MARIE [Parts 1-4] (by Bakerj)

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Summary:  What if Marie hadn’t died? Would it be a happy ever after for the Cartwrights, and most of all for fifteen-year-old Little Joe, who struggles to find his place in the family.
Part 1:  Family
Part 2:  Brothers, Fathers, and Sons
Part 3:  Laughter and Lies
Part 4:  Forgiveness

Rating: MA (References to adult themes and situations.)
Total Word Count: 56,191

[Please Note:  Following the completion of final edits to Part 4, Marie is reposted as the complete 4 part story.  To all those who have already read Part 1, I have identified each part as clearly as possible, so you may continue from Part 2.
Thank you, for your patience.]

Thanks again to my Beta, jfclover. For her patience and red pen.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

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Part One – Family

 

In the dim light of pre-dawn, Ben Cartwright saddled his horse. Off to visit his eldest son, Adam, he needed to be away before his wife awoke.

Almost two years ago, Adam moved out of the big ranch house into the comfortable cabin he’d built on the southeast corner of their property. Ben could still recall the day his son approached him and told him his decision.

“It’s for the best. I can run the southern operations better from there, and you have to admit it’ll make things a lot easier around here.”

He hadn’t been able to argue, Adam was right. The open warfare between him and his stepmother made life in the house tense and unhappy, and worse, often involved his youngest, who would rush to his mother’s defense. Which meant when Adam made his proposal, Ben hadn’t fought him too hard.

Ben saw Adam whenever he could, but Marie resented every second of that time. So, Ben Cartwright, owner of one of the largest spreads in the Utah Territory, was sneaking out of his house before his wife spotted him.

“Visitin’ Adam?”

Ben jumped and turned sharply to see the tall frame of his twenty-year-old middle son silhouetted in the shadowed doorway of the barn.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“I must be jumpy,” Ben replied. “I’m checking in with Adam, to make sure the roundup over there’s going okay.”

“Mind if I join?”

Ben’s heart sank, uncertain Marie would take kindly to them both disappearing for a few days. He’d also wanted Hoss to oversee the roundup on this side of the ranch. The hopeful look in his son’s eyes, however, persuaded him. He knew how Hoss enjoyed a visit to his brother’s cabin, and Ben mentally adjusted his plans. It wouldn’t be too difficult to make a small detour to have a word with his foreman and tell him to take charge.

“Sure, why not.”

The broad smile that spread across Hoss’ face told Ben he’d made the right choice. If it made Marie unhappy, well, he wouldn’t have to hear about it for three whole days.

*****

The spring roundup involved every hand on the ranch. To gather up the cattle from where they’d wandered over the winter, to count, brand, castrate, and cut out any of their neighbors’ animals proved a massive job. Ben and Hoss found Adam knee-deep in the process.

“Hi, Pa, Hoss, good to see you.”

Ben leaned over in his saddle to take his son’s proffered hand and scanned the herd of cattle before him with keen, knowledgeable eyes. “How’s it going, son?”

Adam wiped his brow and resettled his hat. “Fine. Winter losses look pretty low. The herd’s in good shape, and we’ve got a nice crop of calves so far.”

Ben nodded and turned his attention to a smaller herd gathered to one side. “Whose have we picked up this year?”

Adam grinned, “Found some of Ferguson’s, McCray’s, and Bishop’s stock so far. I’ve arranged to meet in four days to do the exchange.”

Ben grunted. Things were well in hand. “It all looks good. You’ve done a great job.”

“Come on down and take a closer look.”

Wheeling their horses, Adam maneuvered his next to Hoss. He hadn’t seen his brother for over two months. His keen eyes noticed how Hoss looked even thinner than the last time. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine.” Hoss hooked him with a look. His brother had things to say, but not in front of Pa. Adam gave a slight nod. They’d find time later.

*****

Ben and Hoss returned to a sleeping household.

As usual, Ben checked for signs of a light when he walked past his wife’s door before he retired to his bed.

Prone to sleepless nights, Marie had suggested they have separate rooms, since his rising so early hadn’t been beneficial to her health. He would have preferred they stay together, but for the sake of Marie’s health, he’d given in to her request.

He went straight to her room in the morning and tapped on her door. He entered to be greeted by a pouting face reflected in her mirror.

“You have returned.”

The French lilt in her voice always sounded musical to his ears, but he inwardly grimaced at the words and the angry spark he could see in her eyes. She was going to be difficult.

He fixed on a smile and replied in a hearty tone, “Yes, Hoss and I got in last night.”

“And how is Adam?”

He couldn’t miss the brittle tone in her voice. He ignored it and dropped a hand on each slender shoulder. “He’s fine. Busy, but everything’s under control.”

To his chagrin, when he leaned down to kiss her cheek, she averted her head.

“I’m glad, deserting your wife should be for some purpose.”

He chuckled, and chided in a soft voice, “I hardly deserted you, my love. I’ve only been gone for three days, and Little Joe and Hop Sing were here to look after you.”

Marie laid her ornate hairbrush down with a snap and pulled the frivolous, lace garment that passed for a dressing gown back up over her shoulders.

“It’s the husband’s duty to look after his wife.”

Ben sighed. She wouldn’t be won around. “My love, the Ponderosa doesn’t run itself.”

Marie jerked up from her chair and swept across the room to her heavily brocaded four-poster bed. Snatching up the book from the bedside table, she began to tap it against her other hand. Ben recognized the signs of pending hysterics. He needed to tread carefully.

“I thought that was Adam’s job.”

He kept his voice low and calm when he replied, “My dear, I own the Ponderosa, not Adam. It’s my responsibility.” He held out his arms and walked toward her. “I’m sorry if my going away upset you. How can I make it up to you?”

Relief washed over Ben when she allowed him to embrace her and leaned into him. Her sigh sent soft ripples of warm breath through the exposed hairs on his chest. The effect made him shudder, and a thrill ran through him. She raised her head to him, and he saw the pathetic smile on her rosy lips.

“I’m sorry. Being cooped up in the house is so hard on my nerves.”

“But you go to Eagle Station and Chinatown-”

“Chinatown? Eagle Station?” She interrupted. The disgust in her voice unmistakable. “Those places are une décharge. What have I in common with their kind?”

Ben’s jaw set. He hated it when she spoke like this. “They’re Mormons and whatever their beliefs, my dear, they’re still people.”

“Ben, the women allow themselves to be married off to one man like cattle. It’s … unnatural. I pity them, and they despise me.”

“That can’t be true.”

“They think I’m a wanton woman. I see the way they look at me and whisper.” When she looked up, the longing in her eyes disturbed him. “I need to go somewhere with real life and culture.”

Ben’s breath hitched in his throat. He couldn’t bear to hear her talk like this again. He’d put a stop to her extended trips away with Joe two years ago. Did she think he’d let them resume? “I thought we’d been through all that.” She pushed away from him and sat back down at the dresser. He watched her resume brushing her golden tresses with furious determination and gave up trying to improve her mood. “I’ll leave you to dress and see you downstairs.” Opening the door, he waited in hopes of a reply, but when none came, he left.

Marie Cartwright looked at her reflection and ran a hand down her face. The beauty of it pleased her, but she’d turned forty that year, and the age haunted her. How much longer would she still be desirable?

When she’d agreed to marry Ben, his strength and energy swept her away, and made nonsense of the nine-year age gap between them. He’d described his ranch in the wilds of the West, “Where trees touch the sky and grow straight and tall and clean, where life is reborn every moment, every day.” It sounded beautiful, and a refreshing relief to the ugliness and decay of New Orleans. She couldn’t wait to get there. Little Hoss and Adam adored her, and she loved them. Then Joseph came along and completed their family and her happiness.

But the nightmare of the pregnancy still haunted her. The Illness she’d suffered throughout overshadowed only by the birth. Joseph had come three weeks early, and the complications of the delivery almost cost both their lives. Marie shuddered. Even all these years later, she hated to think of it. She’d promised herself never again, and she’d kept it. Not an easy proposition with a passionate man like Ben, but she counted her days and used her health for the other times. Her decision left her racked with guilt. She knew how much her husband would love more children, but he never reproached her over it. She adored him for that.

At first, she’d been so happy. She helped Adam with his books and home-schooled Hoss until he became a full-time hand, and of course, raised Joseph, but by the time he’d turned five the day to day, familiarity wore away at her. Marie discovered the wilds of Utah might be fine for some, and to run and build up a ranch to the size of the Ponderosa kept the men busy, but for a woman used to the urban bustle and excitement of New Orleans, it began to resemble being buried alive.

Months could sometimes go by without seeing another soul other than the household. She missed the people and gay conversations in the saloons of the gambling house where she’d worked. The tedium of her life could make her scream.

The situation worsened after Ben returned from his trip to San Francisco to see Adam onto his ship to take him back East to college. Ben prudently combined the trip with business, but his description of the city grown into a vast metropolis of thousands exhilarated and captivated her.

Life became more and more unbearable. Frustration manifested itself as headaches and palpitations. Her temper frayed. She argued with Ben for the slightest reason and sometimes became hysterical. She could see how Ben worried for her, but she couldn’t control her moods. The day she fainted during an argument proved to be Ben’s breaking point. He loaded her into the buckboard and took her to the gold settlement at Dry Diggins’ where the only doctor in the area could be found.

Into the kind Doctor’s ears, she poured her woes. It did the trick. A visit to a friend of Ben’s in San Francisco decided upon, it took all her persuasion to get Ben to agree to her taking eight-year-old Joseph with her, but she managed it.

****

Ben went downstairs to breakfast in a pensive state of mind. It troubled him to hear Marie talk of going away again. He knew her nerves were the cause, but how he wished she could be content at home.

He remembered vividly that first time she’d become unwell. Terrified he might be losing another wife, the diagnoses surprised him. He never heard of Female Hysteria, but the doctor assured him some time away would be the answer. New people and scenery would solve the problem. What else could he have done except give her that?

He sat down at the breakfast table and muttered a distracted, “Good Morning,” to his two sons, still absorbed in his thoughts.

Over his coffee cup, Ben regarded his youngest. It disturbed him he didn’t know the fifteen-year-old better. After that first trip, Marie had cajoled Ben to let her and Joe go away for the entire winter. Worst still, even when they were at home, his long days working the ranch, meant he’d hardly seen anything of the boy.

Not until Adam returned home did Ben appreciate the damage done. Adam had come to him, so tall and brave, and told him straight – Marie’s trips away needed to stop.

“Four years, Pa. They’ve gone on long enough. You can’t let them continue.”

“It’s none of your concern.”

“Isn’t it? Look at what it’s doing to the family? Since my return, I’ve had to get to know everyone again. But, Little Joe’s still a stranger. Even Hoss barely knows him.”

“Well, that’s because-”

“I know. Marie’s told you he doesn’t like the work. That’s too bad. He’s almost thirteen, but he barely knows any more than how to use a rifle. When Hoss and I were that age, we knew the Ponderosa inside out. How’s he gonna become part of it when he’s hardly ever here or understands anything about the ranch?” Adam then hammered in his final nail. “And what about the cost to you? How much is it to rent a suite in the best hotels in San Francisco for six months?”

That question had smart, but Adam must have seen it in his face.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I had no right to say that. After what it cost sending me to college, I can’t question how you spend your money. But I know how keen you were to add that thousand-acre strip last year, and you’ve had to hold off on that.”

‘Of course, Adam had been right all along,’ he told himself.

Adam’s dream of college and Marie’s trips had been funded by the new and considerable income from the sale of cattle to meet the demands of hungry prospectors who rushed to California in search of gold. But, even so, he couldn’t deny the trips were becoming a burden. In the end, Adam’s arguments about Little Joe brought him around, and when Marie began to talk about her next trip, he’d broken the news – there would be no more.

Ben took a sip of coffee, still watching Little Joe. Why hadn’t he managed to break through to him? It saddened Ben to see Joe so light-hearted and sunny when around his mother, with a laugh that lit the room, but with himself, he would be distant, sullen, and, he feared, even afraid.

“Good morning, everyone.”

Marie floated down the stairs and across the room. Ben smiled a welcome and marveled at her grace. Pulled out of his reverie, Ben brought his mind back to business. Keen for an update, he asked, “Little Joe, how’s the herd looking?”

Joe shot him a perplexed look. “The herd?”

“Yes, the herd. How’s it looking? The hands must have most of it gathered in by now?”

Joe flushed and flicked a glance at his mother before he answered, “I don’t know, Sir, I haven’t been out there.”

The hand lifting his coffee cup halted, suspended mid-way to his mouth. “You haven’t?”

Marie explained, “Of course not, Ben. Little Joe had to stay here to protect me, since all the other men in the household left to visit Adam.”

Ben’s jaw tightened. “My love, you’re here by yourself with Hop Sing most every day.”

“But then you’re generally close by. This time you weren’t. I had to have Little Joe here. The strain would’ve been too much for my nerves.”

Under the distraction of taking a sip of coffee, Ben quashed his irritation. “Well, never mind. You can come out with us today.”

“No, mon Cherie, he can’t. I need Little Joe to drive me to Chinatown to visit Madame Thompson.”

Hoss kept his eyes down on his plate while his brothers rested on his father. Tension mounted while Ben thought.

The boy should come with them and take an interest in the roundup, but he didn’t want another argument with Marie. He let her have her way, but tempered his reply, “Very well, but you’ll need to be sure to come out tomorrow, Little Joe. Hoss and I can manage today.”

Ben saw the anger flash in Joe’s eyes at his instructions. It saddened him to see his reaction. Why didn’t the boy want to work with him?

Joe laid down his napkin and jerked up out of his chair. “Since you’ve got big brother you don’t need me anyway. He’s large enough to pick up a steer all by his self.” Ben eyes flicked from Joe to Hoss, who’d frozen with his fork halfway to his mouth. Joe leaned across and pushed his plate of half-eaten pancakes toward Hoss. “Here you go, Big Brother, have mine too. Gotta keep your strength up.”

Ben saw the flush suffuse Hoss’ face. He barked, “Joseph!”

Marie’s laugh trilled out, “Oh Ben, Little Joe’s only joking. Besides, we all know how Hoss can stuff himself.”

“No, he doesn’t. Besides, Hoss works hard. He needs his food,” Ben reprimanded.

Marie tittered, “Nobody works that hard.”

This drew a smirk from Joe, who got up and told his mother, “I’ll go hitch up the buggy.”

Once Marie joined Joe, and the two were alone, Ben dropped a hand on Hoss’ thin shoulder. “Don’t take it to heart. Finish your breakfast, then we’ll head out.”

“It’s all right, Pa, I’m done.”

Ben’s eyes ran over the half-eaten plate of food. Hoss hardly ate enough to keep a bird alive, let alone his six-foot-four frame. The boy had lost so much weight over the last year, Ben had replaced his entire wardrobe.

They were saddling their horses when Hoss cleared his throat. “Pa, I wanted to ask you somethin’. I’m twenty now, so a man.”

Ben laughed, “I know that.” Hoss didn’t return the laugh but stood silent, twiddling his bridle between his fingers. The boy had something on his mind. Ben stilled and gave Hoss all his attention. “Out with it, son.”

“Well, it’s jest, I’ve talked it over with Adam, an’ he’s okay with it.”

Ben held his breath as his son looked him right in the eye.

“I’d like to move in with Adam.”

His stomach lurched, but how could he blame him? Hoss had changed so much. The happy, outgoing person he used to be, had all but vanished. Content only when out on the range, or in the barn tending to the injured creatures he brought home. ‘It’s all my fault,’ Ben chastened himself.

Marie was a wonderful mother, but her nerves could make her peevish and arguments could erupt up out of nowhere. He didn’t regret ending her trips, but it did fracture their home. Her hostility to Adam drove him away, and after he’d gone, Marie’s ill-humor led her to pick at Hoss for being too big, too clumsy, too greedy. Ben’s attempts to reprimand her only resulted in unpleasant scenes and slammed doors.

Ben knew how much his stepmother’s behavior hurt his middle son. With bitter regret, he acknowledged he could, should, have done more, and now he would pay the price for that neglect.

“Are you sure, Son? I’d really like you to stay.”

Hoss scuffed the toe of his boot into the ground. “I know, but I jest think I’d be happier stayin’ with Adam.”

“I wouldn’t.” The stricken look in the blue eyes that met his pounded a nail in his heart, but he needed his son to know he wanted him to stay – before he let him go. “But, I understand, and if it’s what you want, then it’s okay. ”

“Thanks, Pa.”

He heard the break in the voice and reached up to wrap a hand around his son’s neck. Hoss leaned his head on Ben’s shoulder, and he felt him begin to shake.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s my fault, not yours. Just know you’ll always be welcome to come home, anytime.” After a long moment, Ben asked, “When were you thinking of going?”

Hoss muffled a sniff. “After roundup.”

So soon? Oh, Hoss. “All right, after roundup then.”

*****

Ben had no notion how his reply to his wife disappointed his youngest. Joe knew his father didn’t really want him to work on the ranch. His mother told him often enough how Pa complained he’d be more hindrance than help, but he’d hoped Pa might’ve put up a fight anyway. Accompanying his mother on trips to her dressmaker wasn’t Joe’s idea of fun, but, if his pa didn’t want him… Joe’s hand tightened on the reins and sent his knuckles white.

His angry feelings of rejection manifested themselves as spite and jealousy, and he’d taken them out on Hoss. A hard lump settled in his stomach when he thought about what he’d said. He loved Hoss and never wanted to hurt him. But why didn’t Pa want him around? Year after year, he waited to be told he couldn’t go with Ma, that Pa needed him on the ranch like his brothers, but the years dragged on, and what happened once he did stop them? Nothin’! His Pa didn’t think he could do the job, so kept him at the house doing barn chores.

Watching his brothers work alongside his father like men, and receive his praise and love, sowed a festering anger inside Joe. He nurtured and nourished it with every slight and snub, and with it, built a wall, brick by resentful brick, between himself and his father. His chest tightened. He jerked the reins and the horse tossed its head and skittered to one side in protest, which brought a rebuke from his mother to mind his driving. Chastened, he pushed all thoughts of his father from his mind and focused on the long drive into Chinatown.

Joe spent half an hour chatting to Billy Atkins at the mercantile until Billy’s ma shooed him away, and told her son to get on with his chores. Meandering away down the street in an aimless fashion, Joe considered what to do next to pass the time. It amazed him to learn his mother needed two hours to visit her dressmaker. What could they be doing that took that long?

After dropping her off at Mrs. Thompson’s house on the edge of the growing settlement, he’d driven the buggy to the stables and tried to pass the time. The first half-hour he’d spent at the blacksmiths. Joe watched him work, and they talked about the horses. Little Joe loved horses. He wanted more than anything to break broncs like Adam and Hoss, but Pa wouldn’t let him near them.

After he left the mercantile, he took a wander down to the Chinese district. The settlement got its nickname from its large population of Chinese. They’d been brought in to build the ‘Reese’ ditch that ran from the Carson River to the entrance of Gold Canyon, where the settlement had been formed. The Chinese fascinated Joe, but they also scared and intimidated him, like Hop Sing, who always harangued and chased him out of his kitchen.

Back on the main street, he looked with longing at the saloon and wished he could try a beer, but Ma would skin him alive, so he headed back toward the stables. Maybe Mrs. Owen had baked a pie? She liked him and could always be persuaded to part with a delicious slice.

When he wandered passed the saloon, a group of men hanging about spotted him. One of them stepped into his path. Joe went to go around, but the man moved and blocked him again. Joe looked up to see a bunch of miners from the gold camp. His nostrils quivered at the stench of the man barring his way, but he kept his voice civil.

“ ‘Scuse me, Mister

“Your names Cartwright ain’t it?”

“Yeah, what of it?” Joe lost some of his polite tone and the man scowled.

“Your ma’s that French Creole ain’t she?”

Joe bristled and clenched his fists. He took a breath and forced them open again. Don’t let them get to you.

The loudmouth in front of him spoke again. “Nice lady, your ma. All the men in town think so.”

“What do you mean?”

The man laughed, “It’s okay, kid. Your ma’s too good fer the likes of us. We know that, don’t we fellas?”

Harsh laughter followed, and Joe’s temper flashed at the winks and nudges they exchanged. He tried to tamp it down, knowing better than to let it loose. He dropped his head and mumbled, “Great.” He tried to push past, to get away, only to be stopped again.

“Don’t be in such a hurry, kid. I mean it must be hard havin’ to wait around why your ma visits her gentleman friend.”

Joe’s snapped his head up to look straight at the man. “What’re you talkin’ about?”

The harsh laugh broke out again. “Aw fellas, the lil’l guy here don’t know. Shall we tell him?”

Loud guffaws filled the air around him. Confused, Joe’s eyes darted from one man to another. The miner gripped Joe’s shoulder and patted his face, he recoiled from the filthy fingers.

The man’s voice mocked him. “Yer ma spends her time at the white house on main street where our manager, McFadden, lives. They get on right well together.”

Joe took a step back. He dipped his head and squeezed his eyes shut. When he raised it, the light of fury blazed in them. He could only take so much. With all his strength, he lurched forward and rammed both hands against the miner’s chest. “You’re a liar!” The man barely moved an inch.

The laughter around him died. The men shifted down to surround him. Joe hadn’t spent all those winters in San Francisco, the frequent victim of the gangs of street kids, without recognizing the move. He tensed ready to make his break.

“Jest tellin’ you how it is, sonny.” A smirk spread across the miner’s face. “A boy should know if his ma’s a whore.”

“Shut your filthy mouth!”

A red mist descended. All Joe’s caution and lessons in street survival forgotten, he launched at the man and managed to land a wild punch to his face. After that, it went to hell. The pack descended on him.

His flails against the hands that grasped him were fruitless. Snared, they dragged him down toward an alley out of sight. He used his feet and kicked out, but the rough hands tightened, bruising his skin. In desperation, he dug the toes of his boots into the ground to prevent their progress, carving a furrow in the dirt, but his light frame proved no problem for the burly men. One man could have easily picked him up, two had no problem.

They held him tight, and the man who’d baited him slammed his massive fist into Joe’s torso. The pain doubled him over, but he couldn’t drop, thanks to the two who held him up between them. The fist came at him again. Shock exploded within him. How could memories from the past step out of his mind and become a reality? Another blow came, then another. The foul whiskey breath of the men as they laughed filled his lungs. The world spun out of control when pain radiated throughout his body. He struggled to breathe. Somewhere from behind, he thought he heard a voice say he’d had enough and him being just a kid. This hurt even more, but he couldn’t speak to protest. The hard earth rushed up to meet him, and he tasted grit. He curled himself up and moaned. Something wet hit his face, and he heard bigmouth’s harsh laugh again.

“That’ll teach ya, you rich brat.”

The minutes ticked past, the men had gone. Joe unfurled and pushed through the wall of agony to sit up, propped against the rough planks of the building. He waited for the wave of pain to diminish enough so he could face the idea of standing. His breath groaned when he drew it in under bruised ribs. He spat and let out the dirt and frustration. When would he learn? Losing his temper and standing up for himself, got him nothing but a beating? But this time he’d stood up for someone else. He drove the pain from his mind and focused on one thought. He had to find his mother.

The miners knew what they were doing and hadn’t touched Joe’s face. To a casual observer, he looked his usual self even if his clothes were rumpled and dusty. Anyone who looked closer would have noticed the sick pallor of his skin and his struggle to stay upright. However, Mr. Owen saw nothing amiss when he hitched up the buggy.

Joe drove back toward Mrs. Thompson’s. When he passed the infamous white house, the miners taunted him with, he pulled the horse to a stand.

Joe stared. Surrounded by a white picket fence that held a neat, small garden to the front, the house looked innocent enough. Why he decided to take a better look, he didn’t know, but he struggled down from the buggy and made for the gate. He reached it at the same time the front door opened. Horror froze him to the spot when he saw his mother drift through the door. Turned toward the other person her back faced him. Their voices were low, but he could tell they were laughing. All he could see were her hands on his shoulder, touching his face, running down his jacket. Joe’s heart raced, and the ground lurched. He staggered against the gate and caught their attention. His mother turned to look straight into his eyes.

“Joseph! What are you doing here?” When he stumbled, she demanded, “What’s wrong?”

Joe’s nostrils flared. He eyed the man next to his mother. “Some minor’s, friends of his, told me all about him and you.”

“What’re you talking about? Are you drunk?”

McFadden came down the path behind Marie. “He looks hurt. Better let me help him.”

Joe flinched away from the man. “Don’t touch me!”

His mother flashed him an incredulous look. “Have you been in a fight?”

“Yes, Mother.” Joe jabbed a finger at McFadden. “His friends were talking about you. I defended your honor.”

“What’s the matter with you?” she demanded. Uncowed by her anger, Joe curled his lip in distaste when she smiled at McFadden. “It’s all right Monsieur McFadden, I’ll take him home.”

“It might be best to take him to the doctor.”

Joe found himself pushed up into the buggy and clambered in at best he could. He sat with his arms clutched to his chest and scowled back at the man.

Marie climbed up beside Joe. “No need, he’ll be fine.”

Taking the reins, his mother headed towards Mrs. Thompson’s house. Joe crumpled on the seat next to her and tried to catch his breath.

Marie pulled the buggy to a halt outside her dressmakers’ house. Climbing out, she commanded, “Wait here.”

Mrs. Thompson gave a start when she opened her door and saw the buggy and Joe. Collecting a box and other packages, Marie thanked her. “Merci, Madam for finishing the alteration while I quickly visited Monsieur McFadden. The dress is lovely.”

Bent double, Joe’s head came up at those words, and he frowned in puzzlement. If Mrs. Thompson knew his mother had visited McFadden … it couldn’t be…? The thought trailed off into doubt that turned his stomach cold.

Depositing her parcels, Marie climbed back into the buggy and shook up the horse. They’d gone about a mile when she pulled up and turned on her son. “How dare you behave in such a way!”

“Those men said… ” The dirty words died on his lips. How could he repeat them?

“Said what?”

“That McFadden’s…more than a friend. What were you doing there in his house? Who is he, Ma?”

“He’s a business acquaintance of your father’s, and I can’t believe you would question me this way or listen to such filthy gossip.”

“But you were in his house-”

“Joseph! I don’t wish to hear any more of this saleté. What would your father say if he heard you speak to me like that? I can’t believe you would believe such – it’s incroyable! Ben would be ashamed of you. I suggest we do not speak of this again, and especially not to your Père.”

The buggy jerked forward as his mother slapped the reins to start the horse. Joe hung on grimly, the movement robbing him of breath again.

They rode home in silence, Joe too absorbed by the terrible thoughts that battered his mind to speak. Those men had to be lying. If they weren’t, it would mean his mother… bile rose in Joe’s throat. If that were true, it would destroy his father, his family. Clinging to the precipice his whole world could crash into at any moment, Joe squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in another painful breath. What am I gonna do?

Driving into the yard, Marie climbed down and stormed inside, leaving Joe to follow as best he could.

Startled by his wife’s precipitous entrance, Ben leapt out of his chair. “For heaven sake, what’s wrong?”

Maria began to remove her hat. “Little Joe got into a stupid fight.”

Ben turned to look at Joe, who shuffled through the door.

“A fight? What about?”

“Foolish nonsense. He brought it on himself.”

“Should we get the doctor?”

Halfway up the stairs, Maria stopped at the landing and turned. “Don’t fuss, Ben. The silly boy’s only been in a fight.”

Always the first to fret over Joe, Marie’s attitude bewildered Ben. His concern rose when he saw Joe’s drawn, sweat-soaked countenance.

“Let’s get you to your room.”

Joe let out a groan and his legs buckled. Ben reached out and caught him. Beside them in an instant, Hoss took Joe’s other arm.

“Whoa, lil’l brother. He may have a busted rib there, Pa.”

Seeing how Joe cradled his chest, Ben agreed. His wife’s voice from the top of the stairs drew his attention.

“Ben, have Hop Sing bring in my packages, will you?”

Exasperated at her indifference, he snapped, “I’ve told you before, Hop Sing’s our cook, not your maid.”

The sudden pinched look let them all know they were in for a scene. Ben gave Hoss a grateful look when he came to the rescue.

“It’s all right, Ma. I’ll bring ‘em up. Soon as I’ve helped get Lil’l Joe settled.”

She picked up her skirts and gave him a nod. “Merci, Hoss. At least someone in this house is a gentleman.”

Ben let out a huff while she flounced up the stairs.

*****

I’m alone, except for the voices. Whose voices are those? What’re they saying? Your Ma’s a whore. Your Ma’s a liar. No! No, she’s not. I tell them, but they won’t listen, they just laugh. It can’t be true. I run. I must find Ma, find out the truth. They chase me, but I can’t let them stop me. I have to find the truth. What’s that sound, so loud, getting faster? The footsteps or my heart? They’re closer now. Hitting me, holding me. I can’t escape. They’re hurting me. Stop, please stop, no – “NO!”

“Little Joe, Joe, it’s alright. Son, it’s just a dream. You’re safe.”

Joe searched the room in a desperate bid to find the men chasing him but saw only his father. Ragged, painful breaths were hauled in while he tried to steady the racing heart that pounded in his ears. Confusion sent him sitting bolt upright, a move, Joe immediately regretted. His father eased him gently back again.

“You were having a nightmare.” A wet cloth pressed against his sweat-soaked forehead, cool and comforting. “Care to tell me about it?”

God, no. “I don’t … don’t remember.”

“All right. You get some sleep.”

Joe watched his father leave his room. He didn’t think he could, but exhaustion from enduring the constant grind of pain soon closed his eyes, and he drifted off again.

Three days had passed since the attack. Doctor Paul Martin had declared Joe’s ribs were likely not broken just bruised and the tissue swollen. Cautioning Ben to watch for signs of internal bleeding, Paul told him to keep Joe in bed for a couple of weeks. Although Marie hung solicitously over Joe for a short while, it concerned Ben to see how he rejected her presence. She took the hint and left her son alone, leaving Hop Sing to step in where Marie had previously ruled supreme.

Joe floundered under contradictory emotions that crushed the life out of him. Made even more unbearable by his mother’s nearness he rebuffed her, and added to his misery. Torn, he withdrew and tried to bury his feelings deep, terrified he might blurt out something that could tear their lives apart.

Seeing his son down and depressed, Ben called upon Hoss to entertain the invalid. Always happy to help, Hoss dug out the old checkerboard, and Joe found himself challenged to a game. In his brother’s easy-going, soothing presence, Joe’s shattered nerves settled, and he enjoyed their evenings more and more.

Spurned by her son and too anxious to be alone for long with Ben, Marie began to retire early to her own room, and Ben, finding no attraction in sitting alone by himself, soon joined his two sons to watch them play. They passed another week in this way.

Immersed in the letter from a friend, Ben he looked up when Hoss’ words caught his attention.

“Dadburnit, I’m sure your cheatin’. I jest can’t figure out how.”

“How can you say that?” Joe yelped back. “You’re winning, ain’t you?”

“Yeah I know, that’s why I can’t figure it.”

Intrigued, Ben put down his letter to pay more attention to the play. Amazement dawned seeing Little Joe slyly manipulate the pieces, but not to win, his intention instead to extend the game. Hoss had earlier told Joe he could only play one game that night since he needed to clean his rifle. Ben realized Joe didn’t want Hoss to go, and a warm sensation ran over Ben. He’d never seen his youngest so engaged with his brother, and an idea struck him.

“Y’know all the rifles could do with a clean. Why don’t we bring them up here and then Little Joe can help?”

Hoss scrunched his face, and Ben could hear the doubt in his voice, “Pa, Lil’l Joe don’t wanna clean a load of rifles.”

His youngest bobbed his head and insisted, “Yes, I would.”

“But the mess?”

Ben rubbed his hands together and declared, “No problem, we’ll put an old blanket down. Spread it on the bed. So long as Joe doesn’t do anything to strain his ribs, it’ll be fine.”

The delighted smile on Joe’s face told Ben he’d had the right idea. Absorbed in the activity, they chatted about nothing in particular, happy in each other’s company, until the moment Hop Sing arrived. The Chinaman stopped horrified at the door to find his charge dirty fingered and smudged faced. With a furious flow of his native tongue, he shooed Ben and Hoss out – rifles and all. Laughing so hard his ribs hurt, Joe had to beg them to go.

Although his two sons seemed to be drawing closer, the distance between his wife and youngest continued. Joe wouldn’t talk about it, but Ben knew the fight must be at the heart of the problem. Ben couldn’t fathom how Marie could be so oblivious to her son’s change of demeanor and go happily about her daily life. In truth, Marie’s thoughts were anything but happy.

Having gotten over her initial shock and anger of Joe’s arrival at McFadden’s, the possible consequences of this encounter sank in and terrified her.

Ben often supplied timber to the mine McFadden ran and had introduced the manager to her at a church social. Living with a husband who spent all day out on the ranch, returning in the evening sometimes too tired to hold up his end of a conversation, let alone lavish his wife with compliments, John McFadden proved a breath of fresh air, and the overt attentions of the handsome, intelligent man stirred her Creole blood and revived her wounded spirit.

Sexual attraction sparked between them. Never would Marie think to betray Ben, but the thrill and excitement on an affair tempted her, and John assured her over and over it would be discreet. She had no intention of ending her marriage, but the idea of a brief liaison attracted her, and she couldn’t resist the invitations to visit McFadden, to let him pour his flattery and entreaties into her ears. She never intended for any member of her family to see them together. Not Ben, and especially not Little Joe. Shocked to hear from her son how the miners crowed about McFadden, she realized her mistake in thinking their friendship could go unnoticed, and a shiver of dread ran through her. It had to end then and there.

So far, Little Joe kept silent, but his distance scared her, and she wondered how long it would be before he let out the truth to Ben. Nothing beyond fondling had happened with McFadden, but it touched too close on old wounds, and she couldn’t count on her ability to smooth this over with Ben. With no other option, she held onto her nerve and prayed she could find a way to win Joe back to her. Fate proved to be on her side one morning over breakfast.

“I think we may be able to do that timber deal with the Priestly mine after all.”

Marie’s ears pricked up, hearing the name of the mine McFadden managed.

“Yeah, Pa?”

“I took a look at the stand of timber along Indian Ridge yesterday. It would benefit from thinning and would be enough to fulfill McFadden’s contract.”

“Great. I remember he offered a real good price.”

“Soon as I can, I’ll ride in and speak with him.”

Marie seized her moment. “Cherie, I shall be going into Chinatown tomorrow. Hop Sing has some supplies to collect, and I wish to order some items. I’d be happy to pass on a note to Monsieur McFadden.”

“Are you sure, my love? It wouldn’t be too much trouble?”

