Dancing With Angels (by Inca / aka Tye)

image_pdfimage_print

Summary:  A series of misfortunes with the opposite sex threatens Joe’s relationship with his family and brings his life into mortal danger.

While the story centers on Joe, the rest of the family also features.

WC 44,000   Rated: T

Contains scenes and themes that might be considered of an adult nature.

 

Author’s note:  This story began as a WIP in the Forums, there is an extended MA rated version of chapter 11 posted on page 2.  Please heed the Brand rating guideline before clicking the link contained within this story.

Dancing With Angels

My life was going from bad to worse.

Reins loose in one hand, other arm hugging my middle, I slumped in the saddle.  The bay gelding beneath me shook his head and looked back at me as if he wondered why we had come to a halt yet again.  Overhead the thunder rumbled louder and the horse shifted nervously.

Where the hell was I?

I lifted my head with an effort.  Around me, the empty scrubland ran away to the hills on the far horizon, familiar yet unfamiliar.  This might have been one of a hundred spots on the Ponderosa, but it wasn’t.   It wasn’t anywhere I knew.  The faint trail I had been following for the last three hours stretched away in front of me to nowhere, an unfulfilled promise of humanity in the faded wheel ruts.  Jaundiced clouds pressed heavily against the approaching dusk and the day felt ill, tired.  A bout of shivering convulsed me.  When had the evening grown so cold?   Another growl of thunder and the horse tossed his head.  I urged him forward again, the rhythmic sway of the animal’s movement the only soothing element in an existence that had contracted into a tightening sphere of throbbing pain in my middle.  I knew the bullet still lodged in my left side was going to kill me.

Something cold and wet smacked into the back of my hand.  I opened my eyes and stared blankly at the small glistening patch just below the purple bruises on my middle knuckle.  The horse was still moving forward, as if he understood the need to reach a destination even if his rider had long since stopped caring.  I wondered if I had dozed off.  The sky seemed darker; the landscape had closed in around me.  Several more hard pellets of water smacked into my legs, leaving dark spots on the dusty fabric that quickly expanded into irregular smudges.

An unexpected sound rose above the patter of the raindrops and the next low growl of thunder.  Dogs.  Barking.  The horse’s ears flickered. A faint flutter of hope pushed back the misery of the pulsing pain.  Signs of civilization.  Half a mile, maybe less.

And then, my luck being what it was, the heavens opened in one almighty torrent.

By the time I reached the farm, I was already drenched.  Three dogs of varying sizes pranced around my horse’s legs as I rode into the yard, their warning barking now a raucous frenzy.  The first deluge of the storm had swept past in a blinding fury, and the rain had settled to a steady downpour.  My sodden clothes clung to my body like a thick, cold skin.  The continuing rumbles of thunder still carried menace, and the encroaching gloom of an early dusk boded more to come.

“Stop right there!”  The disembodied voice carried clearly over the drumming of rain on roofs and ground.  Half insensible as I was, I thought it sounded like a woman’s.

Squinting through the stormy darkness, I made out the barrel of a shotgun protruding from a window of the plain square house in front of me.  My horse was fidgeting restlessly, distressed by the thunder and the yapping dogs.  Clamping my chattering teeth together, I forced my voice out between them.

“My name’s Joe.  Joe Brown.”  I realized too late I should have thought of another name, but I didn’t have the strength left to think any more.  “Just looking for somewhere dry to sleep.”

There was a long pause.  I sagged in my saddle.  The shotgun waggled.  “You can’t stay here. Turn your horse around and leave.”

I was on the brink of despair.  “If I could just bunk down in your barn….”

My horse danced as the shotgun exploded.  “Clear out!” warned the bodiless voice, “or the next shot won’t be wide.”

It was almost more of an effort than I could muster to turn my unhappy horse and head back out of the yard.  In the rain-drenched darkness, I could see little.  Not that it mattered.  I was struggling to stay upright, my head swimming like the ground below me.  I knew if I didn’t stop and climb down soon, I was likely to topple out of my saddle.

I was crossing grass, a flat featureless meadow, when the lightning came from nowhere; a blinding white flash that I swear struck the ground only feet in front of us, accompanied by an almighty thunderclap that made the whole earth shake.  My horse reared with a terrified scream and I, with a strange sense of destiny, felt myself sail out of the saddle and hit the ground with a hollow thud.

Dazed and disorientated, I lay there for several stunned seconds while the invisible clouds in the torn sky above me shuddered in rage and tipped another vicious torrent down on my spread-eagled body.  I cast my bleary eyes around helplessly for my horse, but knew in that instant that I was alone.  The unhappy creature had fled, abandoning me in the middle of a cold, wet nowhere.

I don’t know why I started to crawl.  It wasn’t a conscious decision.  I had reached such a stage of exhaustion, all I had left was instinct, and something deep down inside me was not prepared to give up, even though I had no strength left even to walk.  So I crawled, over the wet grass with no idea where I was going or what I hoped to do.

With my head drooping and my eyes closed, I noticed the building in front of me only when I collided with it.  Relief brought a small surge of renewed energy.  Dripping, I hauled myself to my feet and blinked rain from my eyes, but I could see little.  I reached out, groping.  My fingers encountered a latch, a door jamb.  The logs felt rough.  I could see no light.  I didn’t care.  A door meant shelter.  Whether it was a barn, a shack, even an outhouse, I just wanted to be out of the rain, to curl up in a ball and sleep.

I tugged at the latch but the door did not open.  My fumbling fingers found more metal.  A lock. The door was secured.  I rested my head against the slimy wood, a moan of despair erupting unbidden from my throat.  Luck had left me long ago.  I had a bullet in my side, I was cold, wet and lost, and I was going to die, alone in a thunderstorm.

Still my mind refused to give up.  Supporting my weight against the wall, I fumbled my way around the outside of the building, my final hope a window I could break.  By the time I reached the far side of the building and realized there was none, I was spent.  I turned my back to the wall and lifted my face to the sky.  Was I mistaken or was the rain beginning to ease?

“You win, God,” I whispered, and felt myself slumping, my body sliding uselessly down the side of the building.

I guess I passed out.  I don’t recall hitting the ground.  I remember only how cold I was.  And the fire in my side, like a knife, twisting and twisting.  There were voices too; just out of reach.  Always out of reach.  Talking to me.  Saying words that meant nothing.  Pa’s voice, and Hoss’s, and Adam’s.  And my mother.  I called out to her, but I couldn’t see her.  There was only her voice.

And then there was a bed.  How did I get from the field to the bed?  There were sheets wrapped around me, sticking to my body like my wet clothes.  I was so, so cold.  I called out to my mother to bring me blankets.  A quilt.  Her voice played in my head, over and over.  I even heard her singing to me.  In French.  I knew the words of the song so I sang it with her, and even though the pain in my side was bad, I laughed.  Laughed and shivered, and moaned with pain.

Hours?  Days?  I had no idea how long I lay, tossing and turning and dreaming my muddled dreams.  I only know that there came a time when I opened my eyes and knew who I was again, but nothing else.  I had no knowledge of where I was or what day it was, or how I had come to be there; only that I was inexplicably alive, still hurting, between the sheets of a bed, in a room I didn’t know, with a bladder desperate for attention.

At least I wasn’t cold any more.  The left side of my face was pressed into a soft white pillow.  Immediately in front of me was an unfamiliar wall.  My side was throbbing, a smoldering ache now rather than the searing agony of before.  Without moving my head, I let my eyes take in the little they could see of my unfamiliar surroundings.  As my gaze wandered, I became aware that the objects I was seeing were not entirely new to me and my sluggish brain recalled muddled remnants of earlier moments of consciousness: a pillow, cream linen with a narrow lace edging; a turned bedpost of dark polished wood; a soft, green quilt.  Before, I had imagined them to be elements of a muddled dream, but they were real, solid.  Beyond the edge of the bed was a nightstand with an enamel bowl and a couple of bottles, and behind that, a wall of bare wood.

Sounds of movement filtered through the grey fog clouding my head.  Turning my head, I took in the rest of the room, my brain still several steps behind my eyes.  There was a door on the other side of the bed, standing wide.  Framed by the doorway was the rectangular section of a second room.  Beyond that, another door, standing open to the heat of the day. The brightness outside threw the small part of the interior I could see into shadow, but there was a chair and the edge of a table; a patterned rug on the floor, one end of a dresser, blue-patterned plates on a shelf.  There were sounds coming from somewhere out of sight.  Pans clattering.

Memories began to fall back into place.  With each one, my stomach sank a little lower into despair. Anna Weslingam; John Sturry; the fight in the saloon; the scent of honey in Evie’s hair; the bullet in my side.  A sense of desolation rose inside me as I remembered why I had been in that miserable town, that dreary saloon, in the first place, and why I could no longer go home.

Darn, but I had to pee!  I shuffled my body higher into the pillows, gritting my teeth against the stab of protest from my punctured side, and only then registered that my clothes were gone.  The shock was brief; almost instantly, I caught sight of them, draped neatly over the back of a chair, against the wall at the foot of the bed.  I made to roll over and sit up.  Instantly the room misted as pain exploded in my side. Unable to stop myself, I swore aloud.

“Lie still,” ordered a voice that was vaguely familiar; a woman’s voice, sharp, like a schoolteacher’s.

My breath steadied as the worst of the agony subsided.  The view of the door had vanished behind folds of reddish brown fabric.  I let my gaze travel upwards, slowly.  A loose shirt of a paler shade with the hint of curves beneath; a smooth neck—definitely not a man’s.  Abruptly, my eyes halted when they reached the face.  Shock held me stunned for several moments before my lethargic brain alerted me to my own rudeness, and I dragged my gaze away again.

The woman was tall and straight and fair-haired, but her most noticeable feature was the hideous scar that ran the length of her face, from her right temple down to her chin, contorting her features out of all symmetry.  It was pale and puckered and ugly, and I found my gaze drawn to it against my will.

“It’s all right.”  There was an unmistakable note of bitterness in the voice.  “I’m used to being stared at.”

I looked at her again.  She had turned the damaged side of her face away from me.

“You need to lie still,” she instructed, in her stony, no nonsense voice.  “I got that bullet out of you in the end, but it’s not pretty.”

“Where am I?”

She laughed; a harsh, humorless sound.  “Good question.  Back end of nowhere.  One of the corners of this earth that God forgot.”  She waved a hand vaguely to her left.  “Keep going twenty miles that way and you’ll hit Angels Creek, a misnomer for a town if ever there was one.”

It took me a few moments to take in what she’d said and to remember that I had found an angel in that town.  An angel who was dead now.

“How did I get here?”

“I found you on the other side of my field, the morning after the storm.  Remember?  Thought you were dead.”  She adjusted the sheets around me.  “Would’ve been a lot less trouble if you had been.”

I shifted uncomfortably.  Exhaustion was already tugging me back towards sleep. “I have to get up.”

She laughed again, the sound as harsh as before.  “I don’t think so.  How long had that bullet been festering inside you anyway?”

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to remember the details, but I was too weary.  My mind refused to cooperate.

“Too long,” she told me, answering her own question.  “I don’t even know why you’re still alive.  And you won’t be getting out of that bed just yet.  I’m afraid, Joe Brown, we’re stuck with each other for a while longer.”

Joe Brown?  I frowned, confused.  More memories pushed their way back in, and I felt sick again.  I opened my eyes again, but didn’t meet hers.  “What day is it?”

“Tuesday.”

My sluggish brain tried to make the calculation and failed.

“It’s been four days,” she said, filling in the gaps for me.

“Four days!”  I gaped at her in horrified disbelief as reality sank in. “I’ve been here four days?  You’ve been looking after me all that time?  Just you?”

“No one else here.  It was that or leave you to die outside.”  She gave me a sharp look.  “I won’t lie to you; it crossed my mind.”

My stomach seemed to shrink as I thought about this woman nursing me all that time.  I could sense the blood burning in my face.  Well, I was awake now.  I could take care of my own needs.  I made another attempt to sit up and the room spun away from me again in another swirl of giddy pain.  A strong hand pushed me back on the pillows.

“I told you, you aren’t going anywhere.  Leastways, not yet.”

I bit my lip.  “I have to,” I muttered.  “I have to get up.  I need to…”  I screwed my face in embarrassment.  “I need to…”

The woman moved away to the dresser.  To my horror, when she turned back, she was holding a jar in her hands.

“This?” she said, and my stomach plummeted.

“It’s all right,” I muttered quickly, desperation overcoming my exhaustion.  “I can manage.”

She came back to the bedside.  I closed my eyes, willing it all to be a bad dream, but when I opened them again, she was still there, holding that danged container in her hands.  I groaned inwardly, but my discomfort was pressing.  Sooner or later I was going to have to resign myself to my fate.  I could at least sit up, I told myself.  I could surely muster enough strength to pee into a bottle.  But as soon as I tried to move, another blast of agony coursed through me, and the grey mist closed in around me again.  For a few anxious moments, I thought I might faint or throw up.

“Here,” she said.  “Let me help.”

I thought she was offering to help me sit up, then I felt her hand drawing down the sheets and realized what she’d actually meant.  But the room was still swimming behind the fog in my brain.  I wasn’t certain I could even remain conscious, let alone argue with her.  I turned my face away as if by not watching, I could convince myself this nightmare wasn’t happening.

“It’s all right,” she told me, as I tried to pretend her hands were not doing what I knew they were doing.  “I’m a married woman.”

I turned my face away into the pillow.  My life had become like a bad dream that was never going to end.  How had I ended up in this predicament?  How had this nightmare begun?

 

Chapter 2

I guess it all started the day Sheriff Coffee escorted me home after the unfortunate incident in the bank, like a truant kid, marched back to my pa for throwing stones through the schoolroom window.  Except I’m not a kid any more, I’m eighteen years old.

Pa was in the chair on the porch when Roy Coffee pulled up in the yard, with that “what’s he done now?” look on his face.  Hoss came out of the barn, wiping grease from his hands on a rag. At least he looked concerned.  And as Sheriff Coffee climbed down and untied Cochise, Adam appeared in the doorway of the house, and I groaned inwardly.  Great!  The whole family present to witness my humiliation.  Just perfect!

“Afternoon, Roy,” said my father, getting up with difficulty.  His back was no better.  The whole reason I’d been in town in the first place was Pa’s bad back.

“I have to go into the bank,” he’d said that morning, getting up with difficulty from the breakfast table and hobbling as far as the credenza.  With both hands pressed flat against the top, he pulled a face and muttered a few incoherent words under his breath.

We all looked at each other, then at Pa, with his face all scrunched in pain.  Adam’s eyebrow went up.  “Let’s face it, Pa, you’re not going anywhere in your condition.”

A sleepless night and the pain in his back were making Pa tetchy.  “I don’t have a choice, Adam.  Jim Holden is bringing that bull over first thing tomorrow and I promised him cash.”

“Well then, I’ll go,” said Adam, the voice of reason, but Pa shook his head.

“You and Hoss are bringing that timber down.  That’s got to be done too.”

“We can put that off for a day.”

Pa was getting more bad-tempered by the moment.  Nothing makes him grouchier than feeling old.  So I made the obvious suggestion.  “Why don’t I go?  I’m not doing anything that can’t be put off until tomorrow.  I’m just riding fence.”

“Right!” said Adam, fixing me with one of his withering glances.  “Like we’d trust you to look after a load of cash!”

Things hadn’t been too good between me and Adam the last couple of weeks, so now he was on the lookout for any chance to take another dig at me.  It was all because of Jane Morland, of course, but he just wouldn’t let it go.  It wasn’t even as if I’d actually done anything wrong, but Adam didn’t see it that way.

“I’m perfectly capable of bringing back some cash from the bank!”  I fired back at him.

“It’s not some cash, Joseph,” put in Pa, “it’s a thousand dollars.”

“You can trust me.”

“Right!” said Adam again, the sarcasm in his voice so thick it rivaled the syrup in the jar on the table.”

I could feel my temper fraying. “Just quit it, Adam!”  I threw down my napkin and glared at him as he glared back.  “Just because Jane Morland isn’t interested in you!”

Adam slammed down his napkin too, with an angry thud of his fist on the table.  “Well, we’ll never know now, will we?  Thanks to you!”

“Boys, that’s enough!” snapped Pa from his hunched position by the door.  “I told you, I don’t want to hear any more about those Morland girls.  Just drop the subject.  Joe, you can ride into town and get the money from the bank.  I’ll write a note for you.”

Adam made a derisory snorting noise.  Hoss, who had been busy munching toast while the argument hammered the table around him, spoke up in his usual placid tones.  “Aw, come on, Adam, Joe’ll be fine fetching the money from town.  You know he will.”

I flashed Hoss an appreciative glance.  At least one of my brothers had some faith in me.

I saw Adam’s face harden and sensed more trouble.  “So he’s paid you back the ninety dollars he lost in that poker game, has he, Hoss?”

My mouth fell open.  How did Adam know about that?  I looked at Hoss, who was frozen in guilt, a fresh slice of toast poised inches from his mouth.  Hoss’s nose wrinkled a silent apology.

“Poker game?”  Pa’s ears had pricked. I rolled my eyes upwards.  I knew where this was leading.  I’d had enough lectures from Pa on the evils of gambling.  “What’s Adam talking about, Joseph?  When were you playing poker?”

“Gee, thanks Adam!”  I rose from my chair and leaned forward across the table.  “All I can say is, Jane Morland should be thankful she was spared a sly, two-faced weasel like you!”

Pa’s back may have been bad, but there was nothing wrong with his ears, and he could still bellow louder than an angry bull.

“Joseph!  That’s enough!”

“He started it, Pa!”  I didn’t mean to sound like an angry kid; it just came out that way.

“No, you started it!  You started it the moment you couldn’t keep your grubby little paws off Rachel Morland!”

“Adam!” yelled Pa, still propping himself against the credenza.

“You’re just jealous!” I spat back at Adam.  “Just because her sister gave you the cold shoulder!”

“Joseph!” hollered Pa. “I’ve had enough of this.”  He pushed himself off the credenza, wincing, and limped back to the table, standing between us, like a crippled referee.  “I will not tolerate fighting in this house.  Now apologize to each other, both of you.”

Adam and I continued to glare at each other as we both grunted something resembling a half-hearted apology.  Pa fixed each of us in turn with his steely gaze.  “You,” he said to Adam and raised his eyes to take in Hoss, “and you!  Fetch down that timber.”  His gaze swiveled to me.  “And you, Joseph, will go to the bank and collect the cash.  And you will stay out of trouble, do you hear me?”

I was still breathing heavily, but I nodded.  “Yes, Pa.”  I knew I looked gleeful.  I didn’t care.  It would do Adam good to be taken down a peg or two.  He gave me a disdainful look that said clearly he knew I would mess up.

Dang blast my smug, know-it-all brother.  He was right again!

 

Chapter 3

It hadn’t been easy to climb down out of that buggy with dignity with all the bruises I’d sustained.  Pa’s expression had changed instantly from exasperation to concern as he saw me wince.

“Joseph, are you all right?”

“He’ll be fine, Ben,” Roy answered, before I could say anything.  I didn’t know what made Roy so sure.  He wasn’t aching where I was aching.  And I was just a little aggrieved to hear him making so light of my injuries.  I knew I was going to need all the sympathy I could muster once Pa heard the rest of the sorry tale.

“What happened?”

“He was robbed,” said Roy.

“Robbed!”

Pa, Hoss and Adam all started towards me together.

“Dagnabbit, Little Joe, someone attacked you?” said Hoss, in a voice that said if he could have laid hands on the perpetrators of the crime, he’d have dealt with them real good.

“Where are you hurt?” Pa had almost forgotten his own pain in the light of mine.

I tried to look as hurt as I knew how as he put his hand on my shoulder and peered anxiously into my face.  “I’m all right, Pa,” I assured him, putting on my best brave smile.  It wasn’t all for show.  I was hurting for real, after all.   “They just beat me up some.”

“I had the doc check him over, Ben,” said Roy.  “He says he’ll be stiff and sore for a few days, but nothing lasting.”

“Who beat you up, Joe?”  Even Adam was looking worried as he hurried across to add his support.  For a moment, it seemed he’d even forgotten Jane Morland.

“The fellers who took the money,” I told him.

“Let’s get you inside,” said Pa, putting his arm around my shoulder.  “Thanks for bringing him back, Roy.  Come on in and I’ll get Hop Sing to fix you something to eat and drink.”

“What happened?” asked Pa when we were all inside.

“I…I’m sorry, Pa.  They took the thousand dollars.”

Pa ruffled my hair the way he always did when he wanted to reassure me everything would be all right.  “The money’s not important, son.  What’s important is that you’re safe.”

“They got away,” said Roy, shaking his head with regret.  “But I think we’ll be able to catch up with them.  The woman should be easy enough to identify.”

“Woman?” said Adam, and my heart sank.  Any vague hope I’d nursed that I could avoid having my family uncover all the embarrassing details of my ordeal evaporated into the late afternoon heat.  I could already see the concern in my oldest brother’s face was fast dissolving into suspicion.  “What woman?”

Roy turned to me.  Pa and Hoss were looking at me too.  Obviously everyone expected me to pick up the story here.  I debated an attempt to escape humiliation by staging a swoon, but the truth would come out sooner or later, I knew, so I made the decision to steel myself and get it over and done with.

“There was a woman.  In the bank. I thought she was waiting for someone.”  I sighed.  It seemed unwise to mention the reason I’d noticed her was because she was real pretty, with a shy dimpled smile, and plenty of curves in all the right places. I pressed on, resigning myself to my fate.  “Well, as I was going out of the bank—with the thousand dollars—she was just leaving too.  And outside the bank, she tripped; fell off the sidewalk.”  I shrugged.  “I helped her back to her feet, that’s all.  She thanked me and went to leave, but she was limping real bad.  I couldn’t just walk away and leave her.  She said she was staying at the hotel, so I gave her a hand back to her room.”

I paused for a moment.  I knew I was reaching the tricky part of the story but I couldn’t see any way to avoid telling it; not with Roy sitting right beside me.  “Anyways, she was in real pain from her twisted ankle so I offered to fetch the doctor.”  I cleared my throat, hoping I didn’t sound as self-conscious as I felt.  “She said she was sure a doctor wasn’t required; that she was probably making a big fuss outta nothing, and would I mind taking a look at her ankle to see if I thought it was swollen.”

The sympathy was fast leeching from the room; I could almost see it slipping away.  I was conscious too of the blood rising in my face.  I deemed it wisest to gloss over the next part of the story; the details of that pretty little ankle and the hint of a smooth curved calf, under my hands.  “And then this big feller came outta nowhere and thumped me hard on the back of the head with a walking stick or something.  But he didn’t knock me out; he just knocked me over.  Then they both started laying into me—the woman too—and the feller brought that stick down right across my head, here.”  I touched the tender, swollen lump on my temple, and looked to Pa for commiseration. “I guess that laid me out because I don’t

remember anything else until the sheriff woke me up.”  I rubbed at the bruise, hoping to remind my family that I was the victim here.  But Adam wasn’t about to be fooled.

“You didn’t suspect anything when she asked you to look at her ankle?”

I bristled at the implied insult.  “No.  Why would I?”

Adam’s mouth tightened.  “What self-respecting female is going to invite a half-grown boy into her room to feel her ankle?  You didn’t think that was…strange?”

Heat rose in my cheeks, partly because of Adam’s description of me as a “half-grown boy,” and partly because I had known very well that no self-respecting woman would have made such an outrageous suggestion.  What I wasn’t about to confess was that part of me had dearly hoped that the woman would indeed turn out to be anything but respectable.

“No,” I lied, widening my eyes in innocence as I looked to Pa for support.  “She was in pain, Pa.  What was I supposed to do?  Ignore her?”

Pa had that exasperated expression back on his face.  “No. No, of course not.  But it would have been better if you’d found another woman to help her instead, Joe.  Adam’s right about respectability.”

“Well, she wasn’t respectable, was she?” I protested.  “She was a crook!  But I didn’t know that.”

“He was just trying to help, Ben,” said Roy, and my heart warmed in gratitude towards our dear old sheriff.  Not everyone seemed to think I had ulterior motives.  But Adam, standing with his arms crossed in front of him, was still fixing me with scathing eyes.

“You never learn, do you?”

“Adam!” said Pa, in a warning rumble.

“I’ve got a headache,” I said. It was true; I did.  A thumping headache, where that stick had made contact with my skull.  “Can I go and lie down now, Pa?”

“Of course you can, son,” said Pa, and Adam shifted.  I heard his impatient intake of air.

“That’s all you’re going to say to him, Pa?  He’s lost a thousand dollars!  I told you it would happen if you let him go.”  Burning resentment was coming off my oldest brother in hot waves.

“I’m sorry about the money, Pa.”

“Sorry?”  Adam threw his hands out in despair.  “Like you were sorry about Rachel Morland, I suppose.  You’re sorry, but you never learn.”

“Perhaps I should go,” said the sheriff, trying to be tactful, but Pa shook his head.  “It’s all right, Roy.  Adam, why don’t you fetch some coffee for Roy?”

“Why?” demanded Adam, all fired up now.  “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard all about what happened between the Cartwrights and the Morlands, Roy, because I know you have.  The whole town knows.  Heck, no doubt the whole territory knows by now.  When I say the Cartwrights and the Morlands, I really mean my brother and Rachel Morland, although the rest of us have now been tarred with the same brush.  All because Joe here is a consummate and incurable flirt whose behavior has now blighted the respectability of his entire family!”

Adam was boiling!  My cheeks and ears were burning.  Pa was saying something like, “We’ve been over this, Adam,” and Hoss was protesting that things weren’t that bad.  Sheriff Coffee said, “People have a great deal of respect for you, Adam, and Joe’s just a kid,” which didn’t make me feel any better.  Why did everything keep coming back to the Morland sisters?  Was Adam never going to put that behind us?  Sure he was supposed to have been real keen on Jane Morland.  Hoss had told me that.  But if he’d liked her that much, why hadn’t he done something about it sooner?  Sheesh!  He’d been mooning over her for months!  I reckoned a lot of his anger with me was just plain old jealousy.  That day of the Morlands’ party, it had taken me only minutes to appreciate that Jane’s sister was just the kind of girl I could get along with.  Only difference was, I hadn’t hung about like my older brother.  What was so wrong with that?

