Loss (by Bakerj)

A Cartwright is married, but the conjugal bond brings challenges and heartache for the whole family.

Rated:  R (Adult situations)          Word Count:  45,062

 

LOSS

 

Chapter One

“I now pronounce you man and wife.”

When the cheers went up, Ben surged forward to congratulate his son.

“Thanks, Pa.”  Joe kissed his beautiful bride again.  The grin on his face so wide it almost cracked in two.

Joe had never been happier.  Ben smiled.  True, he’d had doubts about the relationship.  Joe’s brothers often quipped he could fall in love at breakfast and out again at supper, but this time was different.  The moment Joe spied Evaline next to her pa on that wagon crammed with their cornucopia of goods to sell, the die was cast.

Wishing a fervent hope for their future, Ben slapped his seventeen-year-old on the back and called for the musicians to strike up a jig.

*****

Eva slammed the coffee pot on the table and repeated.  “I told you I’m not doing that.  It’s ridiculous!”

“No.  It’s not.  Either I go, or one of the hands.”

“I’m not a child.  I don’t need an escort when I take a ride or visit my father-in-law.”

“I say you do.  Now, do as I bid.”

“No!  Why should I?  I don’t see you, Frank, or Dave doing that.”

Joe rolled his eyes at the mention of their hands.  “That’s different. We’re men.”  The plate whizzed passed to smash on the wall behind him.

“You just want to keep me prisoner!”

Joe slammed the front door and jumped on his horse.  Why the heck was Eva arguing?  His request wasn’t unreasonable with the Paiutes and Bannocks stirred up recently and Comanchero raids in the territory.  Then there was Virginia City.  It was growing at an incredible rate and attracted every kind of lowlife.  Joe shuddered at the type of men that drifted onto the Ponderosa.  Dangerous characters skulked everywhere.  They’d lost cattle and were forever running men off.  Wasn’t that enough to concern him, without worrying about Eva’s safety?

Without conscious thought, his hands steered Cochise toward the man he’d turned to his whole life.  Pa.

“We’ve been arguing for three days.  I don’t understand why she’s acting like this.”

“Well, I can understand how she feels.”

“What?  But Pa, it’s not safe for a woman to ride about alone.”

“I agree, and you’ve explained that?”

Joe got up and walked away.  Should he have to?  He was head of the household and in charge.  “Yes.  I told her.”

“You discussed it, or you told her?”

Joe shot a look over his shoulder.  Part of him resisted what his father was driving at.  “Does it matter?”

“I think it would matter a great deal to Eva.”

“But I’m her husband.  Shouldn’t she do what I say?”

“Yes, if that’s the kind of marriage you want.”

Succumbing to the inevitable lesson, Joe plopped down next to his father.  “What d’you mean?”

“Do you want a partnership or a dictatorship?”

“You’re saying I should talk my reasons through with her.”

“I do.”

“What if she still won’t listen?”

“Then maybe you’ve got it wrong.”  His father laughed when his mouth dropped open.  “Y’know, your mother was a wonderful woman.  Aside from her beauty, she was brave, independent, and feisty.  My fiercest ally and my loudest critic, she’d never let me get away with one poor decision.  Together, we made a formidable team.  You’re the man, which means you hav’ta be strong and in charge.  But a husband is more than a man who gives orders and expects them to be obeyed.  Marriage means sharing your life, really sharing, not just your hopes and dreams, but your fears and worries too.  That’s what makes you stronger because you’ll be facing life together.  Do you understand?”  Joe did.  He gave Pa a sheepish smile.  “If your reasons are sound, Eva will understand and back you.  Give her the chance to do that.”

“I will.  Thanks”

“Anytime, son.”

Ben exhaled as Joe rode away.  Getting to know Evaline in the months before the wedding, it concerned him how shy, even meek, she was.  Not the kind of girl he’d expected his headstrong, volatile youngest to fall for and it worried him that she might not stand up to Joe.  Maybe he’d underestimated her.  “Good for you, Eva.”

Joe cringed during the ride home.  No wonder Eva lost her temper.  Dropped from the heavens, Eva was a rare brilliance that lit up his life.  How could he jeopardize that?

Joe’s arm tightened, drawing his wife’s soft form closer.  “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.  I should’ve known you had good reasons.”

“And I should’ve explained.  I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to you is all.”

She snuggled deeper into his chest.  “Well, when you put it that way.”

Gentle fingers tilted her head giving him access to her lips.  “Thank you.”

“What for?”

“Not letting me get away with being an idiot.  I want our marriage to always be a partnership.”

“I’d like that.”

The pair settled further into the bench on the porch.  They’d started to gravitate here every evening, and it was becoming Joe’s favorite time of the day.  The orange-soaked sun dropped behind the distant horizon, and the breeze stirred his hair, dispelling the intense heat.

New, different, and a bit scary, marriage held territories yet to discover, but one part he always looked forward to.  He buried his face in Eva’s curls and breathed in the scent of lavender soap.  “Let’s go to bed.”

*****

Chapter Two

 

“Boy, what a day.  I don’t think there’s anywhere I don’t ache.”  Joe stretched back onto the wagon seat, attempting to uncurl one niggly kink.

“Yeah, diggin’ fence holes in this heat ain’t my idea of fun neither.”

Giving up on the kink, Joe adjusted the reins to the team.  “An’ older brother gets the trip to the bank.  How come he always manages to draw the long straw?”

Hoss shook his head and recalled the smug look on Adam’s face when they’d drawn for the chores.  “Yeah, he sure is sneaky sometimes.”

“D’you think we’ll get finished tomorrow?”

“Sure.  We did more than I thought we would.”

Joe slapped the back of one hand against Hoss’ chest.  “Course we did.  We’re a great team.”

Hoss laughed but agreed.  He and Adam were close, but, with him and Joe … their bond was special, deeper than most brothers and best friends.  A regular pair of rascals they were too.  Hoss chuckled, remembering their antics.  Some folks thought Joe tricked him into those schemes, but they didn’t know them at all.  Hoss knew all of Joe’s wheedles.  Heck, he’d taught him most of them, and if he didn’t want to go along, Joe couldn’t have made him.  The truth was, he loved being part of those mad-cap adventures.  Younger brother had a real knack for making life exciting.  Besides, he’d hatched just as many, and Joe never failed to be by his side.  But since Joe had the silver tongue and charm, folks believed little brother called the shots.  They were mighty dumb.

Of course, since Little Joe got wed, they’d been a change.  They still joked and schemed, but at the end of each day, Joe’s thoughts turned towards home.  Hoss saw it now in those hazel green eyes, fixed with keen intensity on the road ahead, anticipation tightening his shoulders and curving his lips.  Hoss couldn’t blame him.  If a filly like Eva waited for him, he would be the same.

Hoss let out a sigh and received a sideways glance from Joe.  “What?”

“Nuthin’.  Just thinking.”

“Oh boy, should I be worried?”

“Ha!  You’re the only one we need to worry about getting ideas.”

“Well, while you’re thinking, come up with an excuse to explain that.”  Joe pointed to the rip in his shirt.

“Nobody needs to tell you how to charm your pretty little gal.”

“She is pretty, ain’t she?”

“She sure is.”

The look on Joe’s face set off a tiny ache in Hoss’ heart.  He could admit to envying Joe.  Romance hadn’t been kind to him.  The love he’d found wasn’t to be, and he hadn’t yet found another.  Sure, there were plenty of women ready and willing to marry a Cartwright, but having a wife wasn’t enough.  Hoss longed for a woman who looked at him the way Eva looked at Joe.  He wouldn’t settle for anything less.

“Hoss?”

“Huh?”

“Will you stop day-dreaming, you big galoot!  I asked, will you stay for dinner?”

*****

When they reached the last bend before Joe’s house, Hoss spotted a lone rider.  The man pulled up and touched his hat in salute.

Hoss asked, “Heading back?”

“Yessir.  I’m gonna get me some of Hop Sing’s good cooking.”

Hoss laughed and hitched a thumb toward Joe.  “Meet Joseph, our younger brother.  Joe, this is Zeb Rance.”

The men exchanged greetings and parted.

“When did he arrive?”

“Adam hired him a few days ago.  Seems a good hand.”

Joe grunted but said no more.

The buckboard rattling up to the house brought Eva through the door.  Hoss noticed the way she tidied her apron and primped her hair.  The look in her eyes when they rested on his brother sent tingles through his insides.  Yessir, that’s what I want.

“Look who I’ve brought home for dinner.”  Joe vaulted down from the seat to spin Eva in his arms, before kissing her.

Hoss clambered down.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

“You’re always welcome, Hoss.  It’s just fried chicken.  I’m still getting used to the stove.”

“Fried chicken!  My favorite.”

Snaking an arm around his shoulder, Joe teased, “Everything’s your favorite.”

Hoss threw a playful punch and Joe ducked and giggled.  Eva slipped her arm through his, and they moved into the house.

Hoss turned to close the door, to hear Eva exclaim behind him.  “Oh, Joe.  Your new shirt.”  He burst into laughter.

*****

The sound of the horse brought Eva onto the porch, wiping dirty hands on her smock.  She tensed to find, not Joe, but a stranger.

“Mornin’ ma’am.  Can I trouble you for water for my horse an’ me?”  Eva shaded her eyes against the sun, unsure if she recognized the man.  As if aware of her doubts, the cowboy went on, “Name’s Rance.  I’m new here.”

Eva’s face relaxed into a smile.  “Help yourself.”

The long-limbed man dismounted and walked his horse to the water trough.  After he worked the pump and quenched his thirst, he moseyed back and leaned over the hitching post.  The grin that slipped across his face edged Eva closer to the front door.

“You’re the youngest Cartwright, Little Joe’s wife, ain’t ya?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

The man thumbed his hat back from his thin face, and the grin widened.  “You sure are pretty.”  Before Eva could react, he continued, “Sorry ma’am.  Didn’t mean no disrespect.  Jest a cowpoke like me don’t often get to rest his eyes on a lady like you.  The name’s Zeb, what’s yours?”

Every instinct said not to reciprocate, but not wishing to give offence, Eva told him.

“Perfect name for a pretty young thing like you.”

Eva flushed under his lascivious gaze.  When she heard another horse, her knees trembled with relief seeing her husband.

Joe looked from his wide-eyed wife to the man draped a little too comfortably over the rail.  “What’re you doing here, Zeb?”

“Jest getting a drink, Little Joe, and passin’ the time of day with Evaline.”

“It’s Mrs. Cartwright to you.”

The man straightened to his full height.  The insolence in him tightened Joe’s jaw.  He held his gaze, determined not to be first to break eye contact.  The tension relaxed when Zeb smiled.

“Sure, anythin’ you say.”  He tipped his hat to Eva. “ ‘Scuse me, Mrs. Cartwright.”

Joe waited to dismount until Zeb left.  “You all right?”

“Yeah.  He scared me a little is all.”

His arm wound around Eva, while he fixed his gaze on Zeb’s diminishing figure.  “I might have a word with Pa.  See about his moving on.”

“Hush, Joe, no.  He didn’t do anything.  I wouldn’t want a man to lose his job over such foolishness.”

He looked at her then.  “You sure?”  She shook her head, dismissing the suggestion.  The bright smile allaying his worry.  “Okay, but if he comes back, you tell me.”

“He won’t.”

*****

Chapter Three

 

“Mornin’, ma’am.”

Eva dropped the pea pod she was shelling and spun around in her seat.  “Z … Zeb, what are you doing here?”

How hadn’t she heard him ride up?

“Jest passin’, an’ thought I’d pay my regards.  You’re lookin’ mighty pretty, Mrs. Cartwright.”

Eva stood.  The way he spoke rankled.  “I think you should leave.”

“Now that ain’t right friendly.  Is the boss’s wife too high and mighty to pass the time of day?”

“Of course not.”  Zeb smiled, and Eva bit her lip regretting her hasty comment.

“Now, that’s right obliging of you.”  He stepped on the porch, backing Eva into the small table holding the bowl of peas.  Zeb tilted his head and smacked his lips.  “You sure are a beauty.  If I was your husband, I’d never leave you alone.”

Her breath quickened.  She moved around the table.  “You better leave.  If my husband finds you here… ”

Zeb laughed.  “Ain’t nobody here but you and me.”  Throwing his arms wide, he turned in a circle.  “Hello!  Anyone there?”  The shout went unanswered.  “See?  We’re all alone an’ can get cozy.”

Eva gasped a sob and ran.  Boots thudded on the wood in pursuit.  Rough hands grabbed and pulled her back to slam against the table, sending the bowl of peas scattering.  Zeb’s foul lips crushed to hers. The smell of him made her gag.  Yanking a hand free, she slapped at his face.  Forced back over the table, the sound of ripping material tightened her stomach, and when course fingers clutched her breast, it lurched.  Adrenaline pumped, and her knee rammed hard into the soft tissue between his legs.  With a grunt, he fell back.  Eva wrenched free and broke for the house.  She threw the bolts and tumbled over the sewing basket getting to the rifle Joe kept loaded over the fireplace.  The thunder of a fist on the door almost made her drop the weapon.  She held tight.  “Get out of here!  I have a gun!”

A curse spat out.  “You better say nothin’, y’hear.  If you do, I’ll tell everyone you made up to me.  What would yer husband say then?”

The words seeped like oil through the door covering Eva in a slick of horror.  She clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle the sobs.  He mustn’t hear her weakness.  His retreat took her to the door to press an ear against the wood.  Hearing the horse being ridden away, she sank to the floor, pulled the rifle close, and curled into a terrified, weeping huddle.

The minutes ticked away unnoticed until she lurched away from the rattling doorknob to swing the rifle around.  “Go away!”

“Eva!  What’s wrong?”

The weapon slid to the ground.  Joe’s voice ratcheted up as she fumbled with the bolts.  She tumbled into his arms where Zeb’s threats were forgotten and in between the tears, poured out the tale.

Joe looked around the porch, taking in the disturbed table, upturned bowl, and scattered peas.

“Did he do this?” He asked, fingering her blouse.  When she hesitated, he grabbed her shoulders, forcing her to look at him.  “Did he tear your clothes?”

The tears brimmed and fell again.  “He … he tore it when he put his hand- ”

Joe didn’t need to hear more.  He turned to his hand, who stood gaping at the scene.  “Stay with her!”

Eva’s cries to be careful barely registered above the pounding of his horse’s hooves and blood in his ears.  His heart hammered against his ribs.  One thought, one focus, drove him on.  To beat the crap out of the man who dared lay hands on his wife.

*****

Hoss halted when his younger brother came careering around the barn.  He shook his head.  Good job Pa wasn’t back from Virginia City yet, he’d have a conniption fit seeing Joe ride in like that.

He raised a hand in greeting.  “Hi, Little Joe… ”  Off his horse, before Cochise even slowed, his brother charged toward the bunkhouse, pure murder on his face.  Hoss began to run.  “Joe!  What’s wrong?”

He reached the wooden building as Rance flew out, followed by his brother who dived on the man.  The murderous intensity of Joe’s blows sent Hoss sprinting to pull him off the cowering hand.  Joe struggled like a demon and Hoss had to cling tight.  Before he could demand an explanation, Adam appeared beside them.

“What’s going on here?”

“He attacked Eva!”

“He’s crazy!”  Zeb retorted, running a hand over his mouth to wipe away the blood.  “She’s lyin’, if she told you that.”

Joe’s renewed struggles made Hoss tighten his grip.  Blue eyes, hard like flint, fixed their gaze on the man.  “I think you’re the one who’s lying.”

Zeb shifted his feet.  “Look, I didn’t wanna say nothin’, seeing she’s Little Joe’s wife, but that gal made up to me.  She wanted it bad- ”

Unable to contain the explosion in his arms, Hoss’ grasp failed.  Joe burst forward, but before he reached the piece of scum, Adam smashed his fist into Zeb’s jaw, lifting him off his feet to crash in the dirt.

“Pack your gear.  You’re fired.”

“What?” Rance gasped, incredulous.  “Over a gal?”

“Clear your lying carcass out of here.  Now!”

“I’m owed fer the work I’ve done.”

Hoss stepped forward.  “Think yourself lucky you’re leaving with your hide intact.”

Zeb spat.  Before Hoss could stop him, Joe slammed a blow into his solar plexus.  He doubled over and went down.

“If I ever see you on the Ponderosa again, I’ll kill you.”

Hoss placed a hand on Joe’s rigid shoulder.  “It’s okay, Joe.  He’s got the message.”

Turning away, Joe stooped to retrieve his hat.  “I’d better get home.”

“You sure Eva’s okay?”

“Yeah, but I need to get back.”

Hoss ran a hand down the sweating and lathered Cochise.  “You better take another horse.  I’ll take care of him for you.”

“Thanks.  I rode him pretty hard.”

Joining them, Adam told Joe, “I’m sorry about Rance.  I hired him, so it’s my fault.”

“Forget it.  It could’ve been any of us.”

Hoss smiled.  Older brother tended towards accepting blame, and it gladdened him to hear Joe dismiss the idea.

A tip of his hat in salute, Joe was gone.  Now they only had to tell Pa.

****

By the time Joe arrived home, dusk had settled its comfortable haze over the landscape.  Joe found Eva waiting for him on their favorite bench.  The light from the open door cast warm shadows over her face, but not enough to mask its pale pallor.

“Where’s Dave and Frank?”

“They’re in the bunkhouse having supper.  Ours is on the stove.”  Eva stood but didn’t approach.  Her large blue eyes searched his face.  Even in the half-light, he could see the worry in them.  “Did you find him?”

“Yeah, he won’t bother you again.  Adam sacked him.”

Relief flitted across her face, but still, she didn’t move.  Her hands twisted into her skirt.  “He told me that if I said anything, he’d say I encouraged him.  I didn’t, Joe, I promise.  I’d never- ”

He crossed the distance between them, cutting her off when he gathered her into his arms.  “I know that.  I’d never believe you would, never.  I love you so much.”

Why had he left without reassuring her?  Their happiness was so intertwined it hurt to know she suffered even a moment’s anguish.  He held her tight feeling her tension slip away.

“Come on.”  Eva smiled.  “Supper will be spoiled if we don’t eat soon.”

Joe kissed the tip of her nose.  “I’ll put the horse away first.”

“That’s okay.  I’ll take care of it for you.”

Empty dinner plates in hand, Frank strolled up.  Eva took the dishes, and Joe thanked him before following his wife into the house.

Snuggled in bed, Joe lay awake long after Eva fell asleep.  Love brought many blessings and responsibilities.  The worry that something might happen to Eva weighed on him.  Born from childish fears, following childhood events, he rationalized he should leave them behind, and hadn’t Eva proved she could take care of herself?  Still, he vowed to assess every new hand in the future.

*****

Chapter Four

 

Adam eased off his horse and stretched to release the ache that plagued his back all morning.  A strong hand shaded his eyes as he evaluated the herd of beef.  They’d have to move them soon.  Grabbing his canteen, he joined his youngest brother squatting under a tree, before enjoying a long drink.

“Can I ask you somethin’?”  Turning to Joe, his mouth full of water, Adam nodded.  “How d’you know if a woman is enjoying … y’know … sex?”

Adam choked, startled by the question.  He wiped his mouth and fixed his brother with a pained expression.  “Don’t you think that’s a question for Pa?”

“Would you ask him?  C’mon, Adam, you know about women.”

“So, do you.  How did you know with Julia?”

The brief, tumultuous affair with Julia Bulette happened before meeting Eva.  He’d loved Julia, enough to marry, and her murder left him heartbroken, but looking back, he was embarrassed at how foolish he’d been.  Julia would never have accepted him.  Marriage to a naïve, barely seventeen-year-old rancher’s son wouldn’t have suited the worldly beauty.  But he’d always remember their time together.

“It was different with Julia.  That woman could do things I’ve never dreamed…”  Joe broke off, his cheeks flushed scarlet.  “Not that I mean … Julia was a real lady.”

“That’s okay.  You forget Hoss, and I, discovered Julia’s Palace before you.  All her girls were ladies and … gifted.  But, y‘know, Tom told me that Julia didn’t take clients anymore.  What you and she shared was different.”

“Thanks.”  Julia’s barman for years, Tom knew her better than anyone.  Joe had known Julia had left that part of her life behind, but it was still good to hear.  He shrugged, pushing off the memories.  “But Eva’s so innocent.  I don’t know what to do.”

Thankfully, older brother didn’t laugh but instead considered the matter.

“Why don’t you talk to Eva and ask her if it’s all okay?”

“D’you think she’d tell me if it wasn’t?”

Adam pulled a face.  He understood Joe’s argument.  It would take a brave wife to tell her husband things fell short in that area.  Married life could be tricky.  “All right.  Then the next time you … make love, try getting her to tell you what she wants.”

Joe’s gaze drifted to the cattle.  Making love was an activity they’d always enjoyed, but since Rance, there’d been a change.  He fretted the attack prayed on Eva’s mind, and needing advice he turned to Adam.   He thought on that advice now and judging it sound, smiled.  “Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

*****

Joe slipped into bed next to his wife.  The soft light of the turned-down lamp made her skin glow, and the shadows lengthened her lashes even further.  His eyes shone with admiration and longing.  The back of his fingers brushed down one cheek, and her eyes opened.

“Have I told you how much I love you?”

Her lips curved in response to his crooned words.  “Often but tell me anyway.”

He leaned in and imparted a tender kiss.  Eva shifted her body closer, deepening the kiss.  Joe broke it to pull off his nightshirt.  When she loosened the ribbon on hers, letting it slide from her shoulders, a thrill curled his stomach.  Now bare flesh touched bare flesh.  Adam’s words came back to him.  He swept aside the wayward hairs from Eva’s face, “What do you want me to do?”

“What?”

Love filled his voice, turning it rich and warm.  “Tonight, I want you to guide me.  I won’t do anything unless you tell me.”

“Oh, I can’t.”

He traced soft circles on her neck.  “Sure, you can.  I’m here to please you.”  Now his fingertips glided down her arm and back again.  “Tell me,” he encouraged.

Her mouth quivered when she whispered the timid requests into his ear, but boldness grew with their passion.  Feather-light, his lips and hands never lost contact with her skin, and when she hesitated, he urged her on with tender words.  The sweat and heat from her body seared through his, bringing his own desires to pulsating readiness.  Entreated to take her, they moved in one harmonious, raucous crescendo.  She cried out his name, once, twice, more, as he brought them to a shattering climax, and they collapsed breathless and sated.

Eva placed her head on his shoulder and stroked his moist, shimmering chest.  “That was wonderful.”

“Next time, it’ll be even better.”

She giggled at his boast.  Her reserve vanished, Joe lay back and made a mental note to thank Adam.  They fell asleep in each other’s arms, and three months later, Joe and Eva announced she was with child.

*****

Chapter Five

 

Joe tucked the mail into his jacket and grinned.  He’d hoped to run into his brothers and there they were.

“You’re invited to lunch on Sunday.”  Instead of getting the response he’d expected, Hoss ducked his head and shuffled his feet, and Adam closed his eyes.  “What’s going on?”

“Will it be just us there?” Adam asked.

So that was it, Eva’s recent endeavors at matchmaking were catching up with her.  He scratched the back of his head.  “Erm … I’m not sure… ”

“Aww, Joe.  I can’t meet another gal.  That last one never stopped talking.”

“At least she could talk.  Mine never said a word except ‘Yes, Adam,’ and ‘No, Adam.’”

“An’ I heard Eva’s been talking to Mildred Pearson.”

“It ain’t that bad.  There must’ve been a couple you liked.  Couldn’t you give it one more go?”  The two crossed their arms.  Joe begged, then rolled his eyes when that failed to move them.  “Okay.  I’ll talk to her.”

Adam laid one palm over his chest.  “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

*****

Eva tore open the letter Joe handed her and spread the single sheet.  “It’s from Pa.”

“What does he say?”

“Congratulations on the pregnancy.”  Joe grinned and went to get a coffee allowing Eva to enjoy her letter.  “Joe!  Pa’s gotten married to Mrs. White.  He sold to her for years.  We always stayed at her boarding house when we passed through Oakland.  She was kind to me.  I always suspected she had a soft spot for him.”

“Good for Thomas.”

“He says he’s given up travelling.  They’ve sold the boarding house and bought a little store.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“I hope he’ll be happy.  Although, I’ve not forgiven him for making us wait.”

“Oh, Joe.  We’d only known each other two weeks when you proposed.  Besides, he wanted me to turn sixteen before I married.”

“Yeah, but that was the longest two months of my life.”

Eva tucked the letter in her apron. Moving behind Joe, she slipped her arms around his neck.  “I think it was worth the wait.”

Turning, he planted a kiss on Eva’s curved lips.  “Me too.”

“Speaking of marriages.  Did you invite Adam and Hoss to lunch?”

“Yes.”  Eva had worked hard on her mission, presenting several single ladies to his mule-headed brothers, but he’d promised them.  He caught her hands between his.  “They won’t come if you keep matchmaking.”

“Don’t they want to be married?”

“They’re grown men and want to pick their own wives.”

“I was only trying to help.  I thought it would be nice to have everyone married.”  Eva ran a hand over her small bump.  “I had such dreams.  The families visiting back and forth.  All us wives getting together.  The children playing.  It would be so lovely.”

Joe pulled her onto his lap.  “I know, sweetheart, and you tried.  But these things have gotta happen natural.  By the way, you weren’t really thinking of Mildred Parsons?”

“But she’s perfect for Adam.  She reads poetry, plays the pianoforte, and talks about things I don’t understand… ”

“And is po-faced.”

“All right.  No more matchmaking.  Besides, you’re right about Mildred.  She’s such a bore.”

Joe burst into laughter.

*****

Chapter Six

 

The knocker pounding startled Ben out of his doze.  He glanced at the big clock and frowned.  Who could be calling at this hour?  He opened the door and staggered back when a flurry of skirts, coat, carpet bag, and hair hit him.

“Oh, Ben!  He hates me … what do I do?”

Ben looked down at his daughter-in-law’s askew bonnet.  “Eva, what’s happened?”

Sobs wracked into his chest when she wailed, “I’ve run away!”

Over the top of her head, Ben’s stunned gaze met his two older sons standing at the top of the stairs.  With jerks and grimaces, he indicated they assist.  To his horror, instead of heeding his call, they exchanged a ‘let’s get out of here’ look and began to retreat.

“Get down here, you two!” he hissed.  “Eva.  Come sit by the fire.”

Eva sniffed and wiped a dripping nose, her cheeks turning pink in the heat.  “He was mean to me.  I … I left.”

Hoss exclaimed, “You didn’t ride all that way in your condition?”

Her curls bounced when Eva nodded.

“Eva, you shouldn’t have done that.”  Ben regretted his words when her tears fell again.

“Please don’t be mad at me too.”

He reached for her freezing hands and began to chafe them.  “No, my dear, I’m not.  Adam, fetch Eva a glass of brandy.”  He held back on his questions until she sipped the amber liquid.  “What happened?”

“I’m trying my best.  I am.  I just can’t cook with the stove.  With all the travelling I never learned.  I didn’t mean to burn the stew… ”  She broke off, and the three men watched in pained silence while she tried to control her trembling bottom lip.  “He arrived home horrible and cross, and I made it worse.”

Ben flicked a glance at Adam and Hoss.  The afternoon spent up to their knees in ice-cold mud, freeing stuck cattle from a water hole, their tempers had been as filthy as they were when they’d returned.

Hoss leaned forward and patted Eva’s knee.  “It weren’t a good day, that’s true.”

“I know, and a wife should be able to put a decent meal on the table.  But he was mean and … and told me the food tasted awful.  Then he ran out of the house, leaving me alone.  I didn’t want to stay.”  Eva burst into fresh tears.  “I … I packed my bag and came here.”

“Why that dadburned, Joe.  How could he do that, and you carrying a baby an’ all?”

Ben shot Hoss a cautioning look.  Coming between a man and his wife was never a good idea, and Eva being his daughter-in-law added to the jeopardy.  “I’m sure he didn’t mean to upset you.  I don’t think you should’ve left like that, my dear.  Joe will be worried when he returns and finds you gone.”

Eva’s voice quivered, but Ben caught the hope in the question.  “He will?”

“He loves you, Eva.”

“I always thought he did.”

Adam handed his sister-in-law a clean handkerchief.  “The two things we know for sure about little brother is how much he loves you, and he has a temper.  I expect he’s kicking himself already for what happened.”

“You … you think so?”

“I do.”

A watery smile flickered over her face, but then she sat up straight and pouted.  “He shouldn’t have been horrid.  I’m very cross with him.”

The three men exchanged anguished looks at this startling change of demeanor.  Dealing with pregnant women was never easy.  Their heads snapped around when the front door crashed open and slammed shut again.  Joe, pale, wild-eyed, and disheveled stood before them.

Arriving home in the foulest mood, the supper placed before him did nothing to soothe his temper and he’d let it blow.

“What’s this?”

“It burned.  I’m sorry.”

“Can’t I at least expect an edible meal after a hard day?”

“I did my best.”

“I’m gonna starve to death at this rate.”

The unkind and petty words horrified him.  Ashamed of himself, he’d snatched up hat and coat, intending to walk off his bad mood.  Ready to apologize, he returned to an empty house.  Flinging his coat back on, Joe raced to the big house.  Throughout the frantic ride, he cursed himself and prayed she’d gone there.  The relief almost buckled his knees.

Adam and Hoss, having the good sense to move out of the way, allowed Joe to drop on the sofa and pull Eva into a fierce hug.  Eyes shining with emotion that threatened to overwhelm him closed, and he pressed one frozen cheek to hers.  “I was so afraid…  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean what I said.  Please forgive me.”

Arms thrown around him, Eva sobbed into his chest.

