he wanted Candy to look for axle grease.
“What they have at the Emporium is too dark. It stains.” Ben puffed on his pipe. “And the tubs at Carlson’s General are so small you might as well not even bother. The stuff Old Ned sells out the back of the livery is more water than grease, so don’t let him take you in.” Candy cast Joe a desperate glance from the seat of the buckboard, then pasted on a smile and nodded as Ben added emphatically, “And Jack Harlson might as well have silver mixed in, for what he’s charging! It’s ridiculous, and I don’t want anything that man’s selling coming back to this ranch!”
They had both (Jamie too) had this lecture more than a few times over the past couple of years.
In fact, Joe could probably give it himself.
“Don’t worry, Pa.” Joe swung up beside Candy, settling back for the ride. “We’ll go to Jansen’s.”
The mottled shade of red that crept up his pa’s neck might have been worrisome if Candy hadn’t choked at the words then attempted to cover it with a cough. Ben glared between the two of them, heavy brows furrowing, then sighed and shook his head.
“All right. Point taken. You’re both adults, I’m sure you’re more than capable. But,” he pointed ominously, “if one more tub of bad axle grease makes its way back here from town, the responsible party will find himself cutting firewood for the next year!”
‘Bad’ was a relative term, when it came to axle grease. Joe himself hated the only brand that didn’t set Ben off on an hour-long rant.
It stunk. Oh, did it stink.
“Come on, Candy.” Joe stretched his legs, elbowing their foreman. “I’ll buy you a beer when we’re done. Sounds like we’re gonna need it.”
Candy’s pleased grin was enough to make him realize that Hop Sing was right. Nobody on the Ponderosa had been laughin’ much these days.
That needed to stop. Joe wasn’t sure he was ready for it … but he also wasn’t sure he ever would be.
They couldn’t wait that long.
Jamie’s voice startled Joe out of his dour thoughts. He turned quickly, shaking his head to clear out the cobwebs. It had been a long week. A bad week, a hard time for keeping himself in working order.
Jamie was annoyed now. Joe grunted his own frustration—focus, Cartwright!—and turned his attention to his little brother. “We done?”
Jamie’s lips pursed. “Yeah, sure. We’re done.”
Okay. He deserved that.
Joe eyed the loaded wagon. He really hadn’t done much of the heavy lifting this time out. His thoughts had been a thousand miles away (or just outside of Carson City), and his movements had matched—all while Jamie dragged the greater part of their supply order from the store into the wagon bed.
The kid had a right to be aggravated.
This kind of thing had to stop. He had thought he was doing better lately, makin’ some kind of progress, but …
“Thanks.” Joe gripped the bony shoulder, trying to convey an apology in the touch. Jamie shifted, but didn’t quite shrug him off. Joe sighed. “Look, why don’t we get a late lunch before we head back?”
Now, Jamie did duck out of his grasp. “I ain’t too hungry.” Joe couldn’t remember the last time that had been true. He considered calling the boy on it, but didn’t have the chance. “I’m gonna go see Ted for a while and then head back later. If that’s okay,” Jamie tacked on, almost as an afterthought.
Time was, his little brother had jumped at a chance to spend an extra hour with him.
His own fault. Nobody else’s.
Joe couldn’t even mount a presentable argument, not as things stood. “Be home before dark.”
“Yeah.” Jamie nodded, and bade Artie Keller goodbye, and loped away. Joe watched him go, kicking absently at the rim of the near wagon wheel. He didn’t even hear Keller talking until the storekeeper approached and tapped Joe’s shoulder with his pencil.
“Joe? Anything else?”
“Oh, sorry Artie.” Again! If he went home now, he’d probably end up in a ditch halfway there. Joe sighed, resettling his hat. “No, I think that’s it. I’ll get out of your way.”
He climbed into the wagon and clucked to the horses, pulling around the nearest corner out of the main flow of traffic. Parking in the shade of a building, Joe tied down the tarp over their supplies and then started down the backstreet. A turn here, a couple of alleys and a jumped fence, and it would bring him out right at the rear of the Continental.
He wasn’t ready to head home. It was all a week past now, and he still didn’t quite know what to say to Pa.
What would I have done, if …?
When he reached the bakery, though, Joe hesitated, slouching against the wall and squinting up into the sky. Did he really want to be here right now, either? Lina was perceptive—too much so, sometimes. If he went in there now, she’d have him spilling his guts about the whole blessed ordeal in five minutes flat, with nothing more than a cookie and a silent smile.
How did she do that? And why did he let her?
He snorted softly. There were lots of answers to that question, all tangled up together in one big ball of chaos, but if he was honest, probably the simplest was that he just—
Joe hadn’t heard the door, but her exclamation and the clatter of her broom jolted him from his reverie. He was startled when Lina scurried into the alley and gripped his elbows tightly, dark eyes shining with concern.
“Oh Joe, I heard about your father at the prison. How is he? Is he well? Was he hurt?”
Of course she knew. Why should that surprise him? Ben Cartwright had been taken hostage at the State Prison and had been rescued only at the cost of a riot and the beating of a loyal friend and custody of a new parolee. The gossip had probably made it halfway to Australia by now.
Don’t think about Australia.
“No,” he managed, offering what he hoped was (but knew wasn’t) a smile. “Not hurt. He’s fine.”
Lina’s eyes narrowed. “Candy?”
“He’s fine too. A little sore, still, but back at work. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
She nodded, her hands rubbing absently at his sleeves. Joe shuddered. He had always thrived on physical contact, ever since he was young, but since losing Alice …
It was too much. He didn’t want her that close. He didn’t want anybody that close.
Lina noticed (way too perceptive), and stepped back before Joe pulled away. She eyed him for a moment, then nodded suddenly. “Wait here.” She ducked inside before he could respond, and was back again in seconds with a milk pail dangling from one arm. Lina locked the door, checked it, pocketed the key, then motioned with a tilt of her head. “Come along.”
Well … okay. A walk would probably do him good.
“You think somebody’s gonna steal your flour while you’re gone?”
It wasn’t the reason. Joe knew it wasn’t the reason. He also didn’t expect an answer—not a real one, not today. He did want her to know, though, that she wasn’t fooling anybody.
At least, she wasn’t fooling him.
Joe Cartwright might not be worth too much these days, but he had seen this. Lina Marquez was his friend, and she was afraid, and he didn’t intend to leave things at that.
Her voice was light—too light. “My broom. You cannot think I would leave it unprotected?”
“Ah, the broom.” Joe tugged the pail from her and set it to swinging alongside like he was ten again, dashing out of school with his lunch in tow. “Of course.”
Lina snorted softly. “Of course.”
She set out with a purpose then and he followed, letting the subject drop. There would (probably, but not always) be another time. They wound through main roads and back streets and alleys—Virginia City’s layout these days resembled nothing so much as a prairie dog city—and anyone less familiar with this corner of Nevada would have been instantly lost. Joe had grown up with this town, though—had been here longer than Virginia City, even. He had seen it balloon from nothing to tents and shacks to a thriving mining community. He had seen it burn and rebuild into something he didn’t quite recognize and wasn’t sure he wanted to. He had drank here and fought here, bought merchandise from practically everyone around with something to sell, attended church and festivals and dances here. He had married here (don’t think about that). There was no section of the city that he didn’t know—much of it well, some just in passing—and no place where someone didn’t know him.
He hadn’t been to the Mexican quarter for a while, but it held good memories. He and Mitch had stumbled across a nice little cantina years past, run by an elderly couple and their granddaughter. It served hot food and decent beer, and they had been regulars for a good little bit. Course, that was before he and Mitch had fallen out, and then Mitch had moved on down to Santa Fe with his new wife and her pa. There was also no telling if the place had even survived the fire.
Still, good memories.
Lina led him to a low storefront tucked into a row of buildings, its front posts strung with loops of peppers—chilis, poblanos, and jalapeños. A barrel of dried black beans sat on one side of the doorway, a bin of avocados on the other. Next to the avocados, an elderly señora reclined in an even older rocking chair, the length of a half-embroidered shawl tumbling from her lap. Lina smiled and greeted her. The woman replied, motioned into the store, then turned raised brows on Joe. Her eyes sparkling as another burst of Spanish passed between the two women. Lina giggled.
“It seems you have an admirer.”
“Yeah?” Joe grinned at the old woman, and dropped a wink. She laughed, clapping her hands together.
Lina snorted. “Come. Your head will grow too large for your hat.”
“Hey, you’re the one who brought me,” Joe protested, chuckling for the first time in a week. He tipped his brim. “Pleasure to meet you, Señora.”
The woman caught at Joe’s sleeve, offering one weathered cheek. Lina smirked unhelpfully at his startled glance. “You were the one flirting.”
Yeah. Guess he was, at that.
Shaking his head, Joe bent to peck the worn cheek. Before he managed it, two wiry hands seized his face. A firm kiss landed full on his lips, and then the señora released him. She sat back, looking entirely pleased with herself.
Lina collapsed into the avocado bin, gasping laughter.
The señora returned to her embroidery, humming softly.
“Jest can’t help yourself, can you, little brother?”
He couldn’t help it—Joe burst into a cackle. Lina’s eyes widened (either because she couldn’t breathe or because she had never heard him really laugh), and she sagged against the wall. The old woman’s wheezing giggle joined them. A middle-aged man appeared in the doorway, wiping his hands on his apron and fixing them all with a bewildered stare. Joe propped himself against a post, gulped back his laughter, and doffed his hat to the old lady.
“Señora …” What did a man say to something like that? “Gracias.”
