The Final Curtain (by Bakerj)

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Summary: Set after the events of Season 14.  After years away, Adam returns to the Ponderosa, where danger and tragedy stalk Joe.

Rating: T          Word Count: 33,504

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.

 

THE FINAL CURTAIN

 

PART I – THE RETURN

 

Joe Cartwright halted Cochise to frown at the sight he’d come upon. A buggy with a wheel caught in a large mud rut sat lopsided on the road while a woman struggled to free it, and beside her, two small children did their best to help. He wasn’t surprised at their lack of progress. Lifting his eyebrows, he pursed his lips and urged Cochise forward. Tipping his hat, he asked, “Ma’am, can I be of help?”

He caught a quick flash of fine grey eyes, the color of moonlight, before he heard the firm reply, “No, thank you. I can manage.”

Joe shrugged and gathered his reins to move on, but her continued exertions pricked at his conscience. After all, Pa raised gentlemen. He tried again. “Ma’am, if you don’t mind me sayin’, I think you’ve got yourself into a pickle you ain’t getting out of.”

The eyes flashed his way again. “I told you. I don’t need any help. I have no money, so I can’t pay you.”

Joe’s eyes sparked, and his temper rose. He replied sharply. “I wasn’t askin’ for payment, ma’am.”

The woman swept back the loose strands of her hair with a muddied hand and turned to Joe. Younger than he’d at first thought, she bit her lip and looked shamefaced. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Dismounting, Joe smiled and put out his hand. “Shall we start again? My name’s Joe Cartwright.”

Then it happened, the look of recognition, shock and realization. He braced himself for the sympathy. It didn’t come. Instead, a look of mortification crossed her face. “Cartwright? Oh, you wouldn’t be after money.” He raised an eyebrow, and she rushed on, “I mean, I know Cartwrights have got money. At least I … what I mean to say is … you wouldn’t want payment, but really, I’m fine.”

Joe’s smile widened at her confusion. “Well ma’am you don’t know us Cartwrights, or my pa. If you did, you’d know I can’t go home and tell him I didn’t help a lady in distress. I’d be in a whole peck of trouble then.”

A doubtful look mingled with amusement crossed her face. She quizzed, “A man like you afraid of his pa?”

Joe gave her a cheeky smile. “Like I said ma’am, you don’t know my pa.”

She laughed. It took years off her. Joe thought she must be thirty, or less, and pretty.

“All right, Mr. Cartwright have it your way. My name’s Mrs. Boyd, and this is Sarah and Billy.”

Joe winked at the youngsters and went to the buggy. The back wheel on one side had sunk deep into the mud. After a quick appraisal, he assured her, “Won’t take long to get you free.”

Setting the children to gather brushwood, Joe spread it over the ground in front of the stuck wheel, before he cut a stout branch. Mrs. Boyd helped the children but said little, and stayed primly aloof, keeping her distance. When he was ready, Joe had her climb into the buggy. He then positioned the branch under the stuck wheel.

“‘Kay, get ‘em goin’.”

Shoulder jammed under the branch Joe prepared for the vehicle to ease out of the rut. Unfortunately, the nervy horse elected to leap forward. Unbalanced, Joe hit the mud with a loud splat! His hands braced, he pushed himself up from the cloying liquid and opened tacky eyes to see the buggy a few feet ahead and Mrs. Boyd clambering out.

“Are you all right?” Hauling himself up, he squelched, bow-legged, out of the mud bath. “Children, don’t laugh,” their mama admonished when they began to giggle, but Joe could see her own struggle to keep the smile from her face.

Joe’s wicked smirk dawned. He spread his arms wide and lurched toward them. “How about a hug.”

Squealing, the children ran, and Mrs. Boyd backed away, laughing. “Don’t you dare!”

The merriment broke the ice between them, and the pair chatted as Joe cleaned himself off with the help of his canteen and the tablecloth Mrs. Boyd provided. It came from the basket that had tipped onto the ground, which held the picnic they were to enjoy.

Pulling a face at the scattered contents, she told her children, “I’m sorry, no picnic today. We may as well head back home.”

“You live in Virginia City?”

“Yes, my house is on A street.” Slipping off his jacket while she spoke, he heard the gasped, “Mr. Cartwright, your arm!”

Joe grinned, turning his lower arm encased in the cast. It was the remnant of his ordeal with a mad man named Tanner and would be coming off in a few days. “It’s fine.”

“But you might’ve damaged it again.”

Joe shook his head to dismiss the concern. “Look, let me drive you home. I’m on my way into Virginia City anyway, and I’d rather save my horse and saddle from getting covered in wet mud.

After a moment’s hesitation, Mrs. Boyd agreed. Joe helped the children into the back of the buggy, and taking the reins geed up the horse.

“Mr. Cartwright. I really can’t thank you enough for your help.”

“The name’s, Joe. My pa’s, Mr. Cartwright.”

“All right … my name’s Kathryne, although everyone calls me Kate.”

Joe gave her a cheeky grin. “Perhaps I should still call you Mrs. Boyd, at least until I’ve met Mr. Boyd.” She stiffened beside him, and Joe added, “Did I say something wrong?”

Her voice was calm but etched with coldness. “My husband’s been away for almost two years now.”

Joe frowned. “I’m sorry. It can’t be easy for you.” It was an inadequate response, although the situation wasn’t uncommon. Men leaving their wives and families for long periods to work. Curious to know more, he asked, “What does your husband do?”

“He’s a mining engineer.”

“Oh, and he’s found work elsewhere than Virginia City?”

“Yes, you could say that.” He gave a sideways glance at her taut profile. Her hands clenched tight in her lap. He wondered at her response but didn’t press. After a beat, she asked, “What about you, Joe, are you married?”

Joe flinched. The question still stung like a raw open wound. “No. It’s just me, Pa, and my brothers … I mean brother.” Kate sat silent and didn’t seem to notice his slip or question him. Of course, she could easily know about Hoss and him. The Virginia City gossips kept everyone informed of their business. “Hop Sing takes care of us.”

“Hop Sing?”

“He’s our cook. Well, he’s more than that. He takes care of about everything.”

Kate laughed, and they rode on in comfortable silence until the town came into view, when Kate said she needed to return the buggy to the stable.

In the back, Billy asked, “Ma, can we have the picnic next week?”

“No, dear. We’ll have to wait a while now.”

A flush mantled Kate’s cheeks when Sarah hissed in a loud whisper at her brother. “You know Ma has to save up to hire the buggy.”

“I tell you what,” Joe proposed, “let me take the buggy back. I’ll need to apologize to ol’ Mr. Jessop for the mud all over the seat anyway.”

“I couldn’t let you do that.”

“It’s no problem.”

“Mr. Cartwright, thank you, but no.”

Joe didn’t miss the return to formality, and he cut a look at the lady by his side. “Look, I put the mud all over the seat so I should be the one to return the buggy. That’s all.”

He saw her jaw clench betraying her internal struggle. Finally, she gave way. “Very well, if you insist. I’ll let you have the money to pay the bill before you go.”

He couldn’t keep the smile off his face or the amusement from his voice when he replied, “Certainly, ma’am, whatever you say.”

A quick glimpse around Kate’s house let Joe know the place sorely missed the presence of a man. Missing shingles, broken shutters and fence all told of neglect. However, the small kitchen and parlor area he followed her into shone clean and neat, which made him baulk when she offered him a seat at the kitchen table. Joe looked down at his mud-encrusted trousers. “I don’t wanna make a mess.”

“Nonsense. I’m not bothered by a little dirt. Sit down.” Joe did as he was told.

In between admiring Billy’s carved horse, Joe watched Kate struggle with the broken kitchen pump while she tried to fill the coffee pot. He volunteered, “I can come back and fix that for you.”

“You needn’t bother. I can manage.”

Joe shook his head at her stubbornness. Getting up, he went to the sink to take a better look. “It’s no bother.”

He stepped back when she whirled and snapped at him, “Why?”

“Why?”

“Yes, why? Most men who offer to help me seem to think because my husband isn’t around it entitles them to expect something.”

Joe looked back into those sparkling eyes and wondered how many men had tried that with her. “I’m sorry. I should’ve thought how it would look.”

The defiant blaze vanished. “No. I’m sorry. Seems like I’m always reading you wrong.”

“Forget it.” Joe’s gaze returned to the cause of the misunderstanding. “I really don’t mind fixin’ the pump.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need the help.”

His eyes rolled to the kitchen window and its broken latch. Pointing it out, he scratched his head, and mumbled an apologetic, “Seems to me you could do with some.”

“I admit things around here do need mending, but I won’t be beholden- ”

“Fixing one broken pump won’t make you beholden.”

He ducked his head and put up his hand to hide his smile, seeing the exasperated expression on her face. He almost laughed when she bit her lip to hold back the retort she wanted to make. She demanded, “Are you always this stubborn?”

Joe let the smile show and quirked an eyebrow. “I could ask the same.”

The glare subsided, and she gave him a begrudging smile, and asked, “Do you take cream with your coffee?”

Joe slid back into his seat. “No, ma’am, black is just fine.”

Enjoying the warm beverage, Kate relaxed and asked about the Ponderosa, a subject they chatted comfortably about until Joe finished his coffee. As he left, he tipped his hat. “Thank you for the coffee, Kate.”

Before he could step out, she called after him, “Joe.” He turned back, and she ran to him, holding out her hand. “You forgot the money.” At his puzzled look, she explained, “To pay for the buggy.”

Joe looked down at the few coins. He pursed his lips and put out his own hand to receive them. Riding the buggy around to the livery, Joe pondered on the stubbornness of women, conveniently ignoring his own, when he determined he would go back to fix that pump, and soon.

Two days later, Joe fulfilled his promise to himself. He couldn’t stop the smirk at the shock on her face seeing him stood there, tool bag in hand.

Fixed pump and mended window latch later, Joe sat on the back-stoop, lemonade and the last remnants of a sandwich in hand, watching Billy and Sarah play in the tiny back yard. His mind drifted to what might have been and his own child at play. Kate joining him broke his melancholy daydream.

They sat in silence for a while, then Kate asked him, “Joe, why did you come back and help?”

Surprised at the question, Joe told her, “It’s the neighborly thing to do, and you look like you could do with the help. I’ve no other motive, honest.”

She flushed, and her eyes dropped before his. “I’m sorry … I’m just not used to … people … well- ” Her hand fluttered across her face. Jumping up, she rushed back into the house.

Concerned, he followed her. “Kate?”

“Don’t, please, I’m fine.” She wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron and gave him a pathetic smile. “You see how foolish I am? It’s just been such a long time since anyone’s been helpful for kindness sake and nothing else.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kate sat down at the small table. Her hands gripped tightly together. “Joe, I haven’t been entirely honest with you, and I think I need to tell you the truth about me.”

He eased himself into the chair opposite her. “All right, I’m listenin’.”

Her eyes fixed on her hands, she told him, “My husband isn’t away working. The truth is, I don’t know where he is. He left me. So, you see, I’m the bad wife who can’t keep her husband. I thank you for your kindness, and I’ll understand if you no longer wish to be associated with me.”

Joe reached across the table and laid his hand over her tense, shaking ones. It made him angry how people blame the wife because their husband runs out on them, and he burned to think this woman would’ve been snubbed by some as a result. “I would say it’s more of a bad husband leaving a good wife, and I can’t think of anyone I’d be prouder to seen with than you.”

The spill of the first tear took him to her side. A man of deep empathy, Joe didn’t hesitate to offer comfort. He crouched next to her chair, letting his arm encircle her. Her head dropped to his shoulder, and he hugged her as she sobbed. Sensitive to her every movement, he released her the minute her body tightened to move away. She dabbed her eyes dry again. He smiled when he heard her determined sniff.

“I can’t think what’s wrong with me. I don’t normally cry like this, I assure you.” Giving herself a shake, she asked, “Would you like some pie?”

Joe leaned on the doorjamb and watched her bustle about the kitchen. It must be hard taking care of herself and two kids alone, and he admired her courage, and that drew him to her. Maybe, because she was suffering loss in a worse way than him.  At least he could bury his and move on, however slowly.

Gathering up Cochise’s reins, Joe turned back to the little family. “Y’know, it’s a shame you missed out on your picnic yesterday. How about I take you on one next Sunday after church?”

Billy and Sarah looked up at their mother and urged, “Can we, Ma, please?”

Kate hesitated, but after seeing her children’s eager faces, she agreed, “Thank you, Joe, that would be nice.”

He gave Billy and Sarah a wink and with a wave of his hand, set Cooch into a trot and headed home. The warmth spreading across his chest birthed a spontaneous smile. That hadn’t happened in quite a while. Maybe it was true? Kindness is its own reward.

*****

“Joe, don’t forget to pick up the mail.”

He gave Pa a wave of his hand to acknowledge the request and set Cochise into a canter. He knew why Pa was asking. The annual letter from Adam was overdue, and he was anxious. They hadn’t had any news from his older brother since the wire acknowledging Hoss’ death.

Joe still ached at the thought of it. His big, middle brother, Hoss. How could he die? Larger than life, he left a void so huge, Joe doubted it would ever be filled. How could you get over the loss of your right arm, your best friend?

Cochise turned onto the road to Virginia City. Joe had completed this journey so often, he got there by instinct, habit requiring no conscious thought, while his mind lingered over the past year.

Hoss drowned in an accident, saving a woman’s life. That was brother Hoss. Jumping in to save others with no regard for himself. Joe bit his lip. If he’d been there, then maybe… No! No more, maybes! Hoss had gone to look at bulls, nothing more exciting than seed bulls, on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. Then he’s sent a wire, letting them know he’d decided to stay on for a little while. Pa didn’t mind, he was due a vacation, so his reply told him to take as much time as he wanted. Pa blamed himself for that.   If he’d only said no, called Hoss back, he would’ve been far away and … God, they’d come so close to not losing him. They’d received another telegram from Hoss. He was coming home, and he teased them with a surprise. They’d laughed so hard speculating on what it could be. Then two days later, another message arrived, the one that changed their whole world. Hoss was dead. Drowned the day after he sent his telegram.

He’d never forget the look on Pa’s face.

The owner of the ranch arranged for his body to be shipped home, which was decent of him. They buried him next to their Ma. Not Alice, though, he buried his wife in the beautiful meadow she’d loved close to the house he’d built with his own hands. The house that lay in ashes, like his love.

Joe eased his horse into a lope, drew in a deep breath and took in the loveliness of his surroundings. The sky shone a vibrant, azure blue, the air crisp and sharp, while the early dew sparkled on the pines. It was a good day to be alive, although he hadn’t thought that way six months ago. The death of his wife and unborn baby had left life meaningless. Sure, he’d made a good show for Pa, Jamie and Candy’s sake. Said the right things, smiled and laughed when he should, but his insides were numb, dead even, and he drifted through the days without purpose or design.

He hadn’t fooled Pa, heck, how could he fool the man who knew him better than he knew himself? When he forgot to play the part, and the desperate hollow loss would betray itself on his face, he’d find those all-knowing eyes on him, filled with concern and love. Pa understood. He suffered the same loss.

Joe had met Alice just a month after losing Hoss. She’d mended a piece of his broken heart with her gentle kindness and awoke a love so deep and serene he never saw it ending. He’d thought that getting through that initial agony of her death had been the hardest part, and he’d poured all his fury and pain into tracking down her murderers. How wrong could he have been? The simple task of living proved a daily mountain to climb and life without them almost impossible. Inside, the loss killed him, but he slipped on the mantle of pretense and carried on. What else could he do? After all, his body stubbornly kept breathing, and every sunrise, his eyes opened, but each day he lived a little less. Now he could admit he’d kept living for Pa and Jamie’s sake, but he still drifted away bit by bit. Until he met Tanner.

Just another traveler on the road to pass the time with, he didn’t know he was sharing a camp with a mad man. Tanner turned him into sport and hunted him like an animal. Running for his life, he’d fallen and broken his arm, and that’s when it happened. In the despair he wallowed in, he could’ve lain down and let Tanner kill him, but some, small, lost part of Joe Cartwright rose up and demanded, ‘You fight Joe! You ain’t gonna die here. So you damn well better get up and fight!’

It hit him then. How he betrayed Alice and Hoss, by giving up, fading away. They would’ve wanted him to live, really live. He owed them that much. To honor their memories by living the best life he could. So, he’d dragged himself up, beaten Tanner, and returned – different. He’d come out of the grey, back into the world of beautiful color and light, like today.

Seeing Virginia City come into view, Joe set Cochise back into a canter and made for Kate’s house. He’d been back a few times to carry out some more repairs. The picnic had been a success, and he was keen to invite her to another. He smiled when he spotted her pegging out washing in the yard.

Kate gave him a wave. “Joe. What brings you here?”

“Banking and to collect the mail. I wanna see if there’s a letter from my older brother, Adam. He left to travel and work abroad a few years ago. He’s living in Australia now.”

“Australia? My, that’s a long way away.”

Joe grinned. “He got there via Europe. He’s visited just about every place there is, London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, India, and even China.”

Kate stuck a peg in another sheet corner. “My husband and I travelled around a lot before we came to Virginia City. I found I prefer living in one place.”

Joe laughed. “Me too. I don’t wanna live anywhere else but on the Ponderosa. Speaking of which, we have a fine fishing pond right next to a pretty little glade. The perfect spot for a picnic. How about I take you and the kids there on Sunday?” Kate pulled down the washing line and the sheet she’d pegged, so she could see him. He tilted his head and put his hands on his hips. “Now you ain’t gonna give me an argument, are you?”

“No,” she laughed. “We’d loved to.”

“Great. See you then.”

Climbing back on Cochise he went to finish the rest of his business, satisfied with the result of his work so far. Sorting through the mail, Joe recognized his eldest brother’s neat handwriting, so different from his own left-handed fist, which Adam used to declare unreadable. Delighted, he tucked the small bundle into his inside pocket. This was just what Pa needed. When he finally lifted out of his stupor, it had shocked Joe to see how Pa had aged and lost weight, and while he’d perked up since seeing the change in him after his encounter with Tanner, a letter from Adam would cheer him even further.

Hearing the door open, Ben got up from his desk and walked around to greet his son, unable to resist the need to assure himself he was back safe.

“Hi, Pa. Here’s the mail and there’s one from Adam.”

Pleased to see the eager gleam in his father’s eyes, Joe left him to enjoy the missive in peace and went to scare up some coffee and sandwiches from Hop Sing.

“Joe! Joe!”

“What? What’s wrong?” Jumping, Joe dropped his sandwich. “Dadburnit, Pa. What’s the matter?”

Ben waved the letter under his nose. “Adam’s coming home!”

“What?”

“Wait, there’s more. Let me read it to you.”

Ben sat down in his chair, next to Joe on the settee, and began to read. “I have big news. I’m writing this letter as I prepare to depart. I’ve met a wonderful woman. Her name’s Sophia Downlow, and in true Cartwright style, I fell for her hard and fast. After two months, I asked her to marry me – Ssh! There’s more.” Ben insisted when Joe gave a whoop. “I’ve realized I want our children to grow up on the Ponderosa. I want them to know their grandpa and receive the kindness and wisdom from him I received … well, I’ll skip that bit. I want them to know their Uncles and learn about their wonderful Uncle Hoss.” Ben paused and shuffled with the pages, while his throat worked from the swelling emotion. Joe rested his fingers on his arm. Ben smiled and took a breath to continue, “It’s taken a few years, but I’m coming home at last. He goes on to say, they should arrive at the end of May.” Ben slapped the paper with his other hand. “Adam will be home next month. Wha’d’ya think of that?”

“Adam married and coming home? Heck, that’s great!” Joe frowned. A sudden thought subdued his mood. In a soft voice, he asked, “When did Adam send the letter?” The look of Pa’s face gave him his answer. “He won’t know, will he?”

“Oh, Joe.”

“It’s okay, we can tell him when he gets home.”

Excited like a kid at Christmas, Ben announced the news to Jamie, Candy and Hop Sing at supper. A smile lingered deep in Joe’s eyes. Ten years had dropped off Pa since he received the news, and to see that warmed his heart.

The ranch became a flurry of activity. Hop Sing cleaned the house from top to toe and then did it again. Ben arranged for the timber mills to lay in wood ready for Adam to use, knowing his eldest would want to get started on a house of his own right away. Preparations made, Ben waited in eager anticipation. April slipped into May, and May crept toward June, and still, no news came. Aware of the dangers of sea travel, Ben was ripe for firing off wires to every shipping agent in the country, and it took all Joe’s persuasion to prevent him.

Meanwhile, Joe continued to see Kate. The second picnic was a great success, He drove them out to the Ponderosa to the pretty pond he’d promised. Set free, the children ran along the bank, skimmed stones and paddled, while Kate and Joe watched. Relaxed, they talked and laughed, and he had time to study her. The tense, wary look that clung to her vanished, allowing her face to show its real beauty. Made up of high cheekbones and a determined jawline, her face told of her strength. He admired those fine eyes anew and the straight nose they were set above, that led to a mouth formed with generous lips. Her hair, the color of a deep yellow harvest moon, she kept neatly tied back in a bun, but the breeze teased out wayward strands to blow across her face and she would wrinkle her nose before she swept them back into place. He couldn’t help wondering how any man could walk out on a woman like this.