Canting his head to indicate they leave the young couple alone, Ben and Adam disappeared into the kitchen to make coffee and sandwiches, while Hoss slipped out to take care of the horses.  They returned to find Eva cuddled in her husband’s embrace.

“We’ve made you something to eat.”

“Thanks, Pa, but I think we ought to get home.”

“It’s too late for that.”  Seeing Joe about to protest, Ben insisted, “It’s too cold for Eva to be out in her condition.”

Joe gave in, and, after devouring the food, they all retired to bed.

*****

Joining his father at the dining table, Joe slipped into his old place.

“How’s Eva?”

“A little tired.  I’ve left her to sleep.  Where’s Adam and Hoss?”

“They’ve already gone into Virginia City for the supply run.”

Joe fiddled with his napkin.  “Look, I’m sorry about last night.  I shouldn’t have spoken to Eva that way.”

“It’s okay.  Married couples fight.”

“But this wasn’t a fight.  We’ve had enough of those lately for me to know the difference.”

Ben looked at his son with surprise.  Unaware of any trouble the old worry, they’re too young, flashed across his mind.

“Seems like everything upsets her, and if she’s not yelling at me, she starts to cry.  I don’t know what’s the matter.”  Ben’s worry melted at Joe’s words, but his eyebrows raised in surprise at his ignorance.  Joe paused.  “What?”

“She’s with child.  Women often get tetchy in the early months of pregnancy.”

“They do?”  Ben smiled at the rise in pitch in Joe’s voice.  “But … it goes away, right?”

“Yes, most of the time, but there are times when it doesn’t.”

When Joe’s mouth dropped open, Ben gave him a sympathetic smile.  “Most of the time, it passes, but last night wasn’t one of these fights?”

“No.  My temper was foul, and I got mean.  But, Pa, I swear, it wasn’t enough to make her run away like she did.”

“It was an overreaction, again, because of her condition.  She just got a little scared.  Eva’s still young.  It’s a pity her mother isn’t alive.  A girl needs women around at a time like this.  She’s only got us men.”  Seeing the concern in Joe’s face, Ben patted his arm.  “I’m not saying you can’t argue or ever be in a bad mood.  That’s too much to ask.  Just keep in mind she’s sensitive right now.”

“I will.  Thanks.”

The conversation sunk in deep.  Eva was alone without female companionship and that troubled Joe.  Their nearest neighbors, and Virginia City, were a two-hour ride away, and Eva wouldn’t be doing any more horseback riding, not if Joe had his way.  He still shuddered at what could have happened during her ride to the main house.  There had to be a solution.

*****

Seated at the table under the porch, Ben smiled to see his daughter-in-law sweep around the barn and pull up in a buggy.

“What d’you think?” She entreated and swept a hand to show off the conveyance.  “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Ben set aside his letter and strolled over.  Her delight made him grin.  “It’s sure smart.”

“Joe gave it to me.  Now I can visit you, Virginia City, or our neighbors whenever I wish.  I’m on my way to Mrs. Neilson’s.  She’s teaching me to make preserves, but I wanted to show you my present first.”

“You mean you’re not going to stay?”

“I’d love to, but I promised to be there today.  Maybe I could come over tomorrow?”

“That sounds fine.  You have a good time now.”

Eva bowled away, leaving Ben to chuckle at her childlike enthusiasm.

Lunchtime brought all his sons through the door.  Hoss thumbed behind him at Joe.  “Look who’s gracing us for lunch.”

“You’re only complaining because it means less for you,” Adam quipped.

Joe laughed and dodged the playful punch Hoss threw in retaliation.

Around the dining table, Ben mentioned Eva’s visit.  “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone that pleased.”

“Say, where’d you get that buggy from anyways?”

Joe’s eyes twinkled back at Hoss.  “Tuck Walters mentioned he’s ordered a brand spanking new buggy for ol’ man Garvey’s wife.  I bought the old one.  It only needed a cleanup, a couple of new springs, and brake shoes.  I talked Garvey’s stable manager down to twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars?  I thought you were saving to buy one of them new Henry rifles?”

A flush tinged Joe’s cheeks.  “Yeah, but … this was more important.”

About to tell Joe he would’ve given him the money, Ben bit back the words.  At seventeen, his son had all the pride of a burgeoning man.  Being able to buy the buggy for his wife meant the world to him.  The fact he’d sacrificed the rifle he’d set his heart on, gave Ben more proof his youngest was maturing into a fine man.  He smiled and enjoyed the moment.

*****

Chapter Seven

 

The rising sun heralded a bright new day.  But next to him his wife tossed and grumbled.  “Are you okay?”

“No!  I can’t get comfortable.  The heat is stifling, I’m the size of a barn, and I look hideous.”

“Sweetheart, you’re beautiful.”

“Don’t lie.”

“You’ve never looked lovelier.”

“How can you say that when I’m this big?”

He ran a hand over her bump and leaned over to kiss her.  “Because this is our baby, and I love you.”

*****

“What the heck?”  His heavily pregnant wife stood across the yard beating a rug she must have dragged out and hung over the washing line.  Dropping the harness, he ran to her.  “Are you crazy?  Give me that.”

The carpet beater removed from her hands, Eva demanded, “What?”

“You’re nine months pregnant!  You shouldn’t be doing this.”

“I’m pregnant, not an invalid.”  Eva huffed, and marched back to the house.  Determined to make her see sense, he followed.

“That was a foolish- ”  Joe broke off.  Eva leaned on the bed.  “Did you hurt yourself?”

“No.  It’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“For heaven sake!  The baby!  My water broke.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure.  Are you just gonna stand there?”

Joe stumbled for the door.  “I’ll…I’ll send for the doc and midwife.”

Returning to the house, he found Eva preparing the bed.

“Let me do that.”

“I can do it.  You go make sure there’s plenty of wood to boil water with later.”

When he returned, Eva paced the floor, one hand pressed to her back.  “Why don’t you sit down?”

“I don’t need to sit.”

“You might be more comfortable… ” he began, and then backed away at her ferocious glare.

“Who’s having this baby?”

“Sorry.”

Eva stopped her pacing.  “No, I am.  But this is my first birth.”

“Mine too.”

“Really?  I don’t see you having any pains.”

Joe laughed.  Three hours later, he wasn’t laughing.

“Why don’t I ride out an’ see if I can find the doc?”

“Don’t you dare leave me alone!”

Joe cursed his stupidity.  Struck by another contraction, Eva leaned into the footboard.  Feeling like a fool, Joe hovered until it was over.  “Would you like a drink?”

“Do I look like I want a drink?  All I want is to have this baby.”

“It won’t be long.”

“How do you know?  Have you ever given birth?”

“I wish I could do something.”

“I think you’ve done enough already!”

Another hour had gone by and still no sign of help.  Joe wiped his top lip and glanced at the door.  Eva’s pains were coming closer together, and nerves were taking hold.

“They’re not coming,” Eva exclaimed.  “You’ll have to help me change, to be ready.”

“Of course, but they’ll be here.  Don’t worry.”

“How can I not worry?  I’m having a baby!”

The knock saved him from answering.  Yanking open the door he gasped in relief.  Mrs. Wilson, the midwife, bustled in.  Joe looked passed her out the door.  “No doc?”

“He’ll be along.”  At the door to the bedroom, he was stopped.  “That’ll do, Mr. Cartwright.  You can wait outside.”

The door closed in his face.

Time slowed.  About to give up on the doctor, he arrived.  He received Paul’s hand and reassuring pat, but still found himself on the wrong side of the door.

The sounds sent him outside.  Birth was miraculous but violent and hearing his beloved Eva’s suffering was more than he could take.  Joe remembered back to another delivery he and Hoss assisted with.  He’d been terrified, but throughout, Hoss’ solid presence had kept him calm.  How he wished big brother was here.  As if answering his prayer, he spotted three riders, not just Hoss, but Pa, and Adam.

“How’s it going, son?”

“Good, I think.  Thanks for coming.  Take a seat.  I’ll make coffee.”

Joe brought the coffee back outside, and they settled in to wait.

The high-pitched wail of the babe sent Joe into the house.  The bedroom door opened.  Joe stared at the swaddled bundle Mrs. Wilson carried and held his breath.

“You have a healthy baby girl.”

“Eva?”

“Mother is doing fine.”

Joe took his child and marveled at the tiny creature that was a part of him.  He turned to the three men who’d raised him.

“I have a daughter.”

“Congratulations.”

Joe looked into his father’s eyes.  He understood what this moment meant.  Even better, was being able to share it with him.  “Meet your granddaughter.”

Joe placed his father’s first grandchild in his arms.

“Hello, little one.  She’s beautiful, Joe.”  He raised his eyes, and Joe saw the emotion glistening in them.  “I’m proud of you.”

Swallowing over the lump in his throat, Joe joked, “I think Eva did most of the work.”

They all laughed.  Joe grinned back, basking in the joy, and floating in the euphoria of the moment.  Eva had come through the birth safe and well, and he was a father.

*****

Joe meandered onto the porch and settled into the big wicker chair.  The baby in his arms might be almost two months old, but awe still lingered whenever he looked at her.  Humbled to know this helpless life relied on him, every tiny toe and finger amazed.  The depth of love little Ellen engendered, almost scared him, but holding her made him happier than he’d ever been.

When the buckskin horse rode up, Joe grinned.  Another visit from Pa.  They’d become quite a habit.

“Hi, Joe.  I’ve brought over the dried herbs Eva wanted.”

Joe recognized an excuse.  Pa didn’t need one to visit and told him so.  His smile told his appreciation, and it broadened when Joe handed over Ellen.

“Where’s Eva?” Ben asked, following his son inside the house.

“At a meeting of the Virginia City Women’s group she joined.  She says it’s her duty to take a role in society.”

“Good for her.”

“You might not think so when you’re being chased for a donation for whatever cause they’re championing.”

“If it’s worthwhile, why would I mind?”

Joe gave him a wicked smirk.  “I’ll let her know.”

Having made coffee, the two men moved back to the porch.  Still cradling his granddaughter, Ben took the bench, and Joe plopped down again in the wicker seat next to him, stretching out his legs in lazy pleasure.

Harmonious silence descended.  A soft breeze stirred the leaves of the Aspens and whispered through the pines.  Ben smiled and recalled tales he’d told about the wind talking to the trees.  Silly nonsense, but Joe enjoyed them.  He tickled Ellen’s cheek and imagined the stories he’d weave for her.

“Y’know, your brothers already got his eye out for a filly colt to raise for this young lady.”

Joe chortled.  No need to ask which brother.  It could only be Hoss.  He leaned back in his chair and let the stillness and peace of the moment sink in.  A slow smile bloomed at the look on his father’s face.  The knowledge he’d put that happiness there set him tingling with pride and joy.  His father’s hands cradled his daughter, still strong, but gentle.  They’d held him the same way once.  His eyes crinkled at the edges when his smile deepened, watching how Pa caressed Ellen’s cheek.  Becoming a father gave him a new perspective, and Joe looked on this man with fresh eyes, and a deeper level of respect.  He finally understood Pa’s anxiety and need to protect them.

“How’d you do it?  Bring up the three of us alone?”

The question took his father by surprise, and he considered before answering, “You do what you have to do.”

“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d lost Eva and had to raise Ellen by myself.  I don’t know that I could… ”

“You can do anything you set your mind to.  But let’s be thankful Eva is fine.”

“Yeah, I am.”  Joe took a breath.  He wouldn’t admit this to anyone other than Pa.  “I love being a father, but it’s sure scary too.”

“I know.”  Ben gave a soft chuckle.  “It’s the biggest, greatest adventure you’ll ever have, and will last you a lifetime.”

Joe laughed, and Ben smiled at the joyful sound.  He remembered when Joe was a boy.  The most headstrong and willful of his children.  A bundle of excitable, unstoppable energy from the moment of his birth, he wondered if God hadn’t given him Joe to teach him not to be complacent.  “Here you are, Cartwright.  This one will keep you on your toes.”  A smirk crept over Ben.  This boy had done that all right.  Yet here he sat, the first of his sons to marry and become a husband and father.  “You’ll do fine, son.”

*****

Chapter Eight

 

Joe slammed his fist down on the desk.  “You can’t do this!”

“Joseph, I can do anything I want.”

“I’m part of the Ponderosa too.  How can you stop me going on the drive?”

“Because you have responsibilities at home.  We’ll be gone for two weeks.  Do you want to leave Eva and Ellen alone that long?”

Joe flung away from the desk and ran a hand through his hair and around his neck.  How could Pa ask him that?  “She’s a rancher’s wife, she understands it’s part of my job.”

“True, but you’re fortunate.  You have a choice.”

“Do I?”

His father’s pencil flew across the desk, and he marched over to him.  “Listen to me, young man.  Your brothers and I are capable of taking care of the drive, and you’ll have plenty to do while we’re gone.”  Joe heaved in a breath to protest, but his father’s upheld hand stopped him.  “Important jobs that need supervision.  I’m not saying you’ll never come on another drive, but for now, Eva and Ellen need you more.”

“Would you do the same to Adam or Hoss?”

“Yes.  Having a family requires adjustments and sacrifice.”  A hand found Joe’s shoulder.  “Ellen’s my first grandchild.  I want to know she’s safe while I’m away on the drive.  Can you blame me?”

It was the chink in his armor, and Pa knew it.  Joe gave in.

****

The sound and smells stirred Joe’s blood as he watched the eight hundred head of cattle strung out across the valley.  The adventure and risk dangled their inevitable lure but, resigned, he turned his back.

Three days passed, and Joe’s moodiness deepened.  The irrational side of his mind railed against Pa’s decision.  He had a wife and child, yet Pa treated him like a kid.  He argued with himself that Adam, or even Hoss, wouldn’t have been dismissed so easily.  To make his grievance worse the ‘important jobs’ left for him were boring ranch chores.  Joe lashed out in his anger and humiliation.  The hands avoided him, but Eva didn’t have that option.

After another supper with Joe brooding over his plate, her patience ran out.

“What’s eating you?”

“Nothin’.  I’m fine.”

“You better change that tone if you want me to believe that.”

“I said.  I’m fine.”

“Is it the drive?  I thought you agreed with that decision.”

“It’s not that.  Just drop it.”

“How can I, when you’re like this?”

Joe ripped his huck of bread in half.  “I’m sorry if I’m such poor company.”

“Thank you.  I might be grateful if I believed a word.”

Joe slammed his napkin down and left the house.  A few minutes later, Eva followed.  He ducked his head and looked away, his insides curling into a tight ball.  She slipped in close and rested her head on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry.  I’m behaving like a jackass.”

Her slim hand encircled his.  “Yep.”

He laughed, but shrugged.  “I guess I’m feeling sorry for myself.”

“Because of the drive?”

“Yeah, and no … I dunno.  Pa, ordering me to stay.  I’m a man, not a kid.”

“Ben knows that.  It’s just … he’s a father too and cares about us.  I’m not sorry he made you stay.  I want my strong, fearless husband at home.”

He pulled her close, letting her physical presence calm him, and the warm smell of lavender fill his nostrils.  “Why should I miss that dusty drive, if it means I can spend more time with my beautiful wife?”

She laughed.  Her warm breath danced on his skin and sent quivers through his stomach.  He nuzzled his chin into her hair, allowing the perfume to soak deeper into him.

“I understand.  You wanted to make the decision.”

Joe’s hug tightened.  Finding this woman was the luckiest day of his life.  Tilting her chin up, he smiled down into those glorious eyes.  “I love you so much.”

“Good.  It’s cold, let’s go warm up inside.”

Joe grinned, hoping she had the same idea how to do that.

*****

Chapter Nine

 

Joe scratched his head, rolled out of bed, and followed the smell of coffee and bacon to the kitchen.

“Morning.  You’re up early.”

Eva gave him a tight smile.  “I couldn’t sleep.  Coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

When Eva turned with the coffee pot, she staggered.  At her side, Joe took the hot container to place it down.  Eased into a chair, he crouched in front.  Two spots of color flushed her cheeks.

“I’m fine.  I got a little dizzy, that’s all.”

“I think we should get the doctor.”

“Oh, hush.  One silly giddy spell.  It’s nothing.”

“Eva… ”

“I mean it, don’t fuss.”

Joe bit his lip and looked into Eva’s stubborn eyes.  “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” she lied.  “Stop fussing and eat your breakfast.”

The rest of the meal passed without incident, and Eva’s color returned to normal.  Reassured, Joe headed for the barn to saddle Cochise.  He’d planned to spend the morning checking fences but his sixth sense prickled.  Hoss had long taught him that you ignored such things at your peril.  Yielding to it, he gave Cooch a pat and headed for the woodpile that needed building before the first snows came.

Spotting the approaching rider, Joe lay down his saw, wiped his brow and reached for the gunbelt he’d removed along with his jacket.  Dressed in a smart black coat and Derby hat, the man was a stranger.  Joe could see he didn’t carry a gun, and he recognized the type of black bag hanging from his saddle.

“Good day to you, young man.  Can you tell me, am I on the Ponderosa?”

In his late forties, with a thick German accent, neat beard, and moustache, he looked friendly enough.

“Yessir.  If you’re looking for the main house, it’s another hour and a half that way, but Pa’s away on a cattle drive.  Can I help?  I’m Joseph Cartwright.”

“I’m Doctor Otto Fromm.  I’m covering Dr Martin’s practice while he is away in San Francisco.”

“Hi, Doc.  Step down and come in for coffee.”  Around the kitchen table, Joe enquired, “What brings you out here?”

“I am letting people know there are cases of Typhus in the area.”

“Typhus?  Where, who?”

“A few miners and one of your neighbors.  Mrs. Nielson and her children.”

Eva dropped into a chair.  “Kristine?  Oh, no.”

Joe frowned.  “Weren’t you over there recently?”

“Yes.  I took her some preserves last week.  She … she was feeling under the weather.  Oh, Joe.  I took Ellen with me.  She played with the children.”

“There is no need to panic, Mrs. Cartwright.  Typhus is not contagious.  You need to be exposed to the fleas and ticks that transport the contagion.”

Eva drew a breath at the doctor’s calm, precise words, but the spots of color back on her cheeks sent a jolt of disquiet through Joe.  “Doc, Eva had a dizzy spell this morning.  Do you think…?”

“If you will permit me to examine Mrs. Cartwright, and the child, we will soon know more.”

Watching the doctor’s keen, intelligent grey eyes scan Eva’s face the tightness in Joe’s chest eased.

“I’m fine.  I’d prefer you looked at Ellen.”

With an air that reminded Joe of his father, Dr. Fromm took Eva’s elbow and guided her across the room.  “Yes, yes.  This I will do, but first, let me look at you.  Let us go to your bedroom.”

Joe was left to pace the room until the doctor returned.  He carried Ellen with him and handed her off to Joe.

“The child is fine, but your wife has typhus.”

“My God.  What do I do?”

“Firstly, stay calm.  We have caught the illness early, and this is excellent.  Come sit down and listen.”

Like he’d done with his wife, the doctor guided him over to his big chair by the fire.

“All right, Doc.  I’m listening.”

“Your wife’s fever will get worse.  There will be headaches and nausea.  I have experience with this illness.  My treatment is not what you are used to, but, believe me, it has high recovery results.  I will give you explicit instructions and ask you to follow my methods to the letter.  Will you do that?”

“Yes, anything.”

“Good.  I will leave the medicine you must give your wife in some tea, every hour.  Fresh air is essential.  Keep the window open at all times.”

“But Doc, it’s cold at night.”

“Excellent, cold is most beneficial.  Do you have anyone who can look after the child?  You will be busy.”

His thoughts flew to his family, the need for them an ache.  He pushed that aside.  “Yeah.”

“Good.  I will leave you the medicine and explain what is to be done.  Rest assured I will come again tomorrow.”

He opened the bedroom door, and Eva turned to look at him.  “What have I done?  What if Ellen gets sick?”

“Ellen’s fine as frog’s hair.”

“But what if… ?”

“No but’s.  Ellen will be fine.  Frank’s fetching Hop Sing, and he’ll take good care of her while I concentrate on you.  How’re you feeling?”

“I have a headache.”  Eva threw herself against him and clung tight.  “I’m scared.  I don’t wanna die.”

“Don’t think like that.  You’re gonna be fine.  The doc told me his treatment works, and you’re gonna get better.”  Her tears spilled, wetting his cheek.  “I won’t let anything happen to you.  I promise.”

*****

Chapter Ten

 

“I send telegraph to Mr. Ben in Sacramento.  He’d want to know Missy Eva sick.”

Joe scowled and scrubbed a hand over his face.  Sleep had become a distant dream in the five hideous days since Eva took ill.  Having used every sheet in the house, he’d sent Frank to borrow fresh ones.  He might have known Hop Sing would bring them himself and badger him about wiring Pa.

Forcing his dulled brain to calculate, Joe shook the idea aside.  It was ten days since they’d left, although it seemed like weeks.  They would reach Sacramento in a few more, and although he wished for them, the last thing he wanted was to create panic and a mad dash home.  Besides, Eva would be better soon.

“There’s no need to worry them.”  Hop Sing huffed at his decision and stomped back to the wagon with the bag of dirty laundry he’d insisted on taking. Seeing his friend’s intention to leave, Joe called after him, “How’s Ellen?”

“Missy Ellen well.  Hop Sing take good care of her.  You no worry.”

Joe raised a hand in thanks before returning to the house.

The treatment Dr. Fromm prescribed unnerved Joe.  The open window and drop in nighttime temperature meant that Eva’s room resembled an icehouse, but the doctor insisted this was just the ticket.  Not that the cold bothered her.  If the pile of blankets didn’t keep her warm, the fever would.

Fear and fatigue, Joe’s constant companions, his one positive light was the doctor.  His visits reassured him he was doing well, and the illness progressed as it should, but the fear of losing her pressed on him.

A husband and father should be strong.  He’d remind himself.  But at three in the morning watching Eva struggle to breathe his optimism wavered.

“I love you, Eva.  I love you so much.  You hold on and keep fighting.  You hav’ta come back to me because I can’t live without you.  Y’hear me, Eva?”  He grabbed her hand and pressed the hot fingers to his lips.  “Please, Eva, please fight.  For me.”

Joe thought of his father and how he’d seen him and his brothers through fevers and injuries.  His shoulders straightened, drawing on the strength this gave him.

*****

The three men regarded the beers before them with pleasure and relief.

Adam let out a fervent wish, “That’s one drive I don’t want to repeat.”

Ben agreed.  The warm September weather had ended with an early snowfall.  Overnight, the temperature dropped thirty degrees, and the last four days were spent in freezing misery.  Never had they been gladder to see Sacramento.

Hoss blew out a breath.  “Yeah, Joe sure didn’t miss nothin’.”

“And to think he was so cantankerous over being told to remain behind.”

Over his beer glass, Adam’s cool gaze rested on his father.  “Can you blame him?”

“Meaning?”

“Well, you said it yourself.  You told him to stay.”

“Do you think I was wrong?”

“No.  Joe needed to be with his family.   But he’s almost nineteen, a husband, and a father, don’t you think you should’ve allowed him to reach that decision by himself?”

Ben paused over his beer, and his brows drew together.

“Adam’s right, Pa.  Joe would’ve come around to agreeing with you but, ordering him?  Kinda treated him like a kid.”

“I see.  Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Adam raised an eyebrow.  “We weren’t exactly given the opportunity.”

Ben stared down into his beer.  “I didn’t give him a chance to decide for himself, did I?”  The two each pulled a face.  He got up to fetch another round of beers, adding,  “I owe your brother an apology.”

Soon as their father was out of earshot, Hoss turned on Adam.  “What did you hav’ta say that for?”

“What?”

“About Joe.  Now Pa’s gonna start frettin’.”

“You agreed with me!”

“I didn’t have much choice.  I was gonna mention it, but not until after our little holiday.  Now, you can bet your bottom dollar, he’ll will wanna head home right away.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  Why would he do that?”

“Dadgummit, Adam.  You know Pa.  Iffin he thinks he ain’t treated us fair, he’ll wanna put it right straight away, and you can be dang sure that’s what’ll happen now.”

Adam shifted in his chair and looked over at his father.  Hoss was wrong.  He had to be, or by the look on his face, he was dead meat.

Ben leaned on the bar and looked back through the crowded, noisy saloon at his son’s.  When did he become the kind of father who forgot any of them were grown men?  He pictured Joe’s face, his exasperation and … hurt.  He pondered the wrong he’d perpetrated.  Adam and Hoss had been promised a break.  Well, they could still enjoy one.

Ben’s return with the beers coincided with the arrival of their meals, and the three hungry men tucked into their steaks.  Once they finished, he proposed, “I think I might start back tomorrow after all.”

“But, we were gonna have a bit of a holiday, remember?”

“I know, Hoss, and I said, I’d start back.  There’s no reason why you two should leave.  I prefer to get home sooner.  I feel bad about your brother, and I’d like to clear the air.”

Avoiding Hoss’ glare, Adam attempted a last-ditch effort to save himself.  “You don’t think it can wait a few days?”

“I’d rather not, but you deserve your break.  Stay, and I’ll head back.”

The brothers exchanged looks.  Both reading in the other’s eyes that choice wasn’t an option.

“No, if you’re going, we’ll come too.”  Adam caught Hoss’ eyes again and mouthed the word, “Sorry.”  The pursed lips and unhappy glower told him he would owe Hoss, big time.

*****

Chapter Eleven

 

Joe woke with a start.  Checking Eva, he cursed his weakness while he changed the warm compress.  He’d even let the lamp die, although he didn’t need light to know the fever in his wife still raged.  The dark pressed in on him, mocking his hope.

He staggered to the kitchen.  Waiting for the coffee to brew, he trimmed the wick.  Slumped at the table, he took a sip and cursed again when the bitter brew burned his lip.  His shadow-rimmed eyes stared at the milk jug.  He preferred black coffee, but the milk would cool it quicker.  His lips curved into a smile, remembering the day he’d picked out their milk cow.

“Make sure you pick the prettiest one for me.”

Halted in his process of mounting, Joe took his foot out of Cochise’s stirrup and looked back.  Hands wrapped around the post to hold her stable, Eva leaned off the porch toward him.  The sun caught the gold in her hair, making it shimmer.

“The prettiest?”

“Yes.  The prettiest, and sweetest.”  She pulled herself upright and rested back against the post in coquettish playfulness.  “You do know how to pick out the prettiest?”

He caught her up and with the lightest of touches ran a thumb over one eye.  His voice dropped to a soft, sensuous note, “I would look for the one with the longest lashes.”  Hers shivered under his thumb.  “With the cutest nose.”  He traced down her nose and around the curve of her lips.  “And the fullest lips.”  He grinned at the responsive quiver to his kiss.  “Is that good enough?”

“Of course.  Thank you.” 

The twinkle in her eyes was at odds with the submissive words.  It made his skin tingle.  He kissed her again. 

“I do love you.” 

He gave one final kiss, then leapt from the porch and swung onto Cochise.

“Hurry back now.” Seduction dripped from every word.  Never had Joe wanted to get back home so bad before he’d even left.

He jerked awake.  How could he have fallen asleep again?  He moaned, finding his coffee almost cold and sprang from the chair to run back into the bedroom.  He halted at the door.

The room echoed still and quiet.  No cloud of breaths hung in the air.  The person on the bed lay motionless.  A wave of terror rolled off him so hard he almost went with it to the floor.  He reached the bed and encircled the immobile, peaceful face with hands that shook.

“Eva?”  Tears formed when she didn’t stir.  Her skin, cold to Joe’s touch chilled his heart.  A tear spilled, to trickle down his cheek.  He almost didn’t hear the sigh floating up soft like whispers of silk on skin.  A flutter of lashes and the eyes opened.  He gazed again into their miraculous blue depths.  “Eva…”

“Hello, you.”

A sound close to a sob escaped him.  He pressed her hand to his lips, giving himself a moment to recover.  “How do you feel?”

“Terrible.  Did you run me over with the buckboard?”  He laughed and removed the cloth to plant a kiss on her forehead instead.  “How’s Ellen?”

“She’s fine.  Hop Sing’s looking after her, I expect she’s been spoilt rotten.”

“I’ll get up in the morning.”

“Oh no, you won’t.  You stay put.  You’ve a lot of recovering to do, and I’ve got it under control.”  Her gurgling laugh flipped his stomach.  Tender fingers were run through her hair, and his gaze shone with warmth and adoration.  “Have I told you how much I love you?”

“Often but tell me anyway.”  Then she asked, “Why’s it so cold in here?”

“What?  Oh … the window.  Doctors’ orders, but I don’t think he’d mind if I closed it now.  Would you like a drink?  Or something to eat?”

“Water?”

Her wish was his command.  Thirst quenched; Eva drifted off to sleep in his arms.  Joe stayed put and held her tight.

*****

Joe grimaced at the dwindled log pile.  He’d never managed to cut more and would need to soon.  Returning to the house with his burden, he stopped on the porch catching sight of someone in the distance.  Expecting the doctor, his eyes narrowed, seeing more than one rider.  A smile spread over his face.  He recognized them before the three hats became visible.  Pa, Adam, and Hoss were back.

He put on a fresh pot of coffee, cracked open the door to check Eva still slept, and ambled back outside to await his family.  Watching them barrel down at a gallop made him grin.  How many times had Pa told him about riding flat out?  But their haste showed their concern and warmed his heart.

Before his animal had even halted, Adam was off and running toward him.

“We heard the news.  How’s Eva?”

“I’m waiting on the doc, but she’s gonna be okay.  Her fever broke last night.”

Three hands clutched his arms.  Pa’s dark eyes scoured his face checking him over.

“And you?”

“I’m okay.  Come on in, I’ve got coffee brewing.”

Settled around the kitchen table, Ben assessed his youngest.  The shadowed eyes and haggard face told him of the trial he’d endured, but he looked happy.  “We arrived back late last night.  It wasn’t until this morning we realized we had Ellen at home, and Hop Sing told us what happened.”