“We didn’t actually do anything!” I protested.

Adam did a passable impression of an astounded trout, his mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out.

“This isn’t about the Morlands!” shouted my poor, perplexed father.

“But it is, Pa!” insisted Adam, finding his voice again.  Personally, I’d preferred him without.  “It’s about his total lack of decorum and common sense.”

“I only kissed her!” I shouted into the melee, and immediately wished I hadn’t as four pairs of incredulous eyes rounded on me and the room went silent.

“Go and lie down, Joseph,” said Pa in a voice that warned me not to argue.

“But it’s true!” I knew it was unwise to persist, but my sense of justice would not be denied.  “I only kissed her!”

They were all still staring at me.  When no one else said anything, Hoss cleared his throat.  “There’s kissin’, and there’s kissin’, Little Joe.”

“We’ve been over this already, Joseph.”  Pa’s voice was dangerously quiet.  “You know you overstepped the mark with Rachel Morland.  And Adam’s right. You’re old enough to have more sense.  Don’t put yourself into compromising situations and you won’t end up compromising yourself, or the honor of your brothers.”

I felt about six inches tall right then.  There was still plenty of protest in me but even I knew it was not the right time to give vent to it.  So, I gave Pa a small nod and a muttered apology and made my escape to my own room.

But I was not about to admit I was wrong.

 

Chapter 4

So, I was barely eighteen years old and I was already considering swearing off women.  They might be soft and pretty and shaped to make my mouth water, but they just brought me trouble.  Even that ninety dollars I owed Hoss was down to a sweet-talking saloon girl who’d persuaded me to join a poker game, then distracted my mind by sitting in my lap and whispering tempting suggestions into my ear.  Then had come Rachel, with her big doe-soft eyes, innocently beguiling.  And although her pa had blamed me when he found us together in the barn, it was actually his daughter who’d needed controlling that night!  The devil comes in all kinds of innocent guises, and those big, sweet eyes of Rachel’s sure hid some mischief.

Now this latest siren had appeared to tempt me to doom.  A thousand dollars’ worth of doom.  Women were dangerous.  Like juicy berries on a poisonous plant, they lured innocent men like me to destruction.  Trouble was, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.  Hoss tried to help.  He was my confidant; the only one I let in on my secret vow of celibacy.  Adam would have laughed out loud; Pa would have sat me down and given me a talking to, and I’d had enough of those lately to last me a lifetime.  So, it was just Hoss and me.  I knew I could rely on Hoss to be encouraging and helpful, in spite of his reservations.

“It’s not going to work, Little Joe,” he said when I first told him how things were going to be from then on.  “First little girl who smiles at you, you’ll be off again.”

I was disappointed he thought me so weak-willed, but he was true to his word and helped keep my mind distracted, mostly by finding me plenty of extra chores to eat up all my energy and occupy my thoughts.  It worked, to a point, although I still dreamed of girls.  I could make Hoss’s eyes pop out on stalks just telling him about my dreams.

“There,” I said to him at the end of a week.  “A whole week, and I ain’t laid eyes on a girl.”

Hoss wrinkled his nose at me.  “Yeah, but Joe, there ain’t any women round the Ponderosa, little brother.  The real test is gonna be when you go into town Saturday night. There’s the dance, remember?”

I shrugged.  “I ain’t going.”

Hoss’s eyes widened.  “You ain’t going?”

“Nope.”  I shrugged.  “I ain’t fussed about a dance.”

Hoss knew I was lying.  I’m pretty sure he thought I’d change my mind, but I was nothing if not determined.  I stuck to my guns.  I extracted some pleasure simply from seeing the expression on Adam’s face, first when I said I wasn’t going, and again, later, when he realized I actually meant it.

Pa was the last one to know about my decision to reform.  While Hoss and Adam were upstairs getting ready to ride into Virginia City for the dance, I plumped down on the sofa with a book in my hand.  Pa glanced up from the newspaper he was reading and raised an eyebrow at me.

“You ought to be getting ready.  You’ll make your brothers late.”

“Not going.”  I opened my book.

“Not going?”  Pa frowned.  “Why not?  You sick?”

“No, Pa.  Just feel like an evening in.”

He looked at me oddly.  “You’re not in any more trouble, are you, Joseph?”

I looked offended.  “No, Pa.  And if I stay here with you, I can’t get into any more trouble, can I?”

So I stayed at home while my brothers went off to have a good time in Virginia City. I might have felt like a martyr, but I was secretly miserable all evening.  I couldn’t concentrate on my book for thinking about Hoss and Adam enjoying themselves at the dance.  I tried to imagine who they’d dance with.  Would Emily Pearson be there?  Next to Rachel Morland, she was the prettiest girl in Virginia City.  Her mother worked in the draper’s and sewed Emily the fanciest dresses.  The latest fashion for low, scooped necklines was a trend I was only too happy to admire.  And the more closely I could admire it, the better.  Thinking about Emily and her fashionably cut bodice drove me half to distraction.  Pa kept flicking irritated glances at me over the top of his newspaper as I sighed and fidgeted and shuffled around in my chair.  In the end, I took myself off to bed, no doubt to the relief of my father, and tormented myself by playing over and over in my head all the endless scenarios of what might have happened if I had gone to the dance instead of torturing myself by my enforced abstinence.

Still, it was a victory.  I celebrated the next day by taking Hoss to the spot where Seth and I had watched the Indian girls bathing in the lake.  As fortune would have it, just as I was recounting the details of that visitation to a round-eyed Hoss, half a dozen Indian women wandered down to the exact same spot.  Hoss could hardly believe his luck, but I was disappointed.  These weren’t the nubile young creatures Seth and I had drooled over only two weeks previously, but older women.  Hoss enjoyed it though, and I couldn’t deny the educational value of the experience.  And when the women had departed, Hoss and I plunged ourselves into the cold water because the day seemed to have grown unseasonably hot, and I decided there and then that maybe I was taking things to extremes.  I didn’t need to swear off women completely; I just needed to temper my enthusiasm.

And then my whole life turned upside down.

 

Chapter 5

It seemed to me my family was secretly impressed by my new-found strength of character.  Adam finally stopped harping on about Jane Morland.  Personally I thought he should’ve been grateful to me for saving him from a miserable future.  Jane Morland is nothing like her younger sister; nowhere near as pretty; in fact, she’s as prim and as uptight as an old school mistress.  Anyways, who’d want a father-in-law as poker-faced as Mr. Morland?

I’d been living my reformed existence for a whole couple of months when Pa announced he’d had interest from a cattle dealer in San Francisco and was hoping to seal a lucrative business deal.  To the obvious surprise of all of us, he announced that he was putting me in charge.

“You’ve made a big effort lately, Joseph,” he said, “and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.  I think you’ve proved you can handle this responsibly.”

I knew I could too, but it didn’t stop me feeling proud that Pa had finally recognized I was a man grown now.

I set off for San Francisco with the knowledge that this was my big chance to prove myself.  I was determined not to mess up this time, and to get a price for those cattle that would make Pa proud of me.  It took a mammoth effort of will to steer clear of all the temptations of the big city, but I was a new person.  Mature, sensible, trustworthy.

I handled that deal like a real businessman.  Travelling home, I was so puffed up with my own self-pride I wonder there was room for anyone else inside that stagecoach.  I could hardly wait to show Pa, Adam and Hoss the profit I’d made, and let Pa know that his faith in me hadn’t been misplaced.

Adam and Hoss were there to meet me off the stage.  When they said it was time for me to discover the delights of Julia’s Palace in recognition of my maturity and the good job I’d done with the cattle sale, I forgot all about being a reformed character.  Pa’s real particular about places like Julia’s Palace.  He’s real particular about most things, especially with me.  If Pa’d been there when I stepped off that stage from San Francisco, maybe none of the heartache would have happened.

Stepping over the threshold of the Palace, my stomach was somersaulting with excitement.  The place was filled with pretty girls; girls ready to do all the things I’d always dreamed of doing.  No coy protestations, no recriminations, no irate fathers.  I was more than ready to be initiated into the heady delights of carnal pleasure; and all with the blessing of my benevolent brothers.

The moment I laid eyes on Julia Bulette, I knew she was special.  It wasn’t just her sophistication and the fact she was so beautiful, there was something in the way she looked at me.  Like I was special too.  Pa, Adam, Hoss, they all thought she was just humoring an eager kid, but I knew right from the start there was more to it than that.  Sure, she was older than me.  Old enough to be my mother, Adam said, but age isn’t important.  Not when someone’s right.  And Julia and I were right together.  I know no one else thought so; no one in the town; not even my own family.  But I knew it.  In my heart.  Where it matters.

Adam and Hoss believed they were doing me a favor that day.  They never dreamed they were setting in motion a sequence of events that would come close to breaking our family apart.

Compared to Julia, every other woman in that place faded into insignificance.  I’d known plenty of pretty girls, but Julia was different.  She changed me; taught me so much.  And not just what I learned in her bed either, but wisdom, compassion, patience, understanding.  Some people are beautiful, not just on the outside, but on the inside too, and Julia was one of those people.

When Pa found out about our relationship, he tried everything he could to end it.  I guess I understand why he was so upset.  Julia and I had become the talk of the town, and not in a good way.  Nobody understood how I felt about her.  I couldn’t make any of them see.  Pa and I argued.  Seemed like every time we spoke to each other, we finished up arguing.  In the end, I left the Ponderosa; moved into town so I could be near Julia.  Hoss said that near broke Pa’s heart.  I know it was wrong, but it didn’t feel wrong at the time, and I’m not ashamed I did it.  It felt like the right thing to do.  The only thing to do.

Julia taught me what it meant to love a woman, but she also broke my heart. I still wasn’t able to think about her without feeling like my gut was about to tear in two.  The night she died, part of my heart went with her and I didn’t know how it was ever going to heal.  We didn’t talk about her much in our house.  Sometimes I wished we could, but I could see how the memories hurt Pa, and Adam and Hoss just didn’t seem to know what to say.  Maybe they regretted taking me into the Palace that day, but some things are destined to happen, and I didn’t regret knowing Julia.  I just regretted that fate snatched her away from me.

Julia changed us.  Not just me, but Pa, Adam and Hoss too.  When I went back home with them, the night Julia died, we all knew things could never go back to the way they had been.  On the surface everything seemed the same.  We all went about our chores; Adam and Hoss still teased me; Pa still scolded us all.  But there were subtle differences.  It was as if we all somehow acknowledged we could no longer take each other for granted.

I didn’t leave the ranch much for a long time.  I couldn’t face town, people’s eyes following me, some accusing, others pitying.  I languished in a dark well of grief for weeks while my family tiptoed around me and pretended that everything would get better in time.

I guess they were right.  The hurt didn’t go away, but I learned to live with it. Most of the time.  Sometimes it got so bad, I would have to go somewhere and be on my own till the worst of it eased.  But that old saying that life goes on is right.  The sun comes up every day and goes down every night, whether we live or we die.  When Julia first died, I didn’t see how I could go on without her.  But somehow, I did.  I thought of Pa, losing three wives and I wondered how he could still smile, yet he did.  Our own little tragedies are just part of the relentless rhythm of the universe.  Adam said that, not me.  But he was right.  Whole days would go by when I didn’t weep for Julia.

Pa said I was young and the young heal faster.  I didn’t know if that was true.  It sure felt like a long, dark winter to me.  But with the spring, Pa and my brothers had taken off the kid gloves and were more or less back to treating me like normal.  What had happened had cast a shadow over our family that would never fully disperse, but I was back to accompanying my brothers to the socials, and I had learned to laugh again and enjoy a pretty smile and the feel of a girl in my arms as we danced.

+++++

At the end of March, a letter arrived that diverted the attention of all of us.  It was from an old college buddy of Adam’s, a feller with the unlikely name of Archibald Weslingham.

“He’s English,” said Adam, when Hoss and I doubled over laughing, as if being English explained the ridiculousness of his name.  “At least, his family is English.  His father is a baron or something.”  He frowned at us over the top of the letter as we pulled our faces tight and pretended to doff top hats at each other.  “He and his wife are traveling and want to spend a few weeks here on the Ponderosa.”

“When?” asked Pa, sifting through his own mail and paying no attention whatsoever to Hoss and me.

“May,” Adam continued skimming the neatly penned script, a little smile lifting the corners of his mouth.  “He sounds just the same as he always did in college.  He had a real dry sense of humor.  We used to sing together in the choir, you know.”

I was already losing interest in Archibald Weslingham.  Turning back to Hoss, I put on my best aristocratic English accent.  “I say, Hoss, why don’t you serve the sherry while I order some tea?”

Pa glanced up from the letter he was reading and fixed me with a hard stare.  “Don’t you have something useful you could be doing, Joseph?”

The Weslinghams’ proposed visit put my oldest brother in good spirits, and somehow lifted the mood of the entire household.  Aside from recounting endless anecdotes from his college days with Archie, Adam became consumed with making sure everything was just right for the Weslinghams’ stay.

“Archie is very particular,” he explained, when he ordered a new rug and bedspread for the guest room even though the existing furnishings looked fine to my apparently unparticular eyes.  “Remember, he comes from a house where they have servants to run every errand.”

My misgivings about Archibald Weslingham grew when Adam started talking to Hop Sing about afternoon tea, and whether there was time to make a special order for Earl Grey.  When I asked Adam who Earl Grey was, he simply rolled his eyes at me and called me a Philistine.  I was pretty certain that was an insult.  A week before the Weslinghams’ arrival, I rode into town with him to collect a couple of crates of some expensive wine he was sure would appeal to Archie’s discerning palate.

“He drinks a lot, does he, Archibald?” I’d asked when I’d heard Pa and Adam discussing the wine.  Adam had shot me a look that said he couldn’t hope to make me understand.  “No, younger brother,” he’d told me, in a tone reserved for half wits.  “He just appreciates good wine.  What’s more, he sips, he doesn’t slurp!”

Slurp?I was pretty sure I’d just been insulted again.  But all the trouble Adam was going to, preparing for the Weslinghams’ arrival, did generate a buzz of excitement around the Ponderosa.  As far as I could see, with so much fuss being made to ensure everything was just so, Archibald and his wife had to amount to minor royalty at least.  I’d already formed my own impression of what Archibald would look like.  He was an aristocrat, of English birth, and addicted to books, or so Adam said.  I couldn’t imagine anyone more of a bookworm than my older brother, but Archibald, according to Adam, had a brain the size of Boston.  In my mind, he was thin and pale, possibly bespectacled, with goofy teeth, a high collar and a nasally English voice.  I wondered how he would even survive the trip out West to the Ponderosa.

Adam went into town the day the visitors were due, to meet them from the stage.  Hoss and I were under strict instructions to look presentable when he returned, and not to mess up anything around the house and yard.  And not to eat the scones and fruit cake Hop Sing had been specially instructed to bake—from an English recipe—in honor of the Weslinghams’ arrival.  Adam’s fussing had reached such a pitch the evening before and that morning that it had become contagious, and Pa, Hoss and I were in an irrational state of nervous anticipation as we waited for the return of the buggy from town.

“Dang!” said Hoss, as the rig trundled into the yard and we hurried out to meet it.  “That ain’t no Archibald!”

It took me a moment to get over the shock as I saw the lithe young man who had jumped down from the buggy.  No spectacles, no stoop, no receding hairline. Archibald Weslingham, tall and broad-shouldered, was a blond version of my own older brother.  Somehow, that revelation left me vaguely disappointed, but compensation was not long in coming, as Adam handed down Mrs. Weslingham from the back seat.

I hadn’t given Archibald’s wife much thought until that moment, but there, in the yard in front of us, was a compact but wonderfully constructed woman with eyes of radiant blue, and a perfect, full red pout of a mouth.  She had to be at least ten years her husband’s junior.  Dainty hands smoothed the folds of her expensive silk traveling gown, carefully cut to highlight her perfect proportions.  I had had little interest in anything female the whole winter.  Without warning, I felt the old, familiar stirrings of appreciation tingling in my middle.

Hoss gave me a sharp dig in the ribs with his elbow.  “Shut your mouth, little brother.  You’re drooling!”

I wasn’t exactly drooling, but I was gaping.  When Anna Weslingham turned her clear blue eyes my way, I felt a small tremor shiver through my belly.  Maybe having Adam’s old college buddy to stay wouldn’t be dull after all.

Hoss and I gathered up assorted bags and boxes from the rig.  Pa was leading the Weslinghams into the house.

“Sure brought plenty of luggage,” commented Hoss, tucking a large hatbox beneath his arm.

Adam grabbed a carpet bag.  “That’s not all of it.  The trunk’s still in town.  Someone will have to go back for that tomorrow.”

I could hear Anna Weslingham’s voice floating back clearly from the porch.  “Oh, it’s all so deliciously primitive, just as you said it would be, Archie.”

Adam rolled his eyes at us.  “That woman!” he muttered.  “Give me patience, Lord!”

“What’s she do, d’you reckon?”  Hoss asked me as Adam stomped off after his guests.

I shrugged.  “Who cares what she does.  It’s how she looks that interests me!”

Hoss stared after her and gave a wistful nod.  “Yeah, she sure is a looker!  But she’s married, little brother.  Don’t you forget it.”

 

Chapter 6

It didn’t take long to discover the source of Adam’s exasperation.  Sadly, Anna Weslingham’s looks were her only real asset.   Certainly she hadn’t been blessed in the intelligence department.  Even I noticed it, and intelligent conversation ranks fairly low on my list of essential female graces.  However, I was happy to forgive her any amount of stupid conversation and empty-headed giggling on account of her other attributes which, in my opinion, more than compensated.

The Weslinghams’ first dinner at the Ponderosa was a formal affair.  At Adam’s insistence, Hoss and I had dutifully spruced ourselves up and put on our best suits and ties.  Hop Sing had turned the table into a glittering work of art, with silver and crystal and fresh flowers.  Archie Weslingham, slick and polished in a tailcoat and starched collar, appeared on the stairs, his dimpled wife resplendent in a shimmering gown of deep pink satin, with a bodice cut so low that, considering what it needed to contain, it bordered on dangerous.  Her plump, bulging bosom, on the verge of spilling over, swelling and bobbing whenever she laughed and darn near threatening to tumble right out onto the table whenever she leaned forward (which wasn’t nearly often enough, in my opinion!), held me spellbound the entire meal.  She laughed plenty though, a high-pitched girlish giggle that might easily have been irritating had it not caused all that delightful creamy flesh to quiver so tantalizingly I had trouble swallowing my food.

It was at dinner I noticed Adam’s smile becoming rigidly fixed as Mrs. Weslingham regaled him over and over with twittering observations about the relative merits of the two millinery stores in Virginia City, the fashionable length for cuffs, and the best place to buy silk ribbon.  I couldn’t help but relish a smug sense of satisfaction at Adam’s stoic efforts to remain polite and look interested.

“Never mind, older brother,” I consoled him as we all rose from the table.  “It’s only for a few more weeks.”

Adam gave me a look that would have withered a cactus.

We retired to the sofas and armchairs for coffee and brandy, and Mrs. Weslingham, who had drunk several glasses of wine, fidgeted restlessly while Pa and Adam and Archie talked about cattle prices and breeding stock.  Finally, spotting the checkers board, she gave a little whoop of delight.  “Checkers!” she exclaimed. “I love to play!”  And she looked at Hoss and me and clapped her hands together.  “Who wants to challenge me?”

The hand clap had set the plump mounds trembling once more.  I swallowed hard and glanced at Hoss, but he had colored right up and was currently incapable of coherent speech so I knew it was up to me to do the noble thing.

“I’d be happy to give you a game, ma’am,” I said, forcing my gaze to her face and treating her to one of my most charming smiles.

She grabbed a cushion and dropped to the floor beside the low table.  I followed her lead, barely able to believe my luck.  Mrs. Weslingham leaned her elbows on the table, and her bosom on her forearms, so that the mouthwatering overspill rested almost on the edge of the board.  It was the best game of checkers I ever played, even though I lost, but I hardly noticed that because Mrs. Weslingham clapped her hands together again in unfettered delight at her victory, causing the two objects of my present desire to respond with several gratifying bounces.  I drank a glass of my father’s best brandy and felt a true sense of contentment as we set the board for a rematch.

As much as I enjoyed admiring Anna Weslingham’s feminine assets, it was apparent that, for her, the novelty of staying on a working ranch held few attractions.  After the first few days, her giggles and endless exclamations gave way to drawn brows, heavy sighs and sulky shrugs.  She was used to city life back East.  She had told me—over and over—about her wide social circle; how, at home, she entertained daily and dined out most evenings.  She was used to servants at her beck and call, and she bemoaned the absence of her maid, Libby.  When I wondered aloud why she hadn’t brought Libby with her, she pouted and threw a murderous look at her husband, across the room.

“Archie wouldn’t hear of it. He says I need to learn some independence; how to look after myself.”  Her brow came down in a scowl.  “So now I have to dress myself and fix my own hair, so I look like a ragamuffin gypsy!”

I cast my eye over her cornflower blue evening gown, and the rows of expensive pearls around her white throat, lingering unconsciously at the deliciously mysterious hollow of her deep, dark cleavage.

“You look very beautiful,” I told her, and she flashed me a grateful smile.

“You’re very sweet, Little Joe, but my hair!  Libby always does such wonderful things to my hair, and now I feel half wild!”

I looked at the thick, dark curls tumbling around her face and told her honestly that her hair looked beautiful too.

“You’re very kind.”  She leaned forward and patted my hand.  I loved it when she leaned in towards me and put all that wonderful flesh right under my gaze. My heart skipped a beat.

She turned her wide blue eyes on me, and I saw her desperation.  “Archie’s talking about buying a ranch somewhere for himself.  That’s why he was so keen to come here. I don’t want to live on a ranch, Little Joe!”

I could see her point.  Anna Weslingham was definitely not built to live on a ranch.  I was sure her husband must be able to see that too, and said so.  The sigh she heaved then caused that delectable, curved bosom to expand several inches, so it seemed to me it would rise right out of its wrappings, before it sank back down again with a tantalizing quiver.

“He says it would do me good.  He’s promised me a big house and servants and things.  But what would I do all day, little Joe?”

“You would be wasted on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, ma’am,” I agreed, nodding in sympathy.  “A lady like you needs society, and society needs you.”

“You see, you understand, Little Joe!”

She was right.  I did understand.  I understood where Archie, Adam—even Pa—didn’t.  Maybe it was because I’m used to girls like Mrs. Weslingham; girls who talk about nothing but bonnets and gloves, ribbons and lace, combs and curls; whose biggest worry in life is how to keep their dresses from creasing, or the correct length for a peplum.  Pa has no patience for that kind of chit-chat, and Adam’s eyes glaze over if a girl can’t talk intelligently about books or politics, but I weigh up all that meaningless chatter against a pretty face or some irresistible curves.  Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if it means looking interested when his mind numbed over hours before.

I didn’t understand Archie’s attitude to his wife.  On the one hand, he liked to parade her, showing her off like a smart new pocket watch or a new hat; at other times, he ignored her completely.  There were even a few awkward occasions when he slighted her publicly.  The second time it happened, I took Adam aside to see if he understood why.  We’d been talking about a ride into Carson City and Mrs. Weslingham had held up two hats and asked her husband which would be most suitable for the trip.  He’d rolled his eyes and responded, “Whichever is the most unsuitable, obviously, my dear, because that is the one you will always choose, isn’t it?”  The disdain in his voice was so sharp it hit us all like a cold, wet facecloth, and for an unpleasant moment, the atmosphere in the room was doused in a chilly silence.  The scathing tone was not lost on Mrs. Weslingham. Her cheeks flushed scarlet and her eyes brimmed instantly with hot tears of humiliation.

“That wasn’t necessary,” I said to Adam as we crossed to the barn to harness the rig.

Adam shrugged, but I could see he felt as uncomfortable as I did, for all his pretence that it didn’t matter.  “He meant it as a joke.”

“It didn’t sound like a joke.”

Adam shrugged again.

“He shouldn’t treat her like that,” I persisted, and when Adam still refused to be drawn, I added, “He did the same the other day.  In front of the men.  When she asked if branding steers hurts them.”

Adam pulled open the barn door.  “Well, it was a dumb question.”

“Not to her it wasn’t!”

Adam stopped in the doorway, turned to face me and took a deep breath.  “Look, Joe, Archie and Anna’s relationship isn’t our business.”

“I thought he was your friend.”

“He is my friend.”

“Then why don’t you have a word with him?”

Adam’s mouth tightened.  “He didn’t mean anything by it, Joe.  Just let it go, will you?  It’s just that Anna can be…”  Adam shook his head and swung away from the barn door, leaving the sentence unfinished.

I went after him.  “Anna can be what?”

“Nothing.”  He stopped again when he saw I wasn’t about to give up.  “All right.  Anna can be…trying.  Even you must be able to see that.  Now let’s just drop the subject.”

“He should still show her more respect.  She’s his wife, after all.”

“Yes, she is,” acknowledged Adam, without even making an effort to disguise the sarcasm in his voice.

“Then why did he marry her?”  I couldn’t keep the annoyance out of my own voice.

He shot me a razor-sharp look.  “I thought you, of all people, would have understood that, Joe.”

I didn’t have an answer for that, but the truth was, I didn’t much like Archie, and I struggled to see what Adam thought was so great about him.  And Archie didn’t seem to think much of me or Hoss.  I got the distinct impression he regarded us both as buffoons, and he had a habit of addressing us as if we were his servants back East.  No matter what the subject, Archie always knew more than anyone else.  And he told long stories— usually about his own exploits—the point of which, inevitably, was to prove his own superior intellect and distinction and everyone else’s inferiority.