She told him about her husband and how they’d met. He’d passed through her community on his way to the goldfields. “Can you imagine a foolish girl of sixteen having her head turned by a handsome young man looking for adventure and fortune. I don’t think he even wanted a wife or the responsibility. Sometimes I wonder why he asked me to marry him.”

Joe didn’t wonder, he knew. He could imagine how she must have dazzled him. On the verge of womanhood, just beginning to unfurl those glorious petals. No wonder Boyd couldn’t resist, what man could?

“What happened between you two?”

“Since we came to Virginia City, he’s gone away a few times. He … he wasn’t happy when I fell pregnant with Billy. He didn’t really want Sarah, and Billy was just another mouth to feed. We argued. He would leave and then come back.” She shifted her position and swallowed. Joe could imagine how a proud woman like her must’ve found it hard. “He started to drink and stay away longer. We had no money coming in, so I got a job in the dress shop. I could always sew and make my own dresses, and I could at least support myself and the children. The last time he came back was over two years ago.”

His admiration grew when she told him how she’ practiced her sewing every evening to get promoted to seamstress. He suspected John Boyd was more than just a drunk and a deserter, and her marriage much harder than she let on. He found her remarkable. Her strength, courage and determination captivated him.

“Where’re you off to?”

Joe halted with the basket and turned to his father who’d come out of the house. “Virginia City. I’m taking Kate and the children fishing.”

“You’re seeing a great deal of Mrs. Boyd, aren’t you?”

He loaded the basket, and over his shoulder, replied, “I’m just being neighborly, fixing her place up a bit.”

“Is that all it is?”

“Yes, why?”

Ben shrugged. “Oh, no reason. Only when a man spends a lot of time with a woman, it tends to mean something.”

Joe fought down the heat filling his chest. “Can’t a man just be a good friend?”

His father pursed his lips. “Of course, he can. Just remember, spending a lot of time with a woman can lead to unwelcome speculation in others.”

Joe huffed, “She’s a married woman.”

“I know that, son. I’m glad you do too. Have a good time.”

He couldn’t keep the glare out of his eyes when he told Pa he’d see him later and snapped up the horse a bit too hard. He and Kate were friends. What was wrong with that? She was struggling, and he helped out around her place, and okay, they’d gone on a few picnics. If they both benefited from that, so what? In Kate, he found a person he could be comfortable with, without any emotional entanglement. But then, why was he angry?

The realization of his physical attraction to Kate doubled him over like a punch to the gut. The sense of betrayal to Alice speared him to the heart. He’d been happy and content in Kate’s company. He sensed in her a kindred spirit. Another soul who needed friendship but wanted nothing more. When did that change? When did he start wanting … what? He was certain it wasn’t just sex. He could get that anytime from a trip to one of the establishments on ‘D’ Street. No, it was more than that, he needed to connect physically with a person he could love, not, ‘love’, love, but the warmth and comfort two people could share and experience together. To have that union with another who needed it as much as he did, that would be special. He cursed himself for a fool.

His first reaction, never to see Kate again, he quickly quashed. It wouldn’t be fair to her or the children. How could he explain his reasons? These were his feelings, not hers. He had no right to any expectation of anything else, and she and the children didn’t deserve to be punished for his stupidity. She was a married woman, and that was the end of it, he’d never make her uncomfortable or put that friendship in jeopardy.

Joe also came up with a cunning plan. Determined to throw dust in the eyes of those who were a little too interested in their relationship, the next time he visited, he dragged Jamie along.

“Tell me again, why am I doin’ this?”

Joe looked across as his guileless younger brother, “She’s a nice lady who needs some help.”

“But weren’t you helpin’? Why do I hav’ta?”

“Don’t you wanna give the lady a hand?”

“Sure, sure, I do. I weren’t sayin’ that I didn’t.”

Joe grinned. He was a good kid. The addition of his younger brother would confound the nosy and, he admitted, there was safety in numbers, and Jamie’s presence would alleviate any likelihood of him and Kate finding themselves in too intimate a situation.

*****

The lengthy involved contract negotiations had gone well, but they finished late. Joe considered the long ride home and dismissed the idea. Pa knew he might choose to stay in town if the meeting ran on, so he had no qualms in making his decision. Handed his usual room key by the hotel clerk, he headed straight out. He had another reason for staying too. He’d be free to visit Kate. She’d have finished work, and maybe he could persuade her to come out to dinner.

He snuck around to her house through the back streets to avoid the eyes of any gossipy neighbors and found her in the small back yard unpegging her washing.

“Howdy, ma’am, can I be of assistance?”

Kate turned to find Joe leaning on the fence, grinning at her. “Where’d you spring from?”

“A long and boring contract negotiation.” He vaulted the fence and swaggered toward her. “I’ve snuck ‘round to see if I could persuade you to have dinner with me.”

Kate sighed. “I worked late tonight, so Mrs. O’Keefe has already fed the children, and they’re in bed. My dinner’s on the stove.” The dusk cast shadows over her face, but he could still see the gleam in her eyes and her smile. “There’s plenty. Why don’t you join me?”

A thrill ran through him, but he held his eagerness in check and forced himself to ask, “You sure?”

“Of course.”

With practiced ease, he relieved her of the washing basket and followed her into the house. He couldn’t deny the chance for them to be alone, and private, was even better than he hoped. “Remember she’s married,” he told himself for the millionth time, and another part of his brain admonished, You’re crazy, why torture yourself? He ignored it.

The comfortable companionship they slipped into over dinner allowed Joe to relax. They told each other about their days, and afterwards, took their coffee to the small settee by the fire. She sat next to him shoulder to shoulder, where he could admire the curve of her throat and sloop of her shoulders. When his eyes trailed lower, he shut them and forced them to look elsewhere.

“This is nice. Having someone to talk to about my day.”

Joe laid his arm along the settee behind Kate and dared to let the tips of his fingers rest on her shoulder. “It must be lonely at times.”

“Yes, I have the children, but that’s not the same. Do you understand?”

“I do.” Absently, Joe reached for the loose hair hanging down her neck and wound and unwound it around his fingers. “A woman needs a man and a man needs a woman.”

Kate leaned into his shoulder. A wistful smile played on her lips. “It depends on the man.” Her head pulled away, and she turned to look up at him. “A man like you, a woman could easily want.”

He answered the expectation in her eyes without thinking. His stomach muscles tightened, and heat exploded through him at the feel of her lips on his. He broke off, flustered, and murmured, “I’m sorry. I’d no right to do that.“

She captured his face in her hands. “You don’t know how long I wanted you to.”

She drew him down to her again. The kiss was longer, deeper, and Joe’s body stirred in response. Every nerve wanted to continue and lose himself within this wonderful creature, but he broke the kiss.

“I’d better go.” Instead of letting him move away, Kate followed him up and stepped in close. Her eyes fixed on his, he saw something he’d never seen before – desire. She lifted her head in mute invitation, and this time he answered it by pressing his lips on hers. Fire burned through him and an intensity that demanded to be met forced its way up his body. He had to stop and leave before he couldn’t. His words a desperate plea, he murmured, “I hav’ta go.”

He heard the answering plea in her whispered words, “Stay with me tonight.”

“I can’t, it wouldn’t be right. If people knew.”

“No one will know. Please, Joe, I need you.”

The longing in her voice was oxygen to his flame. His hands encircled and crushed her to him, her warmth and shape thrilling against his. The kiss this time was hungry, eager, and they both plunged deep into each other. Even as the intoxication of her flooded his being, doubt rose, and he pushed them apart.

“I can’t. It would be under false pretenses. I can’t give you anything in return or promise that might change. After my wife … I’ve got nothin’ left…” he trailed off, hoping she’d understand.

“I’m not asking for promises. I’m married, Joe, remember? I can’t give you those either.” He searched her face, questioning her with his eyes. Hers never wavered. “I’m not asking you to love me. I’m asking you to make love to me. It can’t be wrong for two people to get the physical comfort they need from each other.” His heart pounded in his chest, hearing his own thoughts repeated back to him. “Joe, you’re a good man and a good friend. I like you, trust you, and yes, I’m attracted to you. I wouldn’t ask this of anyone else. I want to be with you, just you. But if you can’t…”

She began to pull away. His hand tightened, and he drew her close again. He leaned in, and she lifted her head to meet his lips. The kiss deep and sensuous awoke all his suppressed need. He broke off again, breathless and husky, his voice a growl of passion. “You’re really sure?”

She nodded and moved toward her bedroom door. He stepped ahead, and after opening the door, placed his hand in the small of her back and guided her through, closing it softly behind them.

Joe rolled over and buried his nose deep in the sheet that smelled of her. He luxuriated in the intoxication of her scent, sighing in his contentment. His stomach muscles tightened in a reflex action, and he stretched involuntarily at the memory of their lovemaking. Every night he spent with Kate became more pleasurable than the last. The passion he’d unleashed in her startled him at first but, by God, he’d embraced it.

Cocking one eye open he could see the first sign of predawn filter through the curtains, which meant he’d need to leave soon. Creeping back to his hotel room before the children and too many ‘good’ citizens of Virginia City were about their business. They kept their liaison discreet, telling no one, for the sake of Kate’s reputation, but also because it was private and secret, just between them, and they wanted to hang on to that. They saw each other as often as possible. Joe found an excuse to stay in Virginia City overnight whenever he could, and when he couldn’t, he stayed anyway.

The door creaked, and Kate slid herself back into bed. “I’ve made you coffee.”

Joe took the cup, placed it on the small bedside table and caught her in his arms, drawing her close. Her soft skin against his sent ripples of excitement through him. “I’ll skip the coffee for somethin’ sweeter.” The gurgling laugh caught in her throat and changed to an expectant groan under his kiss. The sound drove him wild. To hell with coffee.

*****

“You’ve been spending a lot of nights in Virginia City.” Joe’s eyes lifted from his book to his father at his statement. “And I hear you’re paying for a room at the International you never use.”

Caught unawares, Joe cursed, “Damn that Otis, he should mind his own business.”

Ben’s coffee cup clanked back in its saucer. “I didn’t hear it from Otis. You don’t have to worry about him. He’ll keep your secrets. If you can still call them that.”

Annoyance crept up Joe’s spine. He wondered who in Virginia City had been busy. Joe attempted to deflect the conversation. “Y’know, I’m a bit old for a necessary talk.” His heart sank when his father’s brows drew down into a frown. Since losing Hoss, Joe had tried to deflect most of Pa’s ‘mother hen’ instinct onto Jamie, but this time he was in line for both barrels. “All right, Pa, say what you got to say.”

Reluctant though he was, Ben did so. He didn’t like to pry into Joe’s private life, but what he’d heard worried him. “I hear you’re spending your nights with Kathryne Boyd.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Does it matter? Is it true?”

Rankled, Joe answered more sharply than he intended, “Yes, it’s true.”

“Joseph! She’s a married woman.”

The shock in Ben’s voice enflamed him, he snapped, “In name only.”

“For Heaven’s sake. That’s where it counts.”

“Not to me. Not to us.”

Ben leaned forward in his chair. His voice rasped as he repeated the words. “She’s married.”

Joe jerked out of his chair and walked over to the stairs, his hand on his hips, he lashed out, flinging the words over his shoulder, “I know that! If we don’t care, why should anyone else?”

Ben stared back. He took a breath. Joseph pursuing an affair with a married woman went against everything he believed in, but his son was grown man and no longer subject to his edicts. He changed tack. “Are you being fair to Kathryne?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“The gossip has already started about the two of you.”

Exasperated, Joe flung up a hand. “Pa, Virginia City’s talked about us Cartwrights ever since they put up the first tents. I don’t care what they say, and neither does Kate.”

“You may be able to ignore it, but the situation is different for her. The talk must hurt her. What about her reputation, her children, and what will happen when her husband comes back?”

“He’s not coming back.”

“Joe- ”

“Look, I appreciate your concern, but I know what I’m doing, and so does she. We’re not in love, Pa, if that’s what’s bothering you. We’re just getting what we need. That’s all.”

Joe stormed up the stairs, and Ben slumped in his chair. God knows, Joe deserved to be happy, but how could this relationship bring him that? Besides, he knew Joseph. Whatever his son believed, there had to be love there. Buried deep, maybe, where Joe couldn’t see it, but still there. It made Ben ache to think what would happen when he did? After all, while Kathryne was married, what chance could there be of a future for them?

Although incensed by the gossips tattling, his father’s words found a target and sank in like a thorn Joe couldn’t dig out, and he questioned himself. Had he been selfish and taken advantage of Kate? Was it just easy on his part to think it suited them both to make no promises or be under any obligations? Whatever he believed he couldn’t deny any damage from their affair would be far greater for her than him. Pa was right, her reputation would be ruined, and he could just walk away. It ripped him apart inside, but he had to give her the chance to end the relationship.

Those fine eyes burned deep from anger, and Kate demanded, “You don’t want to see me anymore, is that it?”

Joe gripped the back of the chair. This wasn’t going well at all. “No, of course not. But I hav’ta think of you. I don’t have the right to risk your reputation like this and I thought the best decision would be- ”

Joe jumped when Kate crashed down the coffee pot she’d been holding. “Oh! You men! Always making decisions for us poor women. Don’t I have a right to make my own?”

“Yes, of course, you do but- ”

“But? What, but? I’m too stupid to realize what it means if people suspect us?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then let me decide for myself. This is my life too, Joe Cartwright. If I don’t care about what people think or say behind my back, why should you?”

Joe closed his gaping mouth. She was magnificent. “Do you know how beautiful you are when you’re angry?” Kate gasped and he crossed the distance between them in two eager strides and took her in his arms. “I’m sorry. I don’t want us to end. Pa, just … well, he got to me.”

Her hands played with the top button on his shirt. He closed his eyes, fighting the sparks this set off inside him. His jaw clenched at her sigh. “He did it for the best, I suppose.” She tilted her head to look up at him, and he saw the satisfied smile when she recognized the look in his eyes. “We have an hour until the children get home.”

He didn’t need any more of an invitation.

*****

The end of May approached, and still, no sign or word came from Adam, until the day they gathered in the great room for dinner, and a vehicle drew up to the house.

“You expectin’ someone, Pa?”

“Paul, he said he might drop by for a game of chess. He usually manages to time it with dinner.”

Jamie went to the door, but instead of his pa’s friend, he found a well-dressed man helping a woman down from a buggy. Jamie held the door wide and called over his shoulder, “It ain’t him, Pa.”

“Oh?” Ben queried.

Two people now filled the threshold and Ben gazed across into the eyes of his beloved oldest son.

The rich baritone voice intoned, “Hi, Pa.”

“Adam,” Ben breathed. He pulled himself together and rushed toward his son, hands held out in welcome. “Adam! It’s so wonderful to see you.”

Joe followed, greeting his brother with a slap on the back, “Hey, older brother.”

Ben grasped Adam’s hand, pumping it vigorously while he looked his son over. Still, the handsome, intelligent face he’d always known but his age of forty-four showed in the lines he’d acquired, the grey in his hair and silver at his temples, and how he filled out.

Released from his pa’s grasp, Adam shook Joe’s hand and then stepped back to stand beside the lady waiting patiently behind him. Encircling her shoulder with his arm, he smiled and announced, “May I introduce my wife, Sophia.”

Ben beamed as he took the young woman’s hand. “My dear, it’s so good to meet you, Sophia. Welcome to the Ponderosa.”

The lady before him smiled and corrected in a soft, deep voice that held an English accent, “Sophy, Mr. Cartwright, please, Sophia’s much too formal.”

“Sophy, you must call me Ben,” he responded, smiling at his new daughter-in-law. He flung up his hands. “Where are my manners. Let me take your coat, then you must sit, and I will introduce you to everyone.”

Sophy smiled and turned to Adam, who carefully removed her coat. His smile grew broader, and pride flooded his face. Dumbstruck, everyone stood and stared. Removing her coat revealed Sophy’s current condition. Everyone in the room understood Adam’s smile. Sophy was with child. At the expressions on their faces, Adam’s smile slipped into a grin and Sophy began to giggle.

Joe reacted first. “Adam, you old dog you! Sophy, congratulations.”

Sophy found herself hugged and exclaimed over, and then Ben firmly let her to the settee. “When’s the baby due?”

“In about three months

Adam sat down next to his wife. “How does it feel, Pa, to know you’re going to be a grandpa at last?”

A strained silence fell. Adam saw his father’s eyes flick to Joe, who got up a little too quickly and filled the silence. “Hey, I’d better tell Hop Sing you’re here, or he’ll never forgive us.”

Once Joe left, Adam asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I did write to you, but I think my letter arrived after you left.” Ben raised his eyes. The look of grief in them shocked Adam. “Not long after Hoss died, Joe met Alice. They were married, and she fell pregnant.” Ben paused to gather himself. Adam felt Sophy’s hand slip into his, and he held tight. “There was trouble. We found out later her brother got himself into debt and the men went to Alice to get the money he owed out of her. We don’t know exactly what happened. Joe came home to find their house on fire. He tried to get inside… ” Ben ran his hands together. He saw again, the burns on Joe’s hands from his desperate struggles to reach his wife. “Their bodies were found in the ruins. They’d killed them and burned the house.”

“Dear God.”

“So, you see the news of the baby… is just. Adam, it’s not that he’s not happy for you both.”

“It’s all right. I understand.”

A crash from the kitchen turned everyone’s head to see Hop Sing appear around the corner. Adam smiled at the sight of the Chinaman, older and slightly more bent than he remembered, but still with a spring in his step.

“Mister Adam, number one son, you get home at last! I clean house, many times before you come.”

Adam got up and shook the faithful servant’s hand. “I’m sorry, Hop Sing, we spent longer in New York than we planned, and the journey home needed to be taken slow, too.”

Introduced to Sophy, Hop Sing understood the meaning of Adam’s words. His excitement racked up another notch. “We have baby on Ponderosa? This is wonderful. I fetch coffee quick, then Missy Cartwright can rest in room until dinner ready.”

“Good heavens,” Ben exclaimed. “Where are my manners today? Of course, you will want to see your room and rest.”

Sophy laughed. A deep rich, warm sound. “If it’s possible for me to have a cup of tea, Hop Sing, that would be lovely? Then, I think I would like to rest.”

Delighted to please this new addition to the family, Hop Sing disappeared back to the kitchen.

When Adam saw Joe didn’t return with the refreshments, he got up and excused himself. Reaching the barn, he found his brother industriously feeding the horses and sucked in his bottom lip when he saw the big chestnut in one of the stalls.

“What’s he doing here?”

“Pa had him brought back in.” Offering Adam, a handful of oats to feed to the animal, he added. “After nine years back on the range, he needed a bit of gentling.”

“I bet. Well, it’s good to see him. Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For working on him. It was you?”

Joe winked. “My pleasure, older brother.”

Adam drew a breath. “Joe- ”

Joe cut in, “Pa told you.”

“Yes, he told us.” Joe flinched at the word ‘us’. He’d barely gotten used to using it when his right to do so was torn from him. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I wish I’d been here.”

“It wouldn’t have changed anything.”

Adam’s keen eyes rested on his brother. Of all of them, Joe had changed the most in his eyes. He hardly recognized this broad-chested, thirty-two-year-old with greying hair. Adam couldn’t resist a little inward smile at his brother’s locks. Perhaps his father’s early greyness wasn’t due entirely to Joe’s escapades after all?

Adam placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know. But I still wish I had.” Joe smiled, it wasn’t the brilliant, carefree smile Adam recalled, but it was a smile, nonetheless.

They returned to the house together. The tired expression on his wife’s face told Adam she was ready for a rest. Jamie and Joe whipped their luggage up to Adam’s old room. Ben linked her arm through his and escorted Sophy up himself, and Adam could see the Cartwright charm at work already. Hop Sing brought up hot water and fresh towels, before returning with their dinner on a tray to inform them, with imperial decision, they must eat and then rest until supper.

*****

Ben looked up when he heard footsteps on the stairs. His heart gave a joyful lurch seeing Adam. It would take a while to get used to having him back home.

“How’s Sophy?”

“She’s fine. She’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Getting up, Ben walked around his desk to meet him and couldn’t resist putting a hand on his son’s shoulder to feel his physical presence. “I can’t tell you how good it is to have you home.”

Adams lopsided smile quirked. “Thanks. I’m sorry I didn’t return sooner, and I wasn’t here for Hoss and Joe.”

They both sank back into their old, familiar, favorite chairs, and Ben shook his head. “You can’t blame yourself for that. Life is, what it is. Without the bad times, we wouldn’t appreciate the good.” Ben grimaced at the familiar probing look he hadn’t seen in so long. Serve you right for not raising a fool. “All right, I won’t pretend it hasn’t been hard. In fact, it’s been a hellish year.”