“We came right away.  You’re sure Eva’s okay now?”

Joe dropped a hand on Hoss’ shoulder.  “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.  But I’ll be happier once the doc’s seen her.”

“Why didn’t you wire us in Sacramento?”

Joe pulled a face.  “I didn’t wanna worry you.  You couldn’t have made it back anyways.”

“Well, we’re back now, and we can give you a hand.”

A noise outside sent Joe leaping out of his seat and through the front door.  He greeted Doctor Fromm with enthusiasm telling him the news.  In his usual unflappable manner, the medical man followed Joe into the house.

“Good, good.  This sounds most promising.”

The others waited while the doctor and Joe were in the bedroom.  When they came out, the look on Joe’s face told them the good news.  Joe introduced Doctor Fromm and asked him to join them for breakfast.

“No, thank you, although a cup of coffee would be appreciated.  I had breakfast at the Higgins place.”

“John?” Ben inquired, “Have they got the sickness there too?”

“Yes.  But like Mrs. Cartwright, they are through the worse.”  He turned to Joe.  “Your wife will complain of aching.  This is normal.  In three or four days, she will be well enough to get out of bed.”

Adam asked, “Have there been many cases?”

“Six families, several miners at Gold Hill and at the silver mines, and the travelling salesman whom we found to be the source.”

Joe sat bolt upright at this news.  “What?  How?”

The doctor laid his cup down with delicate precision.  “He had purchased bolts of cloth riddled with fleas from a warehouse in Sacramento.  I asked him about rats, and he told me he’d seen many.  The poor fellow did not know this was a problem.  We burned everything, and I spoke to your Sheriff … erm …”

“Coffee,” Ben supplied.

“Yes, yes.  Sheriff Coffee.  He sent a telegraph to the authorities in Sacramento, and I am hopeful they will deal with the warehouse.”

“Where is he?”  Menace edged Joe’s question.  “The salesman, where is he?”

Doctor Fromm’s soft grey eyes rested their steady gaze on Joe.  “Gone, as soon as he was able to sit up straight.  He thought it best to leave the territory right away.”

“I can’t say I blame him.”

Joe shot a look at Adam, grimaced, and let it go.  Instead, he turned his mind to other matters.  “How’re the Nielson’s, Doc?”

“The children recovered, but I am sad to say Mrs. Nielson died.”

Silence fell in the room, broken by Hoss.  “That’s terrible.  Kirsten gone and Rob left with the young ‘uns.”

Ben shook his head.  “I’ll ride out later.  See what I can do.”

When the doctor got up to leave, Joe walked him out.

“I wanna thank you Doc for all you did.”

The man took Joe’s hand and looked him in the eyes.  “I wish to thank you, Joseph, for following my instructions.  I did not mention it before, but your friend Mr. Nielson refused my treatment at first.  The Typhus was more advanced with his wife, but still, I will never know if that could have made the difference.  We never like to lose a patient, you know.”

His brow furrowed watching the doctor ride away.  The weight of responsibility that rested on his shoulders glimmered.  He didn’t envy him.  The creak of a board let him know someone joined him on the porch.  That familiar hand squeezing his shoulder told him it was Pa.

“I’m glad Eva’s going to be all right.”

“I wanna thank you for making me stay.  If I’d gone on the drive… ”

“It’s me that owes the apology.  I shouldn’t have ordered you.  You’re a grown man, and you’ve the right to make your own decisions.  You would’ve decided to stay.  I should’ve given you that chance.”

Joe leaned on the porch rail, his fingers wound tight around its solid comfort, letting it anchor him with the reassurance the nightmare was over.  The memory of his behavior and keenness to go troubled him.  “I dunno.  Maybe, I would’ve.  I hope so, but if I hadn’t … anyway, I’m thankful, Pa.”

The hand squeezed tighter.  “We all are.”

*****

Two disgruntled older sons glared at each other across the dining table.  Ben glanced from one to the other and braced himself.  The doctor had been correct about Eva, within four days, she was out of bed and heading toward a full recovery – and Joe?  Well, Joe hadn’t left her side for almost two weeks.

“Dadburnit, Pa.  I know Little Joe was worried about Eva, but how long does he need to stay home?  I’m tired of pulling extra hours.”

“Hoss is right.  Eva’s recovered, and he’s part of this ranch.  We need him at work.”

Ben put up a hand to silence them.  “I know.  I’d already planned to ride over to see Joseph later.”

*****

Joe resettled his hat seeing the familiar buckskin approach and grinned to himself.  It surprised him Pa had taken this long.  Lifting wood from the log pile that, in the end, Hoss and Adam replenished for him, he trudged back to the house.

“Hi, Pa.  You’re in time for supper.  Will you join us?”

Pa always enjoyed spending time with them, and supper passed in easy conversation.  But once over, and Eva took Ellen off to bed, Joe saw he was ready to get down to the business that brought him.

“I need to talk to you.”

“That’s okay.  I know I’ve not been pulling my weight.  I promise I’ll be with you bright and early tomorrow morning.”

“Your brother’s will be mighty glad to hear that.”

“Yeah.  Tell ‘em, I’m sorry.  Maybe they won’t be so hard on me.”

“It’s worth a try.”

They both laughed, and Joe topped up the coffee.

Joe watched his father ride away with Eva’s head against his chest and one arm wrapped around her curvaceous form.

“Back to moving the herd tomorrow?”

“Yep.”

“Long days in the saddle and arriving back exhausted?”

“Yep.”

“In that case, perhaps we should make the most of tonight?”  Joe looked down to meet his wife’s enticing eyes.  “While you’ve still got the energy.”

Three months later, the couple announced she was to have another baby.

*****

Chapter Twelve

 

“It’s your gal’s birthday in three days, and you still ain’t got her gift?” Hoss teased.

“I told you.  I have a gift.  I just ain’t picked it up yet.”

“Can you believe that, Adam?  Little brother ain’t got Eva’s present.”

Glaring at Hoss, Joe made a grumbling sound under his breath and then yelped when Adam slapped him hard on the back.

“What’s that you say, fella?  Couldn’t hear ya.  Y’know, wives don’t take kindly to having their birthdays missed, especially when they’re carrying your child.”

Joe yanked off his hat, ran a hand down his face, and grit his teeth.  “I told you.  I’ve got it all under control.”

Hoss nudged Adam.  “Sure, he does.”

“Look-”

“What’s all this?”

Hearing his father behind him, Joe clamped his mouth shut and glowered at his sniggering brothers who would have seen Pa’s approach.

“We’re just talkin’ to little brother here about Eva’s birthday.  He ain’t got her present yet.”

“You haven’t?”

“Oh, c’mon!”

The three laughed, and Ben dropped a hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “Okay, that’s enough you two.  Speaking of Eva’s birthday.  How about a small party?”

“Thanks, but I don’t think Eva will want one, being pregnant an’ all.”

“It will be just us and a good meal.  Eva can put her feet up, enjoy the day, and you can stay overnight.”  The tempting offer too good to turn down, Joe accepted.  “Good.  Now if you need time to find a gift?”

Joe slammed his hat on his head and marched away to swing mount Cochise, turning the animal so sharp it backed onto his heels.  Gritting his teeth at the three laughing men, he snapped, “Very funny,” and rode away.

*****

Laying down his napkin, Joe patted his replete belly.  “Boy, what a feast.”  When their cook appeared on cue, he grinned and declared, “Hop Sing, I rate that your best meal ever.”

Eva concurred, “It was wonderful.  Thank you.”

“Not over yet,” Hop Sing told them, with tantalizing mystery.

Joe raised his eyebrows and looked around the table.  “What did we miss?”

Hop Sing returned to present Eva with a decorated cake.  The triumphant smile on the cook’s face was only beaten by Eva’s.

In the aftermath of the sumptuous meal, they settled around the fireplace.  Silence fell until Hoss slapped his hands together and announced, “Time for presents.”

The gifts turned Eva pink with delight.  A beautiful Paisley shawl from Ben, a fine book of poetry from Adam, and gardening tools from Hoss.

She turned the trowel he’d forged with his hands in her own.  “Hoss, they’re perfect.”

“I know how much you enjoy that garden of yours.”

Joe cleared his throat and pulled out a small package from the inside of his jacket.  “From me.”

Eva ripped off the pink ribbon and paper to reveal a little velveteen box.  Pushing up the lid, she gazed down at the heart-shaped gold locket.  “Oh, Joe… ”

“Open it.”

She pried the locket apart.  Tiny frames sat in each section, one filled by a miniature painting.  Eva’s eyes widened, “It’s Ellen.”

“I snuck her to Mrs. O’Brian’s when she came to Virginia City with me.   Her daughter did the painting.  I’ll get the new baby added later.”

“It’s beautiful.”  Eva threw her arms around Joe.  “Thank you.”

Hoss laughed.  “You sure had me fooled.  I was dang sure you’d forgotten.”

Joe looked into his wife’s eyes.  “Never.”

*****

Chapter Thirteen

 

Ben tutted, watching Joe gallop headlong into the yard and pull Cochise to a skittering halt.  A father and a husband, he should’ve outgrown his tendency to ride like that.

“Morning!”

“Howdy, little brother, how’s Eva?”

“Doin’ fine, big brother.  The doc says she’s due any day.”

Resting a hand on Joe’s knee, Ben told him.  “Y’know, if you want to stay near the house, that’s okay.”

“That’s why I’ve come.  Eva’s getting a little tired these days, and Ellen, well she’s a handful… ”

“Say no more.  Go home, and if you need any help, let us know.”

“I will.  Thanks.”

Gone in a cloud of dust, Ben put his hands on his hips and shook his head.

“You’d think it’d slow him down, having a child and another on the way.”

Ben smiled at Adam, chuckling to have his own thoughts repeated out loud.  Hoss slapped a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Not Little Joe, ain’t nothin’ ever gonna slow him down.”

*****

Joe’s sprawling, single-story house always made Ben smile, but this late July morning, it looked especially charming.

“Ben.  Good to see you.  What brings you here?”

He displayed a large basket to his daughter-in-law.  “I’ve brought some of Hop Sing’s preserves.  Where’s Joe?”

“He’s taken Ellen for a ride to give me a little peace and quiet.  You’ll stay for lunch, won’t you?”

Following Eva into the kitchen, he noticed various signs of industry.

“Let me guess.  You’re meant to be resting, not working like this,” Ben admonished and steered her to a chair.

“Oh, Ben.  I’m pregnant, not sick.”

“Hmm, and what would Joe say?”

“The same as you.  Can I get you a cup of coffee?”

“You sit and rest.  I’ll get the coffee, young lady.”

“Now I know where Joe gets it from.”

“Huh?”

“His mother-hen instinct.  Thank you for the preserves.”

Eva leaned across to remove the cloth covering the goodies.  When she let out a sharp huff, Ben turned to see her grasp her swollen belly.

Straightaway, he was by her side.  “What’s wrong?”

“I think … I think the baby’s coming.”

“What?  I must find Joe.”

Eva’s hand clamped over his.  “No.  Don’t leave me.”

“What can I do?”

“Send one of the hands for the doctor.  Joe will be back soon enough.  We’ve time.  Don’t worry.”

Ben breathed a sigh of relief when Joe rode up with little Ellen perched in front of him.  Still a few hours before the doctor would arrive, the thought that he could find himself helping to birth his grandchild alone wasn’t one he liked to contemplate.

Joe gave a welcoming wave, but his expression changed when he saw Ben’s face.  “What’s wrong?”

“Everything’s fine, but Eva’s pains have started.”  Joe swung Ellen into her grandfather’s waiting arms and dismounted.  “I’ve already sent for Doctor Martin.

“Thanks.  I better go see.”

Ben repositioned his granddaughter to see her better.  “Now, young lady, how about we find you a nice drink of milk and maybe a cookie?”

*****

Ben opened the door onto the cooler air of the evening and watched Adam and Hoss dismount.

“How’s Eva?” Hoss asked.

“Mother and son are doing fine.”

“A son?  Hot diggity!  You gotta grandson!”

Adam grinned, and Ben laughed.

“Come in and meet your nephew.”

Eva gave them a sleepy smile as they entered the bedroom.  Next to her, Joe cradled their son.

“Say hello to Thomas Joseph Cartwright.”

Hoss waggled his fingers.  “Hey, little fella?”

“Congratulations, Eva.”

“Thank you, Adam.”

“He’s a fine fella,” Hoss added.

The proud father grinned.  “He’s got quite a grip on him.”

Ben moved forward.  “All right, let’s leave Eva to get her rest.”

Joe gave them a wink.  “I’ll be out shortly.”

Joining them in the kitchen, Joe picked up the coffee pot.  “Anyone?”

Three cups lifted.

Once Joe sat down, Ben asked, “Do you have help arranged?”

“Yep, Sally Hobbs.   I’ll pick her up tomorrow.”

“Tell you what,” Hoss suggested.  “I’m goin’ into Virginia City anyways, why don’t I bring her back for you?”

“Thanks, that would be great.”

“Congratulations again, son, but it’s time we went.”

Joe stood, and his father cupped the back of his neck and grasped his hand.  The look in his eyes said more than words.  Another handshake from Adam, a bear hug and slap on the back from Hoss, and they were gone.  Silence fell upon his home, and Joe returned to his bedroom.

Leaning on the doorjamb, his gaze rested on his sleeping wife.  The low light from the lamp sent warm, dappled shadows over Eva’s face.  She’d never looked more beautiful.

He crept into the room, slipped off boots and belt, loosened his shirt, and slid onto the bed.  His arm wound around his wife to rest his fingers on his son, letting them rise and fall with his breathing.

He had a son.  The word resonated at the deepest level of his psyche, and he dozed off to dreams of teaching him to work cattle and break broncs.

 

*****

Chapter Fourteen

 

“Whoa!  Joseph, give me them reins.  That’s the second time you’ve fallen asleep.”

“Sorry.  I guess the heat’s getting to me.”

“Oh, yeah, that’ll be the reason.”  Joe handed Hoss the reins and settled back on the wagon seat, screwing up his eyes at the shimmering haze across the road.  “How much sleep did you get last night, anyways?”

“Coupla hours, I reckon.”

“Joe!  You shoulda said.”

“Why?  It wouldn’t change anything.  Thomas will settle down soon.”

A cavernous yawn escaped him, and he slouched down in the seat.  Thomas wasn’t a bit like Ellen.  She’d slept through the night almost from day one, a trick Thomas hadn’t acquired.  His two-month-old had a thunderous pair of lungs and cried for hours.  Joe pulled down his hat.  It sure was warm.  He blinked to clear the heaviness.  Within minutes, sleep claimed him.

*****

“All I’m saying is you needed to tell me.”

“Pa, I can do the work.”

“Did I say otherwise?  If you’re not getting enough sleep, I need to know.  For your safety and others.”

Joe seethed, wondering which brother snitched.  He’d managed to fall asleep on both that week, so either might have blabbed to Pa.  He could thank whoever it was for this lecture.

“I’m a grown man.  I can handle a few days without sleep.”

“A few days?”

“All right, a few weeks.”  Joe slapped his hat down on the desk and dropped into the chair.  “It’s not a problem.”

Joe had to fight rolling his eyes when his father folded his hands and gave him that look.

“When we have children, we all need to make adjustments.  I’m not saying you can’t do the work.  Let’s just cut back while you’re losing such a lot of sleep.  You must have chores around your own place?”

Joe jerked upright.  “Pa!”

“No arguments.  Take a few days to do those and get some rest.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“It’s not up for discussion, Joseph.  Now go home.”

Joe snatched his hat and stalked from the house.  His brothers rode into the yard, and he eyed them with resentment.  “Thanks a lot.”

“For what?” Hoss exclaimed.

“I don’t know which one of you ratted me out, but you got me sent home.”

Adam tempered, “C’mon, Joe.  If Pa did that it was for the best.”

The green in his eyes flashed, and Joe flung himself onto Cochise’s back.  “I’ll see you in a few days.”

They watched Joe’s dust, and Hoss nudged Adam.  “Prickly as a porcupine, ain’t he?”

The pair laughed.

*****

Joe stretched and rolled out of bed.  Scratching his head and chest, he padded barefooted into the parlor.

“Here’s the sleepyhead at last.”

“How long was I out?”

“Almost two hours.”

“What?  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to sleep that long.”

“You needed the rest.”

Joe’s eyes widened, seeing the baby in the basket at her feet.  “Hey, is he sleepin’?”

“Yep, and Ellen’s having her nap, so, I took the chance to take a long doze.”

“You should’ve come to bed.”

“We needed sleep.  If I’d woken you, we mightn’t have gotten any.”

Joe grinned at the inference and dropped onto the settee next to her.  He coiled a strand of Eva’s hair around his finger.  “How about we take our chance now?”

Eva got up, removing herself from Joe’s tempting presence.  “I need to start dinner, and you can wake up Ellen.”

He gave Eva a mock salute, stretched and went to fetch his daughter.  Trust Pa to be right.  Three days working around his place was exactly what he’d needed.   Grinning, he imagined the look on Pa’s face when he apologized.

“Have you decided about the cattle drive yet?”

Joe settled Ellen onto her chair and raised his eyebrows at Eva’s question.  “Decided?”

“Whether you’re going.”

The illness from last year still fresh in his mind, Joe wasn’t about to risk leaving them alone.  “I’m not.”

“You could if you want.  The children and I will be fine.  We’ve been on our own before, remember?”

“But that was different, we didn’t all go.  Someone stayed behind to keep an eye on things.”

“Joseph Cartwright!  Is that why they happened to pass by each day?  They were checking up on me?”

“Of course not.”

“I’m a grown woman and quite capable of looking after myself.”

Joe wrapped his arms around her rigid frame.  “I know that.  If I didn’t, I’d never step out of this house.  But, for now, no cattle drive for me.  I want to stay right here.”

“Maybe next year, then?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“No, but I know how important the drive is to you.  I don’t want you to feel tied down because of us.”

Joe turned her to face him.  Surely, she knew where his heart resided?  “You don’t tie me down.  I’m here because I want to be.  I love you.”  He gazed into her eyes, willing her to believe him.  When her lower lip began to tremble, he kissed it, and smiled.  “You’re stuck with me.”

*****

With one hip hitched on his father’s desk, Joe gave his apology.  He reveled in the expression on Pa’s face.  At least he fought to hide his surprise.

“Thank you.  I’m glad to see you’ve come around.  Next time, don’t be so stubborn.”

“Next time?” Joe squeaked.  “C’mon, Pa, give us a chance.  Eva and I only just had the last baby.”

The giggle in his throat burst out at the blush that suffused his father’s cheeks.

“I didn’t mean…”  Joe ducked away from the swipe aimed at him.  “You cheeky scamp.  Be off with you.”

Howling with laughter, Joe made for the door.

*****

Chapter Fifteen

 

“Hoss, they’re beautiful,” Eva admired, passing the carved, painted horse back to her son.

Joe set the birthday cake down on the table and lit the large candle pressed into the middle.

“Shouldn’t there be two of those?” Hoss pointed out.

“One will do.” Joe retorted.  “C’mon Tom, you hav’ta blow out the candle.”

Tom puffed with more enthusiasm than efficiency, squealing and laughing each time it flickered but didn’t go out.  Everyone joined in the infectious laughter, and Joe squatted next to his son to assist.

Ben watched his youngest showing his son how to blow.  Could his grandson really be two years old?  He was amazed by how this family and his boy had grown.  Joe had matured in so many ways.  Never had Ben been prouder.

An explosion of clapping erupted when the candle was extinguished.  Eva moved to Joe’s side, and he slipped a hand around her waist.  The look they exchanged sent an old memory rippling through Ben’s heart.  How like he and Marie they were.  The ache of loneliness that haunted Ben returned.  He missed Marie.  The love and companionship they shared.  So many years had gone by, yet how well he remembered that feeling.

“Pa?”  Pulled from his daydream, Ben looked into Joe’s eyes.  “You okay?”

“Just remembering.”

“Ma?”

Ben nodded.  Joe placed a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.  Ben cleared his throat.  “That cake looks good.”

“Got you a big slice right here.”

Ben took the plate and burst out laughing when Tom decided to smash his slice to bits.

Joe knelt in front of him.  “You didn’t like the cake?”  A sticky hand ran down his face.  “Guess not.”

Ben laughed even harder.  Two lively grandchildren were the best cure for melancholy.

*****

Chapter Sixteen

 

Startled, Joe looked up from wiping porridge off his youngest.  “Christmas?” he repeated horrified.

“Yes.  I think it would be lovely to have Christmas here.”

“But Pa likes us to go to him for Christmas.  He gets the big tree, we stay over, and everyone fusses over the children.”

“I know, but we’ve been to Ben’s for the last four years, I’d like the chance to host it too.”

“But you and I get a holiday.”

“I want to do this.”

Joe swallowed, imagining Pa’s face.  Christmas was a big deal on the Ponderosa, and that was Pa’s doing.  “But we don’t have the room for them to stay overnight.”

“Couldn’t they ride back?   Just this once?”

“Don’t you enjoy Christmas at the big house?”

“You know, I do.  That’s not the point.” Eva sat down at the table and entreated, “I’d like the chance to show off my skills.”

A cloud of doom formed, whichever way this went, he’d lose.  On one side an unhappy father and, on the other, a wife, and as for Hop Sing!  Joe winced at the images that conjured.  The mother of invention came to his rescue and an idea popped into his head.  “Fourth of July!”

“What?”

“How about you host the Fourth of July party instead?  We can hold it all outside.  That way we won’t hav’ta worry about having enough room in the house, and everyone goes home when the parties over.”  He saw interest flicker then uncertainty cross her face.  With instinctive cunning, he played his next card.  “It’s a big party, though.  All our friends, neighbors, and hands.  If you think that’ll be too much…”

“Too much?  Not at all.”  Eva grasped her hands together in delight, her eyes shining with excitement.  “I can see it now.  We can string decorations outside and have musicians for dancing.  It’ll be wonderful, and you don’t think Ben will mind?”

No fool, Joe took the opportunity to get in her good graces.  “It might be tough, but I think I can talk him around.”

This earned him a hug.  He took Eva in his arms and started to dance.

Ellen waved her hands.  “Papa, dance with me!”

“You bet.”

Releasing Eva, Joe swept Ellen out of her chair and lowered her to stand on his feet.  The two danced from the kitchen into the parlor.  His daughter giggled and clung to his hands as she tried to hang on, her little feet pressed into his.  Eva gathered up Thomas and joined them.  Joe, “Daa daa’d,” out a waltz, and Eva hummed along.

Joe heaved a sigh of relief at the bullet he’d dodged and looked forward to a Christmas of Hop Sing’s food, cosseting, and relaxation.

*****

Joe groaned and opened his eyes.  Two children bouncing on their bed were hard to ignore.

“Pa, Ma!  It’s Christmas!”

“Cwismas!” Echoed Tom.

Ellen’s fingers tugged at his nightshirt.  “Let’s go see if Santa Claus has come.”

The two laughed, before throwing back the blankets and letting themselves be dragged out the door.

Parcels of all sizes covered the base of the tree.  Shrieks rose in the air.  Tom jumped in circles, and Ellen clapped her hands.

“Can we open them?  Can we, please?”

Joe crossed his arms and shook his head.  “Uh-uh.  You know the rule.  Dress and breakfast come first.”  Joe bit his lip to resist the giggle when Tom bee-lined for the gifts.  He scooped him into his arms.  “Whoa!  Not yet, fella.  Ellen, take your brother upstairs and help him wash.”

Joe watched his children clamber up the stairs.  When Eva went to follow, he pulled her back into his arms.  “Merry Christmas.”

Their kiss broke when they heard Ellen.  “Ma!  Tom’s spilt the water.”

“Oh, dear.”

Joe’s laugh bubbled up.  “Go on.  I’ll get the fire and stove stoked before Hop Sing wakes.”

*****

“Faster, Hossy!”  The squeals of delight emanating from his eldest made Joe grin.  Perched on the arm of the settee, he laughed when his daughter demanded again, “Faster.”

Eva moved forward and lifted Ellen from her uncle’s back.  “That’s enough, young lady.  Your poor Uncle Hoss has been playing for ages.”

Clambering up off all fours, Hoss grinned.  “Aw, I don’t mind.  The little darlin’s light as a feather.”

Putting her daughter on the ground, the little girl turned large brown eyes on her other uncle.  Seeing the expectant gleam in them, Adam raised an eyebrow and shook his head.  “Oh, no.  Uncle Hoss is the only ‘hossy’ around here.”

The little girl pouted and turned to Joe.  “Lift me, please.”

Joe swept her into his arms.  “How about a cookie?”

“Little Ellen no eat dinner, and neither will Little Joe if he keep eating cookies.”

Joe looked around into the exasperated face of Hop Sing, holding the almost empty plate of biscuits.  He popped the one he held into his mouth and smirked, “You shouldn’t make ‘em so delicious.”

With a huff, Hop Sing stomped back to the kitchen taking the plate with him.  Joe winked at his daughter and magically produced another.

*****

After dinner, the family settled around the fireplace to listen to Ben read the Christmas story.  Eva leaned against Joe’s shoulder, and he cuddled a sleeping Thomas.

Joe’s eyes drooped in the heat from the blazing fire.  A lazy smile hung on his face, watching his daughter on his father’s knee, enraptured by his words.  His favorite time of year, he’d never imagined it could be better, but nothing beat sharing the blessed holiday with his children.  Their joy added so much to his.  He relaxed further into the sofa and let contentment settle its peaceful blanket on him.

****

Joe put the last bag in the buggy and headed back into the house to collect his wife and children.  Three days of non-stop cosseting made it hard to leave, but it was time to head home.

Finding Eva still saying her goodbyes, Joe relieved Hoss of his eldest and chuckled.  “If we don’t get going, we won’t get home ‘till midnight.”

Joe got a pout for this exaggeration.  He smirked and turned to the door only to freeze at Eva’s next words.

“I meant to say, Ben.  Thank you for allowing me to hold the fourth of July party.”

“Thank me?  Why?  When Joe told me, you wished to hold it, I was delighted.”

“You did?  But … Joseph Cartwright!”

Now the cat was out of the bag!  Joe opened the eyes he’d scrunched shut, and turned, his expression one of sweet innocence. “Hmmm?”

“You told me you had to talk Ben into letting me hold the party.”

“I did?  I don’t remember.  Look, we need to go.”

Pushed out of the house, Eva began to protest at Joe’s treachery.  The others laughed as they waved them goodbye.

“Looks like little brother has talked himself into hot water.”

Ben dropped a hand on Hoss’ shoulder.  “And you can bet he can talk himself out again.”

*****

“Forgive me now?”

Eva sighed and curled her arms tighter around Joe’s neck, pulling him close enough that her breath quivered the curls on his forehead.  His eyes glowed soft and dark in the low light.

Eva’s giggle bubbled up. “I forgave you ages ago.  I just love making up this way.”

Joe nuzzled her ear, his quiet laugh lost in her hair.  He loved it too.

Eva’s breathing relaxed and lengthened into sleep.  Joe lay awake, listening.  Their lovemaking lingered like heady perfume in his mind.  He adored that private side of his lovely wife.  The seductive, sensual Eva reserved for him alone, who evoked desire and pleasure.  You’re the luckiest man on earth, he grinned into the dark, before allowing himself to succumb to sleep.

*****

Chapter Seventeen

 

Joe sat up on the blanket he lounged on to watch his oldest brother and daughter.  His smile widened.  Kneeling by the edge of the lake, Adam manhandled the small fishing rod and line while Ellen watched his every move with unnerving intensity.

“On the end of the line, we have the hook.”

“Why?”

“Because the hook is what catches the fish.  Now we need to bait the hook.”

“Why?”

“So, the fish will eat the bait and get caught on the hook.  Now watch while I bait the hook.  I’m using a worm.”

“Why?”

“Because fish like to eat worms.”

“Why?”

A guffaw that rose into a giggle broke from Joe.  It cost him a swipe from Eva’s sunbonnet.

“Ellen, listen and watch Uncle Adam.  You can ask questions later.”

“ ‘Kay, Ma.”

Adam threw Eva a grateful smile.  “Once we’ve baited the hook you drop it into the water and give it a wiggle.”

“Why?”

The giggle rang in the air again.

“Y’know, Ellen reminds me of you, Adam.  You were always asking questions at that age.”  Adam raised an eyebrow, and Joe snorted.  Ben laughed at his skeptical sons.  “It’s true.  Questions, questions, all day long and most of the night.  Always chattering away.”

“I don’t believe it!  Adam chattering?”

“It’s quite true young man.”

A tug on his sleeve recalled Adam’s attention to Ellen.  Her finger pointed at the line, bobbing up and down in the water.

Joe hooted, “Will you look at that, you caught one.”

Ellen laughed and clapped at the fish flapping in her uncle’s hands.  Then she picked up the little fishing rod and fixed Adam with a determined look.  “My turn.”

Watching the interaction between uncle and niece, it struck Ben how alike the two were.  The solemn expression on Ellen’s face brought his eldest son’s younger one sharply back into focus.  He could see a special relationship developing there.

Toting his nephew on his shoulders, Hoss returned at a canter along the bank.  The boy squealed encouragement for him to go faster.  When Hoss reached the group, arranged on the picnic blanket, he dropped to his knees and lifted the boy down.

“You done rode me to a standstill young ‘un.”

Tom flung chubby arms around Hoss’ neck.  “Thank you, Hossy.”

“Aww, you’re welcome.”

Ellen grabbed her son and wrapped a napkin around his neck.  “Enough bronc busting for today.  Time to eat.”