Fortunately, Hoss and I didn’t spend much time with the Weslinghams.  Life on the ranch went on for us much the same as always, and there was plenty of work to be done.  Adam entertained the visitors, taking them on tours of the Ponderosa, into Virginia City, and to meet acquaintances he thought Archie would find interesting.  Anna Weslingham tagged along on these outings, but as her disillusionment grew, even the allure of Virginia City dulled in her eyes.  I had the distinct impression she wanted nothing more than to climb on the next stage and head back East.  I think Adam would have liked that too.  He bore Anna Weslingham’s company with forced smiles and gritted teeth.  Aside from her sumptuous décolletage, it was, to my mind, her one other redeeming feature; that she could so inadvertently wind up my oldest brother to screaming pitch with her unconscious shallowness and endless babble.

Just over a week into the Weslinghams’ visit, I came downstairs one morning—late as usual—to find only the two guests and Adam at the breakfast table.

“Where’s Pa and Hoss?” I asked.

“Gone up to the lumber camp,” said Adam, sipping coffee.

“I wish I’d known,” said Archie, scooping eggs onto his fork.  “I’d be interested to see the lumber camp, Adam.”

“No reason why you can’t.  We can ride up there this morning if you want.”

Mrs. Weslingham put down her coffee cup and stuck out her bottom lip.  “Don’t you dare, Archie!  You promised me we could go to the lake.  You said we could take a picnic.”

Archie sighed and ignored her.

“So we can.”  Adam’s voice was placatory.  “We can still do that.  After the ride to the lumber camp.”

“Lumber camp!”  Anna rounded on her husband with anger flashing in her bright blue eyes.  “I don’t even know what a lumber camp is.”

“It’s where they cut…” began Archie, but before he could finish, she exploded in a fit of pique.

“I don’t care what a lumber camp is.  I have no interest in lumber camps.  Or mining.  Or branding.  Or cattle auctions.  Or the price of wheat.  You promised me we could go to the lake.”

“We can.  We’ll just go to the lumber camp first.”

She jumped up from the table.  “No!  I am not going to any lumber camp.  Not today, not ever!  I am going to the lake.  As you promised.”

Archie heaved another sigh.  “Anna!”

I had just decided I might give breakfast a miss and escape the tantrum; I’d even pushed my chair back ready to rise, when Adam said, “Joe will take you to the lake.  Won’t you, Joe?”

My heart sank.  Why me?  The odd conversation or game of checkers, after dinner, when my head was nicely numbed from wine and brandy, was one thing; a morning spent discussing lace collars and the polite way to serve a sandwich was another entirely. After all, there was no reward in this for me.  Mrs. Weslingham was a married woman.  There wasn’t even the promise of a stolen kiss to motivate me.  She looked round at me, suddenly hopeful.  She liked me, I knew. Hoss and I were the only two members of the household to pay her any real attention, and Hoss always became tongue-tied when she put on one of her wonderful evening gowns.  I had to think of an excuse.  And fast.

“Oh, I would.  I really would, but I promised Pa I’d fetch the mail.”

“The mail can wait until tomorrow.”  Something in Adam’s voice told me he was not going to take “no” for an answer.

I sighed and forced a smile at Mrs. Weslingham.  “Well, in that case….”

Her good mood restored, she flounced away to organize a picnic basket with Hop Sing, while I tried to fix Adam with a venomous glare, but my brother was too good at avoiding my eyes.

“We’ll meet you at the usual place as soon as we can get there,” Adam promised hazily, as he and Archie donned their hats and made for the door.

I hurried after him, Adam’s vagueness ringing alarm bells in my head.  “What time will that be?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  Adam shrugged.  “Midday?”

“You’re going to ride all the way to the camp, do whatever you plan to do there, and get back to the lake by noon?”  I didn’t even try to hide my skepticism.

Adam gave another shrug.  “All right then.  Say one.  Maybe half past.”

“Adam!” I hissed at him through my teeth, as Archie shrugged into his jacket, his back turned to us.

Adam slapped me on the shoulder.  “It’s just a picnic, Joe.  You’ll be fine.  She likes talking to you.”

By the time we reached the lake, I had the beginnings of a headache. Anna Weslingham had talked constantly.  I’d heard every detail of her social life in Boston; acquaintances I had never heard of and was never going to meet; accounts of tea parties, and frocks; descriptions of who wore what and when; how wonderful Archie was, and how one day they would travel to England and visit his numerous relatives there.  The situation picked up once we reached the picnic spot.  The lake asserted its peculiar magic, and Anna Weslingham succumbed to its influence and seemed content to wander quietly, uttering little more than an occasional murmur of awed appreciation as we took a walk along the shore to stretch our legs after the long buggy ride.

It was past noon when we returned to the rig and set about unloading the picnic basket.  Mrs. Weslingham was instantly as excited as a six-year-old as she laid out the food on a red-checkered tablecloth.  Hop Sing had done us proud as always. There were even two bottles of the wine Adam had bought for Archie.

“Here,” she said, big eyes shining as she thrust a bottle at me.  “Open it. We’ll have a glass while we wait.  Archie and your brother shouldn’t be long now.”

With a glass of wine in my hand and the sun warm on my outstretched legs, I found myself inclined to forgive Adam for his pushiness in forcing me on this outing.  Mrs. Weslingham seemed content for once as well, leaning back in the grass and singing softly to herself as she gazed out over the brilliant blue expanse of the lake.  I was content too.  She wore a light, loose blouse over a flounced skirt of deep lilac, and where the sun shone through the fabric, I caught a subtle hint of a curve beneath, enough to keep my mind as happily occupied as hers.

“I’m hungry,” she said, at last.  “They’re late, aren’t they?”

I agreed they were.  Although I didn’t say it to her, I had my own suspicions that they had no real intention of showing up at all.  I knew Adam well enough to know how little patience he had for this woman’s company.

“Why don’t we eat?” I suggested.  My stomach was starting to complain from lack of food.  “There’ll be plenty left when they do come.”

So we ate: bread and cold fried chicken, strawberries and ginger cake.  And Mrs. Weslingham refilled our glasses and told more stories I could well have done without, but I smiled and nodded, and settled myself back down on the grass, folding my arms behind my head and yawning.  I had a full belly and the wine had left me pleasantly sleepy.  I closed my eyes, enjoying the sensation of the sun on my eyelids.

I wasn’t aware that I’d dozed off, not until I heard the shrill screams close by.  Leaping to my feet, confused, I saw immediately that Mrs. Weslingham was gone.  Another shriek brought my heart into my throat as I placed the direction of the sound.

She was about forty feet out from the shore, and struggling.  I saw her go under and come up, crying and spitting.  Already I was tugging at my boots and gunbelt.  The water was cold as I plunged in and struck out in her direction.

“Hold still!  I’ve got you!” I bellowed at her, over her violent splashing and wild screams.  “Stop struggling!”

“My leg!” she wailed, in a panic.  “My leg!  My leg!”

I tightened my grip around her, trying to avoid her flailing arms as I headed back towards the shore.  She struggled so hard, it was difficult to swim.  She pulled me under several times.  Just as I was seriously considering knocking her unconscious before she drowned us both, her flailing lessened.  I could hear her terrified sobs.

“It’s all right,” I reassured her, tightening my grip around her with my right arm as I pulled for the shore with my left. I was trying in vain not to enjoy the sensation of her breast resting on my forearm and my thumb sinking disconcertingly into the soft mound of flesh.

With the floor of the lake beneath my feet at last, I rose up out of the water and she gave another squawk of pain as I tried to set her on her feet, so I picked her up again and carried her onto the warm lakeshore, and sat her down on the beach.

“My leg, my leg!” she moaned, lying back and rolling around in seeming agony.

I tried to concentrate on what she was saying, but it was difficult.  She’d abandoned her dress to take her dip in the lake, and was currently clad in nothing but a fine cotton chemise, now clinging to every wet inch of her writhing body.  I could see her small foot, toes rigid and splayed, her taut leg extended, a shapely calf and a white, small-boned ankle.

“It’s only a cramp,” I assured her.  “It’ll pass in a minute or two.”

“It hurts!” she wailed.  “Do something, please!”

I looked around helplessly for something to cover her with, but I couldn’t see her clothes, and my jacket was in the buggy.  Fumbling to grasp the offending limb, I knelt beside her and made an attempt to massage the seized muscle.  She was still sobbing and crying out, but as I rubbed harder and her pain and panic began to subside, her sobs became hiccups.  Her leg felt cool and soft to my hand.  I rested her ankle against my thigh and put both hands to the task.  She opened her eyes and looked at me in wide-eyed astonishment.

“Thank you,” she whispered.  “You saved my life.  I thought I was going to die. It was so cold in there.  Much colder than I thought.”

“It’s just a cramp,” I told her.  “Nothing serious.”  I tried to avoid looking down at her prone body.  With her clinging chemise all but transparent in its wetness, there was nothing left to my imagination, but, try as I might, I could not keep my gaze from sliding back to stare again.  The clinging cotton outlined the heavy fullness of each breast, even dipped into the hollow created by her navel, and hugged each rounded thigh.  I knew I was breathing hard, and it wasn’t the cold water that had snatched my breath away.

With her cramped muscle easing, she became suddenly aware of her state of undress.  Her face flushed violently.  She sat up, crossing her arms in front of her chest, her face a deep shade of scarlet.  “Oh!” she said, and flashed me a guilty glance.  Then, to my surprise, she giggled.  “Whatever must you think of me?”

My own face was burning.  Other parts of me too.

“I’m sorry,” she added, in a softer voice.  “I think I tore your shirt.”

I looked down at myself and saw she was right.  My buttons were gone.  Worse, my sodden clothes were clinging to my torso as tightly as hers.  Her eyes widened and I could think of nothing to say.  With the urgent need to restore her respectability and mine, I climbed clumsily to my feet, aware that she was still gaping.  She held out her arms to me so I could help her up, once again exposing her saturated bodice to my gawping eyes.

To this day, I’m not sure how she ended up in my arms.  I leaned over to raise her to her feet and before I knew it, she was against me and her mouth was over mine.

For a whole five seconds, I was too shocked to respond, then my senses rushed back and I tried to pull away.  But her body came with me, as though our wet clothing had somehow glued us together.  And despite the fact that I knew it was wrong—undeniably, unutterably and horribly wrong—a crazy part of my mind reasoned that, since we’d started this kiss, we might as well finish it.  It was just a kiss, after all.  She’d had a shock; she’d thought she was dying; her nerves were all over the place.  Any second now, she’d realize her mistake and we would both be embarrassed and apologizing.  This kiss was nothing but confused reaction to the ordeal she’d undergone, but just for the moment, I was enjoying it.

“What the hell…?” exclaimed a voice behind us, and we jumped apart as if we’d been shot.  Archie Weslingham, still astride his horse was staring at me in round-eyed astonishment.  Adam, a few feet behind him was wearing the same expression.  Suddenly a big hole opened inside my stomach and it was difficult to breathe.

“Mrs. Weslingham got into trouble,” I tried to say, but my voice came out all croaky and tight.  “I had to pull her out of the lake.”

Archie’s eyes traveled to his wife, taking her in from head to foot, the horror in his face quickly hardening into something more dangerous.

“It was my leg,” she put in, helpfully.  “I thought I was going to drown.  Little Joe saved my life.”

“Oh?” said Archie, his voice expressionless.  “And I suppose you were just saying thank you?”

I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I flicked a glance at Adam to see if any help was likely to come from that direction but he was staring at me with that same astounded expression of horrified disbelief.

“Where are your clothes?” said Archie to his wife.  Spotting the abandoned garments on a nearby rock, he slid from his saddle and went to fetch them.  Nobody else moved.  Mrs. Weslingham had wrapped her arms around her body and was shivering, although the sun was hot.  I swallowed hard and stared down at the ground.  All at once, I felt very sick.

Archie pushed the clothes at his wife.  She fumbled with them, turning her back on us as she struggled to pull them on over her wet shift.  I could see her only out of the corner of my eye as I dared not lift my face to meet anyone else’s.

I guess I should have expected it, but when Archie’s knuckles connected with my face, it took me by surprise and sent me sprawling.  A kaleidoscope of colors exploded in front of my eyes and settled into a close up view of mud and stones.  I made no move to retaliate.  Hands hauled me roughly back to my feet.  Somewhere behind the loud buzzing in my brain, I heard Mrs. Weslingham’s voice pleading with her husband not to hit me again, but I knew he wasn’t listening.

This time, I landed in the lake.  Water rushed straight into my nose and mouth, choking me.  I floundered like a dying fish, battling the hands that had hold of me once again; only this time they weren’t hauling me upright, they were pushing me under.  I hadn’t fought back when Archie hit me, but with water flooding my airways, I struggled instinctively, thrashing and twisting.  Still he held me down.  A muffled voice was yelling abuse at me, swearing and cursing; a heavy weight was pressing me down, holding me under.  Water was choking into my lungs.  My ears were roaring. A violet mist closed in around me, obscuring the watery sky overhead.  This was it, I realized. I was drowning.  My life was ending in the lake.  All because I’d kissed someone else’s wife.  Adam was right.  I never learned.

They say a man’s life flashes in front of his eyes in his last few moments, but all that came to my mind was what Pa would have to say about my irresponsible behavior when he found out.  It wasn’t a good dying thought.  My strength was leaving me as my mind loosened its hold on my body.  I was filling with water at an alarming rate.  I couldn’t fight back any more, couldn’t even cry out for help.

From nowhere, light and air rushed back in.  Without any conscious instruction from me, my body whooped in a great gulp of the precious stuff, and water gushed in an unpleasant jet from my nose and throat.  I was gagging and dragging in air in heaving sobs, coughing water from my lungs all at the same time.  Someone was heaving me up the beach, but I was too absorbed with trying to breathe to see what was going on.  Vaguely, I became aware of a woman crying somewhere close by, and men’s voices.  One was Adam’s, the other, Archie Weslingham’s.

“Let’s talk about this in a civilized manner when we get back to the Ponderosa,” said Adam’s voice, attempting to sound reasonable, yet somehow angry instead.

“He was kissing my wife!” said Archie’s voice, bellowing.

“I’m not denying that; just suggesting we deal with this like civilized men rather than animals.”

I was hunched on all fours, unable to speak or straighten up.  Adam’s feet and legs were inches away and his jeans were wet.

“Your brother was behaving like an animal!”

“My brother was behaving like the idiot kid he is.”

I wondered if I might have been better off drowning.  A nightmare was happening around me and I could see no way of escape.

Adam’s voice came again.  “Let’s get your wife back home.  We’ll talk about it there.”

Archie muttered and swore, but I heard rustling and the sound of feet crunching along the shore.  With an effort I lifted my head and found myself looking directly into the face of my oldest brother as he crouched in front of me.

“You all right?” he asked, but there was no compassion in the question.

I nodded, although in truth, I wasn’t certain I was.  My jaw was pulsating with waves of pain, my ribs hurt, and my bottom lip had to be at least twice its normal size.  But I was definitely alive, even though I shouldn’t have been.

“Then we’ll see you back at the ranch.” The sadness and disappointment on Adam’s face hurt more than all my bruises combined.

I dropped my gaze.  Adam’s boots moved away.  I slumped into a sitting position and dropped my head onto my knees.

How long I sat there, rocking back and forth in my dark pool of despondency, I don’t know.  I heard the buggy pull away, Adam’s horse following, but I didn’t look up.  How could I have done something so stupid?  I thought of the dismay on Adam’s face, of the disappointment in his voice.  This time my brother was not going to forgive me.  First Jane Morland, and now this!  What was wrong with me?  Left alone, I shed a few bitter tears of remorse, but all to no avail.  What was done was done, and I was the one responsible.

Every time I steeled myself to move, to get up from the ground and ride home, I would picture the steely glare on Pa’s face, the way Hoss would try and avoid looking at me, the accusation in Adam’s eyes.  Then I would drop my head back onto my knees, and groan aloud.  And how would I ever face the Weslinghams again?  The thought of riding into the yard at the Ponderosa and having to confront any one of them sent a shiver of dread right through me.

The Weslinghams would have to leave, wouldn’t they?  There was no way Archie would stay on.  Not now.  Not after what I had done.  Surely they would pack and be on the next available stage out of Virginia City.  And that would be tomorrow.  For the first time, I lifted my head and took a few deep breaths.  My ribs ached and my throat and lungs burned as if they’d been scoured.

I was a coward for even thinking it, but I knew I would not go home.  Not yet.  Not while the Weslinghams were still at the Ponderosa.  I would hole up somewhere, lick my wounds, wait for the worst of the storm to pass.  Then I would crawl back and face the wrath and disappointment of my family.  That would be bad enough, but nothing compared to the tempest I would face if I went back now.

My boots and gunbelt were where I had left them.  The picnic was still spread on the grass to my right.  Archie’s horse had eaten the bread and the strawberries and was now helping himself to the ginger cake.

I left the remainder of the food where it was.  Climbing onto the big black gelding, I turned his head in the wrong direction and began to follow the lake.

 

Chapter 7

I lost count of the number of times I nearly turned back, but there came a point where I knew it was too late.  By the time evening had closed in around me, Adam would have realized I’d chickened out of showing my face again at home.  Pa and Hoss would have heard the story and known what a fool I’d been.  The expression on Adam’s face as he stood over me at the lake returned to haunt me over and over again.

I had no clear plan, just a vague notion that a few days apart would give us all time to think things over, let tempers cool, give reason a chance to breathe.  It also crossed my mind that my absence might be seen as an endorsement of my guilt, but I was nursing a small and childish hope that worry would override condemnation; that in their concern for my safety, they would forgive me.  A faint hope.  Self-pity was my nearest and dearest companion as I rode away from the lake that day with no clear vision of what I needed to do to restore my family’s trust.  I had been misunderstood again.  After all, I hadn’t initiated the misunderstanding with Anna Weslingham.  All I’d done was rescue her from drowning.  All right, I hadn’t exactly resisted when she kissed me, but I’d had every intention of doing so.  And it had all looked far worse than it really was. Hadn’t it?  When I thought about that, I realized just how incriminating it had looked.  Just thinking about it turned me hot with shame.

Trouble was, the further away I rode and the longer I was gone, the harder it became to turn back.  It wasn’t just the miles that mounted up, but a sense of injustice; a feeling that I’d been wronged.  Condemned without a fair trial.   So I rode without purpose and spent the night under the stars; no great hardship on a warm May night.  And I rode on again all the next day, and found myself, near sundown, in a small town called Angels Creek.

I didn’t have much with me, only loose change in my pocket.  Enough for a meal and a few drinks.  It was only in the last few hours that I’d begun to give any real consideration to the implications of my decision to ride away from the Ponderosa.  I’d started to realize I needed a plan of some kind.  I was going to have to find a way to survive, and that meant finding some work.  A town seemed a good place to start.

Paying the boy at the livery stable highlighted the urgency of my economic straits. Across the road from the livery was a saloon.  With nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, I attempted to tug my ruined shirt into something approaching respectability, and pushed my way through the doors.

It was a strange feeling, being alone in a place where I knew no one.  The Ponderosa seemed far away.  In the past, I’d have had Pa for company, or Adam, or Hoss.  This wasn’t the kind of saloon Pa would have approved of either—not that Pa approves of any place where drinking, gambling and whoring are the main forms of entertainment.  Maybe I should have felt liberated without a father or two older brothers breathing down my neck, but the fact was, I felt lost.  I found a table against the wall, as out of the way as possible, and hunched over a bowl of stew brought to me by a gap-toothed boy, and wondered what on earth I was going to do with myself for the foreseeable future.  How long before I dared venture home again?  Face the wrath?

I wasn’t alone for long.  I’d set aside my bowl and picked up my beer and a girl was drawing out a chair beside me.  She had bleached hair and sleepy brown eyes, heavy with kohl.  I liked her easy smile.  She placed a bottle of whiskey and two glasses on the table.

“Hi, cowboy.  You look lonely.  My name’s Evie.”

“Joe.”

“You’re a stranger here, ain’t you?”

I nodded, and her mouth lifted again, her eyes watching me from under sleepy eyelids.  “Where you from, Joe?”

I gave a casual shrug.  “Here and there.”

“You’re a little young, aren’t you, to be a hardened drifter?”

“I’m older than I look,” I told her, untruthfully.

She poured me a whiskey.  I downed the rest of my beer in one go and picked up the small glass.  Heck, it would be about the last liquor I could afford, so I might as well enjoy it.

“So what brings you here?”

I shrugged again. “As good a place as any.”  I raised my eyes to meet hers.  “I’m looking for work.  Know anyone who’s hiring?”

“Depends what you can do…?”

I smiled at the teasing glint in her soft, brown eyes.  “Bust broncs, drive cattle, fix fences.”

“Is that all?”

I grinned.

The heavy eyelids drooped again.  “I might be persuaded to suggest a few names.”

“Listen, Evie,” I told her, truthfully.  “I’m flat broke.  It’s why I need work.”

She leaned closer to look harder into my face, “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.  You’re the cutest cowboy I’ve laid eyes on in a long time.”  She reached out and laid gentle fingertips against my swollen jaw. “Even with all these bruises.  It would be a real shame if we couldn’t strengthen our acquaintance now fate’s thrown us together.”

I had to laugh.  I liked Evie already.  She smelled good, like honey.

She stayed with me for a while longer, and then she left me on my own with my bottle.  I watched her as she plied her trade around the tables, but she kept looking back at me and smiling a provocative smile that eased the loneliness in my heart.  The saloon had filled up.  There were other girls.  A couple even came over to talk to me.  But I found myself hankering after those languid eyelids and the hint of lazy amusement in the sleepy brown gaze.

I’ve never been good with whiskey, and I was over third of the way down the bottle when I saw Evie push through the crowded bar and go upstairs with a heavily built, grey-haired man in a well cut suit and a fancy vest.  I stared after her disappearing back, surprised by how disappointed and betrayed I felt.  She wasn’t my girl, after all.  I didn’t even have enough cash to lay the most basic kind of claim to her affections, yet, at that precise moment, that was what I wanted more than anything.

I sat frowning at the table and drinking more whiskey than was good for me, my mood darkening with every mouthful. The only consolation was that there was no one there to care.  I found myself remembering Julia and trying not to.  Evie and her fancy man still hadn’t reappeared.  How long did it take, for pete’s sake?

A figure dropped into the chair opposite mine.  This time it wasn’t a pretty girl but a big man with washed out blue eyes in a thick-jowled face. He fixed me with a cold stare.  Another heavy feller, built like a wrestler, crunched into the chair next to me.

“I don’t know who you are, kid, or where you come from, and I don’t much care either.  But we’ve been watching you—watching Evie—all evening.  Just wanted to give you a friendly warning, boy.  She’s spoken for.  Understand?”

I didn’t and said so.

The cold blue eyes continued to stare, unblinking.  I picked up my near-empty bottle of whiskey, aware that my eyes were having difficulty focusing as I attempted to refill my glass.

“We seen her talking to you, and we seen the two of you smiling at each other. Now Evie, she’s easily led astray.  So we’re warning you, kid.  Best if you go straight back where you came from.”

“She’s in the wrong job then,” said my voice, with no conscious prompting from my brain.  “The way I see it, she belongs to the highest bidder.”  Even as I spoke, I was overwhelmed with a drunken sense of remorse at the knowledge that the highest bidder wouldn’t be me.  I lifted my face in disdain.  “And I’ll go where I please.”

“You’re just a beat-up kid in torn clothes.  You’ll show some respect.  You know who that feller was took Evie upstairs?”

I shook my head.  My brain rattled loosely.  “Like you said, don’t know, don’t care.”

“His name’s John Sturry and he owns half this town.”

I lifted my lip in a sneer.  “Only half?”

“He can have you thrown out of this place whenever he wants.”

“Huh!”  I knocked back my whiskey in one gulp. “Too scared to do it himself, I s’pose.”

The pale-eyed man rose from his chair.  “Time for you to leave, kid.  Your type isn’t welcome here.”

“My type?” I felt my scowl deepen as I attempted to focus a glare on him.  “What do you mean, my type?”

“Mouthy troublemakers.”

A familiar rush of temper swelled inside me, whiskey-stoked and hot.  I shrugged the hand away.  I’m not real sure of the order of events after that, they happened too fast for my liquor-soaked brain.  I don’t recall whose fist flew first.  Maybe it was mine.  But in moments, furniture was upended and my head had made resounding contact with the wall behind me.  I was too drunk to feel any pain.  When the wrestler dragged me back to my feet, I lashed out in self-righteous fury, felt an explosion in my left jaw and collided with a poker table, sending cards and dollar bills in all directions.  Other hands had hold of me then.  Indignant voices were shouting, chairs scraping, glass shattering as the saloon descended into a general ruckus.  I caught a glimpse of John Sturry, coming down the stairs, glancing about him with a small smirk on his fat face. Launching myself at him, I was pleased to feel his nose crunch satisfyingly beneath my knuckles.  Then something heavy came down on my back and I folded in a swirl of exploding colors.

Next thing I remembered was fresh air rousing me, and a dark street wheeling about me.  Beefy arms were holding me up.  Something hit me hard in the middle.  Three times. The arms released me and I crumpled, my cheek bouncing on the dirt.

I was alone in the darkness, the sounds of the saloon close by, but distant, as though in a dream.  I lost the beef stew into the dirt and lay helpless and moaning for several minutes before I was capable of lifting my head again.

I was in an alley beside the saloon.  I made a couple of abortive attempts to get to my feet, but my legs would not cooperate and my head was spinning wildly. Instead I dragged my battered body against the wall, shivering even though the night was warm.  My last thought before I slipped into oblivion was to wonder what my father and brothers would have thought if they could have seen me then.

 

Chapter 8

“Joe?”

I didn’t want to open my eyes.  I was afraid it was going to hurt, but a persistent hand shook my shoulder.

It was still dark.  I was sprawled in the dirt of the alley.  I smelled vomit before it registered that I was lying in a small pool of it.  I groaned and forced my eyelids apart.

“Evie?”

She leaned over me, peering closely into my face.  “Joe?  Are you all right?  Here, let me help you.”