“Of course not. He has a house there, does he not? I will be delighted.”

The deed done, Marie waited and picked her moment carefully. A few days later, after a messenger from the Priestly mine dropped off a letter, she stepped out of her room and stopped Ben going into Joe’s with his dinner tray. Making sure Joe could hear them, she asked, “Did the business with Mr. McFadden go all right?”

“Yes, it did. Thank you for your help.”

“My dearest you know I’m always glad to assist.” She smiled and flicked a glance Joe’s way to check he’d been listening, then glided away.

Ben laid down the tray on his son’s lap.

“Pa?”

“Hmm?”

“How do you know Mr. McFadden?”

“McFadden? I’m supplying him with some timber.”

“An’…an’ Ma helped with that?”

His father smiled, curious at his interest, and asked, “Yes, she did, why?”

“Oh, no reason.”

Joe stared down at the tray of food he could no longer bear to eat. There couldn’t be a son out there worse than him. He’d thought the foulest things of his mother and believed the lying words of others instead of hers. Miserable to his core, he picked over his stew.

When Ben removed the half-eaten plate of food, he asked the expected question, “Are you feeling okay?”

Joe reassured him absently, his mind distracted. He’d made his decision. He needed to see Ma. Before his father went out the door, he called, “Pa, could you ask, Ma if I could speak to her?”

His gut twisted into knots from the guilt that gnawed at him, and when he heard the familiar swish of skirts, his heart leapt within him.

“You wished to see me?”

Joe stared at his mother out of eyes wide with grief and guilt and his mouth dried. The speech he’d prepared in his head to explain and excuse his behavior died unspoken. Instead, he cried out, “Oh God, Ma, I’m so sorry.” His eyes filled when she didn’t hesitate but crossed the room in a rush to him. He flung his arms around her and held tight. “I said such terrible things. Can you ever forgive me?”

Her soft hand stroked his chestnut curls. Her whispered words, “Of course I do, mon petite,” spilt his hot tears into her shoulder.

When Ben returned to Joe’s room, it pleased and relieved him to see his wife and son with their heads back together, as they chatted and laughed.

The amusement showed in his voice when he asked, “What’re you two conspiring about?”

“Ma says I can get up tomorrow.”

Ben tossed an annoyed glance at Marie, and added cautiously, “It’s not been two weeks yet, but if you’re up to it, then I guess it’s okay for you to sit downstairs for a while.”

Ben turned at the movement behind to see Hoss appear at the door with the checkerboard. The boy abruptly halted at the threshold when he saw Marie on the bed next to Joe.

Seeing his brother, Joe called, “Hoss, c’mon in. Ma, you can play tonight, can’t you?”

Marie laughed. “Checkers?”

The disdain in her voice made Ben frown, and he noticed Hoss shrink back a step.

“Ma don’t wanna play checkers, Lil’l Joe, another night huh?”

“No. C’mon, Ma it’ll be fun … please?”

Ben ached at the yearning in Joe’s face. The boy only wanted his family to be together. Ben’s eyes went to his wife, and he added his own silent entreaty.

Marie threw up her hands in mock surrender. “Very well, but I warn you, I play terribly.”

*****

Ben savored the rich flavor of brandy ahead of the warm burn it gave in his throat. It had been a wonderful evening. One of the best he could remember in a long time. He nestled the glass between his hands and let his mind wander back to other happy evenings. Five-year-old Joe sitting on his lap, while Adam, Hoss and Marie played and laughed. How the boy loved to be near him then. A ripple of disquiet ran over him. How did he let those good times slip away?

A knock at the door disturbed his thoughts. Setting aside his glass, he called, “Come in.”

He wondered what Hoss could want, and it came as a pleasant surprise when his wife entered.

Closing the door, she cast him an anxious look. “Am I disturbing you?”

Ben smiled and shook his head. Dressed in another of her frivolous nightgowns that did so much for her figure, Ben’s eyes lingered on her, thinking how exquisite she looked. In the soft glow of his lamp, he noticed how her eyes were large and sorrowful and filled with tears. Concern flooded through him. He leapt out of his chair. “My love, what’s wrong?”

She ran to him and threw herself into his arms, her words tumbling out in-between sobs, “Oh Ben, what a shrew I’ve been. All because you visited Adam. Can you forgive me?”

Her cheek rested on his shoulder, and he sunk his nose into her golden tresses. Her exotic perfume rose to envelope and overwhelm his senses. He put a hand up to gently caress her hair and murmured a sweet reassurance, “My love, don’t cry.”

She lifted her head to him. He looked down into the face that always set his heart racing. Accepting the silent offer, he leaned down and kissed her lips.

*****

He felt her start to slip out of bed and extended his hand to catch hers. To her look of inquiry, he whispered a plea, “Stay, spend the night with me.”

She leaned over and kissed him long on the lips. “You know you’re going to be up before dawn.”

“I know, but just this once.” She sighed, but to his delight, moved back under the blankets. He slid forward, wrapped his arms around her shapely frame, and pulled her close. “It’s nice to have you share my bed again.”

She giggled, “You’re so old fashioned, my darling.”

“I know,” he replied. He smiled, hearing her giggles turn to something else when his hand began to roam.

“Ben,” she asked, her words a soft groan of pleasure, “What has come over you?”

“You,” he breathed and found her lips again.

Marie gazed up at the ceiling of her husband’s bedroom and stretched in contentment. Her world was back exactly as it should be. Her son happy again, and her husband satisfied and content. Joseph would get up today and soon be fit and well. She could begin to concentrate on her plans again. John McFadden, already forgotten and consigned to history, her thoughts fixed firmly on the future.

*****

Forbidden from doing his usual chores, Joe found himself stuck in the house, helping his mother. Elbow resting on the settle arm, he sunk his cheek deeper into his fist and pulled another red ribbon. Every time he took one out, hundreds still remained in the basket Ma had given him to sort, and he pursed his lips, knowing this job could take him hours. Hop Sing trotting into the room gave him a welcome distraction. The little man went to stand in front of Marie, sitting in her chair opposite Joe.

“Missy Cartwright, can you come tell me if I got recipe right for chicken stew?”

“You mean the poulet au vin blanc, Hop Sing.”

“Yes, I say that.”

Marie rolled her eyes, and turned to Joe, “A friend sent me her old family recipe. I thought we could try it for dinner. I’d better go and see it’s made correctly.”

Marie headed for the kitchen. Hanging back, Hop Sing gave Joe a conspiratorial wink, and whispered, “I keep Missy Cartwright busy. Little Joe go, get fresh air.”

Joe grinned and taking the hint, bolted out the door and made a beeline for the corrals.

He watched the new horses, waiting to be broken-in, mill about the enclosure. He quivered with longing and wished he could have the chance to break broncs, if only Pa would give it to him?

With a heavy heart, he slid from that corral to another, where he found Dan Tolliver putting a horse through its paces. One of the first hands on the Ponderosa, his legendary knowledge and skill drew Joe to him. He hung over the fence, his eyes following the movement of man and beast.

Spotting Joe, the man drew his horse up alongside. “Howdy, Young‘un.”

“Hi Dan, that’s a mighty fine animal you got there?”

Dan dismounted, tied off the horse and climbed up to sit straddled on the fence next to Joe.

“Your pa’s done a fine job breeding them. He’s got some of the best cattle horses in the territory now.”

The man watched the boy and saw how his eyes shone when they ran over the animal. Ben had talked to him about Little Joe and how he disliked ranch work and showed no interest in working horses. The boy’s sparkling eyes and taut excitement told a different story. He’d seen Little Joe ride and noticed his good seat and light hands. It puzzled him how Ben could have reached his conclusion.

“I wish I could ride like you.”

“Jest a matter of learnin’ an’ practice boy.”

“Pa don’t want me near the horses.”

Dan frowned at Joe’s words. He knew the truth of it, and he wondered if this could be the kid’s excuse for not doing the work. Disgust gripped him. An honest, hard worker, Dan couldn’t abide such stuff. He started to climb down, keen to get back to work. Joe’s next words stopped him.

“D’ya think you could teach me like you taught Pa, Adam and Hoss? I wanna learn how to wrangle horses and handle cattle like them.”

The boy turned to him. Dan could see the deadly seriousness in his face and how his eyes pleaded with him.

“But could it be our secret? Pa doesn’t think I can do it. If you were to teach me, quiet like, maybe I could show him I’m good enough, and he’d let me come on the drive.”

Taken aback, Dan scratched his chin. How could Ben be so wrong about his own son? Not one to get involved in family matters, he still knew it to be Ben’s greatest wish to have his youngest join them on a drive and be more involved in the ranch. In which case, he decided, he wouldn’t be going against orders to do like the boy wanted.

“Yeah, I reckon I can.”

A smile a mile-wide covered Joe’s face, but his next words brought the frown back to Dan’s. “An’ I wanna learn how to bust broncs.”

“Bustin’ broncs ain’t so much learnin’ as doin’, Boy.”

The green in the hazel eyes fired with determination. “Then I wanna do. I wanna do it all.”

Dan hesitated. Busting broncs could prove a might tougher to do without Ben knowing. Plus, if the boy hurt himself, Ben would have his hide. “I tell you what. Let’s see how you do with the beeves, an’ then we see about bustin’ broncs.”

Dan grinned. The boy looked like all his Christmas’ had come at once.

“Great! I gotta wait a few more days ‘till my ribs stop hurtin’ some, but can we start then?”

Getting an agreement, the two shook hands on it, and Joe darted back to the house before Ma missed him.

*****

The knock on his bedroom door interrupted Hoss in his packing. Joe pushed it open, and stood on the threshold a picture of misery.

Concerned, Hoss asked, “What’s the matter?”

“You packin’ to go to Adam’s?”

The stricken look in Joe’s eyes when they saw the clothes piled on the bed, made Hoss grit his teeth. Uncomfortable, he flicked a blanket over to cover them, and muttered, “Yeah.”

The roundup and branding almost over, Pa broke the news of his departure over dinner. Hoss wouldn’t forget the look on Little Joe’s face or how quiet he became. Now, here he stood, looking like a calf who’d lost his ma.

“I came to say I wish you weren’t leavin’, an’ I’m sorry for all those times I teased you an’ said mean things.”

Hoss stared. What could he say? His brother’s eyes dropped to the floor. When he raised them, Hoss could see the tears the kid fought back and grimaced when Joe’s chin wobbled, and his voice shook.

“If … if I promise never to say mean things again, would you stay? I never meant them, or for you to go away.”

“You think I’m leaving coz of you? That ain’t true. I’m goin’ coz it’s right fer me.”

The look in Joe’s eyes almost broke Hoss’ heart. “You don’t wanna live with Ma and me no more.”

“It ain’t that. It’s jest … well, Adam and me, we’s…”

“Yeah … I know, you and Adam.”

The weight in those words crushed Hoss. He watched helpless to do anything when Joe reached over and closed the door behind him. He desperately wanted to go after him, tell him it would be all right, that he’d stay, but he couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to himself or Joe. Life in the house had become too hard for Hoss to bear anymore. His love for his ma too fierce to take her rejection without it tearing him apart. What other choice did he have but to go?

Ben dodged back into his room, holding his breath while he waited for his youngest to pass. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but he’d come out of his room the moment Little Joe opened Hoss’ door

When Joe’s bedroom door closed, he tiptoed up to it, placed an ear against the wood, and could make out muffled sobs. His hand hovered on the doorknob, but he never turned it. What could he say to this boy he hardly knew? What comfort could he offer or would be accepted? His heart misgave him, and in that moment, an opportunity slipped through his fingers. He turned and walked away.

Joe stuffed the pillow in his mouth to stifle the noise. He sobbed so hard he thought his heart would burst. In those long months away with his mother, he’d struggled to make friends. Seen through jealous eyes by others, his good looks and wealth made him a target.

When he returned home, he looked forward to one thing – seeing Hoss again. His big, laid-back brother, who never expected anything from him, or pushed him around because of his size.

Since they’d returned for good, Joe knew he hadn’t treated Hoss right. He couldn’t explain it. Something inside of him burned white-hot, and he’d lashed out at the one person he could hurt. The result? He’d driven his brother away. Shame and self-loathing coursed through him, and he sobbed all the harder. These past wonderful weeks he’d begun to hope they were friends again, and then, Pa had broken that news. Hoss’ words pounded into him over and over, ‘Adam and me’. It would always be Adam and me. Never him. Never Hoss and Joe. Never.

*****

Hoss’ departure threw Joe wholeheartedly into his lessons with Dan. His need to show Pa how wrong he’d been about him became an obsession.

Dan, therefore, got a willing if scarily over-eager pupil. His problem became not so much getting Joe to try a task but reining him in, so he didn’t hurt himself. The experienced wrangler’s heart went out to the kid seeing his desperation to prove himself as good a ranch hand as his brothers, but Dan worried he might take on some big steer he couldn’t handle, so he needed to temper Joe’s eagerness with common sense. But, when they got to the horses, Dan shook his head and admitted, Joe was a natural.

Dan arranged to meet Joe at the corrals furthest from the house where he could try busting some broncs. Starting him off easy with some quieter animals, he soon let Joe take whatever came next regardless of its spirit. The man found it purely pleasurable to watch the lad ride, and he couldn’t help thinking it a crime he’d been kept from it for so long.

The day finally came when Dan slapped Joe on the back and told him he taught him all he could. The kid puffed up like a turkey-cock. The smile on his face, broad and brilliant.

“I can’t wait to show Pa.”

Dan nodded, the fall roundup just a few weeks away would give Joe the perfect opportunity.

*****

“Ben, I think it’s time we considered putting some of the empty bedrooms to good use.”

Puzzled, Ben looked up from his dinner plate at his wife. “What use could they be other than bedrooms?”

Marie laughed. “I wish to turn one into a dressing room. Adam’s room would be best since it’s next door to mine.”

Ben stiffened and laid down his knife and fork. “I don’t understand. How can you use Adam’s room?”

“Neither he nor Hoss live here anymore. It seems a shame to waste the rooms.”

Ben chest expanded from the deeper breath he took, in response to his wife’s insensitive words. “They use their rooms when they stay.”

“They could easily use the guest rooms.”

Ben’s fist clenched around his napkin. “Marie, my sons are not guests.”

“I know that Ben, don’t be ridiculous. I’m merely suggesting we use one room.”

“If you want a dressing room use a guest room. But neither Adam nor Hoss’ rooms will be touched.”

“Don’t raise your voice to me.”

Ben held tight to his temper and replied, “I am not raising my voice, but I will not allow my you to use Adam’s room.”

“I don’t see what difference it makes.”

“It makes a difference. I won’t discuss it any further.”

“You won’t…? How dare you, Ben Cartwright. I’m your wife, not some servant you can dismiss. I don’t see what’s so wrong with using one of their rooms.”

“Because this is their home, and I will not allow their rooms to be … done away with or changed.”

Marie flung down her napkin.

‘Not again,’ he told himself, when she swept away to storm from the room.

This time, when she reached the round table in front of the fireplace, he saw her turn and with a swift movement snatch up one of the ornaments standing on it.

“You brute!” she cried and flung it at his head.

Ben dodged. “Marie!”

His wife burst into tears and ran up the stairs.

“May I please be excused?”

Startled, Ben turned to Joe. He’d almost forgotten him. Head down, staring at his half-eaten supper congealed on its plate in front of him, he couldn’t look more unhappy.

“I’m sorry, son. Don’t you want dessert?”

“No, Sir. I’m not hungry.”

Regret filled Ben’s eyes. He watched his son slip from his seat and go up the stairs. He‘d rather his children didn’t see him and their mother fighting, but it happened a lot since Marie brought up the idea of another trip. His appetite gone. He pushed his plate away. Lost in thought, he jumped when a hand appeared to remove it. He looked around into the sorrow-filled face of Hop Sing.

“Mr. Ben, you okay?”

“Yes, Hop Sing, thank you.”

In his heart, he knew that not to be true. He loved his wife with every fiber of his being, but he couldn’t stop the dread that crept over him and whispered in his ear they were drifting apart. This intensified when one fight followed another. Each day he found himself looking forward to the roundup and cattle drive more. Especially since it meant his sons would be under his roof again.

*****

Ben rode out to meet Adam and Hoss, who were arriving with their part of the herd before they began the drive to Sacramento. He reached the top of a rise, looked down at the five hundred head of cattle and drew a breath. They’d be sending a herd eight hundred strong to market that year.

He pushed down the rise and two riders peeled off and cantered toward him. He could tell who they were from their hats, and his excitement grew. When they got close enough for him to see them clearly, the breath caught in his throat. The first time he’d seen Hoss in almost four months, the change in him stunned Ben. The gaunt young man with the drawn face had vanished, replaced by a sturdy individual, whose rosy cheeks were shadowed only by his shining blue eyes. Ben’s heart lurched at the thought he’d needed to leave home to achieve this transformation.

“Pa! Great to see you. How’re you, doin’?”

Ben grabbed the outstretched arm Hoss extended.

“Fine, Hoss, fine. You’re looking wonderfully well.” Ben took his eldest’s hand and enthused, “Adam, good to see you. The herd looks great. You’ve done a marvelous job. I’m proud of you both.”

A rosy blush spread over Hoss’ face, and Adam’s smile quirked out to acknowledge the compliment. Together they headed back toward the herd and noticed a small cluster of steers break away.

Hoss grumbled, “Dadburn, them ‘ornery critters.”

Before they could act, they spotted the familiar frame of Dan Tolliver riding toward the errant steers.

Hoss grinned, “Dan’ll take care of them. Hey, who’s that with him?”

The three men watched the small figure following Dan move forward and herd the steers back with smart efficiency.

Adam’s eyes narrowed. He gave a gasp, his voice incredulous when he asked, “Is that, Little Joe?”

“It can’t be.“

Ben widened his eyes in amazement seeing his youngest son ride up to them.

“Hi, Pa. Did you see me?”

“I did. Good job, son.”

The young face before him radiated with pride. “I’ve been working with Dan. He’s been teaching me.”

Ben’s eyes moved from his excited son to Dan Tolliver. He shifted in his saddle, perplexed by what he’d just heard. “Is that right?”

Dan touched his hat in salute. “The boy asked me. I didn’t think you’d have any objection, Ben.”

“No, of course not.”

“We didn’t know you were interested in working with the cattle.”

Ben saw the frown descend on Joe’s face and heard the defensive tone when he replied, “Why shouldn’t I? I’m a Cartwright too.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose, he and Hoss traded glances. Ben ignored the exchange. Still bemused by this sudden change of attitude in his son, he wanted to see more.

“Okay, ride with us and let’s see what you can do.”

Transformed by the smile on his face, Joe turned his horse and galloped back to the herd, eager to show what he’d learned. Grinning, Adam and Hoss followed.

Ben brought his horse up alongside Dan’s. “He asked you?”

“That’s right.“

Ben watched the man who taught him so much, surprised to see his hesitation.

Dan shrugged and added, “He told me you were against him working with the cattle. He asked me to teach him the ropes so he could prove to you he could do it.”

A crease furrowed Ben’s brow. He’d lost count of the number of times Marie had told him Joe hated the idea of working cattle. Yet, he was doing his best to impress him and show him he could do just that. Ben shook his head and wondered what had changed.

Once the herds were joined and settled, Joe asked if they could ride to the corrals and see the new string of horses being broken. Pleased with his father’s response so far to his new skills, he couldn’t wait to show him how he could handle the horses.

Adam flattened his forearms along the corral post and checked over the milling animals. “They’re looking good, Pa, better than I remember.”

Dan joined them, leaning on the fence. “Gonna break another right now. Wanna take a look-see?”

A large roan danced in the holding pen. Joe began to climb the fence when an urgent shout stopped him.

“Little Joe, wait a minute!”

Joe paused and climbed back down off the rail. Puzzled, he waited for his father to join him.

“What’re you doing?”

Joe thumbed back toward the horse. “I’m gonna ride the bronc.”

“No, you’re not.”

Adam, Hoss and Dan came up behind them.

“It’s okay Ben, he knows what he’s doing.”

Joe watched his father give Dan a sharp, impatient look and flinched when his father’s words snapped at him. “Working cattle’s one thing, breaking broncs is another.”

“I can do it, Pa. Let me show you,” Joe assured him. He reached for the fence again but found his arm caught and restrained.

“No, son. Look, I know what you’re trying to do, but I can’t let you.”

Joe frowned and looked from his father to Dan. “I can do it. Tell him, Dan.”

“He’s right, Ben.”

“I think I know what’s best for my son. Little Joe, it’s too dangerous.”

Desperate to achieve his goal, Joe begged. “Pa, give me a chance, please.” He inwardly cursed to hear his voice hitch up an octave. It made him sound like a kid. He tried to pull away, but the grip on his arm tightened.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going to risk you hurting yourself. This is a job for the men.”

The words like a match lit the fire inside Joe and sent it roaring through his chest. His eyes flashed. With a savage jerk of his arm, he broke free of his father’s grasp. He stepped back. His fists clenched into tight balls, and his eyes locked onto his father’s.

“I see what this is. You don’t think I’m good enough! You’ve never thought me good enough!“

“Little Joe?“

“NO! You’ve never wanted me around you, working with you, like Adam and Hoss. I can never measure up to them. What’s the point of me even tryin’?”

Joe’s chest swelled with the huge breath he took. Afraid he couldn’t hold his emotions in check, he cut and ran for his horse. In one swift, fluid movement, he executed a swing mount into the saddle and yanking the animal around galloped away full pelt.

Dumbfounded, Ben stood horrified at the words just thrown at him.

Dan stepped forward. “Now I don’t know what all that other stuff that jest poured out of the kid were about, but I know one thing Ben Cartwright, an’ that’s your wrong. You saw him with the cattle. You should’ve let the boy show you what he can do.”

“I told you, wrangling a few steers isn’t like breaking horses.”

“Ben, would I let a son of yours on a bronc unless I thought he could handle it?”

Taken aback, Ben stared at his old friend. He trusted Dan with his life, with any of his son’s lives. “No, I guess not.” Ben glanced across at the other two, who were looking anywhere but at him. Exasperated, he demanded, “I suppose you two think I should’ve let him try too?”

Their faces told him all he needed to know. Ben ran a hand over his eyes. Nobody said fathers weren’t dumb. His voice calm again, he asked. “Did you teach him to mount like that?”

Dan put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “Nope, he learnt that all by his self.”

Ben cut a look at Adam and Hoss. “You two carry on here. I’m going to have a talk with Little Joe.”

*****

He found Joe on Marie’s favorite bluff overlooking the lake. Ben saw his youngest run his sleeve over his face and hunch his shoulders when he approached. Sitting on a boulder with his knees bent and his forearms resting on them, Joe shifted to turn his back further towards the intruder. Ben lowered himself down next to his son and took a moment to admire the view.

“I can see why you and your mother like this place so much.”

Joe didn’t reply, and his shoulders hitched tighter.

“I came to apologize. You were right. I should’ve given you a chance. I’m sorry.”

Joe unwound himself and stood up to stuff his hands in the back of his belt. He strode away a few steps. Ben tensed, fearing he would run off again.

“I guess that makes it all fine then?”

Ben turned himself around to face his pacing son. Bitterness dripped from every one of Joe’s words.

“Why don’t you tell me?” The look Joe shot him opened Ben’s eyes wide with shock. So much resentment and anger. The boy held himself so taut, his body quivered. Would he open-up to him at last? He saw the reluctance in Joe’s glare and tried to reassure him. “I won’t interrupt or be cross. Just tell me what’s bothering you.”

Indecision hung on Joe and then, to Ben’s relief, his son drew in a breath and told him. Ben listened.

His son poured out all years of anguish, loneliness and snubs. With every contraction of his eyebrows, flash of his eyes, flare of his nostrils and tremble of his lips, Joe’s face expressed his emotions far more vividly than any words. Sometimes he rambled off at tangents, and Ben needed to concentrate to cut through the tangled recriminations, but he grasped his youngest believed he’d deliberately cut Joe out of the family. Hadn’t valued him, and worse – hadn’t loved him.

Guilt enveloped Ben like smog, suffocating him. He’d been a bigger fool than he thought. All these years he’d listened to Marie telling him how Joe didn’t like the ranch work, how he feared he’d be forced into it. Why hadn’t he questioned any of it, spoken to the boy, and found out what he wanted? He could excuse himself by saying the task to build up and run the Ponderosa required all his energy, but that would be a lie. Guilty of doing the same with Hoss, he’d let things slip through the net. Things he had no business letting slip.

Joe wound down to his last grievance. “And now you think sayin’ sorry makes it all better. Like I’m a child, coz that’s what you think I am.”

His son’s eyes, large and luminescent with unshed emotions, sent a silent plea for a response. Something, anything from him to let him know he didn’t think him worthless. How foolhardy can a father be, and what could he do? He couldn’t tell the boy the truth. He knew how much Little Joe loved his mother, and he could never shatter that bond by telling him what she’d done. Nothing would ever make him do that. The fault lay with him, and he’d have to shoulder the blame. Ben stood up and strode over to Joe.

Before his son could react, he reached out and dragged the boy to him; enveloping him in a hug so tight, it drove the breath from Joe’s body.

“I’m sorry. If I could undo all those stupid things I would, but please, believe me, Little Joe, I love you. I love you and your brothers more than life itself. I loved you from the moment you were placed in my arms as a newborn. Nothing will ever stop me from loving you. I hope you can forgive me, and you’ll give me another chance because I promise from now on, I’ll do all I can to make it right.”

Joe stood frozen, trapped in the embrace, rigid and unmoving. His father’s words sank into him like rain falling on a water-starved garden. He drank them in, and they cracked the wall around his wounded heart. With infinite slowness, he leaned fraction by fraction into his father and felt the strong arms around him tightened further. In response, he brought his arms up to encircle the man who meant so much to him and dug his fingers deep into that powerful back.

The cracks in his defenses released the flood, and heavy tears began to fall. His father’s gentle hand stroking the back of his head the final hammer blow to the wall. It collapsed and shattered. He sobbed out the years of hurt until only dry heaves remained.

His father’s arms hugged him tight again and then released him. He found his father’s kerchief pushed into his hand.

“Why don’t you show me what you can do with that bronc?”

Joe didn’t give his best ride, far too wound up and anxious to impress for that, but nonetheless good enough to show what he could do. When he’d finished, he walked up to his father and brothers and stood, shuffling from one foot to the other, waiting to hear what they thought.

Ben fixed Adam with a gleaming look. “Well, what d’you think?”

Adam tipped back his hat, crossed his arms in front of his chest and gave back the look. Then his eyes flicked to Joe.

“I think you’d better report here for work tomorrow, eight o’clock sharp. We’ve got a lot of horses to break.”

Eyes popping, Joe jumped, “You mean it?”

Ben pounded Joe’s back. “You’re now officially the Ponderosa’s newest wrangler.”

“Hot diggity!” Hoss cried and joined in the backslapping.

Joe pumped Adam’s outstretched hand. “Thanks, Adam. Thanks, Hoss.” He couldn’t keep the shyness out of his voice when he added, “Thanks, Pa.”

“You’ve earned it. I’m just sorry it took me so long.” Ben looked around at his three sons and puffed out his chest, his pride showing. “C’mon, you two have got to settle in before lunch. Let’s head home.”

Hoss pursed his lips into a rueful smile at his father calling the ranch house ‘home’. He looked at Adam. His brother gave a slight shake of his head and smiled back. Pa would never change.

*****

The atmosphere around the dining table sparked with exuberance from Joe and caution from the other men. Joe couldn’t wait to tell his mother about his morning. Ben observed her while Joe recounted his news. He couldn’t hold back the smile, though, hearing the joy in his youngest’s voice. The boy’s happiness poured out of him and somehow managed to swell, after what they’d discussed on the way home. Ben gave Marie her due, she managed to keep the smile on her face all the way through Joe’s news until he let slip about the drive, then it faltered.

“You know how much I wanted to go, and finally Pa says I can.”

Ben listened to his son’s enthusiastic words and saw the color fade a little from Marie’s cheeks.

“I know I’m a year behind Hoss when he did his first one, but I guess that ain’t so bad.”

Marie’s eyes found Ben’s, did he see anger or fear in them? He wondered if she realized he’d discovered all the lies she’d told. She reached for her glass to take a sip of water and Ben noticed how her hand shook.

Still laughing at Hoss’ joshing about how much fun he wasn’t going to find sleeping on the hard ground after three weeks, Joe asked his mother, “Can you imagine it, Ma? It’s gonna be fine.”

The smile his wife returned her son’s wide grin with gave away her unhappiness, but she managed to agree. Her eyes flicking to his again, Ben couldn’t mistake the fear in them this time.

*****

The knock at her door brought the visit Marie dreaded. She knew it would be Ben seeking an explanation of her lies.

After lunch, the men returned to the corral and later, when they’d finished supper, Ben gathered them all in the living area to discuss the drive.

This gave her the chance to excuse herself, and she’d taken it. “I’ll leave you to your brandy and cattle talk, Ben.”

“I know it’s dull for you, but we do need to settle our plans.

Getting up, she’d moved over to Joe and placed her fingertips on his shoulder. “Join me? I’d like to talk to you.”

Her stomach did a flip at the look of dismay that swept Joe’s face. It had started already.

“I’m sorry, Marie, but Little Joe needs to be part of this, especially since it’s his first drive.”

How could she protest? She gave in and went to her room alone to spend the time pacing the floor and rack her brain to know what to say to her husband.

A good, kind man, Ben loved her, and she loved him, but Marie wouldn’t fool herself. Ben had all a man’s pride and temper. Besides, family ranked above everything else. He wouldn’t take kindly to the knowledge she may have deliberately pushed a wedge between him and his youngest.

When the knock came, she scurried to her chair and picked up her book, to all appearances composed. The calmness of her, “Entrez,” surprised her.

Ben stepped through the door.

After saying goodnight to the boys, he’d put off going up to his wife. He needed time to think. What he’d heard that day dismayed and hurt him. Little Joe, so wounded by the snubs he’d believed Ben had dealt him and, even worse, to discover Marie’s deceit. Not just to Joe but him too. Now he needed to know why.

The look on Ben’s face shocked her. She’d never seen him so grave, so unhappy. What had she done?

Forcing down the fear in her throat, she asked, “Is something wrong?”

“I need to know why. Why all the lies, all these years?”

Panic made her try a bluff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about-“

She broke off when he marched across the room toward her. He pulled her out of her chair and held her tight against him.

His voice a harsh whisper, he demanded, “Yes, you do. Don’t lie to me again. I won’t stand for it. Tell me the truth. Why?”

Her stomach tightened. She’d never seen Ben like this, and it frightened her. Her face puckered. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been selfish, I know, but I couldn’t help it. I felt so alone.”

She crumbled in his arms. Ben closed his eyes and held his sobbing wife against him before he placed her back in her soft chair. He pulled up another and sat down next to her.

She wept into her hands, unable to look at Ben’s face. He spoke with a gentleness that amazed her.

“Tell me.”

She shook her drooping head and groped for her hanky. “I’m not sure how to begin. When I left New Orleans, I was sick of it all. Sick of the code, the stench of corruption and decay that rotted the city. I couldn’t wait to come here with you.“

“I thought you were happy.”

She raised her head. The tears hanging from her lashes gleamed in the light from her lamp. Even tear-stained, she could still be beautiful.

“I was … I am … it’s just that… “ Her hand fluttered, the hanky wafted through the air. “I don’t know. There’s too much space and not enough life. I was lonely Ben, desperately lonely.”

“I know how hard it must have been at first, but we have neighbors, friends now. More people settle here every year.”

“Oh, yes, we see them for Sunday meetings and barn raisings.“

“And parties, my dear. That’s why Adam designed the enlargement to the house. He did that for you, so we could have parties and people to stay.”

“One or two parties a year. Ben, you don’t understand. When Adam and Hoss grew up, they left me to work with you on the ranch. Days, weeks would go by, and there would be nobody all day except Hop Sing and Joseph. When you all returned, you would eat supper and go to bed. I had no one except Joe to cling too. Then as he got older… Oh Ben, the thought of Little Joe leaving me to join you men on the ranch. It terrified me. I couldn’t bear it. So, I lied.”

Ben rose and went to the window. He pushed the heavy curtain to one side and looked out into the night sky but saw nothing. The trips due to Marie’s nervous illness had taken Little Joe away from him, and now he knew how much further she’d gone. Could he blame her? He knew how hard and unforgiving this land could be. Tough enough for a man, but for a woman like Marie, who loved people and life? Had he expected too much? Marie’s voice snapped him from his reverie.

“I didn’t mean any harm. I know I’ve been selfish and cruel, but I couldn’t help it. Please, please don’t hate me.”

Her head dropped to her hands and sobs convulsed through her. It brought Ben back to her side. How could he bear to see her suffer? This time he drew her out of her chair with gentle care and wrapped his arms tight around her.

“I wish you could have told me.”

“Such foolishness … how could I? You had more important things to worry about.“

Ben lifted her chin so he could look right into her eyes. “Nothing’s more important to me than you and the boys. I thought you knew that.”

Her eyes swam with tears. She whispered, “Forgive me.”

Ben enveloped her again, hugging her close and tight. “My love. Of course.”

Still in his gentle embrace, he led her over to the bed. They sat down, side by side, while she continued to weep into his chest. He held her to him, his embrace tight, and ran a hand down her back, crooning soft words into her hair. It pained him to find out how unhappy she’d been, even more, to realize he hadn’t noticed. When he married her all those years ago, her being so much younger hadn’t mattered. Could the age difference have snuck up on him? Had he forgotten what a younger man would not, that his dazzling young wife needed more than just a comfortable home? He vowed to be more attentive in the future.

When she stopped crying, Marie drew in a long breath and straightened, dabbing at her eyes with her kerchief. A watery laugh escaped her lips. “What a fright I must look.”

Ben smiled and leaned in to kiss her cheek. “You always look lovely to me.”

Marie gazed into her husband’s eyes. “What did I do to deserve you?”

Leaning in again, Ben kissed her full and long on the lips.

*****

Up before the sun rose the next day, Joe’s eagerness to start work made him an excitable breakfast companion. Adam and Hoss exchanged pained looks across the table at his early morning enthusiasm but said nothing. Neither had the heart to tamp him down, he too closely resembled an eager puppy desperate to please.

Marie came down to the corral to watch Joe. Ben couldn’t contain his smile at the boy’s eagerness to show off his newfound skills. With the cattle drive fast approaching and watching his son work the horses, Ben’s mind began to plot. It wouldn’t be Little Joe’s birthday until after the drive, but an idea began to formulate.