“Great.  I’m starved.  I hope you got fried chicken.  You make the best.”  Fixed by three pairs of shocked eyes, Hoss grinned.  “ ‘Cept for Hop Sing, but you make the softer biscuits,” he added, cheekily stuffing one into his mouth and giving Ellen a wink.

*****

Ben rested his gaze on Joe’s face, who watched his family paddle at the edge of the lake.  Beside them, Hoss snored, taking a nap after their excellent lunch.  Sitting away from them, Adam indulged in the book he’d brought.

“You seem mighty serious.  Something wrong?”

Broken from his distraction, Joe turned.  “Huh?  Oh.  No.  Just thinkin’.  It’s our sixth anniversary next year, and I wanna do something special for Ellen.”

“Sounds like a nice idea.”

“If it’s okay, I’d like to take her to San Francisco.  Revisit places we went on our honeymoon.  The trip can be combined with the army contract negotiations.”

“You’ve no need to do that.”

“Sure, I do.  I can’t take a break without taking care of Ponderosa business too.”  The smile deepened in Ben’s eyes while he considered the responsible young man before him.  Was this the young rapscallion who used to drive him to distraction?  Then, in a flash, the familiar mischievous twinkle returned.  “Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll fit in plenty of fun.”

“I’m glad to hear it, and we’ll look after the children.”

“You sure they wouldn’t be too much trouble?”

“Of course not.”

Joe grinned and yanked off his boots and socks, rolled up his trousers and, with a whoop, ran down to the water.  Sweeping up his son, he dipped one hand in the lake and sent a scoop of spray toward Eva and Ellen.  “C’mon, Tom.  Boys against girls.  Let’s get ‘em!”

Ben watched the droplets rain, fracturing into a million crystals of light between the dueling couples.  If it hadn’t been for the noise, he could be observing a dream.

The laughter woke Hoss.  “Dadburnit, where do they get the energy from?”

Ben had no idea.  Growing up, Joe often exhausted him, and this young family appeared destined to do the same.  His gaze wandered to the mountains beyond the alpine lake, and he frowned, seeing grey clouds.  He relaxed, a way’s off yet, they wouldn’t ruin their picnic.

*****

The storm hit during the night.  Lightning and thunder streaked the air and rattled the windows.

Joe opened one eye when his bedroom door squeaked.

“Pa?”

Joe smiled at the hissed word.  “Thunder scaring you sweetheart?”  Clutching her doll, Ellen nodded.  Joe drew back his blankets.  “C’mon then.”

Scurrying forward, Ellen jumped into bed and buried herself into her father’s chest when another explosion of thunder rumbled.

“I don’t like the dark when it makes a noise.”

Joe stroked the back of Ellen’s head.  “It’s okay.  We all get scared sometimes.”

Wide eyes shone up at him.  “You do?”

“Yep.  Things scare me too, like … erm … grizzly bears.”

“But I’m not a baby to be scared of the dark.”

“Y’know, the dark used to scare Uncle Hoss, and look at how big he is, so don’t you worry.”

“Is that why Ma sleeps with you?”

“You bet.” Joe ignored the huff.  “But that doesn’t mean Ma’s not a real brave lady.  When I was small, I got frightened sometimes when Grandpa went away.  I’d sleep with Uncle Adam or Uncle Hoss.  Can you guess who was like snuggling a tree, all knotty elbows and knees, and who was a big mushy bear?”

Ellen giggled.  “Did Grandpa let you cuddle him too?”

“Sure.”  Joe tweaked one riotous curl.  “And you can cuddle me anytime you like.”

When he felt Eva’s hand touch his shoulder, he turned his head and received a kiss on the cheek.  “I do love you.”

He caught her fingers and carried them to his lips.

The patter of feet heralded Tom climbing on the bed, who burrowed between his parents.  Joe ruffled his son’s hair, and the family drifted off to sleep.

*****

Chapter Eighteen

 

Tough, backbreaking, and dangerous, horse wrangling was the job Eva least liked Joe doing.  Whenever he worked a new string, she had an anxious wait for him to come home.  But, no matter how bruised and battered, the light in his eyes told how he enjoyed the work.  Baffling to her, she was content so long as he was happy.  However, when he limped into the house, her heart skipped a beat.

“What happened?”

“Dadburned ‘ornery mustang.  Threw me into the fence and nearly took a chunk outta me for good measure.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  Nothing’s broken.  A bit banged up is all.”

“We’d better get some liniment on that leg, or you’ll be stiff as a board come morning.”

“Thanks.”

Joe sprawled in the big, low chair on the porch.  His children sleeping across his chest.  This time of day, when dusk teetered on the edge of collapsing into night, always filled him with serenity.  He gave Eva a slow, lazy smile when she joined him.

“We should put them to bed.”

Joe shifted to let the children settle deeper into him.  “In a while.  I wanna enjoy them like this for a bit.”

“How’s the leg.”

“Fine.”

“I wish you’d let the hands break the horses.”

“I can’t do that.  It’s part of the job.  I can’t shirk any of it because I’m the boss’s son.”

Eva sighed.  “I know, but I can’t help wishing.  It’s such a dangerous job and I wanna know you’re safe.”

“I’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.  Oh, I almost forgot, Hop Sing’s gonna bring over the decorations in a coupla days.”

“Wonderful.  I can’t wait for our party.”

A week away from the fourth of July, it amazed him how a woman could be excited at the prospect of feeding thirty guests.  But he smiled, bobbed his head, and listened to her chatter about the arrangements while he relaxed, his breaths easing into rhythm with his children’s.

“Joe, are you happy?”

This brought him fully awake.  “Where did that come from?”

Eva pleated her skirt and shrugged.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I guess… well, Thomas is almost three and I’ve not fallen pregnant again.”

“Is that what’s bothering you?”  Joe reached out a hand to take hers.  Such a contradiction to him at times, every now and then disarming insecurity would peep through her usual confidence.  “It’ll happen when it’s supposed to.  ‘Sides you and me, we’ve got plenty of time.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Eva, we have two amazing children, and I love you.  Even if we never have another child that won’t change.  Although I’m sure, we will.  I’m content as a man can be.”  Joe leaned out to her, and she met his lips.  When they broke the kiss, his impish grin appeared.  “Let’s get these two in bed and we can work on the next one.”

The gleam in Eva’s eyes and her giggle hurried Joe out of his chair, and his clothes.

*****

“Joe!”  He reined in Cochise and looked back to Eva standing on the porch, one arm around the post.  His heart quickened.  He’d never tire seeing this woman, fresh and beautiful as the dawn.  “Don’t forget to ask Hop Sing for the cinnamon.”

He waved in acknowledgement.  Behind her, Ellen and Thomas spilled out of the house, eager to add their goodbyes.  Their antics made him chuckle.  Birds sang in the trees, but their song wasn’t any more joyful than his spirit.  He carried Eva’s sweet kiss on his lips and the laughter of his children in his ears.  Joe doubted any man could be so blessed or happy.

Four hours later, Joe scowled, wiped his sweaty brow, and resettled his hat back on his head.  The heat blistered down on them and the rock-hard ground resisted all efforts to dig a hole.  Why did they have to pick today to mend the fence?

“I’m not making any headway with this.”

As usual, Adam wasn’t for leaving a job unfinished.  “We’re not going ‘till it’s done.”

“Yeah, get on with it an’ stop your bellyaching.”

Joe ripped off his hat again, ready to take issue with big brother who’d complained non-stop since they arrived.  An approaching horse drew his attention.  Shading his eyes, he squinted to see the rider charging toward them.  “Hey, isn’t that Roy?”

The pace the lawman was setting made Adam ask, “Yeah, I wonder what’s wrong?”

“Boys!  Indians are raiding along the valley.  Three homesteads have been hit already over toward Carson.  We’re warning as many as we can.  ”

“Thanks, Roy.”  Adam turned to his brothers; the lawman dismissed from his mind before he’d even ridden away.  “I’ll go warn Pa.  Hoss, you go with Joe.  Bring Eva and the children to the main house.  They’ll be safer there.”

“I ain’t risking getting caught in the open.”

For a moment, Joe thought he’d get an argument, but Adam nodded.  “Okay, stay at the house.  We’ll gather some men and come to you.”

No more words were exchanged.  The three separated to their horses and raced away.

Joe spotted the smoke rising above the tree line.  It didn’t mean anything.  A drifter cooking lunch, maybe.  He’d come across one just a few days ago, who’d even shared his rabbit with him.  It had been pretty good too, even the burnt bits that had stuck in his teeth.  His heartbeat slowed.  The tightness in his chest relaxed.

The plume spiraled up into the clear blue of the sky and billowed thicker.

“D’ya see the smoke?”

“Could be nothing,” Hoss shouted back.  “Remember, Roy said the homesteads hit were down Carson side of the valley.”

Hoss was right.  They would be way ahead of the raiders.

Joe tightened his fingers on the reins allowing the flexible, soft leather to twist through them.  Cochise settled into a smooth gallop and Joe moved with him, becoming one with the animal.  The ground beneath them vanished under the beat of hooves.  He leaned forward until his mane fluttered inches from his face and he caught the warm, sweet smell of alfalfa, hay, and oats.

Clearing the tree line Joe pulled up.  Fear cut a path into his heart.  He shot a look back at Hoss, sick horror filling his belly.  His own terror mirrored in his brother’s eyes.

Always the fleetest animal, Cochise soon outpaced his companion and Joe arrived first.  He tore his gaze from the burned-out barn and bunkhouse to his home, and his heart leapt.  For some reason, it hadn’t been torched.

When he got closer, the relief perished.  The house was a wreck.  Yanked off its hinges, the front door hung loose.  Broken belongings and glass from smashed windows lay strewn over the porch.   He screamed Eva’s name and plunged into his home.

Climbing off Chubb, Hoss thudded toward the house.  The sound jerked him up short.  Unrecognizable as human, it raised the hairs on the back of his neck.  Clutching the hitch rail his legs almost buckled under him.  Stumbling through the door, his little brother carried the lifeless, bloody bodies of his children.

Hoss couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move.  Joe slid down the wall and began to howl one word of denial, ripped up from the depths of his soul, over and over. Hoss turned away and closed his eyes.

How long he stood frozen, Hoss wasn’t sure.  When the howls subsided, he forced himself to move.  Grabbing a rug from the house, he dropped beside Joe’s huddled, rocking form.  With infinite tenderness, Hoss drew them from Joe’s arms and swaddled the bodies.  “Joe, was Eva…?”

Joe’s head shot up, and he dived back into the house.  Hoss didn’t need to hear the words, “She’s not there,” to know the house was empty.  His brother’s eager gaze flew to the charred barn, and he took off at a run.

Hoss scrunched his face.  That flash of hope hurt because he saw no chance of it here.  He followed.  Joe mustn’t be alone when he found her.

The carcass of the milk cow lay under the collapsed roof.   It wasn’t hard to find.  The stench of its charred flesh hit Hoss as soon as he entered the crumbling building.  He frowned watching Joe fling timbers aside.  The scorched, smoldering wood, still hot under Hoss’ fingers, must have scratched and burnt his brother’s blackened hands, but Joe didn’t stop.  They searched everywhere, barn, bunkhouse, storehouse, outhouse, but found no sign of Eva.

Hopelessness hung on Joe like another set of clothes.  Hoss wanted to help, but the how escaped him.  Drained of energy, he nonetheless spurred himself forward when Joe took-off toward Cochise.

“Where’re you going?”

“They took her!  I’ve got to get her back.”

“You can’t do that!  You’ll get yourself killed is all.”

“D’you think I care?”

“You ain’t thinking straight.  You’ve gotta stay an’ take care of the little ones.”

“It’s too late for them!  I hav’ta find Eva.”

Hoss couldn’t let Joe do this.  He knew him.  He’d tear up the country and run right into trouble.

“I promise we’ll both go and look for her.  But later, when … everything here’s taken care of, and we’re equipped and ready.”

Accepting his brother’s words was the hardest thing Joe ever did.  Every instinct screamed to go after Eva.  But Hoss never steered him wrong.  He turned back to the house.  Every step took him closer to the rug that cocooned his children.  The pattern danced before his eyes, the bright colors at odds with its contents.  He lowered himself to the floor and drew the bundle to him.  Through the rough wool the contours of his children pressed against him.  Never would he feel their warmth again.  Put his arms around them.  Kiss them goodnight.  They were gone.

Joe closed his eyes, and wept.

They spotted them right away.  Barreling down with half a dozen hands at their back.  When they got close enough to see the burnt buildings they reined in, before spurring forwards again.  Just like they had done, not knowing they were already too late.

*****

Silence hung over the house.  In the great room, three men tried to cope with their shock and sorrow.

Ben stared at the door of the downstairs bedroom where his youngest held vigil over his children.  He would never forget the sight of his son, broken and weeping, cradling the pitiful bundle that contained his children.  Tears ran afresh, remembering the look on Joseph’s face.  Never would he want his children to endure such anguish.

Joe refused to leave the task of laying out the bodies to him and Hop Sing.  His heart cracked watching his boy’s hands shaking so hard he almost dropped the washcloth.  When Joe fell to his knees seeing how those little heads had been crushed under merciless blows, he fought back his own tears.

The pain in Ben’s chest pressed down beyond bearing.  To have that wonderful family snuffed out in a few short hours and lose his beloved grandchildren and probably his daughter-in-law.  How could such loss be born?

Ben’s gaze shifted to his other sons.  Sunk deep in the blue chair opposite, Hoss’ body seemed to cave in on itself from the weight of his grief, while Adam sat motionless as if carved from stone.

His soft words boomed into the room, abusing the silence.  “Why don’t you two go to bed.”

“No.  I ain’t leaving Joe.  I wanna be here if he needs us.”

Adam didn’t even reply, acknowledging the words with a tilt of his head.

Silence fell until another sound intruded upon the stillness.  Off and on, they’d heard it – Joe weeping.  The sobbing came in bouts, at times soft, like spring rain, and then hard and savage, like now.

Hoss heaved out of his chair.  “I need some air.”

“Son, it’s after midnight.”

“Ain’t gonna be nobody around to mind.”  His voice cracked on the last word, and he hurried through the door.

Ben let him go and collapsed back.  He wanted to comfort his sons, but he hadn’t the words.  The promise and hopes ended that day left him too stunned to think.  He let his chin sink to his chest, and the tears roll.

Enough!” he told himself.  Ben pushed himself upright and drew back his shoulders.  Right now, Joe needed him.  He would find the strength.

*****

Chapter Nineteen

 

The preacher closed the good book, and Joe pivoted on his heel and strode toward his horse.  With undignified haste, Ben ran after him.

“Where’re you going?”

“I’m going to find my wife.”

Ben placed a restraining hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “The army will do that.”

Joe shook him off.  “I can’t sit around and do nothing.”

“Be sensible.  You don’t know where to start.  Come home.  Once the army gets here, we’ll talk to them.”

Ben understood how much Joe wanted to leave, but there was sense in meeting the army.  Ben willed his son to realize that.

“Okay.  Have it your way.”

The reply might be grudging, but Ben didn’t care.  Signaling to Adam and Hoss, they rode home in bleak silence.  Ben glanced across at Joe.  He’d eaten little and slept even less in the last few days.  His pale, drawn countenance told of his constant sentinel over Ellen and Thomas, who now lay under six feet of sod.

The Indian raid had cut a bloody swath through the valley.  Ben found out the renegades attacked in two groups.  Eight homesteads were struck and wiped out, leaving thirty-three dead and six women missing, including Eva.  Hysteria swept the territory, and a call to the army followed.  The soldiers from Fort Churchill would be arriving in two days.

The solemn entourage rode into the yard and dismounted.

“I’ll take care of him for you,” Hoss told his silent brother and took Cochise’s rein.  He had to find some way to help and taking care of Joe’s horse was a start.  His promise to help Joe find Eva gnawed at him.  When he’d raised it, Pa had insisted they speak with the army first.  The idea of Joe leaving scared Pa, Hoss understood that, but keeping him home didn’t feel such a good idea.

Joe entered the house and started up the stairs.  At Pa’s call, he stopped on the landing.  Why couldn’t they leave him alone?

“Wouldn’t you like something to eat?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Joe, you have to eat.”

“I said I’m not hungry!”  He fought to hold onto his temper.  “Sorry.  I’d just wanna rest.”

“All right, son.  I understand.”

Pa was disappointed, but too drained to do anything other than nod in thanks, Joe retreated to his room.

Bile rose in his throat when thoughts of what Eva might be enduring slammed him over and over.  Every fiber in his body shrieked to be out searching.  The waiting was ripping him apart.

*****

Chapter Twenty

 

“Mr. Cartwright.  We’ve heard of your Ponderosa.  Good to have you here.”

Ben shook Major Anderson’s hand.

“Thank you, Major.”

The major had arranged a meeting on arrival in Virginia City.  Ben could feel the anger crackling in the air of the hall crammed with victims of the attack and loved ones of those taken.

Anderson waved his hands and the hubbub in the room stilled.  “Folks.  I’m gonna tell you what we know.  We believe the raids were carried out by a Bannock warrior who calls himself Attacking Wolf.  I have orders to track him down and eradicate the threat.”

Murmurs of approval filled the room.  Ben cut a look at Adam, sitting the other side of Joe.  He looked grim.  There was no talk about taking prisoners.

A shout came from the back.  “D’ya know where the murdering heathens are?”

The major had to quieten the room down again before he was able to answer.  “Our information’s sketchy.  We will be conducting a systematic sweep of the territory.”

“Those savages killed our families.  We wanna ride with you.”  Ben turned his head to see who’d spoken.  Arvid Bondesson, whose  wife and four sons died in the raid, glared at the major.

“Thank you.  But no civilians on this maneuver.”

“We have a right to go after those murdering redskins!  We can’t let them get away with what they’ve done.”

Others around Bondesson joined in the discord, and the major threw up his hands to silence them.

“Listen, men.  I understand how you feel.  Form a militia. When we find Attacking Wolf, we’ll call for support.”

A ripple of agreement flew around the room, and after the major answered a few more questions, the meeting ended.

Joe pushed his way over to the military man.

“I know what you said, Sir, about civilians, but I know the territory, and I’m a good shot.  You could use me as a scout.”

“Thank you, but we have a scout.  Join the militia.  You’ll get a chance to strike at the enemy.”  It wasn’t what Joe wanted to hear, and his son’s piercing gaze never left the major’s, willing him to change his mind.  Ben relaxed when the man shook his head.  “I’m sorry, but I can’t use you.”

Joe turned on his heel and left.  Torn between going after him and talking to Anderson, Ben compromised and sent Hoss before approaching the major.

“Mr. Cartwright.  Let me introduce Captain Wilkes.”

Ben shook the man’s hand.  “Major, are you sure you want to involve men who’ll be out for blood?”

“Once they whip themselves into shape, they’ll be fine.  We’ll need all the help we can get.  Attacking Wolf’s smart, and he’s gathered a large following.  You and your sons would be a welcome addition.”

“My youngest’s home was hit.  His children were killed, and his wife taken.  We’re only interested in getting her back.  Not revenge.”

“I’m sorry about your son’s family.”  The major shot a look at Ben from under his thick white brows.  “Take my advice.  Prepare your son for the worse.  Most women captured in raids like this are later killed, and those we do get back alive … well, let’s just say, they’re never the same.”

Ben paled.  Deep down he’d known this may be true, but to hear it out loud shook him.

*****

Leaving Adam and Hoss picking at their food, Ben took a sandwich up to Joe.  His door open, Ben pushed it back to see Joe loading his saddlebag.

“I’m going after her.  If I can’t go with the army patrol, I’ll go on my own.”

“I thought we’d agreed to leave it to the army.”

Joe balled the shirt he held tight in his hand.  “No!  You agreed, Pa.  I said I’d wait until the army arrived.  Fine.  They’re here, and now I’m going.”

“Listen to me.  You must let the army do their job.  When they find Eva- ”

“They’re not looking for her.”

“Of course, they are, they’re looking for all the women.  Give them a chance.”

Joe slumped onto the bed and dropped his head into his hands.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know if I can.”

“Please, give them time to do their job.”  The head nodded but didn’t lift.  “It’s for the best, I promise.”  At the door, he looked back at the beaten form of his son.  “Try to eat something.”

*****

Chapter Twenty-One

 

He awoke gasping, his chest heaving in the effort to breathe.  It was the same dream, always the same.  His children screaming for him.  His children … the loss raked through him anew, ripping fresh wounds into his heart.  Joe rolled over and ground his knuckles into his eyes.  He didn’t want these feelings, these dreams.  The gaping maw they opened was too huge to contain, but they were like rats ripping and shredding his insides, tearing their way to freedom.  He curled into a ball, trying to crush down the emotions.  It didn’t work now any more than before.  He gave up and staggered to stare at his reflection in the mirror.  He buried his face in his hands, unable to bear it.  There had to be a way to stop thinking, remembering.  There had to be!

*****

Hearing his name, Ben turned to see Roy coming down the boardwalk toward him.  He took the man’s hand with a smile.

“I haven’t seen you in Virginia City since the army came through.”

“I’ve stayed on the ranch to be close to Joe.”

“He’s taking it mighty hard.”

“Yeah.  He hasn’t been out of his room in days.”

“What?  But… ”  Roy scratched the back of his neck.  “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Little Joe’s been here almost every day this week.  He sits drinking whiskey then heads on home, taking a bottle or two with him.”

“That can’t be.”  Ben stared at his friend.  It couldn’t be true, but Roy wouldn’t lie to him.  But he’d have known.  Wouldn’t he?  “Is Joe there now?”

“Nope, he rode out a couple of hours ago.”

*****

Ben’s foot struck an abandoned bottle when he strode into Joe’s room.  The room reeked of alcohol.  Why had he left him alone?  He’d given him space to grieve, but instead, his son drowned his sorrows in liquor.

The curtains were still drawn, and in the dim light he made out Joe spread-eagled on his front, one foot and arm lolling over either side of the mattress.  Ben tore back the curtains and flung the window open.  The figure on the bed groaned and groped for a pillow to cover his head.  Ben picked up the chair and sat down to wait, letting the sunlight and fresh air do its job.

The form moaned and tossed the pillow aside.  The creature shuffled on his belly until his hand managed to reach the bedside table.  The long fingers groped the surface.

“Looking for this?”

The creature froze.  A single red-rimmed eye appeared, peeking through the disheveled chestnut curls.  Its grating voice, deep and husky.  “Yeah.”

The eyes’ hungry gaze fixed onto the bottle Ben held.  The hand extended, ready to accept what it needed.

“If you want it, come and get it.”

The whole face dragged into view and Ben saw the ravages of his son’s excesses.  The blood-red, glassy eyes, unshaven chin, and sweat-soaked forehead.  Ben’s stomach clenched.

The creature glared, resentful and angry.  “Just leave it and get out.”

“Nope.  I’m stayin’ right here and so is this.”  Ben lifted the whiskey for Joe to see.

Joe’s top lip curled back.  What right had Pa to interfere?  But he needed that whiskey.

“Fine.”  Joe squirmed to the edge of the bed.  He reeled but stayed upright.  “Give me the bottle.”

“You want it, take it.”

Joe lurched, making a grab for the whiskey, and found himself knocked on his butt.  “What’re you doing?”

“I didn’t say I’d make it easy for you.”

Anger clawed up Joe’s back straightening it as it went.  He sprang and managed to get a hand around the neck of the bottle.  To his astonishment, Pa held tight to the rest.  Back and forth, they wrestled, Joe scrambling on his knees.

“Give it to me!”

Dragged nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball his father challenged, “Why?  So, you can soak your mind in liquor and hide from the truth?”

Joe recoiled.  “Yes, damn you.  Yes!  Don’t I have the right not to remember?  Not to think about … what happened?”

“I understand.  I lost three wives- ”

“No, you don’t!  You lost wives, not children  … who’d barely begun to live.  And you were there.  I wasn’t!  I should’ve been … but I wasn’t.”

Joe ran a shaky hand over his mouth.  Pushing up, he made his unsteady way to the window to rest both palms on the frame.  He gazed out but saw nothing.

“You’re right.  I don’t know what it is to lose a child.”

“Every second, every minute, every hour of every day, I hear them calling, screaming.  It won’t stop.  Nothing makes it stop, except … so, leave the bottle and leave me alone.”

His father moved to stand behind him.  “It won’t work.  Liquor won’t solve your problems.  You have to face what’s happened.”

Joe flung away to pace back and forth.  Why couldn’t Pa leave him in peace?  He didn’t want this, any of this.  He dropped back on the bed, kneading his hands between his knees.

“I can’t get it out of my head.  How scared they would’ve been … and they were alone.  They would’ve cried out for me.  To help and protect them.  Don’t you understand – I wasn’t there!”  Joe lifted his head.  Gone was the husband and father, leaving just the son who needed his Pa.  “Help me … oh God, … please … help me.”

Pa took him in his arms like he was ten years old again, not caring how he stank of spirits and sweat.  Joe turned into him, grateful beyond words.  Held tight and close, he let go of the myriad of possibilities that tortured him, allowing the grief to flow, and be accepted.

*****

Crossing the yard, Joe was brought up short seeing Will Donley, one of their neighbors.

“Hi, Will.”

“Little Joe.”

“What brings you here?”

“I came to see if Ben would buy the farm.  I’m moving on, decided to start somewhere fresh.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Thanks.  Your Pa’s been real good.  I’ve never had a negotiator bid me up before.”

“Sounds like, Pa.”

Will fiddled with his rein.  “I can’t be around the place no more.  Not with Katy and Ryan gone.  I should’ve been there for them.”

There it was, staring him in the face – that same guilt.

“I know, but you can’t blame yourself.  None of us can.  We had no way of knowing.”

A silence fell, both men understanding the other.

“Well, I’ll be going.”

“Bye, Will.”

Ben stepped away from the window.  He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but when he heard Joe’s voice, he was drawn to see what the two would say to each other.  The door opened, and he engrossed himself in his ledger.

“I ran into Will outside.  Sorry to hear he’s leaving.”

“Yes.  He was a good neighbor and a good man.”

Joe nodded.  “I’d better wash up.”

Ben watched his son go up the stairs.  Did Joe really mean what he told Will?  He liked to think so.

*****

Joe surveyed the idyllic country, his body neither warmed by the sun through the window, nor his spirits lifted.  There was still no news from the Army of their search for Attacking Wolf and Eva.

The giggle preceded the movement caught from the corner of his eye.  His head snapped around, but Ellen wasn’t there.  Just ghosts of memories sent to haunt him, offering unbearable moments of hope.

Thrusting out of his chair, he marched downstairs to find his father.

“I’ve had enough!  I can’t just sit and wait.  I hav’ta find Eva.”

“I know waiting for news is hard.”

Laying palms down on the desk, Joe leaned toward his father.  “I can’t do that any longer.“

“Trust me.  This is for the best.”

Joe dropped his head.  Could Pa be right?  He didn’t know a damn thing anymore.  His judgment was shot to hell.  “All right, but I don’t know how much longer I can wait.”

Thrusting away, Joe strode out of the house.

Watching the exchange from his chair, Adam commented.  “You can’t let him go.  What would it achieve?  He has no idea where to look.”

“I know.”  Ben’s hands lay on his desk, clasping and unclasping.

“You’re doing the right thing.”

His son’s words comforted him.  Joe going after Attacking Wolf would be the worst thing he could do.  It was Hoss who changed his mind.

“It’s killing him staying here.  He needs to look for Eva, and I promised him we’d go.”

“He’s in no fit state to go traipsing over the countryside.”

“If he stays, he’ll be in a worse one.  Face it, Pa.  He’s working himself into the ground trying to keep his mind off Eva.  At night he’s pacing his room when he ain’t creeping downstairs to drink.”  Ben shot Hoss a startled look.  “Ain’t no sense in denying it, we all know.”

This was true.  Joe kept off the drink during the day, but at night…  Ben gave in.

When told of the decision, Adam snapped shut the book he’d been reading.  “I thought you’d agreed letting him go would be pointless.”

“I was wrong.”

“What good would it do him, out there alone.”

“He won’t be.”

Adam’s gaze switched to Hoss.  “You’re planning on backing him up on this foolish venture?”

“That’s right.”

“And you think that’s a good idea?”

“Yeah, I do, an’ if you don’t take that tone out of your voice, older brother, I’m gonna- ”

Ben cut him off.  “All right, simmer down both of you.  Adam, it’s done Joe no good keeping him at home.  This is what he needs.”  Ben cut a look across at Hoss.  “Keep him off the drink.”

“I don’t think I’ll need to, but, I will.  This is for the best, believe me.”

*****

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Hoss’ certainty was fading.  For three weeks they’d ridden to every town and army post.  Talked to any Indians friendly enough and came up blank.  At each town with a telegraph, he sent a wire home.  The messages became a monotony of disappointment.   ‘No News.’  ‘No News.’

The lack of success crushed Joe.  Appearing older every day, Hoss had to remind himself that he wasn’t even twenty-three yet.

They followed up any lead.  The slightest whisper of a rescued white woman sent them to another place.  Each time Hoss suffered through the rise of hope in Joe, only to see it dashed again.  The rumors often proved false, but where they found a rescued woman, seeing the rambling wreck, she been reduced to by her brutal captivity was terrifying.

Worse, were the dead.  Hoss would watch while Joe checked the body.  Joe refused to show any emotion, but Hoss didn’t miss the quiver in the hand that reached to pull back each blanket.

News of two white women recovered from an Indian named Attacking Wolf sent them on a frantic ride to the outpost.  Part of Hoss dreaded getting there, knowing how hard Joe would take it if neither were Eva.  He sent up prayers that the nightmare was over, and she’d been found at last.

The sergeant shook Hoss’ hand and flicked his eyes at Joe.  He didn’t care for dealing with civilians.  Too many like Joe had crossed his path.  Broken, haunted men one step from collapse.  He kept his gaze on the big man.  “Oh, yes, Cartwright.  We got your wire.  Didn’t they tell you?”