With her help, I rose, swaying, to my feet.  The sounds from the saloon had died down.  I could hear music and an occasional burst of raised laughter.  My head was pounding; my tongue was swollen in my mouth; my st

She slid her shoulder beneath mine.  I went where she led.  Around the back of the building there was a staircase, climbing up the outside wall, lit by a single lantern.  I wasn’t certain I was capable of climbing stairs, but she heaved me up and opened a couple of doors, and then we were in a room, a woman’s room, with lace and the scent of perfume.  She deposited me on the edge of a wide bed and made me lie down.  Half insensible, I didn’t argue as she tugged off my boots, stripped my shirt away and spread folded towels, doused in cold water, over my aching ribs.  She gave me water to drink too, and wiped at my face with cool cloths.

“He had no right to do this to you.”  Her voice was hot with indignation.  “Just wait till I see him.”

The bed felt soft, the cool towels blissful.  I let my eyes close, coherent thought sliding into a stupor I could not resist.

When I woke again, it was to the muted light of day, slanting in through a narrow gap between heavy blue drapes.  Even that restrained amount of daylight was an assault on my aching eyes and head.  There was no sign of anyone else in the room.  I sat up carefully, groaning out loud as the room dipped around me.  There didn’t seem to be any part of me that didn’t feel bruised and tender. Squeezing my eyes shut against the thudding in my head, I shuffled like an old man to the window.

The sash was up.  My shirt was spread over the sill.  I stared at it stupidly for at least a minute before I recognized it.  When I lifted it to my face, it smelled of soap.  Dragging it over my shoulders, I saw that the missing buttons had been neatly replaced.  I staggered back to the bed and reached for my boots.  More than anything else, I wanted to lie down again and sleep some more, but this wasn’t my room.  I had no right to be here.  My jacket and gunbelt were hanging over the back of a chair.  As I picked them up, the door opened and Evie entered the room.

Dressed in a sensible green skirt and a lemon blouse, she looked nothing like the saloon girl I’d met the night before.  But the hooded eyes were the same, the glint beneath the heavy lids, the warm smile.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better,” I lied in a thick croak.

She had a basket in one hand and a pot of coffee in the other.  She set them down on a small table.

“I should be going,” I muttered.  “Thanks for your help.”

From the basket she pulled bread and cold chicken.  “When you’ve eaten.”

“I’m not sure…” I began but she waved her hand to silence me.

“You’ll feel better with some food inside you.  And some coffee.  Sit down and don’t argue.”

I wasn’t feeling strong enough to argue.  I took the coffee gratefully and a plate of bread and meat with less enthusiasm.  But she was right.  As I sat on the edge of the bed and ate and drank, I could feel my muscles solidifying and the pounding in my head growing less intense

“Jess Oldham,” she said.

I paused with a small piece of bread halfway to my mouth.

“He has a ranch, a few miles out of town.  He’s looking for good cattlemen.”

“Thank you.  I owe you,” I told her.

She came to stand in front of me and took my head between her hands. Then she leaned down and planted a soft kiss on my mouth.  When she raised her head she gave me her slow, teasing smile.  “If you were feeling stronger, I’m sure we could think of some ways for you to repay me, cowboy.”

I set my plate and cup aside and drew her down onto my lap.  “You wouldn’t believe how much better I feel after just one kiss,” I said.  “Maybe we should try another.”

She laughed, patted my cheek and gave me directions, making me promise I would come back and tell her how I got on.  I didn’t take much persuading.  I knew I wanted to come back to her.  I rode out with fresh purpose and new hope, and visions of Evie blotting out all thoughts of home.

I liked Jess Oldham and I think he liked me, although he eyed my bruised face with some suspicion.

“You ain’t the kind of kid goes courting trouble?”

I shook my head. “I just got unlucky,” I told him.  Then I showed him what I could do.  I even kept smiling although it darn near killed me with all my aches and pains.  Pa has no sympathy with suffering he considers to be self-inflicted, so it wasn’t the first time I’d busted a bronc with bruised ribs and a hangover, and the agony was worth it because Mr. Oldham offered me a job, starting right there and then.

By the time I returned to town that evening, it was dark.  Jess Oldham’s foreman and two of the ranch hands rode in with me, even bought me a drink.  I was feeling pleased with myself.  I was no longer a stranger and it felt good.  There was no sign of John Sturry and his henchmen but Evie was there, dressed in gold satin, at a table with a group of miners.  She smiled her lazy smile in my direction as I leaned against the bar.  Somewhere low in my belly I sensed the familiar tight quiver of excitement.  I felt oddly grown up.  Here in this town where no one knew me, I was not someone’s son or brother; I was my own man at last.  And there was a promise in Evie’s eye that was for me alone.  I wondered if I might even be glad that circumstances had forced me out from beneath the wings of my family.  I had been the youngest all my life, watched and coddled more than was good for me.  Finally I could taste independence.

“You got the job?”  Evie had left the miners to their drinks at last and sauntered over to speak to me.  She smiled around at my companions, but my heart beat faster to see that her eyes came back to me.

“Looks like Evie’s got a soft spot for you,” said Sam Wilson, one of my new companions, as Evie made her way to another table.  “She’s real special, Evie.  Ain’t many fellers get to taste her cooking.”  He gave me a hard look as if a thought had just crossed his mind.  “Is that how you got those bruises, Joe?”

I frowned.  “What do you mean?”

Stu Donald, Jess Oldham’s foreman, leaned his elbows on the bar.  “He means, have you been messing with Evie?  ’Cause if you’ve been messing with Evie, you’ll have met John Sturry.  And that would explain them bruises you got all over your face.  Unless you rank higher than Sturry in this town—and that don’t leave many folk—you don’t touch Evie!”

Sam pulled a face.  “Watch out for Sturry, Joe.  He don’t take kindly to being crossed.  Stu here knows.  Tried his luck with Evie once, didn’t you Stu?”

Stu flicked his eyebrows in response but didn’t elaborate.

“Surely it’s up to Evie,” I put in.

Stu pushed another beer at me.  “Life just ain’t that simple, Joe.  In this town, it’s up to John Sturry.”

“Doesn’t anyone stand up to him?  What about the sheriff?”

Sam shrugged.  “Sheriff’s a good feller, but there ain’t no one tells Sturry what to do.  Not even the judge.”

“Let’s not talk about Sturry,” said Stu, in a voice that said the subject was closed.

Later, Sam asked me if I was riding back to the ranch with them. I shook my head.  “I’ll be out first thing in the morning.”

Sam said, “Watch yourself, Joe.”

Alone again at the bar, I thought again about John Sturry and a shred of misgiving tugged at me.  I thought of Pa, too, and my doubt grew heavier.  Then Evie slid to my side and all thoughts of anything but the two of us together were instantly pushed out of my mind.

“Want to wait for me in my room?  I don’t get off until two.  You remember the way, don’t you?”

My heart skipped a couple of beats, but I hesitated.  “What about Sturry?”

I saw how the little smile played around the corners of her mouth.  “Mr. Sturry would appear to be indisposed tonight.  Seems someone broke his nose.  Anyway, I won’t tell him if you don’t.”

I took off my gunbelt and lay on the bed in her room, my insides fluttering, as nervous as a kid about to give his first recital.  I hadn’t gotten close to a woman since Julia.  After all, Anna Weslingham didn’t really count.  It was barely midnight.  I had over two hours to wait, palms sweating, mind racing.  The last thing I expected was to fall asleep, so I was flustered to leap awake with Evie’s hand on my chest and her face inches above mine.

“Surprise,” she laughed.  “Sorry to wake you, Sleeping Beauty.”

The gold satin was gone.  She had changed into a light robe of pale pink silk, tied around the middle with a belt of the same fabric.  As she leaned over me, I caught a glimpse of curved flesh inside the loose neckline and my stomach made a little flip of excitement.

Her nimble fingers began to unbutton my shirt.  I watched her face, the little smile that played round the corners of her mouth, the hooded gleam in her lazy eyes.  She was younger than Julia but still older than me, and sure of herself. She pushed the unfastened fabric back to my shoulders, baring my chest and stomach.  Her hand moved over my front, gliding easily down to my belt.  Our eyes met and I saw the playful glimmer in her gaze as her fingers eased the leather free.

“Time to pay what you owe me,” she murmured, and leaned down to kiss my mouth.

As my hand slid inside her robe, drawing the slippery silk aside, the door flew back on its hinges.  Instinctively, I rolled aside, grabbing for my gunbelt.  Evie snatched her robe back around her.

“John!” she gasped.  I glimpsed John Sturry’s heavily jowled face, now made even less attractive by a swollen purple nose and two bruised eye sockets.  Before either of us could say anything else, the man with Sturry had crossed to the bed and hauled me to my feet.  I opened my mouth to protest but was silenced by the back of the man’s hand as it caught me across the mouth.

“I warned you both,” said Sturry, as I reeled from the blow, “but you didn’t listen.”

“John, don’t!” The fear in Evie’s voice made my stomach knot.  I tried to wrench myself free, but my captor was no other than the pale-eyed man Sturry had set on me the night before; at least six inches taller than me and twice my weight.  His fist caught me a second backhander that almost knocked my head from my shoulders. Then, picking me up by my shirt front, he slammed me hard into the wall

Around me the room swam in a hailstorm of exploding stars.  Evie’s shouts of protest seemed to come from a long way away.   As the room finally stopped swirling, I saw her writhing on the bed, battling beneath Sturry’s oversized body, her cries muted and choking.  I labored to my feet, dragging myself up against the door frame, and made another desperate attempt to launch myself at him, but a thick arm wrapped itself around my throat and a meaty hand grabbed my wrist and twisted my arm up behind me, holding me fast.

“Oh no you don’t!” hissed a voice in my ear, as my free hand flailed at my constricted throat.

“Evie!” I choked in desperation, but Evie had gone frighteningly quiet.  Sturry rose from the bed, panting.  Evie lay silent and disheveled on the quilt, robe awry, eyes wide and staring, mouth gaping.  I stared at her in disbelief, then at Sturry.  I couldn’t break free.  I was still held fast.

Sturry brushed himself down, wiped an arm across his forehead and combed his thinning hair straight with his fingers.  Then he nodded at the man who held me.  The arm drew back from my neck; my wrist was released.   I rushed to Evie and took her by the shoulders, but she was as limp as an empty glove.  I let out a strangled cry of dismay.

Sturry’s voice said, “What have you done, boy?”

I heard footsteps in the hall. The bartender and a man I didn’t recognize materialized in the doorway.  With them was the wrestler, the man who had beat me up the night before.  I stared at them all, uncomprehending.

“Find the sheriff,” said Sturry, pulling a pistol from his vest and training it on me.  “There’s been a murder.”

I saw then how they were all staring at me.  All at once, I understood what was happening.  “It was him,” I said, my voice shaking, my head nodding at Sturry.  “He killed her.”

Sturry gave a cold laugh.  “Don’t try to pin it on me, boy.  There’s a bar full of witnesses downstairs who saw you with her.”  He nodded at the bartender, who was looking scared.  “Harry, here, heard Evie tell you to come on up.  And we all know the trouble you caused last night.”  He shook his head and gave a disapproving click of his tongue. “Look at him, gentlemen.  See for yourselves.  Did he or did he not assault this girl?”  Turning his gaze back to me, he lifted his lip in a cold sneer.  “You’re not going to be able to deny anything, boy.  I have witnesses here.”

I gaped at him, uncomprehending.  What the hell was going on?

“It wasn’t me,” I protested, but my throat had dried up and the words came out in a tight croak.

“We’ll let the jury decide that, shall we?” said Sturry.

“You killed her,” I whispered, still unable to believe what had happened. “Why are you doing this?”

The wrestler had left to fetch the sheriff, but at Sturry’s nod, the pale-eyed man yanked me away from Evie’s body.  I struggled in his arms, my mind still trying to take in the fact that Evie was dead.  It had all happened so fast, it was as if I was trapped in a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake.

The sheriff, middle-aged and worn around the edges, had been roused from his bed.  He and his deputy, a stern-faced, silent man, took in everything in an instant.  The sheriff’s gaze passed over Evie’s rumpled body and then over me, the expression on his face one of weary resignation.

“What’s going on here?”

“I didn’t kill her,” I said, wondering why I felt so absurdly guilty.  I’d done nothing, but something about the look on the sheriff’s face as he took in my bruised, rumpled state, filled me with an unprecedented sense of shame.

“I came to find Evie,” said Sturry.  “Missed her at the end of her shift downstairs.  Harry said he’d heard her making arrangements to meet this kid, and knowing he was a troublemaker, I was worried, so I came on up.  I was too late, Sheriff.  She was already dead.  Charlie here was with me.  He saw it too.  Kid still had his hands around her throat as we came in.  If I’d just been a minute earlier…”  Sturry raised his hands and let them drop again to his sides.  “You know how I felt about her, Sheriff.”

The sheriff looked at me and sighed. “And what have you got to say about this, kid?”

I shook my head, still numb.  “I didn’t kill her; he did.”

“This is the kid who broke my nose,” added Sturry.  “Vicious little cur.  Watch him, Sheriff.”

The sheriff’s mouth tightened into a thin line.  “What’s your name, boy?”

“Joe,” I said, and after a moment’s hesitation, “Joe Brown.”

“Well, Joe Brown, you’d better come with me.  I need to find out exactly what went on here.”

“I just told you what went on,” said Sturry in a hard voice.  “These men here are witnesses too.  What else do you need to know, Sheriff?”

“Need to hear what this boy has to say.”

“He’s a waster, Sheriff.  Came here looking for trouble.”

The sheriff patted his vest pocket and frowned. “Cuffs?” he said to his deputy, but the deputy shook his head.  The sheriff gave a tired sigh and took out his gun. “Well, if he was looking for trouble, he’s sure as hell found it.”  He seized my arm in a tight grip and pressed his gun into my back.  “Just don’t give me no more trouble now, understand?  Unless you want a bullet inside you.”  He nodded at his deputy.  “Jem, you stay here with the body.  I’ll send the doc up.”  The barrel of the gun prodded the small of my back as he propelled me from the room, towards the stairs.

“Sheriff, I didn’t kill her,” I protested again, as we went down the stairs.  I could hear Sturry and his cohorts in the passageway behind us, but only the sheriff heard my plea this time.

The sheriff gave another of his heavy sighs.  “Listen, son, I don’t know what went on in that room, but I do know you tangled with John Sturry and that was a real dumb thing to do.  Even if you was innocent, I don’t know how much I can do to help you.  There ain’t a lawyer in this town will take your case now.”

“My pa’ll find a lawyer.  Send a telegraph to Virginia City.  I didn’t kill her, Sheriff.”

The sheriff was ominously silent.  As we reached the bottom of the stairs, I made another desperate attempt.  “Send the wire, Sheriff.  Please.”

The sheriff nudged me towards the saloon doors.  It was late but a handful of men clustered around the bar.  They watched us with interest, as if I was some unexpected entertainment. “Listen, kid, if John Sturry says you killed his girl, there ain’t no lawyer, nowhere, that’s going to save you.”

I looked round at him in rising panic.  “But you’re the law.  You’re obliged to find out the truth.”

The sheriff gave a harsh laugh.  “I may be the sheriff, son, but Sturry’s the law in this town.  Judge and jury.”

A hard knot was forming in my stomach as I understood the impact of his words.  “You’re saying I’m going to hang, no matter what?”

“I’m saying your death warrant’s sealed.  Whether it’s hanging or something else, your life’s over, kid.  It was over the minute you crossed Sturry.”  His voice was flat with resignation.

We pushed out through the doors into the cool air of the night.  Inside me, fear was suddenly replaced by a burning surge of anger.  I would not die for something I hadn’t done.  This whole town might be in fear of John Sturry, but I was not about to lie down and die for a crime I had not committed.

The sheriff’s gun was still in my back, but he had released my arm to push open the saloon doors.  With my mind racing, my eyes scanned the dark street in front of me.  There were three horses hitched to the rail outside the saloon.  As the doors swung to behind the sheriff, I made a dive for the wooden rail, tugging free the loose knot that held the nearest animal.  In one swift move, I vaulted the rail and landed squarely in the saddle of the startled beast.  I heard the sheriff’s shout of warning, and dropped my body low against the horse’s neck as I hauled it round and drove my heels hard into its side.  It took off down the street at a frightened gallop.   Behind me, other shouts broke the quiet of the night, and then I heard gunshots.  A bullet whizzed past my head, as I pressed my face into the horse’s mane, and then a second.  I stayed low, praying desperately, and then I felt the impact, low in the side of my back, almost catapulting me out of the saddle.  I’d been hit, but I felt no pain, just a sudden breathlessness.

And then I was around the corner, hurtling towards the outskirts of the town, the shouts of my pursuers drowned out by the rush of the night air past my head.

 

Chapter 9

Now I was awake and in my right mind, there was too much time to think, and my thoughts plagued me harder than the hole in my side.  The woman with the scar on her face brought me food and drink, checked the dressings over my wound, and, to my eternal humiliation, assisted with all my more intimate requirements too.  She was brisk and efficient, but she spoke little and never looked me in the face.

“I don’t know your name,” I said to her the evening after I first woke up, as she dressed my side with clean gauze and wrapped a fresh bandage around me.

“You don’t need to know my name,” she told me bluntly, her face expressionless.  “You’re going to be out of here as soon as you can walk.”

I took the hint and fell silent.  She finished what she was doing and rose from the bed with a bowl of soiled bandages in her hand.  She didn’t meet my eye.  At the door she paused and I heard her say, “Clara Lennard.”

She showed no curiosity about me or how I had come to be on her land with a bullet in my back.  Puzzling over her was a welcome distraction from endlessly replaying the unfortunate events that had brought me to this place. She wasn’t old, but she wasn’t young either.  She’d said she was married, but there was no evidence of her husband.  Did she live all alone on this farm?  And what had happened to her face?  And since she showed not the slightest interest in me, why had she gone to so much trouble to help me?  Had anyone come after me?  Talked to her?  I tried to remember something—anything—about her finding me by the windowless hut, but my mind was a blank.  Somehow she had gotten me into the house, and dug that bullet out of me—and I remembered none of it.  Nor of the days that had followed; days I preferred not to think about too closely because my insides curled to imagine everything she must have done for me.  It was deeply embarrassing to have to succumb to her ministrations in everything, and I was determined to get better rapidly so I could regain my dignity and cease to be a burden on a woman who clearly wanted me gone.

By the following evening, I could sit up and even get out of bed, as long as I moved slowly and carefully.  The morning after that, at my request, the woman brought me my clothes, and as I sat, hunched on the bed, exhausted from the exertion of getting into my pants and shirt, she appeared in the doorway and folded her arms above her apron.

“So you think you’re going to walk twenty miles into town?”

I frowned.  I hadn’t thought to ask about my horse.  I did now.  The woman shrugged.  “No sign of a horse when I found you.”

I looked at her doubtfully.  “Do you have a horse I could borrow?” I asked, wiping sweat from my face with my hand.

“No,” she said, flatly.

Exhaustion had shortened my temper.  “Well, you don’t want me to stay here, do you?”

She thought about that for a moment before replying.  Then she said, “That’s true.”

I sank my head in my hands.  Why were we having this pointless conversation?  After a few more moments of silence, she added, “On the other hand, I’ve put a lot of effort into keeping you alive.  Against my better judgment.  You could at least try and stay alive.”

It was the most I had heard her say in three whole days, but I was baffled.  I looked up with a puzzled frown.  She stared at the floor, avoiding my gaze.

“You saved my life,” I acknowledged.  “I’m very grateful for everything you’ve done.”

For a brief moment, her eyes flicked to my face and then away again.  “Are you?”

I frowned harder. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you grateful to be alive?”

“What kind of a question is that?  Of course I’m glad to be alive.  Why wouldn’t I be?”

She didn’t answer.  After another pause, she said, “Did you kill somebody?”

My insides turned cold.  “No!  Why do you ask that?”

She stared at me for several seconds without answering, then she turned away.  “I’ll make you a bed in the barn,” she said.  “You can rest up there for a few more days.  Until you’re fit enough to leave.”

So I moved out to the barn, to a bed of rugs and blankets, and the comparatively cheerful company of a couple of goats and a collection of busy chickens whose home was the barn and the field behind.  The woman came out in the evening to bring me a plate of food, and to milk the goats.  As usual, she said nothing to me; did not even glance in my direction.  I watched her as I ate.  I hadn’t seen her at a distance before, going about her everyday chores.  She was tall and slim, with strong shoulders, and she moved with a grace that surprised me.  Seemingly oblivious to me, she went about her business and made her way back to the house, and once again, we hadn’t spoken a word.

In the morning, she brought me eggs and bread.  Once again, I watched her prepare for milking.

“I could do that,” I said, swallowing a mouthful of food, as she set her stool ready.

She looked around at me.  I’d surprised her enough that she actually met my eye.

“I can manage,” she said, abruptly, and turned away again.

“I know you can.  But, since I’m here, I’d like to be of some use.”

She hesitated, then stepped back.  “All right.  But don’t hurt your back.”

She stood watching as I made a clumsy job of milking the goat.  The goat, unimpressed, voiced her loud objection to my ham-fisted attempts, and dug her hoof into my hand.  But I persisted, despite the sweat that broke out over my face as the wound in my back, under strain even from such a light chore, throbbed and tugged.  Finally, I sat back, surveying the hard-won milk in the pail, and looked up at the woman, exhausted but pleased with myself.

To my surprise, she was laughing.  Not out loud, but silently, a wide grin on her twisted face.  I stared at her, taken momentarily aback.

“I’ll improve,” I promised her.  “I just need some practice.”

She said nothing, but walked away, her shoulders still quivering with her private amusement.

She was an enigma.  I couldn’t make her out.  After the milking episode, there was a change, though.  Although we still didn’t converse much, she would meet my eye, even smile when she handed me a plate or took a pail of milk from me.

I was moving about with caution, more like an old man of Pa’s age than one of eighteen.  I watched the woman from a distance as she went about her daily routine and I labored carefully around the yard, determined to regain some strength and flexibility.  Wherever I could, I offered to lend a hand, although my usefulness was limited.  But as well as milking goats, I could peel and chop vegetables, pluck a chicken, hang laundry, even sweep the house and yard, as long as I did it slowly. Every chore I took on seemed to soften Clara Lennard’s coldness towards me.  Watching me determinedly squeezing the teat of an indignant goat never failed to bring the smile back to her face, and that made me smile too.

There were other mysteries about the farm that puzzled me.  Behind the house was a strange mound in the earth, the size and shape of a grave.  I thought about her solitary existence and wondered if her husband was buried there.  She hadn’t volunteered any more information about him, and her closed manner discouraged me from inquiring.

Then there was the windowless shack, with its chimney, on the far side of the goats’ field, secured by a hefty lock on the door, which also remained unexplained.  I watched the woman cross to it at least twice a day.  She never stayed long, and always took great care to lock the door on her exit. I resisted the urge to investigate more closely.  I had the distinct impression she wouldn’t take kindly to my prying into her affairs.

I still had too much thinking time, even with my efforts to find chores to keep myself occupied.  I thought constantly about home; about Pa, Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing; how they must be wondering where I was.  I thought, too, about Angels Creek, and about Evie.  Why had no one come after me?  Was that because of the sheriff?  Had he known all along that I was not the one responsible for her death?  And what was I to do when I left this place?  Where was I to go?  I had no idea if I was still a wanted man.  I had stolen a horse too, although I had left a good Ponderosa gelding in the livery in Angels Creek.  Was that a fair exchange or was I now a horse thief as well?  My life was in a mess and I had no idea how to straighten it all out or how to redeem myself in the eyes of my family.

On the morning of my sixth day in the barn, I was goat-milking once again.  Finally I seemed to have established an understanding with my horned companions, and the procedure had become a whole lot less stressful for both sides.  Mrs. Lennard appeared in the barn door with a plate of biscuits and a mug of coffee.  I looked up from my task and saw the familiar amusement lightening her serious features.

“I’m going to be leaving tomorrow.  It’s time I was on my way,” I told her. “Is there another town?  Other than Angels Creek, I mean?”

For a long moment, she didn’t move.  The steam from the coffee rose straight in the still air of the morning.  Her silence wasn’t unusual, but it still made me awkward.  Finally, she moved into the barn and set down the plate and cup on a wooden crate. “Yes,” she said, “but a lot further.  Forty, fifty miles.”

I let my head drop.  I had no horse; no means other than my own two feet to cover forty or fifty miles, and I was far from sure I was fit to walk that distance.  Still, I would have to try.

“It’s a long way,” she said, surprising me since she rarely volunteered extra conversation.

I conceded with a nod and a shrug.

She watched me for a few moments longer.  “I’ll cook a chicken for supper.  You’ll need a good meal inside you.”

“No need,” I assured her.  “You’ve done so much already.”

As usual, she said nothing in reply, but strode to the rear door of the barn and out into the field.  I pictured her wandering up to her mysterious shack.  Finishing up with the goats, I straightened my back with customary care.  It felt easier with every passing day, but the wound still tugged and gave me pain when I was careless.  I limped to the rear door, still curious about the shack.

She startled me.  She hadn’t crossed the field to the small hut.  She was waiting just outside the barn in the sunshine.  When she saw me, she nodded at the little wooden building.  “I suppose you wonder what’s in there.”

“I’m curious.”

She started to walk across the field.  I wasn’t certain whether our brief conversation had amounted to an invitation or not, but when she paused and looked back at me, I realized it had.  I limped after her, intrigued.

When we reached the door and she drew out the key from her pocket and slid it into the lock, I found I was holding my breath.  She pushed open the door and I stared in astonishment.  There was a stove, and a table, and copper pots and kettles and pipes.  I took it all in and then found I was laughing.

“A still!  So that’s it!”  I ran my eyes over the cleverly improvised arrangement.  I could smell the thick fragrance of yeast and malt in the warm air.  “I had no idea. So what do you do?  Sell it?”

For a moment, I thought she wouldn’t answer, but then she nodded.  And just when I thought that was all the response I would get, she added, “It’s how I survive here on my own.  I sell the whiskey in town.”