A few days later Hoss walked into the barn before breakfast, to find his father’s horse saddled and Ben preparing to ride out. “Where you off to, Pa?”

Ben’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “You just wait and see.”

Intrigued by where he may have gone, Ben left no clue except with Adam, who stayed tight-lipped and resilient against Hoss’ wheedling.

They were sitting down for lunch when Ben burst through the door. Pulling off his hat, he stood triumphant and grinning before them. Adam smirked and asked, “It went well?” Ben nodded and his grinned widened at the look of confusion on their faces.

Marie laid down her napkin. “Ben, what have you been up to?”

“You’ll see. Little Joe, I know it’s not your birthday yet, but this is a gift that can’t wait.”

Joe stood up, bemused. The look on Adam’s face and the anticipation in Hoss’ eyes rubbed off on him, and he almost ran from the table to the door. His father held it shut and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder, forcing him to stop and look at him. Joe’s heart beat faster when he heard the delight in his father’s voice.

“Happy Birthday, son.”

The door swept open. Joe stepped through and froze. Tied to the hitching post next to his father’s buckskin stood the prettiest paint pony he’d ever seen. In a daze, he walked to the gelding and ran a hand down the silken neck. His eyes took in every feature of the beautiful animal.

“He’s really mine?” The nod from his father brought the grin to his face. He turned to his mother, wanting her to be part of this moment. “Ma, can you believe it?”

His mother moved forward to join him. “Oui, Mon Petit he’s beautiful.”

Joe hooked a hand under the pinto’s neck and gave it a pat. His mother loved horses, and her praise meant a lot.

With a glance at Ben, she asked. “Where did you find him?”

Ben chuckled and replied, “I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.”

Joe laughed at his pa’s enjoyment, despite the distraction of his desire to get on the animal’s back. “Can I ride him?”

His father’s arms opened wide. “He’s green broke, but not used to a saddle yet. You up to riding him bareback?”

Joe gave a smile that left no doubt and gathered the halter, ready to swing himself across the pinto’s back. With a wave at his family, he turned the pony and headed away from the house toward the meadow.

He gloried in the power and responsiveness of the animal and urged him into a gallop. The wind whipped past his ears when he bent low over the horse’s neck, easing him faster still until the pounding of the hoofs beat in rhythm with his heart. One fluid unit, the pair ploughed across the field.

*****

Ben took the cup Marie just filled with coffee. “You’re going to tell us where you found him, aren’t you?” She asked.

Still basking in the pleasure of his gift, Ben smiled. “Winnemucca.”

“Winnemucca? What did you hav’ta give that rascally old coot?”

Ben raised an eyebrow at his middle son, reproving him for his description of the chief of the Piute Indians. “I traded my old hunting rifle.”

Adam spluttered into his cup.

“You gave him your gun?”

Ben looked up into his wife’s shocked face and laughed. “He can’t do any damage with that.”

A sly smile dimpled Adam’s face. “You got that horse for your old rifle. You’re a better negotiator than I thought.”

Ben drank his coffee and winked. “You should know better than to underestimate your pa.”

Hoss and Adam roared with laughter. Marie sat down. Her hands clutched tight around her cup. Ben saw her distress and sitting forward grasped her knee in reassurance. Marie’s old fears about the Indians could so easily creep back.

“There was no danger. Winnemucca’s our friend.”

“You know how easily that could change, Ben. I’m sorry, but I find it hard to think of them as friends.”

“Them?”

Marie’s head snapped around to Adam. Although proud of his son’s fierce defense of the native people, Ben wished Adam could have kept the disdain out of his voice.

“Yes, them, those Indians – those savages. You can look down your nose at me, Adam. I don’t care. They’re savages to me.”

Her cup crashed down on the table from hands that shook. She rose in a rush and hurried away up the stairs. Ben called after her, but she didn’t stop. Adam twisted in his chair to watch Marie run away. When he turned back, Ben saw the regret in his face.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset her.”

Ben’s hand drifted onto his son’s shoulder when he passed him. “It’s not your fault son. I’d better go see if she’s all right.”

The two brothers watched their father tread up the stairs, both sympathetic to his situation. Hoss puckered his lips and raising his eyebrows, shot Adam a look. It was never easy to deal with Marie’s nerves.

Giving her bedroom door a couple of taps, Ben went in, not waiting for an answer. Marie sat in her overstuffed chair by the window. Her elbow on the armrest, her hand shielding her face. She spoke before he could.

“I’m fine, Cherie, just a little headache. I’m sorry.”

“Headache?” Concern rippled through his voice. Ben sat down in the spindle chair opposite his wife. “You’re not ill?”

Marie dropped her hand in an impatient gesture and looked out the window. He could hear the brittleness in her voice.

“No, no… it’s just…” She turned her face to him, and it surprised him to see how her eyes shone with excitement.   “Ben, remember I told you I want to take another trip?”

Ben hesitated, “Yes, I told you I’d rather you didn’t.”

“I know, but I need it. Hear me out, please. I’ve had an idea, a wonderful idea for Little Joe’s birthday.” Marie broke off, and Ben watched while she gathered herself, puzzled. Could she be about to propose they all go to San Francisco? “I would like to show Little Joe, New Orleans. He’s always wanted to see the city of my birth. We could have such fun. I could show him all the places I love. If we leave now, we can be there in time for his birthday.”

A shocked laugh escaped him. “New Orleans? We can’t go to New Orleans. We have roundup.“

“We needn’t all go, just Little Joe and I.”

Ben sat bolt upright in his chair. She may as well have slapped his face. Dismay flowed over him and then anger tightened his chest. He sprung up and paced across the room. Right then, he needed to put some distance between himself and his wife.

“No! Enough of this! I won’t have you taking my son two thousand miles from me.”

“He’s my son too!”

Driven to the end of his limits, Ben put his foot down at last. “He’s not going with you.”

“Well, I intend to ask him, and we’ll see what he has to say.”

“No, you won’t. The boy’s coming with us. He’s been waiting for this his whole life. I won’t allow you to stop him this time.”

“I don’t care, I need this.”

Ben’s eyes darkened from the fury that course through him. After all Marie had done, he couldn’t believe she could press him on this. “You might, but he doesn’t. Little Joe needs to be with his whole family, not just you. You will not talk to him about this. I forbid it.” He watched the color drain from her face. Never in all their years of marriage had he used those words.

He heard the disbelief in her voice when she repeated, “You … forbid it?”

“Yes, this time, I do. I’ve forgiven you much lately where that boy’s concerned, don’t test me on this.”

Not trusting himself to say more, Ben turned on his heel and left, shutting the door with a snap. He didn’t return downstairs. Instead, he headed for his room. He needed time and a drink. The decanter of brandy he kept on the table there called to him.

After he downed a measure, he let out a long breath and walked to the window. He rammed his hands deep into his trouser pockets. The turmoil in his heart reflected in his frowning, troubled countenance. What he’d just heard shocked him. How could Marie even consider such a thing, and now of all times?

His racing heart slowed. The image of his wife’s face appeared before him, and he dropped his head to shut it out of his mind. Her beauty gave him a physical ache, but this time he wouldn’t let her sway him. It might be hard, but she had to accept Joseph needed to stay at home on the Ponderosa.

A noise below brought his head up to see his youngest ride back into the yard. He watched the boy halt his new horse, swing a leg over the animal’s neck, slide down and go to his head. His son chatted to the Pinto, and he bobbed its head as if in answer. The giggle that rose through the air brought a smile to Ben’s face. When Joe led the animal toward the stable, a decision swept through Ben, and he rushed out of the room.

Walking into the barn, Ben found Joe studiously brushing down his gift. “How was he?”

“Amazing, he’s the best horse ever.” Joe stopped his brushing and added, “Thanks again, Pa.”

Ben smiled, nodded and put a hand on the boy’s slim shoulder. “You need a good horse for your first drive.” Ben put one foot on an upturned bucket and leaned a forearm on his knee, the other hand rested on his hip. “Got a name for him yet?”

Joe stopped his brushing and Ben caught the nervous look he gave him.

“Cochise. Coz he’s brave.”

Ben chuckled and wondered what the Apache chief would think of this tribute. Serious again, Ben stared down at his boot while he tried to think of the right words.

“Something wrong, Pa?”

Ben looked up at his son. It crossed his mind that all his boys were intuitive. He shook off the thought to focus on the matter at hand.

“Little Joe, your ma has just spoken to me about an idea she’s had. She wants to take you on a trip to New Orleans.“

“New Orleans? I’ve always wanted to go there.”

“I know, but she wants to leave now, to be there for your birthday.”

“Now? But…” The look of despair that blanketed Joe’s face told Ben he’d made the right decision.

“I’ve told her what I’m about to tell you. I’m sorry, Son, but you can’t go. You’re a paid-up hand of the Ponderosa now, and you’ve got responsibilities here. I want and need you on the cattle drive. You’re going, no arguments. Is that clear?”

Joe stammered, “Yes, Sir.”

“Good. I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“No, Sir, that’s fine.”

Ben couldn’t resist looking back through the barn door when he left. He saw the satisfied smile spread over Joe’s face and the joyful flick of the hand that tossed the curry brush in the air only to deftly catch it before he turned back to his horse with renewed vigor. Ben drew in a large breath. He didn’t like doing it, but he hoped if Marie did speak with Joe, he’d successfully spiked her guns.

*****

After her husband left, Marie sat motionless staring into space.

Ben’s words alarmed and shook her to the core, but a woman of pride and temper wouldn’t be cowed so easily. With steady determination, the anger seeped through her bones. It tightened her stomach and heated her blood. How dare he?

*****

With a whistle on his lips and a spring in his step, Joe returned to the house. When Pa told him about Ma’s plans, he’d cursed himself for a fool, believing anything had changed. But when Pa said those words… ‘a paid-up hand with responsibilities.’ Happiness rolled off him, and he took the stairs two at a time, making for his room. He stopped short at his door when his mother appeared.

“Little Joe, could I speak with you, please?”

He followed her into her room and stood dumbfounded while she poured out her eager plans for New Orleans. His stomach shrank the more animated she became. Unable to stand it anymore, he broke in, “But Ma, I don’t understand? Pa said he told you. I can’t go.”

His mother turned a startled face to his. “What do you mean?”

“Pa told me about your idea. You know I can’t go Ma, not now. I’m sorry.”

“But Little Joe, I’ve planned this for months. Writing letters to friends in New Orleans and San Francisco.”

Desperate, Joe fell back on his father’s words. “I have a responsibility to be on the drive. ”

She turned her back and walked away from him. The stiffness in her shoulders gave away her anger. The hard edge to her voice made him wince. “I thought you always wanted to see New Orleans?”

“Sure, I want to go. Maybe we can all go in the Spring. Pa-“ He jumped when she cut him off with her shout.

“No! I will not spend another winter in this wilderness.”

Joe swallowed hard and said nothing. What could he say? He prayed his mother wouldn’t ask him not to go on the drive. He didn’t think he could refuse her, but not to, would crush him. He quivered from relief when she turned back to him with a smile on her face.

“Of course, I understand. Don’t worry about it.”

Marie watched Joe leave, and the smile vanished. With her hands grasped tight in front of her, she walked to the window. Her schemes lay in tatters, thanks to Ben, but she couldn’t blame Joe. Ben may have stalled her plans, for now, but that didn’t mean she would abandon them. Far from it.

*****

Ben rubbed his forehead and sighed. “You’re determined?”

“Of course. Why would I waste this opportunity? The Sollieuxs are returning to New Orleans after they’ve visited friends in San Francisco. They’re happy for me to accompany them.”

“You’ll miss Little Joe’s birthday and Christmas. My love, if you’ll just wait ‘till Spring, I promise-“

Marie interrupted. “I can’t. You don’t understand. The thought of another winter here is…” She trailed off, unable to continue. Ben loved the Ponderosa, and she didn’t wish to wound him. She fell back on the old tack. “The isolation’s too much for my nerves.”

Marie held her breath. Ben hated to see her go, but he would never do anything to endanger her health. “All right.”

Marie gave Ben a hug and kissed his cheek, delighted he understood. Giving Ben a contrite look from under her long lashes, she added, “I’m sorry. I know it means another trip to Sacramento before the cattle drive, but perhaps Little Joe could escort me.”

“Joe and I will both escort you. That way we can have more time together.”

Not exactly what she hoped for, Marie agreed and counted her blessings.

*****

Leaving Adam and Hoss to finish the last arrangements for the drive, Ben, Joe and Marie headed for Sacramento. From there, Marie took the boat to San Francisco, where she would meet up with her old friends.

The return journey found Joe quiet and withdrawn. When they camped the first night, Joe broached the worry hanging heavy on his mind.

“D’ya think I should have gone with Ma? I don’t like to think of her travelling on that ship alone.”

Ben handed his son a plate of food. When Marie had suggested Joe take her to Sacramento, he’d wondered if she’d intended to make a last-ditch effort to persuade him to go with her. Hearing Joe now made him glad he’d listened to his inner voice and hadn’t let Joe go with Marie alone. He suspected his youngest could never have refused if his mother renewed her appeals.

“Your mother’s a seasoned traveler, son. She’ll be fine.”

“But New Orleans is such a long way.”

“And that’s why she’s arranged to travel with friends. She’s really very sensible, you know.”

A sheepish smile crossed Joe’s face. Pa may be right, but the goodbyes haunted him. He could still feel the pressure from his mother’s fingers where they pressed into his back when she’d clung to him and whispered in his ear, “Come, please come.” It almost shattered his resolve, and how he’d managed to look into her pleading eyes and shake his head – if Pa hadn’t been there…

Joe spooned in a mouthful of beans and shook off his gloom riddled thoughts. Instead, he turned his mind to the drive and the adventure that lay ahead.

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

 

Part Two – Brothers, Fathers, and Sons

 

Sacramento lay in front of them. Joe stood up in his saddle at the sight, he wanted to whoop and yell but thought better of it, Hoss and Adam wouldn’t appreciate a stampede now. They’d brought the cattle through fat and healthy, without mishaps and hardly losing one. Grinning, he resettled his hat and got on with the job

The drive had fulfilled all of Joe’s hopes and dreams. The heat, sweat, and dirt dented none of his enthusiasm for working alongside his family and the other drovers. He remembered everything Dan taught him, worked hard, took orders and didn’t complain once, even when asked to ride drag.

Impressed, Hoss removed his hat and wiped his brow. “The kid sure ain’t afraid of hard work.”

“Nope, he’s good. He’ll make a top hand someday.”

Hoss grinned at his older brother. “Be after your job at this rate.”

Adam’s rich laugh broke out. He slapped the thick layer of dust off his jacket and grinned, “Y’know, I think he’ll be welcome to it.”

*****

“Good job, boys. Drink hearty, you’ve earned it.”

Joe stared down at the beer in front of him, and his heart swelled in his chest. With the cattle sold for a good profit and the drovers paid off, they’d booked into a hotel, washed and changed before heading out to eat, and sat in a saloon waiting on steak and eggs with a beer sitting in front of them. Almost dizzy from delight, Joe picked up his glass.

“Drink up, son but take it slow. That’s the one and only beer you’re getting.”

Joe grinned in response. He supped the amber liquid and screwed up his face when the slightly warm, woody flavor hit the back of his throat. Hoss laughed at his expression and slapped him on the back, almost causing him to spill.

“You’ll get used to it.”

Ben leaned back in his chair and looked around the table at his three sons. Satisfaction shone in his eyes.

“Well done, boys, you all did a real fine job.” His eyes shifted and rested on Joe. “Little Joe, I want to tell you how well you did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone handle their first drive better. We’re all mighty proud of you.”

Joe sat and stared, hearing the chorus of approval from his brothers. He couldn’t take his eyes from his father’s face. The warmth and pride in his features made Joe’s insides glow hot. His eyes began to well. He broke his gaze and managed to mumble, “Thanks.”

The welcome distraction of plates loaded with food gave him the chance to get his emotions under control and enjoy his supper.

That night he lay in the bed he shared with Hoss and listened with contentment to his brother’s snores. He turned his head and could just make out the outline of the bed next to them, where Adam and Pa lay. They would be heading back home tomorrow.

Home… tingles coursed through Joe at the word. A loud snort from Hoss made him jump and grin. He heard Adam groan, turn over and slap his pillow over his head. A soft giggle escaped, and Joe closed his eyes in perfect serenity.

*****

They partook of breakfast in the small restaurant next to their hotel. Everyone tucked in, enjoying themselves. Halfway through the meal, Ben spotted a friend and left the table to say hello. When he returned a crease marred his brow.

“Something wrong?”

Ben shook his head at Adam. “Bill’s just reported there’s trouble with a renegade band of Bannocks.”

“Out our way?”

“No. But we’d better keep an eye out and post a guard during the night. Better safe than sorry with the Bannocks.”

Hoss nodded and finished chewing his bacon before adding, “Yeah, they can be tricky.” The look his father gave him registered the understatement of his remark.

Joe listened enthralled. He’d never encountered many Indians on the ranch. Oh sure, he’d seen old men, woman and children but not braves. It would be the ultimate adventure to run into some. Of course, he regretted that Pa having no truck with fifteen-year old’s sporting sidearms meant he only carried a rifle, but this didn’t stop him daydreaming several bloodcurdling scenarios involving him, savage Indians and how he saved his brothers and grateful father from massacre.

However, the ride home began to look like it would be devoid of any such encounter, and the Bannocks were forgotten when other thoughts started to plague Joe.

Joe loved the banter between his two older brothers, but it dawned on him the teasing never extended his way. Too busy to notice on the drive out, now with just the four of them, the difference reared up stark and harsh before him. To him, they were friendly and kind. Like I’m a stranger. Wounded by the exclusion, the situation began to fester. Whenever his brothers joked with each other, it grated upon Joe’s sensibilities until it seemed unbearable.

It came to a head when they stopped for the night by a large pond. Ben headed out to bag some rabbits he’d spotted further back, leaving the three of them to build the camp.

“Hoss, you and I can take care of the horses. Little Joe, get the firewood.”

Hearing another order that set him apart, Joe’s simmering sense of offence boiled over. He demanded, “Why can’t Hoss do it? I’d like to do the horses for once.”

Adam scratched his nose and considered. “I guess that’d be okay.”

Joe’s fist clenched. He stared in disbelief. Adam would never let Hoss argue with his orders.

“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t wanna do that neither. Maybe I’ll just sit here and do nuthin’.”

“Now just a minute-“

Hoss stepped forward. “Hold on, Adam. Perhaps we should let him rest. The kid’s been worked pretty hard.”

The hurt that coursed through Joe burst out. His angry words tumbled forth in a rush. “What! When would Adam let you rest? Or, you let Adam when there’s work to be done? Oh, go ahead. Leave me outta the chores, why don’t cha? You leave me out of everything else. See if I care.”

Crossing his arms, Joe dumped himself on the ground with his back to his brothers. Sure, they looked surprised, and maybe he’d hurt their feelings, but why should he care? He wasn’t important to them, and they darn sure weren’t important to him.

Staring at his younger brother, Hoss’ blue eyes darkened in puzzlement and then cleared. He winked at Adam. “Seems to me lil’l brother’s gone done lost his temper.”

“I think you’re right. What’re we going to do about it?”

“I think we should cool him down some.”

Joe’s head came back around at these words. His eyes darted from one brother to the other. When they began to advance, he leapt up, holding out his hands.

“Whoa … Adam, Hoss, I’m sorry fer sassin’ you. I didn’t mean it.” The two fanned out on either side of him, and he became more alarmed. “W…what you gonna do?”

“We’re jest gonna cool your head off a mite.”

Realization dawned. Joe dived between them in a fruitless attempt to escape. Caught by his two bigger brothers, each took an arm and a leg and carried his squirming, resistant form to the edge of the pond.

Ignoring their brothers cries for freedom Adam and Hoss grinned at each other and swung Joe back and forwards like a pendulum before they tossed him high in the air and watched him splash down into the clear water.

Returning with his prize of two plump rabbits, Ben froze at the sight of his two sons hurling the third into the water. The two, roaring with laughter when he went under. Ben began to run forward. How could this happen? They’d been getting on so well and hadn’t had a cross word between them. He came to an abrupt halt when Joe bobbed up, a beaming smile on his face and began to laugh, the carefree sound music to his ears.

Wading over to the side, Joe put out his hands for assistance. His brothers obliged by each taking one. With a wicked smirk on his face, Joe braced his legs and gave a sharp pull. Over his shoulders soared his brothers. The laugh rose a notch when he watched them flounder.

Hoss shot Adam a look, and they both turned a menacing glare on Joe. “Oh boy, you sure have done it now, Short Shanks.”

Eyes popping wide, Joe saw the danger he found himself in. Half-laughing, he begged, “Now c’mon fellas, fair’s fair.”

Knee deep in water, Hoss and Adam moved toward him. He let out a yelp and splashed for the bank.

Ben laughed ‘till he cried while the three thrashed around, until exhaustion from their antics and own laughter stopped them, and they crawled out of the pond to collapse side by side on the bank.

Looking down at his sons splayed out and giggling on the grass, he asked, “Anyone ready for a cup of coffee?”

The pond did the trick and began the reforming of brotherly bonds. Ben smiled at the difference and marveled at Little Joe, who took each joke, jest and bit of banter without upset or malice, in fact, he relished it.

A happy, contented band of travelers settled down that night.

They’d finally reached the edge of the Ponderosa and could have pushed on, but with a three-hour ride still ahead and tired horses, Ben decided to camp one more night. In truth, the enjoyment Ben got from camping out with his boys had something to do with his decision, but he kept that to himself.

“I can’t believe this is our last night out. It’s been great.”

Adam eased his aching back down onto his bedroll, and griped, “Only from the lips of a fifteen-year-old. Me, I’m looking forward to a bath and a soft bed. I’ve forgotten what one feels like. That bed in Sacramento sure didn’t count.”

Ben laughed and reminded his eldest. “Don’t get too comfortable. You and I have got to go scare up some meat.”

With a grunt, Adam climbed back onto his feet and went to his horse to retrieve his rifle. “There’s that little valley just off to the north. We can usually find game there.”

Watching the two head out, Hoss and Joe set too with the camp chores. Hoss soon had a fire going and set the coffee on, while Joe took care of the horses.

Joe finished his task and turned back to the camp. He froze at the sight of an Indian creeping up behind his brother, knife in hand. Joe didn’t stop to think. A warning scream ripped from his throat, and he launched straight at the intruder. The blade intended for Joe’s back, from the other unseen attacker, missed and slashed down his side sending him tumbling.

Hoss, kneeling at the fire, spun at Joe’s warning and caught the attacker in his arms. The two strained in a desperate wrestling match. Over his shoulder, Hoss could see Joe thrashing on the ground with another Indian. Fear clawed at his heart and kicked the adrenaline in faster. He slammed his opponent’s wrist against the ground and satisfaction flickered when he dropped the deadly blade. With a mighty heave, Hoss flung the man away from him and scrambled up. The Bannock picked up a rock and came at Hoss, who drew his pistol. He pulled the trigger at the same time the man swung and drove his makeshift weapon against Hoss’ skull. The gun blasted against the man’s chest throwing him back.

Hoss turned to see his younger brother struggling on the ground under the other marauder. The Indian’s blade inches from his throat.

The brave had years of fighting experience and a hundred pounds on Joe, and Joe knew it. Pinned and straddled with ease, he’d managed by some miracle to get both hands around the wrist that held the knife. The blade hung over him like a guillotine waiting to drop. He held the arm off, but bit by bit death drew nearer. Some part of Joe’s brain wondered what it would be like to die and if it would hurt bad.

Hoss swayed, but he levelled his gun and blinked to clear one eye of trickling blood before pulling the trigger. Dizziness overcame him. He collapsed to his knees and fell forward onto his face. His last thought. The hope he’d aimed true.

The explosion jerked his would-be killer sideways. Lifeless fingers dropped the knife and the brave folded into a heap. Twisting his body like a snake, Joe turned to see Hoss fall forward.

Frantic, Joe yelled at Hoss, but he lay still. Desperate to reach his brother but pinned down by the dead Bannock, Joe pushed at the dead man. Pain ripped up his side. He slapped his hand to the area, flinched and immediately withdrew it. He stared at the red liquid staining his fingers. Blood – his blood.

It didn’t matter. Only Hoss mattered. Ignoring the agony, he resumed his shoving and discovered how difficult dead weight could be to move. With stubborn determination, he gritted his teeth and refused to give up. He wriggled and thrust and managed to get his knees free. Bringing them up, he finally levered his legs out.

Exalted, he tried to stand only to find his jelly-like legs wouldn’t hold him. A growl of frustration escaped. He wouldn’t stop. His fingers dug into the earth and inch by inch, he hauled. The torture from his side as his wound stretched, tore, and ground into the dirt, ignored.

The triumph at reaching Hoss’ side dissipated seeing his brother’s head wound. The amount of blood dismayed him. A dirty, shaky hand was laid on his brother’s chest. A sob escaped, feeling its rise and fall.

“Hoss, Hoss, wake up, please.”

Panic rose again when Hoss didn’t respond. Desperate for help he looked for Pa and Adam. His chest rose and fell faster, and he fought back the disappointment that threatened to crush him, when he saw no one in sight. It was up to him to get help. He spotted Hoss’ revolver and picked it up. Joe’s hands trembled so hard he could barely hold it. He managed to raise it and force back the hammer. Three times he fired. Three shots, the signal Pa taught them. Dropping the gun, he turned his attention back to his brother.

“Please wake up, Hoss … you’ve got to. You’ve got to be all right. Please, Hoss.”

The explosions penetrated Hoss’ void, and he followed the petrified voice back into consciousness. Groaning, he opened his eyes to find terrified ones gazing down at him. “Joe?”

“Are you okay? He hit you on the head.”

Reaching up, Hoss tentatively touched where the rock had connected. He winced at the tenderness of the spot.

“It’s still bleeding, but not as much.” Joe scanned the campsite for the canteens. “I’ll get you some water.” Joe moved, and a wave of pain struck.

Seeing his brother wince, Hoss sat up and noticed the bloodied blue jacket and crimson stain spreading across the kid’s white shirt. A trail of blood leading back to the dead Indian told how his brother had dragged himself over to help.

Horrified, Hoss gasped. “Lordy Joe, what’re you doing? Your bleedin’.”

“It’s okay, it ain’t bad. I thought he’d killed you, Hoss. I was so scared. I thought I’d lost you.”

“Take a lot more than a measly rock to hurt ol’ Hoss.”

“What would I do without my best friend?”

“Yer best friend, you mean it?”

“Course I do. I know…I know I ain’t been nice to you sometimes, but you’re the only friend I got.”

“Aww, now, you jest hush up.”

Joe’s hand clamped over his waistcoat.

“I mean it! I’m sorry for it, all those times I said horrid things to you.”

Hoss frowned and shook his head. “I told you, Short Shanks, you don’t hav’ta pay that no mind. It’s in the past and forgotten.”

Joe smiled, but Hoss noticed how he slumped. His attention went back to the bloodied shirt.

“We need to clean that up and stop the bleeding. Now let’s jest lay you down here.”

Hoss collected some bandages and alcohol from his saddlebag and looked up to see the welcome sight of Pa and Adam coming into view. He raised his arm and waved them on.

Ben looked around the camp, shocked at the sight of the two dead Indians and his pale, disheveled middle son. “What happened?”

“These two jumped us. I managed to shoot ‘em but not before one clubbed me and injured Lil’l Joe. Don’t know how bad. I were about to take a look.”

Ben turned Hoss’ face and examined the wound. It had stopped bleeding and didn’t look too deep, but Hoss still looked sick.

Adam laid a concerned hand on his brother’s arm. “We heard the warning shots.”

Hoss’ face scrunched. “I never fired any. Must’ve been Lil’l Joe.” Hoss brushed off his father’s hands. “I’m okay, Pa, it’s Joe I’m worried about.

Ben appraised his middle son. Conscious, upright and talking, he decided Hoss would do for now. Asking Adam to clean up Hoss’ head, he went to his youngest son and dropped on one knee beside him.

Joe looked like a ghost. A sheen of sweat covered his pale and translucent skin. His lids hung low over his eyes, but Ben could still see the pain in them.

“How’re you doing, son?”

“I’m all right, Pa.”

“I’m gonna take a look at that wound now, okay?”

Getting a nod in response, Ben tore Joe’s shirt to reveal the knife wound and carefully inspected it. Joe stiffened and bit his lip but didn’t cry out.

Adam and Hoss joined him and leaned over his shoulder.

Adam frowned. “How is it?”

“It isn’t too deep, but it’s bleeding bad, and goodness knows what dirt’s got into it. I need to stop the bleeding and clean it up.” The smile he gave his son twisted with dismay. The boy looked so young. “I’m afraid it’s gonna hurt.”

Getting another nod, the three busied themselves.

Hoss went to Joe’s feet. Ben ran his eyes over his middle son. “You up to this?”

“Sure, Pa.”

With Adam holding Joe shoulders and Hoss at his feet, Ben padded some bandages, laid them against the wound and pressed down hard.

Mentally Joe readied himself, but whatever he’d expected, the searing pain that ripped through his side blew it away. Resolve lost, he couldn’t hold back his screams or stop himself struggling against his older brother’s restraints. He begged his father to stop the torment. He didn’t.

He could hear the distress in his father’s voice when he told him, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’ve got to stop the bleeding. I’m sorry.”

When the agony ended, Joe collapsed back, panting in relief. It was over, or so he thought. He watched in horror as his father spread open the wound and poured alcohol over it. The nightmare this plunged him into wrenched out a scream that shook them all.

His father’s gentle hand ran down his pain ravaged face. “Sorry, Joe, but this has to be done. I’ve got to get the wound clean. I can’t risk infection.”

His eyes glistened with the tears that tracked down his face, but he found his father’s and managed a weak smile. He got a squeeze of his hand in return. But when Ben raised the bottle again, he couldn’t stem the plea, “Don’t!”

Through a red-rimmed haze, Joe heard the blessed words. “It’s all over, Joe. Well done.”

The pain exhausted him, and he lay back limp. His thoughts now turned to sleep, but his father’s next words drove this from his mind.

“Let’s get going. If those two were scouts, the rest of the party might not be far behind, and if we heard Little Joe’s warning shot, so might they.”

Joe watched his family pack up the camp with speed and efficiency, and they were soon ready to ride. He clutched his side, the bandage rough under his fingers, and struggled to sit up. His father’s hands were there on him, easing him back. “Careful, you don’t want to start bleeding again.”

“I’m okay. I can ride.”

Soft, calloused fingers rested on his cheek. The smile on his father’s face warmed his soul. “I know, but for now I think it best you ride with me.”

Within minutes, they rode out. Joe sat up in front on Ben’s horse, cradled in his father’s strong arms, and Adam led Cochise. They moved at a ground-eating lope and travelled about four miles when a small band of renegade Indians appeared at the top of a hill.

Adam spotted them and yelled a warning. The three tore along the valley pursued by the Indians. Hoss firing his rifle and Adam, still leading Cochise, his revolver, while Ben hung onto Joe.

A renegade flew from his horse when one of Adam’s bullets found its target, but then an arrow buried itself deep into his thigh. He lurched in his saddle, and it took all his willpower to stay seated and hang onto his horse and gun.

Hoss seeing him almost fall blasted away at the Indians and brought himself alongside Adam. He yelled, “You all right?”

Adam nodded and waved an impatient arm ahead, to indicate Hoss get moving. But the urgency was over. Hoss’ shots found their targets. The loss of three braves took the heart out of the small party. The Bannocks pulled up and turned back to collect their dead and wounded.

The Cartwrights rode hard and fast until Ben called a halt. By this time, Adam had begun to sway in his saddle. Ben handed Joe to Hoss, dismounted and went to this eldest and helped him down.

“I’m gonna cut the shaft short for now and bind it up. We’ll let Paul get the arrow out once we get home.”

Through gritted teeth, Adam acknowledged the decision.

“Pa, I could ride for the doc now.”

Ben shook his head at Hoss. “We can’t risk splitting up. Not while there’s a chance they could return. Let’s just get home safe first.”

Cutting the shaft sent rivulets of anguish through Adam’s leg and his back arched while he fought to control the pain.

Ben put his hand on his eldest’s shoulder and rubbed his thumb back and forth in a gentle rhythm. He eyed up Adam’s condition and suggested Adam ride with him, and Joe with Hoss, but it didn’t surprise him when his eldest insisted he could ride on alone. Ben knew better than to argue.

Adam mounted with a grunt and Hoss’ help.

Ben scanned his face and couldn’t hold back the question, “You sure, son. You can make it?”

“Yeah. Let’s get going.”

Ben agreed. They needed to keep moving.

For three hours, they rode on. Ben kept a conversation going as a way to monitor his son’s conditions. None were in great shape. At best, Hoss’s head wound gave him a bad headache. He worried Joe might be bleeding again and Adam’s conversation, even more taciturn than usual, told him how he struggled with his leg. Relief flooded Ben when the home he’d built with his bare hands came into sight.

“Hang on, boys. Almost there.”

*****

Ben winced at the hot coffee. He’d just suffered through a night that would long live in his memory, so he needed it, but it was strong enough to stand a spoon up straight.

Once they reached home, he’d roused one of the ranch hands and sent him to Chinatown for the doctor. With the help of Hoss and Hop Sing, he’d gotten Joe and Adam to their rooms before sending Hoss to his own.

When he checked Joe, his fears were confirmed, and he had to stop the bleeding again.

Too exhausted to put up a fight. This time his youngest dug his fingers into his sheets, turned his head into his pillow and let the screams out.

When he went to check on Adam, he found him tight jawed with sweat beading his forehead, while his intellect fought an internal battle with the primitive instinct that wanted to rip out the cause of his pain.

His irritability showed when his words were muttered in a surly growl. “I don’t want to see anyone until the doc gets here.”

Checking the bandage to make sure the bleeding hadn’t restarted, Ben shot him a look. “I know it hurts.“

“Pa! You’ve no idea.” Ben heard the breath Adam sucked in over clamped teeth, before he muttered, “Sorry.”

“I understand.”

Although rewarded with his son’s lop-sided smile, Ben prudently withdrew to check on his middle son. He found Hop Sing already in the room with a bowl of cold water and a cloth placed on Hoss’ head to ease the headache. The cool cloth a huge relief to him, Hoss insisted he felt fine.

Satisfied, Ben went back to Joe, who’d fallen into an uneasy doze. He pulled up a chair and sat down, ready to monitor the wound and count down the long hours until the doctor would arrive.

Paul arrived almost two hours ago, and Ben summoned the strength to meet him when he finally came down the stairs after diligently working his way through each patient. The smile Paul Martin gave reassured him.