Unease stirred, and Hoss queried, “What?”

“These women are dead.  We’re holding their bodies long enough to try and get an identification.”  Joe buckled beside him, but Hoss was quick to put a hand under his arm.  “Is he all right?”

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.”  Hoss turned to Joe.  “Let me go.”

Typical of younger brother, he shook his head and pushed away from his support.  Hoss didn’t argue.  Joe would do this even though it killed him.  As they marched the steps toward the storehouse, Hoss prayed again – this time that it wasn’t Eva.

They checked at the door of the tiny storeroom to adjust to the gloom.  In front, two figures lay on pallets covered with a thin blanket.  Hoss’ eyes never left his brother’s stiff back.  When Joe lifted the covering and a sob wrenched out, he surged toward him.  “Joe!”

“It’s not her.  It’s the Turner twins.”

Hoss stopped dead in his tracks.  Lilly and May Turner.  He’d seen them last at church.  They were celebrating their fifteenth birthdays and May’s engagement.  Hoss’ dropped his gaze and caught a glimpse of the bloody heads devoid of their strawberry blond hair.  They’d been scalped.  He turned and walked away.

Standing rigid, Hoss breathed deep, dragging in the air he needed.  He turned back at the noise.  Hanging off the side of the building, Joe vomited the little he’d eaten that day onto the ground.

*****

Hoss wrapped another blanket around his trembling brother and frowned.  After hasty goodbyes to the sergeant, he’d put Joe on his horse and rode away to find a place to camp.  Joe hadn’t said a word or stopped shaking since they left.  He pressed the cup of hot coffee into Joe’s quivering hands.

“C’mon, you take a sip of this an’ you’ll feel better.”  To Hoss’ relief, Joe drank the pungent liquid.  “That’s it, buddy.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Dadburnit.  I can’t tell you.  Some people just got hate burned into them.”

Hoss hunkered down beside him.  The two sat shoulder to shoulder in silence.  Bit by bit Joe leaned over to rest on his brother.  Hoss took the weight gratefully.  The knowledge he’d been wrong in bringing Joe to look for Eva weighed a whole lot heavier.

“D’you think she’s dead too?”  The whispered words were soft like wind through meadow grass, but they cut Hoss to the bone.

“You can’t think that way.  We’ve gotta have faith and believe she’s still alive.”

He’d made a mistake.  Joe was being torn apart every bit as bad as staying at home would have done, and Hoss needed to bring it to an end.  They were within four days’ ride of the Ponderosa and, although he might get an argument from Joe, he decided to head home.

*****

They rode into the next town mid-morning and put up their horses in the stables.

“You go get a room while I send the telegram.”

Hoss got a grunt in reply.  Slumped and bowed, Joe shuffled toward the shabby hotel.  From the back he looked ninety.  A bleakness settled in Hoss’ heart.  Six weeks since the raid, he began to fear Eva would never be found.  But, hardest of all was seeing his little brother’s hope drain away drop by drop.

Hoss scratched his usual message on the tablet of paper.  “I need to send a telegram to Ben Cartwright in Virginia City.”

The little man behind the desk peered at Hoss through his horn-rimmed glasses.  “Did you say, Cartwright?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“I’ve got a message here for a Hoss Cartwright.  That you?”

Hoss stepped out of the telegraph office and stared at the wire in his quaking hand:

Hoss.

Come home.  Eva rescued and safe at Ponderosa. 

Pa.

*****

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Grabbing Joe’s rein, Hoss hauled Cochise to a halt.

“Dadburnit!  I said, stop!”

Joe was pushing the horses in a way Hoss would never have thought possible of his younger brother, and he’d had enough.

“I know you want to get home and see Eva, but I ain’t letting you kill the horses.  Now they need a rest an’ so do you.”

“Fine.  Rest the damn horses.”

Joe swung off Cochise, flicked the reins at him and marched away.  Hoss tried again.  “The telegram said Eva’s safe.  She’s at home with Pa.  The best place she can be.  Another day ain’t gonna make no difference.”

Joe shuddered through the breath he released.  “You’re right.  Sorry.”

Little Joe had endured hell, and he wasn’t going to hold his anxiousness to get home against him.  “We’ll get there.  Don’t worry, an’ all in one piece.”

Joe put a hand on Hoss’ shoulder.  Words weren’t required.  Gratitude, reliance, and apology all exchanged in the gesture and look.  It passed between them like sunlight through glass.

He held Joe in check until they were within a mile of the house.  The familiar sights and sounds filled Hoss with calm, but Joe grew more jittery the closer they got.  Hoss understood his urgency and, at last, set Chubb into a gallop.  Joe followed and overtaking him, raced ahead.

*****

Joe burst through the door.  Pa and Doctor Martin jumped up at his precipitous entrance.  His mouth dried to sandpaper.  “Where is she?”

“Upstairs in the far guestroom, but … Joseph!”

Ignoring the shouts, he leapt up the stairs and skidded to a halt before the bedroom door.  The woman he loved, the woman he’d almost given up for dead lay on the other side.  He turned the door handle and went in.  Joy exploded in his chest.  There she was beautiful as ever.  He smiled and moved forward.  The scream made him jump.  Visceral and shocking, it froze him to his core.

“Eva?”  She clawed at the headboard and screamed louder.  “Eva, it’s me, Joe.”

From her seat by the window, a woman ran to soothe his screeching wife.

“Stay away!  Keep him away!”

The words seared his soul.  The shrieks battered him.  Then hands caught and pulled him from the room.

He heard Paul Martin’s voice, “You need to leave her.  Come downstairs, let me explain.”

He let himself be led away.  Behind him, the shrieks squeezed the life from his heart.

Drooped on the settee, hands limp between knees, those terrible screams reverberated in his head.

“Did you hear what Paul said?”

He lifted his head, and Pa’s face came into focus.  “What?  Oh, yes.”  He had to pull himself together.  “She’s in shock?”

“She reacts that way to any man who goes near her,” Paul confirmed.  “Hardly surprising I guess after … well, her ordeal.”

“She’ll be okay, though, right?”

“I hope so.”

“What do I need to do?”

“Physically, Eva’s in good shape.   Other than that, to be honest, I don’t know.  I would guess, be patient.  Don’t try to rush things.”

His whole world had fallen apart.  All he had was this glimmer of hope.  He grasped it and held tight.

After seeing Paul off, Ben returned to the house.  Both his sons looked exhausted.

He dropped a hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “Eva will be all right.  We’re all here to help you take care of her.  But, right now, I think you both need a bath, food, and some sleep.  Tomorrow everything will look a lot better, I promise.”

Ben waited, unsure if Joe heard him.  About to repeat himself, Joe’s gaze shifted and focused on him.

“What happened?  Where did they find her?”

“It was pure luck.  Troops out of Fort Churchill came across a small band of Bannocks trading prisoners.”

“Fort Churchill?  All this time she was so close.”  Joe’s jaw clenched.  “They were selling her like an animal.”

“Let’s just be grateful we got her back.”

Urged to their rooms, Ben told them he’d get the hot water and food.  They headed for the stairs when the front door flung open.  Adam strode in.

“I met the doc, he said Joe and Hoss … there you are.”  Adam took Hoss’ hand, then went to take Joe’s.  “For heaven’s sake.  You look awful.”

Hoss glowered at his older brother.

“Off you go, you two.”  Ben waited until they gone before adding, “That wasn’t helpful.”

Adam pulled a face.  “Sorry, he took me by surprise.”

“I know, but it’s nothing good food and sleep won’t take care of, and now Eva’s back he’ll be fine.”

“Has he seen her?  Does he know?”

“He ran up to the room before we could stop him, and her reaction was exactly the same.”

“Poor kid.”

 

 

“We’ll be there for him.”

“Sure, Pa, always.”

*****

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Joe held the spoon to his wife’s lips and waited.  The process of feeding was slow, but Joe had cultivated patience.  Getting here had taken resolve.  Tiny moves until Eva accepted his presence and he could take over her care.  But the success came laced with a dread of the trance-like state that held her captive.

“You would’ve laughed seeing Hoss trying to catch the chicken for your soup.  He ain’t got the knack.  Those birds were running rings ‘round him.  If Hop Sing had left it up to him, you’d be eating chicken soup without the chicken.”  He kept up the chatter, day in, day out, about everything and anything, except for one subject – their children.  “You’ve eaten it all.  Good girl.”

Since sudden actions caused panic, he made sure to keep his movements slow and gentle when he wiped her mouth with the napkin.

Shards of sunlight danced on her hair and turned the blue of her eyes to crystal.  When he found her gaze on him, his heart leapt.  Hope rushed in to be replaced by disappointment when the blank gaze drifted away again.

He forced back the smile and cheerful tone.  “We’ll go for a stroll soon.  It’s warmer today.  What d’you think, should we risk a ride down to the lake?  Would you like that?”

As usual, there was no reply, no flicker of interest, no change to her demeanor.  Running a hand over his mouth, he tried to hold tight to the faith that drained a little each day.

A noise outside drew him to the window to see the doctor’s buggy sweep into the yard.  Had another week gone by already?

Paul continued to check on Eva.  For the sake of the haggard young man, who’d taken on the burden of her care, he smiled and repeated how pleased he was with her progress.  Privately he thought the prognosis a dismal one.  Returning downstairs, Ben waited with the usual cup of coffee.

“How is she?”

“No change.  The shock’s still deep.  I can’t say whether Eva’s aware of what’s going on around her or not.  We can only pray she’ll come out of it eventually.”

“Will she?  Will she come back to us?”

Paul considered the question.  He had no wish to give his friend false hope.  “I can’t say. You’ve seen how she is.  Like a sleepwalker, awake but not.  There’s every chance she’ll improve, but there’s also a good chance she won’t.”  Paul shot a look at Ben’s grey features, another sign of the heavy toll this situation took on the whole family.  Were they ready to contemplate other options?  “The truth is Eva may remain in this state for the rest of her life.  It might be time to consider alternatives.”

“You mean an institution?”

The idea appalled Ben, but before he had the chance to say more, a voice barked, “Were you planning on telling me about this, or just plot behind my back about packing my wife off to an asylum?”

Fist clenched, his body taut like a rope holding a rearing mustang, Joe stalked down the stairs.

“We were only talking.”

“Yeah, I heard what you were only talking about, and if looking after Eva’s too much of a burden, tell me.  I’ll take her home anytime you want.”

“Now wait a minute.  When have I ever questioned looking after Eva?”

“It’s my fault.  I wanted to make Ben aware of the options.”

“Then get out and don’t come back.  I don’t want a doctor who’ll conspire against my wife.”

“That’s no way to talk to Paul.  It’s not what you think.”

“Isn’t it?  Is this the first time, or have there been others when he’s talked about Eva like that?”

“We would never…  Joe, Paul’s your friend and doctor- ”

“Not anymore.”  Joe rounded on the unhappy medical man.  “I told you to get out!”

“That’s enough!  Nobody orders anyone from my home, and while you’re living under my roof, you will not talk to Paul that way!”

Heart sinking, Ben watched Joe’s face settle into hard lines and the blaze in his eyes deepen to a furnace.  “That can change.”

When Joe strode back up the stairs, Ben called after him, but to no purpose.

“I’m sorry, Ben, I didn’t mean… ”

“This isn’t your fault.  He’s upset, don’t worry.  I’ll talk to him.”

*****

The house bathed in early fall sunshine looked lovely, even peaceful.  From his vantage point, no sign of the violence that left it scars on them was visible.  He needed to go on, to assess the damage, and see what repairs were required, yet he didn’t move.

Thirty minutes ticked by, then forty.  The voice made him jump.  He hadn’t even heard Adam ride up beside him.

“D’you want me to come with you?”  Joe didn’t take his eyes off the building.  Bright yellow curtains with tiny white daisies flapped through the broken kitchen window.  When Eva picked the material, she’d told him how even in the darkest winter they’d have a little bit of summer in the house.  “Joe?”

He unclenched his jaw.  “No.  I don’t think so.  Eva and I can move into town.”

“Don’t be foolish.  You know you can’t do that.”

“Oh no, older brother?  Watch me.”

Out of his saddle in a flash, Adam yanked Joe to the ground.

“Now you listen to me!  Pa would never plot behind your back or send Eva to an institution, and you’d realize that if you calmed down long enough to think.”

Joe scrambled to his feet.  “You weren’t there.”

“And what exactly did you hear?”

Speaking as if to a stupid child, Adam’s tone flamed Joe’s temper.  “That Eva should go to an asylum.”

“Pa said that?”

“Yes!  No…  at least… ”

“I thought as much.  You went off half-cocked as usual.  He’s doing everything he can for Eva, but you accused him anyway.”

“I know.  I’ll apologize to Pa and Paul.”

“Damn right, you will.”

Adam stalked away, and Joe turned his back.  He’d lied to everyone.  When he’d overheard Paul … for a fleeting moment, he’d felt relief.  He’d been the one to give up on her.  His stomach churned with self-loathing.

“Are you okay?”

The soft words startled him like a gunshot.  He spun around.  He didn’t deserve Adam’s concern.  “Yeah.”

Joe’s gaze strayed back to his home.

“I’ll come with you.”  Joe hesitated.  “You need to do it sometime.  There must be things you want to collect?”

The image of what he’d found last time slammed Joe’s mind.  He stepped back, recoiling from the sight.  “No, not yet.”

“All right, fella, another time.”

*****

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Joe opened the window to let in the cooler air.  It might be the beginning of October, but today dawned hot.  Maybe Eva would enjoy a trip down to the lake.

There was progress.  Every member of the household could sit and talk with her.  He still battled his fear, and he saw in Hoss’ forced cheerfulness, Adam’s determined calm, and Pa’s relentless optimism they were all doing the same.  But he wouldn’t, couldn’t give up on Eva.

The tap at the door brought him from the window to answer.  Hop Sing trotted in carrying a tray laden with breakfast.  He placed it down on the table and beamed.  “Missy Eva, look better today, Little Joe.  I make her favorite breakfast.”

He said the same words of encouragement every morning, and it took effort for Joe to manage a smile in return.  “Thanks, Hop Sing.  It looks good.”

He ate his meals with Eva at the little table between the two comfy chairs by the window.  Pa hadn’t objected because he knew to encourage Eva to eat, he’d do the same.  The satisfied look on Pa’s face each time he brought down empty dishes was obvious.

After laying out the plates and cutlery, he turned to fetch her and lurched to a halt.  The breath caught in his throat.  She was looking at him, and this time her gaze didn’t drift away.

“Joe?”

One hand reached for hers, the other pressed against the side of her face.  “Eva.  You know it’s me?”

“Of course.  What happened?  Why aren’t I at home?”

He pressed her fingers to his lips.  What could he say not to frighten her?  “You haven’t been well, sweetheart.”

“I haven’t?”

“No, but you’re gonna be fine now.”

She smiled, and he caught her in an embrace, hugging tight.

She stiffened.  “Let me go! ”

He sat back, mortified at her reaction.  “I … I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, it’s all right.  I don’t know why… ”

“It’s okay, don’t worry.  You need to take small steps.  I get that.  Will you be all right for a minute?  I wanna tell Pa and the others you’re feeling better, and I think we should get the doc to look at you.”

“I’ll be okay,” she assured him, but when he reached the door, she called, “You won’t be long?”

“No.  I promise.”

He took the stairs two, three at a time, bounding down them.  The three men at the table looked up startled.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked.

“Eva’s herself again.”  His family were out of their seats, surrounding him.  “I’d like Paul to check her out, can you send one of the hands?”

“Right away.”  His father looked him in the eyes, his rich voice filled with warmth.  “We’re all glad for you.”

Joe swallowed over the lump in his throat.  “Thanks.  I hav’ta go, I promised Eva I’d be quick.”

His family watched him bounce back up the stairs.  Ben’s hand tightened on the banister newel.  “Thank God.”

Joe burst back into Eva’s room.  The expression of alarm vanished in a moment, but he cursed his stupidity.

“Sorry, I should’ve thought.  I didn’t mean to startle you.  The doc’s on his way.”  Joe remembered the dishes on the table and pulled a face.  “I forgot all about breakfast.  It’ll be cold by now.  I’ll ask Hop Sing to make some more.”

Her hand tightened around his wrist, holding him in place.  “Can I see the children?”

Wide eyes watched him, innocent and unaware.  She didn’t know the appalling truth.  What would happen if he told her?  Would it send her spiraling back into shock?  “Let’s have the doc look at you first, and we’ll see about that later, ‘kay?”

Disappointment crossed her features, but she didn’t argue, and he drew a breath.  “Later,” he’d told himself, “we’ll deal with that later.

*****

“I’m always pleased to see my patients recover and never more so than now.”

Eva smiled at the doctor.  She’d listened to his gentle explanation of shock but, hearing the date had dismayed her  since the last thing she remembered was looking forward to their fourth of July party.

When she asked what happened, Joe took her hand. “What do you remember?”

Her mind crashed into a blank wall.  The next moment Joe and Dr Martin were comforting her while she cried.

“What’s wrong with me?”

Paul patted her hand.  “It’s the shock, all perfectly normal and understandable.  You need to rest and give yourself time to get better.”

“Will my memory come back?”

“I think so.  Don’t try to push the memories.  They’ll return when they’re ready.”

“Can I see Ellen and Thomas?”

“Eva- ” Paul began, but was interrupted by Joe.

“Not yet.  I want you to get stronger first.”

“Oh, but, Joe.”

“For a little while.  Please, for me.”

As always, she was won over by that handsome face.  When he left to see Paul out, her gaze drifted to the window.  The sky shone blue and clear, yet something terrifying danced around the edges of her consciousness.  Shivering, she turned from it back to the beautiful sky.  Joe was right, a little time would be good.  She couldn’t let the children see her like this.

****

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Joe passed them on his way to the kitchen, water jug in hand.  Ben glanced at his other two sons who watched him with stoic expectation.  It was time.

“Can we talk?” Joe’s head came around, and Ben saw his jaw tighten.  He figured Joe would be expecting this.  “When are you going to tell her?”

“Not yet.  It’s too soon.”

“It’s been four days, and Eva’s asking for the children more and more.”

“I know, but she’s not ready.  Now’s not a good time.”

“There’ll never be a good time.”

The jug crashed down.  The knuckles on Joe’s hands turned white as he clutched the edge of the shelf.

“What if it sends her back into shock?  I won’t risk that.”

Ben rubbed his hands up and down his son’s arms.  “She’s a strong woman.  Look at what she’s survived.  She needs to know the truth.  It’s not fair letting her believe the children are alive.  The longer you wait, the harder it’ll be.”

“I can’t!“

Pushed aside, Ben stood back as Joe grabbed the jug and walked away.

In the main room, his older brother’s guilty looks betrayed their knowledge of the conversation.  He marched passed without a second look.

He was fighting the inevitable, but every time he tried to tell Eva the truth, the scene in his head, held him back.  He didn’t know she was reaching her own decisions.

More and more, the visions of men with blurred faces who manhandled and violated returned.  She tried to tell herself they were just dreams, but part of her knew this wasn’t true, and the need to understand overcame the fear.

Eva stood looking out the window.  He replaced the jug and went to her.  When she turned, he stopped.  “What’s wrong.”

“I need to talk to you.  I remember pieces of what happened.  Some men came to the house, but I can’t see them clearly.  Who were they?”

Joe closed his eyes.  The moment he dreaded had arrived.  “Indians.  They raided the valley.”

“Indians… ”

*****

The morning was beautiful.  Eva waved goodbye to Joe and returned to the house.  Chores were waiting.

The broom over the wooden planks raised a healthy dust cloud.  She swept the dirt off the porch with a flourish and looked up.  Eva tilted her head, seeing another rise of dust in the distance.  It was too early for Joe to return.  Her eyes squinted against the sun.  She must be mistaken, the brightness playing tricks. 

The laughter caught her attention.  Ellen and Tom raced out of the house, their bare feet smacking on the wooden porch.

“Stop right there!”  Guilty faces turned, and both pairs of hands were tucked behind out of sight.  Eyes the size of sauces watched her approach.  “What are you two hiding?”

The soft, crumbling texture of the cookie fell away under the thumb she ran down the corner of Tom’s mouth.  The pungent smell of ginger tickled her nose.

“Have you two been raiding the cookie jar?”

Two little hands appeared with a half-eaten biscuit in each, and a sorrowful chorus announced, “Yes ma’am.”

“And what’s the rule about cookies?”

Ellen twisted a foot inward.  “We ask before taking.”

“That’s right.  Why didn’t you?”

Tom eyes filled with tears.  “I’s sorry.  I forgot.”

“Me, too.”  Ellen held out her cookie.  “You can have mine.”

The tiny bite sent an explosion of cinnamon over her tongue.  Handing the rest back, she told them.  “Okay.  You are forgiven because there’s plenty of time before lunch, and you shared.  But next time, please ask.”  Bright smiles replaced the downcast faces.  She handed them a basket.  “You can go fetch the eggs.” 

With a squeal of delight, the two raced off toward the hen house. 

“Finish the cookies first!”

Returning to her sweeping Eva stopped again when the flurry of crows soared into the air.  She stilled.  What had disturbed them?  Searching the horizon until her eyes watered, nothing came into sight. 

The horses in the corral lipped at the grass, calm and undisturbed.  Their tails flicking away the flies that buzzed at their flanks.  In the vegetable garden, the barn cat lay stretched out dozing in the shade of the plants.  The only sound was Ellen instructing Tom to be careful with the eggs.

When the children climbed up the porch steps carrying the basket between them, they moved inside.  When she set it on the table, the eggs chinked together.

“Let’s see.  How many today?”

They counted out five.  Tom wrinkled his nose at the smell of chicken poop stuck to some.  Eva wiped each smooth shell clean before placing it in the egg stand.  The last one, warm under her fingertips, made her laugh.  “Mrs. Chicken must’ve just finished laying this one.”

Ellen ran a stray feather through her hands.  “It’s so soft.”  Leaning across, she tickled the back of Eva’s hand.  The responding laugh died on Eva’s lips. 

Through the window, she saw them.  Painted like devils, they walked their horses toward the house.  There was no noise.  No screaming or hollering, just Indians stretched out in a line that seemed to have no end. 

“Ma?”

Broken out of her trance, she looked down into the eyes of her curious children.  She caught their hands and ran them to their bedroom.

“Both of you, scoot under Ellen’s bed.”

“Why?”

“We’re playing a game.  You must hide and not make a sound.  Don’t come out until Pa, or me, come for you.  Understand?”

Tom giggled and snaked under the bed, but Ellen stared back at her.  Eva looked into the hazel eyes of her little girl and hugged her tight.  

“Can I have Sally?”

Eva grabbed the doll.  The china face cool against her skin, even in the heat.  “Here.  Hush now.  No noise.”

Watching Ellen vanish under the bed, Eva sent up a silent prayer.  Running to the parlor, she grabbed the rifle, bolted the front door, and looked through the window.  She was surrounded.

Three shots – that’s all she managed.  Three shots that hit nothing, before they broke the door in.

Dragged, screaming, and fighting from her children and home, the last thing she remembered was the fist coming toward her.

*****

“I left them alone.  Where are they?  Where are my children?  Tell me they’re all right!”

Joe looked down at his hands.  Strong hands.  Hands he believed could do anything he needed.  But wrapped around hers now, they trembled.  “ I’m sorry … but they’re dead.”

They hung there for a long moment, Eva staring into his eyes.

“Dead?  It can’t be.  You… you told me I would see them.  But all this time they were dead?  You lied to me?  How could you?  Why would you let me think they were alive?”

“I thought it might make you ill again.  I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have lied.”  Pa was right.  He’d been wrong and cruel not to tell her.  She drew away from him, only a few inches, but the distance hurt.  “They were killed in the raid.”  He then told her what he’d prayed was true since he’d found his babies.  “It would’ve been quick.”

“This isn’t right.  They can’t be … you’re lying to me.  Where are the children?”

Tears began to pool, hearing the suffering in her voice.  He’d kept the truth from her too long, and now she wouldn’t believe him.  “I did lie, but not anymore.  They’re gone.  I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.  We’ve lost our children.”

“No.  No.  Stop saying that!”

“Eva… ”

“Stop it!  Stop it!”

The first slap startled him, but Joe didn’t move, nor did he try to prevent the second or third.  When she kept on hitting him, he did nothing.  He deserved it all.

The bedroom door flew open, and Pa darted across the room to wrap his arms around Eva.  He tried to turn her into his chest, but she resisted.  “You liar!  Where are they!  Tell me!”

“They’re gone.  I’m so sorry.”

Eva dissolved into torment.  “Not my babies.  Oh, God, not my babies.  I can’t bear it.  My babies!”

Joe sprang for the door.

“Joe!  Come back!”

Ignoring Pa’s cry, he reached the stairs, and found his brothers waiting at the bottom.

“What’s happened?”

Joe didn’t answer Adam but marched right passed.

Crashing through the pines, Joe staggered on, not caring where he went so long as it was away.  Reaching a clearing, he slumped down on a fallen tree, needing space, peace, time to think.  He got a few minutes.

“Dadburnit.  What’re you doing out here?”

He couldn’t raise his head to look at Hoss.  “I had to get out of there.  I couldn’t take it, seeing her suffer.”

“You gotta go back.”

“Didn’t you hear me?  I can’t.”

“So, what are you gonna do?  Sit out here and whine, while Eva deals with it alone?”

At the accusation and worse, the disappointment in Hoss’ words, Joe flinched, but there was no explaining how spent and useless he felt.  “I got it so wrong.  I should’ve told her.”

“Okay, maybe you shoulda told her sooner, but you didn’t.  You were wrong, and she’s gotta right to be angry with you, but you ain’t got no right to leave that gal grieving alone, and if you don’t see that, then you ain’t the brother I know.”

How selfish had he’d been?  God knows, Eva deserved so much more.  Pa had tried to tell him, and he hadn’t listened.  Well, he’d damn well listen now.  “You’re right.  Eva comes first.”

*****

Joe nodded to Pa and took his place.  His heart went out to his huddled wife.  “I’m sorry… ”

She unfurled and flung herself at him.  Fingers clawed deep into his flesh when she pulled him to her.  “Don’t leave me.  I need you.  I need you so much.”

She was in his arms.  Nothing else mattered.  Behind him, his family backed out of the room, leaving them alone.

“I should’ve told you straight away, but I did what I thought was best.”

“Who for?”

Joe bit his lip.  He deserved that.  “You’re right.  I wasn’t thinking of you.  Forgive me.”

“No.  I’m sorry.  I just … to know they’re … dead.”

Joe’s arms tightened around Eva’s slim frame, and he held her while she cried.  His own tears fell, but the truth was told, and a weight lifted.

He continued to hold her until Hop Sing knocked at the door bringing lunch.  They pulled apart.  The idea of releasing the embrace almost painful, but the storm had broken, and they survived to reach calm waters.

“I’ve lost my locket.”  Joe paused in his task of laying out the dishes.  “It must’ve fallen off when I was taken.”

He returned to hug her.  “It doesn’t matter.  It’s just a locket.”

“But their pictures.”

“We don’t need pictures.  It’s all right.  I promise.”

“We’ve lost so much… ”

“I know, but we have each other and our memories, nobody can take that away.”

“Where are they?”

“Next to Ma.”

“I like that.  It’s such a beautiful place.  Can I see them?”

The request didn’t surprise him, but still he asked.  “You sure you’re up to that?”

“Yes.  I want to say goodbye.”

“Okay.  We’ll go tomorrow.”

*****

Eva’s grip tightened around Joe’s biceps.  Her tension made the bouquet of wildflowers she carried quiver.  Joe kissed the top of her head.  They stood at the bottom of the little path that led up to the bluff where their children’s graves joined his mother’s.

“You ready?”

She nodded.  He saw how pale she was and the way she trembled.  Her bravery humbled Joe.  Their beloved children would never be forgotten, but they had each other.  Together they would grieve, sharing their loss.

Arm in arm they trod up the path.  They would say their goodbyes and take those first steps toward moving to a new future.  With Eva at his side, Joe knew they could do anything.

*****

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

“D’you think Joe will like it?  It’s for his birthday.”

Ben stopped in his preamble from the kitchen to his chair to look at the knitting Eva held out.  Tilting her head like a bird, she cast critical eyes over the creation.  It struck Ben how young his daughter-in-law looked.  With all she suffered, he found it hard to believe she was only twenty-one.

“He’ll love it.”

Eva gave a squeak hearing voices and boots on the porch.  She tucked the scarf out of sight just in time.  Her face lighting up when Joe strolled in with his brothers.

Her reaction cheered Ben’s heart.  They now all realized that Eva remembered every part of her ordeal.  They were careful not to touch on the subject, but they saw its mark in how she withdrew from physical contact.  Only Joe could embrace her, and they remained in separate bedrooms.  Ben was heartened further, seeing the intimate looks they exchanged when Joe kissed her.  Maybe, they were getting back to normal.

Ben asked, “How did it go today?”

Adam stretched out his back before he plopped down onto the settee.  “We managed to move the main herd down to the low pasture.”

“But I reckon we still got a lot of beeves tucked away playin’ hide and seek with us.”

Eva giggled, and Hoss grinned.

“Hoss is right.  We’re gonna have a job scaring them out of that scrub.”

“An’ I reckon we might get snow.  That’ll make it harder goin’.”

Ben caught the look flicked his way before Adam sat forward.  “That reminds me.  Have you thought about your house, Joe?”

“What?”

“Well, like Hoss says, the weathers gonna turn soon.  You might want to make it sound before winter sets in.  I’m happy to ride over with you.”

Since the attack, his son hadn’t thought about his home, but they knew he needed to make some decisions.   Although Joe  paled at the suggestion, it looked like he agreed.