Lina’s giggled again. The storekeeper crossed to the old woman, speaking rapidly. The señora waved him off with a casual flap of her hand, picked up the shawl, and bent to her sewing.
Apparently, she was finished with them all.
The storekeeper threw up his hands and stalked back inside. Joe crossed to Lina, murmuring, “Should I feel used?” She snorted, snatching the bucket from him.
“I have never seen her do anything like that.”
“Well.” He crossed his arms and quirked a grin. “I guess I’m just irresistible.”
“Joseph Cartwright …”
The storekeeper stuck his head back out the door, and Lina scurried inside. Joe shook his head and followed. He tucked himself into a corner, hovering out of the way while Lina purchased goat milk, chilis, and cinnamon. He stepped up when the storekeeper handed over the full pail, taking it before she had a chance. She dimpled her thanks, paid, and left the store with the package of chilis and cinnamon tucked under her arm. Joe fell into step, settling the pail into a comfortable hold. Lina was still chuckling softly, and somehow the rock that had lodged in his chest since last week’s disaster at the State Prison seemed to have lightened considerably. He took a long, easy breath, and began to tell her about that day as they wound their way back to the bakery.
“Now we’ve actually got him at the Ponderosa, he’s settled down some. He still ain’t actin’ like he’s too excited to see the outside—I get the feeling ‘cowhand’ isn’t exactly his pick of careers—but he’s keepin’ his head down and stayin’ busy. I guess he’d rather be here than prison. Candy thinks he’ll stay put for now, at least, so …” Joe shrugged, and set the milk on the counter beside the cinnamon and chilis. “Guess we’ll see what happens.”
Lina was already rummaging in a side pantry. “I am so very thankful that Griff decided to help your father and Candy, rather than join with the other prisoners. To think what could have happened …” Her voice was muffled, but Joe detected genuine relief all the same.
“Yeah. I have.”
He’d wondered, too, long and often since that day. What would he have done?
If his pa had been … killed, if Candy had been killed …
What would he have done?
He snagged his usual chair (the only chair in the room, actually, but Lina rarely stopped moving long enough to sit anywhere) and flipped it around to straddle backward. Joe crossed his arms along its back and rested his chin on top, watching as she mixed milk and sugar with a thick bar of chocolate in a pan on the tiny stove. Even barely melted the smell made his mouth water, but it wasn’t enough to distract his roiling thoughts.
“What would I have done?”
“What do you think you would have done?”
He hadn’t realized he’d spoken out loud.
Lina added the cinnamon and chili (chili in hot chocolate?) into the pot. The thick, rich scent wrapped around him, warmed him. She stirred patiently, silently.
What did he think he would have done? There was a solidity to her question that his own lacked, and he considered for a long moment.
“I would have gone back home, I guess. Jamie still … needs me.” Joe snorted, and looked away. Who was he kidding? What good would he have been to his little brother if the worst had happened? He had barely managed himself over the past week, with it all just a bad memory.
Suddenly, the wreckage of his life repulsed him.
Somehow, she saw. Lina lifted an eyebrow, most of her attention still fixed on the thick chocolate that she was dividing into two battered cups.
“I’m tired of it. I’m tired of people leaving me.” Joe gripped the chair, knuckles blanching white against tanned, weathered skin. “I’m tired of not being able to stop it. My Mama. Adam. Hoss. Al … Alice.” He rattled the battered wood. “Our baby.” Joe caught a shimmer in her eyes, and looked away. “I feel so helpless, and I don’t … I don’t do helpless!” He shook the chair again, a vent for his anger and pain. It groaned in protest. “You hear me? I don’t do helpless!”
“Everyone does helpless.” Her words were calm, her eyes … distant. Weary, in a way that had become only too familiar to him. It lived in his own heart every day. “Do you think you are God, Joseph Cartwright, that you should be able to control everything and save everyone?”
He snarled. “Of course not!”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m sayin’ …” The burst of anger had exhausted him. Joe sighed, dropping his chin back onto his crossed arms. “I guess I feel sometimes like I left right along with all the rest of them. I know I can’t get them back, but I don’t even know if I can get myself back.”
Lina studied him, sympathetic and affectionate and … understanding. Finally, she crossed to him, holding out a cup of chocolate. He took it automatically, still lost in his own thoughts, and jumped when her hand closed over his.
Joe gathered himself. “Sorry.”
Her fingers tightened. “No. But perhaps …” Lina sighed, and looked away. “Perhaps you are searching for the wrong Joseph.”
“Perhaps, instead of trying to bring back a Joseph who does not wish to be found, you should try learning who this one is, now.” She tapped him gently, and then retreated to her own cup of chocolate.
Her words brought … relief, though he wasn’t sure why.
They also stirred a dozen questions that it was far past time for him to ask. “Lina. Will you tell me?”
She smiled faintly, and sipped her chocolate. “Not today.”
“I will.” Lina met his eyes. “I promise. But today is yours.”
All right. He would accept that for now … but not for much longer.
Today is mine.
Yeah. Maybe … maybe it was.
The foreign address was deeply familiar, though he hadn’t written it in well over a year. Joe scrawled out the final words, bold and dark, then tossed the pen aside, sat back, and stared for a long moment at the result. He had already enclosed his letter (Brother Adam, I don’t know if you’ll ever see this letter. I don’t know if you’re dead, or if you don’t care, or if you just moved and your new address got lost somewhere between Ballarat and Virginia City. Whatever the reason for these past years of silence, I’ve decided to write you anyway …) and sealed it so that he had no chance to rethink—either his wording or his decision.
This wasn’t really about Adam, anyway.
It was about starting to feel his way through his own new life. Who this Joe Cartwright was, as Lina had said. What—and who—was important to him.
“Tell me about your brother Adam. How long as he been gone?”
“Almost ten years. At first he was just supposed to be a year or so in Boston—his grandpa, his mama’s pa, was dyin’ and Adam went to help out, get his grandpa’s affairs in order. While he was there, though, he met up with a couple friends from college who were talkin’ about Australia. They’ve got gold down there, and his friends figured there’d be opportunity for engineers. They heard about Adam’s experience with the silver mines here, workin’ with Philip Deidesheimer on support structures like he did, and they asked him along.”
“And he went.”
“Well sure. Who could blame him—who wouldn’t want to see Australia? And anyway, it’s the kinda thing Adam likes, he’s always had designs for somethin’ on scraps of paper all over the house. He and Pa wrote back and forth for a while, but there was never any real question about him goin’. Things were in hand here at the ranch, there was no reason he couldn’t take off for a while. He signed on for six years after his grandpa was gone and they headed out. Ended up in the Ballarat gold fields—southern Australia—doin’ pretty well for themselves.”
“It has been longer than six years.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it has. He was real good about writin’ for all that time, but then at the end all of a sudden the letters stopped. We haven’t heard anything since … well, since right before Hoss …”
Joe had been worried for Adam, and then angry. He’d grieved the possibility that his eldest brother, too, had been killed somehow—though surely someone would have sent them word. He’d grieved the possibility that his eldest brother hadn’t wanted to come home home—though surely Adam would have given them some sort of warning. He’d grieved for his pa, who didn’t need this kind of uncertainty about his firstborn on top of the loss of his middle son.
He’d grieved for Hoss. He’d grieved for Alice and their baby.
He’d withdrawn. It was all … too much.
That was over now. Partially. This Joe Cartwright didn’t seem to need—or want—the social crush on which he had thrived in his previous life (it was the closest description he could find for the divide between then and now), but he did still want his big brother. He wasn’t above telling Adam that.
Along with a few other things he’d probably waited too long to get off of his chest.
Joe picked up the letter, balanced it for a long moment in his hands, then went to put it with the outgoing mail.
He found Ben still at his desk, nodding over the ledgers. Darkness had fallen several hours ago, Jamie’s bedtime was come and gone, and the rest of the house stood silent except for the crackling of the fire in the hearth. His pa sat back as Joe approached. “I thought you were asleep.”
“Nah.” Joe motioned to a neat stack at the outer corner. “This the mail to go into town?”
Ben nodded, and Joe dropped his letter on top. Seeing the address his pa’s eyebrow rose, and Joe offered a wry grin before crossing to the liquor cabinet and pulling out the good brandy with two glasses. Ben stood, bemused. He studied his son, then drifted over to his red chair by the fire. Joe met him with one of the glasses, but rather than retiring to the settee with his own drink, he sat on the edge of the low table, staring into the fire. After a silent moment, Ben joined him.
“I don’t know how you did it three times,” Joe ventured.
It was the first time since Alice that Joe himself had raised the subject of Ben’s losses. Ben took a long breath and a quick drink. “Not well, certainly.” He smiled distantly. “Not as well as I would have wanted, anyway.”
“Well.” Joe laughed softly, without humor. “That makes two of us.” Ben studied him from the corner of his eye. “I’m … sorry, Pa.”
“About what, Joseph?”
“All of it. The past months. I know I’m not the only one havin’ a hard time, but I just …” He shook his head, and took a deep sip of brandy.
Ben stretched his feet toward the fire. “I held on too tight, after each of your mothers. I held onto my dream with Elizabeth, when it should have waited a few years. I held onto my dream with Inger, with two young sons who needed more from me than the Sierra wilds. I held onto my memories of your mother Marie, when you and your brothers needed me to live with you in the present.” He absently circled the rim of his glass with one finger. “I held onto my sons too tightly, even after I had raised you to be strong, good, independent men.” Joe looked around, surprised by his father’s admission of this long-unspoken tension. Ben offered a dry half smile. “I held on too tight.”
“I pushed everybody away.”