“Well, this has to be a record. All three in one night, but they’re all going to be fine.”

Relief flowed through Ben, and he took his friend’s hand. “Thank you, Paul.”

Following Ben back to the chairs, Paul sank down and accepted the proffered cup of coffee.

“It’s what I’m here for.”

“How are they?”

“The arrow nicked the bone in Adam’s leg. It came out without too much trouble, and I’ve cleaned it thoroughly. Let’s hope there won’t be any infection. You’ll need to keep an eye on it. He’ll need to stay in bed for a week and take it easy for a few more after that, but the leg should heal without any lasting damage.” Paul paused to drink some coffee before continuing.

“I’ve stitched Joe up, and the wound looks clean and infection-free. You did a good job with that. He’s lost quite a bit of blood, so he’ll be weak. Give him plenty of good food and rest for a few days. Hoss will be fine after a few hours’ sleep. You’re lucky, it could’ve been much worse. Those renegade Indians have murdered some poor folks.”

Ben nodded. Why did he make the decision to camp that extra night? Why didn’t he push on?

“Ben, you all right?”

“What?” Broken from his abstraction, Ben sighed. “Yes, just tired.”

“They’re all resting comfortably, why don’t you get some sleep?”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

After seeing his friend out, Ben made his way upstairs intending to follow Paul’s instructions. Instead, he stopped at Joe’s door and entered. He walked to the bed and looked down at his young son. All his boys were safe and sound. Dear Lord, what might he and Adam have found if ..? Dizzy, he crashed rather than sat down in the chair.

He’d remember this drive for a long time and for many reasons. Not least because of the tousled haired sleeper in front of him. Unable to resist, Ben leant forward and brushed back a curl from Joe’s forehead. Memories of a much younger Joe rushed back at the gesture. How long since he’d last done that? Ben shook his head slowly, too long. A smile curved his lips and pride filled his eyes with tears. Joe’s bravery astonished him, not just with the Indians but how he behaved afterwards.

He sent up a silent prayer. For fathers, sons and being together.

*****

Taking advantage of Adam’s bed-ridden state, Ben persuaded him and Hoss to have their clothes brought over to the main house and remain there while he recuperated.

Used to activity and action, Adam proved to be a difficult patient, and they all worked hard to keep him in bed. The same could not be said for Joe.

The Indian attack hadn’t managed to mar the perfection of the drive for him. The attack and injury were horrible, and he hurt. Everything hurt. His side, back, arms, legs, but he didn’t care, because the waves of pain also carried his father’s love. Pa loved him, and nothing else mattered. More than content to be fussed over, he stayed in bed and obeyed all the instructions given.

Finding Joe, the meekest and model of patients, Ben began to worry if there could be some lingering infection.

Paul laughed at Ben’s question. “He’s fine. I admit he’s not the rumbustious little rascal I remember, but I can assure you the wound’s healing nicely.”

“I guess it’s foolish of me. He’s just so quiet and… obedient. He never argues.”

Laughing again, Paul replied, “If you could get some of that to rub off on Adam, I’d be a happy doctor. You tell that young man if he tries getting out of bed again, I’ll tie him down myself.”

Ben chuckled, and Paul shot his friend a surreptitious look, aware he’d side-stepped his question. The doctor saw only too clearly Joe’s acquiescence to his father’s instructions stemmed from a need in Ben’s youngest to bask in his father’s care. Nothing, he guessed, would make Little Joe put that at risk.

Paul remembered their first meeting all those years ago when Ben brought Marie to him at that first ramshackle practice he’d set up. He’d encouraged Ben to allow his wife to take her trips, to change her scenery and relieve her nerves, but watching them over the years it troubled him seeing Marie leave year after year for longer and longer periods. He began to hope Ben would stop them for the boy’s sake at least. Like Adam, he’d seen how more and more detached the lad became from his father, but he felt encouraged by what he’d seen recently. Paul shot Ben another look and decided to take the plunge.

“I think Little Joe’s demeanor has more to do with craving your attention than how he’s feeling.”

“What d’you mean?”

“You haven’t noticed?”

“Noticed what?”

Paul scratched his nose. “It’s like you gave him a gift and he’s terrified you’ll take it away.”

Ben frowned. “You mean Little Joe’s afraid I’ll stop caring for him if he argues with me?”

“I don’t suppose he recognizes it in such matter of fact terms, but, frankly, yes.”

Ben ran a hand through his hair and drew a long, deep sigh. “I’ve been a fool where the boy’s concerned. Well, as you sow, so shall you reap.”

Paul patted his friends’ knee. “It’s not that bad. The boy loves you, that’s counts for something. Any damage can be fixed.”

His friend’s words weighed heavy, and he went back up to Joe’s room to see for himself. Paul’s awareness there was any damage at all shook him.

Ben found Joe in the process of getting dressed. When his son’s face lit up at seeing him, the guilt dug a little deeper. He decided to test the water.

“Little Joe, I think you ought to stay in bed for the rest of the day.”

“But Doc Martin said I could get up.”

“I know, but I think just for today, best not to push things to quick.”

The disappointment on Joe’s face was evident, and Ben held his breath. To his sorrow, Joe dropped his head, and he began to unbutton his shirt.

“Yes, Sir.”

Damnation! Ben flung out his hands. “Whoa there, I’m just joshing you, son. I thought you’d bite my head off.”

Joe’s earnest eyes made Ben’s stomach lurch.

“I wouldn’t do that, Pa.”

Ben sat down on the bed next to Joe. He slipped an arm around his shoulders and gave him a squeeze. “You should. It was a terrible joke.”

Joe grinned, but Ben could still see doubt lurking in the boy’s eyes. He’d need to work on this.

When he finished getting dressed, Joe asked, “Where’s Hoss?”

“Entertaining Adam. C’mon, let’s go see them.”

When they reached Adam’s open bedroom door, they heard his irritated voice ring out. “Enough. Enough. I can’t take any more.”

“What’s going on here?”

Hoss slapped shut the book he’d been reading and jutted out his chin. “He don’t like the way I read this here, Shakespeare fella.”

Adam drew himself up in his bed and threatened, “Pa, if you don’t let me out of this bed, I swear-“ Ben cut him off.

“What? Paul says you must stay put and you will. That leg needs to mend.”

Defeated, Adam slumped back against his pillows. “I know, but I’m going crazy just lying here.”

“Look, I’ve brought Little Joe to take over from Hoss and entertain you now.”

Adam rolled anguished eyes in their direction.

Joe’s voice quavered, “Me? Isn’t Hoss stayin’?”

Adam couldn’t miss the reluctance and uncertainty in his youngest brother’s voice. His keen gaze rested on Joe, and he wondered why.

“No, afraid not. Hoss and I have work to do today.”

Joe’s eyes widened in alarm. He’d caught the unwelcome look Adam sent his way. He’d never found Adam easy to get along with. Always an intimidating presence, Joe found it hard to forget how he’d upset his mother. She’d complained long and bitterly about how the responsibility for ending their trips fell at Adam’s feet. Joe didn’t harbor any resentment toward Adam for this. He was even grateful for his brother’s intervention, but when Ma and Adam got to arguing, his natural chivalry led him to his mother’s defense, and he’d been on the receiving end of his brother’s temper as a result. True, memories of another older brother, who’d given him treats and let him ride his pony had resurfaced recently, and he’d been fun to be around, but part of that he’d put down to Hoss’ presence, he didn’t relish the idea of being alone with him.

Surprise shook Adam. He saw Joe’s reluctance. Softening his tone, he told him, “I won’t bite, Little Joe, honest. Look, why don’t we change things around. Hand me that book over there, and I’ll read to you.”

Picking it up, Joe turned it in his hand, “This one? The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent?”

Hoss wrinkled his nose in disgust and commented, “You could have done that fer me, ‘stead of making me read that stuff.” Getting up, he passed Joe and ruffled his hair. “Iffin the story bores you stiff, you jest run fer it, y’hear?”

Joe giggled, and he handed Adam the volume.

“Haha, very funny. Yes, that’s it. There’s a couple of stories I think you’ll enjoy.”

“We’ll see you two for lunch. Remember Little Joe, you have to rest too.”

From his seat in the overstuffed chair next to the bed, Joe replied. “Sure thing, Pa.”

Joe watched them leave with regret. His attention claimed by Adam when he opened the book.

“The first story’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.”

Resigned, he settled back to listen.

To their surprise, Ben and Hoss re-entered the house later to the sound of laughter coming from upstairs. Ben’s eyes twinkled, and he pulled an amused face at his middle son who reciprocated. Reaching Adam’s room, they found Joe and Adam engaged in a game of chess.

Leaning on the doorframe, arms crossed in front of his chest, Ben asked, “What’s so funny about a game of chess?”

“It’s not just any chess, Pa. We’re making up stories about the pieces.”

Adam’s small lop-sided smile showed when he informed his father, “Your youngest son has a lively imagination.”

Joe giggled.

Ben laughed to see the two so relaxed. Adam gave him a wink, and he smiled wider.

****

The seasons turned. October came upon them, and Ben began to consider his youngest son’s birthday. Plans and ideas began to formulate.

Twenty years ago, when he’d settled the Ponderosa, wilderness had surrounded them. Gradually, other ranchers and farmers arrived to join those first settlers, and in the last ten years, along with Eagle Valley, they’d seen the founding of Placerville, Chinatown and Genoa. With the towns came others with their families and allowed communities to build. Friendships were formed, and Ben mentally listed those with children near Joe’s age.

“I’ve got some visits to make. It’ll take me a couple of days, so I’ll be away tomorrow night.”

Through a mouthful of eggs, Joe asked, “Oh yeah, why’s that?”

“Business,” replied Ben, frowning at his youngest’s table manners.

Adam, out of bed and hobbling around with a stick, looked up. “Business?”

The look he got from his father cut him off. His eyebrows rose. He always could tell when Pa was up to something and from the furtive glance he’d darted at Little Joe, it had something to do with his brother. Adam let it go and went back to his meal. He’d find out later.

*****

Hoss scratched his ear and leaned on the stall. “You notice somethin’ funny goin’ on around here?”

Joe looked up from polishing the saddle. Two weeks had passed since they’d returned from the cattle drive and three days since Pa’s business trip.

“You mean Pa and Hop Sing always huddled together whispering an’ Adam riding to Eagle Station almost every day?” Joe lay down his polish and settled into his grievance, “an’ that’s another thing. How come Adam gets to do that with his leg still bandaged up?”

“Adam knows what he’s doin’, but yeah, what d’ya thinks goin’ on?”

Joe shrugged in a dismissive way. “No idea.”

“Aw, c’mon, you’ve got to be wonderin’ jest a bit?”

“If Pa wanted us to know he’d tell us.”

Hoss sat down opposite his brother. His face screwed up to show his amazement, and he asked, “Ain’t you jest a little bit curious?” Hoss saw the spark in Joe’s eyes and grinned. Little brother wanted to know all right. Leaning forward, he whispered, “You could talk to Hop Sing, wheedle it out of him.”

Joe’s eyes flared wide. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? He might let somethin’ slip. Y’know, you’re his favorite.”

Knowing nothing of the sort, Joe frowned. “I dunno, it don’t seem right.“

“You know Pa won’t tell us, an’ Adam can be tight-lipped as a clam when he wants to be. Hop Sing’s our only chance. You fix him with those great big cow eyes of yours an’ he’ll likely tell you everything.”

Joe peered around the kitchen door to see the cook busy chopping vegetables. Whatever confidence he possessed when Hoss talked him into this began to dissipate with remarkable speed.

Hop Sing looked up from his task and asked, “You want something, Lil’l Joe?”

Joe froze, his mind betrayed him and went blank. Desperate, he blurted out, “A drink of water.”

The little man nodded and went back to his chopping. Joe pumped the handle and filled the cup. He sipped the cold liquid to give himself time to think.

“You and Pa have sure been busy lately.”

“Huh?” The Chinaman’s hand stilled mid-chop. “Busy? What you mean?”

“Oh, I dunno, you too have just been talking a lot.”

“Talking? Why, what you hear?”

The menace in the question unmistakable, Joe’s nerve went. He gulped down the rest of the water and scooted toward the door. “N…nothing, I guess.”

Shame-faced Joe bowed his head, Hoss paced the barn, hands dug deep into his pockets.

“Nothin’? You found out nothin’?”

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m just no good at wheedlin’.”

“You got a few things to learn about it, that’s fer dang sure.” Hoss sat down on the hay bale next to Joe. “Can’t be helped. We’ll jest have to find another way.”

Joe rolled up his eyebrows and closed his eyes in despair. How much trouble would Hoss drag them into? Opening his eyes, he cut a furtive look at his brother’s profile. Hoss’ brows were deeply furrowed, and his lips pursed while he cogitated their problem. It dawned on Joe Hoss never once questioned whether he would help him. He looked to his brother for assistance and took for granted Joe would be there.

Warm, happy memories washed over him. They were young again, and he and Hoss were a team getting up to all sorts of mischief. To have that back… he dropped his head so Hoss wouldn’t see the tears of joy he fought back.

After a moment, he managed to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll think of something.”

His heart soared when Hoss replied, “Sure, we will.”

Neither brother managed to come up with an idea to pry information out of Hop Sing, Adam or their father, but it turned out to be unnecessary. That night at supper, Ben made an announcement.

“We’re going to hold a party to celebrate Little Joe’s birthday this Saturday. I’ve invited friends from all around the area.”

“Is that what you’ve been planning? You, Adam and Hop Sing?”

Ben grinned at Joe and nodded.

Hoss slapped his hands together. “Hot diggity, Pa. We haven’t had a party in a coon’s age.”

At first delighted, Joe became aware of mixed emotions. Much as he looked forward to the party, he wished his mother could be there. This would be the first birthday they’d spent apart. His other concern revolved around the guests Pa had invited.

Joe’s relationship with the other young people in the area had gotten off to a rocky start. After Pa ended their trips, he insisted Joe attend the little school at Eagle Station so he could get his certificate. His memories of the place weren’t easy ones.

His time in San Francisco taught Joe to be wary of overtures of friendship that were a means to rob or beat him up. This made Joe reticent and earned him no friends. His good looks also proved fatal, attracting the attention of the girls, to the annoyance of the older boys. Disliked by them, and considered aloof and stuck-up by the younger boys, Joe struggled to make any friends, and he worried how they’d treat him now.

In the end, he had no time to brood over his apprehensions. On top of their chores, they were roped into Hop Sing’s preparation for the party. What with helping to clean, move furniture, set up the spit for the roasted beef, and festooning the house in colored lanterns, provided by one of Hop Sing’s cousins, they were all busy.

Joe would always look back on the party with a glow of happiness. He danced with every girl and talked and joked with the boys, who weren’t so standoffish. He’d never forget any of it, the food, the lemonade, the heady glass of punch Hoss snuck out for him to try, and best of all the gift he received.

He couldn’t stop the tremble in his fingers from excitement when he tore open the bulky, brown package. What he found inside, took his breath away. A pistol and holster.

“You’re sixteen now, son. Time you learnt how to use one of those.”

“Pa got you the gun, and Hoss and I bought the belt.”

Hoss pointed to the tooled leather. “See, it’s made left-handed for south-paws like you.”

Joe looked from his father to Adam and then Hoss, his eyes luminescent with happiness. “I … I don’t know what to say. Thank you.” Handling the gun like fragile glass, Joe breathed, “How will I know how to use it?”

Ben smiled. “I’ll teach you. We’ve got the whole winter ahead of us.”

He tumbled into bed still grinning. A joyful lightness of heart engulfed him. Only when he drifted off to sleep were his last thoughts of his mother. He wished she could have been there.

*****

Ben’s timing with the party proved fortuitous. A few days after, the snow already present on the high ground blanketed the valleys and pastureland. Winter settled on the Ponderosa.

Long, bitterly cold and sometimes dangerous, the winter snows brought complete isolation. When Joe saw them, his heart beat a little faster. After all the winters away in San Francisco, the vast cover of white reassured him he was home, and he loved it because of that. Used to hours spent alone, or with just his mother, the seclusion didn’t bother him. Content to sit out the winter in the big room of the ranch house listening to Adam play his guitar, or read to them, and play checkers with Hoss or chess with his father. The quiet dependability of the days wrapped around him like a secure blanket.

For the first time, all four of the Cartwright men went to pick the Christmas tree and decorate it together.

Joe unwrapped the angel from its muslin cloth. He ran gentle fingers over the smooth china, tracing the pattern of its face. He remembered the Christmas his mother bought the tree topper. She’d ordered it all the way from St. Louis and shown it off to all of them, her delight in the delicate china ornament infectious. His heart ached for her presence now. He looked up when the hand squeezed his shoulder.

“I miss her too.”

He smiled up at his father, glad he understood. But although he missed her, he wouldn’t have wished her here. He knew how much winters at home brought her down.

He recalled distant memories of Christmas’ before Ma had taken them both to San Francesco, when the house rang with laughter and fun, and his mother the warm, joyful center of the celebrations. So different to the last two winters’ she’d spent at home. To be around her proved difficult, even for him. The isolation affected her nerves, and her frustration gave way to a hair-trigger temper, which led to sharp words, arguments and uncomfortable silences.

He placed the Angel on top of the tree and wondered if she was thinking of him.

The rest of the season passed in male companionship, and Joe learnt the art of the handgun.

Joe hung on all of Pa’s wise words. The burgeoning man in him understood the responsibility of owning such a tool, but secretly, before the long mirror in his room, the boy that lurked within practiced his fast draw.

Just as Joe’s relationship with his family transformed, so did something else. In gradual stages, the house became more relaxed and comfortable. Unaware of how it happened, it just made perfect sense to rearrange the furniture, so the low, planked table sat in front of the fire allowing the chairs to be arranged around it. For the rest, they didn’t notice Hop Sing trotting around, removing the little cushions that cluttered the chairs, the ornaments from the sideboard and small table, that left no room for hats and gun belts and made space for the chessboard. The men simply embraced the changes and accepted them.

The seasons turned again, the snow began to break, and the passes and roads cleared. April arrived, and to Ben’s pleasure and amazement, mid-April brought Marie.

Embracing his wife, he exclaimed, “My love, I didn’t expect you for weeks yet. You shouldn’t have risked the journey this early.”

Disengaging herself, she removed her hat and waved his concern aside. “Nonsense, Cherie, I’m not afraid of a bit of water. I couldn’t wait to come home and see for myself that Little Joe’s all right.”

Ben frowned. When he’d written and mentioned their brush with the Bannocks, he’d made sure to reassure and not worry her.

“I told you he was.”

“Oh yes, but a mère must see for herself.” Marie gently admonished.

Ben ducked his head and pushed both hands deep into his trouser pockets. “Well, he’s good, and for that matter, so are Adam and Hoss.”

Marie flung her coat over the back of the sofa. “Where is he?”

“Who?” At the scathing look he received, he amended. “They’re all out checking the herd.”

Marie’s eyes scanned the room. The changes didn’t go unnoticed, and she saw more. Adam’s guitar resting by the blue chair next to the fireplace, the part-braided noseband abandoned on the low table, the newly added bowl of apples, and her own pink plush chair moved back next to the long-case clock.

Her eyebrows raised, and she queried, “They?”

“Yes, Adam and Hoss both moved back, while Adam recovered from his injury.”

“I’m glad you had company.”

Capturing Marie’s hands, Ben held her at arm’s length and basked in her beauty. His words were warm and sincere. “It’s wonderful to have you back.”

She laughed and hugged him. Snatching the opportunity, Ben found Marie’s lips and kissed her long and deep. By the time he released her, he’d left her a little breathless.

Eyes, the color of mahogany, stared deep into hers. The growl in his throat made his words husky. “The boys won’t be back for a couple of hours at least.”

He received a playful slap on the shoulder.

“My love, I’m exhausted from my journey. Besides, I have all my luggage to unpack, and I want nothing more than to wash the dirt from my body.”

Ashamed of his urgency, Ben blushed. “Of course, forgive me. Let’s get your bags to your room.”

*****

Marie heard the laughter first. Going to the small windows behind Ben’s desk, she watched her son and stepsons ride into the yard. Her eyes never wavered from the trio. She saw the way they dismounted, with laughter and jokes on their lips. She caught Joe give Hoss a playful punch on the arm and receive a slap on the back from Adam before Hoss slid his arm around Joe’s shoulder and they headed into the house. Fear rippled through her heart and a little jealousy.

Joe burst through the door first and stopped dead at the sight of his mother. With a delighted gasp, he pulled off his hat, ran into her open arms and hugged her tight, lifting her off her feet.

“Ma! How did you get here?”

“By ship and wagon, Mon Cherie, how else?”

He laughed at her joke and added, “But we had no idea. We’d have come to Sacramento to meet you if we’d known.”

“I know, but I couldn’t wait to get home and see you are well.”

Pushing her son back, she devoured his appearance with her eyes. Again, she noted subtle changes. He looked leaner, and her fingers on his arms pressed against solid muscle. It alarmed her to see the new maturity that exuded from him.

Turning from her son, she went to greet Adam and Hoss.

“How are you, Adam? Fully recovered from your injury, I see.”

Taking her outstretched hand, Adam nodded. “Hello, Marie. Yes, I’m all fixed up.”

She put her arms out to Hoss. “Hoss, Cherie.”

Embracing her, Hoss cheerfully exclaimed, “Ma. Good to see ya.”

Released, she went back to Joe and slid her arm through his. “Well, isn’t this nice, the whole family together. You will have to tell me all that has happened.”

Joe’s radiant smile basked her in its glow. “And you’ll have to tell us all about New Orleans.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I will, and more.”

“Not now,” Ben interrupted, laughing. “We can talk over supper. These boys need to clean up first.”

Marie let Joe go, allowing him to bounce up the stairs in the wake of Adam and Hoss.

Coming up behind her, Ben slipped his arms around her slender frame. “I told you, they’re all fine.” When she stiffened beneath him, he loosened his hug.

“You did, and I’m delighted,” Marie replied and slipped out of his embrace.

The evening passed comfortably. The Indian attack only briefly mentioned, in deference to Marie’s fear, and played down. But Joe dived in and described the cattle drive in all its glory.

Adam laughed. “Tell me, Pa. How can he still think it was fun?”

Hoss joined the teasing. “Yeah, you better keep an eye on that youngest son of yourn. There’s somethin’ plumb loco about him.”

Marie laughed along, but a sensation of detachment rolled over her. She felt like a stranger. Concern prickled the back of her neck and set her hairs standing. When talk of the cattle drive finished, she took over and wove her tales of New Orleans ‘till Joe’s eyes shone from the pictures she conjured in his head.

After supper, they settled around the fireplace and Ben poured some brandy to celebrate Marie’s return, even for Joe, who flushed with excitement being handed the small glass.

As they sipped, Marie ventured the question, “What happened to all my cushions?”

“Hmm…? Your cushions?”

“Yes, Ben, my cushions.” Ben looked around as if he was taking in the loss for the first time. Marie’s lips tightened. Ben laughed, “I’ve no idea. I expect Hop Sing has moved them somewhere that’s all.”

She didn’t stay up long after that. Excusing herself on the grounds of fatigue from her journey, she departed for bed. It pleased and surprised her when Ben came along and walked her to her room.

Leaning down, he kissed her softly on her forehead and then her lips. “I’m overjoyed to have you home, my love.”

Patting his cheek, she smiled, “Thank you. I’m glad to be home.”

Marie went to bed in an unhappy mood. The changes she’s seen in her home, her son, her family, scared her. All that she’d feared seemed to be coming true. Now, more than ever, she knew herself to be right in what she planned.

Having slept late the next day, Marie enjoyed breakfast in her room, brought up on a tray by Hop Sing, and spent the rest of the morning finishing her unpacking.

When she went downstairs to await the others return for lunch, it surprised her to find Adam seated in his favorite chair strumming lightly at his guitar. On top of everything else, to see him look so at ease in her home set her teeth on edge.

Hearing her, Adam looked around and watched her come down the stairs. His stomach contracted when he noticed the look in her eyes. He’d seen that look before. It didn’t bode well.

When first brought home to them, he’d adored his stepmother, who dazzled him with her love, laughter and beauty. When he went to college, he’d left behind a wonderful, loving family he couldn’t wait to see again, but returned to a fractured household. His father torn between desperately missing his wife and scared to risk her health by making her stay, and a younger brother who barely knew anything about his home, and worst still, how to survive there.

He didn’t relish tackling his father, but always a determined young man, Adam never skirted a difficult task. At first, reacting just as he’d expected, he trusted Pa to listen and think on his words, and it didn’t surprise him when he was told his decision to keep Marie and Little Joe at home. Pa also told him he’d been right to say what he thought.

Marie hadn’t taken it well and made no secret of where she laid the blame. Adam began to see a different side of his stepmother and came to understand the disadvantages of a temperamental, spirited wife. Her constant snipes proved wearing and made life uncomfortable, especially for Pa, so he moved out. He thought the distance might help, but sometimes he wondered if he hadn’t angered his stepmother even more by putting himself out of reach of her snubs.

Gracefully, Marie lowered herself to the sofa. “I see you’ve made yourself comfortable again.”

To his irritation Adam found himself explaining, “Yes, Pa insisted we move back until I was recovered.”

“Really? I’m surprised you took any notice of your father’s wishes, and I thought you couldn’t bear to be in this house, or is it just me you can’t bear?”

Adam frowned. “That’s not true, Marie. I wish we could get past this animosity.”

“Get past… ?” Marie gasped. “How can I forget what you did? Going behind my back to your father. Interfering in our marriage. Did you hate me that much, you would spite me so?”

Adam sighed. In no mood to rehash the argument again, he got up. “I wish you could believe I didn’t do it to spite you. I did it for Little Joe. This is his home. We’re his family.“

“Am I not his family also?”

“Yes, but you didn’t see the damage you were doing to us, to him. He needed to be here.”

“And what about what I needed?”

Adam’s lip curled. “I thought a good mother put her child’s needs first.”

Marie shot off the settle straight toward him. He caught her wrist, her hand inches from his face.

Adam stared down at his enraged stepmother. His voice hard like steel when he told her, “I don’t think so.”

Wrenching her arm free, Marie flew from the room up the stairs. He watched her go and reflected that even fury didn’t mar her beauty, but, by God, he didn’t envy his father.

*****

“I think it’s time Hoss and I got back to the South range.”

“Already? There’s no need.“

“Pa, nothing’s changed. Things between Marie and I … well, they’ll never be good. If I stay, you know the unhappiness will start again. None of us wants that.”

Ben shifted in his saddle and with reluctance nodded. His eyes settled on the young rider in front of him. “Little Joe will be disappointed.”

Adam swallowed. He knew it. Saying goodbye would be a lot harder than the last time. A hostile stranger to him back then, Joe hadn’t been hard to leave. Now, they were brothers, and more than that – friends.

“I’ll talk to him.”

The conversation proved even tougher than he anticipated. Joe clenched his hands tight in front of him and stared down at them. Adam saw his mouth twist when he asked, “It’s because Ma’s home, isn’t it?”

Adam considered a lie and rejected it. The kid deserved honesty. “Partly, yes, but also I’ve got work to do there.”

Joe’s eyes flashed around to his. Adam could see the jade deep in them, burning like fire. “You could do that work from home.”

“You know I can’t stay with the way things are between Marie and me. It’s too difficult for Pa.” Adam softened his voice even further, “It would be even harder on you.”

His brother ducked his head, and he was back looking at Joe’s ear.

A small voice acknowledged, “I know. Is Hoss goin’ too?”

“Yes.”

Although, when he’d mentioned it to his younger brother, his reaction had surprised him.

“Yer wanna move back?”

“Don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess, but things have been good, ain’t they? Like old times.”

“They have, but Marie’s back and I don’t see that lasting.” Adam laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

“Yeah, I do. It’s jest Lil’l Joe will take it hard.”

Adam read Hoss as meaning he would miss Joe. Hell, they both would. The kid had really grown on them, and he never thought it would be this hard.

Joe raised his head. “I understand. Thanks for telling me.”

The words said in a rush, Joe sprung from the log he’d been sitting on and marched off to mount Cochise. Adam hadn’t missed the crack in Joe’s voice. He felt it in his heart too.

*****

Ben went to his room that night with the knowledge he was about to lose his oldest sons again. These past months had been a joy and made their leaving all the harder.

The knock at the door broke him from his reverie. His spirits lifted when Marie entered. They raised even more when she lowered herself into his lap and wound her arms around him.

Into his neck, she sighed, “I missed you so much, Cherie.”

He wrapped his arms around her and drew her close. He hadn’t forgotten the way she’d stiffened under his touch that first day back, and it concerned him, but those worries drifted away when her body melted into his. He breathed in her scent, her warm breath caressing his neck. God, she was intoxicating. Her head came up, allowing him to capture her lips. When the kiss broke, she began to nibble his ear. His grip tightened as the heat within him began to rise. Featherlight kisses trailed down his cheek. Again, he caught her warm lips in a sensuous kiss.

The need in him growing, he gathered her up and carried her to the bed. He lay her down, and she put out her arms to him.

Her voice low and sensuous when she told him, “I love you, Ben Cartwright.”

*****

She traced a soft finger down his cheek and gazed at her sleeping husband. Her body still tingled from their exquisite lovemaking. Marie had to admit, no man fulfilled her like he did.

“My love,” she whispered, “are you awake? I wish to talk to you.”

Ben grunted and mumbled. “Talk? What about?”

“New Orleans.”

Ben dragged himself out of his sated sleep and blinked his eyes. “New Orleans?”

“Yes. I want Little Joe to go back with me. Only for a few weeks. If we go now, we’ll arrive in early June and can return at the end of July, before the worst of the heat arrives.”

Her words were ice water thrown in his face, and he snapped awake. “What’re you talking about? I told you, Little Joe isn’t going to New Orleans.”

Caressing fingers ran through his hair. “Yes, but the cattle drive’s over.”

“And now we have roundup and branding ahead of us.”

Her lips pursed. “Surely he can be spared just this once.”

“Just this once? Marie, Little Joe has never taken part in branding, and it’s high time he did.”

Jolted awake, Joe sat up in bed, unsure what had startled him out of his sleep. The smashing sound hurtled him out into the hall where he ran into Hoss and Adam. All eyes turned to their father’s door.

Through it, they heard a screech, “You have no right, no right to say no!”

“I’ve every right! I’m the boy’s father!”

“And I’m his mother. Does that count for nothing?”

“Of course, but it’s not the point. The boy has a job to do here!”

“I don’t care!”

Joe looked away from his brother’s embarrassed faces finding them too much to bear. The knuckles that clung to the doorframe turned white. He wanted to retreat to his room and hide when a cold rage erupted in his chest.

No more would the two people he loved most argue over him. He grit his teeth barreled down the hall and burst through the door. Propelled into the middle of the room, he bellowed, “Stop.”

The vase, thrown with no chance of hitting its target, did find the side of Joe’s head. He dropped like a stone.

Adam and Hoss arrived at the doorway in time to see Joe go down, Ben clambering out of bed and into his dressing gown and Marie running from the other side of the room toward her son. Adam turned to Hoss, who disappeared to fetch some water and a cloth.

Joe hit the floor and scrabbled about in pieces of the shattered vase, trying to shake the ringing in his ears. From all around, hands helped him up and moved him to a chair. The stars cleared, allowing him to see his mother’s worried face.

“Mon petit, are you all right? I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you.”

“Ma?”

“What were you doing busting in like that?”

Joe’s bleary eyes found his father’s. “I wanted you to stop. Stop all the arguing over me.”

“You heard?”

Adam answered, “We all heard. Sorry, but it was hard not to.” In the low light cast from the lamp, Adam thought he saw Pa blush, but he could’ve been mistaken.

Ben cleared his throat. “Husbands and wives argue. It’s nothing to be concerned about.”

Joe’s hand wrapped around his mothers. “Not because of me, Ma, please.”

“But I want you to come to New Orleans with me.”

“Marie!”

Her head snapped around to look at Ben. “I want him to know. Let him choose.”

Joe stood. Despite the wobble in his legs, he stayed upright. “New Orleans? Ma, aren’t you stayin’?”

“I want us to go there together, Little Joe, just the two us. For a few short weeks. We’ll be back by the fall.”

Stunned, Joe looked from parent to parent. What was he supposed to say? He’d only just begun to find his place on the ranch, he didn’t want to leave and risk losing that, but how could he bear to disappoint his mother again? How could he choose between them? Indecision tore at him and tightened his gut.

“I told you the boy’s not going.”

“Why can’t you let him decide?”

Joe pressed his fingers to his forehead. Why couldn’t he block out the fighting and anger?

Adam interrupted the squabbling couple. “Look, why don’t you discuss this tomorrow. I think Little Joe could do with getting cleaned up and put back to bed.”

“You’re right, this can wait. C’mon, son.”

Thankful for Adam’s intervention, and even more grateful when his father’s arms encircled him, Joe let himself be guided back to his bed. Lying down, he closed his eyes against the ache behind them.

Hoss reappeared with a bowl. Ben thanked him and taking it out of his hands began to clean the little cuts on the side on Joe’s forehead.

He told his two eldest. “He’ll be all right, you two may as well get back to your own beds.”

Grateful to get away from the uncomfortable scene, they beat a hasty retreat.

Marie fussed around Joe while Ben cleaned the cuts. When he finished, he picked up the bowl and patted Joe’s shoulder.

“Get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Marie leaned over and gave Joe a kiss on the forehead, and Ben noticed with relief, the smile he gave her.

Leaving the room, Ben closed Joe’s door before he whispered, “Marie-“ She cut him off.

“No more tonight. Goodnight.”

Ben watched her return to her own room. His shoulders slumped. After he took the bowl back to the kitchen, he made his way to his own bed. He opened his door and pulled up short at the sight of the rumpled bedclothes. The memory of their lovemaking rushed back with a jolt. How could the mood have changed so quickly? But one thing he knew for sure, Joe would not be going to New Orleans.

*****

“I think it best you go.”

The hideousness of the last three days hung on Ben. Marie had proven relentless in her desire, pressing him and Joe to agree to her plans. One moment she argued her case defiant and determined, the next she cajoled with laughter or tears until she finally fainted from the stress.

Aware how the stalemate between Marie and him tore Joe in two, her collapse made up Ben’s mind, and he took the only course open and withdrew his objections. He hated to disappoint his son. He knew how much Joe wanted to stay but seeing his wife’s illness return brought all the old fears charging back and pushed Joe’s wishes aside. Marie’s health came first, and if the boy found it hard to disappoint his mother, well, now he wouldn’t have to.