“I guess you’re right.  I need to get on it if we’re to move back.”

“Move back?”

Joe turned to Eva and took her hand.  “Not yet.  Not ‘til I’ve got it looking as pretty as a picture.”

“How can we ever go there again?  Why would you think I’d want to live there?”

“It’s our home.”

She pulled her hand away.  “Not anymore.  I don’t ever want to go back.”

“It’ll be all right.  I’ll make sure it’s safe… ”

“How can you say that?  You told me we were safe before, remember?  But we weren’t.  You can’t ever promise me that again.  I’ll never go back.  My children were butchered there.  I hate the place!  It can burn to the ground for all I care.  That’s what I want you to do.  Burn it down!”  Her voice breaking, Eva turned and ran up the stairs.

Aghast at Eva’s reaction, Ben stood.  “Joe-”

“She’s right.  We can’t return there as if nothing happened.  I should’ve realized.”

Joe followed Eva, and Ben turned to Adam, who shook his head.  What happened next surprised them both.

“What did you hav’ta go an’ do that for?  Ain’t they been through enough without you bringing up the house?”

Ben jumped in to defend his oldest, “We both agreed it needed to be discussed.”

For once, Hoss’s anger didn’t abate.  “Then you’re as much to blame.  That poor little gal’s just starting to think about the future, and you go and throw the past in her face.  It were too soon, and it weren’t right.”

The door slammed behind Hoss, and Ben turned with dismay to Adam.  “I think he may be right.”

*****

By the time Joe came downstairs, Hoss had returned.  Joe sat on the sofa and clasped his hands together between his knees.

Contrite, Adam offered, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”

“It’s okay.  You’re right.  I should’ve taken care of it before now.”

Hoss rested his big paw-like hand on his shoulder.  “No, you shouldn’t.  You gotta do these things in your own time.”

“Thanks, but it has to be done.  If it’s all right, Pa, I’ll take the buckboard over tomorrow and collect the belongings we want to keep.”  Adam and Joe offered to go, but Joe shook his head.  “Not this time.  I need to do this on my own.”

“Anything you want,” Ben reassured him.

*****

It’s only a house.  No, this was our home.  He crossed the porch and went in.

The book of poetry, Adam had given Eva for a birthday gift, lay under their broken settee.  Joe ran a thumb down the rough edges of the torn binding and hoped it could be repaired.

Smashed plates and shattered glass containers crunched under his boot when he entered the kitchen.  Flicking broken pieces of crockery aside, he managed to unearth the silver cake knife Eva’s father had given them as a wedding gift and added it to the crate he’d brought.

From their bedroom, he retrieved Eva’s bible.  His finger glided over the course paper, tracing the ink, where she inscribed their wedding day and the children’s birthdays.  The memory of each day so clear to him.  He closed the book and added it to the rest.  Hearing the metallic thud when his foot hit the picture frame, he looked down.  Taken on their honeymoon in San Francisco, the Ambrotype was shattered.  He left it lying there.  They would take other pictures.

Standing at the doorway to his children’s bedroom, he could see that efforts had been made to wash away the bloodstains.  His heart began to race.  The scrubbed boards faded, replaced by a pool of blood seeping from under two small broken bodies.  That was the moment he’d known – known his children … his little Ellen and Tom were dead.  His shoulder met the door frame as he steadied himself and pushed the unwanted memory away.

His children’s wooden animals lay scattered, and he collected and wrapped each one.  Spotting something under Ellen’s bed, he reached to pull it out.  His fingers tightened around the cotton dress of the doll.  Images of the last time Ellen would’ve held it choked him.  Sweat beaded his lip, and he grabbed the crate and staggered from the room back into the air.

Leaning against the buckboard, he allowed himself a moment.  That’s when he spotted it, kicked over, and covered with dirt.  How easy it would’ve been to miss.  Picking up the locket, he ran a thumb over the intricate decoration before tucking it into his jacket pocket.

*****

Hoss pulled Chubb up next to his older brother.  “What’re you doin’ here?”

“I could ask you that question?”

“Same as you I reckon, checking Joe’s okay.”

Hoss gave and received a rueful smile, and they continued toward Joe’s home.  His stomach flipped when he spotted the smoked curling up in the azure blue sky.

“What the… ?” Adam gasped, and the two set their horses into a gallop.

In front of the home he’d set ablaze stood their younger brother.  Before they’d drawn rein behind him, Hoss was yelling, “Joe!  What did you do?”

“It had to go.”

“But, your house?”

“I promised her, Hoss, and it’s one promise I can keep.”

“All right,” Adam told him.  “We understand.”

Following Adam’s lead, Hoss placed a hand on Joe’s other shoulder.   If this is what it took to erase some of the pain, he would be okay with that.

“C’mon, let’s get you home.”  Hoss reached down and removed the empty coal oil can from Joe’s slack grip.  He tossed it aside.  “Say, why don’t I drive you back?”

He tightened his fingers on Joe’s shoulder when his brother didn’t argue but instead went without a word.  Tying Chubb to the back, Hoss climbed up.  Adam brought his horse alongside, and the three men rode away, leaving the building behind them to collapse into ash.

*****

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

Ben watched his son and wife stroll across the yard, arm in arm.

“She’s looking better all the time.”  Ben glanced over his shoulder at Adam, who joined him on the porch.  He agreed.  He’d been disturbed at first by Joe burning his home, but it did make a difference.  Adam asked, “How was the trip to Virginia City?”

“Good.  Eva enjoyed it.  Although, Joe stuck by her side like a guard dog.”

“Can you blame him?  We’ve all seen how the good citizens of Virginia City can treat survivors like Eva, all in the name of decency.”

“I’ll never understand such thinking.  But so long as we are here, Eva will never be subjected to such prejudice.”  Seeing Adam relax some of his tension, Ben smiled.  Joe wasn’t the only guard dog.  “They’ve been through so much.  When she moved into Joe’s bedroom yesterday… well, I know you all think I worry too much.”

“When you stop worrying, I’ll start.”

Ben chuckled.  “Nonetheless.  I’m glad they’re sharing a bedroom again.”

“They love each other.  That makes all the difference.”

*****

After supper, Ben broached a subject he’d been ruminating on for a few days.  “Joe, it’ll be your birthday soon, how about a small party to celebrate?”

“Thanks, but not this year.”

“Not a big affair.  A few friends for dinner, maybe?”

“I don’t want any celebrations.  The family will be fine.”

It saddened him, but Ben accepted the decision and let the matter drop.

It was Eva who raised the subject again as they prepared for bed.  “Are you sure you don’t want a party?”

“That’s the last thing I want.”

“I don’t want you not to celebrate because of me.”

“I’m not.  Don’t worry.”  Joe dragged on his nightshirt, climbed into bed, and slipped an arm around Eva.  Each night he held her until she drifted off to sleep.  Having her next to him was all that mattered, and he never asked for more.  “They’ll be other birthdays.  I’ll celebrate then.”

“Your birthday last year was such fun.”

Joe smiled at the memory.  The cake Eva baked.  Their house full to overflowing with family and friends.  His children’s excitement…  The loss, a sharp stab to his heart, brought his thoughts back to now.  “Yeah, I remember.”

Eva fingered the locket she hadn’t taken off since he’d returned it, polished like new.  “I miss them so much.”

“Me too.”

“Do you … do you think we can have another baby?”

Startled that she had doubts, Joe turned her to face him.  “Of course.  We’re still young.  We’ll have more children when the time’s right.”

When he kissed her, she touched his cheek, holding his lips against hers.

“Make love to me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.  I want you to love me.”

Showering her with gentle caresses, Joe’s love flowed from his body onto Eva’s.  Every sinew and muscle worked toward her rapture.  Every sensual move made to arouse.  Over and over he whispered his love when he made them one. Fingers gouged into his back while her cries urged him faster.  He plunged, and her screams of ecstasy filled the air.

Lying back, Joe turned his head and startled up onto his elbow, dismayed to see tears running down her face.  “What’s wrong?”

“Hush, it’s all right.  Thank you for making it beautiful.”  Her arms wrapped around his neck.  “Have I told you how much I love you?”

He smiled with relief.  “Often but tell me anyway.”

*****

A feeling of tranquility washed over Joe when he awoke.  Eva was by his side, and they’d become one again.  Moving flowing locks off her shoulder, he kissed it, moving up to her lips.  His heart plummeted when her eyes flashed open in terror.  The look vanishing in a moment.

She smiled.  “Good morning, my husband.”

He let the moment of distress pass without comment.  “Morning.  Did you sleep okay?”

“Yes, wonderfully.”

“Time to get to work.  Smells like bacon for breakfast.”

“Kiss me again before you go.”

*****

“Morning family.”  Joe smiled around the table.  “Did we all sleep okay?”

Hoss became preoccupied with his breakfast, while Adam smirked into his coffee cup.  When his father cleared his throat and stated, “We all slept fine,” Joe grasped that something was wrong.

“What’s going on?”

“I was thinking.  It might be a good idea for you and Eva to have a room that’s more private.  I thought the one at the end of the hall would be best.”

Joe blanched.  “You heard!”

Hoss’ face scrunched like he was sucking a lemon.  Adam’s smirk widened.  “Yes, we heard.  My room and Hoss’ are either side of yours, after all.”

His stomach shriveled when Hoss added, “It weren’t that bad.”

A groan escaped him when Pa went on, “We’re happy for you both, believe me.”

“Fine, fine.  Just don’t say anymore, or anything to Eva.”  The horrified expressions on their faces told him they’d no intention of doing so.  “I’ll tell her we need a larger room.”

Embarrassment aside, the move proved beneficial.  The couple embraced their new sanctuary, and sure in the knowledge they wouldn’t be overheard, Joe enjoyed making love twice more in the following week.  He dared to let himself dream of a new baby.

*****

“What d’you think?”

Their vantage point allowed them to see the meadows that fell away to Lake Tahoe in the distance.  He watched her face eager to see her reaction.

“It’s beautiful, but I don’t understand, why are you showing me this?”

Joe shifted in his saddle.  He hoped she’d like it, but nerves kicked in, and he hesitated.  Her wide eyes found his.  He ducked his head, fighting the butterflies.  Come on, Joe, get on with it.

“If we removed those trees, we would have a clear view down to the lake.  I thought this would be the perfect place to build our new house.  I’d build it two stories this time, that way we can see for miles.  You’ll have a new garden, and we’re only twenty minutes from the main house… ” he trailed off when she turned away.

His heart sank.  He’d picked the location with care.  The elevated position and closeness to the family was the best spot he’d found.  He wanted, needed, her to feel safe.

“It’s lovely.”

The relief made him giddy.  Swinging off Cochise, he helped her dismount and together they walked the area while he described his plans.

“Soon as the weather improves, I’ll start work.  By summer, we’ll be in our new home.”

*****

Ben refilled his glass of brandy.  His sons and daughter-in-law clustered around the dining table, excited as a bunch of kids watching Adam make sketches for Joe and Eva’s new house.

Joe broke the news at dinner, and they’d been talking non-stop ever since.  Every detail was discussed, from a balcony to the layout of the rooms, and the type of stove for the kitchen.  Ben breathed in the buzz, happy and proud to see them making plans for their future.

Picking up the decanter, he offered, “Can I refill anyone’s glass?”

*****

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

Clouds rolled their grey blanket over the mountaintops.  The wind’s sharp edge forced Joe to turn up the collar on his sheepskin coat and cram his hat down tighter.  They’d finished bringing the cattle down from the high pasture just in time.

“I sure hope Hop Sing made enough fried chicken.  I’m starving.”

“He’d hav’ta slaughter the whole hen house to satisfy you.”

Hoss grinned, relishing the joke, the first his little brother had made since the Indian raid.  “You’d just better beat me to the table’s all I’m sayin’.”

Rolling his eyes at their nonsense, Adam followed behind the laughing pair as they cantered around the barn.  The laughter died on Joe’s lips.  The doctor’s buggy sat in the yard.  His brothers were right behind him when he crashed through the front door.

“What’s wrong?  Why’s the doc here?  Is it Eva?”

“Eva’s fine.  She fainted, but just to be sure I called out Paul.”

A restraining hand checked him when he made for the stairs.  “Paul’s still conducting his examination.  Let’s wait for him to finish.”

Joe scowled, but old habits die hard, and he perched on the edge of the sofa.  A heavy tread on the stairs brought them all to their feet.

“Doc?”

“She’s fine.”  Joe’s relief shattered when Paul placed a hand on his shoulder and continued, “Joe, Eva is with child.  I would say she’s about three to four months along.”

“What do you mean?  She can’t be, we’ve only just…  Dear God … no.”  The world reeled, but Joe pushed back the wave of disaster.  He had to focus on Eva.

“I’ve explained the situation to her.  She understands.”

Joe’s stomach twisted.  His poor Eva.

Ben watched Joe tread up the stairs.  “I can’t believe this has happened.”

“We all knew it was a possibility.”

“After all they’ve been through, I thought they would at least be spared this.”

“I’m sorry, Ben.  I’ll take my leave since there’s nothing I can do here.  Eva’s a healthy, young, pregnant woman.  She doesn’t need my help.”

“Doesn’t she?  What do you think this will do to her?”

“Adam… ”

“It’s all right.  I can heal the body, Adam.  I leave it to the minister to heal the spirit.”

After Paul left, the three men sat silent.  Each trying in their own way to process the news.  Ben thought of his family and all they’d been through.  How much more would they be asked to endure?

*****

Eva looked up when Joe entered the room.  She’d been crying.

“The doc told me the news.”

“I can’t have it.”

The misery in her voice plunged a knife into his heart.  “I understand.  I’ll find a way, a family who’ll take care of it for us.”

“What?”

The strange look in her eyes unsettled him.  Did she say that for his benefit?  Had he been too quick to suggest they give up the child?  “But, if you want to, I’m okay with keeping it.  The baby will be part of you.  It doesn’t matter that its father’s a Bannock… “

A Bannock?”

“Yes.  He’s not important.  The baby would be ours.”

“He?  Oh, no.  There was no he.  Don’t you see?  There wasn’t just one.”

“You don’t hav’ta tell me.  It’s all right.”

“There were many, so many.  Every time one finished, there’d be another.”

“Stop it, Eva.”

“Every buck got to try me.”

Panic writhed around his gut.  He couldn’t hear this.  “I don’t need to know.”

“Why not?  You’re my husband, you should know who else used me.  I waited for you.  Prayed you’d come.  You didn’t, but they did, every day.  One after the other, and I let them do whatever they wanted.

“Don’t you see?  I became their whore.  That’s what you’re married to, the leavings of Indian bucks.”  Why would she tell him this?  Why wouldn’t she stop?  He begged her to stop, but she kept on, “I’m ruined, and so are you.  Wherever you touch me, a buck’s been there too.  Every day they came and took me, pushed their filthy, swollen- ”

He caught her shoulders and shook.  “Don’t ….  Don’t say such things!”

“I wasn’t human, only an animal they rutted.  That’s what you’re married to now, an animal!”

“Stop it!”

To his horror, she began to laugh.  Wild, harsh, cruel laughter that cut into him.  “You’re married to a pig.  A pig or a dog … less than a dog.  I spread my legs for them, all of them, many times.”  Her mouth opened to laugh, but instead, a whine erupted.  Quiet at first, it built, louder and louder.

Joe retreated to the end of the bed and clamped a shaking hand tight around his mouth to keep in the howls.  Wasn’t it enough to know she’d been raped?  Couldn’t he be spared the details?

The woman he loved rocked back and forth, wounded, and broken.  His eyes filled with tears.  What right did he have to refuse to hear her?  She’d lived through hell and come out the other end.

He’d been an idiot, trying to ignore what happened.  It was part of them now, a vast gaping wound he had to heal before it festered and poisoned them.  He moved back and did what he should have done right at the start – heard her.

“I’m sorry, my love.  I’m sorry for what they did to you.  Tell me.  Tell me everything.  I’ll listen … always.”

She began to convulse.  The wail ebbed and turned to sobs, and he held her while she cried.  If nothing else, he could do that.

Long minutes ticked by.  Eva pushed out of Joe’s arms, and after wiping away her tears, told him.  “I’m ready.”

*****

Coming to from the blow that knocked her out, Eva almost threw up.  The touch on her shoulder made her start.  She looked up to see another woman. 

“Be still.  We’ve stopped to rest.”

Eva looked around.  There were five of them.  She recognized the twins, Lilly and May, and Jennifer Shaw.  Next to them, Mrs. Mason wept, but this woman was a stranger.

“I’m Charlotte Dawson.”  Eva nodded.  The band of Bannocks sat on the other side of the clearing.  One stared at Mrs. Mason and scowled.  Charlotte whispered, “She won’t stop crying.”

All the other women sat together in silence.  Even at fifteen, the twins knew better than to make a fuss.  Why didn’t the foolish woman see how angry the Bannocks were becoming?  She didn’t know the older woman well, but something had to be done. 

“Mrs. Mason, please.  You hav’ta stop.”  The sobs hitched louder.  “Please, you must get a hold of yourself.”

The Indian made Eva jump.  He hauled the crying woman up, who began to scream.  Thrown to her knees, with one swift stroke, the Bannock sliced her throat.  The man laughed, flung the lifeless body to the ground, wiped his knife, and walked away.  Shoving away from the lifeless form, Eva rejoined the other silent, horrified women.

Horses rested, their hands were tied, and they were thrown onto a horse in front of a buck.  Eva glanced back to see Mrs. Mason’s body left lying in the dirt where she’d been dropped.

Willpower was the only thing keeping Eva on the horse by the time they stopped for the night.  She huddled with the others, while the Bannocks built their fires and made their meals. 

“Aren’t they going to feed us?”

Eva glanced at Charlotte, taking in the Eastern clothing and accent, and wondered if she’d ever seen a Bannock before.

“I doubt it.” Jennifer hissed back. 

“We’re their prisoners.  They have a duty to at least give us water.”  Before anyone knew what was happening, Charlotte stood.  “Gentleman.  Yes, you.  We’ve travelled for hours, and we’re thirsty.  I insist you give us some water.”

The Bannocks looked bemused at first.  Then two moved toward them.  She’d seen that look once before in the eyes of Zeb Rance.  Eva pushed back from Charlotte’s tall figure and curled into a tight ball.  Ducking her head, she prayed.  Prayed they didn’t take her.

She didn’t look up.  Not when Charlotte screamed, or when clothing ripped.  The sounds made her press deeper into her knees.  When laughter began, she dared to peek.  Braves danced around, draped in Charlottes’ dress and petticoats. 

Waking with a start, Eva found a water bag shoved into her hands.  At some point during that hideous night, she’d managed to fall asleep.  Told to stand, the women were taken to the horses.  Charlotte was nowhere in sight.

The arrival at the Indian camp was marked by humiliation.  They were laughed at, pushed, and prodded.  Eva felt sick seeing the way the braves stroked the twin’s blonde hair and touched their faces.  Herded into a tepee, they were left alone.

To Eva’s relief, food and water were brought in.  The Indian women placed down the bowls and left.  Eva gobbled down the stodgy mash of millet and rice grass, but noticed the twins weren’t eating. 

“You should eat.  We don’t know when we’ll get another meal.”

“Those Redskins … their gonna … rape us, ain’t they?”

Eva stared back at Lilly.  There didn’t seem any point in lying.  “Yes.”

“We’ve never been with a man that way.”

“I’m sorry.”

Jennifer looked up from her food.  “Don’t worry.  Our families will come.”

Eva prayed Jennifer was right, prayed Joe would come.

That first night they were left alone, and the next day separated.  Placed into the stewardship of a buck and his wife, the squaw put Eva to work.

After a hard day and a meagre meal, Eva was tied to a stake driven into the floor of the teepee and left alone.  Thoughts of Ellen and Thomas flooded her.  Joe would take care of them, but she swallowed back tears thinking how frightened they must have been.  Shifting position away from the stone digging into her back, she tried to get comfortable.  Then the first one came.

Each time she sent her mind to another place.  It was some other Eva lying there.  The foul breaths that huffed in her face, the course, sweaty hands that beat and groped, and the weight of the bodies that crushed hers were blocked out, but nothing erased the degradation.  There was no way to bear having your soul ripped out. 

Life became a cycle of abuse.  To avoid discovery the camp moved often, and the squaws worked them hard.  The few hours of sleep she snatched at night her only respite.  Never left alone and always watched they were tied at the ankles, to prevent escape .  Exchanging words with the others was tricky and being caught meant a beating.  Jennifer seemed to be holding up well, but Eva was fearful for the twins.  Both so young and now separated from each other,  they seemed to be withering before her eyes.  She still thought of home, but the hope of being rescued faded as the days stretched into weeks.

Eva adjusted the basket and added another handful of rose hips.  Her head turned at the sound of feet snapping twigs from men running through the undergrowth.  She caught a fleeting glimpse of feathers and breechcloth.  Bucks must be hunting, and her mouth watered at the idea of deer stew.  Meat had been thin on the ground.

Pushing further into the bush, the thorns scratched, leaving thin tendrils of red on her skin.  She ignored them.  Going back with a basket half-full wasn’t an option.  The leather thong tying her ankles made it hard to balance when she stretched up for the shiny red globes.  She crushed some of the fallen orbs under her foot, releasing the earthy smell of fallen leaves and hay.  It reminded her of the barn.

The whooping and screeching made her jump.  What the heck were those bucks doing?  They’d little chance of catching anything, making that noise.  The prospect of deer withered.  She filled her basket and went to join the other two squaws foraging blackberries.  Eva’s basket was checked, and they headed back to camp.  

When they returned, the ruckus caught their attention.   The whole village had gathered.  Eva followed and joined the crowd.  She peeked through to see Jennifer held by two bucks.   She’d managed to cut herself free and tried to run, and now faced punishment. 

Attacking Wolf emerged from his tent.  The man never appeared without his war paint.  Warped with hate, he exuded arrogance and hostility.  Jennifer glared back at him.  Standing tall, a wild, red halo of unkempt hair around her, she looked magnificent.  Eva’s heart began to pound.  When Attacking Wolf slapped her, Jennifer spat in his face.  The act of defiance made Eva gasp.  So brave and stupid.  This man was their leader.  A position he had to uphold.  A silly, white woman wouldn’t be allowed to defy him.  She must’ve flown six feet when he struck her.  Eva willed Jennifer to stay down, say nothing, show no weakness. 

“You pig!  My husband will kill you.”  Tears began to stream down Jennifer’s face.  “I want to go home.  Let me go.  Please!  My husband will give you anything you want.”

Eva stared at Attacking Wolf.  This man had no pity.  His face contorted with a sneer and his hands formed into fists. 

The sounds would return to haunt Eva.  His punches breaking bone, pounding organs.  The gurgle when Jennifer’s lungs filled with blood and the final grunt when her skull cracked.  She saw when the light left the young woman’s eyes, but still, he kept on.  When he stopped and raised his bloody hands to the sky to scream his victory, there was nothing left of her face.  Throughout it all, Eva didn’t move or say a word. 

The twins didn’t talk anymore.  Their hollow, empty eyes terrified her.  Was that her future?  From then on, she avoided them.

The next time the camp broke, Eva was taken to join the twins.  She began to sweat.  Four braves loaded ponies with spoils from their raids.  They were told to mount.  Riding out of the village, Eva understood.  They were to be sold. 

It wasn’t much of a prospect being traded as a slave.  Sunk in despair, Eva didn’t pay any attention to the trading, until three bucks arrived, drunk and raucous.  They pawed her, but their attention was caught by the twins.  Loud but fast haggling followed, and the men soon rode out with their prizes.  Now Eva was alone. 

The world exploded.  Gunshots crackled the air and bullets whined hitting the earth in a shower of dirt.  Screeches of men rang out before they dropped dead.  Ears covered to shut out the terrible noise that pounded her senses, Eva curled into a ball.  Her heart raced so hard she struggled to breathe.  Grabbed, she turned and stared into the face of a man in uniform.  Her screams took everything away. 

*****

Joe hadn’t taken his eyes from Eva the whole time.  Every nuance and movement that gave away her agony inflicted a fresh wound.  He thought the burden would be lifted once she’d told him everything, but unhappiness hung on her still.

“Now you know the truth.  I’ll understand if you don’t want me.”

“What?”

“If you want you can divorce me.  I know I’m sullied … disgraced.”

“My God, woman, what are you talking about?”  Unable to hold back, he pulled her to him.  “I’m sorry.  Sorry I didn’t save you.  Sorry, you went through that.  Thank you for not giving up and coming back to me … for being strong.  I love you.  Oh, God, I love you so much.”

He shut his eyes and caressed her with his cheek, their tears blending.  Never would she know the suffering her words inflicted, but he’d gladly accept more because she was his, and he loved her.

*****

Chapter Thirty

 

The winter sun had slipped beyond the horizon by the time Joe came downstairs, and the Cartwright’s cook busied himself laying out dinner.

“Hop Sing, could we have ours on a tray?  We’ll eat upstairs, Pa, if that’s okay?”

“Sure.”  Ben laid a reassuring hand on his arm.  “If you need anything…”

“You heard?”

“Some.  I understand how upset Eva must be.”

“Thanks.”

Joe returned to Eva with the ladened tray.  Ben’s gaze stayed on the stairs, even after his son turned the corner out of sight.

At his shoulder, Hoss asked, “What can we do to help him?”

“Be strong for him.  He’s going to need a lot of strength, and he may need yours.”

*****

Late into the night, Joe slipped out of his room.  Lit by the dying embers in the massive stone hearth, the great room lay in shadow.  Joe picked up a glass and the whiskey decanter and headed to Pa’s overstuffed chair.

His mind returned to Eva.  How she’d hung on to her sanity, let alone her life, he didn’t know.  Others might’ve been shocked by what he’d heard, but not Joe. She’d come home to him, and that’s all that mattered.  But, by God, it had taken something to hear.  The toll her captivity would take scared him.  She’d never be the same, and neither would they, but he’d deal with that tomorrow.  Tonight, was for getting drunk.

Three glassfuls in, a creak on the stair alerted him to an intruder on his goal.

“You okay?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’m just great.”  Stupid, letting the bitterness into his tone.  He knew it would bring his father down.

“Do you wanna talk?”

Hell, no.  “I just wanna have a drink in peace.”  Of course, why would Pa let him do that?  Instead, he lowered himself onto the table and waited.  Joe gave in.  “I’ve been a fool.  I thought when Eva recovered, we could forget about what happened.  I had no right to think that.”

“You can’t- ”

“No, don’t tell me I’m not to blame.  I was, but it’s okay. We can put it right.  But, all I wanna do right now is get good and drunk.”

The chastisement he expected didn’t come.  To his surprise, Pa fetched another glass and poured a measure.

“I’ll join you, and when you’re ready, I’ll help you to bed.”

Joe raised his glass in salute.  “Thanks.”

*****

Chapter Thirty-One

 

The next day Joe told Ben the fate of the other women.  His father would wish to let their families know.

“First the twins, and now Bertha Mason.  Poor Charlotte Dawson had only arrived on a visit to her brother the day before.  What a tragedy.  Jennifer too, such a pretty, spirited girl.”

“Yeah.  Remember how surprised we all were when she married Bill?  If he spoke ten words in a day, it was a miracle.”

Ben smiled.  “Bill was the only one for her.”

“At least she didn’t see what they did to him.”

“They’re together now, we can take solace in that.”

****

Anxious that the men she’d come to love would reject her, Eva kept to their room for three days.  When she finally made it down and was received with nothing but understanding, she burst into tears.

Ben put a hand on her knee.  “Please don’t cry.”

“How can you bear to look at me?”

“We all care about you, and nothing will ever change that.”

She wept even more and loved them even deeper, but inside it changed nothing.

*****

“I can’t do this.  Once I start to show, people will realize it’s not yours.  They’ll know I’m disgraced.”

Joe hugged tightened.  She was in no way to blame, so her shame baffled him, but he understood the fear of other people’s condemnation.  He would never allow her to be treated with unkindness.

“It’s too late to go now, but once the pass clears, we will.  Once you have the baby, we’ll return.  No one need ever know.”  When she didn’t move or say anything, Joe looked down at his wife.  “What d’you think?”

“I guess … that may work.”

Her reply told him she wasn’t convinced.  I wish I could do more, my love.  I wish none of it happened and you didn’t have to endure this.  But wishing won’t change a damn thing.  He kissed her on the cheek.  “Don’t worry.  It’ll be all right.”

Eva buried her head in his shoulder.  “Why’s God punishing me?”

“He’s not.”

Her eyes were blurry with tears when she looked at him.  “Then, why?”

He’d asked the same ever since he’d found his children.  Why would God allow this?  The unanswered question left his insides hollow.  “I don’t know.  I can’t tell you.”

“Hold me.  Hold me close.”

Joe did, the inability to take away her unhappiness aching him to his bones.

*****

Eva listened to Joe breathe while he slept.  She loved Joe with every fiber of her being.  She’d allowed herself to look forward to the future with him, and the possibility of more children.  But the past played another ugly trick.

She’d tried to explain, but how could a man who valued all life understand?  It wasn’t a question of not keeping the child.  Her emotions went deeper and darker.  The abomination in her belly wasn’t human, but a manifestation of a nightmare.  Feeling it grow made her skin crawl, and the idea of birthing it turned her stomach.  She’d rather die than carry this monstrosity to term.  There was no other way.  Eva wiped away the tears.  She hated to deceive Joe, but she wouldn’t compound her sin by involving him.

Her opportunity came with the plan to bag some game before the first snow.  At the last minute, Joe’s concern almost thwarted her chance.

“I’ll stay if you want.  Adam and Hoss can go without me.”

“I’ll be fine.  I want you to go.”  When he hugged her goodbye, she clung to him.  Receiving a quizzical look, she covered by telling him, “You be careful now.”