I turned to look at her, impressed in spite of myself.  The fair hair framing the crooked face was the color of barley and her eyes the blue of the summer sky.  Despite the scar distorting her expression, I could see her pride as she surveyed her strange little kingdom.  All at once I felt an odd admiration.

“It’s impressive,” I said, and she turned her eyes in my direction and gave me a searching look.

“So now you know.”

“So now I know.”

She made no move to leave. I sensed she had more to say.

“You won’t say anything to anyone, will you?”

I looked at her surprised.  “I’m in your debt, Mrs. Lennard.”

She nodded, satisfied.  We backed out of the little hut and she locked the door behind us, pocketing the key in her apron.

 

Chapter 10

A smell of roast chicken floated from the house on the evening breeze.  I was doing the evening milking and trying to ignore a sense of nervous dread about my departure the next day.  I still couldn’t figure out what to do.  I’d even considered returning to Angels Creek and facing down the man who had falsely accused me.  I could wire Pa too, let him know I was still alive.  Maybe he would wire back and tell me I was forgiven; that things were fine again at home; that Anna Weslingham had convinced her husband I was not to blame for what had happened.  But then, in all likelihood, I would be hauled in on a trumped-up murder charge.  Would Pa be able to save me from that too?

The woman didn’t appear, so I carried the milk to the house, walking slowly and carefully as the weight sent reminders of pain through my healing back.  I paused on the porch.  Since I’d moved out to the barn, I hadn’t been back inside the house.  Something in Clara Lennard’s face had told me I was not welcome inside.  But she must have heard me approach because she came to the door, wiping her hands on a towel and looked me up and down.

“Come in.”

I followed her in and observed to my surprise that she had spread a cloth over the table, and it was set for two.  She saw I’d noticed.

“Since you’re leaving,” she said, by way of explanation.  “Have a seat.  The chicken’s cooked.”

She served food onto two plates and we ate the chicken in our customary silence.  I wanted to say something in recognition of all she’d done for me, but her guardedness deterred me.

“That was a fine meal,” I said, eventually, and with feeling because it was true.

She offered me more chicken, but I’d eaten plenty. She reached for my plate and stacked it with hers.  When she’d put the dishes in the basin for washing, she went to a cupboard in the corner and took out a bottle of colorless liquid.  Back at the table, she poured measures into two glasses and pushed one across to me.

“Is this it?” I asked.  “The stuff you make?”

She nodded.  “Try it.”

The whiskey was rough, but I’d tasted rougher.  It scoured my throat and snatched at my breath but I swallowed and grinned.  “Just like the real stuff.”

We each finished the first glass without any more words between us.  She poured a second, and it seemed impolite to refuse.  I sat, cradling the glass in my hands while she swallowed hers back with surprising speed.

“You don’t like it?”  She nodded at my untouched glass.

“Oh no, it’s not that.  It’s just that…well, I’m not great with whiskey.”

She smiled then.  I still hadn’t gotten used to her smiling, it happened so rarely.  “You’re worried you won’t be able to leave in the morning?”

I dropped my eyes to the table, uncertain what I should say.

“So stay another day.  What difference does it make?”

I watched her pour herself a third glass.

“I thought you didn’t want me around?”

She frowned into her glass.  I was used to the silence between us by now.  “Maybe I didn’t when I first found you, but I’m kind of used to you now.  If you want to stay, you can.”

It was my turn to be at a loss for words. “Thank you,” I said, eventually.  “I appreciate the offer.”

She raised her face to look at me.  She rarely did that either.  I noticed two spots of color high on her cheeks and wondered if the liquor was responsible.  Strangely enough, I barely registered the scar on her face any more.

“If you go back to Angels Creek, they’ll hang you.”

My stomach turned cold. “You know?”

She nodded.  “The morning after the storm, the sheriff came by.  With John Sturry.”  Her face hardened as she said the name.  “Asked me if any strangers had passed this way.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I told them the truth.  All the truth I knew at that point, anyways.  I said a man had ridden into the yard the night before looking for somewhere to sleep and I’d sent him packing.  I hadn’t been up to the shack that day.  I had no idea you were lying half dead behind it.  If I had, I’d have probably turned you over to the sheriff.”

I was still staring.  “Probably?”

She shrugged.  “I’m no friend of John Sturry.  When I went up to the shack and found you lying there…”  She hesitated, frowning, and shook her head.  “Well, you’d obviously upset John Sturry.  Anyone who can do that gets my support.”

“You don’t like him either?”

She gave a cold laugh but didn’t elaborate.

“I broke his nose,” I told her, sighing.  “He accused me of murder.”

“Did you do it?”

She sounded so matter of fact—like she wouldn’t have been bothered whichever way I answered—that I was momentarily taken aback.  I shook my head.  “No.  He did.”

She nodded.  “That figures.”

I had never known her talk so much.  I narrowed my eyes, puzzled.  “You know John Sturry well?”

“He once asked me to marry him.”

I must have been gaping like a fish because she colored right up and rose from the table, turning away from me to the stove.  “Is it so hard to believe?”  For the first time, I heard a note of hurt in her voice.  “I didn’t always look this way, you know.”

“No,” I said, swiftly, “I didn’t mean…”

She turned back and gave me a glare so fierce, I felt as if I’d been slapped.  Then she raised her hand to her mutilated cheek. “It was John Sturry did this to me.”

Before I could reply, she slumped back into her chair, head lowered, shoulders hunched.  I started to speak but she shook her head.

“You should leave now.”

An awkward silence descended, but I didn’t move.  After a minute had passed, she sighed.  “I’m sorry.  It’s been so long since I’ve been around decent folk, I’ve forgotten how to have a civilized conversation.”

“That’s a relief,” I told her.

She glanced up at me and frowned.  “What is?”

“That you class me as a decent person.”

She stared at me then for longer than she had ever looked at me before.  I was able to see right into her eyes, and they were full of sadness.

“Oh, Joe!” she sighed.  And that was all she said.

I drained the second glass of whiskey.  She pushed the bottle at me and I poured another for each of us.  I could already feel the alcohol loosening the edges of my brain.  It never takes much.

“Why do you stay out here on your own?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Long story.”

“I’d like to hear it.”

She gave a harsh little laugh and another shake of her head.  “But I don’t want to tell it.”

“You must get lonely.”

“I prefer my own company.”

I hesitated, but the whiskey had worked its way into my tongue.  “You told me you were married.  Where’s your husband?”

“Dead.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.  He was a lying, thieving bully.  It’s better this way.”

I raised my head and looked at the back wall of the house, seeing through it to the earth mound outside.  As though she read my mind, she said, “That’s not him out there, if that’s what you’re thinking.  That was another low down, thieving good for nothing.”

“You’ve not had much luck with people.”

“You could say that.”

“Maybe you’ve just been unlucky.  There are a lot of good folks out there.”

“Liars, cheats, cowards, bullies, philanderers…”

The venom in her voice pulled me up short.  I retreated back into silence.  After a long pause, she spoke again, unexpectedly.

“I used to like to dance.  I miss that.”

I stared at her in surprise.  She sighed impatiently.  “Listen, Joe, don’t go back to Angels Creek.  John Sturry never forgets.”

“Maybe it’s time someone stood up to him.”

Her laugh was bitter.  “I tried to stand up to him.  Look what happened to me.”

I leaned forward across the table.  “Please, tell me what happened.

She sighed again and bit her lip.  Raising her hand, she touched the twisted skin of her cheek as if reminding herself.  “You won’t understand.”

“Try me.”

She weighed me with her eyes.  I was expecting her to shake her head.  Refuse. But she didn’t.  She dropped her eyes to the table and began to speak in a voice devoid of emotion.

“I was born in Angels Creek.  It was a good town then.  My mother died when I was eight.  My father was a respected lawyer.  We had a big house, plenty of money, so life was pretty good, all in all.

“When I was fifteen, John Sturry came to town.  Bought up a couple of failing businesses, quickly made a name for himself as a sharp businessman.  Before long, he had fingers in several different pies.  He built a new school and a fancy theatre for the town so that folks would love him.  My father didn’t like him though.  Said he was a thug in a fancy vest.

“My father set out to prove that Sturry was involved in shady dealings.  Two months later, Papa was found dead in a dark alley with a knife in his back.  No one was ever brought to trial for his murder.  I was left alone.  At seventeen.  Not that I wasn’t well provided for, my father’s will saw to that.  But I was lonely.  That’s when John Sturry asked me to marry him.  I refused, but he kept coming back.  Plenty of people thought I was a fool to turn him down, but I knew he was responsible for the death of my father, and just as sure he didn’t want me, only the money my father had left me and my pa’s standing in the town.

“After six months, Sturry gave me an ultimatum.  Marry him willingly, or by force.  I was determined not to marry him at all.  I went to the judge, who’d always been a good friend of my father.  I told him what Sturry had threatened.  He said I had nothing to worry about, that Sturry would be dealt with.  Then an old suitor of mine came round; Joshua Lennard.  Papa had never liked Josh.  He was a daredevil, a chancer.  He’d been away a while and he seemed to have made good.  Well, the long and the short of it was, Josh proposed and I was so relieved to think Sturry would be off my back, I accepted.

“I was a fool.  I had no idea what Josh had been doing while he was away.  If I’d only known, I would never have said yes to him.  We’d been married only a few days when he disappeared out of town again.  The following night, a man in a hood broke into the house.  He…attacked me…cut my face with a knife; told me no one refused John Sturry.  I knew who it was.  I knew straight away.  I went back to the judge but he shrugged me off; said there was no proof.  I knew then that no one would back me up against John Sturry.

“I thought when Josh came home again, he would deal with Sturry, but he didn’t. He was as big a coward as the rest of them.  Things started to turn bad between us.  Josh drank heavily.  Blamed me for what had happened.  Said I’d led Sturry on.  We argued all the time.  He didn’t want to look at me with my face all cut up and ruined, and I didn’t want anyone near me.  We moved out here, so I could get away from Sturry and from all the staring eyes in Angels Creek; all the cowards who would let a man get away with everything he had done.

“It took me months to discover that Josh had been robbing trains and stages.  I only found out when I went into town and saw his face on a poster.  The townsfolk loved that, of course.  Clara Scarface, wife of a notorious thief and murderer!  The irony is, I married one crook to save myself from another.”

Clara Lennard sank back into silence, swallowed the last dregs of her fourth whiskey, and tightened her mouth into a thin, hard line.

“What happened to him?”  I asked.  “Your husband?  You said he was dead.”

“I hadn’t seen Josh in eight months.  Out of the blue, a couple of months ago, one of his buddies rode in.  Told me Josh had been shot dead.  During a bank raid.  Set his sights too high and paid the price.  And then he…” For the first time Clara Lennard’s voice quivered.  She blinked hard and set her chin firm and square.  “His name was Larry.  He decided he had a right to claim what Josh had left behind, but when he laid his hands on me, I killed him.  Buried him out the back.  No one ever came after him.”

I saw she was trembling.  Her mouth, already twisted by the scar, contorted harder. Without another word, she rose to her feet and went out of the door.  I stared after her, wondering.  She was still a puzzle, but some of the pieces now fitted, at least.

I followed her outside.  The sun had gone down while we were eating.  She was down by the far end of the house, hunched over.  I heard her retching in the semi-darkness.

“Hey,” I said, following her down and laying my hand on her shoulder.  “Are you all right?”

She flinched as I touched her, so I drew my hand back.  I waited until she could straighten up again.  Her shoulders were shaking.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “Must be the whiskey.”

I led her back inside and sat her down again at the table while I poured her some water.  Huddled and shivering in her chair, she looked like a forlorn child.  Handing her the cup, I saw how a loose strand of hair had plastered itself to her scarred cheek.  I reached out a finger and brushed it lightly away.

She flinched again, like I’d struck her, and jumped to her feet.  I pulled my hand back swiftly.  “I’m sorry,” I said, quickly, uncertain why I was apologizing.

She was staring at me accusingly, as if I’d tried to molest her somehow.  Then she turned her face away but not swiftly enough to hide the tears welling in her eyes.

“You should go now,” she said, her voice tight.

I hesitated.  “I don’t want to leave you like this.”

“Please just go.”  I heard the tremble in her voice this time.

I didn’t move.

“Go!” she said again, in little more than a husky whisper.

I pulled out a chair and sank down beside her.  “No,” I said.  “It’s not always good to be alone, you know.”

She raised her eyes to me and gave a helpless shake of her head.  I saw she was beyond words.

“You looked after me.  At least let me return the favor.” I forced a smile and reached out my hand to rub her shoulder.  Her eyes followed my hand and I could sense tension gripping her body.  Her face squeezed tight and two large teardrops plashed onto her skirt. They were the first crack in the dam.  In the next moment, the whole structure caved.  A great sob erupted from somewhere deep inside her, and her façade crumbled.  Dropping her head into her arms, she wept into the table, her shoulders and back heaving fit to burst.  At first, I sat there, uselessly, one hand still resting against a quivering arm, but I couldn’t stand to see her so miserable and not attempt to offer some comfort, so I pulled my chair closer and put my arm around her.  I expected resistance, but instead she seemed almost to fold into my embrace, raising her head from the table and turning it into my shoulder.

For several minutes she wept copiously, then she drew away and, not knowing where to find a handkerchief, I pushed a kitchen towel into her hands.  She mopped at her face, sniffed, and looked embarrassed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her swollen eyes.  “I don’t know what came over me.”

I shook my head.  “No need to apologize.”

She managed a watery smile.

“Why don’t I make some fresh coffee?” I suggested.

The tears seemed to have done some good after all.  She sat in silence while I made the coffee, but it was an easier silence.  I set a steaming cup in front of her and took my seat again.  After she’d taken a few sips, she raised her eyes to me again.  “So you know my tale of woe, what about yours?”

“I’ve been here two weeks. You’ve never asked me before.”

“Maybe it felt safer that way.”

I shrugged.  “Just made some bad choices.  Let people down.  Guess I just have a knack for trouble.”

“Sheriff said it was a girl. The one John Sturry says you murdered.  Who was she?”

It was my turn to look away.  “A girl in the saloon.”  My insides turned cold, the way they always did when I thought of Evie.  And Julia.

I set down my coffee on the table and stood up.  “Listen,” I said.  “I know something that will cheer us both up.”

She raised her eyebrows.

I held out a hand to her.  “Mrs. Lennard, may I have the pleasure of a dance?”

She laughed aloud and went back to her coffee.  I stayed right where I was, hand outstretched.  “Are you turning me down?”

She looked back at me, plainly baffled.  “Dance?  We don’t have any music.”

I shrugged. “Music would be nice, but we don’t need music to dance.”

She cast doubtful eyes around the small room. “What? Here?”

I nodded at the door.  “In the yard.”

She hesitated, looking at me as if to gauge whether or not I was serious.  Then she gave another short laugh and took my hand.  “Why, thank you, Mr. Brown.  In which case…”

I led her outside.  As we stepped off the porch, I took her in my arms and tilted my head as if I were listening.  “Hmmm,” I said, “that sounds like a polka to me.”

She gave a gasp as we took off across the darkened yard at a fair gallop, spinning in the dirt.  “Oh, Joe, be careful!  Don’t hurt your side.”

She had a point, but the whiskey had dulled the pain.  What it hadn’t done was replace any of my lost strength.  After a couple of fast circuits, I had to slow down to catch my breath and rub at my tugging side.  We were both laughing aloud by then.

“Maybe something a little more sedate,” I panted, catching her to me again.  “A waltz should do it.”

We set off again at a more sensible pace.  She’d stopped laughing and was smiling into the darkness beyond my shoulder as I led her around our imaginary dance floor.  Strange thing was, I could almost hear the absent band.  Overhead the stars were beginning to appear and a bright moon was climbing over the distant horizon.  Mrs. Lennard was a different woman, as she rose and fell with a poise I had not expected.  The unscarred side of her face was close to mine, her cheek smooth and pale in the darkness.  The soft warmth of her body beneath her cotton dress, as it pressed into mine was unsettling, and beneath my hand, I could feel the lithe curve of her neat waist, and the fullness of her hips beneath.

I slowed and drew to a standstill. My thoughts were starting to drift where they should not have been going.  Stepping back, I made her a small bow.  “Thank you, ma’am.  And may I say what a pleasure it was.”

“Thank you, Joe.”  She held out her hand and I took it and kissed it.  When I raised my face again, she was looking at me strangely.  Even in the pale light of the half risen moon, I could see how her eyes burned.

“I have to go,” I said.  “I have a long walk tomorrow.”

She dropped her gaze and gave a small nod.  “Yes.”  She hesitated.  “Thank you, Joe.  That was fun.  I’d almost forgotten what fun was.”

I laughed.  “I wish I could think how to repay you properly.  But I will.  Once all the mess is sorted out.”

“Oh, Joe, you’ve more than paid me back!  You took me to a dance.  What more could I ask?”

“Glad you enjoyed it.”  I dipped my head.  “Goodnight, ma’am.”

“Goodnight, Joe.”

I watched her walk back to the house, with my heart beating a little too hard, a familiar ache growing inside me.  The door had long since shut behind her when I made my way back to my bed in the barn.  I needed all my strength for tomorrow, but it was a long time before I fell asleep that night.

 

Chapter 11  (Link to the MA rated version of Chapter 11)

I had the most disturbing dreams.  Dancing with Julia in the middle of the street in Virginia City while Adam was hanged on a gallows.  Pa telling me that his youngest son was dead.  Making love to Anna Weslingham in Pa’s bedroom; only it wasn’t Anna Weslingham, it was Evie.  Absurdly and wonderfully, she had breasts that doubled in size when I touched them.  And then, right at the end, it wasn’t Evie either, it was Clara Lennard. When I opened my eyes from that last dream, the light was creeping up in the sky and I couldn’t put aside a sense of restlessness that had been growing all night long.

The house was silent as I emerged from the barn.  Mrs. Lennard would be up and about soon, but it was still early.  Only the dogs stirred from their heap on the porch, stretching and wandering over to greet me.

On my way back from the outhouse, I stripped off my shirt and doused myself under the cold water.  I had a small bar of soap, given to me by Mrs. Lennard, with which I scrubbed.  I swilled more cold water over me to rinse, and stood up, shaking water from my hair and wiping my face with my shirt.

All I once, I knew I was being watched.

I lowered the shirt and lifted my head.

The woman stood on the porch with the open door behind her.  Her thin cotton shift stirred in the almost imperceptible breeze.  In the first rays of morning sunlight, her bare arms were white from the shoulders to the elbows, darkening as they went down to her brown wrists and hands.  Her bare feet were white too, and her narrow ankles and calves, right up to where they disappeared beneath the shift.  Over her shoulders, her blonde hair hung loose and long, trailing down like pale liquid over her shoulders. Her face was turned towards me, watching me without any sign of self conscious awareness.  Even though she was a good thirty feet away, I could feel her stare boring into me as I stood, shirt poised, dripping water.

How long we stood there, unmoving, eyes fastened on each other, I do not know.  All I know is that the slanting rays of early sunlight seemed to gild her pale, slender figure so she was like a porcelain angel, carved in white and gold. In the early morning brightness her face looked whole.

Finally, she turned and took slow steps back into the house. I watched her disappear inside, and still I didn’t move.  The door remained open.  I stared at the dark rectangle of the doorway and realized I was barely breathing.  I dropped my eyes and took a deep breath.  Darn!  What was I thinking?

I lifted my head again and gazed back at the house.  It was still and silent, but the door was standing wide, inviting me in.  With slow, hesitant steps, I moved toward it.

On the threshold, I stopped.  Clara Lennard was waiting, midway between the door and the bedroom, arms hanging loose at her sides.  Her eyes fastened on mine, were no longer expressionless, but imploring.  I read the unspoken question there as clearly as if I had heard her say it and my heart began to race.

I took a small step towards her and she didn’t back away.  Two more steps and we were inches apart.  I raised my hands and closed them tentatively around her delicately sculpted arms and still she didn’t recoil.  I drew her towards me until our bodies were almost touching and our faces were so close, I could feel her breath on my throat.  My heart jumped as she lifted her face to me.  There was no mistaking what she was inviting me to do.

I lowered my lips to hers, and for a brief moment we lingered there, only our mouths touching lightly.  I could taste the warmth of her in the soft full flesh. I brushed gently against her lower lip and felt her melt into me.  Everything around me dissolved as the kiss deepened and our bodies pressed closer.  Her fingers closed in my hair and I felt her draw me backwards—one step, two­—towards the bedroom.  I dragged my head free and swallowed hard.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

She met my gaze with a steadiness I had not seen in her eyes before.  Without a word, she nodded. Then she took me by the hand and drew me with her to her bed, still rumpled from her last night’s sleep.

That morning Clara and I became lovers.  I had never thought I could feel about another woman the way I had felt about Julia, and yet Clara enthralled me.  Conversation was still sparse, and her natural reserve remained intact, but it was as if, having made the decision to trust me, she yielded herself completely.

There were just the two of us, secure in our own private dream.  And it was private too.  No one ever came to the farm.  Over the years, Clara had discouraged even her neighbors from calling.  So we were left entirely to ourselves; no prying eyes or wagging tongues to mar our happiness, and I was in a permanent state of heady bliss.

“We should get married,” I said one day, three weeks into our new relationship.  It was only midday, but we lay in bed together, my cheek on her breast.

“Where would we get married?” she asked, pulling a face. “Angels Creek?”

In my half drunken reverie, I almost said, “How about Virginia City?” but I stopped myself just in time.  We’d been lovers for three whole weeks, but I still hadn’t told Clara my real identity or anything about where I’d come from, and she never asked.  It troubled me a little, but I shrugged the unease aside.  Living our isolated existence, it was easy to pretend this was all the life there was, had ever been.  And I didn’t want it to end.  Didn’t want to spoil it.

I let my hand trail over the little rise of her belly.  “Would you like to marry me?”

She smiled down at me and kissed the top of my head.  “I don’t care whether we’re married or not.  We’re here together; that’s all that matters to me.

“It doesn’t worry you, living in sin?”

She thought about that for a moment, then she said, “How can this be sin?  We are married, Joe.  We don’t need a priest and a church to tell us that.  This—this being together—the way we are, that’s marriage.  It’s a marriage of souls.”

I raised my face to look at her more closely.  Her words made sense to me.  I’d known deep down, when I was with Julia, that it was true.  “I’m not sure the rest of the world sees it that way.”

“To hell with the rest of the world.  Look what the rest of the world did to me.  This is my world, Joe.  You’re my world.  You and the farm and the dogs and the goats.  I don’t need any other.”

“I love you,” I told her.

She looked at me oddly then, in a way that made my stomach knot.  “Do you?” she asked

“Yes.”  I put as much certainty into the word as I could, but her eyes were still doubtful.  Why was she looking at me that way?  “Don’t you believe me?”

“Yes,” she said, but she meant something more than just yes.  I drew a little away from her.  She must have seen my hurt because she pulled me back and stroked my hair.  “I do believe you, Joe.  I’m just not certain why.”

“What do you mean?”

She turned her face away, and I knew what she meant.  “If you think it matters to me, about your face….”

She didn’t reply.  I found myself frowning.  Clara’s reticence and her cryptic answers baffled me.  “Do you think I’m that shallow?” I was unable to keep the note of annoyance out of my voice.  We’d been lovers for three weeks and this was the closest we’d come to falling out, and I wasn’t even certain what the problem was.

“How long will you stay, Joe?”

She caught me off guard.  I stared at her, somewhere between surprise and dismay. The truth was, I hadn’t really given the future any serious consideration.  In fact, I was trying to ignore the future – and the past – as best I could.

“I’m not planning on leaving,” I told her.

“Ever?” she asked.  When I hesitated, she said, “You were the one who mentioned marriage, Joe.  Marriage is forever.  Would you be happy to stay here, forever?”

“Of course!” I replied with so much vehemence that for a moment I almost convinced myself I was certain.  The truth was, I was certain of nothing.

She smiled at me then.  I was relieved to see she believed me.  She leaned in and kissed my face.  “Oh, Joe!” she whispered, and I was sure I heard sadness in her voice.  I didn’t want to feel sad.  I didn’t want to think of the world beyond the farm. I didn’t even want to look at the scar on her face.  I wanted to lose myself in her body again and again; think of nothing but the promise of rapturous oblivion.  I nuzzled into her breast and I felt her lips press against the top of my head as she folded her arms around me and pulled me to her.  I didn’t need another world either.  For now, this was enough.

“I do love you Clara,” I whispered.  “I do.”

 

Chapter 12

The sound of barking woke me.  The day was dusty and hot.  It wasn’t unusual for the dogs to bark when they heard coyotes in the night, or scented a bear or a wolf nearby, but those were warning barks, designed to send enemies running.  This barking was different.  More about excitement than aggression.

Shafts of afternoon sunlight filtered into the barn where I lay curled on a blanket in the hay.  When I’d dozed off, Clara had been lying with me, tucked comfortably into the crook of my arm, but now she was already on her feet, hauling on her clothes in all haste.

“Someone’s at the house, Joe.  Get dressed, quickly!”

Confused, I blinked at her.  “Who is it?”

“How would I know?  No one comes out here!  I’ll go out and see; you make yourself respectable.”

She hurried to the barn door, still fastening her blouse as she went.  I dragged my pants over my legs.

“Clara!” bellowed a man’s voice.  The pool of sunlight on the dusty floor was suddenly broken by the dark shadow of a man.   I grabbed my boots, but he was already inside the barn.

I heard the shock in Clara’s voice.  “Josh!”

Josh?  It took me a couple of puzzled seconds to place the name, then cold horror seized me.  I spun around in disbelief.

“Larry said you were dead.”

Josh was tall and lean.  With the sun behind him, his features were in shadow, but I could make out a close-bearded jaw beneath the hat.  He spat tobacco, and his cold eyes bored into me.

“Who’s he?”

Clara was standing in front of the stranger, as if to bar the way through the barn.  “Larry said you were dead,” she repeated.

“So you found yourself another feller, is that it?  Didn’t mourn me long, did you, Clara?”