“Maybe.” Ben shrugged. “But I think maybe you’ve been spending your energy holding onto Hoss, and onto Alice and your child. There just hasn’t been any left for the living.”
Joe nodded slowly, testing the idea. His pa’s words had the ring of truth. “Yeah. You might be right.”
Ben ruffled his son’s tangled curls, then drew Joe’s head down and pressed a gentle kiss onto his temple. “Take it from an old hand, son. It’s an easy mistake to make.”
They sat silently together, staring into the flames.
“How is Jamie?”
He hadn’t heard Lina approach, so intent was he on the door across the road. Joe looked around to find her leaning against the livery beside him, a half-full shopping basket at her feet. Joe shook his head thoughtfully, returning his scowl to the harness maker’s entrance.
“Hard to tell.”
“Oh?” she nudged gently. Joe sighed and removed his hat, wiping the sweat from his hair and forehead before resettling it and kicking aimlessly at the wall behind.
“He ain’t been talking much.”
“The death of a friend is a hard thing, especially at Jamie’s age.”
“Yeah.” He knew that well, and from experience. “But with all the rest of it thrown on top …”
The death of young Sonny Mueller had hit the community hard, but the subsequent trial of an out-of-work drifter and the admission by Jamie and his friends of an accidental death during a club initiation was what had really set Virginia City to talking. The gossip still hadn’t completely died down, even weeks later. Joe would have been reluctant to bring Jamie into town with him, except that the boy was in school every day and had probably already heard it all (and more).
Joe shrugged. “None of ‘em have been talkin’ much to each other, except at school. I mean, most of the boys are bein’ kept close to home anyway, and you know the Widow Hawkins took in Ted Hoag after all was said and done, so he’s more than occupied.” They shared a brief, dry smile. “But … well, I don’t know about the others, but it’s like Jamie doesn’t really even care.” He rubbed at his neck. “No, he does care, but … right now he doesn’t seem to want anything but just to be at home, and I don’t know if that’s a problem startin’ or if he’s just gettin’ his feet back under him.” He kicked at the wall again. “Thing like this, you never know how it’ll all shake out in the end.”
“What does your father think?”
“Bout the same. He says we should just leave Jamie alone for a while, let him work things out in his own head.”
“You don’t agree?”
Perceptive woman, Lina Marquez. Always.
“I ain’t been too much help with Jamie lately, don’t know if I have that right.” A brief snort rose from beside him, and Joe grinned faintly. “But no, I don’t. I think he’s been alone too much already.” And for longer than just this business with the club. “Jamie’s an independent kid, but … I don’t want him to feel like he ain’t important.” Regret swirled alongside worry, and Joe welcomed them. Until very recently he hadn’t been feeling anything outside of his own pain and hurt. It was good to concentrate on somebody else’s needs, to be able to pull together the focus to think what might be best for Jamie instead of just sleepwalk through his little brother’s crisis. “Pa’s always been more hands-off with Jamie than he was with the rest of us. Don’t know if he’s trying not to repeat past mistakes, or if he’s just older and sees things different now, or what … but I don’t think right now’s a time for hands-off.”
It was … hard, yes. Sonny Mueller’s tragic death—a kid Jamie’s age who’d had everything to live for—reminded him enough of Alice and of Hoss that what he’d really wanted when they’d heard was to go hide in a line shack and sleep for the next week. He hadn’t, though, and this thing with Jamie now … it wasn’t overwhelming.
He was proud of that. He was proud of himself, for the first time in a long time.
And he knew what he intended to do, even if it was hard enough to rip his heart right out of his chest.
“What does your father say to this? Or have you …”
He didn’t notice, not at first. He was busy turning it all over in his head. Again. It was a good idea, on second and even third thought, and it didn’t go directly against Ben’s word on the matter. “I’m not gonna try and push—Pa or Jamie. But I think if I …” Lina’s abrupt silence finally caught up to him, and Joe looked down at her. “What’s wrong?”
Lina shook herself, pulling her gaze away from somewhere down the street. Joe eyed the area, but saw nothing out of place. “I’m sorry.” She turned a smile up on him, and it was tight. “But I’ve remembered an errand that can’t wait. I need to go.”
She reached for her basket, but he caught her arm. “Lina.” She looked away. “Are you sure it’s nothing?”
“Yes, of course.” Lina pushed loose hair back into her braid. “I’m sorry, I only … I forgot that I promised Señor Hirschel an extra batch of polvorones for his wife. He’ll be leaving soon.”
That didn’t … sound right. It was plausible, but it didn’t match her eyes. “What aren’t you tellin’ me?”
“Joe.” She gripped his wrist. “Truly, you need not worry. Look.” Lina nodded toward the harness maker’s, where Jamie had just exited. The boy saw them and started across. When Joe looked back to his side Lina was already gone, crossing toward the far boardwalk. He growled in frustration. Almost as if she’d heard him, she looked back, smiled, and waved. Joe clapped his brother’s bony shoulder as Jamie joined him, and swore that he was going to get to the bottom of this. Soon. Lina had been putting him off for long enough. At the very least, even if she still wasn’t ready to share everything, he had to know if he needed to be worried for her.
He had already lost too much.
“Sorry.” Joe looked back to Jamie, readjusting his thoughts for this conversation. “You ready? Any problems with the order?”
“Yep, and nope.” Jamie offered a faint grin. “Pretty routine.”
“Yeah, but so was the last one.”
They both winced. Ben had been … displeased, when the buggy harness started shredding again two weeks after its return. No one wanted a repeat of that.
“Well, Mr. Andrews wouldn’t be tellin’ me that kinda thing ahead of time, would he?”
Joe snickered. “Guess not.” He nodded to the livery. “Let’s go. I’ve got something I want to show you on the way home.”
“Yeah?” Jamie brightened a bit, and Joe was glad to see it. “What is it?”
“You just get your horse. You’ll find out when we get there.”
It wasn’t as painful as he’d thought it might be, riding up to the overlook, but even so it was hard breathin’ when they topped the final rise and looked out over the miles of hills and trees and sun-washed valley below. Jamie gaped and slid off Cinnamon, climbing right onto the very rock where Joe and Hoss had spent so many years gazing out over their own little bit of heaven. Where he had sat with Alice and told her about his brother Hoss.
It hurt, but it was time. He wasn’t going to lose this place, too.
“Me and Hoss used to come here.” He climbed up beside Jamie and dropped down, stretching. “We, uh … we called it our happy place. I brought Alice here too sometimes. Nobody else, though.” His brother sat beside him, eyes still fixed on the patchwork spread below. “I mean, I guess Pa and Adam have probably been here, but I never came here with them. Only Hoss and Alice. And now you.”
The wind gusted, buffeting him as surely as a playful knock from his big brother, and Joe’s own heart leaped. Yes. This was right. He snuck a glance at Jamie and caught his little brother wiping away a tear. Jamie saw him looking and dropped his hand.
“Don’t.” Joe caught the boy’s arm. “Don’t do that. You got a right, same as anybody.” Another tear rolled, and Joe sighed. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
Jamie shook his head. “Not your fault you guys were gone.”
“I don’t mean just that.”
His little brother sucked in a deep, shaky breath. “I know it’s not … but … I miss them, Joe.”
Them. Not just Hoss, but Alice too.
Of course Alice. His wife had been family to more than just him.
“Yeah. Me too.”
He hooked an arm around the fuzzy red head, and pulled the boy close, and they cried together for a good while—just the two of them, on the overlook with Hoss and Alice. It … helped. Joe felt lighter when they had finished, instead of emptier. Jamie sighed, still burrowed up against him.
“Don’t know why this stuff’s gotta happen.”
“Don’t think anybody does.” Joe rubbed at the thin arm. “You thinkin’ about Sonny?”
“Yeah. Well, Sonny and Ted.”
Ted? It was an opening, and he took it. “What about Ted?”
“Well … it’s just that, I know he was scared, Joe. He’s got no family and thought he was alone. I get that. I been there before.” Jamie shivered, and reached up to flip his collar. Joe doubted the kid was really cold, but let it pass. “But I told him we’d be there for him, that it wasn’t right not to tell Sheriff Coffee but we’d all be in it together. And it ain’t just that he didn’t believe me. When we said we were gonna tell he’d get so mad, and say all kinds of things. And then when we said we weren’t going to he’d get all friendly again. I just …” His brother shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel … kinda used, I guess?” Jamie tensed, glancing up quickly. “He’s still my friend, though, I ain’t—”
“Hold on.” Joe hadn’t heard this part of the story. As far as he knew, nobody had. Jamie hadn’t been too forthcoming about what he and his friends had gone through after Sonny’s death, even when sketching out the facts for Ben and later the judge. “You don’t need to defend Ted to me.” Not right now, anyway. “But it sounds like you need to get some things off your chest, so you just say what you need to. I won’t try to tell you how to feel about anybody, okay?” That was a sure way to lose the boy. Would have been a sure way to lose him, too.
Jamie hesitated, then gingerly resettled. “Yeah. Yeah, I …” He ducked his head, and offered a relieved grin. “Thanks Joe.”
“Any time, little brother.” Joe let out a long breath. It didn’t hurt anymore. “Any time.”
It was early yet when he and Candy trotted into town the next morning—they’d been up and on the road at first light. Candy, who had the day off and was headed into town for a shave, a haircut, and some courtin’ with Miss Ester May Bradshaw, had been surprised to find Joe waiting, but had accepted the explanation of follow-up business with a shrug and a grin. The ride in was silent and peaceful … or, it would have been if Joe could keep his mind off Lina.