For the first time, Adam caught a glimpse of the anguish he’d suffered etched into the lines on his father’s face. It hurt to see them, but the next moment they’d vanished. “I can’t imagine how terrible it was.”

“For a while there, I admit I was worried about Joe. On the face of it, he was okay, and yet, I couldn’t seem to reach him. Losing Alice was bad enough, but the baby…” Ben’s voice broke. Adam waited for Ben to continue. “Then suddenly he came back to us. He’d gone on a business trip and ran into a mad man who tried to kill him.”

“What?” Adam interrupted, startled. “After everything else?”

“I know, but Adam, I believed that saved him. He returned to us, different… alive again. He’s still grieving, we all are, but he’s stopped drifting away.”

Adam listened to his father’s words. His biggest regret was that he hadn’t returned before Hoss died, knowing he’d never see that lovable, big-hearted mule again, and now, to learn of Joe’s loss. How his family had suffered. A noise on the stair drew his attention, and he turned to see his wife. Before he could rise, Ben sprang up and went to Sophy.

“How’re you feeling, my dear? Did you get enough rest?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Slipping her arm once more comfortably through his, she allowed herself to be guided over to the settee.

As he settled her down, Ben complimented, “You certainly look wonderful.”

Adam listened to his wife’s giggles and shook his head. “Still got the Cartwright charm I see, Pa.”

“Adam, what a thing to say?” Ben reproved.

Sophy’s giggle grew into a rich chuckle. “It’s quite true. I can see Adam got all his charm from you.”

Ben laughed, but underneath it pleased him. It was nice to think even at sixty-four he could still charm the ladies.

The front door flung open. Adam turned, expecting to see Joe, but it was Jamie who bounced through, tossing a laughing comment to the dark-haired man behind him. Adam assumed, he must be Candy, the foreman Pa had hired. Behind them followed Joe, who quietly shut the door.

“Oh, good, boys, right on time. Go wash up for supper.”

Adam suppressed a smile. Pa still hadn’t lost the habit of calling them, boys.

When they returned, Ben formally introduced Adam and Sophy to Candy. It surprised Adam when the foreman joined them at the table for supper. This hadn’t been the practice before he’d left, but he quickly realized this man was more than just a hired hand, and especially to Joe. By the end of the meal, he found himself drawn to the laid-back foreman with his broad, easy smile.

Adam liked Jamie right away. Nervous around his oldest brother and a bit overawed, Adam took the time to draw the boy out about his studies at school and identified a mutual interest in engineering.

“Hey, Pa, Adam says he can help me with my science project.”

“If anyone can, it’s brainy, older brother,” Joe pointed out helpfully.

Adam grinned back across the table in response to the teasing. Once the family had settled around the fireplace, the conversation turned to how Adam and Sophy met.

Sophy smiled down into her cup and rested her head into her husband’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell them.”

Adam eased an arm around her and began. “The day I met Sophy, she was in a battle for a life.”

*****

Adam left the successful business meeting feeling very pleased with himself, when he heard a commotion. Curious, he went to investigate and came upon the remarkable sight of a young woman abusing four youths for their cruelty while she battered them with her purse.   A bedraggled, bleeding mongrel dog, cowering behind the skirts of his savior, seemed to be the cause of her fury. Adam’s arrival proved fortuitous since the four youths had begun to turn nasty and pushed the young woman to the ground. Stepping in, he made short work of the miscreants promptly sending them packing, and he turned to offer his hand to the lady, who accepted it and got up. The lady’s hat, knocked askew in the scuffle, was restored and Adam looked into the most bright, intelligent pair of brown eyes he’d ever seen.

In his travels, Adam had spent many evenings in the company of beautiful and exotic women. The six-foot muscular frame of an American cowboy fascinated them, and the ladies of Europe used all their wiles to attract him. None though reacted to his presence with a miffed sniff and an indignant, “I had everything under control. I didn’t require any help.”

Adam’s small bow of a smile broke out, “You’re welcome.”

The ladies inviting lips formed a rueful pout. “I’m so sorry, that was terribly rude of me. Those louts just made me so cross.”

Adam, the practical, level-headed, logical Cartwright admitted he fell headlong in love.

After introducing himself, he made sure to escort Miss Sophia Downing back to her brother and his family’s home in a highly desirable neighborhood of Adelaide, along with the abused mongrel.

Following his travels through Europe, Adam gravitated toward Asia, which took him on to Australia. Once there he found himself drawn to the cultural city of Adelaide, and rapidly found himself a position as an architect. After six years of wandering, Adam was happy to settle there for the foreseeable future. The ambience of the bustling city appealed to him, as did the climate and the artistic and liberal populace. Two years later found him settled and comfortable, happy in his profession and his life as a confirmed bachelor. Or so he believed until he met Sophia, who turned his world upside down.

Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, Adam wasted no time. He introduced himself to Sophy’s brother, who worked at the British Embassy, and invited him, his wife and Sophy to dinner. He then followed this up with invitations to Sophia for luncheon and visits to the theatre.

Fortunately, for Adam, the two hit it off right away. Their mutual love of literature, art and music helped their friendship to blossom. Unfortunately, Sophia seemed to look on him only as a friend. This came as a shock to Adam. He was a man used to finding women attracted to him, and it filled him with chagrin to think that the one woman, in all these years, whom he wished to bestow the role of Mrs. Adam Cartwright upon might not be interested.

If Adam had known Sophia’s feelings, he may have been happier. At thirty-four years old, she might be a confirmed spinster, but she was still a woman. She’d liked his handsome face and sheer masculine physicality from their first meeting, and as they became friends, she was drawn to his intelligence and love of culture. She liked him very much, in fact, she was afraid her feelings went far beyond that.

Sophia, however, was a sensible woman. She’d met many men before, whom she’d been attracted to and seemed to return those feelings. But she’d learnt the hard way that men weren’t impressed by the idea of a wife who held opinions of her own and wasn’t shy in expressing them. Nor, of one whose mind matched their own. She could have hidden her intelligence and dampened her views to secure one of those men, but she couldn’t do it. Too proud for such subjugation, she remained single. Now here was Adam Cartwright. A product of the New World who seemed comfortable with her independence. Or so it seemed. She wondered if she could trust that, which meant, for now, she was being guarded.

Unaware of these feelings, Adam began to pursue Sophia in earnest and made an interesting discovery. His intended was a budding author.

“I’ve only published a slim volume so far, but it was well-received, and my publisher has urged me to produce a second.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen a book with you as the authoress.”

Sophia’s rich chuckle broke out, “Goodness, Adam, I don’t write under my own name. Poor Franklin, in his role at the Embassy what would they say? To be truthful, I write in hopes of gaining my independence. I plan to earn enough to support myself in my own household.”

“You wish to leave your brother’s home?”

“Don’t misunderstand me. I love my brother, and Charlotte, and the children, but I’ve no wish to dwindle into dependent spinster aunt. I wish for my own life and establishment.”

“Don’t you wish to marry?”

Sophia shook her head and laughed, but her words were without humor, even sad. “I have found that women who have a minds of their own, don’t go over well with members of the stronger sex. I am also thirty-four, an age that puts me well past the bloom of youth. Not a combination to appeal to most men.”

A man of intelligence, Adam recognize that his moment had arrived, and he didn’t let it slip through his fingers. He captured her hand in his and looking deep into her eyes, told her, “I’m not most men.”

Her startled look confirmed what he’d feared. Sophia had not regarded him in the light of a suitor, and his heart sank. But the tremble of her hand and her breathless reply gave him hope. “No, you’re not.”

Not too long after that, he asked her to be his wife. Faced with this onslaught of Cartwright determination and charm, Sophia accepted, she’d found the man for her, and did the only thing she could, give in.

“It’s a hard thing,” she told him, nestling her head on his shoulder, “to be bullied into marrying a man. Will you be this overbearing when we’re married?”

“Much worse.”

She sighed in contentment. “How shocking. I see I shall be miserably put upon.”

Turning her chin up so her lips could meet his, he told her, “You will, my love.”

The wedding date set, Adam found his thoughts turned more and more to his family and the Ponderosa. He told Sophy all about them and described the beauty of his home. Telling her of his life there and making her laugh with stories of his brothers and their antics. He even caught himself daydreaming about his children and how he could teach them to ride and hunt.

Devastation came with the news of Hoss’ death. How could Hoss be gone? His roots were buried so deep in the Ponderosa he’d seemed everlasting.

Sensitive to his loss and grieve, Sophia offered to delay the wedding. He caught her hands between his and kissed her fingers. He was grateful and thanked her, but he dismissed the idea. “If anything, this makes me wanna marry you sooner and not waste a moment of the time we have together.”

A restlessness continued to badger Adam. He and Sophia looked for a new home, only for him to find fault with each elegant property they looked at.

After another abortive visit, Sophia made a suggestion, “My love, you’re an architect. You should build your own home. I don’t’ think you will be happy unless you do. Buy some land. We can rent somewhere until it’s finished.”

“I think that must be the problem. You don’t mind?”

“Of course not.”

Adam set too with his designs, but he found, with each attempt, the home he created suited only one surrounding, and the sweeping vistas he imagined from every window and balcony came from a singular place. Finally, he acknowledged the longing that pressed on his soul. The Ponderosa called. But what about Sophy? She’d accepted him expecting to live in Adelaide, a modern city of culture, not in the wilds of Nevada. How would she react to this?

“I wondered when you would get around to telling me.”

“You knew?”

“Of course. You haven’t stopped talking about the Ponderosa and your family since we became engaged. Your heart is there, and that’s where we must go.”

“But your family? Can I ask you to leave them?”

Sophy laid a finger over his lips, silencing him. “Adam, I have only one thing to say, which I shall borrow from Ruth. Whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge, thy people shall be my people. For my love, you are my family now.”

His passionate embrace engulfed her, and he murmured in her ear, “I love you.” Before crushing his lips against hers.

*****

Joe hooted when Adam finished his story. “Good for you Sophy. Saving the dog from those yahoos. Exactly what Hoss would’ve done.”

Jamie grinned at Joe. “What happened to the dog?” Sophy’s eyes met Adams, and they both burst into laughter. “What?”

“I’m afraid my poor brother will never forgive me. Such a scruffy animal, but the children fell in love with him. He didn’t have the heart to take Lucky away from them.”

Jamie laughed, “Lucky. What a great name.”

“Enough chatter,” Ben informed them. “I’m sure Adam and Sophy are looking forward to their beds.

Adam agreed, and the couple retired, followed by Jamie. Candy then made himself scarce, leaving Ben and Joe alone.

Ben poured Joe some more brandy. “Good to have him home.”

“Yeah. It’ll be great to have a new Cartwright on the Ponderosa too.”

Ben smiled, proud at the generosity of heart his son had, even after all he’d lost. “Well, I’m beat.” Going passed him to the stairs, he put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. They needed no words, both understanding the unspoken gesture.

*****

It didn’t take Ben long to let Adam know about the timber laid aside for him. Adam already had a spot picked out for his home and after slapping his father on the back and telling him, “You know me too well.” He drove Sophy out to show it to her. The location of the site surprised Ben.

“I want to be closer to Carson City. As the state capital, I believe it can better sustain an architect business. I want to be part of the Ponderosa, Pa, but I need to use my other skills. It may require my travelling to Salt Lake City, Sacramento, San Francisco and other places but, where I can, I’ll co-ordinate those with Ponderosa work as much as possible.”

Ben leant forward and gripped Adam’s hand. “If it’s what you want, that’s fine with me.”

Relieved at his understanding, Adam returned the pressure. “Joe’s doing a fine job without me anyway.”

“Your brother stepped up in ways you can’t imagine after Hoss… ” Ben paused, and his thoughts went to his two sons, the spirit and the heart of his life. Ben smiled. He was proud of all his sons. “You’ll make it work, Adam, I know you will.”

Seeking his brother, Adam found him studiously working through a pile of paperwork. In an old familiar move, he hitched a thigh onto the edge of the desk. Could this be the same man who’d always complained of doing the books?

“Busy?”

Joe looked up and smiled. “Just catching up on bills and stuff.”

“Is this mine little brother I see before me?”

Joe smirked, “One of your writers?”

Adam twisted his lips. “Shakespeare, which I mangled.” He crossed his arms to get down to business. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. Are you okay with my being back?”

“What the heck kinda question is that?”

Adam pursed his lips at his clumsiness. “What I mean is … back on the Ponderosa working it with you. From what I’ve seen, you can run the ranch fine without me.”

Joe’s mobile eyebrows shot up his forehead. “Don’t let Pa here you say that. He’s still ‘bull of the woods’ around here.”

Adam smiled. The words brought back memories. Distant, long ago, fond memories. “Maybe, but I don’t wanna muscle in on you.”

“Have you forgotten how much work this place takes to run? Pa and I could do with the help, especially since Jamie’s got his sights set on college next year. ‘Sides, Pa told me how you plan to run your business. If we can co-ordinate your trips with ranch business that would be great. It would take a weight off me.”

“Thanks, Joe. If you’re sure.”

“Sure, I’m sure.”

Adam dipped his head and slid a look at Joe. He was still getting used to the changes in that strong, handsome face. He could see the fine lines where tragedy had left their mark. “Pa’s also told me about your relationship with Kathryne Boyd. “ He saw Joe stiffen, and his expressive eyes shift to a darker hue, and he hurried on, “I’m not here to judge. I’ve not been a celibate in the past nine years y’know. Does she make you happy?”

Joe’s shoulders relaxed, and the smile returned. “Yeah, she does.”

“Then, I’m glad.” Adam took a breath. “Y’know, you’ve done a great job here.”

Joe laughed. He got up and slapped Adam on the shoulder with the paper he’d carried. Turning off the compliment, he joked, “You just caught me on a good day. Have you seen, Pa?”

“Yeah, he and Jamie are out in the back corral working that little filly.”

“Thanks, I need to speak to him about this contract.”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all, older brother. Might as well start teaching you the ropes again.”

Joe ducked away from Adam’s playful swipe and laughed.

*****

Adam spent each day out, busy building his new home, and Ben got to know his new daughter-in-law. He liked Sophy a great deal. Kind, intelligent and spirited, in all ways a wonderful woman, who showed no interest in running a household whatsoever. She wrote a great deal, and when occupied in this task, Ben’s suspected a stampede could come through the house and he doubted she’d notice. Ben questioned if Adam understood his wife’s preoccupation with her chosen profession and thought his son might need a nudge in the right direction. When he rode over to the house site, he decided to broach the subject.

“Have you considered hiring help for Sophy when you move into your home?”

“Help, what do you mean?”

“Well, a cook, like Hop Sing.”

“A cook? What would we want a cook for?”

“Sophia will have a new baby, she may be grateful of the help,” Ben explained, “Marie certainly was.”

“I don’t think so. Sophy wants to run her own household.”

“Of course, she does, but a cook would be part of her household, and she has a profession too, remember.”

Adam stopped to wipe his brow and eyed his father with suspicion. “What’re you getting at, Pa?”

“I just think she may appreciate the help.”

Irritation ran down his spine, and Adam reached for his canteen. Back less than five minutes and here was Pa already trying to tell him how to run his life. “I didn’t know my household arrangements attracted such interest.”

“If you don’t want my advice, you need only tell me,” Ben chastened.

Adam clenched his jaw. Pa could still make him feel like a ten-year-old. Besides, he deserved that. “Sorry. Of course, your advice is welcome. I’ll ask her, but I doubt she’ll be interested.”

Sure, of his wife’s wishes, he got quite a shock when he broached the subject. Wreathed in smiles, Sophy flung an arm around her husband’s neck.

“Oh, Adam, thank you. What a goose I am. I would’ve thought of servants myself if I hadn’t been so caught up in my writing.” She turned away and rested a finger on her chin while she debated. “A cook, of course, will be essential. I can barely fry an egg. Also, I shall need a maid, for the housework, and when the baby comes, we will need to hire an extra girl temporarily to help with the work.”

Under his tanned skin, Adam paled. His careful plans for his house disintegrated before his eyes with the need to accommodate two servants he hadn’t anticipated. Catching his father’s face, he seethed at his smug demeanor. Trust Pa to have known.

Over the tea tray he carried, Hop Sing smiled at Sophy. “If Missy Cartwright look for cook, Hop Sing can recommend number one cousin.”

“Number one cousin?” chorused Ben, Joe and Adam. The three of them remembered when he’d stood in for Hop Sing years before.

Seeing their reactions, the Chinaman insisted, “Number one cousin work hard since Ponderosa. He good cook now.”

“I’m sure he is, Hop Sing,” Sophia placated, “and if you recommend him, I shall have him.”

The faithful servant nodded, “You’ll be very happy. Number one cousin is number one cook.”

Sophia enthused, “How marvelous, Adam, we’re so lucky.” Adam cringed, as his life tilted a little out of control. “Now, how do we find a housemaid?” his wife demanded.

Work on the house continued, and despite the changes, Adam managed to keep the build on track. He returned one afternoon to find his wife and brothers giggling together around the fireplace.

“What’s all this?”

Joe turned his face lit with a cheeky smile. Seated at his desk, Ben drank in the expression. He hadn’t seen it in a long time.

“Sophy’s reading parts of her new story.”

“It’s going to be a series of stories about the life of a young man in the wild west. It will be called Moe’s tales.”

Adam quirked an eyebrow, “Moe?”

The three went off into riotous giggles again.

Jamie pulled himself together and told him, “The first story is called ‘The Bank Robbery That Never Was’.”

Adam grimaced. The incident still fresh in his memory, he complained, “Pa and I are still living that idiotic fiasco down, and you want to immortalize it in writing?”

Sophy pulled a face at his admonishment, “Oh Adam, I’ve changed the names, and Joe and Jamie have helped me change the places.”

Ben regarded his eldest. Always one to lean toward the austere, Ben often worried these autocratic tendencies might be encouraged by the lady he finally settled upon, which would not be good for his son. Watching Sophy tease, cajole, and reprimand him for his grumpiness he had to admit there was no fear of that with her. He could see Adam’s humor bubble up, and his eldest suddenly laughed.

“If you’re gonna relate all of younger brother’s misplaced youthful endeavors don’t forget the one where Joe turned detective.”

“Hey, how could you…?” Since that took place after Adam left, it baffled Joe how he’d known. Snapping his head around, he accused, “Pa!”

Ben chuckled as he walked over from his desk. “You didn’t think I’d keep it to myself, did you?”

Sophy’s deep gurgle rippled. “Sounds wonderful. You must tell me all about it, Ben. Adam, I am so lucky to have such wonderful brothers-in-law. I shall have enough stories for years.”

Ben wiped away the tear that threatened. The memory of the other brother involved in those adventures hit him. A pressure on his shoulder made him turn to see Joe, a wealth of understanding in his face.

“He’ll always be here, Pa.”

Ben covered the hand and returned the pressure. Joe was right, and Ben would always be grateful for the time they had with Hoss, and the memories it gave him.

Still enveloped in hushed silence, the house lay still, when Joe came down the stairs running through the lists of tasks for that day in his head. Gone were the mornings when he needed to be rousted out of bed and he was often the first up, like today. He unlocked the front door on his way through to the kitchen, where the stove waited to be stoked and the coffee put on. Wandering back into the large room, cup in hand, in time to hear the front door open and close, he pondered which hand it was and what problem they could have already. He came around the corner and froze.

The cup slipped unnoticed from nerveless fingers to hit the floor and smash, china and liquid skittering unheeded. All but the apparition in front of him spun out of focus. He daren’t move, blink or even breathe in case the vision faded away as a figment of his imagination. A hand stretched out, shaking from hope. Memorized, he spoke out loud, “Oh God, be real.” His fingers trembled. They didn’t pass through the specter before him. Instead, they came to rest on the course material of his coat. Bewildered green eyes lifted to the crystal blue ones he’d known all his life.

“Hi, lil’l brother. I’m home.”

 

*****

 

Part II – Miracles

 

Tears swam and blurred his vision. He wrapped hands around his brother’s arms fiercely holding on, while he continued to gaze up at him.

“Hoss,” he sobbed, “it’s really you. Oh, God. We thought you were dead.” Joe pulled Hoss into a hug and clung to him, his heart expanding in his chest from joy until he thought it might burst. Finally, he dared release him and step back. Hoss didn’t vanish but stayed, solid and real. Blinking away the tears, a smile bigger than any he’d ever known burst forth. Hoss was alive! “Wait here. I hav’ta tell Pa and Adam and everyone!”

“Joe, wait. I wanna- ”

But Joe was already tumbling up the stairs, and pandemonium erupted.

Ben yanked open his door to see Joe banging on doors. “Joseph! What on earth is going on? Can’t it wait ‘till I’m dressed?” Then he saw his son’s tear-filled eyes and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

Joe’s voice quaked, “It’s Hoss. He’s alive. He’s downstairs.”