With a laugh on his lips, Joe left.  Now, she had to deal with Ben.

“I thought I’d get some fresh air and take a ride while I still can.”

Ben paused in his paperwork.  “Would you like me to join you?”

“No, thank you.  I think I’d like to be alone.”

Eva remembered the woman from the building on D Street, who’d purchased her father’s chemicals and herbs for ‘keeping girls clean’, and ‘freeing them of unwanted packages.’

The madame’s eyes narrowed with suspicion at Eva’s request, but the proffered money overcame any qualms.  Her conscience pricked when she handed over the bottle.  An odd sensation, but enough to prompt her to raise one painted brow and offer a word of caution, “I ain’t ever used it on a gal as far along as you.  I don’t know if it’ll work, or if it’s safe.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone where I got it.”

*****

“Did you have a good ride?”  Eva jumped in her march to the stairs.  She’d forgotten Ben would be there.  “You missed lunch.  I can have Hop Sing make you something.”

“Thanks, but, I’m not hungry.  I think I’m going to rest for a while.”

“Are you feeling unwell?”

“No, a bit tired is all.”

Under Ben’s curious gaze, a flush crept up her cheeks, but if he noticed he didn’t say.  Taking her chance, she escaped upstairs.

It didn’t look like much, but the small vial of liquid represented freedom from the abomination within and the chance of peace.  Still, she hesitated.  The terrible sin she was about to commit weighed with her, but not enough.  Moving to measure out the dose, the woman’s words came back.  She’d only get the one chance.  This had to work.  Putting the vial to her lips, she drank the contents.

*****

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

The brothers rounded the barn, grateful to be home and out of the cold.  The fat dear strung over the packhorse displayed the hunt’s success.

Dismounting first, Joe pushed the barn door open.  His heartbeat quickened, seeing the doctor’s buggy.

Hoss moved around Joe to get into the barn.  “Looks like Doc Martin’s here.  Guess he decided dropping in for supper would be better than waiting ‘til he got home.”

Hoss’ words made sense.  Not every visit was about Eva, doc visited Pa all the time.  Joe breathed easier and gave himself a mental kick for his overreaction.

The metal of the harness jangled when he removed it to hang on the waiting hook.  Flipping up the stirrup, he began to undo the cinches.  His fingers were numb from the cold, and he had to fight the stiff straps.  Depositing the saddle on its rack, his gaze fell on the front seat of the doctor’s buggy.

“Hey, the doc’s taken his bag in.  Why would he do that?”

“D’you really think he’d pass up the chance to check on his second favorite patient while he’s here?”

Joe grinned at Hoss.  Although he wasn’t sure Eva would be impressed.

The job of grooming was one Joe always enjoyed at the end of the day.  The brush’s gentle rhythm when he swept it through Cooch’s coat and the smell of horse, hay, and oats were familiar and comforting.

Horses bedded down the brothers hung the deer and headed for the house and supper.  Joe wrapped his collar around his neck, against the biting cold air.

Announcing their arrival, they marched through the door.  Joe hung his hat and coat and turned.  The look on his father’s face drained the blood from his.

“I’m sorry.  It’s Eva.”

Joe bolted for their room.  He froze at the door seeing the shrouded figure on the bed.  Reeling forward, he dropped to his knees and pushed his face down into the mattress, his fingers clawing the material between them.  Sobs broke, and he let them come.

Adam and Hoss stood rooted to the spot.

“What’s happened?”

Ben shook his head, unable to get the words out, and Paul answered, “Eva is dead.”

His legs too weak to hold him, Hoss staggered to the sofa.

Adam’s face was grim.  “How?”

Broken-hearted, Ben stared at his sons.  Never would he tell them how she suffered for hours.

The screams sent him up the stairs to find Eva writhing on the bed in agony.  When Paul arrived, Ben’s surge of hope shriveled once the bleeding started.  The look on his friend’s face told Ben it was beyond his powers to help.  It shocked him how quickly the end came after that.  Before she slipped into unconsciousness, Eva’s last words were to his son.

Ben rubbed his hands together, trying to erase the impression of Eva’s sweat-soaked hand that clung to him.  At least his youngest had been spared that terrible ordeal and they’d had the time to clean Eva, the room, and remove the tiny stillborn babe.

Unable to find the words to answer Adam, Ben found a glass of brandy pushed into his hands.

“Drink it,” he was instructed before Paul told Adam.  “Eva took something to induce a miscarriage and hemorrhaged.”

The two staggered to chairs, and Paul poured more brandy before slipping away.

*****

Ben put down his glass and stood.  He’d waited long enough.

“Let me.”

Ben patted Adam on the shoulder.  “No.  Thank you, son.  I’m his father.  This is for me to do.”

Joe didn’t turn his head when Ben entered.  He stayed in his seat, staring out of the window.  “Tell me what happened?”

“Eva had a miscarriage.  She took something, which caused her to hemorrhage… ”

“What’re you saying?  She did it on purpose?”

Shock and horror settled on his son’s face.  Ben placed a hand on his knee.  “She didn’t suffer.  Her thoughts were of you.  She said she loved you and was sorry.”

“What did she hav’ta be sorry for?  I’m to blame.”

“How could you-?”

“No.  It was my fault.  She didn’t want to have the baby … I thought … if I’d listened, I would’ve understood what she was telling me.”

“If you’d known, what could you have done?”

“Helped her.”

“But, to even think of doing what she did.”

Joe jerked out of his chair.  “Why not?  Better that, than this!  I’d have used my last dime to find a doctor to help her.  I’d have given everything because what do I have now?”

“You can’t think like that.  Whatever Eva felt … to take a life … to commit such a sin.”

“What sin?  Eva didn’t do anything wrong.  Those savages raped her, and you talk like this is her fault.”

“Of course not, but two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“What the hell do I care about right and wrong?  I was her husband.  I was supposed to keep her safe.  My God, how alone and desperate must she have felt?  I just prattled on about how everything would be okay once she had the baby.”

“You weren’t to know.”

“Get out, Pa.  Leave me alone.  I need to be alone.”

Ben hesitated, but gave in. “All right.  I’ll be waiting downstairs.”

The haggard look on his face told Adam and Hoss all they needed to know.

Hoss scrubbed a hand over his eyes.  “I can’t believe she’s dead.  It just ain’t fair.”

Hop Sing appeared with the coffee tray and set it down on the table in front of Ben.  He looked around the row of faces and, for the first time, sat down unbidden on the sofa.  “Missy Eva was lovely lady.”

The four didn’t move.  Each lost in their thoughts but drawn together by their love for the young man grieving upstairs.  The coffee grew cold as the shadows lengthened.  The only life and movement in the darkening room, the fire that danced and played in the hearth.  Finally, Hop Sing rose, lit the lamps, and collected the undrunk coffee.

For a moment, he stood as if trying to remember what to do next.  “I go get supper.”

Startled out of his reverie, Ben’s gaze went to the stairs.  “I’ll check on Joe.”

He turned up the lamp and the gloom retreated.  “Supper’s ready.

“No, thanks.  I’m not hungry.”

Cold permeated the room, and Ben replenished the fire before going to the door.  He stopped and looked back at the silent figure.  “Are you sure?”

Joe didn’t answer, and Ben closed the door.

*****

CHAPTER Thirty-Three

 

“It’s time to go.”

Joe took one last look in the mirror.  He wanted to be perfect for Eva.  He made one final adjustment.  “I’m ready.”

Dressed in black, a neat row of somber men waited for him by the front door.  Adam handed out the coats, and Joe’s gaze fell on the scarf hanging on the rack.  Eva’s gift to him on his birthday, the last she’d ever make.  When his family went on ahead, Joe snatched the scarf and held the soft wool to his cheek.  He breathed in the lingering scent of her, letting it flood his senses until they threatened to overwhelm him, before returning the scarf to the peg and following the others.

*****

The path stretched out before him.  At the end, a new grave yawned ready.  Soon all his dreams would be buried.

“Do you have a dream?”

Joe turned his head at the question and looked into large, blue, innocent eyes.

They’d met only yesterday, and he asked her to take a drive with him to the lake.  He wanted to be alone with her.  He needed to let all that beauty assimilate into his being and work out what he’d found. 

Like a fool, he’d blathered on about Pa’s dream to build the Ponderosa and here she was asking about his.

“I guess.  To raise the best cattle and horses in the territory.  Build a home of my own and have a whole passel of kids.  What about you?”

“To stay in one place.  To have a home that’s not on wheels, and a little garden.  I’ve always wanted to plant things and be around long enough to watch them grow.  Does that sound silly?”

“Nah.”  He leaned over and tasted her lips for the first time.  “It’s good to have dreams.”

He’d lied to her.  Dreams were illusions that destroyed your soul when they were smashed.  “There’s no point in dreaming.”

“What did you say, son?”

Joe jumped and found himself back in the real, desolate world.  “Nothin’.”

The preacher cleared his throat and opened his bible.  Joe let the words wash over him and instead asked himself the same question as Eva.  “Am I being punished?”

He grew cold as his gaze ran from grave to grave.  What kind of merciful, loving God allowed those who did this to go free?  How could there be no retribution?  In the cold grey of that joyless morning, the thought he must deliver his own, seared his soul like the Devil’s own branding iron.

*****

Feeling it best Joe didn’t stay in the room where Eva died, Ben moved him back into his old one.  Joe hadn’t objected, and Ben knocked on his door to call him for lunch.  He found him loading a saddlebag.

“Going somewhere?”

“Yeah.”

When it became apparent Joe wasn’t going to offer more, Ben asked, “Where?”

“Since the army can’t find Attacking Wolf, I’m gonna.”

“If they haven’t, what makes you think you will?”

“One man may be able to find out more.  I think it’s worth a try.”

“But the snows will be here any day.”

“I know.  That’s why I need to go right away.”

“Now?”

“I’ll leave in the morning.”

Ben’s racing heart slowed.  “Come down and eat.  We can talk again later.”

“You won’t change my mind.”

Over dinner, Ben attempted to do just that.

“I’m going,” Joe insisted.

“And if you find them, what then?  You’d be one against many.”

Ben winced at Adam’s tone, but couldn’t deny his point.  Joe could.  “I can wire the fort and let them know.”

“Assuming you’re anywhere near a town with a telegraph.  Chances are you won’t be, and you’d be stuck out there all alone.”

“Adam’s got a point.  It’s too dangerous.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Iffin you’re set on going, I’ll come with you.”  Ben didn’t know whether to be grateful to Hoss for the offer, but Joe’s refusal chilled him.  Joe had never refused his brother’s help before.  “Ain’t no use telling me you don’t need help.  If you go, I go.”

“If there was some sense to it, we all would,” Adam added.  “But, there’s not.  Face it, Joe, what you’re planning is plain foolish.”

When Ben agreed, Joe slammed his napkin down and stood.  “They were my family, and this is my life.  Butt out and mind your own business.”

“Adam!” Ben warned, when his eldest began to rise.  “Let him go.”

“You’re letting him speak to you like that?”

“He buried his wife today.  I can let it pass, just this once.”

Hop Sing scuttled in from his kitchen.  “What’s all this noise?  Why always shout?”  His quick eyes darted around the table at the tense faces.  “You want coffee?”

Adam’s hand unclenched from around his napkin.  “Not for me.  I need something stronger.”

“I think we all do,” Ben agreed, before thanking Hop Sing.

Adam poured himself a brandy and then two more, placing the glasses on the low table to await their recipients.

Hoss picked up his, sat down, and stared into it as if looking for answers.  “I don’t think we’re gonna stop him.”

“I’ll talk to him again in the morning.”

“Do you think it will make a difference?” Adam replied.  “The fool kid’s stuck on the idea of going.”

“I have to try.”

“Good luck with that.”  Adam gulped down the last of his brandy.  “It’s been one helluva day.  I need my bed.”

Ben had to agree.  He retired with prayers on his lips for a solution to Joe’s leaving.  Divine intervention answered him.  During the night a blizzard hit.  For three days it blasted them with its fury and buried the Ponderosa in feet of snow.

*****

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

Ben watched Joe sit down opposite him at his desk with trepidation.  Since being hog-tied to the ranch, his temper lurked ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

Joe crossed his arms.  “Will you be taking the usual beeves up to Winnemucca?”

Laying down his pencil, Ben laced his hands.  He’d been expecting this.  “Yes.  When there’s a break in the weather, Adam, and I, will take them.”

“I wanna come.  They may have information on Attacking Wolf.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.  Winnemucca’s our friend, but relations are on a knife-edge.  The Paiutes have endured repercussions since the raids.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“Leave it to me.  I’ll ask about Attacking Wolf, don’t worry.”

“Dammit!  I have a right to go.”

“Not in the mood you’re in.”

“You’d put their feelings above finding Eva’s killers?”

“Of course not, but there’s more at stake here.”

Joe’s fist crashed onto his desk, and he flung away back up the stairs.  Ben sighed.  That could’ve been worse.  He understood Joe’s feelings, but his friendship with the Paiute chief was teetering on disaster.  He needed to preserve it for everyone’s sake.

Four days later Ben and Adam left for the Paiute village.  An annual tradition, the gift of four beeves had become a necessity to Winnemucca’s people surviving the winter, but Ben never abated one measure of his respect when he delivered them.

****

“Good to have you back.  How was Winnemucca?”

“Fine.”  Ben’s eyes flicked to Joe, who hadn’t welcomed them.  Hoss pulled a face.  He placed a hand on his youngest shoulder.  “How are you?”

The question was ignored.  “Did you ask him?”

Adam answered, “Yes.”

“Well?”

Ben overlooked the tone that bordered on insolent.   “He told us that a few years ago, Attacking Wolf’s village was hit by Typhus.  Without a doctor or medicine, his tribe were devastated.  He lost his wife, children, and parents.”

“Am I supposed to feel sorry for him?”

“I might expect some compassion from one human being to another, Joseph.”  Joe dropped his gaze, and Ben continued, “He blames the white men for bringing the disease.”

“My family had nothing to do with that.”

“I know, but don’t you see?  Your suffering is born from more suffering.”

His words had no impact.  “Did Winnemucca know where he is?”

“No.  He couldn’t tell us.”

“He couldn’t, or wouldn’t?”

“Winnemucca told us all he knew.”

Joe snorted in mockery.  “So much for friendship.  He’ll put an Indian ahead of that, and you’re stupid to believe different.”

“Be careful how you speak to me, young man.”

Ben watched Joe struggle to regain his temper without much success.  “I think it’s clear which side your friend’s on.”

“For Heaven sake, Joe.  Pa did his best.”

“That’s okay brother, I understand.”  The statement, laced with sarcasm and disdain, brought Adam to his feet, but Joe was already half-way up the stairs and gone.

Adam crossed his arms.  “How much more of this are we gonna put up with?”

“I can understand his disappointment.  He’ll come around.  We need to give him time.”

Hoss shook his head.  “I sure hope you’re right.”

Joe slammed shut his door and spun around to drive his fist into the wood, again and again.

He looked down at the split skin and blood.  His hand quivered from the shock of the abuse, but the pain felt good.

*****

Hoss shouldered the front door closed against the wind and shook the snow off his hat and coat.  “Phew!  It’s blowing a gale out there.  I reckon we’re set for weeks of snow.”

“Why would you say that?” Joe snapped.

“Just a feeling.”

“Well, keep it to yourself.”

Adam looked up from his book.  Joe rolled his eyes.  Of course, Adam would stick his nose in.

“Look, we all know you’re frustrated, but-”

“You know nothing about it, so why don’t you mind your own business.”

“Aww, Joe, we only wanna help.”

“I don’t need your help or your damn feelings about the weather.”

Adam stood up and tossed his book back onto his chair.

“I’ve had about enough.  Someone needs to teach you a lesson.”

“Oh, really?  I’d like to see you try.  I’m not the little kid you can push around anymore.”

A smile played on Joe’s lips, and arrogance shone in his eyes.  Adam’s fists clenching sent a quiver of anticipation through him.  Right now, he’d punch the living daylights out of anyone.

“Joe!  Adam!”  Their father came from the kitchen.  “It’s hard enough being stuck inside without everyone fighting.  Now we all need to calm down.”

“Then tell those two to butt out.”

“Now listen here, you idiot… ”

Lunging at Adam, Joe found his arm caught and held.  His father’s words growled into his ear, “There’ll be no fighting in this house.”

“Oh, let them have at it.  Joe’s been prodding for a fight for weeks.”

Joe glared at Hoss.  “You wanna take me on?”

“That’s enough.  You three need to find a way to get along.”

“That’s easy.  Tell Joe to button his lip.”

“Adam.”

“I’m sorry, Pa, but we’ve put up with his bad temper long enough.  If he wants to stay intact, he’d better steer clear of me.”

“That goes for me too.  That ‘ornery little cuss has bitten my head off more times than I can count.”

“Fine!  Suits me.  I’ll be in my room.”

Shaking off the hand that restrained him, Joe stalked upstairs.  What did he care?

Joe’s bedroom door slammed, and Ben sighed.  “You two could be more patient with him.”

Adam rolled his eyes.  “No one has that much patience.”

*****

Hoss regretted his words once he’d calmed down.  Pushing his younger brother away and into seclusion had been the last thing he wanted, and he was keen to rectify the matter.

“Can I come in?”

“I’m busy.”

“I’d like to talk.”

Joe placed the gun barrel he was cleaning back on the desk and turned.  “All right, get on with it.”

Not an auspicious start but Hoss reckoned he’d earned the hostility.  “I didn’t mean all that stuff I said before.  I don’t want you sitting up here alone.”

“It’s fine.”

“It ain’t good to shut yourself away.”

“I told you, it’s fine.”  Joe returned to his task, “Now I’m busy.”

“How many times d’you need to clean that gun anyway?”

“As many as it takes.”

“So, you can kill that Indian?”

“That’s right.  I’m gonna find Attacking Wolf, and when I do, I’ll be ready to put a bullet through him.”

Sorrow filled Hoss’ heart at Joe’s words.  “This ain’t like you.”

Joe rose from his chair.  “Maybe it’s you I don’t know?  I’d want the man who killed my brother’s family punished.”

“You’re talking about revenge, not punishment.”

“I don’t see the difference.”

“You used to.”

“Is that all you came to say?”

“I guess.”

Closing the door, Hoss shook his head and returned downstairs.  “He won’t come.  He just sits up there cleaning his gun.”

From behind his book, Adam intoned, “Better that, than snapping at us.”

“C’mon Adam.  Y’know his hurting.  Pa, there must be something we can do?”

“He’s angry.  Angry at what’s happened, at the men who did it, at himself, and us.  All we can do is give him time and space.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

Ben regarded his eldest.  “We’ll deal with that then.”

After Hoss left, Joe stood frozen.  When he turned back to his desk, he leaned over it, resting on the knuckles of his clenched fists.  In an explosion of movement, he swept the desktop, sending cylinder, barrel, cloth, and bullets flying.

*****

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

The memory of a house full of children’s laughter weighed too heavy to bear any Christmas celebrations, and Ben settled for reading the Christmas story and saying prayers to mark the day.

The season progressed, blizzards abated, and the essential work began again.  In snow that drifted deep over the land, it was tricky work and usually involved them all, but Joe refused to take an interest.

Ben tried to coax him outside.  “We’re taking feed out tomorrow, why don’t you join us?”

“I’ve got things to do.”

“It will do you good to get some fresh air.”

“No.  ‘Sides, what’s the point of slogging out with all that feed?  The cattle will die anyway.”

“That ain’t so,” Hoss jumped in.  “You know that we’ve reduced our losses by more’n half thanks to winter feeding.”

“Do what you like.  I told you I’m busy.”

Disappointed though he was, Ben refused to push.  Joe needed time and space to deal with his anger.  So, he remained at home, while the three trudged out to do the work of four.

To Adam, Joe was shirking his responsibilities and his father’s reluctance to press him rankled.  Joe had suffered the worst kind of tragedy, but the heartbreak hadn’t just touched him.  They’d all been affected, and yet, did their work.  Joe should do the same.  The self-indulgence that allowed his brother to let the rest of the family carry his load made Adam impatient, and he felt Joe took advantage of Pa’s understanding nature.

Hoss and Pa tiptoed around him on eggshells, but he wasn’t afraid to tell baby brother the truth.  Part of his job was pulling his younger brothers back into line.  He’d done it many times before, and he was ready to step in and give Joe the kick in the pants needed to make him realize this malingering must stop.  When Joe came down the stairs, after breakfast had been cleared away, he took his chance.

“So, you’ve decided to join us this morning.”

Joe halted his progress to the kitchen.  “Meaning?”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we need you out there.”

“Not now.”

The dismissive words moved Adam out of his chair to snag Joe’s arm.  “If not now, when?”

“Leave it alone.  I don’t care about chores.”

“You’ve made that clear, but you can’t ignore your responsibilities.”

“I got other things to do.  Now, get your hand off me.”

Adam resisted Joe’s efforts to shake himself free, irritation feeding his words, “You listen to me.  D’you think you’re the only one who’s ever lost someone?  It happens every day to hundreds of people.  You aren’t the only one grieving.  We lost them too.  But we keep going.  Grow up and deal with what’s happened.  It’s difficult enough, without you shirking your duties.  Stop wallowing and get on with life.”

The minute his words were out of his mouth, Adam knew he’d miscalculated.  He wasn’t looking at a disobedient child to be chastised, but a man older than Methuselah, whose eyes held the combined pain of all Shakespeare’s tragedies.  The emotionless words cut through Adam harder than any angry ones could.  “Don’t you see, brother?  I’ve no life to get on with anymore.”

Adam’s hand dropped, and Joe walked out the door.

“What are you doing?”  Adam cursed when his father appeared from the kitchen.  He thought Pa and Hoss had already left.  “Hasn’t he enough to deal with, without your accusations?”

“We’re all grieving.  I thought- ”

“You thought?  Sometimes, I wonder if you have a sensible idea in that head of yours.”

Adam smarted.  A man who prided himself on his intelligence, this attack stung.  He drew a breath and tried to placate his irate parent.  “I know I shouldn’t have said what I did.  I realize I upset the kid.”

“When will you understand he isn’t a kid anymore?  He’s a man, with all a man’s depth of feeling.  He doesn’t need a brother telling him how to grieve.  What he needs is understanding.  If you’re even capable of that.”

The door slammed behind his father, leaving Adam standing in the great room.

“You jest had to say somethin’.”

Adam groaned.  “Look, Pa’s already given me the lecture.”

When he turned away, he found his own arm grabbed.

“That’s too bad, coz I got something to say, and you’re gonna listen.”

The look in Hoss’ eyes wasn’t one Adam dared ignore.  “All right.  Get it off your chest.”

“You don’t know what it was like when we were looking for Eva.  Joe were torn apart after losing Ellen and Thomas.”

“For Heaven sake, we’re all hurting.”

“No, we ain’t!  Leastways, not like Joe.  They were part of him, his own flesh and blood, and he lost some of himself when they died.  When Eva returned, he got a bit of that back, but now he’s lost her too.  Don’t you see?  We were all he had left, and you just went and kicked that away.”

Concern pricked Adam.  Had he pushed Joe too far?  “We need to find him.”

*****

Ben hit the barn at a jog to find Joe saddling Cochise.  “Where’re you going?”  When Joe didn’t answer, he continued.  “I overheard what Adam said.  He was wrong.”

“I’m no good to you here.”

“You’re my son.  You don’t have to be good at anything other than that.”

Joe’s hands stilled in their activity.  Ben went to take a step closer when the sound of running feet skittering to a slippery halt, drew their attention to the barn door.

Ben asked, “Something wrong?”

The two in the doorway exchanged awkward glances.

Hoss gasped, “No, Pa, nothing.”

Adam went to Joe and held out his hand.  “I’m sorry for what I said.  I hope you can forgive me.”

Joe stared at the symbol of apology.  For a heart-stopping moment, the three men thought he would reject the handshake.  When Joe clasped it, they all breathed with relief.

“Forget it, Adam.”

Ben moved between his two sons and slapped Adam on the back.  “C’mon.  I think we all need a cup of coffee.”

While they drank their coffee, Joe allowed the conversation to flow over him.  Adam’s words touched a nerve.  He couldn’t shirk his chores.  Besides, to achieve what he needed to do, he had to be fit.  Work was the best thing for him.  When they finished the coffee, Joe got up.

“What are we doing today?”

The three looked at him and smiled.

*****

Joe flexed his arms around the axe, pleased with how his muscles responded.  The wood split with one blow.  Each time he imagined shattering the head of Attacking Wolf.  He’d taken to chopping wood at the end of each day, and despite the dropping temperature, had discarded his coat, and sweat beaded his face and chest.

Ben stood on the porch watching his son’s relentless decimation of the logs.

“Y’know, I think we’ve got enough wood to last us until next winter.”

“We can never have enough firewood.”

“True, but you’ve done enough for today.  Come in and wash up for dinner.”

“I’ll do a few more first.”

Returning to the house, Ben sat down and stared into the fire.

Adam looked up from his book.  “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing, I guess.”  Questioning silence followed.  “It’s your brother.  He’s out there again.”

“It’s just his way of working through the grief.”

“Maybe, but I can’t help thinking there’s more going on.”

Hoss stopped munching his apple.  “Like what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Adam’s right, Pa.  Joe’s just getting the sorrow outta his system.”

“I guess so.”

But the niggle refused to go.  Joe hadn’t spoken again about searching for Attacking Wolf, but the set of his shoulders and the spark in his eyes all told of a goal, and what else could that be?  In which case, he feared losing Joe forever.  He’d do whatever it took to prevent that.

*****

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

Joe squinted up at the pale sun and let the smell of warm earth soak into his nostrils.  Spring was here, and soon he’d be on his way.  Deciding not to burden himself with his families help or, more likely, hindrance, he planned to slip away, leaving a letter for Pa to explain.  He only had a few more days to wait.  Then fate took a hand.

The rider came in fast and yelling, and brought them all through the door, but the youth addressed his excited words to Joe.

“They’ve found him!  They’ve found him!”

They recognized the wild-eyed young man from one of the homesteads hit in Attacking Wolf’s raid.

Ben glared at the youth, unsettled by the intrusion.  “What are you talking about?”

Joe’s eyes never wavered from the boy’s elated face.  He knew exactly who.  “Where, when?”

“We got a wire this morning.  That murderin’ redskin and the rest of his tribe are no more’n two days’ ride from here.  The army’s called for the militia.  Pa’s gathering the men, and we’re leaving at noon.  You in?”

Joe’s insides turned to hard fury.  It lit the match to the rage bound tight within.  The rest of the world fell away.  His chance for revenge had come at last.  “You bet.”

The lad rode out, and Joe ran into the house.

Hoss asked, “What’re we gonna do?”

Ben strode inside and headed for the stairs, halting when Joe reappeared, saddlebag slung over one shoulder.  His expressionless face sent a shiver through him.  Joe collected a rifle from the cabinet.

“Wait.  We’ll come with you.”

“Do what you like, but I’m leaving now.”

Ben glanced at Adam and Hoss.  “Let’s hurry.”

*****

The camp proved an odd mixture of jocularity and somber brooding.  Ben’s eyes scanned the group.  Fifteen men, including Joe, consisting of husbands, sons, brothers, and uncles of those killed in Attacking Wolf’s raid.

Ben recognized Arvid Bondesson.  At the town meeting following the attack, Bondesson had pressed the army to allow the victims’ families to join the search.  Leading the merry group, he handed around a whiskey bottle, joking and laughing with the others about getting their chance at the Bannocks.  Ben turned away in disgust when the bragging began about what he’d do when he caught them.

The rest sat alone and silent.  Joe fell into this group.  Adam and Hoss tried to get him to talk, but hunching his shoulders, he curled into his blanket and lay gazing into the campfire.

Hoss eyed the laughing men with unease.  “This ain’t right.  These fellas are out for murder.”

Ben sipped his coffee, winced, and threw the dregs onto the ground.  “I know.  Let’s hope the army will keep them in line.”

“Do you think that’s likely?”

He shifted his gaze to his eldest.  The firelight played on Adam’s face accentuating his heavy eyelids and pursed lips.  Ben shook his head to acknowledge his own uncertainty.  “C’mon, let’s get some rest.”

Sleep didn’t come easy.  In the fading glow of the fire, Ben watched his youngest.  The reflection of firelight in Joe’s eyes told him Morpheus’ grasp hadn’t claimed him either.  Fear for Joe lay heavy in Ben’s gut.  Not from the chance he may be killed, but for the soul, he jeopardized.  Ben knew that if Joe completed this path to vengeance and murder, he could never return whole, for when his boy realized what he’d done, he’d never be able to forgive himself.

*****

They reached the rendezvous spot mid-morning.  The three Cartwright men watched the fervent way the group checked their guns and sharpened knives, the anticipation and excitement amongst them intense.

Relieved when the army arrived, Ben recognized Major Anderson.  Once he’d finished speaking to the leader of the militia, Ben approached him.

“Good to have you and your sons with us.”

“Thanks, but I need to talk to you.”

“Oh?”

“Major.  These men are out for murder.  It might be best to send them home.”

Anderson adjusted his gauntlets, drew down his bushy brows and cut a look up at Ben out of his steel-grey eyes.  “I can’t do that.  We don’t know what we might be up against, and my troop’s not large.  They could make the difference between stopping Attacking Wolf and not.”

Ben didn’t like it, but he understood the man’s position.  Their unit numbered only twelve, including Anderson and his Captain.

Instructions to the group were brief.  “There’s a draw set back a few miles from Attacking Wolf’s camp.  That’ll keep us hidden for the night, and we’ll attack at dawn.  We’re going to ride slow and quiet and have a cold camp.  No fires and no noise.  Is that understood?”  Receiving agreement, the major grunted and gave the order to mount.