The more he thought about it, the more he didn’t like their exchange at the livery, and he wished now he would have stuck around and made an issue of things. Well, no … he’d had Jamie to look after. Given all the talkin’ the kid had done on the overlook, and then to Ben again when they’d got home, Joe’s plan had been exactly the right thing. Still, he wouldn’t be comfortable until he found Lina and got to the bottom of whatever had upset her yesterday.
One thing was sure, it hadn’t been ‘nothing’.
They were turning toward the livery when Clem stepped out of the sheriff’s office buckling his gun belt. He saw them and waved them over. Joe and Candy changed direction, coming to a halt outside the familiar building.
“Clem.” Joe nodded. “How’s city life?”
“Oh, it keeps a man from getting bored.” Clem exchanged a nod with Candy. “Look, I’d be obliged if you two could keep an eye open while you’re here.”
Candy quirked a smile. “Bad guys?”
“Yep. We heard the Marquez brothers might be in town—what’s left of ‘em, anyway. The one got killed a while back holdin’ up a stage outside of some little town down south, but the other two shot up everything else and they’re wanted for …”
It didn’t matter what else Clem said, because Joe wasn’t listening anymore. Everything had fallen into bright, startling place, and he didn’t even realize he had hauled Cochise around and raced for the Continental until he was outside the big front door. He slid down, tossed the reins over the hitching post, and ran around back. Candy appeared as he stopped outside the little bakery.
“Clem’s comin’. What’s—”
“They were here.” The words tore from Joe’s throat as he spotted the door hanging open, the trays and supplies scattered around the room.
No. No, no, not again …
His brain shook itself and then kicked in hard. Lina might not have been here when this happened—but she should be here now.
She should be, but she wasn’t.
Joe forced away the roaring that was building in his ears. He was not going to fail someone else that he cared about, not again. Think, Cartwright! He didn’t know where Lina stayed, but he could make a guess. Joe bolted back down the alley, through an open gate, over a fence. Candy’s lithe form kept pace, at his back without question, and he could hear Clem’s boots behind them. Around another saloon, past a mercantile and a blacksmith, behind a set of storage sheds … and into the Mexican quarter. He remembered the little store where they had bought hot chocolate ingredients well enough, maybe they would know where—
“Señor Cartwright!” The proprietor met him on the front steps, but Joe could already see the disturbance down the street. A group of women in various states of night attire, draped in shawls and coats that were (in some cases) obviously not their own, hovered across the road from what looked like a boarding house. Several men carrying rifles stood with them, eyeing the building warily. Joe was too far away to catch any of their conversation, but the tone of rapid distress was clear. A tight grip clutched his elbow as Clem arrived, and Joe squeezed the elderly señora’s hand before gently disentangling himself and drifting toward the scene. Candy kept close to his side. Behind him, the proprietor spoke anxiously to Clem.
“Cartwright!” the deputy’s voice snapped behind him, but Joe was in no mood to listen.
This would not happen again.
They stopped beside one of the riflemen, and Joe nodded across the road. “What’s goin’ on?”
A woman answered. “I was preparing breakfast—many of my boarders must be out to their work before the sun rises—when two men came. They pounded on the door, and I told them to go away. I have only women staying, no men need come in the night.” She shuddered, and gripped her wrap more tightly. “One said he would shoot through the window if I did not let them in.” Dark eyes begged for understanding. “How could I say no?”
“Course you couldn’t,” Candy soothed, touching her elbow briefly. She offered a pale smile in return, and Joe shifted impatiently.
“They shouted when they entered, woke everyone, made all the ladies come out to the kitchen.” She ran a trembling hand along her braid, shot through with gray. “When Lina Marquez came one of them started toward her, but …” The woman shook her head. “I keep a rifle in the corner, and Lina was close enough to reach it. The men backed away, but they won’t go! They have all three been there all morning, none going anywhere.” She eyed her companions. “At least they let the rest of us leave.”
Joe’s chest ached, the anger burning fierce and cold. She had been afraid—he had always known Lina was afraid, and he had let her put him off, and now …
No. This would not happen again.
“Are they watchin’ the road?”
Clem arrived in their huddle just in time to hear the answer.
“One of them is, or was.” A man motioned with his rifle toward the small front window, barely enough for more than a single person to see through. “We tried to go across once, but shots were fired.”
“Okay.” Clem nodded. “First we need to get everybody cleared out of here. We’ll—”
“I’ll go around back, see if I can get in that way.”
“You stay here!” Clem snapped. “We’re not going to make things worse by—”
“I’m not gonna get her shot.” Joe exchanged a glare with the deputy, then added, “Somebody’s gotta go, Clem. How else do you plan to get in there?”
He was going no matter what Clem said, but it would be better all around if the deputy wasn’t fighting him on it.
Clem growled softly, glowering across the road. He and the Cartwrights didn’t always see eye to eye about these types of situations, but they had been in plenty together and he knew them for good backup. He also had to know that Joe was right—there weren’t many other options, except for backing off and letting the Marquez brothers get away, possibly with their intended target.
“Fine.” Clem shook his head. “Go around, but don’t get caught. I’ll try to get them talking from here–I’ll signal if I need you.” He sighed. “Canaday, you go along, make sure he doesn’t get himself shot.”
Candy tipped his hat, then swung around to follow Joe, who was already vanishing behind a nearby saloon. Behind them, Clem’s voice rang out. “You men in there, this is Deputy Foster! Let’s talk!” Joe and Candy made a wide circle around, so that when they finally crossed the street there would be no chance that anyone inside the boarding house could see them. They slowed as the house appeared, crouched, and approached on soft feet. Locating a window low enough to the ground that they wouldn’t have too much trouble climbing through, Joe ducked up against the house and waited for Candy to join him.
“What’s inside?” Candy hissed.
“Guess we’ll find out.” Joe nudged at the sliding glass, holding his breath. Luck was with them—nothing caught, and the window was smooth enough in its track that the noise wouldn’t be heard all the way into the kitchen. He exchanged a brief grin with Candy, then ducked through into the little room. Candy followed, noiseless as a cat, and they crossed to the partially open door.
To the left, the hall led to more doorways of the same type. To the right, it ran about twenty feet before opening into a wider area that had to be the kitchen. Joe pulled his pistol and stepped out, placing his feet carefully. He was glad of that precaution when one of the floorboards started to creak beneath his weight. He pulled back quickly, then stepped across to the opposite side, relieved when it seemed more solid. Joe crept along the wall, stopping when he caught sight of a man with a rifle standing at the little window. Candy’s shoulder was solid at his back. Joe looked around, and Candy raised one eyebrow. Joe shook his head.
He couldn’t see Lina, or the second brother. They weren’t close enough.
“You can’t keep this up forever!” Clem’s voice rose from the outside. “The sheriff’s comin’, and he’s bringing more men! We’ll have this place surrounded!”
Was Clem bluffing, or had he sent someone back for Roy? It was hard to tell. Anyway, the Marquez brothers seemed unmoved by the threat—neither bothered to respond—which in Joe’s experience was generally a bad sign. He edged a few steps closer, and laid eyes on the second brother. The man was leaning against the far counter, holding a pistol on the back wall. Lina must be there. For a moment the desire to see her, to know that she was unharmed, was so strong that Joe very nearly bolted out of hiding to jump the man right there.
That was an awful idea, and could very well get them all killed. Joe settled back, and forced a long breath out through his nose, and waited. They would get their chance. The Marquez brothers would let their guard down, even if only for a second, and he would be ready.
He wished he could see Lina, though. He wished she knew they were there.
“You’ve already got enough trouble. Come on out before things get any worse for you!”
The one with the pistol snorted. “I think they can only hang us once.”
“I think I would not like to be hanged at all,” the one at the window mumbled, craning his neck to peer up the road.
“I think you might have thought of that long ago.”
Lina’s voice, acidic and fatigued and blessedly alive, sent a rush of relief through Joe even though he had already known she wasn’t seriously hurt. They would none of them still be here if she had dropped the rifle. Candy’s hand fell briefly on his shoulder, and Joe tossed back a quick grin.
“Keep quiet, woman.”
An indelicate snort greeted that, and Joe stifled a chuckle. It really wasn’t funny, not now.
“We can stay out here all day!”
The one with the pistol shifted and settled back, stretching his legs one by one. “It’s true, you know.” He lifted an eyebrow toward Lina. “The longer we are here, the more likely someone will be hurt.”
“Then leave,” she snapped.
“Are you agreeing to come quietly?”
“What do you think?”
“Then we are back at the beginning, no?”
Not quite. Not with him and Candy here in the hallway, ready to strike. Marquez number two was right, though—the longer this kept up, the better were the chances of somebody being hurt, either on purpose or by accident. And the longer he and Candy crouched here in plain sight, the better were the chances that one of the Marquez brothers would notice them. If they stayed where they were, that probably wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.
Joe eyed the room. The kitchen was well-kept, scrubbed and swept clean. Not much lay scattered around. The table was between him and Marquez number two, an extra obstacle. If he could reach one of the chairs …
Candy nudged him, motioning with his chin. Just inside the doorway, almost out of Joe’s sight, a broom leaned against the wall. Joe sat back on his heels. It wouldn’t do much damage on its own, but any projectile was generally enough to make a man flinch, no matter how much weight it carried. It was enough—he could work with it. Joe nodded, then pointed to himself and Marquez number two, leaving Candy the brother at the window. Candy slowly shifted from his crouch.
Clem would murder them both, probably with his bare hands.
Marquez number one spotted them. “Hey!” he shouted, and Joe lunged.