“What?!”

Joe led the way while Ben followed, dragging his shirt on as he went. Joe hit the top of the stairs and stopped. Panic slammed him. Hoss no longer stood in front of the door. He hadn’t imagined it, he hadn’t! He heard Pa’s sharp intake of breath and turned his head to see his brother on the settee and breathed again.

“Hoss,” Ben gasped and raced passed Joe.

Behind Joe, the rest of the household clustered, shocked and awed. They moved down the stairs watching father and son reunite. Before they could rush forward, Hoss put up a large hand.

“Jest a minute. I need for you all to meet some special people.” For the first time, Joe saw the young woman on the settee behind Hoss. Hoss put out his hand and drew her forward. “Everyone, this here’s my wife Hannah an’ that little bit of a thing she’s holdin’ is our son, Benjamin

“Hoss, you’re married, and this is my grandchild?”

“That’s right, you’re a grandpappy.”

Ben clutched Hoss’ forearms and gave them a shake. “Hoss, you’re a father.” Ben swooped on Hannah and gave her a kiss on the cheek before he turned to admire his grandson.

Joe broke free of his amazement to surge toward Hoss, closely followed by the others. Congratulations, exclamations and joyful hellos rang out in unison.

When introduced to Sophy, Hoss’ guffawed, “Older brother, you sly dog, you done got yourself hitched too!”

An angry voice interrupted all the excitement, “What all this noise? What you all yell for?”

Everyone turned. Hop Sing’s eyes fixed on Hoss. He stood, frozen in astonishment. Ben went to him, and reassured, “Yes, Hop Sing, it’s Hoss. He’s safe home, and he has a wife and baby.”

Joe blinked back a tear when Hop Sing gazed up at his brother. His face a mirror of what his own must have been. “Hop Sing very happy Hoss is home.”

“Thanks, Hop Sing. This is Hannah and lil’l Benji.”

Bowing, Hop Sing beamed a smile. “Missy Hannah and number one baby very pretty. You wait, while I get room ready.”

Ben patted the Chinaman on the back. “Thank you, Hop Sing. You two must be exhausted.”

“A rest sounds mighty fine, but we could sure do with somethin’ good to eat first.”

Joe frowned to see his brother’s thinner frame and pale skin under the long hair and beard he’d grown. The worry that flickered across his heart he could see reflected in Pa, who nodded briskly and turned to Hop Sing.

Delighted Hop Sing dashed off to the kitchen telling Hoss as he went, “You have mighty fine breakfast lickety-split. Then Hop Sing get room ready an’ Missy Hannah and number one baby can rest.”

Ben slumped down in his favorite red chair and Joe perched himself on the hearth next to him. Together they continued to gaze on the miraculous family.

Ben asked, “I still can’t believe you’re here. We believed you were dead. How could that happen? Where have you been all this time?”

“Hannah an’ me, we got quite a story, an’ I wanna tell it, but we done travelled a real long way an’ through the night. Iffin ya don’t mind, can it wait ‘tell after we eaten and then rested a piece?”

“Of course, food, coffee and rest. Anything else can wait.”

Over breakfast, Ben told the couple about the telegram and how they’d received a body to bury. Hoss shook his head and muttered, “Dadburned dirty trick.” But didn’t offer any more.

To keep their state of eager curiosity in check, Adam spent the rest of breakfast telling Hoss about he and Sophy, but as soon as Hop Sing announced their room to be ready, the exhausted little family made for their bed.

“Hoss, d’you need a crib? You can use ours?”

“Nah thanks, Adam, we’re kinda used to Benji sleepin’ tucked in with us.”

Ben followed them upstairs into Hoss’ old room, unchanged since they learnt of his death, and wiped away tears to see his son here again. Clean linen, fresh towels and warm water provided by the ever-capable Hop Sing, Ben noticed he’d even laid out Hoss’ nightshirt together with one for Hannah, kindly supplied by Sophy.

Hoss smiled as he steered his father to the door. “Pa, you can stop clucking over us like that ol’ mother hen now.”

Ben blushed sheepishly. “Sorry, son.” He couldn’t resist retaking Hoss’ hand when he told him, “It’s good to have you back, boy.”

“Thanks, I’m glad to be home.”

Hoss closed the door, and after wiping away more tears, Ben went back downstairs.

*****

No member of the Cartwright family left the ranch that day to pursue any work. Like a magnet, Hoss kept them close. None of them prepared to venture far from his presence. Reassured by Candy that he’d take care of business, they settled down to await Hoss’ emergence from his room.

Hop Sing took up a tray with lunch and the bath, followed by cans and cans of hot water. Sophy also handed over a full change of clothes for Hannah’s use. However, it wasn’t until the aroma of Hop Sings supper wafted around the house before the family saw them again.

“Boy, somethin’ sure smells good,” Hoss announced as the family came down the stairs.

“It looks like you could do with feedin’ up,” Ben remarked.

“It’s true I’ve done dropped a few pounds.”

In Ben’s eyes, this was a massive understatement. Hoss had shaved and trimmed back his hair and Ben could see the toll, of whatever it was that he’d been through, in how gaunt and thin he looked.

Once they’d all sat down at the table, Ben turned to Hannah. “My dear, would you mind if I held the baby while you ate?”

Smiling, she passed the child into Ben’s experienced hands, saying shyly, “Of course.”

He sat the babe on his knee and looked down at the chubby face. Overwhelming love and pride washed over him, and he put out a finger to touch this miracle bundle to be delighted when the babe gripped it tight and gurgled at him.

“Well, young man, I’m your grandpa Ben, and I’m pleased to meet you.”

The big blue eyes of the baby stared up into his and never wavered. Ben’s smile widened. He could see his middle son so clearly in the face before him and thanked his Maker again for how he’d been blessed that day.

After dinner with everyone settled around the fireplace, coffee and brandy in hands, Hoss began his tale.

*****

The ranch Hoss travelled to lay nestled in the east side of the San Joaquin valley. Taking two hands with him to help drive whatever bulls he purchased back home, they took the train to Sacramento and then Stockton from where they boarded the stage, to the dusty little town of Grawson.  

Leaving Hank and Todd, in town, Hoss rode out to the ranch. The hacienda-style property surrounded by various barns, outbuildings and houses, where the Mexican vaqueros and ranch hands lived, impressed Hoss

“Can I help you?”

Hoss turned and stared into the biggest pair of cornflower blue eyes he’d ever seen. Never had he dreamed such a dainty little darling as the young woman who stood before him could exist. Dragging off his hat, he explained, “Yes ma’am, I’m here to see Fulton McGraw. I’m Hoss Cartwright.”

The angelic creature smiled and replied, “My father’s expecting you, I’m Mrs. Whitcomb.”

A part of Hoss’ insides withered, and a barely begun dream died. He swallowed his desolation and managed to ask, “Is your Pa or husband around?”

“My father went to meet you, Mr. Cartwright, and there’s no Mr. Whitcomb, I’m a widow.”

Hoss stuck out his hand and had the grace to feel ashamed at the relief that washed over him. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Whitcomb.” The delicate hand placed in his, their eyes locked. How long they stood spellbound neither could say for sure, but a bond ignited between them that could last a lifetime. The first to recover, Hoss reluctantly withdrew his hand. “I’m sorry to miss your Pa. The stage got in early, so I decided I’d ride out here.”

“I see … oh dear, and he planned to ride from where he’s working to meet you.” The eyebrows furled, and her lips pouted in consternation, and Hoss’ heart turned to mush. “Oh well, it can’t be helped. Do please come in, Mr. Cartwright.”

Following his heart’s desire into the house, Hoss decided he was a gonna. A servant appeared with refreshment, and Hoss smiled at Mrs. Whitcomb. At thirty-six, Hoss had long since lost the paralysis around woman his brothers used to tease him mercilessly about, and he was determined to make a good impression.

“It must’ve been a hot ride today, Mr. Cartwright.”

Hoss scrunched up his nose. “Call me, Hoss, ma’am, everybody does.”

“Hoss? All right, and I’m Hannah.”

“Hannah.” Hoss savored the sound. “That’s a right pretty name.” Keen to know more about his host, he asked, “You and yer Pa always live here?”

“No. We came here eleven years ago. After my husband died, my mother passed away, and father decided we needed a new start.”

“I’m sorry ‘bout your husband.”

“Thank you. What about you Hoss, are you married?”

Hoss shook his head. “No, ma’am,” Did she really look pleased? “It’s jest me, Pa, and my brothers Joseph and Jamie.”

Further discussion became impossible with the arrival of Hannah’s father, Fulton McGraw. After saying their ‘hello’s’, Hoss was shown to his room to await dinner.

Alone, Hoss reflected on what just happened. “Dadburnit,” he told himself, “I just met the gal I’m gonna marry.” Giving a chortle, he slapped his hands together and did a little jig.

Hoss may have had a revelation about his future, but he now needed to engage the lady concerned. Dinner proved a frustrating affair in this regard, with McGraw dominating the conversation and even seemed to be preventing discussion between Hoss and his intended. The penny dropped when McGraw’s partner Trent Wilson arrived. His manner toward Hannah was possessive, and Hoss would have been devastated, if it hadn’t been for Hannah’s reaction to him. Lying in his bed later, Hoss’ fist curled, remembering the unhappy look on her face every time the man touched her. He decided to draw out his selection of the bulls since he wanted the chance to speak with Hannah and hope he’d get the opportunity tomorrow.

*****

Up at dawn for the viewing, McGraw found Hoss indecisive. He didn’t take to one bull. After rubbing his chin and scratching his head, he declared, “I can’t rightly make up my mind. D’you have any others I can look over?”

With what grace he could muster, McGraw informed Hoss, “I can have some more brought in. But it won’t be until late this afternoon.”

Hoss gave him a guileless smile and replied, “I ain’t in no hurry.”

Left alone after breakfast, Hoss took his chance and went in search of Hannah. He found her in the kitchen, and she invited him onto the terrace to enjoy more lemonade. Under the cool shade, Hannah told Hoss about her husband who’d been killed in the war.

“You loved him, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but it was a long time ago.”

“Time don’t erase love. Y’might move on and even find new love, but you always carry the old one deep in your heart.”

“I think you’ve lost someone too. Was she very special?”

Hoss ducked his head. “Yeah. I ain’t so lucky with love.”

Hannah placed her hand over his. “I’m sorry. You look like a man who deserves to be happy.”

Their eyes met, and a slow smile spread over Hoss’ face, “I ain’t given up yet, an’ I’m hoping my luck’s about to change.”

Even in the shade of the terrace, he could discern the blush that darkened Hannah’s cheeks. The twinkle in Hoss’ eyes deepened.

McGraw and Trent returned for lunch, and afterwards, McGraw invited Hoss to go with him but found him mulishly determined to stay and oblivious to hints. Going in search of Hannah again, Hoss found her on the terrace with Wilson. Through the open double doors, he could see her pressed back against one of the pillars. Her flushed, averted face displayed her distress. Hoss’ soft blue eyes turned hard cobalt, and, when he saw the man run a finger down her face, rage roared up inside and sent him barreling toward the couple. Fortunately for Wilson, with a final pat, he released Hannah and left.

When he saw Hannah’s anguish, Hoss immediately abandoned his intention to pursue Wilson and tear him limb from limb. His only thought, to take care of her. “You all right? He didn’t hurt you none, did he?”

Startled at Hoss’ appearance, consternation rang in Hannah’s voice. “Oh, you saw that?”

“Yeah, I saw that yahoo bothering you.”

Slipping an arm around her trembling shoulders, he led her to the bench at the end of the terrace.

“He … he wants to marry me, but I … I don’t care for him.”

“Why would ya? The man’s a snake.” Despite herself, Hannah laughed, but Hoss’ next words killed any such inclination. “Why don’t cha tell your Pa what he’s doin’?”

“He wants me to marry Trent.”

“An’ what you want counts fer nothin’?” A forlorn shake of the head gave him the answer. “I can’t believe that varmint had the nerve to put his hands on you.”

“I should be used to it, but I’m not.” Neither questioned that Hannah didn’t object to Hoss’s embrace and when he took her hand in his free one, she didn’t pull away, rather she snuggled deeper into him. “When he first arrived and formed a partnership with my father, he was friendly but nothing more.”

“They bought the ranch together?”

“No. They loaned money to the ranchers who lived here. There’d been a terrible drought, and people struggled to buy food and new stock. Then later when the loans couldn’t be repaid… ”

“They foreclosed and took the land.” Hoss grimaced. It was a poor way to gain property, even if it was legal. He’d lost count of the friends’ Pa had helped in hard times so they could hang on to theirs, but that was Pa’s way, giving rather than taking.

“This ranch and several others were part of the foreclosures. The rest of the land came from the government. Their men laid claims to land parcels and made improvements. When the proved time was up it was sold to them for a dollar.”

Hoss recognized this way of working around the Homestead Act, and it didn’t give him a high opinion of either men.  

“Well, you don’t hav’ta worry about Wilson no more, now I’m here.” Her eyes met his and he thrilled to see the expectation and hope in them. He drew a breath and took the biggest gamble of his life. “I know it sounds crazy, but the minute I met you, I knew you were the one for me.”

He held his breath, afraid he’d said too much, too soon. Her smile sent his heart soaring into the heavens.

“Oh, Hoss, I feel the same.”

Her lips met his, sending ripples of delight through him. When they broke apart, Hoss murmured, “I reckon I’m the happiest fella on earth right now.”

Cuddling close together, they let time slip listening to the haze of chirping insects.

“Hoss, do you believe in miracles?”

“I guess I’d hav’ta now, darlin’.”

He heard Hannah sigh as she replied, “Me too.”

Hearing McGraw calling for him to look at the bulls, the couple reluctantly broke apart, and Hoss went to meet his host. Galvanized into action, McGraw was astonished to find his guest a keen-eyed, decisive individual. Given carte blanche by Pa to buy however much stock he wished, and a sizeable bank draft to back it up, Hoss selected three bulls, and with the price agreed went back to town.

After sending a telegraph to Pa, Hoss rousted Hank and Todd out of the saloon where they’d taken up residence. Collecting the bulls, he saw the two drovers’ safely on their way to the railhead, then checked into the hotel. Up early in the morning, the desk clerk gave him Ben’s reply to his telegram, with congratulations on the purchase and instructions to take as much time there as he wanted. Hoss chuckled. Pa didn’t know the half of it. Head held high and butterflies in his stomach, Hoss headed back to McGraw’s ranch.

It didn’t go well. When Hoss explained to McGraw, his wished to court Hannah, the man scoffed at him.

Turning his hat in his hands, Hoss admitted, “I know it sounds fanciful, an’ I never believed it myself before I met Hannah, but sometimes you know from the first moment you see a person.”

“I’ve never heard such nonsense. Hannah’s marrying Trent, and I won’t hear any more of this.”

Hoss didn’t blame McGraw for his reaction. In his position, he’d probably feel the same. Hoss was convinced once McGraw realized he wasn’t a fly-by-night shyster, and Hannah returned his feelings, he would give his consent.

When he reached the town, he looked around for a likely spot to eat lunch and made another discovery. Every sign on every business had the proprietor named as either Wilson or McGraw. Realization dawned. The town of Grawson was named after the two men. Hoss chortled, but amusement quickly faded. The fact McGraw and Wilson held such powerful positions in the territory sent a shiver of concern down his back.

The next day Hoss returned to the ranch again and attempted to put the father’s concerns at rest.

“You’re right, Sir, to be wary ‘coz me an’ Hannah just met. I aim to stay and prove to you I ain’t some sidewinder makin’ false promises I know you jest want the best for your daughter, an’ believe me, so do I.” Hoss blushed. “I don’t wanna sound like a snake-oil salesman but the Ponderosa ain’t no chicken farm. It’s six hundred thousand acres of the purtiest, prime land you ever saw- ”

“Which your father owns.”

“Yessir. Pa owns it right enough, and my brothers and I will, once he’s gone, which I hope won’t be fer a long time yet. But we get a piece of it right away when we wed. I love your daughter, Sir, and I want her to be my wife.”

“That changes nothing. Hannah is to marry Trent.”

Hoss’ patience began to wear thin. “Mr. McGraw, I’m right sorry you feel this way, but Hannah’s no child, she’s a grown woman. She don’t wanna marry Wilson, and she don’t need your permission to wed again. The fact is my asking’s jest a courtesy, ‘cause she loves you an’ don’t wanna wed without your blessing.”

McGraw’s fist thumped down on his desk. “She isn’t going to get it, and neither are you. Now get out!”

Hoss left. Resistance he’d expected but not this. However, Hoss wasn’t a man to be intimidated. Riding to their pre-arranged meeting place, he found Hannah waiting for him inside the tiny abandoned mission. Never would he forget the transformation on her seeing him. The worried looked vanished, and she lit up like the sun breaking through clouds. She stepped into his welcoming arms.

“Hoss,” she breathed. “You came.”

“Course I did, sweetheart.”

“How did it go with Pa?”

“Not too good. He seems determined on your marrying Wilson.”

Hannah sighed. “I thought as much. Oh Hoss, what’re we gonna do?”

Hoss hugged her close. “It’s early days yet, love. I reckon your Pa will change his mind.”

Hoss laughed at her doubting face, but, by the end of the week, he admitted she was right. When he rode out that morning, several of McGrew’s men met him on the road and turned him back, none too politely. Hoss decided they had one option.

Dismayed, Hannah repeated, “Elope? Oh, Hoss.”

“I know love, but it ain’t like you’re underage. Your pa ain’t got no say on who you marry.”

“I wanted him to be happy for me, and to give me away. But that doesn’t matter now, I love you, and I want to be your wife.”

Hoss deposited a kiss on her forehead. “That’s the spirit.”

“How are we going to do it?”

“I‘ve made enquiries. They got a preacher at Hickman who can marry us. If we leave right now, we can be married by this afternoon, and then, I’ll take you home to the Ponderosa.”

They arrived mid-afternoon, and if it surprised the preacher to have them turn up on his doorstep demanding to be married at once, he didn’t show it. The ceremony may have been brief, but to the two newlyweds, it was beautiful. The marriage license tucked in Hoss’ pocket, the happy couple shared a drink with the preacher, his wife and daughters, who’d stood witness, before buying the stage ticket to Stockton and sharing a meal. They then made a trip to the telegraph office where they each sent a wire. Hoss teased his family with the surprise he’d be bringing, and Hanna told her father she was married.

As the stage wasn’t due to leave until the morning, they checked into the hotel. At the door to their room, Hoss swept his bride into his arms and carried her over the threshold.

“Welcome to your honeymoon, Mrs. Cartwright.” He grinned and placed her down again. “I hope the room’s okay?”

Hannah looked around the small, sparse room. Against the back wall rested the bed and a dresser. A washstand with a cracked basin, stood next to the window, propped open with a large lump of wood. Wrinkling her nose, she was thankful that at least the floor and bedclothes looked clean. She turned back to Hoss. “It’ll do fine.”

Hoss captured her face in a gentle grasp, his eyes looking deep into hers. “I love you.” He leaned in and kissed her. The room faded into the background. Finally, able to demonstrate his growing desire, Hoss gathered her up again.

“Hoss. In the middle of the day?”

“I ain’t waitin’ a moment longer. ‘Sides we’re married, we can do it whenever we dadburned please.”

Hannah’s giggles spurred Hoss on, and the happy couple made the most of their passion and first night together.

*****

The crash when the door was kicked in, woke Hoss. Dragged out of bed before he could even turnover, he stared at the gun in his face. Hannah’s cry of “Hank!” told him what this fella was doing there.

Hank leered at Hannah. “I’ll get myself a nice bonus bringing you back.”

“You ain’t takin’ her nowhere.”

Hank smirked. “You think you’ve gotta say? I ain’t got orders to take you.”

Hoss saw the fingers squeeze on the trigger and moved. With a grunt, he swept a leg across and managed to knock Hank off balance. A desperate wrestle back and forth across the floor began, when Hoss heard a thud, and Hank jerked and collapsed forward.

Hoisting the unconscious man off him, Hoss grinned to see his diminutive wife, stark naked, brandishing the lump of wood that had propped open the window. “I see I’m gonna hav’ta be careful around you an’ a rolling pin.”

Wide-eyed, Hannah stared back, then dropped the wood and gasped, “Have I killed him?”

“Serve him right.” Seeing Hannah’ stricken face, he added, “No, darlin’, you haven’t killed him.”

“He … he was going to kill you.” Hoss gathered his trembling wife to him and held her tight. “I never imagined Pa and Trent would go this far. I thought once they knew we were married… ”

“I know. It’ll be okay, don’t worry.”

The couple threw on their clothes and slipped out of the hotel to the stables. Hoss sent up a silent prayer when he saw the hired buggy still there. Hitching up the horse, he told Hannah in an urgent whisper, “We’ll head for Knights Crossing. I can buy horses there and then we can ride to Stockton.”

Hoss pushed the horse hard the whole way. While in Grawson, he’d begun to understand how Trent and Wilson didn’t just own the surrounding land, they ruled it with an iron fist and did so with gunmen and terror. Fear drove Hoss on now, and the knowledge that power was turned on them, tightened his chest.

Knights Crossing lay next to the Stanislaus River. Broad and fast-moving, the only means to cross it was the expansive bridge that gave the town its name. Hoss’ stomach lurched when he saw a horse appear up the bank in front of them and he recognized the grim features of Hank. He cursed himself for not having gagged the man when he tied him up. He must have gotten loose and cut across country to get in front of them.

Forced to stop, Hank ordered Hoss out of the buggy. Tying up the reins he prepared to do so. When he reached the half-risen position, Hoss sprang and threw himself at Hank, taking him off his horse, over the bank and down into the river.

A loud explosion drowned out Hannah’s scream. The roar of the water boomed, cutting out any other sound. Hoss broke the surface the same time as Hank, who’d fallen into deeper, faster water. Caught by the current, the man turned from killer to frightened child in an instant and he screamed for help. Instinct moved Hoss forward to assist, but that one step sent pain ripping through him. Assaulted by sudden weakness, all Hoss could do was stagger to the bank. He clawed back up, desperate to reach Hannah, every move intense agony.

Then her hands were touching him, feeling him. She spoke, but her voice came from far away. “Hoss, dear God. He shot you, you’re bleeding.”

Hoss looked down and grimaced to see his shirt soaked with blood from the bullet in his gut. Overwhelming lassitude flooded him, and his mind began to slow. Hannah’s voice spurred him to action. With a momentous effort, he climbed into the buggy.

Hannah’s shouts for help and the terror in her voice distressed him, but he couldn’t comfort her. It took all he had just to keep breathing. Aware of men around him, being moved from the buggy proved too much. To the face that hovered above him, he begged, “My wife. Someone take care of my wife,” before he blacked out.

*****

You could hear a pin drop in the room when Hoss reached this part of his tale. Anxious eyes searched his face even more intently, weighing up his color and gauntness anew.

“I were lucky. I had two docs to look after me. Doc Williams an’ his son, Wilbert. Old doc Williams told me he’d just qualified from Philadelphia School of Medicine as a surgeon, and it were him that operated and removed the bullet from my gut.” The faces around him blanched. They all knew a stomach wound usually meant certain death. Hoss managed a smile. “Seems he had a head stuffed full of new techniques.”

“Why didn’t you contact me?”

Hoss’ blue eyes drifted to his father’s. “We didn’t have the chance.” Hoss bit his lip, seeing the unconvinced look on his father’s face. How could he make him understand what it had been like? The panic that swept through everyone when they found out who was chasing them. “You hav’ta understand, Pa. We were still right in the middle of the territory controlled by Wilson and Hannah’s pa. Their gunman terrorized everyone. As soon as I mentioned them, the doc saw the danger. Not just to us, but to anyone who helped us. We couldn’t risk a telegram as Wilson had them all in his pocket. The doc kept us hidden, but Wilson’s men scoured the countryside, and it were jest a matter of time before they found us.” Hoss paused. His brow drew down, remembering the dread that hung over them all. He could taste it, acrid in his mouth. “The doc and his family saved my life. I couldn’t put them at risk by staying there. Wilson’s men were crawlin’ all over the road to Stockton and other rail towns. They had us trapped, but the doc knew of a cabin up in the hills. An ol’ trapper he once treated used to live there. The doc kept us hidden fer as long as he could, leastways, until he could risk moving me. I’m mighty grateful to him.”

“But with your injury?”

“I had the doc buy a wagon, team and supplies for us. I laid hidden in the back with Hannah, an’ he drove us up there.”

Hoss broke off, the memories returning. Wilbert Williams warned him how it would be. “The morphine I’ve given won’t last long. The pain will return and get worse before it gets better. I can leave you a bottle of laudanum, but that must be used sparingly.” Pain didn’t begin to describe what Hoss endured for weeks that dragged into months.

Hannah’s squeeze of his hand brought him back to the present, and he picked up his tail again. “The cabin was just what we needed. Tucked away where no one would find us, which were a good job since my recovery took longer than we hoped. By the time I were on my feet, the snow were beginning to fly. We couldn’t risk the pass, even if Hannah hadn’t been carrying Benji.”

“Do you mean to tell me you spent the winter in that cabin and Hannah had her baby there?”

“Sure. Once I could get up, I hunted a bit and took care of Hannah. I knew what to do seein’ I’d been around births before. I ain’t sayin’ we weren’t scared- ”

“But we had each other,” Hannah told them.

Hannah and Hoss shared a smile. Ben shuddered. From the way the two clung to each other, he guessed there was a lot more to their time in that cabin than they told them. How close did he really come to losing Hoss?

“As soon as the spring came, we decided to head for home. I didn’t wanna take any risks, Wilson or his men might still be lookin’, so we kept off the main trails, and here we are.”

Silence fell again. No one knew what to say. The magnitude of their story pressed on everyone. Joe leaned forward and gave Hoss a gentle punch on the arm.

Adam frowned, and asked, “You don’t think this Wilson is still looking for you?”

Hoss pursed his lips. “I dunno. He’s a mighty determined man. He could still have had men watchin’ out fer us.” Hoss turned to Ben. “I’m sorry, Pa. I never thought he’d tell you I were dead. I guess he did it so you wouldn’t come lookin’ fer me and he’d be free to keep huntin’ for Hannah. If I’d known, I would’ve tried to get home sooner.”

A firm hand gripped Hoss’ knee. “That doesn’t matter. You’re home safe that’s what’s important. I think the first thing we should do it speak to the sheriff.”

“No, Pa. Hannah don’t want her pa arrested.“

“But that man tried to kill you.”

“An’ he’s dead.”

“Is he who’s buried in your grave?” Everyone turned startled eyes to Jamie at his blurted question. The boy flushed beetroot red and stammered, “I mean. Who did we bury?”

Ben huffed out a breath. “I don’ know, but I’ll need to get that taken care of, and we’ll hav’ta let people know your alive, son.”

Hoss scratched his forehead. “I know, Pa. Can’t it wait a few days? Hannah and me, we’d kinda like time to get used to being home first.”

Ben agreed to keep them secret from everybody, except one. He immediately sent for a doctor to examine Hoss, and in deference to his son’s request, he called upon the services of his old friend, Paul Martin. He may be retired, but he was still the best doctor Ben knew, and he could be counted on to be discreet.

“That young surgeon did an amazing job. There’s no doubt in my mind he saved Hoss’ life. I certainly couldn’t have done what he did.”

“Hoss is going to be all right?”

Paul gave his friend a measured look. “Yes, and no. Hoss suffered major trauma to his abdomen. He’s made a remarkable recovery. However, I don’t think he’ll ever get back the strength he once had, and I believe he may always suffer from problems in the gastric area. He’ll need to watch his diet, but that said, yes, he’ll be fine.” He looked his friend straight in the eye. It touched Ben deeply to see the tears in them. “This is certainly the biggest miracle you Cartwright’s have pulled off yet, and you’ve pulled off some good ones.”

Assured Paul would keep Hoss’ presence a secret, Ben waved his friend off and returned to the house. He had an exhumation to organize.

*****

The pair sat shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence looking out over the magnificent vista of mountains and lake. Their first time alone together since Hoss’ resurrection, without thought or discussion they’d come to their happy place.

“You brought her here, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. She loved it. She’d have loved you too.”

“I’m sorry I weren’t here for you. Iffin I’d known I’d have come back, no matter what.”

“Yeah, and if I’d known about you – well, y’know.”

They fell silent for a long moment, until Joe added, “We didn’t have long together, but I wouldn’t have missed any of it.”

“She must’ve been real special to have wrangled you down the aisle.”

“She was. In many ways she reminded me of you.”

Hoss chuckled, “I thought you said she were pretty.” Hoss caught Joe’s eye and stopped talking. Since his return, he’d seen the difference in Joe. It pained him to see how the spark had gone out of his younger brother, and he watched him now intent on his words.

“There lived a kindness and gentleness in her, and … it was like getting a piece of you back.” Joe rolled his eyes up to the sky and looked away. Could he make a bigger fool of himself? “Guess that sounds kinda dumb.” Hoss’s big hand pressed into his shoulder. How he’d missed that, and the strength it gave him. “I’ve never been so happy. The two of us, together, and then the baby … oh God, Hoss! Alice …. and my baby … my baby… ”

The wall cracked again. His brother’s big arms enveloped him. How good they felt.

“It’s okay, Joe, I’m here.”

Wrapped in those arms and hearing those words, Joe discovered it was possible to break apart and be blissfully happy at the same time.

Joe pulled himself together and pushed out of his brother’s arms. He hadn’t come there to spill his guts to Hoss. He did it to ask him about what happened in the cabin. Like Pa, Joe suspected they hadn’t told them everything. He wiped his hand across his face in a defiant gesture and straightened his back.

“You’ve not told us much about what happened after you got to the cabin.”

Hoss pulled a grass stalk and stripped it. “It ain’t somethin’ I like to think on, Joe.”

“That bad?”

“Aww, I don’t rightly know how to tell you.” Hoss fell silent, and Joe waited. He just needed time to work around to talking. “The pain, Joe, at times it were so bad, I could hardly stand it. I hate to remember what it did to me. The weeks and weeks of it. It seemed like it were never to end, and I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I begged to die.”

“You shouldn’t. Not with that injury.”

“You don’t understand. All my life, I’ve been considered a strong man, one of the strongest, and I weren’t. I were weak and scared. I should’ve been taking care of Hannah, and instead, she was looking after me.” This time it was Joe who placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder, pressing his fingers into it for comfort. “It was her, that got me through it. She kept me goin’. Talking about home, Pa, you and Jamie. Then she told me about the baby, and everything changed. Finding out I was gonna be a pa … it were… ”

Joe drew in a breath, it almost gave him a physical ache to understand how much pain Hoss went through, but his reaction at becoming a father brought back memories of different emotions, and he sighed, “The best feeling there is.”

Hoss nodded, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Joe.”

“Don’t be. I couldn’t be happier for you and Hannah.”

“What about that little gal of yours?”

“What gal?”

Hoss nudged him with his shoulder and smirked. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t wheedle out of Pa where you go to most evenings.”

“You mean Kate? It’s not like that between us.”

A low rumble of laughter bubbled up out of his brother and built to a roar. Between the guffaws, he slapped Joe on the back and managed to say, “Iffin, you say so.”

Joe pursed his lips, the sound too beautiful for him to get cross at the cause.

*****

The door slammed, and Adam appeared. He tossed his hat down on the small table behind the settee with a vehemence that betrayed his annoyance.

“Something wrong?”

Joining the rest of the family at the dining table, he grouched, “Yes, two of the men I hired have just up and left.”

“Oh?” Ben replaced his coffee cup, curious to know more. “Which two?”

“Baines and Smith. The last two I hired. They left without even collecting the pay they had coming.”

Anxiety flickered over Sophy’s face. “Will it delay the house?”

Adam dumped a mound of potatoes on his plate and pulled a face. “Not by much. I can pick up the slack for them.”

“If you need any help.”

“Thanks, Joe. I’ll let you know.”

“Odd, ain’t it? That they’d leave without gettin’ what they were owed. When did you hire them?”

“Around six weeks ago…” Adam caught on quick. It was two weeks since Hoss’ return, but they hadn’t announced that fact to the world until two days ago. “You think they worked for Wilson?”

Hoss’ eyes flicked to the stairs. Hannah was settling the baby, and he didn’t want her to overhear. “Ain’t likely. Just seems strange is all.”

Ben reached across and laid a firm hand on his son’s arm. It still surprised him how he could encompass it so easily. “It doesn’t matter. You’re home now and safe. No one is going to hurt you or Hannah. We’ll see to that.”

“If Wilson shows up, we’ll take care of him.”

The look in Joe’s eyes had Ben sincerely hoping Wilson didn’t show. To close to the one he’d seen when Joe left to track down the men responsible for Alice’s death, it sent a shiver down Ben’s spine. He cleared his throat and pinned Joe with a look. It didn’t work the way it used to, but it was worth a shot. “If he shows up and makes threats, we’ll get the law involved.”

Joe gave him back a sheepish smile. “Sure, Pa.”

Satisfied, Ben turned his attention back to Adam. “If you need any more men, I’m sure we can spare some.”

Adam shook his head and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “No, I’ve taken enough men from their work.”

Sophy sighed, “It will be wonderful when it’s ready.”

Adam paused in cutting his beef to calculate. “I reckon another two weeks we should be finished.”

Ben beamed at the couple. Much as he enjoyed having them at home, the Ponderosa had begun to fill up with crates, stuffed with furniture, boxes of tableware, linens, and now even staff, since Hop Sing’s cousin arrived two days ago, the happy couple weren’t the only ones looking forward to their move.

Joe laughed, “It will have all the latest do-dads that’s for sure. A water closet inside the house. Pa, I think we should get one of those. No more trips outside in the snow sounds good to me, but I think we’re gonna hav’ta buy a new stove. Hop Sing hasn’t stopped grumbling about his since he saw the one Adam ordered.”

The laughter was interrupted by the men rising when Hannah came down the stairs.

“Baby sleepin’?”

Hannah sighed and eased herself into a chair. “Yes, at last. I thought I’d take the chance to eat in peace.”

Hoss kissed his wife’s cheek. “An’ then you can take a rest.” Hoss looked around the group of faces. “Sorry, if he’s keeping you awake. He’s a mite restless.”

Joe’s eyebrows rose in unison with lips that curved into an amused smile. Restless, was an understatement. He winked at Hoss and Hannah. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, ‘sides, good practice for you, right, Adam?”

Hiding a shudder, Adam smiled and nodded.

“Ben, did you manage to speak to the preacher this morning?”

“Yes, I did. The twelfth will be fine with him.”

Hannah smiled her thanks. “Good, it will be wonderful to have Benji Christened.”

“And, now the dates settled we can start arrangements for the party.”

“Aw Pa, we don’t hav’ta go to all that trouble.”

Ben waggled a finger at the couple. “If you think I’m not going to celebrate your return, and the blessing of a daughter-in-law and grandson, you’re wrong. We got almost three weeks. I promise. This party will be the biggest the Ponderosa has ever seen.”

*****

Ben let out a sigh and rested his coffee cup on the knee of his leg crossed over the other. The gratification of seeing his eldest son in his own home filled him with contentment. Adam’s house was finished. It took two days, two wagons, and every member of the household to help them, but they were finally moved in.

Across from him on the sofa, Hoss and Hannah snuggled. His son’s big arm encircled his wife as she burrowed her head into his chest. Hoss had begun to put back on some the weight he’d lost, but it hadn’t gone unnoticed to Ben he’d shown signs of discomfort after richer, heavier meals. Remembering Paul’s warnings about possible gastric troubles, Ben gave himself a mental note to speak to Hop Sing about adjusting Hoss’ diet.

“Now we’ve got Adam and Sophy settled into their new home, we’ll hav’ta start thinking about yours. You must be looking forward to having your own home, Hannah?”

To Ben’s surprise, his question didn’t garner the pleased response he hoped. Hoss frowned and shifted on the settee.

“Actually, Pa. If it’s okay with you, we’d liked to carry on livin’ here.”

“Of course, you’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like, but you must want a home of your own?”

“No, we’d rather stay here.”

Ben suddenly got an inkling of what their hesitation might be about. Chuckling he told them, “If you’re worried about me being alone- ”

“Hey! Don’t Jamie and I count?”

“Oh, you know what I mean,” Ben countered, and threw a reproving look at a smirking Joe, before urging Hoss, “Son, you’ve always wanted your own place.”

“Not anymore!” Silence fell. Both men startled by the outburst. “I jest wanna stay here.” Pushing himself up from the sofa, Hoss stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his baggy trousers. “I’m sorry, Pa, I didn’t mean to snap. We’d be happier here is all.”

“If that’s what you want then, of course, I’d be more than happy.”

“Thanks. Think I’ll go fer a walk. Could do with some air.”

“I’ll join you.”

Joe got up and followed Hoss out, leaving Ben and Hanna alone. Ben watched they go, knowing Joe would take care of him.

“I meant what I said. You two shouldn’t feel obliged to keep me company.

Hannah scooted forward on the sofa. “Ben, we’re not doing it for that reason, believe me.” She fell silent. Ben laid down his cup. The lingering distress in her eyes holding his attention. “You need to understand what Hoss went through after he was shot. His wound was so terrible. Even with Dr Wilson just out of college, it was a miracle he survived the operation. The recovery…” Hannah broke off, and Ben could see the tears suspended from her lashes as she recalled those long hideous days. “The pain … so horrendous. There were times when he begged for it to end.”

Ben leaned forward and took her tightly clasped hands in his. “Oh, my dear.”

“I didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was to get him to talk to me, to tell me about the Ponderosa – this house, and it helped. Talking about growing up here. The memories of this place, the security. All his energy focused on getting back. That’s all he wanted. To get back to his home, his family. It got him through those dreadful first, unbearable months. Don’t you see? This wonderful home kept him alive. It’s not for your sake he wants to live here. It’s for his.”

Hannah dropped her head and tears fell.   Ben chafed her hands in his gentle grasp and looked on this woman a new. My God, the strength she must have. “I had no idea, and you with child.”

Hannah sniffed, pulled out her kerchief and wiped her eyes. “Oh no, Ben. The baby was a blessing and changed everything. You would’ve been so proud the way he set aside his pain and wouldn’t stay in bed a moment longer. Your son’s a wonderful man.”

“And he has a wonderful wife.”

*****

Preparations for the christening party went into full swing, and part of that included instructions from Ben for Hoss to get new clothes.

“You’ve been walking around the place looking like a scarecrow. Why don’t the two of you take yourselves to Virginia City? You’ll need clothes for when you’re up to returning to work.” Ben flung up a hand to stop his middle son’s interruption. “When the doctor says you’re ready and not before. Now take Hannah to town, buy her new clothes, and don’t forget a new suit for the party.”

Hoss pulled up his sagging trousers for the umpteenth time and pulled a face. “I guess I could do with new clothes. I’ve plumb worn away an’ that’s a fact. Don’t reckon I’ve been this skinny since I was a young un.”

“I know somebody really happy about that.”

Hoss turned to look at Joe, his face all innocent expectation. “Yeah, who?”

A devilish smile crept over Joe’s face, and his eyes lit with pure mischief. “Chubb.”

The giggle soared into the air like a chime of a church bell. Pure and clear. Ben’s heart lurched from joy at the sound that had been absent from their home.

Hoss advanced on his brother, perched on the arm of the settle. “Joseph, I’m gonna… ”

Joe gave a yelp, unbalanced and toppled sideways onto the floor, laughing harder still.

Ben fought the merriment that bubbled in his chest and chastened, “Boys, what have I told you about roughhousing?”

Helping his brother up, Hoss replied, “Aw Pa, you ain’t told us off for that in years.”

“Maybe so, but you’re never too old for a necessary talk.”

The look on his son’s faces broke Ben’s resolve, and a belly laugh burst from him.

Jamie jerked to a halt when he walked into the house to find his father and brothers doubled over with mirth. “I miss all the fun around here,” he grumbled.

The trip to Virginia City soon took place, accompanied by Joe and Candy. If Hoss thought of them as an armed escort, he didn’t say so. Hannah cooed and ahhed over dresses and new hats, and Hoss delighted in her enjoyment. Outside the shop, Joe and Candy waited, even though he’d told them to go get a beer. It came as no surprise when they told him they’d wait, and he had to admit the comfort their presence gave him. The big man didn’t know why, but the minute they’d rode into Virginia City he’d got that feeling they were being watched, beyond those who stared at him like some freak in a sideshow. Many came up and shook his hand and told him they were glad he was alive and well, but others just saw him as a curiosity, the man who’d returned from the dead. Hoss didn’t like to think about that, knowing what it did to Pa and his brothers. He could see part of that pain in Joe’s vigilance now.

All shops visited, lunch enjoyed at their favorite café, and packages loaded in the back of the buggy, Hoss tooled it out of town, with Joe and Candy riding behind. The figure who stood in the shadows and followed them with intent eyes went unnoticed. Hoss rubbed the back of his neck from the sudden prickly sensation but didn’t look back.

*****

Joe ran his hand around the back of his neck and asked again, “Please come.”

Kate continued to scrub the dishes. “It’s a family party. Ben won’t want me there.”

Rolling his eyes, Joe flung out his arms. “Of course, Pa wants you there. He reminded me to ask you.”

“It will cause more gossip.”

“Half the territory’s invited. You’re a friend of mine and of the families. It’ll look odd if you’re not there.” Waiting for her to reach for another dish, Joe swooped in and caught her hand. Raising it to his lips, he nibbled her damp fingers, his eyes twinkling over the top. “It won’t be a party without you.”

“It’s too far, and the children will get back too late.”