They reached the campsite at dusk, and everyone hunkered down, prepared for a chilly night ahead.

*****

The pre-dawn flung an eerie light over the silent camp.  Tearing at a piece of cold jerky, Ben noticed the grim line of Adam’s jaw when he rejoined them.

“I spotted a scout returning and managed to grab a word. It looks like Attacking Wolf isn’t in camp.  A few braves, the women and children are all that’s there.”

“Are they calling off the attack?”

Adam picked dirt from under his fingernails.  “He wouldn’t tell me that.”

Ben stood.  “Anderson will tell me.”

Cramped but efficient, the tent’s neat furniture included a cot and a small folding table with stool.  Over the table, a map of the area and other paperwork were spread.

“Come in, Cartwright.  What can I do for you?”

The height of the tent meant Ben had to stoop, but he planted his feet and put his hands on his hips.  “We’ve heard Attacking Wolf isn’t in the camp.  Will you be calling off the attack?”

“I’ll have to talk to my men about the need for discretion.”  The man sat bolt upright on his stool.  His hat lay on the cot and Ben saw the receding hairline of his short, grey hair, which he made up for with long sideburns.  “It’s true, most of the braves aren’t there, but my scout couldn’t confirm Attacking Wolf’s absence.  We intend to proceed as planned.”

“Surely, if- ”

“With or without Attacking Wolf, my orders are to defeat the enemy wherever I find them.”

“Women and children aren’t the enemy.  Those men out there have lost loved ones.  They’re fired up, not thinking straight.”

“Good.  I need men ready to do whatever it takes.”

“Is murder part of that?  Because that’s what you’ll get.”

“If you and your sons don’t wish to take part in this action, I suggest you leave.”

Ben slammed his fist into the makeshift desk, sending papers skittering.  “If you’re advocating murder, I think we will.”

Leaving the tent, Ben looked for Joe and found him amongst the bustle of men preparing themselves.

“We need to leave.  Attacking Wolf’s not in the camp, it’s only their families.”  To his dismay, Joe didn’t pause in his task of saddling.  “Did you hear me?  We need to go.”

“I’m staying.”

“Don’t you understand?  They’re going to attack women and children.”

“What of it?”

“You can’t mean that?”

Joe spun around.  Fury like lava flowed off his son, merciless and unstoppable.  Its intensity shocked Ben.  “They killed my wife and children.  An eye for an eye, Pa.”

“Is that what I taught you?  Because if so, I’ve failed.”

“They should suffer, the same way I have.”

“All right!  You take it upon yourself to murder women and children.  For that’s what it would be, Joseph, murder.   What d’you think will happen then?  You’ll never be able to look yourself in the face again.”

A blade slid into Ben’s heart looking into Joe’s eyes.  No sign of the son he loved existed within those cold and distant green orbs.  The flat words turned the knife, sending a shudder through Ben.

“I can live with that.”

Powerless, Ben watched Joe walk away.

His father’s words meant nothing to him.  How could they?  The man who would have responded no longer existed.  His wife and children were dead, and nothing remained of the old Joe Cartwright.  This one lived in a world so dark there was no finding his way out, and the only surviving emotion, a rage that came from Hell itself.  It strained against his chest, demanding to be unleashed.  It would get its wish.  Nothing and nobody would stop that.

*****

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

“We can’t just ride away,” Hoss exclaimed.  “We got to find a way to stop Joe.”

“What d’you suggest we do?”

Adam looked over the top of his saddle.  “What about warning the Bannocks.”

Ben sucked in a breath.  It would be drastic but standing by and doing nothing was out of the question.

“Mr. Cartwright.”  Startled from his thoughts, Ben turned to face two soldiers.  “Major Anderson would like a word with you and your sons.”

It wasn’t a request, but perhaps the major had changed his mind.

*****

“You’re keeping us here as prisoners?”

“Let’s say you’re my guests, long enough for you not to interfere with the mission.”

The three men swiveled to glare at the soldier holding his rifle on them.

“This is an outrage.  I shall lodge a protest with your superiors in Washington.”

The major gave Ben a smug smile.  “Go ahead.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a word with Captain Wilkes before he moves out.”

Hoss called to him, the words edged with questioning and determination.  His middle son hitched his head at the soldier, showing he was prepared to take him on.  By a shake of his head, Ben gave the signal to do nothing.  He wasn’t about to risk any of them being shot.  They would have to wait.

His heart weighed heavy as Ben watched the men move out.  In one last-ditch effort to prevent Joe riding to disaster, Ben called his name.  He didn’t even turn his head.

*****

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

Horses pawed the ground in reaction to their tense riders.  Grim faces, each set on their purpose, met Joe’s gaze.  The jittery animals tossed their heads, the breath snorted from their nostrils, forming a cloud of mist in the cold air.

Someone mumbled a prayer.  The words, a reminder of his family’s entreaties, twisted Joe’s insides and sent a quiver of irritation through him.  They’d all come to him.  Adam used logic and reason before frustration tipped into anger – and Hoss?  He’d fixed him with a sad look and told him, “You don’t wanna be doing this, boy.”

He’d turned them away.  Hadn’t he always striven to be a decent man, a good husband, and father?  Yet God chose to punish him.  Now he’d do the punishing, and if he visited only one-hundredth of the agony he’d suffered on those to blame, it would be enough to recreate Hell on earth.

Joe tightened Cochise’s rein, and the animal shook his head in complaint.  The anticipation of the signal to move forward knotted every sinew.  The captain raised a gloved hand, and Joe held his breath.  The hand dropped.

*****

Cochise spun in a circle, while Joe stared at the horror around him.  The truth punched a hole through his fury like a cannonball.  These women and children hadn’t harmed his family, and he’d no right to punish them.

At the village’s edge, the army company held their ground and let the militia attack alone.  Whoops of excitement screamed out when they charged.  The handful of Indian braves left to defend the camp ran out to be cut down in a hail of gunfire.  From there the assault quickly descended into a rampage.  Men jumped off their horses to attack the women and children who scattered, screaming.  The old men, all that was left of the braves, tried to protect them.  Their efforts were met with scorn, and a bullet or the blade of a knife.

Joe had to do something.  He galloped back to the unmoving army troop.

“Captain!  This is slaughter.  You gotta call them off.”

In his neat uniform with buttons polished until they shone, the perfect military man replied, “My orders are to let the militia deal with the enemy.”

“For God sake.  There’s no enemy there.”  Joe hauled in a breath that smart.  Why hadn’t he listened to Pa?  “You’re talking about allowing a massacre.”

Under his thin, black moustache the Captain’s lip curled. “You didn’t have a problem with that earlier.”

The air left Joe like he’d taken a blow.  It was true.  He’d come to do murder.  “I know, but I was wrong.  We’ve gotta stop them.”

“If you’ve no stomach for it, leave.”

Joe swept his gaze over the unmoving soldiers.  Now he understood.  All along, they knew what would happen.  Joe spat out a curse and swung Cochise around.  If they wouldn’t act, he would.

The scream jolted him and Cochise to a halt.  Fists balling into the man’s jacket he yanked him off the young woman.  A punch to his jaw sent him sprawling.  Joe pointed to the trees.  “Run.  Go!”

She got the message.  All gangly arms and legs, she scrambled up and ran.  Joe picked his next target and charged.

Lacing his hands, he slammed them down onto the man’s back sending him crashing to the ground.  The young girl he’d been strangling gasped for air.  Hauled upright, Joe pushed her toward cover.   He barely waited to see her go before he turned away to the next.  He ran this one toward the tree line.  The screech she emitted brought them to a sudden halt.  Gathering up the two children, she’d spotted cowering behind a deerskin stretched out to dry, the three fled.

Charging at a man knelt over a prone woman, Joe flung him away and turned to help.  He was too late.  The hand that dragged across his mouth shook at the frightful vision of the gutted squaw.  The bloody gouge where her breast had once been, riveted his gaze.  He staggered away, unable to bear the monstrous sight.  A chorus of screams brought his mind back.  Turning, he saw one of the militia enter a tent.

He charged through the opening and took the man down.  Joe put out a hand in reassurance to the group of women who stood in front of their children.

“I’m here to help.  Do you understand?”

A couple nodded.  That was good enough.  One firm slash of his blade cut a hole in the animal skin that made up the tepee.  He waved them through to disappear into the nearby pines.

Exiting the tent, Joe gazed around.  His heart raced from the adrenaline that pumped through his body.  He licked his lips and his tongue tasted the grit of the dust.  Screams battered his ears and men dashed around him, making it hard to orientate himself.  It took a moment before he noticed two men dragging a pregnant woman from a tepee.  Joe recognized one as Arvid Bondesson.

He drop-kicked the first man and grabbed the lapels of Bondesson’s coat, dragging the man around to face him.  “Stop! You can’t harm a woman.”

The big man grabbed Joe’s wrist.  Venom contorted his face, and blood lust drenched his eyes.  “Those heathens murdered my family.  I’ve a right to kill theirs.”

The words mocked and shamed Joe.  Hadn’t he believed the same?  His fingers twisted tighter into Bondesson’s lapels.  He had to make him understand.  “That’s not enough to make this right.  Don’t you see?  It’s plain wrong.”

“If you ain’t with us, you’re against us!”

The butt of the rifle cracked against Joe’s skull.  He staggered and dropped on his face into the dirt.  The world shifted, and his ears filled with cotton.  Sight and sound drifted in and out of focus.

The other man held the woman down, and Bondesson pulled his blade.  Joe dug fingers into the earth, grinding the soil under his nails to pull himself up onto hands and knees.  He lurched and grabbed the back of Bondesson’s coat.  A fist slammed his jaw sending him back to the ground where he struggled onto his side, pushing up on one elbow.  He had to stop this.  They had to listen to reason.  His hand stretched out to them, but the right words wouldn’t form.  All he could do was beg, “Don’t.  Please, don’t.”

Bondesson’s blade plunged into the woman’s extended stomach, once, twice, again and again.  “This bitch won’t birth another killer!”

Joe’s vision blurred blood red.  Screams filled his mind, and then they were gone.

*****

Acrid smoke filled his nostrils mixed with the metallic tang of something that churned his stomach.  He wiped away the sticky mass that held one eye shut and tried to stand.  Movement sent lightning bolts through his head, but he pushed upright anyway.

Smoke fogged the air, making Joe’s already bloodshot eyes raw.  A loan statue, amongst the chaos and carnage, fired teepees and mutilated bodies assaulted his senses.  Men whooped and hollered waving trophies of scalps and worse, and the blood … they’d managed to create Hell on earth after all.

The cry caught his attention.  She moved through the devastation, whimpering for her mother … father.  Behind her followed the white man, readying his rifle.  Joe’s boots scraped through the dirt, first one, then the other, each time faster until he ran, straight at the child.  The pain that blazed through his body, ignored.  It only mattered that he reached her, saved her.

The finger on the trigger squeezed, and the bullet flew from the barrel.  Without hesitation, Joe put himself between the projectile and the girl.  Something burned his side, but even as he collapsed, he reached forward and wrapped her in the protection of his body.

“I’ve got you, Ellen.  Pa’s got you.”

*****

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

Ben reined in alongside Captain Wilkes.  His gut tightened at the laughter of the volunteers and the sickening trophies they brandished between them.  He frowned, seeing no sign of Cochise or Joe.  The Captain didn’t halt the column but pulled to one side to speak to Ben.

“Where’s my son?”

Before he replied, Bondesson butted in, “He turned traitor.  Helpin’ them savages escape.  But we took care of him.”

“Is my son alive?”

Bondesson spat on the ground.  “Don’t know, don’t care.  We left him lying in the dirt like he deserved.”

Ben turned his wrath on the Captain.  “You left my son back there?”

“I’ve no interest in bringing home a coward.”

“My brother ain’t no coward!”

Ben put a restraining hand on Hoss, and glared at the Captain, who continued, “Your son’s at the camp.  Alive or dead, I’ve no interest.  If you want him, go find him.”

Wheeling their horses, the two men rode back to the convoy.

Adam commented, “Major Anderson knows how to pick his subordinates.”

His face grim, Ben watched the men ride by.  Three trailed at the back, their drawn, white faces at odds with their comrades.  Ben recognized one.  The kid who’d brought the message to Joe that the militia was forming.  Each passed without making eye contact.

They followed the smell of smoke until they rode into the remains of the village.

Ben exhaled, “Dear God.”

They moved forward side by side.  Adam pointed out Cochise standing quivering on the other side of the camp.  Hoss gave a yelp and threw himself off Chubb to sprint toward a heap on the ground.  Dropping to his knees, the big hands trembled when he reached to turn his brother over.  The child shielded in Joe’s arms made Hoss gasp.

“Is he alive?”

“Yeah.”

“The child?”

A face filled with sorrow turned to his father.  The bullet that punctured his brother’s side had continued its murderous path, plowing deep into the child’s back.  Joe couldn’t have known, but she’d been dead before they hit the ground.

Hoss moved Joe’s jacket and reported.  “He’s lost a lotta blood.”

Under Hoss’ hands, Joe shuddered back to consciousness.  “H…Hoss?”

“Yeah, it’s me.  We’re all here.”

“Pa?”

“I’m here, son.”

“You were right.”

“Don’t talk now.”

“I tried to save … where?”

Joe jerked upright, searching, but when he saw the child, he slumped back.  Fingers, caked in blood, dirt, and sweat reached out to rest on her head, and Ben watched his son grieve anew.

Exposing the wound, Ben flinched at how close they’d come to losing him.  Another inch to the right…  The injury continued to bleed sluggishly, but infection was the real enemy.  Running his hand over Joe’s head, he discovered the head injury.  That, at least, posed no immediate threat.

He stood and gazed around the annihilated camp.  The stench of death filled the air.  “We’re not staying here.  We’ll find another place to camp.”

“What about the dead.  We can’t just leave them?”

Ben looked with sympathy into the appalled eyes of his middle son.  It went against everything he’d taught, but the job to bury so many would be a mammoth one, and they didn’t have the time.  “I’m sorry, but we need to take care of Joe.”

“Can’t I at least cover them?”

“All right.  Adam and I will find a place to camp.  You catch up when you’re done.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

Ben smiled.  Not for the first time, Hoss’ generous heart humbled him.

Hoss passed Joe into his father’s strong arms.  They exchanged brief words, and his family rode out, leaving him to focus on the macabre job ahead.  After a moment’s indecision, Hoss decided to lay the bodies out side by side and cover them altogether.

No innocent, Hoss had witnessed the barbarity man could visit upon man, but the butchered pregnant woman took him to his knees.  When the last blanket was laid down, the big man stood back, grateful for a completed job.

The snap of a twig sent Hoss spinning around and reaching for his gun.  Confronted by a group of women and children he froze, and then moved his hands away from his holster to show he wasn’t a threat.

One spoke in English, “We saw you with the other men.  They take away the young one who helped us.”

“That’s right ma’am.  They’re my family and he’s my little brother, Joseph.”

The woman nodded her understanding.  “He helped us get away.”

Hoss let out a shaky breath of relief.  He should’ve trusted Joe, and known he’d beat his demons and come good when it mattered.

The woman gestured to the covered bodies.  “Thank you.”

“Ain’t no need to thank me.  None of this shoulda happened.”

The woman pointed to Chubb.  “You go now.”

Hoss understood.  He was the intruder and no longer wanted.  “Ma’am, is there anything I can do for you?”

The eyes of the Bannock woman held the sadness of ages, yet she smiled.  “Tell the young one, we are grateful.”

Hoss touched his hat and rode away, keen to get to his family.

*****

Joe’s condition deteriorated, and they needed to get him to a doctor.  They’d left the first camp not long after Hoss joined them but were forced to stop when night fell.

“I say we keep goin’.  We can ride through the night.”

“Hoss is right, and when we hit the East Platt, I’ll head for the doctor.”

The heat seeped through the cloth Ben held to Joe’s forehead, warming his fingertips.  Every hour lost counted against Joe.  “All right.  Once the moon’s up, we’ll press on.”

Progress was steady but slow.  Ben hoped they weren’t taking longer than his son had.  They reached the Platt as the sun stretched its rosy fingers over the horizon, and Adam peeled off in the direction of Virginia City and the doctor.

****

Chapter Forty

 

The strain of the interminable wait outside Joe’s bedroom wasn’t alleviated when the door opened.  Instead, the look on Paul’s face sent a bolt of panic through Ben.  “He’s not?”

“No, but I’m worried.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve never seen Little Joe like this.  He should stand an excellent chance of pulling through, but he’s got to want to live.  Right now, he’s given up, and I’m not sure he’s got the will to fight.”

Ben’s gaze travelled to the closed door of his son’s bedroom.  After everything he’d endured, he wasn’t prepared to let Joe give up now.  He took Paul’s hand.  “The boys have coffee for you downstairs.”

With soft curls poking through his bandages at absurd angles, Joe looked seventeen again, but the crease on his forehead betrayed the pain he was enduring.  Ben sat on the bed and wrapped his hand around his son’s.

Joe’s eyes opened.  They glistened with fever, and over them, his eyelids hung low, heavy with moisture.  “Pa… ?”

“Good to see you awake.  Don’t worry, you’re gonna be fine.”

“Hurts … too much.”

“I know, but you can beat this.”

Hot fingers closed around his wrist, compelling Ben’s attention.  “Hurts … too much … to go on.”

Panic surged through Ben and he grabbed and shook his son.  “No, Joseph!  You hav’ta fight.”

“I wanna go … they’re … waiting for me.”

“You can’t go.  It’s not your time.”

A tear tracked down Joe’s cheek.  “Pa … please … let me go.”

“No!  I can’t lose you too.  This isn’t you.  You’re a fighter, so don’t you give up.  Promise me you’ll fight.”

Ben stared into his son’s eyes willing him to listen.  His heart gave a lurch when he saw the light shift and the spark return.

“ ‘Kay.  I promise.”

A silent prayer quivered through Ben, and when Joe’s eyes drifted shut, this time, Ben let him sleep.  The dense clouds that darkened the morning parted and sunlight flooded the room.  Ben drew the curtains to allow Joe to continue his slumber.

*****

Hoss delivered a featherlight punch to Joe’s shoulder.  “Good to see you looking better, Short Shanks.”

It wasn’t quite true.  He looked awful, but anything was an improvement on his fever ravished countenance of the last few days.  Joe managed a feeble smile in return, which might have cheered Hoss if it hadn’t been so sad.

The memories oozed back since the fever broke.  Hideous flashes of carnage that made him shudder.  “What happened … at the Indian camp?”

“That can wait.  You need to rest.”

“I need to know.”  Their faces gave him his answer.  “You were right, Pa, I shouldn’t have gone.”  It sickened him to think he’d ever taken part in the action, but his family radiated no anger or disgust toward him.  The pillow yielded when he turned away and pushed deep into it, hiding his face, unable to bear the understanding he didn’t deserve.  “God.  I’m so ashamed.”

Fingers caught his chin to bring his head around.  He stretched out a hand to the man whose approval he needed most, gratified to have it taken.

“What you did was wrong, but one of the Indian women spoke to Hoss and told him how you helped save them.”

“She told me to thank you.”

“I went to murder them.”

“But you didn’t.”  His father’s hand tightened around his.  “You may have gone for the wrong reasons, but if you hadn’t more would have died.”

Adam added, “That counts for something.”

“I’m not sure that’s enough.”

His heart beat a little steadier when Pa affirmed, “It is for me.”

*****

Chapter Forty-One

 

The soft knock announced the entrance of his father.

“How’re you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Then don’t you think it’s time you came downstairs?”

“Maybe later.”

“Feeling sorry for yourself won’t help you know.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Isn’t it?”

Joe bit his lip.  Paul told him three days ago he was up to going downstairs.  It just took too much damned effort.

“I keep thinking it’s a terrible nightmare, and I wake up, and they’ll be there.”  Dismay crossed his father’s face.  “Don’t worry.  I know they’re gone.  I’m not going crazy.”

Coming into the room, his father sat down opposite him.  “Don’t turn their memory into a weight around your neck that chains you to the past.  That’s not how to remember the people we love.  Remember the blessing it was to have them in your life, for however brief a time.”

“It still hurts.”

“It’s okay to hurt.  Let the Almighty help.”

“How can I?  When He let this happen?”

Ben’s hand clamped down on Joe’s shoulder.  “Don’t blame Him for the actions of men.  He has no control over those.  God isn’t there to stop the bad things from happening, only to help us deal with the pain.”

“Will it ever stop?”

“No, but it gets easier.  I promise.”

*****

Lake Tahoe shone before him like blue glass, clear and serene.  He breathed in the clean air.  When the familiar warmth entered his soul, he turned his head and smiled at her.  “I’ve missed you.”

She leaned against his shoulder, and he drew her close, melding her body against his. He took a deep breath and let her scent fill his lungs.  When she took his hand, his heart lurched.

“Please don’t be sad.  The children and I are happy.”

“But we were meant to be together.”

“Life doesn’t always work out the way we planned.”

“I can’t do this without you.”

She turned his face, so he looked into her wide blue eyes.  How many times would this woman stop his heart?

“You have to.  For me, for the children.  You were always the strong one, remember that.”

The soft breeze blew fine strands of hair over her face, but he wouldn’t risk letting go to brush them away.  He needed to hold her for as long as he was allowed.  “Have I told you how much I love you?”

Often but tell me anyway.”  She leaned in.  His lips met hers.  His heart cried with joy and sorrow, knowing it would be the last time he’d feel them.  His arms wrapped around her, holding her close, holding her tight.  “Don’t let your mourning stop you living.  We were too happy for that.  Let our love be your strength, not your weakness.  Promise me, you’ll live life to the fullest.”

“I promise.”

Their time was at an end.  Her final words were a sigh, “I love you.”

*****

Joe woke to dappled morning light that filled his bedroom.  He wiped away the tears.  She was gone, yet a peace settled on him, and his battered heart ached a tiny bit less.

The three men at the table froze mid-sentence when he appeared at the top of the stairs.  He limped down, which gave them time to hurry over.  Up first was Pa, followed by Hoss.  Behind them, trailed Adam.  At least he thought him capable of making it across the room without help.  Although his wobble, caused him to wonder.  At his elbows were Pa and Hoss, and cocooned within his family, they moved to the table.

“How’re you feeling?”

“Fine.  Breakfast looks good.”

“I’ll have Hop Sing bring fresh coffee.”

Before Ben could call, the cook appeared.  “I hear, Little Joe?”  The man’s face lit up.  “You look better.  I bring you coffee and eggs lickety-split.”

Joe glanced around the table, embarrassed by all their eyes on him.  “I’m fine, honest.”  It broke the spell, and they all returned to their own breakfasts.  He decided to get a conversation started.  “What’s everyone doing today?”

Hoss grinned.  “I’ve gotta go pick up supplies.”

“And I have the delightful task of checking on reports of broken fences.”

“And I have bills to check.  You can help if you’d like.”

Joe considered his father’s suggestion before pulling a face.  “I’m not sure I’m up to bookwork.  Maybe I’ll sit on the porch and read.”

Hoss gave a guffaw of laughter.  About to censure him, Ben checked when he saw the smile on his youngest’s face and tumbled to the joke.  He chuckled.  “Very funny.”

Having finished his work, Ben went to see if Joe was ready for lunch.  His eyebrows lifted when he found the rocking chair empty.  It took him less than a second to realize where he would be.

He leaned on the door of the barn and watched Joe feed his horse apples he must have purloined out of the bowl in the house.

“You spoil him.”

Joe scratched Cochise behind the ears.  “He must be dying for a run.”

“He’ll hav’ta wait a little longer.  No getting on Cochise until Paul assures me you won’t reopen that wound.”

“Sorry, Cooch.”

The rattle of the buckboard caught their attention, and they walked out to meet Hoss.

“Pa, Joe!  You need to see this.  There’s a report in the paper.  They’ve caught up with Attacking Wolf.”

Ben took the paper from his middle son’s outstretched hand.  The report gave a simple statement on how Attacking Wolf’s band had been wiped out after being caught between two cavalry forces.

He turned to Joe, unsure how this news would be received.  Joe turned back to the house.  “It’s over.”

*****

Chapter Forty-Two

 

After loading the last sack of flour, Joe turned to run smack into the man weaving his way down the boardwalk.

“Hey, didn’t see you there, mister.”

Strong arms helped the stranger up.  Joe’s nostrils flared in disgust at the stench.  Filthy clothing hung from the shaggy, unkempt soul who stank of whiskey and piss.  The bobbing head came around, and he looked into the watery, red-rimmed eyes of Arvid Bondesson.  Five months since their attack on the Indian camp, the man before him was almost unrecognizable.

“Bondesson?”

“Cartwright.  What d’ya want?”

Bondesson staggered, and Joe’s grip tightened.

“Hoss and I have got the buckboard, why don’t we take you home?”

“What home?  I weren’t able to keep it going without my boys.”

“I’m sorry.  Look, where are you staying?  Let me help.”

“I don’t want your help.  You helped those murdering redskins.  We could’ve killed them all if it weren’t for you.  Get your hands off me, you stinkin’ Injun lover!”

Joe stood back, grateful to let the man stumble on his way.  Bondesson would never let go of his hate.  He’d hold onto it until the day he died, which wouldn’t be far in coming from the looks of him, and yet, how close had he come to that?  How near to disaster had his hatred taken him?  Pity stirred within him, and he stepped after the broken man.  “Wait… ”

The words died on Joe’s lips.  He looked down at the blade, pressed hard against his belly.  Joe met Bondesson’s eyes, murder flickering at the edges of them.

“Stay away from me, boy, d’ya hear?  Unless you want me to gut you like those Injuns you love so much.”

Joe didn’t breathe until the shabby figure shuffled off down the boardwalk.

“Who were that?”

Joe looked over his shoulder at Hoss.  “Nobody.  Let’s go.”

They were trundling out of town when Hoss asked again, “Who were that, back there?”

Knowing he wouldn’t let it go, Joe told him, “Bondesson.”

“What did he want?”

“Nothin’.  He was a mess, but he didn’t want my help.”  Falling silent, Joe considered the encounter.  “Did you know he was forced to sell his place?  He lost his family, and that cost him his home.  That could’ve been me if I hadn’t had you, Pa, and Adam.”

“Yeah, that’s how he tells it anyway.  Truth is, his brother offered help, but he turned it down.  I tell you, Joe, I’ve seen him in the saloon going on about how his wife and boys were murdered.  He were just about boasting to folks about how much he were suffering and kinda reveling in their sympathy.  He ain’t like you.  He’s stuck in his loss, and he’ll never move on.  That ain’t the right way to remember folks you cared about.”

Hoss may be right, but he was grateful for his family anyway.

*****

Dropping the pile of wood, Joe built a fire.  Another successful cattle drive under their belts they were heading home.  His mind drifted to the other home he built.  The stick he held snapped, succumbing to the pressure.

Hoss stuck out an elbow and gave him a nudge.  “Hey, you ever gonna get that fire started and grub cooking?  I’m wastin’ away.”

Hoss met his father’s eyes.  They’d all seen Joe drift off and that ‘look’ settle on his face.  Ben smiled, grateful for his middle son’s intervention.

He watched his youngest joke with his brothers.  Today had been a good day.  Joe’s loss would always be entwined within him, and healing would take time, but his faith in his son was unshakable.  He’d make it because of his strength and grit, and because of his family, who would be there to give him a nudge when needed.

Broken out of his reverie, Joe flung a grin over his shoulder at Hoss and got back to work.  Laughter still felt odd to him, like an ill-fitting shirt, and there were times when the loss would rush in, fast and brutal like a stampede, to slam the wind out of him.  But the world was coming alive again.  Those he’d lost would stay with him, in his heart, memories, and the choices he made, and Eva’s words rang true.  His love for them would allow room for the possibility of loving others.

Joe drew himself up and looked around at the men who’d stood by and continued to support him.  Thanks to them, he found the strength to move toward his future with hope, and, right now, that was enough.

 

 

***  THE END  ***

February, 2021

 

With thanks to my Beta, Pat, who was brave enough to tell me the truth.

 

Author’s Notes

Eps referenced:

The Newcomers:  Writer Thomas Thompson

The Julia Bulette Story:  Writer Al C. Ward

The Last Hunt:  Writer:  Donald S Sanford

Different Pines, Same Winds:  Writer Suzanne Clauser

The Stillness Within:  Suzanne Clauser

In 1666, in the village of Eyam, a tailor’s assistant called George Viccars contracted the plague after opening a bale of cloth containing fleas carrying the disease.  George was the first to die from the plague in the village, which famously quarantined itself to prevent the disease from spreading.

Reference for the treatment of Typhus:
University of Freiburg, Dr. Krantz, published in the year 1817

‘Remarks on the course of the Diseases which have reigned in the Royal Prussian Army from the Beginning of the War in the Year 1812 until the End of the Armistice [in August] 1813.’

 

 

 

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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.

6 thoughts on “Loss (by Bakerj)

    1. Thank you, Birdiesbonnie. It’s wonderful to hear you enjoyed my story. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. They are always appreciated.

  1. Oh my what a tale!
    Once I started reading I had just to finish. A really excellent story, well constructed, full of surprises & of course, plenty of angst for a certain Cartwright member. Certainly be back for a reread in the future. 😊

    1. Thank you so much for the lovely comment, Beppina. So wonderful to know that you enjoyed my story, and the cherry on the cake is that you feel it worthy of a reread. Thank you for leaving a comment, most kind and always appreciated.

  2. WOW! All the stories you’ve written that I’ve read have been exceptional but this really takes the cake. It was quite the roller coaster from the beginning to the end and I read the whole thing in one sitting. It just begged me to keep reading and reading. The humor and the sorrow, the joy and the sadness. It was full of surprises.

    1. What a delightful comment to wake up too. You have made my day, Anne. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, they really do mean a lot.

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