A pistol barked behind him. Praying that Lina would take cover, Joe seized the broom and flung it over the table. As he’d hoped, Marquez number two ducked automatically, which left him unable to avoid Joe’s tackle. Staggering and swearing—not Candy’s voice. Shouts from out in the street. Joe punched his man twice in the jaw, took one in the ribs and a boot to the knee, and delivered a hook that snapped his opponent’s head into the counter. As the man sagged, he heard Candy’s sharp, “Uh uh, back off now.” Marquez number one eased back from his fallen rifle, clutching a bleeding arm. Candy kicked it away, pistol steady on his opponent’s chest. Joe heaved a long breath, then released his hold on Marquez number two’s shirt and quirked a grin.
“Guess that wasn’t so bad.”
“Cartwright!” Clem’s voice bellowed from the door.
Candy’s wide smile flashed. “I think the bad part’s still comin’.”
“Joe?” Joe whipped around in time to see Lina scramble up from the floor. She was unsteady and disheveled, fatigue etched deep into her face, but somehow she had also never looked better. Lina gaped at Joe, then at Candy. “What are you doing here? You could have been killed!”
“You could all have been killed!” Clem snarled, banging into the room.
“We weren’t,” Joe snapped. Lina hugged her arms around herself—a gesture so unlike the woman he knew that Joe forgot about arguing with the deputy. “Hey.” Joe gentled his voice, reaching for her elbow. She moved away, and he tried to catch her eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Didn’t have much choice, Clem,” Candy added, stepping back as several more men entered, rifles still at the ready. Joe hoped nobody else got shot in the confusion. “They saw us.”
“What part of don’t let them see you wasn’t clear?”
Candy sighed. “Weren’t many places to hide.”
“You could have been killed.” Lina’s voice shook.
“But we weren’t.” Joe stepped in front of her, trying to shield her in the increasingly crowded little room. For all her cheerful sociability, Lina Marquez was a private person who didn’t enjoy too much attention. With the adrenaline starting to fade, Joe’s own fear and frustration surged again. Now wasn’t the time, though. He forced a smile. “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”
She shook her head, eyes still fixed on some point near the floor. “Neither laid a finger on me.”
“Good for you.” His grin widened, real this time.
Lina’s rigid carriage relaxed just a touch. “What are you doing here?”
“Saw Clem when Candy and I rode in this morning. He told us the Marquez brothers had been seen around town—” her gaze flickered up, startled, “—and I put it together. Figured you were in trouble, came looking.”
Long fingers pressed over her mouth. “I didn’t think you were coming back until the weekend.”
“Yeah, well … seemed like something was wrong yesterday. I was worried.”
Finally, her eyes met his. A bright sheen began to pool there, and Joe cursed silently. It wasn’t right for Lina to be crying in front of all these people …
“Miss Marquez?” He was almost glad to hear Clem’s voice. The deputy touched his hat to Lina, cast a neutral glance in Joe’s direction—he and Candy weren’t exactly out of the doghouse, but there was a job to do—and continued. “We’re gonna need to talk about all this.” Clem grimaced apologetically. “Now, I can do that here and now, let some of the boys take these two in,” he motioned to where Candy and several others were herding the brothers out the door, Joe’s opponent still distinctly shaky on his feet, “or you can get cleaned up and rested, then come down sometime later today or tomorrow.”
Lina straightened, a hint of her usual poise returning. “Not here, please.”
“Course, ma’am.” Clem tipped his hat again. “We’ll talk in a while, then.” He leveled a sideways glance at Joe. “I’ll be talkin’ to you too.”
Joe quirked a grin. “I look forward to it.”
Clem snorted, and disappeared after his prisoners. Lina shifted. “He is angry with you.”
“We didn’t really talk out that last part.”
She huffed a quick, uneven breath. “You could have been killed.”
“So could you.” Joe pinned her with a hard gaze. “And I ain’t letting anybody else I care about get hurt or killed, not if I have any chance to stop it.”
Lina’s eyes widened briefly, and then she touched his wrist—the first contact she had allowed since this whole thing started. “I am sorry, I did not think.”
Anger flared. “Don’t be sorry. This sure ain’t about me. But don’t be mad either, because I’d do it again.” He smiled briefly, without humor. “I don’t do helpless, remember?”
A distant smile played across her face, and Joe was relieved.
The women must have been cleared to return—they rushed back into the kitchen, surrounding both Lina and Joe and speaking rapidly in Spanish. There was no mistaking either their concern or their blatant curiosity, and Lina’s tension returned. She stepped back, found herself trapped by the counter, and raised her hands.
“Please! Por favor!” The din hardly subsided, but Lina pressed on in English. Apparently, she wanted Joe to understand. “Please, I must go into the sheriff’s office to give a report on what has happened. Mr. Cartwright has agreed to escort me, so I must be ready quickly. I do not wish to inconvenience him.” Pleading eyes sought him through the crowd, and Joe nodded. She would have to face them sometime—she lived here, after all—but it didn’t have to be right now.
The ladies reluctantly parted to allow Lina through, and Joe found himself suddenly the undivided center of attention. Under the weight of their concerted gaze, he offered a tight smile and backed toward the doorway. “I’ll, uh … tell her I’ll wait outside.” Joe clapped his hat onto his head, turned, and fled the scene.
Lina joined him shortly, her dress fresh and hair rebraided. For a long while silence went with them, comfortable for their familiarity but not for the subject between them. Joe fought with himself over it, but he finally couldn’t help the question.
“It was them you saw yesterday, wasn’t it?”
She hesitated, then nodded. He waited, but Lina didn’t seem inclined to offer anything further.
He wasn’t ready to let it go.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She bit her lip, looking away. “I asked you what was wrong, right then! Why did you lie about it?”
“Because I have seen them around every corner, dozens of time since I have come here!” Lina snapped, her voice frustrated and thick. “I was afraid they would come, afraid they would follow, and so my mind produced them at every opportunity.” She swiped angrily at her wet eyes. “Had I bothered someone every time I thought I spotted one of my husband’s brothers down the street or through a doorway, the town would by now think me entirely mad!” A sob broke free, and then another. Joe rounded on her, pulled her close, and let her cry.
He should have made her tell him sooner.
Joe wanted to scold her for ignoring her very real fears, for keeping this danger all to herself. He wanted to make her promise that she would tell him first thing if she ever felt unsafe again. He wanted to demand whether she didn’t understand what it would do to him, to lose someone else he loved to something so senseless and violent.
It wasn’t the time, and it wasn’t about him. Joe just stood and let her cry on him, in the middle of a back street between a saloon and a stable, both of whose inhabitants were probably laughing and watching to see what would happen next. He didn’t care. If Lina needed to cry, this woman who had seen him through so much, he would be there for her.
“My mama died when I was very small, and my papa sent me to my grandmother to live.” Joe could barely hear her, voice muffled as it was against his chest. She seemed content, though, and he didn’t plan to ask her to speak up. “I loved my grandmother. She raised and taught me, and I cared for her until her death. I would have gone to Maria’s home then—her mama and mine were sisters—but Papa came to take me then.” She shivered, and Joe ran a hand over her dark braid. “John Walker allowed his men to do as they wished with the farmers in the area.” John Walker. Everything evil in Los Robles went right back to him. Joe suppressed a growl. The man was a menace, and he was glad that they had ended his reign of terror. “They often demanded payment for safety—money or … or wives.” Anger flared, hot and deep. Joe clenched his jaw so hard he thought his teeth might break. He had faced men like these often enough—petty thugs who ran roughshod over the lives of others simply because they could. “My father arranged that I should marry Diego Marquez in order that no man of John Walker’s would burn his crops or slaughter his cows.” She was still now, her voice soft and flat. Joe tightened his grip. “He was … Diego was …” Lina shuddered, and shook her head. “No. He is dead now.” She blew out a long breath. “When the Walkers were killed and his men no longer held such power in the town, Diego and his brothers and some others turned to robbing stages.” Disdain colored her voice, and Joe was glad to hear some trace of his Lina return. “My husband was killed, but his brothers shot all aboard and took everything. I knew that Juan would expect my father to give me to him now that Diego was dead,” she shuddered again, deeply, “and so I ran.” Another long, slow breath. “And here I am.”
Here she was, and he was fiercely glad of it. Lina didn’t deserve anything he had just heard. No woman did.
“Is there anybody else who might come after you? Your pa, or any of the others?”
Lina shook her head. “Papa will not come. No one else will come.”
Joe smoothed her braid again. “Then you’re safe now.”
“Safe.” She was silent for a long minute, then expelled a breathy laugh. Her head was heavy and warm against his shoulder. “I … yes. I think perhaps you are right.”
He chuckled. “Smart woman.”
A damp snort drifted up, and Joe tightened his arms around her.
“Hey. I have something I want you to carry.”
Lina’s eyebrows went up, but she kept on kneading as if nothing had been said. Joe didn’t blame her — he’d been a little abrupt. He’d been bulking up his arguments, gettin’ ready for a fight, the whole ride in, and that didn’t tend to leave much room for subtlety.
Not, Joe admitted, that he usually bothered too much with subtle.
Her eyebrows climbed higher. “Well?”
Joe shook himself. “Sorry, I …” He grumbled beneath his breath, squared his shoulders, and set the little derringer on the counter between them. Lina’s mouth fell open. Joe pushed on. “I know you’re safe from your brothers-in-law now,” and if you’d told me sooner, you might have been safe way before last week, he didn’t add, “but this is Virginia City. Anything can happen, and it’s better to be prepared.”
She was already shaking her head. “Joe …”
“Look,” Joe cut her off. “Lots of woman carry these for protection. If you’d had it last week-”
“I had the rifle last week.”