Joe huffed out a breath that sent the curls on his forehead fluttering. “You and the kids can stay overnight. Adam and Sophy are, ‘cause of her condition. We’ve plenty of room.”

“It’ll be too risky. We don’t want people to guess about us.”

His hands went up in mock surrender. “I promise. I’ll only ask you for one dance, and no kissing or cuddling allowed. Now, have you done with the excuses?”

Kate pulled a face, “Well, maybe two dances.”

“You’ll come?”

“Yes, all right. I’ll come. You’ve worn me down, Joe Cartwright.”

Still laughing, Kate swept back the strands of hair that had worked loose from her bun. Joe tilted his head on one side. He adored the way she did that.

“Good. It’ll be fun, I promise,“ he told her. His fingers found her hairpin and let it free, to allow a cascade to tumble down her back, his hand running through the silky tresses. Husky voiced, he asked, “Do you think they’re asleep yet?”

Kate turned into him and put her hands on his arms, thrilling at the muscles beneath the shirt. His lips found her neck, and she arched it, giving him access to her skin. Deft fingers undid the buttons of her blouse and glided to her full round breast. She groaned at the glory of his touch. Pushing away, she took hold of Joe’s hand and led him to the bedroom.

*****

The big day dawned. Joe, Adam and Sophy stood up as Godparents, and young Benjamin behaved beautifully throughout the whole ceremony.

Joe stood on the porch and looked out at the trellis tables loaded with food and the pit where the beef roasted.

“Pa wasn’t kidding when he said this would be the biggest party the Ponderosa has ever seen.”

Joe’s lips curved into a smile at his older brother’s words. His eyes rested on Hoss, basting the beef. “Why not? Pa’s always thrown a party at the slightest excuse and this time we’ve got something really worth celebrating.”

Joe’s eyes drifted from Hoss to Kate, who was helping Hannah carry out jugs of lemonade. Adam followed his brother’s gaze and told him, “I’m glad you invited her.”

Joe gave an amused snort. “I’m glad she came.”

“Was it in doubt?”

Joe turned his head to look at Adam. “Brother, it sure was. Kate’s one independent lady. She doesn’t do anything she don’t want to, believe me.” The smile in his eyes deepened. “But I managed to persuade her.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose to hear the caress in Joe’s voice. How deep did his brother’s feelings go, and was he even aware of them? Before he could say more, a buggy swung into view.

Ben appeared out of the house. “Here are our guests.”

Adam, Hoss, and Joe, all joined Ben to greet them. The four Cartwright men, standing shoulder to shoulder again.

*****

Jamie threw himself into a chair and blew out his cheeks. “Whew! That was one great party.”

Ben gave his youngest son an indulgent look. “I’m glad you liked it. Now it’s time for bed, young man.”

He pulled a face and dragged reluctant feet up the stairs.

Sarah and Billy had been put to bed earlier, and Kate moved to follow Jamie, telling Joe, “I’ll just go check on the children.”

Hannah followed. “I’ll come with you.”

“Do you want to go to bed?” Adam asked his heavily pregnant wife.

She put out a hand to catch his and sighed, “In a minute.”

Ben poured out sherry and handed it around. He heaved in a breath and puffed out his chest. “It’s been quite a day.”

As they’d done all their lives, the three brothers exchanged looks that communicated so much without speaking. Joe slapped his father on the shoulder. “Sure has.”

Hop Sing trotted in with a tray and started to gather up glasses. Ben waved a hand. “Leave that, Hop Sing. We’ll all help tidy up in the morning. Come and share a toast to my grandson.”

The cook laid down his tray and took the glass proffered. Ben raised his and intoned, “To Benjamin Eric Cartwright.”

The five men drank.

Down the stairs came Kate, followed by Hannah, carrying Benjamin. Joe went to Kate’s side, drawn like a magnet.

“Everything all right?”

“Yep, fast asleep.”

Hannah lowered herself into the blue chair. To Hoss’ unspoken question she told him. “He’s a little restless. I thought I bring him down just for a little while.”

Ben handed sherry glasses to the others when the sound of horses pulling up outside drew his attention. “I wonder who that could be?”

He’d barely taken two steps toward the door when it crashed open. Five armed men burst through and filled the room. Caught unaware and unarmed the Cartwrights could do nothing but freeze.

Ben demanded, “What’s going on here?”

Through the door, another man strolled. Hannah’s breath caught in her throat, and her arms tightened around her baby. Hoss’ blue eyes darkened and sparked with inner hatred and fixed on the man who’d hunted them. “Wilson.”

*****

Trent Wilson had two dominant traits, greed and pride. His suggestion of marriage to Hannah was to sate that greed, and her reluctance annoyed him. But the news, Hannah and Hoss Cartwright had eloped together sparked a fury such as he’d never known. That a woman would run off with a man, she barely knew, rather than marry him, caused something deep within him to snap.

When McGraw opposed his wish to fetch Hannah back, a red mist descended, and his partner lay dead at his feet before Trent even knew he’d pulled his gun. He dispatched his men, who spread through the land like pack wolves hunting down their prey, and his infuriation grew when the search failed to turn up either Hoss or Hannah.

When they dragged Hank’s corpse from the river, they’d pulled apart every town for ten miles without any sign of the fugitives. The body gave Trent the idea to cover Hoss’ disappearance and give him more time. He sat up night after night garnering perverse pleasure from the thought of Hoss’ family burying a stranger, but still, he couldn’t find the runaways, and the knowledge the pair could evade him gnawed deep into his mind and consumed him. All through the winter, he brooded over what he’d do when he caught up with them. When the spring came, he dispatched two men to the Ponderosa. Certain Hoss would return there in the end.

He’d been right.

*****

When Hoss spoke the name, Ben flashed a look at his son’s face, which told him all he needed, and he turned to the intruder. “Wilson? You’re the man who tried to have Hoss killed. What do you want here?”

Trent looked genuinely astonished at the question. “What do I want? I want what’s mine. Hannah.”

Hoss encircled Hannah and Benji in his big arms. “She ain’t goin’ nowhere with you. She’s my wife.”

The gun Trent held quivered. “Not for long.”

“Trent, please, Hoss and I are married. We have a child. If it’s the inheritance you want, tell father he can give it all to you.”

Trent’s cold voice rang out around the room. “Your pa ain’t in a position to leave anything to anyone.”

Understanding flooded Hannah, and she pressed her face into her husband’s chest and moaned, “Oh no, Pa.”

Joe’s eyes flicked around the room. Taut and ready for action, he summed up the opposition. His eyes met Candy’s. He could always be relied upon, and he could see the tension in the man. Five gunmen aside from Wilson and they weren’t even armed. Tall odds, but to back down wasn’t in Joe Cartwright vocabulary. Seeing them in his home made him sick to his stomach. Memories of his late wife flooded his mind. How she’d died afraid and alone when men broke into their home. He hadn’t been there to protect her, save her. This time would be different.

“This is crazy. My son and Hannah are legally married. You can’t take her out of here.”

“I can, and I will.”

“She’s a married woman.”

“Then I’ll make her a widow.”

Hannah pulled Hoss closer and cried out, “I’ll never marry you, never!”

The gun swiveled slightly from Hoss to Hannah. ”Maybe I should just shoot you too.”

Hoss pushed Hannah behind him. The grin on Wilson’s face widened as he cocked his gun.

The world crystallized for Joe. The nightmare wouldn’t happen again. No one got to walk into his home and harm a member of his family, not while he drew a breath. They’d gotten Hoss back, and this man wasn’t getting the chance to tear that away. He shook off the fingers that clawed at his arm, for the first time in the big man’s life Hoss didn’t have the strength to hold his younger brother back. With deliberate steps, Joe put himself between Hoss and the gun.

Ben paled seeing the determined desperation on Joe’s face, but it was too late, he couldn’t reach him to stop him.

Wilson tightened the grip on his gun. “Back off! D’ya think I won’t put a bullet through you first to get to him?”

The room suspended in silence. Without a word, Joe took another step and launched himself directly at Wilson.

The explosion so loud it deafened him. His side jerked from an impact, but this didn’t halt his momentum, which propelled him forward into Wilson and took him down to the floor. Joe’s muscles strained as they writhed and thrashed on the ground, in the desperate struggle for mastery of the weapon in Wilson’s hand. The second shot startled Joe. He pulled back to see the bloom of blood pool across his opponent’s chest. Wilson had pulled the trigger and shot himself. Stunned, Joe looked down into the eyes of the dead man, then the wave of blackness hit him, and he dropped to the floor.

When Joe leapt at Wilson, his gunmen held the other’s back. The whole room watched, memorized by the terrible life and death struggle between the two. The second shot froze everyone in place, nobody moved until Joe passed out, which triggered a surge toward him.

“Hold it!”

Everyone halted.

Ben pointed at Joe and told the gunman, “I need to get to my son.”

Wilson’s men looked at each other, not knowing what to do. Now their boss was dead, they didn’t have any further orders or the chance of further payment. Finally, one spoke up, “Look, we don’t wanna get involved in this. We’re leavin’. Anyone gonna try and stop us?”

Desperate to get to his son, Ben didn’t even look their way as he told them, “No, get out!”

The men scurried out the door, and a tide of people descended on Joe.

“Adam, ride and fetch the doctor back.”

“Pa!”

Ben swung around to see Jamie, holding Kate’s white-faced children at the top of the stairs. Kate moved across the room toward them, telling Ben, “I’ll take care of them.”

“Thank you.”

Crossing Kate on the stairs, Jamie ran down to join the huddle around Joe.

“ADAM!”

His attention called back by his wife’s urgent voice, Adam turned from the credenza to see Sophy clutching her bump and the side of the chair. The chaos around Joe forgotten, he raced back to her side. “What’s wrong?”

“The baby. It’s … coming.”

A different wave of panic washed over Adam at her breathless words. “It can’t be, you’re not due for two weeks.”

A small smile wavered on Sophy’ lips. “I think we … forgot to tell the baby.”

“Adam, the doctor.”

Adam turned an impatient head to his father. “Sophy’s having the baby.”

“What?!”

Sizing up the situation, Candy spoke up, “I’ll fetch the doc and then ride on for Mrs. Coombs.”

Having left the party early, the midwife would by now be back at her home.

“Take the buggy, Candy. Mrs. Coombs won’t appreciate having to ride.”

The front door closed behind the foreman.

Hannah looked at Sophy, took a breath, and took control. “Adam, help get Sophy upstairs. Hop Sing, put hot water on to boil. Hoss, Ben, you need to pack that wound and get Joe to bed.”

Galvanized to action, the others turned to obey. Hoss, still knelt next to Joe, applying pressure to his wound, watched his wife organize the household and smiled. He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but his pride and love for her deepened even more.

After he settled his wife on the bed, Adam looked up to see Hannah enter carrying a pile of sheets.

“Where’s Benji?”

“Kate’s taking care of him. Off you go now, this is women’s work.”

“But … since Hoss helped you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We had no choice then. This is no place for a man.”

The door shut firmly in his face Adam ran back down the stairs to Joe.

He was awake, although he couldn’t seem to speak, hear or see properly. Around him noise, terrible noise. Lots of people yelled although he couldn’t understand their words. He drifted, floating on a cloud, taking him further away. “Now’s the time,” he thought. He could just let go. This time he’d done his job right and protected his family. It would be okay to go. Shadows passed over him in a blur, and then a hand pressed down hard, too hard. My God, the pain. Did he scream? He might have, but it didn’t matter. If he let go, it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Then he heard the voice so clear. “Joe, dadburnit, don’t you go givin’ up now. Y’hear me? I ain’t losing you. You fight now, y’hear. C’mon, you gotta promise me you’ll fight.” Joe smiled. Hoss was right, it wasn’t time, and he hadn’t done with living, not yet. Turning his head toward the large blur over him, he sighed, “‘Kay.”

Fortunately, Candy overtook the doctor not too far from the ranch house and turned him back, so it wasn’t long until he arrived. Adam found himself evicted again, this time from Joe’s room, along with Pa, Hoss and Jamie. Hoss took charge of his son from Kate and having settled her children went to help Hannah. The men watched the ladies’ scoot back and forth up the stairs with cloths, bowls and cans of water.

Ben’s eyes drifted to the stairs. He listened to his daughter-in-law’s struggle to bring a new life into the world, conscious that in another room he could be losing one.

At long last, the doctor came down the stairs. “Well it took quite a bit of stitching to stop the bleeding, but we were lucky. The bullet entered his side without touching any vital organs. He’s lost a lot of blood, so he’s weak. However, it should heal up fine. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll just check on Mrs. Cartwright.”

Taking the doctor back up the stairs to Adam’s room, Ben went to see Joe. He laid a hand on his son’s forehead. Warmer than he would have liked and his skin too pale from the blood loss, he gathered Joe’s hand into his and dropped his head in prayer, thankful for his lucky escape. Satisfied Joe slept soundly and wouldn’t stir, Ben returned to his other sons in time to see the midwife arrive.

After about five minutes, the doctor reappeared. “It’s all going along nicely. I think I’ll be getting home, there’s nothing I can do to help here.” When he climbed into his buggy, he asked, “Would you like me to let the sheriff know about what’s happened?”

“Oh. Yes, thank you. That would be kind.”

Going back in the house, hands dug deep into his trouser pockets, Ben decided to check on Joseph again.

Three hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, Ben’s second grandson was safely delivered.

*****

“Y’know, I wish you’d find easier ways of gettin’ out of round-up lil’l brother.”

Joe grinned.   “You gettin’ to go?”

“Yep, the doc’s finally given me a clean bill of health.”

It had been three weeks since Wilson’s invasion of the Ponderosa and Joe still lay in bed. A simple recovery from the wound in his side became complicated when infection set in. This gave them an anxious week of fever and set back Joe’s recuperation.

“Make sure you take it easy out there. Hop Sing doesn’t need another one of us to nurse.”

Hoss laughed and gave his brother a wink. “Now you’re feeling a mite better, I think we can improve your nursemaid. Someone’s here to see you.”

Joes eyes darted to the doorway to see Kate standing there. His smile widened, and a warmth filled his eyes. “Hi.”

Kate entered, and Hoss’ blue eyes flicked between the two, now oblivious to his presence. With a wicked smirk, Hoss dared to shut the door.

“Good to see you’re looking better.”

Joe’s heart sank. The look in her eyes told him everything. He’d seen it in every one of his family’s, once his senses straightened enough to see clearly – shock and disbelief. He’d endured all their reproaches. The accusation ‘what were you thinking?’ got used a lot. Of course, he realized how crazy he’d been, but how could he explain to them his need to protect Hoss and his family. In the middle of his fumbled excuses, his eyes met Pa’s. In that fleeting exchange, Pa’s countenance changed. He understood. He’d been there after Alice and seen him at his most desperate, raw, and vulnerable. He’d held him, while he’d raged his anguish to the world, and he reined the others in now, brushing it off by declaring, “Well, never mind. It’s all over, and Joe’s all right. That’s all that matters.” God, he loved Pa.

He wasn’t here now though to help him deal with Kate. She took the seat next to the bed and gazed at him. He smiled and took the bull by the horns. “I’m sorry, for the scare I gave you.” The look of unhappiness that crossed her face shook him. “What’s wrong?”

She looked down at her hands, fumbling with her skirt. He pushed himself upright against the bed’s headboard. His concern growing.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“What! Kate, why?”

“I can’t explain. It’s for the best. Goodbye.”

“No!” He snagged her wrist, holding her tight. He wouldn’t allow her to go, not like this. “What’s happened? What’s changed?”

The eyes that met his were a blaze of dark ferocity. “What happened? You, Joe Cartwright, you happened! You came into my life and made me believe someone could care for me. You made me feel like a woman again. I started to feel it was okay to be loved. I thought … but then I saw you. You walked right at that man as if you didn’t care if you lived or died.   I can’t love a man who’d throw away his life like that.”

The reaction of his heart to her words made Joe wince. “Wait … did you say … love?”

Kate flushed and snapped, “I know what I said, and I know I’ve no right to tell you how I feel and – Joe! Your stitches!”

Joe caught Kate’s arms and yanked her onto the bed facing him. His hand came up to rest on her cheek. Inner fire burned in his eyes as he searched her face. “No. You can’t take it back now. I won’t let you.” He gazed at this beautiful woman before him, the truth of his own feelings slamming into him. How could he have been so blind all this time? His words raw with emotion and honesty, he told her, “You can’t take it back because I love you too.” Tears welled in Kate’s eyes, and his thumb came up to wipe them away. “I love you, Kathryn Boyd.”

“Joe … why… ?”

“I know what I did, and I can’t promise I wouldn’t do everything in my power to protect you and the children from harm in the future, but I promise, I’ll never do anything stupid like that again.” For an excruciatingly long moment, Kate stared at him. He held his breath, releasing it on a smile when hers bloomed. Gently he drew her forward to kiss her. She sighed his name, and he kissed her again, long, deep and intense. Cupping her face with his hands, his smile turned devilish. “Why don’t you lock the door and we’ll continue this without fear of disturbance.”

Her eyes flared open, and Kate firmly removed his hands and went back to her chair. “That will be enough of that. What would your father think?”

Joe’s smile slipped into a grin. “Oh, Pa raised no fools.”

“I think I’d better leave before you get carried away.”

Joe laughed. “I’ll be good.” He took her hand and raised it too his lips. “I do love you.”

Kate smiled, but it was sad. “It doesn’t change anything, though, does it? I’m still married.”

Joe frowned and suggested, “There’s always divorce.”

“Divorce?” She gasped, shocked at the idea. “I … I suppose there’s no other option.”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be okay. We’ll find a way.”

Two weeks later, Joe was finally given permission to get up, and he wasted no time getting dressed. Opening the drawer to the dresser, he froze at what he saw. Pa must’ve put it there for safekeeping after he’d been shot. He pooled the chain into his palm, and his thumb caressed the circular object. Pa had found it in the charred ashes of their home. He’d put it on the gold chain and worn it ever since, keeping Alice’s wedding band close to him. After a moment’s debate, Joe opened a small velvet box, which contained a miniature portrait of his mother, given to him years before by a man named Kyle. The only picture he had of her now, and it was precious. Slipping the ring off the chain he tenderly lay it in the box. It felt right, Ma and Alice together. Placing it back in the draw, he slid it closed.

He’d come to terms with Alice’s death. The guilt and pain were behind him, and he could remember the good times. She’d always be with him, carried in his heart, but he was ready to embrace a new future.

 

*****

 

Part III – Betrayals

 

Outside their lawyers’ office, Joe blew out a breath and twitched his gloves through his hands before he slapped them against his thigh. The news hadn’t been good.

“Six years?”

The disappointment in Kate’s voice made him flinch, and he tried to keep his own depression out of his. “Yeah, he has to be gone for six years before you can file for divorce under abandonment. Woodrow thinks that’s our best option.”

“Nothing else?”

“Not really. A woman can divorce her husband for cheating on her or beating her, but Woodrow told me about this case where a man almost beat his wife to death with a lump of wood and the judge said it wasn’t enough to divorce.”

His eyes met hers, and he could see the dejection in them.

“I guess we can count the two years he’s been gone, leaving four to wait,” Kate ventured, pouring coffee into Joe’s cup. The liquid, dark like the bleakness in his heart. “That’s a long time.”

When she sat down, he reached across the table and captured her hands in his. “Come live on the Ponderosa with me. We can live as man and wife. We don’t need to care what people think.”

Kate drew her hands away. “People wouldn’t just be thinking then. They’d know. If it were just me – but, it isn’t. I hav’ta think about Sarah and Billy. I’m sorry, I can’t do that to them.”

Desperate, Joe blurted, “Then, we’ll go away, where nobody knows us and- ” His head jerked from the sting of the slap.

“No! I won’t let you do that. You’re not putting me between you and the Ponderosa. You could never leave here and be happy, and you know it!”

Joe put a hand to his smarting cheek. A sheepish smile crept out, and he replied, “No, would’ve worked just as good.”

Instead of smiling at his joke, Kate’s face dropped. “I’m sorry.” She gathered up the coffee pot and went back to the stove, where she stood with her back to him. His eyes followed her, worry flickering in them. The words came out slow and forced, and he wondered what it cost her, but she managed to say them. “If four years is too long to wait, I’ll understand.”

This wasn’t the proud, strong Kate he knew. Fear curled up inside Joe. Fear of losing something tremendous before he’d even found it. “What are you talking about?”

She turned, and he was horrified to see tears coursing down her face. “I’m so sorry, Joe. This is all my fault.” His chair scraped the wood floor, and he was there by her side, wrapping strong arms around her. Her tears wetting his shirt. “I did this. I was the one who said they’d be no attachments and then I broke my word. I ruined everything. I’m so sorry.”

He wrenched her from him, and his hands caught either side of her face forcing her to look at him. Her fingers wrapped around his wrists, her eyes wide and startled. His anger made his words shake, “Don’t you say that. Don’t you ever say that. Don’t you understand, woman? I was done. I didn’t think I could ever love another after Alice. But you crept up on me, and I fell in love with you, and it made me whole again. You did that. You! Don’t ever tell me you’re sorry for that, because I’ll never be.” He crushed her to him again. Her body, wracked with sobs, convulsed against his. One arm encircled her, while the other twined deep into her hair holding them cheek to cheek. “Oh, God, Kate, I love you so much. I don’t care if it’s four years or forty. I’ll wait, as long as it takes, I’ll wait.”

*****

Ben leaned on the corral and watched Joe work one of the new horses. Although aware of his son’s situation, Joe hadn’t felt the need to discuss it with him. Ben wasn’t worried by his silence anymore. Gone were the days when Joe used to bottle up his feelings and brood over them, making life difficult for himself and, Ben chuckled at the memories, the rest of the family. When Joe was ready and needed it, he’d talk. Besides, Joe had his brothers to confide in. Ben paused and looked across at Hoss, howling encouragement at his younger brother. He still liked to stop now and then just to breathe in the blessing of his return.

Unceremoniously dumped by the horse, Ben’s attention returned to Joe. Kate continued to live in Virginia City, although Ben was pretty certain that Joe had tried to convince her otherwise. He liked Kate. A fine woman and he couldn’t but be grateful to her, for turning Joe down. The repercussions of Joe and Kate living together in sin would have been unpleasant. In his heart, he knew neither could find happiness that way, and such a path he feared would lead to resentment and disaster. Ben abandoned the corral and his melancholy thoughts when Adam rode up, and he walked back to the house to greet him.

Adam pulled a telegraph from his pocket and handed it to him. “Yates has confirmed the herds arrived at the railhead.”

“Good. Y’know with the good harvest and the cattle drive things are goin’ mighty well.” Ben turned to look at Hoss and sighed, “Mighty well. Come and join me for coffee, you can tell me how my grandson’s doing. I haven’t seen him in two weeks.” Adam gave a short laugh and followed Ben inside. “I’ll hav’ta start thinking of a Christmas present for both my grandsons soon. What about a pony?”

“Pa, he’s three months old.”

“Never too young to get your first pony, son.”

*****

Drawing the team up outside the mercantile, Joe handed over the list of needed supplies and hurried to Kate’s house. The last month had been busy in the high country bringing the herd down to lower pastures, and he hadn’t managed to make it into Virginia City before now. The anticipation of seeing Kate again make his heart beat a little faster, and he flipped open the gate to her yard, with the joy reminiscent of his seventeen-year-old self. He rapped on the door, placed his hands on his hips and glanced around, noting a broken piece of fencing. He’d take care of that later. When the door opened, he turned, and the smile on his face died. A man stood in the doorway.

“Who are you, where’s Kate?”

The man leaned on the door frame, his lip contorting into a sneer. “I could ask you the same thing, but let me guess, you’re Joe Cartwright.”

Joe’s heart pounded, and cold fear coiled around his insides. “That’s right, and you’re?”

“I’m John Boyd.”

Horror settled in Joe’s eyes as he stared at the man. How, why, when? Before he could speak, Kate appeared in the doorway.

“Joe, it’s good to see you. We haven’t seen you for over a month.”

The warning in Kate’s eyes set him on his guard, and he forced himself to smile. Adopting her light tone, he replied, “No, the ranch has kept me pretty busy. I just dropped by to see if you needed anything.”

“Thank you, that’s so good of you. I’ve been telling John how kind you and your family have been.”

“Yeah, well, I’m back now Cartwright, so my wife don’t need your help no more.”

“John, please, Joe’s a friend.”

“Friend? I’ve heard all about what kind of friend he is.”

Alarm gripped Joe. Boyd looked mean, and he could smell the whisky on him from four feet away. He shot a look at Kate. “If you need any help?”

Boyd reached over and put his arm across the door space in front of Kate. “Like I told you, Cartwright, we don’t need nothin’ from you.”

“Thank you, Joe, that’s nice of you, but we’re fine. You’d better go.”

He couldn’t miss the plea in her eyes for him to leave and avoid any trouble. It took everything he had to step back. “All right, I’ll see you in church, Sunday?”

Kate nodded, and having no other choice, Joe left. He walked back to the mercantile in a daze, his world crashing around him. How could her husband return after all this time and destroy there one chance of happiness? Joe’s mind and stomach churned while he tried to think of what to do. He loaded the supplies in a stupor and headed back home. All he could see and hear was Boyd. The hard look in his eyes and the cruel twist of his mouth. Ten minutes out of Virginia City, he pulled the team up and turned in the seat to look behind him. “What’re you doing?” he questioned out loud. Turning the team with more haste than precision, he whipped them up and sent them at a gallop back to Virginia City. The sense of urgency twisted his gut into knots. Over and over, he asked himself, “Why did I leave her there?”

Joe hauled the sweating and blowing horses to a stop and flew from the seat. This time he didn’t knock but crashed through the door. He stood with his legs braced wide in the middle of the empty parlor, tense and alert to face Boyd. No one was there.

“Kate! Kate!” Fear clawed its way into his throat when no answer came, and then the door to Sarah and Billy’s bedroom opened a crack. “Billy?”

The door crashed open to let the children tumble through. Their tear-stained faces terrified Joe. Dropping on one knee, he gathered them into his arms. Billy began to sob, and Sarah clung to his jacket.

“Joe … Joe, I think Pa hurt Ma. He said he’d wup us good. Ma told us to stay and not come out no matter what. We was scared, coz we heard horrible sounds.”

Bile rose into Joe’s throat. His eyes went to Kate’s bedroom. What lay behind that door? He looked down at the two heads buried into his chest. He needed to get them out before he looked, whatever happened they couldn’t be here to see. Scooping them up, he carried them out to the buckboard and placed them in the back. He flung the supplies about to make more room and then looked at the children huddled into the corner. “Stay here, okay? I’ll be back in a minute.”

Joe put his hand on the doorknob of the room that meant so much to him, where he’d known love, closeness and pleasure. Could this now be the place to tear him apart? Could he face going through that again? He opened the door and flicked his eyes over the chaos, the knocked over table, washstand, broken jug and lamp, to find her on the floor in the heap of disarrayed blankets. By her side in an instant, the hand that reached to move the bloody matted hair from her face shook.

“Kate?” He touched her skin. Relief flooded him at the warmth of it under his fingertips but, dear God, so much blood. “Kate? Can you hear me?”

A soft moan escaped the already swelling lips. He dropped his head to them in time to make out the words, “Joe? … Children?”

“I’m here. The kids are safe. I’m gonna get you to the doctor.”

“No… Joe… take us… safe. Ponder… rosa.”

Taking the blankets, he wrapped Kate up in them. The pitiful whimper she made when he moved her made him wince, but he didn’t stop and carried her outside to lay her gently on the wagon bed. His eyes went to the children, and he fought his own fear down for their sake. “She’ll be all right, don’t worry. I’m taking you to the Ponderosa.”

The note hung on the doc’s door told Joe he would be back soon. He swiped a hand across his face and dragged out his tally book to scratch a note and fixed it behind the door knocker, then he ran back to the wagon and geed up the team again. Once passed the city limits, he shook them into a trot. He padded Kate as much as possible in the back, but she would still be shaken about, no matter what, and his urge to get home pushed him on.

Ben came out of the house at a run hearing the wagon clattering into the yard and Joseph’s shouts. Shocked to see the lathered horses, Ben went to his son, who leapt into the back of the wagon. Behind him, Hannah and Hop Sing ran forward to help.

“Hannah, can you take the children.”

Helping them down, she led them away, with promises of milk and cookies. Ben’s throat constricted when he saw the bundle Joe gathered into his arms. Joe’s haggard face told him who it was.

“What happened?”

“Her husband, he came back.”

“I’ll send for the doctor.”

“No need, I left a note.”

Hop Sing jumped into action. “I get medicine chest and hot water.”

Joe lay Kate down on the bed and drew back the blankets. Ben’s sharp intake of breath filled the room.

“Look what he did to her, Pa,” Joe begged him, his voice guttural with despair. “Look what he did.”

Myriad emotions swam in the eyes that lifted to his appalled ones, shock, sorrow, and stone-cold murder. Joe flung away from the bed and through the door. Alarmed, Ben ran after him following him downstairs. “Where’re you going?”

“I’m gonna find that bastard.”

Ben reached out, catching Joe’s arm. “No! You’re not. You’re staying right here. That woman needs you.”

Joe’s muscles tensed under Ben’s hand. “He’s not gettin’ away with that.”

“What does that mean? You gonna kill him? What good would that do Kate?”

“Didn’t you see what he did to her? How he hurt her? I gotta find him.”

Raw agony rolled off his son and rang in his words. It tore at Ben, but Joe needed to listen to reason. “Joseph. This isn’t about you. It’s about Kate. She needs you.”

Despair bled from his son’s voice, “Pa … I don’t think I can.”

Ben understood how hard this was for his son. To face losing someone again, but he couldn’t let him run away, as he once did. He tightened his grasp, and pulled Joe closer, nose to nose. “So what? This is too difficult for you?” Ben pointed toward the stairs. “That woman needs you now, Joseph. To comfort her and tell her everything will be all right. To tell her you love her. Do you love her?”

Anger swelled Joe’s chest, and his reply came out harsh and brittle, “Yes.”

“Then prove it. Go to her. Put aside your pain and do what’s best for her.”

Their eyes locked, wills conjoined in battle. Ben held on, determined he wouldn’t lose this fight.

Shame settled its hard presence in Joe’s gut. Pa was right. To run after Boyd would be cowardice, he owed Kate more than that. He wrapped his other hand around his father’s arm. “Thanks.” Released, he went up the stairs, but when he reached the top, he stopped and turned back to his father, and told him, “He’s not getting near her again.”

His father met his gaze and nodded. “I know.”

Joe returned to Kate, and when Hop Sing arrived, together they cleaned off the blood from her face and hair. Then Joe sat down next to her, held her hand and told her everything would be all right. That the children were safe and how much he loved her. He wiped away the tears that formed and spilled under swelling eyelids and kissed the back of her hand, for there was nowhere that wasn’t bruised or swollen, and then, he told it all to her again.

Ben ran out when he heard the buggy draw up, followed by Hoss and Adam.

“We saw the doc’s buggy. What’s wrong, Pa? It’s not Benji or Hannah?”

“No,” he told his middle son. “It’s Kate. This way, doctor, quickly.”

When Ben returned downstairs, Adam demanded, “What’s going on?”

“Kate’s been badly beaten. Joe arrived with her and the children earlier. He told me her husband is back and he beat her.”

“Where are the kids?”

“Hannah took them to your room.”

“I’ll go check they’re all okay.”

Ben slumped down into his red chair, exhausted from his emotions. Adam sat down opposite him.

“How is she?”

“I don’t know. He beat her terribly. Her face… “ Ben broke off and took a long breath. “I’m worried about internal damage. If she dies, I don’t know what Joe will do.”

Adam turned to look up the stairs. He weighed in his mind the man his younger brother had become. He turned back to his father. “He’ll be okay, don’t worry.”

Hoss came down the stairs. “Hannah asked me to send up sandwiches fer the kids.”

Ben glanced at the clock. They’d all forgotten about lunch. “Ask Hop Sing to fix some for Hannah and you too.”

“I’ll ask him to make enough fer everyone.”

The doctor tried and failed to eject Joe from the room, who stubbornly refused to go. When he saw how agitated his patient became, at the idea of Joe leaving, he relented and let him stay. His careful examination finished, he asked, “Who did this?”

Joe’s reply was blunt, “Her husband.” The doctor’s eyes dropped to the two hands tightly entwined. He lifted them to find Joe’s gaze boring into him. “It’s exactly what you think,” he told him.

The doctor shrugged. “I’m not here to judge, Mr. Cartwright.”

The sandwiches and coffee lay on the table when the doctor came down the stairs.

“How is she?”

“It’s not good. I’ve given her laudanum for the pain, and she’s sleeping now. The brute beat her badly. He broke her nose and left wrist. She has bruising on her torso, arms and legs, where it looks like he kicked as well as punched her, and I suspect a cracked rib or two. There’s no sign of internal injury so far, but we’ll need to keep an eye on that. If there are none, then she should recover in time. Is that coffee?”

Ben broke out of his horrified silence, listening to the catalogue of injuries, to stammer, “Yes, and sandwiches.” He glanced at Hoss and Adam, who both looked sick. “Boys have some coffee. I’ll take a cup up to Joe.”

Ben laid the cup and plate on the bedside table. Joe sat next to the bed, Kate’s hand cradled in his, a position he’d assumed many times with this son. Ben looked at Kate. He barely recognized her. Where it wasn’t bandaged, her face, bruised and swollen looked grotesque.

“The doctor says she should be all right.” Joe’s voice was tight, and Ben saw his jaw clench as he added, “Provided there’s no internal damage.”

Laying a hand on Joe’s shoulder, Ben gave it a squeeze. “I’m praying for her.”

His son’s hand came up to cover his and returned the pressure. Joe’s head bowed, and Ben didn’t need to see his face to know that tears filled his eyes.

*****

The doctor gave a grunt of satisfaction, readjusted the nightdress and drew the covers back. “So far, so good. The bruising isn’t spreading, and your stomach is nice and soft, Mrs. Boyd. You’re coming on nicely.”

Joe, who’d moved to the window while the medical man conducted his examination, looked around with relief. Any good news was welcome. He flexed his back, aching from the night spent in the chair. The sound of horses returned his attention to the window. He frowned, seeing four men ride into the yard. He could see sheriff Foster and behind him, John Boyd.

Ben stepped out onto the porch to meet the men. “Clem.”

Clem Foster leaned on his saddlebow and adjusted his hat. This wasn’t a call he wanted to make or relished, but the man behind him had made a legitimate complaint. “Ben, I’m sorry to disturb you. Is Joe around?”

“What’s this about, sheriff?”

“This here’s Mr. Boyd. He’s laid a complaint Joe ran off with his wife, and she’s here on the Ponderosa. He wants her back. If she’s here, Ben, I need to come in and take her off your hands.”

“She’s here because that man almost beat her to death.”

Clem’s head swung ‘round to look at Boyd. “This true?”

“A man’s gotta right to punish a wife who’s betrayed him, and she’s done that all right. Whoring with Joe Cartwright.”

Clem shifted in his saddle. He’d heard rumors, but they weren’t none of his business, until now.

“Kate and the children are staying here. No one’s stepping foot in the house.”

Ben turned to see Joe step onto the porch, cradling a rifle. “Joe.”

Ignoring his father, Joe cocked the weapon. “You may as well ride on out of here, sheriff.” Behind him, Hoss and Adam followed, each flanked him on either side.

Clem looked from Ben to Joe. The deep green in his eyes leapt and curled like the flames of a furnace, the only life in his emotionless face.

“Joe, Mrs. Boyd’s husband’s laid a complaint you’ve taken her, an’ as her husband he’s got a right to- ”

“He’s got no rights after what he did. She’s safe here from him, and she ain’t leaving.”

Clem dismounted and pulled himself up to his full height. He didn’t like doing this to friends like the Cartwrights, but he’d learnt from the best that the law was the law. “The law says he does.” When he took a step forward, the rifle swung to bear.

“I said no one steps foot in the house.”

Ben put himself between Clem and his son. “Joe, this is no way to handle this.”

“It’s the only way. Kate’s not going back to him. Not now, not ever.”

Clem tried again. “You can’t keep a man’s wife from him. He’s got a legal right to take her back.”

“Not right now, he hasn’t.” Everyone except Joe turned to look at the doctor. “I’m sorry, sheriff, law or not, Mrs. Boyd isn’t up to going anywhere. It was bad enough she was moved here, but since she has, here she stays.”

“He’s lyin’! He’s a pal of theirs, he’d say anythin’ they told him.”

“Shut up!” Clem and Joe chorused.

Joe’s eyes never left Boyd’s. The man shifted in his saddle under their intense glare.

Clem scratched his chin. “I reckon I oughta take a look, Ben.”

After casting a quick glance at Joe, Ben nodded. “All right. I’ll take you.”

The two men followed the doctor into the house. The tableau in the yard didn’t move. The two deputies flanking Boyd threw nervous glances at each other and the three Cartwright men, who stood silent and unmoving, an implacable wall between them and the house.

Clem’s mouth was white around the edges and held in a tight line when he marched back out. Whatever he’d expected to see, it hadn’t been that. He barked his orders, “We’re heading back.”

Boyd exploded, “What! What about my wife?”

“Shut up! You’re a real piece of shit, Boyd. I mightn’t be able to do anything under the law for what you did to that woman, but she’s sure as hell stayin’ where she is. Now you do as your told and get back to town, an’ I’m tellin’ you this. You set one foot on the Ponderosa, and I’ll arrest you for trespass. That I can do.”

“You’re in their pockets too! You can’t stop me coming back for her.”

“But I can,” Joe told him. “You come anywhere near Kate, and I’ll kill you.”

“Get him outta here.” Clem told his deputies, and the two men wheeled about, leading the furious Boyd away. Clem turned to Joe. “I’m sorry, Joe. I wish I could arrest him, but there’s nothin’ I can do.”

When he went to mount, Clem found Joe by his side, hand held out to him. “Thanks.”

Clem took the hand. “I hope the lady gets better soon.”

*****

“So, what are we going to do about this mess?” Adam put down his glass of brandy and looked around the room. It made a comforting sight. Sophy sat next to him in the plush pink chair. On the sofa, Hannah cuddled next to Hoss, who bounced Benji on his knee. Jamie perched on the arm, next to Pa, and in his big red chair, his father cradled their son, whom they’d decided to name Edward Benjamin. Upstairs, Joe supervised Sarah and Billy’s daily visit to see their mother. A week since he’d brought her home, they’d all been relieved no internal injuries manifested, but her recovery would be slow. “Any ideas? We all know as soon as Kate’s fully recovered that brute will demand her back, and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop him.”

“It ain’t right, that a man can get away with beatin’ a woman just coz she’s his wife.”

Ben had heard that mantra from his son maybe a hundred times since it happened. “No, it’s not, and we all know Joe won’t stand by and let her go.”

“I’ve made some enquiries about Boyd,” Adam told them. “He’s a miner, of sorts. It seems he doesn’t care for hard work, he’s the get rich quick type, and he doesn’t do well at that either. Since he and Hannah came to Virginia City, he’s left several times, and he’s not popular with his neighbors. The man’s a mean drunk and takes it out on anyone near him.” Adam glanced down at his fingers before adding, “It seems it’s not the first time he’s hit Kate. I heard a few tales of black eyes and bruises.”

“You’d think if they knowed what he were like, they’d have kept quiet about Kate and Joe?”

“There’s always a malicious person ready to repeat gossip. Kate’s the one who’s kept the roof over their heads, not Boyd. He doesn’t seem to have contributed a dime to that family. I also found out he’s got a partner, a man called Pat Hanley. The pair have moved into the house.”

Incensed by what she heard, Sophy demanded. “Can’t Kate divorce him now, after what he’s done?”

Ben caught his son’s eyes. Joseph had told them all about the cases Woodrow related to him to illustrate divorce due to battery was nigh on impossible. “I’m afraid not.”

Both women moved closer to their husbands, grateful fate had blessed them with good men.

Ben absent-mindedly chucked the babe in his arms under the chin while he wove a plan. “If Boyd’s keen on getting rich quick, I might have an idea.”

*****

Boyd yanked open the door and started when he saw the man standing there. Even at 66, Ben was an imposing presence.

“Can I come in? I’d like to talk to you?”

A smirk spread over the man’s face, and he turned and walked back into the house. “Sure.”

Ben shut the door and followed Boyd into the kitchen, who flung himself back into a chair and reached for the glass of whisky in front of him. Ben’s eyes flicked around the room. Boyd was no housekeeper, and the kitchen looked a mess, cluttered with dirty pots and dishes and leftover food scattered about the surfaces and floor.

“Tell me, why has the great Ben Cartwright come to visit me?”

Ben pulled out a chair and sat down. “I think you know. I’m here to talk about your wife.”

Boyd snorted and downed the whisky. “That tramp.”

His jaw tightened, but Ben kept his voice calm. “We’re both men of the world. You don’t want the burden of your wife and children, my son does. How much will it take?”

Boyd looked up from pouring more whisky into his glass and queried, “How much?”

Ben reached into his jacket and pulled forth a folded document. He dropped it on the table. “How much to sign the divorce papers? They’re cited for adultery between Kate and Joseph.”

Boyd’s eyes stared at the papers, then raised to Ben’s face. His mouth contorted into a snarl. “That cheatin’ bitch whored herself for all of Virginia City to see. Betrayed me for the whole world to laugh at. D’you think I’m just gonna sign a paper and let her walk away.” He leaned across the table and spat the words in Ben’s face. “An’ that son of yours, he wants her, does he? Well, that’s too bad. She’s my wife, Cartwright, an’ I’m gonna get her back, and your son’s gonna hav’ta live with that. Knowin’, I get to do her anytime I like, an’ if she gives me any trouble, I’ll teach her another lesson.”

Ben face stiffened into a hard mask. He began to understand Joe’s antipathy toward this scum. “Ten thousand.”

The glass half-way to Boyd’s mouth halted. “Ten? You’d pay me ten thousand dollars?”

“That’s right. To get Kate free of you and out of her life.”

Boyd’s eyes gleamed. He downed the whisky. “I tell you what. Why don’t we just double that and make it twenty.”

“Done. Sign the papers. We’ll go to the bank, and I’ll make you out a bank draft right now.”

To Ben’s shock, Boyd burst into laughter. “You Cartwright’s, you think you can buy anythin’.” Boyd slammed his glass back down on the table. “Well, I ain’t sellin’! The whore stays with me. You got that, Cartwright? I’m her lawful wedded husband, and I own every bit of her. An’ your son can lie awake at night thinking about what I’m doing to her.”

Unable to stand the presence of the man any longer, Ben picked up the papers and stuffed them back in his vest. “You sit there and talk about your rights and how Kate betrayed you. What about you? Didn’t you betray your marriage vows when you left her with no money and two children to raise? And what about your vow to love and cherish her? When did you ever do that?” Placing his palms on the table, he leaned over toward Boyd. “The offer stays for forty-eight hours, then it’ll be gone, and get this through your thick skull. You’re right, I’m a wealthy man, and I’ll use all that money to fight you in court to keep Kate out of your clutches.”

Boyd’s harsh laughter followed Ben to the door. “Maybe so, but your Joseph still won’t get to marry her, will he? You tell him that. She’s gonna belong to me always. How’s he gonna live with that, Cartwright? How?”

The words burned in his ears along with the fury deep in his chest as Ben marched back to where he’d hitched Buck. Whatever happened now, he’d do all he could to thwart that loathsome creature.

“Twenty thousand? Pa, how could you? Can the ranch even sustain that kind of loss?”

“You can answer that.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me first? What would Adam and Hoss think?” Joe broke off, seeing the look on his father’s face. He might have known. “You’ve already spoken to them.”

“We talked it over before I went. They want your happiness just as much as I do.”

Joe’s head dropped, and Ben saw the wobble in his chin. “Thanks.”

“Not that it did much good. But he’d been drinking. Hopefully, once he’s sobered up, he’ll see the offers too good to refuse. I’ll go back in and see him again in a couple of days.” Joe reached over and placed a hand on his knee. Ben covered it with his own. “It’ll be all right.”

After Joe returned to Kate’s room, Ben stared into the fire. He hoped and prayed he’d spoken the truth, and everything would work out, at least things couldn’t get any worse. Or so he thought.

*****

The sheriff dismounted, and Ben walked toward him. “Clem, good to see you.” The man took his hand but looked embarrassed. Was he here to try and get Kate again? “What can I do for you?”

“Actually, it’s Joe I’ve come to see. Is he around?”

“He’s upstairs with Kate.” Ben turned to Jamie, who’d stopped his task of sawing wood to watch. “Jamie, would you go up and ask Joe to come down. We’ve just had lunch, Clem, would you care for coffee.”

“No thanks, Ben. I’m here on official business.”

On the sofa, Hoss and Hannah looked around at the visitor. Gathering up her son, Hannah told Hoss, “I think I’ll put Benji down for his nap.”

As she reached the top of the stairs, Joe appeared and gave her a smile as he passed. The smile faded when he saw Clem. “You wanted me, Pa.”

“Yes, sheriff Foster wants to talk to you.”

Joe bristled. The use of Clem’s title, putting him on his guard. “If this is about Kate leavin’.“

“It’s not. Joe, can you tell me your whereabouts this morning?”

Joe frowned, surprised by the question. “This morning? I rode over to the lower forty to check on the report some fences needed mending.”

“When did you get back?”

“About an hour ago. What’s this about?”

Clem turned his hat in his hand and ignored the question. “Did anyone see you?”

“See me? No.”

“We all know that’s where he was, Clem.”

Clem shot Hoss a look. “Were you with him?”

Hoss looked at Joe and then Ben. He sensed trouble and replied carefully, “No, I weren’t with him.”

Joe put his hands on his hips and asked again, “What’s this about?”

“John Boyd was found dead this morning. Someone shot him in the back.”

A surprised laugh escaped Joe. The man couldn’t be serious? “What, you think I killed him? I haven’t been to Virginia City since I brought Kate home.”

Clem looked Joe in the eye. “I’ve a witness who saw you there.”

“What?” Clem ignored the chorus from Ben and Hoss.

Joe’s face settled into hard anger. “They’re lying.”

“Who said they saw, Joe?” How could this be happening? Ben had intended seeing Boyd himself that afternoon to give him another chance to accept his offer.

“A fella named Pat Hanley. He says he’s Boyd’s partner. He tells it that he left the house this morning and saw a man go in the back door. The description he gives fits Joe perfectly. He says he heard a shot and ran back in to find Boyd dead, and the man running away.”

Horrified, Joe turned to his father. “Pa, I swear- ” Ben cut him off and moved to his side.

“I know, son. You wouldn’t have done this. Clem, the man’s either lying or mistaken.”

“You’re probably right, Ben, but I’ve still gotta take Joe in.”

The tension rippled through Joe. Hearing about the death of this man wasn’t bad news, but he sure as hell hadn’t killed him. His father’s hand on his shoulder tightened. He already knew what he would say.

“I think it best if you go. I’ll come with you.”

“And me.”

Hoss, by his side, added his protective presence, and despite it all, Joe smiled to have his big brother there, again by his side. Damn, that felt good.

Joe dangled his hands between his knees and looked glum. He never enjoyed the experience of being behind bars, and this was no exception. The ride through Virginia City told him the gossip mongers had been at work. People stopped on the sidewalk to gawp, and he saw several shake their heads and look away. Joe clenched his jaw. Some things never change.

He’d seen Kate before he left. His intention to lie, forgotten when he gazed down at her. Out of that abused face, her fine eyes still shone, brave and defiant. This woman deserved to know the truth. She shed tears when he told her of Boyd’s death. Not of sorrow, but of relief in the knowledge she was finally free of him. When he told her why he had to go, her eyes flashed with anger, incensed he could be suspected. How he wanted to take her in his arms, bury his face in her hair and thank her for believing in him, but her battered body prevented any movement, so he settled for a kiss. Whispering his goodbyes, he left. He could only hope he’d see her again.

*****

The uproar Ben had to contain, took time. Hoss was all for breaking Joe out of jail and Adam and Candy, who’d ridden in when they got the news, didn’t seem far behind helping him.

With it being one man’s word against Joe’s, Woodrow’s supposition that the case against him was flimsy shattered, when Hoss insisted, “Yeah, ‘cept, if folks didn’t know about Kate and Joe before, they sure as heck will now, and if that ain’t reason enough for Joe to wanna kill him, I don’t know what is, an’ if we know that, you can bet a jury would too.”

Then Job’s comforter chipped in, “And there were enough witnesses when Joe threatened to kill the man.”

Ben glared at Adam, but he couldn’t deny the truth of what he and Hoss said, and the situation looked bleak. Once he talked them out of doing anything reckless, he sent them home, while he stayed in town. He kept Joe company for dinner at the jail and did he best to raise his dampened spirits. It was late when he left him and made his way back to the hotel. He’d just reached the alley next to the building and stopped dead when the tip of a gun pressed into his back.

A voice hissed in his ear, “Back up inta the alley, Cartwright. I wanna talk.”

Ben did as he was told, and the voice spoke again. “I’m Pat Hanley. I’m the one who told the sheriff I saw your boy at his place this morning.”

“What d’you want?”

The gun shifted against Ben’s back. “You offered Boyd twenty thousand dollars to divorce his wife, ain’t that right?”

“It is.”

“Would it be worth the same to you, if I was to tell the sheriff I made a mistake about seeing your son?”

Ben glanced over his shoulder. “Why would you do that if he killed your friend?”

“He were my partner, not my friend.” The tip of the gun pressed harder, and the voice dropped to an angry growl. “Do you want me to clear your son or not?”

“Yes. If I pay you twenty thousand, you’d tell the sheriff you didn’t see Joe?”

“I’d write him a letter for you to give him.”

“I think he’d rather hear it from you.”

“An’ face questions that nosy sheriff might have? Nah, I don’t think so. I’ll give you a letter and take the money and disappear. That’s all I’m offerin’.”

Ben considered. “All right, tomorrow I’ll get a bank draft.”

“No! I don’t want no piece of paper. I want cash money.”

“All right. Cash.”

“Good. You bring the money to Boyd’s place, tomorrow at noon, an’ I’ll give you the letter.”

“How do I know you won’t just take the money?”

The man’s harsh cackle broke out before he replied. “I guess you’re jest gonna hav’ta trust me, and Cartwright, come unarmed.”

The tip of the gun was removed, and Ben spun around to see a figure scurry away. Deep in thought, he made his way to the hotel.

*****

Ben stepped out of the bank with his saddlebag slung over one shoulder. He glanced up at the sky. Almost noon, he needed to hurry.

The door to Kate’s little house stood open. “Hanley?”

“I’m here.” From the kitchen, the man appeared, and Ben saw Boyd’s partner for the first time. He wasn’t much to look at, and his eyes dark like coal, kept darting around the room, betraying his nervousness. He couldn’t hide the eagerness in his voice as he demanded, “You got the money?”

Ben swung the saddlebag off his shoulder onto the table. Undoing one pocket, he spread it open. “Twenty thousand, just as you asked. Where’s the letter.”

Hanley reached into his grubby coat and pulled out a piece of paper. Ben took it, and with one hand still on his saddlebag, flicked open the document to read. Ben grunted and took his hand away. Snatching up the saddlebag, Hanley fumbled with the strap to look inside at the bundles of notes. He picked one out and ran it through his fingers as if to make sure it was real. The avarice in his face made Ben grimace.

“I take it, Boyd didn’t change his mind about accepting my offer?”

“No. The fool,” Hanley replied, without looking up, his only interest the greenbacks in his hands. “I told him he were crazy. No woman’s worth twenty thousand dollars, but all he cared about was getting her back, so he could beat on her and rub it in your son’s face. Can you figure that? Walkin’ away from this kind of money jest for revenge?”

“No, I can’t, and you could’ve done a lot with the money.”

“That’s what I told him. ‘We’d be livin’ high on the hog,’ I said. He didn’t care. The fool just went on about making them both suffer. We’d been partners for two years, and he couldn’t do that for me. I could see all that money just slippin’ away.”

“Is that when you came up with a scheme to get it? You shoot your partner in the back and tell the sheriff Joe did it, and then blackmail me.”

“So what? I did you a favor killing him. You should be grateful.”

Ben smiled. “I am. Did you hear him, sheriff?”

Startled, Hanley turned to see one of the bedroom doors open and sheriff Foster standing there.

“Yeah, I heard him. Hanley, you’re under arrest.”

The man’s shocked face looked back at Ben. “You tricked me!”

“That’s right.”

Hanley let loose a scream of fury and snatched up the lamp from the table and flung it at Clem before drawing on Ben. An explosion filled the room, drowning out the man’s cry when he flew back. Hanley lay on the floor, his hand clutched around his injured arm. Ben turned to see Adam in the doorway, his pistol still smoking.

“Glad you haven’t lost that fast draw.”

Adam shook his head and holstered his weapon. “I need to practice. I was aiming for his chest.”

Adam moved into the house, followed by Hoss, who eagerly asked, “Did we get ‘im?”

“Thanks to Adam.”

Clem handed Ben back his saddlebag. As he took them, Ben asked, “Well, sheriff?”

“I’m satisfied.”

Ben slapped Adam and Hoss on the shoulder. “Boys, let’s go get your brother out of jail.”

The four Cartwright men stepped out onto the boardwalk, and Joe took a long draft of fresh air.

“Good to be out, son?”

“Yeah, Pa, always.”

“We’d better get this money back to the bank.”

Joe looked toward the horses lined up behind the hitching post. “D’ya mind if I head straight home. I’d like to see Kate and tell her the good news.”

“I’ll come- ” Ben put a quick hand on his middle son, which silenced him.

“Sure, Joe, you go on ahead. We’ll follow.” The brilliant smile that never failed to light Ben’s heart swept across Joe’s face. Cochise was unhitched in a trifle. Ben grinned wider as Joe did a swing mount into the saddle. He hadn’t seen him do that for a long, long while. Turning Cochise, they galloped off down the street. “I think that’s one reunion Joe needs to do on his own.”

He found his shoulders grasped on either side by his two older sons, and they stood and watched Joe ride out of town toward his future.

 

*****

Epilogue

 

The latest member of the Cartwright family played at Ben’s feet with the well-worn group of wooden animals borrowed from her cousins. His sons were certainly making up for lost time.

Five years since John Boyd’s death and a lot had changed. Joe and Kate married as soon as she recovered from her brutal attack, and the following October their first baby, Eric, was born, followed eighteen months later by Marie Kathryne, and of course, Sarah and Billy, whom Joe adopted. Adam and Sophy’s eldest, Edward, would turn six that year, and the little one at his feet was almost two. As for Hoss and Hannah … Ben chuckled. Blessed with two more lively sons and another baby due in a few months, they seemed intent on filling up the house.

From the front, the large ranch house looked much the same, but innovations had taken place thanks to Adam. To accommodate three more bedrooms, the back of the house had been extended. He’d also introduced the all-important indoor water closet and a bathroom, quite a luxury.

Of course, once Joe built his own home (with water closet), he and Kate moved out, but it made Ben happy to know he had plenty of space for them, or any other guests, for that matter. The Ponderosa carried a long history of hospitality, and this wasn’t about to change. Ben kept open the option for Hoss and Hannah to build their own home, but they were more than content to remain in the big house, and Ben was glad to have them.

Life had been good. Jamie joined Adam in his architect business when he finished college. The company was doing exceptionally well, and Ben saw the day coming when all their time would be spent there. He’d miss seeing them as often as he did now, of course, but he couldn’t be happier for their success. Besides, Joe and Hoss did a stand-up job of taking care of the ranch. There were no more roundups, cattle drives, and grueling long days in the saddle for Ben. He still oversaw the operation, but the Ponderosa was a partnership and he was content to let his sons take care of the day to day running.

A buggy drew into the yard, and Ben got up to greet Joe and his family.

“Sorry, we’re late, Pa.”

Joe jumped down and ran around to take his youngest from Kate and then gave her his arm. With a “Tut,” and a reprimand that she wasn’t an invalid, she accepted.

Ben waved aside Joe’s apology. “You’re right on time,” he told him. Kate smoothed down her dress, and Joe ran a tender hand over her midriff. Ben’s eyebrows rose. The couple hadn’t announced anything, but he recognized the glow on Kate’s skin and hid a smile. It must be early days still, and they weren’t ready to tell anyone. Well, he’d keep their secret. Going to the back of the buggy, he greeted three of his grandchildren, before telling Joe and Kate, “Hannah, Hop Sing and Sophy are still packing up the picnic.”

“Oh,” Kate gasped. “I must go and help.” She vanished through the side kitchen door, which stood open on this beautiful June day.

“Hi, Short Shanks.” Joe turned to Hoss and laughed. In one arm he carried his youngest, and under the other, he’d managed to tuck his two older sons, who squirmed and wriggled to be released. “I’m jest keepin’ these little varmints out from under their ma’s feet, or she’ll likely skin ‘em alive.”

Helping the children out of the buggy, Ben suggested, “Why don’t you all go look in the barn? The barn cat has a litter in there. Sarah, Billy, you’re in charge.”

Sarah and Billy puffed out their chests and chorused, “Yes, grandpa!”

Hoss put down Benji, and his four-year-old brother and the flock scampered toward the barn.

“Hey! Wait for me!” Running after them, Edward soon caught up with his cousins, and the chattering brood disappeared into the building.

Joe took Adam’s hand, who’d sauntered out behind his son, and seeing Jamie greeted him with a slap of the back.

Adam bent to scoop up his little one who clung tightly to the wooden animals. “Let’s get you inside, Miss.”

The four men wandered back into the house, three toting their youngest children.

Ben hung back. From the barn, he could hear the children’s laughter. In the kitchen, his three daughters-in-law and cook, worked on the picnic lunch and, through the door of his home, he could see his four sons in front of the fireplace. Four strong men. Family men. Hoss hawed out a laugh at something Jamie said, and Joe’s unique giggle rose above them all. That sound of his son’s laughing together meant so much to Ben, and they were a source of never-ending pride. His gaze rested on that one who had been his youngest for so long. The tempestuous, life-embracing, compassionate, fearless son that he’d sometimes despaired on getting to manhood had achieved that and more. He watched Joe battle through tragedy to take on the mantle of husband again, and then father. The way he embraced and loved Sarah and Billy had been a wonderful thing to watch. Joe would never forget Alice or his lost child, and there were days he’d spot that wistful look on his face, but Joe didn’t carry his loss like a burden anymore, and his future with Kate and their children looked brighter than any Ben could have wished for.

Ben drew in a breath that threw out his chest. He looked around him at the sweet green meadows, towering Ponderosa pines, and the mountains in the distance. This majestic land gave them their life and livelihood but so much more. It provided the spirit to their souls, and his legacy for his own personal bonanza, his family – the Cartwrights.

 

*** The End ***

 

June 2020

With thanks to my amazing, patient Beta jfclover (thanks, Pat.)

Author’s Notes:

In reality, the San Joaquin Valley was dominated in the 1800s by The Miller and Lux Corporation, which was headquartered in Los Banos, on the west side of the Valley. I based the way Wilson and McGraw acquired their land on Miller and Lux.

The divorce case referred to was real. Divorce at that time was a terrible scandal and rarely granted by a judge. In 1861, a woman filed for divorce after her husband beat her unconscious with a piece of wood over the fight they had. She wanted their pet dog to sleep in their bed, and he didn’t. The judge claimed that one or two violent incidents were not enough to get a divorce and forced them to stay married.

Episodes referenced:

A House Divided Written by Al C. Ward
Badge Without Honor Written by John Twist
Bank Run Written by N. B. Stone Jnr
The Prime of Life Written by Peter Packer
Joe Cartwright, Detective Written by William F. Claxton
Forever Written by Michael Landon
The Hunter Written by Michael Landon

 

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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.

31 thoughts on “The Final Curtain (by Bakerj)

  1. Wonderful story, kept me captivated and I ended reading most of the night. Loved how Ben finally got his wish granted for grandchildren. The ended had my in tears , so happy to see the Cartwright finally all happy together. I know this is a story I will read again. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thank you for this story. Life is so very hard in the real world, it’s always wonderful to spend time with this family and forget about reality even for a little. And I am especially happy with your ending . . . to see my favorite Cartwright get past his heartbreak and . . . at long last 😍

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story, Freyakendra. It is my ideal finale, I admit. Thank you for leaving a comment, they are much appreciated.

  3. A wonderful escape this fathers day weekend. Ben has always been a father figure to me . His gentle guidance and wise counsel in this story he continues to be there to guide his”boys”..His unconditional love for his family just shined in this story. What a wonderful reunion!Joes new love was a spicy,addition and a fabulous second plot in this story. What blessings were bestowed on this loving family! Great job!

  4. I don’t want to say the wrong thing and give anything away, June, but this story keeps the reader entertained throughout. It’s hard to know what will happen next and the big surprise makes it all worthwhile. Thanks so much for writing this 15th season story. Nicely done!

  5. A nice AU tying up loose ends and providing a fitting conclusion to the Cartwright saga. Those brotherly moments and the bad guys getting their comeuppenance made me smile. Nicely done.

  6. What a great continuation of the series after Forever. I was hooked from the beginning and loved all the twists you put in (a few were real nail biters). That ‘big’ one had me in tears, it was so wonderful! So nice to see the Cartwright family growing and seeing Joe get back to his joy of life.

    1. Thank you, AC for your lovely comments. So wonderful to hear that the ‘big one’ did its job. Much appreciated.

  7. Absolutely racking story with a few surprises. Love the little links back into the past too. Nice one – cheers

  8. Wonderful story! absolutely loved reading it.
    The twists & turns in your story are so satisfying.
    Thank you so very much for the wonderful ending

  9. A very enjoyable read!
    Without giving anything away, I loved the way you took us beyond the 14th season, changed history a little and brought us to a satisfying conclusion, not to mention a bit of ‘suffering’ along the way. Thank you! ❤️

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Beppina. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It’s always nice to receive them.

  10. That was terrific, I thoroughly enjoyed your story. As an Adam fan I could never bring myself to watching the episodes after his departure. This tied it all up, what a lovely happy ending, wish they could have made it.

    1. Thank you, Suesuna for your lovely comment. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the story. Thank you for taking the time to comment, always appreciated.

    1. I glad you enjoyed the story and the surprise. Thank you for leaving a comment Lisa, it’s most appreciated.

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