Pa’s words were a hammer blow to Joe’s heart. He couldn’t bear seeing his mother upset and angry just as much as Pa, but he believed his place to be on the Ponderosa. He’d withstood her assaults, even though it ripped him apart to do so. He’d thought Pa felt the same way and would fight for him just as hard, but his words destroyed that hope.

The emptiness inside him opened like a raw wound, but he replied, “All right, I’ll go.”

When told of Ben’s change of heart, Marie threw herself into his arms and then into the preparations with undiluted zeal. If she noticed Joe’s lack of enthusiasm, she chose to ignore it. Having worked so hard to win Ben’s agreement, nothing else mattered. She wasn’t worried, knowing she could easily win Joe around later.

*****

With a jerk, Joe stripped a stalk of hay. “You and Adam are stayin’ now?”

Brushing down Chub, Hoss peaked over at Joe. It hadn’t gone unnoticed to him how down in the dumps Joe seemed, since agreeing to go with Ma. Hoss wasn’t sure why, but his instincts told him he might be on thin ice with this question.

Deciding to try and lighten the mood he gave Joe a wink, and replied in a cheerful tone, “With you an’ Ma away, we decided poor ol’ Pa could do with the company. Jest ‘till you get back.”

Joe continued to sit on the hay bale and strip another stalk. “Yeah, but you’re all glad we’re goin’.”

Hoss gasped in amazement and spluttered, “What’re you talkin’ about, boy? Pa don’t want you to leave, nor does Adam an’ me. The point is, Ma wants you to go.”

His brother’s eyes dropped under the scrutiny of his intense blue ones. Hoss abandoned his task and joined Joe on the bale.

“You jest listen to me lil’l brother. Pa. Well, he’s scared. Seeing Ma work herself up and getting’ ill the way she does. It terrifies him. He’s frightened he might lose her like he lost Adam’s and my ma. That’s why he’s lettin’ her go, an’ you too. But he’s trustin’ you. He’s trustin’ you to take care of her.” Seeing the cloud in his younger brother’s eyes lift, Hoss smiled. He’d known all along little brother just needed to understand how Pa felt. “An’ I’m trustin’ you to bring you an’ Ma back in the fall, ‘coz I’m sure gonna miss you in the meantime.”

A smile swept his brother’s face. Joe nodded. “Sure thing.”

The knowledge his father depended on him caused the young man to push his shoulders back and walk tall. From lack-lustered interest, he plunged into the plans for the trip.

On the dock in Sacramento, heartfelt goodbyes were exchanged. Joe received a handshake and a slap on the back from Adam. Hoss swamped him in a bearhug, lifted him off the ground, and he told him, “You hurry back now, y’hear.”

Having said his goodbyes to his mother, his father moved to him. Joe took a breath and put out his hand and found himself pulled into a hug. Overwhelmed, he returned it, fighting back the lump that welled up in his throat.

His father’s voice thick with emotion whispered, “You take care of yourself and look after your mother.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll bring her back safe and sound. You can rely on me.”

Ben watched his wife and son wave goodbye when sudden disquiet gripped him. The urge to stop them almost overcame him, and if he could have recalled them in that moment, he would. His heart began to race, and his breath quickened.

“You okay, Pa?”

His eyes darted to Adam’s. Feeling foolish, he tried to shake off his foreboding and smiled. “Yes, of course.”

He turned back to the two figures on the deck of the ship and watched them diminish into the distance. In five short months, he would see them again.

So why didn’t part of him believe that?

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

 

Part 3 – Laughter and Lies

 

New Orleans – ‘Queen of the South’. Joe loved it. From the moment they approached the vast bend in the Mississippi and caught their first sight of the sprawling metropolis, Joe was entranced. He hung out the window of their carriage and let the sights, sounds, and smells seep into his skin. Eyes opened wide and shining with delight, the excitement set his heart racing and raised goosebumps on his flesh. New Orleans couldn’t have a better nickname. It was the kind of City that made a man want to throw caution to the wind and indulge it’s every whim and desire like a beautifully woman.

Once he’d overcome his unhappiness at leaving home, Joe threw himself into the adventure. Every facet of the journey excited him. They took a steamship to Aspinwall, where Joe handed over the $50 fare for two first-class tickets on the Panama Canal Railway, which crossed the Isthmus of Panama through lush tropical vegetation, and mangrove swamps. Giving them glimpses of exotic wildlife, that had his nose pressed up against the window. Two nights were spent in Panama City before boarding another steamship for the week-long voyage to New Orleans.

Beyond the scenery, the journey proved interesting for other reasons. Watching her sixteen-year-old mingle with the other passengers, Marie noticed his clumsiness with the young ladies. The idea he would behave like a gauche, backwater ranch hand in elegant New Orleans society appalled her. Deciding action was needed, she set about occupying the journey with educating Joe. Acutely aware of his ineptitude, his mother’s sudden interest in his deportment around the fairer sex made Joe squirm. She brushed aside his complaints and put him straight. “Nonsense Joseph, I cannot have you going red and spluttering like a new-born calf every time a pretty girl looks in your direction.” He’d hung his head in disgrace, listened and obeyed, and the response he got amazed him. A simple action of pulling out a chair at the dining table or a whispered flattering word put the young ladies in a flutter. With a never imagined zeal, he warmed to his lessons and spent the trip enjoying several amusing flirtations and stolen kisses.

Marie sat back and smiled at the transformation she’d wrought on her son. How she’d chuckled at his obliviousness to his charms. Blessed with good looks, the addition of a relaxed manner and a smooth tongue made him a force to be reckoned with. How many hearts would he break in her beloved city? She watched Joe lean out of the window of their carriage and laughed.

When they drew up at the hotel, Joe gasped at its magnificence. His mouth dropped open when he scanned the façade. Four stories high, with a wide colonnade supported by evenly spaced graceful columns, it was imposing and, Joe reckoned, expensive.

“Ma,” he gaped, awed, “can we afford this place?”

Marie giggled, “Of course.”

The man behind the desk smiled at the beautiful lady. “Welcome to the St. Charles, madam. Do you have a reservation?”

While his mother waited for the man at the desk to check them in, Joe stared around at the opulence, uneasy doubt creeping into him. Compared to most, they were a wealthy family. He’d never known hunger or wanted for anything, but it hadn’t always been that way. Years of back-breaking work built the Ponderosa, and throwing money around didn’t sit well with him.

The man at the desk proffered a key.

“Your suite is ready. I’ll have your luggage brought-“ Joe interrupted.

“How much is the room?”

“Joseph.”

“$10 per night, Sir.”

Aghast, Joe hooked his mother’s arm and dragged her from the desk.

“Ma, $10! We don’t need to stay here.”

“Nonsense, Cherie. We’re only staying a few weeks. We can treat ourselves.”

Annoyance rippled through him, but the sixteen-year-old shivered at the notion of causing a scene in the lobby of this magnificent building. Their suite proved as elegant as the rest. Two bedrooms led off from a sitting and dining room, and at either end of the corridor, were the bathrooms and water closets.

Joe waited until the bellhop left before entreating his mother again. “We can find a cheaper hotel. This place is too expensive.”

His mother disarmed him by asking in a hurt tone, “Don’t you like it?”

“Well, yes, but-“

“Then that’s all that matters,” she interrupted. She took his face in her hands. “Don’t you understand, I want you to have the best time.”

“I always will, so long as I’m with you.”

Tears pricked her eyes in response to these words, and she embraced him. “Well, we’ll see, but this will do for now.”

Joe returned his mother’s hug and sighed. He doubted he’d even win an argument with his mother and determined they wouldn’t stay a moment longer than the planned seven weeks.

Much to Joe’s chagrin before they did anything else, Marie whisked him off to a tailor to order a new set of suits.

“What’s wrong with the suit I brought with me?”

Marie opened her eyes wide with shock. “You cannot enter New Orleans society with one good suit.”

Having no reply to this, Joe acquiesced. He couldn’t understand why he needed suits for day wear and evening, but that didn’t stop him becoming enthusiastic over picking out the material. He favored dark blues for the jackets and trousers and ornate floral designs for his waistcoats, which Marie applauded. However, Joe baulked at the frilled-fronted shirts his mother picked out, giving way, Marie settled for plain white with cuffs.

With arrangements made to have the clothes delivered once made up, they returned to their hotel. Feeling the effects of their journey, they elected to have dinner in their room and retire early. But Joe couldn’t sleep. He lay in his bed, the strange netting that kept off the biting insects hung over it, and his window open. The sounds of the fascinating old city washed over his bare skin setting it tingling in anticipation. He couldn’t wait to see more.

Much to her son’s amusement and slight embarrassment, it became clear Marie had no intention of introducing Joe to any of her New Orleans friends until the clothes arrived and she considered him ‘properly attired’.

Fixing his mother with eyes that twinkled from merriment, he asked, “Are you ashamed of me?”

Marie’s laugh trilled. “No, of course not, but even your father dressed suitably when in New Orleans.” Her eyes misted over, and she gazed at some distant memory. “I remember the first time I saw him. He looked so handsome, although I never let him know.”

Joe settled his chin into his palm, his elbow leaning on the table in the little café where they’d stopped for lunch. He loved nothing more than hearing his mother tell him stories about her and Pa.

“I’d love to see the place where you met.”

“We’ve already visited the Rue Royale, where your father first saw me, and we will visit the Angeville Academy, my old friend, Marius used to run.” Marie signed, “It will not be the same, but I am determined for you to learn the art of fencing. Of course, I will also take you to see my old home and the casino where I worked too. For now, we will enjoy walking in my beautiful city. What do you think of it so far?”

The smile on his face told his mother all she needed to know. The café, nestled in the French Quarter where they’d walked all morning, gave them an excellent view of the hustle and bustle. Captivated by the elegant homes with their colorful balconies dripping with yellow jasmine, sweet peas, and nasturtiums, the city seemed awash with color, sound and music, and Joe’s head swum with the heady perfume of the myriad of roses adorning it when they strolled back to their hotel that evening. Marie hoped he would love the city as she did and would be just as reluctant to leave.

Four days after their trip to the tailor, they returned from their morning fencing lesson to find a pile of neatly tied brown packages waiting for them. Joe’s clothes having arrived, his mother wasted no time in letting friends know they were in New Orleans. Invitations soon covered the mantlepiece, and Joe barely had time to catch his breath before their days became crammed with breakfast parties, picnics, lunches, soirées, concerts, balls, the theatre, opera, and more fencing lessons, and they spent less and less time in their expensive hotel room.

Caught up in the maelstrom Joe reveled in the thrill. New Orleans society took the delightful, handsome young son of the beautiful Mrs. Cartwright to its bosom. Joe’s new-found confidence with the fairer sex stood him in good stead and blossomed as the weeks passed. He discovered he liked women, and they liked him. He would talk, walk, ride and dance with them and the pleasure got even better when they slipped out into moonlit gardens for stolen kisses.

*****

Joe yawned, stretched and ran his hands through his tumbled locks. He smiled at his mother when he flopped into another chair at the breakfast table, marveling at her bright looks and crispness. They’d got back to their room at two in the morning again and were up early for another engagement. He gave another cavernous yawn and shook off his fatigue.

“Ma, you’re amazing. How do you look so good? I don’t think I’ve slept more’n four hours for weeks now.”

His mother laughed at him. He loved to see her laugh, and they laughed all the time here. He drank in every moment of the two of the together, but it was almost the end of July, and their time in New Orleans drew to a close.

“Are you having a good time?”

Joe took a swallow of coffee. His head, full of the memory of pretty girl’s soft lips and the wine he’d indulged, a touch too much, needed to clear a bit. He gave her a lazy smile and replied, “I’m having the best time.”

She reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “I’m so glad. I’ve had an idea. What if we were to stay an extra month?”

The bite of toast he took dried in Joe’s mouth. “But we promised Pa we’d be back the beginning of September.”

“I know but leaving at the end of August won’t make a great difference.”

“But … we promised Pa,” Joe repeated, “and you know how worried he was about us staying for the summer because of the chance of illness.”

Marie laughed, “I lived in New Orleans my whole life before I married your father, I think I’d know if it’s safe, or not.”

“There’s so much to do on the ranch. If we don’t get back until September that’ll leave Adam and Hoss to prepare for the drive.“

Hearing her stepsons’ names, Marie’s jealousy flared. She snapped, “Would it really be so bad to spend another month with me? After all, I’ve seen so little of you.”

Before he could hold his tongue, Joe retorted, “You were the one who had to go away.” His mother’s hand shot to her face, covering her mouth in a gesture of distress. Guilt flooded him when her eyes widened and filled with tears. When they began to spill, she scrambled for her handkerchief. Horrified, Joe dropped to his knees in front of her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Please forgive me?”

Marie wiped her eyes and patted the hands that held tight to one of hers. “No, it’s all right, Cherie. I should have realized. You’re a young man. I understand why you’d wish to spend time with Adam and Hoss, and not your mama.”

Joe dropped his head. “Oh, no, Ma.”

She disengaged her hands and took his face gently between them, forcing him to look at her. She smiled and told him, “There’s no need for this. I understand, and if you don’t wish to stay, then we won’t.”

Her mournful words stung him. Joe bit his lip, disarmed and stuck in a dilemma. He’d promised his father to bring them home, but would it be so bad?

“All right, another month, but how about I book our passage now for August?”

He got the smile he’d hoped for and an embrace.

“Certainly, that’s a good idea.”

*****

Joe tucked the tickets back into his carpetbag again and wondered why holding them didn’t make him feel any better? It was four weeks since he’d agreed to stay. He didn’t regret saying yes, but a qualm shook him.

It was his own stupid fault. If he hadn’t of agreed with that hostess’ suggestion they should stay for Christmas. He didn’t know Ma was standing behind him until she’d laughed and chimed in, “We should do that.”

He’d told her afterwards he’d said it to be polite, but the look in her eyes worried him. Having put the idea into her head, he feared it had taken root, and if Ma decided not to return, he didn’t know how to stop her. He couldn’t make her go. Could he return without her? No. He’d made a promise to Pa, and he meant to keep it. There had to be a solution, and he could only think of one. He sat down and wrote a letter to Pa.

“Who are you writing to?”

Joe jumped and spluttered his sheet with ink. His mother had gone to lunch with friends, and he hadn’t heard her return. He tried to keep the guilt out of his voice when he replied, “I’m writing Pa.” Marie smiled, but her eyes lingered on him. He rolled the pen between his hands.

“You don’t have to do that. I’ve already written to your father.”

Joe gave a nervous smile and a twitch of his shoulders. “I know, I just thought it would be nice for me to tell him, Adam and Hoss what we’ve been doing. I know they’d be interested.”

“That’s nice. When you finished, leave it on the table. I’ll see it gets collected.”

He breathed a sigh of relief when she moved into her bedroom. He thought she’d guessed his ulterior motive. He’d intended to take his letter to the front desk, but to do that now could create awkward questions. When he finished, he left it as instructed.

Her fingers shook, but she managed to tear the envelope open and scanned the letter, devouring the contents. Two fingers pressed against her lips subconsciously suppressing any sound while she read. The heartfelt plea to come and collect them should they not return in September drove the color to her cheeks. She paced her room. How could Joseph betray her this way? The idea that he could write to Ben like she was a child to be sent to bed, and then to have the audacity to lie to her face.

Her fingers closed, crushing the letter between them and tossed it in the empty grate of the fireplace. Striking a match, she put the tiny flame to the paper and watched it crinkle and twist turning blue, brown and black before collapsing to dust. Satisfaction receded, and sorry shook her when the last flicker of fire died. Flying to her bed, she threw herself face down and began to cry.

Remorse and anger racked her in turn. What kind of mother burned her son’s letter to their father? How could she do this to Joseph? How could he do this to her, forcing her to take such action? What would he think should he ever discover the truth? How could he ever forgive her?

She lifted her head. Decisiveness settled on her face. She’d long since decided when she returned home this time it would be to stay, there would be no more leaving Ben. Any further trips she took would be as husband and wife. She’d seen for herself how distant her family were growing, and she couldn’t bear that, but it made her realize her decision had been the right one, for Joseph would be seventeen soon and lost to her. Her only wish to have one last special trip together. Something to look back on and talk about, just between the two of them. She went to the mirror and began to tidy her hair. Determined, defiant, tear-stained eyes looked back. Using her hanky, she dabbed the tears away and smiled at her reflection. They would have a wonderful time in the coming months and remember it forever. Nothing else mattered. When the time came to tell Joe, she knew he would understand and forgive her.

*****

Still in the act of arranging his tie, Joe didn’t turn his head from the mirror when his mother tapped on his bedroom door and entered. His eyes took in her reflection and pride swelled in his chest. She looked beautiful.

“Are you ready, Cherie?”

“Almost.” Another evening’s entertainment lay before them, although Joe had long since lost track of their engagements. “Where’re we going tonight?”

“I thought we’d visit the Belle Fleur.”

A hint of a frown marred Joe’s features. The Belle Fleur was a Casino run by an old friend of his mothers, Paul Renard. When he’d been introduced, Joe hadn’t taken to the man. His urbane air and the way his smiles never reached his eyes unsettled Joe.

Although just as luxurious, sophisticated and exclusive as the floating river palaces and other casinos they visited, the Belle Fleur was a little different. Renard didn’t miss a trick. On the floating palaces, the woman, who accompanied their husbands, were left to stroll the decks, but here Renard saw them as clients. He gave them stylish salons to sit and enjoy expensive champagne and delicious nibbles, and others, hosted by attractive young men, where they could enjoy gambling too. Playing elegant, lower-stakes games, such as vingt-et-un, together with any gentlemen who weren’t in the mood for deeper gaming.

Leaving his mother to enjoy herself in one of these rooms, Joe had delved into the parlors where fortunes exchanged hands in one night. He lungs filling with the smoke that hung heavy in the air, while the trill of danger quickened his breath, watching the men deep in the thrall of basset, faro, poker, or roulette.

The Belle Fleur soon became Marie’s favorite place to visit, but Joe’s delight began to wane seeing its effect on her. Those smoky rooms he visited were hosted by beautiful young women who kept patrons entertained, the drink flowing and the gambling furious. His mother played such a role in her past life, and seeing her here, surrounded by men vying for her attention, while she laughed and joked, basking in the light of their adulation a sense of foreboding bit into him and wouldn’t let go.

There were other reasons too, why Joe wished to avoid the venue. His mother hadn’t been the only one to attract admirers. The wives left to entertain themselves were delighted to pass the time with Joe, finding his youth, good looks and western manner irresistible. Never in Joe’s wildest dreams did he imagine the education he would be acquiring about the fairer sex. Escorting them out into the moonlit garden, with its secluded arbors, or sitting in a dark corner of a quiet salon, Joe found these ladies had a relaxed approach to intimacy. Fired-up hormones overcame his natural reserve. Encouraged, he grabbed the tantalizing treasures offered, allowing his hand and lips to wander far beyond where he ever would have dared. Recently, invitations were whispered in his ear to visit the discreet boudoirs kept for the use of patrons, on the upper level of the expansive building. A red-bloodied young man, with senses and hormones that raged, he was willing to go all the way, and the idea he might unwrap that final elicit parcel made his head reel. He was tempted, but, the presence of his mother and his fear of failure kept him from saying yes. His resolve, however, weakened each time and he needed to stay away from enticement.

“Do we have to go there?”

His mother lightly touched his shoulders to turn him. Brushing his hands aside, she took over the task of fixing his tie. Finishing, she patted it in place and raised her eyes to his. Joe saw the glint in them and heard the edge to her voice when she asked, “And why shouldn’t we go there?”

His eyes dropped. He moved away, needing distance. “I don’t know. I guess … I don’t trust Paul.“

“He’s an old friend. If I trust him, so should you.”

His hands picked up his jacket, grasping the material like a lifeline. He wanted to tell her about the men. How he hated their fawning over her with their bourbon-laden breath and undressing her with lascivious eyes, and, most of all, he hated how she enjoyed the attention. He wanted to tell her, but he couldn’t.

His mother came to him and slipped her arm through his. “You will have fun, I promise.” He nodded and hoped his letter to Pa would bring him soon.

The evening took its usual course with Marie surrounded by her satellites. Joe retreated to a secluded salon, unwilling to join in the festivities. Nursing a glass of beer and morose thoughts he planned to spend the night there. Until she arrived. The swish of told him of her presence, and he looked up intending to inform the lady he was in no mood for company. The rejection died on his lips.

One word flooded his mind – exquisite. Large almond-shaped eyes the color of aged whiskey gleamed down at him. Long, thick lashes framed them below sweeping curved eyebrows. Raven hair shimmered with a hint of copper, coiled and piled on her head revealed a long, slender neck that led to sloping shoulders and a generous bosom her dress did nothing to hide. The full, luscious lips curved into a smile. When she spoke, her voice held a lilt of a French accent, reminding him of his mother’s, except this beauties voice was deep like the ocean and as sensual. It sent a chill dancing over his skin.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

She told him her name, Célestine. It suited her perfectly. She may have been in her thirties, but he couldn’t be sure, and he didn’t care. When she touched his knee, lightening sparked through his body. Every nerve stood on end. Each moment with her heightened his excitement. He ached to kiss those lips, and the explosion in his mind when he did, rewarded his patience. However, when his hands began their usual wandering, she stopped him.

Puzzlement, hurt, and intense frustration coursed within him. She got up and taking his hand led him over to one wall of the empty room. Moving back the hanging heavy brocade curtain she revealed more of the paneling. Joe gaped when she pressed a spot, and a hidden door sprang open to reveal a staircase.

Those amber eyes entranced him. “Shall we take this upstairs? No one will know we’ve gone.” She urged.

His stomach tightened, fire coursed through his loins and ran up his back. Every sense erupted, and desire burned his need into his brain, he couldn’t think beyond how much he wanted this mesmerizing creature, to plunge himself deep into that sensuous body. Dragging up every ounce of resolve, he prepared to walk away when dancing on the smoky air, his mother’s laugh filtered into the room. His head turned with a jerk in its direction. That sound changed everything. He turned his back on it and smiled at the beauty before him. “I’d be delighted.” Together they moved through the door, and Joe closed it behind them.

“Joseph! You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”

Jolted back to the present, he murmured an automatic apology. His mind still lingered in that opulent bedroom with Célestine. The feel of her creamy, silken skin lingered on his fingertips. The fire of their passion seared into his mind. He tried to give her every pleasure he could, but she had given him much more.

Marie chuckled at his abstraction. “Did you enjoy yourself, after all?”

Grateful for the shadows in the cab that hid the flush, he replied, “Yeah. I had a fine time.” He lapsed back into silence, keen to re-embrace his memories. For so long as he lived, he’d never forget this night.

*****

The letter he’d re-read three times before he put it down, lay on the desk in front of him. The contents settled a lead weight in his gut. He looked up, hearing the front door open.

Adam checked, seeing the expression on his father’s face. “Something wrong?”

“The letter from Marie. They won’t be returning when they planned. They’re going to stay on through August.”

A frown drew down over Adam’s eyes and his jaw quirked when it tensed. “August in New Orleans? Don’t they have enough sense to know that’s not a good idea?” No sooner did he open his mouth, Adam wished he hadn’t spoken seeing his father’s eyes drop and the lines of worry carve into his face. He groped for a lighter tone. “I forget New Orleans was Marie’s home before she came to the Ponderosa. She’ll make sure they’re all right.” Ben didn’t respond. With studied care, he folded the letter up and replaced it in its envelope. Adam hitched a thigh onto the edge of Ben’s impressive desk. “What is it, Pa?”

“I have a feeling even this isn’t the truth. I think they could remain throughout the winter.”

Adam sucked a tooth before asking. “What’re you gonna do about it?”

Ben’s hand came up in a gesture of futility. “What can I do? I can’t go and get them. Fetch them home like naughty children. I can’t humiliate the boy like that.”

Adam didn’t comment on whether he could embarrass Marie, but he had no doubt where the responsibility lay for their remaining.

Ben stuffed the envelope in his desk drawer and closed it shut. “I might be wrong. No point gathering trouble.” He changed the subject. The silver discovery on Mount Davidson gave them enough to concern themselves with anyway. “How’re the patrols doing? Have any more prospectors been found on our land?”

*****

The headline in the Newspaper – ‘No New Cases’ – came as a relief. The first occurrences of Yellow Fever had begun in May, but the papers didn’t report any until the middle of July. Raising the specter of the epidemic of ’43, this news heralded an earlier than planned exodus of their wealthy friends from the American quarter.

Used to hot summers, the intense heat of the city didn’t bother Joe, but he wasn’t prepared for the humidity that clung like a second skin, leaving sweat pouring and draining energy as if you’d run a mile within minutes of stepping outside the hotel. He marveled at his mother who managed to appear cool and collected no matter what the conditions.

Another change also took place. They moved out of their hotel into an elegant boarding house in the French quarter. Marie explained it made sense to move, and Joe didn’t complain. As he’d feared, the purchased tickets remained in his bag unused. He tried not to let it bother him. August passed into September and September into October. He welcomed the cooler air and breathed easier still to see today’s headlines.

He’d written Pa again, but the window for return by sea closed, the passage too dangerous to be undertaken during the winter months. His hopes at seeing his father faded, and by November, when the weather made overland travel impossible, withered altogether, but the lack of reply bit.

When his birthday arrived, Joe wanted to forget it, but seeing the effort his mother had gone to, he smiled and buried his misery deep. Under any other circumstances, he would have loved that Ma had arranged for the evening to be just the two of them and enjoyed the sumptuous dinner and comedic play at the theatre, but instead, the evening hung heavy as Joe pined for the rest of his family and wished he could be home enjoying the day with all of them.

His gloom couldn’t last, however, with the return of cooler weather came their friends, and parties and balls revived. Christmas approached, and his mother’s joy and excitement swept him along. How could he stay glum seeing her so happy, her laughter filling every part of their day?

Christmas Day arrived, and Joe presented his mother with a beautiful, ornate hand mirror he found in one of the little shops that ran behind their guest house, and she gave him a walking cane. He strutted around the room, the clouded Malacca stick topped by a rounded grip made of silver in his hand to Marie’s applause, who laughed and told him. “Now you are the perfect New Orleans gentleman, Cherie.” New Orleans celebrated Christmas in style, and they spent the evening at a fabulous masked ball, which didn’t end until four in the morning.

Other than Joe’s longing for home, Marie’s increasing friendship with Paul Renard continued to throw a pall over his enjoyment. They spent more and more time at The Belle Fleur, and this exploded the morning she broke the news of her intention to work for him as a hostess.

“You’re what?”

“Paul’s been asking me for some time and now seems right.”

“Ma, you can’t.“

“We need the money.”

Joe shook his head, bewildered. “Money? But … how can we? Pa gave you a bank draft.”

“I know, but that’s almost gone.”

“Then, write to Pa. He’ll send more.”

Tear-filled eyes turned to him. “I already have.”

Joe crossed the room in a flash. Grabbing her arms, he gave her a shake. His voice rasped when he asked, “What happened?”

A tear spilled and trickled down her face. “I wrote to your father at the end of January. He hasn’t replied.” The color drained from his face. His grip tightened, she winced, but she didn’t ask to be released. “It can’t be. He wouldn’t ignore you. He must’ve written back.”

Marie nodded, “Yes, you’re right, of course. I’m sure he did. I expect the letter’s been delayed.”

Fear clawed up Joe’s throat. He hoped that was true. “Do we have enough money for our passage home?”

Marie gave a startled laugh. “Of course not.” Breaking free of his uncomfortable grip, she put a hand on his cheek. “Joseph, it will be all right. The money I earn will pay for everything until the bank draft arrives from your father, and then we can return home.”

His eyes scanned his mother’s face. Panic started to boil in his chest. There must be a better way, he just needed to think. “I’ll get a job. You don’t have to work in a place like that.” He saw the flash of anger in her eyes and bit his lip.

“A place like…? You forget I was working in a place like that when I met your father.”

“I’m sorry … I didn’t mean … only, you shouldn’t have to work. It should be me.”

Marie smiled, “I don’t mind. If you wish, I’m sure Paul can use you too.“

“Work there – me?”

“Why not?”

The thought repulsed him, but how could he tell her that? “I wouldn’t be any good there.”

She laughed, “You’ll learn, and think how nice it will be, the two of us together.”

At least if he were there, he could keep an eye on Renard, and the extra money would mean they could buy their passage sooner. He fixed his eyes on hers, seeking the reassurance he needed. “We’ll go home in the spring?”

“I promise.”

“Are you going to write Pa again?”

“Yes, of course, I will tell him our plans.”

“Good, I’ll write too.”

After Joe returned to his own room, Marie sat down, her legs having turned too weak to hold her. The lie was enormous, but she couldn’t take it back now. A comfortable amount of the funds Ben had given her still sat in the bank. But she’d needed an excuse to accept Paul’s offer of work.

Ever since they first visited the Belle Fleur, the years dropped away. She was young again, and it thrilled her. The attention she garnered turned her head, and Paul’s constant urges to come work for him flattered and played on her desires to recapture long lost moments. She gave in to the whim. It went beyond anything she’d planned, but was it so terrible? No harm could come from working, and Joseph would enjoy it too. The experience would be good for him and provide the final polish he needed. He’d be glad of it in the end, and that would be enough.

Joe bent over his letter, trying to form his words into legible lines despite his shaking hand. How could this have happened? He cursed himself for not insisting they leave the hotel sooner and for letting Ma take the financial burden of the trip on her shoulders. He poured out his fears of what working at the Belle Fleur could mean for her. Ma didn’t seem to realize the difference between visiting and working there, and he feared the consequences.

Although just as heartfelt, Marie wrote her letter with calm confidence. She told her husband everything. Now was not the time for dissembling. She told him her lie and the reasons behind it. She could see him face before her as she wrote, but she was no coward and didn’t falter. He’d be angry, but she loved Ben and had confidence in his kind heart and understanding nature. It might take some time and persuasion, and her decision to give up travelling would certainly help, but in the end, he’d forgive her, and so would Joe.

She took Joe’s letter with a smile and consigned it to the fire along with all his others.

*****

Joe shifted his feet and tightened his jaw muscles, while Paul Renard’s eyes ran over him like so much meat. Asking the man for work proved harder than he’d imagined.

The man smirked, seeing the boy’s discomfort. Ever since Marie appeared in his house, he’d dripped suggestions in her ear about working for him. Still beautiful, she possessed the knack of loosening men’s wallets, but getting the boy too was a welcome bonus. His female clientele would be fighting to be at the table with this one. But no need to let him know that. Renard rubbed his chin with his hand.

“All right, I’ll give you a chance. I’ll put you in the yellow salon. Philippe will show you the ropes.”

As Renard hoped, the charming, handsome, young man caused every bit of the stir he anticipated. The yellow salon became one of the busiest in his house, and more of the woman began to gamble.

Plunged into the underbelly of the Belle Fleur, Joe discovered the art of stacked decks and rigged playing boxes. His evenings were full of bored woman with money to pour onto his faro table. They drank too much champagne and enjoyed roaming their eyes and fingers over him. He worked hard to keep their hands above the table.

Taking money off women bothered Joe at first, but they always had more and didn’t care whether they won or lost, so long as they could ogle him while they did. He didn’t mind the looking, and it kept the vacuous woman keen and spending. After all, the more money he took, the bigger his bonus at the end of the week. The requests to continue in private disturbed him. The Belle Fleur offered attractions other than gambling for its patrons. There were back rooms, dense with noxious clouds from substances provided by Chinese men, and those private, luxurious rooms upstairs where he enjoyed that evening of illicit pleasure, could be supplied with a companion for their guest’s convenience too – at the right price. Most of these ‘companions’ came from the little house that sat out of sight behind the casino, but they could be a hostess or host. Joe had no desire to ‘extend’ his services, but the whispered conversations he spotted between eager ladies and Renard made him suspect it was being requested.

“Joe, how would you like to earn more money?”

Those conversations flicked through Joe’s mind at Renard’s question, and he fixed him with a wary look before answering with caution, “Sure, how?”

Renard sat on the edge of Joe’s table and pulled out the fob watch he kept tucked in his flamboyant waistcoat pocket. The man’s grey eyes watched and weighed him. Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Joe picked up a pack of cards and casually shuffled them. Why did Renard always bother him? The timepiece hanging from the man’s right hand swung back and forth in a rhythmic flow.

“I have exclusive clientele, Joseph, and I like to offer them many delightful experiences, for which they are prepared to pay a great deal.” Joe swallowed, guessing where this was going. “You will be gratified to know I’ve had several flattering offers for your company.”

Fighting his disgust, Joe managed to keep his voice disinterested. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Are you sure?” Renard pressed. “The extra money is substantial, plus any tips you receive are yours to keep, and they can be generous – if you please.”

His guard slipping, Joe snapped, “I’m not that desperate for money.” A flicker of annoyance crossed Renard’s eyes, and the watch stopped its swing. Joe gritted his teeth. They needed these jobs. He couldn’t afford to upset Renard, he tempered, “I appreciate the offer, but right now, I’m not interested.”

Renard slipped off the table and stood, the watch returned to its pocket. “If you change your mind…” He trailed off and smiled. Joe shivered.

On the walk home, Marie gave his arm a shake. “You’re quiet tonight.”

Damn, he should have realized Ma would notice his distraction, but Renard’s offer was too dangerous to discuss. Other than she’d worked in a gambling house, they never talked about how his mother made her living before marrying his father. Could part of her fate have included entertaining guests beyond hosting? If it had, he didn’t judge or blame her, and it didn’t change who she was or how much he loved her. But would she believe that, if he told her how he’d refused Renard?

Joe took a long breath, letting the perfumed air sink deep into his lungs. The temperature, after the cooler but wetter winter, had begun to climb again. He still struggled with the hot, humidity of New Orleans, which made him long even more for the pine-soaked, crisp air of home.

“Joe?” Marie prodded.

“It’s nothing. I think I’m just a little homesick tonight.”

“You miss home a great deal, don’t you?”

Joe heard the disappointment in her voice and regretted it, but rather that than touch the other subject. “A little, yes, but not enough to spoil this beautiful sunrise.”

His words worked their magic. Marie laughed and wound her arms tighter through his again. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”

Joe may have said no to Renard, but the man could be tenacious, and he’d have to keep his wits about him. It served to deepen his worries over their situation and intensify his hope they could quit soon and return home.

*****

Work at the Belle Fleur began at eight in the evening and didn’t finish until four or five the following morning. They would fall straight into bed and not get up until lunch. Aware of the need for fresh air, Joe insisted they always go out after lunch for a walk or, as a treat, they’d hire horses from the local stables and go for a ride.