“But if you’d had this,” Joe pressed, “you wouldn’t have had to just hope that when they finally came, you’d be in grabbin’ distance of a firearm.” It still gave him chills, thinking what could have happened. “You’d have known you had this.” And I’d have known you had it.
He had argued with Alice about this – oh, they had fought. He had insisted, and his wife had refused, and nothing he had said or done could budge her. It had been one of the few battles in an otherwise peaceful marriage.
To this day he wondered …
No. It would tear him apart to go back there again.
But he would win this time.
“Look, this was my mama’s, and it’s not doing any good just laying there in a drawer. I’d rather have you-”
“Your mother’s?” Lina’s eyes widened, and she shook her head again. “Oh, but Joe. Your mother’s …”
He shrugged. “If there’s anything I’ve learned the past couple of years, it’s that people are more important than things.” Lina’s gaze softened, just a bit, and Joe pressed his advantage. He wasn’t above guilting her into this. “And I don’t want to have to worry that I haven’t done everything I can for the people I care about. I’ve lost too much for that.”
Lina pursed her lips. She knew his ploy – he wasn’t fooling anybody here – but even so she was weakening.
“If you want, call it a loan.” Joe flashed his most charming grin. Lina rolled her eyes. “You hang onto it unless you decide to leave town. If that happens, you can give it back.” He faltered then, the idea never having really occurred to him. Now that it had surfaced, he fiercely disliked it. “You’re not plannin’ on leaving town, are you?”
She huffed softly. “I am not. This is my home now.” Lina hesitated, then wiped her hands on her apron and reached for the little gun. It disappeared into the folds of her skirt, and she returned to her kneading. The tension drained from Joe’s body in a rush.
There was no way she could mistake the sincerity and relief in his voice. Lina smiled almost shyly. “Thank you for caring, Joselito.” Her grin turned impish, and her eyes sparkled. “Have some sachima. Tell me if I have yet approached Hop Sing.”
Joe cackled, even as he helped himself. “Hop Sing would murder me in my sleep if I ever said anything of the kind.” Her laughter rang alongside his, and he slumped into the single seat. “You know how to use it? The gun?”
Lina nodded, flipping her dough. “I do.”
Somehow, he’d expected she might.
Joe stepped onto the porch and took a long, deep breath of the pre-dawn air. The Mallory ranch house wasn’t surrounded by trees as was the Ponderosa’s, and he could see a long way across their grazing land even in the gray light. Things were still for now, but soon the animals and ranch hands both would be stirring and busy.
Everyone except the family themselves, who probably wouldn’t be straying much past the yard for the next few days.
He turned his gaze away from the surrounding land, and despite the difficult night his mouth curved into a brief smile. Jamie sprawled on the nearby porch swing, head back and boots propped on the railing, emitting soft snoring sounds. Little Benny Harwood, the family’s oldest child, was snuggled into Jamie’s lap, deeply asleep and utterly limp. Beside them, her head resting on Jamie’s bony shoulder, Lina curled within a borrowed quilt. He thought at first she was asleep too—it had been a long night—but when Joe looked again, Lina’s dark eyes were upon him.
Joe stepped over and eased onto the swing, careful not to wake the boys. He stretched his arm along the back, encompassing them all—friend, brother, and child. Lina transferred her weight from Jamie to him, and it was warm. Comforting.
“Doc says Gillian will make it.”
The tension fled her body. Lina wiped at her eyes. “I am so very relieved.”
“Yeah, me too.”
He, Jamie, and Candy had barely pulled up outside the Emporium yesterday when Lina had appeared beside their wagon. “I am glad to see you.” Candy and Jamie tipped their hats. Joe jumped down beside her.
“Gillian Harwood gave birth early. The child was stillborn, and they are afraid for her life as well.”
Joe sucked in a quick breath. The Harwoods managed the Mallory ranch, bordering the Ponderosa, and were good friends. Candy and Jamie dismounted, crowding close.
“How do you know?” demanded his brother. Jamie had helped the Harwoods settle when they had first arrived from England, and the boy was still especially close with the family.
“Doctor Martin sent word. He asked if I might go to the Harwoods’ home to help with cooking and the children for a few days.”
Joe nodded. On top of baking for the Continental, he knew that Lina sometimes provided meals and cleaning for Doc’s recovering patients. Usually, though, that was in Virginia City itself. If Paul Martin had asked Lina to take several days away from her work and travel out to one of the ranches—especially since the Harwoods already had very capable house help—it meant things weren’t good there. His gut twisted.
“Hirschel give you the time off?”
“Si. And the use of the hotel wagon, along with several baskets of food.” Joe wasn’t surprised. John Hirschel was a good man, a real asset to the Virginia City community. “The hand who brought the note instructed me on how to reach the house, but he had to return immediately. One of their horses is down. I was going to ask the sheriff to go over the directions with me, but perhaps—”
“I’ll drive you.”
“Oh, no. I don’t mean to take you away from—”
“I want to go too,” Jamie spoke up quickly.
“It’s no trouble. We know the Harwoods pretty well, I should … check in with Leslie.” The man had lost his unborn baby, and might lose his wife as well. The thought left Joe cold … but it might also be that he was exactly the right person to get Harwood through this. “Besides, I don’t want you drivin’ out there by yourself.”
Lina blinked, then smiled faintly. “Thank you.”
“Joe …” Jamie pressed again, and Joe nodded.
“They’ve only got a couple of hands out there now, and if one of the horses is down they’ll have their hands full. Make sure they’ve got plenty of wood cut for the house, bring water in, chores like that.” Satisfied, Jamie swiftly remounted. “Let them know we’re coming,” Joe added. The redhead nodded, hauled Cinnamon around, and rode back toward the edge of town. Joe looked to Candy. “You should be good here—don’t worry about the tack or the—”
“I got things.” Candy offered his reins, but Joe shook his head.
“If I need a horse, I’ll borrow one there. Tell Pa—”
“I will. You get going.” Candy tipped his hat again to Lina. “Ma’am.”
She dimpled. “Candy.”
Hirschel had seen to the wagon and supplies by the time Joe and Lina returned to the Continental, and in a matter of minutes they were underway. The drive out to the Mallory ranch was mostly silent, each lost in thought and prayer. They arrived before Joe was ready … but then again, he would probably never be ready.
Not for something like this.
Lina relieved Haida, the Harwoods’ housekeeper, of her responsibilities for cooking and caring for two-year-old Elizabeth, freeing the other woman to assist Doctor Martin with Gillian Harwood. Four-year-old Benny was already following Jamie like a shadow as the redhead completed various tasks around the yard, and Joe left his brother to it. Taking a deep breath, he pulled up a chair beside Leslie Harwood, who was sitting lost in misery and fear just outside the bedroom door. He clapped a firm hand on the man’s shoulder, and Leslie glanced up. Harwood was one of the few he knew that Joe’s loss included a child as well as a wife—he knew the depth of support that was being offered. He reached back for just a moment to grip Joe’s hand fiercely, then sank back within himself.
It was enough, and Joe knew that it didn’t matter what kind of memories the night brought back, no matter where it led. He had done the right thing, coming here.
It was a long, hard, exhausting night, but finally Paul Martin appeared in the doorway with his welcome news. Leslie seized Joe in a hard embrace, and then disappeared into the bedroom to be with his wife. Joe went in search of Lina and Jamie with an infinitely lighter heart.
“I am so very relieved.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
There wasn’t much more to say, and they fell silent again. Joe watched the sun rise and the land grow bright around them. Lina grew heavy against him, as her breathing deepened and she finally gave in to sleep. A dog barked. The sounds of cattle and horses, the background of his entire life, danced at the edge of awareness. Jamie and Benny slumbered on.
It was … nice, this feeling of family—of watching over these people sprawled within the circle of his arm.
“Alice, I think I could … I could get used to holdin’ somebody again.”
“Jamie got a new dog. A show dog, hair as red as his.” Joe grinned. “Kid followed us all around the ranch begging until he had enough money borrowed, then bought her from her trainer without the owner’s permission.”
Lina raised an eyebrow. “It sounds rather as if she is a family dog.”
“Oh, no. He’s payin’ us back, every cent. Except Hop Sing, he made it pretty clear he’d go back to China if Jamie or Pa offered again.”
“Ah.” Lina dimpled, sliding a pan of hot empanadas onto the counter. “And the owner does not want her back?”
“He did, but just to destroy her.” She gaped. Joe nodded. “Said she was a runt, and her head ain’t shaped right, and a bunch of other stuff.” He shrugged. “I don’t get it, she looks fine to me. I’ve never been much for show dogs, though. Anyway, Jamie and April — that’s the dog — had to go through this whole hunting competition with one of the other Setters, but he won her fair and square.” Joe had been more than a little relieved. Jamie loved that dog. “I’m glad — kid would have been pretty upset losin’ her, just to know she was bein’ put down.”
Lina pursed her lips. “I do not understand such things, or such people. Even if the dog cannot be shown …”
Honestly, Joe didn’t really understand it either. Then again, he bred horses, which was an entirely different enterprise. He tried to pick up one of the empanadas and burned his fingers. She snickered softly.
“Actually, he can show her. Ain’t nothing against it.”
“Does he plan to, then?”
“Still workin’ that out with Pa.” Joe managed to get the treat into his mouth, chewing carefully so it didn’t burn. “And Pa’s letting Jamie keep her in the house.” He shook his head. “He never let any of the rest of us keep a dog in the house.”
That didn’t sting. Of course it didn’t. He was too old to dwell on things like that.
“I take it you tried at one point?”