Clara said nothing.  I had my boots on by then.  I reached for my shirt.  I could see two more figures hovering by the barn door.

“Did I interrupt something?”

My heart was thudding uncomfortably inside my chest.  Clara looked round at me and I saw fear in her eyes.  I caught the almost imperceptible flick of her head as she gestured towards the rear door of the barn.  I took a couple of steps in that direction, and then heard the unmistakable click of a revolver being cocked.

“Stay right where you are, kid.  We need to have a conversation.”

“Listen,” I said, trying to sound reasonable, “there’s been a misunderstanding.  I thought you were dead.  If I’d known…”

I found myself staring down the barrel of a gun.  “…you wouldn’t’ve screwed my wife?” suggested Josh.

“That’s right.”

“How long you been doing her?”

Clara spoke quickly.  “Only been a short time, Josh.  A few days.  He was hurt.”

I could see Josh Lennard close to now.  Beneath the trail dust, his bones were sharp, his eyes narrow and hard.

“I hope she was good, boy, because you’re going to pay for what you done.  I hope she was worth it.”

I saw Clara’s head flick nervously between us.  “Listen, Josh, it’s not important.  You’re back now.  That’s all that matters.  Come into the house.  Let me fix you something to eat.  You must be hungry.”

“You bitch!” Josh spat the words at her although his eyes never left me.  “You wouldn’t let me near you and yet you let this…sniveling whelp have you.”

“You’re back now, Josh, and I’m your wife.  You’re back.  We can start again.”

“I’m a wanted man,” he reminded her.

“All right.  So I’ll come with you this time.  I’ll be a proper wife to you, Josh.  Just let him walk out of here now.  We don’t have to mention him again.”

Josh seemed to consider that for a moment, then his brow contracted and he raised his voice to the two men at the door.  “Barney, Jake, take this kid out into the yard!”

The two men who strode over and grabbed my arms were similar in age to Josh.  There was no point in struggling.  If Josh was about to shoot me, there was little I could do.  Barney and Jake marched me out of the barn and into the harsh sunlight.  Josh followed, Clara close behind.  The sunlight flashed off an object in Josh’s hands.  I thought it was his gun, but then I saw he had replaced that in its holster and in his hands, he held a long knife instead, blade gleaming wickedly.  I jerked my arms to break away, but Barney and Jake were ready for me.  I felt their grips tighten.

Josh pushed his face close to mine.  He was so near I could smell the sweat of man and horse on his body, and when he breathed his words, the stink of tobacco on his breath.  “Know what I’m going to do to you, kid?”

The point of the knife prodded my throat.  I swallowed hard, suddenly dizzy.

“I’m going to cut your dainty little throat and then I’m going to watch you bleed to death.”

I could see by the cold loathing in his eyes he wasn’t joking.  A bead of sweat trickled into my eye and I blinked it away hard.

Clara’s voice, level and clear, said, “Killing him would be a real waste, Josh.  Why do you think I helped him?  I don’t make anyone else welcome, you know that.  Not even Larry.  This kid’s rich, you know.  Real rich?”

I saw Josh’s eyes flicker and narrow further.  “Larry?” he said.  “What are you talking about?”

Clara folded her arms and faced her husband with a square jaw and narrowed eyes.  “I told you it was Larry came here to tell me you were dead.  He obviously thought that gave him the right to help himself to everything that belonged to you.  This farm.   And me.  Or maybe he knew you weren’t really dead; he was just trying to screw you too.  But I shot him, Josh.  He’s buried behind the house.  His horse is over there in the field.  See?  But this kid was worth saving.  I could have married him, Josh.  As his wife, I’d have been rich.  And safe.  His family has plenty of power round here.  Well, he ain’t going to marry me now you’re back, but he could still make us rich.  All we gotta do is ransom him.”

“Ransom?”  Josh wasn’t convinced, but I could see he was interested.

I turned my head to stare at Clara. “What are you talking about?  You know nothing about me.”

She stepped forward to stand beside her husband so that she too was close to my face.  “Oh yes I do, Joe Cartwright!  You thought you could lie to me.”

I shook my head in disbelief.  “How did you know?  I didn’t tell you anything.”

She gave a small, humorless laugh, “Oh yes, you did.  When you were out of your head, in a fever.  You talked plenty.  I know a lot about you, Joe Cartwright.  And I know about your family.  My father had some dealings with yours, years back.  I know the Cartwrights are one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the territory.  I reckon your pa wouldn’t have to stretch himself to pay…oh, say as much as fifty thousand dollars to get you back, safe and sound.”

Josh’s narrow eyes had finally widened.  The knife ceased to prod me.  “Fifty thousand dollars?”  He still sounded skeptical.  He ran his eye over me as if to convince himself that anyone could possibly consider me worth that sum of money. Then he glanced at Jake and Barney.  I couldn’t see their faces but I could sense the way their hands had tightened on me in excitement when Clara mentioned the money.

“Cartwrights own the biggest ranch in Nevada,” Clara went on.  “About two days ride from here.  All you gotta do is write a note, Josh, take it to the Ponderosa ranch, and wait for Ben Cartwright to deliver you a small fortune.”

There was a long silence.  Somewhere in the field behind the house, a goat bleated.  Josh’s gaze continued to weigh me up, turning the tobacco plug over and over in his mouth.

He turned his head and spat, then, to my relief, sheathed the knife in his belt.  He nodded at his two companions.  “Take him back to the barn and tie him up.  Make sure you tie him good and tight too if you want your share of fifty thousand.”  He threw a brief glance at Clara.  “I’ll be in the house.  I’ve got some business to see to, with my wife.”

Good and tight, Josh Lennard had said, and good and tight was just how they tied me, securing my trussed wrists to an iron ring in the wall above my head. It was about as uncomfortable a position as they could have contrived for me, tugging at the newly healed wound in my side.  I tried to shift to ease the soreness, as they unsaddled their horses and turned them out in the field.  I tried not to think of Clara in the house with her sharp-faced husband.  She’d known who I was all along.  Sure, she had said what she’d said to spare me a grim death, but why had she never let on before?  Seesawing between annoyance and disbelief, unable to shake off a sense of betrayal, it was only as afternoon wore on into evening and everything that had happened finally began to sink in properly that I realized how insignificant her omission was.  I’d lied too.  We were all liars in the end.  Liars and murderers and thieves.

The hours crept past.  Clara came out to the barn to milk the goats.  She looked pale and strained, but Barney was there, watching her, so she didn’t speak to me, or even look in my direction, though I wanted her to.  My muscles burned, my side ached.  At sundown, all three men disappeared into the house to eat and I was left alone for an hour or so, but I was too securely fastened to do anything.  Later, Barney and Jake brought out blankets and spread them in my place in the barn.  They brought out some of Clara’s whiskey too, a bottle each.  They laughed over crude stories together, dealt cards, and drank the whiskey.  The stories grew coarser, their laughter louder, their voices more slurred, and then they fell asleep.

As the night grew longer, I dozed fitfully, jerking awake each time from tormented dreams and the physical discomfort of my position.  Shut in the barn, I had no idea of the time, but the night seemed interminable.

I jumped awake for the umpteenth time, and tried to ease the dragging ache of my shoulder muscles.

“Joe!”  The tense whisper was close to my ear.  I recognized Clara’s voice.

“Clara?  What….?”

“Ssssh!”  I sensed her breath close to my cheek in the darkness, felt the cobweb brush of her hair as she leaned close to my ear, the whisper so low, I could barely make out the words.  “Back door’s open a fraction.  There’s no moon; it’s very dark out there. We’ll have to go without saddles, all right?  And we need to be quick.”

Her fingers were fumbling at my stretched wrists.  My heart was thudding hard.  I sensed the ropes loosening but held back from pulling until I knew she had the knots fully unfastened.  My arms dropped and I let out a breath that was half a sigh of relief, half a gasp of pain as blood began to rush back into my numbed limbs.  Clara was already groping for my bound ankles. I leaned forward to help her with clumsy fingers.

We both started at the sound behind us.  The barn door slid open and someone struck a match.  Josh’s face, rumpled from whiskey and sleep, emerged in eerie shadows from the gloom.  Clara shrank back against me and my arm encircled her instinctively.

Josh let out a warning shout.  My feet were still tied or I would have made a dive for him.  As it was, I tried to shove Clara towards the back of the barn.  “Run!” I hissed.

The match died and the barn was plunged into darkness once again. I prayed Clara would make it out of the door, but then I heard scuffling and shouting and her wail of dismay, and felt my racing heart jolt.  A lantern burst into life and she was struggling in Jake’s arms, her face defiant and angry.  I hauled vainly at the ropes around my legs, but they had been tied too tight.

“You bitch!” Josh bellowed, and I let out an enraged shout of protest as he stepped forward and struck her hard across the face, so hard, she slumped in Jake’s hold.  Then he ran to where I hunched and delivered a similar blow to my head.  I saw it coming and raised my arm in defense, parrying the attack.  Enraged, he lashed out with his boot, and handicapped as I was by my trussed feet, I went down under the violent onslaught.  Three, four, five times the boot thudded into my belly and ribs, leaving me writhing in the straw.

“You bastards!  You, you…!  Tie him up again!” He barked the order at Barney and turned back to Clara. Through the swirling blur in my head, I saw him drag her out of Jake’s grasp, by her hair, and haul her out of the barn.  I tried to call after her, but my voice refused to cooperate.  All that came out was a hollow grunt of pain.

“Help her,” I croaked to Barney, as he wrapped the ropes afresh around my bruised wrists, dragging my arms back up to where they’d been before.  “Please.  Don’t let him hurt her.”

“She’s his wife,” said Barney flatly.

It hurt to breathe.  My side throbbed from the impact of Josh’s foot, yet all the physical pain in the world was nothing compared to the torment of wondering what Josh would do to Clara.  Tears of despair stabbed at my eyes as I hung helplessly, trying to dispel the terrible images that played over and over in my mind.  I prayed with every morsel of faith left in me, desperate, gut-wrenching prayers that made me moan aloud with the agony of dread.

It seemed to me morning would never come, but finally the sun crept in through the gaps in the boards, and Jake and Barney stirred on their straw bed and rose, irritable from drink and their disturbed night.  Neither of them spoke to me.

I heard all three of them out in the yard, talking, but I didn’t hear Clara.  The voices receded in the direction of the house.  The goats were bleating in their pen.  I waited for Clara to come and let them out; do the morning milking, but she didn’t come.

Eventually Josh, Barney and Jake came back into the barn, carrying food bundles and canteens.

“Where’s Clara?” I asked.

Josh looked around at me, then strode across the barn to stand by my feet.  He took a packet of tobacco from his shirt pocket.  “What’s it to you, runt?”

I stared at him, my insides turning cold as I noticed the blood spattered over the front of his shirt.  “What have you done?”

His eyes were hard.  “I don’t have to explain anything to you, kid.”  He looked back at his companions and drew a folded note from the pocket of his pants.  He held it out to Barney.

“The Ponderosa.  Make sure you leave it somewhere they won’t miss it.  Nail it to the door if you have to.  Meet us at Longrock Canyon.”

Barney nodded, took the note, and slid it into the pocket of his jacket.

“Get the horses ready while I see to our investment here.”

Josh untied me from the wall and removed the bonds from my feet, but left my hands bound in front of me.  He led me at gunpoint into the yard so I could make some rudimentary ablutions and drink from the pump.  I glanced over at the house several times, but there were no sounds or movements from that direction.  The place was ominously still.

Jake and Barney emerged from the barn with four saddled horses.  It seemed I would be riding dead Larry’s.  Josh tied me into the saddle.  He was taking no chances.

We rode all day.  Barney was with us for the first few miles, until he cantered away northwest.  I followed him with my eyes as horse and rider receded into the distance.  In that direction lay the Ponderosa.  I felt a sharp stab of homesickness, and the thought of Pa finding that ransom note made me feel even sicker.  They’d have been worrying about me all this time, Pa, Adam, Hoss.  I knew they would have been out looking for me too after the first few days.  They’d have allowed me those to get over my stubborn defiance.  They knew me too well.  But by the end of the first week, they’d have been anxious, and I’d been gone now about six.  I could picture Pa, angry and worried by turns, cursing me one minute and pacing the floor the next.  Why hadn’t I tried to find a way to contact them, to let them know I was all right?  I knew the answer to that, even if I didn’t want to admit it.  I was selfish.  I had wanted them to suffer by my absence.  Punish them for judging me too hastily.  I had wanted to make them feel guilty so I could return to their open arms, like some kind of prodigal hero.  I was an idiot.  I was going to punish them, all right.  Fifty thousand dollars’ worth of punishment.

It was after nightfall when we reached the canyon, so I couldn’t see much.  Josh and Jake appeared to know it well. They headed straight to a wide cave in the rock where there were signs of previous campfires; even a stack of firewood ready to burn.  I was dumped in the back of the cave; my hands were secured behind me this time and then fastened to my tied ankles, robbing me of any hope of a comfortable position on the hard, uneven ground.

All the next day I lay like that, and the following night, seeing nothing but the cave walls and my two captors, who spoke rarely to me.  I was given water and a few mouthfuls of food.  Morning and evening I was untied and led outside at gunpoint so I could relieve myself.  That’s when I saw the canyon, a narrow ravine about half a mile long, open at both ends.  Our cave was at one end, a short climb up a narrow path, neatly obscured from below by the rocks.

Barney rejoined us late that evening.  The other two men were drinking coffee by the campfire when he rode in.

“Well?” said Josh.

Barney nodded.  “All done.”

“Tomorrow then,” said Josh, and a cold grin spread across his grimy face.

The following morning when Josh untied me I was so stiff and sore I could barely stand.  My discomfort brought the leer back to his face.  “Just have to hope your pappy turns up with that money, kid, or you’re going to be feeling a whole lot worse.”

Tension hung in the air all morning.  The three men went outside and I heard them making arrangements in low voices, then Josh came back inside alone, checked that I hadn’t moved—as if I could—and went back out into the sunshine.

I had no idea what was happening.  I thought I heard a shout, then Josh’s voice, close by, yelled, “How many?” and my stomach tightened.  I tried to inch my cramped, trussed body towards the front of the cave, but I could only move an inch at a time with a lot of effort.  A rifle shot rang out and echoed around the canyon.  I froze.

Josh yelled, “Cartwright?”

And then, unbelievably, my father’s voice, smaller, further away, but unmistakably Pa’s, answered, “Where’s my son?”

From close by, Josh shouted back.  “You’ll get your boy.  Where’s the money?”

There was a pause.  Then Pa’s voice again.  “Now show me my son!”

Josh moved back into the cave.  My heart was racing as he took out his knife and sliced through the ropes holding my feet.  With my hands still fastened behind me, he hauled me upright in front of him, his arm wrapped around my throat, his gun digging painfully into my spine.  I stumbled with him to the entrance.

Blinking in the sunlight, I looked down at the entrance to the canyon.  Three horsemen were clearly visible and I knew them instantly.  Pa, Adam, Hoss.  Pa had a pair of saddlebags in his hand.  I winced as Josh’s bellow rang out right next to my ear.

“Your boy’s here, Cartwright.  Unharmed, just like I promised.  Now, listen carefully.  You’re going to get down off your horses and put that money down right there.  Then all three of you are going to walk to the other end of the canyon and wait there.  When I’m satisfied you ain’t pulled no stunts, I’m going to bring your boy down and leave him with your horses.  When I fire two shots, you can start making your way back to your horses.  Understood?  And don’t try anything, Cartwright.  There are men with rifles all around this canyon.  They can pick you off like flies.  Now climb down off your horses and do just like I told you.”

I watched my father and brothers dismount and do as he instructed.  I wanted to shout out to them, tell them there were only two other men.  But two other men, hidden up in the rocks with rifles at the ready, were more than enough to pick off the three targets on the canyon floor.  I wondered where my father had found fifty thousand dollars.  Sure, we had money, but it was all tied up in the cattle and land.  For fifty thousand dollars he would have had to go to the bank, provide some collateral.  Why had I been such a fool?  I might have cost my father everything he had ever worked for.

Sweat trickled down my back as we waited under the glaring sun.  I could feel the heat bouncing off the rocks around me as I watched my family make their procession on foot to the other end of the ravine.  I saw movement in the rocks opposite.  Jake appeared and ran to where the bags had been dropped.  He rummaged swiftly then lifted his face to Josh and gave a thumbs-up.

“Right, kid,” said Josh at last, “let’s move!”

He manhandled me down the path, keeping his grip around my throat. My mind toyed with the notion of making a break, but the barrel of his gun was still digging hard into my spine, and I was acutely conscious that Barney was up in the rocks with his sights fixed on my family.  When we reached the horses, Josh pushed me down onto my knees, then face first into the dust.

“Jake’s got our horses,” said Barney, tossing the saddlebags with the money over Pa’s horse.  “Let’s go.”

“Just let me take a quick peek at that cash.”  I could hear the smirk in Josh’s voice.  I turned my head, my cheek pressing into the dirt and saw him lift the flap and grin.  He looked down at me.  “Looks like you were some use to us, after all, boy.  Now I promised your pa two shots to let them know we’re on our way.  What I didn’t tell him was where I planned to aim those two shots.”

I watched as he lifted his gun and leveled the barrel at my back.  My heart thudded so hard I was surprised I didn’t bounce on the ground.

“Kidnap’s one thing,” I told him.  “Murder’s another.  They hang a man for murder.”

“You think I ain’t already guilty of murder, kid?”  Josh lifted his lip in a sneer.  “I’ve killed better men than you, boy.”

I saw his finger tense on the trigger and closed my eyes, waiting for the inevitable.

A shot rang out.  And another.  My body jerked in response, but I felt no pain.  My eyes sprang open.  Josh grabbed at my collar and yanked me to my feet.  I felt his knife carving at the ropes around my wrists.

“Get up on the horse!” he hissed, shoving me roughly into the animal’s side.  I reached for the saddle horn, my arms numb and sore from being bound for so long, but before I could manage even a clumsy mount, Josh heaved me bodily onto the horse, in front of him.  Barney was already astride Adam’s horse, which was dancing nervously as more shots rang out, whistling by, close to my head.  Confused, my mind took in everything at once.  I wasn’t shot and the bullets flying around us were coming from the entrance to the ravine.  There were shouts too.  I saw then what Josh was trying to do.  Whoever was shooting was aiming at him, and I was his shield.  Even as my brain registered what was happening, I felt the savage thud of a bullet in my left shoulder.  I grunted aloud.  Beside me, Barney grunted too.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him topple.

Josh had one arm around my throat again, the other had seized the reins.  His gun was gone.  As he kicked the horse to a gallop, his hold around my neck loosened.  I took my chance, slamming my head backwards with all the force I could manage.

I heard something crack as my skull made impact, and his arm let go.  Off balance and disoriented, I felt myself tumbling through free air while the world flew past.  The ground hit me with a wallop that sent pain searing through me and knocked all the air from my body.

More gunshots, yelling, dizzying blackness.  I let myself sink away. Then a hand was on my shoulder and a voice I vaguely recognized was saying, “He’s alive.”  It was several moments before I realized it was talking about me.

I was alive.  I was hurting all over, and my head was spinning, but I was alive.  I opened my eyes and looked straight into the face of the sheriff from Angels Creek.

“We meet again,” he said, his expression grim.  “Can’t you stay out of trouble, boy?”

He raised my arm and a nauseating pain shot through me.  The sky darkened as though a plague of locusts had swept across.  I felt myself sliding away.  Adam’s voice dragged me back to my senses.  I forced open my eyes again and instead of the sheriff’s face, it was my oldest brother’s.  There was sweat on his face and he was panting.  “Joe?  Where are you hurt?”

I stared at him blankly.  For the moment, I had no idea.  “Where’s Pa?” I managed to say.

“Just coming.  What the hell happened?  Where have you been all this time?”  Adam was unbuttoning my shirt.  “What’s all the blood?  Have you been shot?”

I frowned, trying to remember.  “I think so,” I muttered.

Hoss was there too then, by my side.  Then Pa. Both of them panting like Adam had been.  I had no idea what state my body was in, but in that instant, all that mattered to me was seeing my family again.  Somehow, it seemed to me that everything would now be all right.  A man’s voice close by said, “We’ve got all three of them.”

“Three!” said Pa.  “I thought there had to be half a dozen at least!”

“Three very dangerous men,” said the sheriff.

Adam was pressing something soft into my shoulder.  I discovered I felt better if I closed my eyes, but the voices were all around me.

“Don’t know where you came from, Sheriff,” said Hoss’s voice, “But I’m sure glad you showed.”

“The plan was to wait until they rode out of the canyon, clear of your boy,” said the sheriff, “but when I saw Lennard about to pull the trigger on the kid, we had to act.  I’m sorry your boy took a bullet.”

“He’s still alive,” said Pa, and the relief was plain to hear in his voice.

“His arm’s broken, Pa,” said Adam, and I wondered why I hadn’t known that.  I now became aware that my arm was where the dizzying pain was centered.  Other parts of me hurt too, but not with the same intensity.

“How did you know they were here, Sheriff?” asked Pa’s voice.

“Lennard’s wife.  She came into town.  Told us what had happened.”

Lennard’s wife?  Relief flooded my being.  I forced my eyelids apart again and blinked against the sunlight.  “Clara?” I muttered.  “Is she all right?”

The sheriff appeared in my line of vision.  I saw he was frowning at me.  “She’s in a bad way, son.  Lennard beat her up pretty good.”  To my pa he said, “You need to get that boy home, Mr. Cartwright, before he gets into any more trouble.  Get him seen by a doctor.”

“I will, Sheriff,” said Pa.

Adam spoke close to my head.  “Can you sit up, Joe?  We’ll find something to splint that arm, then we can get you home.”

“I have to go to Angels Creek,” I told him.

“Is Angels Creek closer than Virginia City?” asked Pa, looking from me to the sheriff.  I knew he was thinking in terms of medical treatment.  I was thinking of Clara.

“Not much in it, I’d reckon,” put in Hoss.

“Then we’re better off heading back to Virginia City.  Hoss, see if you can find a branch, or something we can make into a splint.”

I shook my head.  “I have to go to Angels Creek.  See Clara.”

“Listen, son,” said the sheriff, “take my advice and go home.  You go to Angels Creek and I’ll be bound to arrest you for the murder of Evie Price.”

“Murder?”  This time it was shock I heard in Pa’s voice.

I shook my head.  “I didn’t murder her.”

“Whether you did or not, there’s half a dozen witnesses in Angels Creek that will send you to the gallows.  Go home, Joe.  Stay out of any more trouble.”

I made an effort to sit up and Adam got his arm beneath me to support me.  Pain washed through me in sickening waves, but I bit my lip and held on.  “I…have to go…to Angels Creek!” I gasped.  “I have to see her.”

Sweat trailed into my eyes.  I was shivering with the effort of moving.  The sheriff shook his head at me.  “You’ve got a death wish, kid.”

“Who’s Evie Price?” asked Pa.

“A saloon girl.  You son is accused of strangling her.”

“Joe!”  Hoss let out an incredulous laugh.  “Listen, Sheriff, you got the wrong man.  My brother ain’t no murderer.”

“You said you had half a dozen witnesses, Sheriff,” said Adam.  “Did they actually see him strangle this girl?”

“Two of them reckon they did.  The others saw them head off together, and were on the scene moments after it happened.”

Adam looked at me.  “Joe?”

I shook my head.  “I didn’t kill her.  John Sturry did.”

“You’re going to have a hard time proving that, son,” said the sheriff.  “Now, I’m giving you a chance.  Steer clear of Angels Creek and you won’t get yourself hanged.”

“Sounds like you think my brother’s innocent, Sheriff,” said Hoss.

“Sometimes the truth don’t mean nothing,” said the sheriff, his face grim.  “The court accepts hard evidence, and I’m telling you now, this kid won’t stand a chance.”

I could see the indecision in the faces of my family.  Then Pa nodded at Adam.  “Let’s take him home.”

Hoss bent to help Adam raise me to my feet.  I resisted, wincing.  “No!” I said, with all the strength I could muster.  “I’m not going home.  I have to see Clara.”

There was another moment of hesitation.  I closed my eyes against the pain shooting through my whole left side, and when I opened them again, the sheriff was shaking his head at me.  “You’re a stubborn cuss, kid.  Listen, I’ll make you a deal.  I’ll bring Clara Lennard out to the farm.  How’s that for a compromise?  That way, you stay out of town and I’m saved the trouble of your trial and hanging.”

I nodded.  “All right.  It’s a deal.”

The sheriff’s mouth drew into a tight line.  “If she’s still alive,” he added, grimly.

 

Chapter 13

Shortly after that, the sheriff rounded up his men and rode away.  Then, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, Pa, Adam and Hoss decided they needed to get the bullet out of me before we headed back to the farm.  Pa and Adam held onto me while Hoss dug into my shoulder with a knife.  I was near crazy with the pain.  I don’t remember everything I said, but I know I kept muttering, “I’m sorry,” over and over to Pa.  And I know he repeated back just as many times, “It’s all right, Joseph, it’s all right.”

But it wasn’t all right.  I knew it wasn’t.  The pain blazed in my arm, my shoulder, my whole left side, and my brain was haunted with the sheriff’s words about Clara.  I sank into merciful oblivion so many times, and then awoke, crying out and tormented.

The ride back to the farm that evening and the following day is a blur of agony and unreality in my memory.  We arrived back in the yard as evening fell. The dogs and goats came to meet us.  Sick and exhausted, I made no demur as my brothers deposited me on the very bed I had shared so often with Clara.  Adam had found the stash of whiskey and they fed me some to help the pain.

“Where’s the sheriff?” I asked.  “Where’s Clara?”

“They’ll be here, Joe,” Hoss told me, and even though my brain was as thick as pea soup, I wondered how he could be so sure.

“If they don’t show up by noon tomorrow, Hoss and I’ll ride into Angels Creek and find them,” added Adam, drawing the blankets around me.  “Just get some rest for now, Joe.”

Exhaustion and a generous dose of Clara’s homemade liquor did the trick.  I slept, in spite of the pain.  When I woke, the sun was up and Pa was with me, and even though I still hurt like fury, my head was clearer.   I sat up and Pa brought me eggs to eat and milk to drink.  Now I could think straight again, I knew I owed my family an explanation, but I had no idea how to begin.

Pa didn’t ask me anything; at least not about the stuff that mattered.  Somehow, that made me feel worse.  He kept asking me how I felt, and did I need anything?  Was I warm enough?  Cool enough?  Thirsty?  Comfortable?  I wished he just come out with it; tell me what an idiot I’d been; rail at me for my stupid behavior; demand to know what on earth I’d been up to, to land myself and my family in such danger.

Adam came in with some coffee for Pa.  He looked at me lying on the bed and instead of recrimination in his face, all I could see was concern.  I couldn’t bear it any longer.

“I’m sorry, Adam,” I said.  “I’m sorry about Anna Weslingham.”

Adam gave me a long, considering look.  “Seems Archie and Anna had been having problems with their marriage long before they came to the Ponderosa, Joe.  What you said to me, that day in the barn?  You were more right than you knew.  Obviously, that afternoon at the lake didn’t help, but Anna told us exactly what happened.  And that night, Archie and I had a long heart to heart and that’s when I found out things hadn’t been good in their relationship for some time.”  He gave a small shrug. “You think you know someone, but maybe I didn’t know Archie as well as I thought I did.  I don’t know what they’ll do eventually, but I think we can safely say, even if their marriage doesn’t survive, it won’t be because of what happened with you.”

I lay back against the pillows and squeezed my eyes shut as a great well of relief rose inside me.

“So, you want to tell us about Evie Price?  And Lennard’s wife?”

The relief was washed away by a dousing of cold dread in my middle.  I opened my eyes and met Adam’s steady gaze.

“I’ll try,” I said, and he nodded.  I looked at Pa, and saw he was watching me too, anxious and expectant.

So I told them the bare facts; of the fight in the saloon and how I broke Sturry’s nose; of how I was with Evie when Sturry burst in and strangled her, and of the way he set me up to take the blame, and of how that had led to me finding my way to this place, and collapsing in the field in the rain.

“And Josh Lennard found you?”

I shook my head and explained why Clara Lennard had been alone on the farm the night I arrived.  Mentioning Clara made my chest feel hard and tight.  I found myself looking towards the door, listening for sounds of horses, a wagon, anything to tell me she was still alive.  She couldn’t be dead too!  Like Julia.  Like Evie.

“So you stayed here on the farm with her?” said Adam.  “After you recovered from the gunshot?”

“It was a bad wound,” I told him.

He nodded.  “I know.  I saw it.  But you’ve been here pretty much all the time you’ve been away?”

I felt myself redden.  “I guess.  I couldn’t risk going back to Angels Creek, and I didn’t have a horse.  Mrs. Lennard let me sleep in the barn.”

If Adam and Pa noticed I had switched to calling Clara ‘Mrs. Lennard’, neither of them mentioned it.

“And then her husband turned up out of the blue and decided he could make an easy buck by holding you to ransom?”

“That’s pretty much it. And Mrs. Lennard tried to help me escape.  That’s when he beat her up.”  My voice caught in my throat unexpectedly.  “That’s why I have to see her.  Do what I can to help her.  I can’t just walk away and leave her.”

Pa patted my arm.  “We understand that, Joseph.  It was a brave thing to do, trying to help you.”

“She managed to get all the way into town, to tell them what had happened, even after he’d beaten her,” I added, and had to take a deep breath to steady my voice.

At that moment, outside in the yard, Hoss’s voice called, “Wagon coming!”

I struggled to get out of bed, grimacing.  Pa hurried to help me.  I made such slow progress through the kitchen and out of the front door that the wagon was already pulling into the yard by the time I got there.  The sheriff was driving.  Beside him, on the passenger seat, was an older man, in a neat suit and spectacles.

“This is Doctor Pearce,” said the sheriff, jumping down.  “Thought you might like him to take a look at your boy, Mr. Cartwright.”

I limped to the side of the wagon and looked over.  Clara lay in a nest of cushions and blankets, her eyes closed, her complexion grey.  Dark bruises and half healed cuts littered her face.  Scared she might already be dead, I breathed her name and saw her stir.

“Joe?” she whispered.  “Is that you?”

With my good hand I reached in and touched her cheek with my finger.  I saw her sigh and the tightness in her face eased a fraction.

I had to stand by helplessly as the other men lifted her from the back of the wagon, and carried her carefully into the house.  They laid her in the bed I’d just vacated and only I appreciated the irony of that.  She wanted to sit up, so they propped her with pillows.  I sat down on the side of the bed and took her hand in mine.

“I’m so glad you’re alive,” she whispered.

“And you,” I said.

“And this time, Josh really is dead.”

I nodded, suddenly aware that there were five other people in the room, all watching us.  I saw too, the shock my pa and brothers were trying to hide.  I remembered how horrified I’d been the first time I laid eyes on Clara’s ruined face.  Now, bruised and mutilated, she looked even more shocking.

“Oh God, Clara,” I moaned, “what did he do to you?”

She gave a tiny shake of her head.  “Doesn’t matter now, Joe.”

A lump swelled in my throat.  How could she say that?  It mattered to me more than anything else in the world right then.  She turned her head, as if she too was suddenly aware of the other men.

“Is that your pa?”

“Yes,” I said, “and my two brothers.  Adam and Hoss.”

Her mouth twitched.  It might have been a smile.  Addressing herself to Pa, she said, “You met my father a few times, Mr. Cartwright.  Mr. Williamson.  He was a lawyer in Angels Creek.”

Pa frowned and then nodded.  “Yes, I did.  I remember.  I’m sorry.  He died, didn’t he?”

Clara nodded.  “John Sturry had him killed.”

“John Sturry?”  Pa looked puzzled.

The sheriff cleared his throat. “No one was ever charged.”

“John Sturry,” said Clara again, with certainty. Then she looked up at me and back to Pa.  “You raised a fine boy, Mr. Cartwright.”

Pa nodded.  “I know. And I owe you for saving his life.”

She gave a weak laugh.  “It was the other way round.  He saved mine.”

Pa looked confused.  Clara took a deep breath.  “I’d lost faith in living, Mr. Cartwright.  Forgotten there was any point to it.  Joe brought me back to life.  He made me laugh again.  Made me want to live.”

“Don’t talk, Clara,” I whispered.  “Wait until you’re stronger.”

She looked at me then with so much sadness in her eyes, I couldn’t speak any more.

“There were so many years when I didn’t care whether I lived or died, Joe, but now…I’m going to miss you.”

I shook my head, the words I wanted to say jammed in my chest.

I sensed the stirrings around me.  The other five men were moving towards the door.  Pa leaned over me as he went past.

“We’re just outside if you need us, son.”

I nodded helplessly.  There was no use pretending any more.  As the door shut behind them, Clara said, “I’m glad you found them again, Joe.”

I stroked her hair with my good hand.  Pain from my own injuries was draining my strength.  I slid my body down to lie beside her, our faces close on the pillow, and once again, we fell asleep side by side.

I woke with Pa’s hand on my shoulder.  If he was surprised to find me lying next to Clara, it didn’t show on his face.  Clara was still sleeping.

“Let her rest,” he murmured.  “The doctor needs to get back to town.  Come on out to the kitchen and let him take a look at you.”

“What about Clara?” I asked.

Pa pursed his mouth.  “He’s done everything he can, Joe.  Now all we can do is let her rest and make her comfortable.”

I didn’t want to understand what he was saying.  I let him lead me out of the room to where the doctor was waiting.  We all turned our heads as the dogs began barking.  The sheriff moved to the door and looked out.

“Someone’s coming.”

No one came to this farm, I knew that.  There were already more people than it had ever seen together at one time, and now someone else was on the way.

“Hellfire!” said the sheriff.  “It’s Sturry!”

“John Sturry?” queried Pa.  He followed the sheriff out into the yard.  Adam and Hoss headed outside too.  The doctor stayed where he was, a restraining hand on my shoulder to keep me in the chair.  My whole body had tensed, my ears straining.

Hooves clattered into the yard.  At least three horses.  I caught a glimpse through the door of Sturry and his two henchmen, the wrestler and the pale-eyed man, as they reined in.

“What brings you out here, Mr. Sturry?” I heard the sheriff demand in a clear voice.

“Quite a party,” said Sturry’s voice.  “What happened to my invitation?”

“Nothing that concerns you here,” returned the sheriff.

“Maybe.  Maybe not.  Heard some rumors in town.  Heard Josh Lennard had shown up.”

“You and Josh Lennard have your differences, Mr. Sturry, I know.  But that’s all over now.  Lennard’s dead.  I shot him down myself.”

“So I hear.  Gather you went after him because he was holding a man to ransom.”

“Who told you that?”

“Oh, I have my sources.  It was a boy, I gather.  Kid named Joe Cartwright.”

“That information was confidential, Mr. Sturry.”

“Perhaps you intended it to be, Sheriff, but you know how tongues wag.”

“That doesn’t explain what you’re doing all the way out here.”

“Saw you and the doctor leaving to bring Clara Lennard back here.  I was curious, Sheriff.  With Josh Lennard dead, I wondered just who was going to be looking after her, all alone, back here.”

“So you came to offer your services, did you?”

“I put two and two together, Sheriff.  Bit of a coincidence, two boys, both called Joe.  You remember that kid? Joe Brown?  The one that murdered poor Evie?  I just wondered if maybe—just maybe—there was only one Joe, after all.  I was hoping you might solve the little conundrum, Sheriff.”

Pa’s voice broke in, loud and clear.  “The boy you’re talking about, Mr. Sturry, is my son, Joseph.  If you’ve got accusations to make against him, let me hear them now.”

“Well,” said Sturry, his tone all reason and politeness.  “We don’t know yet that the boy we’re talking about is the same boy, do we?  I wouldn’t want to accuse anyone falsely.”

I could stand it no longer. Pushing the doctor’s hand aside, I rose from my chair and made for the door.  Leaning against the frame for support, I called out to Sturry, still in his saddle in the middle of the yard.

“It was me, Sturry.  I was Joe Brown and I’m Joe Cartwright too.  But I didn’t kill Evie.  You did.  And I’m prepared to stand up in court and say it.  What’s more, I’ll tell the judge how you killed Clara Lennard’s father, and did what you did to her.”

Sturry’s expression didn’t flicker.  I was satisfied to note that his nose had healed crookedly.  “Listen, son, I know you’re scared and upset, but you can’t go around making wild accusations about other people.”

“But you can?” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice.

The sheriff turned to look at me.  “Be careful what you say, Joe.”

Sturry narrowed his eyes at the sheriff.  “You had a duty to bring him back to town, Sheriff.  To face trial.  I’ll need to have words with my friend, the district marshal, about this.  Harboring a wanted felon is a punishable offense.”

“I’m no felon!” I pushed myself away from the doorframe and walked out into the yard, the doctor close on my heels.  I sensed Adam and Hoss move in behind me.  “Listen, Sturry, you want to see me dead, then kill me here, yourself.  Now.  Don’t blackmail some weak attorney or judge to do it for you.  Do what you did to Evie.  Get down off your horse and kill me here and now.  If that’s what you want.”

He fixed me with a cold stare.  “All I want is justice, boy.  A fair trial that sees you hanged for the death of an innocent girl.”

“I was an innocent girl,” said a voice from the door, and we all spun around to see Clara, slumped where I had stood, by the doorframe.  Her bruised and twisted face was ashen, but her eyes were clear.  “I was an innocent girl, and look what you did to me.”  She raised her hand to her ruined cheek.  “And that’s just the scar you can see.  The other things you did to me that night, they don’t show, but they stayed with me.  They still haunt me.  Just like my father’s death.”

Sturry shifted uncomfortably in his saddle.  “I loved you, Clara.  I wouldn’t have hurt you.”

“You’re a liar, John Sturry.  A liar and a coward and a thief.  You destroyed all my happiness.  And if Joe hadn’t come along, I might never have found it again.  But, you see, I did.  Thanks to Joe, you didn’t win, John.  You didn’t destroy me, after all.”

“You destroyed yourself,” Sturry told her.  “You married that low down thief, Josh Lennard.  You made your own….”

His face froze mid-sentence, his eyes widened.  Our heads turned as one, as the retort of the gun reverberated around the yard.  John Sturry jerked in his saddle, then slid slowly sideways and toppled to the ground

Clara’s hand dropped to her side, the revolver hitting the porch with a loud clunk, as if she no longer had the strength to hold onto it.  It seemed she didn’t because she began to slide towards the ground.  I tried to reach her, but I was too slow.  Adam got there first in a couple of long bounds, and caught her as she sagged to the floor.  I crouched beside him.  The doctor and the two henchmen had bent over Sturry as he lay sprawled in the dirt.

“Nothing I can do here,” said the doctor, rising to his feet.  “He’s dead.”

“She always was a good shot.”  The sheriff rubbed his hand through his hair with a sigh of despair.  He looked at Clara and shook his head.  “Dammit, woman, what am I supposed to do now?”

Clara’s eyes were closed, but she forced a small smile.  “Hang me,” she said.

As Adam lifted her, she gave a small grunt of pain.  It was the first time I had heard her complain.  He carried her back to the bedroom and laid her on the bed.  I leaned over and stroked her hair with a shaking hand.  When the doctor tried to hustle us out of the room, I didn’t want to leave, but he insisted, so I stood as close as I could get to her, my forehead leaning against the closed door.  Pa came to stand beside me, rubbing my good arm gently with his hand.  The shock in the room was still tangible.  It only occurred to me afterwards that Hoss and the sheriff were absent; they must have been dealing with Sturry’s body in the yard.

“She can’t die!” I told Pa, the fierce hotness inside me tightening into a solid lump that threatened to choke me.

“Joe…” he began, the tone of his voice telling me I didn’t want to hear what he had to say.  I shook my head.  I couldn’t look at him in case his eyes were saying the same thing.

“She can’t die,” I repeated.  “She just can’t!”

Pa squeezed my shoulder.  The wait seemed interminable. What the hell was the doctor doing?

“Why don’t you sit down, Joe?” suggested Adam, but I didn’t want to move away from the door.

At last the doctor came out.  His face was grave.  “She refuses to take the laudanum,” he told us.  “Yet she’s in a lot of pain. There’s nothing else I can do for her.”  He held out the laudanum bottle to me.  “See if you can get her to swallow some.  We can at least save her some pain.  And then you should rest too, young man.

It hurt to swallow.  I clasped my fingers around the bottle and, while Pa waited in the doorway, I went slowly into the room, dreading what I might see.  But although Clara was as grey as wet ash, she looked remarkably composed.  I sank down beside her and showed her the bottle.  She shook her head.

“No, Joe.  If I’ve only got a short time, I want to know who you are, have a sensible conversation.”

“Don’t talk like that, Clara.  You can get better.”

She shook her head.  “I’m not afraid of dying, Joe.”  She gave a short laugh that ended in a small gasp and a grimace of pain.  “I was afraid of living for a long time, but not of dying.  And then you took away that fear too, Joe, so now I’m not afraid at all.  And you mustn’t be either.”

“But I am,” I whispered.  “I’m afraid of losing you.”

She lifted a hand and reached up to touch my face.  I held her fingers to my lips for several seconds.  “Do you remember when we danced?” she asked.

I nodded.  “Yes,” I whispered, unable to keep the tears from spilling onto my cheeks.  “That’s when I first fell in love with you.”

She tried to laugh again and stopped, but she managed a little smile.  “I first fell in love with you when I saw you lying in my field, like a half-drowned lion cub.”

I looked at her in surprise.  “I never knew.  You never let on.”

“We both had our secrets.”

It was true.  I nodded mutely.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, and closed her eyes, her face creasing.  “I’m sorry about Josh,” she muttered, pushing her eyes open again, although they were filmy now with pain.  “Are you badly hurt, Joe?”

“No.” I shook my head.  “Nothing that won’t mend.”

I stayed with her as she drifted into a fitful doze, her breathing harsh and erratic.  Voices outside the room were meaningless to me.  The doctor came back one more time, listened to her heart and watched the uneven, labored rise and fall of her chest, and said in a matter of fact voice, “It won’t be long now,” as though we were all waiting on an overdue appointment.  I lowered my head onto the pillow, next to hers and breathed in the scent of her hair, touching her cheek with soft kisses I knew she couldn’t feel.  When she opened her eyes again, they were distant and unfocused, glazed by the suffering I could see racking her body.  She tried to speak to me but I could no longer make out what she was saying although I could see the desperation in her eyes.  I wondered if she had changed her mind about the laudanum, but when I unstoppered the bottle and held it to her lips, she jerked her head away and tears oozed in the corners of her eyes.

“Clara,” I whispered, holding her as best I could with one good arm, “I love you.  Please don’t leave me.”  The cheek I laid against hers was wet with tears. She twisted her head a little and this time I made out the words, muttered close to my ear.  “I can hear the band.”

I tried to laugh but the sound that emerged was more like a sob instead.  “What are they playing?”  I whispered back.

“A polka.”

I tightened my good arm around her.  “Would you do me the honor?”

I thought she laughed.  Her chest quivered, her breath sighed against my cheek.  Slowly, her body relaxed.  I stayed holding her as the truth sank in, and then I let my own body slump against hers while my tears fell silently into her barley gold hair.

 

Chapter 14

Nothing seemed real any more.  I watched as Adam and Hoss dug a grave in the corner of the field; the field where Clara had first found me.  I heard the goats bleating, smelled the fresh turned earth, watched a hawk gliding in the flawless blue sky above me, and it all seemed to be happening in another time and place.  The sheriff and the doctor were still there, and John Sturry’s two henchmen.  We made a strange funeral party.  Sturry’s body lay shrouded in the back of the sheriff’s wagon, ready to return to the town he had controlled for so many years.  Death seemed all around me that afternoon.

Pa asked if I wanted to say a few words when we laid Clara in the ground.  I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.  I stood gaping at him blankly, my mind plain refusing to work.

My soul was numb.  I was wrapped about in a dark blanket of grief that threatened to smother me.  It wasn’t just for Clara.  There was still Julia.  And Evie.  Even my mother.  The women I loved all died.  That’s how it seemed to be.

When the others headed back to the house, I stayed for a long time, staring at the dark mound in the earth until my feet seemed to take root, and my limbs, like my brain ceased to function.  I could not even cry any more.

“Joe?” said Pa, gently, and I wondered how he had approached without my noticing.  “We should be heading for home, son.”

“Who’ll look after the animals?”  I don’t know why I said that.  I hadn’t been conscious of the question formulating in my brain.

“The sheriff’s going to take care of everything.”

I seemed to have forgotten how to move.  In the end, Pa put his hand on my shoulder and turned me around.  I saw then that he was carrying a bunch of marigolds.  I must have looked puzzled because he gestured at the grave, and said, “They’re for Mrs. Lennard.”

I stared at him uselessly as he held them out to me.  In the end, he bent and placed them himself on the newly turned grave.  I gazed at them without any feeling.  I’d never associated Clara with flowers.

“You need some rest,” Pa told me.  “You must be hurting some.  Hoss has hitched up the buckboard in the barn.  We’ll make up a bed for you in the back.”

He tried to lead me away, but I resisted.  “I want to stay here, Pa.”

I saw the anxiety in his face.  “There’s nothing for you here now, Joe.  Let’s go home, boy.”

I let him fuss around me; I was too weary to protest.  My shoulder and arm hurt like the blazes all that night, keeping sleep from me.  Pa wanted to give me laudanum, but it makes me sick, so I told him no.  All the next morning, the wagon rattled and jolted beneath me, and every shake and judder sent spasms down my left side.  The day was hot too, unbearably hot.  I couldn’t remember a day so humid in a long time.  My shirt stuck to me and my throat was as parched as a dry river bed.  When we stopped for a break, to stretch our cramped muscles and eat, I was too stiff and tired to move.  And then it turned out, it wasn’t the day that was exceptionally hot; it was just me.

While my family debated what to do about me, I slumped in the shade of the cart, too exhausted with pain to care.  I heard their voices, sensed their agitation, and yet it still didn’t seem real.  It was as if a veil had come down between me and the real world.  I let them do as they saw fit, bundling me back in the wagon and dousing me with precious water from their canteens.  Adam and Hoss rigged up some crazy canopy contraption over me.  It seemed like a deal of effort to go to.  If I’d had the energy left, I’d have told them not to bother.

I felt better as the sun went down; maybe the coolness of the evening was all I needed.  I lay with my eyes closed and listened to my family arguing about whether they should push on through the dark, or stop and let me get some sleep.

“We could be back at the Ponderosa in a few more hours,” said Adam, his voice insistent.

“Joe’s exhausted,” said Hoss.  “He can’t sleep being jolted about in that wagon.  He’s in too much pain, even if he won’t admit it.”

“Then let’s get some laudanum inside him and get him home.”

“It ain’t going to help him none to start puking his guts up.”

Strange thing was, I lay and listened, and it was as if they were talking about someone else, not me.  Nothing they said seemed to stir any response in me, other than desperate weariness.  I let their voices drift into a meaningless blur.  The night remained still around me.  I could only conclude they had decided we should camp here for the night, and not try moving on.  Pain pulsed through my arm and shoulder and down into my newly healed side.  I rose and fell on a sea of pain. I thought I was awake and found I was dreaming; floated in dreams that turned out to be real.  Or not real.  I didn’t know.  It was only when I saw Clara bending over me that I knew I was going to be all right.

“I thought you were dead,” I said.  “I thought you’d left me.”

She laughed her dry, humorless laugh. “I thought you were dead.  Would’ve been a lot less trouble if you had been.”

“Please stay,” I begged.

“I’ll stay,” she told me, stroking my face, “but you won’t.”

“I will!” I seized her hand and held onto it tightly. “You were the one who went away.”

“It wouldn’t have worked, Joe.  Not in the end.”

“Yes,” I cried.  “Yes, it would!”

“You’d have got tired of me, Joe.  You’re young.  You’ve still got so much living to do.”

“Don’t say that.”  Hot tears were burning my eyes and I wasn’t sure if they were there because she was right or because she was wrong.  “I love you, Clara.”

“I loved you, Joe.  But you were only in love with loving.”

“Just because I’m young, doesn’t mean it’s not love.”

“It was just for fun,” said Julia’s voice.  I looked around in desperation.  Where was Julia?  I could hear her but I couldn’t see her face.  Only Clara’s.

“No,” I insisted.  “I meant it.  I love you, Julia.”

“You’re just a kid,” said Julia.

“It wasn’t enough, Joe,” said Clara.

“I’m not your mother,” said Julia.

“No, I am,” said Clara.  Except it wasn’t Clara any more because her face was whole, and her voice was different; softer somehow.  And although she spoke only those three words, they seemed to tug my heart right out of my chest.

“Mama?” I whispered.  I tried to fasten my eyes on her face, see her clearly, but I couldn’t.  Her features were out of focus, as though I was looking at her under water.  When I thought of that, I felt good, like I really was drifting just under the surface of the lake, weightless, with the sun dazzling the surface above me. Floating in peace.

And I was floating, but not in water.  In the air.  In the topmost corner of my bedroom.  How had I gotten there?  I looked down and saw myself lying on my bed, a long way below.  And it was as if I was looking down on the body of someone else; someone familiar, but not so familiar that I cared very much.  The boy in the bed looked so small and abandoned among the rumpled sheets, I couldn’t help but pity his frailty.  But it wasn’t me.  Was it?  Surely it couldn’t be me!  I stared with a sense of detached surprise at the tangled mess of my hair and the shadowed sockets of my eyes, the bandages criss-crossing my chest and left arm.   I could even pick out the tiny droplets of perspiration gathered in the sunken flesh between my bones.  Now I could see it for what is was, my body was nothing more than a sad, useless hollow thing, full of pain and unhappiness.  I would be a relief to leave it behind.  It would no longer rule me, no longer betray me, no longer hurt me.  I was ready to go.  I could rise away from it any time I liked; there was nothing now to bind me to it.

A voice was calling my name from a long way off.  I wanted to ignore it because I was ready to leave and I knew it would delay me if I stopped to listen, but the voice was insistent; it tugged at somewhere deep inside me.

“Joseph!”

Pay no attention.  It was time to leave.  I no longer had a responsibility to that burdensome husk of a body.

“Joseph,” said the voice, “Don’t give up on us, son.  You’ve done this before; you can do it again.”

The feeble body on the bed stirred, and I was overcome by a rush of dismay as I realized I had hesitated too long.  There would be no leaving this time.  Regret was already dissolving into resignation as the room shrank around me and I felt the insistent tug back towards that bed.

“Joe, can you hear me son?”

It was Pa’s voice.  He was in a chair, right beside the bed.  Hoss was behind him, hands on Pa’s shoulders, his face all contorted with fear.  Where had they come from?  They hadn’t been there a moment before.

“No, Pa,” I said.  “Don’t make me stay.  Please don’t make me stay.”  I was right beside him, but he didn’t know I was there.  All his attention was focused on that empty shell in the bed.  “I’m here, Pa,” I told him.  “I’m all right.  You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Joe?”  That was Adam’s voice.  Was he here too?  He stepped up to the bed, and I was puzzled by the apprehension in his dark face.  Why were they so concerned about a pitiable, useless body?

“I’m right here, fellers,” I said again.

I watched Adam bend his head to the tangled one on the pillow, and then press his ear to the linen-wrapped chest.  “Joe?” he said, his voice sharp with an urgency I’d never heard before.  “Dammit!  Joe!”

I gazed, confused as Pa stood up too, and repeated Adam’s actions.  Hoss didn’t move, but I saw his big frame shudder and heard the hollow sound that came out of his throat.  “No!” he moaned, softly at first, and then, “No-oo!” on a harsh sob of anguish.

“Don’t cry, Hoss,” I said, vaguely troubled to see my big brother’s pain.  “I’m still here.”

But Hoss had shouldered Pa out of the way, had seized the limp body on the bed and was crushing it to him, like it was a child.  ”Joe, you ain’t dead!  I just know you ain’t dead!”

“No, Hoss,” I told him, suddenly unsettled and strange.  Standing behind him, watching him hug that lifeless rag doll to his chest, I could have sworn I felt those familiar arms squeezing me too.  Squeezing me hard.  Too hard.  “I’m not dead,” I protested.  “I’m here.  I’m all right.  Don’t cry.  Please don’t cry.”

Pa put his arm around Hoss.  Adam just stood, staring, his eyes extra dark in the pallor of his face.  What was the matter with them all?  I was fine.  I was standing right there.  Why couldn’t they see I was fine?  What could I do to convince them?  What could I do to stop Hoss’s sobs and wipe that expression of emptiness from Adam’s face?

Pa’s hand touched my head, stroked my hair.  I felt it before I saw his hand on the lolling head of the limp body in Hoss’s arms. I knew without thinking what that meant.  I could sense an impending heaviness, feel the ache spreading out from my middle, the sharp spasms of pain where my brother’s grip was crushing my injured arm.

“Hoss!” I whispered. “You’re hurting me!”

 

Chapter 15

I had no idea until much later of all the agony I’d caused.

Hoss said I’d been sick—really sick—for three weeks, from the time they brought me home in the wagon.  Three weeks!  Sure I remembered snatches.  Voices, faces, waking, dreaming.  And hurting.  When I’d finally come back to my full senses, I’d imagined I’d had a couple of bad days.  But three weeks? The infection in the bullet wound in my shoulder had spread into my bones.  If it had been an arm or a leg, the doctor told me, he would have amputated.  As it was, there was nothing anyone could do except wait.

I had a hard time coming to terms with that time lapse.  I didn’t know how to put it into words, but it was the knowledge that Clara had been lying in the ground for three whole weeks, while I was oblivious to my grief for her that somehow upset me most.  I knew it was stupid.  It wasn’t as if she’d have missed me, after all, and yet I couldn’t shrug off the feeling I’d abandoned her.  And in those three weeks, my family seemed to have put her behind them too, as if she’d barely existed.  I told myself they’d hardly known her.  But it didn’t stop me feeling hurt and cut off, as if an invisible wall had gone up between us, and they were on one side, and I alone on the other.  Alone with a ghost.

Being laid up is tedious.  All the things I should have been able to do and I couldn’t.  Couldn’t even sit up without my head reeling.  Couldn’t get out of bed without someone to hold me up.  It was as if all my muscles had given up on me in disgust.  My family, and even Hop Sing—especially Hop Sing—kept telling me how thin I was.  And I was.  Even though I told them they were fussing over nothing, I knew they were right. Trouble was, I had no appetite.  No desire to eat.  Hop Sing cooked all kinds of special dishes to try and tempt me, but I could barely manage more than a few spoonfuls before feeling overwhelmed by the whole process.  Pa was worried there was something still wrong inside me, but the doc said I was mending fine.  Just needed to get my appetite back.  Hoss carried me downstairs—I couldn’t make it as far as the bedroom door without crumpling—and sat me in the rocking chair on the porch.  Sun and fresh air would do me good, he insisted, but the sun and the fresh air overwhelmed me too.  Made me want to hide in a dark hole and cry.  A strange panic gripped me, so that Hoss, worried and upset, had to take me back in again, almost straight away.  Pa figured seeing some of my old friends might help, but when he announced he’d invited Mitch and Andy over, I told him I didn’t want to see anyone.

“It’ll do you good,” he said, the same way Hoss had said the sun and the fresh air would help me.

“No, Pa. Tell them not to come.  I don’t want to see anyone.  Not just yet.”

Pa sat down on my bed and frowned at me.  “What is it, Joe?  What’s the matter?”

I shook my head.  “Nothing.  It’s just…well, look at me, Pa.  I’m…not ready yet.”

“Not ready for what?” he asked, puzzled.  “Not ready to see a couple of old friends?”

“No,” I said, not wanting to meet his gaze.

He sat looking at me out of eyes that were anxious and baffled at the same time.  I thought he might ask me some more questions and I was almost relieved when he didn’t.  Almost.  Instead he said, “We just want you to get better, Joe.”

“I know,” I said.  “And I am.”

At the door, he turned and said, “Is this about Clara? Do you want to talk about it?”

My heart and stomach lurched so violently, the room spun for a brief instant.  “No,” I lied.  “I’m fine.  I don’t want to talk about anything.”

“All right,” he said, and a great lump of despair welled in my chest.  “If you change your mind…”

I don’t know what I expected of them, my family.  They hadn’t known Clara.  Not really.  And if they had, I doubted they’d have understood.  Heck, I didn’t understand myself.  How had I gotten myself into such a mess?  Let my family down so many times?  Caused so much pain and heartache to myself and everyone else?  What was it about me that inflicted such tragedy?  I’d failed to protect Julia.  And poor Evie!  I’d barely known Evie and yet, because of me, she too was dead.  Then Clara!  Oh, God, Clara!  I hadn’t even loved her; I’d just thought I did.  I knew that now.  She’d loved me and offered me an escape and I’d taken it, and convinced myself that longing was really love.

I didn’t make much effort to get better, but my body went ahead and did it anyway, even though my ribs still jutted and my splinted left arm remained out of action.  As soon as I could walk, I wanted to ride.  It was the first time since I’d gotten sick he Pa lost patience with me.  But in the end, Adam and Hoss persuaded him, which surprised me.  It wasn’t like Adam to support my rasher decisions.

Being back in the saddle helped.  I didn’t go far; just far enough that I could be on my own with my thoughts, out from under the watchful eyes and ears of my family.  I rode to the lake, to my mother’s grave and sat there with no company other than the ghosts of the past.  There was a sense of release in the loneliness.  I’d hardly been aware of the suffocation at home, but out on my own, I discovered I could breathe freely again.  For the first time since Clara’s death, I finally wept for her, and when the tears started flowing, I couldn’t stop them.  And then I was weeping for Julia and Evie, and even my mother.  I cried so long and hard, I thought my heart had truly broken.  And then, exhausted by grief, I fell asleep on my mother’s grave.

I think I only woke because someone touched my shoulder.  Otherwise I might have slept on forever, or so it felt to me.  I opened my eyes to the familiar sound of the water lapping gently below me, and the soft glow of sunset over the lake.  How had it grown so late?

“Thought I might find you here,” said Pa.

I didn’t want to look at him.  I knew my face would give me away.  I sat up awkwardly because my shoulder was stiff and throbbing, keeping my body turned away towards the lake.

“I was worried about you,” said Pa, when I didn’t say anything.  “We all were.  Adam and Hoss were kicking themselves for persuading me to let you go.  I’m glad you’re not hurt.”

I nodded my head.  Pa settled himself beside me.  “Pretty sunset.”

“Yeah.”  My voice sounded dry and croaky.  Pa put his arm around me, his hand resting on my good shoulder.

We sat in silence for a while, watching the lake turn all shades of pink and orange.  Eventually, Pa said, “I still talk to her as well, Joe, your mother.  But sometimes it helps to talk to the living too.”

“I wasn’t talking to her,” I answered shortly.  “What’s the point?  She’s dead!”  I was surprised at how angry I sounded.  “They’re all dead.”  I shrugged his arm off and hunched away from him.

I could sense him frowning.  “Bad things happen, son.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “They do.  To me!”

“To all of us,” he said.

I scowled at the dirt between my knees.  He was right, of course.  I knew he was right.  But it didn’t stop the pain.

“I lost three wives, Joe.  I know how it feels.  And I know you find it hard to believe, but I felt as passionate about each one of them as you felt about Julia.  Or Clara.  I loved all three of them so much, it was like a piece of me died each time I lost one.  Every time it happened, I thought I could never love someone that much again.  But I did.  Broken hearts heal, Joe.  It’s a painful slow process, but if you let them, they do heal.”

I thought about my father losing three wives.  I’d never given much thought to how much anguish those deaths had cost him.  Not really. Not until I’d felt the pain myself.  Now I wondered how he’d ever come through that.  Not just come through, but triumphed.  Built a life for himself and for us, in spite of his heartaches.  I’d always known Pa was a strong man, but for a moment there by the lake, I felt a sense of awe at the faith and strength that had brought him through.

“You were right about Julia, Pa,” I said, at last.

“Funny you should say that.  I think I was wrong, looking back.”

I risked a quick glance at him, momentarily puzzled.

“I thought she didn’t love you, Joe.  I thought she was simply using you.  I was wrong.  And I thought you were just infatuated because she reminded you of your mother, but I was wrong there too.”

I thought about it for a moment, and then said, honestly, “You were a little bit right.”

“And what about Clara?  What would I have thought about her?”

“That she was too old for me?”

We both laughed then, awkward laughs, but enough to ease the tension.

“That I should have known better,” I went on.  “That she should have known better.  She’d been lonely for a very long time.  I’d been lonely for a very short time.”  I thought about it for a moment.  “I got loneliness and gratitude confused with love.  The truth is, she just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

“You obviously meant a lot to her.  You think one day you might tell us all about her?”

I didn’t answer.  I couldn’t imagine telling my father about the relationship I’d shared with Clara.

The sun was beginning to sink behind the horizon and an evening coolness was settling around us.  I shivered slightly.

“We should be getting you home,” said Pa.

He helped me into the saddle.  As I took up the reins in my good hand, I glanced back at the grave and said a silent goodnight to my mother.

 

Chapter 16

The days became weeks.  Pa was right.  Broken hearts do heal.  Very slowly.  Trouble is, wounds leave scars, like the scar on Clara’s face.  And, like Clara, I wanted to hide that disfigurement so people didn’t see the hurt and the ugliness.

Two months passed.  My arm, out of its splints, was still weak and stiff, but improving slowly, and I had returned to light duties around the Ponderosa.  A stranger calling by would have seen nothing amiss with the way things were on the ranch.  It took people who knew us well to spot the lingering tensions and places where wounds still festered.  But, in general, the turbulence had passed and I was determined not to stir the ripples again.

I stayed close to the ranch.  As the weeks went on, Pa and my brothers tried to encourage me to go into town or meet up with old friends, but I was acutely conscious of that scar on my heart, so I found excuses, and rode out with no company but my own.  Adam and Hoss went to dances and socials without me.  To begin with, no one thought it unusual, but as time went on, it became more awkward for them to find excuses for my absence.

“Folks keep asking after you, Little Joe,” Hoss told me, when he and Adam arrived back from a dance one Friday night.  “And there’s some real pretty little girls miss having you there to dance with.  They ain’t half so interested in me.  Lettie Maywick, she’s threatening to bring the dance out to the Ponderosa if you don’t show soon.”

“Hey,” said Adam, with a slow grin.  “That’s not such a bad idea, is it?  We could hold a party here!”

My stomach turned cold at the thought.

“What do you say, Pa?  How about Hoss and I organize a little social here on the Ponderosa next Saturday?”

Pa looked up from his newspaper.  “Good idea,” he agreed.  “Why not?”

“No!”  I’d spoken much more sharply than I’d intended.  All three of them looked at me in puzzlement.  I shrugged and tried to look unperturbed.  “At least, I don’t mind what you do.  It’s just I won’t be here for any social.”

Hoss shook his head, baffled.  “What’s got into you, Little Joe?”

I rose from the sofa.  “Nothing’s got into me, all right?  It’s just all of you!  You seem obsessed with me getting back into society, for some reason.  Well, I just don’t want to see people, that’s all.”  I picked up my book from the chair and headed for the stairs.

The next day, I went out with Hoss looking for strays.  I half expected him to bring up the conversation from the night before, but to my relief, he didn’t.  With the day still new, we found ourselves near the lake.  I didn’t realize exactly where we were until Hoss grinned at me and said, “Hey, Joe, that’s where you showed me them Indian ladies bathing, remember?  Just over there by that stubby pine.”

Of course I remembered.  I nodded.  Hoss’s grin grew guilty.

“I been out here more times since then, Little Joe.  It ain’t just those old’uns I saw, but them young’uns too.  Phewee!  I ain’t never seen a sight so pretty.  You wanna go take a look?”

“Better not,” I told him.  “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

“It’s about this time of day they’d be down there, Joe.  We could just take a quick peek.”

I nudged my horse in the other direction.  “Come on,” I urged Hoss.  “We’ve got work to do.”

I’d only ridden a few yards when he grabbed my rein and pulled me to a halt.  He leaned forward in his saddle as if to get a better look at me.

“You know, younger brother, I’m wondering whether we brought the right Little Joe back with us from Angels Creek.”

I pursed my mouth and said nothing.

“This just ain’t like you, Joe.”

I looked away.  “People change, Hoss.”

“Not that much,” he said.  “And not you.”

I wanted to ride on but he still had hold of my rein.

“You know, Joe, you ain’t hardly told us nothing about what happened to you while you were gone.  And we ain’t been prying.  We figured you’d tell us what you wanted to, soon as you were ready.  Well, whatever it was, it sure stole all the fun out of you, brother.”

He tossed the rein back at me and kicked his horse, leaving me to bring up the rear.  I watched his broad back ride away and felt the resentment in me soften into regret.  Why was I alienating the brother who’d always been like a best friend to me?

“Hoss,” I said, as I caught him up.  “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”

He drew to a halt and squinted at me.  “We know you been hurting, Little Joe.  We just want to help, you must know that.  But you keep shutting us out.  Do you know how worried we were about you?  How worried we still are?”

I gave an awkward shrug.  “You don’t need to worry.  I’m gonna be fine.”

“Sheesh, Joe! We thought we’d lost you an’ all!  When Adam said you weren’t breathing no more…”  Hoss shook his head and puffed his out his lips.  “That has to be one of the worst moments of my life!  I was so danged scared!  Adam still reckons the only reason we got you back was ’cause I squeezed you so hard!”

“I think maybe it was,” I told him.  “I thought I was dead too.  When Adam bent over to listen to my chest, and then Pa, and I saw their faces…”

Hoss puckered his face.  “You saw that?  You couldn’t have seen that!  You weren’t hardly alive, let alone awake, little brother.”

“I did see it,” I said.  “You made me feel real guilty, Hoss.  I think that was the main reason I didn’t leave.”

He stared at me in open-mouthed wonder.  “Are you serious, Joe?”

“Dead serious,” I replied and then realized what I’d said and giggled.  And when I giggled, it struck me how long it had been since I last felt the urge to do that.

That evening, when I got up from the sofa to go upstairs to my bed, Pa and Adam were hunched over a game of chess, brandy glasses at their elbows; Hoss was fixing the strap of a saddlebag.  They all looked up and said goodnight as I made my way to the bottom of the stairs. There I hesitated and turned back.

“I…” I began and stopped, surprised at how loud my voice sounded in the lamplit softness of the room.  All three of them raised their heads and regarded me with polite curiosity.  “I…I just wanted to say…”  I cleared my throat.  “I just wanted to say I’m…I’m sorry.  I know I’ve been difficult to live with these past few weeks, and…and I’m gonna try harder.”  I tailed off, unsure what else to say, and almost wishing I hadn’t started.

My family looked mildly surprised.  Hoss blinked at me.  Adam exchanged a glance with Pa.  The ensuing silence seemed to drag on for whole minutes, but it was probably no longer than a couple of seconds.  I forced a smile.  “G’night then.”

They were still staring at me.  I watched as the surprise on all three faces melted simultaneously into something softer.  Relief maybe?  I turned away to mount the stairs but before I had even taken a step, Pa’s voice halted me.

“We’re glad you’re feeling better, Joe.”

I looked back at him over my shoulder and his eyes shone in the lamplight.  This time when I smiled, there was no effort involved.  That night, for the first time in weeks, I lay my head down on the pillow with a welcome sense of peace.

I hadn’t been aware just how much my mood had darkened the atmosphere of the entire household over the past weeks.  Everyone seemed relieved at my change of mood.  And when Pa asked me the following Saturday if I would be accompanying him to church the next morning, I said I would.

What I hadn’t expected was to encounter at church was the Morlands; Mr. Morland, his face as forbidding as ever, and his timid wife, and the two girls, kitted out in their neat Sunday best, with their eyes demurely downcast as they waited in their pew for the service to begin.

“Jumping frogfish, Hoss!”  I whispered, drawing him aside.  “Why didn’t you remind me?”

He saw where I was looking and patted my arm.  “It’s all right, Joe.  Things have improved.  Thanks to you, really.  When you got yourself kidnapped and then you were so sick, Mr. Morland began speaking to Pa again.  Adam and Miss Jane renewed their acquaintance.  Seems they’re still soft on each other.  Her pa’s given permission for Adam to call on Miss Jane one Sunday afternoon a month.”

I raised my eyebrows.  “That’s generous of him,” I said, my voice heavy with sarcasm.

“It’s a start,” said Hoss, wisely.  “And Rachel is going away to college in a few weeks.”

I felt a little pang of regret.  Not that I’d thought about Rachel Morland in a long time, but seeing her here, now, in front of me, I remembered all the things I’d liked about her.  Especially as at that moment, she lifted her head and sneaked me a glance.  Her soft, innocent eyes belied the twitch of mischief in her lips.  My insides took an unexpected leap.  It was an irresistible combination, and coupled with her thick dark ebony waves and her trim little waist…

“Joe!” There was no mistaking the warning in Hoss’s voice.

I gave him a sideways grin.  “Don’t worry, Hoss.  You said it yourself.  She’s going away in a few weeks.  Anyhow, I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid!”

I steered clear of the Morlands when the service was over, watching from a safe distance as Adam passed pleasantries with Jane and her family. The odd mixture of relief and disappointment I felt when Rachel didn’t even so much as glance in my direction reassured me that maybe I was starting to mend after all.

On the way back to the Ponderosa, as we reached the fork that branched off towards the lake, Adam slowed up and said, “It’s pretty hot.  I might head down to the lake.  Anyone else for a dip?”

Pa said he preferred a snooze on the porch, so the three of us left him to ride on alone to the ranch, and we took the road down to the lake.

There are brief snatches of existence when life is perfect.  That afternoon was one.   We weren’t doing anything we hadn’t done a thousand times before, but somehow, that day it was special.  We swam, raced, joked, wrestled, and the lake was perfect.  Clear and cold, and breathtakingly blue beneath the flawless sky.   I shook the water from my hair and each drop was as bright and shining as a precious diamond.

Hoss heaved himself onto the diving rock beside me and followed my eyes along the shore.  “What you looking at, little brother?”

I turned my face to him and grinned.  “I was just wondering, Hoss.  You reckon them Indian girls ever hide up behind those rocks and watch us bathing in the lake?”

I could tell the idea had never crossed Hoss’s mind.  Consternation creased his round face as he slid himself swiftly back beneath the cover of the water.  “Hey, Joe, you don’t reckon they do, do you?”

“What Indian girls?” Adam had come up alongside the rock too and was looking from one to the other of us in interest.

“Dang, Joe!” Poor Hoss was embarrassed even though there wasn’t a living soul in sight besides ourselves.  Adam grinned and headed for the shore.

We flopped down in the sun, all three of us wet and shining like fish.  The afternoon was drawing on, but the day was still hot.  Half drunk with contentment, I closed my eyes and savored the warmth seeping back into my tingling body.  And then, out of the blue, like an unexpected rush of nausea, a cold wave of guilt swept through me as I realized I hadn’t thought about Clara, or Evie, or Julia, the whole afternoon.  My eyes sprang open again and I sat bolt upright.

“Joe?”  Adam on his back, his arms folded behind his head, opened one eye and frowned.  “You all right?”

I hesitated, and then I nodded my head.  “Yeah.”  I thought about it some more, and surprised myself with my own conviction.  “Yeah.  I am!”

Broken hearts heal.  It takes time, but eventually they heal.  Mine was healing.  Slowly but surely, it was getting better.  I smiled down at my oldest brother.  “This afternoon’s been good.  Thanks.”

Adam gave me a lazy smile.  “Pleased to see you smiling again, little brother.”

I picked up a stone and tossed it at the water, enjoying the satisfying plop it made as it broke the surface.  “I hear things are looking up for you and Jane Morland.  I…I’m sorry I almost messed it up for you before.”

Adam’s gaze grew wary.  “I saw you watching Rachel this morning, Joe.  You… you aren’t thinking of renewing that acquaintance, are you?”

I pulled a face that said I was in two minds.  A momentary panic flickered in Adam’s eyes and then faded into relief as he realized I was kidding him.

“She’s too much of a handful, even for me,” I told him, grinning.

Adam relaxed again, letting his eyelids droop shut.  “Hard to believe they’re sisters,” he murmured.  “The most I’ve been able to pry out of Jane is a little peck on the cheek!”

“Maybe you just chose the wrong sister,” Hoss told him, with feeling.  “You shoulda asked Joe.  He sure knows how to pick ’em!”

The afternoon was as bright as ever and yet it was as if an eclipse blotted out the brilliance of the sun.  The stab of anguish that shot through my middle hardened into a solid lump in my chest.  The grief must have shown on my face because Hoss’s expression fell instantly.  “Hey, Joe, I didn’t mean…”

I tried to reassure him with a smile but couldn’t force it further than my mouth.  “No.  I know you didn’t. Anyways, you’re right.  Where women are concerned, it’s like I’m some kind of a jinx. Maybe I should carry a bell or something, like those lepers you told us about, Adam.  Warn them away before it’s too late.”

Adam pushed himself up on his elbow and fixed me with a stern look that might have been Pa’s.  “Quit talking like that, Joe.  You aren’t responsible for all the bad things that happen, you know.  So, you haven’t met your forever girl yet, but one day you will.  Heck, you’re only a kid!  Give life a chance!”

“Yeah,” agreed Hoss, nodding so hard in his effort to compensate for his earlier blunder, I thought his head might fall off.  “Not like older brother here who’s fast approaching middle age and still scaring the women away.”

Adam threw a clod of earth at Hoss’s head and they both laughed.  I forced myself to laugh too, in spite of the ache that was back in my chest.

We got dressed. The afternoon was drawing on and we didn’t want to be late for dinner.  I thought I was doing a pretty good impression of looking fine, yet I could sense Adam’s eyes boring into me, dark and worried. I glanced at Hoss and saw there was a cloud behind his clear blue gaze too.

As I settled my hat back onto my head, Hoss dug his hands down into his pockets and scrunched his face, watching me. “Y’know, Little Joe, the love of a gal ain’t everything.”

For some strange reason, I felt a lump starting in my throat.  I nodded.  “I know.”

“There’s the love of your family too.  Surely that’s worth something.”

I had to drop my eyes so my brothers wouldn’t see how close I was to crumbling.  I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out, so I simply nodded instead.  After a moment, I felt Adam’s hand squeeze my forearm.  Forcing my face under control, I raised it to him and returned the gesture, and this time I saw the warmth of his smile reach right up into his eyes.  Hoss put his arm around my shoulder and tightened it in a hug.

“We’re always here, you know.”

I nodded again, and this time I managed to squeeze the words past the constriction in my chest.  “I know.  Thanks.”

We rode away from the shore in easy silence. At the top of the hill, I paused and turned Cochise around so I could look back once more over the vast, crystal mirror of the lake.  The sun hung low over the mountains to the west and the surface of the water shimmered like a jeweled carpet.  I breathed in the piney scent of the Ponderosa, and felt hope, like warmth, seep back into my body.

Adam and Hoss had stopped to wait for me.  I swung around and together we turned our horses’ heads towards the road that led back home.

The End

Thank you for reading this story.  If you have enjoyed it, please consider leaving a review.

Other Stories by this Author

Bookmark(0)

Author: Inca / Tye

I like angsty drama, so that's what I mostly write. Writing is very important to me and I am always genuinely interested to know what readers really think, so please don't be timid about telling me.

20 thoughts on “Dancing With Angels (by Inca / aka Tye)

    1. It’s a real compliment when people come back for a re-read. Glad you enjoyed it second time around, Bakerj. Thank you for taking the time to let me know.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the story, Prlee. Thanks for reading and reviewing.

      Do you have R forum access? The extended chapter is posted there and you can access it by clicking the link on the second page of the story. If not, PM me, or reply here, and maybe I can post the extended chapter here as a separate story….

  1. Oh my poor Joe ! What next ! Sigh
    Just loved this story so full of emotion . Sadly couldn’t find the R rated version of chapter 11 when using the link ?
    Oh well thank goodness for my great imagination

    1. Joesgal, thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated. So pleased you enjoyed the story, and sorry the link to the expanded chapter in the R forum didn’t work for you. I’ve just reset it, so it should work now.

  2. Wow. What more can I say, but, wow? Joe’s dance with Angels has given us all a glimpse of Heaven. As Joe wanders from mistakes to misunderstandings to physical suffering and tangible despair, his lifelines come in the form of a flawed beauty and the family he’d thought he could never face again.

    This story is sheer perfection, every word like a brush stroke on canvas, bookended by a pair of sisters and a group of Indian maidens who bring the story full circle…like two twirling dancers finding the rhythm of the stars….

    1. You made me laugh with the “feminine touches” comment, Freya! And I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more eloquent review, ever. Thank you for such high praise. Means a great deal, coming from someone with as much talent as you have.

  3. The opening chapter is even better than I remembered! So rich in detail and sensory input! From a jaundiced sky and I’ll day to a lightning strike that makes bad go to worse and leaves a very downtrodden Little Joe to surrender to his destiny, and then, suddenly a room filled with lace and feminine touches to…well…feminine touches! I absolutely love this chapter! Poignant and eloquent! *This* is what writers aspire to!
    Ahem, okay, time to read the rest of this gem!

  4. I might have read this as a WIP, Inca, not sure, but it was well worth a reread. You sure put our boy through the wringer this time with an unfortunate amount of bad luck and heartbreak, which seems to be such a large part of his normal, everyday life. Nicely done.

    1. Thanks, Jfc. I think I did post it as a WIP, under the title of “The Rise and Fall of Joseph Cartwright”, a long time back, but thanks for rereading. And for reviewing. I think it’s only my second review in the new library, so very exciting to find a comment….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.