They saw little of their American friends, and when they did ,Joe noticed they couldn’t get away fast enough. He thought he imagined their aversion until one New Orleans Hostess told Marie straight out, “My dear, if I don’t associate with waiters, I certainly won’t with the hostess of a gambling hell.”

Marie responded with a flash of her eyes and a toss of her head. She laughed and told Joe she couldn’t care less about those people. Joe agreed, but it hurt, nonetheless.

Having woken up ahead of his mother, Joe took the opportunity to slip out to make the quick trip to the post office. Hopeful today would be the day to bring the letter from Pa. He checked whenever he could, and the lack of response crushed him bit by bit. He carried it like a physical pain in his heart. Today proved no different to the others, and he returned to their lodgings empty-handed.

Knocking at his mother’s bedroom door, he received a cheerful, entrée and entered. Brought up short, he stood and gaped. Arrayed in a beautiful riding habit of forest green, she looked magnificent.

She gave him a twirl. “What do you think? It arrived just this morning.”

A knot hardened in Joe’s stomach. “This morning? Ma, is that new?”

“Of course. I ordered several new outfits.“

Flinging aside his hat and gloves, Joe pounced on the box where he’d stored their savings, counting it each week, satisfied to see it grow. Yanking it open, his hands began to tremble seeing its disastrous depletion. He felt sick. It had taken two months of hard work to accumulate, and they’d almost gotten enough for their passage.

“It’s gone… ”

Marie snatched the box from his hands and shut the lid with a snap. “It’s not important-“

He interrupted her, his anger visible in his jutting jaw and blazing eyes, “Not important? How can you say that? It was to pay our fare home.”

“We’ll get more.”

“How long, Ma? How long will it take? I want to go home, don’t you?”

Furious eyes snapped to meet his. “Of course, I do. What a ridiculous thing to ask.”

“Is it? You don’t seem to be in any hurry, an’ you sure love being here. Why? Is it because of Renard-?” He staggered back, shocked by the slap.

“How dare you! Paul’s a friend. He’s been good to us, remember that, and if I want to buy new gowns I will, do you understand?” Joe shut his mouth. The slap hadn’t been hard, but he’d never seen his mother so angry and cursed his stupidity in stepping over the line by mentioning Renard in that way. After a beat to be sure he’d say nothing more, Marie went on, “Good, now, I wish to have my ride.” Picking up her skirts, she flounced passed Joe out the door.

He followed with slow steps. How could it be possible to be angry, fearful and sad at the same time? The knot in his stomach strangled his lungs. He found it hard to breathe. Would they ever get home?

His mood hadn’t lightened by the time they reached the street. They walked in silence toward the stables, until his mother slipped an arm through Joe’s.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. Please don’t be angry with me.” Joe bit his lip. His mother placed the tip of her finger on his face and used it to turn him to her. “Please, forgive your maman? I hate for us to quarrel, and you have to admit I look très bien in my new habit.”

Joe couldn’t prevent the smile that broke out at her cajoling. What could he do? It was impossible to stay cross at her.

*****

The evening at Le Belle Fleur began like all the others. Joe surrounded by his usual flock of adoring women all eager to spill their money onto his table like their breasts over the top of their low-cut dresses.

At nine o’clock, he went looking for his mother to take their break. He pushed through the crowded salon out to the expansive terrace where he spotted her on the upper balcony talking with two men. One he didn’t recognize, the other his lip curled on seeing. What a pest Henri Gautreau had become.

The son of a wealthy French Creole family, his obsession with Marie infuriated Joe. Annoyed at his cloying behavior, Joe had beseeched his mother to speak to Renard and get him to warn off the nuisance. Predictably she’d laughed.

“He’s just a boy, barely older than you. If I can’t handle him, I should quit.”

“I wish you would.”

“Pardon?”

“I said, I still think you should – talk to him.”

“Nonsense. Besides he’s one of Paul’s richest clients. It won’t do to upset him.”

Well, he’d deal with him, even if Ma wouldn’t. Joe squared his shoulders, jutted his chin and made for the steps.

Hearing his name called, Joe stopped short and found Renard at his side.

“What is it? I’m on my break.” Joe couldn’t keep the impatient tone out of his voice and saw by the contraction of Renard’s brows he noticed. Joe eyes went back to the balcony and frowned himself, seeing Gautreau animated and arguing with his mother. What was that nuisance doing now? He turned away his attention recalled again.

“I need to speak with you. I’ve had more offers, and I think you need to reconsider-“

“Don’t laugh at me!”

The bellow shattered the air and brought all their heads around. Joe’s eyes widened in horror seeing Gautreau grab his mother and shove her back. He was already moving when she hit the low intricately worked balustrade just that bit too hard. Joe’s breath froze in his throat for that instant between recovery and loss. The guttural cry ripped from the very depths of his soul when loss won and momentum toppled her into the void. He watched her fall and crash to the ground, where she lay still. Time slowed and the world dissolved into a long tunnel between him and his mother. He began to run. The drop to his knees started two feet away and skidded him to her side. He hung over her. Sweat broke out on his brow, his hands shook, the pounding of his heart so loud he could scarcely hear the single word he murmured, “Mama?”

With infinite care, he cupped her head with one hand and raised it, while patting her pale cheek with the other. When her eyelashes fluttered, he was almost sick from relief. This moment of ecstasy vanished when he laid her head back down and removed his hand to see blood. He stared at it, the red liquid cloying at his fingers. Her blood, his mother’s blood. His mind numbed, he couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. Looking about him, he jumped to find them surrounded by people. There faces a mixture of shock and curiosity. Desperation dripped from his words, “She needs a doctor. Someone get a doctor!”

At his shoulder, Renard snapped out, “She needs a hospital. I’ll find a cab that will be quicker.”

Renard disappeared, and Joe looked up into the white face of Henri Gautreau staring down.

“You did this!”

His mind screamed to grab the man and tear him apart, but he couldn’t let go of his mother. Renard was back telling him the cab waited outside for them. Joe picked up Marie and turned to Renard. “Call the Police. He needs to be arrested. He pushed her.”

Renard eyes shot up to Gautreau and back to Joe. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything.”

*****

‘It’s not far, it’s not far,’ Joe repeated the mantra throughout the endless journey. When the cab reached the building on Basin Street, Joe gathered his mother in his arms and carried her up the steps. His desperate calls for help answered by the nuns who ran the hospital. Over and over, he repeated what happened until he was gently moved aside and told to wait. Left alone in the hallway, he flattened against the wall and slid to the floor to rest his forearms on bent knees and bowed his head. How long before the nun came, he wasn’t sure. Time had no meaning anymore, only the fear that consumed him. The soft tap on his shoulder brought his head up in expectation.

“You can see your mother now.”

His stomach lurched. She lay so still stretched out like a corpse, skin paler than the white of the bandage swathed around her head. He took her hand, it felt cold against his.

“How is she?”

He addressed the question to the man across the bed from him. “Young man, your mother’s suffered a serious head injury. She’s in a coma.”

In his stricken mask of a face, Joe’s eyes flickered. “She’ll wake up though, won’t she? She’ll be all right?”

The doctor pressed his lips together. He never enjoyed giving bad news. “It’s hard to say with injuries like this. There is a chance she’ll recover-”

“Thank God.”

The doctor frowned at the interruption and stressed his next words. “Son, the likelihood is she won’t.”

Joe ran his fingers down his mother’s face and replied with certainty, “Ma will. She’ll get better.”

“We can all hope for that, of course. Now, you need to arrange to take her home and care for her there.”

“Take her home? I don’t understand. Can’t she stay here?”

“I’m sorry son. We’ve done all we can for her, we need to make room for other patients. Take her home and arrange for your own doctor to visit and I would suggest you hire a nurse.”

Panic washed over Joe, he eyes darted from the doctor to the Nun and back again. “We’re not at home, we live out west in the Utah territory. We’re visiting … I don’t have a doctor or … what do I do?”

“Haven’t you any friends here?”

Joe jerked from the bed to the window. He ran a shaky hand through his hair while his mind listed the ‘friends’ they had in New Orleans, friends who turned their back on them the minute his mother went to work at Belle Fleur.

The doctor saw the ragged tension in the boy. When he’d brought his mother in, he’d noticed him, all strung out like catgut, a nudge away from breaking apart. He’d seen it happen with many men, and this kid couldn’t be much more than sixteen or seventeen. The doctor braced himself for the fallout. It didn’t happen. The lad stood with his back to him, head down, hands by his side, fist clenched. Then he drew a breath, pushed back his shoulders and turned. The doctor stared in amazement the boy had grown up before his eyes.

“All right, I’ll take care of her myself. What do I have to do?”

The whole time the doctor explained to the lad the necessary tasks for his mother’s care, he watched the boy’s hands. They never stopped stroking her still one, his touch never losing its tenderness. The love displayed in that motion moved the man to offer, “I could add you to my rounds and arrange for a nurse, but there will be a cost.”

Without a blink, Joe replied, “I can take care of that.” He devoured his mother’s face with his eyes, his mind working. “Can she stay here for an hour or so? I need to check with our lodgings and make some arrangements.”

The doctor’s eyes flicked to the nun, who nodded.

*****

Aghast at Joe’s disheveled appearance and bloody hands, the proprietress of the boarding house wasted no time in telling him she didn’t run a nursing home. His entreaties having no effect on the hard-hearted woman, he packed their bags, depleted their precious savings further by paying off what they owed and left.

Calling a cab, Joe tossed in their luggage and instructed it to take them to the Belle Fleur. He needed to speak to Renard before starting to look for new lodgings. Help would not be sought from those ‘friends’ who snubbed them, besides he could take care of things by himself, but, Lord, how he longed for Pa and his brothers.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Joe. I’d hoped the injury wasn’t too serious.”

Joe looked down at Renard, who sat behind the desk in his office. Although glad of it, he didn’t have time for sympathy.

“Thanks, but I needed to tell you I might be late for work. I’ve a lot to do. I have to find new lodgings and go to the police.”

“Police?”

“Yes. I must speak to them about what happened and how Gautreau pushed Ma. He needs to pay. What happened to him? Did they arrest him?”

Renard got up and came around the desk. “Joseph, I told you I’d take care of the police. After all, this happened in my establishment.”

Joe looked doubtful. “I don’t know…”

“Leave it to me, you’ve got enough to worry about. You said you need new lodging. I think I may be able to help you there.”

Renard rallied to his assistance. He took Joe to a boarding house owned by a friend, in a back street not far from Belle Fleur. Grateful and relieved, the shabbiness passed Joe by, nothing else mattered except having a safe place to bring his mother. Truly indebted for the help, Joe shook Renard’s hand with a warmth he’d never before used. Perhaps he’d been wrong about him after all.

“I need to arrange for the nurse to cover tonight so I can come to work.”

Renard put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about tonight if it’s too difficult. Tomorrow’s soon enough.”

“Thanks. You’re a good friend.”

The gratitude in Joe’s eyes made the man smile. The boy would soon be prepared to do anything he wanted.

True to his word, the doctor produced a nurse ready and waiting when Joe arrived back at the hospital. He also offered to help transport Marie to their new lodging.

If the doctor didn’t think much of Joe’s surroundings, he didn’t say so. With assurances he would be back the next day, he left. After helping to settle his mother in, Joe arranged with the nurse what time she would need to return to cover the night duty when he would be at work. Depleting their savings even more, Joe paid her in advance and took her to a cab.

Left alone with his mother, he sank onto the rickety spindle chair and looked around the dingy room. Their luggage lay in a heap in one corner where he’d thrown it, and a cot brought in by the proprietor for his use occupied another. The rest of the sparse furniture consisted of a small table and a washstand. His eyes went to his mother’s still form lying on the bed. He watched the slow rise and fall of her breathing. His chest tightened, and his own breath began to quicken. His fingers writhed through his hair, fingertips pressing into his scalp to contain the terror from the thoughts that battered his brain. Oh, God, Pa, where are you? I need you.

“Enough,” he growled, forcing down the panic. Things needed doing and wallowing in self-pity wouldn’t get them done. Stripping off his jacket, he set to work.

*****

“Joe, I’m here.”

Ben woke with a start. The intensity of the dream so real, he answered the son who called, pleading for help. Shaking it off, he leaned to pick up the letter from Marie, he’d been reading again before dozing off. He’d written several times to her and Joe, who baffled him by his lack of response. Unbeknownst to him, his letters ended in the same place as his sons.

Autumn, Christmas and winter past with them all aware of the hole in their household. Joe’s birthday came and went. They all knew what day it was, but nobody had the heart to say anything.

The front door opened, and he looked up to see his eldest enter. The blast of cold air he brought with him gusted the fire in the huge crate, sending sparks up the chimney.

“The pass is clear.”

Ben grunted at the news he hoped for and folded the letter he held, returning it to his waistcoat pocket.

Adam shucked off his coat and came to the fireplace. Resting one foot on the stone hearth, he leaned on the knee with his forearm. “What’re you gonna do?”

“I’m going to New Orleans and bring them home.” Ben paused and asked, “You think I’m a fool?”

Adam’s small lop-sided smile quirked into being. “I think it’s about time.”

*****

Money, what was he to do? Whichever way Joe counted the few coins before him, it didn’t come out enough to pay the doctor and nurse’s fee along with the rent. Plus, he needed to buy Ma’s broth. He’d found a restaurant nearby prepared to sell him cans of it, which he reheated in the tiny fireplace in their room.

Over five weeks had gone by since the accident and the letter he’d written to Pa, telling him what happened and begging for funds. His need for them creeping onto the page and clinging to every word. Too anxious to leave Ma for long, he’d run all the way to the Post Office and back. Now, here he was – no reply and no money. His hand shaded his eyes. He tried so hard not to think about why Pa hadn’t written back. Picking up his meagre funds, he shoved it back in the box and closed the lid. He’d run out of options, the only choice left was to ask Renard for an advance, not a prospect he relished.

Time to get ready for work. Nurse Aggie would soon be here. Joe looked around the drab room. He’d pushed his mother’s bed closer to the window, where the slight breeze could reach her. A basin and bucket stood on the table; three more empty buckets sat on the floor.

His day began by lugging water from the pump in the street. He’d then strip, wash and change his mother and launder the sheets, which he hung on the washing line he’d rigged across the room. From the nail on the wall hung the three good suits he still possessed, the others long since sold, along with the Malacca cane and anything else he could spare. Taking one down, he changed before going to his mother’s hand mirror, propped on the fireplace, to adjust his tie and brush his hair, the reflected face a shadow of his former self. The healthy tan on his skin had faded from the lack of sunshine. Dark circles hung under eyes overlarge for his face, thanks to the weight he’d lost. None of this registered with Joe, whose whole being stayed wrapped around the person motionless on the bed behind him.

His days revolved around her care, easing spoonful after spoonful of water and broth into her. Without fail, he followed the instructions to turn her to avoid the bedsores and move her limbs to prevent muscle loss. Then there were her personal needs. Never had he imagined he would ever be caring for his mother in this way. The cot in the corner of the room stayed unused. To sleep, he dozed in the chair by her bed. Mental and physical exhaustion his constant companions, he tried not to think about the gargantuan nature of the task in case it overwhelmed him, but when the chores piled up, the fabric of his resilience began to rip, and he became aware the thread he held on by stretched a little thinner each day that passed.

The knock at the door distracted him from the job of arranging his tie. He opened it to greet, not the expected nurse, but the doctor.

“Hi Doc, wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

Removing his hat, the doctor stepped into the room. Even with the window open, the humid air inside pressed on them, made worse by muslin sheets drying in front of the tiny fire.

“I was in the area and thought I would call.”

Joe slid into the chair next to the bed and took his mother’s limp hand in his chapped, dry ones. “I think she’s looking better today. Maybe she’ll wake up tomorrow.”

The doctor took Marie’s other wrist in his and pulling out his watch began to count the beats. The boy said the same thing every time he came. Laying down the hand, he smiled. “We’ll see.” His experienced eyes ran over Joe. He didn’t miss the loss of pallor and weight. “How are you, Joe?”

The bright, forced smile burst into being. “Me? I’m great doc. Fine as frog’s hair.”

Doctor Harvey shook his head and went back to examining his patient. The lad was extraordinary. He took on the role of nurse, maid, cook and washerwoman for his mother without a blink. He did it all with unyielding gentleness and overwhelming love, and woe betide anyone who tried to pry the task from him.

Another knock announced the arrival of the nurse, who bustled in carrying a large basket. She greeted the doctor and placing her basket on the cot, pulled out a covered dish.

“Joseph, I’ve brought you some leftover stew. I hope you don’t mind, but I can’t keep it another day.”

Joe’s eyes lit when he saw the dish rich with meat and assorted vegetables. “Thanks, Nurse Aggie. I don’t mind if I do.”

Joe gobbled down the food and excused himself to get to work. Giving the Doc and Nurse a cheery wave, neither missed the lingering look he rested on his mother before he closed the door.

Doctor Harvey watched the nurse put the empty dish back in her basket and gave a chuckle. “Nurse Agatha Bailey, I do declare you are a wonderful woman.”

Blushing, the stout lady came to the bed. “I can’t stand by and watch the flesh fall from the boy’s bones without doing something.” Her little, bright eyes rested on Marie. “She’s not getting better, is she?”

A shadow passed over the doctor’s features. “It’s a miracle she’s lasted this long.”

The nurse shook her head, her voice mournful, “Poor boy, he’ll take it awful hard.”

*****

“I don’t give out loan’s Joe.”

Taunt fingers twisted his hat. Joe hated to push, but he forced out the words. “Couldn’t you make an exception, just this once? I need it bad. It’s for Ma.“

“I’m sorry for what happened to Marie, but I’ve helped you already.”

Joe sprung up from his chair and began to pace Renard’s office. “I know, and I’m grateful, but I got to pay the doctor and nurse.” He forced himself back into the chair. In a gesture close to begging, he held out his hands, his hat crushed between them. “Please … it’s life and death.”

Renard frowned. He didn’t like what he saw when he looked at Joe. The boy’s good looks made him useful, and although he was still handsome, he’d lost weight and looked haggard. Renard cursed Marie for lingering so long. Why couldn’t she just have died? The kid would’ve gotten over it and got on with business. However, always a man to spot an opportunity, Renard didn’t miss this one. Leaning back in his chair, he steepled his fingers, his eyes in the lamp-light glinted yellow. “I can’t do it, but there is another way.”

Joe shifted to the edge of his chair. “There is? What is it, I’ll do anything?” The fatal words out of his mouth, nothing could take them back.

“You already know. I mentioned it to you once before, remember?” Puzzlement swept Joe’s face before it lengthened and stilled into shock. Yes, he remembered. Renard leaned across his desk. “I told you before if you please the ladies the tips alone can be large, and it will mean extra in your pay.”

Joe’s eyes dropped. He stared at hands that mangled his hat. He wanted to refuse, to get up and leave the room with his manhood and dignity intact. How could he? Did they mean more to him than his mother? He spoke the words so quietly Renard strained to hear them, “All right, I’ll do it.”

Head still down, Joe didn’t see the smile of triumph on Renard’s face. The man wasted no time. Several of the women who’d approached him about Joe were in that night, he’d only have to select one. He plumped for the wife of a wealthy shipping merchant whose persistence guaranteed him the largest fee. After installing Joe in an upstairs boudoir, he went to tell her the good news.

Joe poured the champagne. She was older than his mother but attractive, nonetheless. Did that make a difference? Probably not. He gave her a glass along with a smile. Saluting each other, she sipped from hers and eyed him seductively. Joe returned the look with another smile and tried to loosen his tight collar, and almost flinched when her fingers ran down his face.

“You really are attractive,” she drawled.

He managed to choke out a response, “Thank you, and … and you’re very beautiful.”

She stepped in closer, and he could feel her breath on his neck. Her eyes heavy with longing gazed at him. Unable to bear the look in them, he dropped his, to be faced with her plump, white breasts thrusting out from her low-cut gown. Every part of him screamed to run away. Get on with it, you fool. Leaning in, he gave her a slow, tender kiss, like a man kissing his first love. She smiled and told him, “You’re sweet.”

Setting down her glass, she took his and did the same before leading him to the bed. They sat, side by side. Joe pulled himself together and took back the initiative. He cupped her cheeks with his palms and kissed her again. This time harder and fuller. Her hands wrapped around his shoulders, and the kiss deepened. His left hand ran down her neck, shoulder and, skimming lightly over her chest, glided under her dress. He heard her breath catch in her throat when he began to caress and fondle her. Her tongue danced at his lips, demanding entrance; he gave way.

Judging by the bundle of notes she’d left on the dresser he’d performed well, but inside a void opened in his chest. Joe dressed as fast as he could with fingers that refused to stop shaking. He had to get out of there. If he stayed Renard would send in another lady, and he couldn’t bear that. Not again, not tonight. He slipped down the back stairs. He met Noah, the black slave who took care of troublemakers, at the door.

“If Renard asks where I am, tell him I had to go.”

Noah grunted. He liked Joe, he always treated him decent, like a man, not a slave. Sorry for his troubles, it pleased him to help.

Joe got a block toward his lodging when it happened. He dry-heaved afterwards ‘till his sides hurt and staggered on to the street pump where he cleaned himself up enough to hope Nurse Aggie wouldn’t notice. The two always said little when he returned in the quiet hours around dawn, so the nurse noticed nothing strange about his silence. Joe escorted her to the cab stand as usual and saw her safely on her way.

Back inside the room, Joe stood in the middle, silent and unmoving. The air clung heavy and still. The sudden eruption of movement sent the exploring mouse scurrying for cover. Tearing off his clothes, he tossed them into the corner before slopping water from the bucket into the bowl. He snatched a cloth off the washing line and scrubbed at his crawling skin with a vicious vigor until it shone red and he was too exhausted to continue. Hurling the piece of muslin back into the bowl, he collapsed on the cot for the first time. It hadn’t help, he couldn’t wash the revulsion away. He dragged the thin blanket over his glistening, wet skin and lay there. Five minutes passed when the first tear trickled. More flowed, tracking down his face and wetting his pillow. Joe made no sound, and there was no movement, other than the tears that continued to well and tumble.

*****

Stepping off the ship, Ben looked about him. So many years had passed since he’d last set foot here and it gave him mixed emotions to see New Orleans again. He hailed a cab and headed for the St. Charles, deciding to book a suite first and then fetch Marie and Joe. After depositing his carpet bag on the bed, he made for the Hotel’s restaurant, needing food and a little time to assemble his thoughts before confronting his wife and son.

Alone at his table, he pulled out the last letter Marie sent him which carried the news of their intention to stay the winter and provided the address of the lodging house where they were staying. Ben’s jaw hardened while reading it, and he took a sip of wine needing to relax. Losing his temper wouldn’t help him accomplish what he’d come to do.

By three o’clock, Ben finished lunch and hailed a cab. He gave directions to the bank. The amount still in the account took him by surprise, but he closed it and stuffed the bundles of notes into his wallet. Next stop, the lodging house.

The cab bowled along, and Ben took in the sights and smells of the city that brought back so many memories. He could see Marie’s face now telling him how you could live a lifetime in New Orleans and find only bubbles and honey, or you might suddenly become aware of the most terrible rottenness. They had both seen that side of New Orleans, which was why her desperation to return here surprised him. “Things have changed,” she’d told him. “I’ve learned Madam Marigny died and Darcy left New Orleans a few years after I did. He never got over the disgrace of the duel with you, and what he did to me.” For her, those changes had made the difference. Ben wasn’t so sure it did for him.

The lodging house was typical of many homes in New Orleans’ French Quarter with it two stories and large ironwork balcony running along the first floor sat neat and elegant on its little street. Ben knocked on the door, and after introducing himself, asked if he could see his wife or son. The shocked face of the woman before him concerned him. “Is something wrong, Madam?”

“Mr. Cartwright, your wife and son moved out after the accident. I’m sorry, but as I told the boy, I’m a boarding house, not a-“

Ben cut her off, asking, “Accident? What accident?”

“Don’t you know?” she asked, shocked. “I don’t think I should be the one… “

Ben grabbed the woman’s arm and demanded, “What happened?”

The landlady wrung her hands and told him, “I think your wife fell.”

“When was this?”

“I’m not sure. Four, five weeks ago. Your son told me they took her to the Hospital of St John on Basin Street.” She didn’t need to say more – her visitor had vanished.

Horrified by what he heard, Ben searched for a cab. Questions revolved in his mind. An accident, weeks ago? Marie injured severely enough to be taken to hospital. Was she all right? What about Little Joe, all this time coping alone?

He ran up the steps of the hospital. Out of breath, he took a moment to regain it, while the young nun at the entrance waited patiently.

“Can you help me?” he begged. “My wife was brought here four, maybe five weeks ago.”

The calm young lady asked, “What’s the name, Sir?”

“Cartwright, Marie Cartwright.”

“One moment, please.” Ben watched anxiously while she disappeared into a little room. Craning his neck to look around the door, the minutes slipped by, while he waited and paced. He began to think she was never coming back when she appeared. Her mournful expression sent his stomach churning. “I’m afraid we have no patient by that name, Sir.”

Although relieved the news wasn’t worse, Ben stared at her dumbfounded. “You’re sure? No patient named Cartwright. The woman at the boarding house said … is there another hospital? Could you check again? Marie Cartwright.”

The nun crinkled her brow and began to shake her head when another stopped next to them.

“Forgive me, but did I hear you enquire about Marie Cartwright?”

Ben all but pounced on the new lady. “Yes. My name’s Ben Cartwright. I understand my wife was brought here about four weeks ago.”

The new nun touched the other on the shoulder and dismissed her before replying, “Yes, Mr. Cartwright, your wife did come here. She’s one of Doctor Harvey’s patients.”

The hands that clutched his hat shook. “May I see her?”

Taking his elbow, the nun steered Ben to the wall and the chairs placed there. Lowering herself into one, she indicated Ben do the same. Folding her hands in her lap, she explained, “Your wife’s no longer here. She’d suffered a head injury from a fall, and we gave her what treatment we could. Your son took her away to continue her care at home.”

Bewildered, Ben shook his head. “But we don’t have a home here, where can he have taken her?”

Now it was the nun’s turn to look perplexed. “Dr. Harvey’s visiting your wife, and your son has an attending nurse.”

“Can you tell me where?”

“No. But I can give you the address of Dr. Harvey’s practice. His secretary should be able to tell you.”

The polished, shiny brass shingle proclaimed the name Dr. A. Harvey. Ben trod up the steps and rapped on the door. A tall, angular young man answered his knock and looked down his long, thin nose at Ben.

“I need to see the doctor.”

“The doctor sees patients in the morning. If you wish I can make an appointment?”

“I don’t want an appointment,” Ben replied and pushed passed into the house.

He found himself in a plush waiting room. The ruffled young man followed.

“The doctor isn’t here, Sir.   You will have to come back tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, but I need your help. I’m trying to find my wife and son. They told me at the hospital Dr. Harvey is treating my wife. They said his secretary would be able to help me. Is that you?”

“Yes, I am Dr. Harvey’s secretary. Willard Wilson”

Ben took the hand proffered through politeness. “How d’ya do. I’m Ben Cartwright. I need the address of where my wife is staying.”

Appalled, the secretary drew back. “ I can’t give out that information.”

“Why not? She’s my wife. I just want to find her.”

The young man pursed his lips in a stubborn line that reminded Ben strongly of his middle son. “It would be most inappropriate.”

“Mr. Willard, I’ve come all the way from the Utah Territory to find my wife and son. I now find out she’s injured. Please, Sir, please, help me find her.”

Willard Wilson was an excellent secretary and proof against most things, but not this. He caved. “All right. Take a seat, and I’ll see what I can find. But it may take a while,” he warned.

Ben lowered himself into a chair relieved and grateful. Ben’s pocket watch showed half-past six, and still, the secretary had not returned. He wasn’t sure how much more patient he could be when a door opened admitting Wilson again. Ben jumped up, eager to be on his way.

“I think I have it. It’s a boarding house in the French Quarter.” He handed Ben the slip of paper with the neatly scribed address.

Ben pumped the young man’s hand. “Thank you.”

*****

Joe put the spoon to Marie’s mouth to watch the water dribble away for the millionth time. He wiped away the liquid with tender care. She hadn’t taken any water or broth all day, and he was scared. No, he was terrified.

Knowing the doctor would be calling soon he’d left the door to his room open. When he heard footsteps, he turned to see the welcomed sight.

Joe fixed him with beseeching eyes. “I can’t get her to take anything today, Doc.”

“Let me take a look.” He placed his bag on the bed and removed his stethoscope to listen to Marie’s chest. Joe hung by the bedside. His eyes riveted on the doctor watching every inflection of his face trying to gauge his reaction.

When he finished, the doctor returned the instrument to the bag and considered the young man opposite him. “Son, we always knew the chances for your mother’s recovery were slim. I can tell you now, without you, she’d never come this far. But it’s time to accept we’re losing the fight. I’m afraid she’s slipped deeper into her coma.”

A knife entered Joe’s heart, cold and deadly. “I don’t understand. What’re you saying? She’s dying?”

The doctor nodded. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think she’ll live out the night.”

The knife twisted. Joe dropped the cup and spoon with a clatter and fell to his knees next to the bed. He stroked a hand gently down her pale face and shook his head. “No. No, you’ll see. She’s just tired. Tomorrow, she’ll be better, and she’ll drink the water and eat her soup. You’ll see.” The doctor came around the bed and placed a hand on Joe’s quivering shoulder. He jerked away from the touch and leapt upright. His eyes bright with anger and jaw set, his words defiant, “You’re wrong. Tomorrow she’ll be fine.” He had to leave. Get away from the lie. He snatched up his jacket and stepped to the door. “I have to go to work, but Nurse Abbie’s late.”

“It’s all right. I’ll stay until she comes. I need to speak with her anyway.”

Joe didn’t wait for more.

The doctor sighed and considered the crumbling shell that was once the beautiful, willful and vibrant Marie Cartwright.

I must be getting old.” He told himself. He hadn’t been able to break the boy’s heart and tell him what he’d heard deep in her chest, the first signs of the death rattle. He took hold of the still hand. “You hang on now y’hear. ‘Till the morning, when he comes back. He needs to be here. He needs to say goodbye, so you just hang on a little while longer.”

Joe’s abrupt departure from his lodging house halted when he hit the sidewalk. He almost went back, but anguish drove him on into the night. How could this happen now, after what he’d done? His insides writhing, he ploughed through the streets, but the air seemed to suffocate him, and he halted. His fists clenched and he lifted his head heavenward. “Why? Why take her? Why now?” he raged. He staggered and leaned back against the wall, sliding down to rest on his heels. The back of his hand pressed to his mouth. He’d done it all for nothing! His hand turned to cover his eyes, tears pressing against his lids. “If you were going to take her anyway why not before?” He tilted his head back and raised his glistening eyes heavenwards. “Why did you hav’ta wait ‘til after, you son of a bitch?”

*****

Ben arrived at the address on his piece of paper and gazed at it dismayed. The same familiar two-story facade like the previous boarding house but there, the resemblance ended. This house looked dirty, rundown and unkempt. How did Marie and Joe end up here?

The door was opened by a woman he didn’t know. His eyes flicked beyond her into the dingy room.

“I’m sorry, I think I may have the wrong room. I’m Ben Cartwright. I’m looking for-“

“Cartwright?” came the chorus, and a man appeared next to the lady. Both looked out of place in the surroundings.

“You’re Joe’s father, Marie’s husband?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Are they here? Is Marie all right? They told me there was an accident.” He didn’t miss the look the pair exchanged. His fear cranked up a notch. “Is she here?”

The two stepped aside, allowing Ben access to the room. His eyes locked on the bed. Dread hung on him like a dead weight as he moved to look at the still figure lying there. Was this his beautiful wife? Her skin pallid and white, with sunken cheeks and eyes. Those rosy lips pale and chapped. The world closed in around them. He dropped to his knees. Taking her hand in one of his, he glided the fingers of the other down her cheek. “Marie, my love,” he whispered. The two others in the room moved to the base of the bed. Ben swallowed the emotion that rose in his throat and asked, “What happened?”

“Your wife suffered a severe blow to her head. I’ve been monitoring her since it happened. I’m Doctor Harvey, and this is Nurse Bailey.”

Ben acknowledged them without turning his head. With an effort, he pulled himself off his knees and sat on the bed, still holding Marie’s hand in his.

“This happened four weeks ago?”

“More like five.”

Questions clamored within him. “I don’t understand. Why? Where is my son?”

“Your son, Mr. Cartwright, is out earning the money to pay for this lodging, the doctor services and myself.”

Ben cut a look at the woman. He didn’t miss the admonishment in her tone. “I don’t understand. I’ve just come from the bank, Marie had more than enough money.”

“I don’t know anything about that. I just know your boy’s been working himself to the bone taking care of your wife-“

The doctor put a hand on her arm, checking her. “Nurse.”

“I’m sorry doctor, but when I think of the poor boy struggling alone…” The little woman broke off, pulled out a handkerchief and into it mumbled, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Ben told her. “I’m glad he had someone who cared.” He turned to the doctor. “I only arrived today. I didn’t know about any of this.” Nurse Bailey gave a gasp and moved away to the other side of the room. Ben looked at the Doctor and asked, “How is my wife?”

Doctor Harvey sighed. Feeling no need to beat around the bush, he told him, “I’m afraid she’s slipped deeper into her coma. It won’t be more than a few hours now.”

The doctor regretted his bluntness. Ben looked like he’d been struck. A low moan escaped his lips, and he reached down to pull Marie into his arms, pressing her thin frame into his chest as if he could pass his own life force to her. His hand ran softly over her once golden tresses, now dull and brittle. The doctor witnessed many times the tenderness with which Joe handled Marie, he saw it again here, and couldn’t deny this man’s love. To give Ben a little privacy, he moved to stand beside Nurse Bailey. The two stood with their backs to Ben and exchanged meaningful glances.

Minutes past before Ben could bear to let Marie go and lay her back on the bed. He may be losing his wife, but he still needed to find his son.

“Where is Joe?”

“He works at the Belle Fleur.”

Ben frowned. His thumb ran soft circles on the back of Marie’s hand. He questioned, “A gambling house?”

“Yes. He usually gets back around dawn.”

His dark eyes found the doctors. “Will she last that long?”

“I’m not sure. I hope so.” The doctor stepped forward. “I’ll say goodbye now. There’s no more I can do here.”

Ben clasped the man’s outstretched hand. “Thank you.” After the doctor left, Ben stayed seated on the bed stroking his wife’s face and arm, while the nurse bustled about folding sheets. He watched the shallow rise and fall of Marie’s chest, each breath more labored than the last. “Ma’am?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I think I should fetch Joe. He needs to be here when…”

Nurse Bailey’s eyes switched to Marie and then back. “I think that’s an excellent idea.”

*****

The dark back street lay empty except for the huddled figure against the wall, but someone might appear at any moment. Joe couldn’t be seen like this and scrubbed his face with the sleeve of his jacket. What was he to do? He couldn’t leave his mother now. This might be his last moments with her. But how could he let Renard down, who’d helped them both so much? Renard didn’t matter now, only being with Ma, and then afterwards… Joe pushed himself to his feet and pushed back his shoulders. Afterwards, he’d go home. If only to look Pa in the face to tell him what he thought of him for abandoning them. He’d go tell Renard now. He owed him that much.

“You’re late.”

Joe flinched, hearing the impatience in the voice. “I know, I’m sorry. Can I speak with you, please?”

Renard raked over Joe with his eyes. He was displeased. The lad ducked out last night after servicing the one client. He’d been forced to apologize to the next lady he’d lined up, and now he turned up late looking a mess. After letting Joe pass, Renard shut the door of his office and sat behind his desk.

“What is it?”

“Ma’s … dying. I can’t work tonight. I have to go home to be with her.” Joe drew himself up and took a breath. “The fact is, it’s not just tonight, I’m leaving. You don’t have to pay me for – last night. I’d rather not be paid-“ Joe broke off. He didn’t want to think about that. “Look, I’m sorry, but once I’ve made the necessary arrangements I’m going home.”

“You have enough money for your passage?”

Joe gritted his teeth. He’d work his way across the country cleaning spittoons if he had to, but he was quitting this place. He nodded.

“And the funeral costs?”

“I’ll manage.”

Renard smiled, and it sent a chill down Joe’s back. “And what about me? What about your debt to me?”

“I don’t owe you any money?”

“There are other debts than money. What about loyalty?”

“Look, I know you’ve been good to us. But I can’t stay. I must go home. I hav’ta go now and get back. I don’t know how long Ma has.”

Renard rose and crossed to the door ahead of Joe. “You think that’s it?” Opening his office door, Renard signaled with his head and two of his bodyguard, bully boys, walked into the room. Joe backed away. Renard smirked. “Nobody just walks out on Paul Renard, my friend. I had big plans for you, Joe. I’ve made promises. You will make me look bad if I don’t keep them.”

Joes eyes darted between the three men. Up on the balls of his feet, he prepared himself ready to move. With a flick of Renard’s hand, the signal was given. Joe leapt forward, making a break for the door. He almost pulled it off. Caught by the two monsters, they dangled him in front of Renard.

“Listen to me, my pretty friend. Your good looks make you valuable to me. Why don’t you agree to change your mind and stay and maybe I won’t have these two mess them up?”

“Go to hell.”

A fist plowed into Joe’s stomach, doubling him up in response.

“You better start to be reasonable boy, or you’ll be in no shape to go home to your poor dying mama.”

Joe strained to reach Renard. He drew back his top lip and snarled, “Shut your mouth.” Again the fist slammed into his gut, knocked the wind out of him, and set him gasping and choking. He spat the words out, “I wouldn’t work for you if you were the last man on earth.”

Renard grabbed Joe’s chin, forcing his head up to look at him. “You insolent brat. You’ve no idea how good I’ve been to you. You should consider yourself lucky I gave you a female client. I had plenty of men vying for you.”

Baring his teeth, Joe gasped. “You’re nothing but scum.”

Renard’s control slipped, and he delivered a vicious backhanded blow to Joe’s face then leaned in close. “You understand I can’t let you just walk out on me. I have to set an example.”

Caught around the arms by one of the big lugs, who hauled them painfully behind his back, Joe braced, preparing for the blow from the monstrous fist formed before his eyes.

“Take your hands off my son!”

Joe’s head snapped ‘round to the sound. It couldn’t be. His voice cracked, the word trembling on his lips. “Pa?”

Ben smiled into his son’s eyes and joy flashed across them, but then they darkened and hardened into emeralds.

Renard barked, “Your son?”

Framed by the doorway, gun in hand, Ben made an imposing figure. “That’s right. Now let him go.”

The hands holding him dropped, Joe wiped the blood from his lip and moved toward the door. Ben gestured with his pistol for the men to stand away and stepped back to give him room to pass. Joe marched out without a backward glance.

Backing out, Ben told Renard, “I wouldn’t follow.” Turning, Ben fled from the gambling house behind Joe. “Joseph! Wait for me.”

Bewildered by his behavior, Ben caught up with his son, who didn’t stop or wait and hurried on ignoring him.

Nurse Abigail picked up her bag and asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”

Joe nodded and thanked the kind nurse. Ben managed to add his appreciation before Joe escorted the woman to a cab. Behind him, the room wrapped itself in silence apart from the telltale sound of impending death. All else momentarily forgotten, Ben went to his wife.

When Joe returned, he made his way to the other side of the bed and dropping to his knees, took his mother’s hand. He never looked at or spoke a word to Ben. The two waited in the dim light of the downturned lamp. Marie’s labored breathing and Ben’s soft, low voice reciting his prayers the only sound in the dim room. An hour later, Marie Cartwright died.

“She’s gone.” With great care, Ben tucked Marie’s arm underneath the sheet. Joe continued to cling to his mother’s hand. “Son, it’s all over now.”

Joe recoiled at the soft words. She was gone. The woman he loved most had left him. He raised her hand, still warm to his touch, and nestle it to his cheek. His tears pooled into her palm, and he tasted their saltiness when he pressed his lips into the soft flesh. He placed the hand back down and stood to lean over his mother’s face, with two fingers he pushed back the strands of hair, and into her ear, murmured, “I love you.”

Tears welled in Ben’s eyes, watching his son kiss his mother on the forehead and move away. Ben walked around the bed and tucked Marie’s other arm under the sheet. He kissed her cheek and whispered, “Goodbye, my love,” before covering her.

Ben stepped back and turned into a punch that connected with his jaw. He staggered back, more from the shock than the force of the blow. A frenzied assault began. His son’s fists flew at him, and he heard Joe scream, “You son of a bitch.” Through a split lip, Ben tasted blood. That was enough. He didn’t wish to hurt Joe, but this onslaught could not continue. Using his weight to pin Joe back against the wall he held him there, one arm under his chin, the other lay across Joe’s chest.

“Stop it! What’s gotten into you? What’s this about?”

Joe’s eyes blazed with fire. His top lip curled back. The words panted out, “You know why! Why didn’t you write? Why didn’t you come?”

“I did write, and I came as soon as I could.”

Joe squirmed to free himself, which forced Ben to add more weight to keep him in check. His son slammed his head back against the wall in frustration.

“That’s a lie! Why didn’t you come last year when I wrote?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you, boy. I never got a letter from you.”

Joe’s head thrashed from side to side, he hissed through gritted teeth, “You’re lying.”

“I’m telling the truth. I never got any letters from you before I left four weeks ago.”

Joe stopped moving, their eyes locked. Derision dripped from Joe’s words. “Are you telling me all my letters were lost.”

Ben’s eyes went to the covered figure on the bed. A terrible notion began to take hold.

“I wrote you too, son. Did you get mine?”

“Yours?” Joe laughed harsh and gleeful. “Now I know you’re lying. I never got any letters from you.”

Ben forced himself to stay calm and replied, “Just because you didn’t receive them, doesn’t mean I didn’t send them.”

Joe scowled. What was he saying? Every nerve in his body screamed not to, but he asked, “What’re you talking about?”

“I enclosed the letters to you within the ones I sent your mother.” Ben took a breath and stated, “If you didn’t get any, it’s because she didn’t give them to you.”

The explosion of fury under his arms gave Ben cause to tighten his hold again.

“How dare you! How dare you say that. We had nothing. No word, no money. She had to go to work, so we-“ Ben interjected.

“Joe! I went to the bank this morning. There was over five hundred dollars still in the account.”

“W…what?”

In the dim light, Ben could hardly make out Joe’s face. The strain in his son’s body eased and feeling it safe to release him, Ben did so and moved to turn up the lamp. His son’s face flared into focus and Ben took a good look, appalled to see the gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes, rimmed by deep shadows. He saw how Joe’s hand shook when he passed it over his mouth.

“Son, why don’t you come and sit down.”

Joe backed up an inch against the wall. “There … there was money?”

“Yes. Don’t you remember? I gave her a bank draft. She deposited it in the bank.”

The world tilted under Joe’s feet. It couldn’t be true. Ma’d told him the money was gone. That’s why she… That’s why he’d… “Oh, God, no.”

In three strides, Ben crossed the room to catch his youngest, who slumped unconscious into his arms.

*****

The day passed with Joe hardly aware of what happened around him. He remembered lying on the cot with faces and voices buzzing in and out, the cab journey to the hotel and the bath Pa made him take. Immersed in hot water for the first time in weeks, Joe washed his skin clean, but the hot water couldn’t wash away the shame. He lay in the big, soft bed, shrouded in its comfortable mattress and let time flow over him. He wouldn’t have bothered to eat or drink if Pa hadn’t made him … what would be the point?

Unaware of the arrangements his father made to have his mother’s remains prepared to ship, he stayed in bed and watched Pa and Doctor Harvey stand at the bottom of it and talk about him, through eyes that scarcely registered their presence. Pa looked sad and anxious, but Joe couldn’t bring himself to care until the talk of steamships filtered through to his mind.

Ben shook the doctor’s hand and thanked him for all he’d done.

“Just get the boy home safe and take care of him. That will be thanks enough.”

Ben closed the door on the medical man and turned to jump at the sight of Joe standing behind him. His large eyes pinned to his face.

“We can’t leave, Pa.” Ben hurried forward and began to hustle Joe back to bed. He resisted his efforts. “We can’t leave. Not until they arrest Gautreau.”

“Joseph, you need to get back to bed.”

“Pa! He killed Ma. We have to see he’s arrested.”

“Killed?” Ben stopped his manipulation of his son and stared. “Son you’re not making sense. Your mother had an accident.”

“No, she didn’t. It was Henri Gautreau, he pushed her, and she went over the balustrade. He murdered her, Pa.”

Wheeling Joe around, Ben led him to a chair, before sitting next to him. “All right. Tell me everything.”

*****

Ben stared at the Inspector before him and grit his teeth. “You’re telling me you’ll be taking no action.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. Like I explained to you before, no complaint was made after your wife’s accident. I went to the Belle Fleur and spoke with the proprietor Mr. Renard and other staff present at the time. They all told me the same thing.” The officer paused before continuing. “Your wife had been entertaining and drinking a great deal, that’s why she fell.”

Ben hands curled into fists. “Are you telling me my wife was drunk?”

“Yes, Sir. Everyone assured me Henri Gautreau was not involved.”

“That’s ridiculous. My son saw it all. Doesn’t that count for something? I don’t care what those others said, she was pushed.”

“I’m not saying she wasn’t.”

“Then why-“ The Inspector interrupted.

“Everyone I spoke to told me the same thing. Exactly the same, word for word. That never happens with honest witnesses and tells me they were told what to say. The Gaudreau’s are one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New Orleans. They have many friends in high and low places. Henri is their only son, and they would do anything to protect him. No one else claims he pushed your wife except your son, and my questions have brought that fact to their attention. Take my advice, get your boy home and forget all about them and what happened.”

The words sank in, and Ben stared at the lawman. “Are you telling me, Joe may be in danger?”

“I’m telling you the investigation’s over, and you have no more reason to remain in New Orleans.”

Joe listened to the words of the Police Inspector, and blind rage took hold. Renard lied to him, and because of it, the man who killed his mother would go unpunished. That wasn’t going to happen. Renard would pay, but first, he’d tell where Gautreau could be found. Flinging on his clothes, Joe made for the window and spotted his father’s gunbelt. Without any hesitation, he pulled the six-shooter from its holster and tucked it in his belt. He could hear his father moving about and eased open the window onto the balcony. Hanging off, he collapsed rather than dropped into the street below to pick himself up and make for the Belle Fleur.

After seeing the Inspector out, Ben walked to one of the chairs and clutched the back of it, breathing hard. Balling his fist, he slammed it down into the cushion. This damn city with its corrupt wealth, lies and deceit.   Regaining control, he poured himself a glass of brandy and turned to Joe’s room. What would he tell him? His eyes narrowed. The door stood slightly ajar, but he’d shut it when the Inspector had knocked. Dear God, Joe!

Racing forward, he barreled into the room to be brought up short by the empty bed and the window swinging open. He scanned the street below, just in time to spot the thin frame of his son turning a corner. Ben cursed, knowing where his son was going and why. A flash of fear ran through him. When he’d brought Joe back to the hotel, he’d left his gunbelt on the dresser, but the pistol was gone. Ben cursed again. Why hadn’t he taken it to his own bedroom? Grabbing his hat, Ben hurtled out after his son.

Knowing full well, Joe was in no condition to run all over New Orleans gave Ben hope he could catch him. He wasn’t wrong. After ten minutes, his youngest came into sight. Joe leaned against a wall, but his head came up, hearing Ben’s approach. Seeing him, Joe took off like a hare down a course. Ben gave chase

It didn’t last long. Having neither the stamina nor energy to keep it up, Joe soon came to a staggering halt. Furious at having to chase his errant son, Ben was in no mood for a discussion.

“What d’you think you’re doing?” He raged. He caught Joe under one arm and gave him a shake for emphasis.

“Let me go! I’m gonna find Renard. He lied, Pa. He lied, and I’m gonna make him pay.”

“And how do you plan to do that? Kill him with my gun? Then what? You go to prison for murder, or worse. How d’you think your mother would have felt? Would it make her proud, knowing her son has become a murderer?”

He hadn’t meant to be so blunt or cruel, and Ben flinched seeing Joe disintegrate in front of him.

He pulled Joe’s arm around his shoulder. “Let’s get you back to the hotel, and we’ll talk there.”

It wasn’t so much a discussion as a one-sided conversation. Ben explained, and Joe lay on his bed and listened, unmoving.

“I want nothing more than to bring this man to justice, but we have to accept without other witnesses to back you up, it will be nigh on impossible. I’m not saying I’m gonna let this go or do nothing, but I think for now the important thing is to get you home.”

Ben gazed at his son’s impassive countenance. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir. I understand.”

Ben frowned. The flat, emotionless tone and Joe’s blank face bothered him. This would need dealing with, but for now, he’d let it go. The knock at the door snapped Ben out of his despondent thoughts. He opened it to find a waiter with the large tray supported on his shoulder.

“I have your dinner, Sir.”

Ben stepped back to let the man in, who walked over to the table and began to decant the dishes.

“By the way, Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Henson at the front desk, asked me to tell you he’s just had an urgent message left for you.”

“Thanks, I’ll go and collect it now, if you’re all right to carry on?”

“Yes, Sir, of course.”

Ben got halfway along the hallway when he stopped. Why wouldn’t Henson just send the note up? The sixth sense that warned Ben something was wrong hit him. He charged back to the room. The door crashed open, but no waiter stood by the table of abandoned bowls and plates. A muffled screech snapped his head around to Joe’s bedroom. Ben ran through the door to see the waiter pressing a pillow over his son’s face. Joe thrashed beneath him, his hand’s claws of desperation, trying to fend off his deadly assailant.

A bellow erupted, and Ben rushed at the man, who jumped back and turned to meet him. The two crashed into the wall next to the bed. Flinging off the pillow, Joe gasped for air, only to have it forced from him again when the two struggling men fell on top of him. Aware of Joe’s body caught beneath them, Ben dealt the man a blow to the jaw. Falling back and now free of Ben’s grasp, the assassin turned and ran.

Ben scrambled up and chased after him. He reached the hall to find he’d vanished. Ben closed the door and after locking it returned to the bedroom.

Joe sat up on the bed. His hair tousled and awry made him look much younger than his seventeen years.

“What the heck just happened?”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

Ben perched himself on the bed. “He tried to murder you. I don’t think we have much choice now. We have to leave.”

The spark that briefly returned to Joe’s eyes vanished, and he slumped back. “We’re gonna turn tail and run?”

“I’m sorry, Joseph, but there’s nothing else we can do.”

“Fine,” Joe replied and turned his head away.

Frustrated by his son’s reaction, Ben left the room. It stuck in his craw too to leave without seeing justice done, but they had no chance of getting that, and he was damned if he would risk Joe’s life. He’d made up his mind. They were going home.

 

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

 

Part Four – Forgiveness

 

Pa’s strong arms wrapped around him, holding him up, but his feet still dragged up the gangplank of the steamship. When they reached their cabin, he collapsed onto his bunk and stayed there. No excitement pressed him against the window crossing the Isthmus of Panama on the return journey, and he was glad to reach San Francisco only to be back on firm ground.

They stayed in the city long enough for Ben to get new ice packed around the smaller crate holding Marie’s coffin. Then they boarded the ferry that would take them to Sacramento, where Ben intended to buy a team and wagon to get them home.

His concern for Joe grew daily, who’d descended into a dark place where Ben couldn’t reach him. He prayed being home would make the difference. Throughout the journey, Ben filled the dreadful silence between them. He tried to engage his son with talk of the ranch, hoping he could punch a hole through the blanket of disinterest Joe swathed around himself. He wasn’t even sure if Joe heard him, and his desperation dug deeper.

He’d sent a letter home from New Orleans and trusted it would reach Adam and Hoss before their arrival. When he drew up outside the ranch house, the black wreath nailed on the door confirmed it had.

The door flung open, and his two eldest stepped through eager to greet them, followed by the ever-faithful Hop Sing. The two men stopped in their tracks. Hoss heard the sharp breath Adam sucked in, that matched his own. His jaw clamped tight shut at the sight of his younger brother. He hardly recognized the thin, pale and listless boy wrapped in blankets and slumped against his father. Pa’s request for help snapped him out of his shock, and he moved forward to receive Joe into his arms. The weight of the youngster no heavier than a feather in his arms horrified Hoss, and he couldn’t stop himself exclaiming, “What happened to him, Pa?”

“I’ll explain everything later. Adam could you have the crate moved to the root cellar for now. It’s coolest there.”

Adam’s eyes shot to the back of the wagon and then averted. “Sure, Pa. I’ll get the horses taken care of too.”

Ben gave him a slap on the back in acknowledgment and followed Hoss inside the house.

*****

“He’s been like this ever since Marie died?”

Ben swallowed his mouthful of coffee and nodded at Adam.

The silence from his older boys while they helped him undress and get a wraith-like, unresponsive Little Joe into bed, spoke volumes. He saw the way Hoss’ eyes ran over every inch of his younger brother’s gaunt features. Good enough not to question, they gave him time and space to do what was needed. Once he’d got Joe to bed and made him eat the little he would, he left him alone and returned downstairs to feed himself. While they ate, he told Adam and Hoss all he knew about the events in New Orleans.

“It ain’t right. He looks terrible.”

“I know, Hoss. I’ll get Paul to look at him after the funeral, although this isn’t something physical he can mend.”

Hoss fell silent, but the way he chewed his bottom lip betrayed his anxiety.

Adam filled the gap, asking, “Have you decided where yet?”

“The bluff overlooking the lake. It was her favorite place.”

His blue eyes misty while he gazed into his coffee, Hoss murmured, “Yeah, she surely loved that spot.” He looked at Ben, and asked again, “She never woke up, never were in any pain?”

Ben shook his head. “No son, she was never in any pain.”

Hoss nodded and set his cup down rather too quickly, clattering it in the saucer. “I think I’ll go to bed. ‘Nite.”

Ben watched him tread his heavy way up the stairs, his eyes dark with concern. “Did I do right, writing to you? I think maybe I should’ve waited and told him in person.”

“No. It would’ve been much worse if you’d rolled into the yard, with her coffin in a pine box, and he wasn’t prepared.”

“Yeah. I’m sorry I left it to you to break the news. Thank you.” Adam nodded, and Ben lapsed into silence. He roused himself to ask, “Did all the riders get back?”

Earlier, Adam had sent out several hands to their friends and neighbors to advise them of the funeral the next day. They’d all returned.

“Everyone will be there.”

Ben pushed himself up. He was beat. “I think I’ll head for bed too. Goodnight, son.”

“Goodnight, Pa.”

As he reached the top landing, he saw the light under Hoss’ door and hesitated. He might be tired, but his son needed him. Shaking off his fatigue, he knocked on the door and entered. His voice deep and soft, he asked, “Son, do you want to talk?”

*****

The day dawned cloudy and dismal, the heavens acknowledging their somber task. Everyone gathered at the main house before the procession headed up to the bluff Ben had chosen for his wife’s last resting place. Adam and Hoss supported Joe between them from the buggy to the graveside.

His Pa’s reading the bible verse seeped past the dense murk shrouding his mind into Joe’s consciousness, and he started to tremble. His sunken eyes lifted to focus on the casket. Terrible comprehension struck him like a bullet. Once they put her in the cold, dark earth, he would lose her forever. She’d be gone, and he’d have failed. Failed in his promise to bring her home safe. He couldn’t bear that.

The men stepped forward to lower the coffin, and Hoss jumped when a keening wail erupted beside him. It took a moment to realize the sound wasn’t an injured animal but his younger brother who threw himself over the casket. Appalled at his distress, Pa told them to get Joe away. Tears stung Hoss’ eyes, when he was forced to pry Joe’s fingers off the box, holding their mother. He fought them. Scrambling, he tried to pull away, back to the grave. His screams for his mother stood up the hair on the backs of their necks.

Joe’s suffering and his older son’s predicament spurred Ben into action. He pulled Joe from them and hugged him tight into his chest. One arm wound around Joe’s shoulders and the other behind his head. The boy resisted and strained against him. His terrible cries muffled into his black jacket. Ben held tight and crooned, “Little Joe, stop it, Joe. She’s gone now. Let her go, son, let her go.”

Shaken by their brother’s raw grief, Adam and Hoss stood by ready to give their support.

Joe tried to break free, wanting to get back and stop the burial. Why wouldn’t Pa let him go? How could he understand his failure, so total, so complete? Forcing his head up, he stared into his father’s bleak, drawn face. God, he looked so sad. Tears swam the face out of focus. It was his fault, and he needed him to know. “Oh, God, Pa, I’m so sorry.” Joe’s mouth contorted, his voice broke, “I’m so sorry.”

He sagged into Ben, and Hoss and Adam moved in to help. Together they carried him to the buggy. Ben turned back to a sea of horrified mourners. The men’s backs turned from the embarrassing show.

“He’s not himself.” He told them lamely.

Paul Martin stepped forward. “It’s all right, Ben, we all understand. Go take care of your boy.”

Grateful, he nodded. Climbing in the back of the buggy, he encircled Joe’s slumped form with one arm. Hoss sat ready at the reins with Adam next to him. Ben turned to look at Paul again. “Paul… “

The doctor put up a hand, stopping his friend. He knew what Ben was going to say. “I’ll follow you back, Ben, don’t worry.”

Paul Martin rejoined the family in the great room following his examination of Joe. He sat down on the striped settle and rubbed his palms together, aware of the three pairs of anxious eyes on him.

“I’ve given Little Joe laudanum to calm him, and he’s sleeping now. It’s like you said, Ben. There’s nothing much wrong with him physically, other than exhaustion. Rest and good food will take care of that, but the boy’s sunk in a deep depression.”

“What can we do?”

“It’s hard to say. We know so little about the human mind. Talk to him, try to get him to talk to you. Don’t let him lie up there in his room and brood. We must hope time will heal the problem.” It wasn’t much, and looking at the desolate faces around him, Paul was sure it wasn’t enough, but he couldn’t offer anything more. After Paul left, the three tried to think of what to do.

“Horses.” Hoss suddenly proclaimed. “Y’know how much he loved to work the horses. We’ve got that new string waitin’ to be broke.”

“Hoss,” Ben began, a slight admonishment in his voice, “he’s not up to breaking broncs.”

“I know that Pa, but he can come and watch, can’t he? I ain’t never seen nuthin’ light up that kid’s face like watchin’ horses.”

Adam chimed in, “He’s right.”

Ben rubbed his chin. “It’s worth a try. All right, we’ll do it tomorrow.”

*****

Joe wrenched his eyes open and battled the lethargy weighing on him. His stomach clenched, and he fought to free himself of the terrible images from his dream. His mother, sick and fading, then in her coffin, flesh crumbling off her bones, insects crawling over her …

He shuddered and sat up against the headboard, the light dim, the room lay in shadows. The nightmare clung to him, and he climbed out of bed and staggered to the washbasin to splash cold water on his face. Returning to bed to risk those dreams again was not a chance he cared to take. Instead, he lowered himself into the hard chair by his desk.

The dark visions faded, and Joe faced grim reality. The awful sight of the coffin being lowered into the earth shattered the miasma he’d surrounded himself with and allowed the sorrow to erupt. Now he needed to deal with it.

He jerked himself out of the chair and went to the window. The inky blackness of the night faded into the cerulean blue of pre-dawn. On the horizon, the first bursts of orange splintered the heavens from the earth. Joe scrubbed his face with his hand and tried to recall the funeral. Damn doc and his drugs!

He pressed his forehead against the glass, the cold, cool and pleasant, on his skin. He’d buried his mother without so much as a prayer or goodbye. Turning, Joe yanked off his nightshirt.

Just enough light invaded the barn for Joe to see. Cochise came to the front of his stall when he approached. He put a hand on the warm, silken coat of the animal, who quivered with excitement at his presence. A rush of warmth filled his body, and he leaned his cheek into the animal’s head. “Missed you too, boy.”

He saddled the horse with quiet efficiency. Aware the household would be waking soon, he wanted to be away before they could interfere. He walked Cochise out of the yard away from the house before he mounted and headed towards the bluff.

“Little Joe?” Ben repeated his knock before opening the door and staring blankly at the empty bed. Where could he…? Like a slap to his face, the realization of where his youngest would have gone hit him.

Adam and Hoss looked up from their places at the dining table, startled by their father running down the stairs.

“Your brother’s not in his room. I think he’s gone up to Marie’s grave. I’m going up there, just to see he’s all right.”

Hoss laid down his napkin and rose. “D’ya want us to come with you?”

“No. You two finish your breakfasts. I can handle this.”

*****

Joe reached the freshly dug grave not knowing what to expect. He hadn’t anticipated what the mound marked by the bleak temporary wooden cross would do to him. The agony of loss, like a punch to his gut, sent him to his knees.

Ben spotted Cochise, and a flicker of relief ran through him. On the ride up, he’d begun to question himself and wonder if he should have sent Adam and Hoss out looking for Little Joe after all, just in case he’d been wrong about his coming here. He tied off Buck and headed soft-footed toward the burial place. He found Joe on his knees, curled in a ball. He stopped and waited, having no wish to disturb his grieving. His son’s words drifted to him.

“I’m so sorry, Ma. I tried, I really tried.” Joe unwound and stared at the cross. Anger began to permeate his words. “But, you lied, Ma. You lied about the money. Why did you lie? We could’ve gone home. You didn’t hav’ta work at that place. If you hadn’t … Ma, why?” Ben tensed. Joe’s words ramped up to a frenzy. “All that time, you were nothin’ but a liar!” Joe lunged at the cross and tore it free from the earth. The rough wood scratched at his hands when he battered it on the ground. “I hate you!”

Swift steps brought Ben to Joe’s side. Dropping on one knee, he caught his shoulders. “Son, don’t.”

Startled, Joe broke away, the cross still clutched in his hands. “No! Pa, no. She lied.” One furious movement flung the cross away from them. “She doesn’t deserve to go to Heaven, she should go to Hel-“ The slap knocked Joe flat. Stunned, he crawled away a few inches before curling up again.

Appalled at what he’d just done, Ben hovered, hands outstretched, uncertain for a moment what to do, but what else could he do except gather Joe into his arms and hold him? “I’m sorry, son. Listen to me, Joe. Whatever your mother did, she’s still your mother, and she loved you, she always loved you.  Forget the lies, son.  Just remember the love.”

Sobs began to shudder through Joe, and Ben could barely hear words he keened so soft. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Ben tightened his grip around his poor heartbroken boy.

*****

At the sound of horses, Adam and Hoss ran out the door to see their father, Cochise tied to his saddle, and Joe held in front of him. Ben passed Joe into the protective arms of his middle son.

Laid down on his bed again, Ben sat next to him. “I think we should talk.”

Joe rolled away, his gaze fixed on the opposite wall. “Leave me alone, Pa. I need to be alone.”

“All right. I’ll bring you some food.”

“Not right now. I couldn’t eat anything.”

Ben gave up and went to the door where he hesitated. “A little later then. Why not try and get some sleep?”

The door closed and Joe rolled onto his back. Sleep? How could he sleep? His mind jumbled and raged against him. To clear his mind, he ran his hands down his face and withdrew them with a shudder when the soft powder rubbed against his skin. He held them out in front of him and stared at the caked brown soil from her grave. He flung his legs over the side of the bed and scrambled to his washstand, where he scoured his hands and face clean. He looked straight into the mirror, the ashen, drawn face reflected, unrecognizable. The overlarge eyes accused him of his disgrace and disloyalty. He looked away, unable to bear it. Grabbing the towel, he dried himself and returned to bed.

He’d never look at himself in the mirror again after what he’d done. Never in a million years would he wish his mother in… He covered his face, willing himself to block out the thoughts. It didn’t work. There was only one place left to turn. He rolled out of bed onto his knees. Folding his hands in prayer, he bent his head to plead, “God, I didn’t mean it. Ma, I’m sorry, please forgive me.”

His knees stiff by the time he raised himself, he flopped back on the bed to stare at the ceiling. He couldn’t blame his mother anymore. He’d made his own decisions and would take the consequences. If he’d done what he’d promised and brought her home, none of it would’ve happened. He was to blame, no one else. He flung an arm over his face to shut out the light that illuminated his failures.

Ben tapped on the door and pushed it open. Joe lay on the bed asleep, one arm strewn across his face. Ben contemplated waking him. He didn’t like that Joe had gone without food all day but decided to let him sleep. Tiptoeing across, Ben laid the askew arm straight. At the movement, Joe shifted, and a word escaped his lips on a sigh, “Ma.” Ben froze, but Joe made no further move. He drew out another quilt from the dresser and laid it over his son’s slumbering form and, without a sound, left the room.

“How was he?”

“Asleep.” Ben headed for his desk. A pile of paperwork he hadn’t gone near since he’d returned waited for him. He began to sort through it and halted when he came upon two letters. One from Marie and the other addressed in Joe’s sloping hand.

“Adam, Hoss, when did these arrive?”

The two recognized the letters, and guilt swept their faces.

“Sorry, Pa. We forgot they were there. Ma’s arrived just after you left. Joe’s ‘bout four weeks later.”

Ben flipped Joe’s envelope to see the back and stated mildly, “You didn’t open them.”

“Course not,” Hoss replied indignantly, “they weren’t addressed to us.”

Ben smiled at his son’s logic.

A frown twitched Adam’s brow. “Should we have?”

“No. Did any others come?”

Both men shook their heads.

“Just those. Why?” Adam queried.

Ben pulled a face. “Just something Little Joe said. It doesn’t matter.”

Satisfied, the two went back to their seats, and Ben opened Marie’s letter first. His brow drew down, and when he finished, he laid it resolutely aside and opened the one letter that had gotten through from his youngest. The desperate words poured off the page and cut into Ben. The same guilty question nagged him again. Why didn’t I go sooner? The final words made Ben sit up with a jolt.

I promised I’d bring Ma home and safe, and I failed. I’m sorry.

Ben looked up the stairs as if he could see into his youngest’s room. The boy had taken so much on himself, and it left him torn with guilt, grief, and anger. Tomorrow he’d talk to the boy and let him know the truth.

*****

Sunlight on his face brought him awake. Joe lay on his bed and watched the shadows of the room dance and play around him, allowing his mind to drift back to when he was a child, and he’d watch the sunlight bloom on his walls. He’d lie in bed, inhale that same smell of breakfast until her musical voice would call him – “Mama!” He came bolt upright and searched the room, almost believing she’d be there.

He jumped at the knock.

“Joseph, can we talk?”

He groaned but didn’t turn his father away. Whatever Pa had to say, he might as well get it over and done. He watched him pull up the chair and settle. Noticing the papers in his hand, mild interest stirred.

Ben sat down and held up the letters. “I found these last night. The letter you sent after your mother’s injury and one from her. I think you need to hear what your mother wrote.” Ben unfolded the paper and began to read.

Pa spoke his mother’s words, but in his head, Joe could hear her telling him her fears and reasons. How she couldn’t bear to lose him, how she felt young again, the fun they were having, and the lie she told. Her soft voice so clear, her perfume filling his lungs. The last words of the letter dropped his head.

You will be angry, my love, and so will Joe, but I can’t be sorry. We’re having a wonderful time, and I know that will continue. How can I then regret my lie? Besides, you and Joe have forgiving hearts. I place my faith in those.“

Ben paused and let the words sink in for a beat before adding, “You see, Joe. You didn’t fail either of us.”

Joe brought his head up and averted his face. The sunlight through the window caught and reflected on the single tear that trickled down his son’s cheek.

“She’s right, I would’ve forgiven her anything – except that one thing.” Ben frowned, and he saw Joe’s chin wobble as he fought back his emotions. “How could she die and leave us alone?”

“Oh, Joe.”

Ben moved to the bed and received Joe into his arms. Grateful for their strength, Joe sobbed out his anger, “How could she do it, Pa? How could she leave us?”

Ben circled Joe’s back with his hand, hardly knowing what to say. “She loved you, son. You just have to hang on to that.”

Once Joe lay calm on his bed, Ben decided the boy needed time and space to absorb everything and left him alone. The door closed and Joe tossed the quilt aside, leapt out of bed, and grabbed his boots.

Ben stared at the empty bed and cursed. He’d come back up with breakfast to find Joe gone. How could it have happened again? He should’ve locked the door.

When he reached the grave, he found the wooden cross restored to its place, and Joe calm and sitting cross-legged next to it. When he sat down next to him, Joe explained, “I had to come, to tell Ma, I’m sorry I got angry and blamed her. It wasn’t her fault, Pa, it was mine. I failed her. I failed in a lot of things.“

“You didn’t fail her.”

Joe ducked his head, refusing to accept his father’s words. “You don’t understand, Pa. I promised.“

Ben dropped on one knee beside his son and gripped Joe’s shoulder with his hand. “You couldn’t control what happened.”

Joe pushed himself up and moved away. “Couldn’t I? Ma’s right, Pa. I can forgive her, but not myself. If I’d made her go home, refused to let her work, she’d still be alive, and I wouldn’t have-“

“Have what?” Ben prodded. Joe stared at his father and Ben’s heart lurched. What else happened Joe hadn’t told him? Whatever it was tore at his son, and he needed to know, needed to help. “Tell me.”

Hadn’t they been here before? Him spilling out his guts, but this time he wasn’t a child desperate for his father’s love. Except when Joe looked into those eyes, he wasn’t so sure. “I can’t, Pa. I can’t tell you what I did.”

“Please son, it can’t be that bad.”

Joe snorted a laugh. “Oh, yes, it is. I scrapped ‘bout as low as a man can get.”

“Joe, if you were forced to steal.“

“No!” He derided. “Maybe that would have been better.” Joe laughed at the thought.

His son’s words and bitter, harsh laugh twisted a knife inside Ben. What had the boy done? He saw Joe shudder when he drew in his breath, and then with words that stumbled and halted, he recounted his shame. Whatever Ben might have expected to hear, it wasn’t this. His boy had been forced to degrade himself in a way unimaginable to most men. Whatever he said to him now better be damn good. He couldn’t have the boy carry this like a dead weight for the rest of his life.

“Son, I never judge a man by how much money he has, or the work he does. It’s what a man is that counts. You did what you did out of love, nothing else matters. I don’t think any less of you for it.”

“But what I did was wrong. How can you look at me and not be disgusted, how can I ever look at myself? Oh, God, Pa, I’m so ashamed.”

Ben rushed to his son and placed his hands on his shoulders. The boy stood, head ducked, unable to look him in the eye. “Don’t be. You were brave, not wrong. You didn’t hurt anyone or break the law.” Ben hands slid down to tighten around Joe’s slim arms. “No one should have to do what you did, son, but you did it out of love for your mother. The way you looked after her made me so proud. I’m not ashamed of you, Joe, I’m proud of you.” His chest swelled with emotion, and he pulled Joe close, wrapping his arms around him. His cheek pressed into Joe’s head, the curls tickling his skin. “Son, you’ve got to forgive yourself. You’ve done nothing wrong, and your mother wouldn’t want you to punish yourself like this.”

Joe’s head lifted, and Ben saw his own tears reflected in his son’s eyes. “Thanks, Pa.” Ben smiled and hugged him tighter.

They sat on a rock by Marie’s grave, side by side.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joe.”

“Can you tell Adam and Hoss. I don’t think I can.“

“If you want.”

Silence slipped over them again.

“I miss her.”

A hand moved to Joe’s shoulder. “Me too.”

The two remained there, quiet and in peace.

*****

“It’s sure pretty.”

Hoss turned his head to look at his younger brother and grinned, glad he’d brought him. The first time they’d ridden out together since Ma’s funeral, Hoss naturally gravitated there.

“I call it my happy place.” He heard the deep breath Joe took and the contented sigh he released. It pleased him to know Joe loved it too. “Iffin you like, it can be our happy place?”

“You mean it? I’d like that.” The glorious vista stretched out in front of Joe. The grey topped mountains swept down to a sparkling river running through the valley, a sight to replenish the soul and teach a man his place in the universe. Serenity settled on him. “Ma would’ve like it too.”

“Yeah, she would.”

They sat in silence happy to be together, then Hoss gave Joe a nudge and asked, “Do you remember…?”

The laughter of two brothers recalling good times with the mother they’d loved, lifted into the air and caught on the breeze to be gathered up heavenward.

*****

Adam turned his head when Joe sauntered into the barn. He smiled at what he saw. Two weeks since Joe’s return, he’d lost the dark circles under his eyes, and thanks to Hop Sings good food, the gaunt look had vanished. Pa told them about what happened in New Orleans. Poor Hoss had been devastated at the thought. Adam kept his feelings to himself. Pa didn’t need to know about his anger toward his late stepmother for the deceit she’d practiced. Always a complicated woman, Marie paid the ultimate price for her foolery. As for Joe? The events in New Orleans gave him a new respect for his younger brother.

Joe perched himself on a handy upturned bucket next to where Adam employed himself oiling a saddle. He’d sought his older brother out for a reason. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“It’s about what happened in New Orleans. Pa said he told you and Hoss.”

“He did.”

“Good. I wanted to ask you coz, well, I think Hoss would be embarrassed to talk about it, an’ Pa, he’d just say what he thought would make me feel better, but I think you’d tell me the truth.”

Adam stopped his polishing. He leaned over the saddle, resting his elbows on the seat. “That’s quite a compliment.”

Joe flushed. “You will, won’t you?”

“Joe, I’ll always be honest with you.” Joe grinned at the wryness of the reply and then laughed at the wink Adam gave him. “What’s on your mind?”

Joe sobered and ducked his head. “When men and women are together, it should be because they want to be, right? Pa said I didn’t hurt anyone, but the woman I … well, I didn’t want to … y’know. I pretended I liked her.” He raised his head, his eyes shifted deep hazel with worry. “Didn’t I hurt her?”

“No, of course not. Look, Joe, that woman knew what she was getting. You’ve no reason to reproach yourself.” Adam balled the polishing cloth in his hands. “I’m sorry you had to do that. Your first time should be different – special.” Adam broke off at the look on Joe’s face. “It was your first time?”

Joe looked sheepish, but his eyes gleamed with a hint of mischief, and he replied, “A gentleman doesn’t discuss such things.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose. What the hell did he get up to in New Orleans? “All right, I’m glad if you had a better experience. Making love, Joe, should be that, the physical expression of the feelings between a man and a woman. I hope the next time for you will be.”

Joe nodded and stood. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, fella.”

Adam’s brown eyes watched Joe’s back when he walked away and noted the hint of swagger that wasn’t there before. His lips pursed; Joe’s relationships with women from now on could prove interesting. Another thing they had to thank Marie for, no doubt. Adam shrugged. It was a problem for another day, and he went back to work.

*****

Hoss pulled the buckboard to a halt outside the mercantile and Joe sprang down to the ground.

“Joe, go take that message from Hop Sing to his pa, y’hear. Adam an’ me, we’ll start loadin’ the supplies.”

Joe gave a wave to Hoss and his older brother, who’d dismounted from his horse behind them. “Okay. I won’t be long.”

“Take yer time,” Hoss called and grinned at Adam. “Don’t think I’ve ever met a critter that lively.”

Adam laughed. Since getting his full strength back, their younger brother proved he had more energy than a bucking bronc. Adam reckoned he hadn’t stopped talking the whole way to Chinatown.

“Yeah, let’s hope Hop Ling keeps him occupied for a while. My ears could do with the rest.”

Hope Ling greeted the youngest Cartwright then asked his usual question, “How is honorable son, Hop Sing, he cook very good?”

Joe grinned, Hop Sing started working for his pa before he was born, but his father always asked the same question.

“Sure, Hop Ling. He’s the best cook on the Comstock.”

Hop Ling beamed at Joe and took the note. He read it and waved Joe to a seat. “You wait here Lil’l Joe while I fetch what Hop sing ask.”

Joe perched himself on the rickety wooden chair Hop Ling indicated, while the little man dived into the back of his laundry house. Gazing out into the street, he watched the hustle and bustle of this ramshackle town. He turned hearing the older Chinaman return carrying a small parcel.

“Here Lil’l Joe you give this to Honorable Son.”

“I will Hop Ling, thanks.”

He bounded out the door back toward the mercantile. He didn’t see the men until one stepped out in front of him.

“Well, lookee who we’ve got here. If it ain’t the rich Cartwright brat.”

Joe looked into the eyes of Bigmouth, the miner who’d taunted him with his mother’s friendship with his boss, John McFadden. Three others of the pack that had beaten him up, during that encounter, lounged against the wooden frontage of the saloon.

“We ain’t seen you fer a coon’s age. Where’ve ya been, boy?” He spat a glob of chewing tobacco at Joe’s feet and grinned. “Oh, that’s right at yer purty ma’s funeral.”

With great care Joe laid down the parcel Hop Ling had given him and turned to face the big man. He rolled back his shoulders and pulled up to his full height. There would be no more backing down, not to anyone, and no one got to talk about Ma that way.

The miner’s laugh when Joe put up his fists brought the heat into Joe’s chest, but the laughter died when Joe’s hand flashed and connected sharply with the man’s mouth. Amazed with himself, Joe burst into a smile. He swallowed, realizing his triumph might be short-lived. Bigmouth came at him. Braced, ready for the onslaught, and prepared to fight until he went down, Joe gasped when Hoss stepped in-between.

“Whoa, there mister. What’s goin’ on here?”

“Hoss, this ain’t none of your business.”

“Iffin it concerns you, Lil’l Joe, it concerns me.”

The look Hoss gave him made Joe step back, to find Adam next to him.

The miner waved an arm and blustered. “Me and the kid were just havin’ a friendly discussion ‘bout his ma, that’s all.”

“Is that right.”

Startled by the menacing tone in Adam’s voice, Joe looked from one brother to the other, who’d taken up a defensive position in front of him. Joe could almost touch the strength that rolled off them when they stood together. It stunned, gratified, and frustrated him.

“I think you’re done.” At Adam’s words, Joe cried out in protest and tried to push past them to reach the man. He found himself snatched up and held tight against his oldest brother’s body. His harsh whisper rasped in his ear. “What’re you doing? You’re no match for him and what d’you think Pa would say about brawling in the street?” Released, Joe stood, chest heaving and glared from his brothers to the miner.

Faced with Joe’s brothers, and his friends slipping away into the saloon, the bully had second thoughts. “I don’t want no trouble with all you Cartwrights.”

“Good. Just one more thing.” The speed and ferocity of Adam’s punch sent Bigmouth sprawling in the dirt, blood spilling from his nose. “If I hear you’ve come near my brother or mentioned his mother again, you’ll deal with me. Understood?”

Open-mouthed Joe watched the man nod and scurry away. He swung back to his brothers, enraged at their interference. “I could’ve taken care of him.”

Hoss patted him on the shoulder. “Okay, lil’l buddy, you go right on thinkin’ that.”

Already striding away, Adam called, “C’mon, you two, we better get those supplies home, or Pa will have our hides.”

Joe watched them walk back toward the buckboard. Resting his hands on his hips, he let out a dumbfounded, “Huh.” He’d waited a long time to feel part of this family and the knowledge his brothers had his back gave him a deep sense of security and happiness, but he hadn’t bargained on this brotherly interest extending to their butting into his affairs when he didn’t want them to. He scratched his chin. This could present problems.

“C’mon, Lil’l Joe, shake a tail feather we’re leavin’.”

Snapped out of his thoughts, Joe waved in response, collected Hop Sing’s parcel, and ran to join them.

The buckboard clattered its way home, and Joe hung on while he bounced on the seat.

“Hey Hoss, did you remember to check for any dime novels?”

“It’s in the box with some other stuff.”

Joe swung his head around to crane a look at the supplies when the report split the air. Blackness smacked into him before he could register the sound.

Hoss yelled when Joe jerked and tumbled from the buckboard. He hauled the team to a halt and jumped down, running back to where his younger brother had fallen.

“Is he all right?”

Hoss turned Joe’s head and pursed his lips at the wound that sliced a line across his temple, thanking God the bullet only grazed him. “Yeah.”

“Did you see where it came from?”

Hoss looked up at Adam, who held his jittery horse in check and pointed to the rise to the side of them. “Up there, I think.”

“Take care of Joe,” Adam instructed and slammed his heel into his horse’s side.

“No. Adam, wait! Dadburnit,” he called after his older brother, already half-way up the rise. It wasn’t like Adam to be impetuous, but there was nothing he could do, and he turned his attention to Joe.

By the time Adam returned, he’d retrieved the canteen from the buckboard, doused his kerchief in it, cleaned the wound, and wrapped it around Joe’s head, and given the boy a drink when he’d shuddered back to consciousness. The way Adam rode up, yanked his horse to a standstill and dismounted, told him his brother had missed the shooter.

Dropping on one knee beside Joe, Adam asked, “How’s he doing?”

“He’s alive.” Hoss turned a grim face to him. “That bullet were meant to take off his head.”

Adam scanned the area. “I don’t get it. Who’d want to shoot Little Joe?”

“Dadburned, if I know. Could it be those miners?”

“No. That wasn’t worth a killing.”

Joe opened his eyes and begged, “Can we go home now?”

Hoss frowned. Joe looked paperwhite. “You up to it?”

“Yes, just get me off the ground.”

Standing up caused the whole world to spin, and Joe’s belly did a flip causing him to spill the contents. By the time he’d finished, he needed support from his brothers to stand. Lifted into the back of the buckboard, he lay back and shivered despite the heat of the day. He gave Hoss a weak smile when he covered him with a blanket.

“You jest rest easy now. We’ll have you home soon.”

Jolted and tossed in the back of the buckboard, Joe’s head felt ready to explode by the time they reached the Ponderosa. He struggled to see past the sparks before his eyes, and any movement sent sharp knives of pain jarring through him. The joy of his soft pillow overwhelmed him, and the cold compress laid on his forehead brought tears of relief to his eyes.

“What happened?”

“Someone took a pot shot at ‘im.”

“What? Who?”

“We don’t know. I went after him, but he’d vanished.”

Ben released a breath. “Thank goodness it’s just a graze. He’ll have a bad headache for a while.”

“That’s an understatement,” groaned the young man prone on the bed. “My head feels fit to bust.”

“Be thankful you’ve still got one.”

Ben shot Adam a sharp look for his quip and refreshed the cloth. “You lie still and rest now y’hear.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not goin’ anywhere.”

Satisfied, with a jerk of his head, Ben indicated to his other sons to leave and they all traipsed downstairs. Ben pushed his hands into his pockets and paced the room.

“You’ve no idea who it was?” He eventually asked. Neither answered, the looks on their faces giving it to him.

“Could it be one of those Virginia City lot?” Adam proposed.

Ben stopped his pacing to consider a moment. The silver strike last June and all the prospectors it attracted had been only the beginning of the trouble. Almost overnight, Virginia City sprung up, to become a booming mining town of hundreds and still growing. Now, beleaguered by the larger mine owners to sell them timber he didn’t want to sell, Ben had a fight on his hands.

Ben shook his head. “What would they gain by killing Little Joe? I’m not likely to sell them any timber if they did.”

Adam shot a look at Hoss. He could tell he read the situation the same as he did. “Doesn’t leave many options, does it?”

“I can’t believe they’d send a man all the way out here after him.”

“You said yourself they’re a powerful family. If they still see Little Joe as a threat to their son, how hard would it be to send someone to finish the job they started in New Orleans

Feeling the need to sit down, Ben made his way to his chair. Could Adam be right? Having failed in their attempt to have Joe killed in New Orleans, could the Gautreau’s be trying again? The distance of two thousand miles might not be far enough for them to feel their son safe from Joe’s accusations. “If that’s true he’s not giving up easy.”

“We’ll jest hav’ta find him.”

“Easier said than done. More people flock to the Comstock every day. How do we spot one assassin amongst all those?”

Hoss frowned at his brother. “Then what do we do?”

The pair looked to their father. Ben pressed his lips together and frowned. Adam was right. How could one stranger stand out when so many swarmed the area? He gazed back at them and shook his head. “I don’t know.”

*****

“Settle down, Little Joe.”

“Why should I? I’m not gonna sit around and wait for some hired killer to put a bullet in me. I’m gonna get out there and find him.”

“And just how do you propose to do that?”

Joe flared at his older brother’s sarcastic tone. “I’ll find a way.”

Ben tried to calm his agitated son again. “I know you’re frustrated and scared-“

“I’m not scared!”

“Don’t raise your voice to me, young man.”

Brought up short by his father’s barked words, Joe stopped his pacing. He hovered on indecision, then deflated and sat down on the settle. “Sorry, Sir.”

Ben leaned forward and patted Joe’s knee. “We’ll find a way to deal with this Little Joe – together. Understood.”

Joe nodded. The mark from the bullet that so nearly took his life was till stark and visible on his forehead, and Ben wouldn’t take chances with his safety.

Hoss put a large hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “We jest want you safe is all.”

Joe looked up at his big brother perched on the settle arm and smiled his understanding, but he turned back to Ben and grumbled, “I can’t spend my life hiding inside the house?”

“No, I agree. None of us could stand that for long.” Joe gasped, and a giggle burst out. Hoss and Adam joined in, and Ben chuckled, glad they could still laugh. “For now, I want you to go no further than the barn, and one of us will be with you at all times.”

Joe’s smile died. Was he going to argue? To Ben’s relief, Joe replied, “Yes, Sir.”

Three days passed without incident. Ben had men patrolling the Ponderosa already, keeping an eye out for prospectors, squatters, and anyone else the silver strike sucked into the area looking to plunder his ranch for an easy life, and he added to that list any stranger with no obvious reason to be there, but so far no sign of the assassin materialized.

Ben looked up from his desk to eye his youngest. The checker pieces between his fingers clattered back and forth until Ben could stand it no more. He’d added up the same column of numbers five times and each time reached a different total.

“Joseph!”

Joe’s head bobbed around, his eyes large and innocent. “Yeah, Pa?”

Ben took a breath and tempered his voice. “There must be some chores in the barn you could do.”

“Sure. Is it okay for me to go on my own?”

Ben pondered, “I’ve got men on patrol, and I need to finish what I’m doing. Yes, I’m sure it will be fine – just go.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied and raced for the door.

He waited until he shut it before he let the triumphant grin cross his face. He’d begun to wonder if Pa would ever react to his fidgeting. He stepped onto the porch, flung his arms out wide, and sucked in a deep breath. The first time in three days he’d been allowed out of the house alone, and it felt good.

Joe produced the apple he’d secreted in his pocket in response to Cochise’s nudge. “Didn’t forget you, Cooch,” he told his pony and patted the animal’s neck. Joe looked around the barn and scratched his neck, deciding which job to start on.

When the barn doors slammed shut and plunged him into gloom, Joe paused his raking and looked around. The stillness of the figure in the shadows sent alarm shivering down Joe’s back. The glint of light on metal provided just enough warning to send him diving headlong into the stall. The shot whined and slammed into the barn wall behind him. Breathing heavy, Joe scrambled under the gap from one stall to another. His heart pounded and his mouth dried, while his eyes darted about searching for his would-be killer. He held his breath when he spotted the black boots that moved toward the other stall.

Light streamed in when the doors flung open.

“Joe!”

“Pa, watch out!”

The gunshot stopped his heart, and he scrambled out, desperately afraid for his father. His legs turned shaky when he found him safe and sound, stood before a figure who writhed and clutched a bleeding arm.

Footsteps behind made them turn in time to see another man run in the barn. Joe stared in disbelief into the shocked face of Henri Gautreau.

“You!” His fingers encircled the screaming man’s throat. After he’d slammed into him, knocking him to the ground, Joe had straddled and then started choking him. Blood thrummed in his ears and blocked out the words he screamed, aware only of the flesh and muscle that contracted under his grip. “You killed her, you bastard!

He fought the hands trying to pull him off, but eventually, his father’s words broke through, and he released his death grip and fell back, chest pumping hard to heave in breaths.

Henri’s legs flailed, and he pushed himself back against a post, putting distance between him and Joe. The young man’s hand massaged his throat, and his voice rasped when he spoke. With a shaking finger, he pointed to the injured gunman. “I came to stop him. I had nothing to do with him trying to kill you. My parents sent him. I didn’t want you hurt.”

Joe wrenched himself free from his father’s grip and flung himself at Henri again. Pinning him against the post, Joe yelled into the frightened face. “You killed her. It’s because of you, she’s dead.”

The man crumpled. Tears filled Henri’s eyes and tracked down his face. “I know. I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I pushed her, but I never meant for her to fall. I would never have hurt her. I loved her.”

Joe recoiled, appalled by what he heard. His father’s arm enfolded him, but he flinched away. “He can’t say that. What right has he to say that?” He swung back to the sobbing wreck in front of him. “You didn’t love her. We loved her. You killed her.”

Ben encircled Joe again and pulled him away from the poor fool who curled himself into a weeping ball. With relief, he heard horses ride into the yard and saw his two oldest appear at the barn door.

“What the hell?”

Ignoring Adam’s outburst, Ben thrust Joe at his middle son. “Hoss, hang on to Joe.”

With Joe taken care of, Ben marched to the hired killer still on the floor nursing his wounded arm. Legs spread, hands on hips he stood looking down at him and asked, “How’s the arm?”

The man drew back his top lip and hissed. “It’s only a flesh wound.”

A grim smile crossed Ben’s face. “Good.” Dropping on one knee, Ben’s fist balled into the man’s shirt, tightening it around his throat. “Now you listen to me. You go back to your employer, and you tell them I’m willing to leave their son alone. I won’t bring charges or take my wife’s death further. But, by God, if they send anyone else, or cause one hair on my boy’s head to be harmed, I will personally seek them out and wreak vengeance on them all. Do you understand me?” Receiving a nod, Ben hauled the man to his feet, dragged him to the entrance, and tossed him out of the barn. “Now get!”

Adam frowned. “You sure about that?”

“I’m sure.” Ben looked from Joe to Henri, both white-faced and shaken, and told them, “Let’s get you two into the house.”

Henri Gautreau sipped from the brandy glass, pushed into his trembling hands by Ben, and cowered in the blue chair. If the three large men didn’t intimidate, the third, whose hazel eyes burned green and bore into him with such intensity, would have been enough.

“Please believe I never meant to harm Marie. I just got so angry when she laughed and called me a silly boy. I loved her so much, and she laughed at me… ” Henri broke off when the young man seated in front tensed. The giant who stood behind him dropped a hand onto his shoulder and Henri breathed again. Encouraged, he continued. “I didn’t know she was your mother. I didn’t even know she was married and could never have been mine.” He broke down again and dropped his head into his hand.

Ben glanced at his three sons. Each face registered their thoughts. Sorrow, disgust, anger, and for him, pity.

Henri raised his head again. His red-rimmed eyes beseeched Joe for understanding. “If I could take back what I did, believe me, I would. I would never have hurt her. Never, and I killed her. Killed her with my own hands.” The young man crumbled again, dropping his chin into his chest, his sobs uncontrolled.

Ben looked at Gautreau. He couldn’t be older than twenty or twenty-one, barely a man. Yet this boy had torn apart so many lives thanks to an infatuation for a woman old enough to be his mother which in time would have blown itself out, like the storms he’d faced at sea. The stupid waste of it all pressed on Ben. He got up and removed Gautreau’s glass from his slack grip and glanced at Adam and Hoss. Adam raised an eyebrow and looked away. Hoss shook his head and turned his back. Joe, Ben noticed, never took his eyes from Gautreau.

Ben put down the glass and laid a hand on the still weeping lad. “Son, I think we’d better get you back to wherever you’re staying.”

Henri’s head came up, dismay on his face. “No, no. I can’t go. I came here to stop the man my parents hired, but I also came to ask you for something.” He pushed himself up in his chair. His desperate eyes moved from Ben to Joe while he pleaded, “I need you to forgive me. I swear, I didn’t mean to kill her. I can’t sleep or eat. Every night I close my eyes and see her face, and that terrible moment she fell. Please, forgive me. I beg of you.”

Joe couldn’t move or draw a breath. Here sat the man who extinguished the radiant, rare flame of Marie Cartwright, and he expected forgiveness? This man claimed he loved his mother, and she died because of it. Joe stared at Henri and began to see him clearly for the first time. He watched him quiver, saw the lines etched into his young face, the dark circles under his eyes, the haunted expression that hung on him. This pathetic creature would live with what he’d done for the rest of his life. His mother’s face rose-up before him. She’d loved life and enjoyed it to the fullest. She wouldn’t want this anguish in her name. Joe’s lungs filled. He could breathe again.

Hoss’ hand found his shoulder, and Joe felt those fingers pressing down, familiar and comforting. His family were here and would stand by him no matter what decision he made. Like the snow in spring, his hate melted and flowed away. To hang on to it would be harder than letting it go, and Joe said the only words he could. “I forgive you.”

Henri collapsed back and wept.

Hearing those words, Ben closed his eyes and sent silent thanks to his Maker. With a smile at Joe, he moved forward to put a hand on Henri’s shoulder, and added gently, “We all forgive you. What happened … well, you didn’t mean it, and we understand. Now, come on lad. Let’s get you out of here. Did you come alone?”

Scrubbing his face with his jacket sleeve, Henri managed to say, “No … no. I’ve a servant at the hotel in Virginia City waiting for me. I rode out on a hired horse. He’s outside.”

Turning to Adam and Hoss, Ben asked, “Can you see he gets back okay?”

Henri pushed himself out of the chair and shuffled toward the door. When he reached it, he turned back to Ben and Joe again. “Thank you. I don’t think I could’ve faced going on… ” He broke off, and Hoss put a hand on his shoulder and steered him out.

When the three left, Ben sat down on the low table in front of his youngest.

“You did a good thing, son.”

“I want it to be over, Pa. All the pain and suffering. For everyone. He’d punished himself enough. I couldn’t add to it.”

Ben covered Joe’s knee with his hand and squeezed. Pride filled his heart to have a boy capable of such strength and compassion.

*****

June would soon end. With the round-up and branding finished, they looked forward to a good summer. Distracted from his reading by the noise from outside, Ben put down the contract and went to the door.

The high-pitched giggling laugh of his youngest rose above yells of annoyance, and he wandered out to see what was happening.

Joe erupted out of the barn, chased by his middle brother, followed by Adam.

“C’mon, Hoss it were just a joke.”

“I’ll give you a joke, you ‘ornery little cuss.”

Scooting around the horse trough, Joe distanced himself from his bigger brother.

“You jest come here and stop jumpin’ around like a jack-rabbit.” Joe began laughing again but stopped when Hoss called to Adam, “Adam, you go that way, and I’ll get him from this end.”

Wild eyes darted between the two. “Aw, c’mon fellas. Two against one ain’t fair.”

Joe backed up when they closed in. With a yelp and a show of athletic zeal, he leapt over the horse trough and headed for the house, pulling up short when he spotted his father. “Oh, hi, Pa.”

Ben put his hands on his hips, suppressed his laughter, and demanded, “And just what’s going on here?” Three awkward, guilty faces looked at each other. “This is a working ranch, isn’t it? Don’t you three have chores to do?”

Ben watched his three sons draw unconsciously together. The chorus, “Sorry, Pa,” came his way and the three scurried to their horses.

Chuckling, he went back inside to his desk. His eyes fell upon the three portraits standing upon it. His three wives, who’d each given him a son. He reached forward and picked up Marie’s and leaned back in his chair to gaze at it. They still grieved her loss and would for a long time.

Did he love Marie too much and had he indulged her too far? Was it this that led to her untimely death? The private guilt nagged at him, and he would bear it alone always. He replaced the portrait next to the others. He’d been lucky to have known such wonderful women and luckier to have the sons they gave him. He took a deep breath of satisfaction and gave thanks for the blessings of having his two eldest under his roof again, and Joe fully part of the family. Well, Ben Cartwright, you told your sons there’s work to be done, so you’d better get on with it. Smiling, he picked up the Contract.

He jumped when the front door crashed open. Joseph!

“Pa, hey, Pa! You better come see.”

“What is it?” he asked. Wondering what could have brought Joseph back so soon. All three of his sons appeared in front of his desk.

Adam spoke up, “Ed’s just reported a logging camp up on Indian Ridge. Looks like those Virginia City mine owners aren’t prepared to take no for an answer.”

Urgency tightened his chest. Ben rose and strode to the gun rack. Taking down a rifle, he instructed, “Saddle my horse. We’ll go have a conversation with these timber thieves.”

Ben grunted at Joe’s assertion, “Buck’s, already being saddled, Pa.”

The three went ahead, while Ben strapped on his gun belt. He looked around the great room. It was a good room and their home. His eyes didn’t register the masculine lines that now dominated, simply the comfort it gave him. No matter what, they would protect it from the ravages of strangers. Anyone who tried to take what was a Cartwrights by rights would have a fight on their hands.

He closed the door, mounted his horse, and gathered the reins. His sons, each ready and prepared to protect their family and home waited for him. Those three brave faces filled him with more pride than any father had a right to expect. He whirled his horse, and told them, “Let’s ride.”

 

*** THE END ***

 

Episodes referenced:
Forever: Written by Michael Landon
Rose for Lotta: Written by David Dortort
Marie, My Love: Anthony Lawrence (teleplay), Anne Howard Bailey (story)

References:
History of The Panama Railroad: www.panamarailroad.org and Wikipedia.
Paddleboat History http://www.riverboatdaves.com/docs/csteamboats.
Queen of the South: New Orleans, 1853-1862: The Journal of Thomas K. Wharton by Thomas Ruys
Casino Gambling’s Golden Era – the Early Days, Jobmonkey.com

 

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Author: Bakerj

I fell in love with westerns as a child. Growing up with Little House on the Prairie, re-runs of Bonanza, High Chaparral and Sunday afternoon films starring John Wayne, Audie Murphy and James Stewart. Returning to Bonanza recently, I discovered fanfiction and was hooked. I started writing my own just a year ago. I hope you enjoy my little stories and thank you for taking the time to read.

36 thoughts on “MARIE [Parts 1-4] (by Bakerj)

  1. Great story and a very different side to Maria. I think I ended up hating her, that’s how real you made her seem. Felt sorry for poor Joe . Now I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

    1. I’m afraid this is the complete story Chris, so no further instalments. I’m glad you enjoyed it though, and found Maria real, and yes, poor Joe never has life easy. Thank you for leaving a comment, they are lovely to receive.

  2. Thanks June for a page turner of a story that I couldn’t put down. I’m afraid of giving anything away from readers who haven’t read it yet. If you haven’t read it, don’t read my review.

    You definitely gave us a different Marie. What made her intriguing was the effect she had on all the different characters who were affected by her. For example, did Ben do right by her. Should be feel remorse for what he did or didn’t do? In the end, after all her lies, she lost everything except the love of her family.

    Well done!

  3. Wow! What a different take on the family; and I can see it all happening the way you wrote.

    I feel for the whole family for what Marie put them through. Did she deserve what happened? Probably not, but she really had no one else to blame but herself. — Maybe it was how and where she was raised.

  4. Hello again! It was a great job! I would prefer to think that our Little Joe had only good memories about Joe mother, but you could being a new version and keep our attention! Thanks God the great Love between the Cartwrights were there!! Thank you very much!

    1. I never make life to easy for Joe, Maria. Thanks for coming back and reading the rest of the story, and for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.

    1. Thank you, Beth. I’m so glad you came back to read the rest of the story, and that you enjoyed it. Thanks again for leaving a comment, we do enjoy reading them.

  5. A lot of selfish actions are justified by the fact that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. But that isn’t love, now matter how you try to dress it up. Love seeks not its own, but the good of others. It’s clear who demonstrated real love in this ambitious story and who did not; while certain relationships were reaffirmed in the end, one was forever tarnished even with forgiveness. And that made me sad, knowing the memories Joe would carry for the rest of his life. It’s difficult to feel any empathy for this calculating version of Marie (am I supposed to?), and her portrayal feeds the narrative that she is inherently unworthy of being a Cartwright, the seeds of which I don’t find in canon. But as you said earlier, that’s why we have fan fiction. To each his own. 🙂 Congratulations on pulling everything together, Bakerj.

    1. Life is never simply black and white, and people aren’t perfect. They make mistakes for reasons they try to justify to themselves – rightly or wrongly. Should you feel empathy for this Marie? I leave that to the individual reader to decide. Thank you for your comments, JC, it’s great to know my story managed to create such emotions.

  6. You didn’t spare anybody, did you? 😉

    That was a superb, emotionally taut story. I loved how you slowed us complex characters with virtues and flaws (except a certain New Orleans individual with no discernible good points), all of whom had their own priorities and motives, and you wove them together into an original and satisfying tale. Well done!

  7. Wow! What a diference between everything de know about Marie… but very interesting!! Anxious to read the next!

    1. I glad you’re finding my Marie interesting. I hope you enjoy the rest. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, Maria, they’re always appreciated.

  8. I always felt Marie had a hidden personality trait that she hid from the family. Couldn’t stop reading. Can’t wait for the next part!

    1. Thank you LisaD for reading and taking the time to leave a comment, which is always appreciated. I’m glad you like it. Part 2 will be posted next week.

  9. This is such a fun read, a side of Marie we haven’t seen before but totally believable. Good characters. Good story. Keep up the good work, June!

  10. Wow!

    That’s definitely the most original take on Marie I’ve ever seen. She’s fully fleshed-out, a multi-faceted and believable (if not particularly likeable) character. The reactions of all the family members are perfectly in character even as they respond to this world. Ben especially is masterfully done, torn between his love for Marie and his feelings about how her behavior has affected his family. Looking forward to seeing the next part!

    1. Thank you, pjb, for your kind comments. I’m so glad you find Marie believable. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment, they are always appreciated.

    1. Thank you, Mayla, I’m so glad you love it. There is more. Part 2 will be posted next week. Thank you for leaving a comment, very much appreciated.

  11. I love this sorry. The way you’ve tweaked the characters is so engaging and readable. Also – makes me glad Marie died in canon. Lol. Nice work!!!

    1. Thank you, Rosaroo, for your lovely comment. I’m so glad you are enjoying the story. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. They are always appreciated.

  12. I couldn’t put it down and read the story all at once. I never though of Marie as a person who could be so selfish and vindictive. Wow! Even though her early years at the Ponderosa weren’t detailed, the step-by-step unraveling of her relationships and hardening of her personality was evident. She clung to Joe as if he were her personal property, keeping him from his family and his place on the ranch.

    1. Thanks, Trish, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the story so far. Thank you for your lovely comment, and taking to time to leave one, they are always appreciated.

  13. Wow, an unusual take on Marie, though it’s hard to imagine Ben being married to a woman like that. It certainly skews the family dynamic. Generally speaking, Bonanza fans (and writers) are much more generous with Elizabeth and Inger than with Little Joe’s mother (who seems to elicit an undercurrent of animus), and I’ve never understood why. Of the three, she is by far the most intriguing, being a mixture of shadow and light. I suppose that’s why she will always attract controversy. I’m interested to see where this is going.

    1. That’s the beauty of FF JC, so many different visions (and versions) can be imagined. Thanks for leaving a comment, they’re always appreciated.

  14. What an excellent start!
    I’m really looking forward to the next instalment. Your story reflects some of my thoughts on the family dynamics if Marie had survived!

    1. Thank you, Beppina. It was interesting to imagine how Marie would have impacted on the family. It’s nice to know I hit that right. Part 2 will be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Most appreciated.

    1. Thanks, Beth. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Part 2 will be posted next week. Thanks for taking the time to comment, they are always appreciated.

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