“Oh, at several points.” Of course, one of those had been a mutt that tried to bite Adam every time his brother came near. One had stopped to urinate every ten minutes. And one just stank, no matter how many baths Little Joe had given her. Pa might have had his reasons. Still … “She almost killed me when I came in the other night, though.”
Lina eyed him, biting back a smile. “Oh?”
“Yeah. I was comin’ in from the poker game –”
“And what time was that?”
He waved the question away. “Don’t matter. If a dog’s gonna be in the house, it shouldn’t be waking everybody up for no reason.”
“Like … a man sneaking into the house in the middle of the night?” Her eyes were dancing now.
“It’s my house!”
“Hers too, it seems.”
He ignored her. “I got halfway up the stairs, didn’t realize she was sleepin’ by the fire. The next thing I know, she’s barking to wake the dead and coming up after me.” Joe shook his head. “Scared five years right outa me.”
Lina was laughing silently. “This is what woke the household, I assume?”
“Yeah.” Joe flashed a grin, and stole another empanada. “She almost took my feet out from under me — I coulda gone over the railing backwards!” Because, that had never happened before. Her laughter grew audible. “Anyway, Pa and Jamie come running down the stairs. She’s got me pinned in the landing corner, Pa’s yellin’ about getting her quiet, Jamie’s trying to coax her back downstairs, which she ain’t havin’ any of because she’s still after me, and …” Lina slid slowly down the counter to sit on the floor. Laughter drifted after her. “And I just didn’t want Pa to hear me come in!”
“Joselito …” Her voice was strangled. “You are old enough to come home when you choose.”
“I don’t care about that!” Joe protested. “I owe him money, and I didn’t want him takin’ all my winnings right out of my pocket!”
A loud snort, and another round of laughter — this aimed primarily at herself. Joe thumped into the chair, satisfied, and tipped it back, stuffing the entire empanada into his mouth.
He did love makin’ Lina Marquez laugh.
Joe leaned against the wall, and watched the dancing, and thought about Lina.
He wished she was here.
He’d been thinking a lot about Lina lately – ever since that trip to Rio Lobo had gone all balls a while back. He and his little brother had busted into that old bunkhouse thinkin’ Pa needed a rescue, and instead they found him in the middle of delivering a baby. Joe had been more than happy to round up the rest of the bad guys and herd them away, leaving his father and the lady’s husband to that task, but when he and little brother came back … When they came back, Ben had held up the newly delivered babe and laughed, and the light in his pa’s eyes broke Joe’s heart.
He wanted that for his pa.
He wanted that for himself.
He wanted again. Joe had been just floating for so long, living each day as it came without caring or even noticing where he was headed, that the longing ache caught him completely by surprise.
He wanted to love a woman again. He wanted to laugh with her, to talk in hushed tones on the porch after the day was done, to hold her in their bed beneath a rain-patterned roof. He wanted to feel her skin and hair against him. He wanted to cry with her when life got too hard – because it usually did. He wanted be a father, to make his pa a grandfather and his brothers uncles. He wanted to help Jamie grow into a good man, and to care for Pa and Hop Sing as they stepped into old age.
He wanted someone beside him – a partner, a helpmate.
He wanted to be that for somebody else.
He wanted, and it was overwhelming. Painful. Terrifying. Invigorating.
“Joe? How have you been?”
Joe looked toward John Hirschel. “Good, real good.” He motioned with his glass, taking in the music and blazing chandelier and glittering mass of people. “Great party.”
Hirschel smiled, radiating content. “Marianne and the girls have been planning it for months. Lina did most of the baking for it – but I’m sure you can tell.”
Of course he could. Probably nobody in Virginia City was as familiar with Lina Marquez’s baked goods as Joe Cartwright, and her employer was more than aware. Joe grinned acknowledgment.
“So, fifty years.” Joe raised his glass. “Congratulations, John. How did you two do it?”
“We laughed.” Hirschel swallowed his whiskey – good, smooth stuff – and clapped Joe’s shoulder. “For us, that made all the rest easier.”
Joe grinned, though probably not for the reason his host expected. It was just that the words fit so snugly into his own recent musings. Yep, he could laugh. He wanted to laugh again. He and Alice had done that, though his wife had been a quiet woman. Subtle. Even her laughter was demure. Lina, now … if Lina was here, he’d be hearin’ her above everybody else in the room. Probably too loud for the present company, actually. And then she would realize and be embarrassed, and he would have to coax her out of it, because … who really cared about that?
What could possibly be wrong with laughing too loud?
“I’m glad you made it tonight, Joe. Thanks for coming.” Hirschel shook hands, and wandered off to the next guest.
Joe settled back, sipping his drink.
“Joseph? You all right?”
That was Pa. Always watching, always worried. Joe didn’t want that for him anymore.
“Yeah, Pa. I’m good. You?”
“Doing well.” Ben nodded to a passing banker. “Good party.”
“Yeah.” Joe snickered. “You watchin’ this?” He nodded across the room, where three young ladies had his brother backed into a corner. Jamie was starting to look desperate, and Ben chuckled into his glass.
“That boy’s gotta learn to stand up for himself.”
“He’ll get it.”
Ben grimaced. “What, like you? I don’t need another heart breaker on my hands.”
“Well.” Joe giggled softly. “I turned out okay, didn’t I?”
“Yeah.” His pa’s hand came up to squeeze the back of his neck. “Yeah, son, you sure did.”
Joe eyed the swirl in the Continental’s big front room. He knew most of the ladies here — had known many for a good chunk of his life. Some were beauties, some plain. Some were false, some genuine. Some were scheming, some were prim, some were entirely too self-centered for their own good. Some were kinder and more generous than he could ever hope to be. This was the cream of Virginia City society. Time was, he’d have been out in the center of everything, flirtin’ and dancin’ with every one of them, young and old. Drivin’ his Pa and brothers nuts because he never got tired of it. He never got tired of them.
He wanted more now, though, than just flirting and kisses out back. He had been married once, he knew what it could be. And tonight, he didn’t really care to dance with any of them.
His mind was made up.
Joe shivered, nerves playing suddenly in his gut. Nothing was settled, of course – he’d be surprising the heck out of her, and he had no notion what she’d think of the idea – but his mind was made up all the same.
He was … happy. Yeah. He really was.
He went to see Alice before he rode into town. It was out of the way, and set the whole day back by a couple of hours—but he was nervous enough that he didn’t mind. Anyhow, no way was Joe going to ask another woman to be his wife without telling Alice first.
“I think you’d like her.” He sat by the white cross, turning his hat slowly in his hands, feeling the morning sun warm his face and his soul. “She’s a good woman—always thinkin’ about others. Always lookin’ at things positive. She’s been through a lot, but she’s still happy.” Joe grinned faintly. “And I’m happy when I’m with her.” He sat for a few more minutes, but the day was passing. Joe finally rose, resting one hand on to the top of Alice’s marker as he looked out over the land they had shared and the life that was no longer his. “If you wouldn’t mind, sweetheart, say a prayer that she says yes,” he finally murmured, then settled his hat firmly, swung back onto Cochise, and rode away.
He had been knocking and walking in since Lina stopped locking the bakery door, but today that didn’t seem right. Not with what he had to say. She was puzzled when she let him in.
“Joe? It was unlocked.”
“Yeah. I …” Joe snatched his hat off and crushed it absently. The little room smelled of cinnamon and dried apples. Catching sight of the single chair—the one in which he had spent so many hours—he nodded toward it. “Can you sit down for a minute?”
Lina paled. “Is everyone all right? Has something happened?”
So … maybe not the best start. It didn’t do anything for his nerves, either. Joe shook his head, and muttered, “I must be the only man in the world who can go to propose and end up makin’ her think somebody’s died.”
Her mouth formed a perfect, silent ‘o’, and she sank into the little chair.
No turning back now. Not that he had ever planned to, anyway. Joe crouched before her, laying a light touch on one knee.
“This ain’t spur of the moment, I’ve been thinkin’ on it for a while now. About what I want for my life.” He quirked a grin into her shocked silence. “You’re the reason I’m even there, you know—that I can think about this kinda thing at all. And I might be different in some ways now, but I still want a lot of the same things. I still want a family. I want to teach somebody to love the land like I do, to pass it on when the time comes. I want a partner to work alongside. To live alongside. To take care of, and to help me take care of the people I love. They’re gettin’ older, some of them—it won’t be long now until they need that whether they want it or not.”
“Joe.” Her voice was faint. She waved a limp hand at her flour-dusted hair and worn skirt. “You are … I am not …”
That was the surprise talking. Lina never gave a fig about status, or the differences therein. In fact, she usually ignored it completely.
Of course, an engagement drew more notice than simple friendship, and generally gave everyone else in the state the impression they had the right to comment. Loudly. Joe couldn’t help that, but he also didn’t care what anybody else thought. He wasn’t about to let it worry Lina, either.
“You’re my best friend. When I picture the rest of my life, you’re the one I want with me.” Joe chuckled softly. “You’re the only one I even see.”
Lina took a long, shaky breath. Her eyes wandered unseeing around the little room. He took her nearest hand, cinnamon and sugar and all, and found it trembling. It shook him, reminded him what marriage had been to her. What it had done to her. A flush of protective anger seared him.
“I’ll be good to you.”
Her dark gaze locked onto his and her free hand grazed his cheek, setting it afire. “I know.”
Joe dared a grin. “Is that a yes?” She was silent for another moment. He shook her hand gently. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”
That broke through. Lina snorted a chuckle, then slapped her free hand over her nose, skin flushing a rosy hue. “Joselito …”
“You haven’t actually asked me anything.”
He hadn’t? Joe quickly went back over their conversation, and decided she was nitpicking.
That was all right.
He straightened, shifting so that he rested on one knee. “Catalina Marquez, will you marry me?”
Lina’s fingers were cold, but her grip was suddenly firm. His heart lifted in a rush.
“A life shared with you would be a good one, Joseph. One of which to be proud.” A girlish smile graced her lips. “Si, I accept.”
Joe laughed, relief and joy flooding into the dark places. They were still there, of course—they were a part of him now—but the shadows wouldn’t be quite so dark. So threatening. He leaned forward.
“Can I kiss you?”
She giggled. “I think you had better.”
Her lips were soft and warm, tasting of pastries and promises. Joe’s hands found her hair, and hers his jacket, clinging to this new understanding. He deepened the kiss, let the heat flood him, and when he finally broke away it was hard.
“Think we better stop now.”
“Yes.” Lina’s voice was soft, breathy. “Yes, I …”
Her entire countenance was so bereft that Joe very nearly laughed. “Sunday?”
Lina nodded, eyes wide. “Sunday.”
Joe planted another quick kiss on her forehead. “Can I bring you out to the Ponderosa tomorrow for dinner?” He grinned. “I want to give Pa tonight to get used to the idea.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “That is wise.”
Yeah. His Pa wasn’t expecting this any more than Lina had been.
Anyway, Joe had other things planned for the afternoon.
“After you’re done here for the day, I’d like to take you over to the jeweler.”
She blushed again, a fiery splash across her rich skin, and nodded.
She was waiting on the front steps of the Continental, wearing a yellow dress that set the honey tones in her skin aglow. It wasn’t one he’d seen before, and Joe wondered if it was new (he’d added Lina onto most of their store accounts yesterday, and reopened a few at places an all-male family generally didn’t frequent) or if she’d had it tucked away somewhere. They hadn’t ever been to the same dances or socials—for all he knew she’d worn this dress ten times in the last year.
He didn’t even know what he didn’t know about her, but he was looking forward to finding it out.
“I hear you’re taking my side business away.”
John Hirschel pushed away from the porch railing and came forward as Joe jumped down. Joe caught Lina’s hand. “Yeah. I got tired of driving all the way in for empanadas, so I thought I’d just move the source a little closer to home.”
She arched an eyebrow, then looked back to her employer.
Joe’s grin widened. He couldn’t seem to help it.
“You and your family have been so kind, Señor. I know you will hire again for the hotel, but perhaps I can send something every now and again for your own table.”
Hirschel smiled. “Lina, you don’t need to do that, but I wouldn’t turn it down either.”
She bounced a little, satisfied. “Then we are settled, I think.”
“I think that’ll be about five years down the road, John.” Joe shook his head. “Hop Sing’s pretty protective of his kitchen.”
Lina turned an amused eye on him. “I am certain Hop Sing and I will get along very nicely.”
He had forgotten for a minute that his fiancée—Lina was going to marry him—and the little cook were friends completely apart from his own involvement. Huh. Joe nodded, feeling excessively pleased with himself. Whatever showed on his face set her to laughing, and Hirschel held out his hand.
“Joe, congratulations. Marianne and I are real happy for you both.”
Joe shook firmly. “Thanks John. We’re havin’ a party out at the house on Sunday afternoon, I hope you can be there.”
“We wouldn’t miss it.”
“Good.” Joe touched Lina’s elbow. “We better get going. Pa might not be able to take the wait.”
She smiled. “Of course.”
Lina nodded to Hirschel, who tipped his hat, and allowed Joe to hand her up into the buggy. Then he settled beside her and set the horses back toward the Ponderosa.
It was a beautiful day and Joe let the horses take their time, enjoying Lina’s awe at the beauty of his family’s land. It was hard to believe they had known each other for so long and she had never been to the Ponderosa … but then again, there hadn’t been much in the way of life on the ranch for quite a while. They slept and ate and worked there. They cut their trees, broke their horses, ran their cattle. They helped Jamie with his homework and read around the fireplace at night. They came into town for the shopping, and more recently for a picnic or a poker game. They rarely had guests anymore, though—either for the day or overnight—and they hadn’t thrown a party since … well, since Alice at least. Even their Christmas gatherings had gone by the wayside.
They just … existed.
This woman beside him, so vibrant and full of joy, already made the place feel more alive. Joe sat back against the warm leather, soaking in the bright sun and her laughter, and thought that—for this moment, at least—he might be the most content man in Nevada.
When they rounded the barn, his family was waiting on the porch. The sight set Joe to laughing.
“The suspense is killing them.” Lina, who had grown noticeably quiet over the last few miles, cast him a pale smile. Joe squeezed her hand, and pulled the horses to a halt before the rail. “Pa will love you. Trust me, you have nothing to worry about.”
In fact, Ben was out into the yard before the buggy wheels even stopped turning, holding out a strong hand to assist Lina down. She dimpled up at him, drawing an answering smile from Ben that he lavished on his son as well when Joe joined them.
“Joe, introduce us.”
“Yeah, Pa.” Joe laughed. “I’m gettin’ to that.” He put a light hand on her shoulder. “Pa, this is Catalina Marquez. Lina, this is my pa, Ben Cartwright.”
Ben bowed over hand. “Miss Marquez, it is a great pleasure to meet you.”
She giggled softly, and Joe felt her relax into his father’s enthusiastic warmth. “Mr. Cartwright, I feel as if I know you already. Joe talks about you so very much.”
“Ben, please.” His father glanced across to Joe, raising one dark brow. “I must admit, this has been something of a surprise for me.” Surprise was putting it mildly—Ben had been utterly taken aback by Joe’s announcement. Now, though … Ben’s smile returned in full force as he looked back to his future daughter-in-law. “But a very welcome one.”
She peered around Ben to the gangling redheaded. “Jamie!” Lina smile. “We will be brother and sister now, yes?”
Jamie shuffled and offered a pleased grin, looking like nothing so much as an awkward puppy. “Yeah, I guess so.” He thrust his hands into his pockets, but she moved forward and hugged the boy tightly, eliciting a squeak of protest. Candy extracted Jamie and took his place, planting a firm kiss on Lina’s cheek.
“Hey!” Joe protested, and received only an unrepentant grin from his friend.
Lina moved on to Hop Sing, who still hovered on the porch, and threw her arms about him.
“Hop Sing very happy,” the little man declared. “Always know Miss Catalina belong at Ponderosa.” He seized Joe and pulled him into the embrace. “Hop Sing so very happy for Little Joe and Miss Catalina.” Tears swam in the dark eyes, and Joe felt an answering dampness rise in his own. Lina was already wiping at her cheeks. Hop Sing pulled away then, arranging his customary irritable expression with a little more effort than usual. “Pie and coffee get cold. You come inside now.”
Lina laughed, tucked her arm through Jamie’s, and followed obediently. Her voice drifted back, and his little brother’s laughter. Candy trailed along, but when Joe started to follow a firm grip tugged him to a halt.
“So, young man.” Ben folded his arms, dark brows lowering. “Why is it that I seem to be the only one who has never met the woman you’re going to marry in a few short days?”
Joe tried bravely for a smile. “Well, Pa … it’s kind of a long story.”
She had left a low light burning for him. He kept telling her there was no need, but since the (one) time he had tripped in the dark, breaking a pitcher and nearly destroying his mother’s dressing table and generally setting the entire house to thinking they were under attack, she always left a light when on she went to bed first. Joe shed his shirt, boots, and pants, blew out the light, and crawled into bed.
Lina stirred, reaching back to pat his leg. “You are home late.”
“Yeah. Took longer than we thought.” Her cocoon beneath the blankets was warm. “How are you feelin’?”
His heavily pregnant wife shifted. “Well enough. My back is still sore, but I am not nearly so tired today as I have been.” A tremendous yawn gave lie to those words. Joe chuckled, moved back, and went to massage the areas he knew would be knotted and tight. Lina sighed happily. For a long moment all was silent, and he thought maybe she had maybe fallen back asleep. Her voice, when she spoke, was heavy and thick. “Did you find the problem?”
“Think so. Shouldn’t be too hard to fix. Adam says he found a good place for us to rig up a little dam. He’s gonna go out with Pa and get started tomorrow, then Jamie can head out and give them a hand over the weekend.”
“Nah.” Joe shifted closer again, stretching his body alongside her warm length. “Not with you so close to … you know.”
Lina’s voice was dry. “Yes, I do know.”
“Well, we talked, and I’m gonna stick closer to home until the baby comes. I don’t want to take the chance of bein’ that far away when it happens.”
“I have another month to go yet.”
“Trust me, we got enough work around here to keep me occupied for the next year, at least.”
She snorted softly. “Let’s hope this does not last that long.” She relaxed, though, and Joe knew he had made the right decision. “I will be glad to have you close.”
Joe slid his arms around her, fitting her snugly against him. “Me too.” He kissed her temple, then sighed and closed his eyes. “I love you.”
Lina’s hand fumbled for his, finding and holding it beneath their blankets. “I love you too.”
Episodes referenced at some point during the story:
Death on Sun Mountain (S1)
The Burma Rarity (S3)
Between Heaven and Earth (S6)
Decision at Los Robles (S11)
The Night Virginia City Died (S12)
The Reluctant American (S12)
The Customs of the Country (S13)
New Man (S14)
The Initiation (S14)
The Bucket Dog (S14)
Ambush at Rio Lobo (S14)
Tags: Ben Cartwright, Candy Canaday, Hop Sing, Jamie Hunter Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright